"Raj?" Thom muttered. Then, slightly shocked: "Raj!"
The two young men stared at each other for a moment. Raj Whitehall felt his skin ridging in horror; nothing had changed here in nearly two years. Nothing at all since that moment when Thom Poplanich had frozen into immobility in the round mirrored room that was the body of the being that called itself Sector Command and Control Unit AZ12-b14-c000 Mk. XIV. Thom still had the unhealed shaving nick on his thin olive cheek, the tear in his floppy tweed trousers made by a ricochet when Raj tried to shoot his way out with his ceremonial revolver. Whereas for Raj . . . a lifetime. Thom had remained here; Center had sent Raj Whitehall out to be its agent in the fallen world.
"Older. Two years older. Everyone's older except you, Thom," Raj said gently, forcing calm into his voice.
He had been forcing calm ever since he made himself go down once more into the catacombs beneath the East Residence. This place was something that did not belong in the prosaic world, in the one thousand one hundred and fifth year of the Fall. Forcing himself not to run at the remembered scent, the absolute neutrality of filtered air, like nothing else in the world . . . The eerie not-floor that somehow supported him without touching his bootsoles, the perfect mirror of the walls that reflected one thing and not another. His hand clutched the grip of his five-shot revolver, not for any good the weapon might do but for the comfort of the honest iron and wood.
This was where his life had changed twenty months ago; the shock in Thom's eyes made him aware of it again, that and the fresh-faced youthfulness of the friend who had been older and wiser and more knowing in the ways of the City. Raj brought up an image of himself as he had been, and as he was: still tall and raw-boned, 190 centimeters, broad-shouldered and long-limbed. The brown, high-cheeked, hook-nosed face was more lined now, and there was something in the eyes . . . .
"What's happened to me?" Thom asked shakily.
"Nothing. Center is—"
thom poplanich has had access to all knowledge in the human universe as of the fall of the Federation, Center said in a slightly waspish mental voice; there was no tone to it, but there was some inner equivalent of inflection, in addition, he has the services of a Sector Command and Control Unit AZ12-b14-c000 Mk. XIV to guide him through it. surely this is more than nothing.
"That's right," Thom said, some of the tension easing out of his voice; he licked his lips, and Raj wordlessly handed over his canteen. His friend uncorked it and drank gratefully; it was water cut one-quarter with wine and a slice of lime thrown in. Raj had come properly prepared this time; just a pistol for the rats and native spersauroids, a rope and an old jacket.
"That's right, it's been showing me. . . . Raj, what's happened to Bellevue since we lost FTL travel is like a scale model of what happened to the Federation—"
Thom was never religious before, Raj thought. In fact, Thom had scoffed at his friend's simple belief in the Holy Federation, and the scriptural tales of the days before the Fall from the Stars, when all men were one with the Spirit and there was neither poverty nor age nor death. Now he talked of ancient things as if they were as real and tangible as the prosaic modern world of gaslights and carriages.
"—Center says there's some sort of natural centrifugal effect at work, breaking things down smaller and smaller—"
observe Center said.
* * *
—and men and women howled, milling across the great square. Some of the buildings around it had the glossy look of UnFallen Man, huge things that looked to be built impossibly of crystal and lacework. Others were more conventional, stone and brick, columns and domes, although not in any style he knew, and ancient-looking beyond words; a great reflecting pool ran down the center, ending in a spikelike monument. A single small moon hung yellow in the night sky, but the lights below bathed the faces of the crowd brighter than daylight, brighter even than the arc-lights at a Gubernatorial Levee. A man was speaking from a dais on one side of the pool; some UnFallen technological magic threw his head and shoulders hill-huge across one of the great buildings behind him. His voice boomed like a god's, and the crowd shrieked back in an agony of adoration and fear.
Suddenly there was a commotion at one side of the mass of humanity. Troops were pushing into the crowd, heading for the speaker; in dreamlike oddity they were primitively equipped, with helmets and long clubs, and shields that looked like glass but could not be, from the battering they were taking. Locked in a phalanx, they pushed through, a bubble of order in the milling chaos. Then the man on the dais pointed and shouted a command. Bottles and rocks flew toward the soldiers, then a wave of human bodies. What followed was like heavy surf breaking on a reef, but here it was the reef that crumbled. When the mob withdrew, the shield-bearers lay scattered . . . many scattered in separate pieces.
What looked like flying boxes darted out over the crowd. Streaks of fire lanced out from one, trailing smoke toward the man giving the speech. The timber framework of the dais exploded into a ball of orange flame, and more fire-lances slashed down into the crowd. Suddenly the supernal lights went out, and the buildings were dark except for the light of fires, light enough to see the thousands trampled to death as the crowd fled . . .
—and the viewpoint was in a room. The walls were lined with technology, flat screens and readouts such as you might see on any altar in the Civil Government, but functioning, incomprehensible pictures and columns of figures, the whole giving off a subliminal hum of life. Two men floated in the center of the room as if it were underwater; they were dressed in tight blue overalls, the uniform of Holy Federation as preserved in the ancient Canonical Handbook. The younger man was speaking, an urgent whisper. The language was Old Namerique, a tongue that survived only in fragments and in the debased form the western barbarians used, but somehow Raj understood it:
"Admiral Kenner, we've got to cut off the rot in that sector. We must, sir. One quick raid, we drop off a Bethe missile on delay, and take out the Tanaki Net. It's like cauterizing a wound, sir."
The older man nodded, his face stony. "Make it so, Commodore," he said, jackknifing to grab a handhold and touch a screen. "I've keyed the release codes in to your access."
"Thank you very much, sir," the younger man said. The Admiral had just enough time to look around and meet the knife . . .
—and Raj was watching East Residence from far above; not the city of his own day, but the ancient town with its broad grassy avenues and dreamlike towers. Then light sparked at its center, sun-bright, and spheres of cloud rippled out across the cityscape in its wake. A cloud rose towering, mushroom-shaped . . .
—and he was in the streets of East Residence, seeing familiar buildings but turned tumbled and weed-grown. Men in the uniform of his own service fought a desultory street-battle, seeming more intent on plundering the few remaining shops and homes. Two tumbled in combat below his motionless eye-point, faces distorted as they struggled hand-to-hand with rifles braced against each other. Then one twisted aside and smashed the butt across the other's face, reversing and driving the long bayonet through his belly. He did not bother to withdraw it before he went through the victim's pockets, ignoring the twitchings and feeble pawings of the dying man . . .
—and the Governor's Palace was a grassy mound grown with oaks; Raj recognized it only because of the shape of the harbor below, a long oval running east-west. You could still see the pattern of the streets through the forest, and here and there a snag of walls, or the humped shapes of the defensive earthworks. The sound of children running and playing echoed through the open parkland. In the foreground two men crouched by a fire; one was skillfully chipping a spearhead from a piece of glass, with the wooden shaft and a bundle of sinew for binding lying near. The other was butchering a carcass for roasting, working with slivers of glass and a stone hammer for breaking the bones. Both men were naked save for hide loincloths and shaggy as bears; it was a moment before Raj realized the body they were butchering was also human. . . .
* * *
Raj shuddered; visions of things that had been, that were, that still might be. "That's what men come to without the Spirit," he said.
Thom blinked at him. "Well, that's one way of putting it," he agreed.
Raj nodded, swallowing and looking away. "Yeah. I, ah, well, I asked Center if I could see you, because we're—the Expeditionary Force is leaving for the Southern Territories. The Governor—Barholm; his uncle Vernier died and Barholm's in the Chair—is set on retaking them. I'm certainly going with the army . . . and I'll probably be commanding it."
It was Thom's turn to be shocked. "Congratulations . . . but isn't that a bit of a jump for a Captain, even if he is one of the new Governor's Guards?"
Raj smiled, rueful and bitter. "Things have sort of changed, Thom," he said.
He saw his friend stiffen and a faint almost-glimmer slide across his eyes. Raj Whitehall needed no vision from Center to see what Thom Poplanich was being shown. Raj's memory provided that, and his dreams more often than he liked.
The line breaking at El Djem as the fugitives took them in the back. Suzette wild-eyed, shouting They're dead, they're all dead to his question. The milling bulk of red-robed Colonists around the final laager, his own voice shouting Fall back one step and volley! over and over again, raw and hoarse, the choking cloud of powder smoke as the cannon cut loose, and the nightmare retreat through the desert. Governor Vernier dying, and Barholm and Lady Anne Clerett at the foot of the bed amid the ministers and priests and doctors; Anne's face, like something perched in a tree watching a sick sheep. Sandoral, and the Colonist battalions marching over the ridge in perfect order under their green banners, down into the gunsmoke where two hundred cannon dueled. The heaps of dead before his trenches, and that last moment when he knew they weren't going to break and then they did—wondering where the Colonist ruler, the Settler, had escaped to, until the Skinner mercenary brought him Jamal's head grinning at some private joke of death.
"So there are advantages to being a hostage, you see," Raj said with envious sadness.
thom poplanich is not a hostage, Center corrected, with the passionless pedantry that was its most frequent tone, to release him now would threaten the plan to reunite Bellevue, to rebuild the Tanaki Spatial Displacement System, and if necessary to rebuild the Federation from here.
Thom smiled, looking up slightly; when he spoke, Raj recognized the tone of a long-standing argument.
"That'll take generations; centuries, even. Provided that it doesn't fail, which you admit is more probable than not."
the shortest journey ends at one false step, Center replied.
Thom laughed, cutting off the chuckle at his friend's bewilderment. "There used to be a saying that the longest journey—oh, never mind, it doesn't translate well into Sponglish anyway." He shrugged, the expressive "unavoidable—circumstance" resignation of an East Residence dweller. "Since Center has elected you its instrument in the crusade, what do you think of the idea, Raj?" he asked.
Raj ran his hand through the short black curls that covered his head.
"I don't know, Thom, I honestly don't. I'm a soldier, not a priest; it's what I was born for."
For five hundred years the Whitehalls had fought the Civil Government's wars, dying in them often enough, and leaving only an urn of ashes or a sword to be brought home to their ancestral lands in Descott County.
"But you know me, too old-fashioned and country-bred to have an original thought. I serve the Spirit of Man of the Stars and the Holy Federation; and since I'm a soldier, I serve them as a soldier must, in the field and under arms. I . . . I don't think I deserve an angel for a counselor, not really. If that's what Center is." It was certainly a computer, and such had been the immaterial servants of Holy Federation, right enough. "I just know I have to do my best.
"I used to think that war was glory. Now . . . the only thing to say for it is that it shows you what men are. I've made some good friends over the past year, damn good. And I think I've got some aptitude for this shit; what that says about me, I don't know. But I have to try."
Thom held out his hand; Raj squeezed it in his. "I know you always will do your best," Thom said. "Spirit, how I envied you that single-mindedness." He laughed shortly. "Starless Dark, this isn't so bad; I was a scholar by temperament anyway; just my bad luck I was the old Governor's nephew. You might say we both had the misfortune to get what we asked for."
Raj made himself meet his friend's eyes. "Thom, there's one last thing. About—"
"Des, yes. Center told me." Thom met the gaze. "He was my brother; he was also an idiot. Letting himself be sucked into that scheme to overthrow Barholm was suicide, Raj. He ran onto your sword."
Actually I burned him alive, Raj thought, swallowing and remembering the sound and the smell from the room below. Him and about a hundred others. Most of them had deserved it, although not the hapless troopers who'd gotten caught up in the coup attempt. Des Poplanich had been no more guilty, so naive he didn't even know he was a puppet. And Spirit knew Barholm had done enough to deserve enemies. . . .
"That'll leave Ehwardo as the head of the family—since I'm effectively dead down here," Thom went on; that was his first cousin, and the only adult male Poplanich left. "Raj . . . look out for him if you can?"
"I'll try. He's never shown any interest in politics, or anything but commanding the House battalion, anyway. I've got some capital with the Chair . . . I will try." He drew himself up and saluted, fist to brow. "Goodbye, Thom. I'll be back, if I can."
Even as he turned, Thom Poplanich was freezing into immobility, a statue in the perfect mirrored sphere, nothing alive but his mind.
* * *
"Great Spirit, Raj, the War Council meeting is starting in five minutes; where have you—" Suzette halted, forced a smile.
Her eyes flicked over the dirt and ancient dust on her husband's clothes.
In the tunnels, she knew with a chill. Raj had never told her exactly how Thom Poplanich had disappeared down there with his oldest friend . . . which meant he had told nobody.
Barholm thinks Raj shot him in the back and left the body, she knew. Which shows how much our esteemed Governor knows about my husband.
Suzette would have done that—Thom had been getting too dangerous to know, with the succession uncertain and so many of the old nobility still loyal to the House of Poplanich—but her family had been City dwellers, court nobles until they lost their lands a generation ago. The Whitehall estates were secure and far enough from East Residence to afford luxuries like honor.
"Well, no matter," she said brightly. "Come on, you useless girls, attend to the master! You don't have time for a real change, darling, but do get that rag off!"
"They'll have to wait for me, then—or more likely they won't," Raj said harshly; the new lines graven from either side of his nose to the corners of his mouth deepened. Then he forced relaxation and smiled at her. "I've had other things on my mind," he said more gently.
The maids descended on him in a twittering horde of perfume and rustling linen and soft hands; there were a lot more of them, now that he had bought the rights to the old House Poplanich section of the Palace. Four courtyards, a reception hall, a dining room with enough seating for a forty-guest banquet, servants' quarters . . . and this pleasant terrace with glass-door walls overlooking the gardens. There was a view through tall cypress trees, down across velvety lawns and marble statuary—mostly religious, spaceships and terminals—fountains, topiary and winding paths of colored gravel. The air was cool and fresh from last night's late spring rain, clearer than usual in this smoky city; a tumbled majesty of red-tiled roofs and low square towers spread down to the great warehouses and the docks to the south, a distant surf-roar of noise from the streets.
"Just the jacket," he grunted. Two of the maids knelt and did their best with damp cloths on his boots; others stripped off his coat, brought the walking-out uniform tunic with its epaulets, buckled him into it, fastened the belt and shoulder-strap with the dress saber and ivory-handled revolver, dropped the sash with its orders and decorations over his head, combed his hair, handed him the dress gloves and gilded plumed helmet—both of those were seldom worn but it was de rigueur to carry them at Court functions. . . .
"At least I don't have to wear those damned tights and codpiece," he grumbled. Full-dress uniform was not required for business meetings. Pity poor Barholm, he thought ironically. The Governor had to wear twenty pounds of gold embroidery every time he got out of bed. Of course, he probably enjoys it—he spent enough time scheming to get it.
"Oh, I think they bring out your . . . assets quite well, my sweet," Suzette said, sinking into her chair and considering him with her chin on one fist
Raj gave an unwilling snort of laughter, meeting the tilted green mockery of his wife's eyes. His heart gave a little lurch as he watched her, even then; Suzette Emmenalle Forstin Hogor Wenqui Whitehall had that effect on most men. Small, scarcely up to his shoulder, greyhound-slim and graceful, breeding showing like light through fine porcelain. And alive, so alive . . .
"Will you take it?" she asked quietly.
"Probably. Spirit of Man knows nobody else with any experience wants the Expeditionary Force. This is a formality, really . . . unless I screw up."
"Can you do it?"
Raj slapped his gloves into the palm of one hand. "I think so." One more thing I love about you. You never give me an optimistic lie, and you think, my angel.
"A lot depends . . . We don't know enough about the Squadron. The Ministry of Barbarians hasn't been expending enough effort in that direction. Orbit of Righteousness! We've had little enough contact with them for a couple of generations now. At least the Governor has picked the right man for the civil side."
Suzette's brows arched a question.
"Just heard," he said. Was that Center? Sometimes I can't tell, these days. "Mihwel Berg; he's from Cyudad Gut, his family trades heavily all through the central Midworld Sea, he's got friends and relatives outside the Civil Government area too. He'll be invaluable . . . if he cooperates."
She came over to him, put her hands on his shoulders and stood tiptoe; he bent to take the kiss. Suddenly she gripped him fiercely.
"You can do it," she said, whispering in his ear. "You—sometimes I think the rumors are true, you know, and the Spirit has touched you."
He straightened, giving her a crooked grin and a salute.
* * *
Messa Suzette Whitehall stood as he left, blinking in thought and tapping her thumb against her chin.
"Leave me," she said to the maids. "Not you, Ndella," she added to a tall gawky Zanj woman as the others made their curtsy and rustled out. When they were alone: "Fetch kave, and get me Abdullah and . . . hmmm, Fatima. Bring them yourself. Be discreet."
The black left with silent efficiency. Suzette had been raised in a great household of East Residence, and she had her own ideas on how to manage here in the Palace. Raj would have been glad to find their servants from Hillchapel, the Whitehall family estate, but Descotters were too awkward in the city and free servants too easily corrupted, in her opinion. Like most, she bought her household staff, but unlike most she gave it personal attention. Only those from outside the Civil Government, with neither friends nor family here, only the strong, healthy, and intelligent, and only after careful personal examination. She saw to their training, and education in some cases. Each was paid a small wage, with promise of eventual manumission and enough for a dowry or a shop or a farm. The only punishment was the threat of sale.
Most people underestimated slaves, even more than men underestimated women. And they talked in front of their servants as if they were deaf, too.
Ndella entered bearing a tray. A man in nondescript but respectable clothing followed her, pewter-buckled shoes and dull-gold pants, black coat and plain linen cravat. A plumply pretty young woman carrying a year-old child followed him; she was dressed in the pleated skirt, embroidered jacket and lace mantilla of a respectable city matron, perhaps a bureaucrat or artisan's wife, but her looks were pure Arab. The child was darker, and even barely walking had something of the heavy-boned solidity of a Descotter.
"Peace be with you," Suzette said in fluent Arabic, a tongue they all had in common, and a little safer than Sponglish.
"And upon you, peace," they replied. Ndella served the others and then sank back on her heels. The tantalizing odor of fresh-brewed kave tinged the flower and incense scents of the room; bees murmured in the lilac bushes outside the window.
"Abdullah," she said.
"Saaidya," the Druze replied, rising quickly to check outside the window and back through the door before returning to the table. He had been born Abdullah al'-Azziz; technically, he would have been Abdullah cor Wenqui—freedman of the Wenqui family—if the records of that transaction had been in the register. "I have prepared a preliminary report on Messer Berg; his home, connections, wealth, and opinions."
The little Druze pulled a small role of paper from one sleeve of his jacket and handed it to her.
"My summation: Messer Berg is indeed the most promising man for the post. However, he was appointed primarily because he is in disfavor with Chancellor Tzetzas; a little matter of percentages from intervening fees in a tax-farming bid. He is furthermore under suspicion from the Anti-Viral Cleansers"—the investigative arm of the Church—"because relatives of his, living in Brigade territory, have converted to the cult of Spirit of Man of This Earth. All in all, this is a hardship posting for him, a punishment. He may recoup his position either by brilliant success—he probably considers this unlikely, sharing the general opinion of the military probabilities—or by ruining Messer Whitehall, thus gaining the favor of Tzetzas."
She nodded. It was quite possible he could somehow contrive the expedition's ruin; and escape blame for it, too.
"Thank you, Abdullah," she said sincerely, tucking the sheaf of notes into her own sleeve. He bowed, smiling. Pleasure at her gratitude, and at the excitement of the task.
"Ndella," she continued.
The Zanj bobbed her head. Her flat black face was exotic to East Residence eyes, and Suzette had added gold snake-coils for her arms and neck to heighten the effect. People in the Civil Government rarely encountered Zanj, and knew them mostly through highly biased accounts from the Colony. The Colonists were commercial rivals of the southern continent's city-states, there were frequent military clashes—full-fledged war quite recently, which was how Ndella had ended up on a Sandoral auction-block—and the orthodox Sunni Muslims of the Colony detested the Reformed Baha'i heresy the Zanj practiced. To hear the Colonists talk, all Zanj were depraved savages who ate their young and mated with anything, carnosauroids included.
So nobody in East Residence would be likely to suspect that Ndella, for example, was literate in four languages. . . .
"Messa Whitehall, I have now access to Messer Berg's Palace household; a few matters of healing, and, ah"—she coughed discreetly—"I have become very good friends with one of the household servants, an undercook." Ndella liked girls, usually a matter of indifference but here rather useful. "Lorhetta has been adding the capoyam to Messer Berg's chili, on the understanding it improves his digestion and temper.
"Add the beyem," she went on, briefly showing a small glass vial, "to anything he drinks, and . . . heart failure. Perfectly safe for those not sensitized by the capoyam. Undetectable."
. . . and nobody would be likely to suspect Ndella was a doctor, either. Women could learn medicine in the Civil Government, although most who did were also Renunciate Sisters, but the Colony was very restrictive. Everyone would assume the Zanj were even more so.
"Excellent," Suzette said. "Thank you, my friends."
Abdullah and the black woman took the hint, leaving quickly. Fatima released her squirming son; the boy ran half a dozen steps and grabbed the cushions of the opposite couch. He turned his head to give the two women a toothless grin of delight, then hauled himself along the settee hand-over-hand, until he came face to face with the house cat sleeping curled up on a cushion at the end. The animal opened yellow eyes and submitted to pats and gurgling cries of pleasure for a moment before fleeing; the baby went on all fours and began a determined pursuit.
Fatima turned back to Suzette with the same bright-eyed interest she had shown for the last half hour; the hint had been delivered, however. She had a child to consider.
Suzette put aside envy; there was no time, not now, later . . . "Young Barton seems to thrive," Suzette said.
Fatima sighed. "Only if his father does," she replied, a little more subdued.
Suzette leaned back, nodding and sipping at her kave. Her own point had been conceded. Whichever one is his father, she thought. But both of them are Raj's men.
The Arab girl had nearly taken out the eye of a 5th Descott trooper while he and his squad tried to rape her, back in El Djem, the Colonial border-hamlet where she had grown up as a very minor daughter of a minor concubine of the town's mayor. Fatima bint Caid, she had been then; Fatima cor Staenbridge, she was now. Two of Raj's officers had rescued her from an unpleasant death by the trooper's bayonet—on a whim more than anything else, being lovers themselves—and she managed to make it back to the Civil Government border with the 5th during the chaotic nightmare of the retreat through the desert. A prudent career move, given the options available to an ex-virgin with no family in the Colony's strict Islamic society.
She had been pregnant as well; by Gerrin or Barton, but it was the heirless Gerrin Staenbridge who had manumitted her and adopted the child. Which made her a free commoner technically, with a nice little annuity and excellent prospects as mother of a nobleman's heir; besides that, she was still the—very occasional—mistress of both men, and well-liked. Gerrin Staenbridge and Barton Foley were both Companions now, their fortunes as one with Raj's; Gerrin was his right-hand man. "You have been very kind to me, Messa Suzette," Fatima said, in a quiet tone.
That was true enough; Raj and she had stood Star-parent to young Barton Staenbridge, which was a lifetime tie and taken seriously by the Civil Government's nobility. And Suzette had eased her path socially, as well. A mistress could not be received formally, even if she was the mother of an acknowledged son, but informal acceptance was possible—if the consensus of the Messas, the gentlewomen, favored it. Suzette had seen that it did, and she had the ear of Lady Anne, the Governor's wife.
"I anxious am—sorry, am anxious to repay your kindness," she said, dropping back into the Sponglish she had made such an effort to learn.
Suzette leaned over and patted her on the shoulder. "Don't worry, my dear—it's just that sometimes we have to . . . look out for the men. Now, what I'd like you to do is drop by on Tanha Heyterez." Berg's mistress, and rather a neglected one, according to rumor. "She's a country girl, just in from Kendrun, and doesn't know anyone here." Hence likely to be desperately lonely and ready to talk. "She needs a friend . . . and Berg needs to be brought around to helping—himself, too—rather than hindering.
"So what I need to know," she went on, lowering her voice, "is everything about Messer Berg. Particularly the things his woman would know: what he fears, what he likes, what his tastes are."
Fatima nodded slowly. "I understand, Messa Whitehall," she said formally. Then she grinned, an urchin expression that made her face look its eighteen years again. "I have a problem, though. Barton and Gerrin, they don't want me to come on campaign with them this time. Gerrin wants me to go back to his lands, stay with his wife."
"Why not?" Suzette asked. Since a childless wife could be divorced at will, the lady in question ought to be fairly grateful; now that Staenbridge had an heir, she was safe. Nor was there likely to be much jealousy, since, from what Suzette had learned, Gerrin's wife had known his tastes before the wedding.
"Boring!" Fatima said. "Besides, I want be there if they're hurt."
Suzette nodded understanding; she had always followed the drum herself. It was bad enough to send Raj off to battle; to be a thousand kilometers away, not even knowing for months—she shuddered slightly. And he needs me.
"I can't interfere in Messer Staenbridge's household," she pointed out gently.
"Oh, I take care of that. I got Gerrin to promise I could come as long as I healthy—now he and Barton trying to get me pregnant again so I have to stay home."
"You don't like that?" Suzette said, surprised.
"Oh, I like the trying, just don't want it to work."
They laughed together, Suzette a little harder than she had expected. There had been few enough chances for humor, in the past few months here in the Palace. Maneuvering against Chancellor Tzetzas was not something you could do with less than your whole intent, even if you were a good friend of the Governor's wife.
"That I can help with," Suzette said, wiping her eyes. "Or rather Ndella can, when I tell her to." She quieted. "I'll be glad to get out of East Residence again," she said. "Out where you can see things coming."
Which was odd, she thought, sitting in silence after the young Arab girl had left. Back in her own girlhood—sometimes she had to remind herself she was still four years shy of thirty—Suzette had never looked uphill to the Palace without a stab of envy. That was her birthright, the legacy of the Wenqui gens; forty generations of East Residence nobility, ever since the Governors had come, fleeing the military takeovers in the Old Residence. Poverty had kept her out, and the need to care for Father after Mother died coughing her lungs out, leaving Suzette chatelaine of a dying house at fourteen.
Poor Father. Always with his books and a few old cronies, never even noticing. Not noticing when she had to sell off the furniture and the paintings and the rugs to feed them and pay the doddering ancient servants she hadn't the heart to dismiss, when the pitiful rents from their last few farms had to go to keep the townhouse from being sold under their feet. All the years of scrimping and wheedling to get invitations, lessons, research, the coldly calculated dalliances, all aimed at precisely this. A big suite in the Palace apartments, wealth, recognition, to be a known and feared player in the ancient, stylized minuet of intrigue . . .
All wasted, my love, she thought with a warm irony. Whom had she been hoping to meet at Alois Orehuela's garden-party? She couldn't even remember that now. Raj Ammenda Halgern da Luis Whitehall had been just another name on a stolen guest-list, another uncouth Descotter squire down from the northeastern hills, doubtless with a tail of bandits-in-uniform dangling after him and barely able to tell which fork to eat the fish with . . . and then I saw you, looking like a sword in a silverware set and all that training and effort I went through was for nothing.
"No, not quite for nothing," she mused softly to herself, walking to the windows and out onto the terrace.
Leaning on the railing she could look down toward the graceful but square-built barracks that flanked the main gates. Insect-tiny with distance, the Guard was changing, figures wheeling and halting on the checkered colored brick of the plaza. Faintly the cool brass of trumpets and the rough beat of drums sounded; the blue-and-gold Star banner of Holy Federation was lowered and raised, salutes and ritual words were exchanged.
"Here there are so many enemies you can't fight face to face, with gun and sword and soldier's honor," she whispered. Her face grew bleak as the edge of a knife. "So I'll do it for you, my love. Whether you ever know it or not."