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The Artemesian Mandate
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ISBN-10: 1-89484-120-4
ISBN-13: 
Genre: Science Fiction
eBook Length: 239 Pages
Published: December 2001



From inside the flap

Vice of men consuming greed, the defense awakens near too late. Hell hound and full moon, what price a demon to defend the light? Book VI in the Chronicles of Nublis Part Three: Nublian Chronicles II - The Felix Trilogy


The Artemesian Mandate (Excerpt)



The Nublis Chronicles


Book Six




The Artemesian Mandate




Prologue

At the end of a hot, humid day, shreds of mist were beginning to rise from the lake. While the men settled the weary horses for the night, the women moved gracefully from one campfire to another, and they sang softly as they prepared the evening meal.


A blond-haired child played tag with his older brother until they rattled into the side of one of the wagons and earned a chiding "Hush" from their mother.


"Hey, Thulia!" It was their father, with two buckets of water in his hands. "Children, take these and stop tearing the place up."


The two small boys took one of the heavy buckets between them, and didn't slop it too much.


Roman chuckled as he watched his sons wrestle their burden over to the wagon.


"A smart one, your youngest. But he'll never have the muscles Mik does."


Thulia's brows knotted. "Maybe not, but Reina's teaching him to read and write. He's learning the cards too."


Roman brushed a russet curl from her shoulder and twisted it lightly around his finger. "And what did the cards say today, my love?"


"Reina wouldn't tell. I drew and she laid them out as usual. After she turned the first one over, she looked at it and put them away."


It was Roman's turn to frown. "What was the card?"


"I didn't see. She's been in her wagon ever since. Doing spells, she says."


"Why? I see nothing to threaten us here."


"Reina's getting old and she sees ghosts behind every tree. She says there's something in the air and that we should pack up and leave tonight."


"There's something in the air, all right. The sound of gold, and I'll not go from here before I heft it in my hand."


"You don't mean...?"


"Aye, Princess. The lord of this estate will be here within the hour. He saw the black colt as we came through the gates and he sent his steward to ask the price."


"The black colt! Oh, Roman. Do you really think...?"


"T'would set us up for the rest of the year. We could rest here for the winter without any need to seek new earnings, and by spring we should have another foal or two."


Thulia caressed her belly. "More than just a foal. You're a potent man, my king, but we have enough sons. This one will be a girl. Children, that's enough! Go wash your faces and get ready for supper."

The pair entered the camp so silently, even the dogs didn't notice them. When they did, instead of barking, the dogs shrank away and hid under the wagons.


In their jackets and boots of gilded leather and with gauntleted gloves on their slender hands, they looked so alike, Roman found it hard to determine which was the father and which the son.


A pair of chilly blue eyes met his. "My steward tells me you won't deal in Synod credits."


"No, my lord. Only gold."


"I see. This horse is a gift for my son. You have the colt's provenance, I assume."


Roman whipped a document from his pocket. "Right here, my lord. His bloodline stretches directly back to the horse of the Prophet."


The nobleman's lip curled slightly. "The way you people tell it, every horse you sell is a blood descendant from that legendary steed. Why should this colt be any different?"


Roman half smiled. "In this case, it's true. I have proof."


"Proof?"


The youngest child crept closer, and watched and listened in his father's shadow, a nervous thumb in his mouth.


"I had a vet do tests. He made pictures of the colt's blood and compared them. Cost me more than a few coins. But I needed to know."


"And...."


"He registered the colt with your central authority. See, here is the proof. He called it a certificate. There's his signature."


While the noble frowned at the document, his son's eyes swept over the child. Then they roved further across the camp, stopping finally on the waiting colt. The noble looked up. Catching his glance, Roman turned his head to see Thulia on the steps of the wagon. She turned quickly and went inside.


The noble's son was halfway across the camp, and he had his hand on the colt's halter when his father spoke. "I'm satisfied. I'll leave you to name him." The youth nodded. After watching his father count out the gold coins into Roman's waiting hands, he gentled the colt. Then he led him away from the camp to where their horses were tethered.

Halfway back to the house, the nobleman said, "There's something I forgot to ask the Romany. Go on and I'll catch up."


Something flared in the youth's eyes, but his soft tone belied his angry look. "I'll wish you a pleasant evening, then."


"I intend it to be."


The noble turned his horse and began wending his way back to the Romany camp through the deepening fog.



Part One


The Awakening



Chapter 1 - A Perfect Evening


It was a peaceful end to a perfect day at La Chasse, the sprawling de Morel estate five miles outside the planet Aretz's bustling capital, Parisia.


Following an excellent dinner, the Countess de Morel wheeled her husband out to the mansion's stone-flagged terrace to look at the full moon. With his hand in hers, the Count listened to the sounds of the night, and reflecting how lucky he was, savored the rose-scented air.


The Countess jumped and startled him out of his reverie.


"What is it, love?"


She gasped, then caught her breath. "Our son just kicked me! Here, give me your hand. There! Can you feel him? Think of it, Felix! He'll be here in just a few short weeks."


As she lumbered to her feet, the Count watched her affectionately. Even before her pregnancy, Mignon de Morel had been on the chubby side, and now, much to her dismay, she was showing signs of a double chin. With her curly black hair, glowing skin and sparkling hazel eyes, she was pretty enough, but her looks were unlikely to last much beyond thirty. However, she was as devoted to Felix as he was to her, and that was all that really mattered to him.


Before his accident, the Count de Morel had his pick of gorgeous, sophisticated and worldly women, but he'd rejected them all in favor of this simple country lass who'd never even seen the inside of a ballroom.


The daughter of one of his tenant farmers, Mignon had known nothing of life beyond the boundaries of La Chasse. However, she possessed great charm and a native wisdom far beyond her years. From the day they met, she talked to Felix in a way no one else dared contemplate. In his opinion, no bubble-headed charmer on the debutante circuit could match her, and even though he'd been known to terrify men twice his age and size, the handsome, brooding Count always did exactly what she told him.


Resigned to the fact that he'd never ride again, Felix had put his great black stallion out to stud soon after the accident. Because of his legendary bloodlines, Lucifer's colts were highly prized by the InterPlanetary Synod's horse racing fraternity and he'd acquired several fine brood mares with the proceeds. La Chasse now had the beginnings of a solid horse-breeding operation, and, somewhat to his surprise, it was becoming one of his most profitable ventures.


While he was nowhere as wealthy or powerful as he'd been in his drug-dealing days, he earned more than enough for his needs from his network of legitimate business enterprises. Since his marriage to Mignon seven months before, he had never been happier, and he continued to maintain La Chasse's thousands of rolling acres intact despite continuing pressure from avaricious commercial developers in nearby Parisia.

In the ancient house's moonlit hall, Felix transferred himself to the waiting chairlift and Mignon handed him his crutches. She then followed him up the stairs. Once he was safely settled in bed, with his crutches within easy reach, she handed him the interactive viewscreen control and awkwardly bent to give him a goodnight kiss. "I really miss being with you. I'll be glad when the baby's here and we can be together again."


As she ruffled his dark hair, the dark blue eyes looking up into hers were regretful. "I miss you too, love. You don't know how much."

Hours later, Felix was awake and restless. He flipped through the viewscreen's offerings, but no program held his interest for more than a few minutes, and he had nothing new to read.


Finally, he decided what he really needed was a glass of milk, and decided to get it himself rather than disturb Mignon or one of the servants. He made it to the bedroom door with no problems. Out in the silent hallway, he swung himself toward the stairs and reached for the lift. He almost made it, until his crutch tip missed the top step.


Lurching, he tried to recover, but the crutch slipped from under his arm. It bounced down the carpeted stairs, hit bottom with a clatter, and skidded across the floor below. Flailing around, he reached for the stair rail, but found only empty air.


At that point, it occurred to him to yell for help, but it was too late. Too startled to even curse, he pitched forward and did a perfect swan dive down the darkened stairway.


As his face hit the foyer's marble floor, cartwheels and constellations exploded in his head. Coming to, he tried to move, but found it too much of an effort. He decided to rest for a moment and closed his eyes, after that, knew nothing more.

Dimly, Mignon's voice penetrated Felix's dream state.


"I don't want you to do that! After lunch, you're to take him out to the terrace for some sun. The therapists will be here at three, then it'll be time to feed him again. We should be back by five. Here are the instructions and a number. The doctor's code is right there. Are you sure you understand everything?"


There was an answering murmur, but he couldn't make out the words.


Then he heard her voice again. "Lucien? Are you ready? We don't want to be late!"


Lucien? Who's Lucien? he wondered.


Blinking, he looked around.


Where in the hell am I? This isn't my bedroom! I've never seen this room in my life.


He started to call out, but his throat was so dry he could barely croak.


High heels clacked, and a door opened and closed.


When he saw the young man staring at him from the open doorway, Felix almost jumped out of his skin. Before he could open his mouth, the stranger gave a sharp exclamation and left, slamming the door behind him.


High heels tapped again, and Mignon rushed into the room.


"Felix! Oh, Felix! I can't believe it! Lucien, call the doctor! He's awake! He's finally awake!"


So I'm awake. Big deal! Should you be running around like that in your condition? And who in the hell is Lucien?


Felix cleared his throat with an effort. "What's going on? And where am I?"


Mignon picked up a spray bottle from the bedside table. "Open your mouth, dear. This'll help."


Whatever it was, it did help, and he tried again. This time with more success. "Mignon. What in the hell's happened? And where am I?"


By now, the young man had joined her, and he was looking at Felix from the end of the bed with a stunned expression.


The Count pointed. "Who's he?"


Tears filled Mignon's hazel eyes, then spilled over. "Oh, Felix! I don't know how to tell you this. You took a terrible fall, and you've been unconscious ever since. This young man is our son Lucien. He was born fifteen years ago. The day after you fell."


"The day after I.... You're telling me I've been out of it for fifteen years, and that Lucien's my son? But it was only yesterday that we were out on the yacht with Timothy, and you and Giuliana were both pregnant."


She shook her head. "They've long since returned to Seira. They have four children now."


"Four? But...."


Then, he really looked at her. Mignon was a little plump and her hair was shorter than he remembered, but she definitely wasn't pregnant.


The door opened again and a pleasant-faced, middle-aged man hurried in. He was followed by a blue-uniformed medical attendant. When the man came closer to the bed and set down his medical bag, Felix recognized him. "Jared Barlow? Didn't you used to be the Duke of Ceila's Medical Attendant?"


"I was. Thanks to Adrian's generosity, I'm now a doctor at the foundation's orthopedic clinic. I happened to be in the neighborhood and came straight up. Your regular doctor's out delivering a baby, but he'll be by later. Now lie back and let me take a look."


Jared beckoned to the medical attendant and handed him a key. "Bring the portable scanner from my truck, and then give me a hand."


Mignon collected herself. "Lucien, I'd better call and cancel. Otherwise, they'll be wondering where we are. You stay with your father and get acquainted while I tell John and the rest of the servants the good news. After I've made my call, I'll be right back."


While the doctor poked and prodded, Felix's eyes met those of his son. Seeing the young man's tears, he felt an unaccustomed pricking at the back of his own eyelids, and he extended his hand. "Well, I'm certainly pleased to meet you, Lucien. I'm only sorry I didn't get to see you grow up."


"Same here... er, Dad. I've been coming in here to see you for my whole life. Mom kept telling me you were going to wake up someday. And now, here you are."


Jared completed his examination. "We're going to get you off this artificial stuff and back to regular food as soon as possible. I'd prefer to take you into the clinic for a few days, but we can take care of you here. I'm leaving the attendant here tonight and I'll ship someone out in the morning to relieve him. Ah, here's the scanner. Now I'll be able to see what's going on. I assume you've been through one of these before."


It was only after Jared had put him through the scanner for the second time that Felix remembered the bullet lodged in his spine. As Jared studied the films, Jared looked questioningly at him, but the Count dropped his eyes. Mindful of the attendant's presence, the doctor said nothing. Then, he remarked, "I assume your wife knows about this."


Felix nodded.


"Well, I see no reason for this to go any further. Do you?" Noting the Count's obvious relief, Jared frowned at the attendant. "If you value your license, nothing you've seen or heard here today is to be repeated outside these four walls. Do I make myself clear?"


By that time, Mignon had returned with the estate steward and his wife. John was a small plump man in his early fifties, and he and his amply-upholstered wife Sada were beaming from ear to ear. They'd known Felix all his life and hugged him like a long-lost son. Which, in a sense, he was.


In the meantime, the doctor took Mignon aside.


Between John and Sada's greetings, Felix tried to make out what Jared and his wife were saying, but their voices were too low for him to hear.


Lucien spoke. "Er, Dad. I have an idea. A friend of mine works for one of the big news stations and they maintain a library of their past shows. If I could borrow some of them for you, you could see what went on while you were out of it. I can probably get you old tabloid stories too. That's if you're interested."


The Count was touched. "That's very thoughtful of you... son. And yes, I'd appreciate it very much. Thank you."


John interrupted, "Speaking of the press, they must have someone on their payroll at the hospital. Your city office just warned us they're on their way. We can stop them at the gate of course, but they're even more determined today than they were fifteen years ago. I wouldn't put it past them to drop someone into the grounds from a flyer."


Felix grimaced. "Well, at least one thing hasn't changed. When they arrive, have them pick one representative and send him or her up here with a camera. If the developers are still pressuring, I may need them on my side."


"Good thought, because they certainly are. But then, you always did know how to manipulate the media."


"If you're going to be interviewed," fussed Sada, "we need to tidy you up. And what about food? You won't be needing this artificial stuff any more." She eyed the viscous white liquid dripping through the tube leading to Felix's chest with obvious disgust.


"That sounds like my cue," remarked the doctor. "For the next few days, the Count should have a clear liquid diet. We'll phase him in gradually to real food and continue the artificial feedings until he's totally switched over. I'll give the attendant my orders just as soon as I've entered my notes. He can go over the diet with you later."


Felix smiled at Mignon. "And now, perhaps, my dear, you'll tell me what room I'm in. This isn't my bedroom, that's for sure, and it certainly looks unfamiliar."


Obviously nervous, she said quickly, "This is the small salon just off the main foyer. I had it redone because I thought it would be easier all around if you were downstairs."


Lucien put an arm around his mother's shoulders. "That's true, Dad. Mom's been getting you up every morning, just as if you were awake, and she's always had the attendants bring you to wherever we were. She said the worst thing would have been to leave you all alone in your room. So she set up a schedule and spent as much time with you as she possibly could."


The Countess smiled. "I could never have done it without the Commercial Clinic's help. In return, I've allowed them to use you as... a research subject. You're one of their most famous case studies."


Felix raised an eyebrow. "Meaning what?"


Seeing his mother's unease, Lucien jumped in, "Different nursing techniques and stimuli to see how you respond. Stuff like that."


"You're pretty protective of your mother, aren't you, Lucien? Who's they?"


"Er, Hugo de Blanc. He's the Commercial Clinic's Head of Research and he's doing a cold sleep study for the Trade League. He observes you and does... um... tests."


"I see. And is this Hugo de Blanc a physician?"


Mignon flushed. "Yes! And he's been very helpful. Hasn't he Lucien?"


A look passed between John and Sada, and Felix caught it. He glanced at Jared, but the doctor's blue eyes remained cool and his face expressionless.


Hmm. I need to know more about this mysterious Hugo de Blanc. The mere mention of his name makes Mignon uncomfortable. Sada and John don't like him and Jared doesn't have much time for him either.


The doorbell's sonorous chime broke the awkward silence and John started. "I'd best go see who that is. I wouldn't put it past the press to have gotten over the wall despite all of our precautions."


Felix heard the front door open and a deep voice sounded in the hall.


A tall man, in his mid-thirties, hurried in with his hands outstretched. Clad in standard surgeon's blue cotton garb, he was well-built and muscular, with golden-blond hair cut fashionably short, and handsome rugged features. Despite the newcomer's broad smile and affable manner though, his unwavering green eyes remained cold as a snake's.


Mignon went to meet him. "Hugo! What are you doing here? Felix, this is Hugo de Blanc." The doctor brushed by her and she stepped back, uncertain.


"Count! This is a momentous day! The moment I heard, I came straight out here. Why, this is absolutely wonderful!"


Felix threw a mindscan at him and the green eyes widened. De Blanc replied almost instantly with a block, but not soon enough. Felix could see the good doctor was far from pleased about his awakening, and when de Blanc's answering probe came squeezing into his head, the Count erected his own shield.


Who in the hell are you? he wondered, and where did you get those kinds of powers?


As he watched their encounter, Lucien's dark-blue eyes mirrored Felix's. Feeling a common bond, the Count nodded his understanding. Then, just for the hell of it, he scanned his son's mind. What he found there gave him pause.


"Speak of the devil," he said, "my wife and son were just talking about you. You are Doctor Hugo de Blanc, I presume. Actually, I'm still trying to absorb the fact that last night was fifteen years ago." Then, he continued gently, "Lucien, will you do me a favor?"


"Sure, Dad. Anything."


"Find me something to wear besides this nightshirt. I'd just as soon look respectable for the press."


Mignon awoke from her daydream. "Oh, honey! Let's get you a comb while we're at it, and a hand mirror too. I'm sorry, sweetheart, I just wasn't thinking!"


Felix eyed her speculatively. Sure you were, dear. But not about me.


Hugo glanced at the table beside the bed. "I see Dr. Barlow's already put you through the scanner! May I see?" When he went to pick up the films, Jared stopped him. "I haven't gone through them myself yet. Just as soon as I'm done, you can look at them all you want." If looks could have killed, de Blanc's would have reduced Jared to a smoking cinder. The older man appeared unconcerned. "I've done all I can here. Count, your regular medic will be by just as soon as he's available, and until then, you may as well rest."


Grabbing the stack of films, he beckoned to the waiting attendant. "You and John help me get the scanner back out to my truck. Then I'll give you some orders." With a nod at Hugo, he extended his hand to Felix. Then he was gone.


When he and Hugo were alone, Felix asked "Who are you really, Doctor?"


The green eyes glinted amusement. "I might well ask you the same question, because you certainly throw a mean mind scan. And I would hazard a guess there's something in your veins besides mortal blood."


"Would you now? And I suppose you came by those particular abilities in school."


"Not exactly. Actually, I come from an ancient wandering people called the Romany. Maybe you've heard of them."


"Vaguely. My father used to allow people like that to camp on the estate. Water diviners, weren't they? They were supposedly the finest horse breeders in the universe, and they could foretell the future. A month after my sixteenth birthday, he bought my stallion, Lucifer, from them. A couple of days later, he told me there'd been a dispute. He said they were caught stealing, and ran them off. They never returned."


Hugo's eyes chilled. "I saw you with your father the day he bought that stallion. Cold and arrogant, you were as tall and thin as he, and in your gilded leathers, you looked as alike as peas in a pod. After the deal was made, the Count returned alone, ostensibly with a question about the horse. A dispute erupted over a woman. She objected to his attentions and her husband flattened the Count. He picked himself up and left, muttering something under his breath. Later that night, something that wasn't mortal came into our camp. I was one of the survivors. The woman in question was my mother. She didn't make it."


A cold shock hit Felix and he didn't know where to look. "I'm... sorry. And I can imagine that you'd have no love for the de Morels. Is that why you're here?"


"Perhaps. Why don't I just say your case intrigued me and leave it at that? Since you're awake now, I'll have to find some other subject. I won't trouble you further and I can find my own way out."


As the doctor turned to go, Mignon hurried in with a bowl in her hands and a towel over her arm. Lucien and Sada were right behind her.


"Oh, Hugo! You're leaving so soon? Why, you've barely had a chance to say hello! Felix, did you say something to him?" Her look was accusing.


With a sidelong glance at the Count, the doctor lifted Mignon's hand to his lips. "He didn't say anything, my dear. I'm late for a meeting and I have to go. May I call you later?"


As the door closed behind him, Lucien remarked, "I don't like that man."


Mignon set down the bowl and fussed around the bed. "Now, Lucien. Dr. de Blanc's been very helpful, and I really don't know why you should dislike him so much. He's always been kind to you."


Sada's snort amused Felix. Evidently, she didn't like Hugo de Blanc either. Has the good doctor been pursuing Mignon? he wondered. Fifteen years was a long time to be without a husband. If she'd looked elsewhere, it was understandable.


"Ruth called while we were upstairs," she continued. "She's coming to see you later. Now we need to get you ready for the press."


Ruth! Officially Mignon's stepmother, she was much more than that to Felix, and he wondered how the intervening years had dealt with her. A witch and a shapechanger, Ruth was actually his grandmother, Isolde. She had fled from her monstrous son before Felix's birth and only returned to the estate, in her present guise, a few months before his marriage to Mignon.

A heavyset woman with a gentle face, intelligent blue eyes and soft brown hair, Ruth came to him after the press had gone and everything had quieted down.


Pulling a chair close to the bed, she took Felix's hand in hers. "Oh, it's so good to have you back. I've missed you so much! I tried to reach you, I don't know how many times. But your spirit was just gone."


He sighed. "My mind's a complete blank, and if there were any dreams, I don't remember a single one. Yesterday, Mignon and I had just returned from a trip on Timothy's yacht. Today, it's fifteen years later. Tell me, Grandmother, what's become of all the people I used to know. Like Julian." At the thought of Nublis's beloved emperor, Ruth's face saddened. "Julian's dead. It happened right after his hundredth birthday celebration. He went peacefully in his sleep. His beloved brother, Cassius, survived him by one day. They were like twins, you know."


"I'm sorry to hear that. He was an incredible person and I'm glad I had a chance to know him."


"He thought a lot of you too, and he left orders with the foundation to give you anything you needed. He came to see you after you fell. Just before he left, he assured me you'd wake up again. He said he'd seen it in a dream, and he was so certain I believed him. Then he sent you a message."


"What was it?"


She looked puzzled. "His exact words were ?Whatever you do, Felix, protect the unicorn.' Until he said that, I didn't think he even knew we had one."


The Count smiled. "When it comes to the Emperor Julian, nothing surprises me. I never told him, but Mignon might have. Did he recognize you?"


"As a matter of fact, he did. And he told me to watch over you. He said he knew the unicorn was safe in his glade because the roses were blooming here on the estate, even though it was winter everywhere else."


"And what of Lucifer? Is he safe too?"


It was her turn to smile. "Oh, Lucifer's fine, and his progeny are winning races all over the Synod. Lucien rides his son, named Morning Star, but we call him Blaze. He's black like his sire, has a white star on his forehead and one white stocking. Lucien schooled him from a colt and they grew up together."


"Now, that I should have liked to have seen."


"Oh, Mignon made videos of everything. There should be one of Lucien training Blaze somewhere. Oh, my, Felix, you do have a lot of catching up to do! Bless your heart."


His voice grew soft. "And Mignon? What of her?"


"She's a faithful wife. But she's been under a lot of pressure lately and not just from that de Blanc fellow. There's a big developer after her too. His name's Frederick Fremont, but he tells everyone to call him Monty. You'll meet him soon enough. Frederick's not stupid and he's made a big thing out of cultivating Lucien. But tell me, Felix, how do you feel about Mignon? She's very different now from the little girl you married. De Blanc, Monty and the past fifteen years have seen to that."


"I hadn't really thought about it. Except I have been noticing how self-assertive she is. But isn't that to be expected? She's had to run the place on her own and make all the decisions, after all. Speaking of which, what's going on with the businesses?"


"Oh, there's no problem there. The day after your accident, John and Sada took over. John had your power of attorney and instructions, he's done a good job. Without him and Sada, Mignon would have had a much rougher time of it. When she went into labor, there wasn't time to fetch the doctor. I delivered Lucien myself. In case you've been wondering, your son has the same powers you do and he's the first de Morel in a thousand years with no demon blood."


"He's also the first one to grow up without an abusive father. Or any father at all, for that matter. Perhaps the gods knew what they were doing when they took me out of his life. Don't they say that abusive parents become that way from having been abused themselves? I certainly was and I have the scars to prove it."


"Yes, Felix, you were. But you were never that way to others. In fact, you'd go out of your way to protect children who'd been abused. Everyone knows that."


"When I wasn't torturing or murdering in the course of business. You reminded me once that I would blow a man away without a second thought, and it was true. I killed so many people in the course of my career, I lost count of my victims. Lest we forget, a couple of them were my own parents."


"But that's all in the past. You're not that way any more."


"Am I not? Tell me, Grandmother, who really knows? Lucien may not have demon blood, but I certainly do. And my past is very much with me. If he did nothing else today, Hugo de Blanc reminded me of that."


Ruth looked out of the window at the darkening sky, and when she heard the distant howl of a wolf, she shivered.