“I had to fight my way past two dozen Dragons to get here,” Casimar said, bending to unbuckle her sandals. “This had better be worth it, boy.”
We stood at a crossroads in the Baris Water Garden, cut off from eavesdroppers and the sounds of the city by a massive evergreen hedge. The water flowing down the path around us was soft and cool, the first rush of snowmelt from the Rose Court and the Upper Gardens. Barefoot, Casimar waded onto the smooth marble with a sigh of pleasure.
“You won’t like what you hear,” I said.
She turned to me, frowning tightly. Between the paleness of her hair and the high collar of her bodice, her face stood out like a chip of mahogany. “Try me.”
“Do you remember Aysun Edom?”
“Of course.” Casimar pressed her fingers against her lips, her single ring—a large square of glass-green stone—glittering blue in the water-light. For a billionaire who owned over half of Akshayavat’s gem trade, her jewelry was rarely remarkable. “He was your lover, as I understand it.”
“Yes... before he was yours.”
“He left me three months ago.” She paused in the center of the path. “I’ll bet he regrets it now.”
“He doesn’t,” I said. She raised one perfectly straight eyebrow; I shrugged and forced my voice level. “He’s dead, Casimar. The Dragons arrested him the moment he could no longer count on your protection.”
The shock didn’t show on her face—nothing ever did—but it lined her voice like silver backing on a glass diamond. “What for?”
“What did those Tourkis bastards arrest him for?”
I shrugged again. “Who knows? It could have been anything.” I remembered standing in his rooms the day after the arrest, remembered the mess of blood and shredded curtains and the overturned contents of his jewelry box. Only one piece was missing—a diamond pendant with Casimar’s name. If she wasn’t entirely to blame for his death, I knew she wasn’t blameless, either.
I shook myself roughly. That was not the path I needed my thoughts to wander. “But that’s not what I’m here to tell you,” I said.
“You think they’ll go after you next.” It wasn’t a question; as the only woman on Akshayavat whom the Tourkis Dragons feared, Casimar was used to requests like the one I was about to make. “You’re probably right.”
“I want your protection, Casimar.”
“I know you do.” Her hand closed over my shoulder, cold and sharp where her ring dug into my flesh. Now that I could see it up close, I realized my error in calling the stone plain; it was a massive, flawless emerald, so rare as to be thought a legend. Just one of many impossibilities, I thought, of which Casimar Altan was fully capable.
“What I don’t know,” she continued, “is why I should give it to you.”
We were completely alone in the Water Garden. Once the last strains of Casimar’s voice faded into the morning air, all was silent except for the wind in the hedges and the faint bubbling of the path. I shivered despite my heavy wool coat; Casimar, despite her bare arms and shoulders, stood like a marble column in the sunlight. Her expression was firm, defiant but merciless.
“Casimar,” I said softly. “What does your protection entail?”
“I can get you off Akshayavat.” I made an involuntary sound of surprise, and she smiled faintly. “I own the only oil field on the planet, Levent. Even the Tourkis System needs to ship their fuel from Ergonath and Banu. I could let you fly away right before their eyes and there’s nothing they could do about it.”
“But where would you send me? And why—?”
“They’re the same question.” Casimar released my shoulder, but I couldn’t tear my eyes from her gray ones. “What have you heard about Juggernaut?”
♦ ♦ ♦
Casimar was born on Sarasvati in the year the Dragons attacked and conquered the nearby orbit of Ergonath. She was five when war broke out between Sarasvati and Tourkis and twelve by the time her planet became another stepping stone between Tourkis and the oil fields of Banu. The Dragons crushed her father’s ship-building business immediately; her mother’s investments protected the family a little longer, until General Kaysura Soner,self-proclaimed “Game Mistress of Tourkis,” set her sights on the house of Altan.
All this, Aysun told me the night he traded my bed for Casimar’s. It wasn’t until two years later, when I met them both at a ball celebrating the Altan Company’s purchase of Juggernaut, that I learned from Casimar just what Kaysura had done.
“It was two hours after sunset,” she said, dabbing wine from Aysun’s lips with a lace handkerchief. We sat on cushions around a low table in one of the Umut Center’s many private dining rooms, Aysun with his head on Casimar’s lap, I with an arm around the waist of a topaz-skinned beauty whose name I never learned. I was a secretary in the office of the Volkan Mine; Casimar was the wealthiest woman on the planet and, as far as the law was concerned, could have sold me and my labor to the highest bidder; yet we ate at the same table and drank the same wine. As far as the Dragons were concerned, there was no difference between us. We both could—and probably eventually would—be disposed of with a single shot through the head.
“I was sleeping at the foot of my parents’ bed when the shots rang out, and I heard a voice calling for the servants to leave the house and the Altan family to assemble in the courtyard.” Casimar sighed—for effect, I thought, since her eyes were coldly dry. “I wish you could have seen our house, Aysun. You would have loved it. It was low and white and sprawling, easily covering the area of the city Gardens. Very few rooms had all four sides enclosed; there were painted silk screens we could set up for privacy, but we could always feel the sun. And the wind.”
Aysun turned and pressed a kiss to Casimar’s knee. I nearly shook with jealousy.
“Anyway,” Casimar continued, “I began to follow Ana and Baba to the yard, but my mother grabbed me around the waist and flung me into her massive cedar clothes chest. I was terrified. I could hear sounds coming from the other rooms, and from the gardens—gunshots, screaming, and one woman’s voice raised above all the others. That was Kaysura, though I didn’t know it then.”
From the way she fell silent and Aysun gently patted her hand, I knew that she still dreamed of that voice.
The entire Altan household was killed that night, not just Casimar’sana and baba but the servants and the family of the Banu trader who slept in the guest rooms. Casimar never knew exactly how they died, but she had a good guess; the Dragons didn’t have time to search for her until dawn.
“The Game-Mistress herself opened my mother’s clothes chest,” Casimar said. “I stared up into the room, hoping Ana had come back for me, and all I could see was her face. I don’t know if the Dragons had started wearing masks by then—I think they probably did. If so, Kaysura had taken hers off. Her face was white like a moth’s wing, very round, with two black holes for eyes. She had something red on her lips... I was young and didn’t understand. I kept wondering why her carmine was dripping down her chin.”
Kaysura had dragged Casimar out into the garden, to a place where three rose hedges made a small courtyard, and forced her to sit on a cold marble bench. She had just fitted her gun beneath Casimar’s jaw when the girl leapt to her feet and bit her hard on the wrist.
“I’d never shown such a vicious side before; my parents would have been horrified. But there was something about Kaysura that terrified me past all reason. My only thought was to get away from her.”
Casimar folded her handkerchief and pensively tucked it up her sleeve. “I didn’t draw blood, but Kaysura howled in pain. She dragged me back up by the ear—by the earring, I should say. I was wearing a pair of diamond studs Baba had bought for me that summer. Kaysura pulled so hard, she tore the earring out.”
From Aysun’s expression, he had heard the story before and knew what was coming. I leaned closer to the table; the topaz girl had long since left my side.
Casimar’s fingers toyed idly with her right ear. In the dim light, I could just make out a knotted scar running down the lobe. “‘You have a strong jaw, girl,’ Kaysura said to me. ‘Let’s see just how strong it is.’ She pried my mouth open with one hand and pushed the diamond earring inside. ‘Let’s see your teeth break that,’ she said. ‘If you can bite that diamond in two before the sun comes over that horizon, I’ll let you go free. If you can’t....’”
I shuddered, and Casimar laughed without humor. “She wasn’t called the Game-Mistress for nothing, Levent.”
“How did you manage to get free?” I asked. “Surely you didn’t break the diamond....”
“Why not?” She popped a grape into her mouth, her white teeth splitting its silky red skin. “I tried hard enough, certainly. Two of my teeth were shattered beyond repair, and I nearly choked on my own blood. But I had two advantages.” She smiled and licked grape juice from her lips. “One was that Kaysura was notoriously inattentive. The second was my other earring. I slipped it into my mouth when she wasn’t looking and used the edge to carve the first stone in half.”
I fell silent, overcome by hatred for Kaysura Soner and all the power-fattened Dragons like her.
Aysun yawned and stretched out on Casimar’s lap like a cat. “What does this have to do with your plans for Juggernaut, dearest?” he asked.
Casimar arched her eyebrows. “Nothing, love, except that it was my first.”
“Your first what?”
“My first Juggernaut. If I’d failed, Tourkis would have destroyed me.”
“And since you won?” I asked softly.
She turned to me, her expression as inscrutable as a Dragon’s mask. “You can’t beat a Juggernaut, Levent. You can only outrun it. Sooner or later, you’ll be crushed beneath its wheels.”
♦ ♦ ♦
“Let me see if I understand this,” I said, folding my arms on Casimar’s desk. “You own the planet, correct?”
“My company has owned Juggernaut for a year and half.” Casimar stood at her office window, staring out at the expanse of black roof tiles. The hem of her skirt was still wet from the Water Garden, but her sandals were laced and her hair combed to perfection. “Unfortunately, the ruling body of Juggernaut is no longer satisfied with that arrangement.”
“They’re trying to escape your control.”
“They’re trying to escape my ownership; I have no control on Juggernaut, at least not the kind a revolution would take from me. The economy of the Tourkis System sleeps safe in my hands, and I doubt even Hazan Kudret wants to steal that.”
“Who’s Hazan Kudret?”
Casimar sighed and sank into the chair behind her desk. “She’s Juggernaut’s governor, and the leader of this asinine resistance.”
“Does she truly think that, with you out of the picture, her planet will stand any chance against Tourkis? The Dragons will eat her alive!”
“Which is exactly why she needs to be stopped.”
Casimar stood and walked to the wall opposite the window, which was covered by a colossal map of the Tourkis System. Starting from the sun at the center, she tapped each of the six planets in turn, saying its name in a tone like the tolling of funeral bells. “Tourkis Prime, Ergonath, Sarasvati, Banu, Akshayavat. Juggernaut.” She flatted her hand across the planet’s blue-black face. “The last free planet, Levent, short of the godforsaken orbit of Vivasvant. Oh, sure, there are pockets of resistance on Akshayavat—there used to be resistance on Banu and Sarasvati as well, though I think the Dragons have burned it all out—but Juggernaut is the last real threat to Tourkis. As long as men may think freely on Juggernaut, men will think freely anywhere; they will know it is possible to hold out, possible to resist.”
“They just shouldn’t resist you, is that it?”
Casimar pressed her forehead against the map so that I couldn’t see her face. “If you want my protection, Levent, this is what you need to do. I will send you from Akshayavat to Juggernaut; you’ll be out of the Dragons’ grip, out of reach of Tourkis. In exchange, I need you to speak with Hazan. Tell her Juggernaut is mine; she cannot buy, bargain, steal, threaten, negotiate, or legislate it out of my possession.” Casimar threw a wry smile over her shoulder. “Hazan would shoot me on sight, but you should be able to get a word in before she pulls the trigger.”
I closed my eyes and lay my head on the crux of my folded arms. I wanted to say yes to Casimar, and not only because I needed her protection. Every word of her argument was true; if Juggernaut denied itself the safety of belonging to Casimar Altan, if it let itself fall into the hands of Tourkis, the Dragons’ power in the Tourkis System would be absolute. Like the fuel-starved orbit of Akshayavat, it would be nearly impossible to escape. Even Casimar would no longer be able to guarantee her protection.
And even if Juggernaut did hold out against Tourkis, even if Hazan Kudret abandoned her own hopeless resistance and let the planet remain in Casimar’s possession, I knew I would not survive another month on Akshayavat.
“Well?” I looked up to find Casimar staring down at me, one hand on her desk, the other tangled in the white waves of her hair. “You’re the only one I trust not to fail me, Levent. Your life depends on it. What do you say?”
I swallowed dryly, licked cracking lips with a desiccated tongue. “Yes—I want to say yes. But Casimar....” I made a weak motion with both hands, like grasping at dust motes in a beam of sunlight. “Akshayavat is my home.”
Casimar shook her head. “Not anymore,” she said, turning again to the window. Off in the distance, a Tourkis flag sent its snaky shadow slithering across the black tile roofs.
♦ ♦ ♦
“What did you do after escaping Kaysura?” I had asked that night at the ball, when the silence became unbearable.
Casimar ran her fingers through Aysun’s long golden curls, her eyes fixed on my face as though she were seeing me for the first time. “I like you, Levent,” she said in a strange, faraway voice. “How is it we haven’t met before? You listen well, and you’ve learned how not to ask the questions you’re really wondering about.”
I glanced at Aysun, hoping for a hint at how to proceed, but his eyes were contentedly closed. “What do you think I’m really wondering about, Altan?”
“Call me Casimar. And I think that what you really want to know is how the thirteen-year-old girl who bit a diamond in half on Kaysura Soner’s command became the thirty-six-year-old woman with enough money to buy a planet directly from its inhabitants. That would be a rude question to ask, don’t you agree?”
I mumbled that I supposed it was and looked down at the bowl of fruit in front of me.
Casimar cleared her throat, following my gaze with an expression that might have been amusement. “When Kaysura let me go, I ran down the street to the house of Tutku. He was an old jeweler, a friend of my mother’s; she had invested in several of his supply routes from Akshayavat. I offered to work for him and he took me in without question. That was how Sarasvati was in the old days; neighbors traded with each other, instead of selling each other to the Dragons for the best possible price.”
“And how did Tutku stay safe from Kaysura?”
Casimar made a face like a woman finding a dead fly in her wine. “Game-Mistress, Levent. He won one of her games, same as I did. I think she made him drink a bottle of vinegar strong enough to dissolve pearls. Anyhow, he passed her test, and if there’s one good thing I can say about Kaysura Soner, it’s that she kept her promises. Tutku and his family were as safe as anyone was on Sarasvati—at least until I was sixteen, when Kaysura got herself blown up in a raid on the Direnç magazine.”
I sat up straight in surprise. “Kaysura died? What happened then?”
“Many things. Most significantly in the long run, they appointed an incompetent fool named Derya Burak as her successor.” She spat into the ashtray in the wall behind her. “Less significantly, Tutku’s hard-earned protection ran out. Derya was at our door in a week, ready to carve our heads off with his belt buckle.”
I winced at the image, provoking a bark of laughter. “Poor Levent,” Casimar sighed. “That would have been cleaner than what Derya actually did. I told you Tutku was a jeweler? Well, he had an apprentice—his name was Bünyamin, and he was the most beautiful boy I have ever seen. Even lovelier than Aysun.”
Aysun stirred at the sound of his name but said nothing.
“At least some of my affection for Bünyamin must have been reciprocated, because he hid me in the chemical storage cabinet in his workroom when Derya raided the house. There was a pressure-release valve in the door, and by balancing on top of the solvent canisters and putting one eye to the valve, I could see into the shop. Bünyamin had just closed the door and shoved a work bench in front of it when Derya burst in, blood beneath his fingernails and a toothy grin plastered across his slack, brainless face. Bünyamin tried to run, but Derya caught him and tied him to a chair with copper wire.”
She took a long drink from her wine goblet; for a moment, I thought she had decided not to share the rest of the story. But she set her glass down heavily and wiped her lips with the back of her hand. “I don’t like to think about what happened next,” she said. “I was spared my parents’ murder, and I didn’t see the bodies of Tutku and his family until later, but everything Derya did to Bünyamin, I remember in perfect detail. He started with the soft pliers, the ones Bünyamin used to clip gold settings. He ended with a diamond-tipped faceter.”
Casimar’s voice wavered, almost imperceptibly; she covered it with another sip of wine. “It took all day. All goddamn day. I think Bünyamin died before sunset—he stopped screaming sometime around noon—but Derya didn’t stop until it was too dark to see anymore.”
A second silence fell, heavier and colder than the first. The only sound came from Aysun’s soft breathing; he had fallen asleep sometime during Casimar’s story.
I looked out the window that covered most of theUmut Center’s western wall. The sun had set several hours before, but the deep purple sky was still empty of stars.
“I lived on the street for almost a year after,” Casimar said softly. “The Dragons knew which of us were strays, which of us they could do anything to and not have to fear the consequences. When Banu fell to Tourkis, and people started talking about Akshayavat as the last free planet, I knew I wanted to come here.”
“Where did you get the money?” I asked, almost afraid to learn the answer.
“Probably not the way you’re thinking. I’d managed to scavenge some jewel scraps from Tutku’s house.” She shrugged, as if pushing a weight off her shoulders. “It didn’t cost much to get to Akshayavat in those days. They hadn’t discovered my oil fields yet. The problem wasn’t getting on Akshayavat; it was getting off.”
“You haven’t gotten off yet, have you?”
“No.” She waved her hand dismissively. “I could if I wanted to, but I don’t. I did a little, at first. Akshayavat was in anarchy—survival of the strongest—men killed each other for bread in the marketplace. But if I could survive the Dragons’ attention on the streets of Gotama, I could easily survive the streets of Baris. I remembered that Tutku had gotten most of his jewels from the mines of Akshayavat, and I began looking for a mining job as soon as I stepped off the ship. I found one within a week. By the end of the month, I was giving orders; by the end of the year, I was practically running the company. Now, I own half the jewel trade on the planet.”
“And that’s how the girl who bit a diamond in half on Kaysura Soner’s command became the woman with enough money to buy a planet.”
“And enough money to leave Akshayavat, if I wanted to.” Suddenly, Casimar slammed her hand palm-down on the table. “Levent,” she said, her voice still deadly soft, “the day the Dragons took over Akshayavat was the worst day of my life—worse than the day Bünyamin was killed, worse than the day I lost my family. That day, I saw the last free planet in the Tourkis System fall into the hands of murderers and torturers. Our last hope was nearly out of reach—a vapid blue-black planet in a distant orbit, inhabited by a handful of rogues and rebels. Yet, I realized eventually, it was hope.”
She smiled wryly at the expanse of sky out the window. “That’s why I bought Juggernaut. That’s why I’d die before I let it go. But you know what?” A new timbre tinted her voice—irony, and disgust. “Even without armies at my command, even if the Dragons decided tomorrow that they didn’t care what I did to their economy so long as they could overrun Juggernaut, they still couldn’t take it. Tourkis may torture and murder her people, but she will never steal their property.”
♦ ♦ ♦
“But it isn’t stealing.” Casimar sighed. “That’s what perplexes me. Hazan actually wants to set herself up for takeover by Tourkis.”
We had reached the edge of the Baris foundation, where the cool green stone of the city streets faded into gray earth and brownish tufts of grass. A mile or so to the south, nestled in a bend of the Pharsin river, the blue marble façade of the Tourkis Docks reared like the head of a ground-burrowing beast. Casimar’s own ship, the Argonaute, was docked in an underground hanger some twenty yards from where we stood.
“Maybe she thinks she can defeat them.”
“Then she’s an idiot as well as a traitor.”
“I thought you didn’t mean to rule Juggernaut,” I said. My valise bumped along the ground, stirring up clouds of dust as I struggled to keep up with Casimar. “Can you be a traitor to a woman who doesn’t rule you?”
Casimar stopped, turned and took my shoulders in a vise-like grip. “Protect my property, Levent. Keep Juggernaut in my hands and out of Tourkis’s. We’ll argue morals and politics when my planet is safe and the Dragons are all frozen in Hell.”
I didn’t want to argue—politics or morals—but before I could say anything, a faint grinding sound stirred the air. Casimar took a step back as the ground opened at our feet, whitish sheets of dust pouring down the walls of a shallow limestone basin. At the bottom, the Argonaute glittered like an iridescent beetle in the rush of sunlight.
“She’s been programmed for Juggernaut for the past two weeks.” Casimar folded her arms and looked down at the ship with an expression of pride. “The main deck’s unlocked; I imagine you can guess the code to get her launched. From there... it’s a twelve -day flight to Juggernaut. Have Hazan send answer in her own ship.”
A yard to my left, the hanger’s limestone wall disappeared behind a flight of cast-iron stairs. I hefted my valise over my shoulder and set my foot on the first step, pausing suddenly as the hollow clang echoed down into the basin.
Casimar half-smiled. “Afraid?”
“Tell me the truth, Casimar.” I glanced at her over my shoulder. “How likely am I to survive this?”
“More likely than you are to survive another month on Akshayavat. Less likely than I am to survive a month trapped in the Volkan Mine.” She shrugged with practiced nonchalance. “If you have anything you want to ask me, I suggest you do it now.”
“Did you really break a diamond in your mouth?”
Her eyebrows shot up, her lips twisted out of the half-smile. For a moment, I thought she wasn’t going to answer.
Then she shrugged again, crossing her arms over her chest and resting her hands on her shoulders. “Do you know where I learned the word ‘Juggernaut’?”
I shook my head.
“It was my father’s pet name for me. When the other children were throwing rocks at wild dogs or sawing through each others’ kite-strings with shards of glass, I would always stand back. Baba said I had a ‘blind and destructive devotion’ to my own safety. My life was my Juggernaut.” Casimar’s hands slid down her arms and clasped at her waist. “Not anymore. It used to be I’d do anything not to die—even bite a diamond in half. Now....” She nodded towards the ship at the bottom of the hanger. “I’ll do anything to stay alive.”
She would have gone herself, I realized. The ship had been programmed for the last two weeks. By the third, she could have talked herself into going. It might have meant her death.
It might still mean mine.
“Goodbye, Levent. Beat this Juggernaut for me, will you?”
I raised a hand in farewell and tried not to wonder why her words send drops of ice dripping down my spine.
The Argonaute was designed to carry up to fifty people; I only needed a suite on the main deck and access to the steering equipment. A type-pad was set into the wall below the massive oculus windshield. There I paused for a moment; only five gears connected the pad to the engine room, too few for the launch code to be ‘Juggernaut.’ After a few seconds’ thought, I typed ‘Aysun’ with an uneasy smile.
The engine roared to life.
I went into the smoking lounge, lit a cigar, and leaned against the seven-foot window. The icy feeling hadn’t left me, and now I knew its source.
You can’t beat a Juggernaut, Levent. You can only outrun it. Sooner or later, you’ll be crushed beneath its wheels.
There was nothing else for me to do. I stood at the window and watched as the purple sky of Akshayavat vanished behind a screen of stars.
♦ ♦ ♦
On the ninth day of my voyage, Juggernaut came into view.
It was a wild planet; I had not realized just how wild. Its oceans, though they covered less area than Akshayavat’s, were a thick, captivating blue-black. The land itself ran in serpentine tendrils through the water, vividly green and red. Storm clouds gathered and retreated; dots of light appeared over cities like flakes of gold in a stream.
By the tenth day, as the Argonaute began preparing itself to enter orbit, I determined that it was programmed to land in Alcor, the capital of the northern continent of Vasudeva. Most of what I knew of the city came from my paperwork at the mines; Alcor was a major importer of diamond-edged saws for its quarries. I recognized it by the gouges in the pale pink rock that made a horseshoe of shadows around the city.
The Argonaute breached Juggernaut’s atmosphere two days later. Soon I was near enough to make out individual holdings—the gray-slate roofs of cities, the red bricks and vibrant green fields of plantations, the miles of cream-white sails that marked harbors and ship-makers. Though Juggernaut’s coal and oil supply was vastly superior to Akshayavat’s, high winds and limited opportunities to refuel along the treacherous shorelines made sailsinfinitely preferable to steam.
Another underground hanger opened in the outskirts of Alcor to receive the Argonaute. Unlike the naked limestone of Akshayavat, the Juggernaut basin was lined with thick wooden boards; a spindly staircase of some pale wood led to the surface. I found no one waiting for me when I stepped out of the ship and wondered, with a sinking heart, whether Casimar’s interference might be unexpected as well as unwelcome.
Fortunately—perhaps—my fears were unfounded. As I reached the top of the staircase and the hanger vanished into the ground behind me, a woman came striding towards me through the rose-colored sand.
“That ship belongs to Casimar Altan,” she said, spitting the name out as though it would leave a bad taste in her mouth. “You must be her excuse for a negotiation.”
“My name is Levent.” She hadn’t shot me on sight—a good sign, by all evaluations—but that didn’t mean she was my ally. I narrowed my eyes, struggling to study her in the excruciatingly bright sun. Juggernaut was thousands of miles farther from Tourkis Sol than Akshayavat, but here the ground itself seemed to capture and emit its own light.
The woman’s clothing heightened my impression of painful brightness. Her loose, full-sleeved shirt was bleached to perfection; the buttons on her vest and trousers glittered like chips of ruby. Despite the dust, I could see my reflection in her boots. Make no mistake, I told myself, this woman could rival Casimar for precision.
“HazanKudret.” She offered her hand with a smile that said she knew what I had been thinking. “I don’t suppose you have a surname, Levent?”
Her face was friendly, but her tone was not. I did not return her smile. “We can’t all be as democratic as Juggernaut, Kudret. Tourkis saw no need to differentiate between common laborers; it’s now a crime for anyone but the most, ah, ‘socially essential’ to use a surname.” I didn’t touch her hand; after a moment, she lowered it. “My mother was a dowser in one of Casimar’s mines.”
Spots of red appeared on Hazan’s bronze cheeks. “Does that Altan bitchtake us for fools? She sends a common laborer in her own ship to negotiate with us?”
I had never struck a woman, but if the governor didn’t change her tone, I was going to put a stain on that record. “Oh, Casimar doesn’t plan to negotiate with you. Nor will she issue an ultimatum. She simply wishes to tell you that the moment you slip her grasp, Tourkis will gather her armies against Juggernaut and crush you the same way she crushed Ergonath, Sarasvati, Banu, and Akshayavat.”
“That’s quite a speech she’s trained her parrot to recite.” I heard the crunch of footsteps behind me, but a pistol had suddenly appeared in Hazan’s hand and I wasn’t about to turn around. “How do you think we should answer, brothers?”
A rumble of voices answered her, too layered for me to make out. Hazan smiled and raised her pistol.
Better to die here than on Akshayavat, I thought, and smiled back. “Casimar says to send your surrender in your own ship.”
“Really?” Hazan raised an eyebrow, stretching the features of her face into a blur of contempt. “Somehow, I doubt she’ll like the look of it.”
Another rumble filled the space below the voices. I glanced over my shoulder and felt my heart drip like acid down to my gut.
Hazan’s ship hovered above the ground, white-sided and thin like a razor’s edge. A painted dragon’s head covered the bow, and a knot of snakes writhed around the stern. A Tourkis flag hung from the hatch cover.
“Traitor,” I spat, as the barrel of Hazan’s pistol landed across the back of my head and the world dissolved into sparks.
♦ ♦ ♦
For one endless second, I couldn’t breathe.
I rolled flailing onto my hands and knees, pushed the wet rock floor away from my face and panted, drinking in air through my mouth. A four-inch string of fire ran down the back of my head. The pain proved I was alive; if I was alive, I must have been breathing.
It would have been nice if I could tell that to my lungs.
Behind me, someone cleared his throat dryly. “Don’t like enclosed spaces?”
I froze, all my weight supported by my wrists and knees, and thought hard about the question. From what I had seen during my frantic breathless roll, I was trapped in a near-pitch room around six steps square. If I stood, I could probably touch the ceiling with a bent arm. It was like being trapped in Casimar’s underground hanger, only infinitely worse because the hanger at least was broad and tall and I knew how close it sat to the surface.
I had never before been in a room with no windows.
Even the deepest of Casimar’s mines had a six-foot wide shaft overhead leading to the surface. I remembered what Casimar had said about her house on Sarasvati where she could always feel the sun; I thought about her hiding in her mother’s cedar clothes chest or trapped in a workroom closet watching Derya Burak torture and kill her sweetheart. No, I didn’t like enclosed spaces—but if a sixteen-year-old Casimar could bear it, so could I.
I sat back on my knees and turned to face the man who had spoken. His coloring was like Hazan’s, a blend of bronze skin and gold-streaked hair that made him look hard and metallic. His eyes were shaded by heavy lids, but from the chain of emeralds around his neck and the general impression of taste his attire conveyed, I guessed them to be deep green.
“How long have I been here?” I asked.
“Fourteen hours, perhaps. I can’t be sure. I’ve been down here with you the entire time.” He smiled, a flash of brilliant white teeth. “You’re lucky Tourkis owns the fastest ships in the System. It’ll probably take them less than a week to negotiate your release.”
“Haven’t you guessed? Hazan is holding you hostage.” His smile flashed again; I wondered where the light was coming from. “We’ll give you your freedom when Casimar gives us ours.”
I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry; from the sounds bubbling in my throat, I was about to do both. Of all my spectacular failures, this attempt at negotiation was certainly my worst—and probably my last. “Better prepare yourselves for disappointment,” I said. “I’m not worth a grain of sand to Casimar, much less a planet.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure about that. Hazan seems to think she holds cards Casimar doesn’t even know are in the deck.”
I inched my way to a wall—since I couldn’t see a door anywhere in the room, I was having trouble deciding back or front—and pressed my shoulders against it, willing my lungs to breathe easy and my heartbeat to slow. My guard didn’t seem to be armed, a fact that both soothed my nerves and gave me the courage to turn the conversation.
“Does Hazan truly think belonging to Casimar in name only is worse than selling her soul to Tourkis in truth?”
The guard laughed—uneasily, I thought, as though he hadn’t been expecting me to say so much. “You’re a laborer without even a surname,” he said in a voice tinged with disdain. “You’re used to belonging to people, aren’t you?”
He sounded uncomfortably like Aysun.. You aren’t a lap-dog, Levent, he’d say. You don’t need to come whenever someone calls. But Aysun was one of the privileged, protected by either his father or Casimar. He never understood the value of being a possession until it was too late.
Tourkis may torture and murder her people, Casimar had said, but she will never steal their property.
I sighed in exasperation. “You have no idea what Tourkis does toher conquered planets, do you?”
His mask slipped for a moment, revealing naked uncertainty; but he recovered quickly. “We’ve been safe so far.”
“Because of Casimar! Because Casimar will murder the entire wealth of the Tourkis System if the Dragons threaten her possessions! All she needs to do is stop selling jewels on Akshayavat and fuel on Sarasvati and ships on Banu. It’d be suicide,” I said, my voice as sinister as I could make it, “but she’d do worse than that to save Juggernaut.”
“Oh.” For the first time, his voice matched the uncertainty I had seen fleetingly exposed on his face. “You... you really think she’d let you die? Just to keep from signing some paperwork?”
“To keep from giving Juggernaut to Tourkis, I know she’d kill me herself.”
Forget uncertainty; the look on his face was naked fear. He turned away from me—trying to hide it, I thought, but then I saw the hairline crack in the wall. “I guess we’ll find out in a week,” he said as he stepped through the door.
I flung myself at the wall after him, but it was already closed. I shut my eyes tight and tried not to think about the darkness.
♦ ♦ ♦
In fact, it was exactly seven days later when the guard returned and told me Casimar Altan had arrived on Juggernaut.
I knew because I had been counting meals and keeping an elaborate tally in my head. Akshayavat ate three meals a day; on Juggernaut, that was upped to four, with a slice of flatbread and fish around midday. This, I calculated, was because Juggernaut’s days were somewhere around four-thirds as long as Akshayavat’s.
In spite of all this, I was both exhausted and starving when the guard dragged me from my cell to a washroom down the corridor and ordered me to prepare myself to meet with Casimar and Hazan.
The water was frigid, the soap as hard as a chip of limestone, but it had a sweet scent my mind could only identify as “sunlight.” Juggernaut’s perpetual brightness seemed to have spread to me, I thought as I looked at myself in the full-length mirror; washed and dressed in fresh linen clothes, I could make Hazan look like a common mine-worker. There was even a chain of topaz with my clothing, picked, I suspected, to match perfectly with my eyes. That, I left where I found it; Aysun had always been fond of gems, but to me, they were a sign of labor rather than luxury.
When I was done dressing, the guard took me up a flight of stairs and out into a street. Alcor felt surprisingly dark without the gleam of reflected sunlight off of windows—one of the few light sources in Baris, where fuel for indoor lighting was a rare indulgence—but I was overwhelmingly grateful for the sight of the sky, even if it was faintly rose-tinged.
We took a steam-powered carriage to a building of black-and-gold marble on the outskirts of the city, not far from the stone quarries and the Argonaute’s hanger. Hazan was waiting for us in the front room, a windowless space about the size of a dining room at the Umut Center. Seated on the floor next to her, legs stretched across the pile of cushions as though nothing in the world was amiss, was Casimar Altan.
“Levent.” She nodded her head in greeting. My heart rose in my throat. Around the perimeter of the room, masked Dragons held blades and pistols at the ready.
My guard, who had taken a mask from somewhere on his person and fitted it over his eyes, prodded me in the back. “I’m sorry,” I whispered to Casimar, kneeling on the cushions beside her.
She ignored me. “Well, Hazan,” she said with a smile like a shard of glass, “you promised me a persuasive argument. I hope this isn’t your excuse for persuasive, because it seems to me Levent did a very poor job of persuading you.”
“I drive a hard bargain.” Hazan crooked a finger at one of the Dragons, who stepped forward and presented her with a long ebony box. I felt an unexplained shudder run down my spine and glanced at Casimar; she sat as still as a statue.
“I’m asking very little of you, really,” Hazancontinued conversationally. “Your name on the bottom of a sheet of paper. You don’t even need to sign in blood—though we’d be happy to let you.” The Dragons made sounds that I interpreted as approval. I wished—more desperately by the second—that I had managed to steal a knife at some point during the last week. “We simply want you to relinquish your hold on Juggernaut.”
“I bought Juggernaut as a land investment,” Casimar said. If she hadn’t been sitting so still, I wouldn’t have known she was terrified. “Why would I give my land away for no reason?”
“Reason?” Hazan flipped back the cover of the box and made a show of examining its contents. Neither Casimar nor I could see what was inside. “Well, at least you’ve stopped worrying over Tourkis. That’s an improvement—don’t you agree, brothers?”
Another rumble of approval. I inched closer to Casimar—whether to protect her or myself, I couldn’t say.
“I haven’t stopped worrying about Tourkis,” Casimar said. “They’ll still destroy you if you give them half a chance. But since you seem to have the self-preservation instinct of a fly in a diamond-spider’s web—”
“Funny you should mention diamonds,” Hazan interrupted. “You see, ever since you’ve refused to negotiate with me, I’ve been studying your history. People tell the most amazing stories. For example....” She lifted something out of the box and held it out for Casimar to examine. “I seem to remember an encounter between you and Derya Burak that centered on one of these.”
“Not me,” Casimar said in a voice that sounded like breaking glass. I glanced over her shoulder and felt suddenly, violently ill. The thing in Hazan’s hands was a diamond-tipped saw.
“No? Well, I wouldn’t dream of putting a stain on that record.”
Four Dragons appeared behind me. I leapt to my feet, fists clenched and raised, but one of their pistols struck me across the forehead. I feel heavily. Two Dragons grabbed my arms and pinned me to the floor; another pair held my legs. Hazan moved to sit at my head, trailing a hot hand down my cheek.
“I hear your little boyfriend screamed for mercy,” she said. I didn’t know if she was talking to me or Casimar; both Aysun and Bünyamin had died at the hands of Tourkis. I snarled in impotent anger, but Hazan’s eyes were no longer on me. “Have you ever wondered, Casimar, what would have happened if you’d simply stepped out of the closet? Would Derya have killed the jeweler’s apprentice quicker and turned his attention to you?”
Casimar gave a strangled cry. Twisting to see between the shoulders of two of my captors, I saw that my emerald-eyed guard was holding a gun to her temple.
“Well, this time you don’t need to wonder.” Hazan seized my hair in one hand and pressed the diamond tip of her saw to the hollow of my throat. It was so sharp, it took me fully a second to realize I was in pain. “It will all stop the moment you let go of Juggernaut.”
And she began to cut.
“No!” Casimar screamed.
Agony—agony I could never have imagined burned through my chest, made my head roll back on Hazan’s lap. I felt hair tearing from my scalp, but it was distant, indirect. Her hand moved steadily, tracing a line of flames down across my stomach, back up along my side and across my ribs. Someone was screaming—I thought it was me, but it could have been Casimar.
All at once, the pain abated, replaced by icy silence. I felt more than heard my labored breathing. Hazan’s hand hovered over my face, the diamond saw-tip throwing radiant light into my eyes.
“Do you surrender?” she asked.
“Yes,” Casimar said, her expression brittle as cold iron.
“You release Juggernaut to us?”
“You will allow us to ally ourselves with Tourkis?”
“Yes, damn it, yes!”
“You won’t declare war—”
Hazan never got to finish her sentence; Casimar began to laugh.
“Oh, no,” she said, her whole body shaking with hideous amusement. “My battle with you is over, Hazan. I can’t beat this Juggernaut, and I’m damn sick of trying to outrun it.”
Turning suddenly, she struck the gun from the hands of her guard. The other Dragons moved as one to stop her, but Hazan waved her hand dismissively.Still laughing, Casimar lifted the gun from the floor and started towards the door.
Dread gave me the strength to move. I lifted my head, my torn neck and shoulders weak with pain. “You can’t do this!” I cried. “Casimar, what are you thinking? Let them kill me! Casimar, don’t you dare—”
“Shut up, Levent.” Hazan’s voice was brittle as iron.
Casimar was still smiling, her eyes on Hazan, as though she hadn’t even heard me. “Give my regards to Tourkis,” she said, “and whoever their Game-Master is today. You’ll get along famously, I’m sure; you deserve each other. Just remember, when you’re licking dust off those shiny black boots of theirs, that you had my protection and you threw it away.”
She turned to me; her eyes softened for a fraction of a second, but her voice remained hard. “Goodbye, Levent. This wasn’t your war to fight. It’s not your fault this... it’s not your fault.”
The door slammed behind her. Hazan didn’t move.
Her breath was hot on my face, her blade still inches from my cheek. Blood ran down my neck and chest, hot and sticky and foul-smelling. I didn’t move.
From somewhere outside the building, a single gunshot cracked the air.
None of us moved.
♦ ♦ ♦
Winter came fast to Vasudeva.
The first snow fell three days after Casimar’s suicide. She had shot herself at the edge of the quarry, and no one had yet braved the white and icy stone to recover her body. The Dragons moved fast, snapping up her mines, her oil fields, her ship yards. Snapping up Juggernaut.
They would have taken the Argonaute, but the ship was gone, its hanger swallowed up in the same snow that had swallowed Casimar. I was glad. Of all the things she owned, it was the only one they couldn’t take.
The Dragons left me to myself, now that I had so flawlessly served my purpose. I stayed in a suite of rooms in the black marble building, thinking about Casimar and Aysun and Akshayavat, eating whenever and whatever my guard fed me. I didn’t know why I bothered—eating, thinking, or living. Once again, I had proven myself worthless. Once again, I had fallen in love with something impossible—with a Juggernaut, though I was learning to hate that word—and it had destroyed me.
Finally, after three weeks spent growing intimately familiar with the four walls of my bedroom, I decided to take a walk.
It was freezing cold; Alcor had no parks, no gardens for me to visit. The Dragons watched me leave with a concentrated boredom that told me they, too, did not expect me to return.
The railroad tracks to the quarry were closed for the season. Ice had frozen between the ties, making a smooth raised pathway that reminded me of the marble walks in the Baris Water Garden. For a moment, I contemplated taking off my shoes and letting the cold kill me that much faster, but I was not as brave as Casimar. I walked down the tracks.
A low wood-and-iron bridge took me across the quarry and into the fields of unmarked snow that stretched endlessly towards the horizon. The world was too bright to look at. I kept my eyes on the slippery track beneath my feet.
You can’t beat a Juggernaut. How true that had turned out to be. Cruelty fed on cruelty, power fed on power, fear fed on fear—but resistance was finite. You could only run until you ran out of places to run to.
“There’s nowhere left,” I said to the empty fields. “There’s nowhere left to go.”
In the snow at my feet, something sparkled.
I kicked the ice away and stared down at the thing. It was a diamond—not bort shards fallen from a train car but a cut jewel. I picked it up, felt its balance in my palm. The cutting was amateur but by no means shoddy—it was the work of an apprentice learning from a skilled master.
The thought leapt unbidden to my mind; how much had Casimar remembered from her years in Tutku’s house?
I cleared snow from a wider patch of ground. There, about a yard from the track, a ruby glinted in the sunlight. It had been shaped by the same artist. A few more steps, and I found a yellow sapphire; another yard, a cat’s-eye chrysoberyl. The trail lead me through the snow to a small clump of shadows I hadn’t noticed before.
The shadows proved to be a grove of trees. Within, the ground was dark and bare of snow. A few more jewels lay scattered about; I recognized the paler circle of earth beneath them as the entrance to an underground hanger.
“Brilliant, Casimar,” I said aloud. My heart sang eagerly in my chest. “Now how the hell do I open it?”
Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a line of scratches in the pale bark of a tree. It took me only a moment to recognize the dark shape in its roots as the gun Casimar had struck from a Dragon’s hands.
I squinted to read the writing, and smiled uncontrollably when I realized what it said.
At the sound of my voice, a grinding noise filled the air and the roof lifted away from the underground hanger.
The Argonaute was inside, a bit battered from what must have been a two-week journey and self-piloted landing. The doors on the main deck were unlocked and the corridors empty. In the steering room, on the type-pad beneath the windshield, I found a note in Casimar’s handwriting.
I’ve been wrong to run, it said. I’ve been wrong to ask others to fight my wars. I thought I could protect what was mine, but I realize now that the only way to win is to not protect. It is time to stop running and start to fight. Vivasvant is a wild, dangerous planet—the perfect place to start a rebellion. Will you follow me, Levent? I’m asking; the choice is yours. As for me, this is the last time I will ever run.
The note was signed Juggernaut.
I stood there for a moment, looking at the hard, unyielding letters. I thought of the hand that had shaped them, the hand that had shaped diamonds. Slowly, I typed my answer into the keypad. I will.
The engine roared to life.
You can’t beat a Juggernaut, I thought, standing at the oculus windshield and watching as the snow-blanketed ground dropped away beneath me. Sooner or later, we will crush them.
The stars sparkled like a chain of diamonds around me. Below me, the serpentine face of Juggernaut vanished beneath clouds of dust.
“Sooner or later,” I said to the stars, “we will be free.”
Along with "Juggernaut," we have several special things for BCS Science Fantasy Month:
Read a Special BCS Science-Fantasy Month Interview with Megan Arkenberg
Enter to Win a Signed George R.R. Martin Science-Fantasy Anthology