They were the tank lords.
The Baron had drawn up his soldiers in the courtyard, the twenty men who were not detached to his estates on the border between the Kingdom of Ganz and the Kingdom of Marshall—keeping the uneasy truce and ready to break it if the Baron so willed.
I think the King sent mercenaries in four tanks to our place so that the Baron’s will would be what the King wished it to be . . . though of course we were told they were protection against Ganz and the mercenaries of the Lightning Division whom Ganz employed.
The tanks and the eight men in them were from Hammer’s Slammers, and they were magnificent.
Lady Miriam and her entourage rushed back from the barred windows of the women’s apartments on the second floor, squealing for effect. The tanks were so huge that the mirror-helmeted men watching from the turret hatches were nearly on a level with the upper story of the palace.
I jumped clear, but Lady Miriam bumped the chair I had dragged closer to stand upon and watch the arrival over the heads of the women I served.
“Leesh!” cried the Lady, false fear of the tanks replaced by real anger at me. She slapped with her fan of painted ox-horn, cutting me across the knuckles because I had thrown a hand in front of my eyes.
I ducked low over the chair, wrestling it out of the way and protecting myself with its cushioned bulk. Sarah, the Chief Maid, rapped my shoulder with the silver-mounted brush she carried for last-minute touches to the Lady’s hair. “A monkey would make a better page than you, Elisha,” she said. “A gelded monkey.”
But the blow was a light one, a reflexive copy of her mistress’ act. Sarah was more interested in reclaiming her place among the others at the windows now that modesty and feminine sensibilities had been satisfied by the brief charade. I didn’t dare slide the chair back to where I had first placed it; but by balancing on tiptoes on the carven arms, I could look down into the courtyard again.
The Baron’s soldiers were mostly off-worlders themselves. They had boasted that they were better men than the mercenaries if it ever came down to cases. The fear that the women had mimed from behind stone walls seemed real enough now to the soldiers whose bluster and assault rifles were insignificant against the iridium titans which entered the courtyard at a slow walk, barely clearing the posts of gates which would have passed six men marching abreast.
Even at idle speed, the tanks roared as their fans maintained the cushions of air that slid them over the ground. Three of the Baron’s men dodged back through the palace doorway, their curses inaudible over the intake whine of the approaching vehicles.
The Baron squared his powerful shoulders with his dress cloak of scarlet, purple, and gold. I could not see his face, but the back of his neck flushed red and his left hand tugged his drooping moustache in a gesture as meaningful as the angry curses that would have accompanied it another time.
Beside him stood Wolfitz, his Chamberlain; the tallest man in the courtyard; the oldest; and, despite the weapons the others carried, the most dangerous.
When I was first gelded and sold to the Baron as his Lady’s page, Wolfitz had helped me continue the studies I began when I was training for the Church. Out of his kindness, I thought, or even for his amusement . . . but the Chamberlain wanted a spy, or another spy, in the women’s apartments. Even when I was ten years old, I knew that death lay on that path—and life itself was all that remained to me.
I kept the secrets of all. If they thought me a fool and beat me for amusement, then that was better than the impalement which awaited a boy who was found meddling in the affairs of his betters.
The tanks sighed and lowered themselves the last finger’s breadth to the ground. The courtyard, clay and gravel compacted over generations to the density of stone, crunched as the plenum-chamber skirts settled visibly into it.
The man in the turret of the nearest tank ignored the Baron and his soldiers. Instead, the reflective face shield of the tanker’s helmet turned and made a slow, arrogant survey of the barred windows and the women behind them. Maids tittered; but the Lady Miriam did not, and when the tanker’s face shield suddenly lifted, the mercenary’s eyes and broad smile were toward the Baron’s wife.
The tanks whispered and pinged as they came into balance with the surroundings which they dominated. Over those muted sounds, the man in the turret of the second tank to enter the courtyard called, “Baron Hetziman, I’m Lieutenant Kiley and this is my number two—Sergeant-Commander Grant. Our tanks have been assigned to you as a Protective Reaction Force until the peace treaty’s signed.”
“You do us honor,” said the Baron curtly. “We trust your stay with us will be pleasant as well as short. A banquet—”
The Baron paused, and his head turned to find the object of the other tanker’s attention.
The lieutenant snapped something in a language that was not ours, but the name “Grant” was distinctive in the sharp phrase.
The man in the nearest turret lifted himself out gracefully by resting his palms on the hatch coaming and swinging up his long, powerful legs without pausing for footholds until he stood atop the iridium turret. The hatch slid shut between his booted feet. His crisp moustache was sandy blond, and the eyes which he finally turned on the Baron and the formal welcoming committee were blue. “Rudy Grant at your service, Baron,” he said, with even less respect in his tone than in his words.
They did not need to respect us. They were the tank lords.
“We will go down and greet our guests,” said the Lady Miriam, suiting her actions to her words. Even as she turned, I was off the chair, dragging it toward the inner wall of imported polychrome plastic.
“But, Lady . . .” said Sarah nervously. She let her voice trail off, either through lack of a firm objection or unwillingness to oppose a course on which her mistress was determined.
With coos and fluttering skirts, the women swept out the door from which the usual guard had been removed for the sake of the show in the courtyard. Lady Miriam’s voice carried back: “We were to meet them at the banquet tonight. We’ll just do so a little earlier.”
If I had followed the women, one of them would have ordered me to stay and watch the suite—though everyone, even the tenants who farmed the plots of the home estate here, was outside watching the arrival of the tanks. Instead, I waited for the sounds to die away down the stair tower—and I slipped out the window.
Because I was in a hurry, I lost one of the brass buttons from my jacket—my everyday livery of buff; I’d be wearing the black plush jacket when I waited in attendance at the banquet tonight, so the loss didn’t matter. The vertical bars were set close enough to prohibit most adults, and few of the children who could slip between them would have had enough strength to then climb the bracing strut of the roof antenna, the only safe path since the base of the West Wing was a thicket of spikes and razor ribbon.
I was on the roof coping in a matter of seconds, three quick hand-over-hand surges. The women were only beginning to file out through the doorway. Lady Miriam led them, and her hauteur and lifted chin showed she would brook no interference with her plans.
Most of the tankers had, like Grant, stepped out of their hatches, but they did not wander far. Lieutenant Kiley stood on the sloping bow of his vehicle, offering a hand which the Baron angrily refused as he mounted the steps recessed into the tank’s armor.
“Do you think I’m a child?” rumbled the Baron, but only his pride forced him to touch the tank when the mercenary made a hospitable offer. None of the Baron’s soldiers showed signs of wanting to look into the other vehicles. Even the Chamberlain, aloof if not afraid, stood at arm’s length from the huge tank which even now trembled enough to make the setting sun quiver across the iridium hull.
Because of the Chamberlain’s studied unconcern about the vehicle beside him, he was the first of the welcoming party to notice Lady Miriam striding toward Grant’s tank, holding her skirts clear of the ground with dainty, bejeweled hands. Wolfitz turned to the Baron, now leaning gingerly against the curve of the turret so that he could look through the hatch while the lieutenant gestured from the other side. The Chamberlain’s mouth opened to speak, then closed again deliberately.
There were matters in which he too knew better than to become involved.
One of the soldiers yelped when Lady Miriam began to mount the nearer tank. She loosed her dress in order to take the hand which Grant extended to her. The Baron glanced around and snarled an inarticulate syllable. His wife gave him a look as composed as his was suffused with rage. “After all, my dear,” said Lady Miriam coolly, “our lives are in the hands of these brave men and their amazing vehicles. Of
She was the King’s third daughter, and she spoke now as if she were herself the monarch.
“That’s right, milady,” said Sergeant Grant. Instead of pointing through the hatch, he slid back into the interior of his vehicle with a murmur to the Lady.
She began to follow.
I think Lady Miriam and I, alone of those on the estate, were not nervous about the tanks for their size and power. I loved them as shimmering beasts, whom no one could strike in safety. The Lady’s love was saved for other subjects.
“Grant, that won’t be necessary,” the lieutenant called sharply—but he spoke in our language, not his own, so he must have known the words would have little effect on his subordinate.
The Baron bellowed, “
“Murphy,” called the Baron to his chief of soldiers. “Get up there with her.” The Baron roared more often than he spoke quietly. This time his voice was not loud, but he would have shot Murphy where he stood if the soldier had hesitated before clambering up the bow of the tank.
“Vision blocks in both the turret and the driver’s compartment,” said Lieutenant Kiley, pointing within his tank, “give a three-sixty-degree view at any wavelength you want to punch in.”
Murphy, a grizzled man who had been with the Baron a dozen years, leaned against the turret and looked down into the hatch. Past him, I could see the combs and lace of Lady Miriam’s elaborate coiffure. I would have given everything I owned to be there within the tank myself—and I owned nothing but my life.
The hatch slid shut. Murphy yelped and snatched his fingers clear.
Atop the second tank, the Baron froze and his flushed cheeks turned slatey. The mercenary lieutenant touched a switch on his helmet and spoke too softly for anything but the integral microphone to hear the words.
The order must have been effective, because the hatch opened as abruptly as it had closed—startling Murphy again.
Lady Miriam rose from the turret on what must have been a power lift. Her posture was in awkward contrast to the smooth ascent, but her face was composed. The tank and its apparatus were new to the Lady, but anything that could have gone on within the shelter of the turret was a familiar experience to her.
“We have seen enough of your equipment,” said the Baron to Lieutenant Kiley in the same controlled voice with which he had directed Murphy. “Rooms have been prepared for you—the guest apartments alongside mine in the East Wing, not the barracks below. Dinner will be announced—” he glanced at the sky. The sun was low enough that only the height of the tank’s deck permitted the Baron to see the orb above the courtyard wall “—in two hours. Make yourselves welcome.”
Lady Miriam turned and backed her way to the ground again. Only then did Sergeant Grant follow her out of the turret. The two of them were as powerful as they were arrogant—but neither a king’s daughter nor a tank lord is immortal.
“Baron Hetziman,” said the mercenary lieutenant. “Sir—” the modest honorific for the tension, for the rage which the Baron might be unable to control even at risk of his estates and his life. “That building, the gatehouse, appears disused. We’ll doss down there, if you don’t mind.”
The Baron’s face clouded, but that was his normal reaction to disagreement. The squat tower to the left of the gate had been used only for storage for a generation. A rusted barrow, upended to fit farther within the doorway, almost blocked access now.
The Baron squinted for a moment at the structure, craning his short neck to look past the tank from which he had just climbed down. Then he snorted and said, “Sleep in a hog byre if you choose, Lieutenant. It might be cleaner than that.”
“I realize,” explained Lieutenant Kiley as he slid to the ground instead of using the steps, “that the request sounds odd, but Colonel Hammer is concerned that commandos from Ganz or the Lightning Division might launch an attack. The gatehouse is separated from every thing but the outer wall—so if we have to defend it, we can do so without endangering any of your people.”
The lie was a transparent one; but the mercenaries did not have to lie at all if they wished to keep us away from their sleeping quarters. So considered, the statement was almost generous, and the Baron chose to take it that way. “Wolfitz,” he said offhandedly as he stamped toward the entrance. “Organize a party of tenants—” he gestured sharply toward the pattern of drab garments and drab faces lining the walls of the courtyard “—and clear the place, will you?”
The Chamberlain nodded obsequiously, but he continued to stride along at his master’s heel.
The Baron turned, paused, and snarled, “
“My Lord,” said Wolfitz with a bow that danced the line between brusque and dilatory. He stepped hastily toward the soldiers who had broken their rank in lieu of orders—a few of them toward the tanks and their haughty crews but most back to the stone shelter of the palace.
“You men,” the Chamberlain said, making circling motions with his hands. “Fifty of the peasants,
The women followed the Baron into the palace. Several of the maids glanced over their shoulders, at the tanks—at the tankers. Some of the women would have drifted closer to meet the men in the khaki uniforms, but Lady Miriam strode head high and without hesitation.
She had accomplished her purposes; the purposes of her entourage could wait.
I leaned from the roof ledge for almost a minute further, staring at the vehicles which were so smooth-skinned that I could see my amorphous reflection in the nearest. When the sound of women’s voices echoed through the window, I squirmed back only instants before the Lady reentered her apartment.
They would have beaten me because of my own excitement had they not themselves been agog with the banquet to come—and the night which would follow it.
The high-arched banquet hall was so rarely used that it was almost as unfamiliar to the Baron and his household as it was to his guests. Strings of small lights had been led up the cast-concrete beams, but nothing could really illuminate the vaulting waste of groins and coffers that formed the ceiling.
The shadows and lights trembling on flexible fastenings had the look of the night sky on the edge of an electrical storm. I gazed up at the ceiling occasionally while I waited at the wall behind Lady Miriam. I had no duties at the banquet—that was for house servants, not body servants like myself—but my presence was required for show and against the chance that the Lady would send me off with a message.
That chance was very slight. Any messages Lady Miriam had were for the second-ranking tank lord, seated to her left by custom: Sergeant-Commander Grant.
Only seven of the mercenaries were present at the moment. I saw mostly their backs as they sat at the high table, interspersed with the Lady’s maids. Lieutenant Kiley was in animated conversation with the Baron to his left, but I thought the officer wished primarily to distract his host from the way Lady Miriam flirted on the other side.
A second keg of beer—estate stock; not the stuff brewed for export in huge vats—had been broached by the time the beef course followed the pork. The serving girls had been kept busy with the mugs—in large part, the molded-glass tankards of the Baron’s soldiers, glowering at the lower tables, but the metal-chased crystal of the tank lords was refilled often as well.
Two of the mercenaries—drivers, separated by the oldest of Lady Miriam’s maids—began arguing with increasing heat while a tall, black-haired server watched in amusement. I could hear the words, but the language was not ours. One of the men got up, struggling a little because the arms of his chair were too tight against those to either side. He walked toward his commander, rolling slightly.
Lieutenant Kiley, gesturing with his mug toward the roof peak, was saying to the Baron, “Has a certain splendor, you know. Proper lighting and it’d look like a cross between a prison and a barracks, but the way you’ve tricked it out is—”
The standing mercenary grumbled a short, forceful paragraph, a question or a demand, to the lieutenant who broke off his own sentence to listen.
“Ah, Baron,” Kiley said, turning again to his host. “Question is, what, ah, sort of regulations would there be on my boys dating local women. That one there—” his tankard nodded toward the black-haired servant. The driver who had remained seated was caressing her thigh “—for instance?”
“Regulations?” responded the Baron in genuine surprise. “On
The lieutenant grinned, giving an ironic tinge to the courteous shake of his head. “I don’t think that’ll be necessary, Baron,” he said.
Kiley stood up to attract his men’s attention. “Open season on the servants, boys,” he said, speaking clearly and in our language, so that everyone at or near the upper table would understand him. “Make your own arrangements. Nothing rough. And no less than two men together.”
He sat down again and explained what the Baron already understood: “Things can happen when a fellow wanders off alone in a strange place. He can fall and knock his head in, for instance.”
The two drivers were already shuffling out of the dining hall with the black-haired servant between them. One of the men gestured toward another buxom server with a pitcher of beer. She was not particularly well-favored, as men describe such things; but she was close, and she was willing—as any of the women in the hall would have been to go with the tank lords. I wondered whether the four of them would get any farther than the corridor outside.
I could not see the eyes of the maid who watched the departure of the mercenaries who had been seated beside her.
Lady Miriam watched the drivers leave also. Then she turned back to Sergeant Grant and resumed the conversation they held in voices as quiet as honey flowing from a ruptured comb.
In the bustle and shadows of the hall, I disappeared from the notice of those around me. Small and silent, wearing my best jacket of black velvet, I could have been but another patch of darkness. The two mercenaries left the hall by a side exit. I slipped through the end door behind me, unnoticed save as a momentary obstacle to the servants bringing in compotes of fruits grown locally and imported from across the stars.
My place was not here. My place was with the tanks, now that there was no one to watch me dreaming as I caressed their iridium flanks.
The sole guard at the door to the women’s apartments glowered at me, but he did not question my reason for returning to what were, after all, my living quarters. The guard at the main entrance would probably have stopped me for spite: he was on duty while others of the household feasted and drank the best quality beer.
I did not need a door to reach the courtyard and the tanks parked there.
Unshuttering the same window I had used in the morning, I squeezed between the bars and clambered to the roof along the antenna mount. I was fairly certain that I could clear the barrier of points and edges at the base of the wall beneath the women’s suite, but there was no need to take that risk.
Starlight guided me along the stone gutter, jumping the pipes feeding the cistern under the palace cellars. Buildings formed three sides of the courtyard, but the north was closed by a wall and the gatehouse. There was no spiked barrier beneath the wall, so I stepped to the battlements and jumped to the ground safely.
Then I walked to the nearest tank, silently from reverence rather than in fear of being heard by someone in the palace. I circled the huge vehicle slowly, letting the tip of my left index finger slide over the metal. The iridium skin was smooth, but there were many bumps and irregularities set into the armor: sensors, lights, and strips of close-range defense projectors to meet an enemy or his missile with a blast of pellets.
The tank was sleeping but not dead. Though I could hear no sound from it, the armor quivered with inner life like that of a great tree when the wind touches its highest branches.
I touched a recessed step. The spring-loaded fairing that should have covered it was missing, torn away or shot off—perhaps on a distant planet. I climbed the bow slope, my feet finding each higher step as if they knew the way.
It was as if I were a god.
I might have attempted no more than that, than to stand on the hull with my hand touching the stubby barrel of the main gun—raised at a sixty-degree angle so that it did not threaten the palace. But the turret hatch was open and, half convinced that I was living in a hope-induced dream, I lifted myself to look in.
“Freeze,” said the man looking up at me past his pistol barrel. His voice was calm. “And then we’ll talk about what you think you’re doing here.”
The interior of the tank was coated with sulphurous light. It was too dim to shine from the hatch, but it provided enough illumination for me to see the little man in the khaki coveralls of the tank lords. The bore of the powergun in his hand shrank from the devouring cavity it had first seemed. Even the 1 cm bore of reality would release enough energy to splash the brains from my skull, I knew.
“I wanted to see the tanks,” I said, amazed that I was not afraid. All men die, even kings; what better time than this would there be for me? “They would never let me, so I sneaked away from the banquet. I—it was worth it. Whatever happens now.”
“Via,” said the tank lord, lowering his pistol. “You’re just a kid, ain’tcha?”
I could see my image foreshortened in the vision screen behind the mercenary, my empty hands shown in daylit vividness at an angle which meant the camera must be in another of the parked tanks.
“My Lord,” I said—straightening momentarily but overriding the reflex so that I could meet the mercenary’s eyes. “I am sixteen.”
“Right,” he said, “and I’m Colonel Hammer. Now—”
“Oh Lord!” I cried, forgetting in my joy and embarrassment that someone else might hear me. My vision blurred and I rapped my knees on the iridium as I tried to genuflect. “Oh, Lord Hammer, forgive me for disturbing you!”
The mercenary was head and shoulders out of the hatch now, watching me with a concerned expression. I blinked and straightened. When I knelt, I had almost slipped from the tank; and in a few moments, my bruises might be more painful than my present embarrassment.
“I’m sorry, Lord Curran,” I said, thankful for once that I had practice in keeping my expression calm after a beating. “I have studied, I have dreamed about your tanks ever since I was placed in my present status six years ago. When you came I—I’m afraid I lost control.”
“You’re a little shrimp, even alongside me, ain’tcha?” said Curran reflectively.
A burst of laughter drifted across the courtyard from a window in the corridor flanking the dining hall.
“Aw, Via,” the tank lord said. “Come take a look, seein’s yer here anyhow.”
It was not a dream. My grip on the hatch coaming made the iridium bite my fingers as I stepped into the tank at Curran’s direction; and besides, I would never have dared to dream this paradise.
The tank’s fighting compartment was not meant for two, but Curran was as small as he had implied and I—I had grown very little since a surgeon had fitted me to become the page of a high-born lady. There were screens, gauges, and armored conduits across all the surfaces I could see.
“Drivers’ll tell ye,” said Curran, “the guy back here, he’s just along for the ride ’cause the tank does it all for ’em. Been known t’say that myself, but it ain’t really true. Still—”
He touched the lower left corner of a screen. It had been black. Now it became gray, unmarked save by eight short orange lines radiating from the edge of a two-centimeter circle in the middle of the screen.
“Fire control,” Curran said. A hemispherical switch was set into the bulkhead beneath the screen. He touched the control with an index finger, rotating it slightly. “That what the Slammers’re all about, ain’t we? Firepower and movement, and the tricky part—movement—the driver handles from up front. Got it?”
“Yes, My Lord,” I said, trying to absorb everything around me without taking my eyes from what Curran was doing. The West Wing of the palace, guest and baronial quarters above the ground-floor barracks, slid up the screen as brightly illuminated as if it were daylight.
“Yes, My Lord.”
“Right,” said Curran, softly again. “Sorry, kid. Lieutenant’ll have my ass if he sees me twiddlin’ with the gun, and if we blow a hole in Central Prison here—” he gestured at the screen, though I did not understand the reference “—the colonel’ll likely shoot me hisself.”
“I won’t touch anything, My Lord,” I reiterated.
“Yeah, well,” said the mercenary. He touched a four-position toggle switch beside the hemisphere. “We just lowered the main gun, right? I won’t spin the turret, ’cause they’d hear that likely inside. Matter of fact—”
Instead of demonstrating the toggle, Curran fingered the sphere again. The palace dropped off the screen and, now that I knew to expect it, I recognized the faint whine that must have been the gun itself gimbaling back up to a safe angle. Nothing within the fighting compartment moved except the image on the screen.
“So,” the tanker continued, flipping the toggle to one side. An orange numeral 2 appeared in the upper left corner of the screen. “There’s a selector there, too—” he pointed to the pistol grip by my head, attached to the power seat which had folded up as soon as it lowered me into the tank at Curran’s direction.
His finger clicked the switch to the other side—1 appeared in place of 2 on the screen—and then straight up—3. “Main gun,” he said, “co-ax—that’s the tribarrel mounted just in front of the hatch. You musta seen it?”
I nodded, but my agreement was a lie. I had been too excited and too overloaded with wonder to notice the automatic weapon on which I might have set my hand.
“And 3,” Curran went on, nodding also, “straight up—that’s both guns together. Not so hard, was it? You’re ready to be a tank commander now—and—” he grinned “—with six months and a little luck, I could teach ye t’drive the little darlin’ besides.”
“Oh, My Lord,” I whispered, uncertain whether I was speaking to God or to the man beside me. I spread my feet slightly in order to keep from falling in a fit of weakness.
He snapped the toggle down to its original position; the numeral disappeared from the screen. “Shouldn’t have it live no how,” he added.
“But—all this,” I said, gesturing with my arm close to my chest so that I would not bump any of the close-packed apparatus. “If shooting is so easy, then why is—
Curran smiled. “Up,” he said, pointing to the hatch. As I hesitated, he added, “I’ll give you a leg-up, don’t worry about the power lift.”
Flushing, sure that I was being exiled from Paradise because I had overstepped myself—somehow—with the last question, I jumped for the hatch coaming and scrambled through with no need of the tanker’s help. I supposed I was crying, but I could not tell because my eyes burned so.
“Hey, slow down, kid,” called Curran as he lifted himself with great strength but less agility. “It’s just Whichard’s about due t’take over guard, and we don’t need him t’find you inside. Right?”
“Oh,” I said, hunched already on the edge of the tank’s deck. I did not dare turn around for a moment. “Of course, My Lord.”
“The thing about shootin’,” explained the tank lord to my back, “ain’t
He grinned broadly. He had a short beard, rather sparse, which partly covered the pockmarks left by some childhood disease. “Maybe even puts tank commander up on a level with driver for tricky, right?”
His words opened a window in my mind, the frames branching and spreading into a spidery, infinite structure: responsibility, the choices that came with the power of a tank.
“Yes, My Lord,” I whispered.
“Now, you better get back t’ whatever civvies do,” Curran said, a suggestion that would be snarled out as an order if I hesitated. “And
“No, My Lord,” I said as I jumped to the ground. Tie-beams between the wall and the masonry gatehouse would let me climb back to the path I had followed to get here.
“And thank you,” I added, but varied emotions choked the words into a mumble.
I thought the women might already have returned, but I listened for a moment, clinging to the bars, and heard nothing. Even so I climbed in the end window. It was more difficult to scramble down without the aid of the antenna brace, but a free-standing wardrobe put that window in a sort of alcove.
I didn’t know what would happen if the women saw me slipping in and out through the bars. There would be a beating—there was a beating whenever an occasion offered. That didn’t matter, but it was possible that Lady Miriam would also have the openings crossbarred too straitly for even my slight form to pass.
I would have returned to the banquet hall, but female voices were already greeting the guard outside the door. I only had enough time to smooth the plush of my jacket with Sarah’s hairbrush before they swept in, all of them together and their mistress in the lead as usual.
By standing against a color-washed wall panel, I was able to pass unnoticed for some minutes of the excited babble without being guilty of “hiding” with the severe flogging that would surely entail. By the time Lady Miriam called, “Leesh?
“Yes, My Lady?” I said, stepping forward.
Several of the women were drifting off in pairs to help one another out of their formal costumes and coiffures. There would be a banquet every night that the tank lords remained—providing occupation to fill the otherwise featureless lives of the maids and their mistress.
That was time consuming, even if they did not become more involved than public occasion required.
“Leesh,” said Lady Miriam, moderating her voice unexpectedly. I was prepared for a blow, ready to accept it unflinchingly unless it were aimed at my eyes and even then to dodge as little as possible so as not to stir up a worse beating.
“Elisha,” the Lady continued in a honeyed tone—then, switching back to acid sharpness and looking at her Chief Maid, she said, “Sarah, what
Women who still dallied in the suite’s common room—several of the lower-ranking stored their garments here in chests and clothes presses—scurried for their sleeping quarters while Sarah hectored them, arms akimbo.
“I need you to carry a message for me, Leesh,” explained Lady Miriam softly. “To one of our guests. You—you do know, don’t you, boy, which suite was cleared for use by our guests?”
“Yes, My Lady,” I said, keeping my face blank. “The end suite of the East Wing, where the King slept last year. But I thought—”
“Don’t think,” said Sarah, rapping me with the brush which she carried on all but formal occasions. “And don’t interrupt milady.”
“Yes, My Lady,” I said, bowing and rising.
“I don’t want you to
She paused and touched her full lips with her tongue while her fingers played with the fan. “Yes,” she said at last, then continued, “I want you to tell Sergeant Grant oh-four hundred and to answer any questions he may have.”
Lady Miriam looked up again, and though her voice remained mild, her eyes were hard as knife points. “Oh. And Leesh? This is business which the Baron does not wish to be known. Speak to Sergeant Grant in private. And never speak to anyone else about it—even to the Baron if he tries to trick you into an admission.”
“Yes, My Lady,” I said bowing.
I understood what the Baron would do to a page who brought him the news—and how he would send a message back to his wife, to the king’s daughter whom he dared not impale in person.
Sarah’s shrieked order carried me past the guard at the women’s apartment, while Lady Miriam’s signet was my pass into the courtyard after normal hours. The soldier there on guard was muzzy with drink. I might have been able to slip unnoticed by the hall alcove in which he sheltered.
I skipped across the gravel-in-clay surface of the courtyard, afraid to pause to touch the tanks again when I knew Lady Miriam would be peering from her window. Perhaps on the way back . . . but no, she would be as intent on hearing how the message was received as she was anxious to know that it had been delivered. I would ignore the tanks—
I stumbled with shock and my will to obey. Catching my balance, I turned slowly—to the triple muzzles of the weapon mounted on the cupola, not a pistol as Lord Curran had pointed. The man who spoke wore a shielded helmet, but there would not have been enough light to recognize him anyway.
“Please, My Lord,” I said, “I have a message for Sergeant-Commander Grant?”
“From who?” the mercenary demanded. I knew now that Lieutenant Kiley had been serious about protecting from intrusion the quarters allotted to his men.
“My Lord, I . . .” I said and found no way to proceed.
“Yeah, Via,” the tank lord agreed in a relaxed tone. “None a’ my affair.” He touched the side of his helmet and spoke softly.
The gatehouse door opened with a spill of light and the tall, broad-shouldered silhouette of Sergeant Grant. Like the mercenary on guard in the tank, he wore a communications helmet.
Grant slipped his face shield down, and for a moment my own exposed skin tingled—or my mind
“C’mon, then,” he grunted, gesturing me toward the recessed angle of the building and the gate leaves. “We’ll step around the corner and talk.”
There was a trill of feminine laughter from the upper story of the gatehouse: a servant named Maria, whose hoots of joy were unmistakable. Lieutenant Kiley leaned his head and torso from the window above us and shouted to Grant, his voice and his anger recognizable even though the words themselves were not.
The sergeant paused, clenching his left fist and reaching for me with his right because I happened to be closest to him. I poised to run—survive this first, then worry about what Lady Miriam would say—but the tank lord caught himself, raised his shield, and called to his superior in a tone on the safe side of the insolent, “All right, all right. I’ll stay right here where Cermak can see me from the tank.”
Apparently Grant had remembered Lady Miriam also, for he spoke in our language so that I—and the principal for whom I acted—would understand the situation.
Lieutenant Kiley banged his shutters closed.
Grant stared for a moment at Cermak until the guard understood and dropped back into the interior of his vehicle. We could still be observed through the marvelous vision blocks, but we had the minimal privacy needed for me to deliver my message.
“Lady Miriam,” I said softly, “says oh-four hundred.”
I waited for the tank lord to ask me for directions. His breath and sweat exuded sour echoes of the strong estate ale.
“Won’t go,” the tank lord replied unexpectedly. “I’ll be clear at oh-three
“Yes, My Lord,” I said, skipping backward because I had the feeling that this man would grab me and shake me to emphasize his point.
I would not deliver his threat. My best small hope for safety at the end of this affair required that Lady Miriam believe I was ignorant of what was going on, and a small hope it was.
“Well, go on, then,” the tank lord said.
He strode back within the gatehouse, catlike in his grace and lethality, while I ran to tell my mistress of the revised time.
An hour’s pleasure seemed a little thing against the risk of two lives—and my own.
My “room” was what had been the back staircase before it was blocked to convert the second floor of the West Wing into the women’s apartment. The dark cylinder was furnished only with the original stone stair treads and whatever my mistress and her maids had chosen to store there over the years. I normally slept on a chair in the common room, creeping back to my designated space before dawn.
Tonight I slept
The two women were quiet enough to have slipped past someone who was not poised to hear them as I was, and the tiny flashlight the leader carried threw a beam so tight that it could scarcely have helped them see their way. But the perfume they wore, imported, expensive, and overpowering—was more startling than a shout.
They paused at the door. The latch rattled like a tocsin though the hinges did not squeal.
The soldier on guard, warned and perhaps awakened by the latch, stopped them before they could leave the apartment. The glow lamp in the sconce beside the door emphasized the ruddy anger on his face.
Sarah’s voice, low but cutting, said, “Keep silent, my man, or it will be the worse for you.” She thrust a gleam of gold toward the guard, not payment but a richly chased signet ring, and went on, “Lady Miriam knows and approves. Keep still and you’ll have no cause to regret this night. Otherwise . . .”
The guard’s face was not blank, but emotions chased themselves across it too quickly for his mood to be read. Suddenly he reached out and harshly squeezed the Chief Maid’s breast. Sarah gasped, and the man snarled, “What’ve they got that
The second woman was almost hidden from the soldier by the Chief Maid and the panel on the half-opened door. I could see a shimmer of light as her hand rose, though I could not tell whether it was a blade or a gun barrel.
The guard flung his hand down from Sarah and turned away. “Go on, then,” he grumbled. “What do I care? Go
The weapon disappeared, unused and unseen, into the folds of an ample skirt, and the two women left the suite with only the whisper of felt slippers. They were heavily veiled and wore garments coarser than any I had seen on the Chief Maid before—but Lady Miriam was as recognizable in the grace of her walk as Sarah was for her voice.
The women left the door ajar to keep the latch from rattling again, and the guard did not at first pull it to. I listened for further moments against the chance that another maid would come from her room or that the Lady would rush back, driven by fear or conscience—though I hadn’t seen either state control her in the past.
I was poised to squeeze between the window-bars again, barefoot for secrecy and a better grip, when I heard the hum of static as the guard switched his belt radio live. There was silence as he keyed it, then his low voice saying, “They’ve left, sir. They’re on their way toward the banquet hall.”
There was another pause and a radio voice too thin for me to hear more than the fact of it. The guard said, “Yes, Chamberlain,” and clicked off the radio.
He latched the door.
I was out through the bars in one movement and well up the antenna brace before any of the maids could have entered the common room to investigate the noise.
I knew where the women were going, but not whether the Chamberlain would stop them on the way past the banquet hall or the Baron’s personal suite at the head of East Wing. The fastest, safest way for me to cross the roof of the banquet hall was twenty feet up the side, where the builder’s forms had left a flat, thirty-centimeter path in the otherwise sloping concrete.
Instead, I decided to pick my way along the trash-filled stone gutter just above the windows of the corridor on the courtyard side. I could say that my life—my chance of life—depended on knowing what was going on . . . and it did depend on that. But crawling through the starlit darkness, spying on my betters, was also the only way I had of asserting myself. The need to assert myself had become unexpectedly pressing since Lord Curran had showed me the tank, and since I had experienced what a man
There was movement across the courtyard as I reached the vertical extension of the load-bearing wall that separated the West Wing from the banquet hall. I ducked beneath the stone coping, but the activity had nothing to do with me. The gatehouse door had opened and, as I peered through dark-adapted eyes, the mercenary on guard in a tank exchanged with the man who had just stepped out of the building.
The tank lords talked briefly. Then the gatehouse door shut behind the guard who had been relieved while his replacement climbed into the turret of the vehicle parked near the West Wing—Sergeant Grant’s tank. I clambered over the wall extension and stepped carefully along the gutter, regretting now that I had not worn shoes for protection. I heard nothing from the corridor below, although the casements were pivoted outward to catch any breeze that would relieve the summer stillness.
Gravel crunched in the courtyard as the tank lord on guard slid from his vehicle and began to stride toward the end of the East Wing.
He was across the courtyard from me—faceless behind the shield of his commo helmet and at best only a shadow against the stone of the wall behind him. But the man was Sergeant Grant beyond question, abandoning his post for the most personal of reasons.
I continued, reaching the East Wing as the tank lord disappeared among the stone finials of the outside staircase at the wing’s far end. The guest suites had their own entrance, more formally ornamented than the doorways serving the estate’s own needs. The portal was guarded only when the suites were in use—and then most often by a mixed force of the Baron’s soldiers and those of the guests.
That was not a formality. The guest who would entrust his life solely to the Baron’s good will was a fool.
A corridor much like that flanking the banquet hall ran along the courtyard side of the guest suites. It was closed by a cross-wall and door, separating the guests from the Baron’s private apartment, but the door was locked and not guarded.
Lady Miriam kept a copy of the door’s microchip key under the plush lining of her jewel box. I had found it but left it there, needless to me so long as I could slip through window grates.
The individual guest suites were locked also, but as I lowered myself from the gutter to a window ledge I heard a door snick closed. The sound was minuscule, but it had a crispness that echoed in the lightless hall.
Skirts rustled softly against the stone, and Sarah gave a gentle, troubled sigh as she settled herself to await her mistress.
I waited on the ledge, wondering if I should climb back to the roof—or even return to my own room. The Chamberlain had not blocked the assignation, and there was no sign of an alarm. The soldiers, barracked on the ground floor of this wing, would have been clearly audible had they been aroused.
Then I did hear something—or feel it. There had been motion, the ghost of motion, on the other side of the door closing the corridor. Someone had entered or left the Baron’s apartment, and I had heard them through the open windows.
It could have been one of the Baron’s current favorites—girls from the estate, the younger and more vulnerable, the better. They generally used the little door and staircase on the outer perimeter of the palace—where a guard
I lifted myself back to the roof with particular care, so that I would not disturb the Chief Maid waiting in the hallway. Then I followed the gutter back to the portion of roof over the Baron’s apartments.
I knew the wait would be less than an hour, the length of Sergeant Grant’s guard duty, but it did not occur to me that the interval would be as brief as it actually was. I had scarcely settled myself again to wait when I thought I heard a door unlatch in the guest suites. That could have been imagination or Sarah, deciding to wait in a room instead of the corridor; but moments later the helmeted tank lord paused on the outside staircase.
By taking the risk of leaning over the roof coping, I could see Lord Grant and a woman embracing on the landing before the big mercenary strode back across the courtyard toward the tank where he was supposed to be on guard. Desire had not waited on its accomplishment, and mutual fear had prevented the sort of dalliance after the event that the women dwelt on so lovingly in the privacy of their apartment . . . while Leesh, the Lady’s page and no man, listened of necessity.
The women’s slippers made no sound in the corridor, but their dresses brushed one another to the door which clicked and sighed as it let them out of the guest apartments and into the portion of the East Wing reserved to the Baron.
I expected shouts, then; screams, even gunfire as the Baron and Wolfitz confronted Lady Miriam. There was no sound except for skirts continuing to whisper their way up the hall, returning to the women’s apartment. I stood up to follow, disappointed despite the fact that bloody chaos in the palace would endanger everyone—and me, the usual scapegoat for frustrations, most of all.
The Baron said in a tight voice at the window directly beneath me, “Give me the goggles, Wolfitz,” and surprise almost made me fall.
The strap of a pair of night-vision goggles rustled over the Baron’s grizzled head. Their frames clucked against the stone sash as my master bent forward with the unfamiliar headgear.
For a moment, I was too frightened to breathe. If he leaned out and turned his head, he would see me poised like a terrified gargoyle above him. Any move I made—even flattening myself behind the wall coping—risked a sound and disaster.
“You’re right,” said the Baron in a voice that would have been normal if it had any emotion behind it. There was another sound of something hard against the sash, a metallic clink this time.
“Wolfitz,” said the Baron, breathing hard. They had been struggling. The flare-mouthed mob gun from the Baron’s nightstand—scarcely a threat to Sergeant Grant across the courtyard—extended from the window opening, but the Chamberlain’s bony hand was on the Baron’s wrist. “If you tell me I must let those arrogant outworlders pleasure
He sounded like an architect discussing a possible staircase curve.
“There’s a better way, My Lord,” said the Chamberlain. His voice was breathy also, but I thought exertion was less to account for that than was the risk he took. “We’ll be ready the next time the—outworlder gives us the opportunity. We’ll take him in, in the crime; but quietly so that the others aren’t aroused.”
“Idiot!” snarled the Baron, himself again in all his arrogant certainty. Their hands and the gun disappeared from the window ledge. The tableau was the vestige of an event the men needed each other too much to remember. “No matter what we do with the body, the others will blame us. Blame
His voice took a dangerous coloration as he added, “Is that what you had in mind, Chamberlain?”
Wolfitz said calmly, “The remainder of the platoon here will be captured—or killed, it doesn’t matter—by the mercenaries of the Lightning Division, who will also protect us from reaction by King Adrian and Colonel Hammer.”
“But . . .” said the Baron, the word a placeholder for the connected thought which did not form in his mind after all.
“The King of Ganz won’t hesitate an instant if you offer him your fealty,” the Chamberlain continued, letting the words display their own strength instead of speaking loudly in a fashion his master might take as badgering.
The Baron still held the mob gun, and his temper was doubtful at the best of times.
“The mercenaries of the Lightning Division,” continued Wolfitz with his quiet voice and persuasive ideas, “will accept any risk in order to capture four tanks undamaged. The value of that equipment is beyond any profit the Lightning Division dreamed of earning when they were hired by Ganz.”
“But . . .” the Baron repeated in an awestruck voice. “The truce?”
“A matter for the kings to dispute,” said the Chamberlain offhandedly. “But Adrian will find little support among his remaining barons if you were forced into your change of allegiance. When the troops he billeted on you raped and murdered Lady Miriam, that is.”
“How quickly can you make the arrangements?” asked the Baron. I had difficulty in following the words: not because they were soft, but because he growled them like a beast.
“The delay,” Wolfitz replied judiciously, and I could imagine him lacing his long fingers together and staring at them, “will be for the next opportunity your—Lady Miriam and her lover give us. I shouldn’t imagine that will be longer than tomorrow night.”
The Baron’s teeth grated like nutshells being ground against stone.
“We’ll have to use couriers, of course,” Wolfitz added. “The likelihood of the Slammers intercepting any other form of communication is too high . . . But all Ganz and its mercenaries have to do is ready a force to dash here and defend the palace before Hammer can react. Since these tanks
“Chamberlain,” the Baron said in a voice from which amazement had washed all the anger. “You think of everything. See to it.”
“Yes, My Lord,” said Wolfitz humbly.
The tall Chamberlain
A door slammed closed, the Baron returning to his suite and his current child-mistress. Chamberlain Wolfitz’s rooms adjoined his master’s, but my ears followed his footsteps to the staircase at the head of the wing.
By the time I had returned to the West Wing and was starting down the antenna brace, a pair of the Baron’s soldiers had climbed into a truck and gone rattling off into the night. It was an unusual event but not especially remarkable: the road they took led off to one of the Baron’s outlying estates.
But the road led to the border with Ganz, also; and I had no doubt as to where the couriers’ message would be received.
The tank lords spent most of the next day busy with their vehicles. A squad of the Baron’s soldiers kept at a distance the tenants and house servants who gawked while the khaki-clad tankers crawled through access plates and handed fan motors to their fellows. The bustle racks welded to the back of each turret held replacement parts as well as the crew’s personal belongings.
It was hard to imagine that objects as huge and powerful as the tanks would need repair. I had to remember they were not ingots of iridium but vastly complicated assemblages of parts—each of which could break, and eight of which were human.
I glanced occasionally at the tanks and the lordly men who ruled and serviced them. I had no excuse to take me beyond the women’s apartment during daylight.
Excitement roused the women early, but there was little pretense of getting on with their lace-making. They dressed, changed, primped—argued over rights to one bit of clothing or another—and primarily, they talked.
Lady Miriam was less a part of the gossip than usual, but she was the most fastidious of all about the way she would look at the night’s banquet.
The tank lords bathed at the wellhead in the courtyard like so many herdsmen. The women watched hungrily, edging forward despite the scandalized demands of one of the older maids that they at least stand back in the room where their attention would be less blatant.
Curran’s muscles were knotted, his skin swarthy. Sergeant Grant could have passed for a god—or at least a man of half his real age. When he looked up at the women’s apartments, he smiled.
The truck returned in late afternoon, carrying the two soldiers and a third man in civilian clothes who could have been—but was not—the manager of one of the outlying estates. The civilian was closeted with the Baron for half an hour before he climbed back into the truck. He, Wolfitz, and the Baron gripped one another’s forearms in leave-taking; then the vehicle returned the way it had come.
The tank lord on guard paid less attention to the truck than he had to the column of steam-driven produce vans, chuffing toward the nearest rail terminus.
The banquet was less hectic than that of the first night, but the glitter had been replaced by a fog of hostility now that the newness had worn off. The Baron’s soldiers were more openly angry that Hammer’s men picked and chose—food at the high table and women in the corridor or the servant’s quarters below.
The Slammers, for their part, had seen enough of the estate to be contemptuous of its isolation, of its low technology—and of the folk who lived on it. And yet—I had talked with Lord Curran and listened to the others as well. The tank lords were men like those of the barony. They had walked on far worlds and had been placed in charge of instruments as sophisticated as any in the human galaxy—but they were not sophisticated
Sergeant-Commander Grant, for instance, made the child’s mistake of thinking his power to destroy conferred on him a sort of personal immortality.
The Baron ate and drank in a sullen reverie, deaf to the lieutenant’s attempts at conversation and as blind to Lady Miriam on his left as she was to him. The Chamberlain was seated among the soldiers because there were more guests than maids of honor. He watched the activities at the high table unobtrusively, keeping his own counsel and betraying his nervousness only by the fact that none of the food he picked at seemed to go down his throat.
I was tempted to slip out to the tanks, because Lord Curran was on duty again during the banquet. His absence must have been his own choice; a dislike for the food or the society perhaps . . . but more probably, from what I had seen in the little man when we talked, a fear of large, formal gatherings.
It would have been nice to talk to Lord Curran again, and blissful to have the controls of the huge tank again within my hands. But if I were caught then, I might not be able to slip free later in the night—and I would rather have died than missed that chance.
The Baron hunched over his ale when Lieutenant Kiley gathered his men to return to the gatehouse. They did not march well in unison, not even by comparison with the Baron’s soldiers when they drilled in the courtyard.
The skills and the purpose of the tank lords lay elsewhere.
Lady Miriam rose when the tankers fell in. She swept from the banquet hall regally as befit her birth, dressed in amber silk from Terra and topazes of ancient cut from our own world. She did not look behind her to see that her maids followed and I brought up the rear . . . but she did glance aside once at the formation of the tank lords.
She would be dressed no better than a servant later that night, and she wanted to be sure that Sergeant Grant had a view of her full splendor to keep in mind when next they met in darkness.
The soldier who had guarded the women’s apartments the night before was on duty when the Chief Maid led her mistress out again. There was no repetition of the previous night’s dangerous byplay this time. The guard was subdued, or frightened; or, just possibly, biding his time because he was aware of what was going to come.
I followed, more familiar with my route this time and too pumped with excitement to show the greater care I knew was necessary tonight, when there would be many besides myself to watch, to listen.
But I was alone on the roof, and the others, so certain of what
Sergeant Grant sauntered as he left the vehicle where he was supposed to stay on guard. As he neared the staircase to the guest suites, his stride lengthened and his pace picked up. There was nothing of nervousness in his manner; only the anticipation of a man focused on sex to the extinction of all other considerations.
I was afraid that Wolfitz would spring his trap before I was close enough to follow what occurred. A more reasonable fear would have been that I would stumble into the middle of the event.
Neither danger came about. I reached the gutter over the guest corridor and waited, breathing through my mouth alone so that I wouldn’t make any noise.
The blood that pounded through my ears deafened me for a moment, but there was nothing to fear. Voices murmured, Sarah and Sergeant Grant, and the door that had waited ajar for the tank lord clicked to shut the suite.
Four of the Baron’s soldiers mounted the outside steps, as quietly as their boots permitted. There were faint sounds, clothing and one muted clink of metal, from the corridor on the Baron’s side of the door.
All day I’d been telling myself that there was no safe way I could climb down and watch the events through a window. I climbed down, finding enough purchase for my fingers and toes where weathering had rounded the corners of stone blocks. Getting back to the roof would be more difficult, unless I risked gripping an out-swung casement for support.
Unless I dropped, bullet-riddled, to the ground.
I rested a toe on a window ledge and peeked around the stone toward the door of the suite the lovers had used on their first assignation. I could see nothing—
Until the corridor blazed with silent light.
Sarah’s face was white, dazzling with direct reflection of the high-intensity floods at either end of the hallway. Her mouth opened and froze, a statue of a scream but without the sound that fear or self-preservation choked in her throat.
Feet, softly but many of them, shuffled over the stone flags toward the Chief Maid. Her head jerked from one side to the other, but her body did not move. The illumination was pinning her to the door where she kept watch.
The lights spilled through the corridor windows, but their effect was surprisingly slight in the open air: highlights on the parked tanks; a faint wash of outline, not color, over the stones of the wall and gatehouse; and a distorted shadow play on the ground itself, men and weapons twisting as they advanced toward the trapped maid from both sides.
There was no sign of interest from the gatehouse. Even if the tank lords were awake to notice the lights, what happened at night in the palace was no affair of theirs.
Three of perhaps a dozen of the Baron’s soldiers stepped within my angle of vision. Two carried rifles; the third was Murphy with a chip recorder, the spidery wands of its audio and video pickups retracted because of the press of men standing nearby.
Sarah swallowed. She closed her mouth, but her eyes stared toward the infinite distance beyond this world. The gold signet she clutched was a drop from the sun’s heart in the floodlights.
The Baron stepped close to the woman. He took the ring with his left hand, looked at it, and passed it to the stooped, stone-faced figure of the Chamberlain.
“Move her out of the way,” said the Baron in a husky whisper.
One of the soldiers stuck the muzzle of his assault rifle under the chin of the Chief Maid, pointing upward. With his other hand, the man gripped Sarah’s shoulder and guided her away from the door panel.
Wolfitz looked at his master, nodded, and set a magnetic key on the lock. Then he too stepped clear.
The Baron stood at the door with his back to me. He wore body armor, but he can’t have thought it would protect him against the Slammer’s powergun. Murphy was at the Baron’s side, the recorder’s central light glaring back from the door panel, and another soldier poised with his hand on the latch.
The Baron slammed the door inward with his foot. I do not think I have ever seen a man move as fast as Sergeant Grant did then.
The door opened on a servants’ alcove, not the guest rooms themselves, but the furnishings there were sufficient to the lovers’ need. Lady Miriam had lifted her skirts. She was standing, leaning slightly backwards, with her buttocks braced against the bed frame. She screamed, her eyes blank reflections of the sudden light.
Sergeant-Commander Grant still wore his helmet. He had slung his belt and holstered pistol over the bedpost when he unsealed the lower flap of his uniform coveralls, but he was turning with the pistol in his hand before the Baron got off the first round with his mob gun.
Aerofoils, spread from the flaring muzzle by asymmetric thrust, spattered the lovers and a two-meter circle on the wall beyond them.
The tank lord’s chest was in bloody tatters and there was a brain-deep gash between his eyebrows, but his body and the powergun followed through with the motion reflex had begun.
The Baron’s weapon clunked twice more. Lady Miriam flopped over the footboard and lay thrashing on the bare springs, spurting blood from narrow wounds that her clothing did not cover. Individual projectiles from the mob gun had little stopping power, but they bled out a victim’s life like so many knife blades.
When the Baron shot the third time, his gun was within a meter of what had been the tank lord’s face. Sergeant Grant’s body staggered backward and fell, the powergun unfired but still gripped in the mercenary’s right hand.
“Call the Lightning Division,” said the Baron harshly as he turned. His face, except where it was freckled by fresh blood, was as pale as I had ever seen it. “It’s time.”
Wolfitz lifted a communicator, short range but keyed to the main transmitter, and spoke briefly. There was no need for communications security now. The man who should have intercepted and evaluated the short message was dead in a smear of his own wastes and bodily fluids.
The smell of the mob gun’s propellant clung chokingly to the back of my throat, among the more familiar slaughterhouse odors. Lady Miriam’s breath whistled, and the bedsprings squeaked beneath her uncontrolled motions.
“Shut that off,” said the Baron to Murphy. The recorder’s pool of light shrank into shadow within the alcove.
The Baron turned and fired once more, into the tank lord’s groin.
“Make sure the others don’t leave the gatehouse till Ganz’s mercenaries are here to deal with them,” said the Baron negligently. He looked at the gun in his hand. Strong lights turned the heat and propellant residues rising from its barrel into shadows on the wall beyond.
“Marksmen are ready, My Lord,” said the Chamberlain.
The Baron skittered his mob gun down the hall. He strode toward the rooms of his own apartment.
It must have been easier to climb back to the roof than I had feared. I have no memory of it, of the stress on fingertips and toes or the pain in my muscles as they lifted the body which they had supported for what seemed (after the fact) to have been hours. Minutes only, of course; but instead of serial memory of what had happened, my brain was filled with too many frozen pictures of details for all of them to fit within the real timeframe.
The plan that I had made for this moment lay so deep that I executed it by reflex, though my brain roiled.
Executed it by instinct, perhaps; the instinct of flight, the instinct to power.
In the corridor, Wolfitz and Murphy were arguing in low voices about what should be done about the mess.
Soldiers had taken up positions in the windowed corridor flanking the banquet hall. More of the Baron’s men, released from trapping Lady Miriam and her lover, were joining their fellows with words too soft for me to understand. I crossed the steeply pitched roof on the higher catwalk, for speed and from fear that the men at the windows might hear me.
There were no soldiers on the roof itself. The wall coping might hide even a full-sized man if he lay flat, but the narrow gutter between wall and roof was an impossible position from which to shoot at targets across the courtyard.
The corridor windows on the courtyard side were not true firing slits like those of all the palace’s outer walls. Nonetheless, men shooting from corners of the windows could shelter their bodies behind stone thick enough to stop bolts from the Slammers’ personal weapons. The sleet of bullets from twenty assault rifles would turn anyone sprinting from the gatehouse door or the pair of second-floor windows into offal like that which had been Sergeant Grant.
The tank lords were not immortal.
There was commotion in the women’s apartments when I crossed them. Momentarily a light fanned the shadow of the window bars across the courtyard and the gray curves of Sergeant Grant’s tank. A male voice cursed harshly. A lamp casing crunched, and from the returned darkness came a blow and a woman’s cry.
Some of the Baron’s soldiers were taking positions in the West Wing. Unless the surviving tank lords could blow a gap in the thick outer wall of the gatehouse, they had no exit until the Lightning Division arrived with enough firepower to sweep them up at will.
But I could get in, with a warning that would come in time for them to summon aid from Colonel Hammer himself. They would be in debt for my warning, owing me their lives, their tanks, and their honor.
The battlements of the wall closing the north side of the courtyard formed my pathway to the roof of the gatehouse. Grass and brush grew there in ragged clumps. Cracks between stones had trapped dust, seeds, and moisture during a generation of neglect. I crawled along, on my belly, tearing my black velvet jacket.
Eyes focused on the gatehouse door and windows were certain to wander: to the sky; to fellows slouching over their weapons; to the wall connecting the gatehouse to the West Wing. If I stayed flat, I merged with the stone . . . but shrubs could quiver in the wrong pattern, and the Baron’s light-amplifying goggles might be worn by one of the watching soldiers.
It had seemed simpler when I planned it; but it was necessary in any event, even if I died in a burst of gunfire.
The roof of the gatehouse was reinforced concrete, slightly domed, and as proof against indirect fire as the stone walls were against small arms. There was no roof entrance, but there was a capped flue for the stove that had once heated the guard quarters. I’d squirmed my way through that hole once before.
Four years before.
The roof of the gatehouse was a meter higher than the wall on which I lay, an easy jump but one which put me in silhouette against the stars. I reached up, feeling along the concrete edge less for a grip than for reassurance. I was afraid to leave the wall because my body was telling itself that the stone it pressed was safety.
If the Baron’s men shot me now, it would warn the tank lords in time to save them. I owed them that, for the glimpses of freedom Curran had showed me in the turret of a tank.
I vaulted onto the smooth concrete and rolled, a shadow in the night to any of the watchers who might have seen me. Once I was
I’d grown up only slightly since I was twelve and beginning to explore the palace in which I expected to die. The flue hadn’t offered much margin, but my need wasn’t as great then, either.
I’d never needed
The metal smoke pipe had rusted and blown down decades before. The wooden cap, fashioned to close the hole to rain, hadn’t been maintained. It crumbled in my hands when I lifted it away, soggy wood with only flecks remaining of the stucco which had been applied to seal the cap in place.
The flue was as narrow as the gap between window bars, and because it was round, I didn’t have the luxury of turning sideways. So be it.
If my shoulders fit, my hips would follow. I extended my right arm and reached down through the hole as far as I could. The flue was as empty as it was dark. Flakes of rust made mouselike patterings as my touch dislodged them. The passageway curved smoothly, but it had no sharp-angled shot trap as far down as I could feel from outside.
I couldn’t reach the lower opening. The roof was built thick enough to stop heavy shells. At least the slimy surface of the concrete tube would make the job easier.
I lowered my head into the flue with the pit of my extended right arm pressed as firmly as I could against the lip of the opening. The cast concrete brought an electric chill through the sweat-soaked velvet of my jerkin, reminding me—now that it was too late—that I could have stripped off the garment to gain another millimeter’s tolerance.
It was too late, even though all but my head and one arm were outside. If I stopped now, I would never have the courage to go on again.
The air in the flue was dank, because even now in late summer the concrete sweated and the cap prevented condensate from evaporating. The sound of my fear-lengthened breaths did not echo from the end of a closed tube, and not even panic could convince me that the air was stale and would suffocate me. I slid farther down; down to the
By leading with my head and one arm, I was able to tip my collarbone endwise for what would have been a relatively easy fit within the flue if my ribs and spine did not have to follow after. The concrete caught the tip of my left shoulder and the ribs beneath my right armpit—let me flex forward minutely on the play in my skin and the velvet—and held me.
I would have screamed, but the constriction of my ribs was too tight. My legs kicked in the air above the gatehouse, unable to thrust me down for lack of purchase. My right arm flopped in the tube, battering my knuckles and fingertips against unyielding concrete.
I could die here, and no one would know.
Memory of the tank and the windows of choice expanding infinitely above even Leesh, the Lady’s page, flashed before me and cooled my body like rain on a stove. My muscles relaxed and I could breathe again—though carefully, and though the veins of my head were distending with blood trapped by my present posture.
Instead of flapping vainly, my right palm and elbow locked on opposite sides of the curving passage. I breathed as deeply as I could, then let it out as I kicked my legs up where gravity, at least, could help.
My right arm pulled while my left tried to clamp itself within my rib cage. Cloth tore, skin tore, and my torso slipped fully within the flue, lubricated by blood as well as condensate.
If I had been upright, I might have blacked out momentarily with the release of tension. Inverted, I could only gasp and feel my face and scalp burn with the flush that darkened them. The length of a hand farther and my pelvis scraped. My fingers had a grip on the lower edge of the flue, and I pulled like a cork extracting itself from a wine bottle. My being, body and mind, was so focused on its task that I was equally unmoved by losing my trousers—dragged off on the lip of the flue—and the fact that my hand was free.
The concrete burned my left ear when my right arm thrust my torso down with a real handhold for the first time. My shoulders slid free and the rest of my body tumbled out of the tube which had seemed to grip it tightly until that instant.
The light that blazed in my face was meant to blind me, but I was already stunned—more by the effort than the floor which I’d hit an instant before. Someone laid the muzzle of a powergun against my left ear. The dense iridium felt cool and good on my damaged skin.
“Where’s Sergeant Grant?” said Lieutenant Kiley, a meter to the side of the light source.
I squinted away from the beam. There was an open bedroll beneath me, but I think I was too limp when I dropped from the flue to be injured by bare stone. Three of the tank lords were in the room with me. The bulbous commo helmets they wore explained how the lieutenant already knew something had happened to the guard. The others would be on the ground floor, poised.
The guns pointed at me were no surprise.
“He slipped into the palace to see Lady Miriam,” I said, amazed that my voice did not break in a throat so dry. “The Baron killed them both, and he’s summoned the Lightning Division to capture you and your tanks. You have to call for help at once or they’ll be here.”
“Blood and martyrs,” said the man with the gun at my ear, Lord Curran, and he stepped between me and the dazzling light. “Douse that, Sparky. The kid’s all right.”
The tank lord with the light dimmed it to a glow and said, “Which
Lieutenant Kiley moved to a window and peeked through a crack in the shutter, down into the courtyard.
“But . . .” I said. I would have gotten up but Curran’s hand kept me below the possible line of fire. I’d tripped the mercenaries’ alarms during my approach, awakened them—enough to save them, surely. “You have your helmets?” I went on. “You can call your colonel?”
“That bastard Grant,” the lieutenant said in the same emotionless, diamond-hard voice he had used in questioning me. “He slaved all the vehicle transceivers to his own helmet so Command Central wouldn’t wake
“Via,” said Lord Curran, holstering his pistol and grimacing at his hands as he flexed them together. “I’ll go. Get a couple more guns up these windows—” he gestured with jerks of his forehead “—for cover.”
“It’s my platoon,” Kiley said, stepping away from the window but keeping his back to the others of us in the room. “Via,
“Look, sir,” Curran insisted with his voice rising and wobbling like that of a dog fighting a choke collar. “I was his bloody driver, I’ll—”
“I’ll go, My Lords,” I said, the squeal of my voice lifting it through the hoarse anger of grown men arguing over a chance to die.
They paused and the third lord, Sparky, thumbed the light up and back by reflex. I pointed to the flue. “That way. But you’ll have to tell me what to do then.”
Lord Curran handed me a disk the size of a thumbnail. He must have taken it from his pocket when he planned to sprint for the tanks himself. “Lay it on the hatch—anywhere on the metal. Inside, t’ the right a’ the main screen—”
Lieutenant Kiley looked from one of his men to the other, then stared at me with eyes that could have melted rock. “The main screen is on the forward wall of the fighting compartment,” he said flatly. “That is—”
“He’s used it, Lieutenant,” said Lord Curran. “He knows where it is.” The little mercenary had drawn his pistol again and was checking the loads for the second time since I fell into the midst of these angry, nervous men.
Kiley looked at his subordinate, then continued to me: “The commo screen is the small one to the immediate right of the main screen, and it has an alphanumeric keypad beneath it. The screen will have a numeral two or a numeral three on it when you enter, depending whether it’s set to feed another tank or to Grant’s helmet.”
He paused, wet his lips. His voice was bare of affect, but in his fear he was unable to sort out the minimum data that my task required. The mercenary officer realized that he was wandering, but that only added to the pressure which already ground him from all sides.
“Push numeral one on the keypad,” Lieutenant Kiley went on, articulating very carefully. “The numeral on the visor should change to one. That’s all you need to do—the transceiver will be cleared for normal operation, and we’ll do the rest from here.” He touched his helmet with the barrel of his powergun, a gesture so controlled that the iridium did not clink on the thermoplastic.
“I’ll need,” I said, looking up at the flue, “a platform—tables or boxes.”
“We’ll lift you,” said Lieutenant Kiley, “and we’ll cover you as best we can. Better take that shirt off now and make the squeeze easier.”
“No, My Lord,” I said, rising against the back wall—out of sight, though within a possible line of fire. I stretched my muscles, wincing as tags of skin broke loose from the fabric to which blood had glued them. “It’s dark-colored, so I’ll need it to get to the tank. I, I’ll use—”
I shuddered and almost fell; as I spoke, I visualized what I had just offered to do—and it terrified me.
“Kid—” said Lord Curran, catching me; though I was all right again, just a brief fit.
“I’ll use my trousers also,” I said. “They’re at the other—”
“Via!” snapped Lord Sparky, pointing with the light which he had dimmed to a yellow glow that was scarcely a beam. “What
“I was a servant in the women’s apartments,” I said. “I’ll go now, if you’ll help me. I must hurry.”
Lord Curran and Lieutenant Kiley lifted me. Their hands were moist by contrast with the pebbled finish of their helmets, brushing my bare thighs. I could think only of how my nakedness had just humiliated me before the tank lords.
It was good to think of that, because my body eased itself into the flue without conscious direction and my mind was too full of old anger to freeze me with coming fears.
Going up was initially simpler than worming my way down the tube had been. With the firm fulcrum of Lieutenant Kiley’s shoulders beneath me, my legs levered my ribs and shoulder past the point at which they caught on the concrete.
Someone started to shove me farther with his hands.
“No!” I shouted, the distorted echo unintelligible even to me and barely heard in the room below. Someone understood, though, and the hands locked instead into a platform against which my feet could push in the cautious increments which the narrow passage required.
Sliding up the tube, the concrete hurt everywhere it rubbed me. The rush of blood to my head must have dulled the pain when I crawled downward. My right arm had no strength and my legs, as the knees cramped themselves within the flue, could no longer thrust with any strength.
For a moment, the touch of the tank lord’s lifted hands left my soles. I was wedged too tightly to slip back, but I could no more have climbed higher in the flue than I could have shattered the concrete that trapped me. Above, partly blocked by my loosely waving arm, was a dim circle of the sky.
Hands gripped my feet and shoved upward with a firm, inexorable pressure that was now my only chance of success. Lord Curran, standing on his leader’s shoulders, lifted me until my hand reached the outer lip. With a burst of hysterical strength, I dragged the rest of my body free.
It took me almost a minute to put my trousers on. The time was not wasted. If I had tried to jump down to the wall without resting, my muscles would have let me tumble all the way into the courtyard—probably with enough noise to bring an immediate storm of gunfire from the Baron’s soldiers.
The light within the gatehouse must have been visible as glimmers through the same cracks in the shutters which the tank lords used to desperately survey their position. That meant the Baron’s men would be even more alert . . . but also, that their attention would be focused even more firmly on the second-floor windows—rather than on the wall adjacent to the gatehouse.
No one shot at me as I crawled backwards from the roof, pressing myself against the concrete and then stone hard enough to scrape skin that had not been touched by the flue.
The key to the tank hatches was in my mouth, the only place from which I could not lose it—while I lived.
My knees and elbows were bloody from the flue already, but the open sky was a relief as I wormed my way across the top of the wall. The moments I had been stuck in a concrete tube more strait than a coffin convinced me that there were worse deaths than a bullet.
Or even than by torture, unless the Baron decided to bury me alive.
I paused on my belly where the wall mated with the corner of the West Wing. I knew there were gunmen waiting at the windows a few meters away. They could not see me, but they might well hear the thump of my feet on the courtyard’s compacted surface.
There was no better place to descend. Climbing up to the roofs of the palace would only delay my danger, while the greater danger rushed forward on the air-cushion vehicles of the Lightning Division.
Taking a deep breath, I rolled over the rim of the wall. I dangled a moment before my strained arms let me fall the remaining two meters earlier than I had intended to. The sound my feet, then fingertips, made on the ground was not loud even to my fearful senses. There was no response from the windows above me—and no shots from the East Wing or the banquet hall, from which I was an easy target for any soldier who chanced to stare at the shadowed corner in which I poised.
I was six meters from the nearest tank—Lord Curran’s tank, the tank from which Sergeant Grant had surveyed the women’s apartments. Crawling was pointless—the gunmen were above me. I considered sprinting, but the sudden movement would have tripped the peripheral vision of eyes turned toward the gatehouse.
I strolled out of the corner, so frightened that I could not be sure my joints would not spill me to the ground because they had become rubbery.
One step, two steps, three steps, four—
“Hey!” someone shouted behind me, and seven powerguns raked the women’s apartments with cyan lightning.
Because I was now so close to the tank, only soldiers in the West Wing could see me. The covering fire sent them ducking while glass shattered, fabrics burned, and flakes spalled away from the face of the stone itself. I heard screams from within, and not all of the throats were female.
A dozen or more automatic rifles—the soldiers elsewhere in the palace—opened fire on the gatehouse with a sound like wasps in a steel drum. I jumped to the bow slope of the tank, trusting my bare feet to grip the metal without delay for the steps set into the iridium.
A bolt from a powergun struck the turret a centimeter from where my hand slapped it. I screamed with dazzled surprise at the glowing dimple in the metal and the droplets that spattered my bare skin.
Only the tank lords’ first volley had been aimed. When they ducked away from the inevitable return fire, they continued to shoot with only their gun muzzles lifted above the protecting stone. The bolts which scattered across the courtyard at random did a good job of frightening the Baron’s men away from accurate shooting, but that randomness had almost killed me.
As it was, the shock of being fired at by a friend made me drop the hatch key. The circular field-induction chip clicked twice on its way to disappear in the dark courtyard.
The hatch opened. The key had bounced the first time on the cover.
I went through the opening head first, too frightened by the shots to swing my feet over the coaming in normal fashion. At least one soldier saw what was happening, because his bullets raked the air around my legs for the moment they waved. His tracers were green sparks; and when I fell safely within, more bullets disintegrated against the dense armor about me.
The seat, though folded, gashed my forehead with a corner and came near enough to stunning me with pain that I screamed in panic when I saw there was no commo screen where the lieutenant had said it would be. The saffron glow of instruments was cold mockery.
I spun. The main screen was behind me, just where it should have been, and the small commo screen—reading 3—was beside it. I had turned around when I tumbled through the hatch.
My finger stabbed at the keypad, hit 1 and 2 together. A slash replaced the 3—and then 1, as I got control of my hand again and touched the correct key. Electronics whirred softly in the belly of the great tank.
The West Wing slid up the main screen as I palmed the control. There was a 1 in the corner of the main screen also.
My world was the whole universe in the hush of my mind. I pressed the firing pedal as my hand rotated the turret counterclockwise.
The tribarrel’s mechanism whined as it cycled and the bolts thumped, expanding the air on their way to their target; but when the blue-green flickers of released energy struck stone, the night and the facade of the women’s apartments shattered. Stones the size of a man’s head were blasted from the wall, striking my tank and the other palace buildings with the violence of the impacts.
I touched the selector toggle. The numeral 2 shone orange in the upper corner of the screen which the lofty mass of the banquet hall slid to fill.
“Kid!” shouted speakers somewhere in the tank with me. “
My bare toes rocked the firing pedal forward and the world burst away from the axis of the main gun.
The turret hatch was open because I didn’t know how to close it. The tribarrel whipped the air of the courtyard, spinning hot vortices smoke from fires the guns had set and poisoned by ozone and gases from the cartridge matrices.
The 20 cm main gun sucked all the lesser whorls along the path of its bolt, then exploded them in a cataclysm that lifted the end of the banquet hall ten meters before dropping it back as rubble.
My screen blacked out the discharge, but even the multiple reflections that flashed through the turret hatch were blinding. There was a gout of burning stone. Torque had shattered the arched concrete roof when it lifted, but many of the reinforcing rods still held so that slabs danced together as they tumbled inward.
Riflemen had continued to fire while the tribarrel raked toward them. The 20 cm bolt silenced everything but its own echoes. Servants would have broken down the outside doors minutes before. The surviving soldiers followed them now, throwing away weapons unless they forgot them in their hands.
The screen to my left was a panorama through the vision blocks while the orange pips on the main screen provided the targeting array. Men, tank lords in khaki, jumped aboard the other tanks. Two of them ran toward me in the vehicle farthest from the gatehouse.
Only the west gable of the banquet hall had collapsed. The powergun had no penetration, so the roof panel of the palace’s outer side had been damaged only by stresses transmitted by the panel that took the bolt. Even on the courtyard side, the reinforced concrete still held its shape five meters from where the bolt struck, though fractured and askew.
The tiny figure of the Baron was running toward me from the entrance.
I couldn’t see him on the main screen because it was centered on the gun’s point of impact. I shouted in surprise, frightened back into slavery by that man even when shrunken to a doll in a panorama.
My left hand dialed the main screen down and across so that the center of the Baron’s broad chest was ringed with sighting pips. He raised his mob gun as he ran, and his mouth bellowed a curse or a challenge.
The Baron was not afraid of me or anything else. But he had been
My foot stroked the firing pedal.
One of the mercenaries who had just leaped to the tank’s back deck gave a shout as the world became ozone and a cyan flash. Part of the servants’ quarters beneath the banquet hall caught fire around the three-meter cavity blasted by the gun.
The Baron’s disembodied right leg thrashed once on the ground. Other than that, he had vanished from the vision blocks.
Lieutenant Kiley came through the hatch, feet first but otherwise with as little ceremony as I had shown. He shoved me hard against the turret wall while he rocked the gun switch down to safe. The orange numeral blanked from the screen.
“Lieutenant,” said Lord Curran, leaning over the hatch opening but continuing to scan the courtyard. His pistol was in his hand, muzzle lifted, while air trembled away from the hot metal. “We’d best get a move on unless you figure t’ fight a reinforced battalion alone till the supports get here.”
“Well, get in and
“Lieutenant,” said the driver, unaffected by his superior’s anger, “we’re down a man. You ride your blower. Kid’ll be all right alone with me till we join up with the colonel and come back t’ kick ass.”
Lieutenant Kiley’s face became very still. “Yeah, get in and drive,” he said mildly, gripping the hatch coaming to lift himself out without bothering to use the power seat.
The driver vanished but his boots scuffed on the armor as he scurried for his own hatch. “Gimme your bloody key,” he shouted back.
Instead of replying at once, the lieutenant looked down at me. “Sorry I got a little shook, kid,” he said. “You did pretty good for a new recruit.” Then he muscled himself up and out into the night.
The drive fans of other tanks were already roaring when ours began to whine up to speed. The great vehicle shifted greasily around me, then began to turn slowly on its axis. Fourth in line, we maneuvered through the courtyard gate while the draft from our fans lifted flames out of the palace windows. We are the tank lords.