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The war between the alien hydrogues and the faeros rages, reducing suns to blackened shells-including one of the fabled seven suns of the Ildiran Empire. Instead of protecting themselves, the Ildirans engage in bloody civil war and the many factions of humanity are bitterly divided. Can mankind and Ildirans overcome their own internal fighting to face a deadly new enemy that is ready to annihilate them?
Newly ascended to the Ildiran throne, Mage-Imperator Jora'h must quash the rebellion launched by his mad brother before the hydrogues destroy what is left of the empire. Assailed from all sides, Jora'h turns to his beloved half-human daughter, dispatching her on a desperate mission to make peace with the hydrogues. Hope for humanity now rests with Jess Tamblyn, who continues to seed worlds with the watery wentals, the mortal enemies of the hydrogues. And on the ravaged planet of Theroc, home to a telepathic worldforest, a dead man is resurrected to prepare for the arrival of mysterious new allies in the fight. But Chairman Basil Wenceslas's vendetta against the free-spirited Roamers has blinded him to danger closer to home-the soldier machines that make up the backbone of the Hansa fighting force. King Peter has long suspected that the compies, built with the help of the ancient Klikiss robots, cannot be trusted. Now the shocking proof comes when the Klikiss launch their long-planned extermination of all things flesh and blood. And in the ensuing battle, humans and Ildirans alike will face their darkest choices yet. . .
BOOKS BY KEVIN J. ANDERSON
The Saga of Seven Suns
Available from Warner Aspect
A Forest of Stars
Book 5 coming in July 2006
Available from Wildstorm/DC Comics
Veiled Alliances (graphic novel)
TO JOHN SILBERSACK,
my first editor, current agent, and longtime friend
By the fourth book in the Saga of Seven Suns, the list of people who have helped me begins to rival the epic cast of characters. In particular, I would like to thank the editorial squad of Jaime Levine, Devi Pillai, John Jarrold, Melissa Weatherill, and Ben Ball; expert advisers and just plain hard workers Catherine Sidor and Diane Jones; sharp-eyed reader Geoffrey Girard; agents John Silbersack, Robert Gottlieb, Kate Scherler, and Kim Whalen at Trident Media Group. And, as always, my wife Rebecca Moesta for keeping my writing, and my life, on the best possible path.
THE STORY SO FAR
After the alien hydrogues attacked the sentient worldforest on Theroc, human colonists struggled to pick up the pieces. Green priests, telepathically linked to the worldtrees, were psychologically stunned; many of their volunteers who served the Earth Defense Forces (EDF) abandoned their posts and returned home to the devastated forests.
Next, the hydrogues turned their antagonism against the faeros, a fiery alien race that lives within stars. While hydrogues and faeros engaged in battle on planets and suns, King Peter and Queen Estarra announced a major new military initiative from their Palace on Earth: The EDF would launch more Klikiss Torches—doomsday weapons capable of imploding gas giants—a test of which inadvertently started the entire hydrogue war. Also, following the example of the Ildiran military hero Adar Kori'nh, the EDF would build a fleet of kamikaze rammers to be flown by new-model Soldier compies against hydrogue warglobes. As King Peter delivered his message, the dangerous, and sometimes murderous, Chairman Basil Wenceslas quietly watched him for any mistakes.
Tasia Tamblyn, a Roamer who had joined the EDF, was chosen to deliver the first new Klikiss Torch. Unknown to Tasia, her friend Robb Brindle and a handful of other humans were imprisoned in a crystalline hydrogue city at the core of the targeted gas giant. There the Friendly compy DD, held by the sinister Klikiss robots, managed to speak with Robb. Just before Tasia's Torch weapon ignited the clouds, the hydrogues evacuated the gas planet, and the Klikiss robots and DD fled.
Meanwhile, Tasia's brother Jess found himself marooned on an isolated water planet after his ship was destroyed by hydrogues. In order to keep him alive, his secret cargo of wentals—strange water entities—infused his body with their energies. With the help of the wentals, Jess built an exotic ship and flew away in search of his lost love Cesca Peroni, the Speaker of the Roamer clans.
In the Roamer capital of Rendezvous, where Cesca struggled to keep the clans together, the scout Nikko Chan Tylar brought proof that the EDF was preying on Roamer cargo ships, stealing their supplies of stardrive fuel (ekti) and destroying the vessels. Outraged at these acts of piracy, the Roamers cut off all trade with the Terran Hanseatic League. Cesca delivered an ultimatum to the Hansa government: Earth would receive no more stardrive fuel until the culprits were identified and punished.
The Roamers themselves kept a few EDF detainees, whom they had rescued from the recent battle in the rings of Osquivel. Patrick Fitzpatrick III, a spoiled blueblood, was a particularly unhappy prisoner, despite the flirtations of Zhett Kellum, beautiful daughter of Del Kellum, the clan leader in charge of the Osquivel shipyards. Kellum's crew also reprogrammed salvaged EDF Soldier compies to become menial laborers.
The Hansa, seeking a means of space travel that did not depend on ekti, dispatched teams of explorers through "transportals," an ancient alien system of gateways found on abandoned worlds. One of these explorers was the intrepid spy Davlin Lotze. Since all transportal coordinates were enigmas, many destinations held unexpected dangers.
Also, hoping to break their dependence on Roamer stardrive fuel, the Hansa established their own ekti-harvesting skymine, run by Sullivan Gold and his green priest Kolker at the gas planet Qronha 3, where Adar Kori'nh had fallen in his dramatic showdown against the hydrogues. Sullivan's crew produced a great deal of ekti until a group of Ildiran warliners arrived, also intending to mine the clouds. Sullivan negotiated an uneasy truce with the Ildirans, and both skymines cruised the clouds, always on the watch for the hydrogues' return.
Wrestling with his fresh thism-knowledge of unexpected plots, new Ildiran Mage-Imperator Jora'h attended the funeral of his poisoned father. Caught in the hydrogue war, the Ildiran Empire was running out of ekti as well. Jora'h's brother, Designate Rusa'h—who had been in a sub-thism sleep since a hydrogue attack on his planet of Hyrillka—suddenly woke up in the Prism Palace's infirmary. His personality dramatically altered, Rusa'h claimed to have seen powerful visions while he was comatose. Uneasy, Jora'h sent his injured brother with Prime Designate Thor'h back to Hyrillka to rebuild his devastated planet, along with Pery'h, the next Hyrillka Designate.
Although the grim Dobro Designate Udru'h paid tribute to the new Mage-Imperator, Jora'h could not forgive his brother for secretly subjecting Jora'h's beloved green priest Nira to years of breeding experiments. Nira, now supposed dead, had given birth to Jora'h's half-breed daughter Osira'h, whom the Dobro Designate believed might become a savior of the Ildiran Empire because of her remarkable telepathic abilities. Nira was not dead, however, but hidden on a remote island where the Mage-Imperator would never find her.
On an isolated Ildiran colony, the human scholar Anton Colicos studied the Saga of Seven Suns with his friend and mentor, Rememberer Vao'sh. They remained with a skeleton crew in the domed city of Maratha Prime on the dark side of the planet, while work crews of Klikiss robots completed a sister city on the opposite side of the world. The Ildirans discovered an unusual network of tunnels but could not figure out who had built them. One evening, while Anton and Vao'sh told stories, an explosion occurred in the generators beneath the city, cutting off all lights and power. It was clearly sabotage. Left without enough power to survive, the crewmembers decided to trek over to the sister city. After contacting the Klikiss robots to explain their plight, the refugees set off in three shuttles—two of which exploded. More sabotage! Anton, Vao'sh, and a few others managed to get out of their craft safely, only to find themselves stranded. They set off on foot in the darkness toward supposed sanctuary among the Klikiss robots, but Anton was very suspicious. . . .
In secret, the Klikiss robots had long planned to destroy both humans and Ildirans. Dragging the compy DD from enclave to enclave, the robot Sirix resurrected long-dormant groups of Klikiss robots, which were now almost all activated and ready to move, much to DD's dismay.
When a Klikiss robot appeared at the Ildiran Prism Palace, demanding details of the secret breeding projects on Dobro, Jora'h refused to tell him anything. The Mage-Imperator then caused a stir by traveling to Dobro to meet his daughter Osira'h and to visit Nira's grave. Ildirans were upset that their leader would go against long-standing tradition and leave the Palace. Jora'h flouted tradition further by appointing his warrior daughter Yazra'h as his personal bodyguard, a position that had never before been held by a female. . . .
Desperate to continue its expansion even under such austere circumstances, the Hansa encouraged citizens to pack up their belongings, travel via the restored Klikiss transportals, and colonize virgin planets. Among the first takers were an unreliable dreamer named Jan Covitz and his young daughter Orli. The merchant captain Rlinda Kett and her favorite ex-husband Branson "BeBob" Roberts shuttled colonists to the nearest transportals, through which the settlers transferred to new colony worlds. Orli and her father went with a group to the abandoned Klikiss world of Corribus and began to set up a new life for themselves.
After many risky explorations through the transportals, Davlin Lotze appeared in secret in the rooms of Chairman Wenceslas and announced that he wanted to retire to a quiet colony. Although the hydrogue war was going poorly, the Chairman was unable to deny Davlin's demands, and sent him off with Rlinda to the sleepy world of Crenna. Frustrated by the war, King Peter's continued intractability, and the disappointing behavior of Prince Daniel (the King's potential replacement), the Chairman was further infuriated by the Roamers' unreasonable ekti embargo. In fact, deciding to use the Roamers as scapegoats on which to focus the public ire, Wenceslas met with General Lanyan, head of the EDF, to discuss measures against the arrogant clans.
At the same time, the exotically transformed Jess Tamblyn arrived at Rendezvous. Jess, whom many Roamers had thought dead, was no longer entirely human: His body crackled with wental energy, which made it impossible for him to touch another human, lest he kill them with the discharge. Cesca, still in love with him, could hardly believe they were together again, yet forced to remain separate. Telling the Roamers how he had rediscovered the wentals, ancient enemies of the hydrogues, Jess asked for volunteer "water bearers" to help him distribute wentals to other watery planets, where they could grow strong and prepare to fight the enemy. A group of ambitious pilots, including Nikko Chan Tylar, joined him. Setting off on his new mission, Jess visited an isolated comet where he and Cesca had once had a romantic rendezvous, and seeded the water essence there, making the comet come alive.
Meanwhile, Cesca decided to send Roamer aid to the devastated forests on Theroc. She had once been betrothed to their leader and now felt obligated to assist them, since the Hansa was offering little help. Roamer engineers tackled the problem of rebuilding the tree cities and stabilizing the forest. On Earth, Ambassador Sarein discovered that she was ostensibly the next leader of her people. Chairman Wenceslas, eager to turn this to his advantage, dispatched his staunch ally Sarein to take up her role. Arriving at the burned wasteland of her former home, she was sickened—and then doubly alarmed to see the ruined forests crawling with Roamer workers!
Chairman Wenceslas instructed the EDF to "teach a lesson" to representative Roamer targets. Though King Peter expressed grave reservations, General Lanyan planned a fast attack on a Roamer facility, Hurricane Depot. EDF ships surrounded the depot, captured all Roamers, then destroyed the station. Nikko Chan Tylar, en route to deliver wental water, witnessed the attack and immediately warned other Roamers, including the reconstruction team on Theroc. Speaker Cesca Peroni angrily accused Sarein and the Hansa of trying to instigate a war, and rushed off to confront Chairman Wenceslas.
In the Roamer shipyards at Osquivel, Patrick Fitzpatrick resisted the idea that he was falling in love with Zhett Kellum. The EDF detainees constantly searched for a way to escape, but when one of them tried to fly away in a stolen ship, the soldier died tragically. Afterward, the friction between Roamers and EDF detainees increased.
On a scouting run among the battlefield derelicts in the rings, Zhett and her father discovered an intact hydrogue spacecraft—something never before found. Hoping that an analysis of the alien vessel would provide clues about how to defeat the enemy, they summoned the genius engineer Kotto Okiah to study the hydrogue sphere. Kotto managed to break into the alien ship, and immediately discovered that the hydrogue technology had much in common with the Klikiss transportals. . . .
While Davlin Lotze was starting to settle in at his colony on Crenna, he saw hydrogue warglobes cruising overhead. The aliens did not attack, though they seemed to be searching for something. Through a telescope several days later, Davlin saw the hydrogues battling their mortal enemies, the faeros, within Crenna's sun. The star began to die, and Davlin urged the colonists to take desperate survival measures. As the sun winked out, the seas and continents froze, and Davlin took a salvageable ship to find help. The colonists dug in and tried to survive as the atmosphere froze solid. Davlin managed to reach the nearby colony of Relleker, but the governor refused to help. Fortunately, Rlinda and BeBob arrived on a supply run and helped Davlin rescue the Crenna colonists, digging them out of their frozen bunkers.
The Klikiss robots took DD aboard an EDF battleship, part of a group of human ships they had stolen and modified. The battleships were now crewed entirely by reprogrammed Soldier compies, and DD learned that all Soldier models—widely distributed throughout the Earth military—contained insidious programming that the Klikiss robots could trigger at any time. As a test, the Klikiss robots took their stolen battleships to attack Corribus. Though DD tried to stop the robots, they proceeded to destroy the human colony there. Orli Covitz, exploring cliffside caves, looked on in helpless horror as the EDF warships obliterated the settlement, including her father and all her friends. She watched Klikiss robots and Soldier compies comb through the wreckage, kill the survivors, then depart. When Orli finally picked her way down to the burning settlement, she saw that she was the only survivor.
The Hyrillka Designate, still acting peculiar after his head injury, told his protégé Prime Designate Thor'h that he had seen the truth in visions, and that Mage-Imperator Jora'h (Thor'h's father) was leading the Ildiran Empire to ruin. At first concerned at this talk of rebellion, Thor'h eventually threw in his lot with his deluded uncle. Rusa'h commanded the population of Hyrillka to consume the mind-altering drug shiing, which softened their thoughts and allowed him to seize control of them. He then publicly accused Jora'h of poisoning his predecessor. Claiming that he himself was the rightful Mage-Imperator, Rusa'h took on all the trappings of the Ildiran leader. Only the apprentice Designate Pery'h remained loyal to the Mage-Imperator. When he resisted the overthrow, Rusa'h and Thor'h imprisoned him.
While sending out an assassination team to kill Jora'h, the Hyrillka Designate executed Pery'h to distract his brother from the danger. The Mage-Imperator, saved by the quick actions of his bodyguard daughter Yazra'h, now knew that the mad Hyrillka Designate meant to overthrow the Empire. He dispatched Adar Zan'nh with a group of warliners to restore order to Hyrillka, not realizing he was sending them directly into a trap. . . .
Isolated on her island, the captive green priest Nira secretly built a raft and escaped, drifting for days on an open body of water until she crashed on a barren shore, lost but alive—and free of Designate Udru'h at last.
On Earth, Cesca demanded that the EDF cease all attacks on Roamer outposts, whereupon Chairman Wenceslas dismissed her concerns and commanded her people to surrender and begin delivering vital stardrive fuel again. Cesca departed angrily, vowing that he would never find the secret Roamer locations. However, General Lanyan had decoded the navigation module from a stolen Roamer ship and learned the coordinates for Rendezvous. He sent a full military force to the asteroid cluster and completely destroyed the Roamer capital. Cesca and other survivors scattered, their center of government gone. They were now outlaws. . . .
ADMIRAL LEV STROMO
Though Admiral Stromo was the ranking officer aboard the prowling Manta cruiser, he let acting commander Elly Ramirez make the day-to-day decisions. It generally worked out better that way. Stromo didn't feel the need to throw his weight around, and he liked to keep someone handy to take the fall if anything went wrong.
For decades in the Earth Defense Forces, he had made a career out of delegating responsibility. He rarely participated in active field operations—he hadn't joined the EDF just to put his own butt on the line!—but sometimes it was useful to do so. Maybe the unqualified success of crushing the main Roamer complex of Rendezvous would be enough to rehabilitate his image as an obsolete desk commander.
Even so, right now Stromo longed to be back at his desk in a comfortable military base on Earth, or at the very least Mars. He'd never counted on a devastating war with powerful aliens who lived in the cores of gas-giant planets; for that matter, he hadn't imagined a conflict with a ragtag bunch of space gypsies, either.
As the Roamer hunt continued for its second week, Stromo watched the newer EDF officers cut their teeth on real line duty. The sooner this fresh crop of battle commanders proved themselves out in the field, the sooner Stromo could get back to his much-preferred Grid 0 liaison duties. With his too-obvious potbelly and his occasional digestive problems, he wasn't cut out for this.
"Do we have any valid tactical data on our next target, Commander Ramirez?" he asked, though he had asked the question before. "What's the place called again?"
"Sounds like a horse sneezing."
"The name comes from old Ildiran starcharts, sir. The EDF has no up-to-date recon, though."
A frown tugged down his jowly cheeks. "A failure in our intelligence and surveillance, you think?"
"Never any need before, Admiral. It's a crappy star system, without many resources." Ramirez called up long-range images and dotted-line diagrams showing their best guess of where the secret base might lie. "Unconfirmed evidence of a cluster of settlement domes in the asteroids. Roamers seem to enjoy living in rubble, sir."
"If they like rubble so much, then let's give them more of it." He smiled. "Just like we did at Rendezvous."
Ever since the disorderly clans had willfully cut off all trade with the Terran Hanseatic League, Chairman Basil Wenceslas had attempted several legitimate—and thus far ineffective—responses. Though Roamers had been hit as hard as anyone by hydrogue attacks, they refused to cooperate against a shared enemy, refused to provide vital stardrive fuel, refused to follow perfectly reasonable instructions. The Hansa couldn't tolerate that.
Thus, to demonstrate how serious the matter was, the EDF had destroyed a Roamer fuel-transfer station. Just as an example, a bit of bluster, but enough to make the clans see they didn't have a chance against the powerful Earth military. Instead of cowing the Roamers, this action had only served to renew their ridiculous defiance. The space gypsies became even more intractable, which forced the Chairman to take the unprecedented step of declaring outright war against them, for the good of humanity.
If the Roamers had been reasonable people, the war should have lasted no longer than an hour. Alas, it hadn't turned out that way.
A week ago, Stromo had led the punitive attack that destroyed Rendezvous, and the clans had scampered away, making it necessary for all grid admirals to waste more time and effort chasing them down. It was maddening! Stromo and his counterparts had orders to seek out Roamer infestations, confiscate any of their goods that might be useful for the war effort, and somehow bring those people in line. Sooner or later, they would have to sue for peace.
Ramirez looked up at him from her command chair, her full lips showing no smile, her face cool, her regulation-short dark hair perfectly in place. "Would you like to assume operational oversight as we approach, Admiral? Or should I continue?"
"You're doing just fine, Commander Ramirez." Although he suspected she didn't like him very much, she was an excellent pilot and navigator, who had been promoted rapidly, just like many young officers during the devastating hydrogue war. "Can we get better magnification on the screen? I want to have a look at our target."
"The first wave of Remora scouts have set up relay stations, and imagery is coming through now."
The scattered rubble around Hhrenni looked like a handful of oversized gravel that someone had tossed against the blackness of space. From a distance, the drifting rocks looked unremarkable, but the distribution of metals and the albedo profile of some geometrical objects were a dead giveaway: An uncharted human settlement was hidden there. Roamers.
"There they are, just as we thought." He rubbed his chin. "All right, let's head forward and have a look at this rats' nest. Power up fore and aft jazer banks and load primary projectile launchers. Tell our Remoras to intercept any ships that try to escape." He gestured toward the screen. "Onward, in the name of the King, and so on . . ."
As the EDF ships swooped in, the audacity of the clans became more obvious. A secret base indeed! Transparent domes dotted the asteroids like pus-filled blisters. Hanging suspended above them at gravitationally stable points, thin arrays of solar mirrors directed sunlight through the shadows to illuminate and provide energy to the dome settlements. Artificial stations orbited at various distances like gnats. Inflatable storage chambers, perhaps?
"Look at all that! Those Roachers are certainly ambitious."
"They have a lot of energy and ingenuity," Ramirez said, not sounding overly eager. "Commander Tamblyn proved that often enough."
Stromo frowned. Not long ago this very Manta had been commanded by Tasia Tamblyn, who, because of her Roamer connections, was reassigned to less critical duties before the strike against Rendezvous. Was Ramirez demonstrating loyalty to her former commander? He'd have thought she'd be pleased with her own promotion.
"The clans should channel that creative enthusiasm to help all mankind, not just themselves." Surveying the asteroid complex, with its light-filled domes and expansive mirrors, he shook his head. "Why can't they just live on planets like everyone else?"
Though every operation had gone against them so far, the gypsies showed no signs of bowing to authority. They had scattered like wildly fired shotgun pellets, which the Hansa considered a victory, of course. Divide and conquer. With the Roamers leaderless and broken, it should have been easy to bring them back into the fold . . . but they were as hard to catch and tame as angry, wet house cats. Since Stromo had spent his life in military service, such anarchy made his stomach queasy. "Hooligans."
When they were unified under Speaker Peroni, he supposed the clans had felt obligated to show some kind of stubborn backbone. Now, though, with their government center destroyed, who would speak for them? Who had the authority to negotiate on their behalf? Somebody had to sign a surrender order and call for the others to turn themselves in and get back to work. It would take a hell of a long time to root out all the squalid little settlements like this one.
"We've detected four ships, Admiral. Nothing large enough to threaten us. None of the facilities here look like they'll cause any problems."
"Didn't expect any." Stromo cracked his knuckles.
Detailed projections of asteroid paths and accurate representations of the domed settlements appeared on the screen. Ramirez stared at the tactical projections and tucked a strand of dark hair behind her right ear. Something was clearly bothering the young commander. "Admiral . . . permission to speak freely?"
Stromo steeled himself. That was always a bad preface to a conversation. But since Ramirez had spoken her question aloud in front of the rest of the bridge crew, he had no choice but to respond. "Be quick about it, Commander. We have an operation to run."
"If I might ask, what do we really expect to get out of this? Earlier, when we hit Hurricane Depot and Rendezvous, our objective was to scare the Roamers into lifting their ekti embargo. But if we keep increasing their hatred toward us, they'll never cooperate. If we wreck them, how will they ever be in a position to be viable trading partners again?"
"That's not the point anymore. The Hansa will bypass the Roamers, and they'll be left out alone in cold space. We've already got one full-fledged cloud harvester producing ekti for us on Qronha 3, and you can bet there'll be others." When Ramirez still looked skeptical, he decided it was best to distract the bridge crew. "You'll see what I mean in a few moments, Commander."
He leaned back in his padded observation chair, eager for the engagement now that he saw it would be a cakewalk. "I'm ready for the show to begin. Let's make a lasting impression."
NIKKO CHAN TYLAR
On his random route across the Spiral Arm, Nikko found himself close to the hidden Roamer base where his parents tended orbiting greenhouses that provided fresh food and supplies to many of the clans. Unlike his parents, Nikko was a true Roamer who preferred wandering from system to system, seeing what there was to see. Still, this was home. How could he not stop for a visit, even if he couldn't stay long?
His ship, Aquarius, was configured for delivering samples of wental water to uninhabited worlds on which the elemental entities could grow powerful enough to fight the hydrogues. Unfortunately, it was hard to concentrate on that mission when the Big Goose—the Roamers' deprecating name for the Hansa—kept stabbing the clans in the back with malicious raids like the ones at Hurricane Depot and Rendezvous.
Nikko stepped into the largest greenhouse blister, enjoying the feel of solid ground under his feet, and gazed up at the transparent panes. The blackness outside, spattered with stars and orbiting asteroids, was dominated by a dazzling mirrorfilm reflector that bounced a splash of warm solar light through the armored glass. Up near the top of the main dome, cottony masses of aerogel foam drifted about like clouds.
Smaller satellite domes on other rocks were maintained at various temperatures and humidities: a hothouse dome held palm trees and succulents; another encompassed fruit orchards. In each one, the plants thrived in artificial soil created by mixing sterile asteroid dirt with fertilizer chemicals and recycled human waste. As good as any farmland back on Earth, his mother always said.
Marla Chan and Crim Tylar, delighted by their son's unexpected visit, inspected their vegetable fields while Nikko chatted with them. He showed them the canisters of vibrant wental water in his ship and explained that these strange beings could be the key to ending the terrible war against the hydrogues. They were both awed and a little surprised to hear what he was doing to help the fight.
"To be honest, I always thought you'd just help us with the greenhouses, or the skymining at Ptoro," his mother said, smiling at him. As she talked, Marla kept an electronic datapad inventory of their crops and output. "I never knew you had such big things in store for you."
He blushed. "Well, who would have thought Dad might like being a farmer? Working with dirt on his hands, sowing seeds, tending plants?"
Crim Tylar's brow furrowed. "Shizz, this sure beats skymining. Give me dirt any day. I always hated Ptoro—cold, windy, bleak." He made a face.
- On Sale
- Jul 1, 2005
- Page Count
- 496 pages
- Grand Central Publishing