Traitors_cover_final

New York Times bestselling author Kristine Kathryn Rusch writes in almost every genre. Generally, she uses her real name (Rusch) for most of her writing. Under that name, she publishes bestselling science fiction and fantasy, award-winning mysteries, acclaimed mainstream fiction, controversial nonfiction, and the occasional romance. Her novels have made bestseller lists around the world and her short fiction has appeared in eighteen best of the year collections. She has won more than twenty-five awards for her fiction, including the Hugo, Le Prix Imaginales, the Asimov's Readers Choice award, and the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine Readers Choice Award.

Publications from The Chicago Tribune to Booklist have included her Kris Nelscott mystery novels in their top-ten-best mystery novels of the year. The Nelscott books have received nominations for almost every award in the mystery field, including the best novel Edgar Award, and the Shamus Award.

She writes goofy romance novels as award-winner Kristine Grayson and futuristic sf as Kris DeLake.

She also edits. Beginning with work at the innovative publishing company, Pulphouse, followed by her award-winning tenure at The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, she took fifteen years off before returning to editing with the original anthology series Fiction River, published by WMG Publishing. She acts as series editor with her husband, writer Dean Wesley Smith, and edits at least two anthologies in the series per year on her own.

To keep up with everything she does, go to kriswrites.com and sign up for her newsletter. To track her many pen names and series, see their individual websites (krisnelscott.com, kristinegrayson.com, krisdelake.com, retrievalartist.com, divingintothewreck.com). She lives and occasionally sleeps in Oregon.

Traitors by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Emilio Diate—the greatest dancer the Kingdom has ever produced—has vowed vengeance on that government for its merciless execution of his entire family. Now forced to start over on the merchant island of Golga, which forbids dancing, the handsome refugee joins the secret police with only one dark intention—to find his family's killers and serve his own brand of justice.

But when love intercedes, Diate may become the victim of his own revenge. As the conflicts between Golga and the Kingdom escalate, everyone Diate loves faces danger. A treacherous scheme may end his one true chance at happiness—and destroy Diate's world.

CURATOR'S NOTE

Traitors is what the romance writers call a book of the heart. I had to write this novel, and even now, years later, I can still see the events unfold in my mind. The novel combines things I love, from dance to big political ideas to a forbidden romance. I think you'll like it too. – Kristine Kathryn Rusch

 

REVIEWS

  • "An entertaining mix of intrigue, assassination, troubled loyalties and political rivalries."

    – Science Fiction Chronicle
  • "Intelligent, complex…an enjoyable fantasy that presents sociological commentary in the manner of a Le Guin SF novel."

    – Locus
  • "Rusch has style."

    – Charles de Lint
 

BOOK PREVIEW

CHAPTER ONE

CLASS-C OCEAN-GOING CRUISE ships had large under-the-seat storage compartments. Diate's sister had told him that when she signed onto her post almost two weeks before. A bit of training, and she would have been on the ship instead of him. She would have ridden up front or in one of the booths, entertaining passengers, instead of lying in the storage compartment itself.

He hated it in there. The interior was made of an unfinished wood. Splinters dug into him. His shoulders spanned the width only when he remained on his side, with his knees pulled up to his chin. The first day he suffered leg cramps so bad that he could hardly keep quiet. The second day the pains subsided, but the ache remained. This morning, the cramps had started again, but his training had taken over. He didn't utter a sound. It probably wouldn't have mattered if he had. Silence was the least of his worries.

He needed food.

The slit between the seat top and the storage bin sent light into his little prison. Sometimes he watched the shadows pass, and sometimes he listened to the low hum of the ship. Occasionally the choppy ocean added a rocking rhythm to the ship's gentle forward movement, and gave him something new to concentrate on.

Each time the ship had docked at a small island, he had worried that someone would find him. But so far, no one had.

He had picked a seat storage unit in a back room, thinking no one would use it. The lack of use had been a blessing. He had been able to sneak to the bathroom just off the storage compartment several times without being seen. Each time, he got a little worse: dizzy, unable to stand quickly, but at least he was stretching his cramped muscles. Once, as he peed, he heard another passenger in the corridor, and he hid in one of the stalls until the passenger left. No one else had come close to him.

But he hadn't realized that the lack of use was also a problem. He got bored. He examined the compartment in minute detail to keep himself awake. When he slept, he talked. He had done that since he was a small child. He was afraid of doing it here, and only allowed himself to nap when the slit between the lid and the bin had gone dark.

Sometimes he reviewed the ship's plan in his head, just to keep his memory fresh. A Class-C cruiser was large and capable of carrying three small Vorgellian air shuttles on its main deck. The passengers haunted the upper decks, and the lower decks were reserved for storage and engineering. He was glad the storage was down low. It kept the traffic in this part of the ship to a minimum. He wouldn't be able to sneak out of the storage compartment at all if he were on an upper deck.

He slid an arm to the water stash near his head. At least he brought enough water for the journey. He kept the water in goatskin bladders he had stolen from a house near the port. He had tucked the bladders into his duffel, along with his paints, dance clothes and extra toe shoes. He had hung on to the duffel throughout the entire long trip.

Diate permitted himself a small sigh. Three more days until Rulanda. Then he would have to sneak off the ship and somehow explain his presence to the Rulandan authorities. Maybe they would grant him asylum. They certainly wouldn't send him back. Rulanda was a luxury resort, and would do nothing to offend potential guests. The incident would be hushed and he would be safe until he thought of his next step.

Slowly he brought a goatskin to his lips and sipped the wooden straw he had left in the opening. The water's warmth eased the dryness in his throat, but made his stomach rumble. He had eaten all his rations, even though he had tried to do so sparingly. He had to get food.

He needed a plan.

He had to be careful. This far away from the Kingdom, he might be safe, but he doubted it. The captain could do anything to a stowaway. He had heard stories about the ways stowaways were treated. Most were indentured. Vorgellian captives became little more than servants. If he got caught, he wanted to be indentured because his other choice was worse.

The captain would imprison him, and send him back. Home. To the Kingdom.

The copper stench of blood rose from the house. His father's body, in pieces on the path, led the way like grotesque bread crumbs. His sister, sprawled on the porch, arms and legs extended, and inside, his brothers, his mother, and the baby, eyes open, their blood mingling into the copper river sopping his toe shoes…

He twisted his head, wishing he could move. Wishing he had left the memory behind when he snuck on board the ship. Hard to believe he had come home to that only a week before. Only a week since Myla had tried to warn him, since he had left her dance studio without removing his shoes, since he had run the short distance to his home.

He had been running ever since.

The dance had served him well. It had given him stamina when he thought he would collapse, strength when he needed one more push, agility to crawl into the smallest spaces to hide.

For six days.

When it got dark, he would search the other bins. If he didn't find food there, he would risk going into the kitchen. He had to keep himself awake, and somehow, he had to stretch before that. He had managed to keep the blood flowing in his legs, but the cramping when he stood would be unbearable.

Footsteps outside made him breathe shallowly. He tried to lean farther into the wooden side of the bin as if that would protect him. Splinters pierced his back. A thin trickle of warm blood ran down his skin.

"…do not believe in Kingdom magic," a male voice said behind the creak of the double doors. "It is not a true Talent. It has no biological base."

"Outsiders don't determine Kingdom Talents," a female voice said. "Besides, magic sells as well on Rulanda as music does on Vorgel."

"This is not Rulanda."

The footsteps, ringing on the metal floor, grew closer. The storage bin shook each time a foot went down. Diate thought ships had to be sturdier than this. Didn't the Vorgellians build them to last?

"Then you should have no fear of checking if her predictions were right."

The voices were directly above him. Diate believed in Kingdom magicians. He was six when the Queen's read him. This boy is a great Talent, the magician had said. And within him, he carries the seeds of destruction.

She had been right. He had destroyed his entire family.

The man and woman blocked the light coming in through the slit. The floor creaked, as if someone had shifted weight, and then a hand covered the slit in front of his eye.

The lid flew up and Diate blinked at the brightness. Perfume and musk mingled in the dry air.

"Shit," the man hissed. His slender build and almond eyes marked him as a Vorgellian. His dark, work-stained uniform indicated he was a lesser crew member, not one of the captain's personal staff.

The woman standing beside him was not much older than Diate. She was taller than the Vorgellian, and she wore thigh-high suede boots, tight black pants and a loose, ruffled white shirt. The red caste mark on her right temple marked her as part of the Kingdom. A Trader. With enough power to get a Vorgellian crew to do her bidding.

"Get out," she said. It took Diate a moment to realize that she was talking to him.

Diate pushed himself up on his arm. It shivered beneath him. He sat up, and a wave of dizziness washed over him. He clutched the metal lip of the bin.

Her gaze had already taken in the thin blue lines that marked Diate's forehead. Talents did not stow away on cruise ships. Only runaways did. Runaways whose entire family had been slaughtered.

"Not much of a dancer now, are you, boy? See what a Talent comes to when it mingles with traitors?" She knew who he was. His heart started pounding rapidly.

"My father was not a traitor," Diate said. His voice sounded raspy. It hurt against the back of his throat. He had not spoken in nearly a week.

"No." She crossed her arms in front of her, her light eyes mocking him. "He was a minor Talent. A poet, if I remember right."

"He didn't like what the government was doing to my sister."

The woman shrugged. "She didn't have your gifts. The system can only provide for Talents."

Diate's eyes were finally adjusting to the brightness. The room was smaller than he remembered. The six long, padded seats were spaced evenly apart and on the shiny metal walls hung costumes, clothing and shipboard entertainment packs. Double doors led out on each side, except behind him.

"You know this person?" the Vorgellian asked.

"I know of him," she said. "Remember the documents security gave us when we boarded? He's the missing rebel."

The Vorgellian let air through his teeth and sat on a seat across from Diate. The padding wheezed under the Vorgellian's weight. "We have never had a stowaway. I thought it was not possible."

"The boy's smart," the woman said. "You don't get to his level of proficiency without some kind of brain."

"The captain will not be happy." The Vorgellian stood. "I will bring him here."

He rose, spun on one foot, and marched toward the double doors. He struck them with the heels of both hands, the gesture betraying the anger that his stance had not. The doors swung back and slammed against the outside wall.

Diate's body shook, but the dizziness had retreated a little.

"Get out," the woman repeated.

Her tone brooked no objection. He gripped the edge of the bin so hard the metal dug through his fingers. He took a deep breath and pulled himself forward, willing his body to work as he instructed. His muscles ached, a tight, painful ache he had never felt before. Each movement added to his dizziness. He swung one leg over, then the other, and stood before her.

He was taller than she was. The crown of her head revealed a thousand different hair colors, blending into one. She managed to watch him without tilting her head up. Her nose was small and upturned, her features delicate. With half an effort, he could knock her aside and run.

But he had nowhere to go.

"You realize stowing away violates the International Trade Agreement the Kingdom has with the Vorgellians. You no longer belong in our jurisdiction. You belong in theirs."

Diate had known it. He had hoped he wouldn't get caught.

"But you're a Talent," the woman said. "And I don't think the Kingdom wants to give you up. I'm going to contact the Queen, and see what she wants done with you."

The Queen. Diate closed his eyes. He had been her favorite, even after his father had begun his campaign. She would put her hand on Diate's head and smile at him. You're not crazy like your father, Emilio. You will bring a great glory to my Kingdom. Tearing his body to pieces and leaving those pieces on a path wouldn't be good enough. She would do something else, something even crueler to show the other Talents what happened when one betrayed her.

His knee buckled beneath him and he collapsed on the floor. His body had never betrayed him like this before. Spasms ran through both legs. He leaned forward, clutched the backs of his knees, and stretched. Cries rose in his throat and he stifled them, but he couldn't stop the tears of pain from coursing from his eyes.

"Look how pathetic the rebel's son," the woman said. She watched him for a moment, then walked away. He watched the fringe on her soft boots move to its own personal rhythm. She opened the doors gently, and pulled them quietly shut behind her.

The metal floor was cold. He remained in the pike position for a long time after the spasm left, stretching his body. The ship gave him no more cover. They would search him out, find him, and torture him. He would have to do what they wanted, until he thought of something else.

With an agility he didn't feel, he rolled up, and extended one leg out behind him. He put his knee down, and his other leg forward, stretching his Achilles tendon and his back. He brought his arms up, and his back leg in, feeling the pull on his muscles. They hummed. The tight ache was easing. He was regaining control. He stepped into first position as the door opened.

The Vorgellian who had found him entered, followed by another Vorgellian. The new man was taller and huskier, with a darker suit, darker skin, and the trademark almond eyes. He waited in the door frame.

"The stowaway," the Vorgellian said. His words were clipped. Lillish was not a language he knew well.

The other Vorgellian came into the room. He walked around Diate, grabbing an arm, poking his ribs. Diate did not move under the physical onslaught.

"You are quite thin," the Vorgellian said.

His Lillish was better than his companion's, but it still lacked the flow of a native Kingdom member.

"I would like to eat," Diate said.

"In due time." The Vorgellian nodded to his companion, and spoke in a language Diate did not know. The companion left, closing the door behind him.

The Vorgellian sat on the bench and patted the seat beside him. Diate sat down, wincing as his partially stretched muscles tightened up again. The padding felt soft after those long hours trapped in the bin. The Vorgellian stared at him, and Diate stared back. He had never seen one up close. The Vorgellian's skin was smooth and had no facial hair. His eyes had an extra fold in the outer corners to give them the almond shape. His nose was as delicate as a woman's. Diate had heard Traders complain that Vorgellians were impossible to recognize, impossible to read. But this Vorgellian wore his emotions like a shield. Beneath the curiosity was a lot of sadness.

"What purpose does a Talent have aboard my ship?"

"I am no longer a Talent." Diate worked to say the sentence. Until a week ago, being a Talent had been the greatest joy in his life.

The Vorgellian raised a hand and traced the blue marks on Diate's forehead. The Vorgellian's fingers were warm. "One cannot deny one's self."

The gesture made him tremble. No one had touched him since he found his family. "They murdered"—the words brought back the smell, thick and coppery—"my family. They want to kill me."

The Vorgellian shook his head. "You are their wealth. The Kingdom values wealth. I have read the papers they sent about you. I do not think they wished to harm you until you tried to leave them."

Diate clenched his fists. He could never dance for them again. Each action would have brought back his father's voice. The Talent system destroys people. By elevating Talents, and forcing the rest to a hard-scrabble existence, we are ensuring the downfall of this place. Someday the people will rise up against this oppression. Someday they will understand that the Talents are not their gods, but their destroyers.

"You have disappeared." The Vorgellian's hand slid down to Diate's cheek and then off his face.

Diate started. He was still present. He had no magic powers. Then he understood what the Vorgellian meant. The Vorgellian had seen him get lost in the memory. No one had ever read him so clearly.

"I have no wish to hurt you," the Vorgellian said. "You have suffered enough. I must give you to the Kingdom, but until then, I will treat you well."

A thread of hope mingled with the hunger in Diate's stomach. He swallowed, and forced the hope away. The Vorgellian could not save him. The Vorgellian had taken pity on him in his last days.

"I am Sehan," the Vorgellian said. "Come with me. I will feed you."

***

On the main deck, the cruiser had few corridors. The shuttle bays took up a large area, and the most of the deck remained open to the sky, in case a shuttle needed to take off. Inside, away from the bay, booths lined the walls and chairs dominated the centers. This was where the poorest passengers rode out the trip.

Fake walls separated eating areas from viewing areas. Large portholes that ran the length of the deck reflected the stars and the darkness of the ocean. Diate had never been on a ship. He had traveled between islands on the Kingdom's only shuttle. The darkness extending forever fascinated him.

"You do not realize until you come here how very small we are," Sehan said. "And how very small our problems. The world has a place for all of us. If the Kingdom did not know about you, you would be able to find your place."

A few passengers sat in the booths near the walls. One young man had a large duffel bag tucked under his head like a pillow. His feet hung off the edge of the booth. A woman worked behind a counter, her hair tucked under a hat. Near her, four people sat at a table, talking and laughing. They had clear glasses filled with an amber liquid that Diate had never seen before. As he and Sehan passed beside them, Diate's legs wobbled. The area smelled of stale food, old grease, and spices.

He had never been so hungry in his life.

Sehan clasped his shoulder, keeping Diate upright. "We will take you to a better place," he said.

They walked around the kitchen to an elevator. Sehan pressed a button and a small light went on. Diate gaped at his surroundings. He had only read about this kind of technology. The Kingdom had little of it. Technology was too expensive, and they only cared about imports they could resell. The Vorgellians said the Kingdom members lived in primitive conditions. But the Talents and Traders studied everything from technology to languages, so that they could thrive on other islands. Diate had never learned Vorgellian. His sister had. They figured, between the two of them, they could learn every language in the world.

He had never expected to be alone.

The light went off, and the doors swung open, revealing a box-like room. Sehan stepped in, and Diate did the same. The little room was hot. Sehan pressed another button on the control panel, and the doors swung shut. The elevator rose. Diate's already precarious balance failed him, and he stumbled against the railing lining the walls.

"The body does not like to be cramped in such a small place," Sehan said with a smile.

Diate did not smile back. "Why are you being so nice to me?"

Sehan's smile faded. He clasped his hands behind his back. "In all the years my people have serviced the Kingdom, we have never had a stowaway. Many have tried, and all have failed to board. Except for you. You are smart. You knew how to avoid security, pass the sensors, and where to hide."

Diate thought for a moment about what Sehan said. Respect. Sehan was talking about respect. And he admired Diate—not just Diate's dance.

"Can you help me get away from the Kingdom? They'll kill me, you know."

Sehan did not look at him. "I will do as I can."

The elevator stopped, and Diate stumbled again. No amount of study could prepare him for the odd feelings that accompanied the new technologies. The doors slid open, and Diate had to use the railing to get his balance before following Sehan out.

They stepped into a corridor. It took a minute for him to compare the physical area with the map he had memorized. He was on the fourth deck, the deck filled with luxurious rooms and spacious restaurants. The deck where his sister would have performed, if she had lived.

The air was cooler here, and smelled of processing. The walls were white. The dark blue carpet was thick and plush, and the people who passed them were Vorgellian, but not in uniform. As Diate and Sehan walked down the corridor, they passed doors but no passengers.

His stomach growled, noticing the smell of roasted beef before his mind did. The smell grew stronger as they walked forward. They went up four stairs to an open area, filled with fake plants and wood benches. The restaurant. The one his sister had said convinced her to join the ship.

The room had the same open view of the night sky that the main deck had, only the layout here accented the sight. Four steps down led into a dining area filled with clear tables and chairs. The dishes were clear also, as were the sideboards and the work surfaces. Everything reflected the starry darkness. The people and the food itself were the only solid things in the room.

In the daylight, the restaurant would be light and airy. It would capture the warmth of the sun and the pale blue of the ocean. His sister had said this restaurant was the most beautiful place she had ever seen.

Diate liked the smells better. The roast beef dominated, because it steamed on a plate near the door. But Diate also caught the odors of sautéed onions, mild spices, and Erani coddles. His mouth filled with water, and it took all of his restraint to remain beside Sehan.

Music flowed in the background, soft enough to hide under human speech. The notes were delicate—an ancient harp, Diate guessed, and looked for the source of the sound. A minor Talent sat on a raised platform behind the roast beef, plucking at a harp almost twice her size. Minor Talents thrived on cruise ships. They had captive audiences, and received a living wage for their work. Kara would have danced here, even though their father wanted to stop her. She would have been confined to cruise ships for the rest of her life, making little money and having no family. And she had been willing to do that, to dance.

A wave of dizziness passed through him. Sehan touched Diate's arm, to steady him and to lead him to a table. They sat in a corner away from the beef and the harpist.

The chairs were light, and had the smoothness of plastic. A waiter followed them, and Sehan ordered in Vorgellian. "I have ordered a little of many bland things," he said. "The stomach does not like food after it has been starved. You must reaccustom yourself slowly."

Diate believed his stomach wanted as much food as it could get. But he didn't complain as the waiter set a dish before him covered with rice. The rice had a slight spice to it, and was the most delicious meal Diate had ever eaten.

He felt someone walk up behind him. Sehan's gaze moved up, and Diate turned. The woman wore a flowing silver gown, with bell-like sleeves. The gown covered her feet, and made her look as if she were floating. Her hair matched the gown, and she had a small silver caste mark on the bridge of her nose. The magician. The one who had found him, probably.

"He's not as ferocious as I thought he would be," the magician said.

Sehan sighed. "Sit down, Torrie."

She slid over a chair and perched on its edge like a small china doll. "He was in the Lower A Deck, Storage Compartment D."

"You have spoken to Lanu," Sehan said.

"Of course," Torrie said. She still had not looked directly at Diate. "But I have still unnerved you, haven't I?"

"There are many things in this life that we can not see," Sehan said.

The waiter whisked away Diate's empty plate, and brought him another, filled with a white gruel. He also set a plate filled with bright greens in front of Sehan.

"You need a magician aboard this ship."

Diate stopped eating for a moment. "As a full Talent, you're volunteering?" He couldn't block his question, even though he knew he shouldn't speak. Her actions were unheard of. Full Talents had no need to serve in places like a cruise ship. They were in demand everywhere they went.

"See?" Torrie said without facing Diate. "I told you he is a smart child."

"I am surprised at you, Torrie," Sehan said. "I would think the boy is someone who can help your fight. I thought you admired his father."

"His father is dead."

"Ideals live on."

"With coaxing."

Diate felt as if he could leave the table and no one would miss him. He scraped the last bite of gruel from his dish, surprised to find himself full. The waiter, as if he knew, took the dish away, but did not bring another.

"The boy had a good point." Sehan leaned forward, ignoring his greens. "Why would a full Talent want to serve on my ship?"

"I was not asking for myself," she said. "I know of minor Talents who could serve you well."

"I see," Sehan said. "You wish to test Magicians on my ship, and if the test works, you will try to link more Magicians with navigation."

"I do believe you owe me a favor. You would never have found the boy without me." She stood and nodded to him. "I'll leave you to your dinner now."

Sehan watched her walk away. "I like it better," he said, "when she does me no favors at all."

***

Sehan gave Diate a cabin on the lowest deck, with the new crew members. Diate had stood at the door for a long time, remembering the layout. An elevator down the corridor led to the upper decks. He was as far from the captain and the valued passengers as he could be.

The cabin was small, but seemed roomy after the storage compartment. The walls were white without portholes. A regulation issue bed stood in the center, flanked by two tables. A door leading to a small bathroom opened on the left, and inexpertly done portraits hung on the walls. Diate didn't like all the poorly painted eyes staring at him. He reached up to take one of the paintings down, but found he couldn't dislodge it.

He sat on the edge of the bed and sighed.

The dizziness had faded, replaced by an overwhelming headache. He had to stretch his muscles, then sleep. Sehan promised him food, but decided that it was probably best if Diate did not leave the cabin again. The request seemed odd for Sehan, who had been kind before the magician turned up. Now he acted as if Diate posed a danger to the rest of the ship. He would receive his meals at regular intervals, and Sehan would provide books, if Diate preferred.

He wanted fiction books, which he doubted he would get on a Vorgellian ship. He asked for nothing, just in case they surprised him. He didn't want to lose himself in a fantasy if he only had a few days to live. He needed to spend all of his waking hours on planning an escape.

The fact that he had survived this long was a small miracle. The Kingdom's security guards were ruthless and they had been searching for him. He slipped through the gates at the port by walking at another man's side, as if that man were his father. By comparison, getting on the ship had been easy—he had waited until the Vorgellian maintenance people took their break, and then he walked in the open hatch and ran to the storerooms.

He wished he could thank Kara. The game they had played as he helped her memorize parts of the ship—And where could a slim dancer hide on the main deck? he asked. Storage compartment D, she had answered—had given him a complete knowledge of the cruiser. The only thing he hadn't counted on was a Kingdom member with enough authority to override Vorgellian custom. He had expected, if he had been found, to be sent on a slaver or work as an indentured servant, anything to keep him away from the Kingdom itself.

But his luck had only stretched so far. He couldn't face the Queen. Not after what she had done. Even if she were civil to him, he would want to kill her. When he closed his eyes, he saw his family in their death tableau. He couldn't even remember the sound of his sister's laughter —

The door slid open and Lanu, the Kingdom member who had found him, stood there. Her arms were crossed over her ruffled shirt.

"Much better than a storage compartment, isn't it, boy?"

Diate didn't say anything. His mouth had gone dry. He didn't want her anywhere near him. His aching muscles tensed.

She came in and let the door swing shut behind her. "The cruise ship will stop on Rulanda. You and I will get off there, and take a freighter back to the Kingdom. The Queen wants to see you herself."

"Is she going to kill me?" Diate couldn't stop the words from leaving his mouth. He wasn't sure if he wanted to know the answer.

"She won't let you dance, at least not as a Talent. She won't be able to trust you to travel. And if you can't be a Talent, what's the point of living?"

Diate had never seen anyone with eyes as cold as Lanu's. They chilled him. He made himself sit still, even though he wanted to back as far away from her as he could.

"Well, now that we know what's going to happen," he said, trying not to let his fear into his voice, "you can leave me alone."

"Be nice to me, boy," she said, "because I hold your future."

"Hold it?" He dug his fingers tightly into the bed. The blanket scratched his palms. "You've already decided it. Sehan would give me a second chance. Why won't you?"

She smiled, but the movement didn't warm her eyes. "Sehan is sentimental. I am not. Your kind of courage doesn't impress me, especially when you could have saved your entire family a long time ago. Or don't you remember?"

Diate remembered. He had thought about it ever since the coppery scent hit him near his home. The Queen had made him an offer. If he stopped his father from speaking out, she would give Diate the best post in the industry. His family would have to separate, of course, and vow never to see each other again, so that they would not contaminate each other. But she considered that a small price to pay for the rewards both Diate and the Kingdom would receive.

Diate didn't want his family to separate. They were wonderful together. And his father was harmless.

Or so he had thought.

Lanu smiled, just a little. For the second time that day, he felt as if someone could read his mind. "You see," she said. "You could have prevented it all."

A shiver started inside his stomach that took all of his dancer's strength to control. "Why do you hate me so much?"

She stared at him for a moment, and her smile faded. Then she leaned back against the door. "I am not a Talent," she said. "I have had to work for everything I have, and I will never rise above my station. You could have had it all, boy. For nothing. And you chose to throw it all away for a little bit of loyalty, a little bit of love, things that would not matter to you ten years down the road. I am not fond of Talents, boy. I am even less fond of Talents who give up everything on a whim."

Diate's hands dug deeper in the bed. "What happened to my family was not a whim."

"Wasn't it?" she asked. "Your father didn't think of any of you. He only thought of himself, and his own glory. And you, you fell for it all."

The shiver had traveled through all his muscles. Small spasms played a random pattern across his back. "You hate me because you think I was stupid."

Her smile returned. "Exactly," she said, and let herself out of the room.

The door slammed shut behind her, and Diate released the rigid control with which he held himself. Shakes and tremors ran through him. The spasms in his back traveled to his chest and arms. He flopped on the bed, and felt the rough blanket against his skin.

He hadn't been stupid. He hadn't.

Even though he might have been able to save them.

He should have asked them. It was their choice, not his. And he hadn't said a word.

They wouldn't have wanted him to save them. The cost would have been too great.

The cost was greater than any he ever would have dreamed of.

They would have hated him, but they would have been alive.

They would have been alive.

***

A hand over his mouth pulled him out of a sound sleep. He pushed and thrashed, choking. The blanket wrapped around his legs. The room was dark—so dark that he could see nothing, not even the person who held him in place. The hand over his mouth smelled of leather, a scent that made him think of home. He didn't like to have the comforting smell associated with such terror.

They were going to kill him here. Quickly and violently, like they had killed his family. And they wouldn't even give him the opportunity to beg for his life.

Another hand clamped his shoulder, and a long body leaned against him, pinning him to the bed.

"Quiet. It is me." Sehan's flat, odd accent.

Diate stopped struggling. His heart was pounding against his chest. Sehan wouldn't kill him. Sehan had promised to help him.

"Do not move. Just listen. In fifteen minutes, the shuttle will leave this ship for Golga. It will land in the Port City to deliver some wine we picked up yesterday. I will leave your door open. If you can find your way to the shuttle, then you will have a chance. They hate the Kingdom in Golga, but if you get through and cover that caste mark, you might be okay. It is the best I can do for you. It is all I can do for you. If you get caught, I will deny any knowledge of this. Do you understand?"

Diate swallowed. His throat was dry. He nodded once.

"Good. I will leave. You must count to thirty before you stand up. That way we will not be seen together." Sehan released Diate. "Good luck."

Diate took a deep breath. His mouth hurt from the pressure of Sehan's hand. Sehan slid through the door and left it open. Light from the corridor flooded the room, giving the furniture a gray, almost invisible quality. Diate counted, and did his warm-up stretches. Fifteen minutes was barely enough time to make it to the shuttle bays. Sehan did not make it easy for him.

When he reached thirty, Diate went to the door, and looked both ways. The corridor was empty. A few yards away was a core stairway for staff members. He remembered it from the map he had memorized. He was afraid to try the doors, afraid to wake someone up. But he had never used an elevator, and didn't want to try with time so short.

Finally he passed a door in the right position. He turned the knob and shoved the door open. It revealed a platform that led to a ladder, hidden in a small, circular shaft. Warm air rose, fueled by an invisible breeze. The shaft smelled of oil and plastic. Diate walked to the edge, gripped the ladder, and started up.

He played a march tune in his head, moving his feet and hands in time to the music. The march would keep his movements constant. If he hurried, he had more opportunities to hurt himself, to slip or miss a rung. He tried not to think of the time deadline, but it insinuated itself into the tune in his head.

Step.

Step.

Another minute.

Step.

Step.

Out of time.

The tune repeated itself three times before he reached the top. He yanked open the door on the main level, and found himself in a shuttle bay, like the one the Queen used near her palace in the Kingdom's only city, Tersis. This bay had no windows, only large oversized doors that blocked his entry to the flight deck. Two shuttles were directly in front of him. The third sat in the distance.

Only one had its running lights on, and he hurried over there, as a large bang echoed in the room.

The shuttle's door was open. The pilot reached out and yanked Diate aboard.

"Thought you weren't going to make it, kid," the pilot said.

She pressed the control and the door slid shut. Through the windshield, Diate saw the bay doors rising, revealing the darkness beyond. His heart continued its panicked rhythm. What would have happened to him if the doors had opened when he was outside the shuttle?

The pilot resumed her seat. She was half his size, with delicate hands and ebony skin. Her blue, almond-shaped eyes marked her as Vorgellian.

Of course. Only Vorgellians knew how to operate the shuttles.

"Sit down and strap in," she said.

Diate took the seat beside her and looked for a strap. Finally she reached around and pressed a lever. Two heavy bands of cloth bound his lap and chest, leaving his hands free.

"We got a few hours," she said. "So try to relax."

Relax? How could he relax? He could barely control his breathing. He had escaped the Kingdom twice in one week. And each time, he had gone somewhere worse. He had heard stories of Golga. The Golgoth enjoyed executions. People said the Golgoth laughed while Kingdom members burned alive.

Diate shut his eyes. Sehan believed Diate could pass. Diate hoped Sehan was right.