The chosen s. M. Stirling and David Drake

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"Those are their final orders?" Jeffrey asked.

"Oui. Unionvil is to be held at all costs. No troops may be diverted; instead we are to commit our strategic reserve. Chairman Deschambre assures me that the political consequences of losing the capital would be 'disastrous,' quote unquote. Minister of Public Education and Security Lebars tells me that they shall not pass."

"Quote unquote," Jeffrey supplied. "What strategic reserve, by the way?"

"The one we pissed away with that misbegotten offensive towards the Eboreaux last year and have never been able to replace," Gerard said.

Jeffrey nodded. His eyes felt sandy from lack of sleep, and his ears rang from too many cups of strong black coffee, the taste sour on his tongue. Outside the tent light flickered and stuttered along the horizon; it might have been thunder and heat lightning, but it wasn't. It was heavy artillery, firing all along the buckling front south and east of Unionvil. The traffic on the road outside was heavy, troops and supply wagons moving up to the front, wounded men coming back—some in ambulances, more hobbling along supporting each other, their bandages glistening in the light of the portable floods outside the HQ tents. A convoy of trucks came through, flatbeds crowded with reinforcements whose faces seemed pathetically young under their helmets. At least the mud wasn't too bad, despite spring rains heavier than usual. They'd had three years to improve the roads around here, three years with the front running through what had been the outermost satellite villages of Unionvil. That didn't look like being true much longer.


Gerard's head came up, trying to find the man who'd bleated like a sheep. It was fifty yards to the road, and dark.

"Baa. Baaaa. Baaaa." More and more of the wounded along the sides of the road were bleating at the reinforcements, mocking the lambs going to the slaughter. Gerard walked to the door of the big tent.

"Captain Labushange. This is to stop."

Whistles blew and feet pounded; there was always a company of Assault Guards and another of military police attached to the regional headquarters.

"And now I must use the Assaulteaux against wounded men for telling the truth," Gerard said. "By the way, my friend, Minister Lebars also assures me that it is better to die on your feet rather than live on your knees."

"Does the woman always talk like that?"

"Invariably. It's not just the speeches." Gerard looked down at the map table. "Leave us," he said to the other officers.

"So I have no choice," he went on, touching a red plaque with a fingertip. It fell on its side, lying behind an arrowhead of black markers. "And how am I different from Libert, now?"

"Libert started it," Jeffrey said, putting a hand on the other man's shoulders. "You couldn't be like him if you tried. We'll do what's necessary."

"I will," Gerard said. "Keep the Freedom Brigade troops in the line. This is a Union matter."

Jeffrey nodded. "Don't hesitate," he warned.

It was probably wise to keep the Brigade troops out of Gerard's coup, although they were just as rabid about the Committee of Public Safety as the native Union soldiers of the Loyalist army. Still, they were foreigners.

"Hesitate? My friend, I have been hesitating for six months. Now I will act."

He strode out of the room, calling for aides and staff officers. Jeffrey remained, looking down at the map. Unionvil was a bulge set into the rebel line, a bulge joined to the rest of the Loyalist sector by a narrow bridge of secure territory.

"I hope you're not acting too late," he said, reaching for his greatcoat.

Heinrich Hosten was in charge on the other side, looking at the same map. Jeffrey knew Heinrich, and he also knew exactly what he'd do in Heinrich's boots at this moment.

Jeffrey ducked out into the chilly night.

* * *

"Senator McRuther?"

The meeting was relatively informal. At least, John wasn't being grilled in front of the Foreign Affairs Committee in full, in the House of Assembly, with a dozen reporters following every word. This oak-paneled meeting room was much quieter, redolent of polish and old cigars, not even a stenographer taking notes. Most of the faces across the mahogany table were formidable enough, age and power sitting on them like invisible cloaks.

Senator McRuther was nearing seventy, and he still wore the ruffled white shirts and black clawhammer jackets that had been modish when he was a young man. He represented the Pokips Provincial District in the western lowlands, and he'd done that since he was a young man, too.

"Mr. Hosten," he said—turning the "s" sound almost into a "z" with malice aforethought, the Chosen pronunciation. "What exactly have you accomplished with your policy of 'constructive engagement,' except to get us into a war?"

John nodded. "You're right, Senator. We are in a war, although not a declared one. However, I might point out that the Land of the Chosen has over forty thousand of its regular army troops in the Union del Est. They're backing General Libert, and they're winning. I suggest that this is not in the national interests of the Republic of the Santander."

"Hear, hear," Senator Beemody said.

A few others nodded or murmured agreement; not all of them were from the eastern highlands, either. John's eyes took tally of them. Beemody's eastern Progressive bloc; a number from the western seacoast cities, which were growing fat on new naval contracts. And a scattering from the rural districts of the western lowlands, some of them McRuther's own Conservatives. The elderly senator hadn't kept office for fifty years by being stupid, even if he was set in his ways.

"As you say, they're winning. Never do an enemy a small injury; you've succeeded in antagonizing the Land without stopping them. If Libert and his Nationalists win we'll have a close ally of the Land on our eastern frontier, a powerful garrison of Land troops keeping him loyal, and we'll have to support this grossly inflated standing army forever. I realize that you and the rest of the highlander industrialists would love that, but my constituents pay the taxes to keep soldiers in idleness."

"Senator," John said quietly, "the Land is not antagonistic to Santander because we've backed the Loyalist side in the Union civil war. It's antagonistic to us because we're the only thing that keeps the Land from overrunning the whole of Visager. And I hope I don't have to go into further detail about what rule by the Chosen means."

More murmurs of agreement. John's newspapers had been publicizing exactly what that meant for years. Refugees from the Empire, and now from the Union, had been driving home the same message. Militia had had to be called out to put down anti-Chosen rioting when the pictures of the Bassin du Sud massacre came out.

Senator Beemody coughed discreetly. "General Farr"—the high command had confirmed his promotion as soon as he'd stepped back on Santander soil—"I gather you do not recommend an immediate declaration of war."

"No," Jeffrey said. McRuther blinked in surprise, his eyes narrowing warily.

"We're not ready," the younger Farr went on.

Beside him in his rear admiral's uniform, his father nodded. The family resemblance was much closer now that there was gray at Jeffrey's temples and streaking his mustache. The lines scoring down from either side of his nose added to it as well.

"We're much stronger now than we were four or five years ago," Jeffrey went on. "Military production of all types is up sharply, and now we've got field-tested models. Our latest aircraft are as good as the Land models, and we're gradually getting production organized. The Freedom Brigades've given us a lot of men with combat experience, including a lot of officers; besides that, they're thirty-five thousand veterans as formed troops, and if the Union falls they'll retreat over the border. So will a lot of the Loyalist Army. But we're still not mobilized, a lot of the new Regular Army formations are weak, and the Provincial militias need to be better integrated. Admiral Farr can speak to the naval situation."

Jeffrey's father nodded.

"We have a tonnage advantage of three to two," he said. "More in battleships. The Land Navy has more experience, particularly in cruiser and torpedo-boat operations in the Gut, which could be crucial. Still, I'm fairly confident we could dominate the Gut. The problem is that operating further north, in the Passage, we'd be sticking our . . . ah, necks into a potential meatgrinder, with strong Land bases on either side and a long way from our own. If we lose our fleet, we'd be a long way towards losing the war itself. Furthermore, nobody knows what aircraft will mean to naval war. The Chosen have more experience, but only with dirigibles. We need time to finish the aircraft carriers and to train the fleet in their use."

"Senators," Beemody said, "the Republic of the Santander cannot tolerate a Union which is satellite to the Land. Are we agreed?"

One by one the men on the other side of the table lifted their hands. McRuther sighed and followed suit, last and most reluctant.

"Then that is the sense of the Foreign Affairs Committee," Beemody said. "On the other hand, we are not yet ready for full-scale conflict. I therefore suggest that we recommend to the Premier that in the event of the fall of the Loyalist government in the Union, the Republic should declare a naval blockade of all Union ports pending the removal of foreign forces from Union soil."

"But that means war!" McRuther burst out.

"Not necessarily. As Admiral Farr has pointed out, we do have more heavy warships than the Land. The Gut is closer to our bases than theirs; we can blockade the Union and they'd be in no position to retaliate without risking their seaborne communications across the Passage. And while losing command of the sea might be disaster for us, it would certainly be a disaster for them. They can lose a war in an afternoon, in a fleet action. With the Union blockaded, they'd be forced to pull in their horns. They can't afford to isolate the expeditionary force they've committed to the Union. It's our hostage."

McRuther pointed to the map on the easel at the end of the table. "They can supply through the Sierra—and the Sierra is neutral."

Senator Beemody looked to the three men sitting across the table, in naval blue, army brown, and the diplomatic service's formal black tailcoat.

"Sirs, there's only a single track line from north to south through the Sierra," Jeffrey said. "Besides that, it's narrow gage, so you'd have to break bulk at both ends, the old Imperial net and the Union's."

"General?" Beemody prompted.

"Assuming that the Union was fully under Libert's control, and that the Chosen went along with a naval blockade?" Beemody nodded. "Supplying their forces would be just possible. Daily demand would go down and they could supply more from Union resources. It would certainly take some time for a squeeze to be effective, in terms of logistics."

"We can interdict the Gut," Admiral Farr said. "That I can assure you gentlemen."

"But the role of the Sierra will be crucial," Beemody said. "Senators, I move that the Foreign Ministry be directed to dispatch a special envoy with sealed plenipotentiary powers to secure the assistance of the Sierra Democratica y Populara in a preemptive blockade of the Union to enforce the neutralization and removal of all foreign troops. It's risky," he said to their grave looks, "but I sincerely believe it's our only chance. Otherwise in six months' time we'll be confronted with a choice between a war that might destroy us and accepting a Land protectorate on our border, which is intolerable. A show of hands, please, Senators."

This time the vote was less than unanimous. McRuther kept his hand obstinately down, switching his pouched and hooded blue eyes between Beemody and the Farrs.

"Fifteen ayes. Five nays. The ayes have it. The recommendation will be made. I remind the honorable senators that this meeting of the Foreign Affairs Committee is strictly confidential."

"Agreed," McRuther said sourly. "Its no time for a war of leaks."

"Then if that's all, Senators?"

The big room seemed larger and more shadowy when only Beemody, Farr, and his sons were left. The faces of past premiers looked down somberly from oil paintings on the walls; the old-fashioned small-paned windows were streaked with rain. Branches from the oaks around the building tapped against the glass like skeletal fingers. John Hosten had a sudden image of men—men not yet dead, the dead of the greater war to come—rising from their graves and traveling back to this moment, tap-tap-tapping at the windows, pleading for their lives. Tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions.


Center showed him a vision he'd seen times beyond number, since that year on the docks of Oathtaking. Visager from space, the globes of fire expanding over cities, rising in shells of cracked white until they flattened against the upper edge of the atmosphere and the whole globe turned dirty white with the clouds. . . .

His stepfather cleared his throat. "You don't really think the Chosen will swallow a blockade of the Union?" he said to the head of the Foreign Affairs Committee.

Beemody shook his head. "About as likely as a hyena giving up a bone," he said frankly. "But it's as good a casus belli as any, the Senate will swallow it because they're desperate and desperate men believe what they want to, and the public will go along, too. Even McRuther will go along; he knows we can't dodge this much longer. But we do need more time, and we do need the Sierrans to come in on our side. They should; if we fall, they're next."

"But it's easier to see that when you don't have someone ahead of you in the lineup to the abattoir," Jeffrey said with brutal frankness. "Hope springs eternal—and the Sierrans aren't just decentralized, they've got the political nervous system of an amoeba. Getting them to agree where the sun comes up is an accomplishment."

"Perhaps," John said slowly, "we could get the Chosen to do our arguing for us."

His foster-father frowned in puzzlement. Jeffrey shot him a glance, then tilted his head slightly towards the older men.

There comes a time when you have to use an asset, John said. If you won't risk it, what bloody use is it?

Center? Jeffrey asked.

probability of success is in the fifty percent range, the machine voice said. chaotic factors render closer analysis futile at this point. success would increase the probability of a favorable outcome to the struggle as a whole by 10%, ±3.

John nodded mentally. "Here's what I propose," he said. "First, sir"—he nodded to Admiral Farr—"Senator, you should be aware that we have a very highly placed double agent who the Chosen—Land Military Intelligence, to be precise—think is their mole and who they rely on implicitly for analysis of the Republic's intentions. I can't be more specific, of course. And this is entirely confidential."

The Admiral and Senator Beemody nodded in unison. There was no telling where the real moles were, of course.

"Here's what I think we should do—"

* * *

Gerta Hosten was walking stiffly when she entered the room. John stood.

"Are you all right?" he asked, surprised to find the concern genuine, even after all these years.

"Flying accident," she said, looking around.

The little house was a gem, in its own way; patterned silk wallpaper, Errife rugs, inlaid furniture, all discreetly tucked away in a leafy suburb north of the embassy section of Santander City. Just what a millionaire industrialist would use for assignations he wanted to keep thoroughly secret from his wife, which was the cover John was using. Good tradecraft, she thought grudgingly; John could read that on her face, even without Center's supremely educated guesses.

"Not serious, I hope." John sat and poured the coffee and brandy.

"Just a wrenched back for me. Thankfully, the plane totaled itself in front of half the Chosen Council. That damned bomber is a flying—just barely flying—abortion. If it'd had a full fuel load, much less bombs, I'd be in bits just large enough to plug a rat's ass."

"The Air Council's finally given up on using airships as strategic bombers?"

"I should hope so, after we lost a dozen trying to hit Unionvil in the last offensive," she said. "But those eight-engine monsters Porschmidt came up with, they're no better. Only marginally faster, the bomb load is a joke, they're unbelievably expensive to build and maintain, and landing them's more dangerous than combat. The bugger's got the Council's ear, though, him and his backers. Now he's throwing good money after bad, trying to improve the fuckers." She sighed. "To business."

"Here," John said, sliding the folder across the ivory-and-tortoise-shell of the table.

It had three separate sets of "Top Secret" and "Eyes Only" stamps on it, Army General Staff, Naval Staff, and Premier's Office, the latter a miniature of the Great Seal that only he and his chief aide could use. Gerta whistled silently as she picked it up. Her face went totally unreadable as she finally looked up at him. "This is serious?"

"Totally. Note the Premier's sign-off."

She flipped to the end. To be implemented, as soon as possible. "I'll be damned," she said. "I wouldn't have thought the Santies could get their shit together like this."

"Jeff advised it, strongly," John said. "He's quite the fair-haired boy right now, and not just with the general public."

"He deserves it," Gerta said, refilling her cup. "Heinrich was extremely impressed with the way he got most of the Brigades out of Unionvil before we pinched off the pocket there. Excuse me, before General Libert pinched off the pocket with the assistance of volunteer contractors from the Land operating without the approval of the Chosen Council."

She grinned like a wolf. "Heinrich picked up some very pretty things there when we sacked the city."

John matched her expression, although in his case it wasn't a smile. "What'll you recommend?"

"Me? I'm just MilInt's messenger girl," Gerta said.

"You're also the daughter of the Chief of the General Staff," John pointed out. "And you've been carrying the hatchet for them for fifteen years now."

"That's between me and the vater, Johnnie," Gerta said, taking out a camera the size of a palm from the street purse resting beside her chair. She opened it, checked the ambient light, and began photographing each page of the folder with swift, methodical care. "Besides, all doing a good job gets you is more jobs—you know how it works.

"I'll tell you, though," she said as she worked, "that I told him we shouldn't get involved in the Union, and that if we had to make another grab so soon it should be the Sierra instead."

"Tougher nut," John observed.

"True, but not one we had to swim to get to," she replied. "Frankly I think the navy flatters its chances when the balloon goes up. The Union thing could leave our tits in the wringer if things go wrong. This"—she nodded to the papers between snaps—"is exactly what the Santies should do, after all. But the Union was just too tempting, the political situation. I wish there were more women on the Chosen Council."

John looked up at the irrelevancy. The Chosen had equality of the sexes, but males did predominate slightly at the higher ranks.

"Men never can resist the chance to stick it in an inviting orifice," Gerta said, and finished her pictures. "Heinrich's as smart as a whip, for example, but he spends an unbelievable amount of time and effort improving the Union's genetic material. It's the same with politics. No patience."

"Do I detect a certain note of complaint?"

They both laughed. "Plenty left over," Gerta said. She rose and saluted. "Thanks, Johnnie . . . if it's genuine."


"It's like something out of th' Bible," Harry Smith blurted, looking down from where the car rested on a high track beside a customs station.

Belton Pass was the main overland route between the Union and the Republic of the Santander. The saddle was only seven thousand feet high, and hilly rather than mountainous; on either side the Border Range reared up to twenty thousand feet or better, capped by glaciers and eternal snow above the treeline. There were enigmatic Federation ruins on the slopes, built of substances no scientist could even identify, and tunnels where strange machines crouched like trolls in an ancient tale—some as pristine as the day they were last used, some crumbling like salt when exposed to air or sunlight. In the centuries after the Fall mule trains had used the pass, and border barons had built stone keeps whose tumbled stone had supplied material for shepherds huts in later years. Wars between the two countries had left their legacy of forts, the more recent sunken deep in the rock and covered in ferroconcrete and steel. There was a motorable road now, too, and a double-tracked railway built with immense labor and expense all the way from Alai in the western foothills.

Trains had been coming out of the Union for weeks now. The first had carried the last gold reserves of the Loyalist government, and the most precious records. Later ones had carried everything that could be salvaged from the factories of the Union's western provinces, some with the labor forces sitting on the machine tools. More and more carried people, shuttling back and forth with crowds riding packed so tightly that smothered bodies were unloaded at every stop, and the roofs of the freight cars black with refugees. Even more poured by cart and horse and ox-wagon, scores of thousands more on foot carrying their few possessions on their backs or in handcarts and wheelbarrows. They packed the lowlands in a moving mass of black and dun-brown, dust hanging over them like an eternal cloud. Only behind the Santander border posts with their tall flagpoles did they begin to fray out, as soldiers and volunteers directed them.

Pia Hosten leaned against her husband's long limousine, dark circles of fatigue under her eyes. She pulled off the kerchief that covered her hair and shuddered.

"It will be like a plague out of the Bible if we do not get more of the delousing stations set up. Typhus and cholera, those people are all half-starved and filthy and they have had no chance to wash in weeks."

"We'll do it," John said. "The government's sending in more troops to set up the camps and keep order, and we're shipping in food and medical supplies as fast as the roads and rail net will bear." He looked at his wife, and brushed back a strand of hair that fell down her forehead. "There would be thousands dead, if it weren't for your Auxiliaries," he said. "Nobody else was ready."

She turned and buried her face in his shoulder. "I feel as if I am trying to bail the ocean with a spoon," she said.

"You're exhausted. You've done an enormous job of work, and I'm proud of you."


Maurice Farr came bounding up the slope, handsome young olive face alight, trim and slender in the sky-blue uniform of the Air Cadets.

"Dad—I mean, sir—Uncle Jeff, I mean General Farr, is coming. With General Gerard!" He stopped. "Mom, are you all right?"

She straightened. "Of course." Then she looked down at her plain dress, stained with sweat and her work. "My God, I can't—"

"It's not a diplomatic reception, darling," John said soothingly. "And I don't think Jeff or Pierre will care much about appearances. Not after what you've been doing."

The car that drew a trail of dust up the gravel road was much less elegant than John's, although it was the same big six-wheeled model. It had patched bullet holes in several places, a few fresh ones, and three whip antennae waving overhead. Rock crunched under the wheels as it drew to a stop and stood, the engine pinging and wheezing as metal cooled and contracted. The men who climbed down were ragged and smelled strongly of stale sweat, and there was dust caked in the stubble on their faces.

Pierre Gerard drew himself up, saluted, and held out his pistol butt-first. "As representative of the Union del Est—" he began.

John took the weapon and reversed it, handing it back to the Union general. And head of state, don't forget that, he reminded himself.

"General Gerard, as representative of the Republic of the Santander, it is my privilege to welcome you, your government, your armed forces and your people to our territory. I am instructed to assure you that you will all be welcome until the day when you can return to restore your country's independence, and in the interim the government and people of the Republic will extend every aid, and every courtesy, within their power."

He smiled and held out his hand. "That goes for me, too, of course, Pierre."

The other man took his hand in a strong dry grip for an instant. Then he clicked heels and bent over Pia's. "We've heard what you and your ladies have done for my people," he said quietly. "We are in your debt, forever."

"We're in your debt," John said. "You've been fighting the common enemy for five years. And you'll see more fighting before long, if I'm any judge of events."

Jeffrey Farr nodded. "Damned right."

Both men twisted sharply at the sound of aircraft engine. The planes coming up the valley from the west were Hawk III's, over a dozen of them. They relaxed.

"Most of the aircraft will be crossing further north," Gerard said. "All the troops that are going to make it out here will be across by tomorrow. Except for the rearguard."

John nodded with silent grimness. Those would have to fight where they were until overrun, to let the civilians and what was left of the Brigades and the Loyalist armies break contact and retreat over the border.

"The perimeter around Borreaux's holding for now," he said. "We've got ships shuttling continuously from there to Dubuk with refugees. Navy ships, too. My father created a precedent for that at Salini."

Gerard smiled wryly. "Wars are not won by evacuations, however heroic," he said.

John nodded. "I assume Jeffrey's filled you in on the deployments for your troops?"

"Oui. Rather far forward."

Jeffrey spread his hands in embarrassment. "If—when—the enemy attack, we'll need men who can be relied on not to break," he said. "The Brigades won't, and neither will your men."

Gerard nodded. "The civilians, though?"

"We're setting up temporary camps around Alai, Ensburg, and Dubuk," John said. "From there we'll try to move people where there's housing and jobs."

Gerard looked down on the mass of humanity filling the great pass below and the roads to the east. "We come as beggars, but we can fight, and work. Everyone but the children and cripples will. We have a debt to collect, from Libert and his allies." He spat the last word. "Does Libert know he's a puppet, yet?"

John shook his head. "There's an old saying," he replied. "If you owe the bank a thousand and can't pay, you're in trouble. If you owe a million and can't pay, the bank is in trouble. Libert and his army are saving the Chosen a great deal of trouble and expense, just by existing. I'm sure he'll use that leverage."

Jeffrey nodded. "I think that's why the pursuit hasn't been pressed more vigorously," he said thoughtfully. "Libert wants us to get enough men over the border to be a standing menace. That means that the Chosen have to keep him on, or risk having the whole population go over to the Loyalist side who're waiting to return. They don't have enough troops in the Union to hold it down by themselves, not and keep an offensive capacity. Not yet, at least."

Gerard shrugged and saluted. "I must get back to my men."

John shook his head again. "Visit my home soon," he said. "You won't do your people any good by collapsing."

The shrewd brown eyes studied him. "You will not be there?" he said.

"No. There's . . . trouble brewing. Exactly what I can't say, but I can say that the board's going to be reshuffled thoroughly, and soon."

* * *


The sixth of the twelve-man Executive Council of the Sierra Democratica y Populara stood to address the seven hundred members of the Board of Cantonal Delegates. One of his colleagues passed him a ceremonial spear, the mark of the speaker, and pushed the button on top of a very modern timer clock.

I do not believe this, Gerta Hosten thought to herself. She and the Land delegation were sitting in the visitors' seats to one side of the Executive Council. An extremely ancient oak in the middle of the beaten dirt of the circle hid many of the delegates from her, and from each other. This was where the first representatives of the people-in-arms had met four hundred years ago to proclaim the Sierra, probably under the parent of this very tree, and so here they still met, where the city of Nueva Madrid had grown up. And met, and met, and met; the speeches had been going on for a week and looked good for another two.

Every one of them carried a rifle and wore a bandolier. That was about the only uniformity. Dress ranged from fringed leather to Santander-style business suits, with a predominance of berets and ferocious waxed mustaches. There were no women, since females didn't have the vote in any of the Sierran cantons, although they weren't badly treated otherwise.

Every adult male did have the vote, and every delegate here could be recalled at any time by the cantonal voters meeting in open assembly. Any hundred men could call an assembly. The delegates chose the twelve-man executive, but the voters could recall them at any time, and often did.

I do not believe anything this absurd has survived this long, she thought. Whenever I think our councils are cumbersome, I should remind myself of this.

The speaker shouted in an untrained bellow, with a strong up-country peasant accent to his Ispanyol: "Citizens! For four hundred years, no enemy has gotten anything but disaster from attacking us. We drove out the Imperials!"

Well, that's no particular accomplishment, she thought. Then: To be fair, that was when the Empire was a real power. They drove us into the ocean back then.

"We drove out the Union! We threw the Errife back into the sea when their ships ranged every coast! We made the Republic withdraw from our island of Trois! In the Sierra, every one of us is a fighting man, every one!"

Funny, in most places half the population are women, Gerta thought as the delegates cheered wildly.

"So let the cunt-whipped Chosen perverts fuck themselves!" The speaker's mountain-peasant accent grew thicker. "Let the dirty money-grubbing Santanders fuck themselves! The Sierra pisses on all of them!"

Eventually the timer rang, loud and insistent. The president pro tem of the Executive Council—each member held the office in rotation for a week—cleared his throat as he took back the spear.

"We must, in courtesy, listen to the arguments of the honorable Thomas Beemer, Ambassador Plenipotentiary to the Sierra from the Republic of the Santander."

Assistant head of the Research Department of the Foreign Ministry, Gerta reminded herself. That made him the equivalent of the second-in-command of the Fourth Bureau back home, although the Research Department didn't have the internal security functions the Fourth Bureau did. A very high-powered spook. A rabbity-looking little man, bald and peering out through thick glasses. Important not to underestimate him because of that.

"Honorable delegates," Beemer said. "The Chosen took the Empire fifteen years ago. Over the last five they have conquered the Union. Only you Sierrans and we in the Republic remain independent.

"The Republic does not intend to let the Chosen eat the world, not all in one gulp or one nibble at a time. I am here to announce that from this midnight, the Republic of the Santander declares a total naval blockade of the Union. This blockade will be maintained until all foreign troops are withdrawn and a legitimate government chosen by free elections under Santander supervision. The Republic will regard it as a grave breach of friendly relations if the Democratic and Popular Sierra allows overland transit to evade this blockade."

Johnny was telling the truth, Gerta thought, still mildly surprised. First a blockade, and then the seizure of the Sierra in cooperation with pro-Santander and anti-Chosen factions among the cantons. Those slightly outnumbered the neutralists, which wasn't surprising considering the position the Sierra found itself in. Nobody here was actually pro-Chosen, of course. That would be like expecting a pig to be pro-leopard.

This time the roar went on for twenty minutes. Delegates milled, shouted into each others faces, shook their fists or used them and were clubbed down by their neighbors. Occasionally someone would fire his rifle, into the air, thankfully, although the bullet had to come down somewhere. The Chosen embassy sat in stolid silence, upright and expressionless, their round uniform caps resting on their knees. When the noise eventually died down, Ebert Meitzerhagen stood, walked forward three precise steps and stood at parade rest.

He was a vivid contrast to Beemer, one reason he'd been chosen for the role. His cropped pale hair and light eyes stood out the more vividly for the deep mahogany tan of his skin; his face and bull-neck were seamed with scar tissue, and the massive shoulders strained at his uniform jacket. The great hands dangling at his sides were equally worn and battered, huge spatulate things that looked capable of ripping apart oxen without bothering with tools. All in all, he looked to be exactly what he was: a brutal, methodical, merciless killer. The Sierrans wouldn't necessarily be intimidated, but they weren't fools enough to believe all their own bombast, either.

"Sierrans," Meitzerhagen said. "We wish no war with you. We have no territorial demands on you."

Yet, Gerta thought. General Meitzerhagen was being truthful enough: the Chosen Council wanted a decade of peace now. If they could get it on their own terms, which did not include giving up the fruits of victory in the Union.

"If you join with Santander in attacking us and our allies, do not expect us to meekly endure it. When someone strikes us a blow, we do not just strike back—we crush them."

He held out a hand palm up and slowly closed it into a fist, letting the delegates look at the knuckles, scarred and enlarged.

Gerta called up a mental map of the Sierra. Mountains north and south, high ones—too high for dirigibles, except in a few passes, and they'd have to come uncomfortably close to the ground even there. A spine of lower mountains down the center, joining the two transverse ranges and separating two wedges of fertile lowland on the west and east coasts. The eastern wedge was drained by the Rio Arena, from here at Nueva Madrid to Barclon at the rivers mouth. The Arena valley was the heartland of the Sierra, where most of the agriculture and population and trade lay, although the national mythology centered on the shepherds and hill farmers of the mountain forests.

This is going to be very tricky, she thought. And we don't have much time.

Fortunately, good staff work was a Chosen specialty.

* * *

Admiral Maurice Farr tapped the end of the polished oak pointer he'd been using on the map into his free hand. "Gentlemen, that concludes the briefing. The blockade begins as of midnight tonight." He looked out over the assembled captains of the Northern Fleet. "Any questions?"

"Admiral Farr." Commodore Jenkins, commander of the Scout Squadron of torpedo-boat destroyers spoke. A thickset, capable-looking man, missing one ear from a skirmish in the Southern Islands. "Could you clarify the rules of engagement?"

"Certainly, Commodore. No ships, except Unionaise fishing vessels, are to be allowed within four miles of any of the Union ports on the list, or to within five miles of the coast, or to offload or load any cargo. You will issue warnings; if the warning is ignored you will fire over the vessel's bow. If the warning shot is disregarded, you may either board or sink the vessel in question at your discretion."

"And if the violator is a warship?"

"You will proceed as I have outlined."

There was a slight rustle among the blue-uniformed men in the flagship's conference room.

"Yes, gentlemen, I am aware that this may very well mean war. So is the Premier."

And not a moment too soon, if there's going to be a war, he thought. The Republic's lead in capital ships was shrinking, as the Chosen finally got their building program under way. At a fairly leisurely pace, since they'd been planning on war a decade hence, but they had some first-rate designs on their drawing boards. One in particular had struck his eye, a huge all-big-gun ship with twelve twelve-inch rifles in four superimposed triple turrets fore and aft of the central island, and a daunting turn of speed. If it worked the way John's intelligence report said it would, nothing else on Visager's oceans could go near it and live. Fortunately, they hadn't even laid down the keel, and this conflict would be fought with existing fleets.

Santander's fleet was as ready as he could make it. That left only the personal question. Am I too old? Fleet command in wartime needed a man who could make quick decisions under fatigue and stress. Maurice Farr was within a year of the mandatory retirement age. Should he be at a desk in Charsson, or at home working on the book? I'm a grandfather with teenage grandchildren. He took stock of himself. He'd kept himself in trim, and he didn't need to shovel coal or heave propellant charges into a breech. No failure of memory and will that he could detect. No. I can do it. He spoke again, into the hush his words had made. .

"You will accordingly keep your ships on full alert at all times, with steam raised and ready to weigh anchor at one hour's notice. All leaves are cancelled, and naval and other reservists have been notified to report to their duty stations."

Jenkins nodded. "If I may, Admiral, how are we going to maintain a blocking squadron along the Union's south coast? Bassin du Sud and Marsai are the only good harbors or fully equipped ports between Fursten and Sircusa."

"The Southern Fleet"—a grand name for a collection of candidates for the knackers yard and armed civilian vessels, with only two modern cruisers—"will blockade Bassin du Sud and Marsai. At need, they can be reinforced from the Northern Fleet. Any more questions? No?"

Mess stewards entered, with trays of the traditional watered rum, one for each of the officers. The toast offered by the senior officer present was equally a matter of tradition.

"Gentlemen—the Republic and Liberty!"

"The Republic!"

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