Vilondra left Khivar's mansion the next morning at daybreak and hurried to the palace. She no longer had the luxury of time. Upon her arrival, she dispatched Sodan, Zan's most trusted protector with messages to her mother, her brother and his wife, and her brother's second in command, to meet her in an hour in the King's council chamber.
When they arrived, Vilondra quickly related everything.
"So Khivar's plan was to kill me and marry you to make his claim to the throne legal," Zan said shaking his head, completely dumbfounded. Even though they often had differing opinions, over the last year he had come to admire and respect Khivar.
Ava broke the silence, "He has been very careful to keep his feelings to himself. I have not sensed anything out of the ordinary about him."
"How would he know to keep his emotions under control around Ava?" Rath asked. "Her powers are known to only a few."
"That is my fault," Vilondra owned. "I told him of your talent," she said to Ava. "And Khivar is very powerful. He could easily have kept his emotions dampened on the few occasions they have been together."
"Vil, it was foolish of you to confront him yourself,” Zan said. “He could have killed you."
"No Zan," Ava spoke up, "he genuinely loves her. I have felt it."
Vilondra smiled her thanks to her sister-in-law. "Zan, I knew he wouldn't kill me. He does love me."
Zan shook his head. "What did he say when you confronted him?"
"He knew I would discover his plan and hoped I would stay with him, but he expected that I would fight him. He said it wouldn't matter though because there was nothing we could do to stop him. He thinks if you tell the Council what he is attempting, they will not believe you, and he is convinced there is no proof. He has been careful to use people who couldn't be traced back to him, and his army is well hidden."
"Well the first thing we do," Rath raged, "is kick his royal butt back to the southern region and then we find proof even if we have to uncover every rock between here and there to do it."
Zan spoke softly. "We can't banish him from the city without proof. He has retained his Council seat and to take that away from him would break the treaty, and then he could accuse us of starting a war." He took Ava's hand in his and squeezed lightly. "We will start with an investigation. No matter how well Khivar thinks he has covered his tracks, there will be evidence and we will find it. Rath I want you to handle this personally."
"I won't let you down, Zan."
"Khivar has used his time on the Council to his advantage," Zan stated. "He has made many powerful alliances. If we attempt to make his plot publicly known without evidence, he will bury us with it. We will keep this just between us for the time being."
Vilondra was in tears. "I am so sorry Zan. I never meant to betray you."
Zan rounded the table and took his sister in his arms. "Vil, you have not betrayed me, or any of us. Khivar used you and your love for him. You tried to stop him and you told us of his treachery. I love you and I am proud that you are my sister."
Rath spoke up, "Well, we have to do something to stop him.
"Yes we do," Zan said. He walked to stand behind Ava and wrapped his arms around her to gather the strength he needed. He could feel her love and support pouring across their bond. "We know what his plans are and we will find a way to stop him."
Zan took a deep breath as his brain raced for a solution, and he turned to Vilondra. "It has not been a secret you are involved with Khivar and he could use that to his advantage. If it is generally known you have been with him, even when you knew he planned to kill me, it could divide our supporters and we can't afford that. The first thing we have to do is to distance you from Khivar."
"What do you mean Zan?" Vilondra asked somewhat apprehensively.
"I think we should arrange an engagement for you."
"You can't mean to marry me off to some idiotic Duke to get me out of your hair!" she objected.
"Of course not," Zan soothed. "You know I would never interfere in your choice of husband. What I suggest is a counterfeit engagement to direct the court's attention away from your relationship with Khivar."
Vilondra’s brow creased. "And to whom do you suggest I become engaged?"
"Rath, if he will agree," Zan said.
Rath opened his mouth but Zan held up a hand to stop his undoubtedly scathing comment.
"Here is what I propose," Zan continued. Vilondra will stay away from Khivar. In one month, we formally announce your engagement, and you two agree to be seen together publicly as a loving couple. Then, when we can prove Khivar is a traitor and discredit him, you will quietly announce the marriage is off and go your separate ways, so to speak. Only the five of us will know the truth." Zan continued. "In the mean time, Rath will quietly add to the ranks of the military and direct a discreet but thorough investigation into Khivar's actions, and I will continue to deal with the problems that arise as quickly as possible."
Nedra spoke for the first time. "I think it is a sound idea," she said, as she turned her attention to Vilondra. "I never did like the fact that you were seeing Khivar. I never trusted his motives."
"Mother!" Vilondra started to object but she knew her family would not understand the depth of her relationship with Khivar.
"I am sorry Vilondra,” Nedra said. “I won't say any more about him."
"No," Vilondra relented, "I am the one who is sorry for getting us into this situation.” She turned to her brother. “Zan, I will do whatever you think is best."
Zan turned to his second. "Rath what do you say?"
Rath glanced briefly at Ava, hesitating for only a moment. "I will serve you any way you see fit."
Zan waited until the evening, when he was alone with Ava, to express his true feelings. "This thing with Khivar has taken me completely by surprise. I trusted him, " he shook his head, "and I am not sure how to resolve this."
Ava leaned in close and kissed him, letting the intensity of her feelings for him flow through their bond.
Zan trailed his hand down Ava's arm, causing her soft skin to glow with a golden light that echoed the color of her aura. The glow had been another unexpected consequence of their bond, but it was one that Zan treasured because it allowed him access to another part of her.
As was their custom in the evenings, they sat together in the Granolith room and he pulled Ava into his arms. It had started as time set aside for them to be close to one another, but it had developed into a way for them to find solutions for the problems they encountered. They had discovered that when they were together, their powers were somehow amplified, as if their bond also served as a conductor to pass energy from one to the other.
Then Ava had suggested that the power of the Granolith might also strengthen their powers and they had started coming to the room to meditate. They had discovered when they allowed the bond to open freely between them and the Granolith, that the power of the Granolith was like a living thing. Its energy flowed between them, bringing their energy and their bond more closely into alignment. It made them feel as if there was nothing they could not conquer as long as they were together. Ava's visions of the future came more frequently and were more precise, and Zan had his greatest insights on how to rule his people.
As they sat near the Granolith's glowing base, Ava's small hands caressed Zan’s face and brow, willing the strain and discomfort from him. A soft blue glow followed the path of her hands and Zan felt himself relax as their bond solidified and the Granolith's power merged with theirs. Taking deep breaths to release the tension from his body, the sweet smell of Ava's hair filled his senses. Without asking, she always knew what he needed.
he heard her soft voice in his mind, I know because I feel you.
As I feel you, my love,
Ava spoke aloud, "There are difficult times coming, especially for Vilondra. She truly loves Khivar."
A shaft of pain went through Zan at the thought of his sister's sacrifice. "I know," he said softly. "And I wish there was something I could do to help her through it."
"She will just need time."
He nodded. "What else do you see?" he asked gravely. "Can you see what will happen?"
Ava concentrated, letting the energy surrounding the Granolith seep into her. "No, not exactly," she said sadly. "I see strife and ruin among the people."
"How do we prevent it?" Zan asked.
"I am not sure," she said, but an overwhelming sensation pressed her to continue, "but science is the key."
Now that Vilondra was no longer with him, Khivar did not have a good source of information from within the palace. It was possible he could bribe someone, but there was always the chance of discovery or worse, a guilty conscience. He could instruct Nicaron to pry the necessary information out of someone's head but the results were not guaranteed and the subject was usually damaged.
No. What he needed was a spy. Someone who shared his interests and who could come and go from the palace with ease. Someone who was close to the family. He smiled. He knew just the individual.
Chanya exited the shop, her many purchases in her arms. She couldn't wait to get back to the palace and show her new things to Vilondra, and she looked around eagerly for her transport. Her incompetent driver was late again and she was becoming very agitated when she finally spotted him. Impatiently, she waited for the driver to come to her and relieve her burden, when it was suddenly taken from her.
"Allow me, Lady Chanya," a deep gravely voice intoned.
Chanya turned toward the familiar voice. "Good afternoon, Duke Roistar," she said formally. "To what do I owe this pleasure?"
"I assure you, the pleasure is all mine." Khivar said smoothly. "May I give you a lift, my Lady?"
"No thank you, my driver is finally here," she said somewhat warily, as she eyed Khivar's companion, General Nicaron.
Khivar slipped his free hand around Chanya's shoulder to prevent her from leaving and spoke close to her ear so only she could hear. "Chanya, I do insist you come for a drive. I have a proposition I wish to discuss."
"Very well," she hissed, resenting that he would dare to manhandle her. "I would enjoy a ride." She turned to her driver and regally pronounced, "Take my parcels, and wait here. I am going for a ride with the Duke."
Khivar escorted her into his transport with a flourish. "A wise choice," he said as they started. "I have something to say that could be beneficial to us both if we agree to cooperate. I believe our interests lie in the same direction."
"Whatever do you mean, Sir?" she asked, truly ignorant of his motives.
"I mean, I know you are in love with Zan."
Chanya opened her mouth to protest but Khivar silenced her.
"Just hear me out. You want Zan but there is an obstacle between you, mainly his wife. But if Ava were removed from the equation, you could comfort the grieving King and win him back."
"Why would you do it?” Chanya asked. “What possible reason could you have?"
"I, and many others, think this planet has been ruled by just one man for long enough,” Khivar said smothly. “We believe the government should be run by the Council.”
Chanya’s brow creased in confusion and Khivar continued. “I will arrange to have Ava taken, and with her as collateral, we can convince Zan to step down and be King in name only, and the Council would take over the rule of Antar and the five planets."
Khivar glanced at Chanya and saw he had her full attention. "Of course Ava will never return to the palace alive. There are always so many things that can go wrong with these hostage negotiations, and accidents are just a part of life."
Chanya's eyes narrowed as her suspicions of Khivar's motives rose. "Why not just kill Zan?"
"It would raise too many suspicions," Khivar scoffed, "and I for one don't want a civil war on my hands."
"And what do you want me to do?” Chanya asked. “I couldn't be the one to kill Ava. Zan might discover it in a moment of intimacy."
"No, of course not," Khivar agreed smoothly. "I would never ask you to soil your dainty hands in such a way. No, all I want from you is information on what is happening in the palace. I know you are the dowager Queen's closest companion, and you also have Vilondra's ear. I just want a daily report of anything you hear."
"So let me see if I understand what you are proposing,” Chanya said. “I give you information and you will take Ava so that Zan will give up the rule to the Council, and then you will have Ava killed."
Khivar smiled. "That is what I propose. Zan would still be King, in name, meaning that as his wife you would be Queen, but he wouldn't have to bother with all of those worrisome decisions and he would have much more time to spend with you."
Chanya considered Khivar for a handful of moments. She didn't really trust Khivar but what he proposed wouldn't place her in a compromising position, and if he could eliminate Ava… She smiled thinking of a future with Zan that now seemed more assured, and nodded. "I agree."
Cuerena entered the Granolith chamber and was halfway across the room before she noticed Ava sitting near its base. She bowed low and formally and started to back out of the room. "I am sorry your Majesty. I did not mean to interrupt you."
Ava held up her hand, "No, wait."
Cuerena approached her once again. "How may I serve you, Majesty?"
Ava smiled. She and Cuerena sometimes found themselves alone together in the Granolith chamber. She had asked the shape shifter on more than one occasion to call her Ava when they were alone, but Cuerena had always refused, saying that it would not be proper.
Ava motioned to the floor beside her. "Please sit and tell me what you know of the Granolith."
Cuerena was surprised by her Queen's request. Ava had thoroughly studied all of the documentation concerning the machine. She must know almost as much as anyone about the Granolith, but Cuerena obediently did as she was asked. "The Granolith is a machine given to us by the..."
Ava interrupted her with a laugh, "No Cuerena. I meant tell me what you have discovered in your studies. You spend a lot of time with the Granolith, you have studied it for years."
Cuerena glanced at the young Queen and then lowered her eyes respectfully. "The Granolith is capable of directing great quantities of energy to assist in healing and growing crops and faster-than-light travel."
"But where does the energy come from?" asked Ava.
"Your Majesty, I do not know. We have never been able to determine the source of the energy, but some suspect the Granolith draws energy directly from the planet itself."
Ava sighed and Cuerena knew that she wasn't telling her Queen what she wanted to hear. "Do you disagree with the theory, your Majesty?"
"I don't know," Ava said, shaking her head. "But sometimes when I’m here and connected to it, I have a feeling that it is not a machine at all. Have your studies ever led you to suspect that it was something more?"
Cuerena didn't know what Ava was referring to. All of her tests, all of her years of studies had never led her to think it was anything other that a very sophisticated machine. She shook her head. "No, your Majesty."
A statement was released from the palace announcing the betrothal of the Princess Vilondra to General Alarath Varros, heir to the Duchy of Varros.
Vilondra had not been in physical contact with Khivar since the day she had told her family of his treachery, but every night he visited her in her dreams. She had carefully hidden Zan's plan from Khivar in his nocturnal visits and she wondered what his reaction would be to her engagement.
She retired to her bed that evening somewhat apprehensively and thought sleep would elude her but she drifted off quickly.
Khivar's amused voice immediately rolled over her, "Vilondra, you are betrothed?"
"Yes Khivar. I am engaged to Rath."
He laughed. "This is a ploy of your brother, is it not? But surely you know it will not change anything between us."
"No?" she asked breathlessly.
"You do not love him," Khivar stated simply.
"No," Vilondra agreed. "You know I love only you."
"I can see this engagement for what it is. Your brother wishes to publicly distance you from me, and I did anticipate the action, but we both know that you belong to me and I will never let you go."
"Khivar," she soothed, "a date has not even been set."
Khivar continued arrogantly, "I will never allow this marriage to take place. If I must, I will move all of hell to prevent it."
Over the next couple of months Zan and Ava were never separated, and most of the time Rath and Vilondra also accompanied them. The four of them discovered that they worked together well as a team, each complimenting the others with their different gifts and strengths. It became a common sight, the four of them together, and the people began to call them the Royal Four.
But with all of their resources, the investigations into Khivar's actions were getting nowhere. The insurrections were increasing in frequency and Zan had been forced to send Rath out several times to calm the situation. The members of the aristocracy, led by Khivar, were demanding Zan take decisive action to alleviate the destruction of their holdings by the commoners. They insisted that Zan use deadly force against the rioters if necessary, but he refused convinced that giving the people a voice in government was a more effective solution. But the nobles fearful of loosing their power, still opposed Zan with all of their influence and wealth, and some even called for his abdication.
With the Council deadlocked and the riots getting worse, Zan knew it was time for a different course of action. Ava's visions had not become any clearer concerning the future, but she felt more strongly than ever that the new technology was the solution. Zan respected Ava's pre-cognitive powers and poured every spare cent into developing the new sciences, even if she was not sure how they were to be utilized to save the future.
(The Royal Palace - Chanya’s suite of rooms)
Chanya and Ava laughed as they discussed the merits of the latest fashions over a late lunch. Because of her duties, Ava had been forced to reschedule, but she attended as promised.
At first Chanya had stayed away from Ava because she couldn’t stand the sight of her but, when Khivar had made his offer, Chanya had reconsidered. Ava was young and might be a good source of information, so in the last few months Chanya had built a friendship with her.
Khivar had warned Chanya to keep her emotions under control when she was around Ava, because of her special gift, and Chanya was always careful to project a friendly fa?ade. But what she hadn’t expected was that it might actually be genuine.
Ava was a nice person and she cared about everyone, treating even the lowliest with respect. And against her will, Chanya found herself liking Zan’s young wife. Unlike the other members of the so-called Royal Four, Ava was the only one who seemed to notice her existence anymore.
In the past, Chanya had often been included in Zan’s group to go to plays and ball and parties, but now everyone seemed too busy. There were many secret meetings, behind closed doors, to which she was not invited, and as Chanya watched the four of them grow closer she felt more and more like an outsider.
In the evenings, Chanya still dined with Zan and his family, but the dinners used to be filled with fun and laughter, and now there were only long faces.
Chanya decided it must have been because Zan stopped Vilondra from seeing Khivar and betrothed her against her will to Rath. But when she tried to ask Vilondra, her friend had simply evaded the question. And now Vilondra didn’t seem to have any time for Chanya at all. The activities they used to enjoy together were no longer of interest to the Princess, and when she did go out Vilondra was always accompanied by Rath.
Chanya was just about to offer Ava desert, when Zan’s protector Sodan appeared in the doorway. With a formal bow he delivered his message. “Your Majesty, the King requires your presence.”
Ava turned to Chanya. “I am so sorry to rush away Chanya but I did have a delightful time.
Chanya rose and curtseyed. “Of course, you must attend to your duties. I am honored that you would choose to spend your free time with me, your Majesty.”
Chanya speculatively watched Ava’s form retreating down the hallway, until she was out of sight. It was really too bad that Ava had gotten in her way. In another time, another place, they might have been able to be friends.
(The King's council chamber)
Zan looked up from the document Ava had passed to him when Sodan interrupted them with a knock.
"There is a scientist from one of the labs here to see you, your Majesty. He insists it is urgent. Something about a breakthrough."
"It's all right,” Zan said. “Let him in."
A short, balding man pushed past Sodan. "Your Majesties," the excited man said breathlessly, "I have practically run all the way from the lab. I was so excited to tell you of the breakthrough we’ve had this morning."
"Jensto, have a seat and tell us what has happened," Ava suggested, with a growing sense of apprehension.
"Thank you, your Majesty." He sat but jumped up again. "We’ve been successful in restoring memories in a clone."
Zan sat up straighter in his chair, his full attention on the scientist. "Restoring memories. How?"
"We not only used genetic material to make the clone, but we took brain cells from a certain area after the subject's death and used them to clone a brain. We used an accelerated growth hormone to bring the subject to maturity, and with some simple memory retrieval techniques he was able to recall most of his past life with perfect clarity."
"This is incredible," Zan exclaimed. "The ramifications are enormous. With this technology we could extend life practically forever."
"It may be possible," Jensto agreed, "but we don't know what the problems might be with using already cloned material in the next generation clone."
"Couldn't you simply keep samples of the original for later use?" asked Ava.
"No," Jensto said. "We discovered that the brain tissue must be used within days of death or the memories will not transfer. We are not sure why but it probably has something to do with the rate of decay. We have tried using preserved samples but so far none of them have worked."
Ava spoke in Zan’s mind with a tone that demanded his attention. Zan we should keep this to ourselves for now.
Yes, he answered, somewhat worried as to why this project had suddenly caught Ava's attention. He spoke aloud, "Jensto, this project is very important and we must maintain absolute secrecy."
The scientist gave a formal bow. "Of course, your Majesty. I understand and I will make sure my team is alerted to the fact."
"Good,” Zan said. “Report all new findings directly to me as quickly as possible."
As soon as the door closed behind the scientist, Zan turned to Ava. "This is it? The science you have been anticipating?"
"Yes, but what I see isn't hopeful," she said, a shiver of dread running through her.
Zan pulled her into his arms, feeling her fear cut through him like a knife. "What do you see?" he whispered.
He shook his head, "How do we prevent this?"
"I believe the events have already been set in motion," she admitted sadly, "but there is hope for the future."
Zan now grasped the importance of the cloning. "You mean we should forget about this life and prepare for the next?"
"No, of course not. But if things go badly..." she trailed off softly.
"We will have another option." He considered her for a moment. "For now let's keep this information to ourselves."
"I agree,” Ava said. “But I have a feeling we should get your mother's help."
Rath walked among the smoking ruins of what used to be a village. The people he had talked to had all related the same story he had heard countless times before. Newcomers had settled in the area and started voicing dissatisfaction. Soon the troublemakers in the village had joined the dissenters and the cries of oppression and demands for change quickly turned into violence and destruction. When he tried to find the newcomers it was discovered, as Rath expected, that they had disappeared.
Rath immediately dispatched searchers into the woods but he didn’t expect them to find anyone. Of course he and Zan knew Khivar was behind the riots, but again they had no proof.
He was heading back to his command headquarters when he was distracted by a soft voice calling his name.
He turned toward the sound, tensing for an attack. "Show yourself."
A slight figure stepped from behind a pile of debris and quickly took in his uniform and insignia. "So it is General now, isn't it?"
Rath studied the woman before him. She seemed familiar but he was not able to place her. "Do I know you?"
She sighed dramatically, putting a hand to her forehead. "How soon they forget." Flipping a short strand of hair out of her eyes, she gave him a frank look. "But I have never forgotten you."
Realization dawned on him at last. "Scorene. I have not seen you since...."
"Since you left to go to college," she interrupted flippantly. "It has been a long time."
"A lifetime," he added quietly. He took in her appearance and compared it to the girl he remembered. "You are taller and you have cut your hair, but I should have known you."
She shrugged in dismissal.
"What are you doing here?" he gestured indicating the ruin surrounding them, suddenly suspicious. "You're a long way from home."
"You have a right to be suspicious of my actions. And I confess that I’m exactly what you think I am."
Rath looked quickly around for the attack he knew was coming. "I am a fool for being led so easily into a trap."
"It is no trap. It is only you and I for now, old friend. I have been involved with a group that is working to overthrow the oppressive monarchy and free the people of this planet."
Rath snorted. "Why doesn't that surprise me?"
She smiled but it was quickly replaced with a sneer as she continued, "Our leader told us that we were fighting to make everyone equal and bring peace and prosperity to the noble and common born. But some of us suspect our leader is not being entirely honest about his aspirations. Some of us suspect that he means to use us to take the throne for himself, in any way possible."
"Khivar," Rath growled.
"So you do know," she acknowledged. "We were told that the King was unaware of the problems in the kingdom."
"He knows," Rath said succinctly.
"But he does nothing,” Scorene said. “His people are suffering and he takes no action."
Rath's first instinct was to jump to the defense of his friend and King, but he could not expose the plan. "Zan is juggling more issues than you can possibly imagine."
"Zan," she mouthed the word as if she were savoring it. "You and the King must be close."
"We trust one another absolutely."
"Then you are the one we need,” she said. “Myself and others, in Khivar's army, have suspected for some time that he would be worse than the Tageonants ever were if he achieves the throne. What we need is someone who will take the common people into consideration. We need you."
Puzzlement crossed Rath’s face. "You need me to do what?"
"We need you to take the throne."
"Take the throne," he hissed. "What kind of treachery is this?"
"You have become known among the people as a benevolent and fair man. You calm these riots with a show of force and avoid injuring the people. You distribute food and medical supplies and use your influence to help the people."
"All of this I do according to Zan's orders," Rath explained. "If it were up to me, I would have come in and bashed heads to stop this idiocy once and for all."
"Of course you would say that. You are loyal to your King."
Rath shook his head. "I am loyal but it's true regardless."
Scorene shrugged. "True or not, the people think the words you speak are simply rhetoric from the palace. They credit you with the actions, they support you. And if you were to take the throne, many of Khivar's own people would follow you. Your mother was a Roistar, distantly related to Khivar’s illustruious family, and the people would see you as a savior."
"Even if I considered betraying Zan, which I would not, I wouldn't want the throne. I see the things Zan is forced to deal with and I wouldn't want any part of it."
"Rath, a war is coming and Zan will fall. You can either fall with him or benefit from it. Join us," she said seductively. "Lead us."
He ignored her statement. "Why are you so convinced Khivar will win?"
"The King has practically no army. The Tageonants have grown complacent in the time they have been in power and have allowed their defenses to become lax. Khivar's army outnumbers them five to one and they are powerful and well trained."
"Where is Khivar's army encamped?"
Scorene thought for a moment and then shrugged. "It makes no difference if you know. There is nothing you can do. The troops are divided into five camps. The first is …"
Rath listened attentively to the locations of the army. With any luck he could get surveillance photos that evening and have them to Zan for a Council meeting tomorrow. This was the break they had been waiting for and they would take full advantage of it.
Nedra hurried down the corridor to her son's bedchamber, excited about the news she had to deliver. After Zan had told her of Ava's visions of the future and asked that she take charge of the project, she had worked day and night to discover a solution. At first she had thought to secure a place on Antar, or one of the other planets in the system, but she had soon discarded the idea. There was no doubt Khivar would be able to discover them anywhere on the five planets.
She had considered the planets their people traded with but the inhabitants on those planets would have no loyalty to her son and might even betray him with the promise of riches or other bribes. Then she had remembered a planet she had learned about when researching a paper for school, years before. It had been discovered by their explorers years earlier. At the time it had not been of much interest to the explorers because of the inhabitant's lack of technology but it was noteworthy because the native's brains were almost identical to the Antarians.
Nedra retrieved the data about the planet from the archives and studied it carefully. She was disappointed to learn the atmosphere was lethal to their people but she did not despair. She retrieved cell samples that had been gathered on the planet and took them to Jensto for testing. And he had concluded that the genetic material could be made compatible with their own.
She paused outside the door as Sodan admitted her into her son's chamber. "Zan, Ava, I have found a solution," she said, as she laid the star charts and image disks on his table. "Instead of securing a location in our system, I thought we would have a better chance of success if we looked for another planet Khivar would not be familiar with."
"Intriguing idea," Zan said as he walked around the table to sit between his mother and Ava. "Please continue."
"The planet I am proposing is the third planet in orbit around a small yellow sun 160 parsecs from Antar. It was discovered on one of our long-range explorations about 400 years ago. The atmosphere is toxic to our species but according to Jensto, their genetic material could be made compatible with ours. If we combined our genetic material with the native's, not only would the atmosphere be breathable but the clones would blend in with the population. And the thing that makes it a perfect choice is the fact that the physiology of the inhabitant's brains is almost identical to our own, meaning we could alter the brain slightly to not only transfer memories but mental powers as well. Perhaps we could even enhance them."
"What is this planet called?" Ava asked curiously.
"LB5293-F, but the inhabitants call it Earth."
(The King's Council chamber - late that evening)
"I only had time to reach one of the camps before dark but here are the image disks," Rath said proudly as he passed them around to the table's other four occupants. "It is proof positive that Khivar is a traitor."
"Excellent!" declared Zan. "I will call a special session of the Council tomorrow and present these as the evidence we need to take action against Khivar."
Vilondra spoke softly, "What will happen to him?"
"There will be a formal investigation, of course," Zan answered. "And if he is found guilty, he will be stripped of his Council seat, and possibly his title and lands, then imprisoned."
"Will he be executed?" she asked, her voice choked.
"There has not been an execution in centuries," he said shaking his head.
"But the Council could decide to..."
Zan cut her off. "I will not allow the Council to execute him."
Vilondra released a tension-filled breath. "I know what he did was awful but I can't stand to think that he could be killed for his actions."
Zan nodded signaling his support and an end to the discussion. "Vil, would you make sure that all of the Council members have notice of the session tomorrow?"
She quickly composed herself into her regal demeanor. "Yes, I will see to it."
"Rath," he said, turning to his second in command, "will our troops be in place at daybreak?"
"They are already in place. They only await the light and your command."
"Good," Zan said. "Make sure they give Khivar's troops a chance to surrender. I would like to avoid any unnecessary casualties. Hopefully when his troops receive word that Khivar is in custody, they will disband."
Zan looked at his sister and his second in command and knew the time had come to tell them of Ava's visions. Ava, he spoke to her across their bond, I want to tell them.
Yes my love,
she sent back to him, I think it is the right time.
Have your visions changed since Rath brought us this new information?
she said sadly, but I have an increasing sense of urgency.
Zan nodded his understanding and quickly scribbled a note. He walked to the door and opened it. "Sodan, take this to Jensto and give it to him personally."
"Yes, your Majesty," he said with a deep bow.
Zan returned to the table and spoke, "Rath, Vil, I have been keeping something from you," he said guiltily, noting Rath’s jerk to attention, "but the time has come to tell you everything." He paused for a moment to gather his thoughts. "Ava has been receiving visions of a disastrous future in which we all die by Khivar's hand."
Rath sprang to his feet, shouting angrily, "Why the hell didn't you tell us?"
"Ava and I felt it was best that we not place this burden on you needlessly. We knew you would do your best to make sure Khivar was stopped whether you knew of her visions or not. It just seemed to be something we could spare you."
"So why are you telling us now?" Vilondra asked.
"Part of her vision was a way to stop Khivar but it still involves our deaths."
"You mean stopping him will kill us," Rath blandly intoned.
"In a way, but not how you mean," Zan continued. "Ava's vision led her to believe that new technology was the key to stopping Khivar and naturally I assumed it must be a weapon of some kind, but it was not. Last month a scientist came to us with a breakthrough in cloning technology. They have been able to restore memories of an original subject into a clone."
He paused to make sure he had their attention. "But the subject must be dead in order to obtain the correct cells to make the transfer."
Rath regained his seat. "Maybe I’m blind, but how does this help us?"
"It's a back-up plan," Ava spoke for the first time, "if things go badly."
"But now that we have discovered Khivar's armies," Vilondra asserted, "surely we can stop them."
Zan started to speak but Ava's gentle touch on his arm stopped him and she continued. "My visions have not changed. But I believe our discovery of Khivar's troops will force him to speed up his timetable and move against us sooner than he was planning. I am afraid that we must hurry or all will be lost."
Zan continued, "I asked mother to help us to devise a plan that would best utilize this new technology and she has conceived an excellent stratagem."
As Zan explained the plan, Vilondra was shrouded in guilt. She had betrayed them all. If she had come to Zan earlier and confessed Khivar's plan, perhaps she could have spared their lives. She had not meant to choose Khivar over her family but in the end her inaction had let to the same thing. Khivar would win and it was all her fault.
Vilondra turned her attention back to Zan as he continued. "We have set everything up to accommodate the four of us," he said, indicating himself, Ava, Rath and Vilondra. "We work together well and our powers compliment one another. We will be sent with a small party of shape shifters to a planet called Earth, where we can train and grow strong, learning from our past and the history of that planet. Mother will remain here. It is unlikely she will be in danger because she is not directly of the Tageonant line. She will help to coordinate the rebellion on Antar and when we are prepared, we will return and retake our planet."
"What if some us die but not all?" Rath asked and then understanding dawned and he focused his eyes on Ava. "You have foreseen all of our deaths," he said, making it more of a statement than a question.
Zan continued with his explanation, "Whomever dies will be cloned. Once the cloning process begins, the genetic material can be placed in stasis. If we are successful in defeating Khivar, we will simply clone the casualties. If we are not successful, the plan will proceed and we will be sent to Earth. If not all of us are killed, Khivar will murder the survivors to assure his possession of the throne, so we should agree now to sacrifice our lives and volunteer for the procedure."
They each gravely nodded their assent.
"The lab is being packed as we speak and it will be sent, along with the Granolith, to a secret lab we are preparing. I had hoped to wait until the new lab was finished but things are moving more quickly than we anticipated and time is of the essence."
"Zan," Rath argued, "the Granolith could be very useful to us in the upcoming battle."
"No," said Ava decisively. "The Granolith was not meant to be used in that manner. We cannot pervert its purpose by using it to cause death and destruction."
Rath had learned in the last few months that Ava was usually right and normally he wouldn't have questioned her, but thousands, possibly millions of lives were at stake and he persisted. "But if its power can save us."
"No Rath." Ava shook her head. "There are many powers working against us and I am afraid nothing can save us now."