Caine’s Mutiny – Snippet 07

Brenlor pushed off the forward bulkhead casually: it was not a combat move. “Very true. In all likelihood, we will need to identify disaffected Aboriginal groups, black market helots, and of course, Voices of any number of Hkh’Rkh Old Families. I would, of course, be the first to meet with them and would be either their host or honored guest of record. But when discussion was wanted, I presume that they will pass off the details to a subordinate. I will match that move by putting you forward in my place. And in so doing, I will be leading with our best asset.” He paused. “Those who mostly command lesser beings never accrue the same honor as those who devote themselves solely to the exercise of dominion. I would not set you on such a potentially demeaning course without your consent, Idrem.”

“That is most generous and most wise.” And Idrem meant it. He drifted toward his would-be Hegemon. “But for now, the most important consideration is that our House employs every one of its scant assets to its best advantage.”

Brenlor nodded. “Excellent.” Without warning, his slightly bowed legs flexed, hitting the deck at an angle and launching him forward with considerable force. The srin’s shoulder smashed into Idrem’s diaphragm, driving the wind out of him as it also drove him back. Idrem tried to parry, tumble, but to no avail: Brenlor had dropped his practice knife, had wrapped his arms around Idrem.

Who, forearms pinned to his side and his own practice knife trapped low, could only roll his wrist to score partial hits. “Graze. Graze. Graze,” announced the sepulchral voice of the training subroutine, indicating that while blood was being drawn by the feebly shortened slashings of Idrem’s weapon, they were not landing any hits that degraded his opponent.

As they drifted closer to the wall, Brenlor’s smiling — or was that smirking? — face was close to Idrem’s own. “The match is not over until we so signal,” he observed. Then his eyes widened slightly: the aft-bulkhead was coming up quickly. Brenlor’s grip released slightly, his arms moving, probably to brace against the impact.

Idrem waited for his knife arm to be free, then drew back to slash —

But never landed the disemboweling cut he had intended. Brenlor was not where he was supposed to be: he had pushed off Idrem in such a way that he was now rolling over the top of his subordinate’s head, twisting as he went. Idrem slashed with the knife, cut air, and then, with a sickening certainty particular to the inevitable physics of zero-gee combat, felt himself pulled sideways by his own sudden cutting motion.

Which was clearly what Brenlor had been counting upon. The srin finished his tumble just as his feet grazed the aft-bulkhead. Nicely timed, Idrem admitted as he tried to pull himself around to face his opponent. But being out of contact with any surface, his ability to change vector was extremely limited. And he only had a second, before —

In fact, he had well less than a second. As soon as Brenlor’s feet had sufficient contact with the bulkhead, the srin kicked hard. That motion sent him crashing into Idrem’s left side at murderously close range. With a twist like that of a predator using its momentum to bring down prey, he dragged Idrem forward, managed to get behind him. One arm was around Idrem’s throat in a moment, the other slipped into a vise-like half-nelson that pushed his windpipe against the opposing forearm. Idrem’s weapon arm was cinched high and sideways, stuck in a useless position, no matter how he thrashed with it.

Brenlor did not speak until they drifted down to the deck. “Mortal,” the automated referee announced.

But Brenlor did not let go. “You are greatly prized by this house, Idrem Perekmeresuum,” he murmured. The words were reassuring; the tone was not. “I presume you realize that.”

“I do.”

“Excellent. I require one simple clarification before we end our chat. Is your loyalty fully and solely to this House?”

“It is. Why would you even ask?”

The forearm came up slightly more snug against his windpipe. “Firstly, I may always ask, because I am not merely the Srin but, soon, the Hegemon. It is my right to ask any question I wish of those in my House, whenever I wish it. And questions which ascertain the loyalty of those around me are the most logical and crucial of all, yes?”

“If their loyalty is in doubt, yes, srin.”

“Ah, but one can never be too sure, Idrem. Particularly not when it comes to a trusted advisor who is shrewd, keeps his own counsel, rarely displays emotion, and has a gift for shaping a srin’s moods and decisions with soft and subtle speech. And who has caught the eye of that srin’s cousin — and second-in-line — as well.”

Ah. So that was it. “Brenlor, if I may –” Idrem moved to exit the choke hold, but the srin held him firm.

“You may speak, but not leave. Not just yet.”

“I have little to say. Brenlor Srin Perekmeres, you have observed me closely, which is indeed the action of a wise Hegemon when it comes to those they must trust. So I ask you this: have you ever detected ambition in me, the kind that would covet the Hegemon’s chair?”

“None. But you are the consort of a srina, now. And unless I miss my guess, her intended mate. No, do not deny it,” he emphasized with a momentary constriction of his forearm. “I may not have your or her skills in the sciences and complicated disciplines of space combat, but I understand the passions that move our people. I have seen you together, even when you try your hardest to purge your glances, and your tones, of anything that might betray the nature of your relationship. I know what is transpiring in my own House, my own precincts. And I know that Nezdeh is as ambitious a srina as a Breedmother ever trained. So I need to know one thing with absolute clarity: is your first loyalty to me, or to her?”

Idrem knew that too hasty an answer would be suspect, would seem a product of fear rather than reason. But to wait too long — “Brenlor, are you the rightful Hegemon of House Perekmeres?”

That gave the srin a moment’s pause. “You know I am.”

“Then know this: I am loyal to House Perekmeres. And so I am loyal to you. And thus, so is she. And should one of our enemies accomplish the unthinkable and slay you, then I shall still be loyal to House Perekmeres and its rightful Hegemon. And shall continue to do so until I am no more.”

Brenlor’s arm remained around his throat, but the tension on the back of his neck from the other arm relaxed. Two silent seconds passed. “That is not the answer I expected. Or the one that I hoped for.” Another second passed. “Indeed, it is better.”

Brenlor’s hard, heavy arms unwound from Idrem’s neck and throat. They faced each other. “Idrem, the worst threats to a Hegemon are the ones that might arise within the walls of his own precincts. I would put another mantle upon your shoulders: that of House Perekmeres’ High Sentinel.”

Idrem managed not to blink. “The security of our House has long been my first concern. I am proud that you confer this highest honor upon me.” Which was an understatement: High Sentinel was one of the most powerful positions in any House. And, since it blended the roles of chief diplomatic strategist and internal security chief, it was the one Idrem had most coveted.

“Then I am well-pleased and well-served.” Brenlor braced himself against the bulkhead with one hand and stood erect. “And with your aid, and Nezdeh’s, I shall surely realize my life-long dream.”

“Which is?”

Brenlor might have even forgotten that Idrem was there, his eyes were so distant. “To wear the flayed skins of all the srinu of House Shethkador. After ascending to the Autarch’s dais on a ramp made of their bleached skulls.”