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Author: Catherine Asaro
Publisher: Tor, 2003
Series: The Saga of the Skolian Empire: Book 9
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
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The Birth of an Empire

Skyfall goes back to the very roots of Skolia, showing how a chance meeting on a backwater planet forges a vast interstellar empire. Eldrinson, a provincial ruler on a primitive planet, is plagued by inner demons. But when he meets Roca, a beautiful and mysterious woman from the stars, he whisks her away to his mountain retreat, inadvertently starting a great interstellar war, and birthing the next generation of rulers for the Skolian Empire.




Her son was going to start a war.

Roca paced in the starport lobby, trying to ignore the hail that battered the glass wall to her left. Outside, a storm raged in the night. She felt like raging herself. She had eluded her bodyguards and escaped their trap, only to be caught on this backwater world by something as absurd as the weather. Most ports could easily operate under such conditions, but this one gave new meaning to the word "dilapidated." All ships were grounded until the storm cleared. If she could have used normal travel lines, she wouldn't have had to come through here, but the same modernization that made most ports so convenient also made it that much easier for Kurj's guards to catch her.


Her son.

Roca stopped at the window and pressed her palms against the glass as she stared into the storm. Its driving force reminded her of Kurj. Strangers often assumed he was her uncle or a much older brother, but in fact he was her firstborn son, her sole child. Although he was only thirty-five, he had already become a modern-day warlord, commander of the J-Force in the military. He had earned his rank by being the smartest, hardest, most versatile pilot in the J-Force. Roca had no doubt he did his job well, but neither the ambition nor the aggression that drove him were moderated by the wisdom of age.

Restless, she paced to a waist-high column with a holo above it that listed departures. No ships were leaving, not even freighters. The reports scrolling below the display predicted the storm would last for days. She couldn't believe that, in this progressive age, such an ancient problem could stop a port from sending out vessels.

Thunder cracked and a burst of rain pounded the window-wall behind her, as if to mock her thoughts. Frustrated, she crossed her arms. She had to get off this world. Soon. If her layover lasted much longer, she would miss the upcoming session of the Assembly. Her presence there shouldn't have mattered; Kurj had her proxy to cast her votes.

But it did matter.

In this session, the Assembly would vote on whether or not to invade the Platinum Sectors. Roca's people claimed that region in space, which abounded with ore-rich asteroids, but the Eubian Traders had taken control of it and refused to negotiate.

Roca wished now she had stayed on Parthonia, the world where the Assembly met. But it hadn't been unusual when she received an invitation to the inauguration of a premier on the world Irendela. As Foreign Affairs Councilor, she often represented the Assembly at such events. This wasn't the first time she had asked Kurj to cast her votes; he attended almost every session, more than her parents even, and though she and Kurj didn't agree on some issues, she had always trusted him. He was, after all, her son.

She wasn't certain what had made her suspect Kurj arranged the invitation so she would miss the upcoming Assembly session. She had no reason to believe he could have foreseen that the Irendela premier would request Roca stay longer to help mediate a political dispute. Whatever spurred her intuition, she had delved deeper into the tangle of links between Irendela and Parthonia. Her son had left no hard evidence, but she recognized his methods; he had deliberately manipulated events on Irendela to delay her return. He wanted her to miss the Assembly session because he intended to cast her votes for instead of against the invasion. To cast them herself, she had to appear in person; Kurj could block any web signal she used. And with the ballot so close, her votes could be the deciding factor.

Now, after all her work to escape Irendela, she was stuck. How could it be that she lived in one of the greatest interstellar civilizations ever known and she couldn't find a single ship out of here? If she didn't reach the Assembly in time, her son would start a war their people could never win.

Lost in thought, Roca just barely noticed the man headed toward her, his gaze downcast, his manner preoccupied. In the same instant she dodged out of his path, he looked up, saw her, and jumped to the side. They ran smack into each other.

Roca stumbled back, her face heating. "My apologies."

The man stared at her, a flush spreading across his face. "I'm terribly sorry."

She managed to smile. "Please don't be."

He cleared his throat. "I'm always clumsy around gorgeous women." Then he winced at his own words.

Roca shifted her weight. "Thank you." She knew she sounded chilly, but she had never been good at moderating her tone when she felt ill-at-ease. Alone here, with no bodyguards, she had lost the sense of emotional insulation she usually experienced.

However, she was also an empath. The fellow's mood was so strong, it came through the mental barriers she raised to protect her thoughts and respect the privacy of others. He felt mortified by his statement, convinced he sounded like an idiot.

"It's all right," she added, trying for more warmth.

He hesitated. "You look familiar. Do you act in holovids?"

Roca answered quickly. "I used to be a dancer." She hoped he hadn't realized her actual identity. Although it wasn't a secret, she preferred it kept quiet. Now, on her own, she particularly didn't want to be recognized. But perhaps her assumed identity as a performer would sidetrack him.

"The Parthonia Royal Ballet!" He snapped his fingers. "Of course. I saw you in Harvest of Light. You're Celina Lesson."

It took her a moment to recognize his pronunciation of her pseudonym, Cya Liessa. Then relief flowed over her. "Yes, I did Harvest of Light a few years ago."

"Excellent." He peered at her. "Do you know, I've never seen any thing like that metallic gold color of your hair and eyes. In the performance, I thought it was makeup. But it's real."

Roca flushed. "Yes. It is real."

"Amazing!" He beamed at her. "I'm glad to have met you."

"You are kind, sir." She tried not to sound stiff.

After they parted, Roca breathed more easily. It felt odd to speak with a stranger; her bodyguards usually formed a bulwark separating her from the rest of humanity. Nor did she perform much now. She had to conserve her energy. She still had her youth; top-of-the-line nanomeds in her body delayed her aging, making her look twenty, though she was in her fifties. But the constraints on her life imposed by her duties as an Assembly Councilor left little time or energy for other pursuits.

She wasn't going to be performing any duties, political or otherwise, if she didn't reach Parthonia in time. More determined than ever, she went to a row of consoles against one wall. She took her ID chip out of a pocket in her jumpsuit and slid the small disk into a console. The holo of a pleasant-looking woman appeared above a horizontal screen, though the grainy quality of the image washed out details.

"Good evening," the fuzzy holo said. "What can I do for you?"

Roca squinted at it. "I need a flight out of this starport. As soon as possible. Now, in fact."

"I am sorry, Gentlewoman Liessa." The holo simulated regret. "No ships can leave the port."

"Surely you can manage something."

"I am sorry. No ships can leave the port."

"I would like to speak to a person."

"I will forward your request."

Roca knew what that meant; they would file and forget it. Right now, the port authorities probably had hundreds of such requests, as stranded travelers scrambled to make arrangements.

"Run code I4DE," she told the holo. It would find 14DE on her ID chip. Nice code, that. It could crack open the port security and erase the record of her inquiries.

As the holo vanished, a neutral voice said, "Cleanup done."

Roca retrieved her chip, then glanced around to make sure no one could overhear. Seeing she was alone, she turned back to the console and inserted a new ID chip. The holo reappeared—and bowed. "My honor at your presence, Your Highness."

"My greetings," Roca said. "I would like to meet with the person who schedules outgoing ships."

"One moment, please." After a great deal more than one moment, the holo said, "Director Vammond can see you. His assistant will meet you in the lobby. Look for a tallbot."

"Thank you."

"You are welcome, Your Highness. Can we do anything else for you?"

"No, that's all." Relieved, Roca erased her interaction with the system and pocketed her chip.

A humanoid robot was approaching from across the lobby, its body scuffed and dented. When it reached her, it bowed. "Please come with me." Its voice had no inflection.

They headed into a nearby corridor, the tallbot walking slowly at her side, its joints creaking. Roca sincerely hoped the ships in Director Vammond's port were in better condition than his assistants.

* * *

Vammond greeted Roca in an office barely big enough for the two of them. Consoles and shelves crammed it. He was standing behind a table covered with light-pens, palmtops, thread-cable, and machine parts. Gray streaked his brown hair, and he carried far more weight around his middle than would someone who could afford the treatments that kept people thin regardless of what they ate.

He bowed to Roca as the tallbot held the door open for her. "You honor my humble port with your presence, Lady."

"Thank you, Director Vammond." Roca heard the coolness in her voice. It wasn't what she intended, but she felt too tense to add more warmth.

He waved ruefully at the clutter.

Copyright © 2003 by Catherine Asaro


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