The original plan was for Mara, Fir, and the MuniPrin to meet them at the lock, but given that they had to cut the lock open, the original plan is obviously no longer a viable program. And he can hear gunfire coming from deeper in the Palace. Pel points to two of his soldiers and signals – stay here – and then to four more – follow me. He moves forward, heading towards the sound of the guns.
- - - - - - - -
Mara fires, then reloads, hands moving automatically, muscle reflexes beaten in long ago. Last clip, she notes, as she takes careful aim past the edge of the wall and squeezes off a shot through the smoke. A man in a guard uniform falls out from cover, his face a red mass, and that leaves three ahead of her, and who knows how many behind, and more coming every second. The remaining guards return fire, and she ducks back coughing as the bullets slam into the corner of the wall, sending chips of concrete flying into her face.
She feels a popping in her ears, and a change in the pitch of the sirens, and realizes that the Palace is beginning to depressurize.
Someone grabs her leg, and she looks back. It's the MuniPrin, and he's saying something, but she can't hear over the roar of gunfire and the wail of sirens. And then she sees the red dripping from his chest.
There's a first aid kit in her bag, and she fumbles for it, hands shaking. He must have been caught in the crossfire – a ricochet or something – she tears his shirt open, revealing a neat bullet hole right over the MuniPrin's left lung, blood bubbling over it, and she realizes that the reason he's gasping is that his lung is punctured. His chest is slick with blood, and she finds a bandage and holds it over the wounds, desperately praying it will somehow help.
He's trying to say something. She leans closer – but whatever he's trying to say, she can't hear him, and she realizes that this really was all for nothing, as he begins to cough blood.
And then she realizes the guards ahead of her are starting to advance, and she reaches for her pistol again. “I'm sorry, sir,” she shouts, and hopes he hears her. She turns from him, sights down the corridor, and pulls the trigger.
- - - - - - - -
Iskander Iskandrus is in the main hall, heading for the crawler ports at a brisk walk, when he hears the tone of the sirens change pitch, to the tone warning of imminent depressurization. It's an automatic response – put out the fire by taking away the oxygen. He walks a little faster.
The air is getting hazy, and he can see wisps of smoke leaking from the seams of the hidden doors leading to the servants' section. Regrettable – there are some fine paintings here, and the smoke will ruin them. But then one can hardly expect a gaggle of low-born malcontents to have respect for such things. No matter – somewhere close by he can hear automatic gunfire, which means they're still in play, and therefore still keeping the guards off-balance, which is more than he hoped for. With a little luck they'll hold out until he's out of the building.
The hall widens here into a circular, domed chamber, twenty meters wide, the hall continuing on the other side. The ceiling here is a glass dome, covered in sand from the storm outside, the only light a few flickering emergency lights. This was the ball room back when the Autarch lived at the Urban Palace. This was where they held the famous Storm Ball, in the middle of a blinding sandstorm, when his ancestor Harken Iskandrus assassinated the last of the Questradi dynasty, to clear the way for the Ludeis. They'd been rewarded richly for that, their family elevated to second only to the Ludeis themselves, until they'd lost the nerve to do what had to be done to keep their power.
Except for himself, obviously, and he shifts his shoulders under the weight of the carrybag. The book is buried under a pile of clothes and jewelry hastily thrown on top as camouflage. It feels strangely heavy.
A pair of guards run into the room, guns drawn, heading towards the sounds of battle, stopping short when they see him. “Sir!” one shouts. He has a lieutenant's pips at his shoulders, and Iskander vaguely recognizes him – something Thirsus. “You need to evacuate, there's a fire-”
“I know. I'm on my way to the crawler port now,” Iskander replies. “If you'd care to escort me-”
“Corporal Sard, escort the MuniPat to the crawler port,” the lieutenant orders. “Sargeant, with me.”
The lieutenant dashes off, deeper into the Palace. Iskander frowns slightly, but decides not to make a point of his rudeness.
There will be plenty of time for such things later.
- - - - - - - -
Two bullets left. And four guards ahead of her. The firing has died down for the moment. Probably waiting for more reinforcements – they can take their time. They're not in any hurry.
The prince is sitting leaning against the wall. He's not moving. Mara's pretty sure he's not breathing – but she can't quite bring herself to check.
Fir turns to her. Ammo? he signs. She shakes her head, raises two fingers. He nods.
They won't take her alive. She'll take one more shot, and then herself.
She's walked a long, hard road to get here. And to her own mild surprise, she has no regrets, no bitterness. She's done her duty, and if it's her duty to die here, then that's what she'll do.
And it's at that moment that Pel's grenade lands in the middle of the guards down the corridor.