Note: The passages presented below are so far the only parts of "The Iron General" by Jacek Dukaj translated to English. Once the story is completely translated we will notify immediately on this site.
The train stopped, and the General jumped out. Through the billowing steam from the engine he could see the squat form of the gnome engineer already fussing among the wheels, which were four times higher than he. For some reason the gnome was beating furiously at the dirty metal with a long-handled hammer.
The General gestured with his cane, keeping his aide from running up to the tracks; he approached the gnome.
"Is anything the matter?"
The engineer looked up, snorted, set down his hammer. In his face, black with soot, gleamed yellow eyes. The gnome's matted beard was the color of tar; no doubt you could have combed half a shovelful of coal from it. He groped beneath that wild scraggle, pulled out a cigarette and a matchbook, lit the cigarette, and took a deep drag.
"It's OK, General," he said, having steadied himself.
The General took his watch from the left pocket of his jacket and glanced at it. "A quarter to two. Two clocks better than you promised. Not bad."
The gnome blew out smoke; the cigarette, stuck in the black thicket of his beard, for a moment glowed a brighter red. "That's not the point. My assistant's for shit. But don't you worry, General, Demon will go like hell, even faster."
"I'd like to see more cars on the train."
"That too, no problem."
"Good. Wonderful. I am pleased." He clapped the gnome on the back with his left hand (gems flashed, metal gleamed), at which the gnome bared his crooked teeth in a broad smile. But the General was now looking elsewhere, at his aide, who had approached them nevertheless.
The General said good-bye to the engineer and stepped under the coal shed overhang, where a swinging kerosene lamp threw a pale light.
Major Croak stiffened and saluted as per regulations: heels together, jackboots polished, left hand on the hilt of his saber, right arm thrust forward and up.
"Come on, Croak. We're not on the parade ground."
"Yes sir, General sir."
And he assumed the regulation at-ease position.
The General couldn't do a thing with Croak. He didn't even try. The officer ways of the man would remain with him to the grave. As a teenage cadet in the Academy of War, Croak had gone with his squad to the Dun Mountains--they had a month's leave and wanted to check out the legend for themselves: it seemed an appropriate excursion-adventure for the army's future leaders. Of his squad, Croak alone survived: the Iron General, happening to pay a visit just then to an old necromancer friend, literally plucked the lad from the claws of the dragon. The General, who even before that had been a hero to all the thaum cadets, in the eyes of Croak advanced then to the rank of demigod if not higher. Croak grew up--he had hit thirty now--but in his private religion not a thing had changed.
"What is it?"
"Bad news sir. The Crawler's illusionists have opened Frog Field over the city. The people are watching it. The Bird is letting the princes have both barrels."
"Vazhgrav was supposed to issue a decree."
"Great thunder. Why not?"
"His Royal Highness says he will not stoop to censorship," Croak recited with a stony face. "But you sir, General sir, should take your mirror with you, to stay abreast, the polters are never reliable."
"Let me guess who told him not to stoop. Birzinni?"
"The prime minister hasn't left the Castle for two days," said Croak.
The General smiled a grim smile.
"You have horses?"
"Behind the warehouse."
"Then off with us to the Castle."
Riding, he calculated how long it would take the different divisions to reach their positions. In theory, the variables could not be approximated: for example, Nux Vomica, as commander of the Southern Army, might delay the whole operation three, four days, on a whim. The railroad itself decided nothing; the time advantage it gave could be easily thrown away by one unfortunate conversation at the Castle.
They galloped through the Wood of Even and hit upon the King's Green. Before them stood, in panorama, Dzungoon, capital of the United Imperium, since antiquity the seat of the kings at Thorth. The glow of city lights blotted out the stars, which were mostly blocked anyway by Frog Field. The metropolis of two million snaked in dozens of arms along the tear-shaped bay. In the ocean's pure water the bloody defeat of the troops of the Princedom of Peace beheld itself. The General watched the image in the sky, trying despite the inconvenient foreshortening to follow the course of the battle. The perspective was of an eagle (a buzzard, rather) circling above Frog Field. Here and there close-up insets were screened, when some particularly fierce duel took place, or some particularly brutal bit of butchery, or some particularly cinematic clash of mages.
When the ad for Smith's Stores came on, the General asked Croak, "Who else is sponsoring this?"
"No secret there sir: the Crawler's steady customers, Sumac, Davis, the Xe Brothers, Southern Holding, JZL. But I don't know who's in it for political reasons--assuming there is anyone, because that might not have been necessary."
"How many of the Crawler's staff are on this?"
"Oh, I'd say everyone sir. They've been going at it a good three clocks, and it's nonstop."
"They've even closed the genie traffic."
"Just look: not one chariot crosses the transmission. A block must have been set up. Half the city will be suing again. The Crawler was no doubt funded on the side. No way could he have pulled off such a spectacle on ads alone."
"I don't know . . . You see the terraces, balconies, rooftops, General sir. And the streets. Not many people are in bed. This is not a battle for some cow town: the Bird is mopping up the Princedom. And this is playing to a full house. The Crawler for sure will milk it. In addition the sons of bitches lucked out, both moons are below the horizon, so the quality of the image is like looking into a distance mirror."
They came to the city outskirts. Here they had to crane their necks not to lose sight of the battle unfolding in the night sky above. Hell poured across Frog Field: dragons blazed in flight, volcanoes opened in the earth, lava spewed, people were thrown hundreds of cubits into the air; the torn space twisted them into pretzels, then untwisted, pulling them inside out; metamorphic beasts unfurled over the heads of infantry; Tatarean floodlights placed on the hills surrounding the field criss-crossed, fused, forked; the separate duels of thaums became mad displays of magic fireworks. Ur-thaums in the space of split clicks discharged in battle all the power, skill, and experience they had spent their lives accumulating; they rose cloudward, sank lower than a blade of grass, belched fire, water, vapors, nothingness, threw at their foes a hail of sharp objects and an avalanche of fatal rays, at the same time parrying analogous attacks.
The poor in the slums, lying on the bare ground or on cots they had set up, exchanged comments on the duels and rewarded the victors and vanquished with whistles, applause, curses.
The two riders came to Upper Villa, and the General pointed right. They stopped their horses by the six-story González Posada. When a stabler took the steeds, they proceeded to the service area. An old man running a chariot business rapped his pipe on a sign showing night fares. The General nodded to Croak, who paid.
As it turned out, the posada had only one chariot available; the others either hadn't come back yet or were out of service.
"The Castle," said the General to the genie of the chariot after they sat and fastened their seat belts.
"Specifically?" asked the genie, from the mouth of the bas-relief placed on the dash, as it lifted the vehicle into the air.
"The top terrace of Hassan's Tower."
"That's closed to unauthorized--"
"As you wish, gentlemen."
They shot above the low buildings of the periphery. The Castle loomed on the horizon as a black fist thrust into the firmament. Raised on a steeply arched column of rock, fired from a single mass of stone-unstone nearly four hundred years before, it stood above Dzungoon in all its immutability, serving the succeeding kings of the United Imperium as a home, fortress, palace, and administrative center. The General well remembered the day when Skrl finally activated the spell that had been years in the constructing, pulling from the bowels of the planet the gigantic block of magma and shaping it amid flood and thunder, in clouds of steam that obscured all-shaping it into the nightmare dreamed of old: the Castle.
They dove toward Hassan's Tower, a black finger pointing at the heart of Frog Field. The beacons, streaming up from the tower on every side through windows small and large and other openings, created a kind of ladder of light. The chariot flew into one of this ladder's highest rungs, braked, and landed softly on the terrace, which was a jaw jutting over abyss.
"Here we are," said the genie. "Do I wait?"
"No," said Croak, reaching for his wallet. "How much?"
The General was in the vestibule before the major had finished paying. He looked up one more time at the sky. The infantry of the Bird Conquistador, shielded by the curve in space, was cutting off the last escape route for the troops of the Princedom of Peace.
"Supreme commander of the Zeroth Army, general of the thaums of the United Imperium, permanent member of the Crown's Council, permanent senator of the Grand Plenum, honorary member of the Board of Electors, adviser to the king, twice regent, Defender of the Blood Line, First Nimb, dean of the Academy of the Arts of War, knight of the order of the Honorable Ebon Dragon, seven times Keeper of the Sword, abayer of the Castle, Count of Cardlass and Phlon, Raymond Kaesil Maria Schwentitz of Vazhgravia!"
The General entered and looked at the doorman. The doorman blinked. The General did not lower his eyes. The doorman tried to smile, but his lower lip began to twitch. The General stood and glowered.
"Enough, enough, you'll annihilate the poor bastard," said the prime minister, Birzinni, leafing through the papers heaped on his desk.
"He announces you like that too?"
"Not being the Iron General, I'm not eight hundred years old and don't have quite as many titles."
"True, not quite as many."
"You saw that?" asked the king, who was sitting in an armchair that had been moved to the open window. He pointed with his beard at the sky above Dzungoon.
"I saw it, Your Highness," said the General, going to him.
Bogumil Vazhgrav was smoking a cigarette, tapping the ashes into a shell-shaped ashtray on his knee. On the parapet at his left elbow was a distance mirror that held an image of the Council Chamber of the palace of the Princeling of Peace in New Pershing; the mirror's sound ruby was pushed to OFF. The Chamber was no less a chaos than Frog Field.
"That whoreson Bird has the luck of a fruckin Gurlan." Vazhgrav crushed his cigarette, immediately took another from the pack and lit it. "Pike gets fruckin caught in a phase change, and the Bird hits precisely then, for a whole clock the thaums of the damn princeling had no backup, none, half of them died from no oxygen. I don't fruckin understand why that asspicker Pike didn't retreat. What, do they have gold buried under that eatshit Frog Field I ask you?"
It was no secret that the young king's mode of expression had departed somewhat from the standards of intercourse expected in aristocratic spheres, but this tendency of his to use gutter argot, which had intensified of late, indicated the poor, and worsening, state of the ruler's nerves.
"As I explained to Your Highness," said Nux Vomica above the three-dimensional projection of the field of battle, his back to the monarch, "they weren't able in time to open a channel to a new locus."
"But the Bird's thaums weren't either!" Vazhgrav snapped. "What's the diff?"
"The Bird has an army of a quarter of a million," the Iron General said quietly to the king. "He would like nothing better than to put all thaums out of combat. Then he could crush the princes by the sheer number of troops thrown into battle."
"How come Ferdinand and I don't have a quarter of a million soldiers?"
"It doesn't pay," sighed Birzinni, stamping a document.
"It sure pays for fartfruckin Bird, may he rot in two."
"It doesn't for him either. That's why he must invade, conquer, annex."
"I wouldn't be too sure," muttered the General.
"You don't know fruckshit yourselves, and you're making up stuff! Let's have a general conscription, OK? That'll show the bastard. He has a quarter million? I'll have a motherscritchin million! Huh! I mean, this is the Imperium here, not some hickhole in the north! Gustav, what was the last census?"
"A hundred twenty million, four hundred seven thousand, two hundred fifty-seven citizens of age, Your Highness," said Gustav Lambraux, the Council Secretary and Exchequer, not missing a beat, because five demons sat in his head.
"And how many does the Bird have, may his dick wither, in all?"
"He himself doesn't know, most likely. The inhabitants of the lands he has captured number from two hundred fifteen to two hundred eighty million."
"So many?" Vazhgrav blinked in surprise. "Where did all that vermin come from?"
"There is poverty in the north, Your Highness. The poor multiply quickly," replied Lambraux, suggesting the obvious connection between these two facts.
"The natural consequence of demographic pressure," said the General, taking a seat on the parapet before the king, resting his cane across a thigh, his left hand on its knob. "Sooner or later, a Bird must appear. He is carried by a wave of population growth, he is like the lightning bolt that releases the energy of the storm. It was your great-grandfather who issued a decree closing the borders of the Imperium to immigrants. A wealthy man is wealthy only when he has a beggar present to provide contrast. Thus the Bird's offensive, when one looks at the map, seems absurd: his lands, alongside those of the Imperium and its allies, if I may be allowed the comparison, are a flea to a leviathan. But that's not the way to look at it."
"And what, pray, is the scritchin way to look at it?"
"Almost seven hundred years ago all this Imperium was only Dzungoon, the bay, Lighthouse Island, which sank to the bottom during the Twelfth, and the surrounding villages. 'Twas in the midst of the Great Plague that Baron Anastasis Vazhgrav dared to foment rebellion. And Tsarina Yx looked upon the map, saw the flea beside the leviathan, and put off sending troops."
"What sort of half-assed analogy is this?" Birzinni was annoyed. He had completed a short call on his mirror. "That we're some kind of colossus with feet of clay? And that the Bird, with his band of rabble, is the next Imperium?"
"We can determine that in one way only," replied the General calmly. "By waiting. But do you really want to allow him to build his own imperium?"
Birzinni waved his deactivated mirror in the General's direction. "Your perspective on this is completely warped. It's from all those spells of yours: you live and live, and live, one century then another goes by, the history of whole nations is bracketed between your youth and old age. Even if you wanted to, you couldn't change that scale in your mind."
"For a king," said the General, looking straight into Vazhgrav's blue eyes, "that is the most appropriate scale, the most appropriate perspective. We should strike now, while the Bird is busy with the Princedom. Without sneaking up, without feeling out--with our full weight. Attack him by the Upper Pass and the Lower, attack from the west through the Fens and by the sea at K'd, Ozz, and both Frodgeries, and by air, cutting off his lines of supply. We should move now and at once."
Vazhgrav tossed away his cigarette and began to chew on a fingernail. "Attack him, just like that? With no reason?"
"You have a reason, the best possible."
"And what is that?"
"Today the Bird can be defeated."
"It's war you want?" cried Birzinni, throwing his arms above his head and waking with his cry Sasha Quezatl, Lord Treasurer-Comptroller, who had been nodding by the fireplace. "War?! Aggression against the League? Have you gone mad, Schwentitz?"
For a long, a very long time, no one had addressed him other than as "General" or maybe "My Count," not even his string of paramours. The Iron General glared with an icy eye at the irate prime minister.
Birzinni stepped back. "I am not a doorman!" he said. "Spare yourself those tricks! I have a demon, you won't ensorcell me!"
"Stuff it, both of you!" said Bogumil Vazhgrav, and an immediate silence fell. "You, General"--the king pointed--"I remember now: you've been egging me on against the Bird for some time. Even back in Oxfeld you tried to get me to agree to that gnome railway through the Passes. You've been making plans. I'm speaking!"--with a stab of the finger--"Don't interrupt, dammit, when the king speaks! I don't know what you were fruckin thinking! For years you haven't had a decent war, so you hope for a little fun, a little gore, is that it? Well, I don't intend to go down in history as the one who started a stupid, unnecessary, senseless, and totally unprovoked war! Do you hear me?"
"He built that railroad anyway," said Birzinni.
"The gnome train."
"Out of my own pocket," murmured the General. "Not one red cent did I take from the state coffers."
"Great God, what's going on here?" roared Vazhgrav. "Is this some plot hatched by militarists gone mad?"
"I don't know whether it will happen tomorrow or a year from now, or in twenty years," said the General, rising from the parapet. "But I do know, for a certainty, that the Bird will eventually strike at us as well. And then, then it will be his decision, the choice of time and place that favors him. Let us defend ourselves while we still can, while the situation still favors us."
"You mean to say: favors you," gritted Birzinni.
The General leaned heavily on his cane and set his jaw. "You accuse me of treason?"
The prime minister showed confusion but in a controlled way. "I accuse you of nothing . . . How could I dare?"
The silver-haired minister of the treasury woke up completely. "Have you all taken leave of your senses?" he rasped. "Birzinni, you must have tripped down the stairs and fallen on your head. To suspect the Iron General of treason? The Iron General . . . ? He who has had more chances to take the crown of the Imperium than that crown has stars! Your great-grandparents were not a gleam in any eye when the Iron General was stringing up those who disobeyed and conspired against the king! Twice he was regent; did he delay even a day in turning over full power? Twice he himself was offered the throne, but he declined! Of the heads of traitors he chopped off I could raise a pile higher than Hassan's Tower! You haven't nicked yourself more times shaving than there were attempts made on his life, precisely for his fidelity to the crown! Two families he lost in uprisings! For almost a thousand years he has stood guard over the line of the Vazhgravs! That line would not exist today at all, Bogumil, if your forebears had not been personally saved by him. Rejoice that you have such a man at your side, for no other ruler on Earth can boast of so devoted a servant, of whose loyalty there can be no doubt. I would question myself sooner than question him!" Having spoken these words, Quezatl subsided and again dozed off.
To escape the sidelong glances occasioned by this embarrassingly outspoken peroration from the minister of finance, the General retreated to a dim corner of the chamber and sat in a black leather armchair that had been set beneath the statue of a griffin. He lay his cane across his thighs and rested his arms symetrically on the arm rests, though of course there could be no real symmetry here, for the eyes of anyone watching would invariably have been drawn to the General's left: the famous Iron Arm, the Hand of Magic Main.
For eight centuries, never ceasing to perfect himself in the arts thaumaturgic--even before the word thaum came into usage, even before he was a general and before he set into motion the secret devices of his longevity--even then, at the very beginning, he was known for his limb encrusted with metal and with gems. Legend had it that, surrendering himself to the dark knowledge (and in those days the dark knowledge was dark indeed), Schwentitz entered into a pact with Ineffables so powerful that he could no longer control them, and after one of his meetings with them, a quarrel ensued and the creatures attacked him. With tremendous exertion of will he defeated them and by a miracle survived, but in the struggle he lost the use of his left arm, never to regain it.
Quickly realizing that all existing forms of therapy would be futile, and having no wish to be a cripple for the rest of his life (which would be a very long time, after all), he decided to resort again to magic, thus implanting psychokinetic rubies in the appropriate places of his arm, hand, and fingers. Thereafter it was not muscles and nerves that moved and guided his inert appendage; motion was accomplished without their agency, by the pure power alone of the mind of Schwentitz. In this way he had transformed a part of his body de facto into a magical prosthesis. Always hating half measures, this time too Schwentitz did not hesitate on the path opened to him by the operation. Other implantations followed, other fey enhancements and extensions that made his arm and hand ever more powerful and complex, a multifunctioning quasiorganic magioconstruct. For the process never ended; century followed century, but it continued.
Now the hand of the General, showing from the shadowy sleeve of his jacket, was a thing that pulsed with cold, inorganic life, a fusion of metal, glass, wood, precious stones, of gossamer harder than any stone--yet a thing of flesh as well. Legend had it that a flick of the General's finger could level an impregnable fortress; legend had it that his clenched fist could stop the heart of his enemies and cause the blood in their veins to congeal. But that was legend only--the General would admit to nothing.
His hand lay still on the arm rest. He said nothing. There was nothing left for him to say. Having lived so very long, he recognized at once the moments of triumph or defeat when they came, he weighed his chances with the utmost precision, and he never confused the highly unlikely with the flat-out impossible. He sat and watched.
The king nervously lit another cigarette. Prime Minister Birzinni, standing by the large roundtable in the center of the room, conferred in whispers with his two secretaries, all the while tapping with a finger the long-distance mirror near him. Sasha Quezatl snored. The fire in the fireplace crackled. At the opposite wall, Nux Vomica and his staff officers, on the basis of recon reports coming in over the array of mirrors hung at an angle from the ceiling (twelve by twelve), followed the progress of the battle, which was depicted in a three-dimensional projection of the lands bordering the Princedom and the League. One of Orvid's people, responsible for the maintenance and manipulation of the illusion, dozed on the couch behind the mirrors; another, selecting and hooking into the audio channels as he was ordered, was stationed yawning beneath the bust of Anastasis Vazhgrav. The low murmurs from the prime minister and the secretaries, the mechanically muffled voices of the reconnoiterers, the monosyllabic grunts of the staff officers, the flapping of the fire, the roar of the night outside--all this made a person drowsy, so it was no surprise that old Quezatl nodded off again in earnest. The General, however, had gone four days without sleep and had no intention now of shutting down his magical stimulants. He glanced at his watch. It was almost three.
Orvid entered with Blodgett, chief of the teleseers.
Birzinni silenced his secretaries. "What is it?" he asked.
Orvid waved a hand. "No," he said, "it has nothing to do with the Bird."
"Something the General wanted to know."
"Since you've gone to the trouble of coming here . . ."
Blodgett smiled timidly at the General, who sat in shadow. "We found her, sir," he told him.
The king frowned. "Found whom?"
"The General's planet," Orvid explained, approaching. "Your Highness surely remembers. It was right after Your Highness ascended to the throne. The General insisted and had me dispatch people to search space."
"Ah, yes . . ." Vazhgrav rubbed the end of his prominent nose distractedly. "The Solar Curse. The Holocaust. The other Earth. Yes. So you actually found it?"
"We did, sire," said Blodgett with a nod. "To tell the truth, we had begun to doubt. The General presented such a nice argument: the statistics, the billions of stars, and so on. Not possible that there wouldn't be a single planet with parameters close to Earth's . . . And yet it seemed there wasn't. Only today--"
"Well well," said the king, twisting his mouth at the General. "So you're right again, eh? And now what do we floppin do with this great discovery?"
"What do you mean, sire, what?" Orvid was excited. "It's clear. We fly there and take possession of the planet in the name of Your Highness, as part of the Imperium!"
"Where exactly is it?" asked the General.
"It's the second planet of system 583 in the Blind Hunter. You can't see it from this hemisphere. About twelve thousand farkls."
"Well, my dear General," said the prime minister, baring his teeth in a grin, "you're restless without a war, you need activity, some action--and here's a golden opportunity. Take a ship and go. What an adventure! General Discoverer! What will you name the planet? Wait, I'll make you--it won't take me but a click--Royal Envoy and Governor Plenipotentiary of Acquired Territories." He grabbed his mirror and barked the necessary orders into it.
The General lifted his eyes to the king. "Now hardly seems the time to set off on such expeditions," he said.
Orvid pulled an illusion prism from his pocket, placed it on the table, and muttered the code. In the air appeared a three-dimensional image of a planet. With a few words he enlarged and lifted the image.
"Pretty, no?" He walked around the planet, observing it with pride, as if by activating the prism he had in fact created the heavenly body. "You don't see them, because the illusionists took the picture too close up, but she has two moons, one large, three or four times the mass of our Collop, the other a mere wisp, hardly a moon at all. The continent at the terminator extends to the other pole. And look at that archipelago. Those mountains."
Even the king now was beguiled. Vazhgrav got up and, with a cigarette dangling from his mouth, went over to the illusion. The General did also. Even Vomica became interested. The planet--half white and sky blue, half black--hung above them like the eye of a bashful deity peering out of a fifth dimension. The image was frozen, the prism retaining only one frame in its lens: the hurricanes were stopped in their spiral, the clouds were caught and fixed over a quarter of the ocean, the storms were stilled in the middle of their fury, the rotation of day and night was halted--but it sufficed.
"God," Vazhgrav whispered. "I wouldn't mind going myself."
The General put his right hand on the king's shoulder. "Your Highness, I beseech you . . ."
"Dammit, there will be no war!" yelled the monarch, spitting out his cigarette. He pulled away from Schwentitz. "What's your problem? What?! I tell you to go, and go you go!"
The General took a deep breath. "Sire," he said, "on this subject would you grant me a private audience, just the two of us, in the Quiet Chamber?"
"What are you up to now?" barked Birzinni. "What tricks? Do you think to intimidate the king? A private audience with the Iron General indeed . . . !"
"I am the king's adviser and Preserver of the Royal Line. It is proper for me to--"
"Out of the question!" The prime minister turned to Vazhgrav. "You have no idea, my lord, of what he is capable . . ."
"Did I give a fruckin order or did I give a fruckin order?" The king was livid. "Well? Well? Do it, then, without any more flapping of lips. OK? Enough!" He regarded the illusion, scratched his chin, looked around, and let the air out of his lungs. "I'm turning in. Goodnight." And he left.
"What happened?" asked the minister of finance.
"Nothing. Go back to sleep," said Birzinni with a wave.
The General went to retrieve his cane, bowed to the prime minister and Nux Vomica, and made for the door. Birzinni twisted an end of his mustache, and Vomica clicked the stem of his pipe against his front teeth, deep in thought . . . They watched the General's back until he was gone. Orvid didn't watch, playing with the turned-off prism. Blodgett averted his face as Schwentitz passed, so as not to make eye contact; only later did he sneak a glance. Gustav Lambraux, eyes shut, was communing with his demons.
The doorman shut the door.
"For God's sake," sputtered Sasha Quezatl, "what's going on here?"
"Nothing, nothing. Go back to sleep."
"By royal command. I depart tomorrow morning," said the General, taking a seat on the bench by the phosphorescent wall of Croak's office.
"Birzinni?" croaked the major darkly. "It's his doing, isn't it?"
The General didn't bother to answer.
Croak got up from his desk and paced fretfully. He checked the room's main antisurveillance system charms, then burst out: "He's got him wrapped around his little finger! Doesn't even try to hide it! Anyone can see. Thunder and nails, does he think he can get away with this? . . . I just learned that re Dwin has taken controlling shares in Yax and Yax. Can you imagine, General sir? That's now two-thirds of the Royal Council! Birzinni has us by the throat!"
"Re Dwin? That was to be expected," mumbled the General, looking at the opposite wall, where a couple of invisible djinns were moving symbolic arrows, lines, triangles, and circles across a cartographic fresco. "Has he broken through?"
"What, the Bird?" The major stopped and regarded the map wall. "It's the same still. But nothing short of a miracle will keep him from finishing them off. I have here a one-way reflection from Pike's headquarters." He pointed at a desk mirror. "They're thinking already of ceding the Backwood and Right Port."
"Ferdinand is lying down," said the General. "Lying down and asking to be cut open. Withdrawing from a pact with the Princedom was Birzinni's biggest mistake. We will pay dearly for it. A sea of blood might have been avoided."
"Nothing you could have done, General sir." Croak returned to the desk, began tuning one of the mirrors. "Your dissenting vote at least made a few of them think. But Vazhgrav would have done what Birzinni wanted in any case, even if you had managed to convince the Council. Except there's no one now to convince, you know yourself the price of a vote from Spôt or Blummer. But the word of the Iron General still means something, yes, people are behind you sir, don't pretend to be surprised, the lowliest peons from the remotest jerkwaters know that the Iron General never breaks a promise and wouldn't besmirch his escutcheon with any treachery or fast dealing, and it's true sir, that they believe in you, not the king, the king's a puppy, you're a legend, the people know the difference . . . Here. How many men will you need?"
"I'll take the John the Fourth with a trio of kineticists. Let's put Gould in charge of them. A full thaum crew, with heavy armor, landing marines, as many supplies as we can take, rations . . . no, forget the rations, they'll be in stasis. You know the routine. We must be prepared for every eventuality, since I have no idea what we'll be facing out there."
"Did you get that, Archie?" Croak said into the mirror. "The General takes off tomorrow morning. I'll go wake people. You have room there?"
"The Old Hall is nearly empty, since we set up extra places for those fleeing Crater," replied the mirror. "In a few dozen clocks we should be able to quarter a division here. The John the Fourth is in mothballs, hasn't been out for years, and I'll have to scare up djinns. Are you packing people off right away, General, or will there be some briefing, training? We're dependent on Earth for food, and with an additional hundred mouths here . . ."
"At most, one meal," said the General.
"At most, one meal," Croak repeated. "Any signals from Crater, by the way? The princes aren't leaving? How many ships do they have?"
"Four or five, and three shuttles, but I imagine they've been destroyed, taken, or blocked, because thirty clocks have gone by now without anything of the Princedom leaving the atmosphere. It's all politics ultimately, the Bird's thaums did some ambushing here from Subbermayer back in the days of Old Luke, ghosts got in the woodwork, specters, no doubt undamped manifestations of bilocal feedback, of the fourth or fifth degree. You know about the attempt to land on Crow, General? They wanted to dig in fifty cubits and set up soulsuckers all around, I don't know why they pulled back, it would have given them a kind of jumping-off place; though, true, expensive as hell, everybody domed, the main construct all of living diamonds . . . But Crater won't surrender. And if the princelings were to evacuate the civilians out of simple fear . . ."
"I understand." The General went to the desk, entering the field of vision of mirrored Archie. Archie stiffened, bowed. The General nodded. "Whose order was it, about the Old Hall?"
"Oh, we figured that out ourselves sir, when the announcement came about neutrality. It was clear there would be no order to go back, and when the Bird takes New Pershing, Crater will be, in all the universe, the last free scrap of the Princedom of Peace. All hell will break loose there in a little while. They're preparing to die."
"And in Pershing no one said a word about those civilians? They forgot about them? You say there are a few ships left . . . Let's think: the right of asylum, with us or in the Islands . . ."
"No kineticists. They have practically no one. Of the thaums maybe two people are left, the rest are ordinary soldiers. With their big mobilization a gong ago they pulled everyone down from the moon. The poor bastards are getting killed right now in Frog Field."
"We must enter Crater, then," said the General, his jaw set, leaning over the major's shoulder to the distance mirror. "Now is the best time: before Pershing surrenders, but after the defeat of the Princedom. Are you in a position to do that? You need to plant the flag of the Imperium there before the Bird's first ship shows."
Archie grimaced. "I don't like it . . ."
"Don't be stupid, Archie," snapped the General. "For what did you set up Old Hall? You'll be saving people, preserving buildings and equipment, because if the thaums charge, there won't be a thing standing, not one brick atop another. You know that. But the Bird cannot touch a base of the Imperium. Zero bloodshed."
"They won't surrender!"
"To the Bird, no; to us, yes. Believe me, they're praying for some honorable way out of this. No one really wants to die, no matter how glorious the death. I'll be there in the morning; in the meantime do this: make the proposal in my name. The terms of the surrender as honorable as can be: I'll accept it myself, in person. My word on it. You understand? No humiliation. We can even call it a temporary protectorate."
"You're serious, General?"
"Don't be an idiot," bellowed Croak.
"All right. I'll try."
Captain Archie saluted and switched off. The mirror showed the faces of the General and the major.
The General straightened, smiled.
Croak shook his head. "I can see the look on Birzinni's face. He'll crap in his pants when he hears this. Now everything depends on whether or not the son of a bitch has spies planted on Collop. Because afterward he won't be able to hand Crater over to the Bird, even the king wouldn't go along with that. And when the Bird's thaums get itchy, you may finally have your war, General sir . . ."
Cold rage welled in the General. With a single thought he turned Croak and the armchair around to face him and aimed at the major a finger sheathed in glass and metal.
"You insult me, Croak," he said through clenched teeth. "The king and Birzinni don't understand, because they don't want to, but do you think, even you, that I require this war as an amusement or kind of exercise?"
"General sir, forgive me. I didn't mean it in that way . . ."
The General's wrath passed as quickly as it had come. "It doesn't matter," Schwentitz said, waving his cane. He turned and left.
Translated by Michael Kandel