Warlord S. M. Stirling and David Drake

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Chapter Sixteen

"Well, it's a little different from the last time, isn't it?" Foley said, pausing before one of the wall mirrors in the steamboat's lounge. His Captain's uniform was immaculate, the chain mail of the epaulets matching the mirror polish of the hook where his left hand had been. The stump was actually still a little tender for it, it had only been a month or so, but appearances had to be kept up on a visit to court.

"All relative," Raj replied abstractedly, watching out the window as the multicolored lights of East Residence swam by; the Palace was lit like day, new arc-lights throughout the grounds. The humid air felt soft on his skin, after the dryness of the southern border, but his gut tensed again; fear, different from the scrotum-raising tension of combat, but fear nevertheless. "We got a little more time, but then again, we won."

"This time," Menyez said, laying down his book. "Is he really planning to send us to retake the Southern Territories?" A pause. "You know, my family originally came from there? We had estates around Port Murchison, back when: got out just before the Squadron took the city." Another pause. "They can keep it, frankly, as far as I'm concerned."

"Well, that will be the Governor's decision, won't it?" Suzette said neutrally. She was frowning as she adjusted the court dress; not formal, the official reception would not be until tomorrow, but it was unaccustomed after so many weeks in riding clothes or uniforms.

"Maybe it's Tzetzas who wanted us back," Foley continued. "He's going to have Raj sent to the frying pole for not turning over all Jamal's pay chests. Remember that message he sent when he found out you'd ordered half invested for life pensions to the disabled?"

"'Fiscally irregular,' I believe the phrase was," Muzzaf said; the Komarite was sitting at one of the lounge desks, carefully blotting his pen on a scrap of paper. His new northern-style civilian trousers and jacket were Azanian silk themselves, and a ruby stud glowed in his cravat. "Shall I tell Messer Gruder our journey was uneventful?" he continued, finishing the letter.

"Tell Kaltin to stay flat on his back, for another four months or so," Gerrin Staenbridge said, stretching cat-content. A bullet through the inner thigh and a fractured legbone were no joke, especially after a bad infection. Of course, another inch to the right and Captain Gruder would have been the last of the Graders, whether he survived or not. "He's used up about all his luck as it is. . . ." He glanced east, toward Sandoral. "You know, I hate to have loose ends, and I'm a little anxious leaving someone bedridden in charge back there; did they ever find that wog who murdered Reed, for example, what was his name, Abdullah?"

"No," Suzette said, in a tone even more detached; they all looked over at her. The shuttered, unreadable manner seemed to be inversely proportional to the distance from Court.

"Probably intended to disorganize the militia for the assault, had they won," Gerrin observed.

"Probably," Raj agreed. Suzette's eyes flickered to his, and then away.

"Well, I'll be damned!" Menyez exclaimed, from the dockside window. There was a blast from the whistle, and a slight jar as the boat was warped in to the dock. Trumpets sounded. "The 2nd Gendarmerie is providing our escort!"

"Half-Ass Stanson himself?"

"For the Spirit's sake, watch that," Raj laughed. "I hear he's recruiting a better class of thug, these days." The hundred-or-so survivors of the 2nd's mad-dash retreat from the Valley of Death had learned something, at least. Not least a strong determination never to leave the capital again, from what his correspondents in the Palace said.

* * *

"You were planning on seeing the Governor at once?" Stanson said, leaning back against the cushions on the other side of the coach.

Raj blinked, glancing aside at Des Poplanich. It was irregular that his old friend's brother should have come to meet them with the escort, being persona extremely non grata at Court, and the way Stanson had insisted on taking Raj alone in the lead coach was even more suspicious.

"Well, yes, of course," Raj said, suddenly conscious of the pistol at his side and the sword lying across his lap.

Don't be ridiculous, he told himself, glancing out the window. A crowd was leaving a theater, laughing women in gowns and feathered hats and jewels, men in brilliant uniforms handing them up into light town coaches, lacy things of crystal and steel and glass. The bright gaslights glittered on the jewels and metalwork, the marble of the buildings, the embroidered liveries of slaves who held the bridles of coach teams whose coats were brushed to a shine as perfect as the ladies' wigs. Maxiluna was full, hovering over the palace; the streets were loud with the sound of iron wheels on the cobbles, the cries of pushcart-vendors. Nothing's going to happen; except a lot of tedious parades and speeches, when the troops get here. And maybe a war next year, but the Southern Territories are our rightful possession.

He glanced back; Des seemed embarrassed, but there was a bright tension to Stanson's posture. Raj remembered the way he had handled his pistols in the surprise attack last year, like extensions of his hands; this was Stanson's home territory, and here he was as much at home as Raj was on a battlefield with a clear enemy in front of him.

"It would really be better . . . very much better," Stanson said quietly, "if you would send a message saying you were tired, and that you'd see the Governor at the morning levee." A silence, broken only by the rattle of the wheels that changed to a rumble as they neared the Palace and the surface of the street switched from cobblestones to more recent concrete. The soft thudding of the dogs' paws remained, and their panting.

"Better still," the 2nd's commander continued, "if you'd taken a day or so longer getting back from the frontier; I understand some of your people are still recovering from their injuries."

Unspoken threat; Raj looked out the window again. The 2nd's new uniforms were beautifully tailored, but the jackets were a sand-colored khaki now, and they were riding with the butts of their rifles on their thighs.

"Well," he said after a minute. "I suppose you're to be the new Governor, Des?"

Des Poplanich stuttered; he was plumper than his older brother had been—is, Raj thought he's not dead, just . . . out of circulation—but had much of the same well-meaning earnestness. Raj had always rather liked him; Des was very much what his brother might have been, without the force of will and with only nine-tenths of the brains.

"Raj, you know I'm not an ambitious man," he began. Raj nodded; that was the only reason Des was still alive, that and Barholm's thorough-going contempt. Des continued:

"But this . . . it's for the good of the State. Barholm's a madman, and he's . . . Raj, you've been away from Court, but he's getting worse. This religious policy, it's insane! Yes, we can't allow outright heathens like the Christos equal rights, but that's no excuse for confiscating their property or denying them all basic liberties. The taxes are grinding half of what's left of the free-farmer class into debt-peonage, and where's it going? Where is every penny going? To line Tzetzas' pockets, and creatures like him, and what's left over is squandered on new temples and crazy schemes like this cross-country railway to Sandoral, and foreign wars that enrich nobody but mercenaries and contractors—Tzetzas again . . .

"He has to go, Raj; him and that whore he had the effrontery to make Governor's Lady. Did you know," he continued bitterly, with the offended pride of fifteen generations of patricians, "that he's had her face put on a coin? That respectable Messas have been banished from court—even imprisoned—because they wouldn't treat a common prostitute like one of themselves?"

Raj nodded; because that was all true, yes, and because he needed to know as much as he could. Although most of those Ladies . . . at least Anne probably always gave value for money.

"Barholm's a son-of-a-bitch, right enough," he said. Stanson watched him with slitted sauroid eyes. Careful, he's no fool. "And Tzetzas is worse; he's not just robbing the treasury, he's tried to rob men under my command." A slight relaxation; his own clashes with the Chancellor were legendary, by now. "But I swore Barholm an oath, and I'll not be party to his murder."

"Raj!" Des said, genuine wonder and offense in his tone. "You know me better than that! Barholm, and even his . . . woman . . . well, they'll be kept under heavy guard, of course, and we couldn't allow them back into Descott County—no offense—"

Raj nodded; the County had gotten used to having one of its own on the Chair, and a good quarter of the Civil Government's native cavalry were recruited there.

"—he'll be taken to Chongwe Island, one of his estates. He can drink himself to death in his own time, or indulge in religious dementia—I think he's already half convinced he's an Avatar—or whatever. That'll be enough vengeance for Thom, and my grandfather."

Stanson had coughed and covered his face with his hand, but the reflection in the window behind Des' head had worn an expression more suitable for a hunting sauroid in the unguarded instant before; one of the smaller, nimbler kinds that killed by biting hunks out of their prey on the run. Raj thought he detected a change in the other man's posture, as well; he had probably been prepared to shoot Raj on the spot if he fell in with the plan suspiciously easily, and damn the complications. Perhaps it would be worth the trouble to become a fast-draw artist himself, and Suzette could study poisons—Des, Des, Raj thought. You should have stayed in your townhouse, or better still gone to your estates and written philosophy and plays and spent your time being a good Messer to your tenants. He felt a deep sadness; covered his own eyes and sighed wearily. Because when you run with the sicklefeet, you'd better be equipped with claws.

"Who's behind this?" he said aloud. "Because Stanson, I'm not stupid enough to think you could bring it off by yourself. You don't have enough influence in the Army."

The other officer leaned forward and began reeling off names; Raj nodded at the progression. Several million acres of land, including most of the rich Hemmar Valley—Trahn Minh was in on it, no surprise—and another million or so FedCreds worth of East Residence shipping and manufacturing. Men who were not likely to rejoice either at the taxes necessary to pay for reconquests in the western territories, or at the disruption of the export-import trade it implied.

"Well, that's impressive enough," Raj said. "I'm . . . not a suicidal man, whatever the newsmongers say. I've got eight men, myself and Suzette—"

Stanson winced slightly.

"—which is scarcely enough for a firefight; and I don't think you're stupid enough to try it without putting the 2nd in control of the Palace, either, Stanson. It's not as if Barholm were the best Governor we've ever had"—just essential to the purposes of the Spirit of Man, somehow—"so as long as I'm not expected to participate in anything against my oath," he shrugged, "what can I do?"

Des leaned over and clasped his hand warmly, beaming. "Everyone knows you're as scrupulous of your honor as any officer in the Army, and the most able field commander in the Civil Government. But not one of these crazy fanatics who think we can restore the Holy Federation overnight, you care for your men too much for that," he said. "When you accept a high command under me, all decent men will rally to my side."

You'd be a puppet, Raj thought coldly, as he smiled and his mouth said words, and with Stanson in on this, I'd be unsuspiciously dead in about a year. That could not be allowed to matter, but the consequences to the State which embodied Holy Federation here on Earth—

least unfavorable possibility, probability 15%, 200 years after this date, plusminus 20. observe.

* * *

East Residence was burning; it was this street, in the city Raj knew, but worn somehow, buildings aged and not repaired for decades. Grass grew through patchy cobbles, and the harbor was empty. The clothing styles on the men and women who lay in the streets were altogether strange, those who were not naked or in rags. A motley line of infantry stormed a barricade; the people behind it looked to be ordinary East Residence types, but the troops were black Zanj in Civil Government uniforms.

highest probability. 83%, plusminus 4. observe.

* * *

East Residence was burning. A line of troops retreated down the street outside; he recognized the banners of the 7th Descott Rangers and his own 5th. Cannister plowed gruesomely through their ranks, and other men in Civil Government uniforms pursued; Rogor Slashers, Kelden Foot, and the odd short jackets of Brigade soldiers mixed in. Citizens on the roofs above threw tiles and chamberpots, until the Kelden infantry turned and fired a volley upward—

* * *

Civil war, Raj thought. At best, centuries in the future when all hope had rotted away. More probably within the year; he knew his Descott gentry, they were not going to stand for a regime dominated by cityman merchants and worse, the Hemmar Valley counties and their lords. The lowlanders had money in plenty, but were unlikely to trust their peons with arms; they would hire outsiders, which meant both sides would be forced to seek help abroad. He shivered.

* * *

"And?" Stanson prompted. They were through the outer wall of the Palace district. Raj met his eyes, turned up his hands.

"Anything is better than civil war," he said. "Anything at all."

Belief, because Stanson was a good judge of men in his way, and he was hearing absolute truth.

"But it'd be very suspicious indeed, if I don't at least pay a courtesy call on the Governor." Stanson's fingers flexed, moving with an independent life.

"Alone?" he said flatly. The inflection implied a question, but the face did not; Des Poplanich looked from one man to the other, puzzled.

"No, that'd arouse questions, too," Raj replied. "A man of my rank can't move about without the dignity of an escort, even if he's known not to stand on ceremony. But of course," he continued, "Suzette mustn't be allowed near Lady Anne."

Stanson nodded vigorously. "Of course not," he said.

"Right," Raj said, tapping one thumb against his chin. "You could detach a few of your men, escort her to her quarters—an honor guard, that'll sound right, and I'll take two of my men and just drop in briefly on Barholm. Then I'll rejoin Suzette in our apartments—" considerably larger ones, the message from Lady Anne had said "—and we'll lock the doors while you do what you have to."

Stanson thought for long seconds, then nodded. Raj was offering his wife as a hostage. Himself, too, for that matter, taking only two men into the Governor's quarters; if worst came to worst, Des could simply be told that his friend was unfortunately caught in the crossfire.

"Yes, that would be perfect," Stanson said, cutting across Des Poplanich's thanks.

Shows you how much authority he'd have as Governor, Raj thought.

"Perfect. We do have to be careful that no harm comes to Lady Suzette—"

That's Lady Whitehall, you son of a bitch—

"at any cost. I, ah," he hesitated, "I remember very well that she saved my life. Whatever other disagreements we'd had, the wog was coming for me, my guns were empty and there wasn't any time and then she shot him—"

"Yes, I remember it, too," Raj said. A pity, but then Suzette's like that. "Whatever happened to Merta?" he continued; remembering himself, how the girl had thrown herself between her man and the steel. Better to put things on a man-to-man basis, and keep Stanson's uncomfortably acute treachery-antennae numbed by memories that brought a rim of sweat-beads to his brow.

"Merta?" Stanson said; then his face cleared. "Oh, the redhead. I married her off to one of my farrier-sergeants, and got them a rent-free farm," he said.

Raj blinked slightly in surprise. Rather decent, for—

"It was Lady Suzette who suggested it, in fact."


* * *

"What's going on, Raj?" Suzette whispered furiously.

Raj stepped back; Stanson was watching with the same unblinking reptile stare.

"Warrant M'lewis," he said. "Messer Staenbridge."

They both looked up, alerted by the form of address as much as the tone. The Companions were all out of their carriages now, and the twenty troopers of the 2nd were formed up on foot as Palace servants led their dogs away. This was the Old Harbor courtyard, near the Apartments of Honor; ancient buildings about three stories high, the most prestigious section of the residential wing. Behind them bulked the Governor's Tower, fused stone from before the Fall, as alabaster-perfect as it had been a millennium before.

"You'll be accompanying me while I report to the Governor," he said, drawing off his gloves. "Meanwhile, these fellow-soldiers—" he indicated the men of the 2nd, and saw several of the Companions blink"—will form an escort to accompany Lady Whitehall to our apartments, and will remain until I join you."

Their eyes were on him, a flat alertness that showed nothing in face or body. Foley stroked his hook along the jaw of his young-old face; the outer curve, since the inner was sharp enough to shave with.

"I have full confidence in you," he said, in the same loud parade-ground voice. "There have been rumors of disturbances in the city," he continued, "and Messer Captain Stanson has kindly offered these Gendarmerie troopers as additional protection for our apartments and Lady Whitehall."

"Raj, I'm coming with you—" Suzette began.

"—and you will see that she goes there at once and remains there, restraining her if necessary. I hold you six responsible for her safety. Is that understood?"

Foley saluted. "Entirely understood, my lord," he said. Da Cruz had stepped up to Suzette's side and laid a warning hand on her arm; the other men had quietly moved to see that the rifles and personal weapons in their baggage were within their perimeter, plucking them out of the hands of the Palace servants with unobtrusive speed.

"And a very pleasant goodnight to you, Messer Captain Stanson," Raj said, squeezing his hand. "I expect we won't see each other until morning?"

"No doubt, Messer Brigadier Whitehall," Stanson replied.

* * *

"Your Supremacy, there's a plot against your life, don't look up," Raj whispered, smiling brightly. "Invite me and these two men into the Sanctum, now my lord, there's no time."

Barholm stiffened as he pulled him into the embrace of equals. There was not a hint of disbelief. Governors who died of old age were not precisely in the two-headed calf category of probabilities, but not in the majority by any means.

"No formality between me and my best commander!" he said, grinning. Moisture sprang out on his upper lip. "You must join me for a nightcap at least: I wouldn't hear of anything else."

Barholm turned, tucking his hand under Raj's arm; the Gendarmerie detachment at the door to the personal apartments could do nothing. Raj gave their officer a slight helpless shrug; one did not refuse such an invitation from the absolute ruler of the State.

"And these two valiant souls with you as well," Barholm continued smoothly. "As the Spirit of Man's Viceregent on Earth, I'd like very much to hear how they've served It against the Spirit-Deniers."

The door of the outer apartments swung closed; it was ebony with a steel core. Barholm swung the handle closed with his own hands, pushing aside a horrified servant; by the time he had turned around M'lewis and Staenbridge were already hauling a great cast-bronze couch across the Al-Kebir carpet to wedge beneath it.

His eyes were glazed as he turned to Raj. "Can these two be trusted?" he said.

"Absolutely, my lord," Raj replied. The Governor's hands were making slight unconscious gestures, the outward expression of a dialogue he conducted with himself.

"Save me and I'll make you both the richest lords in the Civil Government," he blurted. Staenbridge and M'lewis both gave him a brief bow, hiding disdain under peasant acquisitiveness and aristocratic blandness respectively.

"Come on, come on," Barholm said. "We've . . . the Old Tower, it's impregnable. Quickly!"

The servant was still standing there, her mouth making the open-and-close motions of a feeding fish. "Get Lady Anne," Raj told her, simply and forcefully. "Get her now.

"My lord," he continued to Barholm, "these are the details I've been able to uncover—"

* * *

The innermost apartments of the Old Tower were preFall, oddly shaped and sized by modern standards, despite all that had been done to modernize them since; the fireplaces were of an alabaster as close to the ancient fusemelt as could be found, but somehow they still clashed violently. The ceilings glowed with a cool light that had not varied in all the years since the Fall, and there were no windows below the hundred-meter crown of stone far above. Raj saw the rooms only as a series of tactical obstacles, details discarded by a consciousness focused down to the width of a gunsight. Staenbridge stood beside him, arms crossed and pistol dangling negligently; M'lewis was quivering-alert with the ornamental shotgun he had seized from a blubbering manservant, but not too preoccupied to slip a few articles into his pockets . . .

"They've all turned against me!" Barholm said, sitting slumped in a chair of silver and rock-crystal and silk. "Even Stanson, he was a broken man and I raised him up from nothing, do you hear, nothing, I paid his debts that would have ruined him and this is how he repays me!" There were tears in the Governor's eyes, of terror or real grief, perhaps.

"My lord," Raj said, using patience like a tool that would grind results out of rock, given time enough. His mind showed him Suzette's body torn by a volley from the Gendarmerie troopers, as the conspirators found Barholm's inner apartments barred and locked; he forced it away with a monstrous effort of will. You've made your decisions, he told himself. Now don't waste it. "My lord, we've very little time. I presume the armored car is still in readiness?"

Barholm drew a deep breath, nodded. "In the level above the subbasement," he said. "There are, there are jewels and . . . it's fueled for 100 kilometers, the gate there gives directly onto the corniche road." The Old Tower had originally been the heart of East Residence's defenses, and it was still on the seaward edge of the city proper. "We can, we can get away to the Settler, he'd, ah, there's . . . ah, he'd protect us, I've done him favors in the past and—"

"My lord, the Settler is dead," Raj said tightly. "You may recall, I sent you his head packed in alcohol about a month ago? But we can—"

"Stay exactly where we are!"

Anne, Lady Clerett, knew the value of an entrance. She had taken the time to dress in the full regalia of a Governor's Lady, down to the high tiara and the skirt split at the front and trailing behind half a dozen paces; she blazed with the jewels of her state . . . and Raj could see no fear in her face, no fear at all. An anger as huge as any he had ever seen, yes.

"Barholm Clerett," she continued. "I didn't claw my way out of the gutter—or marry you—to wear a veil and live in a villa on the Colonial Gulf. Or to run away! That's always your answer, isn't it, Barholm; whenever something goes wrong suddenly, you run. My protector found us in bed, and you jumped out the window and ran naked into the street, for all the city to see and laugh! The mob tried to throw you out and put one of those Poplanich worms on the Chair, and you wanted to run then; you'd be running still, if I hadn't locked you in your room until you gave the order to send in the troops. And now you want to run again, you worm, well I'll show you how a Governor should die, you coward, because I'll die here in the Palace, I'll set it on fire to be my funeral pyre before I'll lose everything again!"

Bravo, curtain call, Raj thought; but there was a quality in Anne's face that was as daunting as a Colonist charge, in its way. The pistol she waved was a toy, a gold and nielo orchid in steel, but there was almost certainly a round up the spout . . . and she might just decide to kill Barholm and herself; this was the sort of trembling intensity of spirit capable of anything.

"And you!" she said, wheeling on Raj. "I—" The frenzy drained out of her expression, replaced by a smile. "Well, of course you don't mean to run away, General Whitehall. You know we can win, the Army can't be all in on it . . . these walls are impregnable, we can hold out for a week or more, they'd have to blast the Old Tower off its foundations to harm it." Which was true enough. "The heliograph on the roof, we can summon loyal battalions from, oh, the coast provinces, from Descott if we have to."

And there will be civil war anyway, Raj thought sickly. If the plotters were given time to consolidate their hold on the Palace. Wait a minute, though, he thought suddenly. They must have thought of that, they know Anne, too—


* * *

and Raj recognized the Tower, glowing in solitary perfection. The viewpoint swooped in, down to the basement; all the walls were glowing, now, and a dozen mysterious transparent tubes pierced the floor. Time blurred forward; the light faded from all except the ceiling, and the transparent pipes stood empty and dusty. Men came and sledged them out; they laid brick over the opalescent material of the floor, over the conduits . . . that stretched down into the main sewers. Much later, and other men came, spanning the high chamber with beams to divide it into two stories; they laid stone tile over the beams, and built a trapdoor through it. He was suddenly in the sewer itself; men crouched there, in the uniforms of the 2nd Gendarmerie. There were pry bars and sledges in their hands, carbide lamps to show the circles of brick above their heads. One was setting up a stepladder . . .

* * *

"There's a way in from below," Raj said. Anne wheeled to stare at him narrow-eyed. "From the sewers into the level below the main floor, into the storage area." Where the armored car was kept, ready to drive up its ramp and through the gates. "They will . . . that is, they're probably planning to break up through the . . . bricked-in areas, into the chamber with the armored car. There'll be no stopping them after that, the floor over that is rafters and they can break through that, too, and we can't close the staircases in the main section of the Tower."

"Are you a coward, too?" Anne asked, half-raising the gun. "Use the cannon in the car, shoot them, kill them."

"Lady Anne," Raj said desperately: how to explain to someone with no experience of actual combat? Although her instincts can't be faulted, certainly. "My lady, that cannon, it won't depress . . . bend down, enough to hit the floor at all. And once we've blocked the main entrances to the Tower, when they come through the floor they'll do it a hundred strong or more we couldn't . . ." He held up a hand. "Wait. Wait. There is a way." He looked over at the arc lights that could flood the larger rooms with the extra light needed for spectacle.

Hope blossomed on Barholm's face as he explained, and an avidness on Anne's. Raj kept his own as impersonal as a machine; his mind also, focusing on the means and not what they would do.

"Come on, Gerrin," he said after Barholm nodded furiously. "We've got work to do and not much time to do it in. M'lewis, hold the fort."

* * *

The end of the pry bar struck through the bricks almost without resistance. They must have scratched out the mortar days ago, then supported it with a circle of planks, Raj realized, and drew his pistol.

"Gerrin!" he shouted. "Time, Gerrin, time!"

The bricks fell downward, a circle of darkness lit by the flicker of lamps. He rested his hands on the riveted hull of the armored car and fired, the flash orange in the dim light of the subbasement. A scream from below, and the lights retreated.

"Thirty seconds more, Raj." Gerrin's voice, in the uninflected tone of a man concentrating on a task that requires mind and hands both.

"Whitehall, it's over!" Stanson's voice, and there was a thumping all around the floor, as iron beat on unweakened brick. A crack and clatter, and the bricks over another conduit gave, trembling and then falling back as the mortar went to powder.

"Raj!" Des Poplanich's voice, desperately earnest. "I don't want you hurt; nobody will be hurt, but you mustn't be, you belong with us, not that murdering usurper Clerett."

"Whitehall, don't worry, we need you," Stanson continued. "Everyone's agreed you get the Field Force command on the western border, for as long as you want it." More hammering, and the grinding sound of brick shifting. "Nobody can say you didn't go the second kilometer for your oath, Whitehall, but it's over."

Raj thought he heard a reluctant admiration in the other man's voice, impossible to tell whether it was for Raj's courage or the skill he had used to deceive.

"Raj, it's done," Gerrin said.

He fired again, and both men broke for the ladder; the trapdoor tumbled back, and so did a servant who dropped the marble statuette in his hands with a shriek at the sight of Raj's face, streaked with oil and sweat.

"Just what I need, to be brained by a fucking butler," he snarled, as Gerrin rolled out of the entrance. The clatter of bricks below gave way to the stamp of men's feet, the sound of the steel butt-plate of a rifle ringing off the armored car's hull.

Have to get them into position, Raj thought. He fired through the trapdoor, and a huge volley answered it; there must be a hundred men or more below, all the troops Stanson and the other conspirators could trust to actually do the deed and not just accept the results. They would be the core of the plot; he could hear Stanson's voice, Des Poplanich's, others with Messerclass accents. Boots kicked aside brass shell casings.

"Messer," somebody said below. "There's something funny here. . . . I think this is a siphon—"

"Ser?" M'lewis asked from across the room. His hand was on the knife-switch of the arc lights, the one that lit the subbasement below. Supernal light from the glowing ceiling shone on his gold teeth, on the feral tension in his eyes.

Gerrin's gaze met his commander's, holding an identical distaste. Raj straightened. It was his decision, his responsibility.

"Now," he said. M'lewis threw the switch. Current surged, through the power leads and into the great barrel Raj and his Companion had tipped on its side, filled with the coal-oil fuel of the armored car, backed with a powder charge from the ammunition of its cannon. The improvised flame fougasse sprayed across the men packed beneath the trapdoor.



* * *

and the troopers of the 2nd were sitting outside the door of the apartments, hands sullenly on their necks as the panels swung wide and she flung herself toward him—

* * *

and the first volley from the men he led caught the 2nd's men in the back as they sniped at the barricade of furniture inside the apartments, and Foley was grinning as he rose from behind it, Muzzaf by his side and Suzette was pushing between them, her face lighting as she saw—

* * *

probability of harm to lady Whitehall too slight for meaningful calculation. Was there a tinge of mercy in the implacable voice?

Raj opened his eyes again. Barholm Clerett was standing, shaking his fists in the air; the fear was gone from his face, leaving a triumph that was far less pleasant to see. Lady Anne was by his side, reaching out one hand to touch him as if he was a talisman.

"I will rule the world, all of it, all of it, the Spirit of Man has decreed it."

Yes, thought Raj sickly. And I'm sworn to conquer it for him. May my soul find mercy.

"My lord," he said, "we'd better go upstairs. This floor will probably collapse."

Even with the trapdoor closed, the screams were quite audible.

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