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The Wages of Greed
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ISBN-10: 1-89484-115-8
ISBN-13: 
Genre: Science Fiction
eBook Length: 330 Pages
Published: November 2001



From inside the flap

Book three from Nublian Chronicles I - The Julian Trilogy Concubine's son, illegal witch child, consummate trader for a world in bondage. On Nublis he proved his worth. But the prophecy was only that one would be born who might have the strength to endure and end the bondage of a world.



The Wages of Greed (Excerpt)


Prologue


"Your life is over, little flower," said the horseman. As he loosened the gag and removed it, the blue eyes looking up into his were calm and unafraid. They closed and a tear trickled from one of them. But the captive said nothing.


The horseman eyed the glittering earrings and necklaces with disgust, and one by one, he removed them. "You'll have no need of these where you're going. Or perfume either." He carefully detached a silken packet from the golden chain around his prisoner's neck and removed the wrappings.


An immense yellow topaz winked up from his dark palm. "Ah, what's this? She's sent a gift, I see, and a princely one at that. Did she steal it from your father perhaps or conjure it from the air?" He chuckled at his own joke.


The prisoner sighed and replied in the horseman's tongue, "Neither, sir. It was hers and she said to keep it with me always. Are you going to take this from me too?"


By way of answer, the horseman flipped the captive over. Taking a wicked-looking knife from his robes, he severed the bonds holding the delicate wrists and ankles. He took a bundle from his saddlebag. "Quickly. Put these on, before those vultures get ideas and start attacking you for real." A nearby pile of bones bore mute witness that this was no idle threat.


The prisoner took one nervous look at the birds circling overhead and hastily complied.


The horseman grunted. "That's better. We have a way to go before nightfall. Have you ridden before? I can see you haven't. Well, no matter, you'll soon learn."


Without further ado, he picked up the small robed figure and flung it across his saddle bow. Then he mounted. Taking the second horse's leading rein, he began galloping toward the heart of the desert and they soon left the city walls, the ravine, and its circling vultures far behind.


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Chapter 1


The Concubine's Son


Clutching her cloak around her, Thamar crouched in the back of the dimly lit shed and prayed for morning. A scurrying softness against her foot caused her to squeak, and too late, she clapped a hand over her mouth. When booted feet came to the door, she knew she'd been betrayed. Whether out of fear or for the Plutarch's gold, it didn't matter. The end result would be the same.


The chief eunuch held a veil in his hand and he covered her face before allowing the guards inside. Hassan's voice might be gentle as a spring breeze but his slanted eyes were cruel. Thamar knew better than to trust him. "Why did you flee, little one? All you'll find outside your father's house is darkness and misery, and this filthy shed is no fit place for a delicate ornament like you." Taking care not to mark her skin, he bound Thamar's wrists with a silken ribbon, then fastened her elbows to her sides. "Tell me if that's too tight."


She hung her veiled head in silence and he beckoned to the waiting guards. "Bring the man."


When they dragged in the trembling farmer and threw him to the floor, he scrabbled at the embroidered hem of the eunuch's silk robe. "Please, yer honor! I knew nothin' a this!"


"Get your filthy hands off me! Did you behold her face?"


"Yer Honor! I din't even know she was there!"


"Your neighbor says different."


"Arethra?"


"She saw you enter this building last night with a plate of food."


"If I'd a known, I'd a locked 'er in and fetched yer meself."


"You heard about the reward then."


"Me 'n the whole village. If we found the slave, we were gonna share."


Two guards entered with a struggling woman. Despite his fear, the farmer glared up at her from the floor. "Lyin' whore! When the elders find out, they'll stone yer, 'n good riddance te yer!"


The woman's eyes flashed. "I saw 'im bring 'er the food, 'n yesterday, he were dickering wi' Jayco fer a horse 'n cart. Gave 'im a jewel fer it. Said 'e fahnd it in the field 'e were plowin'. Shore he did!"


The eunuch held out a finely wrought ruby earring and she inspected it. "Tis' a match ter the one 'e give Jayco. After he tol' me, Ah crep' behin' the barn ter watch 'n listen."


The eunuch gestured to one of the guards and Thamar closed her eyes with a small moan. Unfortunately, she couldn't close her ears, and when she looked again the farmer's headless spurting trunk twitched at her feet.


Shaking his bloodstained skirts in disgust, the eunuch threw Thamar's remaining earring at the woman, then he strode out of the shed toward a waiting closed litter.


"What abaht the reward?" she shrilled.


His answer was to gesture again as he entered the litter.


When a second guard raised his scimitar, Thamar looked away. In her seventeen years of life, she'd seen plenty of brutality in her father's harem but nothing to equal this. With her hands bound behind her back, she had a hard time scrambling into the litter, and the guards knew better than to touch her. Finally the chief eunuch yanked her inside, and she landed, panting, across his lap.


"Because Lord Azarius loved your mother, he instructed me that no harm was to come to you. Had he not done so, I would have first given you to the guards for their pleasure, then sold you the following morning as a tavern whore. How else did you reward that lying farmer? Did he lay his filthy hands on you?" He ripped the veil from Thamar's face. "Answer me, bitch!"


Hassan had never spoken to her like that before, and her eyes widened in shock. "He did nothing, save offer me food and shelter for the night. I gave him my earring as payment."


"That was all?"


"I swear it."


By now the guards should have cleaned up all traces of Thamar's escapade. If she was lying, the midwife's examination would show it plain.


"Then you have nothing more to fear."


When they arrived at the Plutarch's gilded palace, they came through the front gate, and Thamar and the eunuch alighted in the main courtyard. The courtyard was so brightly lit it might as well have been day. The entire household had been assembled, even the veiled concubines and their servants, and a brazier burned in its center.


Azarius himself waited at the top of the gilded marble steps. "You found her, I see."


"Not for long, I fear. Unless you keep her chained and under guard, she'll run away again."


Beneath his jeweled turban, the Plutarch's blue-green eyes were thoughtful, and he tapped his ample chin with a beringed finger. "Since she's still my favorite daughter, I wouldn't care to see her in chains for the rest of her life. Do you have any other ideas, Hassan?"


"You could chop off one foot."


A gasp from the concubines was quickly stifled, but the lady wife was all smiles.


Azarius frowned. "And ruin her trade value? Surely we can do better than that."


"Oh, I think we can." The eunuch beckoned and two guards appeared holding a small figure between them.


Thamar struggled against her bonds. "No!"


The lady wife's laughter rippled across the silent courtyard. "My lord husband, you are so wise. This ugly little creature has cared for your daughter since her birth and it will be a salutary lesson not soon forgotten."


The Plutarch majestically descended the steps, and one of the guards handed him a padded glove. He put it on and plucked a waiting iron from the brazier. Holding it up, he examined the glowing tip. "Since she's technically a child, you may remove her veil. Thamar, my dear, this is for your own good, and if I catch you closing your eyes, I'll do this twice."


Ignoring her terrified shrieks, one of the guards casually suspended Thamar's maid by her ankles while the other removed her slippers.


The Plutarch chuckled. "The way she's wriggling, you're liable to get burned too. Set her on that step and hold her down." He plunged the iron into the coals to freshen it and beckoned to the eunuch. "Bring her closer."


Nona's screams were the stuff of nightmares, and Thamar would never again be able to stand the odor of frying meat. When the little maid passed out for the second time, the Plutarch straightened his back and stretched. "Carry this creature to Thamar's alcove, give her ointments and painkillers and the services of the physician. And let this be a lesson to all the women of my household." He took a scimitar from one of the guards and raised it above his daughter's head. "You alone are responsible for this, and if you ever run away again," the blade swished down barely missing her face, "I'll chop her feet off entirely. Do I make myself clear?"


Thamar sank to her knees and rested her aching forehead on the marble pavement by his feet. "Yes, honored father."


Satisfied, the Plutarch started mounting the steps and his lady wife hastened after him. The chief eunuch cut the ribbons from Thamar's wrists and released her arms. Then he gently raised her to her feet and held her against him, stroking her back till her choking sobs subsided. He'd feed her a sleeping draft and allow her a couple of days' rest, and after that, her real training would begin.

Spring had come again and Thamar stood on a hill overlooking the largest of her father's factories. Workers boiled out of the iron gates below like a stream of agitated ants, and despite the grinding poverty of their narrow lives, she envied them. If they ever came face to face with her, they would stand with downcast eyes until she had passed. Even their ragged children, on the rare occasions she ever saw them, did the same. Had the wind been blowing from the desert, she might have been able to see the horizon, but today the air was still. A haze of pollution hung over Seira's capital city, and she could barely make out the twinkling lights of the ships rising day and night from Guilliam's busy twin-towered spaceport with their cargoes of finished goods.


When a hand plucked at her sleeve, Thamar's heart leapt into her throat. But it was only Nona.


Severely winded from toiling over the hill after her charge and despite her relief at finding her mistress safe, the tiny maid's voice was sharp. "Yer ter join the Lord Azarius at dinner, and ye know what'll happen if yer late. Please, m'lady."


Thamar turned away with a sigh. "All right, Nona, I'll come for your sake. But if it were just me, I'd run away again. The meanest of my father's workers has it better than I do."


Nona's tone went from fearful to impatient. "M'lady, we'd best hurry. Lord Azarius has special company and ye must be presentable."


She certainly wasn't presentable right now, she thought, as she harried Thamar toward the Plutarch's gilded mansion on the other side of the hill. Combing the snags out of her curly brown hair was going to be a chore by itself and that wouldn't be the half of it.


At eighteen, Thamar was as tall as her mother had been, and she'd inherited her enormous violet eyes, turned-up nose and winsome smile. Where Jerusa had been blessed with The Book of Beauty's ideal milk-white complexion and voluptuous curves, Thamar's skin had a regrettable tendency to turn golden-brown when exposed to the sun and she was as slender as a reed.


To the displeasure of the other women in his household, the Plutarch Azarius was still mourning his favorite. Jerusa had died from a mysterious illness six months before, and to hear him tell it, he'd been making an extraordinary effort to find a wealthy lord for their daughter who'd treat her with kindness and give her a place of honor in his harem.


Pulling her charge by the hand, Nona hastened through the women's gate of the Plutarch's marble mansion, across the courtyard and up the sun-washed steps into the blue-and-gold-tiled harem. Infected by the little maid's anxiety, Thamar pulled her shift over her head the moment they reached her small alcove, then followed her to the bathing cubicles just beyond the flowered swimming pool.


Two concubines lay nearby on matching pillowed couches and one of them yawned as she passed. "He hasn't summoned any of us since Jerusa died, but maybe he will once you're gone. They say you remind him of her and that's why he still grieves."


Thamar's eyes stung at the thought of her gentle mother's face. Unwilling to give those smirking bitches the satisfaction, she choked down her tears and they formed a lump in her throat. When they reached her favorite cubicle with its fanciful mosaics of ocean creatures, Nona handed her a sponge and a vial of cleansing lotion. She scrubbed herself in the scented water streaming from the golden seahorse's mouth and finished with a swim in the flower-strewn pool.


While Nona massaged her with perfumed oil, Thamar brooded about her father's request. "Do you think I can take you with me? That's if he's actually found someone."


"You can always ask, m'lady. Now turn over and let me do yer back."


Thamar impulsively reached up and gave her a hug. "Don't you know how much I love you?"


The little woman humphed and busied herself with the vial of oil. "I took care of Jerusa since I was a wee girl and you from the day you were born. The Lord Azarius fell in love with your mother first time he saw 'er and he could refuse her nowt. When he bought her, she begged him to take me." Nona lowered her voice to a whisper. "The lady wife poisoned your mother, and she loves you no more than she did her. That's why the sooner you're gone from this house the better."

Thamar entered the magnificent banqueting hall with her lute under her arm. Her face and hair were hidden by a golden veil, and tiny bells on her wrists and ankles chimed whenever she moved. Her lightly oiled skin gleamed golden in the shadows of the fretwork lamps, and outside a couple of artfully placed wisps of rosy chiffon, nothing concealed her body's delicate curves.


To the young man on the couch next to the Plutarch's, she was a living sculpture. Azarius' massive features creased into a smile and he beckoned to her with a heavily beringed hand.


"Thamar. This gentleman is Lord Ephraim and the Council of Five has just appointed him our Trade Ambassador to the InterPlanetary Synod. Sit beside him so that he may see how he likes you."


A slave hurried forward with a large velvet cushion and Thamar obediently sank to the floor.


Azarius rumbled on. "Ephraim, this is my favorite daughter. She speaks several languages, can read and cipher, is musically inclined and possesses an impeccable pedigree. Through her mother Jerusa, herself a daughter of the Plutarch Hiram, her bloodline stretches back to the original emperors of Seira."


This one is handsome and he looks kind, thought Thamar.


As the young lord's fingers lifted her veil, she glanced up from under her lashes, guessing him to be under thirty. Unlike the Plutarch, he wore no turban and his blond hair was cropped short in the manner of the merchant captains of the day. Plain in comparison to the Plutarch's lavishly embroidered caftan, his Excellency's cream-colored robes were fashioned from costly Phasgan goat hair, the lines on his handsome face told her he smiled often, and she found the intensity of his blue eyes very appealing. Coming from so young a man, his voice was surprisingly rich and deep, and his faint accent came from some place other than Seira.


"She's quite lovely, Azarius, and a credit to your house."


The Plutarch chuckled. "I take it we have a deal."


"Yes, Azarius, we have a deal."


Thamar looked fearfully up at her father, but much to her relief, the Plutarch's blue-green eyes were twinkling.


"What is it, daughter? You have permission to speak."


"Honored father, there is one thing."


"Yes. Yes. Go on."


"My maid, Nona. She's been with me all my life. I... can she...."


"The little black woman? All right, I'll throw her in as part of the deal. Is that agreeable to you, Ephraim?"


"Of course. Tell me, Thamar, can she cook?"


"Oh, yes, my lord. Nona cooks very well. In fact, she has a whole range of household skills."


"If I'd known that, I'd have charged you something. With that tatty ship and crew of yours, one would take you for a mere vagabond rather than the richest trader in the Synod, and anything's bound to be an improvement over the way you've been living."


Ephraim laughed. "That tatty ship happens to be extremely comfortable and it has some of the finest engines around. I have a fancier one ordered more in keeping with my new station, and my crew may not be the smoothest characters in the Synod, but they're competent and loyal."


"Well, what do you have in the way of a harem? I'd like my daughter to go where she'll have some standing and be treated with respect."


"I've never had the time or inclination to bother with one. Since Thamar will be my only female companion, she'll enjoy all the standing and respect she could possibly want."


It was Azarius's turn to laugh. "No wonder you're so damn rich. You'll be telling me next you have no lady wife either."


"That's an entanglement I can well do without, thank you."


"What about a son? Don't you want an heir?"


"Up to now, I haven't had the slightest urge to duplicate myself. If one of my companions were to give me a son, I'd consider making her my lady wife. So far, that hasn't happened."


"If Thamar were to bear a son, you'd actually consider keeping him?"


"Smothering my newborn son because his mother has the misfortune to be a concubine has always seemed to me a bit extreme."


"Maybe it's just as well you don't have a harem then. It's obvious you've been hanging around with Nublians for far too long, because you're getting to be just like them. Although I must say, Nublis has some of the best-looking women in the Synod. Trouble is, they won't sell them and you almost never find one in the markets. If you ever come across a Nublian girl in your travels, buy her for me. I'll give you forty percent over cost, plus expenses."


"Sixty."


"Forty-five."


"Fifty, plus expenses."


"You drive a hard bargain. All right, fifty it is. Incidentally, where are you going from here?"


"I have to make a side trip to Nublis. My new ship's being delivered and my investment partner just died. His heir's a minor and I need to touch bases with whoever's managing the kid's affairs. After that, I'm going on to the opening of the Synod Assembly session. I need a companion for social events, and Thamar appears to have the right qualifications. However, she'll need a different wardrobe. What she's wearing would cause a sensation, but it'd be entirely the wrong kind."


Azarius beckoned to a hovering slave and whispered in his ear and the man hurried away. "Well, Ephraim, since you're satisfied, I'll draw up a contract in the amount of 30,000 credits. It will stipulate that when you tire of her, you'll return her to me or find her another suitable situation. Thamar's my favorite daughter and I have no wish to see her turned out into the street, used as a gambling wager, or sold as a common whore. Agreed?"


"Agreed. I'm assuming her clothes and personal possessions are included. If not, I'll pay you for them. She and her maid can go over to the ship any time, because I'm departing for Nublis first thing in the morning."


Putting his finger under Thamar's chin, Ephraim turned her face up to his and gave her a light kiss. As his mouth brushed hers, he thought, She tastes of honey.


Azarius raised an eyebrow. "There's a private room next to this one."


"Thanks, but I can wait." He saw Thamar trembling. "Little one, go find your maid and get dressed for traveling. Take anything you want, but be sure to give a list to the harem keeper so I can square it with Azarius. Someone'll take you to the ship and I'll be along later."


After Thamar left, Ephraim reached into a golden dish beside him. "You always did have a way with honeyed lamb, Azarius, and tonight you've outdone yourself. Now what else do you have that might interest me?"

It was midnight by the time Ephraim returned to his ship. Returning the sleepy watchman's salute, he entered the main bay. Then he started for a lavishly carpeted corridor and the quarters where he'd told his second-in-command to house his new acquisition.


Elon intercepted him by the bridge. "Since when are you in the concubine business? Aren't free women good enough for you?"


Ephraim shrugged, till he caught the distress in his friend's eyes. "Come on, ol' buddy, I'll buy you a beer."


"I'm on duty."


Ephraim tapped a nearby intercom. "Galen. Take over. Elon's off duty as of now."


"But -"


"I said NOW!" The younger man muttered something highly uncomplimentary under his breath and his captain grinned. "Been that kind of day, has it?"


"You know how I feel about Seira. The place gives me the friggin' creeps."


"Oh, the place is all right. It's the people running it you object to."


"So do you. And how much longer are we gonna be stuck here anyway?"


"Till our clearances come through and the way I bribed that friggin' harbormaster, he'll probably die richer than me."


"Money! That's all these bastards ever think about. Is there anything on this whore-hoppin' planet that ain't for sale?"


"When I find it, I'll let you know. Incidentally, is that any way to talk about our new employers?"


"Our what?"


"The Council of Five just appointed me their Trade Ambassador to the InterPlanetary Synod Assembly. Henceforth, you will address me as Your Excellency."


Elon didn't dignify that with an answer. "How much?"


"What do you mean, how much?"


"How much are they paying you?"


When Ephraim named the sum, Elon let out a long, low whistle. "Were they part of the deal?"


"Who?"


"The two slaves."


"Er, no."


"Then why in Ephedra's name -"


"I felt like it. Besides, she's prettier than you."


"Who?"


"Azarius' daughter. She can read and cipher, has royal blood, and plays a mean lute."


"Oh sure. And her lute playing's what attracted you."


"Not exactly."


Elon rolled his eyes. "If I'd known you were that hard up.... What are you going to do with her?"


Ephraim clapped an arm around his friend's shoulders. "I didn't think it'd been that long between ports."


"Have you looked at the women on this ship? I mean, really looked."


"What women?"


"Exactly."


"There's plenty of tail in the port. All you need do is walk ten feet in any direction."


"Not that kind of tail."


"Slave flesh. Is it really so different?"


"They can't say no, a free woman can. That's the difference."


"I'll have to think on that over a flagon of Melodian beer."


"Since when do we have Melodian beer?"


"Since now. The Plutarch sent over a case from his private stock."


"That wasn't luggage?"


"Why? Where did you put it?"


"In your quarters."


Ephraim steered them in the direction of his cabin on the upper deck. "Obviously our next port of call."


An hour later, he left Elon dozing in his only easy chair and set out for his original destination.


Just as he reached Thamar's cabin door, a tiny black woman in an enormous red silk turban intercepted him. She seemed anxious and more than a little distracted, and Ephraim was puzzled till he remembered who she was. "You must be Nona. I was about to call on your lady to see whether she's comfortable and if there's anything she needs."


At that, the little creature became openly agitated. "Oh... are you Lord Ephraim? Ah've just got done preparing my lady as best Ah could. Oh dear, this ain't goin' right at all."


He bit back his smile. "What's the problem, Nona? You can tell me."


"Well, Ah'd expected a proper harem with all the facilities, bathin' pools and the like. But there's nothin'. Just a plain bathroom and that's it. There's no harem keeper, no other women, no perfumes, flowers, cosmetics, central wardrobe or jewel box. Well, sir, Ah did me best. But she's just a concubine's daughter and all that stuff's supposed ter be provided."


By now, Ephraim was controlling his mirth with difficulty. "Are you scolding me?"


The little maid's gaze was unflinching but the tremor in her voice betrayed her. "Er... no... well.... Oh, dear! Oh, dear! Ah din't mean... well, it's just not proper, me lord." She put her hands on her small hips, looked up at him defiantly and actually blocked his path.


Even though he could clearly see the poor little thing was almost in tears, Ephraim choked down his laughter and matched her grim expression. "What do you suggest I do? To make it proper, I mean."


"Well, Ah dunno. Ah've never been any place there wasn't a proper harem. Ah ain't a trained keeper and Ah dunno hah to set one up. All Ah em is an ignoran' slave tryin' to look out for ma lady." She began to wail in earnest. "The poor lamb lost her mother. Now she's lost her home, and she don't even hev proper surroundin's no more."


Ephraim decided this had gone quite far enough. "Here's what I'm prepared to do. Right now, I'm going to talk with your lady and see how bad things really are. In the meantime, go to your cabin and get some sleep. Tomorrow, you'll give me a list of whatever your lady requires, and I'll take care of it. Now, let me by!"


"Yes, me lord. Ah'm sorry, me lord. Does this mean Ah'm gonna be punished?"


"Punished? How? Is this something else I need to know?"


"Usually Ah get a whippin'. Sometimes lashes, sometimes a cane. Once the Plutarch burned the bottoms a me feet wi' a hot ahron. Oh dear, Ah shouldna said nuthin'."


"What about your lady? Did they ever punish her like that?"


"Oh, no. When she did somethin', they punished me. She got very upset, 'specially when they burned me feet."


He took her small hands in his. "Why did they burn your feet, Nona? You can tell me."


She began to sob helplessly. "After Thamar's ma died, the lady wife was very cruel, 'n Thamar ran away. When his guards brung 'er back, the Plutarch assembled t'entire household to witness the burnin'. He told her he'd chop 'em off if she ever ran again."


This was Azarius' favorite daughter?


Ephraim let Nona go and gently pushed her in the direction of her cabin. "I won't burn your feet, little one, and you aren't going to be whipped either. Now go get some sleep."


As she disappeared down the hallway, he pushed a button in the wall. The polished wooden door slid open to reveal a spacious silk-paneled room with a set of filmy draperies at its far end. The crimson and rose of the hand-woven carpet were repeated in the brocaded hangings of the elaborately carved bed and a pair of brightly cushioned easy chairs in one corner.


Thamar was in one of the chairs with her feet up. She wore a white gown of translucent muslin and her soft brown hair curled over her shoulders.


Seeing him, she jumped and dropped her book. When she bent to retrieve it, he crossed the room in two strides and took it from her hand.


It was handsomely bound in tooled leather with gilded pages and he looked curiously at the title. "What is this thing? I've never heard of it."


Thamar flushed and lowered her eyes. "The Book of Beauty is a compendium of all the requirements to be a successful concubine. I... I've been trying to learn it so that I can please you, my lord."


Ephraim was leafing through the pages when something caught his eye. After reading the passage through, he hurled the book across the room with a violent epithet.


It bounced off the opposite wall with a thud and fell facedown onto the carpet.


"Forget this filth! I don't want you to ever look at it again. Do you understand me?"


She put an arm in front of her face and shrank back. "Yes, my lord. I understand."


Ephraim abruptly softened his tone. "Thamar, I'll teach you how to please me and pleasure yourself at the same time, and your first lesson will begin here and now." He led her to the waiting bed and started a series of tiny kisses, beginning with her forehead, eyes and mouth. As he worked his patient way down her neck, shoulders and arms, he felt her body begin to relax.


Finally, he went to her feet. "You have very erotic toes," he whispered.


One by one, he took them in his mouth, and she made a small sound in her throat like a cat's purr. Enthralled by the magic of Ephraim's skillful fingers, Thamar felt as if she was sinking into a bath of warm oil, and when he took off his clothes and possessed her, it seemed like the most natural thing in the world.


"This is what I was made for. Oh, please don't stop! Don't ever stop!"


He chuckled softly and caressed her ear with his tongue. "I don't intend to, my sweet, and this is but the first lesson of many. Tomorrow I will teach you some more."


Several hours later, he awoke with his arms around Thamar. She snuggled against him spoon fashion, and as he so often did in the small hours of the morning, Ephraim looked out into the warm darkness and thought about his mother.


She'd been a Plutarch's concubine. With the help of a courageous midwife, she concealed the fact that she'd borne a son and passed him off as a girl till he'd been twelve years old. When it was no longer safe for him to remain in his father's harem, she faked his death and smuggled him to freedom.


Ephraim kept his origins a secret from the Plutarchs, who would have killed him instantly had they known.


On the day he was taken away, he swore a solemn oath he'd someday return to rescue his mother. When a message came telling of her death in childbirth, he fled from his foster-father's desert camp, vowing never to return.


After scratching out a living as a space rat in Guilliam for a couple of months, he hitched a ride on a cargo ship and spent the next few years inching his way up through the ranks of the Trade League's merchant fleet. That had been all he'd expected out of life till he discovered his uncanny aptitude for trading. He found first one mentor, then another, and finally a third, each one richer than the last.


The day he met his partner, Ethan, on the SynoNet had been the real breakthrough. As the two of them chatted back and forth through the ether, they found their interests dovetailed perfectly. Ephraim enjoyed the mobility his mysterious partner lacked and Ethan's superb intelligence network was second to none. Throughout an amicable ten-year association, they easily maintained their reputation of being the luckiest traders in the Synod. When Ethan explained he was a closely held prisoner on Nublis, they set up an elaborately buffered communication system for emergencies. The dreaded signal had just come, and Ephraim opened the letter which was to be read only in the event of his partner's death.


As a frequent visitor to the small planet empire of Nublis and an ardent admirer of its ancient culture, he had no qualms about contacting the guardian of Ethan's young heir. When he called the imperial administrator to whom he'd been referred, he realized instantly this was not the right man. In an effort to be helpful, the obviously puzzled administrator offered to contact a certain Prince Cassius on his behalf. A friend of the boy's family, the prince would undoubtedly have the information he sought.


Ephraim had heard of Prince Cassius. The Emperor Julian's illegitimate half-brother and His Majesty's closest confident, the formidable prince was reputed to be one of the sharpest lawyers in the Synod. If His Imperial Highness was like the rest of the Synod's royalty, there'd be no way he could reach him directly, and he'd taken the administrator up on his offer. As long as he had to stop on Nublis anyway to pick up his new ship, that would be as good a time as any to sort things out.


A knock on the cabin door interrupted his thoughts. "Ephraim? Are you there?"


"What is it?"


"Our clearances came through and Nublis Tower confirmed the delivery of the new ship. She's waiting at Cyrenia's spaceport."


Carefully disengaging himself from the sleeping Thamar, Ephraim retrieved his clothes. As he kissed her, she stirred. Then she mumbled something and settled down again. By the time she awoke, they'd be in deep space and headed for Nublis.