Eric woke in mid-morning. It was his old room at the corner of the west wing, a big airy chamber, five meters by fifteen with two walls giving on to the second-story balcony through doors of sliding glass. The air was sharp with spring, with a little of the dew smell yet, full of scents from the garden and a wilder smell from the forest and wet rock that stretched beyond the manor: the breath of his childhood years, the smell of home.
He lay for a moment, enjoying the crisp smooth feel of the linen sheets, feeling rested enough but a little heavy with the wine and liqueurs from last night. It was like being sick when he was a child. Not too ill, just feverish, allowed to lie abed and read. Ma would be there, to see that he drank the soup . . .
Dinner had been better than he expected; Pa had avoided topics which might set them off (which meant platitudes and silence, mostly), and everyone had admired Johanna’s eardrops, which led naturally to the hilarious story of the near-mutiny in Rome when the troops arrived to find Security units guarding the Vatican and preventing a sack. Florence had been much better; he had picked up a number of interesting items, including a Cellini, two Raphaels and a couple of really interesting illuminated manuscripts. Better than jewelry, far too precious to sell.
Illegal, of course, he mused, throwing a loose kaftan over his nakedness and tossing down a glass of the fresh-squeezed orange juice from the jug by the bedside. Still, why let the Cultural Directorate stick the books in a warehouse for a generation while the museums and the universities quarreled over ’em?
The baths were as he remembered them—magnificent, in a fashion forty years out of date, like much of the manor. That had been the last major renovation, in the expansive and self-confident years just before the Great War, when the African territories were well-pacified and the Draka were pleasantly engaged in dreaming of further conquests rather than performing the hard, actual work. There was a waterfall springing from dragon heads cast in aluminum bronze, steam rooms and soaking tubs and a swimming pool of red and violet Northmark marble. The walls were lined with mosaics from the Klimt workshops, done on white Carrara in gilded copper, silver, coral, semiprecious stones, gold and colored faience; his great-grandmother’s taste had run to wildlife, landscapes (the dreamlike cone of Kilimanjaro rising above the Serengeti was a favorite), dancing maidens of eerily elongated shapes . . .
Soaking, massage, and a dozen laps chased the last stiffness from his muscles; he lazed naked against a couch on the terrace, toying with a breakfast of iced mango, hot breads, and Kenya coffee with thick mountain cream. Potted fruit trees laid dappled patterns of sun and shade across his body; a last spray of peach blossom cast petals and scent on long, taut-muscled arms and deep runner’s chest. The angry purple scar on his thigh had faded toward dusty white. He was conscious of an immense well-being as wind stroked silk-gentle across cleansed skin.
The serving girl padded up to collect the dishes. Lazily, he stretched out a hand as she bent and laid it on the small of her back. She froze, controlled a shrinking and looked back at him over her shoulder.
“Please, masta, no?” she said in a small breathless voice.
Eric shrugged, smiling, and withdrew his touch . . .
Too young, anyway, he mused. He preferred women about his own years or a little older. Hmmmm, I could take a rifle up into the hills and try for that leopard Pa mentioned before it takes any more sheep. No, too much like work. And curse it, Johanna will already be out hawking; she said “early tomorrow” . . . A ride with a falcon on his wrist was something that had been lacking these last few years.
He looked down and grinned; the body had its own priorities. No, first thoughts are best: a woman. That was a minor problem; he had been away from the estate for years now. There had been a few serf girls he’d been having, after his period of mourning for Tyansha ended, but they would be married now. Not that a serf wedding had any legal standing, but the underfolk took their unions seriously; more seriously than the masters did, these days. It would cause distress if he called one of them to his bed.
He snapped his fingers. Rahksan—Johanna’s maid. She’d have mentioned it in her letters if the wench had taken a lasting mate. Uncle Everard had brought her back from Afghanistan, one small girl found miraculously alive in a village bombed with phosgene gas for supporting the badmash rebels. He had given her to Johanna for her sixth birthday, much as he might have a puppy or a kitten. They had all run tame together, and she had seldom said no, in the old days . . .
Let’s see, Johanna’s out with her hawk; Rahksan’d probably be in her rooms, tidying up.
The corridor gave onto Johanna’s study; the door was ajar and he padded through on quiet feet, leaning his head around the entrance into the bedroom. Rahksan was there, but so was Johanna, and they were very much occupied. Eric pursed his mouth thoughtfully, lifted one eyebrow and withdrew to the study unnoticed. There was a good selection of reading material; he picked up a news magazine with a profile of Wendel Wilkie, the new Yankee President. The speech he had given opening the new lock at Montreal in the State of Quebec was considered quite important, bearing on the new administration’s attitude to the war . . .
Rahksan came through the door with her shoes in one hand, buttoning the linen blouse with the other. She was a short woman, full in breast and hip, with a mane of curling blue-black hair and skin a pale creamy olive that reminded him of Italians he had seen. Her face was roundly pretty, eyes heavy-lidded above a dreamy smile.
He stood: the serf squeaked and jumped in startlement, then relaxed into a broad grin as she recognized him.
“Why, masta Eric, good t’see yaz egin,” she said, tilting her head on one side and glancing up at him; she came barely to his shoulder.
He laughed and pulled her close; she flowed into his arm, warm, soft skin damp and carrying a faint pleasant scent of woman.
“I was looking for you, Rahksan,” he said.
“Why, whatevah fo’?” she asked slyly, snuggling. They had always been friendly, as far as different stations allowed, and occasional bedmates in the years since Tyansha died.
“ . . . unless you’re too tired?” he finished politely.
“Well . . . ah do have wuk t’do, masta. ’Sides, all this bedwenchin’, that is.” She paused, with a show of considering. “Tonaaht? Pr’bly feel laahk it agin bah then.”
He nodded, and she jumped up with an arm around his neck; he tasted musk on her lips as they kissed, and then she was gone with a flash of bare feet, giggling as she gave him a swift intimate caress in passing. Eric shook his head, grinning.
Another thing that hasn’t changed about Oakenwald, he thought. Rahksan had always had a sunny disposition and an uncomplicated outlook on life. It was restful for a man given to introspective brooding.
His sister’s voice interrupted his musing. “Well, brother dear, if you’re quite finished making assignations with my serf wench, come on in.”
Johanna was lying comfortably sprawled across her bed amid the rumpled black satin of the sheets, sipping at pale yellow wine in a bell goblet and toe-wrestling with a long-haired persian cat. She was, he noted with amusement, still wearing his gift of eardrops, if nothing else; she had the grayhound build of the von Shrakenbergs, but was thicker through the neck and shoulders than when he had seen her last, a year ago. Wrestling a two-engined pursuit plane through the sky took strength as well as skill.
He seated himself and took up the second glass, pouring from the straw-covered flask in its bed of ice. “Glad to see you’re not wasting your leave,” he said. “A little . . . schoolgirlish, though, isn’t it?”
“Now, listen to me, Eric—” She sank back into the pillows at his smile. “Freya, but it’s always a surprise when that solemness of yours breaks down.” Johanna paused to pick a black hair from her lip with thumb and forefinger.
“Glad you knew I was joking; Pa might not be, though. He’s a stickler for dignity,” Eric said.
Johanna snorted. “I’m old enough to fight for the Domination, I’m old enough to choose my own pleasures,” she said. More slowly: “For that matter, it’s like school around here these days: no men. Not between eighteen and forty, at least. Draka men, that is; plenty of likely-looking serf bucks . . . just joking brother, just joking. I know the Race Purity laws as well as anyone and I’ve no wish to do my last dance on the end of a rope. Actually, the only man I’m interested in is six thousand kilometers away in Mongolia, while celibacy interests me not at all.”
She sighed. “And . . . the lochos’s going operational in another month, once we’ve finished shaking down on ground support. Ever noticed how war puts a hand on your shoulder and says ‘hurry’?”
“Yes indeed,” he said, refilling her glass. “Confidentially . . . Johanna, the Germans are getting pretty close to the Caucasus. They’ve taken Rostov-on-Don already, and it looks like Moscow will fall within the month. Then they’ll push on to the Caspian, which will put them right on our northern border. Three guesses as to where the next round of fighting begins.”
She nodded, thoughtful. The Domination had never really been at peace in all the centuries of its existence; a citizen was reared to the knowledge that death in combat was as likely a way to go as cancer in bed. This would be different: a gotterdammerung, where whole nations were beaten into dust . . .
Too big, she mused. Impossible to think about in any meaningful sense; you could only see it in personal terms. And seeing it that way, Armageddon itself couldn’t kill you deader than a skirmish. It was the personal that was real, anyhow. You lived and died in person-time, not history-time.
“Funny,” she said. “Back when we were children, we couldn’t wait to grow up . . . Do you remember when Uncle Everard gave Rahksan to me? I was around six, so you must have been going on ten.”
Eric nodded, reminiscing. “Yes: you’d play at giving orders until she got tired of it; then she’d plump down and cross her arms and say, ‘This is a stupid game and I’m not going to play anymore,’ and we’d all roll around laughing.”
“Hmmm, well, it was a change to give anybody orders. At that age, nurse and all the house serfs tell you what to do, and wallop your bottom if you don’t . . . Did you know she’d have nightmares?”
Surprised, he shook his head. “Always seemed a happy little wench.”
“At night, she’d wake up sometimes on the pallet down at the foot of the bed, thinking she couldn’t breathe. Damn what the vet said, I think she got some lung damage when they gassed her village. I’d let her crawl in with me and hold her until she went to sleep; then later, when we were both older, well…” She paused and frowned. “You know, I never did go in for the schoolgirl stuff, the real thing, roses and fruit left at the window, bad poetry under the door, meetings in the pergola at midnight . . . Always seemed silly, as if this was seventy years ago and you could get in real trouble. So did what happened in the summer months off, everyone rushing out and falling on the nearest boy like ravening leopardesses on a goat.”
He laughed. She had always been able to draw him out of himself, even if that humor was a little barbed at times.
“Rahksan . . . that’s just fun and exuberance, and release from need, with more affection than you can get in barracks. I really like her, you know, and she me.” She paused to sip the cool tart wine. “And I miss Tom.”
“I always thought you two were in love,” Eric said lightly. “From the way you quarrelled: you’d ride ten miles just to have a fight with him.”
Johanna smiled ruefully. “True enough. And I do love him . . . ” She paused, set down the empty glass and linked her fingers about one knee. “Not the way you felt about that Circassian wench,” she continued softly. “Don’t think I didn’t notice. I’ll never love anyone with that . . . crazy single-mindedness, never, and I thank the nonexistent gods for it.”
He glanced away. “There has to be one sensible person in this family,” he said. He thought of his other sisters, twins three years younger than Johanna. “Besides the Terrible Two, of course.”
“Yes; they were threatening me bodily harm if I won the war before they could get into it . . . Eric, you know the problem with you and Pa? You think and feel exactly alike.”
“We haven’t agreed on a goddamned thing in ten years!”
“I didn’t say the contents of your thoughts were alike, but the way you think is no-shit identical, big brother. You feel things . . . too much: duty, love, hate, whatever. Everything’s a matter of principle; everything counts too much. You both want too much—things that aren’t possible to us mortals.”
“Possibly; but even if that’s true, it’s no solution to our problems.”
“Shit, you always did want solutions, didn’t you? Most of the things that bother you two aren’t problems, and they don’t have solutions: they’re the conditions of life and you have to livewith them.” She sighed at the tightening of his lips. “It’s like talking to a rock, with either of you. Mind you, Pa’s more often right on some things, to my way of thinking. Politics, certainly.”
“You don’t think I should have gotten Tyansha’s child out of the Domination?”
“Oh, that—that was your business. And she was yours, after all. You could have done it more . . . discreetly. The law is intended to discourage escape, not a man sending his own property out. I can even see why you did it, not that I would have myself; with her looks, that one was going to have trouble once she was into her teens. Tyansha was very lucky to end up belonging to you. No, I meant the other stuff, real politics.”
“Hmmm,” he said. “I can’t remember you ever taking much interest in party matters.”
“Well,” she said, sitting up and stretching. “I’m a voter now. I mean, how long has it been since the Draka League party lost an election, even locally? Sixty years, seventy? Regular as clockwork, seventy percent of the vote. The Liberals—‘free enterprise’—doesn’t it occur to them that three-quarters of the electorate are employees of the State and the Combines? They could all be underbid by serf labor if the restrictions were lifted, then there’d be revolution and we’d all be dead. That the Liberals get as much as three percent is a monument to human stupidity. Then there’s the Rationalists. I suppose you support them because they want a pacific foreign policy and an end to expansion. Same thing, only slower; we’re just not compatible with the existence of another social system. And we’re unique . . . ”
“The government line, and very convenient; but this war might kill us both,” he said grimly. “The way our precious social system already killed our brother. I wouldn’t be much loss to anyone, even myself, but you would, and I miss John.”
They turned their eyes to the portrait beside Johanna’s bed. It showed their elder brother in uniform, field kit; a Century of Janissaries had stood grouped around him. It was policy that those earmarked for advancement hold commands in both the serf army and the Citizen Force. John was smiling; that was how most remembered him. Alone of the von Shrakenberg children of this generation, he had taken after their mother’s kindred: a stocky, broad-faced man with seal-brown hair and eyes and big capable hands.
He had died in the Ituri, the great jungle north of the Congo bend. That was part of the Police Zone, the area of civil government, but there was little settlement—a few rubber plantations near navigable water, timber concessions, and gold mines in the Ituri that were supplied by airship. The rest was half a million square kilometers of National Park, where nothing human lived but a few bands of pygmies left to their Old Stone Age existence, looking up in wonder as the silvery shapes of Draka dirigibles glided past.
The mines were conveniently isolated. They were run by the Security Directorate, and used as a sink for serf convicts, the incorrigibles, the sweepings of the labor camps. The Draka technicians and overseers were those too incompetent to hold a post elsewhere, or who had mortally offended the powers that were. There had been an uprising below ground, brief and desperate and hopeless. The usual procedure would have been to turn off the drainage, or dump the tunnels full of poison gas. But the rebels had taken Draka hostages and John’s unit had been doing jungle-combat training nearby. There was no time to summon Security’s Intervention Squads, specialists in such work. Their brother had volunteered to lead his troops below; they had volunteered to follow, to a man.
Eric had never wanted to imagine what it had been like, he had always disliked confined spaces. The fighting had been at close quarters, machine pistols and grenades, knives and boots and picks and lengths of tubing stuffed full of blasting explosive. The power lines had been cut early on; at the last they had been struggling in water waist high, in absolute blackness . . . Incredibly, they had rescued most of the prisoners; John had been covering the withdrawal when an improvised bomb went off at his feet. His Janissaries had carried him out on their backs at risk of their lives, but it had been far too late.
They had been able to keep his last words, spoken in delirium. “I tried, Daddy, honest. I tried real hard.”
“I’m not surprised they brought him out,” Eric said into the silence. “He was an easy man to love.”
“Unlike you and Pa,” Johanna said drily. “Rahksan was head-over-heels for him; Pa . . . took it hard, you’ll remember. I thought he was going to cry at the funeral. That shook me; I can’t imagine Pa crying.”
“I can,” Eric said, surprising her. “You were too young, but I remember when Mother died. Not at the funeral, but afterwards, I went looking for him, found him in the study. He’d forgotten to lock the door. He was sitting there at the desk with his head in his hands.” The sobs had been harsh, racking, the weeping of a man unaccustomed to it.
They looked at each other uncomfortably and shifted. “Time to go,” Johanna said at last. “Pa wanted us down in the Quarters when the recruits get selected.”
They had taken horses, this being too nearly a formal occasion to walk. The path led down the slope of the hill between cut-stone walls, through the oak wood their ancestors had planted and patches of native scrub where the soil was too thin over rock to grow the big trees. The gravel crunched beneath hooves, and light came down in bright flickering shafts as the leaf canopy stirred, lancing into the cool wet-smelling green air of spring. Ferns carpeted the rocky ground, with flowers of blue and yellow and white. The trunks about them were thick and twisted, massive moss-grown shapes sinking their roots deep into the fractured rock of the hill.
Like the von Shrakenbergs, Eric thought idly, as they clattered over a small stone bridge, well-kept but ancient; the little stream beneath had been channeled to power a gristmill, in the early days.
They passed through a belt of hybrid poplar trees, coppiced for fuel, and into the working quarters of the plantation on the flat ground. The old mill bulked square, now the smithy and machine shop, about it were the laundry, bake house, carpenter’s workshop, garage—all the intricate fabric of maintenance an estate needed. The great barns were off to one side, with the creamery and cheese house and cooling sheds where cherries and peaches from the orchards were stored. Woolsheds and round granaries of red brick bulked beyond; holding paddocks, stables for the working stock . . . then a row of trees before the Quarters proper.
Four hundred serfs worked the fields of Oakenwald; their homes were grouped about a village green. Square, four-roomed cottages of field-stone with tile roofs stood along a grid of brick-paved lanes, each with its patch of garden to supplement the ration of meat and flour and roots. Pruned fruit trees were planted along the streets; privies stood behind the cottages, with chicken coops and rabbit hutches. Today was Saturday, a half-holiday save during harvest; only essential tasks with the stock would be seen to. Families sat on their porches, smoking their pipes, sewing, mending pieces of household gear; they rose to bow as Eric and Johanna cantered through on their big crop-maned hunters, children and dogs scattering before the hooves.
The central green was four hundred meters on a side, fringed with tall poplars. The south flank held the slightly larger homes of the headman and the elite of the Quarters gang—foremen, stockmen, skilled workers. The others were public buildings—a storehouse for cloth and rations, the communal bathhouse, an infirmary, a chapel where the serf minister preached a Christian faith the masters had largely abandoned. Beside it was the most recent addition—a school where he taught basic letters to a few of the most promising children; there were more tasks that needed such skills, these last few generations.
The green itself was mostly shaggy lawn with a pair of goal posts where the younger field hands sometimes played soccer in their scant leisure time; the water fountain was no longer needed now that the cottages had their own taps, but it still played merrily. Dances were held here of an evening; there was a barbecue pit, where whole oxen and pigs might be roasted at harvest and planting and Christmas festivals, or when a wedding or a birth in the Great House brought celebration.
And on one side was a covered dais of stone with a bell beside it; also stocks, and the seldom-used whipping post. Here the work assignments were given out, and the master sat to make judgments. The son and daughter of the House drew rein beside it, leaning on their saddle pommels to watch and nodding to their father, seated in his wooden chair.
The two Janissaries were there, with a crowd of the younger serfs standing about them. They were stripped to shorts and barefoot, practicing stick-fighting with their swagger canes, moving and feinting and slashing with no sound but the stamp of feet and grunting of breath. But for color they were much alike, heavy muscle rolling over thick bone, moving cat-graceful; scarred and quick and deadly. A smack of wood on flesh marked the end, they drew themselves up, saluted each other with their canes, and repeated the gesture to the Draka before trotting off to wash and change back into their uniforms.
Eric dismounted and tossed his reins to a serf. “Formidable,” he murmured to his sister as they mounted the dais and assumed their seats. “Wouldn’t care to take on either of them, hand to hand.”
She smiled agreement; the elder von Shrakenberg nodded to the crowd of young field hands before them. “Not without its effect there,” he said, and raised his voice. “Headman, summon the people.” That elderly worthy bowed and swung the clapper of the bell. Almost at once, the serfs began to assemble, by ones and twos and family groups, to stand in an irregular fan about the place of judgment. Eric spent the time musing. This was, he supposed, the best side of the Domination. Certainly, he had seen worse in Italy; much worse, among the peasants of Sicily and Calabria—sickness, hunger, and rags. All the von Shrakenberg serfs looked well-fed, tended, clothed; there had been callous men and women among his ancestors, even cruel ones, but few fools who expected work from starvelings. A drab existence, though: labor, a few simple pleasures, the consolations of their religion, old age spent rocking on the porch. So that the von Shrakenbergs might have power and wealth and leisure; so that the Domination might have armies for its fear-driven aggression.
There would always be enough willing recruits for the Janissaries. In theory, they were conscripts, but there were a million plantations such as this, not counting the inhabitants of the Combines’ labor compounds. And that was well for the Domination, for it was the Janissary legions that made the Draka a Great Power, able to wage offensive war. The Citizen Force was a delicate precision instrument, a rapier; it destroyed armies not by destroying their equipment and personnel, but by shock and psychological dislocation. Its aim was not to kill men, but to break their hearts and make them run. Draka were trained to war from childhood, and none but cripples escaped the Forces. But by the same token, their casualties were expenditure from capital, not income; too many expensive victories could ruin their nation.
And the Janissaries . . . they were the Domination’s battle-ax, their function to gore and crush and utterly destroy. Half a million had died breaking the Ankara line in Anatolia in 1917, and as many more in the grinding campaigns of pacification in the Asian territories after the war. Where there were no elegant solutions, where there could be no escaping the brutal arithmetic of attrition, the Janissaries would be used—street fighting, positional defense, frontal assault.
Eric was startled to hear his father speak. “Economical,” he murmured, and continued at his son’s glance.
“Conquest makes serfs, serfs make soldiers, soldiers make conquest . . . empire feeds on itself.”
Eric made a noncommittal sound and looked out over his family’s human chattel; he could name most of them, and the younger adults had been the playmates of his childhood, before age imposed an increasing distance. They stood quietly, hats in hand, their voices quiet shusshps running under the sound of the wind. Most were descendants of the tribes who had dwelt here before the Draka came, some of imports since then—Tamil, Arab, Berber, Egyptian. None spoke the old language; that had been extinct for a century or more, leaving only loan words and place names. And few were of unmixed blood; seven generations of von Shrakenberg males and their overseers taking their pleasure in the Quarters had left light-brown the predominant skin color. Not a few yellow heads and gray eyes were scattered through the crowd, and he reflected ruefully that most of his blood-kin were probably standing before him.
It occurred to him suddenly that these people had only to rush in a body to destroy their owners. Only three of us, he mused. Sidearms, but no automatic weapons. We couldn’t kill more than half a dozen.
It would not happen, could not, because they could not think it . . . There had been serf revolts in the early days. His great-great-great-grandfather had commanded the levies that impaled four thousand rebels along the road from Virconium to Shahnapur, down in the sugar country of the coast; there was a mural of it in the Great House. Oakenwald serfs had worked the fields in chains, in his day. Past, long past . . .
The two NCOs returned, spruce and glittering in the noonday sun, each bearing a brace of file folders; these they stacked neatly on a camp table set up before the dais. They turned to salute the dais, and his father rose to speak. A ripple of bows greeted him, like wind on corn.
“Folk of Oakenwald,” he said, leaning on his cane. “The Domination is at war. The Archon, who commands me as I command you, has called for a new levy of soldiers. Six among your young men will be accorded the high honor of becoming arms bearers in the service of the State and for the welfare of our common home. Pray for their souls.”
There was another long-drawn murmur. The news was no surprise; a regular grapevine ran from manor to manor, spread by the servants of guests, serfs sent to town on errands, even by telephone in these times. The young men shuffled their feet and glanced at each other with uneasy grins as the black Janissary rose to his feet and called out a roster of names. More than two score came raggedly forward.
“Yaz awl tinkin’ how lucky yaz bein’,” he began, the thick dialect and harsh tone a shock after the master’s words. “T’ be Janissary—faahn uniforms, t’ best a’ food an’ likker, usin’ t’ whip ‘stead a’ feelin’ it, an’ plunder’n girls in captured towns. Live laahk a fightin’ cock, walk praawd.”
His glance passed across them with scorn. There was more to it, of course: to give a salute rather than the serf’s low bow before the masters; excitement; travel beyond the narrow horizons of village or compound. Education, for those who could use it; training in difficult skills; respect. And the mystery of arms, the mark of the masters; for any but the Janissaries, it would be death to hold a weapon. A Janissary held nearly as many privileges over the serf population as a master, with fewer restraints. The chance to discharge a lifetime’s repressed anger . . .
His voice cracked out like a lash. “Yaz tink t’ be Janissary? Yaz should live s’long!” He came forward to walk down the ragged line, the hunting-cat grace of his gait a contrast to their ploughboy awkwardness. They were all young, between seventeen and nineteen, all in good health and over the minimum height. Draka law required exact records and he had studied them with care. The swagger stick poked out suddenly, taking one lad under the ribs. He doubled over with a startled oofff! and fell to his knees.
“Soft! Yaz soft! Tink cauz yaz c’n stare all day up t’ arse end of a plough mule, yaz woan’ drop dead onna force-march. Shit yaz pants when a’ mortar shells star’ a’ droppin.’ Whicha yaz momma’s darlins, whicha yaz houseserf bumboys tink they got it?”
He drew a line in the sparse grass with his swagger stick and waited, rising and falling slowly on the balls of his feet and tapping the stick in the palm of one gloved hand, a walking advertisement.
The serf youths looked at him, at his comrade lolling lordly-wise at the table with a file folder in his hands, back at the humdrum village of all their days. Visibly, they weighed the alternatives: danger against boredom; safety against the highest advancement a serf could achieve. Two dozen crowded forward over the line and the Master Sergeant grinned, suddenly jovial. His stick pointed out one, another, up to the six required; he had been watching carefully, sounding them out without seeming to, and the records were exhaustive. Their friends milled about, slapping the dazed recruits on the back and shoulder while in the background Eric could hear a sudden weeping, quickly hushed.
Probably a mother, he thought, rising with his father. Janissaries were not discouraged from keeping up contacts with their families, but they had their own camps and towns when not in the field, a world to itself. The plantation preacher would hold a service for their leaving, and it would be the one for the dead. Silence fell anew. “In honor of these young men,” the general called, smiling, “I declare a feast tonight. Headman, see to issuing the stores. Tell the House steward that I authorize two kegs of wine, and open the vats at the brewery.”
That brought a roar of applause, as the family of the master descended from the dais to shake the hands of the six chosen, a signal honor. They stood, grinning, in a haze of glory, as the preparations for the evening’s entertainment began; tomorrow, they would travel with the two soldiers to the estates round about, there would be more feasts, admiration . . . and the master had called them “young men,” not bucks . . .
Eric hoped that the memories would help them when they reached the training camps. The roster of formed units in the Janissary arm was complete, but the ersatz Cohorts, the training and replacement units, were being expanded. Infantry numbers eroded quickly in intensive operations; the legions would need riflemen by the hundred thousand, soon.
As he swung back into the saddle, he wondered idly how many would survive to wear the uniforms of Master Sergeants themselves. Not many, probably. The training camps themselves would kill some; the regimen was harsh to the point of brutality, deliberately so. A few would die, more would wash out into secondary arms, the Security Directorate could always use more executioners and camp-guard “bulls.” The survivors would learn; learn that they were the elite, that they had no family but their squad mates, no father but their officer, no country or nation but their legions. Learn loyalty, kadaversobedienz—the ability to obey like a corpse.
His father’s quiet words jarred him out of his thoughts as they rode slowly through the crowd and then heeled their mounts into a canter through the deserted village beyond.
“Eric, I have a favor to ask of you.”
“Sir?” He looked up, startled.
“A . . . command matter. It’s the Yankees. They’re the only major Power left uncommitted, and we need them to counterbalance the Japanese. We don’t need another war in East Asia while we fight the Germans, and if it does come, we’ll have to cooperate with the U.S. Certainly if we expect them to do most of the fighting, and help out in Europe besides.”
Eric nodded, baffled. More reluctantly, his father continued. “As part of keeping them sweet, we’re allowing in a war correspondent.”
“I should think, sir, knowing the Yankees, allowing a newspaperman into the Domination would be likely to turn them against us, once he started reporting.”
“Not if he’s allowed to see only the proper sights, then assigned to a combat unit and, ah, overseen by the proper officer.”
“I see. Sir.” Eric said. Now, that’s an insult, if you like, he thought. The implication being that he was a weak-livered milksop, unlikely to arouse the notorious Yankee squeamishness. The younger man’s lips tightened. “As you command, sir. I will see you at dinner, then.”
Karl von Shrakenberg stared after the diminishing thunder of his son’s horse, a brief flush rising to his weathered cheeks. He had suggested the assignment; pushed for it, in fact, as a way to prove Eric’s loyalty beyond doubt, restore his career prospects. The Security case officer had objected, but not too strongly; Karl suspected he looked at it as a baited trap, luring Eric into indiscretions that not even an Arch-Strategos’ influence could protect him from. And this was his reward . . .
Behind him, Johanna raised her eyes to heaven and sighed. Maybe Rahksan can ease him up for tomorrow, she thought glumly. Home sweet home, bullshit.