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Ealstan added up a long column of figures. The young bookkeeper let out a sigh of relief when the answer turned out to be what he'd expected. Bearing the ledger into his employer's private office, he told Pybba, "Those Algarvians are going to make us rich."
"Good," the pottery magnate rumbled. "We'll give 'em some of their silver back, too, and not the way they expect." Pybba wasn't only the biggest pottery maker in Eoforwic-and, for that matter, in all of Forthweg. He was also one of the leaders in the underground struggle against the Algarvian invaders who occupied his kingdom.
"What do you suppose they want with fifty thousand Style Seventeen sugar bowls?" Ealstan asked. The question had bothered him ever since an Algarvian colonel marched in to place the order.
Pybba's broad shoulders went up and down in a shrug. "Powers below eat the redheads, whatever it is." His eyes flicked down to the bottom of the column. He nodded. "That's not a bad pile of change, eh? Why don't you go on home now? Your wife'll be waiting for you, I expect."
"Aye, she will. Thanks." Ealstan was glad to have leave to head for his flat.
Pybba showed no sign of going anywhere. His bushy beard was shot with gray, but he went home later and came to work earlier than anybody he employed. "Go on," he growled now. "Get out of here, before I change my mind."
Odds were, he wasn't joking. Ealstan set the ledger on his own slanted worktable, then got out while the getting was good. Twilight spread gloom across Eoforwic, though the occupied capital of the Kingdom of Forthweg seemed sad and gray and gloomy enough even at midday.
A couple of tall, lean Algarvian constables swaggered past Ealstan. Their arrogant stride made them stand out as much as their coppery hair and their short tunics and pleated kilts. Forthwegian men wore knee-length tunics like Ealstan's; Forthwegian women wore loose tunics that reached their ankles. Men and women alike were stocky and swarthy, with dark hair and eyes and strong noses.
Some of the people on the street were almost certainly of Kaunian blood, too. But most of the Kaunians left alive in Eoforwic these days were sorcerously disguised to look like their Forthwegian neighbors. The Algarvians hated Kaunians as ancient enemies, and sacrificed them in droves to use their life energy to fuel potent sorceries in their war against Unkerlant to the west. Few Forthwegians cared what happened to their blond neighbors.
Ealstan was one of those few. Vanai, his wife, was a Kaunian. She was also the one who'd devised the sorcery that let her folk masquerade as Forthwegians. These days, she went by Thelberge, a Forthwegian name. Her own would have been plenty to betray her.
Not so long after winter yielded to spring, she would have their first child. Ealstan frowned a little as he walked along, wondering if the baby would need a spell cast over it every few hours for years to come. He hoped not. Some half-breed children looked altogether Forthwegian.
After a few paces, his frown deepened. Since she'd got pregnant, Vanai's protective spell hadn't been holding as long as it did before she found herself with child. If it happened to wear off while she was away from the flat…
His fingers writhed in an apotropaic sign. "Powers above, prevent it," he said softly. They had so far. He had to hope they would keep on doing it. Vanai was careful. She knew the risk, too, of course. But she couldn't see the illusion that fooled everyone else. The greatest danger lay there. She couldn't see it stop fooling people, either.
Such worries dogged Ealstan about every other night on the way home. They made him walk faster, a lump of dread in his throat, as if an Algarvian constable were about to lay hold of him for being a Kaunian. His laugh held no mirth. He wasn't a Kaunian. To the Algarvians, he was that even more suspicious creature, a Kaunian-lover. But being a Kaunian-lover didn't show.
Here was his own street. Here was his own block. Here was his block of flats, a dingy building in a bad part of town. He and Vanai had stayed here ever since coming to Eoforwic from Gromheort and her village of Oyngestun in the east.
He went up the stairs into the cramped, dark lobby. He paused there, at the brass bank of post boxes, to see if anyone had sent him a letter. His family back in Gromheort knew where he lived. He didn't think Vanai had any living family, not any more.
She has me, he thought, and hurried up the stairs to his flat. The narrow stairway had a familiar reek: stale cabbage and stale piss. Sometimes it disgusted him. But he'd lived here long enough that sometimes, as tonight, it just felt homey.
Back when he and Vanai first moved in, before she'd crafted the spell that let her look like a Forthwegian, she'd stayed holed up in the flat all the time, like a trapped animal. They'd worked out a coded knock, to let her know it was safe to unbar the door and let him in. He still used it, more from habit than from any other reason.
He knocked and waited. When Vanai didn't come to the door, he knocked again, louder this time. She fell asleep a lot more easily than she had before she got pregnant.
When she still didn't come, he knocked once more, louder still. He frowned and took from his belt pouch the long brass key that could work the latch from the outside. If the door was barred, of course, working the latch wouldn't matter one way or the other. He turned the key and pushed at the door, not expecting to be able to get in. But it swung open.
"Van--?" he began, but checked himself. He tried again, calling, "Thelberge? Are you there, sweetheart?"
No answer. The flat was quiet and dark, no lamps lit, as if nobody'd been inside since well before the sun went down. Fighting back alarm, Ealstan hurried into the bedchamber. Vanai wasn't lying there sound asleep. She wasn't sitting on the pot, which she also needed to do more than she had before quickening.
He'd already seen she wasn't in the front room or the kitchen. He went back there anyway. "Thelberge?" Fear made his voice quaver.
Only silence answered. Little by little, Ealstan realized he hadn't known what fear meant. Now he did.
My neighbors, he thought wildly. Maybe my neighbors know something. Trouble was, he hardly knew his neighbors. For one thing, they kept coming and going--this block of flats wasn't the sort of place where people settled down to live out the rest of their lives. And, for another, because of who and what Vanai was, she and Ealstan hadn't gone out of their way to make friends. If anything, they'd gone out of their way to keep to themselves.
But he had to try. Thinking about the alternative…Ealstan didn't want to, he wouldn't, think about the alternative. Imagining Vanai in Algarvian hands…He shook his head. He wouldn't think about that.
He knocked on the door to the next-door flat closer to the stairs. Silence. He knocked again. "Go away," someone inside said--a woman's voice.
"I'm your neighbor," Ealstan began, "and I'd like to ask you--"
"Go away," she said again, "or else I start screaming."
"Powers below eat you," he muttered under his breath, but he went away, to the flat on the other side of his. Wondering what would go wrong now, he knocked on the door there.
This time, at least, it opened. A gray-bearded man stood in the doorway. His narrow eyes had all the warmth of chips of ice. "What do you want, kid?" he demanded. "Whatever it is, make it snappy."
"I don't mean to bother you," Ealstan said, "but have you seen my wife today? She was supposed to be home when I got back, and she's not. She's expecting a baby, so I'm worried."
"Haven't seen her." His neighbor shook his head. "Sorry." He didn't sound sorry. He sounded as if he never wanted to see Ealstan again. And when he slammed the door, Ealstan had to jump back in a hurry to keep from getting his nose flattened.
He stood in the hallway cursing softly, wondering whether even to bother knocking on the door across the hall from his. At last, with a sort of despairing shrug, he did. "Who is it?" came from inside: another woman's voice.
"Ealstan, your neighbor from across the hall," he answered, wondering if she'd open the door.
To his surprise, she did. She was somewhere in her late thirties--which, to Ealstan's nineteen, made her seem almost grandmotherly, though little by little he realized she wasn't really bad looking. She eyed him with frank appraisal. "Well, hello, Ealstan from across the hall," she said when she was through, and breathed brandy fumes into his face. "I'm Ebbe. What can I do for you, dear? Want to borrow a cup of olive oil? You should have knocked a long time ago."
Did that mean what it sounded like? Ealstan had more urgent things to worry about. "I don't mean to bother you--" he began, as he had to his other neighbor.
"Oh, you're not bothering me at all," Ebbe broke in. Aye, she'd been drinking brandy, all right.
Rather desperately, Ealstan plunged ahead: "Have you seen my wife today? She should have been waiting for me when I got home, but she isn't. I'm worried--she's expecting a baby."
"No, darling, I haven't seen a soul today--till you," Ebbe answered. "But why don't you come on in anyway? If she's not there, maybe I'll do."
Ealstan fled. Back inside his own flat, he barred the door as if all the Algarvians in Forthweg were after him. He wondered if Ebbe would come knocking in turn. To his vast relief, she didn't.
But that relief quickly passed. The Algarvians in Forthweg weren't after him. They were after Vanai--and he was horribly afraid they had her.
He ate barley bread and olive oil and salted, garlic-tangy almonds for supper, washing the food down with harsh red wine. Then, instead of talking and laughing and probably making love with Vanai, he spent the longest, loneliest, most miserable night he'd ever passed. He might have slept a little. On the other hand, he might not have, too.
When dawn came, he made a breakfast much like his supper. Then, yawning, he started back to Pybba's pottery. Someone--more likely several someones--had scrawled a new graffito--HABAKKUK!--on walls and fences. Dully, he wondered what the nonsense word meant. Nothing in Forthwegian, Algarvian, or classical Kaunian; he was sure of that.
Pybba glared when he got to work. "You're late," he rasped, as he did most mornings whether Ealstan was or not. Then he took a longer look at his bookkeeper. "Powers above! Who hit you over the head with a rock?"
"I wish somebody had," Ealstan answered. He wasn't late. Anything but--he and Pybba had the offices to themselves. "My wife wasn't home when I got there. She still isn't. I think the redheads have grabbed her."
"Why in blazes would they want her?" the pottery magnate demanded. "You two didn't just have a fight or something?"
"No," Ealstan said flatly. "Why would they want her? She's Kaunian, that's why." He'd never told his boss that. Pybba hated Algarvians, aye, but he had no great use for blonds.
Now Pybba stared at him, eyes big as the saucers he turned out by the tens of thousands. "Oh, you fool!" he cried. "You great stupid fool!"
* * *
Habakkuk--the first Habakkuk, the nameship of what would be a growing class-glided east along a ley line not far from the island kingdom of Sibiu. The hobnails in the soles of Leino's boots dug into the great vessel's icy deck. The Kuusaman mage smiled--on, he grinned. He was as proud of Habakkuk as if he'd invented her. Along with a good many other Kuusaman and Lagoan mages, he had.
Ships had sailed the seas for centuries uncounted: ships, aye, but none like Habakkuk. Ships had been wood and canvas, riding wind and wave. Then, as magecraft and manufacturing grew more sophisticated, they'd been iron and steel, traveling the ley lines of the world's energy grid in defiance of wind and wave. Now…Leino took another step. His hobnailed boots bit into the icy deck again.
Habakkuk was a thing of ice, ice and a little sawdust for strength. Leino and his fellow mages had planed the top of an iceberg flat, down in the iceberg-ridden seas bordering the frigid austral continent. They'd hollowed out chambers in the ice, chambers that held men and supplies and--the point of the exercise--far more dragons than any ordinary ship could haul.
Magecraft had shaped the Habakkuk. More magecraft propelled it along the ley lines. And still more magecraft kept it from melting away to nothing as it sailed these warmer (though still far from warm) waters farther from the land of the Ice People. Leino wondered what the natives of the tropical continent of Siaulia would think if the Habakkuk ever had occasion to sail there. Most of them had never seen any ice in all their lives, let alone a great floating mountain of it that refused to disappear even in that blood-warm sea.
High overhead, a dragon screeched. Leino glanced up not in fear but in wariness, lest it prove an Algarvian beast diving to the attack. But it wasn't; it was painted in the Kuusaman colors of sky-blue and sea-green, which made it hard to spot for a moment against the drifting clouds. Down it spiraled: long, snaky body; short, clawed limbs; great batwings now gliding, now beating; long neck and fearsome, big-eyed head. So much ferocity, all governed by a brain the size of a plum--and by the dragonflier who sat strapped into his harness at the base of the beast's neck.
Leino's shiver had nothing to do with the ice on which he trod or with the chilly quartering breeze. Facing the impersonal forces of magecraft was hard enough. They would kill you only if you abused them or made a mistake with them. Dragons, now, dragons might kill you out of malice or simply because they forgot what a command meant. With plum-sized brains, they were better at forgetting than remembering. Leino didn't think there was enough silver in the world to make him train to become a dragonflier.
But his countryman aboard the descending dragon handled his dangerous job with nonchalant competence. He brought the beast down right where a gang of handlers waited for it. One of the handlers chained the dragon to a stout iron stake fixed deep in the ice. Another tossed it chunks of meat yellow with crushed brimstone or scarlet from a coating of powdered cinnabar, both of which helped the dragon flame strong and far. The dragonflier unhooked himself and went off to report to his superior.
Leino went below, too. The stairways and the corridors were cut from ice. So were all the chambers opening onto the corridors. The doors and their fittings were ordinary doors and fittings, and some of the chambers had wall hangings inside to lend more privacy to what went on in them.
When Leino walked into one of those chambers, the four mages already inside looked up and nodded to him. "Good morning," Leino said in classical Kaunian. Two of the other wizards were Kuusamans like himself, the other two Lagoans. They shared the great island off the southeastern coast of the Derlavaian mainland, but did not share a language. But every educated man who hailed from eastern Derlavai or the island could use classical Kaunian, the common language of sorcery and scholarship.
"And a good morning to you," answered his countrywoman Essi. She pointed to a teapot above a spirit stove. "Get yourself a cup, if you care to."
"I think I will." Leino smiled. "Being inside all this ice makes me want to have something warm inside myself."
Essi nodded. "We all feel that way now and again." Like Leino, like Pekka his wife--of whom she reminded him more than a little--she was short and slim, with golden skin, coarse black hair, and a broad, highcheekboned face with dark, narrow eyes set at a slant. A steaming mug of tea sat on the table in front of her.
"Aye, so we do." That was Ramalho, the senior Lagoan mage of the pair here. He'd worked with Leino on the Habakkuk down in the land of the Ice People. Lagoans sprang from Algarvic stock: Ramalho was tall and fair and redheaded, though a flattish nose said he might bear a little Kuusaman blood. He went on, "Of course, there is warmth, and then there is warmth." He took a swig from the flask on his hip. His coppery ponytail bobbed at the base of his neck as he drank. He'd done that down in the austral continent, too, but never to the point where it interfered with his work.
After pouring himself a mug of tea, Leino sweetened it with honey and took a couple of big swallows before it started getting cold. Then he sat down at the place waiting for him at the table. "Shall we begin?" he said.
"We could have begun some little while ago, had you got here on time," said Xavega, the other Lagoan mage.
"I am so sorry, Mistress," Leino said, inclining his head to her. "I did not realize you had an urgent engagement elsewhere."
"Really, Xavega, it was no more than a minute or two," said Aalbor, the last Kuusaman mage in the chamber. He was in his early forties, a decade or so older than Leino, and was more inclined to be patient than sardonic.
Patience didn't help here, not least because Xavega had so little herself. She glared first at Leino, then at Aalbor. "I might have known one Kuusaman would stick up for another."
"Oh, let it be, by the powers above." That wasn't Aalbor--it was Ramalho. "Have you never been late in all your born days?"
Xavega glared at him, too. "Things should run properly," she insisted, by which she no doubt meant, The way I want them to run.
Leino sighed. He didn't point that out aloud, and wondered why. Well, actually he didn't wonder--he knew. He took another sip of tea to make sure the knowledge didn't show on his face: Xavega was too pretty for him to want to antagonize her too badly. She had hair the color of burnished copper, fine, regular features, large green eyes, and a lush figure that seemed all the more spectacular to him because he was used to the sparer build of Kuusaman women. He was married, aye, and happily so, but he owned an imagination that worked perfectly well.
"Let it lie," Ramalho repeated, a little more sharply.
"Oh, very well," Xavega said with poor grace. "Some people, though…"
Now Leino had all he could do not to laugh out loud. Every time Xavega opened her mouth, she showed him how absurd his fantasies were. She was one of those Lagoans with no use at all for their eastern neighbors. Over the years, Lagoas and the land of the Seven Princes had quarreled a fair number of times, as neighboring lands will. When the Derlavaian War broke out, some few Kuusamans had wanted to fight Lagoas and not Algarve. Fools, Leino thought.
He stole another glance at Xavega. Odds were she'd never look at him, but he still enjoyed looking at her. It might even have been better that she did despise him. He was in less danger of landing himself in trouble this way.
"Do you suppose we might actually work the magic we all came here to work?" Essi asked.
"Oh, very well," Aalbor said, imitating Xavega's petulant tone so closely that Leino, Essi, and Ramalho all laughed. Xavega sent the senior Kuusaman mage a glare more venomous than any she'd given Leino. As for Leino him-self, he sighed. However luscious Xavega's body might be, in getting it one also had to deal with her mind. That came close to making it more trouble than it was worth.
Before the three wizards from Kuusamo began to incant, they joined in a small, not quite sorcerous ritual, reciting, "Before the Kaunians came, we of Kuusamo were here. Before the Lagoans came, we of Kuusamo were here. After the Kaunians departed, we of Kuusamo were here. We of Kuusamo are here. After the Lagoans depart, we of Kuusamo shall be here."
That little chant was in Kuusaman, not classical Kaunian. Mages from the land of the Seven Princes had prefaced sorcerous operations with it for centuries. Leino had trouble imagining working deliberately planned magic without it.
Ramalho and Xavega knew what it was, of course, even if they didn't understand it. As he usually did, Ramalho raised an amused eyebrow. Xavega said something in Lagoan. Leino didn't speak much of the neighboring kingdom's language, but both the sound of the words and Ramalho's dismayed expression made him doubt she'd paid Kuusamo a compliment.
Aalbor returned to classical Kaunian: "Let us begin." All five mages pulled off the amulets they wore and held them in their hands. Leino's, like those of Essi and Aalbor, was of silver set with moonstones and pearls. Xavega and Ramalho used gold charms with lodestones and amber to feel for and tap the power of the ley lines. Lagoan sorcery was of the Algarvic school, more closely related to that of Sibiu and Algarve itself than to that of Lagoas' island neighbor.
But the style and substance of the amulets and the charms the mages used to activate them were only means to an end. However much the means differed, they could and did work together toward the same end. As Leino drew sorcerous energy from the ley line and applied it to keeping the Habakkuk's icy structure solid and secure, he felt the energy also flowing into Essi and Aalbor, into Ramalho-aye, and into Xavega, too. They channeled it to the ship, sensing what was, comparing that to the pattern they all held in their minds of what should be, and correcting the discrepancies they found.
They weren't the only team with such a responsibility. Keeping the Habakkuk afloat took a lot of magecraft. Leino shook his head as that thought occurred to him. It wasn't strictly true. Ice floated. But keeping the Habakkuk afloat as something more than a slowly melting lump of ice took a lot of magecraft.
At last, Leino and his comrades looked at one another. Have we done all that wanted doing? they asked one another without words. Have we shored up the ship for another day? Again without words, they agreed they had. Will anything go wrong because of something we have failed to do? That was a clear negative.
Xavega was the first to speak aloud, with unmistakable relief: "We are finished. We have finished." She pushed back her chair and strode out of the chamber. Almost of their will rather than his, Leino's eyes followed her. Like other Algarvic peoples, Lagoans wore kilts. Xavega's showed off quite a lot of elegantly turned leg.
With another sigh, Leino got up, too…and poured himself a fresh cup of tea. It wasn't what he wanted--well, it wasn't all of what he wanted--but it would have to do.
* * *
Four hundred years before, King Plegmund of Forthweg had been the mightiest monarch in eastern Derlavai. His armies went from triumph to triumph in Algarve to the east and in Unkerlant to the west. Even nowadays, his name was one to conjure with in Forthweg.
And the Algarvians had conjured with it, recruiting Plegmund's Brigade from Forthwegians who still wanted to go to war despite their kingdom's defeat. Sidroc wondered what he would be doing if the redheads hadn't organized the Brigade. Something boring with his father Hengist back in Gromheort, he supposed.
Whatever else he was down here in the Duchy of Grelz in southern Unkerlant, he wasn't bored. One of the Algarvian officers who led Plegmund's Brigade blew a piercing blast on his whistle and shouted, "Forward!"--in Algarvian, of course.
Forward Sidroc went, on snowshoes because some of the drifts were higher than his head. His sigh briefly raised a young fogbank around his face. In Gromheort, whole winters would go by without snow on the ground. In Unkerlant, it sometimes seemed a day couldn't pass without a new blizzard.
"Mezentio!" Sidroc shouted as he slogged forward. "Hurrah for King Mezentio!" He yelled in Algarvian, not Forthwegian. Plegmund's Brigade might have been named for a Forthwegian king, but it used the occupiers' language. Yelling in Algarvian also lessened the chances that a redhead would take him for an Unkerlanter and blaze him by mistake. He and his countrymen looked more like the enemy than they resembled their allies and paymasters.
The Unkerlanters holed up in the hamlet ahead didn't intend to be run out. They had a couple of egg-tossers in there, and hurled death back at the men of Plegmund's Brigade and the Algarvians with them. The eggs burst when they struck, releasing blasts of sorcerous energy and sending fragments of their metal eggshells whistling through the air like flying scythe blades.
When eggs started bursting close to Sidroc, he flopped down on his belly in the snow. Chunks of sharp metal screeched past above his head. Not far away, somebody shrieked and then started cursing in Forthwegian. Cursing was something not subject to military discipline.
"Urra!" shouted the Unkerlanters in the village. "Swemmel! King Swemmel! Urra!" Their word for king wasn't much different from Sidroc's; he understood it. The Unkerlanters sounded raucous and drunk. Sidroc had some spirits in a flask on his belt, too. He wish he were drunk stupid and mean. He didn't have enough in the flask for that, worse luck.
"Forward!" the Algarvian officer shouted again. "We have to keep moving. We have to drive them back. Herborn will be ours again."
Herborn was the capital of the Duchy of Grelz. Herborn had been the capital of the Algarvian puppet Kingdom of Grelz till Swemmel's soldiers recaptured it a couple of months before. They'd captured King Raniero, too--the cousin Mezentio had put on the throne of Grelz: captured him and boiled him alive.
"Mezentio!" Sidroc yelled, and got to his feet again.
"Mezentio!" Ceorl snowshoed forward beside him. Like more than a few men who'd joined Plegmund's Brigade, he'd been a robber, a bandit, before. The Algarvians weren't fussy about such things, not even a little.
Eggs fell on the village, too, kicking up fountains of snow. Sidroc whooped when some of the thatch-covered roofs caught fire, sending columns of black smoke into the gray sky. Unkerlanter soldiers ran through the streets. They were awkward and bowlegged on their snowshoes, just as Sidroc was on his. He raised his stick to his shoulder, thrust his right index finger out through the open seam in his mitten, and rammed it into the stick's activation hole. The beam leaped forth from the other end. He hoped it bit an Unkerlanter.
Swemmel's soldiers were blazing back at the men of Plegmund's Brigade and the Algarvians, too. Puffs of steam rose from the snow where their beams missed Sidroc and his comrades. The screams that rang out said not all the beams had missed. Sidroc did his best not to think about that, even when a beam zipped past his head so close, he smelled thunderstorms for a moment. A few inches more to the left, and…Sidroc shook his head. I'm not thinking about that, curse it.
He spied more movement in the village. He raised his stick again, then lowered it, swearing as vilely as he could.
Sergeant Werferth saw that movement, too, and also knew it for what it was. "Behemoths!" he shouted in Algarvian, and followed that with his own foul Forthwegian. Werferth was no youngster looking for adventure like Sidroc, nor a ruffian two jumps ahead of the constables like Ceorl. He'd been a sergeant in the Forthwegian army before the Algarvians smashed it. As far as Sidroc could see, he'd joined Plegmund's Brigade simply because he liked being a soldier. He would never make officer's rank, not in the Brigade--he wasn't an Algarvian. Of course, he wouldn't have made officer's rank in the Forthwegian army, either--he wasn't a nobleman.
But Sidroc didn't have much time to worry about Werferth. The behemoths, now, they were really something to worry about. They lumbered forward, each one with enormous snowshoes on its feet, each one with a surcoat that made it harder to spot flapping over its chainmail, each one with its great curved horn sheathed in iron to make it all the more sharp and deadly--and each one mounting a crew of armored Unkerlanters who served either a heavy stick or an egg-tosser that made the behemoth deadly far beyond the reach of its horn.
Sidroc threw himself down in the snow again. A footsoldier could blaze down a behemoth--if he put a beam right in its eye. What were the odds? Not worth betting. He tried to knock over the Unkerlanter footsoldiers who ran forward with the beasts. He had a better chance of that.
"Where are our behemoths?" he shouted. Eggs burst around the Unkerlanter animals, but only a direct hit was likely to slay one. The best way to fight behemoths was with other behemoths.
"Where are our behemoths?" That was Ceorl, and that was alarm in his voice. The summer before, Algarve had lost far more behemoths than she could afford to lose, trying to smash the Unkerlanter salient around the town of Durrwangen. Since then, the redheads hadn't had enough to meet the Unkerlanters' onslaught--which was one great reason Swemmel's soldiers had pushed so far east since the battles around Durrwangen. The Algarvians had come up with a fair number of behemoths for the counterattack aimed at Herborn--which was one great reason Mezentio's soldiers had been able to head west again.
If, however, they didn't get some behemoths right here pretty soon, some of Mezentio's soldiers and a good many Forthwegians who'd been rash enough to join them were going to have a very thin time of it indeed.
An egg burst right on top of an Unkerlanter behemoth. All the eggs it had been carrying for its tosser burst, too: a great flash of light, an enormous clap of thunder. Only a hole in the ground--a shallow hole in the ground, for it was frozen hard--showed where the beast had been. The Unkerlanters who served that egg-tosser couldn't have known what hit them. Sidroc cheered. He didn't raise his head to do it, though. Plenty of King Swemmel's soldiers remained alive.
Flame enveloped another behemoth and its crew. This time, Sidroc saw the dragon that flamed the beast. It was painted in green, red, and white: Algarvian colors. He cheered again. The redheads had been short of dragons since Durrwangen, too, though not to the same degree as they'd been short of behemoths.
But the Unkerlanter behemoth crews who served heavy sticks also blazed at the Algarvian dragons. Their beams were strong enough to burn through silvery belly paint and the armoring scales beneath. A dragon slammed into the snow. It thrashed for a long time before it died; its great tail sent a couple of Unkerlanters spinning, smashed and broken, to their deaths. The dragon-flier, though, had surely died at that first crushing impact.
With most of the enemy behemoths dead, Algarvian officers blew their whistles. Their imperative cry rang out again: "Forward!"
Sidroc would sooner have stayed where he was and let somebody else take the chances. But, along with the other troopers from Plegmund's Brigade--and along with the Algarvians, too; no denying the redheads had spirit--he scrambled to his feet and went forward. Even as he did, he wondered why. He didn't particularly care about clearing the Unkerlanters from the village ahead. He didn't even particularly care about retaking Herborn; he'd seen enough battered Unkerlanter villages and towns and cities to last him the rest of his days.
What do I care about, then? he wondered, blazing at an Unkerlanter in a snow smock not much different from his own. The Unkerlanter toppled. Sidroc whooped and slogged on. Why am I giving these buggers the chance to do to me what I just did to that poor whoreson?
He whooped again when Ceorl blazed an Unkerlanter. He didn't even like Ceorl, and he knew full well the ruffian had no use for him when they weren't up against Swemmel's soldiers. Oddly, that gave him an answer of sorts: I can't let the fellows who are in this with me down. If he stayed behind, they'd think he was a coward, and their opinions were the only ones that mattered to him these days. His mother was dead, killed when the Algarvians took Gromheort. His father remained back in Forthweg, and had no real understanding of what he was doing here. He'd killed his cousin Leofsig in a brawl. He'd brawled with Leofsig's brother Ealstan, too--and Ealstan, from what he gathered, had run off with a Kaunian tart. Leofsig and Ealstan's father and mother and sister hated him. Who was left, then, but the men alongside whom he fought?
More Algarvian dragons swooped down on the Unkerlanters. Behemoths died under the eggs they dropped and from the flame that burst from their jaws. The handful of behemoths that survived had had enough, and lumbered off toward woods beyond the village. The trees helped shelter them from dragon attacks.
"Forward!" shouted the Algarvian officers, and forward went the Algarvian footsoldiers and the men of Plegmund's Brigade.
They overran the village King Swemmel's troopers had defended so fiercely. Some of the redheads had weapons Sidroc hadn't seen before: small pottery jugs that they flung at their foes, and that burst like miniature eggs. "I want some of those. When can we get 'em?" he asked Sergeant Werferth.
"When the Algarvians have enough to spare for their poor relations," Werferth answered. Sidroc swore and kicked at the snow; the sergeant was bound to be right.
Some soldiers pushed on down the snow-covered road toward Herborn. Others--the less lucky--were ordered into the woods to go after the last few Unkerlanter behemoths and the footsoldiers with them.
Werferth had never been given to wild flights of optimism--what veteran sergeant was? But now he said, "Maybe we really will drive these sons of whores out of Herborn. Looks like we've got a lot of 'em in a pocket here."
"I wouldn't mind," Sidroc said. "But what'll the Algarvians do for a new King of Grelz? Who'd be daft enough to want the job after what happened to the old one?"
Before the sergeant could answer, the Algarvian officers' whistles started screeching again. But instead of yelling, "Forward!" as they had since the drive on Herborn began, the redheads shouted, "By the left flank! Crystallomancers say there's an Unkerlanter attack coming in. We have to hold. We can't let Swemmel's men out of the box we've shoved 'em into. By the left flank!"
"By the left flank!" Werferth echoed loudly. Then he sighed. "Something's gone wrong somewhere."
Sidroc only shrugged. "Not like it's the first time." He too turned to the left.
* * *
Count Sabrino had fought as a footsoldier during the Six Years' War, which ended almost thirty years before the Derlavaian War broke out. That put the colonel of dragonfliers well up into his fifties these days. He was more than twice the age of most of the men in the wing he commanded. When the wing worked hard, as it was working hard now, he felt the weight of every one of those years, too.
I'm still strong, he thought as he spooned up boiled oats with onions and carrots and chunks of meat cooked into them. Like every Algarvian fighting in Unkerlant, he'd long since given up asking what the meat was. Better not to know. I am still strong, curse it. In a standup fight, I can take most of my men.
But that wasn't what left him feeling like an antiquity in the museum back in Trapani. The youngsters he led could get by with irregular meals and not enough sleep--and much of that at odd hours--and stay fresh. He couldn't, not any more. A hard stretch of flying left him feeling as if he were moving underwater. He had trouble trusting himself to make the right decisions when he was too worn to see straight.
Captain Orosio, one of his squadron leaders--the only one who'd been with the wing when the war was new--gave him a sympathetic look when he complained. "My guess is, your wound's still troubling you, sir," Orosio said.
"You're a gentleman," Sabrino said, and gave Orosio a seated bow. By his pedigree, Orosio wasn't much of a gentleman, or he would have been a colonel with a wing of his own. Sabrino flexed his shoulder. It did still pain him; his wounded dragon had come down behind Unkerlanter lines, and he'd got blazed escaping Swemmel's men. "Aye, you're a gentleman, but it's more than that. I can't stand having my life turned upside down a new way every day as easily as I could when I was your age, and that's all there is to it."
"That's not so good, sir." Orosio lacked much of the spirit of fun that most Algarvians had. Serious and sober as usual, he went on. "War does what it wants to do, not what you want it to do."
"Really?" Sabrino did his best to look astonished. "I never would have noticed."
He hoped Orosio would laugh. He feared Orosio would believe him. He never found out either way. Before the squadron leader could react, a crystallomancer stuck his head into the tent, nodded to Sabrino, and said, "Sir, Brigadier Blosio from army headquarters would speak to you."
"Would he?" Sabrino said. The crystallomancer nodded. With a sigh, Sabrino got to his feet. "The next interesting question is, would I speak to him?" He didn't scandalize the young mage any further, but got up and followed him off to his tent.
It had been cold inside the mess tent. As soon as Sabrino poked his head out the flap, the Unkerlanter winter stabbed icy knives into the marrow of his bones. This wouldn't have bothered me so much when I was half my age, either, he thought bitterly.
Dragons crouched in the snow, chained to the iron spikes that kept them from flying off and doing something stupid on their own. Dragon handlers moved among them, keeping them fed. This wasn't a proper dragon farm, not the way the manuals back in Algarve said one should be organized. It was the best worn, overtaxed men could do. Ever since Cottbus failed to fall in the first winter of the campaign against Unkerlant, the whole war in the west had been one improvisation after another, each seeming more desperate than the last.
The crystallomancer ducked into his own tent. With a sigh of relief, Sabrino followed. A brazier in there warmed the air all the way up to frigid. A certain pungency in the air said the brazier was burning behemoth dung rather than charcoal: one more improvisation.
Sabrino sat down on what had probably been some Unkerlanter peasant's milking stool and peered into the crystal. Brigadier Blosio's image looked out at him. Sabrino took some consolation in noting that Blosio looked miserably cold, too. "Reporting as ordered, sir," he said. "What do you need from my wing?"
"You know how our drive for Herborn has cut off a good many Unkerlanter soldiers," Blosio said, as if doubting Sabrino knew any such thing.
"Aye, sir," Sabrino answered stolidly. "Still a good many in front of us, too. We just tore up some behemoths trying to come through a peasant village and smash in the head of our column."
With a typically extravagant Algarvian gesture, Brigadier Blosio waved that away, as if it were of no account. He explained why: "They're trying to break out and smash through our columns."
When the Unkerlanters surrounded Herborn, the Algarvians and Grelzers had tried to do the same thing. They'd failed. Sabrino asked the obvious question here: "What do their chances look like?"
Blosio's shrug was as unrestrained as his wave had been. "Neither one of our columns is as strong as one might wish, and we've cut off a lot of Unkerlanters. But we have to do what we can, you know."
"Oh, indeed." Sabrino nodded. "In case you're wondering, sir, my wing has twenty-one dragons ready to fly." Had the wing been at full strength, it would have had sixty-four. It hadn't been at full strength, or anywhere close, for a couple of years.
Brigadier Blosio shrugged again. "That's how things are, Colonel. And they're not getting any better. Trapani is ordering some of our dragons taken out of the west and brought back home to Algarve. The way things are now, the Lagoans and Kuusamans are pounding our southern cities flat from Sibiu because we've hardly any beasts to put in the air against them."
"That's…not good, sir." Count Sabrino reckoned that a commendable understatement. "The way things are now, the Unkerlanters are pounding our armies here flat because we haven't got enough beasts to put in the air against them."
"We have to try there," Blosio said.
"We have to try here, too." Sabrino knew his protest wouldn't change anything. And Blosio had a point: King Mezentio couldn't very well let Algarve itself take a beating. For one thing, people back home might sour on the war if they kept getting hit without seeing their countrymen hit back. For another, the eggs the Kuusamans and Lagoans dropped hit manufactories that made things the army needed, and also slew the mages without whom Sabrino's men would have had no eggs to drop and the Algarvian footsoldiers would have had no sticks with which to blaze.
"Then go out and try to put paid to that Unkerlanter counterattack," Blosio said. "That's the best thing your wing can do for Algarve." He gave map coordinates.
"Aye, sir," Sabrino said resignedly. He wasn't sure Blosio heard him. The brigadier's image vanished from the crystal. It flared for a moment before becoming an inert globe of glass. Sabrino nodded to the crystallomancer. "Thanks." On second thought, he didn't know why he was thanking the young mage. Because of the crystal, Sabrino now stood a better chance of getting killed.
Out into the cold again. He shouted for his men. They knew he was giving them no great gift--only the chance to die before their time. But knowing that, they affected not to. They scrambled onto their dragons and fastened the harnesses that held them safe as if they were going on a lark, not into battle. Sabrino also strapped himself into the harness at the base of his dragon's neck. He knew he could die if any little thing went wrong. How vividly he knew it was another reminder of his years.
He also knew his dragon, like most Algarvian beasts, hadn't been getting enough quicksilver. Its flames wouldn't reach so far as they would have with more of the vital mineral in its system. Had Algarve taken the Unkerlanter city of Sulingen, had Algarve seized the vital cinnabar mines south of Sulingen…Had that happened, Mezentio's men wouldn't have been pushed back into Grelz.
A dragon handler slipped the chain that held Sabrino's beast to its stake. The colonel of dragonfliers hit his mount in the side of the neck with his goad. The dragon screeched furiously, flapped its great, leathery wings, and bounded into the air. Looking back over his shoulder, Sabrino watched the rest of the dragons in the wing--all of them painted in varying patterns of green, red, and white--following him.
He murmured the charm that activated the crystal he carried with him, so he could give his squadron commanders the map square the wing was ordered to attack. They passed it on to their dragonfliers. So did Sabrino, with gestures and pantomiming. Maybe I'll go on the stage after the war is over, he thought, and laughed at himself. He laughed doubly: by all appearances, the war would go on forever.
The landscape below did nothing to contradict that. It was a chiaroscuro blend of snow and smoke and soot. All the villages and a lot of stretches of forest had been fought over two, three, four times. Whoever finally won the war, the Grelzer peasantry would be generations recovering from it.
Fresh columns of smoke rising into the sky would have told him where the heavy fighting was even without the coordinates he'd got from Brigadier Blosio. He urged his dragon toward those columns. Urged meant hitting it with the goad, harder and harder, till it did what he wanted. Every once in a while, a dragon would have enough of that and flame its flier off its back. Dragons were trained not to do that from the moment they hatched, but everyone who had anything to do with them knew they were too stupid and too vicious to be very reliable.
Sabrino's dragon obeyed now. Captain Orosio's image, tiny but perfect, appeared in the wing commander's crystal. Orosio said, "By the powers above, sir, that's a cursed broad front the Unkerlanters have opened up. How many of them are there, anyhow?"
"I asked Brigadier Blosio the same question," Sabrino answered. "I gather we're supposed to find out by experiment." Orosio said something pungent and abruptly broke the etheric connection.
As soon as Sabrino spotted swarms of Unkerlanters trying to force their way north and east through a wavering line of Algarvian defenders, he ordered his dragons to the attack. They swooped low on an advancing column of behemoths, dropping eggs among them and flaming down several. Sabrino's dragon didn't have to be urged to attack. Restraining it, making it attack when and where he wanted it to, was harder, but he managed.
It was when he made the beast gain altitude for another pass at the enemy that he gasped in horror. The column of behemoths his wing had assailed was one of dozens, perhaps one of hundreds, all with footsoldiers moving with them and in support of them. The Algarvians hadn't cut off a few brigades. They'd tried to surround a whole army, and a pugnacious one, too.
A man who hooked a salmon would eventually pull it to shore. A man who hooked a leviathan would be hauled out to sea and never seen again unless he threw away the line in a hurry. But who would do that soon enough?
In any case, his countrymen couldn't throw away the line. King Swemmel's soldiers gripped them too closely for that. All they could do was hang on tight and hope for the best. They wouldn't hold back this Unkerlanter attack. Sabrino could see as much. That meant they wouldn't recapture Herborn, either.
Which raised an interesting question, or a couple. Who was fisherman here, who fish? And who'd caught whom?
* * *
Skarnu had discovered it was much harder to join in the underground fight against Algarve with a small baby in tow. He'd been fighting the redheads since the war began: first as a captain in King Gainibu's army and then, after Algarvian behemoths and dragons shattered the Valmieran forces, in what wasn't quite battle but could nonetheless have got him killed at any moment.
Gedominu started to cry. Merkela plucked her son and Skarnu's out of the cradle. She checked to see if he was wet. Her grunt said he wasn't. She undid the top three toggles on her tunic and shrugged it off her shoulder to bare a breast. That was what the baby had wanted, sure enough.
"He's hungry," Skarnu remarked.
Merkela nodded. The motion made some of her blond hair flip down onto the baby's face; she brushed it aside with her free hand. "He's getting bigger and stronger every day," she said. "He needs to get bigger and stronger. Even if we lose the fight against Mezentio's whoresons--"
"Powers above forbid it," Skarnu exclaimed, and his fingers twisted in a protective gesture that went back to the days when Valmiera was a province of the Kaunian Empire and Algarve a woodland full of barbarous tribes.
Merkela went on as if he hadn't spoken: "Even if we lose, Gedominu will carry on the fight against the Algarvians when he grows to be a man." She stroked the baby's head, which looked bald but in fact had a thin fuzz of fine blond hair even paler than hers or Skarnu's. "He's sucking in hatred for the redheads along with my milk."
She was implacable as an avalanche. Gedominu was named for her husband. The old farmer--he'd been twice Merkela's age--had taken in Skarnu and his veteran sergeant when he could have turned them over to the Algarvians after the Valmieran army surrendered. Gedominu (the man, not the boy) had gone raiding against the redheads himself. And he'd been taken hostage and blazed after one of those raids killed an Algarvian cavalryman with a trip line.
Skarnu wondered whether he would have ended up in Merkela's arms even if the Algarvians hadn't killed her husband. She was a farmwoman and he a marquis, but that had nothing to do with the way they were drawn to each other. He didn't suppose her wedding vows would have had anything to do with it, either.
But she wasn't just his lover. Before she'd got pregnant, she'd fought alongside him. Count Simanu, who'd been in bed with the redheads, was dead largely because of the two of them. And now…
Now Skarnu stared at the walls of the cramped little flat he and Merkela and Gedominu shared. It was a far cry from the mansion in which he and his sister Krasta had lived before the Derlavaian War broke out. And it was almost equally far, in a different way, from the farmhouse whose mistress Merkela had been. With a sigh, Skarnu said, "Ukmerge isn't much of a town."
Merkela's lip curled. She spoke quietly so she wouldn't bother Gedominu, but didn't bother hiding her venom: "I never wanted to live in Pavilosta when I went there on market days, but Ukmerge makes Pavilosta look like it was one of the king's pleasure palaces."
Even had he wanted to, Skarnu would have had trouble arguing with that. Pavilosta was a pleasant little market town, or perhaps village; it still kept much of the air of the countryside that was its reason for being. In Ukmerge, they made shoes. The town stank of leather. People either worked in one of the two big shoe manufactories or sold things to those who did. And the folk who filled the manufactories also filled grim blocks of flats like this one.
Gedominu let Merkela's nipple slide out of his mouth. She put a cloth on her shoulder, then raised the baby to it and patted his back. He rewarded her with a belch and a little sour milk. She laughed at him when he spit up. Wiping his mouth, she said, "You thought you were going to ruin my tunic, didn't you? You thought so, but I fooled you." Gedominu replied with a series of noises from the other end. Merkela laughed again, ruefully this time. "You can't stay ahead of a baby, no matter how hard you try."
"Give him to me. I'll change him," Skarnu said; he'd discovered she scowled at him if he left her to do all the work with the baby. As he cleaned Gedominu's bottom and put a fresh cloth around it, he went on. "As long as we stay ahead of the Algarvians, that's what counts."
Merkela shook her head. "We've got to do more than that. That was good enough when you pulled me off the farm before the redheads grabbed me--powers below eat your cursed Count Amatu for betraying me to them. It was good enough when we got out of Erzvilkas after their mages tracked us there. But it's not good enough any more. Now I want to hit back again."
"So do I," Skarnu said. "But the underground isn't very strong here in Ukmerge."
Merkela's lip curled again, this time with contempt as complete and automatic as Krasta could have shown--which was saying a great deal. "Shoemakers," she sneered as she set her tunic to rights. "They don't care whether they're making shoes for their own people or for the Algarvians."
That was an unkind judgment on the folk of Ukmerge, but also, Skarnu feared, an accurate one. The shoe manufactories had missed hardly a day's work after the Valmieran army abandoned the town and the Algarvians marched in. Ley-line caravans carried endless crates of marching boots west to Algarve for King Mezentio's soldiers to wear. As Merkela said, the shoemakers got paid no matter who wore what they made.
Gedominu looked up at Skarnu and smiled. Skarnu smiled back. He could hardly help it. His son hadn't been smiling very long. Every time Gedominu did, it was as if he'd discovered the idea of being happy for the very first time and wanted everyone around him to be happy, too. Then, smiling still, the baby proceeded to ruin the cloth Skarnu had just pinned into place around his middle.
Skarnu said something rather more pungent than the odor wafting from Gedominu. Merkela laughed and asked, "Do you want me to change him this time?"
"It's all right." Skarnu shook his head. "I haven't even washed my hands yet." He cleaned the baby off again, then tossed the sodden, stinking rag into a pail that held a good many others. The pail, fortunately, had a tight-fitting lid. Skarnu shut it and then did wash up, wondering all the while if Gedominu would make yet another mess.
Someone knocked on the door. Skarnu and Merkela both froze. Knocks on the door, these days, were all too likely to mean trouble. Skarnu had acquired a small stick from some highly unofficial sources. As a footsoldier, or even as a farmer hunting vermin or after small game for the pot, he would have despised it. But it could knock over a man at short range, and what more did somebody on the run need?
"Who is it?" he asked. If he didn't like the answer, he'd find out exactly what the little stick could do.
"Tytuvenai," said the man on the other side of the door. That wasn't a man's name; it was the name of a town not too far from Ukmerge. Underground leaders often called themselves by the names of the towns where they harassed the Algarvians. It made them harder for the redheads to identify. Skarnu knew a fellow who'd called himself Tytuvenai. The man in the hallway asked, "That you, Pavilosta?"
"Aye." Warily, Skarnu opened the door. If "Tytuvenai" was an Algarvian captive, King Mezentio's men would get an unpleasant surprise. But the fellow from the underground stood there alone. "Well, come in," Skarnu said, and closed the door after him.
"My thanks," "Tytuvenai" said. He nodded to Merkela. "Hello, milady. I've heard somewhat of you. You've tweaked the Algarvians a time or two yourself, if even half what they say about you is true."
"They deserve worse than tweaking," Merkela said with a scowl. "By the powers above, they deserve worse than what they've given our Kaunian cousins in Forthweg. And I want to give it to them." Merkela had no compromise in her, not when it came to the Algarvians and not when it came to anything else, either.
"What are you doing here?" Skarnu asked his unexpected guest.
"I have some news that might interest you." "Tytuvenai" seemed unperturbed at Skarnu's suspicions. Anyone who wasn't suspicious these days, of course, was likely either a fool or a dupe.
"Go on," Skarnu said.
"Good news and bad news, actually," the other man from the underground told him. "The good news is that Count Amatu, whom I gather you got to know better than you wanted to, is no more. He met with an unfortunate accident in Priekule not long ago."
"That is good news," Skarnu exclaimed. It was such good news, he went into the cramped little kitchen, got out three glasses, and poured peach brandy into them. After he brought them out, he raised his and said, "Here's to Amatu's untimely demise. If I'd known he would go over to the Algarvians, I'd have killed him myself and saved whoever else it was the trouble."
They all drank. Merkela asked, "What's the bad news, then?"
Instead of directly answering her, "Tytuvenai" swung his gaze back to Skarnu. "The bad news is, he was killed coming home from Marchioness Krasta's mansion."
"From my sister's mansion," Skarnu said, and "Tytuvenai" nodded. Skarnu knocked back the rest of the brandy in his glass at a gulp. "I don't know why it surprises me," he remarked, and then shook his head. "It doesn't surprise me, curse it. For years, she's been sleeping with that Algarvian colonel who's come after me. Why wouldn't she invite Amatu in for tea?"
"One of these days, you'll have your revenge against your sister," Merkela said. "May it be soon. May it be strong."
"Aye, may it be so," Skarnu said. He would never forget the shocked betrayal he'd felt when he saw Krasta's name and Colonel Lurcanio's linked in a news sheet that had come down from Priekule to Pavilosta.
"Now that the Lagoans and Kuusamans are flying dragons out of Sibiu and from their own island, they'll knock that mansion into a pile of rubble," "Tytuvenai" said. "Here's hoping, anyway." With a nod to Skarnu and another to Merkela, he left as abruptly as he'd arrived.
Skarnu barred the door. "So may it be, just as he said it," Merkela said.
"No." Skarnu shook his head.
"What?" Her stare was fierce and angry, like a hawk's. "You have no sister. We've been through this before."
"I know," Skarnu said impatiently. "But I still don't want dragons dropping eggs on the mansion. It's not just Krasta's. It's mine, too. One of these days, after the war is won, I want to bring you there, you and Gedominu, too. He's my heir, after all."
Now Merkela's eyes widened. He'd never said anything like that before. She knew he was a marquis, but he usually played it down. She started to laugh. "Me, a peasant whose folk have been peasants since dirt, in a nobleman's mansion in Priekule? That's daft."
Skarnu shook his head. "Not when I love you. And not when you've fought for Valmiera. If that doesn't make you more noble than my precious sister, I don't know what would." He took her in his arms. They'd started making love again, cautiously, a couple of weeks before. There was nothing cautious about it this time.
* * *
Along with his partner Oraste, Bembo tramped through the streets of Gromheort. Looking around at the grimy, battered Forthwegian city, the plump Algarvian constable said, "Curse me if I'm not glad to be back."
"What? Here?" Oraste was a man of few but strong opinions. "You're out of your stinking mind."
"Not me," Bembo said. "Not a bit of it. Tricarico was even gloomier than this place is, and all my friends are here."
Oraste snorted. "Like you've got friends. The only one of us who's ever got leave since they sent us to this miserable place, and it wasn't good enough for you. Are you an idiot or just an ingrate?"
"Aye, rag on me as much as you want, but I was there and you weren't," Bembo said. "Seemed like everybody was too worried and working too hard to have a good time." He nodded, liking the taste of the words. "That's just how it was, sure enough."
"If a tart laid you for free, you'd complain because you didn't like her negligee," Oraste jeered. "Speaking of which, even looking at Algarvian women had to be worth going home for. These Forthwegian dames are built like bricks, and the long tunics they wear might as well be tents."
"Well, that wasn't so bad," Bembo said. He'd done a lot more looking than touching, but he wouldn't embarrass himself by admitting as much to his partner. "Did I tell you Saffa had somebody's baby?"
"Only four times now, or is it five?" Oraste returned. "If you ask me, you're just jealous on account of she didn't have yours."
Bembo walked the next block in wounded silence. Oraste had been teasing him, but that blaze hit entirely too close to the mark. He wouldn't have minded had the pretty little sketch artist had his baby, or at least done something with him that made it possible for her to have a baby. But she hadn't wanted to do anything of the sort, not with him. That she'd done it with someone else was all the more galling.
Most days, his definition of an ideal tour on the beat would have been to have nothing to do but cadge food and drink from the bakers and taverners on the streets he patrolled. Today, though, he was glad to hear a noisy quarrel ahead.
So was Oraste. He pulled his bludgeon off his belt and slapped it into the palm of his hand. "Let's see what's going on," he said, anticipation in his voice. He liked breaking heads. He'd complained Forthwegian women were built like bricks. So was he. Unlike Forthwegian women, he was just about as hard as a brick, too.
Two men stood in the middle of the street screaming at each other, caring nothing if they got in the way of wagons and carriages. The first thing Bembo noticed was that they looked very much alike, save that one of them had a typical proud, hooked Forthwegian nose, while that of the other fellow was shaped more like a tuber. The second thing he noticed was that he'd seen and spoken with the fellow with the ordinary nose before.
He didn't know whether Oraste noticed the same thing. If his partner did notice, he didn't seem to care. "Get out of the roadway, you idiots, before you get mashed flat," Oraste growled, assuming the Forthwegians would speak his language. Maybe he meant a wagon would squash them if they didn't move. Maybe he meant he would. Bembo knew which way he would have bet.
The Forthwegians did understand Algarvian. They also understood what a constable bearing down on them with a bludgeon was likely to mean. Before Oraste could do anything they would regret, they hurried back onto the sidewalk.
"Now, what's going on here?" Bembo asked. Being partnered with Oraste often made him take the role of sweet reason. He resented that: it wasn't one for which he was well suited.
"My brother is a traitor," said the Forthwegian with a nose like a tuber.
"My brother is a liar," said the other Forthwegian, the one who looked familiar.
Before Bembo could say anything, Oraste used his bludgeon to point at the fellow who'd spoken first. "Every son of a whore is a liar. Not everybody's a traitor. That means you start. Who are you? Who's he? And if you two are brothers, how come you're calling each other nasty names?"
Those were all questions Bembo would have asked. He wouldn't have asked them as if he intended to murder the Forthwegian if he didn't like the answers. Maybe that made Oraste a better constable than he was. He didn't much care.
"I'm Hengist," the Forthwegian with the bumpy nose answered. "He's Hestan. Why is he a traitor? I'll tell you why. Because his son ran off with a Kaunian slut, that's why."
"I have no idea where Ealstan is," Hestan said. "All I know is, he left Gromheort two years ago, and I haven't seen him or heard from him since."
"Left? He ran off after he had a fight with my son. My guess is, he thought he murdered Sidroc," Hengist said furiously. "And what were they fighting about? Sidroc got hit in the head, but he finally got reminded or remembered. They were fighting about a blond bitch named Vanai, that's what."
"Futter your son!" Hestan shouted, sounding even angrier than Hengist. "Talk about murder--Sidroc murdered my Leofsig and nothing happened to him, so now he thinks he can put a noose around Ealstan's neck, too."
"Hold on. Slow down," Oraste said. "Who's who again? Too many names all at once."
But Bembo had heard all the names before. He pointed to Hestan. "This is the fellow who was talking with that Brivibas bugger when I recognized his voice in spite of the magic that made him look like a Forthwegian."
"So?" Oraste said. But then, a couple of beats behind Bembo, he began to catch up. "Wait a minute. That long-winded bastard was what's-her-name's granddad, wasn't he?"
"That's right." Bembo nodded. "One of our officers who came through here not so long ago was looking for that Vanai twist, too. He'd had her when he was garrisoned in Oyngestun, and he wanted to take her west with him so he wouldn't have to sleep all by his lonesome. But she never got pulled into Gromheort, remember? She'd skipped Oyngestun before we cleaned out the place."
"Aye, that's right," Oraste said. "I forgot how all the pieces fit together." He glowered at Hestan. "What's this nonsense about murder you were spewing."
"It isn't nonsense," the Forthwegian said. "His son"--he spat at Hengist's shoes--"beat mine to death with a chair in my own dining room."
"Why didn't he hang for it, then?" Oraste demanded.
Hestan didn't answer right away. When he didn't, Bembo did: "I recall that. Nasty business. This Sidroc item had just signed on with Plegmund's Brigade, so nobody much cared what he did."
"Aye, he's loyal to King Mezentio," Hengist said, "unlike some people I could name."
Bembo was less impressed than Hengist had thought he would be. "Most of what's in Plegmund's Brigade is stable scrapings, you ask me," he said.
Oraste's big head went up and down. "That's the truth. Half of 'em'd be in gaol if they weren't in Unkerlant." Hestan laughed. Hengist looked as if he hated Bembo and Oraste both. But Oraste wasn't finished: "Still and all, this fellow"--he pointed at Hestan--"hangs around with Kaunians, and his kid's likely a Kaunian-lover, too. I say we run him in, see if the bigwigs think he's worth keeping."
"Suits me." Bembo pointed to Hestan. "You can come along quiet-like, or we'll make you unhappy and then you'll come along anyway." He jerked a thumb at Hengist. "As for you, pal, get lost before we haul you in, too."
Hengist turned to go, but not without a parting blaze: "His precious Leof-sig escaped from a captives' camp. He bribed officials to look the other way."
"Did he, now?" Bembo eyed Hestan in a speculative way. He'd never been allergic to cash on the side, or under the table.
But Oraste said, "He won't get away with that, not with us." Oraste had been known to take a bribe every now and then, but only every now and then. More often, he preferred making people he nabbed suffer, whether by beating them or just by letting the law take its course instead of giving them the chance to get out of their trouble.
Since Bembo couldn't very well take a bribe if Oraste wouldn't, he grabbed Hestan by the arm and said, "Come along, you." He'd intended to sound fierce. He suspected he sounded petulant instead.
Hestan said, "I never thought I would wish anything ill on my brother, in spite of what his son did to my family. But now…" He shook his head. "Powers below eat him, and may they crunch his bones doing it."
"Aye, he's a piece of work, all right," Oraste agreed. "Somebody ought to give him a good kick in the bollocks."
The Forthwegian gave him a curious look. "You're arresting me, but you sound like you hate him."
"Don't let it worry you," Bembo said. "Oraste hates everybody." Oraste scowled but didn't deny it; it was as near true as made no difference. Bembo felt that way himself a good deal of the time. It was an easy attitude for a constable to take. Constables saw the worst of people--when people were at their best, they didn't need constables. And Algarvian constables in Gromheort not only saw the worst of people, they saw the worst of people who hated them as occupiers.
"I haven't really done anything, you know." Hestan, somehow, still managed to sound mild and thoughtful. "Even if your superiors decide that everything my dear brother says is true--which it isn't--I haven't done anything much."
Bembo thought him likely to be right. But he said, "That's for them to decide, not for us."
"Well, I can't tell you what to do, that's certain," the Forthwegian said. "But wouldn't you rather have the silver I end up paying stick in your belt pouches? Otherwise, it will just end up with people who have too much already."
That sort of argument made perfect sense to Bembo. He sent Oraste a look of appeal. Oraste said, "If Bembo here and me take you into that alley and beat you to death, you don't pay anybody anything."
Hestan licked his lips. Some constables made threats like that to run up the price. Oraste meant his. Hestan had the sense to realize as much. He spoke carefully: "I've never harmed Algarve. The most I've tried to do is keep my family safe." His laugh was bitter. "Look how well that worked out. One son dead, one vanished off the face of the earth."
"One son who's a Kaunian-lover," Oraste said. Odds were, he reckoned murder a lesser crime.
But Bembo said, "Come here." He drew Oraste aside, all the while eyeing Hestan to make sure he didn't take off. He spoke in a low but urgent voice: "We can't just kill this fellow. He's a big blaze. There'd be riots, maybe. Our heads could roll. And he's got the loot to pay his way free once we hand him over. Don't you want some?"
He didn't usually have the nerve to argue with Oraste like that. Because he argued this time, his partner seemed more than usually impressed. "Oh, all right," Oraste said gruffly. "But we'll squeeze him till his eyes pop."
"Well, of course," Bembo said. After that, it was just a matter of haggling over the price.
Copyright © 2003 by Harry Turtledove