The Rifter's Covenant
    (Transtube adits secure and locked down.)
    (Supply adits secure and locked down.)
    Vahn let his breath
out slowly, then subvocalized a command. (Stand
by for Gamma bay breach.)
    Though the lock was
still cycling open, imagers were recording everything; all over Ares, people
watched, and recordings of Brandon’s arrival on Ares would shortly be couriered
out to the rest of the Thousand Suns.
    Grim humor flared
through Vahn’s mind as he pictured the battle that would have taken place had
Brandon chosen to enter on the civ side—an entirely civilian battle over who
was invited and who not. Now all the civs were watching from elsewhere, high
and low alike: the only people in that landing bay outside the lock were
military. Clean and simple.
    As the Panarch and
his guard reached their position before the vast doors, the thick metal valves
began to yawn open, revealing the equally immense bay just beyond. A beam of
light struck through the opening, highlighting the Panarch’s slim figure; the
flourishing brass of the Phoenix Fanfare pealed out.
    (Gamma bay breached. Full alert.)
    (Squad 2, scanning.)
    (Squad 3, scanning.)
    It was deliberate
theater of the grandest sort. Vahn wondered how many unseen people had labored
unceasingly for all the hours since the cruiser’s courier first skipped into
the system, just to bring the focus of this tremendous space onto a single
human being. How Semion would have gloried in this moment. For all the wrong
reasons. It was a chilling thought.
    As they waited for
the mighty doors to finish cycling open, Vahn looked back down the years. Under
Semion, all aspects of daily life had been ritualized, from meals to the
frequent floggings. It had taken Vahn’s removal from the self-absorbed
atmosphere of Semion’s fortress on Narbon to grasp how effective Semion had
been at fostering the illusion of power by creating a personal mystique—and it
had taken a deliberate lack of ritual amid the artists and poets on Talgarth,
with Galen, to appreciate a mystique borne of love rather than fear.
    Vahn spared a
glance at Semion and Galen’s brother, to find him scrutinizing those perfectly
formed rows; without moving, Brandon sent a privacy. (The two men at the end of the captains’ row. Who are they?)
    Vahn scanned the
motionless gathering inside the bay, his neck prickling at the sheer numbers.
One thing for certain: Brandon was fast at assessment, maybe even faster even
than Vahn.
    (Jeph Koestler and Igac Vapet—)
    (Two of Semion’s former cadre of cruiser
    There was no need
to answer this rhetorical statement, and anyway it was time to move.
    Vahn called another
cadence and evolution as the new Panarch stepped out of the lock to claim his
birthright; power seemed to condense out of the air around him, layering him in
the armor of a thousand years of dynastic rule.
    Vahn’s gaze moved
to the rows of angular machinery all about—on the floor, on bulkheads and
overhead, like the teeth of some vast predator—as he watched for danger.
    There was none. The
vast space seemed charged with timelessness, as if all the hearts within it
beat as one, in time with the step of the single figure in white who moved
through their midst.
    Jaim watched the
ceremony on a huge wallscreen in the Arkadic Enclave. With military precision
Admiral Nyberg paced forward to meet Brandon halfway. He dropped to one knee
and offered both hands, palms up. Brandon touched his palms, raised him, then
they turned together.
    Nyberg spoke.
Brandon spoke. Jaim had tabbed the audio down; the words were mere ritual, meaningless.
The intent had been clear since the warship landed at the Cap. Brandon had come
in on the military side, as a war-leader.
    Which is the only
way he’ll bind them together, Jaim thought as he turned away from the screen to
survey the quiet room, everything in readiness to receive the man who had gone
away a problematical heir and come back an unquestioned ruler. The Enclave

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