“Are you trying to tell me that anyone with a Christian belief will be affected by the newborn god?”
Ken nodded. “I don’t dare to limit it to Christianity though. Any expansionist belief could suffice for all I know.”
Heinrich shivered despite the heat. “That’s a lot of people.”
Ken stared back and offered him a quizzical glance. “I think I was unclear,” he said. “Only those with a belief in their right to force their religion onto others are affected. Seems they all become holy warriors of one kind or another.”
“No, you were clear enough. Wallman’s a newscaster. Or was. He made a living from casting news, not debates.”
“Now it’s I who don’t understand.”
Heinrich leaned back. “What I’m trying to say is that there’s very little money in reminding people of just how many religious lunatics there are out there.”
Ken grinned. “Bigots,” he said. “It’s called bigots. Lunatic is a bit strong, won’t you say?”
Heinrich didn’t answer. He just pointed south toward where they had fought a battle less than a week earlier. If the taleweaver didn’t get the idea then he was an ass.
Ken found to his own surprise that he didn’t feel any regret over his involvement. It had been necessary, but he had still expected to feel ashamed afterwards.
Now he only revelled in the satisfaction of a job well done. The outworlder maniacs had died to a man, taking with them the equally fanatical officers from Chach. Nominally from Chach. It had been orchestrated by the papacy, of that Ken was certain.
The Holy Inquisition slaughtering every battlemage they could lay their hands on sickened him a little, but this was the northern empire. It was supposed to be a sanctuary. Besides the mages had fought back. Not everyone in the red and black was a staff master, and the witch hunter soldiers died just like any other. Red and Black linen and leather might drive holy fear into someone’s mind, but it offered no protection against a fire lance or ice bolt.
The problems with holy warriors of a missionary religion wasn’t over, far from it, but for the moment things would quiet down. Maybe in the future there would be a conflict between the church and Kordar. Cor had his own group of champions, and even though theirs was an exclusive belief those warriors were just as fanatical in their devotion to their god as any he’d seen during the last campaign.
That was another day, if it ever came. He firmly shoved a problem that might never arise into the confines of his mind and concentrated on happier things at hand. In that case, at least, Arthur was right.
And still it didn’t work as expected. He’d tried rhythm, rhymes and imagined filters, but nothing worked. He found it impossible to seamlessly glide in and out the Weave without losing either his or his audience’s concentration.
Six times now he’d gathered soldiers from Keen around him with the promise of a Weave. Six times they’d arrived with eyes shining with awe and gleeful eagerness, and six times he’d bid farewell to men carefully hiding their disappointment.
It was simply maddening, but he was determined to continue until he got it right. For the challenge if not for any other reason. He had almost forgotten what it was like to be bested at conveying a message to an audience, and he loved the feeling of fighting to catch up, to become better, and ultimately to become the master himself.
He stifled a yawn and left the tent. Outside, he knew, Granita waited with the surviving members of her team. They followed him doggedly. No personal tragedy kept them from their fly cams, and he had promised them an interview. After that they’d hound down General de Laiden and leave him alone for a day or two.
Men still died from their wounds two full eightdays after the battle. Outworlder medics worked wonders, and still it wasn’t enough.
Trindai couldn’t have hoped for a braver team of men and women following him into battle with only surgeon’s equipment, and now they looked more like a ragtag band of beggars than the skilled professionals they were. And a few were unconscious from fatigue.
So he had to order the deaths of even more of his men. A few had to die now so that most of them would live to see Verd again, and to that end he had to order the medics to rest.
How had he become an executioner? When did he cross the line between hardened soldier and cold-blooded murderer? Had he? As unthinkable as the idea was he needed to pick it up, examine it, turn it over to see it in a different light and learn. Because if he didn’t he wasn’t certain he would want to live with himself. This wasn’t the kind of suspicion someone left unattended, at least not anyone who intended to get old and look back at his life with satisfaction.
So he rode on, eyes half closed, and he wondered how many of the men he passed thought him asleep. They would want him to. In their eyes he was close to a god, but they didn’t have to carry his doubts, and he wouldn’t load them with that burden. For their way back home he would be their hero.
For all they cared they had massacred the enemy in one decisive battle. Later some of them were bound to understand just how bad their own losses had been. He would be criticized then and questioned, but he didn’t care. No one would question him the way he did himself.
He grinned despite the dark thoughts he nurtured. One might. Walking Talking was perpetually moody. From what de Markand had said he’d held on to a nightmare for over a greatyear.
Ken whistled as he rode past a tent. Less than an eightday ago he’d convinced General de Markand to give up on the idiocy of moving badly wounded soldiers north. To stay behind with the outworlder medics, a company’s worth of the Imperial Guard and Juanita from the news team was not even a decision that required a thought.
This was something he’d done countless times before. Stay behind and help care for the wounded.
He wasn’t a magehealer by any account, but he’d learned that Weaving helped the body to heal itself, and what was more important, he could give those helping a night of deep sleep. No nightmares stalked those he covered in the Weave.
The difference this time was the presence of modern medical equipment, or futuristic as far as he was concerned. And the mental mindset of those using it. More crafter than artisan, and that set them apart from magehealers. They weren’t gifted. Hard work and solid knowledge should be enough to handle a body no longer working properly, at least with the right equipment handy. It was a way of thinking much closer to his own than the one he’d grown accustomed to here since that day an eternity ago when his life changed and he no longer walked the daily life of a normal human.
Magehealers were mages, with the mind of mages, the gift of mages and the limitations of mages. The only reason for them to stop and rest would be if one of their own was disabled as a result of transferring whatever their patient suffered from. The idea of proper training, proper methods and proper environment was simply not central to them.
He shrugged the thought away and continued in his pursuit of Juanita. One of the ugliest women he’d ever had the honour to know, but by all gods unholy, there wasn’t a vehicle she didn’t master.
He was learning a new skill. When she deemed him fit enough to drive a hovercraft on his own he intended to help with the transports between the field hospital and Verd. Someone in that council of theirs had agreed to help sustain the hospital, but there were simply not enough drivers to keep the supplies coming.
When the first hovercraft, and the news with it, arrived a few eightdays earlier Mairild almost collapsed from the relief.
It was one thing to see the outworlder moving pictures and a totally different thing to be able to speak with a real person who had been there and seen what happened.
When one’s job was to gather, spread and withhold information then something tangible was sometimes a must, and she’d had little enough to show for the reports about their steady progress far, far south of the capital.
Then one hovercraft arrived with a few medics so tired they had to be carried to their waiting beds and one member from that outworlder group of tale tellers. He’d barely taken the time for a proper greeting before he vanished to the rooms they’d rented before the madness began for real.
Asked about the reason for the hurry he only answered with a cryptic string of words even the interpreter found hard to understand and even harder to convey. From what Mairild could discern he planned to enhance an eye’s reception to put the audience in awe. She knew it had something to do with those flying cams of theirs, and the moving pictures they captured, but she didn’t understand exactly, and as a trader of news that grated on her.
By now it was clear they had taken a severe beating, but it was a victory nonetheless. A costly one.
Sects of devoted sprung up all across Keen and her client states. It would take years to put them down, but that was a minor concern of hers. Hepaten fumed and planned. As soon as he deemed his forces strong enough he’d send them out on their ugly work. Mairild didn’t agree, but that was a thought she kept close to herself.
Far worse was the loss of Mintosa. The Termus gorge was one of the few ways down from the plains to the Narrow Sea, and from what Olvar said Count Friedhafen could defend Mintosa with a minimum of men from any attack Keen could launch. With the port firmly in his hands Mintosa was all but impenetrable.
If they were to retake her Keen needed to send her forces almost to Erkateren and fortify small fishing villages in order to build a fleet with which to attack Mintosa from the sea. It would be a bloodbath, but one they had to accept.
First Erkateren needed to be bribed though. The punitive expedition Keen sent east hadn’t won her any favours there. At least that expedition had reached the Sea of Grass and its commander was no longer in any position to make an ass of himself on this side of the mountains. What he did closer to Gaz Mairild didn’t care. Gaz lay at the end of the world.
There were good news as well. The plague was in control. Outworlder medics and magehealers from Ri Khi had put a stop to it unknown to each other. Mairild planned to keep them in the dark indefinitely. Anything else was a threat to her own health, but she suspected she’d let slip too far this time. When things calmed down some of her mistakes would come back to haunt her, and in their wake Magehunting with the Inquisition squadrons.
Her life was forfeit. It was only a matter of time. It was, strangely enough, something she didn’t worry overly much about. She had served Keen to the utmost of her ability, and that was what counted.
The sky port prospered once more. Outworlder sky ships came and went. That the people in control called themselves New Sweden instead of the Terran Federation didn’t bother her at all. Outworlders were outworlders. As long as the metal and mechanical wonders arrived in a timely fashion to be traded for clothes, art and other seemingly worthless objects she was happy.
Which reminded her that she had a meeting with Anita Kirchenstein-Yui. The sky kingdom wanted to erect houses close to the sky port, and even though Mairild planned to drive as hard a bargain as possible she saw an increased presence of armed outworlders as a benefit. Soldiers thought of the world in one way, but traders, artists and craftsmen wanted little more than to live a pleasant life, and that made them share her own personal view of what mattered.
An eightday or two would see Trindai back with the bulk of the army. One regiment stayed behind. They guarded the northern end of the Termus gorge. If Keen couldn’t retake Mintosa because of it at least neither was Count Friedhafen able to push north for the very same reason. Keeping that regiment fed and happy would be expensive, but most of those problems belonged with Tenanrild.
Trindai smiled and waved. The last day he’d seen anticipation rise among his men. They were coming back home and while disciplined enough to march on in good order most of them grinned like children before a festival. When he finally gave them free reins to celebrate a successful campaign things would get, well, festive.
He expected to handle an endless string of tavern owners demanding restitution for broken furniture come tomorrow. With a bit of luck he would be among the guilty—if the evening’s reports allowed him any time to carouse around the city.
He turned in his saddle and waved again. Then he had to bend sideways to accept a few flowers from a girl. Her mother stood a bit away blushing furiously and around her the rest of her family laughed at her temporary discomfort.
Right now it was a good time to be a general, and Trindai knew de Markand enjoyed a similar attention elsewhere along the column of returning soldiers.
Flowers in hand he picked up speed raising his fragrant sword to the sky and listening to the cheers of uniformed men and expectant audience alike. They’d come back. Now it was time to give the people, and themselves, a good show.
At the head of the column he rode past the Krante gates and entered the boulevard. Due west he saw the great stables and the surrounding barracks. He’d return there later, but first they’d march through the streets where people stood waiting to cheer on their heroes.
To the north west he noticed the ruins of several blocks of buildings, but the sight didn’t fill him with dread as he had expected. Scaffolding climbed the surviving walls, and even though he didn’t see anyone working on them it was clear the citizens of Verd had already started to rebuild their homes, and that thought itself was enough to gift him with a feeling of gratitude.
That feeling was soon accompanied by one of warmth as roars of appreciation rolled over him from the cheering people. He wished the outworlder soldiers had joined them for the celebration. They had deserved every bit of it.
Heinrich grinned as they climbed the ridge separating the planted fields from the launch port. Not long now. Cresting it he’d be able to see the closest thing to home he’d known for a year. One year this time. Last time it had been home for three of them.
He reached the ridge and paused. Body walkers were no more tiring to use uphill than on flat ground. He merely wanted to rest his mind before he descended the other side and crossed the fields.
Almost home. New Sweden resided here now after Goodard put a permanent blemish on Federation reputation. Well, it couldn’t be helped. TADAT were more of an international force than just another arm of the Terran Federation anyway.
He stretched in his walker, shut it down, climbed out of it and stretched once more. Behind him he heard another walking making ready for shut-down. Liz or Abreas he didn’t know. Heinrich mentally changed Abreas to Panopilis. That first name was a touchy matter and had always been.
“Just taking a rest,” he said without turning.
Footsteps came closer. “Good idea,” Panopilis replied. “This is a place as good as any other.”
Heinrich sighed. “We’ve deserved it,” he muttered.
“Sure as hell have not!” That voice came from down the slope somewhere.
That’s Tayserajd, but that’s impossible. He’s...
“I’m not quite dead yet if that was what you thought,” came the cheerful voice.
“How the hell? I saw you go down!”
It was Tay climbing up the slope from the launch port side. “No, you saw Tanaka and Syuie. They didn’t make it. I did, and so did Philippa, even though she’s convalescent still.”
“How?” Heinrich knew shouts of joy or at least a proper greeting would have been more in order, but he was just too stunned.
Tay reached the crest and exchanged hugs with Liz and Panopilis before sitting down beside Heinrich.
They stared at each other in silence for a while.
“It wasn’t easy, you know,” Tay began.
“Don’t you even dare,” Heinrich growled.
“Even for one with my godlike resourcefulness,” Tay continued unperturbed.
“divine intervention requires me to stretch my imagination beyond mere human limits.”
“Come on!” Liz and Panopilis shouted in chorus.
Tay just grinned back. “You want to hear the story or not?” he pretended to sulk.
“Yes! So get on with it!” all three of them demanded in almost perfect unison.
Another twisted smile spread over his face, but then he apparently decided enough was enough. “Camouflage,” he offered.
“Yes, I switched on the camouflage, full force when we dropped to the ground. So did Philippa.”
Heinrich stared in incomprehension. “But that film gobbles energy like mad? Even sensors on Orbit One would have picked it up. It’s useless outside heavy industry.”
Tay looked back but said nothing.
“What is it?” Panopilis asked.
“Sensors, that’s what it is,” Heinrich answered.
“I don’t... oh hell!”
“Yes,” Heinrich threw Elisabeth a glance. She hadn’t reached the conclusion yet. “We’ve been too smart,” he said. “Those riders didn’t have sensors. We could have marched south in functional invisibility. As long as we kept the distance to Goodard’s goons no one would have been any wiser.”
“Yes, I know, but we could have switched them on before those horsemen charged us.”
Elisabeth sighed, but Heinrich cut her off before she could begin any recriminations.
“We don’t know for certain. Those battlemages could probably find us if they tried. Remember Gring?”
Elisabeth sighed again, and this time he joined her. During the long days spent on the eastern fields he had grown to like the giant mindwalker very much.
“You could have joined us,” he said.
Tay shook his head. “They searched for us. As soon as darkness fell we ditched the walkers and started trekking north.”
“I made sure both walkers were fused shut. Takes a plasma cutter to open them without destroying them totally. Goodard won’t find them in this state.”
“Good work. Don’t worry about Goodard. He’s dead.”
Tay smiled. “Good work,” he acceded.
They sat in silence for some time, and the late afternoon had turned to dusk when Tay suddenly spoke.
“Sorry, I almost forgot. There’s a Mrs Kirksten or something waiting for you at the port.”
Heinrich scratched his head and frowned. He didn’t know anyone by that name. Unless...
“Kirchenstein! You’re an ass!”
“Yes, yes, one of the new desk riders anyway.”
Heinrich groaned and rose. “Time to move.” Then he turned to Tay. “Anita Kirchenstein-Yui is New Sweden here. She’s their damn Admiral Radovic.” He started down the slope. “And you kept her waiting for hours.”
Tay shrugged and fell in line.
The sun had set by the time they reached the small town that had grown up outside the terminal. Summer’s warmth still clung to the evening though.
They were just about to turn around a corner and head for the concrete sheds that functioned as the administrative centre when something caught Heinrich’s attention. A sign.
“Välkommen till Stjärnhamn,” it said.
He parsed it through his computer. “Welcome to Starport,” he read aloud.
“Welcome indeed! You have to be Major Goldberger.!”
The voice came from a door opening, but Heinrich wasn’t very surprised when an ethnic Chinese walked down the stairs to meet them. Body walkers weren’t exactly inconspicuous.
“You are Mrs Kirchenstein-Yui?”
“I am, and you are indeed welcome to Starport.”
Heinrich looked around him. “I never thought of it as a place,” he said.
“You Federation people are funny that way. So utilitarian. Orbit one. Launch port. Where’s the soul in that?”
That outburst finally brought laughter to him.
“What’s so funny? Makes sense it got a proper name.”
Heinrich returned her look. “She,” he said. “The locals would call her a she, not an it. You want to give her a proper name you’d better use her proper gender.”
Anita stared back.
“Arthur Wallman can explain better,” he said and laughed again.
“I can’t explain. It just works,” Arthur said. He really couldn’t. The patients in the hospital healed faster if he Wove for them. He had absolutely no idea why, and so he truly couldn’t explain it to the delegation from New Sweden. What was far worse, he couldn’t explain it to Hepaten ar el de Levius, Minister of Magehunting. That was bad. If the idiot didn’t stop threatening him soon, he’d empty his handgun in the arrogant bastards lower abdomen. And Weave the memories of Harbend stabbing him at the same time.
He felt his fingers twitching with need to make true of that promise when Mairild finally entered the room with Erwin in tow.
Arthur turned to them and interrupted Hepaten’s tirade. “The brain dead asshole you call minister just don’t know when to stop.”
Erwin flinched but Mairild only grinned.
“If my spraying his lack of brains over the walls here is too embarrassing I’ll ask Admiral Radovic here to sign whatever document you need to allow me to do it on the square outside.”
“You are serious about this?” Erwin asked.
“I demand to be made knowledgeable of your conversation,” Hepaten’s voice cut through the room in De Vhatic.
Arthur obliged and translated. The obvious reaction followed, and when Hepaten started to bellow a repetition of the threats he had earlier delivered in an almost civil tone Arthur had had enough.
He drew his gun and put the muzzle to the ministerial face. “This is an outworlder weapon. Do you understand?”
Behind him Erwin gasped, but Arthur also sensed Mairild holding the admiral back.
Hepaten stood absolutely still. He did raise one hand in acknowledgement Very slowly.
“It fires something we call needle grenades. One shot will take off your head and most of your upper abdomen. Am I clear?”
The hand came up again.
“I’m a taleweaver. I can do this and if anyone tries to kill me for it this city will be reduced to ashes. Is that correct?”
It took a little longer for the hand to rise, but it did.
“Then get your gherin spawned dick out of here and plug it into one of your thugs! Dismissed!”
Hepaten vanished almost fast enough for Arthur to miss his fuming rage. It was an impotent rage though. Arthur knew that.
“Now when we’ve dispensed with the diplomacy, could we sort out the last idiocy?”
“Certainly,” Mairild answered.
“Admiral, you witnessed the Terran Federation surrender unconditionally to all signatories of the Perth treaty. As such we’re not even supposed to maintain a military presence here.”
“Are you saying...”
“That we give the lady everything she demands. Nobunaga, all her hardware and all remaining shuttles are turned over to Keen.”
“Why on Earth should we hand a carrier class space ship over to a nation that doesn’t even know how to run a hovercraft?”
Arthur smiled. For once he had thought things over before he acted. It might even turn into a bad habit if he was successful. “Orbit one needs to be neutral territory.”
Erwin nodded agreement.
“New Sweden would sure like to add a carrier class ship to their fleet though. The moment they do Orbit one becomes a colony of theirs. Now, good Federation citizen that I am, I’d hate to see that.”
That made Erwin laugh. “You don’t care about our glorious Federation any more than Minister de Felder does, so why?”
“Because if Keen doesn’t get what she needs then you can be damned certain Otherworld Disclosed will have its original newscaster back. As you so correctly pointed out. I don’t care. The Federation ate my family. I’ll bite back.”
Arthur had to admit that Erwin took it gracefully. He surprised himself by actually liking the man, and he suspected it was mutual. The fencing was mostly for Mairild’s benefit.
The admiral nodded curtly. “I’ll sign. Workers will work under a contract though. I won’t have any forced migrants.”
“I wouldn’t want you to,” Arthur answered before Mairild had a chance to protest. Keen might be his chosen home, but he wouldn’t force citizenship on anyone stranded in Otherworld space.
“And you stay the hell out off holo casting.”
Erwin returned a flamboyant bow of his own and departed.
“Wonderfully done,” Mairild laughed. “I could almost believe you once worked the stage.”
“Almost,” she continued. “You’re a naughty boy, but you have a lot to learn.”
“I won’t say anything to the other eleven. We got enough from this surrender of yours. Just, what did he say, stay the hell off the stage!”
The minister of culture was easily ten years his senior, but he only saw the woman who had started her career as an actress.
She was stunningly beautiful.