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ONE

The High City of Solinga had been the core of the ancient town once; first a warlord's castle, then the seat of the city council. Three centuries ago, when Solinga was capital of the Emerald League, several million arnkets of the League's treasury had mysteriously found their way into a building program to turn it into a shrine to the city's gods—to the Gray-Eyed Lady of the Stars, first and foremost.

Money well stolen and spent, Adrian Gellert thought, as the procession mounted the broad flight of marble stairs that led to the plateau. Right hand tucked into the snowy folds of his robe, left hand holding the gold-capped scroll that marked him as a Scholar of the Grove, he kept to the slow hieratic pace suitable for a religious occasion. About him gulls swooped and shrieked; before him stood the cream-white marble pillars, the golden roofs, the great forty-foot statue of the Maiden holding Her bronze-tipped spear aloft to guide the mariners home. Behind him was the tarry workaday reality of Solinga smelling of fish and offal and sea salt, narrow crooked streets and whitewashed walls peeling to show the mud brick, tile roofs and only occasionally the walls and colonnades and courtyard gardens of the rich. But here, amid the scent of incense and the light silvery tones of hand bells, was the ideal the reality served.

We may have fallen from our forefathers' power, but this at least we can say—that we alone gave godlike things to the gods, he thought with a melancholy pride that edged out the anxiety and grief of his father's funeral.

The procession halted as a priest confronted them, a blue-edged fold of his blanketlike mantle over his head like a hood. "Why do you come to this holy place?"

"To render homage to the Goddess, in such seemly wise as is allowed to mortal men," Adrian's uncle said, speaking as the eldest adult male of the Gellert clan. Besides, he was paying for the ceremony. "In memory of Ektar Gellert, a free citizen of this city, that the Maiden may judge him kindly; and in the name of his sons, Esmond and Adrian Gellert, that She may watch over them in the trials of life."

"Come, then, and do worship."

The procession resumed; Adrian, his brother Esmond, uncles, cousins, grandfathers, hangers-on, with hired musicians following behind playing double-pipes and lyres. Pilgrims and priests and citizens making sacrifice parted before them. Their sandals scuffed across the pavement, slabs of white-veined green marble edged with gold. They passed the Plinth of Victories, a huge column set with the beaks of captured warships; past the black-basalt fane of Wodep the War God, the pink and gold marble of Etat the All-Father, and at last to the great raised rectangle of the Maiden's fane. It was a simple affair of giant white columns, each ending in a riot of golden acanthus leaves. The roof was copper-green tiles, and all around from pediment to architrave ran mosaic panels done in gold glass, lapis, amber and semiprecious stones. Some showed the Goddess giving Her gifts to men—fire, the plow, the olive, ships, the art of writing. Others were scenes from the Five Year Festival, the city's knights on their velipads, the Year Maidens bringing the great embroidered shawl, the athletes naked in their iron pride.

"Follow, then," the priest said.

Hot charcoal fires burned in a pair of tall tripods of fretted bronze. Gravely, Esmond and Adrian strode up the steps. Each took a silver bowl from the acolytes, pouring a stream of translucent grains into the white-glowing bed. Fragrant smoke rose, bitter and spicy.

The others drew up a fold of their mantles to cover their heads as the priest raised his hands; the Goddess' moon was visible over the horns of the roof, the other two moons being below the horizon at this hour. Adrian's uncle led the sacrifice forward, a white-feathered greatbeast with four gilded horns and a myrtle wreath around each. It came to the altar willingly enough—drugged, he thought: no sense in courting a bad omen—and collapsed almost soundlessly as the broadaxe flashed home with a wet, heavy thud on its neck.

Slowly, the tall ebony and silver doors of the temple slid open, rolling soundlessly on bronze bearings. Adrian's mind reflexively murmured three citations and an epic poem on the building of the Maiden's Temple; all of them described the effect, and all of them inaccurately as far as he knew. The cult image came forth on brass rails set into the marble of the pronacs floor, gliding with oil-bath smoothness. It was hidden in a tall cedarwood and silver shrine, emblazoned with the full moon on all sides. At a touch the sides sank down to reveal a rock. Black, slagged and metallic-looking in spots with a trace of rust, a metorite and very ancient.

Adrian Gellert had long since been trained in the precepts of the Grove; that God was Number and Form, and all the lesser images merely avatars or imaginings of men unable to conceive of the One. God did not need to Do, only to Be—but he still felt a trace of numinous awe as he extended his hand. And of course a gentleman showed respect for the ancient cults.

"Scholar of the Grove—"

Adrian held up the scroll in his left hand.

"Scholar of the Blade—"

His brother Esmond raised his sheathed sword.

"Receive the blessing of the Goddess, your patron."

Adrian closed his eyes and let the hand rest on the sacred rock. It was cool, cooler than it should have been, and—

* * *

Where am I? Where am I?  

He thought he screamed the words, but he had no lungs. No eyes, for surely even the darkest night at the bottom of the silver mines of Flowerhill was brighter than this. He was nothing but Fear, adrift in a world of midnight. Stroke. Heart attack.

Compose yourself, he thought sharply. Remember that anything that can happen, can happen to you. All men are initiates of the mysteries of death. 

That was the comfort of philosophy, but a little hard to remember when one was only twenty-one.

Light. He blinked . . . and saw a room around him. Furnished in an alien style, strange padded furniture, a fire burning in an enclosed brick space in one wall, tables and chairs of subtly foreign make. And a man standing there, a dark man with bowl-cut black hair. Odd clothes, something like those worn in the Western Isles, or even among the Southron barbarians; trousers, those marks of the savage, a curious tailored coat of blue with tails dangling behind. A curved sword and a holster with something rather like a carpenter's tool were lying on one table.

Either I have gone mad, or something very strange has happened, Adrian thought. He was conscious of his own terror, but it was distant, muted. He looked down at himself, and he was there again—not in the snowy draped robe of ceremony, but in an everyday tunic, with inkhorn and pen case slung from his belt.

"Adrian Gellert," the oddly-dressed man said; he spoke good Emerald, with a hint of a soft accent. "What is it that you desire?"

It was the manner of the Academy to teach with questions. He closed his lips on his own enquiries, on the fleeting ephemeral desires of every day, on the anxieties of his father's untimely death. That question had asked for truth. Perhaps there was truth in the old stories of Divine intervention in the lives of men.

"I want to know," he blurted.

The dark man nodded.

* * *

"An excellent dinner. Many thanks, Samul," Esmond said, from his couch across the table.

Adrian nodded and murmured something. His brother-in-law Samul Mcson had been a catch for his sister Alzabeta. A catch of sorts; the Mcson family was important in the dye trade and had a fish-sauce works whose products were sold by name as far away as Vanbert, the Confederacy capital. He'd never liked the man, and the sneer on the heavy fleshy features showed the feeling was returned. Also there was honey-glaze sauce on the front of his robe, which was rose-colored silk from the Western Isles. Probably brought back on one of Father's ships, he thought, smiling and nodding at his surly relative by marriage.

The servants—Mcson retainers as well, since the Gellert retainers were dispersed—cleared away the fruits and pastries and cheeses; the dinner had been the traditional seven courses, from nuts to apples. Restrained, at least by Confederacy standards; the simple tastes of the antique Emeralds only survived in Cadet training and the Academy's dining halls. The broken meats and scraps would be distributed at the door to the city's poor, who gathered whenever the garlanded head of a greatbeast was hung over a door to mark a household that had made sacrifice.

Adrian dipped water into his wine and poured a small libation on the mats set out on the tile floor. He suppressed a stab of unphilosophic anger at his father for dying at such an inopportune time; the business had been going well enough, but the capital was all in goodwill, contacts and ongoing trade, and neither of the Gellert sons were inclined to take up the shipping business to the Western Isles. Their father wouldn't have heard of it, anyway; what had all his ignoble labor been for, if not to buy his sons the leisure to be scholars and athletes, gentlemen of Solinga, greatest of the Emerald cities? But he'd died too early. By themselves the physical assets were barely enough to cover the debts, dower their youngest sister and provide a modest but decent living for their mother. The younger Gellerts would have to cut short their education and find their own way in the world.

He looked around the room; two dozen guests reclining on the couches, some of them rented for the occasion. It was the men's summer dining room, open to the garden on one side, with old-fashioned murals of game and fish and fruit on the walls. Scents of rose and jasmine blew in from the darkness of the courtyard, and the sweet tinkle of water in a fountain. Most of the guests were older men, friends or business acquaintances of his father. Esmond lay on one elbow across from him, his mantle falling back, exposing the hard muscle of his chest and arm, tanned to the color of old beechwood. It made the corn-gold of his hair more vivid as it spilled down his back; a rare color for an Emerald, and the only thing besides blue eyes he and his brother had in common physically.

I'm weedy, in fact, Adrian thought. Short, at least, and only middling competent in the athletic part of the two-year course of Cadet training every well-born Solingian youth had to take when he turned eighteen. Once it had been preparation for military service, but that had ceased to be important long ago, in his great-grandfather's time, when the Confederacy's armies had conquered the Emerald lands.

The servants brought in another two jugs of wine, yard-high things with double looping handles and pointed bottoms. They splashed into the great bulbous mixer; light from the oil lamps flickered on the cheerful feasting scene painted across its ruddy pottery. Not much like tonight's memorial dinner; no flute-girls or dancers or acrobats here, since it wouldn't be seemly. His father hadn't hired such for most of his parties. These things are for men with no conversation. He smiled slightly, remembering the deep gravel voice and the face weathered by twenty years of sea weather and spray.

"Excuse me," he murmured. Three parts wine to one of water now, and the talk grew louder.

The garden was warm and still, starlight and two of the moons showing the brick pathways between beds of herbs and flowers. Not very large, only fifty paces on a side, but tall cypress trees stood around the perimeter wall, throwing pools of stygian blackness. The pool and fountain shone silver; he could see the mouths and tentacles of the ornamental swimmers breaking the surface, hoping for a few crumbs of bread as he passed. Down towards the end of the garden was a little pergola, an archway of withes covered in a flowering vine, with a stone seat beneath and a mask of the Goddess in Her aspect as patron of wisdom set in the wall behind.

The most private place in the house. Outside the womens' rooms, and from the noise coming from those, the female side of the party was getting more lively than the mens'. He'd often come to this bench to read, meditate and think.

"If you wish to speak—if you are more than the imaginings of my mind—then speak," he murmured.

it is not necessary to vocalize your thoughts, the cold, relentless voice in his head replied. It felt . . . heavy, as if it were packing more meaning into the forms than the words could properly carry. merely articulate them internally. 

He did so, not an easy task . . . but then, he'd trained himself to read without speaking, or even moving his lips, an uncommon skill even among scholars.

Who are you?  

We, the other voice replied, the voice of the strange dark man. I am Raj Whitehall, and my . . . companion is Center. I'm . . . I was a man, on another world. Center is a computer. 

Despite the utter strangeness, Adrian's dark brows drew together at the last word. Computer. It wasn't one he was familiar with, but in the Scrolls of the Lady's Prophet there was a remote cognate . . .

A daemonic spirit? he thought. Interesting. I thought those superstition. And you are a ghost, you say? 

A mental sigh. Not exactly. Let me start at the beginning. Human beings are not native to this world . . . 

An hour later he was sweating. "I . . . understand, I think," he muttered, and looked up at the starry sky.

Other worlds, whole worlds attendant on the stars! The stars are suns! It was more radical than even the speculations of the ancient Wisdom Lovers, the ones who'd spent their time trying to measure the sun or the shape of the earth, before modern philosophy turned to questions of language and virtue. The scale of time involved staggered him; the vision of men coming to this world of Hafardine in great ships of the aether, falling out among themselves, tumbling down into savagery after wars fought with weapons that had eerie parallels to the most ancient legends.

"Why?" he went on. "Why me?"

Because, lad, you're a man who wants to find out the truth of things, Raj's voice said. This world has gotten itself on a wrong road, and we need a man to set it right. So that, in due time, Hafardine may take its place within the Federation of Man. 

Adrian gave a shaky laugh. "Me, a world-bestrider like Nethan the Great?" he said. "You should have picked my brother Esmond; he's the warrior in our family, the one who burns to bring back the days of the Emerald League."

not a conqueror, the slow, heavy voice of the . . . machine? continued: a teacher. although elements of collective violence may well be necessary to disturb the established order on this world. 

"What's wrong with the established order?" he said, curiously. "Apart from those vulgarian bumpkins from the south ruling the Emerald lands, that is."

observe:  

The world vanished, as it had in the High City by the temple of the Maiden. Again he saw Hafardine as it had been just after the fall of the Federation's machine civilization. Little villages of farmers scattered through the valleys and plains of the figure-eight-shaped main continent and along the coasts of the islands; bands of hunters in the vast forests of the mountains and the southlands. Some of the villages grew. He gasped as he recognized the great cities of the Emeralds in their earliest days, their rise to greatness, the long struggle with the Lords of the Isles and the founding of the Emerald League. His heart beat faster as he saw Solinga in the days of her glory, as the deathless beauty of the High City rose from the dreams and hands of men. Then the long, terrible civil wars, city against city, the League against the Alliance. Solinga's defeat that solved nothing, and then the Confederation's armies moving in from the south.

observe. the world as it now exists.  

A view from above, first. The Confederacy's wall across the narrow waist of the continent, separating the barbarian southlands from the land of cities and law to the north. The estates of the Confederacy's nobles expanding across valley and plain; Vanbert growing from a straggling shepherd's camp to a city far vaster than any in the Emerald lands. He could sense years passing.

the maximum-probability result of a continuation of present trends.  

Images . . .

. . . armies clashed, both sides in the armor and equipment of the Confederacy. Behind them a city burned . . .

. . . a view down a street. It was the buzzing heat of noon, and nothing moved; a fine broad paved street, arrow-straight, obviously in the Confederacy's heartlands. A body lay in one gutter, the exposed skin purple and swollen. Flies buzzed around it. A handcart came slowly down the pavement, drawn by men with cloth masks around their faces and more of the swollen bodies piled high behind them.

"Bring out your dead!" one of the men called. "Bring out your dead!"

. . . men in shabby tunics and women in drab gowns gathering as a proclamation was read from a plinth in some anonymous farm town. The plump official droned on, and on, some sort of edict setting prices and wages: "And the price of leather harness for a carriage velipad shall be no more than one hundred twenty-five New Arnkets, of which one in four shall be paid to meet the needs of the State, in cash or kind. Sandals shall be no more than . . ."

. . . slaves worked on a hillside, dragging boxes of earth on ropes looped over their shoulders; he could see the cheap sleazy fabric of their tunics, hear them grunt as they tipped the earth into a deep gully that slashed across a sloping wheatfield. It began to rain, and muddy water torrented down the cut in the field, washing away the earth a hundred times faster than the slaves could hope to haul it back.

. . . Vanbert itself, capital of the Confederacy and the known world. But it was on fire, greasy black smoke rising to hide the outlines of temple and palace and tenement block. Down one street a noblewoman ran, the silks of her gown trailing behind her. Behind her rode a Southron, a barbarian in greasy furs, his long yellow braids swaying with the gallop of his velipad. He leaned sideways in the saddle, one arm out to scoop the fleeing woman up and a gap-toothed grin on his face. A priestess' necklace of amber and gold bounced on his bare, painted chest.

. . . Vanbert again, but it took a moment for his eyes to recognize it. Trees covered the ruins, old trees. A few small fields stood, among log longhouses. A woman scattered grain to chickens, and a lean bristly pig rooted along the outskirts of a fly-buzzing midden.

Adrian gasped as the vision released him. Raj's voice spoke in his mind: Your world is trapped in a cycle of war, empire, decline and war, he said. It could repeat itself indefinitely, the only difference that each cycle falls further and climbs less as the land itself becomes less fertile. 

this is what you must prevent, Center's passionless tones went on. we have waited seven hundred years for a man such as you. 

"Me?" Adrian squeaked. "Why not my brother Esmond?"

this world does not require a warrior, Center said. it needs . . . wisdom. 

"Philosophy?" Adrian asked, bewildered. "Rhetoric? Yes, they're the arts of civilization, but our thinkers and speakers are the finest that have ever lived. How can I—"

Raj cut him off. I'll explain; the concept wasn't very easy for me, either, back on Bellevue—back on the world where I was born, he said. It's called "technological progress." 

Adrian felt a familiar excitement; it was like the first time he grasped that this syllogism thing the lecturer was talking about meant something, or understood just why the angles of a right-angled triangle had to add up in a certain way—the feeling of real knowledge, like a conduit to the mind of God.

"Tell me," he whispered.

* * *

"Way!" the soldier's voice rang harsh and loud. "Make way!"

Adrian and Esmond reined their velipads to the side of the highway. It was a Confederation road, built a century ago to nail down the Confederacy's control of the coastal river valleys to the north. Twenty paces broad, ditched, and paved with hexagonal blocks of volcanic rock, built to last for the ages—Adrian had seen one undercut by a flash flood once, and it was five feet thick. A layer of fist-sized stones in lime mortar, a layer of sand, another of mortar with smaller rocks, then a layer of mortar and gravel, and then the paving blocks . . .

Hobnailed sandals crashed down in unison as the battalion came down the center of the roadway in a column of fours, legs moving like a single centipede. There goes the thing that ended the glory of the Emerald cities, Adrian thought. Out of the corner of his eye Adrian could see Esmond's hands tightening on the reins, then relaxing with an effort of will, one going forward to stroke the feathery bronze-colored scales of his mount's neck. Their ancestors had fought in dense-packed squares, each man locking shields with his neighbor and thrusting with the long spear. The Confederates . . . Adrian focused on one soldier, conscious of a very slight feeling of pressure behind his eyes, more mental than physical. Raj was taking an interest.

The trooper was a typical Confederate peasant of the central territories, a little stockier and thicker-built than the average Emerald, a little lighter in complexion, his face a beak-nosed harshness closed in with the long effort of the march and wet with sweat. He wore a short-sleeved tunic of mail that hung to his knees, with doubling patches on the shoulders; beneath it was another tunic of scarlet wool. On his left shoulder hung a big curved oval shield with an iron boss; on the march it was covered by a canvas sheath, with the bearer's name and unit neatly stenciled on it. Clipped to the interior of the shield were three short thick javelins with barbed points, each weighted behind the point by a small lead ball. On his feet were thick-soled sandals studded on the bottoms by iron nails, and strapped up the calves over wool leggings. On his head was a round helmet with a shelflike projection over the eyes, hinged cheekguards and a lobster-tail flare at the rear protecting his neck.

A pack and rolled blanket were on his back, but beneath them rested the weapon that had cut the proud spearmen of the Emerald cities to so much bleeding meat. Ready to draw over the right shoulder jutted a three-foot length of hardwood, topped with a lead ball. In the sheath hidden by the pack was the business end, a broad two-foot blade that tapered to a razor point; in battle the man would throw his darts in volley with his companions, then pull the assegai free and close, shield up, blade poised for the underarm gutting stroke. The column gave off a peculiar smell, of sweat and leather and the olive oil rubbed on armor and weapons, a rank masculine odor.

The battalion's commander rode at the column's head beside the standard-bearer, on a high-stepping velipad. He wore a version of classic Emerald war gear, bronze breastplate cinched with a scarlet sash, long single-edged sword, bronze helmet with a flaunting scarlet plume running fore-and-aft like a cock's comb, kilt of leather strips. He rode easily, one hand on his hip, hawk-nosed face disdainful; beside him the standard swayed, an upright hand with gold wreaths below it to mark the unit's victories. The standard-bearer himself wore an antique hauberk of brass scales, and his face was hidden by the tanned head of a direbeast, eternally snarling defiance and hunger at the world.

"Useless bastard," Esmond muttered. "It's the noncoms make the Confederacy army what it is." He grinned suddenly; neither of the brothers had seen three years past twenty. "Useful bastards, those are."

Adrian nodded in agreement, looking at the weathered faces beneath the transverse helmet crests, marching along in ranks with the others.

Several centuries of collective experience there, Raj murmured at the back of his mind, scanning the veterans' faces. A lot of stored knowledge. 

"Reinforcements for the Ropen forts," Esmond said judiciously. "Islander raids out that way, I heard."

The last rank of soldiers tramped by, followed by a few plowbeast carts and pack-velipads; most of those were probably carrying the commander's dunnage. Merchants, travellers, pilgrims and peasants surged back into the roadway, the brothers with them; the travellers on foot mostly made way for the brothers, given their gentlemen's cloaks and the loaded pack-velipad behind them. They made way in their turn, for a courier, a noble lady in her palanquin borne by picked slaves who could trot longer than a velipad . . . although the armed outriders helped, there. They could smell the towns coming a fair distance before the road arrowed through them. Not from the sewage; Confederates were lavish builders of sewers and water systems.

"Another token," Esmond said, wrinkling his nose and glancing up.

The pole stood leaning slightly in a barren patch of sand by the side of the road, the unevenness giving it a weird demihuman quality. The man hanging on it was suspended twenty feet in the air; the short crosspiece ran through the elbows of his bound hands so that his body slewed forward, twisting at the spike that nailed his feet to the wood. A leather-winged flyer landed, hooking onto the naked body with the small claws on its wings and the longer ones on its legs. The long snaky neck bent and twisted as the toothed jaws poised consideringly. When they lanced home and began to worry loose a titbit the man awoke and began to scream weakly, unable to thrash hard enough to disturb the feasting scavenger. His cousins had taken much of the meat off the bones of the next half-dozen.

"Savages," Esmond muttered. "Why not an axe across the neck, if a man needs killing?"

Adrian nodded, breathing through his mouth. "Probably to keep the rest in order," he said.

Most of the bodies had lead plates nailed beneath, inscribed with their crimes. Runaway slave was the most common, next to incendiary. There were slaves everywhere, of course, but in the heartlands of the Confederacy they outnumbered the free men, sometimes by a considerable margin, the fruits of centuries of conquest.

The velipads were sniffing with interest, opening both pairs of eyes and pulling the rubbery lips back off the stubby ivory daggers of their omnivore teeth.

"Let's keep going," Adrian said. He glanced up; the sun was about a handsbreadth from the mountains on the west, turning their snowpeaks to blood-red. "We can stop with father's guest-friend in Kirsford."

"Better than fighting bedbugs in an inn," Esmond agreed.

For a moment Adrian let himself envy his brother. Now, there's the picture of a hero from the age of greatness, he thought. Chiseled straight-nosed, square-jawed features, six feet tall, broad shoulders tapering to a flat stomach and narrow waist, long legs, every muscle moving beneath the tanned skin like living bronze. And he's not even stupid. Not a Scholar of the Grove, but he'd read the chronicles of Themston on the Pelos War, and Epmon's work on the Art of Battle. Sunny-natured, too; and the gods had stinted him nothing, making him brave as well.

Soon Esmond was whistling through his teeth, a jaunty marching song popular among the Cadets of Solinga; their father's guest-friend proved to set a good table, and they set off early the next morning. The land rolled away before them, sloping to the great central basin that held Vanbert, the largest of all the valleys in the center of the northern lobe. Tall forests of broadspike and oak mantled the mountains and foothills; then came the lush level lands. It was more orderly than an Emerald countryside, lanced through with the straight tree-lined expanses of the Confederacy's military highways and gravelled secondary roads, every town laid out on a grid. Canals looped more gracefully, carrying water from dams in the mountain valleys and spreading it into irrigation channels. The fields were almost painfully green, where great blocks of fruit trees were not flowering; Adrian looked with interest at cherries and apples, rare on the subtropical northern coast.

No olives or citrus, he thought. Must be too cold in the winter. 

Here and there a peasant cottage stood, often abandoned and falling down; on hills some distance back from the highway he could make out the groves and gardens of a gentleman's mansion. Four-horned greatbeasts grazed quietly in the meadows, or pulled plows turning the rich reddish earth; herds of baaing fleecers went clumped with shepherds and dogs guarding their brainless vulnerability. Once they passed a field of maize that must have been a hundred acres in a single stretch, with fifty or sixty leg-hobbled slaves weeding in long rows.

Esmond looked and made a tsk sound between his teeth. "I'll say this, when these Confederate magnates are rich, they're rich. How much did it take to get into the highest voting class in Solinga, back in the old days?"

"Four hundred bushels a year, or equivalent," Adrian said, reaching up and snatching a spray of blossom, putting it to his nose for a second before tucking it behind one ear.

"Four hundred lousy bushels," Esmond said, shaking his head. "By the way, you'd better not do that when we get to Vanbert."

"Why not?"

"Because only pansies wear flowers in their hair, among the Confeds," Esmond grinned. "Pansies and girls. So unless you want to attract the attention of some rich old Councillor—other than as a teacher of rhetoric, I mean—"

Adrian laughed and punched his brother on the arm; it was like striking a tree. "You're the pretty one in the family," he said.

They passed the field, and rode under the arches of an aqueduct that ran over the road as it dipped into a shallow valley. Esmond's mouth tightened again as they glanced back along the length of it, where it disappeared into the heat-haze.

"Arrogant bastards," he muttered.

"And you'd better learn to control your tongue, or you may lose it, in Vanbert," Adrian said. "They don't take kindly to Emeralds who don't keep their place."

Traffic grew steadily thicker; by the time they were within a day's travel of Vanbert itself, they rarely managed more than a trot. Everything comes to Vanbert, Adrian quoted to himself. Most of it prosaic: long wagon trains of grain and jerked meat, herds on the hoof stopping traffic—one memorable half-day spent behind a flock of waddling geese ten thousand strong—salt fish, smoked sausage, vegetables, cheeses and butter and giant tuns of wine. Once a fast two-wheeled carriage, with snow packed inside its sawdust-insulated box chassis, passed in a clatter and clangor and cracking of whips. More whips over the shuffling coffles of slaves, walking chained neck and neck with hard-eyed mounted guards, most of those barbarians from the Southron territories. Wagons and pack trains and wheelbarrows and porters, salt and iron and copper, gold and reed-paper and spices, and more races and tongues than he'd thought existed. Once he even saw a man whose skin was black, striding along in an ankle-length robe of cotton, ignoring pointing and whispering and daring small boys who darted in to touch his skin to see if it was real.

"I keep expecting to see the city over the next rise," Esmond said, on the fifth week of their journey.

Adrian grinned. "We're in the city," he said. "Have been for hours."

Esmond gaped, then looked around. The truck-gardens of yesterday had given way to elegant suburban estates; most of the road was lined with high walls of brick and concrete, usually whitewashed, broken here and there by an elaborate gate of wrought iron and brass. Each gate had at least two direbeasts on chains guarding it, their heads all mouth and the great overlapping pairs of canines often tipped with bronze or steel. The human guardians in the gatehouses were sometimes chained to the walls by their ankles as well; it made the slogans set in tiles by the entrances—Welcome or Hail Hospitality—seem a little hollow.

Of course, that means hospitality for their own kind, Adrian thought.

"What can you expect," he said, "from a people who have a word in their language that means 'kill every tenth person'? And who think their first ancestors were nursed by a direbeast."

There was no edge to Vanbert of the type they were familiar with, no wall marking the place where city gave way to country. Not even the fringe of grave-memorials that ringed an Emerald city, since Confederates burned their dead and kept the ashes with the living in little pots under their wax masks—something he'd always considered rather gruesome, but then as Bestmun said, "Custom was king in every land." The suburbs grew thicker, the traffic denser, and above them rose the famous eight hills; and those were only higher places among the buildings that carpeted the land for more than a day's journey in every direction. Virtually the only breaks in the spread of buildings were the small groves that surrounded temples—usually round with pointed roofs here, or domes on some of the more recent—or the courtyards of the very wealthy; even the drained swamplands that had once helped feed an earlier Vanbert were built over.

"Dull, though," Esmond said critically, as they led their velipads aside to let a wagon loaded with column drums pass. "Brick, little shops—nothing really magnificent."

"We just haven't seen that part yet," Adrian said.

The street they were on didn't look like much in truth. It was five-story, brick-and-concrete apartments, remarkable only for their size; between the arches on their ground floors were shops. Bakers' shops, or so he thought until he saw the lead chits the ragged-looking patrons exchanged for big round loaves. Bread dole, he thought sourly. Our taxes at work. Others were taverns, or little restaurants with soup kettles sunk into the stone of the counters, or tailors' shops, or cubicles where shoemakers fitted their customers and then worked with awl and waxed thread and tapping hammer while they waited. Or others selling sharp-smelling cheese, or hanging birds and rabbits, or anonymous lumps of flesh. The crowds might just as well have been from an Emerald city, save that their tunics covered both shoulders and that women wore less and walked more boldly.

And the size of the crowds. "A million people in Vanbert, they say," Adrian muttered. A thought struck him. "How in the name of the Lame Craftsman are we going to find this Redvers fellow?"

Esmond's face paled as he looked around. That wasn't a problem in Solinga—even if you didn't know the city, you could just take your bearings from the High City temple roofs or the docks. Nowhere was more than a half-hour walk from anywhere else within the walls, after all. Vanbert didn't even have the right-angled network of streets of the newer Confed towns, it was too ancient, and its roadways had been laid out as greatbeast tracks.

here is a map, Center said helpfully. take the following turnings. 

"How did you suddenly become an expert on the streets of Vanbert?" Esmond asked an hour later.

Adrian grinned. "The Gods of Wisdom whisper in my ear," he said, looking up at the high blank wall of the mansion; only slits on the upper stories and an iron-strapped borkwood door faced the street, with a surly-looking ex-games fighter lounging by it, tapping his brass-bound club against the pavement to discourage loiterers.

They dismounted and walked towards the gate. "Let's go find our fortunes," Esmond said.

And change the world, Raj whispered.

* * *

"Yer'll hafta keep that higher, m'lady," the trainer said, the point of his spear touching lightly at the base of his pupil's throat.

Helga Demansk nodded curtly and raised the small round shield as they backed and circled. The sword in her hand was an old Emerald model, forged for her of Solinga steel, single-edged except for a handspan on the reverse back from the point, and about as long as her leg from mid-thigh to toes. The hilt was sawfish hide, good for a grip, even with the fingerless chamois leather gloves her father insisted she wear—if she was to have a personal trainer at all. A bell-shaped guard of pierced bronze protected her hand; that and the shield were her only burden save for a short tunic. The trainer wore a leather corselet and brass helmet with a faceguard; his spear was tipped with a mock head of hide, but Helga's sword was sharpened to a knife edge.

That didn't worry him. He'd been a games fighter for fifteen years, and lived to see retirement before he slowed down too much. The full-busted, auburn-haired good looks of the young woman across from him were more of a distraction than her sword, although she really wasn't bad. The looks could kill him just as dead as a blade, if he forgot himself—she was Justiciar Demansk's daughter, after all. You didn't survive the games that long without learning self-control, though, and he had a couple of very nice little servant girls attending to his needs. This post was a retired fighter's dream, and he wasn't about to risk it for a pair of titties, no matter how nice they looked heaving away there with the thin cotton sticking to them.

Both fighters moved, bare feet scuffing the packed sandy dirt of the training shed. The sun was hot outside, coming in shafts of white-gold light through the gaps between the timbers that upheld the roof. He feinted with a one-two, felt the shiver as the spear shaft was turned aside, beat the point of the sword out of line with his own weapon.

"That's right, missie!" he cried. "Keep 'em moving together."

Really not bad at all. If she weren't a nobleman's daughter, she might actually do for the games—matching female pairs against each other was a staple sidelight of the more elaborate games these days, despite how some of the magistrates huffed and puffed about it. And she kept at it, too, the better part of a year now, back in Vanbert and on this country estate in the westlands.

"Faster—keep it smooth. Push at me, get inside the spear's point!"

It was the screams that alerted him. Far too many of them, long and high; and underneath, something else, a harsh guttural shouting. He froze, and if Helga hadn't pulled the blow the sword might have laid open his right arm. "What is it?" she said, stepping back and breathing hard.

"Pirates," he said shortly, tossing aside the practice weapon. There were real spears racked by the door; he took one in his shield hand, and a couple of javelins.

"How—"

"I know Islander." He'd known men who spoke it, in the games—slaves, mostly, and freedmen who'd done well. That was an Islander war cry, and they were within a day's march of the coast—closer, if you counted rivers, and an Islander galley could run far up into the shallows. "Let's go, woman!"

She quieted; he opened the door a crack and peered out. They were a couple of hundred yards or so from the main building, a big open house with tall windows sparkling with an extravagance of glass, colonnades that looked out to the gardens rather than inward to a courtyard like a townhouse. He could hear more screams now, and men's laughter, and see figures moving about . . . sparkles in the sun. Light from blade edges, and from the metal studs of light Islander-style armor, much like what he was wearing himself. A man with a tall fountain of plumes on his helmet seemed to be directing things as they dragged out armloads of loot from the house. Others were shepherding the house slaves into a clump, and some raiders were bringing out animals and carts from the business part of the plantation, down past a clump of cypress trees.

"This way," he hissed, the smell of his own sweat harsh in his nostrils.

They dodged out, climbed the fence of a disused corral, crossed it and ran across a meadow, heading for the shelter of an orange grove. Damn, the trainer thought. I'll be set for life—rescue the Justiciar's daughter— 

The thud of velipad paws brought his head around. Four men riding fast after them; the pirates must have looted mounts near their landing and dashed inland, hoping to catch rich unguarded targets like this by surprise. One of them was raising a bow, the short horn-backed type the Islanders used, but he couldn't hit anything from velipadback.

"Keep running!" he screamed, and tossed one of the javelins up, caught it, let fly. "You stupid bitch!" he yelled in frustration, as he saw her taking up stance beside him, waving the sword and shouting some family battle cry.

The javelin caught a velipad between neck and shoulder. It went down, and the man on it rolled and tumbled, losing his bow. He was up at once, drawing the short curved sword at his belt; a stringy active-looking youth with a brown face and a gold ring in his hooked nose, black hair in a queue at his back. The trainer took a chance and ignored him for the moment it took to throw his second javelin; that slammed into a mounted man's shoulder with an audible thud. He twisted desperately to face the youth on foot, only to see him falling backward with a foot of Helga's sword coming out of his neck.

Not bad at all.  

"Will you run, you dumb twat!" he yelled, backing up himself. "Thank the gods," he added in a snarl, as she finally obeyed.

The Islanders had gotten themselves untangled from their mounts, which were going berserk at the scent of so much blood, torn between appetite and fear. One promptly set on the pirate who'd stolen it, leaving the trainer facing two men; the third unwrapped a sling from around his head and reached for a pouch on his belt. The trainer charged, ducked under the swing of a sword and threw himself to the left, cracking the shaft of his spear on the man's knee, and then stabbing him hard through the spot where the latches of his leather corselet fastened into the side of his gut. There was a stink of shit as the point came out, infinitely familiar, and the pirate shrieked in quick shocked agony.

Move, move, move! the trainer screamed to himself. The armor was squeezing his ribs; he wasn't in shape for this sort of thing any more. Go, go. He got himself turned around just in time to knock a sword cut aside with his shieldboss, springing back to give himself distance to use the spear.

Crack.  

The slung stone hit him over the breastbone. The edges of his world went gray, and the shield and spear dropped as his arms lost strength. The swordsman hacked at him twice, into the collarbone and then up into the side of his thigh from below. He fell to the ground, feeling himself yawning in reflex. There was time enough to see Helga dragged back, one leg limp from the stunning impact of a slingstone.

A pirate turned him over on his back with a foot. What a complete fuckup, he thought, watching the spearpoint rise over his face. Guess I didn't make it out of the games alive after all. 

An impact, then blackness.

* * *

"I've got to admit, the Confederates outdo us in this, at least," Adrian said, lying back in the cool water.

Public baths in an Emerald city were usually small and utilitarian. This was a palace, and not a small one either. The main pool lay under a high dome, the tiles that coated its interior silvered to reflect light from the round windows that ran completely around the base. The walls below them were rose-pink and snow-white marble, with a ten-foot band of bas-relief murals below that, and the floors had fifteen different types of colored stone. Water arched from the mouths of fabulous bronze beasts into the pool; in halls leading off on three sides were steam rooms, hot tubs for soaking, rooms for scraping down and massage, exercise and workout rooms, small libraries . . .

It was rather noisy; someone was making the air hideous with song as he stood under a stream of water and rubbed himself with a sponge. He could hear the slap of hands on flesh from a massage table, the click of dice from a friendly game in a corner, the grunting of would-be athletes as they swung lead weights, the tremendous splash as someone did a belly flopper in another corner of the pool, the cries of a vendor with a tray of sausages and pickled artichokes.

"When you've got the whole world to loot, you can afford the best," Esmond said. "Shameless degenerates," he added.

Adrian smiled. Public baths in the Emerald lands didn't mix the sexes . . . and the women here weren't all whores, either. It certainly added to the scenery, he mused, watching a statuesque redhead go by in nothing but the towel draped over her shoulder.

"Come on, we'll get weak as girls if we just lie about like this," Esmond said.

His brother attracted more than his share of looks as they walked over to the steam room—mostly from women. The hot chamber was empty, the time being a little early—the baths really filled up after three o'clock in the afternoon, when free men knocked off work and came to meet their friends and spend a pleasant few hours before dinner. They said you could meet anyone from a Priestess of the Hearthfire to the Lord of the Western Isles in the Vanbert baths, and hear what the Council was going to do before the Councillors knew themselves.

"Don't sneer too much at Confederate wealth," Adrian said. "Since you're going to get your hands on some of it yourself . . . Three hundred arnkets a year, plus your keep, a room and a servant! You can easily save two hundred of that. With three thousand, you could open your own salle d'armes back in Solinga, or buy an olive grove or shares in ships."

Esmond made a restless gesture and tossed a dipperful of water on the hot rocks in the corner of the room. A smell of hot cedarwood went up from the chips mixed with the glowing stones, and the heat struck like a padded club.

"Here," the older brother said, tossing Adrian a blunted, curved bronze knife from a rack. "Do my back."

Adrian began scraping the smooth, rippling muscle. "It only costs a copper dimeh to get a slave to do it," he teased.

"They never get it right . . . harder."

"What's really bothering you, brother?"

The broad shoulders shrugged. "I don't know why in the Gods' names Wilder wants a trainer. He's middle-aged, fat, and sluggish."

"Maybe he wants a weapons trainer because he's middle-aged, fat and sluggish?" Adrian suggested. "He's certainly paying enough."

"To him, three hundred arnkets is like you or me buying a spiced bun in the street," Esmond said, and then shrugged. "I'm to get a bonus for working as a bodyguard, though—protecting him and his wife when they go out, and so forth. It's work with a sword at your belt, at least."

"Don't they usually hire old games fighters for that?" Adrian said, curious.

"I'm better than any of those broken-down masses of scar tissue," Esmond said scornfully.

"And a lot more decorative," Adrian grinned. "There—your turn now."

"Decorative!" Esmond said, in mock indignation. "Here—I'll show you how they scrape loudmouths down at the wrestling ground for the Five Year Games!"

He whirled and came at Adrian with his arms out, the wrestler's pose. Adrian fell into the same stance, and they circled on the hot planks. It ended as it always did, with the younger man facedown on the boards and slapping his free hand down on the floor in sign of surrender.

"Peace! Peace!"

"Peace is a suitable theme for a teacher of rhetoric," Esmond laughed, letting him up. "A rinsedown and a cold plunge, and then we'll have to get back—move our things out of the rooms and into the Redvers house. I managed to get you permission to use the library, by the way."

"Thank you, brother; I'll take advantage of that. But I won't be teaching cauliflower-eared ex-generals how to give speeches, nor their pimply sons."

Esmond paused. "You won't?"

"No, I'm going to go to work in the law courts."

"Clerking?" Esmond looked shocked. "That's slaves' work."

Adrian shook his head. "Pleading cases."

"But . . ." A puzzled frown. "That's illegal, only Confederate citizens can appear before the Vanbert courts."

Adrian tapped a finger along his nose and winked. "In theory. In fact, if you're formally reading the speech of some Citizen advocate, it's allowed."

"You won't get far in front of a Confederate jury," Esmond warned, shaking his head. "And think, brother. I don't doubt you're an expert on Solingian law, but this is Vanbert."

"Oh, I don't know, I've picked up a good deal," Adrian said. He shifted into the Confederacy's tongue: "And I'm fairly fluent, aren't I?"

The blue eyes went wide. "No accent at all!" he exclaimed. "How did you do that in four months?"

"Divine intervention," Adrian laughed, slapping him on the shoulder. "Let's go take that plunge."

 

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