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Grave Covenant

Michael A. Stackpole


  Katrina Steiner's advisors, her grand-aunt General Nondi Steiner and Mandrinn Tonnano Liao, observed her as she twirled a platinum paper knife between her fingers.

  "If the vote were held tomorrow, who would be the First Lord of the resurrected Star League?" asked Nondi Steiner.

  Tonnano thought a moment. "The Precentor Martial is clearly grooming Victor to lead the Star League Defense Force that is attacking the Clans. Who possibly could be better than him?"

  Katrina smiled. "If my brother Victor is leading the force, he will have to go with it and fight in the battles that come."

  Nondi's eyes became slits. "Why give him a chance to return to the Inner Sphere as the man who conquered the Clans?"

  "Because it will allow the rest of us to define his role when he returns. If he goes away, he cannot rule the Federated Commonwealth. We must go over the files for all of the delegates if I am to be elected as First Lord. I want every need met and noted. When I am nominated First Lord of the Star League, I want the sense of gratitude in knowing that everyone has decided I deserve that honor."

  Tonnano bowed his head to her. "I think you will find your brother rather stiff competition."

  Katrina laid the paper knife down carefully. "I've handled Victor all my life. I will see to his downfall myself."



  Twilight of the Clans II:


  Michael A. Stackpole



  Published by the Penguin Group

  Penguin Books USA Inc., 375 Hudson Street,

  New York, New York 10014, U.S.A.

  Penguin Books Ltd, 27 Wrights Lane,

  London W8 5TZ, England

  Penguin Books Australia Ltd, Ringwood,

  Victoria, Australia

  Penguin Books Canada Ltd, 10 Alcorn Avenue, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4V 3B2 Penguin Books (N.Z.) Ltd, 182-190 Wairau Road, Auckland 10, New Zealand

  Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England

  First published by Roc, an imprint of Dutton Signet, a division of Penguin Books USA Inc.

  First Printing, September, 1997


  Copyright © FASA Corporation, 1997 All rights reserved

  Series Editor: Donna Ippolito Cover art by Roger Loveless

  Mechanical Drawings: Duane Loose and the FASA art department registered trademark-marca registrada battletech, fasa, and the distinctive battletech and fasa logos are trademarks of the FASA Corporation, 1100 W. Cermak, Suite B305, Chicago, IL 60608.

  Printed in the United States of America

  Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise), without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book. books are available at quantity discounts when used to promote products or services. for information please write to premium marketing division, penguin books usa inc., 375 hudson street, new york, new york 10014.

  If you purchased this book without a cover you should be aware that this book is stolen property. It was reported as "unsold and destroyed" to the publisher and neither the author nor the publisher has received any payment for this "stripped book."

  This book is dedicated to Ian Anderson and Jethro Tull.

  This is my twenty-second novel, all of which were written with music playing in the background. Jethro Tull is always part of the playlist. During the writing of this novel I got to see Jethro Tull in concert. Music is magic and Ian Anderson is a sorcerer.

  The author would like to thank the following folks for their contributions to this book:

  Jordan Weisman, Bryan Nystul, Randall Bills, Jill Lucas, Bill & Nina Keith, Donna Ippolito, and Robert Thurston for their story direction, editing, and error-trapping.

  Loren L. Coleman, Robert Thurston, Blaine Pardoe, and Tom Gressman for their books leading into and out of this one.

  My father, Dr. J. Ward Stackpole, for medical consults on the traumas and diseases mentioned herein; John-Allen Price for the continued loan of Galen Cox; Mark Herman for explaining Entropy-based Warfare to me; and especially Mike Pondsmith for his generous donation to charity for his appearance in this book.

  Jennifer Smith and Laura Gilman of ROC for their tolerance of my scheduling difficulties.

  And, as always, Liz Danforth for living through the insanity of my putting this book together.

  BOOK 1

  Congress of Treachery


  Triad National Cemetery

  Tharkad City, Tharkad

  District of Donegal, Lyran Alliance

  30 September 3058

  The moist breeze wending its way through the labyrinth of monuments in the Triad National Cemetery dragged on Victor Ian Steiner-Davion. The premature arrival of spring had reduced September's normal blanket of snow to islands of white floating in muddy oceans. The bright green of new leaves and grasses peeked out, seeking sun. The early spring had created a general feeling of well-being that was greatly in evidence on the media broadcasts the Prince had caught while his DropShip burned toward the planet.

  One good frost and it all dies. Standing before his mother's memorial, Victor felt immune to the spring fever infecting Tharkad. Her death had come as a result of power grabs by just two Inner Sphere nobles. And now Victor had come to Tharkad to participate in the Whitting Conference, where dozens of Inner Sphere nobles would make still more power grabs. The conclusion that things would be a disaster was all but inescapable.

  Victor frowned. Things will only go bad if you allow them to go bad. He shifted his shoulders and winced at the aches he felt. Most of them, he knew, came from the grueling trip from Coventry to Tharkad. JumpShips were capable of tearing a hole in the fabric of reality, allowing them to move instantaneously from point to point, up to thirty light years at a jump. Tiring though they were, those jumps didn't bother him so much as had the high-G DropShip burn in to Tharkad. Being as small as I am, laboring under more than one gravity is a chore.

  He managed a smile. That hadn't stopped Kai or Hohiro from beating up on him. He fingered the fading bruise around his right eye. He'd gotten it after failing to pick off a rightcross delivered by Hohiro Kurita. I saw it coming, but couldn't do anything about it. Though chagrined about getting a black eye, he was also proud of it.

  Too much of his life had become politics and appearances. He accepted the necessity of such things, but politics still grated on him. It struck him as completely ludicrous that he could be forced to take a position far more extreme than he ever intended to carry out, just so he could later compromise with opponents, finally getting what he wanted in the first place. The time and effort wasted in those games could be better spent actually getting things done.

  Setting up the Whitting Conference was a prime example of the waste politics caused. Fourteen weeks earlier, on Coventry, he had proposed building a united force to take the war to the Clans. Within two days his sister, Katherine, Archon of the Lyran Alliance, had offered to host the conference on Tharkad. In doing so she had assumed the burden of organizing the meeting, inviting the leaders of the Inner Sphere and, quite deftly, positioning herself to be seen as the unifying force for the future of the Inner Sphere.

  Victor acknowledged that she'd played her part well and that her orchestrations had dictated his actions. Though Coventry was less than ninety light years distant from Tharkad—a trip he could have made inside three weeks—there'd been no reason for him to show up before the first of October, the date Kat
herine had chosen for the conference to start. Victor had remained on Coventry along with his staunchest allies, putting their troops through training exercises.

  Though the delay had annoyed him, the time spent training on Coventry had not. The insulation and isolation from life that Victor often felt vanished as he spent as much time as possible in the company of his troops. For the first time since his ascension to the throne of the Federated Commonwealth, he actually felt he had a grasp on the concerns of ordinary citizens.

  He'd also taken the time for personal training. Victor had always been fit—blessed with the Steiner metabolism that prevented him from piling on the kilos—but physical inactivity had begun to sap his strength. He began a program of exercises, then supplemented it through kendo training with Hohiro and learning aikido with Kai Allard-Liao. In return he'd found an old grizzled sergeant who was willing to teach the royals the intricacies of boxing.

  And Hohiro learned a lot faster than I wanted him to. Victor shook his head, wondering for a moment what his mother would have said about his black eye. She'd have been concerned, but would have smiled and told him it was good he was getting more exercise. She always knew what to say to make someone feel good.

  He looked down at the dancing, cavorting fire of the eternal flame at the granite base of the monument. Unlike countless other statues memorializing his mother scattered throughout the Federated Commonwealth, this one lacked a physical representation of Melissa Steiner-Davion. And yet it had something of her. Its blocky stone strength was like the foundational strength she had provided to the union of the Federated Suns and the Lyran Commonwealth when she'd wed Hanse Davion thirty years before.

  Victor bowed his head. He knew he should drop to his knees to offer a prayer for his mother, but the chilly moat the spring thaw had created around her gravesite had already soaked the hem of his long, steel-blue greatcoat. Since most of the citizens of the Lyran Alliance—the name his sister Katherine had given to the Lyran half of the Federated Commonwealth after she seceded—believed he had murdered his mother, his kneeling in a puddle before her grave would probably look to them like the wild behavior of a killer suddenly overcome with remorse.

  He crossed himself and offered a brief prayer for the repose of Melissa Steiner-Davion's soul. He took a deep breath, then nodded toward the granite tomb. "What you and father built thirty years ago has dissolved in the two years since your death. Were you alive, uniting the Inner Sphere to face the Clans and destroy them would have easily been possible. Now I just hope the chance to destroy the Clans won't be bickered away."

  A flicker of movement near the entrance to the cemetery caught his attention. Looking down through the gravestones, he saw a trio of black hoverlimos vaporizing puddles on the cemetery roadway as they sped toward him. The lead and rear limos had flashing lights playing against their windscreens while the middle vehicle—the largest of them all— moved between its escorts with a certain serenity.

  From behind him he heard the click of his own hover-limo's door opening. Victor turned and held up a hand to restrain the icy-eyed man emerging from the limo. "No need to be anxious, Agent Curaitis."

  "Given who is in that vehicle, and what she has done to obtain power, is there a reason I shouldn't be anxious?" Curaitis was one of the few people who knew the truth about Katherine.

  Victor thought for a moment, then nodded. "You have a point there."

  The black-haired bodyguard closed the vehicle's door and remained standing beside it. Victor knew better than to expect further comment from the intelligence agent. The man makes a rock seem talkative. Besides, the approaching limos now had Curaitis' full attention.

  The lead limo veered off, allowing the larger one to come to a stop barely ten meters from the nose of Victor's limo. The gull-wing door in the back third hissed and swung up. Victor saw movement in the darkened interior, then his sister emerged, unaided, and stalked toward him.

  You never change. Taller than him, Katherine emphasized that by wearing knee-length white boots with spike heels. Her white sable coat hung down to the tops of her boots and was matched by the furred hat perched on her head. Her long, golden-blond hair played over the shoulders of the coat as her steady, long-legged stride brought her closer.

  She gestured lazily toward him with a gloved hand. "Good afternoon, Victor."

  "And you, Katherine." He made certain to pronounce every syllable of her name with care and precision. Though she had taken to calling herself "Katrina," Victor refused to acknowledge the change. Katrina Steiner had been his grandmother, an Archon and undoubtedly the shrewdest and most powerful woman ever to rule one of the Successor States of the Inner Sphere. For his sister to have usurped Katrina's name and image seemed a crime to him. "I'm surprised to see you here."

  "Are you?" Her ice-blue eyes held his stare defiantly. "I missed you at the spaceport."

  "Ah, so that was you." Victor gave her a slight smile and let his gray eyes show the venom he kept from his voice. "I should have realized you were sending a welcoming committee, but I really wanted to come here before I did anything else."

  She stopped at the other side of the monument. "Easing a guilty conscience?"

  "Guilt? Over what?"

  Katherine smiled coldly. "You missed her funeral. You didn't care to make it."

  Though Victor had thought he was ready for this encounter with his sister, her remark still got past his defenses. Not knowing at the time of their mother's death that Katherine was his enemy, he'd let her make all the funeral arrangements. Since their mother had been blown apart by a bomb, having her lie in state until all her children could gather was not really an option. Katherine staged the funeral almost immediately, and Victor alone among her children had been unable to arrive in time.

  "I wanted to be there, Katherine, but there are times when the demands of leadership prevent us from doing what we want to do."

  Katherine allowed herself a throaty little laugh. "Ah, yes, what were you doing then? Preparing to chase after some Clan bandits?"

  "They were a threat to the Inner Sphere and the truce."

  "No, Victor, they were your chance to play soldier one more time." Katherine opened her arms wide. "Look around you, Victor. This cemetery is full of people who were seduced by the lure of BattleMechs. Six hundred years ago 'Mechs were created to rule the battlefield. Three centuries ago Aleksandr Kerensky took the Star League Defense Force away from the Inner Sphere because he feared the BattleMechs that had hitherto been used to protect life would become instruments of its destruction, and he was right. For three centuries wars raged among the Successor States, with leaders mounting up in 'Mechs to win glory for themselves and some tiny piece of an entropic universe for their realms. Then Kerensky's people returned to show us just how destructive a 'Mech can be."

  Katherine toed Melissa Steiner's grave. "Even our mother was caught up in that MechWarrior mystique. She gave birth to Yvonne, took over as Archon from her mother, then announced she would become a BattleMech pilot. She became obsessed with these ten-meter-tall engines of destruction. She even went so far as to pursue a course of study at the Nagelring, all because it was traditional for an Archon to be a pilot, a warrior—though history shows that being a warrior is in no way related to being a leader."

  She peered down her nose at him. "That is a lesson you still need to learn, Victor."

  Victor's blue-flecked, gray eyes narrowed. "I doubt it's a lesson I could from you, Katherine."

  "I could teach you much, Victor."

  "Oh, I'm sure of that." Victor fought to keep his voice even and his anger in check. He had evidence, very strong evidence, that his sister had conspired with Ryan Steiner to have Melissa murdered. I don't have the proof I need to expose you, Katherine, but Curaitis says it won't be long in coming. Then I will teach you a lesson—one concerning justice.

  He raised his chin. "I'm not certain I want to learn the lessons you could teach me."

  His reply seemed to take her a bit by surpris
e. "You spend too much time playing warrior, Victor. It's not good for your realm."

  "If I'd not played warrior on Coventry, you'd be a Clan bondswoman right now."

  Katherine's cheeks flushed crimson at the idea, and for the barest of moments Victor thought she might actually thank him for stopping the Clans at Coventry. "Oh, what you did at Coventry was interesting, Victor. Your decision to allow the Jade Falcons to flee without punishment has played well with the public. Although I've heard some say it was your fear of public reaction to your cowardice that kept you from showing up here until the day before the conference."

  "Not that you think that."

  "Not at all, Victor. I think you had your reasons for delaying."

  Victor nodded. "I did. In fact, my delay came from something you did teach me."

  "Oh?" Vanity pulsed a spark into her blue eyes. "What was that?"

  "I learned how to make an entrance." Victor folded his arms across his chest. "I waited for everyone else to arrive first, then I came, along with my troops. And then I went at once to my mother's grave, to pay my respects. And look who came to me! I'm sure your rushing to my side will also play very well in the media, Katherine."

  She took a step toward him and he thought for a moment that she would slap him. Instead she reached out with her left hand, letting her fingertips linger at the edge of his jaw. With her thumb she traced the outline of the bruise around his right eye. "Oh, Victor, you think you've won this one, don't you? I hope you don't bruise easily because I think you will find this conference very battering. I set the agendas, I guide the discussions, I run the whole thing. If you don't play by the rules I lay down, you'll be left in the dust. It's as simple as that."

  He shook his head slowly to make her pull back her hand. "No, Katherine, it's not going to be that simple. You know very well that the leaders of the Inner Sphere haven't come here to entertain you or let you play the queen, but to find a way to destroy the threat of the Clans. If you interfere with that, if you stand in the way of what must be done, your realm will bear the brunt of the Clan retaliation. And then, sister dearest, the people of the Lyran Alliance will wish they had a warrior as their leader again, because only a warrior will be able to save them."