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The Last Hawk

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The Last Hawk

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Author: Catherine Asaro
Publisher: Tor, 1997
Series: The Saga of the Skolian Empire: Book 3
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
Sub-Genre Tags: Space Opera
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Synopsis

When Kelric, a scion of the imperial family of Skolia, crash-lands his fighter on the off-limits planet of Coba, he figures it will be only a short time before he makes his way home. But he fails to account for the powerful matriarchy of Coba, the mistresses of the great estates who do not want the Empire to know about their recent cultural advances.

First they take him prisoner.

Then, one by one, the most powerful women on the planet fall in love with him!


Excerpt

1

First Move: The Golden Ball

Deha Dahl, the Manager of Dahl Estate, was playing dice. She placed a cube in the structure of balls, pyramids, and polyhedrons on the table. Her opponent, one of her more intrepid Estate aides, wiped sweat from her forehead as she studied the dice.

While Deha waited for her aide to make her move, she glanced around. They were in the Coral Room, a round chamber twenty paces in diameter. Painted a deep rose near the floor, the walls shaded into lighter coral hues and then into white at the top. Mosaics were inlaid in the domed ceiling high above them. The room's three doorways each arched to a point and then curved out in a circle graced with a stained-glass window. The doors were solid amberwood. Deha insisted on only the best for these chambers where she played the dice game of Quis with her aides, her peers—and her adversaries.

Their audience of Estate aides sat in carved chairs around the table. They watched the game in silence, some no doubt wishing they could take the perspiring aide's place and others grateful it wasn't them in this duel of minds. All knew she had called this session to see how her opponent, an aide due a promotion, handled the pressure of playing against a Dice Queen.

A hand touched Deha's shoulder. She looked around, surprised to see an aide who wasn't among the group she had selected to view the session.

The aide bowed. "I'm sorry to disturb you, ma'am. But Captain Hacha thought you would want to know immediately. A craft crashed up in the mountains near Dahl Pass." She paused. "It doesn't appear to be from Coba."

There was a time when Deha would have shipped the bearer of such news off to the setting-sun-asylum for the mentally diminished. No longer. She stood up. "Have Hacha meet me in my office." She glanced at her dice opponent. "We will continue later."

The aide nodded and started to speak. Then she stopped, her gaze shifting to a point beyond Deha. She stood up and bowed, not to Deha but to someone else. Following her gaze, the rest of Deha's aides stood up, in a flurry of moving chairs, and bowed.

Deha turned to see who evoked such a reaction from her staff. A retinue had appeared in one of the doorways, soldiers in the uniform of her CityGuard. A girl stood in the center of the group, a gray-eyed child on the verge of womanhood, with fiery hair curling around her face and falling in a thick braid down her back. Tall for her age, she looked like the reincarnation of an incipient warrior queen who had transcended the millennia and stepped from the Old Age into the modern world.

Deha crossed to the girl and bowed. "Ixpar. What brings you here?"

Ixpar's face was lit with contained excitement. "I heard about the craft that crashed near Dahl Pass. I came to help the rescue party."

Deha silently cursed. It would be foolishness to let Ixpar join them. This was no normal child. Ixpar Karn: it meant Ixpar from the Estate of Karn. Of the Twelve Estates, Karn was largest, bigger even than Dahl. It was also the oldest. Its Manager not only ruled Karn; as Minister she stood highest in the hierarchy of the Estates. And she had chosen this girl to be her successor. Someday Ixpar would rule Coba.

But if she didn't let Ixpar come with them, she risked alienating Karn. The girl was already a force in the flow of power among the Estates. Rumor claimed the Minister had been known to place her young successor's opinions above those of her senior advisers.

Political prudence, won out "Very well," Deha said. She raised her hand as Ixpar's face lit up. "But I want you stay with my personal escort at all times." She glanced toward the mountains. "We have no idea what crashed up there."

* * *

In her guest suite, Ixpar changed into hiking clothes: a sweater, leather pants, and a leather jacket. When she left the suite, she found her escort in the entrance foyer, four tall guards armed with stunners. They accompanied her as she walked through Dahl. Always guards. At times she was tempted to hide or slip away. But she resisted the urge, knowing she was the only one who would find it entertaining.

Guards or no guards, though, she enjoyed the walk. It was hard to believe the Estate had once been an armed fortress. Its harsh interior had long ago given way to its present beauty, its stone floors softened with carpets and its formerly barred windows replaced by faceted yellow glass. Some corridors formed the perimeter of large balls, set off from them only by widely spaced columns. Just as the ancient warrior queens of Dahl had ruled from the Estate, so Deha and her staff now used it as their residence.

They left the Estate and walked through the city. Blue cobblestones paved the streets, which wound among buildings made from pale blue or lavender stone, with turreted roofs. Spires topped the turrets and chains hung from their, tips, strung with metal Quis dice. When the wind blew, which was almost always, the chains swung and clinked, sparkling in the sun.

They passed bright temples dedicated to the sungoddess Savina or the dawn god Sevtar, and saw ball courts filled with exuberant players, men and women laughing in the wind. The day was bright, gusty, and fresh. She wanted to jump. Shout. Get into trouble. Of course she couldn't. But it was still a glorious day.

Ixpar knew the route to the airfield well; the Minister often brought her to visit Dahl, which had long been an ally of Karn Estate. This time Minister Kant had sent her alone. It was about time. Ixpar felt as if she were straining in a harness, struggling to fly in the currents of power among the Estates.

Other feelings also stirred within her, less comprehensible than politics. She felt painfully awkward, tall and gangly, with big feet. She grew so fast lately, like a spindlestalk plant. She thought of the youth Tev, with his lean muscles and curly hair. At night she tossed in bed, reminding herself that a woman's intentions toward men should always be honorable. It didn't help. She couldn't stop herself from thinking up ways to convince him that he should let her compromise his honor.

The growl of an engine interrupted her thoughts. Beyond the end of the street, the airfield waited. With her retinue, Ixpar crossed the last stretch of pavement and walked onto the tarmac. Crews were wheeling out two windriders, aircraft painted like giant althawks, with wings of red plumage edged in black, gleaming gold heads, and landing gear as black as talons. They looked ready to leap into the sky.

The rescue party was assembling near a hangar. In addition to Deha, the group included Rohka, who was the Estate Senior Physician, and the young doctor Dabbiv, his gaze intense as he spoke with a pilot. Deha's personal escort stood by the hangar door: Hacha, captain of the escort; Rev, a broad-shouldered man who towered over most everyone else; slender Llaach with her night-black hair; and Balv, youngest of the four.

Ixpar soon found herself in the same craft as the escort, with Balv as pilot. He went about his preflight checks as if what he were doing was perfectly normal. Well, this was Dahl. Things were different here. Modern.

Hacha sat next to Ixpar. As tall as Rev, but leaner, the captain looked like her name: tough and craggy. Following Ixpar's gaze to Balv, she chuckled. "He's a pleasant one to look at, heh?"

Ixpar reddened. "I was just watching his flight preparations."

Deha settled into the copilot's seat and leaned back to talk to Hacha, saving Ixpar from more embarrassment. Discreetly, so as not to be caught staring again, she watched the Manager. A braid of black hair hung to Deha's waist and tendrils curled about her classic face. A dusting of silver showed in the hair at her temples. Her most compelling feature was her eyes; huge and black, they drew attention.

The rider soon lifted off, its wing slats spreading like giant feathers to catch the wind. The dome of the Observatory passed below them, glistening in the sunlight. As the ground dropped away other towers became visible, spires reaching into the sky. Seen from above, the Estate looked like a sculpture: bridges arched in frozen lace over courtyards, battlements glowed an antique gold in the sunlight, and curving walls added scalloped edges to the design.

Then the parks set aside for the Dahl Calanya came into view.

Ixpar pressed her nose against the window, straining to see the forbidden Calanya. Surrounded by a massive windbreak, the parks made a tapestry of lawns and lakes dotted by a myriad of colorful flowers. She could just make out a fountain, a hazelle stag rearing on his hind legs. Arches of water curved up from his horns and fell sparkling into a basin.

The View widened to include the city of Dahl nestled in its mountain valley, its streets accented by the specks of pedestrians. The rider soared higher and Dahl receded until it was no more than a pattern of colors in the panorama of the Teotec Mountains. Ahead, peaks climbed so far into the sky that she grew dizzy trying to sight their tips; behind, forested slopes plunged down until, out of sight beyond the horizon, they became cliffs that met a desert whipped by the wind.

It was out there, a day's ride into the desert, that the strangers had built their starport.

Starport. It had an eerie sound. People from above the sky. Ixpar had seen them years ago when their military commanders came to Karn, imposing warrior queens with hard edges to their personalities. Skolians they called themselves, even though they looked like Cobans. Their talk of building a port in the desert had troubled Minister Karn. Now Ixpar sensed unease in Deha as well, an apprehension that whatever had crashed in the mountains was not born of Coba.

Copyright © 1997 by Catherine Asaro


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