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 The ship’s engines shut down, leaving a heavy silence. Averrine looked through her viewing port to the moon’s surface of black rock shot through with purple glass, bleak and unchanging. A tower of the same rock stood, looking organically formed rather than built.

The soft hiss of her cabin door made her turn. Her captor, his blue eyes cold, held out a breathing mask. She met his eyes, but didn’t reach for it.

“We have two ways we can do this,” le Payne said. “You can put the mask on and walk to the tower, or I can have you dragged. I really don’t care.”

She didn’t reply. He shouldn’t be escorting her, it wasn’t befitting someone of her importance, but she hadn’t seen her bastard of a son Kare since he’d overcome her, taking both her empire and her powers. Her demands to meet him had been rejected and le Payne had made it clear there were other, worse, conditions which could –would –be applied if she continued to ask. Looking at him, grim-faced, holding a weapon in her presence –in her presence –it was hard to reconcile him as the man whose mind she had invaded until he’d knelt in fealty before her.

If she had her power, he’d do so again. If. She searched her mind, as she had every day of her imprisonment, and found only the hard wall where it had once been. The block Kare had placed was seamless and inaccessible.

“Let’s go.” Le Payne jerked his head towards the corridor.

She reached for the mask. Le Payne watched her put it on and indicated for her to leave the cabin. He prodded her with his blaster –prodded her –to the front of the ship, and pulled his own mask on. At the bottom of the gangway a squad of soldiers waited, faceless behind their masks. Anger rose, not red and urgent, but white, slow burning, made to last and endure. Le Payne and the others would pay for this day.

He forced her from the ship, holding her elbow firmly as the grav-reg’s effect ceased, and tethered her belt to a wire-reel leading to the tower. She took four paces, body light in the low gravity, to a gaping hole in the rock and stepped into it. A short flight of steps led into an antechamber enhanced by artificial gravity.

A soldier removed the reel, tugging at her belt. The portal above sealed, closing with the dull thud of a tomb. She had to force the first touch of fear away. She wouldn’t be cowed by this boy and his squad.

“Air’s stabilised.” Le Payne pulled his mask off, his squad following suit. He gave her a curt nod. “And you.”

She glared at him before taking off her own, slowly unclipping it, taking her time. He took it from her and set it beyond her reach, his eyes on her the whole time, missing nothing. Once, he’d have been dead for this. One day he would be. Sooner or later, her son would be forced to free her: the weakling would never stand against the great families. When Kare was forced from power, she’d ensure he and Lichio le Payne were repaid for every humiliating step forced on her.

They moved into the main body of the tower. Its walls stretched up and up, until the metal stairwell hugging them almost disappeared from sight. He pointed to the stairs.

“Climb.” The central chamber of the tower was empty, and cold, the dark rock barely illuminated by lights set at intervals. Sensors protruded from every wall, remote and faceless; laser guns moved in parallel to them.

She struggled not to shiver in the cold air. She was Simon Pettina’s daughter, and stronger than anyone. She would not show fear. She went to the staircase and started to climb, her steps slow and regal. She may have been forced into prison garb –cargo trousers and a plain top –but she wore them as she had her finest gowns. Behind her, le Payne’s soft footsteps tracked her; ahead, the squad.

She didn’t know how long she climbed. Five minutes, ten? Her legs tired, but the thought of being forcibly taken kept her going. That, and hate. She repeated the names, fuelling the hate with each step: Kare Varnon, her bastard of a son; Sonly le Payne, his bitch of a wife; the turncoat doctor, Prentice; Lichio le Payne, her angelic-faced captor. She reached the top and stopped at a single open door.

Le Payne indicated for her to go in, and she found herself in a small living area, sparsely decorated. No plants, which she’d surrounded herself with in Abendau, no colour to break the monotony of the dove-grey walls. Her arms goosebumped in the cold air. He gestured around. “You have a bathroom and a bedroom. There’s access to limited entertainment systems. Food will be delivered three times a day, and will be more than sufficient for your needs. Water is available all the time.” He turned to go.

“Wait.” Her voice, for the first time, wavered. “Who brings my food?”

He looked over his shoulder. “The food unit. The cleansing units will clean for you. Your health will be monitored by the sensors; if you need medical assistance, it will be arranged.”

“You won’t get away with this,” she said. “When the families hear the way I have been held, you will pay for this. I am the Empress, this is not fitting–”

“Would you prefer your son’s cell in Omendegon?” His face hardened. “Or to take my place in the quarry? It could be arranged.”

He walked out. The door sealed behind him, and she sank into the seat opposite. A camera followed her movements. She glared at it, and thought again of the list of names: Kare Varnon, Sonly le Payne; Sam Prentice, Lichio le Payne. It was a song, a mantra which gave comfort and focus.


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