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THE SEA PEOPLES

by S.M. Stirling


 

CHAPTER THREE:

 

Kerajaan of Baru Denpasar
Ceram Sea
November 15th, Change Year 46/2044 A.D.

 

“Where is he?”

Lady Philippa Balwyn-Abercrombie—Pip or Cap’n Pip to everyone here—kept the panic out of her voice with an effort of will that felt as if she was squeezing her own throat shut with both hands. Running around screeching would not help. Then she stood back and let the professionals dig for a moment. And Evrouin, John’s valet-bodyguard, who kept at it grimly, using his glaive as a lever to get debris out of the way.

She was sweating in rivulets with the usual damp heat of Baru Denpasar added to tons of flaming hardwoods ignited by napalm shells, the salt stinging savagely in her cuts and scrapes and scorches and plastering strands of her tawny hair to her face and neck, turning her white shirt and shorts black as her boots and suspenders and steel-lined bowler hat and streaking the tawny light-gold tan of her naturally fair skin. Smoke made her cough, and turned the spittle black when she spat aside. Pip sucked eagerly at the canteen her second-in-command Toa handed her, the two-liter bottle looking tiny in the big Maori’s huge, tatooed brown hand, and wiped at the black mascara running down from the circle drawn around one eye.

The burning central tower of the Carcosan fortress had collapsed in the moment of victory... but John couldn’t be just gone. Even if he’d been crushed and burned, a big young man in full plate armor couldn’t just disappear...

Could he? The things I’ve seen since I got here...

Other bodies had been there, dead or wounded, and more over the rampart where the Baru Denpasaran forces had stormed the wall, and more still in the open ground below where catapults and arrows and then spear and parang had done their work. Enough to hide the ground in places for a dozen yards at a time. Stretcher-parties from the victors were bearing their wounded back to the field-hospitals in the siege camp, while others gave the mercy-stroke to the enemy hurt.

Neither side in this war took prisoners; not for any good purpose, at least.

There was a thick stink lying over the whole bowl made by the earthwork walls of the Carcosan fort, of the bad-cooking smell of burning and burnt human flesh from the tower and a chemical taint from the rain of napalm that had set it alight, the coppery salt of blood like the time she’d visited the municipal slaughterhouse outside Townsville. And the shit stink from the thousands of bodies slashed open in the fight or smashed open by catapult bolts and prang-prang darts and great burning net bags of cantaloupe-sized rocks from the trebuchets that had burst in mid-air and come down like endless lethal hail on the heads of the enemy formations massing to resist the attack.

And already a hint of corruption, the rot so quick in this hot jungle valley far from the sea-breezes, and a buzzing of innumerable flies.

The humid, hazy air overhead was filling with red-winged, white-breasted kites and crows and birds of prey not too proud for pre-killed food, though they were going to be frustrated as the Baru Denpasarans were digging mass graves with their usual beaver-like energy. She wasn’t squeamish by nature and she’d been in fights before. But that had been mostly at sea where the clean ocean swallowed the results, and never on anything like this scale. Fortunately, she couldn’t take the time to pay attention to the full apocalyptic horror of it.

Prince John had not only been beneath the fragments of the tower when it fell. He’d vanished.

I’ve got to stop thinking that. It’s getting repetitious and it doesn’t do a bloody thing.

The pain of her own numerous but minor hurts was utterly distant. Pip felt her mind gibbering in shock, which was a rare experience for her so far in her twenty years on earth. Absolute self-confidence was her inheritance on both sides. From her mother’s distinguished, if also severely raffish and dodgy, English aristocratic blood; Mummy had been in Australia eluding the bailiffs because her father had gotten caught in some roguery or other shortly before the Blackout hit. And Pip’s own father was heir to the Colonelcy of Townsville, a King in all but name—and there were rumors he was planning on correcting the name when her granddad finally released his iron grip on life and her father took over.

She knew he’d had a crown designed and kept it in a safe and took it out and looked at it sometimes when he thought nobody was watching. That would have bothered her much less if she thought he thought she was capable of holding it on her own without some prestigious man about the place. Despite the fact that she seemed to have stumbled upon a very prestigious young man indeed...

Two thoughts went through her mind:

This is hitting me so hard because I’m more in love with Johnnie than I thought.

She’d known she was falling for him as well as being instantly and seriously in lust, but she’d never thought of herself as a sentimental woman... even when she’d still been a girl. Mummy hadn’t encouraged it, and she had been about as sentimental as a cat herself. Granted that John was tall and handsome and had big soulful brown eyes and nice hair and plenty of musical talent and a nicely off-beat sense of humor and was not boring and was inventively unselfish in bed...

Deep beneath that, in anger and rage and unacknowledged fear:

Bugger this sodding nightmare of an island! I can’t say I wish I never came here, but it’s close. Maybe England wouldn’t have been that bad—it was the family home from 1066 on and all that.

She’d left her family’s country estate... run away from Tanumgera Station in the dead of night with half a dozen of her father’s best racing camels and her late mother’s old retainer Toa and sundry other knickknacks including but not limited to her adventurer mother’s prized pair of kukri-knives... because her father was bound and determined to send her off to Court in Winchester, on the other side of the world in the capital of the Empire of Greater Britain to acquire some minor Windsor royal for stud purposes. The knickknacks had been fair and just recompense for...

Daddy being such a fussbudget about winding up Mummy’s will early, as if twelve months on a calendar made a real difference when I’m obviously an adult now and should have the trust funds and the Darwin and East Indies Company stock.

She’d gotten possession of the neat little armed schooner Silver Surfer in Darwin with some of those knickknacks, which had included the models and plans for rapid-fire Townsville Armory catapults that King Birmo of Capricornia had been very... very tangibly and materially... pleased to get. Plus a bit...

Just a teensy bit...

... of sort-of-nepotism from her mother’s old and now rich and respectable (or as respectable as anyone got in freewheeling Darwin) partners-in-crime from her days as a seagoing not-so-quasi buccaneer, salvager (royally licensed), explorer and trader-at-catapult-point. Uncle Pete and Aunt FiFi were always ready to help, and she suspected it was as much the fact that she reminded them of their younger selves as her mother’s memory.

And she’d gained the respect of the crew she’d recruited from the dockside dives by her own efforts, by showing she could do the job. And by personally and very publically whaling the stuffing out of a few convenient fools who thought they could treat the rich girl as a joke. Then it had been off to the romantic wilds of the Ceram Sea, to make a killing in quasi-legal high risk and high return frontier trade and do something herself, with the pitch of her own quarterdeck under her feet to fulfill a thousand childhood dreams born of her mother’s stories. And Aunt FiFi and Uncle Pete’s even more lurid versions, since they’d never been constrained by English understatement... and they’d probably been more accurate, too.

So that Daddy would have to take me back on my terms, if I wanted to go back to Townsville at all. It’s a stuffy sort of place.

Such a promising start, before they’d been trapped here on Baru Denpasar until the Tarshish Queen sailed in with John aboard...

Bugger that. And bugger losing John! If he was dead, that would be one thing, but he’s not. I just got him and I’m not giving him up, not even to the refugees from a bloody bad horror novel running that pink-coral abomination they call Carcosa!

She forced herself back to her feet as the rest of the Montivallans came up. Even if you were young and very fit, a day like this made you feel like a grandmother. The two she was interested in were nearby anyway, and had been dodging the chunks of falling tower along with the rest of them. Deor Godulfson was staring, his grey eyes looking... as if he was seeing things that might not be there.

And perhaps he is.

The wiry black-haired bard was wearing a blood-splashed mail shirt and carrying a red-dripping broadsword, but his primary occupation was what his eccentric little homeland in what had been called California called being a scop, musician and minstrel. She’d heard him perform fluently in any number of styles including ones she’d never heard of. He was very very good—as good as John but with a great deal more experience and single-mindedness. Among his people that also meant being some sort of medicine man, evidently; they took the Magic of Art thing rather seriously.

His companion—they were the same age and sort of platonic life-partners and had been since their teens apparently, since she liked men and so did he—was Thora Garwood. She was a rangy handsome red-haired woman in her early thirties in a suit of plate armor subtly different from what John had been wearing, one with a face-on snarling bear’s head in dark reddish brown on the breastplate. She was also absently cleaning her long single-edged, basket-hilted sword with a cloth; fighting was her specialty, and she was terrifyingly good at it.

Fortunately she hadn’t wanted to fight over John and they’d come to a mostly-unspoken understanding, though Pip still walked warily around her. In Pip’s already fairly wide experience absolutely nobody liked you for stealing their boyfriend, even if they’d been planning on parting ways soon.

Deor frowned. “Why haven’t you taken Prince John up?” he said. “He’s injured!

“Because we can’t bloody find him!” Pip snapped. “Can you?”

“But—”

She’d meant the question rhetorically and sarcastically, yet Deor was staring at a spot where two of the huge smoldering timbers lay crossed, leaving a space between them. The clutch of armored Montivallan crossbowmen—from something called the Protector’s Guard back in their home—had already been through there with fanatical thoroughness, and were spreading out around into less and less likely spots, while their commander Sergeant Fayard sat with his splinted leg outstretched cursing them on and cursing the local doctor who was finishing up on it.

“Oath-sister?” Deor said, in that rhythmic accent that made everyday speech sound a little like chanted poetry.

“I can’t see a thing,” Thora said, sheathing her sword. “But you can?”

He caught her right hand in his and—

“There—“ he dropped to one knee, fumbled at something on the ground.

No, above it, as if someone was lying there, Pip thought with a chill mix of terror and hope.

She felt her vision blur as she glimpsed a ghostly shape beneath his hands. A helm came suddenly into focus as he eased it upward and tossed it aside, a flare-necked Montivallan visored sallet with the stubs of ostrich plumes still in the holders at either side that she recognized instantly. It was chrome steel and had been burnished like a mirror only a few hours ago... and had been on John’s head as they went up the scaling ladder. An instant later his four-foot kite-shaped shield was there too, lying as if it had been lying across his...

That’s John! He’s curled up under his shield!

Chills ran up her spine despite the damp heat and the sticky sweat that never dried here.

Something’s making me not see him. Bloody hell. It’s adventure if you’re reading about it back in Townsville. Here it’s... bloody hell.

Carcosa’s evil name wasn’t just because they and Baru Denpasar fought over this island. The Balinese conquerors who’d founded Baru Denpasar in the first year after the Blackout had been desperate and ruthless themselves and like so many others they’d been self-exiled and looking for a new home to feed their families. The passengers and crew of the sail-powered cruise ship turned corsair vessel South Sea Adventure had been perfectly ready to help them fall on the locals here with fire and slaughter and take some of the spoils in return, rather than face a voyage back across the Pacific to a homeland in even worse condition because it had more big cities and fewer peasants who knew how to grow food without machines.

With infinite local variations, things like that had happened all over the world in those years of chaos and blood, as nations died and new ones rose from the ruins and adventurers carved themselves kingdoms at the sword’s edge. The consequences were still echoing down the generations.

What had happened when the captain of the Adventure stumbled across... something... in the interior years later had been very different, by all accounts. He’d come back to his little pirate sub-kingdom as something very much other, and soon his followers were too. The Baru Denpasarans were much more numerous, but that... otherness... had more than compensated.

Back in Oz this sort of thing was rumors, mysterious happenings in mysterious places, people in the far Outback wandering into the Dreamtime, or exotic islands or some underground temple or the usual unverifiable miracles people had always talked about. I had to go and find out for myself, didn’t I just!

They called the former Captain the Yellow Raja now, from the color of the rags that always encased him in public. Nobody saw his face, or had for decades, if it was the same man... or, according to some speculations, if he still had a face. His chief henchman was called the Pallid Mask, from what he wore. They’d renamed their ship the Hastur and their stronghold as Carcosa. Things had gotten worse from there.

Deor eased back on his heels, stripped off the glove from his left hand and held it, palm down, a foot or so above the ground, then began to move it back and forth. As he shaped the invisible form, it began to solidify. He grasped Thora’s hand, pressed it downward.

“His skin is clammy,” she murmured, experienced fingers searching for wounds with her eyes slitted, almost closed. “But the pulse is there.”

“Bloody hell!” exclaimed Pip, crouching opposite him. “When you touch him, I can see, but before... I saw rubble, and my eyes... just slid away. I can feel them trying to slide away now. It’s as if someone was saying nothing here, don’t look at the back of my mind.”

“A seeming, and a wicked one,” Deor said, sliding back into a sitting position and cradling his head in his hands. “Wicked and strong. Woden, lend me wisdom!”

Pip set her hands on either side of John’s face, smoothed back the sweat-soaked hair.

“He’s solid enough, but so cold!” Her fingers went to the throat under the jaw. “And his pulse is steady, but slow.”

“He’s not bleeding that I can tell,” murmured Thora. ”Maybe a blow to the head?”

The sallet helm bore several dents and dings that had not been there before.

“A coma?” Thora went on. “I’ve seen them, from head injuries.”

“He breathes, but he doesn’t feel unconscious,” said Pip. “Even when he’s asleep, you can feel that he’s there.”

For a moment the two women’s eyes met, and Pip felt the sudden vibration of shared awareness between them.

Thora was frowning. “Is the armor shielding...”

“No, said Deor. “You know how a dead body feels—an empty sack of meat in the shape of a man. This is something like that, not quite as bad, but nearly. John’s body is breathing, but—”

Deor put his hand to John’s forehead again: “His spirit is not there, the thing that makes us what we are. Not asleep, not even the deep sleep that comes of a blow on the head. It’s gone, gone elsewhere. There’s a link, but it’s faint. And—”

He jerked the hand back and seemed to slump, taking a shuddering breath.

“—and it has gone to no good place. We may have his body, but the enemy has still taken him prisoner. This is less of a victory than we thought.”

Thora took a deep breath of her own and got to her feet, looking around her.

“Well, wherever his soul is wandering, we need to get his body out of here.”

Evrouin’s swarthy face had gone grayish-pale as he stared at the Prince’s suddenly visible body and murmured a Latin prayer; then he crossed himself, shook his shoulders like a dog coming out of the water, and helped them strip off John’s armor and clothing. In the background Fayard was yelling at his crossbowmen, who scrambled back to glare in bewilderment at the man lying where they knew nobody was, then faced outward in a defensive circle. Most of them crossed themselves first, mid a mutter of Catholic prayers in Latin.

Pip knelt beside the fallen man and as Deor held his head slowly, carefully dribbled a little water into his mouth; you had to be very cautious getting someone to drink when they were unconscious because it was so east to get water into the lungs.

“You’ve found him!” said a lilting voice full of relief. Then sharply: “Don’t move him! Let me past!

That was young Ruan Chu Mackenzie, one of John’s Montivallans from the Tarshish Queen—hence the joy—and Deor Godulfson’s boyfriend. He wore a kilt, had an accent that was almost a parody of Irish speech, and altogether seemed implausibly Celtic for someone from what had once been the United States and who obviously had at least one Chinese grandparent judging by his looks and the Chu part of his name. But Pip knew odder things had happened since the Blackout—what they called the Change where he came from.

More importantly, he’d been trained as a medic, what his people called a healer, as well as an archer. He unslung the baldric that held his yew longbow and quiver and set them as he knelt at John’s side and gave him a quick, competent once-over that included taking his blood-pressure with a little kit from his haversack.

That made Pip reassuringly confident of John’s physical presence again. He was her own age, just twenty, broad-shouldered and long-limbed, four or five inches taller than her five-six, with brown hair and green-brown hazel eyes that showed as Ruan’s thumb pushed back an eyelid. His pleasantly smooth features were just losing the last of the adolescent puppy-fat.

But she was also acutely aware of how the personhood was gone, that lively sense of humor and the ear for music and the ability to see the absurd that had delighted her and were somehow there in potentia even when he slept. Now even their shadows were gone from his face, and he hadn’t had enough years to groove them into skin and flesh.

“Nothing! Pulse slow but normal, and the pupils contract, and that evenly. Sure, and it can’t be a concussion,” Ruan said. “His skull is sound as a bell, see?”

“You’re right,” Deor said.

“And head wounds bleed,” Ruan added.

They all nodded without thinking, having plenty of experience. They did, like bastards, even if they weren’t serious at all. The skin under the scalp was full of blood vessels, and even without a cutting edge they broke easily if a blow hammered skin against bone.

“I can’t feel any place where the bone’s depressed, either, and it’s not spinal damage.” Ruan said. “It’s not a healer of bodies he needs, but a bhuidseach.”

Seeing Pip and Toa uncomprehending, he translated: “Bhuidseach. Spell-wreaker, one who walks with the Powers. Like Deor. This with the Prince is ill-wreaking, not the natural course of things on the ridge of the world as wounds and illness are, but a bending of the shape of things. Sent of a living will to harm.”

Toa grunted thoughtfully; Pip swallowed. Her Uncle Pete had been fond of pre-Blackout adventure stories of a type she privately called Men With Swords and Things With Tentacles after something her mother had said. She’d read a few from his collection herself on visits to Darwin and found them amusing, though often wrong about how swords were actually used.

She sincerely hoped they were as wrong about the Things, but you could never tell.

Then Ruan grabbed a pair of passing stretcher-bearers. They came willingly enough since the foreign allies were popular. The whole Baru Denpasaran army knew that it was the catapults of the Tarshish Queen and the rapid-fire prang-prangs from the Silver Surfer and the knowledge of siegecraft that came with both that had made it possible for them to take this fort without crippling losses. And the fort squatted on the main water-channels to the rice paddies of the western half of the island. It had been a hand around their throats.

In the final assault, besides their Raja Dalem Seganing’s name, as a battle-cry the locals had shouted: For the food our children eat! as they charged home through the killing ground and over the ramparts in an unstoppable wave of desperate and merciless ferocity.

The agile and nearly-naked Baru Denpasarans with the stretcher negotiated the tumbled remains at the top of the fort’s outer wall nimbly, amid the shattered smoking timbers of the palisade and the churned-up earth. Then they brought their load down one of the heavy metal-shod siege ladders that had been flung up against the sloping surface of the earthwork adroitly enough that the unconscious man’s body would have stayed on it even without the straps across chest and thighs. The surface was firm beneath their feet, since spade-like shoes on the bottom and long curved crowbeak spikes at the top nailed it to the surface of the earthwork where they’d first been flung against it.

“And you—“ Thora gripped Deor’s arm and hauled him upright to help him along. “You aren’t much better.”

Deor shook his head. “Wherever the Prince went, it... draws. Draws strongly.”

“Drink this!”

She handed him her canteen of sweet tea and he gulped at it, coughed, drank again. Pip took something from Toa and nearly choked as it turned out to be a flask of arrak this time rather than water, distilled from the sap of borassus-palm flowers. Aged in hamilla-wood casks for years it could develop subtle flavors; Uncle Pete and Aunt FiFi’s Darwin and East Indies Trading Company had a warehouse full of it that they called Mendis Brandy and shipped all over Oz with profit for them and delight for the purchasers.

Nobody had bothered with aging this very recent batch of the local white lightning, and it was ninety proof. It didn’t taste of anything in particular except vaguely turpentinish and it hit her empty stomach like a napalm shell, and went from there out through her veins. For a moment she could feel those veins, as if her body were outlined in a threadwork of fire.

“Did I ever tell you how I met your Mum?” Toa rumbled quietly under the cover of her coughs. “And Pete and FiFi?”

“Not the details,” Pip said.

She knew it had been on the North Island of New Zealand, on a salvage trip to the ruins of Auckland in one of the last runs the three of them had made together on the old Diamantia. After that the Darwin and East Indies Trading Company had become a major player and they’d been reduced, against their wills, to mostly directing other people’s voyages.

The South Island of New Zealand had come through the Blackout years rather well, being mostly rural and not having any cities bigger than modestly-sized Christchurch. The northern half of the island nation had held Auckland, the biggest city, on the northernmost peninsula and the old capital of Wellington at the southern end. Between them they’d taken down most of the rest, and grim things had happened there until the southerners finally got around to taking the place in hand and resettling it. Not as bad as around, say, Sydney—not nearly as bad as near London or Tokyo—but bad enough to finish off most of the people near the cities or the roads between them, and if you died the disaster was personally fairly total.

She took another swallow, a modest nip this time, and handed it back. The Maori tilted it back and let his Adam’s apple flutter before he screwed the cap back on and tucked it into the pouch on the elaborate woven belt-and-loincloth arrangement that was all he wore besides a cloak of feathers on a linen backing. He had the mass to soak it up easily, being six-foot-six, a brown block of three hundred pounds of solid muscle covered in writhing tattoos from head to foot, interrupted by plentiful dusty-white scars, his stiff graying black hair drawn back in a bun through a carved bone ring at the back of his head.

His gargoyle face frowned and he used the heavy Maccasar-ebony shaft of his eight-foot spear like a walking staff as they followed the stretcher-bearers; the long palm-broad steel head had already been scrubbed clean and tended with file and hone. Toa was fairly casual about most things; she’ll be right was a saying he’d taken to heart. But weapons and gear weren’t among them and he could move with a speed and grace astonishing in so huge a man.

“Well, let’s just say your Mum and Pete and FiFi didn’t just save me life. There was something like this—”

He nodded forward at where Prince John’s form was being manhandled down the slope.

“—that was part of it. Proper mess, and I don’t remember all the details... never did. But enough, enough. That’s why I never wanted to head back to ol’ NZ. Well, that and those bleedin’ pākehā from Christchurch running all over it trying to civilize us years and years after we could have used some real help. Civilize us again.”

Below John’s soldiers—the dozen crossbowmen of the Protector’s Guard in their battered half-armor—were forming up around the stretcher, their faces anxious under a stiff discipline. As Pip understood it, John stood to inherit the position of Lord Protector of the PPA through his mother, while his eldest sister Órlaith took the throne of the High Kingdom as a whole; and they were specifically his guards, part of an elite unit with all the sworn-to-the-death oaths and so forth.

“Let’s get him back to town,” Pip said. “And then we’ll see what Deor can do. I’m not letting this one go, Toa, old boy, not if I have to sacrifice goats to the Great JuJu and dance naked by the light of the New Moon to get him back I’m not.”

“Too right,” he grunted. “Want to see you settled for your Mum’s sake, promised her and all.”

More softly: “And... straight-up, because I wouldn’t leave a bloody crocodile in the sort of place I think he may be stuck.”

 

@@@

 

Moishe Feldman greeted them not far from the gates of the city of Baru Denpasar, almost unnoticed in the roaring crush of celebration as flowers flew in multicolored rain from either side onto the—now stalled—column of victorious troops, less the militiamen who’d peeled off to their villages on the way back. His left arm was still in a sling; he’d taken the wound in the sea-fight when the Tarshish Queen arrived in the harbor nearly sinking, and the Carcosans swarmed out to attack her.

Deor gripped his good hand wrist-to-wrist, glad to see that the olive-tanned face looked better than when they’d departed even if there were a sprinkling of new white hairs in the man’s close-cropped black beard. An arrow through the arm was no joke, even if it didn’t hit anything that wouldn’t heal eventually.

“Good to see you, old friend,” he said.

“And you and Thora, safe back from battle. Barukh ata Adonai Eloheinu, melekh ha'olam, hagomel lahayavim tovot, sheg'molani kol tov.

They’d known each other off and on for more than half their lives, since Feldman’s father’s ship had found shelter in Albion Cove, the fishing village on the coast of the Barony of Mist Hills; shelter from a storm and from a three-thousand-mile running fight with a brace of Suluk corsairs who’d jumped the Ark off Hawaii, the first outsiders to visit since the Change.

“The ship’s sound as new,” the Corvallan merchant said.

He meant that literally and knowledgeably; his firm sailed out of Newport, Corvallis’ window on the Pacific, and his family had hands-on investments in the shipyards there. He’d seen the Tarshish Queen grow from builder’s plans and fresh timber.

“Provided we can get our catapults back and keep the... steel ship... off somehow, we can head home,” he added.

The quick dark eyes grew thoughtful as Deor told him what happened, and the more so as he came to the two-wheeled carts that held John and their other wounded.

“I can’t help you with this,” Feldman said.

Deor nodded; the Law by which his friend’s people lived forbade them certain arts and knowledge, anything that smacked of seidh.

“What I can do is tie up the Raja’s people in negotiations,” he said briskly. “We need to keep this very quiet until the Prince is... better.”

“Too right,” Toa rumbled. “They think anyone who gets the Evil Eye put on ‘em by you-know-who may be working for them on the quiet afterwards and the only sure way around it is to scrag ‘em. I trust you can do the needful for Prince Johnnie, mate, but they wouldn’t.”

Pip nodded vigorously. “My ship?” she said.

“Ready to go,” Feldman said. “Down to fresh sails and cables in the lockers; and the Raja loaded that cargo he promised you. My First Mate saw to it with your helmsman and had her towed to a berth next to ours.”

Pip nodded, which didn’t surprise Deor at all. First Rate Radavindraban of the Tarshish Queen was very competent, and her henchman Kombagle knew everything there was to be known about stowing a hold properly. For all that he insisted on dressing like a caricature of a Papuan warrior, down to the asgras and boar’s-tusk ornaments through the nose.

“For a monarch, the Raja is... relatively honest.”

“Do you think you can keep him from getting too inquisitive?” she said.

“The Lord willing and nothing too drastic happens over...”

His head went eastward though you couldn’t see Carcosa’s ramparts from here.

“... there.”

Then he patted the well-worn hilt of the cutlass where it hung by the side of his brass-buttoned blue coat.

“I’ve dealt with pirates and with kings, I think I can keep him talking; and he’s not bare-faced enough to steal our catapults after we just won the battle he hired them for. Just... get this finished as fast as you can.”

He looked down on John’s motionless face, put a hand to his own forehead, and recited softly:

“Mi Shebeirach avoteinu v’imoteinu, Avraham, Yitzchak v’Yaakov, Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel v’Lei-ah, hu y’vareich et hacholim John Arminger Mackenzie. Amen.”

The folk of Baru Denpasar lined the road to both sides, and Raja Dalem Seganing’s elephant glittered in its coat of jeweled mail, turning to a blaze in the sunlight on the carved gilding of the howdah. There were elephants in the expeditionary force’s train too, but they were at the rear... probably because Tuan Anak Agung, the commander of the little army, had originally been accompanied by what the locals called Pedanda, a High Priest and Priestess of their people’s Hindu faith. They’d ridden on one of the elephants... and they’d been killed by Iban mercenaries working for the enemy in a night raid.

And I think that may have been to clear the decks for this... abduction of Prince John.

Deor thought that Anuk was a competent man of war, but that he was also very, very worried about how his ruler would balance the loss of his holy man against the admittedly crucial victory.

The Tuan dismounted from his horse and knelt in the dust of the road, bowing his head before the elephant and the figure in the howdah and holding his ivory-hilted parang-sword across the palms of his hands. The elephant trumpeted again, and the mahout tapped it with the goad. It sank down into a kneeling position—rather imposing since the beast was of an African breed and twelve feet at the shoulder—and Raja Dalem walked down a sort of extensible ladder-stair that let down from it.

“Courtesy of Uncle Pete and Aunt FiFi and Mum,” Pip whispered.

Her mother and friends had shipped the elephants from Australia where feral beasts run wild from zoos and parks after the Change were abundant. In fact, they’d done it twice, because the original shipment to Bali had mysteriously disappeared... courtesy of the South Sea Adventure, back when its owners had still been fully human and merely piratical.

The Raja was a slight-built man in his sixties, but the human being nearly disappeared behind a towering crown of gold fretwork and golden leaves, a jacket of black silk riotously embroidered in threads of precious metal and jewels, gold-and-emerald earrings, and a sarong of shimmering batik. Guardsmen only slightly less gorgeous shaped up around him; Tuan Anak looked dusty and plain beside them.

The Raja took the parang from Anak’s hands, and the crowd’s noise died away in a ripple as those who could see passed on the news, as if they were holding their collective breaths. Then he reached behind him and took another weapon, similar but with a blade of watermarked steel and a hilt fancy even by the standards of what he was wearing, and presented it to the warrior.

The crowd’s roar rose again, louder than ever, and Tuan Anak rose and bowed deeply as he tucked the mark of favor into his sash.

Kings will forgive a good deal, for victory, Deor thought.

“And that’s my cue,” Feldman said. “I’ll handle the Raja. Now get him to the villa and get him back for us!”

 

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