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Into the Darkness

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Into the Darkness

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Author: Harry Turtledove
Publisher: Earthlight UK, 1999
Tor, 1999
Series: Darkness: Book 1
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
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When the Duke of Bari suddenly dies, the neighboring nation of Algarve, long seething over its defeat a generation ago in the Six Years' War, sees its chance to bring Bari into the action which the other countries surrounding Algarve cannot, by treaty, tolerate. As nation after nation declares war, a chain of treaties are invoked, ultimately bringing almost all the Powers of Derlavai into a war of unprecedented destructiveness.

For modern magic is deadlier than in ears past. Trained flocks of dragons rain explosive fire down on defenseless cities. Massed infantry race from place to place along a network of ley-lines. Rival powers harness sea leviathans to help sabotage one another's ships. The lights are going out all across Derlavai, and will not come back on in this lifetime.

Against this tapestry Harry Turtledove tells the story of an enormous cast of characters: soldiers and generals, washerwomen and scholars, peasants and diplomats. For all the world, highborn and low, is being plunged by world war...into the darkness.



Ealstan's master of herblore droned on and on about the mystical properties of plants. Ealstan paid him no more attention than he had to, no more attention than any other fifteen-year-old boy would have given him of a warm summer afternoon. He was thinking about stripping off his tunic and jumping in the stream that flowed past Gromheort, about girls, about what his mother would fix for supper, about girls, about the health of the distant and ancient Duke of Bari, about girls...about everything under the sun, in short, except herblore.

He was a little too obviously not thinking about herblore. The master's voice came sharp as a whipcrack: "Ealstan!"

He started, then sprang to his feet, almost knocking over the stool on which he'd been perched. "Master Osgar!" he said, while the other boys whom Osgar taught snickered at his clumsiness--and in relief because the master had caught him instead of them.

Osgar's gray-streaked beard seemed to quiver with indignation. Like most men of Forthweg--like Ealstan himself--he was strong and stocky and dark, with an imperiously curved nose and with eyes that, at the moment, flashed fire a wardragon might have envied. His voice dripped sarcasm. "Perhaps you will do me the honor, Ealstan, of reminding me of the chiefest property of the herb snake's-grass." He whacked a switch into the palm of his hand, a hint of what Ealstan would get if he did not do him that honor.

"Snake's-grass, Master Osgar?" Ealstan said. Osgar nodded, anticipation on his face: if Ealstan needed to repeat the question, he hadn't been listening. And so, indeed, he hadn't. But his uncle had used snake's-grass the year before, which meant he knew the answer: "May it please you, Master Osgar, if you set the powder of snake's-grass and three-leaved grass under a man's pillow, he will not dream of himself afterwards ever again."

It did not please the master of herblore. His expression made that plain. But it was the right answer. Reluctantly, Osgar nodded and said, "Resume your

seat--without making the countryside fear an earthquake, if that be possible. And henceforth, make some effort to appear as if you care what passes here."

"Yes, Master Osgar. Thank you, Master Osgar." Ealstan sat as carefully as he could. For a little while, till the master of herblore stopped aiming glances sharp as a unicorn's horn his way, he paid attention to Osgar's words. There were apothecaries in his family, and he'd thought more than idly of going into that trade himself one day. But he had so many other things to think about, and...

Thwack! The switch came down, not on his back, but on that of his cousin Sidroc. Sidroc had been thinking of something else, too, and hadn't been lucky enough to get a question he could handle with what he already knew. All the boys in Osgar's class looked diligent then, whether they were or not.

After what seemed like forever, a brazen bell released them. As they filed out, Osgar said, "Study well. We meet again tomorrow afternoon." He contrived to make that sound like a threat.

To Ealstan, tomorrow afternoon felt a million miles away. So did his morning classes in Forthwegian literature and ciphering. So did the work he would have to do tonight for all of those classes and more besides. For now, as he left the gloomy corridors of the academy

and stepped out into bright sunshine, the whole world seemed his--or, if not the whole world, at least the whole town of Gromheort.

He glanced back over his shoulder at the whitewashed stone keep where Count Brorda made his residence. As far as he was concerned, neither Brorda nor Gromheort got their due from King Penda, nor from anyone else in Eoforwic, the capital. To them, Gromheort was just a medium-sized town not far from the border with Algarve. They did not grasp its magnificent uniqueness.

That this was also Count Brorda's view of the situation, and one he assiduously cultivated in the folk of Gromheort, had never crossed Ealstan's mind.

It didn't cross his mind now, either. Sidroc made as if to hit him, saying, "Curse you, how did you come up with that about snake's-grass? When I strip off for the baths, everyone's going to tease me about the welt on my back."

"Uncle Wulfher used the stuff, remember, when he thought he had a sending of nightmares," Ealstan replied.

Sidroc snorted. He didn't want an answer; he wanted sympathy. Ealstan was his cousin, not his mother, and had scant sympathy to give.

Bantering with their friends, they made their way through the streets of Gromheort toward their homes. Ealstan blinked against the impact of the strong northern sun against whitewash and red tile roofs. Until his eyes got used to the light, he sighed with relief whenever he ducked under an olive tree or one full of ripening almonds. Good-byes came every couple of blocks as one boy after another peeled off from the group.

Ealstan and Sidroc were halfway home when one of Count Brorda's constables held up a ceremonial sword to halt foot traffic and wagons on their street. He shouted curses at a luckless man who didn't stop fast enough to suit him. "What's going on?" Sidroc asked, but Ealstan's ears had already caught the rhythmic clip-clop of cavalry.

Both boys shouted cheers as the unicorns trotted by. One of the officers made his mount rear for a moment. The sun shone bright as silver off its iron-shod horn and off its spotless white coat, a white that put whitewash to shame. Most of the troopers, though, had sensibly daubed their mounts with paint. Dun and sand and even muddy green were less likely to draw the notice of the foe and a streak of spurting fire, even if they seemed less magnificent than white.

A couple of slim, fair, trousered Kaunians, a man and a woman, cheered the cavalry along with everyone else. In their hatred of Algarve, they and the rest of the folk of the Kingdom of Forthweg agreed. After the constable waved traffic forward, Ealstan watched the woman's hips work in those revealing pants. He licked his lips. Forthwegian women went out in long, loose tunics that covered them from neck to ankles and kept their shapes decently disguised. No wonder people talked about Kaunians the way they did. And yet the woman strode along as if unaware of the spectacle she was creating, and chattered with her companion in their own sonorous language.

Sidroc watched her, too. "Disgusting," he said, but, by his avid voice and by the way his eyes kept following her, he was perhaps not altogether disgusted.

"Just because they dressed that way in the days of the Kaunian Empire, they think they have the right to keep on doing it," Ealstan agreed. "The Empire fell more than a thousand years ago, in case they haven't noticed."

"Because the Kaunians de-gen-er-ated from wearing clothes like that." Sidroc pronounced with exaggerated care the long word he'd learned from the history master earlier in the year.

He and Ealstan had gone a couple of more blocks when someone came running up the street behind them shouting, "He's dead! He's dead!"

"Who's dead?" Ealstan called, but he was afraid he knew.

"Duke Alardo, that's who," the man answered.

"Are you sure?" Ealstan and Sidroc and several other people asked the question at the same time. Alardo of Bari had been at death's door more than once in the nearly thirty years since his domain was forcibly detached from Algarve in the aftermath of the Six Years' War. He'd been vigorous enough to pull through every time. If only, Ealstan thought, he'd been vigorous enough to sire a son...

But the man with the news was nodding vigorously. "I have it straight from my brother-in-law, who has it from Count Brorda's secretary, who heard the message with his own ears when it reached the keep by crystal."

Like everyone else in Gromheort, Ealstan fancied himself a connoisseur of rumors. This one sounded highly probable. "King Mezentio will claim Bari," he said grimly.

"If he does, we'll fight him." Sidroc sounded grim, too, grim and excited at the same time. "He can't fight Forthweg and Valmiera and Jelgava all at once. Not even an Algarvian would be crazy enough to try that."

"Nobody knows what an Algarvian is crazy enough to try," Ealstan said with conviction. "He may have more enemies than that, too--Sibiu doesn't like Algarve, either, and the islanders are supposed to be tough. Come on--let's hurry home. Maybe we can be first with the news." They both began to run.

As they ran, Sidroc said, "I bet your brother will be glad to get the chance to slaughter some stinking Algarvians."

"Not my fault Leofsig was born first," Ealstan panted. "If I were nineteen, I'd have gone into the King's levy, too." He pretended to spray fire around, so recklessly that, had it been real, he would have burned down half of Gromheort.

He dashed into his own house shouting that Duke Alardo was dead. "What?" His sister, Conberge, who was a year older than he, came in from the courtyard, where she'd been trying to keep the flower garden flourishing despite Forthweg's savage summer heat. "What will Mezentio do now?"

"He will seize the Duchy." That wasn't Ealstan; it was his mother, Elfryth. She'd hurried out of the kitchen, and was wiping her hands on a linen towel. "He will seize it, and we will go to war." She did not sound excited, but about to burst into tears. After a moment, she gathered herself and went on, "I was about your age, Conberge, when the Six Years' War ended. I remember the uncles and cousins you never got to know because they didn't come home from the war." Her voice broke. She did begin to cry.

Ealstan said, "Leofsig will fight for Forthweg. He won't be dragooned into Algarve's army, or Unkerlant's either, the way so many Forthwegians were in the last war."

His mother looked at him as if he'd suddenly started speaking the language of the Lagoans, whose island kingdom lay beyond the isles of Sibiu, far southeast of Forthweg. "I don't care under which banner he fights," she said. "I don't want him to fight at all."

"Losing the last war didn't teach the Algarvians their lesson," Ealstan said. "This time, we'll hit them first." He smacked a fist into the palm of the other hand. "They won't stand a chance." That should have convinced his mother; none of his masters could have faulted his logic. For some reason, though, Elfryth looked less happy than ever.

So did Hestan, his father, when he came home from casting accounts for one or another of Gromheort's leading merchants. He had already heard the news. By then, very likely, all of Gromheort, all of Forthweg but for a few peasants and herders, had heard the news. He didn't say much. He seldom said much. But his silence seemed...heavier than usual as he drank his customary evening glass of wine with Elfryth.

He had a second glass of wine with supper, something he rarely did. And, all through supper, he kept looking, not east toward Algarve but to the west. He had nearly finished his garlicky stew of mutton and eggplant when, as if unable to contain himself any longer, he burst out, "What will Unkerlant do?"

Ealstan stared at him, then started to laugh. "Your pardon, sir," he said at once; he was, on the whole, a well-mannered boy. "The Unkerlanters are still digging out from their Twinkings War, and trying to fight Gyongyos in the far west, and snapping and snarling at Zuwayza, too. Don't you think they have enough on their plate?"

"If they hadn't fought themselves in the Twinkings War, they would still rule most of Forthweg," Hestan pointed out. Ealstan knew that, but it felt like history as old as that of the Kaunian Empire to him. His father resumed. "Anyhow, what I think doesn't matter. What matters is what King Swemmel of Unkerlant thinks--and, by all I've heard, he doesn't know his own mind from day to day."

* * *

Tealdo studied himself in the little hand mirror. He muttered something vile under his breath: one of the spikes of his mustache was not all it might have been. He applied a little more orange-scented wax, twisted the mustachio between thumb and forefinger, and studied the result. Better, he decided, but kept fiddling with the mustache and with his imperial even so. Better wasn't good enough, not here, not now. Even perfection would be barely good enough.

Panfilo came swaggering up the aisle of the caravan coach. His own mustaches, even more fiery of hue than Tealdo's, swept up and out like the horns of a bull. Instead of a chin beard, he favored bushy side whiskers. He paused to nod at Tealdo's primping. "That's good," he said. "Aye, that's very good. All the girls in the Duchy will want to kiss you."

"Sounds fine to me, Sergeant," Tealdo said with a grin. He patted the sleeve of his drab tan uniform tunic. "I just wish we could wear something with a little style to it, the way our fathers and grandfathers did."

"So do I, and I'll not deny it," Panfilo said. "But our fathers went into the Six Years' War in gold tunics and scarlet kilts. They looked like they were already blazing, and they burned--how they burned!" The sergeant went on up the aisle, snarling at soldiers less fastidious than Tealdo.

The caravan hummed south along the ley line. A few minutes later, Lieutenant Elio came through the coach and snapped at a couple of men Panfilo had missed. A few minutes after that, Captain Larbino came through and growled at men Elio had missed--and at a couple he hadn't.

Nobody growled at Tealdo. He leaned back in his seat and whistled an off-color song and watched the Algarvian landscape flow by outside the coach. Redbrick and timber had long since replaced whitewashed plaster; the southern part of the realm was cool and cloudy and not well suited to the airier forms of architecture in fashion farther north. Here, a man wanted to be sure he stayed warm of nights--and of days, too, a good part of the year.

Halfway through the afternoon, the almost subliminal hum of the caravan deepened as it drew less energy from the line over which it traveled. It slowed to a stop. Captain Larbino threw open the door to the coach. "Form up in order of march outside," he said. "Remember, King Mezentio has done us great honor by allowing this regiment to take part in the return of the Duchy of Bari to its rightful allegiance. Remember also, any man failing to live up to this honor will personally answer to me." He set a hand on the basket hilt of his officer's rapier; Tealdo did not doubt he meant that. The captain added, "And finally, remember that we are not marching into a foreign country. We are welcoming our brothers and sisters home."

"Hang our brothers," said the soldier next to Tealdo, a burly fellow named Trasone. "I want one of our sisters in Bari to welcome me home, and then screw me till I can't even walk."

"I've heard ideas I liked less," Tealdo said as he got to his feet. "Lots of them, as a matter of fact." He filed toward the door, then jumped down from the coach, which floated a couple of feet above the ground, and took his place in the ranks.

Captain Larbino's company was not the first in the regiment, but was the second, which let Tealdo see ahead well enough. In front of the first company stood the color guard. He envied them their gaudy ceremonial uniforms, from gilded helms to gleaming boots. The man in the middle of the color guard, who had surely been chosen for his great height, bore the banner of Algarve, diagonal slashes of red, green, and white. The soldier to his left carried the regiment pennon, a blue lightning bolt on gold.

Just ahead of the color guard stood a squat brick building also flying the Algarvian national banner: the customs house on the border--what had been the border--between Algarve and Bari. Its turnstile was raised, inviting the Algarvian soldiers forward. An almost identical brick building stood a few feet farther south, on the other side of the border. Bari's banner, a white bear on orange, floated on a staff beside it. Its wooden turnstile still made as if to bar the road into the Duchy.

Out of that second building came a plump man in uniform. His tunic and kilt were of different color and cut from those of the Algarvians: not tan, but a brown with green mixed in. Duke Alardo, powers below curse his ghost, had liked running his own realm; he'd been the perfect cat's-paw for the victors of the Six Years' War.

But he was dead now, dead without an heir. As for what his people thought...The plump man in the mud-and-moss uniform bowed to the Algarvian banner as the color-bearer brought it up to the border. Then he turned and bowed to the Barian banner before running it down from the pole where it had floated for a generation and more. And then he let it fall to the ground and spurned it with his boots. He raised the turnstile, crying, "Welcome home, brothers!"

Tealdo shouted himself hoarse but could hardly hear himself, for every man in the regiment was shouting himself hoarse. Colonel Ombruno, who commanded the unit, ran forward, embraced the Barian--the former Barian--customs officer, and kissed him on both cheeks. Turning back to his own men, he said, "Now, sons of my fighting spirit, enter the land that is ours once more."

The captains began singing the Algarvian national hymn. The men joined them in a swelling chorus of joy and pride. They marched past the two customs houses now suddenly made useless. Tealdo poked Trasone in the ribs and murmured, "Now that we're entering the land, let's see if we can enter the women too, eh, like you said." Trasone grinned and nodded. Sergeant Panfilo looked daggers at both of them, but the singing was so loud, he couldn't prove they hadn't taken part. Tealdo did start singing again lustily, in every sense of the word.

Parenzo, the Barian town nearest this stretch of the border with Algarve--no, nearest this stretch of the border with the rest of Algarve--lay a couple of miles south of the customs houses. Long before the regiment reached the town, people began streaming out of it toward them. Perhaps the fat Barian customs officer had used his crystal to let the baron in charge of the town know the reunion was now official. Or perhaps such news spread by magic less formal but no less effective than that by which crystals operated.

Whatever the reason, the road was lined with cheering, screaming men and women and children before the regiment got halfway to Parenzo. Some of the locals waved homemade Algarvian banners: homemade because Alardo had forbidden display or even possession of the Algarvian national colors in his realm while he lived. In the handful of days since the Duke's death, quite a few Barians had dyed white tunics and kilts with stripes of green and red.

The crowds didn't just line the road, either. In spite of Colonel Ombruno's indignant shouts, men dashed out to clasp the hands of the Algarvian soldiers and to kiss them on the cheeks, as he had done with the customs officers. Women ran out, too. They pressed flowers into the hands of the marching Algarvians, and national banners, too. And the kisses they gave were no mere pecks on the cheeks.

Tealdo did not want to let go of a sandy-haired beauty whose tunic and kilt, though of perfectly respectable cut, were woven of stuff so filmy, she might as well have been wearing nothing at all. "March!" Panfilo screamed at him. "You are a soldier of the Kingdom of Algarve. What will people think of you?"

"They will think I am a man, Sergeant, as well as a soldier," he replied with dignity. He gave the girl a last pat, then took a few steps double-time to resume his place in the ranks. He twirled his mustache as he went, in case the kisses had melted the wax out of it.

Because of such distractions, the two-mile march to Parenzo ended up taking twice as long as it should have. Colonel Ombruno went from apoplectic at the delay to placid when a statuesque woman in an outfit even more transparent than that of the girl who'd kissed Tealdo attached herself to him and showed no intention of letting go till she found a bed.

Trasone snickered. "The good colonel's wife will be furious if word of this ever gets back to her," he said.

"So will both his mistresses," Tealdo said. "The bold colonel is a man of parts--and I know the part he intends using tonight."

"The same one you do, once we billet ourselves in Parenzo," Trasone said.

"If I can find that same lady again--why not?" Tealdo asked. "Or even a different one."

A shadow flicked across his face, and then another. He craned his neck. A flight of dragons, their scaly hides painted red, green, and white, flew down from Algarve into Bari: one of many entering the Duchy, no doubt. High as they flew, the rhythmic whoosh of their wingbeats was easy to hear on the ground.

Tealdo made as if to clap his hands when the dragons flew past Parenzo. "Dragonfliers always get more than their share of women," he said. "For one thing, most of them are nobles. For another, they've got the lure of the beasts."

"Not fair," Trasone agreed.

"Not even close to fair," Tealdo said. "But if they don't land anywhere close to us, it doesn't matter."

In, the town square of Parenzo, the local baron stood on a wooden rostrum. He had the intent look of a man who was either going to make a speech or run for the latrine. Tealdo knew which he would have preferred, but no one consulted him.

The speech, inevitably, was long and boring. It was also in the fast, clucking Barian dialect, so that Tealdo, who came from the foothills of northeastern Algarve, not far from the Jelgavan border, missed about one word every sentence. Duke Alardo had tried to make the Barian dialect into a language of its own, further sundering his people from the rest of Algarve. He'd evidently had some luck. But when the count led the regiment in singing the national hymn, he and King Mezentio's soldiers understood one another perfectly.

Colonel Ombruno ascended to the rostrum. "Noble Baron, I thank you for your gracious remarks." He looked out over the neat ranks of soldiers. "Men, I grant you permission to fraternize with your fellow countrymen of Parenzo, provided only that you return to this square for billeting before the chimes of midnight. For now--dismissed!"

He came down and slipped an arm around the waist of the woman in the filmy tunic and kilt. With whoops and cheers, the regiment dispersed. Tealdo did his share of backslapping and wrist clasping with his fellow countrymen, but that wasn't the only thing on his mind.

Having been blessed with a good sense of direction, he went farther from the central square than did most of his comrades, thereby reducing his competition. When he walked into a cafe, he found himself the only soldier--indeed, the only customer--in the place. The serving girl was pretty, or even a little more than pretty. Her smile was friendly, or even a little more than friendly, as she came up to him. "What can I get you, hero?" she asked.

Tealdo glanced at the bill of fareon the wall. "We're not far from the sea," he answered, smiling back, "so how about the stewed eels with onions? And a yellow wine to go with them--and a glass for yourself, sweetheart, if you'd like one."

"I'd like one fine," she said. "And after supper, would you like to get your own eel stewed? I have a room upstairs." Her sigh was low and throaty. "It's so good to be in Algarve again, where we belong."

"I think it'll be good, coming into Bari," Tealdo said, and pulled the serving girl down onto his lap. Her arms twined around him. Suddenly, he didn't care whether he got supper or not.

* * *

Krasta peered into her closet, wondering what she had that was suitable to wear to a declaration of war. That problem had never before vexed the young marchioness, although her mother had surely had to make the same difficult choice at the outset of the Six Years' War, when Valmiera and her allies last sought to invade and subdue Algarve.

Her mouth thinned to a narrow line. She could not make up her mind. She picked up a bell and rang it. Let a servant figure out the permutations. That was what servants were for.

Bauska hurried in. She was wearing a sensible gray tunic and trousers, sensible and boring. "What shall I put on to go to the palace, Bauska?" Krasta asked. "Should I be cautious with a tunic, or show our grand Kaunian heritage by wearing trousers and blouse?" She sighed. "I really fancy a short tunic and kilt, but I don't suppose I can wear an Algarvian style when we're declaring war on that windbag, Mezentio."

"Not unless you care to be stoned through the streets of Priekule," Bauska replied.

"No, that wouldn't be good," Krasta said peevishly. She plucked a cinnamon-flavored sweet from a gold-chased bowl on the dresser and popped it into her mouth. "Now--what should I do?"

Not being a hereditary noble, Bauska had to make her wits work. She plucked at a loose wisp of pale hair--pale but not so pale as Krasta's--while she thought. At last, she said, "Tunic and trousers would show solidarity with Jelgava, and to some degree with Forthweg, though folk of Kaunian blood don't rule there--"

Krasta sniffed. "Kaunians in Forthweg bore me to tears, with their endless chatter about being oldest of the old."

"Those claims hold some truth, milady," Bauska said.

"I don't care," Krasta said. "I don't care at all. They're still dull."

"As you say, milady." Bauska held a finger in the air. "But tunic and trousers might offend the envoys from the islands of Sibiu and from Lagoas, for their ancestors have close ties to the ancestors of the Algarvians."

"They all spring from the same pack of barbarian dogs, you mean, even if some of them might be on our side now." Krasta barely refrained from boxing Bauska's ears. "You still haven't told me what I ought to wear!"

"You cannot know till you reach the palace whether or not you have made the perfect choice," her servant answered, mild as ever.

"It's not fair!" Krasta cried. "My brother doesn't have to worry about things like this. Why should I?"

"Lord Skarnu has no choice in his apparel because he wears King Gainibu's uniform," Bauska said. "I am sure he will make Valmiera proud of his brave service."

"I am sure I don't know what to put on, and you're no help at all," Krasta said. Bauska bowed her head. "Get out!" Krasta shouted, and the servant fled. That left Krasta alone with her choice. "I can't get good help," she fumed, taking gray wool trousers and a blue silk top from their hooks and putting them on.

She studied the effect in the mirror. It didn't satisfy her, but then very little satisfied her. A few pounds lighter, a couple of inches taller...and she probably would have remained dissatisfied, though she didn't think so. Grudgingly, she admitted to herself that the blue of her tunic set off the almost matching blue of her eyes. She belted the trousers with a rope of white gold and put a thinner rope around her neck. They played up the paleness of her hair.

She sighed. This would have to do. She went downstairs and called loudly for the carriage. Her estate had sat by the edge of Priekule for centuries, long before all the ley lines around the power point at the heart of the city were charted and exploited, and so stood near none of them. Even if it had, she would not have cared to ride a public caravan to the palace and subject herself to the stares of barmaids and booksellers and other vulgar, common folk.

She got more stares riding in the carriage, but she didn't have to notice those; they weren't so intimate as they would have been in the cramped confines of a caravan coach. The horses clopped along the cobblestones past square modern buildings of brick and glass (at which she sneered because they were modern); past others whose marble colonnades and painted statues imitated forms from the days of the Kaunian Empire (at which she sneered because they were imitations); past some a couple of hundred years old, when the ornate Algarvian architectural influence was strong (at which she sneered because they looked Algarvian); and past a few true Kaunian relics (at which she sneered because they were decrepit).

The carriage had just passed the famous Kaunian Column of Victory--now at last fully restored after fire damage during the Six Years' War--when a green-uniformed fellow held up a hand to bar the way. "What is the meaning of this?" Krasta demanded of her driver. "Never mind that oaf--go on through."

"Milady, I had better not," he answered cautiously.

She started to rage at him, but then the first Valmieran footsoldiers started tramping through the street from which she'd been barred. The river of men in dark green trousers and tunics seemed to take forever to flow past. "If I am late to the palace because of these soldiers, I shall be very unhappy--and so shall you," she told the driver, tapping her foot on the carpeted floor. She smiled to see him shiver; all her servants knew she meant what she said when she said things like that.

Great troops of horse cavalry and unicorn cavalry followed the infantrymen. Krasta curled her lip to see unicorns made as ugly as horses. And then she curled her lip again, for a squadron of behemoths followed the unicorns. They were ugly already, and thus did not need to be made so. Except for their horns--as long as those of the unicorns, but far thicker, and wickedly curved--they resembled nothing so much as great, hairy, thick-legged pigs. Their sole virtue was strength: each effortlessly carried not only several riders but also a heavy stick and a thick blanket of mail.

At last, men and beasts cleared the road. Without Krasta's having to say a word, the driver whipped the horses up into a gallop as soon as he could. The carriage shot through the narrow, winding streets of Priekule, almost mowing down a couple of women unwise enough to try to cross in front of it. They shrieked at Krasta. She angrily shouted back: had the carriage hit them, she might have been late to the palace.

As things were, she did arrive in good time. A bowing servant took charge of the carriage. Another helped her alight and said, "If milady the marchioness will be good enough to accompany me to the Grand Hall..."

"Thank you," Krasta said, words she seldom wasted on her own servitors. Here in the palace, though, she was not the ruler, nor even of more than slightly above middling rank. The gold and furs and splendid portraits of kings past reminded her of that. So did the princesses and duchesses who looked down their noses at her as she was accustomed to looking down on the rest of the world.

As soon as she saw a woman who outranked her wearing trousers, she relaxed: even if that proved a mistake, the duchess would get the blame, not she. But, in fact, more women in tunics looked nervous about their outfits than did women in trousers. Safe from censure, she let out a small, invisible sigh of relief.

Almost all the noblemen coming into the Grand Hall were in trousers and short tunics. Many of them were in uniform, with glittering badges showing both military and social rank. Krasta looked daggers at a man in a tunic and pleated kilt till she heard him speaking Valmieran with a rhythmic, trilling accent and realized he was the minister from Sibiu in his native costume.

A horn's clear note pierced the chatter. "Forth comes Gainibu III," a herald cried, "King of Valmiera and Emperor of the provinces and colonies across the seas. Give him great honor, as he deserves!"

Krasta rose from her seat and bowed very low, as did all the nobles and diplomats in the Great Hall. She remained standing till Gainibu had taken his place behind the podium at the front of the hall. Like so many of his nobles, he wore a uniform, the chest of which was almost hidden by a great profusion of medallions and ribbons. Some of those showed honorary affiliations. Some were true rewards for courage; while still Crown Prince, he had served with distinction against Algarve during the Six Years' War.

"Nobles and people of Valmiera," he said, while artists sketched his picture and scribes scribbled down his words for news sheets to reach the people whose villages were too poor and too far from a power point to boast even one crystal, "the Kingdom of Algarve, in willful violation of the terms of the Treaty of Tortush, has sent armed invaders into the sovereign Duchy of Bari. The Algarvian minister to Valmiera has stated that King Mezentio has no intention of withdrawing his men from the said Duchy, and has positively rejected my demand that Algarve do so. When this latest outraged is added to the many others Algarve has committed in recent years, it leaves me no choice but to declare that, from this moment forth, the Kingdom of Valmiera considers itself to be at war with the Kingdom of Algarve."

Along with the other nobles King Gainibu had summoned to the palace, Krasta applauded. "Victory! Victory! Victory!" The shout filled the Grand Hall, with occasional cries of "On to Trapani!" thrown in for good measure.

Gainibu held up his hand. Slowly, silence returned. Into it, he said, "Nor does Valmiera go to war alone. Our allies of old are our allies yet."

As if to prove as much, the minister from Jelgava came and stood beside the king. "We too are at war with Algarve," he said. Krasta understood his words with no trouble, though to her ear they had an odd accent: Jelgavan and Valmieran were so closely related, some reckoned them dialects rather than two separate languages.

The tunic the swarthy minister from Forthweg wore could not disguise his blocky build. Instead of Valmieran, he spoke in classical Kaunian: "Forthweg, free not least because of the courage of Valmiera and Jelgava, stands by her friends in bad times as well as good. We too war with Algarve." Formality fell from him like a mask. He abandoned the ancient tongue for the modern to roar, "On to Trapani!" The cheers were deafening.

"Bari in Algarvian hands is a dagger aimed at Sibiu's heart," the minister from the island nation said. "We shall also fight the common foe."

But the minister from Lagoas, which had been Valmiera's ally in the Six Years' War, stayed silent now. So did the slant-eyed envoy from Kuusamo, which ruled the eastern, and much larger, part of the island it shared with Lagoas. Lagoas was nervous about Kuusamo; Kuusamo was fighting a desultory naval war far to the east against Gyongyos--though not, strangely, in any real alliance with Unkerlant. The Unkerlanter minister also sat on his hands, as did the envoys from the minor powers between Unkerlant and Algarve.

Krasta hardly noticed the omissions. With her allies, Valmiera would surely punish the wicked Algarvians. They had brought the war on themselves--now let them see how they liked it. "On to Trapani!" she yelled.

* * *

Count Sabrino elbowed his way through the crowd in Trapani's Royal Square, toward the balcony from which King Mezentio would address the people and nobles of Algarve. He wanted to hear Mezentio's words with his own ears, not read them later on or, if he was lucky, catch them from a crystal some nearby sorcerer was holding.

People gave way before him, men with nods that would have to make do in the crush for bows, women, some of them, with inviting smiles. Those had nothing to do with his noble rank. They had everything to do with his tan uniform, with the three silver pips of a colonel on each shoulder strap, and, most of all, with the prominent Dragon Corps badge just above his heart.

Close by, a man with his mustache going from red to white spoke to a younger woman, perhaps a daughter, perhaps a mistress or new wife: "I was here, darling, right here, when King Dudone declared war on Unkerlant all those years ago."

"So was I," Sabrino said. He'd been a youth then, too young to fight until the Six Years' War had nearly run its course. "People were afraid then. Look now." He waved, ending with a typically flamboyant Algarvian twist of the wrist. "This might be a festival."

"We're taking back our own this time, and everybody knows it," the older man said, and his female companion nodded vigorous agreement. Noticing the silver dragon coiled on Sabrino's chest, the man added, "And the greatest good luck to you in the air, sir. Powers above keep you safe."

"For which you have my thanks, poor though they be." Crush or no crush, Sabrino bowed to both the man and his lady before pressing on.

He bought a chunk of melon wrapped in a parchment-thin slice of ham from a vendor with an eye for the main chance, and advanced with only one elbow to clear his path while he ate. He hadn't come quite so far as he wanted when King Mezentio appeared on the balcony: a tall, lean man, his golden crown gleaming even more brightly in the noonday sun than his bald scalp would have.

"My friends, my countrymen, we are invaded!" he cried, and Sabrino, to his relief, found he had no trouble hearing. "All the Kaunian countries want to gnaw our bones. The Jelgavans are attacking us in the mountains, the Valmierans have swarmed out of the marquisate on this side of the Soretto they stole from us in the Treaty of Tortusso, and Forthweg's fierce cavalry sweeps over the plains in the northwest. Even Sibiu, our own blood kin, plunges the dagger into our back, assaulting our ships and burning our harbors. They think--they all think--we shall be meat for their butchering. My friends, my countrymen, what say you about that?"

"No!" Sabrino shouted it at the top of his lungs, along with everyone else. The roar was terrific, overpowering.

"No," Mezentio agreed. "We have done nothing but take back that which is rightfully ours. Even doing that, we were calm, we were reasonable. Did we war with the traitor Duke of Bari, Alardo the lickspittle? We had every reason to war with him, but we let him live out his long and worthless span of days. Only after the flames claimed his carcass did we reclaim the Duchy--and the people of Bari welcomed us with flowers and kisses and songs of joy. And for those songs of joy, we are plunged into a war we do not want.

"My friends, my countrymen, did we claim the Marquisate of Rivaroli, which Valmiera cut from the body of our kingdom after the Six Years' War for their foothold on this side of the Soretto? We did not. We do not, though King Gainibu's men mistreat the good Algarvians who live there. I thought no one could doubt the justice of our claim to Bari. It seems I was wrong.

"It seems I was wrong," Mezentio repeated, bringing his right fist down on the waist-high marble balustrade. "The Kaunians and their jackals sought any excuse for war, and now they think they have one. My countrymen, my friends, mark my words: if we lose this struggle, they will ruin us. Jelgava and Forthweg will join hands in the north across the corpse of our kingdom, cutting us off forevermore from the Garelian Ocean. In the south, the Treaty of Tortusso gave barely a taste of what Valmiera and Sibiu, aye, and Lagoas, too, would do to us if only they could."

Sabrino frowned a little. Since the Lagoans had not declared war on Algarve, he would not have mentioned them. He did, not for a moment think King Mezentio wrong about what Lagoas wanted, merely a trifle impolitic.

Mezentio went on, "As I speak here, our enemies burn our fields and farms and villages. Their dragons carry eggs of devastation and destruction and death to our towns and cities. My friends, my countrymen, shall we do what is in our poor power to throw them back?"

"Aye!" Again, Sabrino yelled as loud as he could. Again, he could hardly hear himself for the outcry around him.

"Valmiera has declared war on us. Jelgava has followed like a dog on a leash. Forthweg has declared war. So has Sibiu." This time, Mezentio raised his fist in the air. "They seek to chop us off at the knees. My friends, my countrymen, people of Algarve, here is my vow to you: it shall not be!"

Sabrino yelled yet again. He too pumped his fist in the air. A woman beside him stood up on tiptoe to kiss him on the cheek. He gathered her into his arms and made a proper job of the kiss.

King Mezentio held both hands high, palms out toward the crowd. After a little while, quiet returned. Into it, he spoke with simple determination: "We shall defend Algarve."

"Algarve! Algarve! Algarve!" The chant echoed through the square, through all of Trapani, and, Sabrino hoped, throughout the kingdom. Mezentio bowed stiffly from the waist, acknowledging in his own person the cheers for his kingdom. Then, with a final wave, he withdrew from the balcony. Sabrino saw one of his ministers come forward to clasp his wrist in congratulation.

"You'll help save us, Colonel," said the woman who'd kissed him.

"Milady, I shall do what I can," Sabrino answered. "And now, much as I would sooner linger with

you"--she dropped him a curtsy for that--"I must go and do it."

The dragon farm lay well outside Trapani, so far outside that Sabrino had to take a horse-drawn carriage for the last leg of the journey, as no ley caravan reached such a distance from the power point at the heart of the capital. "Good of you to join us," said General Borso, the farm commandant, giving Sabrino a jaundiced stare.

"My lord, I am not tardy, not by my orders, and I had the honor of hearing with my own ears King Mezentio casting defiance in the face of all those who wrong Algarve," Sabrino said, respectfully defiant of higher authority.

Higher authority yielded, Borso saying, "Ah, my friend, in that case I envy you. Being confined here on duty, I heard him through the crystal. He spoke very well, I thought. The Kaunians and their friends would be wrong to take us lightly."

"That they would," Sabrino agreed. "The crystal is all very well when required, but everything in it is tiny and tinny. In person, the king was magnificent."

"Good, good." Borso bunched his fingertips and kissed them. "Splendid. If he was magnificent, we too must be magnificent, to live up to his example. In aid of which, my dear fellow, is your wing fully prepared for action?"

"My lord, you need have no doubts on that score," Sabrino said. "The fliers are in fine fettle, every one of them eager for duty. And we are well supplied with meat and brimstone and quicksilver for the dragons. My report of three days past goes into full detail on all these matters."

"Reports are all very well," Borso said, "but the impressions of the men who write them are better. And I have orders for you, since all is in such excellent readiness. You and your entire wing are ordered northwest to Gozzo, from which point you are to resist the invading Forthwegians with every power you command."

"Gozzo? If I remember the place rightly, it is a miserable excuse for a town," Sabrino said with a sigh. "Will they be able to keep us supplied there?"

"If they cannot, the count's head will roll, and so will the duke's, and so will the quartermaster's," Borso answered. "We are as ready for this war as we can be, I assure you of that."

"Our foes surround us," Sabrino said. "They tried to destroy us in the Six Years' War, and came too close to succeeding. We need to be ready, for we have always known they would try again."

He saluted the farm commandant, then went out to his wing. The dragons were tethered in long rows behind Borso's office. When they saw him, they hissed and raised their scaly crests--not in greeting, he knew, but in a dragonish mix of anger and alarm and hunger.

Some people romanticized unicorns, which were beautiful and quite bright as animals went. Some people romanticized horses, which were pretty stupid. And, sure as sure, some people romanticized dragons, which were not only stupid but vicious to boot. Sabrino chuckled. Nobody, so far as he knew, romanticized behemoths--and a good thing, too.

He shouted for an orderly. When the young subaltern came running up, Sabrino said, "Summon the men of my wing. We are ordered to Gozzo, to defend against the cursed Forthwegians, as soon as may be." The subaltern bowed and hurried away.

A moment later, a trumpeter blared out half a dozen harsh, imperative notes: the opening notes to the Algarvian national hymn. As he played them over and over again, men spilled from tan tents and ran, kilts flapping, to form an eight-by-eight square in front of Sabrino, four captains standing out ahead of it. The dragons hissed and moaned and spread their enormous wings. Stupid though they were, they'd learned an assembly meant they were likely to fly soon.

"It's war," Sabrino told the fliers in his wing. "We are ordered to Gozzo, to fight the Forthwegians. Is every man, is every beast, ready to depart within the hour?" A chorus of Aye! rang out, but one flier, misery on his face, raised a hand. Sabrino pointed to him. "Speak, Corbeo!"

"My lord," Corbeo said, "I regret to report that my dragon's torn wing membrane has not yet healed enough to let her fly." He hung his head in shame. "Had the war but waited another week--"

"It was not your fault, and it can't be helped," Sabrino said, adding, "Cheer up, man! A week's not such a long time. You'll see your share of action, never fear. They may even throw you aboard a fresh mount before then, if they decide they need trained fliers in a hurry."

Corbeo bowed. "May it be so, lord!"

Sabrino shook his head. "No, for that would show our beloved kingdom was in great danger. I hope you relax and drink wine and pinch the pretty girls till your dragon heals." Corbeo bowed again, grinning now. Pleased with himself, Sabrino addressed the whole wing: "Men, prepare to fly. My captains, to me."

One of the captains, Domiziano, asked the question Sabrino was about to address: "My lord, will we have force enough to turn back the invaders?"

"We must," Sabrino said simply. "Algarve depends on us. We yield as little ground as we can. Whatever we do"--he remembered Mezentio's words from the balcony--"we don't let Forthweg and Jelgava join hands. To block that, our lives mean nothing. Do you understand?" Domiziano and the other three squadron commanders nodded. Sabrino slapped each of them on the back. "Good. Splendid. And now we need must ready ourselves as well."

When he was mounted at the join of his dragon's neck and shoulders, when he spurred the soft skin there and the beast sprang into the air, when the ground fell away beneath him and the dragon's wings thundered, he could understand for a moment why some people sighed over the great beasts. When the dragon twisted and tried to bite till he whacked it in the snout with a long-handled goad, he cursed those people, who knew nothing about real dragons, as a pack of fools.

* * *

The Elsung Mountains formed the land border between Unkerlant and Gyongyos. Precisely where they formed the border was a matter on which King Swemmel of Unkerlant and Ekrekek Arpad of Gyongyos had trouble agreeing. Because they had trouble agreeing, some thousands of young men from each of the two kingdoms were settling the question for them.

Leudast wished he were back on his farm, not far from the Forthwegian border, rather than sitting around a campfire here in the rock-strewn middle of nowhere. As far as he was concerned, Arpad was welcome to every one of these boulders if he was crazy enough to want them.

He didn't mention his opinion. Sergeants took a dim view of such sentiments. Officers took an even dimmer one. From what people said (whispered, actually), King Swemmel took the dimmest view of all. Having finally won the long civil war with his twin brother, Kyot, Swemmel thought anyone who disagreed with him a traitor. A lot of people had disappeared because Swemmel held that opinion. Leudast did not want to add his name to the list.

He leaned forward to toast a piece of sausage skewered on a stick over the fire. He twirled the stick between the palms of his hands to get the hard, peppery sausage done on all sides. His sergeant, a veteran named Magnulf, nodded approval, saying, "Very efficient, Leudast."

"Thank you, Sergeant." Leudast beamed. That was high praise. He'd never heard the word efficiency before the impressers pulled him off his farm and put him in a rock-gray uniform tunic, but King Swemmel was wild for it, which meant everyone beneath Swemmel was wild for it, too. Along with learning how to slaughter the foes of Unkerlant, Leudast had learned to mouth the phrases: "Time and motion--least and fewest."

"Least and fewest," Magnulf agreed around a mouthful of his own sausage. Leudast had a little trouble understanding him, but waiting to swallow would have been inefficient. Magnulf scratched his formidable

nose--though it was less formidable than those of Leudast and half the other troopers in his squad--and went on, "The stinking Gongs are liable to try something tonight. That's what we hear from prisoners, anyhow."

Leudast wondered how they'd squeezed out the news. Efficiently, without a doubt. His stomach did a slow flipflop as he thought about how efficient interrogators could be.

One of his squadmates, a fellow named Wisgard who was slim by Unkerlanter standards, spoke up: "Back home, it would be midnight or so, and here the sun's barely down."

"We are a great kingdom." Magnulf thumped his broad chest with a big, thick-fingered fist. "And we are going to be a greater kingdom still, once we drive the Gongs off the mainland and over to the islands they've taken to infesting."

"That'd be easier if they hadn't stolen this stretch of land from us during the Twinkings War," a trooper named Berthar said.

"Proves how important efficiency is," Magnulf said. "A kingdom gets on fine with one king--that's efficient. Try to put two in the space meant for one, and everything goes to pieces."

That wasn't efficiency, not the way Leudast saw things. It was just common sense. If either Swemmel or Kyot had admitted he was the younger twin, Unkerlant would have been spared a lot of grief. Armies had marched and countermarched across Leudast's farm--it had been his father's then, for he'd been born just as the civil war was finally petering out--stealing what they could and burning a lot of what they couldn't. The countryside had been years recovering.

And now, when it finally had recovered, here was another war on the far frontier of the kingdom. For the life of him, Leudast couldn't see the efficiency of that. Again, though, he could see the inefficiency of saying so.

Captain Urgan came up to the fire and said, "Be alert, men. The Gyongyosians are planning something nasty."

"I've already warned them, sir," Magnulf said.

"Efficient," Urgan said crisply. "I have more news, too: over in the far east, all of Algarve's neighbors have jumped on her back."

"His Majesty was as efficient as all get-out to stand aside from that war," Magnulf said. "Let all those tall bastards kill each other."

"Forthwegians aren't tall bastards," Berthar said with fussy precision.

Magnulf gave him a glare undoubtedly practiced in front of a mirror. "They may not be tall bastards, but they're bastards just the same," the sergeant growled. "If they weren't bastards, they wouldn't have thrown off Unkerlanter suzerainty during the Twinkings War, now would they?"

His tone strongly suggested that giving any kind of answer would be inefficient. Berthar didn't need to be a first-rank mage to figure that out. He kept his mouth shut. Captain Urgan added, "And Forthweg has its own share of Kaunians. They're tall bastards, every bit as much as the lousy Algarvians."

Berthar did his best to look as if he'd never been so rash as to open his mouth. Leudast wouldn't have been so rash himself. He did ask, "Sir, any word on what the Gongs have in mind?"

"I'm afraid not," Urgan said. "I don't look for anything overwhelming, though--with so few ley lines charted in this powersforsaken stretch of the world, and with even fewer properly improved, they have as much trouble moving men and supplies as we do. This isn't the most efficient war ever fought, but Gyongyos started it, so we've got to respond."

A brief hiss of cloven air was the only warning Leudast had before an egg burst about fifty yards from the campfire. The blast of light and heat from the energies it released knocked him off his feet and made him wonder if he'd been blinded: all he saw for a moment were purple smears in front of his eyes.

He did not need to hear the screech of a swooping dragon to know it would attack the men around the fire. Nor did he need to see it to know it would be able to see him if he stayed close by the flames. He rolled away, bumping over rocks and over little spiky-leafed mountain shrubs whose name he did not know: before the impressers took him away, he'd always been a man of the flatlands.

He saw the flame that burst from the dragon's jaw, saw it and smelled the brimstone reek, too. Somewhere behind him, Wisgard shrieked. A moment later, a pale, thin beam of light shot from the ground toward the dragon. Leudast wished he'd had his own stick slung on his back. Then he could have blazed at the enemy, too, instead of seeking only to hide.

But the Gyongyosians, like the folk of most other realms these days, were sly enough to silver their dragons' bellies and the undersides of their wings. The beam that would have burned a hole in man was harmlessly reflected away. The dragon belched forth fire again. Another scream arose. No one blazed back at the beast as it flew off to the west. The wind from its great wingbeats blew Leudast's hair all awry.

Blinking frantically, he scrambled toward the sticks. As he groped for his own, Magnulf and Berthar came crawling up. "Where's the captain?" Leudast asked.

"Back there, toasted like bread you forget over the fire," Magnulf answered. Somewhere west of them, someone kicked a rock. Magnulf cursed. "And here come the Gongs. Let's see how expensive we can make ourselves. Spread out--we don't want them getting around our flank."

Leudast scuttled toward a boulder fifteen or twenty feet away. A beam like the one poor Captain Urgan had aimed at the dragon zipped close to him, but did not strike. He dove behind the boulder, almost knocking the wind out of himself. Then, peering out into the night, he tried to find the spot from which the enemy had blazed at him.

The big disadvantage to using a stick at night was that, if you missed, the flash of light could tell the enemy where you were. If you were smart, you didn't stay there long. If you moved, though, you were liable to expose yourself, or to make some noise.

Leudast heard some noise off to his right: running footsteps. He whirled. Straight at him came a Gyongyosian trooper who must have noted the thud and clatter he'd made diving for cover. With a gasp, Leudast thrust his forefinger into the recess at the base of his stick.

As much by luck as by good aim, his beam caught the Gong square in the chest. Just for a moment, Leudast saw the enemy's broad, staring face, made animal-like--at least to a clean-shaven Unkerlanter--by a bushy yellow beard. The fellow let out a grunt, more of surprise than of pain, and toppled.

"The stick," Leudast muttered, and scurried over to grab it. He didn't know how much power his own had left. This far from a ley line, with no first-rank mage close by, when that power was gone, it was gone. Good to have a second stick handy.

He scowled at the Gyongyosian's body, from which rose a faint smell of burnt meat along with the latrine odor of suddenly loosed bowels. The bastard was already dead, sure as sure. A mage didn't have to be of the first rank to draw energy from a sacrifice. Soldiers who gave themselves up to power their comrades' sticks won the Star of Efficiency--posthumously, of course--but expending a captive was more efficient still.

It didn't matter, not here. For one thing, he had no captive, only a corpse. For another, no mages, first-rank or otherwise, were around. He crawled back behind his boulder and waited for the Gyongyosians to press the attack.

For several minutes, they didn't. Maybe they weren't sure how much damage the dragon attack had done. Or maybe they weren't any more enthusiastic about the war than Leudast was. He listened to somebody, presumably an officer, haranguing them in their unintelligible twittering language. Knowing what an Unkerlanter officer would say in such a spot, Leudast guessed the fellow was telling them they'd get worse from him than from their foes if they didn't start moving.

Here they came, the fuzzy bastards, some of them blazing, others darting forward while the rest made the Unkerlanters keep their heads down. Leudast popped up, took a couple of blazes with his beam, and then ducked again before the Gongs could puncture him as he'd punctured their trooper.

When he heard more of them getting around to his right, he fell back. A beam came horrifyingly close to him, lighting up a rock just in front of his face. But then he was in good cover again, and blazing back at the


And then, rather to his own surprise, more Unkerlanters came moving up from the rear, shouting King Swemmel's name as they advanced. The Gyongyosians shouted, too, in dismay. Their chance was gone, and they knew it. The reinforcements even had a small portable egg-tosser with them. How the Gongs howled when they were on the receiving end of eggshells full of light and fire!

"Forward, men!" an Unkerlanter officer shouted. "Let's drive them out of the mountains and into the flat. King Swemmel and efficiency!"

As far as Leudast was concerned, thinking a couple of platoons of soldiers could drive Gyongyos out of the Elsung Mountains wasn't very efficient. He lay panting behind his heap of rocks. He'd been in the mountains for a while. No overeager fool was going to get him killed, not when he'd just come through a skirmish in one piece. "Staying alive is efficient, too," he muttered, and sat tight.

Copyright © 1999 by Harry Turtledove


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