Ealstan was still shaky on his feet. The young Forthwegian gauged how sick he’d been by how long he was taking to get better. He also gauged how sick he’d been by the medicine with which Vanai had helped him break his fever.
When his wits came back, he scolded her: “You went out. You shouldn’t have done that. You shouldn’t have taken the chance. The Algarvians might have grabbed you and. .” He didn’t want to go on.
Vanai glared at him. Her gray-blue eyes flashed. People said Kaunians didn’t get so excited as Forthwegians. Living with Vanai had proved to Ealstan that people didn’t know what they were talking about. “What should I have done?” she demanded. “Stayed here and watched you die and then tried to go out?”
“I wasn’t going to die.” But Ealstan’s comeback wasn’t so persuasive as he would have wanted, even to himself. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been so sick. When he looked at himself in the mirror, he saw how the flesh had melted from his swarthy, hook-nosed face. Circles almost as dark as his eyes lay under them.
“Anyhow, it worked out all right,” Vanai said. “I went out, I found an apothecary, I got what you needed, and I came back. Nothing else happened.”
“No?” Ealstan said, and now she had trouble meeting his gaze. He pointed at her. “What was it? How bad was it?”
“Nothing else happened,” she repeated, and slamming doors and falling bars were in her voice. A long time before, when they’d first got to know each other, he’d decided he would be wise not to ask her what she’d gone through in Oyngestun. This was liable to be another time when trying to force truth from her would do more harm than good.
“Let it go, then,” he said with a weary nod. He was still weary all the time. He was so weary, a couple of days could go by without his having any interest in making love. Before he got sick, he wouldn’t have believed such a thing possible.
But, weary or not, he had to go out to buy food, for the cupboards in the flat were nearly empty. If he didn’t go out, Vanai would have to. She’d done it once. He didn’t want her to have to do it twice, not when the redheaded occupiers of Forthweg had made her kind fair game.
Moving like a man four times his age, he walked to the market square to buy beans and dried peas and barley and lentils. As long as he and Vanai had enough of those, they wouldn’t starve. The trouble was, he couldn’t carry so much as he had before, either. That meant he had to make two trips to bring back the food he should have been able to take in one. By the time he finally got through, he felt ready for the knacker’s yard.
Vanai fixed him a cup of mint tea. After he’d drunk it, she half dragged him to the bedroom, peeled his shoes off him, and made him lie down. He hoped she would lie down beside him, or on top of him, or however she chose. Instead, she said, “Go to sleep.”
He did. When he woke, he felt much more like himself. By then, Vanai did lie curled beside him. Her mouth had fallen open; she was snoring a little. He looked over at her and smiled. She didn’t just know what he wanted. She knew what he needed, too, and that was liable to be more important.
A couple of days later, he started going out and about through Eoforwic, seeing the people for whom he cast accounts. He discovered he’d lost a couple of them to other bookkeepers: inevitable, he supposed, when he hadn’t been able to let them know why he wasn’t showing up. That he’d kept as many clients as he had pleased him very much.
Ethelhelm the singer and drummer wasn’t in his flat when Ealstan came to call. The doorman for the building said, “The gentleman has taken his band on tour, sir. He did give me an envelope to give you if you returned while he and his colleagues were away.”
“Thanks,” Ealstan said, and then had to hand the fellow a coin for doing what he should have done for nothing. Ealstan took the envelope and went off before opening it; whatever it held, he didn’t want the doorman knowing it.
The band leader had scrawled his name below the last sentence.
Ealstan smiled as he refolded the note and put it in his belt pouch. Ethel-helm enjoyed speaking in riddles and paradoxes. And Ealstan could hardly find fault with this one. Better to have any natural sickness than to let the Algarvians know he was harboring Vanai.
That point got driven home when he came back to his own sorry little street. A couple of overage, overweight Algarvian constables were standing in front of the block of flats next to his. One of them turned to him and asked, “You knowing any Kaunian bitch living in this street here?”
“No, sir,” Ealstan answered. “I don’t think any of the stinking blonds are left in this part of town.” He did his best to sound like an ordinary Forthwegian, a Forthwegian who hated Kaunians as much as King Mezentio’s men did.
The other Algarvian spoke in his own language: “Oh, leave it alone, by the powers above. So we didn’t get to have her. The world won’t end. She paid us off.”
“Bah,” the first constable said. “Even if all these buggers say they never saw her, we both know she’s around here somewhere.”
After King Mezentio’s men took Gromheort, Ealstan’s home town in eastern Forthweg, they’d made academy students start learning Algarvian instead of classical Kaunian. That no doubt helped make the students better subjects. It also sometimes had other uses. Ealstan made a point of looking as dull and uninterested as he could.
“Digging her out is more trouble than it’s worth,” the second constable insisted. “And if we try digging her out and don’t come up with her, we’ll be walking the beat around the city dump till the end of time. Come on, let’s go.”
Though he kept grumbling, the constable who’d spoken Forthwegian let himself be persuaded. Off he went with his pal. Ealstan stared after them. If they were talking about anyone but Vanai, he would have been amazed.
But they weren’t going to call in their pals and try to unearth her. Ealstan clung to that. As he walked upstairs, he wondered if he ought to mention what he’d overheard. He decided that was a bad idea.
When Vanai let him in after his coded knock, she clicked her tongue between her teeth in dismay. “Sit down,” she said in tones that brooked no argument. “You’re worn to a nub. Let me get you some wine. You shouldn’t have gone out.”
“I have to keep my business going, or else we won’t be able to buy food,” he said, but he was glad to sit down on the shabby sofa and stretch his feet out in front of him. Vanai fetched him the wine, clucking all the while, and sat down beside him. He cocked his head to one side. “You don’t need to make such a fuss over me.”
“No?” She raised an eyebrow. “If I don’t, who will?”
Ealstan opened his mouth, then closed it again. He had no good answer, and was smart enough to realize as much. If they didn’t take care of each other here in Eoforwic, no one else would. Things weren’t as they had been back in Gromheort for him, with his mother and father and sister to worry about him and his big brother to flatten any nuisances he couldn’t handle himself.
And having Vanai fuss over him wasn’t like having his mother fuss. He had trouble defining how and why it wasn’t, but the difference remained. After another sip of wine, he decided that Vanai, even though she fussed, didn’t treat him as if he were two years old while she was doing it. As far as his mother was concerned, he would never be anything but a child.
He took one more sip of wine, then nodded to Vanai. “Thank you,” he told her. “This is good. It’s what I needed.”
“You’re welcome,” she said, and laughed, though not as if she were merry and carefree. “I sound silly, don’t I? But I hardly know what to do when somebody tells me that. My grandfather didn’t, or not very often, and the things I had to do for him. . ” She laughed again, even more grimly than before.
“Maybe Brivibas had trouble figuring out you weren’t a baby anymore,”
Ealstan said; if that was true for his parents-especially his mother-why not for Vanai’s grandfather, too?
But she shook her head. “No. He had an easier time with me when I was small. He could count on me to do as I was told then. Later on …” Now her eyes twinkled. “Later on, he never could be sure I wouldn’t do something outrageous and disgraceful-say, falling in love with a Forthwegian.”
“Well, if you had to pick something outrageous and disgraceful, I’m glad you picked that,” Ealstan said.
“So am I,” Vanai answered. “A lot of my other choices were worse.” She looked bleak again, but, with what seemed a distinct effort of will, put aside the expression. Her voice thoughtful, she went on, “You know, I didn’t fall in love with you, not really, till we’d been in this flat for a while.”
“No?” Ealstan said in no small surprise. He’d fallen head over heels in love with her from the moment she’d given him her body. That was how he thought of it, anyway.
She shook her head again. “No. I always
For a moment, his feelings were hurt. Then he realized she’d paid him no small compliment. “I won’t let you down,” he said.
Vanai leaned over and gave him a quick kiss. “I know you won’t,” she answered. “Don’t you see? That’s one of the reasons I love you. No one else has ever been like that for me. I suppose my mother and father would have been, but I can hardly even remember them.”
Ealstan had always known he could count on his family. He’d taken that as much for granted as the shape of his hand. He said, “I’m sorry. That must have been hard. It must have been even harder because you’re a Kaunian in a mostly Forthwegian kingdom.”
“You might say so. Aye, you just might say so.” Vanai’s voice went harsh and ragged. “And do you know what the worst part of that is?” Ealstan shook his head. He wasn’t sure she noticed; she was staring at nothing in particular as she went on, “The worst part of it is, we didn’t know when we were well off. In Forthweg, we Kaunians were well off. Would you have believed that? I wouldn’t have believed it, but it was true. All we needed was the Algarvians to prove it, and they did.”
Ealstan put his arm around her. He thought of those two chubby constables in kilts and hoped the powers above would keep them away. Even if he hadn’t been feeling so feeble, he feared that encircling arm wouldn’t be so much protection as Vanai was liable to need.
But it was what he could give. It was what she had. She seemed to sense as much, for she moved closer to him. “We’ll get through it,” he said. “Somehow or other, we’ll get through it.”
“They can’t win,” Vanai said. “I can’t stay hidden forever, and there’s nowhere I can go, either, not if they win.”
But the Algarvians
Hajjaj stared down at the papers his secretary handed him. “Well, well,” he said. “This is a pretty pickle, isn’t it?”
“Aye, your Excellency,” Qutuz answered. “How do you propose to handle it?”
“Carefully,” the Zuwayzi foreign minister said, which won a smile from Qutuz. Hajjaj went on, “And by that I mean, not least, not letting the Algarvians know I’m doing anything at all. They’re our allies, after all.”
“How long do you suppose you can keep this business secret?” Qutuz asked.
“A while,” Hajjaj replied. “Not indefinitely. And, before it is secret no more, I had better get King Shazli’s views on the matter.”
His secretary bowed. “I shall attend to it directly, your Excellency,” he said, and hurried away. Hajjaj nodded at his bare brown departing backside: like all Zuwayzin, Qutuz wore clothes only when dealing with important foreigners. Hajjaj’s secretary was diligent, no doubt about it. When he said
And, only a couple of hours later that afternoon, Hajjaj bowed low before the king. “I gather this is a matter of some urgency,” Shazli said. He was a bright enough lad, or so Hajjaj thought of him-the late sixties looking back at the early thirties. “Shall we dispense with the rituals of hospitality, then?”
“If your Majesty would be so kind,” Hajjaj replied, and the king inclined his head. Thus encouraged, Hajjaj continued, “You need to declare your policy on a matter of both some delicacy and some importance to the kingdom.”
“Say on,” Shazli told him.
“I shall.” Hajjaj brandished the papers Qutuz had given him. “In the past couple of weeks, we have had no fewer than three small boats reach our eastern coastline from Forthweg. All three were packed almost to the sinking point with Kaunians, and all the Kaunians alive when they came ashore have begged asylum of us.”
Sometimes, to flavor a dish, Zuwayzi chefs would fill a little cheesecloth bag with spices and put it in the pot. They were supposed to take it out when the meal was cooked, but every once in a while they forgot. Shazli looked like a man who had just bitten down on one of those bags thinking it a lump of meat.
“They beg asylum from us because of what our allies are doing to their folk back in Forthweg.”
“Even so, your Majesty,” Hajjaj agreed. “If we send them back, we send them to certain death. If we grant them asylum, we offend the Algarvians as soon as they learn of it, and we run the risk that everything in Forthweg that floats will put to sea and head straight for Zuwayza.”
“What Algarve is doing to the Kaunians in Forthweg offends me,” Shazli said; he needed only the royal
“It’s likely, at any rate, your Majesty,” the foreign minister answered.
“Asylum they shall have, then,” Shazli declared.
Hajjaj bowed as deeply as his age-stiffened body would let him. “I am honored to serve you. But what shall we say to Marquis Balastro when he learns of it, as he surely will before long?”
King Shazli smiled a warm, confident smile. Hajjaj knew what that sort of smile had to mean even before the king said, “That I leave to you, your Excellency. I am sure you will find a way to let us do what is right while at the same time not enraging our ally’s minister.”
“I wish I were so sure, your Majesty,” Hajjaj said. “I do remind you, I am only a man, not one of the powers above. I can do one of those things or the other. I have no idea how to do both at once.”
“You’ve been managing the impossible now for as long as Zuwayza has had her freedom back from Unkerlant,” Shazli said. “Do you wonder when I tell you I think you can do it again?”
“Your Majesty, may I have your leave to go?” Hajjaj asked. That was as close as he’d ever come to being rude to his sovereign. He softened it at once by adding, “If I am to do this-if I am to try to do this-I shall need to lay a groundwork for it, if I possibly can.”
“You may go, of course,” Shazli said, “and good fortune attend your groundlaying.” But he’d heard the edge in his foreign minister’s voice. By his sour expression, he didn’t care for it. Bowing his way out, Hajjaj didn’t care for being put in a position where he had to snap at the king.
When the foreign minister got back to his office, Qutuz raised an inquiring eyebrow. “They will stay,” Hajjaj said. “All I have to do now is devise a convincing explanation for Marquis Balastro as to why they may stay.”
“No small order,” his secretary observed. “If anyone can do it, though, you are the man.”
Again, Hajjaj was bemused that others had so much more faith in him than he had in himself. Since Shazli had given him the task, though, he had to try to do it. “Bring me a city directory for Bishah, if you would be so kind,” he said.
Qutuz’s eyebrows climbed again. “A city directory?” he echoed. Hajjaj nodded and offered not a word of explanation. His secretary mumbled something under his breath. Now Hajjaj’s eyebrow rose, in challenge. Qutuz had no choice but to go fetch a directory. But he was still mumbling as he went.
Even though Hajjaj donned his spectacles, reading the small print in the directory was a trial. Fortunately, he had a good notion of the kinds of names he was looking for. Whenever he came across one, he underlined it in red ink and dog-eared the page so he could find it again in a hurry. He nodded at a couple of the names: they belonged to men he’d known for years. When he was done, he put the directory in his desk and hoped he wouldn’t have to pull it out again.
That that was a forlorn hope, he knew perfectly well. And, sure enough, less than a week later Qutuz came in and told him, “Marquis Balastro is waiting in the outer office. He came without seeking an appointment first, and he says he couldn’t care less whether you bother putting on clothes or not.”
Balastro no doubt meant it; he came closer to conforming to Zuwayzi usages than any other minister. Nevertheless, Hajjaj said, “Tell him that, for the sake of my kingdom’s dignity, I prefer to dress before receiving him. Getting into those ridiculous wrappings will also give me time to think, but you need not tell him that. Be sure to bring in tea and wine and cakes as quick as you can.”
“Just as you say, your Excellency,” Qutuz promised. “First, though, the Algarvian.”
Balastro usually had the hail-fellow-well-met air so many of his countrymen could don with ease. Not today. Today he was furious, and making no effort to hide it. Or, perhaps, today he donned a mask of fury with as much skill as he usually used while wearing a mask of affability.
Before Balastro could do much in the way in the way of blustering, Hajjaj’s secretary came in with the customary dainties on a silver tray. The Algarvian minister fumed to see them, but his manners were too good to let him talk business for a while. Hajjaj carefully hid his smile; he enjoyed turning the Algarvian’s respect for Zuwayzi customs against him.
But the small talk over refreshments could go on only so long. At last, Hajjaj had to ask, “And to what do I owe the pleasure of this unexpected visit?”
“Unexpected? I doubt it,” Balastro said, but some of the harsh edge was gone from his voice: Qutuz had picked a particularly smooth, particularly potent wine. Still, he did not sound accommodating as he went on, “Unless you can speak the truth when you tell me your kingdom isn’t taking in Kaunian fugitives.”
“No, I cannot do that, and I do not intend to try,” Hajjaj replied. “Zuwayza is indeed taking in Kaunian refugees, and will continue to do so.”
“King Mezentio has charged me to say to you that your giving haven to these fugitives”-Marquis Balastro clung to his own word-”cannot be construed as anything but an unfriendly act on the part of your kingdom.” He glared at Hajjaj; the wine hadn’t softened him so much after all. “Algarve knows full well how to punish unfriendly acts.”
“I am sure of it.” Hajjaj glared back. “Is Mezentio thinking of using us as fodder for his mages to kill to power their sorceries, along with however many Kaunians you have left?”
The sheer insolence of that, far out of character for Hajjaj, made Balastro lean forward in surprise. “By no means, your Excellency,” he replied after a pause for thought. “But you are an ally, or so Algarve has believed. Do you wonder that we mislike it when you clasp our enemies to your bosom?”
“Zuwayza is a small kingdom of free men,” Hajjaj replied. “Do you wonder that we welcome others who come to us looking for freedom they cannot find in their own lands?”
“I wonder that you welcome Kaunians,” Balastro growled. “And you know cursed well why I wonder that you welcome them, too.”
“Indeed I do.” Hajjaj pulled the city directory out of the drawer where he had put it a few days before and opened it to one of the dog-eared pages. “I see here the name of Uderzo the florist, who has been here for thirty years now- since he got out of Algarve at the end of the Six Years’ War. And here is Goscinnio the portraitist. He has been here just as long, and got here the same way. Do you think Forthweg and Jelgava and Valmiera and Lagoas weren’t screaming at us for taking in Algarvian refugees? If you do, sir, you’re daft.” He opened the directory to yet another marked page. “I can show you a great many more, if you like.”
“Never mind. I take your point.” But Balastro didn’t look or sound happy about taking it. “I remind you, though, your Excellency, that you were not allied to any of those kingdoms at the time.”
“As I have told you before, we are your allies, we are your cobelligerents against Unkerlant, but we are not your servants or your slaves,” Hajjaj replied. “If you try to treat us as if we were, we shall have to see how long we can remain your allies.”
“If you bring in spies and enemies, we shall have to see whether we want you for allies,” Balastro said. “Remember how many dragons you have from us, and how many behemoths; remember how our dragonfliers help ward your skies. If you want to face Unkerlant on your own …” He shrugged.
Would Mezentio make good on such a threat? He might, and Hajjaj knew it; the Zuwayzi foreign minister dared not underestimate the hatred the King of Algarve had for Kaunians. “How long ago were you begging us for more help here in the north?” Hajjaj asked. “Not very, as I recall.”
“We didn’t get much of it, as I recall.” Balastro leaned forward again, this time with keen interest. “Might we get more, in exchange for looking the other way at certain things you do?”
Algarvians were good at looking the other way when there were things they didn’t want to see. Hajjaj usually found that trait dismaying. Now he might be able to use it to Zuwayza’s advantage. “That could be a bargain, or the start of one,” he said, hoping to escape this dilemma with honor after all.
Skarnu’s world had shrunk to the farm where he lived with Merkela and Raunu, the hamlet of Pavilosta, and the roads between those places. He’d had little reason and less chance to go far astray since washing up on the farm, one more piece of flotsam tossed adrift as Valmiera foundered.
By now, though, he’d made a name for himself as one of the leaders of the fight against Algarve in his country. He wasn’t sure how he felt about that. On the one hand, he was flattered that other Valmierans knew he was one of those who hadn’t despaired of the kingdom. On the other, their knowing he remained a rebel against the occupiers made it more likely the redheads would find out, too.
And so, when he strode into the town of Tytuvenai, he looked around to make sure no Algarvians were paying him any undue attention. To his surprise, he saw hardly any of King Mezentio’s men on the streets. Valmieran constables as blond as Skarnu patrolled them instead. In smart uniforms that reminded him of the one he’d worn in the army, they eyed his homespun tunic and baggy trousers with almost as much scorn as nobles in Priekule would have aimed at him.
“Come to see the bright lights, farmboy?” one of them called to Skarnu. The fellow’s partner laughed.
“Aye,” Skarnu answered with a wide, foolish grin. The role he played amused him: a city man pretending to be a country yokel to fool a couple of other city men. But if the new audience criticized his performance, he wouldn’t get a bad notice in the local news sheet. He’d get killed.
He’d never been in Tytuvenai before, and so some of his curiosity was genuine. The town, he’d heard, had some monuments that dated back to the days of the Kaunian Empire. He saw none. He did see some plots of ground that looked as if they’d recently held something or other but were now empty. He wondered if Algarvian wreckers had got rid of monuments they didn’t fancy, as he knew they’d done elsewhere in Valmiera.
After some searching, he found the tavern called the Drunken Dragon. The dragon on the signboard above the door certainly looked as if it had had several too many. Skarnu smiled up at it. Before he went inside, he checked to make sure no one had picked his pockets: the Drunken Dragon lay in that kind of neighborhood. Valmieran constables didn’t come hereabouts.
Inside, the place was dark and smoky and crowded. People gave Skarnu, a stranger, a once-over as he made his way to the bar. “What’ll it be?” asked the taverner, a man missing a couple of fingers from his right hand-probably from a wound in the Six Years’ War, for he was old enough.
“Ale and roasted chestnuts,” Skarnu answered, as he’d been told to do.
The taverner eyed him, then slowly nodded. After giving him what he’d asked for, the fellow said, “Why don’t you take ‘em over to that table by the fireplace? Looks like it’s got room for a couple more.”
“All right, I’ll do that,” Skarnu said. The men sitting at that table didn’t look much different from the rest of the crowd. Some were old. Some were young. None looked rich. One or two looked a good deal shabbier than Skarnu did. A couple, but only a couple, looked as if they’d be nasty customers in a fight.
“Where you from?” one of the tough-looking fellows asked.
That was the question he’d been waiting for. “Pavilosta,” he answered.
“Ah,” the tough said. Several of the men nodded. One of them lifted a glass of wine in salute. “Simanu. That was a nice piece of work.”
Skarnu had never heard an assassination praised in such matter-of-fact terms. This was the crowd he’d come to meet, all right. He hoped none of the blonds at the table was an Algarvian spy. By coming to Tytuvenai, he’d bet his life none of them was.
A balding fellow with silver-rimmed spectacles said, “We’re just about all here now. I don’t know if Zarasai will be able to come.” That was not the name of a man but the name of a town: a sensible precaution, Skarnu judged. The bespectacled man went on, “Those people talk all the way across Valmiera. They can act all over the kingdom at the same time, too. We have to be able to do the same if we’re going to make their lives interesting.”
“It sounds good,” the ruffian said, “but how do we go about it? The post is slow, and the whoresons read it. Where are we going to get enough crystals? And how do we keep their mages from listening in on them? Emanations
“Those are good questions,” the man with the silver spectacles said, nodding. “But we can’t go on as we have been, either. A good blow like the one at Count Simanu went half wasted because we didn’t make those people sweat all over the place at the same time. And we could have. But we didn’t, because we didn’t know it would happen till after it did.”
Nobody talked about Algarvians or redheads, or named King Mezentio. That, Skarnu judged, was also wise: no telling who might be trying to listen at some of the nearby tables. Skarnu said, “Only trouble is, if you’d known ahead of time,
“Aye.” That was the tough again, his voice gone savage. “We’ve spawned enough traitors and to spare, that’s certain. And it’s not just the nobles who go riding with. . those people, or the noblewomen who let those people go riding on them, either.” Skarnu thought of his sister, the Marchioness Krasta-an Algarvian colonel’s lover these days-but not for long, for the fellow was continuing, “There’s traitors all the way down. When
“We must be ruthless, but we must be fair,” the bespectacled man said. “This isn’t Unkerlant, after all.”
The tough tossed his head. “No, it sure isn’t, is it? Unkerlant is still in the fight. Don’t you wish we could say the same?”
Skarnu winced. That hit home, painfully hard. He said,
“A whole table’s worth of us,” the tough said. “Speaks well for the kingdom, that it does. But you’re right, Pavilosta. We’re what Valmiera’s got, and we’re the ones who are going to set her to rights when the day is ours.”
One of the other irregulars was about to say something when the tavern door opened. The fellow with the silver-rimmed spectacles nodded to himself. “Maybe that will be Zarasai after all.”
But it wasn’t yet another Valmieran who hadn’t given up on the fight against Algarve. Instead, it was a kilted Algarvian officer, backed by a handful of his own countrymen and quite a few more Valmieran constables. He spoke in a loud voice: “I am hearing there is an unlawful assembling here. You are all under arresting for questioning.”
Somebody threw a mug at him-not somebody from the table at which Skarnu sat. It caught the redhead in the face. He went down with a yowl, clutching at his smashed face. A moment later, all the mugs in the Drunken Dragon seemed to be flying. Skarnu wasn’t sure the Valmieran army had tossed so many eggs at the redheads while it was still a going concern.
But mugs were less deadly than eggs, and these Algarvians and their Valmieran stooges surged into the tavern. Some of them had bludgeons, and started beating on anyone they could reach. Some of them had sticks. To Skarnu’s shame, the redheads trusted the Valmieran constables with such weapons, sure they would use them against their own countrymen.
Except for the fire, all the lights in the tavern went out. That just made the brawl more confusing. Skarnu sprang off his chair and laid about him. The chair slammed into somebody’s ribs. Whoever it was went down with a groan. Skarnu hoped he’d flattened a foe, not a friend.
“Back here!” That was the bespectacled man’s voice. It came from the direction of the bar. Skarnu fought his way toward it. Someone close by him took a beam in the chest and toppled. When Skarnu smelled burnt flesh, he went down, too, and crawled the rest of the way. The Valmieran army had failed against Algarve, but he’d learned how to fight in it.
Behind the bar, he almost crawled over the tough. The fellow grinned at him and said, “Come on, pal. I know the back way.”
“Good,” Skarnu said. “I hoped there was one.” He also hoped the Algarvians and the constables who did their bidding weren’t watching it and scooping up fleeing foes one by one.
The tough scrambled into the little room in back of the bar. Skarnu followed him. The little room had a door that opened on the alleyway behind the Drunken Dragon. The tough hurried through it. Skarnu would have peered out first. But when the tough didn’t get blazed, he followed again.
Nobody looked to be watching the alley. Maybe the Algarvians didn’t know it was there, and maybe the Valmieran constables hadn’t bothered telling them about it. Skarnu hoped the constables weren’t cooperating so enthusiastically as they seemed to be, anyhow. After looking this way and that, he said, “Now we split up.”
“Aye, I was going to tell you the same thing, Pavilosta,” the other Valmieran answered. “You’ve got a pretty good notion of what you’re doing, looks like. Powers above keep you safe.”
“And you,” Skarnu said. The tough hadn’t waited for his reply, but was already strolling down the alley as if he didn’t have a care in the world. Skarnu strolled up it, trying to act similarly nonchalant. He felt easier when he ducked into another alleyway that ran into the one behind the tavern. That second alley led him to a third, and the third to a fourth. Tytuvenai seemed to have a web of little lanes going nowhere in particular. By the time Skarnu emerged onto a real street, he was several blocks away from the Drunken Dragon. He hoped more of the men who kept on resisting the Algarvians had got out after the tough and him.
“You, there!” The call was sharp and peremptory. Skarnu turned. A constable was pointing at him. “Aye, you, bumpkin. What are you doing here?”
If he was trying to panic Skarnu, he failed. For all the world as if he were nothing but a bumpkin, the marquis jingled coins in his pocket. “Sold some eggs,” he answered. “Now I’m heading home.”
“Well, go on, then,” the constable growled. He might not have caught hold of foes of the Algarvians, but he had exercised his petty authority. That was enough to satisfy him.
Skarnu hurried out of Tytuvenai. He breathed easier once he was out in the countryside. Most people on the roads outside the towns looked like farmers-which made sense, because most of them were farmers.
He wondered how the Algarvians had got word of the meeting their enemies were having.
“Come on!” Sergeant Pesaro boomed to the squad of Algarvian constables he led west from Gromheort. “Keep moving! You can do it!”
Bembo lifted off his hat and wiped sweat from his forehead with his other sleeve. “Fat old bugger,” he grumbled. “Why doesn’t he have an apoplexy and fall over dead?”
“He’s not even as fat as he used to be,” Oraste said.
“I know.” Bembo didn’t like that, either, and wasn’t shy about saying why: “It’s all this fornicating marching we’re doing. Powers above, even I’m starting to get skinny.”
“Not so you’d notice, you’re not,” Oraste answered, which made Bembo send him a wounded look and tramp along for some little while in silence.
Sergeant Pesaro wasn’t shy about filling silences. “Keep it moving,” he repeated. “Won’t be much longer before we get to that stinking Oyngestun place.”
“Oh, aye, and won’t they be glad to see us when we get there?” Bembo said. “We’ve already taken one lot of Kaunians out of the lousy dump. What’ll they do now that we’re coming back for more?”
“Forthwegians’ll cheer, just like I would,” Oraste said. “As far as the blonds go, well, who cares?”
No one cared what happened to the Kaunians in Forthweg-except those Kaunians themselves, and there weren’t enough of them to matter. That was why dreadful things kept happening to them.
Another thought crossed his mind:
“Here we are,” Pesaro said, lifting him out of his unhappy reverie. “Beautiful Oyngestun, the garden spot of all Forthweg.”
“Huh,” Oraste said, looking at the small, decrepit village with his usual scorn. “If Forthweg needed a good purging, this is where they’d plug in the hose.”
Bembo thought about that, then snorted. As long as Oraste was making jokes about villages and not about him, he thought his squadmate was a pretty funny fellow.
Oyngestun’s two or three Algarvian constables were waiting for the squad from Gromheort. So were a couple of dozen Kaunians, all standing glum and dejected in the village square. “Powers above, you lazy buggers,” Pesaro shouted to the local constables. “Where’s the rest of ‘em?”
“We haven’t got enough men to do a proper roundup,” one of the men posted to Oyngestun answered. “Miserable blonds start sliding away whenever our backs are turned.”
“You should have blazed a couple. That would have given the rest the idea.” Pesaro threw his hands in the air, as if to say,
A young constable named Almonio asked, “Permission to fall out, Sergeant?”
He didn’t have the stomach to seize Kaunians and put them on ley-line caravans to certain death. To Bembo’s surprise, Pesaro had let him get away with hanging back. But the sergeant shook his head this time. “Only place they’re going is Gromheort, kid. You can cursed well help us get ‘em there.”
“You know what’ll happen to them afterwards, though, same as I do,” Almonio protested.
“No.” Pesaro shook his head again. The wattle under his chin, a flap of skin that had been filled with fat when he was heavier, flopped back and forth. “The same thing’d happen to them if they stayed here. We’re just moving ‘em so we can keep track of ‘em easier, and you’ll help or I’ll report you. Have you got that?”
“Aye,” Almonio answered miserably.
“You’d better.” Pesaro raised his voice to a parade-ground roar: “Kaunians, come forth! Come forth or it will be worse for you!”
He spoke only Algarvian. A constable named Evodio, who remembered the classical Kaunian that had been beaten into him in school, translated Pesaro’s bellows into the language the blonds were more likely to understand.
But, regardless of the language in which they were hailed, no Kaunians came forth. As Bembo had said, they remembered what had happened the last time the Algarvian constables from Gromheort visited Oyngestun.
“If that’s the game they want to play, by the powers above, we’ll play it,” Pesaro said. “By pairs, men. Go through the houses and bring them out.”
As he and Oraste got started, Bembo said, “We went down this street the last time we were here.”
“Did we?” Oraste shrugged. “Why bother remembering?” He pounded on a door and shouted, “Kaunians, come forth!”
To Bembo’s surprise, the door opened. The elderly Kaunian who stood in the entry hall spoke slow, clear Algarvian: “I am here. What do you want?”
“Come with us, grandpa,” Bembo said, and jerked a thumb back toward the village square. “All you blonds are going back to Gromheort.”
“We’ve seen this old buzzard before,” Oraste said.
“So we have, by the powers above,” Bembo said, nodding. “He’s the one with the cute granddaughter, right?” He didn’t wait for his partner to agree, but turned back to the Kaunian. “Come on, grandpa. Where is she?”
“Vanai is not here,” the old man answered. “She has not been here since the early winter. She ran off with a Forthwegian lout. I do not know where they went.”
“A likely story,” Oraste said with a sneer.
Bembo was inclined to believe the Kaunian; the fellow would have had trouble sounding so indignant were he lying. But you never could tell. “We’re going to have to search your place,” he said.
“Go ahead. You will not find her,” the Kaunian said, and then, “If I am to be taken to Gromheort, what may I bring with me?”
“You’re not going to be taken, pal-you’re going to walk,” Oraste answered. “You can take whatever you can carry, but if you don’t keep up, you’re going to get what’s coming to you, and that’s for sure.” He looked as if he would enjoy giving the old man what he thought was coming to him.
“I will keep up,” the Kaunian said. He stood aside. “Come search. Try not to steal too much.” He shook his head. “What difference does it make? I have spent my whole life here, but I doubt I shall ever see this place again. My empire of knowledge has fallen, just as the great Empire did in times gone by.”
“What’s he talking about?” Oraste asked.
“Why do you think I know?” Bembo replied in some annoyance. He pointed at the old man. “Pack what you’re going to take, and be quick about it. Then go to the square. Come on, Oraste. Let’s make sure that gal isn’t hiding here.”
“Oh, aye.” A murky light sparked in Oraste’s eyes. “If we catch her, I know how to make her pay.”
When they went inside, Bembo stared in astonishment. He turned to the Kaunian. “What in blazes do you do with all these books?” He’d never seen so many in one place in his life.
“Read them. Study them. Cherish them,” the blond answered. “I have spent my life seeking understanding. And what has it got me? One sack to carry on the road to Gromheort.” He bowed stiffly. “I suppose I should thank you for paring existence down to essentials.”
“What’s he talking about?” Oraste repeated. He sounded more irritable this time, more ready to strike out at what he didn’t understand.
“It doesn’t matter,” Bembo told him. “Come on. Let’s look for the girl. We can’t waste time about it. We’ve got plenty of other Kaunians to shift.”
He and Oraste tore through the house with practiced efficiency. They found no one lurking in pantries or behind or under furniture or anywhere else. “Maybe the old bugger was telling the truth,” Oraste said. “Who would have believed it?”
“Stranger things have happened,” Bembo answered. “Did you get anything good when we split up there?”
“This and that,” the other constable said. “Don’t know what all of it’s worth, but some of it’s cursed old, that’s for sure. How about you?”
“About the same,” Bembo told him. “Somebody ought to do something about these books. They’re probably worth a good bit to somebody, but not to anybody I know.”
“Most of ’em are Kaunian garbage, anyway,” Oraste said. “You ask me, the mice and the silverfish are welcome to ‘em. Come on, Bembo. Like you said, he’s not the only stinking blond we’ve got to fetch.”
They did their job well enough to keep Sergeant Pesaro from screaming too loudly at them. By early afternoon, all the Kaunians the constables could flush out were standing in the square. With Evodio translating, Pesaro said, “Now we go back to Gromheort. Have you got that? Anybody who doesn’t keep up will be sorry to the end of his days-and that won’t be a long way off. Let’s go.”
“Curse you, you pox-ridden redheaded barbarian!” a blond shouted in pretty good Algarvian. “Why should we do what you-?”
Oraste pulled his stick off his belt and blazed the Kaunian, with deliberate malice, in the belly. The man fell, shrieking and writhing. A woman-probably his wife-screamed. Over their cries, Oraste shouted, “Anybody else want to get gay with us? We’ll give you what he got.”
Evodio turned that into classical Kaunian, though Bembo didn’t think it needed any translating. Pesaro said, “Get moving.” Evodio translated that, too. All the Kaunians started east except the blazed man. Even his wife, her face stunned and empty, trudged out of Oyngestun.
Some of the Forthwegians who lived in the village jeered as the blonds left. Some waved mocking good-byes. Some had already started going through the houses of the people who’d lived side by side with them for so many years.
Bembo said, “Curse them, they have a better chance to clean out the Kaunians than we got.” He sighed. “Being a constable’s a tough job.” Self-pity came easy to him.
Oraste raised a gingery eyebrow. “You want to go fight the Unkerlanters instead?”
“Powers above, no!” The mere thought was enough to make Bembo turn and curse the Kaunians shambling along the road.
The old Kaunian scholar spoke in his own language. Several of his countrymen smiled. Seeing that Bembo did not follow, he shifted to Algarvian: “It is a proverb from the days of the Kaunian Empire, and still true today, I think. ‘Speech is a mirror of the soul: as a man speaks, so is he.’ “
Bembo yanked his bludgeon off his belt and belabored the old man till blood streamed down his face from a split scalp. “Quote proverbs at me, will you?” he shouted. “I’ll teach you one: keep your lousy mouth shut. Have you got it? Have you?” He raised the bludgeon again.
“Aye,” the Kaunian choked out. Bembo strutted along, feeling better about the world. Oraste slapped him on the back, which made him happier yet.
Garivald woke with the sun in his face. When he looked around, he saw other men-some wrapped in rock-gray Unkerlanter army blankets, some in captured Algarvian tan ones, some in peasant homespun-lying on pine boughs among the trees. He shook his head in slow wonder, as he did almost every morning when he woke. He wasn’t a peasant any more, or not an ordinary peasant. He was an irregular, fighting King Mezentio’s men far behind their lines.
He wriggled out of his own blanket-the redhead who’d carried it into southern Unkerlant wouldn’t need it, not ever again-sat up, and stretched. Then he put on his sandals and got to his feet. His belly rumbled. Not far away, a stewpot was bubbling above a slow fire. He hurried over. “What’s in there?” he asked the fellow stirring the pot with a big iron spoon.
“Barley mush and a little bit of blood sausage,” the cook answered. Like Garivald, like most Unkerlanters, he was stocky and swarthy, with dark hair and a strong hooked nose, but his accent said he came out of the north, not from the Duchy of Grelz. “Want a bowl?”
“Hmm.” Garivald rubbed his chin, as if thinking it over. Bristles rasped under his fingers; chances to shave here in the woods seldom came. His belly rumbled again. He quit being coy. “Aye!”
“Here you go, then.” The fellow tending the pot grabbed a cheap earthenware bowl and filled it full of mush. “Mind you wash it before you give it back.”
“I’ll remember,” Garivald said. He would have to work to remember, and knew it. Back in Zossen, his home village, his wife Annore would have cleaned up after him. Washing things was women’s work, not men’s.
Sudden tears stung his eyes. To make sure the cook didn’t see them, he bent his head over the bowl and began to eat. How he missed his wife! How he missed his son and daughter, too, and how-oh, how! — he missed the village where he’d spent all thirty-two (he thought it was thirty-two, but he might have been out one either way) years of his life.
Another Unkerlanter irregular came up to the cook and got a breakfast bowl of barley. After taking it, he nodded to Garivald and said, “How about a song, pal?” By his soft speech, he was a local like Garivald.
“By now you’ve heard me sing, haven’t you?” Garivald asked, and the other fellow nodded. In some exasperation, Garivald went on, “Then why would you want to hear me again? I’m better at making the words than I am at singing them.”
He sometimes wished he’d never discovered he had to power to shape words into pleasing patterns. He would still be back with his family then, back in Zossen. . and back under Algarve’s thumb. Now he was a free man-free, but alone.
He knew how lucky he was not to be a dead man. Some of the songs he made had been for the irregulars in the woods around Zossen. But the Algarvians had found out who shaped the tunes that helped rouse the countryside against them. They’d seized him and taken him off to Herborn, the capital of the Duchy of Grelz (now the reborn puppet Kingdom of Grelz, with Mezen-tio’s cousin on the throne) to do away with him. If Munderic’s irregulars hadn’t ambushed the redheads and rescued him, he’d long since have been boiled alive.
The other irregular paused between spoonfuls of barley porridge to say, “You’re not
“Nothing new this morning,” Garivald said, and went back to finishing his own breakfast. He knew he probably wouldn’t have been rescued if it weren’t for his songs, and he did spend time letting people hear his unspectacular voice. But nobody, in his experience, felt like singing early in the morning.
To his relief, the other fellow didn’t press him, but went back to try to wheedle a second bowl of mush from the cook. He had no more luck there than he’d had with Garivald, and slouched off cursing his fate.
Garivald rose and hurried away, which didn’t prove the best idea he’d ever had: he almost bowled over Munderic, the leader of this band. “Sorry,” he stammered, and stepped out of the way.
“It’s all right.” Munderic was burly even by Unkerlanter standards. He’d done a better job of shaving than most of the men who followed him. That should have made him look more pleasant. Somehow, it didn’t. He went on, “I was looking for you, as a matter of fact.”
“Were you?” Garivald asked in what he hoped wasn’t too hollow a voice. He wasn’t sure he wanted to draw the leader’s notice.
Want it or not, he had it. Munderic nodded briskly. “Aye. High time you were blooded. Songs are all very well, but you ought to be able to fight, too. The Algarvians are moving a couple of squads between Lohr and Pirmasens. We’re going to make sure they don’t have a happy time on the road.”
Back in Zossen, fifty or sixty miles away, Garivald had heard of Lohr and Pirmasens, but he couldn’t have told where they lay. He still couldn’t, not exactly; he was too new to what seemed to him a vastly distant part of the world. “Give me a stick and I’ll do what I can,” he said.
Munderic slapped him on the back. “I know you will.” His grin showed a couple of broken teeth. “It’ll make your songs better, too, because you’ll know more of what you’re singing about.”
“I suppose so,” Garivald answered. He nodded to Munderic as he might have to a schoolmaster-not that he’d ever had any schooling himself. “How do you know the Algarvians will be moving?”
“I have ears in Lohr. And I have ears in Pirmasens,” the leader of the irregulars answered. He had ears in half a dozen villages around this stretch of wood; Garivald already knew as much. Munderic continued, “If I hear the same thing in both places, it’s likely true.”
“Or it’s an Algarvian trick to draw you out,” Garivald said.
Munderic pondered that. “You’ve got a nasty, suspicious mind,” he said at last. “I won’t tell you you’re wrong, because the redheads could be doing that. But I don’t think they are this time.”
“I hope you’re right,” Garivald told him.
“I’m betting my life on it,” Munderic said, “for I’ll be along, you know. I don’t send people out to do what I won’t.” Now Garivald was the one who had to ponder and nod.
At Munderic’s order, the irregulars gave him a stick captured from some Algarvian. It bore a small enamelwork shield of green, white, and red, and was a bit shorter, a bit lighter, than the Unkerlanter military model. Hefting it, Garivald said, “Feels more like a stick for blazing rabbits than one for people.”
The man who gave it to him wore a filthy, tattered rock-gray tunic that had probably been on his back since the Algarvians’ advance the summer before overran this part of Unkerlant and left him a soldier stranded in enemy-held territory. “Don’t be a bigger fool than you can help,” he said, and pulled up his left sleeve to show the long, straight scar left behind after a beam burned a chunk of meat from his arm. “A stick just like that did this.” He laid his right finger on the scar. “It can happen to you, too-or it can happen to an Algarvian. Try and see that it does. You’ll be happier afterwards, believe me.”
“Aye, you’re bound to be right about that.” Garivald remembered the captured irregulars the Algarvians had hanged in Zossen. Who had they been? Just a couple of men nobody’d ever heard of. If they caught him and hanged him in Pirmasens or Lohr, who would he be there? No one at all, just a stranger without any luck. He didn’t want to end his days like that, or on the wrong end of a stick, either.
Munderic led his raiders out of their woodland shelter in the dark, quiet hours between midnight and dawn. Garivald yawned and yawned, trying to make himself wake up. “This is our time,” Munderic said. “The Algarvians think they can do as they please during the day, but the night belongs to us.”
Despite that proud boast, the irregular leader and the rest of the band moved like hunted animals when they emerged from the forest and came out into the open country bordering it. Once, a dragon screeched high overhead. They stopped moving altogether, freezing as rabbits will when an owl hoots.
At last, Munderic said, “Come on. It’s gone.” Garivald looked up into the sky. He didn’t see the dragon, but he hadn’t seen it before, either. He wondered how-or if-Munderic knew it had flown on.
Even at night, he could see good farmland was going to waste around these parts. Rank weeds overran fields that hadn’t been planted in barley or rye. Grass grew tall in meadows where cattle and sheep hadn’t grazed. Sadly, Garivald shook his head. So many things would be a long time going back to the way they had been, if in fact they ever did.
Where the road ran through one of those ungrazed meadows, Munderic halted and held up a hand. “We wait here,” he said. “We’ll dig ourselves in along both sides of the track, and when the redheads come by, we’ll make them pay. Be sure they can’t spy any spoil from your digging, mind. It’s not an ambush if they know it’s there.”
Garivald had nothing with which to dig. He stood there feeling useless and helpless till another Unkerlanter let him borrow a short-handled spade: a soldier’s tool, not a farmer’s, one with which a man could dig while on his knees or even on his belly. “Heap up some of the dirt in front of your hole,” advised the fellow whose spade he was using. “It’ll help block a beam.”
“Aye,” Garivald said. “Thanks.” By the time he finished, the eastern sky had gone from gray to pink. Starlings started their metallic twittering. In the gray morning twilight, Munderic strode along the road to see what an Algarvian footsoldier would spy. He had a couple of men pull up grass and weeds to hide their holes better. He didn’t criticize Garivald, which made the peasant proud.
At last, Munderic pronounced himself satisfied. “Now we wait,” he said.
The sun rose. Garivald peered through the plants ahead out toward the road. It was empty. It stayed empty a long time. Bugs and spiders crawled on him. As the day turned warm, flies started biting. He slapped and cursed and wished he were home. Sweat poured off him. As Munderic had ordered, he waited.
A couple of Unkerlanters came by on foot, and one riding a sad little donkey. The irregulars let them go. The sun was well past its high point in the north when the Algarvians marched up the road from the direction of Lohr. They were singing as they marched, a rollicking tune in their own language. As usual, they seemed convinced they owned the world. Garivald knew his job was to teach them otherwise.
Munderic had threatened death and destruction for any man who started blazing too soon and so warned the redheads of the trap before they were all the way into it. Garivald let three or four of them past him before he started blazing. Everyone else seemed to have the same idea, so half the Algarvians went down in the space of a few heartbeats.
But the rest proved tougher. Shouting and cursing, they dove for cover behind the bodies of their fallen friends and into the tall grass of the meadow. With the irregulars on both sides of the road, though, finding a safe spot wasn’t easy. They kept blazing till they were blazed down-a beam from one of their sticks passed close above Garivald’s head, singeing the weeds and leaving the scent of lightning in the air.
One Algarvian started running back toward Lohr: not out of cowardice, Garivald judged, but to try to get help. The fellow hadn’t gone far when a beam caught him in the middle of the back and stretched him facedown in the dirt of the roadway.
“Gather up their sticks,” Munderic called. “Cut the throats of any of ’em still breathing. Then we’d better get out of here. All safe?” The irregular who’d asked Garivald for a song didn’t come out of his hole. Somebody went to check, and found he’d taken a beam just above the ear. He was as dead as the Algarvians. Munderic stamped his foot. “Curse it, I wanted a clean job. Almost, but not quite.”
“We did what we set out to,” Garivald said, “and the redheads aren’t about to.” He started off toward the forest with two sticks on his back and two lines for a new song going through his mind.
Sabrino’s dragon raced east through the crisp, cold air of the austral continent. The Algarvian commander could look left and see the waves of the Narrow Sea crashing against the rocky shore of the land of the Ice People. He could look to the right and see the dazzling glitter of the Barrier Mountains, still sheathed in snow and ice even though spring was rounding toward summer.
He wondered what lay beyond the Barrier Mountains. The Ice People traveled beyond them at this season of the year. So had a few intrepid explorers from civilized kingdoms. He’d read some of their accounts. They differed so wildly, he wondered if the explorers had all gone to the same country. Tempting to think about turning his dragon to the south and flying and flying and flying…
“But there’s a war to be fought,” he muttered, and looked ahead once more. The Lagoan army was still retreating, though not much pursued it: a few battalions of Yaninans stiffened by even fewer Algarvian footsoldiers and a couple of companies of behemoths. But the Lagoans did not have the dragons to be able to stand against the force he led.
That the Lagoans had any dragons at all had come as a nasty surprise the first time his fliers ran up against them. But the enemy, outnumbered four to one by his wing and Colonel Broumidis’ beasts, could scout and warn their ground forces when danger was on the way, but could not block that danger.
A beam from a heavy stick down on the ground blazed up at the Algarvian dragons. Even had it struck one, it would have done no more than infuriate the beast. But it was a warning: come no lower. Sabrino nodded to himself. The Lagoans were playing their half of the game as well as it could be played. He leaned to one side and peered down past his dragon’s scaly neck. As he’d expected, King Vitor’s men were digging in like so many moles. He nodded again. Aye, the Lagoans had plenty of professional competence. Without enough dragons, though, how much good would it do them?
“Drop your eggs, lads.” He spoke into the crystal he carried with him. For good measure, he waved the hand signal that meant the same thing.
His own dragon carried eggs, too. He slashed the cords that held them to the huge, bad-tempered beast. Down they fell, along with the eggs from the dragonfliers he led. He watched them tumble toward the ground. The moment they were gone, his dragon flew more strongly, more swiftly. He would have walked faster after shedding a heavy pack, too.
Balls of fire sprang up as the eggs, releasing the sorcerous energy stored in them, burst on the Lagoans. “That ought to hit them a good, solid lick,” Captain Orosio said.
“Aye.” Sabrino nodded. “But we won’t destroy them. The most we can do is make their lives miserable. We’ve done pretty well at that, I’d say.”
“So we have.” Orosio rolled his eyes. “But if we have to rely on the Yaninans to hunt them down and kill them, we’re going to be in for a long wait. If the Yaninans could have done it, we wouldn’t need to be here.”
“Don’t I know it,” Sabrino answered. A little nervously, he glanced down at the crystal. He used a slightly different spell to talk with Broumidis, who wouldn’t be able to hear this. He wanted to be very sure Broumidis couldn’t hear this. “We’re going to have to bring in more of our own footsoldiers and behemoths-more dragons, too-if we’re going to drive the Lagoans off the austral continent once for all. The Yaninans just aren’t up to the job.”
“Oh, I know that, sir.” Orosio was a longtime veteran, too-not one with so much service as Sabrino, who’d fought as a footsoldier in the Six Years’ War a long generation before, but with plenty to give him a healthy cynicism about the way the world worked. “Most of them would sooner be back home raising cabbages. They’ve got no stomach for a real fight. Some of their officers are good, but a lot of them have their places on account of whom they know, too.”
“That’s too true,” Sabrino said. “Noble blood is all very well, but you’d better know what you’re doing to boot. If you don’t, you’ll get yourself killed, and a lot of the men you’re supposed to lead, too.”
“Not if the men know you’re useless, and run away instead of fighting,” Orosio said. Sabrino grimaced; the Yaninans had done that more often than he cared to remember. His squadron commander went on, “Every Algarvian and every dragon we use to prop up King Tsavellas’ men is one we can’t use against King Swemmel.”
“I know. I’ve said as much. I’ve made myself unpopular saying as much.” Sabrino was old enough that he didn’t care too much about making himself unpopular. So long as his wife put up with him and his mistress remained compliant, he wouldn’t worry about the rest of the world.
He guided his dragon down a little lower, trying to assess how much harm this latest assault had done the Lagoans. With dust still rising from where eggs had burst, that was hard to do. And the enemy, he’d found, was cursed clever at making things on the ground seem worse than they were in the hope of luring Algarvian dragons to destruction.
Though tempted to loiter in the air till all the dust cleared, Sabrino decided that wouldn’t be a good idea. He spoke into the crystal again, this time to all his squadron leaders: “Let’s go back to the dragon farm so the groundcrew men can give us some more eggs. With the sun shining almost all the time, the more we can pound the Lagoans, the better.” A moment later, he passed that on to Colonel Broumidis, too.
“Aye, Colonel!” The enthusiastic cry came not from Broumidis but from Captain Domiziano, senior to Orosio in time spent commanding a squadron- he came from a family with better bloodlines and better connections-but far junior in overall experience. Domiziano never failed to remind Sabrino of a happy puppy, always ready to rush ahead. The wing commander knew that was an insult to a brave and talented officer, but couldn’t drive the thought from his mind.
As the Algarvian dragons began flying off toward the west, several Lagoan heavy sticks that had stayed quiet up till then blazed at them. Sabrino waggled a finger down at the ground. “I thought you might have some surprises waiting,” he said, as if the Lagoans far below could hear. “You won’t see us coming down to peek at you as trustingly as we did when this round of fighting started.”
Seeing that they were doing the Algarvians no harm, the Lagoan sticks soon fell silent again. Sabrino nodded in reluctant approval. Aye, King Vitor’s men knew what they were doing, all right. No point to wasting charges they might really need in some later fight.
He led the wing of Algarvian dragons and their Yaninan hangers-on toward the positions Tsavellas and Mezentio’s footsoldiers and behemoths were holding. As they neared them, Broumidis’ face with its black hairy caterpillar of a mustache appeared in Sabrino’s crystal. “If you look to the left of my dragons, my lord Count, you will see some of the Lagoan beasts coming east,” the Yaninan officer said. “Is it your pleasure that we assail them?”
Sabrino turned his head to the left. Sure enough, he did see Lagoan dragons over there, a long way off. “You have good eyes,” he told Broumidis; he made a point of complimenting Yaninans whenever he found even the vaguest occasion to do so. After a little pause for thought, he shook his head. “No, we’ll let them go. They’re likely trying to entice us into an ambush: look like easy meat and then lead us low over some sticks the Lagoans have hidden away somewhere. Best thing we can do is tend to our business and drop some more eggs on their army. If we hit it hard enough, sooner or later they’ll have to come up and fight us on our terms.”
“Let it be as you wish, of course.” Broumidis was, as always, impeccably polite. “But I wanted to make sure you were aware of the possibility.”
“For which I thank you.” Sabrino matched courtesy with courtesy. And then, after one more glance over toward the Lagoans to make sure they weren’t trying to double back after his own wing, he put them out of his mind.
That turned out to be a mistake. The dragon farm wasn’t very far behind the line to which the Yaninan and Algarvian ground forces had advanced. Peering west, Sabrino spied a ragged column of smoke rising into the air. He frowned. Nothing in the neighborhood had been burning when the wing set out.
When he got a little closer, he exclaimed in horror. A moment later, Broumidis’ face appeared in the crystal again. “My lord Count,” he said, “I think we now know the true reason we saw the Lagoan dragons, may the powers below eat them, flying back toward the east.”
“Aye,” Sabrino agreed dully. He wished he’d ordered his wing and the Yaninan dragons after the Lagoans. If he had, they might have enjoyed a measure of revenge. But that wouldn’t have brought the dragon farm back into being. The Lagoans must have loaded their handful of dragons with all the eggs they could carry, then struck as hard a blow as they could at their enemies’ base.
“Curse them,” Sabrino muttered. The Lagoans
They’d done a hideously good job. As Sabrino urged his dragon down in a long, slow spiral, he saw what a good job it was. The Lagoans had plastered the tents of the groundcrew men with eggs. A few of the Algarvians and Yaninans who cared for the dragons had survived unharmed, and waved to their countrymen as they approached. But more were down, wounded or dead; corpses and pieces of corpses littered the cratered ground where the tents had stood.
And there were more craters than the eggs from a small force of dragons could have accounted for. One of those craters, still sending up nasty smoke, was enormous-it looked as if something had taken a great bite out of the ground. Sabrino needed a moment to get his bearing and realize the Lagoans must have landed an egg right on the wagons that had carried the eggs his wing was using against the enemy. Till some more came forward from Heshbon, his dragonfliers wouldn’t be dropping any more.
His dragon landed with a thump that made him lurch against his harness. A groundcrew man shouted, “Colonel! My lord Count!” and then could go no further, but burst into tears.
“Let’s see to the animals,” Sabrino said-the first words in the dragonflier’s creed, as in the cavalryman’s.
But with so many groundcrew men dead, seeing to the dragons was a far longer, slower, harder job than it would have been otherwise. And the Ice People brought only a bare handful of camels to the dragon farm-not enough to content the voracious beasts. One of the hairy nomads spoke in Yaninan to Broumidis. The beard that grew up almost to his eyes and the hairline that started just above his eyebrows masked his expression, but Sabrino could hear the scorn in his voice.
“What does he say?” Sabrino asked.
The Yaninan dragonflier turned back to him. “He says he thought Algarve was great. He thought Algarve would drive everything before it. Now he sees it is not so. He sees that Algarvians are just another pack of mangy men coming down here from across the ocean, and nothing special at all.”
“He says that, does he?” Sabrino growled. Broumidis nodded. Did enjoyment for his powerful allies’ discomfiture spark for a moment in his black eyes? If it did, Sabrino hardly supposed he could blame him. The Algarvian colonel and count said, “Tell him we have hardly begun to show what we can do.” But even he could not deny-not to himself, at any rate, whatever he admitted to the man of the Ice People-that the work ahead had just grown harder.