"Janud wants all pirates dead," said old Captain SkullSpoon. "She's the leader of only one world, but her grasp is hungry. We must not let her lead the hunt."
The assembled captains stomped their feet in agreement.
SkullSpoon had reason to hate. His brood brother's ship, the Slender Horn, had been captured by Janud's privateers. SkullSpoon's family honour had been tarnished.
Semple DataTooth, first mate and data stealer of The Gnawed Bone, stood silently behind her captain. The software on her wrist recorded every word, every gesture, every tedious nuance of these lengthy talks. A barely perceptible shiver of her cranial crest betrayed Semple's frustration. These were vanity talks designed to soothe the egos of the captains who'd accompanied their kings to Emperor's World. The real discussions, between the Emperor and his Seven Pirate Kings, were taking place elsewhere.
"We should invade Janud's world. We should annihilate her and all her family," said SkullSpoon.
The captains snarled in agreement.
Pointless bravado, thought Semple.
This was just a rattling of sabres.
At dusk, Semple and Captain ToeClaw returned to The Gnawed Bone, to eat the onemeal in the privacy of the ship. The Emperor had supplied all the visiting pirate ships with ample provisions.
ToeClaw speared a loin of brast. The skin was still attached to the flesh in traditional fashion. "For an herbivore, the Emperor knows good meat."
"He does," agreed Semple.
"This is a rare opportunity, Semple. I've sailed ocean space for many years, but this is the first time I've set foot on Emperor's World. And, we're making good progress at the talks."
Semple wondered if he believed that. One hundred minor pirate captains would never agree upon anything. "As you say, Captain, it's a rare opportunity. But I'd like your permission to skip the evening talks."
"I'd be more help to you elsewhere. I have contacts on this world."
"You do? You really are a good first mate and an excellent data stealer, Semple." ToeClaw took another hunk of meat. "But what should we do about Janud? The loss of Slender Horn is worrying. SkullSpoon's baying for Janud's blood. And perhaps he's right. The leaders of the other Saurian worlds are taking notice of her strategies. This could be the end of this life."
"There have always been pirates, Captain. When the first commercial fleets made their slow journeys, we were waiting for them."
"Janud welcomed us during the Zyxlar occupation. We were useful as blockade runners, as thorns in the Zyxlars' eyes. Pirates were a symbol of hope." ToeClaw stared at the binary stars flaring dull red in the evening sky. "And why does the Emperor have to have his world under the glare of The Twins?"
Semple started to speak but ToeClaw cut her off. "I know, Semple. It's symbolic. Emperor's World is a place where traditions are overturned, where herbivores and carnivores and even hybrids can live together. I'm not stupid, Semple."
"I know, sir."
ToeClaw sighed. "These talks might come to nothing, Semple. Do what you need to do. But what about the other captains? They'll notice you've gone."
"They'll expect it," said Semple.
Semple finished her onemeal quickly and returned to her cabin to process the recording of the day's talks. As she'd expected, there was nothing useful. The real information lay on the streets of Emperor's World.
As she was preparing to leave, ToeClaw called her back to his cabin. "Where are you going?" he asked. "To the hunting grounds?"
"No, sir. To the singing quarter."
ToeClaw laughed. "Why? Have you suddenly become interested in throat singing?"
"I have always been interested in throat singing, sir."
"I suppose you know your business."
ToeClaw had always misunderstood the value of culture. He was of his type: strong, courageous, but antiquated. He didn't understand the subtleties of data stealing, but he was clever enough to accept Semple's counsel in such matters. Semple knew that she would make a better captain, but the crew appreciated the rule of strength, and in a fair fight she couldn't beat him.
"I'll be glad to be gone from this world," said ToeClaw. "It isn't clean. There are too many hybrids here."
"We have the Zyxlars to thank for that."
"Yes. The Zyxlars and their breeding experiments on Sero. Carnivores and herbivores shouldn't breed. That's my opinion, and I don't care who knows it."
"What say you, Semple?"
"I don't know much about hybrids, Captain. They stay to their own ships. They fought well enough during the occupation."
"I suppose there's no other place for them except this world," said ToeClaw. "Certainly they couldn't live on any of the home worlds."
"It would be difficult for the hybrids on the home worlds, Captain," agreed Semple.
ToeClaw tilted his head to one side, looking closely at Semple. "I never know what you're really thinking, Semple. Can I trust you? Do I have your loyalty?"
Semple bowed her neck submissively. "You have my loyalty. Or something like it, Captain."
He smiled. "I think that's the most believable answer you've ever given me. Go, go to your singing shacks. Bring back your information."
The Twins had left the sky, which eased Semple's mind. The binary stars that shone on Emperor's World were visible from the Saurian home worlds. They were considered a source of malign influence. In the past, mothers had left the offspring from a double-yolked egg to die on the steppes. Even now, pregnant females would test their eggs to ensure that twins did not come to term. Twins were taboo, unnatural, full of abnormal and malicious cleverness.
Semple admired the Emperor. His world, under the light of The Twins, defied tradition. It was a world of outcasts with a population who had little to lose. But with the Zyxlars gone, tribal leaders like Janud wanted to return to traditional values. And that was bad news for the pirates and for the inhabitants of Emperor's World.
The Gnawed Bone was stationed at the lakeshore where brightly coloured ichthyosaurs swam and eluded the nets of the pirates. Beyond the lake, Semple heard the low cries of the prey herds coming from the hunting grounds. The grounds were where a carnivore could indulge and hone their hunting skills.
But that was not Semple's hunting ground.
The taxi driver was a hybrid with the camouflage stripes of an herbivore and the mouth of carnivore. He was a talkative type. "I served with The Flail," he said proudly.
The ex-Emperor? The Flail of the Zyxlars who had led a rebellion overthrowing the Zyxlar scientists of Sero? Semple doubted it. Half the hybrids on Emperor's World claimed that honour.
Semple would have preferred to journey in silence, but she decided to listen to the driver's stories. You never knew what snippet of information could prove useful. "What was he like?" she asked.
"A hero," said the driver. He touched the picture of Emperor HandSnatcher, hung from the cab mirror. HandSnatcher had the striped green skin of an herbivore, but he was well-muscled, old but vital. "HandSnatcher is a fair leader, but he's too interested in politics for my taste. The Flail was only interested in honour."
"A pirate's honour?" asked Semple.
"A soldier's honour. I fought with The Flail to drive the Zyxlars off Sero. And then we chased them out of the galaxy."
The driver was delusional if he thought that the Zyxlars left because of a few thousand Saurian pirates. Semple stopped paying attention. She tapped messages on her wrist comm to her contacts.
"So how are you liking Emperor's World?" asked the driver.
"I would have chosen a different sector of space," said Semple. "I don't like The Twins." It was hard to shake off years of custom. She knew that it was irrational. They were simply stars in gravitational alignment.
"Aye," said the driver with some pride. "The Emperor is a Saurian to defy custom. He's showy like all herbivores. He's not weak though, whatever they say of him."
Before the Zyxlar occupation, Saurian society had been strictly segregated. The herbivores were the farmers, the builders, the manufacturers, the dealers in intellect; the carnivores had been the warriors, the dealers in Saurian honour. The Zyxlar scientists had been fascinated by this cultural segregation. They had taken generations of Saurians to Sero to force breed a generation of hybrids. They were fascinated by the fact that herbivores and carnivores were able to breed, heedless of the Saurian culture which considered hybrids offences against nature. Undertaking all types of unnatural breeding experiments, the Zyxlar scientists had played with the Saurian genome as if it were a commodity.
The Flail had led the Sero rebellion, overthrowing the Zyxlar scientists and escaping into the sea of space. For a time, The Flail had led the pirate empire, but with the Zxylars' departure, he too, had disappeared. HandSnatcher, another herbivore, had taken his place.
"Eater of plants, eater of flesh; we're all Saurian," said Semple resorting to a homily.
"Under the skin," agreed the driver.
Semple checked her comm and sent messages.
Semple trawled the singing quarter. Here there were bars, singing shacks, places to eat, places to satisfy other appetites. The music that came from the open doorways was raw, guttural, invigorating. She passed a temple of shining metal. The priests' throat singing was low, pitched like the pulse of blood, shimmering off the metal walls. A priest with a polished horn, grown so artificially large that it nearly obscured his face, stood at the doorway. "Sister. Join us and find annihilation within," he shouted.
Semple made an obscene gesture and walked away to sounds of the horned priest's cursing.
The hybrid nature of the quarter's inhabitants was reflected in their skin colours, in their crests and horns of great variety. All of which would be highly distasteful to the population on the home worlds.
Semple trawled the throat singing bars. At one bar, she made a fruitful interchange with a small carnivore female called Chitter-Eater. Semple did not ask for the reason behind her name. The transaction was enough. It would satisfy ToeClaw.
Deep into the labyrinth of the singing quarter, Semple walked. The streets grew narrow, lit only with burning torches. But the songs echoing from the skin doorways were strong and vibrant.
Smoke burned from braziers, mildly hallucinogenic. Semple entered a shack, paid the entrance fee to the door-minder. A number of males and females did not look at her as she walked to the bar. A decrepit male with a foul stench slept in one corner, his head on the table covered by his arm.
On the wooden stage, a young male herbivore sang a long song of epic history. He sang the 'music deep in the bones'. He had the gift, undeveloped but undeniable. The music echoed through his body, in the air spaces of his chest bones, in his anterior air sack, emerging over his throat syrinx. The resonances were complex, as he sent parallel waves, creating harmonics that were unique to his physiology. His flexing chest muscles created variations in his air sac, producing different resonant effects and varieties of pitch.
Semple sent a message on her comm. She signaled the bartender with an abrupt gesture. "Good," she said pointing to the singer.
"Immature but adequate," said the bartender.
Semple ordered a drink. She watched the singer. When the music died, the customers stomped their feet in muted appreciation. A couple walked to the stage. They faced each other. This couple wore singing scars, where surgery had opened up new pathways to the air chambers within their bones.
The young male came to the bar and ordered a plate of rough greens and gizzard stones.
"Good singing," said Semple.
"I am Semple."
"I am Tranx."
Semple nodded. On stage the singers performed a growling lament to the atrocities of Sero. The singers crouched, breathing into each other's mouths.
"Intimate as sex," said Semple.
"I wouldn't know," replied Tranx.
Semple smiled. The young male knew humour, but she signaled the end of the conversation with a gesture. Tranx nodded and took his food to a table.
The couple augmented their performance with foot stomps that sent the finely tuned boards of the stage quivering. They grasped each other's arms, ready to engage in a performance that was both competition and game. Some of the males leaning casually against the bar rail began to make bets. The first singer let out a short deep rhythmic grunt. The second singer repeated the sound and added her own grunt in response. The singers rocked rhythmically following the sound of the game.
Two carnivores entered the bar. They were mid-argument. ". . . and that's what I think about our great plant eating leader."
"He's proved himself."
"Shut your yap."
They looked like pirates, although they didn't wear ship colours. Their bone armour was etched with acid tattoos claiming participation in a series of notorious skirmishes. They were very similar in appearance. For a moment, Semple had the uneasy feeling that they were identical until she noticed a variation in their cranial spines. A grey spine and a black spine. Not twins, but certainly brood brothers.
The grey spined brother glanced at Semple. She returned his stare. He looked away, seeking easier meat. He pointed to Tranx. Both brothers swaggered over to the young male's table.
The bartender smiled. "This will be good entertainment."
The grey spine regurgitated a stinking pellet of partially digested meat next to Tranx's plate. Tranx jumped to his feet. He shoved grey spine in the chest. Identical smiles crawled over the brothers' mouths, lazy and malicious. Twin coshes were drawn from their cloaks.
The throat singers continued their song game, as if this was part of the show.
Tranx was on the floor trying to shield his head from the brother's kicks. The throat singers accelerated their song. "Noisy," said Semple to the bartender. She finished her drink. She walked over to the fight. She tapped grey spine on the shoulder and said, "You are spoiling my enjoyment of the music."
"Pirate, keep out of this. It's none of your business," said grey spine.
"I'm making it my business." Semple's diamond-dot sabre flared from its scabbard. It sliced through the claws of grey spine, and with an upward thrust of its weighted pommel, smashed into black spine's face. The severed claws and broken teeth fell to the floor like augury bones. "Get gone," said Semple. "And next time bring the rest of your pack."
The brothers hesitated. Semple raised her sword arm. They cowered in submission, and ran out.
An old female scurried over. She gathered up the teeth and claws, muttering under her breath. "You," said Semple shaking Tranx. "Where's your home?"
"Take me to the Third Quarter, to the Unmarried Males' Camp."
"No. You're going to need family blood for you to heal. I need to take you home."
With a wheezing sigh, a punctured air-sac no doubt, Tranx told Semple his address. "Call me a transport," she said to the bartender. To the rest of the room, she shouted, "My friends know where I am. My life is little to me, but my honour is everything. Any injury will be avenged."
The customers nodded. That was as it should be.
"The transport will be here in five minutes," said the bartender.
Good. She'd have time to hear the end of the song. She joined the males leaning at the bar and laid a bet of her own.
"Thank you," said Tranx, when they were safe in the transport.
"You shouldn't be out on your own, if you can't handle yourself."
"You sound like my father." Tranx stared out of the window. After a time he said, "You're part of a pirate crew?"
"First mate and data stealer of The Gnawed Bone," said Semple. "Are you thinking of enlisting?"
"Not me. I'm more interested in music."
"There's more than one way to fight," said Semple. "Throat singing has a strong tradition aboard ship. It's important. You have talent. You should speak to my captain."
"I don't think father would approve."
The boy was spineless. "It is not his place to approve."
The boy only looked out of the window. "My father is wealthy and he'll reward you."
"I don't want a reward," said Semple.
"Then what do you want?" A note of distrust entered Tranx's voice. "Why have you helped me?"
Semple shrugged. "A whim. I deal with information and the pathway to information is never straight. I follow my instincts."
The compound was extensive and surrounded with high walls. Tranx's father obviously valued his privacy. Tranx, even in his injured state, was subjected to security scans before they were allowed entry.
Once inside, Tranx was bustled away by an officious female. Semple waited in the courtyard with a pack of semi-tame string snouts that stared at her suspiciously. She was kept waiting a long time before being invited into a reception room decorated with mosaics. Water played over the stones of a fountain, and night birds flitted through the open windows to rest on a carved tall tree sculpture.
In a high-backed chair sat the head of the House. "I am Tithe," he said extending a fore claw.
Semple touched claw to claw. "I am Semple DataTooth, first mate of The Gnawed Bone."
"I'm told that you saved my son. Perhaps, I'm in your debt."
"Perhaps." Tithe's face did not match his body. His body was scarred with old wounds. The leather of his green-striped skin had turned white with scar tissue. Many old fighters wore their scars proudly, yet Tithe had chosen to modify his face, which was smooth, unlined and unscarred. "You have a fine home. And a fine son, sir."
"A throat singer such as him could be an asset to any ship."
"Are you on the world for the talks, Semple DataTooth?"
"I am, sir."
"And what else are you here for?"
"I don't grasp your meaning," said Semple.
"My meaning is clean," Tithe stood quickly and crossed the distance between them. "I want you to tell me who you really are and who you're working for. I've known a lot of black operatives in my time and I've got the scent of them. An old man like me doesn't have time to mess around." His claws snapped open a few inches from Semple's throat. "The attack on my boy was a set up so that you could find me."
Semple laughed. "Why would I want to find The Flail of the Zyxlars? The legendary, elusive ex-Emperor?"
Tithe sighed. "You know me?"
"I do. Although it took me many years to follow your scent. You hid yourself adequately. I have, of course, left time-delayed messages of my location. Killing me would bring you nothing."
"Yes." She pushed down his claws. "Satisfaction and the death of your son. But you're too smart for that. It must be disappointing to the ex-Emperor to have a son who is so indiscreet. He was so easy to manipulate. He's so very trusting."
"He takes after his mother. What do you want?"
"I work for Janud," said Semple. "She's been wanting to contact you for a long time. We have never been able to get anyone close enough before this conference."
"And what does Janud want with me?"
"She wants to know about Sero."
"All is known about Sero. I led the Saurian rebellion. We stole the Zxylar ships and then I sent a ship load of bombs to wipe the surface clean. What more is there to tell?"
The night birds flitted in and out of the window and settled on the sculpture. They observed the scene with bright eyes. "Sero was an atrocity," said Tithe. "The breeding experiments are well known. The Zyxlar scientists envied our strength, our vitality, our longevity."
"Atrocity indeed," said Semple. "A place where the hybrids were made."
"Aye. And other experiments too. Retrograde experiments breeding males and females with our ancestors. The breeding of twins. Everything was of interest to them."
"Hybrids, monsters and twins," said Semple with a grimace. "I grieve for your childhood, that you should have witnessed such disgusting events."
"And yet, if it wasn't for that place, I might not have found my anger."
"It's a pity you destroyed all the records. That might have been useful to Janud."
"Janud wants to return to traditional values. There's no place for the hybrids. There never was."
"We've made a place."
"And it's unclean," said Semple. "Janud thought that the data from Sero might prove useful in the future."
"She wants the data to use as a weapon against the hybrids? I don't have it. And I cannot give what is not in my hand," said Tithe.
"That's a pity," said Semple. "But I'll let the matter pass."
"Thank you. You're leaving now?"
Semple laughed. "Of course not. I'm an information stealer and a propagandist. During the occupation, I worked for Janud rallying support for the resistance. I developed imagery, I showed the Zyxlars as parasites, and as the eaters of worlds. I understand Saurians and how to manipulate them."
"So what has this to do with me?" asked Tithe.
"You're a potential asset for Janud," said Semple. "You're the hero who led a successful rebellion against the Zyxlars. And pirates still command a good deal of public support for both herbivore and carnivores. I'm unusual in that I can see arguments that appeal to both the plant eater and the flesh eater. To go forward, we must unite both aspects of the saurian personality."
"So what do you need from me?"
"The common folk know you and trust you. If you advocate an opinion, they will listen."
"So, I'm to be a mouthpiece for Janud?"
"Eventually. But for now, you will re-enter the political arena. You will tell us what is happening in the talks between the Emperor and the Pirate Kings."
"A spy for Janud?"
"It's the price for being weak. For having a son." Semple tilted her head and stared at Tithe. "And it would be unusual for a male to just have one offspring." She smiled. "Ah. I see that I'm right. Old man, we will find all your children. My agents will contact you shortly. They will handle the negotiations."
Tithe groaned softly. A desperate note of defeat.
Semple waited, for what came, inevitably, reluctantly, Tithe's bow of submission, before taking her leave.
When she'd gone, Tithe sent a comm message. He then stretched his arms vigorously. He snapped his claws in and out of their sheaths half-a-dozen times. He fed the night birds making clicking sounds that mimicked their voices. After a time, the yipping of the string snouts announced the arrival of his visitor. A male entered, his head covered with a security mask.
Tithe poured two pints of ember. "You weren't followed?" he asked his visitor, passing over a glass.
"I think I can find my way around my own planet without operatives following me." The visitor removed his security mask and took a long appreciative swallow of his drink.
"Emperor," said Tithe bowing low.
Outside, dawn would soon light the sky. "She took the bait?" asked Emperor HandSnatcher.
"She did," said Tithe.
"I must thank Tranx for his part."
"He's a good Saurian," said Tithe. "He takes after his mother."
"This is excellent," said HandSnatcher. "You'll be able to feed a nice scent of misinformation to Janud. We must plan the hunt carefully if we're to outsmart her."
"Finding a place for the hybrids will be a long hunt," said Tithe. "For the hybrids and all the others."
"Yes. But we're equal to it," said HandSnatcher.
The Twins rose over Emperor's World, ripping morning claws of light into the sky.
HandSnatcher raised his glass in salute. "You have done well, Flail of Zyxlar,"
"Did you expect any less from your twin brother?" asked Tithe with a smile, slow and lazy and unnaturally intelligent.