Everything was calm and unhurried in the Imperial situation room. There was a huge map of the Empire on one wall, stuck with black pins to represent Land forces and green ones for Imperial. A relief map of the same territory stood in a sunken area in the center of the floor, with a polished mahogany rail around it, and enlisted men pushed unit counters with long-handled wooden rakes. One wall of the big room was all telephones and telegraphs, their operators scribbling on pads and handing them to decoders.
Aides in polished boots and neat, colorful uniforms strode back and forth; generals frowned at the maps; the Emperor tugged at his white whiskers and bunked sleepy, pouched eyes. Behind him stood guards in ceremonial uniform, and several civilians . . .
No, John Hosten thought, appraising them. Their eyes flickered ceaselessly over the room, appraising, watching. Waiting. The real guards. And by their looks, the only people in this room who're doing their jobs.
John Hosten approached, flanked by two ushers, and made his bow. Behind the surface of his mind he could feel Raj and Center examining the maps, the computer's passionless appraisal and Raj's cold scorn.
Systematic lying, Raj thought. All the way up the chain of command. It's always the commander's fault when that happens. Once you let people start telling you what you want to hear, you're fucked—and everyone else with you.
"Rise, Signore Hosten," the Emperor said.
He was an old man, but John was slightly shocked at his appearance; there was a perceptible tremble to his hands now, and a faint smell of sickness. Count del'Cuomo beside him looked even worse, if possible—but then, he probably had better information available, as Minister of War.
"Your Majesty," John said.
He handed over the folder of documents, neatly tied with a green-and-red ribbon.
"My credentials, Your Majesty. And my regrets, but my government requires my services at home. I will be returning to Santander City."
The Emperor smiled absently. "And taking one of our fairest flowers with you . . . where is young Pia?"
"Currently, she's working as a volunteer nurse," John said. Against my advice.
The Emperor frowned. "Not . . . not really suitable, I'd have thought," he murmured.
Count del'Cuomo shrugged. "She was always too much for me, your Majesty," he said. He looked up at John. "But my son-in-law will take good care of her, and return in happier times, when we have driven the tedeschi back to their island, as we did before."
John bowed again, more deeply, and took the required four paces backward. That nearly ran him into an aide with a stack of telegrams, but he ignored the man. Ignored everything, until a turn down the corridor gave him a view down over the city. Then he took in a sharp breath.
It was early morning, still almost dark. The news of the fall of Milana must have reached the people in the hour or so he'd spent waiting. Not from a courier or coded message, surely; the Imperial armies hadn't fallen apart quite that drastically . . . yet. More probably from a refugee on a fast riverboat. As for official statements, by this time they just confirmed what they denied. Even when they were sincere, and he'd bet it just meant that the lower-level functionaries writing them had been suckered by their own propaganda.
John Hosten stood for a moment looking down at the rioting and the fires, past the gardens of the palace and the cordon of Guard troops stationed along the perimeter. A man of thirty, tall and a hard-faced, in a diplomat's black morning coat, wing collar and dark-striped trousers. A servant almost walked into him, saw his face and silently stood aside.
"Back to the embassy," John said to himself; then aloud, to the driver of his car.
"Don't know if we can, sir," the driver said. He was an embassy man himself, diplomatic service, and quite capable. Harry. Harry Smith, John reminded himself. It was too easy to forget about people, when you spent time looking at the world through Centers eyes.
Too true, son, Raj said. And if you think it's a problem for you . . .
"Lot of the streets looked to be blocked," Smith went on. He shrugged. "Kin find m' way through, maybe."
"Mr. Smith," John said.
The driver twisted around to look at him; he was a slight, grizzled man, with blue eyes and wrinkles beside them. There was a slight eastern twang in his Santander. John recognized it, and the manner.
"My wife is down near the train station, working in the emergency hospital," he said. "I have to get to the embassy to get some help so I can get through to her. If you don't think you can make it through, I'll drive."
The blue eyes squinted at him. "Nossir. You watch our back, I'll drive." He reached under the front seat and pulled out a pump-action shotgun. "You know how to use one of these, sir?"
Smiling, John took it and racked the action. A shell popped out; he caught it one-handed and fed it back into the gate in front of the trigger. A wary respect came into Smiths eyes; it increased when John tucked the weapon under a traveling rug on the seat beside him.
"I'll bring it out if we need to use it, or show it to somebody," he said. "Now let's get going."
* * *
"I need some volunteers," John said. "To get someone out of the city."
He nearly had to shout over the clamor of the crowd outside the gilded wrought-iron gates of the embassy compound. There were thousands of them, more crowded down the street, surging and screaming. Marine guards in blue dress uniforms were stationed inside the gate and along the walls, carrying rifles with fixed bayonets. A little ceremonial saluting cannon had been wheeled out and faced the main entranceway, just as a hint in case the crowd decided to try and batter the metal down. That was unlikely; under the gilding the bars were as thick as a woman's wrist. The Marines were discouraging those trying to break through with the butts of their rifles, or short jabs with their bayonets. Nothing more was needed, not yet.
A slow trickle was getting in, through the postern gate beside the main ones; people with valid Santander papers, or spouses, or embassy personnel who'd gotten trapped out in the city.
"Sir?" The Marine captain looked around incredulously.
"Captain, my wife is out there, and I need some volunteers to help me get through the crowd."
The captain opened his mouth; John could see the snap of refusal forming. He looked the man in the eye.
"This is very important duty," he said meaningfully.
It wasn't much of a secret in the compound that John was with the Secret Service. Nor that he was immensely rich, or that he had connections at the highest levels, military and civilian.
"I'm not sending any of my men out into that," the officer said bluntly, jerking a hand towards the near-riot beyond the gate. Just then was a barked order, and the dozen troopers by the gate fired a volley into the air. The crowd surged back with screams of panic, then ran forward again when nobody fell.
"I wouldn't ask you to," John said. "I'm going, whether anyone wants to come with me or not. I'd appreciate some help, but I don't expect you to order anyone out."
The Marine officer hesitated. "My responsibility is to guard the perimeter."
"And to assist the staff in their functions."
Decision crystallized. "All right, sir. You can ask. Sergeant!"
A thickset man with a shaven head covered in a network of scars looked up. The Santander Marines saw a lot of travel, mostly to places where the locals didn't like them.
"Mr. Hosten needs some volunteers to accompany him into the city and pull someone out. See if anybody feels like it."
What was left of the sergeant's eyebrows—they'd evidently been burned off his face at some point—rose. He looked appraisingly at John and smiled like a dog worrying a bone.
John looked around; it was the driver.
"It's righteous, Sarge. I'm going."
The noncom looked down at the drivers legs, and the graying man shrugged.
"Hey, we're driving—I don't have to sprint."
"You always were a natural-born damned fool, Harry," the sergeant said. He looked back at John. "I'll pass the word, sir."
John stripped off the morning coat as he waited, switching to the four-pocket hunting jacket his valet brought and gratefully throwing aside the starched collar of his dress shirt. Smith glanced at the shoulder rig that lay exposed.
"Guess I shouldn't have asked about the scattergun, sir," he said.
"How could you know?" John pointed out. "Look, am I likely to get anyone?"
"Besides me?" Harry shrugged. "I've been out of the corps a while now, but Berker knows me—hell, Berker carried me out when I got a slug through both legs. He'll—"
The bald sergeant returned, with five men behind him. They were all armed, and several of them were stuffing gear into field packs.
"Sir!" he said. "Corporal Wilton, privates Goms, Barrjen, Sinders, and Maken." In a whisper: "Ah, sir, I sort of hinted there'd be some sort of reward, you know?"
"There certainly will be," John said. To the men: "All right, here's the drill. We're heading for the main train station and the emergency hospital that's been set up there. We're going to pick up Mrs. Hosten—Lady Pia Hosten—and then we're either coming back here, or getting out the city to the east, depending on which looks most practical. I expect anyone who comes with me to follow orders and not be nervous about risks. Understood?"
A chorus of yessirs, a couple of grins. None of the men looked like angels, but then they were Marines, and assignment to the embassy guard in Ciano had been something of a plum, reserved for men with something on their records besides a decade of well-polished boots.
He looked up. Something was flying through the pillars of smoke that reached up into the sky over Ciano. A huge shark-shape, three hundred meters long, a shining teardrop droning through the air to the sound of motors. Dozens more followed it, a loose wedge coming in from the west like the thrust of a spearpoint.
"Let's do it, then."
* * *
Wounded men screamed in fear as the building shook. Pia Hosten grabbed a pillar and held on as the stick of bombs rattled the iron girders of the roof. The fitted stone swayed slightly under her touch, a queasy feeling. Half the nursing sisters were gone, and there were wounded everywhere—hundreds in this room, thousands in the building, the heat mounting under the tall arches and the smell of puss and gangrene mounting, and more still coming in. The gas was off, and the mains.
"Water . . . water . . ."
I should have done as John said, she thought, hurrying over with a dipper.
She raised the man's head and put the rim to his lips. He drank, then choked and began to thrash.
"Sister Maria!" Pia called.
The man arched, then slumped; his eyes rolled up and went still.
The nun arrived, then scowled. "He is dead."
"He wasn't when I called you!" Pia snapped, then leaped up to hold the older woman as she sagged. "I am sorry, Sister."
"There are so many," the nun whispered. "My God, my God, why have you forsaken us?"
"Where is Doctor Chicurso?"
"Gone—most of them are gone. The guards at the entrances, they are gone also. Only the ambulances keep arriving."
"The guards are gone?" Pia asked sharply.
"Yes, yes. An officer came, and said they were needed. But many had just left, I think, taken off their uniforms and . . ."
She made a weary gesture towards the rest of the city.
Pia swallowed and stood, walking quickly towards her work station, taking off the hideously stained apron that covered her plain gray dress. If the guards were gone, it would be very bad.
John was right. I should have left for the embassy yesterday. There was no more she could do here. But it was hard, very hard, to leave the Sister standing slumped amid the impossible need of the hurt.
She walked quickly along the aisle that separated the rows of men lying on the floor, through to the cubicle that had served her and a dozen other volunteers and nurses. She heard a scream and a crash before she arrived, and men's voices.
The door was half-open; she slammed it back. The sharp reek of medical alcohol hit her like a wave; the three army hospital orderlies had been drinking it. The scream had come from Lola Chiavri, one of the volunteers; two of them had her pressed down on a table, her dress ripped open to the waist. The third was wrestling with her thrashing legs, trying to rip down her underdrawers, laughing and staggering. They turned to stare at her, open-mouthed. One sniggered.
"Hey, Gio', somebody new for d'party."
Pia drew herself up. "Release that lady at once! Where is your officer?"
The one at the foot of the table was a little less drunk than the others. He released the other woman's legs and turned, grinning like a dog worrying a bone.
"Officers all run away, missy, 'fore the tedeschi gets here. Why shou' the tedeschi get all the liker an' cooze? C'mere!"
He turned towards her, his pants obscenely unbuttoned, laughing and fondling himself with one hand and reaching for her with the other. Pia drew the four-barrel derringer from her pocket and pointed it.
"Y'gonna hurt me with that little thing?" the man laughed. "Oh, don' hurt me, missy!"
Snap. The sound was like a piece of glass breaking in the tiny room. A black dot appeared between the would-be rapist's eyes, precisely 5.6mm in diameter, turning red as she watched. The expression slid off his face like rancid gelatin, and he toppled forward to lie at her feet. His skull struck the stone floor with a final-sounding thock.
Pia hid her surprise. She'd been aiming at his stomach, and he was only four feet away. The other two orderlies were backing towards the far wall, their hands held out palm-up, making incoherent sounds.
"There are three more bullets in this gun," she said crisply, backing up two paces and standing aside. "Go!" They hesitated, unwilling to approach any closer. "Go now, or I will shoot."
The two men sidled past her and ran blundering down the corridor, eyes fixed on the four muzzles of the little gun. Pia waited until they were out of sight before letting the hand that held the derringer drop. Acrid-tasting bile forced itself up her throat as she looked down at the man she'd killed.
"It was so quick," she whispered, and forced herself to swallow.
Just then Lola struck her, clinging and whimpering. Pia shook her sharply. "Get dressed! We have to get out of here!"
Back to the palace district; the embassy was there, or at least there wouldn't be total anarchy.
Pia remembered John pleading with her not to go to the hospital today. I should have listened.
* * *
"Sweet Jesus on a crutch," Harry Smith muttered.
A thousand yards down the hill a crowd was tipping a car over. It was an aristocrat's vehicle—few others could afford them, in the Empire, and this was a huge six-wheeler—strapped all over with luggage. The owners were still inside; a woman tried to crawl out one of the rear windows and was met with sticks, fists, pieces of cobblestone. She screamed and slumped, and hands dragged her limp and bleeding body back inside. A gun spoke; the noise covered the report, but John could see the puff of smoke.
"Stupid," he whispered.
Half a dozen rifles answered the shot; there were scores of Imperial army deserters in the crowd, many with their weapons. John could see sparks flying as bullets hit the metalwork of the car. Some ricochetted into the densely packed ranks of the rioters. One must have punctured the fuel tanks, because a deep soft whump and billow of orange flame drove the mob back, some of them on fire. Both the figures that tried to crawl out of the burning automobile were on fire, and probably would have died even without the hail of rocks that beat them back.
"All right, Harry," he went on. "What's your plan?"
"Well, sir, there's a side route," the driver said thoughtfully. "But its a bit narrow."
"You're the expert," John said.
For once, he was glad that diplomatic corps conservatism stuck the embassy with steamers; they had less pickup than the latest petrol-engine jobs, but they were quiet. Smith spun the wheel away from the main avenue, down a side-street, and into a maze of alleyways. Some of them were old enough to date back to the founding of Ciano, to the centuries right after the Collapse, when men first started building again in stone. The wheels drummed on cobbles and splashed through refuse and waste, throwing him lurching into the four Marines packed into the rear of the touring car. Normally the district would have been crowded, but most of the people were missing.
Probably out rioting. Not that it would do them any good when the Chosen showed up, but he supposed it was more tolerable than sitting and waiting. The ones who were left were mostly children, or old. They slammed shutters and ducked aside at the sight of an automobile filled with uniforms and armed men.
The hill was steeper here, and it gave them an excellent view south over the river to the industrial section—the prevailing winds in the central Empire were always from the north, which meant that residential properties were on the north bank of the Pada. They could see the Land airships coming in over the flatter southern shore at two thousand feet, only a thousand feet above their own position.
Probably aligning on landmarks, Raj thought at the back of his mind.
probability near unity, Center confirmed.
John felt a spurt of anger. God damn it, that's my wife down there, he thought coldly.
I could never keep mine out of it, either, Raj thought. And she was a lot less of a romantic than yours.
The dirigibles were coming in fast, seventy miles an hour or better; the lead craft seemed to be aimed straight at him. The bomb bay doors were open, but nothing was coming out. John looked out of the corners of his eyes; the Marines looked a little tense, but not visibly upset. They kept their eyes on the buildings around them, only occasionally flicking to the approaching bombers.
"Smith, pull in here. We'll wait it out and then continue."
Here was a nook between two walls, both solid. Bad if the buildings come down, good otherwise. You paid your money and you took your chances. . . .
"Anyone who wants to can get out and take cover," John said in a conversational tone.
Nobody did, although they squatted down. The dirigibles were over the river now, moving into the railyards and the residential sections of Ciano. Their shadows ghosted ahead of them, black whale-shapes over the whitewashed buildings and tile roofs.
"Hey," one of the Marines said. "Why aren't they bombing south? That's where the factories and stuff are."
Smiths hands were tight on the wheel. "Because, asshole, they don't want to damage their own stuff—they'll have it all in couple of days. Shit!"
Crump. Crump. Crump . . .
The bombs were falling in steady streams from the airships; the massive craft bounced higher as the weight was removed.
"Fifty tons load," John whispered, bracing his hand on the roof-strut of the car and looking up. "Fifty tons each, thirty-five ships . . . seventeen hundred tons all up."
"Mother," someone said.
"Won't kill y'any deader here than back at the embassy."
"They wouldn't bomb the embassy."
"Yeah, sure. They're gonna be real careful about that."
"Can it," the corporal said. "For what we are about to receive . . ."
The sound grew louder, the drone of the engines rasping down through the air. John could see the Land sunburst flag painted on their sides, and then the horseshoe-shaped glass windows of the control gondolas. A few black puffs of smoke appeared beneath and around the airships; some Imperial gunners were still sticking to their improvised antiairship weapons, showing more courage than sense. The pavement beneath the car shook with the impact of the explosions. Dust began to smoke out of the trembling walls of the tenements on either side. The crashing continued, an endless roar of impacts and falling masonry.
"Here—" someone began.
The shadow of a dirigible passed over them, throwing a chill that rippled down his spine. There was a moment of white light—
—and someone was screaming.
John tried to turn, and realized he was lying prone. Prone on rubble that was digging into his chest and belly and face. He pushed at the stone with his hands, spitting out dust and blood in a thick reddish-brown clot; more blood was running into his left eye from a cut on his forehead, but everything else seemed to be functional. And someone was still shouting.
One of the Marines, lying and clutching his arm. John came erect and staggered over to the car, which was lying canted at a three-quarter angle. The intersecting walls of the nook they'd stopped in still stood, but the buildings they'd been attached to were gone, spread in a pile of broken blocks across what had been the street.
the angle of the walls acted to deflect the blast, Center said. chaotic effect, and not predictable.
Good thing for the plan it did what it did, John thought as he rummaged for the first-aid kit.
your death at this point would decrease the probability of an optimum outcome from 57% ±3 to 41% ±4, Center said obligingly.
"Nice to know you're needed," John said.
The ringing in his ears was less, and he could see properly. Good, no severe concussion; he squatted beside the wounded Marine.
"Hold him," he said to the others. "Let's take a look at this."
Two men held the shoulders down. The arm was not broken, but it was bleeding freely, a steady drip rather than an arterial pulse. He slipped the punch-dagger out of his collar and used it to cut off the sleeve of the uniform jacket; not the ideal tool—it was designed as a weapon—but it would do. The flesh of the man's forearm was torn, and something was sticking out if it. John closed his fingers on it. A splinter of wood, probably oak, from a structural beam. Longer than a handspan, and driven in deep.
"This is going to hurt," John said.
"Do it," the Marine gasped, gray-faced.
One of the others put a rifle sling between his teeth. John gripped firmly, put his weight on the hand that held the man's wrist to the ground, and pulled. The Marine convulsed, arching, his teeth sinking into the tough leather.
The finger-thick dagger of oak slid free. John held it up; no ragged edges, so there probably wasn't much left in the wound—hopefully not too much dirty cloth, either, since there was no time to debride it.
"Let it bleed for a second," he said. "It'll wash it clean."
There was medicinal alcohol and iodine powder in the kit. John waited, then swabbed the wound clear with cotton wool and poured in both. This time the Marine simply swore, and John grinned.
"You must be recovering." He packed the wound, bandaged it, and rigged a sling. "Try not to put too much strain on this, trooper."
"Yessir. Ah . . . what the hell do we do now, sir?"
They all looked at him, battered, bruised, a few bleeding from superficial cuts, but all functional. He looked down the street; there was a breastwork of stones four feet high in front of them, and more behind, but the road downslope looked fairly clear. Smoke was mounting up rapidly, though; the fires were out of control; the waterworks were probably hit and the mains out of operation. It lay thick on the air, thick between him and Pia.
"First we'll get this road cleared," he said briskly, spitting again. "Goms"—who looked worst injured—"there's some water in the boot of the car, see to it. Smith, check the car and see what it needs. Wilton, Sinders, Barrjen, Maken, you come with me."
He studied the way the rocks interlocked in the barrier ahead of them. "We'll shift this one first."
"Sir? Prybar?" corporal Wilton said. The crusted block probably weighed twice what John did, and he was the heaviest man there.
"No time. Barrjen, you on the other side, there's room for two."
Barrjen was three inches shorter than John, but just as broad across the shoulders, and thick through the belly and hips as well; his arms were massive, and the backs of his hands covered in reddish hair. He grinned, showing broad square teeth.
"If'n you say so, sor," he said, and bent his knees, working his fingers under the edges of the block.
John did likewise and took a deep, careful breath. "Now."
He lifted, taking the strain on back and legs, exhaling with the effort until red lights swam before his eyes and something in his gut was just on the edge of tearing. His coat did tear across the back, the tough seam parting with a long ripping sound. The stone resisted, and then he felt it shift. Shift again, his feet straining to keep their balance in the loose rubble, and then it was tumbling away down the other side like a dice from the box of a god, hammering into the pavement and falling into the gutter with a final tock sound.
Barrjen staggered backward, still grinning as he panted. "You diplomats is tougher'n you looks, sor," he said, in a thick eastern accent.
John spat on his hands. Center traced a glowing network of stress lines across the rockfall, showing the path of least resistance for clearing it.
"Let's get to work."
* * *
"I want to go home," Lola said—whimpered, really.
Pia fought an urge to slap her. The other woman's eyes were still round with shock; understandable, and she was less than twenty, but . . .
The staircase was empty; it filled the interior of the square tower, with a switchback every story and narrow windows in the cream-colored limestone. Smoke was drifting through them, enough to haze the air a little. The light poured in, scattering on the dust and smoke, incongruously beautiful shafts of gold bringing out the highlights and fossil shells in the stone. Pia labored upward, feeling the sweat running down her face and soaking the nurse's headdress she wore, thanking God that skirts had gone so high this year—barely ankle-length.
"Come on," she said. "We'll be safe up here."
"Safe for a little while," Lola said. Then: "Mother of God," as they came out onto the flat roof of the tower.
Ciano was burning. The pillars of fire had merged into columns that covered half the area they could see. Heavy and black, smoke drifted down from the hillsides, covering the highways that wound through the valleys running down to the Pada. The warehouse districts along the river were fully involved, the great storage tanks of olive oil and brandy bellowing upward in ruddy flame like so many giant torches.
"Nobody's fighting the fires at all," Pia whispered to herself. The waterworks must have been finally destroyed. And the streets by the docks, they were stuffed with timber, coal, cotton, so much tinder. She could feel the heat on her face, worse even in the few moments since they had come out onto the flat rooftop.
Lola looked around. "What can we do?"
"Wait," Pia said. "Wait and pray."
Thunder rumbled from the eastward. Pia's head came around slowly. The sky was summer blue, save for the great pillars of black smoke. Rain would be a mercy, but God had withheld His mercy from the people of the Empire. The sound rumbled again, then again—too regularly spaced for thunder, in any case.
The rain was not coming. The Chosen were, and those were their guns. She slipped to her knees and crossed herself, bringing the rosary to her lips.
Come to me, John, she thought. Come quickly, my love.
Then she began to plan.