I made sure my face was hidden in the shadows of my hood.
“I have been told to report to Aldobi-rand,” I said in as deep a voice as I could manage. “Muhat-Matal.” This was the password that would get me admittance into the palace.
“He has been awaiting your arrival,” the guard said unexpectedly.
I didn’t know Furgus sent word ahead that I was on my way, or my estimated time of arrival.
“This way,” the guard indicated with his spear.
The two men towered over me, but I told myself I was safe now – finally in the confines of the ruler’s palace walls. I followed one guard with the other guard coming up behind me. Safe is a relative term. I felt penned in.
They led me down several halls – right, left and right again – then up two flights of marble stairs and through a massive double door. The lead guard fell to the rear to join the other and the door was closed abruptly leaving me alone in a room sparsely furnished with chaise lounge, two chairs and a small low table. A waiting room I surmised. There was a tray on the table with a pitcher and two brass goblets. I was horribly thirsty from my travels. Once I smelled the liquid in the pitcher and then took a sip I was sure it was wine and took the liberty of filling a goblet. I downed it and replaced the goblet on the tray hoping it would not be noticed that I helped myself.
There wasn’t much to see in the room. It was heavily draped all around except for the far wall that opened onto a terrace through light colored sheers. I decided to take a look.
I was staring out at the city below when I heard a foot fall behind me. He was on me before I could turn. He seized me around the neck – choking me.
I went limp and he followed me half way to the floor before he had to release me in order to keep his balance.
He grabbed at me. He was bigger, but I was faster. I rolled away from him kicking. I wished I had my spacer boots – I would have succeeded in breaking his leg at the shin. With the soft leather ones I had on, it didn’t break anything, but it threw him off balance enough to send him up against the railing of the balcony.
He whipped a long lethally sharp knife from his belt and started toward me.
I dove back toward the floor. I lunged toward his feet, grabbed one and lifted.
He teetered for a moment as he cartwheeled his arms trying to regain his balance, dropping his knife in the process.
I instinctively reached out for him, but it was too late. He went backward over the edge falling to the ground two stories below with a ripe sounding thud.
“Well, done,” a deep voice said behind me.
I turned startled and ready to do battle again.
It was Aldobi-rand. I recognized him from his portrait.
“He was almost twice your size and you took care of him effortlessly.” He moved toward the edge of the balcony as I skirted out of his reach. “Of course, I would have preferred he not die,” Aldobi-rand said as he gazed over the edge at the body lying in the courtyard below. “Then again, if he cannot best a woman half his size I suppose he was not worth his pay.”
The young ruler-to-be turned casually back toward the sitting room. “Come, sit. Have a drink with me.”
I was beside myself with anger. “What was that all about?” I shouted gesturing wildly caught in my adrenaline high.
“I would think it evident,” Aldobi-rand said as he filled the two goblets on the table. “It was a test.”
“I just killed a man.” I was seething.
“Yes, and very efficiently I might add.” He started to hand me the goblet.
I struck it from his hand. “I just killed a man,” I repeated myself. “For a TEST?”
Aldobi-rand nonchalantly seated himself in a chair. He sipped his wine. He was not upset in the least.
“As I said, if he had been worth his pay he would have gotten the better of you. Your reputation is justified.”
“My reputation?” What the hell?
“It is not by accident that Furgus chose you for the delivery here. I needed a woman. A woman skilled in hand-to-hand combat,” Aldobi-rand explained. “One that could think on her feet. Furgus' research found you were just such a woman. Your flight log reveals many interesting things about your temperament and talents.”
“My flight log?” How had he accessed that? He’d have to be able to tap into the NET and deeper, into the Galactic Official’s logs. Furgus was an artist, not a hacker. At least that was what I was led to believe. What had I gotten myself into this time? I plopped onto the end of the lounge opposite him.
“You handled yourself admirably on Ukhta against the OmniCron group. You showed endurance and a strong will.” He picked up the goblet from the floor where it had rolled to the foot of his chair. He filled it with wine and placed it on the table in front of me. “Your escort of Ambassador Attila showed restraint. I would have killed everyone of the iiadtsu, as Attila Number 5 did, if I had been there.”
He leaned back in his chair and crossed his long legs. “You’ve spent three months grieving because you couldn’t save the beings that would have had you dead. You sit there grieving for my man, Mulott, right now even though he would have killed you.”
Aldobi-rand uncrossed his legs and leaned forward toward me. “No, I need someone exactly like you. I need someone clever and thoughtful and brave. I don’t need a killer, though you may have to do a bit of that before you are through. I need a survivor, a fighter, a female mercenary with a heart.”