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A Knight of Ghosts and Shadows by Poul Anderson. Chapter 9, 10, 11, 12

IX

{That was four years ago, in the planet-wide winter of eccentrically

orbiting Talwin. Having landed simultaneously from the warships which

brought them hither, Captain Sir Dominic Flandry and his opposite

number, Qanryf Tachwyr the Dark, were received with painstaking

correctness by the two commissioners of their respective races who

administered the joint Merseian-Terran scientific base. After due

ceremony, they expressed a wish to dine privately, that they might

discuss the tasks ahead of them in frankness and at leisure.

The room for this was small, austerely outfitted as the entire outpost

necessarily was. Talwin’s system coursed through the Wilderness, that

little-explored buffer zone of stars between Empire and Roidhunate; it

had no attraction for traders; the enterprise got a meager budget. A

table, some chairs and stools, a sideboard, a phone were the whole

furniture, unless you counted the dumbwaiter with sensors and extensible

arms for serving people who might not wish a live attendant while they

talked.

Flandry entered cheerily, 0.88 gee lending bounce to his gait. The

Merseian officer waited, half dinosaurian despite a close-fitting

silver-trimmed black uniform, bold against snowfields, frozen river, and

shrunken sun in crystalline sky which filled a wall transparency behind

him.

“Well, you old rascal, how are you?” The man held forth his hand in

Terran wise. Tachwyr clasped it between warm dry fingers and leathery

palm. They had no further amicable gesture to exchange, since Flandry

lacked a tail.

“Thirsty,” Tachwyr rumbled. They sought the well-stocked sideboard.

Tachwyr reached for Scotch and Flandry for telloch. They caught each

other’s glances and laughed, Merseian drumroll and human staccato. “Been

a long while for us both, arrach?”

Flandry noted the inference, that of recent years Tachwyr’s work had

brought him into little or no contact with Terrans, for whatever it

might be worth. Likely that wasn’t much. The Empire’s mulish attitude

toward the aggrandizement of the Roidhunate was by no means the sole

problem which the latter faced. Still, Tachwyr was by way of being an

expert on Homo sapiens; so if a more urgent matter had called him–To be

sure, he might have planned his remark precisely to make his opponent

think along these lines.

“I trust your wives and children enjoy good fortune,” Flandry said in

polite Eriau.

“Yes, I thank the God.” The formula being completed, Tachwyr went on:

“Chydhwan’s married, and Gelch has begun his cadetship. I presume you’re

still a bachelor?” He must ask that in Anglic, for his native equivalent

would have been an insult. His jet eyes probed. “Aren’t you the gaudy

one, though? What style is that?”

The man extended an arm to show off colors and embroideries of his

mufti. The plumes bobbed which sprang from an emerald brooch holding his

turban together. “Latest fashion in Dehiwala–on Ramanujan, you know. I

was there a while back. Garb at home has gotten positively drab.” He

lifted his glass. “Well, tor ychwei.”

“Here’s to you,” the Merseian responded in Anglic. They drank. The

telloch was thick and bitter-fiery.

Flandry looked outdoors. “Brrr!” he said. “I’m glad this time I won’t

need to tramp through that.”

“Khraich? I’d hoped we might go on a hunt.”

“Don’t let me stop you. But if nothing else, my time here is limited. I

must get back. Wouldn’t have come at all except for your special

invitation.”

Tachwyr studied Flandry. “I never doubted you are busy these days,” he

said.

“Yes, jumping around like a probability function in a high wind.”

“You do not seem discouraged.”

“N-no.” Flandry sipped, abruptly brought his gaze around, and stated:

“We’re near the end of our troubles. What opposition is left has no real

chance.”

“And Hans Molitor will be undisputed Emperor.” Tachwyr’s relaxation

evaporated. Flandry, who knew him from encounters both adversary and

half friendly since they were fledglings in their services, had rather

expected that. A big, faintly scaled hand clenched on the tumbler of

whisky. “My reason why I wanted this meeting.”

“Your reason?” Flandry arched his brows, though he knew Tachwyr felt it

was a particularly grotesque expression.

“Yes. I persuaded my superiors to send your government–Molitor’s–the

proposal, and put me in charge of our side. However, if you had not come

yourself, I imagine the conference would have proved as empty as my

datholch claimed it would, when I broached the idea to him.”

I can’t blame the good datholch, Flandry thought. It does seem ludicrous

on the face of it: discussions between Intelligence officers of rank

below admiral or fodaich, who can’t make important

commitments–discussions about how to “resolve mutual difficulties” and

assure the Imperium that the Roidhunate has never had any desire to

interfere in domestic affairs of the Empire–when everybody knows how

gleefully Merseian agents have swarmed through every one of our camps,

trying their eternally damnedest to keep our family fight going.

Of course, Molitor’s people couldn’t refuse, because this is the first

overt sign that Merseia will recognize him rather than some rival as our

lord, and deal with his agents later on, about matters more real than

this farce.

The intention is no surprise, when he’s obviously winning. The surprise

was the form the feeler took–and Tachwyr’s note to me. Neither action

felt quite Merseian.

Therefore I had to come.

“Let me guess,” Flandry said. “You know I’m close to his Majesty and act

as an odd-job man of his. You and your team hope to sound out me and

mine about him.”

Tachwyr nodded. “If he’s to be your new leader, stronger than the past

several, we want to know what to expect.”

“You must have collected more bits of information on him than there are

stars in the galaxy. And he’s not a complex man. And no individual can

do more than throw a small extra vector or two in among the millions

that whipsaw such a big and awkward thing as the Empire toward whatever

destiny it’s got.”

“He can order actions which have a multiplier effect, for war or peace

between our folk.”

“Oh, come off it, chum! No Merseian has a talent for pious wormwords. He

only sounds silly when he tries. As far as you are concerned vis-a-vis

us, diplomacy is a continuation of war by other means.” Flandry tossed

off his drink and poured a refill.

“Many Terrans disagree,” Tachwyr said slowly.

“My species also has more talent than yours for wishful thinking,”

Flandry admitted. He waved at the cold landscape. “Take this base

itself. For two decades, through every clash and crisis, a beacon

example of cooperation. Right?” He leered. “You know better. Oh,

doubtless most of the scientists who come here are sincere enough in

just wanting to study a remarkable xenological development. Doubtless

they’re generally on good personal terms. But they’re subsidized–they

have their nice safe demilitarization–for no reason except that both

sides find it convenient to keep a place for secret rendezvous. Neutral

domains like Betelgeuse are so public, and their owners tend to be so

nosy.”

He patted the Merseian’s back. “Now let’s sit down to eat, and afterward

serious drinking, like the cordial enemies we’ve always been,” he urged.

“I don’t mind giving you anecdotes to pad out your report. Some of them

may even be true.”

The heavy features flushed olive-green. “Do you imply our attempt–not

at final disengagement, granted, but at practical measures of mutual

benefit–do you imply it is either idiotic or else false?”

Flandry sighed. “You disappoint me, Tachwyr. I do believe you’ve grown

stuffy in your middle age. Instead of continuing the charade, why not

ring up your Chereionite and invite him to join us? I’ll bet he and I

are acquainted too.”}

{The sun went down and night leaped forth in stars almost space-bright,

crowding the dark, making the winter world glow as if it had a moon.

“May I turn off the interior lights?” Aycharaych asked. “The outside is

too glorious for them.”

Flandry agreed. The hawk profile across the table from him grew

indistinct, save for great starlight-catching eyes. The voice sang and

purred onward, soft as the cognac they shared, in Anglic whose accent

sounded less foreign than archaic.

“I could wish your turban did not cover a mindscreen and powerpack, my

friend. Not merely does the field make an ugliness through my nerves

amidst this frozen serenity; I would fain be in true communion with

you.” Aycharaych’s chuckle sounded wistful. “That can scarcely be, I

realize, unless you join my cause.”

“Or you mine,” Flandry said.

“And each of your men who might know something I would like to learn is

likewise screened against me. Does not that apparatus on their heads

make sleep difficult? I warn you in any case, wear the things not

overmany days at a stretch. Even for a race like yours, it is ill to

keep the brain walled off from those energies which inspirit the

universe, behind a screen of forces that themselves must roil your

dreams.”

“I see no reason for us to stay.”

Aycharaych inhaled from his glass. He had not touched the liquor yet. “I

would be happy for your company,” he said. “But I understand. The

consciousness that dreary death will in a few more decades fold this

brightly checkered game board whereon you leap and capture–that keeps

you ever in haste.”

He leaned back, gazed out at a tree turned into a jewel by icicles, and

was quiet awhile. Flandry reached for a cigarette, remembered the

Chereionite disliked tobacco smoke, and soothed himself with a swallow.

“It may be the root of your greatness as a race,” Aycharaych mused.

“Could a St. Matthew Passion have welled from an immortal Bach? Could a

Rembrandt who knew naught of sorrow and had no need for steadfastness in

it have brought those things alive by a few daubs of paint? Could a Tu

Fu free of loss have been the poet of dead leaves flying amidst snow,

cranes departing, or an old parrot shabby in its cage? What depth does

the foreknowledge of doom give to your loves?”

He turned his head to face the man. His tone lightened: “Well. Now that

poor mortified Tachwyr is gone–most mightily had he looked forward to

the sauce which gloating would put on his dinner!–we can talk freely.

How did you deduce the truth?”

“Part hunch,” Flandry confessed. “The more I thought about that message,

the more suggestions of your style I found. Then logic took over. Plain

to see, the Merseians had some ulterior motive in asking for a

conference as nugatory per se as this. It could be just a signal to us,

and an attempt at sounding out Molitor’s prospective regime a bit. But

for those purposes it was clumsy and inadequate. And why go to such

trouble to bring me here?

“Well, I’m not privy to high strategic secrets, but I’m close enough to

him that I must have a fair amount of critical information–the kind

which’ll be obsolete inside a year, but if used promptly could help

Merseia keep our kettle longer on the boil, with that much more harm to

us. And I have a freer hand than anybody else who’s so well briefed; I

could certainly come if I chose. And an invitation from Tachwyr could be

counted on to pique my curiosity, if nothing else.

“The whole idea was yours, wasn’t it?”

Aycharaych nodded, his crest a scimitar across the Milky Way. “Yes,” he

said. “I already had business in these parts–negotiant perambulantem in

tenebris, if you like–and saw nothing to lose in this attempt. At least

I have won the pleasure of a few hours with you.”

“Thanks. Although–” Flandry sought words. “You know I put modesty in a

class with virginity, both charming characteristics which should be

gotten rid of as fast as puberty allows. However … why me, Aycharaych?

Do you relish the fact I’ll kill you, regretfully but firmly, the

instant a chance appears? In that respect, there are hundreds like me.

True, I may be unusual in having come close, a time or two. And I can

make more cultured noises than the average Navy man. But I’m no scholar,

no esthete–a dilettante; you can do better than me.”

“Let us say I appreciate your total personality.” The smile, barely

visible, resembled that upon the oldest stone gods of Greece. “I admire

your exploits. And since we have interacted again and again, a bond has

formed between us. Deny not that you sense it.”

“I don’t deny. You’re the only Chereionite I’ve ever met–” Flandry

stopped.

After a moment he proceeded: “Are you the only Chereionite anybody has

ever met?”

“Occasional Merseians have visited my planet, even resided there for

periods of study,” Aycharaych pointed out.

Yes. Flandry remembered one such, who had endangered him here upon

Talwin; how far in the past that seemed, and how immediately near! I

realize why the coordinates of your home are perhaps the best-kept

secret in the Roidhunate. I doubt if a thousand beings from offworld

know; and in most of them, the numbers have been buried deep in their

unconsciousness, to be called forth by a key stimulus which is also

secret.

Secret, secret … What do we know about you that is substance and not

shadow?

The data fled by, just behind his eyes.

Chereion’s sun was dim, as Flandry himself had discovered when he

noticed Aycharaych was blind in the blue end of the spectrum though

seeing farther into the red than a man can. The planet was small, cold,

dry–deduced from Aycharaych’s build, walk, capabilities,

preferences–not unlike human-settled Aeneas, because he could roam

freely there and almost start a holy war to split the Empire, nineteen

years ago.

In those days he had claimed that the enigmatic ruins found upon many

worlds of that sort were relics of his own people, who ranged and ruled

among the stars in an era geologically remote. He claimed … He’s as

big a liar as I am, when either of us wants to be. If they did build and

then withdraw, why? Where to? What are they upon this night?

Dismiss the riddles. Imperial Intelligence knew for certain, with scars

for reminders, he was a telepath of extraordinary power. Within a radius

of x meters, he could read the thoughts of any being, no matter how

alien, using any language, no matter how foreign to him. That had been

theoretically impossible. Hence the theory was crudely modified (there

is scant creativity in a waning civilization) to include suggestions of

a brain which with computerlike speed and capacity analyzed the impulses

it detected into basic units (binary?), compared this pattern with the

one which its own senses and knowledge presented, and by some incredible

process of trial and error synthesized in seconds a code which closely

corresponded to the original.

It did not seem he could peer far below the surface thoughts, if at all.

That mattered little. He could be patient; or in a direct confrontation,

he had skill to evoke the memories he wanted. No wonder that the highest

Merseian command paid heed to him. The Empire had never had a more

dangerous single enemy.

Single–

Flandry grew aware of the other’s luminous regard. ” ‘Scuse me,” he

said. “I got thinking. Bad habit.”

“I can guess what.” Aycharaych’s smile continued. “You speculate whether

I am your sole Chereionite colleague.”

“Yes. Not for the first time.” Flandry drank again. “Well, are you? What

few photographs or eyewitness accounts we’ve garnered, of a Chereionite

among outsiders–never more than one. Were all of them you?”

“You don’t expect me to tell you. I will agree to what’s obvious, that

partakers in ephemeral affairs, like myself, have been rare among my

race. They laid such things aside before your kind were aught but apes.”

“Why haven’t you?”

“In action I find an art; and every art is a philosophical tool, whereby

we may seek to win an atom deeper into mystery.”

Flandry considered Aycharaych for a silent span before he murmured: “I

came on a poem once, in translation–it goes back a millennium or

more–that’s stayed with me. Tells how Pan–you know our Classical

myths–Pan is at a riverside, splashing around, his goat hoofs breaking

the lilies, till he plucks a reed and hollows it out, no matter the

agony it feels; then the music he pipes forth enchants the whole forest.

Is that what you think of yourself as doing?”

“Ah, yes,” Aycharaych answered, “you have the last stanza in mind, I

believe.” Low:

Yet half a beast is the great god Pan,

To laugh as he sits by the river,

Making a poet out of a man:

The true gods sigh for the cost and pain,

For the reed which grows nevermore again

As a reed with the reeds in the river.

Damn! Flandry thought. I ought to stop letting him startle me.

“My friend,” the other went on gently, “you too play a satanic role. How

many lives have you twisted or chopped short? How many will you? Would

you protest me if the accidents of history had flung Empire rather than

Roidhunate around my sun? Or if you had been born into those humans who

serve Merseia? Indeed, then you might have lived more whole of heart.”

Anger flared. “I know,” Flandry snapped. “How often have I heard? Terra

is old, tired, corrupt, Merseia is young, vigorous, pure. Thank you, to

the extent that’s true, I prefer my anomie, cynicism, and existential

despair to counting my days in cadence and shouting huzza–worse,

sincerely meaning it–when Glorious Leader rides by. Besides … the

device every conqueror, yes, every altruistic liberator should be

required to wear on his shield … is a little girl and her kitten, at

ground zero.”

He knocked back his cognac and poured another. His temper cooled. “I

suspect,” he finished, “down inside, you’d like to say the same.”

“Not in those terms,” Aycharaych replied. “Sentimentality ill becomes

either of us. Or compassion. Forgive me, are you not drinking a trifle

heavily?”

“Could be.”

“Since you won’t get so drunk I can surreptitiously turn off your

mindscreen, I would be grateful if you stay clear-headed. The time is

long since last I relished discourse of Terra’s former splendors, or

even of her modern pleasures. Come, let us talk the stars to rest.”}

In the morning, Flandry told Susette he must scout around the globe a

few days, using certain ultrasensitive instruments, but thereafter he

would return.

He doubted that very much.

X

Shadow and thunder of wings fell over Kossara. She looked up from the

rolling, tawny-begrown down onto which she had come after stumbling from

the forest. Against clouds and the plum-colored sky beyond, a Diomedean

descended. She halted. Weariness shivered in her legs. Wind slithered

around her. It smelled of damp earth and, somehow, of boulders.

An end to my search. Her heart slugged. But what will I now find?

Comrades and trust, or a return to my punishment?

The native landed, a male, attired in crossbelts and armed with a knife

and rifle. He must have been out hunting, when he saw the remarkable

sight of a solitary human loose in the wilds, begrimed, footsore,

mapless and compassless. He uttered gutturals of his own tongue.

“No, I don’t speak that,” Kossara answered. The last water she had found

was kilometers behind. Thirst roughened her throat. “Do you know

Anglic?”

“Some bit,” the native said. “How you? Help?”

“Y-yes. But–” But not from anybody who’ll think he should call Thursday

Landing and inquire about me. During her trek she had sifted the

fragments of memory, over and over. A name and nonhuman face remained.

“Eonan. Bring me Eonan.” She tried several different pronunciations,

hoping one would be recognizable.

“Gairath mochra. Eonan? Wh … what Eonan? Many Eonan.”

There would be, of course. She might as well have asked a random

Dennitzan for Andrei. However, she had expected as much. “Eonan who

knows Kossara Vymezal,” she said. “Find. Give Eonan this.” She handed

him a note she had scrawled. “Money.” She offered a ten-credit bill from

the full wallet Flandry had included in her gear. “Bring Eonan, I give

you more money.”

After repeated trials, she seemed to get the idea across, and an

approximation of her name. The hunter took off northward. God willing,

he’d ask around in the bayshore towns till he found the right person;

and while this would make the dwellers curious, none should see reason

to phone Imperial headquarters. God willing. She ought to kneel for a

prayer, but she was too tired; Mary who fled to Egypt would understand.

Kossara sat down on what resembled pale grass and wasn’t, hugged herself

against the bitter breeze and stared across treelessness beneath a wan

sun.

Have I really won through?

If Eonan still had his life and liberty, he might have lost heart for

his revolution–if, in truth, he had ever been involved; she had nothing

more than a dream-vision from a cave. Or if he would still free his

people from the Empire, he might be the last. Or if cabals and

guerrillas remained, he might not know where they hid. Or if he brought

her to them, what could she hope for?

She tossed her head. A chance to fight. Maybe to win home in the end,

likelier to die here: as a soldier does, and in freedom,

Drowsiness overflowed. She curled herself as best she could on the

ground. Heavy garments blunted its hardness, though she hated the sour

smell they’d gotten. To be clean again … Flandry had saved her from

the soiling which could never be washed off. He had that much

honor–and, yes, a diamond sort of mercy. If she’d done his bidding,

tried her best to lead him to whatever was left of her fellows, he would

surely have sent her back, manumitted–he’d have the prestige for such a

favor to be granted him–unscathed–No! Not whole in her own honor! And

release upon a Dennitza lashed to the Empire would be a cruel joke.

Then rest while you can, Kossara. Sleep comes not black, no, blue as a

summer sky over the Kazan, blue as the cloak of Mary … Pray for us,

now and in the hour of our death.

A small callused hand shook her awake. Hunger said louder than her watch

what a time had passed while the sun brooded nightless. She stared into

yellow eyes above a blunt muzzle and quivering whiskers. Half open, bat

wings made a stormcloud behind. He carried a blaster.

His face–She sat up, aware of ache, stiffness, cold. “Eonan?”

“Torcha tracked me.” Apart from the piping accent, mostly due to the

organs of speech, his Anglic came fluent. “But you do not know him, do

you?”

She struggled to her feet. “I don’t know you either, quite,” she got

out. “They made me forget.”

“Ungn-n-n.” He touched the butt of the gun, and his crest erected.

Otherwise he stood in taut quietness. She saw he had arrived on a

gravsled, no doubt to carry her.

Resolution unfroze him. “I am Eonan Guntrasson, of the Wendru clan in

the Great Flock of Lannach. And you are Kossara Vymezal, from the

distant planet Dennitza.”

Gladness came galloping, and every weakness fled. “I know that, barem!

And you dared meet me? Then we are not finished yet!”

Eonan drew the membranes over his eyes. “We?”

“The revolution. Yours and mine.” She leaned down to grip his upper

shoulders. Beneath fur and warmth, the flight muscles stood like rock.

“I must be careful.” His tone underlined it. “Torcha said you promised

him a reward for fetching me. I paid him myself, not to have him along.

Best we go aside and … talk. First, in sign of good faith, let me

search you.”

The place he chose was back in the highlands. Canyon walls rose darkly

where a river rang; fog smoked and dripped till Kossara was soaked with

chill; at moments when the swirling grayness parted, she glimpsed the

black volcanic cone of Mount Oborch.

On the way, Eonan had fed her from a stock of preserved Terran food, and

explained he was the factor for Nakamura & Malaysia in the area where he

dwelt. This gave him wide contacts and sources of information, as well

as an easy excuse to travel, disappearing into the hinterland or across

the sea, whenever he wished. Thursday Landing had no suspicion of his

clandestine activities. He would not speak about those until she related

her story in full.

Then he breathed, “E-e-e-ehhh,” and crouched in thought on the gravsled

bench. Finally, sharply: “Well, your Terran officer has likeliest

concluded you slipped off in search of the cloudflyers–the, keh, the

underground. A spacecraft was seen to lift from hereabouts not many

sunspins ago. When I heard, I wondered what that meant.”

“I imagine he went to warn the resident and start a hunt for me,”

Kossara said. “He did threaten to, if I deserted.” Anxiety touched her.

“Yes, and a tightened space watch. Have I caused us trouble?”

“We shall see. It may have been worth it in all events. To learn about

that spy device is no slight gain. We shall want your description of the

place where you threw the ring away. Perhaps we can safely look for it

and take it to study.”

“Chances are he’s recovered it. But Eonan!” Kossara twisted around

toward him. “How are you doing here? How many survive? With what

strength, what plans? How can I help?”

Again the third lids blurred his gaze. “Best I keep still. I am just a

link. They will answer you in the nest where I have decided to take

you.”

The hideout was high in a mountainside. Approaching, Kossara felt her

eardrums twinge from pressure change and cold strike deep. Snowpeaks,

glaciers, ravines, cliffs, crags reached in monstrous confusion between

a cloud ocean which drowned the lower slopes, and a sky whose emptiness

the sun only seemed to darken. Silence dwelt here, save for ah- booming

over the windshield and a mutter of native language as Eonan radioed

ahead.

Why am I not happy? she wondered. I am about to rejoin my comrades and

regain my past–my purpose. What makes me afraid?

Eonan finished. “Everything will be ready,” he informed her. Was he as

tense as he looked? She must have come to know Diomedeans well enough

during her stay that she could tell; but that had been robbed from her.

What had he to fear?

“I suppose,” she ventured, “this is headquarters for the entire mission.

They tucked it away here to make it undiscoverable.”

“Yes. They enlarged a cave.”

She recalled another cave, where she and Trohdwyr and a few more had

huddled. “Were we–those who died when I was captured–were we out in

the field–liaison with freedom fighters whose homes were below

timber-line? Maybe we were betrayed by one of them”–she

grimaced–“who’d been caught at sabotage or whatever, and interrogated.”

“That sounds plausible.”

“But then nobody except us was destroyed! Am I right? Is the liberation

movement still healthy?”

“Yes.”

Puzzlement: “Why didn’t I tell the Impies about our main base when they

put me under hypnoprobe?”

“I do not know,” Eonan said impatiently. “Please be quiet. I must bring

us in on an exact course, or they will shoot.”

As the sled glided near, Kossara spied the defense, an energy cannon. It

was camouflaged, but military training had enhanced her natural ability

to notice things. A great steel door in the bluff behind it would go

unseen from above, should anyone fly across this lofty desert.

Instruments–infrared sensors, neutrino detectors, magnetometers,

gravitometers, atmosphere sniffers, a hundred kinds of robot

bloodhound–would expose the place at once. But who would think to come

searching?

The door swung aside. The sled passed through and landed in a garage

among several aircars. Here were warmth, echoes, a sudden brilliance of

light better suited for eyes human or Merseian. Kossara shed her parka

before she stepped off. Her pulse raced.

Four stood waiting. Three were men. She was not surprised to see the

last was a big green heavy-tailed person, though her heart said O

Trohdwyr–and for an instant tears stung and blurred.

She rallied herself and walked toward them. Her boots thudded on the

floor; Eonan’s claws clicked. Those in front of her were simply clad,

shirts, trousers, shoes on the men, a tunic on the zmay. She had

expected them to be armed, as they were.

It flashed: Why did I think zmay, not ychan? And: They aren’t

Dennitzans! None of them!

She slammed to a halt. The men differed widely, genes from every breed

of mankind scrambled in chance combinations. So they could be from

Terra–or a colony within the Empire–or–

Eonan left her side. The Merseian drew his pistol. “Hold,” he rapped.

“You are under arrest.”

He called himself Glydh of the Vach Rueth, nicknamed Far-Farer, an afal

of his navy’s Intelligence corps. His immediate assistant was a lanky,

sallow, long-nosed man, introduced as Muhammad Snell but addressed by

the superior officer as Kluwych. In the middle of wreck, Kossara could

flickeringly wonder if the Eriau name had been given him by his parents,

when he was born somewhere in the Roidhunate.

They took her to an office. On the way she passed through such space and

among such personnel that she estimated the latter numbered about

twenty, two or three of them Merseian by species, the rest human. That

was probably all there were on Diomedes: sufficient to keep scores of

native dupes like Eonan going, who in their turn led thousands.

Though are they dupes? she thought drearily. Merseia would like to see

them unchained from the Empire.

No. That isn’t true. Merseia doesn’t give a curse. They’re cheap,

expendable tools.

The office was cramped and bleak. “Sit,” Glydh ordered, pointing to a

chair. He took a stool behind a desk. Snell settled on the left; his

eyes licked her, centimeter by centimeter and back again.

“Khraich.” Glydh laid his hands flat on the desktop, broad and thick,

strangler’s hands. “An astonishing turn of events. What shall we do with

you?” His Anglic was excellent.

“Isn’t this, uh, Captain Flandry more urgent, sir?” his subordinate

asked.

“Not much, I believe,” Glydh said. “True, from Vymezal’s account via

Eonan, he appears to be capable. But what can he know? That she

defected, presumably joining a remnant of the underground if she didn’t

perish en route.” He pondered. “Maybe be isn’t capable, at that–since

he let her go, trusting her mere self-interest to keep her on his side.”

Hoy? Chives said Flandry is famous … No. How many light-years, how

many millions of minds can fame cover before it spreads vanishingly

thin?

“Of course, we will have our cell in Thursday Landing keep him under

surveillance, and alert our agents globally is he leaves there,” Glydh

continued. “But I doubt he represents more than a blind stab on the part

of somebody in the opposition. I don’t think he is worth the risk of

trying to kidnap, or even kill.”

“We may find out otherwise, sir, when we interrogate Vymezal in detail,”

said the man. He moistened his lips.

“Maybe. I leave that to you. Co-opt what helpers you need.”

“Um-m-m … procedures? Treatment? Final disposition?”

“No!” Kossara heard the yell and felt the leaping to her feet, as if

from outside her body. This was not real, could not be, must not be, God

and saints, no. “I am not a, a Terran agent–I came here to–at least

I’m a prisoner of war!”

“Sit!” Glydh’s roar, and the gunshot slap of palm on desk, flung her

back like a belly blow. She heard his basso through fever-dream

distances and humming: “Don’t babble about military conventions. You are

a slave, property we have acquired. If you do what you are told, there

need not be pain. Else there will be, until you are broken to obedience.

Do you hear me?”

Snell’s fingers twisted together. He breathed fast. “Sir,” he said, “it

could be a long while before we get a chance to send a report offplanet

and ask for instructions about her. So we have to use our own judgment,

don’t we?”

“Yes,” Glydh answered.

“Well, considering what was originally intended for her, and the

reason–sir, not a woman among us in this whole region–”

Glydh shrugged. His tone was faintly contemptuous. “Quiz her out first

under narco. Afterward do what you like, short of disfiguring damage.

Remember, we may find use for her later, and the nearest biosculp

laboratory is parsecs hence.”

I will make them kill me! Even as she plunged toward Snell, fingernails

out to hook his eyeballs, Kossara knew Glydh would seize her and not let

her die.

The explosion threw her against a wall. It made a drum of her skull. The

floor heaved and cracked. Snell went over backward. Glydh flailed about

to keep his balance.

Faintly through the brief deafness that followed, she heard screams,

running, bang and hiss of firearms. Ozone drifted acrid to her nostrils,

smoke, smells of roastedness.

She was already out of the office, into the central chamber beyond. At

its far end, through the passageway which gave on the garage, she saw

how the main door lay blown off its trunnions, crumpled and red-hot.

Beyond was the ruin of the cannon. Men boiled around or sprawled

un-moving.

Enormous shone the bulk of a suit of combat armor. Bullets whanged off

it, blaster bolts fountained. The wearer stood where he was, and his own

weapon scythed.

As she broke into view–“Kossara!” Amplified from the helmet, his voice

resounded like God’s. His free hand reached beneath a plate that

protected his gravbelt. He rose and moved slowly toward her. Survivors

fled.

Fingers closed on her arm. Around her shoulder she saw Glydh. He swung

her before his body. “That’s not nice,” the oncoming invader pealed. He

spun his blaster nozzle to needle beam, aimed, and fired.

Glydh’s brow spurted steam, brains, blood, shattered bone across

Kossara. She knew a heartbeat’s marvel at that kind of precision

shooting. But then the heavy corpse bore her down. Her head struck the

floor. Lightning filled the universe.

The armored man reached her, stood over her, shielded her. A

spacecraft’s flank appeared in the entry. It had sprouted a turret,

whose gun sprayed every doorway where an enemy might lurk. Kossara let

darkness flow free.

XI

A breath of air cool, pine-scented; all noises gone soft; a sense of

muted energies everywhere around; a lessened weight–Kossara opened her

eyes. She lay in bed, in her cabin aboard the Hooligan. Flandry sat

alongside. He wore a plain coverall, his countenance was haggard and the

gray gaze troubled. Nonetheless he smiled. “Hello, there,” he murmured.

“How do you feel?”

Drowsy, altogether at ease, she asked, “Have we left Diomedes?”

“Yes. We’re bound for Dennitza.” He took her right hand between both of

his. “Now listen. Everything is all right. You weren’t seriously harmed,

but on examination we decided we’d better keep you under sleep induction

awhile, with intravenous feeding and some medication. Look at your left

wrist.” She did. It was bare. “Yes, the bracelet is off. As far as I’m

concerned, you’re free, and I’ll take care of the technicalities as soon

as possible. You’re going home, Kossara.”

Examination–She dropped her glance. A sheer nightgown covered her. “I’m

sorry I never thought to bring anything more decorous for you to sleep

in,” Flandry said. He appeared to be summoning courage. “Chives did the

doctoring, the bathing, et cetera. Chives alone.” His mouth went wry.

“You may or may not believe that. It’s true, but hell knows how much

I’ve lied to you.”

And I to you, she thought.

He straightened in the chair and released her. “Well,” he said, “would

you like a spot of tea and accompaniments? You should stay in bed for

another watch cycle or two, till you get your strength back.”

“What happened … to us?”

“We’d better postpone that tale. First you should rest.” Flandry rose.

Almost timidly, he gave her hair a stroke. “I’ll go now. Chives will

bring the tea.”

Wakefulness returned. When the Shalmuan came to retrieve her tray,

Kossara sat propped against pillows, ready for him. “I hope the

refreshments were satisfactory, Donna,” he said. “Would you care for

something more?”

“Yes,” she replied. “Information.”

The slim form showed unease. “Sir Dominic feels–”

“Sir Dominic is not me.” She spread her palms. “Chives, how can I relax

in a jigsaw puzzle? Tell me, or ask him to tell me, what went on in that

den. How did you find me? What did you do after I lost consciousness?

Why?”

Chives reached a decision. “Well, Donna, we trust that in view of

results obtained, you will pardon certain earlier modifications of

strict veracity which Sir Dominic deemed essential. The ring he gave you

was a mere ring; no such device exists as he described, at least within

the purview of Technic civilization.” She choked. He continued: “Sir

Dominic, ah, has been known to indulge in what he describes as wistful

fantasizing relevant to his occupation. Instead, the bracelet you wore

was slave-driven from an external source of radiated power.”

“Slave-driven. A very good word.” And yet Kossara could feel no anger.

She imitated it as a duty. Had they given her a tranquilizing drug which

had not completely worn off?

“Your indignation is natural, Donna.” Chives’ tail switched his ankles.

“Yet allow me to request you consider the total situation, including the

fact that those whom you met were not noble liberators but Merseian

operatives. Sir Dominic suspected this from the start. He believed that

if you reappeared, they were sure to contact you, if only to find out

what had transpired. He saw no method short of the empirical for

convincing you. Furthermore, admiration for your honesty made him

dubious of your ability knowingly to play a double role.

“Hence I trailed you at a discreet distance while he went to Thursday

Landing to investigate other aspects of the case. Albeit my assignment

had its vexations, I pinpointed the spot where you were brought and

called Sir Dominic, who by then had returned to Lannach. Underground and

surrounded by metal, your bracelet was blocked from us. We concluded

immediate attack was the most prudent course–for your sake

particularly, Donna. While Sir Dominic flitted down in armor, I blasted

the cannon and entrance. Shortly afterward I landed to assist and, if

you will excuse my immodesty, took the single prisoner we got. The rest

were either dead or, ah, holed up sufficiently well that we decided to

content ourselves with a nuclear missile dispatched through the

entrance.

“The resultant landslide was somewhat spectacular. Perhaps later you

will be interested to see the movie I took.

“Ah … what he has learned has made Sir Dominic of the opinion that we

must speed directly to Dennitza. Nevertheless, I assure you he would in

all events have seen to your repatriation at the earliest feasible

date.”

Chives lifted her tea tray. “This is as much as I should tell you at the

present stage, Donna. I trust you can screen whatever you wish in the

way of literary, theatrical, or musical diversion. If you require

assistance of any kind, please call on the intercom. I will return in

two hours with a bowl of chicken soup. Is that satisfactory?”

Stars filled the saloon viewscreen behind Flandry’s head. The ship went

hush-hush-hush, on a voyage which, even at her pseudospeed, would take a

Terran month. The whisky he had poured for them glowed across tongue and

palate.

“It’s a foul story,” he warned.

“Does evil go away just because we keep silent?” Kossara answered.

Inwardly: How evil are you, you claw of the Empire?–but again without

heat, a thought she felt obliged to think.

After all, his lean features looked so grim and unhappy, across the

table from her. He shouldn’t chain-smoke the way he did; anticancer

shots, cardiovascular treatments, lungflushes, and everything, it

remained a flagellant habit. One could serve a bad cause without being a

bad man. Couldn’t one?

He sighed and drank. “Very well. A sketch. I got a lot of details from a

narcoquiz of our prisoner, but most are simply that, details, useful in

hunting down the last of his outfit if and when that seems worthwhile.

He did, though, confirm and amplify something much more scary.”

Memory prodded her with a cold finger. “Where is he?”

“Oh, I needled him and bunged him out an airlock.” Flandry observed her

shock. His tone changed from casual to defensive. “We were already in

space; this business doesn’t allow delays. As for turning him over to

the authorities when we arrive–there may not be any authorities, or

they may be in full revolt, Merseian-allied. At best, the fact he was

alive could trickle across to enemy Intelligence, and give them valuable

clues to what we know. This is how the game’s played, Kossara.” He

trailed out smoke before he added, “Happens his name was Muhammad

Snell.”

Blood beat in temples and cheeks. “He got no chance–I don’t need

avengers.”

“Maybe your people will,” he said quietly.

After a second he leaned forward, locked eyes with her, and continued:

“Let’s begin explanations from my viewpoint. I want you to follow my

experiences and reasoning, in hopes you’ll then accept my conclusions.

You’re an embittered woman, for more cause than you know right now. But

I think you’re also intelligent, fair-minded, yes, tough-minded enough

to recognize truth, no matter what rags it wears.”

Kossara told herself she must be calm, watchful, like a cat–like

Butterfeet when she was little … She drank. “Go on.”

Flandry filled his lungs. “The Gospodar, the Dennitzans in general are

furious at Hans’ scheme to disband their militia and make them wholly

dependent on the Navy,” he said. “After they supported him through the

civil war, too! And we’ve other sources of friction, inevitable; and

thoughts of breaking away or violently replacing the regnant Emperor are

no longer unthinkable. Dennitza has its own culture, deep-rooted,

virile, alien to Terra and rather contemptuous thereof–a culture

influenced by Merseia, both directly and through the, uh, zmay element

in your population.

“Aye, granted, you’ve long been in the forefront of resistance to the

Roidhunate. However, such attitudes can change overnight. History’s

abulge with examples. For instance, England’s rebellious North American

colonies calling on the French they fought less than two decades before;

or America a couple of centuries later, allied first with the Russians

against the Germans, then turning straight around and–” He stopped.

“This doesn’t mean anything to you, does it? No matter. You can see the

workings in your own case, I’m sure. Dennitza is where your loyalties

lie. What you do, whom you support, those depend on what you judge is

best for Dennitza. Right? Yes, entirely right and wholesome. But

damnably mislead-able.”

“Are you, then, a Terran loyalist?” she demanded.

He shook his head. “A civilization loyalist. Which is a pretty thin,

abstract thing to be; and I keep wondering whether we can preserve

civilization or even should.

“Well. Conflict of interest is normal. Compromise is too, especially

with as valuable a tributary as Dennitza–provided it stays tributary.

Now we’d received strong accusations that Dennitzans were engineering

revolt on Diomedes, presumably in preparation for something similar at

home. His Majesty’s government wasn’t about to bull right in. That’d be

sure to bring on trouble we can ill afford, perhaps quite unnecessarily.

But the matter had to be investigated.

“And I, I learned a Dennitzan girl of ranking family had been caught at

subversion on Diomedes. Her own statements out of partial recollections,

her undisguised hatred of the Imperium, they seemed to confirm those

accusations. Being asked to look into the questions, what would I do but

bring you along?”

He sighed. “A terrible mistake. We should’ve headed straight for

Dennitza. Hindsight is always keen, isn’t it, while foresight stays

myopic, astigmatic, strabismic, and drunk. But I haven’t even that

excuse. I’d guessed at the truth from the first. Instead of going off to

see if I could prove my hunch or not–” His fist smote the table. “I

should never have risked you the way I did. Kossara!”

She thought, amazed, He is in pain about that. He truly is.

“A-a-ah,” Flandry said. “I’m a ruthless bastard. Better hunter than

prey, and have we any third choice in these years? Or so I thought. You

… were only another life.”

He ground out his cigarette, sprang from the bench, strode back and

forth along the cabin. Sometimes his hands were gripped together behind

him, sometimes knotted at his sides. His voice turned quick and

impersonal:

“You looked like a significant pawn, though. Why such an incredibly

bungled job on you? Including your enslavement on Terra. I’d have heard

about you in time, but it was sheer luck I did before you’d been thrown

into a whorehouse. And how would your uncle the Gospodar react to that

news if it reached him?

“Might it be intended to reach him?

“Oh, our enemies couldn’t be certain what’d happen; but you tilted the

probabilities in their favor. They must’ve spent considerable time and

effort locating you. Flandry’s Law: ‘Given a sufficiently large

population, at least one member will fit any desired set of

specifications.’ The trick is to find that member.”

“What?” Kossara exclaimed. “Do you mean–because I was who I was, in the

position I was–that’s why Dennitza–” She could speak no further.

“Well, let’s say you were an important factor,” he replied. “I’m not

sure just how you came into play, though I can guess. On the basis of my

own vague ideas, I made a decoy of you in the manner you’ve already

heard about. That involved first deliberately antagonizing you on the

voyage; then deliberately gambling your life, health, sanity–”

He halted in midstride. His shoulders slumped. She could barely hear

him, though his look did not waver from hers: “Every minute makes what I

did hurt worse.”

She wanted to tell him he was forgiven, yes, go take his hands and tell

him; but no, he had lied too often. With an effort, she said, “I am

surprised.”

His grin was wry. “Less than I am.” Returning, he flopped back onto the

bench, crossed ankle over thigh till he peered across his knee at her,

swallowed a long draught from his glass, took out his cigarette case;

and when the smoke was going he proceeded:

“Let’s next assume the enemy’s viewpoint, i.e. what I learned and

deduced.

“They–a key one of them, anyhow–he realizes the Terran Empire is in an

era when periods of civil war are as expectable as bouts of delirium in

chronic umwi fever. I wasn’t quite aware of the fact myself till lately.

A conversation I had set me thinking and researching. But he knew right

along, my opponent. At last I see what he’s been basing his strategy on

for the past couple of decades. Knowing him, if he believes the theory,

I think I will. These days we’re vulnerable to fratricide, Kossara. And

what better for Merseia, especially if just the right conflict can be

touched off at just the right moment?

“We’ve been infiltrated. They’ve had sleepers among us for … maybe a

lifetime … notably in my own branch of service, where they can cover

up for each other … and notably during this past generation, when the

chaos first of the Josip regime, then the succession struggle, made it

easier to pass off their agents as legitimate colonial volunteers.

“The humans on Diomedes. brewing revolution with the help of a clever

Alatanist pitch–thereby diverting some of our attention to Ythri–they

weren’t Dennitzans. They were creatures of the Roidhunate, posing as

Dennitzans. Oh, not blatantly; that’d’ve been a giveaway. And they were

sincerely pushing for an insurrection, since any trouble of ours is a

gain for them. But a major objective of the whole operation was to drive

yet another wedge between your people and mine, Kossara.”

Frost walked along her spine. She stared at him and whispered: “Those

men who caught me–murdered Trohdwyr–tortured and sentenced me–they

were Merseians too?”

“They were human,” Flandry said flatly, while he unfolded himself into a

more normal posture. “They were sworn-in members of the Imperial Terran

Naval Intelligence Corps. But, yes, they were serving Merseia. They

arrived to ‘investigate’ and thus add credence to the clues about

Dennitza which their earlier-landed fellows had already been spreading

around.

“Let the Imperium get extremely suspicious of the Gospodar–d’you see?

The Imperium will have to act against him. It dare not stall any longer.

But this action forces the Gospodar to respond–he already having reason

to doubt the goodwill of the Terrans–”

Flandry smashed his cigarette, drank, laid elbows on table and said most

softly, his face near hers:

“He’d hear rumors, and send somebody he could trust to look into them.

Aycharaych–I’ll describe him later–Aycharaych of the Roidhunate knew

that person would likeliest be you. He made ready. Your incrimination,

as far as Terra was concerned–your degradation, as far as Dennitza was

concerned–d’you see? Inadequate by themselves to provoke war. Still,

remind me and I’ll tell you about Jenkins’ Ear. Nations on the brink

don’t need a large push to send them toppling.

“I’ve learned something about how you were lured, after you reached

Diomedes. The rest you can tell me, if you will. Because when he isn’t

weaving mirages, Aycharaych works on minds. He directed the blotting out

of your memories. He implanted the false half-memories and that hate of

the Empire you carry around. Given his uncanny telepathic capabilities,

to let him monitor what drugs, electronics, hypnotism are doing to a

brain, he can accomplish what nobody else is able to.

“But I don’t think he totally wiped what was real. That’d have left you

too unmistakably worked over. I think you keep most of the truth in you,

disguised and buried.”

The air sucked between her teeth. Her fists clenched on the table. He

laid a hand across them, big and gentle.

“I hope I can bring back what you’ve lost, Kossara.” The saying sounded

difficult. “And, and free you from those conditioned-reflex emotions.

It’s mainly a matter of psychotherapy. I don’t insist. Ask yourself: Can

you trust me that much?”

XII

Sickbay was a single compartment, but astonishingly well equipped.

Kossara entered with tightness in her gullet and dryness on her tongue.

Flandry and Chives stood behind a surgical table. An electronic helmet,

swiveled out above the pillow, crouched like an ugly arachnoid. The

faint hum of driving energies, ventilation, service and life-support

devices, seemed to her to have taken on a shrill note.

Flandry had left flamboyancy outside. Tall in a plain green coverall, he

spoke unsmiling: “Your decision isn’t final yet. Before we go any

further, let me explain. Chives and I have done this sort of thing

before, and we aren’t a bad team, but we’re no professionals.”

This sort of thing–Muhammad Snell must lately have lain on that

mattress, in the dream-bewildered helplessness of narco, while yonder

man pumped him dry and injected the swift poison. Shouldn’t I fear the

Imperialist? Dare I risk becoming the ally of one who treated a sentient

being as we do a meat animal?

I ought to feel indignation. I don’t, though. Nor do I feel guilty that

I don’t.

Well, I’m not revengeful, either. At least, not very much. I do remember

how Trohdwyr died because he was an inconvenience; I remember how Mihail

Svetich died, in a war Flandry says our enemies want to kindle anew.

Flandry says–She heard him from afar, fast and pedantic. Had he

rehearsed his speech?

“This is not a hypnoprobe here, of course. It puts a human straight into

quasisleep and stimulates memory activity, after a drug has damped

inhibitions and emotions. In effect, everything the organism has

permanently recorded becomes accessible to a questioner–assuming no

deep conditioning against it. The process takes more time and skill than

an ordinary quiz, where all that’s wanted is something the subject

consciously knows but isn’t willing to tell. Psychiatrists use it to dig

out key, repressed experiences in severely disturbed patients. I’ve

mainly used it to get total accounts, generally from cooperative

witnesses–significant items they may have noticed but forgotten. In

your case, we’d best go in several fairly brief sessions, spaced three

or four watches apart. That way you can assimilate your regained

knowledge and avoid a crisis. The sessions will give you no pain and

leave no recollection of themselves.”

She brought her whole attention to him. “Do you play the tapes for me

when I wake?” she asked.

“I could,” he replied, “but wouldn’t you prefer I wiped them? You see,

when our questions have brought out a coherent framework of what was

buried, a simple command will fix it in your normal memory. By

association, that will recover everything else. You’ll come to with full

recall of whatever episode we concentrated on.”

His eyes dwelt gravely upon her. “You must realize,” he continued, “your

whole life will be open to us. We’ll try hard to direct our questioning

so we don’t intrude. However, there’s no avoiding all related and

heavily charged items. You’ll blurt many of them out. Besides, we’ll

have to feel our way. Is such-and-such a scrap of information from your

recent, bad past–or is it earlier, irrelevant? Often we’ll need to

develop a line of investigation for some distance before we can be sure.

“We’re bound to learn things you’ll wish we didn’t. You’ll simply have

to take our word that we’ll keep silence ever afterward … and, yes,

pass no judgment, lest we be judged by ourselves.

“Do you really want that, Kossara?”

She nodded with a stiff neck. “I want the truth.”

“You can doubtless learn enough for practical purposes by talking to the

Gospodar, if he’s alive and available when we reach Dennitza. And I make

no bones: one hope of mine is gaining insight into the modus operandi of

Merseian Intelligence, a few clear identifications of their agents among

us … for the benefit of the Empire.

“I won’t compel you,” Flandry finished. “Please think again before you

decide.”

She squared her shoulders. “I have thought.” Holding out her hand: “Give

me the medicine.”

The first eventide, her feet dragged her into the saloon. Flandry saw

her disheveled, drably clad, signs of weeping upon her, against the

stars. She had long been in her own room behind a closed door.

“You needn’t eat here, you know,” he said in his gentlest tone.

“Thank you, but I will,” she answered.

“I admire your courage more than I have words to tell, dear. Come, sit

down, take a drink or three before dinner.” Since he feared she might

refuse, lest that seem to herself like running away from what was in

her, he added, “Trohdwyr would like a toast to his manes, wouldn’t he?”

She followed the suggestion in a numb way. “Will the whole job be this

bad?” she asked.

“No.” He joined her, pouring Merseian telloch for them both though he

really wanted a Mars-dry martini. “I was afraid things might go as they

went, the first time, but couldn’t see any road around. You did witness

Trohdwyr’s murder, he suffered hideously, and he’d been your beloved

mentor your whole life. The pain wasn’t annulled just because your

thalamus was temporarily anesthetized. Being your strongest lost memory,

already half in consciousness, it came out ahead of any others. And it’s

still so isolated it feels like yesterday.”

She settled wearily back. “Yes,” she said. “Before, everything was

blurred, even that. Now … the faces, the whole betrayal–”

{Nobody died in the cave except Trohdwyr. The rest stood by when a mere

couple of marines arrived to arrest her. “You called them!” she screamed

to the one who bore the name Steve Johnson, surely not his own. He

grinned. Trohdwyr lunged, trying to get her free, win her a chance to

scramble down the slope and vanish. The lieutenant blasted him. The life

in his tough old body had not ebbed out, under the red moons, when they

pulled her away from him.

Afterward she overheard Johnson: “Why’d you kill the servant? Why not

take him along?”

And the lieutenant: “He’d only be a nuisance. As is, when the Diomedeans

find him, they won’t get suspicious at your disappearance. They’ll

suppose the Terrans caught you. Which should make them handier material.

For instance, if we want any of those who met you here to go guerrilla,

our contact men can warn them they’ve been identified through data

pulled out of you prisoners.”

“Hm, what about us four?”

“They’ll decide at headquarters. I daresay they’ll reassign you to a

different region. Come on, now, let’s haul mass.” The lieutenant’s boot

nudged Kossara, where she slumped wrist-bound against the cold cave

wall. “On your feet, bitch!”}

“His death happened many weeks ago,” Flandry said. “Once you get more

memories back, you’ll see it, feel it in perspective–including time

perspective. You’ll have done your grieving … which you did, down

underneath; and you’re too healthy to mourn forever.”

“I will always miss him,” she whispered.

Flandry regarded ghosts of his own. “Yes, I know.”

She straightened. He saw her features harden, as if bones lent strength

to flesh. The blue-green eyes turned arctic. “Sir Dominic, you were

right in what you did to Snell. Nobody in that gang was–is–fit to

live.”

“Well, we’re in a war, we and they, the nastier for being undeclared,”

he said carefully. “What you and I must do, if we can, is keep the

sickness from infecting your planet. Or to the extent it has, if I may

continue the metaphor, we’ve got to supply an antibiotic before the high

fever takes hold and the eruptions begin.”

His brutal practicality worked as he had hoped, to divert her from both

sorrow and rage. “What do you plan?” The question held some of the

crispness which ordinarily was hers.

“Before leaving Diomedes,” he said, “I contacted Lagard’s field office

on Lannach, transmitted a coded message for him to record, and showed

him my authority to command immediate courier service. The message is

directly to the Emperor. The code will bypass channels. In summary, it

says, ‘Hold off at Dennitza, no matter what you hear, till I’ve

collected full information’–followed by a synopsis of all I’ve learned

thus far.”

She began faintly to glow in her exhaustion. “Why, wonderful.”

“M-m-m, not altogether, I’m afraid.” Flandry let the telloch savage his

throat. “Remember, by now his Majesty’s barbarian-quelling on the Spican

frontier. He’ll move around a lot. The courier may not track him down

for a while. Meantime–the Admiralty on Terra may get word which

provokes it to emergency action, without consulting Emperor or Policy

Board. It has that right, subject to a later court of inquiry. And I’ve

no direct line there. Probably make no difference if I did. Maybe not

even any difference what I counsel Hans. I’m a lone agent. They could

easily decide I must be wrong.”

He forced a level look at her. “Or Dennitza could in fact have exploded,

giving Emperor and Admiralty no choice,” he declared. “The Merseians are

surely working that side of the street too.”

“You hope I–we can get my uncle and the Skupshtina to stay their

hands?” she asked.

“Yes,” Flandry said. “This is a fast boat. However … we’ll be a month

in transit, and Aycharaych & Co. have a long jump on us.”

{The resident and his lady made her welcome at Thursday Landing. They

advised her against taking her research to the Sea of Achan countries.

Unrest was particularly bad there. Indeed, she and her Merseian–pardon,

her xenosophont companion–would do best to avoid migratory societies in

general. Could they not gather sufficient data among the sedentary and

maritime Diomedeans? Those were more intimate with modern civilization,

more accustomed to dealing with offworlders, therefore doubtless more

relevant to the problem which had caused her planetary government to

send her here.

Striving to mask her nervousness, she met Commander Maspes and a few

junior officers of the Imperial Naval Intelligence team that was

investigating the disturbances. He was polite but curt. His attitude

evidently influenced the younger men, who must settle for stock words

and sidelong stares. Yes, Maspes said, it was common knowledge that

humans were partly responsible for the revolutionary agitation and

organization on this planet. Most Diomedeans believed they were

Avalonians, working for Ythri. Some native rebels, caught and

interrogated, said they had actually been told so by the agents

themselves. And indeed the Alatanist mystique was a potent recruiter …

Yet how could a naive native distinguish one kind of human from another?

Maybe Ythri was being maligned … He should say no more at the present

stage. Had Donna Vymezal had a pleasant journey? What was the news at

her home?

Lagard apologized that he must bar her from a wing of the Residency. “A

team member, his work’s confidential and–well, you are a civilian, you

will be in the outback, and he’s a xeno, distinctive appearance–”

Kossara smiled. “I can dog my hatch,” she said; “but since you wish,

I’ll leash my curiosity.” She gave the matter scant thought, amidst

everything else.}

Flandry greeted her at breakfast: “Dobar yutro, Dama.”

Startled, she asked, “You are learning Serbic?”

“As fast as operant conditioning, electronics, and the pharmacopoeia can

cram it into me.” He joined her at table. Orange juice shone above the

cloth. Coffee made the air fragrant. He drank fast. She saw he was

tired.

“I wondered why you are so seldom here when off duty,” she said.

“That’s the reason.”

He gazed out at the stars. She considered him. After a while, during

which her pulse accelerated, she said, “No. I mean, if you’re studying,

there is no need. You must know most of us speak Anglic. You need an

excuse to avoid me.”

It was his turn for surprise. “Eh? Why in cosmos would I that?”

She drew breath, feeling cheeks, throat, breasts redden. “You think I’m

embarrassed at what you’ve learned of me.”

“No–” He swung his look to her. “Yes. Not that I–Well, I try not to,

and what comes out regardless shows you clean as a … knife blade–But

of course you’re full of life, you’ve been in love and–” Abruptly he

flung his head back and laughed. “Oh, hellflash! I was afraid you would

make me stammer like a schoolboy.”

“I’m not angry. Haven’t you saved me? Aren’t you healing me?” She

gathered resolution. “I did have to think hard, till I saw how nothing

about me could surprise you.”

“Oh, a lot could. Does.” Their eyes met fully.

“Maybe you can equalize us a little,” she said through a rising

drumbeat. “Tell me of your own past, what you really are under that

flexmail you always wear.” She smiled. “In exchange, I can help you in

your language lessons, and tell you stories about Dennitza that can’t be

in your records. The time has been lonely for me, Dominic.”

“For us both,” he said as though dazed.

Chives brought in an omelet and fresh-baked bread.

{From a dealer in Thursday Landing, Kossara rented an aircamper and

field equipment, bought rations and guidebooks, requested advice. She

needed information for its own sake as well as for cover. On the long

voyage here–three changes of passenger-carrying freighter—-she had

absorbed what material on Diomedes the Shkola in Zorkagrad could supply.

That wasn’t much. It could well have been zero if the planet weren’t

unusual enough to be used as an interest-grabbing example in certain

classes. She learned scraps of astronomy, physics, chemistry, topology,

meteorology, biology, ethnology, history, economics, politics; she

acquired a few phrases in several different languages, no real grasp of

their grammar or semantics; her knowledge was a twig to which she clung

above the windy chasm of her ignorance about an entire world.

After a few days getting the feel of conditions, she and Trohdwyr flew

to Lannach. The resident had not actually forbidden them. In the towns

along Sagna Bay, they went among the gaunt high dwellings of the winged

folk, seeking those who understood Anglic and might talk somewhat

freely. “We are from a planet called Dennitza. We wish to find out how

to make friends and stay friends with a people who resemble you–”

Eonan the factor proved helpful. Increasingly, Kossara tried to sound

him out, and had an idea he was trying to do likewise to her. Whether or

not he was involved in the subversive movement, he could well fear she

came from Imperial Intelligence to entrap comrades of his. And yet the

name “Dennitza” unmistakably excited more than one individual, quick

though the Diomedeans were to hide that reaction.

How far Dennitza felt, drowned in alien constellations! At night in

their camper, she and Trohdwyr would talk long and long about old days

and future days at home; he would sing his gruff ychan songs to her, and

she would recite the poems of Simich that he loved: until at last an

inner peace came to them both, bearing its gift of sleep.}

Flandry always dressed for dinner. He liked being well turned out; it

helped create an atmosphere which enhanced his appreciation of the food

and wine; and Chives would raise polite hell if he didn’t. Kossara

slopped in wearing whatever she’d happened to don when she got out of

bed. Not to mock her mourning, he settled for the blue tunic, red sash,

white trousers, and soft half-boots that were a human officer’s ordinary

mess uniform.

When she entered the saloon in evening garb, he nearly dropped the

cocktail pitcher. Amidst the subdued elegance around her, she suddenly

outblazed a great blue star and multitudinously lacy nebula which

dominated the viewscreen. Burgundy-hued velvyl sheathed each curve of

her tautness, from low on the bosom to silvery slippers. A necklace of

jet and turquoise, a bracelet of gold, gleamed against ivory skin.

Diamond-studded tiara and crystal earrings framed the ruddy hair; but a

few freckles across the snub nose redeemed that high-cheeked,

full-mouthed, large-eyed face from queenliness.

“Nom de Dieu!” he gasped, and there sang through him, Yes, God, Whom the

believers say made all triumphant beauty. She breaks on me and takes me

like a wave of sunlit surf. “Woman, that’s not fair! You should have

sent a trumpeter to announce you.”

She chuckled. “I decided it was past time I do Chives the courtesy of

honoring his cuisine. He fitted me yesterday and promised to exceed

himself in the galley.”

Flandry shook head and clicked tongue. “Pity I won’t be paying his

dishes much attention.” Underneath, he hurt for joy.

“You will. I know you, Dominic. And I will too.” She pirouetted. “This

gown is lovely, isn’t it? Being a woman again–” The air sent him an

insinuation of her perfume, while it lilted with violins.

“Then you feel recovered?”

“Yes.” She sobered. “I felt strength coming back, the strength to be

glad, more and more these past few days.” A stride brought her to him.

He had set the pitcher down. She took both his hands–the touch radiated

through him–and said gravely: “Oh, I’ve not forgotten what happened,

nor what may soon happen. But life is good. I want to celebrate its

goodness … with you, who brought me home to it. I can never rightly

thank you for that, Dominic.”

Nor can I rightly thank you for existing, Kossara. In spite of what she

had let slip beneath the machine, she remained too mysterious for him to

hazard kissing her. He took refuge: “Yes, you can. You can throw off

your frontier steadfastness, foresight, common sense, devotion to

principle, et cetera, and be frivolous. If you don’t know how to frivol,

watch me. Later you may disapprove to your heart’s contempt, but tonight

let’s cast caution to the winds, give three-point-one-four-one-six

cheers, and speak disrespectfully of the Lesser Magellanic Cloud.”

Laughing, she released him. “Do you truly think we Dennitzans are so

stiff? I’d call us quite jolly. Wait till you’ve been to a festival, or

till I show you how to dance the luka.”

“Why not now? Work up an appetite.”

She shook her head. The tiara flung glitter which he noticed only

peripherally because of her eyes. “No, I’d rip this dress, or else pop

out of it like a cork. Our dances are all lively. Some people say they

have to be.”

“The prospect of watching you demonstrate makes me admit there’s

considerable to be said for an ice age.”

Actually, the summers where she lived were warm. Farther south, the

Pustinya desert was often hot. A planet is too big, too many-sided for a

single idea like “glacial era” to encompass.

Through Flandry passed the facts he had read, a parched obbligato to the

vividness breathing before him. He would not truly know her till he knew

the land, sea, sky which had given her to creation; but the data were a

beginning.

Zoria was an F8 sun, a third again as luminous as Sol. Dennitza,

slightly smaller than Terra, orbiting at barely more than Terran

distance from the primary, should have been warmer–and had been for

most of its existence. Loss of water through ultraviolet cracking had

brought about that just half the surface was ocean-covered. This, an

axial tilt of 32.5°, and an 18.8-hour rotation period led to extremes of

weather and climate. Basically terrestroid, organisms adapted as they

evolved in a diversity of environments.

That stood them in good stead when the catastrophe came. Less than a

million years ago, a shower of giant meteoroids struck, or perhaps an

asteroid shattered in the atmosphere. Whirled around the globe by

enormous forces, the stones cratered dry land–devastated by impact,

concussion, radiation, fire which followed–cast up dust which dimmed

the sun for years afterward. Worse were the ocean strikes. The tsunamis

they raised merely ruined every coast on the planet; life soon returned.

But the thousands of cubic kilometers of water they evaporated became a

cloud cover that endured for millennia. The energy balance shifted. Ice

caps formed at the poles, grew, begot glaciers reaching halfway to the

equator. Species, genera, families died; fossil beds left hints that

among them had been a kind starting to make tools. New forms arose,

winter-hardy in the temperate zones, desperately contentious in the

tropics.

Then piece by piece the heavens cleared, sunlight grew brilliant again,

glaciers melted back. The retreat of the ice that men found when they

arrived, six hundred years later was a rout. The Great Spring brought

woes of its own, storms, floods, massive extinctions and migrations to

overthrow whole ecologies. In her own brief lifespan, Kossara had seen

coastal towns abandoned before a rising sea.

Her birth country lay not far inland, though sheltered from northerly

winds and easterly waters–the Kazan, Cauldron, huge astrobleme on the

continent Rodna, a bowl filled with woods, farmlands, rivers, at its

middle Lake Stoyan and the capital Zorkagrad. Her father was voivode of

Dubina Dolyina province, named for the gorge that the Lyubisha River had

cut through the ringwall on its way south from the dying snows. Thus she

grew up child of a lord close to the people he guided, wilderness child

who was often in town, knowing the stars both as other suns and as elven

friends to lead her home after dark …

Flandry took her arm. “Come, my lady,” he said. “Be seated. This evening

we shall not eat, we shall dine.”

{At last Eonan told Kossara about a person in the mountain community

Salmenbrok who could give her some useful tidings. If she liked, he

would take her and Trohdwyr on his gravsled–he didn’t trust her vehicle

in these airs–and introduce them. More he would not yet say. They

accepted eagerly.

Aloft he shifted course. “I bespoke one in Salmenbrok because I feared

spies overhearing,” he explained. “The truth is, they are four in a cave

whom we will visit. I have asked them about you, and they will have you

as guests while you explore each other’s intents.”

She thought in unease that when the Diomedean went back, she and her

companion would be left flightless, having brought no gravbelts along.

The ychan got the same realization and growled. She plucked up the nerve

to shush him and say, “Fine.”

The two men and two women she met were not her kind. Racial types,

accents, manners, their very gaits belied it. Eonan talked to them and

her passionately, as if they really were Dennitzans who had come to

prepare the liberation of his folk. She bided in chill and tension,

speaking little and nothing to contradict, until he departed. Then she

turned on them and cried, “What’s this about?” Her hand rested on her

sidearm. Trohdwyr bulked close, ready to attack with pistol, knife,

tail, foot-claws if they threatened her.

Steve Johnson smiled, spread empty fingers, and replied, “Of course

you’re puzzled. Please come inside where it’s warmer and we’ll tell

you.” The rest behaved in equally friendly wise.

Their story was simple in outline. They too were Imperial subjects, from

Esperance. That planet wasn’t immensely remote from here. True to its

pacifistic tradition, it had stayed neutral during the succession fight,

declaring it would pledge allegiance to whoever gave the Empire peace

and law again. (Kossara nodded. She had heard of Esperance.) But this

policy required a certain amount of armed might and a great deal of

politicking and intriguing abroad, to prevent forcible recruitment by

some or other pretender. The Esperancians thus got into the habit of

taking a more active role than hitherto. Conditions remained

sufficiently turbulent after Hans was crowned to keep the habit in tune.

When their Intelligence heard rumors of Ythrian attempts to foment

revolution on Diomedes, their government was immediately concerned.

Esperance was near the border of Empire and Domain. Agents were smuggled

onto Diomedes to spy out the truth–discreetly, since God alone knew

what the effect of premature revelations might be. Johnson’s party was

such a band.

“Predecessors of ours learned Dennitzans were responsible,” he said.

“Not Avalonian humans serving Ythri, but Dennitzan humans serving their

war lord!”

“No!” Kossara interrupted, horrified. “That isn’t true! And he’s not a

war lord!”

“It was what the natives claimed, Mademoiselle Vymezal,” the

Asian-looking woman said mildly. “We decided to try posing as

Dennitzans. Our project had learned enough about the underground–names

of various members, for instance–that it seemed possible, granted the

autochthons couldn’t spot the difference. Their reaction to us does

indicate they … well, they have reason to believe Dennitzans are

sparking their movement. We’ve been, ah, leading them on, collecting

information without actually helping them develop paramilitary

capabilities. When Eonan told us an important Dennitzan had arrived,

openly but with hints she could be more than a straightforward

scientist–naturally, we grew interested.”

“Well, you’ve been fooled,” burst from Kossara. “I’m here to, to

disprove those exact same charges against us. The Gospodar, our head of

state, he’s my uncle and he sent me as his personal agent. I should

know, shouldn’t I? And I tell you, he’s loyal. We are!”

“Why doesn’t he proclaim it?” Johnson asked.

“Oh, he is making official representations. But what are they worth?

Across four hundred light-years–We need proof. We need to learn who’s

been blackening us and why.” Kossara paused for a sad smile. “I don’t

pretend I can find out much. I’m here as a, a forerunner, a scout. Maybe

that special Navy team working out of Thursday Landing–have you heard

about them?–maybe they’ll exonerate us without our doing anything.

Maybe they already have. The commander didn’t act suspicious of me.”

Johnson patted her hand. “I believe you’re honest, Mademoiselle,” he

said. “And you may well be correct, too. Let’s exchange what we’ve

discovered–and, in between, give you some outdoor recreation. You look

space-worn.”

The next three darkling springtime days were pleasant. Kossara and

Trohdwyr stopped wearing weapons in the cave.}

Flandry sighed. “Aycharaych.” He had told her something of his old

antagonist. “Who else? Masks within masks, shadows that cast shadows …

Merseian operatives posing as Esperancians posing as Dennitzans whose

comrades had formerly posed as Avalonians, while other Merseian

creatures are in fact the Terran personnel they claim to be. Yes, I’ll

bet my chance of a peaceful death that Aycharaych is the engineer of the

whole diablerie.”

He drew on a cigarette, rolled acridity over his tongue and streamed it

out his nostrils, as if this mordant would give reality a fast hold on

him. He and she sat side by side on a saloon bench. Before them was the

table, where stood glasses and a bottle of Demerara rum. Beyond was the

viewscreen, full of night and stars. They had left the shining nebula

behind; an unlit mass of cosmic dust reared thunderhead tall across the

Milky Way. The ship’s clocks declared the hour was late. Likewise did

the silence around, above the hum which had gone so deep into their

bones that they heard it no more.

Kossara wore a housedress whose brevity made him all too aware of long

legs, broad bosom, a vein lifting blue from the dearest hollow that her

shoulderbones made at the base of her throat. She shivered a trifle and

leaned near him, unperfumed now except for a sunny odor of woman.

“Monstrous,” she mumbled.

“N-no … well, I can’t say.” Why do I defend him? Flandry wondered, and

knew: I see in my mirror the specter of him. Though who of us is flesh

and who image? “I’ll admit I can’t hate him, even for what he did to you

and will do to your whole people and mine if he can. I’ll kill him the

instant I’m able, but–Hm, I suppose you never saw or heard of a coral

snake. It’s venomous but very beautiful, and strikes without malice …

Not that I really know what drives Aycharaych. Maybe he’s an artist of

overriding genius. That’s a kind of monster, isn’t it?”

She reached for her glass, withdrew her hand–she was a light

drinker–and gripped the table edge instead, till the ends of her nails

turned white. “Can such a labyrinth of a scheme work? Aren’t there

hopelessly many chances for something to go wrong?”

Flandry found solace in a return to pragmatics, regardless of what

bitterness lay behind. “If the whole thing collapses, Merseia hasn’t

lost much. Not Hans nor any Emperor can make the Terran aristocrats give

up their luxuries–first and foremost, their credo that eventual

accommodation is possible–and go after the root of the menace. He

couldn’t manage anything more than a note of protest and perhaps the

suspension of a few negotiations about trade and the like. His

underlings would depose him before they allowed serious talk about

singeing the beard the Roidhun hasn’t got.”

His cigarette butt scorched his fingers. He tossed it away and took a

drink of his own. The piratical pungency heartened him till he could

speak in detachment, almost amusement: “Any plotter must allow for his

machine losing occasional nuts and bolts. You’re an example. Your likely

fate as a slave was meant to outrage every man on Dennitza when the news

arrived there. By chance, I heard about you in the well-known and

deservedly popular nick of time–I, not someone less cautious–”

“Less noble,” She stroked his arm. It shone inside.

Nonetheless he grinned and said, “True, I may lack scruples, but not

warm blood. I’m a truncated romantic. A mystery, a lovely girl, an

exotic planet–could I resist hallooing off–”

It jarred through him:–off into whatever trap was set by a person who

knew me? His tongue went on. “However, prudence, not virtue, was what

made me careful to do nothing irrevocable” to you, darling; I praise the

Void that nothing irrevocable happened to you. “And we did luck out, we

did destroy the main Merseian wart on Diomedes.” Was the luck poor silly

Susette and her husband’s convenient absence? Otherwise I’d have stayed

longer at Thursday Landing, playing sleuth–long enough to give an

assassin, who was expecting me specifically, a chance at me.

No! This is fantastic! Forget it!

“Wasn’t that a disaster to the enemy?” Kossara asked.

” ‘Fraid not. I don’t imagine they’ll get their Diomedean insurgency.

But that’s a minor disappointment. I’m sure the whole operation was

chiefly a means to the end of maneuvering Terra into forcing Dennitza to

revolt And those false clues have long since been planted and let

sprout; the false authoritative report has been filed; in short, about

as much damage has been done on the planet as they could reasonably

expect.”

Anguish: “Do you think … we will find civil war?”

He laid an arm around her. She leaned into the curve of it, against his

side. “The Empire seldom bumbles fast,” he comforted her. “Remember,

Hans himself didn’t want to move without more information. He saw no

grounds for doubting the Maspes report–that Dennitzans were

involved–but he realized they weren’t necessarily the Gospodar’s

Dennitzans. That’s why I got recruited, to check further. In addition,

plain old bureaucratic inertia works in our favor. Yes, as far as the

problems created on Diomedes are concerned, I’m pretty sure well get you

home in time.”

“Thanks to you, Dominic.” Her murmur trembled. “To none but you.”

He did not remind her that Diomedes was not, could never have been the

only world on which the enemy had worked, and that events on Dennitza

would not have been frozen. This was no moment for reminders, when she

kissed him.

Her shyness in it made him afraid to pursue. But they sat together a

spell, mute before the stars, until she bade him goodnight.

{On the tundra far north of the Kazan, Bodin Miyatovich kept a hunting

lodge. Thence he rode forth on horseback, hounds clamorous around him,

in quest of gromatz, yegyupka, or ice troll. At other times he and his

guests boated on wild waters, skied on glacier slopes, sat indoors by a

giant hearthfire talking, drinking, playing chess, playing music,

harking to blizzard winds outside. Since her father bore her cradle from

aircar to door, Kossara had loved coming here.

Though this visit was harshly for business, she felt pleasure at what

surrounded her. She and her uncle stood on a slate terrace that jutted

blue-black from the granite blocks of the house. Zoria wheeled dazzling

through cloudless heaven, ringed with sun dogs. Left, right, and

rearward the land reached endless, red-purple mahovina turf, widespaced

clumps of firebush and stands of windblown plume, here and there a pool

ablink. Forward, growth yielded to tumbled boulders where water coursed.

In these parts, the barrens were a mere strip; she could see the ice

beyond them. Two kilometers high, its cliff stood over the horizon, a

worldwall, at its distance not dusty white but shimmering, streaked with

blue crevasses. The river which ran from its melting was still swift

when it passed near the lodge, a deep brawl beneath the lonesome tone of

wind, the remote cries of a sheerwing flock. The air was cold, dry,

altogether pure. The fur lining of her parka hood was soft and tickly on

her cheeks.

The big man beside her growled, “Yes, too many ears in Zorkagrad.

Damnation! I thought if we put Molitor on the throne, we’d again know

who was friend and who foe. But things only get more tangled. How many

faithful are left? I can’t tell. And that’s fouler than men becoming

outright turncoats.”

“You trust me, don’t you?” Kossara answered in pride.

“Yes,” Miyatovich said. “I trust you beyond your fidelity. You’re strong

and quick-witted. And your xenological background … qualifies you and

gives you a cover story … for a mission I hope you’ll undertake.”

“To Diomedes? My father’s told me rumors.”

“Worse. Accusations. Not public yet. I actually had bloody hard work

finding out, myself, why Imperial Intelligence agents have been snooping

amongst us in such numbers. I sent men to inquire elsewhere and–Well,

the upshot is, the Impies know revolt is brewing on Diomedes and think

Dennitzans are the yeast. The natural conclusion is that a cabal of mine

sent them, to keep the Imperium amused while we prepare a revolt of our

own.”

“You’ve denied it, I’m sure.”

“In a way. Nobody’s overtly charged me. I’ve sent the Emperor a

memorandum, deploring the affair and offering to cooperate in a

full-dress investigation. But guilty or not, I’d do that. How to prove

innocence? As thin as his corps is spread, we could mobilize–on desert

planets, for instance, without positive clues for them to find.”

The Gospodar gusted a sigh. “And appearances are against us. There is a

lot of sentiment for independence, for turning this sector into a

confederacy free of an Empire that failed us and wants to sap the

strength we survived by. Those could be Dennitzans yonder, working for a

faction who plot to get us committed–who’ll overthrow me if they

must–”

“I’m to go search out the truth if I can,” she knew. “Uncle, I’m

honored. But me alone? Won’t that be like trying to catch water in a

net?”

“Maybe. Though at the bare least, you can bring me back … um … a

feel of what’s going on, better than anybody else. And you may well do

more. I’ve watched you from babyhood. You’re abler than you think,

Kossara.”

Miyatovich took her by the shoulders. Breath smoked white from his

mouth, leaving frost in his beard, as he spoke: “I’ve never had a harder

task than this, asking you to put your life on the line. You’re like a

daughter to me. I sorrowed nearly as much as you did when Mihail died,

but told myself you’d find another good man who’d give you sound

children. Now I can only say–go in Mihail’s name, that your next man

needn’t die in another war.”

“Than you think we should stay in the Empire?”

“Yes. I’ve made remarks that suggested different. But you know me, how I

talk rashly in anger but try to act in calm. The Empire would have to

get so bad that chaos was better, before Fd willingly break it. Terra,

the Troubles, or the tyranny of Merseia–and those racists wouldn’t just

subject us, they’d tame us–I don’t believe we have a fourth choice, and

I’ll pick Terra.”

She felt he was right.}

A part of the Hooligan’s hold had been converted to a gymnasium.

Outbound, and at first on the flight from Diomedes, Flandry and Kossara

used it at separate hours. Soon after her therapy commenced, she

proposed they exercise together. “Absolutely!” he caroled. “It’ll make

calisthenics themselves fun, whether or not that violates the second law

of thermodynamics.”

In truth, it wasn’t fun–when she was there in shorts and halter, sweat,

laughter, herself–it was glory.

Halfway to Dennitza, he told her: “Let’s end our psychosessions. You’ve

regained everything you need. The rest would be detail, not worth

further invasion of your privacy.”

“No invasion,” she said low. Her eyes dropped, her blood mounted. “You

were welcome.”

“Chives!” Flandry bellowed. “Get busy! Tonight we do not dine, we

feast!”

“Very good, sir,” the Shalmuan replied, appearing in the saloon as if

his master had rubbed a lamp. “I suggest luncheon consist of a small

salad and tea to drink.”

“You’re the boss,” Flandry said. “Me, I can’t sit still. How about a

game of tennis, Kossara? Then after our rabbit repast we can snooze, in

preparation for sitting up the whole nightwatch popping champagne.”

She agreed eagerly. They changed into gym briefs and met below. The room

was elastic matting, sunlamp fluorescence, gray-painted metal sides. In

its bareness, she flamed.

The ball thudded back and forth, caromed, bounced, made them leap, for

half an hour. At last, panting, they called time out and sought a water

tap.

“Do you feel well?” She sounded anxious. “You missed an awful lot of

serves.” They were closely matched, her youth against his muscles.

“If I felt any better, you could turn off the ship’s powerplant and hook

me into the circuits,” he replied. “But why–?”

“I was distracted.” He wiped the back of a hand across the salt dampness

in his mustache, ran those fingers through his hair and recalled how it

was turning gray. Decision came. He prepared a light tone before going

on: “Kossara, you’re a beautiful woman, and not just because you’re the

only woman for quite a few light-years around. Never fear, I can mind my

manners. But I hope it won’t bother you overmuch if I keep looking your

way.”

She stood quiet awhile, except for the rise and fall of her breasts. Her

skin gleamed. A lock of hair clung bronzy to her right cheekbone. The

beryl eyes gazed beyond him. Suddenly they returned, focused, met his as

sabers meet in a fencing match between near friends. Her husky voice

grew hoarse and, without her noticing, stammered Serbic: “Do you

mean–Dominic, do you mean you never learned, while I was under … I

love you?”

Meteorstruck, he heard himself croak, “No. I did try to avoid–as far as

possible, I let Chives question you, in my absence–”

“I resisted,” she said in wonder, “because I knew you would be kind but

dared not imagine you might be for always.”

“I’d lost hope of getting anybody who’d make me want to be.”

She came to him.

Presently: “Dominic, darling, please, no. Not yet.”

“–Do you want a marriage ceremony first?”

“Yes. If you don’t mind too much. I know you don’t care, but, well, did

you know I still say my prayers every night? Does that make you laugh?”

“Never. All right, we’ll be married, and in style!”

“Could we really be? In St. Clement’s Cathedral, by Father Smed who

christened and confirmed me–?”

“If he’s game, I am. It won’t be easy, waiting, but how can I refuse a

wish of yours? Forgive these hands. They’re not used to holding

something sacred.”

“Dominic, you star-fool, stop babbling! Do you think it will be easy for

me?”

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