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A young Kaunian girl is forced to remain hidden while her Forthwegian savior braves the rough, Algarvian-controlled streets to earn their keep. The scholars of Kuusamo are no closer to understanding the bloodless magic that may win the war-and time is short. Kuusamo has joined into an unsteady alliance with Lagoas and Unkerlant. No one kingdom trusts another, but they must unite, for it is only together that they can defeat the Algarvian threat.
The war is no longer confined to soldiers and sorcerers. Common folk are joining together to fight from underneath their oppressors, whether they be Algarve or Unkerlant. What those farmer soldiers lack in skill, they make up for in dedication. A dedication that will carry them . . . through the darkness.
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Harry Turtledove is the Hugo-winning author of many SF and fantasy novels. His alternate-history novels, include the bestselling The Guns of the South, How Few Remain, the Worldwar series, and the recent Ruled Britannia. He lives with his wife and daughters in Los Angeles.
Ealstan was still shaky on his feet. The young Forthwegian gauged how sick he'd been by how long he was taking to get better. He also gauged how sick he'd been by the medicine with which Vanai had helped him break his fever.
When his wits came back, he scolded her: "You went out. You shouldn't have done that. You shouldn't have taken the chance. The Algarvians might have grabbed you and..." He didn't want to go on.
Vanai glared at him. Her gray-blue eyes flashed. People said Kaunians didn't get so excited as Forthwegians. Living with Vanai had proved to Ealstan that people didn't know what they were talking about. "What should I have done?" she demanded. "Stayed here and watched you die and then tried to go out?"
"I wasn't going to die." But Ealstan's comeback wasn't so persuasive as he would have wanted, even to himself. He couldn't remember the last time he'd been so sick. When he looked at himself in the mirror, he saw how the flesh had melted from his swarthy, hook-nosed face. Circles almost as dark as his eyes lay under them.
"Any how, it worked out all right," Vanai said. "I went out, I found an apothecary, I got what you needed, and I came back. Nothing else happened."
"No?" Ealstan said, and now she had trouble meeting his gaze. He pointed at her. "What was it? How bad was it?"
"Nothing else happened," she repeated, and slamming doors and falling bars were in her voice. A long time before, when they'd first got to know each other, he'd decided he would be wise not to ask her what she'd gone through in Oyngestun. This was liable to be another time when trying to force truth from her would do more harm than good.
"Let it go, then," he said with a weary nod. He was still weary all the time. He was so weary, a couple of days could go by without his having any interest in making love. Before he got sick, he wouldn't have believed such a thing possible.
But, weary or not, he had to go out to buy food, for the cupboard in the flat were nearly empty. If he didn't go out, Vanai would have to. She'd done it once. He didn't want her to have to do it twice, not when the redheaded occupiers of Forthweg had made her kind fair game.
Moving like a man four times his age, he walked to the market square to buy beans and dried peas and barley and lentils. As long as he and Vanai had enough of those, they wouldn't starve. The trouble was, he couldn't carry so much as he had before, either. That meant he had to make two trips to bring back the food he should have been able to take in one. By the time he finally got through, he felt ready for the knacker's yard.
Vanai fixed him a cup of mint tea. After he'd drunk it, she half dragged him to the bedroom, peeled his shoes off him, and made him lie down. He hoped she would lie down beside him, or on top of him, or however she chose. Instead, she said, "Go to sleep."
He did. When he woke, he felt much more like himself. By then, Vanai did like curled beside him. Her mouth had fallen open; she was snoring a little. He looked over at her and smiled. She didn't just know what he wanted. She knew what he needed, too, and that was liable to be more important.
A couple of days later, he started going out and about through Eoforwic, seeing the people for whom he cast accounts. He discovered he'd lost a couple of them to other bookkeepers: inevitable, he supposed, when he hadn't been able to let them know why he wasn't showing up. That he'd kept as many clients as he had pleased him very much.
Ethelhelm the singer and drummer wasn't in his flat when Ealstan came to call. The doorman for the building said, "The gentleman has taken his band on tour, sir. He did give me an envelope to give you if you returned while he and his colleagues were away."
"Thanks," Ealstan said, and then had to hand the fellow a coin for doing what he should have done for nothing. Ealstan took the envelope and went off before opening it; whatever it held, he didn't want the doorman knowing it.
Hello, the note read.
I'm hoping you've come down with something. If you haven't, the Algarvians have probably come down on you and your lady. You can get over the one easier than the other, I think, the way things are these days. If you're reading this, everything is probably all right. If you're not, then I wish you were. Take care of yourself.
The band leader had scrawled his name below the last sentence.
Ealstan smiled as he refolded the note and put it in his belt pouch. Ethelhelm enjoyed speaking in riddles and paradoxes. And Ealstan could hardly find fault with this one. Better to have any natural sickness than to let the Algarvians know he was harboring Vanai.
That point got driven home when he came back to his own sorry little street. A couple of overage, overweight Algarvian constables were standing in front of the block of flats next to his. One of them turned to him and asked, "You knowing any Kaunian bitch living in this street here?"
"No, sir," Ealstan answered. "I don't think any of the stinking blonds are left in this part of towm." He did his best to sound like an ordinary Forthwegian, a Forthwegian who hated Kaunians as much as King Mezentio's men did.
The other Algarvian spoke in his own language: "Oh, leave it alone, by the powers above. So we didn't get to have her. The world won't end. She paid us off."
"Bah," the first constable said. "Even if all these buggers say they never saw her, we both know she's around here somewhere."
After King Mezentio's men took Gromheort, Ealstan's home town in eastern Forthweg, they'd made academy students start learning Algarvian instead of classical Kaunian. That no doubt helped make the students better subjects. It also sometimes had other uses. Ealstan made a point or looking as dull and uninterested as he could.
"Digging her out is more trouble than it's worth," the second constable insisted. "And if we try digging her out and don't come up with her, we'll be walking the beat around the city dump till the end of time. Come one, let's go."
Though he kept grumbling, the constable who'd spoken Forthwegian let himself be persuaded. Off he went with his pal. Ealstan stared after them. If they were talking about anyone but Vanai, he would have been amazed.
But they weren't going to call in their pals and try to unearth her. Ealstan clung to that. As he walked upstairs, he wondered if he ought to mention what he'd overheard. He decided that was a bad idea.
When Vanai let him in after his coded knock, she clicked her tongue between her teeth in dismay. "Sit down," she said in tones that brooked no argument. "You're worn to a nub. Let me get you some wine. You shouldn't have gone out."
"I have to keep my business going, or else we won't be able to buy food," he said, but he was glad to sit down on the shabby soft and stretch his feet out in front of him. Vanai fetched him the wine, clucking all the while, and sat down beside him. He cocked his head to one side. "You don't need to make such a fuss over me."
"No?" She raised an eyebrow. "If I don't, who will?"
Ealstan opened his mouth, then closed it again. He had no good answer, and was smart enough to realize as much. If they didn't take care of each other here in Eoforwic, no one else would. Things weren't as they had been back in Gromheort for him, with his mother and father and sister to worry about him and his big brother to flatten any nuisances he couldn't handle himself.
And having Vanai fuss over him wasn't like having his mother fuss. He had trouble defining how and why it wasn't, but the difference remained. After another sip of wine, he decided that Vanai, even though she fussed, didn't treat him as if were two years old while she was doing it. As far as his mother was concerned, he would never be anything but a child.
He took one more sip of wine, then nodded to Vanai. "Thank you," he told her. "This is good. It's what I needed."
"You're welcome," she said, and laughed, thought not as if she were merry and carefree. "I sound silly, don't I? But I hardly know what to do when somebody tells me that. My grandfather didn't, or not very often, and the things I had to do for him...." She laughed again, even more grimly than before.
"Maybe Brivibas had trouble figuring out you weren't a baby any more," Ealstan said; if that was true for his parents--especially his mother--why not for Vanai's grandfather, too?
But she shook her head. "No. He had an easier time with me when I was small. He could count on me to do as I was told then. Later on..." Now here eyes twinkled. "Later on, he never could be sure I wouldn't to something outrageous and disgraceful--say, falling in love with a Forthwegian"
"Well, if you had to pick something outrageous and disgraceful, I'm glad you picked that," Ealstan said.
"So am, I," Vanai answered. "A lot of my other choices were worse." She looked bleak again, but, with what seemed a distinct effort of will, put aside the expression. Her voice thoughtful, she went on, "You know, I didn't fall in love with you, not really, till we'd been in this flat for a while."
"No," Ealstan said in no small surprise. He'd fallen head over heels in love with her from the moment she'd given him her body. That was how he thought of it, anyway.
She shook her head again. "No. I always liked you, from the first time we met hunting mushrooms. I wouldn't have done what I did there in the woods last fall if I hadn't. But you were...a way out for me, when I didn't think I could have one. I needed a while to see, to be sure, how much more you were."
For a moment, his feelings were hurt. Then he realized she'd paid him no small compliment. "I won't let you down," he said.
Vanai leaned over and gave him a quick kiss. "I know you won't" she answered. "Don't you see? That's one of the reasons I love you. No one else has ever been like that for me. I suppose my mother and father would have been, but I can hardly even remember them."
Ealstan had always known he could count on his family. He'd taken that as much for granted as the shape of his hand. He said, "I'm sorry. That must have been hard. It must have been even harder because you're a Kaunian in a mostly Forthwegian kingdom."
"You might say so. Aye, you just might say so." Vanai's voice went harsh and ragged. "And do you know what the worst part of that is?" Ealstan shook his head. He wasn't sure she noticed; she was staring at nothing in particular as she went on, "The worst part of its is, we didn't know when we were well off. In Forthweg, we Kaunians were well off. Would you have believed that? I wouldn't have believed it, but it was true. All we needed was the Algarvians to prove it, and they did."
Ealstan put his arm around her. He thought of those two chubby constables in kits and hoped the powers above would keep them away. Even if he hadn't been felling so feeble, he feared that encircling arm wouldn't be so much protection as Vanai was liable to need.
But it was what he could give. It was what she had. She seemed to sense as much, for she moved closer to him. "We'll get through it," he said. "Somehow or other, we'll get through it."
"They can't win," Vanai said. "I can't stay hidden forever, and there's nowhere I can go, either, not if they win."
But the Algarvians could win, as Ealstan knew all too well. "Maybe not in Forthweg," he admitted, "but Forthweg isn't the only kingdom in the world, either." Vanai looked at him as if he'd taken leave of his senses. Maybe I have, he thought. But then again, maybe I haven't.
* * *
Hajjaj stared down at the papers his secretary handed him. "Well, well," he said. "This is a pretty pickle, isn't it?"
"Aye, your Excellency," Qutuz answered. "How do you propose to handle it?"
"Carefully," the Zuwayzi foreign minister said, which won a smile from Qutuz. Hajjaj went on, "And by that I mean, not least, not letting the Algarvians know I'm doing anything at all. They're our allies, after all."
"How long do you suppose you can keep this business secret?" Qutuz asked.
"A while," Hajjaj replied. "Not indefinitely. And, before it his secret no more, I had better get King Shazli's views on the matter." I had better see if I can bring King Shazli's views around to my own, if they happen to differ now. "I don't think that will wait. Please let his Majesty' servitors know that I seek audience with him at his earliest convenience.".
His secretary bowed. "I shall attend to it directly, your Excellency," he said, and hurried away. Hajjaj nodded at his bare brown departing backside: like all Zuwayzin, Qutuz wore clothes only when dealing with important foreigners. Hajjaj's secretary was diligent, no doubt about it. When he said directly, he meant it.
And, only a couple of hours later that afternoon, Hajjaj bowed low before the king. "I gather this is a matter of some urgency." Shazli said. He was a bright enought lad so, Hajjaj thought of him--the late sixties looking back at the early thirties. "Shall we dispense with the rituals of hospitality, then?"
"If your Majesty would be so kind," Hajjaj replied, and the king inclined his head. Thus encouraged, Hajjaj continued, "You need to declare your policy on a matter of both some delicacy and some importance to the kingdom."
"Say on," Shazli told him.
"I shall." Hajjaj brandished the papers Qutuz had given him. "In the past couple of weeks, we have had no fewer than three small boats reach our eastern coastline from Forthweg. All three were packed almost to the sinking point with Kaunians, and all the Kaunians alive when they came ashore have begged asylum of us."
Sometimes, to flavor a dish, Zuwayzi chefs would fill a little cheesecloth bag with spices and put in the pot. They were supposed to take it out when the meal was cooked, but every once in a while they forgot. Shazli looked like a man who had just bitten down on one of those bags thinking it a lump of meat. "They beg asylum from us because of what our allies are doing to their folk back in Forthweg."
"Even so, your Majesty," Hajjaj agreed. "If we send them back, we send them to certain death. If we grant them asylum, we offend the Algarvians as soon as they learn of it, and we run the risk that everything in Forthweg that flats will put to sea and head straight for Zuwayza."
"What Algarve is doing to the Kaunians in Forthweg offends me," Shazli said; he needed only the royal we to sound as imperious as King Swemmel of Unkerlant. Hajjaj had never felt prouder of him. The king went on, "And any Kaunians who escape will be a cut above the common crowd--is it not so?"
It's likely, at any rate, your Majesty," the foreign minister answered.
"Asylum they shall have, then," Shazli declared.
Hajjaj bowed as deeply as his age-stiffened body would let him. "I am honored to serve you. But what shall we say to Marquis Balastro when he learns of it, as he surely will before long?"
King Shazli smiled a warm, confident smile. Hajjaj knew what that sort of smile had to mean even before the king said. "That I leave to you, your Excellency. I am sure you will find a way to let us do what is right while at the same time not enraging our ally's minister." "I wish I were so sure, your Majesty," Hajjaj said. "I do remind you, I am only a man, not one of the powers above. I can d...
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