ARCHONA TO OAKENWALD PLANTATION
The airdrop on Sicily had earned Eric von Shrakenberg a number of things: a long scar on one thigh, certain memories, and a field promotion to Centurion’s rank. When the 1st Airborne Chiliarchy was pulled back into reserve after the fall of Milan, the promotion was confirmed; a rare honor for a man barely twenty-four. With it came fourteen-day leave passes to run from October 1, 1941, and unlike most of his comrades, he had not disappeared into the pleasure quarter of Alexandria; it was well for a man to visit the earth that had borne him, before he died.
He spent the last half-hour in the airship’s control gallery, for the view; they were coming in to Archona from the north, and it was a side of the capital free citizens seldom saw unless business took them there. For a citizen, Archona was the marble-and-tile public buildings and low-rise office blocks, parks and broad avenues, the University campus, and pleasant, leafy suburbs with the gardens for which the city was famed.
Beyond the basin that held the freemen’s city lay the world of the industrial combines, hectare upon hectare, eating ever deeper into the bush country of the middleveld. A spiderweb of roads, rail sidings, monorails, landing platforms for freight airships. The sky was falling into night, but there was no sleep below, only an unrestfulness full of the light of arc lamps and the bellowing flares of the blast furnaces; factory windows carpeted the low hills, shifts working round the clock. Only the serf compounds were dark, the flesh-and-blood robots of the State exhausted on their pallets, a brief escape from a lockstep existence spent in that wilderness of metal and concrete.
Eric watched it with a fascination tinged with horror as the crew guided the great bulk of the lighter-than-air ship in, until light spots danced before his eyes. And remembered.
In the center of Archona, where the Avenue of Triumph met the Way of the Armies, there was a square with a victory monument. A hundred summers had turned the bronze green and faded the marble plinth; about it were gardens of unearthly loveliness, where children played between the flowerbanks. The statue showed a group of Draka soldiers on horseback; their weapons were the Ferguson rifle muskets and double-barreled dragoon pistols of the eighteenth century. Their leader stood dismounted, reins in one hand, bush knife in the other. A black warrior knelt before him, and the Draka’s boot rested on the man’s neck.
Below, in letters of gold, were words: To the Victors. That was their monument; northern Archona was a monument to the vanquished, and so were the other industrial cities that stretched north a thousand kilometers to Katanga; so were mines and plantations and ranches from the Cape to Shensi.
In the morning the transport clerk was apologetic; also harried. Private autocars were up on blocks for the duration mostly; in the end, all she could offer was a van taking two Janissaries south to pick up recruits from the plantations. Eric shrugged indifferently, to the clerk’s surprise. The city-bred might be prickly in their insistence on the privileges of the master caste, but a von Shrakenberg was raised to ignore such trivia. Also . . . he remembered the rows of Janissary dead outside Palermo, where they had broken the enemy lines to relieve the encircled paratroops.
The roadvan turned out to be a big six-wheeled Kellerman steamer twenty years old, a round-edged metal box with running boards chest-high and wheels taller than he. It had been requisitioned from the Transportation Directorate and still had eyebolts in the floor for the leg shackles of the work gangs. The Janissaries rose from their kitbags as Eric approached, flicking away cigarettes and giving him a respectful but unservile salute; the driver in her grimy coverall of unbleached cotton bowed low, hands before eyes.
“Carry on,” Eric said, returning the salute. The serf soldiers were big men, as tall as he, their snug uniforms of dove gray and silver making his plain Citizen Force walking-out blacks seem almost drab. Both soldiers were in their late thirties and Master Sergeants, the highest rank subject-race personnel could aspire to. They were much alike—hard-faced and thick-muscled; unarmed, here within the Police Zone, but carrying steel-tipped swagger sticks in white-gloved hands. One was ebony black, the other green-eyed and tanned olive, and might have passed for a freeman save for the shaven skull and serf identity number tattooed on his neck. The vehicle pulled out of the loading bay with the smooth silence of steam power, into the crowded streets; he brought out a book of poetry, Rimbaud, and lost himself in the fire-bright imagery.
When he looked up in midmorning, they were south of the city. Crossing the Whiteridge and the scatter of mining and manufacturing settlements along it, past the huge, man-made heaps of spoilage from the gold mines. Some were still rawly yellow with the cyanide compounds used to extract the precious metal; others were in every stage of reclamation, down to forested mounds that might have been natural.
This ground had yielded more gold in its century-and-a-half than all the rest of the earth in all the years of humankind; four thousand meters beneath the road, men still clawed at rock hot enough to raise blisters on naked skin. Then they were past, into the farmlands of the high plateau; it was a relief to smell the goddess breath of spring overtaking the carrion stink of industrial-age war. The four-lane asphalt surface of the road stretched dead straight to meet the horizon that lay around them like a bowl; waist-high fields of young corn flicked by, each giving an instant’s glimpse down long, leafy tunnels floored with brown, plowed earth. Air that smelled of dust and heat and green poured in, and the sea of corn shimmered as the leaves rippled.
It would be no easier to meet his father again if he delayed arrival until nightfall. Restlessly, he reopened the book; anticipation warred with . . . yes, fear: he had been afraid at that last interview with his father. Karl von Shrakenberg was not a man to be taken lightly.
It was still day when they turned in under the tall stone arch of the gates, the six wheels of the Kellerman crunching on the smooth crushed rock, beneath the sign that read Oakenwald Plantation, est. 1788. K. von Shrakenberg, Landholder. But the sun was sinking behind them. Ahead, the jagged crags of the Maluti Mountains were outlined in the Prussian blue of shadow and sandstone gold. This valley was higher than the plateau plains west of the Caledon River; rocky, flat-topped hills reared out of the rolling fields. The narrow plantation road was lined with oaks, huge branches meeting twenty meters over their heads; the lower slopes of the hills were planted to the king trees as well.
Beyond were the hedged fields, divided by rows of Lombardy poplar: wheat and barley still green with a hint of gold as they began to head out, contour-ploughed cornfields, pastures dotted with white-fleeced sheep, spring lambs, horses, yellow-coated cattle. The fieldworkers were heading in, hoes and tools slanted over their shoulders, mules hanging their heads as they wearily trudged back toward the stables. A few paused to look up in curiosity as the vehicle passed; Eric could hear the low, rhythmic song of a work team as they walked homeward, a sad sweet memory from childhood.
Despite himself, he smiled, glancing about. It had been, by the White Christ and almighty Thor, two years now since his last visit. “You can’t go home again,” he said softly to himself. “The problem is, you can’t ever really leave it, either.” Memory turned in on itself and the past colored the present; he could remember his first pony and his father’s hands lifting him into the saddle, how his fingers smelled of tobacco and leather and strong soap. And the first time he had been invited into his father’s study to talk with the adults after a dinner party. Ruefully, he smiled as he remembered holding the brandy snifter in an authoritative pose anyone but himself must have recognized as copied from Pa’s . . . And yet, it was all tinged with sorrow and anger; impossible to forget, hurtful to remember, a turning and itching in his mind.
He looked downslope; beyond that screen of pines was a stock dam where the children of the house had gone swimming sometimes, gods alone knew why, except that they were supposedto use the pool up by the manor. There, one memorable day, he had knocked Frikkie Thyssen flat for sneering at his poetry. The memory brought a grin; it had been the sort of epic you’d expect a twelve-year-old in love with Chapman’s Homer to do, but that little bastard Thyssen wouldn’t have known if it had been a work of genius . . . And over there in the cherry orchard, he had lost his virginity under a harvest moon one week after his thirteenth birthday, to a giggling field wench twice his age and weight . . .
And then there had been Tyansha, the Circassian girl. Pa had given her to him on his fourteenth birthday. The dealer had called her something more pronounceable, but that was the name she had taught him, along with her mother tongue. She had been . . . perhaps four years older than he; nobody had been keeping records in eastern Turkey during those years of blood and chaos. There were vague memories of a father, she had said, and a veiled woman who held her close, then lay in a ditch by a burning house and did not move. Then the bayonets of the Janissaries herding her and a mob of terrified children into trucks. Thirst, darkness, hunger; then the training creche. Learning reading and writing, the soft-blurred Draka dialect of English; household duties, dancing, the arts of pleasing. Friends, who vanished one by one into the world beyond the walls. And him.
Her eyes had been what he had noticed first—huge, a deep pale blue, like a wild thing seen in the forest. Dark red hair falling to her waist, past a smooth, pale, high-cheeked face. She had worn a silver-link collar that emphasized the slender neck and the serf-number tattooed on it, and a wrapped white sheath dress to show off her long legs and high, small breasts. Hands linked before her, she had stood between his smiling father and the impassive dealer, who slapped her riding crop against one boot, anxious to be gone.
“Well, boy, does she please?” Pa had asked. Eric remembered a wordless stutter until his voice broke humiliatingly in a squeak; his elder brother John had roared laughter and slapped him on the back, urging him forward as he led her from the room by the hand. Hers had been small and cool; his own hands and feet felt enormous, clumsy; he was hideously aware of a pimple beside his nose.
She had been afraid—not showing it much, but he could tell. He had not touched her; not then, or in the month that followed. Not even at the first shyly beautiful smile . . .
Gods, but I was callow, Eric thought in sadly affectionate embarrassment. They had talked; rather, he had, while she replied in tense, polite monosyllables, until she began to shed the fear. He had showed her things—his battle prints, his butterfly collection—that had disgusted her—and the secret place in the pine grove, where he came to dream the vast vague glories of youth . . . A month before she crept in beside him one night. A friend, one of the overseer’s sons, had asked casually to borrow her; he had beaten the older boy bloody. Not wildly, in the manner of puppy fights, but with the pankration disciplines, in a cold ferocity that ended only when he was pulled off.
There had been little constraint between them, in private. She even came to use his first name without the “master,” eventually. He had allowed her his books, and she had devoured them with a hunger that astonished him; so did her questions, sometimes disconcertingly sharp. Making love with a lover was . . . different. Better; she had been more knowledgeable than he, if less experienced, and they had learned together. Once in a haystack, he remembered; prickly, it had made him sneeze. Afterward, they had lain holding hands, and he had shown her the southern sky’s constellations.
She died in childbirth three years later, bearing his daughter. The child had lived, but that was small consolation. That had been the last time he wept in public; the first time since his mother had died when he was ten. And it had also been the last time his father had beaten him: for weakness. Casual fornication aside, it was well enough for a boy to have a serf girl of his own. Even for him to care for her, since it helped keep him from the temptations that all-male boarding schools were prone to. But the public tears allowable for blood-kin were unseemly for a concubine.
Eric had caught the thong of the riding crop in one hand and jerked it free. “Hit me again, and I’ll kill you,” he had said, in a tone flat as gunmetal. He’d seen his father’s face change as the scales of parental blindness fell away, and the elder von Shrakenberg realized that he was facing a very dangerous man, not a boy. And that it is not well to taunt an unbearable grief.
He shook his head and looked out again at the familiar fields; it was a sadness in itself, that time healed. Grief faded into nostalgia, and it was a sickness to try and hold it. That mood stayed with him as they swung into the steep drive and through the gardens below Oakenwald’s Great House. The manor had been built into the slope of a hill—for defense, in the early days—and it still gave a memorable view. The rocky slope had been terraced for lawns, flowerbanks, ornamental trees, and fountains; forest grew over the steepening slope behind, and then a great table of rock reared two hundred meters into the darkening sky.
The manor itself was ashlar blocks of honey-colored local sandstone, a central three-story block fronted with white marble columns and topped with a low-pitched roof of rose tile; there were lower wings to each side—arched colonnades supporting second-story balconies. There was a crowd waiting beneath the pillars, and a parked gray-painted staff car with a strategos’ red-and-black checkerboard pennant fixed to one bumper; the tall figure of his father stood amidst the household leaning on his cane. Eric took a deep breath and opened the door of the van, pitching his baggage to the ground and jumping down to the surface of the drive.
Air washed over him cool and clean, smelling of roses and falling water, dusty crushed rock and hot metal from the van; bread was baking somewhere, and there was woodsmoke from the chimneys. The globe lights came on over the main doors, and he saw who awaited: his father, of course; his younger sister Johanna in undress uniform; the overseers, and some of the house servants behind . . .
He waved, then turned back to the van for a moment, pulling a half-empty bottle out of his kit and leaning in for a parting salute to the Janissaries.
They looked up and their faces lit with surprised gratitude as he tossed the long-necked glass bulb; it was Oakenwald Kijaffa, cherry brandy in the same sense that Dom Perignon was sparkling wine, and beyond the pockets of most freemen.
“Tanks be to yaz, Centurion, sar,” the black said, his teeth shining white. “Sergeants Miller and Assad at yar s’rvice, sar.”
“For Palermo,” he said, and turned his head to the driver. “Back, and take the turning to the left, half a kilometer to the Quarters. Ask for the headman; he’ll put you all up.”
A young houseboy had run forward to take Eric’s baggage; he craned his head to see into the long cabin of the van after making his bow, his face an ‘O’ of surprise at the bright Janissary uniforms. And he kept glancing back as he bore the valise and bag away. Eric stopped him to take a few parcels out of the bag, reflecting that they probably had another volunteer there. Then he was striding up the broad black-stone steps, the hard soles of his high boots clattering. The servants bowed like a rippling field, and there were genuine smiles of welcome. Eric had always been popular with the staff, as such things went.
He clicked heels and saluted. His father returned it, and they stood for a wordless moment eye to eye; they were of a height. Alike in color and cast of face as well; the resemblance was stronger now that pain had graven lines in the younger man’s face to match his sire’s.
“Recovered from your wound, I see.” The strategos paused, searching for words. “I read the report. You were a credit to the service and the family, Eric.”
“Thank you, sir,” he replied neutrally, fighting down an irrational surge of anger. I didn’t want the Academy, a part of him thought savagely. The first von Shrakenberg in seven generations not to, and a would-be artist to boot. Does that make me an incompetent, or a coward?
And that was unjust. Pa had not really been surprised that he had the makings of a good officer; he had too much confidence in the von Shrakenberg blood for that. What was it that makes me draw back? he thought. Alone, he could wish so strongly to be at peace with his father again. Those gray eyes, more accustomed to cold mastery, shared his own baffled hurt; he could see it. But together . . . they fought, or coexisted with an icy politeness that was worse.
Or usually worse. Two years ago, he had sent Tyansha’s daughter out of the country. To America, where there was a Quaker group that specialized in helping the tiny trickle of escaped serfs who managed to flee. They must have been surprised to receive a tow-haired girlchild from an aristocrat of the Domination, together with an annuity to pay for her upkeep and education. Not that he had been fond of the girl; he had handed her to the women of the servant’s quarters and as she grew, her looks were an intolerable reminder. But she was Tyansha’s . . . It had required a good deal of money, and several illegalities.
To Arch-Strategos Karl von Shrakenberg, that had been a matter touching on honor, and on the interests of the Race and the nation.
His father had threatened to abandon him to the Security Directorate; that could have meant a one-way trip to a cold cellar with instruments of metal, a trip that ended with a pistol bullet in the back of the head. Eric suspected that if his brother, John, had still been alive to carry on the family name, it might have come to that. As it was, he had been forbidden the house until service in Italy had changed the general’s mind.
I saved my daugh—a little girl, he thought. For that I was a criminal and will always be watched. But by helping to destroy a city and killing hundreds who’ve never done me harm, I’m a hero and all is forgiven. Tyansha had once told him that she had given up expecting sense from the world long ago; more and more, he saw her point.
He forced his mind back to the older man’s words. “And the Janissaries won’t have any problems in the Quarters?”
“Not unless someone’s foolish enough to provoke them. They’re Master Sergeants, steady types; the headman will find them beds and a couple of willing girls.”
There was another awkward pause, and the strategos turned to go. “Well. I’ll see you when we dine, then.”
Johanna had been waiting impatiently, but in this household, the proprieties were observed. As Eric turned to face her, she straightened and threw a crackling salute, then winked broadly and pointed her thumb upward at the collar of her uniform jacket.
He returned the salute and followed her digit. “Well, well. Pilot Officer Johanna von Shrakenberg, now!” He spread his arms and she gave him a swift fierce hug. She was four years younger than he; on her the bony family looks and the regulations that cropped her fair hair close produced an effect halfway between elegance and adolescent homeliness.
“That was quick—fighters? And what’s this I hear about Tom? You two are still an ‘item’?” With a stage magician’s gesture, he produced a flat package.
“They’re turning us out quick, these days—cutting out nonessentials like sleep. Yes, fighters: Eagles, interceptors.” The wrapping crumpled under strong, tanned fingers. “And no, Tom and I aren’t an item; we’re engaged.” She paused to roll her eyes. “Wouldn’t you know it, guess where his lochos’s been sent? Xian! Shensi, to watch the Japanese!”
The package opened. Within were twin eardrops, cabochon-cut rubies the size of a thumbnail, set in chased silver. Johanna whistled and held them up to the light as Eric shook hands with the overseers, inquired after their children in the Forces, handed out minor gifts among the house servants and hugged old Nanny Sukie, the family child-nurse. Arms linked, Eric and Johanna strolled into the house.
“Loot?” she inquired, holding up the jewels. “Sort of Draka-looking . . . ”
“Made from loot,” he said affectionately. It was a rare Draka who doubted the morality of conquest. To deny that the property of the vanquished was proper booty would go beyond eccentricity to madness. “You think I’m buying rubies like that on a Centurion’s pay? They’re from an Italian bishop’s crozier—he won’t be needing it in the labor camp, after all.” The man had smiled under the gun muzzles, actually, and signed a cross in the air as they prodded him away. Eric pushed the memory aside.
“I had the setting done up in Alexandria . . . ”