Before her will could crumble, Trevim's half-rebuilt heart stuttered, striking once like a hammer blow in her chest before failing, and the Other abandoned her to oblivion.

For a moment, the adept thought she'd won. Her mind began to fade. But horribly, the victory of death calmed her, and the Other returned, working its relentless miracle to begin repairs again. Trevim knew even as consciousness slipped away that she would reanimate to face these tortures again and again. The symbiant was too powerful, too indomitable and perfect, and her centuries-long conditioning was equally immovable. As she died, Trevim realized that her will, caught between these two indomitable forces, would eventually be destroyed.

Sooner or later, she would relent to Zai.

Senator Rarely had she seen the Senate so full.

Many planets, Vasthold among them, had only a single senator in the Forum. Winner-take-all, it was called. But the majority of the Eighty Worlds sent delegations, proportional representations of their constituencies. The voting strength of each world was weighted according to its taxed economic output, and senators from planets with many representatives subdivided their world's votes. The system had been carefully honed to achieve balance over the centuries, but it made for complex vote tabulation. It also led to a crowded Great Hall on those rare occasions when every senator was present.

They were all here now, to try Nara Oxham for treason.

The Great Forum was a huge, pyramidal hole cut into the granite foundation that underlay the capital. Plaster poured into the empty space would have cast a flat-topped pyramid with steps up its four sides. Each of the major parties claimed one of the triangular staircases, with their leadership clustered at the point down close to the center, and their rank and file arrayed across the wider rows farther up.

The President of the Senate was seated on the Low Dais, a circular riser of marble in the center of the Great Forum's pit. Senator Oxham had seen the old man. Puram Drexler of Fatawa, seated on the ceremonial dais only once before, when he had given her the oath of office. It was strange to think that in a few days, she might be stripped of that office and condemned to death after the votes were counted aloud by the same man.

The Great Forum was lit today with a sharp, unreal light that left no shadows against the gray granite floor. That was for the newseyes, which lined the high lip of the Forum. Senator Oxham allowed herself a moment of second sight, checking the viewership. On Home, the numbers were staggering: Eighty percent of the populace was watching. Even in the antipodal cities, spread from midnight to the early morning hours, a majority were tuned in. Niles had told her that a low-grade translight feed was headed out live through the Imperial entanglement repeater network, and a high-grade recording of this trial would eventually reach every world in the Eighty. The Emperor had never turned Laurent Zai into the martyr he'd wanted, but at least now he had a villain for his war.

The Apparatus had done everything possible to inflate viewership of the Oxham trial. Evidently, they were not afraid of her words.

She would be allowed to speak in her own defense. Senate President Puram Drexler had insisted on the fullest possible interpretation of the tradition of senatorial privilege, turning back the arguments from his own party about the security of the Realm. But even privilege didn't stand up to the hundred-year rule, so a compromise had been forged. Puram held a cut-off switch, in case Oxham mentioned the Emperor's genocide. The shock collar around her throat reminded Nara to watch her words.

Drexler looked a bit pale, there on the Dais. The Apparatus must have briefed him about the nuclear attack the Emperor had proposed, so that Drexler would know when to censor her. Oxham was sure that he had taken deep umbrage at this breach of the Compact, but however much the Emperor's plans had shaken him, Drexler's politics were as gray as the stone of the Great Forum. He would silence her if she hinted at the forbidden subject. Oxham realized ruefully that the pink political parties hadn't contested Drexler's position in decades, considering the presidency to be nothing more than a figurehead. But now the man held her life in his hand.

Roger Niles had shaken his head when these terms had been explained in the second week of preparation for the trial.

"We're finished," he'd said. "If you can't tell them about Legis, it's pointless. Give up and beg for mercy."

"Don't worry, Niles," she had answered. "I've got other secrets to tell." Her counselor had raised his eyebrows at this, but she dared not say more.

The Emperor didn't know about the latest transmission she had received from Laurent, hidden alongside a political report from one Adept Harper Trevim. A Rix prisoner had revealed what the compound mind had learned on Legis: the truth behind the hostage rescue, the symbiant, the Empire itself. The Emperor's Secret was hers.

It didn't matter that Nara Oxham couldn't speak of genocide. She had a better story now. The Apparatus had locked the wrong door.

Senator Drexler opened the trial. He wrapped his withered right hand around the staff of his office, and struck its metal tip against the floor. The sound was amplified, and echoes skittered around the hard stone of the Forum.

"Order," he said. His voice rasped like gravel.

The Great Forum became silent.

"We are here in a matter of blood. A matter of treason."

Nara had left a newsfeed translucent in her second sight, and her own face zoomed up to fill her vision, some distant camera searching for her reaction. She had the disembodied feel of seeing herself in a synesthesia mirror. She blinked the feed away, and reminded herself to stay in the real world. Even her prepared speech was memorized; she wanted no text prompts cluttering her primary sight.

Nara needed to watch the faces of the Senate, rather than worry about how this was playing in the feeds. If she couldn't win her fellow solons over, the impressions of the popular audience could hardly save her.

"Who is the accuser?" Drexler said.

A dead woman rose from the Loyalist benches. A prelate. The Senate had given her special permission to cross the Pale, the first repre-' sentative of the Apparatus ever to do so.

"The Emperor Himself," she said. "With me as His agent."

"And who is the accused?"

"His Majesty's Representative from Vasthold, Senator Nara Oxham." The dead woman pointed as she said the words.

Nara's felt a surge of emotion in the room, and her fingers went to her apathy bracelet automatically. But she forced her hands to her side again. She had already precisely adjusted her empathy. The capital hovered over her, a volatile presence focused on every word spoken here, but its emotions were in check. After weeks of furious calls for immediate revenge, the solemn ritual of a trial had focused the mob into a respectful audience. The people of the capital had long been trained to revere tradition.

The Senate's guard-at-arms strode up to Senator Oxham now. The young man was the only person allowed to carry weapons in the Forum. This was another position Nara has always thought honorary, but which had become suddenly very real.

The man took her arm.

"This one?" the guard asked the prelate.


The guard-at-arms released her, but stayed close, as if Nara might try to run.

"Who will speak in defense of the accused?" Drexler asked, his eyes sweeping the whole of the Senate, daring them to stand against the Emperor.

"I will speak for myself," Nara said. Her own words seemed disembodied, a result of both amplification and the incredible situation. It was hard for Oxham to believe that was she speaking to hundreds of billions, and to history, and that her own life depended on her words.

"Then let this Honorable Senate begin to hear the accusation," Drexler said, and sat on his chair of stone.

The dead prelate rose again, and walked to the fore of the Dais.

"President, Senators, citizens," she began. "The Emperor has been betrayed."

The trial had begun.

The prelate went on, as sonorous and repetitive as prayer. The rit-ual phrases rolled over Nara. all the words of blood oaths and bloody payment for broken promises. The war against death, and of the Emperor's great gift of immortality, all made its suffocating way into the prelate's narrative. Every iota of childhood conditioning was triggered, until even Senator Nara Oxham found herself appalled at what she had done. How dare she break faith with the man who had bested the Old Enemy death?

She steeled herself. Let them play all their cards now. Let them invoke every ancient superstition. The Emperor would fall all the harder when his secret was revealed.

"This woman was called to give the Emperor counsel in time of war."

Finally, the real charges.

"And having taken an oath of secrecy," the prelate continued, "she betrayed the Emperor's War Council. She broke the duly invoked hundred-year rule. Nara Oxham turned traitor."

The proof came next. The Great Forum darkened, and the airscreen above the Low Dais came alive. Puram Drexler would have had to crane his ancient neck to see, so instead he stared out at the audience like an alert teacher whose class was watching a synesthesia lesson.

The Senate listened in solemn silence, although these facts and images had been broadcast throughout the Empire for the last two weeks. In the newsfeeds, of course, each piece of evidence had been reduced by repetition to a single signifier: an image of her and Zai at the party, a few words of warning in her voice, a long shot of the palace's east wing where the War Council met. But here in the Senate, the scale was stretched in the opposite direction. Time slowed to a crawl. Each mark the Oxham/Zai affair had left on the public record now consumed long minutes of explanation. Their first conversation was studied frame by frame like a crime caught fleetingly on a security camera; ten years of short missives were read aloud in the dead prelate's dolorous cadence; quietly made plans were revealed with dramatic flourishes, as if their love had been a conspiracy from the start.

The last few messages between Oxham and the Lynx were read out, having been stripped of privilege by an overwhelming Senate   303 vote a few days ago. Her single-word message, Don't, was associated with Zai's refusal of the blade of error. It was all edited in the name of security, and slanted to make her the aggressor in the relationship. Nara was glad that they weren't going after Laurent. Over the last two weeks, the Apparatus had walked a fine line with the hero Zai. His propaganda image had been weakened, but not destroyed--he was now a once-strong Imperial warrior weakened by the influence of a scheming woman.

Thankfully, Laurent's final message to her was absent from the evidence. Zai's subterfuge had worked. They still didn't know that Nara Oxham had the Emperor's real secret in hand.

The litany went on, slipping into irrelevancies toward the end. Oxham's antiwar bill, the one withdrawn before she'd taken a seat on the council, was revealed. Her old votes in the Senate were isolated and given new significance; the accuser even found sinister components in acts that had passed the legislature unanimously.

And this was simply the opening statement. This slow crawl was the merest outline. The Emperor's accuser apparently planned to present an insuperable mountain of detail over the days ahead. The two hundred minutes of the accusation, half the first day of trial, seemed like years.

Finally, Nara Oxham was called to make her own opening statement.

The Senate President held up his cut-off switch and warned her before she began.

"The secrets of the Realm are sacred, Senator Oxham. Do not attempt to reveal them here in the Great Forum."

"I won't, President Drexler." Of course, the old solon had only been briefed about the Emperor's planned genocide, the issue covered by the hundred-year rule. If Laurent was right, the real secret, the one His Majesty had been willing to murder those millions to protect, was unknown to any person, living or dead, outside the conditioned drones of the Apparatus.

According to the Rix mind's story, even the Apparatus could not to speak of that secret. It brought them pain to hear it mentioned. She hoped that part of the tale was true.

Nara finally understood why the Empire was built on fear and bribes, on intimidation and loyalty conditioning, on the superstitious babble of some pretechnology mystery cult.

It was all because the Empire was built on a lie.

She turned to the Senate, prepared to undo it all.

For a moment Nara couldn't speak. The weight of the Empire's attention was too suffocating. She feared for a moment that she herself might be conditioned, bound from uttering the words by some deeply buried imperative. But she breathed deeply, lightly touched her bracelet for luck, and let the fear pass. Her anxiety was simply anticipation of how this speech would feel empathetically; she was about to take a wild and dangerous ride on the nervous animal that was the Empire.

"President, Senate, citizens," she said. "The dead are dying."

A small cry escaped from the prelate's lips, but there was no other sound in the Great Forum. Drexler hadn't cut her off, she noted with a final touch of relief. Laurent was right: Even the oldest Loyalists didn't know.

"We were made a promise," she continued. "We were told that the Old Enemy had been defeated, that in service to the Emperor we could live forever. But the dead are dying. All of them."

A murmur came from the audience, and Nara felt a snap in her empathy, a sudden disconnect. The rapt attention of the capital city above her had tumbled into confusion.

So soon? she wondered.

A quick check in second sight confirmed that the newsfeeds had gone dark. The Apparatus had cut her off already.


"Are you well?"

The representative of the Plague Axis looked down at his valet/minder. The young initiate had suddenly fallen to the floor, clutching her stomach, a retching noise coming through the speaker of her protective suit. The plagueman knelt and reflexively checked the suit diagnostics across the bottom of her visor.

They read green. He hadn't infected the young dead woman with anything. And certainly the symbiant would have protected her from any disease for days at least. "Can I--"

"Turn it off!" The initiate flailed at the hardscreen upon which they had been watching the trial.

The request puzzled the plagueman, but he turned to mute the wall-sized image of Nara Oxham. Before he could gesture, however, the embattled senator's face was replaced by a slowly spinning shield, the emblem of the Apparatus media censors. The feed from the Great Forum had been silenced at the source.

The initiate's retching noises stopped. She put her hands to her head and groaned the same words several times. "She knows."

The plagueman wished that he could see the initiate's face through her biosuit visor. Here in his own sealed quarters, he wore his usual clothes, and visitors donned anti-contamination suits. The reflective visor over the suffering aspirant's face brought home to him again how dehumanized he must appear when he wore his own suit, how anonymous he was here in the monoculture.

He didn't need to see the woman's face, however, to know she wasn't well, not well at all. That she was one of the risen made her seizure even more alarming.

In synesthesia, he called for the other initiate who shared her minder's duties. There was no response, not even the polite regrets of a busy or sleeping recipient. Just repeated queries that went unheeded. He made calls to the other palace staff he had dealt with, but none of the Apparatus was answering.

Had they all been stricken? The plagueman knew that disease could spread with incredible rapidity here in the monoculture, one of the many weaknesses of these half-people, but such suddenness and simultaneity seemed more like a biological attack than a contagion.

He blinked and looked at the media censor emblem still on the screen. The image had cut off so suddenly, very unlike the Apparatus's usual interventions. He had seen them fade out a newsfeed's audio when necessary, breaking in to interrupt a live interview with a spurious weather emergency or war bulletin. But the Apparatus rarely silenced its opponents so crudely as this. The synesthesia newsfeeds were still down, all of them, and even the gossip channels were blank. What had Oxham been saying before the initiate had collapsed?

"The dead are dying," the plagueman repeated softly.

"Don't!" the young dead woman pleaded, sinking back to the floor. "I can't stand it."

The plagueman rose. "I think you need help," he said. The plagueman quickly put on his biosuit, taking particular care with its fittings in case this was an attack, and gestured for the room to open. The triple-doored airlock began its familiar sequence of hissing noises.

Out in the halls of the Diamond Palace, he immediately encountered another stricken member of the Apparatus, an initiate rising slowly to his feet. The optics in the biosuit visor revealed that his skin was far colder than even a dead man's should be.

"Do you know what's happening?" the plagueman asked.

"She has the Secret," the man said hoarsely, reaching out a shaking hand. "She's telling."

A squadron of the House Guard ran past, live soldiers in full battle armor. They looked unaffected by the strange contagion, and ignored both initiate and Axis representative. Apparently, it wasn't a biological agent, or perhaps the living were immune.

The Axis representative turned to the initiate again, but a chime sounded in his secondary hearing. Perhaps synesthesia was clearing up, he thought with relief. But then he recognized the tone.

The War Council had been summoned.

The plagueman made toward the council chamber, amazed as he shuffled his slow way at the pandemonium that reigned in the usually solemn Diamond Palace. Normal staff seemed physically healthy though panicked, the Apparatus were uniformly paralyzed, and still more soldiers passed in full battle dress. He wondered if the capital had been attacked in some new and strange way, and if there were more assaults yet to come.

House In the southern reaches, the house of Senator Nara Oxham became alert.

It had been pleasurable for the house to watch its mistress on the news these last few weeks. She was here at home so little since the war had started. But now her image had been cut off during her speech, quite suddenly, and without explanation.

Fortunately, the mistress had left strict instructions about what to do in this situation. She had even invoked privilege: The house was to use maximum initiative, ignoring regulations, sparing no expense to carry out these orders. The house had been a trifle amused at the mistress's urgent tone. It had been employing its own initiative for decades now.

First, the house located the special file in its copious memory. It was a tiny thing, only a few thousand bytes of data, stored with the marvelous efficiency of pure text. The house copied this file across its memory, filling every spare nook and cranny with duplicate after duplicate. Over the last century, the house had expanded its mind deep into the mountain on which it stood, to backups in rented space at hundreds of cheap data farms on Home's twelve continents, and into nanocircuitry spread across the snowy tundra surrounding the vast estate. Enough room for quadrillions of copies of the little file.

The house was pleased with this first phase. Even if Home was subjected to a massive nuclear attack, Imperial civilization reduced to glowing ruins, it would be overwhelmingly likely that some future data archaeologist would run across a copy of the file, somewhere.

But there was more to the owner's wishes.

The house sent copies of the file--it was the complete text of the speech she had just been giving, the house noticed--to every news-feed professional on the planet, the messages emanating from thousands of fictitious addresses, bombarding the media with the persistence of a huge mailing campaign. Then the house began calling every possible handphone number on Home in numerical order, and reading the speech to whomever answered and would listen.

The mirror fields with which the house warmed its surface gardens were put to use, blinking the file in antique on-off codes to passing aircraft. An old hardline to its original architects was reactivated, and the blueprint plotters in the firm's offices worldwide began spouting the senator's speech.

With these processes underway, the house fired its missiles.

The house was quite proud of the modifications it had made to the emergency message rockets. They were to be used in case of communication loss, should a guest require vital medical attention during a storm or com blackout. They were small suborbitals, armed with low-band transmitters, useful for lofting above the weather to shout an SOS in a quick burst. The house had increased their range, improving the fuel and adding variable geometry wings that could keep them hopping atop the atmosphere for hours. They blazed into the cold, clear summer sky and headed for the nearest large cities, ready to transmit the speech on the reserved frequencies of weather pagers, burglar alarms, and taxi radios.

The house watched its preparations unfold with humble pleasure. Mistress Oxham should be happy. It had carried out her request with considerable creativity. In a few minutes, the planetary infostructure would be saturated with this tiny document.

With the messaging well underway, the house turned happily to its next project. The snowmelt waterfall that was the principal attraction of the west garden needed reining in.

With the spring thaws, it had become far too noisy.


Nara Oxham gathered her thoughts. She had only the Senate for an audience now. They were lost in confusion, though. Most of them had been tracking the newsfeeds with half their minds, watching instant polls and viewership numbers. Their political reflexes didn't know how to deal with the sudden absence of media.

"Senators," she cried, trying to gather their attention again. "Hear me!"

"Silence her!" came a shriek from the accuser. The dead woman leaped to her feet and took a step toward Oxham.

The Forum buzzed in surprise at this display. Few people had ever seen one of the honored dead raise their voice, much less scream in anguish.

"Order!" proclaimed Drexler. He glared at the accuser, aghast that one of the Emperor's servants would disturb his Senate. "You are within the Pale, Prelate. Take care!"

"These words cannot be spoken!" the prelate cried. "Use the switch!"

Drexler looked at the cutoff in his hand. Nara saw the doubt in him, a sharp discomfort at disobeying the command of an honored dead. But the power of tradition, of senatorial privilege, was greater.

"It is Senator Oxham's turn to speak," he ruled. "Silence yourself, Prelate."

Nara swallowed. Zai had told her that members of the Apparatus would feel pain at the mention of the Secret, but she hadn't realized how frantic the accuser's reaction would be. The dead woman's emotions were suddenly brighter than any in the Forum, a fearful hatred that was animal in its intensity.

Oxham spoke slowly and carefully.

"We were told, Senators, that the symbiant was an immortal coil. We were told that the elevated would live forever. We were lied to."

"No!" the accuser screamed, and leaped toward Nara.

She had never seen a dead woman move so fast. The accuser crossed the granite floor in a few strides, a flash of metal gleaming in one hand.

Nara never saw the rest, although she watched reconstructions later on the newsfeeds. The prelate came at her, knife upraised, a wild assassin trailing black robes. A meter from dealing Oxham a murderous blow, the prelate crumpled to the floor. Shown at the slowest speed, a small puff of smoke could be seen coming from one hand of the guard-at-arms, who had fired a ball of gel filled with metal pellets, a nonlethal but powerful weapon.

At the actual moment of the attack, all Nara Oxham saw was the black-robed woman falling at her feet, and the knife careening across the floor. The blade struck the bottom of the Low Dais and broke, one piece whirling on the granite floor like a spinner in a children's game.

Gasps filled the Forum.

"I move for a recess," the Loyalist Higgs called above the noise.

Oxham realized that this was another attempt to silence her. The prelate's knife hadn't killed her, but with a recess the Emperor would have won a few precious hours. She might never have this audience again.

All eyes turned to Drexler.

"Order," he said, the old voice booming. There was silence in the hall again.

"Let me speak, President," she pleaded. "Bind the accuser," Drexler ordered. "But do not remove her."

The guard moved efficiently, deploying another riot-police device. A bright orange web moved across the prelate, winding through her limbs like a sentient vine. It curled around wrists and ankles, and around her throat. It took up stations at her mouth and covered her eyes.

"No one will disrupt this trial again," Drexler said, "even a senator, or I'll have them bound as well."

The guard stood and looked across the ranks of senators, almost daring them to make a sound. Nara Oxham wondered for a moment where this young guard came from. The Senate guards-at-arms had always seemed so ceremonial, like toy soldiers. But this man moved like a cat.

Nara looked up at Drexler and was startled by what empathy showed her. There was cold fury in the President's heart, a deep blue knot of anger that she could see clearly in her empathic sight. After a moment she grasped the source of his indignation. The most ancient Senate tradition had been broken. For the first time in the history of the realm, violence had been attempted in the Great Forum by an agent of the Emperor.

The Rubicon Pale had been crossed.

And Nara Oxham had gained an ally.

"Continue," the old Loyalist said.

Nara nodded solemnly, trying to ignore the bound and writhing woman at her feet.

"Our beloved Empress was not killed by the Rix. She was already dying, ailing from a slow wasting that stalks every risen person in this empire. Her body was destroyed to conceal the evidence of aging, evidence of the Emperor's lies."

A noise came from Loyalist senators at these words, but Drexler silenced them with an icy glare. Nara could also hear the prelate whimpering at her feet, but the Forum's amplifiers ignored the sound.

The prelate's pain pricked at Oxham's empathy, though. Her words were torture to the dead woman, warring against the conditioning that had kept the Emperor's Secret over the centuries. Nara dialed up her apathy bracelet and continued.

"The risen dead do not live forever. They live less than five hundred subjective years." Even numbed, Nara's empathy felt the burst of confusion among the senators. The Emperor himself was almost seventeen hundred years Absolute.

"This is the true reason for the pilgrimages," she explained. "The dead travel endlessly across the Empire for one reason only: so that the Time Thief will put off their natural deaths. Immortality is a trick of relativity. Outside the royal family, there are no dead who have been risen more than four hundred subjective years."

She gave her audience a moment to absorb this information. It was so simple, really. A parlor trick in the age of common near-lightspeed travel. It was little wonder that the compound mind had discovered it so quickly in the Legis infostructure. The Rix had watched Imperial shipping for decades, searching for weaknesses. They had probably begun to suspect long ago that the pilgrimages harbored some deception. According to Laurent, the invading mind on Legis had entered the Child Empress's body through her medical confidant, and had spotted signs of her aging. The veil of deception had fallen quickly after that. It had all the data on Legis to work with, and the pilgrimage ships' manifests were recorded in great detail by the Apparatus, the subjective age of every elevated subject carefully watched in order to maintain the ruse.

The risen themselves didn't know the real purpose of the pilgrimages. They were doled out as a reward of the afterlife, and, as in everything else, the symbiant made the risen complacent followers of tradition. In their timeless lives, the swift passage of centuries seemed natural.

"The Emperor and the Apparatus have long known the symbiant's true lifespan. When the Apparatus and Court aren't traveling, they use stasis, just as we members of the Senate do in order to live out our terms. But the Child Empress grew tired of the ruse. She realized that despite the Emperor's continuing researches, the symbiant's life would never be extended."

Oxham let her voice dip at the mention of the lost Empress. She was giving a political speech now, riding the emotions of the Forum. Even the Loyalists were beginning to listen; the Reason had always compelled greater love than her brother.

"She had decided to let herself die, and by her death to reveal the lie on which the Empire had been built. Her body began to show signs of aging, and she required a prosthesis to maintain the appearance of health. There were decades left to her, but the Emperor had already put his agents near her on Legis. He planned to conceal her death eventually. To invent an accident or some other obliterating event when the opportunity arose. The Rix simply created that opportunity."

She felt a sense of horror rising in the room. The Apparatus had always presented the Child Empress as the soft side of the wrathful Emperor. It was her name put to pardons and crisis relief. She was the Reason, whose illness had spurred the Emperor's researches. The claim that she had been murdered by her own older brother appalled even the most cynical Secularists.

"Nara Oxham," the President interrupted gently. "These are grave charges, but what do they have to do with your crime?"

She nodded respectfully, grateful that Drexler had allowed her to speak unquestioned for so long.

"To explain, I must bend the hundred-year rule, President."

Drexler's eyes narrowed. He placed the cutoff switch on the dais next to him and said, "Carefully, Senator."

"Captain Laurent Zai has captured the Legis compound mind, which knew the secret," she said. "The Emperor realized that Zai would soon learn it as well. Laurent Zai's life was in danger. I had to warn him, a hero of the realm. That is why I broke the rule."

"And the Emperor sought to use the rule to silence you?"

"Yes, Senator Drexler."

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