X

A Knight of Ghosts and Shadows by Poul Anderson. Chapter 17, 18, 19, 20

XVII

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Just before their car set down, Flandry protested to Kossara, “God damn

it, why does your parliament have to meet in person? You’ve got holocom

systems. Your politicians could send and receive images … and we

could’ve rigged untraceable methods to call them and give them the facts

last night.”

“Hush, darling.” She laid a hand across his fist. “You know why.

Electronics will do for ornamental relics. The Skupshtina is alive, it

debates and decides real things, the members need intimacies,

subtleties, surprises.”

“But you, you have to go among murderers to reach them.”

“And I fear for you,” she said quietly. “We should both stop.”

He looked long at her, and she at him, in the seat they shared. Beryl

eyes under wide brow and bronze hair, strong fair features though her

smile quivered the least bit, height, ranginess, fullness, the warmth of

her clasp and the summery fragrance of herself: had she ever been more

beautiful? The vitality that surged in her, the serenity beneath, were

no work of a drug; it had simply let her put aside shock, exhaustion,

grief for this while and be altogether Kossara.

“If there is danger today,” she said, “I thank God He lets me be in it

with you.”

He prevented himself from telling her he felt no gratitude. They kissed,

very briefly and lightly because the car was crammed with ychans.

It landed in a parking lot at the edge of Zorkagrad,

None farther in could have accommodated the swarm of battered vehicles

which was arriving. Besides, a sudden appearance downtown might have

provoked alarm and a quick reaction by the enemy. A march ought to have

a calming effect. Flandry and Kossara donned cowled cloaks, which should

hide their species from a cursory glance when they were surrounded by

hemianthropoid xenos, and stepped outside.

A west wind skirled against the sun, whose blaze seemed paled in a pale

heaven. Clouds were brighter; they scudded in flocks, blinding white,

their shadows sweeping chill across the world, off, on, off, on. Winged

animals wheeled and thinly cried. Trees around the lot and along the

street that ran from it–mostly Terran, oak, elm, beech, maple–cast

their outer branches about, creaked, soughed Delphic utterances though

tongue after fire-tongue ripped loose to scrittle off over the pavement.

Rainpuddles wandered and wandered. All nature was saying farewell.

The ychans closed in around the humans. They numbered a good four

hundred, chosen by their steadcaptains as bold, cool-headed, skilled

with the knives, tridents, harpoons, and firearms they bore. Ywodh of

Nanteiwon, appointed their leader by Kyrwedhin before the

parliamentarian returned here, put them in battle-ready order. They

spoke little and showed scant outward excitement, at least to human eyes

or nostrils; such was the way of the Obala. They did not know the ins

and outs of what had happened, nor greatly care. It was enough that

their Gospodar had been betrayed by the enemy of their forefathers, that

his niece had come home to speak truth, and that they were her soldiers.

The wind snapped two standards in their van, star white on blue of Yovan

Matavuly, ax red on gold of Gwyth.

“All set,” Ywodh reported. A shout: “Forward!” He took the lead. Flandry

and Kossara would fain have clasped hands as they walked, but even

surrounded must clutch their cloaks tight against this tricksy air. The

thud of their boots was lost amidst digitigrade slither and click.

At first it was predictable they would encounter nobody. Here was a new

district of private homes and clustered condominium units, beyond the

scope of forcefield generators that offered the inner city some

protection. Residents had sought safer quarters. An occasional militia

squad, on patrol to prevent looting, observed the procession from a

distance but did not interfere.

Farther on, buildings were older, higher, close-packed on streets which

had narrowed and went snakily uphill: red tile roofs, stucco walls of

time-faded gaudiness, signs and emblems hung above doorways, tenements,

offices, midget factories, restaurants, taverns, amusements, a

bulbous-domed parish church, a few big stores and tiny eccentric shops

by the score, the kind of place that ought to have pulsed with traffic

of vehicles and foot, been lively with movement, colors, gestures broad

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