Back | Next


The classroom was stuffy and smelled of dont piss. It had once been a stable; there were no windows, and the floor sand was not packed, much less paved over. Bits of straw from its previous life could still be kicked up, and Abel suspected this was where the urine odor still resided. Abel knew he ought to feel lucky. Most of the people of the Land, even those from First Families, never learned to read, and resorted to an abacus when numbers began to move much past twenty. With his father’s permission, the officers with children had pooled their resources to hire a teacher and had rented the space from the military garrison.

Reading had come easily to Abel. Math had not.

With class a half day on Mondays and Fridays, and, of course instruction in the Law and Stasis taking up all of Thursday, Abel had begun to spend a great deal of time inside his thoughts, talking to the voices he still was not quite sure were real, but that he knew had proved to be quite helpful at times.

But the voices, Raj and Center, would not give him the damn answers. At least they hadn’t yet. He was determined to keep asking for help, because wheedling was easier than attempting another meaningless word problem of the sort the instructor, Lieutenant Milovich, seemed to take such pleasure in assigning.

I hope you know us better than that now, lad, Raj said. We’re here to give you more options, not turn you into a suckling babe again.

Yeah, right, thought Abel. Prove you want to help by doing this math problem for me. What’s the angle of the triangle Lieutenant Milovich wants us to calculate? I’ve got two angles and a side. It’s not a right angle, so how do I do it?

If we told you, how would that help you learn trigonometry?

You could just put it in my head.

That is correct, Center put in. I could instantly provide you with the answer to this question. But I could not condition you sufficiently so that you will know how to work out the problem for yourself, or how to approach future problems.

Give me the answer.


I don’t care about ballistics or land surveying. I care about being a Scout.

And do you not think knowing how to estimate land areas might come in useful out there in the wastes of the Redlands?

No. Abel considered. Well, maybe. Give me the answer anyway.


I know about the Redlands, but if you tell me the answer, it will get me out of this stuffy garrison taking lessons from a junior officer with too much time on his puffy little rich-boy hands.

The lieutenant’s hand swelling is from hypothyroidism. He’ll be dead before he’s thirty from autoimmune system collapse, Center said. A Fibonacci projection using Seldon values for social normatives does indicate an upper-class upbringing, however. Reconstruction of formative moments should be possible—

Center took longer than usual before he spoke again. Abel had learned that this usually indicated he was performing some sort of extremely complex calculation.

Yes, I have it now. Observe:

Milovich as a boy Abel’s age, standing next to a window in the upper stories of a residence in Lindron. He was sipping a steaming liquid (smell was present in the vision), and Abel detected the odor of cured yerba mate. Milovich—or the boy, as Abel had to think of him now—was wearing a linen wrap twisted about one shoulder and clasped at the hip by a belt of well-tanned carnadon leather.

Just what I figured, Abel thought. Sipping mate and clothed in carnadon.


The boy suddenly broke into a smile and turned from the window. He spoke to a young girl who sat in a corner working at a loom.

Servant or concubine?

Try sister.

“Father’s home,” said the boy.

His sister nodded placidly, but remained at her work. The boy rattled down the stairs and emerged in a finely furnished receiving room below. He waited nervously as the door swung open.


A man in the door in the blue robes of the high priesthood’s service. A dark scowl on his face. “What’s this?” he said. “What the hell have you done?”

The boy glanced down at his father’s hands. They held a creation of balsa and glue that had taken the boy a full day of labor to create.

His father lifted this creation in front of the boy’s face.

“It’s…it’s a glider,” said the boy. “One of the boys at school showed me some scroll drawings. I just looked at them and figured out how to make one, and I wanted you to—”

“You wanted me to what?”

“I worked really hard on it,” the boy said, desperation slipping into his voice. “Because…I know you think I can’t do anything right. I wanted to show you I can, I mean sometimes—”

“You left it on the stoop.”

“So you’d see it,” replied the boy. “When you got home, I mean.”

“And the neighbors? Did you consider that they might see it?”

“I didn’t think about that.”

“Of course you didn’t, you stupid fuck,” said the father. “Of course you didn’t.”

Shaking with anger, he crushed the balsa flyer in front of the boy’s eyes. “You could’ve gotten me fired. You could’ve gotten you and your sister dragged away. Do you see what you’ve done?”

“But I—”

The boy didn’t have the opportunity to finish his sentence. His father lashed out with a backhand and sent him spinning across the room. And when he fell, his father stepped up and kicked him hard in the abdomen.

“Don’t you ever, ever do anything like that again! Do you hear?”

“Yes…yes, sir.”

Another vicious kick. His father’s sandal strap broke with the effort, and, cursing, he kicked the boy with his bare foot—but this time in the face, for good measure.

“I was right about you,” the boy’s father said. “You’ll never make a priest. I have my doubts if you’ll even make a soldier.”

He turned away, leaving his son gasping and bleeding on the dirt floor.

“Stupid little shit.”

* * *

Abel shook his head. He should’ve known the glider was against the Law. He could’ve made it and hid it somewhere.

In this instance, making a glider was only a means to an end for Milovich. I believe you understand that, Abel.

Would your own father have reacted in the same way, lad?

Maybe. Abel considered. Okay, no. But he would’ve been mad all right if I’d left something like that out on the porch. And how’s this supposed to help me figure out the area of some pointy piece of farmland without walking it, anyway?

Maybe you could show a little respect for the young lieutenant and ask him to explain it to you again. That would be one way, don’t you think, boy?

Yeah. Okay. You two know how to take the fun out of hating a guy’s guts.

Raj laughed his not-so-pleasant laugh. There’ll be plenty of time for that, lad. And plenty who deserve it more than Milovich.

Abel completed the assigned work as well as he could, but he could not shake off the feeling that Center was assessing his mathematical abilities the entire time and finding them severely lacking.

As class recessed he forced himself to get over his irritation and approach Milovich to ask for extra help. The young lieutenant seemed shocked at first, and then pleased. They arranged for a review session before the next class, and Abel was finally set free from the stinking classroom.

He rushed out into the garrison exercise yard to see if the Scouts had returned. They hadn’t. A few of his classmates lingered about, two of them—Xander and Klaus—sparring with musket rifles from the broken-weapons bin.

Musket rifles were a special exception to nishterlaub edicts. They contained metal, and lots of it, including bayonets, and shot lead minié balls. They could not be manufactured, but they could be repaired, and this only by the priest-smiths at special facilities within the temple compound in each district. Zentrum allowed the production of a new batch of rifles once per decade, as well, but only in the the Tabernacle of Lindron.

Gunpowder was a different matter altogether. Its manufacture was a fiat granted to only a very few places: Orash in Progar. Bruneberg in Cascade, Mims in the Delta, and near the Tabernacle at Lindron. Those who oversaw the magic creation of powder were called the Silent Brothers. They were selected from a young age and had their tongues removed at age eight as part of their induction ceremony. They were also castrated at that time.

I’d like to know how gunpowder is made, but not that badly, Abel thought.

The broken rifles that Xander and Klaus were using were fixed with blunted wooden bayonets for practice. Grunts of exertion and the clack of the practice weapons filled the courtyard. Klaus, who was a stickler for military detail, was wearing his full cadet’s uniform even while sparring. His brown knickers and black tunic marked him as one of the Black and Tans, the army Regulars. His lower legs were wrapped in leather strips for protection.

Xander was shirtless. He was Black and Tan, too, but his cadet’s tunic was thrown over a nearby dont hitching post, and his leg wraps were coming undone and trailing after him as he moved around the courtyard practice area.

Despite appearances, Xander was a military brat. His father was stationed several miles to the east at the outlying settlement of Lilleheim. Xander’s father was part of the teaching subscription, and he, his mother, and his sister had remained in Hestinga for school. Klaus, on the other hand, was the son of a priest in the local administration. Yet Abel knew, because he’d heard him say it enough times, that Klaus hated the priesthood and longed for a life in the regiments almost as much as Abel longed to become a Scout.

Abel’s own formality of dressing fell somewhere between the two cadets. He didn’t bother to wrap his lower legs every day unless he knew duty called for him to be out of the military compound, but he never forgot his cap, which most cadets kept stowed under an epaulet and didn’t wear in the compound.

Most telling of all, Abel kept his tunic on even when days were as hot and humid as this one. His father viewed the Scouts as an indulgence and expected Abel to go into black when the time came for a real commission. But Abel knew what he wanted, and it was the Scout service. His tunic was russet, a color that matched the iron-tinted rock of the Redlands perfectly, and he wore it proudly.

Abel ducked around the cadets’ melee and made his way across the hard-packed exercise yard. On his left were the dont corrals where the cavalry, Scouts, and signal corps mounts were pooled when not in use. The larger of the donts had quickly established dominance and took up half the space, while the rest of the herd had carefully packed themselves against one railing, leaving plenty of space for the stags to saunter about at their ease. The stags held the entire line of their spinal plumage erect at all times, which Abel thought had to get tiring after a while. The beta donts only bothered flicking up their large neck feathers from time to time when they became agitated or aroused, and the few does were studiously ignored the males. Rutting season was many months away.

Abel liked donts and, like most military brats, had been around them all his life and figured he understood their ways far better than any civilian. Herd and territory were everything to a dont. When you could see the world in those terms, you could almost always get why donts did whatever they did. Mostly though, Abel knew that a Scout’s life depended on picking out good dont-flesh from bad, and he aimed to become an expert, because he aimed to become a Scout.

Abel passed the corral and arrived at the large building of black River brick that served as District Command Headquarters. The entranceway was strung with a beadwork screen of Delta shells to keep out the flies, and it rattled as Abel passed through into the cool interior. An outer room held his father’s staff and his adjutant, Lieutenant Terian Courtemanche. Courtemanche was everything the puffy-featured Milovich was not—hardfaced, impatient with nonsense, and muscled like a fighter. Abel admired him, but was also a little afraid of him.

“Cadet Dashian reporting,” Abel said, pulling himself to attention.

Courtemanche looked up from a scroll he was proofreading for errors. He motioned Abel past him. “Go on in,” he said. “I think the old man has a bin of filing for you to tackle.” Abel groaned, which caused Courtemanche to indulge in the slightest smile. Then he returned to checking the scroll—and ignoring the presence of a lowly cadet.

Abel passed through another bead curtain and entered the office of District Commander Joab Dashian, his father.

Joab was not alone. There was a man in tan pants and belted overshirt. On a nearby table, a pith helmet rested, the mark of a civil engineer. Abel knew him slightly, but couldn’t remember his name.

Sigismund Reidel.

Okay. Thanks.

Reidel and Abel’s father were examining a plan for what looked like, at a glance, an extension of the Hestinga irrigation system. Abel had seen (and filed) many such plans before. This one was drawn on a rolled-out scroll weighted down on either end by smooth River stones. Light from a skylight covered by a translucent section of herbidak hide poured down from directly above the deployed plan.

“So the water ram would go here,” Joab said and pointed at a spot on the plan. “But that’s a bit far downstream. Will there be enough water remaining to raise it to the second plateau on the Escarpment?”

“I’m fairly certain there will be,” Reidel answered, but from quavering tone of his voice, even Abel could tell he was very much not so sure.


“It seems the best place.”

Joab sighed. “Politically, you mean.” He looked the engineer calmly in the eyes, then pointed to the plan. “This is Hornburg land, isn’t it?”

“I believe so,” the engineer replied, “but there are no ownership boundaries on the plan, as you can see. It’s a district project, after all.”

Joab shook his head. “Believe me, after five years serving here, the boundaries are etched in my mind. Move the ram upstream to the original location.”


Joab held up a hand to cut Reidel off. “I understand. I will deal with the Hornburgs. This is no longer your problem.”

After a moment of tension, the engineer nodded. He lifted the edge of his robe and used it to wipe a bit of sweat from his face. “We should double-check the flow, Commander.”

Joab smiled, nodded toward the plan. “Let’s go over the figures again, Sigis,” he said. The two men began discussing ditch widths and flow rates, and Abel tuned them out. The pile of scrolls to be filed was on a broad table that his father used to spread out the really large maps, and Abel began to sort them by type. An upper border dipped in green pigment was command. Ochre was the color of logistics, and yellow represented communications with the local temple. Red was for messages sent and received by semaphore flag or courier. Secret documents were sealed with wax and scarab marking.

Abel sorted the scrolls, about fifty in all, into their various baskets according to content. The baskets would be delivered and filed by date in the large company library adjacent to headquarters. Abel was occasionally assigned that job when a soldier who was literate could not be located. It happened more often than Abel would have liked. He hated filing.

After more wrangling, the Reidel received his instructions and left the office. Joab rolled up the irrigation plan.

“File that,” he said to Abel, “under trouble.”

“Yes, sir. Ochre, sir?”

His father nodded, and Abel began to carefully roll up the scroll.

“So, how was class?” Joab settled into the chair behind his desk and poured himself a cup of wine from a clay pitcher.


“Just okay?”

“Calculating land areas.”


“Yeah, I guess.” Abel didn’t look over at his father. Was this the time to ask? Maybe. Maybe not. “Why did you have the water ram moved, Father?”

“Oh, you were listening in, were you? Good.” His father took a sip of the wine. “The Hornburgs put pressure on the builders to move the ram downstream.”

“Where there’s less water in the irrigation ditch,” replied Abel.

“A ram needs lots of water moving fast to push a smaller amount of water uphill.”

“I know that, Father.”

Joab smiled. “Of course you do, Abel, but most don’t have the faintest idea how the things work. Matlan Hornburg, for instance. I’m sure he doesn’t know and doesn’t care.”

“Then why did he want the ram on his family lands?”

Joab looked at Abel, sighed, and took another, longer drink of wine. “Why? So the Hornburgs can control the water supply to the second Escarpment, that’s why. In a couple of years, that plateau is going to be filled with barley fields. Imagine if you have the power to cut off the water to all those fields from one point. Those farmers are going to do anything you ask.”

“Like what?”

“Like go through you as the middleman to broker grain supply to the temple and military. Act happy and keep their mouths shut when you claim two-thirds of their grain and pay them back one-third of the profits.”

“That’s not fair.”

“It happens all the time, son,” Joab replied. “But not this time. Not in my district.” He drained his wine, set down the cup.

“Whoever has the River has life.” It was a basic Thursday school lesson.


“What if Matlan Hornburg doesn’t like it, Father?” The Hornburgs were one of the big three families in the district. Everybody knew it.

“I can guarantee you he won’t. He’ll be here within a week trying to browbeat me. I won’t budge, so he’ll take it up with Prelate Zilkovsky. Zilkovsky will sweet-talk him, but won’t give in, either, because he knows he can count on me. We have a pretty good working relationship, the prelate and I.”

“Count on you to do what?”

“Enforce the decision. Deal with the fallout,” Joab said. “Hornburg won’t let it stop there, you see. He’ll do something like cut off a grain delivery or two to the garrison, try to starve us into line. I’ll send a patrol to confiscate it from his warehouse. He’ll set his hired men to defend it. It’s going to be interesting.”

“Or you could just give in, give him his ram, and avoid the hassle.”

“That’s what he’s counting on. That’s what men like that always count on.”

“What if the prelate gives in?”

Joab glanced over at his son, chuckled. “Your mother used to ask me questions like that. She had a way of cutting to the heart of things, even when she knew the answer wouldn’t be pretty.” He looked back at his wine. “It’s simple, really. I’ll do what the chief priest orders.”

“But Father, you just said—”

“I’ve been in districts where the district military commander ran things. Gets ugly, corrupt, and violent. People need to trust in the civil authorities, or it’s every man for himself.” Joab smiled. “Anyway, Zilkovsky’s got a hide like a carnadon. He’s not about to let a Hornburg tell him how to rule Treville District.”

“You could also have Hornburg killed now. Save the trouble.”

“And become another Hornburg myself? I don’t think so, Abel.” Joab nodded toward the chair on the other side of his desk. “Sit down, son.” Abel sat down while Joab turned another cup over from the stack next to the pitcher and poured wine into both his own and the other. He pushed the cup toward Abel. “Drink. You look like you have something stuck in your throat. Something you want to tell me. Or ask me.”

He knows, Abel thought. But how could he? It wasn’t as if his father was inside his thoughts in the same way as Raj and Center.

Abel took a swallow from the glass, carefully set it down. “Father, I think I should be able to go out with the Scouts. Okay, maybe not into the deep Redlands,” he hastily added. “But at least on Rim patrols.”

“And what makes you think they’d have you?”

“Corporal Kruso said they could use an able body for water carrier.”

“You’ve been talking to Kruso a lot?”

“Mostly listening,” Abel said. “He likes to tell stories.”

“And you believe his nonsense?”

Abel frowned, looked down. I love to hear it. Because things happen in Kruso’s stories. Dangerous things, sometimes. But never boring. Never always the same. “Yeah, I guess.”

“Good, because it’s all true,” said Joab. “Kruso’s half Redlander and half lower Delta scum, but he’s one of best Scouts I’ve ever seen.” Joab considered his wine, still untouched. Abel knew the level would only slowly go down, Joab nursing his second cup throughout the afternoon with small sips. “I’ll tell you what. You keep good marks in school, and I’ll assign you Scout water duty starting next week.”

Abel felt the weight, the need he’d felt for weeks, lighten. It was going to happen. He was going to get Scout duty! “Thank you, Father.”

Joab held up a hand. “But only to the Upper Cliffs. No Rim patrol, not yet.”

The weight returned. “But Father, I can—”

“You can lose even that privilege if you aren’t careful.” Joab finally sipped his wine. “When you turn twelve, you can go out on the Rim. But only on routine patrols, and absolutely only with Captain Sharplett’s and the other Scouts’ permission.”

Twelve. He would be twelve in…three months. He could make it. He could wait. And in the meantime, he would at least get to the Scout bases in the upper cliffs. You could see the Redlands from there.

“And Abel, let me tell you something,” Joab continued. “Scouts are a hard breed. Have to be. They won’t care that you’re the son of the DMC. They have a tendency to let nature and events take care of the fuckups among themselves. And sometimes they’re willing to help nature along, if you understand what I mean.”

“Would they take care of you, if you were a fuckup, Father?”

Joab smiled a hard smile. “Well, I know what I would do if I were Scout and my commander was a fuckup,” he said. He glanced over at the rolled-up irrigation plan, sighed. “It’s my job to make sure it never comes to that.” He looked back to Abel. “You make that your job, too, Abel. Because you are my son, after all.”

Back | Next