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19.

Linge Chen was preparing for the informal dinner party at the Emperors private quarters when Kreen brought him the sealed message from Planch. In the green oceanic depths of his meditation and personal room, he put aside the straight razor and soap he was using to shave, took a deep breath as Kreen departed, and placed his thumb on the small gray parcel. The first seal, applied by the receiver and decoder, came open at this touch-confirming his unique identity through microanalysis of his skin chemistry, as well as the pattern of his thumbprint. The second seal, within the disks message itself, he opened through a few words spoken in his voice, known only to himself. The message flowered before him.

Mors Planch stood within a ship, the background in soft focus for the moment, and said in low tones, My lord Chief Commissioner Chen, I am within the Spear of Glory .The ship I have hired is the only one to have found the vessel so far, and I anticipate with some personal concern your deep disappointment at the news I bring. Your councilor is dead, along with the rest of the crew

Linge Chens lips worked as he played back the rest of the message. Planch showed the grim details: the rows of bodies arranged within one chamber, the discovery of the body of Lodovik Trema on the bridge, curled and still. Planch confirmed Tremas identity by placing the Commissioners own identifier on Tremas bracelet.

Linge Chen shut off the message before it could reveal the unnecessary details of what Planch would do next. The body would not be retrieved; the vessels discovery would be forgotten. Linge Chen did not wish to be accused of favoritism or extravagance, not at this time, when he was hoping to bring down Farad Sinter on the same charge.

For a moment, he felt like a small boy. He had been so convinced that Lodovik Trema moved on a different and superior plane to the rest of humanity. He could never admit it to himself, much less any other, but he had trusted as well as admired Trema. His personal instincts, which had proved almost infallible, had told him that Trema would never betray him, never do anything not in Linge Chens best interests. He had even invited Trema to join his family on special occasions, the only councilor (or Commissioner, for that matter) he had ever invited to do so.

Lodovik Trema had been a steady and pleasant presence on those occasions, playing solemnly and with his own kind of innocence with Linge Chens children, extravagantly complimenting their mothers on their cooking, which was adequate at best. And Lodoviks advice

Lodovik Trema had never given Chen bad advice. They had risen together to this supreme pinnacle of responsibility over twenty-five years of, at first, inglorious and often painful service. They had weathered the end of Agiss reign and the first years of the junta, and Lodovik had proven invaluable in designing the Commission of Public Safety to moderate and eventually replace the juntas military rulers.

Ten minutes passed. Kreen knocked gently on the door to the chamber. Yes, Chen said. Im almost done.

He picked up the razor and finished shaving his fine beard, leaving smooth, pallid skin behind. Then, as a measure of his emotion, he cut two small slices in his skin just in front of his left ear. Blood welled over the hairs and he patted it with a white towel, then dropped the towel into an incinerator, offering his own blood to the powers that be, unspecified.

In his youth in the Imperial Education Municipality of Runim, he had learned such rituals as part of the path to adulthood, following the Rules of Tua Chen. Tua Chen had been the most successful product of the secret plan among orthodox Ruellians to develop a select breed of Imperial administrators and bureaucrats, four thousand years before, known as the Shining Lights. In his late maturity, Tua Chen had devised two Books of Rules, based on Ruellian principles: one for the training of aristocratic administrators (and occasionally an Emperor), the other for the training of the Empires hundreds of billions of bureaucrats, the Greys.

Linge Chen was reputedly a direct descendant of Tua Chen.

The Shining Light school in its modern form was rife with superstition and almost useless, but in its heyday it had trained administrators that were sent to the far corners of the Empire. And in return, from allover the Empire, each year, millions of candidate Greys came to Trantor to receive the Tua Chen training. The best assumed positions in the planets infinitely layered bureaucracy, competing with the entrenched and resentful Trantor Greys; the rest, having completed their pilgrimage, returned to their homes, or took positions on frontier worlds.

Linge Chen was the most successful of all the students to come out of the school, and he had not succeeded by being overly observant of those damnably persuasive secret rituals. But for Lodovik Trema

It was the very least he could do.

Sire Kreen said. With some concern, he observed his masters small wounds, but he knew enough to say nothing.

Im done. Bring me my robe for Imperial presence, and also the sash of black.

What shall I place on the sash, sire?

The name of Lodovik.

Kreens face fell in anguish. No hope, sire?

Linge Chen shook his head abruptly and pushed past his small servant, into the wardrobe. Kreen stood very still in the lavatory for a few seconds, his grief genuine. Lodovik had always given Kreen the impression that the small Lavrentian was the equal of anybody within their acquaintance. Kreen treasured that evaluation, even though it had never been spoken.

Then, with a jerk, he roused himself and followed his master.


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