Warrior: En GardeMichael A. Stackpole
LET THE DEATH GAMES BEGIN
Missiles arched from the Vindicator and smashed into the Hermes's right side, exploding into brilliant orange fireballs. Before the Hermes could recover, the blue whiplash of Justin's PPC scourged the newly opened wound. What little armor the missiles had spared, the particle beam evaporated into a metal steam.
Justin cleared a channel to his opponent. "Wolfson, your flamer's leaking. Bail out now."
"Can't. Got a 100,000 credit bond against surrender. You ain't getting that from me."
"Dammit, you idiot! I don't want it. Get out!"
"Go to hell, you Capellan bastard!" Suddenly, Wolfson jerked his Mech upright and charged.
Justin's Vindicator ducked. His laser sawed yet more armor from the Hermes's right thigh. It struck like a neon-scarlet viper. The fire snapped and crackled in Justin's ears, but did nothing to mask the screams and applause of the spectators.
The Vindicator squatted over the pilot. Within his cockpit, Justin reached out his right hand to dial his directional mike in at Wolfson.
"The next time you call me bastard, little man, you'd better win, because otherwise I'll kill you. . . ."
THE WARRIOR TRILOGY
WARRIOR: EN GARDE
Michael A. Stackpole
Published by the Penguin Group Penguin Putnam 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
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To Liz, for absolutely everything and then some.. ..
ComStar First Circuit Compound
Hilton Head Island, North America, Terra
1 June 3022
Myndo Waterly, the Precentor of Dieron, tried to slip into the Primus's chambers silently. So fluid was her gait that she made it all the way to the golden star symbol inlaid in the floor without so much as a whisper of her silken robes to announce her approach. Taking a deep breath, she stopped there and let the hood of her red robe slip back from her fair hair. In the half-second she allowed herself to recall the starting point of her argument, the Primus utterly shattered her strategy.
Standing stock-still and with his back to her, the voice of Primus Julian Tiepolo suddenly rang out. "The Peace of Blake be with you, Precentor Dieron."
How could he know I was here? Myndo thought, momentarily shaken. The man is unnatural. "And His wisdom with you, Primus." Though she fought it, a nervous tremor undercut the boldness of Myndo's riposte. She swallowed and waited as the tall, cadaverously thin leader of ComStar turned slowly to face her. He had been looking out through one of the high oval windows of the chamber, which let in enough of the bright afternoon sun to illuminate the room. His aquiline nose and piercing brown eyes had always made Myndo think of a hawk, but today she reacted differently to his gaunt boniness and bald head. He's more a vulture, she thought. Keeping his hands tucked into the broad sleeves of his dun-colored robe, Tiepolo slowly descended the short stairway leading from the window to the main area of his private audience chamber.
He narrowed his eyes slightly. "You rebuke me with your greeting, Precentor. I know better than to spar with you, for you soon become impatient of such games." Tiepolo's gaze flickered toward the wall behind her, where a massive star-chart was splashed from floor to ceiling. "How you, with so little tolerance for word play, are able to deal with the Draconis Combine never ceases to amaze me."
Myndo Waterly stiffened and met the Primus's dark gaze with the fierceness of her own. "More than words and honor, House Kurita respects action and wisdom."
Tiepolo pursed his lips and nodded his head slowly. "Again you chasten me." He let his right hand drift back and point toward the window. "As you are not down below witnessing the signing of the treaty between Hanse Davion and Katrina Steiner, shall I assume that is the matter you wish to discuss?"
She nodded curtly. "You've issued orders for me to leave for Dieron immediately. Is this just to be rid of me because I differ with you concerning this alliance?"
"Precentor Dieron, you have made your concerns very clear in the communications you've sent me and during the First Circuit sessions we both attended here on Terra."
Myndo raised herself up to her full height. "You say that as though you have actually listened to my arguments and even given them due consideration."
"So I have, Precentor."
"No, Primus, you know that is not true, and now you send me away because I disagree with you." She stabbed a finger at the window. "Down there in the courtyard, Hanse Davion and Katrina Steiner are being allowed to sign a treaty that will forever destroy the balance of power in the Successor States. With Davion's Federated Suns and Steiner's Lyran Commonwealth tied so closely together, we of ComStar lose all hope of maintaining stability. That piece of paper will destroy everything we've worked toward."
Primus Julian Tiepolo tapped his right index finger against his narrow chin. "Will it? You suggest that the treaty will destroy the balance of power between the five Great Houses, but I doubt that. Wolf's Dragoons will switch from the service of the Lyran Commonwealth to your own House Kurita."
"Ha!" Myndo Waterly's barked laugh echoed through the domed wooden chamber like a gunshot. "How dare you use information I supplied you as a means to refute my argument!"
Tiepolo's face revealed no embarrassment. "Ah, you were the one who provided the information about that mercenary unit. Then you must know as well that the Kell Hounds have accepted a new contract that will return them to the Federated Suns for the short term, though our analysts predict that they will eventually return to Katrina Steiner's service in the Commonwealth. For now, however, the Lyran Commonwealth will be stripped of its two most capable mercenary units."
Myndo shook her head violently. "You know as well as I do that all this has nothing to do with troops—be they crack mercenaries or these new, half-trained units Prince Davion hopes to create. The Lyran Commonwealth is dangerous, and now you've allowed them to become paired with the most advanced of the Successor States."
bsp; Tiepolo nodded slowly. "Ah, now I sense the core of your discomfort. You are concerned that for the first time in the 240 years since the blessed Jerome Blake accepted his mission to restore communication among the stars, I have allowed an occurrence that jeopardizes the completion of that sacred mission. Is this what I am hearing you say?"
Myndo nodded quickly. "The Lyran Commonwealth sees us as nothing more than an organization of glorified messengers. Those cursed, money-grubbing Lyran merchants look at us as nothing more than another profit-seeking business enterprise. They do not realize how slender our profits are, much less do they understand that we care more for our mission than we do any profits. There is no way to explain the spiritual to those who see only with their eyes and understand riches only in a worldly sense."
"This is a truth we have long acknowledged, Precentor Dieron."
"Yes, Primus, we have acknowledged it and we agreed, several Council sessions back, to quarantine the Lyran Commonwealth. We wanted to isolate their view of us so that it would not infect the thinking of the other Houses. But in the sixteen months of negotiations for this Davion-Steiner treaty, it seems as though the resolution has been swept away. You've allowed the devil to mate with damnation, and utter chaos will reign because of it."
Tiepolo narrowed his dark eyes, which flashed with anger.
"Your analogy, my dear Precentor, suggests that House Davion is worse in some way even than House Steiner ..."
Myndo was no less angry than the Primus, but she struggled for calm. "I have explained my reservations about House Davion countless times before, Primus. Prince Hanse Davion's hunger for old Star League technology—what the unwashed have so quaintly labeled lostech—will bring him into direct conflict with us. And with the recent advances made by his New Avalon Institute of Science, I believe the conflict will come sooner than later. Quintus Allard and the Counter-intelligence Division of Davion's Ministry of Intelligence Information and Operations have made it very difficult for us to get our ROM agents anywhere close to the Prince. And may I remind you, Primus, that even you have admitted that the Prince is impossible to read from a distance."
Primus Julian Tiepolo let a smile warp his thin white lips. "The Fox is indeed an enigma."
"You call him an enigma, but I see Hanse Davion as a dagger pressed against ComStar's throat! You cannot deny that the treaty's confidential clauses surprised even you."
The Primus nodded. "True. I never expected Hanse Davion would ask for, or receive, the hand of Melissa Arthur Steiner in marriage. That could well be an impressive event."
Myndo snorted derisively. "That's not the marriage I fear between Houses Steiner and Davion. No, what I ask you to contemplate is the match between the Lyran Commonwealth's contempt for us and House Davion's technical expertise. The cultural and intellectual exchanges demanded by this treaty could well be the birth of a service to rival our own."
"Perhaps, Precentor Dieron, perhaps ..." A skeletally slender hand waved her objections aside. "I do not see the reality of the Successor States in the same way that you do."
"I know this," Myndo Waterly replied, her tone serious and even. "Indeed, I am prepared to ask the First Circuit to strip you of your Primacy because of it."
Primus Julian Tiepolo froze and studied his subordinate carefully, but she did not flinch beneath his stern gaze. Icy silence hung over the chamber as the Primus sorted through and organized his thoughts. Finally, with a slight nod, he dispelled the mood.
"Very well, Precentor Dieron, you force me to reveal some of my thoughts to you. I do so reluctantly, and only because I sense in you a true concern for the blessed Blake's plan rather than a desire for personal power."
Myndo nodded formally. "I wish only that Blake's will be done."
"Indeed, Precentor Dieron, I believe this is true." Primus Tiepolo pointed toward the enormous star chart on the wall. "Political," he hissed. At his voice command, a computer superimposed a political map over the chart. "You are correct, Precentor, in sensing that Houses Steiner and Davion are the most dangerous to ComStar. My decision—despite the excellent arguments you and other Precentors presented during Council sessions—was to allow the two Houses to come together. It is my belief that a strong alliance between them will solidify the other Houses' opposition to them."
Myndo frowned. "The opposition is not all that strong, Primus." Pointing at a narrow wedge toward the base of the starchart, she said, "House Liao certainly poses a threat to no one. House Marik, positioned between Liao and Steiner, is still recovering from its civil war of six years ago. Meanwhile, Davion's financial backing of insurgents is further keeping the Mariks off-balance."
The Primus shook his head calmly, like a professor about to correct one of his students. "Liao's Capellan Confederation may occupy a relatively small region of space, but it is rich in worlds. And though Liao's forces are not strong enough to attack the Federated Suns, they are enough to repel any Davion incursions. Aside from the continual border raids and an occasional world won or lost, we will see no major shift on that front in our lifetimes."
The Primus pointed toward the purple area representing House Marik's Free Worlds League. "Janos Marik has recovered control of his realm. Let us not forget that his son Thomas is in our service." Tiepolo shifted his attention toward the red area above the Federated Suns and to the right of the Lyran Commonwealth on the map. "Even more important is your own Draconis Combine. With its dreaded Sword of Light Regiments—and now the Wolf's Dragoons, too—it should be more than enough to hold Davion in check."
Myndo shook her head slowly. "This is possible, and we shall soon have the proof of it when Davion begins his Galtor Campaign. I fear, though, that not one of the other Houses could stand alone against the combined might of the Federated Suns and the Lyran Commonwealth."
"That is more true than you know, Precentor, which is why I have ordered you back to Dieron. You will coordinate the meetings between Takashi Kurita, Janos Marik, and Maximilian Liao. The other Houses will not stand alone, Myndo. They will stand together . .." Primus Tiepolo raised a hand to forestall further comment. "You should know that Maximilian Liao is attempting to repeat his success at pitting Anton Marik against Janos in the civil war. He is playing on Michael Hasek-Davion's desire to rule the Federated Suns in place of his brother-in-law, and has already provided Duke Michael with reasons to refuse Hanse the use of his Capellan March troops in the Galtor Campaign."
Myndo smiled unconsciously. "And you will exploit Frederick Steiner's desire to supplant his cousin Katrina . . ."
The Primus nodded. "The current political situation in the Successor States depends upon maintaining a balance. If any Successor Lord believes he or she is powerful enough to conquer a neighbor, humanity will once again be plunged into the maelstrom of war. We must also remember that ComStar is the balance point. If it ever does begin to seem that the union of Houses Steiner and Davion is a threat to us, have no fear that we will move to crush them both and to establish a new balance."
"I see, Primus," Myndo said, head cocked to one side in thought. "The forces do balance. The elements needed to control Davion and Steiner are in place. If those two realms were not headed up by such dynamic leaders, the threat they pose would be minimized. But how can we trigger the necessary internal and external forces? What could set them in motion?"
Tiepolo allowed himself a mirthless smile. "Each and every Successor Lord—Takashi Kurita, Janos Marik, Maximilian Liao, Katrina Steiner, and Hanse Davion—dreams of being the one to establish and reign over a new Star League. Each has an equal claim to that throne, but the marriage of Hanse Davion to Melissa Steiner will change that stand-off of forces. Suddenly, one House will have a stronger claim to the old throne of the Star League. Until the wedding, we will guard the knowledge of that most secret clause of this treaty, but we will not hesitate to use it in laying our own secret plans . .."
Capellan March, Federated Suns
27 November 3026
The loud knock on the plasteel door of Major Justin Allard's office shattered the quiet tranquility he'd been savoring. The slender, dark-haired MechWarrior drew in a deep breath, then exhaled slowly. As he rose from behind his teakwood desk, he straightened his jacket and tried to compose himself.
I hate this part of battalion command. Do well in combat, get a medal pinned to your chest, and they give you a job spending most of your time with discipline or supply problems. Justin shook his head and frowned at the three piles of paper on his desk. They need an accountant to handle all this nonsense. Then again, he thought, this particular problem probably did require a Mech-Warrior's touch.
"Enter," he said finally.
A faceless MP opened the door, and Private Robert Craon stepped into the room. The MP waited expectantly at the door because the tall, thickly built Craon towered over Allard. The smaller officer narrowed his almond-shaped eyes and gave a short shake of his head to dismiss the MP. The guard shrugged and closed the door.
"Private Robert Craon reporting for disciplinary action, sir." The younger man's voice, though shot through with nervousness, rang loud and strong. As his gaze flicked around the office, he seemed to recoil in disgust at the sight of the Capellan rice-paper paintings that formed the backdrop for Major Allard's desk.
Justin nodded formally. "At ease, Private." He kept his voice calm, trying to filter out as much anger as possible. When Craon went from standing at attention to a careless slouch, Allard could not help but snap, "I said at ease, Private, not fall apart!"
Craon swallowed and straightened up crisply. "I'm sorry, sir." Justin snorted and seated himself. "I doubt that, Robert." He quickly typed something on the keyboard at his desk, and bars of light drifted up over his features as information scrolled onto the screen. Justin shook his head once, then looked up. "I want you to understand a couple of things, Robert, and they're matters I expect to go no further than this office. Is that understood?"