Cover Prologue 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

 

On the Oceans of Eternity

by S.M. Stirling   <joatsimeon@aol.com>

 


CHAPTER SEVEN:

 

Colonel O'Rourke had to admit that Barnes and her people didn't waste time. The frenzy of work around the little base had died down by the dawn, barely fourteen hours after his arrival.

O'Rourke joined the line of Marines waiting for their breakfasts; regulations were that officers ate the same food as the troops in the field. For that matter, they ate much the same food at a base, save for social occasions, but in a different mess, for discipline's sake.

He took a small loaf of fresh barley bread and a chunk of hard white cheese, and held out his mess tin. The cook scooped it full of barley porridge; they'd managed to find rasins for it, and some honey for sweetener. His nose twitched at the smells; it had been a long time since dinner, and that had been a couple of hardtack crackers and a strip of jerky with everyone busy pitching in to get the defenses ready. The outer wall made a good perch; he straddled it and set the food down, tearing the loaf apart. Steaming-hot from the improvised clay ovens it was good enough to eat easily without butter despite the coarse heavy texture, and went well with the cheese. He spooned up the porridge, washing it down with draughts of cold water; a good tube well had been the first thing the combat engineers had put in here.

The smells went well with the fresh clarity of early morning, and he watched the purple shadows running down the slopes of the hills and lifting from the dark pines on the higher shoulders. Now, wouldn't this be a terrible day to die, he thought. There were a lot of things he hadn't done yet... Or maybe it would be a very good one.

Captain Barnes and Hantilis came to join him. The Hittite had joined in the work readily enough, which did him credit.

"I am puzzled," Hantilis said, between bites -- the porridge was good, if not as good as it would have been with brown sugar and cream. The Republic's forces went places where supplies were short, but at least the cooks would reliably do their best with them. "You work side-by-side with common soldiers, yet they obey you more promptly than my own warriors would -- my real warriors, I mean, not those Kaska dogs. How can soldiers obey you, if they do not fear you as one placed on high above them, a man favored of the Gods?"

Cecilie chuckled. "Oh, they're afraid of their officers, all right," she said. O'Rourke helped with the translation; Barnes had no Hittite and very little Akkadian. "And even more, their sergeants."

"We're Marines," O'Rourke amplified. "We're all a band of brothers...

"And sisters," Barnes put in.

"And sisters. But some of us are elder brothers, as it were. Everyone works, everyone fights, and everyone does what their superiors tell them to do."

Hantilis shook his head in puzzlement. They finished and scoured their pannikins gleaming clean; the noncoms were checking that everyone did likewise, which was one important way to avoid food poisoning and assorted belly-complaints.

"I'm off to sluice down while I have a chance," Barnes said.

O'Rourke nodded distantly. The bustle about the little base faded; he was going to feel rather embarassed if nothing happened... but it was better to be over-prepared than under-.

Hantilis' head came up. A moment later the Nantucketer heard it as well.

"That can't be a steam engine," O'Rourke said. It was too far away, and too big. His head turned towards the lookout post higher up the mountain slope to the south.

@@@

"I don't think much of the soil here," Private Vaukel Telukuo said. He dug his bayonet into the turf beside him and ripped up a handful, looking critically at the dry reddish dirt that clung to its roots. "Too dry -- not much weight to it, if you know what I mean."

He was a tall sallow young man, dark of hair and eye, with a big nose and long bony jaw. His companion's name on the rolls was Johanna Gwenhaskieths. He doubted that was anything her parents had given her; gwenha simply meant 'woman' in the tongue of the eastern tribes, and skieths was 'shield'. Shield-woman probably meant something like female warrior, which was odd when you considered that among the charioteers such weren't merely rare, as they were among the Earth Folk, but except in stories virtually unknown.

Unknown until the Eagle People came, he corrected himself.

Johanna was peering down the huge sweep of hillside below them, occasionally raising the field-glasses they'd been issued when they were put on outpost duty; she was several inches shorter than he, her cropped hair so fair it was almost invisible, narrow eyes a cold gray.

"Nothing so far," she said, and then dug a heel into the ground to reply to his first remark. "Not much like the fat black earth where I was born either... but you don't have to farm it, Vauk."

"Ah, well, I thought I was tired of farming," he said mildly. "Boring I thought it was, you know? Sailing to Nantucket, that was interesting, and Babylon. But this soldiering, it's boring too. And I miss my cattle."

"I can stand boring," she said; where his voice gave English a singsong burbling lilt, hers was choppy and hard. "They were going to bury me face down in a peat-bog, with a forked hazel branch over my neck to keep my ghost from walking. So walk I did, by night, to the Cross-God mission station. The priestess there got me into the Corps." She crossed herself. "Honor to Him of the Cross, and His Father and Mother."

"Now why would anyone do such a thing?" Vaukel said indignantly. "Drown you in a bog, that is."

Johanna chuckled. "For spreading my thighs for a fine upstanding young warrior rather than a fat old man who had seven cows to give my father," she said. "And here I am, with all the fine upstanding young warriors I could want, being one myself, and nobody to send me to the bog... what's that?"

They both frowned and looked westwards. The sound was a deep rumbling beat, echoing off the hillsides and cliffs about them. "Sounds like..." Vaukel said slowly. "Sounds like a drum, doesn't it?"

"The drum of a God," Johanna said. "Or one of those machines of steam." She brought the glasses up again, then blurted out a half-sentence in her birth-tongue. In English: "Message to the base --"

When it was over and the reply came they snatched up their rifles, then the tripod with its tilt-mounted mirror that flashed coded sunlight. Vaukel put it over his shoulder, and they bounded and ran and nearly fell as they tumbled down the steep slopes and then across the flat, running for the barley-sack ramparts of the little outpost.

"What's up?" one of the pickets called to them.

Vaukel pointed westward. "Here they come!" he yelled. "Spears like stars on water, and thicker than the grass!"

@@@

"I wish we could just elope," Justin Clemens said, dodging a rush of liquid garbage from a narrow second-story window.

The movement was a little jerky with nervousness. He consciously controlled his breathing; meeting prospective in-laws was bad enough, worse when they were foreign, worse still when you knew they and your fiancée had been feuding for years.

"Then we would not be married -- not by the laws of the Land of Kar-Duniash," said Azzu-ena, daughter of Mutu-Hadki, asu-healer of the Palace.

He knew that brisk tone fairly well, by now. It was eighteen months since she'd talked him into taking her on as an apprentice, and two since he'd convinced her to marry him.

And ten years going on eleven since the Event. Focus, you fool! he thought. She went on:

"I will not let my uncle and his she-demon grasp everything that was my father's in their claws; their children I would not grudge it to, the little ones who love their cousin, but I will settle what they receive. And those two would neglect the funerary offerings for my father. Bad enough that he had no sons to make them. Come, betrothed, come."

"Oh, all right," Clemens grumbled, wiping his face with his bandana; weather on the banks of the Euphrates was not easy for a man inclined to a slight plumpness, even getting on towards winter. This sun wasn't easy on the naturally pink, either; his floppy canvas campaign hat was welcome, and so was the shade of the blank-walled two-story buildings that lined the narrow twisting laneway. It didn't help that he'd had to leave off shaving for the last two weeks, but everyone told him that it would be impossible to go into a marriage-contract discussion looking like a smooth-cheeked eunuch. The resultant growth was a bit lighter than the cropped sun-streaked brown hair on his head, which made him even more conspicuous. Plus it itched and caught sweat.

Nantucketers were no longer so rare in the streets of Babylon that they attracted a crowd -- small children following along, yes, and stares, pointed fingers, more than a few gestures to avert the Evil Eye and baleful magic, hands gripping amulets or small images of the gods. Clemens looked about as he walked; he was more familiar with the everyday city than most of the Islander expeditionary force, since he'd been in charge of stopping the smallpox epidemic. This was still very different from the Palace quarter where he spent most of his time when not in the field or down at the Republic's outpost, Ur Base, near the mouth of the Euphrates. The street was narrow, twisting, deep in shadow and in dust at the tail end of summer, doubtless a quagmire of mud in the infrequent winter rains. An irregular trickle of noisome sewage ran down the middle and insect-buzzing heaps of rubbish lay whereever a householder had dumped them.

Skinny feral dogs wound among the crowds, and an occasional pig even more lean and savage rooted among the offal; most Semites of this era had no taboo on hog-products -- though considering what the beasts ate, the Nantucketer very much wished they did. Most houses had a drain through their front walls, adding their trickle to the mess; Clemens hopped or strode over the rivulets as he walked, brushing at the omnipresent flies. The stink he'd gotten used to, mostly, but his doctor's skin crawled at the thought of the germs swarming around him like a host of the invisible fever demons the locals believed in.

Which, come to think of it, is a pretty good metaphor for the disease environment here, he thought. That was what happened when you crammed two hundred thousand people and a total ignorance of public hygiene together in a few hundred stagnant, blistering-hot acres.

The smell wasn't as bad as the horror he felt every time they brushed past a water-seller, though, bulging goatskin slung over one shoulder, cups on a bandolier over the other, crying his wares in a nasal falsetto. That water came from the canals that bisected the city, drawn directly from the same river that eventually swallowed what was running down the center of the streets. It wasn't enough to tell people about bacteria, even when they believed you. There wasn't any clean water to be had, or soap, and most couldn't afford a change of clothing anyway.

Azzu-Ena strode along nimbly beside him, one hand holding the hem of her robe up out of the road and the other pulling her shawl up beneath her chin; once she stopped to drop a packet of dried dates in the bowl of an emaciated blind beggar leaning against a wall -- with no equivalent of small change, food was what you gave if you were feeling charitable. She smiled and nodded and answered greetings from passersby that were shy and awkward only because of the foreigner beside her. Her father had lived all his life in this neighborhood, the babtum -- city-ward -- of Mili-la-El, near the Eastern Gate of the great city. She'd earned most of her living in the Palace, where her sex made her a favored medical attendant among the King's women, but she also tended to the needs of many of her neighbors, as her father had done before her. His ancient assistant tottered at her heels with the basket of healing tools.

So respect for his bride helped to clear a path for Clemens, as much as his alien features and uniform and the dreaded fire-weapon at his belt. Everyone knew where they were bound and why; apart from the rumor telegraph, there weren't many other reasons for a man and woman to head for the woman's relatives with a scribe in tow. Murmured good wishes followed them, and good-natured jibes at the scribe and the scribe's assistant; the portly man with the jointed waxed boards and bronze stylus of his craft nodded benignly. The skinny apprentice carrying the heavier clay just sweated.

When a train of loaded donkeys came by, everyone had to crowd the walls; their panniers nearly brushed the buildings on either side. And swaggering thick-armed toughs with cudgels and jutting curled beards flanked the robed merchant who rode with his feet nearly touching the ground at the head of the line. When the animals passed the jostling crowd returned; pushing, chaffering, shouting, here a snatch of nasal twanging song, there a storyteller squatting at an intersection reciting the deeds of Gilgamesh and pausing until the audience tossed bits of metal or beads or handfuls of dried fruit into his bowl; a public writer waving his reed stylus above a bucket of damp clay and shouting of his skill; a hideously deformed beggar showing his sores and whining for alms...

Every few hundred yards the blank housefronts gave way to a cluch of tiny shops, their fronts spilling into the streets and long narrow rooms streching back into mysterious gloom. They held cloth, flour, dates, vegetables, heaped pottery, fly-buzzing meat and poultry and fish, the clangorous noise and sparks of a bronzesmithy breathing furnace-heat onto their faces for a moment, or the brick counter of a foodstall where men ate onions, bread, cucumbers, fried fish and slices of grilled meat from clay bowls. In another stall a barber wielded a curved bronze razor as he trimmed a man's beard, while rods heated ready on a brazier to give it a stylish close curl. Despite his jangling nerves, Clemens halted for a moment to watch a jeweller at work, hands tapping out a thing of beauty in gold leaf and carnelian amid trays that displayed silver cuff-bracelets, bangles, earrings and necklaces. Terracotta figurines on either side of a doorway marked a chapel, where you could stop for a moment in the courtyard to pray and scatter a handful of flour for luck.

The roar of noise held few wheels or hooves in these narrow ways. Most of it was human voices, breaking into arm-waving shouting argument and dying away into equally quick laughter, calling for alms, screaming out the virtues and incredibly low cost of their wares; near-naked laborers grunting for passage as they bent double under huge burdens of cloth or flour or cakes of dried dates, or a barefoot slave with his hair in the distinctive topknot required by law asking his way with a strong foreign accent. A drunk reeled by making attempts at song that would have been hideous even if Babylonian music didn't sound like a cat in a washing machine, priests in tassled cloaks chanted, housewives balanced the day's shopping or a water jug on their heads, scarcely a one not chattering and gesturing as she walked, squealing children ran in packs...

Dress for both sexes was a short-sleeved wool tunic, anything from knee to ankle-length for men but always long for women. Working men wore theirs just above the knee, girded about with a belt-like sash. This was a district where most dwellers were awelum, free townsmen of comfortable means; the odd man of wealth went robed to his sandals, with a fringed cloak wrapped about his upper body, the length of cloth and the embroidery and fringe of tassels being a mark of rank. Women always covered their legs, and the more respectable their heads as well, usually with a long cloak or shawl that might be drawn across the face. Most cloth was faded, muted grays and browns, but the exceptions were gaudily flamboyant in blue, crimson, yellow, stripes and dots and bands; jewellry was frequent, a family's store of wealth as well as display; hardly a free woman went without a clutch of lucky silver bracelets in groups of six.

And not a street sign or house number, Clemens thought, thoroughly lost. I suppose you have to be born here to really know it. An eeriness went beneath everything; he was watching -- walking through -- scenes dead and dust three thousand years and more when he was born. And without us, it would have gone on like this for thousands of years to come. Now -- In a century or two, who knows? It could be suburbs and satellite dishes here, or factories... or a nuclear bomb crater, I suppose.

"This is my uncle's house," Azzu-Ena said. Eyes peered at them over the high blank wall, then vanished hurridly.

"Go, go, knock and require them to open," Azzu-Ena went on with a shooing motion, smiling indulgently at him.

He smiled back. God, you could drown in those eyes, he thought happily.

"Go, knock," she said again, starting him out of a happy daze.

She's all ears when I'm teaching, Clemens thought ruefully. But a lot of the rest of the time, you'd think I wasn't fit to be let out without a keeper. Of course, he wasn't, when it came to the intricacies of law and custom among a people wholly foreign.

A Babylonian would have used his walking-stick to knock. Clemens rapped with his knuckles on the plain rough poplar-wood of the doorway, swallowing through a throat gone dry.

"Hi, I'm --"

"This is the servant of the doorway," Azzu-Ena hissed in her thickly accented English. "Remember!"

"Oh, yeah," Clemens muttered.

The doorway gave into a small vestibule, cool and dim; it was a relief when the doors swung shut behind them, closing out the noise and much of the stink of the city streets. The servant -- a slave, actually, from his topknot -- knelt and removed the sandals of the guests, bathing their feet in a clay basin and wiping them clean before fitting straw slippers. That was a luxury, but guests got the best any household had.

Clemens' issue boots stopped him cold, and the boy gave a shy smile when the Islander demonstrated how to undo the lacings. The socks beneath caused exclamations of wonder; he had to admit that the cool water felt good on his feet after the walk. The boy bowed them through another door, into the central courtyard of the house.

Hmmm. Not bad.

Uncle Tab-sa-Dayyan was a wholesale dealer in copper and other goods, who also owned houses in the city and land outside it; upper middle class, by local standards, much more respectable than his scapegrace brother the doctor had been. Asu -- physician -- wasn't a particularly exalted trade among Akkadians, although it did require literacy and hence wasn't common labor. A physician concerned himself mainly the physical side of disease; mere treating of symptoms, to the Babylonian way of thinking. Only priests and magicians could come at the true, supernatural causes.

The house had a first story of baked brick set in asphalt mortar, and a second of adobe laid in clay; both were plastered and whitewashed. More brick paved the courtyard around the central drain. Around the walls ran a yard-wide gallery on wooden pillars, date-palm wood from the look of it. Doors or cloth curtains marked off rooms. The family's chambers were on the second floor; this ground level held utility and servants' quarters, together with the little family shrine at the back -- he was uneasily aware that the family's dead would be buried beneath that -- and the diwan where guests would be entertained and spend the night, and the ablution room. These Babylonians weren't a dirty people, really. Everything was swept and tidy.

And there are my prospective in-laws. He swallowed again. Come on, Justin, you're marrying her, not all of them. Buck up, man. Show some backbone.

Tab-sa-Dayyan himself was a man of fifty or so, plumply healthy and looking to have most of his teeth, in flowerpot hat and densely embroidered robe, his sandals studded with bronze, his curled hair and beard mostly gray. On a family matter such as this his wife stood beside him. Her robe was even more elaborate, and she wore a heavy broad necklace and a headdress of silver and faience on her grizzled black mane; she was mostly toothless, and her lips worked over the gums as she glared at him out of beady black eyes. Beside them stood their children, from the eldest son -- a solid family man himself -- down to a six-year-old peeking out shyly from behind an elder sibling. Four living, which probably meant the wife had born eight or ten; infant mortality here was dreadful. Azzu-ena was the only surviving child of four herself.

"Come, be a guest beneath my roof," Tab-sa-Dayyan said, after they had invoked the gods and inquired as to each other's health, the health of their relatives and the other matters the manners of the ancient East required; the tone was much less friendly than the words. "You will eat bread and drink beer with me, and we will speak."

The guest-room was about ten feet by fifteen, undoubtedly the largest in the house; the furniture consisted of low built-in benches against the walls covered with rugs, cushions, and a low table of inlaid wood; it looked almost as pretty as the ones in the palace, except that a corner had been broken off and patched back on. Abundant chairs were an exotic luxury for the very rich, here. A middle-aged woman, who was probably the mother of the boy at the door and half the servants of Tab-sa-Dayyan's household, brought in jugs of beer, straws to drink it with, rounds of flat barley-bread like a coarse pita and bowls of oddments. Clemens found the sour coolness of the beer welcome -- and the fermentation ought to take care of the bacteria in the water, at that. Azzu-ena broke off a piece of bread, scooped up a paste of ground chickpeas, sesame oil and garlic, and handed him some.

He nibbled. Now I'm officially a guest. That ensured at least a certain degree of courtesy.

Tab-sa-Dayyan rested his hands on the knees of his crossed legs. "So -- I had not expected to see this day." He shook his head; he also spoke slowly and a little loudly, evidently making allowances for the barbarian wizard's limited Akkadian. Clemens shoved down a slight irritation; he'd spent endless months drilling, and Azzu-ena told him that he was fully fluent, if weirdly and thickly accented. At least the Babylonian wasn't making protective signs.

"Irregular, most irregular -- Mutu-Hadki my brother was not a wise man," the merchant said. "He should have arranged the matter of my niece's marriage and dowry before her death -- she was already of marriageable age," he added sourly. A glint of hope: "You do know, honored Clemens son of Edgar, that Azzu-ena is well beyond the usual age of a bride? Most of her best childbearing time is past. She has twenty-six years -- nearly twenty-seven..."

"Yes, I am aware of that," Clemens said dryly. He was also aware that they'd pressured her to either move in with them or become a naditum, a woman sworn to a temple and forbidden to bear children; it meant 'God's daughter-in-law', literally. Either way her uncle's family would get the use of her property while she lived, or at least ownership of it when she died without issue.

Azzu-ena tugged at his sleeve, and he cleared his throat and turned to the scribe who sat silent, smiling faintly. Scribe didn't mean just clerk; the scribal schools taught law, literature, architecture and mathematics as well. A scribe was also the closest thing the kingdom of Kar-Duniash had to a notary public.

"Yes," the scribe said, and held out a hand without looking around. His assistant-apprentice stopped wolfing the refreshments and fumbled in his basket, handing a clay tablet six inches by four to his master. The older man took it and scanned the chicken-track rows of cuneiform, holding the tablet at a slant so that the light from the door would hit the edges of the wedge-shaped marks.

"Yes," he said again, then cleared his throat and read in a sing-song, listing the regnal year at the top of the document -- the second year of Shagarakti-Shuriash -- and continuing:

"_one sar sixteen gin of built house, in the Street of the Diviners near the temple of Lugalbanda and between the houses of Igmilum the silversmith and Sallurum the leather-worker; one sar waste ground, one cow called Taribatum, if surviving; one chest of healer's tools, marked with the sign of Ninurta, one chest seven jars of herbs, labelled; three bushels of dry bitumen; one wooden door, of cedarwood; one wicker door; three bolts cloth of -"

The list went on; all that her father had acquired in a not particularly prosperous lifetime. It ended with: "-- all the goods to be inherited by my daughter Azzu-ena as hers for her life and as her seriktum-dowry in the day of her marriage; to descend to her children or on her death childless to pass to my brother Tab-sa-Dayyan and his sons. Sworn in the temple of Ishtar, witnessed by Ah-kalla, cultic official; Lu-Nanna, priest; Uselli son of Ku-Ningal, Sig-ersetim son of Silli-Ema; and the judge Ellu-musu; 23rd day, Month of Sabatum, year Shagarakti-Shuriash King of Kar-Duniash smote the hosts of the Subartu."

The faces of her uncle and aunt had grown longer and longer as they listened to the catalogue of property they had confidently expected to inherit themselves, or at least pass to their children. At the end of the discussion they glanced at each other.

"Still, most irregular," Tab-sa-Dayyan said. "Where is the go-between, the negotiations between myself and the groom's family, the --"

"Excuse me if I, an ignorant foreigner, offend," Clemens cut in. By local standards, he has a point. Marriage here was a link between kindreds, not just individuals. "My parents are dead, and none of my kin reside in this city. In my own land I am an awelum --" which was as close as you could get to citizen in this language; it had originally meant nobleman, and had worked its way down to 'mister', just as 'mister' had "-- and of age, and so authorized to deal in this matter."

The scribe nodded. "There is precedent. The law-stele of Hammurabi -"

Clemens thought for a moment as the man went on that his own Akkadian wasn't as good as he thought, until he saw that the locals were equally baffled; evidently legalese was another universal constant of civilization.

"-- and so, as long as the marriage follows form, in this case the parties have the right to act for themselves. I will admit that it is unsual, most unusual, but not unprecedented, no, not by any means. Not unknown for a widow to do so, for instance." The scribe's eyebrows rose. "Unless the worthy awelum Tab-sa-Dayyan son of Aham-Nirsi knows of an impediment?"

Tab-sa-Dayyan's wife spoke, a minor breech of protocol in itself:

"A bride who is not a widow or divorced must be a virgin!" she said triumphantly. "If a bride is not a virgin, a contract of engagement may be broken! Is it not so? This woman --" she pointed at Azzu-Ena "-- it was bad enough before, when she dwelt alone like a harlot save for those useless lazy slaves of her father's that should have been sold for what they would fetch years ago and she should have lived here, respectably, weaving for her kin. But for the past year and more, she has been travelling, unescorted, in the company of this -- this man, like a public woman of the streets!"

Clemens felt a sudden hot jet of anger, until he realized that Azzu-ena was shaking with supressed laughter. The scribe's assistant chortled audibly, Azzu-ena's father's helper hooted toothlessly, the scribe smiled, and Tab-Sa-Dayyan turned an interesting shade of angry purple.

"Worthy wife of the awelum," the scribe said gently. "That argument is usually raised by the groom's relatives who wish to break an engagement, not thrown at the bride by her kinfolk."

The woman gobbled, and Azzu-Ena leaned aside to take a tablet out of the satchel of the helper who had served her father, where it lay atop the bundled herbs and tools -- those including a stethescope, now.

"Most learned one, if you would read this?"

"I, Habannatum, who am of Marduk in the City of Babylon, in the first year of King Kashtiliash of Babylon, the year after the plague of the small pockmarks, swear by my Lord, with my hands clasped, that the woman Azzu-ena daughter of Mutu-Hadki is batultu, a virgin who has not known man. I swear this by my own testimony on examination, and by that of Sin-nada the midwife, in the presence of Ninurta-ra'im-zerim the judge."

Tab-sa-Dayyan gave a very faint groan and put a hand to his forehead; his wife sank back, glaring again. That gambit for disallowing the marriage wasn't going to work, obviously. Azzu-ena smiled sweetly and returned the tablet to her doctor's basket.

Her uncle spoke gravely: "I must know that this foreign gentleman is able to properly care for my niece. Has he no wife of his body in his home country, no children or household? If so --"

Clemens sighed, and settled down to work. Yes, I have no other wife. Yes, I am chief physician to the great general Lord Hollard -- whose sister married King Kashtiliash, may the Gods grant him many years and the increase of his realm -- and my wage is so-and-so many shekels weight of silver every month. In my homeland I own a house and land --

When they got to that stage he noticed a sudden perking of ears in the Tab-sa-Dayyan family. That turned into outright respect when he mentioned that his elder brother owned six hundred and forty acres of farmland in the Republic; when you translated that into Babylonian iku, it sounded formidable; the sort of holding a solid minor member of the landed gentry would have, a man capable of supporting a chariot-team, and a class at least one ratchet up from Tab-sa-Dayyan's.

He didn't feel he had to mention that most of it was uncleared temperate-zone climax forest on the Long Island frontier, and that his brother and family were working it with their own four hands and an occasional hired immigrant when they were lucky.

Tab-sa-Dayyan clapped his hands. "Woman! Bring date wine and strainers!"

Oh, Lord Jesus, Clemens thought as the middle-aged servant scurried back in -- the stuff tasted like alcoholic cough syrup. Still, it beat the earlier hostility. I suppose he isn't such a bad sort. A man has to look out for his own, here. You could fall an awfully long way if your luck turned bad. Apart from the charity of relatives, there was no safety net short of selling yourself into slavery or starving.

The scribe opened his set of jointed waxed boards. Those could be smoothed down and overwritten, which was why they were the medium used for first drafts of documents. "This is the riskatum," he said. The marriage-contract. "I will read the terms."

He did. Clemens swallowed, feeling his mouth dry again, and took a long gulp of the thick sweet drink. I'm doing it, I'm actually going through with it. Re-marriage; the triumph of hope over experience. And I'm marrying another doctor again. Enough people had told him he was being an idiot, for those and a dozen other reasons.

He glanced over at Azzu-ena. Her eyes shone in the dimness, and he fought down a grin; that wouldn't be seemly, to local eyes. He fought down an impulse to grab her and kiss her as well; that really wouldn't be seemly. The scribe cleared his throat, and Justin Clemens jumped.

"Oh, sorry," he said. "Here. The, ah, the terhatum, yes." The bride-price.

The little chamois bag was heavy, and it clinked. Azzu-ena's uncle took it, weighed it in his hand, took out one of the coins. Coined money was a novelty here, but the Republic's expeditionary force had been paying in it since they arrived in February of the Year Nine, a year and a half ago. The local merchant community was thoroughly familiar with it now, and with the fact that Nantucket's money was exactly as advertised in weight and fineness of precious metal. Tab-sa-Dayyan smiled broadly as he let some of the dime-sized silver coins trickle into his palm. It was more than enough to pay the groom's share of the marriage-feast; considerably more. And unlike a father giving a daughter in marriage, the dowry wasn't coming out of his pocket, just out of his prospects.

"I see that my prospective nephew-in-law is a man of substance, a man of honorable means," he said. "Indeed, it would be a sad thing if my brother Mutu-Hadki's seed were to altogether vanish, or live only in his brother's sons. May you live many years, with many children - the bride-price is accepted."

"Good," the scribe said dryly, shaking the cloth back from his right arm and taking up his stylus. "My clay would be spoiled, if we waited much longer."

His assistant took out a board with a slab of wet clay on it, its surface kept damp by a sodden cloth. He held the board up, turning it deftly as the scribe wrote with a wedge-headed bronze stylus. When the writing was done the scribe ran his seal across the bottom as witness and handed it to Tab-sa-Dayyan; the Akkadian merchant did the same, and handed it to Justin Clemens, who nearly dropped it. Then he fumbled in a pocket and brought out the seal he had commissioned for the occasion, a cylinder like the others worked in reverse relief. His bore a winged staff with a snake twined about it, the same as the branch-of-service flash on the shoulder of his khaki uniform.

"This is a duly executed contract," the scribe said. "My apprentice will make a copy --" The skinny youth had already brought out fresh clay, flicked a film of brick dust onto the board, formed a new tablet and was writing with fluid speed, using a cheaper stylus of cut reed. "Yes. Here, we will seal this as well. Compare them, that you may swear each is identical."

Clemens could no more have read Akkadian cuneiform than he could have flown to the moon, but he examined the chicken-track patterns of wedge-shaped marks gravely. One of the few advantages of clay tablets, though, was that they couldn't be altered after they dried; they made perfect legal documents.

"The contract is good," he said, echoed by Tab-sa-Dayyan. "I swear so, by the lives of the Gods Shamash and Marduk and Ishtar..."

"-- and Jesus," Clemens added on impulse.

"-- and by the life of the King."

Then the Nantucketer took the tablet of Azzu-ena's dowry and tucked it into the haversack attached to his webbing belt, wrapped in cloth beside his copy of the marriage contract. He turned to Azzu-ena, lifted the shawl from her shoulders and draped it over her hair, then took her hand between his.

"I will fill your lap with silver and gold. You are my wife. I am your husband."

She blinked back tears; even then he was astonished, a little. He'd seen her calm while they were doing triage sorting, with an occasional stray rocket-bomb landing near the hospital tent. Her voice was steady as she replied:

"I will do you good and not evil all your days. I am your wife. You are my husband."

The witnesses cheered. The scribe nodded and quoted, this time from memory:

"If a man hold a feast and make a contract with her father and mother -- or other kin, in this case -- and take her, she is a wife." He smiled benignly. "So is the law laid down, from the days before the Flood. He is her husband. She is his wife."

Clemens felt himself grinning. There seemed to be a buzzing in his ears as well. And this was it. Oh, there was the kirrum, the marriage-feast, and about a month of parties and ceremonies for luck, and they'd certainly have one of the chaplains do an Islander ceremony; but by local law, it was the agreement of the families and the announcement before witnesses that made the marriage valid.

Damn, this feels good. Azzu-ena looked at him, blushed, looked away. And it's going to feel even better.

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The skipper of the Merrimac had guessed what was intended for his ship from the cargo delivered to her in Westhaven, the armor and steam-engine and cannon. He was part-owner -- about a one-sixteenth share -- but from his expression it would take more than compensation-money from the government to make up for what was going to happen to her. The coal-smoke from the side-wheeler tug towing them out into the Severn estuary was no blacker than his mood, and the mournful steam whistle no gloomier than his tone.

"I hope you didn't pick her because of her name," he said to Marian Alston, after he'd introduced his first and second mates -- son-in-law and nephew respectively. Formally they were Reserve Lieutenants Stendin and Clammp, now that the ship and crew had been called up for military service.

"No, it wasn't the name," she said, feeling a sympathy that it would be patronizing to show; besides, she wasn't a demonstrative woman. "If anything, the reverse." At his look she went on: "Macy consulted with us on the design for this class."

Historic marine architecture had been a hobby of hers before the Event; afterwards it was useful in the extreme. Nantucket had also held plenty of documentation, plus experienced boatbuilders whose skills could be scaled up with a little experimentation and a few embarassing, expensive failures to pay for unexpected gaps in their knowledge. The craft that followed the fuming steam-tug away from the squared-log piers of Westhaven's harbor, under the guns of Fort Pentagon, was the latest fruit of that ongoing collaboration. Alston's eye swept her long sleek lines with a pleasure that held more than a tinge of sadness, knowing her fate.

And only a single voyage across the Atlantic, poor bitch, she thought; the slight working of the hull against the tug's pull seemed to bespeak an eagerness to be away --

The design wasn't quite as sleek as the Guard's frigates; it was modeled on the Down Easters of the last years of the great age of sail, the two decades after the Civil War. It was still long and lean, a smooth curve two hundred and forty feet from rounded stern to hollow-cheeked knife bows and long bowsprit, forty foot in the beam amidships, with three towering masts square-rigged save for the jibs, staysails and a gaff mizzen. The long sweep of the ninety-foot poop was unbroken save for a low deckhouse before the wheels. In the waist were four cannon on a side, eighteen-pounders sold as surplus by the Guard when Leaton started delivering his cast-steel Dalghrens, just the sort of thing for convincing a Bronze Age chief not to try ripping off the foreign merchants. The hold was twenty feet deep --

"Lovely ship," she said sincerely. "I'm glad Macey's building more."

You can go anywhere with a ship like this, she thought. Anywhere, with over a thousand tons of cargo -- the Merrimac displaced forteen hundred tons -- and fast, as well. Four hundred miles a day with a strong following wind, and careful design had made her an economical ship. Twenty-five hands could sail her 'round the world, or fight her if some local Big Man in an outrigger canoe decided to get unpleasant, or repair any but the most extreme damage anywhere there was wood and a quiet cove.

I feel like a murderer, knowing what they're going to do to her. Her mouth quirked in an expression that was half bitterness; sending beautiful youngsters into harm's way wasn't anything new, at least.

"Carry on, then, Mr. Clammp," she said, feeling the swell of the rivermouth giving way to the harder chop of the Bristol Channel.

"Aye aye, Commodore," he said. "We'll be joining the fleet in Portsmouth Water before the end of the week.

He turned to the rail. "Prepare to cast off," he said quietly. Then, louder: "Lay aloft and loose all sail!"

@@@

"John Iraiinanasson," the rahax of the Iraiina said in English, extending his hand. "An honor, Commodore Alston-Kurlelo. Lieutenant-Commander Kurlelo-Alston."

"The Republic thanks you for your people's cooperation," Alston said politely, taking the hand. It was strong but soft against the sword-callus on hers, the nails neatly trimmed and clean.

Inwardly, she blinked a little. The mannerly smooth-shaven young man with his spectacles, brown crew-cut hair, pants and jacket, laced shoes and tiny silver crucifix on a chain around his neck, faint smell of soap... Is Daurthunnicar's great-nephew, she remembered. A boy of eight or so when Eagle had arrived in Alba, right after the Event, and 'guest' -- hostage -- in Nantucket Town for three years after that.

She remembered too the sprawling, stinking, brawling chaos of the Iraiina camp where she'd dropped anchor not far from here in the Year One, the barbaric finery and forked beards, the bronze axes and chariots and bellowing war-horns, scrub and meadow and wildwood beyond. Invaders from the mainland only a year before the Event, the Iraiina had lost most of their land except for a patch around the Base in the post-war settlement. They'd put the advice of their mentors to enthusiastic use, though.

Now the land outside the five-sided fort that guarded Portsmouth Base was a checkerboard of neat fields colored straw-yellow, furrow-brown, pasture-green. They were divided by good graveled roads and surrounded by growing hawthorn hedges, well-tended woodlots, houses of white-painted frame and plank or dark brick, red hip-roofed barns. They centered on a thriving hamlet built in New England style, steepled church and four-square Meetinghouse and school around a green, houses set among gardens beside a grid of streets, workshops and warehouses under the gates of the Base and down by the docks.

In fact, the shrunken teuatha of the Noble Ones had become the most eager of all the Sun People tribes to learn the new ways. They'd converted en masse to the Ecumenical Christianity -- not being pleased with how their own Gods had treated them -- and in recent years had produced a number of home-grown priests and missionaries for the Church, often of a terrifying earnestness. The Iraiina had contributed more than their share of recruits for the Guard and crewfolk for Nantucketer vessels, too, and many did stints as temporary workers back on the Island. According to the Intelligence reports they'd even taken to holding Town Meetings, conducted in English with clerks of their own writing down the minutes and women allowed to vote. Perhaps the thoroughness of their defeat had helped. The Iraiina had lost most of their fighting-men during the Alban War; they'd been Walker's first followers here when he arrived in the autumn of the Year One, and suffered cruelly for it. A fair number of the survivors had fled with Walker and his Tartessian ally after the Battle of the Downs, and some of the remainder had ended up in Nantucket, children particularly. A leven of those had returned to settle here after years in the Republic, like yeast in bread.

Slightly to Marian's surprise, Swindapa willingly shook the young chief's hand -- or perhaps mayor would be a better word. Only someone who knew her well could have detected the chilly edge to her smile.

"That was good of you," Marian said softly, when they'd walked past the local welcoming party and were among the uniformed Islanders beyond.

"No, it wasn't. It was cruel," Swindapa said.

Marian made an interrogative sound, and the Fiernan continued: "Blood isn't the best revenge. Not on a whole people; that's how swan-eating savages like the Sun People think. The men who hurt me are dead; how could hurting their children sooth my heart? But in a generation or two the Iraiina will be gone, as if they had never been -- they'll be Eagle People -- and they will have done it to themselves. I am well avenged."

There are always new depths to you, Alston thought, shaking her head slightly, then turning to look out over the base.

The tented camps were mostly down now, and there were a good thirty sail riding at anchor in Portsmouth Base's harbor. Five of them were major warships, Lincoln-class clipper-frigates, just under a thousand tons, with twenty-four eight-inch Dalghrens each, and half a dozen smaller armed schooners. They rode at anchor in deeper water, decks shining and sails furled, the diagonal red slash and fouled-anchor symbol of the Coast Guard bright on their sea-gray sides. Beside them was the Farragut, the newest addition to the Republic's fleet. It was slightly smaller than the frigates, lower-slung, also with three masts but with a long slender smokestack forward of the mainmast. On either side were boxes for the paddle-wheels, armored to the front by wedge-shaped timber frames sheathed in bolted steel plates, and more of the same on her axe-shaped bows; her armament consisted of two four-inch rifled cannon at bow and stern, mounted with pivots to the rear and wheels forward runnng on circular steel tracks set into the deck. That let them be turned rapidly in any direction.

Good ship to have in a fight. It was a pity that she sailed like a pig of cast iron, but you couldn't expect every design to work perfectly the first time, the more so as this was something genuinely new, not working to a pre-Event historical model.

The rest of the fleet were civilian ships mobilized for the war, or hired transports for hauling troops and equipment. The Marines had gone aboard the troopships in neat files, packs on their backs and rifles slung, gear boxed to be swung from dock to hold. Embarking the native irregulars was something else again. The Fiernans hadn't been too bad, just monumentally irritating. They even had some conception of punctuality, rare in this age; but then, mathematics and exact timekeeping were part of their religion. The Sun People, though...

Marian Alston-Kurlelo clasped her hands behind her back and rose slightly on the balls of her feet. Southampton Base was nearly as old as Westhaven; this was near where the Eagle had landed on that first trip to Alba, better than ten years ago now. Her head turned right, northward, remembering that day. That had been early spring, cold and windy like this, but sunny rather than overcast. She'd been heading into the beginnings of a war then too, only she hadn't known it. Her eyes sought a tall fair head among the throngs along the brick-paved waterside; Swindapa was holding a checklist, issuing curt orders to several chiefs. One of them bridled, a backwoodsman from the northeast by the look of his pyrographed leather kilt and forked beard. A comrade grabbed his arm, whispered urgently, lead him aside. The rest of them nodded and scattered to obey.

Marian allowed herself a slight narrowing of the eyes and quirk of the lips, remembering how the chief of the lately-arrived Iraiina hadn't even realized she was a woman, back when the Eagle made its first trip up the Southampton Water. She remembered the chaos of the Iraiina camp she'd found, as well. The noisy sprawl of pushing and shoving around the docks here was order itself compared to that, although it was loud enough to scare flocks of wildfowl from the marshes across the harbor, where Gosport would have been in the other history. Even the Sun People could learn...

She watched one war band filing up a gangplank in excellent order, the tough wood bending a little under their feet, the sideropes moving under their hands and prompting uneasy glances downward -- few of that breed were seamen yet. They were in no uniform, but most of them wore trousers, jacket and boots of Islander inspiriation. The webbing harness, packs and bayonets were Nantucket-made, and so were the Werder rifles slung reverently over their shoulders -- the bandoliers were going to stay empty until they arrived at their destination, of course. Most of them had long tomahawks thrust through the straps of their knapsacks, a few still bronze-headed. Their leader might almost have been an Islander himself, though; a young man with cropped hair, clipped mustache, shaven chin, polished boots, a new Python revolver at his waist. And a list in his hand, from which he was obviously reading...

Hmmm. On the other hand, not all progress is unambiguously positive. Not every Sun People warrior who enlisted in Guard or Marines took citizenship and stayed in the Republic after his hitch was up. Those who came back to Alba and their tribes brought their knowledge with them; many of them were the sons of chiefs, and all of them became influential men, with the skills and prestige and gold they'd earned.

Nothing like getting the hell beaten out of you to provide an incentive for learning, she thought uneasily. The Fiernan Boholugi were genuine allies; the Sun People were that in theory, and a resentful protectorate in fact.

Teaching a barbarian can make him civilized... or just a more dangerous savage. You did what you had to do in the short run, but the long-term worries were killers.

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