Homecoming: The Return of an Heir

Prologue

 

"Applied violence is a finely crafted tool. If it is used too seldom, it grows weak and cankered with rust. If it is used too often, it becomes quickly worn. One must learn the balance of its use to achieve true greatness."

-From the Second Chronicle of Jíthenn

  

A slowly setting sun cast a beautiful spectrum of color across the placid blue sky of Trenist. That same spectrum of color played subtly across the landís verdant and luscious landscape, illuminating the many streams and waterfalls so that they sparkled in the fading light. The blue-green fields, which were accented by colorful touches of tropical and exotic flowers formed, the perfect counter-balance to the happily burbling streams and occasional cascading sheets of water. A soft breeze sent a lazy ripple though the grassy fields in a calm, continuous pattern. It was rumored that simply watching the subtle, complex patterns produced by the wind-kissed slopes was relaxing to the point of being therapeutic. It was one of the few things for which Trenist was known all across the Galaxy.

The architecture of the world had been designed to enhance and compliment the natural beauty of the land. The worldís ancient and mysterious architects had done their job well, accenting the gently rolling hill with glistening white domes. The communities had all been laid out in carefully planned patterns, carefully tended farmlands blending meticulously with cultural halls and private residences. These structures had been constructed so well, that not one had ever needed more than minimal maintenance since the planet had been discovered by the Imperium some two hundred years ago. Why its former inhabitants had deserted it was one of the great mysteries of the Universe. It was that same air of mystery, combined with the landís stunning beauty that made it one of the most exclusive resort worlds in the Imperium.

From an arched window within one of the large domed structures, Krílltumen viewed the final rays of the departing sun with a sense of introspective detachment. Growing up in a chain of asteroid mining colonies he had never dreamed that the day would come that he would be able to see for himself one of Trenistís legendary sunsets, and view it from the top of the fabled Dome Palace no less.

Krílltumen examined his feelings or, more accurately, lack of feelings closely as he let the scene before him fill his eyes, knowing that it too would probably fail to produce any kind of emotional response. The sight was diminished considerably by his own inability to distinguish and thus appreciate the complex weaves of color that leaked from the horizon. Had he been anyone but who he was, he might have let out a small sigh of frustration and disappointment. Instead he simply moved away from the window, berating himself for having taken such a foolish chance. He could have easily been seen by any number of passing eyes, something that he most definitely needed to avoid. However, the stories that he had heard since his childhood of the intense beauty of Trenist sunsets causing even the most stoic of men to shed tears had compelled him to view one for himself.

Krílltumen silently padded across the intricately decorated floor to take one last look at his work. He was a craftsman who prided himself in producing a quality product and couldnít allow his reputation to suffer because he missed one detail. That meticulous attention to detail was were many of those who shared his trade erred. They didnít understand that the most important part of their work came after the actual job had been completed. There was an intricate art to assassination, and leaving a scene that would convey a potent, lasting, and effective impression on the surviving marks was an integral part of that art. It was an art which, as Savoss Jíthenn, he was the undisputed master of.

The assassin let his gaze slowly cross the imperial bed chamber, where Lord Telaranni and his wife had been carefully arranged into their final poses, their faces still a mask of fear and pain even in death. Both stared sightless at him, the large upward, curved slashes in their throats contrasting oddly with the downward grimaces of their mouths. Their deaths had not been very subtle. Of coarse, the Skrull were not a very subtle people. And as his orders were to see that the responsibility for these deaths were laid in their charge, he had used less then refined methods to send the noble family to the next world.

He had regretted the fact that he had been required to kill then so quickly, without allowing himself the opportunity to savor their deaths. It was often in the moments right before death that a victim would produce their most intense emotional responses. Fear, hate, denial, and then, the utter bitterness as the last embers of hope were crushed into oblivion often filled his mind and senses with delicious intensity while the victim slowly succumbed. It was only in those moments, linked empathically to the emotions of the dying, that he felt he truly understood what it was to be alive. Without these borrowed impressions and given his own inability to spontaneously generate cognitive responses, he would never have been able to define his own existence.

However, if it was other peopleís emotions that defined his own perceptions, than it was more so that the discipline of the Falíkorr defined his actions. Krílltumen would have liked to indulge himself, nobles tended to feel more immortal and thus produced more fear when confronted with the reality of their own mortality, but instead he had adhered strictly to his discipline. After all, unbridled indulgence was not a trait that earned one the position of Savoss Jíthenn.

Krílltumen took a brief moment to examine Lady Telaranniís fingernails to assure himself the skin samples that he had planted were still lodged between the pad of the finger and the underside of the nail. Not that they were really necessary. He had left more than enough obvious evidence to point the finger directly at the Skrulls. However, it was that attention to even the tiniest of details that would make a likely scenario a convincing scenario to any Imperial guard that might later investigate the scene.

Satisfied, the assassin allowed his gaze to cover the room once again, searching for anything that he might have missed earlier. However, everything was set perfectly in place, from the arrangement of the bodies, to the separate trail of blood, the signs of struggle, and a wicked bladed weapon of Skrull design, left behind as a calling card as Skrull assassins often did. The beauty of the entire situation was that the Skrulls would never once think to deny involvement in the death of House Telaranni. The two factionís open animosity towards each other was well known and the Skrulls, stupid and arrogant people that they were, would jump at the opportunity to claim the demise of the Telaranni family as their own work. And, given the chaotic nature of the internal workings of the Skrull hierarchy, they would probably even believe themselves that one of their own was the perpetrator.

Krílltumenís steps quickly carried him from the main bed chamber to the childrenís sleeping area. He had been able to enjoy himself a little bit more with the children. By nature, children were innocent and pure, not yet hardened by the harsh realities of the universe. Thus, they could produce a pure and intense fear that no adult he had ever encountered was capable of duplicating. One of the children had already been long dead before Krílltumen had even done anything to him physically. The sight of his sibling being tortured to death in a most brutal fashion was simply too much for the young noble child. Even now, his sightless eyes remained fixed on the ceiling, having died of shock.

At fist, Krílltumen had been worried about how this contingency would affect the scene that he was trying to create. In the end he had decided that it would make perfect sense for the Shiíar child to die of fright at the sight of armed Skrull mercenaries. What with the stories that children told to frighten each other concerning the Skrulls, it was perfectly logical that a child would suffer a shock induced seizure that was symptomatic to their race.

Krílltumenís head whipped up in alarm as his sensitive ears picked up the indistinct and distant sound of voices below him at the entrance to the dome palace. The sound of the conversation was growing louder as the two parties continued to approach. Krílltumen felt his brow crease in consternation. He knew that the guard was not to change for some time yet. He had specifically timed his strike at the midpoint between such changes. Yet, he had no other explanation for who these men approaching the building could be.

Krílltumen silenced his own thoughts as he strained his ears to pick up their conversation.

"Iím telling you, I saw someone from the window and it wasnít a member of the guard and it wasnít a member of the Telaranni family," one of the voices was insisting in a nasally wine.

"Iím not questioning the fact that you saw someone. I just said that in the fading light and with the odd angle that you were at when you looked at the window, you could have easily mistaken one of our own for someone else," the other voice responded in a deep resounding bass.

Krílltumen mentally cursed himself for his sloppiness. He should have known better than to indulge himself in such a manner. Now, he had a few additional details to with which he had to concern himself.

"Listen," the nasally voice was iterating, "It will only take a moment of our time. We go in, check with the guards and leave. It will only cost us a few moments at the most."

"That and cycles of putting up with snide comments from comedians," the deep bass responded. "But all right, letís get this over and done with."

At that moment, hundreds of possibilities of how he could work these two impertinent guardsí deaths into the scenario that he had already constructed sifted through Krílltumenís mind. He knew that he could not simply leave them alive. Aside from the fact that they would discover the slaughtered guards and thus, slaughtered Telaranni family much sooner than he had planned for his scenario to work, one of them had actually seen him. That fact, in and of itself, was completely unacceptable.

Krílltumen silently entered the hallway, passing quickly by the fallen bodies of the imperial guard. As he set himself in place for an ambush the final details of a plan to include the two newcomers coalesced in his mind. The assassin grinned grimly as he withdrew a wicked blade from his vest. Details, he reminded himself, were the most important part of his art.

 

**************************

Lilandra Neramani let out an exhausted sigh of relief as she entered into her private chambers. It had already been a long and trying day and Chandilarís sun had not yet passed the midpoint in its cycle. Fortunately, her most arduous tasks had already been completed that morning. The hearing with the Imperial Magistrate had been just as difficult and frustrating as she had predicted. Magistrate Talm, burn the man, was as uncompromising as a onmium rod. He had refused to give her proposals even the least bit of consideration and most of the Magistrate members had followed suit. Lilandra had been forced to use almost all of her political clout just to get an additional hearing.

The Shiíar Empress allowed her gaze to scan the room briefly and caught sight of Sherla, one of the palace servants. The girl immediately halted in her own labors to give a respectful bow to the empress. Lilandra simply smiled and nodded for her to continue as she had been doing. The girl gave her a grateful look in return and quickly returned to her task of cleaning the sculptures that adorned the wall, as Lilandra moved to another unoccupied room in her quarters.

Upon finding herself alone, Lilandra carefully removed her ceremonial headpiece and shook her crest out a bit before gracefully settling onto one of sofas, leaning her staff of office beside her. She briefly considered changing from her ceremonial armor into something a trifle more comfortable. After all, there was still ample amount of time before her next meeting, this one with the Noble council, and she could use a few moments to relax.

Fate, however, had chosen not to concede her those moments. Her peace was disturbed by the soft beeping of a communication followed by the digital voice of the computer announcing, "Incoming communication from Councilor Rallin Dalkaon."

Shaking her head in amused frustration Lilandra placed the ceremonial headpiece back on before responding, "Put it though." The computer responded by projecting a three dimensional image of an older graying Shiíar male. Rallin Dalkaon had been an advisor to the last three emperors, with the exception of Díken. Her brother had found the manís conservative approach far to stifling for his own ambitions and had dismissed him. Lilandra had re-appointed him when she had come into to power but, at times she felt she might have understood her brotherís frustration at Rallinís overly cautious approach to governmental policy.

"Yes Rallin, what is the problem this time?" Lilandra said with as much patience as she could muster. The man had a talent for finding mountains of administrative decisions for her that she would have otherwise delegated to someone else.

"Forgive me for the intrusion, my Empress," he responded formally. "There is a sub-space transmission from your imperial consort, Charles Xavier on earth." Though he hid it well, Lilandra knew that Rallin had never fully approved of her relationship with Charles. It was simply too politically extreme for his tastes. "He insists that it is not an immediate emergency, but is using the frequency reserved for communications of utmost priority."

Lilandra nodded in understanding. Charles was not one to exaggerate or take such actions lightly. If he was using the priority frequency, then his message was one of great importance. "Iíll take the message in my private image chamber."

"Of coarse, your majesty, It will only be a few moments until we can complete the link-up from our end. By your leave," Lilandra nodded her consent, and the image of Rallin faded to nothingness.

Lilandra stood slowly, taking up her staff again and made her way over to the imaging chamber that she used for private communications. She tried not to let her concerns build as she stepped inside the chamber and sealed herself in. Charles had said that it was not an emergency, but she could think of no other reason as to why he would give the message a high priority rating. She knew that her lover was a passionate man, but also an extremely practical one. It was definitely not his way to use a high priority frequency to deliver a simple "I was thinking of you" message. Though, at times, she almost wished that he would.

After a few moments of waiting she heard a technicianís voice announce over the intercom, "Establishing link-up now." The technician then signed off, to allowing Lilandra complete privacy.

The chamberís interior shimmered briefly before settling into a semi-translucent image of Charlesís private study. She felt a smile bloom on her face as her eyes found Charles. As usual, her heart fluttered slightly at the sight of him and she had to forcibly remind herself that she was an Empress and not some young, foolish girl.

"Greetings, Lilandra." He began formally.

"Charles my love," she responded, letting her eyes travel over him. "Are you well?"

At that moment she became aware of the presence of another individual in the room. Confusion briefly crossed her mind as she studied the other man casually leaning against Xavierís desk. The young man seemed vaguely familiar and Lilandra recognized him to be Gambit, one of Charlesís X-Men. But she didnít understand why he of all of the x-men had been included in this particular communication.

Still, instinct and upbringing dictated politeness even if she could not understand the purpose of his presence. "Gambit, is it not?"

"Oui," the man responded simply, all the while studying her with a strangely intense expression that she could not quite identify.

She turned a questioning eye to Charles who took a deep breath before responding. "Some... things... have happened recently that I must tell you about."

Lilandra felt a deep dread growing in her stomach. Charles tone bespoke things ominous in their import. "Is your Earth threatened?" she asked urgently. The Skrulls hadnít yet chosen to retaliate against earth for the X-Menís involvement in their failed coup. That didnít mean that they wouldnít try.

"No, no," Charles responded quickly. He took another deep breath and considered his hands for a moment, as if trying to decide how to proceed. Finally, he seemed to settle on what he was going to say. Looking her in the eye, he indicated the young man standing next to him. "This is Gambit."

The dread was slowly settling back into her stomach as curiosity grew to take its place. She was beginning to realize that what-ever it was that Xavier needed to talk about, it centered around this one young man.

"His real name is Remíaillon Neramani," Charles continued.

Lilandra knew that her surprise must have been obvious on her face as she turned to observe Gambit once again. Now that she actually looked, she could see the subtle touches to his features that spoke of a Shiíar heritage. "You are Shiíar?"

"Half," he responded with a guarded expression.

Lilandra felt a dark rage settle on her as the implications slowly sank in. He was half Shiíar and he bore the name Neramani. How many more of her brotherís dark deeds would come back to haunt her? "Díken did not...!"

"Rape another human woman?" Charles finished the thought for her. Then shook his head. "Not that I know of."

Lilandra felt her anger slowly abating to be replaced once again by confusion. Charles seemed distinctly uncomfortable about something and she couldnít begin to fathom what could have disconcerted him so. She waited patiently, watching him with expectant eyes, as Charles struggled with what to say next.

He took another deep breath. "Remy is our son, Lil,"

Lilandra felt her eyebrows climbing up her forehead as her entire being rebelled at his simple statement. She wanted to say that it wasnít possible, that it couldnít be true. But when she opened her mouth, no words came out. Her gaze darted back over to where Gambit was standing and could see him watching her with an expectant, almost fearful expression. She dragged her gaze back over to Charles and finally managed a breathless, "How?"

Charles leaned back in his chair, his breath leaving in great sigh. "The whole story is a long one, and rather ... gruesome." Lilandra arched an eyebrow at that, but Charles elected not to elaborate. "Suffice to say that he was cast back in time as a child. He hasnít actually been born yet."

Lilandra found her gaze drawn back to the young man, she couldnít attach the concept of son to him quite yet. "Indeed," she whispered softly. Their gazes remained fixed on each other for moment. She didnít quite know what to feel. The possibility of her one day becoming a mother had always seemed so remote. Now that possibility had suddenly become a reality and she didnít have any idea how to respond. She had stepped into the responsibility of being an empress and had worn the heavy mantle of authority for quite some time now. But the prospect of this new title, that of mother, made her feel totally inadequate in ways that she could not understand.

"If Charles says that this is so, then it is so." Even if she had no clue how to respond to this new situation. Staring back into the young manís eyes, she saw a hint of loneliness and hurt there. Something deep inside of her responded with its own discordant note of pain. "But I am at a loss at what to say beyond that."

The young man shrugged his shoulders. "Yí doní have tí say anytíing."

Lilandra felt the gratitude well up inside of her at the young manís thoughtfulness. Though he was guarding his expressions closely, she knew that this meeting must mean a great deal to him. She suddenly experienced the strong desire to know more about this man that bore her name and features. "You will have to come here once things have quieted down. So that we can talk."

She couldnít begin to guess at what emotions were conflicting inside of his head as the young man seemed to struggle with what to say. "I would ... like dat. Aman."

That single word put her more out of countenance than an entire morning of maneuvering with Magistrate Talm had been able to accomplish. It seemed to strip her of defenses that she hadnít even known had been in place, leaving her exposed in ways that she had never known before. Trying to summon a cheerful expression she said, "That is going to take some getting use to."

Suddenly the image of Charlesís study began to fade and flicker. Lilandra heard the distinctive hiss of the imaging chamber door opening and turned to see Talyn Farsahn looking on apologetically. Talyn was another one of her advisors and in many ways she was the exact opposite of Rallin. Young and aggressive, she tended to prefer a much more radical and outspoken approach to Shiíar government. The fact that she had intruded on Lilandra at all was a sign of their differences. Rallin would have waited until she was done.

"Forgive me for the intrusion, Empress," Talyn began hurriedly. "The Noble Council has called an emergency meeting." Talyn lifted her head to meet Lilandraí gaze and the Empress could see the evidence of tears in her eyes. "The Teleranni family was found dead this morning while vacationing on Trenist."

A cold icy hand seemed to grip Lilandraís insides at the news. Lady Teleranni had been one of her closest friends and greatest supporters. Her husband, Lord Teleranni had also been a great support and had always seemed like an uncle figure to her while growing up. The news of their deaths, especially at a time like this when she needed all the support that she could find, came like a physical blow.

"Do we know who is responsible?" Lilandra whispered fiercely.

"We believe that Skrull terrorist were the perpetrators," the woman responded after a moment of hesitation. "They havenít officially claimed responsibility yet, but from what evidence the guards have managed to gather at the sight, there isnít any doubt."

Lilandra gave a tight controlled nod. "Tell the Council that I shall be arriving shortly."

"Yes, your majesty," Talyn turned to leave then halted, seeming to remember something. "I was also told to relay to you that the technicians are about to lose the signal due to sudden influx of high priority communications in connection to the news of the deaths. However, they believe that they can hold it for a few more moments if you wish."

Lilandra smiled gratefully at Talyn. "Thank you, I should only be a few seconds more."

Talyn bowed again and left the chamber. The image of Charlesís study flickered back to life as the chamber door sealed itself close again. She knew that her current emotions were probably still displayed on her face, but couldnít really help it at the moment. "I am sorry. Weíre going to loose the transmission in a few moments." She focused her attention on Remy briefly, still marveling at the concept of him being her son. "But we must talk."

The image rippled again and she knew that her technicians wouldnít be able to hold on much longer. "Until then?"

"Yes," he surprised her by responding in Shiíar and Lilandra suddenly felt a warm spot grow deep inside of her. She found herself smiling at him and he was smiling in return.

Turning to Charles, she asked, "Will you come as well?"

He nodded in response and she felt her heart soar. "Of course."

The holographic image was failing again as she raised her arm in farewell. As the imaged flickered out she saw Charles reach out to place his hand over hers. She continued to gaze deeply into his eyes as the image faded to nothing. Sometimes it hurt so much knowing that though they may see and speak with each other this way, they were still galaxies apart. And now, he was with their son while her duty kept her separated from him. She found herself somewhat surprised by the bitterness in that thought. She had just barely discovered that Remy was her son, and already she was feeling jealousy that Charles could be there with him while she could not.

Lilandra shook her head in silent wonder as she exited the imaging chamber. It appeared that even the Empress of the Imperium harbored a mothering instinct. Lilandra quickly pulled herself from her reverie as she became aware of Talynís presence in the room. Lilandra was forced to shove all thoughts of family away as the demands of the present returned to take their claim upon her.

The last fleeting thought of Charles and Remy that she allowed her mind to entertain was the certainty that this matter would have to eventually come to the attention of the Imperial Magistrate and the Noble Council. The mental image of stodgy old Talmís reaction to the news nearly sent her into a fit of giggles. Charles had once described the man as puritanical, and though she was not quite familiar with the historical context of the term, she could easily understand its meaning.

Lilandra nodded to her advisor and together they exited the room. As the two Shiíar women left, both heavily involved in their own thoughts and doubts, they failed to notice a thin lithe form slide out from behind the far side of the imaging chamber and quietly slip out of the room.

 

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"All men harbor within themselves the desire for power and prestige. A wise man will bridle his desire, a weak man will bury it, and a fool will indulge it to excess."

-from The Book of the Knife

 

Night had finally fallen on the Shiíar homeworld, coating Chandilarís capital city with a dark cloak of shadow. From his private chambers, Gadian admired his view of the sprawling metropolis, slowly stroking the point of his closely cropped beard. He could not help but feel slightly possessive of it, knowing that soon if not already, the city and thus the Imperium would effectively belong to him.

Gadian, by any standard, was an imposing man. He had just barely passed his physical prime, yet seemed to have maintained all the virtues of youth while adding the cunning and wisdom of age. His stature was quite large and he tended to tower over most of those of his same race. Yet, it was not his height alone that so often intimidated all those that encountered him. The hard grim lines of his face radiated a power and authority which could not be easily dismissed. It was this power and authority that had, in the end, made him the First Keeper of the Falíkorr.

Turning his back on the window, Gadian returned his attention to his desk and the man standing behind it. "Please, continue with your report, Rebohan."

The thin nervous man nearly started under Gadianís demanding gaze, but managed to continue with a shred of dignity. "Yes, my Guardian. When the reports of Lord and Lady Telerannisí deaths first arrived at the capital this morning, an emergency joint meeting of the Noble Council and the Imperial Magistrate was called. I myself, have just come from the conclusion of this meeting. Thus all afternoon meetings, the Executive judicial hearings, planning sessions for the upcoming Festival of Lights, even budget planning committees..."

"I am not interested in reports of imperial time management, Rebohan," Gadianís voice cut in coldly. "Your prattling is wasting my time. I brought you here to tell me the results of the meeting, not information that any fool can obtain."

Again Rebohan faltered slightly, licking his lips, before continuing. "Yes, the results. The Magistrate has ordered a full investigation into the matter, but most members are already convinced of Skrull responsibility. The Gladiator himself will be heading up the investigation."

Gadian very nearly snorted in contempt at that statement. The Gladiator was an incredible Warrior and his combat skills were without peer. However, in Gadianís own opinion, the Praetan possessed all the intelligence of a lump of carbon. In all likelihood, his appointment at the head of the investigative committee was purely a political ploy, given the warriorís reputation and favor with the general public. If Gladiator was all that they had to concern themselves with, Gadian had no doubt that the final report would fully implicate the Skrull.

"As for the other results of the meeting," Rebohan was continuing, "Lilandra called for a special convening of all the noble houses for tomorrow morning, which is the soonest that all of them can arrive. At that meeting, the voice of the council will elect one of the existing noble houses to succeed house Teleranniís position as seconds to the throne." Rebohan managed to summon a snide smile at that point. "In my opinion, the meeting is purely a ceremonial affair. It is already clear in everyoneís minds that House Jaíharr is the obvious choice. Not only does the factor of precedence weigh heavily in their favor, but they are greatly respected and endorsed by most members of the Council."

"The one important exception being House Neramani," Gadian stated darkly, his fingers stilling at the point of his beard. His dark eyes narrowed in introspection. "The Imperial Empress is not a faction that you want against you in such matters."

Rebohan shook his head dismissively. "Such an action on her part would alienate her too greatly from the Council. After the last attempted coup by the Skrull, her support has decreased marginally, even among the public where House Neramani has traditionally garnered most of its support. She simply canít afford to lose any more of her already waning political clout." The Noble met his gaze with a surprising amount of confidence. "I assure you, my Guardian, she will not prove to be an obstacle in the matter."

The First keeper found himself pleased with the level of confidence and political savvy that his disciple had achieved. When he had first taken the man on as his second disciple, the first being Krílltumen, it had been the manís position on the Noble council alone that had convinced him to even attempt to mold this mild but ambitious creature into a full Partisan of the Falíkorr. However, Gadian had been greatly surprised by the amount of progress that the noble had made. He would never master the physical aspects of the Falíkorr art completely, he much to frail a constitution for that, but Rebohan had proven to be an excellent resource to the Falíkorr, non-the-less.

Gadian nodded his head in satisfaction. "I take great confidence in your assurances. See to it that that my confidences are not misplaced."

Rebohan, bowed respectfully, understanding the implied warning implicitly. Gadian was not a man who took disappointment lightly. The number of those that had disappointed him and survived was small indeed.

Without another word, Gadian dismissed his disciple to leave. Only then did he allow himself to feel a moment of satisfaction. It appeared that Krílltumen had performed his work well. The man was quickly becoming one of the most accomplished assassins ever to serve in the position of Savoss Jíthenn. Everything was proceeding exactly according to plan. By the next day, house Jaíharr would have taken its place as the succeeding house to the throne.

Gadian allowed a cruel smile to play across his features at the thought. There had been a time when house Jaíharr had not even had a member on the Noble council. Now, after more than thirty years of careful and subtle manipulations, they had become one of the most prestigious and powerful houses in the Imperium. Much of their rise to prominence had been directly or indirectly a result of the Falíkorrís actions. However, though house Jaíharr had benefited greatly from that aid of their shadowy partner, Gadian had never revealed himself to them, opting instead to secretly manipulate them from the shadows. Complete and utter secrecy, after all, was a binding principle of the Falíkorr.

Gadian lifted his head at the sound of his chamber doors opening once again with a slight hiss. He was prepared to severely berate the individual that had dared to interrupt him, the Presiding member of the Keepers, without first asking for his audience. However, through force of will, he stilled his tongue when he saw the individual that entered. Ashallan stood at the entrance to his quarters, her poise regal and mysterious and completely undiminished by the incredible burden of time that showed clearly in on her worn face.

"Advisor Ashallan," Gadian greeted her. "This is an unexpected pleasure. Wonít you please come in?" Ashallan had been his own Guardian when he had gone through the rites of discipleship. She now held the position as one of his two advisors and even though he out-ranked her, a certain measure of deference to his Guardian was required by law and tradition.

"This is not a pleasure visit, Gadian," her leathery old voice creaked. Gadian tried not to let his annoyance show at the fact that she had, once again, addressed him without his tittle of Keeper.

"Of course not," Gadian indicated a chair. "Will you please have a seat?"

She managed to look haughty even while following his suggestion. After settling herself her gaze focused on him. "I fear that I bear ill tidings. The course of time has changed, and with it, events have been sent spinning out of our control."

Gadian tried to keep his shock under control at the certainty in her voice. But how could events be spinning out of their control. To him it seemed just the opposite. Everywhere he looked, events were firmly within his grasp. Yet, Ashallanís was a voice that could not be so easily dismissed.

"You are certain?" he asked, knowing that the doubt was clear in his voice.

Ashallan remained silent. She was not a woman that enjoyed repeating herself. Not justifying what she considered a foolish question with a response was often her own response. At least, it had always had been so for him as her disciple.

Gadian chose to try a different approach. "How is this possible?"

Apparently, that was adequate for the older woman. "I have had visions of late, Gadian. Strange visions that indicate unmistakably the destruction of the Falíkorr." Gadian found himself turning away from those piercing black eyes. "If the present course of events remains unchanged, it will lead to the complete downfall of our society."

Gadian shook his head in dismay. "I donít understand. Everything is proceeding exactly according to the plans that we established so long ago." Gadian turned to stare at Ashallan again, his fist clenched. "House Jaíharr will be the new succeeding house, Ashallan. And with Lilandraís eventual death the Falíkorr would be assured control of the destiny of the Imperium."

Ashallan sat silently for a few moments before finally speaking. "This morning, I made inquiries that have led to certain revelations. I believe that this new information rests at the heart of this shift of events."

Gadian waited expectantly as once again Ashallan fixed another piercing gaze on him. Her next words, in just the few moment that it took her to utter them, completely negated more than thirty years of careful planning and preparation. "It would appear that Lilandra has an Heir."