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Full plot summary - SPOILERS!

Jay is in a tavern in Quelthor, capital of the Taysan Empire, disguised as a metalworker and pursuing a barmaid. In the years since becoming an agent for the Tayshak he has discovered the delights of alien women, but it has been a very long time since he had a real Taysan woman. But before he can make any kind of assignation with the barmaid, he is tracked down by his personal servant, Rall, who summons him to an urgent meeting at Tayshak headquarters.

General Salthar is in a meeting with a Lord of the Noble Caste, a hereditary member of the Circle of Twelve. The Court is concerned about a retired swordbearer called Corusval, who was once a courtier but has lived for the last twenty years in the subtropical land of Parmua, where his wife is chief of an important clan. Jay is sent undercover as a scribe, ostensibly to carry out research at the private library attached to the clan seat, with a brief to find out what he can about Corusval’s activities and associates. He is reluctant, because he prefers to work outside the Empire, and suggests that the mission would be more suitable for Mizal, a female agent. Salthar curtly informs him that Mizal is dead, and that his next mission will be to find her killer.

Jay and Rall set off for Parmua, where they find Corusval living in a sprawling, luxurious clan mansion attended by a whole clan of servants. He appears genial and relaxed, although his wife Mandrial is frosty, and his young adult daughter Ashlenn is discontent and moody – and appears to have something going on with Rovenn, a young scribe who is working at the house as acting librarian.

Jay quickly ingratiates himself with Ashlenn, who is keen to learn about aliens. When he lets her know that he has some experience with and knowledge of Earthers and English, Jay finds himself invited on an Imperial visit to an Earther colony in the capacity of cultural adviser. Corusval turns out to be a personal friend of the Empress’s youngest son, Prince Ragoth, and has been asked to accompany him on this diplomatic mission.

On Earth, Andri Ferris has just completed a six month Basic Training course for Spaceforce. He was recruited into the interplanetary crime-fighting agency after being arrested for hacking and cyber-crime, and he has never understood why he was offered a job rather than a prison sentence. On his last night in the training camp barracks, he is paid an unexpected visit by Captain Jez, the officer who arrested him. She is some kind of alien (or more politically correct, Non-Earth Originated Person), slight but very strong, and a crack shot. She has come to make sure that he is willing to go ahead and commit to signing up for Spaceforce. She is also there to tell him that he is to be offered a place on ISIS, the Interplanetary Special Investigation Squad, the division of Spaceforce that deals with sensitive crimes and aliens. She was the one who persuaded her superiors to recruit him, as she was so impressed by his hacking skills. Andri, who has lost everything he ever worked for, is not happy.

Jez shows Andri her personal space flier, the Razor, and takes him to Spaceforce Command, an ancient space station in Earth orbit. He is introduced to the head of ISIS, Commander Judd, and Jez is ordered to teach Andri to pilot a spacecraft. They set out on a two-week training mission which takes them into the depths of the Union, and while Jez is teaching Andri some basic manoeuvres in the system of Hope, an Earth colony, they get an emergency call from Judd to land on the planet and deal with a situation there. A Taysan Prince has been kidnapped!

Andri and Jez meet with the Mayor of New London, capital of Hope, and an imposing Taysan General. The city is built under a giant dome, the second largest in the Union; it soon becomes apparent that although the atmosphere of the planet is breathable, the landscape is intensely inhospitable, a windswept desert of rocks and dust. All habitable areas are undercover. The world flourishes because the dust contains fragments of the mineral garrium, which is used to power warp drives and even in pulverized form is immensely valuable.

Prince Ragoth of Taysar was visiting the planet to unveil a statue, presented by the Taysan Empire in recognition of their trading relationship in the year of Hope’s millennium celebrations. That morning, he was attacked and abducted in the grounds of the Mayor’s mansion, and his two bodyguards were killed. The Taysans know who did it but will not tell the Spaceforce officers. Jez and Andri have less than twenty-four hours to find and rescue the kidnapped Prince before the unveiling ceremony.

Jay is less concerned about the Prince than about the opportunity his disappearance gives him to investigate Corusval more thoroughly. During the two week journey to Hope, he discovered that Corusval was sending private messages to an unknown recipient on the planet. He also got closer to Ashlenn, going so far as to initiate the betrothal process and enjoying himself altogether too much. Observing Corusval during the welcoming banquet on the night of their arrival on Hope, he saw him talking with a human man, whom he managed to identify as Robert Smith, a local businessman. In the chaos following the kidnap, he manages to search Corusval’s belongings and finds an encrypted data crystal and a private communicator.

Jez and Andri make little headway with the local security force, who resent their intrusion, and even less with the Taysans; although the Prince’s one surviving bodyguard, Maydith, seems like she would be willing to talk if her superiors would let her. They discover that the video surveillance cameras in the grounds have been tampered with. Andri establishes that the system has been hacked to deliver false images, as well as to disable the cameras in the part of the garden where the attack took place. He finds a signature on the code, belonging to an old associate of his, ‘the Spectrum’. Since the Spectrum was arrested for cyberfraud two years ago, Spaceforce have his real-life name and details on file. Thanks to Andri’s knowledge of the Spectrum’s lifestyle, they quickly track him down to the penthouse suite in the best hotel in town. Although the Spectrum will tell them nothing about who hired him to disable the cameras, Andri hacks into the false bank account he set up to pay for his hotel room and finds that he has been ordering a lot of specialist dust resistant gear for delivery to the spaceport. They conclude that the kidnappers may have taken to Prince out into the Dustlands, an inhospitable wasteland where only the vast mining mobile mining machines, known as dustgrinders, venture.

The Taysan party, minus the missing Prince, attend a concert given in their honour and Jay observes Corusval with Robert Smith again. Using a romantic interlude with Ashlenn as cover, he manages to get close enough to record part of a conversation between them – which turns out to include a short data transmission, too. Analysing the recording afterwards, Jay finds that the transmission is a fragment of research data from a top-secret Taysan Government project into teleportation technology. He is surprised that Corusval appears to be planning to pass this research to Earth, as he himself had facilitated this very exchange some time previously, on Court orders. This is a secret that cannot be allowed to get out, as it violates the terms of the Peace between the three empires. Salthar orders Jay to find out what exactly is going on, and to execute Corusval if necessary.

Jay pays Jez a brief, unsanctioned visit to tell her that the Prince has been kidnapped by a band of Taysan criminals known as the ‘Outcaste’, and shows her a photograph of their leader, Calia. He cannot help her openly because he needs to maintain his cover.

Jez and Andri learn from the dustgrinder docks custom authorities that a dustgrinder crew, usually desperate for funds, have been spending a lot of money recently. They conclude that the crew of the ‘T-Rex’ might have been paid for use of their vessel as a place to hide the Prince. They borrow a dust shuttle, a robust flyer designed to fly out to resupply the massive mining craft, and set off in pursuit.

Although the T-Rex cuts its signal before they are halfway there, they follow its trajectory and find the craft stationary in a dust-filled valley. They break in and split up to explore. Jez is captured almost immediately by a Taysan woman who turns out to be Calia, leader of the Outcaste. She and her followers are holding the Prince hostage on the dustgrinder, in an attempt to force the Taysan Court to accede to their demand for better treatment. The Outcaste are convicted criminals who have, as punishment for their crimes, been stripped of their caste. With no means of earning a living, outcaste usually starve to death. Calia has fought against this fate, organising as many as she can find into a secret community. She now wants the Empress to grant the Outcaste a colony planet, so that they can live in peace. She tells Jez that her own crime was to marry a servant – she herself was a Royal Protector, a swordbearer of the highest lineage. Although Jez is somewhat sympathetic to their situation, she suggests that murder and kidnap is not the solution. Calia locks Jez up with Prince Ragoth, in the ship’s storeroom – the only room in the vessel that can be secured.

The Prince is unharmed, and amused by how well Jez’s rescue attempt is going so far. He explains that negotiating with the kidnappers is out of the question, and that he as a member of the Imperial Caste could not even address the Outcaste. In exasperation, Jez suggests the old ‘sick prisoner’ trick to get past the guard on the door, and although she has some trouble persuading the Prince to play along, Andri reappears and makes it unnecessary. Instead of searching the ship, he found a terminal and downloaded a schematic, discovering a useful network of maintenance passages running through the vessel’s interior. He was able to sneak up on the guard and stun her.

The Spaceforce agents and the Prince make their escape through the maintenance tunnels, and reach a hatch to the outside. When they open it, they find that a full-scale dust storm has blown up. It would be fatal to go outside without protective suits; Andri and Jez have discarded their helmets, and the Prince has no suit at all. They go in search of an extra suit, and to retrieve the helmets. Meanwhile their escape has been discovered, and the Taysans and the dustgrinder crew are searching for them. They manage to recover the helmets and find a suit for the Prince, but when they find another exterior hatch, they discover that the exits have been put into lockdown. The only other way out of the ship is through the giant vents at the front, which suck in the dust.

They get to the vents and Andri succeeds in opening them, but the crew turn on the mechanism which sucks down the dust into the grinders. The Prince is nearly pulled into the machinery, but Andri eventually disables it by opening the plant room door, which triggers a failsafe. The three escape into the storm.

The next day, Jay and the other Taysans watch from their seats of honour as the Prince, with Jez and Andri in attendance, unveils the statue in front of a crowd of thousands in the new sports stadium. Jay notices that Corusval has slipped away, and finds him in an empty office in the stadium, handing over the crystal containing the research data to Robert Smith. Jay confronts them both and shoots Mr Smith dead. Corusval is horrified that Jay has killed an Earther, until Mr Smith’s body shimmers and dissolves into the distinctive black haired, black eyed form of a Darian. Corusval declares that he was intending to hand over the teleport research to Earth, as he believed that Taysar and Earth should ally against Daros. Instead, unknown to him, he was about to hand it directly to the Darians. Corusval admits his crime of treason to Jay, and prepares himself to be arrested for trial by the elders of his clan. Instead, Jay executes him on the spot. Andri and Jez are invited to Taysar for an audience with the Empress, in gratitude for saving the life of her son. They travel to Taysar on the Imperial Yacht and are presented to the Empress with full ceremony. Afterwards, while travelling back to Union space, Jez confesses to Andri that she wished she had found an opportunity to tackle the Empress about the Outcaste. Jay returns to Parmua with Ashlenn and Corusval’s body – it was made to seem as if Corusval had died from natural causes. He is still undercover as Jhannon the scribe, and preparing to make a convenient departure, as guests do not stay in a house in mourning. However, he urges Ashlenn to elope with him – knowing that if he leaves her now, he will never be allowed to return to her, and she will never know his true identity. He plans to take her with him on his next mission to track down Mizal’s killer, and marry her under Union law. He gives her until midnight to decide, after which time he will take off in his ship without her. Just as he is preparing to seal the ship for departure, Ashlenn runs towards him and they take off from Taysar together.

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