The pain was a constant companion. It ebbed and flowed through all his waking hours, and it tormented his sleep. He had schooled himself to betray no outward hint of it, but the attacks grew sharper each day, and he doubted his strength would last indefinitely. Now thousands of eyes would be on him. He must not falter.
Renn Gistos yl-Harabec, Phoenix Prime, High Warden of the Wing of Glory, Keeper of the Holy Word, and Scion of the First Tribe, stepped out of the shuttle and breathed the tepid morning air of Bella Omega, site of the Seventh Firetruce. It was only a short time since the sun rose, but he could already taste the humidity that promised to become a sweltering heat before midmorning. When one had walked on over a hundred worlds, one developed a keen nose for climate. Still, it was beautiful and lush with vegetation. He approved of the Diamond Sword's choice.
A spasm flared up like lightning ripping through his vitals. He masked the sudden agony by pausing as though he merely surveyed his surroundings, though anyone close to him would have remarked on the sudden rigidity of his posture. When it passed-thank the Lord Phoenix it was not one of his longer attacks, for he could not afford to show weakness-he made his way carefully down the steps.
A small delegation waited below him, accompanied by an honor guard of Diamond Sword hoplites whose armor flashed in the sunlight. Other Diamond Sword stood guard on the buildings around the landing zone, alongside the glittering gold armors of Children of Phoenix warriors. A riot of fiery orange and scarlet flowers cascaded from the terraced buildings, and multicolored banners stirred in the morning breeze. The sight was sweet and fresh, like hope on the wing. Renn let the brightness fill his heart.
An attractive young woman stepped out of the delegation to greet him. She wore enameled white armor emblazoned with a purple thunderbolt. So this is the girl chosen as Speaker of the Firetruce Council! She was much younger than he'd expected, though he'd known she was a junior officer from an independent tribe that followed a version of his own faith in the Phoenix. Why did the Diamond Sword choose her? he wondered. She didn't strike him as a conspirator. The girl had an appraising expression, and he saw the lines of strain on her face.
Suddenly he knew why the Sworders had placed her here. She is too new to this game. With the insight came a rush of pity for her. Welcome to the world of politics, child. May it not destroy you as it has me.
"Greetings, Light of the First Tribe," she said with a deep bow. "I am Shana Terayl of the Sons of Thunder, known among my people as Nabterayl. Welcome to Bella Omega."
Renn smiled and strode down to place his hand on her shoulder. The moment his armored boots touched the tarmac he knew this world would be the death of him. "Bright Lord Harabec!"
The girl looked alarmed. "My Lord Gistos?"
"It's nothing." Renn forced a reassuring smile. "My thanks for your welcome, Shana Dawn Terayl. The Bright Lord bless and watch over you." She looked doubtful for an instant, but she covered it with a brilliant smile that seemed to throw cares to the wind. Ah, would that he were fifty years younger! He'd have courted this girl then, by the Bright Lord, yes. His smile became a genuine grin. Ah, Renn, still distracted by pretty faces after all these years!
The pain threatened to return, but he took a deep breath and willed it away. The feeling of malice still pervaded his inner senses. I've come a long way, planet. I've sweated and sacrificed to be here at this moment. You'll not defeat my purpose, by Blessed Harabec. He had at least three months before the alien cancer devoured him. He would put them to good use. Thus far, no one but his physician knew the truth: he was dying.
Even your life is a weapon, the Scriptures taught.
He returned his attention to business. If Terayl was brightly clad, her companion was her opposite. Tall, deathly pale, and encased in black armor, a familiar figure knelt before Renn.
"My Great Lord," the woman said in a honeyed voice. "My life is yours."
"My Lady Lilith." He placed his hand on her hair. "It is good to see the Keeper of the Flame at the Firetruce." Malderi's tool, he thought dryly. Never believe otherwise of this serpent. Anton Malderi had long hungered for the throne of the Phoenix Prime, he and his bloodthirsty Harbinger faction. There would be much blood spilled if Malderi came to power, Renn knew.
Lilith stood, a half-smile playing at her lips. "As it is good to see the Word of the Bright Lord, whose presence brings light to each world he treads upon."
Beautiful and fey, that was Lilith. The leader of the fanatical Dark Phoenix Wing, she burned with the intensity of her faith. A pity that she had fallen under Malderi's shadow, and thereby the shadow of the Other.
Renn turned to the Thunder girl. The Speaker of the Council, he reminded himself. He would not treat her as a child. She deserved respect from him, even as he-like the others-deceived and manipulated her.
"Shana Terayl, if you would lead me to my chambers, I shall rest awhile before the opening ceremonies."
"Of course, my Lord. If you will follow me?"
He fell in behind her, grimacing inwardly at the pain that snaked tendils up from his gut. If he was to die here, he would have to ensure his death furthered his purpose.
Unity. Yes, that was a goal worth any price.
He looked at the back of the young Speaker. Unity was worth even the death of children, the destruction of innocence. Try as he might, he could not see an alternative. His dream was a bloody one, but he would pay the price as fully as he could. With every step he welcomed the pain as his penance. There would be no drugs, he vowed. No relief, for however many days or weeks the Bright Lord permitted him.
He would drink fully of the cup of sacrifice.