Baron Minerva Tyrelos fumed beneath her respirator mask as she began the long trek back to her palace. It was ridiculous. Utterly ridiculous. If Vindh was telling the truth, then somehow he’d managed to stumble onto one of the most explosive secrets in Trade Baron space… by accident. A small-time smuggler had just managed to find one of the most powerful gamepieces that could end—or escalate—one of the most dangerous conflicts to visit the region in a century or more. If it was true, it would be trouble. The people who murdered Mogra Tylaris wouldn’t be willing to sit back and let Mogra’s brain be dumped into a clone. They would take steps to see that it didn’t happen… and while she believed the Alliance wouldn’t do anything overt, she was absolutely certain that something covert would be coming in due time.
But the risk was far overshadowed by the potential reward. If Vindh actually had what he claimed he had, then it could change everything—and if she controlled it… she hated politics, but she knew how to play the game, and she knew the game was important. If a cloned Mogra Tylaris could make a credible claim for the Tylaris Barony, and she was able to make that happen… well, Mogra would owe her a great deal. She would be able to leverage that for all it was worth, and it would be worth quite a lot.
And Mogra would expect it, she thought to herself. Hell, he would be disappointed in me if I didn’t make him pay through the nose.
Baron Tyrelos made her way into the First City, where she quickly disposed of the robe and respirator she used as a disguise. This wasn’t the first time she’d traveled alone and incognito: she knew where people would expect to see the baron, and where they wouldn’t. She knew what parts of the journey would be under surveillance, and what parts weren’t. There were a few key locations that allowed her to dispose of her disguise anonymously, then step through a door and into a place where nobody would think twice to see the baron walking around… though they might, if they thought about it long enough, wonder where her entourage was. She made certain not to give anyone enough time to wonder out loud as she made her way home.
Tyrelos Palace was one of the few structures in Tyrelos Station to exist in both the First and Second cities. It was part of the original First City construction, and shortly after the dome was created and work on the Second City began, the palace was extended into it. The palace was still separate from the Second City—entering and exiting was only possible through the First City, underground—but the baron’s private tower was a prominent fixture in the Second City skyline.
Baron Tyrelos’ private quarters were at the very top of the tower. She liked the view.
She stood just inside the door to her private chambers, exhaling in relief. No one had interrupted her on the way up, and as she activated her personal locks on the door she felt some of her tension fade. It wasn’t entirely safe to leave the palace without an escort… and she wasn’t sure it was entirely safe for her to be in the palace without an escort, either. The only thing more dangerous than going about unescorted was to go about with the wrong people as her escort. Loyalty was getting hard to judge, these days.
She passed her hand over a small panel to the side of the door, and her private intercom chimed softly as it activated. “This is the baron.”
“Baron, this is Alayd.” The voice emerging from the panel was a deep, rumbling bass.
“Alayd, I’m not feeling well. Please ask Chancellor Muringyne to sit in for me for any meeting that can’t be postponed, and please reschedule the rest, with my apologies.”
“Yes, Baron.” A touch of concern crept into Alayd’s voice. “Should I call for a doctor?”
“No,” she said. “I just need rest. I expect I’ll be back to normal tomorrow. See to it that I’m not disturbed until then.”
“Yes, Baron.” The concern didn’t leave his voice, but he accepted the order. “I hope you feel better.”
“Thanks, Alayd.” Baron Tyrelos passed her hand over the panel, and it chimed softly once again as it turned itself off.
She took a short elevator to the very top floor and stepped out onto the observation deck—an enclosed balcony that wrapped all the way around the tower, enclosed in a one-way transparent alloy, giving her complete privacy as she looked out over her city. She leaned against the windowsill and sighed, closing her eyes.
She needed to determine her next move, but she couldn’t. There were too many pieces on the board, and she couldn’t keep track of them all.
Her intercom chimed and she gritted her teeth, wondering what part of I’m not to be disturbed until then Alayd had misunderstood. The chime repeated, and when the baron was convinced it wouldn’t stop she muttered a curse and gestured sharply over a panel set into the observation deck door.
“I apologize, Baron…” Alayd sounded nervous and unhappy. “I know you requested not to be disturbed, but Lord Sonim is here and requests an audience.”
“Lord Sonim,” she echoed.
“Yes, Baron. He claims it’s urgent.”
And another piece returns to the board, she thought.
“It’s fine,” she said. “Send him up.”
By the time she arrived at the bottom floor she had regained her composure and put on her best poker face. A few minutes later the outer door buzzed, then opened, revealing the man who was very likely trying to depose her.
Lord Sonim was an older, distinguished-looking man with short gray hair and a perpetually solemn expression on his clean-shaven face. He wore a Station Authority uniform that was nearly identical to that of other security personnel, with the exception of gold bands on his sleeves and a gold badge identifying his rank.
Sonim was responsible for the Tyrelos Barony military and defense forces. He’d been a friend of the family longer than the baron had been alive—one of her father’s closest friends, and practically an uncle to her and her brother. When her father died and she inherited the Barony, she was no longer the little girl he’d twirled around the room: the transition from near-uncle to subordinate had been an awkward process. Still, he’d always served her loyally. At least, he had to all appearances.
As Lord Sonim entered the room she put on a warm smile and extended her hand. “Sonim.”
Lord Sonim took her hand, bowing formally. “Baron. You disappeared today.”
Baron Tyrelos masked her exasperation. While she was certain he didn’t know where she went when she disappeared, it seemed he always knew when she left. She inclined her head in acknowledgment. “I needed some time to myself. I’m fine. As you see.”
“And I am very glad to know it,” Sonim said gravely. “But my most important job is to ensure your safety. I can’t do that when you disappear.”
The baron inclined her head again. “I understand your concern, but I can’t always—”
“My Baron,” Sonim said, holding up a finger as if he were shushing her, “please consider the danger you’re in. Your brother has not been found, and there’s no indication that he’s given up his designs on the Barony.”
Baron Tyrelos bit back her irritation at being interrupted, and forced her expression into neutrality. “Raphael has been driven out of Tyrelos. He is no longer a threat to us.”
“I am convinced his influence still remains,” Sonim said. “And I do not want you placing yourself in danger. If something were to happen to you…” He let the sentence trail off.
The baron studied Sonim for a moment, wondering how much of his concern was genuine. She smiled slightly and dipped her head in what she hoped appeared to be a sincere apology. “Very well. I apologize for my truancy, Lord Sonim. I will make sure I travel with an escort from here on out.”
Sonim smiled, and bowed again.
“If you’ll pardon me,” the baron said, “I am tired.”
“Of course,” Sonim said. He bowed once more and left the room.
Baron Tyrelos waited until the doors had closed and the elevator that led from her quarters to the rest of the palace reported it was moving before she reactivated her personal locks. She shook her head, muttering darkly, then climbed up the short set of stairs that led to her bedroom.
Her bedroom was stylish, expensive, and comfortable. It wasn’t what she would have called excessive—her brother was the one with the taste for excess, and when he’d still lived at the station, his rooms were opulent to the point of decadence—but it was definitely beyond the means of most. As soon as she entered the wall panels blinked to life, this time displaying an underwater panorama of one of the aquatic ruins of the Vage. Her Chancellor, Muringyne, was Vage, and though his species’ gills were now vestigial, the ruins were a reminder that their civilization had once spent their lives underwater.
It was a very pretty scene. She dismissed it with an irritated wave of her hand, then gestured again, causing a deceptively solid-looking part of the wall to move away, revealing her private office.
The baron’s office appeared deceptively simple: a single desk, a single chair, a terminal at the desk with a multipurpose panel. It appeared no different than a work desk that anyone in a mid-level position at any of her companies would have. The difference was the quality of the equipment on her desk, and the quality of the equipment it connected to. With another hand gesture, the light in the room dimmed and the multipurpose panel emitted a holographic display that constantly updated data on her various holdings, allowing her to monitor her businesses in real time. A second display showed the progress of one of her latest projects—an analysis of the current market in specialized alloys, and projected market changes based on proposed release dates for an as-yet unreleased type of engine shielding. She allowed herself to be distracted by this analysis for a few minutes, tweaking the parameters slightly to more closely conform to current market data, then dismissed all the projections with a wave of her hand. The room lighting returned to full strength. She sank into her chair, staring at the desk, going over the day’s events in her mind.
“Baron Minerva Tyrelos. Open private channel.”
The lights dimmed again, and the multipurpose panel projected the seal of the Smit Barony over her desk.
There were few individuals who could actually afford to own their own superluminal comm tunnel. But Trade Barons were part of the rare few. Barons often needed to make preliminary agreements and negotiations on their own before committing barony resources to a venture, and the only way to do this safely, when face-to-face meetings were impractical, was to rely on an encrypted channel provided by the Smit Barony for an exorbitant fee. The exorbitant fee came with two guarantees: first, that the Smit Barony would fully commit to preserving the privacy of those channels, and second, that the Smit Barony would remain strictly apolitical in Trade Baron politics. Baron Smit had always been a reliably neutral party in everything other than the preservation of their monopoly on superluminal communication, and as a result his Barony had remained the most stable when Rolis Tylaris threw everything into chaos by joining the Alliance. Though the Tylaris Barony had long been thought of as the most successful of the Trade Baronies, the Smit Barony was by far considered the most integral to civilization. They didn’t play politics—they made it possible for everyone else to play.
Baron Tyrelos spoke the communications address, then settled back in her chair as the seal of the Smit Barony morphed into a standby symbol. It would take ten to fifteen minutes to establish the connection, as the link made its way through a number of ATID relays across space before arriving at the physical location on the other side, but once it was established she would be able to converse with the other end in normal time—no relativistic delays, no lag, nothing. Such was the power of faster-than-light communication.
She tried to wait patiently for the link to establish, but found herself growing more and more frustrated with the conversation with Sonim. She was almost certain he was trying to depose her, but she had no proof. He appeared, in all respects, a loyal servant of the Barony, if a bit reluctant to view her as anything more than her father’s little girl. His insistence on her taking an armed escort when she went out was entirely reasonable—it was the kind of thing anyone in charge of her personal safety would insist—but it was also the perfect way to keep her under surveillance at all times.
The comm tunnel chimed to let her know the link had been established. She made her call, and waited for the other side to respond. The holographic display changed almost immediately: the face on the other side, while male, bore an uncanny resemblance to her own.
Raphael Tyrelos was only a few minutes younger than his sister. He had a lazy, decadent air about him, though in the past year the baron had started to wonder how much of that was real, and how much was affectation. He wore an amused smile that looked as if it might break into a satisfied pout at any moment.
“Hello, Min.” He sounded tired.
The baron frowned. She wasn’t fond of her nickname—something Raphael knew quite well—but he insisted on using it.
“I hope I haven’t interrupted anything important,” she said, making her voice noticeably too sweet. “Drinking, maybe? Or gambling.”
“If only,” Raphael said, punctuating his words with an exaggerated sigh. “I’m afraid I abandoned all my luxuries when I so foolishly tried to depose you. Why did I do that again? It seems so very out of character.”
The baron smiled fondly. A year ago, just as Baron Mogra Tylaris was busy being murdered by the Alliance, she found herself on the brink of being deposed. She didn’t know who was behind it, and didn’t know how to escape it, so her brother—her lazy, decadent brother, who had no designs for power and wanted nothing more than to spend his life indulging in whatever pleasures caught his fancy at any given time—came up with the brilliant idea of forestalling that coup by starting one of his own.
The speed at which he’d arranged it was impressive, and he pulled it off perfectly. It had failed, of course—it was intended to fail—but by all appearances it had come very close to succeeding, and he somehow managed to make it look like he’d been planning it for years. When he fled the system, she’d been able to use his apparent treachery to uncover some of the actual plot against her—not a lot, but enough to make the real conspirators nervous. They did nothing as their agents were executed for being involved in “Lord Raphael Tyrelos’ betrayal of the Tyrelos Barony.” Ever since, Raphael had, in the public eye, played the role of traitor and villain. In reality, he had become the baron’s personal spymaster, and to everyone’s surprise he seemed to have a knack for it.
“Very out of character,” she agreed. “Just the other day Lord Sonim told me he still couldn’t believe you had it in you.”
“He’s jealous,” Raphael said, sniffing dismissively. “I stole his thunder, after all. Ruined his coup, took all the credit.”
“We still don’t know it’s him,” the baron said. “Unless you’ve discovered something?”
Raphael shook his head. “There’s not much I can discover there when I’m stuck out here. That’s Muringyne’s job. I’ve been focusing on off-world infrastructure, for when the blessed event finally arrives.”
“Hopefully it won’t,” the baron said.
“So is there something on your mind?” Raphael cocked his head to one side, gazing at his sister thoughtfully. “I’m always happy to talk, of course, but I didn’t expect to hear from you for another week.”
Baron Tyrelos pushed most of her worries aside, focusing on the brand new one. “Yes. Something is definitely on my mind. Something… interesting happened, Raphael, and I need you to look into a few things. Let me tell you what I did today…”
She didn’t think it was possible for Raphael to be shocked by much—he always seemed too world-weary to show anything stronger than curiosity, or mild surprise. But by the time she finished her story, he was staring at her, slack-jawed, with undisguised astonishment on his face.