Rittar checked his side arm as he entered the palace gardens. It wasn't that he expected trouble -- well, no more than usual. Paranoia was as basic a requirement for an armsman as it got. Touching his weapons comforted Rittar, and he was far from happy with this latest task. Thin-lipped, he headed for the smaller maze entrance.
The sounds of fighting grew louder the closer he got to his destination. He put on a burst of speed when he realized that those sounds were mostly flesh on flesh, with none of the high pitched cries he had expected. Rittar rounded the last corner and exploded between the combatants before either they, or the three spectators, knew what he was about. He grabbed the larger fighter -- a prepubescent blond boy -- around the waist and threw him into the two House armsmen wearing Faval's russet and teal. The younger boy standing beside them managed to duck out of the way.
Stepping in front of the second fighter, a girl about six years old with black hair and a bloody nose, Rittar bellowed, "Disarm now!" at the armsmen.
The first to react had his energy pistol half drawn. He hesitated, his gaze locked on the red and gold dragon patch covering Rittar's left shoulder.
"Disarm now!" Rittar repeated. He used one hand to keep the girl behind him and made sure the other hand stayed away from his own side arm. The situation was touchy enough without escalating it.
"We're armsmen; we only disarm in the presence of the Imperial family," the slower House armsman answered. The first was already shoving his pistol back into the holster, the blood leeching from his face.
"Disarm now; last warning!"
"Do it, Thackery." The quicker-thinking of the two used exaggerated care while unbuckling his holster rig. With slow, deliberate movements, he set the rig on the ground and stepped back. He grabbed the boys by their arms and pulled them with him, away from the weapon. He never took his eyes off Rittar.
Thackery turned his head toward the first armsman, his forehead wrinkling. Rittar slammed into motion as soon as Thackery glanced away. In two steps, he crossed the distance between them and grabbed the wrist hovering over Thackery's pistol. He continued the movement, stepping behind the House armsman. A well placed kick to the back of the knees swept Thackery's legs out from under him, and Rittar snatched the energy guy from House armsman's holster. He tossed the weapon behind him, towards the girl, and planted a knee in Thackery's back, pulling up on the arm he still held.
"When an Imperial armsman gives you an order, boy, you listen! Do you understand?"
Thackery made a wet, choking sound.
"Do you understand me?" Rittar jerked up on the captive arm.
"Yes!" Thackery gasped out.
Rittar allowed the arm he held to come down a bit, but he left it high enough to keep pressure on the shoulder joint. He looked back at the smarter armsman and the two boys. The older child wore a petulant frown and had lifted his free hand toward the armsman's grip on him. The younger boy stared at Rittar with frightened shock. The red tint around his left eye promised to bloom purple and yellow by morning, and blood trickled out a crooked nose. Judging by the similarity in their facial features, the boys were brothers, or maybe cousins.
Not taking his gaze away from the trio, Rittar asked over his shoulder, "Highness, are you okay?"
The older boy whipped his head around, terror wiping the petulance off his face. Thackery whispered, "Shit!"
The princess' voice came out muffled when she answered. "Better than Joey."
Rittar rotated his jaw to key his sub vocal mic. "Medics, injury minor, maze entrance three."
The response vibrated up his mastoid bone. "Confirmed."
"She's not -- " the older boy started to say. The armsman holding him released the younger child to slap a hand over his mouth.
"Do not say anything you will have to recant."
The older boy struggled in the armsman's hold. Thackery twitched toward them. Rittar jerked Thackery's arm up again.
Thackery grunted, but quieted. Not trusting the tension -- or instincts -- in Thackery, Rittar kept the arm elevated.
The younger boy started crying. Tears mixed with the blood on his face. Quiet sobs made hiccups in his breathing.
"Rittar, I want Joey to come to me," the princess said. The younger boy looked behind Rittar and took a hesitant step towards her.
"Joey is the smaller one?"
"When the Guard get here, Highness."
The rumble of medic transports grew audible, closing in on their position. "Soon."
"Good," the princess said just before Rittar heard the thud of a body falling behind him. The blood froze in his veins.
A soft sigh answered him. Rittar made a snap decision. He broke Thackery's forearm, and the older boy flinched at the crack of the bones snapping cleanly. Rittar shoved the armsman sprawling and jumped back toward the princess. She lay partially on her side, one small hand spilled open, palm up, the other fisted over her belly.
Rittar keyed the mic again, calling over the comm net, "Injury one, injury one!" He searched her body for broken bones or swelling, taking care not to move her. The whine of the transports became a roar, and then men in Medic blues were shoving him out of the way. Imperial Guard in their red and gold surrounded the two House armsmen and the boys.
Rittar nodded to his fellow armsman, Montaya, and the two Imperial Guards standing in front of the doorway. "Is he in with anyone?"
Armsman Montaya shook his head. "All clear and wants your report yesterday."
"Dial me in, then."
Armsman Montaya reached back and gripped the scan tube. Sensors in the tube verified his hand position, finger & palm prints, temperature, the thickness of his subcutaneous fat and the structure of his veins as they pulsed with his heart beat. The door slid to the side, and Rittar entered the emperor's study.
Emperor Ramses IV was a man of middling height, trim build, and dynamic energy. His brown hair, just starting to gray, was cut short to control his curls. The caramel-cream color of his skin made the green coloring his gray eyes stand out. His features were smooth without being soft and defined without being hard. He paced beside a broad desk, littered with report cubes, talking into the wire of his diction mic. He could have used his sub-V, but he felt implanted mics caught too much emotion. On seeing Rittar, he broke off, closing the recorder with a snap of his wrist.
"Why the hell was she fighting?"
Rittar paused, checked that the door had slid closed behind him, and nodded to Armsman Burk before turning back to his liege. Mild rebuke tinted his words. "Did you even scan the initial reports, Remy?"
The emperor gave Rittar a flat look and glanced significantly at his covered desk.
"Well, she's out of surgery -- "
"Surgery? But it was just two kids fighting!"
"It was an assassination attempt."
"IIB is still investigating, but so far the broad bones seem to be that Heir Major Desmond Lictenstein decided the only thing standing between him and the Heir Apparancy was little cousin Joey. There have been rumors that Fife Faval's of the Dega school -- noble savages, swinging through the trees and all that -- and Armsman Stephens confirmed that under Imperial Inquisition."
The emperor leaned back on his desk. "Inquisition is a drastic step."
Rittar shrugged. "He practically begged for it, and then surrendered his recall first thing upon the invoking. The recordings show that he commed Lord Faval as soon as he saw Desmond approach, and spent most of the time between then and my arrival arguing with his liege for permission to interfere."
Emperor Ramses narrowed his eyes. "And Faval's reasoning?"
"If she was anyone important, she'd have an armsman accompanying her, so don't let Desmond kill her, but plebs need to learn respect for their betters. Nothing indicates that those involved out of House Faval were aware that Isabey is the Imperial Heir Minor."
"And how did she get involved in the first place?"
"She needs an armsman, Remy. Her two duty Guard, her nurse, and her tutor all swore she was taking a nap when we came to question them about how she got out again. IIB is foaming over it, since none of the sensors recorded her exit -- again.
"This time, she found Joseph Lictenstein and Armsman Stephens. Being about the same age, the kids decided to play together. They were heading toward the koi pond in the center of the maze when Desmond intercepted them. He started shoving Joey around and was working up to an all out beating when Isabey ordered him to desist. He punched Joey in the eye and told her to mind her own business.
"Her answer was, 'If I did that, I'd be little better than you.' And she stepped right between them. I think she was expecting he'd stop, but he didn't. He started in on her. For a kid outweighed that badly and who never fought a day before in her life, she did fairly well, too. Got in a few good kicks to the shins, punches to the groin and belly, didn't really have the reach to hit higher up."
"How did she end up in surgery?"
"Desmond's got neural boosts, borderline black market lifts. If he'd uppercut Joseph instead of jabbing, he'd have tapped his nose into the boy's brain. The boost isn't just strength, either. He's got resonance auggies. The sonics tore through Isabey's soft tissue organs, broke open most of the capillaries in her liver and spleen, and ruptured her appendix. Medics had to cut into her to seal off a few heavy bleeders and gave her the first nanite treatment to repair the capillary damage."
Ramses' face bleached out, and he sagged against the desk. "Why the hell wasn't I informed?"
Rittar turned to Armsman Burk. Burk said, "I haven't got the comm yet."
Rittar keyed his sub-V. "Patch to Medic Station Blue."
"Medic Station Blue, verify the time the report on patient Sapphire was sent."
"No report found."
"Confirm status of patient Sapphire."
"No patient record found."
"Patch to Guard's Hurley and Johansen."
"Hurley, Armsman Rittar here. I need an eyeball on Isabey's condition."
"She's still unconscious, but breathing well. The nanites have already started sealing her skin and the medics are sounding happy with the way she's reacting to the early dosing."
"How's her record stored?"
Emperor Ramses keyed his comm 'plant to pick up Rittar's traffic. There was a slight pause before Guard Hurley replied, "Just a sec, let me check."
After a longer pause, Guard Johansen keyed back. "Hurley's reaming the intake clerk. She's listed in the clear. The newsies have already commed Public Records and hit it. Sapphire locks are coming down on the records, but we can't retract the admission from here. Medics don't want her moved for another few hours, in case she goes into nani-shock."
"Son of a bitch!" Ramses roared and slammed his fist down on the desk. Rittar ignored the outburst.
"I'm sending a Guard unit to keep the newsies out. Seal her bed off. When the back up gets there, keep two in the room with her until she's conscious."
"Damn! There goes any chance of keeping this discrete."
Rittar keyed off the mic. "Remy, your priorities are really screwed up when it comes to your daughter. Whatever happened to 'my children are my life'?"
"That Korvi bitch tried to murder my sons!"
"Isabey isn't her mother, and I've never believed Kyra was behind the assassination attempts. They were too damn clean."
"Then why did she run? Hell, why did she confess?"
"She was out of her mind when they caught up with her, Remy, convinced everyone was going to rip her open to kill her child. What would you have confessed to for the promise of your sons' safety?"
"The evidence is against her, Kon. Let it drop."
"And you convict the child for the mother's crimes. Why didn't you just flush her then?"
"Drop it, Kon."
"Remses, do you want to alienate an Imperial heir? Are you setting her up as a stalking horse to draw in the coup attempts?"
"Then allow her an Armsman en Tempus."
"And who would you trust? She's part Korvi! If Kyra had been less confrontational, more discrete, about her blood, she might have been an empress, but since Kyra, who would you trust with her?"
"Damn. You're right."
"I am?" Emperor Remses gave his armsman a hard, suspicious look. "What are you up to, Kon?"
"The only people who could serve en Tempus would have to come from those of us who knew Kyra, knew what Korvalians are really like."
"So you're volunteering?"
"Remy, you've got swarms of capable candidates to replace me, but who could you trust to ensure Isabey isn't used against you?"
Isabey bit her lip and glanced over at the large man standing beside her. He wore a gray and green uniform, her House's colors, with a blue and gold dragon crawling over his right shoulder. The last time she saw him, his dragon was red and gold and sat on his left shoulder.
The medic tapped her knee. "Do you feel that?" she asked.
"And what are you picking up?" she asked the armsman.
"Nerves," Rittar answered.
The medic looked surprised. "You're getting a neural connection?"
Rittar shook his head. "No, she's nervous. I've been linked before, so the heart-rate changes, adrenal surges, they're background noise. They all add up to nervous."
"That's right. It's a bit of step down in the world, isn't it?" the medic asked, turning to pick up the private net scanner.
Ritter asked, his tone mildly menacing, "Oh?"
The medic, oblivious, responded, "Well, from the Emperor's First Armsman to the -- " A quick glance over her shoulder at Isabey hinted the pause here had to do with substituting descriptions. " -- the Heir Minor's sole Armsman en Tempus. I mean, you just lost all the retirement perks for babysitting someone who doesn't even have a shot at the throne." The medic turned back, the scanner in hand. "It just, you know, seems like a bit of a raw deal."
There was no mistaking the cold rage emanating from Rittar when he said, "I see."
The medic looked up, paled, swallowed, and buried her nose in the scanner reads. Isabey studied Rittar with curious interest.
As they were leaving the medic station, Isabey stepped up to Rittar and reached for his hand. "How come I don't get your vitials on my net?"
Rittar moved her hand to a loop hanging from his belt. "Here, hold this. Until we approve a couple more Armsmen, I need both my hands free to protect you.
"And you don't need to try figuring out how I'm doing as much as I need to know what's happening with you. You know, you gave me quite a fright, toppling over like that the other day."
Isabey stopped, her halt tugging on Rittar's waist. Her vital stats rolled with surprise over the new private net. "You mean that!"
Rittar glanced down at her and went back to scanning the area. "An armsman's first obligation is to alway speak truth to his liege." He gave her a gentle push to get moving again.
"No-no, you were scared! For me! Not for you, not for the trouble you'd get in, but you were scared for me!"
"This is not the place for this talk, Highness." Rittar eyed the people passing by, something not quite right itching his instincts.
Isabey took a moment more to resume walking. She reached up and patted his forearm. "That's okay. We have time. You're my armsman."
Rittar smiled and suppressed a chuckle. Yep, she was her father's child.
Rittar gave himself a moment to gaze down at the sleeping from of his newest charge. Isabey lay curled on her side, one arm tucked over her head, the other spilled across her pillow. Her vitals hummed through the private net connecting armsman to liege with the reassuring murmur of good health. Practice made the muscle contractions that pulled up his night vision augments smooth, nearly imperceptible to the naked eye. He ran through the comm chatter, checked the suite's sensors, and, satisfied that all was well, stepped into the center of the room.
Drawing in a deep breath, Rittar unfocused his eyes. He used the light enhancers in his augment to pin point the energy feeds flowing inside the room. Accessing his recall augment, he compared the feeds he perceived with the room's schematics, checking off each feed as he verified it. An hour later, he ran through the schematics again. He wasn't too surprised to find that they matched perfectly. The Imperial Investigations Bureau was hardly staffed with incompetents, and even then they wouldn't be assigned to Palace detail.
On his way out he glanced back at Isabey. He stopped, tipped his head to the side, and dialed up the power on his light enhancers. A whisp of light played in the cup of her open palm.
Kyra's daughter, too, he thought. Time to track down the Korvalians.