/ Language: English / Genre:antique / Series: Lost Regiment

Down to the Sea

William Forstchen


DON’T MISS WILLIAM R. FORSTCHEN’S

BESTSELLING SAGA OF THE LOST REGIMENT

“A CIVIL WAR SERIES WITH A TWIST.”

Washington Post

RALLY CRY

UNION FOREVER

TERRIBLE SWIFT SWORD

FATEFUL LIGHTNING

BATTLE HYMN

NEVER SOUND RETREAT

A BAND OF BROTHERS

MEN OF WAR

from

Praise for The Lost Regiment series

“A terrific adventure that’s as good as anything I’ve read in more years than I can remember. First-rate storytelling,”

—Raymond E. Feist, New York Times

bestselling author of Krondor, the Betrayal

“The label science fiction hardly describes this series as a whole, merely the premise. The Lost Regiment series is better described as a Civil War series with a twist.”

The Washington Post

The Lost Regiment series moves like a bullet…an exciting read.”

Locus

“Science fiction lovers will cheer.”

Boy’s Life

ROC

Published by New American Library, a division of

Penguin Putnam Inc., 375 Hudson Street,

New York, New York 10014, U.S.A.

Penguin Books Ltd, 27 Wrights Lane,

London W8 5TZ, England

Penguin Books Australia Ltd, Ringwood,

Victoria, Australia

Penguin Books Canada Ltd, 10 Alcorn Avenue,

Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4V 3B2

Penguin Books (N.Z.) Ltd, 182-190 Wairau Road,

Auckland 10, New Zealand

Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices:

Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England

First published by Roc, an imprint of New American Library,

a division of Penguin Putnam Inc.

First Printing, December 2000

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

Copyright © William R. Forstchen, 2000

All rights reserved

Cover art by Edwin Herder

REGISTERED TRADEMARK—MARCA REGISTRADA

Printed in the United States of America

Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise), without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.

PUBLISHER’S NOTE

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

BOOKS ARE AVAILABLE AT QUANTITY DISCOUNTS WHEN USED TO PROMOTE PRODUCTS OR SERVICES. FOR INFORMATION PLEASE WRITE TO PREMIUM MARKETING DIVISION, PENGUIN PUTNAM INC., 375 HUDSON STREET, NEW YORK, NEW YORK 10014.

If you purchased this book without a cover you should be aware that this book is stolen property. It was reported as “unsold and destroyed” to the publisher and neither the author nor the publisher has received any payment for this “stripped book.”

Table of Contents

Cover

Praise for The Lost Regiment series

Title Page

Copyright

Dedication

PROLOGUE

Chapter ONE

Chapter TWO

Chapter THREE

Chapter FOUR

Chapter FIVE

Chapter SIX

Chapter SEVEN

Chapter EIGHT

Chapter NINE

Chapter TEN

Chapter ELEVEN

Chapter TWELVE

Chapter THIRTEEN

Chapter FOURTEEN

Chapter FIFTEEN

Chapter SIXTEEN

Chapter SEVENTEEN

Chapter EIGHTEEN

Chapter NINETEEN

About the Author

Back Cover

For Clayton Stokes, who, with a letter at the right moment, helped set things on the proper path; the fire control guys on the Web who awe me with their technical knowledge; Gus, who gave me a whole new perspective on the “adventure” of life; and, finally for a little friend, Adam Rose, a young man filled with courage.

PROLOGUE

“As I look upon you today, I see not just the promise of the future, but also the spirits of all those who gave the last full measure of devotion so that we could be here to celebrate this day.”

President of the Republic, Andrew Lawrence Keane, paused for a moment. His gaze swept the audience, the ranks of the new cadets graduating from the academies, their families, and the thousands who had gathered to celebrate with them.

In the crowds, he could see the few who had survived, old comrades of so many hard-fought battles. Some nodded in recognition, others stiffened to attention, several of them saluting as their old commander looked their way.

God, have we really grown old? he wondered. Wasn’t it just yesterday that we came to this world? Wasn’t it just yesterday that on these very plains beyond the city of Suzdal we drilled our new army, preparing for our first battle?

His comrades of youth had slipped away, and it was hard to accept that he was drifting with them as well. Already they were the stories of yesterday, memories fading, turning to gray and then to hazy white.

He caught a glimpse of old Pat O’Donald, barrel chest long ago slipping to his belt line, retired from the army, now a popular senator. He was sitting with the other dignitaries: William Webster, yet again secretary of the treasury; Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Casmir; Gates, publisher of a chain of papers; Varinnia Ferguson, president of the technical college—all of them growing old. Others were gone forever, crossing over the river to join comrades who had made that final journey long years before. Kal was gone, as was Emil, who had seemed like he would live forever, but had drifted into the final sleep only the winter before.

Yet, at this moment, he could see them as it was so long ago, the men of his army, Mina, Ferguson, Malady, Showalter, Whatley, and Kindred. And behind them the hundreds of thousands who had died to create the Republic, to give them the blessed days of peace that had lasted for twenty years.

He was suddenly aware that he had not continued with his speech, but his audience was patient. They knew what he was feeling at this moment, and he saw more than one lower his head, wiping tears from his eyes.

The boys graduating from the naval and army academies—and they did still seem like boys—waited patiently, looking up at him, and he smiled.

“I have but two things to say to you today.” He paused, a rhetorical flourish this time, as he stepped out from behind the podium and indicated the flag of the Republic with his one arm.

“Love freedom. Love it more than anything else on this world. There is but one of two conditions in this life: you are either free, or you are a slave. We, your parents, fought a war unlike any other. It was not to conquer. It was not for power. It had but one purpose, and that was to set us free, to set free you, our children who were yet unborn.

“So love that freedom as you would your mothers, your fathers, and the families you shall one day have. Do that, and this Republic will endure.

“The second thing is about the concept of the Republic and the relationship between government and free citizens, who must remain eternally vigilant, and will take at least an hour to explain.”

He could see more than one cadet shift uncomfortably, struggling to remain polite, as the day was hot and their dress uniforms made it even worse. He smiled.

“But your families await you for a final farewell before you leave for your postings, and, frankly, during all my years I’ve heard too many long-winded speeches and given more than one myself. So, I’m letting you off. Let’s close this ceremony and have some fun.”

Polite chuckles erupted, and a few of the old veterans shouted for him to go ahead and talk as long as he wanted. He held up his hand and waved them off, then stepped away from the podium. A cheer erupted from the graduating cadets, and a thunderous ovation rose from the entire audience. The band sitting on a raised platform behind him stood up and started to play the national anthem, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Within seconds the thousands gathered joined in.

Andrew looked over at Kathleen and took her hand in his and squeezed it. The words, no matter how many times they were sung, always cut into his soul….

“I have seen Him in the watchfires of a hundred circling camps…”

Watchfires…the Tugar watchfires; encamped on this very spot outside the city, he thought, remembering the bitter cold of that winter and the siege.

“In rows of burnished steel…”

The charge at Hispania, sweeping down from the heights, bayonets fixed, the final, desperate lunge that swept us to victory.

He lowered his head. The final stanza always moved him to tears.

“As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free…”

The last refrain echoed, and though the official language of the Republic was now English, many sang the words in their native tongues: Rus, Latin, Chinese, Japanese, Greek, Welsh, Gaelic, old Norse, and a dozen other languages spoken in the fifteen states of the Republic.

As tradition demanded, when the last words drifted away, the cadets broke into a cheer, hats flying into the air; the black campaign hats of the infantry, the white caps of the navy, and the sky blue of the aerosteamer corps.

He looked over at Kathleen. Unashamed tears flowed from both of them, for this was not just another ceremony of state for them. She leaned against his shoulder.

“The house will be empty tonight,” she whispered.

“It has been ever since he went off to the academy.”

“Not really, Andrew. He was home on vacations, weekend passes. We knew where he was….” Her voice trailed off. “We have to let go sometime.”

She said nothing, and he pulled her closer.

Madison, their oldest daughter, was married now, living in Roum, where her husband was stationed with the railroad engineering corps. The others—he tried not to think too much about them. The twins had died seven years ago in the typhoid fever epidemic, and young Hans had been taken the following spring by consumption.

Abraham was the last of their children, born the autumn after the end of the war, and he had grown up far too quickly. Andrew saw him coming through the crowd, which was swarming up around the speaker’s platform. His arm was thrown around his closest friend, Sean O’Donald, wearing the sky blue uniform of a newly commissioned pilot.

Andrew quickly wiped away his tears, and Kathleen, forcing a smile, went up to embrace him. The boys stopped, both of them grinning, and snapped off their salutes to the president. Andrew, putting on his stovepipe hat, returned the salute. The hat, in fact the entire ceremonial outfit of the presidency on this world, made him feel more than a bit self-conscious. Old Kal was the first to adopt the stovepipe hat, black morning coat, and chin whiskers of the legendary Lincoln, and forever impressed in the mind of the populace that this was what a president was supposed to wear. In his first term as president, Andrew had reluctantly adopted it.

As the Constitution demanded, a president could serve only one six-year term, and for twelve years he had been out of office, though he had accepted a seat on the Supreme Court and, at the same time, had returned to his first profession, that of a college professor.

The Chin crisis, however, had forced his return to the political arena. The Chin had created something he had always hoped to avoid, a political party based on power for one ethnic group, a disastrous development for a nation he had dreamed could somehow merge itself together into a single entity that ignored national origin and race.

In writing the Constitution he had (and would admit to no one that it was deliberate) left out any restriction against nonconsecutive terms and thus ran for president again. The Chin had mounted an opposition, but all the other states rallied to Keane and it had been a landside. In the first hundred days of office he rammed through dozens of hills and several constitutional amendments, the key ones being that English would forever be the official language of the state. The argument was simple: of all the fighting units the men of the 35th Maine and the 44th New York, who represented no particular group, had fought to free all people. English was the compromise that favored no one state of the Republic over the others.

He had carried it off, cooled the crisis, and, combined with an explosion of economic growth, the Republic was now flourishing.

Kathleen stepped past him, sweeping Abraham into her arms. The boy looked over at Andrew, smiling indulgently. He knew his mother would never accept the fact that he had already grown up.

He could see Kathleen in the boy’s fair complexion, the wisp of reddish hue to his hair, but he saw his own eyes in the boy, pale blue, but deep and filled with intensity.

Sean O’Donald stood behind him, so unlike his father, so much his Roum mother; tall, slender, dark eyes, jet black hair. So like his mother as well in spirit: quiet, introspective, stunning in intellect. It was hard to believe that here was the son of the brawling artilleryman Pat O’Donald.

Pat came up behind the two boys and clapped both of them on the shoulders. “Congratulations, me boys,” he said, his voice filled with emotion.

He was breathing hard, florid features bright red from the noonday heat, and undoubtedly from the “nip of the cruel,” as he put it, that increasingly controlled his life. Throughout the war Pat had reveled in the shock of combat, but after the death of Hans, something seemed to slip away. Like so many veterans, he was haunted by having seen more than any one man should bear and having carried one too many burdens.

Sean stiffened and turned to face his father. “Good morning, sir, and thank you.”

Pat’s gaze caught Andrew’s for a second. He seemed to want to hug the boy, but instead just extended his beefy hand, which Sean took, held for a second, and let drop.

Abraham, at last free of his mother’s tearful embrace, stepped back and smiled.

Two more newly commissioned officers came up to join them, and Andrew turned to acknowledge them.

“Father,” Abraham announced, “may I introduce two of my friends, Flight Officer Adam Rosovich and Flight Officer Richard Cromwell.”

The two snapped to attention and saluted. Andrew returned the salute, his old military bearing still with him, then extended his hand.

Adam he vaguely knew by sight, Cromwell by the controversy that had surrounded his admission to the Naval Academy. His father was, after all, the arch traitor of the war; the overplayed villain in more than one of the melodramas so popular now in the playhouses. He was five years older than most of the cadets, his mother a Merki slave who had survived the slaughter pits and annihilation that had destroyed most of Cartha when the wars ended.

When Cromwell had presented himself to the admissions board, claiming the right of the son of a veteran of the original Yankees who had come to this world, it had triggered outrage and, at first, a denial. Then Andrew had directly intervened, making a special ruling that any son of a Yankee could claim admission if he passed the boards.

He looked into Cromwell’s eyes, never having met him, and in that instant judged his decision to be a sound one. Cromwell returned his gaze unswervingly, and he sensed that the bitter years of survival as a slave had bred a toughness in the young man that few of this generation now had, having grown up in a world of peace.

He was almost as tall as Andrew at six foot four and slender to the point of looking gaunt, a clear sign of the malnourishment he had suffered as a child growing up a slave in the enemy camps. But it was evident that he was hard, his wiry frame taut and strong. His left cheek was marked with a pale scar that cut from the ear to the corner of his mouth, most likely a blow from a whip or dagger, and Andrew suspected that if this young man took his dress uniform off, a body cut by such scars would be revealed.

Millions of Chin and Cartha had suffered thus when the Hordes had stopped in their migrations to fight the Republic, turning the people of those two nations into slaves and a source of food. That any of the children of that generation had survived was a miracle. When the Merki had abandoned the Cartha realm, they had systematically slaughtered more than a million people. Cromwell was but one of a few thousand children to survive the nightmare.

His grip was firm. He hesitated for a second, then finally spoke.

“Mr. President, thank you for intervening on my behalf.”

“Don’t thank me, Cromwell. Though some do not care for the name you carry, I will say that I knew your father and believe the reports that in his last seconds he had a change of heart and died serving the Republic. I think we’ve made a good bet on you, son. Just prove us right.”

Cromwell solemnly nodded his thanks, his dark features again revealing a toughness that Andrew sensed could be dangerous in a fight.

“Father, we got our orders. We head out this evening and, well, we sort of want to . . Abraham’s voice trailed off.

Andrew looked back at his son. Such a contrast, he thought, between his own boy and Cromwell. Abraham, bom after the war, had known only peace and saw the old conflict in a hazy, romantic light. Cromwell was old enough to know different and had been shaped by that knowledge. Andrew wondered how his boy would look a year from now and felt a sudden stab of fear.

Things were happening, out in their adopted world, and all his old instincts told him that there was a storm on the horizon. He feared it would soon wash over them and perhaps sweep his son away.

Abraham was waiting for an answer, and Andrew forced a smile. “I know, head down to the Mouse for a few.”

The Roaring Mouse was a tavern run by one of former president Kal’s nephews, a legendary haunt amongst the cadets. The place was supposedly strictly off limits while they were in the academy, but it would go out of business if that rule was observed.

“Your assignments?” Andrew asked.

“You know where I’m heading, and, sir, it bothers me,” Abraham announced.

“Orders are to be obeyed whether you like them or not,” Andrew said with mock severity. “The fact that you are assigned to General Hawthorne’s staff has nothing to do with politics. You scored in the top five of your class, that’s the usual slot, so not another word on it.”

It was an outright lie, but after all the years of service, he felt he had the right to ensure that his only surviving son was safe for a while.

Abraham looked around at his friends, obviously a bit relieved by his father’s statement, which showed that he had not tried to pull for such a plum assignment.

“And the rest of you?” Andrew asked.

“Air reconnaissance officer on the Gettysburg,” Cromwell replied.

“Naval Ordnance Development Board,” Rosovich replied, a slight note of disappointment in his voice.

“You don’t sound happy, lieutenant,” Andrew said with a smile.

“Ah, yes, sir, I am.”

It was an obvious lie.

“He wanted a field assignment,” Abraham interjected, and Andrew could sense that his son was playing a little game. Most likely Adam had pressed him to try for a last-minute change of assignments.

“Mr. Rosovich, if you were selected for the Development Board, it was undoubtedly because Professor Ferguson asked for you. I’d guess you scored in the top of your class in flight engineering.”

Adam reluctantly nodded his head. “Yes, sir, I did.”

“Then the finest service you could perform for the Republic is to take this assignment. Don’t worry, you’ll have plenty of chances later for a flight squadron.”

Adam smiled politely, his gambit an obvious failure.

Sean O’Donald, who had been standing quietly to one side, finally spoke up. “Air reconnaissance officer on the Gettysburg as well, sir,” he announced.

Pat looked over anxiously at Andrew, and in that flicker was a subtle indication that Pat would have preferred something far safer.

“They must think highly of your ability to put you with our navy’s newest armored cruiser.”

“I asked for it, sir.”

Andrew nodded, saying nothing.

He looked at the four young officers, all of them filled with such hopes and enthusiasm this day, all looking so proper and elegant in their dress uniforms. In the crowd gathered below the platform, he saw more than one young lady waiting patiently, gazes fixed on their chosen beaus. He smiled inwardly, wondering how long the comrades would actually stay together at the Mouse before secretly heading off for a final, brief rendezvous. They were all shipping out today. That was another tradition of the service, to send out the new cadets on their graduation day, and he suspected that more than one would make a promise of marriage once their first six-month tour of duty was up. He silently prayed that they’d still be alive to keep those promises.

“Go on, boys. Abraham, your mother and I will see you off later at the station.”

Again the smiling salutes and the four comrades turned, leaping off the platform to disappear into the crowd. Andrew’s thoughts turned toward his own affairs. Other burdens now awaited him. a congressman from Constantine, corrupt as the summer day was long, was looking for yet another government job for a “nephew.” And Father Casmir, now a member of the Supreme Court, wanted to argue yet again about the Ming Proposal. Behind them, Andrew could picture all the other seekers, flesh pressers, hangers-on, critics, and false praisers.

So now I look like Lincoln, he thought, absently reaching up to touch the gray chin whiskers, which Kathleen, in private, kept threatening to cut while he was asleep. As he looked over at her, a flash of pride and love swept through him, for already she had composed herself. She was turning to sidetrack a senator whom she knew was a gadfly to Andrew, charming the man with compliments about his far too young wife.

Pat pressed in closer. “Times I wish we could erase all these years, be back at our tent at the front, sharing a bottle with Emil and Hans.”

“The old days are gone, Pat. It’s a new age now.”

“Ah, I know, Andrew darlin’, I know. It’s just hard to believe how quickly it changed.”

“Your boy looks fit. He’ll do well.”

Pat lowered his head, and an audible sigh escaped him. “He never cared for me, you could see that today. I’ve tried to make amends, I have.”

Andrew was silent—for what could be said? The boy, like Abraham, has been bom the autumn after the end of the war, his mother of Roum aristocracy, a niece of old Proconsul Marius. And Pat had never married her. Andrew, Emil, all of Pat’s friends, had tried to push him on the issue, but he would laugh, then sigh and say he could never be tied down, and Livia, the darling, understood that.

And yet she gave the boy his father’s name, raised him with love, and waited for the soldier she loved to one day acknowledge the truth of their union. She had died waiting. Only then had Pat realized his mistake, but by then it was far too late. Though the boy accepted his father’s recognition now, there was no love.

Pat wistfully watched as his boy fell in with the others, disappearing into the crowd.

“Pat, we do have to talk later.”

“What?”

“I don’t want word of this getting out, but I want your opinion on recent events.”

Three events, unrelated on the surface, had occurred in the last month, and he alone was privy to all of them. Hawthorne had brought the first news, an anomaly noticed a week ago at an obscure outpost named Tamira’s Bridge, where a skirmish had erupted between the cavalry and a rogue gang of Bantag riders. One of the dead Bantag was carrying a revolver. It was not an old remnant of the Great War, but a modern weapon; in fact, better than anything the Republic could manufacture.

The second was political: yet another flare-up by the Xing Sha movement in the state of Chin, calling for separation from the Republic and renouncing the treaty with the Bantag. The annoying madness would consume yet more time and struggle to try and hold the expanding Republic together and keep it from fragmenting apart into rival states.

The third one, though, worried him the most. It had preyed on his thoughts even while giving his speech on what was supposed to be a day of happiness and pride. A courier bearing a sealed dispatch from Admiral Bullfinch, headquartered down in Constantine, the main base of the Republic’s fleet on the Great Southern Sea, had arrived only minutes before he left the White House this morning.

A merchant ship, thought lost in a storm two months ago, had limped into the harbor the night before last. Its report was chilling.

Driven farther south by the storm than anyone had previously gone and returned to tell the tale, the captain of the ship reported making landfall on an island of the dead. They had found a human city there, one that obviously had been annihilated within the previous year.

It was a city of thousands and had not fallen prey to the Malacca Pirates, which had been the main concern of the fleet in recent years. The city had been flattened, and some of the remains of the dead showed that they had been eaten. One of the sailors, a veteran of the Great War, said it looked like Roum after the siege. Buildings had been blown apart by shelling and the streets were still littered with fragments, shell casings—and the wreckage of an airship.

The city, however, was over five hundred miles south of the treaty line drawn with the Kazan embassy. The ship’s presence in those waters was a direct violation of the treaty and thus no inquiry could be made officially at the twice yearly meeting with the ambassador of Kazan, which took place at a neutral island on the boundary line. If more was to be learned, it would have to be done by other means.

Pat, looking at Andrew, could sense his uneasiness, and he drew closer. “It’s the Kazan, isn’t it? Something’s been found at last.”

The flicker of the old light in Pat’s eyes was disturbing to Andrew, for somehow it rekindled something is his own soul as well, something he would prefer remained forever buried.

“How did you know?” Andrew whispered.

“Andrew, darlin’, I can smell a war from a thousand miles off. I’ve told you for years there’d be another, and I can see it in your eyes.”

Andrew looked at him closely. He was holding something back.

“All right,” Pat chuckled, “one of my staffers saw the courier and asked around the train crew this morning. They say the docks and rail yards are already buzzing with word about it. Something’s coming, Andrew, something big, something beyond anything we’ve ever known. You can sense it the same way you can feel a storm coming long before you see it.”

Andrew nodded, looking at the happy crowd, enjoying this day of peace; the eager boyish faces of the new officers, the proud gazes of parents, many of them veterans like himself.

We were that young, Andrew realized, when we fought our war. Boys really, going off to see the elephant, never dreaming that it would bring us to this mad, terrible world, and though we were boys, we quickly became men of war.

He caught a glimpse of his son at the edge of the crowd, following a stream of cadets heading to their traditional watering place for one last round before shipping out.

“If what happened to that city is any indication of who the Kazan are, there will be war. But it will be their war, Pat,” he whispered, nodding to the young cadets, “and God help them.”

ONE

Hanaga tu Zartak, the Qarth of the Blue Banner of the Kazan, left his stateroom and strode onto the foredeck of his flagship, the great battle cruiser Halanaga. A triumphal roar, echoing from half a thousand of his followers, greeted his appearance; clenched fists raised heavenward in salute.

His gaze swept the assembly, and then he lifted his eyes to the fleet of nearly a hundred ships, which even now was steaming out to sea. Fast-moving frigates plowed through the curling waves, spray soaring up, catching the early morning sun in what seemed to be showers of bright red rubies cascading across the decks. Billowing clouds of black smoke coiled from stacks, whipping out to windward, and water foamed up from astern as the frigates leapt forward to take position at the van of the armada.

Behind them rode the armored cruisers, several of the older ships still sporting masts, which this morning were stripped of sails. And finally came his ship and the five other great battle cruisers of the fleet of the Blue Banner.

Crevaga Harbor, known to the human cattle who inhabited it as Crete, already lay astern, the smoking ruins of their city a beacon that he knew would draw the fleet of the Red Banner as surely as the scent of rotten carrion drew the eaters of the dead. The human city had been under the direct control of his brother since its coal mines were a precious source of fuel for his fleet. The maneuvers of the last six months, the sweeping of the Cretan Isles, the destruction of his brother’s base of supplies and human slaves, had changed the course of the war, shifting the balance back to his favor. The long-anticipated final confrontation would be today, deciding whether he would hold the throne or his brother, Yasim the Usurper, would gain ascendancy.

The roaring cheers of his faithful echoed and reechoed, picked up by the other ships cruising nearby. A light frigate, racing at full steam, cut across the stern of his ship, plowing through the wake, bow shooting high into the air to come crashing down in an explosion of spray. The Shiv warriors, humans bred by the Holy Order of the Shiv, lined the deck with raised fists, their distant cries echoing.

He acknowledged their salutes, but his heart turned cold at the sight of them. The Order had been the one winner throughout this conflict, which had pitted the family of Zartak against itself. Five brothers had turned against one another, and now there were only two, Yasim and himself. But always the cult of the Shiv had been there, claiming holy neutrality and slowly gaining in power.

He had paid handsomely for their services, draining his coffers for warriors and for the assassins who had dispatched two of his brothers and various cousins. Once today was finished, there would be the reckoning with the Shiv. It was already planned, and he would see it through to its bloody conclusion.

He looked over his shoulder at the temple room, located just aft of the forward bridge. Hazin, his personal priest from the Order, had stepped on to the bridge, trailed by a steaming cloud of sweet-smelling incense. In his hands was the Holy Gir, the text of the Prophet Vishta, He who had walked between the stars.

As Hazin held the book aloft, all fell silent. Many fell to their knees and lowered their heads as Hazin, in the ancient tongue, called for the blessing. Hanaga endured the ritual. It was, after all, part of the game of power. The prayer finished, he stood back up and lowered his head to kiss the sacred text then turned to face the assembly.

“Today is the day we will claim victory!” he cried, and lusty cheers greeted his words.

“Today is the day we have striven for, the day that shall end the bitter strife caused by all those of my clan who wish to claim the empire. After today, my comrades, there shall be an end to it. We shall go home and again know peace.”

“Signal from frigate Cinuvia, my lord.”

One of the signal commanders stood respectfully at his side, hesitant to interrupt. Hanaga nodded for him to continue, even while cheer after cheer echoed up from the foredeck.

“Enemy fleet of seven battle cruisers in sight.”

Hanaga turned and looked at the assembly of staff officers gathered around him. “Was it not as I said it would be? The fleet of the Red Banner has taken our bait. Today, my comrades, we shall see my brother defeated—”

“Sire, there’s more,” the signal officer interrupted.

Hanaga looked over at the aging, gray-pelted officer, a loyal warrior who had stayed by his sicte when so many others had gone to the Usurper. He could sense the tension in his voice.

“Go on.”

“Sire, frigate Cinuvia also signals a report, a message dropped from a scout airship. Behind the fleet of the Red Banner, the White Banner fleet of your cousin Sar approaches as well, and is fifteen leagues to the southeast behind the Red fleet.”

Stunned, Hanaga said nothing. A lifetime of intrigue had taught him to make his face a mirror of indifference, and yet, those who knew him noticed the intake of breath, saw the nervous flicker of his eyes as he struggled for control.

He nodded, looking away, wondering how many other ships’ captains were, at this very instant, reading the same signal flags. When this day was finished, if she still lived, he’d gut Cinuvia’s captain for being either a fool or a traitor bent on shattering morale.

“It doesn’t matter now,” Hanaga finally replied in a soft whisper. “Let my cousin join my brother. Fifteen leagues gives us three hours before they come in range. We will smash my brother before they arrive. We will settle it today.” He scanned those gathered about him. “Settled here, now!”

All were silent.

“To your stations my andu, my brothers of blood. Not a word to those beneath you that Sar has betrayed us.”

The officers silently departed the bridge while pipers sounded the call to battle stations. The lower ranks, still ignorant of the news, cheered lustily as they ran to their stations.

Hanaga raised his glasses, training them forward. Yes, he could see the lead ships of his brother’s fleet on the horizon, which was dark with smoke. They were coming on fast. He wondered if their coal bunkers were nearly empty.

The voice of prudence whispered to him to pull back. The island behind him lay in smoking ruins. The vast stockpile of coal, hundreds of thousands of tons, enough to fuel the entire fleet for a month, was a raging inferno. The column of smoke was a beacon visible from a hundred miles away.

Pull back, draw him out. His troops occupied the hills above the town and would prevent any attempt at mining. But if his cousin had indeed betrayed him and switched sides, he could not hesitate. He had to destroy his brother today.

Damn Sar. Chances were that he would switch sides yet again, going over to the winner of this fight. To pull back now would show fear, and Sar would then join Yasim for certain.

An aerosteamer swept through his view for a second, trailing smoke. The air battle, which had been raging since before dawn, continued above the fleet. He lowered his glasses. The airship was several miles off, flame licking along its portside wing. Several Red Banner planes trailed it, weaving back and forth, flashes of light flickering from their forward and topside gunners. The burning ship’s port-side wing folded in, and the plane spiraled down, smacking into the sea. The Red planes broke off, dodging outside the range of a frigate’s guns, water spraying up several hundred yards short. The planes spiraled upward, gaining altitude.

Annoying flies, Hanaga thought, rarely capable of damaging a battle cruiser but bothersome nevertheless. He trained his glasses back on the horizon. It was difficult to discern, but he thought he could see the observation tower of a battle cruiser, a dot between sea and sky. The horizon, for the breath of a hand span, was black with smoke that continued to spread, sign enough that the entire fleet was approaching.

His frigates, storming forward at nearly fifteen knots, were now more than a league ahead and spreading out, while the cruiser squadron moved to windward, staying in formation, line abreast.

Walking to the railing he looked aft, back toward Crev-aga. The human city was in flames, marking the immolation of a hundred thousand, a city which had been part of his traitorous brother’s original fiefdom. So much for Yasim’s protection. It had fed the warriors of his fleet in an orgy of feasting that had lasted three days and nights.

The bridge around him was cleared, all having respectfully withdrawn, and he saw the priest of the Holy Order. He beckoned Hazin to come to his side.

“You assured me that the Grand Master had taken care of Sar,” he snarled, keeping his voice low so no one would hear the exchange.

“I did, Your Highness.”

“I emptied my treasury to your Order. Yesterday, when we assaulted this city, your precious Shiv warriors failed to arrive as promised.”

“Sire, you know a storm swept south of here. It delayed the transports.”

“And now Sar has joined my brother? To many coincidences, priest. Too many.”

“Sire, I can assure you that the Order honors its contracts.”

“Hanaga sniffed derisively. “If I believed all you told me, Hazin, I’d have died years ago. I do not believe in coincidences. I paid more than thirty million to the Grand Master to use the Shiv and thus spare my troops, and another thirty to assure that Sar either joined me or was killed.”

“And I can promise you he has joined you. Yes, his fleet sails behind your brother’s. And why? Wait until battle is well joined and you will see.”

Hanaga turned and caught the eye of his officer of the guard, motioning him to come over as well. “I have been assured by this priest that Sar is on our side.”

The guard, well understanding the tone of his master, said nothing, waiting for what came next.

“If Sar’s ships open fire on us, I want you to cut his heart out.”

Hazin’s gaze did not waver. “I can assure you, sire,” he whispered, “such theatrical statements are a waste of time for both of us. You will see the truth soon enough.” Ignoring him, Hanaga turned away, raising his telescope to scan the approaching fleet.

The smoke on the horizon continued to expand outward. The observation tower of a battle cruiser now rose well above the horizon, and he saw more tops as well. The range had to be less than seven leagues.

Hanaga turned to an aide and told him to pass the word to the master gunner to be certain to lay on the lead battle cruiser.

Speed dropped off slightly as steam was diverted from the engines to power the six armored turrets, two forward, two amidships and two aft. The ponderous turrets slowly began to turn to port, then back to starboard, testing their traverse. As they did, the single heavy gun in each turret rose, then lowered. The lighter turrets, lined up below on the lower gun deck, did the same, but these were powered by the muscle of a half dozen crew turning the traverse cranks.

Atop the main turrets, gunners handling the steam-powered multiple-barrel guns were busy loading clips of ammunition. Spotters were scanning the skies overhead, watching as aerosteamers dodged in and out, skirmishing, jockeying for position.

Another one came spiraling down, this one with the distinctive fork-tailed stem and single main wing of a Red Banner plane.

“Sire, may I point out that if Sar was not fulfilling his obligation, he’d be sailing with your brother. Instead, he is farther back,” Hazin whispered, daring to come to Hana-ga’s side.

Hanaga felt a cool uneasiness that the priest stood so close to him. The Order of the Shiv, once just another cult, was now a power to be feared even by those of the Golden Family of the Throne. After all, it was he who had first used them to murder his elder brother for control of the throne. Hazin had been the instrument behind that first arrangement and during the last twenty years of conflict Hazin had stayed by his side.

“I would interpret this as meaning that Sar is coming on at full steam,” Hazin continued, whispering softly. “Your brother is trying to avoid action with him and close with us first. This is not betrayal, it is fulfillment of an agreement.”

Hanaga looked over. Yes, the priest did have the “sense,” the at times unnerving ability to read minds. It was why he made such an excellent truth sayer, one who could read the thoughts of the unwary, who were not aware that a Master Priest of the Order often hid behind the throne at audiences.

He could sense the priest’s eyes looking at him, piercing, as if gazing straight into his soul. He knew the priest was trying to gain an advantage, and he held his gaze for a moment, then threw back his head and laughed.

“There is a game within a game, priest, and at this moment I shall simply carve straight in and see if Tenga”—as he said the word of the Immortal, he briefly lowered his head—“is with me or not.”

The priest smiled. “I never knew you across all these years to be religious. You use me as you use anyone else.”

“Yet I once called you a friend.”

He allowed himself to smile when he spoke the word friend. It had indeed been true. They were of the same age. Hazin, of a minor family, had been sent to be a playmate and companion before going off to join the Order. The Order had returned him, ten years later, to serve as adviser and liaison to a brother who would murder a brother and thus start the bloody civil war that had consumed the Empire.

“Once?”

“You have your path, I mine. Besides, did you not once tell me that only fools have friends, and emperors who are fools do not live long?”

“No, you still have friends, My Emperor. The difference is, at least with your friends, if you should decide to dispose of them, you give them a painless death.”

Hazin smiled. “Your offer to have my heart cut out rather than consign me to the amphitheater, is that a mark of friendship in our world?”

“If I want to be emperor, I need first of all to be ruthless, even to friends if need be. You told me that as well more than once. ‘The greater the power you seek, the fewer you should allow yourself to love. For ultimate power, let no one into your heart.’ Thus it was written by Batula the Prophet.”

Hazin smiled. “I taught you that, you know.”

“Yes, I know.”

The emperor continued to stare at Hazin for a moment, as if trying to judge something, and then he turned away, deliberately focusing his attention on his brother’s fleet, drawing closer. The hulls of the battle cruisers, and even of the frigates, were clearly in view. The range was less than four leagues.

Behind him, the bridge crew was at work. The master gunner was quietly communicating via a speaking tube with the range finders perched inside the observation platform, which soared a hundred feet above the bridge. Receiving the report, he then pulled open another tube and passed the information on to the turrets, where gun elevations were being set. Technically, the two fleets were already within range. The heaviest guns were easily capable of reaching across four leagues. But no one had yet to master the two problems of long-range gunnery: firing weapons from the unstable platform of a ship’s deck and hitting a moving target.

Hazin left Hanaga’s side and went into his small temple. He emerged a minute later leading a human male—one of the Shiv.

Hanaga looked at him warily, as all of his race did, for the Shiv, though of the human cattle species, were not quite of them. The Order had experimented for ten generations to breed humans into the ultimate warriors of the Empire; the ultimate sacrifice to please the desires of Tenga. There were rumors that, on the island headquarters of the Shiv, the breeding of the race had been expanded to those of the ancient blood as well.

This human stood far taller than the unbred cattle, though not as tall as those of the blood of the Hordes. His face a pale olive, the skin an amalgamation of all the various subspecies of cattle since the breeders of the Order sought from all the human races the prime examples of physical strength and endurance, which they then bred. This specimen was, even for the Shiv, perfection: muscles clearly defined, powerful as it stood naked, a light sheen of sweat covering its body.

It stood motionless, showing not the slightest trace of fear.

Hazin stepped before him, drawing a razor sharp blade, which glinted in the sunlight, and held it before the Shiv’s eyes.

“Do you see what I hold?”

“My liberation,” it whispered in reply.

Hazin nodded and started his ritual chant in the ancient tongue, the Shiv joining him in the prayer. Many of those on the bridge looked over with a mixture of curiosity and awe.

The prayer finished, Hazin handed the dagger to the Shiv and stepped back. Without hesitation, it reversed the blade and cut its own throat, slashing with such force that Hanaga could hear the grinding of the honed steel against backbone.

Amazingly the sacrifice stood motionless, barely flinching as blood sprayed out, striking Hazin, spattering across the deck.

The Shiv continued to stare at Hazin, and he actually showed the flicker of a smile as the priest extended his hand and covered the victim’s eyes.

Finally, its legs buckled and the body fell, the dagger falling from its hand. A murmur of approval arose from the bridge crew; the sacrifice had been a good sign.

A halyard was looped around its feet by two novitiates of the Order who scurried out of the small temple, features cloaked by their robes. Grabbing the other end of the rope, they hoisted the body up, wind blowing the spray of blood out across the deck, stopping at last beneath the gunnery control tower where it hung limp, swaying as the ship cut through the foaming seas. The same ritual was being performed on every other ship of the fleet.

“Lead enemy ship has opened fire!” One of the bridge crew, glasses still raised, was pointing directly forward. Hanaga raised his glasses and caught the puff of smoke drifting from the forward deck of the lead ship of the Red Banner fleet.

Long seconds passed, and then he heard the low shrieking moan as the first shell winged in. From the sound he could tell it was off to windward. A tremendous geyser of water lifted up a quarter mile to starboard. Jeering laughter erupted from the topside deck crew.

It was meant as a challenge, nothing more.

His own battleships were ranging line abreast, half a mile separating each, leaving them plenty of room to maneuver while the armored cruisers continued to angle out to port, moving forward of the main battle van.

Ahead, the frigates were beginning to engage, and splashes of water rose from the first salvos. A lucky shot from the Red fleet caught one of his frigates amidships. A dirty gray plume of smoke erupted, followed a second later by a burst of steam exploding from the ship’s single stack.

“Master gunner announces we are within range, sire.”

Hanaga looked back into the armored bridge. The eyes of the helmsman, pilot, and chief communications officer were barely visible through the narrow slit cut in the foot-thick cupola of iron. He looked forward. The distance was two leagues, but the sea was nearly calm. There just might be a chance.

He nodded approval. Stepping back from the railing, he opened his mouth and covered his ears.

A steam whistle blasted, signaling the ship’s crew that the heavy guns were about to fire. A second later the four guns forward opened up, each launching a shell weighing over a quarter of a ton. The entire foredeck was instantly cloaked in a boiling yellow-gray cloud of smoke from the three hundred pounds of black powder that set each shell on its way. The entire ship seemed to freeze in position for a second, even to surge backward. The blast of fire tore the hood from Hazin’s head and swept over the jet black mane of Hanaga. He gloried in the sensation of the raw power as the most powerful weapon his race had forged on this world in a thousand generations unleashed its strength.

Screams of incoming shells tore overhead. Four of them impacted several hundred yards astern. Another exploded as it struck the water a quarter mile forward and slightly to port. Following the signal from the flagship, his other battle ships opened fire as well.

“Strikes forward of flagship,” a spotter shouted, eyes still glued to the oversize glasses mounted to the forward railing. “Three impacts spotted, two hundred paces short, can’t see the fourth. Enemy battle ships returning fire.”

“My lord, perhaps we should move inside,” Hazin announced, and Hanaga readily agreed. It was one thing to make the heroic display at the very start, but in seconds half a hundred shells would come raining down around his ships.

He stepped into the iron cupola, and even though the afternoon was not uncomfortable, the inside of the cupola was stifling hot.

The tension was tangible as the seconds dragged out. Even inside the cupola he could hear the scream of a shell passing overhead and then another. A towering fountain of water exploded just a hundred paces ahead, sending a shock through the entire ship. The iron grating beneath his feet lurched. More geysers soared, some three hundred or more feet into the air, one so close that a cascade of water showered the deck, dropping bits of coral from the ocean floor.

Everyone was blinded for long seconds amid the confusion of sea water and smoke. Then they were clear, afternoon sunlight flooding into the cupola through the narrow view port.

Directly ahead, less than a mile off, the swarming battle of frigates was in full swing. One of Hanaga’s ships was heeled hard over to port, deck already awash, survivors leaping into the foaming sea. Seconds later another simply exploded, magazine detonating, lifting the entire foredeck straight up and peeling it back from the hull, which blossomed outward. Fragments of iron and broken bodies tumbled hundreds of feet into the air.

Finished with the laborious task of reloading, the first forward gun fired again, followed seconds later by the second turret. Below deck, he could hear the secondary batteries opening up, pouring their shot into the frigate battle.

The frigate action was starting to get close, and several of the topside steam-powered machine guns opened up.

It was time to shift into battle-line formation, and he passed the order. Seconds later he felt the ship heeling beneath his feet. Forward, the massive turrets swung in the opposite direction, ready to fire a broadside. A cheer echoed up from below as the gunners amidships and astern finally saw something to shoot, the long closing to range finished at last.

“All primary guns, fire on the Red flagship,” the gunnery master cried. “Secondaries concentrate on the closest enemy frigates.”

The ship erupted in an inferno of noise. Steam hissed from turrets and the light machine guns. The thunder of the great engines below pounded rhythmically, secondary guns firing with sharp reports, and every few minutes one of the guns in the heavy turrets exploding with a thunderous roar that shook the entire ship.

Asaga’s in trouble, sire!”

Two of the enemy frigates were bearing straight down on the battle cruiser, which was the sister ship of his own vessel. Chances were, they were mistaking it for the flagship. Hanaga braced, fists clenched, a silent curse on his lips.

Asaga’s main guns were fully depressed, slowly turning to bear. Its secondaries raked the frigates. Explosions detonated across the armored foredeck of the lead enemy ship, blowing its forward turret clean off. A thunderclap of light ignited, and the enemy frigate lurched, explosions ripping across its decks. The ship then shuddered, turning away.

The second frigate, however, emerged out of the smoke and confusion. Racing in without hesitation, it slammed into the starboard bow of the Asaga. A huge mine set in the frigate’s ram below the waterline blew.

The two ships actually leapt out of the water from the detonation, the entire forward half of the frigate disappearing. Asaga’s bow seemed to hang in the air for a second, and then it mushroomed outward. The explosion had snapped through its lower decks, penetrating into the forward magazines, which held nearly four hundred tons of shells and black powder.

The force of the explosion, even from half a mile away, stunned Hanaga. The men in the armored cupola staggered backward from the force of the blow. The forward hundred feet of the Asaga disappeared. The barrel of a five-inch gun, weighing several tons, came spinning out of the cloud of debris, slamming across the deck of the flagship, punching clean through the armor until it stuck out like a broken bone.

The aft end of the dying battle cruiser rose, then came crashing back down. Its forward momentum drove the ship forward ramming hundreds of tons of water through shattered decks and dragging the ship under. The stern lifted up, propellers still spinning, even as the boilers filled with water, exploding.

More detonations convulsed the ship as it corkscrewed. Aft turrets popped from their mounts. A hundred tons of iron and steel dropped, crashing into the water. The crews, if still alive inside, undoubtedly had been smashed to bloody pulps by the blow.

What was left of the ship went straight down. Air, raw steam, and flotsam jetted out of the broken armor plates and the open turret mounts. The stem disappeared beneath the boiling waves, and then, several seconds later, another explosion erupted, blasting part of the stem back out of the water as the aft magazines blew. The shock of the explosion raced through the water, sending a thunderbolt shock through the decks of the flagship.

The Asaga was gone. From the time of the ramming till all was destroyed had been less than thirty seconds…and a thousand of Hanaga’s finest sea warriors were lost.

The flagship had continued to turn, and the disaster was now astern. Five of Hanaga’s six turrets were engaged. The enemy van steamed in the same direction less than six thousand yards off while the insane swirl of the frigate battle raged between them. Both sides tried to block the other from closing while wanting, at the same time, to dash through and make their suicidal runs on the enemy battle cruisers. The light armored cruisers had joined the straggle as well. Both of the fleets having run to windward now turned in on each other.

He saw his first clear hit on an enemy battle cruiser, not the flagship, but still a deadly strike, lifting a forward turret clean off. Massive geysers rose hundreds of feet high, churning the turquoise water into a foaming maelstrom of dark sand, coral, and thousands of dead fish.

The two fleets raced on for several leagues, gradually angling in closer, leaving the frigate battle astern.

“Our flyers, my lord!”

Hanaga ran to the starboard side and peeked out through the open viewing slit. He had kept hidden a hundred aero-steamers, based on land and far heavier than the flimsy handful of planes launched from the rocking deck of a ship.

The airships swept in, hugging the water, several passing dangerously close to his own ship. When his forward turret fired, the shock of the passing shell tore a wing off of a plane. It flipped over, spiraling out of control and crashed into the sea.

The air fleet pressed forward, spreading out.

“Damn! They are not concentrating!” Hanaga cried, looking over at his signals officer. “Can’t you order them to concentrate on the flagship!”

“My lord, in all this confusion, they’ll never see the signal flags!”

“Try, damn it, try!”

Ignoring the danger, he stepped out of the aft hatch of the cupola and came around to the forward bridge. Part of the railing was gone, scorched black, and he noticed a greasy smear, what appeared to be the charred remnant of a leg that had slammed into the side of the cupola and lay broken and flattened on the deck.

- The aerosteamers continued forward and then, to his stunned disbelief, the first airship dropped its bomb a good mile short of the enemy fleet. It pulled up sharply and banked away. One after another the aerosteamers unloaded. Forming up after their leader, the airships started to climb, moving clear of the battle.

Only a handful of the airships pressed in, and all of them were torn apart by the firepower of the Red fleet’s steam machine guns.

Hanaga stood silent, glasses trained on the lead airship. He thought he could almost see the pilot, the master of his air fleet, and wondered if he was laughing.

“Your brother most likely got to him,” Hazin sighed. “I tried to warn you about that.”

“Masterful,” Hanaga whispered. “He must have reached him moons ago. A plan within a plan.”

“You would have done the same.”

Hanaga nodded, and then, letting his glasses drop, he slammed a fist against the side of the cupola. “But those were my airships!” he cried. “I’ll have the air master’s head on a spike for this!”

“If we survive,” Hazin whispered. “My lord, we are already outnumbered by the Red fleet alone. The air strike was your main hope. That is finished.”

Hanaga waved him to silence. If they had turned traitor, why not bomb his own ships? That was curious. Most likely the air master could not get the pilots to agree to a full betrayal and instead simply went for neutrality. Damn them all.

“Signals officer. Order all battle cruisers to turn straight into the enemy line!”

He looked back toward the armored cupola. The officer stood within, wide eyed. All had seen the betrayal of the air fleet and, with it, the dashing of their hopes for this day. With Asaga gone, the odds were now three to two against them, and on the distant horizon to the southeast the dark smudge of smoke, marking the advance of Sar’s fleet, was spreading out. Most likely the fleet was already in view from the upper gunnery control tower.

The officer still hesitated.

“Do it!” Hanaga roared.

The terrified face of the signals officer disappeared. Seconds later, a small top hatch on the cupola opened and the flags raced up on a halyard, catching the breeze, snapping out as they reached the base of the gunnery tower a hundred feet above the bridge.

A heavy shell came screaming in, the wind of it nearly knocking Hanaga over. It slammed into the water barely a hundred yards off the starboard rail. The shock of the explosion washed over him. He ignored it, his glasses trained on the enemy battle line.

The helm, responding to his command, sent the eighteen thousand tons of ship into a sharp, graceful turn, water slicing up from the bow, deck heeling over. As they straightened out, the forward turrets fired, the smoke temporarily blinding him.

Yellow gray clouds whipped past, and looking to port, he saw that all but one of his surviving battle cruisers had followed orders and were turning straight into the enemy fleet.

The maneuver had cut his effective strength nearly in half for now only the forward and middle turrets could bear on a target, while his enemy’s stem turrets could continue to fire. The maneuver had, at least for the moment, thrown their aim off, for the next salvo of shells arced high overhead, crashing down a half mile astern, and hitting where the fleet would have been if they had continued on their parallel course.

The battle of the light cruisers was almost directly ahead. The ships were slashing at one another at ranges of less than a thousand yards. A Red fleet cruiser disappeared in a monumental explosion. One of Hanaga’s frigates rammed another, blowing off the ship’s stem. The frigate actually survived the blow, backing off, its secondary bow intact.

A high shriek came roaring down from above.

Hanaga flung himself to the deck. The shell struck the flagship just aft of the bridge, detonating on top of the portside, a midships turret, blowing it apart. A shower of debris and choking black smoke blew forward. The only thing that saved his life was the heavy bulk of the cupola between him and the explosion.

He felt something hard slamming against the inside of the cupola.

He staggered to his feet and looked inside it. Wisps of Smoke coiled out of the view ports and then cleared. He felt a shiver of fear. A fragment from the explosion must have cut through the narrow access porthole aft—either that or up through the deck below. The red-hot metal then slashed around inside like a pebble tossed back and forth inside a shaken bottle. Everyone inside was smashed to a bloody pulp.

Another shell arced in, detonating just aft of the stern. The force of the blow raised the back end of the ship, then slapped it down. He sensed immediately that something was wrong, most likely a propeller torn off by the force of the blow or a drive shaft bent.

“My lord, we’ve lost the fighting bridge!” Hazin shouted, trying to be heard above the explosions, firing guns and steam venting from a broken line with the shrill roar of an undead spirit.

Hanaga nodded, still in shock from the force of the blow and the carnage that had been wrought where he had been standing only seconds before.

“The ship will have to be steered from the engine room!”

Hanaga still could not reply. His forward guns fired again, and, looking up, he saw that the enemy fleet was frightfully close, now less than a league away. Gunners were lowering their barrels. Soon they would be firing over open sights, and nearly every shot would tell.

The enemy fleet was holding its line, not breaking off to run. They were accepting the challenge of the suicidal charge.

“Your orders, sire?” Hazin cried.

Another shell screamed in, and he ducked low, flinching as the bolt struck the bow deck. But it hit at such a low angle that its percussion head failed to strike. He saw the massive bolt skid up off the deck and go tearing out across the ocean, tumbling end over end, disappearing into the smoke.

For twenty years I struggled to reach this moment, he thought. How many of my kin have I slain, how many assassinations, how many knives in the back and feasting cups of poison? How many treaties made to be broken, how many hundreds of thousands dead? All for the power of the Golden Throne, holding it against so many of my kin, my own brothers, till only Yasim was left to challenge me. Yasim, of all of them the weakest in moral strength, but also the most cunning. He held back until I had eliminated nearly every other rival, and then he struck.

In a mere glimmer of a moment all had changed. The dreams of dawn were now sinking like the bloodred sun into a bloodred sea.

And my brother will win this day. Damn his soul, he will win.

Hanaga looked back to the southeast. Or will it be Sar, the bastard? He had to smile. Damn, in a way we are all bastards. It does not matter if our fathers took the vow of mating or not. We exist to kill or be killed, to seek the power of the throne of the Kazan Empire and, once there, to slaughter any who might dream to replace us. Birth blood is but an excuse to reach for it. All that mattered in the end was seizing the power and holding it.

Another shell screamed in, this one striking astern, the force of the blow lifting the deck beneath his feet then slamming it down. He raised his glasses and focused it on his brother’s flagship.

No strikes yet. Then he saw what appeared to be a hit, bits of deck soaring up…but no explosion. Why no explosion?

We should have made a dozen hits by now. He saw one fire on an enemy battle cruiser, and that was all.

Why no explosions? Half their ships should be aflame or sinking by now. I have some of the best gunners in the Empire.

“Should we signal the fleet to break off?” Hazin asked.

Hanaga looked around. All was confusion. Several of his battle cruisers were still pressing straight in. One of them was on fire from halfway behind the bridge all the way astern, but its forward guns were still firing.

A brilliant flash of light erupted from the enemy line. A light cruiser exploded, tearing apart from stem to stern, magazines blowing, but the ships of the main van, all of them were still in action. A feeble cheer went up from the topside gunners of his own ship. Their cries were soon drowned out as another shell tore in.

An officer came up and saluted. “Sire, thank Tenga you are alive. Assistant gunner Sutana sent me to find you. He claims that none of our shells are exploding.”

- “I know that. I have eyes, damn it.”

“Sire. Assistant gunner Sutana begs to report that he ordered a shell fuse to be opened, and he discovered that the primer was bent.”

“What?”

The officer lowered his head. “Sire, the primer for the shell was bent so that it would not strike the detonator on impact.”

Hanaga looked at him, unable to speak.

More shells thundered in, a number of them the sharp, whining cracks of the enemy fleet’s secondary batteries. One of them struck the gunnery control tower, and, with a rending crash, the tower tottered and fell to starboard. The shrieks of its crew were cut short as the tower crashed onto the deck astern, piling in with all the other battle wreckage.

“Tell Sutana to install new fuses on all shells as they are brought up from the magazine.”

“Sire, that will delay firing.”

“Don’t you think I know that? Are you suggesting we fire shells that don’t explode instead?”

“No, my lord.”

The officer quickly withdrew, obviously terrified.

An enemy frigate emerged from its confusing battle, which had drifted astern, but was now catching up again with the main fleets. The frigates drove straight at the flagship. The secondary guns below deck trained on this new threat. Topside machine gunners opened up, tracers snaking out across the water, aiming for the bridge.

Hanaga stood silent, oblivious to the slaughter.

Hazin drew close to his side. “Sire, abandon ship.”

“What?”

“Sire, we have been betrayed,” Hazin said forcefully, looking straight into Hanaga’s eyes.

“Yes, betrayed.”

Without waiting for comment, Hazin stepped over to the starboard railing, leaned over and, drawing a red pennant from beneath his tunic, he started to wave it at a frigate that had swung out of the main battle and was now running parallel and slightly astern of the flagship. Within seconds the frigate started to speed up and draw closer.

Hanaga, barely noticing Hazin’s activities, stood silent. Always he had mastered the crisis of the moment, but this was beyond mastery. He had fallen into an elaborate trap. He finally looked over at Hazin, ready to give the order to have his heart cut out, but saw that the executioner he would have assigned was dead, his head blown off.

Another shell detonated astern. He could feel its blast ripping below deck, screams echoing up through the ventilation shafts, followed by bursts of steam.

Guns on both sides were fully depressed, shots angled so low that shells, when striking the water, skipped back up and screamed on. He caught a glimpse of one of his battle cruisers steaming between two of the enemy ships, all guns firing, and then it disappeared again behind the veil of smoke.

The frigate coming in on the starboard side reversed its engines, slowing to match the speed of the dying flagship.

Hazin was again by his side. “Follow me, my lord. Staying here now is suicide. You have to rebuild. There is still the army ashore, which can hold for weeks if need be. And remember, my Shiv will be landing on the opposite side of the island. We can hold, then negotiate with Sar or your brother later. Staying here, you die.”

Hanaga could feel the listing of the ship beneath his feet. It was taking on water astern.

No one was on the bridge other than he and Hazin. A forward hatch popped open, and sailors poured out, some of them horribly scalded, fur and flesh peeling off.

He looked back again at Hazin. “I was betrayed.”

“We have been betrayed, sire,” Hazin replied sharply. “Now, in the name of Tenga, come with me while there is still time. I can save you!”

As he spoke, he pointed at the frigate alongside, barely a dozen feet separating the two ships. A line snaked out from the frigate, and Hazin grabbed it, securing it to the railing.

“Sire!”

A couple of crew members of the frigate had hold of the other end of the rope and were shouting for them to come down.

“There will always be a tomorrow, Hanaga,” the priest said calmly. “Your legend must be rebuilt. The struggle must go on. Sar and your brother will have their reckoning, and you must position yourself to pick up the pieces afterward. Today is but a moment.”

Even as he spoke, the priest grabbed hold of the rope and swung himself over the side. Hand over hand he went down the rope, alighting on the deck, then motioned for Hanaga to follow.

Hanaga hesitated, but then went over the side, slipping down, burning his hands. Even as he reached the deck, the frigate turned off sharply and started to race away.

Hanaga, stunned, looked back at his once proud flagship, victor of a dozen actions, listing heavily, explosions tearing it apart.

Hazin put a comforting hand on Hanaga’s shoulder. “Sire, let’s retire to the captain’s cabin. You need a drink.”

Hanaga nodded, humiliated that he had abandoned his ship, leaving loyal sailors and comrades there to die. He tried to justify it as an action any emperor would take, and yet still it cut into his soul.

Hazin pointed at the hatchway leading into the captain’s cabin.

“You go after me. It would seem unfitting for me to go first.”

Hanaga nodded and stepped through.

And there, on the other side, he saw half a dozen of the Order.

There was a momentary flash of recognition, a realization of how all the pieces of this moment, laid out across years, had finally come to this.

The blow from behind staggered him, propelled him forward into the cabin. He gasped, clumsily reaching toward his back, feeling Hazin’s dagger in it.

Then those of the Order closed in to finish the ritual.

“I trusted you once,” he gasped, looking at Hazin, friend of his youth, Second Master of the Order.

“And that, sire, was always your mistake,” Hazin sighed, an almost wistful note in his voice.

The blows came, one after another, daggers cutting deep, driving in.

He no longer resisted. Weariness with life, with all its treachery, forced him to yield.

Hazin pulled the dagger from Hanaga’s back, held it as if testing the balance, and looked down at the dying emperor.

“The Empire,” Hanaga gasped.

Hazin smiled. It was the last thing Emperor Hanaga of the Kazan saw—someone he had once called friend knelt down to finish the job.

TWO

“Sir, what the hell is it?”

Lieutenant Richard Cromwell scrambled up through the lubber hole and out onto the fighting foretop. Squatting next to the lookout, he raised his glasses.

The fog, which had rolled in at nightfall, was breaking up. Occasional stars and one of the two moons winked through the overcast. But that was not what interested him. It was the glow on the horizon, a dull red light that flared, waned, and flared again. Occasional flashes, like heat lightning on a summer’s night, snapped around the edge of the burning glow.

Just before sunset the lookouts had reported a smudge of smoke on the horizon. They had taken a bearing and sailed toward it throughout the night. Now at last they had something.

“When did you first notice this?” Richard asked.

“Just a couple of minutes ago, sir. I called you as soon as I was certain it was not my eyes playing tricks,” the lookout, a young Rus sailor, replied slowing, stumbling over his English.

Richard nodded. The glow of one of the rising moons had more than once tricked an old hand into thinking something was out there.

There was another flash, this one a brilliant white flare that reflected off the low-hanging clouds.

“Good work, Vasiliy. I think I better wake the captain.”

Richard stood, a bit unsteady. The rising seas, which had been blowing up since late afternoon, had finally laid him low. Coming up to the foretop, where the roll of the ship was accentuated, made it infinitely worse. Only a novice went down from the foretop through the lubber hole. Experienced sailors climbed out onto the shrouds and momentarily hung suspended, nearly upside down, before reaching the ratlines, then going down hand over hand. Some of the top men would simply grab hold of a sheet or halyard and, if wearing leather gloves, slide down to the deck.

Ignominious or not, he gingerly went feet first through the lubber hole, reached the ratlines underneath, and carefully went back down to the deck, hanging on tight for a moment when a wave out of rhythm with the eight to ten foot rollers, raised the bow up high, before sending it crashing down.

Knees wobbly, he hit the deck and made his way up to the bridge. Making sure that all buttons were properly snapped and that his collar was straight, he approached the door to the inner sanctum, the captain’s cabin, and knocked.

“Come.”

He stepped into the darkened cabin. “Cromwell, sir, senior officer on watch. There’s light on the horizon. Foretop lookout spotted it about ten minutes ago. I think you better come up and see it, sir.”

The dimmed coal-oil lamp by the captain’s bunk flared to life.

With a weary sigh, Captain Claudius Gracchi swung out of the bunk, feet going into his carpet slippers. Nightshirt barely covering his knees, he stood up, fumbling for the spectacles on the night table.

Putting the glasses on, he looked at Cromwell. In spite of the spectacles and rumpled nightshirt, Claudius still had the bearing of a Roman patrician: hair silvery gray and cut short, shoulders broad despite his sixty-five years of age. Long ago, before the Republic, he had actually commanded a galley, but he had adapted well to the new world created by the Yankees and was as adept in commanding a steam cruiser as he had been commanding a ship powered by sail and oars. His stern bearing was simply a bluff. He was a favorite with the sailors of the fleet, known as a man who was just and always willing to hear someone out. Command of the Republic’s newest cruiser was seen by everyone as a fitting capstone to an illustrious career.

“What kind of light is it, Mr. Cromwell?”

“Sir, a red glow, like a fire, but there are flashes, something like heat lightning, but it’s different somehow.”

Captain Gracchi nodded, running fingers through what was left of his thinning mane. “Come on, lad, let’s look at your fire.”

Even when awakened in the middle of the night, Gracchi always had a calm, fatherly manner. It was usually then as well that he lapsed into calling Cromwell, and a few chosen others, lad. He shuffled out of the cabin and onto the bridge, Cromwell respectfully following.

Picking up a set of glasses hanging next to his chair, he braced his elbows on the railing and scanned forward. After the light of the cabin, Cromwell had to squint for a moment, letting his eyes adjust again to the darkness before he could see the glowing patch of red on the horizon.

“Current position?” Gracchi asked, and Cromwell, anticipating the captain’s request, had the chart up, the latest hourly passage marked off.

He nodded, eyeing the chart. They were five hundred miles beyond “the line,” the division created by treaty with the Kazan nearly fifteen years ago. There were no markers, islands, or territory to define it, simply a line traced across a map beyond which both sides had agreed not to tread.

The agreement had come after President Keane’s first term in office. Keane had vehemently argued against it, declaring that if the Kazan were so insistent that no one venture farther out, that must clearly indicate that they had something to hide, or worse, to conceal until such time as they wished to reveal it.

Opinion in the navy was divided. Some, including Admiral Bullfinch, had declared that until such time as the Republic could truly muster a significant fleet, it was best to observe the agreement and to quietly build. But the building had been slow. The entire fleet still only numbered nine armored cruisers. Gettysburg was the newest, and three more sister ships were ready to be fully commissioned by the end of the summer.

Thus it had come as a surprise to everyone on board when Gracchi announced, as soon as they had put to sea, that they had been issued secret orders directly from President Keane to sail beyond the line and, as he put it, “poke around a bit.”

Gracchi lowered the glasses for a moment, examined the chart, grunted, then raised the glasses back up.

A minute or more passed, Gracchi muttered to himself, as was his habit. Some in the crew thought it a clear sign that the old veteran was slipping. Cromwell had no opinion about it. A man of intelligence never passed opinions on captains, they simply obeyed and survived. Gracchi was the captain, and if he wished to mutter that was his right.

Compared to some of the others in command, muttering was an idiosyncrasy Cromwell could deal with. He had heard the stories about Captain Feodor, who had been quietly removed from command after his crew reported that he had taken to climbing the rigging at night in order to talk to the saints. Then there was the infamous case of Captain Xing, who, after six months of cruising on a survey mission, without once hailing another ship or sighting land, had simply pulled out a revolver, blew out the brains of his first lieutenant and chief petty officer, then flung himself over the railing, where the sharks which always trailed the ships, made quick work of him.

Command created a certain level of madness at times in the fleet, and Gracchi’s muttering, if it went no further, was nothing. Besides, Gracchi was one of the survivors of the Great War, and for that alone he deserved respect.

“That’s a city burning,” Gracchi finally announced, lowering his glasses to look at Cromwell. “Seen it more than once back in the war.” He sighed, shaking his head. “The other flashes…I’d say it’s a fight, one hell of a fight.” Cromwell, having learned from the beginning of life that when unsure it was best not to speak, remained silent.

Gracchi looked off absently. “We’ve come out here to scout around a bit, Mr. Cromwell, and I think we’ve found something. I take it you’ve heard the rumors about what that merchant ship, the Saint Gregorius, claimed it found.”

“Yes, sir.”

Everyone had heard. It had been the hottest topic of conversation ever since Gracchi had spoken to the crew about their mission.

“Well, son, I think we’ve found another city getting sacked. I can feel it. You can almost smell it.

“I think we’ve stumbled into a war. After all these years we’ve finally found them.

“Mr. Cromwell, I suggest we beat to quarters. Roust out the chief engineer yourself and tell him to fire up the boilers. I want a full head of steam if we need to maneuver. Get the sailing master while you’re at it. Have him draw in all sails. We’ll run on steam alone.”

Gracchi began heading back to his cabin, then turned. “And damn it, boy, have someone get me some tea.”

Cromwell saluted.

The armored cruiser Gettysburg was a sleeping ship on this, the midnight watch. The only ones topside were the bridge crew, lookouts, and the watch officer.

Within seconds all that changed. Cromwell shouted for the petty officer to pass the word to beat to quarters. The petty officer raced aft, leaping down the gangway to the main gun deck below, while Cromwell went forward, gaining the open hatch to the fo’c’sle, officer territory.

Gracchi had told him that only a short generation ago the domain of officers had been aft, where the following breeze was still fresh and the open quarterdeck a place for the high and mighty to take the morning air. All that was gone on this long-ranging armored cruiser. Though it still might sport sails, twin engines were mounted just aft of the midships, massive boilers and pistons, over seven hundred tons of ironworks to power the twin propellers. Aft was now a place of steam, coal bunkers, grease, and heat, and forward was where fresh breezes and relative quiet reigned.

Taking the steps two at a time, he landed on the main deck, and raced past the tiny cubbyhole cabins of the eight midshipmen, four ensigns, and his superiors. Pausing at Chief Engineer Svenson’s cubicle, he pound on the door, shouted the captain’s orders, and moved on to the sailing master, then down the corridor for good measure, making sure the rest were up as well.

Within seconds Svenson was out of his cabin, trailed by a faint scent of brandy and a couple of ensigns, one of them very unsteady. Gaming dice were on Svenson’s bunk. One by one the midshipmen piled out, filled with questions. Cromwell simply pointed them topside, shouting for them to move smartly and get up there ahead of the men they commanded.

Stopping at his own cabin, he popped the door open, leaned in, and shoved his sleeping roommate, Sean O’Donald. “Come on, Irish, we’re wanted topside.”

Sean rolled over, sat up groggily and rubbed his eyes. “What? What time is it?”

“Move it!”

Richard raced back out the door and joined the rush of men pounding up the stairs. Aft he could hear pipes shrieking, echoing down the corridor. The crew was coming awake.

It always amazed him how a ship could be so quiet one moment and absolute bedlam the next, then within minutes the bedlam would give way to a steady, disciplined silence as men reached their stations and set to work.

Though he longed to be on the bridge, to hear what Gracchi was saying about the light, Cromwell went forward. His battle station was the lone scout aerosteamer, positioned at the bow. There had been two of them, but poor Sean, flying the second plane, had snapped off a pontoon on a bad landing. It was a common enough occurrence, especially when the seas were running high, but the accident had shorted them one of two precious planes, and the normally placid Gracchi had been none too kind to O’Donald when they had finally fished him out of the drink.

Flying a scout plane off of a cruiser was an extremely hazardous job. Flying itself was nearly suicidal, even without trying to take off from a ship at sea and then survive the landing.

Launched by a steam catapult, the plane could scout two hundred miles or more and return—that is, if the pilot could navigate his way back to his ship. Navigating, though, was only the start of the problem. The real challenge was the lack of anyplace to land.

There had been talk of transforming the older cruiser Antietam into an aerosteamer carrier, razing the masts and converting it solely to steam power. With a cleared deck aerosteamers could not only take off but also land. One of the old monitors on the Inland Sea had even been converted as an experiment, but nothing had progressed beyond that.

The problem was that without the masts, the ship lacked the range. On engine power alone a ship could cruise only a thousand miles from port and then had to head straight back. In the vastness of the Southern Sea, the hybrid design of sails and steam seemed to be the only answer for the distances that needed to be covered.

Therefore, once launched, the pilot had a most interesting task. On return he had to bring the fragile plane in and land it alongside the cruiser, hoping that the ungainly pontoons underneath endured the shock of landing. The cruiser would then swing out a hoist and pull the scout plane, which was based on the air corps’ reliable Falcon design, back up on board.

More often than not the landing on the rolling seas ended in disaster, and it was lucky if the pilot and his gunner were fished out alive. Even if they survived, not uncommonly a wing would be stove in or the canvas hydrogen bags amidships on the plane would be punctured while being hoisted back on board. Thus, on most voyages, an aerosteamer would be sent aloft only in the direst of circumstances, or when close to port, and the plane could safely make it to land with dispatches.

Gracchi, acting more aggressively, had been launching both Sean and Richard ever since they had crossed the line, and yesterday the result had been Sean’s near death and the loss of a plane.

In the darkness, Richard went forward, stepping aside as half a dozen foretop men raced past, leaping onto the rigging and scrambling aloft into the night. Strange, he was a pilot, but the thought of dangling two hundred feet up, straddling a yardarm in the darkness, was absolutely terrifying to him. Most of the crew thought him mad for being a flyer. He thought them mad for going aloft. They were utterly without fear and on a bet would dance a jig atop the tallest mast.

As he approached his airship, its faint outline was visible in the starlight of the Great Wheel overhead. The frame was covered with canvas, the wings folded back. His launch crew of four came up, reported, and within seconds were at work. At times the drill seemed a futile gesture. Gunners at least fired blanks on a regular basis and even engaged in some live target practice; a barrel tossed overboard and then shot at from a thousand yards out, the crew coming the closest getting an extra ration of vodka.

There were competitions as well between the mast crews for speed of taking canvas in and spreading it. Even the engineering crew had the satisfaction of racing to bring the boilers up to steam and, on rare occasions, especially when they were coming back into port and could waste the preciously hoarded fuel, of unleashing the pent-up steam and bringing the great cruiser up to flank speed.

But for the men of the aerosteamer crew, launch and recovery seamen Bugarin, Yashima, Zhin, and Alexandrovich, the drill was always the same. Pull off the canvas cover, set the wings, then set the burners for the caloric hot-air engine, check steam power to the catapult, but don’t open the line. Every pound of steam was precious and filling the two hundred feet of hose from the boilers was a waste of energy if there was no launch. Then, if given the order to actually launch, pour the five-gallon glass jugs filled with sulphuric acid into the lead-lined vat containing zinc shavings and wait the fifteen minutes for the resulting hydrogen to fill the midships gas bags.

The last two steps were merely simulated and had never actually been done as part of a battle drill. The men had been delighted with the activity of the previous three days, but the crash had dampened their enthusiasm and they expected tonight to be another drill with no results.

Alexi arrived first. He was always enthusiastic, and Richard already knew his words of greeting.

“Well, sire, perhaps this time we fly!”

Alexi’s family had lived in the great woods north of Suzdal, and despite^ having moved over twenty years ago to the Republic, he had grown up accustomed to the old way of address.

“Perhaps, Alexi, something is up.”

“What, sire?”

Cromwell pointed to the southeast, and Alexi, with his catlike eyes, immediately spotted the flickering glow on the horizon, which Richard could now just barely discern.

“Ahh, a fire at sea? Perhaps there’ll be some fun then for us.”

Bugarin, Yashima, and Zhin joined them, gossiping amongst themselves as they cleared the tarpaulin and struggled to swing the wings forward. Richard checked carefully as the team set the locking pins and fastened the bi-level wings into place. Pins not properly set were the most common kind of accidents. The wing would snap back at launch, and the plane would dive straight down. Their comrades on the starboard-side catapult stood around glumly. There was nothing to do now that their plane was gone. Cromwell’s command leveled a few good-natured jibes about their now being drafted to go shovel coal.

The rest of the ship was a flurry of activity. The bow gunner crew was clearing the tarps from the twin-mounted steam gatling guns, uncasing the ammunition drums and slapping them into place. Fire crews connected hoses to pumps and tore the lids off buckets of sand hung from the railings.

The single turret forward, containing a massive fourteen-inch muzzle-loading gun, slowly turned, steam wheezing from the vent ports. From inside, Richard could hear the gunnery master shouting orders, preparing the weapon to be loaded if the captain should decide to go to full alert. The problem was that once loaded, the gun could not be unloaded other than by firing it, and ammunition was too expensive to waste whenever an alert was sounded.

Below, on the main fighting deck, Richard could hear firing ports on the starboard and port side being cleared. Armament below was a six-inch rifled breechloader forward, and another aft, with two ten-inch muzzle loaders amidships. The guns could swing to either starboard or port, then be run out and fired. Farther down, below the waterline in the forward and aft magazines, the steam hoists were tested and the first shells and powder bags loaded in, ready to be sent up through brass-lined tubes to the main gunnery deck.

Secondary guns lined the topside deck, the lighter three-inch weapons maneuvered by the muscle power of their crews.

Overhead, in the three masts, more than a hundred men swarmed, awaiting the command to take in and let out sail. If an enemy was sighted, sails would be furled. All motive power would shift to the steam engines that were still powering up as stokers tore into the coal bunkers, trundling out wheelbarrow loads of the precious black rock, upending the barrels into the open maws of the furnaces, which, with every passing second, glowed hotter and hotter. Rakers spread the hot coals out, the burning heat coiling around the hundreds of feet of piping that fed cold water through the boiler. The water flashed to steam that thundered into the pistons and hundreds of yards of piping that fed power to the turrets, gatling guns, hoists, pumps, pulleys, and Cromwell’s catapult launch.

Richard felt a rumble pass through the ship. The propellers, turning over, dug in. The command then went up for all sails to be furled.

The drill had been done a hundred times since they had set sail, less than a week after his graduation from the academy, but this time Richard could feel the tension. He could see the glow on the horizon from the main deck without aid of field glasses. It reflected off distant clouds, shimmering, then dying down, punctuated by sharp flashes. “Lieutenant Cromwell, you’re wanted on the bridge.” Richard followed the messenger, dodging around fire crews laying out buckets of sand and ammunition carriers bringing up three-inch rounds to the topside guns. Gaining the bridge ladder, he scrambled up. The deck was illuminated only by starlight, and the dim glow of the helmsman’s lamp had an unworldly feeling to it. Gracchi barely looked up at him, just a sidelong glance.

“You ready to fly, son?”

Startled, Richard did not respond.

“Well?”

“Ah, yes, sir.”

Gracchi, putting down his mug of tea, came up to Richard and placed a hand on his shoulder. “I want you to be cautious, son. Get up, use the clouds. I want you to get a good look at what is up ahead. Two things: what is burning, and who the hell is fighting. Don’t let yourself be seen, then hightail it back here before dawn.

“We’re in dangerous waters, Richard. I expect you to find out what the danger is and get back alive.”

Richard, stunned, said nothing. A night launch was rare enough. A night landing, except for some practice runs on the Inland Sea, had never been done.

To his surprise, Gracchi offered his oversize mug of tea to him. Cromwell’s knees instantly turned to jelly. Yet he was even more afraid that Gracchi would see his fear, and he struggled to still his hands. He accepted the mug and took a long drink. He detected a hint of vodka in the drink.

In the dim light he could see Gracchi smile at him in a fatherly way.

“Sorry, lad, but it’s got to be done. Get your bearing from the helmsman. We’ll hold our course steady at five knots. Don’t do anything foolish, just get a good look, then come straight back. We’ll pluck you out of the water, you can count on it.”

Richard simply nodded. Enlisting in the naval flying corps had presented a certain challenge. Why he had joined a service where his name was despised was tied up in his anger toward the race that had turned his father and then destroyed him. He had no real love for the Republic, but at least it had offered him a goal, a chance to rise above the ghastly poverty of those few who had survived slavery and now lived in a desolate land that would never recover from the occupation by the Merki. Now had come the moment to prove something, not only to those around him, but also to himself.

“Take Mr. O’Donald as your navigator and spotter. The boy needs to go back up, shake some of the fear out of him after that crash.”

“Yes, sir.”

Putting the mug down, Cromwell saluted even as Gracchi turned away to other tasks. Getting the heading and location, which was, as usual, just a fair guess, Richard jotted the numbers down and went forward to where his crew waited.

“Alexi, light the engines.”

“Sire?”

“Damn it, Alexi,” Richard snapped, “it’s ‘sir,’ nor ‘sire.’ Light the engines. Yashima, make sure the fuel is topped off and ammunition is aboard. Zhin, open the line to the steam piston.”

He spotted Sean standing next to his empty catapult, launch crew gathered listlessly around him, watching Cromwell’s team at work. He casually walked over.

“Sean, would you mind going below and getting my flight gear and yours?”

“Mine?”

“The old man says you’re going up with me.”

“I’m flying?”

Richard nodded, and in the starlight he could see the look of confusion mixed in with excitement at the realization that they were about to do a night launch.

“Richard, we’ve never done this before. I mean, a night launch and recovery.”

“You’re telling me?”

Sean forced a smile and took off, returning several minutes later with flight overalls. Richard slipped into his and buttoned it halfway up. The night was still warm, but aloft it would cool down a bit. He strapped a revolver around his waist, then pulled on a leather cap, goggles up on his forehead. Sean did the same, and the two waited as his crew continued preparations. Alexi, who normally would have gone up as his gunner and spotter, was obviously glad to be relieved of the assignment and said nothing.

“Top off the airbags?” Bugarin asked.

Richard nodded, unable to speak for a moment. Bugarin broke open the hydrogen generator box, carefully put on gloves, leather apron, and face covering, lifted out the five-gallon glass jar of sulphuric acid, and poured the contents into the lead-lined box filled with zinc shavings. Sealing the box, he connected the gas hose to the aft air bag, which was built into the tail assembly of the ship. It would provide just enough additional lift to get the scout plane aloft.

Richard started to pace back and forth nervously as his crew sprang to work. Then, chiding himself, he stopped, and put his hands behind his back, though he was still clenching and unclenching his hands.

The hissing of the caloric engines, which took only a few minutes to generate power, caught the attention of the gun crews. A chief petty officer came over to Richard.

“Going up, sir?”

Richard, not sure if he’d have control of his voice, simply nodded.

“Well, good luck.”

Again, only a nod.

The petty officer backed off.

The minutes slowly passed. Richard, finally breaking free from his statuelike pose, moved slowly around his airship; careful to avoid the single propeller aft, which was beginning to windmill. Alexi was up in the nose hatch, pulling the canvas hood off the forward gatling, which would be controlled by Richard once they were aloft. Zhin, carefully closing off the gas, then joined Bugarin on the traverse gear, which pointed the launch ramp off at a ten-degree angle from the bow so that the plane would not snag on the jib bow at launch.

It was time.

His crew, finished with their tasks, stepped back, staring at Richard and Sean, illuminated only by the dim starlight.

“She’s all set, sir,” Zhin announced, his English soft and precise.

Richard nodded stoically and, without comment, clambered up the ladder hanging from the side of the launch ramp and into the forward cab. Sean, following, climbed up past Richard into the observer/gunner’s position amidships. Richard handed back the paper with their coordinates, and Sean slipped it onto the clipboard holding his navigation chart.

The instruments were all but invisible in the darkness. He knew the bearing, but seeing the compass was all but impossible…damn.

Get a bearing on the Southern Triangle once aloft, he realized, then reverse it on the way back. He passed the suggestion back to Sean, who announced he had already thought of it.

Richard tapped his rudder pedals, looking back over his shoulder to glimpse the tail, then checked his stick. Next came the throttle. The engine hummed up smoothly. No way to check the gauges—he had to do it by sound and feel alone.

“All ready, sir.”

Alexi—Cromwell could sense his excitement—was standing up on the side of the plane.

“Ready.”

“I’ll get you off on the uproll, I promise it, sir.”

Richard, annoyed by Alexi’s fussing, said nothing.

There was no way to delay longer, though he had a sudden longing to get out of the plane and let Sean do the whole thing by himself.

He raised his right hand out of the cockpit, clenched fist held up, signaling the crew that he was ready.

What happened next came as a shock. Alexi, misreading the signal in the darkness, hit the steam release valve, slamming the launch piston forward.

Cursing silently, vision jarred by the unexpected blow, Richard clutched the stick with his left hand, pulled back too far and pitched the plane into the edge of a stall; propeller howling, the plane hung above the waves. He shoved the stick forward. For a gut-wrenching second nothing happened, and then the nose finally slipped down, leveling out.

He caught a glimpse of the jib boom to his right, then it was gone. His heart still thumping, he leveled off, putting the plane into a shallow banking turn.

Gettysburg stood out faintly in the starlight, her sails drawn in, her mast bare. He swung around her, mainsail yardarms at wing level. Something caught his attention. The wake of the ship glowed with a rich phosphorescent green that stretched back for a mile or more. The sight was stunning and revealing, as well; a clue as to how to spot a ship at night.

He swung out behind Gettysburg more than half a mile, then gingerly circled back in, lining up on the wake of the ship, and started to climb. He flew straight up the line, taking his bearing on the Triangle, which was off the starboard wing, bisected by a forward strut.

Directly ahead the glow of fire drew him as he winged up over Gettysburg, mast tops now a hundred feet below. Figuring it was best to gain altitude, he continued on his slow climb, pushing forward at nearly fifty miles an hour, climbing at two hundred feet a minute.

As the long minutes passed, wind slipped past his windscreen, heavy with tropical warmth and rich with salt scent. The glow on the horizon began to spread out, a clear indicator that it was close, not more than forty or fifty miles.

An errant breeze caused the plane to buck, rise up, then steady back out.

“Smell that?”-Sean shouted.

Richard raised his head up…smoke.

He pressed on. They slipped into a wisp of cloud, the temperature instantly dropping, then came back out. He descended slightly, leveling out, or at least tried to level. With less than twenty hours of flight time on scout planes, half of it gained over the last three days, he was still amazed that he had survived the launch. The thought of landing was more than he wanted to contemplate at the moment.

Bracing the rudder with his knees, he raised his field glasses, tried to find the fire, then gave up.

“Sean, use your glasses. Tell me what you see,” Richard shouted.

“Already on it.”

Richard looked back over his shoulder and, in the starlight, saw the outline of Sean above him, elbows braced on the upper wing.

“Damn big fire. Can see buildings. Damn big. It’s a harbor.”

They flew on for several minutes. Sean remained silent, half standing, elbows braced on the upper wing, scanning forward. He lowered his glasses and slipped back into his seat.

“Ships!” he cried. “I see ships burning, there’s shooting…there, a gun flash, you could see the ship.”

Richard, peering forward, wondered how Sean did it. He could see the flashes, the fire, but only as pinpricks of light.

“Richard, I don’t like this.”

“What is it?”

“Those aren’t pirates or raiders. Those ships are too big.”

“We better get in closer.”

Richard edged the plane up, taking it into the bottom of the clouds; dodging out, slipping back in again. Soon he could pick out individual flashes of light, forward of the city. Rippling lights erupted, flashes of fire that climbed heavenward, then winked out. Seconds later splashes of silent fire detonated, brilliant yellow lights that winked out as quickly as they ignited.

“You see that?” Richard cried. “Like rockets.”

“Hundreds of them,” Sean shouted excitedly.

More and more flashes were visible, spread out for what he estimated to be miles to either side of the burning city and forward of it.

He tried to brace the rudder again and raised his glasses. This time he caught glimpses, startling glimpses of fire, explosions that danced and weaved in his vision, one so brilliant that he was temporarily blinded.

“Richard, may I ask that you just fly? I’ll look.” Richard, surprised by Sean’s commanding tone, almost fired a quick retort, but then realized that his observer was right. His job was to fly, O’Donald’s was to look.

He reset the glasses in their rack. He had a momentary shock when he realized that he had drifted from what he had hoped was an arrow-straight course. The Triangle was directly off his starboard wing.

He banked over sharply, embarrassed and a bit frightened by his lapse. How long had they flown thus? Would he be able to find Gettysburg now?

A brilliant flash erupted, towering upward, expanding out.

“By all the gods,” Sean gasped. “I think an entire ship went with that.”

Several minutes later, a dull rumble washed over them. Watching the pattern of lights, Richard sensed that this was not an attack by some alien fleet on a city. Rather, it was a battle between two fleets. The burning city was merely a backdrop.

The dull distant rumble of the battle grew in intensity. Another detonation, as brilliant as the first one; the flash so bright that it lit up the sea as bright as day, and Richard could actually see other ships.

“Never seen anything like them,” Sean cried. “No masts, round things on top instead.”

“Turrets, like monitors?”

“Like giant monitors, four round turrets on one. Damn, did you see that one shoot?”

Richard had caught the flash of the guns, but in the confusion and distance he wasn’t sure.

“Just hold her steady, Richard, take us straight on in.” The sound of’gunfire was continuous, the shock waves rippling over them with sharp intensity.

There was no longer any doubt in his mind that two fleets were in action. He caught glimpses of sparkling shells arcing upward, disappearing into the darkness, then seconds later causing flashes on the water as the shells exploded. The only question left now was who, and in his mind there was no doubt.

It was the Kazan.

He had to make a decision. Continue to press in, get a close-up look, or come about and carry the precious information back. The Kazan had been found at last, and, given the similarity of the ships engaged, they were at war with one another.

“Damn!”

Richard saw it a second later, flashing by underneath, illuminated by the flash of an explosion…a flyer.

Startled, he pulled up, looking back over his shoulder. Behind him Sean had unfastened the lock holding his gatling in place and started to swing it around.

“Don’t shoot!” Richard shouted. “He might not have seen us.”

“We suspected they could fly, but did you see the size of that thing?”

Richard wasn’t sure. It was hard to judge in the darkness.

He headed upward, but there were no clouds nearby.

Three more flyers slipped underneath. Watching carefully, he judged them to be five hundred or more feet below. Then one of them started to turn.

O’Donald shouted a warning even as Richard pulled into a sharp climb.

“It’s lining up on us!”

Height or speed? He hung on to the stick for several seconds, frozen with indecision, and spared a quick glance back. He spotted a flicker of movement, starlight illuminating the white wings. It was hard to judge the distance, but a guess told him it was several hundred yards back. The plane was within range if they had machine guns, and given the carnage going on straight ahead, it was idiotic to assume otherwise.

He nosed over, going into a steep dive that in seconds put the scout plane up to its maximum speed of ninety miles an hour. The ocean, though several thousand feet below, seemed to rush up, and the raging battle seemed perilously close.

“Where is he?” Richard cried.

“I can’t tell, lost him when you dived. Next time warn me!”

A flash of light snapped past.

Time seemed to freeze. He remembered lectures at the academy, talking with old sailors, veterans of the Great War, about what it was like. The shock of realization that for the first time someone was shooting at you, trying to kill you…and that in another instant the world would continue to spin on in its grim course, and you would not be part of it.

Another flash shot past. Sean cursed, steam hissing as he opened the cock. The’gatling spun to life, spitting flame, the vibration blurring vision. Richard wondered if the chocks that shut the gun down would work if Sean should happen to swing it due aft, where his shots would shred the propeller.

He still couldn’t see the instruments in the darkness. Sense alone told him that he was pushing the plane beyond any speed he had ever flown before. Chopping back the throttle, he pulled up sharply, the control stick shaking a violent tattoo, wires humming, one parting with a riflelike crack.

“Where the hell is he?”

There was no reply.

Richard spared a quick glance back over his shoulder and was stunned by the sight of Sean hanging half out of the plane, arms locked around the breech of his gun.

Richard leveled out, and Sean swore wildly, swinging his legs back into the plane.

“Damn it, why aren’t you strapped in?” Richard screamed.

In the starlight, he could see Sean’s terrified grimace.

“Where is he?”

“How am I supposed to know?” Sean gasped.

Completely disoriented, Richard looked around. There was a flash directly below him, a mushrooming cloud of fire spreading out across the sea, the explosion soaring up, the shock of it rocking his plane. He felt a shuddering shriek, the nearby passage of a shell sounding like an out-of-control train rushing past.

He nosed his plane over, banking sharply, putting the fire of the city directly behind him.

“We’re getting the hell out of here.”

He continued to dive, the wind shrieking, pushing the plane. He looked aft, caught a glimpse of the Triangle.

Looking forward, he saw Gavala, the star that was the point of the Hunter’s Spear, low on the horizon, and two points off to port.

He raced back out for the open sea, pulling up to clear a ship that suddenly appeared out of the darkness and in seconds disappeared astern. It was a ship without masts, he realized, turrets mounted fore and aft.

The ocean seemed to spread out to either side, and with a start he realized that he was only feet above the water.

“Five more degrees to port,” Sean cried.

“What?”

“You’re about five degrees off.”

Sean had always scored highest in their navigation classes, so Richard followed his order without comment.

But after a few minutes something else caught his attention.

A fire glowed on the horizon, not as big as the one he had been approaching less than half an hour ago. It was simply a pinpoint, flashes of light that popped, flared, and disappeared.

A thought crossed his mind. From the position of the Great Wheel, which showed intermittently through the scattering of clouds, he judged it was little more than halfway through the first watch. Less than three hours ago he had come awake and wandered to the galley for a cup of tea and biscuits before going on watch. Three hours ago he would have had no idea of what it was he was now seeing, or how to judge it.

Ahead there was another fight, ship to ship, and someone was burning. Was it his ship dying? Were they now alone a thousand miles from home?

THREE

“My lord.”

Hazin stirred, momentarily disoriented. He had always hated ships, the constant movement, the stenches coming up from below.

“My lord, there’s a .ship.”

Hazin sat up, nodding, wearily rubbing the back of his neck. The captain’s bunk was far too small for his towering frame. At nine feet he was tall even for one of his race.

He stretched, nearly losing his balance as the deck beneath his feet dropped and rolled. He looked over at the messenger, a’ novitiate of his order, but one obviously accustomed to the sea; he balanced easily, shifting comfortably.

Though the sea was the theater upon which the game of physical power was played out, it was an environment he secretly feared. It was an environment one could not control, the way one could so easily control the minds of others.

Once aboard a ship, one’s fate was in the hands of too many unknown variables. In spite of all the elaborate plans, the games within games, there was always the possibility that an hour hence a storm could send one to the bottom. Or a raider of the Orange Banner, who acknowledged no power, could take and hold them for ransom.  Or a rival with a fleet of a hundred vessels might suddenly appear where he was not supposed to appear.

He fumbled to brush the wrinkles out of his bloodstained robes. Hanaga’s blood—dried flecks of it dropped off. He felt nothing, though it was the blood of an emperor he had supposedly served since early youth.

Poor fool, he should have seen it coming. Everything was but part of “The Plan,” the concealed reality. For all in this world was but a shadow of a deeper reality. Hanaga should have sensed that. His brother Yasim, knew it. That is why he was now the emperor, at least for the moment, and Hanaga was dead.

The novitiate—the red stripe on his left sleeve marking him as a summa of the second order—waited patiently, but Hazin could sense the young one’s agitation.

“The ship, our captain does not know what it is,” Hazin guessed.

“Yes, my lord, he asks your presence on the deck.”

“Lead the way, then.”

Hazin followed him out of the stateroom and up onto the deck.

The total darkness at sea was always a bit unnerving, and it took him a moment to adjust, half feeling his way along as he weaved through the maze of ladders that took him up to the bridge. As his eyes adjusted to the dark, he could pick out the glow of fire astern, flashes of light, a star shell hovering on the horizon; sinking, disappearing. Beyond the naval battle glowed the human city’s consumption by flame.

“My lord, Hazin.”

The captain bowed at his approach. Though nominally a ship of the Blue Banner of Hanaga, in fact it was crewed by his order, or at least those of his order loyal to him, yet another wheel within wheels. It had been his safety net, something the Grand Master of the Order had not anticipated. Yes, he had been ordered to kill Hanaga because the Order had decided to switch sides, but Hazin’s own survival would not be expected.

“Lookouts reported sighting a ship,” the captain announced. “It’s off our starboard bow, range less than a league.”

“The emperor’s?”

The captain shook his head, and Hazin remembered that the term no longer applied to the individual associated with that title.

“Hanaga’s or Yasim’s?”

“Neither, I suspect.” The captain motioned to the night glasses mounted on the bridge railing.

Hazin bent over, seeing nothing for a moment. Finally he caught a glimpse of something, a darker shadow on the dark horizon. A strange silhouette, masts…the ship had masts.

“Human?”

“I think so.”

“Not like anything we’ve seen before, is it?” Hazin whispered.

“Not one of the island traders or their renegades. Too big for that, and you’ll see sparks trailing. It has engines as well.”

Hazin slowly moved the glasses back, trying to compensate for the roll of the ship, acquiring the shadow again. The ship looked foreshortened, angling on almost a direct intercept.

“I don’t think it’s seen us,” the captain said. “It hasn’t changed course since we’ve sighted it. It’s already in range.”

What is it? Hazin wondered. It was definitely not the emperor’s or any other ship of the fleets of the Banners. No sailing merchant’ship, human or of the Kazan, would be within a hundred leagues this day. Only an idiot would wander anywhere near this confrontation between claimants of the throne.

So, either it was a blind idiot…or it was the humans known to reside on the north shore. The Yankees, who had so easily been frightened off with a treaty while the Empire settled its internal differences.

They would have to be contended with, in due course, especially now that they had reached the sea and ventured upon it. But here, now?

He weighed the possibilities. Behind him a plan had been completed…and ruined. Hanaga, the fool, was dead. The new emperor had paid the Order well for the betrayal, but he would never know that it was, in fact, but part of a power struggle within the Order itself, an attempt by the Grand Master to eliminate not just Hanaga, but his own lieutenant as well.

Hazin grinned, wondering how much time should pass before he allowed the Grand Master to know that he had not died on Hanaga’s flagship as intended and all but ordered to do.

“Have we been followed?” Hazin asked.

“We were, your holiness. From the Red Banner.”

Hazin smiled. What would they think? That Hanaga had indeed escaped? A puzzle for them to ponder. The Red Banner would sweep the seas come dawn, but they would be empty, except for wreckage and the few defiant ships of Hanaga that had somehow survived the night. “And now?”

The captain paused, looking aft where the fire glow of the battle shimmered on the horizon. “Not now. This ship is the fastest of its class.”

He detected the pride in the warrior’s voice. Pride and attachment in one of his station bore watching.

“We’ll be silhouetted by the fire in another minute,” the captain warned, looking at his master.

Hazin leaned over, training the glasses on the intruder’s outline, barely distinguishable against the starlight. They could turn aside, run ahead and across its bow and be gone. He wondered if they had spotted him as well…. No, for if they had, he knew he would sense it. Something would warn him, as it always had.

Though he did not believe in fate, a concept alien to his order, to the essence of what he was, he could not help but wonder why, at this moment, such a random thing had unfolded.

As always, the decision came without hesitation.

“Take it.”

“Master?”

“You heard me. Take it.”

“May I caution you on two things?”

Hazin turned.

“Gunfire might reveal us to pursuit.”

“I know that.”

“Whatever that ship is, it is an unknown. Unknowns are the gray path.”

Hazin smiled. “Precisely why we take it.”

The ship had been cleared for action throughout the night, and a single command from its captain rippled through the ship, bringing it to the highest state of readiness.

Hazin could feel the increased tempo of the engines. The deck canting beneath his feet as the helm was put over. There was no sense in making some sort of foolish display of bravado on a pitch-black night, and besides, the crew was of his order and such stupidity would cause doubts.

He stepped into the armored bridge, standing in the middle. Only a novice would make the mistake of touching— or leaning against—the plating when action was imminent.

A rush of steam from the bow signaled that the frigate’s forward guns were swinging into position.

“Captain. Signal from foretop lookout.”

Captain Gracchi lowered his glasses, which had been trained on the flickering glow and looked over at his signals officer.

“Ship sighted off the starboard bow.”

He started to turn, raising his glasses again, when the shocking glare of a salvo ignited. The flash blinded him the ocean flaring up as bright as day.

Cursing, he closed his eyes, turning away. Seconds later he felt the deck heave. Knocked off his feet, he slammed against a railing. Gasping, he staggered back, holding his side.

“Signals!”

Another flash, this time he was turned away, and in the glare he saw the signals officer sprawled half over the railing, decapitated. Forward, the main mast leaned drunkenly, stays snapping, sounding like rifle cracks.

Another salvo, this time he clearly saw the ship lying not a thousand yards off, bow wake standing out a brilliant white in the glare.

He felt the thunderclap snap of a gun belowdecks firing, the glare flashing out, lighting up the sea. Topside, several of the steam-powered gatlings were firing, their staccato roar joining the confusion. Tracers skipped out over the sea, winking out as they hit the water.

“Helm! Hard aport!”

He lopked back at the armored cupola. Illuminated by the flashes of light, the helmsman inside was staring at him, wfde-eyed in panic.

“Damn you! Hard over! Get us the hell out of here!”

Another flash lit up the sea again, followed seconds later by a geyser of water erupting astern, Gettysburg lifting with it, a shudder running through the ship.

All was madness. Flashes of light, the screaming roar of shells coming in, the forward mast finally letting go, tumbling overboard, sailors trapped in the rigging screaming as they fell to their doom.

Their tormentor was now directly abeam. It presented a strange silhouette: no masts, squat, low, moving with impossible speed, knifing through the water. Tracers snapped back and forth; gatling rounds, three-inch shells, the air heavy with the rotten-egg stench of black powder.

“Captain, aft magazine reports fire!

He started to turn, gaze locked on the midshipman who was standing before him, shaking with fear.”

There was a momentary flash, time seemed to stretch out, a fireball of light soaring up from an open hatch. Strange, so many thoughts tumbled together. The war of so long ago….

The terrified boy looked back, saw the explosion mushrooming, deck plates rupturing, peeling back like rotten wood punched by a giant. Claudius Gracchi barely had time to put a reassuring hand on the boy’s shoulder before the explosion engulfed them.

“My God, was that ours?” Sean gasped.

Stunned, Richard did not know. The fireball spread out, color shifting from brilliant white, through yellow, to deep red. Expanding, it grew dark, disappearing except for flickering embers, which winked out as they hit the sea.

“It was ours,” Sean groaned. “I know it was ours.”

“Shut up, damn it,” Richard snapped. “You’re not sure.

“I saw her, it was the Gettysburg.”

“It could have been the other one.”

Sean, stifling a sob, began to pray.

Richard strained to catch a glimpse of the other ship, hoping that he’d see the familiar outline of the Gettysburg. Mist and smoke clung to the surface of the ocean. For a moment he debated the idea of pulling up, turning away, and then circling until dawn.

But then what? If Gettysburg was gone, they were doomed and would have wasted most of their precious fuel as well.

And if it was gone, then what? It was nearly a thousand miles back to the nearest outpost of the Republic. There was a scattering of islands dotting the seas, most of them uninhabited, or worse the hiding places of pirates, who would make short work of them.

His stomach knotted with fear.

“We’re finding out now,” Richard shouted. “I’ll come in low, keep a sharp watch. If it’s the Gettysburg, we’ll pull back up and circle until they signal for us to land.”

“Let’s leave this place now!”

“And go where?” Richard cried, looking back over his shoulder.

Sean fell silent.

Richard edged the throttle up, dropping low, leveling off as they plunged into a low-hanging bank of fog, coming out, racing between the overhanging darkness and the black ocean. Another cloud was ahead. He pulled up slightly, raced into it. The air suddenly turned heavy with the sulphurous smell of coal smoke and burnt powder.

They popped through and starlight appeared directly overhead.

“There it is!” Sean cried.

Richard didn’t need to be told. He caught the glimmer of the ship’s phosphorescent wake. Tracing the glowing blue-green glow back to the stem of the ship, he had a chilling realization.

It wasn’t the Gettysburg.

Now what? Keep on going? Turn back to the chaos of the island, or just head out to the open sea?

He felt a sense of utter futility and abandonment. The Gettysburg was gone. Captain Gracchi was dead, all his comrades dead. That explosion had been her magazines going up. Anyone still alive had most likely been blown into the shark-infested sea.

A blind rage seized him. Leaning forward, he grabbed the breech of his gatling, spun open the steam cock, and pressed the trigger.

A snap of light shot out, the barrel spinning to life, spitting out five hundred rounds a minute. The tracers snaked down, weaving, then cutting across the bow of the ship.

Sean opened up as well, cursing wildly.

Within seconds snaps of light arced back.

A violent shudder slapped their plane. An instant later the engine seized. One of the propeller blades tore loose, spinning off into the darkness.

He was tempted to simply point at the ship and end it. Pulling back on the stick, Richard tried to stretch out the glide, but within seconds he could feel the airspeed bleeding off, the controls going mushy. They were going into a stall. Panicking, he pushed the stick forward. Momentarily he regained control.

Still the tracers followed them, swinging back and forth. Dimly he heard Sean scream that they were burning. The ocean rushed up to meet them.

“There, that’s what we want!” Hazin cried, pointing at the burning aerosteamer as it plunged into the sea. “Mark the spot!”

The frigate continued to turn, sweeping through the wreckage.

He had wanted an intact ship, prisoners, a chance to evaluate how this new piece fit into his game. All that had disappeared in a blinding flash.

“Fire a flare.”

“Master, if we light a flare shell, anyone within ten leagues will see it.”

“Anyone within twenty leagues saw that ship blow up.”

“It will give them a clearer bearing on us. For all we know, there’s a ship of the Blue Banner closing at this very minute. They know the silhouette of this ship, and they won’t take the time to ask questions about our surrendering or not.”

“Light it,” Hazin replied sharply.

The captain nodded, passing the order.

The gun on the forward turret elevated and fired. The shell streaked upward, arcing, and then ignited with a brilliant flash, the flare swinging on its parachute. The ocean beneath it was illuminated as brilliantly as if both moons were full.

Lookouts forward shouted the bearing. The strange aerosteamer was clearly visible, one bi-wing and forward cab sticking out of the water.

He watched intently, waiting, and then saw movement.

“I want them alive!” Hazin shouted. “No matter what it takes, I want them alive.”

Gagging, Richard struggled to the surface. Blindly he lashed out with his knife, cutting through the fabric of a wing that had crumpled over the forward cab, trapping him as the plane had settled and started to slip under.

He broke to the surface, shrieking for air. Then something grabbed hold of his leg, pulling him down. He went back under. For a second of blind panic he thought it was a shark snagging his leg.

No, he had seen sharks attack. Both his legs, his entire lower body, would already be gone if it were that. They were out there, and soon enough they would close, but not yet.

He surfaced again, fighting for air, then went under. Sean was clutching him.

Richard grabbed him, pulling him up, his comrade clawing at him wildly. He tried to push him back, and both of them gor tangled in canvas, and wires; the wreckage of an airship that was rapidly going under.

Richard kicked violently, gaining the surface yet again, Sean by his side.

“Richard! I thought I’d lost you!” Sean gasped, still clinging to him.

“Just grab a spar, anything but me,” Richard sputtered.

Fumbling in the dark, Richard grasped one of the halfsubmerged float pontoons, which had snapped off on impact. Grabbing Sean by the collar, he pulled him over.

“The sharks, how soon?” Sean whispered, panic causing his voice to break.

Richard didn’t answer. Soon enough. If either of them was bleeding, it’d be only a matter of minutes before a pack of them latched on to the trail and closed in. He reached down to the holster on his hip…the revolver was gone.

Damn.

In spite of the warmth of the tropical sea, he began to shiver.

A sun seemed to explode directly overhead, casting a hellish blue-white light. A wave lifted them up, and he saw the ship bearing down on them. It was hard to judge distance, but the vessel seemed only a few hundred yards off, and for a second he thought it just might be the Gettysburg after all, this entire affair a tragic mistake.

But it wasn’t the Gettysburg. The ship was smaller, sleeker, a blocklike turret on the forward bow where the Gettysburg had its aerosteamer catapult. The ship was reversing its engines, knifing straight toward them.

The sea around him was littered with debris: bits of wreckage, a broken spar, flame-scorched canvas trailing behind it, part of a table sliced in half, chairs, bits of cloth, cable and rope, a deck grating, and, scattered here and there, bodies and parts of bodies.

Neither of them moved. The ocean was silent except for the engines of the approaching ship. The effect was frightful. “Richard,” Sean hissed, pointing at a body floating atop a cresting wave. A fin, rising half a dozen feet out of the water, slashed in, cutting a razor wake through the water. The body jerked, then abruptly disappeared beneath the waves.

“Don’t move,” Richard whispered.

The ship was still closing in. A boat was being lowered from amidships, already half lowered. He could see dark forms illuminated by the flare, running along the deck.

“The Kazan,” Sean gasped.

Richard looked over at his gunner. “Your revolver, you still have it?”

Sean fumbled with one hand, and shook his head. “I lost it.”

Richard groaned. “A hell of a choice,” he said, his voice shaking. “We can start swimming, but that will draw attention from down below. It’d be over in a minute.”

Sean shook his head violently. “If the Kazan are anything like what we’ve heard, you know what will happen.”

Richard suddenly felt a strange detachment from it all. They were facing death either way. He looked over at Sean. His companion’s teeth were chattering with fear.

The away boat was in the water, oars flashing, coming straight at him. In the bow he saw one of them, rifle in hand.

An unintelligible, guttural voice was shouting. The Kazan had a weapon raised, was pointing it.

Richard looked back and forth from Sean to the Kazan. Two choices of death….

He saw a body lift out of the water less than a dozen yards away; the open mouth of a shark, the flash of teeth. The terror of it was too much, and he started to swim the last few feet to the boat, Sean following.

“My lord, if he is alive, we will find him.”

Emperor Yasim tu Zartak was silent, icy gaze sweeping the sea. A flyer hummed past, skimming low across the water, heading into the darkness.

Yasim lowered his head. He was exhausted. A moon ago all would have thought him dead and his brother’s star in its final ascendancy to zenith. And then everything had changed. In the end, all it had taken was a bribe—a bribe that had emptied his coffers and indebted him for life to the Order. It was that or defeat, and though one was barely preferable to the other, still it was a victory.

He looked back at his bridge crew. All stood silent, respectful…and in awe of what had transpired this day; the climax of a generation of war.

The fleet of the Blue Banner, what was left of it, was burning. As for the Yellow, a blade in Sar’s back had settled that issue—yet another bribe. Half the Yellow had lowered their flags, switching colors to the Red. The other half had fled into the darkness.

It had all seemed so effortless, and none knew its true cost: The pledges made to the Grand Master. He smiled sadly, the cost, perhaps the throne itself; a price that would empty the imperial coffers for a hundred years, all that just for two blades in two backs. Granted, a few hundred others had died, or would die in the days to come. It would all be so seamless; done with a certain elegance.

Would the Grand Master rest with this victory? Would he be content, or would he now reach for the throne as well? Surely he would not sit back and expect nothing; not after the price exacted.

With the riches paid, the estates transferred, what force could the Grand Master marshal? An entire fleet perhaps? There were mercenaries enough out there. Half of his fleet was hired through the Shiv, and they could change sides again tomorrow.

No. The war was far from over, he realized. The Banners of the Green, the White, the Black—they might pledge to the throne for the moment, but what was the game behind them?

The flare on the distant horizon winked out.

“I wonder why they fired a star shell?” someone on the bridge whispered.

The emperor ignored the breach of etiquette. Time enough later to find out who had dared to raise a question in his presence and punish him accordingly.

They wondered if Hanaga had escaped after all. Unlikely; it was the second to the Grand Master himself who had been assigned the task of killing. An interesting choice. Undoubtedly the Grand Master wished as well to eliminate a rival to his own power. Yet someone had indeed transferred from the flagship of his brother. It was not his brother. His inner sense told him that his brother was dead.

With a sharp clarity of insight, a clarity that had saved him more than once, the new emperor of the Kazan understood at least part of the puzzle, and smiled.

FOUR

General of the Armies Vincent Hawthorne shifted uncomfortably in his saddle, absently rubbing his left hip, which always troubled him when he rode.

“You wish to take a break, sir?”

Vincent looked over at his adjutant, Lieutenant Abraham Keane, and smiled. The boy was shaping up just fine, still a bit too eager to please, but, then again, young lieutenants fresh out of the academy tended to be like that.

He had his father’s lanky frame, long-limbed, narrow chest, high cheekbones, full lips, and, unfortunately, his father’s weak eyes, which required thick glasses. But he had inherited as well his mother’s Irish red hair. To look at him was somehow a reminder of himself of thirty years ago, when the world was new, the wars had yet to come, and youth seemed eternal.

“Not much farther, Lieutenant. The Bantag have spotted us, so we might as well press on in.”

Abraham nodded, removing his campaign hat to wipe the sweat from his brow. Vincent knew the boy’s canteen was empty, and he was tempted to offer a sip from his own, but decided against it. Good to let him suffer a bit and learn. The old veterans behind them expected their officers, no matter how young, to be as tough as they were.

Vincent looked back over his shoulder at the regiment following him, riding in columns of four. It was a grand sight, trailing back across the open steppes, hot dry wind whipping the guidons, dust boiling away from the column, sweeping off to the distant horizon.

Their dark blue sack coats, khaki trousers, and black knee-high boots were obscured by the thick layer of dust.

Most of the men had their bandannas covering their mouths so that only their eyes were visible.

He had a flash memory of the final battle of the war; the vast open ground, the limitless sky overhead and the thundering charge of the Bantag Horde.

A few of the men behind him had been there, though most were like Abraham, new to the ranks, enduring military service at one of the isolated outposts ringing the Hordelands. For twenty years it had been thus, twenty-five outposts ringing the million and a half square miles assigned to the defeated Hordes at the end of the Great War. The duty was tough: patrolling the range, ensuring that the Horde stayed within its territory, maintaining an uneasy peace between two races that had known nothing but hatred and conflict for thousands of years.

Those who had once been the masters of this world had finally tasted bitter defeat, and only a fool would assume that they did not harbor a dream of returning the world to what it had once been.

A distant hum caught his attention. Shading his eyes against the noonday sun, Vincent caught a glimpse of an aerosteamer lazily circling. Signaling for the column to change direction, he headed toward the steamer, knowing that it marked the destination of this, his annual trek into the Bantag Range.

Eager anticipation showed on young Keane’s face, and Vincent smiled.

“This is your first ride out here, isn’t it?” he asked.

‘ “Yes, sir. I’ve never seen a Horde encampment before, just a few hunting parties.”

“During the first battle of Suzdal, the Tugars camped all along the hills east of town where the new city now is. The golden yurt of old Muzta—now, there was a sight—must have been fifty yards across. Their tents stretched as far as the eye could see. It was a grand and terrible sight.”

He looked over at Abraham. God, how the years have passed. That seemed just like yesterday. It was colored, though, by the haze of memory. It was hard to remember the sheer terror; the umens drawn up, the thundering chants, the rhythmic pounding of scimitars on shields that so strangely sounded like the approach of a freight train.

And the terror of the charge. The way they came on like a hurricane, oblivious to loss.

Abraham knew none of that. All he would know would be the legends, the memories, the Decoration Day and Victory Day parades, where aging veterans gathered with his father, the Colonel, to remember the fallen and march in review, then retire to the nearest tavern to expand upon the stories and memories of old.

The losers, though, what did they now remember? Vincent wondered. Like Prometheus, they were chained to the rock of memory, tormented by the dream of greatness lost.

He looked back again at the column. Only a couple of them, mostly the older NCOs, had fought at Suzdal, Hispania, Rocky Hill, or the Liberation of the Chin. Some had seen a few minor skirmishes, really nothing more than shoot-outs with an occasional drunken band of Bantags, where two or three were killed on either side and then a flurry of protests and accusations would follow. He wondered how these boys would fare if they suddenly faced not a few drunks, but instead a tidal wave; a full umen filling the horizon ahead, sunlight flickering on drawn blades, the sky overhead turning black as night as volleys of arrows, hissing like snakes, rained down upon them.

Riding through a dried riverbed, he urged his mount up a steep embankment, grunting with pain as he leaned forward. His old wound had never really healed, and even after twenty years he still had to change the protective pad that covered the hole drilled into him by a Bantag bullet. Splinters of bone still worked their way out and only last month Kathleen had been forced to operate yet again to withdraw a particularly painful fragment.

He knew she had most likely told her boy to keep a careful watch on him, and Abraham was doing his part, riding beside him, close enough to offer a supportive hand if he should start to lose his grip on the saddle.

He waved the boy off.

As he crested the riverbank he felt more than heard a distant thunder. The sound instantly sent a cold shiver down his back. It was unmistakable, a deep resonant rumble. His mount pricked up her ears, slowing, tossing her head up to catch the scent of the wind. He’d caught it as well; a mingling of horse, leather, and the musky stench unique to those of the Horde.

He reined about, looking back at his column. The tail of it was still on the far side of the dust-filled riverbed. Some of the men were looking up, a few reaching down to unsnap the holster covers for their carbines.

Looking back at the rise of ground ahead he saw them. Visible first were the horsetail standards held aloft. Within seconds, across a front of half a mile they had appeared, a line of Horde riders advancing at a steady trot, silent, silhouetted against the yellow-blue horizon.

“My God,” Abraham whispered.

Vincent looked over at him and smiled. “Only a regiment. Just a little show, nothing more. Ride back, tell the troop commanders that all weapons are to remain hol-stered. We don’t want any mistakes. Order the regiment to remain on this side of the riverbank and deploy. Then report back to me.”

Abraham hesitated for a second, gaze locked forward, mouth gaping at the display.

“Go on, boy, see to your duty. There’s not going to be a war today. If there was, it’d be a full umen coming at us at a gallop.”

Abraham, recovering, snapped off a proper salute and reined about.

Vincent continued forward, ordering his guidon bearer and bugler to follow, urging his mount to a slow trot. The Bantag came to a stop at the crest of the ridge, the wind \ whipping the horsetails of the Qar Qarth’s standard. He had learned some of their ways over the years and identified the banner as that of the first regiment of the umen of the white horse, the elite personal guard of their Qar Qarth. Here were the best of them, the victors at Port Lincoln and Capua, bled out in the siege of Roum, defiant, however, to the bitter end. Their ranks, like his, were now filled with the sons of those who had survived the war.

Lieutenant Keane rode up to join him. Like an eager child, he was hoping to be invited along. Vincent hesitated for a second. This was, after all, the only surviving son of Andrew Lawrence Keane.

Political considerations however, swayed him. The one he was going to meet had a grudging respect for Andrew, and it wouldn’t hurt to have the boy along. He nodded his consent. Abraham broke into a boyish grin, but then, remembering that he was a newly minted officer out of the academy, instantly assumed the proper look of stern forthrightness.

“Abraham, you can carry my guidon.”

Vincent looked over at his bugler.

“Ruffles and flourishes, Sergeant.”

The high piercing call sent a chill down his spine. Looking up at the line of Bantags, he half wished it was the call for charge instead. He smiled inwardly. Old memories, old hatreds, and passions, die hard. He had been seasoned by war, bitterly scarred by it, and yet after all these years the dark coiled longing for it lingered in his soul.

The words of Robert E. Lee whispered to him: “It is good war is so terrible, else we would grow too fond of it.” The deep, throaty rumble of a narga, the Horde battle trumpet, echoed back in reply. He saw two figures separate from the Bantag line, a rider followed by a standard bearer.

With a gentle nudge he urged his mount to a canter and started up the hill to meet Jurak, Qar Qarth of the vanquished Horde of the Bantag.

Qar Qarth Jurak reined in for a moment, his gaze sweeping across the steppes, focusing on the antlike column deploying across the streambed below. They glanced at the flyer circling overhead.

“Damn them,” he whispered softly.

“My Qarth?”

He looked over at his son, who today was serving as his aide, and smiled. “Nothing, Garva. Just remember, stay silent and observe.”

The lad nodded eagerly, and Jurak felt a stab inside. The boy’s mother had died during the winter of the breathing sickness, which had swept through the impovished camps, killing thousands. He had her eyes, the set of her jaw, the proud visage, and to look at him triggered memories that were still too painful to recall.

“Is that their Qarth?” Garva asked, nodding toward the two that were approaching.

“General of their armies, Vincent Hawthorne.”

“He is tiny. How can that be a general?”

“He’s one of their best. Remember, he defeated us. Never judge an enemy by physical strength. Always consider the mind. Now, be silent.”

Over a year passed since he had last seen Hawthorne. Hawthorne’s hair was showing wisps of gray, and by the way he rode it was obvious that he was in pain. He looked even smaller on his diminutive mount. The humans had been breeding their mounts for a size that fit them better. Their horses now looked almost toylike.

Vincent reined in a dozen feet away, stiffened, and formally saluted. “Qar Qarth Jurak, you are well?”

His command of the language was good. It was obvious he had been studying.

“I am well, General Hawthorne, and you?”

Vincent smiled. “A reminder of the old days troubles me.” He absently patted his hip. “I heard the sad news of your mate’s passing and bring the regrets of Colonel Keane.”

“Thousands died,” Jurak replied. “Some see it as a sign of the displeasure of the ancestors.”

Vincent nodded. He stiffly swung his leg over the saddle and dismounted. It was an interesting gesture, Jurak thought, for the first to dismount was acknowledging subservience, and he wondered if Vincent knew that.

There was a slight grunt of amusement from Garva, but a quick glance stilled him.

Jurak dismounted as well and came forward. For an awkward moment, the two gazed at each other, the small general of the humans, who were the victors in the Great War, the towering Qar Qarth of the Bantag Horde looking down. He let the moment draw out. Humans tended to be frightened when a Horde rider stood close, and they were forced to gaze up at dark, impenetrable eyes. Hawthorne did not flinch. His gaze was steady, and a flicker of a smile creased his mouth.

He finally broke the silence. “We can stand here all day and play this game, Jurak, or we can sit down and talk like two civilized leaders.”

Jurak laughed softly and looked back at his son. “Something to eat and drink, Garva.”

Without ceremony, Jurak sat down on the hard ground.

The scent of crushed sage washed up around him, a pleasant smell: crisp, warm, ladened with memories.

Hawthorne’s aide dismounted as well, unclipping a folding camp chair from behind Vincent’s saddle and bringing it up.

“Hope you don’t mind that I use a chair,” Vincent asked. “At least then we can see eye to eye, and it’s a bit easier on me.”

Jurak nodded, realizing that Vincent was aware of the implications of sitting higher in the presence of the Qar Qarth.

Garva brought forward a jar filled with kumiss and two earthen mugs. Pouring the drinks, he handed them over. Jurak dipped his finger into the mug and flicked droplets to the four winds and then to the earth before drinking.

As he did so, his gaze fell on Vincent’s aide. The boy was watching him, fascinated. There was something vaguely familiar to Jurak.

“Jurak, may I introduce Lieutenant Abraham Keane, who is serving as my adjutant.”

“Your sire, then, is Andrew Keane?”

“Yes, sir.”

“You come from good blood. How is your father?”

“Well, sir. He asked that I convey to you his personal respects, and his regrets as well for the passing of your mate.”

Jurak nodded his thanks. “We both know pain, your sire and I. You are his only surviving son, are you not?”

“Yes, Qar Qarth Jurak.”

“Interesting that he became your—how do you call it— your president yet again. Does he enjoy such power?”

“No, sir. It was never his desire to hold that rank.”

Jurak smiled. “All of ability desire power.”

“And I assume your aide is your son?” Vincent interrupted.

Garva stiffened, and then formally nodded with head slightly bowed.

Jurak, caught by surprise, said nothing.

“I could see your blood in him. Tell me, do you desire power, son of the Qar Qarth?”

“Of course,” Garva replied stiffly. “When my sire goes to our ancestors, I shall rule as he did.”

“And how shall that be?” Vincent asked. “How shall you rule?”

Jurak looked over at his son, eyes filled with warning “Justly,” Garva replied coolly.

“Yes, your father has been just.”

“To whom?” Jurak asked. “Just to your people or to mine?”

“There has been no war for twenty years. I think that is a worthy accomplishment.”

“No war. Define war, Vincent Hawthorne.”

“I don’t need to do that for you. We both know what it is.”

“Let us get, as you humans say, ‘down to business.’ ” Vincent nodded.

“I received your listing of complaints—the incident at Tamira’s Bridge, the refusal of passage to the Nippon settlers, the supposed raids, the disappearance of two flyers, the rumors of raids to take prisoners for the moon feast, and all the other allegations.”

“You may call them allegations. I attended the funeral of the thirty-two men killed at Tamira, and their dead bodies were not allegation but fact. As to the incident where a dozen Chin settlers disappeared, by God, if they were sacrificed, I will have one hell of a problem restraining Congress from ordering a punitive expedition. Remember, the Chin are the single largest voting block, and they are screaming bloody murder over this rumor.”

“Fifty-three of my riders died at Tamira,” Jurak replied, choosing to ignore the issue of the Chin, “and the question is who shot first. We both have our own answers to that.”

“It could have sparked a war.”

“And you have yet to define war to me, Hawthorne. Remember, I am not of this world. I came here from another place, as did you. I was educated on a world where there are things you cannot imagine or dream of.”

Vincent stiffened slightly. “Such as weapons you might dream of?”

“Perhaps, yes. And in my education, I studied the writings of Ju ta Vina, who stated, ‘War is the eternal process, and peace is but the preparation for the renewal of conflict.’ ”

“Do you believe that?”

“You do, otherwise you would not be here, in uniform, in command of the tens of thousands of troops that ring us in on what you call the Bantag Range and which many of my people define as nothing more than a prison.”

“What, then, was the alternative?” Vincent asked sharply. “My God, we could have slaughtered you after the Chin rebelled. Remember, it was Hans that offered the compromise and saved your life as well.”

Jurak lowered his head. “I owe him blood debt,” he acknowledged, “and yes, you could have slaughtered us.”

“We are drifting onto dangerous ground here,” Vincent interjected. “Refighting the past is meaningless.”

“Yet history is the foundation of the future.”

Vincent said nothing, taking a sip of kumiss, then setting the cup down.

“The reason for this meeting is that we are dying here. The herds of the great hairy giants are all but gone after twenty years of hunting. In a few more years what food we can gather will be gone forever. More and more of our horse herds are being devoured. Riders who once owned a dozen mounts now rarely have more than two or three. We once ranged around the entire world. Now we are confined to but one small corner of it, and the land is used up.”

“We survive on less land with far more people.”

“You are farmers, and you have the machines that you have denied us the right to make or to own.” As he spoke he nodded to the flyer, which continued to circle overhead. “Then be farmers.”

Garva barked a defiant laugh, and Jurak did not look back. “Go suggest that to my warriors up there,” Jurak replied sharply, pointing at the regiment deployed on the ridge behind them. “See how long you or I would live. The Ancestors would scoff at us, would be ashamed and deny any who did thus the right to join them on the Everlasting Ride through eternity.”

“You are not of this world. Do you honestly believe that?” Jurak stiffened, knowing that his son was standing but half a dozen feet away, hearing everything.

“Of course,” he said hurriedly, “but what I believe does not matter. It is what my people believe that is important. I convinced them to give up the ride, for it was either that or the war continued. I convinced them to forswear the moon feast, to become hunters of other creatures instead.”

Vincent’s gaze went icy.

“I mean no offense, Hawthorne, but remember, that is how you were viewed.”

“I know, and that is why I wonder what it is you and your warriors are now truly thinking.”

“You must acknowledge that the way it now is cannot last. Do you honestly expect my people to quietly sit on this empty land and starve to death? The lung sickness of last winter was but the start. They will grow weaker, ask your doctors of it. It is called malnutrition, and as they grow weaker they will become susceptible to a whole host of diseases.

“You have your medicines, inoculations, a wealth of food. We do not.”

“Then make them.”

Jurak laughed. “How? Where in the name of the Gods do I start? Build a school? Who will teach? What will we teach? I am but one from another world. You Yankees had hundreds of minds to start with. To do what you suggest will take a hundred years, which I don’t have. I am worried about what will happen when winter comes again.”

“So what are you asking for?”

“To leave this place, to resume the ride.”

Vincent shook his head. “You can’t ride west. The Chin will never stand for it. You mix your people in with mine, and there will be a slaughter on both sides, and we both know it. If you go east, Congress will never accept that. There are people there. They are not yet part of the Republic, but soon will be. It is their land, and we are sworn to protect it.”

“So, you are telling me that we are stuck here.” Hawthorne looked down at the ground, absently kicking an anthill with the toe of his boot.

“The Merki are all but dead. They tried to continue on. Wherever they went, there was rebellion and slaughter, hundreds of thousands of humans, and riders have died far to the west across the last twenty years. The Tugars have settled into the great forest and are surviving.”

“Surviving?”

There was a snort of disdain from Garva, and again Jurak let the youth have his way. The humans fully understood that the Tugars were held in contempt for their betrayal of the Merki at the Battle of Hispania. If ever the two Hordes should meet, no matter what the humans threatened, there would be a war of vengeance.

“We are two aging warriors,” Vincent said, his gaze again fixed on Jurak. “We can speak bluntly. I am ordered by Congress and by the president of the Republic to inform you that the boundaries of your lands are permanently fixed by the treaty that you yourself signed. Any attempt to move beyond them will be construed as an act of war, and we both know what that would mean.”

“You will slaughter us,” Jurak replied, his voice cold. “If I had a thousand of those things”—he pointed at the flyer circling overhead—“not those primitive machines but the kind I knew on my world, you would not speak so lightly of war. You do so now because you know that with your land ironclads, your trains, and your flyers, it would not be war, it would be extermination.”

Vincent nodded. “I speak to you now as someone who has come to respect you. I came to this world a stranger. At first I hated your race and everything associated with it. I killed as you did.”

“Yes, I know. You are a legend, Vincent Hawthorne, when it comes to killing.”

Vincent was silent for a moment, features gone pale as if a dark dream had seized him. He lowered his head, the slightest of tremors flickering across his face.

“Yes, I killed on a level that even the oldest of your warriors would admire. I don’t want any more of it. Fighting in the field as we once did, line facing line, there was at least some honor to that butchery. This is different. How long could your warriors stand against our land ironclads, our gatlings, the firebombs dropping from our flyers?”

“You made sure in the treaty that we could not. Remember, we are denied the ability to make such weapons.”

“What the hell else were we supposed to do? If the roles were reversed, I daresay you would have not been so generous. It would have been all of us to the slaughter pits.”

As he spoke his face turned red, anger rising to the surface. “Yes,” Jurak replied quietly. “My people would have demanded such a thing, for both of us realize a fundamental point now. Only one race will survive on this world.”

“Sir, it does not have to be that way.”

Both of them looked at Abraham Keane, who throughout the conversation had stood in respectful silence behind Vincent.

Vincent started to make an angry remark, but Jurak extended his hand. “Indulge him. Besides, he is the son of Keane. Go on, boy, speak.”

Abraham blushed. “Sir, my father has often said that his hope was that somehow we could finally learn to coexist, side by side.”

“And you believe this?”

“I want to.”

“I know enough of your father to believe him and you, at least as to what you might wish.”

“It is what many of us wish,” Vincent interjected. “Wishes, always wishes,” Jurak replied sharply. “I must deal this winter with facts.”

“We could send food to you.”

“Ahh, so now we are reduced to beggary. Should we come to the depot and bow in thanks? Suggest that to my warriors up on the ridge and see what they say. They would choose one of two things in reply to that: either cut their own throats or cut yours. The Ancestors would spit upon them for such an infamy.”

“You are telling me, then, that there will be war?” Vincent asked.

Jurak leaned back and closed his eyes, then finally shook his head.

“No. But I am telling you that unless something changes, no matter what we desire, things will become impossible. Either we are allowed to expand our range to new lands, or we starve. No other alternative you suggest can work.”

“And that is what I am to carry back to Congress?”

“Tell your Congress to come to our encampments and see the starvation. Then ask them what is to be done.”

“Jurak, I hope you know enough about me to know that I will honestly tell them the truth regarding your situation.”

Jurak nodded. “Yes, I believe you will.”

“But I promise nothing. I will suggest expansion to the north. It is land belonging to the Nippon, which is still open range. They are very testy about such issues, but if we could give you access to the Great Northern Forest, there is game aplenty there. Perhaps that might help.”

“For the present at least.” Jurak’s voice was cool, distant.

Vincent shifted uncomfortably, and Jurak could sense that he wanted to talk about something else.

He nodded to his son, who refilled his goblet with kumiss.

“We’ve had reports,” Vincent continued.

“Of what?”

“The Kazan.”

Jurak looked straight ahead, wondering how his son was reacting. His gaze focused on Keane’s son, standing behind Hawthorne. The boy was staring straight at him, penetrating pale blue eyes that, if of the Bantag, would mark him as a spirit walker.

Somehow he sensed that the boy knew, and it was disquieting.

Hawthorne looked back over his shoulder at Keane. “Abraham, could you fetch that item you’re carrying for me?”

The boy stirred and turned away.

Abraham Keane opened the saddlebag on his mount. As he reached inside, he looked back at Jurak, who was still staring at him.

Something is bothering him, Abraham thought. All of the Qar Qarth’s attention was focused on him.

Why?

He pulled out the package, wrapped in an oil-soaked wrap, and brought it up to Vincent, who motioned for him to open it. Untying the binding, Abraham laid the cloth open. He picked up the revolver, the bulk of it so large that he felt he should hold it with two hands.

The steel was burnished to an almost silver gleam, and the grips were made of ivory. It was not an old cap and ball weapon from the war, but a cartridge-loaded weapon, the cylinder holding eight rounds of a heavy caliber. As he held it forth, he looked again at Jurak.

Abraham wondered what it would be like to do what his father had done. More than once his father had leveled a revolver into the face of one of the Horde riders and fired, so close, he had heard veterans say, that their manes had burst into flames.

What was it like to kill? he wondered.

Jurak stared at him, the flicker of a smile crossing his features. “Ever been in battle, boy?”

The words were a deep grumble, spoken in the slave dialect, which was taught at the academy to young cadets who would be assigned to the cavalry on the frontier.

“No, sir.”

“Your father killed scores of my warriors with his own hands.”

“I know.”

“Does that make you proud of him?”

Abraham hesitated.

“Speak with truth.”

Abraham nodded. “It was war. Your race would have destroyed, devoured mine. He’s told me he fought so that I would grow up safe, which I have.”

Jurak laughed softly. “He did it for more than that. He did it because he loved it.”

Abraham shifted uncomfortably, gun still in his hands, pointed not quite at Jurak but in his general direction.

What does this one know of me, of my father? Abraham wondered. Is it true that my father did love it, that he gloried in it? He thought of Pat O’Donald, of William Webster, who was now secretary of the treasury and holder of the Medal of Honor for leading a charge. And he thought of the few others of the old 35 th Maine and 44th New York who were still alive, who would come to the house in the evening and never did a night pass when they did not talk of “the old days.” Always there’d be that gleam in their eye, the sad smiles, the brotherhood that no one else could possibly share. Is that what they love, the memories of it? Or was this leader of a fallen race correct, that they loved it for the killing?

“Did you love it as well?” Abraham asked. “I heard it said that after you defeated us at Capua, you rode before your warriors carrying one of our battle standards, standing tall in your stirrups, acknowledging the cheers of your warriors. Did you love that moment?”

Jurak, caught off guard, let his gaze drop for a second. Hawthorne, who had been watching the exchange, reached out and took the heavy revolver from Abraham’s grasp and inverted it, holding the stock toward Jurak.

“Go ahead, take it.”

Jurak, smiling, accepted the revolver, hefted it, half cocked the weapon and spun the cylinder. He raised it up, pointing it toward the flyer, which still buzzed overhead. “A gift?” Jurak asked.

“No, a return.”

Jurak laughed softly. “You speak in riddles, Hawthorne.”

“I think you know what I mean, Qar Qarth Jurak.”

“Then enlighten me.”

“This weapon was taken from one of your dead after the fight at Tamira. You can see it’s of the finest craftsmanship. Its precision, according to my designer of armaments, exceeds anything we could now make. It is obvious it is not an old weapon left over from our war.”

“So?”

“Where did it come from?”

“You said it was looted from one of my dead.”

“A commander of ten thousand as near as we could figure out from his uniform and standard.”

Jurak was silent.

“It is either one of two things, Jurak. First, if you are now making such things, it is in violation of our treaty.”

“You, however, can make whatever machines that please you,” Garva interjected, voiced filled with anger. He stepped up to his father’s side. Nearly as tall as his sire, he looked down menacingly at Abraham.

Abraham struggled for control, not willing to let this one see fear, and yet he suddenly did feel afraid. It had a primal edge, as if he were confronting a terrifying predator in the dark. He suddenly wondered if this one had ever tasted human flesh, and he knew with a frightful certainty that if given the chance, Garva would do such a thing without hesitation.

He forced himself to stare up at Garva and not back down. Jurak extended his hand. “Go on, Hawthorne.”

“Did you make this weapon?”

Jurak shook his head. “The machinery required, the lathes, to cut the cylinder to such perfection, even the refining of the steel—you know we couldn’t do that and keep it hidden for long.”

“Then if you did not make it, how did one of your warriors come to possess it? It’s not sized to a human. It does, however, fit your hand perfectly.”

Jurak looked straight at Vincent, but did not answer.

“The Kazan. Is that it?”

There was a long silence. Abraham turned his gaze away from Garva, again focusing on Jurak. He wondered how one learned to read them, to understand the nuances of gesture, and found it impossible. Always there was that impenetrability he had heard his father speak of so often.

“They are fifteen hundred leagues or more from here,” Jurak finally replied, waving vaguely toward the south.

“And twelve hundred of those leagues are ocean, which they know how to sail. Have you been in contact with them?”

Jurak actually smiled, but said nothing.

“Is that from the Kazan?” Vincent pressed, and though Abraham’s command of the Bantag slave dialect was far from good, he could clearly catch the tone of anger and even of threat in Vincent’s voice.

“Given how this conversation is progressing, I’d certainly take pleasure in meeting these Kazan,” Jurak replied, leaning forward menacingly, the revolver in his hand now almost pointed at Vincent.

Abraham looked up to the riders who, throughout the meeting, had remained motionless on the ridgeline behind them. He could see that they were intently watching the exchange, and more than one was shifting. Several had old rifles from the war out of their saddle sheaths. He could sense their eagerness, their hope that something was about to explode.

“The possession of that weapon…Vincent continued, ignoring the implied threat in Jurak’s gesture. “If there is contact between you and the Kazan, I must urge you to step back.”

“Why? Is there something about to happen between you and them?” Jurak replied, the slightest of mocking tones in his voice. “If so, it could prove most interesting for the Bantag.”

“Don’t get involved in it, Jurak,” Vincent replied. He sounded almost as if pleading, which Abraham found uncomfortable, but then he realized that it was a heartfelt warning.

“I don’t want another war with you. We fought our fight. We don’t need another such bloodletting, because if there is, we both know the end result.”

Jurak grunted and shook his head. As if bowed under with weariness, he slowly stood up and stretched, then stepped closer to Vincent.

Abraham realized that at last he was seeing anger—the flat nostrils dilating, mane bristling slightly along the neck, the brown wrinkled skin shifting in color to a brighter hue. “Human, we are not slaves. We are not cattle.”

He said the last word in the old tongue, the meaning of it quite clear.

Vincent stood up as well, though the effect simply made the difference in their size more pronounced. Hawthorne barely came up to the Qar Qarth’s chest.

“If they are out there,” Vincent said, “stay out of it. If we do find them, and there is a war, stay out of it. I tell you this not just as a representative of my government, but as a soldier who once faced you in battle. We do not want another war with you. You have nothing to gain by it except slaughter.”

“We have our pride,” Garva interjected.

“Silence!” Jurak shifted, gaze locked on his son for a brief instant, and yet Abraham wondered if he was indeed angry, if the son had not spoken what Jurak felt.

Jurak pointed the gun straight at Vincent. “This weapon proves nothing to me other than your fears. Your fear of a Horde you cannot even find; a fear of us, a fear of yourselves.” He laughed darkly. “You are afraid of becoming like we once were, aren’t you? Your pity stayed your hand, and now you are afraid.”

“Pity?” Vincent cried. “In the name of God, we were all sick of the killing. Remember, it was a human, a cattle who saved your life from that insane animal, the Qar Qarth of the Merki.”

There was a flicker of doubt, of sadness, on Jurak’s face. “Yes, Hans,” he said quietly.

“Then in his name, stay out of this. I’ll see what I can do about expanding your territory, perhaps even easing the restrictions on making machinery, as long as it can’t be used for weapons. I’ll do that in the name of Hans and on my honor as a soldier.”

“You would do that, Hawthorne. I have heard of this religion you once believed in, this thing called Quaker. Tell me, do you still have nightmares over all whom you’ve killed?”

Vincent stiffened and then stepped back. “I’ll forget that question,” he said, his voice filled with icy menace.

Jurak nodded. “I offer apology.”

Vincent, struggling for control, could only give a jerky nod of reply.

“There is nothing else to be said here today,” Jurak announced. “We understand each other. I have begged, and you have threatened, and now we understand.”

- “I have not threatened,” Vincent finally replied, his voice strained. “I have tried to explain things as they are.”

“As have I.”

“My adjutant will deliver a written statement to your camp tomorrow, detailing our understanding of what transpired today. Let us ponder what we’ve discussed and agree to meet again tomorrow or the day after.”

“You have such a love of things in writing, you humans. My old world was like that, too. It is one of the few things about it I don’t really miss.”

“If there is anything else you wish to communicate, I’ll remain camped here for a while.”

Jurak looked at him warily.

“By the treaty signed between us, I and an appropriate escort have the right to traverse your territory, though I would prefer if I did so as an invited guest who has received your permission.”

“My permission?” Jurak laughed softly.

“This is, after all, your land.”

“By your sufferance.”

“I wish you saw it differently.”

“How can I?” There was an audible sigh. “You humans, how can you know what I think? You know nothing of the world I came from, where we were the sole masters. The things I knew there, about the history of our greatness, the half-formed knowledge I still carry of weapons that could sweep you away in a single day, but which I do not understand how to make. Tell me, on your old world, did you not have nations that subjugated and annihilated others solely because they could?”

Vincent did not answer.

“I see that here now. No matter what your intentions, your sense of honor, as you call it—the fact that you and I can in some way respect each other as two former enemies—will not change the inevitable. I know how such things must always end.”

Vincent sadly shook his head. “The better angels of our nature,” he whispered.

“What?”

“A saying by our president back home, the one this young officer”—he nodded toward Abraham—“was named after. He once said that. I wish we could be touched by that now, Jurak.”

But then he pointed at the revolver still in the Qar Qarth’s hand.

“If that, and what it implies, does not unravel everything.”

Without waiting for a reply, he turned away and walked to his mount.

Abraham remained where he was for a few seconds longer, looking at the two.

Garva was rigid, gaze fixed on Hawthorne’s back, and he sensed that if the revolver had been in this one’s hand, Vincent might very well be dead. Garva, realizing he was being watched, looked over at Abraham.

“There will be a day,” he hissed, and then turned away.

Vincent looked next at Jurak, but could not read him. Wondering how to withdraw, he hesitated for an instant, then simply came to attention and saluted.

Jurak, a flicker of a smile again on his face, nodded. “At least I will say this,” he said slowly, “your General Hawthorne has the spirit of a warrior, and I believe that in his heart, he knows us and sees the tragedy of all that was and all that shall be.”

“And what, sir, will you do in reply?” Abraham asked.

“Do? Survive, human, survive.” Jurak turned and walked away.

Abraham came up to Vincent’s side and gently helped him to mount, then swung into his own saddle.

“There’s going to be a war, isn’t there, sir?” he asked.

Vincent, saying nothing, rode back to where the regiment was digging in for the night’s encampment.

Abraham looked toward the bloodred setting sun that hung low on the horizon, the vast, empty steppes bathed in its bloody light. Strange, it was such a beautiful sight, even though it was filled with foreboding.

A random thought came to him. He wondered where his friends Richard and Sean were. Perhaps, out on the vast open sea, such a sunset was indeed a sailor’s delight; a portent of at least one more day of peace.

FIVE

He awoke to hell.

As consciousness returned, he could hear Sean O’Donald’s low rasping breath. Good, he was still alive.

Or was it good? No. Death was the only way out now, better if Sean had died from the last beating.

Eyes swollen nearly shut, Richard turned his head to look at his comrade, chains around their wrists, hanging suspended from the ceiling of the darkened cabin.

As the ship rose and fell, they slowly swung back and forth, Sean groaning as he brushed against the cabin wall, then swung away.

The only illumination came from a narrow slit of light through a slightly ajar wooden porthole cover.

Richard Cromwell wished that the room were completely dark so that he could not see the table across from them. Knives, pincers, and whips were laid upon the table, the only furnishing in the narrow room other than the chains that bound them.

How long had it been? He wasn’t sure. Definitely a day. Had there been a night? If so, he couldn’t remember now. His universe was focused on the pain; the racking thirst that was nearly as terrible; the realization that there was no way out, that they were the prisoners of the Kazan and death was the ultimate outcome.

He tried to become detached, to remember how it once was. He had a vague memory—or was it just what his mother had told him?—of a time when they had been spared the full horror of the Merki occupation of Cartha. She, as the mistress of Tobias Cromwell, was allowed a place to live, decent food, deliverance from the feasts and from the mines.

But then Cromwell had died, and the Merki had sent them into the mines. Even children of two and three had crawled into the narrow seams and retrieved loose rock.

Thus he had lived and grown until the end of the war. He had learned toughness, to look with cold eyes upon unspeakable horror, to watch as others died the most horrible of deaths and to feel nothing.

He wondered how it could be that he was not like so many others who had survived that time; the drifters, the beggars, the drinkers and murderers who had infested the city of Cartha after the war and the coming of the Yankees.

It was his mother’s love that had shielded him from that fate. He could remember her soft touch, her stories of her family, rulers of Cartha before the Great War. Her love had formed a shield around him and somehow kept a kernel within his heart alive and warm.

She had died on the final day the Merki fled from the Yankee gunboats on the coast, the liberation within sight. The Merki had massacred nearly everyone. But even among that dreaded race there could be acts of pity. Their master, ordered to slay everyone, had granted her a clean death, a single blow. Then he had looked down, blade drawn, and hesitated.

“Hide beneath your mother, little one,” he whispered, and left.

So he had hidden, feeling the warmth that covered him growing cold.

A Rus soldier had found him thus, taken him in and raised him. The old man had been kindly enough, a fisherman living alone, who had taught him to sail, to work, to read and write. The old man seldom spoke, for a wound to the throat from a Tugar arrow had made his speech all but unintelligible, but concealed within was a sharp mind and a gentle strength. They would take their small boat out upon the Inland Sea, and often for days not a word would be exchanged, but Richard had, at least with this lonely old man, learned the strength of silence and patience.

He had died when Richard was eighteen, and only then did Richard learn that this quiet, lonely man had been a hero in the Great War, a war of which the old man had never spoken other than to say that his entire family had died in the great siege of Suzdal and that Perm had sent Richard to replace those he had lost.

Several veterans came to the funeral, one of them the Yankee general Hawthorne. He was the one that suggested Richard attend the academy and offered to give a letter of recommendation, never realizing who Richard’s father had really been.

Old Vasiliy had often suggested that Richard take his name, but something within had always stopped him, a defiance toward the world, an unwillingness to concede this one final point. It had caused nothing short of an explosion when he had appeared before the review board to take the exams and placed his true name on the form.

The matter had gone all the way to Andrew Keane, who was not president at the time, but did sit on the Supreme Court. The four years at the academy had been, because of his defiance, less than pleasant. More than one instructor had denounced his father as a traitor and openly mocked his name. And yet his quiet defiance had, in the end, gained him a certain grudging respect.

Vasiliy had taught him never to admit that anything was impossible. Once their net had become tangled in some wreckage, and the old man had told him to dive down and loosen it. The net was too precious to cut away or abandon. He had tried and could not reach it, and Vasiliy simply sat back, lit his pipe and told him they had days if need be, but he would untangle the net.

It had taken a day, he had almost drowned doing it, but he had learned.

And now it is time to die, he thought. I should have died nearly twenty years past. Every day since had been but an extra drawing of breath. At times he half believed in a God, Perm, and Kesus as old Vasiliy called them. At other times, in the face of all the cruelty he had witnessed, it was impossible to believe in any sense or order to the universe, for surely if there was a God he had to be mad to allow such a world as this.

The ship rose on a wave and corkscrewed back down, slamming both of them against the bulkhead. Sean groaned, a shuddering sob racking his body.

“Richard?”

“I’m here.”

Sean looked over at him, face contorted with agony. “I can’t take it again.”

Richard said nothing. He had learned how to block out beatings. In the mines they were the primary way to force children of four and five to work, or simply to amuse a bored Merki master. He had once seen a child slowly beaten to death across an entire day in the same way human children would torment a fly.

The beating of the previous day, however, had not been done for amusement, but for the simple purpose of breaking him down. He understood the method well enough, to push the agony to the limit of endurance, made even more maddening because no questions were asked, nothing demanded as of yet. Pain was simply inflicted, the lash snaking out against their naked bodies until both of them were bloody masses of peeling flesh.

He knew the questioning would come next. They’d be offered yet more torture or a quick release from the pain if they talked.

He looked over again at Sean and saw the terror in his eyes. He wondered if Sean, in turn, could sense the fear within his own soul as well.

“Listen to me,” he gasped, pausing to lick his split and bloodied lips. He swallowed to clear his throat. “Lie to them. We’ll have to talk, but we can lie.” He whispered softly, suspecting that just behind the half closed shutter and porthole a guard was listening. That’s why he spoke in English, doubting that any of their captors knew the language.

“Our ship, the Gettysburg, its an old ship. We have ships three, four times as big. Let’s say, twenty of them. We saw them pulling the wreckage of our flyer in, so tell them the truth about that, but say it’s our smallest aerosteamer. Tell them our army has half a million men under arms and can call up another half million. We have to agree on this now. They most likely will separate us soon.”

Sean, eyes glazed, stared at Richard. “Why?” Sean whispered.

Why? He was so incredulous, he couldn’t respond for a moment.

“It’s our duty, that’s why,” he finally replied.

“Duty? Duty got us into this. I joined because I had to. I was the son of damnable Senator O’Donald. Now look at us.”

A shuddering sob escaped him, and he lowered his head.

“Damn it, Sean, we have to agree on this. It will make it easier for both of us.”

“Easier?”

“I know how these creatures think. They respect strength. Show weakness, and they’ll drag out the agony for their own amusement.

“When they start in again, try to hang on as long as possible. When you simply can’t take it anymore, act as if you’re breaking, then spill it out quickly.”

He looked over at the table where the implements of torture were neatly lined up.

“They get careless sometimes. If you have a chance, throw yourself on one of their blades.”

He had seen that done often enough, and though it was easy to say, he wondered if he would have the courage to do so if the chance should arise.

“Then what?”

If we’re lucky, they just might cut our throats, Richard thought, but looking at Sean, he realized he’d better not say it.

“The moon feast. That’s what they are planning for us, isn’t it?”

Richard shook his head. “They only do that to fresh victims.”

Sean groaned as another wave rolled the boat, swinging them back against the bulkhead.

A burst of light flooded into the room, and, startled, he looked up. The door was open. Two of them were standing there, both in white robes, unlike their tormentors of earlier, who were stripped to the waist and wore black trousers.

The two entered, the second one far taller than normal for one of the Horde, head inclined low even though the ceiling was over eight feet from the deck.

Richard gazed at him warily. He was thin, almost cadaverous for a Bantag, eyes a strange pale blue, a rarity amongst that race. His gaze was penetrating, cutting directly into the soul.

Richard knew that some were able to do this. The terrifying Tamuka, the fallen Qar Qarth of the Merki, had been one, although those with the power usually stood behind a Qarth or even the Qar Qarth as their adviser.

This one, he sensed, had cultivated the ability to see within beyond anything the Hordes of the north knew or comprehended.

As the blue-eyed one gazed at him, Richard fought to show indifference; the look of a slave who was beyond caring and beyond fear.

There was the flicker of a smile, and then he turned to look at Sean.

Richard watched the silent interplay. Sean gasped for breath, eyes drooping. Again the flicker of a smile.

The blue-eyed one said something unintelligible, and his companion pulled a drinking flask out from under his robe, uncorked it, and held it so that Richard could drink.

He gulped it down. The taste was strange, tinged with a slight bitterness, like a strong herb. The flask was withdrawn and offered to Sean, who drank as well.

The second one drew back and then left the cabin. At first Richard felt some of his strength returning, but then he sensed something else, a strange drifting. The pain was still there, but somehow he felt as if he were floating.

The blue-eyed one smiled.

“Yes, it was drugged.”

Richard was startled. The words were in English.

“I seek answers to a few questions. That is all, and then this will end.”

Richard wanted to make a defiant reply, but decided that silence was still the best path.

“Just end it,” Sean cried, his voice near to breaking.

“It will end.” His attention turned to focus on Sean. “Tell me, are you the son of Senator O’Donald of the Republic.”

Richard could not help but betray his shock. The blueeyed one smiled. “We know quite a bit about you.” As he spoke he snapped his fingers.

A man came through the door, a human wearing a white robe, the same as the blue-eyed one. And yet something about him made Richard uneasy, even frightened. The man was tall, matching Richard’s height, but beneath the robe he could sense a physique that was perfection. The man moved catlike. There seemed to be a coiled and deadly power to him, his gaze cool, almost mocking.

“Years ago I sent a dozen like Machu here north, to learn a few things. Your Yankee language was one of the things he returned with. My Shiv learn such things quickly.”

“Shiv?” Sean asked.

He smiled. “My name is Hazin, and you, Sean O’Donald, will learn soon enough who the Shiv truly are.”

“I doubt that,” Richard snapped.

The gaze turned, fixing on him. Yet again he felt the sense of uncovering, of staring within.

At a subtle gesture, Machu stepped forward. The back-handed blow was delivered in almost a casual manner, but the force of it stunned Richard. For a moment he thought his jaw had been shattered, and he gagged on the blood, which nearly choked him.

. The man turned on Sean, and the beating began. Within less than a minute O’Donald was sobbing, begging for it to stop. The whole time Hazin ignored Sean, all attention focused on Richard.

He could feel the drug taking hold, the strange floating, the sudden awareness of the finest nuances of the narrow universe of the cabin, the way motes of dust floated, the scent of salt air drifting in, such a pleasant relief washing away the fetid stench.

He heard the sharp rasping snick of a knife being drawn, and the Shiv held it up before Sean’s eyes. As Sean rocked back and forth, suspended from his chains, the Shiv remained motionless, the point of the blade raised so that with each forward swing it barely touched Sean’s skin, drawing blood from his arms and chest.

Hazin, meanwhile, continued to stare at Richard.

Not you, he seemed to whisper. The other one is the one I know will break.

“What is it you want?” Richard gasped.

“You know,” Hazin whispered.

“No, I don’t.”

Sean was crying, beginning to beg. Richard froze, closing his eyes, trying to block out the sound, and yet still he felt as if Hazin was looking at him, probing within, seeking for something that could not be described by words.

“No, not that, God no.”

Richard opened his eyes and saw with horror that the Shiv had lowered his blade and was preparing to make the most cruel of cuts with it.

Sean was shaking his head back and forth, feebly kicking, his cries drawn out into a long pitiful moan.

Richard looked back at Hazin. “Stop it,” he gasped. “I’ll tell you what you want, just leave him alone.”

“No, you would lie, Cromwell. You would try to save your friend, but still you would lie.”

“I’ll tell you anything,” Sean begged, “just not that.”

Richard lowered his head, and in spite of himself tears welled up. He had never had room for pity in his life. There was no room for pity in slavery, it could only lead to death. Yet now he felt it for a comrade who had been pushed beyond the limits of endurance. He wondered as well if he would have broken with such a threat. He wondered if Hazin, who somehow seemed to be inside his very thoughts, knew the answer to that question.

He heard the snick of a lock opening. The Shiv had unsnapped one of the manacles holding Sean and then unlocked the other. O’Donald fell to the deck, sagging down onto his knees. The Shiv effortlessly picked him up and carried him out of the room.

But Hazin did not follow. Another Shiv came in, this one almost identical to the first. He had the same muscular build, the same sharklike eyes devoid of emotion. Richard wondered if the torture was to continue.

Instead there was a blessed relief as the manacles around his wrists were unfastened. He tried to remain on his feet as he dropped to the deck, but his knees gave way. The Shiv pulled him back up and roughly tossed a cloak over his shoulders, covering his nakedness, then pointed at the door.

Legs wobbly, Richard did as ordered. It was difficult to walk. The pain was beginning to float away, replaced by a strange warmth, and yet his mind still seemed focused on his awareness of Hazin.

Stepping into the sunlight, he breathed deeply. The ship was strange, its lines sleeker than the Gettysburg, no masts; its deck painted a dull gray and scorched here and there with battle damage. Part of the deck forward had been split apart.

The ocean was a vast expanse of a deep, lush blue, sparkling with whitecaps driven before a warm, tropical breeze. He felt, at that moment, as if it were the most beautiful experience he had ever known—the ocean, the scent of the wind, the rocking of the ship beneath his feet as it plowed through the gently rolling sea.

Hazin stepped past him, motioning to him to follow, and Richard went up a ladder and through an open door. The light inside was muted. What appeared to be an altar of black stone rose at the far end of the room, which was filled with the sweet scent of incense.

Silk curtains over the portholes were drawn shut, but a soft, diffused light filtered through, giving the room a gentle, comfortable feel Hazin motioned to a chair set by a table. On it was an open decanter and a single crystal goblet beside it.

“Have something to drink. Cromwell.”

“Is it drugged as well?”

Hazin smiled. “Of course. You can refuse, but in the end thirst will compel you, and you will drink. So why endure the wait?”

Richard looked at the decanter and hesitated.

“Your friend is drinking even now.”

Richard looked bitterly over at Hazin. But his back was turned, facing the altar, holding a burning taper to light a candle.

“Cromwell, we can play this game for the rest of the day. You can even try and kill yourself by not drinking. But I can assure you that you will be forced to drink.”

Hazin turned and smiled. “O’Donald is telling us everything—the size of your fleet, your army, types of weapons, he’ll tell us all.”

“Your spies told you already, so why torture him?” Richard snapped.

“Interesting. You seem more worried about him than yourself.”

“I know what to expect.”

“I understand your body was covered with lash scars even before the current unpleasant treatment. Were you a slave of the Bantag?”

“The Merki.”

“Even crueler. A primitive people, the Merki. It shows a certain toughness on your part.”

Richard continued to eye the decanter. It contained a swirl of color, a rainbow sparkle of light that was infinitely pleasing.

“The information we have on your Republic is old. Half a dozen or more years. After the treaty we of course sent spies in, but recent events caused my order to shift its attention elsewhere. Frankly, the appearance of your ship was a bit of a surprise for me, but in the web of things I feel there might be a use for it—and you.”

Hazin drew closer, and, pulling out a chair on the other side of the table, he sat down. Richard looked at him warily, gaze flickering to his belt, hoping to see a knife. Though all of this race had an overwhelming physical strength, they were usually slower, even a bit clumsy, and a human moving quickly could at times snatch a blade or weapon.

“I’m not armed, at least not with the type of weapons you seek,” Hazin announced dryly, as if bored with Richard’s intentions.

“What the hell do you want, then?” Richard snapped. “If poor Sean is breaking, you have what you need. I’ll just lie, and you know that. So finish it, damn you.”

Hazin chuckled softly. “Spirit. That’s why you are sitting here with me while ‘poor Sean,’ as you call him, is being questioned in a slightly different manner.”

Richard bristled, and Hazin held up his hand.

“No. The torture is finished. That was just a way of making one of the two of you pliable. You intrigue me, Cromwell. I just want to talk.”

“How did you know our names?”

“Foolish question. I expected better. Your names were written on the seams of your clothing, and both of you had your commission papers in your wallets. Poor security, flyers should never be allowed out like that. One of my Shiv recognized the name O’Donald, and I of course had heard of your father.”

Richard stiffened and lowered his eyes.

“Yes, the traitor of your Great War, Did you know him?”

“No. My mother was a Merki slave. He died when I was an infant.”

“Yet you kept his name. A certain pride there. I approve of that in anyone, of my race or of yours.”

“The Shiv?” Richard asked.

Hazin stood up and returned to the altar, then leaned against it, looking back at Richard. “The future for this world.”

“The Republic is the future. If you come after us, you will never win.”

“A loyal answer, but then, you only know of your Republic. You know nothing of us, of what we are and shall be.” Richard thought of the ship he was now on, how easily it had smashed the Gettysburg, of the man with the cold eyes who Richard sensed could kill with effortless efficiency.

“The Shiv are your future, Cromwell. Across ten generations we of my Order have been breeding humans, seeking the traits desired: physical strength, intellect, and cunning. Those who pass such traits on to the next generation are allowed to continue to breed. The others,” and he smiled, “well, they have their uses as well.”

Richard looked at him, incredulous. He knew he should feel outrage and disgust, but the damnable drug was making itself felt. The room was drifting, floating. The way the light shone through the porthole, catching Hazin’s strange blue eyes, held his attention.

“Imagine what fifty thousand such warriors could do to your army. But there does not have to be a fight. It could instead be a compromise, an understanding without needless bloodshed.”

“The Republic will never surrender, as long as Keane and those who think like him are alive.”

Hazin nodded. “Yes, I know. Just a dream of mine.” He sighed.

Strangely, Richard felt a sympathy, almost a desire to somehow please, to understand. He fought against it, trying to stay focused, to find something, anything in the room that he could fight with, to kill, to go down fighting.

“You have a remarkable strength, Cromwell. I admire that. Everyone else is far too transparent and malleable. It is actually rather boring at times.”

Hazin drew closer and remained standing, looking down at Richard.

“I could force you, I want you to know that. The Shiv are bred to the needs of my order. At five they are taken from their mothers, who offer them up gladly, and for the next fifteen years are trained mainly by those of their own race. Half die in that training for war, or for other work, or for our special purposes.”

“Special purposes?”

“We can discuss that later.”

“I give them something to believe.” He nodded to the black altar. “Combine such strength with religious belief, and you have a force that is terrifying to behold. You, unfortunately, would never believe. Always there would be the memory of childhood, of other things. I could deaden you with what is in that decanter, make you pliable for a while, but you could never be fully of them.”

“Why are you telling me this?”

“Because I’ve never had the opportunity before,” Hazin replied. “It intrigues me. You are not of the Shiv, not of the millions of other humans who live among us as slaves. Being different, there must be a use for you. Focusing on that will be an interesting experiment for me.”

Richard struggled for control, to somehow avoid the eyes, the sudden thirst, the desire to let the power of the drug expand. After the war, in the rare times that he and Vasiliy had gone to Suzdal, he had seen more than one crippled veteran who had become addicted to the morphine given to them in the hospital. They would sit in a shady corner, oblivious to their squalor, drifting in dreams. Is that what they are doing to me now?

He looked back at the decanter and then, with a slow deliberate gesture, knocked it over. As the decanter fell off the table, it seemed to hang suspended. Fascinated, he watched as it ever so slowly fell, the golden container upending, crystal blue liquid gurgling out onto the dark wooden floor.

His gaze shifted to Hazin.

“No,” he whispered. “I suggest that you find your entertainment elsewhere.”

“I could make it far more painful that you could ever imagine. We could slowly cut your friend apart in front of you for starters, then turn on you.”

“Go ahead. We’re dead anyhow.” The brave words spilled out of him, even as the thought of what was to come.

Of course, he had proclaimed the usual amnesty, even praising those of the court who had so loyally served his brother. Once settled in, he could begin the quiet process of elimination and vengeance.

And yet the question of Hanaga’s survival still lingered. A survivor from Hanaga’s flagship had been fished out of the water and claimed to have seen him abandoning ship just before it had exploded.

It would be like him to survive,” Yasim muttered, looking over at the slight diminutive form wrapped in the white and gold robe of the Grand Master.

“And which ship did he flee to?”

“The sailor did not know.”

“Undoubtedly one of ours.”

“One of yours?”

The Grand Master chuckled. “But of course. Don’t you think there is more than one captain of a ship who is secretly a member of our order?”

Yasim looked over nervously at the Grand Master. “You said that Hazin was reliable, that he would fulfill the contract.”

“Yes I know.”

“I sense uncertainty in your voice, Grand Master.” There was no reply.

SIX

“I never realized how beautiful it could be out here,” Abraham Keane said, hands clasped around a warming cup of tea to ward off the early morning chill.

Sergeant Kasumi Togo laughed, shaking his head. “You’re a romantic, Keane. You should have grown up out here as I did. The steppes can be deadly.”

Abe did not reply, looking past Togo, soaking in every detail and reveling in it.

The eastern horizon was showing the first glow of impending dawn, a band of dark purple that was expanding outward, the core of light a golden red. He turned to look to the western horizon. The twin moons, Hasadran and Baka, old Horde names that had stuck with the human race, were dipping low.

Togo was squatting by the campfire, made of dried horse and mammoth dung. Looking at him, Abe wondered if it had been the same between his father and Hans Schuder, the older sergeant taking the young officer under his wing.

Togo had been with the cavalry ever since Nippon joined the Republic after the end of the war, serving as sergeant in command of scouts attached to the 3rd cavalry. Abe had been naturally drawn to him, sensing that here was a man who could teach him the ways of the steppe and of the Bantag, and the sergeant had been more than indulgent and patient.

“So how is it with the general?” Togo asked, nodding toward Hawthorne’s tent.

“What do you mean?”

“With them bastards over there.” As he spoke he indicated the encampment of the Bantag, which filled the plains to the east.

“Nothing’s changed.”

“I heard rumor we’re to stay on for a while, keep an eye on them.”

Abe stiffened slightly, and Togo laughed.

“Don’t get upset, Lieutenant. It’s my job, in a way, to know what generals are thinking.”

“Well, you didn’t hear anything from me.”

“Relax, Lieutenant. You’re the model of a proper officer, you are.”

Abe wasn’t sure if Togo was being sarcastic or just having a little fun with him. He knew he was still too stiff and formal, typical of the academy with its spit and polish and every button buffed to a shine. Out here on the frontier it was a different world; of dirty blue and khaki, muddy water, and glaring heat.

“In the old days, they marked the time of dread,” Togo said, pointing at the twin moons. “Tomorrow they’ll be full, signaling the moon feast.”

Abe nodded. God, what a world his parents had known. He could hardly imagine the terror of it. Looking back to the east, he could see the early morning glow silhouetting the golden yurt of Jurak Qar Qarth.

It had been a subject in class more than once, the primal terror that the mere presence of a Horde rider engendered in all humans, and yet somehow he could almost feel a pity for them now in spite of all that his father, Hawthorne, and others had endured in the Great War. What was it like to lose, to see one’s greatness shattered, to live at the whim of another race? A generation ago they had bestrode the earth, riding where they pleased, living as their ancestors had for thousands of years.

In the negotiations of the last week he had sensed that and developed a begrudging respect for Jurak, wondering how his own father would react to the reality of what was happening out here.

He had seen the poverty of their camps, the thin bodies of their young, the scramble for food when the carcass of a mammoth was brought in, more than a little ripe after two days of hauling it from the place where it had been killed and butchered.

“My father, brothers, and sisters all died at their hands,” Togo announced, gaze fixed, like Abraham’s, on the yurt. Abe turned. “You never told me that.”

“No reason to talk about it.” He shrugged, taking another sip of tea.

“Do you hate them?”

Togo smiled. “Of course. Don’t you?”

“I’m not sure.”

Togo looked at him with surprise. “You, the son of Andrew Keane?”

“I don’t know at times. From all that I’ve heard, my father in battle became another person. But he always said that hatred makes you vulnerable. It clouds your judgment. It closes off being able to think as your opponent does and through that defeating him.

“I do know he hated the leader of the Merki, I think in part because of Hans Schuder. But those over there”—he pointed toward the yurts—“I can’t say.”

Abe sat down, stretching out his long legs. The ground was cool, and the wetness of the morning dew soaked through his wool trousers. The scent of sage wafted up around him, a pleasant smell, dry and pungent.

He looked around the encampment, a full regiment of cavalry, and he felt a chill of delight. He knew he was romanticizing, and yet he could not help it. The last of the fires had flickered down, wispy coils of smoke rising straight up in the still night air. Like spokes on a cartwheel, still forms lay around each of the fires, curled up asleep. At times one or two would sit up, then settle back down for a few final moments of rest.

He caught a glimpse of a sentry, riding picket, slowly circling the encampment, whispering a song, a lovely tune popular with the Celts, who so eagerly volunteered for service with the cavalry.

A few night birds sang, and the first of the morning birds were stirring as well, strange chirping and warbling calls. A shadowy ghost drifted past, an owl swooping into a stand of grass, then rising back up, carrying off its struggling prey.

“That’s the steppes,” Togo said, “beautiful but deadly. It’s where I grew up. My uncle settled a thousand or more square miles abandoned during the wars. It’s part of the land that the general was talking about with them yesterday.”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t know.”

Togo plucked up a stem of grass and slowly twirled it into a knot.

“It is always that way, Lieutenant. It is about power and survival. The world is not big enough for us all. One side or the other must give way. Their mistake was, they didn’t realize that by enslaving us, they had sown the seeds of their doom. They should have slain our ancestors on the spot the moment any of us came through the Portals. If they had, they would have owned this world forever and could live on it as they pleased.”

“But they didn’t.”

“And so now they will lose all. And frankly, I hope they all go to the devil, where they belong.”

“General Hawthorne says that we must find a way to settle this without fighting.”

“If you doubt me, go to that yurt that looks so exotic, and listen to what is being said within. Then you will no longer doubt.”

They know something is happening, Jurak Qar Qarth thought, staring into his golden chalice of kumiss, which had been stirred with fresh blood.

His gaze swept the yurt, which had been his home now for more than twenty passings of the year. Strange, it was hard to remember anything else, of a world of homes that did not move, of cities, gleaming cities, books, quiet places, sweet scents, and peace.

Like the Yankees, I am a stranger here, but unlike them, I knew of wars in which entire cities burned from the flash of a single bomb, of fleets of planes darkening the sky, of ten thousand armored landships advancing into battles that covered a front of a hundred leagues. No, they do not know war as I know, as I could dream of it here if I but had the means.

And that, he knew, was how this world had changed him. When he had come here he’d felt almost a sense of relief of having escaped alive from the War of the False Pretender, a war that was annihilating his world, turning it into radioactive ruin. At first, when his companion had seized the Qar Qarth’s throne of this primitive tribe, he had stood to one side, observing, almost detached from it all as if he were a student sent to watch.

All that had changed, however, when it was evident that the new Qar Qarth had gone mad with his power and was leading the Bantag to doom. Plus, if he had not acted decisively, these primitives would have killed him as well.

He had accepted peace to save them, and for a while he had even harbored a dream that somehow he could find a way to preserve them. He knew now that was folly.

He looked over at his son, asleep in a side alcove of the yurt, and his chosen companion of the moment curled up by his side.

My son is of them now, and I am but a stranger in this terrible land. My son dreams of glory, of the ride, of the return to what was.

He looked down at the goblet, the foaming drink stained pink, and took another sip.

And I have become like them as well, he realized. I have learned to hunt, the joy of the ride, even though the land is now limited, to listen to the chant singers, to gaze at the stars and tell tales of what lay beyond the stars while the fire crackled, the scent of roasted meat filling the air. And I have learned to eat of the flesh of cattle.

If Hawthorne but knew of that, what would be the reaction? Their meal tonight, a lone prisoner snatched in a border skirmish, had been led in and sacrificed even though the true moon feast was not until tomorrow, but such niceties were no longer observed.

They had slowly roasted the limbs while he was still alive, his mouth gagged so that his cries might not carry to the Yankees encamped nearby. Then the shamans had cracked the skull open, poured in the sacred oil, and roasted the brains while the victim still breathed, listening to his final strange utterances for signs from the gods and ancestors. The blood had been drawn off to flavor the drinks of the Qars and the Qar Qarth, a now precious brew that not so long ago even the youngest of cubs had savored.

“The night is passing, Qar Qarth Jurak.”

An envoy stood at the entryway to the yurt, the first glow of sunrise behind him. The guards of the Qar Qarth flanked him, ready to allow admittance, or, if ordered, instant death for any who dared to disturb him.

He motioned for Velamak of the Kazan to enter.

The envoy offered the ceremonial bow to the purifying fires glowing in their braziers to either side of the entryway and came forward, again inclining his head as he approached.

“Stop the bowing and take a drink,” Jurak said, beckoning to the half empty bowl.

The envoy picked up a goblet, poured a drink, and sat down on a cushion across from the Qar Qarth. Then he raised the cup in salute, following the ritual of dipping a finger in and flicking droplets to the four winds and the earth.

“You’ve learned our customs well, Velamak,” Jurak said.

“As an envoy such things are important”—he smiled knowingly—“in the same way you had to learn when first you came here.”

Jurak stirred, not sure if there was some sort of hidden meaning here, but then let it pass.

“I am curious,” Velamak continued, “about your world.”

“Yes?”

“The fire weapon.”

“Atomics.”

“Yes, that.”

Jurak smiled. “And you want to know its secret.”

“Think what you could do with such a thing.”

“What we could do, or should I say, what the Kazan could do,” Jurak replied, his voice cool.

“We do have some skills.”

“That my people do not.”

Velamak shifted, taking another sip, his gaze drifting to where Garva and his consort slept. “You must admit that when it comes to machines, your people are limited, whereas mine are not.”

“I think, Velamak, that even for you such a weapon is beyond all of us,” he hesitated for a moment, “and I pray it always shall be.”

“Even if our race is finally annihilated by the Yankees?” Jurak barked a laugh and sipped his drink. Before him was perhaps the answer to all his bitter prayers. Or was it a curse? he asked himself, remembering the old saying to never beg too hard of the gods, or they just might grant you your wish.

Here was an envoy of the Kazan Empire, a realm across the Great Ocean that dwarfed anything imagined by the Horde riders or their human opponents. Here lay the true balance of power to this world.

Here was the possible redemption of his people, a path to survival. Up until the meeting with Hawthorne he had harbored a thought that perhaps there was another way, to move north, and by so doing avoid completely what was coming. If there was to be war between the unsuspecting humans and the Kazan, let it come.

Surprisingly, he did trust Hawthorne and his word. Twenty years of dealing with him had taught him that. Hawthorne believed in honor, even to a hated foe. He was haunted as well by a guilt that made him easier to maneuver. Yes, Hawthorne would go back to their Senate, would plead his case. There would be arguing, the Chin would cry yet again for final vengeance, the Nippon would refuse, and six months from now, when the grass of the steppes was brown, he’d return with a vague promise that he would try again next year.

Equally evident was what Velamak was offering.

“This half-life of radiation that you mentioned in our last conversation, what is it?”

Jurak smiled. “The rate of radioactive decay. Do you understand what I speak of?”

Velamak smiled and shook his head. “Perhaps those of my people who study such things do. Remember, I am just a messenger of the emperor.”

“And a priest of your order,” Jurak added.

Velamak said nothing.

“Tell your people they need to achieve a fissionable mass through a controlled and uniform implosion.”

He smiled as he spoke, knowing that the words were meaningless to the envoy but would be faithfully reported. Perhaps someone back in their capital would vaguely grasp the concept, but to make it a reality, would take far more than a nation that still used steam power to propel its ships and weapons.

“Achieve that, and you can bum a city, a hundred thousand die in an instant, a hundred thousand more die later from poisoning of the air. And no one can return to that place until the half-life of the fissionable material has resulted in a drop below fatal levels of radiation. Does that explain it?”

Velamak gave him a cagey smile. “You talk in riddles.”

“Not on my old world. Every student learned it. The question was how to make it. We were in the eighteenth year of the war of the Pretender before it was achieved by the False One’s side. A spy stole the secret and gave it to our side. On the day I left my world, eleven years later, more than five hundred such weapons had been made and exploded. Entire continents were wastelands. I got dosed at the Battle of Alamaka.”

He rolled his sleeve to show a bum scar on his arm where the hair did not grow.

“The warriors to either side of me were looking in the direction of the blast and were struck blind.”

“A weapon that blinds, how fascinating.”

“Not if you were there,” Jurak whispered.

He remembered the way his tent companions had thrashed in their trench, eyes scorched to bloody pulps, while the blast and shock wave thundered over them. He recalled the terror of wondering if he had been fatally dosed. He had been ordered to shoot his blinded companions, since they would be a burden if allowed to live.

Jurak sighed and took another drink. “I suspect someday I’ll find a lump or start coughing up blood and it will kill me at last.”

“I suspect that even if you did know how to make this thing, you would keep it hidden from us.”

Jurak smiled. “You can be certain of it.”

“Even at the cost of the people you now lead?”

“Believe me, Velamak, everyone dies in the end from it. Stick to the weapons you already know.”

“Yet part of the reason I was sent here was to gain information so that we might have weapons to defeat the Yankees when the time came.”

“And what time is that?”

“When we are ready.”

Again Jurak laughed. “We have been playing this game of words for months. You are torn apart by war. How many contenders to the throne are there?”

“That doesn’t matter. In the end, the Kazan shall be reunited. We will destroy them with ease.”

“Who is ‘we’? I suspect that this order of yours is far more concerned with its own advancement than any unity of the Kazan Empire or who is upon the throne at the moment. For all I know, you represent only your order and serve this distant emperor only with the left hand.” Velamak shook his head and laughed. “Very adroit.”

“Don’t patronize me. I might be the ruler of a fallen clan, but I am the Qar Qarth, who can still field thirty umens of the finest cavalry in the world.”

“We know that. It is one of the reasons we sought you out.”

“And, oh, how we shall pay if war does come. There are forty million humans in the Republic. A million of them can be mobilized in a week. And we shall be the first target.”

“The emperor never asked for you to sacrifice yourself.”

“Nor would I. The emperor is how far away? Two hundred or more leagues by land to the sea. Then how far, a thousand leagues? Two thousand?”

“Something like that. Remember, we knew of your defeat within months of its happening. If we had known your danger earlier, we would have sent aid. We have had twenty years to ponder this question and to prepare.”

“And to fight amongst yourselves, thereby diverting your strength. Velamak, you have been here for months. Over the last week you have seen one of their leaders from a distance, their finest general.”

“Small even for them.”

“Call him that when he is leading a charge, as I once saw him do.”

“I think you almost like him.”

“I do, damn it,” he growled, and he poured another drink. “He has the ka, the warrior soul. It’s told among us how he alone killed more than thirty thousand Tugars in one night, breaking a dam that flooded their camp, sweeping away their elite umens. Some of us believe as well that he has the tu, the ability to read the souls of others.”

“And that is why you forbid me to ride escort and reduced me to watching from a distance?”

“Precisely.”

Velamak nodded. “We know the tu and the ka. But I doubt if the humans have mastered it, at least their humans.”

“Their humans?”

“Ah, so I have piqued your interest.”

“What do you mean?”

“Just that there is much of the Kazan I have still not told you.”

“We’ve talked endlessly of this before, and it always seems that I learn precious little of you and your empire in reply.”

“The less you know, the less you will reveal to the humans.”

“Oh, yes, such as your foolishness in giving a revolver as a present to Ogadi of the White Taie clan.”

Velamak stiffened. “I noticed it was missing shortly after I arrived in your camp. Ogadi was the one who escorted me here from the coast. He demanded a present for his efforts. I gave him a few gold trinkets, nothing that could be identified as not being of your Horde. I had hoped the revolver had been lost when fording a stream. Now I know different. He stole it.”

He had never trusted Ogadi. Then again, he rarely trusted any of his Qarths. The damn fool.

“They know of you, Velamak.”

“Only a rumor.”

“I think they know more. I could sense it from Hawthorne. The revolver was enough to cause concern, but he has seemed pressed these last few days, anxious, as if bearing more information than he would ever share with me. Perhaps one of their ships has finally located where you are.”

“As I have already told you, we’ve met three of their ships. Primitive things, actually. They were defeated with ease, their crews annihilated.”

“The humans are incessant, Velamak. You can’t stop every leak, every hole in that invisible wall you try to maintain while settling your own differences.”

Velamak shook his head. “Only rumors. Remember, the ocean is as vast as your steppe, dotted with a thousand islands, archipelagos, and then our homelands. Yes, there are humans out there, some we have never located. They spread widely across the last twelve thousand years since the Portal to their world mysteriously opened up after being asleep since the Downfall. We have set them to our purpose when necessary, slain them when they didn’t fit, but never did we allow ourselves to become enslaved to our slaves as you did.”

“Not I, those who came before me,” Jurak replied coldly. “Whatever. What I am saying is that in the years since we have learned of the rise of this human nation, we have maintained a zone of destruction on the islands where they might venture, leaving no trace.”

“And again, why did you not just attack?”

“To what gain at that moment? When the blow is to be struck, it must be annihilating, not a half measure. We knew we had gained a small edge on machines thanks to those from your world who had come through the portal nearly a hundred years back.

“Our ships outgun them, our flyers are larger, our artillery is superior in all respects, as are our explosives. Still, what I have learned from you is so damn tantalizing. You speak of wireless telegraphs, these engines you call internal, the creation of light through wires, chemicals that kill, gases that kill, the making of diseases. By all the gods, what we would give for such knowledge.”

“And yet I know of it but not how to make it happen,” Jurak said.

“Precisely. Ten years of working on such things and no threat of the humans could ever matter to us.”

“You have the edge you have, and that is it.”

“Damn.”

It was a curse not directed at him, but nevertheless he stiffened, sensing an insult. After twenty years as a Qar Qarth, his pride would brook no insult, either real or imagined.

“No, you misunderstand,” Velamak said hurriedly. “I understand why. I know that our ship designers are working on this mechanism called firing control, being able to judge a target from a great distance and aim correctly. The advice you gave us years ago on that still bears fruit. Our guns can shoot three leagues or more, yet at sea they are useless beyond two thousand paces. I understand that such a thing is being studied, but ask me to explain and I am useless. I understand that it is the same with you.”

“I was but twenty years old when I became a soldier. Prior to that, I was a scholar interested in the writings of the ancients and their philosophies,” Jurak replied. “I knew to turn a knob and the light would come on so that I could read, but ask me to explain why the light came on and I had no idea.”

“Still, what you have said we shall try to work upon.”

“You arouse my curiosity about something.”

““And that is?”

“Your humans. I know you feel disdain for the moon feast. I watched you closely this evening.”

Velamak waved his hands indifferently. “Primitive, but interesting. I suspect you were far more disturbed than I would ever be.”

Again Jurak bristled slightly, but then let it pass. “There is something different about your humans. I have heard rumors of it.”

Velamak smiled. “Yes, they are different.”

“And what is that difference?”

“They are on our side.”

“But you said you slaughtered those on the islands.”

“Inferior ones. No, we are talking about those who have lived inside the empire, some of them for a hundred generations or more.”

“And are they slaves? Do you feed upon them?”

“At times, but that is inconsequential, and of no concern to them.”

“Then what is this difference?”

Velamak smiled. “The Shiv. We breed them. We breed them to match what it is we desire of them.”

“And that is?”

“A race of warriors. Bred the way you breed your horses. Those we do not select we slaughter or geld. Only the best continue on, generation after generation.”

“By the gods. They could be the seeds of your own destruction.”

Velamak smiled. “No. For it is the Order that controls them, and they have something you never gave your humans.”

“Which is?”

“Faith. A faith in a god of our creation. They are the Shiv, the elite of the elite, and when the Republic faces their Shiv legions, they will die.”

“And what of us, then?” Jurak asked, a cold shiver of fear coursing through him when the full enormity of what he had just heard struck him.

Velamak smiled. “He of my order, who I suspect even now is moving toward final control, he will guide the way.” Jurak lowered his head. For the first time since meeting this envoy he felt at last that he understood what was hidden beneath. This man wasn’t just an envoy, he was a fanatic, a believer, who had come to prepare the way for the madness to come.

“So you survived after all, Hazin.”

Hazin smiled, bowing low before the Grand Master of his order. He could see the wary gaze, the shift of the Grand Master’s weight as he leaned forward ever so slightly, ready to spring if Hazin should make a threatening move.

“My master, I must protest the indignity of a personal search before entering your quarters,” Hazin replied. “I would not be so disloyal as to strike you now.”

There was a sarcastic grunt of bemusement. “The whole city has been in turmoil since your ship docked, wondering what news you bring.”

Hazin chuckled. So they weren’t sure. Good.

“Hanaga is dead, as you ordered.”

There was an exhale of relief.

Ah, so he did fear the plot within a plot. Fine, that would have diverted his thinking for the moment. “There was no sense in keeping the news hidden. I’ve already sent one of our acolytes to the palace to give his most exalted highness the good news. I thought it best, however, to report to you personally.”

The Grand Master stirred. “Are you certain he is dead?” His voice was filled now with menace.

“If you doubt, fetch the Shiv who were aboard the ship and put to them the question. They disposed of the body after we were done.”

“You should have kept some proof for the satisfaction of Yasim.”

“The acolyte bears a basket containing Hanaga’s head. Is that proof enough, my master?”

There was a chuckle of bemusement. “He’ll most likely vomit at the sight of it.”

“And vomit again when you press for payment,” Hazin replied.

The Grand Master nodded, picking up a dagger resting on his desk to examine the blade.

“He’ll pay. He knows the result if he doesn’t.”

“Yasim might appear a weakling on the surface. But is he?”

“He’s a fool. Hanaga was different. Once the civil war was decided, we all knew he would turn on us. We were the one threat left to the Golden Throne. Yasim will be too afraid of us to strike. That, besides the wealth offered, was good enough reason to switch sides and support him.”

“The war, however, is all but finished now,” Hazin replied. “Playing one against the other was our own path to power. The remaining Banners will submit. And then what?”

“We consolidate our hold. With the payment offered we can expand our temples, gather more recruits. In ten years the cycle of struggle for the throne will start again, and yet again we shall play the game. This new emperor is morally a weakling, but he is lusty enough in his private chambers. Soon enough he will breed the next generation for us to play with.”

Hazin nodded, though he did not agree. The Master was old, the fire was going out of him. He was thinking now like an old one, seeking security, warmth, a comfortable seat by the side of Yasim at the banquet table and amphitheater.

He did not know the full measure of the one he had just placed on the throne. For that reason alone he should die, and for the simple fact that he was in the way.

“The journey has been a tiring one,” Hazin replied. “May I have your permission to withdraw?”

The Master nodded, then held up his hand just before Hazin backed out of the door, motioning for him to close it.

“One question.”

Hazin kept his features expressionless.

“Your order was to kill Hanaga. It is rare indeed for one to survive such an assignment.”

“Yes, it is.”

“Yet you obviously arranged it so you would.”

“Yes.”

The moment has come, Hazin thought. If he has any wisdom, he should kill me now, this very instant.

“You knew my intent in assigning you.”

“Yes, to ensure that I would die as well, but I did not.”

“And?”

“You could kill me now and find out the result, or let me live and find out the result.”

There was a long moment of silence, the master holding the dagger in his hand. At one time, long ago, this one had been his first mentor in the order. Hazin had loyally followed him, because that loyalty had been properly rewarded with advancement. Now he had only one step left to achieve—the final rank within the order, and the master knew it.

Hazin finally looked straight at him. “Better the threat you know than the one you don’t,” Hazin whispered. “For someone else to get at you, they will still have to contend with me.”

There was a subtle nod of agreement.

“The dynamic between us will keep the balance. If there is another rival within the order, such as Grishna or Ulva, they know that if they strike you down I will still take revenge, and if I should be stricken, then you will mete out revenge. As long as we are careful, we can both survive.”

“Are you pleading for your life, Hazin? I always thought better of you than to sink so low.”

“No, rather suggesting that we both can live or we both will die. I know why you assigned me to kill Hanaga. That was the business of our order, and I could accept it.”

He pitched his voice carefully. The master had trained him in the reading of the finest nuances of expression, the slightest change in tone, the flicker of an eyelid, the ever so subtle glancing away when a lie was spoken. That was yet another power of the Order, the training to be a truth sayer, one who could detect a lie in another, no matter how carefully crafted.

He thought of the human Cromwell for an instant, the sharp honesty that was so easy to read, and yet so difficult to penetrate. Then he pushed the thought aside. He had to remain focused.

“I assigned you to Hanaga to get rid of you. The needs of the Order are changing now that the civil war is ending. You, Hazin, thrive on conflict and manipulate it to your own advantage. I am not sure if you can survive now that it is ending.”

“We must still contend with the human rebellion to the north.”

The master snorted. “Time enough later.”

“I don’t think so.”

“Why?”

“We encountered a ship of theirs.” He briefly explained the battle with the Gettysburg, but left out the detail of taking the two prisoners.

“Trivial.”

“An opportunity. We know that the Golden Throne is increasingly suspicious of the Shiv. The fact that we breed thousands more than will ever be needed for sacrifice, that we have trained them in war, and that they have fought to victory in every engagement makes the emperor nervous. Unleashing them against the human Republic will give us millions to rule and can perhaps reveal as well the location of a Portal.”

The Grand Master openly laughed. “You and that mad dream of leaving this place. Is not scheming for one empire enough?”

Hazin could see that the true focus of the conversation had wandered. His own life still hung by a thread.

“I want to ensure the survival of the Order, of our own personal survival.”

“Our survival or yours, Hazin?”

“My staying alive guarantees yours as well, Master.”

“Is there a threat in those words?”

“A statement of reality,” Hazin said quietly, his voice cool, even, without a hint of emotion.

The master stared at him and then ever so slowly put the dagger back down.

“For the moment, then, we shall leave things at that.” Hazin bowed and turned to open the door, using his left hand, which he had kept concealed in the folds of his robe.

Leaving the master’s chamber, he hurriedly went down the open flagstone corridor, past one of the pleasure gardens where several of the new initiates loitered, drifting in their hazy drug-induced visions, and entered his chamber, sweeping past the Shiv guards, careful to open and close the door to his room with his right hand.

Once alone he gingerly put a glove on his right hand, careful not to touch anything with his left. When his right was safely covered, he peeled off the dark, flesh-colored glove on his left hand and threw it into a charcoal brazier. Then went through the same ritual again, putting another glove on the opposite hand before using it to remove the other.

Finally he peeled off the robe he had been wearing, careful to not let the folds around the cuffs touch any skin.

The Grand Master was alone in his study. The ceremony for the ending of day would occur within the hour, and he would, as required, go to attend. The poison on Hazin’s left glove, placed on the door handle, would still be damp and should penetrate the skin of the palm. It was subtle. He would not even notice it against the cool metal.

Death would take awhile, a day perhaps, but then the convulsions would come, mimicking a brain seizure. Of course, he would carefully avoid going anywhere near him. No one would suspect, or if they did, they would never dare to speak without definite proof.

Hazin realized he was shaking for the first time in years, and he felt a surge of anger against himself for such lack of control.

The old one had sealed his fate on two points. First, he had been foolish not to kill Hazin immediately once he was in the room. Having sent him once to his death, he should have seen it through to the conclusion. That was a sign of hesitation, perhaps even of sentiment, a feeling unworthy of a Grand Master. Second, he had not seen the true danger that came with peace. If Yasim, who had masterfully engineered his plot over years of conflict, no longer had someone to plot against, he would now turn on the Order. He would do it subtly, cautiously, and then strike with blinding fury.

A diversion would have to be offered, one that would refocus the attention of Yasim, and all the others of the Golden Family, and Hazin realized that fate, if such a thing existed, had dealt him the perfect choice.

It was paradise.

A voice whispered to him that it was all illusion, drugs in his drink and food, but the sensations were so intoxicating that he no longer cared.

Occasionally the one with the blue eyes would come, smiling, speaking softly, reasonably, explaining how clear and simple his course; to submit fully to the Order, to become one of the Shiv and, most tantalizing of all, to one day return home to rule, to no longer be the forgotten son.

How Hazin knew these things Sean was not sure. It was hard to tell what he had actually said, what Hazin already knew, and what he could somehow sense, for he now knew that Hazin’s powers were beyond that of anyone he’d ever met, human or Horde.

Someone touched his shoulder and, half rolling over, he looked up at her and smiled. He didn’t know her name, he wasn’t even sure if she was the one who had come to him the night before, but it didn’t matter.

What she said was unintelligible, but that didn’t matter either. She was above any dream of loveliness he had ever hoped to know, almost inhuman in her perfection. He wondered if she, like him, had tasted of the lotus.

The land of the lotus eaters, he remembered his mother telling him of that myth.

Perhaps that is where I am now. He looked past the compelling green eyes of the woman to the garden. The riotous bloom of flowers had an iridescent quality to them. They actually seemed to glow with their own inner light. The sight of them made him laugh, and she laughed with him.

She stood up and walked ever so slowly—to his eyes she seemed to float. She plucked a flower and returned, offering it to him. He almost wept with the beauty of the precious violet and red blossom. She leaned over and peeled off a petal, holding it up, brushing his lips with it, then slowly ate it.

He smiled and did the same. She went to fetch another, and he waited with anticipation, feeling a stirring of desire, dreaming of what he would do next with her even as she floated across the garden.

A gentle whisper of a voice, and she seemed to disappear into a cloud, replaced by Hazin.

For a moment he wasn’t sure if he had drifted off to sleep, whether he and the green-eyed girl had made love or not. It was hard to remember now.

“I could send you away from here,” Hazin said, sitting down by Sean’s side.

He felt a flash of panic, but then, looking into those impenetrable blue eyes, he knew that Hazin would not be so cruel. Why would he grant such a gift only to take it away?

“But you know I would not, don’t you?”

“Yes.”

“You can leave at any time. In fact, I give you your freedom, O’Donald. You can awake in the hour after dusk. I will give you an airship and you can wing off to home, to your people, to the land ruled by your father and his friends.”

The way he said it made the mere contemplation of it revolting. Sean felt light-headed, his stomach knotting.

“That choice would always haunt you, though, wouldn’t it? To know that this paradise is here, to be tasted at any time. Instead you would live in a land of barrenness, where those who passed behind you would cover their mouths and whisper, ‘There goes the son of the drunkard, the senator who is only thus because he hangs on to the power of others. There goes the son of the uncouth, the loud mouth, the braggart, and fool. And he shall one day be the same’.” Sean lowered his head and began to openly weep. “Your mother endured that, you know, and you were powerless to stop her from feeling that pain, weren’t you?” Sean could not even answer. He merely shook his head as the tears continued to flow.

“Stay with me,” Hazin whispered. “Stay with me, and I promise that you can one day return to right such wrongs, but do so on your own terms.”

Sean looked up at him.

Hazin reached out and lightly touched Sean’s shoulder, tracing a finger along a still open wound from the torture. “Unfortunate, that, and I apologize.”

“Apologize?” Sean was confused. It was as if this one before him now was someone else, not someone to be feared, but to be trusted, followed, even to be loved.

“A mistake. As soon as I realized who you were, I had to make amends, which I am now doing.”

Sean could not reply, overwhelmed with gratitude.

Hazin offered him a cup, and he drank the golden liquid, which was sweet but laced with a touch of bitterness.

“That should ease any unfortunate pains you still might have. Soon you will awake, but you will remember. Do you know where you are, Sean O’Donald?”

Sean struggled to focus his thoughts. What did the question actually mean? Here, was that the question? He remembered coming off the boat, the vastness of the city, its gleaming temples, spires, arches, and columned buildings. It reminded him somehow of the stories of how Roum might have looked before the destruction of the Great War, a destruction that his own father had taken part in.

.. Was that what the question was?

“Kazan. We are in the Imperial City of Kazan,” he finally replied, even as the world about him began to drift in a soft, diffused light.

Hazin laughed softly. “So literal in your thoughts, even now. A sharp intellect, which is good at certain moments.

“No, I mean here, now.” He extended his hand, gesturing to the garden, the walls embedded with precious gems that caught and bent the sunlight, the fluttering curtains of silk, the lush green grass upon which they sat, and the bubbling fountains that splashed and played a soft musical chant.

“Paradise,” Sean finally replied, and Hazin smiled approvingly.

“Yes. You are enjoying paradise and I hold the key to it.”

“You?”

“Yes. I can open the gate wide to any who so desire it, or close it forever and cast those who fail into the fire of eternal suffering.”

As he spoke, he extended his hand, almost covering Sean’s eyes. Terrifyingly, a vision seemed to be concealed within that open hand—of fire, of agony, of eternal longing for bliss never again to be tasted.

Sean cried out and turned his head away.

“Do you believe what I just told you?”

“Yes.”

“Look back at me.”

Sean turned to look back and was startled, for Hazin was gone, disappeared, a swirling cloud of sweet-scented smoke obscuring all around.

The smoke drifted and curled, slowly parting, and someone else appeared before him. He had never seen such eyes, the palest of amber, her skin a milky white, hair raven black, coiling in a long, wavy cascade that covered the nakedness of her breasts.

“Her name is Karinia.”

It was Hazin’s voice, but where he was Sean could not say.

“I have chosen her for you, Sean O’Donald. Look into her eyes and see paradise. Fail and know that you will never see such love again.”

Sean could not turn away from her gaze. Her features were flushed, and he sensed that somehow she was afraid. He reached out and lightly touched her cheek.

“You will stay and serve?” Hazin asked.

Sean could not answer. Some voice whispered to him that here was the moment that would forever define his life, who he was, what he would live for. But all he could see were her eyes and the actual feel of the garden of paradise, as if all of it had merged into his body and soul and would be part of it in pleasure, or torment, forever.

“I will serve,” he whispered.

“Then she, all of this, is yours forever.”

He heard a soft laugh, a rustling, and knew that Hazin was gone.

“I’m of the Shiv,” she whispered, “and though not born to it, you are now of us.”

Startled, he realized that she was speaking English, though her words were halting.

“Is this what you desire?” he asked.

She laughed softly and, leaning over, kissed him.

SEVEN

Throughout the day and into the night an inner sense told Richard Cromwell that something unusual was going on. In the week of his captivity he had grasped a sense of the language of the Kazan, realizing that there were some similarities to the Bantag dialect he had learned as a child.

He had been taken off the ship blindfolded, but the sounds and smells had told him that-he was in a city, a city of the race of the Horde, for their musky scent was overpowering. Loaded into an enclosed cart, he had noticed that the ride was smooth, the road well paved, and an ocean of noise surrounded him, echoing in the confines of city streets until they had passed through a gate. The doors clanged shut behind him with an ominous boom.

They had finally removed his blindfold once he was in his cell. He had known places far worse. The cell was even comfortable. He had a cot and a straw-filled mattress, and a thin shaft of light coming from a vent in the ceiling let him know the passage of days.

Hazin had come to visit him, and what he’d had to say was surprising. Throughout Richard tried to reveal nothing that could be of worth, and Hazin had even complimented him on his tact. At the same time, Hazin had seemed to be almost too revealing, telling him of the civil war, their learning of technology from a “prophet” and his companions who had come through a Portal more than two hundred years ago. This had given the Kazan, a minor clan on the island chains that spanned a million square miles of ocean, their first advantage in the endless warfare between a dozen rival clans.

They had made the leap to steam power, to flight, to the weapons they now possessed, and in the process they had defeated their rivals one by one, until finally the Kazan were supreme. Then had come the civil war to decide amongst themselves who should rule.

Of these subjects he had spoken without hesitation, even answering questions Richard had posed. Especially intriguing and frightful was the story of the rise of the Order of Alamut, which had been but one of the numerous cults and secret societies that the Kazan seemed to revel in. It was the prophets who suggested the breeding of humans, first for simple labor, but then for sacrifice as well, and finally for what Hazin called the fulfillment. A topic on which he would not elaborate.

Richard had expressed no reaction to this, assuming all along that the Kazan would be no different that the Bantag or Merki, and Hazin had stepped past the issue as if sensing that there was no purpose in elaborating.

During the years of the civil war, the Order, as it was simply known, had served as assassins for all sides. Once there had been an attempt to wipe them out, an effort led by the grandsire of the current emperor, and he had paid the price, his death an object lesson. From the way Hazin had talked, Richard guessed that the Shiv numbered in the tens of thousands, and he wondered why the Kazan would allow such a strength, which could perhaps turn against them the way the Chin had against the Bantag in the last days of the Great War.

The conversations were strange, perplexing, as if Hazin was educating him to some purpose Richard could not divine.

They had talked thus for days, but today was different. Hazin had not come. Richard remained alone, wondering if something had changed.

In the evening he heard anxious whispered comments in the corridor outside his bolted door, then the swift scurrying of feet. From beyond the vent opening he soon heard someone speaking slowly, as if giving a speech. He made out the Bantag word for dead, “sata,” spoken solemnly, followed by an outcry, the high keening wail of their race when mourning.

Shortly afterward, he heard other angry voices, shouts, and then the sounds of fighting, grunts of pain, and the crack of gunfire. In the corridor outside he heard more voices, the sound of someone struggling, as if being forced or dragged down the corridor, and a door slamming shut. He had drifted off to sleep then and was startled awake by the sharp report of a gunshot followed by laughter.

When the door to his cell swung open, he wasn’t sure what to expect. Had Hazin merely been toying with him? Was someone coming with a gun to finish it?

He was surprised, and relieved, to see that it was Hazin. An entourage of half a dozen Shiv and several of Hazin’s own race followed behind him. Hazin motioned for them to wait and then closed the door so that the two were alone.

“You are intelligent enough to realize that something is happening here,” Hazin said, and Richard saw a look in his eyes of excitement, of satisfaction.

“It is kind of hard to sleep when there is shooting going on in the room next to you.”

Hazin laughed. “His name was Dalmata. A rival, or should I say, a former rival.”

Again the satisfaction was evident.

“My congratulations, then,” Richard offered. “Was it ordered by the Grand Master?”

Hazin smiled. “I am the Grand Master now.”

You killed him, didn’t you? Richard thought.

“Yes. I, shall we say, arranged it,” he said in English. “Why are you telling me this?” Richard asked, and he realized that there was a touch of fear in his heart.

Hazin laughed. “Perhaps because I have to tell someone, ahd it might as well be you. That is the problem with such triumphs. There can never be an audience, never someone to share the moment with. In my world such victories are achieved alone and celebrated alone.”

At that instant Richard found an answer to a question that had bedeviled him ever since he had met Hazin. Why was he being spared? Was it just sadistic amusement or was there another purpose?

Hazin went over to the single chair in the room. A chair sized for a human, so he seemed almost absurd sitting in it. “I was born of the lowest caste,” Hazin said. “Every step has been a clawing upward. You, Cromwell, understand that better than most, saddled as you are with the name of a traitor. When I was first told who you were I was intrigued. Why would the son of a traitor wear the uniform of the nation his father had turned against? Why as well would such a nation trust you? It was an interesting skein to unravel, a diversion, even, from the more weighty concerns I was struggling with.”

Richard bristled slightly at being referred to as “a diversion,” but said nothing, curious to hear what Hazin would reveal.

“I sensed that you more than some might actually be worthy of conversation, and you’ve proven that. In fact, Richard Cromwell, you even have, as best as I can offer it, my respect.”

Startled, Richard said nothing. He had learned enough of Hazin to loathe him. Hazin was remorseless, cunning, casually brutal in the way he spoke of assassinating an emperor he had served for nearly twenty years. Yet what was disturbing was that Richard found him interesting, almost appealing. His intellect, his curiosity to know more about the world, and even, no matter how twisted, his dream of ending the conflict between humans and the Horde.

“The guards outside are waiting for you, Cromwell.”

“For what? My execution?”

“No. Your escape.”

Richard shook his head and laughed. “I try to escape and then they kill me. Even if I did escape, where would I go? How far am I from Republic territory?”

“One of my navigators will discuss that with you.”

“I’m not sure I understand you.”

“I’m letting you go, Cromwell, so that you can go back to your Republic.”

Richard was tempted to scoff, but a look at Hazin’s eyes made him realize that the new Grand Master was in deadly earnest.

Stunned, Richard stood up from his cot. “I don’t understand. Why?”

“Call it a gesture.”

“For what? Am I to go back with some message? Is that it?”

“No. I have no message for your Republic.” Hazin shook his head. “Oh, if they should decide to offer submission, removal of their government to be replaced by those whom I choose to rule, that would be acceptable.”

“You know that will never happen.”

“Don’t be so sure.”

“After what my people went through in the last war, they will not tamely submit, especially to one of your race.”

“Your forthrightness is a trait I find interesting in a world where such things usually bring an untimely end. Your words might actually have just changed my mind. I could have you killed instead.”

Richard stared at him coldly.

“Actually, Cromwell, what I might offer could be the only way out in the end. Is your race ready to fight a genocidal war? To hunt down every last one of mine and kill them? I don’t think you have the stomach for it. Your Keane showed charity against a hated foe. I heard the story of how Schuder saved the Bantag Qar Qarth’s life. You realize that you would have to slaughter every last one of the Bantag, even the abject Tugars, though I daresay that you might actually derive a certain pleasure from seeing all the Merki put to death.”

Richard shifted uncomfortably, for there was a kernel of truth in Hazin’s words. His observations always seemed to reach straight to the heart of the matter.

“If you are letting me go, there must be a reason. I don’t suspect that you have any feelings of friendship, especially to one of my race.”

“No. I’ve never had a friend, Cromwell, I’ve never touched love, I never had desire for a mate. Always my focus was elsewhere. Some might think that a pity, but I can at times be moved to a certain admiration, and that you have earned. It wasn’t just the foolish sentimental display of trying to protect your hapless friend. Rather, it was the coldness when faced with pain and death.

“You were born to that and learned to shield yourself with it, yet ultimately it never fully hardened you. You could, in fact, be noble, purely for the reason that you feel that it is right and proper to be that way.”

Looking at Hazin, Richard almost felt a brief instant of pity. His voice held a note of loneliness that was disturbing.

“The old Grand Master of your order. He was your teacher, your instructor, wasn’t he?”

“Yes.”

“And you felt nothing at his passing?”

Hazin smiled. “Nothing.”

Richard slowly nodded his head. “And this is the final fulfillment of what you sought?”

The smile did not change. “Only a start, Cromwell, and I will admit your leaving is a part in that game within a game.”

“Can I take Sean with me?” Richard asked abruptly.

“If he wants to go, but I doubt he will agree. In fact, he is in a cell just down the corridor. Go ask him yourself when you leave here.”

Hazin shook his head. “I know he won’t agree. Even if he did, it would make things difficult. I’m giving you a flyer. It’s been stripped down. I hope you are a good pilot, Cromwell. My master navigator says there isn’t enough fuel on board to get you all the way back, but that will no longer be my concern, only yours. For your sake I hope you find good winds aloft otherwise you will ultimately die alone at sea, though the creatures beneath should make short work of you.”

Richard felt a shiver of fear, again the primal terror of being devoured alive.

“There’s something you want me to do once I return home, isn’t there?”

“Just tell what you’ve seen.”

Richard shook his head. “I don’t understand. You know I will tell everything, alert my government, warn them of what you are, the threat you pose.”

“Oh, yes. Add in that in fairly short order you can expect our fleet off your coast. I have an audience with the new emperor later tonight and shall advise him to do just that, to attack immediately. I would say that by the next month we shall be off your coast. I can be persuasive when necessary, and I can assure you that he will agree.”

Richard turned away for a moment, utterly confused. “I don’t see any logic to this. If you struck by surprise….

He fell silent, not wishing to let Hazin hear his thoughts.

“Oh, yes, quite. I’ll tell you why, even. The civil war has ended, but we still need war. That is why I shall urge the emperor forward. Otherwise he shall have a fleet of eight battle cruisers, a hundred thousand sailors, fifty thousand assault troops, and they will have nothing to do but sit in their barracks and aboard their ships and ponder the new emptiness of their existence. Peace is death, Cromwell. It is war that is the creator.

“I can tell you now I will defeat your Republic.”

“Then why let me escape to your enemy?”

“Because it fits what I want. Don’t press any further. Tell me, Cromwell, do you take any glory from the killing of a defenseless pup, the crushing of an insect? No, that is forgotten in an instant. It is when the foe has steel that you find yourself, and hone your steel as well. My Shiv will thus be honed for greater tasks to come afterward. I want your Keane to see what is coming, to offer his best, and then to be defeated. That will crush his legend and build mine at the same time. It will even be said that I was fair in such things, noble even for offering an opponent a fair warning rather than striking stealthily with a knife in the back. After the first defeat in such a fight your side will then listen to reason rather than thrash on blindly and in defiant rage. Never comer an opponent, Cromwell. In their terror and rage they just might kill you even as they die. That was the mistake the Hordes of the north made, and that is why they were defeated while I shall win.”

Richard lowered his head. “Suppose I refuse to go.”

“You’ll go.”

. Richard knew that Hazin was right. His desire for freedom would drive him forward regardless of whether it fit some plan of Hazin’s or not.

Hazin stood up and started for the door. “We’ll meet again someday, Cromwell. I suspect, if you survive the coming conflict, that you will rise quickly. In fact, I hope you do survive, for I would like to talk again someday.” Richard was stunned when Hazin, in a gesture that was uniquely human, extended his hand. Before Richard even knew what he was doing, he took it. The grip was dry, firm. Hazin released his hand and without a backward glance left the room, the door open.

A Shiv guard stood in the corridor, motioning for Richard to follow. Looking down at the floor, he saw streaks of blood, the type left when a bleeding body is dragged away.

The faint rotten-eggs smell of black powder smoke hung in the air, and as he walked down the corridor he saw a room with a door open. Inside, two humans, emaciated, dressed only in loincloths, were mopping up a pool of blood. At the end of the corridor the Shiv led Richard to another room. Opening it, he was surprised by the comfort within. Tapestries of silk covered the wall, a comfortable bed covered with cushions was in the center of the room, and he detected a feminine scent in the air.

Sean O’Donald lay on the bed, eyes closed, features peaceful.

Richard rushed into the room and shook him awake. Sean looked up dreamily and then with a look of surprise. “Richard. Hazin said you would visit me.”

“Come on, O’Donald. We’ve been freed. We’re getting out now. Tonight.”

Sean smiled, and Richard instantly realized that he was either drunk or drugged. “You go. I’m staying.”

Richard looked back at the door. “Damn it, Sean, we don’t have time for this,” he hissed. “Hazin’s letting us go, at least I think he is. Get dressed and let’s get the hell out of here.”

Sean sat up and stretched, and Richard suddenly realized that concealed beneath the covers was someone else. Wisps of black hair spread out on the pillow. She half rolled over, the cover slipping away from her shoulder, revealing her beauty. Her amber-colored eyes met his, and he felt a cold shiver.

He forced his attention away, focusing back on Sean. “Now, O’Donald. We’re getting out of here.”

“And like I said before, I’m staying.”

“Because of her?”

“In part.”

“How long have you known her, a day? Three days? Damn it, Sean, you can’t give up everything just for a girl you met three days ago.”

Sean’s features darkened. “Give up what, Cromwell? Tell me, what does the Republic have to offer me after what I have found here?”

“Honor,” Richard snapped.

Sean leaned back and laughed, turning to look at the girl, who smiled at his amusement.

“Honor? How many millions died on both sides in the last war, a war created by Keane and my father? Was that honor? And they’ll do it again. No, thank you. I tried their path. A country run by someone like my father can go to hell.”

Sean reached forward and grabbed Richard by the arm. “Stay here. You don’t understand Hazin as I do. What he offers to all of us who join him.”

“And what is that?” Richard asked bitterly.

“Order. He could unify us all, Richard, Horde and human. We would sweep the world without the type of bloodshed my father helped to create. He offers a dream, and I am willing to be part of it.”

Richard pulled his hand away and stood up. “Get on your feet, Lieutenant,” he snarled, trying desperately to somehow break through and reach him. “I’ve got an aerosteamer waiting.”

He looked over defiantly at the woman, who had sat up in the bed. Her smile was almost bemused, as if Richard was just a minor interruption.

Richard reached over to grab Sean and pull him out of bed.

“I wouldn’t try it,” Sean hissed. “You might be able to beat me, but I think the Shiv out there would not go along with it.”

Richard looked back at the open door, where half a dozen Shiv waited.

“They aren’t human,” Richard whispered. “They’re bred like horses, like cattle.”

. He said the last word deliberately, for it was the darkest of insults left over from the war.

“She’s of the Shiv,” Sean said, anger darkening his features.

“All the more reason to leave her.”

“Get out.” Her words were soft, but filled with confidence. She slowly stood up, and Richard had difficulty concealing his shocked embarrassment at her nakedness. Yet he was fascinated as well by her beauty, and by her calm, casual ease.

The fact that he and Sean had been talking in English and she had spoken in the same language caught him completely off guard.

How stupid, he realized. If Hazin knew English, he should not have been surprised that a woman sent to O’Donald knew it as well.

He looked back to the Shiv who stood in the doorway. For the first time he detected an emotion on their part. It was amusement.

He slowly turned back to face Sean. “You’ll regret this the rest of your life, Lieutenant O’Donald.”

Sean seemed to stir from his hazy distant world, and for a brief moment, Richard saw an old friend from the academy, the cadet who was always so quiet, studious, even withdrawn, and yet sharply capable in any task he set himself to. He tried to smile, to somehow reach that friend and roommate, to remind him of his duty, of who he was, an officer of the Republic.

“It won’t work, Cromwell. I’m past such appeals,” Sean whispered and turned away.

The airfield was dark, and a light, hazy mist was drifting in from the midnight tropical sea. Richard suddenly realized just how tired he was, and now he faced a flight of unknown distance across an unknown sea.

He slowly walked around the airship. The design was not unlike some of the machines from the last war, bulkier in the fuselage to contain the hydrogen gas bags, a broad, single mono-wing rather than the bi-wings of the Republic’s airships. It was three engined, two on the wings and one forward.

He could see where there had been gun emplacements at the tail, above and under the belly. All had been stripped out, as was the gun forward.

No one spoke to him, and somehow the entire scene seemed like a dream. He looked at the rough chart that had been thrust into his hand. It was precious short on details, including only the coastline of the island they were now on and a sketch of where he assumed the Gettysburg had been lost, which was off to the northwest.

From that point he knew where he was. That was over thirteen hundred miles from the Republic’s main base on the coast at Constantine. The question was, how far was it from where the Gettysburg was lost to here? Four hundred miles, six hundred? He believed they had sailed four days after he was captured. That could make the distance just a few miles away, on the other side of a long island, or more than a thousand miles.

Yet he knew as well that Hazin would not send him out unless he had a reasonably good chance of succeeding.

No one spoke to him, but by the way the ground crew turned to look at him, he knew they were waiting. He scrambled up the outside ladder and into the forward cockpit. One of the Shiv followed and, without saying a word, waited while Richard strapped himself into the oversize chair. Stretching his legs out, he could barely reach the pedals. Pressing down on them, he could tell when he looked aft, worked the rudder.

The controls were basically the same: a stick for banking and climbing. The Shiv simply took hold of three knobs mounted side by side on the forward console, and pulled them back. The engines then began to turn over faster. The Shiv leaned back out of the cockpit and climbed down the ladder.

“Thanks, you son of a bitch,” Richard grumbled.

Straight ahead he could see two distant bonfires, undoubtedly marking the end of the landing strip. Without any hesitation he pulled the throttles full out. The ship lurched forward and clumsily gained speed.

It was far slower on takeoff than the planes he knew, and he sweated out the final seconds, the bonfires racing past before he felt the wings lifting and he edged back on the stick.

The airship seemed to hang in the air, and he nosed it over slightly, hoping that there were no hills ahead. Then ever so gradually he pulled back, trying to master the feel of the machine, wondering if it would give the telltale vibration through the stick just before going into a stall. He flew on for several minutes, heading due south before he finally ventured a turn, carefully banking the machine to port, watching the stars as they wheeled.

The Southern Triangle seemed higher in the sky by a good hand span, and he tried to work out the calculation, a rough estimate of just how much father south he was. Sean could have done it.

Damn him. He tried to feel pity for his friend, to understand. Hazin had seduced him first through terror, then the drugs, and finally the woman. Could I have resisted? he wondered.

He tried to believe he could have, that Hazin had seen that and decided to use him instead for another purpose. This thought also angered him. I’m escaping, but in escaping I am somehow serving his purpose as well. He toyed with the random thought of somehow trying to find the temple of Hazin’s Order, or the imperial palace, and crash the plane into it; a final defiant act that just might throw them all off balance.

And yet if I do that, he realized, the Republic will never know what is coming.

Why do I even care? he wondered. What has the Republic given me? The Yankees speak of it almost as if it were a religion, yet for millions of us it has brought nothing but anguish. If the Yankees had never come, the Hordes would have ridden on. Far fewer would have died, my mother would have never been a slave, and I of course never would have been born.

What does it offer me now? He could predict the reaction when he returned alone, the son of a traitor, bearing a fantastic tale of an empire, a race of humans bred to serve it, of Hazin, and of the betrayal by the son of a legend.

Worry about that later, he thought as he leveled out, trying to gain a fix that would guide him due north. He was distracted, though, by the sight off his starboard wing. A vast gleaming city spread out in a moon-shaped crescent around a dark bay.

He banked over slightly. In training he had flown over Roum twice, and he could tell that the largest city of the Republic would fit into but one comer of what lay below him. A sparkling pavilion, covering acres of ground, was terraced up the side of a steeply rising hill. Its columned boulevard shone from the light of a thousand torches and bonfires, and he knew that this must be the imperial residence. This single dwelling place was nearly as big as all of old Suzdal.

He was tempted to circle but decided against it, for every gallon of fuel was precious. The city slipped by beneath him, and he was still low enough to detect the smell of the fires that illuminated it.

Out in the bay, by the dim light of the Great Wheel of stars and the first of the two moons rising to the east, he could see the silhouettes of the battle fleet. The sight of it filled him with awe. He leveled out and even dropped down a few hundred feet, throttling back slightly. He counted eight great ships. Each of them, he had judged, to be three times, perhaps even four times greater than the Gettysburg. They rode the anchor, deck lights fore and aft marking them in two lines abreast. Bright, almost festive looking lanterns hung suspended from the pagoda towers. Surrounding them were dozens of other ships, smaller and yet still a match for anything the Republic could offer. The sight chilled his heart. He banked over, circling twice, trying to count the ships, to judge their size, the weapons on board.

This was the reason he had to return home. It had nothing to do with Hazin and his game of power. Here was a threat that could annihilate the service to which he had given his oath and that had given him a home in spite of his blood.

Below was a fleet that could destroy the Republic, and he alone could bring warning of it.

He finally pulled back on the stick, sending his aerosteamer up toward the clouds. He could only hope for a fair wind that would help to carry him home.

EIGHT

The night was fetid with the oppressive heat of summer. The poor quarter of the city, as always, stank of unwashed bodies, rotting food, refuse, excrement, and a moldy, musty smell that seemed to cling to poverty no matter what the race, be they human or Kazan.

Hazin, flanked by his escort, negotiated the narrow twisting alleyways that led from his temple to the base of the Qutiva, the hill of the Imperial presence. The temples of his order, at least those in the cities of the empire, were always built in the poorest quarters, for it was thence that so many novitiates came. Desperation guided them to seek salvation, no matter what price was required.

The Green Gate, so named for its sheathing of pale green marble, came into view. The alleyway spilled into the Processional Way, the great boulevard that was the main axis of the city, running from the Qutiva down to the harbor, half a league below.

Looking to the south as he stepped out on to the main avenue, he could see the flickering lights of the Red fleet riding at anchor. The great ships of the line were festooned with hundreds of lanterns in celebration of the victory. The entire city was thus decorated, though Hazin knew that the celebration was not so much one of joy but of relief for having been spared yet another battle, for when emperors fall there is always a battle and, at times, a massacre. The mob that had only weeks before been so supportive of Hanaga were now relieved by the news that he was dead.

At Hazin’s approach, the crowds clogging the Processional Way parted, drawing back with averted eyes and bows. A few made subtle gestures to ward off the darkness or clutched the amulets of rival cults.

The guards flanking the open portals of the Green Gate offered the usual salute at his approach, but then one of them stepped before his standard bearer, demanding identification. Hazin stood in silent rage as an assistant fumbled in his haversack for the necessary papers bearing the Imperial Seal.

“I see here only a request for the presence of Grand Master Hazin Vaka,” the commander of the guard announced, “nothing concerning an honorary escort.”

A scene now ensued, the argument dragging on for several minutes. The assistant indignantly argued that no master should walk without an escort. The commander of the guard replying that the imperial escort was sufficient. It was obvious what was being played out, and finally Hazin stepped forward.

“Ilvani, wait here,” Hazin said softly. He fixed the captain with his gaze. “Your name.”

“Ragna, captain of the Green Gate”—he hesitated the briefest of moments—“Your Holiness.”

“You will be in my thoughts, Ragna,” Hazin replied with a cool smile, and the captain, though trying to maintain a calm exterior, blinked, eyes lowering.

Hazin smiled. This one knew he was dead, orders or no orders from the emperor. The touch of a courtesan armed with a finger needle that would barely scratch the skin would be enough, or a powder slipped into a tavern drink. Wait awhile, though, let him contemplate, let him learn fear, then manifest the fear before killing him.

Imperial guards flanked him. There was no chair waiting, and he said nothing. The approach to the palace zigzagged up the steep hill, passing the villas of the lesser nobles, court officials, who now anxiously awaited their fate with a new emperor of the throne, and chosen consorts of the bed chamber, the place of each palace on that hill in direct relationship to their favor or disfavor of the moment. At each turn gun positions were cunningly laid out, often concealed behind finely wrought stonework, or small pleasure gardens, guards barely visible in recessed alcoves. The muzzle of a land cruiser was barely visible, hidden inside a stone arched stable. Several light fieldpieces, ready to be rolled out at an instant’s notice, were parked in a courtyard.

The place had been a fortress only a month ago, manned by ten thousand of the elite imperial assault troops. They had sworn allegiance to the new emperor without a moment’s pause, for what was the use of dying for someone who was dead? They were gone now, back to their barracks on the far side of the island. All that was left were the Imperial Guard—gilded fools in Hazin’s eyes. A hundred of his Shiv could take them in an hour if he so desired.

Turning the final corner of the Processional Way, he was disgusted to see that the inner gate was closed. Nor was there a banner of the Order displayed to mark his arrival. This outrageous oversight caused him to again look at the captain, who stood impassive, except for a slight twitching of his jaw.

The gate finally swung open, and he passed beneath the archway and into the outer courtyard, where a chamberlain, a gelded one, awaited and silently pointed the way, a whiff of costly perfume trailing in his wake.

They passed through the outer audience chamber, where the ceremonial holding of judgments took place on the first day of the new moons, a ritual harkening back across thousands of years when the emperor was no more than a rude clan elder in a felt tent. It was nothing more than a farce play now, already scripted as to who would be sent to the circle and who would leave with hide still intact.

At last the meandering tour through the outer rings of the palace, past cautious observers and whispering nobility, gave way to the inner circle, the private domain of Emperor Yasim. The chamberlain opened the door, then stepped backward, eyes averted.

Hazin strode in.

Yasim was alone, standing on a veil-draped balcony, goblet in hand, back turned. Hazin knew that the room was double walled, cunningly designed and inspected daily by the chamberlain so that no eunuch of the court could get close enough to eavesdrop on what was being said.

Hazin did the proper bow, right hand touching the floor.

“A drink to refresh you, Hazin.”

His voice was relaxed, betraying the slightest touch of the narcotic malva, a perceptive sniff of the air catching its pungent scent. Hazin looked over to a side table. A few light snacks were arranged, fresh slivers of meat, clean goblets of wine, and fermented milk.

As he took an empty goblet, he quickly looked for any abrasions, or slick spots that might indicate dried poison. It was a tiresome game and he doubted the emperor would ever be so direct, but a lifetime of training always prevailed.

Years of slowly increasing self-administered doses of most of the common and several of the preferred uncommon poisons had built a certain immunity. Combined with the oils he had drunk prior to coming here, he should be proof against a clumsy effort by anyone other than the emperor who might make the attempt and thus hope to pin blame on the imperial household.

He took several slivers of raw meat, poured a few ounces of blood, and stepped out onto the veranda.

A cooling breeze was coming down off the mountain, sweeping away the choking heat and stench of the summer’s day.

“You are well?”

“Yes, sire.”

Yasim turned, cool eyes appraising as Hazin sipped his drink.

“Frankly, it is a surprise to see you alive.”

Hazin smiled.

“My last communication with your Grand Master, or should I say your late, lamented Grand Master, was most interesting.”

“Please enlighten me, sire.”

“The cost of my victory at Ra was dear, very dear.” Hazin wanted to laugh. “My victory…” It was the Order that had given him victory. This fool had simply footed the bill. Fifteen assassinations, the turning of the Greens through the threat of a genocidal attack on their families and, above all else, the death of Hanaga, which had cost more than anyone had ever been willing to pay.

“Your order is expecting the second half of the payment by tomorrow.”

Hazin smiled. Direct, far too direct. It almost took the amusement out of the game.

“And, my sire?”

Yasim turned away. “How did you survive, may I ask?”

“The battle or my return?”

“The battle. The death of my brother is of far more interest than the internal squabbling of your precious society.”

Ah, so he is linking things together here, Hazin thought, his features revealing nothing.

“Easy enough. The captain of the frigate I arrived on, he was of my order.”

“Tell me, how many captains of my ships are of your order?”

Hazin looked down in the goblet, swirling the drink. The blood was still warm from the body it had been drawn from in the next room, as was the meat. An emperor could afford such a luxury, meat bred for texture and taste, the blood slowly tapped out from an open vein as required.

“The cost of such information, Your Highness,” and he shook his head.

“How about a trade, then?”

“Yes?”

“You leave here alive, I know who of my ship’s captains are of your order.”

Hazin smiled. “Too high. The bargain would be known, and then who would trust me or my order? I would be dead in a fortnight. There have been Grand Masters who have had reigns nearly as short, but I would prefer not to establish such a record.”

“So you prefer not to leave here alive? Know that it is obvious that your Grand Master preferred that you die in that last battle. That is why he personally gave to you the task of killing my brother.”

“That was obvious,” Hazin said dryly. “And that is why he is dead.”

Yasim turned away, going over to a sideboard where he picked up an ornately carved statue. It was a delicate creation in ivory, an abstract work of intricate swirls and curves. Hazin recognized it as one of the new school of Davin, an artist who had gained imperial favor of late. He wondered if Davin would still be in favor a moon from now.

“This took a year to create,” Yasim said softly, hands gently cradling the work. He sighed, holding it close for a moment then turning it over, lightly stroking it, fingers tracing the intricate design, then placed it back on the table.

“May I inquire as to the reason for my summoning?” Hazin ventured.

Yasim smiled. “There are times when you are the personification of subtlety, and then other times when you are as direct as the thrust of a dagger. Patience.”

Hazin returned to the table where the drinks were and poured another goblet full of the fresh blood. This time he sprinkled in a mixture of spices and a dark, heavy liqueur laced with a touch of malva.

The emperor smiled. “I did not know you indulged.”

“When it suits me.”

“And it does not dull you?”

“It does not dull. Your Highness. And besides, we of the Order are used to headier stuff.”

“I know.”

Hazin returned to the curtained veranda. The silky gauze was sheer enough that the view of the city was spread before them, the twinkling lights of the city below, the open harbor where the fleet lay at anchor.

From the temple of Ashva a dark pyre of smoke curled— their burnt offering for the day—while from the rival order of Vishta a brilliant fire blazed atop their pyramid temple. In the firelight he could see the writhing forms, their shrieking cries of agony carrying on the wind.

He wrinkled his nose with disgust at such primitive barbarity, made worse by the fact that the contemptible fools actually believed that there was a purpose to such sacrifices, that their idols desired the blood of human sacrifice. It served its purpose, though, for it kept his own in line. To be cast out of the Shiv was to be placed into the hands of one of half a dozen of the other cults.

It was such a delightful, intricate swirl of intrigue that gave purpose to life: the religious orders, the houses of the nobility, the eternal quest for dominance. He could not imagine a world without such interplay taken to the edge, for each maneuver held within it life or death. To dance upon the edge of the abyss, to cast one’s foes into that abyss, to at times see them fall while blessing your name, never realizing that you were the one who destroyed them was the thrill of existence.

“You still have not reacted to what I have said,” Yasim said softly, coming up to Hazin’s side. “Your Grand Master wanted you to die. Why did you wait till after you had fulfilled the contract to kill him? Why not before?”

Ah, so here was an inner fear, Hazin realized. For twenty years I stood by Hanaga’s side, yet killed him without hesitation. He wonders why I did not turn and take the Grand Master first. He knows that if I had, Hanaga would be alive today and it would be he who was dead.

“I could not refuse the order of my master to assassinate your brother. It was a contract, and it was binding. To strike such blood required the highest of our own order, not a lowly initiate or brother. Only a master should slay one of the royal line, and then only by the blade.”

It was such a ridiculous lie, and yet he could see that Yasim almost believed him.

“Why my family tolerates you, Hazin, has been an open question of late. Many say that your order should be destroyed while there is still time.”

“Would Your Highness desire such?”

Yasim looked over at him warily.

“There are fifty million of our race in your empire,” Hazin announced dryly. “Another twenty million or more human slaves. Did you ever wonder how many of them might be of the Order?”

“It is a question of regular debate,” Yasim replied. Hazin smiled. “I can assure you that if you struck tonight, if all the other cults joined you, if you could keep it a secret and fall upon all our temples in one blinding flash, still thousands would survive, and you know what they would do.”

“Are you threatening me?” Yasim asked quietly, looking over the rim of his goblet as he took another sip of his drink.

“Is it not the other way around, Your Highness?” Hazin replied coolly.

Yasim turned away. “What of this encounter that was reported to me?”

“Which encounter, Your Highness? There have been so many these last few days.”

“This ship you destroyed while fleeing the battle.”

Hazin laughed. “Majesty, I did not flee. When your brother met his gallant demise in the explosion that destroyed his flagship,” and he smiled, “I was blown overboard and rescued by a frigate. The ship I was on flew the colors of the Blue Banner. To linger while your fleet closed would have been foolish bravado.” To reply with the official story regarding Hanaga’s death amused him and clearly frustrated Yasim.

“Foolish bravado, Hazin. Something you were never noted for.”

“Those with bravado rarely live. Let my initiates show such traits. It is expected of them, not of me.”

“You avoid the question, though. Tell me of the human ship. They were of these rebellious humans, the envoy to the Bantag reports.”

“Who told you?”

Now it was Yasim’s turn to laugh.

So someone within his ranks was in the pay of the emperor. Why would he tell me? Why would he betray one of his own? Was it an offering of some kind?

“Actually, the ship was inconsequential,” Hazin stated, turning the goblet in his hand so that the gems caught the lamplight and flickered.

“Oh, really? I would not call a force that destroyed three of the northern Hordes to be inconsequential.”

“The ship is what I was referring to, not what it represents.”

“The ship, then.”

“It was primitive, what little we could see of it in the dark. Heavily reliant on sail, though it was under steam when we met it.”

“Its guns?”

“One hit only. The damage to our aft turret was minimal. It barely penetrated the turret’s armor, and that was at less than a thousand paces. The size of it was about the same as our frigate.”

“Do they have anything larger?”

Does he know we sent spies? Hazin wondered. The operation had been very secretive.

“I doubt it, Your Highness. This is the third vessel like this that has been taken, nothing bigger. I believe it is all they can produce.”

Yasim walked over to his desk, an ornate affair in the style of Subuta, which had enjoyed a resurgence ever since the Emperor Hanaga had expressed interest in the school. Yasim produced a bound report bearing the imperial seal and held it up.

“These are the reports from the minister of ambassadors. I assume your spies already have obtained a copy.”

Hazin smiled and said nothing. Half the ministers of court gave copies to his order before they even reached the hands of the emperor, at the start for payment, but after a while out of fear of what would happen if they ever stopped.

“According to what we have learned from the Bantag, this human rebellion in the north started with half a thousand who came through a Portal,” Yasim said while casually leafing through the pages.

“Within two years they fielded an army, and not just an army, but with it the creation of steam-powered machinery to manufacture weapons and support their effort. The Tugars were defeated, followed by the Merki and finally the Bantag, each of them stronger and more advanced than the last.

“The Bantag developed steam machinery as well, the art of it learned from the captives taken by the Merki and traded. By the end of the war both sides had flyers, land cruisers, iron ships, rapid-fire guns, telegraphs, all of these things unknown to the northern world only twenty years before.”

Hazin nodded as if this information actually was anything new.

“We have been too preoccupied, Hazin, with our own affairs.”

“When the fire is in your kitchen, Your Highness, one does not think of what his neighbor is cooking.”

“Do you think these humans have control of a Portal?” The question caught Hazin off guard, but he quickly recovered. Did they in fact control such a thing and the emperor knew it?

“I doubt it.”

“Why?”

“Because if they did, they would be far more advanced. No one can control a Portal. It is beyond us and will remain beyond us for generations to come.”

The emperor looked at him with a crafty smile. “The dream of your order, isn’t it? If they had a Portal, you would already be there and controlling it.”

Hazin’s features remained impassive. Again, he wondered who was the traitor in his ranks. A Portal was the holy of holies of his order; the path to power, the path to the stars. It was the legendary Kalinvala, who had come through a gate more than two hundred years ago, who had transformed the Kazan from ignorance to all that they now had, and who had founded his order. Finding a Portal was the ultimate goal that he had established for them, shrouded in religious mysticism in order to control the ignorant.

“You know that the leader of the Bantag, the one called their Qar Qarth, came through a Portal.” As he spoke, the emperor nodded toward the report.

Again Hazin was silent. Of course he knew. Did this one take him for a fool? And the Qar Qarth was ignorant of how it worked or why he had come here. The information he had of his world was useful enough, it was the same world as Kalinvala’s, though far more advanced across the hundreds of years, but unlike Kalinvala, the Qar Qarth had little technical knowledge, only general information, though the information was intriguing enough, especially when it came to a weapon that could annihilate entire cities. To obtain such a thing would be a dream.

“So what do you advise regarding this human rebellion, this nation they call the Republic?” the emperor asked.

Hazin shifted, looking back out over the city so that the emperor could not see him smile. “Crush it.”

“Why? They are no threat. We’ve endured twenty years of war for control of this throne, and it is finished. Other issues here are far more pressing. In five years, ten, perhaps then.”

Issues here, Hazin thought. Such as turning on my order. “In ten years they might be the ones coming to dictate terms to us,” Hazin replied. “Realize as well that their existence has been kept a secret even from our own people. If word ever got back to our slaves of the success of the human rebellion in the north, it could be a threat.”

“The Shiv perhaps. Might they rebel against you?” Hazin laughed. “They are of my order and incorruptible.”

It was the emperor who now laughed. “No one is incorruptible, Hazin. You most of all know that.”

“The Shiv exist because of us, and they know it.”

“Your experiment with them is something that the other orders and even those of the nobility increasingly fear. You are playing with fire.”

“The breeding of a warrior race to do the dying for us? It is an interesting experiment, nothing more. They are chained to us by our selection and by the gods we created for them.”

The emperor shook his head. “The Republic. Answer that.”

“As I said, crush it.”

“And what of the other houses still to contend with if I should divert my attention elsewhere?”

…“Unify through this war, or should I say, this crusade. The Bantag are our brothers. What they are now enduring could happen to us. Tell the other houses that.”

The emperor came to stand by Hazin.

“Crushing them is a small thing, Your Highness, a very small thing.”

“And of course you will lease the troops. Yet more expenses on top of expenses I cannot now afford.”

Hazin smiled. So here at last they were getting to the true purpose of this summons.

“Go on, I am fully attentive, Your Highness.”

“The cost of the victory over my brother was rather excessive.”

“Yet you agreed to the contract.”

“Wouldn’t you in my position?”

Hazin laughed softly. “Your brother set the bid mark, which you had to exceed.”

“Don’t you think I know that? It will bankrupt the throne.”

“Your brother didn’t seem to think so.”

“He never considered such things. I have to.”

“Are we brokering a deal here, Your Highness.”

“I do not broker deals,” came the sharp reply.

“Then let me see if I can surmise the offer. The Grand Master with whom you negotiated with is dead. You agree to my ascension as Grand Master, and in return I forgive the debt owed to my house.”

The emperor said nothing, his gaze fixed on Hazin.

“I could say that I sent the Grand Master to his ancestors out of loyalty to you.”

The emperor smiled sarcastically and Hazin laughed. “Fine, then. The debt can be forgiven. You will declare a holy crusade to aid our beleaguered brothers to the north, revealing what happened to them, declaring your outrage that your brother knew of this but kept it a secret since he was too preoccupied with vying for the throne. Such a declaration will of course cast you in a positive light and at the same time divert attention to a new cause.”

Yasim looked at him warily. “Sometimes you are too cunning, Hazin. In thinking of me, what is it that you seek for yourself?”

“I must have some payment to the Order. To totally forgive the debt, especially after the effort made to secure your throne, would be unforgivable, and I would fall within hours of announcing it. Here is what I propose. We help you to crush the human Republic, you can make payment in part from the loot taken, the money counters of my house will be satisfied, and you shall appear as a liberator.

“Your fractious cousins and countless nephews could be promised fiefdoms vaster than all that you now hold. Offer them new empires and they will fall in line.”

The emperor became more animated, looking over at Hazin with eager eyes.

“Let your cousins weaken themselves. Then, when the time is right, confiscate their lands. Use that as payment and eliminate them at the same time.”

Yasim could not help but smile. “You will make a deadly Grand Master,” he whispered.

“All in service to you, my lord.”

“I’m not so stupid as to believe that, Hazin.”

“Nor am I so stupid as to challenge you. With the unfortunate and untimely death of my old master, I have all that I desire in this world. What need is there for more? Besides, my fate will be linked to yours, and you, sire, are an entity that I know.”

Yasim slowly nodded in agreement.

“Might I therefore suggest that tomorrow you dispatch a fast frigate to the Bantag coast carrying ambassadors and some military advisers? Inform their Qar Qarth that war is about to begin.”

“When?”

Hazim fell silent, as if carefully calculating.

“It’s a long run for the frigate, and a collier will have to follow in its wake to refuel it for the return journey. Give a week for the frigate to reach the Bantag coast, then another week for your envoy and advisers to reach their Qar Qarth. Offer to them full military assistance if they will abandon the reservation they are trapped on and move south to the coast to link up with us.”

“Assistance such as?”

“The Shiv.”

“You would commit them to such a place?”

Hazin smiled inwardly. He knew Yasim would leap upon the offer, believing that the mailed fist behind the Order would thus be directed elsewhere. It showed a weakness of Yasim to react without’ fully contemplating the hidden meanings.

“They, fighting alongside the Bantag, will be a powerful force against the Republic.”

Yasim nodded in agreement.

“The uprising would therefore stir first in the east, diverting the Republic’s attention. Then time the arrival of the fleet to strike along the main coast of the Republic. We know where their main naval base is. Annihilate it in one blow, land your own troops there, and resistance will begin to fall apart.”

“A dangerous time of year to campaign,” Yasim replied, his enthusiasm suddenly cooling. “Storm season. Also, my fleet has been hard pressed. Much needs to be repaired and refitted.”

“Strike hard now,” Hazin said. “In three weeks’ time most of the refitting can be accomplished. If anything, your sailors, your warriors, are at their best. In addition, the campaign will immediately divert attention, consolidating forces that were fighting against one another into a common crusade. It will meld them together. Wait until next year, and that chance might be lost.”

Yasim hesitated, looking over the railing of his balcony to the city below.

Walking across the balcony where the emperor stood, Hazin leaned against the railing. It was shortly past midnight, the end of the most torturous and difficult day he had ever known, and all had fallen into place. Overhead he heard the distant hum of a flyer, faint, almost imperceptible as it drifted northward. He smiled.

A nod from the emperor indicated that agreement had been reached and the audience had ended.

“I’ll pass the necessary orders to begin preparation in the morning.”

“I will see you at the celebration of your ascension, my lord,” Hazin said formally, bowing low. He left the room, gaze lingering for a moment on the chamberlain, the bloated eunuch. He wondered what this one thought. He must know that his days were numbered, that he had been far too loyal to Hanaga.

The eunuch drew closer. “Grand Master,” he whispered. “May I come to your temple tomorrow to speak to you?”

Hazin smiled graciously. “Oh of course, Tugana, of course. Though there is nothing to fear, Yasim even mentioned you in our conversation. Rest assured that your position is safe. I pointed out that your loyalty was to the family and not to Hanaga himself.”

He saw the wave of relief in the poor fool’s eyes.

“But do come anyhow. There is much we can discuss.”

Perhaps it might be worth the effort to ensure this one survived. Then he would be in debt and could be useful.

Hazin followed the eunuch out the side door so that the guests waiting in the outer chamber would not see whom the emperor had been talking to. The captain of the Green Gate waited to escort him out of the compound.

All was playing out as desired. Hazin felt in such a munificent mood that he decided that this captain would not suffer when he died for his insult. A blade no thicker than a wire inserted into the base of the skull by a courtesan of the Order would do the trick. Perhaps even allow him the pleasure of lying with her first as a small gift before death.

Yes, all was unfolding as he had planned. He looked to the North and smiled, wishing Cromwell a safe journey home.

NINE

Exhausted, Richard Cromwell sat before the president of the Republic. He struggled to keep his hands from shaking as he gratefully took a cup of tea, the third one Andrew had offered him since the interview started.

“Can you tell us anything else about the plane you flew?”

“I’m sorry, sir. I tried to stretch it to land. I should have set it down on the beach along the Minoan Shoals rather than try and make the last ninety miles to Constantine.” Andrew extended his hand in a calming gesture. “You might have been stuck out there for days before someone spotted you. I don’t blame you for trying the final stretch. I’d have done the same thing.”

“Still, I lost the plane damn near in sight of land.”

“Just lucky one of our frigates spotted you going in. But is there anything else you can tell us about their weapons?”

“Ship designs, I can give you only general information. I worked on some of it on the train ride up here and can compile more information in a day or so. Perhaps if some of the design engineers from the technical college asked me questions I might be able to remember.”

Andrew nodded approvingly and looked over at Pat O’Donald, the only other person he would trust to be at this meeting and whom Richard had requested attend as well.

“Is there anything else you can remember, lad?” Pat asked. “Did you hear of a date when they plan to start, details about machines? Can you tell us anything else about this Hazin, or those beastly men?”

“The Shiv?” He wearily shook his head. The interview had been going on for nearly three hours without stop, and it was obvious to Andrew that Cromwell was past the point of exhaustion. He had been fished out of the ocean less than two days ago, taken straight to Bullfinch, then put on an express train straight back to Suzdal.

“Frightful, sir. They don’t seem quite human. I’m not sure if it’s because they have been bred for so long that they are different from us, or if it is their cult or the drugs that Hazin gives to them.”

Pat, who had shown remarkable restraint throughout the meeting, could finally contain himself no longer. “Cromwell, a personal question.”

Andrew could see Richard stiffen. “Yes, sir. About your son. That’s why I asked that you attend when I met with the president.”

“You knew him?”

“Of course, sir. We trained together at the academy flight school and were berthed together on the Gettysburg.”

Pat showed a hint of embarrassment. The fact that he did not know such common details about his son’s life was troubling.

“Did he say anything? I mean, did you talk at all about things before the Gettysburg was lost?”

Richard hesitated, looking not at Pat but at Andrew. “Go on, son,” Andrew said softly.

Richard shifted, coming almost to attention as he turned back to face Pat. “Your son is alive, sir.”

“My God!” Pat cried. He bolted up from his seat and began to pace furiously. “I knew it. I just knew the lad was still alive!

“How? Did he escape, too?”

Richard shook his head.

Pat seemed torn with emotions. He was relieved of the horrible anxiety that had controlled his life since Andrew had told him that the Gettysburg was destroyed and a lone survivor had escaped. Now, to suddenly discover that his boy was still alive, but a prisoner, was all but overwhelming. Pat looked at Andrew, desperation in his eyes.

“Could we arrange an exchange? Remember, the Tugars did it with Hawthorne. We did it with the Merki and Bantag. Damn it, Andrew, I’ll go myself.”

Andrew extended a calming hand, his gaze still locked on Richard. “I think Mr. Cromwell here has more to say.” Richard nodded his thanks and took a deep breath. “Out with it, boy. Come on,” Pat snapped anxiously. ,“Sir, I offered your son the chance to escape with me. He refused.”

“What?” Pat roared. He advanced menacingly on Richard, but Richard didn’t flinch.

“Are you calling my son a traitor?”

“No, sir, I didn’t say that. On the night I escaped, I asked Lieutenant O’Donald to come with me. He refused.”

“The weight,” Pat interjected, grasping for answers. “He must have realized how desperate your plan was. A hundred and fifty pounds more and you might not have made it.”

“That’s not what decided the issue, sir,” Richard replied, and Andrew realized that Cromwell had brushed over a point. Taking Sean would have meant dumping nearly thirty gallons of precious fuel, but he’d been willing to do that anyhow.

“Out with it then, damn it!” Pat shouted.

“Sir, I hate to be the bearer of this news. Your son, something happened to him.”

“They tortured him, didn’t they, the filthy bastards.”

“Pat, would you please let Mr. Cromwell explain,” Andrew said quietly but his voice was hard, the tone expecting compliance.

Richard looked over at Andrew with the slightest flicker in his eyes. It was obvious that he hated what had to be done, but would go through with it regardless.

Pat sat down, pulled out his handkerchief, and wiped the sweat from his brow. “Go on then, Cromwell.”

“Yes, we were tortured.”

“That’s rather evident,” Andrew interjected, for the wounds on Richard’s face were still evident, lips still puffed up.

Richard started to say more, but fell silent.

“They broke him, didn’t they?” Pat asked.

“It wasn’t just the torture, it was something they put in our water. It was a drug. I have heard about how morphine affects men who were wounded.”

Andrew looked at Cromwell unflinchingly. His own addiction to morphine after being wounded at Capua was one secret of his life that only those closest to him knew. It was frightful as well that after twenty years he still thought of it at times and had to fight the craving. Emil had told him that it would be like that for the rest of his life.

“Was it morphine?” Pat asked.

“I don’t know. It made you feel like you were floating, the pain was gone, but you could still see and think clearly. It also made what Hazin said terribly persuasive. It was a horrible thing to fight against.”

“Yet you resisted.”

Pat looked over at Andrew, ready to make an angry comment, but a gesture stilled him.

“Yes, sir. At least I think I did,” Cromwell replied.

“And my son?” Pat asked.

“Hazin seemed to single him out for special attention,” Richard replied.

Andrew could sense that Cromwell was skirting the truth, but knew it was best, at least with Pat in the room, to not press for any further details.

“What do you mean, ‘attention’?” Pat asked warily.

“After the torture we were separated, and I didn’t see Lieutenant O’Donald again until just before I left. I assume Hazin talked to him as he did to me.”

That information set in motion a disturbing thought. Perhaps, Andrew wondered, Cromwell was unwittingly a pawn in some sort of power game. Perhaps everything he had learned about their plans was false.

“My son, damn it,” Pat interrupted. “Get on with telling me.”

Richard exhaled noisily and quickly finished his cup of tea and set it down.

“I’m sorry, sir. There was another factor, a woman. Sean became involved with her and didn’t want to leave her.”

Pat’s temper edged back slightly.

“This woman, was she a slave of Hazin’s?” Andrew asked.

“Yes, sir. She was a member of the cult.”

“She was assigned to seduce Sean—” Andrew offered.

“That’s what I assumed,” Richard interjected hurriedly.

“So you are telling me that now my son is in the ranks of this Hazin.”

Richard hesitated again.

“Go on.”

“Sir, he accepted rank,” Richard replied softly, as if the words were too distasteful to be spoken aloud. “He said that the only hope for the Republic was to have someone from our side in their ranks, so that when we were defeated he’d be in a position to help what was left. He said that Hazin was the future.”

Andrew sat back, forcing himself to compose his features, to not show shock or anger.

“And this news comes from the son of a traitor,” Pat cried, coming back to his feet.

“Pat!”

“It’s a damnable lie.”

“Pat, there’s no purpose to him telling us this if it was a lie.”

“It’s to cover his own tracks, to cover leaving Sean behind.”

“If he’d done that, it would have been best to say nothing at all.”

Throughout the exchange Richard remained impassive, even though Pat was within striking distance, hand half raised.

“Mr. Cromwell,” Andrew asked, his voice hard, “why did you not communicate to Admiral Bullfinch, or to anyone else, that there was another survivor? Why did you wait till now?”

Richard lowered his head slightly. “Sir, I felt I should first tell this to Senator O’Donald. That it was better to hear it straight from me first rather than read it in Gates’s paper.”

Richard looked back up at Pat.

“I’m sorry, sir. I thought about saying nothing at all, but in the end I figured it was best to let you know that at least your son is alive. I’d like to think that in his own way he is following an honorable path, that he hopes in the end to help somehow.

“And, sir, no one other than the three of us knows of this. I swear that to you, and frankly, I would prefer if it stayed here and was never spoken of again.”

Pat looked stricken, features so pale that Andrew thought for a moment that his friend was about to collapse. Pat sat down heavily.

“I’m sorry, sir.”

Pat held his hand up, motioning for him to say no more.

“Mr. Cromwell, I think you need a good rest.”

“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir, I am rather tired. It was impossible to sleep on the train.”

“You’re staying here in the White House tonight. My wife is just down the hallway. Tell her that I want you to have a decent meal and a good night’s sleep. She’ll see that the staff takes good care of you.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“You are to share with no one what we’ve discussed here. I’ll ask as well that after you have your dinner, you remain in your room. I don’t want other folks, particularly some congressmen visiting tonight, to see you. Someone might recognize you and questions will start to fly.”

“Sir, believe me, I plan to be asleep within the hour.” Andrew offered the slightest of smiles. If not for Pat’s presence, he would come around the desk to shake Cromwell’s hand.

“Go get some rest, Lieutenant.”

“Thank you, sir.”

Cromwell stood up, put on his cap, and formally saluted. He started to turn but then stopped, looking at Pat.

“Sir, about Sean. He was a good officer. I think in his own way he still is.”

Pat lowered his head, saying nothing.

As the door closed behind Cromwell, Andrew looked over at Pat.

“Merciful God, Andrew. Do you believe him?”

“ ‘For I alone have lived to tell thee all,’ ” Andrew whispered.

“What?”

“Moby Dick.”

“What the hell is that? It sounds awful.”

“Never mind.”

Andrew walked over and opened the window facing the main plaza of the city. A gust of hot air swept in, dry, not comforting at all. The Great Square of Suzdal lay below, teeming with activity, merchants from across all the states of the Republic hawking their goods from open-air booths. In the far comer, under the sign of the Cannon Tavern, brokers from the stock market were gathered in their traditional summer location, waving their arms in some unintelligible manner, each movement a signal as to whether they were buying or selling shares and at what price. A procession of Rus monks was making its way into the great cathedral for the mid-aftemoon service, followed as always by a cluster of old women wearing black shawls. More than one of them were widows from the Great War, still mourning twenty years later.

All this activity seemed so ordinary, so peaceful, that he wondered if anyone would actually remember this particular day. For that was the nature of peace, he realized, to become commonplace, quiet, unassuming in its passage of days that slipped gently into years and lifetimes.

“I don’t believe him,” Pat announced sharply.

“I have to.”

“Damn it, Andrew, my son, did you hear what he said about my boy?”

Andrew looked back at his oldest friend, feeling the anguish churning within Pat. “Yes, I heard what he said about Sean. I don’t want to believe it, Pat. Perhaps he is wrong. Regardless of that, though, I have to believe everything else he said. To do otherwise is pure folly.”

Pat drew closer, putting his hand on Andrew’s shoulder, and Andrew was surprised to see tears in his comrade’s eyes.

“I made a mess of things, I did, Andrew. I should have married the girl, helped to raise the boy. But the army, Andrew…” and he fell silent.

Andrew offered no response, the excuse so obvious.

“No. Damn my soul, I didn’t want to be tied up. For that matter, I wasn’t even sure at times if the boy was mine.”

Andrew started to voice an angry response, but remained silent.

“The boy’s my blood, it was as plain as day.” He turned away, covering his face.

Andrew left him alone for the moment. So much about his friend he loved without reservation—his unflinching courage, his bravado, his ability to counter the melancholy that would often creep up in his own soul, ready to seize control. After the defeat by the Merki, and especially after he was wounded at Capua, it was Pat who had applied the steady hand and stirred the fires once again.

Because of that he felt, if not acceptance, at least a tolerance for Pat’s mistakes. After the war, with no focus, no next battle calling, he had made a mess of his life, turning to drink as more than one veteran had, and to women. But Livia had been special, and now he would be forever haunted for his mistake in not realizing that, and not taking his son into his heart from the beginning.

Pat noisily blew his nose, wiping his tears away with a dirty handkerchief, and looked back at Andrew. “You must consider who that young man is, Andrew.” He nodded to the door that had closed on Richard.

“What’s that?”

“The son of Tobias Cromwell.”

“So?” he said, a touch of warning in his voice. He had endlessly preached across the years the ideal that in a Republic the sins or the greatness of a father did not affect how the son should be treated. As in the Constitution of the first Republic he had lived in, Andrew had written in an article forbidding the denial of rights to a citizen regardless of what crimes his father had committed. The acceptance of Richard Cromwell into the academy had been a test of that resolve.

Pat was silent, and Andrew could see clearly that more than one would raise the question, especially when word spread of the accusation against Sean O’Donald. The son of a traitor coming back with a fanciful tale of an invasion, capped with an accusation against the son of a senator, was more than many would accept.

“Pat, we have to focus on our duty first.”

Pat nodded, looking absently out the window. The cathedral bell tolled, announcing the start of mid-afternoon services. The mingling of half a dozen languages drifted up from the plaza. Andrew sat back down behind his desk.

Turning in his swivel chair, he looked at the display case behind him, which contained a presentation sword from the men of the 35th Maine, given after Gettysburg, his Medal of Honor and the commissioning papers signed personally by Lincoln.

In the wavy glass of the display case, he could dimly see his reflection, It was hard to believe that that image was actually himself. The graying beard, the furrows across the brow, the receding hair, the thin narrow face, he almost looked like Lincoln.

He absently rubbed his empty sleeve. For a moment the “ghost arm” was alive, itching uncomfortably.

Back home, Lincoln was most likely long gone now. I’d give most anything to be back there, if only for a moment, to know what happened, to know how the war there ended, to know if the nation had healed, to find out about old friends, who undoubtedly number me amongst the dead.

I thought I could serve out this second term in peace, retire once and for all in another five years, finally to teach, to write, to enjoy the summer cottage on the shore of the Inland Sea, not far from where Ogunquit had washed up close on to thirty years ago.

“Pat?”

His friend looked back, features pale, as if an infinite sadness had at last crept into a soul that had without care enjoyed life prior to this moment.

“Pat, we have to figure out what in hell we are going to do.”

“Based on the word of one boy?”

“He’s not a boy, Pat. He’s five years older than most of the cadets who graduated. He grew up in the lower depths of hell and survived. I think he is turning into a leader we can count on. I trust him.”

“Well, I for one don’t.”

“Damn you, Pat!” He slammed the table with his fist. “This is no time to think of yourself! This is no time to think about what the hell you should have done for your son when you had the chance.” He hesitated for the briefest of moments and then pressed on. “Consider him dead,” and his voice was cold, remorseless.

Pat opened his mouth, but was unable to speak.

“I’m sorry, Pat. We have to focus on the issue, not on what we cannot change.”

“I thought you, of all people, would understand, Andrew.”

“When I can, I will.”

Pat looked at him sadly. “Andrew Lawrence Keane, I’ve counted you a friend since the day we shared our first drink. What has happened to us?”

“Pat, nothing, other than we are older, and when I walk out of this room I have to be president. That must come first. Your being a senator has to come first. Later we can mourn for all that we’ve lost.”

“Fine then, Andrew. I see.” He sat down woodenly in the chair across from Andrew.

Andrew lowered his gaze. Now that he had Pat’s attention, what next? Since the end of the war the problems had been political, holding the Republic together, suppressing the Chin separatist movement, passing the language-unifi-cation laws, but this was different. And Pat was right, any plans they made would be based on the word of one lone officer who many would find suspect.

“Where’s Vincent?” Pat asked, finally stirring.

“Still out on the frontier. This report from Cromwell explains the tension out there. The Bantag are in touch with the Kazan, and something is afoot. If war comes with the Kazan, it will explode with the Bantag as well.”

Pat nodded. “You should get Hawthorne out of there. With a lone regiment he’ll be overwhelmed.”

“I’ll send a recall message immediately.”

Andrew didn’t mention that he wanted his own son out of there as well. If a war was about to ignite, he didn’t want Abraham to be two hundred miles inside Bantag territory. “And the fleet?”

“Based on what happened to the Gettysburg, it doesn’t sound good. Their smallest class of fighting ships are obviously a match for our armored cruisers. Against their ships of the line it will be suicide.”

“Withdraw them up the Mississippi?”

Andrew turned and looked at the map above the display case. The river was a deep-channel all the way up to the Inland Sea; back home, more like the Hudson than the Mississippi. Would they pursue? Undoubtedly. From Cromwell’s report, one of their main ships of the line could lay off the mouth of the Neiper and shell Suzdal to pieces.

No, there’d have to be a blockade set up. The narrows below Cartha would be the best place, but it would take time, weeks, more like months to build the proper fortifications, lay in the guns, and build up a garrison that could resist a ground-based attack.

“For the moment I’ll let Bullfinch think about the response. That’s what we’re supposed to be paying him for anyhow. Hell, I was a line officer. Things with ships I could never quite understand.”

“Fort Hancock,” Pat muttered.

Andrew looked back, wondering if there was a mild rebuke there. In that debacle the Bantag had successfully launched a surprise amphibious attack and cut off Pat’s army on the Shenandoah River.

No, he was just remembering.

“What about the Bantag?” Pat asked.

Andrew sighed, still gazing at the map.

“They’ll join. If the Kazan land on the coast south of them, and they come with what Cromwell says they have, the Bantag will join. Hell, if the roles were reversed, wouldn’t you?”

“Punitive strike now, Andrew.”

“What?”

“We could mobilize a hundred thousand men within a week and move them to the frontier. We have over two hundred aerosteamers and five hundred land ironclads. Throw that force at them now, drive a wedge between them and the sea.”

“Oh, damn,” Andrew sighed, and he slowly shook his head.

“Why not?”

“What did you just tell me ten minutes ago about how people will react to what Cromwell said? Pat, I can’t preemptively start a war with the Bantag based upon a sole report.”

“And Hawthorne’s report, what about that?”

“The same there, It’s merely a surmise, a reading of intent. We have no proof other than a single revolver. I can’t go to war over that.”

“Then provoke them.”

He thought about that. It could be done, but wouldn’t Jurak figure out as well what Andrew was trying to do? He was no fool, and he had a million square miles to fall back into. A band of a few thousand Bantag, fighting in their own territory, could run rings around the fresh recruits the army now had.

Too many variables were beginning to close in, and now, after the first rush of excitement over what Cromwell had reported, a cooler voice was whispering to him.

I’m overreacting, he thought. Perhaps the boy is wrong after all. There could even be a plot within a plot, that he was deliberately let go to provoke us into a first move.

The first move, that was the problem here. If we are wrong, the Separatists’ Movement will have a golden opportunity; they could even bring on another constitutional crisis. The Chin would use any pretext to attack the Bantag and, if let loose, it would be a debacle. The Greeks might very well ally with the Chin in order to leave the Republic, and then everything fractures.

Yet to wait, to do nothing, was repugnant to his nature. He had a window here, a month perhaps, six weeks at most before the onslaught hit, according to what Cromwell had said. And yet all that was based upon a lone report.

“Damn,” he sighed, clenching his fist, looking back at Pat.

“We’re stuck. I can’t order an unprovoked attack on the Bantag without clear evidence that they actually are allying with the Kazan.

“As for the Kazan, we know nothing. Absolutely nothing. We have one report from a pilot to whom I’d give anything if he had changed his name, and on that, our fate might rest in the weeks to come.”

Andrew stood up, returning to the window. The stock market was still at it. A scribe was furiously running back and forth on the catwalk above the Cannon Tavern, writing the latest prices on the huge chalkboard that ran the entire length of the building. A jade merchant with a particularly annoying whine, who had leased a crucial corner directly in front of the White House, was chanting about the beauty of his stones. Off in the distance, beyond the smoke billowing from the steel mill stacks, he caught a glimpse of an aerosteamer lazily circling, then turning, cutting figure eights in the sky, a student learning his art.

“Pat, nothing is to be said as of yet. Nothing.”

“How long do you plan to keep the lid on?”

“No one knows that Cromwell has reported here other than the admiral and the crew of the ship that brought him in, and Bullfinch wisely had them quarantined. We have a couple of days before the rumors begin to circulate. I want you to line up senators you can rely on, Gracchus, Petronius, Valincovich, and Hamilcar.”

“Alexandrovich,” Pat added, “he’s an old vet, we can count on him.”

“To keep his mouth shut?”

Pat hesitated. “I’ll threaten to break his arms if he breathes a word.” .

“All right then. The speaker and the vice president are not to know. They’d spill it out in a heartbeat.”

“They’ll be furious when they find out.”

“Let them. I’ll have Vincent call a mobilization drill. It was slated for next month anyhow. We can use the excuse that it was getting too routine.”

“The stock market boys, the factory owners, will scream. Their schedules are planned around losing their men four weeks from now.”

“Let them scream. I’ll make some statement about it being a realistic drill this time. We shift the maneuver area to our grounds on the Chin territory.”

Pat started to shake his head. “Gods, Andrew. The Chin will read into that. Hell, one of them breaks wind, and they spend days reading into it. They’ll think our holding maneuvers on their territory is a veiled threat.”

“Let them think what they want.”

“I want a meeting with Webster, Varinnia Ferguson, and a few people she trusts first thing in the morning. We’re going over everything Cromwell told us—in fact, I want him here, too. We have precious little time, but we have to start thinking about counters to everything he says they have.”

Pat smiled.

“What is it?”

“A bit like the old days again.”

“I’d prefer something different.”

Pat solemnly nodded. “Yes, Andrew, I agree.”

Andrew returned to his desk and looked at the calendar page set to one side. “Damn. There’s a dinner tonight with some Chin congressmen. I can’t cancel that. Then a play.”

“Better go. Besides, I heard it’s a good one. The Yankee and the Boyar’s Daughter.”

“Oh, God, not another one.”

Pat smiled. “Complete with tableau of the historic victory at the First Battle of Suzdal. Performed in English, no less, with Dimitri Vasiliovich as the Yankee.”

“It sounds like you actually enjoyed it.”

“Oh, I did. Rare fine good acting it was.”

Andrew groaned. He was bored to death with the utter silliness of patriotic plays, which had become the rage of late, all but taking Shakespeare off of Players Row. But if he did not attend, the more astute might read something into it, put it together with the change in the summer mobilization rehearsal. No, he would have to attend and listen to Dimitri’s hysterical overacting.

“All right, then. Tomorrow I’ll clear my schedule. You get word to Webster and Ferguson, make it first thing in the morning. I think our focus at the start should be the navy, what we can do there within the next couple of weeks. Let’s plan to meet at the shipyard.”

His tone indicated that the conversation was at an end, and that bothered him. This was Pat, after all, not someone who had to be eased out of the office so that the next appointment could be kept.

“Andrew?”

He nodded, already knowing what was to be asked. “Let’s just keep the word about your boy between us for right now. Cromwell kept it till he could meet with you. I trust he’ll continue to keep it. Perhaps he was wrong after all.”

Pat smiled. “I don’t believe it for a minute, Andrew. Do you?”

“No,” Andrew lied, “of course not.”

TEN

The sun was rising as Abraham Keane, riding alone, crested the ridgeline. Before him the encampment of the Golden Yurt was spread out across the open plains, the early morning light casting long shadows, the steppe to the west disappearing into a dark blue horizon.

A shaman’s chants drifted on the hot wind. Smoke curled from campfires. Some cubs, engaged in a passionately fought game, rode in swirling knots, sweeping down to reach for the ball. Not so long ago he knew that the bag would have contained a human head. Now it was just stuffed with old felt rags—at least he hoped that was the case.

He saw the Qar Qarth riding out from behind his yurt, mounted on his favorite stallion, a magnificent white animal. The two of them were a striking sight. The horse pranced, legs raised high, and Jurak was obviously enjoying the ride, knowing that all eyes were upon him.

Abe leaned back in his saddle, taking in the view, enjoying the moment. The thought of going back to the cities of the west, to the crowds, the stench, the noise, after riding patrols, after watching sunrises and sunsets on the open plains where heaven and earth met on a horizon that seemed to disappear into eternity, was impossible to contemplate. This is the place where he wanted to stay.

Jurak drew closer, his mount kicking up plumes of dust. The cubs paused in their wild melee and bowed respectfully from the saddle, then returned to their pursuit once he had passed.

Abe stiffened and saluted as Jurak reined in by his side.

“The night passed well, Qar Qarth Jurak?”

“Yes, and yours?”

“Our circles are peaceful, as I see yours to be,” Abe replied, offering the ritual words that indicated he had come without warlike intent.

Jurak leaned over and affectionately patted the neck of his horse.

“You ride well,” Abe said.

“I have to in order to survive here. I wasn’t born to it the way my people are. I’ll admit that when I first came here, I hated riding. There’s something about being atop a beast that could kill you, and who at the same time is actually rather dull of mind, that bothered me.”

Abe laughed softly. “My father still misses his old war-horse, Mercury. He said Mercury was the only horse he ever knew that had brains.”

“I remember that horse. The battle at what you call Rocky Hill. Your father was a magnificent sight riding along the front line, followed by his battle standard. He was the incarnation of war at that moment. I’ll never forget the way his men cheered, and I knew that as long as he lived you would never be defeated. He has my respect.”

“I shall tell him you remember him thus. He will be honored.”

Jurak looked away, letting go of his reins so his horse could crop the short grass.

“There is a reason for your visit, son of Andrew Keane. The flyer that dropped the message over your camp last evening sent Hawthorne scurrying up here for one last talk, and now you have come at dawn. Hawthorne has already said his farewells. Why have you come back?”

Abe nodded, letting go of his reins as well. “I’ve been ordered to tell you something. It is not official. It came from my father to me, and no one else knows.”

He could see that he had Jurak’s interest.

“Go on, then.”

“My father conveys to you his respects.”

“Yes, the usual formula between rulers, but what is the message?”

“You are not to move south.”

“I have argued this point with your General Hawthorne for over half a moon.” Jurak pointed back to the regimental encampment where even now the tents were being struck, the column forming up. “Our talks ended with no resolution. Why do you come back here alone to repeat yet again that which we could not agree upon? Does your general know you are doing this?”

“Yes, sir. He gave his permission.”

“Why?”

“Sir, he said that,” and Abraham hesitated, “that you respected me because of my blood and would believe me. I asked as well to come alone.”

Jurak laughed. “You are brave like your father.”

“I know I have nothing to fear from you.”

“At this moment, yet.”

“I would like to think it would stay that way.”

In the weeks that he had come to know Jurak, Abe felt that he had learned some of the nuances of this leader of the Bantags. He had heard Cromwell talk about it back at the academy, how when you lived with them, you learned quickly to recognize each as an individual rather than as part of a faceless horde. You knew who was more cruel than normal, who might give a favored pet an extra scrap of food, when someone was angry, happy, sad, or vengeful. In short, you learned things about them the same way you did about humans.

He felt he had gained some knowledge of Jurak, at least a vague understanding of this alien ruler of what was to him an alien race. Jurak possessed a keen intellect, as fitted someone from the future who had been thrown into a primitive world. In a strange sort of way he thought Jurak and his father were alike. For he too bore knowledge this world had not yet come to grasp. He had led the Rus in a war undreamed of before his arrival.

But it had been Jurak’s fate to come too late, when events were already unfolding beyond his control. Across the years afterward all he could do was brood, to maneuver for a way to survive, not just for himself but for the fallen Horde he ruled as well.

He looked at Jurak carefully, sensing the wariness, the sudden alertness and caution. The wind stirred the mane of his horse, the plume of his helmet. The light about them was soft, diffuse, mingled with the shadows of early morning. “Is that all there is to the message?”

“Yes, Qar Qarth Jurak, that is all that he sent directly to you. No one else, either in our government or our military, knows except for General Hawthorne.”