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Prologue


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The vertical cut in the cliff face only looked razor-thin. Even the broadest railway cut looked like a narrow crack when it was cut into the face of a sheer precipice over three thousand feet tall.


Darcel Kinlafia knew that. He'd already passed through what the guidebooks had taken to calling the Traisum Cut once before, outbound, but it was the sort of sight not even the most jaded trans-universal traveler could ever tire of.


That was why he'd climbed out of his seat in the rattling, banging so-called "passenger car" and stepped out onto the front platform so that he could see it better as the train started up the four-mile approach ramp to the cut. Now he stood there, hands on the guard rail, staring out and up at one of the most spectacular pieces of scenery imaginable.


The portal between the universes of Traisum and Karys was one of the smaller ones Sharona had explored. Or, rather, it was effectively one of the smaller ones. The theorists believed


it was actually much larger, but that most of it was buried underground in both universes. Only the uppermost arc of the circular portal was exposed, and the terrain in the two universes it connected was . . . dissimilar, to say the least. The Karys side of the portal was located near what would have been the Arpathian city of Zaithag in Darcel Kinlafia's birth universe; the Traisum side was located in the Ithal Mountains west of the city of Narshalla in Shurkhal.


That was what created the spectacular scenery. Zaithag was barely seven hundred feet above sea level; the mountains west of Narshalla reached heights of over forty-six hundred feet . . . and the portal's Traisum nexus was located smack in the middle of one of those mountains.


Most people who saw it from the Karys side for the first time felt a peculiar sense of disorientation. It was something the human eye and the human mind weren't trained to expect: an absolutely vertical, glassy-smooth cliff over a half-mile high at its shortest point and four and a half miles wide.


The good news was that Karys was outbound from Sharona. That had allowed the Trans-Temporal Express's construction crews to come at it from the slopes of Mount Karek rather than straight out of the mountain's heart. The portal was actually located east of the mountain's crest, which made the impossible cliff several hundred feet shorter from the Karys side and the approach slope perhaps three or four miles shorter from the Traisum side. Even so, and even though TTE's engineers were accustomed to stupendous construction projects fit to dwarf the Grand Ternathian Canal or New Farnal Canal, this one had been a stretch even for them. It had taken them years (and more tons of dynamite than Kinlafia cared to contemplate) to complete, and all meaningful exploration down-chain from Traisum had been bottlenecked until they'd finally finished it. The cut was five miles long, eighteen hundred feet deep where its Karys terminus met the top of the approach ramp, and wide enough for a four-track right-of-way and a double-wide road for wheeled traffic. The grade, needless to say, was steep.


Now the locomotive chuffed more noisily than ever, laboring as it started into that deep, shadowed gulf of stone with its tender and single pair of passenger cars. Its smoke plume fumed up, adding its own fresh coat of grime and soot to the stains already marking the cut's rocky sides, and he heard the haunting beauty of the whistle singing its warning.


He stayed on the platform a little longer, looking up past the edge of the passenger car's roof overhang at the narrow strip of scorching blue sky so far overhead. Then he drew a deep breath, went back inside, and settled himself into his seat once more.


Not much longer now, he told himself. Not much longer . . . for this stage, at least.


* * *


Less than two hours later, Kinlafia gazed out the passenger car window as the train clattered and banged to a halt in a vibrating screech of brakes and a long, drawn-out hiss of steam.


It was hot, and despite the welcome interlude of relative coolness in the Traisum Cut, the car's open windows had done little more than help turn its interior into an even more efficient oven by letting the hot, dry wind evaporate any moisture it might have contained. Still, it had been a substantial improvement over the wearisome horseback journey through Failcham, across the desert between what should have been the cities of Yarahk and Judaih.


As a Portal Authority Voice—and a certified Portal Hound—Kinlafia had seen far more of the multiverse than the vast majority of Sharonians could begin to imagine. Yet even for someone like him, it took a journey like this one to truly drive home the immensity involved in expanding through so many duplicates of humanity's home world. Under normal circumstances, it tended to put the silliness of most human squabbling into stark perspective. With such incredible vastness, such an inexhaustible supply of space and resources available, surely anyone ought to be able to find the space and prosperity to live his life in the way he chose without infringing upon the interests or liberties—or prejudices—of anyone else!


Except that it doesn't seem to work that way, he thought, as he collected his valise from the overhead rack. Part of that's simply ingrained human cussedness, I suppose. Most people figure somebody else ought to move away, rather than that they ought to go off looking for the life they choose. And then there's the godsdamned Arcanans.


His jaw tightened for a moment, and his brown eyes turned bleak and hard. Then he shook himself, forcing his shoulders to relax, and drew a deep breath. His weeks of grueling travel had given him enough separation from Shaylar's murder for him to at least concede that Crown Prince Janaki had had a point. There was no way Darcel Kinlafia was ever going to forgive the butchers of Arcana for the massacre of his civilian survey crew and—especially—Shaylar Nargra-Kolmayr. For that matter, he still saw no reason why he should. But there was a difference between refusing to forgive and building an entire life on a platform of hatred, for hatred was a corrosive drug. Nourished too deeply, cherished too closely, it would destroy a man as surely as any rifle or pistol bullet.


And it can do exactly the same thing to an entire civilization, he thought grimly. "Call-me-Janaki" was right about that, too. Besides I've known plenty of Sharonians I wouldn't exactly want marrying into the family. No, be honest, Darcel. You've known plenty of Sharonians who ought to've been put on someone's "needs killing" list. So, logically, there have to be at least some Arcanans who are going to be just as horrified as any Sharonian by the prospect of an inter-universal war. Of course, finding them may be just a little difficult.


He snorted in wry humor, which he was half-surprised to discover was only slightly tinged with bitterness. Well, maybe a little more than "slightly." Still, the tearing, savage spasms of fury which had wracked him whenever he thought about the massacre at Fallen Timbers truly had lost much of their virulence.


Petty-Captain Yar told me they would. I suppose I should have listened to him.


Kinlafia made a mental note to drop Delokahn Yar a Voice message. It was the least he could do for Company-Captain chan Tesh's senior Healer, he thought just a bit ashamedly, given how hard Yar had worked to force him to admit to himself that life truly did go on. Wounds like Shaylar's death might never go away, but at least they could scar over, turn into something a grownup learned to cope with rather than retreating into an endless morass of depression and petulantly refusing to have anything more to do with the world about him. And in his own case—


"Welcome to Fort Salby."


Kinlafia turned as the sound of the train master's voice interrupted his thoughts. Despite his Arpathian surname, Irnay Tarka was a Uromathian, from the independent Kingdom of Eniath. He was also an employee of the Trans-Temporal Express, one of the hundreds of workers pushing the railhead steadily down-chain towards Hell's Gate now that they could finally get their heavy equipment forward through the Traisum Cut. They'd driven the line to within less than four hundred miles of Fort Mosanik in Karys, which had been an enormous relief. No one was going to be sending any of the TTE's luxury passenger coaches out here to the edge of the frontier anytime soon, but even this spartanly furnished, bare-bones, pack-'em-in-cheek-by-jowl people-hauler was an enormous improvement over a saddle.


Tarka grinned, almost as if he could read Kinlafia's mind.


"Saddle sores feeling any better?" he asked, and Kinlafia snorted.


"It's going to take more than one miserable day for that," the Voice said. "Mind you, I'm not complaining. Just having the opportunity to sit down on something reasonably flat is a gift from the gods!"


"We aim to please," Tarka said. Then his grin faded slightly. "On a more serious note, Voice Kinlafia, it's been an honor."


Kinlafia half-waved one hand in a dismissing gesture that was more than a little uncomfortable. That was another thing Janaki had been right about. As the sole survivor of the massacred Chalgyn Consortium survey crew—and the Voice who had relayed Shaylar's final, courageous message—he'd acquired a degree of fame (or notoriety, perhaps) which he'd never wanted. It wasn't as if he'd done anything that wonderful. In fact, he would never forgive himself, however illogical he knew it was, for not having somehow managed to save his friends' lives.


Tarka seemed about to say something more, then stopped himself and simply gave a small headshake. Kinlafia smiled crookedly at him and held out his right hand, and Tarka clasped forearms with him.


"Good luck, Voice Kinlafia," the train master said. "And a safe journey home. A lot of people are going to want to hear from you directly."


"I know." Kinlafia managed not to sigh.


He nodded to the Eniathian, walked down the aisle, and then climbed down the carriage's steep steps onto the sunbaked, weathered-looking planks of the station under a sky of scorching, cloudless blue. It was only late morning, but the platform's heat struck up through the soles of his boots as if he were walking across a stovetop, and he was acutely grateful when he reached the cover of the shedlike roof built to throw a band of shade across the rearmost third of the boardwalk.


The locomotive lay panting quietly as the station's water tower topped off its tender and its fireman and his grease gun worked their way down its side. It wasn't one of the behemoths which pulled TTE's massive freight and passenger trains closer to the home universe, nor was it as beautifully painted and maintained. In fact, it was a shabby, scruffy work engine, with an old-fashioned half-diamond smokestack, grimy, banged-up, dust-covered paint, and no pretension to the grandeur of its more aristocratic brethren. No doubt it was out here in the first place because newer and more powerful engines had replaced it closer to home. The TTE could spare it from passenger and normal freight service, and the construction planners and operations people had probably figured they might as well get the last of their money's worth out of it before it finally went to the boneyard. Yet even though it couldn't come remotely close to matching the speed and effortless power of something like one of the new Paladins, Kinlafia had never been happier to see one of those more splendiferous lords of the rails.


His mind ran back over the wearisome journey since he'd separated from Janaki's platoon and its little column of Arcanan POWs. The ride to Fort Ghartoun had been hard enough, but the journey across Failcham had been worse. Much worse.


Normal Portal Authority policy called for the forts which housed the Authority's garrisons and administrative centers to be located, like Fort Salby, on the Sharonian side of the portal they covered. The planners had made an exception in Fort Ghartoun's case, however, for a couple of reasons. One was that the Failcham side of the Failcham-Thermyn portal was located very close to the spot occupied by the city of Yarahk in Sharona. Unfortunately, "very close," especially in multiversal terms, wasn't the same thing as "in exactly the same spot." Yarahk had grown on the banks of the mighty, north-flowing Sarlayn River, just below the Sarlayn's first cataract and almost six hundred miles south of the Mbisi. The Sarlayn Valley was fertile enough, and Yarahk was fairly popular as a winter resort, but the portal was thirty miles outside the valley, in the barren desert to the west. It sat on a thoroughly unpleasant piece of dry, sun-blasted dirt and rock, with very little to recommend it aside from the portal itself. Just providing a garrison with water would have been hard enough.


Admittedly, Fort Ghartoun (only, of course, it had been Fort Raylthar when it was built) was also located in a remarkably arid spot, but at least water was closer to hand. And so were Snow Sapphire Lake and the Sky Blood Lode. It had made sense to put the local Authority administrative center on the Sky Blood Mountains' side of the portal, given the availability of water and the fact that keeping a watchful eye on the development of that massive silver lode was eventually going to become the local authorities' primary concern.


But locating Fort Ghartoun on the Thermyn side of the portal hadn't made the journey across Failcham any more pleasant. The Karys-Failcham portal was located in the North Ricathian Desert, close to what would have been the city of Judaih, better than fourteen hundred miles west of Yarahk. Fourteen hundred miles of desert, in point of fact, in which the water a traveler could carry was altogether too often the margin between survival and something else.


The letter of priority Crown Prince Janaki had gotten Regiment-Captain Velvelig to endorse for Kinlafia had helped enormously. Among other things, it had allowed him to requisition Portal Authority horses—and, for the desert-crossing aspects of his journey, experienced local guides. His homeward journey had been far more rapid (and strenuous) than his survey crew's outward journey, and his letter had provided him with dune-treaders, as well as horses, for the trip to Fort Mosanik, on the Karys side of the Karys-Failcham portal.


From Fort Mosanik, located in the general area of the Sharonian city of Queriz, the terrain had been at least a little friendlier than that between Mousanik and Ghartoun. Of course, only the North Ricathian Desert could have made the Queriz Depression seem particularly hospitable. At its deepest point, Kinlafia knew, the Depression was almost a hundred feet below sea level, dotted with salt lakes and covered with feather grass, tamarisk, and wormwood, where it wasn't outright desert in its own right. Still, oases were more frequent, and the much flatter terrain, once one got south of the highlands around Fort Mosanik itself, was much easier going. Not to mention the fact that he'd only had to cover around three hundred and fifty miles of it before he met up with the advancing railhead.


Which meant, he thought, hoisting his valise and starting along the platform towards the rudimentary station building, that he only had another three or four weeks to go to get home.


"Voice Kinlafia?"


Kinlafia stopped and turned around as someone called his name in accented Ternathian. The man who'd called to him wore PAAF uniform with the single gold rifle of a company-captain. He was also a sturdy-looking fellow, perhaps a couple of inches taller than Kinlafia himself, with the swarthy complexion and dark brown eyes of a Shurkhali. His nose was strongly hooked, and the eyes under his bushy eyebrows were very direct and intense.


"Yes, Company-Captain?"


"Orkam Vargan," the Shurkhali said, reaching out to clasp Kinlafia's forearm. "I'm Regiment-Captain Skrithik's XO here at Fort Salby. They sent word up the line that you'd be arriving today, and the regiment-captain asked me to keep an eye out for the train."


"Oh?"


"We understand your hurry to get back home again," Vargan said almost apologetically. "But you're the first person to come back up the line since it happened, and you're also . . . well—"


He shrugged slightly, and Kinlafia suppressed a sigh. It was hardly the first time someone had said that to him.


"I don't suppose there's another train headed up-chain this afternoon, anyway, is there?" he said instead.


"Not really." Vargan's slightly crooked grin suggested to Kinlafia that the company-captain had heard the sigh he hadn't uttered. "That's why the regiment-captain wanted me to ask you if you'd have supper with him tonight. Obviously, we'll all understand if you're too tired. Gods know I'd be! But we'd really appreciate the opportunity to offer you the closest Fort Salby has to hospitality. And, of course, to pick your brain ourselves."


"Actually, if I can extort a long, hot shower out of you, and maybe a couple of hours worth of nap, I think I'd enjoy a sitdown supper."


"No problem." Vargan smiled. "We've put you up in the BOQ. If you'll come with me, we'll get your bag dropped off, and then I'll personally escort you to the longest, hottest shower in at least two universes."


Kinlafia chuckled. "It's a deal."


* * *


Somewhat to Kinlafia's surprise, supper at Fort Salby turned out to be not only extremely tasty, but actually enjoyable.


Salby, unlike the other portal forts Kinlafia had passed through on his way back from Hell's Gate, had been established for quite some time. At one point, Salbyton, the settlement outside the fort, had been a construction boomtown as the Trans-Temporal Express labored on the Traisum Cut. Its peak population had been as high as seven or eight thousand, although it had declined from that quickly once the cut was completed. By the time the Chalgyn Consortium had set out on its productive but ill-fated survey expedition, Salbyton had been down to perhaps two thousand, and TTE, as was its wont, had collected and hauled off the temporary, portable housing in which most of its labor force had lived. Despite that, the remaining buildings of Salbyton had a look of permanency and solidity which was rare this far from Sharona, and the local railroad station had quite literally miles of heavy-duty sidings left from its days as the end of the TTE's line.


Neither the fort nor the town had changed a great deal—yet—despite all that had happened since, but that was about to change. All of that temporary housing TTE had pulled out was undoubtedly on its way back, although it might not be stopping at Salbyton this time. The new construction priorities closer to Hell's Gate were going to dwarf the importance of making the Traisum Cut.


There was a two-hour time difference between the two sides of the portal, which, fortunately was also one of the older portals which had so far been discovered. It must have been . . . lively around Fort Salby's present location for the first century or so after the portal formed, Kinlafia reflected. The altitude differential was less than that of some other portals, but it had still been sufficient to channel a standing, unending, twenty-four-hour-a-day, three-mile-wide hurricane through from Karys until the pressures finally equalized. There was ample evidence of the sort of sandblasting erosion portals at disparate heights tended to produce, although none of it was very recent. And there was still a permanent, moderately stiff breeze blowing through the portal, even now, which made it unfortunate that Zaithag was about as dry (and hot) as Narshalla. Fort Salby could have used a little rain, if Karys had had any to spare.


Now, as the Voice sat with his hosts on the covered veranda built across the back of the Skrithiks' house just outside Fort Salby's gate, the portal had already darkened to star-shot night. It was a striking vista, even for an experienced inter-universal traveler, as the midnight-blue half-disk of night loomed up against the coals and ashes of the local sunset. The veranda had been carefully placed to take advantage of the permanent breeze, and the air moving across it was distinctly cooler than the local air temperature.


"That was delicious, Madame Skrithik," Kinlafia said, sitting back with a pleasant sense of repletion. "I've been eating off of campfires for months now."


"I suppose that makes your approval just a bit two-edged," Chalendra Skrithik said. "I've eaten campfire cooking myself a time or two, you know."


"I didn't mean—" Kinlafia began quickly, then stopped as he recognized his hostess' slight smile. She saw his expression, and the smile turned into a chuckle.


"My wife, you may have observed, Voice Kinlafia," chan Skrithik said wryly, "has what she fondly imagines is a sense of humor."


"Actually, I have a very good sense of humor," the wife in question said, elevating her nose with an audible sniff. "All women do. It's simply unfortunate that so many males of the species fail to appreciate its innate superiority."


"Personally, I've always recognized its superiority," Kinlafia told her gravely. "Or, at least, I've always been smart enough to pretend I did."


"A wise man, I see," Company-Captain Vargan observed, then shook his head with a sigh. "I fear my own cultural baggage betrayed me when Madame Skrithik and I first crossed swords. Er, met, I mean. Met."


"But I had to draw so little blood before you recognized the error of your ways, Orkam," Chalendra said sweetly, and this time Kinlafia laughed.


He really hadn't looked forward to dinner when the invitation was extended, but now he was more than glad he'd accepted it. Chan Skrithik reminded him in many ways of an older Janaki chan Calirath. He wasn't as tall—few people were, after all—and he was considerably older than the crown prince, with much fairer hair, but he had the same steady, gray eyes, and there was something of Janaki's sense of . . . solidity about him. He and his wife had worked hard, with the smoothness of a well-established team, to make their guest feel welcome, and they'd succeeded in ample measure. They'd treated him as if they'd known him for years, and he found himself wondering if perhaps Chalendra had one of those traces of rogue Talent that turned up so often. She'd seemed to know exactly what to say and do to make him feel at ease, and he was guiltily aware that his personality had been . . . thorny, to say the very least, since Shaylar's murder.


Like her husband, Chalendra Skrithik was at least ten years older than Kinlafia himself, and she had that tough, capable air he'd seen among so many of the women who'd followed their husbands—or made their own independent ways—out to the frontier. Her dark hair was just beginning to show threads of silver, and there were crow's-feet at the corners of her brown eyes, but she remained a remarkably handsome woman.


"At any rate, Madame Skrithik," the Voice said now, "I intended my comment as the most sincere possible approval. This was delicious, and the opportunity to sit in a proper chair and use honest-to-gods silverware only made me appreciate it even more."


"I'm glad," she said, this time with simple sincerity of her own. "I've spent enough time following Rof around to realize just how hard you must have been pushing yourself to reach Fort Salby this soon. And I know why you're doing it, too. If we can make you feel welcome, then I think that's the very least we can do after all you've already done."


"Don't make me out to be some sort of hero," Kinlafia said quietly. "I happened to be the one to Hear Shaylar and relay the message. The real heroes were the ones at Fallen Timbers, or the people like Company-Captain chan Tesh."


"I have enough Talent to have Seen the SUNN rebroadcast of Voice Nargra-Kolmayr's last message," Vargan put in. "I won't embarrass you by running on about it, but I wouldn't be surprised if those of us who've Seen it don't have a better appreciation than you do for just how much you do qualify as a 'hero.' "


Kinlafia made an uncomfortable little gesture, and the company-captain left whatever more he'd been about to add unsaid.


"At any rate," chan Skrithik said, stepping into the brief hiatus in the conversation, "we appreciate what you've been able to tell us about what's happened since. I've been getting the intelligence synopses and copies of most of the official reports, but it's not the same thing as talking to someone who's actually seen it. You've really helped me put a lot of it into context."


"I'm glad I could help," Kinlafia said, and he was. And I'm also just a little surprised by how little it hurt, he thought. Either the scab's getting even thicker, or else I really am learning to deal with it. Or both, maybe.


"I could wish you hadn't left before the negotiations began," Vargan said.


"Oh?" Kinlafia looked at him, and the company-captain shrugged.


"You were there at the beginning," the Shurkhali pointed out. "You might say—" Vargan's smile was grim "—that you Saw the way our first effort to negotiate worked out. I'd like to have gotten your firsthand impression of whether or not they're serious . . . and whether or not anything's likely to come of it."


"I wouldn't be the right person to ask." It came out a bit more flatly than Kinlafia had intended, and he gave himself a small mental shake. "I'm afraid I'm a bit too emotionally involved in what happened to Shaylar and the rest of our crew to stand back and think about anything those people might come up with."


"I can understand why that might be," Chalendra said quietly. She reached out and touched the back of Kinlafia's hand. "I don't think anyone who Saw the SUNN broadcast of Shaylar's final message could expect you to feel any other way, Darcel."


"Maybe." He managed not to sigh and gave her a small, grateful smile. "Having said that, though, I really do hope that something comes of the talks. But for that to happen, they're going to have to agree to punish whoever was responsible for that massacre. I don't see how Sharona could settle for anything less than full accountability for that."


"From what I've been seeing in the Voicenet transmissions, that's probably the absolute minimum any Sharonian government is going to be able to settle for," chan Skrithik agreed. "On the other hand—"


The regiment-captain paused as his batman stepped back onto the veranda with a bottle of slightly chilled wine, which he proceeded to pour.


"I'm afraid that finding good wine out here at the bleeding edge is all but impossible," chan Skrithik said, "but this vintage is at least decent."


"Wine snob!" his wife snorted.


"I take my pleasures where I can find them," the regiment-captain replied with an air of dignity as the orderly withdrew with an admirably impassive expression.


Chalendra's lively eyes gleamed, but she declined to take up that particular challenge, Kinlafia noted. For now, at least.


"I noticed what looked like a Uromathian cavalry regiment's standard," the Voice said, changing the subject before she changed her mind. "Does that mean Emperor Chava is sending forward reinforcements?"


"Not as many as he might like," Vargan muttered, and chan Skrithik gave his executive officer a slight frown, more imagined than seen.


"Actually, Uromathia was the first to get any of its national units moved up to support us," the fort's CO replied to Kinlafia's question. "And I'll admit I had my own doubts when I heard they were coming. For that matter, and just between the four of us, I still don't trust Chava's motives one little bit. But Sunlord Markan, their senior officer, has done nothing but dig in and do everything he possibly can to integrate his troopers into our force structure here. In fact, he's out on maneuvers this evening, or I'd have invited him to supper, too. I don't think anyone could fault his efforts or how energetically he goes about them. And to be brutally honest, he's come very close to doubling our available troop strength."


"But you're not sending any of them farther forward?"


"No, I'm not. Or, rather, the PAAF isn't. For several reasons, I feel certain. Logistics would be a problem, for one thing. The Uromathians don't use standard PAAF equipment, so just keeping them supplied with ammunition would be a pain. And until the railhead reaches Fort Ghartoun, Salby is the natural 'stopper' for the Karys Chain. In fact, we've turned into a collecting point for a really odd collection of odds and ends that've been emptied out of various arsenals and armories up-chain from us. Some genius in Reyshar actually sent us an even dozen Yerthak pedestal guns." Chan Skrithik snorted. "They were intended for the Authority revenue cutters in Reyshar—they've been having some smuggling problems—and apparently the panic immediately after word of Fallen Timbers hit got them rushed ahead to us here. And until they get the rail lines laid at least to Ghartoun, I'm keeping them here, too. The damned things weight a good half-ton each, and at the rate they eat up ammo, just keeping them supplied with shells would be a genuine pain in the posterior. Exactly what chan Tesh needs in his field fortifications, aren't they?"


The regiment-captain's expression was so disgusted Kinlafia had to chuckle. For a moment, he was afraid his laughter had given offense, but then chan Skirithik grinned wryly and shook his head.


"Better to have people sending us stuff we'll never use than not get sent the stuff we will need, I suppose. But that's just one more example of the logistics headaches we'd be looking at if we deployed the Uromathians forward."


Kinlafia nodded gravely, but he also heard all of the things chan Skrithik wasn't saying. The Voice didn't doubt for a moment that Balkar chan Tesh would have done almost anything to get another couple of thousand men forward to help hold Hell's Gate. But the "almost anything" undoubtedly didn't include effectively putting Uromathia in command of future contact with Arcana. No matter how conscientiously this Sunlord Markan was working to cooperate with chan Skrithik, letting him supersede chan Tesh—which, given his combined military rank and aristocratic precedence, he would most certainly have done—wasn't going to be something any non-Uromathian in Sharona wanted to see happen.


Politics, he thought almost despairingly. Always politics. And Janaki thinks I can do something about it?


A vision of his parents' faces floated before him. His father was a professor of languages at Resiam University in New Farnalia, while his mother was a Talented Healer, and both of them had . . . pronounced views on politics. Which, though he hadn't explained it to Janaki, was one reason he'd hesitated before jumping at the Prince's offer. Both of them were staunch opponents of the "outmoded, class-based" system of "paternalistically justified aristocratic denial of the basic right of decision-making." Given that the two of them lived in one of the more militant of Sharona's republics, they had little personal experience with that "aristocratic denial" of the right to make political decisions, but he very much doubted that they were going to be performing any Arpathian drum dances of joy when they found out about their baby boy's career-move decision.


"Has there been any word on the Act of Unification?" he asked after a moment. "There seemed to be a few . . . difficulties that still needed ironing out according to the last Voice message I Heard."


"My, you are tactful, aren't you?" chan Skrithik murmured with a crooked smile.


"Well, I'm neither Ternathian nor Uromathian," Kinlafia pointed out. "I hope you won't take this wrongly, but most of us New Farnalians have always been at least a little amused watching the two of you. Don't get me wrong. Of the two, I've always been a lot more comfortable with Ternathia. After all, that's where most of the New Farnal colonists came from in the first place. Still, I have to admit that with the entire multiverse out there, all of this 'great power rivalry' has always struck me as just a little silly."


"If it weren't for the constant potential for it to turn into something very unfunny indeed, I'd probably agree with you," chan Skrithik said. "Orkam, on the other hand, lives a little closer to Uromathia than you do, and I don't think he finds it quite as amusing. In fact, I've noticed that the humor quotient seems to decline in direct proportion to one's proximity to Chava Busar's frontiers."


"I know." Kinlafia felt just a little abashed. "If it sounded like I don't think there's any difference between Emperor Zindel and Emperor Chava, I apologize. For that matter, I spent quite a while with Crown Prince Janaki, and I discovered that he's a . . . very impressive fellow, in a lot of ways. I guess it's just that I grew up far enough away that I never really felt threatened by either side, and I've seen just how big the multiverse is. I've wondered, sometimes, if it wouldn't have made sense to just hand an entire universe over to Uromathia, and another one to Ternathia, and tell them to behave themselves."


"I doubt very much you could've gotten anyone else to go along with the notion of giving Chava Busar an entire world to play around with," Company-Captain Vargan said dryly. "The problem is what he'd do with all those resources. I'm afraid Chava is one of those people who can never be satisfied, never feel he has quite enough power. The only thing he could see that sort of resource base as would be a springboard from which to conquer the rest of the multiverse."


"I'm afraid Orkam's probably right, about Chava, at least," chan Skrithik said with a sigh.


"And he's not exactly alone in that, either, Sir," Vargan pointed out. His voice was diffidently stubborn. Obviously, this was a topic he and his superior had discussed before, Kinlafia thought. "Markan's been a lot more . . . proddy ever since he found out about the Act of Unification and who'd been proposed as everyone's emperor, and you know it."


"Yes, he has," chan Skrithik agreed. "But you'd be 'proddy' if Chava had been elected as your emperor, too, Orkam. And Markan's a sunlord. Whether he wants to be or not, he's got to be deeply involved in Uromathia's internal politics. Bearing all of that in mind, how could you expect him to feel any other way?"


"I don't imagine anyone could," Darcel said, stepping diplomatically into the fray. "But has Sunlord Markan's attitude become a problem?"


"No, not really," chan Skrithik said. "Markan is as dedicated and professional an officer as I've ever met, and he hasn't let his unhappiness—his natural unhappiness—get in the way of cooperating with us here. In a way, though, that only emphasizes the nature of our problem. Most Uromathians are going to be at least . . . strongly influenced, let's say, by the attitude of their ruler. And if most Uromathians are no more power-crazed or power-hungry than anyone else, Chava, unfortunately, is."


"And he's Emperor of Uromathia," Chalendra pointed out, shaking her head. "For that matter, those sons of his are no great prizes, either."


"So thank the gods the Conclave had the good sense to pick Emperor Zindel over Chava," Vargan said with the sort of fervor Kinlafia seldom heard outside temple.


"I can't disagree with that," Kinlafia acknowledged. "But should I understand from what you've just said that the Act has actually been approved?"


"Not yet," chan Skrithik said, then snorted. "Well, what I actually meant, I suppose, is that it hadn't been as of a week and a half ago."


Kinlafia nodded in understanding of the qualification. It was hard to remember sometimes just how far places like Fort Salby were from Sharona. The thought that it could take over a week for a Voice message to reach Traisum was sobering proof of just how great the distances involved truly were.


Of course, it wouldn't take that long if it weren't for the water barriers, he reminded himself. It was the need to transport Voices physically across the water gaps too wide for them to span—most of which were up-chain from Traisum—that accounted for the vast majority of the delay, after all.


"So we still don't know if Uromathia is going to sign on," he said, after moment.


"Oh, I think Chava will sign on the dotted line eventually," chan Skrithik replied. "It's not like he has a lot of choice, after all. Even he has to recognize how the appearance of these 'Arcanans' has changed everything."


"You think so?" Vargan said sourly. Chan Skrithik looked at him, and the company-captain shrugged. "Logically, I can't argue with you," he said. "But I'm telling you, Rof—that man is never going to sign off on the creation of a world empire, especially under the Caliraths, unless he figures there's some way for him to park his fundament on the throne eventually."


"You may be right," chan Skrithik conceded with the air of a man who'd had this discussion more than once already. "In fact, from what I've seen of Chava, you probably are. But even if you are, what he thinks he's going to get away with, and what he is going to get away with are two different things. I don't care how tough, how sneaky, Chava Busar may think he is, he does not want to piss off Zindel chan Calirath. Believe me."


"If he's anything like his son, I'm inclined to agree with you," Kinlafia said.


"Which doesn't mean Chava isn't going to try something, anyway," Vargan pointed out. "And if he does, it could get spectacularly messy."


"Yes, it could." Chan Skrithik nodded. "But what Voice Kinlafia was asking was whether or not Chava's going to accept unification at all. And my feeling, from the regular Voicenet messages and the dispatches I've received, is that he's going to. I'm sure he is going to have some . . . mental reservations, let's say, if he does, but if Emperor Zindel is willing to accept the demand that Janaki marry a Uromathian, I don't think Chava will have any choice but to agree to the unification."


"Janaki marry a Uromathian?" Kinlafia couldn't quite keep his repugnance out of his voice and expression, and Chalendra Skrithik snorted. It wasn't, Kinlafia noted, a particularly happy snort.


"That's what Chava's been holding out for," she said. "And, like Rof says, he may already have gotten it. According to the last report I heard, the Conclave was supposed to vote on the marriage amendment to the Act of Unification three days ago. So, we ought to be hearing about the outcome in another week or so."


"I see."


Kinlafia sat back and took a sip of chan Skrithik's "decent vintage" while he pondered what Chalendra had just said. It was odd to sit here and realize the outcome of the vote was probably speeding its way down the chain of universes to Fort Salby at this very moment. And it was even odder to realize just how ambivalent Kinlafia himself was about that possible outcome. Despite the optimism everyone else had felt when the Arcanan diplomats turned up, Darcel Kinlafia's belief that Sharona had to reorganize itself into something capable of meeting the Arcanans toe-to-toe had never wavered. Sharona had to unify its competing, squabbling nations. And yet, the thought of the towering young Crown Prince of Ternathia being forced to marry one of Chava Busar's daughters or nieces revolted him. Perhaps it was the sort of dynastic, political calculation kings and emperors routinely had to face, but he liked Janaki. Liked him a lot.


And I don't much like what Vargan was saying, either, the Voice reflected. Because if Chava really does think there's a way to put his arse on the throne, then there has to be at least a line or two in his plans for getting rid of Janaki, first.


Darcel Kinlafia wouldn't like that. He wouldn't like it at all.


So it looks like there's another good reason to go into politics, where I might actually be able to do something about it, he thought, drinking his wine and gazing up at the twinkling stars of Karys.


 


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