Cover Timeline P 1 2 3

 

THE STONE DOGS

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


Chapter Three

 

The War? We didn't think about the War while it was on. We thought about the next mission, then staying alive for the next five minutes. Get back and we thought about sleep or food or a cigarette, or getting laid. Maybe about "after the War," but that was a daydream... but when It was really afterward, yes.

Then we thought about It. Something as big as the Eurasian War can't be understood from the inside, not while you're in the belly of the beast. What did we think? We were... shocked, I suppose. We were a more matter-of-fact generation than yours, you know. You youngsters have grown up with things getting really strange—yes, you're tired of hearing that. The War was something new under the sun though; there'd never been a world war in an Industrialized world before. A tenth of humanity died in those seven years, that's just numbers, but we up at the sharp end, we saw it. Worse than that because it was concentrated, no fighting on our soil, thank Wotan, not much on the Yankee's, either. Elsewhere, though, by '46 it was a enamel house. I'm not using a metaphor, you could travel hundreds of miles and not get out of sight of human bones. You'd see a city, and someone would say it was Shanghai or Minsk or Bruges or Heidelberg, but It was all rubble. Just mounds of dirty brick and stone with bits of reinforcing-rod standing out. Sometimes melted by firestorms, and the stink. Freya bless... tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of bodies down under the buildings, smothered by the fire or nerve-gassed.

We were tired, by the end, very very tired. Tired and sick of it. Gods know, we're not a squeamish people, but... It changes you, that much killing, first you stop even thinking about alternatives. Life in the abstract loses its meaning, then your own life does. Life and death, good and bad, it all starts to blur.

It takes a lot of rest to recover from. If you ever do.

From: Notes to My Children
Journal of Thomas Ingolfsson:
April, 1950

CLAESTUM PLANTATION
DISTRICT OF TUSCANY
PROVINCE OF ITALY
APRIL, 1969

 

The aircar was a Trevithick Meerkat, a little crowded with six. Shiny new and smelling of fresh paint and synthetics; civilian production had just gotten under way, and they were still expensive enough that only the more affluent Citizens could afford them. Yolande, Myfwany, and Mandy were squeezed into the backseat, with Muriel in the front and Veronica on her lap, careful not to jostle the driver. He was a serious-looking young serf, thin and very black, flying cautiously. Trained at the Trevithick Combine's works in Diskarapur in the far south; a pilot and two mechanics had come with the aircraft.

"Oh, hurry up, boy," Yolande said irritably, as he banked the car into a circle at a thousand meters and began a slow descent, the ducted-fan engines turning down for lift. They had been slow getting away; the eight-month academic year was ending, and the Baiae landing fields had been crowded. Of course, an aircar like this could be driven by road and take off from any convenient open space, but serfs operated machinery by the book. Her hands itched to take the controls; this was all fly-by-wire, you couldn't redline it, the computers wouldn't let you...

"Just yo' parents to home?" Veronica asked, turning her head and resting it on Muriel's shoulder.

"Mmm-hm," Yolande replied. "Edwina and Dionysia both turned eighteen last year; they in Third Airborne, stationed near Shanghai. John would've been out, but they picked him fo' officer's trainin'." That meant an extra year's active service beyond the usual three, or possibly more. "He might be back on leave soon, though... Ma said her cousin Alicia's up from the south; she's in textiles, Shahnapur. Just got divorced, up here restin'-like. May move up."

The sound of the fans altered as they came to a halt a hundred meters up and lowered with a smooth elevator sensation.

"Oooo, woof, nice," Mandy said from her right, as their descent gave a slow panorama of Claestum manor. "I like it when they use the old things."

There were admiring murmurs as the aircar extended its wheels with a cling-chung, and Yolande felt a warm glow of pride like sun on bare skin. They had landed at the southern entrance of the main building, where the road widened into a small plaza after its winding journey up from the Quarters and through the gardens. Ahead was the house complex, and the tall oaks and chestnuts that crowned the hill and tumbled down the northern slope.

It is pretty, she thought, trying to look at it as a stranger might. Her parents had laid out the Great House in the shape of a U along the south-facing slope, with its apex open to the woods at the crest. Both flanks were old Tuscan work from the pre-War town, each ending in a tower; weathered red tiles and sienna-colored stone overgrown with flowering vines. The newer buildings knitted them together, and the southern end of the U was closed by a curved block in classic Draka style; two stories of ferroconcrete sheathed in jade-green African marble. Fluted pillars of white Carrara ran from the veranda past the second-story gallery to end in golden acanthus leaves at the roof, and the windows behind were etched glass and silver.

"Oh, it's all right," Yolande said casually, as the gullwing doors of the aircar soughed open. She put a hand on the rim of the passenger compartment and vaulted out.

Home, she thought, swallowing. It smells like home. Green, after the filtered pressurized atmosphere of the aircraft; the mildly warm fresh-green scent of a Tuscan spring. Odors of stone, dust, flowers, water from the two fountains that flanked the wrought-iron gates into the central courtyard. The piazza of checkered brick beneath her feet was where she had learned to ride a bicycle, the trees flanking it were ones she had watched grow. Her parents had been waiting beneath the gate, out of reach of the miniature duststorm an aircar made in landing. They came forward as their daughter's friends clambered out of the Meercat. Yolande swallowed again and drew herself up calmly, cleared her throat.

"Hello, mother, father," she said. One of the housegirls behind the Landholders was coming forward with a curtsy, bearing a courtesy tray with a carafe and glasses. Yolande smiled with a flush of pleasure. There would be a formal greeting; her parents were treating her friends as adults, not casually as children.

"Service to the State," her father said. He was a stocky man and rather short for a Draka, no more than 175 centimeters, dressed in planter's working clothes: boots and loose chamois trousers, cotton shirt and gunbelt, and a broad-brimmed hat in one hand. Hazel eyes, and gray streaks through seal-brown hair and mustache. "Thomas Ingolfsson, Landholder, pilot, retired," he continued.

"Johanna Ingolfsson," her mother took up, handing out the glasses and raising her own. "Landholder, pilot, retired. Glory to the Race." She was a finger's breadth taller than her husband: a wiry-slender blond woman in her forties with a handsome hatchet face and scarring around her left eye, dressed in a long black robe with bands of silver mesh at neck and throat. They all poured out the ceremonial drops and sipped, murmuring the formula. The wine was a light, slightly sweet white; not the clasico vintage that was Claestum's pride, but that was a red dinner wine and unsuitable as an aperitif. "Well, do the honors, daughter."

"Myfwany Venders, Arethustra Plantation, Sicily," she said. Myfwany clasped forearms with both the elder Ingolfssons. "Mandy Slauter, from Naples; Veronica Adams, Two Oaks Plantation, Lusitanica; Muriel Quintellan, Haraldsdal Plantation, Campania."

Her parents went through the ritual gravely. Then her mother turned to her and smiled, spreading her arms. " But't' yo' are still my baby 'Landa, hey?"

Yolande flung herself forward, and felt the familiar slender strength of her mother's arms around her, pressed her face into the hard curve of neck and shoulder. It smelled of soap and a faint rose perfume and the clean summery odor of Johanna's body, the scent of comfort and belonging. "Hello mama," she whispered. "Thanks awfully." Her mother held her out at arm's length.

"Yo' are fillin' out," she said. Yolande grinned with pride, then gave a whoop of surprise as hands gripped her under the arms and swung her in a circle.

"Y'are indeed, but still bird-light," her father said, laughing up into her indignant face.

"Daddy! Put me down!" He laughed again, giving her a toss; she felt the strength in his hands as he lowered her, gently controlled and as irresistible as a machine.

"Greetin's, child," he said. To the others: "Y'all will fo'give me, ladies; I've got an overseer gone and broke her leg, and fo' hundred hectares of vines to finish prunin', while my wife lazes about." He nodded and strode down the plaza, where a groom led a horse forward.

"If he thinks wrestlin' with that accountin' computer and those League bureaucrats—" Johanna shook her head. "Well. Friends of my daughter, y'all are to consider Claestum yo' own, and make yo'selves to home. Veronica an' Muriel, I'm puttin' yo' together?" The friends were standing hand-in-hand; they exchanged a glance and nodded, smiling. "East tower, then; yo' servants an' baggage arrived safe last sundown. Or pick another if it doesn't suit; one thing this stone barn's not anyhow short of, it's space. 'Landa, I'm puttin' y'other two friends directly either side of yo' old rooms over't" the west tower. Rahksan heah will settle yo' in, and see y'all at lunch."

"Oh, it is good to be home," Yolande said, throwing her gunbelt on a table and sinking into a wicker chair. "Shut up, eat; iff'n I'd taken yo' by air, yo'd have puked."

Machiavelli looked up from the cushions of the chair opposite, giving her a cool green-eyed stare of resentment before ostentatiously grooming. He had been sent ahead by train with her luggage and maids, and would be a while forgiving her. The Oraka girl shed her boots with a push of instep against heel, and let them drop; she peeled off her socks with her toes and rubbed the sole of each foot down the drill fabric of the opposite pants-leg.

Rahksan laughed, scooping up the holstered pistol and nicking it neatly on the stand beside the door before picking up the boots. "Good to have yaz back, Mistis 'Landa," she replied, examining the scuffed heels." T cat Ah could do without."

Yolande sighed, linked her fingers behind her head and stretched, wiggling bare toes against the edge of the reading table as she watched the serf drop the footwear outside the entranceway to the corridor and begin unpacking the hand case she had brought with her in the aircar. She could feel her mind settling into the familiar spaces, at rest with every cranny of the rooms that had been hers since she moved down from the nursery. There was the old tower above, with its spiral staircase; the rooftop aerie, a private study below, then her bedroom. This lounging room on the ground floor, lined with bookcases and the tapestries Uncle Eric had looted from Florence during the War and given for her namingfeast. Her desk, over there in the corner; a video screen, her own retrieval terminal to the House computer, the new digital sound system she had gotten for her thirteenth birthday. Chinese rugs on the gray-marble tiles of the floor, glowing in the bright morning light that streamed through the glass doors of the terrace.

Rakhsan came back from taking her toiletries through into the bathing rooms. Yolande looked at her more closely. The Afghan had been a fixture of her life as long as she could remember. Ma had been given her as a present by an uncle when they were both five, to raise as she might a puppy or a kitten, a ragged girl-child pulled out of the rubble of a gassed village during the conquest of her wild and mountainous homeland. She was a short woman, round-faced and curve-nosed and slightly plump, big-breasted and hipped, with curling dark hair still glossy despite the silver streaks.

"Yo' lookin' good," the young Draka said affectionately. Rahksan had done much of the day-to-day rearing of the Ingolfsson children, and supervised the serf nursemaids. "Younger, or at least thinner."

"Tanks kindly, Mistis," Rahksan said, running a complacent hand down from silk blouse to pleated cream-colored skirt. With a slight grimace: "Had to live on rabbit-food, an' swim ever' day 'til I thought mebbeso I'd grow fins, but I shed five kilos." A sly wink. "Certain person said it'd be all lonely nights iff'n I didn't."

Yolande smiled and closed her eyes, surprised at her own brief embarrassment. She had always known that her mother slept with Rahksan occasionally, at least since she was old enough to be conscious of such things at all. It was nothing unusual. For that matter her father had probably sired Rakhsan's own son; he had the look. But it's sort of uncomfortable to imagine Ma and her actually... doing it, she thought. And it still sounded a bit strange to hear "Mistis" instead of the child's title of "Missy."

"How's Ali?" she asked, changing the subject. "Drink, please. Yo'self, too."

Rakhsan slapped her forehead. "Ali! That boy!"

There was a sideboard near the stairs with a recessed chilling unit, the usual. The serf poured two glasses of lemonade, handed one to Yolande, and sank gracefully to her knees, sitting back on her heels; it would not have been fitting for her to use the chair, of course.

"Ah swear he do things jus"t' grieve his ma—" She shrugged. "Do mah best fo' him, and whut do Ah git? Trouble an' gray hairs. He workin' in the House stables now." A sniff, and grudging admission. "Doin right well, Mastah say he natural with horses, mebbeso Head Groom somedays. Still, he doin' field-hand work when he coulda lived clean an' been clerk o' somethin', here in't' House."

She drank, and rolled the cup between her palms. "I tell him yo' 'quires, Mistis, tank y' kindly."

Yolande cleared her throat. "Did Myf... did my friends like they rooms?" she asked.

"Why, sho'ly," Rahksan said blandly, finishing her juice and rising to replace the etched-glass tumbler on the counter; her back was to Yolande for a moment. "They all settled in good." A pause. "That Mistis Myfwany, she a fine young lady," she continued. "Mos' particulah interested in yo', Mistis, ask questions an' all." Another pause. "Powerful pretty, too."

"We're good friends!" Yolande snapped. "All of us," she added.

"Did Ah says different? A body'd thinks mebbeso yo' was sweet on somebody..." She turned, a wide grin flashing white against her olive face.

"Oooo—!," Yolande half rose, flushed with anger, then sank back, joining helplessly in Rahksan's laughter. "Yo' impossible, Rahksan!" she said, throwing a pillow.

"No, jus' impudent an' triflin'; comes a' havin' wiped yo' butt an' changed yo' diapers..." The smile softened. "Didn' mean hurt yo' feelings, sweetlin'," she said warmly, laying, a hand on her shoulder.

"Yo' didn't," the girl said, throwing her arms around the short woman's waist and laying her head on the comforting softness of her bosom. "Oh, Tantie Rahksan, maybe I am sweet on her, a little... I don't know, it's all mixed up, don't know what I want." A sniffle that broke into a sob. "Why can't everything be simple, like it used to?"

"There, chile, there," Rahksan replied, stroking her hair. "My little 'Landa growin' up, is all." She hummed softly in her throat, rocking the Draka girl for quiet minutes. "Some day yo' looks back on this as y' happy an' simple time. Be happy in it; growin' is painful sometime, but believe me, bettah than agin'." A rueful chuckle. "Tings works that way, sweetlin'. Wait fo', five years an' yo' starts gettin' interested in boys, now that complicated. They a lot mo' different."

Yolande giggled tearily and made a mock-retching sound. The serf bent and kissed the top of her head. "Y'change y' mind somedays, girl. They necessary, an' mighty nice in they own way. Anyways, take things as they come. Here."

The serf produced a handkerchief, and proceeded to wipe Yolande's face. The girl surrendered to the childlike sensation, but reclaimed the linen to blow her own nose. She was grown-up, or almost, after all.

"Thanks, Rahksan," she muttered. "Sorry I was so silly." Looking up, she saw the blotch her tears had made on the front of the other's blouse, and winced with embarrassment. "Didn't mean to be such a waterin' pot." That prompted remembrance: she felt in her pocket. "Got somethin' fo' yo' in Palermo last month."

Rahksan unwrapped the tissue and opened the small blue jeweler's box. "Why, Mistis 'Landa!" she exclaimed, lifting out the locket. It was a slim oval of pale gold rimmed in pearls, on a slender platinum chain. She opened it, holding the cameo up to the light; a Classical piece in the modern setting, translucent white against indigo blue glass, a woman's head wreathed in a spray of tiny gold olive-leaves. "That beautiful, sweetlin'; nice to remember y' ol' Tantie Rahksan."

"I'll nevah fo'get yo', Rahksan," she said quietly.

"Well." The serf put the chain around her neck, then bent to kiss Yolande on the forehead. "Whenevah y' needs somebodies"t' talk to... o' cry on, Mistis... Ah'm theah." A glance at her watch. "Bettah get goin'. Mastah John's rooms need a check; them useless bedwenches of his neglects things somethin' aweful. That Colette, particular."

Yolande watched her leave and finished the lemonade, vaguely ashamed of the display of emotion. I'm too old for tears, really... The sadness was gone, though. Now she felt truly relaxed; this was her home ground, after all. She undid her cravat and pulled it loose to finish wiping her face, then tossed it aside, undid the top button of her shirt, and held the Egyptian linen away from her skin. I am filling out, she thought with satisfaction. Not much, but then Ma wasn't much bigger, and she was the most beautiful person in the world. What had she said? "Anything more than a handful is a waste." Curious, she touched the smooth shallow curve with the pads of her fingers. In biology class the teacher said breasts were mostly an ornament, like a peacock's tail. The touch had a sort of shivery feel to it, almost like an itch.

Her fingertips brushed across the pointed pink cone of the nipple, and she jerked the hand away; it was the sort of sensation that could feel good or bad, depending. Too strong, anyway.

She rose to her feet and paced, letting her hand trail across the bookshelves. Good friends here; Gulliver's Travels, her Alice Underland and Looking-Glass World, family heirlooms in smooth leather and stamped-gilt titles. Some she could remember her mother reading to her at bedtimes; others she had discovered herself. The old books had a rich scent all their own, leather and the glue of their bindings and a slight hint of dust that reminded her of summer afternoons. She opened one and smiled to herself; there was a vine-leaf still pressed where she remembered, brown and gossamer-fragile. They had seemed so big, then, filling her lap, the smooth paper with the dyed edges transparent gateways to wonder. Veme, Stevenson, Lalique, Halgelstein, Dobson. Illustrated histories, and the Thousand and One Nights; most of all horse books: riding, breeding, showing.

There were models on the shelves as well, from the time when flying had won co-equal place in her heart with the stables. Early machines: Pa had gotten the model of the Ahrinian for her; it was nearly a hundred years old and had been made when the first war-dirigible was launched. An odd looking machine, cigar-shaped with the spiral wooden framework dimpling the fabric covering, and big room-fan type propellers jutting out from the gondola. Miniatures of her parents' Eagle fighters, from the Eurasian War. Pencil-slim twin-engined planes, perfect down to the blackened exhaust-trails behind the big prop engines and the kill-marks on the wings; they had been going-away gifts from their ground crews. A plastic suborb missile she had put together herself from a kit: a slender sinister black dart. And a scramjet fighter, long slim delta shape banking in frozen motion on its stand. She touched that, symbol of freedom from earth V bounds and gravity's pull.

There were data-plaques piled beside her terminal. Yolande grimaced at the size of the stack of the palm-sized wafers, in school colors; enough to keep her busy several hours a day. She put her palm against the screen for the identity check and pushed a wafer into the slot beside it. The machine chimed: Introduction to Evolutionary Ecology. Text and pictures flickered by, moving diagrams showing energy-flows, reconstructions. Feathered dinosaurs and ground-apes from Olduvai—and space for the data she would be entering, answers, and essays. That would be interesting, at least, but mind and body rebelled at the thought of more study now.

She turned through the open glass doors to the ground-level terrace instead, and reached overhead to grip the steel bar just outside. Moodily she began a series of chin-lifts, stopping at fifty to hang with her knees curled close to her chest and controlling her breathing to a deep steady rhythm. Bruiser said it was the best way to clear your mind for thinking: let the muscles soak up and burn the hormonal juices the body tried to cloud your mind with. It's a good remedy for confusion, she thought wryly. If I could be sure what I'm confused about.

"Hio,'Landa." The terrace outside her rooms ran all along the west front of the building, but her section was separated by a carved-stone screen that ran out to the low balustrade. Myfwany's face leaned around it, smiling. "Want company, or yo' set on devolvin' into a gibbon?"

"C'mon ovah," Yolande said. She raised herself to chest-height against the bar, counting twenty slow breaths, then dropped to the ground, acutely conscious of her rumpled state. "Everythin' all right?"

"Better than that," Myfwany said, swinging around the balustrade. "Been lookin' forward to seein' yo' homeplace quite some time, now. Can't know a person till you've seen where they come from, hey?"

The other girl had shot up these last six months, and flat-footed on the tile pavement Yolande's eyes were level with her nose. She had changed already, into a round-necked cream-silk sleeveless shirt and fawn trousers; there were bracelets in the form of curled snakes pushed up on her upper arms, and a fillet of the same silvery metal holding back the red curls that fell to her neck. They walked to the balustrade together, leaning on the stone and looking down. Yolande cast a covert eye to her side, admiring the way the platinum snakes seemed to ripple as the muscle moved beneath the freckled skin of Myfwany's arms.

"Utilities an' such?" the redhead asked, nodding downslope.

The hill fell away gently to the northwest. There was a strip of lawn three meters below them, then terraces behind low brick retaining walls, flowerbanks and cypresses, fountains and stairways. At the base of the slope the buildings began, two rows of them built back into the slope so that the pale yellow tile of their roofs made steps leading down to the pool at the bottom. They were half-hidden from here by the trees planted about them, chestnuts and oaks.

"House stables, toolsheds, garages, some sleepin' quarters," Yolande answered. Most of the housegirls bunked in the attics, but not the garden staff. The plantation's transformer was down there, too; electricity came in by underground cable, brought down from the hydro plants in the mountains. She laid a hand on Myfwany's. "Thanks... thanks fo' comin' along, Myf. Missin' goin' to yo' home, and all. Would've been lonely, without."

Myfwany turned her hand palm-up and squeezed for a moment before releasing the other girl's fingers. "No great sacrifice," she said quietly, not looking around; she smoothed the wind-tossed hair back from her face. "Got to get it cut... My stepmother an' me don't get on so well, anyhows."

Yolande tried to imagine what it would be like, for her mother to die and a stranger take her place, and shivered. "Come on, there's time for a swim befo' lunch."

There was a shout from the pool. Johanna Ingolfsson looked up from her papers, and saw her daughter balanced on her red-haired friend's shoulders. The other girl reached up; they clasped wrists and Yolande did a slow handstand, grinning downward through dangling strands of wet blond hair.

"Now!" she said.

Myfwany pushed up and Yolande twisted, doing a complete 360 turn before arrowing into the water headfirst. Johanna nodded approvingly as the sleek body eeled along the bottom of the pool for a dozen meters before breaking surface and crawl-stroking for the far end. Myfwany followed. They paused for a moment, treading water and hyperventilating, then dove for a game of subsurface tag. Johanna quirked a lip. Not the only type of touching friend Myfwany has in mind, if I can still read the signs, she thought.

"Looks like my youngest might make a pilot; got the reflexes, at least," she said musingly. "About time, the first three bein' in the ever-lovin' infantry of all things."

Rakhsan chuckled; she was sitting on a cushion at the bottom of the lounger, embroidering a circle of silk held in a wicker frame. "Mebbeso she pick the Navy, eh, Mistis?"

Johanna snorted and reached for the glass of cooler. The outdoor pool was set along the eastern flank of the Great House, along the outer rim of the terrace built up and out from the hillside. It had been convenient; the space beneath provided room for things best tucked away, the heat-pump system, the fuel-cell for the war-shelter deep in the rock beneath the manor, the armory, a laundry... a pleasant place for an outdoor lunch, as well. One hundred meters by twenty-five, with a basic pavement of black onyx marble they had gotten cheap after the War, stripped from ruined palazzi in Sienna. The rough stone of the wall behind them was overgrown with bougainvillea, bright now with pink-purple garlands; low limestone troughs held banks of clematis, pearl rhododendrons, azaleas; there were stone bowls with topiaries and small trees, or lilac bushes for the scent.

The older Draka returned her attention to the documents. There had been another change in the League accounting procedures for olive-oil delivery, specifically the extra-virgin first pressing Tuscan that Claestum produced for the restaurant trade. The Landholders' League bureaucrats never seemed to tire of searching for the perfect paperwork solution.

"Lady Freya bless," she muttered. "Some day the civil service will grow right over the Domination like-so coral on a reef, an' we'll all freeze in place." She made a notation, signed and snapped her fingers. "Guido, take these an' give them to the bookkeeper; we have to have written acknowledgment from the Florence office, tell her that." Next thing would be to do a check on the irrigation piping in the orchards, hands-on work, but that could wait until after lunch.

Stretching, she looked back at the pool. Yolande was sitting on the edge of the little island at its center; there was a two-meter high alabaster vase in the center of that, with water cascading down from a spout in its center. She was smiling and swinging her legs, talking to Myfwany as she floated nearby; Johanna could hear their laughter over the sound of the fountain. Her mother turned her head to the other lounger where... Mandy Slauter, that was her name. Lying up on one elbow under the dappled shade of the pergola, fanning herself with her hat; a nice enough girl, a bit citified, but it was good that Yolande was making friends outside Landholder circles. Some people liked to pretend it was still 1860, but the Domination had changed; unless you were prepared to rusticate all your life, connections in the urban classes were essential.

Johanna nodded in the direction of the pool. "They two seem to get on very well," she said. Mandy nodded. "Are they sleepin' together yet?" she continued casually.

Mandy blinked and coughed, would have squirmed if etiquette permitted. "Ah, Miz Ingolfsson, they, ah, that is—"

Johanna's cousin spoke without raising her eyes from the book in her lap. "Gods, Jo, y' always were as subtle as a steamtruck. Spare the girl's feelin's, hey?"

Johanna chuckled; adolescent affairs were a long-standing tradition for Citizen-class women, but there was an ancient convention of not mentioning them before adults. Probably a survival from times when such things were strongly frowned upon, but it had been silly even in her youth. "Younger generation's less discreet than we was, Alicia," she said. To Mandy: "Hard though it is to imagine, girl, I went to school, too. Jus' inquirin'."

"Ah, no. I don't think so," Mandy said. Under her breath:
"Moo."

"Well, as they please," Johanna said contentedly.

Yolande had never been very popular at school in her younger years: too much the loner and dreamer. It was reassuring to see her fitting in so well and making friends. A lover was only to be expected given her age, although Johanna had never thought much of the hothouse-romance atmosphere of Senior School herself. In theory it was supposed to be emotional training for adulthood, but she had never seen the point in falling in love with someone you couldn't marry. Not that school sweethearts necessarily drifted out of touch; ex-lovers who were godmothers and unofficial aunts to each other's children were a staple of Draka life... But it was all no preparation for how different men were.

Well, I was always eccentric, she mused comfortably. Deciding who you were going to marry at sixteen was decidedly unusual, even if he was a neighbor's son. She smiled down at Rakhsan; that was an entirely different matter, of course. As the Roman poet had said, it was pleasant to have it friendly, easy, and close at hand... friendly especially, otherwise it just wasn't worth the trouble, usually.

Rahksan smiled back, laying aside her embroidery. "Yo' got anythin' fo' me to do, next hour or two, Mistis?" she asked.

"No, not particular, Rahksi. Why?"

"That boy of mine," she said. "Wants particulah to have a talk with me, says it impo'tant. Allah, most of the time he don' give me the time of day, an' now he jus' has to have a chat."

Johanna pursed her lips; Rahksan's son was a classic pain in the fundament. Spoiled from house-rearing, restless as a cat on hot tiles, and sullen; a lot of young serfs went through a stage like that, particularly the males, but he was considerably worse than average. It was no help that Ali had been sired by Tom. Contraception had been more difficult then, and Rahksan careless about it; the three of them had been play-pleasuring, and the Afghan had decided to keep it on impulse. Not that half-Draka bastards were uncommon, but mostly they grew up in Quarters and it made no particular difference. Ali had run tame in the manor; looking at it from his point of view, she supposed it was natural enough for him to be more discontented than most. To make it worse, he was completely besotted with Colette, her son John's new French concubine.

Who is a gorgeous mantrap and a teasing bitch of the first water, Johanna thought sourly. The wench had been a present from her cousins Tanya and Edward, who had a plantation west of Tours in the Loire valley; John certainly hadn't complained—he indulged the wench—but his mother was beginning to think her kin had unloaded a troublemaker. Tanya's bloody sense of humor, she mused.

"Rahksi, that boy needs some serious talkin'-to," she said. "Half a dozen times I've talked Tom out of kickin' his butt good an' proper. Fightin', drinkin'; he's first-rate with the horses, but he's back-talked the head groom enough to get anyone else triced up to the frame fo' ten-strokes-an-' one. Freya, honeybunch, I cain't let him ruin discipline." Bending the rules too far for a favorite was an invitation to trouble.

"Ah knows, Mistis." A deep sigh, and the serfs brows drew together. "Blames myself, really do. Too easy on that chile; I get set to rake him down, an' then remembers him so little an' sweet. He too land treated, never reminded strong of his place; it better iff'n y' learns that young."

Rahksan looked suddenly older; Johanna sat up and gave her a gentle squeeze on the shoulder. "Isn't easy bein' a mother, Rahksi. Don't worry, we'll straighten him out."

The Afghan shrugged and smiled ruefully. "I'll tells him yo' threatenin' to sell him to the mines," she said.

Johanna snorted. "Bettah use somethin' he'll believe," she replied. The Ingolfssons and her own von Shrakenberg clan had definite ideas about managing their serfs; they did not sell them to strangers, except as punishment for some gross crime like child-abuse. Such extreme measures had not been necessary on Claesrum since the brutal days of the settlement, right after the War. Besides which it would break Rahksan's heart, which was not to be contemplated.

"Say we might send him down to the boats fo' a year," she continued. Claestum had a part-share in a tuna-fishing business on the coast, run in cooperation with a half-dozen neighboring estates. The Landholders oversaw their hired managers carefully, but it was rough work.

Rahksan winced slightly and made a palms-up gesture. "Tell yo' true, Mistis, I've thought on that. Might do him good't'see how soft he's had it, an' get him away from his momma's skirts. But—"

"I know, he's yo' own and yo'd miss him." Johanna rested one of her own hands on the serfs. "Look, Rahksi, this just an idea. Tom was sayin' Ali makes a terrible houseboy but might do well as a soldier; we could get him a Janissary postin', if he volunteered."

And it would be just what he needs to make something of himself, she thought. The boy's strong an' smart enough, it's the attitude's the problem. An induction camp's hard-bitten Master Sergeants had no interest in the anguished sensitivities of the adolescent soul, or anything else beside results.

"Eehh." Rahksan bit her lip. "That generous, but they mighty rough an' he ain't nohow used to it." A talented serf could rise far in the military. Not just to non-commissioned rank in the subject-race legions; Janissaries had opportunities for education, training of every sort. There were ex-Janissaries throughout the serf-manned bureaucracies that ran the Domination, below the level of the Citizen aristocracy. "Though... I wouldn't see him much, that way," she finished softly.

"Rahksi," Johanna said seriously. "He's not yo' little boy no' mo'. Ali's a grown buck, an' he has to learn to look his fate in the eye. He cain't hide behind yo' fo'ever. Else he'll do somethin' we can't overlook, an'..." She shrugged. "Ahhh, well, run along an' try reasonin' with him. But think about it. Well talk it ovah mo' tonight."

Johanna put the matter out of her mind as Rahksan left; time enough later. She could hear Olietta directing the wenches setting the table behind her, and glanced at her watch. 1258 hours; Tom would be in from the fields any time now. It was a house rule that the family ate together; otherwise you might as well be living in a hotel.

"C'mon, yo' two!" she called to the girls in the pool.

"That was fun," Yolande said, as they slid out of the water. The verge was covered in the same blue-and-green New Carthage tiles as the pool; they felt warm and slick under her feet, and the dry air cooling on her wet skin. It had turned out to be a not-quite-hot day, just right for outdoors.

" Twas," Myfwany agreed. "I'm nevah goin' be able do that circle-flip like yo' can,'Landa."

Yolande grinned with pride as the servants came forward with towels; Bianca and Lele, her own. The deep pile of the cotton was a pleasure in itself, smelling crisply fresh and slightly of the cherry-blossoms they had been laid on in the warming-cupboard. She had always rather enjoyed being dried; there was less distraction than when you had to do it yourself, and after a swim it made you feel tingly and extra clean. Like wearing new-laundered underwear, only it was your own skin. She reached down and absently patted Lele's head as the Eurasian serf worked over her feet.

"How's Deng?" she said.

"Still poorly, Mistis. Gives many tanks fo' the crystallized ginger yo' sent up last month." Lele looked up and grimaced. "Says he hasn't seen any since China. I tried it. I kin see why." Yolande laughed and held up her arms for the serf to slide the Moorish-style striped djellaba over her head. The fine-textured wool settled against her skin like a caress, and she ran her fingers through the damp mass of her hair to spread it over her shoulders.

The serfs gathered up their towels and left; Myfwany looked up from adjusting her belt-tie. "Yo've got wonderful servants," she said sincerely, shaking back the wide sleeves. Disciplined obedience could be bought from any good labor agent, but enthusiasm was not as common. "Spirited but not spoiled."

"My parents' doin'," Yolande said in disclaimer. "They had the hard part, back right after the War. Had to kill a few, even; but now we go six months at a time without so much as a floggin'; Pa doesn't hold with whippin' much, says it's the last resort of stupidity an' failure."

"Good teacher still needs good pupil," the other girl replied with a slow smile. "Yo've got the nature, like Marsala wine: strong but sweet."

Yolande smiled back, and then the expression faded. There was a feeling like cold under her breastbone, yet it was hot as well, cramping her lungs. She could feel her lips paling, and her arms and legs wanted to tremble; her vision grayed at the edges until Myfwany's face loomed in a tunnel of darkening night. There was a moment when the whole surface of her skin seemed to prickle, drum-tight, then the world snapped back to normal. Or almost normal; the hot-chill sensation in her stomach settled lower and faded to warmth, and she put a hand to the side of her head, gasping for breath.

"Yo' all right? " 'Landa?" Myfwany's voice was sharp with concern, and she gripped her friend by the shoulders.

"I—yes, just felt funny fo' a second." She shook her head. "Little scary... must've held my breath too long underwatah. Anyways, let's go eat; I'm starvin'." She had, suddenly, a bottomless hollow feeling almost like nausea. It was worrying, even if they had only had rolls and fruit with their coffee that morning. No run, after all, and only a couple of hours in the water...

A serf struck with quiet precision at a tiny bronze gong by the table. Another seated herself at a harp nearby and began to play softly as the Draka assembled. The table was near the house wall, the usual rectangular slab of polished stone on curved wrought-iron supports, shaded by oleanders. Yolande dropped into her wicker chair and grabbed at a roll from a basket, breaking the soft fresh bread and eating it without benefit of butter. The taste was intoxicating, and she finished it off and took another, more slowly. Muriel and Veronica had arrived, looking sleekly content; they nodded around the table as they drew their chairs closer.

"Where is yo' father?" Johanna asked, as the serfs handed around the first course; it was iced beet-and-cucumber soup, for a warm day. "And are they starvin' yo' down at that school, child?"

"Mmmph," Yolande said, then swallowed to clear her mouth. "No, I just had a... really strange sensation. It's funny, I was lookin' at Myfwany an' thinkin' on how nice she is, then all of a sudden my head was swimmin', and my knees felt watery and my skin went cold an' I broke out in a sweat; and then my stomach felt strange. Figured I must've not noticed how hungry I was... What are y'all laughing at?" she concluded with bewildered resentment.

Her mother had put fingertips to brow and her shoulders shook. Aunt Alicia was coughing into a napkin; Myfwany looked back and forth between them, blinked in understanding, and then focused on carefully pouring herself a glass of white Procanico wine. Mandy looked at her owl-eyed.

"Y'are joshin', 'Landa?" she asked, and turned to Veronica and Muriel. "She is joshin', isn't she? Please, tell me, nobody could be that ignor—"

"Johanna!"

It was her father's voice, from the french doors that gave onto the terrace from the main house.

"Look-see who I've brought to lunch!"

"... so it turned out they were just Keren tribesfolk who wandered across the border," her brother was saying. "It's pretty wild there in south Yunnan, mountain jungle. Of course, they could have been Alliance operatives pretendin to be tribesfolk, so we turned them over to the headhunters." He grinned and buffed his fingernails. "And my tetrarchy got extra leave fo' stumblin' across them. Scramjet shuttle to Vienna, overnight dirigible to Milan, caught the train to Florence an' so forth."

The soup was removed and the next course arrived: seared sea-scallops with asparagus, stuffed Roman artichokes and truffled walnut oil, then insalata in cumin vinaigrette and a paella salad on the side. Plain country food; her parents disapproved of the modern Orientalizing fashion of bits and pieces of this and that, saying it was bad for the digestion and distracted the attention from the real pleasures of dining and conversation. Hunger satisfied, she touched a finger to her wineglass for a refill and watched the others. John was getting respectful attention in his description of an impromptu tiger-hunt in the rhododendron thickets of the Yunnan mountains, up on the Nepalese border. Mandy was drinking it in, with her chin resting on her hands.

Well, he is pretty dashin', Yolande thought critically, glancing at her brother. Tall and long-limbed, which showed to advantage in garrison blacks. Russet colored hair and close-cropped beard, straight high-cheeked features and gray eyes against brown-tanned skin, set off by tasteful ruby ear-studs and the silver-niello First Airborne Legion thumb-ring.

"... so I ought to be able to squeeze in a week here to home," he finished.

Johanna signed for the serf to remove her plate and lit a cigarette. "Well be havin' some people over next Tuesday, if yo' haven't lost the taste fo' countryside jollifications... I'm goin' over the orchards this afternoon. They're in bloom; why don't yo' come along and help show Yolande's friends about?"

"Hmmm." The serfs were bringing coffee and deserts, blueberry lemonade sorbets and almond flan with fruits and cheeses. "Actually, mother, I had somethin' else planned fo' this afternoon. Glad to, tomorrow. Sorry." He grinned un repentantly.

Yolande looked up at the harpist. Colette, her name was. A gift to John on his twenty-first birthday from the von Shrakenbergs of Chateau Retour, over in what had been France; they were kin, first cousins on her mother's side and more remotely on her father's, as well. The wench's mother was a serf-artist of note, a singer trained pre-War at the Paris conservatoire. Colette had inherited some of the talent, and her looks as well. Tall, slender, dancer-graceful; softly curled hair the color of dark honey to her waist, and huge eyes of an almost purple violet. Priceless, and faultlessly trained, but Yolande had never liked her; conceited, given to dumb insolence, and unpopular with the other servants, which was always a bad sign. Except for a few of the bucks hopelessly infatuated with her, of course.

The serf met the Draka girl's eyes for a moment, smiled with an almost imperceptible curve of the lips, then dropped her gaze to the instrument. Sunlight worked in flecks through the flowers overhead and patterned the white samnite of her gown.

Yolande's father laughed. "Give the boy a few hours to... settle in, darlin'," he said. Johanna smiled and slapped her son on the shoulder.

"Don' wear yo'self out befo' dinner, then," she said as he rose.

"If there's anythin' left of yo' tomorrow, yo' might help with a problem, son." Thomas Ingolfsson said. "We've been losin' sheep, over to Castelvecchi."

"Ah! His son turned back, alert. "Wolves? Wildcats?"

"Leopard, from the sign." Yolande saw her father's eyes narrow in amusement at the sudden prickle of interest around the table. "Yes, they must finally be breedin' enough that they're spreading out of the Apennines."

The upper hill-country had been stripped bare of population after the War; that was standard practice, for security reasons and because such areas were seldom worth the trouble of cultivation by Draka standards. The Conservancy Directorate had reforested most of the abandoned lands, and introduced appropriate wildlife. The Italian reserves were still not as rich as North Africa's, where a hundred and fifty years of care had left the mountains green and teeming with game, but there was enough to allow limited culling. Draka loved hunting with a savage passion, and were preservationists accordingly, but letting the big cats into densely populated farming country was excessive even by their standards.

"In fact, the Conservancy people said go ahead an' take them, not worth the trouble of trappin'."

John sat down again; behind him, Yolande noticed Colette playing with an irritated vehemence.

"I could ride over tomorrow morning with the dogs; take Menchino and Alfredo... Join me, Pa?" he said eagerly. "Ma?"

His parents shook their heads reluctantly. "Winnifred went and broke her arm, can't spare myself," Thomas Ingolfsson said.

At John's frown, Johanna added: "Can't come myself either; we're sortin' the yearling colts fo' the Sienna show. Tell yo' what, though, Johnny, why don't yo' take Yolande and her friend Myfwany P."

"Thanks—" Myfwany and Yolande began in chorus, then broke off with a giggle. John opened his mouth to say what he thought of taking his baby sister and an unknown teenager along on a leopard hunt, caught his mother's eye, and nodded.

"Glad to, sprout. An' yo' too, Miz Venders," he added.

"Thanks awfully," Myfwany said. "No leopards on Sicily yet, an' my elder sister got one down in Kenia last year an' she's always on about it."

Johanna turned smoothly to the other girls. "Best not to cluttah up a huntin' party too much; I'd be honored if y'all would come with me and assist at selectin' the yearlings, we're rather proud of our ridin' stock here at Claestum... An' to be sure, pickin' out one each fo' yo'selfs, as well."

Mandy smiled with delight. John-boy, you still can't compete with horses, Yolande thought satirically. Muriel and Veronica were enthusiastic as well: of course, they like anything they can do together. She suppressed envy and hunted a last blueberry around her plate.

"I'm sure there'll be one left yo'll find suitable, Miz Venders," Johanna continued." 'Landa's been half-livin' in the stables since she was knee-high, she can help yo' pick."

"That was beautiful," Myfwany said.

They were riding their horses through the Quarters, but blossom from the orchards still clung to their shoulders and hair. Yolande could see them starring the other's dark-red mane, pink cherry and white of apple and peach; the blossom season had overlapped this year, which was a little unusual.

"Y-" Yolande cleared the stammer from her throat with an effort. "Yo' are beautiful."

"No," Myfwany said fondly, looking around. Side by side with their boots touching, they were just close enough for private talk. "I'm good-lookin', just. You are beautiful." A smile quirked her mouth as the other girl shook her head in a spray of flowers.

A companionable silence fell, and Yolande enjoyed the feeling of communicating without speech. The roofs of the Great House were just visible on the distant hilltop, over the cypresses and the outer wall of the gardens; some plantations tucked the serf village away out of sight, but the Ingolfssons were Old Domination and not shy about the foundations of their wealth. The cottages were native stone, tile-roofed and closely spaced along brick-paved streets; shade trees flanked the lanes, and each four-room house stood in a small patch of garden, vegetables and often enough a few flowers. It was getting on towards evening, and the Quarters were noisy enough to drown the clop-clatter of hooves and the occasional metallic kiss of stirrup-irons.

Heads bowed towards the riders from passing serfs, dutiful routine deference to the Landholder and her daughter, curiosity towards the guests. Folk were back from the fields and the compulsory evening shower, work-gnarled older men in shapeless overalls, short thickset women brown as berries and seemingly built of solid muscle. Younger ones with enough energy left to throw jokes and snatches of song at each other as they scattered to their homes. Children played run-and-shout games along the sidewalks, or helped their mothers carry home baskets of round loaves that gave off the tantalizing scent of fresh baking. Cooking-smells came from the cottages, tomato and garlic and hot olive oil. They reined in to the little plaza where the lane joined the main road to the manor, and Yolande called to her mother:

"Ma!" Johanna Ingolfsson reined up. "Ma, Myfwany and I'll go right around to the stables an' walk up."

The Landholder raised one brow; the grooms could take their mounts from the Great House steps just as well. A touch at her stirrup made her look down; Rahksan was there, and gripping her ankle. She frowned slightly at the lapse in decorum and bent low to listen to an agitated whisper.

"Please yo'selfs, girls," Yolande's mother said after a moment. She extended a hand; the serf gripped her wrist, put a foot on the toe of Johanna's boot and swung up pillion behind her owner. The Landholder looked around, abstracted. "Two hours to dinner," she finished, and touched heels to her horse. There was an iron clatter of hooves as Johanna and their friends spurred up the road.

Myfwany and Yolande walked their horses across the square. There was a small fountain in the center, Renaissance work salvaged from some forgotten hill-town. The public buildings of the Quarters lined the pavement, the larger houses of the Headman and senior gang-drivers, the school, the infirmary, the bakery, and baths. There was a church as well, a pleasant little example of Tuscan baroque reassembled here at some little expense, and another building that served as a public-house with tables set outside; a few workers sat there over a glass of wine or game of chess. Serfs never touched money, of course, but Claestum had an incentive-scheme that paid in minor luxuries or tokens accepted at the inn. Farming is skilled work, Yolande remembered her father saying. Difficult, and easily spoiled. Needs the carrot as well as the stick. She nodded to the priest in his long black gown and odd little hat as they passed, and he signed the air.

"Funny," Yolande said, as they turned their mounts left to the laneway that skirted the base of the hill. "Nothin' much has happened today, but it feels special, somehow."

"Know what yo' mean, 'Landa." Myfwany ran her hands through her hair and rubbed them together, shedding bits of petal. "Smell."

Yolande leaned her head to the other's extended hand; it carried hints of soap and leather, overlain by the spring-silvery scent. Like a ghost memory of the orchard, tunnels of white froth against black branches, sun-starred with water diamonds and rainbows from the sprays. Her heart clenched beneath her ribs and she felt suspended, floating in a moment of decision like the arch above the high-dive board. She bent to kiss the soft spot inside the wrist, and felt cool fingers brush across her lips. Glanced up, and their eyes met.

The moment passed and they laughed uneasily, looking around. The garden wall was still on their right, whitewashed stone along the gravel of the road. The lawns were a vivid green beyond it, trees and flowerbanks, groves and summer-houses, ponds and statues. Hedges and onyx-jade cypresses gave glimpses of the workaday area to their left, barns and pens, round granaries and the sunken complex of the winery, smithies and machine-shops. The sun was sinking behind the Great House and they lay in the shadow of its hill, an amber light that turned the dust-puffs around their horses' hooves to glinting honey-mist. They passed under an arched gate and Yolande waved her riding-crop to the one-armed man who bowed from the veranda of the cottage next to it.

"Evenin', Guido," she said, as they passed. A boy had run ahead, and they turned downslope into an area of low stucco-coated stables and paddocks fenced in white board. The horses side-danced a little at the smell of home and feed, eager for their evening grooming and mash. Yolande smoothed a hand down the neck of her mount as stablehands came up to take the reins.

"Nena, Tonio," Yolande said as they swung down.

"Mistis Yolande," they replied. "Buono ride, Mistis?" Tonio continued, with a flash of white teeth against olive-tanned skin.

"Tolerable good," Yolande said, grinning back. Both Draka gave their mounts a quick once-over before turning over the reins, and Yolande slipped a piece of hard sugar to hers. Slipping into local dialect: "Did that barn-cat have its kittens?"

The young man shrugged and spread his hands apologetically, but his sister dipped her head. "Stable four, Mistis," she said. "Up in the loft, I heard it."

Myfwany looked at her with raised brows; the patois on her family's Sicilian estate was different enough to be a distinct language.

"Cats?" she said.

"Kittens," Yolande replied. "Have a look?"

"Meeeroeuuu," the cat said warningly. It had been reasonably polite, but it was not going to tolerate strange fingers touching the squirming, squeaking mass of offspring along its flank.

The two young Draka backed away on hands and knees across the loft's carpeting of deep-packed clover hay. It had a sweet smell, still green after a winter's storage. They flopped back on the resilient prickly softness; the long loft of the stable was almost night-dark, the last westering rays slanting in through the louvered openings above them. Yolande stretched, feeling the breathless heat as a prickle along her upper lip. There were soft sounds of shifting hooves through the slatted boards beneath, and the clean smells of well-cared-for horses. There were a dozen of the long two-story stables here below the hill: personal mounts for the Landholders and their retainers, used for the routine work of supervision, or the hunt or pleasure-riding.

Yolande turned on her side, watching her friend's face and probing at her own feelings. Happy, she decided. Myfwany's face was a pale glimmer in the darkness, her eyes bright amber-green. Scared.

"Yes," she said, to a question not spoken in words.

They moved together, embraced. Yolande gave a small sigh as their lips met; a shock went over her skin, like the touch of the ocean when you dove into an incoming wave. Their arms pulled tighter, and her mouth opened. She tasted sweat-salt and mint.

"Gods," she murmured, after an eternity. "Why did we wait so long? I'd've said yes months ago. Didn't yo' want to?"

Myfwany chuckled softly. "Almost from the first," she said, and laid her hands lightly on the other's flanks. "Beautiful, muscle knitted to yo' ribs like livin' steel. I waited because the time wasn't right." Yolande shivered as the hands traced lightly up to her breasts.

Voices from below, jarring. Yolande fought down a surge of anger; what did they have to do for some privacy, go check into a hotel? A dim light shone up through the floorboards; the voices of serfs, angry and quarreling.

"Send them away," Myfwany breathed into her ear.

Yolande controlled her breathing and crawled toward the big square hatchway that overlooked the tack-room; a little light was coming up from below, a hand-lantern's worth. Not that it was any serfs business what she did or with whom or where, but she was suddenly tooth-gratingly conscious that the estate rumor mill would be passing news of every straw in her hair and undone button before morning. Whoever it was—sundown was after plantation curfew, and there had better be a good excuse for this, or somebody was going to be sorry and sore. She recognized the voice as her head peered over the timber frame of the trapdoor, and the anger left her like a gasping breath: Rakhsan, and her son Ali. She was five meters above their heads; it was unlikely in the extreme that they would look up. Myfwany caught her tension and froze beside her.

Ali's voice, speaking Tuscan. A tall young buck, in groom's breeches and shirt and boots, tousled brown hair. He had run tame with the House children when she was younger, a little rambunctious but fun. Sullen past his early teens, with that buried-anger feel you got from some serfs, always quarreling with the other houseboys. Semi-serious trouble once or twice, pilfering or breaking curfew. A friend of his beside him in driver's livery; she hunted for the name: Marco. Understudy pilot for the aircar.

Rahksan put the lantern down and stood with her arms crossed. Underlighting should have flattered the well-kept prettiness of the serfs face, but somehow brought out the High Asian cast of the strong bones. The voice was as familiar as her own mother's to Yolande, but the tone was one she had never heard the Afghan use. Flat, level, uninflected; she replied in the Old Territory serf-dialect.

"Ah'," she said. "This isn't trouble yo' in. We not talkin' whippin' here, we not talkin' sniffin' around Masta John's bedwench an' havin' her laugh at yaz." She leaned forward, and her clenched fists quivered by her sides with throttled intensity. "Goin' bushman means death, boy. The greencoats ties yo' to a wheel an' breaks yo' bones slow with an iron rod, an' then they rams the stake up yo' ass an yaz dies, it kin take days, the crows pick out yo' eyes an'—" Her voice broke and she grasped for control, panting. "Oh, Ali', my baby, my chile, please listen to me."

Ali jerked; Yolande could sense threads of argument reaching into the past, like walking into a play halfway through. "I—It's worth the risk, to be free."

"Free." Then there was emotion in the woman's voice, an anger and hopeless compassion. She pressed her fists to her forehead for a moment, then looked up. "Ali," she said, her voice calmly serious. "We beyond gamin' an' twistin' words to make points. This the time fo' truth."

Marco made an impatient sound; Ali cast him an appealing glance and gestured before returning his gaze to his mother and nodding gravely.

"Did I have a magic stick, I'd wave it an' send yo' to England. Break my heart to lose yo', son, but I'd do it. Yo' happiness that impo'tant to me. Does yo' believe me?"

"Yes, Momma," he said, with warmth in his voice.

"But I don have no magic stick!" She buried her hands in her hair. "Allah be merciful, whats can I say to a boy of nineteen? Yo' doan' believe yaz can die..." Rahksan stepped to her son and reached up to take his face between her palms. "Ali, my sweet, my joy, I knows yo' full of pride an' shame. What yo' think, I says cast them out 'count it makes trouble fo' me?"

She kissed his brow. "Son, that sort o' hard pride, that fo' Draka; an' I wouldn't be Draka iff'n I could, I seen what it make them into. It ain' no shame to be serf! We not serf 'count of bein' bad, or worthless, it just... kismet, our fate." She paused, licked her lips, continued. "Mebbeso the Mastahs take the world, like they dreams. Mebbeso they loses, an' then they dies, on 'count they don' accept they can ever lose. Win or die, every one; think on it, boy, does yaz see strength or weakness in that? Whatevah happen, we still be here. That the honor an' pride of serfs; to live. We is life, boy. Yo' wants pride... Look at this place. Who built it? We did, our folk. Who builds everythin', grows everythin'? Our folk. We is the world. That cause fo' pride."

"Momma..." Ali gestured helplessly. "Momma, maybe... you could be right, but I can't, I just can't. Please, come with us. I want you with me there, Momma; I want to see you free, too. I know it's risky, but maybe they won't catch us."

"Oh, son," she said, in a voice thick with unshed tears. "They caught me long ago. I'm bound with chains softer an' stronger than iron. I'd send yo' if I could, but my life is here."

"Don't listen to her, Ali!" Marco burst in. "She's a Draka-lover. Be a man!"

Rahksan straightened and glared at Marco, glanced him up and down. "Man?" she said with slow contempt, and the Italian flushed. "Big man, makes his momma an' poppa stand an' watch while the headhunters break his bones, an' they gots to watch and cain' do nothing."

Her voice went whip-sharp. "Yaz poppa, Marco, he a man. Live through the War, an' help yo' momma live. Right afterwards, they was hard times, plenty folks dyin'; yo' poppa keep othahs from gettin' theyselves killed, riskin' a night-time knife in't 'back to do it. Then I hears him myself, talkin' to the mastahs, respectful an' firm, askin' fo' let-up so's the rest don' do nothin' foolish. There're Draka who'd've skinned him fo' that. Ours wouldn't, but how he know then? He settle down with yaz ma,'t' make the best of what fate give him; yo' doan' think that take a man? Works hard, helps her raise their chillen. That a man. Yo'? Yaz not even much of a boy."

Marco clenched a fist, would have swung it at the beginning of any movement. "Julia and I can never have children of our own," he rasped, and his flush of anger Bided to white around his mouth. "Is a man supposed to lie down for that?"

Rahksan touched her stomach. "Yo' don't have chillen, boy. We do. Julia, she can go down't' the clinic ever' six months, same as any wench on the plantation, an' get a shot. I does, regular. She fo'get o' don' care, have her two while she a housegirl, so they ties her tubes. Mebbeso yo' wants to get six mo' with her to prove yaz a man, then see them sold off to the serf-traders when they turn fourteen? The Ingolfssons don' breed us fo' market. An' I notice Julia ain't here, hmmm?"

Rahksan extended a finger toward him, and he flinched. "Marco, like I said, I'm no Draka; so I won' take no pleasure in seein' yo' die. But I savin' my sorrow fo' yo' folks. My boy Ali here, he bein' bull-stupid, but it honest stupid. Yo' doin' this outa bent spite, lyin' to yo'self an' draggin' my son in to make yo'self feel bettah about it. Mebbeso yaz got cock, balls, an' voice likeso a jackass, but that don' make yo' much of a man't' my way a' thinkin'."

She turned back to Ali. "Tell me honest, son. Bring it out. Yo' agreein' with his opinion of yo' momma what bore you?"

"I—" The boy's eyes hunted back between them. "You—" He stopped, then the words burst free. "You love her children, you always have, better than you love me; it was smiles and stories for them, and lectures for me! Isn't that being a Draka-lover?"

"Ali." Rahksan forced her son's head back toward her. "Yo' my son. Nine months beneath my heart, inside my body. Blood an' pain when I bore yo', an' the midwife laid yaz on my belly. My milk fed yo'. Yo' the dearest thing in all the world to me! Iff'n I been hard on yo' sometimes, that love, too, tryin' to teach yaz how to live. Loves yo' mo' than life."

She took a deep breath. "No, I'm not a Draka-lover. Yes, I love the Mistis' children. They children, Ali." She put her hands beneath her breasts for a moment. "One I gives suck to. All I cleans, an' picks up when they cries. Holds they hands when they learnin' walkin'. Plays with. Hears they babblin' an' first words. Comforts when they skins they knees o' they pet rabbit dies; same's I did with yo'. Woman who don' love a chile aftah all that, she don have no lovin' in her heart!" A wry smile. "There some othah Draka I likes, o' anyway respects; that not 'lovin' the Draka.' As fo' the Mistis,—" a shrug, "—we best friends, always have been."

Ali spoke with ragged calm. "How can you say that, say that you're the friend of someone who owns you, uses you, who—" He paused, continued almost in a mumble. "I can't... can't stand to see them touch you. It makes me feel ashamed."

"Oh, chile," she sighed. "How can she and I be friends? It ain't easy, is how. I a serf, Ali; I cain' change that, neither can she. She own me; law say she can sell me, whup me, kill me. Forty years in't' same house, same room mostly, how often yo' thinks we gets riled with each othah? How often she work to hold her hand? How often I make myself not use that to hurt her? She still a Draka, chile, an' that mean arrogant as a cat an' near as cruel, sometime, 'thout even' knowin' it."

She paused, made a sound halfway between laughter and pain. "As to touchin'... Ali, I knows it shockin' to every boy't learn this, but mothers don' stop wantin' and needin' when they has their sons. Fo' the rest—look at me, Ali. No, look at me."

He obeyed. "I is forty an' four, Ali. Still right comely, but there dozens, mebbeso hundreds, younger an' better-lookin would dearly like to get on right-side with the mastahs be lyin' down with them. Why yo' think Mistis still want me An' I her, Ali. 'Cause we has likin fo' each other; knows each other to the bone. The pleasurin' nice, but it comfort, too and bein' with someones yo' shares memories with."

Rahksan crossed her arms on her chest and continued calmly. "Love yo', son. Give my life fo' yaz, but I won't lie about what I is, o' pretend to bein' ashamed of it. Nevah did find a man I wanted full-time; wish I had, might have been bettah fo' yo' to have a Pa. But I didn't, an' there nothin' wrong with takin' what's available along the way."

"Now, Ali," she continued. "It's time, son. Fo' my sake... an' fo' yo'rn... give this up. Please. It madness. I wants to see yo' happy, see yo' give me grandchildren. Iff'n yo' cain' be happy here, there other places; we can work somethin' out, but I can't let yo' kill yo'self, Ali."

Marco stiffened in suspicion. "She's betrayed us, turned informer!" he snapped. "Quick, get the ropes! We can get her to the car, it's two hours until that black bastard Nyami is back, I've got the keys, hurry!"

Rahksan hurled herself forward, gripped her son in a fierce embrace. "Allah, be merciful—Ali, Ali, I'd die fo' yo'; I'd give yo' up an' never see yo' again iffn yo' had a chance to do this crazy thing. Ah, god, yo' crackin' my heart in two!" The last was a wail, and tears were running down the face she raised to her son. "Even kill yo' love fo' me, my chile. Even that I'll do fo' yo'. "

Marco grabbed for her. Ali's arms were around his mother, uncertain whether to comfort or confine. Rahksan struggled against both of them, or shuddered in her weeping. Above them the two Draka girls tensed as one, ready for movement, but Yolande's hand pressed her friend back. There was someone at the door of the stable.

"Well." The serfs froze, the footsteps halted by the stable doors, and a hand flicked on the lights. The horses stirred, whickering and stamping in their stalls. Yolande slitted her eyes to make out the figure in the entranceway: her mother, still in the black riding leathers. The silver rondelles on her gunbelt shone like stars against night, and her face seemed to float detached as she skimmed the broad-brimmed hat aside. The boots went tk-tk across the brown tile as she walked to within arm's reach of the serfs. There was a cigarette in her left hand; the other stayed near her gunbelt, the fingers working slightly.

The Draka spoke again, in a tone of flat deadliness. "Take—those—hands—off—her."

The two young men released Rahksan and stepped back reflexively; Ali's eyes followed his mother as she moved to the side, tears running down a face that might have been carved in olivewood. Then back to the Landholder, standing stock-still with explosive movement packed ready beneath her skin.

Johanna spoke to Rahksan, with infinite gentleness. "Yo' don't have to watch this, Rahksi."

"Yes, I do, Jo. It my fault. This my punishment."

Johanna nodded. Even then, Yolande felt shocked at Rahksan's use of the first name without honorific; a privilege that could only be exercised in strict privacy. Her eyes turned back toward the two serf males. Evidently they were no longer considered witnesses.

The Landholder blew meditative smoke from her nostrils as she stared at Marco. When she spoke, the tone was almost conversational.

"Buck, yo' are just too stupid to live. Plannin' to take that lumberin' cow of an aircar to England? Yes?" Marco gave a frozen nod. "Across the heaviest air defenses in the world? Boy, they can see a bird movin'. England? Yo'd be lucky to make it halfway to Florence. Lucky to be blown out of the air, mo' likely forced down. Free out of Ingolfsson hands then, into Security's."

The serfs flinched at the mention of the secret police, and Johanna nodded. "Try convincin' them yo' don't know anythin' political. Talk to the scalpels, an' the wires, an' the drugs. Three weeks, maybe they'd believe yo' and send yo' to the Turk." They flinched again at the obscene nickname for the impaling stake. Marco was shaking now, white showing around the rims of his eyes.

The Draka sighed. "Haven't had to have a killin' on Claestum since befo' yo' birth, boy. I really regret this." Her voice became more formal. "One choice that can never be taken away, an' that's to die rathah than live beneath the Yoke Marco, as yo' owner an' an arm of the State, I hereby judgt yo' a threat to the welfare of the Race and so, unfit to live," she said. The serf made the beginnings of a motion, perhap: an attack, perhaps only an attempt to flee.

Even to the Draka watching from the loft what followed was a blur, a dull smack of impact and Marco was sinking to the floor clutching his groin, face working soundlessly.

She pulled it, some reflexive corner of Yolande's mind thought. Otherwise there was no room for thought, for movement, scarcely even for breath. Heartbeat hammered in her ears.

"Yo' should listen to yo' momma, boy," she said quietly to Ali with voice full of calm, considered anger." 'Stead of to Marco, who can't even commit suicide on his ownsome without takin' his friends with him. Gods preserve me from friendship like that-there. Understand me, boy? Louder, I cain't hear yo'."

"Yes, Mistis." A breathy whisper.

"Are yo' listenin to me, boy?"

"Yes, Mistis."

"Nineteen years old, Freya... Forty years yo' mothah and I've been together, Lord, forty years. Youth an' age, night an' day, war an' peace..." She touched the scars around her left eye where the ridges stood out under the overhead floodlights. "She helped put me togethah again aftah this. Helped midwife my children, an' I was there when yo' were born. Incidental, I was there when yo' were conceived, too." A shake of her head. "Yo' momma worth ten of yo', buck. Mo' guts, mo' brains, mo' heart." Very softly: "Times was, when she was the only thing kept me from freezin' solid."

She leaned forward, and her index finger tapped him on the nose; from above, Yolande could see him jerk at the touch, and the sheen of sweat on his skin. Her mother's voice became calmer still:

"So she's what's kept Old Snake off yo' back, many a time. She's why I'm bendin' strict law, accordin' to which the Order Police should be here now. Bendin' it enough that I'd be in some considerable shit myself if it came out. But we comin' to the hard place, boy, between wish and will and duty, the place where I got no choices left. Rahksan dear to my heart, but I live here; my children do, my husband, my kin. I can't keep a mad dog in my household, or sell it into someone else's. Are yo' an Ingolfsson serf, or a wild bush-man? No, don't look at her, or him. This is the narrow passage; here there's no brothah, no friend. Decide."

A long pause.

"Yes, Mistis."

"Louder, boy."

His voice cracked. "I am yours, Mistis. Mercy, please!"

Johanna nodded, and her mouth twisted as at the taste of some old bitterness. "Gods damn yo', Ali, why couldn't you have thought on that befo' things come to this? We nevah asked fo' yo' likin', just obedience. Now I have to kill part of yo' to save the rest." Almost kindly: "I know yo' sorry now, Ali. I know yo' frightened. It's not enough, now; yo' a brave boy, an' stubborn. Fear isn't enough, because it don't last. Yo' has to show me, and show yo'self, right down where yo' soul lives, who an' what you are," Her face nodded toward the wall. "Pick up that shovel, an' come back here."

Ali's face had gone gray-pale with understanding; he stumbled to the wall, took the long-handled shovel from the rack. Marco had risen to his feet, still clutching at himself. His breath whooped between clenched teeth. Johanna moved again, kicking twice with delicate precision. The point of her boot drove into Marco's solar plexus and straightened his body up in paralytic shock. The edge flicked up into his throat, and he dropped to the floor bulge-eyed, jerking and twitching.

"Kill him, Ali." The Draka drew her pistol; the chunky shape of crackle-finished steel glittered blue-black. "If not, I'll make it quick."

Rahksan turned her back, hands over her face. The shovel went up, hesitated. Ali was shaking almost as much as his friend, who strained to draw air through a half-crushed windpipe and made noises that were part pleading, part choking. Strengthless hands rose from the floor to ward off the iron.

"No!" Ali screamed. The shovel swung down and struck, clanged. Marco's body jerked across the floor like a broken-backed snake. Rahksan twitched where she stood, as if the impact had been in her. "No! No! No!" Another blow, and another; it took six until the other man stopped moving and Ali was able to drop to his knees in the blood and vomit himself empty.

"Serf." Johanna's voice cut through the spasms, and Ali looked up, wiping at tears and blood and vomit on his chin. Horses moved and whinnied in the stalls, frightened by the scent of death. There were voices in the distance, and other lights coming on. The Draka's face might have been carved from some pale wood; she gripped the side of his head, hair and ear, and jerked him close.

"Yo' bright enough to understand that yo've found the way to compel me, to hurt me; by makin' me hurt yo' mothah through you. Look." She jerked his head around, forcing him to face Rahksan. "Is it worth it? That's yo' doin'." Another twist, toward Marco. "So is that," Back eye-to-eye.

"Now. This is what happened. Marco went crazy, and attacked yo' momma. Yo' had to hit him, an' it was all ovah by the time I got here. Nobody will say otherwise; go get Deng, an' the priest. They'll fetch the Mastah and do what's needful. Get out of here, boy. Remember, and don't yo' ever make me do this again."

He stumbled out into the awakening night. Johanna's calm evaporated; she threw the cigarette down with a gesture of savage frustration and ground it out beneath her heel as she slammed the pistol back into its holster.

"Shit, shit, shit!" she swore venomously. Then, gently: "Rahksan."

The other woman turned from the wall and let her hands fall. Her face had crumpled, and there were fresh lines beside her mouth. "Did we have to?" she asked, in a thin small voice. "Oh, Allah, Jo, did we have to?"

"Rahksi—" Johanna held up her hands, a helpless motion. "There wasn't time... another hour, an' too many would have known. I'm sorry, I'm truly, truly sorry. There was nothin'—He had to learn, Rahksi, it was that or kill him."

Rahksan nodded as the tears spilled quietly down her cheeks. "I know, Jo. I should've taught—" Then she was moving, stumbling forward into the outstretched arms.

"Oh, Jo!" They clung fiercely, and Rahksan's gray-shot head was pressed against Johanna's throat. She was sobbing, a harsh raw sound of grief that shook her like a marionette in the puppeteer's fist.

"It'll be all right, Rahksi, my pretty, shhh, shhh," Johanna said, stroking her hair. A moment. "Cry fo' him, Rahksi. Cry fo' all of us. I wish I could. "

"My baby, Jo, my baby!"

"I won't let anyone hurt him, I promise. Shhh, shhh."

Yolande felt an overwhelming guilt and grief, sensed Myfwany stirring likewise beside her. Her skin crawled; this was something they were never meant to see, something that was wrong to see, something that could never be forgotten. They shared a single appalled glance and began cat-crawling backward, using the growing clamor to fade into the welcoming night. Behind and below them the two figures remained locked together, the Landholder's cheek resting atop the serfs head as she crooned wordless comfort.

 

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Copyright © 1990 by S.M. Stirling <joatsimeon@aol.com>


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