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They stood together at the parapet, their arms about each other's waists, her head against his cheek. Behind, the broad leaved shrubbery gossiped softly with the wind, and from the lower main terrace came music and laughing voices. The city of Wardshaven spread in front of them, white buildings rising from the wide spaces of green treetops, under a shimmer of sun-reflecting aircars above. Far away, the mountains were violet in the afternoon haze, and the huge red sun hung in a sky as yellow as a ripe peach.
His eye caught a twinkle ten miles to the southwest, and for an instant he was puzzled. Then he frowned. The sunlight on the two thousand-foot globe of Duke Angus' new ship, the Enterprise, back at the Gorram shipyards after her final trial cruise. He didn't want to think about that, now.
Instead, he pressed the girl closer and whispered her name, "Elaine," and then, caressing every syllable, "Lady Elaine Trask of Traskon."
"Oh, no, Lucas!" Her protest was half joking and half apprehensive. "It's bad luck to be called by your married name before the wedding."
"I've been calling you that in my mind since the night of the Duke's ball, when you were just home from school on Excalibur."
She looked up from the corner of her eye.
"That was when I started calling me that, too," she confessed.
"There's a terrace to the west at Traskon New House," he told her. "Tomorrow, we'll have our dinner there, and watch the sunset together."
"I know. I thought that was to be our sunset-watching place."
"You have been peeking," he accused. "Traskon New House was to be your surprise."
"I always was a present-peeker, New Year'sand my birthdays. But I only saw it from the air. I'll be very surprised at everything inside," she promised. "And very delighted."
And when she'd seen everything and Traskon New House wasn't a surprise any more, they'd take a long space trip. He hadn't mentioned that to her, yet. To some of the other Sword-Worlds--Excalibur, of course, and Morglay and Flamberge and Durendal. No, not Durendal; the war had started there again. But they'd have so much fun. And she would see clear blue skies again, and stars at night. The cloud-veil hid the stars from Gram, and Elaine had missed them, since coming home from Excalibur.
The shadow of an aircar fell briefly upon them and they looked up and turned their heads, in time to see it sink with graceful dignity toward the landing-stage of Karval House, and he glimpsed its blazonry--sword and atom-symbol, the badge of the ducal house of Ward. He wondered if it were Duke Angus himself, or just some of his people come ahead of him. They should get back to their guests, he supposed. Then he took her in his arms and kissed her, and she responded ardently. It must have been all of five minutes since they'd done that before.
A slight cough behind them brought them apart and their heads around. It was Sesar Karvall, gray-haired and portly, the breast of his blue coat gleaming with orders and decorations and the sapphire in the pommel of his dress-dagger twinkling.
"I thought I'd find you two here," Elaine's father smiled. "You'll have tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow together, but need I remind you that today we have guests, and more coming every minute."
"Who came in the Ward car?" Elaine asked.
"Rovard Grauffis. And Otto Harkaman; you never met him, did you, Lucas?"
"No; not by introduction. I'd like to, before he spaces out." He had nothing against Harkaman personally; only against what he represented. "Is the Duke coming?"
"Oh, surely. Lionel of Newhaven and the Lord of Northport are coming with him. They're at the Palace now." Karvall hesitated. "His nephew's back in town."
Elaine was distressed; she started to say: "Oh, dear! I hope he doesn't--"
"Has Dunnan been bothering Elaine again?"
"Nothing to take notice of. He was here, yesterday, demanding to speak with her. We got him to leave without too much unpleasantness."
"It'll be something for me to take notice of, if he keeps it up after tomorrow."
For his seconds and Andray Dunnan's, that was; he hoped it wouldn't come to that. He didn't want to have to shoot a kinsman to the house of Ward, and a crazy man to boot.
"I'm terribly sorry for him," Elaine was saying. "Father, you should have let me talk to him. I might have made him understand."
Sesar Karvall was shocked. "Child, you couldn't have subjected yourself to that! The man is insane!" Then he saw her bare shoulders, and was even more shocked. "Elaine, your shawl!"
Her hands went up and couldn't find it; she looked about in confused embarrassment. Amused, Lucas picked it from the shrub onto which she had tossed it and draped it over her shoulders, his hands lingering briefly. Then he gestured to the older man to precede them, and they entered the arbored walk. At the other end, in an open circle, a fountain played; white marble girls and boys bathing in the jade-green basin. Another piece of loot from one of the Old Federation planets; that was something he'd tried to avoid in furnishing Traskon New House. There'd be a lot of that coming to Gram, after Otto Harkaman took the Enterprise to space.
"I'll have to come back, some time, and visit them," Elaine whispered to him. "They'll miss me."
"You'll find a lot of new friends at your new home," he whispered back. "You wait till tomorrow."
"I'm going to put a word in the Duke's ear about that fellow," Sesar Karvall, still thinking of Dunnan, was saying. "If he speaks to him, maybe it'll do some good."
"I doubt it. I don't think Duke Angus has any influence over him at all."
Dunnan's mother had been the Duke's younger sister; from his father he had inherited what had originally been a prosperous barony. Now it was mortgaged to the top of the manor-house aerial-mast. The Duke had once assumed Dunnan's debts, and refused to do so again. Dunnan had gone to space a few times, as a junior officer on trade-and-raid voyages into the Old Federation. He was supposed to be a fair astrogator. He had expected his uncle to give him command of the Enterprise, which had been ridiculous. Disappointed in that, he had recruited a mercenary company and was seeking military employment: It was suspected that he was in correspondence with his uncle's worst enemy, Duke Omfray of Glaspyth.
And he was obsessively in love with Elaine Karvall, a passion which seemed to nourish itself on its own hopelessness. Maybe it would be a good idea to take that space trip right away. There ought to be a ship leaving Bigglersport for one of the other Sword-Worlds, before long.
They paused at the head of the escalators; the garden below was thronged with guests, the bright shawls of the ladies and the coats of the men making shifting color-patterns among the flower-beds and on the lawns and under the trees. Serving-robots, flame-yellow and black in the Karvall colors, floated about playing soft music and offering refreshments. There was a continuous spiral of changing costume-color around the circular robo-table. Voices babbled happily like a mountain river.
As they stood looking down, another aircar circled low; green and gold, lettered PANPLANET NEWS SERVICE. Sesar Karvall swore in irritation.
"Didn't there use to be something they called privacy?" he asked.
"It's a big story, Sesar."
It was; more than the marriage of two people who happened to be in love with each other. It was the marriage of the farming and ranching barony of Traskon and the Karvall steel mills. More, it was public announcement that the wealth and fighting-men of both baronies were now aligned behind Duke Angus of Wardshaven. So it was a general holiday. Every industry had closed down at noon today, and would be closed until morning-after-next, and there would be dancing in every park and feasting in every tavern. To Sword-Worlders, any excuse for a holiday was better than none.
"They're our people, Sesar; they have a right to have a good time with us. I know everybody at Traskon is watching this by screen."
He raised his hand and waved to the news car, and when it swung its pickup around, he waved again. Then they went down the long escalator.
Lady Lavina Karvall was the center of a cluster of matrons and dowagers, around which tomorrow's bridesmaids fluttered like many-colored butterflies. She took possession of her daughter and dragged her into the feminine circle. He saw Rovard Grauffis, small and saturnine, Duke Angus' henchman, and Burt Sandrasan, Lady Lavina's brother. They spoke, and then an upper-servant, his tabard blazoned with the yellow flame and black hammer of Karvall mills, approached his master with some tale of domestic crisis, and the two went away together.
"You haven't met Captain Harkaman, Lucas," Rovard Grauffis said. "I wish you'd come over and say hello and have a drink with him. I know your attitude, but he's a good sort. Personally, I wish we had a few like him around here."
That was his main objection. There were fewer and fewer men of that sort on any of the Sword-Worlds.
A dozen men clustered around the bartending robot--his cousin and family lawyer, Nikkolay Trask; Lothar Ffayle, the banker; Alex Gorram, the shipbuilder, and his son Basil; Baron Rathmore; more of the Wardshaven nobles whom he knew only distantly. And Otto Harkaman.
Harkaman was a Space Viking. That would have set him apart, even if he hadn't topped the tallest of them by a head. He wore a short black jacket, heavily gold-braided, and black trousers inside ankle-boots; the dagger on his belt was no mere dress-ornament. His tousled red-brown hair was long enough to furnish extra padding in a combat-helmet, and his beard was cut square at the bottom.
He had been fighting on Durendal, for one of the branches of the royal house contesting fratricidally for the throne. The wrong one; he had lost his ship, and most of his men and, almost, his own life. He had been a penniless refugee on Flamberge, owning only the clothes he stood in and his personal weapons and the loyalty of half a dozen adventurers as penniless as himself, when Duke Angus had invited him to Gram to command the Enterprise.
"A pleasure, Lord Trask. I've met your lovely bride-to-be, and now that I meet you, let me congratulate both." Then, as they were having a drink together, he put his foot in it by asking: "You're not an investor in the Tanith Adventure, are you?"
He said he wasn't, and would have let it go at that. Young Basil Gorram had to get his foot in, too.
"Lord Trask does not approve of the Tanith Adventure," he said scornfully. "He thinks we should stay home and produce wealth, instead of exporting robbery and murder to the Old Federation for it."
The smile remained on Otto Harkaman's face; only the friendliness was gone. He unobtrusively shifted his drink to his left hand.
"Well, our operations are definable as robbery and murder," he agreed. "Space Vikings are professional robbers and murderers. And you object? Perhaps you find me personally objectionable?"
"I wouldn't have shaken your hand or had a drink with you if I did. I don't care how many planets you raid or cities you sack, or how many innocents, if that's what they are, you massacre in the Old Federation. You couldn't possibly do anything worse than those people have been doing to one another for the past ten centuries. What I object to is the way you're raiding the Sword-Worlds."
"You're crazy!" Basil Gorram exploded.
"Young man," Harkaman reproved, "the conversation was between Lord Trask and myself. And when somebody makes a statement you don't understand, don't tell him he's crazy. Ask him what he means. What do you mean, Lord Trask?"
"You should know; you've just raided Gram for eight hundred of our best men. You raided me for close to forty vaqueros, farm-workers, lumbermen, machine-operators, and I doubt I'll be able to replace them with as good." He turned to the elder Gorram. "Alex, how many have you lost to Captain Harkaman?"
Gorram tried to make it a dozen; pressed, he admitted to a score and a half. Roboticians, machine-supervisors, programmers, a couple of engineers, a foreman. There was grudging agreement from the others. Burt Sandrasan's engine-works had lost almost as many, of the same kind. Even Lothar Ffayle admitted to losing a computerman and a guard-sergeant.
And after they were gone, the farms and ranches and factories would go on, almost but not quite as before. Nothing on Gram, nothing on any of the Sword-Worlds, was done as efficiently as three centuries ago The whole level of Sword-World life was sinking, like the east coastline of this continent, so slowly as to be evident only from the records and monuments of the past. He said as much, and added:
"And the genetic loss. The best Sword-World genes are literally escaping to space, like the atmosphere of a low-gravity planet, each generation begotten by fathers slightly inferior to the last. It wasn't so bad when the Space Vikings raided directly from the Sword-Worlds; they got home once in a while. Now they're conquering planets in the Old Federation for bases, and staying there."
Everybody had begun to relax; this wouldn't be a quarrel. Harkaman, who had shifted his drink back to his right hand, chuckled.
"That's right. I've fathered my share of brats in the Old Federation, and I know Space Vikings whose fathers were born on Old Federation planets." He turned to Basil Gorram. "You see, the gentleman isn't crazy, at all. That's what happened to the Terran Federation, by the way. The good men all left to colonize, and the stuffed shirts and yes-men and herd-followers and safety-firsters stayed on Terra and tried to govern the galaxy."
"Well, maybe this is all new to you, captain," Rovard Grauffis said sourly, "but Lucas Trask's dirge for the Decline and Fall of the Sword-Worlds is an old song to the rest of us. I have too much to do to stay here and argue."
Lothar Ffayle evidently did intend to stay and argue.
"All you're saying, Lucas, is that we're expanding. You want us to sit here and build up population pressure like Terra in the First Century?"
"With three and a half billion people spread out on twelve planets? They had that many on Terra alone. And it took us eight centuries to reach that."
That had been since the Ninth Century, Atomic Era, at the end of the Big War. Ten thousand men and women on Abigor, refusing to surrender, had taken the remnant of the System States Alliance navy to space, seeking a world the Federation had never heard of and wouldn't find for a long time. That had been the world they had called Excalibur. From it, their grandchildren had colonized Joyeuse and Durendal and Flamberge; Haulteclere had been colonized in the next generation from Joyeuse, and Gram from Haulteclere.
"We're not expanding, Lothar; we're contracting. We stopped expanding three hundred and fifty years ago, when that ship came back to Morglay from the Old Federation and reported what had been happening out there since the Big War. Before that, we were discovering new planets and colonizing them. Since then, we've been picking the bones of the dead Terran Federation."
Something was going on by the escalators to the landing stage. People were moving excitedly in that direction, and the news cars were circling like vultures over a sick cow. Harkaman wondered, hopefully, if it mightn't be a fight.
"Some drunk being bounced." Nikkolay, Lucas' cousin, commented. "Sesar's let all Wardshaven in here, today. But, Lucas, this Tanith adventure; we're not making any hit-and-run raid. We're taking over a whole planet; it'll be another Sword-World in forty or fifty years."
"Inside another century, we'll conquer the whole Federation," Baron Rathmore declared. He was a politician and never let exaggeration worry him.
"What I don't understand," Harkaman said, "is why you support Duke Angus, Lord Trask, if you think the Tanith adventure is doing Gram so much harm."
"If Angus didn't do it, somebody else would. But Angus is going to make himself King of Gram, and I don't think anybody else could do that. This planet needs a single sovereignty. I don't know how much you've seen of it outside this duchy, but don't take Wardshaven as typical. Some of these duchies, like Glaspyth or Didreksburg, are literal snake pits. All the major barons are at each other's throats, and they can't even keep their own knights and petty-barons in order.
Why, there's a miserable little war down in Southmain Continent that's been going on for over two centuries."
"That's probably where Dunnan's going to take that army of his," a robot-manufacturing baron said. "I hope it gets wiped out, and Dunnan with it."
"You don't have to go to Southmain; just go to Glaspyth," somebody else said.
"Well, if we don't get a planetary monarchy to keep order, this planet will decivilize like anything in the Old Federation."
"Oh, come, Lucas!" Alex Gorram protested. "That's pulling it out too far."
"Yes, for one thing, we don't have the Neobarbarians," somebody said. "And if they ever came out here, we'd blow them to Em-See-Square in nothing flat. Might be a good thing if they did, too; it would stop us squabbling among ourselves."
Harkaman looked at him in surprise. "Just who do you think the Neobarbarians are, anyhow?" he asked. "Some race of invading nomads; Attila's Huns in spaceships?"
"Well, isn't that who they are?" Gorram asked.
"Nifflheim, no! There aren't a dozen and a half planets in the Old Federation that still have hyperdrive, and they're all civilized. That's if 'civilized' is what Gilgamesh is," he added. "These are homemade barbarians. Workers and peasants who revolted to seize and divide the wealth and then found they'd smashed the means of production and killed off all the technical brains. Survivors on planets hit during the Interstellar Wars, from the Eleventh to the Thirteenth Centuries, who lost the machinery of civilization. Followers of political leaders on local-dictatorship planets. Companies of mercenaries thrown out of employment and living by pillage. Religious fanatics following self-anointed prophets."
"You think we don't have plenty of Neobarbarian material here on Gram?" Trask demanded. "If you do, take a look around."
Glaspyth, somebody said.
"That collection of over-ripe gallows-fruit Andray Dunnan's recruited," Rathmore mentioned.
Alex Gorram was grumbling that his shipyard was full of them; agitators stirring up trouble, trying to organize a strike to get rid of the robots.
"Yes," Harkaman pounced on that last. "I know of at least forty instances, on a dozen and a half planets, in the last eight centuries, of anti-technological movements. They had them on Terra, back as far as the Second Century Pre-Atomic. And after Venus seceded from the First Federation, before the Second Federation was organized."
"You're interested in history?" Rathmore asked.
"A hobby. All spacemen have hobbies. There's very little work aboard ship in hyperspace; boredom is the worst enemy. My guns-and-missiles officer, Vann Larch, is a painter. Most of his work was lost with the Corisande on Durendal, but he kept us from starving a few times on Flamberge by painting pictures and selling them. My hyperspatial astrogator, Guatt Kirbey, composes music; he tries to express the mathematics of hyperspatial theory in musical terms. I don't care much for it, myself," he admitted. "I study history. You know, it's odd; practically everything that's happened on any of the inhabited planets happened on Terra before the first spaceship."
The garden immediately around them was quiet, now; everybody was over by the landing-stage escalators. Harkaman would have said more, but at that moment he saw half a dozen of Sesar Karvall's uniformed guardsmen run past. They were helmeted and in bullet-proofs; one of them had an auto-rifle, and the rest carried knobbed plastic truncheons. The Space Viking set down his drink.
"Let's go," he said. "Our host is calling up his troops; I think the guests ought to find battle-stations, too."