Cover Prologue 1 2 3 4 5 6

 

THE SKY PEOPLE

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


 

CHAPTER THREE:

 

Encyclopedia Britannica, 15th Edtion

University of Chicago Press, 1988

 

Venus: History of observation:

 

Probes: By the early 1960's, orbital observations had confirmed that Venus, like Mars, was a life-bearing world, and further that at least one apparent city existed on the edge of a river delta near the northeastern edge of the continent of Gagarin. Atmospheric probes had given extensive details on composition, but only surface observation could begin to solve the puzzles that had aroused the anxious curiosity of all mankind. Foremost among these was the unmistakable shape of irrigation works, roads and settlements. Expectations were high that the human race would soon contact its first alien intelligence...

 

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Venus, Gagarin Continent, near Kartahown

Early Winter, 1988

 

Tahyo wiggled and whined a little, sticking his head out of the saddlebag. Marc dropped his hand to the greatwolf pup's head and gave it a swift hard rub with the tips of his fingers, the short mottled brown-and-black fur rough under his touch. If you concentrated just behind the crest that ran along the top the skull...

The pup sighed and let his head loll back in ecstasy, tongue drooping from the corner of his mouth. The Doc said it was a good bonding mechanism; it was certainly a good way to contain his bounding, chew-the-landscape restlessness. The only drawback was that it made him slobber, too.

Cynthia chuckled; she was riding a little behind him. "That thing gets bigger every day," she said.

Marc nodded. Hey, a dog's a great icebreaker. "Weh," he said. "Really sharp growth curve. Doc Feldman's real interested but I told him no dissection."

"This climate really is a lot like Spain or Italy," Christopher Blair said from his other side, changing the subject with...

Dogged determination, Marc thought with a slight smile. He's been sort of nervous about me since we got back from that trip. And well he should be!

"You get occasional nice days even in the winter rainy season," the Englishman said.

"I'd say more like California," Marc replied gravely. "Even though it's as far north as Hudson's Bay."

Blair shot him a dirty look. Marc returned it with a bland smile and took a deep breath of cool air, scented by the sea that lay in a white-flecked blue expanse to their left. They rode their churr in a loose clump down the eastward track on a day cool but brightly sunlit, with stretches of almost-blue sky between the clouds and haze above. There had been a pathway here before the Terrans came, but it had grown wider—and rougher and more rutted—with the new traffic. They passed a train of ceratopids pulling massive wooden wagons with six man-tall wheels, coming back to Jamestown with grain and cloth and bulk goods; he waved to the drivers, and reflected that they didn't have to worry much. The city-folk had learned not to run screaming at the sight of a 'saur with a human being on it, but they were still in sufficient awe that trouble was unlikely.

He'd have preferred personally that nobody but contact specialists be allowed into Kartahown, but nobody had come to Venus to be confined to base... and Jamestown was a small town. You could study data in safety back on Earth, if that was your preference—there was only an fifteen-minute lag on a video circuit, after all. People came here to do and see things themselves.

There were five riders from the Earthling base; he and Blair were supposed to be riding herd on the others. He had no qualms about Cynthia, but the husband-and-wife team of power-plant techs were disconcertingly tourist-like...

They came in on the same ship as Cynthia and Blair, he thought. Why is it they seem a lot greener?

A perfectly nice young couple, excited to be finally traveling to the city and snapping pictures of everything that moved with a fancy digital camera from the latest cargo pod to arrive from earth. He had to admit that the gadget was nifty; it had an interior memory and you could download the pictures to a computer for printing, which saved on shipping film out. Although it was also large and clumsy, about the size of an unabridged dictionary not counting the plug-in screen.

Sort of science-fictional, he thought. But then, we're exploring an alien planet, eh?

A lot of equipment Jamestown got was like that—things that wouldn't be on the general market back on earth for years. It contrasted with the Great White Hunter look of the rest of their gear, high laced boots of greenish-yellow 'saur hide, pants with cargo-pockets and bush jackets and floppy hats, and automatic pistols at their belts.

But...

"Hey, Tom, Mary," he said. "Careful where you point that camera, OK? The locals are already convinced we're sorcerers—and there aren't many good magicians in their view of the world. Plus they tend to think anything new is likely to be unlucky."

Blair nodded. "You don't know what conservative means until you'd experienced Kartahown," he said.

"Do they think, what, cameras steal the soul?" Tom Kowalski asked.

"They do think that pictures have power over the thing depicted, but they're not likely to realize that's what a camera does," Blair said cheerfully.

"Yeah, but they do know what guns do," Mark said, tapping the butt of the 10mm Browning Hi-Power he wore at his waist, as they all did—it was regulations. "And that thing looks a little like a gun, and a lot of these people aren't all that fond of us, might want to faire la misere."

Blair nodded; Marc felt a little disconcerted at how often they were agreeing.

Mais, we agree the planet is round, too.

The Englishman went on aloud: "Kartahown doesn't have police or anything like them—well, London didn't until 1832, either. No courts either, really, just prominent people who may settle a dispute if the parties agree to let them. The king's soldiers and noblemen and temple guards kill bandits, and they may crucify a thief if someone brings one to them, but it's friends and neighbors who retaliate for murders and robberies."

Marc decided to hammer home the lesson: "And we don't have any relatives in Kartahown and not many friends."

They looked suitably alarmed, and he went on: "Now, don't get too spooked. The Kings have 'put their hand' over us, which counts for a lot. And the locals are terrified of us, which counts for even more. Just be polite, cautious, unobtrusive, and if someone acts seriously threatening, shoot them down like a dog."

Tahyo chose that moment to try and scramble out of the saddlebag again, and the tension dissolved in laughter. Twenty miles from Jamestown a big square fortress of rock and adobe stood where a spur of higher land swung towards the ocean, the tail-end of a ridge of hills stretching inland and shaggy with forest; bronze gleamed ruddy on the spearheads of soldiers behind the pointed crenellations along the walls, and a thread of smoke rose in a column that bent towards the sea. Down by the roadway three hundred yards or so from the fortress gate waited a unit of thirty men. Ten wore cuirasses and helmets of 'saur hide shaped by boiling and nearly as strong as metal; the leather was polished and oiled and had an almost liquid-looking russet sheen. Their weapons were long bronze-headed spears and short leaf-shaped swords; they leaned on tall oval shields made of the same thick leather on wooden frames.

Nobody here had invented standing to attention yet but they looked alert and tough, scarred eagle-nosed faces, legs and arms knotted with muscle. Another fifteen were slingers, lightly equipped in sandals and cloth tunics, with daggers and big pouches for the pebble ammunition of their craft. They carried two slings each, one the simple leather type tied around their brows like a headband, the other with a yard-long wooden handle to anchor the thong.

Marc eyed them with respect; a staff-sling could spatter a man's brains at well over a hundred yards, after cracking a helmet first, or give a Quetza all the trouble it wanted. The soldiers were used to Terrans, pretty well, but the gawked at Tahyo's alertly curious head examining everything around. Marc took advantage of the moment to swing down from the saddle and lift the solid fifty-pound weight of the young greatwolf out of the leather carrying-bag. It ran around his feet, sniffing frantically, looked at the strangers with frosty suspicion, then trotted off to a large rock to pee enthusiastically.

"Heel, boy! Heel, Tahyo!" Marc said sharply when the beast was finished.

The Kartahownians gawked even harder when Tahyo trotted obediently back to sit behind Marc's right heel. Some of the signs against wizardry got trotted out again, but a few grinned delightedly. Tahyo tended to have that effect on people.

It's the big head and big eyes, Marc thought. Hardwired. Although the teeth are something of a put-off, the way they come over the lips.

The officer in his two-churr chariot wore 'saur-hide armor as well, but his had gold clasps and studs, as did his sandals, and his helmet was of worked bronze, with a high crest of enormous feathers each two feet long or better, iridescent blue and green. He smiled broadly at the Terrans. So did several of his men; a few others had carefully blank faces that probably hid hostility; the rest showed varying degrees of fear and awe.

"The Kings greet their friends," the officer said, which probably exhausted his English; he brought his clenched right hand to forehead, an acknowledgement that the Friends of the King were of equal status or higher.

"im'nAmerican imKartahownRis fiwas, fornas-hoon shoom'n," Marc said in return. "The Americans greet the kings of Kartahown with respect, and also its people and the gods within its walls."

He returned the gesture; Blair did too, and the other three Terrans followed suit a heartbeat later. The nobleman's smile looked a little more genuine as he realized the Terran could speak his own language fluently, although accented with the nasal whistling tone of all the Sky People.

"Pass, then, in peace and friendship," he said. Less formally: "Enjoy yourselves. Visit the Temple of the Bride; a stranger brings double luck, and surely one of the Sky People four times the good fortune from the goddess."

As the spearmen stepped aside Cynthia raised a brow at him. "What's that about the Temple of the Bride? She's their local fertility-and-hearth goddess, isn't she?"

"Ah—" Marc paused, embarrassed.

Blair smiled. "As I understand it, women here have to sacrifice their virginity in the Bride's temple before they can marry, with whoever fortune sends along. A number of ancient peoples on Earth had similar customs," he said. "I've never been there myself, but perhaps Marc..."

He busied himself by lifting Tahyo back into his carrier, one hand on the loose scruff of his neck, one under the butt. The greatwolf laid his ears back but submitted with another loud sigh. The churr snorted, a sound that involved a fluppppttt of lips against blunt omnivore fangs; the riding-beast was willing to tolerate the smell of greatwolf, but only just. It was as unnatural as putting a tiger on an ox.

Then Marc laughed ruefully and shook his head as he swung back into the saddle. "It's far too public for my taste," he said. "Worthwhile from a tourist's point of view, though. Makes Bourbon Street look like a convent."

"I can imagine," she said dryly.

"Well, the locals get upset and insulted if everyone stays away." Marc cleared his throat and pointed southward. "And there you've got another fruit of our technical aid program," he said, with pardonable pride; he'd been involved in the negotiations.

The cluster of buildings was on the edge of sight; they could just see the white water of a millrace turning an overshot wheel, and three furnaces like squat pyramids with the tops lopped off. Two of them were being blown in, and trailed their own thick columns of sooty smoke into the blue-and-white sky.

"The new smelters," he went on. "Eighteenth-century style charcoal-fired blast furnaces. Those hills have beds of hematite ore in them, sixty or seventy percent pure iron. We're already setting up an electric-arc furnace in Jamestown to turn the pig-iron into steel; there's plenty of surplus power from the reactor. It'll be operational in a couple of weeks."

"I remember hearing about it," Cynthia said. "It'll certainly be massively helpful when we've got more basic tools. Right now it's a catastrophe to lose a rock-hammer or a piton."

Blair scowled slightly. "I wonder what effect it will have on the local people," he said. "Dumping a new technology like that into an early Bronze Age culture... at best, there will be massive disruption."

"It certainly will change things, podna," Marc said. "What did that historian call iron? The democratic metal? You've been in town talking to the priests a lot, haven't you?"

"Yes," Blair said, seeming genuinely enthusiastic. "Trying to get into the archives, and making a fair bit of progress. Fascinating stuff there, absolutely fascinating. We know virtually nothing about the history of Kartahown yet... and even with this syllabic alphabet, some of the earliest records show how the language has changed..."

Marc nodded. "Weh, I'm sure it's all real fascinating. But notice how the priests and the kings and nobles and their hired soldiers get all the metal here? The peasants cultivate with tools of wood and bone and stone, because bronze is so damned expensive."

"Tell it to your precious nomads when the Kartahownian kings get armies with steel armor and weapons," Blair said; then he waved at the northern sea. "And the islanders out there, when they find schooners full of Kartahownian slave-raiders arriving."

Cynthia winced; they fell silent for a while, the loudest sounds the jingle of harness and the muffled thump of padded churr feet on the dirt, and an occasional startled wulf of interest from Tahyo when he saw or scented something new. The road dipped downward as they moved further east, the rolling plain turning to flatlands where sluggish streams flowed seaward; sometimes they ponded back behind the coastal dunes and turned into vivid green marshes alive with birds that looked very much like duck and snipe and flamingo. Some of those were a deep crimson save for black and yellow heads; when they took off in mass flight the air seemed to turn to a moving sunset.

The land had patches of cultivation around dun mud-brick villages, but mostly it was rolling green pasture for the herds of king and noble and priest; tharg and churr and sheep, and pigs eating acorns under the oaks—or things enough like swine and sheep and oaks that they hadn't bothered taking up the Kartahownian names. The herds had guardians armed with long pikes and slings; the forts and fortified manors and temples had paddocks with stout walls and lattice roofs of thick oak beams. Fields grew more common and the road broader, with more traffic on foot and in chariots and little oxcarts and then...

"Shoodak w'zaa hotl," Blair said. "The Barrier That Guards the World. Impressive, isn't it?

It was; a massive sloped rammed-earth wall that stretched out of sight in either direction, bristling with sharpened tree-trunks and studded with forts at intervals, guarding the inner lands of Kartahown from nomad incursions, and even more from the bigger and nastier forms of wildlife. When you considered some of the things humans here had to live with, it wasn't really surprising that they were just getting around to civilization.

What's really impressive is that this was all done by hand, wooden shovel, basket and pickaxes made out of animal bones, with oxcarts for high tech, Marc thought. They didn't even have wheelbarrows until we showed them how to make 'em.

The gate was a V-shaped notch in the earthwork, one that could be quickly blocked with massive spiked baulks of timber, with forts on either side, and then a big canal that served fields which stretched to edge of sight in every direction, save were a few sloughs held livid-green reeds and stretches of water. In one of them a pair of children in a small canoe dipped out a net full of wriggling things much like crawfish.

"Remind you of home?" Cynthia said, half-mocking.

Marc shook his head. "The swamps do; there's more of them further in towards the Mother River. This here is more like the delta country north of Baton Rouge, all the way up to Memphis. The air's a lot drier though."

The drained alluvial delta had black waxy-looking soil that did remind him of the Mississippi; the road was the same material, but piled up like an embankment and reasonably dry. Ditches and canals divided the fields into long rectangular fields, misted with green where the nurr-grain was sprouting, or flax or shamboo, or orchards and palm-groves and garden-plots bearing various things leafy or rooty or bushy; peasants were out with wooden spades and mattock-like hoes made from a stick and a large seashell, weeding and at the eternal task of digging out the canals. Women carried the muck away in straw baskets on their heads; both sexes wore simple loincloths, but females sometimes added a calf-length tunic to show that their families ranked a little bit above the commonality.

There was an intense and almost meaty scent from the dark, moist richness of the soil but not much reek of livestock, except for the tharg-oxen who pulled carts with twin solid wheels or turned water-pumps, and the odd chariot-pair of churr. Enough people, pigs and gaudy domesticated birds the size of turkeys swarmed around the habitations to produce a gagging stink of garbage and ordure from the frequent mud-brick villages. This was a man-made landscape, swarming with a dense mass of peasant families, fertilized with their night-soil, and it smelled like it.

"Let me guess," Cynthia said, gulping slightly as they rode through one of the teeming hamlets. "Don't drink the water."

"Not without using your water-purification pills," Marc replied soberly.

Blair nodded. "Not anywhere in the delta."

The stink was also the first thing you noticed about Kartahown, already bad when it was only a line on the horizon northwards; sewage and middens and stagnant water mainly, and woodsmoke and burning charcoal, with undertones of sweat and seldom-washed bodies. The road rose gradually, and the ground about grew even more thickly peopled. The crops were mostly vegetables for the city trade; now and then they glimpsed a building bigger and gaudier than the peasant huts, roofed in reddish tile and with brightly painted patterns on their whitewashed sides. Those were surrounded by mud-brick walls, and within those gardens and trees; they could glimpse flowerbeds and ornamental pools laid out in geometric patterns.

"Country places for bigwigs," Marc said. "And that boxy thing with the columns is a temple. There's an interesting procession in spring, when they bring the image of the god out on a sort of giant sledge and haul it into the Temple of All Gods in the city center—the Temple of Koru, the big papere of the pantheon. The people line the way and strew flowers and herbs on the road and sing hymns."

Cynthia gagged again, for real this time. "I hope the herbs and flowers cut the stink."

Marc grinned unsympathetically. "After a while you don't notice it so much."

She shuddered. "What a thought! I'm going to check my toes for malignant blue fungus after I leave." She nodded towards the temple—Kartahownians considered pointing at the image of a god blasphemous. "That's certainly impressive, though."

The temple was a rectangular box, a brick platform twenty yards by thirty supporting a roof on six huge granite pillars floated down the Mother River on barges. The pillars tapered from base to plinth and were polished to a high gloss inlaid with silver and orilachrium and gold, mostly in the spiky, blocky-looking script this civilization used. Long banners woven from feathers in iridescent colors hung between the pillars. When one blew aside you could glimpse the brass idol within; it was in the form of a squatly muscular man twenty feet high, carrying a spiked mace and with the head of a carnosaur, all gape and red tongue and long white teeth, with a horn on its nose. Men in flounced robes were busy about the pronaos, and in the other buildings grouped around it. The smoke of sacrifice rose from an altar in front, where an apprehensive-looking pair of sheep lay struggling, both pairs of legs bound.

Blair nodded in that direction too: "That's Thunderfist, the god of war and kingship," he said. "Unfortunately, he's also one of the ones they sacrifice humans to on their high holy days."

Everyone fell silent for a moment. The Terrans had some influence with the monarchs of Kartahown, but not nearly enough to fiddle with the religious basis of their power, not yet at least. The more so as most of the priestly caste ranged from suspicious to hostile.

Tom Marks whistled. Cynthia and the others who hadn't been to the city before looked impressed. As usual, pictures couldn't really prepare you for what it felt like. A moat fifty feet wide surrounded the whole; most of the water was covered by floating plants with broad plate-like leaves and big white-and-blue flowers. That was good, considering what else tended to be floating in the water. A long sinuous shape glided up in an arch

"Legless crocodiles," Blair said. "Twenty feet long and better, with teeth like steak-knives; they swim in from the Mother River. Don't fall in."

A sloping earth berm fifteen feet high rose on the inner side of the moat; on top of that was a brick wall thirty feet high, five feet of baked brick on either side sheathing a twenty-foot core of adobe, with an octagonal tower half as high again every sixty yards. The outermost layer of brick was glazed, and it made patterns in blue and green and yellow and purple, geometric shapes interspersed with fantastic beasts and birds. Atop the wall were pointed crenellations, with guards pacing back and forth; the roadway ran over a bridge to the wall, then turned sharply left. That exposed an attacker's unshielded right side to stones and javelins from above. Then there was a section where the wall doubled, one stretch overlapping the other, with a gate at each end and a narrow tunnel-like stretch between walls studded with towers.

"Mais, here's the big city," Marc said. "Remind you of home, city girl?"

"Shee-it, no," Cynthia said honestly, then grinned: "Not even the 'hood I came from was like this."

Set into the walls beside the entranceway in three-quarter relief were polychrome statues of bearded, armored men raising bronze swords aloft and trampling enemies below their feet. Each wore what looked like a Plains-Indian war bonnet on a helmet, and around them were the symbols of the Kartahownian gods—a sun-disk, a tooth, a spade, a lightning-bolt, a dozen others—each with a stylized open hand beside it.

"Showing the Kings are 'under the hand' of the gods, you see," Blair said, in a voice with more than a touch of the lecture-hall in it.

I knew that, Marc thought, as they exchanged salutes with the guards on either side of the gates. But I knew better than to say it.

"Well, I'm off to the Temple," Blair said. "Enjoy yourselves, children."

Marc nodded. The Englishman had an audience with the High Priest of Koru, about the only possible excuse for not seeing the Kings first.

"Enjoy the archives," he said.

 

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Venus, Gagarin Continent—far West

 

Teesa blinked. The sights of a hand of hands of eyes fought within her mind, blurring the green fronds before her eyes-of-the-flesh; the feel of air on skin, the scents in the noses of as many bodies overpowering her sense of self, of the smooth narrow shaft of the blowgun beneath her hand, the rank green smell of ferns crushed beneath her knee, the presence of her band hiding about her.

Mother, you died too soon! You did not teach me all that I must know! she thought, groaning within as she resisted the temptation to tear the band from her brows.

Here near the Mystery, the feather-weight of the Diadem of the Eye seemed greater than mountains. To the eyes-of-flesh it was a simple circlet of light-colored metal with a green gem above the wearer's brow, no more mysterious than a silver gewgaw such as the sea-traders brought in her mother's time. But not even the hottest fire or the heaviest rock could mark or mar it; and somehow it always fit perfectly, whoever wore it.

That was the least of its wonders, if you were of the sacred blood.

With a focused effort she pushed the experience of bodies not hers out of her mind. Instead she drove her will outward in a simple command nothing to fear. Birds and fliers near the Cloud People band grew quiet, went about their daily rounds; a ground squirrel walked by within arm's reach, giving her a casual sniff and glance.

And closer and closer came the footfalls of the beastmen. She could hear their voices grunting and hooting, unlike any tongue of men—but still more than those of wordless beasts. Sense them, sense them, the scent of each slow alien mind—

Her hand went out beside her, fingers splayed and then clenched three times, then two held out: three-hands-and-two of them. A little more than twice her band's numbers. Then a gesture with her thumb across her own throat: We take them.

Through the broad leaves of the ferns she could see the packed earth of the trail, below them on the slope. Across it was an old statue of the Hunter God as a hawk-headed man with a spear, skillfully carved but neglected and moss-grown. Her eyes prickled for a second; without their children to tend them, how could the shrines of the gods and the graves of the Ancestor Spirits be strong enough to ward the Cloud Mountain folk?

Beyond the trail were only glimpses, of pine-trees and oaks and beeches, down to the valley where the Cloud Mountain people had once dwelt in pride and happiness. The river was hidden from her, nor had she ever seen it, but she knew every bend of it, where each family and clan had fishing rights; and the caves in the cliffs beyond, and the place where the huts and gardens had stood, the holy lake, and the very Mystery itself. All swarmed by the beastmen and their shes now, all defiled by their filth. Her people remembered, though, they remembered very well, and repeated the tales for each new generation over and over again.

The raiders lay completely still. Teesa blinked her eyes closed, seeing each mind in her mind, like glowing lights. When the lights were in the right place—

"Arag!" she screamed, leaping upright: Kill!

Her blowgun came to her lips. A blob-nosed beastman face filled her gaze, not twenty paces away. Thin lips skinned back from menhir teeth as the thing screamed, threw aside the great haunch of meat it carried and reached for the club and shield slung across its shoulders. She filled her lungs as her lips clamped on the carved ivory mouthpiece, then surged the air out from the bottom of her chest, clenching her gut to give it added force.

Phhhtt.

The bone needle had an amber bead on its rear to stabilize it in flight. The curve it made between her blowgun and the beastman was a single blurred streak, and then the creature tried to scream with eight inches of sharpened tharg-shin through its throat; not for long, because the grooves at its tip were coated in the crystallized venom of the black spider. Her hand whipped down to the little pouch at her waist-belt made from the hide of a whole marmoset, with the head-cover folded back. The six warriors with her had shot at the same instant, and four of the beastmen were down dead; another had a needle through his arm and would be die in less than a minute. Already his eyes glazed and foam dripped from his lips.

The Cloud Mountain warriors snatched up spear or obsidian-headed axe and charged screaming the warcries of their clans, and the remaining beastmen surged to meet them. Teesa ran behind them, ready.

Phhhtt.

This time the needle sank to its bead beneath the beastman's ribs. The hairy torso convulsed, and the Cloud Mountain warrior's axe slammed into the side of his head an instant later. Beyond him a beastman had cast aside his weapons and grappled with one of her people, taking him in a bone-crushing bear's grip and snapping at his throat. Teesa dodged in and laid a hand on the bristly, sweat-slick hide and pushed with her mind.

"Ai!" she screamed, staggering backward.

The air filled with the stink of fear-loosened bowel as the beastman collapsed backward, head nearly touching heels as every muscle in his his body convulsed, breaking bone and ripping loose from it as well. Teesa shuddered and staggered herself, forcing the death-fear out, a black tide that had nearly consumed her as well as the enemy fighter; the Cloud Mountain warrior dropped to his knees and panted like a tharg run to earth by hunters, caught by the backwash

Using the Diadem of the Eye to kill was dangerous. Her hand fumbled a little as she shoved another dart into the blowgun.

Then a noise struck her, a long braaapppp! It was nothing she'd ever heard before, something like a grove of shamboo breaking in a bad storm, something like two rocks striking together again and again... and not like them at all. A hot acrid stink came with it, alien, making her nose wrinkle.

It was the last of the beastmen; by the feathers in his topknot and the necklace around his corded throat, their chief. Jondlar of the Axebeak clan was in front of him, the point of his spear almost touching the beastman's breast, but somehow his own back had erupted into a mass of blood and bone.

No! she thought, as time seemed to stop. Not my man! No!

Jondlar was falling, falling backward; as he did she saw a row of holes across his torso, much smaller than the ones in his back and just turning from black to red. The beastman held a... something. It was the length of a club with a forward part a little like a blowgun, and a sheen as of metal—but no metal she had ever seen before. From below it a flat boxlike curved shape jutted out, and he fumbled at it—

That is a weapon! she knew suddenly; perhaps the open tube at the front suggested it to her.

Action followed thought; there was no time for grief. The curved shape came free of the weapon and the beastman snatched for another like it held in a vest across his body, but her blowgun was already at her lips.

For my beloved! she cried within, and shot.

The beastman chief threw up his arms as the dart slammed home into his eye. That close to the brain the poison killed in the space of a double blink, and he fell limp as a wet rope.

Teesa looked around; her warriors were wide-eyed, shaking, on the brink of flight. Ordinary death they did not fear overmuch, but magic was another matter. There was frank terror in their eyes as she held the strange weapon of the beastman chief in her arms.

When there is time I will learn its secret, she told herself. That which slew her man would avenge him. Aloud she went on:

"Be brave! You are the Cloud Mountain people, clans of the Ax-beak, the Raveners, the Winged. Be brave!"

She could see the words take effect; and feel them through her mind, as she relaxed the screens that kept the death-anguish away from her.

"Gather up all their gear that is strange—that is a new-thing. And some food; we will not be able to stop to hunt and forage while we run."

The men obeyed, though they held the new-things gingerly. Jondlar's brother Taldi showed her a knife as long as a man's forearm, of some shining metal. He touched it, and then pulled a callused thumb back in surprise as it sliced deep enough to bring a thin line of blood.

"This is cursed!" he said.

"No, fool," she said, overcoming her own impulse to flinch.

"This is sharp. And tough—see—"

She rapped the flat of the blade hard on a rock, and it rang with an odd vibrating call like nothing she had ever heard before

"—it does not shatter, as obsidian would. Bring all such here."

She waited impatiently; while she waited, it was harder to fight back the tears. Then she passed her hand first over the Diadem of the Eye's jewel and next the plunder.

"See, I take away ill-luck, by the power of the Mystery. Now we must go. The beastmen will be here soon. I can hide us on the track, but not if they see us from a distance first."

 

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Venus, Gagarin Continent, Kartahown

 

"You are of the imiAmerican," the High Priest of Koru said.

He sat motionless on his throne before the great gilt solar disk of his god. Smoke from burning incense-resin coiled up to either side of him from censors held by motionless underpriests, spicy and bitter.

"Why should we trust your word, you deceivers, blasphemers, violators of all good custom and decency?" he went on, in excellent English.

Christopher Blair—or Christophé, as he thought of himself most of the time—felt a fine bead of sweat break out on his forehead. He forced himself to take a long calming breath and lean back in the shamboo chair. That was a sign in itself that Tau'tan wasn't as hostile as he acted. Chairs were a luxury here, reserved for the elite, and that he had been given one was a good sign—although not as good a one as refreshments would have been. That would make him a guest, and so absolutely sacred in theory... though Kartahownians were human, and hence didn't always put their theories into practice.

"In every people, there are factions and divisions," he replied. "Are all the men of Kartahown as one in all things?"

Tau'tan smiled thinly and tossed his head, the local gesture for no. "Truth," he said. "There is some truth in what you speak."

Thin was the word which came to mind when you saw the ecclesiastic. He was tall, an inch over six feet, and gaunt to an almost skeletal degree. Green eyes burned in the face of an ancient eagle; the resemblance was increased by the roach of hair down the center of his shaven scalp, short at front but longer at the rear and slicked up with wax into a crest that curled forward. The Sun God's gold glittered from rings and bracelets and a broad rayed pectoral; his robe left one shoulder bare as was common custom, but it was ankle-length and covered with shaggy tufts of wool dyed yellow to show his office and allegiance. Besides being chief hierarch of the Great God, he was a cousin of the Left-Hand House, one of the city's royal families, and a major noble in his own right.

For a long moment the eyes bored into Blair's. Then he waved a hand. One of the shaven-headed acolytes standing behind his chair turned and padded away, his feet silent on the white-streaked black stone of the floor. When he returned it was with a servant who bore a tray with bread, honey, fruit-wine, water, and cakes made from something like dates and something very similar to walnuts. Blair sipped and nibbled; it was difficult, past a throat clenched tight, but necessary. The cakes were palatable, and the fermented fruit-juice awful beyond description.

When he had done enough to satisfy ceremony, he went on: "Nor are we who have... come to this land...

He didn't say world. That was one of the sore points with the priests of the Sun God; the notion of other planets sharing the light of the Sun struck them as obscenely blasphemous.

"... all of one people, really. We are of... different cities. Not all are willing allies of the Americans, an arrogant and thoughtless people."

"Ah. Restive subject-allies," the Kartahownian said; his city had conquered most of the Mother River's valley in the past two centuries and had plenty of experience with the attendant problems. "I understand this. What then do you offer? Can you remove your polluting presence from the Land Beneath the Hand of the Gods?"

Blair sighed and shook his head. "As well as your mariners to cease sailing to the northern isles," he said. "If one city of the Land ceased, would the others?"

Tau'tan's lips narrowed. The Kartahownians had been sailing to the archipelago off the northern coast of Gagarin for a long time, and islander meant much the same to them as wog had to a Victorian Briton. Then the priest controlled his temper.

"We have heard of this other settlement of Sky People, far south of here in the upper basins of the Mother River," he said. "Cosmograd, is it not called? And we have heard there is no friendship between it and Jamestown. Are you of that folk?"

Blair shook his head. "No. There are many, ah, cities and kingdoms among the... Sky People. Mine is neither of the imiAmerican and their allies, nor of those who rule Cosmograd. We are a people of more ancient culture and wish only friendship with the people of Kartahown."

Tau'tan grinned like a shark. "And to outdo your rivals for trade and wealth and glory and mastery," he said. "Yes. Perhaps we should discuss this further."

He snapped his fingers again, and cup carved from a single carnosaur tooth was placed in ihis hand, full of the revoltingly thick, sweet fruit wine.

His other hand waved. "You may speak freely. None of my attendants understands your tongue."

And with nothing recorded... what do les Americaines call it... plausible deniability?

 

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I hope that's not symbolic, Marc thought, as the Left-Hand King of Kartahown brandished a new steel sword, smiling at the American guests. Tahyo pressed himself back against Marc's leg, silent but tense.

Unlike the first steel sword—the one the King had worn for years—this wasn't a gift brought from Earth. It had been made by his own Terran-trained smiths from ore smelted right here on Venus.

Maybe we should have insisted that the first load from the smelters be made into plowshares or frying-pans. Oo ye yi, I hope he doesn't decide to chop someone up to test it!

"Wonderful!" the monarch said. "And my blacksmiths—" he used the English word, horribly garbled "—tell me that soon there will be many more!"

Marc could have sworn that Cynthia raised one slim dark brow ever-so-slightly at the exchange; she certainly coughed slightly, but that might just be the strong bitter smell of incense.

The King of the Left Hand was a man in his early forties, middle-aged by local standards, his hair and curled beard shot through with gray though he had most of his own teeth; the spare tire around his middle was a carefully acquired mark of status. The King of the Right Hand was sitting more quietly; clean-shaven as befitted an unmarried youth. He smiled at the Earthlings as well; most of his closest advisors were priestesses of Owl Eyes, the goddess of agriculture and wisdom, and the friendliest of the religious hierarchy to the Sky People. Both kings wore pleated cloth-of-gold robes to their feet, and towering headdresses of green and scarlet feathers in crowns of gold set with uncut gems.

The thrones they sat in were of wood, a dark near-ebony thickly set with polished, sectioned scutes from the belly-armor of a type of 'saur. They were cut thin enough to be translucent, spreading in a high arch behind the seats; they looked a little like the spread fan of a peacock, and something like stained glass or the wing of a butterfly, glowing with the light that shone through the windows behind them. A few shipments sent back to Earth by solar-sail cargo pod had been auctioned after study, for publicity and to support the space program; the price they fetched actually paid for the shipping costs, or nearly. Here on Venus the material was much less expensive, merely worth several times its weight in gold.

At that, this was the informal throne room; probably to make the Terrans' refusal to make the customary prostration less offensive to traditionalists. It was merely twenty yards by ten, with a high arched ceiling. The yard-thick walls were rammed earth around a matrix of shamboo, sort of a primitive equivalent of ferroconcrete, pierced with tall narrow windows and between them smoothly plastered and painted with colorful murals in a blocky, half-stylized fashion. They showed the Kings and their ancestors at war, the hunt, or sacrifice; the gods of Kartahown hovered over them, smelling the smoke of the offerings, shedding blessing and help. The floor was some highly-polished dark stone, slick underfoot. Warriors with gilded armor and painted shields stood around the edge of the room; within milled a crowd of nobles and functionaries and priests, in a blaze of bright cloth, feathers and silver and gold.

Only the Queen Mothers and First Wives sat, besides the Kings—and on stools rather than chairs, but those were important posts, making the holders powerful in their own right. Clerks, some of them women, stood by the more senior officials and commanders, their reed pens ready to write on palm-wide strips of shamboo; lean muscular runners in loincloths and complex leather hats poised to dash off with messages. The lands ruled from here covered an area the size of California, with a population several million strong.

It would all have been more impressive without the smell, which the incense cut only a little, and minus the flies. The Kings and Queen-mothers and a few other bigwigs had servants behind them with billowy fans of feathers on long poles; most of the rest made do with whisks. Marc felt himself beginning to twitch like a horse in a summer pasture, sure that something was going to crawl up his nose soon. Occasionally Tahyo's jaws went clop on a passing bug.

"Once again we see that it was wise and good of the Gods to send the imiAmerican, the Sky People to us," the senior King said.

His colleague nodded agreement. So did everyone else—if you didn't think the monarch's words were inherently wise you were well-advised to conceal it in this time and place. They had an intensive zero-fault tolerance policy here. One of the Queen Mothers smiled benignly and sent a couple of the servants with fans over to the Terrans to keep the bugs off; she was delighted with the greatwolf pup, even after they'd declined several broad hints that Tahyo would make a wonderful gift. Marc had given a quick resume on his pup-rearing program, and he suspected that huntsmen would be out fetching equivalents before the day was over. The king went on:

"Let these sorkisun—"which meant noblemen "—be Our guests while they are within the walls. Let none hinder or harm them; Our hand is over them, and those of the powerful Gods who stand our friends. Hear! Fear! Obey!"

"Hear! Fear! Obey!" the crowd chanted.

Even informally the going-away ceremony took time, and even after they were out of the throne-room it took a while to get out of the palace, which was a huge sprawling warren of courtyards and colonnades, residences and chapels and gardens, workshops and barracks and storerooms. It was full of messengers and soldiers and servants and workers and visitors and ambassadors. Take a wrong turning and you might end up in a dim space where acolytes groveled before some half-human idol, or in a big sunny room where women sat at their work and looms made a rhythmic thumping under a chorus of song. Tahyo kept trying to lead them towards the kitchens; Marc pacified him with an occasional scrap of dried meat from his backpack. The young beast's powerful jaws shredded the leather-tough stuff with cheerful abandon.

"I wish it was respectful to have someone show us out," Cynthia muttered, as they backed out of the last wrong turn. "Even for court etiquette that's weird. There was someone to show us in."

"Mais, it is polite to have someone show us out, if the people showing us out are a nobleman and their entire retinue with a crier going ahead blowing on a trumpet," Marc replied. "Anyone less acting as an usher would be an insult, and the full-dress would take all day, believe me. On time just isn't on these folk's memory disks. Ah, here we are!"

Guardsmen crashed long steel-headed spears in salute on their tall oval shields of 'saur-hide, a heavy drumbeat sound; just then a messenger ran up panting and handed them all fly-whisks with carved ivory handles, a gift of the same thoughtful king's mother. A file of the soldiers trotted out after the Terrans as they left the palace grounds, which did have the merit of keeping the crowds in the square at bay and away from the sharp pointies. Freed of royal decorum, Tom and Mary began snapping digital pictures, exclaiming happily at the scenes caught in the plug-in screen behind the gadget, which he had to admit was nifty.

"Now, let's take a look at the only real city in the world!"

 

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