The Reformer | Chapter 9 of 21

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

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SIX

"Pity you didn't get an opportunity to try out your new toys at sea," Esmond said.

"This will do," Adrian said.

The archipelago ruled—ruled more or less; from which they collected protection money, at least—by the Directors of Vase was considerably smaller than the one centered on Chalice. Few of the islands in it had enough area to grow crops, and they were low-lying and therefore dry, covered in open forest and scrub rather than jungle. To balance that there were mines, the fishing in the shallow waters round about was excellent, and they were a very convenient location for raids on the mainland. Vase was the largest, and the only one which looked like giving the Royal forces any sustained resistance.

"I can see why," Adrian said, bracing a hand against the mast of the transport, where it ran through the maintop. He'd been at sea long enough now to sway naturally with the motion of the ship, exaggerated by the sixty-foot height of the mast. They were both used to the bilge stink and the cramped quarters by now as well, and the unmerciful heat of the reflected sun that had tanned them both several shades darker.

"This is a tough nut," he said to his brother.

Esmond grunted agreement. "Harbor shaped like a U," he murmured, half to himself. "Steep rocky ground all around—absolute bitch getting men up those, never mind the walls at the top. Let's see . . . harbor wall just back from the docks, looks like it started out as a row of stone warehouses. Streets—tenement blocks, mansions, whatever, all bad—then the citadel itself on that low ridge."

Esmond squinted carefully, then looked down at the map King Casull's spies had provided. "Now, that's interesting," he said.

"What is?"

"This shows a ruined tower back of the rear wall of the citadel—unoccupied. Careless of them."

Adrian peered over his brother's armored shoulder. "That commands the citadel walls?" he said.

"Looks like. It's a thousand yards from the rear wall of the citadel, say a quarter-mile from the inner face of the works facing the harbor," he said. "Hmmm. Well out of bow and slingshot, of course, and you couldn't mount a useful number of torsion machines there."

He looked up, and for a moment his grin made him look young again, the youth who'd stood to be crowned at the Five Year Games. "But they don't know about your toys, do they?"

Smart lad, your brother, Raj said. He's got a real eye for the ground. That's extremely important—nobody fights battles on a tabletop, and a rise of six feet can be crucial. 

"No, they don't," Adrian said, smiling back. Oh, shit, he thought to himself.

 

King Casull looked up at the burning fortress at the outer harbor mouth of Vase. It was a low massive blocky building, set cunningly into the rocky crags and scree, well placed to rain down arrows and burning oil and naphtha on any force trying to scramble up the gravel and boulder-littered slopes to its gates. That had helped it not at all when the shells from Adrian Gellert's mortar landed behind the battlements. A thick column of greasy black smoke rose, heavy with the scent of things that should not burn, a smell he was intimately familiar with comprised of old timber, paint, leather, cloth, wine, cooking oil, human flesh.

"How do you advise we assault the town and citadel, General Gellert?" he asked.

"If it please my lord the King," Esmond said, "we'll send in the gunboats now."

Those were waiting beside the royal galley, keeping station with occasional strokes of their oars. Ten of those to a side, with two men on each; the single cannon fired forward, over the bows; a long inclined wooden slide reached backward to nearly amidships, letting the weapon run in when it was fired or be lashed over the center of gravity when the gunboat was at sea. The crews waved respectfully as they saw the royal eyes fall on them.

"And we'll send the troop transports close behind. The cannon will fire solid shot until they've battered down a gate, or a suitable breach in a wall."

Casull nodded; it was often better to break down a wall, if you could—the rubble provided a natural ramp for assault troops, and gates usually had nasty dogleg irregularities and unpleasant surprises waiting for a storming party.

"That will give us the town," Esmond said. "But the guns are large—getting them up to the inner edge of the Directors' citadel, that will be difficult. Most of it's within bowshot of the walls, and all of it's within range of the boltcasters."

He nodded towards Vase. Two tall semicircular towers rose from the edges of the citadel facing the town. That was a curve itself; the whole inner complex where the ruler resided was shaped like an irregular wedge of pie, with the palace and keep occupying the outer, narrow tip.

"Well, my lord King," Esmond said. "My brother and I have thought up something that may distract the men on the battlements quite considerably."

* * *

"Here you are, sir," the transport captain said.

Adrian nodded, modeling his expression on the one Esmond used. Firm, confident, in charge, but not hostile or remote, he told himself.

Men were going ashore in relays; the little semicircle of beach was too small to take the ship, or more than a few score at a time. Three hundred men didn't seem like too many, until he saw them all together like this. A hundred of the Sea Strikers had gone ashore first: Esmond's security detachment—light infantry with sword, buckler and javelin. The two hundred arquebusiers and grenade slingers were following more slowly, burdened with their heavy weapons and ammunition. Adrian heard a thump and a volley of curses from the netting on the side of the ship where men climbed down into the boats. Long, clumsy and heavy, he amended to himself.

Beyond the little cove rose stony hills covered in thorny scrub . . . and beyond those, the ruined tower where he was supposed to "amuse" the enemy and keep them from hindering the main assault. Adrian shook the captain's hand, adjusted his satchel of grenades, and swung over the bulwark himself.

"Feet here, sir," one of the Emerald slingers said cheerfully.

* * *

"What's that sound?"

"Ninety-nine, one hundred," Helga Demansk said, completing the series of sit-ups.

"Oh, stop that, Helga and come look," Keffrine said.

The woman who'd once been the pampered daughter of a Confederation Justiciar unhooked her feet from the back of the chair and padded over to the high barred window. If she stood on tiptoe, she could see some of the rooftops of Vase, down from the citadel. If she sprang up and gripped the bars, she could see a good deal more. She did, jumping nearly her own height and holding herself up easily, shaking tawny hair out of her eyes and peering against the bright light of morning reflecting off sea and roof tile.

"Oh, you're so strong," Keffrine said, batting her eyes upward. "Don't you think you should have a back rub, after all that exercise, though?"

"Can it, Keffie," Helga replied with a half-amused, half-exasperated twist of her lips. "I'm not that desperate yet."

"I can wait," the younger girl grinned. "Nobody's going anywhere."

Helga suppressed a shudder at that; even when the Director died, nobody in the hareem would go anywhere but into retirement . . . which meant they'd be shut up together until the last of them died of old age, and they'd never see another entire male until the day they did die—not even a loathsome toad like the Director. She pushed her mind back into the present, recoiling from the waste of years that stretched ahead. It could be worse; not so many generations ago, the hareem of an Islander magnate accompanied him to the tomb, with a cup of hemlock if they were lucky.

I wonder what that noise is? Helga thought. And: Sky-Father Almighty, I'm tired of waiting. 

She hadn't thought that being sold into the hareem of a pirate chief would be tedious—other things, but not that. The Director of Vase was an old, fat, worried, overworked pirate chief, though, with the fifty concubines that custom and prestige demanded. After the brutality of the pirate crew—exactly according to legend—and the transit here, she'd thought that a deliverance . . . for the first four months in this velvet-cushioned, lavender-scented prison where nothing, absolutely nothing ever happened. There was a pool, where she could swim about six paces; there were a few chess sets and card decks; there were no books at all—it would never occur to an Islander chief that a woman would want to read. After a full year, only keeping up her training regimen and pretending she was going to escape had preserved her sanity and kept her from strangling someone at the seven hundredth repetition of the same inane gossip, the same shrill giggling at the same stupid jokes, the same fatuous cow-eyed flirting, the same . . .

Being summoned to the Director's quarters at least meant she got out for an evening, even if under guard. Usually the old heap of lard couldn't do anything anyway.

"Smoke from the harbor," Helga said meditatively. "And I think I can hear . . . yes, that's an alarm drum."

There was a section of garden and wall below the window, just visible. A dozen men trotted through it; archers, in brass-scale hauberks and spiked helmets, led by an officer with his saber drawn.

The young Confed woman released the bars and dropped back, her lips shaping a soundless whistle.

"War, I think," she said. "Wasn't there a rumor that the Director was having trouble with the King in Chalice?"

Keffrine nodded eagerly, blond bangs swinging around her ears and releasing a strong waft of verbena. Helga wrinkled her nose a little; she still didn't like the way Islander women slathered themselves with scent. That and cosmetics were the main pastimes here, along with intrigue and love affairs; one couldn't even dress up much, since tradition mandated hareem occupants wear filmy trousers and spangled halter tops.

"Isn't it exciting?" Keffrine squealed.

Helga sighed. Well, what can you expect. Keffrine was a gift from Sub-Director Deneuve, and born in his hareem. This sort of environment was all she'd ever known. And I thought I'd led a sheltered life. 

"It may get more exciting than you'd like," Helga said. "Come on, we'd better go talk to the Eldest Sister."

The old bat was a harridan of the first order, but she'd been here since the Director was sixteen, and he told her things. If anyone knew . . .

"Yes, let's!" Keffrine grabbed her hand and pulled her out into the corridor, past arches and mosaics, into the main circular room where a dozen or so of the others lounged on couches, nibbled snacks, or paddled languidly in the pool about the carved youth whose seashell spouted warm scented water. The light from above was filtered through a fretwork stone dome.

Helga felt her heart beat faster. More exciting than they'd care for, she thought. But any change is an opportunity. I've been here far, far too long. 

Keffrine was really starting to look tempting, for instance.

Far, far too long.  

* * *

"Oh, what a beautiful, beautiful position," Simun wheezed.

Adrian nodded, breathless himself despite being twenty years younger and less burdened. The tower was ruined in the sense that some of the internal floors had collapsed, fire or rot destroying the beams. The central spiral staircase was stone, though, and still reasonably sound. So was the uppermost floor, and the crenellations were still waist-high. That would give the arquebusiers cover and excellent rests for their weapons; they were setting up now, with a little amiable squabbling for the best shooting spots. The infantry from the Sea Strikers had taken up ground around the tower's base, blending in to the maquis-covered slopes. The air had a slight brimstone smell from the black powder in grenades and cartridge boxes, and a wild spicy scent of crushed herbs from the ground around. It was warm now, and insects buzzed through the flowers; fliers darted by snapping at them.

Vase was laid out before them like a relief map, too—he could see men hurrying in and out of the two towers that anchored the citadel's harborward wall, others massing on the wall itself, still more movement in the narrow twisting streets beyond. Overhead the sky was a hot white-blue; he could even see the banners snapping on the gunboats in the harbor beyond, and the foam where the measured centipede stroke of their oars churned up the water. As he watched, a puff of smoke came from the lead craft. A measurable time later the flat deep thudump reached his ears, like a very large door slamming far away. A slightly louder explosion came from among the warcraft packed along the docks in front of the sea wall; they were firing shell initially, then. Smoke and fragments vomited up over the harbor defenses, and a slender galley began to burn and sink at its moorings, spine snapped. It couldn't sink far, in water only six feet deep under its keel, but that served to put the fire mostly out.

By the time the fourth round had hit, the remaining crews were scrambling ashore, tiny as ants as they swarmed through the sally ports next to the main gates.

"Ah, already spooked from the forts at the outer harbor, sor," Simun chuckled. "Ah, this is a fight how I loik it, sor," the middle-aged mercenary went on. "No risk, none of that there nasty hand-to-hand stuff."

Adrian smiled in turn. Odd, he thought. This man and he had as little in common as two beings of the same species, gender and nationality could, yet in a way they'd become good friends . . .

Comes of risking your lives together, son, Raj thought, amused. One of the things that, unfortunately, makes war possible. 

"Sort of a commentary on humankind, I suppose," Adrian muttered.

"What was thot, sor?"

"Just regretting you weren't a beautiful woman, underofficer," he said briskly.

Simun chuckled. "Well, then I'd be out of place here, eh, sor? Place for everything, yis, yis." He looked at the minarets, domes, gardens of the palace citadel ahead of them. "Though they say hareem girls smells tasty enough, yis. Hey, sor, you oughtn't to be doing that, now!"

Adrian ignored the hand that anchored the back of his weapons belt as he leaned over the crumbling sawtooth outer wall of the tower. "Simun," he said sharply. "Take a look there—do you see a mark in the ground there, leading from the tower to the citadel wall?"

The noncom respectfully but firmly pulled him back, then leaned over and peered himself. "Hmmm, now that you point it out sor, so I do, indeed. Old wall, mebbe? Hard to see why, though—just the one—tis not a walled way to this here tower, that would make sense, though . . ."

Adrian craned his neck. The line through the scrub was irregular, as much a trace-mark in the vegetation as anything, an absence of the low thorny scrub trees in the middle and a thicker line of them on either side.

He froze as Center's icy presence seized his eyes. For a moment the world became a maze of lines and points and moving dots, a glimpse of something too vast and alien for him to comprehend. Then it settled down to a schematic—clear white lines outlining the trace through the slope, and a cross-diagram beside it showing a tunnel with an arched stone roof.

covered way, sunken to escape detection. The machine intelligence sounded inhumanly confident . . . but then, it always did, even when confessing a rare error. since the tower went out of regular use, the initial covering of soil has partly eroded from the upper surface of the ceiling. 

"Yes, by the Gray-Eyed Lady!" Adrian said.

Simun was looking at him with mingled alarm and expectation—the Gray-Eyed was also a Goddess of War; more precisely, of stratagem and ploy, as opposed to Wodep's straightforward violence. Adrian knew that the Emerald mercenaries they'd brought with them thought he communed with Her regularly; Esmond's new troops were picking up the superstition rapidly.

"That's a tunnel—a covered way into the citadel," Adrian said.

"Oh, ho!" Simun said. "First in, first pickings . . . no, sor, though, even Islanders, they wouldn't leave it open—not when this here place ain't garrisoned, no, no."

"We'll take a look," Adrian said. "Can't hurt."

Simun nodded. Yes, I know Esmond set you as my watchdog, Adrian thought without resentment—after all, he was the younger brother, and not trained to war. On the other hand, curiosity was an Emerald characteristic; where it concerned his trade, even a professional like Simun had his fair share.

"Oll right, sor, but me'n the squad, we goes along."

"No argument."

* * *

"The city of Vase is under attack," the Eldest Sister said calmly.

A chorus of squeals and giggles died down into uncertain murmurs as the figure beside the head of the hareem stepped forward—it was an entire man, one of the few Helga had seen since she passed through the door. A soldier, one of the Director's personal guard, slave soldiers bought in infancy and raised in the household; armored from head to foot in black-laquered splint mail, with a broad splayed nasal bar on his helmet that hid his face. He rested the point of his huge curved sword on the carpet and folded his hands on the hilt.

"Do not worry!" the stout, robed, middle-aged woman said. "In all things, we will accompany our lord."

Helga was standing well to the back, among the junior and childless members of the hareem—even then she took a moment to thank the Mother Goddess for that mercy. Although there was a rumor that all the pregnancies recently were the result of the Director sending in his younger brother under cover of darkness. . . . She was standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Keffrine, and felt the other girl suddenly begin to tremble. Helga decided that she didn't need to hear the rest of the Eldest Sister's speech.

"What is it?" she whispered sharply in her ear, then gave her arm a pinch to shock her out of the wide-eyed stare. "Keffrine, what is it?"

"Wuh—wuh—"

"Keffrine!"

A few others glanced at her reprovingly as her voice rose a little. That seemed to bring Keffrine back to herself a little; she dropped her eyes and whispered.

"They think we muh-muh-might lose," she said.

"What?"

"What the Eldest Sister said, about accompanying our lord."

"What, into exile? Ransom—"

The guileless blue eyes turned to her, and tears slid down the lovely cheeks.

"No. The Director's honor can't let other men touch his women. They'll cu-cu-cut our th-th—"

Quietly, hopelessly, Keffrine began to sob; she wasn't the only one, either.

Cut our throats, Helga Demansk realized; that was the end of the sentence. In more ways than one.

* * *

The plug at the end of the tunnel took on the flat, greenish-silvery look that Adrian's vision always did when Center was amplifying the available light. Something about extrapolating from partial data. . . . He shoved away the neck-tensing eeriness and instead tapped on the concrete and rubble with the hilt of his dagger, pressing his ear to listen. Only a dull clink came back through the ear pushed against the porous roughness, but Center spoke with mountainous certainty:

the blocking segment is from five to eight and a half feet in thickness. beyond it the tunnel resumes with the same dimensions.  

A picture formed in his mind; the covered passageway on the other side of the block, and then a wooden door beyond that—thick with dust and cobwebs.

How do you do that? he asked.

echolocation, Center answered. your auditory sensors receive much information of which you are not conscious. by calculating the time and angle of sound reflected through and beyond the solid material, i can infer the shapes and relationships of objects. 

Oh. Like most of Center's explanations, that raised more questions than it answered—sound could bounce? Anyway . . . 

one ten-pound cask of powder emplaced at the base will clear the obstacle, Center said. possibility of collapse of tunnel ceiling is 27% ±7. 

"Can't hurt, then," Adrian mused.

Sure you want to do this, lad? Raj asked. It isn't your proper line of work, really. 

Adrian nodded. My brother is out there, under the walls, he replied firmly, swallowing through the dryness of his mouth and acutely conscious of the smell of wet stone and his own sweat.

"Simun," he said. "Get someone with a pick up here—two men with picks, and one with a prybar. And a barrel of powder, and—" he consulted his unseen friends "—ten feet of quickmatch. Now!"

 

The distant thudding sounds were closer now, louder; like nothing so much as thunder. Beneath it Helga Demansk thought she could hear something far less uncanny than thunder from a clear blue sky; a snarling clamor of voices, and the harsh metal-on-metal sound of battle, with an undertone of the flat banging thumps that blades made on shields. The concubines were kneeling silently in rows according to seniority; several more of the black-armored Director's guardsmen had come in. One of them was pale-faced and had a bandage around his forearm; another was limping. The sunlight crawled past under the dappled shade of the dome, the water splashed in the pool, all infinitely familiar sights gilded with a nearly supernatural film of horror now.

Another man came in, the metal heel-plates of his military boots loud on tile and marble, muffled where he traversed colorful rugs. He looked at the guard commander standing above the Eldest Sister, swallowed, and gave a jerky nod.

"It is time," the commander said harshly.

"It is time," the older woman said calmly. "I shall go first, to show my sisters that there is nothing to fear."

She raised her chin. The soldier shook his shoulders back and raised the blade; sunlight broke off the bright edge as he took careful aim and swung with a huffing grunt of effort.

There was a wet cleaving sound. Blood splashed backward over the gilt mosaics of the wall, over young fleecebeasts gamboling in a spring meadow. Keffrine gave a breathless little scream.

"Time to get moving," Helga muttered to herself, and took one last deep breath.

* * *

"All right," Adrian said to the worried arquebusier. "I'm leaving you the twenty best shots, with all the loaded weapons to hand. They should be able to keep up a respectable fire for half an hour or so, and that's all that we'll need."

The man nodded, saluted, and trotted away back up the stairs. Adrian looked at the other men near him: Simun; Tohmus, the commander of the Sea Striker detachment; the rest of his gunmen, now holding their cutlasses and targets.

"Everyone!" he said. "Be prepared for a very loud—"

THACRACK!  

Smoke and debris vomited out of the mouth of the tunnel into the basement of the tower, shrouding its dimness and peppering them all with grit and small fragments of rock.

Adrian spoke again, his voice tinny in his own ears after the monstrous blow of the explosion in the tunnel's confined space. "Simun, Tohmus, no crowding. I'll go first."

He plunged in, coughing, waving a futile hand in front of himself. The breeze was strong from the seaward, from the blocked end of the passageway—previously blocked now—smelling of patchouli oil and flowers under the sulfur stink of the powder. The plug was scattered in toe-stubbing chunks for a hundred yards back from where it had spanned the tunnel, bits of it having bounced off the curves in the walls. Beyond it was the chamber Center's eerie sound-vision had shown, but the doors beyond were splinters hanging from twisted hinges. Ahead was a long sloping corridor, then a staircase with sunlight filtering down from above.

And barrels on either side; one was smashed, and the rich fruity odor of wine filled the confined space. Above the casks hung hams in nets, bunches of herbs, sacks of fruit . . .

"Gellerix's cunt," whispered Simun, beside him. "Anrew, Mattas, you pick six reliable men and guard this, you hear me?" To Adrian: "Sorry, sor—don't want to tempt the lads mor'n's right. And sor? Might be an idea to draw yor sword now."

Adrian did, gripping the little brass-rimmed buckler with his left hand. He peered around. "Storerooms . . ."

Center strobed one of the lateral corridors giving off the big arch-roofed cellar. There was an ironbound door set into the wall there, with a massive lock—rare and expensive.

"Simun, put that under guard too—I think it'll bear investigation. We'll keep going straight up," he said, indicating the stairwell.

* * *

Keffrine was still sobbing, her eyes squeezed shut and tears leaking out from under them. Helga waited . . .

. . . and a dozen women broke and bolted as the soldiers approached the front row. Eldest probably knew they would, ran through her; that was probably why she'd gone first, to spare herself seeing the indignity. The gathering dissolved into a chaos of running women and harassed, determined guardsmen. Blades began to flash, not in the orderly execution planned but in a frenzy, men slashing at figures that ran by or trembled and pled.

Helga moved herself; sideways, to where a tall fretted-brass brazier sent a coil of incense upwards. She gripped it by the base and heaved, toppling the man-high structure against the wall. Glowing embers scattered into gauzy hangings, and flames began to lick upward.

"Fire!" she screamed in Islander. "Fire!"

A guardsman had been approaching, blade in hand. He looked aside—no sailor or town dweller but had a healthy dread of uncontrolled flame—and when he looked back he met the second brazier full in the face as she swung it two-handed. Brass met flesh and bone with a loud thock. Helga scooped up the falling sword; it was a different shape from the ones she was used to, and too heavy, but that didn't stop her short efficient jab up under his chin.

"Come on," she shouted to Keffrine, and grabbed her by one hand. Trailing the sobbing girl, she bolted for the exit to the basement storerooms.

* * *

"Keep the men well in hand," Adrian said.

Screams were coming from the room at the head of the stairs. Women's screams, but also men's shouts, and the distinctive, unpleasant sound of steel driving into flesh.

"Let's go!"

The noises ahead were loud enough that it was several heartbeats before anyone noticed the enemy surging up through the passageway. Adrian had time to check his rush a step in sheer astonishment at the sight before him; a room floridly overdecorated even by Islander standards, full of running, screaming women—dying women—and soldiers in black-lacquered armor trying to butcher them all. Dozens down on the floor, wounded or dead; a nauseating mixture of smells: perfume, flowers, blood, shit . . .

And right in front of him, one of the women fighting a pair of soldiers. An auburn-haired woman, one he'd swear was Confed-born, not an Islander. Not doing badly at all, either—

She beat aside a thrust, both hands on the hilt of the long saber. The other soldier lunged as well, at a smaller blond woman by the first one's side, and the point of his blade slammed out her back. The redhead screamed and slashed him across the face, blood and a spark where the blade grated off the nasal bar of the killer's helmet.

"Get the hell out of the way—sir!" someone shouted in Adrian's ear.

Men poured past him. He leapt forward himself, batted the saber of the man fighting the redhead aside and lunged with his own basket-hilted, Emerald-style sword. The black-armored man vanished in the melee; a second later Adrian saw him toppling into the fountain pool in the center of the room with a javelin through his neck. The fighting was brief, three mercenaries against an Islander here, four there—overwhelming numbers. The screaming didn't stop, and now he saw his own men chasing the women. They obviously didn't have butchery on their minds, but—

"You!" he said. One had grabbed the auburn-haired woman—girl—from behind, hands over her breasts. "You! Release that woman!"

"Wait yer turn—" the mercenary began.

Get them in hand now, or you never will, Raj said.

"Right."

Adrian took two steps forward and smashed the hilt of his sword into the would-be rapist's face. Bone crumbled under the blow, with a tooth-grating yielding feeling. He had time to see the woman's face go slack with surprise, and then he tossed her his sword to clear his hand.

He hooked a grenade out of his pouch, the ceramic cool and pebbly under his fingers. His other hand whipped the slowmatch from its covered metal holder on his belt, twirled it to make the lit end glow brightly, touched off the fuse. He waited three seconds, and then tossed it gently underhand into the pool.

THUDUMP.  

Water—and bits of the dead man dangling over the fountain—sprayed through the room. The water prevented the fragments from being deadly . . . or not very deadly.

Silence fell in the echoing aftermath of the explosion. Adrian held the slowmatch next to the fuse of another grenade.

"If discipline is not restored immediately," he said, half-surprised at the calmness of his own voice under the enormous reined-in tension, "I am going to light this grenade and drop it in the pouch."

"We'd all be killed!" one of the Sea Strikers wailed.

"That's the idea." Adrian nodded. "We have a battle to fight, and it's that way. Anyone have a problem with that?"

"No, sir."

There was a general chorus of agreement, and men who'd seized women released them, forming up and heading for the doors.

"Simun."

The little mercenary came up, limping and pressing the tail of his tunic against a slash wound along one thigh—a vulnerable point in light-infantry armor, protected only by the studded leather strips of the military kilt.

"Simun, get some of the walking wounded together. Police this area, get the surgeon working . . . oh, he is."

The man had half a dozen of the more seriously wounded lying on improvised pallets, and twice that number of the hareem's occupants. Some of the hale ones were tearing up sheets to help him.

"Anyway, keep things under control."

Simun nodded. "Good choice, sor," he said. "Cut like this, Gellerix 'erself couldn't tempt me."

"I'll be with the unit," Adrian went on. "See you when it's over."

"I'm coming too."

Adrian looked around, startled, and met level green eyes. The auburn-haired girl offered him his sword; she'd taken a similar weapon from one of the dead, and a small buckler. The filmy hareem costume was plastered to her, mostly with blood, and there were smudges of it across her face where she'd bound back the russet-colored hair with a strip of cloth.

"Miss—"

"Fuck that," she said. She was speaking Emerald, with a slight Confed accent—upper-class Confed, he realized. "I'm a . . . soldier's daughter, and I've been here an Almighty Allfather-cursed year, and I'm going to kill some of these Islander bastards."

"Soldier's daughter?" Adrian said.

"Name's Helga. My father . . . fought with Justiciar Demansk's armies."

Things clicked behind Adrian's upraised eyebrows. She's really not bad with a sword, Raj mentioned.

That meant she wasn't what she'd implied, the daughter of some long-service Confed trooper. Women of that class didn't train with the sword—certainly not in the classic Emerald style. Some rich young women did; it had been quite the craze for the last couple of years, much to the scandal of the conservative nobility. A few had even appeared in the Vanbert Games, first-blood matches, until a reforming Justiciar had outlawed the practice. Noblewoman, he thought.

observe, Center said.

A grid formed over her face, countour lines sprang out. Justiciar Demansk's face appeared beside it, and arrows sprang out to mark points of resemblance.

allowing for gender, probability of close genetic relationship is 97%, ±1, Center said. as near unity as a hasty analysis permits. 

And Demansk . . . one of his daughters was taken in a pirate raid, and not ransomed, Adrian thought. Demansk had several sons, but that was the only daughter he'd ever heard of . . .

The analysis had taken half a dozen seconds. "All right, Miss Helga," he said crisply. "You may rest assured of my protection." The courtly phrase seemed oddly out of place in this room of gilding and blood. "But keep close to me and don't get in the way."

"I won't," she said. The sword moved easily in her hand; it was the standard Emerald style, single-edged and with a handguard of bronze strips. "This may get in some other people's way, though."

* * *

"They've stopped retreating, sir," Donnuld Grayn panted.

"That's obvious," Esmond said, taking a bite out of the skin of the orange in his hand and tossing another to his second-in-command.

He squeezed the juice into his mouth, pitched the husk aside, and swished his hand in an ornamental fountain before drying it on the skirt of his tunic. The noise of combat grew in the courtyard ahead, and far and faint came the distinctive sound of one of Adrian's grenades. Esmond's grin grew; from the barely-glimpsed tower came another slow, aimed arquebus round. There was a shriek behind him—somewhere on the battlements that he'd bypassed when he took his men straight through the breach in the wall. Amazing what an entire oxcart full of gunpowder run into the ditch in front of the wall would do. The dry moat just focused the hellpowder's power on the stone.

Little brother's been busy, he thought, taking up his sword and buckler again, and pulling down the helmet he'd pushed up on his forehead. Trickles of tepid sweat ran down from the sponge lining, and the world shrank to a T-shaped slit of brightness . . . and he felt alive. Alive in a way he hadn't, except in combat, since Nanya died.

"Well, what are you lot waiting for?" he said as he came through into the next courtyard.

The Palace of the Directors of Vase was built to the same general plan as the King's house in Chalice, but it was older—older, and less centrally planned, having grown slowly over centuries. Essentially it was a series of interlocking courtyards, sometimes separated by narrow service alleys, and sometimes as much as three stories tall. Some were elaborate with fountains and mosaics, others workaday storehouses, warehouses, workshops, guard barracks. The one through the arched gate ahead was one of the fancy ones, which was all to the good—the tall fountain in the middle would provide his troops with clean water, once they'd taken it.

"Keep down, sir," an officer said.

The men here were, behind the pillars of the arcade that lined the courtyard, moving only in short dashes between points covered by the stone. The movement got thicker as the hundred or so reinforcements he'd brought with him filed in among the stalled assault point element.

"They've got archers over there," the officer continued. Maklin, that's his name, Esmond thought. He'd made a point of learning all the officers' names, at least. "They're good, and they're not moving for shit."

Esmond nodded thoughtfully, looking at a couple of bodies out in the open. The black-fletched shafts were driven right through them, scale-reinforced leather corselets or not. From the angle, they'd been hit by men on the second-story balconies fifty yards to the east. Spearheads twinkled among the ground-story columns, ready to receive anyone who'd run the gauntlet of arrowfire across the open space. Many Islander archers used recurved bows, backed with strips from the mouthparts of sea monsters. They had a heavy punch, in expert hands.

"We need to get them distracted," he said. "Maklin, get twenty-five men down to each end of this arcade." The arches and pillars ran around all four sides of the courtyard. "Have them work towards the enemy, from pillar to pillar. Donnuld, back out and up, onto the second story—give those fucking bowmen something to think about besides sniping. Take a company."

Esmond waited with a cat's patience while the orders were obeyed. His mind and body felt light, tight, strong; it was like the Games, in a way.

"All right, men," he said when he heard the rising panic in the voices from the second story, across the way. An archer leaned far out to shoot at a man dodging from one pillar to the next; while he aimed and drew, a javelin sank into his back, and the body arched out to fall, thump, in the courtyard below.

"All right," he said again, raising his voice. "What are you waiting for, the enemy to send you enough arrows to open an archery shop? Follow me!"

With the last word he was sprinting out, dodging and jinking, as if this were the running-in-armor event at the Games. There are times, he thought, as a bodkin-pointed shaft chipped marble by his right ankle, when straight up the middle is the only way to go. 

With a roar like the sea striking rocks, the troopers behind him surged out of cover on his heels. He kept well ahead of them until they were almost in contact. A volley of thrown spears came at him; he batted one out of the air with his shield as he curved around the fountain. Then he checked his pace, another, and the Strikers struck the line of Islander spears together.

One slammed forward, aimed for his belly. He swayed aside, his body moving in a single smooth curve, and then punched the boss of his small round shield into the face behind it. Bone crackled; he ignored the wounded man and turned his run into a lunge. The long sword in his right hand slipped into a throat; he twisted and jerked it free against the constriction of spasming muscle. Blood sprayed in an arc like water coming out of a hose as the man turned in a half circle before he fell. A saber slashed at him, motion caught out of the corner of his eye; Esmond swept his shield around in a circle, moving it without putting it in front of his face and blocking his vision. The steel struck and sparked on the studs in the surface of the leather, wrenching painfully at the wrist of his left hand. Esmond stabbed low automatically, stepped forward, beat a spear aside with his sword and let the blade and shaft slide up his sword and punched the man behind it in the face with the guard.

"To me, Strikers!" he shouted. "Push 'em, push 'em!"

They were pushing them, in a heaving, thrashing confusion that swayed backward a step, another step, another, shouting snarling point-bearded faces and spearpoints, curved swords, knives. Men locked chest-to-chest, no room to dodge now, naked extreme violence, blows given and taken. Then they were under the shade of the arcade's pillars, then past it, and suddenly the combat broke into knots of men that spilled out into a big room—an audience hall, like Casull's back in Chalice.

"Rally, rally!" he called.

Beside him a signaler pulled a horn from his belt and blew the call. The chaos gradually sifted itself into order, men coalescing with their comrades, small bands being overrun, until there were again two distinct bodies of troops. His grew, as more men filtered in, and the Vase troops retreated to stand in a clump around the high throne with its backing of peacock-inlay feathers. Some of them, he noted with glee, were standing guard at the rear entrances to the room. Adrian was there, right enough. How in Wodep's name did he get over the wall? Think about that later. 

Donnuld Grayn came panting up with his company; a couple of them were waving inlaid bows and pear-patterned quivers, or carrying silver-sheathed daggers on their belts.

"Got those fucking archers," Grayn wheezed. "Couldn't bear on us much, up there—good idea. Some sort of Director's Guard, I think—lot of 'em were Southrons, war slaves, maybe."

Esmond nodded. "We're through the rind and near the kernel. Let's see how determined this lot are."

"Not too much, I hope," the Cable officer said, rubbing his hands on his kilt to dry them. "Wodep bugger me blind, I've never seen anything like some of the rooms here—Director's palace, all right, a looter's delight."

"Let's get the fight finished first," Esmond said. "Surrender!" he called to the defenders.

A roar of obscene abuse returned, and a scatter of throwing axes, javelins and arrows; men snapped up shields around him as he ducked, and he could hear things clattering off them. One man backed into him involuntarily as a shaft went into his shield with a solid whack, the point showing through the tough layers of greatbeast hide and metal facing.

"Where's your leader, then?" Esmond called, straightening again. "Let him come out and face me—if he dares!"

The Emerald was distantly aware of a commotion at his back—Casull's name came through, but the King could wait. A man in his early middle years stepped forward from the crowd of Vase troops, a bloodied saber in one hand and a hacked buckler in the other.

"I am Franzois Clossaw, Director of Vase by right of blood," he called, wiping at a cut on one cheek with the back of a gauntleted hand.

His armor was plain but rich, and looked nicked and battered as the man himself; he had mustaches curled up into points like horns and a pointed beard, but the point had been slashed off at some time today, leaving him looking a little frayed at the edges. Hmmm, Esmond thought. According to reports, the Director of Vase was about seventy, and nearly twice this one's weight.

"I thought Antwoin Clossaw was Director," Esmond said in a conversational tone.

"My brother is dead, killed by your coward's weapons of magic. Until the Syndics of Vase can meet and settle the succession, I am Director—and no foreigner shall sit on the throne of Vase while I live!"

"That can be altered," Esmond purred. "I am General Esmond Gellert, commander of the Sea Striker regiment of Emerald Free Companions"—a little more elegant-sounding than hired killers—"and thrice victor of the Five Year Games, free citizen of Solinga. Let this be settled here and now."

Franzois swallowed, looked to either side. His men were apparently ready enough to make a last stand . . . but understandably not wildly enthusiastic about it.

"You guarantee the lives of my men if I lose?" he said.

Esmond nodded, and went on at the beginnings of a rumble behind him: "I can't guarantee the lives or estates of your nobles," he said. "That is in the hand of my lord, King Casull of the Isles—of all the Isles." The rumble turned to a purr. "But for your common soldiers, yes. Amnesty, and employment for those who'll swear allegiance. They fought quite well, all things considered."

"And if I win, we get safe passage to the harbor."

"Yes," Esmond said. "I so order my underofficers, in the sight of the Gray-Eyed Lady and by my own honor." That would be a hard promise for Casull to break; the regiment would be seriously pissed off if he did. The rumble was back, but he ignored it as he strode out.

"May I see your face?" Franzois said.

Esmond pushed his helmet back, letting the light fall on his features. The Islander smiled.

"Very much the Emerald hero," he said, taking a quick swig from a leather bottle one of his companions handed him. "My great-great—no matter—one of my ancestors fought against the Solingians at the Narrow Straits. He recorded that it wasn't a very good idea."

"My ancestors fought in the League Wars too," Esmond said politely. He took the time to lean his sword against his hip and carefully dry hand and hilt. "Both sides came off with credit, but the Fates spin the thread of every war."

He pulled the helmet back down and brought up sword and buckler, the small shield under his chin and sword advanced. Franzois nodded and took his own stance, slashing-sword up and back, leading with his shield. Esmond watched the way he held his weapons, the movements of his feet, the set of the thick blocky shoulders.

Fast heavy man, he thought; that was rare, and dangerous. Sword's seen a lot of use. 

* * *

"Watch out, for Allfather's sake!" Helga shouted to Adrian.

The billhook crashed across the surface of her buckler. There was vicious weight and an urgent desire to kill behind the blow from the darkened alcove ahead, nothing like training back on the estate. Her left arm went numb for an instant, then gave a burning throb of pain that agonized from wrist and elbow right up into the shoulder. The weapon—a big straight razor on a six-foot pole, with a spike on top and a hook behind—slammed into the stucco of the courtyard wall, raining lime plaster and brick chips on her, leaving the billman bent over with the staggering surprise of not having his momentum stopped by his target. She stepped forward in a passing lunge, drilled reflex, sword out, her whole body taking off from the left foot and slamming forward behind point and arm, right foot coming down and knee flexing to add distance to the stroke. The soft heavy resistance as the point went in over the Vasean's collarbone was still an unpleasant surprise; so was the grating of steel on bone somewhere in the man's body.

So was the backstroke with the butt of the weapon, the iron ferrule thumping painfully into her thigh.

"Ow! Pigfucker!" she yelped, twisting and yanking to get her own weapon free.

The blood that splashed over her simply added to the drying, sticky mat that covered her from throat to shins; she'd learned to ignore the smell . . . mostly. With a grunt she braced a foot on the still-twitching body and pulled. There were ugly popping, rending sounds as she did, more felt through the hilt than heard through the ears.

"Don't you ever look where you're going?" she snapped at . . . Adrian Gellert, she remembered.

Confed folk wisdom had it that Emeralds had no bottom, no real guts; she'd seen enough today to make her seriously doubt that. It also held that Emerald wisdom lovers would step into a well while looking at the stars, and if Adrian was typical, that was pretty much true, at least. Her mouth twisted wryly as she fought to get her breath back. She'd had fantasies of rescue, of course; usually her father, or some handsome well-born young tribune in a crested helmet and figured back-and-breast. This slender young Emerald with the dreamy blue eyes and his air of listening to voices nobody else heard was a bit of a contrast, with his rumpled hair showing around his open-face helmet and bits of the iron plates wearing through the leather of his jack.

Well, he's certainly good to have around, she thought, looking out of the corner of her eye at the mercenary troopers crowding forward for the rush into the next courtyard.

Although they mostly weren't looking at her like a dog at a porkchop anymore. A couple of them crowed laughter at the sight of her tugging her blade out of the Islander.

"Good work, missy," one grinned. "The lord here needs someone to look after him."

She flushed and turned away at the laughter. "What is that stuff?" she asked, nodding at the satchel of round jarlike things at his side, each with its little tail of cord.

"I call them grenades," Adrian said absently—that seemed to be his usual manner of speech—and patted them. "They've got a powder inside that I found in certain . . . ancient records, very ancient. It has a number of uses."

"Like those thunder sounds we heard earlier?" she asked.

He looked at her, the absent-mindedness blinking away, and passed her the canteen someone had handed to him. She accepted it and took a pull; the wine that cut the water was nearly vinegar, but it was welcome in the gummy dryness of her mouth.

"Yes, as a matter of fact," he said; it was a second before she noticed he'd switched from his Solingian-accented Scholar's Emerald to a pellucidly pure dialect of patrician-class Vanbert Confed. "It explodes—that is, generates a lot of rapidly expanding gas—and pushes away whatever's around it. In the grenades, that pushes fragments of the casing out much faster than an arrow or a sling-bullet. If you put some in a bronze tube sealed at one end, it'll push out a big metal or stone bullet—big enough to smash ships or knock down gates and walls."

Helga whistled silently. "Now, won't that be useful," she said. "My father's men . . . men of my father's company, that is . . . would call it cheating, though. Not fighting fair."

Adrian shrugged. "I don't like fighting," he said simply. That made her blink again; not many men she knew would admit that—actual men, that is. The Emerald went on: "When I do have to fight, I fight to win. Fair fights are for idiots and Con— I mean, for those who are strong enough to be sure they'll win anyway."

Helga nodded slowly. "You know, that makes a lot of sense," she said, and felt herself obscurely pleased at the look in the Emerald's hazel eyes. "Of course, I'm a woman, and we can't afford some of the idiocies men get involved with."

"I see your point," Adrian said, and heaved himself away from the wall he'd been leaning against. "Now, I think there's a fight we—or I, at least—do have to engage in calling out."

The noise of combat had died down ahead; she cocked her head. "That's two men fighting," she said. "Odd, almost like a duel." With a quick urchin grin at the Emerald. "And you saved my life, but it looks to me like you need someone by you to return the favor—often."

"That's right, missy," one of the troops said.

"Hear her, lord," another chimed in.

Adrian straightened. "Let's get moving," he said. "Your munificent pay doesn't come for propping up walls." His eyes scanned around, and took on a hint of that distant look again. "This way leads to the throne room. Up one more flight, left, and that's the anteroom—they were probably going to try and get out right this way."

"How does he know that?" Helga whispered aside to a man with another satchel of grenades as the commander turned and walked briskly towards the landing at the base of a flight of stairs.

"You'll find Lord Adrian knows most anything he wants," the man said with unshakeable confidence. "The Gray-Eyed Lady speaks to him, y'see."

Helga felt her eyes go wide.

 

Esmond went into a stop-thrust, then recovered smoothly, turning it into a feint as Franzois beat it aside with his buckler and cut, backhand, forehand, boring in with a stamp-stamp-stamp and a whirling pattern that made a silver X of his sword.

Right, let's see you keep that up, the Emerald thought grimly as he backed. Normally he didn't think much of the Islander school of swordplay; all edge and dash and no science. Director-for-a-couple-of-hours Franzois was as good a master of that style as he'd come across, though, and thoroughly accustomed to using it against the more point-oriented Emerald blade-way.

He waited, point hovering, backing with an economical shuffle and his feet at right angles. Clang-ting-clang, and the saber knocked against his buckler, rang on his blade, shed itself from that with a long scring sound and deflected off his helmet and a shoulder piece with bruising force and there was the sting of a slight cut on his upper shoulder.

Good steel, he thought absently—to be that shaving-sharp after a long day's work. They had good smiths here in the Isles.

Franzois' face was a deeper purple now, his mouth open below the splayed nasal of his helmet. Esmond waited, backed once more . . . then lunged, with all the dense muscle of his weight behind it, the springing power of his rear leg, and a wrist locked to put it all behind the punching tip of the sword.

The Islander stopped, blade still raised for another slash. It came down and faltered weakly as Esmond's point ripped free of his inner thigh. From the sudden arterial rush of blood, he'd cut the big vein there. The Emerald stepped back and raised his sword again in salute.

"That was a brave man," he murmured as the body kicked and voided, the usual undignified business of dying.

"Esmond! Esmond!"

He jerked his head up suddenly. The chant had begun during the fight, but there was no room for it in the diamond-hard focus of a death duel. The men were yelling it, pumping fists and weapons in the air.

"Esmond! Esmond!"

The roar echoed back from the walls of the great room, bouncing back in confused waves of sound as the last of the defenders were disarmed and marched off. Not only his own Strikers were shouting it, but the Royal troops as well—only the knot of noblemen around King Casull weren't, and many of them were waving swords in salute as well. Even the King was, and smiling; there was a cut on his face, and blood on his sword—Casull was a fighting man whose praise you'd respect, and Esmond felt a sudden lurch as the truth of it rammed home.

Well, dip me in shit! he thought. I not only won, I won big with the big boss looking on. The news would be all over the Royal army and fleet by sundown, too.

Esmond bent, pulling off Franzois' helm. There was a purple-gold circlet around the dead man's brow; he paused a minute to hold the eyelids shut and close the staring gaze, then rose with the symbol of Vase's sovereignty raised high. The chanting gradually slowed, stopped, left a silence full of rustles and creaks and clanks as armed men shifted their feet and murmured to each other.

With sword and buckler in his right hand and the circlet in his left, Esmond paced across the throne room to where Casull stood. He went to one knee and held both forward.

"My lord King," he said, in slow, clear, carrying tones. "Vase is yours!"

Another roaring cheer. Cries of "Casull!" and "Esmond!" were mixed, together with "Hot damn!" and "Loot! Loot!"

Casull took the circlet, a wry smile on his face; he winked slightly as their eyes met.

"Well, you're a showman, as well as a fighting man," he murmured as he accepted the symbol of sovereignty. "Maybe you'll find a realm of your own someday; a man who's actor and fighter both is born to rule."

He straightened, took Esmond's sword and rapped him sharply on each armored shoulder.

"With swords such as yours, my throne is secure!" he cried. From everyone but the people carrying those swords, went unspoken between them—warning and mutual recognition at once. "Let the farmer-clods of the Confederation interfere if they dare—let all men take note that what we have, we hold, we and our valorous nobles and troops. Rise, Excellent Esmond Gellert!"

Esmond's eyes widened slightly, and his men redoubled their cheers. Well, there's a step up, he thought; he'd just gone from outland mercenary captain to the lowest level of Islander nobility. Mind you, what the King gave, the King could take away; and from the smolderingly jealous looks of the courtiers gathered about him, he'd also acquired a set of instant enemies. Casull's wry smile as Esmond rose—for an instant, until he noticed the added pain of the stiffening face cut—told the Emerald that the King was perfectly aware of that, too.

Casull paced across the room and up the dais to the Throne of Vase, turning to take the salute from the warriors who filled the great room to overflowing now.

"Hail to our lord King—King of all the Isles!" Esmond cried.

* * *

Helga Demansk watched the end of the duel wide-eyed, especially when Esmond Gellert pulled off his helmet after his victory. Oh, momma! she thought, glancing aside at Adrian. Yes, there was a family resemblance there, but . . . Well, if the old stories about Emerald philosophers are true, I suppose the ones about the Five Year Games winners can be too. Maybe even stories about god-fathered heroes, although like anyone with a modern education she tended to believe—consciously, at least—that the old gods were aspects of the One, Who needed only to Be, not to do.

Looking at Esmond Gellert, it was easy to remember things her nurse had told her, and old tales in books. The other Emerald was a big man, but with none of the beefy solidity she was used to in soldiers, or athletes, for that matter. He moved like a big golden cat, and his features might have been chiseled by a Solingian sculptor of the lost golden age right after the League Wars.

But there was something . . . something missing there. A liveliness that was in his brother's eyes, even when they were abstracted. It grew as the flush of combat faded from his face, leaving it even more like a statue—painted marble, with a deadness behind. Except that marble did not conceal an ocean of pain. . . .

Stop being fanciful, she told herself. Concentrate. Adrian had said she was under his protection, and oddly enough she believed him. But Adrian might need protection. Would the King protect him? Could his brother? She stepped back a pace, hating the necessity but wishing for a cloak, too.

"Adrian!" Esmond said, stepping forward and shouldering nobles and ranking officers aside. A little life returned to the carved planes of his face. "Brother! By the shades, how did you get here?"

"Found an old access tunnel to that tower," Adrian said, flushing with pleasure himself and clasping forearms. "Blasted out the plug with some hellpowder, and went looking for trouble—and found you, eventually."

Esmond laughed. "I thought it was something like that. The Vaseans were retreating in pretty good order—stood up to the guns pretty well, even your sniping at their backs—and then they went to pieces."

"Men will, when they're attacked from the rear," Adrian said. "You managed to cover yourself with well-earned glory, I see."

Esmond laughed again; the sound was a little hoarse, as if he didn't do it very often. He caught the smaller man by the shoulder and pushed him forward unwilling, until they were before the throne. Helga slipped forward unobtrusively, absently knocking a questing hand aside with the rim of her buckler on its wrist bone, and ignoring the indignant yelp that followed.

"My lord King," Esmond said; not shouting, but pitched in a public-speaking mode copied from his brother's rhetorical training, and found useful on the battlefield as well—much likelier to attract attention than the usual roar, as conversation built up in the throne room.

"My lord King," he went on, grinning. "Here is my brother, Adrian Gellert, who has served you well—not only the devices which battered down the walls and gates of Vase, but by taking the citadel from behind through a secret passage and blocking the escape of Director Franzois."

Casull looked aside from a consultation with one of his admirals who'd brought him a tally of ships captured intact.

"Then he has served me well," the king said graciously, waving aside a surgeon who was trying to suture the slash on his cheek. "If the Director's heir—a pretender to this throne—had escaped, this victory wouldn't be complete."

He gave Esmond a slight, hard stare at that; if the Director had won the fight, Casull might well have had to let him go . . . which would have had much the same result, with the added disadvantage of the sort of colorful story likely to attract free-lances who valued a lucky commander.

"You'll not find me ungrateful," Casull went on.

"My lord King," Adrian said. "Forgive me if I claim your gratitude so early, but there's a favor I would like to claim."

Casull's eyebrows went up; it was slightly boorish to take him up on his offer so early. "Ask," he said.

Adrian reached behind himself without looking around; Helga squeaked slightly as his hand closed on her shoulder and pulled her forward. The fingers were slender but unexpectedly strong, warm through the cooling blood on the fabric of her halter.

"My way here came through the Director's—the ex-Director's hareem," he said. "I'd have this woman assigned to me, if Your Majesty would be so kind."

Helga swallowed. Hell, it's got to be better than the hareem, she thought. Women in the Emerald lands were closer-kept than in the upper classes of the Confederacy, but vastly better than in the Isles . . . and Adrian hadn't made the slightest objection when she took a sword and came along for some payback. He'd even thanked her for probably saving his life—it would have driven most men she knew crazy, to owe a woman that.

Although he has eyes in the back of his head, for a man who isn't paying much attention, she thought, puzzled for a moment. His brother Esmond, you could sense that he saw with his skin, like a cat. Adrian, he gave off a feeling you could walk right up to him and bash him on the head; only you couldn't, he'd start and look up and be ready for it, from what she'd seen. As if someone was talking to him, and paying attention when he wasn't.

The King's words brought her back to her own personal reality with a thump.

"That's a little irregular, but since they're Royal spoils . . ." he said. Then he looked at Helga and laughed. "I see the former Director wasn't averse to a little perversion—that one looks like a boy with tits, or a field woman . . . no, those are acrobat's muscles, I suppose. Well, she'll be athletic, if you like that sort of thing. But what by the Sun God is she doing with that sword?"

The King's voice was amused, a little contemptuous. Adrian's was blankly polite when he replied: "Killing Vasean soldiers, mostly, my lord King. Five . . ." His head went to one side. "No, six, with two probables, O King. Probably saved my life, as well."

The King laughed uproariously. "We can't deprive our master artificer of his bodyguard, then," he said. "By all means—"

"Excuse me, my Royal Cousin," one of the nobles said. A tall slender brown-haired man, he'd had time to shed his armor, but the padded leather doublet underneath was rank with sweat. "If I might?"

Casull nodded uncertainly, and the Islander noble came two steps down from the dais, giving Helga a slow head-to-toe.

"As you say, rather perverse . . . but interestingly. By ancient law," he went on, giving Adrian a cool glance, "officers chose personal spoils by rank—and I believe I outrank this outlander."

Casull's lips pursed in annoyance. He glanced around the circle of courtiers, and saw many nods and chuckles. Of course, Helga thought. An outlander, raised high so suddenly, was bound to arouse resentment—any Islander court was a snakepit at the best of times. And Adrian, unlike his brother, hadn't just pulled off a spectacular Wodep-like feat of public heroism.

"Unless," the noble said, "he'd like to fight me for her? No? I didn't think so." The noble had several skull-and-bones earrings, and he moved like . . . Like Adrian's brother Esmond, Helga thought. No! I will not go back into another Islander hareem! No! 

The Islander stepped forward, and she tensed.

"Actually," Adrian said mildly, "I do object, and if necessary, I will fight you. But I appeal to our lord the King, whose wishes you are quite obviously contravening, my lord . . . Sawtre, isn't it?"

Sawtre grinned, flushing and letting his hand drop to his sword. "Interfering in the affairs of real men, little Emerald manure strainer? Better to get back to your toys. We should all consider the consequences of our decisions, shouldn't we? You are what you do, after all. And we know what you are."

Adrian swallowed, shaking his head once and then again—as if, Helga thought under the rush of relief at his words and then horror at his prospects in a duel with this trained killer, he was talking to someone again . . . and disagreeing with them. 

"I think you're forgetting something, my lord," Esmond said quietly.

"Yes?"

"Forgetting that if you harm my brother, in any way whatsoever, I'll kill you and piss on your grave," Esmond said, smiling himself. His eyes had taken on the same febrile brilliance they'd had during the duel with Director Franzois, and Sawtre checked for a moment.

"You don't dare, Emerald," he said softly.

"You'd be surprised what I dare," Esmond replied, his voice equally calm.

Behind him the men of the Strikers tensed, and exchanged glances with Sawtre's fighting tail. Those men began drifting towards their lord; one of them dashed out, to collect others of their band who were lifting their share in the sack of the palace.

"Excuse me," Helga said loudly. Sawtre's eyes did not waver. Helga tapped the edge of her buckler against her sword. "Excuse me. You, the asshole in the arming doublet!"

That brought amazed snickers from the crowd around the throne; even Casull, half-risen in annoyance and gathering apprehension at the sudden prospect of a battle royal before his eyes, turned to look at her.

The nobleman flicked her an annoyed glance. "Be silent, woman, or you'll get a worse beating than you would otherwise."

"Oh, excuse me, my mighty Islander Pirate Lord dumber-than-dogshit, but you're forgetting something."

"What?"

There was a slack amazement on Sawtre's hard face; he could not believe that this was happening to him, this public defiance by a woman. His hand went to his belt. Not to the hilt of his sword, as it had a moment before, but to the thonged crop that hung there.

"Forgetting this," Helga said, and thrust underarm.

Lord Sawtre's face went slack with an amazement even more complete than before. Even then, his hand began a movement towards his sword, struck the hilt, began to draw. Hey, really good reflexes, Helga thought—it helped keep her mind off the fact that she had just probably condemned herself to death. I'd rather be dead, she thought, at the thick wet butcher's-cleaver sound as the blade went in from below, just above the man's left hip. Sawtre's mouth and eyes went into identical Os of shock as she dropped her buckler, put both hands on the hilt, and ripped the blade upward with a twisting wrench of arms and shoulders and back.

It came free with a hard shit-stink following it, and the Islander noble dropped to his knees and clutched at the pink-and-red intestines spilling into his lap.

"Be silent, woman, you said?" Helga said, her voice breathy with exertion. "Try being silent about this, you velipad's ass."

The sword went up, and her right foot curled up and then slammed down to add emphasis as the blade fell—spattering red drops even before it struck the man's neck, and with white shreds of fat sticking in nicks in the steel. Sawtre flopped boneless to the ground, and blood spilled down, crimson against the marble white and malachite green of the steps.

For a long moment there was absolute silence; Adrian was staring at her and looking—again as if he was talking to someone. His brother was staring at her too, seeing her as a person for the first time rather than a symbol his brother was willing to fight for, and his eyes were wide with an expert's appreciation of what she'd just done. King Casull was frozen in a different set of calculations. His voice cut across the beginnings of a murmur:

"Well, it seems he was silent about that," he observed, leaning back in the throne and resting his bearded chin on the knuckles of one hand. "And you know—I've thought Sawtre was a velipad's arse myself, for a good long while now."

He chuckled, then threw back his head and laughed outright. Some of the courtiers chimed in immediately, and others took it up, until the whole room was roaring.

Allfather of Vanbert, Greatest and Best—what a bunch of pirates! Even after a year in the Isles, she forgot sometimes. . . .

Helga felt her shoulders begin to shake with reaction. Adrian laid his hand on her back again, gently—cautiously—but firmly.

"And now, if my lord King will excuse me," he said.

"By all means, my Iron Limper," Casull said, referring to the lame smith of the gods. "Keep the vixen, if you want her. I'd say not to turn your back, but—" he gave another shout of laughter "—that didn't do Lord Sawtre here any good, did it?"

He raised a hand and shouted over the court's merriment. "And now, my lords and gentlemen, we have a city to sack!"

* * *

"An' here's to lord Adrian, the favored of the Gray-Eyed, victory-lucky, best lord a fightin' man could follow!" Simun shouted, raising his cup.

The arquebusiers of the Lightning Band—they'd come up with the title on their own—raised a deafening cheer. Adrian smiled and nodded; it was rather like having a pack of pet direbeasts: alarming at times, but it certainly beat having them against you. The long palace hall was full of them, and of servants and women—the latter volunteers, or mostly, considering their alternatives—and the smells of food and wine and hastily washed mercenary rubbed with scented oil, and incense from braziers, perfumed lanterns, garlands. . . . Light flickered on hard battered faces, on ranks of bundles of plunder stacked against the walls, neatly wrapped in canvas and inked with their owners' names, and on the unit's equipment. They were ready to move out in the morning.

"Here's to his brother, who's Wodep come again," Simun said loyally. "Yer can't go wrong with leaders who're favored of the gods—smart, too."

"Long live lord Adrian, who taught us to wield the lightnings!" someone else yelled.

"Long live lord Adrian, who's brought us to a place where we can swim in gold!"

That brought a really enthusiastic cheer. The wine cellar they'd gone through had turned out to be a subtreasury or something, probably the ready funds for the management of the Director's hareem. Strictly speaking it should have gone into the general pot, but everyone had agreed that that would be taking the rules to a ridiculous extreme. It had come out to about a year's pay for every man in the unit, not counting what they'd picked up elsewhere the rest of the day.

"And now I'll leave you to your well-earned feasting," Adrian said.

There was another good-natured cheer. They didn't resent him not taking part in the celebration; they'd come to take a certain pride in the oddity of a Scholar of the Grove commanding them, now that nobody could doubt he had balls enough despite it. It had worked; it was lucky; and if it wasn't broke, they weren't going to try and fix it.

"Won't be a gentleman's symposium, no, sir," Simun said. He leered cheerfully. "Watch out for 'er sword before you show 'er yours, too, sir!"

He left the chamber in a roar of bawdy advice, flushing and smiling a little. His own chambers had probably been a royal guard captain's rooms, up a flight of stairs, with half a flat roof as well, enclosed by a head-high wall except where a low balustrade overlooked the courtyard-drillyard, and set with plants in pots, tumbles of blossoming vine falling down to the brown tiles. The scent of the flowers was faint and cool, after the heat and smells of the main hall; the walls blocked out flames and sound from the rest of Vase, leaving only the stars above, many and bright.

"Ah—" he caught himself before he said Lady Demansk; the Gray-Eyed knew he didn't want Helga to know he knew that. "Freewoman Helga." There, at least he'd gotten across that he regarded her as a free citizen of the Confederacy, not a slave who'd changed owners. She nodded, taking note of the title, and he went on: "I've had some things gathered up for you, and you can have that chamber by the stairwell; we'll be leaving tomorrow."

"Well, yes, I'd sort of wondered about that," Helga said, stepping forward into the puddle of yellow light a brass globe full of oil with a cotton wick cast on the tiles.

She was wearing a clean tunic—man's clothing, but there was no doubt at all about the gender of the body within it. A garland of white-and-purple flowers crowned the long auburn curls that fell past her shoulders; it was hard to remember her turning the billhook meant for him, bathed in blood . . . And fairly easy, too. All the gods witness, I was terrified. Not half as terrified as he'd been challenging Sawtre, of course.

Adrian cleared his throat, glad of the night dimness. A voice drifted up the stairwell, followed by a tremendous shout of laughter, and then the jaunty notes of a kordax on the lyre. A line of torch-bearing men stamped out into the courtyard of this building, mostly leaning on their companions—women of the town, or boys in a few instances—and began weaving in a chain dance around the fountain and back into the hall. They were singing something, something with his name in it, but between distance, drink and the blur of voices far from used to singing in unison, he couldn't make it out.

Interesting, Adrian thought with a distant scholar's part of his mind. He'd never actually seen a victory komos before, although the old epics were full of them. This wasn't much like the descriptions the poets gave; they left out the bits about men who stopped to throw up, or just fell down paralytically drunk.

I suspect that this is more like what they were really like, even in the War of the Thousand Ships, he mused.

"Ah, um." Oh, Gellerix, that's lame, he thought and found his voice. "I'm definitely not going to force myself on you, Freewoman Helga," he said.

Helga smiled. "That's extremely gentlemanly of you," she said, with a polite nod and toss of her head. It wouldn't have been out of place at a dinner party at Audsley's house in Vanbert, except that most of his wife's acquaintances didn't have that much style. "But I assure you that force isn't required."

"Ah, um." Oh, Gellerix. "Ah, you really don't have to feel any sense of obligation, Freewoman Helga," he managed to choke out.

"You do like women, don't you, Adrian?"

Adrian felt a chuckle rising at her expression of sudden worry. "Well, yes. Don't believe everything you hear about Emeralds, my—ummmph."

"You're exactly the right height," Helga said as she broke the kiss. "Two and one-half inches taller than me. . . . Look, Adrian, I'm not a virgin, my marital prospects are crap anyway, I've been locked up with sixty women for a year and I don't like girls . . . and I do like you. You're a fascinating man. You're also not someone my father picked, either—I like you, I said." Her smile grew. "Am I making myself clear?"

"Abundantly," he said, and scooped her up with an arm under the shoulders and another under the knees.

 

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

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