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Golden Scorpio

By Earl Simmons,2014-11-04 17:00
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Book eighteen in the saga of Dray Prescot. When you're down there's no place to go but up. That's the way the brave think and if there is anyone on two worlds braver than Dray Prescot, he has yet to appear. Prescot, who had been a seaman and soldier on distant Earth, and now, on Golden Scorpio's fabulous planet, was claiment to the fallen throne of a conquered empire, would never give up. Single-handedly, if need be, he would be a deadly threat to the enemies of Vallia. But as he set out on a liberation mission incomparable in the history of two worlds he knew he would never be alone... Published by DAW on 1978/09/08

Copyright ? 1978, Kenneth Bulmer

    Alan Burt Akers has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988, to beidentified as the Author of this work.

    First published by Daw Books, Inc. in 1978.

This Edition published in 2007 by Mushroom eBooks, an imprint of Mushroom Publishing, Bath, BA1

    4EB, United Kingdom

    www.mushroom-ebooks.com

    All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form or by any meanswithout the prior written permission of the publisher.

    ISBN 1843195801

    Golden Scorpio

    Alan Burt Akers

    Mushroom eBooks

    Dray Prescot

    Dray Prescot is an enigmatic figure. Reared in the inhumanly harsh conditions of Nelson’sNavy, he has been transported many times through the agencies of the Star Lords, the Everoinye,and the Savanti nal Aphrasöe to the terrible yet beautiful world of Kregen under Antares, fourhundred light years from Earth. In chronicling his brilliant adventures on that exotic world Ihave been forced to the conclusion that there is much he does not tell us as he records hisstory on cassettes. A fresh supply has reached me and will form the subject matter for the nextcycle of Dray Prescot’s story. His appearance as described by one who has seen him is of a manabove middle height, with brown hair and level brown eyes, brooding and dominating, withenormously broad shoulders and powerful, even brutal, physique. There is about him an abrasivehonesty and an indomitable courage. He moves like a savage hunting cat, quiet and deadly. Onthe marvelous world of Kregen he has fought his way to become Vovedeer and Zorcander of hiswild Clansmen of Segesthes, Lord of Strombor, Strom of Valka, King of Djanduin, Prince Majisterof Vallia — and a member of the Order of Krozairs of Zy. To this plethora of titles heconfesses with a wryness and an irony I am sure mask much deeper feelings at which we can onlyguess.

    Prescot’s happiness with Delia, the Princess Majestrix of Vallia, is threatened as thenotorious Wizard of Loh, Phu-Si-Yantong, seeks to overwhelm the empire. Many factions rise toseize the supreme power and with the death of the emperor, Delia’s father, and the burning ofVondium, the capital, Prescot and Delia are forced to flee Vallia. Golden Scorpio tells how

    Prescot reacted and how he came to terms with himself, if not altogether satisfactorily in hisown estimation.

    The volumes chronicling his life are arranged to be read as individual books. A clearly-markedchange has overtaken the character of Prescot as he relates his story, and, indeed, the storyitself reveals this, illuminating him in ways of which he himself is probably unaware. Futurevolumes can only be awaited with the fascination of the unexpected.

    The next cycle of volumes in the Saga of Dray Prescot I have called the Jikaida Cycle,

    carrying the linking word Kregen in their titles. Life is a continuing process and theenigmatic figure Prescot presents of himself might lead us to imagine that he understands onlythe belief that the effort of life is soldiering on dauntlessly against Fate. There is more tohim than that. I feel sure he is fully aware of the many other facets of human belief inunderstanding our natures and harmonizing them, in the theory of abnegation, in the idea ofletting oneself slide into the infinite, of bending with the current to cope with existence, ofacceptance. But on the vivid world of Kregen under Antares, in the streaming mingled lights ofthe Suns of Scorpio, Prescot has had and will continue to have more than his share of setbacksand hurtful adventures. I do not think it is Dray Prescot’s nature to allow the destruction ofhimself or those he loves. Alan Burt Akers

    One

    Dragons in the Fire

We flew from burning Vondium.

    Sulphurous masses of smoke rolling from the doomed city cast dark palls between the streamingmingled radiances of the fading suns. The spreading fans of jade and crimson light cupped thecity below. Vondium burned. Along the wide avenues rivers of fire, across the canal-borderedislands lakes of fire, upon the terraced hills volcanoes of fire — incandescent, lambent,roaring with unchecked power, spurting yellow and orange flames, shooting myriads of sparkslike discharges from Hell’s furnaces, the fire burned.

    Our airboat shook in the windrush.

    “This was not planned,” said Delia, guiding the airboat out of the last swathing bands ofsmoke. The suns shafted light behind us and swiftly the emerald and ruby spears drained downacross the sky, dwindling and shrinking as the pit of fire that was Vondium blazed up. Sheshivered. “Not planned—”

    “The factions fight it out down there. They all struggle for the supreme power and,” I said,looking up, my fist closing on the hilt of the sword, “here come those who would dispute ourpassage.”

    Two fliers spun out of the shadows ahead, the light glittering along their sides, glancing fromtheir brazen embellishments. In the weirdly coruscating lights the two airboats looked dark andmagical dragons, glinting with fire-jewels.

    “Hamalese,” said the Lord Farris. He moved forward from the shelter deck aft, and his facelay shrunken in shadow.

    At his side Lykon Crimahan spoke in words still slurred by witnessed horror. “They havedestroyed all of value in life — I will have my due of them.”

    “The queen?” said Delia, not glancing back, but guiding our airboat skillfully upwards sothat the cramphs of Hamal might not have the advantage of us. The airboats flitted up into thenight sky and the smoke dropped away and the clouds were tinged in orange and gold about us.

    “The queen sleeps.” Farris had already drawn his sword. In the encroaching darkness the bulkyfirmness of his body as he moved up struck me as mightily comforting. “She is exhausted.”

    We were all exhausted. But only a fierce continuing, a savage determination to go on, anunyielding struggle against all odds would get us through now and save our necks. In thisairboat I had taken from the Hamalese were ready racked a dozen crossbows. I took one up andspanned it and said to Farris: “Put up your sword. Delia will outfly these rasts.”

    “Yes,” said Farris. “The Princess — I mean, the Empress — has consummate skill.”

    The three airboats whirled about the night sky, leaves tossed in the maelstrom of the fire andthe high winds of the night, darting and swooping, climbing to secure the height advantage.Delia swung us up superbly. I leaned over the wooden coaming and let fly. The bolt skeweredinto the dark mass of the Hamalian airboat below. In the wind bluster I could not hear a shriekof anguish, I did not know if I had hit; but I respanned the bow and let fly again as wecircled in.

    Farris and Crimahan joined in. They were unused to crossbows; but every bolt that hit theHamalians would count.

    And then in the way of these wild skirling affrays as fliers spin and grapple at night, one ofthe Hamalians flew awkwardly across and fell athwart our bows. Delia made a last frantic effortto avoid the onrushing mass. The two airboats came together with a great crushing of wood andripping of canvas. But the craft I had selected was stoutly built, as one would expect from thedamned Hamalese who made the things and denied us Vallians the right to make our own, and shewas stouter than the other. Amid a shrieking splintering of wood the foeman’s airboat tumbledfull into our own. Men spilled out to stagger and stumble across our deck.

    Over our heads through a rent in the clouds the fat blue shine of the first star of the eveningsuddenly caught me up with a swift and entirely unexpected sense of the beauty of the night.That first star that Kregans call Soothe was not as large or as fat now, as the conjunctions of

    orbits opened out, for Soothe is a planet of Antares as is Kregen, but that blue lambentluminosity reminded me of the fabled Goddesses of Love of Kregen. And as no Goddess of Love oftwo worlds has ever been or can ever be as precious as my Delia, my Delia of Delphond, my Deliaof the Blue Mountains, I hurled the crossbow down and leaped yelling into action.

    Delia was ready for the Hamalese from the wreck of their airboat. Together, we hit them. Liketwo perfectly-machined parts, we meshed, she taking her man with her rapier, I chunking theKrozair longsword around into his comrade’s ribs. Armor crumpled.

    “Hanitch! Hanitch!” The Hamalese kept up their battle yells, fierce, predatory and yet highlydisciplined fighting men.

    “Vallia!” yelled Farris and hurled himself forward along the deck, his sword a glinting blur.“Vallia and Vomansoir!”

    These warriors of Hamal did not carry shields, although their Air Service personnel habituallydid so, and I guessed the shock of the collision had not so much left them with no time toseize up that article of combat as the demands of scrambling from the wreck of a flier about toplunge over into nothingness had made them concentrate wonderfully on having two hands free.Now, had they been Djangs, or Pachaks...

    The little fight raged for a space. I squared off my man and thrust the next one through.Crimahan was bashing away and yelling all manner of frenzied insults and taunts, half off hishead with grief for what had befallen Vallia and him.

    With every blow he struck, Lykon Crimahan, Kov of Forli, took out a payment for his lost landson the hides of his enemies.

    “Hamal! Hanitch!” screeched the Hamalese, and fought and struggled and died. I feel the veryfury of our vengeful attack threw them off balance. They had flown up from their empire to sackand burn and overthrow the Empire of Vallia, acting under the veiled orders of the Wizard ofLoh Phu-si-Yantong whose maniacal ambitions knew few bounds, and if they were surprised at ourvengeful resistance then they were fools. In that moment I felt the enormous weight pressing inon me that my own plans called for Vallia and Hamal to join hands in amity. To accomplish thatwith the blood-debt that now soaked the two countries seemed almost impossible.

    So we fought.

    Toward the end of the fight when but four Hamalese soldiers remained alive, the rest eitherslumped in death on the deck or pitched with a despairing shriek overboard, Queen Lushfymitottered out of the aft cabin. She held a poniard. She looked distraught, her dark hairdisheveled, her violet eyes wide and drugged.

    She would have rushed upon the last soldiers; but I got her right arm in my left fist. I heldher very very carefully.

    The poniard she brandished with drugged abandon had two dark channels cut into the narrowblade, and in those runnels clung a virulent poison...

    “Let me go. I will slay and slay—”

    She spoke in a slurred, drugged fashion, her words heavy. Her face showed demoniac devilishnessand exhausted despair, struggling to gain the ascendancy.

    “They slew the emperor, they murdered my beloved — let me repay the debt.”

    That she had to be held back was quite obvious, although she was a queen — the Queen of Lomein Pandahem — and therefore might be expected to know how to handle weapons. But the Hamalesesoldiers of the air were no amateurs. Their swords flickered in these dying moments of thestruggle as they sought to take us and so win all — and, in truth, even now we could lose. Ishook Queen Lush.

    “Hold still. Do you want to throw your life away after the emperor’s?”

    That, of course, was a stupid thing to say. I recognized that. I gave her a push back into thecabin, before she could screech out some cataclysmic determination to end it all and die tojoin the emperor, and slammed the door.

I swung back to the fight, raging.

    Delia had taken her man out with that neat precision of effort girls are taught in the militaryestablishments of the Sisters of the Rose. Crimahan missed his stroke and had to duck and dodgeback, his left-hand dagger fending off a thraxter blow. Farris was in the act of withdrawinghis rapier from the throat of his man. So that left the fourth, the one I should have beenattending to if Queen Lush had not staggered out brandishing her poisoned poniard.

    “By Vox!” I bellowed as I leaped. “I should have let the silly woman at these rasts with herpoisoned dagger.”

    Then the Krozair brand flamed left, twitched right, sliced and was still, sheened in blood.Farris looked at me and Crimahan staggered back, shaking with the violence of these last fewmoments. Delia tut-tutted and caught at a dead Hamalese by his belt.

    “They’re bleeding all over the deck. What a mess. Give me a hand to push them over.”

    We did so, with a will. If you imagine this to be strange behavior, insane, then you are notcorrect. Death is a part of life. Delia fully understood that. But, even so, even so, no girlshould have to go through the things Delia had been through, events and horrors that would havedestroyed a being of lesser fiber. But Delia was right. We had a way to fly and we already hadenough blood to clear up as it was. Highly practical, highly professional, highly commonsenseis Delia of Vallia — just as she is highly romantic. Her father, the Emperor of Vallia, hadbeen slain this night. No — Delia could not act completely normally, not for a space yet.

    I made up my mind. You who have listened to my story as the tapes spin through the heads willknow how wrought up I must have been to nerve myself, actually to pluck up the courage, to openthe talk I had promised Delia for long and long.

    Tentatively I spoke to her in one of the aft cabins as Farris took the steering, speed andheight levers and Crimahan having indicated he wished to be dropped on his own estates, triedto sleep. Queen Lush slumbered, her demoniac energy temporarily exhausted.

    So, Delia and I sat on a ponsho fleece spread on a bench and talked as the airboat slid throughthe nighted air of Kregen.

    “A world with only one sun and only one moon! But you can’t expect anyone to take such asilly idea seriously.”

    “Yes, I know it sounds a silly notion. But I’m asking you to examine the idea. After all,it’s not impossible, is it?”

    “Impossible — one sun and one moon — we-ell — I suppose not.”

    “Look, Delia, my heart. Try to imagine a world very much like Kregen — well, something like— but instead of Zim and Genodras shining down in glory there is only one sun, a little yellowsun.”

    “But Opaz! The Invisible Twins visibly vouchsafed us in the fires of Zim and Genodras, theEternal Spirit of Opaz — how could that be if the world did not have two suns?”

    “That’s a poser, all right. But say that the Eternal Spirit is manifest in some other form —that is possible.”

    “You would run into charges of heresy at many of the religious colleges for that, Dray. Peoplehave been burned alive for casting doubts like this. And talking of only one sun in the sky isblasphemy—”

    “To some people. But the Todalpheme could discuss this as a proposition. The wise men, theSans of the world — the Wizards of Loh.”

    “Oh, yes, as a theory. But it runs dangerously close to blasphemy against Opaz, and that issomething no honest person can possibly tolerate.”

    I wanted to burst out into a roar of laughter, I wanted to shout aloud in frustrated fury, andI wanted to cringe away and have no more stupid talk of planets orbiting solitary stars. But Iowed Delia an explanation, and so I ploughed doggedly on. This was one eventuality I hadn’t

    bargained for, that religion would rear its beautiful head to deny the possibility that I camefrom such a crippled world.

    “Instead of the seven moons of Kregen there is just the one—”

    “Oh, Dray, Dray — if I didn’t know you I’d think you were determined to blaspheme. So —there is only one explanation. You are making fun of me.”

    “No.” I was about to go on by saying I was in deadly serious earnest; but I paused. Tsleetha-tsleethi, as Kregens say, softly, softly. “No, I would not do that. But what I have saidmerits thought... This business about a world possessing just a single sun and a single moonwas only the beginning. What would Delia say when I tried to explain to her the concept of aworld that had no diffs, no splendid array of peoples, no enormous variety of morphology, nohalflings; but only had a single sort of human being, apims, like ourselves? How could sheaccept such an absurdity?

    For a space we were silent as the airboat sped on through the level air and Vallia passed awaybelow. Poor Vallia. That was where our thoughts lay. Poor, proud Vallia, an island empire tornand savaged by implacable foes, by power-hungry maniacs, by coldly ambitious men and women —and we flew in all haste from a shattered city and a burning palace which provided a funeralpyre of somber magnificence for the body of Delia’s father the emperor. Yet it was preciselyat this point that I chose to begin this my late and lame explanation. I tried to talk to Deliaof Earth, of that strange planet distant four hundred light years from Kregen, and hoped thesetransparent means might provide the anodyne she needed. Mysteries partially revealed, Ithought, might exercise her mind. But I miscalculated the power of Opaz, the pure religionthat, I felt sure at the time, was one certain way to raise Kregen from its barbarity andsavagery. Perhaps I was being selfish. All I know is that I was savaged by grief for Delia,whatever may have been my ambivalent attitude to her father, and I was desperate to ease hersuffering. Up front the Lord Farris, Kov of Vomansoir, piloted the flier and left Delia and meto talk in privacy. He had witnessed the death of the emperor, for I had not been there, andhad struggled with blood-stained sword to prevent that deed. Now he, like us, was a huntedfugitive. Lykon Crimahan, Kov of Forli, had also been there at the emperor’s death. He hadnever liked me, being bitterly opposed to my schemes to create a strong Air Service towithstand the attack from Hamal we knew must one day come across the sea. Well, that day hadcome and gone. Even if the whole power of Hamal had not been thrown into the battle, as Ijudged, the maniacal Wizard of Loh, Phu-si-Yantong, who controlled through his puppets all ofPandahem and plenty of other spots besides, had gained enough strength to do the work. And, aswell as the Hamalese marching against Vondium, there had been traitors from Vallia herself.Layco Jhansi, Udo, the various factions, they were fighting and gnawing at the bones of empire,seeking to snatch the richest portions for themselves. The Hamalese army that Phu-si-Yantonghad somehow got out of the Empress Thyllis had possessed no aerial cavalry of any strength thatI had seen. Maybe the flyers were away in another part of Vallia engaged in the campaigns thatYantong must surely carry out to bring us much of the island empire under his heel as hehungered for.

    If there were no aerial cavalry mounted on fluttrells or mirvols flying over the corpse ofVondium, there would certainly be plenty of red meat there for the warvols, those vulture-likecarrion-eaters. The thoughts and images rose into my mind, most unprettily, most pungent. Allover Vallia as the days passed there would be slaughter. Vallians are accounted a rich people,and most of their wealth comes from trading. They are great seafarers. Inland they are farmersand stockmen and woodsmen. When Vallia needed an army to fight some war or other she would hiremercenaries, and the mercenaries would be secure in the knowledge that Vallia could transportthem safely in her fleets of galleons. But as for indigenous fighting men, warriors, they werefew and thin on the ground. That enormous wealth existed within Vallia herself was undeniable.The forests, the mines, the broad cornlands, as the emperor had once told me, they are thesinews of wealth and the muscles of power. At Lykon Crimahan’s request we dropped him off nearhis provincial capital of MichelDen. MichelDen lies a hundred dwaburs northeast of Vallia’scapital Vondium. The provincial capital of Forli stands on the River of White Reenbays, an

    eastern tributary of the Great River. The kovnate of Forli extends from the Great River to theeastern coast opposite the Thirda Passage between the islands of Arlton and Meltzer to thenorth and Veliadrin to the south. We had taken a dog’s leg passage to Valka in order to letCrimahan off at MichelDen.

    He stood with one hand on the coaming of the flier, looking up at us before he jumped down ontothe grass. The stars glittered. She of the Veils cast down a sheening diffused golden light andthe night was very still.

    “I give you the Remberee, Dray Prescot, Emperor of Vallia. I—” And here Crimahan paused, andswallowed.

    I own it, the sound of my name coupled with the emperor’s landed with a strange sound in myears, a leaden sound of doom. But Drig take me if I would let this fellow see all thehesitation and indecision tormenting me. I nodded; with a hard and curt gesture of my hand Ihoped he would not mistake, I ground out in the old hateful way: “If I am the emperor, KovLykon, then your fealty I take and welcome. Now you will do what you can against these cramphs.I shall contact you.” His face bore that pained expression of unwelcome comprehension. Ifinished, surly and domineering: “And mind you don’t get yourself killed. May Opaz go withyou. Remberee.”

    The others called their Remberees as Crimahan dropped from the airboat and vanished into theuncertain shadows.

    “Up,” I said to Farris. “Valka.”

    The voller rose into the air as Farris hauled on the levers. “He may be going to his death,majister—”

    “Very likely, Farris, very likely. But he wanted to go home and I forbore to prevent him. Iknow how he felt.”

    “As do we all. I do not need to be told what has overtaken my kovnate,” went on Farris in hisdogged way. “Vomansoir, like your estates, like Lykon’s, must have been marked down fordestruction. All those about the emperor and who gave him their loyalty will find only grief intheir homes. Once the structure of empire creaks and bends, once the first blows succeed, thecollapse is swift.”

    “There will be fighting and bloodshed all over the land,” said Delia, and her lovely faceshadowed with the horrors we had seen and the fresh horrors to come.

    “Not always,” I said in my intemperate, vicious way. “Sometimes an empire will hold outtenaciously. But, Farris, I hope you are right in your estimation when we return.”

    I said this, and all the time I was totally unsure if I had the right, the moral right, toreturn to Vallia. But I went on speaking in that old savage way.

    “So,” I said, only half-believing my own words. “Before we can do anything we must secure abase and see about men and resources — and that means Valka.”

    The voller rose against the stars and sped eastward.

    “Only,” I told Delia. “You will take Didi and Velia and Aunt Katri and fly to Strombor. Thecontinent of Segesthes is far enough away from Vallia and these troubles. There they will besafe.”

    “But—”

    I shook my head. Delia did not like the idea of leaving Vallia at this time, even for a shortperiod and even for so important a mission; but she saw the sense of it and agreed to go. Belowus under the glinting moonlight the coast passed away. We struck out across the sea. We flewacross the Rojica Passage that separates Vallia from Veliadrin. We flew along the ThirdaPassage, eastward, to the north of Veliadrin. We did not fly over the land. To the south wecould see fires burning in the night.

    Delia took my arm and I could guess her thoughts.

    “Veliadrin is attacked, like all our lands. No doubt the Qua’voils have stirred their pricklyselves again. But there are good men down there, as well as evil. Our duty lies elsewhere thisnight.”

    It was hard. No doubt of it. We could only guess at what deviltry was going on down there tothe south. But little imagination was required to understand that all of Vallia was in turmoil,with old grudges being paid off and with rapaciousness leading men and women on to blood-soakedexcesses. From MichelDen to Valkanium is about two hundred dwaburs in a straight line, what theHavilfarese call

    ‘as the fluttrell flies’. But we circled around over the sea to the north and so took longerover the aerial journey. The Maiden with the Many Smiles joined She of the Veils and althoughthe night was cloudy the two moons shed their fuzzy golden pink light upon the sea.

    In the sheening water sparkle below in the light of the moons the dark shadowed mass of Valkarose before us out of the sea. Valka. Valka, the place I had made my home on Kregen. The placethat, along with Strombor and the Great Plains of Segesthes and Djanduin, meant more to me atthat time than anywhere else. Valka...

    “Dray—”

    I held her gently, for I knew what Delia intended to say, what pained her to say, how she hadstruggled and sought for the right words.

    “Dray — Valka. All our lands have been attacked, we know that Phu-si-Yantong would notoverlook Valka.”

    I spoke cheerily, and with a certain confidence, for Valka was not quite as other lands ofVallia, because the island had fought its battles and won. “I would not expect that villain todo so. One day he will be chopped. But Valka is not the same easy prey to mercenaries andaragorn and slavers as the rest of Vallia. We have regiments of strong fighting men—”

    “But Phu-si-Yantong is a Wizard of Loh. He will have employed sorcery—”

    “Yes.”

    That was, indeed, an unpalatable thought. This damned Wizard of Loh sought to make himself thesupreme lord of Paz. He didn’t care what he did to achieve that insane ambition.

    “If only Khe-Hi-Bjanching was with us — or had been in Valka.” Delia’s hand trembledagainst mine. I did not think she trembled in fear. “But he will have been sent to Loh as allour other friends were sent home from—”

    “There are other forces of superhuman help,” I said, cutting in briskly, over-riding Delia’swords. I did not want Farris — or anyone who need not know, for that matter — being apprisedof what had happened to our friends. They had all been incontinently hurled back to their homesfrom the Sacred Pool of Baptism. So far they had not found their way back. That was acontributory cause to the misfortunes that had overtaken us; but we would have been overwhelmedeven if all my friends had surrounded us. That I knew with a somber chill.

    The dawn would soon be with us, and I suggested that Delia try to sleep. It was not so stupid asuggestion, for she was exhausted and despite her feelings, despite the grief for her father,she did sleep. I could soldier on for a space yet.

    I fancied, in thinking of Yantong, that the cramph no longer cared if I lived or died. I had toexamine the notion with great care. He had given orders that I was not to be assassinated. Idid not know if he had canceled those instructions. Yantong had contrived the death of anempire. His tools fought in Vondium and over the land against the armies of other men, highlyplaced nobles and demagogues, who sought the throne for themselves. Of all those ambitious andgreedy would-be-emperors, I fancied Phu-si-Yantong would be the eventual victor.

    And, among his instruments, numbered in the ranks of those who fought for him, was our owndaughter Dayra. Unwittingly, perhaps, she served the Wizard of Loh, thinking in all honor thatshe fought for the rights of self-determination for the North Eastern section of Vallia andthis damned fellow Zankov; but she had served Yantong well. Dayra. I would have to tell Delia

    about her, tell Delia about Ros the Claw, and of her entanglement with Zankov, that same cramphZankov whose bloody brand had struck down the emperor, Dayra’s grandfather.

    This was a tangled web, and there was more, and I could not see a clear path to steer.

    “Well,” I said to myself, and if I had spoken aloud my voice would have cracked out harsh andugly under the moons, “we will take Didi and Velia and Aunt Katri out of Valka if the place isclosed up as tight as a swod’s drum. We will see them safely to Strombor. And then—” Andthen — what?

    If I did what I had said I would do, speaking in the heat of the moment and out of anger andfoolish pride, there would lie seasons of campaigning ahead. Vallia would run as red with bloodas ever it had. How could I justify this? I had pushed these thoughts away before, but theyrecurred. What moral right had I, what morality was there in it, if I raised armies, fought theusurpers, destroyed their armies, restored the throne of Vallia to its rightful heirs? Did myhonor demand that? Can honor ever justify the deaths of thousands of honest people?

    Perhaps, as I had wistfully half-suggested to myself, perhaps I would just stay quietly inStrombor, that beautiful enclave of the city of Zenicce, and live life the way life is intendedto be lived and enjoyed. We had taken all night over this flight. The flier was reasonablyfast, having covered three hundred dwaburs, about fifteen hundred miles, and it would be fulldaylight before we reached Valkanium and the Bay and the high fortress of Esser Rarioch.

    Below us Valka fled past. Farris had gone back to sleep and as I cogitated with such melancholywith my tormented thoughts and watched the suns rise off to our larboard, I felt the soft warmhand creep into mine and felt again all the magic of my Delia enfold me.

    “Dawn,” said Delia.

    “Aye. And the Suns are rising on a sorry land this day.”

    “But it is a new day, my heart. A new beginning. A new chance. In Valka—” She expected me tointerrupt; but I did not. “In Valka we must find help. We must.”

    “If we do not, if we do, it makes no difference. You and the children are for Strombor.”

    The Suns of Scorpio, Zim and Genodras, rose into the clear air. The day would be fine, withperhaps a little rain after the Hour of Mid. Delia sighed.

    “I have been thinking of your blasphemous suggestions of a world with one little yellow sunand one silvery moon. It is possible, I grant you. But where is the sense in it? Why do youraise a philosophical point? Is there anything more?”

    “Oh, aye,” I said, turning so she could nestle into my free arm. “A lot more.” I spokeslowly and carefully, trying to make what I said sound sensible, which, to a Kregen, it didnot, could not.

    “Only apims?” She stared up at me blankly. I leaned down and kissed her. For a space nothingelse mattered. Then—

    “Only apims. People like us. No diffs, none at all.”

    “Now I know you make fun. Such a world would be — would be flat, would be — dull!”

    “Well — no,” I said, defending this our Earth which is so marvelous a world in its ownright. “Not flat or dull. Just that Kregen is so much — so much — more,” I finished lamely.She drew a deep breath.

    “Very well, husband. Since you choose to mock all the religion and the learning of the wisemen —

    suppose, just suppose a world could exist like that. Then what?”

    It was my turn to swallow.

    Below us Valka began to show all those myriad colors of her forests and lakes, the mountains ofthe Heart Heights, the wide open spaces, the serene areas of ordered cultivation, the thread ofrivers and the glint of waterfalls. The air breathed sweet and clean, that glorious air ofKregen. This was my own island of unsurpassed beauty, wild and rugged, tranquil and fertile,

    rich with the goodness of the earth. I drew another deep breath and the fragrant dawn air ofKregen dizzied my senses. For this I would give much, give very much...

    Delia looked up at me, her brown hair catching the radiance of the suns so that thoseoutrageous chestnut tints glinted. The richness of her lips, the clarity of her brown eyes, theperfect purity of her face and form — I swallowed again and opened my mouth.

    “From such a world, distant a long long way, my heart, I—”

    She broke away from me and her chin firmed and the danger signals flashed from those brown eyesthat changed from melting tenderness to hard authority. “Flyers! Hamalese! They see us!” Iswiveled about, checking my words, stared out Flyers lifted toward us, their wide wings spreadagainst the light, the flyers on their backs shaking their weapons.

    “Not Hamalese,” I said after that first flashing glance. “Flutsmen.”

    The mercenaries of the skies wheeled their flying mounts up toward us like a gale-drivenwhirlwind of leaves.

    Ahead of us the Bay opened out, and the City of Valkanium spread in beauty up the slopes wherevegetation bowered my home in verdant beauty. The massive pile of Esser Rarioch reared abovethe city and the Bay. The light picked out every detail.

    Our own flags of Valka still flew from the battlements of Esser Rarioch. But ugly smears ofsmoke rose from the city. There were sunken galleons in the Bay. Flames spat spitefully fromwarehouses and from the villas along the shore and overhanging the water. A confused masshurled up and forward against the fortress and the wink and glitter of weapons splinteredshards of light into the morning.

    “Esser Rarioch is attacked,” I said, and the bitterness choked me with bile.

    “But it still holds out.” Delia leaped for a crossbow. “We must break through these flutsmenand reach the fortress.”

    Feathered wings flickered about us. Feathers streamed back in those clotted clumps from theirhelmets that give to flutsmen their devilish, reiving, headlong appearance. True mercenaries,Flutsmen of Kregen, hiring out to the highest bidder and ready to betray him for a price. Theyshare nothing of the high honor of nikobi that give Pachaks their unmatched reputation aspaktuns. Flutsmen often band together and simply reive on their own account. Now, with Valliatorn by strife, these aerial devils struck out for themselves.

    I slammed the control levers over to full and bellowed for Farris. The voller lanced up intothe air, spraying flutsmen away. Delia, braced against the coaming, loosed, and bent at once torespan the bow. Some remnants of honor still cling to some flutsmen. I had no way of knowing ofwhat calibre were these aerial foes; but I knew with everything I held precious that I wouldnever allow Delia to fall into their hands.

    Farris lumbered out and belted up the deck to the controls. Flutsmen were urging their flyingsteeds on. For a space we outclimbed them. I shoved my head over the side and looked down. Thedark mass of men attacking Esser Rarioch had broken through the first portals of the longstairway and were forcing their way up. The pavises borne before them bristled with arrows.Esser Rarioch was due to fall soon. And the flutsmen bore in toward us, screeching, theirweapons glittering.

    “Down, Farris!” I bellowed. “Straight down — straight for Esser Rarioch!”

    The Lord Farris flung me a single questioning glance. He saw my face, that ugly, demoniac,headstrong old face of mine with the look of the devil, and he thumped the levers over.Straight through the whirling cloud of flutsmen we plummeted, down and down, hurtling towardthe fight raging on the long stairway leading up to Esser Rarioch.

    Two

    The Folly of Empire

    The brave red and white flags of Valka still flew over the battlements, the treshes bright anddefiant in the morning light. Down we plummeted. Flutsmen screeched and drove in and were

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