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"He's a devil, that one."
"No doubt," Sir George agreed as he stood beside Walter Skinnet and watched Seamus McNeely with the tall, coal-black stallion.
They stood in yet another cavern of gleaming bronze-colored alloy. In some ways, the English had begun to become accustomed to their new "home." In other ways, such as the compartment in which he and Skinnet stood, the vast ship became only more uncanny.
There was no way Sir George could be certain, but he had come to suspect that the interior of the demon-jester's huge vessel was not fixed. It seemed preposterous, yet they had seen ample evidence of the fashion in which their captors could change and modify portions of the interior. The chairs which had "grown" out of the deck for that first meeting with what had become the baron's council had seemed an impossible marvel, but since that day subsequent levels of marvel had begun to dull some of the English's awe. They had become no less marvelous, but familiarity applied even here.
Like the "stables." Sir George knew the ship had contained no area configured to house horses before the demon-jester agreed to provide the English with mounts. There would have been no need for one. Besides, the demon-jester and Computer's tenor voice had spent almost three hours drawing a complete description of a proper stable from him. There would have been no need for that if they'd already had that information.
Yet when the horses were finally brought aboard (once again, Sir George's mind flinched away from the thought of what their acquisition had cost the manor from whence they had come), the stables had been ready and waiting. Vast stables, larger than any the baron had ever imagined, and with an attached exercise area at least three acres in extent, all at the heart of the huge ship. He saw no sign, looking about the stable cavern, that this space had ever had any other shape or purpose.
Of course, the stables weren't the only part of the ship which had been reshaped for its current use. For all of the casual contempt with which the demon-jester obviously regarded his human captives, he had bestowed upon them wondrous comforts without apparently even realizing how wonderful they were. One was "Computer." Sir George still had no idea just what Computer was, but he suspected that Computer was even more capable and responsible for even more duties than he had first assumed. The baron was tempted to think of him as the demon-jester's familiar, although he made a conscientious effort not to. Despite all of the "magical" aspects of their ship-prison, the attitude of the demon-jester and his constant references to "advanced species" and "technology" had convinced Sir George that what he actually saw was not magic but simply developments of the mechanical arts far beyond the capability of any human. Which wasn't to say that those developments would always be beyond human reach, although the "Commander" seemed oblivious to that possibility . . . or its potential consequences. However advanced the demon-jester's arts might be, he was as arrogant and foolish as any Frenchman Sir George had ever met. No doubt he felt secure in the invincibility of his devices and his dragon-man guards, but only a fool would show his contempt for soldiers in his service, however they came to be there, as plainly as he.
Nowhere did that arrogance show more clearly than in the combination of threats and bribery with which he attempted to enforce his will. The threats had been made manifest enough with the murder of Sir John Denmore; the bribes had taken longer to emerge, but in their own way, they were as impressive as the threats, and Computer was part of them.
It was Computer who had directed them through their "processing," and just as the demon-jester's own voice reached to every ear, wherever they might be within the ship, so did Computer's. But unlike the demon-jesteror, for that matter, the wart-faces or the dragon-men, none of whom had so far uttered a single word in any human's hearingComputer also listened. One had only to speak his name for him to hear and respond, no matter where or when. Nor did it appear to matter to Computer who it was who called upon him, for he responded as promptly to the youngest apprentice as to Sir George himself. And whoever or whatever he was, Computer displayed a curious mixture of the demon-jester's own contempt for the English combined with a readiness to inform and teach which appeared infinitely patient.
It was Computer who had taught the English how to summon forth the many marvelous aspects of their quarters which were so much a part of the demon-jester's bribes. And, despite himself, Sir George had to admit that those bribes were seductive. King Edward himself could not have commanded many of the luxuries which the demon-jester, Computer, and the vessel in which they were imprisoned made available to even the lowliest of Sir George's men. True, their quarters were cramped, but each of Sir George's officers, even those with neither wife nor mistress, had at least one small compartment to himself. The common soldiers and the relatively small handful of civilians had to make do with a common barracks, but even the barracks boasted such incredible amenities as hot and cold running water, beds and tables and chairs which emerged from the deck or disappeared back into it upon command, and the restorative white vaporall available from Computer upon request.
There were limits, however, to what Computer was prepared to explain. He always responded when he heard his name, but all too often his only response to a question was,"That information is not available at this level of clearance." He was obviously under orders to prevent the English from learning anything which might have allowed them to discover the nature of the demon-jester's mysterious guild, whither they were bound, or what might become of them in the end. It was an order he obeyed assiduously, yet he had allowed at least a few bits of knowledge to escape him.
In some ways, it was becoming difficult for the English to remember that there had ever been a time when they hadn't been aboard the demon-jester's stupendous ship. If Computer was to be believedand Sir George saw no reason why he should bother to lie, when, as he had amply demonstrated, he could always simply refuse to answerthen the ship was voyaging between the very stars even as he and Skinnet stood speaking. The idea of such travel verged too perilously close to heresy, or at least blasphemy, for Sir George's comfort, yet his concept of reality was acquiring a certain elasticity. He had little choice in that regard; it was a matter of adjust or succumb to madness, and he had too many responsibilities for that. Nor would Matilda have forgiven him, he thought with an inner grin.
That grin faded slowly as he watched McNeely and the stallion. It was impossible to say precisely how long they had been aboard the demon-jester's ship, for when there was no sun or moon, there were no days or nights. It never became entirely dark in the corridors and passages of the portion of the stupendous vessel which had been set aside for the use of Sir George and his people, but the lighting dimmed on a regular basis which seemed to correspond more or less to the length of a normal day. There was no way to be certain that it did, however, and thereby hung yet another of the endless chain of things for the baron to worry about. Computer apparently saw no reason to keep track of time for them, and with neither calendars nor any means to know how their "days" corresponded to those of the world they had always known, there was no way to keep track accurately of saints' days, Christmas or Easter, or even whether or not it was truly Sunday!
Father Timothy, as the only ordained priest aboard, had brought that concern to Sir George's attention. Fortunately, he had been wise enough to do so privately, and Sir George, Matilda, and he had been able to discuss the difficulty between themselves before anyone else appeared to have thought of it on his own. In the end, Timothy had found himself with yet another responsibility as their official timekeeper.
"All we may do is the best that mortals can," Sir George had declared finally. "God surely understands the difficulties we face, and no doubt He'll make allowances for us. With neither dawn nor sunset, we can only count the days as best we may and set aside Sundays and feast days when our count says they fall."
"I can't say I like it, My Lord," Father Timothy said heavily, "yet neither can I see any other avenue open to us. And, as you say, surely God, in His infinite mercy, will forgive us if we err."
"No doubt He will," Matilda agreed, "but I fear that some of our folk may react . . . poorly once the implications strike home fully. Some of them already find it difficult to believe that the wart-faces and dragon-men are truly mortal and not demons, whatever we may tell them."
"Which is why it is particularly important that we present a united front on this matter," her husband said with a nod. "We must be certain Sir Richard and Sir Anthony and all the other senior officers are forewarned and prepared to take the same position when we make our announcement."
"And the same for those who aren't soldiers," Matilda said thoughtfully. "I should discuss this first with Lady Margaret, I think. Sir Bryan isn't our most senior knight, but his lady is levelheaded, and the other women already look to her almost as much as to me for advice and counsel."
"A good choice, My Lady," Father Timothy approved. "And I will take Tom Westman aside."
Sir George nodded. Westman was their master smith, a skilled craftsman who was highly respected among the common folk.
"It might be as well," Matilda suggested after a moment, "to point out that the dates set by Mother Church for religious days have been changed from time to time to reflect our best understanding of when they ought to fall. We have no councils of bishops to aid us, but surely God will guide us, armed by our Faith, now that we find ourselves forced to set dates of our own."
"So long as no one suspects me of attempting to usurp the authority of Rome!" Father Timothy said with a slightly uneasy chuckle.
"No one will accuse you of usurping anything, Timothy," Sir George replied. "Yet I think you must accept that you stand the closest to bishop or archbishop we have or are ever like to have."
"I cannot claim such authority, My Lord!"
"I didn't say you must," Sir George said calmly. "Yet whether you claim it or not, you come closer to it than anyone else among us, and all our folk, gentle and common alike, will look to you for guidance." He smiled almost compassionately at his old tutor and reached out to rest a hand on one broad shoulder as the priest looked at him uneasily. "Come, Timothy! Wasn't it you who taught a young boy that no man may turn his back upon the task God calls him to? And at least you have thisGod is always present, always with us, and you can always ask Him for guidance. My own position is less comfortable, for I fear it would take more time than we have for me to consult with the King or his Council!"
"As you say, My Lord," Father Timothy had acknowledged, and if he continued to cherish doubts about the authority thrust upon him, no sign of that had colored his manner when the question of holy days finally arose. Despite the united front of their leaders, some of their people remained uneasy, and Sir George knew it. But it was only one of many sources of uneasiness, and by far the greater part felt only relief in resigning that particular worry into the capable hands of Father Timothy, particularly once he was able to establish a regular cycle of "Sunday" masses. Whether it was the "right" Sunday or not mattered far less to them than that it was a Sunday, and they embraced the comforting tradition of their faith eagerly.
Fortunately, explaining to the demon-jester why they needed a compartment to sanctify and set aside as God's holy church had been less difficult than Sir George had anticipated. The alien had granted the request with thinly veiled contempt for such "primitive superstition," but that attitude was only to be expected. It was certainly part and parcel of every other attitude he had demonstrated, at any rate, and Sir George wondered occasionally if such bizarre creatures as he or his wart-face or dragon-man servitors had souls to concern themselves over in the first place.
That was yet another problem for Father Timothy, however, and not one the baron worried himself unduly over. Particularly not when he had so many others to solve, including the one which brought him here today with Skinnet.
"I know you've a taste for spirit in your horses, My Lord," the grizzled veteran said now, "and I've not seen a better horseman. Mind," he added, a faint smile gleaming in his eyes, "I've seen some as good. Aye, and some of them came to grief looking for `spirit' in a horse, now that I think on it!"
"I'm sure you have," Sir George acknowledged.
"And so has Seamus," Skinnet pointed out, jutting his chin at the bald-pated trainer trying the stallion's paces.
Seamus McNeely, the Irishman Sir George had made the master of his stables years before, was working cautiously with the horse, and the baron hid a smile as he watched. Seamus had begun his career as a stableboy at the age of six. That had been over forty years ago, and there were few equine idiosyncrasies he hadn't encountered in that time. From the way in which he was working this particular horse, it was obvious that experience-honed warning signals were sounding in his brain.
"If you'll pardon my saying it, My Lord," Skinnet went on with the diffident obstinacy a long time henchman was permitted, "you'd be wiser to stay away from him. Or to have him cut."
"No," Sir George said firmly.
"If you'll not cut him, then best to put him to stud. It's not always true what some say, that only a fool would ride an uncut stallion, but that one . . ." The experienced cavalryman shook his head. "He'll kill someone for certain someday," Skinnet predicted gloomily. "You see if I'm not right!"
"As long as it's the right someone, I've no objection," Sir George said mildly. "And I'd rather have a beast with spirit under me when my own life is on the table."
"I'll not argue with you there," Skinnet conceded, "but there's spirit and there's pure, poison meanness, and that's what this devil has in plenty."
"Perhaps, and perhaps not. We'll see what Seamus thinks after a day or two."
"With all respect, My Lord, Seamus McNeely would say the sun rises in the west if you ordered him to," the compactly built veteran said with a short chuckle, but then he shook his head. "No, that's not fair to old Seamus. He'd not say the sun rises in the west, but he'd do his damnedest to make it rise there!"
"And so he should, if I told him to," Sir George shot back with a grin, and Skinnet laughed. But the laugh was brief, and his expression was serious as he shook his head once more.
"All very well, My Lord, all very well. But we'll none of us think it funny if that devil breaks your neck! Bad enough if something like that had happened in France, but now?"
"I'm mindful of what you're saying, Walter," Sir George replied after a long moment. "But if I'm to lead and command, then lead and command I must, and on the field, I want Satan himself under me!"
"Aye? Well, if it's Satan you want, My Lord, I think you've found him, right enough."
"What progress have you made with training your beasts?"
Sir George stood facing the demon-jester across the same crystal table. The chamber in which the table sat had changed since his last visit here. The walls were a dark, soothing green, and the space directly behind the demon-jester had assumed the breathtakingly real appearance of a shady forest glade. The trees and lush, low-growing bushes with their brilliant crimson and gold blossoms resembled nothing Sir George had ever seen before. The tree leaves were long fingered, delicate, and seven pointed, and the tree trunks were covered in a bark which looked almost like the soft fur of a cat. The bushes had knifelike leaves that were almost black, veined in red, and even as he watched some small, careless creature came too close to one of them. The entire bush flexed and quivered as if struck by a sudden, high wind, and then its limbs pounced.
That was the only word Sir George could think of for it. The limbs pounced, striking downwards, their leaves turning inward like the knives they so resembled, and the bush's prey squealed a high, piercing note of agony as hooklike briars seized and tore at it. The bush thrashed and jerked for a few more moments, then all was still once more.
"What progress have you made with training your beasts?" the demon-jester repeated, and Sir George pulled his eyes away from the forest glade.
"Good progress, Commander," he replied. "Some of them aren't really suited to the field, but we have enough good mounts to put under two hundred men. I would prefer to continue training with them, but for the most part, I feel satisfied with what we've accomplished."
"I am glad to hear it," the demon-jester told him. "We have spent too long at half power as it is. We shall be forced to operate at almost ninety-five percent power levels for the remainder of the voyage to make up the lost time. This will entail a certain degree of risk to the vessel and all aboard it, and we must begin immediately. If we wait any longer, the power levels and risk factor will become entirely unacceptable."
"I'm sorry if we've delayed you," the baron said with great insincerity, "but the training time we took was necessary. Without it, we couldn't have fought with full efficiency for you."
"I am aware of that. And if I were not convinced that it was true, then you would be dead," the demon-jester piped.
Sir George made no reply to that. There was nothing he could have said even if he'd wanted to, and he didn't want to.
The demon-jester watched him with all three eyes for a few more seconds, then twitched his ears ever so slightly.
"You and your people and your horses will be placed in phase drive stasis," he said. "The first time you experience this, it may cause some panic, especially among primitives such as yourselves. It will be your task, and that of your officers, to maintain order during the process and after recovery."
"You and Computer have mentioned this . . . stasis, before," Sir George said in his most reasonable voice. "Neither I nor any of my officers are clear about just what may be involved in it, or even what it is. If we're to `maintain order during the process,' it would be very helpful if we knew what was to happen."
There was a long moment of silence, as if the demon-jester were considering what Sir George had said. Then he spoke once more in the fluting, uninflected voice of whatever accomplished the translating.
"Living creatures cannot survive the physical stress exerted upon their systems by a phase drive field operating at power levels in excess of fifty percent. This is an unavoidable consequence of attaining supralight velocities. To protect the crews and passengers of our vessels from the dangers involved, we place them in stasis. Your crude language and primitive worldview do not contain the referents which would permit me to truly explain this process to you. However, you may think of it as being placed in a deep sleep, from which you will not awaken until the completion of the voyage."
"Sleep?" Sir George regarded the demon-jester with carefully hidden skepticism, then glanced at the forever silent, forever expressionless dragon-men standing watchfully at the demon-jester's back.
Despite himself, the baron found himself fascinated by the dragon-men. Over the long weeks he and his people had now been aboard their ship-prison, the wart-faces had begun to emerge as an at least partially known quantity. They had a language of their ownof sorts, at any ratebut it seemed to be a poor and clumsy tongue, composed primarily of grunts and growls, interspersed with an occasional whistle. Unlike the humans or dragon-men, they were not garbed in one-piece suits, either. Instead, they wore heavy tunics dotted with metallic studs, almost like leather jacks . . . and, also unlike the humans, at least a few of them were allowed to retain weapons. Since the activation of the "phase drive" the demon-jester kept going on about, no one had seen them in proper armor or armed with the axes which appeared to be their accustomed weapons, except in the presence of the demon-jester personally or another of the ship's crew. But several of them carried heavy truncheons, almost maces, wherever they went. They had turned up along the walls of the exercise chamber the first time Sir George's longbowmen had been permitted to practice their archery. Despite the disgusted protests of his archers, their shafts had been headless, which had made the presence of what were so obviously guards more than a little superfluous in Sir George's opinion, but the demon-jester obviously wasn't interested in the baron's opinion.
The wart-faces had put in more frequent appearances in the humans' portion of the ship after that, especially whenever the troops drilled with the blunted practice weapons Computer issued to them for that purpose. Their function, obviously, was to police and intimidate the English, but they were only partly successful. No one was foolish enough to think that the obviously physically strong and tough creatures would be easy opponents, but neither were English soldiers easily intimidated. Like Sir George himself, his troops appeared to be quite confident that they could have swarmed the wart-faces under if they'd had to.
Of course, the attempt would undoubtedly prove fatal in the long run, because the wart-faces who were allowed into the humans' area were no more than expendable bludgeons as far as the demon-jester was concerned. The wart-faces couldn't even open one of the abruptly appearing and disappearing doors unless the demon-jester or one of the other crew members opened it for them. And whatever else the wart-faces might have been, clearly no one, themselves included, thought of them as members of the ship's actual crew.
Sir George certainly didn't. There was an obvious hierarchy of status among the denizens of the demon-jester's ship, and the wart-faces had almost as much status as trained mastiffs . . . which was to say, considerably more than the humans enjoyed. The baron had seen only a very few true crew members, although he was unsure whether that meant he had seen only a small fraction of the total crew or that the crew was impossibly small for a ship of such vast size. He would have inclined toward the former explanation, if not for Computer's and the demon-jester's casual demonstrations of how much their "technology" allowed one being to accomplish.
Most of the crew members he had actually seen were neither wart-faces nor dragon-men, but rather members of yet a fourth species, very tall and spindly looking. They had very long legs for their height, and Sir George felt certain that the chairs which had been provided for himself and his Council's first meeting had actually been designed to fit their sort of body.
The only other member of the demon-jester's own species any of the humans had yet seen was the Physician, who was clearly the second ranking member of the crew. Computer occasionally referred to the Physician as the "Ship's Doctor," or "Surgeon," but he was unlike any human surgeon. He used none of the instruments with which Sir George's military experience had made him only too familiar. Instead, he relied upon still more of the mysterious devices, with their flickering lights and occasional humming sounds or musical tones, that sometimes seemed to pack even this enormous ship to the bursting point. Precisely what any of those devices did was, of course, yet another mystery their captors had no intention of sharing with them, nor had Dickon Yardley, Sir George's senior surgeon, been able to suggest any answers. Despite their ignorance as to precisely what the Physician did, and how, every single humanmen, women, and children alikehad been required to visit him in the chamber Computer called "Sick Bay" and submit to his poking, prodding, and peering.
In some odd way the fact that the Physician wasn't human had actually made that easier to endure, but the examinations had remained arduous trials for most of the English. Sir George had found his own experience sufficiently daunting to make him wish passionately that he had been permitted to accompany Matilda, or at least Edward, when it was their turn. That had not been allowed, however, and perhaps it was just as well. Matilda had been uncharacteristically reluctant to discuss her visit to Sick Bay, but she had said enough to make Sir George doubt he could have made himself stand by, threats or no threats, and watch the Physician maul and prod her.
Despite that, he had to admit that the Physician's ministrations, coupled with the draconian hygiene regulations which the Physician and Computer had hammered home, had produced a something very like a miracle. For the first time in Sir George's experience as a soldier, there was not a single case of illness of any sort in his entire company. Not one. Not a flux, not a fever, not even a common cold. Nothing.
That made even putting up with the Physician endurable.
Yet the opportunity to see other members of the crew had only served to strengthen Sir George's conviction that the dragon-men held a special position, somewhere between full members of the crew and the wart-faces. Unlike the wart-faces, the dragon-men had yet to utter a single sound anywhere any human might have heard it. Of course, the English saw much less of the dragon-men than of the wart-faces, for unlike the wart-faces, the dragon-men had never again entered the human-occupied portion of the ship once the original processing procedures and initial meetings of the baron's Council had been completed. Perhaps that was part of the reason for Sir George's fascination with themthe fact that familiarity had been given no chance to wear off the corners of their strangeness.
Still, if he'd seen less of them than he had of the wart-faces, he'd seen far more of them than any of his followers had. At least one was always present, like a silent, gray-green-scaled shadow, whenever he was admitted to the crew's portion of the ship to report to the demon-jester or receive orders from him, and he had long since realized that the dragon-men were as unlike the wart-faces as it was possible for any creature to be.
The wart-faces moved with an odd, toadlike gait that was well-suited to their powerful, hulking bodies. There was nothing even remotely graceful about them, and they seemed to radiate a sullen, dangerous violence, as if they were in fact the half-trained brutes they appeared to human eyes. They were . . . enforcers of the demon-jester's will, an extension of the same terror tactics he had introduced when he murdered young Denmore on that very first day.
But the dragon-men, for all their alien appearance, moved with a sort of lean grace. Sir George suspected that they were even stronger physically than they appeared, probably more powerful than the wart-faces themselves, yet they did not carry themselves with the same ponderous air of threat. And unlike the wart-faces, who appeared to be limited to their truncheons under normal circumstances, the dragon-men always bore the fire weapons like the one which had killed Denmore.
Yet for all of that, it was obvious to Sir George that the silent dragon-men were no more members of the ship's crew than he himself was. More trusted and perhaps somewhat better treated than the English, yes, but still inferiors. Still . . . slaves.
Now the guard standing behind the demon-jester returned the baron's half-questioning gaze with those oddly beautiful, completely inhuman silver eyes and his customary alien inscrutability.
"How can we `sleep' for so long a period?" Sir George asked finally, returning his eyes from the dragon-man to the demon-jester.
"I did not say it would be sleep; I said that you could think of it as sleeping," the demon-jester replied.
As always, it was impossible to tell from his translated voice whether he felt impatience or irritation at being asked questions. On the other hand, Sir George had discovered that for all his other character flawsand God knew they were legion!the demon-jester wouldn't punish him for asking questions. If he grew tired of answering them, he would simply ignore them, but that was all he would do . . . unlike his reaction to anything he might perceive as defiance. Sir George was a brave and hardy man, yet the mere memory of the one time he had argued with the demon-jester for a sentence too long was enough to break him out in a cold sweat. The term "punish" took on a whole new meaning when a three-eyed, alien creature touched the crystalline pendant around his neck and a man's very bones became white-hot irons buried in his flesh.
"I used the term sleep because there is no point in trying to explain the actual process to you," the demon-jester went on now. "I might have used a great many other words and terms in an effort to communicate the techniques of stasis and the reasons for it, but your primitive language and brain would be unable to grasp their meaning. What matters is that so far as you and the rest of your people will be able to tell, you will simply go to sleep and awaken, well rested and fresh, when we reach our destination."
"I see." The demon-jester might not punish questions, Sir George reflected, but he was quite capable of answering them in a way which made his utter contempt for the person who had asked them clear. Not that he'd been any more contemptuous this time than he always was. Indeed, Sir George had come to question whether or not the demon-jester even realized he was showing his contempt. Or that humans might be intelligent enough to recognize it when he did. Or if there were any difference between those two possibilities.
"When we do arrive at your destination," the baron went on after a moment, "what will happen?"
"That is not your concern," the demon-jester's piping voice told him. "When the time comes, you will be told what it is necessary for you to know in order to discharge your function."
"With all due respect, Commander," Sir George replied, "if our `function' is to engage your enemies in battle, then the more you can tell me about the sort of enemy we may face, the better. I need that information in order to plan my tactics and train and rehearse the men in them."
"You will fight who we tell you to fight, when we tell you to fight them, and where we tell you to fight them," the demon-jester informed him.
"I haven't suggested that we wouldn't," Sir George said very carefully. "But if you will recall the matter of the horses, and why we needed them, I think that the conversation we had then should suggest to you why I need as much knowledge as you can give me. And why you should permit me to formulate my own battle plan."
"And why should we do such a thing? How can primitives such as you grasp the reasons we require you to fight or plan the battle as well as we can?"
"We might surprise you with our understanding of the reasons you send us into battle." Sir George's voice was level, and he held the demon-jester's three-eyed gaze with his own. "As a rule, it's usually wise to tell your field commander what it is you hope to accomplish, so that he can adjust and respond most advantageously to the fleeting opportunities which can present themselves in the midst of battle. But that decision is up to you, of course.
"Whatever the goal you seek, however," he went on, "the nature of your enemy, his numbers, his weapons, how he normally fightsif we're to achieve victory for you, these are things which must be taken into account by someone who understands my own troops' capabilities. And as you yourself have said, your people are too advanced to fully comprehend what my primitively armed and equipped soldiers can and cannot accomplish. I, on the other hand, am fully aware of both their strengths and their limitations.
"I won't pretend that we are eager or happy to fight for you, Commander. You wouldn't believe me if I did, for you know as well as I that we never chose to serve you or your guild. But you may believe me when I say that we are even less eager to die, and in that much at least our desires run together. You wish us to fight for you and achieve victory; we wish to stay alive, and staying alive requires us to win the battle for you as quickly and efficiently as we may. It seems to me, then, that the more complete my knowledge of your enemies is, and the greater my freedom to plan the tactics which we will employ, the better we may each achieve our goals."
He started to say something more, then closed his mouth firmly. He might very well already have said more than enough, and he felt his jaw clenching in anticipation of the agonizing punishment the demon-jester had inflicted once before. Yet even as he awaited punishment, his eyes never wavered from the demon-jester's, for what he had just said was neither more nor less than the simple truth. The very thought of allowing the demon-jester to plan the actual tactics for a battle was enough to make a grown man's knees weak. Sir George's mixed force of archers and cavalry was a potent and flexible tool of war, but only in the hands of someone who understood its strengths and weaknesses and who knew better than to place too great a strain upon it.
And whatever he might think of the demon-jester, his guild, or its objectives, Sir George was determined to lose no more of his men than he must.
"It may be that there is something in what you say," the demon-jester told him after a long, nerve-twisting pause. "As you have been honest with me, I have always been honest with you. If you fight well for my guild, we will reward you with long life, good health, and good care. If you do not fight well for us, we will destroy you and seek out another force of primitives who can and will achieve our goals for us. And, as you have pointed out, we are much less conversant than you are with all of the capabilities and weaknesses of your force. But if we permit you to plan your own tactics, then be warned that we will expect complete victory from you. And if we do not receive it, then it is entirely possible that you will be discarded and replaced with one of your officers."
"I understand," Sir George replied levelly.
"See that you do," the demon-jester said in his fluting, uninflected voice. "Because if we discard and replace you, we will have no reason to preserve your mate, either."
Sir George Wincaster's eyes popped open.
He lay still for several slow, deep heart beats, staring up at the opalescent ceiling from the large, coffinlike device in which he had gone into "stasis."
The heavy gray mist which had filled it when first he had lain down in it had dissipated, replaced by the normal air of the ship with its slight, omnipresent tang of lightning. He was naked, as he'd been when sleep overtook him, and he felt a remembered rush of anger. All the humans had gone into "stasis" naked, men and women alike. The Physician had seemed completely oblivious to any reason this might have evoked resentment, and only the memory of the punishment the demon-jesters could inflict, and the knowledge that it would be inflicted upon Matilda and Edward, as well, had prevented Sir George from rebelling against this fresh humiliation.
But he had remembered that punishment, and the courage which would have accepted it for himself was unequal to accepting it for his wife and child. And because that was so, and because he couldn't allow his example to lead others into the same rebellion and the same punishment, he'd managedsomehow; he doubted he would ever truly know howto keep his tongue behind his teeth and still.
Even through his fury and resentment, he'd felt a yet fiercer stir of pride at how regally Matilda had held her head as she disrobed in the presence of dozens of men. She had somehow transformed the humiliation into a badge of courage and composure, and he had felt a different sense of pride as his officers averted their eyes from her nakedness. Some of the other women had objected. Some had wept, and at least one had become hysterical until the Physician sprayed something into her face, but the othersthe vast majority of them allhad taken their example from Matilda, just as the rest of his men had taken theirs from his officers.
Now, as awareness flowed back into him, he knew that they would face the reverse of the same ordeal, but he didn't have to do that yet, and so he lay there a moment longer, allowing his newly awakened senses to report back to him. The air about him was chill, much closer to the cool, almost cold temperatures the demon-jester preferred than to the temperature at which the humans' quarters were normally kept. He shivered slightly, but the nip of the chill was insufficient to pierce the sensation of well-being and rest which suffused him. It was as if the sense of vigor and health the cleansing vapor always left in its wake had been doubled and redoubled while he slept. As if he could leap tall fortress walls in full armor or fly like the storm winds of Heaven itself.
He inhaled deeply, savoring the sensation of pressure and strength in his chest, then sat up smoothly in his "coffin" (the Physician had called it a "stasis bed," but it still looked like a coffin to Sir George) and looked around.
Other men were sitting up in their own stasis beds. Sir Richard, Sir Anthony, Sir Bryan, and Rolf Grayhame were all within ten yards of him, but even as his eyes swept over them, his sense of euphoria vanished.
The stasis beds on either side of his own were still closed, still filled with the gray mist . . . and with Matilda and Edward.
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