Warlord S. M. Stirling and David Drake

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Chapter Seventeen

"Raj," Suzette went on, looking up from the table, "at least don't rush straight back to East Residence!"

Her delicate tilt-eyed features were furrowed with anxiety. The brass cabin lantern cast moving shadows over the captain's cabin of the transport, commandeered for the General and his lady. The sterncastle windows still shed more light, from the westering sun behind them. The manifold creak and groan of timbers and planks surrounded them, the almost-living noise of a wooden ship under full sail. The huge salt smell of the sea filled the cabin, with the warm brass scent of the lantern and clean wool from the bed. Raj turned from watching the long white wake of the ship and the long-winged dactosauroids hovering over it as his wife went on:

"Darling, stop over in Hayapalco. You can say you need to rest the men, it's a long voyage . . . and then I can go back to East Residence and talk to Lady Anne. You can be sure she isn't listening to that tattletale Dalhouse, who's been sniffing around Tzetzas for years now."

Negotiate, Raj knew she meant. With Lady Anne pleading his loyalty, and thousands of troops at his back; negotiate terms with the threat of insurrection unspoken in the background.

observe Center said.

* * *

and Barholm sat on the Chair, the arc-lights blazing on the gold-tissue robes and peacock jewelry of the Chair as it rose on its soundless hydraulic cylinder. He stared down impassively at the kneeling figure of Raj Whitehall; only someone who knew him well could see the cold anger in the expressionless black eyes.

"Our well-beloved servant General Whitehall is returned victorious," he said. "Let all honor—"

* * *

"Yes, that would work," Raj said quietly. "For a while. Maybe for a year; maybe even for four or five, Barholm's a cautious man. Then he'd kill me . . . or I'd have to kill him to stop him." He paused for a moment, and his voice grew sharper: "Wouldn't I?"

Suzette nodded unwillingly, nervously lighting a cigarette and jamming it into the ivory holder with unnecessary force.

probability of disgrace/execution at a later date 60% ± 25%, given hayapalco scenario as outlined by lady Whitehall; large variant factor due to subsequent dependent variables, Center said.

"So I wouldn't be much improving my chances. If I have to die, I want it to have some point—and trying to make Barholm bargain under my guns would make it meaningless."

"Sailing right into East Residence and being sent to the Pole has meaning?" Suzette asked.

"Yes." Raj's eyes were focused on something beyond the rafters. "Why am I in this fix in the first place? Because Barholm Clerrett is a paranoid ingrate?" He shrugged. "He's a politician, that's much the same thing. But Governors have a reason for being afraid of successful generals, and that is the reason we've never been able to subdue the barbarians. The Civil Government has more than enough power to reunite the planet; it just doesn't have the will, not as long as whoever occupies the Chair is more afraid of his own Army than of foreigners."

Suzette blinked, her eyes wide with incredulity. "You're going to sacrifice your life—our lives—to reassure Barholm? Or some future Governor?"

Raj smiled, running fingers through his curls. "No. To reassure future rulers and to teach future soldiers that there's no honor in rebellion. I'm not going to contribute to the climate of fear that's rotting us out from within." His smile turned to a grin. "And Starless Dark, I don't expect Barholm to give me the chop, anyway. It'd be crazy, and he's not that crazy. Yet."

probability of eventual clinical paranoia in barholm clerrett is near certainty if subject's lifespan extended past 60 standard years, Center noted.

"To make a point? You're risking everything just to make a point?"

"There has to be a point," he said, driving one fist into a palm. "Or what's it all for? I—we—killed sixty thousand men out here, Suzette." He wiped one hand across the back of his mouth. "I can still see it . . . That wasn't a battle, a whole nation died there. What for? To make a reputation for me? Or to give Tzetzas a new province to loot—for a while, for a few generations, until some new bunch of barbs takes it away again? No."

He shook his head, turning to look at her with his hands clasping behind his back. "I don't fight wars because it's the most efficient way of piling up corpses. I'm not spending my men's lives for that. It has to have some point, or I might as well do the world a favor and blow my own brains out." More gently: "Don't you see?"

Suzette's shell of control cracked, and she flung herself against Raj. He held her, stroking the sleek black hair; it caught occasionally in the cracked calluses of his saber hand.

"Spirit, I'm afraid, Raj!" she said. "He's mad with jealousy . . . I'm so afraid."

"I'm afraid too, darling," he said gently. "It's for the best, though. Believe me, it's for the best."

* * *

It was evening, cool and gentle in the bows where Raj sat alone. His feet dangled over the netting that linked bowsprit to deck, almost within reach of the spray as the ship took the swell with all sail set in the mild breeze. The water was dark-purple beneath, fading to almost black at the edge of sight, rippled with white foam. Six-winged flying things skipped in shoals over the waves and then dove; stars were coming out, a frosty bridge from north to south across the sky. Miniluna and Maxiluna were both full on the eastern horizon, throwing brilliant paths of silver ahead of him, on the road to home.

and the image of red-hot irons glowing toward his eyes faded.

probability of blinding, 22%, Center concluded, ±4%.

Well, at least it's less likely than outright execution; I'd prefer that, he thought.

Stretching, he rose and took a last puff on the cigarette, letting the breeze ruffle through his hair like a woman's slender fingers. Off to the left the smoke of the escort-warship had a ruddy tinge from the fires of her furnace, only visible in the hours of darkness. He flicked the butt away, and it was a tiny meteor toward the water that slapped with thousandfold hands at the hull.

And whatever comes, it doesn't really matter. I'm obeying the Spirit that made all—his gesture took in the night and the horizon.

i am not god, Center said; there seemed to be a troubled overtone to its monotonous internal voice, i cannot guarantee a desirable result, i can only indicate actions whose results are most probably beneficial to human society, optimization for you as an individual would be a completely different calculation.

"I am the Sword of the Spirit," Raj whispered, raising his arms to the arch of stars. Once men had traveled there. "And I will obey that Spirit—whatever the cost."

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