The Reformer | Chapter 5 of 21

Author: S.M. Stirling | Submitted by: Maria Garcia | 1652 Views | Add a Review

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TWO

The Redvers family had an extensive library in their townhouse; Adrian bowed a greeting to the Emerald slave who ran it. The man was wrinkled, bald, stooped, and dressed in a long robe uncomfortably like that of a Scholar of the Grove. His grandfather might well have been a Scholar, enslaved in one of the endless wars.

"Greetings, learned Salman," Adrian said.

His reply was a sniff and a quick shooing motion of the hand. Adrian walked past the simple slab desk where Salman worked, repairing and recopying and keeping every one of the six thousand or so scrolls in its proper niche. The library beyond was nearly as large as the Academy's, and far more sumptously fitted. The ten-foot-high racks were Southland curly maple, clasped and edged with gilded bronze, each bolt end wrought in the shape of a woodspirit's face. The scrolls lay in the familiar manner, each one in the hollow of a honeycomb in the rack, the same way that wine bottles were kept. These were mostly fine goatskin vellum, though, not the cheap reed paper. The twin winding rods were gordolna ivory, and the little listing tags that hung down on cords from each were ivory and gold, bearing the title of the scroll in elegant cursive silver inlay. The walls on either side were clear glass, large panes fully a foot on each edge in metal frames, and there were comfortable padded couches and marble-topped tables at intervals for the use of readers. There was a pleasant smell of well-cured vellum, ink, and furniture wax.

So much, so good, Adrian thought critically; suitable for a man of immense wealth and some pretension to culture. The statuary along the walls, one in each window bay, was far too much—just to begin with, most of it was loot from the Emerald cities, and from temples at that.

Only a Confederate Councillor would boast of having loot from temples in his study. The piece of Gellerix, the Goddess of Passion, was a case in point. Fine enough in one of Her temples, but a life-size marble depiction of the act of generation was scarcely conducive to philosophic calm in a place of learning.

Adrian shrugged, sighed, and walked around the statue to the row of legal case-scrolls he knew resided there. Then he stopped, turned on his heel and came again, coughing and clearing his throat.

Lady Tinia Redvers was composed and cool when he appeared for the second time, her long clinging silk gown—itself a violation of every sumptuary law the Confederacy Council had ever passed—draped as decorously as anything that sheer could be. She was a woman of about thirty-five, with a figure that would be plainly fat in another decade but was now on the ample side of superb, and a mass of black ringlets piled high on her head; she had the good taste to avoid more than a gold armring in the shape of a snake and ruby eardrops. The full-lipped features were amused as he bowed.

"Ah, the little Emerald . . . my bodyguard's brother, aren't you?"

"I have that honor, most excellent lady," Adrian said, straightening.

Esmond was standing by the couch now, at a creditable parade rest; he was dressed in a studded belt of black leather, a breechclout of the same, high-strapped sandals and a sword and dagger; the hilts were rich with gold and sapphires, but the edges were functional enough. His long blond hair was tousled, and there was a red mark at the base of his neck. Adrian lifted a brow a fractional inch, enough for a grin between the brothers. He lifted it a bit more at Esmond's look of well-hidden throttled fury.

"With you guarding us in the courts, and Esmondi's sword, my husband and I are quite safe," she said, and snapped her fingers.

Two maids in long plain gowns—plain Western Isle cotton that would have bought two good riding velipads—came from somewhere they'd been discreetly waiting. Lady Redvers swept away in a waft of lilac scent.

Adrian calmly walked along the row of scrolls and found Smanton's Commentaries on Early Popular Assembly Edicts and Precedents Thereunto, sat on the couch and began reading, scrolling left to right.

"Bit distracting, all that perfume," he said after a moment. "And are there foundation garments under that sheer silk? I find it hard to believe they stay up like that naturally."

He looked up sharply at his brother's growl. "Something's wrong," he said, a statement rather than a question.

"Of course something's wrong," Esmond growled, flushing and rubbing at his neck. "I didn't come here to be a he-whore, for one thing."

"No, you came to be a weapons trainer," Adrian said. "Maybe you can teach our esteemed patron to use his double chin to throttle his opponents."

"Wilder Redvers would fall down with an apoplexy if he ran three times around a training track, much less fought a bout in armor," Esmond said bitterly. "It's the fashion to have an Emerald weapons trainer, a victor of the Five Year Games. Next year it'll be philosophers, or dancing dogs. And his wife—"

Adrian grinned. "Come now, it's not as if she was eighty—and bodyguard is a perfectly respectable job here." Insofar as being anything but a wealthy Confederate citizen was respectable. "And Wilder Redvers would fall down dead if he had to do that, as well."

His smile died as Esmond looked around, making a careful sweep of the nearby parts of the library. "Brother, that isn't why I asked you to meet me here—she just happened in, damn it. You've got to listen to me. This is serious."

"What is serious?" Adrian said. "Beyond our patron's imminent bankruptcy, conviction for extortion and malfeasance in office, and cordial invitation from the Conciliary Court to open his veins in the bath? And that's the talk of the law courts, let me tell you."

"Because Redvers isn't going to sit and wait for the man with the dagger," Esmond said bluntly. "Listen." His voice dropped to a whisper. "This morning . . ."

* * *

"Admit the Emerald," a voice said from beyond the doorway.

The guards weren't Redvers family slaves, Esmond saw. They were Confed Army veterans, grizzled stocky men with legs and arms like knotted trees. Not the smooth athlete's muscle Esmond wore, but perfectly servicable . . . and the assegais that glittered in their hands had seen plenty of use.

"Sort of a tall, tow-haired one, looks like a pansy with a sword, sir?" one of the veterans said, grinning and leaning on his shield. "Give us a kiss, pretty boy."

"Admit him, I said, you oaf!"

"Shall we take his sword, sir?"

"Admit him!"

The veterans straightened to a braced attention. "Sir, yessir!" the other barked. They slapped the blades of their assegais across the bosses of their shields. "Pass, Emerald!"

Esmond straightened his shoulders and walked through the fretted-bronze doors. He'd never been in to Redvers private apartments; they were less gaudy than he'd expected . . . although that was probably his wife's taste. High coffered ceilings, decent murals—by an Emerald artist, of course—and geometric-pattern floors. Pillars gave out onto balconies overlooking a courtyard of rosebushes and palms, with fountains in the shape of seagods. A dozen silk-cushioned couches of silver-inlaid bronze surrounded a table with cherries, figs, and ewers of wine; a dozen Confederate nobles lounged at their ease. The only thing missing was the bodyslaves who should have been hovering behind the couches, ready to fill cups or fan away a fly or run an errand.

The Emerald brought a fist to his chest and bowed. "Lord," he said, suddenly conscious of his native accent. "You summoned me?"

His eyes flicked across the assembled nobility. A good ten or twelve million arnkets around the low table . . . but at least twice that in debts. Young Mark Silva, who'd managed to assemble the slowest stable of racing velipads in Vanbert, and bet the family estates on them. Johun Audsley, a famous general and famously bitter former associate of Ark Marcomann, an even more famous general who'd died in retirement and not left a thing to his right-hand man. Tows Annersun, who'd run for every elective office and managed to offend so many highly-placed people that he'd won none of them, despite a fortune in bribes and games and free wine . . . and his esteemed patron Wilder Redvers himself, ex-governor of Solinga Province for the Confederacy, extortionist and thug. A fleshy balding man just on the wrong side of fifty; muscled like a bull greatbeast when he was young, and now with a great sagging belly and wobbly undersides to his arms.

But not entirely a fool, Esmond reminded himself. He'd even been a competent general once, in the western wars a decade back.

He'd also spent every penny he'd wrung out of his province on trying to be elected Speaker of the Popular Assembly, one of the two magistrates who ruled the Confederacy, as much as anyone did. Virtually every well-established noble family in and around the city must have thrown their influence and clientage against him, for him to have lost after spending that kind of money.

And without the opportunities of a Speaker, he was doomed. If his creditors didn't get him, the lawsuits of the provincials would—they'd be able to attract more than enough patrons in the capital, anxious to bring Redvers down and feed on the estates that would go on the block.

"Do sit down, over there, Esmondi," Redvers said. "Pour me some wine, and yourself, my boy."

Little Esmond, the little Emerald, Esmond thought, grinding his teeth as he smiled and obeyed.

"We've brought you here to discuss a little matter of politics," the Confederate noble said.

Esmond managed not to choke on the wine. Politics were for Confederate citizens—rich Confederate citizens, if you went beyond the level of the dole-feeders selling their Popular Assembly votes. Vision took on the clarity of desperation, the same bright hopping focus he'd had before the Five Year Games. One or two . . . no, three of the guests weren't what they appeared. Purple-edged tunics and robes, yes, but those hard furtive eyes didn't have the lordly arrogance of the nobles beside them. Gang bosses, he thought. The type who could deliver a ward for a patron, or see that the other side's canvasers hurt bad or just disappeared. Some of them were as powerful as many Justiciars or generals . . .

The others murmured among themselves, nibbling on little pastries rich with nuts and creamed bananas, sipping at their wine. And looking at me, Goddess be my shield. 

"My lord honors me beyond my worth," he said smoothly. I may not be a rhetorician, but I've been listening to Adrian all my life. "If my lord will open his mind to me, I will assuredly do my poor best to aid him."

Redvers nodded. "As you may know," he began, "I was recently cheated—foully cheated—of my legitimate election as Speaker of the Popular Assembly. By corruption! Unprecedented, extra-constitutional corruption! Interference from the Council!"

Esmond darted a quick look at Audsley. Audsley's mentor Marcomann had been the one who ended the last round of civil wars, and he'd restored the powers of the Council and restricted those of the Popular Assemblies . . . Audsley smiled and nodded.

"To cleanse the State, a fire is needed. Drastic measures! Only thus can justice, peace and good order be restored!"

Grave nods, glittering eyes.

"My lord, may the gods themselves aid your enterprise." Esmond shot to his feet, then went to one knee, drawing and offering his sword. "I see that a new age is about to dawn for the Confederacy!"

"Well, well, that's very handsome of you, Esmondi," Redvers said. "Each one of us has a part to play, you see. Councillor Audsley is collecting a sufficient force among Marcomann's veterans—many of them living in poverty, despite their many services to the State."

Having blown their loot and land grants on whores, dice and wine, Esmond thought. They'd come back from the Western provinces staggering under the gold . . . or rather the innumerable slaves they'd taken had staggered. Marcomann had used them to climb to the highest office. Usually the Confederacy had two Speakers, one for the Popular Assembly and one for the Council; Marcomann had been Sole Speaker from the day his troops marched in and the proscriptions began to the utterly unexpected day of his retirement. He'd died in bed, too, which was a strong argument for the belief that the gods did intervene in human affairs.

"These other gentlemen will rise in arms on the appointed day. Some will seize the public buildings; others will start fires and riots to distract the City Companies. And you, my dear Esmondi . . ." Redvers smiled. "It struck me just now . . . there are so many foreigners in Vanbert these days. Emeralds especially; why, there are twenty or thirty Emeralds in my household, aren't there? And you're what passes for a great and famous man among them, aren't you?"

"I have some small influence, yes, my lord," Esmond said. A Five Year victor did have a fair number who knew his name. That wasn't exactly what Redvers was looking for, but Esmond had no intention of lessening his value. He'd already heard far too much to live if they suspected for an instant he wasn't with them or wasn't useful.

"And you'll be rewarded for it," Redvers nodded. "Why, even Confederate citizenship . . . perhaps the narrow stripe and a modest estate in the provinces." He beamed, the furrows beside his fleshy beak nose deepening. "All you must do is call on the Emeralds and whatnot to rise and kill the leading corruptionists on the appointed day. Won't that cause confusion!"

"My lord, it's brilliant," Esmond said, his voice hushed and sincere. "But please . . . pardon my ignorance . . . what will Councillor Ion Jeschonyk be doing? I've never seen the Speaker of the Council abroad in the streets without two dozen of his retainers, many of them army veterans or games fighters. And if any of the magistrates should escape and reach loyal garrisons . . . loyal to them, I mean . . ."

"Clever, these Emeralds," one of the men drawled.

"Well, my boy, all these things have been considered," Redvers said indulgently. "Indeed, mine is the hand—along with a few of my friends here—who will strike down the tyrant Jeschonyk. We'll call on him at home, you see, in the third hour of the morning, before his clients arrive to pay their respects. We'll stab him as he comes to greet us, and with him dead nobody will dare lift a hand against so many Fathers of the State. And Justiciar Demansk has twenty thousand men under arms not far from the capital, the levy for the coming Island campaign."

"Justiciar Demansk is of your party, my lord?" Esmond strove to put worshipful admiration in his tone. Don't overdo it, he warned himself. But then, dealing with these people it was nearly impossible to overdo it . . . on the other hand, the gang bosses were less likely to be taken in. If Demansk was with them, they actually had a chance to bring this off.

"Justiciar Demansk . . ." Redvers smiled, "is a man of ambition, shall we say, who has been . . . approached. So. What do you say, Esmondi my lad?"

Esmond stood and gave Redvers a salute, fist to chest. "Command me, lord, and success is ordained as if the gods themselves had spoken."

* * *

"Are you serious?" Adrian blurted, as his brother finished his tale, running his hands through his long curling hair.

"Deadly. Most probably simply dead," Esmond said.

Adrian stared at him, appalled. "Oh, Maiden of the Stars," he whispered. "They're all going to die."

"That doesn't bother me," Esmond said grimly. "You're right, incidentally. The only reason they haven't gone up the post—" in fact, most of them were of high enough social standing that they'd be offered the knife "—is that the Council and the Speakers are nearly as much a bunch of amateur buffoons as they are."

The tall form of his brother sank to a bench. "How in the name of the gods did we ever end up being subject to these people?"

"They had a better army," Adrian said absently, the eyes of his mind fixed inward. "And in those days they didn't fight among themselves as much as we did. You know the saying: two Emeralds—"

"—three factions and a civil war," Esmond said gloomily. "And the hell of it is, we're involved in this . . . this abortion. I wouldn't give them one chance in twenty. The Confederacy may be ruled from Vanbert, but it isn't a city-state or a monarchy. You can't just seize one man or a couple of buildings and rule, or parade a little bodyguard the way . . . what was his name, somebody the Tyrant, the one who came into town with a big girl dressed up as the Goddess, way back?"

"Petor Strattis," Adrian said. Strattis had been Boss of Solinga for twenty-three years back four centuries ago, and his reforms had laid the basis for the later democracy and the Emerald League. "Wait—let me think."

esmond gellert's appraisal is remarkably accurate, Center said, a slight tinge of surprise in the machine voice. stochastic analysis indicates that the probability of a successful coup is in the range of 8% ±3. 

Raj's gray eyes opened inside Adrian's head. Remarkable young man, your brother, he said appraisingly. I'd have been very glad indeed to have him as a junior officer; he's got natural talent, and I think men would follow him. Hmm . . . that's something to consider. Center? 

correct. we must reevaluate long-term plans . . . however, esmond gellert's fundamental belief-structure offers impediments to his usefulness as a tool.  

My brother isn't a tool! Adrian thought hotly. He's a human being! 

Human beings can be the tools of mankind, Raj thought gently. There's no higher honor. Better to serve mankind than some politician's greed or a myth that turns to ashes full of dead children. 

Sorry, Adrian thought. What can we do? 

Well, Redvers and his friends have one great merit, Raj mused. Two, actually. First, they're corrupt, amoral, shortsighted and utterly selfish. Responsible nobles wouldn't listen to you if you told them about earth-shaking innovations—they'd look beyond immediate advantage and realize that they could destabilize the system, and those of them who're loyal to anything besides themselves are loyal to the system here. Second, they're desperate. They'll grasp at straws, because it's a tubful of very bloody water for them if they lose. 

Adrian raised his head. "Did they give you any idea of the time of this . . . uprising?"

"Not immediately. They want to get Demansk on their side if they possibly can. Beyond that, at least a couple of months—I doubt if they know precisely themselves. Why? Do you think we can make it to the Western Isles before then?"

"No, I think I have an idea," Adrian said slowly. "But I need some time for it to work."

One of Lady Redvers' maids came back into the alcove where the brothers sat. "Oh, Esmond, I was so frightened—" she began, speaking a pure upper-class Emerald.

Then she saw Adrian, and froze. Esmond went defiantly to her side and took her hand. "Brother, this is Nanya. Formerly of a citizen family of Penburg."

Adrian bowed gravely; Penburg had been sacked after a revolt six years ago, while Wilder Redvers had been governor of Solinga Province. Every adult male sent to the pole, the rest sold into slavery. His eyebrow lifted: Do you know the risks you're taking? it signaled. If Lady Redvers found out . . . being flogged to death was the best Nanya could expect. Killing a free resident of Solinga like Esmond wouldn't be legal . . . but that wouldn't stop the lady, and she'd get away with it, too.

"And, when the gods allow, my wife," Esmond went on.

Nanya looked up at him with adoration, her large brown eyes going soft. Adrian closed his eyes. Give me strength. 

We will, son, Raj's voice spoke silently.

* * *

Vanbert's law courts had grown with the city. The highest of them—the Assembly Courts of Appeal—were housed in a new marble complex not far from the Temple of the Dual God, on the Spring Hill. The building was in an exaggerated form of the classic Emerald style, adapted to the needs of Confederate legal institutions. Two square blocks on either side held long halls where advocates, clients and hangers-on could walk and speak and deal; they were plain as Emerald temples, surrounded by giant columns supporting a Confederate invention, a barrel-vaulted roof. That was coffered and gilded, and tall windows ran around the eaves just below it. Even on a cloudy winter's day like this the light diffused off the hammered gold leaf in a shadowless glow, lighting the pale marble of walls and column and floor.

Joining the two halls to make a square C-shape was a connecting bar, with a covered amphitheater in its center. Juries in Confederate cases were huge—in theory any citizen could sit, although the requirement for a purifying sacrifice excluded the poor—and they sat below the advocates and judges, like spectators at a games fight. Adrian had often thought that the comparison had merit on more levels than one; though more subtle, the clash of wit and quotation below was just as savage as sword and spear, or tusk and fang. The expressions on the jurors were similar too. Except that nobody was paid to attend the games, while jurors received a stipend, not counting bribes of money or patronage.

An important case could be almost as expensive as a municipal election.

Adrian gathered his plain white mantle around him and strode towards the low symbolic metal fence that surrounded the sun disk inlaid in mosaic on the floor of the court. The acoustics were wonderful; he could hear whispered conversations on the top benches, and even sleepy belches from the inevitable seedy hangers-on taking a nap.

A man with a ceremonial whip and axe stopped him at the entrance. "If you come to speak, proclaim your citizenship," he said in a bored voice; his equipment was meant to indicate the magistrates' power to punish and kill, but it had been a long time since they were used on the spot.

"I come not to speak, but to speak the words of another," Adrian said, pitching his voice in the way Center had trained him to do. The computer had also eliminated the last trace of the soft Emerald accent; now his voice had the slow, crisp vowels of a native Confederate—the upper-class city dialect, at that.

"Pass, then," the usher said.

Adrian advanced, his soft kidskin sandals noiseless, and made a deep bow before the panel of judges. They were all older men today, he saw, seamed hard faces with tufts of chinbeard and disapproving eyes.

"This seems to be in order," the senior magistrate said, examining the scroll which deputized Adrian to speak for a citizen advocate. "I suppose we have to let the little Emerald speak. I don't know what Vanbert is coming to. A girl costs more than a sword, a pretty boy more than a tract of land, a jug of imported fish sauce more than a good plow team, and they let foreigners speak in the courts of law where Confederate gentlemen once showed their mettle. They'll be allowing them into the army next. Go on, Emerald, go on."

His voice rolled heavy with disapproval. Adrian bowed again.

"We are faced," he began, "with a case which runs on all fours with the notable—"

He spoke easily, his voice conversational at first. That itself was daring—the usual mode was Oratorical, one hand outstretched, the other gripping the front fold of your mantle, right foot advanced, voice booming. He was using a rather daringly avant-garde style, at least for the introduction.

Center's prompting flowed through his mind. Precedent, allegory, snippets of verse, or the doggerel that passed for poetry in this land. He could feel the coldness of the jury turning, men leaning forward in interest.

"A pretty tissue of words to hide the plain truth," the other side's advocate said at last. "Yet Dessin and Chrosis clearly establishes that provincial corporate bodies have no standing for a petition for and through in this esteemed court. Citizens! Such appeals are your prerogative!"

An appeal to Confederate pride rarely fails, Adrian noted. He'd expected that.

"Citizens!" he replied. "Citizens . . . what pride, what glory, what power resides in that simple word. Citizens of the Confederacy of Vanbert! Yours is the power to bind and loose; yours the hand that wields the assegai of justice. It is beyond dispute. The esteemed advocate for the Smellton Tax Farmer's Syndicate is entirely correct. A mere assembly of provincials—without standing in this court—cannot assume the right to present a petition 'for and through' in strict form."

"Eh?" The chief magistrate's mouth moved, as if he was chewing toothlessly. "Are you conceding the case, Emerald? Is that what your 'principal'—" the scorn was back, this time for the legal fiction "—has set you to read?"

"By no means, excellent magistrates, do I concede. For indeed—" he moved into Formal Mode "—even as my humble self is but a mouthpiece for my principal, who is a citizen of the noble Confederacy, so this petition is launched in the name of the following indisputable citizens, their names on the ten-yearly roll: I speak of Jusin Sambert, Augin Melton—"

He rolled on, his voice booming up to the eaves. Faces along the rows of jurors' benches began to nod; heads leant together with murmurs of agreement.

"Justice! That strict Goddess with axe and flail in hand, terrible in aspect, unbending in righteousness, watches us even now!"

Adrian launched himself into the conclusion of his speech. When he halted, head bowed, hands outstretched, the jurors rose to their feet and applauded, the noise ringing back from the dome overhead. The mantled heads of the magistrates huddled together, mouths working beneath the sound.

"Petition accepted for examination," the senior said, looking down on Adrian from the high seat. "Jurors and panel of magistrates in accordance." Which virtually guaranteed that the petition would be reviewed favorably . . . which meant that the Smellton Tax Farmer's Syndicate would face a swingeing fine. "Dismissed."

Adrian left slowly, despite an overwhelming impulse to bolt for the hall and get a glass of lemonade, or watered wine; you needed a throat of brass and a bladder the size of a wine jug to work the courts. Instead he strolled, smiling and bowing and exchanging a few deferential words with some of the long-established advocates and their clients.

You can see how surprised they are, he thought ironically. How does an Emerald do so well in a place where real men are supposed to shine? 

If ever the Confederacy was destroyed, he suspected it was going to be because somebody simply couldn't refuse the temptation to smash a lead-weighted fist into the face of that bland, complacent assumption of superiority. You could only swallow the sour bile at the back of your throat for so long.

"Ah, young Adrian," a voice said.

He felt the cold clutch of fear, the sort that makes the stomach clench and the scrotum try to draw itself up into the abdomen. This is exactly what I had planned, he told himself.

"My lord," he said, turning and bowing. Wilder Redvers in the life, his ample form looking impressive in the wrapped mantle of a Councillor, with the broad purple stripe along the edge.

"I heard the summation of your speech. Most impressive, most impressive—a Confederate advocate couldn't have done it any better. I can see that giving you the run of my library was a sound decision, yes, sound."

"My gratitude is eternal, my lord," Adrian said. He glanced around. "If I might beg a minute of your time?"

"Well . . . I suppose."

"Alone, my lord. It's a very sensitive matter."

The plump beak-nosed features changed. He suspects you know something, Raj cautioned. He's remembering that you're Esmond's brother. 

In the privacy of his mind Adrian nodded. And I'd be dead inside the hour if he confirms his suspicion, he thought. Or even if he doesn't. Now to show myself useful. 

"As you may know, my lord, I've been putting together some notes for a history," he said. Redvers' face relaxed slightly; that was a traditional hobby for lawyers. "And I've come across some information in the most ancient chronicles that may be of importance to the State. Naturally, I didn't presume to judge such matters myself, but thought first of you—my patron, a citizen of standing and influence, one competent to judge such matters."

"My boy, I'm glad you show such wisdom and maturity," Redvers said softly. "To others may be given the art of speaking, of shaping marble so that it seems to live—but to the Confederacy alone is given the mandate of the Gods to rule, to spare the humble and subdue the proud," he said.

That would be more impressive if I didn't know you were quoting, Adrian thought, the words dry under the hammer of his pulse. They reached one of the inset niches along the walls, this one holding a small chryselephantine statue of the God of War, flourishing an archaic spear, heroically nude, with his foot on a dead Southron barbarian.

"I have found a series of formulae known to a select few among the ancients," Adrian began. "Knowledge long since lost."

Redvers nodded; it was well-known to educated men that before the Age of Iron had been an Age of Gold, whose glories were forgotten.

"With devices based on these formulae, an army would be invincible—it could sweep aside forces many times its size. And the formulae are quite simple; within three months—" Six months, but let's not get too realistic "—given the resources and artificers needed, a force could be so equipped as to sweep the Western Isles, or the Southron barbarians . . . a great boon to the State, and of course undying fame and glory to the commander."

Redvers stood stock-still, his eyes hooded. "And you've come to your patron with this knowledge. Very proper, my boy; very proper."

He's going to buy it, Raj said, his mental voice almost as dispassionate as Center's.

probability of agreement 92% ±5, Center added.

* * *

"What on earth is the Emerald babbling about?" one of the nobles said pettishly. "Invincible weapons . . . what does he mean? A better catapult, something of that nature?"

The Redvers family was wealthy enough that their townhouse gardens had a secluded nook like this out of sight and most hearing from the main house. Adrian would much rather have conducted the trial somewhere outside the city . . . but Center had decided that Redvers was becoming quite dangerously impatient.

The stretch of lawn ahead of them held an oak tree and a circle of scarecrowlike dummies, each hung with the mail tunic and helmet of a Confed soldier. In front of them rested a simple jar, stoppered with a clay disk that was pierced for a wick of cotton that Adrian had soaked in the solution that Center showed him . . .

He shuddered at the vision, one from Raj's memories. A vision of what the explosion of a shell or bomb could do to men's bodies.

"The jar contains my mixture, my lords," Adrian said. "Surrounding it—"

"Get on with it, Emerald! We're not apothecaries, you know."

"Yes, my lord. If my lords will step behind this barricade . . ."

Adrian walked towards the jar, blinking at the bright sunlight, a lighted oil lamp in his hand. He held it by the loop at one end and touched the flame to the wick with the other. It started to sputter and fume with evil-smelling blue smoke, and he turned and walked—it was an effort not to run, but the nobles must be impressed—towards the thick pine logs of the barricade.

"See here," one said as he ducked gratefully behind the thick wood. "How are we supposed to see whatever-it-is if we're huddling behind here?"

He started to rise. Adrian clamped a hand on his shoulder and pulled him down again; sheer surprise helped him, since the Confederation nobleman couldn't imagine that an Emerald would lay hands on him.

"You—"

BWAAAAMMP.  

The sound was louder than thunder, louder than anything Adrian had ever heard, loud enough to stab pain into his ears. He'd been expecting it. The other men there had not. Esmond's sword flashed out in a movement too fast to see except as a blur. One or two of the Confederate nobles threw themselves down with their hands over their ears; another turned and ran for the villa, tripping on a chair leg and lying sobbing and beating his hands against the ground. Most of them simply stood and stared at each other. Audsley, the ex-general, gathered himself, shook back his shoulders to settle his mantle, and walked around the edge of the barricade.

He stopped, staring at the forward part of the logs. Holes had been gouged into them; he ran his little finger into one, and pulled it back with a jerk.

"That's hot," he said. "What is it?"

"A ball of lead, like a sling-bullet, my lord," Adrian said. "Hurled by the daemonic force of the ancient formula's mixture. And that is a hundred feet from the bursting. If a man was closer . . ."

He smiled and spread his hands. Audsley and the others moved towards the place where the jar had rested. A knee-deep hole had been gouged in the soft black dirt, and bits of sod flung all over this corner of the garden. The front of the oak tree gleamed cream-white, the bark scarred and blasted away. Bits and pieces of the armor on the scarecrow stakes were scattered about; one helmet was embedded in the tree itself, three inches of the plume holder driven into the living wood. Audsley examined a mail shirt, putting a gingerly finger through a hole in the iron links.

"Well . . ." he said.

"Consider, my lord, catapults throwing dozens of such vessels into a tight formation of infantry," Adrian urged. "Still more into cavalry."

"Yes, I do see," Audsley said. A grin stole across his lined, weathered face. "Redvers, I thought you were wasting our time, but you weren't. Brilliant, man—brilliant!"

The nobles gathered around Wilder Redvers, slapping him on the back and laughing like men reprieved from death . . . which might well be what they were. Adrian turned, feeling the pressure of eyes on his back. Esmond was standing by the barricade, looking at the havoc the bomb had wrought and then at the sword still clenched in his hand.

* * *

"What exactly am I supposed to be doing out here?" Esmond asked, looking back over his shoulder. "You've got your infernal machines to tinker with, but I should be back in the city."

"Don't worry," Adrian said. "She's a lot safer with you gone than she is with you there."

Esmond nodded gloomily. "The question remains."

They were two days travel out of Vanbert's outskirts, and an hour's travel down a gravelled road that turned off the military highway west of the city. They'd been travelling on Redvers land that whole hour; past slave villages, wine presses, an alum mine, past fields where the yellow grain was mostly reaped and stooked, past pastures and orchards where green fruit swelled . . . and now they were turning into the paved laneway that led up to the villa of Wilder Redvers, one of many he owned. It was a handsome building, a simple rectangular block with a portico of pillars in front and the usual formal gardens behind; to the front was a stretch of close-cropped pasture dotted with trees, and the cypress-lined driveway.

"Two things," Adrian said. "First, most of the higher-level staff here are probably Emeralds. I need you to deal with them."

"Why? You're just as much an Emerald as me."

"But I'm not a victor of the Five Year Games, and I don't look like Nethan the Great returned," he said. "By the Goddess, brother, I think you're blushing."

That brought an unwilling crooked grin. "Besides that," Adrian went on, "somebody's going to have to command the unit that actually uses this stuff . . . and the guards that make sure nobody spears us while we're doing it."

Esmond glanced over at him. "Nonsense. Redvers will never let a bunch of foreigners get their hands on something like this."

"Redvers will," Adrian said. "When he sees what they make of it."

He nodded to the left of the manor house. The pasture there had probably been for the master's riding velipads; right now it was covered with leather tents in neat rows, each just the right size for a squad of eight men.

"Marcomann's veterans, joining Audsley," Esmond said. "Must be about three battalions there . . . say, fifteen hundred men."

"And there isn't one single one of them who's going to admit that he has anything to learn about fighting from a foreigner," Adrian said. "Trust me."

And my unseen advisors, he added. Never forget them. 

* * *

"This little thing is supposed to kill somebody?" the soldier guffawed.

The hilt of his assegai jerked as his thick shoulders moved; he was in full fig: mailcoat, dagger, stabbing-spear, shield across his back, helmet with transverse plume. There was a fair bit of gray in the stubble on his square chin and in the thick hair on his scarred forearms, but he moved easily under all that weight of iron and wood and leather. This was one of Audsley's elite, a hundred-commander in Marcomann's wars; there wasn't enough equipment to kit out all the volunteers gathering on the Redvers estate.

"Yes, sir," Adrian nodded. "You light this"—he pointed at the fuse where it came out of the little wine jar—"throw it, and drop flat. Believe me, it's dangerous."

The hamlike hand tossed the bomb up and down. "If words were blades, you Emeralds would rule the world," he laughed. "I've defeated plenty of Emeralds in my time, from the North Range to the sea—talking less, and hitting harder." He shrugged. "Oh, well, the general says we've got to try this stuff, so by the cleft of Gellerix we will. Hand me that striker."

A little way off a baker's dozen of soldiers stood, leaning casually on their shields; Adrian saw one of them reach down into the calf-high grass and pull a stem to chew.

Adrian smiled and handed over the flint-and-steel, taking a few steps backward. The soldier grinned at that, and worked the scissorslike action. Sparks shot out, and on the third try the fuse caught in a sputter of blue smoke.

"Funny smelling," the soldier said with mild interest, holding it up.

"Please throw it now, sir," Adrian said calmly, backing off another few steps. "Right out there in the pasture, towards the crabapple tree, if it please you."

"Maybe it doesn't," the veteran said. "Don't get your loincloth in a twist, Emerald."

The thick-muscled arm arched back and whipped forward and the jar soared out, trailing smoke. Adrian's movements had put him behind a low swelling in the ground; he went down on his belly with prudent speed. Dew soaked into the front of his tunic, chill on his skin. As he'd expected, the veteran remained upright. He did bring his shield around, peering curiously over the rim.

Crack. The sound of the grenade exploding was a malignant snap; he knew what it would look like, too—a red snapping spark and puff of grayish-black smoke. This time he was far too close for that, and his face was pressed firmly into the grass and clover. Something hit the ground with a heavy thump; he looked up to see the soldier on his back, hands clapped to his face and blood leaking out between them. Then he went limp, with a final drum of heels on the turf. Over by the spectators, another was shrieking endlessly, louder than a wounded velipad.

Adrian moved over to the dead man. He'd felt like smiling, until he saw what was left of his face.

* * *

"Idiot! I ought to have you poled right now. Do you have any idea of how valuable four trained soldiers are?"

Adrian and Esmond bowed low, their heads level with General Audsley's foot where it rested in the steel loop of the stirrup. The big hairy saucer feet of his velipad moved on the grass before them, each with its seven blunt claws. The cinnamon-and-musk scent of the animal was strong in their nostrils, and the naked tail with its tuft of fur swung angrily as the beast sensed its rider's mood.

"Most excellent lord," Adrian said softly. "I fully realize it, and my apologies are most abject. Using these devices is more a matter of the mechanic arts than real soldiering. Could I—once more—humbly beg that men more suitable for such lowly occupations be assigned to them? Freedmen, even slaves, would be more suitable."

"Arm slaves?" Audsley said, quick anger in his voice. It had been only two generations since the Great Revolt; Audsley's father had been a young officer when Justiciar Carlos poled six thousand of the rebel survivors of the last battle along the road from Vanbert to Capeson.

"Freed slaves," Adrian said. "And perhaps . . . there are foreigners among the slingers recruited by the great Confed Army as light troops, are there not? Some of those would be most suitable. If I might consult with my lord Redvers . . ."

Audsley scowled; Redvers was providing far too much of the money to be offended lightly. "See to it, then. And keep them out of the way of real soldiers!"

He wrenched the velipad's mouth around, bringing a blubber of protest and a waving of the big round ears. Esmond stood silently until he was out of earshot.

"For every insult, for every slight, I'll see a Confed liver," he said at last.

Adrian nodded. "We've actually got some prospect of that, now," he said. "As long as we can get what I need."

"I don't know whether it was the Gods or the daemons who told you where to find the formula for this stuff," Esmond said roughly. "But by the Gods, you'll get what you need."

* * *

"It's quite simple," Esmond said to his audience of four. "This is our chance."

"Our chance for what?" the assistant steward of the estate said.

He was an Emerald freedman; his nominal superior was a one-legged Confed veteran who hadn't been sober past breakfast for ten years. They were meeting in his office, a pleasant room with plastered walls carrying scrolls and dozens of the wax-covered tablets of folding wood used for taking temporary notes; a latticework window opened onto the kitchen gardens. His fingers played with an abacus on the desk as he leaned forward and spoke, twitching nervously. A slave girl came in with a tray of cups and jugs of wine and water. The steward motioned her away impatiently and poured himself.

Esmond rose and stood facing them. He was wearing Emerald light-infantry armor, a tunic of three-ply greatbeast hide boiled in wax and vinegar and fastened with bronze studs, armguards of the same and high-strapped sandals.

"There's going to be another civil war among the Confeds," he said.

The steward blanched. So did the head stockman, the superintendent of field workers, and the woman who directed the household staff proper.

"We can't stop it; we can't stay out of it," Esmond went on. "You all know what my brother has brought here."

"Death," the stockman muttered.

"We're all initiates of the mysteries of death," Esmond said. "But in this case, an awful lot of Confeds are going to die."

"So? There have been civil wars before—Penburg rose during one of them. The wars end, and then the Confeds stamp on anyone who rebelled like a boot on ants."

Esmond nodded. "That might have happened without my brother," he said easily. "Why do you think we're helping with this idiot coup?"

"Because your patron told you to," the steward said.

"Velipad shit. We could have lifted a few thousand arnkets and headed for the Isles—our father traded there, and we have contacts in Chalice. This madness of Redvers would have been over in a few months, and all his properties would have been forfeit to the State."

He watched them shudder at that. Sale at auction, families split up . . . and freedmen were always suspect when a man was put on trial for treason. Their testimony was taken from the rack, or with burning splinters put under their nails.

"With my brother to even things out, the war will go on for a long time," Esmond continued. "Many things could happen. For example, one side or the other could get so desperate that they offer concessions to the Emerald cities . . . they might even withdraw, leaving at least nominal independence like the Roper League has. Or they might weaken each other so much that the provinces can revolt and win. Or at least if Redvers and Audsley win, we personally stand to be rewarded."

The steward looked at his subordinates. "Well, it's worth a hearing, at least . . ." he muttered. "Tell us more. What exactly does your brother need? We've all heard the explosions and heard the rumors."

* * *

Adrian held the handkerchief to his nose. It was soaked in vinegar, but even so the stink from the bottom of the manure pile was overwhelming; there was a row of piles in back of the barns for the master's racing velipeds. He didn't envy the field slaves who were set to the task, even if they were shambling dull-eyed brutes.

A few years in that underground prison they keep them in would do that to most men, Raj pointed out.

Sorry, Adrian thought.

"Don't you ever put the manure out on the fields?" he asked the chief stockman.

The stockman was from the Isles, a short brown-skinned man, wrinkled but still agile. There was a strong gutteral accent to his Confed. "Not very much of it," he said. "Place is too big to make it worthwhile, too much trouble to haul it out to the distant fields. Sometimes if it gets in the way we dump it in the river."

"Stop!" Adrian said.

He walked over to the base of the pile. "Here," he said, pointing.

Gray crystals like granulated sugar carpeted the ground. "That's what we want, those crystals—the saltpeter. Scrape it up and put it in the barrels."

* * *

"Here, now, sir, you're a gentleman—you can't do that!"

The carpenter's voice was shocked and reproving.

Adrian smiled. "I'm afraid I have to," he said sympathetically.

The tub was an old wine vat, big enough to hold several hundred gallons. They'd set it up at a shed half a mile from the house, in case of accidents. Slaves were rigging a simple machine over it: a pivot on the beam above, with a hanging pole inside the barrel turning paddles. The power was furnished by ten more slaves, each pushing on a long sweep set into the pole at its top, near where it turned on the iron bolt set into the roof beam.

Adrian pulled his head back and dusted his hands; there were blisters on them, and a few splinters. He was surprised by how little that bothered him, as he pulled one free with his teeth. Not the pain; any Scholar of the Grove was expected to master the body's needs. It was the disgrace, the manual labor.

"My father captained his own ship, when he got started," he said by way of explanation.

Although he did it so that his sons wouldn't have to do it, he thought. Only leisure could give a man the freedom to cultivate his mind, or shape his body as an athlete . . . and there was no slavemaster like an empty belly. That was why all the best philosophers were agreed that manual labor and its necessities were essentially degrading. Bestmun had held that labor should be delegated to those whose natures fitted them for slavery . . . of course, in his day Emeralds had rarely been enslaved.

"Now here's how you do it," he went on. "You take three of those barrels—" he pointed to the ones that held the saltpeter, boiled and dried and reground "—and two of those—" the finely powdered sulfur; there was a hot spring on this estate "—and one of those with the charcoal dust, and you put them in. Three and two and one, three and two and one, until the big tun is two-thirds full. And all the time you're doing that, the paddles have to be kept going."

He turned and put his face close to the carpenter's. "And I'll be coming back now and then to check that you're doing it right, and the master will be very, very angry if I tell him that you're not. Understand?"

The carpenter nodded; he was as jumpy as a cat around a diretooth. Most of the estate slaves were, these days, with all the soldiers on hand. None of the troopers cared much about preserving Wilder Redvers' propery.

"And they still don't do things properly unless you stand over them," Adrian said in frustration.

Why should they? Raj replied.

A vision flashed into Adrian's head; a steam engine, that's what it's called . . . on Raj's native Bellevue. A mass of metal tubes and wheels and parts, wrecked and fused. A man with a whip was beating another man, nearly naked and with an iron collar around his neck.

A slave has a positive incentive to damage things, unless he's a coward or unusually well-managed. And simple carelessness is bad enough.  

* * *

The velipad was an estate animal, and knew the laneways better than his rider. Any landholding of this size had its artisans; Redvers had his in a series of workshops not far from the cottages that housed the home-farm segment of the plantation's workforce. Adrian pulled up and tapped his toes on the elbows of his velipad; the animal crouched to the ground, and the young man stepped off. The smell of hot metal came from within the bronzesmith's forge. Experiment had shown that bombs launched from a catapult tended to disintegrate if they were housed in clay pots of practicable thickness. Redvers had grumbled at the expense of sheet bronze, until they showed him a few survivors of the effects of a finely-divided mist of gunpowder meeting open flame.

The problem was, the bronzesmith had trouble grasping the concept of turning out large numbers of uniform containers without ornamentation or excess effort.

Why not? Raj said again. This man turns out fine work because it gives him pleasure. He's not particularly concerned with Redvers' political ambitions, or with anyone else's convenience. Why should he churn out things that don't give him satisfaction? He won't be paid any more if he does. 

Adrian sighed again. Raj and Center were putting him through a course of study a good deal less agreeable than the Grove's lectures on the Good and the Beautiful . . . but their concept of the Just Order was a good deal more empirically grounded.

He checked half a step. "I'll give him a bonus!" he said. "Under the table, of course." Redvers' funds would stretch to that.

You're learning, son. You're learning.  

* * *

"Ufff!"

The other man grunted as his back struck the hard-packed dirt of the corral. Esmond stepped back panting; he had a graze under his right eye that was seeping blood, and his left thumb had been painfully wrenched. The six men who'd offered to take their new employer on were in considerably worse shape, though some of them had shown a thoroughgoing mastery of informal all-in style.

"Any more fools among those looking for a job?" he asked.

There were thirty men grouped around the entrance to the corral. All Emeralds; none too young—most of them had a few years on him—and all fairly hard-bitten. Many of them wore sailors' knitted caps with tassels, and the Goddess only knew how they'd ended up so far from the sea. Sailing on merchantmen going foreign was the main way an Emerald could learn the use of arms these days, that and signing on with one or another of the Lords of the Isles as a mercenary . . . or as a pirate, not that there was much difference in that part of the world. A few did a hitch with the auxiliary light-armed slingers of the Confed forces.

"Good," he said, when no more volunteers stepped forward. He reached out his right hand, and his servant tossed a spear into it; the old Emerald pattern, six feet long with a narrow sharp-bladed stabbing head. "Now let's see who can use a sticker. Then we'll go on to javelin, sling, sword and knife."

The testing process lasted all afternoon, while the hot summer sun baked strong-smelling sap out of the eucalyptus trees that shaded the pasture beyond the corral. When he was finished Esmond's eyes looked twice as brilliant, staring blue out of the mask of reddish dust streaked with runnels of sweat. He gasped as he shoved his head into the bucket of water resting on the coping of the well, then poured the rest down his neck and tossed the bucket in for another load.

"Rejoice," he said dryly as his brother came up, a look of intense concentration on his face and a staff-sling in his hands. "Managed to bonk yourself on the back of the head again?"

"No, I think I'm getting the hang of it," he said seriously, his thin, intelligent face warming. "It's not that complicated once you grasp the basic theory."

Esmond snorted. "Weapons are something you have to learn with your skin and muscle and bone, not with your head," he said.

"Oh, I don't know," Adrian said mildly. "Knowing the basic principles always makes things easier to learn. Here, I'll show you."

The sling the younger Emerald held was a weapon popular because of its simplicity and compactness, but it needed as much skill to handle as a bow. There was a wooden handle four feet long, two silk cords of about a yard each—leather would have done, but not as well in damp weather—and a chamois pouch for the ammunition. Esmond blinked in slight alarm as his brother dropped an almond-shaped lead bullet into the pouch and let gravity draw the cords taut. Adrian's arms were well enough muscled, in a lean whipcord fashion; he'd be able to sling the bullet hard. Where it went was another question, and Esmond's fingers tightened on the single handgrip of the small round buckler he was carrying in his left hand.

"That tree," Adrian said. "Just below the forked branch." He whipped the sling in a single 360-degree circle before he released the free cord.

The gum tree in question was a hundred and fifty feet away. It quivered and there was a hard thock; the bullet itself travelled too swiftly to be seen, except as an arching blur. A scrap of bark detached itself, and fell, exposing the lozenge-shaped hole in the pale wood of the eucalyptus.

Esmond blinked again. Dead center. 

"Not bad, little brother, not bad at all," he said. "I wouldn't like one of those to hit my head." Because it would spatter my brains for yards. 

"Oh, it's not so hard. As I said, I understand the principle . . . and when I throw, it's as if spirits were showing me where the shot will fall. I'll be—we'll be—throwing grenades," he went on. "They'll be more effective than lead bullets."

"We just might make it," Esmond said, with a slow smile.

"If Demansk comes in with his fourteen regiments," Adrian said seriously. "I'd say . . ."

He turned his head to one side, as if listening; Esmond noticed because it was a habit he'd picked up since they came to Vanbert.

"That the chances are about fifty-fifty if we—our esteemed patron and his friends—enlist Demansk. Fifty-fifty for a prolonged war rather than immediate disaster, that is."

"Without him, fucking zip," Esmond said.

"Oh, not quite that bad. About one in twelve, really."

* * *

"Where's the master?" the steward bleated.

"Under house arrest, you fool. I have fifty men with me. Food and wine for them, and send messengers to the battalion commanders to meet me here immediately."

Johun Audsley's face was set like a death mask carved in bronze. It turned with the mechanical precision of a catapult on a turntable as Esmond bowed and saluted:

"My lord, what's the situation?"

"Who the daemons are . . . oh, the Emerald with the toys. Well, boy, someone blabbed. Tows Annersun, at a guess—he never could keep his mouth shut while he was dipping his wick. Now the Speaker knows everything."

"Councillor Annersun told Speaker Jeschonyk?" Esmond said.

"No, you idiot, but he was sleeping with the man's daughter, and she told him. He moved fast, I'll give the old bastard that . . . stop wasting my time and get your Emeralds and their toys ready, for what they're worth."

"My lord!" Esmond saluted.

The Confed ignored him, sweeping past with his entourage; they all had the look of men who'd ridden far and fast, and several wore bandages that were seeping red.

Esmond stood frozen on the stairs for a full three minutes. Amazing how many things you can think of at once, he thought. On an impersonal level: disaster for the conspiracy. Jeschonyk alive, and most of the Council. They'd be mobilizing this minute, no matter what other parts of the plan had come off on short notice. Audsley had nearly twenty thousand men here and on neighboring estates, but less than a third of them were fully equipped, and their organization was poor. And . . .

Nanya. Left alone in the Redvers' townhouse, with the magistrate's guards, probably a force from the City Companies too. If the Speaker decided Redvers was too dangerous to live, they'd make a sweep of his household as well—

Esmond turned on his heel, clattering down the staircase and out through the service wing. His men were barracked in what had been spare housemaid's quarters; they looked up as he burst in, most of them sacked out on their straw pallets. Hands froze as they worked on gear, sharpened a sword blade, clattered dice ready to throw.

"Jusha!" he roared. "Full kit, get your mounts, I want first company ready to move in fifteen minutes with one led remount per man. Full satchels of grenades, and five packhorses with spares. Canteens, but no food or bedding—we're going straight into the fight from a fast route march. Move!"

He'd had the training of these men for four months now. The long room dissolved into chaos, a chaos from which order grew. He walked to his own room, a boarded-off cubby, and hauled down what he needed; a bucket of javelins slung over his shoulder, his helmet, war gloves with brass and lead covers over the knuckles. And a map of Vanbert; they might have to take an indirect route out.

"Ready, sir."

"Then let's ride," he said, striding out to the entrance and vaulting into the saddle with a hand on the pommel, ignoring the weight of weapons and leather hauberk. His hand rose and chopped forward. "Follow me!"

* * *

"No, no, no!"

Adrian Gellert turned and slammed the flat of his palm into the wall of the shed. The slaves looked up from pouring powder into small bronze kegs, then whipped their heads back to their work. The last four months had taught the survivors that handling powder was not something to do with half a mind. The sharp peppery-sulfur smell of the explosive filled the air inside the barn.

"No, no, tell me my brother's not as stupid as the hero of a street-epic!"

Adrian stopped, controlled his breathing and pressing his hands to his face. Suicide, he thought. He can't possibly cut his way into Vanbert—riots, chaos, street fighting—and get out with Nanya. 

probability of success 35%, ±7, Center said.

Surprise flashed through Adrian's mind. Raj's mental voice cut in: If you're going to stage a raid into a major city, riot and insurrection make it a lot easier. 

A vision floated through Adrian's consciousness: East Residence, the capital of Raj's native land on Bellevue. Blue-uniformed troops fought from behind a barricade against rioters, volley-firing in silent puffs of off-white smoke. Men screamed and writhed and lay and bled before the improvised breastwork . . . and behind the soldiers a gang of thieves calmly loaded furniture and bolts of cloth and tableware from a mansion into a waiting cart.

"I've got to help him," Adrian said. "He's being an idiot, but he's my brother . . . how much does that improve the chances?"

There was a long silence in his head; he was conscious, somehow, of Raj and Center speaking at a level and speed beyond his comprehension.

Tell him, Raj said at last.

probability of successful rescue attempt increases to 53%, ±5, with your participation and full support from raj whitehall and myself, Center said. however, this is an unnecessary risk to you, our operative, and does not advance the prime objective to any significant degree. 

That was a long speech, from Center. Raj's voice held a flash of amusement: Center's learned to trust me when it comes to judging men. You're going to do it, son—I would, if I were you and I were alive—and we might as well give you all the help we can. 

Adrian nodded, startling the slave with the funnel again, and walked out into the bright morning light. "Fered," he said. "Gather the slingers. I need their help."

 

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Alice
Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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