Warlord S. M. Stirling and David Drake

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Chapter Two

The four Companions rose from the benches and saluted as the door to the Whitehall apartments opened; a pair of 5th Descott troopers snapped to attention and raised bayoneted rifles to the present. Raj grunted in acknowledgment and returned the gesture; these were old comrades, veterans of the Komar campaign and the Battle of Sandoral out on the eastern frontier. His Companions, to use the archaic phrase they had resurrected in what was only half a joke.

"We'd better hurry, gentlemen," he said shortly.

They fell in behind him, left hands resting on the hilts of their sabers. The whole party fell unconsciously into step, the iron hobnails and heel-plates of their riding boots echoing on the marble flags of the corridor. Like most of the East Residence, this section consisted of two-story blocks set around courtyards; they clattered up a flight of stairs and into an entry hall, where whispering knots of officers and courtiers parted to make room. Brigadier Whitehall was well known, after last year's triumph in the east, and the suppression of the coup attempt that followed. So were his Companions; for that matter, the almost ostentatious plainness of their issue uniforms, maroon pants and blue tail-coats and round helmets, stood out in a Residence crowd.

Kaltin Gruder was the first to speak; he was still limping slightly, from a bullet through the thigh during the battles on the Drangosh. He had been something of a dandy, before he met Raj Whitehall; the Komar raid had left him one brother shorter and covered the right side of his face with lines of scar tissue.

"The 7th's still a bit shaky," he said. The 7th Descott Rangers was his new command. "Lot of replacements, after the casualties."

"I could spare a few NCO's from the 5th," Gerrin said.

Raj's step checked slightly; the 5th Descott Guards was his original command, and it had been expanded recently too. He was still nominal Captain-in-Chief, but Gerrin had taken over the actual running . . . and you trust him, Raj reminded himself.

"Thanks, Gerrin; Spirit of Man knows I could use them," Gruder replied. "By the way, did you catch those Brigade ambassadors?"

Antin M'lewis chuckled slightly, showing a few crooked tobacco-stained teeth amid gleaming gold replacements for those knocked out in battle. "Wunnit enough ter fright t'kiddies, though?" he said.

Da Cruz scowled at him slightly, then shrugged in resignation as M'lewis grinned back and jerked one shoulder, marked with an officer's chain-mail epaulet and a Senior Lieutenant's stars. The little ex-trooper from Bufford Parish had been one of the two Companions Raj had taken with him to foil the attempt on the Governor's life last spring, while the rest guarded Lady Suzette. Governor Barholm's gratitude had lasted long enough for M'lewis to get a commission and a moderate-sized estate near the capital; quite a step up for a former rustler and part-time bandit, enlisted one step ahead of the headsman.

At least he didn't have a line command; respectable Descott County yeoman-troopers wouldn't put up with it, even if he was a technical gentleman now. Being from Bufford Parish, the County's disgrace, was enough; never mind his dubious social status. He did well enough with the collection of gallows-bait that Raj had authorized him to recruit, mostly from guardhouses and punishment details. Officially they were the Scout Group of the 5th Descott, more commonly known as the Forty Thieves. Da Cruz had preferred to stay at Master Sergeant rank, even though he had made enough out of the eastern war to buy land of his own back home in Descott County, the farm he had planned to rent on retirement.

"Interestin' weapons them barbs had," the noncom said stolidly. "Not bad shots; surprised they could get that sort of accuracy out of them muzzle-loaders."

The Brigade were fairly civilized for barbarians, having ruled the old Civil Government lands in the far west for centuries now. The emissaries had still been a gaudy sight, fringed buckskins and purple silk, broad-brimmed hats stuck with carnosauroid feathers, gold and jewels and long slashing swords hung over their shoulders. Most of them had had four or five cap-and-ball revolvers slung around them, besides their head-high rifles. They had put on a display of marksmanship in the gardens, smashing bottles at a thousand paces, which was performance as good as you could get from an Armory rifle.

Gerrin tapped a ringed thumb meditatively against the pommel of his saber. "Slow on the loading, though," he said. "Looked as if they were more used to hunting and target-practice."

Kaltin snorted. "Not much real fighting recently, I suppose."

"Not our problem, eh, ser?" da Cruz said dryly. "Anyways, the Squadron won't be as tough as thet-there Brigade, nohow."

The others nodded; the Squadron had come roaring out of the northern wilderness a century and a half ago, to take the Southern Territories from the Civil Government. They had been outright savages then, and the Territories had gone downhill under their management.

"Can't say the men are over-eager to take them on, even so," Gerrin said carefully, glancing aside at Raj. "Not after a year's hard fighting out east. The Squadron's no match for the wogs, true, but you have to sail to get at them. A wet way to fight, and not a Descotter's choice."

Raj grunted again, ducking his head slightly.

observe Center said.

* * *

Raj was standing on the quarterdeck of a three-master, his disembodied viewpoint beside the wheel, looking over his own shoulder. The storm had died down, leaving whitecaps on a ruffled wine-colored sea. The Civil Government sailing-transports were scattered from horizon to horizon, many dismasted or wallowing with their sails blown to flapping rags on bare poles. In among them the Squadron war-galleys plunged, huge plumes of spray flung back from the bronze rams at their bows. Oars worked like centipede legs; they were painted vermilion and white, the long snaky hulls were black. Off in the middle distance more came up, their sails not yet struck for battle; the towering lateen shapes bright crimson with the barbarians' golden Sun-and-Comet. One shocked to a stop, the mast-tops lashing as its ram knifed into the planks of a transport.

The helpless merchantman heeled far over under the impact. Tiny figures flew into the water from the rails, thrashing about briefly until the eager tentacles of scavenging downdraggers hauled them toward gnashing beaks. Others went under the oar-blades as they rose and fell like a mincing machine. Off in the middle distance cannon echoed and smoke rose as a lone Civil Government paddle-steamer loosed a broadside; the solid shot skipped along the waves, and one crashed into the oarbank of a galley, but the other vessels turned nimbly aside to avoid the bigger ship's blundering rush. There was only one in sight. Perhaps, from the smoke, another lay over the horizon; dozens of the galleys, and hundreds of their helpless victims.

The Raj-figure wheeled sharply as a seaman tugged at his sleeve, and the viewpoint turned with him. A Squadron two-banker was boring in on their ship; Raj could see the sea falling off the arrowhead shape of the ram, and the mouths of four brass carronades running forward through the square deckhouse above it. Gunners waited with smoking linstocks; the forward mast bristled with the raven-beak spikes of boarding ramps ready to fall and nail the craft together, and behind them crowded the Squadron marines shrieking and waving their massive flintlocks and axes in the air.

* * *

"Yeah, well," he said softly, without looking around, conscious that his step had faltered.

The others had gotten used to these fits of introspection; none of the Companions had known him well before he . . . became an Avatar of the Spirit of Man of the Stars? Raj shuddered and worked his shoulders. For the others, it was times like this that he pulled something impossible out of the hat.

As if he was inspired.

"Well," he went on, "I can see how the people who were out east would like a little more rest." That had been the biggest campaign in sixty years, and the first time in forty-odd the Civil Government had defeated the Colony in a major battle. Memory flashed across his mind: Colonist cavalry sweeping toward Raj's shrinking circle in the Valley of Death. Section leaders yipped and waved yataghans, sharpened on the inner curve, but the mass of bright-colored riders were silent because they held their reins in their teeth to work their carbines with both hands. The recollection was so vivid that Raj missed a step.

I could use a break myself, he thought ruefully.

the man you have become in these past two years would not know how to take a break, raj whitehall, Center said. If the mental voice had a tone, it was of regret. no more than i would.

Raj shook his head and continued aloud: "The problem is, if I am going to be sent to take back the Southern Territories, I'd prefer to have some people with me who've gotten into the habit of pulling their heads out of their arses for a look around now and then."

* * *

The Council of State for War was meeting in an old chapel, a semicircle of seats sloping down to the altar; behind it was a smooth wall of the same gray-streaked white marble as the rest of the big room, with a balcony choir-loft above, screened in carved nairstone that glittered silver and rose in the yellow brightness of the gaslights. Lady Anne Clerett was rumored to observe the meetings from behind that screen . . . and the faint elusive scent of jasmine under the wax-and-incense of the room strongly hinted that rumor was correct. The altar was coated in shining electrum, and held a featureless ball about the size of a man's head. The material was part of its mystery; nothing present-day technology produced could even scratch it, should someone be impious enough to try. It was a computer of the Ancients, from before the Fall, timeless and holy.

a 7ec42, Center said in its emotionless monotone, in charge of automated traffic control for a suburb of the Old Residence before the collapse. A pause, and it had an unacceptable error rate even then.

The crowd below was all-male, except for one of the Supreme Reverend Syssup-Hierarch's assistants. About fifty present, mostly military, and dressed in a dozen colorful variations on standard uniform. They turned to look at Raj as he and the Companions entered through the big doors at the rear of the arc of seats, relief on their faces. Governor Barholm sat in the Chair before the altar, a shining confection of electrum and brass, pearls and jewels, with a huge golden Star-burst for a back.

"Ah, Brigadier Whitehall," he said.

His voice carried easily in the chapel's superb acoustics, a well-trained instrument. Despite the cloth-of-gold robes, Barholm Clerett looked very much the simple squire from the Descott County hills, a brick-built man with a barrel chest and a nose like a beak in his square dark-brown face. Only a very stupid man would believe that appearance; Clerett had ruled the Civil Government for fifteen years, as Vice-Governor to his ailing uncle and then in his own right, through intrigue and riot and war.

Beside him on a crimson cushion rested a mace, a short weapon forged from a single billet of steel, inlaid with silver and platinum. The emblem of rank only a commander of an independent army corps sent beyond the Civil Government border could carry.

"Thank you for joining us," he went on dryly, as Raj and his followers slid into the seats reserved for them in the front row.

A few of the high-born officers in the front ranks smirked; Chancellor Tzetzas leaned back, slimly elegant in his robe of midnight-blue torofib silk from Azania. One eyebrow rose, an expression calculated to the millimeter.

"We were discussing," Barholm went on, "the sacred task of reclaiming the Southern Territories from the barbarian heretics currently occupying them. A task," he added waspishly, "which arouses very little—surprisingly little—enthusiasm!"

"Your Supremacy," an elderly man in uniform protested, "we would serve you ill if we did not counsel you honestly. My father"—he shuddered slightly—"my father's elder brothers and my grandfather sailed with the last fleet sent to reclaim the Territories."

observe Center said.

* * *

and Raj was on the docks, down where the deep-sea merchantmen came to harbor. It was East Residence, but an earlier one; the East Railway station was not there, and the Messer-class men in view were wearing drooping broad sleeves that covered their hands to the knuckles. A fashion from his great-grandfather's time, like the lace fans of the ladies among the crowd. Miniluna and Maxiluna were both aloft and full, across the horizon from the setting sun, pale translucent crater-marked spheres floating above the darkening sea.

Troops ringed the berths where a dozen transports were docked; gulls chased hissing dactosauroids through the tarry maze of rigging, the sound lost in a surf-roar of voices. The mob was anxious enough to crowd the leveled bayonets. Raj could see the men jab them forward now and then, the long blades coming back red-tipped and the edge of the crowd stumbling away in an eddy; mounted officers with drawn sabers sat their dogs behind the line of guardsmen. Other figures were coming down the gangplanks of the transports, figures in the tattered remains of Civil Government uniforms. They shuffled down the creaking planks in groups, groups of eleven; ten men with their hands each in the belt of the one before them, and pus-wet bandages across the ruins of their eyes. The leading man in each group had one good eye, but no hands. . . .

* * *

" . . . and never will I forget my father's words, when he told me how his only living brother came back, a blinded eunuch. Your Supremacy," the old man went on, holding out his hands almost pleadingly; they were calloused from the grip of reins and saber. "Mighty Sovereign Lord, only because my father had not yet entered Holy Church did our line survive at all. I have served the Chair in war all my life, and my sons and my sons' sons. Spare them, Your Supremacy!"

There was a moment of ringing silence. Chancellor Tzetzas coughed discreetly into a handkerchief.

"Most moving, most moving." He was a tall slender man in his mid sixties, with the fine olive skin and delicate features of old City nobility. "Your Supremacy's will is mine, of course; still, this is a rashly adventurous course of action we contemplate. The campaign in the east concluded so successfully last year"—Tzetzas bowed easily in Raj's direction—"did no more than pay its own costs."

Raj felt his lips tighten, then forced an easy smile and a nod of polite acknowledgment. Because I didn't let you get your hands on all the loot, Tzetzas, he thought coldly. Some of it had gone on victory-bonuses, a good deal to pensions for troops crippled from their wounds, soldiers the Chancellor had thrown off their land grants as soon as they were registered as unfit for duty.

"Our mighty sovereign lord, Governor Barholm, has embarked on numerous projects to glorify the Spirit of Man of the Stars"—the new Temple, paid for out of an increase in the salt tax—"and to better the lives of the people"—railway extensions, new harbors and dams and steam mills—"and in conclusion, I am forced to confess myself at a loss as to where the funds for this expedition might be found."

"Take it out of what you steal, Tzetzas." The call was a sotto voce whisper from one of the more junior officers up in the higher tiers of seats. Laughter rumbled from all the military men present, although the Chancellor's robed bureaucrats sat in appalled silence. Tzetzas's head turned, and the movement reminded Raj of a carnosauroid he had seen in the Governor's menagerie, one moment death-still, the next snapping an insect out of the air. Then the Chancellor relaxed, smiling thinly as Barholm joined in the bellow of mirth.

I would not like to be the man who said that, Raj thought. There was an old joke about a fangmouth biting Tzetzas; rumor had it that the poison reptile died in convulsions.

observe Center said.

* * *

and a young officer jerked erect in bed; Raj recognized the room, or rather its pattern. Company commander's quarters in an East Residence barracks, although the sleeping woman was decidedly non-regulation. The officer's face was fluid with sleep; he reached out to touch the holstered pistol hanging from the headboard by unconscious reflex.

"Heysos? That you?" he mumbled.

"Nao" a voice said, as the door swung open and a masked man in dark clothing stepped through. The naked soldier had just enough time to clear the heavy dragoon pistol from its holster before the shotgun blast caught him in the face, flinging his body back and much of his head across the wall behind him.

The woman screamed twice; the assassin stepped to within a meter of her before he fired the other barrel.

* * *

Tzetzas spread his hands. "And in any case . . . military affairs are outside my area of expertise; I would not care to speculate on the chances of success. The dangers to the eastern frontier, however, are, one would think, obvious. We lost several provinces to the Colony when the last expedition was destroyed."

Thump. All eyes swung back to Barholm, as he brought the stylized keyboard down on the arm of the Chair. The diamond and padparascha sapphire symbols on its surface glittered, matching the autocrat's robes.

"Thanks to Brigadier Whitehall here," Barholm bit out, "the Colony is without a Settler. Ali and Akbar are still settling who's to be master—"

observe Center said.

* * *

and dark men in doghair robes waited behind an alabaster planter filled with rose bushes, the blossoms plate-sized disks of crimson and yellow. A figure in long robe and cloth-of-gold turban came striding along the pathway beyond, where fountains tinkled among delicate tilework; behind him walked guards, black giants naked to the waist with long curved blades resting unsheathed on their shoulders. The planter overturned and those behind it leapt forward, curved daggers raised, shrieking. Their screams of rage turned to fear as swords hissed and rifles from the snipers on the rooftop opposite spat puffs of white . . .

and stocky grizzled Tewfik stood in the open flap of a field-commander's tent, dressed as ever in the plain scarlet burnoose and spired helmet of the Colonial Regulars, with the Seal of Solomon on his black leather eyepatch. His left hand was clenched on the hilt of his scimitar until the knuckles showed white, but there was unshakable calm in his voice, and in the face that watched the soldiers drilling. Behind him a man in civilian robe and ha'aik waited by the map table, looking uneasily at the officers who stood around him with their arms crossed. From his expression, he was fully conscious that they would be delighted by an order to take him out—and shoot him as soon as he cleared the rug.

"My regrets to my noble brother the emir Ali," Tewfik ground out, "and my message to him is as my previous message—please, we both know it was read by other than its intended recipient—to my noble brother the emir Akbar; the peace of Allah upon them both. No troops can be spared for . . . missions in the capital. Not now, or until the council of the ulemma has chosen another Settler to lead the faithful."

The civilian hesitated, then bowed. "Peace be upon you, sa'yid," he murmured, and slipped past to his waiting borzhoi.

"And upon you, peace, you viper," Tewfik muttered, when the messenger had gone. Then he wheeled, cutting off the officers with a glare and a chopping motion of his hand. "And there will be peace. Either of my brothers will rule well enough—but for me to reach for power would mean civil war; you know the Law." The Commander of the Faithful must be perfect in body. "It will be as God wills; and all things are accomplished according to the will of God."

"Inshallah," the officers murmured.

* * *

"—and Tewfik's disqualified, praise the Spirit for that." Raj nodded in unconscious agreement; Tewfik was far and away the most able of old Jamal's legitimate sons, but he was missing an eye, lost in the Zanj Wars a decade ago, and by Colonial law that disqualified him.

"Indeed, Your Supremacy," Tzetzas said; his voice had a softly reasonable tone that made you want to agree immediately, for fear of seeming shrill or irrational. "For a year or so the Colony will be weakened. But the conquest of the Southern Territories would take decades."

"We certainly can't afford to strip the eastern territories," Fiydel Klostermann said; he was Master of Soldiers these days, an administrative command and as close to a Chief of Staff as the Civil Government had. "Which we'd need to do. The Squadron can field a hundred thousand men; granted they're equipped with blunderbusses, and they've no artillery to speak of, that's still two hundred battalions of fighting men." The Civil Government kept a quarter of a million men under arms, but most of those were immobile garrison infantry.

Admiral Tiburcyo Gharderini spoke up; he was a nervous looking little man with gray-shot black hair, in the black-and-gold uniform of the Civil Government's navy. Naval officers often came from the City itself, and from merchant families, unlike the Army, which was dominated by the landed gentry. You could see his consciousness of his own social insignificance as he glanced around at the others.

"Well . . . we do have the steam rams and gunboats," he said. "We've managed to keep the Squadron corsairs at a distance, this last generation."

"Mostly," a cavalry commander said dryly. Gharderini flushed darkly.

"But that's a different matter from attacking Port Murchison," the sailor went on doggedly; that was the capital of the Territories. "We don't have enough fleet units to spare to guard a convoy that size, we don't have coaling stations close enough, and we're just too undermanned and underfunded. Begging Your Excellency's pardon," he finished rapidly, with a bob in the direction of the Chancellor.

Barholm was tapping the keyboard-scepter on the arm of the Chair with ominous patience.

A younger officer sprang up. Raj recognized him: Anhelino Dalhouse, commander of the 17th Valley Cuirassiers. Exceedingly wealthy and well-born and without much combat experience, unless you counted putting down the odd peon uprising.

"We sit here quibbling like a lot of old women!" he burst out, the points of his mustache quivering. "What are we, fighting men or duennas at a coming-out ball for our maiden sisters? The Squadron heretics sit on our lands, collecting our revenues and persecuting our people and our church. What more needs to be said?"

The Supreme Reverend Syssup-Hierarch rose, fingering the circuit amulet on his chest. "More than persecuting!" he said angrily. "Your Supremacy, you are guardian of the Church's flock in every land—the Squadron beasts stable their riding dogs in our churches, or worse, convert them to their heretical worship of the Spirit of Man of This Earth"—most of the audience grasped their amulets and murmured a prayer—"and they rob and plunder and enslave our communicants who refuse to follow their beastly superstition. Their Admiral forbids the appointment of Syssups to guide the dioceses of the Territories; Syssups-Missionary I have appointed have been burned alive, priests mutilated, Renunciate Sisters gang-raped. The Spirit of Man of the Stars demands we act! Endfile."

"Endfile," the others murmured piously, touching their amulets. At least there's one sincere voice, Raj thought

Barholm nodded, pleased.

Klostermann cleared his throat and spoke: "All respect and reverence to Holy Church and Its Supreme Reverend Syssup-Hierarch, but we've been receiving reports of atrocities for the century or more the Squadron has held the Territories. Why does the Spirit of Man of the Stars demand we act now, rather than later when the conditions favor us? Will it serve Holy Church for us to lose another fifty thousand men, and perhaps the borderlands we fought the Colony last year to keep?"

Silence fell again, broken only by the scritch of secretaries writing up the records of the meeting and the slow tick-tock of the brass clock set into one wall of the chapel.

"Brigadier Whitehall," Barholm said at last, softly. "We require your opinion in this matter."

Raj felt cold. This is the time, Center? The Civil Government really is strong enough now to retake the Southern Territories?

as i have shown you, raj whitehall, replied the voice in his mind, i cannot guarantee success, but . . . i did not choose you not to try.

The young general came slowly to his feet, looking down at the backs of his hands. They were scarred, with faint darker lines on the knuckles, trail-dirt, from long marches, that could never quite be scrubbed away. When he raised his eyes he felt a slight forward sway from the other seats; only desperate fear could have made so many openly disagree with the Governor, who was not a forgiving man. Most desperate of all the fear of being appointed to command the expedition; defeat probably meant proscription as a traitor, death or confiscation of estates for the commander's whole family.

"Your Supremacy," he said, and paused. "On your orders, I've made a study of this problem. I believe the reconquest of the Southern Territories can be accomplished." A collective sigh of indrawn breath.

"And it can be accomplished at acceptable cost and risk. No slight to the valiant dead, but the last expeditionary force was neither well organized nor well led. And the Squadron they faced was still the terror of the Midworld Sea, with a first-rate navy.

"They've let their fleet go downhill, and their army too, such as it is. They don't have a standing force, you know. That didn't matter when Admiral Ricks"—the legendary war-chief who had led the Squadron down from the north, and then created the fleet that pillaged the Midworld for generations—"called up his warriors for pirate raids every year, 'to make war on those with whom the Spirit of Man is angry' . . . but these days all most of them do is sit on their behinds and watch their peons work.

"Sending fifty thousand men would be an unacceptable risk and far too expensive. With thirty thousand I can be fairly confident of success."

He watched the faces change; Tzetzas relaxing, Barholm tightening into a frown.

you will not be given thirty thousand, Center said. probability 89% ± 6%.

Raj sighed inwardly; Center took some of the fun out of bargaining, with its ability to tell you exactly what an opponent would settle for beforehand.

"Fifteen thousand could do it: five thousand cavalry as a strike force, ten thousand infantry for garrisons and as a base of maneuver, and thirty guns. I'd estimate no more than a year of real fighting if it's properly handled, and plunder alone will pay the expenses of the campaign, not to mention the revenues afterwards. With less than fifteen thousand, I would regretfully decline to assume any position."

Barholm's face was unreadable as he nodded to Tzetzas. An I told you so expression; the Chancellor's face looked as if he was sucking on a lemon for an instant, and his voice actually sounded animated, as good as a shout.

"Even if the expedition is possible, that's no reason to do it," he said testily.

Raj rubbed a palm along his jaw; the sword-callus that ringed thumb and forefinger rasped on blue-jowled stubble.

"True, Chancellor, if only ordinary matters were at stake. But . . . well, religion may sound odd, in a soldier's mouth, and the Spirit knows a soldier is all I am. Gentlemen—" He glanced around the circle of faces. "Gentlemen, we are civilization; we are the last representatives of the Holy Federation. The Civil Government is not just another successor-state living in the ruins of sacredness; we have a duty to bring all the Earth—"

bellevue, Center interjected, earth later.

"—all of the Earth and its people back into the Holy Federation and oneness with the Spirit of Man of the Stars. Isn't everyone—everyone, barbarian or Colonist or heretic—made in the Spirit's image? If we deny that, we deny the Spirit in ourselves, and our faith is a sham—"

His voice had risen; he cut himself off abruptly as he saw the others blink at his vehemence, flushing at the murmur of "hear, hear" from many of the other officers, the Supreme Reverend Syssup-Hierarch's gesture of blessing.

"And who should lead this expedition?" Barholm asked neutrally.

"The decision is yours, of course, Your Supremacy," Raj said awkwardly. "But I've thought about this for a long time, and in all honesty I feel that I would be the best choice."

i have thought about it for a thousand years . . . Center whispered at the back of his brain, at last . . .

Barholm nodded. "Let it be recorded that Messer Brigadier—no, we'd better make that Brigadier General Raj Ammenda Halgern da Luis Whitehall is appointed Field Commander of the expeditionary force to reclaim the sacred soil of Holy Federation from the Squadron barbarians, with viceregal authority while in the barbaricum. Let all servants of the Civil Government and Holy Church render lawful aid to him in this matter. Brigadier General Whitehall, please submit a list of units and commanders to me by . . . hmm, this time tomorrow for my consideration and approval."

He made a sharp gesture, and an aide lifted the cushion with the mace of office on it, going down on one knee before Raj. Raj lifted it in both hands and raised it to his lips; the officers raised a sharp cheer of approval, formal and brief.

The Governor looked around the ranked officers, brows raised. "If there's no further advice?" he said with heavy irony. "No?"

The Supreme Reverend Syssup-Hierarch began the elaborate ceremony of dismissal. Holding his amulet and making the keying gesture of prayer with the others, Raj almost smiled at the looks of envy some gave him out of the corners of their eyes.

Envy for a man who's just condemned himself to death, he thought. The mace seemed heavier than worlds.

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