The Draconis are a race of unexpected power and ability, complicated by their tendency to 'match' with other beings. The trial to decide whether or not they should be exterminated is about to begin, and both sides have gathered some of the brightest minds in the galaxy to argue before the Star Assembly of the Infinitum Government. Everything goes awry, however, when word comes down that High Chancellor Pyotr Kavalerov, staunchest supporter of the Draconis' right to live, has been assassinated...
Planet 2154014 (Tredad), Chelsan Homestead
Arkadii shuddered as he stepped out of his ship, futilely tugging at the collar of his heavy coat. He hated Tredad, and he resented wholly that the reason he had returned after so many years was the reason he had left in the first place.
"High Chancellor," a Lieutenant—he thought a Lieutenant, anyway, damned snow—greeted, voice barely audible in the freezing wind.
Grunting in reply, Arkadii motioned for the man to lead the way, trekking down an icy path toward the top-hatch of a house typical of the outer lying regions of Tredad—a circular building set deep into the earth, with a rounded roof built and treated to slough the never ending snow. In the cities, there were no exterior doors; the only way to the frozen areas beyond the safe zones were the city gates. In the outer regions, however, there was no interconnecting underground world. It was every man for himself in the wild.
Stars, he hated Tredad; it was as feral as it was civilized. Unfortunately for him, he was the only civil member of his family. Fortunately, he'd gotten out before they'd broken him. He sighed as they finally reached the hatch, then grabbed the handle on one side and swung down to the first step with an ease he had apparently not forgotten in ten terms.
At the bottom, he neatly jumped the last two steps, landing smoothly. The smells of death hit him first, and Arkadii made a face. He had hoped, after his Auth days, that he would never again encounter the smell of a dead body or blood. He hated the smell of blood; it stuck in his mouth and ruined his appetite.
"What happened?" he asked curtly.
The Lieutenant snapped a salute, but gratefully relaxed when Arkadii motioned that he should. He grimaced briefly before recovering himself, and said in a voice that tried very hard to be coolly professional, "Murder-suicide, High Chancellor. Doc—that is, the doctor reports that there was a brutal struggle first and likely the man would have died of internal bleeding if he hadn't—"
Arkadii cut him off with another hand motion, unable to bear such a blunt, clumsy recitation of his brother's death. "Where is Captain September?"
"Here, sir," September said, and with a jerk of his head sent the Lieutenant fleeing. "I apologize, your lordship."
"Never mind," Arkadii said, and looked around at the disaster—furniture broken, turned over. Damn near every object in the room appeared to have been thrown to the floor, and every bit of glass he saw was shattered. He looked away from the bloody hand he could see from behind the sofa. "What happened, Captain?"
September bowed his head and shoulders. "I am sorry for your loss, High Chancellor. It appears that Lord and Lady Chelsan fought, and in the scuffle she was killed. He killed himself shortly thereafter."
"How?" Arkadii asked, not even sure why.
"Knife," September replied in the quiet voice of one who had given too many such reports, a tone the young Lieutenant would not gain simply through practice. "We've tagged all the evidence, and I doubt the case will take long to process. It would already be well on its way, but the earnest Lieutenant there knew the family name."
Arkadii grunted in appreciation—not even people who had known him all ten of the terms he had been in the IG really knew his surname had been Chelsan once. He sighed, and shunted away those memories, focusing on the grimmer memories of his family.
"It's only the boy left to care for," September continued.
"The what," Arkadii repeated, dread in his stomach.
September looked at him in surprise. "The boy—their son."
"They didn't have a son the last time I heard from them," Arkadii snapped, feeling about as sick as September suddenly looked. His brother wouldn't be that stupid—yes, he would, Arkadii conceded. He did not bother stifling his sigh. "Please tell me the boy did not witness all of this."
The tight set to September's mouth was all the answer Arkadii needed, and didn't want. "Where is he now?"
"His bedroom. He won't leave it," September replied, and led the way in quick, even, military strides. Against the disaster of the living quarters, his sharp, steel-gray uniform and even gait were a glaring slice of order. Arkadii felt like an intruder, dressed in ornate robes of Parthon silk, with Treska diamonds in his ears and on his fingers.
In the small bedroom just off the main living area, a little boy huddled on a bed. The room was far too chilly, Arkadii thought reflexively, then felt stupid. In a matter of hours, the house would be empty. In a month, at most, someone else would be living in it. Tredad did not waste time on trivial things like sentiment and superstition; they were no substitute for a warm house.
The little boy, Arkadii noticed with a wrench to his chest, was the very image of himself at that age. If the boy was a day over six years, three in Tredad time, then he would be astonished. The boy was small for his age, with the white-blonde hair and sharp blue eyes so characteristic of Arkadii's family. He wasn't crying, or reacting at all, and that was something else Arkadii knew far too well. "What's your name?"
In reply, the boy just looked at the man standing nearby, a sergeant with a nasty, still-healing set of scars across one cheek. Hell-cat, Arkadii noted absently. "Pyotr Chelsan."
Pyotr. That had been their grandfather's name: the illustrious, oh, so perfect grandfather his brother had loathed even after he had died in his sleep. Arkadii felt tired, and at least twice his age. Arkadii knelt before Pyotr, then frowned faintly. "Why does he look as though he has been showered and re-dressed?"
September hesitated a beat, then said, "He was covered in blood, High Chancellor. I do mean covered. We thought it would reduce his trauma if we cleaned him up …" Arkadii looked over his shoulder, at September's too-blank face, and felt a sick feeling his gut. He turned back to Pyotr, and squeezed his shoulder gently. "My name is Arkadii. You may call—"
"Uncle," Pyotr said abruptly, though there was no inflection in the word.
"Yes," Arkadii said, startled, but before he could inquire further, Pyotr turned around neatly on one heel, with all the precision of a well-trained solder four times his age, and strode to the little blue chest at the foot of his bed. He opened it and pulled out a small wooden box, scuffed and shiny with age, and carried it back to Arkadii.
It made Arkadii's throat tight, to see that little box. What was it still doing around? He had been certain his family would throw out all his belongings when he ran away. He opened it, saw it was filled with picture folders—datapads meant to hold only one type of file, usually picture or documents, easily passed along from person to person without the risk of misplacing or sharing other data. They were also cheaper than standard data pads.
The ones in the box were years out of date; they looked so clunky compared to newer models. Arkadii picked one out and turned it on, surprised and not to see his own ten year old face flicker to life in front of him. He shut it off again, not needing the memories to flare any more to life than they already had. "So you know me."
"Papa talked," Pyotr said. "Mean things. Wrong things."
Arkadii raised his brows, wondering sadly what had happened to cause a little boy to understand far too much of the world. "Well, I doubt they were all wrong. The Chelsan family has never been accused of being nice. Some say, it's our fate. Do you know what that means?"
Pyotr shook his head.
"It means there's nothing we can do about it, any more than you can change the color of your hair or the blue of your eyes. You can alter them, disguise them, but not truly make them be a different color. Do you understand?"
Pyotr nodded solemnly, and Arkadii suspected he did, in fact, understand. "That's what everyone else says," he added. "Myself, I didn't stay here to succumb to fate. I did change."
"Me too?" Pyotr asked quietly.
Arkadii nodded and squeezed his shoulder again. "Yes. My name is Arkadii Kavalerov now; we'll change your name, too. Pack up everything you want to take you, the Lieutenant will assist you." He rose and jerked his head at Captain September to follow him into the hall. "What really happened?" Arkadii asked.
September sighed, sounding as old as Arkadii felt. "The man definitely killed the wife … but I do not think he killed himself. My report will say suicide to my dying day, but that’s not what happened here."
"Yes, it is," Arkadii said grimly. "Even after we die, that report will never say differently. Let us hope … " Pyotr stepped out into the hallway, and he let the words remain unsaid, but September nodded. "See the bodies are destroyed, along with all personal affects. Send the report directly to me when it is completed. No one is to speak of what happened here, ever. See it is sealed with my mark."
"As you will, High Chancellor," September said softly, and touched his arm lightly before sliding away to see the orders carried out.
Arkadii held the same hand out to Pyotr, and said, "Come along, Petya. I will take you to my ship, and then to my home, and we will never have to see this awful place again."
Pyotr nodded, and took his hand, and Arkadii put Tredad behind them both forever.