Chapter One

“I could get better prices in Yunnan!” the captain of the pirate airboat Tiānwáng—Heavenly King—said.

Loudly, and in execrable Russian.

“We could just fly away and get so much silver we wouldn’t need ballast!”

The man who was going by the name Mikhail Fedorovitch Vasiliev here and now looked up at a sky so blue it seemed as if it would bleed turquoise if you cut it, showing his elaborate lack of being impressed. Their hilltop location put them above most of the city’s haze of dust and coal-smoke, and you could see the white cap of the holy Bogd Khan mountain to the south clearly from here. There could be snow in this area as late as May, and there were goosebumps on the bandit chief’s thick bare arms.

Much better in Samarkand!” he blustered on. “They know good fresh beauties when they see them there. And the weather’s better in either. Yunnan is paradise this time of year, not like this heap of frozen nomad goat-dung.”

Mikhail snorted his contempt. For one thing, the name of the sky-pirate’s ship was ill-chosen; Fragment of Stinking Airborne Hell would have been better. He could sniff the scent of fear and feces on the cold air fifty yards away, even over the pirate’s own all-too-close personal aroma, distinct even here on the open hilltop.

For a second, that remark about the prices wasn’t really true…

Well, possibly for Samarkand, but that’s irrelevant, he thought.

“You’d get better prices here or there if you didn’t rape all the girls before you sell them,” he pointed out. “And beat them. Beat them bloody and rape them.”

Mikhail’s painfully acquired Russian was the pellucidly clear version of an educated man from Moscow or St. Petersburg, something he’d started working on before the Armistice. His Chinese was only passable but actually better than this walking caricature’s Russian, too, but it wouldn’t do to reveal that given who he was pretending to be. He had little natural talent for languages; grinding application had had to substitute. Right now he had a target of acquiring ten Mongol words a day, which took him about an hour of concentrated and unpleasant study if they were to stick.

“Am I a eunuch, not to fuck a woman when I can?” the pirate—who went by the name Jiǔ wén long, Nine-Dragon Tattoo—said. “Do I look like a eunuch?”

No, you look like a cartoon of a Chinese bandit drawn by someone who really doesn’t like Chinese people, Mikhail thought. And I say it as one who doesn’t, himself.

Nine-Dragon was bare to the waist save for a bulky but open and sleeveless vest of some fur that had been high-quality once, and the harness that supported the Jiu Huan Dao—nine-ring broadsword—across his back, a massive curved chopping blade with a two-foot hilt topped by another metal ring and a tassel of dyed horse-tail. Colorful Oriental dragons bright in the cold morning sun of the dry steppe were indeed tattooed over his thick arms and barrel chest and hard bulging belly, though Mikhail didn’t bother to count; all of them were engaged in exotic sexual acts with girls, boys and monsters of indeterminate gender. Or killing them. Or both simultaneously.

Exposing that much skin was bandit bravado itself in this weather, and Mikhail sincerely hoped he’d catch his death of pneumonia from it. A broomhandle Mauser automatic pistol was thrust into the scarlet sash around his thick waist along with assorted knives, above pantaloons and boots, and his round head was shaven save for long drooping mustaches on a face as hideously scarred as Mikhail’s own, though from blades and clubs and fists… and probably the toes of boots… rather than explosives.

And you smell like a cartoon bandit too, he thought, carefully not wrinkling his nose at the scents of dried sweat, piss, ancient rut, rotting blood and stale liquor and things even less pleasant.

We stank at the Front, and the trenches stank. Of everything from shit to the rotting bodies that made the rats fat, but that was because we had no choice.

“There’s a big markup for virgins who can be sold as concubines or servants,” he said with a shrug, and jerked a thumb at the Tiānwáng. “Are you trying to tell me any of those are still virgins?”

The airboat haven’s usual clamor of voices, feet, wheels, engines and screeching metal-on-metal sounds of machine-tools currently included the whimpers and moans of more than two dozen filthy, battered-looking and mostly naked girls being herded off the ramp from the sixty-foot gondola to huddle shivering in the cold northern breeze; from the stink and look, the sanitary arrangements had been just what you’d expect. The craft surged up a little as their weight was removed, though less than it should have.

The flying piece of garbage masquerading as an airboat and currently known as the Tiānwáng probably couldn’t have made it to Yunnan and a less discriminating or just less saturated market. Much less across the mountain passes and through the Dzungarian Gate to the central part of Central Asia, where a Russian warlord currently had his seat in Samarkand and another ruled Tashkent and the Devil’s Uncle ran the rest. Though that would have been perfectly practical if the vessel were in proper shape—the basic design had a range of over twelve thousand kilometers.

It was an originally good Japanese copy of a German improvement on a Yankee long-range patrol craft used for anti-U-boat work towards the end of the Great War. There were thousands of airboats of the same basic design in use all over the world as of this year, on routes that didn’t rate an airship. Those still numbered only in the high hundreds, though rising quickly.

Any of the engineers in that chain would have wept to see the airboat now, unkempt even by the standards of the dozens of private—meaning pirate, mostly—craft moored here or in the rows of giant sheds, much less the larger number of the Great Khan’s own air service, based not far away and all at least reasonably well maintained. Several of those were patrolling, visible as droning dots in the sky, along with aeroplanes from the nearby fields, both Great War models bought cheap as the Powers shed obsolescent gear. Some of the aeroplanes were practicing in-air refueling from tanker-airboats.

Not that they’re are anything special by our standards, not-really-Mikhail thought. And they do just as much raiding as the outright pirates, but they call it war.

“We’re crediting you with ten dollars Mex a head and that’s more than your used-up suki are worth,” Mikhail said, naming a price in the notional currency used all over China and its borderlands, a product of the long inflow of silver into Asia from mines in Spain’s old colonies.

“Ten!” Nine-Dragon exploded, or howled. “For prime young bitches?”

Behind him his followers growled and hefted swords, rifles of half a dozen makes often with bayonets still attached and still crusted with old dried blood, a Lewis light machine gun and a pair of Thompson machine-pistols—Japanese nine-millimeter copies of the American original. They were also festooned with daggers and pistols and grenades… one wahnsinniger Schwachkopf who looked like some sort of Balkan refugee had a set of British Mills bombs hung from his harness by the rings, presumably so he could strip them off and throw them in a fight without pausing to pull the ring free with his other hand.

What does he think will happen if one catches on a doorway, or his neighbor’s coat? He won’t have much time for thought when it drops at his feet and goes off. In the air, quite possibly!

“Ten is less than a quarter of what a horse costs here,” the pirate captain said.

His voice turned plaintive despite his best efforts at making it menacing. The coin, jewels, jade, silk cloth, silver ornaments and household goods and tools in his plunder would meet a brisk market in the expanding city, and it included some cases of a well-aged rice-based liquor which would move well because for some reason the locals adored it.

But the bulkier part of the loot was young women. That motley crew of cutthroats wouldn’t be happy with their captain if their cargo didn’t fetch better than ten each, which would barely cover the cost of fuel and food to transport them, much less the cost of catching them in the first place. Even a village selected at random and attacked by surprise in the first light of dawn under a hail of machine-gun fire could be dangerous. Too low a price and Nine-Dragon Tattoo might find himself trying to swim in air a thousand feet up on some not-too-distant day.

“Poxed-up Chinese sluts with broken noses and teeth knocked out are cheaper than horses here,” Mikhail said with a shrug he carefully made more emphatic than the language of the body learned in his youth. “If you can do better than ten each from the whorehouse dealers… though maybe the factory owners would be a better bet… show the receipts or cash and your line of credit goes up. Until then, do you want the repairs you can afford, or not? I fuck your mother either way.”

In Russian that phrase—yob tvoyu mat—was both extremely common outside respectable circles and less unambiguously insulting than in most languages; in this context it meant more or less what piss off and don’t waste my time would in supposedly-Mikhail’s actual native tongue.

It wasn’t the pirate’s cruelty that upset and angered him. The world was a hard place at the best of times, much less this troubled year of Grace 1923, and this city was the oozing, festering infected anus of an age of troubles. Nor were there many people within a three-thousand-kilometer radius whose suffering, or life or death, affected him at all, they being aliens and inferiors who in an ideal, which was to say German-ruled, world wouldn’t exist.

It was the stupidity and slovenly lack of foresight or self-control that reflexively enraged him, ineptitude so complete that even the man’s greed wasn’t enough to make him master his impulses. Before this assignment he’d thought Russians took the cake in those respects, or possibly Poles or Rumanians, but he’d been so, so wrong. Perhaps Turks were as bad—but possibly not, too. It wasn’t just that the man was an Asiatic; he disliked the Japanese, too, but you had to admit the little devils had discipline and to spare.

Nine-Dragon Tattoo could made a Frenchman look outright Prussian.

“And an extra twenty on your bill for cleaning up your ship’s hold with hoses and live steam,” Mikhail said, reflecting that in any case piracy wasn’t the career choice of the well-disciplined of any background. “We don’t want cholera or typhoid here in the yards. This contract is my bread and butter and I won’t risk it because you like to spend your days sitting in the smell of shit.”

The envelope of the hundred-meter gasbag was visibly sagging, and the sound of the two big radial engines on stub wings to either side had been audibly irregular as it approached… not to mention that one of them had coughed and died just as the mooring lines were dropped. Those lines and the landing rails on either side of the twenty-meter gondola were now in the hands of two hundred ragged, skinny Chinese workers, with the Tiānwáng floating at only a bit more than head-height, and another fifty on lines to the tail to make sure no chance breeze pivoted it sideways at an awkward moment.

The hands of the mounted Mongol warriors and the Cossacks who shared guard duties held only long knout-whips tipped with bits of rusty, ragged metal. Those popped and cracked to the accompaniment of screams as the teams began moving the airboat towards the vast tent-like shed that would shelter it while the gasbag hung from the supports and the repairs were done, swaying to a nasal wailing chant as they did.

The whips weren’t anything like the nagaikas the riders would have used to help manage their mounts. Cossacks and Mongols both liked horses.

Mikhail’s confidence in the face of the pirate band wasn’t merely personal. There were a platoon of the Yekhe Khan’s men in their uniforms of green wool lapover deel-coats and pants and steel helmets not far away, also mounted but carrying Japanese assault rifles with their hands on the grips and the butts on each right thigh as they patrolled the laneways and streets of the airship haven. Those pieces of equipment were clean and well-maintained, and the pirates glanced at the soldiers from the corners of their eyes and subsided. Breaking the Khan’s peace in his capital carried penalties for outsiders that would make your ultimate but much-delayed death a relief.

Nine-Dragon scowled and muttered, obviously delaying the painful moment of accepting the deal. Then his eyes went wide as he looked over the apparent Russian’s shoulder. Mikhail looked back himself; two men in court dress were approaching in a rumble of hooves, mounted and with their bodyguards riding behind them.

Court dress meant deels too, but the calf-length coats were dark silk—midnight blue and black respectively—gorgeously embroidered, fastened at the shoulder with buttons of carved jade and precious metals; the baggy pants were finest wool cloth, and the beaded boots with upturned toes were almost as expensive-looking as the jeweled hilts of the dao sabers that hung from tooled belts over their sashes. The round point-topped hats on their heads had bands of ermine at their bases and bound-up flaps of the same fur that would cover ears and face in what locals considered really cold weather.

A bannerman rode behind them, with a tall lance whose steel head reared above a horizontal gilt-bronze circle joined to it by nine spokes. From that wheel-like support hung nine black horse-tails, a symbol that they were on the Yekhe Khan’s business, and that it was business of war, and hence serious. Another attendant had a wooden perch on his saddle, and a great golden eagle rode it, its ten-foot wingspan folded, hooded with a tasseled burka, probably showing what they’d rather be doing on a fine day.

The locals in some parts of Mongolia hunted wolves with those eagles, and the leaders among the Russian immigrants had taken it up with a convert’s enthusiasm, like many other local customs. A good many had followed von Ungern-Sternberg’s example and become Buddhists, too, though others clung to Orthodoxy all the more strongly. The considerable surplus of males among the influx often married Mongol women, something else the Khan had done, and he encouraged others to follow suit.

One of the nobles was a Russian with his blond scalplock hanging to his shoulder and yellow beard in two braids, and one a Mongol aristo with his black hair shaved save for the forelock and plaits that the Khan’s guardsmen and sworn noyons wore. That pairing was the careful pattern the Yekhe Khan followed, to show the new order was a partnership of equals and not a Russian take-over. Mongols and Russians here didn’t usually like each other very much, but they needed each other in this hybrid realm that was their only home in the new world the Great War had made, and they knew it.

Both faces looked hard enough to produce commercial quantities of gravel by headbutting a cliff.

Mikhail took off his hat and bowed low with the hand that held it sweeping down to almost touch the ground. The men from the Yekhe Khan’s court gave him brief nods—his position as one of the merchant-contractors who handled business for the haven rated that much respect—and then turned to the captain of the Heavenly King.

“We’re prepared to give you fifteen per head for your entire living cargo,” the Russian said, as the Mongol put his thumbs in his swordbelt and looked bored in a stoic, stolid way. “Yob tvoyu mat, so don’t try to bargain with me.”

I fuck your mother in this context meant: Take it or leave it.

Nine-Dragon gave a broad discolored gap-toothed grin and bowed himself, slapping his right fist into his left palm and bending his head over the joining, so that his long mustaches brushed the studded leather guards on his thick wrists.

“Of course, most noble emissaries of the Yekhe Khan!” he said, sending a poo on you glance at Mikhail out of the corners of his eyes. “Ochen ‘orosho! Very fine!”

The formalities didn’t take much longer, and the nobles gave Mikhail a delivery address at a caravanserai on the southern edge of the city for the women; caravans for the Gobi and the lands beyond still departed from there, mostly still using two-humped Bactrian camels though there was a reasonable wagon-road these days and motor trucks made the journey as well. The capital had one short and very new railway, the only one in the country save for some in what had been Chinese Inner Mongolia until recently, but it ran northeast towards a coal mine that supplied the town’s hearths and furnaces.

Ach, so, Mikhail thought, then chided himself for falling back into his native tongue, even in thought.

Nine-Dragon wrote the characters of his name on the clipboard Mikhail offered him, grimacing in effort and with his tongue clenched between his teeth as he grunted with concentration. The document outlined—in Russian and Mongol written in the Cyrillic alphabet—that the envelope, frame and engines would be overhauled, and lift and fuel-gas bags topped up. Even with the nobles’ higher offer, that would leave the pirates just enough to pay off accumulated debts and have a three-day bender in the joyhouses and buy enough ammunition for their next raid. Where their hangovers and frustrations over being diddled would probably leave them even more vicious when they landed on some hapless settlement.

He nodded curtly to Nine-Dragon and stumped away with graceless speed, the walk of a stocky man in his thirties, one thick with muscle and deadly quick but who’d have been fat if he hadn’t lived hard. The rest of his working day was spent mostly overseeing maintenance teams and in the rammed-earth buildings that held the machine-shops. Those swarmed; the machinists were mostly European refugees or Japanese contract-workers, but each had up to a dozen apprentices. That was vastly more than was necessary right now, but he had to admit that the Khan—or his advisors—had the future in mind too.

When he left his office for the day after finishing up his paperwork he pushed through a throng of ordinary Mongol herdsmen in often ragged long deel-coats and trousers and beaded boots with upturned toes; their bold-faced women were in much the same save that the coats were even longer and they added elaborate headdresses of beads and ribbons and carved ornaments, and horn-like wicker projections to support the hair if they had pretensions to gentility.

The other half of the crowd was Russians and Ukrainians with a scatter of Poles and even some Czechs and Slovaks and Rumanians and the odd Serb, which made his pale eyes and brown hair and tanned-and-weathered European skin-color unexceptional, which was a welcome relief after earlier missions deep into China. There was enough variation among the Slavs that his blunt-featured Bavarian looks didn’t stand out much, and the wound-scars from Verdun that made his face grooved and battered-looking also fit in well.

Many of the Russians were in Mongol dress themselves, or anything from suits or overalls to the more common and deliberately archaic Cossack style the refugees had revived. Mikhail favored that himself, for concealment and because it was so suited to this harsh climate; knee-boots lined with lambswool and felt, baggy wool trousers, loose tunic-shirt buttoned at the neck with embroidery down the front all the way to the knees, and calf-length fur-collared coat—his was in dark-green silk with gold embroidery and a fine lambskin fleece lining, as befitted a man of substance.

His head was shaven save for a long bound scalp-lock on the right side concealed right now by a floppy karakul hat, his beard was shaggy and full save for the bare patches where scar-tissue intervened, and like nearly all the men (and some of the women) his belt carried a curved saber and straight-bladed kinzhal dagger.

He grinned inwardly for an instant. Before the Great War, scalplock had been a Russian slang-name for Ukrainians and no compliment at all… but because bad romantic paintings of Cossacks often showed them wearing it, the exiles here had taken it up with a vengeance.

His pistol was a sign of affluence—a Luger automatic, common enough to go without remark. The Japanese Nambu was more frequent, and of course revolvers were commoner still; the ordinary herdsmen in the crowd all carried rifles slung over their backs these days, German Mausers or Russian Mosin-Nagants or Japanese Arisakas, not the horn-backed bows or long flintlocks that had been common before the war.

He didn’t have far to walk, since it was less than two kilometers to the outskirts where Mikhail the merchant had his dwelling. The air haven was on a low hill that overlooked the City of the Glorious Hero where it sprawled around the meeting of the Selbe and Tuur rivers, and gave a view stretching well into the empty, rolling grasslands beyond. Mountains loomed blue-and-white in the distance; a little north began the forests that stretched poleward into a Siberia now partitioned between Greater Germany and Dai-Nippon at Lake Baikal.

This city had been a religious center and meeting place of camel caravans known as Urga before the Great War, with huge Lamaist monasteries, great temples whose gilt spires still glittered in the sun, and the palace of the Bogd Khan—Mongolia’s answer to the Dalai Lama of the closely related Buddhist theocracy in Tibet. Apart from a few thousand Russian and Chinese merchants and their families, servants and workers, secular dwellers in those days had been mostly nomads visiting on business or pilgrimage and living while they did in their circular ger-tents.

What Russians called yurts.

There were still plenty of those, huge off-white drifts of them over rolling steppe still brown-grey with the lingering northern winter. Since the Yekhe Khan took the throne it had grown a genuine urban core, Russian-style buildings with Mongolian-Asian touches like upswept pagoda-style roofs, shining new or still webbed in scaffolding; a new palace that the Khan used mainly in deep winter; factories, barracks, a small electric power plant that had come online eighteen months ago… even a hint of a regular street-layout… but most of the housing was still round felt tents on lattice frames topped with conical roofs.

The airship haven was on a hill to the east of town, and had a lighter pall of ocher dust from unpaved streets, and tang of coal-smoke and livestock. Neither had much of a sewer-stink, because ferociously enforced regulations and night-soil carts pulled by the same sort of teams that the haven used to move airboats took the wastes out of town and away from the rivers.

The sanitary carts worked at night; now in the late afternoon wheeled traffic ranged from automobiles and motor-trucks… both usually battered and fourth-hand… to carts and wagons pulled by yaks, camels, horses and oxen, and numerous rickshaws and even more riders on horseback. No particular system regulated their passage, or their interactions with the still more numerous pedestrians; he dodged with quick skill more than once himself, and saw a body crushed by ironshod wheels kicked to the side of the passageway waiting for relatives or the night-soil carts to remove it. Along with the dead dogs, or the victims of crime or brawls; for people who made corpses with casual ease, Mongols were rather squeamish about touching actual dead bodies. And they generally left their own dead for the scavengers, out on the steppe.

Mikhail ducked into the entrance of his own dwelling-yurt, part of a complex of seven pitched in an oval with their doorways facing in for privacy, then shed his hat and boots. A servant scuttled over to put slippers on his feet and take and clean the leather and felt valenki. Another added coal to the circular hearth under the smoke-hood in the center of the wicker-framed, felt-walled tent lined with colorful woven hangings—no dried horse-dung for Mikhail Fedorovitch, the man who had brought order and skill to the airboat repair-yards!

You had to admit that a yurt was efficient at retaining heat, and in the summer you could replace the felt with cloth or roll the walls up to make a sort of gazebo. He shed his coat, throwing it at the servant’s head so that she could take it to be brushed, hung his weapons from a rack and settled cross-legged on a heap of colorful Kazakh rugs and fleece-stuffed sheepskin cushions.

A pretty Chinese woman in an embroidered silk robe brought a platter of food on a tray with short legs and a skin of ariag—also known as kumis, fermented mare’s milk. He took a long draught that tasted like mildly alcoholic watery yoghurt with a faint tang of horse urine… but you could get used to anything. Fortunately, if you’d grown to manhood around schnapps and brandy it was unlikely to cloud your mind. Despite the fact that the Mongols somehow managed to get uproariously drunk on it.

He drank again while she set out his meal, fried mutton-stuffed pastries and kebabs of sheep-liver with chunks of salted fat and potatoes, and a round of bread torn into fist-sized pieces and smeared with a mildly sweet substance called orom that was made from boiled, clotted goat’s-milk. For all that they lived from their flocks, Mongols rarely drank their milk raw—it gave them belly-aches and bowel complaints if they did, which was ironic when you thought about it.

She smiled and lowered her eyes and looked a question at him. He shook his head and said:

“Maybe later. My chest.”

“Yes, master,” she replied with a sigh and ducked out to fetch it.

He actually preferred enthusiastic young men, though he could perform with a woman if he used his imagination and mostly kept his eyes closed and took her from the rear. The equivalent of a field expedient, and not really much more pleasure than masturbation—but it was necessary to maintain a certain image as part of his masquerade here, and there was a child he’d gotten on her around somewhere which annoyed him with its crying now and then. The woman even seemed to like him, for some reason; perhaps because he didn’t beat her.

The sacrifices I make for my duty to the Fatherland!

The woman…

Daiyu. That’s her name: Black Jade.

…returned with a metal case fastened with a combination lock and set it before him, then turned up the kerosene lamp overhead and cleared the table so he could use it as a desk before she bowed and left.

He opened it and set out paper and pen with meticulous care before lifting out the little bound book that he would burn in exactly seventeen days. The code was recent, and he was glad of that. Right at the end of the Great War, the Supreme General Staff’s Abteilung IIIb—Section 3b, the secret intelligence branch in charge of espionage and counter-espionage, now greatly enlarged—had made the horrifying discovery that the Entente secret services had been reading the German military’s codes, and the Foreign Ministry’s, almost from the beginning of the struggle.

Which explained a great deal, starting with the fact that Germany hadn’t actually destroyed the British and Americans the way it had Russia and France, tremendous though the Reich’s victories had been. Message security had improved vastly since, and he hoped it was enough.

Indications are that the Yekhe Khan’s most secret project consumes workers at a pace which cannot be explained merely by poor feeding and disease, he wrote. Large purchases of unskilled labor continue to be made, and rumors of high wages and privileges for skilled machinists and others circulate. It is impossible to prove the scale of recruitment, but wages for those categories have increased sharply here in the capital over the last two years.

He coded each word as he finished it and tossed the first draft into the fire instantly that was done; the box contained a charge that could be set off by entering a certain combination, to shred everything inside it to fragments. Nobody was going to put him into the same class of slovenly idiots as that so-romantic “Wassmuss of Persia” who’d let all his documentation be captured while he was stirring up the tribes around Bushire on the Gulf against the British back in 1915.

And he didn’t tell HQ about it when he escaped! If he hadn’t become a popular hero after that lying book he wrote we’d have had him shot! Wassmuss of Persia my arse… Wassmuss of Imbecilic Incompetence!

And nobody… nobody in a broader sense of the word… would be surprised that a merchant wrote coded messages, though he was cautious. The Khan had ex-Okhrana personnel running his intelligence service, and that secret police force had been the only branch of the Tsar’s hapless shambles of a government that had worked worth a damn. It didn’t do to assume that Russians were always stupid, drunk, or both—they made very good spies, and one named Federov had even invented the assault rifle, though that had rebounded to Germany’s advantage after the Russian surrender. By the end of the war, his own Stoßtruppen had all carried them instead of ’98 Mauser carbines, and they’d become general issue since.

Even the Turks and Bulgars were using them now, and the Japanese had copied it almost immediately.

I will investigate further in light of the Yankee claims, he finished.

He added a set of letters and numbers that would be—he strongly hoped—meaningless except to his own liaison in the German embassy. There it would correspond to his actual identity:

Oberst Ernst Röhm.

Late of the Royal Bavarian Army, now attached to the Imperial German Army’s Supreme General Staff, Section 3(b).

“Dmitri!” he barked.

A man in his twenties ducked into the yurt, dressed in the same neo-Cossack style and going by the name Dmitri Ivanovitch Karpov as far as the rest of the city was concerned. His last name in reality was Jünger; he was strikingly handsome in a long-faced, bold-nosed way beneath the neatly cropped beard and mustache, broad-shouldered and athletic…

Perfection, in other words, Röhm thought with an unvoiced sigh. A decorated Stoßtruppen veteran like me, wounded at the Somme like me, we even have the same first name… and alas utterly conventional in his tastes, for all that he affects to be a Bohemian poet and a wild romantic who joined the Foreign Legion as a teenager before the war. It’s always surprising to see in a man otherwise so manly, that hidden trace of effeminacy that makes him eager to seek out women. Apart from breeding; that does have to be done, alas.

“Take this invoice to our supplier,” he said, and the younger man tucked the envelope into his sheepskin coat.

And the closest we get is an hour’s all-in wrestling and saber-practice a day.

“It shall be done, excellency,” he said, making a deep Russian-style bow with his hat in his hand.

It was old fashioned Russian style, revived by the exiles here along with so much else, which made being here like living in some romantic Slavophile nationalist writer’s dreams. Of course, that was true in Germany these days as well, if a little less neo-medieval.

That invoice-supplier formula meant the other Ernst would take it to the current drop-box where the embassy liaison would pick it up.

“And no wasting time!”

That meant no reckless jokes or tempting fate or chasing women you shouldn’t!

Jünger was brave to a fault. You didn’t get the Iron Cross First Class, the Order of the Hohenzollern and be the youngest man ever to win the Blue Max otherwise, not to mention surviving fourteen wounds on the Western Front, not counting minor scratches. The last of them the same week they chased the final Froggies and Yankees into the Mediterranean.

Röhm smiled inwardly. He himself had celebrated that victory by wading into the southern ocean up to his boot-tops, unbuttoning and pissing into the wine-dark sea in the direction of the Entente’s retreating troops, while his company of Storm Troopers bayed laughter behind him and thrust their assault rifles in the air. That was a sweet day whose memory he treasured.

Jünger wasn’t a shell-shocked wreck from what he’d endured either; he still had nerves that would hold up even under a storm of steel. Sometimes he was a bit less serious than he should be, though.

War isn’t continuous, Röhm thought.

Even at the front, in the trenches, there were quiet moments you could relax now and then. In the intervals between terror and rage and death and killing.

As a spy, never. Not for a moment.


Copyright © 2021-2022 by S.M. Stirling