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CHAPTER FORTY-THREE

Poertena tossed down a single card.


"Gimme."


"Never draw to an inside straight," Fain said, flipping a card across the table. "It just won't work."


"A week," Tratan said. "A week he's been playing, and already he's an expert."


"It won't," the company commander said.


"We've got the masts almost finished," Tratan said, changing the subject, "and the last of the spars will be ready next week. Now if you hull pussies would ever get finished . . ."


"Real woodwork takes time," Trel Pis said. The old K'Vaernian shipbuilder scratched his right horn as he contemplated his cards. "You can't rush perfection."


"We gots tee last load o' planking from tee mills yestiday," Poertena said. "Tomorrow we starts putting it up. Every swingin' . . . whatever gets to put up planks til we done. T'en we parties."


"So next week the Prince has his yacht?" Fain asked. "Call. Pair of twos."


"Or tee week after," Poertena said. "We gots to set up tee rigging, an' t'at takes time. An' tee new canvas ain't ready yet, neither. Four eights. Gimme."


"If he was a Diaspran, I'd never believe it," Tratan said, throwing down his hand.


"Natural four?" Fain said in disbelieving tones.


"Hey," Poertena said. "If you gots tee cards, you don't have to draw to a straight. It's only when you pocked you gots to do t'at."


* * *


"Sergeant, could you take a look at this?"


The humans hadn't tried to explain the nature of the listening post to their hosts. The Mardukans had remarkable facility with gross manufacture, but the minute the word "electronics" was used, it became supernatural. So instead of trying to explain, Pahner had just asked for a high, open spot on the western wall, and left it at that.


Julian walked over from the open tower where the rest of the squad was lounging in the shade and checked the reading on the pad.


"Shit," he said quietly.


"What's it mean?" Cathcart asked, tapping a querying finger on the flashing icon.


"Encrypted voice transmission," Julian said, crouching down to run expertly through the analysis.


"From a recon flight?"


There was an unmistakable nervous note in the corporal's voice, and Julian didn't blame him. The entire company had known since the day they left Marshad that someone from the port had discovered the abandoned assault shuttles in which they'd reached the planet. The scrap of com traffic they'd picked up from the pinnace which had spotted them had been in the clear, which hadn't left much room for doubts. But it had also been only a scrap, and what no one knew was what whoever was in control of the port had done about that discovery since. It was unlikely that anyone would believe a single company of Marines could survive to get this far, but it certainly wasn't impossible.


"Don't know if it's a recon flight," he told Cathcart after a moment, "but whatever it is, we're close enough to pick it up. Which means they're close enough to see us . . . if they look. Or hear us, if we're careless with our radio traffic. "


"Saint?" the corporal asked, glancing at the sky.


"Civilian," Julian replied. "Standard program you can download off any planet's Infonet."


"That's good, right?" Cathcart said. "That means the Saint blockade might have been lifted. It might be a freighter or something."


"Yeah," Julian said. "Maybe." He tapped the icon, and it flashed red and yellow. "On the other hand, pirates use the same program."


* * *


Cord had considered himself a scholar in his day. And a poet. So when O'Casey set her toot to the task of accurately translating the long-ago log of the only ship known ever to have crossed the ocean, it was as a scholar that Cord had offered his assistance.


But it was with the mind of a shaman that he finally read the words which had been written on the crumbling leather leaves of the ancient log.


"Upon the forty-sixth day of the voyage, in the first quarter after light, there was a vast boiling upon the sea, as of a giant swell of water. All who were not employed upon the oars gathered on the starboard side to observe as another boil came up, and still another, each closer to the ship and apparently approaching rapidly.


"Just as the fourth boil of water was observed near alongside the starboard beam, there was a great shudder from below, as if the ship had struck a hidden reef.


"Master Kindar called to back all oars, but before any action could be taken, a vast mouth, as wide as the ship was long, opened up, and the bow of the vessel dropped into its maw.


"The jaws closed upon the ship, tearing it asunder and taking away many who had run forward to see the apparition. Many others, especially those along the sides, were thrown from the shattered remnants.


"I stood my post upon the rudder deck as the ship began to roll to the side. There was more screaming forward, as the ship shuddered again, and it was apparent that the beast had taken another bite, but it was out of my view.


"I clung to the rudder as the ship rolled, and then lashed myself to the starboard bulwark as the fragment continued to float. Forward, I could hear the screams of others caught in the water, and again and again the creature crashed against the remnant of the ship, until it became either sated or disgusted with the fare. Perhaps it was the latter, for it has been ten days now, and it has not returned.


"The cook and I are the only survivors of the good ship Nahn Cibell. The wind and tide drive us slowly onward across the endless ocean. I have written all that I know. I hope to speak to my wife at the end of this voyage, and to see my young.


"But it is very hot upon the sea. And we have no water."


* * *


Roger sat on the end of the dock and looked out over the small cove. He could hear the party getting into swing behind him, but for the moment he was content just to watch the sun descending over the K'Vaern Sea.


He rubbed the cover of the bag, and unrolled it. The jeweled badge of an imperial servitor glittered in the fading light, and he unpinned it from the bag and held it up in one hand. He ran the forefinger of his other hand lightly, gently, across it, then drew a deep breath and pinned it very carefully to the breast of his own chameleon suit. He gave it a single, almost tender pat, and then returned to the bag.


One end held a lump, and he unsealed the bag and gently picked out a handful of fine ash.


"Oh, Danny boy," he whispered, and his hand moved, sending the fine drift of ashes out over the water while the words of the ancient paean to love and loss whispered out under the cry of four-winged avians whose like had never been dreamed of on Earth.



"Oh Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling,
From glen to glen, and down the mountainside.
The summer's gone, and all the flowers are dying.
'Tis you, 'tis you must go, and I must bide.
But come ye back when summer's in the meadow,
Or when the valley's hushed and white with snow.
'Tis I'll be here in sunshine or in shadow,
Oh Danny boy, oh Danny boy, I love you so."


* * *


"Roger?" Nimashet put her hand on his shoulder. "Are you coming? This is your party, too."


"I'm coming." He stood and dusted off his hands. "I suppose that food is as good a way to celebrate him as any."


Prince Roger Ramius Sergei Alexander Chiang MacClintock, Heir Tertiary to the Throne of Man, took one last look at the gentle swell surging across the reef at the entrance to the cove. Then he turned and walked back to the restaurant, hand in hand with a sergeant of Marines, and the fine film of ash still clinging to his palm mingled and spread between their hands, unnoticed.


Behind them, the ashes slowly mixed with the salty sea and floated out on the tide of two moons. Floated out on the tide to wash upon distant shores.


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