Ekaterin Nicola Alexandrine Romanov’ch huddled in the corner of the room, praying not to be seen. It was not her way, to cower, but she could not bear to think of what had just happened to her family. She hugged her knees and sat utterly silent, breathing through open mouth to ensure that even her respirations were silent. Her mind, though, was a tumult. Part of her listened with icy control to what the men in the room were saying, the other, smaller part – the part inherited from some distant Viking ancestor – screamed its battle cry, urging her to leap upon them and rend them limb from limb. She fought that, too, knowing that her only chance for revenge was to listen and carry the traitor’s words to those loyal to the Emperor. Her father had only been a Count’s son, but he had been a powerful voice as his father’s proxy, and now these men had torn her family apart to still that voice.

“All accounted for?” asked the man silhouetted against the window.

“Yes, I believe so. Theodor and his lady wife, the two sons, and one young girl…wasn’t that all?” This man Ekaterin could see, and she knew she would never forget the ropy scars that marred his face from forehead to his collar. He wore a black uniform, with no insignia that she could see. She wondered who the unlucky girl had been – he must mean her, but she was still alive, so who?

“Torch the house then,” said the other indifferently, turning to leave the room. As he opened the door, Ekatering saw him, and her eyes widened. Her uncle. Her father’s younger brother. It was he who had ordered the deaths of her family. But he had not gotten her, and she swore that he would regret that.

Even after they left the house, she sat still, until she heard the voices of the men outside preparing to burn the house down. Then she silently ran up the stairs and into her eldest brother’s room. There was no time… but she needed clothes, and a weapon. She slipped out of her dress quickly, and grabbed one of his shirts, a pair of riding breeches, and put them on quickly. Distantly she noticed that they were too long, but not enough to worry her. She pulled his long riding duster out of the closet, and then buckled on his calvary saber. It was not the weapon she would have chosen, but she knew he had taken his gun when he went down to meet the intruders – she had heard the men cursing him for killing one of them. She was already wearing her riding boots, having put them on as she scrambled out of her bath with some confused notion that she would need to go outside – she had thought the house was on fire until she got down the stairs and saw her brother’s body sprawled in the foyer.

Ekaterin twisted her mouth into the mockery of a smile. Well, the house was on fire now. Were there still men outside? She looked out the window cautiously, and was rewarded by the sight of two groundcars sailing off down the driveway. She was still watching them when the house exploded. The percussion threw her off her feet, and she clung to the floor for an instant, dazed. Then she jumped up and threw the window open. Putting a leg out of it, she looked into the house and whispered,

“I will make them pay, Maman, Papa, mon freres. I swear it on my name as Romanov’ch.”

Then she jumped out, onto the shed roof. From there she swung into the limbs of a nearby tree with long-practiced ease. This was the route she and her brothers had used many time to sneak out. Down from the tree and racing to the stables, mercifully untouched. She took her saddle and as slowly as she could, entered the stalls of three horses. When at last she was ready, she had a waterskin over her shoulder, and was astride her father’s stallion, with the two best geldings in their herd in tow. She leaped aboard to stallion with a move that her father would have scolded her for attempting, and kicked the horse into abrupt action, releasing the war cry she had been holding back. All three horses sprang forward like frightened rabbits, and Ekaterin caught only a glimpse of her home, already engulfed in flame, as they raced past it into the wooded trail that led toward Hassadah.

She did not keep the horses at a dead run for long, just long enough to be completely away from all sight or sound of the burning house. The she reined them back to a ground-eating lope, her mind intent on her destination, and how she was going to get in to see her father’s boss, the Intelligence Chief in charge of domestic affairs. She knew she had a sixteen-hour trip ahead of her, that was why she had brought changes of horses. She did not intend to stop.

Nor did she. The apparition who rode up to the gates of the Intelligence headquarters the next morning was pale and swaying in her saddle, but she had made the trip in seventeen hours. Her horse was spraddle-legged and his head hung, but he still moved, and she said to the gate guard,

“Please tell General Aleksov’ch that Theodor Romanov’ch is dead, and his daughter wishes to beg refuge.”

His head snapped up to her from his inspection of the foam-slathered horse, and he unconsciously saluted her, so cold and forceful was her tone.

“Yes, ma’am, right away!”

Ekaterin could not hear the conversation taking place on the comconsole inside the guardhouse, but she stiffened her posture and stared straight ahead. It had been a hellish night. The only way she had been able to keep going on was to use the miner’s headlamp of her brother’s that she had snatched from the stable, and then she had had to dismount and lead the horses. She had not run, herself, but had kept up a dog-trot for perhaps four hours after the moon sank to low behind the trees to be of any use. She was bone tired, and so very thankful her father had allowed her to train with her brothers. Most of her peers would not have made it an hour into that trek. She was beginning to wonder how much longer she could stay in the saddle when the gates swung open and the guard stepped out and reached for the reins.

“No.” she said.

“But…” he stared after her as the horse walked away from him, then ran after it, finally deciding that walking beside her would do. Behind them, a squad of guards trotted into their defensive positions, weapons at ready. The guard’s description of her appearance had evidently given alarm to those in charge.

Ekaterin rode proud, her back arrow straight. She was a Romanov’ch and would not be led like a schoolgirl taking lessons! She was going to give her father’s last report, and she would bear herself with honor. She saw the General waiting on the steps, at parade rest, although she doubted that he realized it, and dismounted before him.

“Sir, I am Ekaterin Romanov’ch, with my father’s last report.” She swayed, and clutched at the horse’s mane to keep herself up. God, her feet hurt! she suspected her boots would have to be cut off.

The tall general saluted her gravely, then took her arm. “Can you walk?”

“No, I don’t think so.” she gasped.

Wordlessly, he picked her up and walked back up the stairs, bellowing, “Medic!”

Quickly, she was installed in the infirmary, the doctor therein waving the general back for a moment while he treated her feet, which were a mass of blisters, bleeding in places. He anointed them liberally with a healing salve, and she sighed with relief as the pain faded away. The general gave a low-voiced order to the doctor, which made the medical man give him a piercing look. Ekaterin did not hear what was said, but she guessed a moment later when the doctor gave her an injection.

“A stimulant.” confirmed the General. “I need to hear what you have to say right away. All we are waiting for now is… ah, here you are.”

He turned and nodded at the three men who had just entered. Two of them wore plain business suits, their only insignia a silver eye of Horus on their lapels, the third was a tall – even taller than General Aleksov, she noted – white-haired man who also wore the uniform of General. Aleksov, sombre, turned back to her and said, “Go ahead, Miss Romanov’ch”

Emotionlessly, she recited: “At eight o’clock yesterday morning a force of armed, uniformed men stormed my house. They shot my parents at the breakfast table, my eldest brother in the foyer when he tried to resist them – he did kill one – and my younger brother in his bed. They also killed my cousin Olivia, who was staying with my family.”

One of the plain clothed men interrupted her to ask gently “How did you survive?”

“I hid in the drawing room sir. I came down the stairs after my brother, and saw him dead and his killer stepping into the library, so I went into the drawing room. Evidently they had already looked in there, for none of the hired killers came in after me.”

“Hired killers?” asked the same man.

“Yes, sir. After two hours, I do not know why the delay, two men entered the room and talked briefly. One of them was badly scarred in the face from the outplanet worm plague…”

All the men exchanged a glance at this, but did not speak.

“The other was my uncle Alexander.”

She relayed the conversation she had overheard, and when she was finished, the older General rumbled, in the deepest bass voice she had ever heard, “Aleksov, how can we be sure of this?”

“We have already had news of the fire, but we had not yet realized that it was an assassination, sir. It would have taken us some time to determine, given…” he looked sideways at the pale girl. “ah, the condition of the bodies, what the cause of death was.”

She shuddered, hastily diverting her mind from the images his words brought.

“What about this – this collaboration she reports?” The older man asked testily.

“I have an eidetic memory, sir. ” Ekaterin interjected calmly. “Father had me trained to use it once he realized what it was.”

Aleksov nodded. “Yes, I remember him commenting on it, and bemoaning that she was not a boy, or we would be gaining a good intelligence officer.”

Ekaterin looked at him, wondering why he had added that.

“So.” the plainclothes man who had not yet spoken said. “What do we do about this?”

“Well, I give a report to the Emperor.” The elder General said. Then he spoke directly to her. “He will no doubt want to debrief you himself, young lady. Your father was a good friend of his, you know.”

She nodded. “Thank you, sir.”

Her vision was beginning to blur around the edges, and she realized that the stimulant was wearing off. The men turned to depart, and as they left she remembered the last thing she had to do. As she was underage, legally, her guardianship would go to her uncle, and failing him, to her aunt, who was his silent partner. Forgetting her feet, she stood up quickly.

“General Aleksov, sir! I request refuge from you!”

He turned back at the sound of his name, and looked puzzled for an instant at the formal words of a soldier asking for protection from a commanding officer. Then his eyes cleared, and he said gently,

“Of course, my dear girl,” while catching her for the second time that day.

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