Mairild stared unhappily out the windows. Priests of pure faith, holy mothers, children of true gods and a hundred other beliefs were setting up shrines in and around Verd. Even the great square had become a marketplace for religion. Peddlers and hawkers now had to compete with their counterparts in trinkets for the soul.
She hated it.
The empire she loved tearing down the middle. The stubborn De Vhatic unity turned into fighting factions vying for followers. The fighting ripped right into families. More than a few people simply disappeared each night, and she suspected most of them would never turn up again. At least not alive.
For once the great magic of Verd worked against them. Of course they had their share of bodies vanishing each night together with the rest of the waste, but murders were usually infrequent enough that the soldiers on guard duty found the remains a few days later. Now, however, she couldn't be certain that the even the soldiers wanted those bodies found, and they were too many to begin with anyway.
Verd ate her own, even those who lived.
Mairild left the windows, as if not seeing the scene outdoors would make it go away. Her steps brought her through corridors and reception halls, down narrow stairs to cellars few spoke about and even fewer visited. Deep under the imperial castle chambers lay buried, mostly well furnished but all of them prison cells of one kind or another.
She wasn't on her way to one of the politely and comfortably tucked away guests they housed. There were a few cells for the other kind, and one where unspeakable things were done to the prisoner before death.
It wasn't anything she was proud of, and sometimes she even doubted the information they gathered this way was all reliable. People were prone to admit anything when subjected to pain, but the interrogators were skilled and avoided leading questions as far as possible. Usually they just tortured their victim until something spilled out.
Mairild smirked at the double meaning of her thoughts.
She turned around a corner and followed the sounds. Shrieks of agony rising over muffled groans like waves rolling rhythmically onto the beaches of the Liat Sea.
A few days earlier riders had brought three missionaries from Chach as prisoners, and now the last one alive was screaming his lungs out in a futile attempt to shorten his agony.
She entered the clinic and covered her face. The display never ceased to discomfort her. It was all so very, very red. Soldiers never lost this much blood and lived, but then enemies of the field of battle didn't go to lengths to keep their opponents alive.
"Anything new?" she asked after her stomach returned to normal.
"Yes. They have some new kind of battlemages. If I didn't know better it would seem those fanatic paladins have been imbued." The interrogator had the grace not to turn around as he answered.
Mairild silently thanked him for that. "And..."
The question she was about to ask was suddenly cut short by another shriek, and she shuddered at the sight of the convulsing body strapped to the table. That was a human being there. An enemy, yes, but still human.
She choked back her feelings. An enemy. She had to focus on that.
She stared at the marble, red covering the white and grey, and closed her eyes. An enemy.
"Any numbers?" she asked.
"Not exact enough to be reliable. Most from Chach, but quite a few taking orders directly from that church of theirs. Crusade. It's the madness of Erkateren again."
Mairild mulled over the analysis. Her interrogators were paid to think as well as inflict pain. She wanted them to come to their own conclusions. This one made sense to her as well. Too much sense in fact.
"Does he have anything more to tell us?"
"I doubt it, madame."
"Kill him then," she said. It was the only decent thing to do now.
"I will." The voice held only gratitude. Anyone taking a liking to the horrible work down here she immediately dismissed. Interrogators they were. She had no use for sadists.
She stayed for the mercy killing. She owed the prisoner at least that much.
Trindai walked along the southern walls together with the outworlder admiral. In their wake the new liaison, William Anderson, followed.
He was, Trindai guessed, more amused than anything else. The more irritated Erwin got the more smug the Martian, Trindai tasted the foreign expression for a while, became. It was as if this was only a game.
At the far end of the fields raw recruits were going through basic training, marching and turning, marching and turning. Closer to the walls the first to join the brigade went through far more complex manoeuvres
Trindai saw how they turned to let crossbowmen through to lose a volley on straw targets and then close ranks and show those targets a solid shield wall again.
Those men were as trained as they were ever going to be. The only thing that remained to complete their education was to send them to the butcher. That last of lessons decided how a unit would perform. There was nothing he could do to alter that reality.
He gazed further south and pointed for Erwin's benefit.
"We're sending artisans there as well," he said.
The fourth of their company, the interpreter, earned part of her salary.
"But you don't have the numbers you require?" Erwin's answer was translated back.
Trindai followed the column of wagons heading south with his eyes. We don't even have wagons enough thanks to that idiocy earlier this year. "No, I afraid we don't. Craftsmen are arriving from Dagd and even Vimarin, but it will take them some time to get used to the rules. Especially those from Vimarin," he said instead.
"You know, there is a solution to that problem. A partial one at least," William broke in, and in De Vhatic.
Trindai turned. "Is there no end to your supply of surprises?" he grinned.
"I have a few left," William answered and shot Erwin a vile smile. "You could have learned as well, you know," he continued to the bewildered admiral.
The interpreter did her work and Erwin's face reddened.
That was a nasty surprise to spring upon him. William hadn't been here for long, but with mastery of De Vhatic he was able to negotiate on his own without the need for interpreters. Mairild wouldn't like this, Trindai thought. But then she probably already knew about her latest potential problem. Trindai had no doubt most, if not all, interpreters received an additional salary from her.
He wondered just how many informers she had. Some probably went back as far as when she arrived here posing as an actor all those years ago. Posing, no that was the wrong word. She had been one, and a very good one as well. It wasn't her fault the theatres had experienced a fall from popularity that lasted a full eightyear.
Then he recalled why he was guiding his visitors on the walls. "Please, tell me, Minister Anderson," he said and searched for a spot from which they could attack in the exercise he had planned. If Erwin agreed, of course.
The mock village wasn't completed yet, but he still wanted to train the troops in combat among building sized obstacles, and if Erwin gave his go ahead the sky ships would do perfectly.
Trindai saw William following his stare. "Yes, they could land there as well," he said.
The Martian must have misunderstood what Trindai was thinking. Then the words registered? "Land?"
"Yes," William said. "New Sweden, that's the people in permanent flight above us, wants a piece of this place as well. They could earn their stay."
"Orbit?" Trindai said after William explained the strange expression with one, single word in the outworlder language. "So this third kingdom also wants a presence here?"
"Yes, and I'm certain they have enough artisans to fill your needs. Untrained but not unskilled. They don't do it for a living."
That made Trindai's day a brighter one.
"If you would be so kind to invite me into your conversation," Erwin said though the interpreter.
Trindai ordered her to give Erwin a resume of the conversation and added the question about using the sky ships as houses for the exercise.
Erwin nodded agreement.
That was good news. Now, with more outworlders arriving on the training grounds they would receive both much needed raw materials as well as more sky ships to use for the training.
"Minister Anderson, I would be grateful if you did, but formally you need someone in the council to agree as well. I doubt your suggestion will meet any opposition, but I can't sign this kind of agreement."
"I understand," William answered. "I will go through official channels." Then he turned to Erwin and they immersed themselves in a conversation that had the interpreter bewildered.
"What is it?" Trindai asked.
"Sir, I don't understand them. It is an outworlder language, but none I have learned."
It was only to be expected. With more than one outworlder kingdom he shouldn't have been surprised by the existence of more than one language. He still was, and worried as well. The outworlders weren't supposed to communicate their secrets safely among themselves. Mairild would definitely not like this, and for once Trindai doubted if she had the knowledge. It wasn't often he learned anything in Verd before she did, but this was the second time in a short time, he suspected.
He frowned and pushed the darker memory back in his mind. The first time he had ordered his men to murder their own. He hoped the price wouldn't be as high now.
He glared at the troops below them. A price, and he intended someone else to pay in full.
"Minister Anderson, we may have a problem though."
"I don't know where we should house the new arrivals."
William smiled and turned to Erwin. This time the admiral shared the smile. "We thought of that problem. I think it's solved," William said.
Trindai looked at Erwin. What were they up to? "Could you clarify, please?"
"Admiral Radovic and I will share that burden between us. Our quarters here are large, and we have the means to rent an empty building or two, even furnish it."
"And that would also place you in control of the newcomers." There was no reason to pretend that he didn't understand the underlying reason for their sudden generosity.
"It would," William agreed. He hadn't taken any offence from the tone of his voice at least. "You have to understand that while New Sweden is a very minor nation when compared to either the Republic of Mars or the Terran Federation they're here, and we're not."
"And you would prefer if their local presence mirrors their actual political strength as closely as possibly?" Trindai guessed.
William translated for Erwin, and they both nodded.
Trindai really didn't care. One outworlder was rather like any other to him, and if they could supply the help Keen needed at the moment he wasn't going to be picky about it. In fact he preferred the current situation. A divided outworld scared him a lot less than one united. It made them more human in a way. With their own inability to put all differences aside and join in one, great and powerful nation.
He drew a lungful of late spring. Yes, his day was definitely brightening up. For once he looked forward with genuine joy to supervising the troops.
He would, of course, hide that grin when he barked at the officers and their soldiers. His job was to be General de Laiden, and if Trindai enjoyed a good laugh as much as anyone else the was supposed to eat recruits for breakfast and only save the trained men to have a mouthful for dinner.
The second arrow flew as wide as the first. Arthur ducked anyway. To his right side Ken had done the same. Sacrosanct was not the same as invincible apparently.
He crawled down the slope and walked to where the Bloodhounds were making their equipment ready. Fly cams would make sure they didn't risk anything more than expensive equipment, and catching a battle, even a small one like this, was well worth a holo cam or two.
Behind him Ken popped his head over the ridge from time to time. Watch and Weave. At least he was true to his words. He watched, even if it meant taking a personal risk.
Arthur had no plans to join Ken. He vaguely recalled taking an arrow in his leg when he was rescued by Harbend and the others. Trai died there.
He quickly walked behind the hovercraft. Not all arrows fell short of the ridge, and even though they weren't really the target some idiot out there had decided that anyone who could be seen was also an enemy.
From what Arthur had managed to see those fighting didn't belong to any regular units in Keen, or at least none he had encountered. A few wore uniforms, but he could have sworn he saw the same uniform on both sides.
Probably armed idiots having a religious dispute.
He watched the cams take air, each one under the control of a crewman with a linked visor. A good cameraman could handle three or four cams. These were his old Bloodhounds. Twenty cams sailed over the ridge and spread out. Another ten were on their way, and from the bored face the fifth crewman didn't even plan to don her visor.
Arthur threw a sideways glance at a copse of bushes where Heinrich had led his group. They wouldn't take part of the fighting, but they were his bodyguards. That still grated in him, but he'd been given no choice when the matter came up.
At least Heinrich seemed to share his opinion about trigger happy lunatics in uniform. What he said about events around the launch port more than confirmed Arthur's worst prejudices.
Another arrow sailed gracefully over him and landed, point first, between him and the horses. Had they tied them too close to the skirmish?
He looked back at Ken who protected his head with a makeshift helmet and was busy watching the fight. Probably not. Ken had as much as promised that the horses would be safe.
A shift in the wind brought s whiff of smoke to his nose. Great! Just great! They had to add arson to the list of madness. He knew he could Weave all combatants into submission, at least if he got them within hearing range.
Ken would have none of it though. Still, if he found a way to keep strictly to the actual truth, or at least truth the way he experienced it. But that required him to have some awful truths to Weave.
And an idea was born.
Arthur grabbed the casing for a fly cam and headed back to where Ken lay. Watch and Weave. Oh, he would watch. He would watch until he had enough horrors worth Weaving, and then he'd use it. Maybe not the way Ken wanted, but within scope of the damn rules anyway.
Heinrich dragged another body away to the pyre. So fond of killing these devout soldiers of god, whatever god they happened to believe in. A sorry bunch of bullies and mercenaries in his book. Little better than pirates, and everyone knew what TADAT did to pirates.
Still that was everyone back home, and they weren't home any longer, and he had been handed very specific orders about when he was allowed to return fire. Civil war between fanatics were not included in the rather short list.
He stared at the hovercraft ahead of him. Neither was protecting the news team. Erwin had made that absolutely clear. Almost gleefully.
Heinrich wondered about that. It was an order he would disobey. He knew that. Erwin knew that. Something political probably. From the rules of a game Heinrich didn't want to play.
He lifted the body and threw it into the flames. It was the closest to a funeral they could give them. He hated having to watch the killing and see the dead left in the open. It wasn't right. No respect.
He turned and went back to the small shrine where they had found the scattered remains of whoever had taken refugee there. At least they had been armed. He didn't like the idea of weapon less families getting slaughtered in what was supposed to be a holy place.
He bent and picked the last body up. There had been six of them, all male. On his way to the pyre he admitted that he didn't like to see anyone slaughtered, with the possible exception of pirates.
There were always pirates. But he had a valid reason for his bias, one that would get him booted out of the TADAT if anyone ever found out. Everyone he had ever known dead before he turned seven. Pirates missing him by sheer dumb luck, and him permanently borrowing the identity of another without learning it for over ten years.
That identity had got him into training, and he held on to it because it gave him an opportunity to strike back. And because it was who he had become.
He stayed by the pyre at parade attention. This was not their duty but to his pride his entire unit joined him, including Granita even though she didn't even have a body walker. It didn't matter. Some things were just left unsaid, and respect for the dead was one of them.
There had been too many funerals like this the last days and he wondered if things would degenerate even further. They were packing and making ready to continue south when they did. A signal over the command line tagged urgent drew his attention, and as he listened in horror Granita's stricken face told him the news team had received the same message by their own channels.
Mairild gazed west, for once just another apprehensive onlooker among thousands. Erwin had promised that outworlders would arrive out of the sky in greater numbers than ever before. Artisans, thinkers, doctors and volunteers willing to help with whatever labour needed to be done.
She stared into the early summers sky, waiting for that promise to materialize.
Below them the Imperial Guard had cleared the training grounds from people, and the outworlder soldiers in their moving armour patrolled both highways to make sure no one arriving to Verd ventured out into what would soon become a steaming inferno of landing sky ships.
They were all needed. No matter that she'd sent town criers out well in advance to warn off anyone just too curious to stay out of danger, all grounds this side of Whore's Crotch was a writhing mass of people eager to get closer to the spectacle. There was pushing and yelling, sharp elbows and hard words, but most of all the very air vibrated with apprehension, and hope.
Mairild sighed with content. For once the religious hysteria was only a subdued murmur from misfits dissatisfied with losing centre stage even for a day. If she played this right she might just be able to keep it that way for several days to come. Not forever, but at least for a while, and maybe, just maybe, a sizeable number of the soon to be converts would bee too busy working side by side with outworlders to feel the need to join one of the new sects.
As she daydreamed of making her work just that much easier a shrill voice, just below her, in the killing grounds between the south gate walls, announced the wrath of god, end of days and the general horrors waiting anyone who didn't repent.
She turned and stared down just in time to see the woman brusquely brushed aside by a guard. Mairild smiled. She wasn't the only one sick and tired of listening to pious lamentations. Why didn't anyone show up and declare eternal happiness and infinite gifts from joyous gods?
Beside her Erwin Radovic smiled knowingly. He'd revealed similar feelings several days earlier, even mentioned something about civilized cultures outlawing missionary sects. That had resulted in a conversation she hadn't believed she'd ever share with an outworlder.
So many differences, and so many similarities between Keen and the federation of his. And now this. Him and the Martian official working together to lessen their respective importance by aiding a third kingdom to gain a foothold in Keen. For humanitarian reasons.
She didn't care about their reasons. Keen desperately needed all the help she could get. Still, Mairild made it a point to influence her council colleagues. The outworlders would be handsomely rewarded. That was part gratitude and part politics. After a crisis a new one awaited, and friends were always good to have, even for nations.
A gust of wind caught her hair and threw it ahead of her. Had she gained so much grey the last year? She hadn't noticed. For while she thought it was arriving sky ships disturbing the air, but the sky stayed clear and still.
Then small dots grew from thin, white streaks in the west. She had thought them to be clouds. There were so many, but Erwin had promised, and she remembered. The dots grew, became shapes and she saw the sky ships for what they were.
It was happening, it was really happening.
Erwin stirred at her side, as did William. She turned, waiting for their arrogant, satisfied grins. They would have earned them and she didn't care. Both faces displayed pure terror.
Erwin roared frantic orders into his mouthpiece. They were in English, she understood as much, but they were the kind of words she had only heard General de Markand, or Trindai use. Terse, unyielding and filled with need.
"What's happening?" she asked.
William stared at her with eyes filled with despair, and Erwin, the ever polite Erwin, waved her aside as if she was a fly to be swatted. The he continued shouting more words, numbers, directions and more numbers.
She saw the moving armour turn and raise the contraptions she knew were weapons. They all pointed east and so she looked in that direction.
There were sky ships coming from there. So small? How could they fit a driver into one of them? Then the outworlders on the ground let lose their arsenal, and even from a distance the screech of a thousand wounded beasts reached her, rolled over her and pushed her backwards as she saw the fiery inferno surrounding the armoured soldiers and clawing its way into the sky.
Thin birds of death tore east, and she had a vision of vipers hunting vipers.
High above them, still far to the east flowers of fire burst into blossom, withered and died in black smoke. Then the few surviving sky ships flew over them screaming thin protest of agony on their way west, on their way to meet the landing sky ships, and Mairild finally understood what was happening.
The people on the ground cried out in jubilation. They didn't know. How could they? It could have been a fanfare. Mairild let out a silent scream of anguish and death rained among them.
The very first ship to land never had a chance. Three predatory birds met it mid sky and it vanished in a white cloud of fire. The ships trailing her met their fates closer to Verd and muted thunder rolled over them long after the fiery clouds had separated into falling bits of burning debris.
She cried each time a flower of death blossomed in the sky, and all the time she saw the outworlders in their intricate dance of metal and death as they moved their armour in ways no human should be able to do.
They writhed, multiple arms flailing rhythmically to drums of murder, and eternally long banners of fire flew into the sky, always reaching for the killing birds from the east. Round and round they swirled, more frantic now as their cages of birds were empty and they had to resort to their mechanical crossbows.
The sound changed. Small explosions of birds taking air in hunt for larger birds were replace by a sickening sound of ripping cloth.
No muted thunder any longer. The surviving sky ships from the kingdom above them were on their final approach now. Whenever one was ripped apart the sound tore through them all like a whip wielded by a god, and Mairild saw that the flowers of fire were really explosions like a glass of brandy thrown in the fire.
There was no glass shattering. Fragments of metal, and other debris fell over the training grounds, and some over Verd itself.
On the training grounds sky ships were finally touching down. Most in renewed explosions of white fire from which they emerged miraculously unscathed, but a few in tumbling detonations of red and white ripping long gorges in the ground.
Above her Mairild heard a whiplash to the north, and a burning wreck made its final decent somewhere over the city. Then, from the poor quarters came a roar from a gutted dragon, then silence and after that another growl of anguish as whatever fuelled the sky ships torched a building.
Another clap of thunder forced her to her knees. Something stung her face, and when she looked up something, or rather somewhat, what was left of him, or her, bounced over the south gate and came still on the flagstones with a meaty splash. And arm or a leg, she couldn't tell.
And finally the thunderstorm abated. No more explosions but no silence neither. Screams of panic reached her from below. People were trampling each other to death in their attempt to escape a danger that no longer existed, and the butchers from the east continued killing long after the last of their weapons fell silent.
William stared at her with ashen face, but he said nothing. To her left Erwin continued shrieking words to his soldiers. Even Mairild, with her limited knowledge of military matters could hear that they were orders no longer. He was shouting and crying, just an animal in pain releasing his anguish.
She watched him. Traces of tears covered his face.
Then, because someone had to, she slapped him as hard as she could.
"The wounded! There are people alive down there. Help them! Let the dead rest for now."
He stared back at her, uncomprehending.
William wrested his mouthpiece away from him and started barking orders into it.
Satisfied that someone was taking control Mairild turned her immediate attention to her own. There was no need. Someone, an Imperial officer had already made sure that her citizens were shepherded into the training grounds, dispersed so they wouldn't crowd each other to death any longer. Behind her a final, brutal charge of cavalry made certain that the people turned their fears to something they knew and could apprehend.
The efficient machine that was the Imperial Guard forced room for the wounded.
The surviving sky ships opened up and released their cargo of humans.
The arrivals poured onto the ground, some wounded, a few already dying.
Shocked and hurt they went to work, delivering their first part of the promised help.