Cover Prologue 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

 

On the Oceans of Eternity

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

 


CHAPTER EIGHT:

 

"Oh Lord King, your armies are victorious!" the officer of the New Troops said, rising from his prostration and snapping off a salute he'd learned from his Nantucketer instructors.

Kashtiliash leaned back in the chair of state, elbow on the arm of the chair and jaw resting on thumb and forefinger. The officer was dressed in something similar to the Nantucketer uniform as well, boots and breeches and loose jacket with many pockets, with webbing harness of coarse double-ply canvas. He'd added an ostrich-plume to the front of the cloth-covered steel helmet, though; Kashtiliash decided to check to see that nobody was wearing them thus in the field. It had been hard for him to grasp that firearms made it essential for soldiers to skulk like hunters or bandits. It would not do for them to acquire bad habits that would turn lethal when they met enemies armed likewise.

"You drove the Aramaeans before you?" Kashtiliash asked skeptically. That wasn't particularly difficult.

Even without firearms, it was seldom a problem to beat the Aramaeans... if they would stand and fight, which they almost never did unless they vastly outnumbered the force sent against them. Aiming a blow at the sand-thieves was like driving a chariot-wheel through a mud-puddle; the contents spattered and flew apart in tiny globules, then ran together again and all was unchanged. So the nomads were, striking like snakes and scorpions at defenseless peasant hamlets or the donkey-caravans of merchants, then fading back into the endless wastes to the west. Sometimes a king could frighten them into meekness by occupying water-holes, or going after their women and sheep, but even that was difficult. Every year they grew bolder and more numerous. Villages had been abandoned in the areas most subject to their raids, and canals left to silt. Yet if the edge of cultivation moved back, then the herdsmen took those fields over and districts further east became exposed to raids.

The chronicles said the Amorites had come likewise from the western deserts long ago, and ended by ruling all the Land -- Hammurabi had been of that blood. His own ancestors had been herdsmen from the other quarter, in the mountains to the eastward. The Aramaeans were only a minor nuisance so far, but a great sandstorm began with a single gust of wind.

Wherefore he had sent a unit of his elite, the New Troops armed and trained by the Nantukhtar, against them.

"No, Lord of the Universe! We did not merely chase them, we slaughtered them. We killed over a thousand; I have the ears in sacks, Oh Viceregent of Marduk. A thousand strong warriors alone; and we took over three thousand prisoners, mostly women and children, and ten thousand sheep and goats, hundreds of donkeys. The Subartu-tribe of Bit-Yakin will never again trouble the Land, for it has ceased to be - its flocks and its herds, its tents and its clans and its nasiku-sheiks."

"How?" Kashtiliash asked. "I wouldn't have thought they would stay to face our new fire-weapons."

"It was the camels, Lord of the Four Quarters of the Universe. The beasts are possessed of devils, but they can travel like devils. We went three days from water --"

"Here, show me," he said eagerly. There were times when he felt trapped here in the palace, but the King could not take the field for a minor punitive expedition, as a Prince of the House of Succession might.

The small audience room had changed somewhat since the Nantukhtar came. The throne was the same, but one wall had been stripped of tapestries and murals and whitewashed. On it was drawn a map of the Land, as the Gods might see it. The officer took up an olive-wood pointer.

"We swung out into the deep desert -- as Lord Kenn'et of the Nantukhtar did against the Assyrians, when he pursued them north last year. I bethought myself of that, and took the two hundred men trained to ride the demon-beasts. While the others came in on foot from the east, and the Aramaeans retreated before them. Even the nomads do not go so far into the sands. They were taken wholly by surprise, between the hammer and the anvil -- and we could pursue their bands faster than they scattered."

Kashtiliash nodded thoughtfully. The camels came from the desert peninsula to the southwest of the Land Between the Rivers, brought north by Nantukhtar ships. The southernmost nomads had begun to use them, these last few generations, but they knew little of saddling and harnessing them as yet. The Nantukhtar knew much more; and the northerly Aramaean tribes didn't use them at all, travelling on foot with their possessions on donkey-back. A donkey had to be watered every day, and could carry barely more than a man, and no more quickly. A camel could travel up to a week without water, eat anything that grew, carry three times the weight of a grown man, and cover many times the ground men or horses could. Kat'ryn had told him of how that would change this part of the world, in the centuries to come. In her histories, it had benefited mostly the sand-thieves themselves, the ones who came after the Aramaeans -- the Arabs, they were called, still hundreds upon hundreds of miles to the south, in this age.

That shall not be so, here, he thought.

He had grasped whence the Nantukhtar really came, their island adrift on the oceans of eternity. Few others in this age could, he thought; even shrewd men, learned men. The Nantukhtar hadn't made any particular secret of it, but most dismissed the thought with a shudder as merely more of the eldritch air of magic that surrounded the strangers.

But I am lucky in that my mind is supple. Perhaps because I am young yet. It is a mighty thing, a fate laid on us all by the great Gods, whether for good or ill.

Aloud: "You have done well, and I say unto you well-done; the King's heart is pleased with you, Awil-Sin. Nor shall you and your men be without reward."

Awil-Sin prostrated himself again, then bowed backward out of the audience chamber past the motionless Royal guardsmen -- standing to attention was another art which the Nantukhtar had brought. Kashtiliash glanced aside at Kidin-Ninurta, formerly his father's chief superintendant of matters dealing with Dilmun and Meluhha, now in charge of dealings with the Nantukhtar. And in their pay, of course, but his ultimate loyalty was to the kingdom. Beside him sat Bahdi-Lim, the wakil of the karum, the king's overseer of trade.

"You hear?" he said.

"I hear, O King who is without rival. Shall the prisoners be sold?"

"Mmmm, no," Kashtiliash said. For one thing, his allies would object, starting with his wife. "We shall settle them on the Elamite frontier -- on the new lands watered by the canal cut by the steam-dredges. Well-mixed with prisoners from the Assyrian war and with our own people. I have some men it is in my mind to favor with kudurru-grants; Awil-Sin, for one."

The two officials nodded. Land, even land next to an irrigation- canal, was valueless without tenant-farmers to work it.

Kidin-Ninurta went on thoughtfully. "These camels could be of much use to us. Now there are few in the Land of Kar-Duniash, and those mostly in the hands of our allies."

"Indeed. Bahdi-Lim, see that we acquire more -- as many as the southern tribes will sell; enquire among the merchants who deal in Dilmun and send agents there. See that more men are trained in their handling, and see that a breeding program is put in hand." The King owned vast estates, many of them dedicated to the breeding of horses for the royal chariot corps; camels could't be impossibly different.

Kidin-Ninurta bowed over folded hands; he was a plump man in his middle years, beard shining with the oil of prosperity. "And when there are enough, our merchants will be greatly aided, thus bringing more wealth to the Throne. With strings of camels rather than donkeys, they could cross the wastes bearing greater loads at lower costs. Yet another thing from which we may draw wealth!"

"Yes... speak your thoughts, both of you."

The two bureaucrats were bubbling over with schemes to take the New Learning and make the Land rich; not to mention themselves. Kashtiliash didn't mind that; if you used oxen to tread out grain, they took an occasional mouthful. Their work would make the King rich as well, and wealth meant power. If he was to build a new standing army equipped with fire-weapons, with rifles and cannon, he would need much wealth. Even more, if he was to lift his kingdom to equality with the Nantukhtar. That would be a work of generations, though.

"It is good, and more than good," he said at last. "You will prepare a list of these projects, from the least difficult to the most, with the costs and difficulties of each. This you will bring before me, and soon. You have the King's leave to go."

His next audience would be less pleasant. He looked at his watch, also a gift from his Queen's people. The flying ship would be here late in the day. Perhaps tomorrow morning...

@@@

"I wish we were on higher ground," O'Rourke murmured, as the first of the enemy came into sight far down the road. They're not wasting time; twenty-four hours after I got here. "Or that things were more open here."

"If we were on higher ground, we wouldn't have water," Barnes replied.

The alarm had caught her washing-off under the pump, and she'd come running with towel in hand; Hantilis kept sliding his eyes towards her and then away until an orderly came up with her uniform. Some corner of O'Rourke's mind not preoccupied with matters professional smiled amusement. Functional needs and Fiernan influence had more or less killed the nudity taboo in the Republic, most particularly in the military. It always caused at least some friction and misunderstanding when they ran into cultures that did have that sort of prohibition. He suspected that Hantilis' subconscious hadn't been registering Barnes and the others as really female in his brief exposure to the Nantucketer military, and was disconcerted when the visual evidence was unmistakable.

"Bugler, sound stand to," Barnes said, buttoning her tunic and swinging on the Sam Browne harness that held pistol, sword and belt-pouches.

The clear sweet notes of the bugle sounded; few of the garrison had far to travel. Most of them had already taken up the rifles that had rested in neat tripods overnight and dashed to their posts on the walls. Others trotted out of the sunken bunker that held the explosives, each pair carrying an ammunition box by the rope handles on each end. They plumped the boxes down at intervals along the fighting platform, then used their bayonets to pry open the lids with a screech of nails.

Each lid had a label burned into its surface: Werder .40mm 1000 rounds. Within the ammuntion lay in ten-round packets. The Marines on the fighting platform around the wall buckled back the covers of the bandoliers that hung from their webbing belts, revealing the neat brass rows of shells in the loops within. Barnes looked over at him, and he nodded with a slight jerk of his chin.

"Company --" she called, in a high carrying voice.

"Platoon --" It echoed through the subordinate commanders. "Squad --"

"Fix --"

"Fix --"

" Bayonets! "

There was a long slithering rasp and rattle and click as the twenty-inch blades came free and locked to the ring-and-bar fasteners under the muzzles of the rifles. One fumbled and dropped the weapon halfway through the proceedure, and caught a hissed: " Sharpen up, you sloppy excuse for a Marine! " from his corporal.

"Load!"

The same relay, and another series of clicks as the grooved breech-blocks were pushed down, a round was shoved into the breech, and the arming-piece in its curved slot at the right side of the weapon was thumbed back to full cock. A murmur, as the noncoms repeated: " Eyes front. Set your sights at two hundred yards. Wait for the command. "

O'Rourke glanced around. Ready for the dance, he thought. Rifles to the walls, the gatling between the two overturned wagons that made up the gate -- that faced roughly southwest, covering the largest area of open ground. Far too many stone walls, olive groves and shallow ravines round about otherwise, and the steep hills that pinched the valley were far too close, but that was God's lookout. Speaking of which:

" Praise be the Lord God who trains my fingers to the bow and makes my hand strong to war --"

Chaplain Smith was at it again; not a bad text. Even if the man was an Iraiina convert and a bit of a fanatic, with a taste for the bloodier Psalms.

The enemy were coming up the road and through the fields to either side; far too many of them for comfort, too. O'Rourke licked sweat off his lips and took a thoughtful swig from his canteen before picking up the binoculars he'd laid on a barley- sack.

Couple of thousand, at least, he thought. Five thousand if we're unlucky. Two, three days travel from the coast -- they might be able to keep them supplied, at that. But I don't think they've got the patience for a siege of the camp.

They obviously weren't Walker's regulars; just big irregular clots of footmen following chiefs in chariots. A few mounted scouts came galloping closer; and the glitter off the weapons of the host was as much steel as bronze. Presumably some of them would have learned a bit about modern warfare at Troy...

The noise started again, like a giant drum, or the chuffing of a monstrous steam engine. This time he could see what it was, thousands of them beating the flats of their weapons on their shields in ragged unison. The sound boomed back from the rocky slopes on either hand as well...

"Oh, for a couple of rifled cannon," Barnes said.

"Or a heavy mortar, or some rocket launchers," O'Rourke agreed.

That was a distance problem, though. Ur Base's armory down at the top of the Persian Gulf could make small-arms ammunition and some replacement parts for rifles. Every single heavy weapon and every round for them had to come by ship from Nantucket or Alba, down the Atlantic, around the Cape of Good Hope, up across the Indian Ocean, up the Gulf, unload at Ur Base, go up the Euphrates by steamboat and barge, then hundreds of miles more to the Anatolian plateau and westward to here by wagon and camel and pack-mule.

Great Achaea, now... their factories weren't as many or as good, but being ten thousand miles closer covered a multitude of sins. Better to have a second-rate weapon that was here, rather than a first-rate one that hadn't arrived yet because the ship bringing it was becalmed in the doldrums.

The sound died out and the enemy began to spread; the nobles were getting out of their chariots, too. Too bad. I wish they were more conservative about that. Most of the men squatted or sat, leaning on spears or rifles. Horns blared, long upright bronze trumpets with the mouths of wild beasts, grouped around a knot of men in bright gear; gilded bronze armor, helmets topped with boars and wolves and ravens, chain-mail and steel swords, guns. The knot eddied, then moved southward and up the slopes of a fairly steep hill, threading their way through terraced vineyards to the clear rocky summit. O'Rourke moved his binoculars and found himself staring at the doll-tiny figure of a man in a raven-crested helmet with long gray mustaches putting an even longer brass spyglass to his eye and looking right back at the Nantucketer. Great minds thought alike...

"Well, there's a laddie who's had some enlightenment conferred upon him along with that telescope," O'Rourke said lightly. "Hmmm... I think the one with the bandaged arm beside him is the gentleman with the spear I had a bit of a brush with yesterday."

The chief with the spyglass took it down from his eye and waved. Spears repeated the gesture down the hillslope, and a band of warriors five hundred strong rose and moved forward. They weren't moving in ranks, but there was an unpleasant steadiness to the way they came forward, flowing into dead ground, the shelter of groves or walls, up a long gully that sheltered everything but the tips of their spears.

"This bunch aren't going to be spooked the first time they see guns go off," Barnes said thoughtfully. "Mother."

"Maybe they were spooked, but this won't be the first time," O'Rourke said. "We managed to get a fair number of firearms into Troy, one way and another, and these lads have been on the receiving end."

Hantilis nodded. "I too was put in fear, the first time I saw the fire-weapons work their slaying," he said. "After that, I saw also that the men they killed were no more dead than those fallen to a bow or spear. Guns are better than any spear or bow, yes. They kill further, faster, more surely, yes. A man with a gun is to a man with a sword as a man with sword, spear and armor is to a naked peasant with a knife. Still, these guns are not the thunder-club born by Teshub of the Weather. They are only weapons. And a man with a knife or even a rock from the fields may slay a man with sword, spear and armor, if he be brave and very lucky. A score of men with knives or rocks against one with a sword..."

Barns and O'Rourke glanced at each other and nodded very slightly. You didn't have to have a modern education to be able to put two and two together, if the native cleverness was there.

The Hittite confirmed their thought a moment later: "That little ravine -- it is a highway towards us. Only a little more than long bowshot, and the... gatling... does not bear on it..."

Damn, I do wish we had a mortar, O'Rourke thought. Dropping shells right into dead ground like that was what they were made for. Then: If wishes were horses, we wouldn't need the Town Meeting to produce horseshit, would we, then?

"Here they come!" someone shouted from the walls.

@@@

"People can get used to anything," Kathryn Hollard said, looking down from one of the slanting windows in the airship's passenger compartment.

They'd come down the Euphrates, endless miles of irrigation canals lined with date-palms, long narrow fields -- about half of them flooded to soften the earth for the fall plowing, half fallow -- and villages of dun mud-brick shacks. Now the shadow of the Emancipator passed over Babylon, slipping over square miles of flat roof and courtyards and narow twisty streets, cut here and there by the broader processional ways. The great clump of ceremonial buildings near the northeast corner of the city showed plain, the brightly-colored artificial mountain of the ziggurat in its huge enclosure, the sprawling labyrinth of the Palace throwing bright glints from metal and tile. The airship juddered from the thermals and updrafts, heat from cookfires and adobe releasing the sun it had soaked up over the day. Boats clustered down by the karum, the wharves; among them were four side-wheel steamers with tall thin smokestacks, her people's work.

The sight of the dirigible overhead no longer made men scream in Babylon, or women cast themselves down in prayer. Even the donkeys had stopped bolting. Usually the craft came in to a field by the river outside the northern wall; the engineers of the Expeditionary Force had put in basic support facilities, tanks of fuel -- the engines burned a mixture of kerosene and hydrogen from the gasbas -- a small steam-powered generator to crack lifting gas from water, stores of spare parts. Today the airship was coming into land at the square that surrounded the great ziggurrat Etemenanki, the House That is the Foundation of Heaven and Earth, near the northern gate of the city. That was the only open space in Babylon that could accommodate the Emancipator's more than five hundred feet of length; it was also convenient to the main palace- administrative complex just inside the Ishtar Gate.

"Kash is not happy at all, and this is one way of showing it," Kathryn went on.

"I'm not happy either," her brother replied. "To put it mildly."

"I'm not happy -- the thermals here are a stone bitch," Vicki Cofflin said.

They all glared for a second at the Princess Raupasha. That young woman - she'd be a girl by Nantucket reconning, but not by that of her own people -- folded her arms and glared back. Seventeen going on eighteen, she was tall by contemporary standards, which made her average among Americans born in the Twentieth; the Marine khakis she wore showed smooth curves. Fine raven-dark hair fell to her shoulders, framing an oval straight-nosed face and dark gray eyes rimmed with green; her skin was a natural pale olive tanned to honey-brown. It wasn't quite the physical type common in Kar-Duniash, but she had been born further north, under the Taurus range, in what would be Kurdish country in the Twentieth. Some of her ancestors had come from much further than that, outflung spindrift of a migration that had begun in the foothills of the Ural mountains a thousand years before. The main stream of it had driven their chariots and horse-herds over the Hindu Kush and down into the Land of Five Rivers, where her distant Aryan cousins were compiling the Rig-Veda in these very decades. Raupasha's ancestors had drifted westward, to become kings at the headwaters of the Khabur and lose themselves among their Hurrian subjects.

"I did wrong," she said, in English that was fluent but thickly accented with the clotted sounds of her aggluntative Hurrian mother-tongue. "It --" For a moment a flicker of uncertainty made her seem her age. "It seemed like a good idea at the time. You had told me, Lord Kenn'et, that in your country women often take the lead in such things..."

"Not in without warning, not in public, not in front of an army, not in a language the man doesn't speak so it looks like he's agreeing with it, and not when it buggers up years of work!" Kenneth Hollard barked.

My, what an interesting shade of red you turn when you're angry, big brother, Kathryn thought irreverently. She and her brother both tanned fairly well for blonds, but she could see the dark blood rising over his collar.

"I did wrong," Raupasha said again, quietly. Tears welled in the great gray eyes, but she blinked them away. "I have wronged you, to whom I owe so much. Let King Kashtiliash have my head, then, to appease the anger of his heart and bring his favor back to you."

Kenneth Hollard sighed in exasperation. His sister answered for him: "No, we won't do that. You're under the Republic's protection, and we don't withdraw that. But that's protection for you, as an individual; not for your people or their former kingdom. You may have to leave these lands altogether."

"And we all have to strap in," Vicki Cofflin said. "Sir, ma'am, we're coming in for landing."

Everyone sat, in a stoney silence. Kathryn Hollard swallowed a bubble of anxiety. God, I want to see Kash again. God, I'm nervous.

Neither of them was exactly afraid of the other? but they'd both found occasion enough for irritation, differences of custom and outlook and belief that made a word or action sweet reasonableness to one and intolerable to the other. And neither of them was meek by nature.

It would be fair to say we're both... careful... around each other occasionally. I suppose we'd both find sweetness-and-light boring; that's probably one reason why Kash fell for me in the first place, the change from all these I-am-your-handmaiden- great-lord-please-wipe-your-feet-on-me local bimbos. This time he's got every reason to be furious with the lot of us, though.

The marriage contract specified she could leave any time she wanted to. The problem is, I don't want to.

"Prepare for landing," Vicki Cofflin said. "Alex, I'm going to take her in heavy, on prop-lift. Landing crew ready on the ground??"

The XO was peering through heavy pintle-mounted binoculars. "Looks like it, skipper... there's the signal."

"Helm, right thirty. Engines, all ahead one quarter. "

The long orca shape of the Emancipator turned into the wind blowing out of the deserts to the west. "Altitude one thousand thirty. Off superheat!"

A hissing in the background cut off, only noticeable when it was gone. The shadow of the airship passed over the flat rooftops of Babylon, a maze of tenement and courtyard, dun-colored mud-and- timber roofs above adobe buildings. The monstrous step-pyramid shape of the ziggurrat loomed ahead of them, its cladding of colored brick, glazing and paint a blaze three hundred feet high, an artificial mountain looming against the westering sun.

"Vent hot air! All vents full."

Crewfolk spun cranks. High above, rectangular portlids in the hull swung up, allowing the heated air in the central gasbag to escape. The airship's smooth gliding passage shifted to a downward vector, and the ground swelled below them. The nose of the great craft dipped, and the uppermost level of the ziggurat Etemenaki rose above the gondola windows, gleaming in gold leaf. That was the house of the God, where the priestess called the Bride of Marduk awaited the pleasure of the Lord of the Countries.

"Negative buoyancy! Ship is heavy!" came the crisp call from the altitude controller. "Seven hundred pounds at ground level."

"Ballast, stand by," Vicki said. They could vent water from tanks along the keel at need and come around again. "Engines at ninety degrees."

Hands spun wheels, and outside the six converted Cessna engines on the sections of wing turned until their propellors were pointing at the ground. They were nearly over the courtyard now, coasting slower and slower as the gentle west wind pushed at the blunt prow of the vessel. Dust billowed up, and the robes of the spectators fluttered. The ground crew were from the 1st Kar- Duniash, the cadre unit Kathryn and a few other Islander officers and noncoms had traned as part of the alliance between the Republic and Babylon. They'd played this part before.

Emancipator's descent slowed. "Release ropes!"

Crewfolk opened ports along the keel. Dozens of ropes fell loose, to be snatched up by the soldiers acting as ground crew. They broke into teams as if for tug-of-war, and pulled.

"All engines off!" Silence roared into the great vessel, the first since the motors were started in Hattusas twelve hours before. "Brace for contact."

The ground swelled beneath them, men turning from dolls to faces that could be recognized. A wailing chant went up as three hundred men hauled the dirigible down hand-over-hand and into the wind. More waited, and grabbed the oak railing that ran along the gondola on either side of the keel as it came within reach. Those ran the airship forward until it was aligned with massive forged eybolts whose six-foot shanks had been pounded into the brick pavement of the square. Lashings secured the Emancipator in place; this was as safe a mooring site as any, with the bulk of the ziggurrat and the enclosure walls to break any sudden winds.

"Feather props all," Vicki Cofflin said. "Ramp down! Brigadier Hollard, Lieutenant-Colonel, Princess Raupasha, you may disembark."

The main entryway to the gondola was a ramp at the rear of the hundred-foot room. It lowered with a creak of wicker and wood. A chariot stood there, the horses sweating and rolling their eyes as they shifted from hoof to hoof with a clatter of iron against brick. Around it waited mounted guards, riding with saddles and stirrups of Islander pattern, rifles in scabbards at their right knees.

"The King awaits the Seg Kallui," their officer said, dismounting and saluting, then going to one knee.

Kathryn nodded. "The Queen hears the words of the King," she said.

The soldiers were ones she knew, volunteers from the 1st Kar- Duniash; as Seg Kallui she had great estates, and her own household troops as well. There was a lot more to Queening it here than being the King's girlfriend, and that was a fact...

@@@

"So, bet you I can make five pat hands from half a deck," Private Hook said, shuffling easily.

They might be under attack at any minute; that was no reason not to pick up a little extra cash. The best time for it, in fact, with people nervous and wrought-up. The cards poured from side to side temptingly on the gray blanket of the hospital bunk, but there wasn't time to start a poker game.

"Twenty-five cards, no more."

"By the Horned Man, I think you can do it too -- with your deck," someone said sardonically.

"No, no," Hook said smoothly. "With your deck, and you get to shuffle."

" Awe, and you'll fly to the moon by flapping your arms," a Marine said.

Several who'd been recruited from the Earth Folk hissed at the blasphemy, which the scoffer answered with a jerk of his middle finger. Hook frowed carefully.

"Well, if you're not afraid of bad luck after dissing Moon Woman like that, why not put some money on it?" he asked. "Say, five dollars at five-to-one in your favor."

"I'll do that," the other man said brashly. "If you don't need beer and girls when we get back to Hattusas, I do."

"And you'll never get laid without paying a local for it, Haudicar," a female voice said.

The challenger scowled and pulled a Pacific Bank five-dollar note out of his pocket; that took a little work, with his right arm in a cast, then went over to his haversack and fished out a pack of cards. Hook waited patiently while the mark shuffled; the Fiernan woman who'd spoken caught his eye and winked behind the victim's back, moving her fingers and lips silently in the Counting Chant.

"Put up your twenty-five, Hook. Better than three weeks pay, a gift from the Gods."

A belligerent blue-eyed stare from Haudicar, as innocent of mathematics as he was of molecular biology. Hook took the greasy, limp pack and set it on the gray blanket that covered the foot of his bunk, then split it evenly. A fair selection who were mobile enough gathered around; not many went two months in the pungent gloom of a troopship's hold outbound from Nantucket Town without learning poker.

"Which one?" he said, and the mark tapped the pile of cards on his left.

"Here we go --"

Haudicar stared as the five pat hands flowed out beneath Hook's nible features. The onlookers yelped and hooted laughter, and a slow flush went up from the collar of his t-shirt to prominent pink ears.

"Care to try again, double or nothing?" Hook said casually, scooping up the five-dollar bill. He winked back at the Fiernan girl; he usually didn't need to pay a local when he wanted a tumble -- stupid to pay, when charm could get you better sex for free -- but even in the Corps it nevery hurt to set the mood with some beer and fancy eats on the civilian economy. With two men for every woman in most units, the competition could get a little fierce at times. Besides that, he was saving for the end of his hitch. Haudicar swore and pulled out another five-dollar bill.

"Anyone else want to go with the odds?" Hook said brightly.

A few bystanders did, but one insisted on using her pack, and dealing out twenty-five cards at random. Hook grinned like a shark as he arranged another five hands, ignoring the curses and stacking the bills and coins.

"Now, who'll match this pile one last time?" he said.

It looked as if Haudicar would, until he looked around and saw that all the Fiernan-born in the room were standing back, most of them grinning. Then he made the sign of the horns.

"Magic!" he spat.

The girl who'd winked at Hook laughed aloud. "Arithmetic, you dumb swan-eating sheep-shagger," she said. "The odds were fifty to one in his favor!"

The roar of laughter that followed that was cut short when a corporal looked through the door.

"You lot are pretty healthy, then," he said. A working party behind him carried in rifles, bandoliers and a thousand-round ammunition box. Several entrenching tools were piled rattling atop it. "Get busy -- knock some more loopholes in the wall there, it's only mud-brick two stacks thick."

Those not too ill to work got to work, except for Hook. "Nobody want one last bet?" he asked, riffling the cards.

"At a time like this?" someone said, digging at the wall with the pick-spike on the back of the blade of the entrenching tool.

"Why not? No loss if we lose, we'll all be dead... oh, all right then," Hook grumbled, and picked up a rifle, wincing a bit at the pull of his lanced boil as he went to the slit window. "Holy shit!"

@@@

"So," Kashtiliash said, shaking back the sleeve of his robe and holding out his cup. A servant slid forward silently and poured, each movement as graceful as a reed. "You will not plead your brother's case?"

"Nope," Kathryn Hollard said, reaching for a date. "He can do that himself. You're the King here, Kash, and he's the commander of allied forces. It'd be a good idea to hear him out, but you decide, and I'll back you up whatever your decision is. It's going on for God-damned November; it'll be the Year Eleven before we get to Walker, if we keep dicking around with this stuff."

The Kassite's thick-muscled shoulders relaxed slightly as he sipped.

Kathryn gave him a slow smile and went on: "Actually, I had a different sort of discussion in mind for this evening."

Her eyes travelled to the arched doorway that lead into the bedchamber. Kashtiliash grinned back at her.

They were dining in one of the smaller chambers in the King's private rooms -- or as private as anything could be, in this ant- farm of a palace. One wall was carved cedar screenwork, giving out onto a section of flat roof that in turn overlooked a courtyard planted with palms and flowers. It was still warm but not uncomfortable, especially with the overhead fan that swept back and forth above, to the pull of a cord in the hand of someone sitting in the corridor outside -- she'd gotten the idea from rereading a book of Kipling's short stories. A punkah, they'd called it in the days of the Raj. Traditional in historic India, an innovation here...

She and the King reclined on couches of carved boxwood, cushioned in something remarkably like Moroccan leather, and ate from a low table set between them with lion's-paw feet done in ivory, its oval Egyptian-ebony top inlaid with lapis, ivory and semiprecious stones in the shape of stylized flowers and trees. The platters bore the remains of roast chicken, a dish of beef and lentils with apricots, skewers of grilled lamb, salads, breads, pastries, spiced steamed vegetables. The Palace artisans had learned to produce creditable bronze-and-gold imitations of the plain metal fork in a Marine field-kit, too, which made eating a lot less messy.

"Makes a nice change from tents and dog-biscuit," she said, stretching and nibbling on the fruit.

They had been down to hardtack for a while, when the supply lines up from the navigable Euphrates got shaky. Not to mention the grit and dirt; nothing like a couple of weeks in the field in the deserts of Mitanni -- northern Syria, in the twentieth -- to really work up an appreciation for a good bath and a soft linen robe. Gentle music tweetled from a corner, vivid tapestries billowed slightly along the walls, curious beasts and flowers and scenes from myths she hadn't had time to learn; the ceiling was smooth plaster set with rosettes of burnished copper. The Islander kerosene lamps made it brighter than it would have been a year ago, but the yellow light suited the room, turning it into a fantasy of soft color amid the scents of cedarwood and incense.

"A king's wealth is some small compensation for being nibbled to death by ducks," Kashtiliash said. "I would ten times rather be in the field with my troops myself." He extended his hands. "Yesterday the ashipu-diviners of Nabu said that my armpits should be plucked with tweezers because a two-headed lamb was born near Nippur."

Kathryn held out her hands likewise. Servants glided in, one to pour scented water, another to wipe her hands with a towel, a third to hold the basin beneath.

Still feels a little creepy having everything done for you like this, she thought with a corner of her mind.

The rest of it was sympathizing with Kashtiliash. His administrative duties were bad enough, but there was a whole clutch of religious stuff that only the King could deal with. Kash might be absolute monarch, but the priesthoods could still tie him in knots by selective omen-reading -- ignore them and the whole kingdom from nobles to peasants would expect disaster, which was a self-fulfilling prophecy if there ever was one. The Queen had equivalent tasks, but so far she'd been able to plead off on grounds of military necessity and a foreigner's ignorance.

Once the war's over I'll have to settle down and plow my way through this stuff, dammit. Oh, well, I can study up on the religious twaddle while I'm pregnant.

When his hands were clean, Kashtiliash clapped them together. "Leave us," he said.

"But Lord of the Universe --!" an eunuch chamberlain bleated, from where he'd been standing to direct the choreography of the meal.

Eunuchs still made her a little more than creepy, but she ignored the plump shocked face. Usually the King's retiring was an elaborate ritual, each undoing of sandal-strap or sash a jealously guarded privilege of some official or flunky or whatever; it all reminded her of things she'd read about the court of Louis XIV, only with oracles and diviners mixed in. At least upper-crust Babylonians washed a lot more frequently than 18th-century Frenchmen.

"Leave us! The King speaks!" Kashtiliash said, not taking his eyes off her.

Everyone prostrated themselves and backed out. The King's grin grew wider. "Good," he said. "It has been much too long, my golden lioness. It would shock them, did I vault over the table and ravish you upon the supper-couch."

"You couldn't," she said. "Because I'd meet you in mid-air."

She stood, reached down with crossed arms and pulled the robe over her head.

"Golden lioness indeed," Kashtiliash said, hoarse through a throat gone tight.

"Let's see if you can catch me, Bull of Marduk," Kathryn laughed.

@@@

"While I am at war, I leave the realm in the hands of Odikweos son of Laertes, Wannax of Ithaka among the Western Isles and ekwetos in Mycenae."

Walker's voice rang out across the square. Odikweos went to one knee and bowed his head before he held out his hand for the signet-ring that would make him Regent of Great Achaea while the King of Men was abroad.

And I am a much safer Regent than any of your own Wolf People, he thought. They will watch me and I will watch them...

Then he walked beside his overlord down the marble steps and waited while the overlord poured the incense into the coals that smouldered in the bowl of the golden tripod set beside the white marble of the altar. The translucent grains fell on the low hot flames of burning olive-wood and then burned themselves in an upward spiral of blue smoke, sweet and bitter at the same time. Walker lifted his hands, his voice rising in the Invocation:

"Hear me
 Lord of the battle-shattering aegis, whose power is above Olympos
 Who are lord in strength above the countries, Father of All,
 If you are pleased that I built your sanctuary
 If ever it pleased you that I burn all the rich thigh pieces
 Of bulls, of goats, then bring to pass this wish I pray for;
 Let your almighty hand shield me in battle
 For when the bright bronze spear stoops like the stallion-crested eagle,
 Then safety is hard to find and only your hand..."

Below, white-robed priests waited, and then lead the garlanded bull of sacrifice to the up altar. Behind them came a chorus of handsome youths and another of maidens richly clad, flower garlands on their brows, singing as they came. The great-eyed beast came quietly, his currycombed coat shining like silver, the broad-spreading horns gilded. The watching crowd -- cityfolk, the ordered ranks of the regiments, great lords and their retainers summoned to follow the hegemon to battle -- held their breath. It was the worst of omens if the sacrificial bull should bellow or fight. This one came unresisting, with a slow majestic tread. The priests gripped its horns; Odikweos had to acknowledge that such things were done more neatly now, when priests were full- time specialists paid by the Throne rather than men of rank serving only for the God's honor and their own.

Behind the impassive mask of his face he shuddered. And the King had pointed out -- how casually, how easily! -- that priests appointed by the government could be relied on to get the omens right.

An acoylte bore the sacred basket; each of the great men taking part in the rite reached into it for a handful of barley to toss at the bull. The animal blinked in curiosity, and its broad pink tongue came out to lick up grains that stuck to its muzzle. From the basket Walker also took the sacrificial knife, long and curved and razor-sharp. First he cut a lock of hair from the bull's poll and tossed it into the holy fire beside the altar. Then he waited while Odikweos sprinkled water from the god- blessed spring over the animal's ears and eyes. It tossed its head and lowed, the symbol of its assent to the sacrifice.

The priests twisted their grip and exposed the neck. The King stepped forward and swung the blade with fluid skill; the strength and speed reminded Odikweos of his first meeting with the future sovereign, in a dark alley below the citadel of Mycenae where Walker battled assassins. He'd thought then that the foreigner was a man of his hands to be reckoned with, and he'd been right. His curiosity had led him to intervene, and that had brought him Walker's favor. From that beginning he had gained much, from that and his own wit that had also gained him William Walker's regard.

Blood flowed out over the altar, startlingly bright, smelling of salt and iron, and the bull went first to its knees and then to its side. Women screamed at the moment of the kill as the rite prescribed, long and shrill, drowning the death-bellow. A cheer went up from the crowd, deep and rythmic from the soldiers, a chaotic wall of sound from the commons.

He felt another invisible shudder gripping his heart. The eyes of his mind remembered Agamemmnon holding out his hand, wet with his own blood. 'The blood of Zeus, the blood of Posedaion.' Then leaping from the cliff, as if into the arms of the Gods his ancestors. That blood still lay on the land.

Walker laughed at it, laughed at curses and death and fate -- in the secret places of his heart, laughed at the Gods. And yet he won, and won, and won...

Athana Potnia, Gray-eyed Lady of Wisdom, he prayed, in his own innnermost self. Did I do right when I gave Walker my aid? It had raised the House of his fathers to the heights of wealth and power, but...

When he ritual was complete and the fat-wrapped thighbones smoked on the altar the square emptied, crowds surging away and troops marching in rippling unison, another thing Walker had brought to the Achaean lands. Odikweos put doubt from his mind as the King's closest gathered around him.

"The omens were good," he said politely. "The sacrifice went quiet and willing."

"Amazing what some poppy-juice in the feedbag can do," Walker said dryly, and went on: "I shouldn't be gone long. I expect Troy to fall before the winter solstice."

Absently, the Ithakan noted that the last traces of the nasal whistling accent he'd once had had faded from the Wolf Lord's Achaean.

"And I'm leaving you enough troops and ships, counting your household regiment and the Ithakan fleet -- keep a close ear out for news of the West, and if Isketerol asks for help, send it."

Odikweos nodded. "The Gods send you victory, King of Men, and spare your camp the arrows of far-shooting Apollo."

Walker grinned. "Thanks -- and if I can teach the dumb bastards not to crap anywhere they please, like sheep, maybe they will."

The Ithakan blinked as a chuckle ran through the group. Yes, cleanliness about dung did seem to have something to do with the spread of sickness in a war-camp, and he'd been glad to learn the rites that kept diseases of the belly away; they killed more men than bronze ever had, or bullets would. Still, it was not wise to openly taunt the power of Paiwaon Apollo. He thought of the slopes of Olympus. And striding down them a tall blackness edged with fire, like the shadow of falling night...

He forced a smile himself, lest he be singled out. The only other in the circle around the King to be Achaean born was the Chief Scribe, Enkhelyawon son of Amphimedes; and he was a man who'd been raised from a mere clerk to great power, not a noble born or a fighting-man. Walker's man...

But remember that he has great power, Odikweos noted mentally. There were records of everything, now. The Chief Scribe's office could torment a man to death and destroy his House with writs and forms. Paper is as great a power in the land as bronze or steel, today. Greater than a bloodline descended from the Gods.

"Helmut will keep you informed of any internal problems," Walker went on.

Odikweos bowed his head slightly. The pug-faced blond man inclined his; his countenance looked as if it had been carved from lard. And do not underestimate this one, either, the Greek told himself. Mittler didn't fight with his own hands, but he'd sent more Achaean nobles to the shades than a myriad of warriors; and he killed men as a housewife might rabbits, with a dispassionate briskness that ignored their squeals and kicks. In the old days a noble or vassal-ruler could give the High King a healthy piece of his mind when he wished, to his face. Now a man had to watch what he said by his own hearthside, or in the very marriage-bed.

Walker's one green eye caught Mittler's. "And don't get over- enthusiastic, Helmut," he went on. "I know that deep down you think corpses are the only politically reliable element in the Kingdom, but please remember that dead men are useless except to the quartermasters, and mutton is much cheaper."

That brought a chuckle from Walker's closest followers, the ones who'd come with him to Tiryns so many years ago. Alice Hong's clear soprano laughter rang out, and she licked her lips.

"Oh, mutton is so greasy," she said. "Politically suspect pork now, done with noodles, or sweet and sour... Ragout of Long Pig a la Hannibal Lecktor -- even better, Long Pig veal steak..."

Odikweos looked at her and swallowed bile. She was not making a jest, however rough; there was no depravity beyond the Lady of Pain. About her, I have no doubts. If ever it is in my power to slay that one, I shall. By the Kindly Ones, I shall.

A groom brought Walker's horse; it was a tall one, being three- quarter breed to the stallion he'd brought with him near a decade ago. Bastard had been the name of the sire.

The flat gray stones of Mittler's eyes were on Alice Hong as well. Walker noticed it. "My, what a happy little family," he said, swinging into the saddle. "Hasta la vista, and if anyone kills a rival without permission, I'll crucify them." His hand slapped his mount's neck. "Come on, Sonofabitch. There should be a big horse present at the fall of Troy, for tradition's sake."

@@@

Brigadier Kenneth Hollard drew himself erect, saluted and bowed. Beside him Raupasha daughter of Shuttarna was flat on the ground, kissing the carpet. Even after they'd been married a couple of months, it still felt odd to see his sister Kathryn sitting on a throne one step down from Kashtiliash's on the dais, gorgeously robed and jewelled, a silk-and-gold headdress covering her cropped hair. The secondary throne was an addition to the room; ordinary Babylonian queens didn't take part in royal audiences.

Part of Kat's damned marriage contract, he thought, and looked at her.

He wouldn't have thought her the type to do the romantic-plunge- into-the-unknown thing, but then, she was his sister. She'd been an annoying brat for most of his life, then they'd become friends after the Event -- they'd both been in the Expeditionary Battalion in Alba, carrying crossbows made from car leaf-springs -- and she'd been a competent assistant after that. When he'd thought of her love-life at all, it had always seemed sort of comic. Until it rose up and bit us all on the ass. Of course, it had been even more disconcerting to the Babylonians to see their Prince -- who then became their King -- go head-over- heels for a bizzare foreigner. They had a tradition of romantic love in stories and poetry and suchlike here, but it wasn't supposed to get in the way of marriages, particularly for monarchs. It did help that a diplomatic marriage was the usual way of sealing an alliance, but there were still rumors of witchcraft bouncing about. Kat didn't have any intention of making much concession to ancient Babylonian ideas of Womans' Proper Place, either, and made no secret of it.

"Know that the King is not pleased, Lord Kenn'et," Kashtiliash said.

Hollard inclined his head in acknowledgement. Kashtiliash was making a concession by holding the audience in this lesser chamber, without the whole court looking on.

"Lord King, if I were you, I wouldn't be pleased either," he said frankly.

There were a few Babylonians present; guards, two scribes taking notes -- one on paper in the Islander-introduced Roman alphabet, the other in cuneiform on waxed boards -- and a couple of courtiers. They looked a little shocked at the bluntness. Kastiliash nodded slightly; he didn't particularly mind, as long as the allies from Nantucket were properly respectful.

In fact, I think he finds it refreshing, Hollard thought.

"Explain this matter to me, then," the king said somberly.

"Lord King, Princess Raupasha was carried away by the heat of victory and misplaced gratitude," he said, feeling a trickle of sweat running down his flanks under the uniform jacket. "She begs the King's pardon."

Raupasha rose to her knees and threw herself down again; Kenneth Hollard kept his face impassive, but his Yankee reflexes couldn't help a small inward twinge. The Mitannian girl didn't mind, she'd been raised by a retainer of her royal father and taught the standard court etiquette. It still rasped his New England sensibilities more than a bit.

"I most humbly throw myself on the mercy of the shar kirbat 'arbaim, King of the Four Quarters of the Earth, descendant of the Kings who were before the King; Great King, magnificent King, the King of Kar-Duniash, King of Assyria, King of Elam, King of Mitanni, Great Bull of Marduk, the giant unto whom the great Gods have given rule, the Mighty, the Colossal, the Omnipotent," Raupasha said softly.

The Modest, the Humble, Hollard added to himself.

Raupasha went on: "With clasped hands, I beg that the King allow his slave to serve him as she has before."

Kashtiliash looked as if he'd bitten into something sour for a moment. Smart girl, Hollard thought, admiration taking the sting out of his irritation. She'd just reminded Kashtiliash that while the Nantuketers had helped him conquer Assyria -- he'd been Prince Kashtiliash last year, in command of the Babylonian armies for his father Shagarakti-Shuriash -- it had been Raupasha's own hand that cut the throat of Tukulti-Ninurta. Who, in the original history we showed him, defeated Kashtiliash and brough him a prisoner to Asshur.

Plus she'd personally saved his father's life during an assassination attempt last spring. Some monarchs would just be angered by a reminder like that, but Kash...

The hard amber-brown eyes met Hollard's blue. "And if I decide that the Rivers country should not be a vassal-kingdom under Rapuasha daughter of Shuttarna, but instead a province under a sakkanakkum, a royal governor appointed by myself?" he said.

Hollard nodded. "The land is the King's, to dispose as he sees fit," he said steadily "The terms of our treaty of alliance are clear. The Republic of Nantucket seeks no territory in these lands, but only to make war on William Walker, the rebel and usurper who has siezed the throne of Achaea."

Kashtiliash continued relentlessly. "And if the Hurri-folk of the north rise against me, on hearing this news?"

Raupasha's fingers clutched at the carpet, but she kept a shivering stillness. Hollard answered crisply: "Then, as our treaty states, we will fight at your side against all rebels until Walker is cast down."

The Babylonian leaned back in his throne; chairs with backs were a rare luxury here, and this was carved with figures of gods and protective genii in ivory, its arms supported by gilded lion- centaurs, its feet the paws of lions with claws of gold.

"And if I demand this woman's head?" he said softly, his thick- wristed swordsman's hands gripping the carved ivory.

"That, Lord King, you must not do," Hollard said, standing at parade rest.

There was a gasp from the Babylonians; "must" was not a word used to the King of the Four Quarters, who held the life of every man in his hand.

"Before this woman was known to the King, I extended the Republic's protection over her," Hollard went on. "If her presence is an affront to the King, we will of course remove her from the Land of Kar-Duniash. Likewise, if my presence offends the King, he may demand that the Republic replace me as commander of allied forces here."

"You are a bold man," Kashtiliash said.

"The Republic honors its word, O King, and I am its servant -- we bow to no man, but to the Law we are obedient. If the Republic broke its bond to this woman, whatever her faults, could we be trusted to keep it with you?"

Silence stretched. Then the fierce hawk-face of the Kassite monarch split in a harsh grin, teeth very white against the dense black beard.

"You are also a man of honor," he said, his fist thumping the gilded wood of the throne's arm. "Know that the word of the King of Kar-Duniash is also something that is not dust to be blown in the wind; it cannot be altered." His eyes went to Kathryn. "And if my sons are such men as you, it will be well for the realm. Approach."

Hollard did. Kashtiliash rose and gripped hands in the American gesture, then offered his cheek. And while I appreciate the gesture, the Nantucketer thought -- it made him technically one of the Royal Kindred - I still feel damned silly kissing a guy on the cheek.

"There -- we have regularized your bad manners," Kashtiliash said; the Royal Kindred were not required to prostrate themselves. It was a rare honor.

The Babylonian ruler sank back on his throne and fastened his eyes on the Mitannian princess. "Rise, Raupasha daughter of Shuttarna, and hear the judgement of the King." He leaned forward, one elbow on a knee.

"The King's servant awaits his word," Raupasha said, rising gracefully and standing with her head bowed under the metallic glitter of a shawl sewn with golden sequins.

"You have served my House well," he said. "In the matter of Tukulti-Ninurta my great foe, who you slew; in the matter of Shagarakti-Shuriash my father, whose life you preserved. Because of this, and for reasons of State, I am inclined to be merciful. Once. Do you understand me, Raupasha daughter of Shuttarna?"

"My Lord King's humble servant dares to think she understands his thought, and will strive always to do his will in the future."

Thank yoooou, Lord Jesus, Hollard thought, smelling his own sweat. We don't have time for this sort of complication. Troy's under siege already.

"Good," Kashtiliash said. He nodded regally. "You will both attend the King's feast this night. Tomorrow we will begin to plan the resumption of the war in the North."

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