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“I won’t ask what you were thinking, because I believe I know the answer to that,” said Joab. “What I would like to know is what I’m going to tell the prelate to somehow keep you in the military.” Joab stopped walking, and Abel came to an abrupt halt beside him. His father eyed him. “Because with that kind of judgment, I frankly don’t know if you are officer material, son.”

Abel met his father’s gaze, but said nothing. He had the feeling that any reply he made would be the wrong one at this point.

“You do understand the seriousness of the situation?” Joab’s voice was low and intense—which Abel feared far more than his father’s shouts or curses.

“Yes, Father.”

They continued walking, Abel a half step behind his father.

One thing I hadn’t counted on, Raj continued, almost, it seemed, speaking to himself, when I had Center copy my mind and blast us both to the stars: having to go through puberty again and again and again.

After a few paces Joab began talking again, this time to himself. “The problem is that you not only defied me by going out there, you went against Stasis by using the lucifer that way. It’s not what you did, it’s how it looks.

“I get it, Father.”

They made their way through the streets of Hestinga. Hestinga was only half the size of the capital, Lindron, but it had many of the same amenities and was considered a good posting by both priest and soldier. The centers of the thoroughfares were paved with Redland stone, and the gutters were swept at least once a week to clear out the collections of sewage, garbage, and dont and dak manure that piled up there in the interim.

Abel had been to villages that never got swept, where people lived on layer upon layer of their own garbage. Hestinga smelled like a bloomherb flower in comparison

Furthermore, once a year during floodtime, the lake filled to the point a bucket line was possible and the streets were actually washed down. This annual event didn’t even happen in Lindron.

The Hestinga buildings were not as grand as Lindron’s, however. Most were simple mud-brick structures with cut-hole windows that were closed with woven rush mats during the heat of the day. Glass was far less common here.

The Hestinga market square was a group of temporary stalls. In Lindron, most of the merchants had permanent shops.

And in the market square were women. Not just at the market, either. Abel spent a great deal of his time inside walls behind which females were not allowed. Here, they were simply…everywhere. He knew enough to hold his status and not to allow his head to jerk about like a springleg every time someone of the opposite sex walked past. He liked it better when he and his father approached from behind. That way, he could spend lots of time staring at swaying hips and shoulders without being noticed, and then steal a glance at the face in profile as he and his father, who were walking at an soldier’s pace, passed its possessor.

After several blocks of temptation, Abel began to forget who he was with and where he was going. He began to think instead of the problem of how he was going to get laid for the first time. Xander had told him about a whorehouse on the outskirts of town, but Abel somehow didn’t want this to be his first experience.

But if this feeling kept building inside him, and he never got a chance to meet any girls—well, then, the whorehouse might have to do.

Any advice on that, o inner voices? What, nothing to say?

When the time comes, I am capable of providing the proper physical instructions.

One world at a time, lad. But here’s one that’s all right. Looks like she bathes in butter and honey does that one.

A raven-haired young girl who looked only a little older—and a little taller—than Abel wafted by in a cloud of flowing vermillion robe, silver belt and bracelets, and clean-smelling soaps and unguents. She was gone as quickly as she arrived, and Abel fought mightily the urge to stop in his tracks and gaze longingly after her.

It was only when they arrived at the temple gates that Abel was jerked from his female-induced reverie.

The district temple compound differed from the surrounding edifices in that it was mainly built of stone, and Redland stone, at that. It was at least five hundred strides wide, and housed all manufacturing facilities that were allowed under the Law. This was where nishterlaub was reworked into permitted materials. A plastic casing for an ancient nishterlaub machine might be fitted with a wicker handle and made into a bucket, for instance. A plough might be made from a piece of the incredibly light, incredibly durable pre-Collapse ceramic.

Spacecraft tile beaten to ploughshares, Center had once said of it.

And it was here and only here, in the temple compound, that bullets could be forged and cartridges packed. There was an entire team of priests who did nothing else. Abel had once spoken with one of the priest-smiths, as they were called, and had learned of the intricate prescriptions and prohibitions the priest-smiths must take account of. One slipup, and an entire run of bullets or cartridges would have to be scrapped and recast in the proper manner.

In the center of the compound, a stepped pyramid rose a thousand spans into the sky. It was visible throughout Hestinga, and from quite a few leagues outside the village, as well.

Abel and his father struggled up the oversized steps of the temple pyramid as best they could. There was an easier path with human-sized steps on the backside of the structure, but this method of climbing was reserved for priests.

At least the steps keep Father occupied, Abel thought. I hate even watching his face. His being disappointed is ten times worse than his yelling at me.

A wise parent, Raj said, followed by his low, not-so-nice chuckle.

Finally, they reached the apex plaza and entered the small stone building that occupied the center of the plateau.

District Prelate Zilkovsky’s office was an inner chamber within an inner chamber. It was the chilliest room Abel had ever been in. A temple priest outside the entrance was on fan duty. He continually pushed and pulled a cane rod through a slot in the wall. The cane connected to a rush-woven fan inside set on a dont-leather hinge. The rod kept the fan continually moving air across the chamber.

Zilkovsky was fat. There was no way around that fact. The folds of his priestly robes could not hide the belly that lurked behind them. He was also nearly bald, with a wispy layer of hair that he combed to the side as if to hide the shiny skull beneath. It did not.

Yet for all his girth, the prelate moved gracefully. His eyes, though small and closely set, sparkled with animation.

Don’t underestimate this one, Raj said. I’ve known his like before. He’ll never be your comrade, but he’s best to keep as an ally, not have as an enemy.

Zilkovsky had no desk, but instead worked in a sitting area with several chairs gathered round. When Joab and Abel entered, he motioned Joab to sit. Abel, not having received such permission, remained standing.

“Commander, correct me if I’m wrong, but is this not the young man who once managed to drop a rock on his own head in the nishterlaub house?”

“You’ve got the right one, Mr. Prelate.”

“And now he’s managed to destroy a wagon transporting munitions to the Redlander scum, but, at the same time, has used proscribed methods to accomplish this?”

“That’s about the size of it, sir.”

“And only one casualty to the Scouts?”

“That’s correct.”



Zilkovsky settled back in his chair. He took up a clay mug of beer, nodded toward a pitcher and cup on a nearby side table. Joab shook his head, indicating he didn’t want any. Zilkovsky had a sip, smiled a mild smile of peaceful pleasure.

Abel had a feeling the beer had a much better taste than the vinegary wine in his father’s office.

“Allow me to scan with Zentrum,” the priest said. He closed his eyes, breathed out.

And for a long moment, his body jerked and shuddered. Then it relaxed.

“Yes,” he said in a low voice. “Yes.” Zilkovsky opened his eyes. “Alaha Zentrum.”

“Alaha Zentrum,” Abel and Joab murmured in the automatic response inculcated by years of Thursday school lessons.

“Scan completed,” Zilkovsky continued. The priest finally turned his head and looked at Abel. It wasn’t merely a look, but a stare, as if Zilkovsky was peering deep within, seeing things Abel would prefer hidden. Could he detect the presence of Raj and Center?

No, Center replied. No known methods of quantum broadcast discovery are in use. Zentrum is unaware of our presence on Duisberg. We, however, are faced with another issue. The encryption mechanism within the implant Zilkovsky is employing to communicate with Zentrum in Lindron is secure. Breaking the code will take some effort on my part but should be possible in time.

“It seems that your dual actions cancel one another out. So you are not to be punished for the breach in edict, but you are likewise not to receive a commendation for your admittedly brave behavior in helping to torch the wagons. What do you have to say to that, young man?”

“Alaha Zentrum,” Abel said, “I accept this judgment.”

Zilkovsky nodded. “Good, good.” He motioned for Abel to take a seat next to his father. Abel gratefully sank into the chair and, when the prelate offered beer, took a half cup—even though this action caused his father to raise an eyebrow. When he took a sip, he found he had not been mistaken—it was great. He could almost chew on the sweet barley that had gone into the brew.

Zilkovsky turned back to Joab. “So we have a problem, my friend. These wagons with the gunpowder, there was no semaphore traffic concerning a raid up north?”

“None whatsoever,” replied Joab.

“I, too, have received no message flitters.”

Interesting. He speaks of message-carrying animals. His implant must not allow him to communicate with his fellow prelates, but only with the central computer. No doubt he really does believe he is hearing the voice of God. An interesting choice on Zentrum’s part.

Do I have one of these…implants, then? Is that how you do it?

No, Abel. I am an advanced model. I am able to narrowcast to you using quantum uncertainties within the small bits called molecules that make up your brain. Zentrum will not have the means to detect this.

Good. You two get me in enough trouble already.

“Based on their direction of movement,” said Joab, “the Redlanders were coming from the northern borders of Treville. But, as we both know—”

“—Treville manufactures no gunpowder,” put in Zilkovsky.

“Exactly. So the point of origin must have been Cascade. That is also the Captain of Scout’s evaluation.”

“Sharplett,” said Zilkovsky. “Good man. Pity he’s of Delta stock.”

Joab nodded. Abel knew there was no use arguing against class distinctions in the Land. They were, if anything, more deeply carved in stone than the Stasis itself.

“The problem then becomes to figure out if this is a regular flow. Are the Redlanders planning something?” Joab said. “My Scouts report that the Blaskoye have been on a tear of consolidation in the past couple of years. They’ve incorporated at least five neighboring tribes by conquest or negotiation.”

“What are they up to, do you think?”

“I’m not sure, Mr. Prelate,” Joab answered, “but it can’t be good. I was hoping you might tell me.”

Zilkovsky sighed, sat back in his chair, took another swig of beer. “Unfortunately, this is a matter on which I’ve received no guidance from Zentrum. I do, however, have a few watchers in Cascade who send me the occasional report.”

Joab smiled a toothy smile. “I’d hoped you did, Mr. Prelate.”

“Cascade has problems. Rot at the top, I’m sorry to say. As you and I have long discussed, it’s a happy district when District Military Commander and District Prelate get along and truly share power with one another. You and I are blessed by Zentrum to be in such a relationship.”

“I agree,” Joab said.

“Many times in…more unhappy places…it is the military commander who takes control, since he possesses the force.”

“Or believes he does,” said Joab. “More than one DMC has found out the hard way that what he believes he has is a relative matter in actuality. Zentrum often finds a way to swat such a man down.”

“Yes,” said Zilkovsky, “quite. But the problem in Cascade is worse. Both the priesthood and the military have allowed themselves to become pawns of the gentry.”

“Surely this can be remedied,” replied Joab. “I’d think a lesson or two would go a long way to doing just that. Burn a farmhouse, save the Land.”

“It might,” Zilkovsky said. “But the monopoly on gunpowder production at the Bruneberg plant would continue, for that is the Edict of Zentrum. So the enormous inflow of wealth would likely tempt another group to misbehave. This is how it has been in…well, forever…in Cascade. It is a corrupt place.”

Joab looked perplexed. “So what’s the solution, Hiram?” Abel had never heard his father use the prelate’s first name in another’s presence. He hadn’t even known Zilkovsky had a first name.

Zilkovsky now turned to Abel and pointed to his father. “Behold the military mind,” he said mildly. “Your father wishes to order things that are fundamentally chaotic.”

“The Blaskoye are building up to something,” Joab replied. “We can’t resign ourselves to being unprepared for attack just because Cascade’s a dirty mess.”

“No, we cannot,” replied the priest. “I also do not believe Zentrum will allow it.”

That’s where he’s wrong, said Raj. This is exactly the sort of thing Zentrum will allow, so long as it ultimately keeps the Stasis in place. Zilkovsky has come to enjoy his job so much, he’s forgotten Zentrum’s ultimate purpose.

Zentrum takes the long view, Center put in, in what, for Abel, had become a mantra akin to a Thursday school lesson. But it was a lesson he knew he ought to heed.

“At the moment, however, I am open to suggestions, Commander,” the prelate concluded.

Joab nodded grimly. “I’ll garrison the Escarpment strongholds with Regulars. Set the Scouts free to roam. We’ll need more supplies, and I have to secure a Valley water source. That means somebody’s water rights on the second plateau will have to be requisitioned. And we may as well requisition their fields as a way station, because it’ll be no good for grain.”

“I believe I can find funds in the temple coffers to cover such a requisition.”

“It’s still going to scare the hell out of the landowners.”

“As well it should.”

“I’m also going to need more Scouts. That means recruiting Delta elements. Unsavory sorts. I’ll keep them out of Hestinga proper as much as possible.”

“Yes, do.” Zilkovsky had a definite opinion about the social worth of Scouts, it seemed, no matter how much he might value their abilities. He nodded toward Abel. “And I would think twice about letting this young man associate with them overmuch.”

“Pardon me, Mr. Prelate, but I know my place,” Abel said. “And so do they when they’re around me. We are not of the same blood, but I can handle it.”

Zilkovsky smiled thinly. “That may well be. But remember: all Scouts are borderline heretics. Heretics are hated of Zentrum, the same as infidel Redlanders. They’re outside the Law. And when you’re outside the Law, you’re outside the Stasis. And when you’re outside the Stasis…well, you are outside the Land itself.”

Abel started to reply, but thought better of it. He met the priest’s steady gaze as best he could.

“Here’s the real lesson I want you to learn from your recent adventures, Abel Dashian, son of Joab. You come from a fine line of soldiers on your father’s side. I don’t have to tell you the high standing of your departed mother’s family in Lindron. There is a clear path ahead of you to high command. Maybe even a place among the Temple Guardians one day.”

Zilkovsky leaned closer to Abel. A stray breeze from the fan caught the thin strings of hair on his scalp and lifted them up for a moment like a riding dont’s feathery crest. “So, my young friend, don’t fuck it up with heresy.”

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