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Язык: Английский
Год издания: 2019 год
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And there was Maximillian. Did he really want to read the manservant’s thoughts? Yes, he realized, he did. He was astonished that Dokken would allow such a thing, because Maximillian had been the landholder’s right-hand man for decades.

Cialben popped the capsule into his mouth, bit down with his back teeth, felt the acrid gush down his throat. He closed his eyes and drew a deep breath, then a second. His scalp began to tingle in anticipation.

He opened his eyes, and opened his mind, and everything came flooding in.

He looked with anticipation at Maximillian. And froze.

At the front of the manservant’s mind Cialben read Franz Dokken’s final instructions like a sharp-bladed ax coming down. Maximillian must have been thinking the conversation over and over again, keeping his memory fresh, so that the thoughts remained clear in his mind.

He watched as Cialben read them.

“Let him take one capsule and wait until he reads your mind. I want him to know your orders. I want him to know his fate—then kill him.”

Cialben caught the rest of the entire appalling setup, the details of what Maximillian would do to his body—planting evidence, distorting clues.

He was already backing away in horror, windmilling his arms. He slipped in the wet blood on the concrete floor from the slain water buffalo.

Maximillian reached out with a fist that moved like a cobra, grabbing Cialben’s collar, holding him upright.

Cialben regained his balance and began to struggle. Maximillian drove the long blade hard against his side. A quick thrust between the ribs, then a second full-muscled shove to drive the point all the way into Cialben’s heart. He twisted the blade.

Cialben fell, his body losing control, the nerve signals melting into black static. He slumped into darkness, his last thoughts cursing Franz Dokken.

CHAPTER (#ulink_7af0fe3e-8d88-56f8-80c7-e8b332245378)

4 (#ulink_7af0fe3e-8d88-56f8-80c7-e8b332245378)


That evening in the damp darkness of Dokken Holding, Guild Master Tharion sat uneasily on a placid gray mare, dutifully following Franz Dokken’s chestnut stallion. The ageless landholder rode intently, his body barely visible in dark leather breeches and tunic. His wild blond hair flowed behind him like a comet’s tail.

“Thank you for coming with me,” Dokken said in his rich, cultivated voice. “This won t take long, but it’s important for you to be there. For moral support, you know.”

Gusting breezes picked their way around the bluffs like probing fingers. A wide gravel trail wound from the stables down to the foot of the bluffs, and both horses knew their way. Fields of cotton covered the flatlands surrounding the village, extending south to the rolling hills, a mixture of dark and light that gave the landscape a knobbly texture.

Franz Dokken urged his impatient stallion into a trot. Tharion gripped the reins between his fingers, but still felt completely out of control. “Slow down, Franz—please,” Tharion said. He would have preferred to take a methane car, but Dokken loved any chance to show off his horses. Luckily, the gray mare maintained a gentle, slow pace—it kept him from looking like a fool in front of the public.

Dokken laughed. “That mare’s foal is due in a few weeks—she couldn’t manage more than a trot if she tried. Just sit still, pretend you know what you’re doing. She’ll be careful, for her own sake if not for yours.”

Tharion held the reins doubtfully. “If you say so…”

Dokken shook his head and flashed a thin smile. “I value your friendship even more than increasing the size of my herd. I’d hate to think of reporting to yet another Guild Master just because you fell off and broke your neck. Two in two years’ time is enough.”

Tharion responded with an uneasy smile. Franz Dokken had worked miracles for Tharion’s career, a subtle guardian angel throughout his life at the Truthsayers Guild, a friend as well as one of the most powerful landholders on Atlas. Dokken’s outspoken support at the Landholders Council had been one of the reasons Tharion had been chosen for his post.

Two years earlier, the aged previous Guild Master had died in his sleep, leaving Tharion one of the most qualified candidates, but the final vote had favored another Truthsayer, Klaryus. But after a month in his duties, the new Guild Master Klaryus had taken his weekly booster dose of Veritas—only to fall dead from the terrible Mindfire toxin produced by a virulent mutation of the Veritas bacterium. Somehow, his capsule had become contaminated in its processing up on the isolated orbital lab … and so Tharion had found himself wearing the royal blue sash of the Guild Master.

The deadly contamination had raised a great many questions, and Tharion himself had submitted to a truthsaying to prove that he had nothing to do with the death of his predecessor. Ultimately, everyone agreed that Klaryus had suffered from a bizarre accident.

Since the elite guard Eli Strone had vanished from the Guild shortly thereafter, Tharion had wondered if Strone might have had something to do with Klaryus’s death—but now, after Strone had brutally slaughtered twenty-three people, Tharion knew that subtle poison just wasn’t Strone’s style.

While many of the other landholders had flocked to assure Tharion of their loyalty, Franz Dokken had been there all along, giving him insightful advice on the new burdens he would have to bear. So, when Dokken asked him to come out to his holding as a special favor on this damp, cool evening, Tharion could not refuse.

At the outskirts of the village the sol-pol sentries stepped forward to verify the identity of the riders. Tharion shook his head in disbelief. Who else on the entire planet might be riding up on a horse? The guards pivoted to accompany their landholder to the center of the village.

Incandescent streetlights on wrought-iron poles bathed the town with a harsh glare, burning electricity from Dokken’s hydroelectric plant at Trident Falls. Adobe dwellings clustered around the square, where a fountain chuckled over polished stones, misting a flower bed of marigolds.

In the center of the square Franz Dokken pulled his stallion to a halt; the horse snorted, shifting from side to side. The restless animal made Tharion nervous, but the landholder seemed to enjoy the challenge, patting the horse’s broad neck.

Dokken sat upright, looking around. “Captain Vanicus, would you ring the bell, please?” he said to one of the sol-pols. “Let’s get ourselves an audience, so we can make an effective demonstration.” The stallion snorted again, and Dokken patted its muscular neck. The guard jogged over to a tower made of metal crossbars.

“Franz…” Tharion said.

“Trust me,” Dokken answered. “This benefits you as much as it does me.”

As always, Tharion gave him the benefit of the doubt. He could smell the smoke from squat, beehive-shaped kilns, communal electric furnaces used round the clock. Prized terra-cotta pottery from Dokken Holding went for a high price in First Landing.

As the bronze bell rang in clear, high tones, people bustled out to see the excitement. Captain Vanicus tolled ten times before returning to Dokken’s side, and another contingent of sol-pols emerged from the garrison in the town square.

The second group of guards folded around five prisoners held within the garrison—a middle-aged, flinty-eyed man, a moonfaced woman whose red eyes were smudged with dirt and puffy from weeping, a young couple who clung to each other despite their bindings, and a sour-faced, matronly woman.

Tharion suddenly paid sharper attention. Did Dokken want him to do a truthsaying? A flicker of annoyance passed through him, though he kept it well hidden. Dokken should have warned him, so he could have at least taken a Veritas boost. Tharion didn’t know if his abilities were currently sharp enough to do a thorough mind-reading.

As Guild Master, he had done mercifully few truthsayings in the past two years, spending more time with the Landholders Council, advising the telepathic Mediators, and overseeing the crimes and punishments determined by his Truthsayers. He didn’t miss the onerous task of rooting out sins and guilt, though his recent task of sentencing Eli Strone up to OrbLab 2 had not been a pleasant task.

Dokken nudged his stallion closer to the village prisoners. The horse gave a token resistance to the commands, then acquiesced. The five captives looked up at the landholder on his tall mount; they looked at each other; some lowered their eyes to the packed dirt in the square. Tharion could sense the puzzlement and uneasiness in the crowd—these captives were people they recognized, friends or neighbors. Tharion wondered what crimes they were accused of.

“I make no secret of the things I will not tolerate in my holding,” Dokken said without further preamble. He didn’t raise his cultured voice, but his words carried across the crowd. “My rules are few, but they are firm.” He paused just long enough to let them think. “Paramount on my list of crimes is illicit use of Veritas, the Truthsayers’ drug. Atlas law forbids anyone but a chosen Guild member to use this substance. Other landholders may be lax in this regard—but there will be no such abuse in Dokken Holding.”

He took a deep breath, then let out a long, sad sigh that made him seem intensely paternal. “It seems that not everyone has understood this.”

Tharion narrowed his eyes, sitting stock-still on the mare’s back. Five users caught in a small village with only a few thousand inhabitants? His stomach knotted with anger and revulsion. His entire life in the Truthsayers Guild had been guided by unforgiving ethical training, knowing what was right and wrong—and this was so wrong. Only Truthsayers were supposed to have access to Veritas. Where had these prisoners gotten it? What trivial and mundane thrills did they use it for?

“You!” Dokken said to the moon-faced woman, who cringed and began to sob again. “So desperate to learn whether your husband was cheating on you, you stooped even to this—and for what? Was he guilty, or did your own groundless suspicions damn you?” Her wail was all the answer Tharion needed to hear. “And what will your family do, your children, your husband, now that you have breached their trust?”

Dokken turned to the flinty-eyed man, who flinched and looked away. “You—a craftsman trying to dredge up hidden knowledge about a competitor, stealing trade secrets rather than developing your own skill.”

Then the young couple. Dokken’s lips flattened into a thin line, and he seemed to be stifling a bemused smile. “And two lovers who wanted to flash into each other’s minds during sex, as if Veritas were a toy!”

He shook his head. “You thought working in the cotton fields was difficult? Hear me, because now I’m acting as Magistrate for my Holding. For the next three months, you are all assigned to hard labor at the dry lakebeds, strip-mining salt and processing nitrates. I doubt you’ll ever wash the chemical stink out of your skin and hair.”

The villagers gasped, but Tharion nodded. Such labor was usually reserved for the worst criminals, and he agreed with the sentence in this case—but sentencing was supposed to be done by a Truthsayer, not at the whim of a landholder.

“These can be punished,” Dokken said, then turned to the last prisoner, the matronly woman, whose sour expression intensified. She turned dull eyes up at Dokken, but said nothing. “But the person who sells the illegal Veritas cannot be tolerated.” He spun his stallion around, turning his back to the drug pusher. “She will be taken a thousand kilometers out into the unreclaimed lands and turned loose. Atlas can do with her what it wishes.”

The villagers moaned at the certain death sentence, but Dokken nodded to the sol-pols, directing them to follow his orders. Tharion sat in shock and anger on the gray mare. He could not grant a simple landholder the right to mete out executions; not even Eli Strone had been sentenced to death. “Franz!” Tharion whispered harshly. “Only the Guild—”

With a decisive sweep of his hand, Dokken shushed him. “Wait until we’re out of the range of lamplight,” he said under his breath. “I know what you’re going to say. But there’s time. Plenty of time.”

One man, muscular and dark-bearded, stepped forward from the crowd, apparently some sort of village leader. “Master Dokken,” he said, averting his eyes in respect, “a village representative should be given the opportunity—”

“Not in the internal affairs of my holding!” Dokken said vehemently. “Guild Master Tharion sits here beside me. I need no other authority.” He turned his stallion to leave. “Just see to it that I don’t need to crack down like this again!”

Tharion’s mare trotted beside Dokken as they hurried out of the village. He twisted the reins in his hands, annoyed at himself for being so easily manipulated. As always. His nostrils flared, and the night air was cold.

As they ascended the path into the bluffs, riding together under the stars and the whistling wind, Tharion finally reprimanded his mentor. “Franz, by dispensing justice yourself, you blatantly damaged my power. The Guild can’t let this go unchallenged!”

Dokken turned to him, his sea-green eyes shadowed but glittering. He smiled, kept his voice low and gentle. “Ah, but if we say you instructed me to do this, Tharion, then nobody is weakened. You were there. Everybody thinks you sanctioned it, probably even ordered me to do the sentencing. You know those people deserved it. Every one of them.”

Tharion was unconvinced. “I’d prefer to make up my own mind.”

Dokken scolded him now. “Tharion, think! I’ve been helping you to see the greater consequences, the second and third levels of power and control, not just the obvious cause and effect. These people could have been brought into First Landing, put to a Truthsayer in the middle of the great plaza—but I wanted it done here. In my holding, where it counts most. I want it known that I, Franz Dokken, will not tolerate black market Veritas.”

“You brought me here so I could pat you on the back, commend your efforts?” Tharion said, his throat tight with frustration.

“No, I wanted you here so we could discuss some new information I have uncovered. It has consequences for your entire Guild as well as my landholding. I’ve already taken care of it, and you will thank me for it.”

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