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Blindfold

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Язык: Английский
Год издания: 2019 год
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“But I didn’t do it,” Troy insisted, letting a hint of anger trickle into his voice so that the sol-pols gripped his arms more tightly, with enough force to bruise. “I just found him here.”

“We’ll get a Truthsayer, and then we’ll find out what really happened.”

Troy closed his eyes and let them take him away. At least there was some comfort in that. The Truthsayers were never wrong.

CHAPTER (#ulink_2f25bb19-4c20-5fea-8579-d68f7ca0424f)

6 (#ulink_2f25bb19-4c20-5fea-8579-d68f7ca0424f)

i

In the stables on a sunny morning after an exhilarating ride, Franz Dokken reveled in the calm he experienced while brushing down his stallion: smooth, soothing strokes, caressing the velvety texture of the chestnut coat that covered the horse’s coiled muscles.

The fresh air of Atlas lit the roomy stables with the energy of blue sky and yellow sunlight. Dokken inhaled deeply, smelling the animals, the dusty ground, the rusty sourness from the corrugated steel trough.

The gray mare would deliver soon, and he already had a clean pen ready for the new foal. The other horses made restless sounds—on a day like this they all wanted to be outside, to run and roam, but he had no worthwhile place to graze them.

They ate oats and alfalfa grown on strips of his reclaimed land, and many of his workers quietly resented harvesting food for the animals rather than themselves. The villagers were puzzled by Dokken’s obsession, not understanding why he raised magnificent horses instead of “useful” animals—cattle for instance—as other landholders did. But then, it was not their purpose in life to understand his decisions. He was the landholder.

The proud and majestic beasts made Dokken feel noble. He loved the exhilaration of exerting control over an animal physically stronger than himself. It was also a way to show his villagers—not to mention the rival landholders—that Franz Dokken could do as he pleased.

After his two weeks of blessed sojourn, alone and out of touch, he felt ready to tend to all the matters that had slipped during his absence. Maximillian kept the show running smoothly while he was gone; after years and years of practice, Dokken knew how often his presence was truly required, and how many brushfires would burn themselves out without drastic intervention. He thrived on the time alone, when he could get away with it.

He disappeared at least once a month, to the dismay of Schandra. She resented the fact that he kept deep secrets from her, though even in her greatest moments of self-doubt, she didn’t dream how little she knew about his real activities. Her failing was that she overestimated her own importance to him, considering herself part of his life rather than a ten-year dalliance. She had no real perspective on time.

Dokken felt refreshed after the morning ride, and after his recent sojourn, but there was so much to catch up on—as always. It would take a few days just to get up to speed, to solve the problems that needed fixing, to tighten a few screws, yank a few leashes. Then he would set other wheels in motion, see that everything was proceeding along its inevitable course … and when the laws of human nature grasped his plans firmly, Dokken could afford to disappear again.

The reward was worth all the inconvenience.

After their long conversation the night before, Tharion had left late on a private mag-lev car, bulleting back to First Landing. The Guild Master had walked unsteadily toward the pickup spur, completely unfamiliar with the effects of alcohol and somewhat comically tipsy from the wine. At one point Tharion had accused Dokken of drugging him, which had brought his mentor to sidesplitting spasms of laughter, the first true belly laugh Dokken had experienced in recent memory. Tharion hadn’t understood the humor.

Through the stable door, Dokken glanced at the sun in the morning sky, estimating the hour. He refused to wear a wrist chronometer, since nothing in his experience required such accuracy. Dokken stroked the stallion three more times with the curry brush before patting the horse’s neck and hanging the brush next to the saddle.

“We’ll find time to go for another long, vigorous ride, my friend,” he whispered. “I promise.”

Early that morning Maximillian had arrived back at the villa, prepared to brief him on how the previous evening’s work with Cialben had proceeded—but Dokken had not been ready, and the manservant knew better than to pressure his master. Still, it had been two weeks since he had tended to outstanding business, and Dokken needed to know how the world had changed since he had last paid attention to it. He reviewed the primary background like a newscast in his mind.

Returning from his rest, he’d had a few more ideas on how to delay or sabotage the new mag-lev railway between Carsus and Bondalar holdings. It was a bad precedent to set, letting landholders deal directly with each other, rather than keeping them separate and at odds, forced to funnel all their commerce through First Landing. The most dangerous threat to his ultimate goal would be a strong, unified nation of landholdings. Perhaps, if he planted the right seeds, Dokken might even be able to stop the silly proposed marriage between Hektor Carsus and Janine Bondalar. The alliance concept was so … medieval!

More disturbing to him were the insinuations that Toth and Koman holdings might also be joining forces as a large cooperative district. They had a wealth of good reasons to do so, but Dokken hated to see the formation of such an alliance. As a first step, he had already set in motion a plan to devastate the fragile pine forests on Toth Holding. Loss of the fast-growing wood would severely damage the economy of the holding, making Toth a less-attractive resource partner.

At Toth, as well as at other holdings, Dokken had made sure the illicit Veritas still trickled out among the populace unabated, creating anarchy and indirectly weakening the Truthsayers Guild as well. Poor Tharion. Exposing secrets caused far more damage than fabricating preposterous rumors.

Meanwhile, young Michel Van Petersden, the son of a landholder Dokken had deposed seventeen years ago, was now reaching his adulthood, still happily living in his adoptive home with Victoria Koman. She seemed to be grooming him as her successor, despite the fact that she had several children of her own, and the boy was completely unaware of the role he might be asked to play. Dokken wondered about the age-old question of nature versus nurture…

He had time, but it was no longer all the time in the world. The metaphorical clock was ticking.

Another major colony ship—the EarthDawn—was on its way from the home planet, bringing with it an unknown cargo of supplies and people. Citizens constantly speculated on whether the passengers would be hardworking hopeful settlers, more prison exiles, another group of religious fanatics, or a second military force with orders to take over. Atlas had weathered all of these in 231 years—and the EarthDawn would arrive in five years.

By that time, Franz Dokken expected to have reduced Atlas society to a shambles, crushed every one of the rival landholders, and picked up the pieces in his own hands. He would have the whole world firmly under his control when he greeted the captain of the new ship.

ii

Dokken sat on one of the benches in his dressing room and removed his boots, tugging on the black leather. Sunlight streamed over the barren bluffs surrounding his villa, shining through the crisscrossed, wrought-iron window bars and casting shadows like a spiderweb on the tile floor.

Maximillian stood just inside the door, tall and serene, his hands clasped behind his back. Schandra had spent the night in her own bedchamber, and Dokken had gotten a good night’s sleep.

Now energized from his morning ride, Dokken scooped a few fresh strawberries from a bowl Chef Garien had placed on the stone end table, then stripped out of his riding leathers. He sponged himself off with a damp rag, dipping it into a glazed ceramic basin and wiping his perspiration away with the cool cloth.

He hummed quietly as he slipped into cool cotton pants and a white silk shirt, draping his riding leathers on a brass stand to air out. Unselfconsciously, he dressed in front of his manservant, paying him no heed. Maximillian had been a fixture at the villa for so long, Dokken could be comfortable around him.

“All right, Maximillian. I’m listening.” He tugged a strawberry stem from his mouth and tossed it next to the fruit bowl. “How did everything go last night?”

“As planned,” the manservant droned. “Cialben is dead—and very surprised, too, I might add. His body should be found sometime this morning when the warehouse crew checks in.”

“I’ll probably get a frantic call from Tharion later today,” Dokken said.

“Yes, you probably will.”

“He knows just enough to put the pieces together the way I want him to. Tharion is the type of person who doesn’t like getting a glimpse of what’s really going on around him. It ruins his delusions, and he feels powerless.”

“Is that a problem?”

“I won’t let it become one. After all his years in the Guild, a few self doubts will be a good experience for him. Anything else?”

Maximillian pursed his lips. “News is that some of the Pilgrim settlements are becoming restive, demanding their own homeland again. They’re finally feeling downtrodden. Despite their isolation, they have established channels of communication, so I suspect plenty of sedition must be flying around. Supposedly, no one knows who’s starting it.”

Dokken raised his eyebrows. “Oh, really? Good. Continue to keep a low profile in your guise as the Pilgrim Adamant. And make sure our own Pilgrim colonies at the lakebeds don’t hear any of it.”

Maximillian nodded. “As we discussed, I am focusing on the big settlements at Sardili Shores. They have the highest concentration of Pilgrims, and I anticipate an uprising in the near future.”

Dokken laughed. “Old Sardili will just wave his hands and hold a meeting and ask everyone to please be friends. It’s his style, and he won’t be able to comprehend why it doesn’t work in a complex system. Else?” He cracked his knuckles.

“Difficult to get firsthand details, but there has been another disturbance in Bondalar Holding, a riot of some kind. A few homes were burned. Apparently, a family feud started when rivals got hold of Veritas and learned how deeply their mutual hatred ran. The brawl lasted a whole afternoon and far into the night. Bondalar’s sol-pols put it down severely, and the news has been suppressed, but I made sure it leaked out anyway.”

Dokken laughed. “Good, good. You’re a master, Maximillian.”

“You have taught me much, sir.”

iii

Tharion called much earlier than Dokken had anticipated, even before Garien finished setting out a late-morning luncheon board of fresh bread, kippered salmon, and more strawberries. Dokken walked past the food to reach the viewplate alcove. Maximillian stayed out of range as Tharion’s image appeared, his pale skin flushed.

“Good morning, Tharion,” Dokken said, immediately trying to soothe the Guild Master.

Tharion groaned. “My head feels like it’s got a thunderstorm inside, Franz, and my stomach is upset. I think you poisoned me last night.”

“It’s called a hangover, Tharion. The unpleasant aftereffects of wine—an ancient Earth malady resulting from overindulgence.”

“Is there a cure?”

“Abstinence.”

The Guild Master grimaced. “I think I can manage that, especially with the way your wine tastes. But that isn’t the only headache I have this morning.” He lowered his voice.

Dokken drew himself taller, looking down into the image. “Hmm? What do you mean?”

“The sol-pols discovered your man Cialben murdered, just as you led me to expect. We also found enough evidence to know he was involved in the Veritas smuggling. Just as you said.”

Dokken tossed his blond mane and popped his knuckles again. “So what is the problem?”

Tharion leaned forward into the image area, distorting his expression. “I know you did this for me, to help the Guild—but I thought you said the murderer would never be caught! Now this poses plenty of problems.”

“He won’t be caught, no need to worry. It’ll be an unsolved crime. You may need to increase your sol-pol patrols yet again, train more elite guards—but you can weather that. Veritas smuggling will dwindle to nothing in the next several weeks. Your Guild is secure.”

Dokken sniffed and turned at a delectable aroma. Garien brought out a tureen of caramelized onion soup, and his mouth watered.

“Franz, they’ve already caught the murderer, red-handed,” Tharion snapped, then paused. “You mean you didn’t know?”
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