It wasn't going to be easy achieving a meeting with Haydn Albrecht, the Salt Road Devil. Haydn was a busy man, even busier than when Alaric had known him as a child, anyone could see that. Pilots and customers had kept his inner office door sliding open since Alaric had arrived at sunup on the hot, smoky planet called Pyrrcor, and the day was winding down to final meal.
Despite having sat for a long, long while, Alaric kept his back straight and his knees apart, prepared to stand at any moment. His sweaty hands rested on his knees, but well away from the weapon strapped to his thigh. Even so, Haydn's exosentient secretary kept pointing its eyestalks in his direction. Alaric knew he looked more nervous as time went on, felt the anxiety crease his forehead and weigh on his shoulders. But the physical stress was no great hardship. He'd been trained since childhood to guard himself well, and such habits died hard when one bore a bounty exceeding a standard-year's officer's pay in the Junta.
Central Coalition Command. Loyalists to the military Coalition didn't use derogatory language when speaking about their stratocratic government, especially when they sat in the middle of their galactic empire. After two standard years on the run, Alaric knew better than to even think like a rebel.
He blamed his mental slip on the proximity of Haydn, though he'd barely caught a glance of the man through the door that slid soundlessly open and shut to admit Haydn's many business appointments.
As the last visitor departed the outer chamber, Alaric leaned back and silently sighed. Haydn would no doubt slip out the side door, get away somehow, like he had during the Coalition's attack on their homeworld. The bloody traitor. Alaric should have told the secretary he was a prospective Salt Run pilot. That might have gotten him into the inner sanctum sooner. Or he should have sussed out where Haydn lived and cornered him there...
The door to Haydn's office slid open. All three of the secretary's eyestalks turned that way. Alaric blinked at the figure in the doorway.
Haydn looked much the same--his grayed, clipped hair, barrel chest, and fighter's stance all betraying his years of service in the military on Calixte. He'd changed his eye color from the heliotrope of the royal family, but he hadn't fixed the scars on his face. It revealed nothing.
Haydn twitched his chin toward the exosentient, who tapped a question on its desk with its smallest pincer. It didn't use the translator. Likely there was no need. Haydn had always had a knack for languages.
"Of course, let him in. Did you not hear the man? He is an old...friend."
Another string of tapping.
"No, you're finished." Haydn turned back to his office and left the door open behind him. "Go home."
"You may enter, sir," the secretary said through its translator.
The metallic voice spoke in cadence to the secretary's tapping, sounding almost like a street faire drumming in the markets back home. Alaric had to remind himself there were no markets, no home at all any more. Calixte was a desolate landscape of bones and ruined sand, scraped free of life by the Acid Wind wielded by the Coalition.
Alaric bowed his head politely as the secretary moved from behind its desk toward the outer door on its backwards joints. Then he followed Haydn into his office. The door slid shut behind him and Alaric had to fight the urge to look back. He couldn't shake the feeling he was stuck like a cockrat in a cage. But he'd been brought up to face his fears and his enemies with his back straight, so he removed his eyeshades and stared hard at Haydn.
Haydn leaned back against a large metal table with multiple tablet inserts, legs crossed. Face still set and hard, he gripped the edge of the table on either side of his hips with white fingers. He didn't appear armed, but that meant nothing.
"Sir," Alaric said, and drew his weapon.
That was all. What else did one say to one's former armsmaster, a man who'd been a favored bastard uncle and a general in the King's Army, but who'd disappeared into the ether when the fighting got tough? This meeting had only one of two outcomes, and Alaric certainly planned on coming out alive.
If Haydn was thinking the same thing, he didn't reveal it. "What are you calling yourself these days instead of Aric?"
Haydn nodded and dropped into highborn Calixten, a language Alaric hadn't heard in two standard years. "Close enough to your real one that you don't ignore it on accident, and a good, Coalition name. Well done."
Alaric cursed his wave of pleasure at Haydn's approval. He was no longer a child and his uncle was a traitor. Alaric hadn't come here to chat. He'd come for revenge.
Holy Crimes. Keep on task here. "Am I to assume you're saying all that to reveal my identity to some secreted listener, Uncle? Perhaps they're on their way now."
Haydn pushed himself upright. Alaric followed the motion with the nose of his weapon, keeping it trained on Haydn's heart, if the man even still had one.
"Aye," Haydn said. "Aye, Prince Aric. You should presume all manner of danger tracks your steps. But not from me."
Alaric shook his head. "That's not my name, not any more. And I will presume danger from a traitor. I'd be a fool not to."
"You are a fool, aye, but not why you think."
That set him off-guard a bit. Alaric thought fast. "Fool or not, I'm your prince. If you were loyal, you would take a knee to me."
"Turn you over mine, rather. I'll take a knee to my royalty when they deserve it. You heard me say such to your father enough times. Fool, fool boy. For instance, you came all the way here to kill me, but you're too slow by half." Haydn spread his arms. "Do it. I've no armor. No guard. You stand close enough to fry my synapses to slush. I'm surprised I'm not already dead and you on your way. Indeed, I thought I taught you better."
Alaric had spared time to talk only because he had to know the extent of Haydn's betrayal. It meant life or death to him if anyone else knew he still lived. "Who else knows you're here?" he demanded. "Who else have you told? Who knows who you really are?"
"You're lying. You sold yourself to the Junta. You sold us out."
Haydn frowned. "I know how it must look, but your father--"
"My father-king is dead," Alaric said, his voice shaking. "Because of you."
"I didn't betray our king. I only offered him advice--advice he refused, I might add."
"I advised him to relent in rebelling, to take the rank the Coalition offered him, and to work within the Central Command to help our people."
The statement was so outrageous it left Alaric sputtering. "What was Father to do? Enslave Calixte to Coalition taxes and military draft? Destroy the autonomy we spent generations building? How would that help our people?"
"They'd be alive, for one."
But Alaric knew Haydn's betrayal went deeper than that, right to the heart of the royal family. "You as good as killed him. Holy Crimes, Uncle! He was your brother and you--"
"He died because he refused my advice." Haydn's shoulders slumped. "And that's the truth of it, princeling."
"I'm no small boy, to be patronized. And I'm prince of no one but you. They're all dead, Haydn. Because of you."
For the first time, Haydn's voice tightened as he delivered a rare curse. "Betrayer take me, I did not sell out Calixte."
Alaric waved the gun, indicating the large office, the glowing screens, the expensive views of the lush forests cloaking the mountainous planet. "And how did you fund all this in two standard years if not with Junta jack?"
Haydn's lips whitened and his voice dropped to that dangerous note indicating he was about to back up his anger with violence. "By the skin of my back, Aric. Unlike coddled princes, I've always had to work to earn my keep."
"No. You took traitor fees from the Coalition."
Haydn leaned in close. "You think I would give those Junta sandfleas one word of intel about our people? They died because of your father's pride; something he passed on to his son, I see. And you betray your people's memories with it."
Alaric tightened. He opened his mouth to speak, but Haydn pressed still closer, close enough to let the weapon rest against his chest. Then his meaty fists snapped forward, one ripping the weapon from Alaric's hand, the other clenching his throat in a chokehold. The nose of the weapon pressed against Alaric's temple, a cold weight of death.
Alaric spat and cursed and tried to slip away, but Haydn just tightened his grip. Black shrouded his vision as Haydn cut off the blood flow. His heart thudded in his throat, beneath Haydn's squeezing fingers.
"And yet," Haydn whispered, "betrayal runs deep in our blood, does it not, princeling?"
The room swam as Alaric's heart seized and consciousness fled.