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Shadowlord and Pirate King

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Shadowlord and Pirate King: Story by Footloose, Art by Mushroomtale

 

 


Chapter One

Constellation: The Hunter's Heart

The Hunter's Heart

Location: Course IV Space Station, Imperial Space

 

There was a dead man in the cheap two-hour minimum motel room.

Merlin verified the crooked numbers hanging on the door before walking inside. The body was an inconvenience, but he could work around it.

Three-twenty-eight was a corner room, and the neon sign right outside the window painted the walls in pastel colours so candy-sweet they made his teeth hurt. The noisy flicker of the sign was distracting enough to keep the motel patrons from looking too closely at the stains on the patterned brown duvet of the hastily-made bed, though the people who came here didn't tend to care about the filth they were fucking in.

Merlin kept clear of the window. He didn't turn on the lights. He didn't need them.

The man was flat on his back, staring up at the ceiling with glassy eyes, and there was a hole the size of a jai alai ball in his chest, marring the otherwise pristine off-the-rack suit that Coyotes and Snakeheads typically favoured -- cheap, anonymous and disposable. The killing shot had been cauterized by the heat of the laser blast, and the low-quality fabric blend of the suit had melted around the edges.

Merlin scanned the room carefully. Not everyone had the Sterlings to afford the smuggling fee for their illegal emigration out of the Imperial space, and sometimes it was paid out as a literal pound of flesh. There was no pound of flesh here, for which Merlin was grateful, but that didn't mean there weren't other ways to pay. The man might have come here for a quick shag -- one of many -- as part of the payment due.

He spotted none of the expected paraphernalia. There was no protective foam. No lubricants -- not that Coyotes bothered with anyone else's comforts but their own. No condoms. And most people would use condoms, particularly on a trading spaceport of this size. No one could be completely certain that their partners had all the mandated shots against sexually-transmitted diseases and had access to the inoculations that were free everywhere else in the Empire. That was why there were Safe Sex Machines on every floor of the building, dispensing protective kits and broad-spectrum multi-species morning-after pills.

The dispensers probably accounted for the majority of the motel's profits.

The only thing out of place in the room was the body. And the body, when it had been alive, hadn't been meeting anyone here for a quick and dirty fuck, or there would have been some sort of hint that it was well underway.

This was a job. The man had been meeting someone to take them off-planet. Either it was a direct trip, or this Coyote had been just one inconsequential link in a long chain that would whisk his client away to parts unknown.

If Merlin were being honest with himself, it was a relief to come to this address and find a dead body. He'd known that something was wrong from the second that the specifications in his contract was changed. The body in the room was merely confirmation of the clusterfuck he'd walked into.

He scanned the room again and moved away from the closed door. He picked a spot out of direct line of sight from the windows but would still afford him an escape route if he needed one.

One surprise was enough. Merlin had no intention of setting himself up as an easy target -- there might be a CorpsCops sniper in the building across from the motel, waiting for a shadow to drift across the window. And if CorpsCops were about to burst through the door, Merlin could always crash out the window.

It was a long way down, but he had survived longer falls.

When someone wanted to hire an assassin, they left a message on an anonymous message board. It didn't matter which message board as long as a few key phrases were used to alert the booking agents of the incoming job. The code used depended on the type of job, the degree of difficulty, the amount they were willing to pay, the need for discretion. A few agents wouldn't touch public assassinations, even with a long-distance sniper rifle equipped to counteract the curvature of the planet, but they might accept quick subway knifings in an out-of-the-way backworld with low security. Some agents were particularly protective of their stable of assassins and refused targets with military experience or a background in self-defence, not wanting their killers to be injured and taken off the active list.

Other agents refused complicated jobs, because with complications came discovery, manhunts, arrests, even death -- and not of the intended target, either. It was common sense to refuse jobs from clients willing to pay a fee disproportionate to the profile of the target and the difficulty of the assignment.

And yet.

Someone had been very careful when they worded their requests on the anonymous forums. The job had required a very specific skill set. The use of a weapon normally difficult to obtain and too unstable for regular use, for one thing, and that criteria alone narrowed the pool of potential assassins. The kill was simple and clean, which made it appealing for even the most experienced killer -- it was nice to have it easy, sometimes. The pay was out of proportion with the intended target, but the location was close to the outer rim of Imperial space and heavily patrolled, with a substantial armed police presence on the space station. The client didn't care if the target was found dead, as long as the murder couldn't be tracked back to them. The client had even done all the footwork and provided the target's movement patterns, past, present and future.

All that the assassin needed to do was pull the trigger.

Simple. Clean. Easy.

Merlin snorted.

Right.

All the other agents had passed on the job. Somehow, it had landed in the lap of one of Merlin's contacts. And after the awkward anonymous introduction and tap dance, Merlin was provided with a detailed file on the target, right down to the address where he would be and at what time.

The dossier had neglected to mention the body, but Merlin couldn't really find fault in that. In his profession, bodies had an annoying habit of popping up unexpectedly.

But. There was always a but.

No one paid obnoxious amounts of money on an assassin of Merlin's skill when they already knew where and when the target would show up. There was a certain appeal that came with hiring someone at his level -- the only thing they needed to provide was a name and a three-dimensional holo head shot, if one was available.

Merlin did all the dirty work. Usually.

He couldn't understand why the client hadn't hired an expendable goon for this particular job -- a straight kill in the Red Light district of space station Course IV. It would have been cheaper, and just as untraceable.

But now, Merlin knew. The client had been too well-prepared. Too well-informed. Too rich, perhaps, if they could afford Merlin.

He'd been set up.

If Merlin were a smart man, he would get out of there before the trap sprung. Instead, he stayed. He stayed because no one set him up and lived.

The contract promised a bonus if he made it look like a suicide, but there was a fat chance of that with another body in the room, unless he arranged it as some sort of forbidden tryst and soap-opera worthy double-suicide. The contract required that Merlin use a Walter PK-90cs for the assassination, which had originally struck Merlin as overkill until he remembered why the weapon had been pulled from the market a decade ago. There was a defect in its construction -- it didn't just kill its target dead, but it blew up and took half a city block with it afterward.

No half-decent CorpsCops investigator would believe that the target had killed himself with it, even if it was an ultimate guarantee of instant death if a shot to the braincase failed to do the deed. It took too much work to find a Walter PK-90cs, particularly these days. It was much easier to obtain one of the newer models. For example, the Walter PK-1100 could be purchased at the closest shady alley anywhere across the galaxy, and it had a significantly decreased nuclear explosion probability in its design.

What suicide would go to such lengths for a kill weapon?

This particular Walter PK-90cs -- the one that Merlin had acquired as an afterthought -- had been scavenged from a trustworthy gunrunner. It was heavily modified -- the defect corrected, the blast range narrowed to the diameter of a pin-head.

Merlin generally disapproved of getting blown up and taking innocent civilians along for the ride. On that same principle, he also hated messy kills.

That was why he definitely wasn't going to use the gun that had come with the assignment package. That Walter PK-90cs had been modified too, but the alterations were subtle, almost microscopic. Merlin wasn't stupid. If it wasn't on the cusp of blowing up with its next killing shot, it had been rigged to ensure that it would blow up.

It wasn't just a set-up. Put all the facts together, and Merlin smelled a trap.

Oh, it wouldn't be the first time that the police enforcers with of the Imperial Conglomerate of Corporations tried to capture him with an elaborate set-up, but this…

This was different, somehow. More personal.

The lock beeped faintly and the door swung open. The target had arrived.

The man reached blindly for the old-fashioned switch and shut the door behind him in the same movement. The cheap overhead fluorescents flickered before bathing the room in a faint blue hue. The man's attention was immediately drawn to the body.

"Oh no. Joon!" The man walked over to Joon and groaned he crouched beside him. His hands were sure as they examined the body, but the clinical determination faded to helplessness, because no amount of medical attention could help a man who had a large, gaping hole in his chest.

The target's shoulders sagged. His head tilted back and he closed his eyes. He exhaled a heavy sigh. There was a flicker of fear on his face, a glimpse of panic, but he held it back, somehow.

He made several aborted attempts to frisk the man before caving in to whatever desperation was driving him and emerged triumphant with a pair of glossy, opal-sheened cards.

Tickets.

Merlin tilted his head. He'd been wrong. No Coyote that he knew of would bother with tickets to an inter-galactic cruiser when smuggling live bodies. It was easier to stow their cargo in the locked pit of a trawler -- and maybe half of them would survive the journey, but Coyotes wouldn't care about that because they would have already received their payment up front.

The man stood up with difficulty and turned around. He froze when he saw Merlin.

His eyes widened with recognition -- not of Merlin himself, but what he represented. His body trembled with flight-or-fight. There was a white-knuckled grasp on those opalTickets. He didn't scream.

Curious.

Either the target had paid a fortune to travel in the equivalent of Executive Class, he was someone important and worth the risk, or the dead man wasn't a Coyote.

Only after several long, strangled seconds did the man glance at the door. He made no move for it. All told, he had a better chance of diving out the window to escape, but there would be no surviving the fall.

Slowly, the man's shoulders slumped, accepting defeat.

Something was very wrong. This might be a man trying to escape the draconian Conglomerate regime, but he hadn't gone to a Coyote to do it. Whoever this man was, he almost acted as if he had been expecting this.

Merlin's targets -- if they happened to be so lucky to see him before they died -- always begged for their lives. They did not say, "Please, if you must, do make it quick."

"I didn't kill him," Merlin said instead. His voice was muffled behind his mask. The only thing the man could see of him were his eyes.

"That doesn't change that you're here to kill me," the target said. His voice was surprisingly steady.

Merlin inclined his head in assent, but he didn't raise the gun. He didn't like guns, anyway. Never had.

The package on his target had been precisely sufficient -- enough information to determine that he wasn't a threat, what his movements were, and no more. The man's three-dee hologram hadn't done him justice; it had been lifted off an industry card, stony-faced and expressionless like a passport photo.

He was older than he had been in the photograph, with shoulder-length white-blond hair in a middle part that fell in faint waves. His eyes were sharp with the sort of wisdom that only a long, hard life could impart, but kind and gentle and surrounded in pronounced laugh lines. He wasn't laughing now, and despite the situation, he held himself straight, proud, stoic.

He was wearing a Physician's uniform.

Merlin had killed high-ranking government officials, military leaders, diplomats, courtiers, royal members of the many Houses across the Empire. He had killed the leaders of terrorist organizations and criminal families, renowned thieves who didn't know well enough to keep their fingers to themselves, kidnappers who had gone after the well-loved child of a wealthy and influential businessman. He had hunted Pirates. He had gone after other assassins.

He did not go after cheating spouses -- that was work for lesser assassins. He didn't get involved in business espionage -- though that had happened over his objections at least twice. He didn't concern himself with petty crime or assignments where people were wanted dead simply because they annoyed someone else. For one thing, it was a waste of his skills. For another, not many people could afford his fees.

Not many people would pay his fees to kill a Physician.

"Why do they want to kill you?" Merlin asked, surprising himself. He never asked. He wasn't supposed to care.

"Because I'm a Healer," the man said. His voice was quiet and reassuring.

"Of course you are," Merlin said, as if that wasn't already obvious. "You're a doctor."

"I'm a Physician," he corrected. Then, more earnestly, he said, "But I am a Healer."

His eyes gleamed a pale gold for an instant, giving proof.

"Oh. I see," Merlin said, understanding. He was a magic user. Then, for a lack of anything else to say, he added, "Sucks to be you."

"You have no idea," the target said, his words accompanied by a shaky laugh, more for past memories than the present situation. He looked down at the tickets in his hand. Two tickets; had Joon been meant to escort him? It would have been a good cover -- two men traveling together, a father and his son. The man didn't seem particularly grief-stricken, and there was probably no more familiarity between the Healer and the man on the floor beyond a business arrangement. If anything, he seemed mournful, in the so close and yet so far sort of way that Merlin had seen many times before, on other targets.

The silence stretched.

Merlin let it; he was trying to figure out what had gone wrong and why. He understood that someone had paid his enormous fee for killing this physician, but why would they go to the extreme of sending along a sabotaged gun and add a request to make the death look like a suicide? Setting up suicides, especially with another body in the room, took time. Why was Merlin even here? Why was he being set up?

And he was being set up.

No one ever took jobs where the target was a magic user. Merlin might have gone against the gifted members of the royal Houses, but those were known quantities. Other magic users were different. Their particular talents were never as well-researched or as well-documented as the magic of the Houses. Attacking a magic user was too dangerous for him. For anyone, really. All it took was a perceptive magic user, a carefully worded spell, and that was it. Desperate magic users fighting to survive could be deadlier than assassins -- even against assassins with magic.

Merlin wasn't a fool. A Physician with magic could kill as surely as they could heal.

"I notice that you are not killing me," the man said.

"No," Merlin agreed. He holstered his modified Walter PK-90cs, hidden under his inner vest, and took out the sabotaged gun.

"Why not?"

"Something's not right about this," Merlin said. He reached along the wall, moving slowly and carefully, and turned off the lights. Almost immediately, the room was set aglow with pinks and soft green neon lights. He followed the far wall until he was next to the window. He crouched down, sparing a second to glance at the bedside clock. He was running behind the client's schedule -- a micromanaged, on-the-second requirement of Merlin's actions and movements.

He looked out the window.

"You didn't kill Joon," the man said, but it wasn't a question. It was more of curious confirmation, a slow understanding. Merlin didn't answer him.

They were three floors above the spaceport deck. The dome overhead was black, imitating night; the streets below were in festival-brights day in and day out. A mob of people going in both direction serpentined around each other, pausing when their path was blocked off. A street vendor hawked fresh-grilled meat of dubious provenance, a shyster sold illegal knock-off wares. A dealer shook hands with a customer, the exchange of drugs and untraceable credits occurring in the blink of an eye. Half-naked men and women undulated in front of their workplaces, teasing newcomers and regulars alike to strip joints and back-rooms for private shows.

On the surface, it was a normal evening in the Red Light district of Course IV's spaceport. Merlin watched a little longer.

He spotted seven men coming toward the by-the-hour motel. Three men in two columns, following a leader. The CorpsCops were out of uniform, blending in with the civilians, but there was no shaking off or hiding the discipline of rigid structure and training.

Merlin watched them until he was certain that the CorpsCops were heading to this particular building before he stood up slowly. He was a little surprised to see that the Healer hadn't taken the opportunity to save himself.

"What is it?"

"You should've run."

"I have the distinct impression that I would survive longer if I stayed with you," he said.

It was the most absurd thing that Merlin had ever heard in his entire life. He barked a short laugh, and the man gave him a curious look.

"Someone put a contract on your head. You're not safe with anyone, least of all the assassin who was waiting for you," Merlin said.

"And yet, you have not done the deed," the Healer said. "That is a point in my favour."

Merlin ignored him and studied his sabotaged gun. His fingers were gloved, and the fine adjustment that he needed to make took more time than he was comfortable wasting. Once done, he left the gun on the bed. He headed for the door, conscious of the Healer on his heels, and glanced both ways before walking down the hall.

Merlin reached for his hood, pulling it further over his head. It was sufficiently cowl-like that it hid the fact that most of his face was masked. He hadn't planned on being seen by anyone, which meant that as soon as he stepped out of the hall, someone would see him, take in how he was dressed, and figure out who and what he was.

It was a problem that was easily solved, but that would come later, after Merlin had gotten away from the room where he'd left the gun. The client's Walter PK-90cs was rigged to explode, but he'd limited the actual blast damage to a low charge, so that only, oh, this floor would go.

Maybe two.

Merlin burst through the fire escape, setting off the alarm, and descended the stairs two, three at a time. The patrons of the no-name quickie-fuck motel would stumble out soon and make a beeline for the emergency exits, and Merlin didn't want to be trapped in the mob trying to get out. The crowd would provide cover against the CorpsCops, though, and that was part of the plan.

The new plan, anyway. Merlin's original escape route involved the rooftops, but he didn't think the Healer was up to leaping across four-meter chasms several levels above ground. The spaceport's lower gravity might save them both from a fall, but it wouldn't save them from broken necks.

The man hurried after Merlin. He kept up despite stumbling here and there. Merlin caught the Healer and twirled him away from the second floor emergency exit just as it burst open and several harried men and women in various stages of undress streamed out, clambering noisily on the metal stairs. By the time they reached the first floor, Merlin had relieved someone's dark brown trench coat and pulled it on.

They bypassed the crowd that was attempting to squeeze through the narrow lobby doors and located the rear exit. Along the way, Merlin appropriated an ugly black pull-over and a cap, shoving them at his target.

Only, the Healer wasn't his target anymore. Merlin supposed he should use the man's name.

"Put them on, Gaius," he said, and Gaius stared at him with round eyes. Whether it was in surprise that Merlin knew his name, or that he had used it, Merlin wasn't sure. He didn't care.

They went out the motel's service doors, through an alley that reeked of a blend of rotting garbage and stale sex, and were at least half a block away when the abandoned Walter PK-90cs' half-powered battery cells overloaded and exploded.

Gaius startled and shouted in surprise, turning to face the motel they'd left behind. Merlin grabbed Gaius' arm roughly and kept him moving. The space station was large, and it was a bureaucratic nightmare whenever CorpsCops ordered a complete shutdown -- and that was exactly what they would do now. Every ship in port would be hurriedly disconnecting their access lines before they were locked in place while the CorpsCops tracked down whoever and whatever had been behind the explosion.

Merlin had heard of ships trapped in a lockdown for thirty-two days before the CorpsCops caught a ship stowaway. Merlin had no intention of being stuck on Course IV for that long. He had other jobs lined up, and they were all far away from here.

"We have twenty-four minutes before the lockdown is official," Merlin said, guiding Gaius through the streets. Merlin knew where he was going and he knew how to get there quick. He bypassed the first few elevator routes -- those would be both crowded and among the first that the CorpsCops would monitor -- and headed for the end of the queue. "Less than that before your ship finds out that the lockdown's coming and throws its lines to get out of here. Move it."

Merlin kept Gaius from breaking into a run, but only just; a CorpsCops squad ran past, heading toward the Red Light district. Merlin bowed his head and curled protectively around Gaius, and anyone looking would dismiss them as a frightened couple trying to get away.

"You said to hurry," Gaius hissed.

"Without drawing attention," Merlin clarified.

"And how does one do that without the other?" Gaius asked, tripping when Merlin shoved him into a free elevator ahead of other waiting passengers. Merlin blocked anyone else from following them in, ignoring the shoves and indignant shouts until the lift began to rise. He pried open the control panel with a hardened diamond-fibre knife barely the length of his thumb, the blade's edge sharp enough to split the proverbial atom. The panel was glued on. Merlin resorted to drastic tactics and cut through the reinforced panel, using a bit of muscle to wedge it in a corner. He sliced his way around the cover and pulled it off in a chaotic flicker of sparks and flashing alarms.

He sheathed his knife and disabled the siren in less than three seconds. It took a little longer to reconfigure the system to bypass every floor that was calling for a lift, and increased the speed until they were accelerated first vertically, then horizontally toward the ship port.

"Oh, that's how," Gaius remarked, side-eyeing him suspiciously. "Won't they notice the alarm?"

"A raging fire and an explosion that might have compromised the station's integrity," Merlin said, holding up one hand, palm-up. He raised the other hand and balanced the two as if his hands were an uneven scale. "A malfunctioning elevator. Which do you think the station's administrators are more concerned with right now?"

He didn't wait for Gaius to answer. Merlin dropped both hands and glanced at the location read-out. They were nearly at the docks. Merlin gestured.

"Give me the tickets."

Gaius' hand instinctively covered the pocket where he had put them. Merlin's gloved hand remained outstretched. Either Gaius would give Merlin the tickets or he would take them from Gaius; Merlin knew exactly how long it would take to check them out and re-scan them, if necessary.

"You really didn't kill Joon?"

"Dead when I got there," Merlin said, and for reasons he couldn't explain, he continued, "My assignment was to set up a suicide. Not a murder-suicide, never mind one that would blow me up along with it."

"The gun," Gaius realized, nodding with slow understanding. "But you --"

"Wasn't my gun. They wanted me to use it to kill you." He caught Gaius' dubious expression and said, "First rule of survival: if someone gives you something, no strings attached, don't trust it."

"That includes the tickets?"

"Yes."

Gaius was conflicted, but he handed over the two slim opalTickets. Merlin studied one, then the other. "What about you?" he asked.

"Hm?"

"If I am to follow your rules, I shouldn't trust you, either."

Merlin's chuckle was dry. The lift slowed down and came to a stop. The door opened with a sliding thump. "No, you shouldn't. Stay close to me."

Merlin motioned for Gaius to follow, using his body as a shield against the crowd that had surged into the spaceport over the last few minutes. The transit docks were busy even under normal circumstances, but with the alarms blaring through the station, everyone had surged toward the docks in a mad scramble to get aboard before they were stranded by a security lockdown.

The crowd was thick enough that Gaius struggled to keep up. Merlin felt a rare pang of concern and grabbed Gaius' arm, pulling him along.

The tickets were for the Lady Hiamela, a luxurious liner that had exactly two categories of passengers -- Old Money and New Money. As far as transports went, especially one intended as covert transport, the ostentatious ship was a good choice, because not only would CorpsCops overlook it as a potential recourse for anyone trying to escape, they would think twice about searching the premises. Invading the privacy of the rich and famous was tantamount to risking their commissions.

The Hiamela wouldn't launch before they had enough passengers on board and they would stay in port as long as they dared before cutting the access lines. The main problem was going to be getting past the throng of people who were battering past the ship's security to get onboard, whether or not they had a ticket.

Merlin spotted an empty ticket counter and pulled Gaius in that direction.

"But the ship's --" Gaius started to point, but Merlin kept moving.

He glanced around. The ticket sellers were closed, the terminals on a station-mandated auto-lockdown. The staff were probably among the first to climb onboard the various docked ships the instant the alarm rang through the station, printing themselves their own billets before making a run for it. Emergencies on space stations could turn the most altruistic man into a selfish bastard.

Merlin pulled out the keyboard and typed in a command. The terminal beamed to life.

He scanned one ticket. The name on the ticket was Jakkob van der Hoesen. Merlin changed the name to a nondescript N. Baird and updated the manifest, repeating the same with the second ticket before setting a scramble through the system to wipe out any and every trace of the original names.

If Merlin's client had known enough about Gaius to detail his whereabouts down to the precise minute when he would arrive, there was no doubt that they would also know the name under which Gaius had been intended to make his escape. Between the name change, the scramble-virus in the system, and the station-wide chaos, Merlin was making Gaius even more difficult to find.

"Let's go," Merlin said. Gaius had questions, and a lot of them, but it took a stern look from Merlin before Gaius clamped his mouth shut, at least for now..

"The name on my passport --"

"I'll fix that once we're onboard."

"Won't they check during boarding?"

Merlin shot Gaius a glance. Merlin raised a brow and gestured around them in a does it look like they're taking the time for that? handwave. "They'll take care of the security check once the ship's not in a rush to get out of the port."

The problem now was getting to the ship itself. Merlin was not above injuring people to get them out of his way, and when one person fell or stumbled, other people did, too. They were three deep in the line with the armed security guards in sight when Gaius elbowed him, hard.

"Your mask," Gaius hissed.

Merlin shook his head. There were security cameras everywhere; he was not going to reveal his face to anyone who might be scanning the feeds looking for Gaius. There was a chance that the guards wouldn't let them through if they saw his mask. It was a situation with a simple solution.

They were two people in when Merlin turned around and whispered, "They're closing the gates. They're not letting anyone else through."

It was a terrible, completely underhanded thing to say. No one wanted to get caught on station -- not the rich who might have something to hide, and definitely not the people who hoped to purchase a ticket either at the gate or once they were onboard.

Merlin's false rumour rippled through the crowd. The couple behind him suddenly pushed forward like a wave threatening to crash through the ship's door, shoving the people ahead of them -- Gaius and Merlin, and several others -- through before the overwhelmed guards scrambled back and activated the force field.

Gaius gave Merlin a dirty look when Merlin helped him to his feet. One of the guards radioed the bridge -- "… may as well cast off, crowd's going mad. We're not going to get anyone else onboard at this rate. But we got the minimum…" -- and collected their shimmering tickets after confirming their names against the ship's manifest.

Merlin waited until everyone wasn't looking, calmly pilfered one of the handheld security consoles, and escorted Gaius from the loading bay and into the ship proper, where smiling men and women in pressed uniforms gestured generously with their arms toward the lifts and handed out bunk assignments.

Gaius huffed, nervous. "They are going to check our passports and realize we aren't who we say we are. They will throw us out of the nearest airlock. The authorities will be alerted. They will arrest us. They will kill me --"

"Hm," Merlin said, stepping onto the lift. It wasn't until it started to move that he pushed his hood from his head and dragged his hand through the ephemeral mask across his face, dispelling it.

Gaius glanced at him. Gaius did a double-take and gaped. Merlin ran his fingers through his hair and raised a brow. Gaius mouth opened and closed twice, before he scrambled for a small measure of decorum. "I didn't expect that you would be… young. You certainly don't look like a killer."

"That's kind of the point," Merlin said, pulling Gaius after him when the lift came to a smooth stop. The ship's valets took a look at their boarding package and pointed them down a corridor. They were very nearly at the end of the hall. Merlin scanned their access pass and pushed Gaius inside. "Give me your ID."

Gaius hesitated, but he handed over an intergalactic passport. It was freshly-issued, with just enough weathering at the edges to mark Gaius as a frequent traveler. A superb forgery, definitely top quality. Merlin moved to the table, sat down, and shoved the place settings out of the way to make space for his tools.

The borrowed handheld console -- he would dump it somewhere in the main activities room later. The passport card. His diamond-fibre knife. A pair of tweezers. A stiletto blade.

And he got to work. He pried out the minuscule dot chip without damaging the passport card, cracked the handheld console open carefully, and placed it directly on the scanner, accessing the program controls.

"Why are you doing this?" Gaius asked.

Merlin didn't need to look up to know that Gaius was standing exactly four-point-two metres away, that he hadn't removed the coat or the hat that Merlin had stolen for him to wear as a disguise, and that his arms were crossed in a stance that was probably meant to be disapproving. The disapproval didn't last, because Gaius was bracing against the adrenaline crash draining what little reserves of strength he had.

"You should sit down before you collapse," Merlin remarked.

"I believe I will stand," Gaius said.

"Suit yourself." Merlin spared a precious second to watch Gaius' knees give out. Gaius caught himself and went to the far end of the cabin, collapsing on the sofa, heaving a heavy sigh.

"I'm curious. How well were you paid for this job?" Gaius asked, filling the silence.

"Very well," Merlin said.

"I suppose you'll have to return the fee, now? Or is that not done in your line of business?"

"It was cash on delivery," Merlin said, falling silent while he handled the more delicate work. When he spoke again, it was with a dismissive shrug. "Amateurs ask for half up front. I require payment when the job's done. Of course, this means some people do try to stiff me, but most seem to realize what a bad idea that is."

"So, you are not being… compensated for saving my life," Gaius said, and when Merlin glanced up, it was to a raised eyebrow full of doubt. "I will ask again. Why did you change your mind?"

Merlin sighed. He shrugged again.

Gaius' eyebrow rose even higher. Merlin frowned and resisted the urge to glance over his shoulder, in case there was a misbehaving child behind him who was well deserving of the physician's eyebrow.

"While I believe wholeheartedly that you were a legitimate target and that someone definitely wants you dead," Merlin said, his gloved fingers darting over the touch keypad, "I was set up."

Someone had obviously misjudged his level of skill. Or, perhaps, they were testing his level of skill. Either way, as soon as the luxury liner arrived at its next destination, Merlin was going to track down his contact and get to the bottom of this. He had lived with a price on his head since he was twelve years old; that price had gone up over the last twenty years. He was at peace with that Damocles' Sword hanging over his head, but he did not appreciate being taken for an idiot, or that someone had come close to achieving their goal.

Plus, eliminating him with an explosive device?

Rude.

"So you are not doing this for me," Gaius asked. Merlin paused and turned his head minutely. There was a strange combination of confusion and evaluation in Gaius' tone, as if he fully expected Merlin to have had a change of heart for one reason or another.

"'Course not. What do you take me for?" Merlin didn't bother to stifle his mocking snort. "Someone who cares? In case you haven't noticed, bleeding hearts don't live long, not these days."

He hadn't saved Gaius because Gaius seemed like a nice old man. He'd aborted on the job because more pressing matters had come to his attention.

Like getting rid of the idiot who had made an attempt on Emrys' life in a futile quest for the large silver Sterling bounty that the Empire had set on his head. Merlin would be doing a favour to the gene pool.

"Sad to say, but it's true. The gents who go into my chosen profession are hardly the altruistic sort. If your continued existence can serve to annoy my former client, I consider that a bonus," Merlin said. He added a second level of security to the passport -- it had been a professional forgery, but slightly sloppy now that he'd dug under the surface -- and ignored Gaius snort. Merlin concentrated. Removing the chip had been easy; replacing it was going to be difficult. He didn't have a magnifying glass, and with someone else in the room, he didn't dare tap into his magic to facilitate the placement. He would have to do it by hand, and that required absolute silence.

It took seven tries, but it was done. It was a passable job and it would hold up to most security sweeps. As long as Gaius didn't get himself captured by CorpsCops, he would be fine.

Merlin fished around in his body armour's multiple pockets until he came up for air with a small, flat circle no thicker than the blade of a knife. He pried it open and used the tweezers to scrape a minute amount of clear epoxy to seal the edges of the passport.

He swiped it twice through the console and confirmed the contents before sliding the card across the table to Gaius.

"For curiosity's sake," Merlin said, surprising himself again, because the main reason he'd managed to live this long, was because he had learned never to ask the wrong questions, "Why would someone put a contract on your head?"

Gaius stared at him for a long time, his brows pinched. "I'm a Healer," he said finally, as if that was supposed to mean something.

It didn't mean anything. Merlin gestured with his hand in frustration.

"You don't know?"

"Explain it to me. Use small words," Merlin said. He caught his reflection in a mirrored surface. He was going to need a change of clothes, and soon. His working gear made him stand out too much, but at least the additional layer of security afforded by his magic hadn't been needed and the jacket he'd stolen provided something of an illusion of normal clothing.

"Every Healer I know, including my beloved Alice, are missing," Gaius said. He waited, tilting his head as if this was significant enough to jog Merlin's memory, and everything would slot into place.

It didn't.

Merlin nodded at Gaius to continue.

"You really don't know," Gaius said. He held his breath and exhaled slowly. "This has been going on for months. There was an exposé on the news. The reporter was gunned down on camera and the broadcast censored. The Conglomerate is kidnapping and imprisoning all the Healers in the Empire."

Merlin turned slowly to look at Gaius, his brows furrowed. Merlin hadn't heard, but that didn't come as a surprise. He spent most of his free time training and teaching himself how to circumvent new obstacles. He didn't care about the news or politics. None of it applied to him, because, as far as the Empire was concerned, he didn't exist. He did his job, and that was it.

Merlin shouldn't care, and he told himself that he only continued to ask questions because someone had tried to kill him, too, and not because he was interested. "Why?"

"No one knows." Gaius shook his head and spread his hands. "I... I thought it would be best to be on my way before they tracked me down."

The door chime rang. A cheerful voice announced, "Passport control!" over the intercom.

Merlin stared at Gaius. Gaius stared back. Gaius' shoulders slumped and he went to answer the door.

While the Steward fussed over Gaius' passport and apologized for the inconvenience at the spaceport ,giving a cursory look over the false identification that Merlin handed over for a scan, Merlin couldn't shake one question from his mind.

What does this have to do with me? Why did they try to kill me, too?

Merlin was hardly a Healer. If anything, he was the extreme opposite.

He waited until the Steward was gone. He waited some more. He palmed his ID card before sliding it into one of his many pockets -- he would dispose of it later. It was no great loss; he had seven other ID cards with false identities on his person.

"How long have you been planning to leave? Who knew about your plans?"

"Several weeks. And no one," Gaius said. "One does not live as long as I have by sharing the fine details with anyone but those directly involved."

"So, only the people who set this up?"

Gaius inclined his head. "Of course."

"How was this planned out? Did you use your principal account or did you set up a dummy credit line? Did you meet in person, did someone follow you --" Merlin trailed off. He waved a hand in the air. "Not that it matters now."

Merlin considered leaving Gaius here, on the ship, alone, and that shocked him, that he was considering instead of doing exactly that.

Healers were calm, compassionate, highly empathic and sympathetic people. It was natural to want to help them and to trust them. But not Merlin. No. Merlin had learned through circumstances that he could never to trust anyone. He could not afford to go out of his way to help others, that he should help himself first. So, why was he even remotely considering staying with Gaius to ensure he went someplace safe? With no promise of monetary payment at the end?

Merlin sorted through all of his reasons for not leaving and settled on the most plausible. Someone had set him up. Someone had tried to kill him. There was a chance that if he followed this through, he'd find out why, and he'd find out who. That was the only reason. Not because Gaius was kind. Not because Gaius had decided to trust the man who had been waiting in a dingy motel room to kill him. Not because Gaius seemed a little out of his depth.

"So, someone made arrangements for you to escape. You purchased possibly-overpriced false identification. You were to meet a complete stranger in the roughest section of the station in a disreputable motel. He was to escort you to this ship."

Gaius nodded. "That is correct."

"And then?"

"I do not know," Gaius said, removing his hat and throwing it to the couch. He ran his hand through his hair. "The instructions that followed were vague. They told me that we would get picked up along the way."

 


Chapter Two

Asterism: The Spear of the Sidhe

The Spear of the Sidhe

Location: The Lady Hiamela, Luxury Cruise Liner, Imperial Space

 

"Well, this is going to be a problem."

The screen in the three-room suite had been jury-rigged to piggyback on the security cameras at the spaceport only because the portable console's screen was too small for everyone to huddle around. The situation at the docks had gone from green to DEFCON-ONE in less than thirty seconds, if the mad rush of crowds was anything to go by.

It was another five minutes before a red bar flashed across the top of the screen and a message ticket scrolled across the bottom.

Explosion Red Light district shut down all ring levels restrict movement Quadrant 1A locked down Quadrant 1B locked down --

Arthur raised a querying brow at Lance. Lance spread his hands in his trademarked I don't know, don't bother me, I'm working gesture, his head bowed over the terminal, his brow pinched in a frown that didn't suit him, and definitely didn't bode well at all.

This was far too familiar. More than once, the Excalibur, under guise of another name, had docked at an Imperial spaceport for a risky supply run, only to have the crew make a mad dash to their ship to decouple before the CorpsCops worked their way through the bureaucratic red tape and located the one individual who could approve a complete lockdown of the station and the docks. The Pirates knew what came next.

Lance's fingers tapped over the projected holographic keyboard -- Arthur wasn't sure what the tech-head was doing, but it had to be important, and he hoped that it had something to do with making sure that the docking clamps of the Lady Hiamela didn't engage until the last possible second. Perceval, rock-steady as usual, stood by the door, one hand on the gun tucked into his belt. Gwaine was vibrating with nervous energy, and Arthur was certain that the rest of his men, peppered through the ship, weren't doing much better.

Arthur tapped his communication device, opening up a private, coded channel. "Stand down, boys. Nothing that we can do at the present. Even if they didn't have a little act of terrorism to deal with, the Imperial Blues won't get a-board. For one thing, you know how the rich types are when it comes to other people pawing through their drawers. For another, I'm damned if we'll get locked here."

He looked pointedly in Lance's direction.

"I'm working on it," Lance said tersely, his voice carrying through the comms.

Arthur could feel the collective breath of relief of the Pirates throughout the ship. Sometimes all that was needed was a little reassurance from their Captain, some sort of indication that the situation was well in hand. Unfortunately, the situation was as far from being under control as it could get, but beggars couldn't be choosers. Arthur's crew had been forced to rely on more elaborate schemes of late, each with a greater degree of risk to his crew, and this latest venture was the riskiest of all. No one had liked it when Arthur said he would lead the mission himself, but no one else had volunteered to take charge, either.

"Gwaine. Quit your pacing and monitor the manifest. Let me know as soon as the package checks in."

"Aye-aye, Captain," Gwaine drawled, plopping himself on the plush sofa next to Lance, raising his hand and activating a holographic console. He accessed the ship's computer system, swiped his way through the rather paltry security measures, and thumbed his way through the files until he located the passenger list, the names greening out as they checked in.

"Well?"

"No sign of them yet," Gwaine said.

Arthur glanced at his chronometer. Even without the explosion and the inevitable swarm of people wanting to get away from the scene before they were rounded up by CorpsCops, Joon wouldn't have a whole lot of time to get to the docks. Still, Joon was quick and slippery and too clever by half; Arthur wouldn't put it past him to have made arrangements to meet the package at a more convenient location.

Joon had time. Not a lot of it. He might make it.

Arthur hoped that Joon had his head out of his arse, for once, because they couldn't afford not to have the package safe and sound. They were running out of options.

He turned around to stare at the docks' security feed and crossed his arms. The ship's public announcement system clicked on with chirpy and upbeat tropical music before a husky voice said, "Attention all passengers. The Lady Hiamela will be launching shortly. Please return to your quarters while the crew secures the leisure stations and prepares for the next leg of our journey. We will be arriving at our next destination --"

A different voice pitched in with, "-- Helemere I, the beautiful ocean planet of the Arcos 001024 Blue Star galaxy --"

"-- in four days. Access the travel routes, arrival times, and destination amenities using your in-room terminals --"

Arthur tuned it out and scanned the crowds on the screen. The angle was all wrong, the resolution terrible. How did any stationmaster expect to monitor the security of the ports when they could barely zoom in on someone's face?

He tapped the screen and skimmed through the different security feeds until he accessed a port camera aimed in the general direction of the luxury cruise liner. Like every other ship docked to the Course IV station, the entrance was blockaded off by a swarm of people trying to get onboard, whether or not they had tickets.

"Huh, that's weird," Gwaine said, and Arthur froze.

"I've told you before, never say those words in my hearing," Arthur said, turning around.

"Sorry, sorry. It's just that --" Gwaine chewed his lower lip, his fingers twitching in the air, the holographic display scrolling up at dizzying speeds, the words blurring together into a single strip of glowing light. "One second, Joon's ID is on the manifest. The next, it's gone."

"Gone?" Arthur frowned. "How can it be gone?"

"Gone. Just, gone. As in, poof," Gwaine said, making abracadabra pops with his hands before returning to the projected display. "And so's the package ID. Gone."

"The fuck?" Arthur scowled, and gestured. "Show me."

Gwaine thumbed a button on his wrist cuff and the holographic display brightened and grew in size, the screen flipping around for Arthur to access. Arthur looked for himself. It wasn't that he didn't believe Gwaine -- it was that the mere concept of passenger names being outright deleted from the database was so foreign as to be so completely unheard of when it came to anything under the Empire. The Empire was run by a suite of bureaucrats who were obsessed with recording data down to the tiniest detail, however unimportant; every Empire-registered ship and station ran on operating systems with audit trails on every single component. There were records on how many times someone flushed the loo, the number of revolutions of a lift engine, and the precise weight of a bottle of rum to make sure the bartenders weren't over-pouring.

The paper trail in the Empire was so preposterous, there was an entire Pirate Clan that specialized in getting rid of data. Permanently. It was harder than one would think, too, because there were always backups, and backups of the backups, and sometimes remote backups on a server on an arse-backward world where the pirates would have to make a personal appearance and hack the physical system proper. That Clan charged high prices for their work, and it was well worth it, particularly when the Pirates needed to make someone disappear.

The data couldn't just be gone. It could be forgotten, buried, replaced --

"The number of passengers hasn't changed," Arthur said.

"Oh, shite. You're right, hold on --" Gwaine appropriated the screen, shrinking it down in size. He opened another projection, and Arthur left him to do whatever it was that he was doing. His men knew their jobs; Arthur relied on their particular brand of innovation and creativity to keep their long track record of successful missions. And to keep them all alive, too, but that was a given.

"Something's going on," Perceval said, and Arthur studied the screen. There was a mad rush for the luxury liner, a ripple of panic through the crowd. Abruptly, the guards stepped to the relative safety of the entrance platform, several people scrambled forward, and the security field flickered to life to prevent more people from forcing their way through.

The airlock was shut with a decisive snap that Arthur couldn't hear over the muted feed, but it still echoed in harmony with the sound of Arthur's stomach sinking to the pit of his belly. The package hadn't made it on board.

"These names are new," Gwaine said, and Arthur looked up at the projected screen. They were greyed out, indicating that they hadn't been scanned and, therefore, weren't on board. "Well, not new new. According to the manifest, the name was changed system-weeks ago, which makes no sense, because the tickets were only issued a few days --"

"Virus. Must have set a worm through the system to burrow the data as deep as it could get to throw off the CorpsCops," Lance said, not looking up. "Arthur, the ship's detaching from the dock."

"Fuck," Arthur hissed, running a hand over his mouth. He exchanged glances with Perceval, who looked as grim as he felt.

"Holy shite," Gwaine said, laughing with surprise and delight. Arthur turned around and scanned the projected screen. The two new names on the manifest were green. "They made it."

"Or maybe not," Arthur said. "Could Joon have changed their names?"

"It's Joon," Lance said, finally looking up. He threw in an eyeroll for good measure, in case his droll tone wasn't enough to sum up how he felt about the question. "The same Joon who can't program a kettle to make a decent cup of tea. In other words, no, not even if he had a pistol against to his head."

"Hack the ship's security," Arthur ordered. "I want eyes on the last few people to come on board. When their passports get scanned, I want to see them."

The main screen flipped from the buzzing snow resulting from the broken connection with the station's docks to a narrow bird's-eye view of the boarding bay. The recording was rewound to minutes before the rush spread through the docking station and forced the luxury liner to stop accepting passengers. Arthur stood there, arms crossed, and studied every face that walked in.

No Joon. No package.

The time stamp approached the point where the panic in the crowd had crested, and several people were shoved through; that was when the security crew had stopped looking at passports and grabbed every boarding pass they could without inspection. Arthur studied an older couple who were breaking every social convention by flaunting their grey hair. He watched the movements of a few nouveau-riche in extravagant clothing. His eyes went from face to face, scanning them for any resemblance to Joon.

Or their package.

The airlock was shut, there was no sign of either, and he'd seen every face except --

"Go back ten seconds," Arthur said.

The screen flickered.

"Freeze it."

The image stopped on a medium-sized, broad-and-bony shouldered figure in a too-large overcoat and a beat-up cap. Besides him was a taller person, the body slight, head and face covered by a heavy hood. Arthur tapped the screen. "These two. Where did they go?"

"Scanning," Lance said. "It's going to take some time."

With cameras trained down every corridor, stairwell, lift, communal area, and staff-only sections, there were hundreds of minutes of video being captured by the ship at any given moment. Lance pulled up the ship schematics, located the cameras in every section, and synched up the time frame, scrolling through the footage until he'd tracked the couple's movements, splicing them from one camera to the next.

A hostess handed them their travel package. A valet checked their room number and led them to a lift to the correct level, and down a corridor to the next-to-last room, letting them inside.

The entire time, the shorter of the two never took off the cap, but the physical dimensions were close enough to their package that Arthur was convinced that they weren't completely out of luck. The question mark was still the other person. The man had removed his cowl, but somehow, frustratingly, managed to keep his back to the camera, or his face angled in such a way that it was impossible to get a clear look. The only thing that Arthur could tell for sure was that the man had short black hair that stood up in a mess of tangles and curls.

"That's not Joon," Gwaine said unnecessarily.

There were no cameras inside the suites -- the passengers paid extra for the luxury of privacy for a reason -- and there was no sound pickup in the corridor. If they were talking, it was impossible to make out.

"What do we do?" Gwaine asked.

"We wait," Arthur said, because there wasn't much that they could do. The Lady Hiamela was in orbit around the station and would remain around the station until its intended departure time, lingering only on the slim hope that the docks would be reopened and they could pick up more passengers before their travel window closed. Arthur didn't dare act until the ship had reached the rendezvous coordinates. It would be stupid to hijack the ship without backup and an exit strategy, no matter how many men he had on board.

They waited. Lance locked the main screen to the camera right outside the corridor of their package's location. It wasn't long before a Steward came walking down the hall, knocking on everyone's door to check their passports. Arthur watched, but between the stoop-shouldered Steward standing in the doorway and the camera's poor angle, he couldn't see what was inside.

"Got them," Gwaine said, but it was Lance who put the passport photos side by side on the main screen.

On the left was Gaius Wiltshire, formerly traveling under the pseudonym of Jakkob van der Hoesen, and now masquerading as the gender-neutral current ticket holder, N. Baird. His wavy silver locks were pulled away from his face and his cheeks were sunken and sallow, because passport offices never took three-dees or flat photographs if they couldn't also double as prison photos, too. Arthur nodded to himself, satisfied and relieved; their package was on board, and that was the hardest part. Getting Gaius where he needed to be, safe and sound, was going to be a breeze in comparison.

The man that he was travelling with was definitely not Joon. The name on the passport matched the name on the ticket -- Niall ap Torron -- but was probably as fake as Captain Olaf's left eye. The face on the screen was narrower, and --

That was as much as Arthur could make out. The image was blurred.

"Damn it, what is it going to take to get a good look at this guy?" Arthur asked, throwing a hand at the screen. He had no idea who this man was. Why would Joon have given his ticket up to someone else? How much trouble was this Niall going to be when it came time to take Gaius off the ship? Where was Joon, in any case?

Arthur had all these questions and more, but the one he really cared about was who is this pillock?

No one answered him right away. Gwaine shut down his wrist console and shrugged. "We could hijack the ship."

"We could, couldn't we?" Arthur said, smirking. "There's an idea. Let me think. No, yes. I'm warming up to it."

For the first time since they came onboard, Perceval grinned.

Arthur clapped his hands together. "Let's get ready."

They might be Pirates, but that didn't mean that there was any reason to be sloppy. Efficiency was the name of the game. While their primary goal was still to secure Gaius and relocate him to more secure Space, it didn't mean that Arthur's crew couldn't have themselves a few liberties while they were at it. A luxury liner like this one, carrying hundreds of ladies and gentlemen with wealth of honest and dubious provenance, went far in sating a Pirate's hunger for sparkly jewels and shiny loot. They would have to deal with population control, disarming the security, and disabling the ship's passive defences, but first, of course, they would have to make certain that no one managed to get a Mayday out to the Conglomerate ships that routinely patrolled the shipping and tourist routes.

He called in his men, had everyone check their positions and their weapons, and bade his time. He relaxed marginally when the public announcement system chimed in that they were now underway, and glanced at the in-room terminal as it showed the space station receding in the distance until it was nothing more than a grey blob against a black, starry sky.

"Funny thing about that explosion," Lance said, because he was still crouched over his console and piggybacking on the ship's communication lines to Course IV, "The CorpsCops figure that the epicentre was right where Joon was supposed to be."

Arthur flinched.

"Is he dead?" Gwaine asked.

"Going by the blast yield, if he was there, it'll be more like he was vaporized. Him and about seventy other people," Lance said, shaking his head. He was sombre for a moment before offering a mock salute to no one in particular. "Happy sailings to you, Joon."

"Happy sailings," Arthur and Perceval echoed.

"And all the nubile young virgins and bottles of rum," Gwaine added. Arthur raised a brow; Lance and Perceval did, too. Gwaine, no doubt sensing himself under scrutiny, stopped checking his guns and shot them all a dirty look. "What? I mean, it's not like any of us liked him much, but that doesn't mean I can't wish him well."

"That's still more than he'd have given you," Arthur said, checking his chronometer. He synchronized a countdown to the estimated time of arrival at the appropriate coordinates. It wouldn't be long before they were just outside easy communication range with Course IV -- not that they would respond to any maydays considering the lockdown, and Arthur had to admit that the explosion worked in their favour -- and in a proverbial blind spot where an Imperial patrol wouldn't arrive in time.

"Aw, he loved me, he just didn't want to admit it," Gwaine said, gearing up. "We good to go?"

"Don't forget your jacket," Arthur said, and put his on, too. Arthur hit the comms. "Get ready, gentlemen. We're starting the show in three... two..."

"You have the PA system," Lance said over the comms. "Channel two."

Arthur flashed a glance in Gwaine's direction. Gwaine was grinning. Perceval took up the rear, his game face on. No one could miss them strolling down the galleys, but just in case, Arthur meant to make sure that they had everyone's attention.

The Pirates didn't wear a set uniform. Every man took care of their own clothing, their armour, their weapons. But his men were Clan Pendragon -- even Gwaine, Perceval, and Lance, among others on board the Excalibur who were honorary members -- and the Pendragons were royalty among Pirates. Their outfits were a style above the rest, their armour a notch better, their weapons cutting edge. They were the roughest, the most ruthless, and their reputation and renown was worth more than silver Sterling in any Pirate port.

There was no arguing for fashion when function was a necessity. Their armour was a triple layer of nanomesh impervious to sharp knives and most small weapons fire, a secondary light flex-plating moulded to the body and separated at the joints for ease of movement, and heavier protective shielding that would unfold in response to muscle twitch movement during close combat. Their boots were armoured and knee-high and had hidden weapons compartment and magnets for whenever they needed to work under zero-G. The armour could hold up under open space conditions when it was properly sealed; all they needed were gloves and helms. That was where the similarities between their gear ended.

Gwaine's armour was painted in random splashes of emerald greens and pale olives and glittering silvers, layered with modified spidersilk webbing for all the knives he carried and the multiple fold-out swords he preferred. He kept his guns in hip holsters and thigh straps, wore a black Jolly Rogers bandana over his hair, and covered it all with a long pseudo-leather coat that fell to his knees. His only allowance for the Pendragon clan was the silver dragon stamped on his shoulder.

It was an emblem that was repeated on Perceval. The silver dragon on his chest was right over his heart, and stood out against armour that was painted a matte black that still showed hints of the lavender-and-purple dye from last month's prank. He didn't bother with a jacket because it was hard to find one that would fit over his broad shoulders and over top of his more elaborate arm plates without tearing. Perceval liked to save those he had for special occasions. He carried the heavier weapons, the biggest guns, and rarely carried spares, because brave was the man or woman who tried to disarm him in the first place.

A pity about Lance. As far as Arthur was concerned, Lance's gear was just as eye-catching with blacks and blazes of dull orange, but he was taking care of the ship's system by remote, and he preferred to work in peace and quiet. It was a shame. That meant that Arthur was going to have the spotlight all to himself.

Mostly. He couldn't trust Gwaine not to shove him out of the way.

There was never any missing Arthur, not even in a crowd, and that was the way he liked it. His armour had a glossy black finish, was highlighted with pale yellows and muted reds, and unlike everyone else, the dragon on his chest was a bold, brilliant gold.

He was pirate royalty. He was the heir to the Pendragon Clan. He would damn well wear his emblem where everyone could see it..

Arthur went light on the netting. He didn't carry many weapons. Two guns -- one on his hip, the other on his thigh. Several knives, most of which were hidden in various compartments on his body. His most ostentatious weapon was his sword -- a long, slightly curved blade metalworked with ancient folding techniques, with a little bit of modern technology thrown in for good measure. He covered most of it up with a fitted black two-tailed waistcoat trimmed in a rich blood red, gold stitching, and polished buttons -- the King's tailor had insisted.

A quick glance at his watch, a confirming nod at Gwaine and Perceval, and Arthur stepped out into the main atrium where most of the guests were socializing or lounging around the small pool and open bar.

He raised his gun and released a short burst pre-programmed to detonate twenty feet in the air, a few shy of the ceiling. Men and women alike startled. Some of them screamed. A few moved out of the way. Most of them stared, unsure and disbelieving.

"Ladies and gentlemen!" Arthur tapped his ear to access the PA system for a ship-wide announcement and repeated, "Ladies and gentlemen! Don't be alarmed. Please remain calm. If you do what we say, no one will be hurt."

A few titters rippled through the crowd. Some people even clapped their hands politely. It never failed to amaze Arthur how the rich thought that status and money could protect them against the unexpected. He wondered how many of them would sue the luxury liner for the extreme and undue trauma of having permitted the ship to be attacked in the first place.

"If you're sitting down, don't get up. If you're standing, sit down. Have your valuables out before my men reach you, and by valuables, I mean your jewellery, your untraceable cred-cards -- we take each and every dominion -- and the silver Sterling you claim you don't have, but that your greedy little hearts can't bear to part with, not even for a few hours so that you can enjoy a drink next to a skimpily-dressed pinnacle of the human form."

No one was laughing now. They were exchanging glances, suddenly unsure. It was probably sinking in by now that the Pirates weren't part of the ship's entertainment.

Out of the corner of his eye, Arthur saw one of his men take down one of the security guards who had come to that realization before anyone else.

"My men have complete control of the ship. You won't be sending out a Mayday nor leaving behind a residual signal for anyone to track. You won't be running for the lifepods and making a beeline for the nearest planet with a sexy young thing to keep you busy while you wait to be rescued. You won't be a hero, because, ladies and gentlemen, we are Pirates."

It was funny how some of them still thought that this was all an act. Leon had warned Arthur that he needed to tone down the flourish. Geraint was of the opinion that Arthur should sport an eye patch and maybe have a parrot on his shoulder. Elyan once snickered and suggested that Arthur get a peg leg and a hook hand. As far as Arthur was concerned, keeping the captive audience guessing was the best way of keeping them under control.

Two of Arthur's men walked through the crowd, a bag held out in front of them. Every now and then, they would shake the bag and snarl threateningly to make things move faster. Arthur saw one of his crewmen grab one of the resisting men by the lapels of his gaudy tropical shirt, haul him to his feet, and snarl in his face. The man, properly cowed, emptied his pockets in a hurry. The rest of the collection went by smoothly.

"For those of you who didn't make it to the atrium in time for Happy Hour, please be patient. I realize you want to join in on the fun, but when I said we have complete control of the ship, I meant, we have complete control of the ship. Your doors are locked and will only be released temporarily when we drop in for a visit."

Arthur glanced at Perceval, who nodded. He was keeping track of everyone's progress. Gwaine was in communication with the team assaulting the bridge; he checked his wrist terminal, calling up a miniature display, and made a slight gesture that Arthur took to mean that there had been trouble, but everything was fine now.

Arthur had in excess of twenty men on board for this job. Normally, he wouldn't expend the resources. They could make do with a five-man team on a ship this size. All Arthur would need was Perceval to handle the crowds, because his size alone was intimidating; Gwaine to run the logistics and locate whatever they were meant to claim; Lance or Elyan subjugating the ship's systems; and a lackey to do all the heavy lifting. Arthur always took over the bridge.

Not this time, though. They had lost six of the eight Healers that they had managed to rescue over the last few months -- the CorpsCops had gotten there first. Of the two that they had liberated, one of them had misrepresented her classification, and the other one simply wasn't strong enough.

Arthur needed a Healer. This Healer. He couldn't afford to waste more time looking for someone else. Healers were a rare breed, but Healers trained under the old Imperial regime were the rarest of all. They would never find a more skilled Healer than Gaius Wiltshire, and Arthur could only hope he was up to the task. Uther Pendragon's health worsened every day and the vultures were circling, waiting for the King to die.

The Empire's troops were ever breathing down Pirate necks and Conglomerate ships were breaching the borders into the uncharted zone, inching into Pirate territory. Now was not the time for the Clans to turn their resources inward over some sort of petty war and leadership grab. The King's seat wasn't hereditary. It was an elected position, and with as many power hungry Clans as there were trying for the throne, there would be war.

If Arthur pulled out all the stops to make certain that the Empire didn't catch them with their pants down... So be it.

Leon's voice chimed over the comms. "We're alongside. Docking now, Captain."

"Acknowledged," Arthur said. To the team onboard the liner, he said, "Secure your locations. Make your way across."

Across the atrium, the other pirates nodded in his direction and left through the side entrances; the doors slid shut behind them, and Arthur knew that they wouldn't open again until the Excalibur was well away. It would take hours to restore communications, and in the end, they would have a day's head start -- unless they were unlucky and a CorpsCops cruiser stumbled over the drifting luxury liner before then.

"Ladies and gentlemen, thank you very much for your indulgence. It's been wonderful, but I'm afraid we have more pressing engagements," Arthur said, and he disconnected from the ship's public announcement system. He turned and headed for the nearest exit, flanked by Perceval and Gwaine. He gave them a quick glance and said, "Let's get our package."

"What about the other one?" Perceval asked. "What was his name again? Niall?"

"You think that's the bloke's real name?" Gwaine scoffed.

"We'll leave him," Arthur said. As curious as he was, the man's identity and purpose wasn't his priority. A part of him knew that he should do something to the man who was, possibly, involved in Joon's death -- blood did call for blood, and feuds were common among Pirates -- but Joon didn't have any family and was barely associated with the Pendragon Clan. There would be a memorial, a toast in his name, a recounting of his foibles, a raised fist and a Pirate curse for his killer, whoever it was, and that would be that.

They marched down the corridor and stopped outside Gaius' room. Arthur stood in front of the door, keeping clear in case something or someone should jump out at him; Gwaine and Perceval stood on either side. Gwaine waited for his go-ahead, and Arthur nodded.

Gwaine tapped the controls. The door slid open.

A small squeak -- a suppressed shriek of surprise -- greeted them. Gaius, his hat and coat abandoned, stood a few feet away, looking at them with an open mouth and a healthy measure of fear.

There was no sign of the other man, but Arthur wasn't sticking his head through the doorway to see for himself. Perceval made a faint gesture with his hand. The man was off to Arthur's left, out of sight.

"Gaius," Arthur said pleasantly, inclining his head in a slight bow. "If you'll come with me, we'll take you on to the next leg of your journey."

Gaius glanced to the side. "I am not certain --"

"This would be much easier if Joon was with you," Arthur said with a quiet sigh. "He knew the plan. I gather he didn't have any time to share it before he died."

"You know about that?" Gaius asked, and in nearly the same breath, said, "Of course you know about that. I tried to save him, but it was too late. Perhaps if I had arrived earlier -- Are you coming with me?"

The last wasn't addressed to Arthur or his men; Gaius was looking at his companion. Gaius trusted him, whoever it was, and Arthur had a feeling that leaving the second man behind was, possibly, not an option. If the man answered, Arthur didn't know, because he didn't speak and Gaius' earnest expression didn't change except for one raised brow.

"As much as I appreciate your friend's assistance in getting you onboard, he's not one of my men. I'm afraid we can't trust him."

"That's… what he said, too," Gaius said, his tone soft.

"That you can't trust us?"

"That I shouldn't trust him," Gaius said.

Arthur didn't let it show, but he was taken aback. If saving a Pirate's booty was some sort of elaborate plot to plant a CorpsCop agent among the Pirates -- never an easy feat -- telling them that they couldn't trust him seemed counterintuitive. Or a canny psychological trick. Either way --

"He's right. Now, please, Gaius, we're short on time --"

"Very short," Lance said, running down the hallway toward them. "Elyan caught stray radio chatter. There's three cruisers coming this way at speed. They'll be here in less than ten minutes."

"Is that ten minutes before weapons range or ten minutes before we're toast?" Gwaine asked.

"Ten minutes before we're toast," Lance said.

Arthur raised a meaningful eyebrow at Gaius, but Gaius' attention was somewhere to the side, at a spot Arthur couldn't see. Arthur stamped a wave of irritation and started to protest when Niall spoke.

"Go. Now."

Thank you, Arthur wanted to say, except Gaius didn't agree. "You saved my life. Let me save yours."

"Technically, we'd be doing the saving," Gwaine said, but no one ever paid him any mind.

"I am not leaving without you," Gaius said, crossing his arms.

Arthur heard a scoff.

"They're after you, Gaius," Niall said. "If they find you on board, you're as good as dead. They don't care about me."

"He has a point," Arthur said. He glanced at Lance, who raised a brow, tapped a foot, and pointed to his wrist before making a circular let's get this act on the road roll of his hand. "However, in the interest of urgency, I'd like to settle the argument by formally inviting your knight in shining armour to our ship, where we'll be happy to drop him off at the nearest station along the way. Something tells me that it's an invitation he can't refuse, not with the CorpsCops bearing down and two fake IDs in the system, one of which belongs to him."

Five seconds passed. Ten. Arthur was generous, he would let the man have twenty seconds to make a decision before he made the decision for them. Sixteen seconds passed before there was a heavy huff of breath, a rustle of fabric, and the sudden emergence of a man in a heavy dark, dirty coat, his head and face hooded by a cowl. He walked to Gaius, took his arm, and hauled him out of the room and up the corridor, gracefully avoiding crashing into any of them.

Arthur muttered under his breath. He should be leading the way, not this idiot.

"Which way?" the man -- Niall -- asked.

"Fore-bottom," Gwaine supplied. "Cargo bay."

The man let go of Gaius and gestured for him to walk behind, the Pirates taking the sides and rear in protective diamond formation. Gwaine and Arthur exchanged glances full of disdainful who is this guy, but Arthur let Niall have his way for now. Arthur wouldn't trust this man at his back and wanted him where he could see him.

Niall was Arthur's height, maybe a little taller; narrower in the shoulders and beanpole slim under the broad jacket he wore. The hood didn't seem attached to the jacket itself, and it was a diaphanous, completely opaque fabric; loose and rigid at the same time, as if taking the shape that he intended it to take from some sort of programmed memory. Arthur had clothes like that, though it took a tailor's electrical pin to force the fabric to hold a particular drape.

The man wore gloves. His black trousers were made up out of the same sort of fabric as the hood, though they were loose, comfortable, no different than the dungarees most of Arthur's men wore ship-side. He wore boots that came to just under the knee, but so snug and light that they might as well have been a pair of socks or stockings. It took a while before Arthur realized that his boots weren't worn with use, and that there really was a split between the big toe and the rest of them, though why --

Arthur shook himself out of it. Checking out the bloke's arse wasn't on his agenda right now.

Niall certainly knew his way around -- better, at least, than the rest of them. He led the way aft, to the front of the ship, descending levels rather than taking lifts -- which were notorious for taking the circuitous route, particularly on luxury liners, and they were in a little bit of a rush right now, what with the approaching doom --

The man slowed and stopped. Gwaine moved ahead, bumping shoulders with him. "It's ahead, first left --"

A hand raised to shush Gwaine. A finger pointed, but at what, Arthur didn't know -- and then he did. He saw the faintest shadow on the ground fifty feet ahead, in an already darkened corridor, the object half-hidden by the curvature of the far wall. As far as Arthur could tell, it was a bloody potted plant.

Except potted plants didn't move, and none of them had seen it until Gaius' friend pointed it out.

Who was this guy?

"Did your ship scan for Needlers?" The question was so soft that Arthur barely processed the words. Needlers sank in, finally, and a chill ran down his spine.

The Empire's military had several levels of troops -- at the lowest level, dealing with common crimes, were the CorpsCops, and it went from there into multiple categories, all of whom fell under the slang blanket of Imperial Blues. They were nuisances as far as the Pirates were concerned; if they were ever cornered by the Blues, it was considered to be entertainment.

For the Pirates, not the Blues.

Needlers, on the other hand, were the White Legion, the personal guards of the Regent Council made up of voting members of the Conglomerate of Corporations. The Legion was made up of highly-trained men and women who didn't know the meaning of fear, self-preservation, or survival. They weren't cherry-picked from the regular army; they weren't volunteers. They were bred for the single and sole task of following orders to the letter, genetically modified to strip away weakness and to push human limits until they weren't limits anymore, but suggestions. There were those who wondered if the soldiers of the White Legion were human at all.

"Leon," Arthur said, letting his voice drop low, "Did you scan for Needlers?"

"Why should I? We're ages past the Central Core. No one's seen any in this district -- and you've got three minutes to get on board," Leon answered.

"Just do it," Arthur said. He sounded calmer than he was.

The White Legion took their nickname from the vehicles used for stealth approaches in enemy territory. The Needle ships were long, torpedo-like vehicles made out of a thin foil skin that made the one- or three-man transport nearly undetectable to conventional short-range scanners. Locating them was a trick of chemistry and physics that made Arthur's head hurt, something about measuring the current decay rate of the stealth-skin instead. A Needle's nose was equipped with a drill to breach a ship's hull and to allow entrance, sealing off the damage as they went to keep the alarms from being raised.

Niall advanced slowly. He reached up with both hands and moved something over his face; the hood he wore shrunk slightly, tightening at the neck and following the curve of his head. The man's trousers tightened, too, molding to the shape of his legs.

"Shite," Leon whispered. "Scanning two. No, three."

"Is the crew on board?" Arthur asked. He followed Niall slowly and gestured for the others to do the same.

"Waiting on you."

"Nearly there," Arthur said. He shot Gwaine and Perceval significant looks -- get Gaius on the ship, leave me behind if you have to. You know the job. I'll find my own way if I have to.

They reached the doorway that would lead to the airlock. Gwaine led the way, keeping Gaius behind him; Perceval followed after. No sooner had they walked through that the shadow at the end of the corridor shifted, bursting into action.

"Run," Arthur shouted, and he took the rear, only dimly aware of Niall right behind him. Arthur turned around just as he heard the door slide shut, shooting at the security console on the wall.

Except there were two shots, and Arthur hadn't been the only one to have fired. Niall exchanged a glance with him, and Arthur froze.

The man's face was masked, with swaths of black across his nose and mouth and low across his forehead, but those were the bluest eyes that Arthur had ever seen. Nothing like Conglomerate blue or the ostentatious colors on Gwaine's armor or even the ridiculous blue diamonds that so many Pirates coveted. Those eyes were ocean blue, simultaneously clear and crisp like the shallows under bright sunlight and dark and distant like the deep of the sea roiling under a hurricane.

The man broke eye contact first. He grabbed Arthur's arm, swirled him around, and pushed him until he was moving on his own.

"Won't hold them," he said.

"I know that," Arthur snapped. He shot Niall a sidelong look. His men would have heard Leon over the comms, but how would this man have known? "What do you mean, them?"

"Two out there. There's a third somewhere. They're always in threes," he said. His voice was a low whisper, soft and husky under the curt undertone. At any other time, Arthur would love to hear that voice moaning under him, those eyes flashing with pleasure, but at the moment, Arthur was more interested in keeping everyone safe. His libido could wait.

"And you know that because you're one of them?"

The man snorted. "No."

They ran down the corridor, turned a corner, and caught a glimpse of Perceval darting through a doorway on the right at the bottom of the ramp, heading for the airlocks. Behind them, the ship resonated with the low bass hurr-hurru-brr-aaam-mmm of low-yield explosives. The Needlers were through.

They ran faster, thundering down the carpeted ramp.

This particular airlock was a service entrance for staff and supplies, drab and lacking the garish decoration of the passenger-only areas. The walls were off-white gloss, the floor grainy and textured, the open area full of storage containers and providing far too many hiding places than what Arthur was comfortable with. Gwaine was pushing Gaius through the airlock.

"Go! Goddamn it, what's the holdup?"

"Gaius wanted to wait for him," Gwaine said, jerking his head in Niall's direction. "Now, he won't walk the plank."

If there was anything that the Pirates had perfected, it was the art of breaching and boarding another ship. It required quick attachment, access through a secure hatch, and the rapid entry of as many people as they could get before the ship's defences activated. They were even more skilled with the art of disembarking: they could be across and gone in five seconds flat, even if it meant jettisoning the boarding bridge.

But that was the point. Their version of a boarding bridge was a plastic, extendable tube that could latch onto any ship's surface and pressurize with a breathing atmosphere in less than five seconds. It was cheap to make and no skin off any Pirate's nose if it were lost in a hasty getaway, but it was only cheap because they used the lowest-cost materials that they could get away with, and by low-cost, Arthur meant clear, flimsy material without the expected solidifiers to turn the plasticized material opaque.

Pirates got used to free-floating and hauling themselves through the boarding bridge quickly out of sheer survival requirement, and there were plenty of Captains out there who refused to let anyone onboard who were disoriented by the vast expanse of black space and stars. Stepping onto the plank took some getting used to, particularly if someone wasn't wearing a space-ready suit. Arthur wasn't surprised that Gaius was digging in his heels. He wouldn't be the first.

"Perceval," Arthur said, because they'd done this before.

"Begging your pardon," Perceval said, and he threw Gaius over his shoulder. The Healer squawked.

Zz-zzt

Arthur whirled around at the first sound of weapons-fire, swinging his arm in the air to take a shot. Niall was moving, taking cover, getting out of the line of sight. The Needlers were bearing down on them, walking in one at a time, fanning out.

They were faceless soldiers, the Needlers, hidden behind helmets and featureless faceplates. The Empire didn't skimp on their armour. The Legion didn't wear the equivalent of Pirate-grade three layers of protection -- they wore five, the fifth layer a projected force shield that absorbed weapons fire, taking kinetic and explosive energy and using it to fuel the shields.

"Shite," Arthur hissed. Short of a nuclear blast, he couldn't think of a single way of slowing the Needlers down until Gaius was all the way across to the Excalibur.

"Lance! Go! Gwaine!"

"Not without you, Captain," Gwaine shouted back.

The Needlers stalked closer. Arthur's attention was split in three because the Needlers themselves were moving in tandem, circling the room and dividing their fire and focus. Arthur stepped back, counting as every one of his shots plinked ineffectually on the enemy's personal shields.

A black shape climbed the storage containers with lunging jumps before throwing itself into the air, shooting one Needler, then another, and the third from the rear. The first Needler fell forward before catching his balance; the other was distracted enough to turn around, and --

This time, Arthur's shot went through the shield. That was when he realized that the shields weren't on a complete three-sixty configuration and that the bloody Needlers had weaknesses, thank fuck. "Gwaine!"

"I saw!"

"Concentrate your fire!"

Niall was too close to one of the Legion soldiers for Arthur to fire without shooting him by accident, and in any case, the soldier was being kept busy. Arthur fired at the third Needler, focusing on the same spot as Gwaine, the two of them backing up until they were nearly to the airlock. The Needler continued to advance. It was fearsome, large and overbearing, moving forward like a juggernaut. The Needler had a weapon in his hand but he wasn't shooting; Arthur wasn't sure what he was going to do.

The Needler's advance was cut short when the second one crashed into him. The two landed hard on the deck, rolled, and crashed into storage containers that creaked and tumbled on top of them.

And the man -- Gaius' friend, Niall, whatever his name was -- he straightened out of a crouch and eyed their surroundings warily. He crossed the distance to Arthur with several quick steps, flinging his ugly, over-large jacket off into a corner. Arthur stared at him for a long time before waving at Gwaine.

"Go. I'll be right behind you." Arthur hesitated one moment before following after, only to freeze at movement out of the corner of his eye.

The two Needlers shoved the cargo containers out of the way, but the boxes were heavy and awkward, even with the two of them working at it, but that wasn't what had caught Arthur's eye. It was the flash of Imperial white, the heavy under shade of royal lavender --

Shite.

"Go." This time, it was Niall who spoke, a hard edge in his voice. Arthur reached the edge of the airlock, hooking his fingers, and shoved himself through. The momentum and sudden loss of gravity propelled him through the bridge, and he twisted his body around, shooting down at the newest Needler -- a Legion Elite. Firing his gun gave Arthur just that extra momentum needed to bring him close enough to grab one of the rungs and start climbing to Excalibur.

He was only peripherally aware of fighting below him, of Niall blocking off the Elite's attempts to catch up to them. Arthur reached up -- Perceval took his arm and pulled, but someone grabbed his belt and yanked. He glanced down and saw Niall holding on tight --

Their eyes met.

Arthur saw the knife in the man's hand. The intent in his eyes.

"Oh, shite! Pull!"

The knife cut a half-circle through the flimsy boarding bridge. It was enough. The pressure differential was sucked out in a rush of air that tore a line around the rest of the bridge. The Excalibur ship-wide alarms blared for a few frozen seconds before Arthur gasped for breath, safe through the airlock, patting himself up and down to make sure he was intact.

Gwaine's eyes were wide. Lance's mouth was agape. Perceval was sprawled on the ground, panting for breath as if he were about to have a coronary. They were surrounded by Arthur's men, nearly all of whom had their guns trained on the newcomer.

Niall was flat on his stomach, his chest heaving. He turned slowly, first on his side, then on his back, propping himself up on his elbows, making a strange, wheezing sound.

That was when Arthur realized that he was laughing. It was the laugh of a man who hadn't laughed in a long time, who probably had never laughed in his entire life. Arthur watched as the man reached up and passed his hand over his face to brush the mask away; it faded and fell backward in revelation.

Those irresistible blue eyes. That big bright smile. The shag of curly black hair, the cheekbones, the strong jaw.

The man spread his hands.

"Permission to come aboard?"

 


Chapter Three

Constellation: The Serpent's Shield

The Serpent's Shield

Location: Excalibur, Pirate Warship, Uncontrolled Space

 

Real estate on any space-faring vessel was a precious commodity, and never was that more true than on a Pirate ship where every available square millimetre was filled to brimming with whatever plunder had been purloined from their latest pillage. As much as the Pirate Captain had been initially inclined to toss Merlin out of the airlock's force field and leave him to the tender mercies of the Needlers for destroying the bridge between ships, good sense and Gaius' intervention had convinced Arthur Pendragon to make allowances for the man who had saved his life.

The only free space to stow an unexpected and uninvited guest was, apparently, the brig. Merlin didn't complain. It was private, quiet, and there was a clean cot to sleep on, though he could do without the door being locked on the other side, and the grating sound of the security slit sliding open, invading his privacy.

Merlin bade his time. They were still in free space, but as soon as they docked at a station or landed planet-side, Merlin would be taking his leave, whether or not the Pirates allowed it.

And, in the meantime, he suffered through the pang of regret that he would be leaving at all. Arthur Pendragon was…

Merlin blamed his interest in the Pirate Captain on the long-standing lack of close personal contact in his life. He'd had a few anonymous one-night stands, but it was rare, very rare, that Merlin would give someone a second look.

Arthur, however, was worth a third and a fourth look. One hundred of them, if he could manage it. There were men and women who were far more beautiful, of course, but there was something about the Pirate that drew Merlin in. The cut of his jaw. The broadness of his shoulders. His arse.

Oh, Gods. That arse. Even in armour, Arthur had a body that made Merlin lust.

Merlin struggled to meditate and put the distracting thoughts out of his mind. It wasn't going well.

He sat cross-legged in the far corner of the cell, his back against the wall, the overburden of his clothing and armour carefully folded and set aside, each piece next to the last as if on display at a merchant square. The majority of his weapons were somewhere on the ship, out-of-sight but not out-of-mind, and Merlin would either retrieve them or be forced to do without once he left the Pirate's hospitality -- not an appealing prospect. The remainder of his weapons and tools -- the knives and needles and old-fashioned lock picks hidden in the secret compartments in his armour -- had escaped both Gwaine's thorough pat-down and the electronic warble of Lance's handheld sensor.

Beyond the slide of a food tray through the slot at the bottom of the door, Merlin had had no company over the last six days, but he knew that the Pirates hadn't forgotten about him.

He was being watched. The cameras might be cleverly disguised as part of the brig's fixtures, but Merlin had spotted them the instant he had been pushed in.

Merlin ignored the discomfort that came with knowing that the Pirates were casually and gleefully taking video and three-dee when he'd worked long and hard to keep his appearance from showing on official record. They might not know who he was, but surely they had enough information to cobble together the puzzle pieces and come up with assassin-for-hire. There was no telling what they would do with video like this in their hands.

They were Pirates. They could use it to blackmail Merlin into doing their bidding. They could use it to reveal his identity. They might even be enterprising enough to use it as promotional material for an illegal underground fight and reap the profits when they threw Merlin in the ring. Whatever they were going to do with the video, it came down to nothing good.

Merlin would take care of the ship's data banks before leaving -- he still had a burrow virus on a chip drive hidden in a tiny compartment in his armour -- but in the meantime, he gave them absolutely nothing to look at.

He kept his dragonscale bodyarmour on. He washed with his back to the cameras, sliding a damp towel under his shirt and pants. He brushed his teeth with a finger. He ate his food. He engaged the flimsy excuse for a privacy screen and used the loo. He slept. He meditated.

In effect, Merlin did his best to appear as normal as possible to distance himself from the image the Pirates no doubt had burned into their minds: a man who had gone hand-to-hand against a Triad of the White Legion and lived.

A Triad led by a White Legion Elite soldier wearing the royal lavender of the House of Shadows.

Merlin swallowed the string of curses lingering on the tip of his tongue. He reined in the outrage that would do him no good here, where he couldn't do anything about the White Legion.

It was the greatest story never told, a tale of betrayal and massacre that would never be shared and never uncovered: of shadow-warriors courted by the enemy and lured by Corporation coin, their loyalty to the Imperial bloodline compromised by promises of power and luxury.

These traitorous men and women had split from the royal House of Shadows, forming the first incarnation of the White Legion under the Conglomerate banner. When the Emperor's family was assassinated in an explosion, these very same traitors had planted evidence placing the blame on the House of Shadows.

Judged, dragged to trial, exiled, hunted for the bounties on their heads, the House of Shadows had survived the aftermath, though they were pariahs now. They lived in secrecy, the identities of the handful who remained stricken from the official records while the traitors were free men, rich men, feared men -- the White Legion.

Royal lavender was the colour of the House of Shadows. Or it had been, before the White Legion corrupted it, their Elite wearing it like a badge of honour. But that colour made it easy to pick out those among the White Legion who were trained in the arts of the House of Shadows, be they blood of the traitors or soldiers bred. They were a disgrace, a stain on the honour of the House, and Merlin had sworn that he would one day see the fall of them all, even if he had to kill them one by one.

Merlin had no illusions. Blowing the Legion out of the boarding bridge and leaving him to cold space's tender mercies would not have killed the Elite. The body armour they wore was too robust for that; they could survive for a good ten, possibly fifteen minutes before they ran out of suit oxygen, and those who had received Shadow training could shut down their bodies and place themselves in a trance state that would extend their chances by a handful of minutes more. Merlin could have stayed and fought and have been certain of his kill, but the situation hadn't been ideal. If he had stayed behind, he would have had to deal with a White Triad -- hardly a challenge even at his worst -- but he would also have been stranded when there no doubt was a nearby CorpsCops ship, and he couldn't fight them all.

Merlin couldn't help but grimace inwardly at how complicated things had gotten, and quickly. No doubt someone had specifically hired him to ensure that the Healer was killed, and in the process, had even taken measures to guarantee that Merlin was also eliminated. The undercover CorpsCops on Course IV should not have made it to the Red Light district so quickly, and the White Legion should not have been so handily available to board the exact ship that the Healer was using to escape.

Something more was going on.

Normally, Merlin wouldn't give a flying fuck. He would cut his losses, move on, disappear. But in this particularly elaborate set of circumstances, someone had tried to kill him. Merlin took that somewhat personally. Like it or not, he was involved.

The door to his cell slid open in a faint mechanical whir. Merlin didn't open his eyes.

He could hear the faint hum of ship-wide noise, the rustle of clothing, a shuffle of movement, slow and steady breathing.

Whoever was at the door had come alone. The guards assigned to watch the brig were gone, which was unusual. For all their apparent lack of discipline and disregard for social niceties, the Pirates on board this ship obeyed their orders to the letter, and they would only have left if someone had dismissed them. There were few enough who appeared to have both the authority and the respect to do just that -- Leon, a tall, bearded redhead with wavy hair; Perceval, the big bloke who looked as if he could have taken on a White Legion bare-handed and possibly have survived; Gwaine, who had put the swash in swashbuckler, complete with self-deprecating humour. None of them had any reason to come visit Merlin, which meant --

"Have I mentioned how comfortable your accommodations are, Captain?"

A small huff answered him. Another rustle of clothing. The light footfalls of someone who was equally at ease in the lower gravity of a ship and the heavier gravity of his homeworld.

There was a slight shift in the warmth of the air in front of Merlin, enough to tell him that Arthur was crouching down, just out of arm's reach.

Merlin inhaled the spicy musk that was Arthur's natural scent, barely muffled by his cologne, and suppressed a shudder of want.

"It occurs to me that the Needlers were rather quick to arrive," Arthur said, his tone flat, stony, just this side shy of accusation.

"Finally," Merlin said, blinking out of his half-meditation. "It took you long enough to come to that conclusion, and you had help. How much did Gaius tell you?"

The first thing he focused on were Arthur's eyes; blue like jewels, glittering and vibrant even in the gaudy fluorescence of the overhead lights. His mouth was set in a firm line, his was jaw clenched, and a light blonde fringe fell down his brow and neatly hid whatever emotion that was in Arthur's gaze. Merlin could deduce the irritation well enough from the tightness in Arthur's shoulders.

"There's only so much that he knows," Arthur allowed, a biting edge to his tone, the word selection slow and careful. "If needs must, we would be more than happy to fill in the blanks, but you should know that Pirates are prone to wild speculation and gossip. If I don't hear otherwise, and quickly, I won't be inclined to protect you from a ship full of angry men convinced that it was all a trap, and that you're a clever git who's in on an elaborate plot meant to infiltrate the Pendragon Clan and make a second attempt to kill the King."

It took Merlin a moment to parse what Arthur said. While Merlin respected the healthy level of paranoia that was prevalent among the Pirates, Merlin was thrown by the accusation that he was part of it. Him? Allied with the Imperial Conglomerate? Working in tandem with the White Legion? That was laughable. Scoffable. Ridiculous.

But even that took second stage to the revelation of an assassination attempt on the Pirate King. It seemed that Merlin had been going through life with blinders on. First, the Healers were disappearing. Second, the CorpsCops were far too interested in the Pirates. Third, the man who had the collective sum of Clan ships at his command and could conceivably lead and win a war against the Imperial Conglomerate was a target of an assassination attempt significant enough that it could be mentioned as the first. The first of many.

Which meant --

Healers were disappearing. The Imperial Conglomerate was rounding up skilled and talented Healers for a reason. And that reason had to be that the first assassination attempt had been, at the very least, partially successful, or the Pirates wouldn't be risking their necks to get a Healer out of Imperial space.

Merlin could believe that this was a complicated, three-pronged plan. It would take something of a genius to arrange for a Healer to come to the Pirates' attention, wait for them to take the bait, take a precautionary step to kill the Healer's contact and to insert a new person who was meant to gain the Pirates' trust. Stage the obligatory fight to cement the new person's worth to the Pirates, and take the opportunity, should one arise, to finish off the Pirate King.

It was a plot elaborate enough to make the current Master of the hidden, exiled House of Shadows clap his hands in glee. Hell, it was a plot elaborate enough that it had probably come from Master Kilgharrah himself.

The thought made him pause. While Kilgharrah had the bad habit of meddling in matters that he shouldn't be meddling with, why would Kilgharrah involve Merlin without warning him? He knew what Merlin was like -- intractable, single-minded, stubborn and unpredictable. It was a gamble that Merlin wouldn't follow through to kill Gaius. That he would realize that he'd been set up. That he would help Gaius get to the Lady Hiamela. That he would escort the Pirates and Gaius to their ship and ensure they made it past the White Legion alive. That he wouldn't stay behind to exact revenge on the traitor, that he would make his way onboard the ship.

No. Kilgharrah never manipulated a situation unless it was a sure thing. This couldn't be some of Kilgharrah's mischief. It had all the hallmarks, but --

Ugh. Merlin's head throbbed. He would be better off going to the secret shadowplanet where the House was surviving in exile and confronting Kilgharrah to obtain some sort of surety of the Master's involvement than trying to sort it out for himself.

"Do you feel inclined to protect me now?" Merlin asked, deciding to focus on that.

"You're pretty," Arthur said. He smirked.

"Oh," Merlin said, at a loss for something intelligent to say. "Well."

"You're blushing." Arthur's lips pulled into a smile that softened the mocking tone. His eyes trailed over Merlin's body with the expression of a hungry man who was trying to decide what he wanted to do first. "How far does that blush go?"

Merlin licked his lips, flustered. Arthur's gaze snapped up to his mouth. This wasn't right. Merlin was an assassin. He was the most sought-after assassin in the known universe. He smoothly manoeuvred through hostilities that would rattle even the most seasoned Imperial veteran. He killed men and women renowned for their fearsome skills without batting an eyelash. He lived his life knowing that if he were ever captured and identified as a descendant of the House of Shadows, he would be executed without adjudication. Merlin should not be put off-balance because someone was flirting with him.

Merlin's eyes narrowed. No one ever flirted with him. That he rarely showed his face and never socialized with others was completely beside the point. If Arthur Pendragon, Captain of the Excalibur and son of the Pirate King, was flirting with him, it was because he wanted something. He'd said as much when he walked into the cell, wanting answers.

Merlin regained control of his body, forced himself to stop blushing, and regarded Arthur coolly. "The White Legion were quick to arrive because it was a set up."

Arthur's leering expression shifted into disappointment before his demeanour settled into professional detachment. "Really? We hadn't suspected that at all. Do go on. Tell me more."

"The contract for Gaius Wiltshire included a stipulation that it be written off as a suicide. That takes time to do. When you have to incorporate the location elements into the design, and the location includes a body with a fifteen-centimetre pulse weapon hole through his chest, that complicates things somewhat."

Arthur tilted his head. He nodded curtly. He rolled his hand, inviting Merlin to continue.

"I received explicit instructions. The day, the address, the room number. The hour and the minute. The weapon to use." Merlin paused when he saw Arthur's faint frown. He guessed that Arthur had inventoried Merlin's weapons and had noticed the Walter PK-90cs. Perhaps he had even wondered why Merlin had one, given its' shite performance and propensity for randomly blowing up. Merlin imagined that whoever passed for an Arms Master on board this ship might even have opened it up and realized that the defect had been repaired. "They supplied the weapon."

"Is that normal?" Arthur asked.

"It's not part of the usual services that I provide, but it's not unusual," Merlin said.

"Why would they --"

"Sentimental reasons," Merlin said easily, because he'd wondered it himself. Why would this particular client give him this particular weapon? "A few clients revel in the irony of a drug overdose for someone who is campaigning for a political position that is firmly anti-drugs, for example. Others like to think they have a flair for the dramatic. Some want to get their money's worth. This one…"

Merlin trailed off and shrugged. Arthur's eyes narrowed, and Merlin sighed inwardly. Did he really have to lead the man by the nose to the right answer?

"Consider this. The Walter PK-90cs is capable of a wide-beam plasma pulse similar to the killing wound on the torso of Gaius' contact. It doesn't have the power source to burn a hole clean through the body, and the defects in its design cannot modulate a clean cauterization. Why give me an unstable device that can't be used as a murder weapon? Why insist that it's used to set up a suicide when it's not easy to obtain? Why plan the contract down to the slightest detail, but skimp on their gun selection?"

"Unless they didn't skimp," Arthur said.

Merlin raised a hand, palm up. You said it, not me.

"You knew it was unstable," Arthur said.

"Did I?" Merlin asked, playing the innocent. "How could I? When they pulled the Walter PK off the market, they took great pains to wash the Net of any mention of a defect. Finding the schematics to correct it in a duplicate gun would have been impossible."

Arthur wasn't buying it, because his frown deepened. His mouth pursed. Slow understanding dawned, and he said quietly, "Gaius wasn't the target. You were."

"Yes -- no. What?" That wasn't the conclusion that Merlin thought that Arthur would come up with. It wasn't even a conclusion that Merlin had come up with. The circumstances had every earmark of having been a frame, a set-up to get rid of loose ends. But targeting Merlin, specifically? His mouth fell closed with a click. His brows pinched.

"The CorpsCops were on the scene almost immediately," Arthur said. "Before you triggered the explosion."

"Well. Yes," Merlin said slowly. He'd expected that the CorpsCops had been tipped off so that they could catch Merlin in the act. That had been obvious, but it didn't seem so clear-cut now.

"They identified the ship that you were on and waited for it to get out of Course IV range to limit your escape options," Arthur said.

He had a point. The lifeboats on the Lady Hiamela were shite, nothing more than floating life support systems and nothing by way of propulsion. The three shuttles in their loading bay were designed for short port hops to collect supplies and were good for only an hour trip, one way, at a quarter near-light speed.

"The Imperial cruisers didn't show up until my ship docked for the pickup," Arthur said. "We fucked up their timeline. There was no way the Blues would get on board in time, so they sent the Needlers."

Merlin was at a loss for words. The timing fit. He didn't have sensor records on hand to be absolutely certain, but he imagined that Arthur had gone over the logs himself.

"Gaius' death was a foregone conclusion," Arthur said. "The CorpsCops present in a sector that's rarely on their radar, waiting for us? Opportunistic. But your involvement?"

Arthur's eyes drifted up and down Merlin's body again, this time measuring, calculating.

"You received specific instructions. Something tells me that you don't need to be told what to do, where to be, when. So why did they bother? They could've gotten any random thug to take care of Gaius, but they didn't. The Blues could've swept down on us at any time we were within their sensor range and chase off my ship before it reached the Hiamela, but they didn't. It's you that they're after. You."

Merlin stared at Arthur for a long time. Arthur stared back.

"Who are you?" Arthur asked.

Merlin's brows furrowed.

The House of Shadows hadn't simply been exiled from the Imperial Court for their perceived involvement -- or more accurately, their definite failure -- to protect the Emperor and his family. They were ostracized by their former peers. The House's sigil was struck from the Book of Blood. It was made a crime to speak of them at Court, the offence punishable with imprisonment. Once the Conglomerate took over the rule of the Empire, stabilized the faltering government, and gave military power to a newly-formed White Legion, an edict was spread through the galaxy. All those of the House of Shadows were to be killed on sight.

The survivors of the split had escaped with their lives. They had relocated the remains of the House to an abandoned planet and ensured that every trace of their flight had been eliminated. They went to great pains to permanently erase the already-spotty records of every last member of the House of Shadows.

The Shadows had truly become Shadows.

"You don't exist," Arthur said, his tone calm. "The name and identifying code that you used to board the Hiamela belongs to an eighty-seven year-old man who runs a small landscaping company on New Terra in the Core galaxy. Of the seven other passcards that we found on you, three men are retired Imperial soldiers, two are businessmen, one is a minor Vid celebrity, and the last... As far as we've been able to tell -- and it wasn't easy -- died in childbirth. So, who are you?"

Merlin didn't answer right away.

He was Merlin, son of Balinor. He was the Hand of the Glóm. A Master of the Ten Thousand Knives. A Knight of the Shade. He was the last of the Shadowlords and Heir to the exiled House of Shadows. He was the Scourge of the White Legion.

He was Emrys.

Merlin exhaled slowly. He met Arthur's eyes steadily, put on a small, secret smile. "I'm nobody."

Arthur huffed.

Merlin spread his hands in a helpless gesture. "What did you expect?"

"Something more," Arthur said.

"Sorry to disappoint," Merlin said. "It's a nice thought, but you're wrong. They're not after me and I don't work for them. I'll be happy to get out of your hair as soon as possible."

Arthur shot him a look that Merlin couldn't interpret and shook his head. Arthur stood up abruptly, paced the length of the cell -- three steps took him to the open door, three steps brought him back. He picked up a piece of Merlin's armour, tapped it with his fingernail, inspected it with the cursory curiosity of someone who already knew what he held in his hands.

"What's this, then?"

Merlin craned his head to see better, even though he knew exactly what it was. "Arm bracer."

"Arm bracer," Arthur repeated. He dropped it and selected another part. "And this?"

"Shoulder."

"And this?" Arthur asked, pointing at a third piece.

"Chest plate."

Arthur rubbed a frustrated hand through his hair, making it stick up a little. Merlin resisted the urge to reach out and smooth it down. "You have fully disarticulated armour that holds together using shield harmonic technology that no one in the fucking universe has. You have knives with sharper edges than the tightest configurable pulse beam or the best medical laser scalpel. Your projectile weapons have no target tracking, are keyed only to you, and are so heavily modified that even my Weaponmasters don't have a fucking clue what they do. There's absolutely no trace of you on the Net, no matter how much we burrow back. And you're telling me that some… nobody has access to this technology? Some nobody has the resources to make himself disappear?"

Merlin tilted his head, rolled his eyes, and shrugged. "I'm a contract killer. I get paid well for what I do. I have to use the credits, somehow."

"Bollocks," Arthur snapped.

Merlin smirked, enjoying Arthur's frustration. The armour technology wasn't new; it was simply forgotten. Even the White Legion didn't know how to make and manufacture it. The weapons had been forged from ancient secrets, and the House of Shadows had an armoury with sufficient weapons to equip an army. And, since Merlin had been born mere weeks before the House was exiled and relocated, his birth had never been added to the Empire's records, nor compiled in the Book of Blood. It had apparently been a simple task to track down his mother's medical records and revert them, eliminating the even the faintest hint of her pregnancy.

He could tell Arthur all these things. He was surprised that he wanted to. But years of precautions and warnings and training held firm, and he said instead, "Everything and anything is available for those who have the money to pay for it."

The sheer intensity of Arthur's gaze was nearly enough to make Merlin break eye contact. He didn't, but it was a near thing.

Arthur's mouth quirked. It was almost a smile. Amusement coloured his voice and made his features relax, but it didn't reach his eyes. "Or for those who can steal it."

Merlin swept his hand graciously in Arthur's direction. "Or that."

Arthur snorted. He turned away. Merlin couldn't see his face, but he could read the tension in Arthur's shoulders, in the stiffness of his spine. Merlin stayed as he was, admiring the man's arse, forgetting for an instant that it took a brave, trusting, or exceedingly stupid man to turn his back on an assassin. Arthur was either putting a great deal of faith in Merlin not daring to do anything that might impact on surviving this journey, or he truly wasn't concerned about Merlin's abilities.

Merlin rolled his eyes. It wouldn't be the first time that someone misjudged him.

Arthur broke the silence with a quiet, "And the Needler?"

Merlin pretended not to hear. "Hm?"

"How to you explain the Needler?"

"How does anyone explain the White Legion?" Merlin asked. Arthur glowered, and Merlin snorted. "You might do well to ask a precise question, Captain."

"You fought off three Needlers," Arthur said, turning around slowly. There were several feet between them, too close a distance for Merlin to see Arthur without craning his head back.

"Three, actually, but we won't quibble semantics. Also, you and your lot took care of distracting them for me. Thanks for that, incidentally," Merlin said.

"Three Needlers," Arthur repeated, and with more emphasis, added, "And an Elite."

"Hm," Merlin said, forcing a smile to his lips to hide the grit of his teeth. Not many knew the distinction between a man bred into the White Legion and those who were descended from the traitors, but it seemed that Arthur was more educated than most. "If it were a former Shadow, surely they would be old and decrepit by now? It has been thirty years."

"Someone who's mastered the old arts, then," Arthur amended.

Merlin nodded stiffly. "Okay. And?"

Arthur moved, quick, smooth, sure, and crouched in front of Merlin again, so close that the rough leather of ship-side boots scraped on Merlin's crossed legs and Arthur's body heat radiated in the space between them. And, better yet, the shadow he cast blocked the perpetual fluorescent lighting of the cell, giving Merlin some respite from the perpetually bright light. He relaxed into the shadow.

"Legend has it that the Shadowlords couldn't be beaten," Arthur said.

"Legends are stories exaggerating the truth, turning mere men into Gods," Merlin said, ignoring the easy way that Arthur used the title. "Behind their fancy armour, the White Legion are still only men. They can be beaten. They can be killed."

Whatever Arthur had been about to say died on his lips. His expression softened before becoming calculating. "You have a grudge against them," he said instead.

"Who doesn't?"

"Who doesn't, indeed," Arthur said. A small smirk tugged at his mouth, but it was sad and lonely. He shifted, almost as if he were about to stand, but he reached out to touch Merlin's face.

Merlin stilled.

Arthur's thumb stroked along his jaw, scraping at the stubble that had grown over the last few days. His fingers followed the line of his cheekbones and lingered close to his ear. "You really are pretty," he murmured.

Merlin flushed. He didn't know how to respond. He forced his expression to remain impassive, his body relaxed. He didn't turn away until the second time that Arthur's thumb ran over his lips, and even then, it was only the slightest pull of his head. It was enough. Arthur dropped his hand.

"You know what they say about Pirates?" Arthur asked.

"That they're socially inept, morally bankrupt, lecherous, greedy drunkards who wash once in a blue moon, fight over nothing, and fuck anything and everything that happens to be near?" Merlin asked.

A corner of Arthur's mouth ticked up. "No. The other thing. The part where a Pirate always keeps their spoils."

"That does come up in frequent conversation. Some days, it's all I can do to get a pint at the local hole and lament the sad state of affairs that makes up the finer points of Pirate society," Merlin said, frowning faintly, not entirely certain what Arthur was getting at.

Arthur's laugh was both sudden and unreserved. He threw his head back, exposing the line of his neck, the laces at his collar falling open to hint at fleshy muscle. Merlin averted his eyes rather than to be caught staring; he thought he saw movement outside the door, lurking in the darkness, listening in.

Coming closer.

"Shall I explain the subtle intricacies of our culture? I'll make it simple. It's the Law of Provenance. I brought you aboard," Arthur said, his expression suddenly serious. "Therefore, you belong to me."

Merlin snorted. "Bollocks. You didn't do shite."

Arthur spread his hands. "You were on my person when we were pulled onto the Excalibur. It's a minor, but rather important detail. Also, you'll recall that I didn't give you permission to board my ship. It was unnecessary. You're mine, and that's never going to change."

Merlin stared. When Arthur stood up and moved away from him, Merlin stared some more. He couldn't help how his eyes followed Arthur's backside, the strong line of his legs, the snug fit of those well-worn boots around thick calves. It took him a moment to shake his head and mutter, "What just happened here --"

A flash down the corridor on the other side of the open door caught his attention. Merlin surged to his feet and yanked Arthur hard, pushing him against the far wall of the cell.

"Oi! What are you --"

Something clinked on the wall opposite the open door where Merlin and Arthur had been only a moment ago. It rattled and spun on the cold metal floor.

It was a knife.

One of Merlin's knives. Poorly thrown -- because, otherwise, it would have embedded itself into the wall, it was that sharp for a reason -- and that infuriated him.

Merlin grabbed the thigh section of armour laid out on the floor and pushed Arthur behind him. He pretended not to notice how Arthur's hands settled on Merlin's hips and opened a hidden compartment along the edge. A thin, flexshaft wire that was half the thickness of his little finger and twice as tall as he was whooshed free, the textured section wrapping around his hand.

The length of it was half-ribbon, half-razor's edge. It swirled and shifted in the air, responding to the faintest movement.

Arthur tried to shove Merlin aside; Merlin dug in his heels and pushed Arthur against the wall, keeping him there.

Arthur's fingers tightened on Merlin's hips, hard enough to bruise. Merlin elbowed Arthur to make him stop and stared at the doorway, tilting his head, listening. He stretched his focus, reaching, reaching; the shadows in the corridor reacted to his presence, feeding him sensations.

Two men. One taller than the other. One heavier. They weren't the same men who regularly traded guard shifts outside the brig, but they were neither advancing nor retreating.

"Tell me something." Arthur's breath tickled the back of Merlin's neck, his arm snaking around Merlin's waist, holding him firmly. Merlin didn't stop watching the open doorway or feeling for movement, but he was also acutely aware of how his body fit against Arthur's, his back against a firm chest, his arse against Arthur's groin. "Why is a contract killer's first instinct to protect the person he belongs to?"

Merlin didn't answer right away. He didn't even acknowledge that Arthur had spoken, but the tone in his voice caused the hackles on the back of Merlin's neck to rise. He turned his head just enough to look at Arthur over his shoulder. "What?"

There was a glint in Arthur's eye, a smirk of amusement, a possessive pull keeping Merlin against Arthur. There was no concern in his expression, only canny trickery, and Merlin suddenly knew.

There was no threat. The ship hadn't been boarded by intruders, they weren't being attacked, there were no traitors on board. Arthur had staged this.

Merlin didn't understand why.

He twisted in Arthur's grasp, facing him; it took a complicated push-pull to yank Arthur away from the wall. Arthur blocked a strike intended to knock him out; Merlin slipped out of Arthur's hold and beneath a swinging arm, twisting the razor-whip around Arthur's throat.

Arthur stilled in front of Merlin.

They fit well like this, too, Merlin noticed, holding Arthur lightly against him. Back to chest, arse to groin -- and this close, with unrestricted access to the Pirate's throat, Merlin could smell distinct scents -- sandalwood, gunmetal oil, an unidentifiable musk that couldn't be anything but Arthur.

Arthur shifted; the razor-whip tightened.

"Tell me something," Merlin said, glancing to the cell entrance where he could sense the shadows shifting, people approaching. "Why would anyone try to lay claim to an assassin?"

"When the assassin isn't an assassin," Arthur answered easily. He was fearless, confident, secure; Merlin fought against his rising confusion. This wasn't how Arthur was supposed to react. He was supposed to cower, to wither, to flail, to agree to anything and everything that Merlin said, if only Merlin wouldn't kill him.

"Obliviousness doesn't suit you, Captain," Merlin said, seeing one of the Pirates in the corridor for the first time. Shaggy brown hair loose around his face, the scruff of a five o'clock that never seemed to fade, a faint, lopsided grin touching his lips, though there was a pinch of concern on his brow. Gwaine. Merlin recognized him, now.

"And how would you describe what just happened?" Arthur raised a brow -- whether to signal Gwaine, or to compound his point, Merlin wasn't sure -- and ground his arse against Merlin.

Merlin couldn't help the startled, aroused hiss that escaped him, and he retaliated by letting the whip first loosen and tighten around Arthur's throat. "Are we in port?"

"Are we?" Arthur asked, turning to Gwaine.

"Near enough," Gwaine said, a hand on the gun holstered at his waist. "Could kick him out of an airlock, he might make it across."

"Now, now, let's not threaten my property," Arthur said. Though his tone was teasing, he was scowling, and there was a weight to his expression, as if he meant every word. "I'd like him to feel at home."

"You agreed to drop me off at the nearest station in exchange for saving your life," Merlin reminded him.

"Nothing's stopping me from picking you up again," Arthur said wryly. He was economic in his movements, careful not to dislodge the razor-whip around his throat, and reached back to place his hands on Merlin's hips. "But if you must --"

Merlin had enough of Arthur's games. He shoved Arthur forward, careful to keep the whip loose, and held him firmly, using Arthur as a shield. "I must."

Arthur didn't answer, but there was a ghost of a smirk on his lips when he glanced at Merlin.

"Give the order to dock in port," Merlin said. "Have your men collect my things. Everything. Have them meet us at the docking bay. They'll have you returned intact only once I'm off the ship and well on my way."

Arthur made a tsking sound. "So demanding."

"In case you haven't noticed, I'm the one with the upper hand," Merlin said, letting the whip slide over the tender flesh of Arthur's throat, at once intimate and threatening, but not once cutting skin. Merlin knew that a proverbial knife to the Captain's throat wasn't much of an advantage. The Pirates outnumbered him, and he was fairly certain that they wouldn't care if Merlin killed their Captain. They were a bunch of opportunists even on the best of days; solidarity was only an adjective that could be used to describe them if everyone was getting a share of the loot. Still, Merlin hoped that Arthur was too distracted by the ribbon-razor edge at his throat to take that into consideration. "Just do it."

There was a long, weighty pause, as if Arthur were trying to fathom a way out of the situation, a way of regaining his ground. And there were ways, Merlin knew. This was Arthur's ship. It was his crew. And, since they were now in uncontrolled space, no doubt they had contacts at the free spaceport who would meet them on the other end and provide whatever backup that Arthur needed to subvert Merlin again.

Except there were none of the expected threats, no hedging bets, no counter-offers, no negotiation. A simple -- but careful -- shrug, as if it didn't matter, and Arthur said, "You heard him."

Gwaine made a half-hearted protest that not even an underpaid CorpsCop would believe, even with a bribe. "Are you sure? Because we could? And possibly afterward? The crew does like a good shanking? Or after all --" was accompanied with a grousing collection of the body armour parts neatly strewn across the floor. Once his arms were full, he trudged down the corridor without another word.

The shadows followed Gwaine and the other man until they disappeared down the corridor.

It was too obviously easy, Merlin knew.

"You can let me go now," Arthur said.

"Start walking," Merlin said, pushing Arthur's shoulder.

"Where to?"

"Whichever airlock's going to be docking at the port."

Arthur led the way, though he was in no hurry. He gave Merlin a tour of the ship, magnanimously pointing out where everything was -- "The bridge up ahead, but it's just for show, I'm afraid. For some reason, our more reluctant guests like to see the big helm and old fashioned compasses. I refuse to have a parrot onboard, though. My men have better things to do than scrub bird shite off the walls and floors. And Gwaine's the one who wears the eye patch; he thinks it makes him look more dashing, but I haven't the heart to tell him that he looks rather… bohemian when he wears it. Command is a deck below --"

Merlin had to admit that it was a nice ship. Larger than the average cruiser, with wide corridors and even wider galleys, decorated in earthy hues and wood paneling that would easily pay for a working man's salary four times over, the Excalibur was more comfortable and welcoming than a regular transport or even a luxury liner. It was almost… homey. Merlin had seen some of this before, when the Pirates escorted him directly to the brig. He wasn't sure why Arthur was showing him around -- did he think Merlin would change his mind?

They passed a few crew members. A few odd looks were thrown their way, but they walked past without challenge. A few gave Arthur knowing smirks, while others shook their heads in something approaching disapproval.

It was all very confusing. Merlin never normally dealt with Pirates -- not up close, anyway -- and he was starting to see why he avoided them as a matter of principle. Their social norms were baffling. Apparently, seeing their Captain at an assassin's mercy and in danger of getting his throat cut clean off? It was just another everyday occurrence, and not worth alarm.

"Crew quarters are a deck above and a partition behind," Arthur was saying. "You'd like my suite. It has a great view --"

Merlin rolled his eyes. "Look out any sidescuttle, you'll get the same damn view."

"Not like this, believe me. Come on, I'll show you --"

Merlin clamped a hand on Arthur's shoulder and held him firm; the razor-whip tightened around Arthur's throat warningly. "The airlock, if you please."

Arthur huffed in annoyance. "Leon will tell us when we dock. It might be some time. Why not spend it in my bunk?"

"Or we could wait at the airlock," Merlin said.

"You're being unfairly resistant to my charms," Arthur remarked, gesturing with his hand to indicate the oncoming turn before he took it, giving Merlin enough warning to loosen the razor whip before he did. They went through a different corridor that was twisted in a scraggly W before emerging into an area that Merlin recognized from when he first came aboard. He relaxed, but only slightly, relieved that Arthur had stopped playing games, at least for now.

"You left me to rot in an eight by eight with a toilet that doesn't flush and a cot hard enough to double as hull plating," Merlin snapped. "I fear to see what sort of treatment I'll get if you were really trying."

"Oh, but how was the food?"

Merlin glanced at the back of Arthur's head, frowning. "What?"

"The food. How was the food? I told the cook to make sure you received the same cut I did --" Arthur made a small, scandalized sound. "They did feed you, didn't they? I'll have them keelhauled if they didn't."

"The food was fine," Merlin said, his tone subdued. He felt as if he'd just had the carpet pulled out from under him, and that was never an easy feat. "Just. Shut up."

It wasn't long after they arrived at the docking rings. Merlin's gear was packed neatly in a large duffel bag. No one was there, though Gwaine arrived a few minutes later, hopping up to sit on a large cargo container, his gun holstered but his expression intent. He watched Merlin like a hawk; Merlin ignored him in favour of calling up the vid feed on a nearby maintenance screen. The docking lights turned green.

Merlin made Arthur hand him the duffel bags when the airlock clicked, rotated, and released with a groan of equilibrating pressure.

Merlin took a step out onto the wobbly platform once satisfied that no one was at the other end, waiting for him with an execution squad. He walked to the very limits of the razor-whip before releasing Arthur with a flick of his wrist.

The material flattened and retracted, coiling around Merlin's fist.

"Thanks for the lift," Merlin said. "Hospitality was top-notch, but your accommodations were shite. You won't be getting a recommendation from me."

"A pity," Gwaine said.

"You caught us at a bad time," Arthur said, crossing his arms. The red circle around his neck was already fading away, but he didn't seem the least bit bothered at having worn a razor collar. "I'm sure we'll be seeing you again."

"If needs must," Merlin said, touching his brow with two fingertips and throwing them out in a rude salute. "Last resort and all."

Gwaine smirked. He raised a hand and waved a mocking good-bye.

"Oh, for future reference, since you seem to be into that sort of thing, you should know that I prefer to do the tying up." Arthur reached out and closed the airlock. Arthur winked at him just as the heavy door rolled shut.

"Prat," Merlin muttered, hefting his possessions higher on his shoulder. He had three priorities. Gearing up before someone decided that he was an easy mark, figuring out where he was right now, and hopping the next ship out.

The contract on Gaius Wiltshire had come to Merlin by way of one of his most trusted contacts, a man who might not be so trustworthy after all, and that would be the first place Merlin went, with a few stops along the way. Merlin walked away from Excalibur without a backward glance, and couldn't help feeling as if he were leaving something important behind.

 


 

 


Chapter Four

Constellation: The Labyrinth

The Labyrinth

Location: Excalibur, Pirate Warship, Pirate Space

 

"Well?"

Arthur watched the maintenance feed as the assassin disappeared through the docking rings. He considered accessing the spaceport's video feed, but he was sure that Lance was already taking care of that, downloading whatever he could. Instead, Arthur tapped the airlock, coding it shut against unexpected intrusion, and swallowed the bitter taste in his mouth.

He did not touch his throat. There was a residual sensation of icy hot and silky soft where the razor-whip had encircled his neck like a collar, but it wasn't half as bothersome as the memory of the assassin all around him. In front of him; behind him. The man's breath against Arthur's ear, the sharp sidelong glances, the hapless irritation and cocksure barbs.

Before Arthur went down to the brig, he had been torn between shagging Niall senseless and tossing him off his ship -- or both. As it was now, Arthur was having a difficult time stopping himself from opening the airlock and calling the man back.

Arthur wasn't wrong. The man was pretty. Under different circumstances, Arthur would have wined and dined him before luring him to bed, even if the whole killer for hire façade was a little daunting.

Except.

Niall wasn't really an assassin, was he? He certainly didn't act like one. Not with Arthur, in any case, but it was entirely possible that Arthur was romanticizing the profession in his head. Assassins were slick and suave, the use-them-and-leave-them sort, full of economical movement and morbid jokes. Or, they were highly-trained government agents -- from whichever government was inclined to train assassins from birth -- who had been transformed into genetically-enhanced cybernetic humans without souls and without heart.

The man who had recently graced Excalibur's brig was neither of those things. While he certainly had the preternatural grace and the unusually heightened senses, he was also an enigma. He'd fought off not one, but several White Legion drones. He'd kept Arthur behind him. He'd submitted to Arthur's mercy -- though possibly only because he had known that Excalibur was his only option to get away. He treated the crew with distant politeness, even reluctance, but the minute that Arthur entered his brig...

The man was insufferably smug, annoyingly confident, and frustratingly immune to Arthur's charms. And despite Arthur's failed attempts to win him over, the man had put himself in front of Arthur.

Protected him.

Again.

Selflessly, mindlessly, without hesitation.

"What's it going to take for you to admit that I was right?" Gwaine asked, sliding off from the top of the cargo container. He brushed his hands with single-minded fastidiousness, but his eyes never left Arthur.

"Two bottles of Galayan rum," Arthur said, walking past him. "And the price increases every time you rub my nose in it."

"Not my fault you can't see what's plain in front of you," Gwaine said, falling into step beside Arthur.

"Three bottles," Arthur said. Gwaine shrugged, as if it didn't matter to him. It probably didn't, either; Gwaine's ability to get his hands on even the rarest of contrabands was legendary.

They headed up the corridor, taking the quick route to the bridge and were nearly there when Gwaine said, "Though I can't really blame you. The man's gorgeous. That would distract anyone."

"Four," Arthur said, raising both brows.

Gwaine grinned, as if knowing that he'd struck a hit, and smacked Arthur hard on the shoulder. "Admit it, Captain. That little show you put on in the brig hardly stretched your acting skills because you meant every word. If you could've gotten into his pants, you would have --"

"Five," Arthur said, leaving Gwaine at the tactical console. He gave Leon a curt nod which was returned almost absentmindedly, but Arthur knew that Leon was focusing on his displays. They might be in unclaimed space, but that didn't mean that the Imperial fleet wasn't lurking around the corner, or that a rival Pirate Clan wasn't waiting to swoop down and relieve them of their booty. There were also mercenaries and non-human factions to watch out for, though those tended to steer clear of any ship broadcasting the Jolly Rogers.

Arthur stood behind Lance at the engineering station. It was a raised platform that gave him an eagle's-eye view of the bridge, though Lance was surrounded in holographic displays that blocked him from sight. The screens were rendered into several more dimensions than Arthur could see without a matrix monocle, and Lance's hands flew over a virtual keypad, commands scrolling through a green-and-black interface at blinding speeds.

"Do you have him?" Arthur asked.

"I have something," Lance confirmed. Out of consideration, he flipped the monocle up and switched the holographic display to plain three-dee, a map of the spaceport zooming in to follow a blinking red light out of the port and into the main concourse. Several more screens popped up -- a vid hack of the joke that passed for the station's security -- and Arthur caught glimpses of the assassin from several angles, though none of them were clear.

"Where is he going?"

"Not sure. He's changed directions several times, but as long as he's wearing the trackers, we'll see where he's headed," Lance said. There was a brief pause, and Lance scowled. "He's found one of them."

On the three-dimensional line map of the station, the large blinking red dot left a weak breadcrumb behind.

"How many did you tag him with?"

"Twenty. Twenty-two?" Lance stretched in his chair, leaning back until he could see Perceval. "Hey, Perce. How many did you --"

"Everything that we had in stock," Perceval said, not bothering to look up from his screen. "Thirty-five. Put most of them in obvious places, some where I'd think of looking, and wedged the last couple in one of those hidden compartments in his body armour. If we're lucky, he won't find them all."

Arthur stood up straight, his arms crossed. He watched as, one by one, the trackers were tossed into one alley or another, as they were passed on to other people on the station. The vid display shifted frequently, alternating between one feed and the next, keeping the assassin in view.

There was an uncomfortable itch between his shoulder blades. They didn't have time for this. They couldn't be sitting in port without attracting the wrong kind of attention, particularly since all they were doing was sitting there and monopolizing a docking ring. They didn't need any supplies, they had no merchandise to trade, they weren't meeting anyone. Someone was bound to notice.

Arthur stared at the screen anyway, silently counting as the trackers were discovered and discarded. Lance made increasingly distressed sounds as he slowly lost the ability to follow the assassin -- not only because the tracker signal was weakening, but because -- "Fuckshit. He knows what he's doing."

"What?"

"He's ducking the feeds. He's either really lucky, or he knows the place, because he's walking through the blind spots."

Arthur grimaced. He cast a glance at Leon, noting how he sat ramrod-straight in the Captain's chair. Leon was his Second; the First Mate was tense even on a good day. With all the threats against them, Leon never relaxed until they were on the Pendragon homeworld. His obsession with keeping the crew safe had gotten them out of a pinch on more than one occasion, and Arthur had learned to read Leon's twitches and shifts as if they were a secret language.

Right now, that secret language spelled out a flashing yellow alert warning. There were significant threats at the outer edge of the Excalibur's sensors, bearing in their direction, and they probably had, oh, ten, fifteen minutes before Leon started yelling to cast off and for the pilots to slam full speed ahead at evasion coordinates.

The Excalibur was faster than most Imperial ships, but they wouldn't risk heading straight for Pirate space, never mind hint at coordinates that would lead the enemy right to their front door.

Arthur turned back to Lance. "What's the transmission range on those bugs?"

"You're looking at it," Lance said, gesturing absentmindedly at the flickering red lights. "I'm using the station's short-range sensors to pick up the low-grade radiation from the trackers for now. I'll have to hack into their network to access their communications centre to triangulate the exact location and find vids that can give us a feed."

"Do it."

"But…"

Arthur exhaled heavily. "What have I told you about that word? I don't like hearing that word. I'll gut the next bastard who says it in my hearing, that's what I said. I distinctly remember that. Does no one else remember?"

Lance looked at him sidelong, an eyebrow raised.

"Why is there a but?" Arthur asked.

"Anything I do will be a waste of time," Lance said, pointing at the holographic line rendering of the space station. The trackers that the assassin had discarded were removed from active view, and the remainder -- if Arthur squinted a bit, the resolution was good enough to let him count the individual bugs -- were in one location, out of camera view. "He hasn't moved in a few minutes."

Arthur grimaced. A grunt escaped his chest. "We've lost him?"

"Clever bugger," Leon said with a nod. "Looks like he located every single tracker."

"Well, fuck," Arthur said. He took a step back, as if getting a bird's eye view of the space station would let him pick out the one man he was most interested in, but the seconds trickled past without so much as a familiar mop of black hair moving across the screen.

Arthur huffed.

"Wait," Lance said, magnifying his holo-screen. He tapped a finger to count the trackers on the map, each virtual touch turning the tracker a different colour. He counted them under his breath. "Perce? Did you say thirty-five?"

"Thirty-five. I made double-sure."

"I'm only counting thirty-three. Thirty-four if you count the one he crushed," Lance said, glancing at Arthur. He turned to his terminal and entered a few commands; a long string of text rolled down the small screen on the hard console. Lance shook his head. "Thirty-four. I'm not getting any signals from the last one."

"Did he dump the trackers and disable one?" Arthur asked. "Or did that last one fail?"

"It's a Leodegrace tracker," Elyan said, rolling his eyes in irritation, protective as ever of his Clan's technology. "Lance's right. It's not pinging, and if I go back over the transmission, it looks like it received a shutdown command."

Elyan turned to his communications console, pulling up the raw data, and threw it at a holo-projector at Lance's station. The long thread of raw programming made Arthur's eyes bleed, but Elyan had highlighted a particular section confirming that the tracker hadn't been lost, misplaced, or destroyed.

Arthur drummed his fingers on the back of Lance's chair. "Why would he do that?"

"Maybe he's keeping souvenirs," Gwaine quipped.

Arthur shot him a glare. Gwaine shrugged his shoulders.

"Fine. He's keeping a souvenir. I can respect that. Leave him. Even if he were useful, which he's not," Arthur said, ignoring Gwaine's snort, "We're on a pressing timetable. Perce, cut us loose. Leon, plot a course."

"Easier said than done," Leon muttered, but the tight line of his body eased marginally, and he slumped over a terminal to compute the next coordinates. "Galahad, get us out of here."

"Gladly," Galahad said, twisting around to acknowledge receipt of their first stop along the evasion path. It would no doubt bring the Excalibur as close as it could get to their pursuers, because what was an escape if there wasn't anything to escape from? "How's the docking mechanism? I want visuals. Last time we were here, the numpties locked us to port, and, fuck, wasn't I pissed then?"

"We're loose," Perceval confirmed.

"Disengaging," Galahad said, reversing at full thrust before slamming forward at a high angle, coming close enough to buzz the station before leaving it to vibrate in the wake of engines going at maximum power.

Leon started to rise from the command seat, but Arthur waved him back. "Stay. Let me know if there are any changes. I'll be with Gaius."

"Aye, Captain," Leon said, settling in his seat. He was already focused on the screens around him, most likely tracking whatever had twigged their sensors.

Arthur had slid down the chute to the maintenance level before he realized that Gwaine had followed him out of the bridge. Gwaine waltzed out of the transport tube with a meaningful look that Arthur choose not to interpret. Instead, he asked, "Don't you have a job to do?"

"Probably," Gwaine said. He shrugged and stuffed his hands in his pockets.

Arthur sighed. "What do you want?"

"Oh, nothing. Though I admit wondering what you'll be doing about that piece of property that you left behind," Gwaine said, meandering in a circle around Arthur. "I'm given to thinking that, someone like him? There'll be a fair few hands wanting that one. We could net a fair profit, make up some dosh for what we've lost picking up that Healer --"

"He's not a piece of property," Arthur groused, elbowing past Gwaine. He hadn't meant to enact the little-known and very old Pirate Law, even if he'd been pushing the limits of plausible definitions. Technically, yes, the assassin belonged to him, but --

"Claimed him as yours, fair and square. I heard it, and so did Perce, and it's on record -- speaking of, you should see the playback. The two of you looked damn cozy, snuggling up against the wall --"

Arthur shot a murderous glare in Gwaine's direction.

Gwaine continued on undeterred. "All we've got to do is make it official, send out his three-dee, let it be known to far and wide that his arse belongs to Arthur Pendragon, and to please return if found, preferably unmolested --"

Arthur stopped dead. Gwaine nearly ran into him. "You want to post his holo on the public net? Are you mad? He's a bloody assassin --"

"Really?" Gwaine's brows shot up. "An assassin? I wouldn't have thought it, not the way he was so concerned with keeping you safe. From us. Your own crew. As if we would ever --"

Arthur shot him a look. "I recall a mutiny in the early days of our cooperative alliance. Didn't you lead it?"

Gwaine frowned, his mouth forming words that didn't come out, and he gestured sharply. "Ah, yes, there might have been such an incident. But that was before you saved my arse -- not that it needed saving --"

Arthur snorted. "A dozen enraged mercenaries against a drunk Pirate. Absolutely, yes. I recall you had them well in hand."

"I surely did," Gwaine said. "And my point is that we would never mutiny now. We're all mates, aren't we? Closer than brothers, some of us."

Gwaine thumped an arm around Arthur's shoulder. Arthur glared at the contact until Gwaine made an uncertain noise and drew away.

"Some of us," Gwaine repeated, his tone dubious, but undeterred. "In any case, we're the tightest-knit crew as far as he's concerned. No reason at all to suspect us of sneaking up on you to slide a knife between your ribs. And yet. He moved to protect you. You can't tell me he did it out of the goodness of his own heart --"

"He did it to gain the advantage. He wasn't getting off the ship without a hostage, and you damn well know that," Arthur snapped. "You leave him be, Gwaine. If you post the holo, he'll know who's done it, and I'm not of a mind to lose my head. I've come close enough once already."

Gwaine's eyes flicked to Arthur's throat, lingering there a moment too long. Arthur took a step back and turned around. "Funny thing about that collar of yours. There's not a mark on you, Captain. Do you know how hard it is to handle a cutting whip and not kill your best beloved with it?"

"Assassin," Arthur repeated. He paused before adding, "Six."

"Six?" Gwaine asked, confused.

"Six bottles you're up to now. Do you want to go for an even dozen?"

"May as well," Gwaine said, his boots clicking on the metal gangplank as he extended his stride to catch up to Arthur. "I'm just saying. Think about it some, Captain. As a favour to me. And eventually, you'll see the light and say, Gwaine, my friend, you were right. How can I ever repay you for helping me get my head out of my arse --"

"A full case of rum, and we'll see," Arthur said.

A ghost of a smile flit across Gwaine's lips, but he continued, "Because, look. The fact is, he's a good bloke. He didn't have to help Gaius -- could've collected the money and gone, even if it meant getting himself blown up in the process -- but he did. He didn't have to come with us to escort Gaius to the ship, we could've slung the old man over Perce's shoulder. And he absolutely didn't have to stay between you and that Needler the entire time."

The video that Lance had downloaded from the Lady Hiamela had been telling. The assassin hadn't been anywhere near Arthur when the White Legion Elite had made an appearance, but then, suddenly there he was, stopping the Needler's direct stalk toward Arthur as if he'd been there all along. Arthur hadn't thought anything of it, but now that it had been pointed out to him…

"And there's the thing in the brig. Heard me, he did, and I'm a sneak no one hears coming, so you explain that one to me. Saw the knife, too, moved faster than Galahad running for the head after he's had too much of Perce's chili. Kept you between him and... well, me?" Gwaine gestured flailingly toward himself. "If he were keen on getting himself on shore, he could've grabbed any of us at any time. You think the brig would hold the likes of him? You're deluded. He wasn't playing along with us. He was playing with us. He wanted to be here. He wanted to see your pretty face. What sort of self-respecting assassin hangs out with a bunch of plonkers like us and goes out of his way to protect the Captain who's captured him?"

Arthur didn't answer. He turned down the corridor to the medical bay.

There was a brief, satisfying silence before rapid footfalls banging on the deck caught Gwaine up to him.

"I could tell you what sort," Gwaine volunteered. "It's the sort of assassin who's got a crush on the bloke."

"Oh. Bloody. Stars, " Arthur swore, glancing at the ceiling to keep from rolling his eyes. "This again?"

"He's gorgeous. You're lonely," Gwaine said. "It's a match made in heaven. You're perfect for each other."

"Did you miss the part where I have no time for this?" Arthur slowed down just enough to let Gwaine catch up. "Our priority is the King. We have to save the King before the other Clans get wind of how ill he is and start a bloody rebellion. The last thing on the agenda -- Hells, it's not even on the list -- is to get me laid."

"Who said we can't do both?"

Arthur stopped and gave Gwaine a long look that hopefully conveyed Arthur's complete and utter irritation. Gwaine, oblivious, wrapped his arm around Arthur's shoulders again and pulled Arthur along on a leisurely stroll down the gangway.

"You're adorable," Gwaine said, almost cooing. Arthur elbowed Gwaine hard in the ribs; Gwaine grunted, but it only made him grin even wider. "But also an idiot. I checked the long-range, those were definitely Imperial cruisers heading for the station. Your guess is as good as mine -- actually, probably better than mine -- if they were waiting for us to show, or if they're checking every hole in space and hoping they'll trip over us --"

"Waiting for us. That's the most likely," Arthur said, because the Imperial fleet would have enough ships to keep an eye on most of the station hubs in uncontrolled space. Arthur was being generous, but he didn't think that the CorpsCops were stupid enough to dock in port while they waited for a Pirate ship to arrive, particularly not one that they were after. Typically, a CorpsCops ship would wait at the very fringes of sensor range and hope that a Pirate ship wouldn't be able to spot them before they came into range for an ambush.

Arthur wasn't certain how the Conglomerate hadn't caught on, yet, but Pirates had both cloaking technology and superior long-distance sensors for reasons, the least of which included not being caught in the middle of a pillage.

"Be that as it may," Gwaine said, sweeping his hand in the air as graciously as if he were at a Ball, charming a Lord or Lady into dancing with him, whether they wanted to or not, "Station records will note that one person disembarked from a ship that was there one second, gone the next. Don't you think the CorpsCops would take a minute to sweep the hub and find him?"

"You're assuming that he's not waiting for them," Arthur snapped. No Pirate of worth would trust an Imperial resident as far as they could throw them, and none of them were inclined to throw very far. Add an assassin into the mix, and Arthur would be hard-pressed to find any Pirate willing to put any faith in them. "He was probably meant to get on our ship, scope our forces, and report back --"

"A spy?" Gwaine tilted his head, musing thoughtfully. He shook his head. "No. I don't buy it. He might be the quiet sort, but he's got an open face. No guile in those eyes of his."

"And yet, not outside the realm of possibility," Arthur said coldly. The Pirate Clans were tightly-knit, allowing outsiders among their ranks only rarely. Despite the recent influx of citizens fleeing the Empire, it wasn't often that any of the Clans allowed a former Imperialist in their inner circle.

But it did happen, and to everyone's detriment. One such spy had been brought to the Kingsworld, where he revealed himself to be White Legion only moments before attacking the King.

"You need to be more trusting, Arthur," Gwaine said.

"Trusting? When he could easily be a spy --"

"You know that's bollocks, because the Blues don't act unless they've got years of intel under his belt. They're not going to act on barely five seconds of eyeballing the ship before they're tossed into the brig," Gwaine retorted. "He's going to have the Needlers on his arse, now, after what he did. Nobody one-ups the White Legion, even for a ploy to get him in our good graces. You think he's keen to get back into their pleasant company after humiliating them?"

Arthur didn't think so. The fight between the assassin and the White Legion had looked genuine enough to him, but anything could be staged with enough training and practice. He didn't say that out loud. Instead, he said, "If he's smart enough to find Perceval's trackers, he's smart enough to dodge Imperial Blues, and he's no concern of ours."

Gwaine opened his mouth to protest, but Arthur raised an eyebrow warningly.

"No. Concern. Of. Ours."

"Fine, fine," Gwaine said, dropping his arm from Arthur's shoulders, holding up his hands. "But you'll regret it, you know. Seemed like a nice bloke. Definitely easy on the eyes. And, just imagine -- all that physical training? He must be awfully flexible in all the right ways."

Arthur glowered. He hadn't thought about that at all.

"You'll pine."

"Fuck off," Arthur growled. He walked into the medical bay, stabbing the door lock. It closed with an unsatisfying whoosh.

Maybe, just maybe, Arthur had watched the footage from the Lady Hiamela one too many times. Maybe, just maybe, he'd been caught staring for too long at a zoomed-in and reconstructed close-up holo of the assassin. And maybe, just maybe, he spent a few showers with his hand on his cock, imagining how the assassin would feel pressed against him.

The reality had been much better than he'd originally thought.

Gwaine might think differently, but Arthur wasn't a fool. Arthur wasn't about to engage in personal proclivities with a man he didn't know, never mind one who was a professional killer. There were enough Imperial bounties on Arthur's head without adding more for associating with an assassin -- or for that assassin to be more interested in claiming the reward for Arthur's head than in spending the rest of his life with Arthur. The last time Arthur had run a vanity check on the Net, the fee for his body, preferably dead, was something on the order of one hundred silver Sterling.

Not quite on the same order as some of the more notorious Pirates, but he was catching up. If the bounty ever reached a hundred million, Arthur might be tempted to turn himself in -- and if he was tempted, who else might be?

Even if the assassin wasn't interested in -- or hadn't known about -- the bounty, it didn't matter how pretty the assassin was. His agenda was unknown, and his loyalties had likely been sold for a fee. Arthur couldn't afford the uncertainty.

Still. Gwaine was right in one respect. The assassin was likely very flexible. In the brig, he had moved like a coiled snake, slippery and smooth, full of grace and economical movement. Arthur wondered how it would feel to have the assassin in his bed, squirming beneath him --

Arthur banged his head on the bulkhead and groaned.

"Captain? Is everything all right?" Gaius asked, his voice gentle, curious, even deferential. Arthur turned around.

The Healer was sitting in the middle of the empty treatment room in front of a gurney littered with paperwork and file folders. There was an electronic tablet nearby, its access to the ship's systems disabled, but it appeared to have been cast aside in favour of an old-fashioned pencil and a pad of paper.

The Pirates had learned a long time ago that the best way to keep their information from the Net and protected against spyware attacks from the Empire was to maintain a paper record. Paper was easier to destroy. The information it contained couldn't be recovered, restored, or used against them, and with a few technological tweaks to ensure that the paper degraded quickly and couldn't be scanned, the Pirates could secure their entire database.

Except paper was bulky, heavy, and not easily stored; they were nuisances in zero-G. The only reason that Arthur had his father's medical files on board at all was to give the Healer a running start on making a diagnosis and finding a cure.

"Everything's fine," Arthur said. He gestured toward the papers. "Any progress?"

Gaius peered over a pair of archaic glasses, steel-rimmed and around, and spread his hands over the papers. "No more than yesterday, Captain. I am afraid there is little that I can do without examining the patient myself."

Arthur approached the gurney. He nodded glumly, having expected as much, and picked up one of the sheets of paper. His eyes turning glassy as he skimmed over the medical terms, the numbers and units meaning nothing to him.

"Forgive my curiosity, but did we dock in port?"

"We did," Arthur allowed, answering slowly and carefully. He wasn't so paranoid to think that Gaius was a Conglomerate spy, but he harboured a secret fear that the Healer would leave them before fulfilling his end of the contract. Arthur had brokered Gaius' emigration from the Empire through trusted intermediaries for the low, low cost of treating an unnamed patient for an undisclosed illness. It was a bartered exchange of goods and skills that left Arthur feeling guilty for having the better end of the deal, but Arthur was a Pirate, and he meant to see himself paid in full. "Briefly. We're underway again."

"Ah," Gaius said, glancing down at the papers in his hands. He skimmed the contents as if only now finding an important detail, and he didn't raise his eyes to Arthur when he asked, "And Niall?"

"Niall?" Arthur asked. He feigned disinterest to cover up his frustration. He knew that the name was as fake as Olaf's left eye. Arthur didn't like the name. It didn't suit him at all.

Gaius' eyebrow inched upward. Considering how many questions Arthur had asked about the assassin, he was willing to allow that he deserved that raised brow for pretending he didn't know whom Gaius was talking about.

"Oh. Niall," Arthur said, shrugging. Gaius glanced up over the top edge of his papers, an eyebrow raised. "We left him behind. It was his port of call."

Gaius' brow rose to touch his hairline. Arthur found himself elaborating.

"He wanted to leave, so we let him go. We're Pirates, not slavers."

Gaius frowned, looking down at his papers. He put the sheets on the gurney and removed his glasses, leaning an arm against the surface.

"You're disappointed," Arthur guessed, because it was hard to miss on the Healer's expressive face. "You miss him."

Gaius half-chuckled, his chest heaving at some sort of private joke. "I suppose I do."

"He was contracted to assassinate you," Arthur pointed out. He felt as if he were embroiled in some sort of conspiracy -- everyone was suddenly on Niall's side, and not his. Arthur was the one who had engineered Gaius' escape. Arthur's man was the one who had been killed while waiting for Gaius. Arthur stayed behind to slow the White Legion down long enough to make certain that the Healer made it on board. The fact that the assassin had shown up to complement the plan that Arthur had painstakingly laid out was an afterthought, and not the cause of their success.

"He saved my life," Gaius said.

"You don't seem to understand," Arthur said. "He was paid to kill you."

A faint smile crossed Gaius' lips. He put his hands on his knees and stood up with a creaky groan. "No, I do not think that he would have."

Arthur stared. "Hired killer. Paid to assassinate people. To make them not alive anymore. To kill them dead. Why am I suddenly the villain in this scenario? How did everyone on my ship suddenly step over the line to his side?"

Gaius hesitated, reaching for a spiral-bound booklet that had the full compilation of Uther's health records, starting from the time that he was only the head of Clan Pendragon, and not the King-elect. "I cannot vouch for your crew and only speak for myself, but… I have a certain familiarity with the fellow. It seems as if I knew him, though we have never met before. There was something about him. I am not certain what it was, but I trust him."

"You trust him," Arthur repeated. The word settled comfortably in his chest. Trust. It was a good word. It was how Arthur felt toward the assassin. Inexplicably drawn, yes, but in the absence of truly knowing the man, the attraction could be waved away as the result of physical desire. But trust? Trust did not come easily to a Pirate, but trust, it was. He had been unable to shake the inexplicable trust that had waved away Leon's insistence that Arthur at least wear body armour if he were about to dangle himself in an assassin's cell like a tasty morsel in front of a hungry shark.

Arthur could fight all that he wanted against this irrational trust. He had many arguments with himself, using perfectly logical arguments about betrayal and loyalty and uncertain allegiances, but it was a losing battle. It rankled Arthur to hear how he felt described so precisely, and he covered it up by pinching his fingers on the bridge of his nose. When he dropped his hand, he caught Gaius giving him a strange look.

"What is it?"

Gaius started to speak but shook his head instead, smiling sadly to himself. "For a moment, you reminded me of someone I knew, once, a long time ago. In some ways, you even look like him."

Arthur bowed his head in a polite nod. "I hope he was a friend."

"A man I respected a great deal," Gaius said, sitting down again. He placed the booklet down, but didn't open it, playing with his glasses like a man lost in memory. "His passing was… tragic. It affected… an Empire."

Arthur wanted to laugh, because no one was important enough that their death would impact an entire civilization, but one look at the still-palpable grief in Gaius' expression forced him to swallow down the urge. He coughed awkwardly instead, and said, "I'm sorry to hear that. He must have been a good man."

"He was --"

The natural white light in the medical bay blinked off and blinked on again in a dull, monochromatic red. A low siren blare blasted through the ship.

"All hands on deck. Incoming enemy ships," Leon said over the 1MC. He sounded almost bored, and Arthur chuckled.

His smirk broadened when he saw how pale Gaius had become at the announcement. "Don't worry, Gaius. I promised you'd be safe, and you will be."

He barely acknowledged Gaius' nod before leaving the medical bay. He squeezed through a swarm of crewmen heading for the port weapons bay and hurried to the bridge.

Leon spotted him almost right away, ceding the Captain's chair. Lucan was alert on sensors, still adjusting his headgear, and Lance was swirling around in his seat, flicking a finger across several holo-consoles to shunt power to different sections of the ship.

"Shields up and spooling engines, Captain," Leon said, sliding into his seat. He activated the consoles and strapped on his belt as a matter of course. "Four Imperial Cruisers coming fast on our position. They didn't ping on the passive scans. I almost didn't see them."

"Getting an intermittent signal," Lucan complained. "What did you do to my sensors?"

"Completely reconfigured them while I was on dog watch last," Leon offered, grinning broadly. "Played a few rounds of Space Invaders. It was a boring shift."

Lucan squawked. "You didn't!"

"I didn't," Leon said, turning serious almost at once. "Check your sensors when this is over. Something's screwy with them. One second the cruisers weren't there, the next…"

Leon paused and gestured in a flourish toward the main vid screen before returning his attention to his consoles.

"Port weapons bay ready," Gwaine said.

"Starboard weapons ready," Perceval said.

"Why is it always the CorpsCops? I hate them. I hate them so much. Where's Geraint?" Galahad asked, craning his head for a look over his shoulder. "I outran these plonkers last time. It's his bloody turn."

As if saying his name was tantamount to summoning the genie, Geraint trudged onto the bridge, scratching his belly. His short hair stuck up on one side of his head, and he yawned noisily before buttoning up his shirt and tucking it into his trousers. He was in his stockings; he hadn't bothered with his boots. Geraint sat down in the pilot's seat, buckled himself in, and knuckled his eyes. "Where are we?"

"In space?" Gwaine said. "Yeah, I'm pretty sure we're in space."

Geraint gave Gwaine a two-fingered salute, unlocked his console and took over the controls, and dipped the ship in a whirlwind ribbon spiral to duck out of sensor lock. He took a moment to check their relative position before announcing -- a few minutes too late, "I have the helm."

"We've noticed," Arthur said dryly.

"How badly shall we humiliate the CorpsCops today?" Geraint asked.

As tempted as he was to show the Conglomerate's army how it was really done, Arthur reminded himself that they were here for something that exceeded their usual business-and-pleasure missions. "Lose them and fold us out of here. The sooner we get to the Kingsworld, the better."

"Aye, Captain," Geraint said, his tone subdued. "Is the nav up?"

"It's up," Galahad said, his brow pinched in concentration as he switched his display from helm controls to pure navigations. "Navigation active."

"Do me a favour and set a course."

Galahad typed in a few commands and coordinates. "Course set."

"FTL engines at maximum," Lance said.

Geraint lifted Excalibur's nose until they were on a sudden, peripheral course to the CorpsCops chasing after them, veering hard to starboard just as they matched course. Perceval fired off a few warning shots out their starboard-aft cannons to force the cruisers to dodge and change plotted course, gaining them a few precious seconds as Geraint jerked Excalibur in a nosedive sharp enough that Arthur felt the pressure of acceleration pushing him into his chair.

"Entering foldspace in three, two --"

There was a faint flash of blue-purple light across the vidscreen, a confusing overlay of stars, and a pleasant absence of CorpsCops. Geraint spent a few minutes securing the coordinates, exchanging quiet words with Galahad, and unbuckling himself from his chair.

"I'm going back to bed," he announced, pausing to salute Arthur with a lackadaisical flick of his hand.

"Weapons secure," Gwaine said, standing up abruptly. He was halfway across the bridge, leaving his seat swirling around behind him, and added, "I'm going to join him."

"No, you're not," Geraint called over his shoulder.

"Damn it," Gwaine said. He stared longingly at Geraint's retreating form before exchanging a long look with Arthur. "One day, I'll convince him."

Arthur smirked. "And on that day, I'll win the ship pool."

"With my luck," Gwaine said, heaving a despairing sigh that didn't quite go with the knowing glint in his eyes, "You'll bed your boy before I bed mine. Don't worry, Captain. We'll find him again."

Leon glanced over his shoulder with a raised brow. Lucan ducked his head and smirked. Perceval pointedly looked everywhere but at Arthur, his soft laughter barely muffled.

"Two cases of rum," Arthur snarled.

 


Chapter Five

Asterism: Freya's Bastet

Freya's Bastet

Location: Catha Spaceport, Uncontrolled Space

 

Chiku Shan, Merlin's agent in the Volante system, was killed eight system days after the contract on Gaius Wiltshire was supposed to have been completed. He was found hanging upside down, eviscerated from groin to throat, his guts dripping down onto a playground.

Copperfin, an associate who sometimes passed on assignments, nearly exclusively based in the Hadrian Wall cluster, was found dead one system day after Chiku Shan. He'd been losing at poker, but he'd died with a bloody smile around his throat. None of the other people at the table had seen who had killed him.

Kitty Five-Kills, who had more than five kills credited to her, and who wasn't really named Kitty, but Freya, was on planet Aurora 8 when Merlin found her. Her body was covered in second degree burns, her face swollen from the heat, and she'd been drowned three days after Copperfin.

Alator, the elusive underground agent who operated solely via the hacker Net and was virtually untraceable, turned up on Catha spaceport, surrounded by a bank of holographic screens, his brain activity powered by the ship's systems.

It was four days after Merlin had found Freya.

Too late to save Alator.

He'd been posed.

Alator was sitting in a plush purple faux-leather chair, his knees slightly apart, his hands on the armrests, his head tilted in mocking contemplation. His eyes were glazed with death, and not with the distance that came with being perpetually jacked in. His mouth was slack as if in mid-word, and blood dripped from a fingertip and onto the floor.

Alator hadn't been dead long.

The three-dee was playing in a split-screen of a footie match between New Amsterdam and Manchester Seven, broadcasted from the stadium three systems over, and a hacked ship security vid stream pointed at the rental's door. If Alator had been paying attention, there was no way that he could have missed an assassin. There was only one easy way in.

Merlin pinched the bridge of his nose until he couldn't feel the dull throb in his head anymore, but it didn't do anything against the pain of knowing that all these people had died because of him.

Chiku Shan had always known the quickest and fastest way to contact Merlin. Copperfin wasn't much of an assassin, but he knew how to evaluate a contract and ensure that it went to the right person. Alator had been the one to pass on the contract, and there was no sense in Freya's death, no way to associate her to him, until Merlin realized that he'd been at Kitty's courtesan house when he'd received notice of the contract, too busy trading stories with her over warmed mead to really pay attention to the details.

Someone was eliminating every source that Merlin could possibly use to track the owner of the contract, but Freya…

Freya had been a warning. A hint of things to come. A threat that everything Merlin held dear would be destroyed, that he would be next.

As if the great assassin, Emrys could be so easily cowed.

Merlin rose from his crouch with a suppressed growl. It was one thing to set him up. It was quite another to attempt to kill him in the process. Eliminating the go-betweens who were involved in putting the contract in Merlin's hands was just one of the many hazards of the trade. It was Chiku Shan's own damn fault that he'd forgotten his own precautions and that Alator had gotten sloppy and had been found somewhere outside of the virtual.

But it was something else entirely when they went after Merlin's friends.

There was something here that he wasn't seeing. He couldn't help remembering Arthur's questions.

Who are you? What do they want with you?

On the surface, he was Emrys, one of the most elusive, sought-after and hunted assassins in the Empire. There existed no trace of him on the Net, no one dared claim having seen his face, and any and every attempt to capture him had ended in tears. Not Merlin's, of course.

I'm nobody. He was the last of his line, and once he was gone, his House would die. Hundreds of thousands of years of collective knowledge, training, and magic would disappear, vanished into the ether. Perhaps someday, a ship would stumble upon the planet where the House was hidden and find the old texts, the digital files, the people who had managed to survived without the head of the nearly extinct bloodline.

Whatever they unearthed would remain as relics of an era of glory that had ended in shame. The words on the pages of the books authored by the old Masters would be little else but indecipherable symbols that not even the most sophisticated intergalactic translator could crack. Those books were written in the shadow language, and the only ones who could read it by right of genetic memory were of his House, however few remained.

And those among the traitorous White Legion who shared that blood.

Goddamn it.

Merlin stared at the holo-screen. He ignored the footie game and stared at the live streaming vid of the front entrance.

It wasn't who he was. It was what he knew.

What that was, exactly, Merlin didn't know, and it would take him a millennia to guess. Even he didn't know the cumulative history of the House of Shadows.

But he knew who would.

Merlin glanced at Alator's body. He took Alator's left arm and tapped the implanted wrist console. "Alator? Are you there?"

Alator's lips were a strange shade of blue and grey. His eyes were bloodshot and yellow. His skin was pale, marbling around the throat. Blood settled in his body, leaving him with a reverse blush that was sickly and unappealing.

There was no answer to his question, though he wasn't entirely certain that he expected one. Alator might have lived half in the Net, half in reality -- and even then, Merlin was being generous with the ratio -- but he wouldn't have known to leave a message for Merlin with his ghost in the machine. Whoever had killed him had either taken advantage of Alator's distraction in the virtual, or hadn't given Alator the time to program a warning.

Merlin left Alator the way he had found him.

The killer had come and gone in mere minutes. Merlin could picture it in his mind's eye -- a quick break through the security lock, because even the Net couldn't prevent a manual override; four steps from the doorway to the chair; a needle in the throat. Four steps in reverse, a quick exit, the reset of the door lock.

A great deal of foreknowledge would have been needed to execute this kill.

Merlin glanced at the security stream on the holo.

Foreknowledge. Or surveillance.

It occurred to Merlin that if someone was taking great pains to eliminate every avenue that might lead back to them, the only reason that they would have taken time out from hunting down Alator to kill Freya was to get his attention.

The security stream flicked.

Merlin's hand went to his pulse gun on reflex. He pulled the shadows in the room all around him and moved out of the way out of sheer instinct.

A barrage of bolts struck the area where he'd been only a fraction of a second ago. Alator's head jerked forward with enough force to throw his body forward in a slump.

Someone came into the room.

Nearly two metres in height. One hundred thirty kilo, not counting roughly thirty to forty kilo of armour and weapons. White solid plate armour over seventy percent of his body, the remnants articulated reinforced netting at the joints. A fitted three-dimensional helmet operating on the pure electronic, without openings for vision or air. A coarse green-grey cloak crackled with camouflage, struggling to maintain mirroring with the background as its wearer moved fast into the room.

White Legion.

The bolts had come from a prehensile extrusion of his left forearm; a faint click confirmed a reload. The helmet twisted from side to side to scan the room. The man's arm dropped in hesitation, in confusion. His prey was no longer there. Merlin was no longer there.

The door slid shut behind the commando.

The door.

Slid shut.

Behind him.

A smile and a scowl warred for dominance on Merlin's face.

There were two types of soldiers in the White Legion: those who had betrayed the House of Shadows and taken all their skills and magic with them, and those who had proved themselves worthy to join the ranks of men who served a Conglomerate in exchange for a pocketful of silver instead of an Emperor out of love and loyalty.

This soldier had no Shadow magic. He was no son of a traitor. He was a man, pure and simple, stationed here with the hopes of luring Emrys into the open, taking advantage of the situation in the unlikely hope to use it to propel himself up the echelon of rank. Merlin knew his type.

An easy opponent. Too easy.

It was insulting.

Merlin dropped the shadows and fired the pulse gun in the same motion. The commando moved -- snake-fast, enhanced by modified genetics and superior armour mechanics -- but he moved wrong.

Right into Merlin's anticipated line of fire.

The bolts on the commando's forearm shot out, one by one, all in slow motion, no doubt triggered by targeting technology that operated outside conscious thought. They exploded, one by one, in a domino cascade.

The flash threw the commando's arm back, but the armour engaged stabilizer magnets and kept him upright. His arm wasn't blown off, but the crisp white of the plate from fingertip to shoulder was discoloured and the articulation netting at the joints was smouldering.

The commando's armour had fixed him in place; Merlin would be remiss not to take advantage. He fired again.

And again.

The first shot hit the commando square in the torso, a black scorch mark running down the torso before the power output was rerouted from the magnets to a modulated shield. The second shot was absorbed into the force field, but Merlin knew the blast would be enough to blur the commando's vision with the retorting power buzz.

Merlin closed the distance between them, holstering his gun, drawing punch knives in both hands. The commando's force field cleared, and the armour's automatic reflex blocked Merlin's first blow before restoring control to the human driving it. The man's reactions were sluggish, at first, still disoriented by the disharmonized force field, and Merlin got in close enough that the soldier couldn't initiate the armour's power weapons.

The force field dropped, like Merlin expected. He punched.

The short blades of the punch daggers were a nano-sharpened microfibre of a type superior to those used in surgery, too sharp to be safely handled, outlawed in seven galaxies. The edges cut through the tough plate armour layer, through the secondary body armour, and compromised the suit's seal, but did no real damage to the man beneath.

A bruise, maybe a scratch.

But the main control cluster was located in the lower right quadrant of the White Legion's armour, and cutting to the core gave Merlin the results he wanted.

The armour fritzed.

Sparked.

The soldier swung his arm to free himself; Merlin danced away obligingly before coming in for a fast six-punch strike -- upper left torso, just under the collarbone; disarticulated elbow guard, right arm; the paper-thin joint at the left groin; the sliver of body armour visible just under the right armpit; the fragile joint at the left wrist; the slide-connection of helmet to plate at the right side of the man's throat.

The commando staggered. There was a shriek-flash as one of his armour's defensive capabilities came online and immediately failed, a strangled sound as the armour attempted to seal the new openings, a creak-smash as the forty extra kilograms of unnecessary weapon weight dragged him to the ground. The commando raised a weak arm to block Merlin's next blow, and Merlin struck in a rapid left-right punch until the face-plate was completely smashed in.

Imperial body armour was designed to protect the wearer in combat. It was also designed to prioritize the wearer's life in a compromised environment. The onboard AI wasn't necessarily smart enough to determine what a compromised environment was -- only that the wearer was in danger.

It immediately retaliated by increasing the internal pressure to compensate for the constricted helmet. The few injuries that Merlin had scored were deep and dangerous, trickle-tear points near major arteries and organs, and with just the right change in pressure --

Merlin moved out of the way as the armour expanded. The commando froze, his body going rigid, before spasming once, twice, and --

Collapsing like a rag doll.

A faint beep filled the air.

Merlin sheathed his weapons and moved toward the exit. He glanced at the security feed on the holo-vid and saw the same, familiar flicker of an interrupted feed that had heralded the arrival of the first soldier.

He swung left, hugging the wall, pulling the shadows around him just as the doors slid open. Three White Legion soldiers marched through.

And stopped dead. They took in the scene.

A fellow soldier face-down on the ground, white armour smeared with the black ash of pulse weapon fire, swollen even at the articulated joints where the onboard AI triggered internal pressure corrections to seal the inner suit, blood trickling out of open cuts because the suit couldn't contain it all.

Station gravity pulled Alator's weight until it slid off the edge of the chair and thumped three times -- knee, torso, head -- on the ground.

The soldiers, spooked, on high-alert, opened fire on Alator.

Merlin slipped out of the room just as the doors automatically slid shut.

It wouldn't take the White Legion long to realize that Merlin was no longer in the room, and Merlin got moving quick. He clung to the shadows until he was out of the range of the security feed outside Alator's room, emerging in a service corridor immediately before a civilian footpath. He counted several beats before chancing a look around the corner, and, seeing no one in official uniform, stepped out behind a group of men wearing blue coveralls. He kept his head down, changed directions frequently, and worked his way out of the pleasure section of the station before accessing one of the terminals.

Merlin checked first for alerts. He found none. He didn't think there would be any alerts as long as this particular station was in the unrestricted zone, right outside Imperial space, but even the smallest blip in the system could indicate a shutdown somewhere else.

The White Legion worked in squads of threes. The Elite worked alone or with a complement of three. Three soldiers had come into the room after their wayward comrade. That meant either there were two more White Legion commandos running loose and unaccounted for, or there were two Elites with two complements and two extra wayward soldiers somewhere on the station.

Merlin ran his finger down the terminal database and connected to the port. He skimmed the list, hoping to find answers, wanting to know what he was up against. There were plenty of ships with fake IDs out this way, and he couldn't hope for an Imperial ship to register under their proper name, but someone up in the command centre of the station made a habit of scanning ship categories, and --

Two Imperial cruisers were at port. A cruiser rarely carried more than a single Elite and their complement or more than two Needler squads. Merlin recalculated his odds.

He was up against either two Elites and six soldiers -- five, now that he'd disabled one -- or there were only five more soldiers trawling the station for him.

Merlin swore.

He was neither equipped for those kinds of odds, nor secure enough in his position on this station to have sufficient escape routes prepared. It was time to leave.

Preferably on a ship faster than the Imperial cruisers.

He double-checked the port complement while he considered his options. There were a few small ships docked in port, but none that he could pilot himself. A few more were leaving -- slow transports, trawlers, merchant ships -- but in the opposite direction of where he wanted to go, and they were typically among the first to throw down arms and open their hatches wide whenever the Imperials came knocking for an inspection. There were a few cruiser-class ships, smaller than the Imperials, one of them with a familiar engine configuration that was used as a mask for an illegal slipstream drive --

Merlin checked the transponder code for the slipstream ship. He blinked and checked the transponder code again.

It was the Unpleasant Surprise.

Will.

Merlin knew he couldn't be this lucky. Will rarely came out this way, preferring to work as an intermediary between the mercenaries and the outer reaches -- the colonies who were so far-flung from Imperial space and produced materials that the Conglomerate had long deemed illegal, but were in high demand regardless. If Will was here, it was because he had a cargo hold to unload.

Which meant a lighter ship and a faster getaway, if only Merlin could convince him to take on a single passenger.

Merlin stilled. This was too perfect, too pat. He ran it through his head once, twice, three times, but he couldn't remember an occasion when he might have slipped up and hinted that he had any kind of association with Will. If anything, he had always gone out of his way to avoid Will, and that had done wonders for their friendship. And yet, they were friends regardless, one willing to do anything for the other, even to come to the rescue.

Merlin's rescue.

"Fuck," Merlin breathed. Will might be a careless, flippant arse, but he was careful. There was a reason why he'd never ended up in someone's brig, why he'd never gotten jacked by Pirates or mercenaries or so-called law-abiding citizens who just wanted a piece of easy money. Will was smart, and he was loyal -- he would never have even joked about knowing an assassin, never mind Merlin. Not even if he were drunk. Not even if he were drugged. Not even if he were bragging at the dice table, trying to one-up everyone else.

Not even if he was angry with Merlin because Merlin had ignored him yet again.

But Freya…

Freya knew them both. Had known them both. Dinner at her loft. Free billets at her courtesan house, even if Will only ever used them with Freya and Merlin didn't partake in pleasures of flesh unless he was absolutely certain that they were completely anonymous. They might have pretended that they'd only just met, but it was hard to cover up the ease that they had with each other, and Freya wouldn't have missed that.

And Will, the wanker… he might have admitted to Freya that he'd known Merlin since they were boys.

"Fuck. Fuck." Merlin's hands clenched tight, the knuckles cracking. This was a trap, with Will as a lure. Whoever was coming after Merlin would know that Merlin had found the others by now -- Chiku Shan, Copperfin, Freya, Alator -- and that he wouldn't miss the connection between Will's mysterious presence here and the deaths of those who were associated with him.

"Fuck." Merlin's fist came down hard, shadow-sheathed in a cutting blade, and both dented and sliced the metal panel next to the console. He couldn't let someone else die because of him. He couldn't let someone else die for him.

And he wasn't going to lose Will. Not Will. Aside from a handful of people who remained at the House of Shadows, Will was the only person who knew Merlin, and the idea of losing him was on par with losing himself.

Merlin bombed the terminal with fake trails, including a search on a transport, the purchase of three tickets on three different ships, and an uncomfortable scrutiny of the Imperial cruisers docking station before glancing around.

Two white-armoured commandos rounded the corner at the end of the roundabout. A third one joined them from a perpendicular route.

Someone cried out, "Shite! Needlers!"

The crowd scattered. Civilians and not-so-civilians mobbed the central core. There was honour among thieves, and in this case, the honour was in slowing down the White Legion and giving the poor, targeted bastard -- whoever he was -- a chance to escape.

Merlin used the distraction. He shadowed across the centre, ducking and dodging past the swarm of people covering up for those who had something to hide, and ran across the terminal until he reached the elevators. He didn't wait for the antigrav platform to arrive. He cracked the tube open and let himself fall.

Guidance lights flashed as he dropped; Merlin counted them until he reached twenty, and cast a sufficiently large shadow around himself to mimic an elevator platform. The sensors detected the shape as Merlin fell further and faster; the emergency safeties triggered and reversed gravity, slowing him down.

He was stopped on the lowest port level, as calculated. The doors slid open and Merlin stepped out as casually as possible, dismissing the shadow, brushing himself off. A round man with a balding M-pattern brushed past him to get to the elevator. Merlin grabbed his collar and pulled him back before he fell to his death.

"Oi! What's wrong with the lift?"

Merlin gave him a Do I look like I work here, mate shrug and kept walking.

He scanned the wide-open hangar space, ducking past antigrav transports hauling cargo -- both spaceport-mandated and in transit -- between the station holds to the ships. Workers in orange and blue and black coveralls brushed past him heading the other way; a woman in a bright red uniform and a hard hat shouted into her comms and raced across the platform. Merlin kept his head down, his stride steady, and looked up every so often to check for Will's slipstream.

Merlin helped himself to an unattended comm set, looped his own setup through the broadcast, and flicked through the channels until he was listening to the station's alert frequency.

He walked past an Imperial cruiser, the nose painted a foreboding black, the issue number covered up with enough camouflage plating to make it look like it was a completely different ship altogether. There were two dressed-down undercover Blues patrolling the airlock, but they barely glanced up as Merlin walked past them with a group of port mechanics dressed in black coveralls.

Merlin moved faster as soon as he was out of direct line of sight.

"Will. Will. Where the fuck did you dock, Will?" Merlin muttered. Will wouldn't be caught dead on the upper passenger platforms, and he wouldn't come within a light-year of the merchant dock. He had to be on this level, because nothing else would suit him -- proximity to the nearest dive bar, associates who would happily turn off the security feed during certain dubious transactions, and, as a bonus, there was always an Imperial cruiser docked nearby.

Will liked operating right under their noses. He would flaunt his illegal wares one day, only to have completely divested himself of contraband before the Blues ever caught up to him when he crossed into Imperial space. It was a miracle that he hadn't been thrown in a brig by now.

His nonchalant flamboyance was the reason that the House of Shadows no longer used Will as transport from their exiled planet. There was no doubt of Will's loyalty. Will wouldn't give them up, not even under pain of torture, not even if the Imperial sorcerers used arcane arts to pry the coordinates of the new Shadow homeworld from his memory, but they couldn't run the risk that Will would be followed by the CorpsCops.

There was a flash of grey to Merlin's left. Merlin ducked his head and touched the shadows in the well of a wide freighter, exhaling in relief.

A piece of equipment, nothing more.

Merlin kept moving. He snatched someone's overcoat, large and bulky and reeking of engine lubricant and human fluids, and put it on. Beggars couldn't be choosers, and assassins ducking the White Legion had no choice at all.

He had nearly walked the entire outer ring before he spotted the familiar slipstream. The ship was full of smooth lines and sharp planes, the outer plates a shiny silver marred by the blowback of live arms fire. There was no name on the outside of the ship, no visible flag of alliance, provenance, or association, and the sleekness of the Unpleasant Surprise had attracted Pirates and privateers on more than one occasion for more than the possibility of what was in its holds.

But Will was nothing short of brilliant. No one could get on board without his say-so. There was an electrified field at the loading bay that not even Merlin could get past -- and Merlin knew it existed only because Will had tested it on him.

Merlin switched the borrowed comms to the control tower and switched to the private frequency to the Unpleasant Surprise's berth.

"Hiho, Tower," Will said, his voice open and cheerful, hiding a cautious edge. "How can I help you this fine evening? Did you forget to charge the premium percentage on the docking fees? Did Earem tell you that I didn't pay the grease? Oh, shite. I bet this is about Charlotte? This is about Charlotte. I knew that wasn't her real name, it sounded too classy. I promise I treated her with the respect a girl like her deserves --"

Merlin shook his head. Will hadn't changed one bit. He didn't bother to disguise his voice when he said, "Actually, this is the port authority letting you know that your passenger has arrived."

"The fuck you mean my passenger? I'm not -- wait. Who is this? Is this Jem? Jemmy? You owe me money, you bleeding wanker, not the other way around --"

"Will. I'm coming in. Disable the field."

"What field?" Will asked, feigning ignorance. Merlin had gotten through the outer airlock by the time Will caught up with what Merlin said. "Oh, shit. Fuckinghell, Ems. Where have you been? I've been here six bloody days. Six -- and that's not even a standard day, this fucked up station's got some racket going, calling eighteen hours a day. Have you any idea of the fees I've been paying, sitting in dock like a numpty? You were supposed to be here four days ago -- and that's four standard days. Give me five seconds --"

Merlin frowned. Will had been waiting for him? Was this some sort of trap? Had he just walked into the lion's den, and there would be Elite waiting for him when he walked onto the ship?

He decided that he didn't have any choice. If there were Elites waiting for him, it was still better than dealing with a full complement of White Legion all at once. He'd rather face two than six, and he'd rather face six than twelve, even if the Elites were those among the Legion with shadow skills and who could, potentially, take him down.

Merlin scanned the port before shutting the outer airlock. He bounded across the boarding plank and into the ship, pulling the shadows around him before anyone could spot him through the clear walkway.

The hatch rolled shut right behind him, the electrical field igniting so fast that it had the hair on the back of Merlin's neck standing up on end.

"Fuckinghell," Will said, his voice sounding tinny over the ship's intercom. "You all right, mate? Can I bloody well take off now? There's Imperials on the station or you'd be finding me at the Hollows drinking them dry."

"Why are you here?" Merlin asked. He stretched his senses -- already raw and throbbing from being used so much over the last few hours -- and found nothing but the ship's usual complement of one. Will was on one of the upper decks, and it sounded as if he were moving toward the bridge.

"What do you mean, why am I here? I'm here because I got your message." A rumbling beep -- the ship's warning that engines were warming up -- echoed down the corridor. Merlin reached the ladder and leaped up, taking two rungs at a time.

"I didn't send you a message," Merlin said, stopping. He thought he'd heard a ping that was distinct and out of place on the usually quiet slipstream. "Is something wrong with your ship?"

"Had to take a wrench to the left starboard engine when Port started asking why I wasn't hauling arse out of here after I dropped my last load. The Blues were sniffing around -- not that you'd know, they're wearing civvies just like any other Joe Schmoe, but I caught them taking vids. One of them wanted a bloody tour. I know slipstreams are Old School, but I'm not a fucking museum!"

There was a long pause. The engine pitch shifted; that faint ping faded into the background hum.

"Wait a minute. What do you mean, you didn't send me a message?"

"When do I ever send you a message?" Merlin asked, crossing another corridor to get to the next ladder. The slipstream had been designed with alternating levels, with openings at cross-hatches, purportedly for improved structural stability. Merlin wouldn't know if that were true or not. All he knew was that it made it inconvenient to get from one place to another in a hurry. "I call. I don't leave messages."

"You call," Will snorted. "When was the last time you called? I swear, Ems, you treat me like I treat my birds. Can't be bothered with me when you're busy being the universe's most badass assassin, but the minute you need me, oh, that's when you conveniently remember my comm-code -- so the message's not from you? Who the fuck left it for me, then?"

"Shut your gob and get us out of here," Merlin said, pulling himself up the last level. The bridge was at the end of the corridor and took up a good half of the main ship; it was big and sprawling, with holo-controls displayed in easy reach of the sole pilot on board. "The sooner, the better. If they've noticed this ship --"

"They've probably tagged it, yeah, yeah, I know," Will said, waving his hand in the air as if he were dismissing a servant. He turned to look at Merlin and spread his hands. "What kind of rubbish is going on?"

"The kind of rubbish that'll blow us out of the bloody sky if you don't get us underway," Merlin snapped. He was already moving toward the nearest console. "The kind that got Alator killed for taking the wrong contract. The kind that got Freya killed just for knowing me."

Will froze.

In less dire circumstances, Merlin would have told Will that he hadn't changed one bloody bit. He still wore the same brown breeches, the same light-coloured shirt rolled up at the sleeves, suspenders discarded and hanging loose around his hips. His boots had a few more scuffs to them, but had been polished within an inch of their life recently, and there were a few more cuts and scrapes and weapon burns on Will's corded forearms. He was in desperate need of a haircut -- as usual. He hadn't shaved -- as usual. He hadn't bathed in the last few days -- as usual.

Same old Will. Same old, trustworthy Will, who meant well and would never betray Merlin and who wouldn't lead the enemy to the House of Shadows homeworld if he could help it. Same old Will, who would jump across a bloody galaxy just because Merlin needed help.

"Freya? Freya's dead?"

Merlin sank in the Captain's chair, feeling suddenly a thousand times heavier. He might not have been the one to pull the trigger, but all the assassinations -- particularly Freya's -- weighed on his soul.

"I'm sorry, Will. I know you --" loved her, Merlin didn't say. He didn't get a chance to, because Will took a strangled breath and turned away, calling up the main console again.

There was a forced, reverberating clunk when the airlock disengaged and fell away; the slipstream drifted in the gravity of the station's orbit before Will made a twisting gesture with his right hand and slapped his left forward, turning the engines on full power and arcing the ship's nose down at an angle that would take them around the station's central belly.

"It's a trap. I'm sorry. They're using you to get to me --"

"Then let them," Will snarled. "Why do you think I've retrofitted the Unpleasant Surprise? To ward off a thick-neck trying to board and steal my load? What do you take me for? I'm not blind. I know what you're doing, this fucking suicide revenge mission that you're on, killing off all the White bloody Legion --"

The ship wrenched a hard starboard, the pitch too sudden for the antigravs to kick in and adjust, and Merlin was nearly thrown out of the chair. Will was stock-still, rooted to the ground, and it wasn't until Will swung the display around and adjusted the ship's coordinates that Merlin remembered the mag plates in Will's boots.

"-- they were bound to come after you, you goddamn numpty. You and the House and everyone who bloody well knows you. You think it was my idea to quit shuttling supplies to the new digs when I took this ship over from my dad? I don't know what the Masters told you, but it was my idea to leave. No one made me go. I went because I wanted to protect you."

The slipstream spiralled and adjusted course; a new holo-screen popped up, red and flashing. Will turned around; the holo-screen swept past at dizzying speeds as Will waved his hand in the air, scrolling through the three-sixty gyro view, craning his head up until he spotted the Imperial cruisers coming after them.

"I never asked you to protect me!"

"Oh, so you'd be fine with them using me against you? Why are you here then?" Will stared at Merlin, hands on his hips, the ship still running from the Blues and the White Legion who were quickly catching up to them. "Could've given me a call, told me what was going on. Should've stayed on the bloody station, gotten a lift with someone else, anything. Let me sit and rot in port while they're watching my arse, get yourself somewhere safe --"

"Are you bloody mad? 'Course I'm not going to let them get to you, but --" Merlin glanced at the distance readout between the cruisers and the slipstream. "Can you get us out of here? I'm really uncomfortable with the idea of two Imperial ships charging up their missiles to blow us into another fucking dimension."

"Brilliant idea," Will said, giving Merlin a pointed look. "You sit and look pretty and… don't touch anything."

Will turned around. He called up the controls; a panel in the floor clicked and a platform rose all around Will, surrounding him with physical replicas of the overhead holos. He locked the gyro view in place, pushed it into the background, and called up the navigation. The pilot controls were on the platform, more precise and sensitive than the ship's three-dee motion sensors.

Will cracked his fingers one by one, keeping an eye on the small streaming holo of the cruisers coming up behind them at seven o'clock low and three o'clock high.

Merlin's hands dug into the arms of the chair. Shadows streamed up out of sheer reflex and bound him to the seat just as the slipstream did an abrupt dogfighting down, flipping itself like a pancake on a grill, and charged at the nearest cruiser.

Merlin closed his eyes tight. He could almost feel the stutter-shock of passing projectiles whizzing past the slipstream, even though such a thing wasn't possible in space. He opened his eyes again, and it wasn't better than in his overactive imagination -- in the three-sixty gyro view, Merlin could see the missiles flashing past far too close for comfort.

"Never asked you to protect me," Will mocked under his breath.

"I didn't," Merlin snapped. "I can take care of myself. Are the shields up?"

"Are the shields up, he asks," Will said, laughing. "Are the bloody shields up? Of course the bloody shields are up, and you're doing a bang-up job of taking care of yourself right now, aren't you?"

"I got myself here, didn't I?"

In the chicken game between cruiser and slipstream, with the cruiser at least twice the size of the Unpleasant Surprise, the cruiser blinked first and veered off out of the slipstream's path. The second cruiser was right on their tail, the first one did an awkward U-turn in a wobbly figure-eight, and they were heading right for the station.

"And walked right into a trap that you knew about, with no way out of it," Will pointed out, taking his hands off the controls. The ship slowed down and drooped suddenly, like a ship on a short anchor, and did a complicated maneuver that had them right behind both cruisers.

Merlin felt a little green. If the shadows weren't holding him down on the chair, he would've been a smear on the bridge's ceiling.

"Don't sell yourself short. You're my way out, aren't you?"

Will had his hands on the controls for half a second before he dropped them again, turning to face Merlin. His expression was thunderous. "What?"

"Sure, I could've done all those things you said. I could've called and given you a heads-up. I could've hopped another ship off the station. I could've been four systems over before they even knew I was gone, and fucking hell we're going to crash --"

Will flicked a hand in the air and jabbed a few spots on the console in front of him. The slipstream jerked left, out of the path of a slow-moving transport accelerating away from the station.

"And what?" Will asked, too calm and composed for Merlin's tastes.

"And they would've killed you anyway, Will. Or they would've caught up to me when I'm on one of those geriatric haulers," Merlin said, waving a hand wildly in the air before jerking it back close to his body, in case the motion sensors mistook him for Will. "Where would I be then? If you ask me, between one of those grunts and the best bloody pilot in sixteen galaxies --"

"Only sixteen?" Will gaped. "Only sixteen?"

"There's this bird who's a crack flyer out in the Valle Reaches," Merlin said. "Name's Isolde, you'd like her, but her First Mate's an arse -- anyway, will you bloody well get us out of here already?"

"No, no, keep laying it on nice, Ems. Butter me up some," Will said, crossing his arms. The slipstream must have been following a pre-programmed escape route, because it blared a proximity warning before side-spiralling away from a few small ships shooting out from the station.

Merlin blanched, recognizing the single-transport Needles. The White Legion wouldn't be able to force-dock onto the Unpleasant Surprise without either of them noticing, but it was still a situation that they wanted to avoid.

"Tell me how I'm the best bloody pilot in sixteen galaxies -- no, make that the entire universe -- and fuckshit --" Will grabbed the controls, and they narrowly missed impacting with a barrage of missiles.

"Oh my Shades," Merlin blurted out. "I'd rather walk into a trap with the best bloody pilot on the fastest ship in the entire universe because at least then I've got a halfway decent chance of getting out of this alive."

He threw up his arms out of sheer reflex, screwing his eyes shut, not wanting to see the last bright white blast when they flew right into a minefield. There was a sharp jerk that threw him nearly out of the chair again; it became an impossible weight crushing him into the seat a second later before he was hanging, nearly upside-down, the shadows the only thing keeping him in place.

And suddenly, it was all smooth sailing, the slipstream humming along, the engines taking on a certain quiet pitch, the skin surface practically whistling as it cut through space using faster-than-dark-energy.

Merlin opened one eye.

Then the other.

Will was casually checking his fingernails, buffing them on his shirt before studying them again. The control platform whirred down to its home position, and when it clicked into place, Will dropped his hand and grinned.

"See what a little sweet-talking will get you?"

"You're a bloody arse," Merlin muttered, the shadows fading from around him.

"That I am," Will said, his grin fading. "So. How about you tell me what's going on, right from the beginning?"

 


Chapter Six

Constellation: Avalon

Avalon

Location: Clan Pendragon Homeworld, Pirate Space

 

Arthur had been banished from Uther's rooms.

Gaius had wanted to see his patient as soon as the Excalibur landed on Clan Pendragon's homeworld. Since showing the Healer to his father's rooms, Arthur hadn't heard from him again, except for a few requests for medical supplies.

He leaned against the balcony railing, bowed his head, and for what seemed to be the millionth time, prayed.

Arthur and his father didn't have the best relationship. Arthur remembered a childhood fraught with an absent father off fighting a war, the constant upheaval of movement between planets, between ships, between star systems. He remembered living shipside with an assortment of minders that evolved from the nurses who read him bedtime stories, tutors who taught him everything from Imperial politics to Pirate laws, and armsmasters who drilled him mercilessly, fashioning Arthur into a warrior.

Through it all, Uther Pendragon had been a looming presence, distant and foreboding, rarely offering a kind world to even his own child. Sometimes, sometimes, Arthur would catch Uther looking at him with pride, even approval, and those had been the moments that he lived for.

Anyone else, Arthur knew, would be pleased at the prospect of coming out from under their father's long shadow, but not him. While Uther reigned as Pirate King, Arthur led Clan Pendragon, speaking for their homeworld and their allies at council meetings, and although his father never interfered with Arthur's decisions, he had always, always been there to offer guidance and advice.

The thought of losing a detached, but still ever-present influence in his life was frightening to Arthur.

Returning to the homeworld with Gaius and finding his father locked up in his chambers after nearly collapsing in front of the other Pirate Clans had been downright terrifying. Not only did Uther loathe showing weakness -- and with rights, too, because the other Pirates were bloody vultures just waiting to pick on his corpse -- Uther feared the aftermath if the heads of every Clan learned how ill he really was.

At the faintest hint of weakness, at the first sign that the crown was slipping from Uther's brow, the heads of the Clans would engage in a tumultuous power grab that would escalate from underhanded whispers to outright civil war. If that happened -- if the Pirates lost the fragile cohesion that had endured for the last twenty years, the Imperial Conglomerate would fly their flagship and squadrons of fighters across unclaimed space and decimate them all.

The Pirates had stood an united front for this long. They'd been a thorn in the Empire's side. They'd resisted Imperial expansion and thrived.

This time of prosperity and fragile peace wouldn't last if the Clans were so preoccupied by their personal agenda and power grabs that they wouldn't see the Empire coming. Arthur couldn't -- wouldn't -- lose what his father had worked so hard to preserve, even if it meant risking himself to find the answer to whatever ailed Uther.

It was some sort of miracle that no one outside of Clan Pendragon and a few trusted friends had learned that Uther wasn't merely sick. That he was dying. But Arthur wasn't an idiot. Someone, somewhere, knew that Uther was ill. Someone, somewhere, was already secretly planning to overthrow the current Pirate King before he was even cold in his grave.

The Pirates operated under a chaotic semi-democratic, completely ridiculous government headed by self-named elected royalty and guided by a set of laws so convoluted that it made even Arthur's head spin. The only times that Arthur had ever seen the Pirates set their differences aside long enough to look beyond their personal treasure piles was when Uther called the armada to arms against enemy marauders and the Empire. If Uther died, that tenuous cooperation would end.

There would be a call for a new King, each Pirate nominating themselves and presenting their cases. It would be put to a vote and everyone would vote for themselves, over and over again, until each of them began to make deals under the table or attempted to assassinate their most fierce opponents, and…

It would go to war, Arthur knew. It always went to war. Before Uther Pendragon came along and won their votes, the different Clans had fought between themselves for almost two years, each vying for the throne.

When the Empire was still an Empire and not a Conglomerate, the Pirates had been left well enough alone. But with the Imperial Conglomerate now in power, casting its nets ever outward for riches and glory and subversion, the Pirates could not afford to go to war.

None of the other Clans would see it that way if Uther died, Arthur knew. Among the Pirates, a power grab for a single Clan was greater than the safety of the whole.

"You look tired," Morgana said.

"I am tired," Arthur said, standing up. He cast one last glance over the horizon and wondered when the last time was that he had sailed the clear aquamarine waters and felt the salty wind against his skin.

It had been too long.

Morgana LeFay was one of the strongest Seers among all the Pirate Clans, and, as a Seer, had the autonomy and independence to move between Clans as she saw fit. Arthur had never understood why she had come to the Pendragon homeworld the day that Uther had been named King, and he would never understand why she refused to leave, but he knew better than to ask. Morgana would tell him what he needed to know and only when she felt it necessary for him to know, usually in the most infuriating of incomplete riddles.

"I heard that you found him," Morgana said, tilting her head. Her long wavy hair was a dark contrast against the lavender of her dress, her eyes a faded grey-green against pale skin, like the salted jade that sometimes turned up on the white beach in the winter. The silver chains around her throat only made her all the more ethereal and unapproachable.

They were a study of contrasts, the two of them -- like night and day, cold and warmth, distant and inviting. They were neither friends nor lovers, neither allies nor enemies, and yet they might be as close as siblings on some days, distant as strangers on others.

Morgana told him that it was the visions, that sometimes she would see him do terrible things, and during those times, she was afraid of him.

He tried very hard not to make her afraid.

"I did. It was a near thing. The Healer is with Uther now," Arthur said. He glanced at her curiously; she would already know that.

"Not Gaius," Morgana said, and with that, she turned to face the ocean, closing her eyes, her fingers tight around the stone railing. Her nails dug into the stone, her knuckles were white, and there was a tightness around her mouth -- all signs of irritation.

With him.

"You're such an idiot. Why did you let him go?"

"Who?"

Morgana glared at him; for an instant, it seemed her eyes shone gold in the sunlight streaming through the clouds. It was a sign of having Seen something, however briefly. "He's in danger."

Arthur didn't say anything. Maybe if he didn't ask, Morgana might tell him who she was talking about.

"He saved your life once. And if you survive until you find him again, he'll keep saving your life. Why couldn't you have gotten your head out of your arse long enough to save him?" Morgana turned, her hip against the railing. Arthur had to look away under the weight of her disappointment.

"I have no idea what you're on about, Morgana. I never do."

The arched eyebrow was all that Arthur needed to know he should have kept his mouth shut and waited Morgana out. Her slippers didn't make a sound on the rough stone floor as she approached, her head tilted to the side, her expression a forlorn mixture of annoyance and sympathy. "Have you ever met a complete stranger and felt as if you've known them your entire life?"

There was a man with bright blue eyes and unruly hair, with cheekbones sharper than the knives he carried on his person and a laugh that could devastate armies. His warmth was a comfort, his presence the missing puzzle piece that hadn't been missing until he arrived, and his instinctive protectiveness was a balm to Arthur, who had grown up sleeping with one eye open and never knowing why.

"No," Arthur lied.

"Don't make me thump you, Arthur," Morgana said. When Arthur refused to relent, she exhaled heavily, the quaint little huff drowned by the distant crash of the ocean waves against the shore. "He needs you as much as you need him."

"He seemed quite capable of handling himself," Arthur said, turning away before he saw the glimmer of triumph in Morgana's sharp gaze. "Hardly needed me. I was just a convenient way out for him."

"You chased him off," Morgana said.

"He chased himself off." Arthur's hands were balled up in tight fists on the railing. "Leave it, Morgana. I don't want to talk about him. My father --"

"Uther's fate is set. It won't change no matter what you do," Morgana said. "You're only prolonging the inevitable, and it's good that you are. You need to find him again before your father falls."

Arthur gaped at her. "Are you mad? Well and truly mad? I don't even know his name, and you want me to waste my time hunting for some… assassin when we're best served making sure our King lives?"

Morgana's eyes were stormy. "Our King lives. Uther is not that King."

Arthur stared at her, torn between wanting to strike her for her words and knowing that if he dared raise a hand against her, she would never speak to him again. He didn't think that she would leave, nor that she would be lured away by another Clan -- the Gods knew that many had tried, but Arthur wouldn't risk losing her counsel.

In a world where every other word spoken was a lie, only a Seer's word was the truth, and Arthur wanted the truth. If she kept that from him --

Still, it didn't mean that Arthur wanted to hear her particular brand of truth now.

He turned away and walked off the balcony.

"I know his name," Morgana said, her voice whispery and wind-blown, the oncoming weather tearing at her words.

Arthur stuttered to a stop. He made it three more steps, determined to ignore her, before he couldn't continue. A Seer's coin was in mixed metaphor and the haze of prophecy. Morgana had never offered up a specific detail before. He stared at the floor, his hands on his hips, and waited. He traced out the marble pattern, counting the red flint embedded around the golden dragon curling around his feet.

"You know his name, too," Morgana said, sounding closer now. A few moments passed, and Arthur felt a light touch at his shoulder that wasn't there when he turned around. "You've known his name since you first set eyes on him. You were sure of it when he guarded you. It's been on the tip of your tongue every moment of every day. Arthur. You're not fooling anyone. You're not fooling me. You even moan his name in your sleep."

Arthur flushed, but he didn't turn around.

"Why don't you say it?"

"It's not going to summon him," Arthur bit out. "And what good will it do?"

Morgana didn't answer him. The silence stretched, chilled by the wind blowing through the open balcony doors. There was a faint rustle of cloth.

"Where would I even find him? Even if… Even if I could leave, even if I was certain that my father wouldn't… That he wouldn't…" The lump in his throat made it difficult to finish, and he shook his head, frustrated. "What do I even need him for?"

There was no answer. Of course there wasn't. Morgana would never answer a direct question if she could help it.

"I don't know what to do," Arthur said. Sometimes, admitting his own ignorance and his own frailties -- sometimes that could soften Morgana's will just enough that she would give him a hint.

Not this time.

Arthur turned around.

Morgana was gone.

Arthur sighed, tilting his head back. He stared at the ceiling, hands on his hips, and wondered how long he'd been talking to himself, mooning like a fool. He was too old to be wistfully wishing on a complete stranger, to fantasize about a man he had barely spoken to. But, from the very instant that the assassin had put himself between Arthur and the Elite soldier from the White Legion, Arthur had been unable to put him out of his mind.

At first, he told himself it was because he had never known a man to be able to move like that. Fluid. No wasted movement. Everything with intent. He was faster than any man Arthur had ever seen. Lithe and graceful.

Deadly.

Gwaine waxed poetic about an assassin with pretty blue eyes who could see a knife flying at him through a dark corridor, who could jerk out of the way without a thought, who would dare to threaten Arthur. Perceval grunted approval at the way that the assassin had put himself between the Needler and Arthur; between a false, unseen threat and Arthur, and wondered if it might have become a trend if the assassin had stuck around. Lance was noncommittal, but Arthur knew that he was running background searches over the Net, trying to divine the assassin's identity while checking every communication band for the faintest blip of the tracker that the assassin had taken with him. Leon, who had watched the security feed, had shook his head and given Arthur a look that Arthur knew well.

You're gone on him, aren't you?

It didn't matter. The assassin was out of Arthur's reach.

Arthur had watched the surveillance feed that Lance had been able to pull from the space station, but the assassin had not merely located a blind spot in the feeds, found all the bugs on their person, and vanished. There hadn't been a backward glance, hadn't been a last look, hadn't been... anything.

He was just gone, as if he'd never existed, and he'd taken a part of Arthur along with him.

Arthur was hesitant to admit that it might have been his heart, because he wasn't normally the sort to fall in love easily.

Or at all.

Arthur rubbed his face with his hands.

There was a soft chime from his communicator. Arthur switched out of privacy mode and activated it. He had told Gaius to call him if there was any change, no matter what his status said.

"Yes?" Arthur asked, already changing directions to head toward his father's suites.

"The King is awake," Gaius said, sounding both pleased and exhausted. "And he is asking for you."

"I'm on my way," Arthur said. He stopped himself from breaking into an undignified run.

The King's suites were on the upper levels, with an office that faced the ocean-side and a bedroom overlooking the cliffs. The décor hadn't changed since Uther left the homeworld in Arthur's hands more than a decade past, still a teenager and struggling to prove himself.

Unlike the rest of the castle, Uther's quarters were a soft orange-yellow shade, brightening the room as if the sun itself were shining through the walls. The curtains were light and diaphanous with a heavier velvet overlay, the furniture was imported pine with a reddish stain, and the floors were covered with plush carpeting, because Arthur's mother had never liked to wear shoes.

Uther hadn't changed a thing since she died.

An assistant hovered in the outer rooms, wringing his hands in worry, and the look he cast in Arthur's direction asked a voiceless are there any news. A trusted King's guard lingered just inside the bedroom until Arthur entered, leaving the chamber to give them their privacy.

Gaius was standing off to the side, stoop-shouldered over a table, cleaning implements and capping bottles. He glanced up at Arthur's arrival and put everything aside to stand at attention, his hands clasped in front of him. "Your Highness," he said, his head bowing politely.

There was a reverence in his tone and a formality in his pose that gave Arthur pause. He opened his mouth to correct the Healer -- the Pirate Clans were not ruled by an inheriting monarchy and he wasn't a Prince -- but Uther sat up, distracting him.

"Gaius," Uther said sharply. It was a warning.

"Apologies, your Majesty," Gaius said, bowing again.

It was a surreal scene -- Uther sitting up in bed when Arthur had last seen him flat on his back, weak as a kitten, his pallor a shade shy of a corpse. He was stronger, now, alive, with a measure of vibrancy that hadn't been there before, his skin with some colour, a familiar wariness in eyes, his bedshirt hanging off what had once been an impressive frame.

Uther had lost a great deal of weight in the last few weeks. Even his mere presence seemed to have faded when it had once easily filled the room, commanding attention. It hurt to look at him, to see his once-strong father laying on the four-poster bed, thin and gaunt, the blankets pooling around his hips.

"Father," Arthur said, coming to the side of the bed, clasping the offered hand in relief. Displays of familial affection had always been rare between them, but there was a severity in Uther's expression that kept Arthur from enfolding his father in the relieved embrace he desperately wanted to give. "I'm glad to see you well."

"Arthur," Uther said. His voice was soft, and anyone else might mistake it for weakness, but not Arthur; this was how Uther showed a return of emotion, couching it in disguised fondness. It was there and gone in the blink of an eye, and the line of Uther's jaw tensed.

He looked hollow, as if he had been gutted from the inside out, the skin sinking into his skull. Age and strain were showing, now, and Arthur felt a surge of protectiveness that no one should see the King so weak, not even him.

"Arthur," Uther said, a frown heavy on his brow, as if he'd spoken and asked a question, only Arthur hadn't been listening. "You need to hear this."

"What is it?" Arthur asked, glancing from Uther to Gaius, who stood off to the side of the bed. There was a gravity to the Healer's expression that caused Arthur's knees to weaken, and he sat down heavily on a nearby chair in anticipation of the bad news.

"I don't have long," Uther said, as calmly as if he were commenting on the ships sailing out of port and remarking on the storm front chasing their tails.

The floor shifted under Arthur. It wasn't as if he hadn't suspected, as if he hadn't heard the others whisper behind cupped hands that the King's days were limited. It was quite something altogether to hear it confirmed.

"Father." Arthur's voice was hoarse. "But you're --"

Alive. Conscious.

"I've done what I can to regress the damage that the poison has done," Gaius said, spreading his hands in apology. "It is a very persistent, pervasive toxin. I can prepare tinctures to retard its progress, to give the King as much time as I can, but --"

"There's no cure?"

Gaius hesitated. "If I had been present when the King was first afflicted and able to collect a pure sample, there would have been a slim chance that I could synthesize a counteractive agent. Unfortunately, this toxin is… intelligent, for a lack of a better word. It was able to adapt and mutate to the biopharmaceuticals that were used to preserve the King's health, and as the majority of those were designed based on his specific physiology…"

He trailed off.

Arthur didn't understand. He shook his head and said, "Are you saying that everything we've done to save him only made him worse? That there's nothing else we can do?"

Gaius turned away. He made eye contact with Uther.

For the first time in Arthur's entire life, he saw Uther look away, abashed, embarrassed, like a child caught in a lie.

"No. Nothing," Gaius said, his voice soft.

Arthur's hands balled into fists. He bowed his head. Blood roared in his ears, and sparks appeared at the edges of his vision.

It was hearing the news all over again -- King Uther has been attacked. King Uther is down. King Uther is down -- except Arthur had been able to do something then. He'd reached his father , left his men to deal with the assassin, and escorted Uther to the safety of his guards before returning to watch as the assassin committed suicide rather than be tortured in a Pirate prison for his crimes. The council had been in turmoil, but Uther had emerged from the Physician's, weakened from blood loss, his clothing stained and rumpled, a bandage visible under the tears in the fabric of his shirt, refusing to show weakness.

Uther had healed. It wasn't until nearly a full system week had passed that he started showing the first signs. It had looked like a simple sickness, at first. A cold. A burning in the back of his throat, restless nights, feverish dreams. He responded well to the first treatment before succumbing again. Stomach issues, intestinal distress, hot flashes. And again, he recovered, strong and certain in public even though he was deteriorating behind closed doors. When they couldn't hide it anymore, they let slip rumours of a disease requiring aggressive immunotherapy. It was the only thing they could think of that wouldn't immediately alarm and alert the Pirate Clans.

Arthur had suspected a poison from the second time Uther had fallen ill and could only think of the assassin's attack as the cause, but none of the Physicians or Healers had agreed.

He succumbed under the weight of a strange sort of grief-relief to know that he had been right. At the same time, he clung to the desperate hope that maybe, just maybe, Gaius was wrong.

"The specialists of Nor," Arthur said, his words strangled through gritted teeth, "They couldn't find any poison in his blood. Is it… Are you sure?"

"The Norian Physicians are skilled, but this poison is beyond them. It is beyond a great many of us," Gaius said. "It is only because I assisted my Master in treating someone similarly afflicted that I am aware of the symptoms and the best approach to alleviate the pain."

Arthur stared at the bedsheets. Something sour and twisted sat in his belly. Unspeakable anger railed against the crushing denial pressing against his ribs. "Your patient. Did he survive?"

Gaius hesitated. There was another exchange of glances between Gaius and Uther, the silence filled with heated argument. Gaius broke first and turned to Arthur. "He died years later in an explosion travelling between galaxies."

Arthur latched on to the faintest thread of hope. "Years later. You did something -- you can do it again. There's an antidote, isn't there?"

"My understanding is that there is no cure, neither then nor now," Gaius said. "Though he responded well to the treatments, ultimately, it was the intervention of his Shadow Guard who kept the progress of the poison at bay."

"Gaius." Uther shifted, struggling against his pillows, but the Healer walked out of his reach, coming around the front of the bed to stand beside Arthur.

"Your grandfather was lucky. If he hadn't had --"

"Gaius," Uther said. He spoke no louder than an average, conversational volume, but the warning resounded in the room with the reverberating clang of a bell. "Get out."

"As you wish," Gaius said. He straightened, and, very deliberately, bowed deep at the waist. "Your Imperial Majesty."

Arthur followed Gaius' retreating form until the door shut behind him before staring at his father with wide eyes.

Uther glared, his cheeks ruddy with outrage, his mouth pressed in a thin line. He took several deep, faintly-wheezing breaths, collecting himself.

It was enough time for Arthur to string together all the deliberate hints that Gaius had dropped. Your Highness. Your Imperial Majesty. An explosion travelling between galaxies. Your grandfather. The Shadow Guard.

His voice was a hysterical hiss. "Is he mad? He thinks we're the bloody House of Dragons?"

Uther's mouth quirked in a mocking grin. He tilted his head, about to shake it -- a tiny little denial. But he couldn't meet Arthur's steady gaze. Bit by bit the fierce Pirate faded from the King and every ounce of royal decorum slid away until all that was left was a very mortal man, the burden of secrets and a lifetime of misery bowing pride into submission.

"In an entire bloody galaxy of Healers, of course you would find the one Healer who would know me, who treated me when I was a child," Uther whispered. He heaved a small sigh. "Did you really believe that I took on the Pendragon name to mock the Empire? It has always been ours."

Arthur sagged in his seat and stared. A small laugh huffed in his chest. The truth shocked him, but to hear it from his own father, to learn that it had been kept a secret from him his entire life? It hurt. He didn't understand.

And yet, he wasn't surprised.

His father the Imperial heir. Arthur could see it. Clan Pendragon was small, but it was also young. Arthur had never really thought about its origins -- for him, the Clan had always been there. The best and brightest had flocked to the homeworld, striving to fly ships under its banner. That Pendragon was new, inexperienced, less established than the other Clans -- it hadn't deterred people at all. If anything, that had been part of the lure.

Arthur had been too young in the early days to fully appreciate all the work that his father had put into the Clan. How they had somehow achieved the reputation of being the canniest, the most successful. They had been nicknamed the most royal Clan among them all, and that was even before Uther was elected King.

A complete unknown to the leadership of the Pirate Clans. That required not only faith and confidence, but influence and charisma.

Emperor Constantin had been known for his charisma, too. They said it was a trait of the House of Dragons -- the ability to quell tempers, to draw people to their side, to be equally soothing and fearsome with only a few words.

He stared at his father for a long time before realizing that Uther had been speaking. He forced himself out of his daze.

"They found me," Uther said. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry, Arthur. I never meant to keep this from you to hurt you. I wanted to keep you safe."

Arthur opened his mouth to speak, but the words were wrong. He tried again and again before spreading his hands in despair. "My father's dying. Do you think I care about anything else right now?"

Uther's smile was wan and pale, his eyes kind and gentle, and Arthur felt pinpricks of tears in his eyes. He wanted so much to do his father proud, and soon, he would be gone.

"What do we do?" Arthur asked.

"We carry on," Uther said. "You carry on. You do what you must because it is right. Because it is the only thing that we can do."

"Father," Arthur said, bowing his head. He shook his head. He knew that he would lose his father, someday, but he couldn't lose him now.

"Arthur. My son. There is one thing that I would ask of you --" Uther reached out across the bed and caught Arthur's hands. Uther's fingers were cool, the fingertips soft. There was almost no strength to his grasp, but it felt to Arthur as if Uther had reached into his chest to tear out his heart.

"No. No. You had better not tell me that your last wish is for me to take the throne you never could --" Arthur trailed off, a small, impossible laugh escaping his lips. He looked at his father, quietly begging, pleading him to say something. Anything.

But he didn't. Uther sat uncomfortably in the rich comfort of an extravagant bed, far more pale and wan than he had ever been. In that moment, Arthur saw what he had always seen in his father, but had never understood: the weight of responsibility, a distance borne out of guilt, the ache to repair what was broken, to take back what was his.

"I had wished… to be the one… to reclaim our birthright… so that I could give it to you," Uther whispered.

Arthur stood. "I… I can't."

He expected disappointment, a cutting I expected better from you, a snort of derision, a renouncing. Uther only pasted on a small, fleeting smile, and said, "I understand."

His voice was hollow, and it echoed in Arthur's chest, painfully reverberating a shortcoming he'd never known he had.

The words I can't had been struck from Arthur's vocabulary at a very young age. Uther had insisted that there was nothing that Arthur couldn't do, that he needed to apply himself, that he needed to work harder, that he needed to open his eyes to possibilities, to options, to resources. For Arthur's whole life, he had always striven to meet this impossible goal, to become this person that his father wanted him to become. He'd thought, he'd believed that Uther was a hard man, expecting nothing less from his son but perfection.

But that wasn't it. Not at all.

Uther expected the best from himself. And he'd failed. He was expecting -- hoping -- for Arthur to carry on, to pick up the torch where Uther had faltered and fallen.

And Arthur couldn't. Because if it had been beyond his father, how could it be within Arthur's reach?

Arthur sat down slowly, his limbs trembling under the strain. A small huff escaped him again; he closed his eyes and breathed deeply, trying to still the maelstrom of thoughts whirling in his mind.

Had Uther become King because it was in his blood to lead? Had he planned to rouse the Pirates in a war against the Empire? Did he want to reclaim what was his? Or had it all been sheer happenstance? Had there ever been another option? Had his father ever been happy as a Pirate, or was there something that spurred him on?

Arthur knew the answer to that last.

No one was blind to the injustices perpetrated by the Empire upon its peoples, the growing restrictions and unfounded arrests, the mysterious disappearances of agitators and imprisonments without trial. It hadn't always been this way, Arthur knew. The stories that he had grown up hearing had painted the last Emperor in a bright light, marking stark his failures, but for all that he had made mistakes, he was human, and everything he had done had been done for the good of his Empire. For his subjects.

For a people who had loved him.

It was a stark contrast to the mood in the Empire now, under the Imperial Conglomerate's rule. Fear had replaced love. Freedom was an illusion. The planets grew poorer even as the Empire grew richer, when there had once been a time when the wealth was distributed evenly, making the Empire ripe for the plucking, the Pirates spoilt for choice.

"I can't," Arthur repeated again, feeling something of that overwhelming responsibility that Uther must have carried with him his entire life.

Uther nodded faintly, calm, quiet, accepting, and Arthur wished that he would rage.

"I can't do it alone."

 


Chapter Seven

Asterism: The Crystal Caves

The Crystal Caves

Location: House of Shadows Exile Homeworld, Uncharted Space

 

The native homeworld of the House of Shadows had been in the middle of a cluster of igneous planets orbiting around twin stars -- one a white dwarf, the other a red giant, and the light it cast through the thick upper atmosphere was filtered to something of a nightmarish, purple hue. The vegetation had been of varying shades of white and black and blue, absorbing whatever energy was available; the wildlife adapted for a day of perpetual night and a night of the blackest pitch. The cities had been glittering stars, twinkling in and out, barely visible from space for the shadows that lingered protectively at the ground.

Merlin's memories of his birth planet were hazy, like half-remembered lucid dreams, memories that weren't entirely his own. The magic of the shadows kept the genetic memory strong, passing it down from father to son.

Merlin remembered the darkness that was a balm of peace and protection, a home that was a castle with shadowed walls and sparse false-flickering lights, of laughter and love and a woman's smiling face, full of joy and delight.

His mother.

He also remembered a city of lights, cast afire by a yellow sun, and even in the dark of night, it was always bright, as if no one could stand to be in the darkness for long.

These were his father's memories, fragmented and fractured, from well before Merlin had even been conceived.

Those memories were a contradiction that Merlin could never resolve, a contrast of planets and lives, and rather than dismissing either memory as an imaginary construct, he clung to the one constant between the two. His mother's eyes, kind and gentle, a borrowed memory. His father's touch, sure and strong, telling Merlin to be brave.

The slipstream slowed down using the gravity of the planets it passed. They approached the new homeworld of the House of Shadows at thruster speed, slow and sure, with Will at the controls. They couldn't afford autopilot, not now; this area of space was scattered with mines hidden in an asteroid field. Merlin broadcasted a coded transponder signal to prevent the mines from magnetizing on their approach and latching onto the hull of the slipstream.

He sent out a second broadcast, this one to let the House of Shadows know that they were coming home.

In happier times, a returning Shadowlord would be greeted by family and friends rejoicing for their return after a long absence, because it was rare for a Shadowlord to remain on their homeworld when they had duties to the Empire. Now, alerting the planet of their arrival had more to do with not getting shot down.

Those few who remained of the House of Shadows guarded their existence zealously. No one believed that the Imperial Conglomerate had forgotten about them. The bounty that the Empire had set upon the House of Shadows shortly after their exile had only increased over the years.

There weren't many of them left. Those who lingered, who continued to train in the old ways, like Merlin, were relics of a different time when honour and loyalty were the measures of a man's soul.

Sometimes, Merlin wondered about the weight of his soul, because he hadn't exactly been honourable, never mind loyal to his own people, not of late.

He rubbed his face before turning to the small holo-display emitted by the Captain's chair. Every few minutes came an encrypted message, and Merlin entered the coded answers.

It was rare for a ship to come so deep into the cluster of planets, to risk traveling through the asteroid cloud. Even with Will's impressive skills, it was taking all of his concentration to keep the small ship from being battered by the debris. A larger ship would be demolished, even crushed, in the attempt; a battleship would receive sufficient damage to force the navigator to turn around -- if that were even possible. Supplies were normally left on a planet on the outskirts of the cloud, and only at certain times of the year when the planet's orbit took it outside of the ring of asteroids.

The last string of codes beeped on the panel. Merlin answered it just as Will threw up his hands and flipped the controls to autopilot; on the three-sixty view, the asteroid field retreated, left behind.

"We'll cut through atmosphere in thirty minutes, plus or minus ten," Will said, as precise as ever. He sniffed the air. "You should shower and, oh, I don't know. Put on your uniform?"

"You know damn well I don't have my uniform," Merlin said, still tapping at the holo-panel. He'd been mentally composing a message to Master Kilgharrah since they escaped the Imperial cruisers, and it still didn't sound right. How does a former apprentice accuse their illustrious Master of subterfuge and entrapment without making it sound as if they were being compared to the White Legion?

"For fuck's sake, Ems. Are you that far gone?" Will stalked to the raised centre platform, leaning against the controls, his shoulders raised. He muttered under his breath before turning around. "You used to harp at me about customs and protocols. You're the one who warned me what would happen if I didn't show up wearing the proper robes at the ceremonies. Are you telling me that you're going to kick in Kilgharrah's front door wearing my cast-offs?"

Merlin shot a sidelong glance at Will before he resumed tapping out the message. He read it one more time before deleting most of it.

"I'll change when we land," Merlin said. He gave up on the letter he was composing and leaned back in the chair, running a hand through his hair. The cast-offs he'd borrowed from Will were a scratchy brown shirt and trousers; they brushed over his skin like barbed wire, suffocating and uncomfortable. His only other clothes were his working gear, and as much as it had been broken in over the years, even armour could ride up and chafe after a while.

He caught a glimpse of Will throwing his arms up into the air in frustration.

"We didn't talk about… after," Merlin said.

"'Course we didn't talk about after," Will said, his tone snappish and on edge. After Merlin had told him the full story, leaving out certain details -- like his unfortunate attraction to a certain Pirate -- Will had become quiet and mulish. He hadn't spoken to Merlin for hours afterward, and once he broke his silence, it had been to ask Merlin to get out of his way. "I don't think you know what you're doing after."

It had taken days for Will to calm down, but Merlin knew that Will was still raw and angry at having been left out of so much over the years. Merlin had cut him out of a dangerous part of his life, and Will didn't like it. He never had. Now, knowing that Merlin was up to his neck -- Will was up in arms and acting like a bloody mother hen.

"I know this much," Merlin said, making eye contact for the first time. "I don't want you involved. You drop me off, and you leave."

As a child, Will could hold his breath until he turned blue in the face, passing out from lack of oxygen when he didn't get what he wanted. He'd outgrown the habit -- having access to both a weapon and a slipstream ship gave him a few additional persuasion tools -- but it almost seemed that Will was about to pull out his old tricks.

"Don't even start with me," Merlin said.

"Start what?" Will asked, turning away. He flicked a switch on the control panel; his fingers danced in the air, activating the holo screens. He made a sound of smug self-satisfaction, braced himself, and --

The ship lurched.

"What the fuck --" Merlin twisted around in the Captain's chair, searching the three-sixty view for incoming, checking the proximity alarms. They were clear of the asteroid field, they couldn't have hit anything, he'd put in the proper codes, they shouldn't be attacked, they couldn't have been followed --

"Oh, dear," Will said, his voice a flat monotone. "It looks as if the engine's blown a gasket or summat. Probably the interface again, it's been jiggly for months. I'm going to have to ground the ship for a few days while you sort yourself out. Should be good to go again when you're ready to leave."

Merlin stared at Will. He shook his head slowly, in disbelief. "No, Will."

"Speaking of, if you need a lift somewhere once you've done your business, I'll be more than happy for the company. One small catch, though. There's a fee. It'll cost you the price of not getting yourself killed," Will said. His volume increasing until he was shouting.

"What part of I don't want you involved isn't getting through your thick skull?" Merlin snapped. "So help me, if you get in my way, I'm going to ground this ship and it won't be any of this temporary bollocks of yours, I'm going to carve a bloody hole through the hull --"

"You wouldn't dare," Will said.

"Try me," Merlin said. "I've got a new knife I've been dying to break in."

They stared at each other for a few minutes. The distant stars flashed by swiftly in the distance, the holo-feed of the three-sixty view slowly filling up with the swirling white clouds in the atmosphere of the new Shadow homeworld.

"You're not daft," Will said quietly. "I know you're not. You're aces. That's why I know what you're thinking, and what you're thinking is rubbish. If you expect that I'm going to let my best friend -- my only friend, come to look at it -- go on a bloody suicide mission, you've got another thing coming."

Merlin crossed his arms over his chest before realizing what he was doing. He stood up instead. "It's not suicide."

"Isn't it?" Will asked. "Let's see if I've got this right. Someone set you up to take the fall on a kill. You were supposed to die for that to happen. Needlers tried to kill you on that cruise ship. All of your contacts are dropping dead. They were waiting for me, Merlin. How do they even know about me? About us? Who even knows?"

Will wasn't asking questions that Merlin hadn't already asked himself, and Merlin didn't have any more answers for Will than he had for himself.

"I don't know, Will," Merlin admitted. He rubbed his eyes. He dropped his hands. He stared at the House of Shadow's current homeworld and…

He hated it. He had always hated this planet. From the time they'd fled and found this place, Merlin loathed it. The gravity was heavier. The sunlight a white-lavender and not ultraviolet. The plants not as fragrant, the vegetation a bluish-green. It wasn't home. It would never be home. And there would be no going home to the original homeworld, either, because the Imperial Conglomerate had dropped antiproton bombs on the surface, razing it, killing hundreds of millions of people, rendering it uninhabitable.

The clouds in the upper atmosphere were white; the ones beneath were a sea-seeded grey, filling the atmosphere with an acidic swirl of halogens that filtered the sunlight before it reached the earth. The ground was rocky and arid, the air had an acrid tang, and Merlin's eyes always burned and blurred for hours until he adjusted to the shift in the light spectrum.

Hundreds of millions of people had once flourished on a lush planet with as many secrets as those who lived there. Now, barely three decades later, a tiny fraction of that number eked out a sparse survival in a harsh environment where the greatest danger was being found.

"Do you want to know what I think?" Will asked.

Merlin quirked a smile he didn't feel. Will took it as an invitation.

"I agree with you. You were set up. Someone's out to kill you, and not just because you're Emrys, the most-wanted assassin in the bloody universe. The reward's nice, but it's not that nice, and no one, not even Needlers, would waste their time and money coming after you if it wasn't worth it. Whoever's behind this, they've got to know you're from the House of Shadows. That's the biggest cash cow, if you ask me, but I don't think they're in this for the Sterling."

Will tapped his fingers on the console. There was a faint clink and the controls hummed, descending beneath the deck.

"You must have… I don't know. You must have made a mistake somewhere," Will said hurriedly; there was a wince in his tone. Merlin lowered his head, snorting faintly, because he had spent his entire life not making mistakes and never leaving traces behind for someone to search on the Net and suss out an identity that didn't exist. "Or maybe you went against a Needler who figured out they can't beat you because you're more badass than they are, and they know that the only thing that's more badass than they are, that's…

"That's you." Will hesitated. "Of course they want you dead. You make them look bad. But that can't be the only reason why. It has to be because they figured out who you are.

"That you're the heir."

Merlin looked away. The lump in his throat was difficult to swallow. The planet filled the three-sixty view in front of him, the clouds like smears of swirling cotton candy, deceptively sweet and sickeningly cruel.

"You're the last Shadowlord, Ems," Will said, coming to stand beside him. Will reached out to touch Merlin's shoulder, but his fingers never fell; he knew better than to try. "I bet you anything they've always known who you are. And the only reason they're coming after you now? It's because…"

Will trailed off.

The engines rumbled faintly, slowing down. The ship juddered as its sleek skin absorbed the friction of atmospheric entry, compensating for the increase in hull temperature. They passed through the white clouds, the splotchy grey smears beneath, through the fog that always lingered until the sun broke through enough to evaporate the rain before it ever reached the ground.

"Because what?" Merlin prompted.

Will pointed at Merlin, his mouth opening to answer. His hand turned up, his shrug was faint, and he raised both eyebrows, as if he'd just surprised himself. "Fuck if I know, mate."

They stared at each other, the slipstream rumbling under their feet, all around them. Will's magnetic boots kept him upright, but he still wobbled. Merlin's magic held him firm, but it didn't help the feeling of his stomach dropping out suddenly, and he wasn't sure if that sensation was because they'd breached into the planet's gravity or because of what Will had said.

"So, maybe you don't have an afters," Will said, scratching his ear thoughtfully before crossing his arms and tilting his head meaningfully toward the planet -- the three-sixty view showed nothing but a cracked, broken land full of rocky cliffs and jagged edges. "But what's the plan for the next few?"

Merlin didn't answer. Not right away. He didn't answer because he hadn't had a plan beyond asking Master Kilgharrah if he had engineered the attacks on Merlin and to find out why.

He still wanted to ask why, but it was a different question now.

 


Star Cluster

 

Tradition and courtesy dictated the habit of an initiate entering the Temple to meet their Master -- plain black hooded robes made of coarse fabric, the cut close to the body, the skirt loose around the legs and sweeping the floor, covering breeches and boots. Merlin was no longer an initiate, no longer an apprentice, but the old tenets still applied, and though his black robe was plain, the fabric was silky rich, and there were blacker-than-black stripes down the sleeves that denoted both his rank and his station.

And, as befit his station, he did not have the hood pulled over his head. Shadowlords were unmasked in the Temple in a reflection of the sheer power and control that had been bred into their blood, into their bones.

A ghostly memory spoke of the resonance of the Shadow Temple on the lost homeworld, the purring hum of the spiral spindles and the wispy lashes of natural shadows dancing around marble columns whenever a Shadowlord walked through the Gates. There was no hum here, no welcome, no greeting; the stone walls of the cavernous Temple were carved out of a sheer rock face, blank and without decoration, empty and without soul.

It made Merlin's heart ache in ways he couldn't explain. He had been too young to appreciate the Temples as a child, and now, he couldn't help but to hate them.

His boots did not make a sound as he walked the safe path along the narrow bridge. His robes swept the ground behind him but didn't disturb the dust and dirt. His eyes never wavered from the raised platform at the end of the long catwalk.

He didn't need to turn to know that he was being watched by initiates and apprentices who would never rise to achieve the Shadow's rank. He didn't need to reach out with his senses to know that the old Masters lingered in the corners, swathed in the darkness that had comforted them since the House's exile. He didn't want to see the defeat that had gutted them all with the awareness of how far their once-proud, once-strong House had fallen.

They disapproved, Merlin knew. The old Masters, the dedicated acolytes, they believed that Merlin should remain on this new homeworld and protect them, to rule their House into oblivion. Merlin's vengeance was Merlin's alone, fighting against an enemy who wanted the House of Shadows eradicated. Merlin should not, the old Masters argued. Merlin should hide.

Anger reverberated in the Temple, almost as palpable a presence as the shadows were to Merlin's senses. He knew; there was no avoiding it. Those who remained, blood and servant to the House of Shadows -- they had been quite clear. As long as Merlin continued to fight, as long as Merlin continued to risk himself, as long as Merlin walked among those who had cast the House aside, the more that Merlin put them all at risk.

The old Masters didn't understand. Merlin couldn't stay here on this lost planet. He didn't care for renown; he didn't care to return his House to its former glory. He meant to right the wrongs that his people had suffered. He meant to find a place where he belonged.

It wasn't here.

It would never be here.

Merlin took the steps to the raised dais two at a time in a fit of petulance, dropping useless dignity and decorum. He knelt -- one knee only, touching the ground briefly -- and continued on to the other side, leaving behind the murmurs of censure at his disregard for the proper rites.

He walked off the far end of the platform, let himself fall deeper into the Temple, and landed at a crouch on a stone catwalk rendered nearly invisible to the naked eye by clever carving and optical illusion. He entered a tunnel, bowing his head at the low ceiling.

He'd been a child, once, walking through these corridors, barely able to touch the smooth stone overhead even when he jumped, marvelling at the sights and sounds all around him, nervous trepidation slowing his step, stubborn persistence moving him forward.

Master Kilgharrah was the oldest adept of the Shadow arts, a veteran of wars from times long past, the keeper of the lore in an era when scholars had fled or were dead, the secrets of the House gone with them. He was short, shorter than Merlin, but broader of shoulder and rounded of chest, still strong and muscular in his advanced age, his scraggly beard hinting at long days and longer nights without sleep or respite, the deepening wrinkles at his brow and around his eyes speaking of great strain.

There had been a time when Merlin had been terrified of him, of this war hero, this mere man who had changed the turn of history, once upon a time. Kilgharrah had led the escape from homeworld, had rescued as many as he could, had found them a new home. He had been an imposing figure then, his hair a dark grey peppered with white, his gaze piercing and penetrating.

Not anymore.

Merlin had exceeded Master Kilgharrah in strength and skill more than a decade past. Merlin had passed his trials and had become Shadowlord in a time when Shadowlords were made, not born, and among the Shadowlords who still held to the House, none of them were Merlin's equal. Not even Kilgharrah, the man of legends, the once-Shadowlord and Master of the Scythe, the man many whispered had the ability to move between worlds.

But now, Kilgharrah looked as if he could barely move between rooms.

"You're dying," Merlin said by way of greeting, his brow furrowed. He felt cold, suddenly, the sub-zero temperatures seeping through his robes, worming into his skin, burrowing into his bones. The shadows were thick, here, cloying against the phospholuminescent walls, absorbing the heat from the raging fire burning in the cauldron in the centre of the room.

When a Shadowlord died, the shadows reclaimed what was theirs. This room would go dark with Kilgharrah's last breath, burying the body in a pitch so black that no light, however bright, would be seen.

Merlin looked away. His eyes inexplicably stung. Kilgharrah had saved him, had raised him, had trained him. Merlin both hated and loved the man, had sworn that he would never mourn his passing. He found himself breaking that oath before the man was dead.

He saw the discarded trays, the barely-touched platters of food. If Kilgharrah couldn't even leave his chambers to get his meals, it was a sure sign that he didn't have long.

Merlin's hands clenched into tight fists, the bones of his knuckles cracking.

"Everyone dies," Kilgharrah said, easing himself slowly onto a wooden seat. Something creaked. It could have been Kilgharrah's spine; it could have been the chair.

"It doesn't mean they should," Merlin heard himself say, his own voice hollow and distant. How long had he been gone? When had he last seen his Master? How hadn't he known? "How bad?"

"Days. Weeks," Kilgharrah said, shrugging. He leaned an arm against the table, his body slumping with exhaustion.

"How?"

Kilgharrah's hand pressed against his mouth. His gaze drifted to the flames, as if measuring; the fire danced in the reflection of rheumy eyes. When he answered, it was with the wave of his hand, the wriggle of his fingers. "I am old, Merlin."

"Not that old," Merlin said, crossing the room. His power sent the lurking shadows skittering back, and it seemed as if, for a brief moment, Kilgharrah regained something of his strength. "Not so old."

"In all our history, there have been few true Shadowlords. And in all my time, I have known only two," Kilgharrah said. "I may have won that rank; I may have turned myself into a legend. But I am no Shadowlord born. I am not immortal. Rare is it that I have been defeated, but I will lose this battle in the end."

"Kilgharrah," Merlin began, wanting to… do something. He took his old Master's wrist, his fingers feeling for the pulse -- it was weak, slow, slowing down. But it wasn't age clawing at Kilgharrah's steps, not sickness, not weakness. Merlin dropped Kilgharrah's hand with a start. "You've been poisoned."

"Hm." Kilgharrah's gaze went to the fire again. The shadows were suddenly heavier than they had been moments ago, defying Merlin's presence, threatening to take him with it. "After a fashion."

Merlin tilted his head, fighting to keep the confusion from his expression. Kilgharrah could be cryptic on the best of days, but Merlin had learned to wait the Master out. Eventually, he would give enough information for Merlin to piece the puzzle together, but it didn't seem that they had that time, now.

Kilgharrah started to stand; Merlin pushed him down with firm hands on the Master's shoulders. Kilgharrah's power pulsed and shadows struck out at Merlin in defence. Merlin cast them aside, hurting at how easy it was.

There had been a time when the faintest shadow-tendril at Kilgharrah's command could yank Merlin from his feet.

"I'll make the tea," Merlin said. "You… You can start talking."

The tea set was old and familiar -- cast iron and dented along the side where it had struck the wall when Merlin's power hadn't quite been under control. The ceramic mugs were chipped, the inside stained by countless teas over the years. The ritual was ingrained in muscle memory, Merlin could make the tea blind.

Instead, he made it in silence, counting down the seconds for the brew, stirring the mixture once more before returning to the table with a tray bearing steaming cups. He sat next to Kilgharrah, pushed the cup against his hand. Kilgharrah's fingers tightened around it, but he didn't drink.

"I taught you well."

"You did," Merlin said.

"I didn't teach you everything."

The unexpected confession drew Merlin's eyes to the man who had been a father, a mentor, a friend. He searched Kilgharrah's face, hoping to find answers in the new wrinkles forming around his mouth, hidden by the short whiskers of an unshaven beard, but there was nothing. Kilgharrah was remote and distant and stony, a bearing that he bore when he meant for Merlin to listen.

"What am I missing?" Merlin asked, his tone soft. There was a small quirk to his lips, and he wondered if, maybe, Kilgharrah had been kind, and had never said how foul the tea was whenever Merlin prepared it. "Is there a secret to walking between worlds after all? Could I pass through that door and find myself at home, wandering the Temple of Ealdor?"

"Worlds? No," Kilgharrah said, his tone breaking, hinting at amusements. "Walls, yes. But you know that trick far better than I."

Kilgharrah leaned back, his chin up, his gaze disapproving. The day that Merlin had learned the trick of it, he'd spent the day practicing -- jumping through walls, escaping capture, dodging his chores.

He had been seven years old at the time.

"I do," Merlin said, hiding a smile. He forced himself to sip the scalding tea before it cooled; it was absolutely vile when it was tepid, worse when it was cold. He'd had to finish off too many pots of cold tea as a child in punishment until he had learned to make the tea to Kilgharrah's liking.

Kilgharrah snorted, shook his head, sipped his tea. The cup trembled a little before he set it down on the table. Merlin stared at it rather than to see how weak Kilgharrah had become.

"The House of Shadow is not a house of assassins," Kilgharrah said, his voice a sonorous boom in the quiet room. Even the crackle of the flames quieted, lest it interrupt the lecture.

Merlin shook his head and held up a hand.

"I am not here for lectures." He'd had quite enough of them, if he were honest. The Imperial Conglomerate had appropriated the House of Shadow's fortune when the sentence was passed down, a theft that still shook the survivors to the core. They had enough funds to endure for several years, decades, even, but without income and no access to trade, the planet that was their exile would become their grave. It had taken time to garner a reputation that would command nothing but the highest fee, but Merlin's business was all that stood between a healthy population and ruin.

He was the head of the House, for all that he left the governing to the Masters, and it was his responsibility to provide for his people. He didn't much care how, and he didn't think that those who took the money to feed their bellies had the rights to dictate how he earned it.

Kilgharrah exhaled heavily. He bowed his head, clasping his hands on the table, the cup nudged aside. "What are we, Merlin?"

"You know what we are," Merlin said.

Kilgharrah's eyes were full of flash and fire, but his voice deceptively soft. "What are we?"

"Shadows," Merlin said. He shifted, uncomfortable in his seat. Did no one ever think of giving the old man a few pillows for his comfort?

There was no answer. Not right away. When Merlin was brave enough to look at Kilgharrah again, he didn't dare look away. "Shadows. And do you know what they say about shadows?"

"They're without substance until they're made whole," Merlin recited from memory. He hoped that Kilgharrah didn't intend to make him quote the Litany. It was full of riddles and metaphors and references that Merlin didn't understand, a compilation of pretty words and rhymes. Every child of the House of Shadow was meant to memorize it, to know it, to live it. It was a nursery tale, a bedtime story, a myth. It was the bane of every initiate who fumbled to memorize it. "They're ghosts and shades until they're bound."

"You know our history," Kilgharrah said, his eyes twinkling. He leaned forward. "You know --"

"Neither here for a lecture, nor for a lesson," Merlin said, his tone harsh. "Someone's after --"

"After you? Someone's entrapped you? Someone's out to kill you?" Kilgharrah pounded a fist on the table. "Do you think I don't know? That even in this washed-out imitation of our homeworld, I haven't heard? What secrets could be kept from a Shadowlord?"

Merlin fell silent.

They stared at each other.

The smoke from the cauldron fire drifted up and was teased by shadows not of human making; that was the death creeping closer, ever closer. There was an icy feel to it, harsh enough to douse the flames.

The room dimmed, growing darker.

"That's the wrong question," Merlin finally said.

Kilgharrah's nod was barely noticeable, but it was there. The shadows winked in agreement.

"You should ask which Shadowlord has kept a secret from another Shadowlord." Merlin straightened in his seat. "Can you answer that?"

This time, Kilgharrah smiled.

"What don't I know, Master?" Merlin asked. "What have you --"

Merlin lowered his gaze. He turned his head. He thought about all the Masters, and how furious they were whenever Merlin left the planet. He had always thought their rage misplaced, that they should be angry over their plight, using that energy to pull themselves from this pit of despair.

"What have all of you kept from me?"

Kilgharrah shifted, coming closer. One arm draped over the table, reaching for Merlin's hand. "You are the best of us. The strongest of us. A true Shadowlord, the last of your line."

Merlin closed his eyes and heaved a sigh. How many times was he to hear the same wistful prophecy? He'd been told he was the one since he was a child, trained to fill some unknown role. The prophecy made no more sense than the House's Litany, full of riddles and metaphors.


Two broken lines bound
One side golden bright
The other shadowsworn
An eternity of balance.

Merlin pinched the bridge of his nose. He dropped his arm with a sigh.

"I did not teach you everything," Kilgharrah repeated. He leaned forward, grabbing hold of Merlin's wrist, his grip iron-tight and unyielding. "And what I did not teach you is this: the House of Shadows has always served the House of Dragons. To watch over them, to keep them safe, to protect them. The Shadowlords have ever been sworn to their service as guardians."

"I know that," Merlin whispered. It was his failing, he knew. The reason why he was listless and restless, unable to find peace in this exile the way the others had done. But the House of Dragons had always been small, and the last had died not long after Merlin was born.

"Do you know that every generation, one Shadowlord is bound, life and soul, to the Dragonlord? That one Shadowlord, above all, is linked to the Emperor?"

Merlin made a strangled sound that was meant to be a disbelieving scoff. "That's a myth."

"It is real," Kilgharrah said.

"It can't be," Merlin said. His laugh was broken and shaky.

Kilgharrah pulled Merlin closer. "I was meant for the Emperor. For Constantin, who was assassinated in the explosion. But I was too far away to arrive in time. He was poisoned, he was dying. My friend -- your father -- he took the bond. Balinor shared Constantin's life, he stopped the pain, he slowed the poison and rendered it dormant. He kept the Emperor alive."

Merlin shook his head. He raised a hand again. "No. Stop."

"Listen to me," Kilgharrah said. "Your father lived. It took everything that he had not to die with Constantin. They found the bomb, they tried to escape, but it was no use. Constantin begged him to get his heir to safety. To bring Uther to me, before it was too late."

"No. No," Merlin said, pulling his arm away. They didn't talk about this. They didn't discuss Merlin's father. They didn't speak of how his father had fled like a coward, leaving the Emperor to his fate, breaking the honour of the House of Shadow in the process.

Merlin didn't want to believe Kilgharrah. He wanted to push the Master away, to accuse him of telling lies. But all he saw in Kilgharrah's eyes was the truth of someone atoning for his silence.

How could Merlin have been wrong? With the genetic memory he had inherited, however broken and fragmented, how could Merlin ever have believed his father anything else but brave? How much pain must Balinor have been in, to know himself dying, to fight to stay alive until he had completed the last task that his Emperor had asked of him?

Merlin had always been told that Balinor had died of his wounds. He had never known that Balinor had died bringing the Imperial Heir to safety.

Kilgharrah's fingers dug into his arm like claws. "Listen to me, Merlin. I am not dying because I am dying. I am dying because --"

"No," Merlin said, hating the tears that made his eyes burn, shaking his head vigorously. He didn't want to hear it.

Kilgharrah pulled at him, dragging Merlin forward and off the chair until Merlin was on his knees, fighting the tears. Rough hands callused from decades of handling weapons patted Merlin's cheek, lifting up his chin.

"My Emperor is dying, Merlin," Kilgharrah said, his voice gentle. "And now it is your turn. You are the last Shadowlord."

Merlin didn't know how long he knelt on the stone floor, the cold seeping into his bones, the shadows in the room finding a measure of wilful courage, coming near enough to whip and strike once, twice, three times. Merlin fell forward, catching himself with one hand; with the other he stumbled and twisted and sat, smearing the tears from his cheeks with the back of his sleeves.

His father was not the coward everyone had said he had been. His father had not abandoned the Emperor. He had not turned traitor. He had survived long enough to save the Empire by bringing his heir to safety.

To Kilgharrah.

"You lied to me," Merlin said, his voice broken. "You lied to me."

Kilgharrah didn't answer. He closed his eyes.

"You lied to everyone," Merlin shouted, sweeping an angry arm in the air. The shadows skittered back; the flames in the cauldron nearly went out. "You let them... You let them believe my father was a traitor, that... that he was a coward. How could you let me believe that? How could you tell me that? Why didn't you tell me the truth? Why --"

Merlin stuttered to a stop.

All those years, pushed and bullied as a child, called names by the older children, mocked for things that were beyond his ability to understand. All the adults who disregarded his decisions as he grew older, as he became more adept with his power, as he became stronger, taking on the role that was his by birthright. All the cold reception, the hurtful remarks, the derision.

This planet had never been Merlin's home because no one had made it a home for him. He had been one orphan among many after Kilgharrah had left them to sort out their exile. He had remained an orphan until Kilgharrah returned and took him under his proverbial wing.

"Why aren't you with him?" Merlin asked, his voice small, tiny, weak. If Kilgharrah had been here, with the exiles, teaching and training and mentoring Merlin, where had his charge been all this time?

"Uther sent me away," Kilgharrah said. If there was regret or sorrow in his voice, it was long gone; perhaps he felt no regret nor sorrow at all. "He couldn't stand to look at me and know that the members of our House had turned against the House of Dragons. He knew that if we were caught together, the secrecy of our flight would be undone. He had to keep himself safe. His son. I did what I could for him -- for them -- from afar."

Merlin slumped, shifted, moved; the heat of the cauldron was at his back, hot enough to burn. He sank against the stone brazier anyway, needing something to counteract the ice that had settled in his soul.

Would things have been different if the truth had been known? Would Merlin's life have been different? Would he still have fought as hard as he had done to become as strong as he had? Would he have fought to leave? Would he --

Merlin buried his face in his hands.

"Is this is why the White Legion is hunting me? Because they want the Emperor to die? Because they think I am bound to him, keeping him alive?"

"Perhaps," Kilgharrah said. But he shook his head. His smile was crooked, his eyes watery, as if he were holding back an overwhelming landslide of pain. "But I suspect they are after you because you are meant for his son."

Merlin stared. He barked a laugh that was more of a hiccup of horror. His head twisted from side to side, trying to express the denial he felt. He clasped his hands together and covered his face.

The litany of the House of Shadows came to him, unbidden.


For brave we fight against the darkness
Knowing we Guard the Light.
Our strength is greatest in the binding
And in binding we preserve the Right.

"I'm meant for..." Merlin choked on a laugh. "This is..."

Kilgharrah stared at him unblinking.

"I can't," Merlin said weakly. "I can't."

"You must," Kilgharrah whispered. His trembling hand brushed Merlin's hair, swept at the tears on Merlin's cheeks. "He's the only hope we have."

 


Two broken lines bound / One side golden bright / The other shadowsworn / An eternity of balance.

 

Chapter Text

 


Chapter Eight

Asterism: The Questing Beast

The Questing Beast

Location: Pirate King Homeworld, Pirate Space

 

"If that's quite all?" Uther Pendragon asked.

The host of Pirates in the council chamber took the question as their cue to immediately launch into a pandemonium. It was, Arthur noted, full of wasted protests over decisions made by the King without sufficient discussion and diatribes over the woeful state of affairs -- their own, personal affairs. Several representatives of the Clans insisted that their matters be heard at once, and the usual cacophony of voices rose several octaves until they nearly cancelled each other out.

The King rose in the middle of this carefully-planned distraction. No one noticed the slight waver when he caught his balance and stood to his full height, pausing for a moment before regally stalking out of the room without another word.

Arthur, as the sole Clan representative who had remained silent through Uther's signal for a close to the talks and the ensuing chaos, was the only one who noticed that the meeting had been cut short. Too many meetings had ended early of late -- each lasting less time than the last.

Arthur glanced around the room and caught Olaf and Odin exchanging raised brows and meaningful gestures. Bayard was watching Arthur with veiled eyes.

Arthur nodded at them coolly as he rose to his feet, his chair scraping on the marble floor, hiding his wince. Maybe he hadn't been the only one to notice Uther's renewed slow decline, but of anyone to have seen something, why did it have to be those three? It was no secret that they were rattling the bars for attention and bending ears for gossip every chance they could get, all to further the rumours that Uther's health was failing and it was time for a new King before Uther was too indisposed to rule.

Arthur collected his notes, rolled up the papers, and abandoned the Pirates to their squabbling. At any other time, he would move his chair out of the way and watch -- for entertainment purposes, only. But in the face of his father's failing health after such a short bout of strength and vigour, Arthur wouldn't -- couldn't -- see any joy in watching his fellow council members go at each other's throats, the steel of their knives naked and flashing in the stark light.

He walked out of the council chambers through a secondary exit, shutting the doors behind him with a quiet click. He took a fortifying breath and hurried down the corridor, already planning his route to his father's private chambers, with a detour at Gaius' offices to drag the Healer along. It had been a bare fortnight since Gaius' astonishingly successful treatment, and Arthur wondered if the Healer could manage a second miracle.

"Pendragon," Olaf purred.

Arthur forced himself to resume a neutral pace, letting the other Pirate catch up to him. Olaf had always been Uther's staunchest supporter, the first among the Clans to vote for someone other than himself at the last election for their new King. Neither Uther nor Arthur had forgotten what Olaf had done, because they both knew a Pirate's mind -- the first to support them was nearly always the first to drive the knife into an unprotected back.

"Sommerlund," Arthur greeted stiffly.

"Going my way?"

"I doubt that," Arthur said, but his words did nothing to detract Olaf from following. They walked a good measure of the long corridor, reaching a divergence. Arthur went left after a moment's pause. He would have to take another route to reach the Healer's rooms before taking him to see Uther, but that was a small price to pay if Olaf stopped matching him pace for pace.

"How is your father?" Olaf asked.

"Seemed in his usual fine form at the meeting, though if I run into him again today, I'll be sure to mention that you asked after him," Arthur said, chancing a glance at a passing mirror to gauge Olaf's mood without giving away his curiosity. The two couldn't be more different -- Arthur's clothing, though somewhat garish with the polished buttons and bright red swatches of fabric against the royal blue jacket, was still a sight less ostentatious than Olaf's purple and orange checker-plaid vest over dark breeches, barely muted by an emerald green jacket.

It was at occasions like these that Arthur believed Olaf colour-blind.

"Do you have a moment?" Olaf asked.

Arthur bit back the strangled Oh, just go away that was on the tip of his tongue, and favoured Olaf with a long, sidelong glance. A Pirate never asked for something if they weren't expecting something in return, and a Pirate never gave anything without getting reimbursed for their trouble. It was a very commercial approach, but fair; what one received could be returned in the same measure, whether it was goods or deeds or feuds.

Olaf wouldn't have followed Arthur if he hadn't meant something, and he definitely wouldn't have allowed himself to be seen running after Arthur if he didn't have some sort of ulterior motive in mind. Arthur worked under the assumption that the entirety of the council body had spotted Olaf sneaking out of the meeting room -- difficult to do when one was wearing a bloody neon sign that could be seen from space -- and decided that it wouldn't matter whether he spoke to Olaf or not. The members of the council would have made up their minds either way, complete with a fabricated conversation that would turn into the latest gossip soon enough.

"Whatever it is, I'm not interested," Arthur said, allowing the faintest note of bored irritation to drip into his tone. It wasn't difficult; he did have better things to do.

Olaf took Arthur's arm and gestured him into a side room. Arthur sighed and followed Olaf inside. Olaf went through the rounds of checking for hidden vid and microphones before locking the room behind him. Once satisfied that he wouldn't be interrupted and there weren't any eavesdroppers, he dropped his foolish fop of an act and stared at Arthur with sharp, narrowed eyes.

"People are talking, Pendragon," Olaf said. "They're wondering who will replace the King."

"My father's not stepping down," Arthur said, his voice dropping to a menacing growl. Olaf raised his hands in apology, and Arthur went on. "What people? Who?"

"Well." Olaf shrugged dramatically. He swept an arm around him to indicate everyone, and hastily said, "Of course, not myself. I was his first supporter and --"

"You're a leech sucking at the tit, that's what you are," Arthur snapped. "If you're not naming names, then it's rumour and speculation and you'll have the whole of the Pirate host on your arse, ready for a keelhauling."

Olaf wasn't bothered. "You did study the law, didn't you?"

"Haven't we all?"

Olaf twirled a finger in the air. "Did you happen to stumble on the loophole where it says that the Clans don't have to wait for him to step down? That the Clans don't have to wait for him to… die?"

Arthur turned to face Olaf fully. His hand went to the pistol in his thigh holster. "Was that a threat?"

Olaf paled, his gaze fixed on Arthur's hand. "Of course not. A friendly reminder. And, of course, a mark of my curiosity. I'm attempting to gauge the mood."

"Go on," Arthur said.

"You were too young to sit in council when your father was voted in, but I'm certain you know how it works when we elect a new King."

"We don't need a new King," Arthur said, gritting his teeth. He rested his palm on the butt of his gun, and watched with some satisfaction as Olaf swallowed hard. "Are you telling me that there will be a coup?"

"You know how it is," Olaf said, his big Cheshire Cat smile never reaching his eyes. "Stir a bit of blood in the water and the sharks come swimming. The games have started, and if you intend on taking the throne after Uther? Perhaps you should start seeking supporters, or to give some thought on who you would ally yourself with when the time comes."

"And the time is coming?" Arthur asked.

"Blood in the water," Olaf said, his grin growing ever wider, his eyes narrowing into tiny points of light. "It makes a peculiar sound, did you know that? Not quite the same tonal quality of dropping water in a bucket. No, that makes a light, sparkling splash. But blood? It's a sort of glomping sound, like the water is an entity that feeds on whatever we give it."

Arthur stared at Olaf for a good, long moment, struggling against his revulsion. There were those who only saw how pleasantly foolish Olaf could be, particularly in public, but those who knew him, who truly knew him, also knew not to turn their back on the bastard. "You've been spending too much time with Aredian."

"He is pleasant company at times," Olaf said in admission. "A bit dull, not as quick on the uptake. Not unlike some people I know."

He gave Arthur a meaningful look. Arthur elected not to raise to the barb, though his hand did tighten around his gun.

Olaf must have decided that the stony silence was unbearable, because he huffed a sigh. "I'll spell it out for you if I must, and I'll expect a favour --"

"You can expect all you want, but you won't get it," Arthur snapped. He wasn't an idiot. He knew what would happen if his father died. He knew what would happen if there was a coup before his father died. Once the perception of protection disappeared, there would be more than a few Clans itching to get their hands on the Pendragon homeworld and all its strongholds, and they would use the chaos of a turbulent change of leadership to do it unnoticed.

It wouldn't matter if Arthur was crowned the bloody Emperor. If he didn't take precautions to protect the Clanworld from an attack, he would become Clanless, unless he found another Clan to take him in. And if by some sort of miracle or machination he became the next Pirate King, he would be a King without resources, and easy picking for bloodthirsty Pirates.

There were plenty of annotations in history where the reign of a King lasted less than thirty minutes. Arthur had no desire to become one of them.

The truth of the matter was, he hadn't given much thought to what he would do if -- when -- his father died. He had been on unsteady footing before, frantic in his search for a cure for his father, but now he was without ground beneath his feet, torn between the secret knowledge of his true heritage and the birthright that his father had fought for among the Pirates.

"I'll spell it out for you anyway," Olaf said, nonplussed. "Your father is respected. He's done quite a bit for us -- more than those money-grubbing blights before him, getting fat on the sweat of our backs. He's owed a great deal. Money. Debts. I'm certain you have an accounting."

Arthur did, but he wasn't going to admit that to Olaf. "I have no idea what you're talking about."

"I believe you," Olaf said magnanimously. He swept his arm out behind him this time, indicating everyone else. "They might not. And you'll be in a pickle, won't you? They won't take any chances that you'll cash in."

"Why would I --" Arthur caught himself. Olaf raised both brows and nodded, his smile fading. Arthur could almost hear Olaf whisper the word, exactly.

There wasn't anything that a Pirate hated more than being in debt to another Pirate. That had been Arthur's first lesson and the lesson that he had kept closest to his heart. He had been careful to never need more but the most inconsequential thing from a Pirate of another Clan, and he'd taken his father's advice and never cashed in on the favours owed to him, personally, until he had no other choice but to use them.

Between his personal collection and the inheritance that would fall to him if -- when -- his father died… Arthur might have enough to ensure the protection of the Pendragon Clanworld.

Olaf wouldn't have approached him if he didn't know that the Pendragon's collective wealth, including favours and debts and gambling chits, wasn't enough to leverage enough votes to strongly challenge anyone else for the Pirate crown.

Arthur blinked slowly at the realization. He hadn't thought of that. He hadn't thought of anything. But if it were true --

They would try to kill him before Uther died, effectively removing their competition. Arthur thought that he should be flattered to be considered competition in the first place, even if he hadn't made any overtures for the leadership.

"There isn't anything to cash in," Arthur said, tilting his head. "Unless you're implying that there is?"

"Far be it from me to imply anything," Olaf said, his elaborate shrug contradicting his words. "But perhaps you'll accept a recommendation?"

Arthur crossed his arms.

"Your father did, once upon a time," Olaf said.

Arthur doubted that, but he gave Olaf a short, curt nod, encouraging him to continue.

Olaf came closer, short steps making him scurry forward like a rat. He hunched his shoulders, bowed his head, a small cackle escaping his mouth before he coughed to clear his throat. "Strike first. Catch them unaware and unprepared."

Arthur stilled. He stopped breathing. He was sure his heart stopped beating, too, at least for a brief moment. Olaf couldn't possibly be suggesting what Arthur thought he was suggesting. The tactic wasn't unheard of. It was fairly common in Pirate politics. But to Arthur, it was deplorable, immoral, underhanded. It was wrong, it was cold-hearted, and --

No. He would not kill his father in the middle of the night. He would not call the council for a new vote before anyone was apprised of the news, unaware and unprepared and without allies. He would not force the results of the election if there was a stalemate and name himself the new King by breaking a tie using his father's vote in absentia.

It must have shown in his expression, because Olaf tilted his head the way a predator measured its prey, seeking out weaknesses. "If you don't, someone else will."

Arthur let the silence drag. He uncrossed his arms and waited to see if Olaf would fill the dead air with any more unsolicited advice, if he would hint that he was complicit in some way to take the throne, or if he was setting Arthur up to take a fall.

When he was finally satisfied that there was nothing more, when Olaf started shifting and shuffling his feet in both impatience and anxiety, Arthur said, "Our conversations are illuminating as always."

There was clear dismissal in his tone. This wasn't his planet; he didn't have the right to send another Clanhead away. But this was the King's domain, and Arthur was certain that Uther wouldn't object if Olaf was thrown out on his arse.

Olaf probably thought the same thing. He bowed his head, and there was a self-satisfied smirk on his face as he backed away. "Vivian says hello."

Arthur snorted. Olaf's daughter was a spoiled brat who would accept nothing less but the best, and despite Olaf's best attempts to convince Uther that a match between their Clans would only benefit the Pendragon line, Vivian had loudly and openly given her opinion on the matter. "No. She doesn't."

Olaf's smile grew wider, like a shark's grin. An instant later, it faded completely, replaced by a glare of menace.

 


Star Cluster

 

Gaius was already with the King when Arthur came looking for him. Arthur lingered in the antechamber, pacing, sitting, and pacing again while he waited for the news.

The King's guards were by the doors -- two by the King's private chamber, two more by the entrance to the suite. They watched Arthur's every move. They hadn't gone so far as to insist that Arthur remove his weapons, but the wariness was there. These men were Pirates through and through; they probably suspected the worst of Arthur.

After Olaf's warning, the suspicion cut deep to the bone. Arthur tried very hard not to let it sting.

He whirled around when the door to the King's bedroom swept open. Gaius emerged, glancing warily at the Guards, and met Arthur's gaze.

"The King wishes to see you," Gaius said, and it seemed to Arthur that the Healer pitched his voice louder than normal, emphasizing King. The Guards withered slightly, moving aside to let Arthur through. "I would like to have a word with you before you go in to see him, my Lord."

Arthur flinched at the honorific, glancing at the blank-faced Guards. He followed Gaius to the wide balcony where Uther sometimes entertained his guests, and for a brief moment, the knot in his chest eased under the force of the mountain wind, cold and sweet in his lungs.

Gaius shut the doors behind them.

"He's resting," Gaius said, turning to join Arthur by the railing. His tone weighed with heavy sorrow when he added, "There is very little more that I can do. I'm afraid he does not have long."

Arthur leaned forward, elbows on the railing, and buried his face in his hands. The tears stung his eyes, the grief throttled him, but somehow, he managed to nod. None of this came as a surprise. Uther had been living on borrowed time.

He dropped his hands.

"Thank you," Arthur said softly. "Thank you for trying."

"I wish I could have done more." Gaius hesitated. "There is something, my Lord. One thing only, but I fear it is too late all the same. Do you remember when I told you I had seen this poison before? That there was no cure?"

"My grandfather," Arthur said dully, trying and failing to put a face to the name. He knew what the old Emperor looked like. His face had been stamped on the silver Sterling until the Imperial Conglomerate began striking new coins with the likeness of the members of the ruling council. Arthur didn't see any resemblance with the last Emperor. He half-turned to look at Gaius, remembering. "He lived, didn't he? There must have been a cure."

"Not as such," Gaius said. "The House of Dragons was protected by the House of Shadows. At the time, I believed that the antidote to the poison resided with that House. However, I came to understand that… that perhaps, something of the House of Shadows was at play, preventing the poison's progress, even rendering it dormant."

Arthur faced Gaius, his brow furrowed. "I don't understand."

"The House of Shadows were not only born warriors," Gaius said, his voice low and even to prevent his voice from carrying. "The heirs of the line were sorcerers. The shadows gave them strength and power. Surely you have heard of their magic?"

"I've seen…" Arthur scoffed. "I've seen the White Legion do impossible things."

Gaius raised a brow, his hands clasped before him. The sleeves of his Healer's robes covered his hands. "If you believe the White Legion capable of impossible things, then what a true descendant of the House of Shadows can do is unknowable."

Gaius paused. Arthur sighed and turned away. He didn't have the strength to ask what this could possibly have to do with the pressing matter at hand.

His father was dying. His father would die.

"The Emperor was close to his Shadow. It is my belief that shadow magic kept him alive," Gaius said. "Just as I believe shadow magic is what has been keeping your father alive."

Arthur's eyes snapped to stare at Gaius. "What?"

"The poison starts slowly, my Lord. It takes its time. When it strikes, it strikes true, and kills in a matter of days from the onset of the first symptoms," Gaius said. "Your father has endured for months, and not by the skill of any Physician. Why has he not succumbed? What keeps him alive?"

"Are you telling me that a Shadowlord --" Arthur cut himself off, hearing the frantic shriek in his voice. He glanced around, but the mountain was cold and foreboding, the landscape stark with stone and snow. He could only hope that the balcony doors were thick enough to have kept his voice from carrying inside. In a softer tone, Arthur said, "They're dead. The Conglomerate exiled them, put a bounty on their heads. If any were alive, if they returned to the Empire --"

"If they are all dead," Gaius said, his brow raising even higher, "Why is there still a bounty?"

Arthur's mind raced ahead. "If I find one -- if I bring them here? Could they --"

"I fear it may already be too late," Gaius said kindly. "I fear… a Shadowlord might not be enough. It needs to be the Shadowlord to whom he is bound. If you find them in time, there may be a chance, but the truth is… I do not know. No one knows. The secrets of the House of Shadows disappeared with them."

Arthur swallowed hard. His fingers tightened around the balcony railing, growing cold against the steel. The wind was sharp and biting, cutting through his clothes and chilling the skin. Beside him, Gaius shifted, pulling his robes around him tightly.

"I'll go see my father now," Arthur said. He turned on his heel and headed inside.

The few weeks of health had been as fleeting as they had been teasing: the tantalizing lure of full recovery disguised behind an energetic King. Arthur had tried in vain to keep himself from false hope, but whatever the eye saw, the heart prayed for, too.

Arthur shut the door to the King's chambers quietly. He paid the Guards no mind. As much as he wanted a private moment with his father, these men were the King's, not his.

Off to the side was a table littered with tinctures, bottles, and bowls. There were herbs and concentrates, a few tools of the Healer's trade that Arthur did not recognize. Gaius' usually precise and clean workspace was littered with chaos, representing the frustration and grief of a physician whose patient was no longer responding to treatment.

Uther was in the middle of a large bed, the blankets smoothed down. In the dim lighting of the room, the Pirate King's face was wan and pale, his hair thin, his body sunken, nearly collapsing in on itself.

Gaius had said that Uther did not have long. Arthur hadn't wanted to ask how much time there was left. He didn't want to know, and yet, he could see it with his own eyes.

Days. Maybe hours.

Arthur sat at his father's bedside. He rested his elbows on his knees and reached for his father's hand. He bowed his head and closed his eyes, willing his father to live.

It had never worked before, but he had to try. He had to keep trying.

He wasn't certain how much time had passed before he was alerted by the twitch of Uther's fingers in his hand. When he looked up, it was to meet eyes that had gone pale, washing out the colour until they were a sickly shade of grey, like a shadow dissipating.

"My son," Uther whispered.

Uther had been vibrant, masterful, intimidating only hours before in council. The deterioration of his health, the ruthless onslaught of the poison -- it had been a steep downward slide. Arthur swallowed a sob. He would not cry in front of his father. Not now.

The King dismissed the Guards with a quiet word. He didn't speak again until the door had shut behind them. "Arthur --"

"Gaius said there might be a Shadowlord. That a Shadowlord must have done something to you to keep you alive this long. If we find him --"

Uther's soft sigh made Arthur's words tumble to silence. "No. We fought, Kilgharrah and I. He couldn't stay by me without drawing someone's eye. He was careful for years, but when you were born… I did not want to risk you. I could not live with myself if someone learned who he was and wondered why a Shadowlord remained by my side. I banished him to save you."

"But he'd come back, wouldn't he? If he knew?"

"He knows," Uther whispered, his gaze distant, unfocused. "And he did not come."

"He knows? How does he know? Did you contact him --" Arthur could have Lance scrape through the records. There had to be a way to find this Shadowlord, to track him down, to bring him here.

"He knows," Uther repeated. He took a heavy breath; it came out in a wheeze. "He bound his life to mine all those years ago. If I am dying… He would be dying, too. He must have… He must have held out as long as he could, but he was old. Older, now. And I suppose it is difficult to protect one's charge when they are so far away. It must sap one's strength. His magic. Balinor rarely left my father's side, you see. I never understood why until now."

Arthur bowed his head, his eyes burning. He struggled; he could taste the salt of his tears in the back of his throat. "Why didn't you tell me? If you knew, why didn't you… I could have found him, I could have brought him here --"

"He's already gone. I… I felt it during the council."

Arthur thought he knew the moment. Uther had sat back against his chair with the bonelessness of a man shoved to the ground, helpless against an immovable force. There had been a flicker of anguish that no one seemed to have noticed, not even Arthur, until it was too late.

"You have to let me go, Arthur," Uther whispered. "It's your time now. Yours. Do what you can for you. You have everything that I have. My allies. My vote. Use them. Take the Pirate throne. Bring them to heel and save them from themselves. Claim your birthright. Restore the Empire. Do what I never had the courage nor the strength to do."

"Father," Arthur whispered. "Father, don't --"

Uther's eyes drifted shut.

His breathing slowed, becoming jagged, stuttering, broken. His heartbeat was weak, stuttering, thready.

A tear streamed down Arthur's cheek. He didn't wipe it away.

He stayed for what seemed like an eternity, and that eternity passed in the blink of an eye. He sat vigil as his father slipped away, and Arthur held onto Uther's hand tightly, refusing to let go. Arthur wasn't ready to say good-bye. He would never be ready. And he had no choice now, because if he didn't say it now, he would never have the chance.

Arthur opened his mouth to say the words. They wouldn't come out.

Uther had never been an affectionate man. He had never been one for platitudes. He had never given his men anything more than an encouraging nod, and that was often more than what Arthur would receive. There had never been approval, only disappointment or cold detachment in Uther's eyes.

Everything that Arthur had ever done in his life had been to capture his father's notice, to get something of a glimmer of pride from him. He had done what Uther had asked, risking himself time and time again, bringing success after success to his father's feet only to always feel that it was never enough. The breaking point had been when Uther was elected King -- he would have left the Pendragon Clanworld to someone else if Arthur hadn't…

If Arthur hadn't taken it for himself.

The rule books had never suited Arthur's needs. He'd stolen the Excalibur from an Imperial yard where it had been languishing for a decade. He'd recruited men from his Clan, from other Clans -- men who were his friends, men who swore him loyalty and trusting that Arthur would take care of them -- as his crew. And when the time had come, Arthur had held fast, one ship against the King's wing, and stood on the deck with nothing but an apologetic shrug.

"You'll be giving the Clanworld away over my dead body," Arthur had said conversationally, ignoring the cold sweat sliding down his spine. "But I guarantee you that if you try, the body count will be disproportionate -- on your side."

There might have been a quirk of a smile tugging at Uther's mouth, and Arthur had always told himself that the amusement and admiration and pride in Uther's eyes had been a flaw in the vid system.

Maybe it had been real.

Arthur held on to that memory.

It was at that moment that Uther began to treat Arthur as an equal, taking Arthur's advice into consideration the same that he would any other council member. He put Arthur in charge of the King's Wing when mercenaries began to raid the planets in the Pirate's claimed territories, relying on Arthur's unconventional tactics when the conventional wouldn't do.

That was when Uther recognized that Arthur had become his own man.

Arthur and his father were polar opposites. Where Uther treated his counterparts with royal distance and tactical aplomb, Arthur treated them with respect and pulled them close. Where Uther's most trusted men were his Guards, Arthur's closest allies were his friends. If there was one thing that they had in common, it was a bone-bred desperation to keep their people safe.

Arthur had stopped doing what he was told to please Uther a long time ago. He'd learned to do what pleased him, and in doing so, he had won his father's pride.

And in this… Arthur couldn't stand idly by while the council spent less than a microsecond mourning the loss of their King and began squabbling like children clamouring for the throne. The council could do as they liked when they liked -- but not when the Pirates were under threat by the Imperial Conglomerate who would no doubt be waiting to attack at their weakest moment.

Some sort of order was needed. A reining-in of the council before they went too far.

That, Arthur could do. He could fight the council. He could try for leadership. He would fight to succeed. He would bring the Clans together and lead their fleets against the Empire.

He had to.

The rest of it? Claiming his birthright?

Arthur didn't know if he wanted that. As much as it pained him to admit, reclaiming the Imperial throne for the House of Dragons while he was King? Arthur could see the misery that would come out of that. A war. Rebellions. Planetary and intergalactic turmoil.

He could also imagine the galaxies in unity, a time of equality between castes regardless of their origin. The Houses, however noble, were aging relics of the past, dwindling in numbers, and Arthur knew men who possessed more honour than the pompous Imperial rats ever would.

It was a dream, distant and outside anyone's reach. Or perhaps, not quite outside of Arthur's. The Imperial Conglomerate had not endeared itself to its subjects over the last few decades, and for all that the media had been stifled to reflect the Empire in nothing but the best light, the population had grown to know the reality of the way things truly were. If it went to war, if Arthur, as King, could urge the Pirates to expand beyond a mere routing of the Empire attempting to claim their territory, the citizens of the Empire might raise up arms with the Pirates.

Arthur studied his father, wondering if Uther had shared that same dream. If he'd come to the same conclusion. The time was ripe now, when it hadn't been all those years ago.

Arthur leaned forward, pressing a kiss to Uther's hand -- the gesture of a man swearing fealty to their Emperor. When he sat up straight, the light shifted, as if the wind had teased the candlelight.

Except there were no candles in the King's suite, and the windows were shut.

Arthur stood and whirled away just as a knife came down, stabbing into the plush back of the chair. Arthur scrambled for space as the assassin advanced, drawing his pistol.

He squeezed the trigger.

One two three four pulses blasted out of the muzzle. The assassin avoided the first, was stunned by the second and third, and the fourth struck the door to the King's chamber, blasting a hole clean through.

If that wouldn't attract the guards, nothing would.

The assassin grunted, coming to his feet. He obviously hadn't anticipated Arthur's presence or his reaction and was attempting to adapt. He was on one knee, a hand on his chest, huffing a breath.

He fired twice more. The first shot hit the assassin square in the chest, but whatever armour he wore under his disguise had absorbed the pulse blasts and had adapted shield harmonics to deflect. The second glanced off his shoulder.

No guards burst into the room. Arthur acknowledged that they were probably already dead.

Arthur moved quickly. He didn't have time. He raised his free arm, bringing it to his mouth, and bit down on the bracer that connected him to his ship.

Someone had better be on comms, or Arthur would kill them.

The assassin was shorter than Arthur, of slighter build. His dark skin offset the white of his eyes and the grim flash of a tense smile. His coiled hair had been braided in the style of one of the Clans -- at the moment, Arthur couldn't recall which. He wore a single golden loop in one ear, had a heavy collection of chains around his throat, and his wardrobe seemed well-worn and comfortable, as if he'd been a Pirate all this time, a sleeper agent waiting to be activated.

He wasn't a Pirate, Arthur knew. Where the assassin's clothes still smouldered from the heat of the pulse blasts from Arthur's pistol, he could see armour -- the familiar white-grey mesh that was the first layer of the armour worn by the White Legion.

The assassin's mesh armour was designed for small arms defense, but Arthur's weapon didn't qualify as small arms, not with the modifications that Perceval had made. The assassin had been caught off-guard, and Arthur had missed his chance to press his advantage. It ultimately wouldn't have mattered; the assassin was also wearing the White Legion's trademark shield generator that had probably been added to his equipment purely to assist in an escape from more heavily-armed men.

No one ever witnessed the face of a soldier of the White Legion and lived. Arthur knew he was meant to die.

The assassin was cautious now. He moved around the room in a wide circle, heading toward Uther, and kept an eye on Arthur.

Arthur's every instinct screamed to protect his father, but a cold logic reminded him that Uther was dying, that there was nothing that anyone could do to save him. An assassin's knife would be a small mercy, putting the Pirate King out of painful misery. Still, Arthur followed him, matching the assassin step for step, gesture for gesture, if only to feign a defence instead of an attack.

Arthur was under no illusions. He was no match for an Elite soldier of the White Legion, but there was no way to tell what rank this man held. There were no sigils, no hint of the purple in his clothes, no betrayal in his actions or movements. Even the lesser fighter among the White Legion's rank was a berskerking hellion. Arthur would be able to hold his own against a soldier, but it might be a near thing.

"Who sent you?" Arthur asked. The cornrow braids were telling; Arthur finally remembered the Clan. "Was it Clan Northumberland?"

The assassin smiled. He didn't answer. Arthur didn't expect one. The White Legion were too well trained for petty posturing. They were meant for secrecy, infiltration, subterfuge. They were meant to kill, not chat up their targets. Northumberland's only crime was in being monstrously stupid to let this man join them, never mind allow him anywhere near a ship with permission to dock on the Pirates' ruling planet.

"Who helped you get here?"

Again, no answer. Arthur inched closer to the bed, mirroring the assassin. The assassin was on the other side, but he hadn't so much as glanced at Uther.

"I'm not going to let you kill him," Arthur said. The assassin's smile became a thin line of mockery, and Arthur felt a cold stone settle in his belly. The assassin didn't care about Uther. He probably already knew Uther's condition. And yet he was here because -- "You're not after him."

The assassin bowed his head.

There was a moment of stalemate. Neither one of them moved.

Gwaine's voice came over the comms. "We're on our way, Captain --"

And that was all the distraction, all the trigger that the assassin needed to launch himself over the bed at Arthur.

Arthur deflected the knife, lost his grip on the pistol, caught a knee in his gut, an elbow on his jaw.

He staggered backward, hitting a footstool, and fell. Pure luck alone saved him from a backswing that would've left his throat a bloodied mess. Arthur rolled away and onto his feet. He brought his hands down in time to block a kick to his head, the force of it enough to numb his forearms. He deflected a strike to his head, another to his torso, and caught the assassin's leg when he went in for a roundhouse kick.

Arthur dragged the assassin off-balance. He slammed his boot on the assassin's wrist, dislodging the knife in his hand. The assassin abandoned the blade and rolled forward, getting to his feet. Arthur struck at the man's head with clubbed fists; the assassin stumbled.

There was no hope of using a pistol to defend himself, not as long as the shield generator was operational. Arthur wasn't so sure that the mesh armour worn under clothing wouldn't be adequate against the edge of a blade. Blunt force was effective only if he was close enough to strike in a vulnerable area -- the head, the throat.

Possibly also the groin.

Arthur lunged at the assassin before he recovered. His knee connected. The assassin hissed in pain.

Definitely also the groin.

Arthur slammed his hands down on the assassin's ears simultaneously, disorienting him. The assassin pushed forward, getting a lucky blow that jarred Arthur's vision. There was a stumbling pause with the both of them scrambling for steady footing, for a moment to recover.

The assassin feinted right and went left. Arthur followed him. The assassin dove and rolled, coming up for air, his knife gleaming in the low light.

Arthur looked for his pistol. It was nowhere to be found. He reached for another weapon, but none of the ones on his person would be effective against the assassin's armour.

The assassin came at him with wild swinging arms. Arthur jerked from side to side to avoid the knife. The edge of the man's hand struck Arthur's shoulder, numbing his arm all the way to his fingertips. He dropped the gun before he even had it in his hand. He ducked a sideswipe.

He felt a sharp pain in his side. It caught him by surprise. His legs were swept from under him, and he crashed to the floor.

The assassin loomed over him, breathing in a heavy hiss. He didn't pause; he didn't gloat. He went for the kill.

The assassin caught himself in half-lunge, jarred forward by an unexpected force. He reacted by stepping to his right and whirling around, his arm swinging in the air.

His knife caught in Uther's torso.

Arthur's pistol fell out of Uther's hand.

The door to the chamber burst open and a wave of King's Guards and of Arthur's men spilled through. The air filled with the assorted sounds of different weapons discharging again and again.

The assassin collapsed, dead before he hit the ground.

There was a mere nanosecond of silence, of frozen movement, of clarity.

The King was dead. The assassin had been killed.

A combination of a wail of dismay and a roar of horror rumbled through the room.

Arthur groaned, finding his footing. Leon offered him a hand. Arthur took it with a nod and went to his father's side, but Uther was already gone.

The King's Guard pulled him away. There was shouting. Screaming. Leon stood between Arthur and the King's Guard.

Perceval caught Arthur before his knees buckled from the shock.

His father.

The assassin.

The blood on Arthur's hands from a cut in his side.

 


Chapter Nine

Asterism: The Fomorroh

The Fomorroh

Location: Between Uncontrolled and Pirate Space

 

There had been no body to bury, no funerary rites to perform, no last words to pass on. Kilgharrah had been taken into the shadows, the Master now ruled by the very same powers that he had once wielded, passing into the nether where none of them could go.

There were no more Masters of Kilgharrah's rank, and those of the House of Shadows would expect Merlin to take his place. Instead, Merlin lingered only long enough to collect some clothing, to re-equip, and to descend to Kilgharrah's chambers one last time, sealing it against intruders. And there would be intruders -- other Masters seeking the secrets of the lore that Kilgharrah had held close, acolytes desperate for the knowledge that would allow them to take the trials and to advance in their training, people in search of trinkets to sell on the black market.

Kilgharrah had been Merlin's mentor. He had been Merlin's teacher. He had taken on the role of Merlin's father when Merlin had no one else. For all their differences, there had been love born of mutual respect, and Merlin would not allow anyone to desecrate Kilgharrah's memory for their own gains.

There would be an uproar when the others discovered what Merlin had done.

A pity he wouldn't be there to see it.

"Earth to Ems," Will said, the tone of his voice pitched a little higher than usual. "Earth to Ems. Please tell me you're in there, because this is all sorts of fucked up."

Merlin shook himself. He'd been staring at the two-dimensional screen that Will only ever used when he had engaged the slipstream's FTL. The three-sixty holo-view was a drain on the power cells, and there was rarely anything to see except for empty space and the light-flare of distant stars passing them by.

"Hm?"

"Oh, shite," Will said, slumping in the Captain's chair, smacking his palm to his forehead. He rubbed his face several times before dropping his hands, grasping the arms of the chair in a white-knuckled grip. "Hm, he says. Hm, as if we weren't bloody well delivering ourselves to bloody fucking Pirates."

It wasn't the first time that Will had thrown a fit, and it wouldn't be the last, but there was a particular inflection to Will's panic that Merlin couldn't ignore. Merlin turned and faced the vid-screen again, scanning it for anything out of the ordinary. It was a simple telescopic view, pretty to look at, but not very informative.

"Is there a problem?"

"Is there a problem, he asks," Will said, shifting in his seat until he was sitting upright, boots planted firmly on the ground. His head was twisted to the right, and his fingers were dancing over the main console of the chair, punching in one code after another. "As if flying a shiny slipstream into Pirate space wasn't asking for trouble. Is there a problem -- of fucking course there's a problem."

Merlin waited. Will waved a hand in the air; a holo-console appeared in front of him and Will threw the new display all around them before pointing viciously at the ship's rear.

"What does that look to you?"

The floor clicked; the embedded controls suddenly rose up. Merlin stepped away from the raised dais even as Will flung himself across the deck, squeezing through the panels with single-minded determination. Or desperation. Merlin wasn't certain which; with Will, they were the same thing.

There was a squadron of five Imperial ships in inverse Vee formation. They were fanning out to flank their retreat, alternating their positions in the Vee. The ships were modified Imperials, fast cruisers with a crew complement of approximately two hundred, a good fifty dedicated to the twenty fighters they carried. Merlin knew only the bare basics when it came to Imperial ships and he wouldn't even have known that much if the slipstream's AI hadn't already identified the ships based on matching configurations in its database, flashing the specifications on the screen as if it were preparing a sales pitch.

"That looks like…" Merlin raised a hand in an abortive gesture. He turned around. "Why aren't we moving faster?"

Will stopped what he was doing and boggled at Merlin. "Are you fucking with me? We're near-light and that's as fast as she can go in a system this dirty without splattering on a planetary broadside. Faster involves warping space and we're too close to Pirate territory to brake from that. Well, we could try it, but plotting a course takes time, and those numpties will catch up before I finish calculating something that won't bloody well get us killed."

Merlin opened his mouth to offer a suggestion, but Will shut him down with a glare.

"And forget it. Just don't think about it. You're useless in the pilot's seat. I'm not having a repeat near-death experience. I'm still not over what happened in Bunyip VI."

"That was more than ten years ago," Merlin said weakly. "You don't know. Maybe I've taken lessons since then."

"When? In-between your single-minded revenge quest missions? No, bloody Hell, no. You're not getting on the controls. I'll just have to finesse our way out and save your arse, same as always," Will said, pointing a warning finger at Merlin before turning around. "Just to be on the safe side, if you happen to have a trick up your sleeve, it wouldn't go amiss."

Merlin turned to stare at the oncoming Imperial ships. They were too far to launch fighters, but the AI had helpfully provided a distance readout. It was in the green right now; Merlin dreaded what would happen when that readout turned red.

"How far to the border?"

"Not far -- bloody fucking hell. Don't ask me, I'm busy. Ask the ship." Will's head was down; one hand was in the air, adjusting the ship controls.

Merlin moved to the navigator window and inputted the query; the slipstream returned an encouragingly short ETA. Nearly as soon as Merlin saw how close they were, he knew that they were in trouble. If the Imperial ships were after them -- a quick glance over his shoulder confirmed that their Vee formation had turned into a scraggly W, with precision spacing that would allow them to use transit nets to capture the slipstream should they ever catch up -- they would do everything possible to ensure that they didn't make it across the border.

It was bad enough that the Imperials were in uncontrolled space, the buffer zone between the Pirate territories and the Empire. They were tolerated. But if they crossed the border or even fired into Pirate space, that would be considered an act of war.

Merlin had a feeling that they wouldn't use long-range weapons to disable the slipstream for that reason.

Still. "I have an idea."

"Stop talking and do it," Will said. The distance between the slipstream and the Imperial cruisers was increasing. Merlin decided that he didn't want to know what Will was doing to get that extra safety zone and went to the communications console.

He fished through several hidden compartments in his armour before finding the disabled bug the Pirates had planted in his belonging. He established a communication broadcast on the Pirate bands and triggered the bug.

There was no reason for Merlin to believe that Arthur and his men were even paying attention to the bug. No reason for him to think that he was important enough to the Pirates to be worth monitoring. No reason for them to want Merlin back.

It was a long shot. He could only hope it would pay off.

He wasn't sure what he expected. There were Pirates who were technological geniuses and who would undoubtedly pick up the faintest transmission. There were also Pirates who patrolled the border for no other reason than the chance of accosting an unsuspecting transport and relieving them of their payload. There were even the daredevils keen to make a name for themselves keeping a firm eye out for the Imperials, all for the guts and glory of taking one of them down.

The sensor display on the slipstream didn't show any Pirates nearby, but that didn't necessarily mean that the Pirates weren't there. The Clans had stealth technology that the Imperials had been trying to get their hands on for decades. There could be a Pirate in front of their noses, just on the other side of the boundary marker, already picking up the transmission from the bug and passing it on.

Merlin watched the distance readout. The empty space that Will had managed to put between them was holding steady. The Imperials were going to have to decide whether they wanted to put on a burst of speed to catch up -- and risk missing a braking maneuver, sliding clear into Pirate territory -- or to open fire, which was tantamount to the same thing if they happened to miss the slipstream. One smidgen over the line, and the Pirates would be in a strop.

It had happened before.

But if the Pirate King was dying -- if he wasn't dead already, the poison no longer held at bay by Kilgharrah's life force and magic -- there was a chance that maybe, just maybe, the Pirates were too preoccupied to notice the massing of Imperial fleets along their borders.

Merlin chewed the corner of his mouth. Now, if that hadn't been a revelation that had caught him unawares. Kilgharrah's charge, the rightful Emperor, was also the Pirate King, Uther Pendragon.

Which meant… Arthur Pendragon was his son.

Which meant…

As the last Shadowlord, Merlin was destined to protect Arthur.

Merlin wasn't certain how he felt about that. Arthur was a self-entitled arrogant peacock. He'd already proven that he was more inclined to play games for his own amusement than to give a situation any sort of serious regard. Merlin had a hard time seeing the Arthur Pendragon that he had met, who had dared lay claim of ownership on Merlin, as the heir and future ruler of the Empire.

And there was no doubt that he would be, even if Merlin had to kill every single member of the Imperial Conglomerate to put Arthur on the throne. The Empire had to be restored before more people suffered, before any more Houses fell.

Merlin rubbed his forehead. Kilgharrah's voice still rang in his head.

"You must do this, Merlin," Kilgharrah said, leaning forward. Perhaps he sensed Merlin's resistance, or had always suspected that it was there; he played a card that he had never played before when he took Merlin's wrist and squeezed tightly, his shadow blending with Merlin's. "So stubborn. Always so stubborn."

The haze overwhelmed Merlin's vision before Merlin could defend himself, and his psyche was pulled deep into the shadow's realm. This was the place of dreams, of wasted hopes and ideas without spark, the place where Merlin never went lest it remind him of his own failed goals.

"Do you see it?" Kilgharrah asked him. "Do you see the light? It is a future that has yet to come to fruition. It shines even in the darkness. Do you know why, young Shadowlord? It's because there is still a chance. A chance for a life different than this. A chance to set right what had been made wrong."

Merlin wrenched free of Kilgharrah's grasp. He staggered against the table, fell onto the chair in an ungraceful slump.

"You can continue on your quest for revenge. Seek fulfilment in little, petty kills. You can exact your revenge one by one until you are old and grey, until the day that the White Legion continues to outnumber you and the Conglomerate sends everything it has to destroy you. Or you can abandon everything for this one, singular possibility, this rare and impossible chance. You can get your revenge, Merlin. You can restore honour to our House. The Shadow can once again stand proud behind the throne.

"But you have to get the young Dragon there, Merlin. You have to help him. You have to stand by him. There are many who would, but he cannot trust anyone. No one but you."

Kilgharrah reached for his cup of tea, the pungent liquid already cold. He let it drop to the table with a clatter, and heaved a heavy, exhausted sigh, as if showing Merlin a bare glimpse of a future where the Empire was again revered and an universe with all its fractured dominions united under one throne had exhausted him of all of his reserves.

"Promise me," Kilgharrah whispered.

The shadows swept out, no longer shy; Merlin's presence couldn't keep them at bay any longer. Kilgharrah heaved a soft sigh of welcome, the long strain of the burden he bore fading even as the shadows curled around his body to claim him. Merlin watched in pained fascination, shaking his head in refusal and denial, hurting too much to shed the tears that were drowning his heart.

"I promise," Merlin whispered, but it was too late. Kilgharrah was gone.

Merlin had sat in the room until the candles had burned low, the flames sputtering in the wax. The cauldron had cooled, smoke filling the room.

All those of the House of Shadows, current faithful and traitors both, had heard Merlin's roar of grief. It had made the firmament tremble, it had made the shadows shudder.

They still shuddered now.

Merlin dropped his hand to the console. He scanned the communications, hoping for the faintest blip of an incoming message, but there was nothing. He slapped a hand on the edge of the controls.

It couldn't be over so quickly, so easily. There had to be a way to get to the Pirates, to Arthur. There had to be. It wasn't only the promise he'd made, nor the destiny written in the stars that drove him on. He could ignore the feelings in his belly all he wanted, but a part of Merlin tensed in anticipation at the thought of seeing Arthur again.

"Um. Ems?"

"Yeah?" Merlin tore his gaze from the communications display, verifying that the bug was transmitting at full power. It had limited range, but with the boost from the comms and a link to the nearest Net node, there was a chance, however slim, that they could alert the Pirates. All the displays were green.

The distance readout between the slipstream and the Imperial cruisers on their arses was getting smaller.

"What did you do?"

Merlin risked a long look around the three-sixty display, but he didn't see anything out of the ordinary. "I set off a tracking bug."

Will cleared his throat. "It wouldn't, by any chance, be a Pirate tracking bug?"

Merlin met Will's wild eyes and hedged, "Possibly?"

"Oh. That's brilliant. You couldn't have given me some sort of warning? I don't know. Something like, Oh, Will? Do you mind if I turn this on? I don't know what it'll do, but it's from the Pirates? Or, maybe something a little bit more informative, like, I'm going to do this thing and it might hurt more than we'd like because it's a thing that Pirates made?" Will asked. He raised his hands as if he were about to execute a command, listlessly dropping them a second later.

"I very distinctly remember someone saying, Stop talking and do it," Merlin said crossly.

"Don't you dare put the blame on me. I assumed, erroneously, that you would do something with our systems to make us invisible or something, what with your…" Will made a butterfly-fluttering gesture with his fingers. Merlin assumed that was meant to mean his shadow magic.

The slipstream was a small compared to most, but Merlin had never tried to shadow an entire ship before. It hadn't occurred to him to try. He could probably manage a shadow large enough to engulf the Unpleasant Surprise completely.

"I sure as shite didn't expect you to put a glowing We're here sign complete with a flashing arrow over our heads for the Pirates to find," Will snapped.

Merlin noted that Will was no longer piloting the ship. The autopilot indicator was on. From the distance readout on the screen, Merlin saw that their ship was slowing down -- or the Imperial cruisers were catching up. Rather than to demand what the fuck Will thought he was doing, not flying the bloody ship and getting them somewhere safe, Merlin asked, "What's going on?"

"What's going on?" Will repeated, as if he didn't understand the question. He shrugged. "Oh, I don't know. I'm done, actually. I'm so done. I try to help a mate, get him out of a tight jam. I go out of my way to help him. I get my ship shot up. I strain my baby's engines getting him to his homeworld. And now, for some inexplicable reason that still hasn't properly been explained to me, I'm doing my mate a favour and going out of my way to drop him off on a Pirate spaceport -- granted, I'll probably pick up a few goods along the way, something's got to pay for the fuel -- I'm a good friend, you see, except when I'm a bloody numpty for helping a bloke. Especially when that bloke thinks it's a bloody good idea to activate a Pirate locator bug."

Merlin stared at Will blankly.

Will stared back, his hands in fists at his side, his nostrils flaring.

"You may have to spell this out for me properly," Merlin said calmly.

"We've been hacked," Will roared, punching his fists in the air, flailing his arms in frustration.

Merlin glanced at the communications console. If there had been a return transmission, even a response, never mind a carrier wave, surely the slipstream's AI would have detected it and flashed a warning, but the console was devastatingly empty of any alerts. "Don't you have countermeasures?"

"Fucking fat lot of good they are if they're activated after the fact," Will snapped.

"Are you sure we've been hacked? Because I'm not seeing anything --"

"Oh, we've been hacked," Will said, his brows wriggling up and down in frustration. He crossed his arms over his chest. "You want to know how I know --"

The ship lurched suddenly, the nose dropping into a hundred eighty degree fall that was too fast for the gravity generators to compensate. Will's magnetic boots activated, keeping him rooted to the deck, but Merlin was lifted nearly a metre from the floor and dropped hard when the inertial gravity reactivated. He went sliding across the room at an abrupt at-starboard turn.

"What the Hell --"

"Hacked," Will shouted. "We've been bloody hacked, that's what the Hell --"

The three-sixty view showed the Imperial cruisers accelerating at an increased rate, abandoning caution. Space was illuminated by a flurry of incoming photon charges that skimmed the skin of the slipstream before Will shrieked "My baby" and slammed a hand on the console, activating shields.

The ship abruptly veered in a different direction, forcing the Imperial cruisers to alter course. At their velocity, it took an immense braking effort that pushed the cruisers into a wide arc, momentum and the lack of opposing force keeping them drifting while their engines compensated and adjusted for the new coordinates. A barrage of high-velocity explosive rounds, invisible against the pitch black of space, thud-thunk-thunked against the shield plating until the slipstream was just outside of its line of fire, the last few bullets skimming the reinforced surfaces in bursts of light before blowing past them entirely.

The slipstream altered course a third time just as one of the cruisers released its fighter ships, two-man cross-hatch wing configurations with heavy weapon payloads that included anywhere from high-frequency laser pulses and drill-through torpedoes. The fighters had shorter ranges but greater manoeuvrability, even better than the slipstream.

A ship was only as good as its pilot, and Will was the best; if anyone could out-fly a fighter squadron in a dogfight, it was him.

Unfortunately, someone else was remote-flying the slipstream.

"Goddamn it, you fucking Pirates, give me back control, you're going to --" Red lights flashed on and off all around the deck as the engines went critical. "Ems! Shut that fucking bug! Cut the comms! Blow the antenna! Bloody do something --"

Merlin shook his head to clear it. The sticky-wet of blood dripped down his temple and cheek; it matted his hair. He had black-and-grey spots in his vision, he was strangely detached from his body, but he forced himself to stand.

The slipstream braked and stopped drift-dead. The fighter ships didn't have the same capability and whizzed past. A staccato crash-thud-pulse-rumble reverberated against the shields.

"What are you doing to my ship!" Will wailed. He punched ineffectually at the controls, trying to restore manual functions. Alert after alert flashed on the screen; systems were failing, power was fluctuating, shield integrity was failing.

Merlin dragged himself over to the communications console, his shadows keeping him rooted to the spot when the thrusters suddenly engaged and drove them in a downward spiral that stopped just short of a figurative deadfall to slither up in a vertical raise. Two fighter ships, angling downward, clipped each other and went spiralling off.

Merlin yanked the locator bug out of the broadcast loop and crushed it. The red warnings continued to flash, and Will was still desperately trying to regain control.

"Anything?"

"No!"

"What do I do?"

"Disable it. I don't care how, just do it --"

The ship was jarred by a barrage of blows along its port side. Explosive rounds blasted in series, one after another, with enough force to throw the ship off-course. The three-sixty holo view flared in reddish hue, and a warning Imminent Hull Breach scrolled in a repetitive circle around them.

"We're being burrowed! It's a mole torpedo!" Will shouted. He raised a holo-display and tapped insistently. "Fuckshite. I'm locked out. Those bloody bastards. We're going to fucking die!"

Merlin stared at the comm panel. He tapped a few commands but none of them addressed the current problem of needing to completely cut communications altogether. The one promising attempt had been circumvented by an obnoxious You do not have the appropriate permissions to access this function. Please contact your system administrator message.

"All the comms go through here, right?" Merlin asked.

"What? Yes!"

Merlin nodded and took a step back. He forced the shadows to take substance, heavy and cloying, the haze at their core a heavy, menacing dark. It wrapped around the communications console like a tentacle lover, the soft tendrils suddenly tightening before wrenching it all out in a screech of warping high-tensile metal alloys, reinforced polystyrene and touch-sensitive flexglas panels.

The slipstream shuddered. The autopilot light went off. Will made a happy screech of success, his hands flying across the consoles, activating a series of commands that cleared the flashing red lights. There was a secondary shudder -- a power flare of the engines, activating a plasma netting on the slipstream's hull. The burrowing torpedo was disabled by the electrical plasma charge, and it drifted away harmlessly on the three-sixty view.

The Imminent Hull Breach warning was replaced by Hull Breach Averted and Pressurizing Aft Section messages. One by one, the warning messages on the multiple overhead displays blinked out as Will throttled back the ship's speed and equilibrated the power between engines. He sent the slipstream into multiple spiralling figure-eights up and over the fighter ships, forcing distance between them and the enemy. The fighter ships scattered, veering around at speed.

Will glanced over his shoulder at Merlin. He returned his attention to his piloting. A second later, he twisted around and tore a hand from the controls, pointing at the still-sparking communication console.

It slid across the floor, taking fibre optic cables and a few additional panels with it in a bright flash of sparks.

"Really, Ems? The fuck did you do that for?"

"You said to disable it," Merlin said.

"I meant turn it off! Or, failing that, yank out the splice board --"

"Assassin," Merlin snapped. "Not an engineer!"

Will stared at Merlin for half a second before snickering. "Orright. But you're paying for that, Ems."

Merlin rolled his eyes and counted to ten. He didn't feel any calmer, but he hissed, "Fine. Now can you get us out of here?"

"I don't know!" Will said, ducking his head instinctively as the overhead display showed a fighter ship swooping down too close. There was a peppering of thuds all along the length of the slipstream. The pops culminated in a loud smash that was quickly followed by the gut-wrenching sound of metal warping, but the shields held and the ship remained largely intact. "Where would I go? On our left are the fucking Blues waiting to blow us out of the sky. On the right are the -- where the fuck are they -- Pirates who nearly got us killed. Bloody good idea, by the way. Let's call the Pirates to the rescue --"

Will's rant trailed off and he jerked at the controls, dodging heavy weapons fire from the cruisers who were closing in on them. The fighter ships were fanned out in a knotted pattern, forming a fisherman's net to push the slipstream toward the cruisers.

"What's our location?" Will shouted. He did something -- Merlin felt a sickening flip of his stomach as the slipstream somehow managed to twist free of the snare tightening around it -- and barked, "Where's the border?"

"What are you doing?" Merlin asked.

"Can't believe I forgot the First Rule of Smuggling. It's my mum's rule, actually. When in doubt, start an intergalactic incident," Will said. He flashed a big grin. "I bet you them Blues back there don't know where it is any more than we do -- ah, there it is --"

Merlin winced inwardly, recognizing that tone of Will's voice. He dove at the Captain's chair and secured himself with his shadows just as the slipstream did something that was probably unhealthy for the continued lives of its passengers and set off half a dozen Exceeding Threshold warnings.

The shadows tightened around Merlin's body, holding him in place. The tendrils thinned from the strain of acceleration, crushing his torso, suffocating him.

Merlin blacked out. He wasn't sure how long he'd been out, but the next thing he knew, the slipstream was bouncing in a tidal wave of photon pulses, the shield strength decreasing percentage point by percentage point. Will was doing some complicated reshuffling of power between the engines and the shields, borrowing heavily from life support. The inertial gravity had been disabled, all non-essential power had been shut down, and for every percentage point restored to the shield, it disappeared after another blast from the Imperial cruisers exploded far too close for comfort. The three-sixty view winked out.

Will's expression was one of intense concentration. His hands were white-knuckled on the controls, his legs spread to brace himself, the magnets in his boots the only thing keeping him on deck. The lack of gravity was pulling at Will's hair and clothes, and in the backlight of the single holo-display remaining, Will looked almost as if he were cackling with glee.

In the corner of the holo-display, the AI was busy calculating and recalculating distances -- one marker for the slipstream, the other for the nearest Imperial cruiser. The slipstream's marker was negative and decreasing fast; the cruiser's marker was approaching zero.

The instant that the slipstream reached negative zero point zero one, a blinding burst of light flared across the vidscreens as several photon pulses blasted at them, past them, at the cruisers. Once the holo-screen restored from the light emitter overload, there was a tiny, frightened squeak from Will.

It took Merlin a little longer to recover. He was a Shadowlord; extreme light was taxing on his senses. He felt robbed, hollowed, blind. There was a buzzing in his ears and a rough thump in his chest that lasted until his eyesight was restored.

He wasn't the sort to squeak in surprise or fear, but if he had been, he would have made a sound very similar to the noise that Will had made only moments ago.

There were seven Pirate ships in a loose cluster a few hundred thousand kilometres ahead of them, safely nestled in their territory. They were of different configurations and make, sizes and structures, but each and every one of them was flying the Jolly Rogers across their bow, Clan crests tattooed in the centre of the skull. Two more ships dropped their stealth shields as they watched, the skin rippling like flat water disturbed by a pebble, and it was hypnotic up until Merlin spotted the cannons extending out from the sides of the prow and angling in their direction.

"Oh, shite," Will said.

A second barrage of blinding light burst past them in a shuddering rhythm, wave after wave of torpedoes and laser fire and photon bursts that inexplicably missed them.

Will touched the holo-screen and flung it around until it pointed toward the slipstream's aft and showed them what was going on.

The Imperials were down four fighters; several more were limping away, and two of the cruisers were spewing atmosphere. They were retreating quickly -- Merlin would say desperately -- before they were completely destroyed.

Once the Imperials were well away, the Pirate fire ceased. None of them gave pursuit.

Merlin and Will exchanged a long look of relief that quickly became concern. The communications console -- what was left of it -- bleeped faintly before erupting in an angry shower of sparks. Will crossed his arms and gave Merlin a dark look; Merlin shrugged and toed at the debris.

"What do you suppose they want?" Will asked.

"No idea," Merlin said. Will retrieved the holo-screen and walked it back to the foredeck, pausing now and then, magnifying the image and zooming out before moving on. One by one the ships faded from sight, blinking out as if someone had flicked a switch. "I don't suppose you have a backup comms?"

Will glared.

Merlin held up his hands in apology.

"Well, looks like they're leaving," Will said, crossing his arms as he studied the vid. "Maybe they won't take my ship."

"Maybe your ship's too beat-up to take," Merlin offered. Will made a scandalized sound.

"And why wouldn't they want to take this gorgeous ship? It's tricked out, has all the bells and whistles, and can be run with a crew of one. And if those pillocks don't want her -- whose fault is that? She didn't have a single scratch before you came along," Will said, no real heat in his voice. He squinted at the holo-screen, zooming in and zooming out, studying the Pirate ships.

"It was a locator bug, nothing else," Merlin snapped. "They couldn't have used it as a carrier to plant a virus --"

Will waved a dismissing hand in the air. "They probably picked up the ship's internal net and hacked it. It's one of their usual tactics. Get close enough with stealth, latch onto the comms, hijack ship systems, take over the control. They're masters of remote piloting. I've heard of them grabbing a whole fleet of merchant ships and driving them into the hold of a big barge."

Merlin stared at Will for a long time. He crossed his arms.

Will was House of Shadows, even if he hadn't been born into the royal line. He was as accustomed to uncomfortable silences, enough to ignore them, but he must have sensed something in Merlin's mood because he turned around. "Okay, so maybe it wasn't all your fault. It was the heat of the moment, Ems. You know how it is when things go wrong."

Merlin thought back to the assignment on Course IV. Kill a Healer of seemingly little importance, make it appear as if it had been a suicide. It had been a simple job, and it had gone wrong in every possible way. He had been prepared to blame Kilgharrah; he had definitely blamed Alator. And after all this, he was no closer to knowing who had engineered the plot to kill him, but he had a pretty good idea, now.

"What do you suppose they're doing?" Will asked.

There were two Pirate ships left; the rest had resumed stealth and, presumably, had moved on.

"Oh, dear Gods. You don't think they're arguing over scavenge rights?" Will asked. He took a step back and activated a few more holo-consoles, staring glumly at the power levels of the engines. "No way I can bug out of here, not limping along like this. It'll take an hour, maybe a bit more, to get back to full charge. I could probably shut down everything essential and trigger a FTL system jump --"

"There's two ships. You could fight your way out," Merlin suggested. He came up behind Will, taking a closer look at the holo-screen.

Will made a clicking sound with his tongue. "I'll get right on that. As soon as I retrofit my baby with a few weapons."

"Why don't you have weapons again?"

Will looked at Merlin as if he'd grown another head. "I'm a smuggler, not a fighter, you numpty. Because weapons will slow her down, that's why!"

Merlin shrugged. He flicked a finger at the holo-screen and magnified the two ships until he had a better look at the sigils on the Jolly Rogers of both ships. One was a white bear with a black outline, standing on its hind legs, its forepaws curled at its side. The other was --

Merlin bit his tongue to keep from snorting. Perhaps this entire incident was his fault. He was the one who had activated a Pirate beacon, and that beacon belonged to one particular Pirate. The very same Pirate that Merlin had come to find. Who might just be on the sleek ship that was slowly turning to face them.

He stared at the golden dragon in the centre of the Jolly Rogers, trying to decide how he felt. There was a tightness to him, an apprehension, a heat in his belly.

A white light flashed at them from the Pendragon ship. It blinked in fast and short successions in rhythmic pattern before Merlin recognized the code.

"They must've figured out our comms are down," Will said, flicking a hand in the air to change the current holo-console view to a Morse code translator panel.

STAND DOWN ENGINES. PREPARE FOR BOARDING.

Merlin and Will stared at the repeating message for several seconds before Will blew out a frustrated breath and said, "Aw, fuck."

"Ask them which Clan is taking claim," Merlin said.

"Are you serious?" Will's expression suddenly brightened. "Oh, I see what you're thinking, start a bitch fight, buy us time to slip away --"

Merlin shook his head minutely.

Will's expression fell. "Seriously? You want to go with them?"

Merlin nodded sharply. When Will didn't move to transmit the message, Merlin gestured at him to get started.

It was a few minutes before there was a response.

UNDER DISCUSSION.

"In other words, if we poke a sharp enough stick at them, they'll go at it," Will said, looking at Merlin expectantly. "I don't fancy being in the middle of a tug-of-war, and if one of them has a silly notion of splitting my ride in two, I'll set the self-destruct myself."

"What happened to stalling for an hour before leaving for parts unknown?" Merlin asked.

"The potential for trading with Pirates if everything goes to plan," Will said, flashing a grin. "My reputation will skyrocket. I'll be rich --"

"Or dead," Merlin said.

"Or that, but I'll be rich," Will said. He tilted his head toward the holo-screen. "What do I tell them?"

"Tell them --" Merlin shook his head and pushed Will aside. He keyed a response.

PENDRAGON HAS PRIOR CLAIM. SELFDESTRUCT IF NOT PENDRAGON.

"I was kidding about the self-destruct," Will said, shooting him a worried glance.

Merlin leaned in and wrapped an arm around Will's shoulders. "I'm not."

 


Chapter Ten

Asterism: The Wyverns

The Wyverns

Location: Pirate King Homeworld, Pirate Space

 

The election of the new Pirate King shouldn't be taking as long as it was. The protocols were simple and straightforward. A King dies or steps down. A council of all the Clanheads was called. The individual calling the council engaged the vote. The ballots were counted. If there was no clear majority, a period of open discussion and negotiation was permitted before a second vote was made.

The process was repeated as often as needed, until there was a clear outcome and a single, new King.

Somehow, Olaf had learned of the King's death and had called the council before Arthur, wrestling control from his grasp.

The council had arrived, appropriately mournful with black bands around their left biceps. They'd nodded to Arthur and expressed their sympathies. They'd sat down as Olaf called the council to order and drew attention to the reason for the meeting -- as if everyone wasn't already aware.

Olaf promptly broke for lunch.

It was a lunch that had lasted four hours. The council reconvened and the first item on Olaf's mysterious agenda was brought to light. A vote had been called.

The council agreed to a recess of several days to allow for the pomp and circumstance of Uther Pendragon's funeral.

No one was fooled, though. It was a blatant attempt to buy time for each and every Clan to get their ducks in a row, hedging their bets and laying out threats -- where applicable -- to get a few extra votes for themselves.

Arthur, preoccupied with the arrangements for the funeral, had managed to speak to a few of the Clans and obtain their support -- but not their vote. If this entire debacle on Olaf's part wasn't an underhanded ploy to ensure that Arthur couldn't put forward a strong case for the throne, Arthur was a blind three-legged goat.

He couldn't even accuse Olaf of having set him up. Olaf had warned him.

The canny bastard.

The question of how Olaf had reacted so quickly to call the council had been resolved when Lance found footage of Olaf meeting with one of the King's Guards shortly after the attack. There had been a clear exchange of information over the recovered audio, a trade of silver Sterling for the Guard's efforts.

Of course Olaf would have met with the Guard in a public location where his every move and word would be recorded for purview. Of course. Now Olaf had plausible deniability in any involvement with the assassination. Arthur couldn't even use the video against Olaf, not after the Guard had been found and had confessed only to keeping Olaf informed of Uther's activities, and that Olaf had known of Uther's illness for weeks, now.

Arthur sank deeper in his chair and rubbed a throbbing vein over his brow. His father's burial had been more than a system-week ago, and the council still hadn't addressed the rights of succession.

"Let's clear up the outstanding business," Olaf had suggested. "What does everyone want for lunch," Olaf had asked. "I'm thinking that we don't care overmuch about Clan Dolmaon's books as long as the Dolmaon pay a fine," Olaf had directed.

Every Clanhead had looked thoughtful and had played along. Arthur had to fight to keep from bashing his head on the table.

There had been votes. There had been more votes.

In all the time that Arthur had spent sitting on his arse, listening to the discussions going on around him, the Clanheads had received messages every hour on the hour -- either on handheld devices or by word of mouth as one of their subjects came into the room to whisper in their ear. Leon had come by more than once. Perceval at least twice. Lance several times more.

Arthur knew damn well what information was being exchanged. He knew which Clan had allied to vote for another Clan. He knew which men were likely to be voted onto the throne if they could somehow resolve the deadlock. Arthur had already decided that until he became a serious contender, he would perpetuate any tie by casting his vote for one, and using his father's vote on the other.

Somehow, though, that situation hadn't even arisen. There had been a spectacular and surprising lack of clamouring for the vote.

The council's attention was elsewhere. It seemed that they were avoiding pushing for the vote for the succession until there was a clearer picture of what was happening at the border to Pirate space. Imperial cruisers had been spotted in increasing numbers in the buffer zone of uncontrolled space. Those of the Clans who had ventured into Imperial space had had to cut their visits short; it was simply too risky to venture out that way in search of spoils when it seemed as if the entire Imperial Conglomerate fleet was prepared to jump into Pirate territory.

Arthur's handheld panel flashed once. He picked it up and read the message.

We're here, with a guest.

Three nearby Pirates had picked up their own panels and shot Arthur angry looks, as if it weren't proper that he'd received an update but that they hadn't.

Arthur's fingers tapped on the panel, wiping the message. The subroutines that Lance had placed on the device would make sure that they weren't recoverable, but there was little to worry about. His men were careful to only leave the most enigmatic messages that they could; full of remarks that would mean nothing to anyone but Arthur, or meaningless notes that only confirmed what they had discussed in private.

Elyan had been the one to come in several days ago to whisper into Arthur's ear. Remember good old Niall? He's back. Arthur had nearly shot up out of his chair until Elyan hissed that the Excalibur was still a few days out.

Arthur had ignored Elyan's knowing smirk and the confused exchange of glances between the other Clanheads, fighting to keep his expression neutral for the rest of the meeting. The only relief that had been afforded him during the last few days were never-ending meetings -- dry as a bone, boring as fuck, but still requiring his complete attention if he didn't want to be caught short-changed.

But now, Arthur's gorgeous, nameless assassin was here, apparently of his own volition, chased into Pirate territory by a squadron of Imperial cruisers. Arthur was equally dying of curiosity to why the CorpsCops were after him as he was to know why the man had willingly returned to him.

Arthur waited until the current debate over Clan territories had settled down and for his nearest neighbours to have received messages of their own before loudly clearing his throat and standing up. The conversation stopped almost immediately, with a synchronized clutch at whatever weaponry they wore, and every Clan head turned to stare at him.

Olaf's expression was pinched.

"I'm certain it has escaped no one's notice that we have veered into topics of discussion that require a King's intervention." Arthur said, pausing long enough to meet everyone's eyes and staring until their gazes dropped, one by one. "And, given the frequency of incoming messages received by each Clan represented at the table today, I'm certain that we are all aware that this is not the time to fuck around."

Arthur kept Olaf for last, inclining his head meaningfully. Olaf returned his stare with an insouciant shrug, even daring a raised brow and a mocking smirk, as if to say, of course you would be the one to figure it out, such a pity that you're too late. Arthur resisted the urge to close his eyes tightly, to grit his teeth, to clutch his hands into fists, to let go of his rage and throw himself over the table and to strangle the man. If he'd been thinking, if he'd been even remotely paying attention to the other Clans instead of running through Imperial space searching for someone, something, anything that could save his father, maybe Arthur would have been able to put the puzzle pieces together a lot sooner. It was too late now. Little good would come of accusing Olaf's complicity against the King, against the Clans, against the Pirates, not when Arthur had nothing more to go on but speculation and coincidences.

"Some of you might fancy sitting on your arses while the Imperial Conglomerate waltzes through the line and lays claim to our space. I, for one, don't fancy that at all." Arthur shot a quick look around the room. "There's a war coming, gentlemen and gentleladies. I mean to be on the deck of the Pendragon flagship at the forefront of the battle, and I intend to be the first to scuttle those Blues and to see them running back like the cowards that they are."

There were cheers and choruses among the Clan, the Pirates leaning forward to pound fists on the table. Olaf leaned back in his chair, a smarmy smile across his lips, and spread his hands in invitation, letting Arthur have his play.

Arthur couldn't help thinking that he was walking into a trap. Stopping now would only make him look like a cowardly fool. He forged on.

"As it stands, we number over one hundred Clans, each with fearsome fleets. Every Captain of every ship in an Imperial battalion would quake in their boots to see a Clan at full flag waiting for them. But it's not a mere handful of ships out there waiting along the border markers. It's not a few fighters waiting outside the zone for the all-clear. It's the full complement of the Imperial Conglomerate's navy -- half a million strong, with a few million more held in reserve. I don't doubt there's a hefty complement of White Legion just waiting to get close enough to slaughter us all."

There was a quiet lull in the room; even Olaf's stoic expression faltered.

"None of us are able to stand alone, not in the war that's coming," Arthur said, letting his tone add a spiteful and the more fools you are if you try. "And alone is what you'll be, even if a Clan's on your left and another's on your right, because no Clan takes commands from another, even if it's a hail to warn about the Needler burrowing through the bow."

Arthur paused, letting his words sink in. There were a few nervous smiles, at least one heartfelt denial, but none of the Pirates could argue with the truth. They were rogue and brigands, born and bred. Cooperation wasn't in their nature, not when competition and profit was at the very root of their society. The Clans might look strong and mighty all lined up on their side of the border, facing down the Imperials, but once the first shot was fired, the battle would turn into a genocidal clusterfuck with the Pirates on the losing side, quickly turning into blood smears in space.

"This is no battle we can win without a King. There is no war where we can remain strong without a King. There is no future for the Clans if we do not stand united with a King."

Arthur leaned over the table, knuckles on the table, and stared long and hard at Olaf. Olaf wasn't smiling anymore. The amusement had left his eyes. His gaze had gone distant, his lips pursed in thought, his cheeks a ruddy red.

"It's a fair cop," he said, his voice low. He didn't look around the room, but he could tell that the mood had shifted, that the other Clan heads had picked up on the rage simmering under Arthur's skin. "There are important matters that we need to address, but I fail to see how the harvest season that's months in coming and how to divest the cherry apples and who'll get their proper share of Clan Llannin's rotgut brew outweighs a threat against our entire livelihood."

Slowly, ever so slowly, Olaf lowered his hands. He sat up straight in his seat. He leaned forward, elbows on the table, fingers entwined. His mouth dropped open to speak, but Arthur cut him off.

"Tradition has already been broken when the succession wasn't determined immediately," Arthur said. "So, I'll break tradition again. I'm calling the vote. Nominate someone as King."

 


Star Cluster

 

Predictably, the first call for a vote was greeted with both stony resistance from Olaf, who made a feeble attempt to put it off until all the other agenda items had been addressed with its usual chaos. In their haste to put themselves forward, every Pirate -- Arthur included -- nominated themselves.

And then, as if remembering that there was still one more vote to cast, and that vote had been ceded to Arthur on his father's death, every Pirate turned to regard Arthur with trepidation.

He only needed one vote to take the throne. One vote to put himself forward above the rest. But if he meant to govern the Pirates as their King and to use them to take over the Empire, he needed them all on his side. Using the additional vote that came to him by way of his father -- that wasn't the way to do it.

"I defer the King's vote," Arthur said. A hollow silence followed his announcement -- a silence full of raised eyebrows and undisguised surprise. "Vote again -- for someone you want to follow, and not your own, overinflated egos."

The second vote followed the same pattern. The field of nominations was halved; every name on the ballot had received at least two votes. Arthur was surprised to see that the Lady Guinevere of Clan Leodegrace had cast her ballot for him.

Gwen had taken over the leadership of her Clan after her father had been killed in an attack on a space station in the uncontrolled zone and had rebuilt a scattered Clan into technological terrors. Her Pirates were among the best electronic scrubbers, hackers, and electronic manipulators on this side of the universe -- so good that the Clans happily risked their secrets by having the Leodegrace make secure their Clan networks. Of all the members of the Pirate council, Gwen had the best chance of being elected to the throne.

Lance, Gwen's husband, was Arthur's man, but Arthur had no illusions of Lance's true loyalties. For Gwen to vote for Arthur, when she held the entirety of the Pirate Clans by the balls in the palm of her hand, spoke volumes that didn't go unheard in the Council room.

The vote came to another deadlock, with each Pirate nomination receiving two votes each. Again, Arthur deferred his father's vote.

"Again," Arthur said in the silence that followed. "And think hard. Do any of you lot really know what it's like being King? You can't favour your own Clan or you'll be deposed. You can't trust your Clan to follow your decision. You have to wheedle and deal to get your allies on board, and you'll happily kiss your worst's enemy's arse just to get him to let you pass through his Clanspace."

"Pucker up, then," Cenred said with a laugh, throwing his chit in Arthur's direction. The coin wobbled on the table, settling with a too-loud clink. "I've always wanted you to lick my bum."

"Drop them and bend over," Arthur said, trying not to gape at the coin in front of him. He knew that this was a one-off, that Cenred was being his usual contrary self, and that it had nothing to do with who Cenred really wanted on the throne -- which was definitely himself. "What are you waiting for? I'm not doing all the work here. You have to meet me halfway."

That set out a round of laughter and set the tone for the vote, because all sorts of petty disputes came to light. The coins went flying across the table until the current tally stood at a tied six votes for Olaf and Bayard, who were undisputedly the least-liked Pirates in all the Clans, with the rest of the coins scattered among the rest. Arthur had five coins -- Cenred, Odin, Tristan, Annis, plus Gwen, who tossed hers with an apologetic smirk and an I've nothing against you shrug.

Cooler heads around the table prevailed and most of the coins were either retained for a self-vote, or strategically tossed to prevent anyone else from getting the upper hand. When Olaf cast his own vote for himself, edging out ahead, Arthur tossed his vote to Bayard, who had already jokingly traded his vote with Godwin.

The vote ended up in a tie, with every face suddenly sombre with realization at the vote that Arthur was holding back, once again deferred. The Pirates realized they could have ended up with Olaf or Bayard as King, and from the sour expressions on most of the council members' faces, it wasn't a pleasant prospect either way.

The chits were redistributed and verified. The Pirates returned to their seats. There was a strained silence as each Pirate contemplated their options and tried to find answers in the palms of their hands. A few whispered conversations lasted mere seconds -- a brief reaffirmation of alliances for future votes -- and the mood dropped from amused to strained.

Arthur started to rise to call for another vote when Mithian stood up instead. She wasn't the shortest or slightest Pirate in the room, but she was certainly among those with the greatest presence, and she had every eye on her in an instant.

"Let's be honest with ourselves. Not all of us have credentials nor experience to warrant sitting on the throne. Everyone, raise your hands," she said. She lifted her own and raised a brow when some were slow in complying. "Lower your hands if you have never flown your Clanship into Imperial space."

There was some grumbling, but several hands dropped. Among them was Gwen, to whom Mithian sent an apologetic glance. Gwen smiled softly and shrugged; everyone knew Clan Leodegrace were heavyweights in their own right.

"… and who returned without bounty," Mithian added. Several more hands dropped; there were amused snorts and light teasing all around the table. A few tempers flared, but nothing that came to blows.

"Those among you who have never commanded more than one ship on pillage in Imperial space, lower your hands," Mithian said. Several more hands dropped. The accompanying grumble was audible, but Mithian continued on, unfazed. "Those who have never seen ship-to-ship combat against the Blues, lower your hands."

There was a pause, but more hands dropped.

"If you haven't been in a spaceport firefight against the CorpsCops, drop your hands," Mithian said. She lowered hers.

"What does that have to do with anything?" someone shouted.

"If you've never seen the face of the enemy, what fat lot of good are you?" Mithian snapped. "They're trained soldiers -- it's one thing to have enough firepower to blast an Imperial warship out of the bloody sky, but it's something else entirely if it's just you and them and they've got their guns to your head."

"Hear, hear," some of the Pirates said, drumming their hands on the table in agreement.

"How many of you haven't been hit by a Needler?" Mithian challenged.

More hands dropped.

"How many of you haven't traded weapon fire with the White Legion? Because you know it's not just the CorpsCops that we're going to have to fight out there. It's those Elite bastards with the superior armour and training, the mindless automatons who obey orders without questions, and who'll keep coming to shove their pistols up our collective arses even if we drop a bloody bomb on their heads," Mithian said.

Suddenly, the already-diminished number of candidates halved. Arthur's arm was in pins and needles from being held aloft so long.

"You have?" Cenred said, eyebrow raised. His arm was up, too, but he seemed surprised to see Arthur still among the running. "When?"

"Not long ago," Arthur said calmly, aware of the many more eyes fixed on him. "We were in Imperial space, hijacking a luxury cruiser to cover up the liberation of a Healer. The CorpsCops were waiting for us. Needlers latched onto the ship. Three White Legion standards, one Elite."

No one said anything.

"Bollocks," Cenred blurted out. "Bollocks. We would've heard about it if you had --"

"Maybe I didn't want anyone to know," Arthur said evenly. "You lot are worse than fishwives, you are. You'd be asking what the Excalibur was doing on a snake run, and I couldn't very well have anyone nosing around and finding out my father was ill, could I? He didn't need to deal with your shite, and, frankly, neither do I."

No one said anything. At least one candidate wavered, lowering his arm. He mumbled something along the lines of, I don't think it counts if I only saw the Needler through binoculars, and his nearest neighbour elbowed him hard.

"If your father was unwell, perhaps you should have advised the council?" Olaf suggested. His shark's smile returned, and he tilted his head, showing the interest of a predator trying to decide if this particular prey would taste any good. "It is our responsibility to --"

"To what?" Arthur cut in, not wanting to give Olaf any space to build up steam. "To undermine his decisions? To sow distrust? To call a meeting to discredit the King, to depose him, to call a vote? That's all well and good, but you're forgetting one thing. My father ordered me to keep his secret. He ordered my men the same. And not a word was breathed, because unlike some, I know how to obey my King."

Olaf surged to his feet, pistol in hand. The Pirate on his left slammed Olaf's arm down on the table. Arthur tackled two council members in the line of fire, and the three of them crashed to the floor.

The pulse blast took out the wall right behind them.

Arthur scrambled to his feet, weapon in hand. He wasn't the only one. Every Pirate's gun was out, pointing at someone else. A Pirate next to Olaf was holding the side of his face, blood seeping through his fingers.

Olaf's gun was trained on Arthur.

"A King who would keep secrets from his subjects is no King at all," Olaf said. He gestured faintly with the muzzle of his blaster.

"And what secrets have you been keeping, Olaf?" Arthur asked. He took a step to the side easily; no one was in his way. Everyone had scattered away, keeping out of the blast radius of Olaf's weapon. "Why aren't you following tradition? Why wasn't the first item on the agenda the vote for leadership? Why were you stalling?"

A few guns turned to Olaf. Olaf didn't appear to notice them. "Why were you in your father's chambers? How did the assassin get in? How did your father die, dear Arthur? Did the string of Physicians and Healers that you've brought to the King's bedside administer what you needed to keep him weak? Did your precious Healer give you the poison to keep him sick? Did you hold him down for the assassin?"

A few guns turned to Arthur. Arthur ignored them.

"How did you know to meet the King's Guard afterward? What were you doing on the palace grounds? Were you waiting for the news of the attack?"

More guns turned to Olaf.

"Where have you been, Arthur? Why did it take you so long to summon the council? How come none of us even heard from you until well after the deed was done?"

A pair of guns turned to Arthur.

The rest aimed at the doors to the council chamber. Arthur risked a glance, but when he saw that Olaf's attention was similarly taken, he turned around.

There were sounds of combat outside the door, the struggle and scuffle of bodies grappling, the thud and thump of soft weights landing hard upon the floor.

There was a moment of silence. Distant shouting.

The doors crashed open to darkness, foreboding and menacing.

There would be no telling who had fired the first shot, but one thing was for certain: Arthur's gun remained trained on Olaf. Olaf's gun was fixed on Arthur.

They both stared at each other, weighing, measuring. If Arthur could prove Olaf's involvement in the King's death, Clan Sommerlund would be without a head, its prestige gone, its influence dissipating like so much smoke in a strong breeze. But Arthur couldn't prove anything if Olaf was dead, if there was no one to question.

And Olaf… Olaf needed Arthur dead. If he had been turned by the Conglomerate, if he had engineered the arrival and the infiltration of the White Legion, if he had paid off the King's own guard to look aside for one second so that the assassin -- or assassins -- could slip in…

If he knew who Arthur really was --

Arthur saw Olaf's good eye narrow, the muzzle of his gun raise ever so slightly, and immediately ducked beneath the table, sliding across the floor until he hit a chair. The blast rocked the room, broadening the hole already in the wall behind him, setting part of the table and the nearby curtains aflame.

The onslaught of thunderous fire, the massing buzz of laser shots, and the explosive force behind the more conventional metallic bullets that were preferred planet-side -- it all erupted into silence. There was a scatter. Someone -- it sounded like Cenred -- screamed.

And Arthur watched a pair of legs, swathed in a trailing black robe, strode in as if the Pirates hadn't just shot at everything coming at them through the open doors to the council room. The man used a fallen chair as a step and walked onto the table -- there were no footsteps; the table did not creak under his weight -- and...

Silence.

Arthur rolled out from his shelter and stood up carefully. The room was in chaos. Chairs were turned over, furniture all around the room had been either destroyed or shoved out of place. Curtains were torn, one of them had been burned to a crisp before the chamber's precautionary safety measures activated and discreetly put the fire out. Even the large, round table had been knocked off-kilter; the circle was marred, part of the cherrywood scorched black from pulse blasts. The walls were caved in or shot up, or had large holes shooting through; the blasts had been absorbed by the reinforced buttresses, protecting the rest of the palace.

The Pirates were in a scattered semi-circle on either side of the table that was now the embodiment of an incomplete planetary moon with jagged edges and deep craters. A few of the Clanheads glanced at Arthur and nodded; others were staring around the room, a little dazed. Several Pirates had been injured in the skirmish, but considering their naturally volatile nature, Arthur was surprised that more hadn't been grievously hurt.

Or killed.

Perceval and Gwaine were at the entrance, their weapons out. Another man was with them, lean-bodied with long hair tied back, a white shirt open at the neck, heavy, magnetized boots, a pulse rifle braced against his shoulder. Several more men crowded the corridor behind them, but were in no hurry to do much more but rubberneck to see what was going on.

Arthur holstered his weapon.

Niall -- the echo of Morgana's words resounded in Arthur's head, reminding him that he knew that the assassin was Emrys -- was standing in the middle of the table, his feet shoulder-length apart, his hips shifted, his shoulders braced. His weapon was a modified Walter PK-90cs, the barrel scraped and sanded until it no longer reflected light, the sights targeted on Olaf.

Olaf had his weapon turned to Emrys, his expression equally grim but confused. He was frozen in place, cycling through a convoluted decision making process that everyone could hear loud and clear: should I shoot? Will he shoot me first? What will happen if I shoot?

Arthur returned his gaze to his assassin -- his, Arthur knew, because he'd claimed Emrys with a ridiculous little Pirate loophole -- and took a moment to admire the sight. He wore a long black coat, the waist flaring out into a skirt long enough to trail upon the floor. A hood was raised and covered his head, the shadow it cast covering his face.

He wore light armour beneath the coat. Gloves on his hands. Black boots to his knees. Charcoal leggings reinforced with nanofibre meshing and black straps. Matching tunic adorned by a criss-cross of black webbing angled to support weaponry that seemed shaded, even hidden.

There was a sigil upon the tunic, a darker black upon a midnight black, a symbol that was familiar to Arthur even though he couldn't have ever seen it before.

Arthur calmly picked up a chair and righted it. He positioned it carefully and slowly sat down, speaking as he moved. "You asked me why I hadn't called the council right away. The answer should be obvious, Olaf. My father had died. As battle-hardened as we are, as facetious as we are known to be, we are hardly cold-hearted. Surely you would allow a man a few hours to grieve."

"Surely," someone agreed. Arthur glanced across the table. Godwin was slowly inching his way closer, a hand on the butt of his holstered pistol, his eyes on the assassin standing motionless on table. One of the others straightened a chair for Godwin. Godwin sat down. "Aren't there allowances for such an unfortunate occasion?"

Another man cleared his throat. "There… there are, yes." Geoffrey approached the table slowly. He ran his hands down his chest, smoothing down the ruffles of his shirt, adjusting his embroidered vest. "It has not happened in… quite some time. I cannot recall the exact date. Considering the circumstances of the deaths of the majority of our past Kings, it is, understandably, a rare occurrence."

A few Pirates chuckled at the morbid humour. A King was more prone to death by direct assassination, when losing a duel, during a raid involving the majority of the Clans, or in combat, than they were to die on their death beds. Poison and slow deaths were not Pirate tools, though they wasn't unheard of.

Odin and Bayard joined them at the table, keeping well clear of the assassin still pointing his weapon at Olaf. After a moment, Gwen and several others sat down, too, leaning forward to watch Geoffrey, because he had that particular look on his face where he was privately ruminating through a long, winding tale to get to the actual point.

"It was decreed during the rule of King Merian, formerly of Clan Sommerlund, who had the misfortune of being afflicted with a disease of no known cure, that when the family member is both a direct descendant and a representative of a Clan on the council, a mourning period of thirty days is permitted. During this time, the council is disbanded until they are recalled by the Clanhead for an election for the Kingship."

Arthur said nothing. He took particular note of the faint tremble of Olaf's gun. The assassin's weapon, however, held steady.

"So the right of rule is still Pendragon's to call, and none of the decisions made in the last six days will hold?" Arthur did not know the speaker well, but Bohrs was the sort to sit back and let the shite fly during council meetings, stepping in only to request clarification and to emphasize a point.

"Quite right," Geoffrey said.

Bohrs raised a meaningful brow at Arthur, but Arthur couldn't fathom the man's thoughts.

"Well, then. What a jolly waste of time," Alined said. He sat down heavily in a chair by the head of the table, elbows thumping on the surface. "Must we sit through Pellinor's lecture promoting additional development of cloak technologies again? I don't know about the rest of you, but I'm still reeling."

"Oi," Pellinor said, squaring his shoulders. He dragged a chair along the floor, plonked it in position, and sat down. "I'll have you know that the Conglomerate is uncomfortably near to modifying their sensors to detect us --"

"We know," Aredian said dully, rolling his eyes theatrically. "Really, man, there is no need to take us through it again."

"Shall we make a pact, then? Whoever is named King agrees that all the decisions made for the last six days are accepted as decided?" Gwen suggested.

"I agree," Bayard said. "A show of hands, boys?"

Everyone raised their hands except Olaf.

"Olaf? What say you? It's unanimous, or not at all," Bayard said. There was a curl of a smirk at Bayard's mouth; Arthur thought he was enjoying himself a little too much.

A bead of sweat trickled down Olaf's brow. Very slowly, never taking his eyes from the man standing on the table, Olaf raised his hand in agreement.

"It's agreed, then," Godwin said. He leaned forward, seemingly braver than he had been a few minutes ago, no longer casting wary glances at the assassin standing tall on the table. "It's Pendragon's right, then. Thirty days, and we vote a new King."

"Twenty-four," Odin said, a stickler for details as always. "It's been six days. He gets twenty-four."

There was a long pause. Arthur sat up straight -- the slightest movement caught the attention of every Pirate in the room, Olaf excepted. "Thank you," he said. "Your compassion, though strange and unusual --"

"Leaves a bad taste in the mouth, doesn't it?" someone at the back of the room said.

"It does," Arthur said, letting the faintest trace of a smile touch his lips. "But bad taste or not, the sentiment is appreciated."

There was a bow of heads, an exchange of nods from those nearest to him.

Arthur cleared his throat and continued. "As much as I would like to take the twenty-four days to put my father's affairs in order, the Imperial Conglomerate is breathing down our necks. We can't afford to wait twenty-four days -- twenty-four, plus however many more -- before we elect a new King. Historically, we do not do well when we go to war without a King."

"Run like cowards, we do," someone said. Arthur wondered who it was; the voice belonged to the same person who had made the comment about Pirate compassion and bad taste.

The crowd in the room must have thought the same, because it parted until it revealed the man who had spoken. He had curly hair cut at the line of his jaw, pulled back in something of a half-arsed ponytail, blond strands edging free of a ribbon that was quickly becoming undone. His mouth was set in a firm, stern line, but it looked mocking, somehow, lightened by the pale of green-grey eyes.

He wore an emerald longcoat with silver buttons and black ribbons, the collar turned up. His dark brown trousers were wrapped in black leather bands to secure his guns, and there was a belt across his chest of throwing knives. The sigil on his coat was an ouroboros twisted into a figure eight -- infinity within infinity -- and curled around a single elm tree.

Ygraine Pendragon's former Clan was represented by Tristan DuBois, a wayward son who had spent his time on the outer reaches of space, exploring and expanding Pirate territory, believed dead until a few years ago when he returned to the council table with star chart upon star chart of new planetary systems and stories of untainted riches. He rarely came to the meetings -- that was a task normally set to Arthur's contrary uncle, Agravaine, who was Tristan's younger brother -- but Arthur couldn't help but be glad to see Tristan now, for all that he didn't know the man.

"Cowards, because that's what we are, none of us willing to step to the fore when it's our necks at risk," Tristan said, "We run. Because that's what we do. Happy to raid and pillage when we have the advantage, but turn tail and flee when we're facing indomitable odds. And pleased we are to hide behind a King, so that we can blame them when it all goes wrong."

Tristan took two swaggering steps closer, his thumbs in his belt, fingers close to his twin pistols. They were planetary weapons, with heavy bullets and not pulse cartridges.

He was one of the few to wear those sorts of weapons planet-side, and he was, if Arthur remembered correctly, just as deadly with a bullet as he was with a laser blast.

"We've become complacent. Lazy. Cowardly. When things get hard, we start running, don't we?" Tristan's hands swept open his coat and his hands went to his hips; if anyone took offence at his accusations, they thought better about voicing outrage when they saw the glint of Tristan's knives. "What happened to us? Hard times made us harder, stronger, faster, better. Except now, we're commercialized conglomerates, complete with Clans, not so different than the Empire."

That roused a cry of outrage.

"Are we the Empire? No, we're not. Will we run off and let the wolves break down our doors? No, we will not. Find your balls, ladies and gentlemen, because like it or not, we are going to war," Tristan said. "And I'll damn you to mockery and take your bloody Clan from you if you don't stand and fight -- under a King."

No one answered. There were exchanges of glances. A few scoffing sounds. It was Gwen who said, "We need a King who can win us the war. A King who wants to win the war."

"You'd think that one and the other go hand in hand," Cenred said, his grin lopsided. He was half-sprawled in his chair, trying too hard to look relaxed, but his eyes glanced up at Emrys more than once.

"I can lead my men," a woman said, stepping forward. Morgause Gorlois of Clan Gorlois broke through the crowd; as soon as they realized who was jostling them aside, they scattered as if touching hot coals. "I know where we're strongest. I know where we're weakest. I can draw from every Clan and stand fast against the Empire."

"Are you putting your name forward?" Geoffrey asked.

"I am," Morgause said. She glanced around the room as if daring anyone to naysay her, her eyes sparkling. There was a jangle of earrings and of bracelets as she stared the men down one by one, and, with a flourish, produced her coin. She put it down on the table. "Who else will stand for me?"

No one moved right away. Finally, after some deliberation, four Clanheads put their coins on top of Morgause's before moving aside. Morgause stared at Cenred until he withered, reaching over to add his chit.

"Morgause Gorlois has six votes," Geoffrey said. "As the first to come forward, she has set the minimum draw to six votes."

"I've been raiding ships since before you were born, woman," Bayard said, standing up abruptly. "And we all know how you lead your men --"

"If you say by their dicks, I will show you how well I can lead you about when your cock's been cut off," Morgause said.

"-- with a generous helping of terror and fear," Bayard said smoothly, continuing as if he hadn't been interrupted, "And that is no way to win a war. What man will fight for their deaths when their King will slaughter them for failure? They'll fight for land and gold, and for that, I will put my name forward."

He put his coin down. It took longer for him to acquire support, matching Morgause's count of six.

Aredian put his name out. He failed to meet six votes no matter how moving his speech was.

He was brought down a few minutes later when Morgause said, "If I'd known you lot would be happy under a King with the habit of undercutting everyone's fair share, I'd have promised that as well."

Several men took their coins back at the reminder of Aredian's less scrupulous business practices.

"I also set myself forward," said Annis. Annis stood out in a crowd dressed in a variety of hues, only because of her propensity for neutral and dark shades. She wore a twenty-year old grief for the loss of her husband like a shield, and was defiant in front of the crowd. "I was there when the Empire -- when the true Empire -- fell. I watched from behind our borders as the Conglomerate waged civil war. We were the ones to stem the onslaught of refugees, to take in those who had no recourse, to find a place and balance for these good people among all the Clans. I have seen war. I have seen what happens in the aftermath. If the Empire breaks through our line, if they lay claim to our hard-fought territory, where is our refuge? This is our refuge. That won't change as long as I draw breath."

The reputation of her Clan preceded her; she gained the six coins easily.

Arthur knew that if he didn't step forward, he would miss his chance. There were only so many votes to go around; and there were only a handful among those who remained whom he could count on. He didn't make it as far as to stand when Olaf opened his mouth.

A strangled sound came out. He forced a weak smile to his lips. He cleared his throat and tried again.

"I set myself --"

"Oh, shut it, you big pile of rubbish," Odin said. "No one wants your arse on the throne."

Broken laughter burst through the crowd in agreement. A bead of sweat trickled down Olaf's brow.

Arthur waited until the amusement died down before he stood up. He could feel the eyes on him, weighing and judging like never before. He was the youngest to set forward, and he knew at once that the odds were stacked against him. Annis was old; as fierce as she was, she would either not survive the strain of a protracted battle and if by some mercy they won the war and she lived still, or she would not rule the Pirates for long. Despite Bayard's reputation, he wasn't particularly well-liked, and had a blind spot for bringing close those he should trust the least -- assassination would see his reign cut short. Morgause's bloodthirstiness would likely net them the win against the Conglomerate, but Arthur knew there were more than a few of the Pirates in the room who would not want to live under a rule weighed by an iron fist.

The other candidates who had set themselves forward were in equal straits -- contributing to the oncoming war effort while there was doubt that they would live long, either perishing of natural or assisted means.

Arthur was the one with the least experience. He had nothing to contribute, no advantage of the rest -- he was young, headstrong, smarter than most of the other Pirates, and had an impressive track record.

"I set myself forward," Arthur said. He placed one coin on the table.

No one moved to drop their coins.

"Haven't you anything to add, Pendragon?" Geoffrey asked, his voice curiously gentle. "A reminder of your feats, a promise for the future?"

"What worth are a few raids in the face of a war? What good are promises when the future is uncertain?" Arthur asked.

"You won't get many votes if you don't speak up, boy," Bayard said, not unkindly. "Though if it's all the same, you don't need to say anything at all. I like my chances the way they are."

A few titters spread across the room. Even Arthur smiled, ducking his head.

"If it's all the same, I suppose I could point out a few things. The Lady Morgause is fearsome in battle. I wouldn't want to find myself on the other end of her sword. I've seen how she leads her men -- men who are uniquely from Clan Gorlois.

"But you forget my ship. The Excalibur is the Pendragon flagship. My crew are men from each of the Clans. Morgause doesn't know how to lead any man but her own. None of you do, and yet I have led your men for more than a decade without conflict, have been fair in splitting our profits, and never failed to ensure that they return safe. And yet this is war -- a war for survival, not for gold, no matter what Bayard tells you."

Arthur glanced around the room.

"Annis talks about standing our ground. There's more to war than fighting until we're battered and bloody and defeated. There's nothing wrong with running as long as we lead them into a trap and take the advantage." Arthur paused. "This isn't about a throne for me. About a crown. I mean to see that we all live free from the Conglomerate's tyranny."

There was a clink on the table -- the chit from Clan Eira. Arthur looked up to see Gwaine touching his forehead with two fingers and saluting outward while his father patted his pockets with a frown.

Another three coins joined the first. Clan Leodegrace. Clan Nemeth. Clan Gawant.

A fourth coin, and Arthur had five. There was no movement for a long time. Arthur tried not to fidget. He only needed one more coin.

A flash of ostentatious red trimmed with white and gold moved like a snake through the crowd; Lady Vivian approached her father from the side, holding out her hand. A few nearby men chuckled. Vivian was a hellcat on the best of days, and everyone had been waiting for the day when she would retaliate against her father for all the times he had tried to pair her off with the heir of another Clan.

"No."

"Give me the chit, father. You've humiliated us enough. As of now, you no longer stand for Clan Sommerlund," Vivian said. Her free hand was on the butt of her gun.

Olaf reached for his pocket with the same slow measure he had before, stopping short. Arthur reacted a moment too late, cried out just as Olaf dragged Vivian close --

Emrys fired once. A neat, two-millimetre hole cut through Olaf's sleeve. Vivian scrambled back, and Olaf froze.

"The next will be your hand. Or your head. I haven't decided yet," Emrys said.

Vivian brushed herself off, outraged. She shoved at her father once, twice, three times, pushing him against the wall. She reclaimed her coin and swirled around on her heel, her hair flying in a golden wave, before flouncing to the table. She put her chit in front of Arthur's pile.

Six votes.

Arthur gave her a small, curt nod.

"Pendragon meets the requirement. Are there any other challengers?" Geoffrey asked. No one came forward. Geoffrey waited a few more minutes before declaring, "All those who haven't set their coins, make your votes now."

A nervous, skittish skirmish of aborted movement pushed the Clanheads around the room, most of them deciding and reconsidering their decisions before finally laying down their coins. The coins accumulated in waves before trickling like a leaky faucet, and Arthur kept a mental tally of his greatest challengers -- Bayard and Morgause.

A hand was heavy on his shoulder, giving Arthur a supportive squeeze. He glanced to see Gwaine, who nodded, and Arthur realized that the crew to each potential King had swept forward around their Captains to keep anyone from stealing their little golden hoard.

Emrys stayed on the table. He'd checked and holstered his gun and simply stood there; it seemed as if his presence alone was as fearsome as an entire crew ready to defend their Captain's haul.

There were stragglers in the room, Clanheads who still hadn't cast their votes. It seemed to Arthur that these were the men who either gave too much thought before making a decision, or who would throw their coins in with whoever had pulled ahead, just to be able to make the claim of having supported the new King.

Bayard and Morgause had a tie; Arthur had one less chit than they did, but he would be on even footing if he used his father's coin in his favour. That coin weighed heavily in his pocket, the metal warm where it had picked up Arthur's body heat, but he couldn't bring himself to take it out or gain an advantage. It didn't feel right, winning the leadership through trickery -- even if it was the Pirate throne, and trickery was expected.

"Before I cast my chit, I have a question," Edward asked. The head of Clan Fisher was sombre, his gaze sharp, his expression thoughtful. He was among the oldest in the room, and though his Clan was small and possessing of modest riches, his homeworld thrived and prospered, and Edward himself had the respect of most of the Pirates in the room, if not all. "It seems to me that we've forgotten the White Legion. A squad alone could decimate a Clan's fleet. How do you propose getting past them?"

"Blow the bastards out of the sky," Morgause said, her bravado wavering. She rallied for a more convincing show and added, "Of course. What other options are there? We spot a Needler coming at us, we cut them in two."

"That's assuming we can spot a Needler in the first place, my dear," Bayard said, his lip curled in a mocking sneer. "Or have you forgotten the reason why the White Legion use those ships? Precisely because they are so small and fast-moving that it is difficult to track an energy signature."

"Oh, and you have a better idea?" Morgause retorted. "Do tell."

"Board their masterships. A small crew. Set bombs --"

"Which is different from my plan to blow them out of the sky, how, exactly?"

Arthur tuned out the argument. He was watching Emrys. The man had turned half-away from Arthur, the hood so heavy over his head that there was no seeing a glimpse of cheek, a wink of an eye. He stood poised, relaxed, with an easy grace, a statue upon a pedestal, looking down and surveying his domain. There were no weapons in his hands, but Arthur had seen himself how quickly a gun or a knife could appear in them, deadly, dangerous, ready to be used.

It wasn't only with admiration that Arthur watched him, his mouth dry and his mind blank of any thoughts beyond the memory of the man's full lips, the bright of blue eyes, the press of his body against Arthur's.

There had been the faintest jerk in Emrys' body, as if slapped, when Edward brought up the very valid threat that the White Legion posed, that the Pirates would face and could not escape. The White Legion was the Imperial Conglomerate's advantage. The Pirates could thump their chests and claim that their wiles would overcome all, but very little could escape a Needler when the Needler was bent on his prey.

Emrys shifted ever so slightly; a half-turn of his heel. Arthur caught a glimpse of a sad smile before the man bowed his head even more, hiding himself from view, bowing, curling, wanting to fade away --

And Arthur knew. The very same thing that had kept Uther Pendragon alive for so long was the same thing that would save Arthur now -- that would save them all.

"Pendragon, what say you?"

Arthur tore his gaze away from Emrys, and looked first at the Pirates around the room, settling his gaze on Edward.

He found he couldn't say the words. He had a plan. A very viable plan. But it wasn't his place to presume, to ask, to throw into the fore --

There was a shift of movement at the head of the room where Pirates had gathered, crowding the corridor outside the council and hugging the wall within. Morgana emerged through the mass of bodies, her gown a brilliant red, highlighted with gold, as clear a flag of her support for Clan Pendragon as if she had tattooed the dragon sigil upon her brow. Instead, she wore a crown and matching collar of glittering jewels, a reminder to all and sundry that she was a Seer, and that her word was as sure and as true as if it were carved in stone.

"Tell them, Arthur," she said.

The Pirates' attention drifted from Morgana to Arthur. Arthur swallowed hard.

"Tell them that we have a chance. Tell them why," Morgana said.

Arthur resolutely refused to speak, to look up at Emrys. His hands clenched and unclenched. His mind raced. He struggled to come up with another possibility, another way. There were only so many options when it came to fighting the White Legion, and that was with insurmountable forces, sheer excess of numbers, and heavy losses on both sides.

Gwaine nudged him. His voice was low when he said, "You've got to give them something, mate, or you're out of the running. Tell them you've been developing a weapon that'll blow the Imperials out of the water. Tell them you've got something to neutralize the Needlers. Some new sort of shield modulators, armour, anything."

Arthur exhaled and released the tight clench of his hands. He raised his chin and looked around the room.

"I say fight fire with fire," Arthur said carefully. He didn't want to lose Emrys when he'd only just gotten him back. If the assassin could disappear so easily the first time, there was little to no chance that Arthur would even find him if he disappeared now. And he might leave again, Arthur knew, just because of what Arthur was about to say. "I say, let's offer an alliance to the one House in the Empire who has a bone to pick with the White Legion. The House of Shadows."

There was a long silence in the room. Soft snickers. A loud chuckle from Bayard, a disdainful eyebrow from Morgause.

But more than a few eyes drifted toward the man still standing on the table, his coat covering the papers on the surface, the hood hiding his features. The sigil upon his tunic suddenly stood out in stark relief, an inky well of black upon chaotic black, and Arthur knew why he hadn't been able to make it out before.

Before, it had been shifting, swirling, shrouded in shade.

"That's an… ambitious plan. Truly genius. I would forfeit my billet for the crown, shove all my chits at you, Pendragon, and put all my forces behind a war if the House of Shadows were involved," Bayard said. He crossed his arms, his mouth in a twist of mockery. "Such a shame that the Empire wiped them out."

Arthur saw Emrys' hand twitch. It was the faintest tremble of fingertips, a curl of the wrist. His stance shifted, his weight distributed, as if ready to flee.

Arthur glanced up to see Emrys looking down at him.

"What do you think, pet?" Arthur asked, tilting his head.

The entire room hushed. Even Bayard's amused murmur stumbled and faltered.

Emrys breathed in deeply, releasing it with a sigh. He raised his hand, closed it in a fist, and…

A swirl of shadows rose from the table, curling up like ribbons teased by the wind, twisting until they formed a knotted gnarl of rope that flayed around the assassin's arm, fading, disappearing, absorbed into the body. He opened his hand, turning it palm down, and something fell.

A coin, black as pitch, clinked on the surface, rolled and wobbled, and came to a stop next to the pile of chits in front of Arthur.

All the air went out of the room.

Bayard was the first to break the long silence, clearing his throat with the sound of someone choking on their own words.

"The King is dead. Long live the King."

 


Morgana emerged through the mass of bodies, her gown a brilliant red, highlighted with gold, as clear a flag of her support for Clan Pendragon as if she had tattooed the dragon sigil upon her brow.  Instead, she wore a crown and matching collar of glittering jewels, a reminder to all and sundry that she was a Seer, and that her word was as sure and as true as if it were carved in stone.

 

 


Chapter Eleven

Asterism: The Eye of the Phoenix

The Eye of the Phoenix

Location: Clan Pendragon Mothership, Pirate Space

 

"Now? You want to play at ruling your people now? Ridiculous! This is only more of the same -- your plot for vengeance -- and I want nothing to do with it."

"Hear, hear," the Masters rumbled.

Merlin waited until the Masters stopped pounding their fists on the long table. He turned the vid-feed toward the people sitting in the crowded hall. He took note of the quiet whispers, the exchange of meaningful glances, the comforting arms over shoulders, the clasped hands. He saw the mixture of determination and despair, a suppressed ferocity, a refusal to suffer fools and fear.

Merlin's hands clenched around the communications console, out of sight of the video pick-up. Merlin knew that he had been the wayward son for far too long, the reckless heir of a once-great House, a lord who refused to rule. The Masters had taken advantage of Merlin's absence -- and Merlin had let them -- and had made the decisions that Merlin knew that he should have made. Now, the House was split, uncertain of whom to follow -- the Masters or Merlin.

He should have been on the planet of the House's exile. He should have been the leader that his people had needed.

He could see a reflection of the Imperial Conglomerate within the fragmented remnants of his House, a rule by quorum rather than by a man who was guided by his people.

Merlin didn't want to play. He wanted to free his House and his people from their Hell. He wanted the Empire to be more than a pale glimmer of the beauty it once had been. He wanted what he had always wanted -- to bring down those who had struck the House of Shadows low, and to restore to right what had been wronged. Not just for his people -- because those of his House would never regain what they had lost unless everyone did, too.

He exhaled a heavy sigh. He listened with half an ear as another Master addressed yet another line of Arthur's proposed alliance and cut it down in no uncertain terms.

Merlin glanced at the chronometer. He had been talking to the Masters and to his people for three hours. His stomach rumbled, his head pounded.

Lance had been kind enough to set up an encrypted and untraceable link to one of multiple Shadow nodes scattered throughout the galaxies. The Shadow nodes could accept and reflect transmissions at a modulated frequency that operated out of sync with the Conglomerate protocols, and was nearly unbreakable and undetectable. There was a measure of security in using the Shadow nodes, but that measure decreased the longer Merlin stayed online.

Merlin had expected the cold-shouldered "No." from the Masters. He had expected the failed attempts to negotiate with the council of Elders. He had even expected the hurled insults.

But he didn't care about the Masters. He didn't care about the Elders. He cared about his people, the very same ones who hadn't been able to express their opinions.

"Master Taliesin you're wasting air, and you're wasting time. I am abundantly aware of the council's position on this matter, but with all due respect, shut up," Merlin said finally. He stood up straight, ran a hand through his hair, and walked a few steps away from the screen, before returning a moment later. "This isn't about you. This isn't even about me. This is about our House -- the House of Shadows -- and everyone in it. I've made my decision."

"To help a Pirate --"

"To help our Emperor," Merlin snapped. The declaration was enough to silence not only the table full of squabbling masters, but the murmurs from the crowd in the background. Merlin forced himself to take a breath, to count to ten, to accept that he had blurted out the very thing that he had hoped to hold in reserve. He hadn't been certain how the members of his House would react to his request, and he was even less certain now.

"I'm sorry. Did you say… our Emperor?"

"I did," Merlin said, and suddenly, he wasn't so glad for the distance separating him from his people.

The holographic display was surprisingly sharp considering the narrow communication beam and the number of intergalactic nodes that it had been filtered through, but it wasn't enough. He needed to be in the room, to gauge the mood of the people there, to sense how restless the shadows were, and to discern for himself how to quell them, tease them, nudge them onto the right path.

"I did," Merlin said again. He paused. "Constantin and most of the Imperial family were killed. Master Kilgharrah escaped with the heir. As the only remaining Shadowlord in service to the House of Dragons, Kilgharrah bonded with Uther --"

"That's impossi --"

Merlin raised a hand for silence and continued, "-- who, for the safety of his adopted people and the life of his own son, ordered Kilgharrah to leave and to never return to Pirate space. He didn't want to take the risk that the Imperial Conglomerate would find him and his son."

"But Kilgharrah -- Kilgharrah is dead."

"Uther was poisoned several months ago, and the only thing keeping him alive was his bond with his Shadowlord. When the shadows finally claimed Kilgharrah, here, on a Pirate homeworld, Uther Pendragon, King of the Pirates, Emperor of all known space, was assassinated."

It wasn't exactly the truth. Merlin didn't want to talk about Uther's initial poisoning or Kilgharrah's decline. Putting it in simple terms seemed to help, because the Masters exchanged glances. The background chatter resumed. Merlin leaned forward.

"I will put this as bluntly and succinctly as I can. The Imperial Conglomerate has discovered where the true Emperor has been hiding all this time. They attempted to kill him using a poison that is only safely handled by those of the Shadow and for which there is no cure. Uther survived by the grace of the bond, but it was a knife in the hands of a soldier of the White Legion that took his life. That took Kilgharrah's life.

"The Conglomerate must know that there remains a surviving member of the House of Dragons, just as they know that the House of Shadows continues to stand. They will be coming for Arthur Pendragon, and you are fools if you believe that they will be satisfied with the demise of the Dragon's line. They will be coming for us -- to take our secrets and to end us once and for all.

"The fleet at the border heralds a war. But it is no ordinary war. I don't care what they will tell the media or what will be broadcasted throughout the Empire to explain this massive remobilization of military resources. This isn't an attempt to subvert the Pirates to Imperial rule. This is the advent of the genocide of an entire culture, a genocide that has a single purpose -- eliminating the House of Dragons, because the Old Gods help them if Arthur Pendragon ever sits on his rightful throne."

Merlin paused. He cleared his throat.

"Maybe… No. I was definitely wrong. I shouldn't have spent my life seeking revenge against the White Legion for their betrayal. I shouldn't have put the House of Shadows at risk of discovery. But if that is the reason why you're digging in your heels, if that is why you refuse to help the very same House we are sworn to protect, then…" Merlin spread his hands. "Then I will step aside. I will no longer be the head of the House -- of my House. Someone else can rule in my stead. Someone else can keep you safe --"

Merlin half-chuckled. He shook his head. He looked away for an instant, and made a gesture in the secret language of the shadows, knowing that the Masters would understand, if anyone would. There is no safety for our kind. He turned to the holo-screen, steeled himself, and continued.

"There are several Pirate ships heading your way. Anyone who wants to fight may do so. Those who do not want to fight would be best served by leaving the planet before they arrive.

"For myself -- I am going to war. I will protect my Emperor. I do this not to restore the honour of our House, but because it's the right thing to do. If by some grace of the Shade we will someday see the Conglomerate torn asunder and the Empire thriving once more, then… my name may not ever be written in the Histories. It may never be spoken again. But this will be my legacy. I will give my life to protect my liege, as has been the destiny of every Shadowlord."

Merlin gave the Masters a hard look. His hand hovered over the DISCONNECT button on the holographic projection.

"Will you hide in the gloom? Will you continue to run? Will you ever emerge and thrive again?" Merlin wanted to be angry, but he could only feel a cutting sadness that drove into his soul. "Tell me, House of Shadows. What legacy will you claim?"

He gave them a chance to respond. No one spoke.

He broke the connection.

The holo-emitters blinked out and everything went dark except for the backlight from the console. The shadows that had dimmed and danced behind the projection suddenly filled the room, heavy, weighty, large. They surrounded Merlin and curled at his feet, but the comfort offered was cold and hollow.

Merlin hung his head. He stared at the floor.

In training, in position, in strength -- Merlin had always known that he was alone. His teachers, his Masters -- they had taught him, but there had never been a mentor among them, none save Kilgharrah. His family was gone. He scarce remembered his father, he barely remembered his mother's smile. He had few friends, but even those he kept near weren't close enough.

He had been no ruler, no leader to his people. What sort of example had he given them? What reason had they to follow him? What right did he have to even ask?

The terminal pinged with an incoming call that had been rerouted to this particular console in this particular room. There was a code request, and Merlin frowned before punching in an acceptance. He entered one of many access codes that he had used in the past, a throw-away identity that was long dead, a cover role played once, nearly a decade past.

It had served him well, then. It served him again.

There was no holo, no vid-view. Merlin glanced at the console, activating the trace-source protocol. The call had come through a tight beam, and it was possible that one of the other members of House of Shadows had reached out to Merlin on the sly, but it was too fast, too soon after Merlin had disconnected. The Masters wouldn't have dismissed the acolytes quickly. There would have been discussion, deliberation, decision.

"Might I know with whom I am speaking?"

Polite. Cultured. Reserved.

Merlin couldn't place the man's accent -- there were simply too many in the known universe -- but he could recognize the specific cadence, the rhythm of an educated man. Whoever this person was, they had been raised in the Empire.

"You called me," Merlin said. He activated a holo-console, skimming through the communications protocol, pulling up source origin data. The call was being routed through the very same shadow node that Merlin had used to contact his homeworld.

For a moment, a brief moment, he felt a measure of true fear, a cold wash running down his spine. Had the Empire hacked the shadow node? Had they traced the destination of his call? Were his people in danger?

He remembered, nearly too late, that the shadow nodes scattered the destination, that the signal had been bounced through any number of connections, that the Pirate technology would have done its best to mask both origin and end point. There was no reason to doubt the Pirates' ability to remain hidden, and Merlin withheld a breath of relief when he saw that the communications protocol indicated a connection through a single node and latching onto a carrier wave that hadn't yet deactivated.

For safety's sake, Merlin ensured that a scrambler was running in the background -- and one was. It had been triggered automatically when the call had come in.

If there was one thing that the Pirates did right, it was security and protection. Breaking onto even a fringe planet was an exercise in patience and bribery. In Merlin's career as an assassin, he had gone into Pirate space exactly twice, and had hated it both times.

"I simply wish to ensure that I am speaking to the right person," the man said.

"How about you tell me who you're trying to call, and I tell you if you're reached them?" Merlin countered. Merlin wasn't stupid. The signal had come directly to this terminal, and the man on the other end must have some idea. Merlin tapped at a few more commands, located a trackback program, and initiated it.

Numbers equivalent to astrophysical coordinates scrolled down the screen.

There was a heavy sigh over the line, possibly also the sound of someone rolling their eyes. "Let's not play games, Emrys."

"Sorry, mate," Merlin said, not missing a beat. "Never heard of the bloke. It's a bloke, isn't it? Sounds like a bloke's name. I suppose it could be a bird's, too --"

"Although I am impressed by your initiative, your attempts to stall are not as subtle as you'd like them to be. I presume you are tracking the call origin. Allow me to save you the trouble. I am onboard the Imperial warship E.D.S. 301459-01E. My ship's current position is unimportant, but the destination might interest you. Very shortly, we will be joining the Imperial Conglomerate's fleet and will be breaching Pirate space."

"That's interesting. I don't care," Merlin said. He glanced at the console and ensured that the vid-feed from the room had been deactivated. For good measure, he crouched beneath the panel and yanked out the holographic pickup control board. "By the by, is there a point to this call?"

"I hate seeing resources wasted," the man said. "I, however, am interested in utilizing it to its best potential. You are that resource."

"You know how to flatter a man. Do go on," Merlin said. He watched the coordinates narrow down to a specific quadrant of space. Although the program had located the area, it was having trouble locking onto the actual source. A quick calculation of headings and changes in position confirmed that the E.D.S. 301459-1E was heading toward Pirate space.

"You've been a worthy foe," the man said. "Led us on a merry chase, slipping through our fingers whenever you're cornered. You have talent, and I appreciate talent. However, this alliance that you've formed with the Pirates? I thought you were more intelligent than that."

"I'll take the compliment in the spirit it was intended, though I admit it would go over better if I knew who you were," Merlin said.

There was a small noise in the background -- possibly laughter, possibly also a muffled shriek of outrage. Merlin couldn't be sure, and he briefly considered triggering the filters used to clean up the sound.

"I'm a friend," the man said sincerely.

It was Merlin's turn to laugh. "You must be a dedicated friend if you hijack a transient signal off a comm node to have a chat. Why did you contact me, again?"

"I am certain that you are aware of the current state of affairs," the man said. "I am being a friend. I am warning you in the hopes that you will take the opportunity and get away. I wouldn't want you to get caught in the crossfire. Your services have proven invaluable in the past. I simply wish to ensure that those services remain available to us."

"I've never knowingly worked for the Conglomerate," Merlin snapped. "I'm not going to start now."

"Surely, you'll reconsider. You do, after all, have a propensity for shifting loyalties," the voice on the line said. Merlin shot a dark look at the console, as if it would be picked up by the audio.

"Shifting loyalties?" Merlin sputtered, too surprised to remain silent. There was absolutely nothing shifting about his loyalties. He was loyal to his House, for whatever little good it did him. He was loyal to the tenets and beliefs of the Shadows, even he hadn't followed them to the letter for some time. And if anyone doubted his loyalty to his House's single, utmost duty, well, they could go fuck themselves. "Now, you're just being rude."

"I'm being truthful," the man said. There was a mocking shrug in his voice. "Shadows... shift, don't they? They change. They move. They follow where it's brightest. Where it's warmest. Where their strength and power is revered and respected."

Shadows. If Merlin needed any hint of whom he was talking to, he had confirmation now. His hands curled around the edges of the console in front of him. His smile was thin and hollow. His amusement was edged and sharp. When he raised his eyes from the console, it was to stare hard at the blank holo-screen where a two-dimensional rendition of the speaker would have been, if only there was video transmission.

"Shadows follow what's brightest. That they do," Merlin said. But bright, for him, was Arthur's flame, the Dragon's courage burning and smouldering, the inner strength of a young Pirate King that only grew day by day. Arthur was a man who would do right by those he loved, whether those were his crew, those who lived on his Clanworld, or those who thrived under his rule. It was faith that shone in Arthur even in the darkest room, a hope like a blinding light, and it was manna for Merlin, who had lived without for far too long. "They wouldn't be Shadows if they didn't."

There was a small, pleased sound. "You agree."

"I agree. But you and me, we've got very different ideas of what's brightest. It's not true light when it's the reflection off shiny silver Sterling coins. It's an illusion, a haze, a mist, and you know what happens when the sun burns clean through."

Merlin was answered with a moment of silence. He could almost hear gears rattling, the slow engine-steam of someone thinking.

"I am prepared to offer you amnesty --"

"Don't even try," Merlin snapped. "You set me up for the Healer's murder. You meant for me to die. You killed my friends. You chased me across a galaxy. You're trying to kill me, and now that you can't, now that I'm outside your reach, now that I'm right where you don't want me to be, you think you can buy me?"

"No. Not so much buy," the man said over an exasperated sigh. "Educate. Sponsor. Mentor. You will find there is much clarity to be had when you know the truth."

It was Merlin's turn for quiet. He stared at the holo-screen. Shadows crackled around the hardwired console, tendrils lashed at the projectors, deepening and darkening as it robbed even more light from the room. Merlin let go of the console with difficulty and stood up straight. The tension in his shoulders was strong enough to crack the most tempered carbon-fibre blade, and he forced himself to relax.

"There's truth, and then there's truth," Merlin said. "And you don't know the half of it."

"I know more than you think. I know more than you."

"Mate," Merlin said, his tone light, soft, laughing. "You called me Emrys. I'm not saying that I'm him, but I might know a thing or two about the bloke. I sincerely doubt that you really know who he is."

"I do," the man said. Insufferably smug. "He's the so-called scourge of the White Legion."

"You're not afraid of him?"

"Of course not."

"Then show me your face. Tell me your name," Merlin said, his voice a low rumble, vibrating with the shadows that filled the room. The echo was deep and monstrous, terrible and unyielding. "I would know the man who claims he wouldn't run when he sees Emrys coming to kill him. And he will see Emrys. I promise you that. He'll see Emrys at the very end."

There was a long pause. Long enough that Merlin wondered if the line had disconnected.

The holo-screen fizzed, popped, shivered. The image resolved with a shuddering snap of clarity. The background was a solid smear, a solid, blocky panelled wall, a muted grey in shade. At the forefront, framed by the haze, was a man.

He had curly black hair cut short, nearly shorn, to his skull. His eyes were the colour of the deep ocean blackwater on Nunos III, full of darkness and foreboding. His lips were a poison-shade, set in a dart-thin line. His mouth was set, his jaw was firm, his cheek cut with the sharp shelf of bone.

The image cut off at mid-torso, showing broad shoulders and a slight build and White Legion uniform and armour, complete with purple band of Imperial Elite and golden rings of rank that hinted he was Shadowlord in all but name, the power running down from father to son, the magic rich in his veins. He might not know the traditions and the edicts, he might not know the proper ways or the teachings of the line, but there was shade and shadow writ upon his form.

Merlin's hackles rose. He would give much, much, to kill this man, this affront to the House of Shadows, this abomination of the Empire.

"I gave you a chance," the man said. His gaze dropped, his mouth softened, apologetic and regretful. "Take it. Leave Pirate space. There is nothing for you there."

"Or?"

The man raised his chin. There was defiance there, pride, even a glimmer of loathing, but Merlin couldn't tell if it was directed at him, or at what the man was about to say. "Or there will be nothing for you anywhere."

Merlin stared at the man's image. He was like stone, immobile, impassive. He didn't twitch, he didn't falter, he didn't so much as glance away from the vids, as if he thought he might pierce all the billions of light-years between them and force Merlin to do his will.

Merlin closed his eyes. What are you hiding?

The shadows coiled around him.

What are you doing?

The shadow nodes were secret. That the Imperial Conglomerate had found at least one and monitored it spoke of excruciating patience. Rare was it for a Shadow to leave their exiled homeworld, and rarer still was it for them to use the nodes to pass on a message. Had they been waiting for this? Or was the White Legion seizing an opportunity?

They knew who he was, at least on the surface. And because they knew about Emrys and the multiple White Legion kills under the assassin's belt, they wouldn't be wasting time trying to recruit him. They would rather kill him and be finished with the pest that had burrowed under their skin over the last decade, a pest they couldn't scratch or eliminate.

And yet, here this man was --

Stalling.

He was stalling. Not because he needed to know where Merlin was, but because he needed to make sure Merlin wasn't anywhere else.

White Legion soldiers worked in crews of three. The one who had poisoned Uther was dead. The one who had killed him was also dead.

One. Two. Where was number three?

There is nothing for you there.

The shadows coiled tight, forming a shield around Merlin, solidifying behind the solid plate, beneath the fabric of his clothes, over the feathered dragonscale body armour he wore.

Arthur.

"I'll pass on your message," Merlin said calmly. Evenly. Carefully. "Is there a name to go with it?"

There was a tightness around the man's mouth that loosened with the faintest quirk of his lips. "My name is Mordred. Emrys might be the Legion's scourge, but I will be his bane."

Merlin barely registered the words. He disconnected the line. A shadow lashed out and shattered the communications grid.

He ran to the door. Couldn't remember the security code to unlock it. Reached out with his senses until he connected with the tiniest shadows in the nooks and crannies and pulled --

The door tore from the reinforced wall in an explosive spark of wiring and crash of heavy stone and metal. Merlin climbed through the debris and broke into a run.

The shadows bent to his will, wrapping, warping, twisting. A long corridor was shortened with a leap through the shade. Alarmed King's Guards drew their weapons and fired at him, through him, past him. The alarms rang, the Pirates mobilized against him.

He stopped for nothing.

He went for the King.

Arthur had not taken Uther's old chambers. Another suite of rooms had been opened for him on the upper floors, facing away from the forbidding mountain and out toward the sloped valley and open fields and forests of emerald green and jade.

A sitting room. A private office. A master bedroom. Baths.

Simple, modest, unexpected.

Out of the way.

Merlin could feel Arthur in the office just beyond the sitting room. He could feel the shadows swirling in the gloom, corrupted under another's power. He could feel the danger drifting high, the White Legion encroaching on what was his.

He didn't wait for the doors to open. He passed through. From shadow to shadow. A million miles in a single step.

Shadows gave his footfalls silence that not even another Shadow could fathom. Merlin was across the wide sitting room in a single running stride. He came out of the shadows in a cloud of the gloom, the pitch and the gaping maw of the nethers left wide open behind him. He stopped in the open doorway.

Arthur was sitting behind a rosewood desk, a hand on a console, a pop-up display half-hidden by a stack of leatherbound books. His crimson-and-gold jacket had been cast aside, the ties of his tunic were open at the throat, and he looked up at Merlin without surprise.

Concerned, but not surprised. Interested, but fearless.

There was a gun on the desk. Arthur didn't reach for it.

Merlin allowed himself a brief, indulging moment of confusion, unsure why Arthur would be waiting for him, before narrowing his focus. He turned just as the shadows parted --

He didn't bother with a gun. Shadow was shadow; a projectile would pass through without damage. A coiled wire-whip was in his hand in an instant, swirling loose and lazy and alive, the shade animating it with a serpentine sentience, lashing out faster than the eye could track.

There was a shriek. A tug. Resistance.

Few things could cut the wire. Few things could stop a shadow. The wire wrapped around Merlin's hand and he curled his fingers around it before giving it a sharp yank.

A woman fell into the room. A stumble before her footing caught and grounded on the floor. The shadow-whip had wound around her waist, slicing through the coarse fabric of a loose tunic, past nanofibre body armour that at first glance was anything but standard issue among the White Legion. Static shielding against projectiles fizzled around her; a pale blue lightning-crackle where the whip had passed through.

Blood trickled down her sides. It dripped to the floor where her hand had involuntarily grasped the shadow-whip. Her brown eyes were wide.

In another life, she might have been pretty. Sharp, angular features. Bloodless lips and pale beneath olive skin. Stringy brown hair tied back in a severe style that rendered her face nearly skeletal.

Her mouth formed an O of recognition. Her stance shifted with determination. The blade in her free hand dribbled clear liquid that puddled on the ground.

Poison.

Merlin could smell it.

It had an acrid tang that burned the back of the throat, an aftertaste that left a swollen tongue and a scorched nose and watering eyes. Instead of quenching the blade in poison and allowing it to dry, this soldier of the White Legion had mixed the toxin with a thick, skin-permeable gel. A mere cut of a dry-poisoned blade would be enough to administer a dose sufficient to kill a man.

Still in semi-liquid form, the poison now only needed a drop upon the skin to be effective.

The woman slashed the whip with her knife. The wire didn't break. A sluice of poison sliced from the blade and splattered onto the floor.

It sizzled.

The woman looked from the wire to Merlin to the wire again, slow understanding dawning on her features. She might have recognized him, or at least acknowledged what he was, but now, she understood. Now, she knew.

She threw the knife at Merlin. Merlin's shadow knocked it aside, embedding the blade into the wall near his head. She used the momentary distraction to twist out of the wire, a wet tearing sound filling the room as the wire was pulled out of flesh.

The whip fell slack. Blood poured from her wounds. The White Legion's so-called smart body armour hissed, inflating, sealing itself, sealing the cuts in her sides.

She lunged toward Arthur.

Merlin moved to stand in her way.

She stopped short, her chest heaving, her fingers curled into claws. Her hair squared her face in broken tangles. She bared her teeth in a grimace that was pain and challenge both. "Stand aside."

Merlin shook his head.

"Then, die."

The woman pulled the shadows from all around the room. They congregated, formless, on Merlin, slamming him with the buffeting strength of hurricane winds, a twister-swirl that roared and thundered, lashing and cutting at anything in its path.

Raw strength. Pure shadow. No finesse. No control.

Merlin braced, half-absorbing, half-dispersing the surge. The shadows fell away from him like the waves on a breakwater, bouncing off with an almost apologetic, chastised tide. The White Legion soldier didn't wait to see what effect the tactic had; she ducked past Merlin, heading for Arthur.

A chair scraped loudly and tipped over. A scramble of footsteps and the familiar hum of a charged gun.

Merlin's shadows lashed out, tearing into the soldier, dragging her back, away from the Pirate King. Arthur fired twice, and both pulses were adsorbed into the assassin's shield generator, strengthening it. Arthur swore; he holstered his gun and drew his sword.

The soldier fought Merlin's shadows, sloughing them from her body one by one, advancing with mindless automation, coming close enough to draw a new weapon, the blade gleaming a smeared silver, the colourful reflection hint enough of the presence of dried poison upon the edge.

Arthur countered her strikes with a clash of steel and rapid feints. Her sidelong lunge was dodged with a quick dance of retreat. Merlin pulled at the shadows beneath her feet, rendered the ground unstable, and took advantage of her distraction to sheathe her entirely in shadow before yanking --

Throwing --

Whipping --

The soldier went flying backwards, away from Arthur, past Merlin, and into the large sitting room where she landed hard, breaking one chair and toppling a heavy table. She scrambled to her feet, slipped on shadows no longer under her command, and quailed for the briefest of moments at Merlin's advance, before finding her resolve.

"Traitor," she hissed.

Merlin barked a soft laugh. "Not I."

Her dagger came down in an overhand slash. Merlin caught her forearm and twisted. He blocked her knee to his gut with a twist of his body and lashed down for a punch. She swept his blow aside. Merlin shoved her back, ever back and slammed her against the far stone wall. The impact was enough to knock her breath from her chest, but her grasp on her knife was as sure as ever.

She wrenched her arm free. She cut at Merlin's head.

Merlin caught her wrist. He elbowed her across the face. He bit down a grunt when her foot came down on the inside of his thigh.

Her mouth was in a grimace, her eyes full of dedicated madness.

Merlin's shadow wrenched the knife out of her hand; the blade sliced her palm. It was a matching cut to the wire-whip, splitting skin and muscle and bone.

The knife was thrown away with such a force that it embedded to its hilt in the stone rafters overhead. Dust drifted down.

The soldier yelled. She battered at him with a shadow of her own, it was a battle of open hands and shadow-blows, deflected, countered, weathered. Merlin let the strikes fall where they would. He was encased in shade and shadow that only made him stronger; she was bare except for the armour assigned to her by the White Legion, and her clothing was tearing under the assault.

Cuts appeared on her face. A bruise bloomed over her eye. She coughed blood that came not from a cut on her lip, but from deep within her lungs.

There was an approaching commotion. A door slammed open. Men tumbling into the sitting chamber. Wordless shouts. The pulse-blast of weapons-fire striking near, but missing both of them entirely. An outraged command.

Arthur.

It seemed that Merlin could recognize Arthur anywhere.

The woman was strong. Her mastery over the shadows spoke of both inherited talent and intensive training. But when the House of Shadows split in two, when the traitors abandoned their birthright to support the Imperial Conglomerate, they left behind too much knowledge. The traitors had shunned the old rituals, they had rejected the practice of apprenticeship, they had regarded the Elders as not precious commodities, but a drain on their resources.

She was strong, but she would never have been permitted to train above her ability. Even now, her shadows whipped out of control, harming her as much as they cut at Merlin, flaying her alive. They reached out wildly for a target, any target, and Merlin heard more than one man scream.

The fight had gone on long enough. It had gone on too long.

Merlin's shadow expanded, swelled, engulfed -- shade called to shade, and the woman's wild magic curried to his favour, twining with his in an attempt to possess, only to be possessed in turn.

They were doused in darkness, but Merlin could see as clear as day. He could see the White Legion's soul; a slathered tar of gloom, bent and broken, rebuilt and repaired for only one purpose.

There would be no mending of this soldier, of this woman. Like all the others, she was too far gone. Merlin had hoped, once, that he could rebuild the House by bringing the two sides together, but he had long known that it was a lost cause.

Merlin caught her before she could escape. He held her as she flailed, kicking against his legs and punching. He moved his head out of the way when she lashed back to try to knock him out.

He tightened his arm around her throat.

He held her firm. He waited.

The strength seeped from her in terrible gasps. She clawed at the shadows that armoured him. She made sounds that might have been words, but Merlin didn't care enough about the woman to hear any curses or pleas that she might have to give. Her body sagged in his arms. He did not loosen his hold until he was certain that she was unconscious.

Her shadows ebbed and eased, no longer under her control; they pulsed and pushed before fading away. Merlin let his shadow fade, and the light from the sitting room pierced and burned his eyes.

The Pirates had one punishment for anyone seeking to harm their King. Only one punishment to avert those who would try and fail, or try and succeed, and be caught in the aftermath.

Merlin thought that he could leave this particular death to them.

He loosened his arms. He let her fall to the floor.

Except in that moment, she surged forward blindly, aimlessly, without target, a berserker's wail tearing from her chest and --

Merlin caught her before she took three steps. He felt the slide of his sharpest knife cut through shield harmonics, passing through clothing and body armour the way a warm knife sliced into a slab of cold butter.

This time, when her body sagged, it was without heartbeat, without breath, and onto a growing puddle of her own blood.

Merlin stared at the woman. At the soldier of the White Legion. He could muster no sympathy for the one who tried to kill his King.

And yet…

This once could have been his kin. A twinge of guilt passed through him for only an instant, washed away with a strange, numb relief.

He didn't know how long he stared.

Footsteps shuffled uneasily. Cleared throats and murmured nonsense words. Offers of assistance brushed away, except for -- "Get that out of here."

Pirates reached around Merlin to pick up the woman's body, dragging it out the door. A guard or two lingered, exchanging glances with Arthur, before they, too, were gone.

Blood dripped from the knife in Merlin's hand. He stared at it before wiping the blade on his robe -- he would need to clean it properly, later. He sheathed the knife and wiped his hand and --

"None of this, pet," Arthur said, suddenly there, standing inches from Merlin. Arthur touched the shadow-mask across Merlin's face, scratching at it, his brow in a furrow of mingled confusion and annoyance and frustration. "Let me see you."

Merlin closed his eyes. The shadows retreated with a soft caress that was nowhere as warm or as gentle as Arthur's fingers on his skin. Arthur's thumb followed the curve of Merlin's mouth, stroked down his chin, trailed its way back to Merlin's lips, dragging its way across. His hand drifted to cup Merlin's jaw, fingers drifting behind his ear, tangling with hair sweat-damp from the fight.

Merlin fought -- fought -- with every inch of his being to suppress the shiver trailing down his spine.

It was only when the contact was gone that Merlin looked up, only to duck his chin down again when Arthur removed his hood.

Arthur's hands were light weights on Merlin's shoulders, but the words -- and there were words -- that remained unspoken between them resonated in the silence. They pressed down with so much meaning that Merlin found the courage to look Arthur in the eye.

Lines furrowed a brow already weighed with the strain of an oncoming war and a new leadership. His mouth was pressed in a firm line, jaw clenched tight. But there was a softness in his eyes -- concern, disquiet, understanding.

One hand drifted from Merlin's shoulder to touch Merlin's cheek again. Warm, gentle, grateful.

Too quickly, Arthur's expression hardened into bravado, giving Merlin a light slap on the cheek before moving away. He left Merlin where he was and returned to his office.

Merlin watched him go. He had no idea what had just happened. "You do know I'm not actually a pet, yeah?"

Arthur shot Merlin a glance over his shoulder, a glint of amusement in his gaze matching the smirk tugging at his lips. It was there-and-gone, an indulgence erased as the gravity of the assassination attempt finally sank into his bones.

The ground seemed to shift under Merlin's feet, tilting and moving, unstable and rumbling. It wasn't until he glanced down that he realized the ground was solid, and the effect had been caused by the skip of his own heart.

He swallowed hard.

Arthur picked up one of the guest chairs. He straightened it and shifted it until he was satisfied. He picked up a few papers and sorted the disarray. He reached for the physical display, pushing a button on the console, and the screen sank into the desk. A holographic projection replaced it a second later.

Merlin averted his eyes, taking in the damage to the sitting room instead. The furniture had been wrecked by the White Legion soldier's shadows; torn to shreds, rent asunder, destroyed, macerated. It would all have to be replaced.

"Shadows shift, don't they? They change. They move. They follow where it's brightest. Where it's warmest. Where their strength and power is revered and respected."

Merlin's head snapped up. He took several involuntary steps to the office, crossing the space until he was standing again in the doorway, just as he had when he had first arrived. There was no threat now, nothing but the assassin's knife dripping the poisonous gel down the stone wall.

"Shadows follow what's brightest. That they do." Merlin watched as holo-Merlin's hands tightened at the console. "They wouldn't be Shadows if they didn't."

"You agree," Mordred said.

"I agree," holo-Merlin said, and Merlin grimaced. He turned to watch Arthur, hating how those two words were damning. The tension in Arthur's shoulders was so tight, it seemed that he might snap. "But you and me, we've got very different ideas of what's brightest. It's not true light when it's the reflection off shiny silver Sterling coins. It's an illusion, a haze, a mist, and you know what happens when the sun burns clean through."

Neither of them moved. The holo-recording played on. Arthur lingered at the edge of his desk, his back to Merlin in a strange show of trust. He picked up a clipped stack of papers and flipped through it, listening to the conversation with something approaching...

If not for the stiff line in Arthur's spine, the bunched muscles in his back, Merlin would call it disinterest.

"I gave you a chance," Mordred said.

Arthur lowered the papers in his hand.

"Take it. Leave Pirate space. There is nothing for you there."

Arthur left the documents on the desk and reached over to magnify the holo, shifting the focus to the two-dimensional display. The hologram of a hologram was a bit distorted, a bit out of focus, but there was no mistaking Mordred's sneer.

"Or?"

Merlin could hear the disdain in his own voice, the spiteful goading. He had known even in that moment how Mordred's threat would end, but he'd been slow -- too slow -- to realize what he'd meant.

He'd nearly lost Arthur because of it.

"Or there will be nothing for you anywhere," Mordred said.

Arthur leaned over the desk, his hands bracing on the sides, his eyes fixed on the holo-recording. A muscle jumped in his jaw, and an intensity seemed to burn behind impossible restraint, hot and brilliant, with Arthur in the centre of it all.

Like a moth to a flame, Merlin took a step inside the room.

"Is there a name to go with it?" Merlin heard himself say. There had been a gauntlet in his voice, thrown down in challenge.

"My name is Mordred. Emrys might be the Legion's scourge, but I will be his bane."

The holo of the holo-screen flicked out almost instantly. Merlin couldn't have disconnected the communications fast enough. He'd needed so badly to know that Arthur was all right, that he'd been wrong, that Mordred hadn't engineered the distraction to keep Merlin out of the assassin's way.

He should have cut off communications sooner. He should have taken care of the assassin before she had even reached Arthur's rooms. Arthur wouldn't have needed to know about it.

Arthur gestured and the holo-recording zoomed out in time to catch the tail-end of Merlin's rage, tearing apart the room with thrashing shadows, peeling back the door as if it were paper --

Merlin frowned at himself. He could have simply gone through the door, but it hadn't occurred to him then. Fear flashed in his mind -- a fear at the strength of his own emotions, that he would react with such violence rather than the cool collection and calm mind that had been ingrained in him by years of discipline and training.

Arthur straightened and looked at him. Merlin didn't dare meet his eyes, afraid that he would see just how much that Merlin felt for him.

"So much for expectations of privacy," Merlin said instead. He was proud that he managed to keep his tone light.

"Pirates," Arthur said by way of explanation. He crossed his arms.

Merlin rolled his eyes and snorted. Of course that would be Arthur's answer, pompous and arrogant, self-serving and assured. Merlin was neither surprised nor angry, but his amusement was fleeting. "How much did you hear?"

The holo-recording was still running; flickering now and then as a dust mote drifted down to interfere with the projectors. The communications room was a massive write-off, needing a complete overhaul before it would become useful again. Someone -- a passing Pirate -- paused in the cracked open and peered in.

"Holy shite," the Pirate said, rubbing a hand over his head and dislodging the handkerchief wrapped around his brow in a band. "Someone must have gotten bad news."

The weight of Arthur's gaze lifted from Merlin long enough for Merlin to take a deep breath and steel himself. Arthur's expression was thoughtful. "Is it?" he asked. "Is Mordred bad news?"

"I don't know yet," Merlin said honestly. He had never encountered an elite of the White Legion with as many rings of rank as Mordred, and given that Merlin had only ever fought Elites stationed at the fringes of Imperial space, Merlin had never really paid attention to a soldier's status. He didn't know if the rings indicated a position of power or a position of strength. The only advantage that Merlin had over Mordred was that his training had not been tainted by the Conglomerate. In the end, all of Merlin's education, all those years practicing his art, would mean little if he was felled by a single, lucky blow. "I don't know anything about him."

Arthur was watching him, studying him, peeling him apart, layer by layer, trying to see what lay underneath. Merlin resisted the urge to wrap his shadows around him again, feeling strangely naked under Arthur's gaze.

"We have a name," Arthur said, breaking the inspection. He rounded his desk and sat down, disabling the holo-projector and recalling the hard display. "Lance will find something."

"That's not necessary," Merlin said, touched that Arthur would go to that effort. "I've gone against others on less."

A few more keystrokes and there was nothing but silence to answer him. Arthur leaned into his chair, his hands sliding from the desk to the armrests, his fingers drumming lightly in a staccato, nervous rhythm. "You're not an assassin anymore."

Merlin raised a brow. He opened his mouth to speak, to protest, to -- he wasn't certain what he would say, because he had no words, only small, scoffing sounds.

Arthur raised a hand to forestall him. "You never were."

There was a poignant significance in Arthur's tone, subtle and easily missed. Merlin wouldn't have caught on until Arthur raised both brows and widened his eyes, as if willing Merlin to read his mind.

Of all the magic of the House of Shadows, reading minds was not within Merlin's ability.

"How much did you hear?" Merlin asked instead. If Arthur had access to the communications room, however thoroughly Merlin had believed to have locked it down to prevent eavesdroppers or intrusions, did that mean Arthur hadn't only heard the conversation with Mordred? Had he been listening all along? Had he heard the entreaties that Merlin had made to the Elders, the declaration that he'd made at the end? Did he know who and what Merlin truly was, that Merlin wasn't simply another Shadow of an exiled House?

He must have. There was no explaining away that steely stare as mere ignorance.

It was a battle of wills between the two of them, neither daring to look away lest the other reacted first. Merlin half-expected Arthur to denounce him, to ask for more than Merlin could possibly give, to use the knowledge as leverage or blackmail to ensure that Merlin did as he ordered. Not for an instant did Merlin think that, perhaps, Arthur was as afraid as Merlin was, that Merlin might give him away.

Not until now.

They both knew something of the other that they each would rather keep secret, and those secrets were the proverbial elephants in the room.

The stalemate was broken when servants knocked lightly on the door, entering the sitting room without so much as a by-your-leave. Merlin looked away first, reaching to cover his head with the cowl of his robe even as he turned around to assess the situation. He studied the two middle-aged women and evaluated them as potential threats before taking a step outside of Arthur's office, reaching to close the door.

At the last moment, Merlin paused and reached to pry the knife out of the wall. It came out with a squelching sound, the hydrophilic gel crackling and dry. There was another knife, he remembered, lodged somewhere in the stone wall of the sitting room. He would have to retrieve it before someone tried to do it themselves.

"The poison is inert after forty-eight hours," Merlin murmured, aware of Arthur's eyes on him only because the back of his neck felt hot and flushed. "Ask them not to touch this wall."

He pulled the handle, swinging the door shut.

"He was wrong, you know," Arthur said, his voice low, almost a whisper. "There is something for you here."

The door clicked shut.

Merlin reached for the door before he knew what he was doing, stopping himself. His fingers trailed on the surface, feather-light , as gentle as Arthur had touched him.

He couldn't stand it. He turned around and walked away.

 


Chapter Twelve

Asterism: The Cup of Life

The Cup of Life

Location: Excalibur, Pirate Warship, Border of Pirate Space

 

Arthur refused to go to battle without a weapon he knew well, and for that reason alone, Excalibur had become the Pirate King's flagship, with all of Pendragon's fleet at his command. The original fleet assigned to the King had been reassigned across the mismatched Pirate armada to bolster forces and provide support. That was particularly important for the smaller Clans who didn't have much by way of defence or a retreat recourse should they be pinned down.

In all, there were eighty-nine Clanships, each with a full complement of cruisers and warships. Unlike the Imperial Conglomerate, the Pirates did not have squadrons upon squadrons of smaller one- to two-man fighters, but what they lacked in insect forces, they more than made up with the number of smaller, more manoeuvrable ships loaded for arms, and stock-solid heavy bomber ships capable of withstanding a full barrage of Imperial weaponry.

There were moments when Arthur took a step back and realized that, yes, he had done it. He had pulled the Clans together. Those who hadn't wanted to fight at the forefront had been convinced to at least provide support and protection of the inner worlds -- there might be eighty-nine warships, but there were twenty-eight formerly Imperial and Pirate re-appropriated war-class ships scattered throughout the sector, forty-two Clanships in synchronous star orbit in each Clan-system, and one hundred and twelve re-purposed slipstreams captained by some of their best, most daredevil pilots.

Extra communication nodes provided by Clan Leodegrace had been scattered throughout Pirate territory using new encryption codes and tightbeam technology. Short of losing every sensor on board, none of the ships would be out of touch. Maydays, distress calls, notifications -- even a sudden loss of contact would signal the progress of the war.

Arthur took in a deep breath. He held it until it burned in his chest. He released it slowly, suffered the oxygen burn that blurred his brain for a second, and looked around.

Leon was completely focused on the overlaid display, tracking the positions of not only the Pirate ships, but the Imperial forces. Elyan was bowed over the communication module. Gwaine was at the port weapons panel, Perceval on the starboard, both of them plugged into the internal system and in direct link with the crew manning the weapons. Lance was monitoring internal systems, but his main role, if he had the opportunity, would be to hack into and bring down Imperial ships, cracking defence and disabling offence. The shields were spindling, the engines were rumbling, and the enemy was a menacing line coming to meet them.

The Imperial Conglomerate's fleet had crossed the territory lines less than twenty hours prior, but hadn't advanced much more beyond making certain their presence was known.

The proverbial gauntlet had been thrown. In essence, the Conglomerate had made the first move, and now it was their turn.

Someone -- Arthur suspected George, the frustratingly efficient servant who had been his father's and who was now Arthur's -- had taken the initiative and had rooted out the location of the Pirates' contingency plans. The plans covered every possible emergency, from to a Clanworld suffering environmental disaster, to evacuations of the planetary systems in danger of extinction events from asteroid impacts or cosmic happenstances.

There were even battle plans in defence of Imperial advances. They pre-dated even Uther Pendragon's reign by one hundred and sixty years, containing surprisingly sound tactics and advance awareness of developing forthcoming technologies.

Arthur had torn them up despite the outraged protests of the council -- and over George's wailing sobs over the destruction of important historical documents.

The original call to war had carved up Pirate space into territory borders and assigned each quadrant to a single Clan to guard and protect as they saw fit. That might have worked, once, in a time when every Clan was self-enclosed, capable of operating on their own, and maintaining equal numbers of ships and Pirates, but one hundred and sixty years was a long time to remain static when the Pirates had evolved into specialists.

It hadn't taken long to convince the Clanheads to realize the benefit of working in tandem, utilizing one's strength to support a main complement. Arthur had used every ounce of diplomacy that he possessed to avoid any implication of one Clan's strength over another until his frustrations had gotten the better of him and he strongly considered smashing the council members' heads together until they agreed.

Or asking Emrys to do it for him. Arthur was fairly certain, from the number of times that he'd caught Emrys rolling his eyes, that he would have been more than happy to fill this one particular request.

Convincing the Clans that Arthur's age and inexperience didn't matter had been easy. He was merely facilitating the compilation of the best ideas to put together the strongest defence possible. Whenever it had looked as if the Clans would erupt into a new round of protests and complaints, Arthur had pulled out his trump card: "I'm your King, you pillocks. Now bloody well shut up and do it."

It wasn't as easy as that -- it never would be, not when dealing with Pirates -- but it caused enough of a break in the rising tensions that Arthur was able to bring them back on track where he needed them. At least he knew how to handle Pirates.

Emrys, on the other hand, was something else entirely. Arthur had no idea where he stood with Emrys.

The Shadowlord of House of Shadows -- and if Arthur hadn't heard it himself, watching the exiled Masters kowtow to Emrys as if he were the second coming of the Glòm, whatever that was, he wouldn't have believed it -- had withdrawn from Arthur. When they were in the same room together, Emrys stayed on the other side, the hood over his head, his face turned away. He answered in monosyllable when addressed, he didn't respond to Arthur's teasing barbs, and if Arthur should approach him, Emrys skittered away as if afraid that Arthur would touch him again.

Strange how Emrys hadn't seemed to mind Arthur's touch -- up until Arthur bollocksed it up by letting Emrys discover that Arthur had spied on him. If Arthur had known that this would be Emrys' reaction, he would've tried a little harder to woo him into his bed first.

Emrys had given little input during the battle-planning sessions, even when pressured by the Clanheads to reveal just how the broken remnants of House of Shadows were supposed to assist in the battle. As best as Arthur could figure, the Shadows numbered fewer than the smallest Pirate Clan and didn't have a fleet of their own. The House consisted of recalcitrant Elders, demurring Masters, a number of quiet Journeymen, half-trained acolytes and wide-eyed candidates. It wasn't exactly an army, and it was a drop in the pond in comparison to the thousands who numbered among the White Legion.

Arthur had difficulty seeing how much that they could help turn the tide of the battle. And that wasn't even taking into account that the House of Shadows had denied their own Lord's request for assistance. Arthur couldn't guess how much that knowledge ate at Emrys -- that his own people had turned their backs on him. What he did know was, now that the Pirates had witnessed how effortlessly Emrys had dispatched the White Legion assassin, they couldn't wait to get a Shadow of their own.

And then the message came through: the Unpleasant Surprise and the other Pirate ships were returning with a full complement of Shadows. Arthur thought that Emrys' mood would lift, but it only sent the man into an inexplicable, brooding silence that had everyone walking on eggshells around him.

Everyone except Arthur. Arthur tried everything to make Emrys snap out of it. He needed Emrys with him, and not lost in his own head, dwelling on what he had asked his own kin to do.

Emrys. Emrys. Emrys.

Arthur had heard the name before. What Pirate hadn't? The dreaded assassin, the ghost whispered about lest speaking his name would summon him. Emrys.

The name suited him better than Niall, the pseudonym on the false identification when they had first met on the Lady Hiamela, but Arthur couldn't help thinking that the name didn't quite… fit.

"They're ramping up engines," Leon said. "Four cruisers in the middle, advancing in staggered arrow formation."

"Hold position," Arthur said.

This encounter was hardly the first volley. The Conglomerate had dispatched several ships in brief cross-border feints, seemingly unaware of the Pirate ships patrolling the border under cloak. Once they'd completed their little defiant dance across the border and their courage ran out, the smaller CorpsCops ships would hasten on the other side, tucking themselves behind the larger cruisers. The forays had grown bolder and bolder until they had crossed the proverbial line in the sand, at which point the Pirates dropped out of cloak and harried them back to the other side, as if chasing after them while swatting rolled-up pieces of paper at their backsides for misbehaving.

While it emboldened the Pirates to see the Imperials running away with their tails between their legs, cheering the entire way, Arthur could only watch in frustration as the Imperials tested their defences. Part of him wanted to know what their game was, while the other part wanted the war over with, already.

Preferably with the Pirates on the winning side, with as few losses as humanely possible.

"They're moving slow," Elyan commented.

"They're fanning out," Galahad, one of the two crack pilots on Excalibur, said.

"Dividing forces," Percival said with a grunt. "Maybe to draw us out of cloak? Force us to show how many of us there are?"

"The lead ship's launched projectiles," Lucan said. He was manning the sensors, and for that Arthur was glad. If Lucan could spot gnat-sized debris from a few light-years away, he would spot enemy weapon fire before it was launched from the tubes.

"Confirmed," Leon said. "Tracking?"

"Bogeys bearing straight ahead on their nose, distance point three parsecs." Arthur glanced at Lucan at the small grunt of annoyance. "Lost them."

"Projectile configuration?" Arthur asked, glancing at Emrys. He stood stock-still and immobile toward the rear of the bridge, out of the way, the light overhead blinking in and out and casting him in odd shadows. That blasted cowl was on his head, as usual, but his chin was up, and he was paying attention.

"Needlers." The response was breathless. "Shite."

"Estimate their course based on last known heading," Arthur said, getting up from his Captain's chair. Something wasn't right. The CorpsCops never released Needlers unless they had a target in view, and only when they knew that they were within the smaller, less-navigable ships' ranges. This was either an attempt to draw the Pirates out, like Percival suggested, relying on the fear of God that a boarding by the White Legion could put on any man, or -- "Are we cloaked?"

"We're cloaked," Lance confirmed, though he sounded trouble.

"What is it?"

"Signal blip," Lance said, shaking his head. "I'm not sure what it is. I'm tracking the source."

"Bogey one on course heading 88N.62S.046°," Lucan said, his voice at a high pitch. No one, not even Gwaine, commented on the shrill tone. The White Legion had wiped out his entire family; he'd survived only because he'd been a child, small enough to hide in the bulkheads. "Bogey two on course heading 53S.71S.210°. Collision courses for the Reach Deep and the Venture. ETA eight minutes and counting down."

"Raise those ships and anyone on those headings," Arthur said. "Tell them to scatter now, and mind the crowd."

There was a brief pause while Elyan relayed the orders to the other ships. Arthur pulled up the vid-view, zooming in. The CorpsCops ships were holding steady, neither accelerating or decelerating, keeping on a single course. What looked like a simple foray into Pirate territory to test the waters was starting to look like a subtle scuttling. Arthur spotted movement on the Imperial line, reminding him of animals champing at the bit and eager to get on the field.

The twisted feeling in his gut was confirmed when Leon said, "Six Imperial ships just spooled up light-speed drives."

"They're going to jump?" Gwaine asked, his brows pinched, his mouth twisted in confusion.

"Where's the third ship?" Emrys asked.

Arthur turned around and frowned. "What?"

"The Needlers. They launch three by threes, if they can," Emrys said, walking out from under the blinking light, pausing behind the Captain's chair. He was within reach, but Arthur kept himself from touching him, satisfying himself with Emrys coming close for the first time in days. "They'll launch three single-person Needlers to assault a single ship from different positions. Or they'll launch three three-person Needlers to attack multiple ships with minimum launches to decrease detection. You wouldn't have detected them if they weren't big enough to detect, and that means --"

"Three-person Needlers," Arthur finished for him. "Where's the third one? Why am I not seeing the third ship on the screen?"

"I've got sensor pingback on the first two ships," Lucan said. "Confirming coordinates. Maintaining sensor lock. Nothing on the -- no, belay that. I'm seeing ripples. We've got whales."

Whales in space didn't mean the same thing as it did on planet, and anything large enough to cause sensor ripples in space, whatever the origin, tended to be an object large enough to be a danger to the ship. They didn't have any detectable energy signature, but they tended to also be large enough to see.

Arthur raised a brow. Lucan glanced up, flushed red, and corrected, "Significantly smaller than a whale. A large walrus? Maybe a dolphin. Could be nothing. Calculating course."

"How long to intercept?" Arthur asked.

"Four minutes," Leon said. "The Reach Deep and Venture have moved out of the way. The Needlers will pass them by, but it'll be a near thing."

"Send them the pingback coordinates. Have them blow those ships. Discreetly," Arthur said. He tried not to pay much attention to Merlin's tiny, imperceptible nod of approval. Instead, he watched as Elyan flicked fingers on the communications holo-console to address the other ships using the scrambled Pirate frequency. "Anything more on that signal blip, Lance?"

"No." He paused. "Yes. No." Lance's expression darkened by the second, and he stood up, heading toward a different station "I'm not sure."

"Captain," Lucan said, alarm in his voice. "The dolphins are on our compass heading. I can track them now. Signal's clearer the closer they get."

"There they are," Arthur said, making brief eye contact with Emrys before Emrys lowered his chin, the shadows of his hood hiding his eyes.

"Are we cloaked?" Galahad asked. His hand hovered over the thrust the way it did when he wasn't sure of his next direction.

"We're cloaked," Geraint snapped from the co-pilot seat.

"Are you sure?"

"I'm sure!"

"They're being awfully precise with those Needlers," Perceval remarked.

"Almost like we're being targeted," Gwaine said.

"Why are they coming for us? How do they even know we're here? In any case, the Retaliate and the Pixie Bright are the bigger ships -- command ships. They're bypassing the Kingship --"

"Because they know this is your ship," Emrys said.

"But not that I'm onboard," Arthur said. "Anyway, the Kingship is too far back. Just luck that they'd get us first, there's no clear line of sight for anything else."

"Five launches, each on direct course," Emrys countered. He raised his chin just enough for Arthur to see the narrowed suspicion in Emrys' eyes, the raised brow. "Are we cloaked?"

"Two minutes," Lucan said.

"Are we cloaked, or are they letting us think that we are?"

Arthur turned away from Emrys. He stared at the holographic overlay. The Pirate ships were blips on the full scan, each with marker positions and transponder codes. They had worked for generations to develop a new communications system that was not only independent from the Imperial network but completely alien and difficult to crack. Even if the Imperials were somehow able to eavesdrop on their communications, it didn't mean that they could --

"Fuckshite," Lance shouted. "It's a sensor lock -- it's a sensor lock! They have our positions! They have our positions!"

"Forty seconds --" Lucan said. "Thirty-nine to contact --"

Arthur momentarily flashed back to a council meeting. Pellinor had put in a request to implement new advances in their cloaking technology on the assumption that the Conglomerate would eventually reverse engineer the technology salvaged from destroyed Pirate ships. Arthur couldn't even remember if the motion had passed.

"Twenty --"

"Target and fire!" Arthur barked.

"Targets acquired," Perceval said. "Firing."

"Firing," Gwaine confirmed.

The fore torpedo banks ejected three missiles at hypersonic speed. At one hundred metres from the ship, the afterburners triggered, pushing them into hyperlight. They disappeared from visual almost immediately and could only be tracked on the overhead holo. Leon zoomed the view. They followed the trajectory until --

"Target one confirmed," Lucan said. There were no fireworks. Any explosion on contact was contained by the cold chill of space. Needlers weren't constructed with heavy armour, had no shields, had nothing but a reactor to project it forward on a single course. Life support was minimal, and whatever oxygen there was onboard to burn up would have voided into space instead at the hull breach.

Arthur stared at the sensor grid.

"Target two confirmed," Lucan said. "Ten seconds -- shite. Miss. We have a miss!"

Everyone held their breath -- everyone, that was, except for Gwaine, who was desperately trying to use the short-range weapons to get a fix on the fast-moving ship. Ten seconds passed. The alarms blared. The light on the bridge flickered from white to red.

"We've been hit," Leon said unnecessarily, his voice calm. "Hull breach. Lower foreport side, section seven. Outer shields are holding."

Too close to the engine room for comfort. Arthur grimaced. "Clear the level, close the airlocks. Emrys --"

Shadows were swirling around Emrys like a living thing, coiling and twisting, sinking beneath the armour and equipment he already wore. If there had been gaps in the flexible plate, there were none now, the minuscule space between the reticulated joints almost winking with shadowlight before the cloak Emrys wore draped over his limbs in a sudden shift of movement.

The shadow masked Emrys' face, but his eyes were bright and blue when they met Arthur's. "I'll take care of it."

Arthur gave him a curt nod. He glanced down, startled, when something brushed around his leg. A tendril of shadow curled around his boot, drifting off when Emrys walked out.

"Emrys."

Emrys paused in the doorway. The red light overhead flickered, but the shadows around Emrys' form were so dark that Arthur could barely make him out.

"First ladder you see, go down one level. Take the cross-hatch to starboard, go down six, and cross back to port," Leon said, glancing over his shoulder at Emrys. "Fastest way there. Every other access is locked, or should be. Odds are good that you'll run into your Needler."

Arthur cleared his throat, never taking his eyes from Emrys' form. "Did you get all that?"

"I did," Emrys said, his voice cool, crisp, efficient.

"Hop to, then. I'll expect you here when you're done." Arthur gave Emrys a curt nod and turned away. Be careful, he thought.

"My King?"

There was only one person on Excalibur who used the honorific. Only one man among all the Pirates who said it and meant it. And every time he used it, a shiver ran down Arthur's spine, because he knew just how much weight was behind it, how much significance, how much it tied the two of them in ways that the Pirates couldn't possibly imagine.

Arthur shifted and thought he saw something golden gleam in Emrys' eyes, or at least in the space where Emrys' eyes would be. It was hard to tell with the shadows swirling. "What is it?"

Emrys waved a hand at the two-dimensional vid display, at the zoomed-in image of the slowly-advancing line of Imperial Conglomerate ships. "I'll expect all this to be done by the time I return."

He left without so much as a by-your-leave, a swirl of shadows in his wake.

"Cheeky bugger," Gwaine said, smirking. His eyebrows wriggled.

"He's a cheeky bugger who's taking care of your miss," Perceval said.

"Oi, you didn't get it either," Gwaine snapped.

"Up your game, mate," Galahad said.

"Enough. Shape up, men. Save it for the Blues," Leon said, getting the bridge under control with a stern word. This was no time to let the crew burn off nervous energy -- that energy was best directed into kicking Imperial arse, and they all knew it.

"They're aware of our hits," Lance said.

"Looks like a cruiser squadron is breaking off from the main line," Leon said.

"Confirmed," Lucan said. "Twenty-seven ships coming at us at 0.9 sublight. Breaking up into three units. They'll be on our position in five minutes."

Arthur exchanged a glance with Leon and turned to Elyan. "Give me the ships."

Elyan flipped a few of the holo-console switches and tapped the physical console. "You have the ships, sir."

Arthur waited a moment. "Pirates. It appears as if the enemy has discovered a way to detect us. They know we're here. They know our numbers and they know our forces. They've attempted to bring down three ships -- the Excalibur, the Reach Deep, and the Venture. You know what that means."

By hard-fought agreement at the council table, the command of the battle would pass from the Captain of one ship to the next if the sovereign command had been disrupted, disabled, or destroyed. The Reach Deep and Venture were not on the immediate chain of command, but it told of an uncomfortable familiarity with Pirate tactics that the Conglomerate had targeted three of the most significant ships.

One by one, the ships responded. They acknowledged and agreed with Arthur's assessment. Whether it was by fault of a traitor amongst their ranks or from centuries studying Pirate tactics, there would be no way to simply brush this aside. The Imperialists knew how to cut the Pirates at the knees.

It didn't matter. The Pirates knew how to cut them at the knees, too. They were just better at it.

"They're testing the waters," Arthur said. "The Needlers were a gauntlet thrown and a gauntlet wasted. Now, they're going to see how far they can push us. How much they can draw us out. But we are not going to let them control this battle or any other battle. We will hold."

A round of protests came over the comms.

Arthur repeated, his voice firm, "We will hold."

He waited until the round of noise died down.

"Let them come. One squadron? That's a bloody insult. Let's beat them back so badly that their jaws fall to the deck and they forget to send reinforcements."

There was a cheer of agreement.

"Tempest, Witchfinder, Demeter, you're going lead this battle. Think you and your crews can take on a squad?" There was a challenge in Arthur's voice. He knew that the Pirates wouldn't risk being seen as cowards, but he also knew that the Captains of those three ships had the wily know-how to shut down the Imperial squadron with minimum effort.

"You know damn well that we can," Aredian answered back.

Arthur glanced at Lucan. "Two minutes before they're in range," Lucan said.

"Tempest, Witchfinder, Demeter. Advance to your positions," Arthur said. "Drop your cloak on my go. If anyone else breaks the line without my say-so, I will knock your heads. Is that clear?"

There was a chorus of Clear over the line. Arthur called for radio silence and it was given almost immediately. There was rare professionalism resonating throughout the Pirates, and Arthur allowed him a small moment of pleasure. The overhead showed the three ships moving into their designated defensive positions, while those remaining on the line shifted their coordinates to make up for the gap.

"Twenty seconds," Lucan said. Arthur glanced at Leon. Leon nodded, confirming that the ships were in position. Another glance at Elyan's expression, and Arthur knew that the cruisers were ready to release their smaller fighter ships, the pilots in sitting on deck on a five minute warning that was rapidly counting down to zero.

"Foreport section on level seven locked down," Lance said. He made an impressed sound. "Emrys made it there in record time. I guess we'd better get this show on the road."

"I suppose we should," Arthur said.

"Two seconds," Lucan said.

"Send the signal to drop cloak. Give the Captains my go."

Elyan's voice filled the background noise. The three Pirate ships dropped cloak synchronously, but the Imperials didn't react the way that the Pirates expected -- with complete surprise at their sudden appearance. They didn't scatter and they didn't brake. They continued straight on through.

Aredian's decades as a privateer hadn't dulled his creativity. Or perhaps it had been one of the other Captains' ideas. Maybe they'd realized how the Imperialists would have reacted and had planned accordingly.

The Imperial ships didn't stop, but neither did the Pirates. And given that the snub-nosed Witchfinder, the long-bodied Demeter and the triple-hull Tempest were heavier destroyer-class cruiser configurations, they had plenty of mass and engine power to counteract a handful of CorpCops-class cruisers travelling at 0.9 sublight in the other direction. They released a diamond-cutter trawler cable that fanned out like a barbed fisherman's net, catching the Imperial ships. The net alone wasn't strong enough to contain them, and the Pirate ships ran the risk of tearing out mooring points if they tried, but between their velocities and the opposing momentum, the initial snag was enough to yank a barb through heavy plate shielding and tear a jagged gash across the ship's skin.

Three cruisers went out with a sudden, implosive blast, the metal collapsing in on itself. Two more cruisers vented so much atmosphere that they spindled out of control, dropping off their original heading. The Witchfinder had caught the most of the Imperials with an impressive six. Of those six, two had lost their atmosphere almost immediately and were careening off course, one had its forward thrusters completely shorn from the main body of the ship, and three more were spindling, arse over tits, in a reverse-whip action that saw one engine burn itself out, and two internal explosions erupt.

Eleven Imperials down. Eighteen remained. Of those, eight among the rearward guard had opened fire on the three Pirate ships.

Arthur clenched his jaw. He crossed his arms over his chest, fingers digging into his biceps. He itched to open a vidscreen on the seventh level of his ship, but he didn't know if he could stand the irrational adrenaline burning through him to watch two battles and be unable to intervene in either.

Close-range weapons fire from the Imperials were a combination of low-velocity projectiles and pulse blasts. While the energy shielding of a Pirate's ship was bombarded with the pulse blasts, the missiles passed through and impacted the ship themselves. Only a few feet of heavy deflectors and hull plating prevented a breach.

But shielding -- energy shielding and heavy physical skins -- could only last so long. Energy shields absorbed weapon energy until the matrix weakened and overloaded, leaving the ship defenceless to a ballistics barrage that could cut through even the thickest plating after only a few minutes of focusing power. Even missiles could damage a ship's hull -- deforming the plates, causing vibrational damage on the structure, while repeated bombardment could cause the hull to crack and split the ship wide open.

Out of the corner of his eye, Arthur saw Gwaine run a hand over his scruffy cheek, exhaling anxiously.

Fighters erupted out of the Demeter and the Tempest at afterburner slingshot speeds. Short-range pulse fire from the Pirate ships took care of most of the slow-velocity missiles. The fighters split into two teams -- a smaller group to chase after the missiles that the ship's defensive system couldn't hit, a larger group to herd and harry the Imperial cruisers deeper into Pirate space.

Aredian's voice broadcasted over the linked communication system, cool and casual. "Be advised that there will be fireworks in... ten seconds. Nine. Eight --"

"Oh, sure, now he gives us the cloak codes for the minefield he shat on his way out," Lance said, frustrated. He grabbed a holo-image from his console and threw it at the main sensor display, overlapping the new information. The screen brightened with new pinpricks of light, round orange objects that the crew knew far too well.

Mines. Mines. And more mines.

Close. Frighteningly close. Aredian had seeded the area behind him and guided the mines into a scatter pattern that was just on the very outside edge of what the Pirate ships could handle in the flashback.

"Forward sensors off. Bring the blast shields up," Arthur barked. He hit the 1MC and addressed his crew. "All hands. Brace for impact."

Arthur spared a thought for Emrys, wondering how his battle was faring, worrying that he'd given Emrys' opponent a weapon to use against him. But all thoughts left him when the first Imperial cruiser collided with the mine.

They felt, rather than saw, the contact. The impact wave struck the blast shield of the ship; inertial gravity and Galahad's hand on the thrusters kept them from feeling it as more than a slight, gentle nudge.

It wouldn't stay a gentle nudge for long.

There was no forward vid-view of the explosion that resulted. A ship's oxygen supply evacuated to space when the hull was breached, but the mines didn't burn oxygen. It was a special blend of Greek Fire, a specialty of Aredian's Clan, a fearsome, unstable weapon that most of the Pirate ships had refused to carry because of the high risk that it would be triggered and burn them from the inside out.

The first collision ignited a cascade explosion that rippled from one mine to the next. The second and third nudges were gut-punches, but the fourth and fifth were a heaved crest of two waves colliding and magnifying into a tidal wave, an energy-tsunami shearing the darkness of space and dosing the area with radiation strong enough to melt steel.

The blast shield caught it all, the generators nearly pushed into the red, slowly cooling down to amber, and finally to green.

The silence that followed was maddening. Arthur had no idea of the extent of destruction until Lance pulled information from the side-sensors of nearby ships, and updated the overhead holographic display.

All the mines had blown. Most of the Imperial cruisers had disappeared. There was a debris field dead ahead.

"Blast shields down," Arthur said. "Sensors up. Get me a sitrep now."

The holo immediately refreshed with crisp, more accurate information from the Excalibur's own sensors. Arthur listened with only half an ear at Leon's confirmation of destroyed enemy forces, watching for himself as the few surviving Imperial ships were easily disabled by the smaller Pirate ships. No doubt many Pirates cursed Aredian for using the mines when he could have used shock-probes instead, but there was no need to obliterate Imperial ships when someone could reap a profit by salvaging what they could from the remnants.

That would have to wait until later, and Arthur grit his teeth, hoping none of the Pirates were stupid enough to start salvaging now. He'd fire on them himself if they tried.

"Damage report," Arthur said.

"Blast shield took most of the impact waves," Lance said, running through the system and disabling the alarms as he went. "A couple of plates on the fore are warped, but it's not a threat to the structural integrity. The Needler's ship shifted during the blasts, we'll have to replace the whole partition. A patch job won't do."

Arthur exhaled slowly. He wanted to ask about Emrys, but didn't.

"The other ships?"

"The Banshee is reporting damage to their sensors, the Dorocha's blast shield is down and their plating burned out. They're dropping back on the line. Everyone else is green across the board," Elyan said. His finger was flicking at his overhead console, listening in to individual reports one at a time in rapid sequence, sometimes overlapping them.

Arthur stared at the overhead projection until he thought his eyes would bleed.

"Any movement?"

Leon didn't answer right away. "I'd like to say that they're in a state of shock, but they're probably reconsidering their options right now."

"Retreat among them," Geraint muttered. Arthur couldn't help his smirk. Three Pirate cruisers against twenty-nine Imperials.

The Imperial Conglomerate might have the advantage of numbers, but the Pirates would never let that stop them. If the Imperials hadn't learned that by now, they would know it soon. And if they did know -- the Imperials would be using it against the Pirates.

There was one weapon that the Pirates didn't have a defence against, and that was their own cocky pride. Arthur's smirk faded, his frown furrowing. "The seventh level?"

"Still locked," Lance reported.

"What about vid? Can you access the vid?" Gwaine withered under Arthur's glare. He put on a wry grin and said, "Come on now, Captain. Can't tell us that we're the only ones who are wondering how your blackheart is doing."

Arthur could feel his crew looking at him. Of course he wanted to know how Emrys was doing, but he was taking courage in the knowledge that if level seven was still locked down from the inside, the White Legion soldier was contained and none of his crew was being harmed.

He didn't let his mind drift off to explore other, far more frightening scenarios. He didn't want to think about the level being locked because both the White Legion soldier and Emrys were incapacitated. He didn't want to think that Emrys had been disabled, and that it was just a matter of time before the enemy broke through the locks.

Arthur exhaled. "Monitor the activity on level seven. If something changes --"

"I'll let you know," Lance said.

Arthur made eye contact with Lance, who smirked before he returned to his monitors, his brow pinched in an expression of intense concentration. He caught more than a few glances shot his way, a handful of smirks here and there, and a soft chuckle from Leon.

Perhaps Arthur hadn't been as subtle about his intentions toward Emrys as he'd hoped.

He ignored them all. He walked around the Captain's chair, his fingers gripping the back of it. "Recall the Witchfinder, the Tempest and the Demeter. Cloak and retake their positions."

"Captain of the Tempest wants to know why," Elyan reported.

"I don't care if there's booty for the taking," Arthur snapped. "The Empire's breathing down our necks and calculating their next move. If they're not in position for the next go within the next two minutes, I'm hanging him on the yardarm to dry."

Elyan relayed the message. He was more diplomatic about it. Arthur decided not to correct him.

The minutes passed by in tense silence. Geraint and Galahad reviewed the ship's status and ran a non-critical diagnostic. The engine room confirmed the teakettle was primed. Gwaine and Perceval verified communications with the port and starboard batteries and activated the forward missile bank, leaving them on standby. Every few seconds, a steady beep came from Lucan's terminal; Lucan had put on noise-cancelling earphones and was listening intently to a passive sensor scan, most likely searching for more whales. Or dolphins.

"The Anvil reports hacking Imperial communications," Elyan said, Clan pride audible in his voice. Of course a Clan Leodegrace ship would be the one to hack the encryption. "They're patching in the chatter."

"Monitor and report if there's anything interesting," Arthur said.

The Imperial ships didn't move. If anything, they were boats at port, drifting at the mercy of the sea, pulled back at yoke when the anchor pulled them short.

Leon crossed his arms. The tension between his shoulders was probably enough to deflect an oncoming missile.

They waited. They waited some more.

Arthur glanced at Lance. "Anything?"

"The compartment that was hit is locked down. We're not venting atmosphere," Lance said. On the one hand, that was a good thing -- leaking atmosphere could be picked up by enemy sensors even for a ship under cloak, though Arthur doubted that mattered now if the Empire already knew how to detect them, despite the cloaking technology that the Pirates relied on so much.

"That's not what I meant," Arthur growled.

Lance's teasing smile came and went, replaced with cold seriousness. "Two life signs. One of them is weak. Vid is down in four sections. I can't tell what's going on."

"Is there sound?"

"No."

Arthur took a deep breath. He let it go slowly. He stared at the overhead.

Nothing happened.

Nothing.

Still nothing.

Elyan fielded queries from the other ships and re-confirmed Arthur's command to hold position. Leon broke his otherwise stoic stance and paced across the bridge. Lucan looked as if he'd fallen asleep, but he was really only propping his elbow on the console and concentrating on errant sensor pings.

Lance broke the tension with a low, hoarse, "One life sign."

"Send men to the area," Arthur said, keeping his eyes fixed straight ahead, refusing to admit that his voice had cracked.

"Yes, sir," Gwaine said, sounding strangely subdued.

"Still no movement on the line," Leon said. Arthur glanced at him gratefully, aware that his First Mate was trying to distract him from Emrys.

"Men in position," Gwaine said.

"Belay that order," Lance said. "I see Emrys on the feed."

Arthur's heart clenched. He nodded firmly. His mouth was dry.

Leon asked the question that Arthur was thinking. "Are we sure that it's Emrys?"

Lance shifted the internal security feed to the two-dimensional vid screen. They saw a black-cloaked figure walking purposefully down the passageway; the view shifted when he moved out of sight and Lance changed to a different camera. The man was Emrys' height. The breadth of the shoulders was the same. From what they could see, the man was wearing all of Emrys' equipment. There were no shadows trailing after him.

"It could be him," Gwaine said.

"I don't think it is," Geraint said.

"He's limping," Leon remarked, and Arthur cringed. If it was Emrys, Arthur didn't like to think of him as injured.

"He's got the thing on his chest," Galahad said, waving in a circle over his own torso. "The sigil. You think the White Legion would put on anything from the House of Shadows? It's him."

"Tell me someone's paying attention to the Empire lurking at our front steps," Arthur said, exasperated. His crew was far too invested in Emrys' situation, and though he would never admit it out loud, Arthur was glad for it. But it seemed as if they had all forgotten that they were at war.

Lucan was the only one not to voice a complaint, his head still down in concentration, completely unaware of the drama unfolding on the bridge.

Arthur made a note to give Lucan a slightly larger percentage of the salvage share on their next foray into the Empire.

On the vid, the man approached the section airlock. He entered a code at the side panel. "That was the right code," Lance said. They all watched as the man tilted his head when the door didn't open.

"Give me a line," Arthur said. Lance raised a hand, paused a second, and pointed at Arthur to indicate that he had a direct line to that section. "Identify yourself."

The man jabbed at the communications button on the side panel. "Open the damn door, you prat."

"That's Emrys," Perceval said.

"Yep. That's him," Gwaine agreed.

"Goddamn it," Geraint muttered. He reached over the partition between pilot seats and slapped a quarter Sterling into Galahad's hand.

"It's him," Lance said, opening the doorway without waiting for Arthur's go-ahead. Arthur ran a hand through his hair in frustration at his crew's insubordination, instead of revealing how relieved he was that Merlin was all right.

When he lowered his hand, he caught the tremble of his fingers. It didn't entirely have anything to do with the adrenaline either, but now that the tensions were easing, he could feel sharp stabs of pain flickering through his body.

Arthur dropped his arm to his side before anyone else noticed.

"They're moving back," Leon said. "All of them."

Arthur watched on the overhead as the Empire moved all of its ships in retreat, tucking themselves behind the border. He felt a weight ease from his shoulders, but with that tiny bit of breathing room came a tremble and a weakness that he had been ignoring for weeks.

Ignoring, except for the treatment that Gaius insisted he take every day, twice a day, without fail. Otherwise...

Arthur couldn't remember if he had taken his scheduled dose yet. He saw Leon's concern, but it faded behind the calm that was slowly settling on the crew, a giddy excitement that fed into already over-inflated egos. If a flash of pain hadn't just stabbed him in the middle of his chest, Arthur would be right there with them.

"Hold our position," Arthur said. "Same goes for all of our ships. Call me if something changes. I'll be in my quarters."

"What about the Needler jammed between our tits?" Gwaine asked.

"Have the boys bring it on board. Disable the transponder," Arthur said, even though he knew that Elyan would have jammed any signals once the ship had come into rage. His brow furrowed, and he tried to remember something. It came to him almost too late. "Find out why we couldn't track the singles except by their wake."

"Can do," Perceval said, already transmitting the orders.

"Captain?" Leon asked, and Arthur pretended he didn't see the look of concern that his second shot in his direction. "What about Emrys?"

Arthur hesitated. He studied the overhead display without really seeing it. "He was limping. Send him to medical."

"And after?" Gwaine asked, his grin turning lecherous.

Arthur wasn't going to let Gwaine get the better of him, and he matched Gwaine grin for grin. "Make sure he finds his way to me."

Soft snickers spread through the bridge, and Arthur left them to their mirth. He had no sooner made it down the passageway, out of sight, than a wave of weakness overwhelmed him.

He staggered.

He caught himself against the bulkheads, fingers digging into the smooth surface, his knuckles white. Something hot and wet dripped from his side.

Arthur touched his ribcage -- a fruitless endeavour considering he was in full suit, same as the rest of the crew, guarding against the possibility of a hull breach -- and felt a responding ache spread from the sticky sweat of his skin, seeping through the bandage and into the first, thin layer of body armour as it mixed with blood.

"Best to let it bleed, your Majesty," Gaius said, shaking his head sadly. "Binding it as they did your father's wound would do you no good. If it bleeds, at least the poison has somewhere to go -- somewhere that isn't your heart, your nervous system, your brain."

Arthur shook his head against the wave of dizziness and ignored Gaius' voice in his head. He tried a step forward; his leg nearly gave out. He slammed back against the bulkhead rather than fall flat on the deck, grateful that his crew were at general quarters, and that no one was wandering around on their off-hours where they would stumble on him like this.

He stayed where he was, sinking against the wall, his body shuddering. He felt cold; his fingers were numb. Sweat beaded on his brow. His vision blurred.

Time passed in a dilation and contraction, every heaving breath was its own microcosm, a universe forming and dying. He saw stars when he closed his eyes.

"It's impossible to predict how effective this treatment will be, my Lord," Gaius said, clasping his hands in front of him. His expression was heavy, his face marked with the strain of a man who could not bear to lose yet another Emperor in his lifetime.

Arthur broke eye contact.

"This will help. I have made it as strong as I can. I will concentrate the next preparation. Perhaps if we flood your body with the antagonist, we can force the toxin into remission, at least for a time," Gaius said.

"How long?"

Gaius' tone was solemn. "I'm sorry, Arthur."

"Long enough to win this war? Long enough to turn the Empire from the borders? Long enough to force them to rethink the threat they make?" Arthur turned to Gaius. "Tell me."

Gaius lowered his eyes. He spread his hands in helpless apology. "Perhaps… Yes. If you win this war quickly."

A searing heat pressed against his side, burning him even through the suit. Bit by bit, the heat made the ice recede, the cold pinpricks in his body tamed by the flame. He could feel his fingers again. Some measure of strength returned to his limbs. His vision cleared.

Emrys.

The cowl still covered his head. The shadows clung to his body. They hid his face. But his eyes were wide and round with alarm, with fear.

"My quarters," Arthur said. His voice was flimsy, a limp sail in a nonexistent wind. Don't let anyone see me like this, he wanted to say, but he didn't need to. The area around him seemed to darken, as if a diaphanous veil had fallen over his eyes. Sounds were suddenly louder, the ship an orchestra of noise, with energy buzzing all around them, fluids and fuels pulsing through hidden piping, the engine a low, bass rumble. It was distracting, maddening, blinding, because all that Arthur could absolutely focus on was Emrys, whose body was solid against Arthur's side, his arm strong around Arthur's waist. And despite all that focus, Arthur couldn't see him. It was as if Emrys melded completely into the shadows, becoming one with them.

Shadowlord, Arthur thought, and he wanted to laugh.

He coughed instead.

"It is important that you don't miss a single dose, Sire," Gaius said, placing the small jars in a neat little line. The brown liquid was unappetizing to look at, and it tasted even more foul. When Arthur gagged and couldn't swallow any more, Gaius said, "Every drop. It must be a full dose."

Arthur upended the bottle until the last, stubborn millimetre dripped down into his mouth. He grimaced.

"I must insist that you take them in the order given. As time passes, you will need to take a stronger dose, a larger dose. I will monitor you and determine whether any adjustment needs to be made. Now, Arthur. Remember. Twice a day, at precisely the same time every day, or the toxin will gain a foothold."

The world tilted on its axis, and Arthur found himself on the lounge in his quarters, listing left like a sinking ship. Strong hands adjusted him in place, settling him properly upright. Emrys crouched in front of Arthur, his hands on Arthur's knees.

Arthur cursed the armoured suit he wore, because there had been days that he thought himself willing to give up his fortune -- well, half of it, at least -- for Emrys to touch him at all. And here Emrys was, his hands willingly on Arthur's body, and Arthur couldn't feel them. Not really. It wouldn't have mattered anyway, because Emrys' hands were gloved in some sort of feather-thin material, a fine material that seemed stronger than plate, and the armour was in the way.

"Arthur. Arthur. Look at me. What is it? What's wrong?" Emrys' blue eyes were startlingly wide with worry, and the tone in his voice lacked its usual bite. Arthur focused on that. He wished he could see Emrys' face.

Arthur leaned forward, a hand on Emrys' shoulder, pulling feebly at the cowl over his head. "I told you, pet. Never hide from me," he murmured.

The warmth pulled away from Arthur; Arthur nearly slipped from the lounge. He blinked his eyes open in time to see Emrys wrench the cowl and the cloak from his shoulders, the shadows dissipating.

"Where are you hurt?" Emrys asked. He reached forward and re-settled Arthur properly on the sofa. His hands ran over Arthur's armour, searching for breaches in the suit, and was so intent in his scrutiny that he might even detect micro-fractures if there had been any. Arthur doubted that there were; George might be particularly irritating, but he was thorough when it came to tending to Arthur's gear.

"Not… not hurt." Arthur shook his head. He scowled, watching Emrys' hand sweep down his thigh, inspecting even the seams where his weapons were strapped on top of the sculpted plates. "Goddamn it. This armour. Do you know how long I've wanted to feel your hands on me?"

Emrys stilled. Their eyes met. Arthur wasn't certain why Emrys had looked so stricken, then; was the thought of touching him… did it repulse him? "Arthur," Emrys said. There was warning in his tone. Desperation. "Where is it?"

Arthur decided to put Emrys out of his misery. He took Emrys' wrist and guided it to his ribs.

"No one must know," Arthur said, watching as Gaius put away the little bottles. They went into a neat satchel, the numbers turned out so that Arthur could take them in the order that they were intended. Gaius could only make so much at a time; the antagonist needed to be fresh. They'd been lucky -- for some definition of luck, anyway -- that Gaius had been able to collect enough of the poison from the assassin's blade to formulate an antagonist based on the pure toxin and optimized for Arthur's physiology.

Gaius' hands stilled and raised a brow. Leon made a small sound. It might have been disapproval, but Leon was far too proper to completely contradict his Clanhead -- now his King's -- command.

"I mean it. No one must know. The vultures will start picking at my carcass before it's even warm. And if there are spies -- and I guarantee you that if the Empire managed to send three assassins among us, it must also have spies -- we can't let them have any hint that the leadership is weak." Arthur looked from Gaius to Leon. "I will discuss it with some of my crew. Only some. Leon, you'll help me decide who absolutely does need to know."

Whom they trusted absolutely, but Arthur didn't spell it out. Leon nodded.

Arthur saw the realization dawn in Emrys' eyes when he couldn't find any cuts or scrapes on the armour where Arthur had indicated. It took a strange, cloudy darkness filling the whites of his eyes and masking the bright blue -- some sort of shadow magic, Arthur thought.

Emrys' eyes cleared, and he drifted away from Arthur, slipping back to rest on his heels. His head bowed, and his hands remained on Arthur's knees only because Arthur had caught his wrists and kept Emrys from going too far.

Emrys didn't fight him.

"Why didn't you tell me?"

"Does it matter?" Arthur flinched at the fierceness in Emrys' sudden gaze, at the piercing weight of it. Emrys didn't speak, but Arthur very clearly heard, Of course it does, you dollophead. "Now, now. No need to be insulting."

Emrys' brows pinched in a confused quirk, but he didn't say anything.

"It happened before you arrived," Arthur admitted. "When the assassin came for my father. For me. There's nothing that you could have done. You weren't even here."

Emrys dropped his gaze, turned his head aside. Arthur guessed that he was counting the days to see how long that Arthur had before the poison made its appearance by way of a series of painful, debilitating symptoms.

He was well past that time. Arthur had already beaten the odds. The remedy that Gaius had concocted had kept the poison in check this long. There had been only a handful of times when Arthur had felt any pain, and that was quickly rectified by an adjustment in the antagonist's strength.

Arthur scanned the room. He squinted. He saw the satchel on his desk, the two bottles set aside.

Oh.

He had forgotten both of his doses.

"That explains a lot," Arthur said, half to himself.

"It does," Emrys said wryly. He fell silent; rude strands of slick black hair dropped down into his eyes, hiding them from view before he raised his chin again. He licked his lips, took a deep breath, "Arthur --"

"No. I don't want you like this," Arthur said, shaking his head. It was probably the wrong time, but he might as well bring voice to the things that they didn't speak of, that had driven a wedge between them over the last few days. Emrys' eyes narrowed, his lips pursed with displeasure, and he exhaled a soft sound of frustration.

"You wanted me when I sat in your brig," Emrys said. "Does knowing what I am -- who I am -- change that?"

"No," Arthur said, elbows on his knees. He reached slowly, tentatively for Emrys; Emrys crawled closer so that Arthur wouldn't have to stretch. "It makes me happy. Happier. Knowing that there's a chance that I will always have you."

Emrys' cheeks coloured. Even the tips of his ears pinked up. A small smile tugged to Arthur's lips to know that he could rattle this man, an assassin renowned for cold, calculating ruthlessness.

The smile dropped almost at once when a question struck him. "Have you ever wanted me?"

Emrys didn't answer right away. He huffed a small laugh, as if at some sort of private joke. He shook his head and Arthur felt a stab in his heart that he resolutely held onto, because it hurt worse than the starbursts of pain blooming through his body from the poison.

"If you miss a dose, even one… I suspect that the poison will no longer remain dormant. It will attack your body with full vengeance, burning you from the inside out," Gaius said. His tone was clinical, detached, but his eyes were rheumy and wet, as if he were already grieving.

"I understand," Arthur said, taking the satchel. He tucked it away. "Miss a dose, die a horrible death."

"It's not funny, Arthur," Leon said quietly.

Arthur nodded. He shrugged. "It's a little funny. Anyway, I won't forget? I never did get to sit on the throne, did I? I'll make that the last thing I do before I die. A throne. Any throne will do."

"I'm dying," Arthur said when Emrys didn't speak. "Tell the dying man the truth. Unless you don't fancy me. In which case, lie to me. Wax philosophical about my eyes. Tell me how you'll grieve for my manly prowess once I'm gone. That you've been ruined for all others because no one else will ever compare."

Emrys' lips twitched. He rolled his eyes. "You're an obnoxious, overbearing, self-absorbed, completely ridiculous prat."

"Oi. You can't talk to me like that," Arthur said, smiling a little. "I'm your future Emperor."

"I'll talk to you however I like. I'm your Shadowlord," Emrys said.

There was such a solemn declaration, a deep, profound promise, that Arthur's smile faded, and he shook his head. "I told you, pet. I don't want you like this. You need to want me the way I want you."

"I didn't have to board your ship in the first place," Emrys said.

"But you did."

"I didn't have to protect you in the brig," Emrys said.

"But you did," Arthur said. He couldn't help a small smirk.

"It was all a ploy, wasn't it?"

"Of course it was. I needed an excuse to rub myself all over you, didn't I?"

"Prat," Emrys said again. There was, quite possibly, a hint of fondness in his tone, but Arthur wasn't certain.

Arthur touched Emrys' cheek. "Why did you?"

Emrys avoided the question.

Arthur sighed, letting his hand drop. He was surprised when Emrys crawled closer, nestling himself firmly between Arthur's legs, his hands on Arthur's knees. Arthur swore under his breath, cursing his armour. This was a scene out of a wet dream, except they both were wearing too many clothes.

"I didn't have to keep the tracking bug. I didn't have to come back. I didn't need to throw my coin with yours," Emrys said, quickly, hurried. "Bloody hell, Arthur. The moment I laid eyes on you, I would've followed you anywhere. It just took me a while to realize."

Arthur's words caught in his chest. For once, he didn't know what to say. He ran his hands down Emrys' arms, curling his fingers around Emrys' biceps, fingertips hooking into the edge of the plate where it ended at the elbow, brushing against flexible armour. "And what if... What if where I want to go is not the Imperial throne?"

Emrys slid forward a bit more, his hands a gentle weight on Arthur's hips, even if Arthur couldn't feel much of it through the layers of clothes and armour.

"You're my Dragon. I will still be your Shadowlord," Emrys said, soft, gentle, trembling. Arthur had never seen Emrys so nervous, so afraid. This was not a man who knew fear, and yet, he was afraid that Arthur would turn him away. "Let me save you."

It was too profound, too heartfelt for Arthur. The quip was on his lips before he could stop it. "And if I say no? Will you save me anyway? For the good of the Empire and all that?"

"Don't be insufferable," Emrys said. His brow was furrowed, as if he thought Arthur should know the answer to that already. And maybe Arthur did know. "I'm saving you for me."

Arthur's breath caught. "Will it hurt?"

Emrys dropped his gaze. It was only for a fraction of an instant, a blink-and-gone moment, but it made something catch in Arthur's soul, something that ached far more than the renewed pain shooting tremors through his limbs.

"Will it hurt you?"

Emrys didn't answer.

As Arthur watched, something dimmed in Emrys' eyes. The bright blue turned into a faded grey. The ichor of the blackest shadows poured into the white sclera.

Something clicked.

Arthur looked down to see that his armour had unlatched, held in place only by the jacket he wore on top. He looked at Emrys again, and saw that his eyes had turned completely black, distant, foreboding, demonic. It should frighten him, but it didn't. Instead, Arthur thought it looked strangely beautiful, even if he wanted with everything that he was to see the blue in them again.

"Say no," Emrys said, his voice a strange, reverberating echo. "Say no, and I will stop and we will not speak of this again. I will do what I can to carry you to the end."

If Arthur said no, they wouldn't have long in which not to speak of it. If Arthur said no, the Pirate Clans would degenerate into a schoolyard squabble, everyone fighting to be King of the proverbial hill, and the Empire would swarm their territory and kill them all. If Arthur said no, the Imperial Conglomerate would endure, and its citizens, new and old, would continue to live lives of misery and torment.

If Arthur said yes, he would have to endure a lifetime of Emrys at his side.

He sighed softly.

Such a sacrifice.

Arthur pressed a chaste kiss against Emrys' lips, so chaste that they barely touched. And yet, that brief touch sent shudders through Emrys' body and drew out a soft sound too low for Arthur to classify.

"It is not no," Arthur whispered.

He didn't know where he found the strength, but he pulled back and fought through the pain to remove his jacket. It took only a shrug to remove disarticulated plate armour -- it slid from the plush seat and crashed on the deck. He thought to stand and remove the rest of it. Blood had seeped through the bandage, as Arthur had predicted. It soaked his body armour and overshirt.

He couldn't move.

Emrys crept all the way between Arthur's legs. He leaned in to rest in Arthur's lap. His arms snaked around Arthur's waist and held him tightly. His cheek pressed against Arthur's ribs, just over the still-bleeding wound.

"What do I do?" Arthur asked.

Emrys didn't answer.

Arthur placed his hands on Emrys' shoulders. A light touch at first, unsure whether it was permitted. He was more possessive an instant later, sweeping his palms over the rough fabric of Emrys' tunic before he wrapped his arms around him. Arthur curled over Emrys' body, pressed a kiss on the nape of his neck, and swallowed hard when he felt the first shudder run through the man's body.

It was a faint, imperceptible tremble, the sort that Arthur had seen before when he stroked a lover's skin, a reflex to feel much-desired contact. Arthur wondered at the last time that Emrys had been touched like this. If he ever had been.

Arthur pressed another kiss. This time, the shudder was violent, a cacophony of tense muscles fighting against extraordinary pain. Arthur held him through the attack, weathering the storm, fighting a surge of fear. He didn't know what Emrys was doing, he didn't know if this was normal, and he definitely didn't know how long it would last.

It didn't even occur to Arthur until the worst of it had passed that he wasn't feeling any pain at all.

Small, shadowy wisps danced in the air around them. They curled and uncurled, writhed and straightened, flitted and fluttered. Bit by bit those shadows swept closer, until some sort of force sucked them in; they clung to Emrys' body until they were absorbed through armour and fabric and skin.

The room grew brighter, so bright that the atmospheric controls automatically adjusted by dimming the room's light levels to Arthur's personal preferences. Every time the light dimmed, the shadows drifted toward Emrys again.

Arthur lost count of how many times it happened before he realized that for every notch in the levels that the lighting decreased, the room would grow brighter as Emrys sucked all the shadow into the room, pulling them to him like a call to arms. Whether Emrys was using the shadows as a source of strength or a source of power, Arthur didn't know, but every time Emrys' arms tightened around Arthur, or Arthur heard the faintest sound from him, he would hold Emrys all the more, shadowing him and offering comfort.

The overhead lighting was nearly at zero percent, the room shining with a polished glow, before Arthur felt Emrys' body relax. His arms loosened from around Arthur's waist, his bowed body slumped, his cheek slid from Arthur's ribs to rest on his thigh, right where the edge of hard plate armour seamed into the hip. Emrys' face was turned away; he made a tiny, little gasp, his breath coming in ragged pants before slowly calming down.

Arthur ran his fingers through sweat-dampened hair, touching whatever skin that he could reach, comforting with quiet words that seemed meaningless, and, with silence when he ran out of things to say.

"What did you do?" Arthur asked. He didn't really expect an answer but he asked again anyway. "What did you do, Emrys?"

Emrys moved. It was slow and ponderous at first, more of a deliberate slide than a listless fall, full of physical contact that Arthur wished that he could feel, and he regretted not having removed the lower half of his armour before Emrys had started… whatever it was that he had done.

Arthur let him go. Slowly, ever so slowly, the room darkened, and again, the sensors adjusted the lights to compensate.

Emrys sat back on his heels. His shoulders were slumped, his head was down, and he was pale -- more than usual, as if he had been in free-fall for a long time, and he'd been bleached white by fear and adrenaline. He scrubbed his hands over his face before dropping them into his lap, and he regarded Arthur with a mixture of exhaustion and… relief?

"Merlin," Emrys said.

"Hm?"

"Not Emrys. Not anymore. Haven't been that for a while, have I? Won't do you any good calling me that, anyway. Who wants an Emperor with an assassin of my reputation at his beck and call? Is that how you want to rule?"

"I don't know," Arthur mused. "The Pirates don't seem to care."

Emrys -- Merlin, and how the name suited him, finally -- had a point, though. The Pirates dealt with the riffraff of the universe -- Hell, they were the riffraff of the universe. There wasn't much that intimidated them, though not for lack of trying; reputation mattered more than even a bucket full of shiny Sterling, and respect was earned, not bought. But the civilians who lived under Imperial rule? They were softer folks, more easily scandalized. Arthur would need to navigate those future waters carefully --

Arthur was awed that he had that chance, now. To think of the next day, and the day after that. He reached for Merlin, only to have his hands batted away.

"And not pet, either," Merlin said, raising both eyebrows. "Merlin. My name is Merlin."

Arthur smiled, indulgent, and clasped his hands together, elbows on his thighs. He tilted his head to the side and pretended to be giving the matter serious thought. He reached for Merlin again.

"I really want to kiss you, Merlin," Arthur said.

There were stories about the House of Shadows. How every shift in movement was a whisper in a Shadow's ear. How they knew secrets that had been forgotten to time, how they could be sustained by the shade, as if they were immortal, how they were so attuned to their surroundings, they could never be surprised.

Arthur was disappointed that at least one of those was a lie.

Merlin's eyes went wide. His mouth parted in mid-word, but no sound came out, and his mouth snapped shut a moment later. He didn't move when Arthur pressed a kiss upon lips that Arthur had been thinking about for some time.

He didn't respond.

Arthur ended the kiss and started a new one.

A shaky gasp was his reward. Arthur slid from his seat and went to his knees, caging Merlin between them. He waited a moment to be sure that Merlin wouldn't scramble away before placing a hand at the small of Merlin's back, the other tangling in Merlin's hair. There was a moment of hesitation, a faint brush of contact, and finally, perfectly, a frantic, desperate grasp of fingers on Arthur's chest, pulling at a layer of body armour that was so tight that it felt like a second skin.

Merlin's mouth was warm and inviting, his lips as soft as they looked, and he was beautiful like this, his eyes shuttered, long eyelashes teasing at the flush on his cheeks. Arthur didn't dare break contact, but the frustration of not being able to feel Merlin, of not being able to touch -- it was maddening. Merlin was here, so close, so --

Arthur stood up to a disappointed noise. He kicked away his armour and his weapons. He slid a hand through the nanomesh fibre that made up the final layer of personal protection. He knelt again, boxing Merlin in, ignoring the dull throb of a wound that was no longer bleeding. The bandage pulled from his skin, and he was distracted by and the uncomfortable scrape of a sharp armour against the inside of his thigh.

"You're naked," Merlin said.

"You're not," Arthur retorted, crushing a kiss to silence any further protests. He pulled and pushed at Merlin's uniform, trying to find a seam, an edge, an opening. He growled in annoyance when he didn't find anything, and Merlin caught his hand, guiding him to a flap that hadn't been there before.

Arthur nearly tore it open.

Nearly killed himself in the process, too. He had forgotten that Merlin was a walking armoury.

"Goddamn it, Merlin," Arthur complained, shaking out his hand. The cut wasn't deep -- no worse than a shallow paper cut, but it stung. "Is this going to happen every time?"

Merlin's soft chuckle hiccupped into surprise, and he swallowed hard.. Arthur sucked on his finger, watching how Merlin's eyes trailed down to his mouth, and grinned.

"I'll show you how to take it off. Properly, I mean," Merlin said, his voice thick. "For. You know. Next time."

"Until next time, then, but for now --" Arthur waved a hand over Merlin's body. There were layers to his armour -- of course there were -- and the next level down to the skin looked to be even harder to crack than the first. "Get on with it."

A corner of Merlin's mouth twitched, but his hands paused halfway between shedding the remainder of the plates on his legs. "Arthur. Is this --"

"Bloody Hell," Arthur snarled, stopping Merlin from asking whatever it is that he'd been about to ask with a crushing kiss. He didn't want to deal with promises of long-term commitments right now -- wasn't it a given, anyway? Weren't Dragon and Shadow bound for life? "Stop thinking. It is. Today, tomorrow, ten years from now, fifty years from now. You're maddening. You're infuriating. You're annoying. You're… You're… I crave you. There are no words for how much --"

Arthur paused for breath and dove in for another kiss.

"You left me. You protected me from a threat on my own bloody ship -- which, by the way, why would you think my own crew would hurt me? -- then left me. I've had men looking for you. I've had Clan Leodegrace scouring the Net for you. Do you know how it felt when you'd activated the beacon? When you walked into the council chambers? When you jumped onto the table, when you cast your coin with mine? Do you know how hard it was to stop myself from ravishing you right then and there?"

Merlin glanced at Arthur's cock -- it was more than a mere glance, and Merlin licked his lips -- as if that answered Arthur's own question. Arthur huffed a frustrated breath and kissed those wetted lips until they were red and bruised.

"Now, I get to keep you," Arthur said, kissing him. "If you don't think that I want this, if you don't know that I haven't wanted this from the start --"

His next kiss was aborted when a hand on his chest stopped him. He was so close that he could nearly feel Merlin's lips -- all he had to do was lean in a bit more -- but he was distracted by the small huff of breath on his skin.

"I was going to ask… Is this going to move to the bed?" Merlin's lips were curled into a small smirk, but there was a pleased glint in his eyes. "But all that was good, too."

Arthur bowed his head. A flush of heat made his cheeks burn, but the embarrassment associated with his declaration did absolutely nothing to flag a cock that was flying at full mast. His body shook with suppressed laughter that stuttered when Merlin cradled his face and kissed him.

It was slow and sweet, tender and soft -- all the things an assassin shouldn't be, but was, anyway. Merlin tugged on Arthur's lower lip. He ran his tongue along Arthur's mouth. He slipped it in, the tip teasing Arthur's tongue, and a gentle kiss became a heated kiss that left Arthur breathless and seeing stars.

"Bed," Arthur gasped.

They collapsed on the double-wide cot in a tangle of limbs -- Arthur, because he couldn't stop touching Merlin; Merlin, because he had lost all of his grace in a haste to shed layers of armour and clothes. Merlin was on his back; Arthur floated over him on hands and knees, drinking in the sight.

The armour, the clothing, the cloak, the shadows -- all of it hid the deceptive strength of Merlin's body. His shoulders were broad and solid; his hips slim and tapered. Muscles were corded and defined under smooth skin marked with fine, black lines and tiny, precise whorls and shadow-shifting symbols that were dizzying to watch. They covered Merlin's arms from wrist to shoulder, peppered down his back and lightly kissed his chest, and thickened again along his ribs and down the outer sides of his legs.

Arthur touched all those that he could, tracing them with a light fingertip; Merlin shuddered under him. Arthur meant to lick each and every one of the tattoos on his skin --

But before he had a chance to even try, Merlin shifted and moved and twisted, flipping them.

Merlin straddled Arthur's thighs, his weight keeping Arthur pinned. Merlin swept his hands over Arthur's chest, down his sides --

Arthur braced for the pain, intent on ignoring it, but when Merlin brushed past the spot where the assassin had cut him, there was no pain at all. There was only the dull irritation of dried blood on his skin, flaking away, and when Arthur could draw his eyes away from Merlin long enough to look, he saw that where there had been a weeping wound was now a golden scar.

Not the angry red of a healing scab. Not the fragile white of a freshly-healed cut. A scar, as if the attack had been years in the past.

And gold, like the gold of the Pendragon crest, the gold of the Imperial Dragon before it had been corrupted by Conglomerate blue.

Arthur gaped at it. He turned wide eyes at Merlin. The questions on his lips vanished from his conscious mind when he saw the reverence in Merlin's gaze and felt how gently Merlin touched him.

Arthur settled on the bed. He folded his arms behind his head. He raised both brows and smirked. "Like what you see?"

"Prat," Merlin said, and bent to kiss a spot under Arthur's collarbone. His tongue flicked out in a serpentine lash that pulled Arthur from the bed in a shocked arch.

"Stars and suns," Arthur swore, his head thrown back. Merlin's tongue danced in circles and loops down his chest. Arthur couldn't breathe except in gasping pants; the wet heat and cool air on his skin was paralyzing. All of his nerves were aflame, teasing embers burning just under his skin, blown to an impossible inferno that consumed him when Merlin's tongue licked the tip of his cock.

He placed a hand on the nape of Merlin's head, not wanting to push, not wanting to let go. Merlin took Arthur's length into his mouth without encouragement, licking and sucking, and it was all that Arthur could do not to come right then and there. Just as he was about to push Merlin off, Merlin rose up over him, a teasing brush of chest against chest before Merlin ground his hips down, rubbing cock against cock.

"Fuck," Arthur hissed, grabbing Merlin. He might not have an assassin's reflexes; he might not have Merlin's little acrobatic tricks, but what he did have was strength and determination, and sod being graceful --

He loomed over Merlin, smothering the laugh that came out of Merlin's mouth with a kiss when they both nearly tumbled off the edge of the cot. Arthur rutted against Merlin, his cock sliding on the slick of mixed pre-come, unfairly teased by the ripples of abdominal muscles and the unfair lines of sinew.

"I'm going to fuck you," Arthur said into Merlin's mouth. Merlin groaned; his hips rose from the bed and changed the angle of attack; Arthur's cock slipped under Merlin's, the contact between skin and cock an almost-caress. "Sure and slow until you're hoarse from begging. Until you forget your own name."

He loomed over Merlin, reaching for a tube of slick that was kept in the drawer compartment beneath the bed, tearing it open with his teeth. He squeezed out a Sterling-sized glob on the Vee of Merlin's thigh, gathering up enough to slide his hand down Merlin's cock, over his balls, between legs that parted and hips that shifted to guide him to his goal.

"I'm going to bend you over the council table and lick your hole until you scream. I'll take you on every throne I claim and make you ride me until you coat the royal seat with your come. I'll make you come ten times over for every one of mine just so that I can watch you fall apart."

Arthur traced a lube-slicked finger around Merlin's hole before thrusting inside. It was tight, so tight, that Arthur at first thought that he'd been too rough, that he'd been wrong, but the desperate, keening sounds from Merlin's mouth confirmed neither of these things. And then he understood. A man like Merlin -- an assassin, always alone, separate from his people, never trusting anyone -- would never have submitted to anyone. Not like this.

He was Merlin's fist. He would be Merlin's first. Merlin trusted him enough for this. The thought made Arthur's head spin, suddenly light-headed, and all the blood in his body made him harder than he'd ever been.

"You won't want anyone else but me for the rest of your days," Arthur said, his voice rough. He kissed Merlin to distract him, to relax him, and pushed a second finger in. The low dose of relaxant in the lube was already taking effect; Arthur wouldn't need much to work Merlin open. But he wanted a time when he could work Merlin open for hours, and he wished that was now.

Merlin kissed back, mouth open and panting. His fingers clawed and scratched and pulled, wanting more. He writhed under Arthur, thrusting down as much as he could on Arthur's fingers. Arthur complied and pressed a third finger in, twisting just so, until he found the proper spot, and matched Merlin's moan with one of his own. Merlin was gorgeous like this, taken apart piece by piece, the cold mask pushed aside to reveal the passion beneath.

"But not today. Today I will take you. I'll claim you. I'll --"

"Shut up and fuck me," Merlin snarled.

Arthur couldn't help it. He laughed. He kissed Merlin again and again, nuzzling his throat, shifting his weight, pulling his fingers as gently as he could. He used the last of the lube to slick himself up; he took himself in hand. He teased the rim of Merlin's hole with the tip of his cock until Merlin made threatening sounds.

He laughed again, a soft little chuckle, because Merlin could threaten all he liked -- and no doubt, he was the only man that Arthur knew who could actually carry through -- but Merlin would never hurt him. Arthur pushed, breaching Merlin, and the laugher escaped from his chest to stutter into a groan. No threat would have as much weight as this -- nothing could urge him to tease Merlin and to carry through more than the want that grew in Arthur, a want to feel this sensation again and again.

Arthur pressed on, moving as slowly as he dared -- as slowly as he could -- and watched Merlin's face. There was a grimace -- faint and fleeting, hidden behind a stoic assassin's façade. There was a forced breath, a slow inhalation. Arthur stilled his movements when he was sheathed to the hilt. He ran his hand over Merlin's stomach, pressed soothing kisses on his brow, shifted his balance with delicate care.

"Please," Merlin whispered, though it came out as a small little whimper. Arthur met his eyes, ready to pull out if that was what Merlin wanted, but he saw only desire.

He pulled out slowly. He pushed in.

Merlin bit his lower lip. He stroked at his flagging erection until Arthur batted Merlin's hand away, replacing it with his own. He kept his touch as feather-light as he could manage while holding himself in check. He wanted to fuck, to thrust in, to split Merlin apart --

He kept it slow.

He kept it slow and gentle and teasing, kissing and stroking and murmuring. He felt Merlin's cock thicken in his hand. Merlin's heels dug into the small of Arthur's back. Merlin cried out his name.

Arthur shifted Merlin's hips, pushing at his legs. Merlin's foot hooked on his shoulder, the other curled tightly around Arthur's waist, not giving him much room to pull and thrust, but Arthur could keep a steady rhythm. Merlin made an incomprehensible sound and jerked at his cock with the urgency of a man about to come, and it spurred Arthur to cage Merlin closer between his arms and fuck him with abandon.

The room darkened. The overhead lights grew brighter and brighter to compensate, but the shadows were too thick, suddenly alive and vivid, swirling and dancing like water spouts over an angry ocean.

"Oh, Shades," Merlin hissed, coming hard, coating his hand, his chest, and Arthur's.

Arthur had never seen a more beautiful sight. He leaned down and caught Merlin's lip, tasting the salt of sweat.

"Arthur." Merlin turned his name into a moan, and that was it; that was all that Arthur needed to push past the rising crest and to come.

There was a moment of panic, and complete darkness, enveloped in a surge of pleasure, of relief, of release. Arthur felt a tightness in his chest that was nothing short of the entire universe, and when he caught his breath and was able to focus, it was to see Merlin the most relaxed that Arthur had seen him, the most unguarded.

"So stubborn," Arthur muttered, pressing a soft kiss to Merlin's lips before carefully pulling out and rolling to the side, not minding the sticky mess between them. He would get up to find a washcloth in a few minutes, but for now, he was content to lay beside Merlin, holding him close.

There was a long silence and a soft rumble before Merlin shifted, his fingers twining through Arthur's. He shifted and settled, straightening his legs, letting one stay tangled when Arthur wouldn't let him go. Then and only then did he turn his head to look at Arthur.

"Stubborn?"

Arthur grinned. "We could have been doing this all along."

 


Arthur placed his hands on Emrys' shoulders.  A light touch at first, unsure whether it was permitted.  He was more possessive an instant later, sweeping his palms over the rough fabric of  Emrys' tunic before he wrapped his arms around him.  Arthur curled over Emrys' body, pressed a kiss on the nape of his neck, and swallowed hard when he felt the first shudder run through the man's body.  It was a faint, imperceptible tremble, the sort that Arthur had seen before when he stroked a lover's skin, a reflex to feel much-desired contact.  Arthur wondered at the last time that Emrys had been touched like this.  If he ever had been.

 

Chapter Text

 


Chapter Thirteen

Asterism: The Balorian Spiders

The Balorian Spiders

Location: Kingship, Pirate Mothership, Border of Pirate Space

 

The Pirates were in the process of acquiring an impressive collection of Needler-class ships, hanging them from the rafters of the largest flight decks on each of the Clanships. It had become a symbol of pride, a source of inter-Clan rivalry, and a reminder of who and what they were up against.

Clan Pendragon was the current forerunner in the impromptu competition, with sixty-eight Needlers in six different configurations. Most of them had been tucked out of the way or transferred to the Kingship; there was simply not enough room anymore.

Each and every one of those that had targeted Excalibur were mounted at centre stage like hunting trophies. Over Merlin's protests, Arthur had insisted that the ships belonging to the White Legion that Merlin himself had taken down be put at the forefront. He'd crossed his arms over his chest and beaming like a proud... bondmate? boyfriend? husband? as the workers hauled them up.

Merlin didn't entirely understand what he and Arthur had become, but there was definitely a Merlin and Arthur. There had been a time when Merlin thought it strange that he hadn't been assigned quarters on the Excalibur, but now he knew it was because Arthur had planned for Merlin in his bed all along.

Cheeky bugger.

Merlin felt a twinge along the tether that bound them together. He was still learning how to understand the twitches and vibrations and resonations, but he knew this emotion well enough. Arthur was agitated; Merlin wondered what the council was telling Arthur now.

Merlin crouched besides the latest kill.

The Needler ship had struck the Carmarthen, a larger Clanship than the Excalibur, and had divested a full complement of three Legion soldiers who had massacred the crew of an entire engine room and a number of the starboard weapons specialists before Gilli had been able to intervene. The young acolyte would never reach Master -- he was the first to admit that he wasn't strong enough -- but there was a certain sort of satisfaction in knowing that no matter how terrible the odds against a Shadow, the Shadow would always prevail.

Nearly always, Merlin amended. They'd lost three cruisers and one warship to self-destruction sequences when the Captain of those ships had no other choice, not after the Shadow onboard was killed, their entire crew decimated. Leaving a Pirate ship for the Imperials to claim wasn't an option, particularly not since they'd begun the retrofit of their cloaking technology.

Merlin ran a hand over the Needler's skin. This ship could hold a three-person complement but could also be expanded to double the passengers. The navigation system was minimal. Needlers were designed to be as point-and-shoot as any missile, the onboard munitions just as deadly, if not more. Life support was limited to whatever could fit into the small ship, and included the containment on a soldier's suit of armour. The engine was a single-phase jet with a two-stage afterburner system, the first activated once clear of the launch, the second when they were within range of their target for that additional bit of thrusting power needed to pierce through a hull's plating.

The laser cutters were activated within a certain distance of approach, programmed to slice clean through enemy hull, or at least weakening the structure to facilitate entry. These lasers were useless as weapons, and were usually a complete write-off -- either they were completely crushed on impact, or had drained themselves of their single charge.

That wasn't what had caught Merlin's attention. That wasn't what had caught the Pirates' attention either, though it wasn't a surprise anymore. It hadn't been, ever since the very first Needler that had made it across a vast expanse of space nearly undetected, and had managed to cut into the Excalibur at the opening volley. In the early days of the war, the only ships that were equipped with the new Imperial cloaking technology -- a technology that was blatantly based on Pirate design -- were the smaller single-person Needlers. The technology wasn't perfect -- there were flaws, and not many ships on either side were lucky enough to have someone like Lucan listening for sensor ghosts -- but it was easier, nowadays, to let the Needlers hit them square, and to either sacrifice whichever poor sods happened to be in that section while venting the entire section to space or to send a Shadow after them.

Arthur didn't like either option. It gutted him to hear that was exactly what a floundering ship had done.

There weren't many Shadows to go around, but there were enough. Just enough. And when a Needler hit the Excalibur or the Kingship when Merlin and Arthur were on board, Merlin did everything that he could to keep Arthur from needing to make the decision to void his crewmen to space.

But now, weeks later -- Gods, it seemed like months, if not years later -- the Imperial technology had improved. More ships had been upgraded with cloaks that were only borderline noticeable on sensitive Pirate sensors. The smaller cruisers had crossed past the Pirate ranks more than once before an attentive specialist on the sensors picked them out of the mire, or when the cruisers themselves gave their positions away by firing on a Pirate ship. For some time, it seemed as if the Conglomerate had levelled the playing field --

And it wasn't so much levelled as it were overwhelming the Pirates with sheer numbers.

The Conglomerate's superior position lasted only as long as it took to hastily retrofit the Pirate cloaks with new diffraction codes or technological wizardry, but those advances didn't get put online until the Pirates had enough ships to make a difference. It had been a surprise tactic that had caught the Empire unaware when they suddenly couldn't detect the Pirates anymore. It was an advantage that the Pirates had capitalized on, pushing the Imperial Conglomerate into the unclaimed territory of space, getting as much of the battle away from the last buffer zone, before they were completely overwhelmed.

The Pirates had released a collective breath of relief a moment too soon. The self-destruct of a Clanship equipped with the latest changes to their cloaks had failed. The modifications were now in Imperial hands, likely in a laboratory where someone was reverse-engineering the technology and adapting it with Imperial tweaks.

What little progress gained over the last few weeks was quickly slipping away.

Merlin ran his fingers over the Needler's hull. It had been crushed in where it had impacted with the Carmarthen. Small explosive charges arranged in a line around the nose had sheared off enough room for the Legion soldiers to emerge.

There was a tactic here -- and not a very good one. Although they were no doubt holding ships and soldiers in reserve, the Conglomerate was throwing whatever it had available at the Pirates. It was a waste of good ships, good men, and, more importantly, of the single-minded White Legion soldiers. Merlin didn't pretend to know a lot about battle maneuvers, but he had spent enough time curled around Arthur, late at night to know that something wasn't right.

They'd seen the Conglomerate attack, flounder, retreat. In retreat, they licked their wounds, realized the futility of their first approach, and spent some time in consideration of their next move. This war was obviously not going the way that the Blues had planned -- or had expected. Pirates were unconventional. This entire war was unconventional.

Where Conglomerate shipside battle tactics was always evolving, their use of the White Legion hadn't changed.

The White Legion were an army above the rest. They were stronger, they were faster, they were deadlier than the run-of-the-mill boot camp and flight school graduate. They were the end-product of thousands of hours of investment -- training and equipment.

Why were they being wasted? Why were they being treated as expendable?

"You look like a man with something on his mind, and that's bloody frightening, Ems, so do us all a favour and stop it."

Merlin half-turned and glanced at Will. Will wasn't alone. Gwaine stood next to him; both were in flight suits. Where Gwaine's armour was half-hidden beneath a flamboyant blue-and-silver jacket and covered with a liberal amount of black straps and weapons, Will's armour was an awkward off-the-shelf, modified-on-the-fly ancient piece of shite that looked as if it wouldn't hold up to even a low-velocity rubber projectile. But appearances were deceiving and Merlin had seen Will take a full pulse blast in the chest, once, the momentum knocking him off his feet and into a station bulkhead. He'd emerged with nothing more than scorch marks on the mud-brown plating.

"Why hasn't it occurred to anyone that the Imperials are using the White Legion as kamikaze?"

Gwaine's brow furrowed thoughtfully.

"Are you serious?" Will said, glancing at Gwaine. Gwaine stuck a foot out and shoved his thumbs into the front of his belt. He nodded slowly.

"There are cheaper alternatives if they wanted to use cannon fodder," Gwaine said. He twisted to glance at the ships hanging from the rafters before returning a flinty stare at Merlin. "Maybe they figure if they toss enough Needlers at us, they'll hit the jackpot?"

"And how many Needlers have they sent? How many Pirates have the Legion killed? The odds aren't in their favour. Not by far." Merlin dropped his hand from the hull and pulled the cowl over his head. "The Conglomerate may not know about the Shadows on the ships, but they've seen how we handle them."

"Nothing more satisfying than seeing them blow out into space," Gwaine said, but the grin he wore was uncertain, as if he were trying to figure out what Merlin was getting at.

"So why do they keep doing it?"

Neither men spoke. A deck worker came up to them tentatively; he started strapping the latest Needler to the winch. Merlin moved out of the way. Will and Gwaine followed.

"Who cares why they keep doing it, as long as it cuts their numbers. Isn't that what we're after," Will groused. "Anyway, as illuminating as it is, waxing philosophical isn't why we've hunted your arse down."

"The Princess is in a strop," Gwaine said. He shrugged. "We've come to fetch you. He's always so much more pleasant and reasonable when you're around."

"In other words, you've been summoned," Will said, rolling his eyes. Merlin knew what Will thought about that -- Will had, in excruciating detail, outlined how he felt about Merlin's bonding to Arthur. It was a strange dichotomy -- on the one hand, Will was perfectly content to follow Arthur's orders on the battlefield, but he didn't trust Arthur one bit when it came to Merlin.

Merlin made an irritated sound -- more because of Will's tone than Arthur's summoning, and also because he suspected both Will and Gwaine had been looking for an excuse to get out of the war council -- and gestured for them to lead the way.

Will held up his hands. "Not me, mate. I'm done. I'm going to my ship and I'm going to sleep -- but you, you watch yourself, yeah? Last we saw, we thought he was about to start shooting."

Merlin turned to Gwaine, who looked pained. "Oh, all right. I'll throw myself on the grenade, but don't think I won't remember this, you turncoat," Gwaine said, pointing at Will.

Will made a rude gesture and headed toward the Unpleasant Surprise. Gwaine jerked his head in a come on tilt and headed away from the tarmac, ducking past a work crew and disappearing into a passageway.

The Pendragon Clanship was not the largest, but it was certainly the finest. It could hold nearly ten thousand personnel at a push and several times that number in passengers. Most of the non-combatants had remained behind on the Clanworld. It was an equal risk no matter where they were -- on planet where the Conglomerate could attack directly, allowing them no real escape, or on the Clanship where a lucky shot could breach the shields and the hull and kill them all. Most of the Clans had left the bulk of their population behind; the risk of the former was less than the odds of the latter.

Neither of them spoke as they crossed the catwalk to the main body of the Hengröen, emerging from a décor of stark metal bulkheads to opulence. Wood lined the bulkheads, polished grey-green stone marbled the floor, and red drapes hung from windows that curved outward, giving a dizzying view of space.

A Clanship was a relic of a time when they crossed galaxies, carrying the members of the Clan to their new homes, where they would be free from persecution. Over the centuries, the Clanships remained, though their use had changed over time, giving the Pirates a moving outpost for their raids. But the original intent for the Clanship loomed over them now, a slow dread trickling through skin and bone to root at the soul.

Everyone thought about it. Even Arthur. If push came to shove, the Clans would have to escape again.

Merlin wasn't certain that they'd reached that point of sheer hopelessness, not yet, but there were signs that a full retreat might be their one and only recourse. While the core Pirate armada had managed to keep the fight on the very fringe of their territory, the Empire had picked at the more remote positions until they had pushed in enough for Arthur to worry that they might one day be flanked from behind.

Merlin wondered if that day was coming faster than Arthur had believed.

The meeting room was small -- enough for the Captains of the Pendragon ships, a few other Clanheads, and some of the essential crew. The remainder of the war council were present in holo-spirit, their images projected in miniature onto the middle of the table. A heated argument was well underway between Godwin and Morgause; half of the members of the council were shirking away from the two of them, shifting their seats subtly away. Merlin didn't know what they were arguing about -- with Pirates, it could be anything from some sort of imagined slight to a disagreement in how to properly split the spoils -- and he didn't care, not when he saw Arthur pacing the room, his jaw set, his gaze murderous.

This was more than a mere strop.

Gwaine went to take his seat. It was Leon's spot, but there weren't enough ships in this quadrant and the First Mate had taken the Excalibur out on patrol. Arthur hadn't liked letting them go without Merlin on board, but there weren't enough Shadows to spare, either, and Merlin was unwilling to leave Arthur's side.

Not for want of trying, though. Arthur had already attempted to trick him into staying on the Excalibur at least once.

Arthur saw Gwaine in his seat, but his expression went stormy when he noticed that Will hadn't made a return appearance. His eyes remained steely even when he spotted Merlin on the other side of the room.

Merlin spread his hands in a what is it now gesture. Arthur's eyes narrowed in answer and made a sharp, cutting motion before pointing to the overhead holo-projection of the Pirate territory where it bordered the unclaimed zone. Red crosses represented the large Conglomerate battleships, red triangles the warships, and single dots were cruisers and other smaller ships -- there was enough red in a zoomed-out view for it to appear as a thick, curving, winding ribbon.

It didn't look any different to Merlin. He looked back at Arthur and shrugged. I don't see anything different.

Arthur rolled his eyes. He paced some more before stopping at the head of the table; he leaned down and glared at the Clanheads until even Morgause withered into silence.

"Will someone tell Emrys what he's missed?"

Merlin raised a brow at the tone. It was almost -- almost -- enough to make Merlin turn on his heel and stalk out.

Cenred draped a proprietary arm over the table as he slid forward, looking toward Merlin. "Well. If your pet hadn't been --"

Merlin didn't let him finish that sentence. A shadow wrenched the chair out from under Cenred, and by the time Cenred realized what had happened, Merlin was already there. He grabbed Cenred by the throat and hauled him to his feet, slamming him into the far wall. Cenred's toes scrambled for purchase on the deck; his fingers were claws trying to break free. He didn't try for his weapons, and it was just as well, because Merlin would have destroyed each and every one before they were drawn.

"You don't get to call me that," Merlin said calmly. Arthur didn't get to call him that, either, but Merlin was more willing to give it a pass when Arthur was in one of his moods.

"Anyone?" Arthur said, his tone dry, impatient. "I don't have all day."

"They attacked Elsinor," Alined said helpfully, but he was probably feeling particularly brave given the distance between Merlin and him. "We didn't get there in time."

Merlin inclined his head, his brow furrowing. There was something important in that thin piece of information, but he didn't know what it was. The Imperials had been attacking outposts all along the unclaimed zone of space -- what was different about this one? He was missing something.

He dropped Cenred and walked to the table, tilting Cenred's console so that he could see the screen. He searched and located Elsinor on the star charts, glanced up abruptly at the holo of the map overhead, and immediately spotted the red blotch in the inner quadrant of Pirate territory. It wasn't quite in the centre, nowhere near the main routes, and on a fringe planet that the Pirates had been using to muster supplies.

Strategically, however, taking the outpost was the equivalent of very nearly putting the trapping the Pirates in a corner.

"Oh," Merlin said, meeting Arthur's eyes across the table.

"Oh," Arthur imitated, raising both brows mockingly. Merlin saw raw frustration and a glimmer of defeat in his eyes; he chose not to comment on it.

For the Conglomerate to have struck so deeply into Pirate territory without having been noticed -- that spoke volumes. Either they had been planning this war for so long that their armada's first appearance along the border was a diversionary tactic. They would have had advance ships take the long way around to nestle deeper in Pirate territory. Or, more likely, they had improved on the stolen cloaking technology and had taken the advantage.

From their new position on the star charts, in full control of a staging planet, cutting off important supplies to the Pirates, the Imperial Conglomerate was now able to issue reinforcements for any attack coming to the front while throttling Pirate retreats. The Pirates would need to find alternate routes, longer routes, to return to safer territory.

"I gather they got past us," Merlin said.

"State the obvious, shall we?" Arthur's nod was short and sharp. He didn't make eye contact.

Merlin looked at the holo-projection overhead again. The bright green dots were Pirate ship locations; there was at least a small complement keeping an eye on Elsinor from a safe distance. It wasn't enough to take over a planetary location, not one where there were weapon stockpiles and other supplies. The Conglomerate fleet on that base could hold off indefinitely, while a few Pirate ships, even with the support of a Clanship, wouldn't be able to do much more but stay out of the range of the ship-killer surface-to-space missiles.

Merlin moved aside to let Cenred take his seat again; Cenred smiled enigmatically, as if to say I'm not afraid of you despite his heavy swallow and the faint tremble of his fingers as he sat down. He walked around the table and stopped, waiting for Arthur's pacing to bring him closer.

"I need options," Arthur said, coming toe to toe with Merlin. He turned his head toward the council. "I need viable options."

"Full retreat. Collect what we can, whoever we can, and find a safe refuge," Monmouth said.

"Viable options," Arthur said through gritted teeth. "In case you haven't noticed, all the Clans have outgrown their Clanships. Even if we had enough time and a destination in mind, we wouldn't have the room to carry everyone to safety."

"There would be some losses, yes," someone said; a Clanhead that Merlin didn't recognize. "They would be acceptable losses."

"And who decides who escapes on the Clanships? You? Will you sell tickets to a bunk? Or will you be fair and have a lottery? What will happen when none of your family goes, but you do?" Arthur was enraged at the mere thought of leaving anyone behind, that anyone would even suggest it. Merlin ignored the swell of emotion in his chest easily enough, but he dug his fingernails in his palms to keep from surging across the room to crush Arthur's mouth in a hungry kiss.

"No. If it means that any of our people are left behind, retreat is off the table." Arthur let his glare fall all around the table. There was a tremor in the air, a sure sign of people wanting to flee, their hands gripping the armrests of their chairs lest they reveal that weakness. They were Pirates; they could easily imagine what would happen if they did run.

Merlin didn't doubt that Arthur would fire on them himself.

The silence stretched.

Bayard cleared his throat. "The Conglomerate knows our tactics. They are even copying them."

"The bastards," Morgause hissed under her breath. If it had been anyone else but Morgause, it would have been almost comical the way she shook her clenched fist in the air.

No one made eye contact. A few people murmured agreement.

Gwaine snorted.

Morgause shot a murderous look in his direction. Gwaine's shrug was elaborate; his hands flew into the air of their own volition before slapping down on the armrests of his chair. "What did you expect? It's warfare. Of course they're going to use our tactics against us. They're effective. Did you really think they would slog away at us in perfect Roman squares and Spartan triangles for the rest of the war?"

"We certainly cannot claim to hold the market on deception," someone on the holo-projections said.

"Or guerrilla tactics," another person said. "Hell, we borrowed those."

"Borrowed? More like improved upon --"

Merlin watched Arthur pace.

Arthur's hands were clasped behind his back, his head always slightly tilted toward the table, listening to the ideas raised, discussed, discarded. His mouth was tense, but he no longer appeared as if he wanted to bite through steel. His eyes were shadowed with thoughtfulness rather than menace. The angry flush in his cheeks had faded, his emotions once again in check.

Merlin wondered why he was here. Why it had been so important for Gwaine and Will to come find him. Arthur had lost his temper more than once since the war had begun, had even drawn his gun on a few Pirates, but he hadn't shot at any of them. What was Merlin expected to do? Stop Arthur before he lunged at someone, and strangled them with his bare hands?

Arthur had to fight a war with two fronts. The Imperial Conglomerate was easy, sometimes, when compared to the ongoing uphill battle of Arthur's own war council.

If anything, Merlin was more inclined to help Arthur decimate them all. This strange, self-declared democratic write-in-ballot monarchy seemed to work well enough in times of peace and during occasional pillaging raids, but it was absolutely shite when it came to handling the chaos of war.

Arthur's pacing was taking him closer and closer to Merlin. Arthur turned on his heels before reaching Merlin and continued to pace. He did it again and again, a step nearer each time until he stopped in front of Merlin.

He didn't say anything. At the table, the conversation had shifted to the position of the enemy ships and how to redistribute the Pirate armada to stand fast against them. The retorts were depressingly honest. The Pirates didn't have the complement of ships needed to cover them all. They would need to concentrate their strikes and sacrifice ground. They would eventually lose a full quadrant to the Conglomerate.

There were evacuation plans, but as long as the war raged on, they wouldn't have either the time or the ships.

It was a lose-lose situation all around. Whatever advantage that they had with the newer cloaking technology was already slipping away. The Pirates knew it. Arthur knew it. Merlin didn't claim any expertise on a battlefield, but even he could see how quickly it would degenerate into a bloodbath.

Even if the more cowardly Pirates turned tail and ran, the Conglomerate would chase after them to complete the mass genocide hovering just over the horizon, all to make sure that Arthur was dead, dead, dead, and there would be no challengers to the Imperial throne.

Merlin raised his chin, meeting Arthur's intense gaze. Arthur's mouth was turned down at the corners, less angry and more unhappy. Merlin's brows pinched in unspoken question. What?

"What did I tell you about the hood, pet?" Arthur asked.

The Shadows had always remained cloaked when among those who weren't their own, who weren't kin or loved ones. It was rite and ritual, a respectful obeisance to the power that burned in a Shadow's blood. It made a Shadow feel protected, guarding them against the full bright of day and the darkest pitch of night. It was a tradition that Merlin hadn't followed very well over the years, but he did, now, because it felt right.

Merlin had never explained this to Arthur. He had a feeling that Arthur already knew.

Instead, Merlin rolled his eyes and bowed his head again, hiding his face from view. He was rewarded with Arthur's annoyed huff, and countered with a curt, "Why am I here?"

Arthur took hold of Merlin's vest, and pulled him that extra inch closer. He touched Merlin's cheek, shameless as he leaned in near enough to kiss, but staying just out of reach. His fingers dug into the back of Merlin's neck, tangling into his hair, but Arthur did nothing to dislodge Merlin's offending cowl.

For all that he teased Merlin about covering up, Arthur never seemed inclined to reveal Merlin in front of others. Arthur was protective in his own way, though he didn't seem to care if the Pirates saw just how affectionate he was to his pet. Arthur's brow touched Merlin's, and he whispered, "Tactics, Merlin. I need ideas."

"You're asking me?"

"I'm asking you," Arthur said, drawing away.

"You realize I'm not a tactician? That the sum total of my experience on the battlefield is live and in person?"

Arthur snorted. He tilted his head. "You don't think like we do. You don't think like they do. I've watched enough holos to know that you don't fight like the Legion does, either. If only half of the rumours about Emrys are true... There's a reason why the Empire wants you dead."

And it had nothing to do with my being Shadowlord? Merlin wanted to ask, but he'd seen that pinch in Arthur's brow before. He knew that conniving, manipulative glint in Arthur's eyes. Merlin hadn't recognized it for what it had been the first time they'd met, but he knew it now.

Arthur already had a plan. The options, limited as they were, had been reviewed, considered, rejected. They were fraught with the promise of temporary triumphs, fleeting victories, crashing defeats. If they were to survive, the Pirates would need to use far riskier tactics than they already had and hope for the best.

But Arthur wasn't the sort to be content with hoping for the best. He was a spoilt prat who had never gotten less than exactly what he wanted, and he had a tendency to want everything. He was a Pirate King through and through, an emerging Emperor, and whatever resistance stood in his way should crumble like a house of cards.

Merlin knew him. Or he had learned out of self-preservation. Arthur's plans and plots worked best when he had a foil to work against, and Merlin had a feeling that he had been elected to the task.

"What would you do?" Arthur asked, his voice a carrying pitch that cut through the heated discussion at the table, drawing all eyes to them.

"You know what I would do," Merlin said, his voice low and warning. He took a step away from Arthur.

Arthur's hand at the back of Merlin's neck tightened. "Share it with the class, then."

Merlin didn't answer. He put as much venom into his glare as he could muster, but the only reaction that he got from Arthur was the slightest curl of his lips and the start of a smile.

"You're pinned down. The enemy's coming at you from all sides. There are several squads in reserve, and they've got your brother and sister Shadows in their crosshairs. They're waiting for reinforcements because they know that if they break the standoff, they'll lose -- at least for now."

Arthur's voice was almost gentle as he painted a hypothetical situation, framing it in a term of reference that Merlin could picture. He pulled away from the overwhelming scale of light-years and parsecs of distance and spanning multiple galaxies, and transformed it into a situation that could fit a single room.

Merlin closed his eyes.

"You don't move because you know what would happen as well as they do. You could slaughter a few of them and lose some of your kin in the process. The rest would retreat, regroup with the men who are on their way, and reassess the situation. You have the blood of your people on your hands, and you have to save what few are left before they're completely taken out."

There was a hush in the room, a collective held breath. Arthur was poking at a monster with a sharp stick, and had nothing to defend himself with.

"There's no escape. At best, you could cut a hole through the bulkhead and vent yourself to space -- a quick death, if that's what you wanted. You're cornered -- a wounded wolf protecting its cubs. You know they're coming after you. You can hear them coming down the passageway. You can smell the laser burn of a fresh battery charge. You'll have time to fire off a few shots, maybe down a couple of the Legion, but in the end…

"You're going to die. Your people are going to die."

Arthur's palm was warm on Merlin's cheek.

"What do you do to save them?"

There was a small snort of derision on the other side of the room. Someone coughed and managed to clear his throat enough to speak, but his words were a pale, strangled, "Well, if you put it in those terms, we may as well put our arms down, roll belly-up and surrender."

"They don't want you to live. You know that," Arthur said, but he was addressing Merlin, not the Clanhead who had spoken. "If you give up, you'll be the first one they kill."

Merlin opened his eyes and met Arthur's. He didn't realize that his hands had clenched into Arthur's tunic until he tried to pull away. Arthur came along with him, moving with the momentum of a man who didn't have any other choice.

"You have a reason to keep fighting. You have the training. You're not afraid to die, but your House will fall for once and for all if you don't do something."

Merlin bowed his head. Arthur's hand slipped further under the hood until it rested on the nape of Merlin's neck, twisting into the small hairs.

"What would you do?" Arthur pushed.

"You know what I'd do," Merlin rasped. There was as much of a warning as there was a threat in his tone when he said, "You know. And I won't do it alone."

Arthur pulled at Merlin's hair. He stepped into Merlin's space. He forced Merlin to look him in the eye, the motion rough and abrupt. Arthur's attention never wavered. "You won't do it alone," he promised.

The hood fell away. The fabric pooled around his shoulders and slapped on his back. A few Pirates murmured; Lady Guinevere, the Clanhead from Leodegrace gasped, small and embarrassed, aware that she was witnessing something private and personal.

The rest of the council didn't seem to mind.

"Arthur," Gwaine said, his tone uncertain. "Do you really think you should be bullying the assassin?"

"Personally, I find it entertaining. I've always wondered what those two get up to in the bedroom," Aredian said.

"You would, you dirty old perv," Mithian snapped.

"Oh, come now, darling. Don't tell me you're not enjoying the show," Aredian said.

There was an uncomfortable silence. Merlin could almost hear Mithian's half-hearted shrug. "It's not my fault they're pretty to look at."

Gwaine huffed a small laugh. "That, they are. Now, imagine my misery. I have to watch them make doe-eyes at each other on the bridge."

"I, for one, would prefer they kept to the bedroom," Bayard said, shifting around. His armour creaked and his weapons clattered on the chair, loud and obnoxious. "Give over. What's our Shadow's grand plan?"

Merlin started to turn to glare at Bayard, but Arthur held him firm. Arthur shook his head minutely, and mouthed softly, Mine.

"Tell them," Arthur said after a pause. "Tell me."

Merlin sagged. It was faint, a capitulation that no one noticed except Arthur, whose eyes brightened not with delight, but with the pleasure at the gift that had been presented to him.

"Attack the rearward guard. Have my kin hold off the rest," Merlin said. "Take the Legion's position. Use their weapons against the others."

Arthur smiled then, the first sign of true relaxation that Merlin had seen in him in some time. Arthur patted Merlin's cheek with a nod of approval before turning on his heel to walk to the other side of the room.

There was a long silence full of Pirates exchanging incredulous glances and staring at the overhead display, as if attempting to overlay Merlin's half-cocked plan to the situation at hand. Merlin wasn't sure who snickered first, but it was Morgause who came for the kill.

"Do you have a magic wand to make all that miraculously happen? How would you get past their lines to get behind them when they can detect us?"

"Cloaking technology," Cenred said, twisting his chair to look at Morgause. He held up a hand at the raucous noise that rose from the council. "Notice that I didn't necessarily say ours. We've got enough Needlers, don't we? Tear out their black boxes, patch it into our systems, scramble our frequencies, mask our transponders. Fake a retreat, disappear once we're out of their sensor range, double-back. It could work. They're not going to be looking for their own cloak codes."

Morgause mulled it over.

"Can Leodegrace copy the CorpsCops tech?" Annis asked.

"If we have enough time," Guinevere said. "Shouldn't be hard to reverse-engineer something that's based on our own tech, but that's if we can get a working unit. We don't know how many of them are functional."

A holographic council member raised a hand. "We scavenged the cloaks out of the largest Needlers. Most of them are still in working order, but they may not hold up to cloak a larger ship. I'm not sure we have enough for a full fleet."

"We don't need a full fleet," Pellinor said, nodding toward Merlin. "That's not what Emrys said he'd do. Leave the bulk behind, go in alone, isn't that right? You don't need overwhelming numbers when you're a bloody assassin. We need a strike force. Something that can cut them at the knees. And what are we, if we're not strike forces? All of us?"

Bayard leaned forward. "We wouldn't need the cloak for long -- just long enough. Enough to get a small group of ships past the Conglomerate. Get out of their sensor range on the other side if we can, chart a course to their reserves, drop out at full speed. They'll never notice us. Not until it's too late."

Odin tapped a finger on the counter before nodding. "It could work."

"If we had the numbers," Monmouth protested. "Which we don't."

"Bait and switch them," Tristan said, his holo-image lighting up all the brighter to catch the attention of the council. "Pull us out to retreat. Distract them with a small squad meaning to take care of those plonkers that hit our base. They'll be on our heels, but they'll stop and try to curb our attack -- they won't risk losing a staging area."

"It's a suicide mission," Aredian pointed out.

"It's all a suicide mission," Mithian said.

"How many ships are we talking about?" Cenred asked, crossing his arms on the table, disrupting the holo-emitters. "Two warships, a complement of fast birds? Is that enough?"

"Should be," Aredian said, clasping his hands together. He mulled it over for a moment before repeating himself. "Should be. A fast strike, plant the mines, net them up, put the rest in a witch's cage, drop a missile or two to take care of the ground-to-skies. We can do it. It'll have to be fast and messy if we don't want to be caught with the CorpsCops on our tail. I'll lead that course, but I'll need a fast frigate with fighters as backup."

"You'll have mine," Mithian said.

"And what are the rest of us going to do? Drop mines and stop them at another line? How much territory do we give them before we pull out the guns?" Odin asked.

"Enough to let our ghosts past the line," Bayard said, gesturing at Merlin.

Merlin looked up to see that Arthur was no longer pacing, but leaning over the back of his chair, and that Arthur was watching him, intent and thoughtful. He was listening to the plotting, letting the Pirates come up with the battle plan on their own. Merlin knew from past observations that Arthur would only intercede if something contradicted the strategy that he had already hammered out in his head.

"We may not be able to hold that line," Monmouth said. His holo-image waved a hand in the air as he spoke, but his attention was on the console in front of him, projecting simulations and calculations that the rest of the council couldn't see from their vantage points. "There is a high probability that if we run, the Conglomerate will take it as a sign of weakness. If we try to stop them, they'll launch a full-scale attack. If we are down too many ships, we will be at a serious disadvantage."

"We're already at a disadvantage," Guinevere said. "Aredian. How many mines can you spare? We'll drop them behind us as we go; if luck holds, we can cut their numbers down."

"Marginally," Monmouth said, grudging agreement in his tone. "The odds remain against us."

"We've gone against worse," Odin said.

"And it's about fifty-fifty in our favour," Gwaine said, his grin faint but earnest. "If we plan on going down fighting, let's go down fighting."

There was a cacophonous clatter as everyone banged their fists on the table in agreement.

Arthur raised a brow at Merlin, as if he was trying to tell Merlin something. One day, and one day soon, Merlin would make Arthur understand that the bond forged between them wasn't telepathic, and that there was only so much that Merlin could infer from a single look. Was Arthur thirsty? Did he have a crick in his neck? Did he want Merlin to --

Arthur's eyes widened meaningfully, and he tilted his head toward the council table in a very clear, Contribute something, you idiot.

Oh.

Merlin didn't know what to say.

"I'd like to a chance to up my Needler score -- what's the kitty up to? A hundred Sterling?" Gwaine was saying, and the mention of the Needlers gave Merlin an idea.

"We have Shadows," Merlin blurted out. All the eyes in the room turned to him, stopping him in his tracks. A wave of awkwardness flushed through him, but Arthur's pleased smile made him continue on. "We have Shadows. We have single-person Needlers. Launch them at the Empire ships."

The room fell silent. This time, there was no accompanying background chatter when the Pirates exchanged glances.

Bayard blew out his breath. "That might even the odds."

"Most of the Needlers are pieces of shite," Pellinor pointed out. "They'd need to be patched up."

"If we take the cloaks out for the rearward attack, our Shadows will be picked out of the sky," Annis said.

"The Empire won't be expecting them," Odin said. "The blighters won't be shielding against them."

"The Needlers are small," Merlin said. "The Shadows won't need cloaks."

"If the CorpsCops get close enough, they'll stand out like sore thumbs on the sensors," Guinevere said. "I'm against this. The Shadows are our greatest asset, I won't risk them."

"Nor will I," Mithian said.

"Nor I," Bayard said, adding his weight to the argument. After a moment's thought, he waved a hand toward the holo-reproduction of the space charts. "Though I do wish we could get these greatest assets where they need to be."

Merlin saw the tension creep in Arthur's shoulders. The mood in the room was shifting. The enthusiasm was fading, and the plan was in danger of collapsing entirely, even if the foundations were sound.

It was panic that drove Merlin to draw shadows from the air, to cut through the room in swirl of darkness, and to reappear behind Mithian and next to Bayard. Annis' strangled shriek of surprise was eclipsed by Aredian's startle. Four guns were pointed at Merlin.

He was grateful none of them fired.

"I said," Merlin repeated, "The Shadows won't need cloaks. They are cloaks."

"That's… a nice trick," Aredian said, breaking the startled silence. "Can they cloak an entire ship? Can that even be detected?"

"A better question is, why didn't we know about this trick before?" a holo-Clanhead asked, leaning forward, a heavy frown across his brow. "Can the Legion do that?"

Merlin glanced at Arthur. Arthur smirked and made a slight gesture -- the floor is yours -- and Merlin scowled. "No. Not an entire ship. The Shadows aren't strong enough to hide something that large. The Needlers are small, it should be possible for most of them. And before you get your pants in a knot, what good would it have done telling you this trick when you couldn't make use of it?"

"A pity," Aredian said.

"And the Legion?" Bayard asked.

Merlin hesitated. He tried to remember if any of the Empire's elite soldiers had ever used the shadows in this way against him. There might have been a few awkward situations where Merlin was surprised by what had been a frantic, desperate attempt to hold him off, but those instances had involved shadow-work that even the youngest initiate could do. Still, that didn't mean that the Elite among the White Legion hadn't been holding back on Merlin. "I've never seen them do anything like this."

"If they were able," Arthur asked slowly, his hands clasped over the back of his abandoned chair, "Why would they be installing cloaking devices in the Needlers in the first place?"

"Fair point," someone conceded, and the holo-Clanhead minimized until he was no longer taking up half the table.

"That's sorted, then," Cenred said. "Unless the odds are still against us, Monmouth?"

"They are…" There was a pause while Monmouth recalculated the probabilities. "Within acceptable tolerances."

A string of broad grins broke out around the table, and Odin banged a fist on the table. "If it's acceptable to Monmouth, it's a clear success for the rest of us."

There was a chorus of cheers around the table that were echoed by the holo-transmission from each of the Clanheads who weren't in attendance. It quickly broke into a rapid discussion and initial preparations before everyone was sobered by Morgause.

"Who will head into the Empire?" she asked, her eyes cold and unblinking. The heavy kohl she wore made her look all the more menacing, but Arthur barely flinched.

He stood up straight and exhaled. He spread his hands. "Flying straight into Empire space with intent to cripple -- if not outright destroy -- their reserve fleet? I won't lie to you. That is a suicide mission."

The sombre tone of his voice silenced the council's chatter.

"I will think no less of those who decide not to come. I will take Excalibur and leave my crew to decide for themselves. The same goes for the rest of you. I ask for volunteers.

"It's high risk, low return, little chance of success." Arthur pulled his chair out and sat down with the ease of a man who knew full well that he was going to die, and the determination of someone who had decided that, if he was going to die, he would die well. There was a strategic pause, and Merlin wondered how Arthur even hoped to get anyone to sign on to his cause.

Arthur's grin was mesmerizing, teasing, taunting.

"But think of the stories they'll tell."

 


Chapter Fourteen

Constellation: The Unicorn

The Unicorn

Location: Excalibur, Pirate Warship, in Foldspace Heading Toward Imperial Space

 

The Conglomerate warships moved directly to block their path. The tension on Excalibur increased exponentially while they waited for several, strangling minutes to see what would happen next. Fingers hovered over command buttons, orders were on the tip of the tongue, and no one breathed.

The enemy ships moved off without incident. The sighs of relief were probably cumulatively loud enough to be heard by an alert sensor technician --

"Shut it," Lucan hissed.

-- who was a Pirate. The Empire was well-known for its formidable military force, but the Pirates had pioneered some of the more sensitive sensor technology, and this latest manoeuvre was only another notch on the bedpost when it came to outwitting their enemy.

The newest plan of action was ingenious even with all its flaws. A good half of the thirteen ships equipped with the Imperial cloaking systems were operating on half-power to keep the relays from overloading, and even then, it was a small miracle that the engineers from Clan Leodegrace had managed to cobble together an interface to convert and dampen the different energy types required to run the ship and to fuel the cloaking device. The problems didn't stop there -- a regulator had blown on one of the other ships, and in order to keep it going, the engines had been throttled down. For a while, that ship had made making forward inertia through sheer willpower.

Their engine issues had been resolved when the navigator of the beleaguered Hermes' Flight used gravitational repulsion -- normally intended as an automatic push-pull system to guide a ship into a space station slot -- to piggyback on another ship. It was a dangerous manoeuvre even with the sensors at full maximum, requiring the two ships to fly in close formation, but it was another sort of feat entirely when it was done completely blind, with only close-range visuals providing any kind of measurement of distance, velocity and direction.

Once upon a time, Arthur had mocked ship designers who insisted on including portholes in the most inconvenient locations. He wasn't mocking them now.

They were past the Conglomerate fleet now, nearly an hour later. They weren't quite out of sensor range, and were operating under radio silence and dark consoles. Geraint and Galahad maintained Excalibur's heading at paddle speed, careful to avoid creating even the slightest dolphin or whale wake that might be picked up. Lucan watched and listened for sensor pingbacks, his eyes closed, his expression one of complete concentration. Elyan was passively listening to Imperial chatter, keeping an ear out for the slightest alarm. Lance was down in engineering, monitoring the cloaking device up close and personal.

"Time to sensor loss?" Arthur asked, his voice low. Lucan was the one who had calculated the range for the Imperial sensors, and he had added an extra twenty-percent for wriggle room. Arthur had extended that wriggle room by another ten, thinking that it would be better to be on the safe side, but now that they were past the Conglomerate fleet, he strenuously wished that he hadn't added that extra distance. They were moving so slowly that it was a completely new sort of torture.

"Twenty-eight minutes," Geraint answered with a whisper.

Arthur tapped his fingers impatiently on the armrest of the Captain's chair. He nibbled at his fingernail. He glanced first at Elyan, trying to get a read on the readiness status on the Imperial ships, then at Lucan, who seemed lost in some sort of meditative trance.

He wondered how the other ships were running. They didn't have line of sight for a visual on most of them, and there was no way to communicate, not until they were out of enemy range, but Arthur hoped that the other ships were still with them.

Running footsteps on the passageway caught Arthur's attention; he turned around in time to see young Bran appear in the doorway to the bridge, his cheeks red, his chest heaving.

"Lance says… The cloak… Failing…"

Arthur stood up abruptly. "Can it hold another thirty minutes?"

"Twenty-seven," Geraint corrected.

"Says it ain't… gonna hold another five," Bran said. He doubled over at the waist, catching his breath. "It's already come close to falling apart twice."

"Increase speed to 0.5 near-light," Arthur said, turning back to the bridge.

Galahad's hand hesitated over the thrusters. "Slow or full blast?"

"Full blast. You heard Bran. Five minutes or less," Geraint said. "If you don't punch it, I will."

"What about the wake?" Galahad asked.

"You think they'll notice a sensor whale this far out? You think they'll even care?" Geraint said, tossing his head back in a gesture that clearly meant the Conglomerate fleet.

"I'm thinking the sneaky fuckers got ships past us without us noticing, and we've got the likes of him on our side," Galahad said, thumbing toward Lucan. "I'm thinking they're going to be watching their six, making sure we don't jam something up their arses."

Geraint stared stonily forward before nodding jerkily. "Yeah, all right. Increment speed, factor 0.01. You see the nose rise past the vector, you slow it down, boy-o."

"Whatever you say." Galahad smirked and twisted around. "We'll get a smaller eddy if we push all the way to 0.8, Captain."

"Do it," Arthur said. He turned to Elyan. "Contact the other ships. Brief burst only. Let them know our situation."

"Yes, sir," Elyan said.

Arthur caught Merlin's inscrutable expression and exhaled in annoyance. He hadn't been able to get a rise out of Merlin for the last few days -- it seemed that, the closer the Pirates were to completing the retrofit with the stripped Imperial technology, the quieter his Shadow had become. Merlin had avoided Arthur when and where he could -- under the pretext of teaching the acolytes and initiates to extend and hold their personal shadows around the Needler vessels, training them to hold their own against the White Legion, testing their skills and selecting the final few who would be boarding the Empire vessels.

Arthur could only guess at what was running through Merlin's head. That he was worried for his kin -- that was a given. Although each and every one of the young Shadows had stepped forward, volunteering for the task without so much as a flicker of hesitation, it had been Merlin's decision in the end to fill the limited number of salvageable ships. That sort of thing could weight on a man's mind.

But it was no damn good excuse for Merlin to make himself scarce when Arthur wanted -- when he needed -- him around.

Was Merlin angry with Arthur? That Arthur had chosen this course of action? That he had teased Merlin into guiding the Pirates into coming up with Arthur's plan all on their own? Surely Merlin realized that Arthur had no choice but to play this game with the Pirates, particularly if he were ever going to get them to agree to a plan with poor odds of success --

Merlin broke eye contact. He didn't move from his position behind the Captain's chair, but the way he turned his head was a slap in the face.

Arthur huffed. He didn't need to deal with Merlin's strange, inexplicable mood right now. Arthur walked up behind Galahad and watched the console display, noting the current speed, rate of acceleration, and coordinates vector. His eyes were fixed on the distant point when they could finally drop cloak and engage the engines to full speed -- even with a 0.8 increase, they wouldn't make it to the proverbial line in five minutes.

It would have to do.

"Ready to go to foldspace," Arthur said. "Advise the other ships."

"Aye, Captain," Elyan said.

"Engines spooling," Geraint said. "Hold onto your britches, ladies and gentlemen. It's going to be a rough cold start to make all other cold starts look like a mild spring day."

"If she starts," Gwaine said. He strapped in with a flourish.

"Don't jinx her," Geraint said. "Call out the power."

"Power at 78% and rising," Galahad said, reaching for the thrusters again. "At full power in five… four…"

Leon activated the 1MC. "General quarters. General quarters. Prepare for jump in three… two…"

Arthur sat down in his chair; the straps were buckled a second later. Normally, they didn't bother with restraints, but Geraint wasn't exaggerating. There were four possible outcomes to a full cold start of engines after going from zero to full power and a foldspace jump. At worst, they would jump and blow apart, or the engines would stutter and stall, leaving the ship to drift in space without so much as solar wind to blow their sails. At best, they would jump and reach their destination in more or less one piece, though they were sure to end up fighting both the Imperial reserve fleet and toxic smoke from engineering.

Everyone on board was praying for option number four -- a kiss on the arse from Lady Luck, and absolutely nothing going wrong.

"One," Galahad said.

"Cloaking system under catastrophic failure," Lance announced over the internal comm. "Brace --"

Geraint crossed himself -- forehead, shoulder, shoulder -- and breathed a quick prayer, "Don't blow up, sweetheart."

The Excalibur jerked forward. It was an embarrassing stutter that sent Merlin to a crouch, the shadows keeping him from loosing footing and sliding into a hard surface. There was another full-speed advance-hiccup --

"Come on, baby," Galahad said.

Gwaine braced himself against the console, one eye closed, the other one peeking out.

Lucan was oblivious as usual, lost in concentration as he listened to empty space.

Abruptly, the consoles flashed a white-blue; there was a familiar stomach-twisting surge, like riding the crest of a wave-forward, slowly brought to shore by a frothy tide, and --

"We're in jump," Geraint exhaled in relief.

The crew cheered -- quick and short-lived. Galahad reached over an patted Geraint on the shoulder. Perceval stared at the ceiling as colour slowly returned to his face. He unbuckled his safety belt slowly, putting his head between his legs.

Perceval never weathered foldspace jumps very well.

"The other ships?"

"Two more dropped into jump," Elyan said. "The rest will continue to the rendezvous coordinates before dropping cloak and joining us."

"Any chatter from the Imperials?"

"Not at last contact, sir," Elyan said.

"Anything on long-range?"

Lucan blinked bleary eyes, shoving the earphones from his head, and heaved a slow breath as he focused on his console. He didn't answer right away, flipping from one screen to the next, studying each one carefully before coming to a conclusion. "Unless we clip a CorpsCops ship on the way, we're clear."

Arthur nodded tightly. Gwaine drummed excited hands on the armrests of his chair. Geraint and Galahad exchanged a high-five. Leon casually flicked the switch for the 1MC and said, "Stand down, lads. We're running consoles green. Eight hours to coordinates. Secure your stations and rotate dog's watch. Get some rack time."

Arthur activated his communications. "Lance."

"Yes, Captain?" Though calm, there was an element of strain in Lance's voice.

"The cloak?"

"Sank to Davy Jones' locker in a fit of sparks big enough to set off the emergency extinguishers," Lance said with a sigh. Arthur could easily imagine him rubbing his face with his hands. "Don't even ask if there's any saving to be done, because it's long gone. I had to tear out the interface before it overloaded our own relays and left us dead in the water."

Arthur swore under his breath. Leon, who was listening in, winced.

Hitting the Imperial Reserves without any kind of cloaking to mask their approach wasn't ideal, but it wasn't without merit, either. The Empire wouldn't be expecting the Pirates to enter that deeply into their territory, and the Reserve troops wouldn't be prepared for an attack. The closer the Pirates could come to the fleet positions without attracting attention, the longer the Imperial ships were sitting ducks lined up in a neat little row for the Pirates to pick off, one by one.

The lack of a cloak would reduce that element of surprise, but the Excalibur was small enough that they could, in theory, hide behind two other cloaked ships.

But that wasn't the plan.

Arthur had no intention of taking the Excalibur to the Reservist coordinates. He had another target in mind.

The Pirate council had done well to formulate battle plans, but they hadn't thought of what to do beyond routing the Conglomerate and sending them chasing their own tails. The Clans might be content to sit back on their laurels once they'd proven that the Empire couldn't best them, but Arthur knew that the Conglomerate wouldn't return to the capital galaxy to lick their wounds. They would return to their home base and immediately put into place a new attack against the Pirates.

The only way to stop them -- the only way to stop them cold -- was to destabilize the government, to take away their civilian support, to turn their own troops against them.

If it meant deposing the Conglomerate and leaving the Empire without a government, Arthur was certain that no Pirate would complain. There would be chaos in the aftermath. The planets furthest away from the Empire's core would immediately move to secede and operate under their own power. Central settlements would cling to the Old Guard as much as they could. The core worlds would see the rise of multiple Houses and the start of a civil war, while the Lords and Ladies of those Houses all vied to be the next in line to the throne.

Imperial space would be ripe for the plucking, a wet-dream-come-true for smugglers, mercenaries and alien races with no compunction against taking advantage.

It was much the same as what the Imperial Conglomerate had tried to do to the Pirates. Except where the Conglomerate no doubt intended to reap Pirate territory and place it under Imperial rule, Arthur had never had any intention of coming within ten thousand light-years of the Imperial throne.

Civil war was the least of their worries and more than they deserved, considering the persecution that the Pirates had endured for hundreds of years.

It was only fair. Vengeful, wrathful, but fair, according to the Pirate code. Let the Empire flounder. It was a large domain. It would surely rise again.

Arthur felt a twinge of guilt, a sharp stab of shame. It had a persistent presence in his chest ever since he had first come up with the plan. The dirty swirl of emotions had nothing to do with self-satisfaction and revenge, but everything to do with a dull awareness that the Empire was his legacy, his responsibility, his inheritance.

A part of him wanted nothing to do with a world that had destroyed his own before he had even been born. Another part -- a greater part -- wanted to fulfill his father's last wish, not only because his father had asked, but because it was what was right. An Empire restored to its former glory, where every citizen was equal, with a ruler who was the subject of their people as much as the people were subjects of the Empire.

Except Pirate blood ran through his veins. Arthur could quote the Code backward and forward. What he knew about the Empire was limited to second-hand accounts, and he had never cared to learn much more. That had changed.

Arthur couldn't think about taking the Imperial throne. His blood might give him the right to it, he might care about the people who lived under the banner of the Royal Houses, but Arthur wasn't a citizen of the Empire, and the people wouldn't want a stranger to lead them.

Particularly not a Pirate. But who better?

Arthur exhaled heavily. He wavered yet again, but he suspected that destabilizing the Empire was the only chance that the Pirates had if they wanted to survive this war. It would leave the Empire in disarray, but Arthur had his priorities.

But first, they needed to get close enough to even begin to cause the amount of damage that Arthur wanted to inflict, he needed working cloaking technology.

"And ours?"

"The fire caught our Black Box," Lance said, the weariness audible in his voice. "The generator's dead. I might be able to bring it back to life if I can scavenge the parts."

That would be the hardest part of repairing the cloak, Arthur knew. They could beg and bargain and offer bullions and Sterling, but it wouldn't do a fat lot of good to anyone if the Pirate ships in their little fleet didn't have compatible systems.

"Do it. I don't fancy going into battle with our bloomers showing," Arthur said.

"It won't be a pretty patch job, Captain," Lance said, sighing. "I'll do what I can."

Lance disconnected and Arthur turned to the bridge. Gwaine sucked a tooth as if trying to get rid of a particularly distasteful flavour.

"Well," Gwaine said, shrugging, "Nothing like a good streaking across a room to get a man's attention. If we can distract the troops while our boys shoot them down, why not?"

"As if we don't have enough excitement in our lives," Geraint groused.

"You're the one who swears left and right that you could outfly the bloody Imperials with one hand tied behind your back while blindfolded," Gwaine snorted. "Put your Sterlings where your mouth is, Geraint."

"I never said that!" Geraint said, indignant. His scowl was heavy enough to be felt all around the room. Eventually, though, he shrugged and admitted, "It doesn't mean it's not true, though."

"I've got a blindfold with your name on it," Gwaine said.

"You're the Prince of Wishful Thinking," Geraint said, rolling his eyes. He waved his hand over his body. "This doesn't go to just anyone."

"I'll make you a bet," Gwaine said. "If you can get us through a first fly-by past the Imperial Reserves without me needing to fire a single shot, you can put the blindfold on me."

"I'd rather use it to gag you," Geraint retorted.

"If that's your kink --" Gwaine made an exaggerated shrug. "Who am I to judge?"

"I long for the days when we were only subjected to Arthur and Emrys making eyes at each other. I don't know what's worse -- watching them, or listening to Gwaine's weak attempts at flirting," Galahad grumbled.

"We're still subjected to Arthur and Emrys," Perceval said, finally sitting up. He was looking a bit green around the edges, but the death's door paleness was gone. "I think they win the prize."

Leon smirked, but wisely said nothing; he looked first at Arthur, then at Merlin. Sensing that something wasn't quite right, Leon's smile faded, and he raised a questioning brow at Arthur.

Arthur ignored it.

"The others checked in," Elyan announced. "Clean pingbacks, none of them reporting the Empire on our tails."

Geraint turned to Galahad. "I'll toss you for the first dogwatch."

"Take it," Galahad said, making a magnanimous gesture. "You'll need your wits about you if you're going to win that bet."

"Perce -- I'll take second, if you want to go see the medic and do something about that face of yours before your belly ends up on the deck," Gwaine offered.

"You just want to be well-rested in case Geraint loses spectacularly," Perceval retorted, but he shunted access to his console to Gwaine's side of the ship, and stood up with every intention of heading straight to his bunk.

"Not in case. When. When. Be a mate, Perce. Think positive thoughts for me," Gwaine said.

"You've been trying to get into Geraint's pants since he started crewing with us," Lucan said with a snort. "I think you should be a man and admit defeat already. Elyan, I'll take your comms -- I'm too wired to get some shut-eye."

"Oi, where's your loyalty?" Gwaine complained.

"Firmly with the bloke who's at the helm," Lucan said.

"Cheers, mate," Geraint said.

Lucan shrugged and grinned. "What do you expect? You're my ride home."

"What am I, chopped liver?" Galahad asked.

"You're sitting in the Number Two chair," Geraint said, grinning. He finished transferring control to Galahad and hopped out of the pilot's seat, leaving it to bobble and swirl while it compensated for the lack of weight. Geraint clasped a hand on Galahad's shoulder. "What do you think?"

"I'm thinking that someone might sabotage you and make sure you lose to Gwaine," Galahad groused.

"Finally! Someone is on my side!" Gwaine clapped his hands together, unable to contain his glee. "Your gorgeous arse is mine, Geraint! Make sure you have plenty of lube --"

Geraint smacked Galahad on the back of his head and pointed a warning finger at Gwaine. "If anyone's fucking anyone, it'll be me -- as in never."

"I think you protest too much," Gwaine said. He put a hand on his heart. "That must mean that you really love me."

"He's not going to stop until you leave," Leon pointed out. Geraint stopped his tirade in mid-word, his jaw clicking shut audibly, and he stomped out without another word.

Arthur smirked in amusement.

"He doesn't know what he's missing," Gwaine said sadly, shaking his head.

"Maybe he does," Arthur said. "And that would be the root of your problem."

Gwaine's lips pursed and his brows furrowed as he slipped deep in thought. "Might have a point."

"Captain. Why don't you bunk down? I'll hold the bridge," Leon said, looking right at Arthur. He raised a brow and made a far too obvious glance in Merlin's direction. Sort it out, Leon mouthed soundlessly.

Arthur nodded -- more in answer to the offer than the order. "Call if there's anything out of the ordinary. Otherwise, don't call at all."

"Learned my lesson when you didn't disconnect the last time," Leon said, rolling his eyes. He turned away to check a console. "I really didn't need to know what kind of noises you make when you're getting buggered. Which, if you want my advice, you sorely need right now -- you're tense."

"Your advice has never been less than stellar," Arthur said, giving Leon a curt nod. He turned around, intending on revelling in Merlin's embarrassment -- the man still hadn't learned that there was little that wasn't private among Pirates -- but Merlin was already gone.

Arthur sighed softly and left the bridge. He paused on his way to his quarters to stop into the communal area and exchange a few words with his crew. He glanced at the mess hall and found only the usual bodies arguing over whose turn it was to cook. In engineering, Lance's head was bowed over their tangled mess of a Black Box. Bran was rummaging through a few cargo containers, searching for whatever it was that Lance needed now. The cargo bay was full of mines, courtesy of the Witchfinder, and the quartermaster was double and triple-checking their condition after the rough foldspace jump.

Arthur approved of the man's obsessive-compulsive attention to detail, particularly considering the excessive volatility of this particular cargo.

There was no Merlin anywhere, but then again, Arthur knew full well where Merlin would be -- waiting for Arthur in the privacy of their quarters, where Merlin would no doubt lambast Arthur with silent, judging glares for whatever it was that Arthur had done now. He headed there with an inward sigh.

Arthur shrugged out of his jacket just as the doors slid shut behind him and tossed it on a nearby chair. He went through the motions of removing his armour and leaving it in bits and pieces on the stand and shelves. And all the while he glanced surreptitiously around the room to try to locate Merlin.

With rank came privilege, and privilege afforded the Captain of the Excalibur with three rooms -- a cramped bathroom with a small shower stall, toilet and sink and just enough room to turn around in; a large sitting room with a desk crammed in one corner and enough plush chairs to seat the senior members of the crew; a bedroom with a long, narrow bed barely wide enough for two. On every available surface, hanging from every bare wall, were assorted knick knacks and keepsakes and tokens -- a wood-carved map of the Pendragon Homeworld, a liquid-damped marine compass that wibbled and wobbled toward the magnetic north of whatever large gravitational source they happened to pass by, a small treasure-chest of colourful, uncut jewels, swaths of red blankets and golden pillows, exotic knives with curved blades and gem-encrusted hilts.

The net worth of the contents in Arthur's room could purchase another starship, if he were so inclined, but he was attached to all the things that he had been given, or had taken throughout his life.

All the things included Merlin, though Arthur wouldn't be so crass as to convince himself that Merlin was anything other than a precious gift to be loved and cherished. Arthur knew that he wasn't very good at expressing those feelings in anything other but deeds and devotion. And maybe a small part of him died whenever Merlin was cross with him, like he was now. Arthur preferred Merlin's indifferences -- compounded by occasional bouts of white-hot passion -- over this, because, then, Arthur could tell himself that Merlin was just as bad as he was with words, and was secretly as madly in love with Arthur as Arthur was with him.

There was a window in the sitting room, wide and tall, filled with the white-blue hue of distant stars distorted by foldspace.

In the dim light of the sitting room, it wasn't easy to see the heavy shadow shrouding the shelved corner where Arthur kept his collection of antique books, some of which were purported to have come from old Earth itself, but there Merlin was, standing motionless, facing the window. The hood was over his head, as usual; the robe close to his body.

"Merlin?"

He didn't move.

Arthur sighed and stripped out of the last layers of armour, slipping out of the skintight nanomesh. He bundled it up, tossed it onto the edge of the sofa, and found a pair of loose trousers on the floor. He pulled them on.

"Out with it, then, pet. Don't keep me in suspense," Arthur said, buttoning up. He cast around in search of a shirt, dimly remembering tossing one behind the desk when he'd last gone down on his knees in front of Merlin -- had it been last night? The night before? The air between them had been so strained in the last few days that Arthur couldn't remember when Merlin had last curled around Arthur in bed, holding him close.

Hell, Arthur couldn't remember a morning of late that Merlin had been in bed with Arthur when he woke up.

Merlin bowed his head; the cowl ducked down. His shoulder rose and fell in a half-hearted shrug, full of resignation, and the shadows darkened in the corner.

The message was clear. Merlin wasn't ready to talk.

Arthur rolled his eyes even as he ignored the faint ache in his chest. It wasn't like him to fall so quickly for someone, or to have fallen so far; but fall he had. The merest hint that they were in trouble had him in a panic far worse than the anxiety that came with going to war.

"Are you coming to bed with me, or are you going to stare at the stars until you go cross-eyed?" Arthur wove through the debris strewn around the sitting room. There was a jacket that was decidedly not his, a pair of boots -- if Gwaine had been using his quarters again, Arthur would flay him alive -- a few books that he had piled up in a tower rather than re-shelved, an empty bottle of Mirrean wine, and a thin, fine chain that Arthur fancied using on Merlin, someday, if Merlin would ever allow Arthur to touch him again.

There was no time like the present to find out. Arthur put a hand on Merlin's shoulder, and Merlin sighed heavily, almost slumping in defeat. Arthur pushed Merlin into the corner, fingers burying in the fabric of his cloak in case Merlin decided to shadow his way through the wall to escape again, and made himself comfortable against Merlin, nestling between Merlin's legs.

"There," Arthur whispered. "Is this so bad?"

Arthur was reassured when Merlin didn't try to shove him off. As the minutes trickled by without reaction from Merlin, Arthur decided that the answer to his question was, Yes, this is very bad. Before Arthur could push away from Merlin, Merlin heaved a heavy sigh and wrapped his arms around Arthur.

Neither of them spoke. Arthur had made the first move; he was damned if he was going to be the one to cave first.

"When were you going to tell me?" Merlin asked. His voice was low, even, nearly stony; cool like the shadows and just as foreboding.

"Tell you what?" Arthur asked, his tone light, misguiding, lying.

Merlin huffed. His arms tightened around Arthur. "You talk in your sleep."

Arthur shoved away futilely. He hadn't noticed the shadows surrounding him, keeping him in place against Merlin. He turned his head and glared at Merlin out of the corner of his eye, fighting the fear that he had revealed his plans against the Empire in great detail, and that they were betrayed. By Merlin. "I do not."

"Oh, you don't go into rousing soliloquies," Merlin snorted. "Nothing that entertaining. Sometimes you grumble under your breath. Sometimes you tell me how much you love me --"

Arthur stilled.

"-- and you're an idiot, by the way, because it's not going to scare me off, don't even use that an excuse not to say it when you're wide awake," Merlin said. He turned his head; Arthur felt soft lips at his cheek, pressing a kiss into the corner of his jaw.

"Well, can't blame a man for thinking he won't hear it back," Arthur said, feeling both strangely subdued and relieved that that pesky detail was now out of the way.

"You're such a bloody Pirate," Merlin said. There was no one else in the entire universe who could turn an entire people into an insult and a compliment all at once, full of frustrating fondness. "Of course I love you. I just wish --"

Merlin held his breath and released it in a strangled rush against Arthur's cheek.

"What is it, pet?"

"Albion," Merlin whispered.

Arthur's heart stopped. He didn't breathe. His fingers were numb and cramped, clutching Merlin's cloak as if it were a lifeline. "What?"

Merlin's short laugh was strangled and sad, aborted halfway through. The faint embrace of shadows around Arthur's body detached, drifting away. Merlin's arms relaxed and fell to his sides. Somehow, even though Merlin was the one cornered between the bookcase and the window, Merlin was the one to pull away.

Arthur wavered on uncertain feet, off-balance and lost. He'd blanched; all the blood was gone from his face, and he fought to keep the confusion he felt from becoming revelation.

"Did you think I wouldn't figure it out?" Merlin asked, his voice soft. He brushed his cowl from his head, letting it fall on his shoulders. His hair was ruffled; his gaze distant. There was darkness under his eyes, a hollowness to his cheeks.

"Are you sleeping?" Arthur asked. Merlin's brow pinched in a fleeting irritation that Arthur was trying to change the subject. It was a familiar gesture, and one that had always amused Arthur.

Until now.

Merlin brushed past him, leaving Arthur to twist and slump against the window. Merlin stopped in the middle of the sitting room, staring down at the floor. He toed at the coil of thin chain before speaking again, his shoulders slumped with an emotion that Arthur couldn't identify.

"Excalibur is carrying a full load of mines, a triple load of the usual armaments, and is crewed with three-quarters of your usual crew -- all of them volunteers. No one's on the bridge who isn't part of your inner circle -- except Lance, and he's working on more than just the cloaking device, isn't he?" Merlin paused. "All ship-to-ship communications are being screened. Access to the Net outside the Clans' networks is restricted. If anyone wants to make a call, it has to go through Elyan."

Arthur hadn't thought that the new security measures were terribly drastic. No one had questioned them, at least. They were in a time of war, and it wasn't unusual for a ship's Captain to make strange requests, even when the goal was a simple board-and-pillage. Still, for anyone to have noticed, they would have needed to attempt to use the communications panel in the first place.

Arthur's eyes narrowed. There was a gun on the bookshelf -- he tried to remember when it had last been charged. "Someone you want to chat with, pet?"

Merlin gave Arthur a long-suffering look. "I'm a Shadow. I'm your Shadow. I may have spent a lifetime as an assassin, but to guard and to protect requires much of the same skills. I will always know where I am. Where you are. And who surrounds us. And what surrounds us is a crew of volunteers, Arthur. Do you think I wouldn't have looked at each and every one of them? Each member of Legion Triad had come close enough to your father. To you. If one of these volunteers is a traitor --"

"They've been checked," Arthur said, unable to hide his annoyance.

"Not by me," Merlin snapped.

"Clan Leodegrace are technological adepts," Arthur said. "Gwen is one of my oldest friends. I trust her to have found whatever there might have to be found on my crew. And if there had been something --"

Merlin exhaled slowly, the way he did when he was trying to control his anger. "I am certain that the Leodegrace are able to ferret out a man's deepest, darkest secrets -- provided that there's some sort of electronic trail. But can they read a man? Can they see the patterns of an assassin? Would they recognize the spoken code used when someone is passing on intelligence?"

"And you would?" Arthur relaxed. He didn't go for the gun, though he shifted his weight from one foot to the other and crossed his arms in such a way that he could make a grab for it if he needed to.

Merlin rolled his eyes. He took another one of his deep breaths and reached up, systematically divesting himself of his clothing, his weapons, his armour. He laid them all, piece by piece, in careful order on the long sofa, not looking at Arthur once as he spoke.

"You have... extensive star charts of the Core Worlds," Merlin said. "Recently added to the ship's database. Your existing maps of those sectors have been updated. You have an entire library worth of old Imperial files -- scavenged from the Conglomerate's databases, I imagine, because it's exactly the sort of information that they would have scrubbed from public access."

Merlin glanced up. Arthur shrugged nonchalantly. "A little light reading before bed. You wouldn't begrudge a man a bit of entertainment considering alternative methods of distraction and stress relief have been strangely unavailable of late."

"I've been trying to figure out what you're planning, Arthur," Merlin said. His voice was low.

"You could have asked."

"Would you have told me?" This time, Merlin held his eyes for more than a mere second. "If I'd asked why you have star charts for the Core Worlds, why you have the entire history of the Houses, why you have a compendium of the Empire's regency laws, why you have the floor plans to the Imperial palace and why you whisper Albion in your sleep -- would you really have told me?"

Arthur pushed himself from the window. "Would it make you feel better to know that I've only told Leon?"

The dark look he received was answer enough.

"I don't know what you want me to say," Arthur admitted. He spread his hands. "I don't suppose reminding you that I'm a Pirate --"

Merlin snorted. "That excuse will only hold you for so long. I just wish... I just wish that you trusted me."

"I do trust you," Arthur said. There were no words for how much he trusted Merlin. Merlin had cleaved his soul to Arthur's. Merlin shared his strength. It was because of Merlin that Arthur had not succumbed -- and would never succumb -- to the poison. Should something happen to Arthur...

Arthur had to hear it from Will. How Merlin's Master and mentor, the Shadowlord who had been bound to Uther, had died.

When it was time, when they had arrived at their location and before the grand attack, Arthur planned on giving the crew a choice. Of transferring them to another ship if they didn't want to take the same risk that Arthur was willing to take. He had forgotten that Merlin wouldn't have that choice, and that Merlin would be with him to the end.

Of course Arthur would trust a man who would give his life to save Arthur's. Of course Arthur would trust a man that he loved.

And yet, Arthur had thought of reaching for a gun to defend himself against Merlin. Against Merlin. He felt ashamed.

It seemed that Merlin knew. He knew that Arthur wasn't certain about him. He knew that Arthur would have gone for his gun if Merlin had given him a reason. And yet, Merlin had turned his back on Arthur, showing the trust that Arthur was unable to express.

Arthur didn't deserve him.

Merlin kicked off his boots and slid out of the loose trousers. He stood in front of Arthur, bare-chested and in nothing but the rough micro-scale body-armour, the top pushed down and hanging around his hips. The weight of it dragged the material past the jut of Merlin's hipbones, barely preserving modesty, and if Arthur didn't know better, he'd think that Merlin was doing it on purpose to distract him.

Merlin had no idea how beautiful he was.

"Not enough, apparently, to tell me that you plan on sending the rest of the ships after the reserve troops, with Excalibur taking the long way around." Merlin's eyes were down, and his mouth was tight-lipped and grim. "You're going to destroy Albion, Arthur. You're going to bomb the shite out of the capital. You're going to ruin the Empire."

Arthur said nothing. There was nothing to say. His plan was uncovered; there was no need to add details.

"Is this the story you want them to tell about you? Maybe your Pirates will praise you as a saviour -- at least until the Conglomerate rallies itself under a different leadership. How long will it be before the Conglomerate seeks revenge? Before you're known as the suicidal Pirate King who brought about the downfall of the Clans and forced the survivors into a second pilgrimage across the stars?"

"Merlin," Arthur said. He stopped himself when Merlin's eyes flew up to meet his; there was anger in them, sadness, even a rare glimpse of fear. Not for himself, no. But afraid for Arthur. "You can't know that will happen."

"No," Merlin said, shaking his head. He turned away. "But someone does."

Arthur hesitated. "Morgana?"

"Yes," Merlin said. He picked up a small knife idly, inspecting the blade before setting it down again.

"She said all that?"

"Not in so many words, no," Merlin admitted after a moment. Some of Arthur's incredulity faded, because an enigmatic Morgana was more believable than a Morgana acting like the Ancient Greek seer, Cassandra. Still, he couldn't help feeling a pang of confusion, even jealousy, that Morgana would speak to Merlin and not to him. "But she doesn't need to, does she? It's written plain for me to see. In your cargo hold. In your database. In my history."

Merlin raised his chin defiantly, his jaw clenched.

"I know what the Conglomerate is like. More than you ever could. I know the lengths they will pursue to ruin a House. I know what they will do to make certain a single man is dead. I know, Arthur. I know. And it's not hard to imagine what they'll do to the Clans if you follow through with this plan."

"What other option is there?" Arthur asked. "Tell me. A long, protracted war? The Empire have the ships, they have the troops, and they have the money to sustain one. They'll outlast us, Merlin. We're already losing. We're Pirates. We like our battles over quickly, and this is one battle that has gone on too long."

The Pirates were already grumbling. In private, under their breaths, over their frothing ale. On the flight decks, over secured comms, right outside of council meetings. Arthur wasn't a fool. If circumstances were different -- if he weren't the King -- he would be no different than any of the other Clanheads, moaning over every single Sterling spent to sustain the war. But he was the King, and this was a war that he had encouraged his people to fight. He was the one who had asked the Clans to pool their resources to fight a war instead running to save what they could when they could.

If the tide of the war didn't change quickly, Arthur would lose the Clans. It wouldn't happen all at once, but bit by bit, with ships not being where they were supposed to be, Clanheads no longer responding to the call to war, a council with more empty seats than bodies.

"There's a saying among the Shadows," Merlin said. "There is always another option. Always another way."

"That's excellent advice. Unfortunately, I can't exactly turn into shadow and walk through walls like some people I could name," Arthur snapped. He thought he saw an embarrassed smile flash across Merlin's lips -- there and gone in an instant. Arthur heaved a heavy sigh and rubbed his face, forcing himself to calm down. "I know what you're saying, pet. But my options are limited. I either do something drastic, or we lose it all."

Merlin didn't answer. Arthur deflated.

"I'm sorry."

Merlin raised a brow.

"Going to Albion -- there's a good chance whoever goes with me won't return. And I know that I'm asking a lot from you," Arthur said. He walked into Merlin's space slowly, not wanting to spook him. "I realize that whatever happens, I'm asking you to die with me."

Merlin's body shifted -- he moved with a natural instinct, making room for Arthur as if Arthur had always been there, and maybe Arthur was always there, for Merlin -- and he stared up at Arthur for a long time.

Merlin put a hand on Arthur's hip and pulled him close until they were aligned, their heads bowed, Merlin's forehead against Arthur's temple. "I told you before. Wherever you go, whatever you do. I will always walk with you."

Arthur's hands slid to Merlin's waist, fingers slipping beneath the body armour barely hanging on to Merlin's hips. It fit Merlin like a second skin, but it took only the faintest nudge for it to drop a dangerous inch and reveal just that bit more of the soft, fine hair leading down to Merlin's groin. Arthur closed his eyes when he felt Merlin's lips at the corner of his mouth.

"I hate that you think this is your only choice," Merlin murmured. "I hate that you believe you need to destroy instead of to preserve and lead. That drastic means dying --"

Arthur tensed. He exhaled. "You can't mean to... Merlin. You can't mean for me to --"

"The Pirates won't need to flee into the unknown. The Empire won't need to escalate the war," Merlin pressed on, determined. "No one will need to die. Not you. Not anyone."

Arthur pulled away. Merlin's hand dropped from Arthur's hip.

"But you hate them. You've hunted them. You've killed them. This will be the end of them. I thought that would make you happy, at least." Arthur's brows pinched.

"If I hate anything, I hate the Legion, not the Empire. And not one good thing ever came from all the killing. Not one good thing. Not until you. And all I've ever done since then was protect you," Merlin said.

Arthur didn't answer. He turned away.

There was a line of weapons and armour on the sofa, each precisely laid out. It was such a contrasting sight to how haphazardly Arthur stored his own equipment -- a pistol on the shelf, a knife on the desk, his sword balanced on top of the planetary globe of the Pendragon homeworld, a gauntlet on the shelf by the door, boots kicked aside, next to the wall.

He wondered if there would ever be a time when Merlin would be less disciplined. If Arthur would ever learn to pick up after himself. Their habits would rub against the other, Arthur was certain, given time.

Time that they wouldn't have if Arthur went ahead with his mad plan.

"You aren't the only one who loves his people so much that you'll sacrifice yourself for them," Merlin said quietly. "But there's sacrifice, and then there's sacrifice."

Arthur turned slowly. They stared at each other, neither one looking away, and Arthur finally, finally, understood. He exhaled heavily, painfully, and bowed his head. "An attack on Albion would be a faster death."

Merlin's laugh was soft, but sad.

"With me to the end, pet?" Arthur asked.

"With you to the end." Merlin hesitated, but he didn't say what else he had been about to say.

Arthur heard it anyway.

I don't want it to end.

 


Chapter Fifteen

Asterism: The Gargoyle of Sigan

The Gargoyle of Sigan

Location: Excalibur, Pirate Warship, Outside the Capital Galaxy

 

"… from the Kingship, Captain." Elyan hesitated. "You're not going to like this."

Merlin arrived on the bridge in time to see the tense line in Arthur's shoulders tighten until it was tightrope-taut, capable of supporting the entire universe on a teeter-totter edge. He stopped in the entrance, instinctively sucking all the shadows until he was almost invisible, and shifted into a ready-stance in case he needed to react.

Intellectually, Merlin knew that there should be no real danger on board Excalibur -- and, in particular, not on the bridge. Even without running a full background check on every member of the crew, access to the bridge was restricted to only a handful of people. Of those people, Merlin was the one that Arthur knew the least.

And possibly, also trusted the least.

Gwaine and Perceval, Leon and Elyan, Geraint and Galahad, even quiet, distant Lucan whose mind was firmly centred elsewhere even on the best of days -- had all known Arthur since they were children and teenagers, born of prominent Pirate Clans or allied with Clan Pendragon from the moment of their births. There was no way that any of them could be a plant from the White Legion.

Still, Merlin couldn't help but be alert for danger. Elyan's tone wasn't comforting, and Arthur --

"Let's hear it," Arthur said, subdued.

Elyan tapped a few commands on the holo-console. The transmission filled the bridge with Lady Mithian's voice, sharp and on edge. "... give me that, you pillock. Best he hear it from someone who knows what they're talking about. Is this recording? Arthur. Arthur, the good news is that everything went according to plan. The Witchfinder decimated the Conglomerate troops on our planetary base, and we made away. They chased us for a few hours before they broke off completely. They're taking position at the centre line -- coordinates 1060/85° -- covering the same distance range as at the territory borders.

"They stopped chasing, so we stopped running.

"Not sure why none of us thought of it until now, but someone did a ship count. They are missing a full quarter complement. I repeat, they are missing a full quarter complement. One battleship, twenty warships, one hundred cruisers. We thought they were cloaked at first, but -- wait. Let me pass you to Gwen. Hey. You. Shunt this to the Leodegrace Clanship, now --"

There was a crackle as the transmission was spliced to a different source. Unlike Mithian, Guinevere was firm, controlled, with only the faintest frantic undertone.

"We thought they were cloaked, but we used the transponder codes that we stripped from the Needlers," Gwen said. "Turned the power to the sensors until they squealed. The Conglomerate couldn't have missed our sensor pings. Arthur. There's a slim chance that those missing ships are still here. They might have changed their access codes, but we've been trying every permutation and nothing's come up. Worse, they might have made it past us and kept going, but we would've heard about an attack by now if they had. We think they're gone. We have no idea where they are. Cenred picked up a few whales on his long-range, but he couldn't be sure what they were and the pingback failed.

"Arthur, you need to be careful. We think they found out your plan. They might be after you."

Merlin's knuckles cracked. The shadows tightened around him before relaxing in a tremulous exhale; the lights on the bridge flickered as the atmospheric sensors attempted to maintain a prescribed lighting level.

Arthur glanced over his shoulder at Merlin, a question in his eyes. He didn't wait for a response; instead he rubbed the stubble on his jaw and clasped his hands together in front of him, elbows on the armrest. Calmly -- too calmly for Merlin's liking, Arthur asked, "When was that transmission sent?"

"Two hours ago, while we were in foldspace," Elyan said. The message would have been automatically downloaded from the nearest accessible node as soon as they dropped into normal space. It was a drawback of travelling at this kind of speed and using this kind of technology -- no one had yet discovered a way to retrieve messages across dimensional shifts or negative space manipulation. Elyan tapped the holo in front of him and a screen popped up. "Security codes are clear across the board, and this includes the secret sibling password that Gwen would never give anyone."

"You have secret sibling passwords?" Gwaine asked.

"Maybe," Elyan hedged. "Or maybe I'm fucking with you. But it stands -- there's no sign of tampering. Any forgery that anyone could've managed in two hours, I would've spotted by now."

"That's two hours plus however long it took them to notice that the Empire was missing a few ships along their ranks," Leon said.

"Contact the other ships. Tell them to hold position," Arthur said. He looked thoughtful for a moment. "Set forward sensors to maximum."

"Forward sensors to maximum," Lucan confirmed, pushing his earpieces back over his head. He tapped at the screen in front of him and twisted a command key.

"How far are we from the Reservist coordinates?" Arthur asked.

"Close enough to see them, far enough that they can't see us, with a decent safety margin thrown in," Geraint said.

"Unless they improved on their sensors when we weren't looking," Galahad put in.

"Glass half-empty sort of guy, aren't you?" Geraint said.

Galahad made a rude gesture in Geraint's direction, but the squabbling fizzled out without Arthur needing to put a stop to it. The tension on the bridge was so thick that Merlin wasn't entirely certain that his sharpest blade could put a dent in it.

"The Dauntless is asking what the holdup is," Elyan said. "They thought we were on a tight schedule."

"We are," Arthur said, leaning forward. He raised his clasped hands and brought them to his mouth, his brow pinching. "Lucan?"

"I'm still looking, Captain," Lucan said, shaking his head. "Lance, are those transponder codes current?"

"They are," Lance said.

"Check them for me," Lucan said. "Something's not right. There's a big, gaping hole of empty where the Imperial Reserve should be."

"Let's have a look," Arthur said, standing up in a smooth motion. His hands fell to his sides; Merlin saw how Arthur's fingers brushed his pistol on one hip, the hilt of his sword on the other.

The overhead holo darkened the bridge; the lighting compensated by dimming for a better view. The expanse of space spread out before zooming in to the distance, stars twinkling too brightly in the gloom. The image was choppy, full of pixilation and fuzzy edges.

"Is that the best you can do?" Leon asked.

"Maximum sensors is a gain plus ten," Lucan said, his tone cross. "That's as clear an image as I can manage on the visuals, short of tossing the camera relays out the airlock to cool them down."

"Should I get closer?" Geraint asked.

"Hold position," Arthur said. He took two steps closer to the holo projection, raising his hands together to bracket a zone of space. He stretched his hands outward; the holo image zoomed in even more.

It was a dizzying re-centering of the holo-vid that stabilized less than a second later. The image was full of deep blacks and a full colour spectrum of greys, with splotches of white here and there that could be mistaken for stars.

"Lance, can you clean this up?"

"I can try," Lance said. "The rendering will take time."

"Dainty Strumpet is asking if we need a tow," Elyan said, rolling his eyes. "Captain, I'm getting a lot of questions and I'm not sure I can hold them off for long."

"How much time do you need?" Arthur asked.

Lance tapped the console. The overhead screen froze; there was a slow line zipping across the top, moving from one virtual square to another, pausing to recalculate colour probabilities, vector lines, and to apply the resulting render. The holo flickered with each change. "It's too much magnification. I'll need a few hours, at least, and that's just to get an idea of the shapes."

"Suggest launching a probe," Gwaine said.

"Do we have a cloaked probe?" Arthur asked.

"Checking," Perceval said, pulling up a screen. He was already shaking his head as he skimmed through the inventory. "Offloaded before we set out, Captain. We needed to make room for the mines."

Gwaine cursed; Leon made a small tsking sound with his tongue.

"What about the other ships? Maybe they have one handy," Lucan said.

Perceval grunted, checking his screen. "No. If they've tucked a probe in the loo, it's not on their manifests."

"Not everyone keeps up with their inventories. I could ask," Elyan said.

"Belay that," Leon said.

Arthur didn't speak. He didn't need to. His hands moved from his sides to his hips, fingers clenching tight in frustration, and his crew knew him well enough to be silent while he thought things through.

"We're not moving from this spot until we have visual confirmation of the Reservist ships," Arthur said, his tone grim. "But we're losing time."

"We could activate the cloak and get closer?" Geraint suggested.

Lance was shaking his head in answer, but it was obvious that his attention was elsewhere. The rendering cursor jumped to a different section of the holographic image. There was a stutter, an abrupt switch from three dimensional to a flat two, with several areas flagged in red. "If I get just these key sections, I can get you an answer in half an hour, Arthur."

"Hello, people. What about the cloak?" Geraint twisted in his chair, trying to get Lance's attention.

"Quit bothering Lance. It's only good for one go," Leon said, waving Geraint around. "Let's hold onto it until we need it, yeah?"

"Send another ship, then. I think the Retaliate managed to keep theirs from blowing up entirely," Galahad said.

"And what if it's a trap?" Leon countered. He made a quelling gesture when Galahad opened his mouth for another suggestion, and turned to look at Arthur. He didn't say anything; he didn't need to. Arthur hadn't moved, and he wasn't giving orders, but if Leon's expression was anything to go by, Arthur was deep in thought and waiting for information.

Merlin moved into the bridge, coming up behind the Captain's chair. He paused, studying the blotches on the two-dimensional screen. "Stop the render. Pull up the full holo again."

When no one did anything, Merlin glanced at Arthur. His eyebrow was raised, and everyone was looking at Merlin uncertainly.

"We're short on time, you said. Can't wait a few hours for a full render, can't wait a half hour for the best approximation of what might be there," Merlin said. He made a gesture. "Pull up the full holo."

There was a brief pause. Arthur nodded sharply. "Do it."

"Well, that's five minutes we'll never get back," Lance muttered. He stopped the processing and the holo-emitters re-focused on the full three dimensional image.

"Where's the brightest light source?" Merlin asked. "Make it brighter."

"No idea what he's doing, mate," Geraint said, glancing at Galahad with a shrug.

"Brighter," Merlin said, narrowing his eyes. He took a step closer to the projection, coming to stand next to Arthur. "Cancel out everything else. Every other source of light."

The holo became a blinding glare from one corner of the bridge, the rest a dull black blotch. The automated environmental controls adjusted to compensate.

"Kill the lights," Arthur said. "Emrys. What are you looking at?"

"Shadows," Merlin said, raising a brow. "What else? Everything gives off a shadow. Even if you can't see it on a scan, even if it won't give you a sensor ping. If it's got mass, if it has a surface, if it absorbs light for camouflage, it still gives off a shadow, however small."

Merlin took another step forward. He waved at the bright surfaces. "Remove reflections."

Again, the holo dimmed. The bridge was nearly dark except for the lights coming off holo-consoles and hard-consoles. Merlin squinted until he could make out distinct lines of separation between a physical object and the shadow.

"I need scale," Merlin said, tilting his head as he moved through the projected holo. He blocked one emitter and moved to another, watching as the shapes shifted and changed depending on the origin of the light. A bar measure appeared nearby; Merlin moved it to the centre of the hologram and measured several of the most significant shadows.

"Here," he said, encircling an area where there had been nothing more but a white blotch. "Large enough for a station platform and equipment repairs."

He pointed to an oblong shape adjacent to the first. "Barracks, crew quarters."

Merlin didn't say anything for a few minutes. He turned around and walked through the projected darkness of space. He tapped one object -- Lance must have done something to the holo, because it recognized his commands and highlighted whatever he touched -- and another, a third, and a fourth.

"Ships. Small ships. Cruiser class at best."

"Staggered," Leon said, crossing his arms. "Moored in station orbit? That's not any formation I recognize."

"Nor I," Arthur said. His brow was less pinched than before, and he was squinting a little, trying to make out the shapes. "Have they drifted?"

"Calculating," Lucan said, crouching to get closer to his console. After a moment, he shook his head. "Station gravity only. Maybe light thrusters? I can't tell much from two scans barely twenty minutes apart, Captain."

"What about that?" Gwaine asked, getting up from his station to wildly flail at a big black blotch. Before the manipulations, there had been a large reflective surface, almost of a dimension to completely block out all the starlight from that sector. "A battleship?"

"Debris," Merlin suggested, tilting his head for a better view. "Yeah. Debris."

"How can you even tell?" Arthur asked. "It's a blob for all I can tell."

"Spend your life looking at shadows, through shadows, from shadows, and you get a pretty good idea if it's artificial or not," Merlin said. He waved a hand. "Your blob's got a million shadows, all of them different sizes, some of them overlapping, but none of them really touching."

"You can see that?" Gwaine asked. He poked at the holo.

"You can see colour, can't you? Every shade of green known to man," Merlin said, raising a meaningful brow at Gwaine's armour. "Well, I can pick out every shade of black. You wouldn't know it from looking at me, but I'm actually wearing the most stylish Shadow fashion right now."

Merlin made a gesture at his jacket, pausing to tap at the solid plate armour on his chest -- black upon black, except where the stitching and the seams stood out to give it some detail and relief.

The bridge fell abruptly silent. It was broken a second later by Arthur's soft chuckle.

It took Gwaine a moment to catch on, and his confusion became a bright, laughing grin. "Good one."

"The assassin has a sense of humour," Galahad said, snickering. "Who'd have thought?"

"Must have some sense of humour," Leon said. "He's sleeping with Arthur, isn't he?"

"Oi," Arthur said, but the barb did little to make the small smile on his lips fade away.

"Wait. If Emrys is joking," Geraint asked, "Does that mean we're going to die?"

The lighter mood on the bridge flattened in that moment, leaving the crew sober and mulish. There were exchanged glances, quiet huffs of resignation, even a gesture to flip a console over that sent a holo-screen tumbling out of the range of the projectors, before it flickered back to life in its original position. Galahad reached across the bank of controls between the pilot seats and smacked Geraint soundly on the back of his head.

"Ow. What?"

"The important thing here," Galahad enunciated clearly, pointing a finger in Geraint's face as if he meant to club him should Geraint step out of line again, "Is that the assassin has a sense of humour."

"But --"

"Shut it," Galahad warned.

Geraint opened his mouth to protest, but there was a flinty look in Galahad's eyes that made the entire crew on board pause. Even Merlin, seeing it, decided that he would think twice before crossing Galahad, particularly when he had bloody murder on his mind. Geraint slunk into his seat, almost becoming one with the chair, the top of his head barely visible over the back.

Satisfied, Galahad relaxed and returned his attention to his console. He tapped at the hard panel a few times and wriggled his fingers at the small holo-console that popped up.

Merlin turned to see Arthur watching him, a small, sad smile on his lips. A wave of exhaustion seemed to have fallen onto his shoulders, making him seem older than he really was.

The projected star chart holo and visual images of the supposed Reserve Imperial ship coordinates had been removed, and the dim lights on the bridge didn't immediately restore to their default settings. It was in this dim light that Merlin saw not a Pirate King, nor an Emperor, but a man, weighed heavy by a choice too big for him alone, and filled with a future he didn't want to have.

His hair was limned in a golden back-light, his eyes soft with resignation, his mouth open in aborted protest and denial.

It was there-and-gone, a blink-and-miss-it moment, not even visible on a holo-recording, no matter how many frames per seconds were taken or how crisp the image capture. Merlin wouldn't have seen it if he hadn't been watching Arthur, if the two of them weren't staring at each other as if they were the other's salvation. It was the weakness of defeat, a full-body slump of capitulation, the last fading vestiges of a resistance against a destiny that had been his all along, ready for the taking.

Arthur's body armour hid most of it. The hard plate covered up the way his shoulders fell. His armour compensated for the give in his knees and kept him upright. The gauntlets hid the tremble of his hands. A grimace of determination hid the flash of pain and the give of despair.

Arthur broke eye contact first. He lowered his chin. He turned on his heel and glanced at his chair, as if contemplating falling into it. His expression was partially hidden by the fur collar of his ostentatious red-and-gold waistcoat, but Merlin knew the moment when Arthur steeled himself --

Pirate, Merlin thought, and he bit back an annoyed smile that Arthur would use that as a shield.

-- and made his decision, for good or for ill.

Arthur wouldn't allow his men to come to harm. The other Clan ships had flown to his banner, and had supported him for the months of war. The Conglomerate hounded the Pirates, and would hinder them past the edge of the sea, where unknown monsters laid in wait.

He had played a game beyond his ken and had given his challengers a hard chase until now, running a gambit that had failed. He'd been tricked by the Conglomerate, betrayed by one of his own, but he wouldn't sit and wait for them to come for him.

They were now on Plan B.

Arthur stared past the standard vid screen at the unshielded window to the stars. He seemed to count each and every one in the hush of the bridge, his jaw clenching, his eyes hardening. He came together beneath that suit of armour -- he became the .armour -- and he put a hand on the hilt of his sword.

Last lord of a mourned House. A swashbuckling rogue. A Pirate King. An Emperor.

There were no words to describe Merlin's pride. No words to describe Merlin's love. There had never been any doubt -- he would follow Arthur anywhere. In this moment, with Arthur rallying himself against the odds and choosing to take the harder path, Merlin knew that he would be on Arthur's heels to the very brink. Seeing the crew pull together without a word from the Captain, Merlin knew that he wouldn't be the only one.

"Raise the ships," Arthur said.

Amongst the faint beeps and whines and whirs of the bridge, the clicking sound of the connection between Excalibur and the small Pirate fleet was as loud as a thundercrack. Elyan's voice was a reassuring murmur asking every Captain to hold for the King's broadcast.

"That's it, then?" Leon asked, his voice soft. There was an expression of dawning understanding on his face that could only come from being Arthur's First Mate for so long.

"Why not?" Arthur said. There was the bright of mischief in his eyes, and his smile was genuine. Merlin bowed his head, the shadow of his cowl covering his face, but there was no hiding his small laugh.

Leon glanced at Merlin, his expression shifting from faintly stricken to oddly bemused, before he turned back to Arthur, answering the unspoken are you with me with a quick nod.

Merlin did not know him very well, but his respect for Leon grew.

"All ships are listening, Captain," Elyan said. He twisted away from the terminal to give Arthur his full attention, but he stayed close, so that he would be able to reach the console and issue commands to terminate or override if he needed to.

Arthur didn't speak right away. He took a long, slow breath and made eye contact with every member of the bridge. His eyes lingered on Merlin, and his mouth quirked into a faint smile before he turned away.

"I thought you lot might want some good news before we get our hands dirty," Arthur said. "We picked up a message from the Clans. The plan went off without a hitch. They lured the Conglomerate beyond the line and into the mire of mines. They reclaimed our supply planet and exacted revenge on our fallen kin and fellow Clan."

If the crews of the other ship responded, Merlin didn't hear. Elyan had set the communications for broadcast only, and all the others could do was listen in.

Arthur paused. His voice had an edge of irritation when he said, "Our luck didn't hold. The Conglomerate halted their advance. They didn't fall for the lure. The Clans were unable to pinion them in the asteroid field and take them out one by one."

The asteroid belt had been a late development to the battle-planning, an idea tossed in with the final result of cutting down Conglomerate numbers. The best pilots among the Pirates ran races through the fast-moving, perpetually-shifting asteroids for fun; it was well-known that the Conglomerate had few pilots, if any, who could manoeuvre through such tight quarters at speed without suffering losses. In that environment, the Pirates clearly had the upper hand.

It had been the preferred ploy, with little need for direct interaction and intervention by the Pirates to eliminate the enemy. With the Conglomerate fleet at a standstill and the trap useless, the Pirates would be forced to go to war in an open field where they had no advantage.

Arthur didn't bludgeon that conclusion. He didn't need to. It was obvious enough even with the little information volunteered.

"You're wondering why we're dead in the water," Arthur said, skipping a consoling assurance that the Pirate Clans would be able to handle the situation. "The plain and simple is this.

"There's nowhere to go. There's no battle to fight. There are no riches to be had."

Arthur glanced at Lucan, as if still not believing that the Reserves weren't there, and his eyes drifted to Merlin before he continued. "The Imperial Reserve fleet is not at the coordinates. In fact, there are no ships to the extent of our sensor range either in or out of cloak. Go on. Verify this for yourselves."

Arthur walked to the navigator's console and tapped in a string of coordinates. Merlin was close enough to see them flash on both pilots' screens; Galahad and Geraint exchanged startled glances before turning to search Arthur's expression. Neither of them spoke, but their mouths tightened as if they were holding back vehement outrage.

Arthur put a hand on both of their shoulders and squeezed before he straightened and looked right at Gwaine.

"Lest you think that the Reserves were sent to our space to join in the battle, consider this. Our kin and Clan detected that a large portion of the Conglomerate fleet broke away from the line and disappeared out of sensor range. Be assured that they did not slip past our defences, but if they aren't in our space, then, where are they?"

Gwaine bowed his head and nodded. He crossed his arms, hugging them close to his chest. Arthur turned to look at Perceval.

"The only answer is that they're coming after us -- but that begs the question. If they knew we were coming here, why aren't the Reserves on high alert, lying in wait?"

Perceval's brows pinched. He looked across the way at Gwaine, whose eyes widened with a strange combination of realization and confusion.

"Tell me, ladies and gents. What is the one high-value target that they would expect us to go after?"

Gwaine's head tilted back in understanding, his mouth opening and closing in an accepting "Oh." Perceval half-chuckled to himself, his expression full of I should have known. Lucan's brow was furrowed and he scratched his jaw; he was tapping at his console, but the screen was turned away and Merlin couldn't see what it was.

Lance scratched the rough stubble of his cheek and said nothing, his eyes dark, his mouth grim.

Arthur glanced at Elyan. Merlin caught the faint head-shake and signal for dead silence on the line.

"I'll do your homework for you this once, you bloody lazy pillocks," Arthur said, though there was little venom in his tone. "Albion. They think we've gone to pillage Albion."

Out of the corner of his eye, Merlin could see that Perceval had buried his face in his hands, his shoulders shaking with suppressed laughter. Gwaine had no similar compunctions about staying quiet, because his amused chuckling was loud enough to be picked up by the broadcast feed. Despite having his attention elsewhere, Lucan was smirking in amusement, and Elyan was tapping quietly at the console, fending off whatever responses they were receiving from the other ship Captains, his grin growing broader with each and every flicker of his screen.

Geraint and Galahad weren't laughing. They'd seen the coordinates that Arthur had entered in the navigation. Leon wasn't even smiling -- he was bowed over a control console, checking the status of Excalibur's systems. Lance had leaned back in his chair, his arms crossed over his chest, his expression troubled.

Merlin wasn't laughing, either.

Nor was Arthur.

The silence lasted only as long as it took for Arthur's crew to realize that their Captain wasn't joining in on the hilarity.

In the long silence that lingered, Arthur caught Merlin's eyes again and didn't look away. He nodded curtly. It was Gwaine who broke the silence, and it was with a quiet, subdued, "Oh, shite."

"I'll be honest with you," Arthur said. He paused. His voice increased in pitch, harsh and accusing. "What is the matter with us? Are we not Pirates? Why have none of us come up with this idea ourselves? It's bloody inspired. The Imperial palace, ripe for the picking. Technological marvels, gold sprouting from the fountains, chests spilling over with Sterling? Armouries of weaponry, fine silks and leathers --"

"Let's not forget the rum," Gwaine said, his grin lopsided. There was a hearty laugh in his tone, but the amused glint that would normally accompany it never reached his eyes.

Arthur didn't smile. He nodded sadly. There was something too sharp to Arthur now, an edge too cold. Merlin felt as if he should wrap his arms around Arthur and sheathe him in warmth, to soften him for the world.

Merlin was the cutting knife. Not Arthur. It should never be Arthur.

"This is a challenge I can't refuse. That I won't refuse. If the Conglomerate thinks they can waltz into our territory and set up camp, then we can damn well do the same." Arthur paused. "I don't know about you lot, but I rather fancy rubbing my arse on the Imperial throne. The odds are high that I won't make it back, but at least I'll have that, won't I? Something that no other King has ever done. And you'll go home and raise your drinks, wishing you'd seen it with your own damn eyes, because there won't ever be another King like me. That, I promise you."

I won't make it back --

Merlin's fists clenched. Arthur was a self-sacrificing pillock. The next time that he was alone with Arthur, Merlin was going to make it clear -- again -- that Arthur was a contradiction that Merlin didn't approve of. Merlin didn't know how many times he had to say it, but noble and Pirate didn't exactly go hand-in-hand.

As infuriating as Arthur's roguish ways were, if there was one thing that Merlin approved of, it was the Pirates' tendency for selfish self-preservation above all and everyone else. Why couldn't Arthur have adopted that mindset? Why did he have to be so bloody stubborn?

The rest of Arthur's little speech filtered through Merlin's fury.

At least I'll have that --

Something that no other King has ever done --

Wishing you'd seen it with your own damn eyes --

Merlin scowled. What was Arthur doing? Goading the Pirates? Taunting them? Was he --

Arthur didn't do anything by halves, Merlin remembered. He could turn a bickering war council into an impressive tactical think tank. He was a master manipulator, capable of cajoling the most recalcitrant Clanhead into agreeing to perform a harrowing attack -- and letting them believe that they'd come up with the plan. He mercilessly exploited a Pirate's Achilles' heel by appealing to pride and arrogance and the lure of fantastic riches and rewards.

Merlin remembered when Arthur had entered Excalibur's brig the first time they'd met. He had worn no armour, he had carried no weapons, and yet he had somehow managed to get past Merlin's guard. Merlin's defences had been useless against Arthur, and immediately before Merlin had thought to take the advantage and escape, Arthur had forced Merlin to show all his cards.

There was always a rhyme and reason behind Arthur's actions.

Merlin's eyes narrowed. He watched Arthur carefully. Merlin studied every movement, trying to pick apart what Arthur was hiding behind his words.

Arthur's gaze darted to Elyan's console; it remained blank, without attempt from the other ships to respond. Arthur glanced at his own men, measuring their moods. His body remained loose and relaxed, but Merlin saw the slightest thinning of Arthur's mouth and the way that his fingers twitched.

He was afraid, Merlin realized. As ready as Arthur was to fly Excalibur in a suicide mission against Albion, even to crash the ship into the capital, if it came to that, he was unwilling to leave the future of his people to chance.

Merlin could see how the decision would have been much simpler if the Reserves had been here. If the Pirates had been able to lure the Conglomerate fleet into the asteroid field where they would have been easy pickings. If everything had gone according to plan, it wouldn't have mattered if Arthur had lived to continue his reign as King or if he had died in a sacrifice that would have rattled the Empire to its very core.

His people would have been safe. For weeks, months, years. However long it took to get them to safety, outside the Empire's purview.

But now --

The Pirates' carefully-planned tactics had failed them, either because the Conglomerate were cleverer than they appeared, or because they had been lucky in guessing what the Pirates would have done.

Arthur would have no chance at Albion alone, suicide mission or not. He wouldn't make it far enough into that heavily-guarded space to make an impact. The Empire would finish him off quietly, and he wouldn't even have the luxury of becoming a martyr. And the Pirates, his people, would be hounded for however long it amused the Conglomerate. They would fall.

Whatever new plan that Arthur was hatching in his head, it hinged on one important point. He needed his fleet to back him up. He was going to Albion. He would fight his way past the Imperial troops. He would land Excalibur in the capital square, march his way up the white stone steps of the palace, and he would sit his arse upon the throne --

Merlin's eyes widened. His mouth fell open. His lips formed the words, but those words did not have the weight of voice.

Arthur was going to claim his throne --

Merlin forced the realization down, crushing it entirely. His goal -- his only goal -- was to protect Arthur. And if to protect Arthur, Merlin needed to give him an edge, Merlin would move the entire bloody universe to give it to him.

The Pirates wouldn't throw their lot in with Arthur's -- not on this, impossible, risky mission. Not without an absolute, unadulterated advantage, not without knowing for certain that the odds would be on their side. There was little that Merlin could do in space. He was more effective on the ground.

Arthur's lips thinned until they were a pale, white line. The corners of his mouth pinched with strain. His chin jutted down -- still determined, but accepting of the odds against him, however poor.

And those odds were poor.

Merlin heaved a quiet breath. His shoulders rose and fell. He couldn't give Arthur the advantage he needed, but he was a Shadow. He could give Arthur the perception of one.

He closed his eyes.

His hands clenched into fists.

He took a deep breath and forced it out slowly. He relaxed his hands.

He pulled --

Shadow.

Shade.

Darkness.

He reached out, as far as he could reach. The bridge of the ship. Throughout Excalibur. Across the vast space that stretched between the ships of the small Pirate fleet.

He pulled. He pulled for all he was worth. He drew the light from every source he could sense. He challenged it to quench his shadows even as the shadows grew in the absence of light.

The light was crushing and suffocating. It burned and scorched at Merlin's nature. His limbs tingled, pinprick-numb, and the numbness spread, dulling the fire that crawled just under his skin.

The lights on the ship flickered and dimmed. The bridge went dark so fast that it was as if all the power on board the ship had been sucked dry. The lighting ringing the bridge came back to life with a dim struggle, barely enough for human eyes to see by.

The darkness was nothing for Merlin. The darkness was a cool comfort to his skin, as the light curled and twisted inside of him, blistering and scalding. He could see as clear as day even if he couldn't feel his body. Everything was inhumanely bright, absent of shadows in his sight, and it frightened him.

Still, he held on. He held on as long as he could. He used the terror and the pain that came with the mere thought that Arthur wouldn't survive his planned attack on Albion.

That they wouldn't survive this.

"All the ships are reporting a power outage, Captain," Elyan said. There was a warble of panic in his words, in the shriek of transmissions that he was trying to stem.

"I'm not detecting any traps. We didn't drift into a minefield, did we?" Lucan asked, his fingers flying over the sensors, refining and magnifying the strength.

"Some sort of energy field?" Perceval asked.

"I swear we didn't hit anything," Geraint protested.

"Are you sure?" Galahad snapped.

"We haven't been hit," Lance said. "I'm not seeing any effect on any of the other systems, just the lights --"

Arthur was staring at Merlin, wide-eyed and maybe a little bit afraid. Merlin turned away, shutting his eyes tightly, and fought, fought to keep the light trapped inside of him. It hurt. He hurt so much.

A warm hand touched his cheek. "Oh, pet. I knew you cared."

"This is Emrys' doing?" Gwaine asked, gaping.

"It is," Arthur said. His fingers caressed Merlin's face, curling behind his ear, tangling with his hair. If Arthur could feel the tremble in Merlin's body, the very strain of holding on, he gave no sign of it beyond the slight deepening of his frown.

There was a soft clatter on the console, a murmur of confirmation from Elyan. Merlin only distantly heard him say, "Yes, that's right, Captain Gorlois. The power outage on your ship is Emrys' doing --"

But it came at him through a haze, and the only thing that Merlin was certain about was the clear, crisp sight of Arthur in front of him, his body haloed by shadows.

"They don't get it," Merlin said. He wasn't sure if the broadcast would pick up his words, or if anyone else would hear him other than Arthur, but he forced himself to continue, to speak in as plain a tone as possible, one that wouldn't betray the pain he was in.

"No, pet, they don't," Arthur said, his tone a little sad, and Merlin thought he could detect a bit of confusion in it, too. "More fools they. But they'll learn, won't they? You'll show them."

"When they raise their cups wishing they'd seen you sitting your arse on your throne --" the Pirate throne, the Imperial throne, Merlin didn't care. As far as he was concerned, they both belonged to Arthur -- "When they're feasting over the best damn King they've ever known, they'll do it raising their cups at you, alive and well, at the head of the table, with me right behind you, mocking them for the cowards they are."

Merlin sagged; Arthur stepped in unobtrusively and propped Merlin up, keeping him on his own two feet, hiding as best he could how weak Merlin was, how much strength it had taken to speak.

"Now, now. There's no need to be rude," Arthur said, a real smile touching his lips, delight reaching his eyes. "Give them a chance to prove themselves brave, hm?"

Merlin snorted.

Arthur's smirk broadened. "Be a good boy and give them their power back, pet. Look at Elyan. Poor man's fending off their frightened calls."

Merlin huffed a small laugh. "Should let them free-float until a scavenger finds them. See how they like their goods and wares stripped from their ships --"

He wasn't even certain that he had the power to do that. Maybe if he targeted his power to the ships one by one. But all of them at once? He doubted that was even possible. It might even kill him. But a bluff was a bluff and he could only hope that the Pirates wouldn't think he was holding a weak hand.

"For an assassin, you certainly have a nasty streak. Where have you been hiding it? I'm overcome with a desire to take you on the deck, but the crewmen won't be thanking me when we make a mess they'll have to clean, later," Arthur said, playing along and enjoying every second of it, if the way his lips curled and his eyes twinkled was any sign. "Their power back, pet, or I shan't let you tie me to the bed like you've been asking after --"

This time, Merlin's laugh came out as a half-groan of strangled pain, and he could only hope that anyone listening in would mistake the sound for something else entirely. He bowed his head, grateful for a plausible reason for letting to, and let his head rest on Arthur's shoulder for an instant before he pushed --

He couldn't let go of the light fast enough. The light couldn't abandon him any quicker.

It hurt. The light fled in an escaping stampede that seared and tore at him along the way. He was scraped and grated, flayed and stripped down to his very core, and the whine on his lips nearly became a dying wail, before the soothing calm and cool of the shade came to him again.

A chill settled in his bones. A haze of steam hissed from his body, indistinguishable from the swirl of shadows that clung to him and seeped into every crack and crevice of the solid plate suit. He was still hurting, but it was bearable now, quickly becoming ghost pain, barely more than a memory.

Merlin pulled back, standing straight again. He fought to keep from stumbling.

Arthur didn't move from Merlin's side, not right away. He waited before letting Merlin go, and when he did, he turned to his crew as if nothing had happened.

Merlin ignored the startled looks, the frightened half-chuckles and awed murmurs. He lowered his eyes and pulled at the cowl of his jacket, covering his head. The feeble darkness provided a soothing balm against the bright lights on the bridge.

His hands trembled. His locked knees kept him from collapsing onto the deck.

His strength returned, bit by precious bit, but it came back slowly, too slowly. Every exhaled breath made Merlin waver in place, and he felt as if he were about to faint.

He would not faint. Not in front of this crew. He'd never hear the end of it.

"Well," Arthur said, his voice surprisingly cheerful, "Far be it of me to begrudge anyone a bit of fun, though I do understand that we might have a few who would rather run their hulls ashore, than to defy the rocky shoals ahead. You're with me or you're not, and that's all there is to it. No penalty will be imposed, though I might bear a grudge, and that'll be a risk you'll have to bear when you see me next.

"Ladies and gentlemen, you have one hour to decide. One hour, and we'll be underway."

Merlin walked past Arthur and off the bridge, not staying to listen to the rest of it. He heard snatches of it over the ship's 1MC. Arthur repeated the same offer made to the other ships to Excalibur's crew. One hour to decide if they would stay, or if they would go. If they choose to stay, they would have a moment before they went into foldspace to send a final message to their loved ones.

Merlin paid no mind to the crew's murmurs as he passed them and headed for Arthur's quarters.

He let himself in. He fumbled for the environmental controls and darkened the room until it was pitch black, closing the blinds to the large window to block even the faintest hint of light. He sank to the floor, feeling impossibly weak even as the shadow restored him to strength.

Merlin had never pushed the light like that before. Never so much light. He could remember a time when he had been put into a bright room, candles lining a multitude of pyramidal shelves.

"Dark the room," Kilgharrah said. He shut the door behind him, leaving Merlin alone.

Merlin had tried. He had truly tried. The candlelight wasn't that bright; Merlin couldn't understand why his shadow couldn't overwhelm it. He'd tried, and he'd tried again; he'd failed each and every time.

"There's a trick to it," Kilgharrah said, finally relenting. "It's in knowing that light can never be fully quenched. To make it dark -- truly dark -- you need to give it a place to go."

Merlin covered his face in trembling hands. He laughed a shaky laugh. He tried not to dwell on what he had done or how he felt scarred.

They were scars that he bore from the battle he had fought for his liege, the first of what he was certain would be many, and Merlin couldn't find it in him to regret it.

"Merlin. Merlin. Merlin," Arthur said, his voice rising with desperation and a touch of fear. Merlin looked up, dizzy, and wondered when Arthur had arrived.

The room was dim, though a faint hue of light shone from the emitters around the room -- just enough to see by. Arthur straddled Merlin's legs and was bowed over him, his hands around Merlin's wrists, slowly pulling his hands away.

"Merlin. Are you with me? Are you all right? What did you do, you bloody idiot? What were you thinking, doing whatever it is that you did to the ships? I thought you were going to --"

Merlin grabbed the lapels of Arthur's ridiculous jacket and pulled him down, surging up at the same time, silencing Arthur with a rough kiss.

There was a startled moment without response, and then there was a physical body-melt as Arthur sank against Merlin, a shift of hands from wrists to arms and shoulders that slid up to cup the back of Merlin's head. The kiss softened and paused; both of them made matching gasps and tiny hiccups of breath. Merlin started to turn away, his hands dropping from Arthur's jacket, but Arthur held him still, pressing a light kiss on Merlin's lips, gentle and comforting.

"You're so cold, Merlin," Arthur said. "Come on. Let's get you warmed up."

Merlin shook him off.

"It's what you needed, wasn't it?" Merlin asked, staring resolutely at an elaborate whorl over the dragon's head of the Pendragon Clan sigil. "It's what they needed. A reason to think they might have a chance, even if the odds are against us."

"The odds are never against us," Arthur said, tilting his head. He peppered kisses at the corner of Merlin's mouth, along his cheek, following the curve of bone until his lips reached the arch of a brow where it met Merlin's temple. "It's just a matter of…"

Arthur let go of Merlin's shoulder to wave diffidently in the air, a dismissing motion combined with a half-hearted shrug wrapped tightly in a blanket of bravado.

"Lying?" Merlin suggested.

Arthur winced. "Nothing so blatant."

"Bluffing?"

"This is hardly a card game," Arthur scowled.

Merlin smiled faintly and pushed until Arthur sat back on the floor. Merlin shifted until he was the one kneeling and pulled at Arthur's jacket to get at the latches that disengaged the hard plate. Arthur didn't resist; if anything, he looked bemused, almost fond. "Swaying them with pretty words and innuendo?"

"It's not my fault if they jump to their own conclusions," Arthur protested. He shrugged out of his coat, the sleeves pinning his arms briefly. Merlin felt a surge of heat to see Arthur like that, however briefly; his arms behind his back, his body at Merlin's mercy.

"Did you mean it?" Merlin asked, already finding the notches in Arthur's armour, already pressing careful fingertips in the right spot to disengage the interlocks. "Did you mean what you said? That I could tie you up?"

Arthur's sharp intake of breath was the only answer that Merlin needed. His shadows stretched out for Arthur; the tendrils twined around his limbs, burrowing in the tiny gaps in Arthur's armour.

"I won't. Hurt you," Merlin said, stumbling over his own words "I can't. I need -- Shades and shadows, Arthur, the light. It burned me. From the inside. I've never done -- not like that. It hurt. I couldn't feel."

"Fuck," Arthur hissed, struggling to free himself. His jacket tore; he cast it aside and caught Merlin, pulling him as close as their armour would allow. "Where does it -- What can I do?"

The sound from Merlin's mouth wasn't human. It was a soft, breathy whine, a velvet brush of air, feathery-cold, like frost crackling on glass. "Just --"

"Whatever you want, Merlin. Whatever you need," Arthur said, a promise on his lips that was so sure and selfless that Merlin thought he would break.

The shadows pried Arthur's armour open at the joints, casting them aside. Merlin scarcely noticed his own armour being shed in the same way -- he was preoccupied with chasing after every new millimetre of flesh as it was bared before him.

He followed every line of Arthur's body; he chased after every moan. Fingers and tongues and lips traced lines and circles, pulling away when the heat of Arthur's body scorched him from the outside in. His breath caught in gasps, startled and wanting, and he dove in for another bite, another nibble. His fingers dug into Arthur's hips, tearing at the fabric that the shadows had neglected and had left behind.

Merlin pressed a kiss in the bend of flesh between groin and thigh. He buried his face in Arthur's scent, nuzzling his face against Arthur's cock. He licked until Arthur's body arched off the floor and Arthur was moaning and begging for more.

Merlin shoved Arthur flat onto his back. He crawled on top of him, shuddering at the electric contact as Arthur's heat scorched his numb flesh. Merlin's hands stroked up Arthur's sides, fingernails digging into the creases between defined muscle and bone.

"Shades," Merlin murmured, licking a stripe up Arthur's throat, taking in the taut stretch of Arthur's body, the throw of his head, the flutter of closed eyes. There was no light in the room, but Merlin didn't need it to see. He could see every detail, from the flush of Arthur's cheek to the white where Arthur bit down on his own lips to keep from crying out. He could see the ruffle of Arthur's hair; he could see the clench of teeth that did little to hold back a groan, when Merlin found a sensitive spot; he could see the shadow-shine that surrounded Arthur with a faint glow. "Beautiful. So beautiful."

Arthur's hands cradled Merlin's head. His fingers felt for Merlin's mouth. It was a blind, cautious kiss, hastily adjusted for the right angle. Shy and tentative, hungry and filthy, full of tongues and teeth and frantic pants broken only by groans and gasps as Merlin ground against Arthur.

The rub of flesh alone wasn't enough.

"I need -- I want --"

Merlin barely formed the words before Arthur's legs spread a little more, feet flat on the floor, knees bracketing, trapping Merlin where he was. There was a pause, a gut-wrenching moan, the dig of Arthur's fingers into Merlin's shoulders, and no reason for Arthur's reaction until --

Merlin felt the shadows dancing around them, persistent, possessive. They wound their way up Arthur's legs, they twined braids over his arms. They writhed, sinuous and serpentine, teasing Arthur's cock with feathery touches, cradling his balls, teasing his hole.

Merlin growled. The shadows scattered, loosened, nearly fled; the tendrils tightened around Arthur's limbs and kept him still. Merlin brought a hand to Arthur's mouth, pushing two fingers in. Arthur sucked at them greedily, soaking them with spit.

The first press of fingers met with resistance. There was a groan -- his or Arthur's, Merlin wasn't certain -- as that resistance gave way. He mouthed at Arthur's chest, his senses absorbed by the tightness and the searing heat, delirious with the need to have that heat, to be able to feel again.

He took Arthur into his mouth, without warning, swallowing him nearly to the root. Arthur's cock hit the back of his throat; Merlin swallowed, desperate for that last inch.

Arthur's hips rocked into Merlin's mouth. Merlin's fingers thrust in rhythm with Arthur's movements, shallow at first, deeper and deeper as Arthur was worked open. Merlin's jaw ached, spit dripped from his mouth; he collected it and used it to ease the slide.

"Fuck. Merlin. Fuck -- I can't, I'm going to -- how the fuck can you -- I can't move, holy shite. So good. So fucking good, Merlin," Arthur said, stuttering over a few words. "Where is the -- can we shift to the --"

Merlin didn't know where the lube came from, couldn't even remember where they had left it the last time. But it was in his hand now, pressed into his palm by a strand of shadow, and he was of no mind to question the how or the why. He just wanted --

Merlin nearly emptied it as he slicked himself with quick, furtive strokes. He was too hard, too ready to crest over the edge to tolerate more than a fleeting touch, and he used the rest to slick the way, quieting Arthur's needy complaints and turning them into equally needy moans.

The shadows pulled Arthur's legs, rolling him onto his upper back. Merlin crawled on his knees between Arthur's legs, his thighs against Arthur's arse. He loomed over Arthur for a long moment, taking in the expression of complete trust and absolute bliss, the utterly debauched and raunchy look of Arthur like this, and Merlin nearly came right then and there from that sight alone.

There was a tug.

It was light and fleeting and of no discernible origin.

Merlin ran his hands down Arthur's legs. The shadows dissipated. The heel of Arthur's foot came down hard on Merlin's shoulder, half-knocking him aside. Arthur's other leg hooked around Merlin's hip and dragged him closer, but not close enough for Arthur's tastes, because he wound both legs at Merlin's waist and pulled him down, his torso tense, his arms straining against the shadows.

There was another tug.

It was still a light touch, still without a discernible source, but now it had a very definite intent. A want.

"What are you waiting for?" Arthur growled, but Merlin wasn't fooled, there was a plead and a beg in his voice, and --

A tug.

Not a pull on his arm, not hands on his shoulders pressing him down, not the press of heels or hands on his back. Nothing so simple. It was a full-body yearning, a command dragging him forward, an irresistible urge to close the gap between him and Arthur.

"It's you," Merlin breathed, too far gone to think much beyond the realization that this bond between them -- this impossible, precious bond -- was deeper and more profound than any other bond between every Dragon and Shadowlord before them.

He leaned down and kissed the questions out of Arthur's mouth and mind. He took himself in hand and pressed against Arthur's hole. Arthur's legs tightened around Merlin's waist, holding him in place for a brief moment as Merlin's cock breached him. He relaxed and pulled at Merlin's hips, when Merlin didn't start moving.

Merlin paused, bowing his head in worship once he had bottomed out. He breathed in heavy pants and a shudder of shattering self-control. He thrust once, twice, slow, careful -- and then he couldn't hold back anymore.

The shadows sidled away.

He fucked Arthur, sharp, hard, matching grunt for groan. Arthur's hands clenched at Merlin's biceps, urging him on.

Arthur couldn't see in the dark, but he could reach and touch and feel. He teased Merlin's chest; he rubbed and pinched Merlin's nipples; he curled a hand behind Merlin's neck and pulled him down for a crushing kiss. Merlin felt Arthur's free hand slip between them, to take himself in hand. Arthur and stroked at an increasing speed, until he was suddenly arching his back and coming with a loud moan.

Merlin was not long in following him.

He rested on top of Arthur and buried his head in the crook of Arthur's neck. He panted for breath, his heart rate slowing down, and closed his eyes.

Arthur brushed his hands down Merlin's back, ran his fingers through Merlin's hair. They stayed like that in silence, neither of them speaking except to wince when Merlin pulled out and the dry cum between them flaked off their skin.

"All right, pet?" Arthur asked, his voice gentle.

"Yeah," Merlin said, not opening his eyes. "All right."

"I can tell," Arthur said with a laugh. Merlin shifted onto his elbows, blinking against the too-bright of the lighting in the room, the shadows having retreated until all that was left behind was a dim, ambient glow that seared Merlin's eyes. He squinted. "I can see again. Hurts your eyes, doesn't it?"

"It'll get better," Merlin said. He hesitated. "Arthur... I -- I'm sorry --"

"No." Arthur shook his head. "Don't. A bit of bondage, a bit of the dark? It seems I've a new kink, I'll admit."

Merlin huffed a laugh. He shifted and leaned against Arthur.

"Would've preferred the bed, though," Arthur said. "A bit easier on the back."

"Wouldn't be a problem if you'd pick up after yourself. Clean this pigsty every now and then," Merlin muttered.

Arthur chuckled. Merlin felt a smile stretch on his lips. Arthur's tiny chuckle became a laugh, rich and honest, and Merlin felt himself laughing right alongside with him.

He sobered quickly when Arthur asked, "Is it always like this? The shadows, I mean."

Merlin sighed and rolled off. He sat up and brought his knees to his chest. He wrapped an arm around his legs and rubbed his face. "I haven't... I spent a long time hiding what I am, Arthur. I've used more of the shadows since I've met you than I probably have in my entire life. I'm bound to be... rusty, aren't I?"

Arthur shifted besides Merlin; they sat side by side, their legs brushing. Arthur leaned forward, his chin on his arm, his head turned toward Merlin.

"I hate it when you hide," Arthur said. He reached out, ruffling Merlin's hair, pulling Merlin close for another kiss.

A soft chime pulled them apart.

Arthur sighed.

"That'll be the ships, calling in with their answer," Arthur said. He patted around, picking up pieces of clothing and holding them up. "Lights, ten percent."

The atmospheric controls increased until it was at the outer edge of Merlin's comfort levels. The light crawled on his skin. Instead of complaining, he asked, "What if they say no?"

Arthur stood up, pulling on his shirt. His expression was inscrutable. He shrugged as if it didn't matter, and changed the subject entirely. "Ah, did you know we have a tradition?"

Merlin spread his hands and blew his breath, not sure where Arthur was going with this. "I'm sure you have many lovely and inexplicable traditions."

Arthur pulled on the body armour leggings, and Merlin stared, wondering how the shadows had removed both their armour and clothing without destroying or damaging them. Arthur saw him watching and grinned. "Whenever we have a new King, the old throne is destroyed. The new King picks their own chair."

"Is that right?" Merlin asked carefully.

Arthur's eyes sparkled. "I've seen pictures of the Imperial throne, haven't I? A bit of a monstrous thing, if you ask me. I rather fancy it."

 


Chapter Sixteen

Asterism: The Sword in the Stone

The Sword in the Stone

Location: Excalibur, Pirate Warship, Entering the Capital Solar System

 

"Well. It looks like they're all there," Leon remarked.

How Leon was able to keep all emotion out of his voice and state the situation in a matter-of-fact tone, as if he weren't right in the middle of the mire, Arthur would never know. Arthur wasn't fooled, though. Leon was as tense as the rest of the crew, bowstring taut, ready to fray and snap.

Two of the warships from the Pirate fleet had turned back with the crew who had opted to return home. Arthur had eighteen ships left, more mines than they knew what to do with, and sixty-four fighters, piloted by some of the most daredevil men and women that Arthur had ever met. It was more than Arthur had expected.

It had taken judicious use of long-range sensors, clever navigation through foldspace, and a circuitous route past natural pitfalls, but they were now as close to the Core Worlds as they could get. If they tripped any sensors along the way, Lance's interrupt protocol corrupted the alert before it went on full broadcast, and Galahad transmitted new coordinates to all the ships that would take them away from the beacon and far from Imperial scrutiny.

But now they were within the Core Worlds principal solar system. Albion was the fourth planet from a yellow star, following an elliptical orbit; there were two moons, one larger than the other. It was a normal, unimposing planet with smears of blue and brown and coated with a layer of cloudy white. Arthur could scarce believe that all the strife experienced throughout the Empire had come from such a place.

He thought that he would feel something for this planet, this Albion. The planet of his ancestors, where his family had lived and thrived, where the Imperial palace had been constructed to hold the throne -- his throne -- of the Empire.

Arthur felt only detachment, an idle anger and morbid apathy. He found that he didn't care whether the planet was destroyed, or claimed for the Pirates, as long as what they were about to do. They needed to end the war.

Arthur glanced around.

Lucan was deep in concentration, his eyes fixed on the tri-fold holo-screen in front of him, his face lined with the reflected blue-white lines, and dotted with the red and green and blue that represented ships and satellites. His earphones encircled his throat like a collar, and every now and then, he would press a cup against his ear and tilt his head, listening for errant sounds.

Elyan, in contrast, sat with his arms crossed over his chest and his head bowed. Arthur knew Elyan was listening to a full, overlapping broadcast spectrum of chatter originating from the Imperial frequencies, keeping an ear out for a list of certain keywords that would hint at the Conglomerate's awareness of their presence. Gwaine and Perceval were sitting motionless at their consoles, studying the scattered pattern of enemy ships, no doubt evaluating and plotting a weapons spread for maximum damage.

Geraint and Galahad were on high alert. Although Geraint sat in the first seat, both men were among the best pilots that the Pirates had to offer, and Arthur trusted them to get Excalibur through the line of Imperial ships without alerting them to their presence. Thus far, the cloaking device was working beautifully, but there was a power bleed that Lance couldn't repair, and the ship was running consoles dark to keep any unexpected flare-ups from compromising their position.

The dim light suited Merlin, who had pushed the hood from his head. He stood to the side of the Captain's chair, his head tilted, his eyes narrowed in quiet contemplation.

"You've been here before," Arthur said.

Leon glanced over his shoulder at them, pausing only long enough to give Arthur a you know we haven't scowl before raising a brow and realizing that Arthur had been speaking to Merlin.

"To Albion, yes. To the capital? No." Merlin said. His shoulders were relaxed, his arms were crossed over his chest. He cast a sidelong look in Arthur's direction and shrugged. "People are willing to pay a lot of money to have their high-powered enemies killed. They're not so willing to pay the price I charged for assassinating targets who live within the palace proper. It's easier to get to them away from Albion, where the security is more easily compromised."

"Thought it through, haven't you though?" Perceval asked. "What it'll take to get in there, do the deed, and get out?"

Arthur leaned on his armrest, studying Merlin's expression. All the blueprints, the information on security feeds, the information from security feeds -- nothing was quite as useful as someone who had been planning such a breach for years, if not more.

"You have, haven't you?" Arthur asked.

Merlin half-turned to face Arthur. He shrugged again, sheepish; there was a faint apology in his eyes, though Arthur couldn't fathom why until he realized that Merlin hadn't volunteered this particular detail when Arthur had been planning the ingress onto the palace grounds.

"Keeping things from me, aren't you, pet?" Arthur asked, his eyes narrowed, but there was no real heat to his tone.

"Haven't paid his fee, yeah?" Gwaine said, a quick smile flashing across his face.

Arthur exchanged a long look with Merlin. He smiled to see the faint blush across Merlin's cheeks, the burning tips of his ears. "Oh, I've paid a fee, but there's interest that I'll be paying for decades to come, won't I?"

Merlin turned away. There was a curl of a smile tugging at his lips, the slight incline of acceptance in the way he nodded his head. Gwaine, watching them, made a face.

"Aren't you two the most disgustingly adorable pair. Quit it. You're making us ill," he said, shaking his head. He made an offhand gesture in Merlin's direction. "Fair to assume, then, he's the one leading us in?"

Arthur hesitated. He glanced at Merlin, and, not seeing any change in his expression, admitted, "We haven't discussed it."

"What!" Gwaine stared at the two of them, his mouth open. "Are you telling me that in the middle of fucking like bunnies, neither of you could be arsed to hammer out some sort of plan to make sure we get in and out of there alive?"

Merlin looked at Arthur, then; this time, the blush on his cheeks was a shade darker. "It didn't come up."

"Oh, ho, ho, I'm sure something did come up," Galahad said, tapping a few commands in a pop-up holo console before immediately closing it down. "But I have little to no desire in learning what. Keep it to yourselves, if you please -- I have more pressing concerns at the moment than imagining my Captain naked."

"Which implies that you have been imagining him naked," Leon said.

"Haven't we all?" Galahad answered, raising a single finger in the air to stop any potential retort. "Not the point. The point is, hush up. I'm making some critical calculations here. The sort of life-saving critical, so can we move out of the bedroom and, oh, I don't know, past these blokes?"

He waved wildly at the two-dimensional screen, indicating the mixture of Conglomerate and Imperial ships.

"I don't know," Geraint said slowly, his brow pinched in concentration as he made a slight course correction. "The Captain's nice and all, but I'm kind of wondering what Emrys looks like without all his layers."

Every pair of eyes -- except for Geraint and Galahad, whose task was to ensure Excalibur manoeuvred its way past the Conglomerate blockage without setting off any kind of sensor -- turned to look at Merlin. Lucan shook his head and forced himself to study his screen, but there was a half-laugh on his lips. Elyan leaned back in his chair to get a better look at Merlin. Leon raised an appraising brow, and Perceval crossed his big arms, tilting his head. Gwaine's smirk was as smarmy as ever, and Arthur had never seen Merlin more tightly controlled than he was now, obviously uncomfortable.

"I find it disturbing that your crew fantasizes about us," Merlin said, his tone flat.

"You can't really blame us. Not much by way of entertainment around here," Galahad groused. "It's not like we're about to perform the riskiest planetside pillage we've ever done. It's all a piece of cake, really. I don't know why I'm stressing out. Wait. I'm stressing out because -- fuckshite, Geraint, 0.23° port low, right now, damn it --"

The ship lurched, rumbling faintly, reminding Arthur of taking his sailboat too close to the reef, and stuttering along a sandbank before slipping off into deeper waters. Excalibur stabilized, the engine quieted, and the bridge held its proverbial breath, waiting for something to happen.

Nothing did.

"We're clear," Lucan said, swallowing hard.

"Yeah. We're clear," Elyan said, his eyes fixed on his screen. "Doesn't sound like anyone's noticed."

Arthur sat up straighter in his chair, forcing himself to relax his white-knuckled grip on the armrests. "Let's table this discussion for a later time, shall we?"

"Preferably never again," Merlin muttered under his breath.

"Can't have you lot distracted with wondering. Let me settle the question in your minds -- under all Emrys' clothes? Fan-fucking-tastic," Arthur said. "You don't know what you're missing."

Merlin shot a dark glare in Arthur's direction. A small chorus of chuckles filled the bridge -- accompanied by a groan of disappointment from Gwaine's station -- and Arthur gave Merlin a small smile. Merlin returned it grudgingly, shaking his head.

"For what it's worth," Merlin said quietly, "If I happened to have a plan or two for entering and leaving the palace without getting noticed, they won't work. I know what I'd need for one person to make their way in, but extrapolating for a full crew? We'll be caught out within minutes of entering the grounds."

"Ah," Arthur said, unable to quash his disappointment. "Well. Our best bet is a direct approach, then, and make it up as we go."

Merlin turned. He draped an arm across the back of the Captain's chair, leaning in with a soft sigh. He didn't speak, not right away, and when he did, it was with quiet determination. "Your plan stands, Arthur. Get us as close as you can. There's gardens enough in the front and the rear to land. I'll lead you in. I know the way. The getting there will be the trick, but I promise you, I will see you on that throne."

Arthur exhaled slowly. He nodded curtly. The unshakable oath in Merlin's tone and the faith in his determination rattled Arthur to the core.

"Did we just witness a proposal? That was a proposal, wasn't it? Is there a wedding in the future? I don't have anything to wear!"

"Shut it, Gwaine," Galahad groused. He tapped a new set of commands on a new pop-up screen.

Merlin rolled his eyes, irritated. "Thank you, Gwaine. You ruined the moment. Now he'll never say yes."

"It was very poignant," Gwaine promised. "He'll be a fool to turn you down. And if he does, well, I have room in my bed if you need consoling."

"He won't need it," Arthur said, a sharper edge to his tone than he'd meant. Leon shot him a knowing glance, and Arthur snapped, "Can we focus?"

"Please," Galahad said.

There was a period of blissful silence. The ship continued on its path at excruciatingly slow speeds; Arthur watched the faint dots on the overhead display drop away as they progressed. The other ships were following in some semblance of a line formation -- jagged and lagging, but they were in a line -- and they had all made it past the outer fringe of the solar system and the first wave of Imperial defences. They needed to get past a second line of defence -- satellite with superior detection technology using the near-absolute zero temperatures of space to render sensitive sensor membranes almost completely immobile. They didn't only have to contend with having the ship's wake triggering the sensor, but the slightest amount of temperature shift would set alarms off, too.

Each ship in the Pirate fleet would be operating on their own. The ships would spread out across the expanse of the solar system. Each Captain would rely on whatever tools they had at their disposal.

They had tricks, and they had tricks. The easiest way past the Imperial sensors would be to use the planetary gravity to slingshot past while running consoles black. The hardest would be navigating through the narrow gaps where the sensor range between satellites didn't quite overlap.

Arthur was leaving the course to Galahad to calculate. Geraint and Galahad were both gifted pilots, but it was Galahad who had a head for the intricate mathematics required to set the safest route coordinates. They both would be relying on Lucan. Lucan might not be a technologically-advanced piece of technology capable of detecting the slightest blip of a passing neutrino through space, but his instincts had never failed them.

They'd made it past the Conglomerate blockage at the outer fringes of the solar system. Getting through the sensitive sensor next was next. The third level of protection for the Imperial capital were the Imperials and Conglomerates both. These included the Reserve ships and the warships and cruisers that had made all haste from the war at the borders to arrive here in Albion.

As long as the cloaks held, the Pirates stood an excellent chance of getting between the Imperial line and the capital, but that was, as Arthur's father used to say, putting the engine before the ship. They needed to get past the sensor field, first.

Arthur felt a dull pang of sorrow. He fought against the wave of grief. He couldn't afford to mourn his father now, but he would honour Uther's memory by returning to their ancestral home.

At least once. Even if only briefly.

A hand squeezed Arthur's shoulder. He gave Merlin a reassuring nod.

"I need absolute, complete silence," Geraint said. "I don't want to hear anyone else but Galahad and Lucan."

"What the three of you do in your spare time ought to be caught on camera for everyone's titillation," Gwaine muttered.

Arthur raised a brow. "That's a big word for you. How much did it set you back?"

"A few coppers. It was a bargain," Gwaine said. Geraint gave Gwaine a look that bordered on the murderous, but it was the pistol pointed at Gwaine that shut him up. Gwaine made a turnkey-locking gesture with his fingers over his lips.

Arthur kept his eyes glued on the overhead display. The satellites were bright orange dots at what looked to be precise distances. If these sensors were anything like the ones close to military or high-value Imperial installations, they would be equipped with short-range thrusters to adjust and correct their location. For all that space was empty, space was also fluid, and graviton waves, radiation, and comet dust would gently push and pull the satellites out of position. Reverse engineering Imperial satellites had revealed that the sensors weren't half as sensitive as the Empire would like them to believe. Some of them were older than the dirt on the planets on the Core Worlds.

The Imperial military had addressed this problem by packing the area full of as many sensors as they could, and navigating them required serious piloting skills. There would be a narrow margin for error.

"Bridge," Lance's voice came over the comms. Arthur immediately sat up, because they were under a radio silence edict for a reason. If Lance was using the comms now, instead of sending Bran -- too late, Arthur remembered that they'd sent Bran off with the ship returning to Pirate space -- or anyone else, there was a problem greater than the risk of being detected because they were using the comms.

Arthur and Leon exchanged glances.

"That bump in the road earlier set off a power cascade failure in the Imperial cloaking device. If I don't disconnect it soon, the power lines feeding it are going to be damaged and the cascade failure will spread. We'll be dead in the water flashing our bare arse at the Imperials, and -- fuckshite --" Whatever else Lance was about to say died in a loud fizzle-pop.

Arthur knew that sound. It was the sound of power relays bursting.

"-- we've got two minutes, maybe less, definitely less," Lance said. "Countdown starts now. If you've got a contingency plan, Captain, now's the time to use it."

Arthur covered his mouth with his hand and scanned the overhead display, trying to plot a route through the satellite net that would take them into the shadow of a nearby moon, or behind one of the larger fleet ships where they could, at least, mask their presence somewhat. There weren't many options. "Galahad, where can we go --"

"In less than two minutes? Not much of anywhere, not without setting off all the bloody alarms --"

"That's not the only problem," Leon said. "Hull radiation levels are rising. The cloak's destabilizing and we're giving off double our normal energy signature. If we haven't triggered the traps, we'll be stumbling about the mousetraps soon."

Arthur stood up abruptly, considering his options. If the cloak went down, they would be triggering more than just the passive defence satellites. They would show up on the Imperial ship sensors, and there would be no hiding that.

"Get us behind that planet," Arthur barked, pointing at the nearest celestial body in range. "Full light."

"Oh, shite," Gwaine hissed. He reached for the belt straps and fastened them without another word, and instead worked frantically to secure the weapons before the sheer shift in force tore them from the hull. Perceval was only a heartbeat behind him.

"That's fucking insane, Captain," Galahad said, his fingers already tapping on the side console, activating a small holo-screen. "I like it."

"I don't," Geraint grit his teeth, already setting the parameters for a braking scheme into the navigation console. Fractions of near-FTL speeds were safe enough for interplanetary systems, though it was recommended -- a suggestion best taken if not feeling particularly suicidal that day -- that FTL braking manoeuvres commence immediately upon entering a solar system. The alternative was an accidental spaceship-sized smear on the side of an asteroid. Or a planet.

A short full-light hop to park the Excalibur behind an unpopulated planet was… ambitious, to say the least, and Arthur knew it. But it was also the only way to ensure that the sensors wouldn't lock onto their trajectory once the cloak completely disintegrated. Hopefully, they wouldn't be much more than a ghost blip on the Imperial ship sensors. Arthur could only pray that whoever was manning the observation station wasn't a third as efficient as Lucan.

"We'll trigger the sensors," Leon warned. "Elyan, flag the other ships, tell them to scatter their routes and get the fuck out of the way."

Elyan quietly recorded a quick message and sent it out in a packet burst.

Arthur hit the 1MC. "All crew. Attention. Brace for full-light and rapid braking manoeuvres. Engineering, what's the count?"

"Twenty. Nineteen. I'm pulling it on five for good measure," Lance said. "Sixteen."

"Engage on his five, Geraint," Arthur ordered.

"Aye, aye," Geraint said.

Arthur sat heavily in the Captain's chair and fastened the buckles. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Merlin slip into an unoccupied station and do the same -- but instead of bothering with the Teflon straps, tendrils of shadows lashed out and curled protectively around Merlin's torso.

Sense memory lingered for hours, even days, but Arthur didn't think he would ever forget the sensation of those shadows wrapping around his legs and wrists, holding him helpless and open and at Merlin's mercy. A heated flush of desire flared under his skin, and Arthur forced himself to concentrate. If they didn't do this right, they were going to die.

Admittedly, daydreaming about getting fucked by Merlin was hardly a bad way to go.

"Five," Lance announced. "Cloak down."

"Engaging," Galahad said, because Geraint was otherwise occupied.

Excalibur jerked forward in a dizzying blue-white streak of stars and planets blurring past. The vid screen abruptly went black, and a combination of ship gravity and the sudden arrest of movement suspended the crew in a few precious seconds of disorienting weightlessness before the crushing braking forces hit. It felt as if something had reached deep into Arthur's soul and was simultaneously tearing him apart in two direction -- behind him and down. Arthur grimaced at the sensation. He ignored the black spots in front of his eyes and tried to predict which of his crews would pass out from the strain -- it would be a momentary blackout, nothing more, with a handful of personnel requiring immediate medical attention in order to revive them.

Geraint and Galahad would be fine; they thrived under these conditions. If Arthur didn't know better, he'd think those two had been genetically engineered to tolerate high stress conditions, using the spike in adrenaline to combat the effects of dangerous, high-velocity manoeuvres. Gwaine, on the other hand, slumped over his console, his limbs lax, already passed out. Perceval turned a sickly green, and as long as Lucan concentrated on sensors he couldn't clearly hear until they were stopped, he would be fine, too.

Leon's white-knuckled grip on the bank of consoles around him was a telling giveaway; more than once, his grasp slipped and he scrambled to steady himself. Elyan -- Arthur couldn't see him, and didn't dare turn his head until they were stopped properly -- breathed heavily, more susceptible, somehow, to the inertial forces that were pressing heavily on his chest.

The ship was rumbling, trembling, vibrating, the stabilizing flaps open on full. The reverse thrusters engaged. The vid screen was suddenly full of too-close planet, displaying dizzying pale beige and brown swirls. Excalibur's artificial intelligence triggered and spit out scan readings on the overhead display. The planet's atmosphere was made up of toxic cases that would make short work of disintegrating Excalibur's hull. Arthur's fingers dug into the armrest of his chair reflexively, even though he knew logically that his reaction wouldn't do one damn thing to stop the ship's inertia.

They were already caught in the planet's gravity. Under normal circumstances it would take a slight adjustment of the navigation course and a counter-thrust do nudge the ship back into orbit. Under these circumstances…

Arthur was torn between squeezing his eyes shut and praying for a quick death and keeping them open to see what kind of piloting wizardry Geraint and Galahad were about to perform to get them out of this particular mess. The decision was taken out of his hands when Geraint pulled on the stick hard enough to force the nose up and Galahad engaged the engines, pushing them into the red to approach near-FTL speeds. The ship bounced, and it bounced hard, like a skipping stone on the sea, its course altered by the tiny waves and eddies in the atmosphere.

The bridge was eerily silent. Geraint and Galahad didn't speak to each other; they didn't shout orders at each other. They worked in tandem, with the practice of a piloting pair who had been flying together their entire lives, aware of one's quirks and skill and immediately compensating for a tactic that hadn't yet been put into play. There was another rough crash, followed by a flash of bright blue light out of the corner of Arthur's eye -- an empty, unsecured section had been jarred, and the console had broken in a shower of sparks.

Arthur gagged on the unexpected wave of noxious fumes from the burning plasticizers protecting the wiring. Gwaine was still slumped unconscious, and he was also in the middle of that cloud, breathing it in. He would suffocate in a few minutes.

Merlin was out of his seat in an instant, the shadows releasing him far faster than any crew could free themselves from buckles and straps. Excalibur jerked wildly. The vid screen showed the planet spinning counterclockwise, no longer dead ahead, and Merlin stumbled, crouching on one knee as he grabbed the back of Arthur's chair for balance.

"Merlin?"

"'m fine," Merlin said. He stood up a moment later, a swirl of shadow teasing at the back of Arthur's neck, and Merlin was off again, darting across the deck, his legs as sea-worthy as any sailor that Arthur had ever met. Merlin did something and Gwaine fell out of his chair, caught at the last second by Merlin, who dragged him away.

The smoke was getting thicker. The life support system hadn't activated -- there was too much power shunted to the engines -- and a panel that should have been otherwise fireproof suddenly burst into flames.

"Extinguishers!" Arthur shouted.

"They're working about as well as the bloody ventilation, which is not at all," Leon snapped back, jamming a finger at a command button.

Merlin strapped Gwaine into the chair he had vacated and walked across the bridge again, not as steady this time as he had been the last, not with Excalibur about to flip --

Arthur started to shout at Geraint to do something when the ship lurched feebly in a last, half-hearted hop over the atmosphere . The hull stopped vibrating, the ship stopped shaking, the floor was steady, suddenly, and Merlin stumbled when the expected shift didn't come. They stabilized and all the gauges in red eased into a worrisome yellow and slowly, the controls began to glow a respectable green.

Arthur scratched at the buckles on his restraints and surged out of his chair, but Merlin had already found the manual fire extinguisher and was putting out the flames. His hair was wild, a black mask swathed his face, and he was too calm considering that the ship had damn near crashed into the hard side of a planet.

With the power back at normal levels, the ventilation triggered, sucking out every bit of smoke in the room, leaving behind a bitter aftertaste.

Leon activated the 1MC. "All decks. All crew. Report." He bowed his head as the call-ins began, compiling a full list of injuries and damage. Merlin put down the fire extinguisher and wiped the foam from his hands.

Arthur turned to look across the bridge. "Lucan?"

Lucan held up a finger; his free hand was over the earpiece, cupping it as if trying to direct every blip of noise into his ear.

The silence stretched. Abruptly, Lucan nodded sharply, a self-satisfied smile on his lips. "The satellite alarm triggered. The CorpsCops we left behind are mobilizing, but no one's left formation yet."

Arthur glanced up at the map, but there was no corresponding movement to hint that they'd been discovered. If Lucan said that was what was happening, then that was what was happening. Lucan had never been wrong before.

Merlin was at Gwaine's side, checking for life signs. Merlin nodded at Arthur's unspoken question, and Arthur released a breath of relief. "Slap him. It usually wakes him up."

Merlin raised a brow, paused to consider, and slapped Gwaine across the cheek. The sound reverberated loudly; Gwaine groaned and moaned, "Are we al-- Holy shite my face is on fucking fire -- you didn't have to hit me so fucking hard. Goddamn it. That hurt."

The entire crew, Geraint and Galahad included, turned to look at Merlin.

Merlin shrugged. "He's awake, isn't he?"

"I wish I was dead," Gwaine moaned, holding his face. Merlin moved his hand aside and snapped fingers in front of his eyes, checking pupil responses. For all that Merlin played up the assassin's role among the Pirates, only Arthur would ever know how much Merlin genuinely cared for those around him.

"You'll live," Merlin said.

"And the bad news keeps coming," Geraint said dryly, eyeing Gwaine up and down with what passed for mocking disdain. Arthur knew better. That was a thin veil of concern that Arthur saw before Geraint returned his attention to the screen and his console.

"What's our status?" Arthur asked, coming up behind Leon.

"Most of the crew reported in. Those who haven't were checked in by someone else -- alive, but unconscious. Probably weak-bellied like our Gwaine --"

"Oi. Perce's the one with the weak belly," Gwaine groused. He rubbed the side of his head. There was a pinched look in his eyes, as if he was nursing a vicious hangover.

"That's right, you're the one with the weak head," Leon said, sounding genuinely apologetic. "I'll try to remember that."

"Please do," Gwaine said, standing up. Merlin caught him before he fell, but Gwaine made it across the bridge without help, sinking into his station with relief. He touched every corner of the console the way a Pirate would touch their loved one after a long absence. He promptly flicked at the switches, unmooring the weapons system.

Across the bridge, Perceval threw up in an air sickness bag. Arthur grimaced and looked away. His stomach churned in sympathy, and he swallowed down the bile.

"Everyone's alive, at least. No critical injuries," Leon said. Arthur nodded, pleased for at least that small mercy. "But for the rest… We took some knocks and our belly's a bit bare. Fore shields are down eight percent, and some of the heavier port plating is bent. If the Empire gets lucky and hits us below the waterline, we're in danger of a breach."

"Can we compensate with shield harmonics?" Arthur asked.

Leon shook his head. "All it'll take is a projectile with enough mass to push through the deflectors and smash-bang its way through the hull."

"All right," Arthur said. He ran a hand through his hair and pressed his lips together in thought. "Any more good news?"

"We're down the cloaks," Lance said from the entrance to the bridge. He leaned against the bulkhead, a dirty cloth pressed against his forehead. He looked as if he'd been banged about and there was a bloody streak down his face, but otherwise he was none the worse for wear.

"No surprise there. Shite Conglomerate technology," Gwaine said, spreading his hands in a shrug. "You'll get it going again."

"Not hardly," Lance said. He spread both hands, palm up -- the wadded, bloody cloth in one hand. The cut on his forehead was closer to the temple and went all the way into his hairline. He was probably fine, but head wounds were a bitch to heal. Lance weighed down one hand, then the other, and said, "I had two choices, didn't I? Try for the cloaks or save the engines. Ladies and gentlemen, we have engines."

"For some definition of engines," Galahad muttered, frowning. After a moment's pause, he reached over the middle console and tapped Geraint's shoulder. "Are the brakes still on?"

"No, the brakes are -- what are you --" Geraint swatted at Galahad and called up the system specs status screen. There was a disturbingly long silence as Geraint and Galahad flicked through the details, the two of them arguing quietly.

"What they're about to discover is that we're working at maybe fifty percent," Lance said, "And that's a very firm maybe. I could fix it, bring it to a full half, maybe eighty percent, but we need to dry dock our girl and let her power cells run down. That's not likely to happen, not with..."

Lance waved a hand at the overhead screen, indicating the battlefield ahead. Arthur grimaced at both the news and the reminder.

"We'll have to make do with what we've got. No more risky acrobatics," Arthur said. He narrowed his gaze and studied the map, trying to come up with a new, viable plan. Given their options, it wasn't looking promising. He could see the Conglomerate line in orbit around the capital planet. The line of CorpsCops cruisers and Imperial warships behind them remained unchanged, but there were small blips of yellow light, moving fast, the sensor signature matching that of fighter ships. Those were the squad that Lucan had promised, coming in to investigate the sensor disturbance.

Arthur mentally calculated how much time they would have before the fighter ships were in visual distance of the advance warning satellite system. How long it would be before the fighter ships' limited sensor range would notice the Pirate ship in orbit against a gaseous planet. Arthur checked the planet's composition and considered giving the order to drop the ship into the upper atmosphere, giving Excalibur a way to confound Imperial sensors.

He would wait until the last possible second to give that order. The upper atmosphere of the planet was as corrosive as the lower atmosphere. Their already damaged armour plating would disintegrate in no time at all.

The only other option was standing their ground -- with Gwaine and Perceval at the master weapons controls, they had excellent odds against the smaller, faster fighter ships. But attracting attention to themselves this early was bound to throw their careful planning into the head. Arthur didn't fancy getting himself between a rock and a hard place. They wouldn't have anywhere to run, and as it was, they were effectively pinned down.

"Yeah, yeah, risky acrobatics, check. I remind you, it wasn't our idea in the first place," Geraint said. Arthur ignored him.

"The other ships reported in. They're all through the field," Elyan said. "They're asking for our status, which I think is code for do we leave those pillocks high and dry and turn tail, or do we see if they need help."

"More like, let's leave them and pillage the capital anyway, and keep their share for ourselves," Gwaine said, his tone bitter and pragmatic.

"Still sore about getting bilked out of your share when you crewed on the Hydra?" Perceval asked.

Gwaine scoffed. "What? Me? No, hardly at all, why would I waste my energy on them? It's all water under the bridge --"

"Bollocks," Lance said. He studied his station. The fire extinguisher foam had formed dry icicles, and the console was covered with a thick, impregnable layer. "What happened to my post?"

"That's what happens when we lose more than fifty percent of our engines," Geraint said flippantly. Lance walked up behind Geraint, smacked him up the back of his head, and headed for a vacant station on the other side of the bridge.

"What should I tell the other ships, Captain?" Elyan asked. He flicked a switch and read something on the screen. "Captain Gorlois is asking if they should go on ahead without us. Said that she'll lead the others in, get past the Imperials, and set the mines before dropping the cloak. If fortune favours us, we could fly past, maybe make it through without getting caught in the crossfire --"

"She actually said if fortune favours us?" Perceval asked with a snort. His colour was returning, but he was still a sickly shade of grey.

"Sent us a message burst, actually," Elyan said, "But I can hear the sarcasm loud and clear."

Arthur crossed his arms over his chest. He exchanged a long glance with Leon; the two had crewed together for so long that Arthur didn't need to be told what Leon was thinking. The rest of the bridge weren't as perceptive, and Leon said, "Not much that we can do without a cloak. We can take the time to repair the engines a bit more, push the ship into near-FTL to get to the capital --"

"No, absolutely not," Galahad said.

"I said dry dock, not stick me in a suit and dangle me on a fishhook with a hammer and a welding kit," Lance snapped. "It's not happening. The engines we've got are the engines we've got, and I need more than a half hour to make it worth our while."

Arthur swallowed a sigh. He shut his eyes and rubbed them until he saw stars. When he glanced around the bridge again, he said, "Tell the ships to go ahead without us. We'll have to catch up. We're no good to them until the mines are set and they're ready to drop cloak."

"Aye, Captain," Elyan said, swivelling his chair around.

"Belay that."

Elyan's hand hovered over the console, and he glanced between Merlin and Arthur. It wasn't often that someone other than Arthur or Leon cancelled a command -- not often that anyone dared. The crew glanced at Arthur and Leon for confirmation.

"What are you thinking, pet?"

"I'm thinking I made a promise, and that was you on the throne, not some other Pirate who's only in it for the spoils," Merlin said, his tone light. A frown weighed his expression, and everyone on the bridge fell quiet, waiting for him to continue. "I'm thinking we have a cloak."

"Not a working one."

"Not an Conglomerate cloak. Not a Pirate cloak," Merlin said, He paused and shrugged half-heartedly. "You have me."

Arthur and Leon exchanged glances, but before Arthur could say, no, absolutely not, you've extended yourself enough, I need you on Albion, Gwaine asked, "Didn't you say a Shadow could barely cover a Needler?"

"I did," Merlin said, pulling his cowl over his head. He was turned away and walked to the middle of the bridge, kneeling a metre from the Captain's chair before settling onto his heels. "The other Shadows are acolytes. Journeymen. A handful of Master potentials among them, but they have years of training yet to undergo."

"And where do you fit in?" Gwaine asked.

There was a long silence and a subtle dimming on the bridge as the shadows thickened; the environmental controls compensated by turning up the lights. It was a delicate balancing act between full darkness and blinding light, and Arthur wondered if anyone else on the bridge noticed.

"I'm the Shadowlord," Merlin said simply, as if that was all the explanation they needed. Arthur couldn't see Merlin's face at all; the jacket he wore, the cowl, the swirling shadows that were suddenly thicker all around Merlin's body -- even Merlin's eyes, normally bright and blue, were masked behind something hazy and swirling and alive. "I'll need a few minutes."

"Merlin, don't --"

"Don't argue with me, Arthur. We need to get you to Albion. And we will. Plot your course, batten down the hatches, raise the bloody Jolly Rogers -- whatever it is you Pirates do," Merlin said, waving a hand in the air. "Oh, also. You might want to warn the crew that it'll be getting a little dark on board the ship."

"You're not doing this. Stop what you're --" Arthur put a hand on Merlin's shoulder, his fingers digging into the material and finding only shadow before sinking down deep enough to feel the solid plate on Merlin's back. "Don't you remember the last time? You were useless afterward. We need you on the planet --"

Merlin's fingers closed around Arthur's wrist, flexible armour against Arthur's solid wrist bracer. "Last time, I was drawing power from over thirty ships. This time, I'm shadowing one. And you have it wrong. We don't need me on the planet. We need you on the planet."

Arthur hesitated.

"Now shut it and let me concentrate," Merlin said, letting Arthur go. Arthur drew his hand back, shaking it a little, as if burned despite his layers of protection.

"Yeah, Captain," Gwaine said, raising both brows, almost mocking. "Shut it and let him concentrate."

Arthur glared at him and walked around Merlin, careful not to jostle him on his way to the Captain's chair. "You're wanting the brig."

"'Course I do," Gwaine said, shrugging nonchalantly. "But after the party, yeah? I don't want to miss it."

Arthur sat down and turned to Lance. "Shut down all nonessential systems. Shunt the power to the engines. If things go badly, we'll signal the others, drop into foldspace and get the fuck out of here."

"Your confidence in my abilities are astounding," Merlin said.

"Concentrate," Arthur snapped.

There was a brief silence, broken by an exasperated sigh. "I don't know why Emrys bothered proposing. They already act like an old married couple."

"Brig," Arthur said firmly, shooting Gwaine a dark look. Gwaine smirked and curled over his console, his fingers coding in vector lines for the initial assault. Arthur turned and pointed at Elyan. "Tell Morgause that she's very kind, but that Excalibur is still the flagship. We proceed as planned."

"She'll be so disappointed," Elyan said, already compressing the message for a data burst.

"Life is full of disappointments," Leon said, adjusting the brightness of his consoles. "Captain Gorlois will just have to suck on our exhaust."

Arthur smirked. He couldn't help it. The mental image was surprisingly satisfying, and he knew that no fewer than the entire Pirate fleet thought the same way about Morgause. "Lucan?"

"Fighters still on approach, Captain," Lucan said. "Looks like they're splitting up, two teams of two. Haven't noticed us yet."

The bridge was nearly completely black; the atmospheric controls were struggling to keep the bridge bright. Their only illumination was a watery yellow light from the upper ring around the bridge, the dim multi-coloured holographic and hardcase consoles, the fore-ship view and the faint projected positions map floating overhead.

"Captain Gorlois sincerely hopes that when we're shot out of the sky, that it's a quick death," Elyan announced, his tone wry.

"Oh, that's nice of her," Geraint said, raising a hand in a two-fingered salute to the empty space on the vid screen in front of them.

"Practically a blessing," Perceval said.

"I knew she had a soft spot for you, Captain," Leon said. "I bet she'll even cry a tear when she scavenges us."

"Let's make it the other way around," Arthur said. He looked down at Merlin. From Arthur's vantage point, Merlin was completely relaxed, appearing to be in a meditative trance. The shadows were no thicker and no thinner for the few minutes that passed, and Arthur hesitated before quietly asking, "All right, pet?"

Merlin didn't answer right away. An errant shadow-tendril curled around Arthur's ankle. "As good as it'll get," Merlin admitted.

"Two questions before we're underway," Lucan said, glancing around. "They won't detect us, right? Not on sensors, anyway. Just like that trial run we had with the Needlers."

"They shouldn't," Merlin said, his tone distracted. Arthur shot a warning look at Lucan.

Lucan licked his lips and held his breath, wincing even as he asked the second question. "What about the White Legion? A shadow as big as Excalibur? They'll notice that, won't they?"

Arthur stared at the back of Merlin's head, feeling as if all the air had been punched out of his gut. Merlin's shoulders slumped and his head bowed down. His answer was almost too soft to hear, but Arthur thought that Lucan had heard it anyway, even if no one else on the bridge did.

"I don't know," Merlin admitted.

Every pair of eyes were on Merlin. Every expression was grim.

Arthur waited until each and every one looked up to see him. These were his men, his crew, his closest friends. They had thrown their lots in with him. He waited, wanting to give them one more chance to change their minds, to make for the bail bubbles in the hopes that a Pirate ship surviving the encounter would have the opportunity to pick them up before the Imperials ever did.

One by one, they nodded in answer to Arthur's unspoken question. A surge of overwhelming emotion took Arthur's breath away, and his voice was rough when he said, "Take us out, Geraint."

"Breaking gravity, Captain," Geraint confirmed.

They eased away from the planet, leaving behind the beautiful, dangerous swirls of toxic clouds and poisonous atmosphere. Excalibur broke orbit at slow manoeuvring speed, testing out the engines' temper. Arthur hoped that it would hold; a quick glance in Lance's direction showed that the ship's engineer was unconcerned.

"Two Imperial fighters eight hundred thousand klicks on our starboard," Lucan said. "We're within their sensor range.

"Maintain course," Arthur said. "Increase speed. Match the fleet."

"Increasing speed," Galahad said. "Zero point six-six near-light. Should catch us up in seven minutes."

"Ready the mines," Arthur said.

Leon passed the message on to the cargo bay. There was a moment of silence before he said, "Readying the mines, Captain."

"Fighters are turning back, Captain. No movement from the fleet behind us," Lucan said.

"Captain Morgause sent another message," Elyan said. "She's wondering if you're finished buggering your Shadow yet? She's tired of waiting."

Arthur raised a brow and glanced at Merlin. He exhaled, and the tension in his chest loosened. It wasn't that he didn't have faith in Merlin's abilities -- he did. It was that he was terrified that they'd be found out despite their best efforts to remain hidden. Morgause's message was confirmation that not even the Pirate fleet, who were closer than the Conglomerate ships, could see Excalibur.

It was a temporary relief that was waylaid by the knowledge that there were exiled Shadows -- the White Legion -- still ahead of them.

For now, Arthur put those thoughts aside, and revelled in the moment.

"Tell her that her eddies are showing and that she might want to slow her speed," Arthur said, not looking up from the panel on the side of his console. He glanced at Lucan and nodded his thanks for that tidbit of information. "Really, what's her hurry? It's as if she's trying to get to the throne before her King."

"The nerve of her," Gwaine snorted.

"Insufferable gall," Perceval agreed.

"It's almost as if she thinks she's a Pirate," Merlin said quietly, and the silence that followed was broken by Leon's sharp laugh.

"Imagine that," Leon said. "It's an insult to the whole of the Pirate Clans. Who would even dare take another person's booty?"

Arthur stared at the back of Merlin's head fondly, letting his eyes trail down the relaxed set of his shoulders. He grinned and said, "Who would, indeed?"

Lance groaned, and when Arthur glanced at him, he was in the midst of rolling his eyes. "I'd tell you to get a room, Captain, but there's more pressing concerns than pillaging your claimed."

Galahad made a small, strangled sound. "Nice one. In other news, we're approaching the fleet. Do we blow by them or do we match speed?"

"Match speed," Arthur said. "Distance to the line?"

"Stone's throw," Leon said. "Two minutes until we're in range."

"Elyan, synchronize the ships. Burst a message: radio silence until we're on the other side of the barricade and the mines are set. Choose your holes and pass on through. Fortune's blessing to all of us," Arthur said.

"Fortune's blessing," the bridge echoed, as if it were a religious affirmation. It might as well be; given the Hail Mary pass they were attempting. The only one not to repeat the words was Merlin, but the shadow tendril curled around Arthur's ankle tightened just enough to trip his suit's sensors in a demonstration of solidarity.

"Lucan, you have a way through the Conglomerate?"

"Sending the routes to navigation now," Lucan said.

"Received," Galahad said. From Arthur's position, he saw a small holo-screen appear in front of Galahad, the multiple options drawing lines across a three dimensional map. There were doubtless infinite courses through the scattered ships in formation between the Pirates and their goal, but Lucan had restricted himself to those that had the most promise. Galahad flicked through them one by one and kept flicking even after the list of options looped back onto itself.

"Plot your course," Arthur said.

"Aye, Captain. Dead ahead fifty and drop nose twelve degrees on my count," Galahad said, inputting the coordinates.

There was a quiet hush on the bridge. Excalibur was a whisper of activity, the crew labouring slowly and carefully lest a dropped wrench or a keytouch would make a noise loud enough for the Conglomerate ship sensors to detect. Gwaine was stoop-shouldered, as if wanting to crawl into a noise-cancelling cone. Perceval nervously opened and closed his hands, making his knuckles crack. He immediately shoved his hands under his armpits to keep from doing more of the same.

Lucan was wearing both earphones now, his head bowed over his console, his eyes narrow slits of concentration. Lance was monitoring the ship systems from his new position on the bridge, and Elyan had switched from his hard console to a holo-board, only because it was quieter.

"Eight degrees port, two degrees low," Galahad said quietly.

"Eight and two," Geraint confirmed, keeping the navigational directions up on the viewer. "Slow the speed, things are getting tight."

"Whale signs dead ahead," Lucan said. "Cloaked ship. Based on the size of the eddy, I'm guessing it's cruiser-class. Sending new coordinates."

"Received," Galahad said. "Recalculating course. Twelve degrees low. Now."

"Twelve low," Geraint said. The ship tilted abruptly, and there was a disorienting sensation of falling before the ship's gravity corrected itself.

Merlin, Arthur noted, hadn't slipped an inch.

It was a slow, excruciating dance that involved fewer steps forward than Arthur liked, and far too much sidling port or starboard in order to avoid an Imperial ship that was changing position or merely drifting in and out of another, larger ship's orbit. Arthur kept his eyes trained on the overhead holo-map, noting the positions of the other Pirate ships. Dauntless had gone high, hoping to avoid the bulk of the sidewinding by risking neck and arse by squeezing through the larger, heavier Imperial warships. They would have a fight on their hands to keep their ship's inertia just a bit faster than the combined gravitational forces of the warships, while still keeping their speed low enough that they didn't create a telltale ghost wake. Hornet was hanging back; it was the smallest ship in the fleet, and the one with the better odds of passing through quickly and undetected. Retaliate, Morgause's ship, had plotted a straight-through course on a high angle that ran the risk of colliding with not an Imperial ship, but one of the other Pirate ships who had elected to take a steady, zero degree course.

Arthur didn't worry about losing his own ships to blind piloting; every Pirate ship had shared transponder codes and could see each other on their relative positioning maps. Excalibur had lost both the Imperial cloak and their standard cloak, and that meant that they were unable to privately broadcast their location on the subfrequencies. They would have to rely on Lucan, Geraint and Galahad to make sure Excalibur steered clear of everyone, even their own.

"Dainty Strumpet is clear," Leon said.

Arthur glanced up and saw that the Strumpet was indeed clear of the barricade, and that they were moving into their designated position.

"Bravo slowed down," Lucan said. "They're pinned."

Two Imperial ships had sidled close enough together that it was impossible for Bravo to pass through without scratching a hull or two. Arthur watched intently as the blip of Pirate ship held steady, trapped and biding their time. The two Imperial ships face collision if they didn't adjust their course quickly -- it was now a matter of their correcting their positions before they bumped into the Bravo. Arthur watched as the two Imperial lights on the map brightened, before dimming dimmed and separating.

 

Bravo resumed course a few minutes later. Arthur released a breath he hadn't known he'd been holding.

Arthur scanned the map again and again, checking and re-checking everyone's position, gauging their progress. He was obsessing, he knew. He was intent on each ship in the Pirate fleet crossed the line without attracting unwanted attention. His attention was on the Hornet now, and he watched as it began its forward progress. It was the smallest, fastest ship, and it would cross with little difficulty --

"Dreadnought on our starboard side is moving," Lucan said. Arthur tore his eyes from the map and glanced at Lucan, who flashed the dreadnought in question on the screen. "If we weren't cloaked -- sorry, shadowed -- I'd say that they're moving to intercept."

"Is the White Legion on board that ship?" Arthur asked, glancing at Elyan.

Elyan frowned and flicked a switch, targeting his passive comms on the dreadnought. He listened for almost a full minute -- an uncomfortable minute where the dreadnought was definitely moving into position -- before shaking his head. "If there are, I'm not hearing any chatter."

"Are they picking up our wake?"

"We're paddling so smoothly we could reach out and pet a duck, and it wouldn't even startle," Geraint said, a tone of indignation in his voice. Arthur glanced at Lucan. It was hard to tell if one's own ship was generating an energy trail significant enough for detection, but if anyone could tell for certain, it would be him.

Rather than antagonize Geraint, Lucan answered Arthur's question with a shake of his head. If the dreadnought was moving -- it was moving for a reason. It was a big ship, less mobile than a cruiser or a frigate, and if it didn't have to shift position, it wouldn't, not in normal circumstances.

If they had been detected, a cruiser would be a better choice to block their way -- quicker, more mobile, and it wouldn't trigger suspicion. But a dreadnought-class was significantly bigger, and more difficult to avoid in cramped quarters.

"Can you sense a Legion on board that ship, pet?" Arthur asked.

"Busy," Merlin replied curtly. His tone was emotionless, cold and cutting.

Leon glanced over his shoulder at Merlin; he looked past Merlin at Arthur and shook his head. Arthur got the message loud and clear. Merlin was otherwise engaged.

"We're on a collision course," Lucan said.

"Adjusting course," Galahad said.

"Belay that." Arthur called up a personal vid screen, calculating distances between the ships. "If they can see us, somehow, they're not sure where we are."

"General vicinity only?" Leon asked, tapping his screens and calling up whatever information he could. "Are they overlapping sensors?"

"Sensors or White Legion," Arthur said, glancing first at Lucan, who had asked if a White Legion could sense a shadow enveloping a ship, and then to Merlin. He was still kneeling, unmoving and wordless. The slight rise and fall of his shoulders was the only indication that he was alive.

"Overlap their short-range sensors," Arthur said. "See if the dreadnought's trying to patch a gap."

If there was no gap, that was a sure indicator that possibly, just possibly, the White Legion had picked up on Merlin's magic trick, and they were fucked.

Arthur started planning ahead. He would have Elyan message-burst the last of the ships still making their way through the Imperial line. The Pirates would have to move fast while ensuring that they remained undetected. Arthur would signal the other ships to start dropping their mines immediately, and not wait until the other Pirate ships were clear. He would have Excalibur eject the first load of mines as a diversionary tactic, while they were still trapped in this tangled snarl of Imperial ships, and they would have to rely on some fancy flying to shake whoever was on their tail and to get past the minefield.

He hoped the engines could take it.

"What's the Legion's range?" Perceval asked. "I mean, how far do they have to be to sense shadows? Can they even sense shadows?"

There was a concerned exchange of glances. Lucan broke the silence first and said, "There's a twelve-point-eight percent gap in sensor overlap that they're closing up now. It could just be standard protocol."

"Well, that's a relief," Gwaine said. He licked his lips and made a small, strangled sound as he watched the vid screen. "But if they get any closer it might not matter. Perce had a great question. Can the Legion even sense shadows?"

"Not like I can. I don't think," Merlin said, his voice a whisper, every word spaced by time, as if he was carefully weighing his answer with how much concentration he could break.

"That doesn't answer a whole Hell of a lot," Gwaine muttered, but he didn't ask any more questions.

"Dreadnought's slowing down," Lucan said. "Reverse thrusters engaged. They're holding position."

"What's the sensor overlap?" Leon asked.

"As long as we're not about to turn into a bug splattered on their windshield, I don't much care," Galahad said, his fingers flying on the holo-console as he plotted yet another course. "Four degrees port, eight degrees up."

"Four and eight," Geraint confirmed. "Increase speed to point two."

"Increasing speed," Geraint said.

"Are we in their sensor net?" Arthur asked.

Lucan didn't bother checking. "Pretty sure some part of us is, Captain."

"How sure is 'pretty sure'?" Leon asked.

Lucan put his hands on the top of his console and leaned over it, giving Leon a wearied look. "You want me to waste precious brainpower calculating three-dimensional sensor vectors and overlaps when I could be using it to figure out which one of those numpties out there is going to be drifting right in our path?"

The staring match lasted all of eight seconds before Leon looked away. "Carry on."

"Thought so," Lucan said, returning his attention to his screens.

"I'm picking up Imperial chatter," Elyan said. "Asking for verification of sensor logs on coordinates for our last location, ah, timestamped two minutes ago."

"Project our last course and avoid it," Arthur said.

"New routes to Navigation," Lucan said.

"Received," Galahad said. "Plotting new course. Two degrees port, two degrees down. Hard port six degrees, increasing speed to point eight, four second burst, in five, four, three…"

Arthur grasped the armrests of his chair, glancing down at Merlin. The tendril of shadow was still tight around his leg, and there was a foggy haze around Merlin's knees -- whatever that was, Arthur hoped it would hold Merlin steady and that he wouldn't be sent flying across the bridge when the wheel was spun.

"Now," Galahad said.

There was a jarring shift; the gravity compensated almost immediately, and, thankfully, Merlin didn't budge from his position. If anything, his shoulders slumped even more, as if he had fallen deeper into a trance to maintain the shadows. Arthur spared Merlin a moment of concern, wishing that he could take the time to check on him.

"Whose bright idea was it, going clean through the middle of this bloody swamp?" Galahad muttered. He made an offhand gesture in the air and ignored Geraint's incredulous stare. "Don't answer that, I know it was me, but I'm brilliant, and it's not my fault, so shut it."

"Brilliant. Right," Geraint muttered. "You picked the thickest route because you hate me."

"Just keeping you on your toes," Galahad said cheerfully. "Need you sharp for the next bit."

Arthur's eyes flicked to the map above them. "How long before all of ours are clear?"

"Minutes," Leon said, and of course, he would know. He had probably been tracking every ship's progress from the instant that they had begun the crossing. An instant later, there was a countdown timer in the middle of the screen.

"Ready the mines," Arthur said.

"With pleasure," Perceval said. He called down to the cargo bay and passed instructions on to the men.

Arthur stood up and studied the Imperial configuration on the screen one more time before moving to stand beside Merlin. The shadow tendril around Arthur's ankle coiled tighter, as if reeling him in.

"We're clear of the field," Galahad announced.

"Get us into position," Arthur said. The battle plans that he had hastily drawn up required the Pirate ships at specific coordinates, dropping the mines in a scattershot pattern for maximum damage. The mines were equipped with Pirate cloaks, but that wouldn't keep them from being detected for very long, not when the Conglomerate had cracked the key to their technology. Arthur was hoping that the Imperialists wouldn't think of checking for Pirate cloaks behind their lines.

They would need all the time that they could get.

His eyes drifted to the countdown clock. He verified that none of the ships still emerging from the Imperial line would follow the same path out as Excalibur and checked the active paths of the rest. There were a few ships moving too slowly for Arthur's tastes, but he kept his order simple.

"Signal the ships to take their positions. Best speeds. Begin dropping the mines in eight minutes on my mark." Arthur watched the countdown clock and waited until most of the ships were out of the Imperial barrier, the remainder nearly there. "Mark."

The numbers on the vid screen reset to eight minutes.

"Mines ready for deploy," Perceval said.

"There's increasing activity in the Imperial line," Lucan said. "Nothing specific. A lot of ships changing positions, overlapping sensor fields."

Elyan flicked a switch on his console and was silent for a few seconds. "It's that dreadnought. They're broadcasting an alert. I'm getting the sense that most of the ship commanders are treating that dreadnought like the boy that cried wolf."

"Our girls are clear of the field," Leon said. "Keep an eye on that countdown."

"The slightest hint that those ships start moving our way, I want to hear it," Arthur said.

"Aye, Captain," Lucan said.

The minutes passed in silence, the slow countdown passing in a tense eternity. Arthur forced himself to stop staring at the clock, knowing that he would miss an important detail if he did. He caught Gwaine glancing up at the scrolling numbers, his knee jiggling in anticipation, his fingers brushing over his console again and again, hovering over the key command to call up the full weapons and targeting holo-display. He didn't need it yet.

Perceval was weathering the wait better than Gwaine, but that was because he was distracted by the activity in the cargo bay. The quartermaster would be directing that portion of the show, but he would be reporting back to Perceval.

Galahad reached across the middle console and tapped a few keys. Excalibur's speed throttled down. "We're at coordinates."

"Hold position," Arthur said.

"Aye, Captain," Geraint said.

They passed the four minute mark.

Arthur dropped his hand to his side and let his fingertips brush Merlin's shoulder. His voice softened. "All right, pet?"

"Yes," Merlin said. It might be Arthur's imagination, but he could feel a weight against his leg, and he thought that Merlin was leaning against him.

"Can you drop the shadow on my go?" Arthur asked.

"Just say when," Merlin said. He sounded tired, but it was the sort of tired that came with doing something for too long, a strain of muscles unaccustomed to the work. Arthur was glad. He remembered the last time that Merlin had over-extended himself, how long it had taken him to settle into his own skin again. Maybe there was a difference this time, like Merlin had said.

Arthur wished that he understood more about Merlin's abilities, about the House of Shadows. There would be a time for that later, he decided. He would have to make certain that there was a later, first.

"Not much longer now, pet."

Three minutes.

"Ships in position," Elyan said.

Two.

"Charge the weapons," Arthur ordered.

"Charging," Gwaine said.

"Charging," Perceval echoed.

One.

"Set the drop course," Arthur said.

"Drop course ready," Galahad confirmed.

Thirty seconds.

"Engage the course," Arthur said.

"Engaged," Geraint said.

Zero.

"Loose the mines," Arthur said.

"Cargo bay doors open," Leon confirmed.

"First scatter of mines away," Perceval said a few minutes later.

"Positions on screen," Lucan said. "Signal is five by five."

"Moving to next coordinates," Geraint said.

"Second scatter away," Perceval said.

It was a dull, slow repetition of the same actions -- drop a load of mines, move to the next coordinates, obtain confirmation of activity. After every five coordinates, Elyan checked in with the other ships, who were keeping up with Excalibur's deployment rate. While Perceval monitored the mines, Lucan kept an eye on the increasing activity among the Imperial ships.

"They look like confused sheep," Lucan said after a moment.

"Sound like it, too," Elyan volunteered. "There's a lot of shouting."

"Looks like the dreadnought is turning around," Leon said. The bridge stilled; the only sound came from Perceval who continued to communicate with the cargo bay. Arthur stared at the new image that Leon brought up, temporarily masking the holo-map. It was difficult to tell for sure, but where the dreadnought had once been facing away from Albion, it was now on its side, as if it were in the process of coming about. For a ship that size to perform such a manoeuvre, many of the other, smaller Imperial ships needed to get out of its way, and quickly.

Arthur could imagine the confusion that this was causing. Most of the Imperial ships were maintaining position, but the middle of the cluster was a vicious smear of activity, with no doubt a fair number of the ship commanders uncertain of which way was up. That gave Excalibur and the Pirate fleet a few precious minutes more to set the minefield, but it also meant that they would have a great deal less time to react to the first Imperial counterattack, particularly if that dreadnought was already attempting to locate them.

Arthur blew out his breath. One of the other Pirate Captains had suggested dropping the mines as the ships squirreled their way through the Conglomerate line. There would have been a consensus if one of the detonation specialists, originally from Aredian's own ship, hadn't reminded them, "Them mines, they're a mite unstable. They'll go off if you look at them cross. Supposin' that them Blues out there keep to anchor, they'll still drift with the tides, and the slightest touch is all it'll take to blow one, setting off the rest, and then we'll all of us be sent to the deep of the sea."

The threat of a cascade reaction was only one part of the problem. With none of their borrowed cloaks functioning at one hundred percent, there was no guarantee that they would be detected if they broke ship seal and opened the cargo bays, not that close to the enemy ship sensors. The mines were cloaked with Pirate technology and were small enough to be difficult to track in the wide of space, but dropping them in-between overlapping ship sensors increased their chances of being spotted.

The Pirates didn't need to be trapped in the middle of the Imperial line if the ships had a cloaking leak. They also didn't need to be nearby if the mines were detected or set off.

Dotting the field with a wide spread of mines before the Conglomerate ships could get to them was the only other tactic that they had.

But cascade reaction was the sort of thing that stuck in a man's mind, and Arthur meant to see all of the Pirates clear of the field before they went off. With the dreadnought on the move, that was going to happen sooner than Arthur liked.

"Last packet away," Perceval announced.

"We have telemetry, ten by ten. Passive triggers are green. Remote activation is live," Lucan said.

"Cargo bay doors closed. Crew secured," Leon said.

"Get us out of range. All speed ahead," Arthur said.

"Aye, Captain," Geraint said. Galahad wordlessly increased speed. Now that they didn't strictly need to remain covert, there was no need to worry about creating a detectable energy wake.

"The other ships?" Arthur asked.

Elyan was quiet, and Arthur could easily see why. His console was full of message bursts, all of them appearing semi-simultaneously, and he was skimming through them all. "Mine drop confirmed for every ships. Moving to their last positions now."

"Get them on the map. I want to know the instant we're all out of range," Arthur said.

"Dreadnought's nearly all the way come about," Leon said. He didn't bother putting the new vid up on the projector, and Arthur silently thanked him for it -- they would see the Imperial fleet in all its glory soon enough.

"Any chatter from the Imperials?" Arthur asked.

"Bitching and moaning, as expected, but some ships are complying with orders to turn around," Elyan said.

"We're at coordinates," Geraint said.

"Turn our girl around," Arthur said. "Activate your screens, gentlemen. Go weapons hot."

Gwaine tapped his console with a flourish and half-moaned, half-shuddered with relief. "Orgasm denial, Captain. How dare you. That was just cruel and unusual punishment."

"You love it," Arthur said, putting his hand on Merlin's shoulder, the touch light.

"More information than we need, Captain," Geraint said.

"I wouldn't mind it so much if you were the one responsible," Gwaine said, but rather than to give Geraint his usual lecherous wink, his brow furrowed as he concentrated on his holo display. He tapped and moved a few screens around, widened another until it was to his satisfaction, and moved his hands to the manual controls that disengaged from under the hard console.

"Weapons hot, Captain," Perceval said.

"Spooled and ready to go," Gwaine said. "Targets locked in. Waiting on your go."

Arthur's hand weighed heavier on Merlin's shoulder, fingers digging in the silky-soft fabric of his cowl.

"Are we ready, gentlemen?" he asked.

"Consoles green," Leon said. "Fore shields on full. Ready power to engines at ninety percent."

"All systems green, Captain," Lance confirmed.

"Weapons ready," Gwaine said.

Lucan tapped his hard console a few times and removed his large, sound-isolating earpieces. "Sensors ready."

"Communications ready," Elyan said.

"Navigations ready," Galahad said.

Geraint stretched his arms over his head and shook out his hands. He wrapped his hands around the controls. "Helm is ready."

Arthur glanced at Gwaine. Gwaine nodded.

"Batten down, men," Arthur said. "Let's say hello. Merlin."

Merlin turned his head. He didn't look up, but there was a peculiar tilt to his head. "Yes, love?" he asked softly.

Arthur closed his eyes, feeling his heart pound with more than just the adrenaline of the forthcoming battle. He hoped this wasn't going to be the last time that he heard Merlin say those words.

"Drop the shadows."

 


Excalibur and its crew

 

 


Chapter Seventeen

Asterism: The Dragon's Egg

The Dragon's Egg

Location: Excalibur, Pirate Warship, Capital Solar System

 

Merlin's eyes adjusted to the sudden loss of clarity that always came when he dropped out of shadow. He focused on the vidscreen in front of him in time to see the Conglomerate's opening volley. Fast-moving missiles flashed briefly before the rockets pushed them to near-FTL speeds, crossing the distance of space in fractions of seconds before Excalibur's alarms blared at a different pitch.

"The first spread passed the mines," Lucan said.

"Lucky that," Leon said. "Still have a chance to catch them by surprise."

"Launch countermeasures," Arthur said calmly.

"Launching countermeasures," Perceval said. "Countermeasures launched."

There was a spray of brilliant silver across the vidscreen; it was there and gone in an instant, travelling nearly as fast, or faster than the missiles. Countermeasures were launched by the other Pirate ships, and there was a flash of fireworks as the chaff exploded. The shrapnel shimmered in the distance and there was a full curtain spread across the vidscreen as the countermeasures scrambled the missiles' onboard sensors.

The missiles went off one by one, distant points of lights like fiery stars, too tiny to do much more but erupt in an explosive blast that was quickly cooled by the near-complete zero temperatures of space.

Arthur's fingers dug into Merlin's shoulders. Merlin glanced up and met his eyes.

"All right, pet?" Arthur asked, his voice low and concerned. Merlin wanted to laugh in exasperation that Arthur would be worried about him at a time like this.

"All right," Merlin said. He didn't feel particularly weak -- the shadow-cloak was a different magic altogether, a different skill, and one in which he had good practice, if not to this extent. There was a lingering sense of dizziness from drawing the shadow back within himself. It was as if he had cut off a long-lost sense and he had to settle once again into his own skin.

He waited a beat -- until he was certain that his legs wouldn't collapse under him -- before slowly getting to his feet. If Merlin reached out and caught Arthur's arm to balance himself, neither man said a word.

"Elyan, put me on full broadcast," Arthur said.

"Aye, Captain," Elyan said. There was a brief pause and the dance of fingers across both the holo- and hard-consoles, a fine-tuning of frequencies and other assorted communication controls that Merlin didn't pay attention to. "Lance, do you have the encryption code ready?"

"Bridging you to the Imperial satellite now," Lance said.

Merlin glanced around the bridge. They had talked about this, the two of them. In quick and hushed tones in-between hurried kisses and questing hands that were a little rougher than usual. Merlin had been the one to say no.

Arthur had smiled cheekily before interrupting additional protests with heady kisses that stole Merlin's breath away. "This was your idea, pet," Arthur had said.

"I didn't think you'd take me literally, Merlin had groused, and there had been no more arguing the point, not when Arthur's fingers left bruises in Merlin's hips and Merlin's legs had been nudged apart.

Merlin stared up at the holo, forcing himself to focus. He cast a glance toward Arthur. "Are you ready for this?"

"Are you?" Arthur asked. He tilted his head, a small little smile disappearing nearly as quickly as it appeared.

"Not too late to back down," Merlin said.

Arthur's brows pinched, and he looked at Merlin in disapproval. "And here I hoped to make a Pirate out of you yet. Haven't you noticed, pet? When it comes to broad, life-affirming gestures, such as pillaging a tasty luxury ship, taking over a space station for a celebration, or throwing a wedding --"

"If you two are having a wedding and I'm not invited, I will be cranky," Gwaine said.

Arthur continued as if he hadn't been interrupted. "-- a Pirate is all in."

"This isn't quite a mission to liberate a load of Lathan rum that is otherwise languishing in the cargo bay of a slow freighter," Merlin said.

"Close enough, innit?" Galahad said. "Free the Clans of the Conglomerate threat forever and ever. And in the meantime, sow civil unrest and liberate the downtrodden citizens of the Empire in the process."

"It's a win-win situation all around," Geraint said.

"The least of which is me taking what's mine," Arthur said, raising his eyebrows meaningfully. Out of the corner of his eye, Merlin saw Leon turn around and share a long look with Arthur.

Merlin reminded that no one else on board the ship beside Leon and Merlin knew who Arthur really was, and wondered what their reaction would be when they found out. It was Arthur's choice to keep quiet on the matter, and neither Leon or Merlin would take it away from him.

"I hope you're not about to make me carry that throne to the ship. I've seen the pictures, too, and it looks like it's a heavy motherfu--" Elyan tapped his console, the rest of the curse mouthed absentmindedly. "We have access to the Imperial satellite. We are ready for open broadcast, Captain."

Arthur turned and looked around the bridge before meeting Merlin's gaze again. His expression softened, and his voice was low. "I haven't changed my mind."

Merlin nodded. "In that case, I'm ready."

Arthur's smile stayed, this time, and he announced, "We won't need to move that throne anywhere, boys."

"Thank fuck for small mercies," Perceval said. "I was getting the sinking feeling that you were going to make me carry it."

"Any activity on the Conglomerate line?" Arthur asked.

"Ships coming about in a lovely tangled knot. It makes my heart sing to watch," Lucan said. "They've gone to maximum alert, weapons hot. They've been feeling us up with long-range sensors, and I'm not liking the fondling one bloody bit."

"Chatter is all a jumble, Captain," Elyan said. "Sounds like they're sorting themselves out and it's not going well."

Arthur winked at Merlin and turned around, facing the fore vidscreen. "Quiet on the bridge, please. Elyan. Begin the broadcast."

"Aye, Captain," Elyan said. There was a brief pause. He threw out his hand and pointed at Arthur.

Arthur squeezed Merlin's hand before letting go. He took two steps closer to the helm. On the corner of the vidscreen was the image being broadcasted out not only to the other Pirate ships, but to the Imperial and Conglomerate ships as well.

If Merlin didn't know better, he would think that Arthur had dressed up for this particular occasion. The broadcasted image was a man in battle armour with the dragon crest on his chest, the cut and swatch of his fur-collared jacket and the sword at his side giving him an air of royalty.

The crew on Excalibur's bridge was visible in the broadcast, but Arthur was centre-stage, Merlin behind him, a dark figure swathed in shadow.

Arthur made a show of raising his wrist and tapping on the bracer. A tiny holo-display with the system chronometer time appeared for two seconds. Arthur dropped his arm and smiled broadly at the vidscreen.

"Good morning, ladies and gentlemen, fellow Pirates and enemy Conglomerate. I am speaking to you from Excalibur's bridge, which is currently positioned a stone's throw from Albion. With me is a fleet of Pirate ships.

"My name is Arthur Pendragon of Clan Pendragon. I am the King-elect of the Pirate, and I am here, invading your space, because today is the first day of an era. A new beginning not only for the Clans, who have been long harried and harangued by the Conglomerate of Corporations, but for each and every citizen of the Empire who has suffered under their illegal rule.

"There are some who may think that our arrival here is in retaliation for the unwelcome presence of the Conglomerate in Pirate space. That it is in revenge for the unprovoked attacks made by the Conglomerate fleet. That we seek retribution for the irreparable harm done to my people."

Arthur paused for effect. He made a considering face. He shrugged and swept a magnanimous arm.

"You wouldn't be entirely wrong."

Merlin sighed softly. He took a step to the side. He turned to face Arthur fully, and made no attempt to stop the resigned smile from spreading across his face.

"The question remains, however. When has the Conglomerate ever gone to war without cause? Why would their fleet linger at the border of Pirate territory for so long? Why would they risk the Empire by crossing the line and firing the first cannon?

"Have the Conglomerate set their sights upon the Pirates because the Pirate homeworlds contain untold riches and untold power? Have the Conglomerate sworn to find and free all the Imperial citizens who have been kidnapped by snakeheads and sold on the Pirate slave market?"

"What Pirate slave market?" Morgause cut in with an annoyed snort, as if on cue; Arthur would have kissed her for her perfect timing.

"Oh. That's right. Silly me. I must have fallen prey to Conglomerate misinformation. The thing is, ladies and gentlemen, there is no Pirate slave market. There never was. The rumours of disappearing Imperial citizens are not rumours. However, to clarify a misconception, allow me to point out that none of these good people were kidnapped or sold. They have been granted asylum by the Clans for unfair persecution under Conglomerate rule --"

"Captain, we're being hailed," Elyan said. "The Conglomerate flagship IFD 304 dash two. General Ruadan."

Arthur made an annoyed sound. "Well, it took them long enough to sit up and notice what we were doing, didn't it?"

"Too long by half," Leon agreed.

"They're trying to cut us off from the broadcast feed," Lance said.

Arthur glanced from Elyan to Lance and shook his head. He made a tsking sound of disapproval. "How rude. I don't mind interruptions, but I did want to get through my little speech. Can you keep us on the air?"

"With pleasure," Lance said.

Arthur clasped his hands in front of him. "Let's see what General Ruadan of the Conglomerate fleet has to say. Put him on screen and splice it into the broadcast."

"Aye, Captain," Elyan said. A moment later, a small portion of the fore-vidscreen was replaced with an incoming transmission.

General Ruadan was an older man in a gunmetal grey uniform, his collar decorated with the three stars of his rank and his chest weighed down with an array of multi-coloured ribbons, filled the centre of the image. His hair was scatter-shot with brown and grey and white, his moustache and beard were a dirty brown, and his chin was peppered with tufts of white.

General Ruadan's eyes were a steely shade, narrowed with annoyance. His mouth was a thin line, twitching as if carefully phrasing his words.

Whatever he had been about to say was forestalled when Arthur cheerfully asked, "Oh, hello, there. Tell me, General Ruadan, do you represent the interests of the Conglomerate of Corporations?"

"I do," he said. His brows furrowed, and he opened his mouth to speak.

Arthur interrupted again. "The Conglomerate, and not the Empire? Because that's an important distinction."

There was a flicker of emotion in Ruadan's eyes, but he barrelled through his prepared speech without answering. "Cease and desist this military action. If you comply within sixty seconds, your fleet will be escorted to the Pirate border, over which they may not return under penalty of death."

"I notice that you don't say anything about me, personally," Arthur said, a hand moving to his sword.

A muscle clenched in Ruadan's jaw. His eyes dropped down momentarily. Merlin studied the background on the Conglomerate ship. It was brightly lit, almost washed out with white walls and reflective silver surfaces. It was nothing like the darker, more comfortable mood abroad a Pirate ship. There were one or two people moving around in the background, but otherwise, Ruadan was the only person on the screen.

It was a stark contrast to the broadcast from Excalibur, which showed everyone on the bridge. Merlin wondered what Ruadan was hiding.

"Captain Arthur Pendragon --"

"King Arthur Pendragon, if you please," Geraint said, scowling at the screen.

Ruadan's cold gaze went to the helm, and Geraint waved. Ruadan huffed under his breath and glanced down again, reading from a terminal. "Captain Arthur Pendragon, commander of the Excalibur, you are charged with multiple crimes against the Empire, including, but not limited to, terrorism, wanton destruction of property, kidnapping, theft, hijacking --"

The list went on. Arthur turned toward Lucan. "Is the good General stalling?"

"Appears so, Captain," Lucan said. "They've been running repeated sensor sweeps over this area. I'm detecting increased activity along the Imperial line. Energy signatures are consistent with ships about to go near-light. The carriers have launched fighter ships."

"Are they in range yet?" Arthur asked.

Merlin glanced up at the holo map overhead -- it wasn't reflected in the vid-screen for security purposes -- and didn't see any noticeable changes in the ship positions. He didn't doubt that Lucan was correct, but he also knew that Arthur wasn't asking if the fighters were in range of the Pirate ships' weapons.

He was asking if they were in range of the mines. If the fighters flew into the minefield, they would lose their advantage. They couldn't disable the mines until the fighter ships had flown past to save the mines for their intended purpose -- disabling, if not outright destroying, the Conglomerate fleet.

"Not yet, Captain," Lucan said. He flashed a hand signal behind his back that Merlin didn't understand, but Arthur nodded in response.

"Well, then," Arthur said, turning to the vidscreen. "General Ruadan."

"... piracy, indecent behaviour, corruption of minors --"

"Have you been corrupting minors again, Captain?" Gwaine asked.

"I'm fairly certain there was a misattribution of the blame on that particular charge," Arthur said. Then, louder, he said, "General Ruadan."

Ruadan glanced up and stuttered to a stop.

"Far be it of me to interrupt such a lovely retelling of the Imperial penal code, but shall we move this along to the bit where I deny all charges and tell you to stuff yourself?"

Merlin snorted. "Very diplomatic of you, my liege."

Ruadan's eyes darted to Merlin and lingered. Merlin didn't move, knowing that his hood covered his face enough to prevent identification.

"I do try," Arthur said, and Merlin wasn't entirely certain if it was Arthur's natural charm, or if it was his natural petulance that shone through when he added, "But it's so tiring. It's much, much easier to cut through all the bollocks and get to the point, don't you think, General?"

Ruadan's eyes snapped to Arthur.

"Before we get on with what is likely to be a spectacular space battle, I do have one question for you, if you don't mind?"

Ruadan's face was a stony mask.

Arthur smiled broadly. "I knew you were a friendly sort. Well, then. Perhaps you can help me. Why is the Conglomerate so interested in Pirate territory? Surely, surely, it can't be for gold or goods or materials. And surely, surely, the Conglomerate wouldn't go to war over a handful of refugees from the thirty-something year rule of terror."

Arthur glanced at Merlin and frowned. He made a rolling gesture with his hand. Merlin sighed inwardly, but pushed the hood from his head without protest.

There was no sign of recognition in Ruadan's expression, but there was a stifled sound of outrage coming from off-vid.

"Tell me, General Ruadan. Is the Conglomerate's interest in Pirate territory because that's where they chased a surviving member of the exiled House of Shadows? Or is it because the Conglomerate realized that they had failed in their attempt to eradicate the House of Dragons and were doing their best to rectify that mistake before it became public?"

Ruadan shot a sharp look at Arthur and glared at someone off-screen -- either in a search for guidance, or to give an unspoken command. Either way, it didn't seem to translate into something immediate, because Lucan wasn't raising an alarm.

Arthur was motionless. He stood where he was, staring at the vidscreen as if willing Ruadan to contradict him.

"It's unfortunate that Pirate education is lacking in veracity," Ruadan said, regaining his composure. "Do permit me to enlighten you. The last surviving member of the House of Dragons was the late, beloved Prince Uther, son of Emperor Constantin. They were both killed when they were betrayed by the Shadowlord Balinor."

Merlin had long thought that he was immune to the effect of those words. To the pain that the old stories brought. History had been written, leaving the House of Shadows in a shroud of exile, and Merlin with a broken legacy.

"Yes. Of that, we are aware," Arthur said. He swept a hand in Merlin's direction. "I notice you make no mention of that Shadowlord's son."

The eyes that turned to look at him were full of questions and incredulity, but Merlin paid them little mind. Instead, he took a step forward, standing shoulder to shoulder with Arthur. He stared at the vidscreen for so long that Ruadan flinched, his jaw working as he struggled to keep from looking away.

"Oh, shite," Gwaine hissed, "Oh, shite."

"Shut it," Elyan said, adjusting the pickup on the broadcast, hopefully to stop Gwaine's freak-out from being broadcasted. "Keep it together, man."

Merlin rolled his shoulders back. He stood straight, his chin up, his eyes as dark as he could make them, boiling with the bubbling-cold rage of a scorned shadow. He clasped his hands in front of him and waited until he felt the faintest nudge from Arthur.

Merlin cleared his throat, but his voice was rough and harsh when he spoke words he had only ever thought, keeping them in secret to protect himself and his kin.

"I am Merlin, son of Balinor. I am the Hand of the Glóm, the Master of the Ten Thousand Knives, a Knight of the Shade. I am the last of the Shadowlords and Heir to the House of Shadows and Emrys, the Scourge of the White Legion."

Merlin felt a surge of perverse delight at the puce colour filling Ruadan's cheeks, half-hidden behind his thick beard. The lights behind him turned a curious shade of colour, and there was suddenly a beehive of activity in the visible background, compounded by undisciplined squawks and wordless murmurs.

"By the rights afforded me under the Book of Blood, and those granted my bloodline by the House of Dragons, I call a vendetta against the Conglomerate of Corporations and the White Legion.

"I accuse them of the unjust exile and attempted genocide of the House of Shadows, the destruction of the Shadowplanet and hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians, and the illegal and ongoing hunt for my kin and kind.

"But more than that, I accuse them of the assassination of Emperor Constantin, the assassination of his son, Uther Pendragon, and the attempted murder of Arthur Pendragon, King of the Pirates and the true Emperor of all Albion."

Merlin paused. He heard a hysterical giggle from Gwaine's station, but he didn't turn to look.

"What say you?"

"I say --" Ruadan half-leaped at the screen, catching himself at the last moment, his eyebrows doing strange, frantic things upon his brow. He shut his mouth firmly, his lips bloodless and white. The puce colour of his cheeks had spread to the rest of his face. Still, he regained some degree of control and continued in a more subdued tone, "I say that the House of Shadows has been struck from the Book of Blood and no longer has a legal right to speak to the Court, nor make accusations against the Houses --"

"Oh, but here's the crux," Arthur interrupted, his tone nearly gleeful, "No member of the Conglomerate of Corporations are kin of the Houses listed in the Book of Blood, are they? Therefore, the Conglomerate of Corporations has no right under the law --"

"The Conglomerate sits as Regent in rule of the Empire at the Court's request --"

"-- no right at all," Arthur continued, raising his voice, a subtle, reverberating quality, rich and hypnotic and primal lending power to his words, "No right to sit upon my throne."

A shiver went down Merlin's spine; it wrapped around his soul and squeezed tight, pulling, pulling until Merlin felt as if he were standing in Arthur's place, bolstering his strength and having his strength bolstered in return. Shadow melded with the light to form something bright and burnished, a shield against the dark.

"So, here I stand," Arthur said, breaking the silence with a pleasantry that lessened the charged atmosphere, "Between the Conglomerate of Corporations and the throne of Albion. I mean to put a halt to your unlawful rule and cruel dominion.

"To those who still hold faith in the Old Empire and would see it restored anew, I ask that you cease and desist this military action against my fleet. If you comply within sixty seconds, no harm will come to you, your men, nor your ships. For those who fail to lay down arms, I promise a swift retribution in the form of a trial by your peers, multiple lifetimes of imprisonment in the Empire's finest prisons, and capital punishment, where best deserved.

"Your sixty seconds begin now."

Lance or Elyan -- Merlin wasn't certain -- put a timer on the vidscreen. Arthur said nothing more, staring at Ruadan in challenge. Abruptly, the General flashed his fingers across his throat, and the transmission was cut.

"Rude," Elyan remarked.

"Activity along the enemy line?" Leon asked.

"No change," Lucan said. "More ships have come about."

"Good for them," Geraint muttered. "They've mastered the eighteen-point turn."

Galahad snickered, but said nothing.

"Incoming from Captain Gorlois," Elyan said.

"On screen," Arthur said.

"On broadcast?" Elyan asked, half-turning in his seat. He searched Arthur's expression for confirmation, one eyebrow raised.

"On broadcast," Arthur said, nodding. "Everything that we do from this point forward. Let's not hide things from the citizens of the Empire. I'm certain they've had enough of secrets, and could use a bit of a giggle."

"Aye, Captain," Elyan said, both eyebrows raised now. He muttered to himself, and Merlin thought he heard something about he's gone mad and at least this is going to be entertaining for someone. "On screen."

The view of the Retaliate's bridge was warped as if looking through a fisheye lens, with Morgause on centre stage. Morgause stood behind the helm of her own ship, mirroring Arthur's position and pose, a hand on the back of the pilot and navigator's chairs. She leaned forward, her long blond locks curling down her shoulders; the kohl black of her eyes made the watery shade pop and did nothing to hide the mischief in them, but it was the tight smirk on her lips that sent a tremor of worry down Merlin's spine.

Morgause tilted her head like a predator measuring her prey, trying to decide if it was enough to fill her belly now, or if it would prove more beneficial if she kept Arthur for a snack for later on. Finally, she stood up straight, her hands slipping from the back of her crewmen's seats to smooth down the deep purple jacket that covered her armour.

If her hands bumped against the hilt of her sword or rested against the pistol she wore on her hips, well, that was a natural progression of her movement, and not a threat.

Merlin hoped.

"Really?" Morgause asked. There was no definite question, and no guessing what she was thinking.

"Really," Arthur confirmed with a curt nod.

"Hm." Morgause shifted her weight and crossed her arms. Her chin was down, her eyes were narrow, and she looked to be studying Arthur in contemplation, as if trying to decide if Arthur was bluffing.

Arthur made no show of nerves, but Merlin had learned to read him well. The tension was there -- in the way his hands were lax at his sides, but his fingers pressed together rather than curl into tight fists; in the faint clench of his jaw despite the easy smile on his lips. This moment, this wordless conversation -- that was what Arthur had feared most about this confrontation with the Conglomerate. The revelation of his identity, the risk of losing the Pirate fleet.

"Why don't you tell them?" Merlin asked, walking into the too-small shower, wedging himself behind Arthur and the soap-slick wall. "At the least tell them what you have planned, give them a chance to prepare."

"Don't be an idiot, Merlin," Arthur said, grinding his arse against Merlin's too-sensitive cock. Merlin groaned, his fingers digging into Arthur's hips, and he nearly missed the rest of what Arthur had to say. "Never, ever give a Pirate an edge that they'll use to their advantage, not when you need something from them. You see, you want to wait until they have their backs against a wall. You have to push them until they have no other option but to offer their ongoing support. But you have to be careful. You can't give them too much time to think about how this could become advantageous to themselves, or we're sunk."

"You've thought this through," Merlin said, taking the washcloth from Arthur's hand. He ran it down Arthur's spine, digging his fingers in, pushing Arthur's very nice arse away from his cock. Merlin wasn't ready for round three quite yet.

"Pirate," Arthur reminded him, yet again; Merlin rolled his eyes, wondering when Arthur would get tired of that excuse.

"And your own crew? Shouldn't you tell them? They might… mutiny."

Arthur's amusement faltered. He bowed his head and leaned forward, the hybridized pulse-water stream rinsing the soap from his chest. "Leon knows."

"And the rest?"

"I love my boys, I do," Arthur said. "I trust them to the end. But they've got big gobs, each and every one."

Merlin tilted his head, trying to catch Arthur's expression; Arthur shifted, letting the water stream down his back, the soap sluicing down the delicious curve of his spine. He stepped out without another word, reaching for a towel, and Merlin watched him with a frown. "Who would they tell? Another crewmate? Communications are restricted --"

Arthur raised a brow and gave Merlin a meaningful look.

"Oh," Merlin said, catching on. He didn't say the words out loud; there was no need. If Arthur thought there was a traitor on board, keeping his plans secret until the moment of revelation was the only recourse. And with no access to the comms, a traitor would have only one chance in turning the tide of the battle ahead -- killing Arthur before it went too far, forcing the Pirates to collapse and flee. Merlin nodded. "I see. Do you know who, at least?"

Arthur scoffed. "Isn't that your job?"

Merlin glanced at the open doorway to the bridge almost reflexively; he turned back in time to see Morgause giving Arthur a quick, curt nod. "I'll say one thing, Pendragon. This answers quite a bit. A small Clan, an unknown Clanhhead, a quick rise to the Council, a King's throne."

Arthur inclined his head and spread his hands. He waited a moment and asked, "And?"

Morgause's smile was a sharp, cutting smirk. "Oh, what do you think? You lying, cheating, deceiving, no-good, yellow-bellied, pox-faced scallywag."

Morgause nodded curtly and the connection was abruptly broken. The empty spot on the vidscreen was quickly replaced by a view of the enemy line in front of them.

Leon and Arthur exchanged glances. Arthur shrugged.

"That went well," Leon remarked.

"Better than I expected, if I'm being honest," Arthur said, shrugging a shoulder. "Half thought she'd shoot us out of the sky."

"Don't count her out yet," Lucan said. "I'm getting hit with sensor locks."

"Does that really surprise you, considering that cranky lot over there," Gwaine said, waving a hapless hand toward the vid screen with the full Conglomerate line on display.

"Sensor locks from our own. Seventeen of them," Lucan corrected. He flipped his screen around to show Arthur; the holo, for whatever reason, didn't get picked up by the broadcast. Whatever plans that Arthur might have on his plate, whatever the Pirates were doing, it was blocked from the outgoing transmission so that Conglomerate remained blind to Arthur's plans.

Merlin wished he understood the bloody Pirates a bit more, because he didn't have the faintest clue of what was going on. He fought to maintain a neutral expression. Arthur didn't seem concerned; Leon was relaxed. Merlin couldn't judge the rest of the crew on the bridge -- they were in varying shades of indecision and resolve. Merlin wondered if the one-minute deadline had been extended to the crew, or if they would have the opportunity to state their case and leave their posts, if that was what they wanted.

"General Ruadan," Arthur said, addressing the vidscreen even though the communication had been shut off, "Your sixty seconds are up. What say you?"

"Incoming transmission," Elyan announced. "General Rude -- sorry, I mean, Ruadan again."

"On screen," Arthur said. The image flicked into view, and Arthur smiled broadly, welcoming a long lost friend. "Fancy seeing you again, General."

Ruadan's expression remained stony. "Arthur Pendragon is wanted for crimes against the Empire. One hundred Sterling to the ship who delivers him to the Empire."

"Does that include Pirates?" Galahad asked.

"Yes," Ruadan said grudgingly.

"I don't know, one hundred Sterling seems a mite low," Gwaine said.

"Insulting, really," Elyan said.

"Would you raise it one thousand Sterling?" Lance asked innocently. "The ship's worth at least that much in scrap metal. We'll even toss in the Captain, though I'm not sure there's a whole lot of value there. Erm. No insult meant, Arthur. You're a mate and all."

"None taken," Arthur said.

"If one does the math, as I have, for no other reason beyond simple curiosity," Leon said, "And you consider a tally of the prices on all of our heads individually, not to mention the price Excalibur would fetch on the black market auction block, I wouldn't shoot us for anything less than five hundred thousand Sterling, minimum."

Gwaine wolf-whistled.

"And here I thought you were a mate," Arthur said, frowning at Leon.

"I'm just saying," Leon shrugged. "It was late at night on dog's watch. I was bored."

"I'm clearly not giving you enough to do," Arthur said, turning to the vidscreen where Ruadan was once again turning a lovely shade of puce. Merlin thought the colour didn't suit him, but it did go well with the drab grey uniform. "Five hundred thousand Sterling, at minimum, like my man said. That's the least you should offer, because my fellow Pirates wouldn't accept anything less."

"Mainly because the cost to repair their ships after we're done routing them would be half that, at least," Gwaine said, a menacing tone to his voice.

"Wait." Galahad twisted around in the navigator's seat, nodding his head in Merlin's direction. "Five hundred thousand -- does that include Emrys?"

There was a brief silence. Arthur turned to Merlin and didn't hide the blatant head-to-toe leer before asking, "What was the last bounty on your head?"

"Um." Merlin frowned, tilting his head in thought. He wasn't certain what Arthur was getting at, or why they were stalling for time, though he was willing enough to play along. "I'm not entirely certain. It was a nice ego boost in the beginning, but it got annoying toward the end. Requests for autographs were more common than attempts to kill me."

"Autographs, huh? How posh," Arthur said.

Ruadan cleared his throat. "Five hundred thousand Sterling for Excalibur and Arthur Pendragon. Two hundred and fifty thousand Sterling for the assassin Emrys."

An impressed murmur spread across the bridge, but Arthur shook his head. "Make it a round million Sterling, and then I might be persuaded to lay down my arms for parley."

Ruadan glanced at something off-screen. Merlin took the opportunity to look at the holo-map overhead, taking note of a change in ship position. No one would turn their noses to one million Sterling, and Merlin half-expected the Pirate ships to abandon their designated coordinates to round on Excalibur and attempt to bring it down in an orchestrated firing squad.

Instead, the Pirate ships had spread out even more along the line, separate enough from each other that rendering assistance would be difficult if the entire Conglomerate fleet came at them.

Merlin's eyes narrowed and he let himself feel the tiny bit of hope that Arthur truly did know what he was doing. Maybe Arthur had anticipated how the other Pirates would react to both the subtle revelation of Arthur's identity and the goading increase of bounty on their heads. Maybe, just maybe, that reaction would be squarely in their favour, damning the Conglomerate.

He quickly squashed that hope lest it show in his expression, and tore his eyes from the holo to look at the vidscreen, where Ruadan had settled himself again.

"Deliver Emrys first," Ruadan said, "And you'll have your parley."

Arthur turned to look at Merlin; Merlin met Arthur's speculative gaze with a raised brow. "Really? You're considering his offer?"

"Not at all, pet. But you do know how much I like to see you squirm."

Merlin felt his cheeks flush with heat, and he nearly gave in to the impulse to pull the hood over his head. "Don't be a prat."

Arthur's soft laugh was cathartic; the foul glare from Ruadan was a sobering splash.

"Now, now, General Ruadan, there's no need to look as if you've sucked on sour lemons. You can't expect a man to part with his beloved Shadowlord, can you?" Arthur shrugged nonchalantly and let his hand drop onto the hilt of his sword. All amusement leeched from his body, and in the blink of an eye, Arthur seemed to grow an extra foot in height, the set of his shoulders noble and sure, his charisma filling the bridge. "Just like you can't expect the Clans to part with their King.

"You want us? Excalibur? Emrys? Me?" Arthur threw out an arm in invitation. "Come and get us."

Ruadan grit his teeth.

"Get him off my screen," Arthur said, turning away. The image blinked out. "Continue the broadcast. What's the status on their ships?"

"No movement -- belay that. I'm getting spoor trails all over the place," Lucan said. "They're advancing."

Arthur turned, clamped a hand tight on Merlin's shoulder, and went to the Captain's chair. He stopped in front of it and called up a holo screen; the vid screen showed the holo-projectors, but there was no clear image of the screen at all.

"Send that to the ships, Elyan," Arthur said.

"Sending packet, Captain," Elyan said. He paused as he scanned his hard console. "Receiving confirmation. All ships reporting in."

Arthur nodded, as if in thanks, but there was no one on the screen; belatedly, Merlin remembered that if they were broadcasting everything that was happening on the bridge, the other Pirate ships were no doubt receiving the feed.

"One million Sterling? That's a pretty penny," Galahad said, adjusting his seat straps.

"Fucking insulting if you ask me," Geraint groused. "How dumb do they think we are? Do they really think we'll waltz up to them to collect the coins?"

"I fancy they'd rather vaporize us if we try," Lance said. He glanced at Arthur. "Captain, we're being hacked. Someone on board is trying to access a communication panel. Being right subtle about it, too."

"Are we blocking their access?"

"No need," Lance said. "They've given up."

"Is there a location on them?" Merlin asked.

"Second tier, aft compartment, port weapons side," Lance said.

"I will shoot the bastard," Gwaine exploded. "One of my own fucking men? Embarrassing is what that is --"

"Missiles launched," Lucan announced.

"Ready countermeasures," Arthur said.

Gwaine stabbed at his hard console and accessed the 1MC. "… you find that bloody bastard trying to claim the bounty and toss him in the brig, right goddamn now, I'll wrench their heads from their necks and piss down their throats --"

"Someone mute him," Perceval said. "He's not child-friendly."

"Why don't I go and find the poor bastard?" Merlin asked, starting for the corridor. He stopped when Arthur caught his arm.

"I need you on the bridge." There was a flash of fear in Arthur's eyes. Merlin took a deep breath and nodded.

"Yes, my liege," he said. Merlin turned on his heels and stood beside the Captain's chair, but not without a good, long look at the shadows outside of the bridge. He willed them to thicken and darken; he would be alerted at once if someone crossed the threshold. Still, a loose cannon somewhere on the ship was the last thing they needed. Merlin hoped that Arthur knew what he was doing, but if Gwaine's continued ranting was any indication, none of the Pirates on board were likely to give the traitor a helping hand.

More like a forced escort out the nearest airlock. Or, possibly the torpedo tubes, since Pirates were known for using anything and everything, including kitchen cutlery, as shrapnel when their munitions ran low.

"The fleet is advancing," Leon said.

Merlin glanced up and watched the relative positioning on the holo-map; he darted a quick look at Arthur, taking in the furrow in his brow.

"The missiles?"

"Past, and incoming," Lucan said, once more neglecting to define past what, exactly, but only for the benefit of the Conglomerate fleet. There was no need to advise them that they were about to fly into a minefield.

"Lucky again," Galahad said, tapping his console lightly. Merlin had to agree. The minefield wasn't so thick that fighters and smaller cruisers would be able to traverse through without bumping into a mine. The larger warships and the dreadnoughts wouldn't be as fortunate. Merlin was certain that the Pirates wouldn't grieve too much if the larger Imperial ships were disabled. They could do without the heavier firepower added into the mix.

"Engage countermeasures," Arthur said.

"Countermeasures away," Perceval said.

"Hold position," Arthur ordered, more for the benefit of the other Pirate ships than for Geraint, who automatically confirmed, "Holding position, Captain."

The vidscreen exploded in a miasma of light as the frag lit up the open space between the Pirates and the heavy projectiles in a brilliant burst of phosphorescent light. The frag curtain wasn't quite as seamless as it had been in response to the first enemy volley, and --

"Partial response to countermeasures. Repeat, partial responses only. Missiles still incoming. Projecting trajectory --" Lucan said, tapping his console with flying fingers. The holo-map lit up with orange lines and their expected targets. Most of the missiles were aimed at Excalibur.

"Looks like some people are trying for that bounty," Leon remarked.

"Looks like," Arthur agreed with a nod. Arthur turned on his heel, closed the last step to his chair, and sat down. "Launch secondary countermeasures. Call the quarters."

"All hands, brace for impact. All hands, brace for impact," Leon said. His voice reverberated over the 1MC, low and rich, calm and steady.

"-- what do you mean, you lost him? I don't give a shite if he's a bloody Shadowlord. You'll find him, Connal, and you'll bring me his head, or so help me, God --" Gwaine punched a command on the left-hand side of his console and said, "Secondary countermeasures away."

Merlin raised a brow and cast a troubled look at Arthur. Arthur shrugged. "He works best under pressure."

"Somehow, I'm not reassured," Merlin said.

Arthur gave him a wan smile and turned to observe the directional holo-map. "Engage the outer net. Let's catch anything that passes through."

"Lasers enabled," Leon said. "Short-range sensors activated. Automated defence systems engaged."

The secondary countermeasures were more violent than the first. The primary measures were largely passive. The secondary countermeasures, however, were the complete opposite -- heat-seeking hand-sized round caltrops made of a soft outer shell and hard inner core, heavy enough for high momentum and speed, but compact enough to burst into hull-tearing shrapnel that ate high-velocity missiles for breakfast.

The missile approach was a terrifying three-dimensional target on the vid screen, and the display zoom was high enough to show in excruciating detail as the caltrops eagerly ripped through the missile outer shells.

"All missiles down," Lucan said.

"Give me a countdown on the position of the Conglomerate fleet," Arthur said.

"At current speed, twenty seconds," Lucan said. He paused and tilted his head in consideration before waggling a hand in the air. "Less for the smaller ships. They'll hit sub-light in ten, nine, eight --"

The overhead holo was dotted with a thin line that roughly coincided with the scattershot spread of the mines. The Conglomerate ships would hit that line in seven seconds.

Their front lines would be heavily hit, but the larger ships behind them wouldn't be able to slow down or stop in time. Momentum could be the enemy of even the most sound of space-faring vessels, and it wouldn't be any different now.

"Some vessels are not engaging," Elyan said. "Repeat: three dreadnoughts, eight warships, twelve cruisers are not engaging."

"Holding back?"

"No. Captain --" The rest of what Elyan had been about to say was interrupted by Lucan's countdown.

"Two. One."

At first there was nothing -- no direct impact, no impact, no explosion. The only sound on the bridge was Gwaine's whispered complaints --

"… no, I don't care that he's taken a pistol from the rack. What kind of numpty is he? We're on a warship, for fuck's sake. Why wasn't he wearing a pistol to begin with --"

-- and a sharp, startled intake of breath when an orange-white point of light flared in the distance. A mere fraction of a second later, it was joined by a second, a third --

And turned into a musical light show, flickering in and flickering out like the fireflies that chased the darkness away around the Temple of Ealdor on Merlin's native homeworld. The ships exploded, scattering like the musical notes of an adagio strewn madly across a page.

There was no sound in space; there was no material for the acoustic waves to spread through. They wouldn't hear the explosions -- or, rather, most of the crew wouldn't hear them. Elyan likely heard the last panicked shouts of the men and women on board the ships hitting the mines. Lucan couldn't possibly miss the clang-whomp of the mines striking the hard hull plating, bursting through the protective layers, and igniting the Greek Fire paste in the mines. The atmosphere of a breached compartment would suck out into the vacuum of space in a thundering breath, and there would be nothing but silence.

Arthur's expression was grim. The bridge was quiet. Leon bowed his head. Lucan closed his eyes and turned his head away from the vidscreen.

The contact with the mines continued all the way down the line. Ships that had been immediately behind the first line were engulfed by the spread of the foul explosive material and battered by shrapnel. Shields were damaged by incoming high-velocity objects, and multiple secondary hits cut down the Conglomerate fleet. On-board armaments exploded, cutting down their numbers even more.

And suddenly, unexpectedly, one ship stationed at the fringes of the Conglomerate line suddenly erupted in a catastrophic blast.

The very fabric of space rippled and bent. It shivered and shimmered. A cascading wave pulsed like the fall of a pebble in a flat, calm pond. It stared with an incredulous, messy splash, mighty waves ebbing outward in a circular pattern, cresting like a tsunami wave capable of not only engulfing continents, but swallowing galaxies.

"Three minutes to impact," Lucan said, his tone solemn. "Looks like that was a negaton bomb."

"Those sons of bitches," Perceval snarled.

"Now, now," Gwaine said, his tone lightly mocking. "Don't you judge. They're Conglomerate drones, can't blame them if they didn't realize they were carrying armaments banned in sixty-two galaxies. Including this one."

The wave was a glistening, sinuous thing; Merlin couldn't stop staring at it. The blackness of space shifted and refracted as if it was the scale-skin on a snake, soft and supple, sidewinding violently and striking at whipping speeds. Ships were carried in the rise and slammed against each other. Only deft piloting saved most of the Imperial ships from complete destruction.

The blast pulled at Merlin, teasing and taunting, the sheer darkness and profound power of it so inviting that Merlin closed his eyes and swayed. He reached out and grabbed the back of the Captain's chair. The wave hadn't reached them yet, but the deck was already unsteady under his feet.

"Pet?"

Merlin forced himself to breathe. He opened his eyes. He swallowed hard. His fingers refused to unclench from the back of the Captain's chair, but he looked down and nodded at Arthur in what he hoped was reassurance.

In the startled pause, no one acted immediately. It was too stunning to consider that the Conglomerate had been armed with a weapon that could wipe out an entire planet, if not an entire galaxy. It was an unimaginable atrocity that only had an ages-old war to compare it to -- a war that had nearly decimated all of the Houses and had run most of the Houses to near-extinction.

Seeing the negaton bomb's effects in the here and now triggered something of a sense memory, an imprint of pain and chaos and sorrow rising up in Merlin's blood. It rang in his ears with the screams of his ancestors as they echoed through the deepest abyss of shadows, absent, but never forgotten.

A tear streamed down Merlin's cheek. He wiped it away before anyone saw, but they were broadcasting their actions, and the entire Empire had seen a Shadowlord cry.

Merlin turned away, biting his lip.

"Well, this just adds to their ever-loving list of crimes, doesn't it?" Gwaine muttered. He raised a chin in Arthur's direction. "Makes your juvenile delinquency look paltry in comparison, Captain."

"There's no fitting punishment for this," Arthur said. "Seems as if they've doled out their own justice. How long before that wave hits the minefield?"

"Eight seconds, Captain," Lucan said.

Leon cursed under his breath, his fingers flying across the consoles. Lance quietly went about his business, just as quick and precise as the ship's second-in-command. Excalibur and the Pirate fleet were well away from the mine blast range, but with the incoming wave, the mines were being shifted out of position.

"All power to forward shields. Shut down all non-essentials. Double the shielding to critical systems. Lock down everything that absolutely needs to be locked down. Helm, full reverse," Arthur barked.

"Aye, full reverse," Galahad confirmed. "Clear the stern."

Arthur shot a dark glance at Perceval. "Tell me the holds are empty. Tell me no one was stupid enough to hold one back."

"Our hold's empty, or I'll kill them myself," Perceval promised. He hesitated. "The other ships confirmed mines away, but I can't vouch for --"

There was a sudden flare on the edge of the vidscreen, tiny and inconsequential, like the flash of a strobe in the pitch of night. Then, bizarrely, the burst of light repeated in a staccato rhythm, pulsing long and short in some sort of grotesque Morse code. The secret message lost almost as quickly as it came when a big broad smear pulsed across the whole of space as the mines triggered one by one.

The negaton pulse trembled and destabilized, the combined concussion force of the remaining mines almost enough to counter the oncoming wave with a wave of its own. Any hope that it might burn itself out completely faded when, in the next rise and crest, the negaton pulse continued on undeterred.

The only good thing that came out of the mines going off -- for either side -- was that the pulse had ebbed. The amplitude of the ripples in the proverbial pond wasn't as large as it had been. By the time it would reach any of the habitable sectors, it would likely have fizzled itself out, or lost enough energy that the natural electromagnetic planetary shielding would scatter the remnants of the pulse.

Merlin hoped.

But there was another problem. The Witchfinder's particular brand of Greek Fire burned, even in the cold of space, and it was that white phosphorescence that burned now. With every mine that erupted came a corresponding spray of sticky Greek Fire that dispersed only so far as to coat the front end of the wave, spreading like froth on a beach at every crash of the tide.

The ships wouldn't only have to contend with bracing against the force of the blast pulse. They would have to keep from burning. A single touch of the Greek Fire, however small, could burrow through a hull and breach their atmosphere.

Arthur blew out a breath of frustration. He leaned forward in his chair, elbows on the armrest, hands clasped together. His brow was furrowed in concentration.

"Weaponsmasters, charge forward cannons. Carve us a hole. Helm, ride the wave as best you can. Anyone who has the capability, get the fuck out of here."

Merlin glanced at Arthur, watching him out of the corner of his eye. Excalibur could flee just as easily as the rest of them, but Arthur wouldn't leave. He was standing his ground.

The goddamn fool.

"Impact in one minute," Lucan said. Leon, in the background, called general quarters, this time with a desperate urgency and a reminder for fire gear and to suit up the second there was a breach anywhere on the ship.

"Cannons optimized for maximum spread. Full power to forward pulse generators. Synchronize your beams with mine, Perce. In three, two, one --"

The vidscreen filled with repeated bursts of crimson and yellow, like comets with a trailing edge of pale lavender. Merlin could barely see the front edge of the negaton pulse. The scattered splatter of Greek Fire carried by the wave glittered bright despite the cannon barrage --

And abruptly caught fire.

The specks erupted into individual blue-green flames in the concentrated release of flammable gas. The Greek Fire burned itself out.

Mostly.

Excalibur was hit by the full brunt of the wave. The crew were tossed back into their seats; Merlin lost his footing and grabbed hold of the Captain's chair with both hands this time, the shadows swirling out of nowhere out of instinct, pinning him in position.

The ship shuddered, the engines wailed in protest. Geraint and Galahad were all hands on the controls, struggling to maintain a steady course against cosmic shear winds and energy turbulence.

"Full thrusters forward!" Geraint shouted.

"Full thrusters! We're at near-light!" Galahad yelled back. "What more do you want?"

"I know you're holding out on me, old girl," Geraint growled, and didn't say another word.

"Shutting down aft shields, shunting power to the fore shields," Lance said.

"Fuck the shields, I need engines," Geraint snapped.

The ship's nose was rising, a sure sign of a losing battle against the oncoming waves threatening to bluster them arse over tit into the nearest star. In the cacophony, Merlin almost didn't hear Arthur's order.

"Dip the nose," Arthur said, his voice loud, firm, and eerily calm. "Use the wave, bring us about. Ride the crest, drive us into a roll to keep her balanced out."

"That's mad!" Geraint shook his head, his mouth dropping open.

Beside him, Galahad nodded. "Might work."

"Mad, both of you," Geraint muttered, but he reached out to flip switches on his console and tapping at a few holo-screens. Galahad followed suit, but appeared to be entering calculations rather than console commands.

"Modulate maximum shield power to face the wave front," Leon said.

"Aye, aye," Lance said, his head turning from left to right and back again, eyes darting over his station until he had both a directional coordinate from the wave front and a comparative positioning of the ship in view.

"The fleet's copying us," Lucan said. "I'm getting pulse blasts all over the place."

"Which fleet?" Gwaine asked.

"All of them," Elyan said, a hand on his ear.

"Good," Arthur said, but before he could add more, Excalibur abruptly veered, nose down as if diving deep, deep, deep into the marrow of an ocean. He was left with a sluggish, nauseating sensation at the sheer rip from the cosmic shear forces.

"Coming about!" Galahad announced. "If you don't need a change of pants after this, there's something wrong with you!"

The ship stuttered, bouncing as if on crooked rails, jangling loose whatever wasn't properly battened down. Merlin couldn't help himself. A tendril of shadow curled around Arthur, keeping him seated.

"Really?" Arthur arched a brow.

"If you take a tumble and knock yourself out, where will we be then?" Merlin asked.

"Fair point," Arthur said, but the words were a clatter of teeth and a strained, guttural grunt. "Surf the goddamn wave, Geraint."

"I've never surfed in my bloody life!" Geraint snarled.

"And you call yourself a Pirate?" Gwaine asked.

"Don't you start with me, boy-o. You can't swim," Geraint said. "What Pirate doesn't know how to swim?"

"A Pirate who'd rather drown than be torn apart by sharks, that's what," Gwaine retorted, and all conversation went to a standstill when the one more turbulent ripple coursed through the ship. The rumble and roar quieted to a dull hum.

"We're past the wave," Lucan said.

"Well done, Geraint, Galahad. Bring us about," Arthur said. "How are the others?"

"They're checking in now," Elyan said. "Captain Gorlois says that whoever couldn't weather this bit of a rough blow shouldn't be sailing a ship."

"Now, now, Morgause. Be nice. We're all friends here, aren't we?" Arthur asked.

"Not if you count the bastards spooling engines and correcting courses for our coordinates," Lucan said, his brows furrowed. He picked up an earpiece and shoved it in his ear, but didn't add anything more. "The fleet's advancing."

"General Ruadan? Are you still with us?" Arthur asked. The seconds trickled by, but there was no response.

"Sorry, Captain. I can't pick up their comms," Elyan said. "The ship's gone. Lucan?"

It took a few seconds before Lucan could confirm it. "Destroyed, Captain. The dreadnought was too close to the epicentre."

"Is anyone in charge of the Conglomerate at all?" Arthur asked. He started to stand, but Merlin's shadows held him firm; it was only belatedly that Merlin dismissed them. Arthur went to lean over Leon's shoulder. "Status?"

Leon didn't answer. He tapped at the screen and scrolled down. There was no need to let the enemy know about Excalibur's condition to the point where they would exploit it. Arthur clamped a hand on Leon's shoulder before moving on to review the system conditions with Lance.

"Eighteen minutes to contact," Lucan said.

"Eighteen?"

"Eighteen," Lucan confirmed. "They got blown a ways offshore, didn't they? Plus, I wouldn't blame them if they're being cautious. There's a fair bit of flaming debris."

"Shouldn't be sailing, indeed," Arthur said with a grin. He saluted the screen before turning to Elyan. "If Ruadan's gone down with his ship, who's barking orders? Has anyone stepped up?"

"Checking," Elyan said.

"Are we back in formation?" Arthur asked, turning back to Lucan. The overhead holo-map had flickered out when they were hit by the front end of the pulse wave, and most of the ship systems were cycling on low power. Merlin walked behind Lance and saw that he was performing fast diagnostic scans before re-initializing the different sections.

"Just about," Lucan confirmed.

"Weapon systems?"

"Ready and running, Captain," Gwaine said.

"Navigations?"

"Ready, Captain," Galahad said.

"I've intercepted transmissions. The fleet's getting their orders from Albion, Captain," Elyan said.

"Can we listen in?"

"We most certainly can," Elyan said. He tapped on the monitor. "One moment."

"Time?"

"Sixteen minutes before they're in weapon range," Lucan said.

Arthur turned around in place and checked with Leon again. The two spoke in quiet murmurs too low to be picked up by the broadcast, and when they were done conspiring, Arthur stepped away with a hearty pat on Leon's shoulder.

"Captain," Elyan said, a frown weighing down his brow. "You have to see this."

Arthur looked over Elyan's shoulder, his expression shifting through a plethora of emotions -- surprise, confusion, understanding, and outright anger.

"I double-checked, Captain. I was wrong. They're not in contact with the fleet from Albion. The Conglomerate's transmission is coming from two galaxies over."

Arthur straightened slowly, moving his hands to his hips. Merlin didn't know what Arthur was thinking, but from the emotion clouding the bright shine in his eyes and the easy smile on his lips, Merlin could only think that it was nothing good.

"They're not in the capital," Arthur said.

"That's right," Elyan confirmed.

Arthur gestured with a finger. "Let's hear what they've got to say."

Elyan tapped the console.

"... respectfully, Chairwoman Nimueh, we cannot comply with your orders --"

"Are you or are you not a commissioned commander of the Conglomerate fleet? Did you or did you not swear fealty to the Regnant Council? You will do as you are ordered, Commander Aglain, or you will step aside and allow another officer to take command."

"Perhaps I should make myself more clear. We will not comply with your orders. The command crew of the E.D.S. 75750-42 are in agreement. If there is any legitimacy to the Pirate's claim, we must permit it to be tested against the Book of Blood --"

Merlin knew the question that Arthur wanted to ask even before Arthur turned around to frown in confusion, but Merlin had no answers for him. He hadn't grown up in the Empire. He hadn't been exposed to the court. He no more knew of the rites and rituals of the Court than any other citizen of the Empire, but this particular bit sounded both interesting and promising.

"Testing against the Book of Blood? What is he talking about, pet?" Arthur asked.

Merlin shook his head and spread his hands. "I haven't the faintest."

Arthur shrugged as if it was unimportant, but Merlin knew him. It would gnaw at him until he had an answer, but for now, Arthur set it aside and turned toward Lucan. "Time?"

"Fourteen minutes, Captain. The fleet's split in two. There's a second group hanging back. The first group is accelerating."

"Leon?" Arthur asked.

"Just about ready," Leon said.

Arthur nodded and returned to listening to the hacked transmission.

"How dare you infer that the Pirate has the same rights as a citizen of the Empire? The man is a criminal who has attacked the citizens of the Empire on more than one occasion. Who has murdered innocents. Who has discharged an illegal explosive device --"

"Your pardon, madam, but the Pirates did not launch the negaton device. It originated from within the Conglomerate fleet --"

Arthur's brows rose nearly to his hairline, and all activity on the bridge ground to a momentary stop. There was a round of exchanged glances. The implications of the man's words were clear: if an Imperial ship was in Pirate territory with an illegal, planet-killing negaton bomb, they were there with the full intention of using that weapon.

Except that very same weapon had been detonated, however accidentally, in the relative safety of wide-open Imperial space, though far too close to the capital for comfort.

Arthur's mood darkened; he crossed his arms over his chest, bowed his head, and covered his mouth with his hand. He shook his head minutely, as if in disbelief.

It didn't take much to connect the dots between bits and pieces of information. A leap of faith here, a frightening conclusion there. If the Conglomerate's Regent Council was not on Albion, if they were safely hidden on a planet in another galaxy…

They couldn't have known for certain that Arthur would bring the Pirate fleet here. They could only hope that the Pirates would show, but they didn't need them to.

The royal Houses of the Empire held court on Albion. The principal bloodline of each House lived on this planet, deeply ensconced within the Core Worlds, where they would be safe from each and every external threat. The royal Houses were the backbone of the Empire, the support for the court, the protectors of the realm.

Or they had been, once, before the Conglomerate of Corporations came into power.

The negaton bomb might have been meant for a Pirate homeworld, once. The Conglomerate had changed their minds, and had been about to use it on Albion.

They would have eradicated the ruling Houses. They would have killed over a billion innocent civilians. They would have wiped every last traces of a beloved Empire from history and the minds of man.

All for power. All for absolute control.

"Son of a bitch," Merlin whispered.

Arthur's eyes widened and he nodded.

The transmission was still playing.

"Your sensor data is incorrect --"

"No, madam. You are mistaken," the ship commander said harshly.

There was a brief pause. "I order you to --"

"Madam, my first commission was given to me by Emperor Constantin himself. As the ranking member in the Imperial fleet, I must follow Imperial law. In absence of a superior officer of the fleet, my command must come from the ultimate military authority --"

Arthur paced across the bridge. Merlin watched him out of the corner of his eye. He thought he felt something --

"You are quite correct," the Chairwoman said, her voice cold. "And I represent that ultimate military authority --"

"As the Regent council, you were that military authority. Your authority is suspended until the identity of the man claiming to be the Emperor's grandson is verified --"

Arthur leaned an arm over the back of the Captain's chair and rubbed a hand over his face. He dropped his arm and made a hand-rolling motion, as if urging the conversation along. The anger that had surged in him a mere moment before was gone, replaced by cold, tempered determination.

"Ready, Captain," Leon announced. "I have everything set."

"Excellent. Signal the fleet." Arthur sat in his chair again. "Cut that transmission. I've heard enough."

"Aye, Captain," Elyan said, and an instant later, there was nothing but blessed silence.

The shadows shifted, suddenly heavy. Something passed by near enough for Merlin to feel nothing but the pitch darkness crossing over it. He studied the open doorway to the bridge, reaching out with his senses. The shadows came alive, burbling with revelation.

Merlin turned to face the archway, his weight on his back heel. He clenched a fist, hiding it close to his body, and formed a shadow-blade.

"Time?" Arthur asked.

"Nine minutes, Captain," Lucan said.

Arthur heaved a heavy, impatient breath. He nodded firmly, as if to himself. He swivelled his chair toward Merlin, raising a brow, taking in Merlin's ready stance and the feathery haze marring the shape of the knife in his hand.

"No blood on my bridge," Arthur said simply, his brow in a faint frown.

Merlin wrinkled his nose in irritation, his lips curling in distaste. How was he supposed to protect Arthur if he couldn't eliminate the threats against his person? He considered Arthur's order in the same manner that he would evaluate the terms of an assassination contract, glossing over the little details that people liked to put in to add a certain self-satisfying flourish.

Not on my bridge.

Merlin nodded and started to move, but had barely shifted his weight to stride forward when Arthur reminded him, "I need you with me."

Merlin rolled his eyes. "Then how am I supposed to --"

Arthur smirked. He leaned on one elbow, tilting his head until he could see past Merlin, and asked, "Gwaine. Are your men still looking for the --"

"Little shite?" Gwaine asked, his tone quickly degenerating into completely nutters. Merlin knew that loyalty was rarely given and particularly valued among the Pirates, but Gwaine was almost unhinged by the thought that a member of their crew would make an attempt on Arthur's life. "Don't get me started on their bloody incompetence --"

"Have them come up. They'll find him --"

Merlin didn't hear the rest of Arthur's promise. The shadows screeched a warning only Merlin could hear, and he reacted --

He twisted his torso, he swung his hand back, he threw --

A body slammed into the metal wall. A man cried out -- not in pain, but in fear. There was a soft thunk of an edge hitting the deck, a slap as the pistol fell out of his hands.

One million Sterling to bring down a Pirate King, his Shadowlord, and the entire crew of Excalibur. One million Sterling was an unfathomable fortune that would allow a man to live in luxury for ten lifetimes and leave more than enough for several generations of descendants, no matter how numerous the brood. The stark terror in the eyes of a man with sunken cheeks and a ratty brown moustache spoke of one thing and one thing only.

One million Sterling was not worth it.

But he was alive, if trapped in a net of shadows, the sharp edges digging deep into the wall over his shoulders and at his waist, a fuzzy blanket holding him in place -- holding him up where his legs had given out under him.

Gwaine surged out of his seat. "Goddamn it, Cedric. Brig and banishment, that's your lot when we get home. What kind of bloody idiot are you --"

Merlin met Arthur's eyes. He raised a brow. Arthur smiled and nodded faintly, tilting his head toward the vidscreen that had been pulled up while Merlin's back had been turned, a small corner image reflecting the full view of the bridge and the gangway beyond. That was the feed being broadcasted out, the feed that the citizens of the Empire were watching, and Merlin had nearly killed a man in front of them.

Merlin faltered. The last thing that he wanted was for the House of Shadows to be associated with Merlin's too-recent past as an assassin, but he saw now that his training and his instincts wouldn't be easy to shake or change. He gave Arthur a helpless look, but Arthur gave him a small, sad smile that was compounded by a glint in his eyes that Merlin knew far too well.

"You'll do whatever I ask, wouldn't you, pet?"

There was a teasing tone in Arthur's voice that took away some of the stinging realization that Merlin felt deep in his core, but it was with cold certainty that Merlin said, "Yes, I would."

Arthur's smile faltered. There was a flicker of uncertainty in his eyes that was slowly replaced with understanding. Merlin would do whatever Arthur wanted -- not because Merlin needed to or because he had to. It was because Merlin didn't know how to do what was right anymore and because Arthur was the only one who could save Merlin from himself.

"Four minutes, Captain," Lucan said.

The moment was broken. Gwaine's men had come to collect Cedric, and the greedy, traitorous Pirate was gone, his wailing shouts echoing down the passageway. Gwaine returned to his chair, tapped at his console, and his screen tilted and broadened, becoming a three-dimensional, short-hop miniature of the directional position holo-map that had reappeared overhead.

"Gentlemen and gentleladies," Arthur said, his voice a low rumble. He turned his chair around to face forward. "Let's go to war."

Chapter Text

 


Chapter Eighteen

Constellation: The Great Dragon

The Great Dragon

Location: Excalibur, Pirate Warship, Capital Solar System

 

"Bogey on our six," Lucan said, his voice mechanical, chillingly calm. "Three enemy fighters in combat spread dead ahead."

"Oh, Hell, no," Geraint said. "Thrusters on full forward. Everybody, brace."

Excalibur's engines ramped up to maximum power and the ship surged forward for two seconds before the nose abruptly lifted, bringing them into a directionally perpendicular position to the bearings they'd been on a bare heartbeat past. The ship twisted, banking hard to port, and finished in a complete course reversal. The fighter ships were behind them, the torpedo coming at them, and --

Geraint put Excalibur into a half-barrel roll, narrowly missing the heavy high-yield torpedo.

"We're out of sensor lock," Lucan said.

The torpedo had been locked onto the ship for nearly a full minute now, and it was a relief to know that it was now another ship's -- an enemy ship's -- problem. Geraint had been trying to lead it away from the other Pirate ships and simultaneously shake it off sensor lock, but Excalibur was a warship with limited manoeuvring capability at low speed and tight quarters. They'd nearly made it clear of the combat snarl when the three fighters split from their original attack coordinates and went head-on in a chicken flight against Excalibur.

Arthur gripped the armrests of his chair, itching to be in the pilot's seat, but there were no better pilots than Geraint and Galahad.

"One fighter ship from our six breaking formation. Torpedo has acquired a positive ping," Lucan said.

"One down," Galahad said. "He won't make it."

"Get us back in the fight," Arthur ordered.

Excalibur shuddered.

"We're drawing fire," Leon said unnecessarily. "Low bore projectiles. Aft hull plating is holding."

"Well, that's annoying," Gwaine said.

"It wouldn't be if someone fired back," Arthur said.

"Oh, right," Gwaine said, but he was already tapping at his console. He swept a hand across the holo to change his screen to an aft vid view. "Right. Right. I lost the coin toss, didn't I?"

"You did," Perceval confirmed. "You're on arse duty today."

"I hate arse duty," Gwaine complained, but there was a merry hum in his tone. Arthur didn't need to look to know that Gwaine had already locked onto both ships and was firing.

"And yet you keep harassing mine," Geraint said.

"It's such a nice arse," Gwaine said. He leaned forward, squinting at his screen. "Goddamn it, you little fuck, keep still --"

"One fighter down," Lucan announced. "Coming in on a dreadnought, dead ahead."

"Engage fore cannons," Arthur said. "Sweep past them, blow them a barrage."

"Coming up on starboard," Geraint said.

"Cannons engaged. Missiles away," Perceval said. "Second barrage ready. Missiles away."

"Direct hits," Leon said. "Dreadnought is listing, shields damaged. They have hull breach across eight decks."

"Their hangar bay just opened. Fighters away," Lucan said.

"Drop caltrops," Arthur said.

"Caltrops out and scattered," Gwaine announced.

"Disengage the dreadnought," Arthur said.

"Disengaging," Galahad confirmed. Geraint brought the ship hard away from the dreadnought, giving them space. They'd done the damage that they'd meant to do -- the only damage that they could do on this first sweep -- and someone else would have to come down and salt the wounds and disable the larger ship.

"Get us away, and behind them, if you can," Arthur said. "Watch our belly. Fire at will. Let's scatter them, boys."

"Aye, Captain," Perceval said.

Excalibur veered off sharply, ducking the close-quarter firepower from the dreadnought, giving it less of a target to shoot at. Geraint flew them in a sharp scissor pattern through the enemy fighters, scattering them out of their flight path even as they were being shot down. With Gwaine on port and aft, Perceval on starboard and fore, and both their crews loading cannons to ready the next rally, they had a clear, unchallenged route away.

They spiralled away, diving through open wreckage and drifting debris. Arthur kept an eye on the holo projection overhead, not wanting any surprises. The complement of Imperial Reservists still hadn't joined in the battle, but Arthur wasn't entirely convinced that they wouldn't.

"Incoming from Captain Gorlois," Elyan said.

"On screen, minimize," Arthur said. The ship jerked from a concussion blast; Geraint straightened out the wings.

"Aye, Captain."

A floating image came up on the screen. Morgause's bridge was dark, the consoles highlighted with a red glow. Her crew was shouting in the background, short, clipped orders and instructions, but it was mangled background noise. Morgause was in her chair, her hair pinned up in a mad twist, cascading curls loose and wild around her shoulders.

The Retaliate was jarred by a massive strike, and Morgause grabbed the armrest to keep from being thrown out of it. A console exploded in a shower of sparks, and the crewman threw his arms up to protect his face.

"Shields down to forty-seven, Captain. We've lost aft cannons. Returning fire, returning fire," the cacophony of voices died down when Morgause straightened in her seat.

"What do you want, Captain? I'm a little busy," Arthur said, his body tensing when Excalibur abruptly dropped its nose to avoid a firecracker barrage of heavy rounds.

"Poor baby," Morgause said, tilting her head mockingly. "Why don't you take a break? Sit offside and have a nap while we take care of these big boys?"

Arthur glanced from the vidscreen to the holo-map overhead and back again. Even with the destruction caused first by the mines, then by the negaton bomb, they were still badly outnumbered. The Conglomerate ships were in varying stages of functionality at this point, but they had fighters and cruisers to spare, and both were spilling out of the dreadnoughts like maggots and cockroaches.

Arthur didn't want to leave the Pirates when they were at a disadvantage. "You know damn well why."

"And it occurs to me that you're not thinking this through, little boy Emperor," Morgause said, smiling. Her smile was a false curve full of teeth, like a shark grinning its way through a pod of fish, trying to decide where to bite first. "If you follow through with your original plan, we won't need you, because we'll have all the reinforcements we need."

She raised a meaningful brow, tilting her head; the dark kohl around her eyes only served to make her expression more severe.

Arthur didn't need her to spell it out. In fact, he preferred that she didn't. Excalibur was still broadcasting live, and if any of the enemy ships were listening in, they would know the Pirates' next moves. As it was, Morgause had already revealed far too much.

"We've got a cruiser tight on our arse," Lucan said. "Approaching fast."

"I can't get a lock," Gwaine said. He hit his console. "I can't get a fucking lock. He's moving in sidewinder and there's too much debris --"

"Lag roll through those ships," Arthur said, lunging out of his chair. He stood behind the pilot seats, but didn't reach down to interfere with Geraint and Galahad.

Two pyramidal-shaped Falcon-class dreadnoughts were drifting past each other -- close enough for an overlap, far enough to squeeze through if they were careful. The overlay sensor data that Lucan threw from his holo screens to the main vid had a clear read-out of ship coordinates, velocities and distances. Galahad made a few rude noises under his breath, his hands already flying over the navigation console, calculating and plotting the route on the fly.

"Coordinates set," Galahad said.

"I don't need them."

"You're going to need them."

"I don't want them," Geraint said.

"You're using them," Galahad insisted.

"I can eyeball it --"

"I don't care how you do it, just get us through," Arthur snapped.

"Locking coordinates," Galahad said. "Make the call, Geraint."

"Put it on my console, but I'm keeping the wheel free," Geraint hedged.

There was hardly any time to reach out and smack them both on the heads -- or to smack their heads together, like Arthur very dearly wanted to do at the moment -- before they were up close and personal with the two dreadnoughts in question. It was only by mercy of the lightly-magnetized deck, a good two decades of earning his space legs, and a suddenly hyper-reactive gravity correction protocol, that Arthur managed to keep his feet.

He didn't flinch when Excalibur passed so close in-between the two dreadnoughts that the vid screen was filled with nothing but the crisp white of overlapping hull plating lightly dusted with scorch marks where they'd been hit by Pirate fire. He didn't close his eyes when Galahad made a small, yelping, whining sound when Geraint demanded "more speed". He didn't feel his stomach drop out of his belly when they were suddenly up and over the second dreadnought, sweeping down and around, to glide along the length of ship.

He saw the glimmer of light before saw the dreadnought's hangar bay doors opening. Instinct kicked in, and he turned to Perceval.

"Fire fore pulse cannons, full automatic. Strafe and scatter them!"

"Aye, aye, Captain," Perceval said, skimming fingers across his consoles. The screen shifted, he entered a quick string of commands, and the vidscreen burst into a kaleidoscope of red and white light.

A hornet's nest of fighters jettisoned from the dreadnought's combat bay. The first few flew clear of the pulse cannons battering the hangar, but the ships following immediately behind were impacted by the high-velocity rounds. Hulls pierced; engines burst into an oxygen-rich flame that immediately went ice-cold and blue. The fighter planes emerged into space without fine control and either went tits over arse, or twirled around wildly like a dancing girl, while the remaining fighters, unable to stop in time, crashed and collided into their squadron leaders.

"Arthur!"

Arthur snapped his eyes at the vidscreen, sparing a glare for Morgause. "I'm working on it!"

"Work faster," Morgause said, pausing to weather a series of impact blasts. There was a whisper in the background -- Starboard plating down eight percent -- and she snarled, "Or I'll do it."

There was an edge in her tone, and Arthur understood what she wasn't saying out loud. Her ship -- one of the largest and most heavily armed in the Pirate fleet -- had taken heavy damage. It had been understood from the beginning that the Retaliate would be one of the primary ships on the offence, but having the Retaliate on the line also meant that it would be drawing the most fire and taking the hardest hits. The Retaliate was a heavy battleship, difficult to manoeuvre in tight quarters, but that was expected, considering that she was built like a bloody tank.

A tank that was, for all intents and purpose, being turned into a scrap metal heap. Once the Conglomerate's firepower made it through the first layer of protective plating, it wouldn't be long before there was a full hull breach.

Morgause's crew could compartmentalize the damage and keep on fighting, but even the most vicious predator could fall if its prey managed to defend itself by striking at exactly the right spot.

Arthur cursed under his breath.

"Get out of the line of fire if your shields drop low. In fact, get out of Albion. That goes for everyone, do you hear me?" Arthur said. He didn't wait for confirmation. "End transmission."

The small image in the corner of the vid-screen blinked out with Morgause about to protest. Arthur took a step back and scanned the overhead holo desperately, trying to find an easy way out of this mess.

"Incoming! Incoming!" Lucan shouted. "Aft starboard low. It's coming in fast."

"Break off! Break now!"

There was nowhere to go. Excalibur had passed between two dreadnoughts and followed the full length of one body, but now there were two cruisers in close proximity, one of which had already fired on them, the other loaded for bear. Geraint pulled Excalibur into a snap roll, drawing the wings away from the missile, but only just.

They were hit.

Ship-to-ship torpedoes were designed to take advantage of three factors in maximizing damage -- the total speed of initial propulsion on ejection, the power on the on-board reactors, and the capacity of the explosive load to cause concussion damage on explosion or contact. The enemy ship had won the trifecta with this one warhead.

The concussion blast was enough to make the engines stutter. The missile struck in a perfect centre point along the quarter-rear of the ship. Their momentum went off-balance just as the engines re-engaged in a sputter and sent them into a vicious tailspin.

The inertial gravity faltered. The engines flickered off and on. They narrowly missed impacting against a dreadnought.

"Thrusters on full, damn it!" Geraint shouted.

"Starboard engine is operating on quarter power," Lance announced, his voice strained.

Gwaine slipped out of his chair with a strangled shriek. He grabbed the legs of the console before he swept out of the bridge and activated the magnets of his boots. Arthur hung onto the backs of the pilot and navigator chairs, the magnets keeping him in place, but the sheer torsion force of the ship spiralling out like a boomerang made black spots appear in his eyes.

There was a crash behind him, a scramble of feet, a hard thud, a hiss of pain. Arthur didn't dare turn around.

"Disengage gravity! All hands, strap in!" Leon shouted.

"Disengaged," Lance said. Almost immediately, Arthur felt lighter, the centrifugal forces dissipating until they were tolerable, his vision clearing up. He was still dizzy, and it didn't help that the view on the vid-screen was a flickering hiccup of too-close dreadnought and too-close cruisers and too-close photon missiles. Everything was too fucking close. "Shunting power to engines."

"Restart the starboard engines! Restart them right the fuck now --"

Galahad tweaked the switches on the shared centre console. He flicked them on in a precise, knowing sequence without taking his eyes from the directional gyroscope in the middle of the right screen. There was a blessed one-sided silence for a one-two count before Galahad flicked the ignite switch for the starboard engines.

He flicked that starter switch on and off. On and off.

"No response!"

"Hull breach, lower aft starboard. Battening down hatches. Airlocks clear," Leon said. "Damn it, I told you to watch our belly!"

"The complaint department is closed," Geraint snapped. "Port engines to docking speeds, now!"

Galahad's hand blindly went toward another set of switches and controls on the centre console, grabbing the speed controls. He yanked the primary all the way down to zero and engaged another switch. He flicked the starter switch off and on. Off and on.

"No response!" Galahad pounded a fist on the console. "Dead fucking board. I've got a dead board. Lance, do something --"

Arthur dove between the pilot and the navigator, smacking Galahad's arm out of the way. He flicked his fingers along the base of the console, disengaging the locks, and threw the hard console over his shoulder.

It never hit ground -- it struck the far wall inches from the top of Gwaine's head just as Gwaine clambered into his chair. "Oi!"

Arthur ignored him. He pulled out the circuit controls for the starboard engines. The relays were burnt to a crisp. He located the port control and yanked it out.

The port engines abruptly cut off. The perpetual rumble that was part of the background noise on Excalibur keened out with a whine.

"Blow ballasts! Measure them out, get us stabilized," Arthur ordered.

"Blowing fore port ballast," Galahad confirmed. There was a faint nudge-and-jerk that did little to slow the spiralling momentum of the ship, but the ship did slow down.

"Brace for impact!" Lucan shouted.

A staccato pop-pop-pop peppered the fore starboard side of the ship, cancelling out whatever counter-momentum that the ballast had gotten them.

"Sons of bitches -- give us a fucking break!" Geraint's jaw clenched tight; sweat beaded on his brow. He struggled to keep the helm steady, but the controls were vibrating in his grasp. "I can't hold her!"

"Fuck!" Galahad abandoned his attempts to regulate the ballast, disengaged the lock on his helm controls, and grabbed the stick. He grunted as he took some of the strain from Geraint.

Arthur wrenched loose cabling from the burnt circuit board and dropped the part; it floated in the zero-gravity. He ran his hands down his armour, checking his gear, drawing his knife -- too large, too thick. "I need pliers or a thin knife, narrow like a needle --"

Thunk

Thunkthunk

Three silvery-black knives embedded themselves in the back of Galahad's chair, going in deep enough to stay prone, but not enough to pass all the way through. Arthur twisted, saw Merlin curled up in the far corner of the bridge, shadows holding him down, a bleeding gash turning into an ugly bruise from the top of his hairline all the way to his temple.

"Will one of those do?"

Arthur suppressed the urge to go to Merlin's side and to fuss over him. Instead, he flashed Merlin the cockiest grin he could manage, yanked a knife that looked like it would do the job, and stabbed it into the slot for the starboard controls. He fashioned a crude bridge between knife and the working port board, jammed it into the proper slot, and -- "Someone toss me the console!"

"Heads up!" Gwaine said. The bent metal scratched across the deck, and Arthur winced. It would be a pain to polish those out.

"Incoming!" Lucan said again.

"Return fire, goddamn it," Leon barked. "Get them off our arse!"

"We're down aft starboard cannons! What do you want me to do? Put on my suit, go outside, and throw rubbish at them? Oh, never mind, I have pulse ballistics --"

"Talk less, shoot more," Perceval snapped.

"Returning fire," Gwaine said.

There was another stutter against the hull. This time, Arthur caught a glimpse of a fighter wing flash past the vid screen, one ship coming close enough to buzz them. It was luck alone -- and probably a measure of the other pilot's skill -- that there hadn't been a collision.

"I'm going to teach that fucker how to fly proper," Geraint said through clenched teeth.

Arthur reconnected the console. The console lit up green. He thumbed the starter switches for the engines and asked, "Port or starboard first?"

"Port!" Geraint said.

"Starboard!" Galahad said.

"We're on a collision course," Lucan shouted. "Listing dreadnought dead ahead --"

"Port, damn it --" Geraint hissed in frustration, and howled, "Both! Hit both! Full power! Galahad, on my go, pull the starboard flaps down -- and don't argue with me!"

"Fine! This is me not arguing!"

Arthur's hands went over the switches. First the starter sequence. He waited to see the status light go from amber to green, barely hearing Lance confirming the engine status in the background. Second, third and fourth were the quick ramp-up to full power, the synchronizing of energy output and the required shunt to the speed control. Arthur barely gave each sequence a microsecond's pause before his hands were on both port and starboard thrusters, pushing them up to maximum.

"We have full power," Lance confirmed.

"Starboard flaps down!" Geraint barked.

The ship vibrated under the strain. The sudden shift jarred them out of the reckless spiral; the engines wailed at a high pitch that left the deck trembling and threatening to split Excalibur in two. The vid-screen was full of dreadnought dead in the water, and the hair rose on the back of Arthur's neck as he felt a frisson of too-close contact and the clatter of brief contact.

Excalibur surged up like a ribbon, twisting and turning, the gut-wrenching movement finally settling down until the gyroscope on Galahad's console settled to an almost directionally-horizontal level.

"Fuckshite," Geraint breathed.

"I don't care what you say, I am sucking your cock the minute we're out of this," Gwaine promised.

"Okay," Geraint said.

Arthur's eyebrow rose and he glanced at Geraint. There wasn't a hint of a blush on his cheeks. Maybe Geraint had misheard Gwaine, because there was no chance that after all the attempts to seduce Excalibur's pilot, Geraint would give in to Gwaine now.

Geraint must have sensed everyone's eyes on him because he broke concentration long enough to glance at Galahad. "What?"

"Do you know what you just agreed to?" Galahad asked.

"No," Geraint said. Except, this time, his cheeks did flush, and Arthur knew damn well that he was lying. "Captain. Orders?"

"What's our damage?" Arthur asked.

"That last scrape took out our belly," Leon said. "One good concussion hit and we're done for."

"We're no good to anyone like this," Arthur said. "Get us to Albion. Let's do what we came to do."

"Fucking finally," Perceval said.

"Coordinates set," Galahad said.

"Adjusting course," Geraint said. "Lucan, how's our line of sight?"

"Two cruisers on our course, eight fighters on our six, one dreadnought locked on and waiting to engage, except there's too much of a mess between us and them to lose the missiles I'm sure they're itching to lob our way," Lucan said.

"So, essentially clear, then?" Geraint asked.

Lucan made a helpless shrug in the air. "If you don't want to count a debris cloud coated in Greek Fire, stray high velocity projectiles, a couple of targeting torpedoes, a dozen fighters with pilots who think they're hot-shite. Sure. Let's go with that."

"You know, if it's clear, just say that it's clear," Geraint said. Arthur was grateful for the magnetics on his boots, because even without the gravity enabled, he could feel the harsh centrifugal forces. He watched as his pilot and navigator worked in tandem, performing intricate manoeuvres that a lesser pilot wouldn't dare even with a smaller ship. He listened as Lucan warned of objects in their path and fighters coming after them. Gwaine and Perceval didn't respond, but the foreview lit up in a flash of bright light as Gwaine and Perceval cleared the way. The Conglomerate ships veered off abruptly, hopefully to seek easier prey.

Arthur stayed where he was for a moment longer. He went to Leon's station and scanned the consoles. Leon was keeping track of both the ship's condition, the weapons status, the shield capacities -- both the passive and the kinetic. There were some worrying yellow and orange flags across the screens, but they would survive the next stage. "How are the other ships?"

"Holding fast," Leon said grimly. "The Dauntless is partially disabled, but the Strumpet is protecting her. Shielding on all the ships are down, but they're steady."

"How long?"

"Barring a miracle?" Leon asked, glancing over his shoulder to meet Arthur's gaze. "Long enough for the miracle we're waiting for."

He raised both brows meaningfully, and returned to his console.

Arthur covered his mouth with his hand. He dropped it a moment later, refusing to allow even the slightest doubt to creep in that he might fail his people.

All of them.

"We're clear of the debris," Lucan said.

"Full speed," Geraint said. "Set coordinates."

"Albion, here we come," Galahad said.

There was a few minutes' pause. Arthur watched the holo-map, waiting to see what would happen. He half expected cruisers or fighters to come after them, but as he watched, the Pirate fleet closed in and blocked their path. There was a moment of silence, the tense crackle that came with the calm before the storm.

"Reactivating inertial gravity," Lance said.

There was a slow return to a near-normal gravity, lighter than what would actually be felt on the Pendragon homeworld. It left Arthur with the sensation of being grounded to the ship's deck by something other than magnetics, and bracing against the full weight of his armour -- a weight that was both welcome and suffocating.

"Going near-light," Galahad said. "Twelve minutes to Albion orbit."

"Twelve minutes," Arthur repeated with a nod. "Cool the cannons, check the armaments. Send a crew to do what they can about the lower shield plating and the hull breach."

"Aye, Captain."

Several voices echoed their acknowledgement of Arthur's orders. Arthur turned to Lucan. "Keep an eye forward and back. I don't want any surprises. Albion doesn't have much by way of planetary defences, but we can still get pot-shot out of the sky."

"Eyes wide open," Lucan said. He reached for his earphones and put them on. "Ears, too. Those ships are from the border; they might have cloaks."

"Good thinking," Arthur said. He turned around, intending on sitting down before his legs turned to jelly and he collapsed under the adrenaline seeping out of his bloodstream. He stopped when he saw Merlin.

The shadows clung to Merlin's body in loose tendrils, as if uncertain what would happen if they let go. They receded into the wall, draping themselves over Merlin's body protectively, and Merlin...

He was leaning against a wall panel with a Merlin-shaped dent. One knee was up, bracing himself. His shoulder was wedged in the corner. An armoured panel on his thigh was open -- Arthur imagined that was where the knives had been hiding, and frowned when he realized that Merlin hadn't shut it. He was usually fastidious about that sort of thing.

Arthur located a med kit and walked over, crouching besides him. Up close, the cut and bruise on Merlin's temple was ugly. The slice was a jagged slash at the hairline, and there was a wet, bloody streak down his face. The bruise had spread from his forehead to his cheekbone. Arthur opened the med kit and made a soft, scolding sound. "No magnets on your boots, pet?"

Merlin lifted a shoulder in a half-hearted shrug. "They activate at the most inconvenient times."

"I suppose that's a problem in your profession," Arthur said, rummaging around the kit until he found the colloid spray. He tugged off his gauntlets and pinched the cut skin together, murmuring an apology. "This is going to sting."

"'Course it is," Merlin muttered. He flinched when Arthur sprayed the wound, but otherwise didn't make a sound. The liquid clotted the blood on contact, forming a thick, artificial scab.

"Nothing that I can do about the bruise," Arthur said. He tossed the small bottle into the hard kit and found an antiseptic wipe, tearing it open. He wiped the blood from Merlin's face.

Merlin let him, a small, wry smile spreading across his face. "I knew you cared."

Arthur pressed a little harder than he'd meant, and Merlin winced. "Don't be an idiot."

Merlin made a soft sound. He straightened, pushing himself as if he meant to stand, but Arthur held him down.

"Don't move. I'm not done." He finished wiping at Merlin's cheek and let his fingers linger in the crook of Merlin's jaw. Arthur ignored the tightness in his chest and forced himself to say the words. "What would I do without you?"

"Same as what you did before. Terrorize Pirate and Imperial space." Merlin put a hand on Arthur's wrist.

"Cheeky," Arthur said. He slapped the med kit closed and started to pull away. Merlin held him firm and pressed a kiss to his palm. A curious warmth spread to his bones, and Arthur's breath caught. His voice was a hoarse whisper as he asked, "Is this going to work?"

Merlin smiled. "It'll work because it's you."

Arthur bowed his head, took a steeling breath, and stood up. He helped Merlin to his feet.

"Captain, a cruiser's broken away from the fighting. They're on our six," Lucan said.

"Just one?" Arthur asked.

"Just the one," Lucan confirmed. "At least four minutes behind us, and limping along. They won't match speed or intercept."

"But they'll be on planet with us," Leon said.

"Let's worry about our chickens when they hatch, not before," Arthur said, glancing at Merlin. Merlin's jaw clenched, and he looked grim. "Elyan, get me a line to Camelot. I fancy throwing a party at the palace, and I'd like to invite all the Houses."

 


Chapter Nineteen

Constellation: The Valley of the Kings

The Valley of the Kings

Location: Camelot, Imperial Palace, on the Planet Albion

 

Albion, Neo Britannia, was a class EG planet in the Core galaxy with two gas giants at the furthest fringes of the yellow star orbit and a messy asteroid field that spanned the orbit between planet number seven and eight. There were two small moons around Albion that maintained the same synchronous orbit, always in opposition with the other, cancelling out any effect on the ocean's tides.

All across the Empire, Albion was painted as an ideal. Pristine blue skies with white sugar-spun clouds, deep, rich oceans teeming with marine life, lush green forests carefully maintained to manage a diverse ecosystem. It was a planet colonized by the first ancestors of each of the Houses, rich with culture and history, with pearl-white buildings that had stood the test of time.

The jewel of Albion was the palace of Camelot, a glittering structure carved out of diamondstone. It sprawled around the top of a flat hill, the fortress walls bearing the marks of battles that had taken place in eras long past.

It had been six years since the last time that Merlin had seen Albion, and those years had not been kind. There had already been signs of decay nearly a decade ago, but to see the palace now was to watch the beginning of complete ruin. The stone was a sickly, mottled grey under a purplish sky. The rolling hills were splotched with withering yellow, where there had been nothing but rich jade and emerald. The turrets flew banner of Albion, but the familiar knotted peace circle of the Imperial planets had been marred by the trade sigil of the Conglomerate of Corporations.

There had been tourists on the ship with Merlin, when he had first stepped foot on what was considered by many to be hallowed ground. They had murmured their dismay at the sight, and the tour guide had cheerfully recounted a story of the House of Dragons and its binding to Albion, and that the universe would maintain balance as long as a member of the royal line sat upon the throne.

Much of the palace had been closed to tourists, and Merlin hadn't ventured deeper inside. There had been an assignment to complete, and he hadn't had the time to explore.

Merlin had later learned that the tour guide had been executed for telling tall tales, but seeing the palace now, with the haggard banners barely lifting in the wind, Merlin was willing to believe that the story hadn't been merely a story at all.

"Landing gear engaged," Galahad said.

Merlin snapped out of old memories and checked his gear.

"I'm getting a no air traffic warning over the palace from the planetary command," Elyan said. "Planetary defences are active. Conglomerate frequencies are buzzing. They're sending ships and ground troops."

"But why aren't they already here? It's not like they didn't know we were coming," Lucan said, shaking his head. His hair was standing on end where the earphones had been shoved up to the crown of his head, and his brows were pinched in confusion. "I thought they'd be waiting for us and that we'd get shot at, at the very least."

"Don't jinx it," Lance said. "Breaking atmosphere and the burn-up entry weren't kind on our armour plating."

"It's because there's no clear chain of command," Merlin said. "The CorpsCops are tasked with planetary defences. The Royal Guard's responsibility is Camelot. Get us as close as you can to the palace, and they won't shoot. It's bad for public relations to open fire on the Capital."

"Are you sure about that?" Lucan asked. "I'm getting sensor lock."

"Is it a weapons lock?" Arthur asked.

Lucan paused. He shook his head. "No, it isn't."

"The Royal Guard is the old Guard," Merlin said. He touched his head gingerly. The cut throbbed, but the scab was holding. As it was, his head was pounding and he was having trouble remembering what the tour guide had said all those years ago. "They're responsible for the planetary defences, but their authority ends there. It's been that way since the Conglomerate took over. Goes without saying that they're a bit bitter about it."

"Like the Reservists," Leon remarked. He didn't look up; his fingers flew over the main console, engaging the ship systems in tandem with Lance, securing Excalibur for the landing.

"Yeah," Merlin said. He tilted his head and immediately regretted it, covering up the involuntary wince with a small shrug. "Like them. They'll monitor and get involved only if they need to. I hope."

Arthur turned to look at him, his brows furrowed.

"Think about it," Merlin said. "The Royal Guard were twenty million strong at the height of the Empire. They were sworn to the House of Dragons, to the Emperor. Then the Conglomerate comes sweeping in and replaces them with White Legion. Their numbers were cut, the extra bodies reassigned to the CorpsCops, but the Conglomerate couldn't disband them completely, not without the Houses wondering why."

"Because the Guard is sworn to the Empire, not to the Conglomerate," Arthur said. He had a particular look on his face. Merlin knew that look. It was the Pirate mischief, the one where Arthur had an ace up his sleeve, a bluff he wanted to play in order to keep the winning hand.

Merlin would have said that there was no guarantee that the Royal Guard would help them, that they were as likely to intervene as they were to stand aside, but he remembered that they were still broadcasting. He resorted to glaring at Arthur before pulling the hood over his head, hoping that Arthur would get the message.

He didn't.

Arthur tapped his chin thoughtfully. "How many Guard are there, pet?"

"Oh, I don't know, let me check my handy guide on Imperial troops," Merlin groused, turning away. He pretended to pat his pockets and to come up empty. "I seem to have left it in my other armour."

"Would there be enough to hold against the CorpsCops if it comes to that?" Arthur asked. Merlin looked over his shoulder, shook his head, and lingered just outside of the bridge.

He didn't know. There were too many factors that they didn't know, that they couldn't account for. They were going in blind.

Arthur nodded as if he hadn't expected any other answer, and Merlin pretended he didn't see the hesitation that Arthur tried so hard to hide. Neither of them knew how far they would make it into the palace, and even if they managed to get to the throne room to fulfill that last task, to sit upon the throne --

They had no idea how to prove Arthur the legal descendant of Emperor Constantin. They were playing it by ear at this point.

"Two minutes to touchdown," Galahad announced. "We'll be as close to the palace as we can get you."

"Ground troops approaching from the south and west," Lucan said. "I'm getting a Conglomerate transponder signal from them."

"Not friendlies, then," Gwaine said. "Should I lay down covering fire?"

"No. Lock your consoles. Elyan, bring your comm kit and continue the broadcast. The rest of you, grab your guns. Have the crews secure the ship and raise the energy shields as soon as we're clear."

"Aye, Captain," Leon said.

Arthur turned to Lucan. "Any news for our straggler?"

"The cruiser's still incoming," Lucan said, tapping a different vid-screen. "ETA ten minutes. Enough time for us to get inside, if the CorpsCops don't get in our way first."

"Console locked," Gwaine announced.

"Comms kit complete," Elyan said. "We're tethered. If the ship goes down, we still have satellite uplink."

"Systems secure," Lance said. "Voice and code commands only. If they board the ship, it'll lock them in."

"The crew?"

"In position," Perceval confirmed.

"Let's move," Arthur said. "Meet in disembarkment."

"We'll be right behind you," Leon said.

Merlin moved aside and let Arthur lead the way down the passageway, down two levels, and into the hangar bay. They paused at the weapons locker and loaded for bear -- an extra pistol for Arthur with additional power cartridges, a short-range blast rifle for Gwaine. Perceval picked up a heavy, rapid-fire semiautomatic projectile-based weapon designed for planetary incursions. Elyan shouldered extra nylon webbing and added two matching handguns to his existing complement of four, Lucan adjusted his sensor headset and helped himself to a rifle that looked like it was the little brother to the one that Gwaine casually slung over his shoulder.

Excalibur made a soft whuffing sound, and there was a rumble of impact. The landing gear flexed, taking the brunt of the contact, and there was a noticeable shift in the gravity field. Armour and equipment was suddenly twenty percent heavier.

"Contact," Leon's voice came over the 1MC. "Locking system. Crew chiefs, you know what to do. Good luck, boys."

The lights went out and the auxiliary power came on, bathing the armoury in a dull, orange glow. Merlin felt a flood of shadow rush out of the dim lighting, enfolding and strengthening him.

Arthur led them to the disembarkment platform. Leon, Geraint and Galahad joined them less than two minutes later.

Merlin watched Arthur raise a hand to unlock the bay and open the door, but he paused, his head down. From where Merlin stood, shoulder against the wall, he could see the tightness around Arthur's mouth, the clench of his fingers around his gun.

It wasn't indecision that stopped him. Not doubt. Not now. It was responsibility -- the lives of each of these men were in his hands.

Arthur turned around and faced his men. He met their eyes -- each and every one. The silence in the dark bay was filled with the thunderous echo of adrenaline and pounding hearts.

He bit his lower lip. He started to speak.

"Don't, Arthur," Lucan said. It was the softest plea that Merlin had ever heard. Arthur wasn't the Captain anymore. He was their friend.

No one spoke.

"We'll rag on you for not telling us sooner," Gwaine said. "But that's later. And I think this clears my debt of Galagan rum, doesn't it?"

"It might just be me, but I've always wanted to see Albion," Geraint said, tilting his head up. He made a motion with his hand, the muzzle of his gun bobbing in the air as he pointed in the direction of the disembarkment bay door. "If you don't mind, can we get on with it?"

"No pillaging until afters," Leon warned. He turned to Arthur and bowed his head, soft curls falling down his face. His mouth was pulled into a wry grin, and his eyes were full of mischief. "With His Imperial Majesty's permission, of course."

A softness came over Arthur's expression. A release of tension along his shoulders. The unclenching of his jaw. A calmness overcoming fear. The realization that he wasn't leading his men to their doom, but that they were taking him toward what was rightfully his.

Arthur stood up just that little bit straighter, settling in his own skin. He looked at each of his men again, and gave them all a quick, sure nod.

"Are we ready?"

"Ready," Perceval said.

"Don't ask dumb questions, you pillock," Galahad said. "Open the damn door. The anticipation is killing me."

The tension snapped with the tug of Arthur's lips into a smile, the faintest sound of a laugh hidden behind a cough. Arthur turned on his heel, raised his hand, and tapped the unlock code.

The door slid open with a mechanical whoosh-thunk. The catwalk extruded with a loud, clicking clang. Bright sunlight, glaring against the artificial light on board the ship, seared the entryway. Merlin squinted and recoiled, the brightness making his throbbing head pound. There was a hand at his shoulder, keeping him steady, and it took a moment to recognize Perceval, strong and steadfast.

Dirt and dust kicked up by the ship's landing thrusters was settling in a misty cascade that diffused the light and gave the palace a soft, ethereal glow. The vibrant colours that were so familiar from the touristic souvenirs were muted and grainy, and the effect made the former jewel of the Empire seem far more real and tangible than the holos ever made it to be.

Merlin fell in step beside Arthur, even pulling ahead, ready to react to defend if he should need to. Nothing and no one came to greet them as they descended the ramp and took to the worn grass path leading up to the main road and to the gates.

"CorpsCops converging on our location," Lucan said. He put a hand on his headset to steady it and tilted his head at an angle to study the sky. "And the cruiser's like as not to land on top of us, if we don't hurry. Five minutes to intercept."

Arthur nodded. "Five minutes to get inside and past the guards. Merlin --"

Merlin took the lead, moving quick, scanning the ancient fortress walls for attackers. He used his shadow-sense to feel for unnatural movement. There were guards on the parapets, but none of them roused to action; there were men just inside the gates, standing at attention, bearing ancient halberds and wearing full Imperial regalia. There was a sharp intake of breath from behind Merlin and to the right; Arthur, Merlin knew, had realized that Pendragon red was the exact same shade as Imperial red, and that the golden dragon that was the Pendragon Clan sigil was a fuller version of the stylized outline that had always been the crest of the House of Dragons.

How could he never have seen? How could anyone have guessed?

All these years growing up a Pirate. All these years believing that Clan Pendragon had been established to mock the House of Dragons. Mere months of knowing himself the legal heir, and it all came crashing down in the here and now, to see it with his own eyes.

Merlin spared a glance for Arthur.

There was a wet glisten of tears to see his father's birthplace, to step in this place where his father was born and raised. A twitch of pain marred his otherwise stoic expression to feel the weight of ancient family history pressing down on him in what must feel like an engulfing welcome home. A tremor was visible in his empty hand. Arthur clenched it tight and tucked away all the emotion that threatened to lay him low. He was the Pirate King, the man meant to be the Emperor.

He couldn't afford to be human right now.

And yet, Merlin saw the human in Arthur anyway, the goodness of his soul, bright and blazing, the fierce determination shining through and burning away his pain.

Merlin didn't reach out to take Arthur's hand in comfort. They couldn't afford that, not now. Merlin turned away and walked through the gates, keeping a wary eye on those standing guard. The men cast sidelong looks in their direction, standing suddenly taller and straighter, as if aware that they were the first to see their new liege.

No one stopped them.

The open courtyard was polished cobblestones and sky-reaching walls, wind-rustled banners trailing down from flagpoles in curtains of red and gold. The windows were stained glass and wrought-iron, pushed open as if in welcome. A fountain was in the centre of the massive yard, two dragons -- one polished gold, the other a gleaming black. The dragons' tails and limbs were sinuously intertwined in perpetual combat or perpetual embrace, their broad wings holding aloft an abstract ripple of suns and stars meant to represent the Empire.

There was no fount spraying tall, no water dribbling through. Someone had turned off the stream, and the pond was dry.

They walked past without a word.

Guards lined up the cubbyholes all along the walls of the fortress and stood at attention at critical junctions of the palace walls. Merlin half-expected to be swarmed, or for the guards to raise weapons and cut them down, but they remained motionless, at attention, almost holding vigil.

"This is kind of spooky," Geraint said.

"I have a feeling it's about to get worse," Galahad said.

The stairs leading to the palace were fanned out almost to the fountain, the deep steps needing two strides before climbing the next. They made it halfway to the top when the doors swept open.

Merlin's hand closed into a tight fist. He stopped where he was, loose and relaxed, his next action still undecided. Arthur, beside him, kept his gun down but ready; the others raised theirs almost simultaneously, laser sights painting crosshairs along the walls and the doorframe to finally congregate on the old man standing in their way.

He was balding, stoop-shouldered, with a neatly-trimmed beard. He wore a robe of office -- black lined with gold and highlighted with patches of red in the shoulders, elbows and sides -- and the heavy twisted torc of a Castellan.

He clasped his hands in front of him and surveyed them with an unimpressed expression. His eyes narrowed and he tilted his head with something of recognition, though that recognition was clouded and uncertain. He took a step forward, then two; he paused at the top of the stairs before coming down the steps.

"Lower your guns," Arthur said.

The rifles were lowered. Pistols were pointed to the ground.

Merlin took a step forward, standing in front of Arthur.

"You too, pet," Arthur said.

Merlin acknowledged him with the faintest turn of his body. He extended his arms and spread his fingers to show that he had no weapons in hand. It was an empty gesture, because they all knew that Merlin was armed no matter what, even naked as the day as he was born, but it was a gesture nonetheless.

The Castellan continued unimpeded and unafraid. He stopped when he was a good ten feet away. He studied them all before focusing on Merlin.

It was almost unnerving. That gaze stripped Merlin of his armour, seeing him, seeing through him. There was no measuring and no judging, only understanding.

"I see you, House of Shadows," the Castellan said, bowing his head, though he didn't look away. "I remember you, Merlin, son of Balinor and of Hunith of the House of Shadows."

Merlin's heart pounded. It had been a long time since another had spoken of his parents and in such a familiar tone. There were many who had known them, but Merlin knew none of them. There had been kinship between the royal Houses, he knew, but there was no kinship now, not here.

A mad swirl of emotions churned in his belly, bringing fire where there had once been ice. Here stood a man who had known his parents, and who had done nothing to help them. Who had done nothing to help the House of Shadows when the Empire ruthlessly cast them aside.

"You risk death speaking my name, Castellan," Merlin said softly. "By my hand or by the Conglomerate, though I promise you a quicker fall."

There was a soft murmur behind Merlin. He ignored it.

The Castellan didn't flinch. He didn't blink. There was the faintest quirk of his lips, an abashed bow of his head. Finally, he nodded. "I need no further proof that you are who you say you are. The House of Shadows may have been struck from the Book of Blood, but clearly the shadows love you as they love no other save those of the ruling line of the House in exile."

Merlin bristled; the shadows whipped out in wild tendrils around him. A hand on his shoulder held him back.

"You have his eyes. You have his temper. You are indeed your father's son," the Castellan said. His eyes drifted to the hand on Merlin's shoulder and followed the arm to the owner's face. "And there has only ever been one capable of holding such a strong Shadowlord in check."

There was a press, a light pull. Merlin allowed Arthur to guide him, to turn him aside, and Arthur stood before the Castellan. Arthur's eyes were narrowed, there was a faint pinch of his brow, a set to his jaw.

The Castellan eyed Arthur in the same way that he had studied Merlin, taking him in. He approached, cutting the distance between them in half, his gaze darting to Merlin to see if he would be allowed to come so close.

As far as Merlin was concerned, he wasn't. Arthur squeezed his arm, as if sensing Merlin's intent, and Merlin resisted the urge to put himself between them again.

"Have you ever held an Imperial Sterling in your hand?" The Castellan asked.

There was a choked-off sound behind them, a strangled laugh. Gwaine covered his mouth with his hand and pounded his chest with the side of his rifle. Perceval pounded his back, and Gwaine shook his head in apology. "Swallowed the wrong way. Sorry. Carry on."

Arthur half-turned to study his men, matching their knowing smiles with one of his own. His hair fell into his eyes, and there was that smirk again, that knowing glint in his eye.

Merlin looked heavenward with a quiet sigh. He could hear the words before Arthur even spoke.

"I am a Pirate, born and bred, renowned for my pillaging ways, as you must surely know," Arthur said, his tone charming and cautiously courteous. "Perhaps you should ask a question that you don't already have the answer to."

"And quickly, perhaps?" Lucan suggested, glancing over his shoulder. "Our Geraint here would love a grand tour of the palace, and we'd like to beat the rush."

There was a commotion at the gates. The guards had moved inward, and the heavy portcullis had been lowered. The men all along the fortress walls came to life, moving into position behind merlons, bracing weapons against the crennels and peering through the murder holes.

The Castellan barely paid the activity any mind beyond the slightest quirk of a raised brow and a hurried tone to his question. "Do you know whose profile is on the coin?"

"Again," Arthur said, tilting his head in feigned patience, "Questions that you don't already have the answer to."

The Castellan gave Merlin a long-suffering look before turning to Arthur again. "I don't suppose someone remarked how you and a young Emperor Constantin share the same profile?"

The furrow in Arthur's brow deepened. There was an exchange of glances among the Pirates behind them.

"I don't suppose you considered that we don't hold those pretty Imperial Sterlings in hand any longer than it takes for us to buy a round of drinks all of our mates at the local tavern?" Gwaine asked.

The Castellan's expression changed. He looked at Merlin almost in entreaty, but Merlin only shook his head. "Yes, they are always like that. You'll need to forego the pretty words and speak plainly."

The Castellan forced a thin smile. Whatever pretty speech he had been about to make had been derailed, and he exhaled with a little huff of frustration. He bowed his head and recovered with a smooth, "Suffice it to say that you do take after the late and much-beloved Emperor Constantin."

Arthur stared at the Castellan for a long moment before nodding. He made a slight motion with his hand. "But?"

"Since the time of Emperor Constantin, there have been many, many pretenders. Some, claiming to be his child. Of late, claiming to be his grandchild. All of these men and women have been put to the test. The deceptions have run the gamut of clever cloning techniques that foil the automated testing and fool the most astute Physician in the Empire, to those who genetically altered their DNA to form a reasonable approximation of an offspring or two." The Castellan paused.

The silence was filled with the sound of heavy projectile fire and a return volley. Lucan danced in place, anxious. He caught Merlin's attention and made a rolling motion with his hand. Can we hurry this along?

There was a thunderous crack. It reverberated like the gong of a bell and shattered. The walls crumbled; a window pane splintered. The ground shook beneath them, and the fountain burbled a weak dribble of water splattered into the dry bed. This time, the Castellan looked up with a flash of alarm, and there was a tightness around his mouth.

The gate was shimmering with a flickering energy shield, the solid blast doors dented inward.

"There is one test," the Castellan said, slowly drawing his attention away from the fortress gates. "One test that is above reproach. It is unfortunate that not many Houses exhibit visible gifts --"

The Castellan's eyes flickered in Merlin's direction, and, self-consciously, Merlin drew his errant shadows back, forcing the tendrils to reel in and withdraw.

"-- but if you are truly House of Dragons, young Pirate, you will --"

An uneasy silence at the gates caught Merlin's attention. He shifted, staring at the dented walls, at the crumbling stone. The Royal Guard were milling about, charging arms and taking aim, but none of them were giving fire. They were merely holding fast, acting as defenders of the realm.

Arthur turned, too, and they exchanged glances.

"Right, then," Arthur said, sweeping forward in a motion full of restless grace, shifting his pistol from one hand to the other and deftly turning the Castellan around, ushering him up the steps. "Let's leave the pomp and circumstances for a more fortuitous time, shall we? Tell me about this little test on the way. I'm afraid I'm not up on my Imperial history. Will I be graded on a curve?"

The Castellan blustered, scrambling to keep up with Arthur on his way up the steps. "It's not a schoolchild's examination -- what are you doing --"

"You, there," Arthur said, gesturing with his pistol at one of several guards standing by the entrance, his expression pale, his emotions controlled. There were additional bars of rank and status on the man's uniform, and Merlin assumed he was the ranking officer in charge. "Barricade the building. Bring down the blast doors, pull up the security dome -- Hells, whatever you've got for defensive protocols, activate them all. Now."

"Yes, sir," the guard said, hesitant and wary. The Pirates followed Arthur into the palace. Perceval glanced over his shoulder now and again, and Lucan twitched as if in anticipation of a blow that never came. Merlin took up the rear, pausing just shy of the doorway, and stood next to the -- Merlin counted the bars -- lieutenant commander.

"You'll be wanting to pull back your men. Retreat to the palace, protect what you can. They're coming in whether you like it or not, and it'll be the White Legion coming through those gates. If you value your lives, do not engage."

"They wouldn't dare," the Castellan said.

"They would," Merlin said sharply. "When has the Conglomerate ever been in such a strop over a mere pretender of the Dragon line? Tell me. When?"

The Castellan looked between Merlin and Arthur and back again. His mouth slackened, aghast, clamping shut a moment later with steely determination. He wrenched his arm free from Arthur and turned on his heel. "Walk this way."

They followed the Castellan down a long corridor. A great tapestry hung at the other end; deep crimsons and reds and a single golden dragon in the centre, rich and royal all at once. Merlin could read the tension in Arthur's expression, but there was a distant, foreboding look in his eyes, as if he were thinking of things that had been denied him.

Or, maybe, he was contemplating both a past and a future that hadn't been.

Merlin started to reach out, changing his mind at the last moment. His shadows, on the other hand, had no such compunction and stretched out a thin tendril that curled around Arthur's arm. Arthur heaved a breath, exhaled, and calmed.

"The test?" Arthur asked. "What is the test?"

"The Book of Blood," the Castellan said simply, in a tone that implied that was all that needed to be said.

Merlin shrugged his shoulders at Arthur's unspoken question. He didn't know, either. Arthur glanced at the others, who snorted.

"You're asking us, mate?" Geraint scoffed, shaking his head.

"Haven't the faintest," Galahad said.

"Some detail would not go unappreciated," Arthur said, catching up to the Castellan easily, falling in step beside him.

The Castellan sighed, rolling his eyes, murmuring under his breath to bemoan the state of the Empire these days, that children weren't taught the simplest things.

"Pirate," Arthur hissed, pointing toward himself.

Merlin couldn't help himself. He laughed.

"Pirates, indeed," the Castellan said, eyeing Arthur up and down again. "Very well. The ancestors of the Royal Houses, in their grace, saw fit to create a genealogy of every familial branch. If you are truly of the House of Dragons, your name will appear in the Book of Blood."

"How does that work, even? If someone's bright enough to fool a Physician --" Leon stuttered to a stop when a tremendous blast caused the palace to tremble. The tapestry waved like a ribbon in the wind, and from the passageway beyond the Imperial sigil came a worried murmur.

"Ouch," Lucan said, shoving his earpieces down and rubbing his ear. "I'm pretty sure that means they've made it through the outer gates."

"Explanations later," Arthur said. He turned to the Castellan. "Where are you taking us?"

"To the Imperial throne," the Castellan said, rounding a corner.

Arthur came to a stop. The Pirates bumped into each other before stopping, too. Merlin felt his shadows lash out and tighten, and he suppressed the urge to fade into the nearest corner, out of sight.

The corridor would come to an abrupt stop, if the large stonewood doors hadn't been flung wide open in anticipation of their arrival. Hundreds of pairs of eyes were upon them from either side of the long hallway, and where the Castellan continued on as if he weren't affected by the attention, the Pirates stopped dead.

Banners with the sigils of the Royal Houses hung at fixed points along the long hall. A serpent, a phoenix, a basilisk, a tower. There was a crystal globe, a twisted rope in a complicated braid, a bright yellow stone against a verdant steppe. There was a trice-knotted rose, four intertwined circlets, lines woven through a symbol for infinity. There were a myriad more leading to the Imperial sigil that hung over the Emperor's throne at the very end of the hall, the symbols in synchronicity and balance except where there was one missing, a blank spot beside the throne.

The House of Shadows.

Merlin ignored the pangs in his chest.

Beneath each banner stood several members to represent the Houses, resplendent in silky robes and gowns, jackets and trousers. They glistened with the polish of the Royal Court and sparkled with jewels from a thousand planets, and the Master of each House stood at the fore, golden torc around their throat.

"Looks like they accepted your invitation, Captain," Elyan said, his voice soft.

"I have a feeling they've been here all along," Leon said.

"Can't say I fancy the fashion on the Core worlds," Gwaine mused, his brow furrowed. The Pirates turned to him, raised brows one and all, and Gwaine startled himself out of his thoughts and said, "What? It's a fair assessment! Those trousers look right uncomfortable. Look how they pinch the bollocks."

Arthur exhaled in irritation, shaking his head. "Let's not keep them waiting."

"Let's not," Merlin said, bracing himself. The shadows whipped around his legs, angry, agitated, a reflection of Merlin's mood as he fell in step behind and to the right of Arthur, where his proper place would be.

It was a long, determined walk to the head of the hall. The members of the different Royal Houses filled in the corridor, corralling them in; there was only one visible escape route, and it was through all those bodies and the open door on the other side.

The crew exchanged glances. Leon stared resolutely forward. Arthur pretended he didn't notice. One of Merlin's trailing shadow tendrils lashed out in warning when the crowds swept up too closely behind them.

The Castellan waited for them in front of a raised dais stretched out beneath the stairs leading to the throne. On that dais was a long, rectangular table with twelve seats; there were men and women of various ages, all wearing different cuts of what appeared to be a standardized uniform in bland, boorish grey. Merlin had seen this table before -- the Regent Conglomerate, the members of the many Corporations that made up the Conglomerate and ruled the Empire -- but the faces were too young, too terrified to be the members of the board.

A quick glance at Arthur was all that Merlin needed. Arthur had seen it, too. These were not the partner members of the Regent Conglomerate, but tasked representatives. Not a single man or woman made up the Regent proper.

A tall, elegant woman with pale blonde hair stood up, her hands smoothing down the lapels of her vest, her fingers trembling. Her voice cracked, wobbled, and was surprisingly steady as she said, "Master Castellan, I must again voice the Regent Conglomerate's protest --"

"Your protests have been so noted," the Castellan said, turning away from the Council. He motioned toward the side, and several men in black robes with a three-stripe sigil on their left arms moved forward, carrying a heavy table that they positioned in front of Arthur. A tall woman with long black hair and sharp features strode out determinedly, holding a velvet-wrapped object in her arms. She was flanked by additional guardsmen who most assuredly were not part of the Royal Guard, and each man carried not only a sword, but a pistol at full charge.

"The Guardians of the Book of Blood," the Castellan said. "They will administer the test. Will those who have volunteered as witness please stand forward?"

Five men and five women, Masters of ten Houses, broke ranks along the sides of the hall. They stopped in a semi-circle around the Guardian who gingerly placed a heavy tome on the middle of the table.

Unwrapped, the Book of Blood was unremarkable. It was thick and leather-bound, one metre tall, half a metre wide, half that again in thickness. The cover was embossed, the edges reinforced with steel, the leather supple rather than worn with age. The pages were gilded silver, but they didn't gleam, not even when the Guardian turned the pages, her fingers dainty against the edges.

She paused when the book came open at a missing section, the vellum roughly torn nearly to the binding. She looked at Merlin almost pityingly, and Merlin felt the shadows inside him rage.

She bowed and stepped back when she found the entry that she was looking for. "The lineage of the House of Dragons, my Masters."

"Will one of you read the last entry?" the Castellan asked.

"This is a farce," a member of the Conglomerate Council said, standing up to add his voice to his compatriot, though his tone was hoarse. "To base a man's parentage based on a worthless relic borders on hypocrisy and heresy. I declare this action illegal --"

"Do shut up," a Master said -- the Master of the House of the Golden Flame, Merlin saw. The names of the different Houses came to him, slowly and surely, and he recognized the witnesses as members of Houses known for not their strength in numbers, but their strength in an ancient magic that was as unique as Merlin's own. The man bowed his head respectfully and turned to the woman who had been about to read from the book. "Pardon me, my Lady."

"The last name entered in the long line of the House of Dragons, may it rise again, is Uther, son of Constantin of Camelot and Antonia of Lourdes."

"Even if he is of the House of Dragons, what is it going to prove?" another Council member asked, standing up. He buttoned his jacket in an effort to hide his wavering hands, and bounced on his feet, nearly clicking his heels. "The Empire is ruled by the Regent Conglomerate of Companies --"

"Of which I see none present," the Master of the House of the Golden Flame said, gesturing toward the table. "And we, the Masters of the Royal Houses of the Imperial Court, will not take commands from underlings. Unless you can manifest an avowed representative..."

He waved a hand in a sweeping, mocking gesture. When he received no response, he turned his attention to the Guardians. The woman who had opened the Book approached Arthur with a curved, jewel-encrusted ceremonial blade.

Merlin moved to stand between them. The Guardians immediately took a step forward, guns at the ready. The Pirates behind and around them raised their pistols and rifles.

It was a standoff with tangled arms aimed in every direction, and absolutely no chance that everyone wouldn't get hit.

"For the Book of Blood to recognize a descendant of the House, and for a new entry to appear, blood must be shed," the woman said. "It is tradition that I perform --"

"Merlin," Arthur said softly. Merlin felt a faint tug at his arm. "It's all right. A cut to the palm, isn't it? I remember my father's scar. Always wondered what had happened, though he would never tell me. I suppose I know now, don't I?"

Arthur sounded wistful, quiet, sad. Merlin refused to move.

"Yes. To the palm," the woman said. "You may cut your own hand if you wish."

The knife flipped deftly in the woman's hand. She offered the hilt to Merlin.

Merlin took it and made a show of inspecting it; he stopped short of licking the blade to see if there was any poison applied to the edge. For one thing, it would insult the Royal Court, which would be counterproductive to what they wanted to achieve in the future, if they lived that long. For another, even if it was poisoned, Arthur was in no danger of dying. Not anymore.

Arthur holstered his pistol and removed his gauntlet. He held out his hand.

Merlin stared at his palm.

"Go on, pet. I trust you'll not gouge too deeply," Arthur said.

Merlin raised wide eyes to Arthur, huffing a small laugh to hide his surprise. He knew that Arthur trusted him, but to hear it spoken -- it shook something loose deep inside. "Your faith in me is astounding, my liege."

"Well? What are you waiting for?"

The knife was old and metal-worked, but the blade was scalpel-sharp. Merlin cut a thin line in the fleshy part of Arthur's hand. The Guardian made an approving sound, and swept a gesture toward the book.

"Allow your blood to fall upon the page," she said.

Merlin caught the arch of Arthur's brow, the I don't know what this is but I'll play along half-roll of his eyes, and --

There was a loud, reverberating kraa-kraack. There were distant shouts and screams. Pistol blasts and hard projectiles struck diamondstone walls in a resounding echo. There was a crash and a split of marble, the ricochet of ammunition against armour.

-- there was a grim set to Arthur's jaw and a huff of breath that might as well have been a prayer as he closed his hand in a tight fist and squeezed his blood onto the pages of the book.

One drop. Two.

Three.

Four.

Large drops, small drops, droplets.

They floated on the surface of the vellum as if the vellum was coated with a phlebophobic substance. At first, the blood formed tiny balls like rain on a glassy surface, and it seemed that they might roll off the pages entirely.

And then, after an excruciating minute filled with anxious murmurs and weapon fire and the sound of the heavy stonewood doors clicking shut, the blood was absorbed by the vellum pages.

The pages were as smooth as they had been before they were marred with Arthur's blood, crisp, calligraphic script flowing across the page. But there were no new additions like the Guardians had implied that there would be, even if the Guardians were holding their breath in anticipation.

There was a bang on the door. The sound rang warningly throughout the hall. Merlin moved through the Pirates, squeezing past Geraint and Lucan, and stared down the long corridor.

"My Masters," the Guardian said, her voice a disbelieving whisper. Then, more loudly, she repeated, "My Masters. Within the Book of Blood there is a new name."

Merlin turned around. He met Arthur's eyes and saw both exultant relief and the sudden crash of reality. All around them, bodies shuffled; fabric rustled. There was a soft thump as the book was turned around on the table.

Members of the Royal Court craned their necks to see better, though none of them were so discourteous as to leave their posts. The Pirates were torn between staring at the door that was the only thing between them and the Conglomerate army, and in getting the confirmation that they already knew.

"My Lady," the Master of the House of the Golden Flame said, "Do us the honour of reading the new name."

"It is," she paused. She must have rallied herself, because her voice resounded loud and clear. "Let it be known that there is new blood among us. He is of the line of the House of Dragons, long may it reign. Arthur Pendragon, son of Uther of Camelot and Ygraine of Clan DuBois."

A quiet hush fell over the hall, broken only a moment later when the Master of the House of the Golden Flame raised his voice.

"The House of Dragons is among us once again. May the Houses band together to restore peace throughout the Empire. Long live the Emperor!"

A multitude of voices rose in chorus, only to falter at the loud crash that splintered the last gate against the enemy.

The stonewood doors flew open, smashing hard against the diamondstone walls at the other end of the long hall. The members of the Houses filling the large room closed ranks and were brutally shoved aside.

"Let them pass," Arthur said, raising his voice to be heard over the chaos. "It's not you that they want. Let them pass!"

Perceval's heavy rifle was raised with a faint huff of breath; Gwaine had slung his weapon along his arm, bracing the butt of his shorter weapon against his shoulder. Galahad and Geraint casually raised both their arms and charged their weapons. Elyan shoved his comms kit under the table, nudging it out of the way with his foot, and loosed his guns from his holsters. Leon and Lance bracketed the half-circle of Pirates, carrying long lancers capable of heavy, repeated fire.

Arthur pulled on his gauntlet. He drew his pistol.

The crowd at the front of the hall had heard Arthur's shout and moved aside as the White Legion stormed the room in two perfect columns. They were soldiers, all, men and women in the trademark layered armour, stark white heavy plates weighing them down, none of them wearing the lavender of the Elite.

None of them save one.

The soldiers fanned out, forming a barricade line between the members of the Royal Houses and the Pirates. They carried short-range rifles in their arms, held close to their chest and aimed down at the ground; there were additional weapon holsters strapped to their waists.

Their leader approached, a blaster in both hands, his arms loose at his sides.

Merlin walked past Arthur, ignoring Arthur's hissed warning to wait. He met the Elite halfway, the two stopping five metres from the other. Where Merlin was hooded, the Elite was masked in a White Legion hard-helmet, his face and head completely encased, his eyes concave etchings on the armour plating, his nose shaped and moulded against the flat planes of an otherwise faceless shield. There was no mouth, no identity, each White Legion soldier no different than the next, except for the lavender stripping at the edges of the Elite's armour.

They faced each other in a wordless standoff. Neither of them moved.

The Elite broke the stalemate by holstering his blasters. He flicked a hand against the side of his head, moving too fast for the eye to follow, releasing and disengaging his helmet. The material folded back in a series of faint clicks, receding completely within the protective collar around his throat.

The man beneath was youthful. His eyes were calculating, and his mouth was pursed. His dark hair was a mass of curls flattened by the helm. He raised his chin defiantly, and said, "You must be Emrys. I'm disappointed. I was expecting someone… grander."

"Mordred," Merlin said. He trembled, though not in fear. It was in rage, in an anger so powerful that it had splintered and broken out of the vessel meant to contain it. He had no words for this man beyond a primal scream of outrage. Mordred, and those like him -- the so-called Elites who were descendants of the House of Shadows -- represented an unforgivable betrayal.

To see him here, in the palace of Camelot, where Arthur had been named heir and Emperor, it was a stain that Merlin couldn't allow.

"You stand accused of innumerable deaths throughout the Empire and direct crimes against the Imperial Conglomerate for attacks upon the White Legion. There is a death edict upon your head for the complicity of the House of Shadows in the murder of Emperor Constantin, and for the genocide of House of Dragons. I am here to take you in."

"Try," Merlin said. He tilted his head. "Please."

There was a quirk at the corner of Mordred's mouth, a flicker of amusement, as if he had expected nothing different from Merlin. Mordred's cool gaze drifted past Merlin to a fixed point, and he said, "And you as well, Arthur Pendragon. For more than a decade of piracy and all associated crimes against the Empire, not the least of which includes invading Core World space, firing upon Conglomerate troops, importing an illegal device with the intention of eradicating Albion."

"Oh, is that the party line that the Conglomerate is taking? Blaming the negaton on the Pirates? Brilliant." Arthur scoffed.

Mordred continued as if he hadn't been interrupted, "-- and, finally, the false claim placed before the Royal Court and the Empire that you are the legal descendant of our former Emperor. There can be no greater punishment for the torturous knife twisted in the hearts of all the loyal citizens of the Empire than death."

He took a step forward.

"And what of the crimes that the White Legion perpetrated?" Merlin said, his voice low. There was a soft roar in his tone, the shadows rising from the deepest corners of his soul, fighting decades of restraint.

Mordred paused, his brows pinching faintly.

"What of the betrayal of your ancestors against the House of Shadows? You fled, turncoats all, to the Conglomerate's banner. Your kind slaughtered hundreds of thousands of those who had once been kin. You set dropped bombs upon the holy Temple of Ealdor, you assisted the Conglomerate in their secret plan to usurp power and dominion in the Empire. You smuggled and planted the device that destroyed the Imperial flagship, killing not only the Emperor and his family, but my mother… my father… my family."

Merlin took a step forward.

"Your kind infiltrated the Pirates for no other reason than to root out the last of the House of Dragons. It is by your hand that Uther Pendragon is dead. That his Shadowlord, who was my master, also fell. You attempted to kill his son, his heir, not once, but twice, and again you try to end our Houses, here, in front of witnesses." Merlin paused. He took in a breath. "That will not stand."

The great hall trembled. The lights flickered. The shadows loomed and grew.

Merlin took another step forward. Mordred took a half-step back.

"The House of Shadows is ever sworn to the House of Dragons. We guard, we protect, we guide. We maintain the balance. We do not suffer oathbreakers, and that is what you are."

The shadows thickened in the hall, looming and menacing. The members of the Royal Houses murmured quietly, some in fear, some in awe. Merlin could hardly contain the shade. He didn't try.

"Merlin," Arthur said, and in his voice was a gentle tone, neither rebuking not chastising. It was the sound of his name, and that alone tempered Merlin's anger, reminding him that his duty and his responsibility was Arthur. Merlin was no longer in the business of vengeance and retribution.

Merlin steeled himself. He forced himself to calm. He could sense the shadows in these men and women of the White Legion. Powers no greater than an initiate, a journeyman, an acolyte. They were without training and guidance, unfettered by the laws that even Merlin, in his shame, had once cast aside.

He did not know what these Legion soldiers had been taught. He did not know what they had been told. All he knew was that he could not condemn them for straying from the legacy in their blood when he himself had done the same.

"You have one chance. One chance only. Lay down your arms. Recant your deeds. Swear your lives to the Litany that guides us in the shade and binds us to the House of Dragons. Put yourselves at the mercy of the House of Shadows and pray… pray for redemption."

There would be no easy forgiveness if the descendants of the traitors returned to the House, Merlin knew. There would be decades of strife until the House of Shadows settled again, but those were decades that Merlin would willingly give up if it meant that he could go home again.

The soldiers of the White Legion did not break formation. Their discipline was strong. The seconds passed, becoming minutes, and Merlin saw one or two turn their heads away, breaking contact. He saw the shift of weight from the balls of their feet to rest on their heels, defensive rather than offensive.

One or two. Three or four. Out of more than a dozen White Legion. They were either filled with uncertainty or doubt, or their immersion in the mindset of the White Legion was absolute. Merlin didn't know, but it needed to begin somewhere.

Mordred was young. Surely all the soldiers were, too. They weren't old enough to have committed any crime against the House of Shadows beyond being the sons and daughters of traitors. Merlin wanted them to return to the Shadows. To help make whole what had been broken.

Mordred never broke eye contact. If he was aware of the shift in mood all around him, it didn't show. He made a little nod of his head, tilting his head to the side.

"Or else what?"

I'm sorry, Arthur, Merlin thought. He'd hoped, but he hadn't hoped hard enough. He'd wanted, but he didn't want badly enough. There was still too much anger, still too much that remained unresolved, for Merlin to truly let it go.

So, he didn't. "I seem to recall your boasting that you would be my bane."

Mordred's eyes twitched. It might have been a flinch. It might have been amusement.

"Oh, dammit, Merlin," Arthur whispered. There was an uneasy silence before Arthur spoke again. "I know that tone. I don't like that tone. I don't want to hear it again after today. Do you hear me, pet?"

"You'll never need to hear it again after today, my liege," Merlin said, bowing his head graciously, though he didn't remove his eyes from Mordred. "I intend that this ends, and it will not end with me."

Mordred smirked. "Are you certain about that?"

"One chance," Merlin said. "What do you decide?"

Mordred took another half-step back, half-staggering under an unseen blow. He steadied himself and touched his throat. The helm clicked up, piece by piece, fitting together like a jigsaw puzzle before solidifying into a seamless, inscrutable mask.

Merlin bowed his head and closed his eyes. The shadows swirled around him, whipping tendrils like smooth, flat ribbons stretched awkwardly, before Merlin called them in with cold regret.

Arthur sighed. "All right, gentlemen and gentleladies. You'll be wanting to stand aside. I might covet a ringside seat, but blood is a pain to scrub out of armour, and I can't say what it'll do to your pretty silks."

The crowd moved like a rippling wave upon calm waters. The members of the Royal Court drifted backwards and to the sides until there was a rough crater at the front of the hall, wide and broad.

The Conglomerate Council were less graceful. They scrambled out of their chairs, tripped down the raised dais, and disappeared behind a stone column.

The White Legion soldiers hesitated. One man broke ranks first and stepped back; an instant later, the rest fanned back until they lined both sides of the hall, blocking the members of the court.

In a way, Merlin was relieved. He didn't want to risk anyone else coming into the line of fire, or becoming hostages against Merlin's tactics. He also didn't want to be forced into a position where any of those soldiers would stand at his back, ready to drive the knife in the instant he was distracted.

"Do you know how we train?" Mordred asked, breaking the silence. "It's every day. From dawn to twilight, from sundown to sunrise. We are not soft."

"And I am?"

"You have only hunted and killed the lesser of us. The weak," Mordred said, breaking his stance. He walked to the side in an awkward circle. Merlin knew his intent at once. Mordred would force Merlin away from Arthur. "I have watched you on the vids. Studied you. I know how you move. I know how you falter. I know how you stand, how you balance, how you react."

Merlin stood his ground. Mordred revised his tactic and swept around in the other direction, testing Merlin's other side.

"You are not strong," Mordred said, his voice cruel and cold. "You are not fast. How many times has the blade come too close to your throat? How often have you gasped in fear? Will you turn tail and run today, too?"

Merlin bowed his head. He felt the shadows tighten around his legs. He felt the tendrils dig between the tiniest nook in his armour and swell beneath the supple plate to wrap around his limbs. The shade enfolded his torso, twisted around his fingers, swept across his face, sheathing and hiding him until all that showed of his face were his eyes.

"You talk too much," Merlin said.

"Aye, that he does," Gwaine said from somewhere behind him. "Could've shot him ten times during that little speech."

"Hush, you," Geraint said. "We can do without the running commentary."

"Yes," Arthur said, his tone jovial, though Merlin could hear a hint of tension in his tone. "Do be quiet. You'll miss the show."

"Some Shadowlord you are," Mordred said mockingly. He continued to walk in a half-circle, seemingly unaware of the changes being made to Merlin's armour, to his body. "What was it that you said? I am the Hand of the Glóm, the Master of the Ten Thousand Knives, a Knight of the Shade."

Mordred snickered. It filtered through the mask, echoing and guttural.

"I'm frightened."

"Shake in your boots, you bloody fuck," Lance muttered.

There was a strange pause behind Merlin before someone spoke again.

"What? It's what you're all thinking, you can't deny me that," Lance snapped. "The man's a wanker."

Mordred stood in front of Merlin some twenty metres away. He had put himself outside of Merlin's immediate range and himself in blaster range. Mordred's fingers fluttered against his thighs, a teasing warning that didn't go unseen.

"Energy shields, now," Arthur barked.

Merlin didn't move.

"Pretty words," Mordred said. "But empty. Meaningless. Nothing but hollow titles."

Merlin let his shoulders fall and his hands loosen. The tightness that had been held taut and coiled in his belly relaxed and swept up --

"You and your House are nothing but useless has-beens," Mordred said. He unholstered his blasters and lazily raised them. "You've been nothing but an itch we couldn't scratch, and by all the Gods, I will scratch you now."

-- and cascaded in a tidal wave of shadows, sweeping and swirling, crashing down in a violent wave tall and wide. It surrounded Merlin, enfolded him within, and rose, rose, rose until it was taller than he was, taller than the anti-gravity lights that were suspended midway to the ceiling. It was so tall that tendrils lashed out and crashed against the rafters overhead.

The blaster fire burned holes through the shadows, but the gaps filled quickly, healing, the energy and never reaching Merlin, not through so many layers. He felt the blows as surely as if he had been the one struck because the shade was an extension of him. The weapon fire continued, on and on, disrupting the shadows that swallowed a good quarter of the hall, protecting all those who were around and behind Merlin. He held on, flinching as the pain intensified, filling the scorched shadow again and again. He kept the wave thick and as solid until he heard the blasters beep, once, twice, a third time in unison, warning of a low power charge.

Merlin swept out a hand, his fingers clawing the shadows, knives upon knives forming in the misty darkness, and he flung them out at Mordred.

There was a startled cry. A blaster was cut out of Mordred's hand, crashing to the ground in two pieces. Another energy pulse pierced the shadow; a second, a third. The fourth fizzled out and the blaster was thrown aside --

Merlin pulled another field of daggers from the shadows, wielding a thunderstorm of hazy knives from the Glóm, flinging them at Mordred by force of will. The blades struck Mordred on the chest, one after the other, the impact strong enough to send him skidding backward before he stumbled to a crouch upon the ground. There was the tink-tinktink of an incessant barrage that continued until there was no shadow around Merlin to draw upon.

A soft gasp spread around the room. Out of the corner of Merlin's eye, he saw two of the White Legion soldiers exchange glances, unsure what to do or think at seeing their leader -- an Elite, the best among them -- laid low.

The energy shield had done nothing to protect Mordred against the onslaught. Shadow had no tangible kinetic energy to absorb, nor an energy source to refract. The hard outer shell of the plating was pockmarked with a hundred thousand marks, and the force of each and every one had dented the torso until it had nearly completely caved in.

If not for the thick Conglomerate armour, each pockmark could be claimed a killing blow.

Mordred heaved for breath. He wavered in place. He struck the side of his throat and forced the mask to clear from his face. His eyes were glassy, his cheeks flushed, his expression a rictus of pain.

He rocked back onto his feet and staggered, a knee crashing hard on the marble floor. He panted, grimacing with determination, and struggled to his feet.

He wobbled, stumbled, and steadied. His chest rose and fell. There was a sickly wheeze that didn't ease until Mordred thumped the side of his armour, his fingers sliding over the roughened surface, struggling to disable the interlocks.

The chest and back plate fell to the ground with a heavy clatter. The rest of the armour sloughed off in broken chunks.

Mordred raised his chin. His nostrils flared with derision and he narrowed his eyes in contempt. The shade was drawn from all around him, and hazy, jagged planes reached out, coiling around his body armour in big, broad swaths, mummifying him from head to toe. "Is that all that you have? Is that the best that the so-called Shadowlord can do? You should have taken my offer, Emrys. We could have been so much more."

"We?" Merlin surveyed the shadow-armour that Mordred had drawn all around him with a critical eye. It was a thick swath, smeared on with a short horse-hair brush, scratch marks all along the surface, one strand overlapping the other. There was no denying Mordred's bloodline -- a different lineage, perhaps a distant cousin that Merlin would never grieve for, never having known him as anything other than an enemy. There was no denying Mordred's strength. There were few White Legion could draw the shadows to them like this. But the youngest initiate from the House of Shadows learned to use the darkness as a blanket, an object of comfort and security, and the armour that they instinctively drew around them as they grew older was smooth and seamless, alive, a second skin that was as much a part of them as they were a part of the shadow.

Mordred's armour was a tear in the fabric of the Glóm, reluctant, listless, a discarded shirt hastily pulled on because there was nothing else to wear.

He had so much promise. It was wasted on the White Legion. And the training he had been given? It was a disgrace.

Merlin took two stalking steps forward. "You're strong. You're fast. You're deluded. There is no we. The traitors of the White Legion have turned their backs on more than the Empire. They've dishonoured the Litany. How could I ever join you when you've corrupted your own nature? When you can't see past your hatred of what you are? When you can barely hold the shadows close to you? Shade and shadows and Glóm -- they want nothing to do with you."

A black mask hid Mordred's face. It covered his eyes, his mouth. It was a caricature of the faceless helmet of the White Legion, with hollow eyes and gaping maw. It was a veil, and nothing more; the huff of derision resounded like a hiss of breath.

"You have no idea what the shadows truly are. Where your strength comes from. You don't even sense them inside you except for when you twist them to your will --"

Mordred shifted his weight forward. It was the only warning that Merlin had before Mordred manifested a shadow-sword in his hand and crossed the distance between them.

Merlin dodged the downward slash, turning and sweeping aside. As he moved, he pulled a shadow-knife from the Glóm, coming out of the sweep to slash at Mordred's belly. Mordred's shadow-armour tore and reformed with jagged edges.

Blood dripped on the floor from Merlin's shadow-knife.

Mordred turned, the shadow-sword cutting the air; Merlin darted a step back, bending to avoid the edge. Mordred advanced and swung his shadow-sword again and again, pushing Merlin down the long corridor and away from the Conglomerate's council, away from the White Legion soldiers, from the Pirates, from Arthur.

Merlin spared a single, darting glance in their direction. They were all watching the fight, even the White Legion, but the way that the Pirates held their guns hinted that they hadn't forgotten the threat that remained.

Merlin drew Mordred further and further away until they were in the centre of the hall, beneath the greatest arch of the palace, the rafters high. The crowd around them had moved aside and was hugging the far wall, keeping out of the way.

There was a low sweep; Merlin leaped over the shadow-sword. Mordred swung at an angled high; Merlin ducked beneath it. Mordred slashed across the horizontal in a fierce backhand; Merlin ducked beneath and crossed forward, again cutting at Mordred's belly.

Shadow tore once again. It wasn't so quick to repair this time. Mordred ran a hand over his stomach, covering the wound. He drew away his hand. Blood dripped through the shadow.

Merlin waited. Mordred came at him again.

They repeated the dance until they were half again where they had started, and it ended the same way -- with a twist of the shadow-knife, a curl beneath the shadow-sword, a cut across shadow-armour.

Drawing blood a third time.

The wounds were not killing wounds. Slashes across the skin, enough to lightly cut muscle, but nothing more. It was a testament to Merlin's skill that he was able to strike an Elite of the White Legion at all. It was a testament to Mordred's skill that he did not suffer worse at Merlin's hand.

Merlin shifted his grasp on the shadow-knife, turning it blade-down. His thumb ran over the butt of the hilt only briefly sharpening of the edge. He took a step to the side. And another. Another, until he was circling Mordred, and Mordred sidled in the opposite direction, keeping out of reach.

It was a mismatched battle. Mordred's shadow-sword had the length over Merlin's shadow-knife. Merlin had the advantage of speed over Mordred's brute force. Mordred's shadows were strong, but he wasn't as strong as Merlin, and only White Legion discipline allowed him to have any kind of fine control. He fought against the shadows, and that was a fight that he was losing, too.

Merlin was struck with the realization that he didn't want Mordred to die. His long vendetta against the White Legion had been against traitors he would never be able to reach, not now, not ever. The urge to follow through on his revenge paled in comparison to Merlin's ardent desire to see his people live.

Mordred was kin, whether he liked it or not. Mordred and the soldiers of the White Legion who were descended from the traitors -- they were Shadows born. Even if the Legion had battered the shadow out of them, leaving them an empty husk with nothing but raw, formless power at their command, they were still kin.

"You're not my enemy," Merlin tried, wanting to get through to Mordred, to have him see what Merlin saw. Mordred was a kindred spirit, someone with both the blood and the potential to become Shadowlord. If only he would let go of White Legion indoctrination and accept the Litany. Merlin wouldn't have to be alone.

Merlin wouldn't be alone, not as long as he was bound to Arthur, but there was that craving to know that there was another like him.

"And yet you have made yourself mine," Mordred snarled.

Mordred sliced through shadow. He vanished from where he stood. There was a tear in the air, broken and wounded. Merlin felt it as surely as if it were a stab to his soul. The essence of the shade dribbled from the cut, a haze floating like blood dispersing in water.

This was no smooth shadow-walk. It was a rending across that thin line between the shadow and the darkness, the shadow and the light.

A second slice, nanoseconds later, and Mordred emerged behind Merlin. The shadows trembled in something akin to pain that coursed through Merlin's limbs. The shock of it, compounded by his own outrage, blinded and numbed him. He didn't sense Mordred's presence until the shadow-sword emerged through his chest.

Time froze.

A mist rose from the shadow-sword, forming white swirls like cold air kissing the surface of a warm water lake. This close, Merlin could see that the edge of the blade was as jagged as Mordred's armour, splintering and peeling. Mordred's will had formed it; Mordred's will held it together. It wasn't enough for a cutting edge, but it was enough to stab and kill.

There was no pain.

The blade was embedded to the left of his spine. It had pierced through his sternum, cutting all the internal organs that were in the way.

Merlin reached up to touch it. The shadow flaked away.

Time dilated.

Merlin fell to his knees.

The Masters of the Royal Houses screamed, but Merlin heard none of them over Arthur's cries, shouting his name.

The world twirled around him. Mordred dragged Merlin around, using the shadow-sword as a handle, until Merlin faced Arthur.

The Pirates held him back, but only just. Arthur's face was red from shouting and twisted with grief and anger and agony.

"You've failed him. You. Failed," Mordred said, his voice flat and without emotion, but Merlin could feel his glee. "How does it feel, to know that you killed him? That with your death, you've brought down your Emperor?"

There was still no pain.

A small, helpless laugh escaped from Merlin's chest, aching around the wound, the sound bubbling up until it was nothing more but a faint gasp of breath.

"That's not how it works," Merlin whispered. He closed his eyes. A memory came to him, unbidden, hazy with the distance of time.

"A Shadowlord is the gateway between the darkness and the light. The darkness may fade, but as long as there is light, a Shadowlord can never fall," Kilgharrah said.

"I don't understand," Merlin said, his brow furrowed, his eyes full of tears. "Master, you can't go. You said you didn't teach me everything. You have to -- you can't leave me."

"Merlin. You will understand when it is time," Kilgharrah said, and the last words on his lips were a calm good-bye.

Merlin opened his eyes. He understood.

There was no pain.

There was no pain because Arthur was his light.

Merlin wrapped his hand around the shadow-sword protruding from his chest. He stood and stepped forward, tearing it from Mordred's hand.

The shadow-sword dissipated at once, no longer held by a twisted will. The haze continued to bleed out of the cut in the air, filling the room with bleeding shadow.

Merlin met Arthur's eyes, and the tears he saw in them hurt more than anything he had ever felt. He turned around slowly to face Mordred, and said, "They've made you into an abomination."

He took a step forward.

"You are my kin, but the White Legion has changed you. You are no Shadow of mine."

Merlin advanced again, slow, his step sluggish.

"You have broken the Shadow's law. The White Legion hardened your heart against the Litany. You have turned away from the shade."

Merlin took another step closer. Mordred took an uncertain step back.

Shadow tendril lashed out from the weeping cuts in the air, twining around Mordred's body, dragging him to the ground. Mordred shouted and fought, but for every shadow he managed to control, two more took its place.

"You tried to take my light."

Merlin knelt down on wobbly legs besides Mordred.

"You could have been so much more. You will be so much more," Merlin said. He raised his hand. The knife he held dissipated. He punched down onto Mordred's chest, his hand piercing through brittle shadow-armour and digging in deep, deep, deep until he found the very essence of the shade that lived in Mordred.

It was broken and twisted, frayed and thin, a disease that needed to be rooted out, removed like a cancer.

Merlin wrenched it out.

The shadow loosed with a reverberating roar. It split into branches and shattered into dark lightning bolts that absorbed the tears in the shade, healing the rips hanging suspended in the air. The shadows shredded away from Mordred's body, leaving him naked except for his body armour.

Merlin sank back onto his heels. His shoulders slumped. His head fell. His vision darkened at the edges.

The shadows holding Mordred down let him go.

Mordred surged to his feet --

And blaster fire erupted in an angry buzz, repeated fire continuing long after Mordred fell to his knees and collapsed to the ground, his body armour a smoking ruin.

Merlin saw the Pirates lowering their pistols and rifles. He saw the White Legion soldiers do the same, their guns still smouldering.

He heard Mordred gasp in pain. The man was still alive.

He saw Arthur running down the hall, sliding to his knees, catching Merlin before Merlin toppled over.

"Merlin!"

Merlin was dragged into Arthur's lap and cradled in his arms. Arthur's eyes were red and watery, anguish written in every tear streaming down his cheeks.

"Merlin, you can't -- you bastard. You promised me. You promised you'd see me on the throne." Arthur bowed his head and their brows touched. Arthur's next words were mangled in a sob; he pressed a hand on Merlin's chest. "I'm not on the throne, yet. I'm not -- pet, you can't..."

Merlin covered Arthur's hand with his own.

"Stop the war, love."

He closed his eyes.

 


Chapter Twenty

Asterism: The Crown and Sceptre

The Crown and Sceptre

Location: Camelot, Imperial Palace, on the Planet Albion

 

One war ended. Another war began.

The Conglomerate fled, taking the brunt of the Imperial military with them -- a military sworn to the riches of Conglomerate coin, and not to the Empire. Those who remained looked to the Houses for guidance and direction. The royal Houses, who had long been content to leave all unpleasant matters to lesser beings or to those who had the authority to rule, continued to do so. They delegated the war against the Conglomerate to any number of people, none of whom that had any experience in the field, and bemoaned the lack of results.

And Arthur, for all that he was recognized as the direct descendant to Emperor Constantin, acclaimed by the Houses as the legal heir and Emperor, was relegated to being nothing more than a figurehead. It was a position with none of the power due him under law. He couldn't even order the bloody Royal tailor to stop barging into his chambers at all hours of the day and night under the pretence of taking measurements.

It was a clusterfuck of Imperial proportions. In their retreat, the Conglomerate had ripped the very foundation of the Empire out from under them. Administration, the very foundation of a government, was missing. Databases, maps, archives, accounting -- everything had gone missing. The Imperial fleet was scattered ineffectually across the known universe, too far to offer assistance or supplement a defence when they were caught unawares.

And they were caught unawares.

The Empire was crumbling, piece by piece, the Conglomerate chipping away at the weakening fortress defences, secure in the knowledge that they would encounter no further resistance once they broke through. The Empire would topple over like the relic it was, failing in its ultimate duty to protect the people, and the Conglomerate would come to rule again., and this time bother with the pomp and circumstance of custom and tradition.

Arthur should have expected the Conglomerate to be prepared for every and any contingency, and they had been prepared. There had been pitfalls and traps waiting for the Empire at every turn. Missing supplies, missing troops, missing ships. Compromised communication lines, locked accounts, frozen funds. Although the broadcast that Arthur had rigged during the Pirate invasion of Albion remained on the Net, self-perpetuating itself despite the Conglomerate spiders' attempts to permanently delete, that broadcast was only a drop in the proverbial bucket. That single vid was barely noticeable against the tidal wave of propaganda, both old and new, that spread throughout the Empire.

The citizens may have been won over, however briefly, by Arthur's last-ditch attempt to reclaim the throne and to restore the Empire to its original state, but decades of Conglomerate conditioning and the bombardment of forged vids was quickly eroding away any good will that Arthur might have sown with the people.

With his people.

"You have that look on your face again," Leon murmured.

"What look?" Arthur asked, his voice low.

Leon subtly shifted in his seat, resting an elbow on the chair, and bowed his head. "The one where you're imagining Emrys bursting through those doors, climbing the table, and drawing a blaster on these pillocks."

A corner of Arthur's mouth twitched. "You're not wrong."

"Fair to say I'm thinking about it, too," Leon said. He turned his head and nodded faintly toward the current speaker. "Particularly now."

Arthur followed his gaze. The Master of the House of Twilight was a pleasant enough fellow. Personable, friendly, with a propensity for underhanded scheming if he thought he could get away with it. Whenever he had the opportunity to speak, he spoke -- in a roundabout, circuitous pattern, without ever coming to a conclusion, baffling people with canny tactics and complete bollocks.

Arthur nodded his agreement. He sat back in his chair, elbows tucked on the arms, his hands clasped in front of him.

Leon glanced at his chronometer and tapped his fingers impatiently, and Arthur resisted the urge to do the same. He'd learned quickly that sitting through these meetings were a complete waste of time. Each Master of the Houses attempted to one-up the other, regardless of discussion -- discussions that dragged on until Arthur was bored to tears.

Soon after the Imperial Reservists -- now part of the principal Imperial fleet -- plunged headlong into the battle and helped the Pirates route the Conglomerate fleet, the Pirates returned to their territory. Arthur had joined them, a few Imperial ships at his back. It took weeks, but the Conglomerate ships in Pirate space had been sent packing with the very clear message not to return.

By that point, the Conglomerate had already turned their attention to the less-well protected areas of Imperial space and Arthur had returned with every intention of colluding forces and defending the Empire.

The Pirates, riding the heady high of repeated successes, had joined in the battle -- for a time. But the novelty of coming to the Empire's rescue wore off quickly. The Pirates had already attained what they had come for -- to keep the Imperial Conglomerate's filthy paws away from Clan space -- and they saw no purpose in continuing a battle when there was no immediate bounty to be won.

They went home. With only a few Imperial ships as part of his fleet, Arthur returned to Albion to sort out the mess that the Empire's military had become, only to discover how powerless the Houses had made him in his absence.

"It is unfortunate, but no less true, your Imperial Majesty," the Castellan said. "Your knowledge of the Empire and its resources are lacking."

Arthur stared blankly, unable to protest, because it was true.

"In your absence, the Houses have formed the Regency Quorum and elected to take charge of the Empire until such time that you are up to speed on Imperial matters. I believe that the Master of the House of Grail had suggested a tutor or two, though I believe that they are more accustomed to teaching young children." The Castellan, for all that he had come to Arthur's rescue in matters of council on more than one occasion, appeared both exhausted and stricken, as if he could no longer continue in the vein that he had been.

Arthur didn't think that he'd made that many foibles, but he also knew that the Castellan had done a great deal to smooth over ruffled feathers in the background.

"I see," Arthur said. "So, in essence, the Quorum replaces the Regent Council in matters of the state?"

"Ah. Yes. I am afraid that you have come to the crux of the matter," the Castellan said, his smile fading.

"The crux of the matter being that they're not equipped to handle the bureaucratic snarl that the Conglomerate left behind? That they don't know the difference between a pulse cannon and a torpedo launcher? That they wouldn't recognize a flanking manoeuvre if it bit them in the arse, and have no idea how to assign the value to a target, never mind when to retreat to a stronger position?"

The Castellan spread his hands helplessly.

"Have any of them ever been to war? Have they ever put their necks on the line? Are any of the Masters even personally aware of what it takes to sustain a planet? A galaxy? Are they basing their decisions on where to send relief on the actual need of the population, or are they sending them to some idyllic retreat that only the rich can afford because of sentimental reasons?" Arthur asked. His voice may have risen toward the end, and attracted the attention of a few servants walking by, but he didn't rightly care. "Don't get me wrong. I'm sympathetic. I truly am. But if it were up to me, and it came down to a planet with a handful of support staff for the beachside resort where I had an adulterous shag with a vid-show star and, a mining planet that supplies us with the metal we need to build new ships to defend the bloody Empire? I'm sending the frigates loaded with grain to the mining planet. I don't care how mind-blowing that shag was. I can always go back later, like, oh, when the war is over and no one's dying needlessly and have another shag with an even bigger vid-show star. What's wrong with these people?"

The Castellan didn't answer right away, though there was a very real sparkle of amusement in his eye. He frowned, his bushy eyebrows turning him thoughtful, but Arthur knew it was an artifice. He did his best to keep from laughing, but he was failing miserably.

The Castellan coughed. He "Hmm-ed" meaningfully. Then, taking Arthur's arm, he Arthur down the corridor, away from spying ears. "Allow me to recommend that you begin your education on the Empire with some light reading."

Arthur exhaled heavily.

"Perhaps we could begin with regarding court etiquette. Your manners could use a bit of… polish."

"There's nothing wrong with my manners," Arthur groused. "It's perfectly acceptable to knock someone off their feet for being a blithering idiot and completely wasting my time."

This time, the Castellan did laugh.

Arthur's eyes sidled further down the long council table. He could just barely make out the Lord of the House of Twilight behind a large, rotund fellow whose name and affiliation Arthur couldn't remember. The black eye looked as if it had healed well, but there was a noticeable bump on his nose that the surgery hadn't quite repaired. As if sensing that he was being observed, the Lord of the House of Flame pulled away.

The books that the Castellan ordered delivered to Arthur's chambers did, in fact, include long, boring treaties on the what, how, and whys of any number of elaborate court customs. There were also a multitude of books that covered Imperial law to a degree above and beyond the information that Arthur had already gleaned from the Conglomerate database months ago. Most interesting of all was a historical timeline that dated back from the very first colonists arriving in this part of the galaxy that sent him hunting for more information.

Arthur studied the law and absorbed the histories while the books on etiquette and courtesies languished in a corner of his office, gathering dust. He wasn't certain what he'd hoped to find in all this study -- a solution to the strange game of push-pull, need-discard that the Houses were playing with him to the Empire's detriment -- but the answer came to him in a tiny footnote in a book that he'd picked up by mere happenstance from the royal libraries.

He could fix it, he knew. He could stop the Conglomerate. He could rebuild the Empire. And now, he had the ammunition under Imperial law that would allow him to do so.

But not until he established himself a bit more.

He went to the meetings.

He learned how to say "I choose to defer my judgment on this matter at this time," whenever someone thought to ask their Emperor for his opinion instead of blurting out how he believed that every member of the court needed a sound smack in the head.

He learned which of the Masters were useful, who cared, but who were consistently outvoted in the Quorum. He paid particular attention to the men and women of the different Houses who looked troubled when a particular decision was passed, but who choose not to voice their opinion lest they were greeted with derision. He made note of the staff in the palace who practiced the minimum required politeness required for their positions, but who focused all their attention on their tasks. He listened to the war reports and compiled a list of the enlisted and commissioned officers in the fleet who operated above and beyond their orders -- sometimes defying the Quorum entirely in order to save their troops, their men, and the planets they were defending.

Arthur was no fool. His blood might be as blue as theirs, but he was not noble born and he never would be. Each and every one of them had acclaimed him as the heir to the Dragon throne. Arthur wasn't meant to be a mere figurehead, and he make the Houses accept a Pirate King as their Emperor in more than name.

While he learned about the Empire and navigated his way through the complicated dance that was the royal court, Arthur did what he had always done best.

He Pirated.

He sent Elyan and Gwaine to the Pirate Clans with the stern but polite reminder that Arthur Pendragon was still their King, and that, as their King, he had a proposal to set forward for their immediate consideration.

He sent Will as his most disreputable ambassador to the Mercenary Guilds in No Man's Land on the other end of the Empire's border. He had given Will the authority to make them an offer that none of them would be stupid enough to refuse.

He had Lance crack the Conglomerate encryption and download data-cubes of information to infer their future plans. He recruited Clan Leodegrace to hack the Net and leave behind both dangling lures and traps for the Conglomerate in preparation for the war ahead.

He spoke to certain Masters of different Houses on matters that were of shared importance. Lance met with men and women at the Castellan's recommendation. They both spoke to the beleaguered commanders of the Imperial military.

And, late at night, when he was alone, Arthur would sit heavily and touch his chest where it still ached all these months after Merlin had fallen under Mordred's blade. He had to force himself to activate the holo-projectors and to work on battle plans and contingency plans and last-ditch plans.

Arthur had meant for Merlin to see him sat upon the Imperial throne -- upon his rightful throne. He hadn't gone near that seat, because there was no way that he could sit in it, not even all these months after the Book of Blood had writ his name upon its pages. He might be the heir, but he wasn't the Emperor, however much the Quorum liked to tout all the changes they'd made in his name.

There was a faint chorus from around the table, the familiar resigned agreement as the stronger Houses bullied their way through an approval of whatever had made it on the agenda. Arthur recognized the signs that the meeting was winding down, and he tensed involuntarily. His preparations were complete. He didn't want to wait another day. He was ready. His people were ready.

But where were they?

Arthur glanced at Leon. Leon glanced at his chronometer and grimaced. He checked his personal tablet and flipped through several screens before shaking his head. Arthur held his breath and exhaled slowly, stretching his arms on top of the table.

"We'll have to do without the last," Arthur said quietly, bowing his head. "Let's do it. Call them in."

Leon nodded. He tapped a few keys on his tablet before setting it aside. He reached into the leather satchel he had taken to carrying around with him over the last few meetings, retrieving the recording and broadcasting device that Elyan and Lance had built. Leon calmly stood up, ignoring the curious glances from those who were nearest, and placed the quarter-pyramidal device in the middle of the table in front of Arthur.

He pressed down firmly before letting go. He nudged at it to make sure it wouldn't move.

While there were a few quiet murmurs, no one questioned its presence. Leon had been at Arthur's side since the beginning, taking on not only the role of Commander of Excalibur while Arthur fought to make some headway in his position planetside, but also the role of Arthur's closest confidant and minister during courtly duties. It wasn't the first time that Leon deliberately took something out of his satchel and left it on the table; the members of the Houses took little notice after deciding the items to be nothing more than an eccentricity of their young Emperor.

Leon pushed a button. A green light blinked on-off before maintaining a steady hue.

"Ready and active," Leon whispered, and sat down. "On your go."

Arthur's fingers tapped on the table.

"... I believe that concludes the last item on the agenda. If there's nothing more, I bid you all a good evening, and we will reconvene in the morning --"

Arthur stood up slowly, letting his chair scrape on the stone obnoxiously. All eyes went to him, and he smiled broadly, though he knew it didn't reach his eyes.

"There is one more thing," Arthur said. He dropped his eyes in an affectation of self-consciousness that he didn't really feel, and waved a hand in the air, almost in apology. "I have a little speech prepared. I hope the Quorum will allow me to beg their indulgence."

"While thoughtful, a speech is hardly necessary," the Master of the House of Twilight said, standing up. His chair barely squeaked on the floor. "We shan't impose upon your time any longer, your Imperial Majesty. Indeed, there are pressing tasks to which we must attend, and we had best be about our duties before the full night falls."

"Oh. Of course. My apologies. Considering the situation, I shouldn't be keeping you," Arthur said, making certain to sound crestfallen. He was acutely aware of how this was a repeat of exactly what had happened at the first council meeting upon his return from Pirate space -- the polite, exact dismissal. The niceties of the royal court were nothing like the rough and rabble of the Pirate council, but he thought he understood the ripples in the water now. He waited until the Quorum appeared ready to leave before nodding at Leon.

Leon reached into his satchel and subtly slid a blaster pistol onto the table. Arthur picked it up, flicked the safety off with his thumb, aimed at the middle of the table, and fired.

The smooth stone surface splintered, cracked, burst, splitting in half and collapsing in the centre.

The Masters of the Houses squeaked with fear. Every pair of eyes turned to Arthur and gaped at him disbelievingly. Guards came running in, but when they didn't see anyone who didn't belong in the room, they lingered uncertainly.

Arthur glanced at the power setting on the pistol and raised a brow. He glanced at Leon questioningly.

Leon shrugged. "You said you hated the table."

"That I did," Arthur said, smirking faintly. He stared down the long length of the meeting table with distaste. "Why talk to men that you can't see?"

"A shame, though. We'll have to replace it. I wonder if this dusty old mansion has any spares?" Leon asked.

"Oh, I have my eye on this fancy round table I spotted in the sub-levels. Covered in spiderwebs, but I think it'll suit," Arthur said.

Leon huffed a small laugh. He made a note on his tablet. "I'll make certain to advise the Steward."

Arthur waited for the dust to settle. He used the time to secure the pistol and to hand it, butt-first, to Leon, who stood up and tucked it in his belt.

"I changed my mind, gentlemen and gentleladies," Arthur said, spreading his hand in mock apology. "I am the Emperor. I shall be keeping you from your duties, contrived as they must be, just a little longer."

Arthur looked around the room. He was met with owlish stares and slack mouths

"No protests, then? Excellent. I shan't take long.

"It was suggested to me that, perhaps, I should educate myself. That I should learn something of the customs of the court while the self-elected Quorum of Masters of the Houses take charge of the state of the Empire and the war against the Conglomerate."

Arthur spread his hands.

"Well, since you're all preoccupied running the Empire to the ground, and given that in my role as figurehead, I have quite a great deal of free time on my hands, I thought to myself, why not? If nothing else, it would keep me out of trouble. I wouldn't, for instance, take my ship and a small fleet. Stars and suns, I might do something ridiculous. I might go off and save an Empire --"

"You've already done that," Leon reminded him.

"Oh, aye. That I did," Arthur said, chuckling. His amusement didn't last long, and he stared hard at the Masters of the Houses scattered around the table. "Seems to me that I may have to do it all over again, if things continue the way they have."

"Seems to me," Leon said, nodding in agreement.

One of the Masters shook herself out of her daze long enough to register what was being said, and she stepped forward in protest. "We have done a great deal of good for the Empire --"

"I am hardly denying that," Arthur said. Beside him, Leon snorted. "Nor am I praising it, because for what has been done, there remains a great deal more to do, and I will begin here and now with the abolition of the Quorum."

There was a long, stunned silence. Well over a minute passed before some semblance of life drifted back into the members of the Quorum and a loud, vehement argument broke out.

For the first time since Arthur arrived at the Empire, for the first time since he accepted his fate, Arthur was met with something familiar.

He grinned.

An outright raucous fight around the council table was music to his ears. He watched the Quorum rile themselves up -- some addressing Arthur directly, most shouting amongst themselves.

Arthur shrugged out of the ridiculous purple-and-red monstrosity of a robe that had appeared in his chambers that morning. It was made out of heavy, layered silk, brocaded in gold wire. It sported a dizzying pattern that made him ill if he stared at it too long. He shook it out, folded it carefully, and tossed it on the table.

The slippery fabric slid down the ramp made by the broken table and flumped in the middle. The act was enough to put a stop to the rising chatter.

"As loathe as I am to admit it, Gwaine was right. Empire fashion leaves much to be desired." Arthur undid the uncomfortable fastening high at his throat and rolled up his sleeves. He put his hands on the raised lip of the broken table and leaned forward. "Perhaps you'll allow me to continue?"

No one spoke. Arthur took it to mean that no one objected.

"As part of my self-directed education, I learned that the Conglomerate used a clever trick of the law to gain a foothold in the Empire with the formation of the Conglomerate of Companies and the Regnant Council. It is this same clever trick of law that has allowed the Royal Houses to form the Quorum to take control of the Empire, but it appears that someone failed to do their homework. You see, neither the Conglomerate nor the Quorum can rule as long as the House of Dragons lives.

"We can forgive the Conglomerate their mistake. Until recently, they believed they'd done away with us. The Quorum, however, is made up of the members of the Houses who read my name in the Book of Blood and acknowledge me as the heir to the House of Dragons. They cannot hide behind ignorance. The Quorum is illegal. As the Emperor, I hereby declare the Quorum disbanded."

Arthur paused. He let his words sink in.

At the rear of the room, the guards exchanged glances. Their most senior commander looked at Arthur and nodded solemnly, placing his hand upon his weapon and instructing his men to do the same. The message was clear: they would wait upon his command.

The members of the Quorum paled. Several sat down heavily, suddenly faint.

Arthur spread his hands. "However, out of consideration for the generosity of the Houses, as you have forgiven me my past crimes, I shall forgive yours. The citizens of the Empire, however, may not be so kind, but I will allow you to seek your redemption from this point forward."

He waited until he saw each and every member of the Quorum bow their heads in acceptance -- some grudgingly, others reluctantly, but those with whom he had spoken smiled at him and lowered their heads in willing acquiescence.

"Very good. Now to other business," Arthur said.

"There's more?" a young Master of the House of Basilisk murmured, looking a little green. The Royal Guard had relaxed at Arthur's words, but the now-disbanded Quorum edged away from them anyway.

Arthur grinned in self-satisfaction, but it didn't last. He became serious once again. "If any of you have forgotten, I will remind you now. I am a Pirate born and bred, and if there is one thing that you should know about Pirates, it's that we hate losing booty. I did not cut the Conglomerate at the knees and send them running from our space with their tails tucked between their legs just to see them take the Empire out from under us."

He glanced around. His allies nodded imperceptibly to reconfirm their oaths to him. Leon tapped his arm bracer and motioned to Arthur that his men had arrived.

"I would like to thank the Masters of the Houses for their judicious use of the Imperial fleet in defending the Empire, but I shall be taking over all military action and delegating command accordingly, beginning with giving General Aglain, General Iseldir, and General Lochru the freedom to make decisions in the field. A piece of advice, gentlemen and gentleladies. Never second-guess the experienced men and women who are the ones at the front lines of the battlefield, and never threaten their commissions when they have given their lives and have served us well while defending the Empire.

"That said, I notice that our Imperial fleet has suffered unforgiveable losses. Further, I notice that those losses are a direct result of strategic decisions that were made with unusual prescience in the favour of the Conglomerate."

Leon handed him a ream of papers. Arthur hefted the bound document in his left hand, holding it aloft. Idly, he looked off to the side with a raised brow -- that leather satchel was a bottomless pit -- and gestured to the document, making certain that everyone had taken note of it.

"At some point in the very near future, I shall be talking to certain members of the disbanded Quorum to inquire as to certain financial inconsistencies in their accounts." Arthur didn't single out any particular individual, but he saw how several men and women subtly shirked backward. "It shouldn't need to be said, but I will allow a degree of leniency to those of you who cooperate. Take my advice. Don't leave town."

Arthur dropped the document on the table; it slid along the slant and crumpled against the ostentatious silk robes.

"I will be assuming the role of the Commander of the Imperial fleet. Do any of you have any objections?"

One man opened his mouth; he shut it after a moment's consideration. Another bowed his head, clasped his hands in front of him, and graciously said, "It is, historically, one of your many titles and one of your many roles, Your Imperial Majesty."

"I thought as much." Arthur shifted slightly, still not accustomed to being called by that title. Pirates didn't bother with those that weren't associated with the command of a ship, and Arthur had only every enjoyed being called my liege when it had come from Merlin, full of quiet petulance and barely-restrained snark.

A dull ache bloomed in his chest. Arthur ignored it.

"Now that I have confirmation, I'll be implementing new battle plans that I'll be sharing with the court as soon as I've cleaned house," Arthur said, glancing pointedly at the thick document in the middle of the shattered table, full of incriminating evidence of bribery and complicity with the Conglomerate. "However, in the interest of open discussion, suffice it to say that we are no longer going to defend the Empire."

There was a surprised roar of outrage from all the Masters of the House -- even those few who had already been read into the plans as a matter of necessity. The preparation was something that he couldn't have done alone, not without attracting a great deal of notice, but the men and women of the different Royal Houses had proven to be determined and trustworthy. It was gratifying to see that the whole of the court, including those who had divulged state secrets to the Conglomerate during a time of war, were in agreement.

It struck a particular chord of satisfaction deep in Arthur's soul that he could rile the Royal Court as easily as any Pirate council, shaking them out of their prim and proper routine of perfect decorum.

He waited until the noise died down. It went on for some time. While he waited, he waved for one of the many tablets in Leon's satchel, and reviewed the details that he had already committed to memory.

There was a brief lull, and Arthur took advantage of it before anyone caught breath enough to start it up again.

"If the lot of you are quite done?" Arthur asked. He shook his head and made a soft, tsking sound. He turned to Leon. "I think they could profit from taking their own advice. Didn't I read a section in the etiquette protocol where it's considered extremely rude to interrupt the Emperor?"

"I believe you did," Leon said dryly. "I had the privilege of listening as you read the passage out loud."

That particular section had been read in-between fits of laughter, because neither of them could imagine making it through a Pirate council without being interrupted a dozen times, at least.

"Wasn't the punishment for that specific indiscretion a keelhauling?"

"If memory serves, it was death by firing squad, but you're the Emperor. I'm sure no one would object if you changed it. You are rather fond of keelhaulings."

"A pity I never get to implement them," Arthur said.

"Perhaps that'll change," Leon said, his mouth twisting into a smirk. Leon had the better temperament for dealing with the intricacies of court, but even he could barely keep a straight face. The more proper and polite they became, the harder it was to maintain the façade.

"In any case," Arthur said, turning to a Royal Court that had gone a shade paler, "To address the matter of the defence of the Empire, it will… oh, let me put it in simple terms.

"As a result of certain ill-advised strategic actions," Arthur said, this time pointedly picking out the Masters of the Houses who had approved those orders, "We no longer have the ships to properly defend the Empire. We would have better luck patching all the holes in a sieve with nothing but our fingers before all the water leaked through.

"Defence of the Empire is now an useless waste of time. We will be focusing our efforts on offence Arthur paused to allow his words to sink in. He placed his hands on the upturned edge of the table and leaned forward. "You see, I have an axe to grind with the Regent Conglomerate of Corporations and all of their facilitators.

"I mean to hunt them down. Each and every one of them. They killed my family. They placed themselves in power. They implemented unjust martial law. They persecuted the citizens of this Empire. They are traitors not only to the Imperial court, but to each and every man, woman and child of the Empire. And that, gentlemen and gentleladies, will not stand. They will pay for what they have done. I promise you that."

There was a quiet, stunned pause.

Arthur watched the Masters of the Houses, waiting for the question he knew would be coming. It came not from the court, but from the lieutenant-commander in charge of the Royal Guard who was standing at the other end of the meeting room.

"Your pardon," he said, clearing his throat. He frowned, looking uncertain, even embarrassed to have spoken, but it was important enough to him that he barrelled on, "But if we don't have the numbers for defence, how does that help us on the offence? The phrase shooting fish in a barrel comes to mind, and I don't fancy being on the receiving end."

Arthur studied him for a long time. "What's your name?"

The lieutenant-commander seemed to wither. "Kay, your Majesty."

"Your Imperial Majesty," one of the other Guards hissed. It had probably been meant sotto voce, but the correction resounded in the large room.

Kay rolled his eyes and made no attempt to hide his irritation. He half-turned toward the Guardsman, waved a hand in Arthur's direction, and said, "Didn't you hear him? He's a bloody Pirate. I doubt he cares about niceties, but if I'm wrong, he can keelhaul me. It would be a goddamn honour to be the first."

Arthur glanced at Leon. "I like him."

"Seems like our sort of fellow. How'd we overlook that one?" Leon flipped through the tablet in his hand, his brow furrowed. "Ah, I see. He was injured when the White Legion stormed the gates and had only just returned to duty. Poor sod. There's no escaping us, now. Should I reassign him?"

Kay's expression blanched, but he didn't waver from his position.

"Absolutely. This kind of impertinence can't be tolerated. We'll have to establish a strict screening protocol to root out more of these roughnecks. How do you think this particular fellow would do among my personal guard?" Arthur asked.

Kay blinked, glancing between Arthur and Leon.

"Impeccable track record. Multiple commendations. An equal number of citations for bravery as condemnations for disobeying superior officers," Leon said, reading from his tablet. He looked up and nodded. "I think he would do quite well."

"Done," Arthur said. "And to answer your question, Commander Kay, it doesn't help us at all."

"Sir?" Kay asked, looking a little bewildered -- though whether it was because of his sudden promotion and reassignment, or because of Arthur's response, Arthur couldn't begin to guess.

"And you accuse us of making poor military decisions," one of the Masters said. Arthur noted that he was one of those who hadn't received a bribe, but had caused disaster through sheer failure of common sense.

"Let me ask you something. All of you," Arthur said. "What is the one thing that would tip the scales in our direction? What would give us the advantage?"

A few minutes passed in silence. There was no answer. Masters of every House exchanged glances. Arthur dropped his head, biting back a laugh, and turned to Leon. Leon was shaking his head slowly, both grievously pained and horrendously disappointed.

Arthur stood up straight. He spotted Commander Kay's tight-lipped and inscrutable expression. "Well, it appears that someone in this room has the answer, but I won't embarrass him by calling him out. I'll help the rest of you along, shall I? The answer is this. Additional forces."

"But where would we get them?" The Master with persistent logic failures and decision-making capabilities leaned forward, his elbow leaning on the crooked table before slipping. He caught himself. "Are we... conscripting the citizens?"

"While I shan't refuse any citizen who feels personally motivated to join any incarnation of the current Imperial Military, they will not be compelled to do so. Their voluntary service, now and in the future, will always be acknowledged and appreciated. However, how can we train them to be combat-ready in only a few weeks? Upon what ships shall we place them? We need to rebuild our fleet, and we will do so, but we must act now."

Arthur glanced at the broadcasting device. The light was still green. He hoped that the Conglomerate was picking up the transmission and that they would know exactly what was coming for them.

He gestured at Leon. Leon tapped his bracer, sending out the message to the others.

Everyone turned at the sound of approaching footsteps. Two were familiar -- Arthur could make out Elyan's trademark heavy boots in a crowd, and Gwaine's cocksure swagger had a very distinct ring. The third was a mystery, but Arthur knew that Will would be with them.

The Guard moved aside and allowed the three men to approach the other end of the long table. Elyan nodded a curt greeting. Gwaine winked and grinned. Will saluted rudely -- two spread fingers touching his brow and sweeping outward.

Gwaine and Elyan had cleaned up as Arthur had requested and were in full eye-catching Pirate regalia.

Gwaine wore his striking patch-green, black and silver surcoat over leather trousers tucked in knee-high buckle boots, the bright red vest he wore beneath was a counterpoint to the subdued colours. His belt was slung at an angle across his hips, heavy with the weight of his cutlass; a blaster pistol was strapped to his thigh, and there was a rifle slung over his shoulders in the diagonal across his back. His long hair was fastened back in a proper tail, loose strands tucked behind his ears.

Elyan was in the more muted browns-oranges-golds of Clan Leodegrace, his dark jacket cut short at the waist and with a long tail that fell to mid-thigh. His trousers were brown leather, and the vest he wore was a twisted swirl of subdued ochre-red and copper-yellow against the vibrant blood-orange of his shirt. He had no sword, opting instead for a carabineer belt with fine throwing knives across his chest and a pair of matching pistols holstered at his waist.

And then there was Will.

Arthur had never figured out how to handle the man. He probably never would. Will was at once predictable and unpredictable, the sort who was willing enough to be cajoled along while simultaneously digging in his heels. Everything was a fight with him, and Arthur had resigned himself to seeing Will tromp into the council room in his ratty boots and clothing full of holes.

He was pleasantly surprised to see that Will had done something, however half-hearted, about his appearance. He was wearing those ratty boots, but it looked like a cobbler had gone at them recently, patching up the cuts and tears, polishing the leather, and doing something about the ridiculous flop at the calves. He wore straight-cut black trousers with the legs tucked into his boots, a button-down shirt cut in the old Imperial style but open all the way to mid-torso, and a pale blue uniform jacket, the left side hanging heavy with a cascade of military ribbons.

Will's father had been in Emperor Constantin's personal Guard, Arthur remembered. Highly decorated, well-respected, known for feats of reckless courage -- a trait that had no doubt passed on to his son. Arthur wasn't certain why Will had chosen to wear that jacket now, but he was glad he had. It forced the older generation among the Masters of the Royal Houses to remember a relic of the old Imperium that, perhaps, wasn't a relic after all.

The style of the uniform was different than the style worn now, and Will wore it with insouciant, rebellious flair, the jacket collar flicked up to brush his ears. The line of it was broken by the pair of pistols that he wore in shoulder holsters and the low-slung belt that carried a few more.

Any of these men, alone, were a striking sight. The three men together drew the eye and held it.

The Masters took in the heavy velvet bags in both Elyan's and Gwaine's hands and the thick parchment roll tucked under Will's arm before turning to Arthur. Questions were written in their faces.

Arthur waited a moment.

"The Royal Houses have been very kind to share their history and customs with me, and it's only fair that I reciprocate.

"Among the Pirates, we have a saying. Cast your coin. We Pirates are gambling men. We truly are, and when we set our bets, we keep to them, riding our own folly to the end. When a Pirate casts his coin, he's throwing his fate and his future along with it. It's a honour when another Pirate casts his coin with yours.

"I've sent my men to the Pirate homeworlds with one question, and one question only -- for decades of torment, for the insult heaped upon them over the years, for their attack of Pirate kin and Clan, would they join the Empire against the Conglomerate?"

Arthur raised his arms, pointing at Elyan and Gwaine. The two upended the contents of both large velvet bags, letting silver Sterling coin after silver Sterling coin clatter down the smooth table surface. They piled down on the floor on top of the hefty document detailing the accounts of several members of the Quorum.

By the time that the last coin tinkled down -- Gwaine shook the last bag and a stubborn coin clinked before it bounced and rolled all the way to the pile -- every eye in the room was wide and round, because all those Sterlings amounted to an unspeakable fortune.

"Every coin represents Captain and Clan pledging ship and men to mine. The Pirate fleet is mine to command," Arthur said.

He felt no particular need to mention how he'd managed to acquire this degree of loyalty. He tried not to think too hard about it. Some of those coins were out of faith -- Pirates supporting their King, following the man who had delivered exactly what he had promised them. Freedom from the Imperial Conglomerate.

Some of those coins were debts repaid -- each and every one of his father's favours cashed in.

Even more was the bloodthirstiness of a Pirate showing through the veneer and polish of the treasure at his feet. Morgause's canny smile and the interested glint in Aredian's smile had done nothing to reassure Arthur of their good will and only reinforced his decision to keep an eye on them from this point forward.

But they were a few -- a very fragile, but powerful few -- who rose to Arthur's call to arms in exchange for finding out about their Clans pasts. They wanted for more than the teasing hint that Arthur had given them -- that their Clans might be the lost Houses of the Imperial Court.

Clan or House, those were the lineages of Leodegrace, Dubois, LeF