Warlord Rien Tholten dismounted and handed his reins to Oskel Oloin, the groundskeeper. He turned to his escort troop and signalled that they should dismount as well.
“I’m going in to speak to his lordship, Moyen Stait,” he told his second-in-command, Seron Etol.
Commander Etol saluted. “Very good, sir. We’ll keep watch out here.”
Rien nodded and headed to the villa’s front door.
The villa overseer, Besen Oloin, opened the door before Rien reached it and bowed. “How may I assist you, Warlord?”
“I’m here to see Lord Moyen, Besen.”
The overseer bowed again. “Very good, sir. I shall fetch him for you. Please wait in the main library.”
Rien strode to the library and entered, finding the Sentinels already occupying the room.
“Good morning,” Rien said to the room.
The Sentinels rose as one.
The young woman called Mariel took a step forward. “What brings you out here, Warlord?”
Rien smiled at her. “I’m here to see Moyen, m’lady. But you are all welcome to linger. What I have to tell him you may as well hear.”
She blushed and nodded, looking shyly away.
He gauged her to be around twenty-two, two years his junior. Something about Mariel called to him. He liked her looks, true enough: she was slender and on the small side, with honey dark skin and a light smattering of freckles along her cheeks and the bridge of her nose. She kept her black hair short, like all the Sentinels, and had the most intriguing hazel eyes he had ever seen. But her lips were his favorite part of her face: full and luscious and dark, bespeaking of a passionate nature. Slender and graceful, she was much to his taste, and he was fairly entertained by the fact that he didn’t seemed disturbed by the meaning of her existence, or the fact that she had slept on the planet’s airless moon for over 15,000 years. When she first slept, there had been no hu’ans, no city-states, no nations as they existed today. He shook his head and turned to the archway leading from the hallway.
“Rien!” Moyen greeted and caught his hand in both of his. “What brings you out here?”
“Can you close the door, my lord?” Rien asked.
Moyen seemed taken aback for a moment before he relented and nodded, letting go his hand and shutting the hallway door. “What is it?”
“Have you forgotten you have Othol’s paid spy in your household?” Rien asked without preamble.
Moyen grimaced. “I have not. Besen’s family has been in our service for generations. We pay them well.” He shook his head. “Are you sure one of his family is Othol’s spy?”
Rien splayed his hands. “How do you determine that Othol knew Malida had taken a tea made from okre leaves, if it wasn’t a servant?”
“I’m not sure,” Moyen owned and looked helplessly at him.
“Well, I never got to interrogate Othol,” Rien told him.
“Excuse me, my lords,” the Sentinel called Sol interrupted them and stepped forward. “I have the means to extract information from your servants without harming them.”
“A truth serum?” Rien asked.
The Sentinel shrugged. “Something like that, sir. It is a synthesized drug that works on most humans by lowering inhibitions and producing mild intoxication and disorientation. The individual will not recall the interrogation.”
The one called Kaster shifted. “Shouldn’t we be saving the drug for the Sha’jeen?”
Sol shrugged. “It may not work on another species, Kaster. Besides, we have frozen stockpiles at the base.”
Kaster scratched his left cheek. “That’s true.”
Rien cleared his throat. “We have a type of truth serum made from a plant, but it isn’t very effective – only on about 63% of those who imbibe it.”
Sol turned back to him. “Our synthesized drug is more effective than that.”
“Then I would try it on the servants,” Rien told him. He turned to Moyen. “Permission?”
Moyen made a helpless gesture. “I suppose.” He sighed. “We’ll have to tell them why we are doing it.”
“We’ll tell them it is an examination,” Kaster offered. “I’ll examine them once they are interrogated. Like Sol said, they won’t recall anything anyway.”
Ariahl cleared her throat and stepped forward to stand next to Sol. “My lords. If the servants turn out not to be the infiltrators, we’ll have to interrogate your family.”
Moyen frowned. “What?”
Ariahl took another step forward and gazed into Lord Stait’s eyes. “I trust you and your wife are not infiltrators, my lord, but I do not have the same confidence in your children.”
Moyen’s frown turned into a scowl. “I beg your pardon–”
Ariahl stared unwaveringly back at the tall man. “The safety of the populace of this planet and the outcome of this mission is all that matters to me, my lord. I am not your friend; I am not even your ally. I am your protector. The protector of all humanity. We will interrogate your family, as we will your servants. Someone has betrayed Malida and we will find out who. Understood?”
Moyen looked helplessly at Rien.
“I hadn’t considered it, my lord,” Rien replied with an apologetic smile. “But she is correct. This mission is too large, too important, and no one can matter above it.”
Moyen sighed. “Very well. Shall we begin with Besen?”
They commandeered the library for the interrogations. Besen was brought in and made to sit in a settee near the fire.
“The drug lowers body temperatures,” Kaster explained to Moyen and Rien. “Thus, the fire. May we secure a blanket?”
“Of course,” Moyen replied and hurried away, returning a few minutes later with a thick pale blue blanket.
Kaster took the blanket and draped it over Besen. “I am going to inject you with a drug that will make the examination more thorough.”
“Inject?” the servant asked blankly.
Kaster reached into his bag and retrieved a syringe with a capped needle.
Besen took one look at the syringe and its long needle and rose abruptly.
“Sit down, Besen,” Moyen ordered.
The older servant looked at his employer. “But, sir, there is absolutely nothing wrong with me!”
“Sit. Down,” Moyen stated more firmly.
With a helpless look around the room, Besen sat down once more. “Yes, sir.”
Kaster pushed the servant’s loose sleeve to his bicep and tied a leather thong tightly around the upper arm. Using his fingers, he felt around for a suitable vein, glancing up at Moyen, who stood nearby.
“Intravenous injection delivers the drug very quickly and efficiently throughout the body,” he told the lord.
He found a vein and inserted the needle slowly into the arm, pulling the plunger back. Blood rushed into the syringe, turning the colorless substance a dark red. Untying the thong, he injected the drug into the vein and pressed his thumb against the wound, withdrawing the needle.
A minute or so later, he let go Besen’s arm. “It should work fairly quickly, Lord Moyen.”
He reached into his bag and removed a stethoscope and an ophthalmoscope. He gently pushed Besen onto his back and covered him with the blanket. The old man began to shiver as Kaster listened to his heart and looked at his dilated eyes. He pursed his lips and stood up, turning to Rien.
“You may interrogate him now, my lord,” the Sentinel murmured and stepped away from the settee.
Rien nodded and took a seat on the low table facing the loveseat. He leaned forward and rested his forearms on his thighs.
“Besen,” he said softly.
The old man turned his head to face Rien. His eyes were so blown, they appeared completely black. “My lord?”
“State your full name,” Rien said.
“Besen Oloin, Sir.”
“How long have you worked for Malida Stait?”
“Since I was five, sir,” the old man said.
“What do you do for Lady Stait?” Rien asked.
“I run the villa, sir. I hire seasonal workers for the sowing of seeds, the maintenance of the crops, and the harvests. I pay the seasonal workers from the house accounts. I go into the city once a week for supplies, although we use the two large hothouses to grow food year round. My son, Oskel, maintains the grounds, including the hothouse crops, making sure the plants get enough water and fertilizer.”
Rien nodded. “Very good, Besen. Did Lord Othol ever approach you, Besen, with the promise of more money?”
The servant frowned. “No, sir. Lord Othol has never come to the villa, and I’ve never come across him while in town. I don’t visit the castle, sir. I only go to the public market.”
“Would your wife or daughter or son have had any contact with Othol Stait?” Rien asked.
Besen shook his head. “No, sir. Oskel comes with me to the market, as does my daughter, Masiha.”
“Do your son or daughter ever go into the city alone, without you?” Rien asked.
“Yes, sir. My son has an affianced, as does his sister. Both young people live in the city. I allow them to visit their sweethearts once a week. They go together and return the following day together.”
“Thank you, Besen,” Rien said and rose. “I’m done here.”
“Who next?” Moyen asked.
“I would like to talk to Masiha and Oskel,” Rien replied. “I think we are safe not talking to the wife, if she never leaves here alone.”
The interrogation of the servants took around two hours. The interrogated servants were then carried to their rooms by the Sentinels to sleep off the effects of the drug.
They uncovered nothing from their efforts, so they perforce turned their attention to Moyen’s children.
“I need to speak to Malida before we start,” Moyen told those in the library.
“Talk to me about what?”
They all turned to the archway. Malida stood there with her oldest son and heir, Toyus.
Moyen sighed. “Come in, Malida. You, too, Toyus. Close the door please.”
Once his wife and son were seated, Moyen explained to them what had to be done.
Toyus became upset and stood up abruptly. “But this is absurd! My siblings are children!”
Kaster crossed his arms over his chest. “Your siblings are young men and women and human.”
Toyus frowned. “What does that mean?”
“I’ve yet to meet a more deceitful race than humanity,” the Sentinel replied blandly.
“But, you’re human–” Toyus said helplessly.
Kaster barked a laugh. “I am a cyborg. An amalgam of flesh and machine. A true human would not have survived cryo-sleep. My humanity is tampered by electronic chips in my brain that allow me to function without being hampered by strong emotions. I only feel the emotions necessary for me to do my job: empathy, compassion, love, dedication, and loyalty. We represent the best of the species.”
Toyus sat down abruptly, the wind gone from his sails.
Malida sighed. “I trust Toyus with my life.”
Mariel knelt before Malida. “My lady, our mission is bigger than your family. Bigger than any one individual.”
Malida nodded distractedly. She gazed at the Sentinel before her with her heart in her eyes.
Mariel swallowed thickly and took Malida’s hands in hers. “I’m sorry, my lady.”
Malida nodded again. She looked at Rien. “What do we have to do?”
“We inject a truth serum into the subject and ask him or her specific questions,” Rien told her.
Toyus rose again. “I’ll go first.”
Kaster uncrossed his arms. “That makes me think you aren’t the one.”
Toyus frowned. “I won’t be treated differently from my siblings.”
“Very well,” Kaster replied. “Shall we start?”
As Kaster had suspected, Toyus was a dead end.
They brought in the children, one by one, and told them they had to be examined. Each child waited outside the library while his or her siblings were interrogated.
Itina was the last.
She looked at the needle Kaster held up and blanched pale as a sheet. But she bravely held her arm out for him.
Toyus stood behind the settee and Malida held the girl’s hand and sat on the floor next to the loveseat.
Rien sighed and sat once more on the low table facing the small couch. He rubbed his face and looked expectantly at Kaster.
When the doctor nodded, Rien turned back to the girl.
“What is your name?”
“How old are you, Itina?”
“I’ll be seventeen in three months. I’m sixteen.”
“Do you know Othol Stait?”
The girl squirmed. “He’s aya’s second husband.”
“Why are you uncomfortable, Itina?”
The girl scrounged up her face. “I–” She reached a shaking hand to her face and wiped at her cheek.
“Answer the question, Itina: How well do you know Othol Stait?”
She sat up. “No!”
Rien stood up and sat on the edge of the settee, gently pushing her back onto the couch.
“What do you mean no, Itina?” he asked.
The girl shook her head. “He’s–” She said nothing more for several minutes.
Rien looked at Kaster. “Is she immune to the truth serum?”
“She might have a resistance,” the doctor replied. “I will administer half a dose more. That’s all I would dare.”
“Will it harm her?” Malida demanded.
“Not if I only give her half a dose more,” Kaster replied and proceeded to inject the girl with more of the drug.
They waited ten minutes before Rien began to ask her questions once more. She had calmed down by then.
“How well do you know Othol Stait?”
She frowned. “What–he…”
She crossed her arms as if cold, so Rien covered her with the blue blanket.
“Answer me, Itina.”
She began to cry. “Mama! Mama!”
“I’m here, sweetheart,” Malida told her and wiped the tears from her cheeks.
“He…” Itina said. “He raped me! When I was eleven. He told me if I didn’t help him, he would tell everyone I had seduced him and–” She was sobbing so hard now, her words became lost.
Malida sat on the edge of the couch and gathered the girl to her. “Oh, my baby! My darling child!”
Toyus growled. “I am going to kill him with my own hands.”
“That’s my job,” Moyen told him.
Rien turned his gaze to Itina once more. “Did you tell Othol about Malida taking the tea made of poison?”
The girl nodded miserably. “Yes! I’m sorry, Aya! He made me! He made me tell!”
Malida caressed the girl’s hair and crooned softly to her.
Rien sighed wearily and rose. “I would venture to guess he raped her repeatedly until she was too old for his perverse tastes.” He looked at Moyen. “I have assassins on his trail. He’ll be dispatched quietly and quickly.”
Moyen worked his jaw. “I want him brought to me.”
Moyen straightened to his full height. “I. Want. To. Dispatch. Him. Myself.”
Rien nodded. “It will make it harder to kidnap him.”
“Knock him out, drug him,” Moyen said. “I don’t care. I don’t care if he comes to me a bit worn.”
Rien nodded. “Yes, sir. Excuse me.”
They watched him as he left the library. He needed to dispatch a carrier vinah to his contacts in Kuin-on-the-Ha’j as soon as possible.