In five short centuries, the mighty Empire of the Méxica, descendants of the ancient Aztecs allied with Imperial Japan, has spread out to conquer the Earth, left the homeworld, and set its sights on the stars. But the universe is a dangerous place, filled with hidden powers and the relics of ancient civilizations. The Méxica are only the latest of the great Imperial powers to reach for the stars.
But that doesn't stop Imperial Méxica from claiming control.
Xenoarcheologist Gretchen Anderssen had hoped to enjoy her well-earned vacation. She hadn't seen her home-world or her children for many months. But the Company has other plans for her - when she checks in for her transport, she finds new orders for her team. It looks like only a small diversion - a quick trip to the Planet Jagen, to investigate reports of a possible First Sun artifact. She doesn't have to run an excavation, or even gain possession of the artifact. Just file a report. But it smells bad, says Gretchen's Hesht companion, Magdalena. David Parker, the Company pilot assigned to Anderssen's analysis team agrees. And they are so right.
Gretchen, Magdalena, and Parker find themselves in very dangerous territory indeed. Because, unbeknownst to anyone at the Company, the Imperial Méxican Priesthood has decided to wage a war on Jagan - a war not of conquest or defense, but a "flowery war", planned and fomented for the purpose of blooding the Emperor's youngest son. Gretchen and her team are headed right into the middle of the battle.
It may be a War of Flowers, but many people will die, and blood will flow in the streets.
At the Publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management Software (DRM) applied.
About the Author
Thomas Harlan is the author of the highly regarded "Oath of Empire" fantasy series, as well as being an internationally-known game designer. He lives in Salem, Oregon.
Thomas Harlan is the author of the highly regarded “Oath of Empire” fantasy series, starting with The Shadow of Ararat, The Gate of Fire, and The Storm of Heaven. An internationally-known game designer, he lives in Salem, Oregon.
Read an Excerpt
DROWNED VENICE, SIX MONTHS LATER…
NORTH ITALIAN MILITARY DISTRICT,
ANÁHUAC (OLD EARTH)
The air throbbed with violent sound, the heavy beat of a thousand drums making the floor jump under prince Tezozómoc's feet. The young Méxica noble pushed through a crowd of gaily ornamented men and women. Feathered headdresses brushed against his face, brilliant paints and jewels flashed at his eyes. The sound grew louder, the basso droning of conch trumpets piercing the thunder of the dance-drums. An arched doorway appeared above the masked heads of the revelers, filled with a pulsating red light. The prince whooped, changing course, shoving aside writhing bare arms gleaming with sweat and scented oil. His bodyguards fell behind, trapped by the chattering mob.
Countless voices were singing, a hoarse, bellowing roar:
So it has been said by the Lord of the World,
Only a subject,
Only a mortal was.
Tezozómoc's long coat snagged on a woman's emerald-encrusted snakebodice, and he let the heavy, armor-reinforced leather garment fall away. Heated air flushed against newly bared skin, and the prince felt a rush of relief. He was glad to be out of the chill winter air and into comfortable heat. Strobing lights blazed on his chest and shoulders, making vertical stripes of red and orange paint blaze. Turquoise bracelets shimmered at his wrists. He pressed through the arch, long-fingered hands trailing across the exposed bellies of two girls writhing to the all-encompassing sound.
For an instant, standing at the top of a tall staircase, vaulted roof booming overhead with the roar of the crowd, staring down at the surging mass of painted, feathered, jeweled humanity dancing below, the prince felt alive--transported, wrenched free from his miserable skin, elevated even beyond the humming buzz of the oliohuiqui coursing through his blood--and he threw back his head in a long, wailing howl.
The priests were singing:
A stirrer of strife,
A maker of war,
An arranger of battles,
A lord of battles.
The sound was lost in the throbbing beat, the countless flutes, braying horns, the shaking roar of rattles and gourds. On the floor of the ancient Catholic cathedral, a line of four hundred dancers began to circulate, horned masks bobbing, powdered feet stamping, stiff arms thrown up in the stylized motions of the ancient barbarians. Tezozómoc grasped the shoulders of two revelers--were they Italians? Beneath their feathered mantle-cloaks and elaborate masks, who could tell?--and leapt up onto the balustrade of the staircase. Marble polished to glass by hundreds of years of use slipped under his bare feet, making the prince stagger and lurch for balance.
A flush of heat surged through him, morning-glory extract mixing with adrenaline, and the vast chamber spun around. The prince laughed queasily, trim brown arms reaching out. Balance returned, helped by a forest of hands reaching up to grasp his legs. Countless gleaming eyes stared up at him in surprise, every face hidden behind fantastical masks.
"I run!" he screeched, swinging his head round. "I run!"
Against the antics of the four hundred dancers, the red-masked priests droned with one voice:
And of him it was said
That he hurled
His flaming serpent,
His fire stick;
Which means war,
Blood and burning;
Throwing his arms wide, Tezozómoc sprang down the marble banister, nimble feet light on ancient, moss-corroded stone. Within a breath he lost control and, unable to stop, plunged headlong into the close-packed crowd. At the same moment, a veritable forest of maroon banners sprang up from the revelers. The drums rattled to a crescendo as the circle of dancers at the middle of the vast floor fell to hands and knees. A brawny man--nearly seven feet tall, dyed blue from head to toe, his shoulders and arms covered with a coat of glued iridescent feathers--sprang up, raising a curling, snapping banner bearing an azure hummingbird. Muscles flexing, he whirled the banner around his head with great speed. As he did, another man--no more than a youth--darted from the crowd, racing counter-clockwise around the ring of fallen dancers. Like the prince, he was painted with vertical red and orange stripes.
The blare of horns and conch trumpets faded away, and now only a single massive beat of the drums punctuated the chanting of the priests:
And when his festival was celebrated,
Captives were slain,
Washed slaves were slain,
The merchants washed them.
Tezozómoc crashed into one banner, tearing the cloth from the hands of a startled celebrant, then into another. His cry of pain was lost in a tumult of sound as the banner-men raised a mighty shout, shaking their flags violently. The prince scrabbled at the hard-muscled bodies tangled around him, kicking fruitlessly, narrow chest heaving with effort. He could see nothing but a forest of bare, dyed legs and the strobing flash of arc lights on the distant ceiling. Someone kicked him in the side and his own mask slipped sideways, blinding him.
"Ahh…curst peasants! Get off!"
The booming rattle of the drums began to pick up, and the voices of the priests melded into one thundering roar of sound:
And thus he was arrayed:
With headdress of green feathers,
Holding his serpent torch,
Girded with a belt,
Bracelets upon his arms,
As a master of messengers.
A hand reached down, seizing his wrist, and Tezozómoc felt himself dragged to his feet.
"You're strong…" the prince started to exclaim, stripping away his sweat-soaked mask. Then he stopped, surprised.
An oval-faced girl wearing little more than long glossy black hair smiled up at him. Her mouth was moving, but he couldn't hear anything, only the crushing thunder of drums and horns and a thousand hoarse voices shouting their praises of red-and-black-faced Christ the Warrior. Tezozómoc shook his head, grinning, and pulled her close. Her hip rubbed across his thigh, slippery with oil. To his delight, she pressed close, nails scraping his chest and back. He tried to kiss her, but she turned her head, lips pressed to his ear.
"Isn't it bad luck to have two of the same god at the festival?" he heard--a strong, breathy voice with an indefinable accent. Not a Méxica girl, then. Tezozómoc felt a flash of disappointment, immediately lost in a surge of desire as her tongue flicked against his earlobe.
"There's another Painal the Runner here?" he asked, confused, turning to put lips to her ear.
"Of course," she laughed, slim body undulating against his. Oddly, her skin felt almost glassy under the oil. "Doesn't Raising-the-Banners celebrate his race around the Valley to summon the allies of the Méxica to battle? Isn't this his festival?"
"Yes…" Tezozómoc said, blushing. His face crumpled a little. "It is. I just thought…
"A prince should be able to come in any costume he wants," she breathed, caressing his face with one hand. Oil and paint smeared across his cheekbone. "Do you like girls?"
"What do you think?" The prince replied, chagrin washing away, and thrust himself against her. His heart was beating faster, almost as fast as the hands of the drummers on deer hide. His skin felt hot, hotter than the bitter, smoky air.
"You do!" The girl laughed, drawing away, pulling him with her, hands clasped tight around his wrists. Again, Tezozómoc was surprised by the strength of her grip, but before he could follow the thought a cloud of other girls, all silvered hair and glossy, scale-painted skin, emerged from the surging, dancing crowd.
They swirled, flashing smiles and pert golden breasts, around him. All alike they were, shimmering with scales and sparkling indigo dust in their hair. "Come with us," they cried, weaving and bobbing in a stamping, quick-footed spiral. Their hands were on him before the prince could react and he giggled, starting to feel alive again, as they swept him away towards the ancient, crumbling edifice of the altar of San Marco. A quartet of bronze horses reared above him, festooned with garlands of flowers and paper lanterns.
Amazingly, the crowd parted in front of them, as though the sea ebbed before his majesty.
"Wait!" The prince stared around in dismay, seeing nothing but a frenetic sea of heads, banners, masks, feather headdresses and upraised arms. "Where did she go?"
The woman with long hair had disappeared.
"You'll see her again," chimed the ring of scaled girls holding him tight. "Soon!"
* * *
Mumbling a constant, unintelligible litany of curses, a tall, elderly, lean-faced man shoved his way through the crowd. Despite the rolling waves of heat rising from the mob of dancers, he had not cast aside his heavy leather coat. Immediately behind him, a shorter man with wild dark brown hair and a dyspeptic expression tried to follow.
"D'ye see him?" Master Sergeant Lorne Colmuir spat out the wet, crushed remains of a tabac, his head in constant movement, trying to pick out one depressingly familiar brown visage among all the masks and painted faces bobbing on the dance floor. "Our wee-wee bairn?"
"I can't see anything," Sergeant Leslie Dawd answered, bulling his way to his companion's side. He tried to stand on tiptoe and was immediately crushed into the Skawtsman's side. Furious, the Eagle Knight lashed out, knocking down a drunken man with an elephant-face mask. Colmuir lent a hand, dragging the shorter man to his feet.
"Circle roight," Lorne growled, already moving left, leading with an elbow and pressing through the crowd.
"'Roight.' Learn to speak properly…" Dawd grumbled, smoothing back his disordered, sweat-stiff hair. Leading with both hands, he jammed through a line of copper-skinned men, tall prongs of multi-colored feathers dancing against their backs. "Useless, useless waste of a prince…"
He stumbled out into a tiny void in the chaos of the crowd, nothing more than the counter-rotating calm generated by a stream coiling around a rock. Sergeant Dawd shook out his shoulders, letting the gun-rig under his coat settle, bracing to plunge into the mob again.
A gril--no, a woman--popped out of the wave of caroling dancers in front of him. He caught sight of piercing blue eyes between strands of heavy black hair and got an impression of a lithe, muscular body before she was in his arms.
"Hello." Her voice was husky and hot, hotter than the steaming air filling the ancient cathedral. Her hand was around his neck, slippery on his skin and cold--something hard pressed against his spine--Dawd tried to jerk away, left arm slashing up to break contact.
Bzzzt! His entire body convulsed in a bone-wrenching spasm. The woman grinned, flashing a brilliant smile, and was gone into the crowd. The sergeant staggered, body jerking with successive electric shocks. Despite overwhelming, teeth-grinding pain, his hands scrabbled to tear the jitterbug away from his neck.
The thudding beat changed as the Runner completed his last circuit of the hall, and the Four Hundred dancers began to shout their war cries in counterpoint to the roar of the Méxica drummers. Flames cavorted above the crowd, hurled up by men in wolf-cloaks, spinning wheels of sparks flashing against the dark roof.
The crowd surged again, the tiny space collapsed, and Dawd went down, wracked by electrical shocks and trampled by dozens of unwary revelers.
* * *
Colmuir sprange up onto the dais holding the drummers, left hand over his ear to keep the near-physical blast of the amplifiers rising in a black tower from crushing his eardrum. Ignoring the startled looks of the naked, sweating musicians he waved quickly through them, eyes on the crowd below, looking for a too-familiar youth…there!
A clutch of girls in little more than silver and gold paint were disappearing through a low arch, a stumbling Painal-the-Runner among them. The Skawtsman cursed, vaulted a row of flute players and plunged into the crowd beyond.
Two enormous brutes--faces unexpectedly bare, masses of iron rings glittering on clenched fists--grabbed at him. Twisting sideways, Colmuir dove between them, hands plunging beneath his coat and vest. The bouncers collided, bounced back shouting in rage and were gone behind a wall of spinning penitents in long white mantles. The Skawt bounded through the archway, hands filled with a pair of Nambu 'double-rack" automatics. A fresh contingent of celebrants--winter coats still drapped over this costumes, snow dusting their hair--scattered away as he charged up the staircase.
At the top of the stairs, the Eagle Knight skidded to a halt, taking a measured glance down the corridors branching away on either side. The flash of silver heels caught his eye and he was taking the next flight of steps three at a time. Laughter rang in openness and he was suddenly surrounded by pale watery light.
The half-dome of a boat bay rose before him, all green plexi and damp iron ribs. Beyond the man-high windows shining lights moved in the depths--submersibles and party barges cruising among the drowned towers and palaces of old Venice--searchlights briefly illuminating the empty windows and doorways of the dead city. Colmuir darted forward, thumbing off the safeties on both automatics. A sleek black Stiletto minisub was floating in the right-hand boat pool. One of the silver girls had keyed the hatch and was throwing back the glassite dome.
"Halt, in the name of the Empire!" The automatics bucked and a sharp crack-crack-crack bounced back from the plexi dome as the master sergeant opened fire. Tracers slashed through the prince-nappers and one of the girls staggered, crimson splashed across her golden breasts.
The enemy broke ranks, and Colmuir threw himself to one side, crashing to the floor behind a valet station. The brief glimpse of their deft, coordinated movements filled him with a sharp burst of fear. Despite his sudden appearance, they'd separated left and right without the slightest hesitation.
The hamming roar of a submachine gun raked the valet station, tearing gaping holes in the light wood. Lorne flattened, trying to scramble away. Twisting on the floor, he dropped behind the lip of the left-hand boat pool, one leg splashing into chill seawater.
Something metallic tumbled overhead and splashed into the dark water.
"Curst!" Colmuir vaulted back the other way, both automatics blazing in a wild figure eight.
Whooomp! The grenade went off, blasting water in all directions. Drenched, the Eagle Knight scuttled back towards the entranceway. The dead girl sprawled on the dockside. The Stiletto was still rocking at anchor, a string of bullet holes spiderwebbing the cabin canopy.
A low groaning sound permeated the air. His wild spray of fire had cracked the heavy glassite panels holding back the chill waters of the Adriatic.
Without a pause, Colmuir darted towards the far exit tunnel, thumbing the magazine ejectors on his pistols. Strips of smoking plastic bounced away on the metal decking. He reached the corner, flattened himself against the wall, and jammed fresh ammo coils into each weapon.
There was a grinding noise as glassite and metal twisted around the hairline cracks in the clear panels.
Grimacing, Colmuir punched a locking code into the boat-bay panel on the wall, then ducked around the corner, pistols raised. The deck under his feet shuddered as the lock door began to descend, squealing on long-unused tracks.
The tunnel was empty, but against the thudding backbeat of the now-distant liturgy he could hear the clatter of running feet. Crouched, gus low, Lorne sprinted up the corridor. A steadily brightening light swelled ahead--another boat bay? A life core?
Almost too late he heard a rush of air behind him and the mosquito whine of an aeropack. The Skawt threw himself down, trying to roll round and bring his guns to bear. Something smashed into his left hand, wrenching the Nambu out of his grasp. The gun ricocheted from the wall of the tunnel with a clang. The other automatic blazed, lighting the corridor with a flare of venting propellant. Tracers stitched across the roof, then rebounded crazily. In the brief illumination, Lorne caught a glimpse of a sleek, seemingly naked woman zipping past.
He rolled up onto his knees, steadying the automatic with both hands for a chase shot, but the flying woman hadn't fled. His chin slammed back, caught by a spinning heel-kick, and he sprawled backwards, skidding across the wet, rusty floor. Gasping, face spattered with blood, Colmuir groped for the automatic.
The woman crossed her arms, grasped something with a metallic clicking sound, and lunged. Lorne blocked sharply, bared hands blurring into a X against her expected punch. A coiled-metal rod lashed against his forearm and the Eagle Knight choked out a gasp as a massive electrical shock flared across his leather-clad arms.
"Uuuuh!" He braced, letting the insulated layer in the armored coat bleed away the current.
In a blur, the shockrod slashed at his head, but by then Colmuir had recovered from the kick. He countered vigorously, smashing aside the blow, off hand clenching to seize a twenty-centimeter combat knife slapped into his palm by the spring-loader strapped to his arm.
He slashed up trying to catch the underside of her chin with the point, but she was fast--vary fast--and sprang back. The aeropack whined again and she was gone, zipping off down the tunnel. "Dosvidanya," she laughed, the sound rolling hollow in the metal corridor.
The master sergeant charged off in pursuit, leading with the knife, right hand scrambling to draw a gun from the small of his back. Behind him, the pressure door made a squeaking sound as the boat bay collapsed, sending hundreds of tons of water smashing against the metal.
* * *
Tezozómoc was still giddy, skin burning, member painfully stiff in his loincloth. when the silver-painted girls dragged him onto a lift-core platform. The drug paste smeared across his chest and face pierced him like needles. He collapsed to his knees, heaving violently, both arms bound tight behind him. A stomach filled with oliohuiqui and too much octli-beer did not mix with the tranquilizers and readysetgo seeping into his bloodstream.
The girls holding him cursed--a guttural, barbarous language--and he felt a sharp blow to the side of his head.
"You dare…I'm a member of the Imperial…urk!" An elbow jammed into his stomach, making him heave again, and four sets of slim golden hands grasped him by arms and legs and pitched him unceremoniously into the basket of a balloon tethered to the lift platform. The prince's head struck the wicker wall on the far side, leaving him stunned. He tried to sit up, but a petite foot, as bare as any of the silver girls seemed to be, came down on his neck, driving his head into the basket floor. Cool plastic chilled against his flesh.
"Get rid of them," someone said, and Tezozómoc realized there were two slumped figures also in the basket with him. The foot lifted from his neck and the whole gondola shivered as the girl above him leapt lightly onto the platform. "We can't spare the weight…"
Gunshots rang out. The prince felt the gondola shake and he twitched violently, thinking the balloon had been hit. A furious hiss answered his movement and he lay still, fearing another blow to the head or stomach.
"Ware!" Someone shouted. The entire gondola shook again the Tezozómoc felt his stomach drop away. A sustained ripping sound roared not too far away and something hot smashed through the bae of the basket, stinging the prince's face.
Eyes screwed tight shut, Tezozómoc curled into a ball, knees against his forehead.
A whoomp! sound--right on top of him--startled the prince into a fit of crying and harsh metallic smoke stung his nostrils. Distantly, there was a violent crashing sound followed by screams.
"Mi'lord?" Someone touched his shoulder. Tezozómoc opened his eyes. The fuzzy image of his shorter bodyguard--what was his name?--slowly came into view, ringed by a shimmering halo of white light. "Are you able to speak?"
"Do…" The prince struggled with swollen lips. His throat was terribly dry and tasted awful. He peered desperately at the man. "Do you have anything to drink? Champagne? Beer? Even water will do!"
* * *
Running flat out, his entire attention focused solely on the speeding back of the Russian woman, Colmuir burst out onto the lift platform too late to realize that there was no railing, no gondola and only a yawning shaft twenty meters wide before him.
"Ayyyy!" He tried to slide to a stop, but a messy pool or water and rust betrayed the noskid on his boots. The Eagle Knight realized--in an instant of unremitting clarity--there was no possible wayt to stop and flung himself forward, combat knife discarded, fingers grasping for the woman's feet as she soared heavenward.
By nothing less than a miracle his right hand seized hold of her ankle, slipping a little on her strangely stiff skin, before they both plunged into the shaft. The aeropack whined in protest, trying to counter the unexpected weight. Another lighted lift platform flashed past and Lorne's coat billowed up in the rushing wind.
The woman twisted, kicking at his head as they fell, and the Eagle Knight wrenched his shoulder trying to get his other hand around her ankle.
"Chudak!" Eyes flashing in the lights blurring past, hair now unbound in a flying cloud around her head, she sharply clenched her left fist twice. The skinsuit gelled to her lithe frame flared with a ripple of violet lightning and Colmuir screamed, nerves savaged, and his grip flew loose.
The aeropack squealed and the woman flashed away and up into the darkness overhead. The master sergeant plunged, tumbling wildly, nearly unconscious from shock. He tried to scream, but his throat had controlled--like every other muscle in his body--into an abonizing cramp.
* * *
"Status!" Van Belane hissed into the comm thread pasted beside her plush lips. "Where is the prince?"
"Gone," came the furious answer. "We had him in the backup vehicle, but the other Eagle cut the mooring ropes and they escaped."
"My father's beard…Like a cockroach, that one!" The Russian craned her neck upwards and thumbed the aeropack on full boost. Far above she could make out the half-moon shape of a lift rising up the shaft. Strings of colored lights lining the ancient atmosphere vent cast a rippling gleam on the balloon. "I see them--scatter to the tertiary rendezvous. I will take care of this business myself."
Arching her back, Van Belane reached behind her, slim fingers searching through the combat pack clinging to her spine under a huge mane of black hair. Fingertips found the casing for a Norsk-make Mistletoe HL-SAM and slid the rocket from its holder. Strands of hair tangled, and--cursing again--she ripped the wig away.
She closed in swiftly with the balloon as the gondola bumped past another platform. Van Belane swung wide, trying to see past the lift, and realized she'd run out of time. The mouth of the shaft was only a hundred meters away, shining darkness speckled with stars and thin clouds gleaming with the lights of the city ringing the wide bowl of the Lagoon.
Sighing, feeling a melancholy tide rising in her heart, the Russian woman pointed the rocket, waited for the aiming tone, thumbed the activation switch, and cast the rod-shaped weapon free. The aeropack whined again, forced into a tight maneuver and she curled up her legs, zipping into the mouth of a side airway. Behind her, the missile spiraled away in free-fall, then the engine ignited with a flash, the tracking mechanism locked onto the gondola and the rocket blazed up the shaft.
A concussive whoomp! followed and a wave of superheated air rushed past. In the mouth of the airway, hands braced against the sides, Van Belane turned her head as flaming debris plunged past. Two bodies wrapped in flame careened by and then the burning balloon itself wallowed into the depths.
Popping a stick of cinnamon-flavored chicle into her mouth, Van Belane turned and loped off down the airway, letting her skinsuit turn opaque and flicking nightsight lenses down over sullen, ice-blue eyes. "Damned Shtlantskee carrion…lapdogs of the Empire…"
* * *
Smoke billowed in the shaft, but the constant pressure of air from below began to clear away the fumes. In the airway shaft opposite where the Russian commando had disappeared, Sergeant Dawd raised his head from the floor of the tube, gray-green eyes filled with a grim light. He waited another hundred heartbeats, saw that the last of the smoke was gone and no slinky, black-haired shape had reappeared in the other tunnel, and lifted himself to his knees.
"Safe, mi'lord. For the moment at least."
Tezozómoc sighed and the Skawt helped him sit up. A twist of the wrist released a combat knife to cut the tiemeups holding the prince's arms behind his back.
"I'm terribly sorry," the prince said in an unconvincingly contrite voice, "but…what is your name again?"
"Dawd, mi'lord." The Skawtsman avoided meeting his master's eyes, concentrating on sawing through thh plastic composite. The serrated back edge of the knife made it tricky work. "Eagle Knight in your serive, ex-Fleet Marine Sergeant."
"A Tequihuah…Well done, master Dawd." Tezozómoc drew out the words, trying to affect a fashionable languor. The prince tried to focus on the Eagle Knight--to fix an image of the short, dark-haired Skawtsman in his mind--and was struck by an impression of the man looking more a scholar than a soldier. Even near-shaven, Dawd's black hair was unkempt and wild, and his smooth round face suggested a puckish humor.
"Now wait a moment.…Aren't there supposed to be two of you accompanying me at all times? "
"Yes, mi'lord." Dawd's tone became rather more clipped than before, though he was a man who prided himself on a clear, cultured voice. The sergeant could feel the youth--more than a boy, he thought rather morosely, and less than a man--trembling under his hands. "Master Sergeant Colmuir is also in your service."
"And where is he?" If anything, the prince sounded aggrieved.
"I believe, mi"lord"--the sergeant's jaw clenched--"that Cuauhhuehueh Colmuir has…has plunged to his death while attempting to apprehend the terrorists who attempted to kidnap you."
"Kidnap?" Tezozómoc drew back a little in surprise. "The ahuienime--those joygirls…they were terrorists?"
"Yes," Dawd managed to get out. "They were. Mi'lord. A Danish or Russian kommando, I would venture. Very…dangerous."
"Kidnapped. I was kidnapped." The prince's face slowly lit with delight, perfectly even teeth white in the darkness of the tunnel. "By the Holy Ever-Virgin Mother of God, I was kidnapped!"
Sergeant Dawd did not react, though he could feel the ulcers in his longsuffering stomach begin to pucker with acid.
"This…" Tezozómoc clapped a friendly hand on the Skawt's shoulder. "Is the best news I've had…oh, in ages! Wait until my father hears this!" The prince suddenly |paused, staring at Leslie's stony expression. "Master Dawd? Why such a long face? This is good news! Someone--dire enemies of the Empire--perhaps even the infernal Danes! For the love of Christ, they thought I was worth doing away with!"
Sergeant Dawd turned, frowning, raising a hand for silence. Lights were beginning to flicker on the roof of the tunnel and a booming, chattering noise filled the air. He could hear people laughing, their voices raised in drunken, inharmonious song.
"Lie flat, mi'lord," the Skawtsman whispered, struggling to keep from just jamming the boy's head down onto the corrugated metal. He checked to make sure the magazine was full, then thumbed back the safety on the Nambu 10mm. "We're not safe yet."
The vast, round shape of a party barge drifted past. The balloon was festooned with glittering lights, including a broad glowing videopatch showing drunken rabbits dancing under a smiling moon. "Drink Mayahuel beer," boomed a recorded voice, "and be more fertile!"
The gondola swayed into view, crammed with masked people laughing and singing, then rose majestically past. Dawd lowered the automatic slowly.
A black figure swung into the opening of the tube, boots clanking on metal.
Tezozómoc leapt up, shouting in fear, and cracked his head against the curving roof. Groaning in pain, the prince collapsed, clutching his scalp, fingers bloody. Dawd breathed out a long sigh of relief and flipped the automatic back into the holster on his gun-rig.
"Not dead, I see," he said, nodding to Master Sergeant Colmuir.
"Nawt yet," grinned the Aberdeen-man, keeping his head low. "But close, very close…what about him?"
Dawd turned, staring in disgust at Tezozómoc, who was curled up and whimpering. "Take him home, I suppose. Clean him up. Nothing else to do now."
As an aside, he leaned close to Colmuir. "Master Sergeant, why did we ally ourselves with these…savages?"
"Oh, lad," Colmuir nodded sagely, "it was them or the Anglish. And compared to the Anglish…well, we've still the better of the deal wit' these heathens."
The lean-faced master sergeant grinned at Dawd's sour expression and snaked a tabac from his pocket. The older man looked a little battered--craggy brow and seamed face spattered with blood and bruises--in the flare of the self-lighting cigarette. "Don't make such a face, lad. It's a man's work, isn't it? Better than wasting time in University!"
"I suppose," Dawd checked his weapons and tools by touch. "The pay is better."
Colmuir chuckled, taking a long drag. His long-limbed frame was bent almost double to keep a graying head from knocking against the roof of the tunnel. "Most don't think so, but you've seen both sides of the fence, haven't you? D'you miss the hallowed halls of aca'deme?"
Dawd gruntee. "I suppose…but grading lower-form essays on early Méxica poets lacks something of the spice of our activities here."
The master sergeant ground out his tabac. "Let's get him out of here, then."
Copyright ©2004 by Thomas Harlan