Warlord S. M. Stirling and David Drake



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Chapter Sixteen


"It's him," Muzzaf said, bowing beside the Vice Governor's chair. "All the most important lords are with him, Messer Raj; but . . ."

Raj sat calmly, his hand on the Mace. The audience hall of the Palace was not nearly as crowded as it had been for the assumption of power, leaving plenty of room for the Squadron nobles—soon to be ex-nobles—who would be brought in to swear submission with their leader. Much of the rest of the room was piled with captured Squadron battle-flags, and not even the thick incense from the priest's censors could entirely hide the smell of the rotting blood many of them were soaked with. The Admiral and his retinue had also been routed past the mass graves . . . and the soldiers and their weapons lining the whole route in from the gates and up to the Chair were also an exercise in education.

There was no point in being subtle with barbarians, not if you wanted to be clearly understood. Sometimes he thought that applied to most civilized men as well.

"Yes?" he murmured to the Komarite.

"Ah . . . the Admiral is, shall we say, not entirely well. Functional, but not well."

Raj nodded; there were rumors about hereditary instability in the Auburn family—and Spirit knew the man had had enough shocks of late. The Companions glanced at each other a little uneasily, and there was a ripple of comment through the civil dignitaries below the dais at the exchange they could see but not hear.

"Don't worry, my friends," he said quietly, smiling. It had been three days since the battle, and they were all thoroughly relieved that there wasn't going to be another. "Charles Auburn can be a raving lunatic for the rest of his life, as long as he sings out loud and clear today. How's the loading going, Gerrin?"

"Right on schedule," the older man said, in the same low murmur. "We should be able to get ten thousand Squadrones to East Residence in the first wave, without overcrowding. With the cadre of Regulars they'll need; they can start their training as soon as they're sworn in, and continue it as they march east."

There were rumors that Ali had consolidated his position and was looking for revenge for the death and defeat of his father Jamal. Not to mention a victory that would rally his emirs.

"Ali may get a surprise," Raj nodded.

The noise through the great open bronze doors became a swelling roar. The troopers at the door snapped from at ease to attention, and the motion rippled down the silent ranks lining the red-carpeted corridor with the smooth regularity of falling dominoes. Halfway down the corridor was a structure of spears lashed together, forming an arch about chest-high. Charles Auburn checked slightly as he saw it, checked again with a grimace of hatred as he saw Karl and Ludwig Bellamy standing in places of honor at the foot of the dais. Then he came on, with the defeated lords behind him; they all bowed their sackcloth-covered shoulders to pass under the spears.

Then Auburn was grinning as he reached the first of the stairs. Raj's foot was resting on the staff of the last Squadron banner, the ancient flag of Admiral Ricks, taken from the great Temple now restored to the Holy Federation Church after one hundred and twenty years. The faded gold silk spilled down almost to the last Admiral's feet, and he bent to finger it.

"Vanity!" he cackled, looking up. Raj felt a slight chill; there was something inhuman there. "It's all vanity . . . I was vain with flags, now you are—vanity, vanity, all vanity!"

Curtis Auburn nudged his brother sharply, and the glaze left his eyes. He dropped clumsily to his knees, and the others behind him; Charles drew his sword and unloaded pistol, laying them down. Officers bore them up to the Chair and laid them at Raj's feet, and the trumpeters behind blew a fanfare. All the spectators cheered, as the Auburns and their followers were led away.

"Messer general," a voice said at Raj's ear. He looked around, and felt a small cold shock at the expression on Barton Foley's face.

"Yes?"

"There's a courier from East Residence, sir. From the Palace; it's Colonel Osterville."

One of Barholm's Guards; as Raj was himself, technically. A jack-of-all-trades, specializing in discreet strongarm work.

"Sir, he demands immediate audience . . . and his dispatches carry the Seal."

* * *

The voices of an infantry regiment marching down to the docks to embark came clear through the windows. That was the only sound to break the nervous silence, as Raj and his officers waited in the upper audience room:

"Where have you been this while away,
Peydro, Peydro?
Out with the rest on a picnic lay.
Peydro, my Peydro, ah!
They catted us out of the barrack-yard
To Spirit knows where from Residence-ward
And you can't refuse when you get the card
And the Guv'nor gives the party!"

Osterville was in an immaculate uniform of white and gold; he checked a little as he entered, under the glares of the Companions. His hard smooth face showed nothing, though. Barholm Clerett was a judge of men, in his way. He made his way briskly to the head of the table, saluted and presented a thick parchment envelope stamped with a gold-and-purple seal.

"Sir," he said, "I present the order of the Governor."

Raj took the envelope and turned it in his hands. "Upon whom may the Spirit shower blessings. I acknowledge receipt, Colonel. Do you have a verbal digest?"

Osterville looked around at the hard glares.

"I have no secrets from my officers . . . unless the orders are confidential?"

"No." The Guard cleared his throat. "You are directed to turn over your command to me and to return immediately to East Residence, there to render accounting to the Chair for your actions."

There was a chorus of oaths from lower down the table; Kaltin Gruder leaped to his feet and slammed his fist down on the teak.

"Actions! 'Account for his actions,' like a criminal? He's bloody well destroyed the Squadron in three weeks' campaign—after everyone else failed miserably for a century—and left the Civil Government richer by a province, by twenty-five thousand soldiers and a million gold FedCreds! Those are his fucking actions, you Palace popinjay, you lapcat for—"

"Major Gruder!" Raj barked. Kaltin sank back into his seat, but his left hand stayed clenched on the hilt of his saber. "If you can't restrain yourself, you are excused!"

Raj's fingers broke the seal; he touched his amulet to his lips and then read the vermilion ink.

"Accurate, Colonel. The written version's a little more formal, but accurate."

He closed his eyes, his fingers playing with the thick paper. Barholm was suspicious to a fault, and Dalhouse had been back quite a while. Successful generals were always under a cloud; it went with the territory, and he was the most successful for a long, long time.

observe said Center:

* * *

and Raj was seated once again on the Vice Governor's chair. This time the viewpoint was well back; he could see his own face, stiff as if carven in stone, as the Arch-Syssup lowered the regalia on him—the sacred keyboard and headset that only Governors could wear. Below, an audience of Expeditionary Force soldiers and Squadron nobles cheered in a frenzy of adoration: Conquer! You conquer!, the traditional call for an Enchairment—and a city was burning. Sandoral, he thought; the great eastern bastion he had held against the Settlers' armies. Now it burned like a pyre, a throbbing red pyramid reflected crimson in the waters of the great Drangosh River. Behind it innumerable lesser fires marked farms and villages in all the stretch of fertile irrigated land that ran to the foothills of the Oxheads. Troops marched by on the road, men in the spired helmets and scarlet jellabas of the Colonial regulars. Flags waved above them, the green and crescent of Islam, the peacock of the Settlers, Tewfik's Seal of Solomon—



and a Raj aged beyond belief lay in a bed he recognized, the Admiral's quarters in this very palace. Each halting breath was a struggle; the flesh had fallen away from the strong Descotter bones of his flesh. Priests prayed, and a few elderly officers wept. Outside came the sounds of gunfire and the clash of steel, as men fought for the old king's legacy—

* * *

Better for the Civil Government that I had never lived at all, if I make myself ruler here, he thought. Of course. These men are the best troops we have.

accurate, Center said implacably, although oversimplified.

And nothing I built here could last.

97% ± 6% indicates immediate civil war and continued fission upon your death, Center said, the centrifugal process will continue unabated on bellevue until maximum entropy is attained, the next upswing of the cycle will, with a high probability, take at least eight millennia.

Raj remembered the vision of flint-knapping cannibals crouched on the ruins of East Residence and shuddered. The soldiers' song came louder through the windows, as the battalion passed along beneath the Palace windows:

"What did you get to eat and drink,
Peydro, Peydro?
Standing water as thick as ink,
Peydro, my Peydro, ah!
A bit o' beef that were three year stored,
A bit o' mutton as tough as a board,
A sauroid we killed with the sergeant's sword,
When the Guv'nor gave the party."

He opened his eyes and smiled wryly. "Vanity, vanity," he murmured. Then aloud: "We'll need a few formalities, but for the present—" He lifted the Mace of office and stood, offering it to Osterville. There was a gasp and long sigh of exhaled breath from the others as the Guard took it in his hands. "If you'll excuse me and these officers, Colonel," Raj went on softly, "we have a few administrative matters to prepare for you."

Osterville looked around; by the strict letter of the instructions all Brigadier General Raj Whitehall should do now was walk down to the docks, but there were times when initiative was necessary.

"By all means, sir," he said.

The babble broke out the minute the door closed; Raj looked at the faces, tense with anger and concern, and smiled gently.

He waited until the noise died away.

"Thank you," he said sincerely. "My friends, I thank you more than words can say. But before anyone says a word that might be considered treasonous—no. Not for any reason."

"But, Raj—he'll kill you," Barton Foley said. A tear trembled at the edge of one eye. "Spirit damn it, it isn't fair."

"Well, it's possible that will happen," Raj said, taking a cigarette out of a box on the table. He contemplated his hands for a second.

"Understandable, perhaps. Generals have shot their way into the Chair before"—including Barholm's uncle Vernier Clerett—"always with disastrous results. But hell," he grinned, "it's not an arrest order, after all. As Kaltin pointed out, I have accomplished the mission assigned—and going back peacefully as ordered will be the best testimony possible. Plus I'll have yours, of course."

A chorus of agreement; Administrator Berg rapped his water glass down.

"By the Spirit, mine too!" he blurted; the soldiers' eyes turned toward him. "It's well, only just," he said. "Besides," he added shrewdly, "when the Governor sees the figures on what we're bringing him, even Chancellor Tzetzas will have to sing Messer Raj's praises. Three years' total revenue! Not counting the value of three-quarters of the lands in the Territories, now forfeit to the fisc."

There was a thoughtful silence inside the room, and a ruffle of drums from outside the window:

"What did you do for knives and forks,
Peydro, Peydro?
We carries 'em with us wherever we walks,
Peydro, my Peydro, ah!
And some was sliced and some was halved,
And some was crimped and some was carved,
And some was gutted and some was starved,
When the Guv'nor gave the party."

"And even if the worst happened, rebellion cannot be justified," Raj said. "Say what you like about Barholm Clerett, he's a strong Governor—the strongest we've had in generations. Gentlemen"—he leaned forward in an unconscious attempt to drive home the lesson—"these barbarians we just fought, they started off as soldiers of Holy Federation as well; look what rebellion's brought them, over the years. Beyond that, Barholm has my oath, which is all the honor a soldier has; and beyond that, he's the Vice Regent of the Spirit of Man of the Stars upon Earth."

He rose and offered his arm; Suzette took it. "Gerrin, if you'd draw up movement orders for the Skinners? I promised them they'd be sent home, and Osterville might not consider himself bound." A wry smile. "See you on shipboard, gentlemen."

"There goes," Gerrin Staenbridge whispered, as the door closed behind them, "a true hero. The poor luckless bastard." The Companions sat in silence, listening to the receding footsteps and the fading song:

"What was the end of all the show,
Peydro, Peydro?
Ask Messer Raj, for I don't know,
Peydro, my Peydro, ah!
We broke a King and we built a road—
And a Star church stands where our boot-heels goed.
And the harbor's clean where the raw blood flowed
When the Guv'nor gave the party."


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