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March, Year 9 A.E.

"Ayup," Jared Cofflin said into the microphone, looking down at the text of the treaty. Christ, a treaty with Babylon. "Those are good terms. Ian must have them buffaloed."

"Not exactly," Marian Alston's voice said, a little scratchy with distance. "I think they were gettin' worried about their strategic situation all on their ownsome-it's as bad as we thought from the histories, maybe worse. And this king of theirs, Shagarakti-Shuriash, he's one sharp man; Ian thinks so too. We'll have to watch him, of course."

"Of course."

Cofflin leafed through the terms again; trade, of course-a couple of the new merchant houses were already chomping at the bit-and alliance, first against Babylonia's enemies, then against Walker. That was excellent, provided they could get the Hittites in later. He read on. Hmmmm, An Islander base near Ur, under the Republic's sovereignty; joint courts for any civil or criminal case involving Islanders in the kingdom of Kar-Duniash.

"Good work, the lot of you," he muttered. Damned if he was going to leave any citizen, under any circumstances whatsoever, to what passed for ancient Babylonian justice.

"Let's see" Right of passage up the Tigris and Euphrates for Islander transport, an embassy in Babylon itself, technical aid, mineral concessions

"Crackerjack job, Marian," he said. "I'm not going to have any trouble getting this past the Town Meeting, I can tell you. It reads pretty much like our wish list. We'll post it right away."

"Ian's doing; I stayed in the background." A chuckle. "The locals are having to put up with enough culture shock as it is. Now, if we can just get past the Tartessians next year or the year after, it'll be Walker who's caught between two fires."

"Big if."

"Very big. We've finished disembarking and unloading and shipped our return cargoes, so we'll sail tomorrow-take a day or two to get through those damned reed-swamps, and then it's 'all plain sail.' Thank God the ships could get this far upstream. See you in two months or so."

"Ayup. Give our love to 'dapa and the kids."

"Same to you and Martha and the tribe," Alston said. "Over."

"And out."

Cofflin sighed again and tossed the treaty into his Out tray; the shortwave set stood on a side cabinet. It was a cold, wet, early-March day outside. Branches were still bare; he could see a rider going past, a blurred vision of a head bowed under a rain slicker and the pony's drooping dejection. He half envied the expeditionary force, off in the warm lands, and the hardwood fire crackling in the fireplace was more than welcome. His hands hurt a little, the way they'd taken to doing in weather like this.

"Linda!" he called aloud. His secretary came in, and he indicated the treaty with a lift of his chin.

"Get this down to the Bookworks, would you, have them set it and print up, oh, three hundred copies for the Athenaeum to distribute- and tell 'em it's going in the next Warrant as well. Thanks."

"Sure, Chief," she said, leafing though it avidly; her younger sister was with the expeditionary force, he remembered. "I'll run it right over." She hurried out; he could hear a clatter as she grabbed an umbrella from the stand by the front door.

Printing that many would take a while with a handpress; it would also put it on the agenda for the next Meeting. There were times when direct democracy drove him crazy, but it had one great merit-when a decision was finally made, everyone felt they'd had their say. In a way he'd be sorry when the population got big enough for the House of Delegates provision in the new constitution to kick in-that would be soon, too, the way things were going.

"Next," he muttered, and looked at his In box.

A proposal to license and inspect day-care centers ask Martha. Leaton wanted to import a trial run of coal from Alba for the forge-works ask him whether it's really necessary. A proposal to establish a new Base down around the site of Buenos Aires.

Hmmm. That's a tough one. It was a long way away, and they were already spread out thinner than he liked. On t' other hand, that was the edge of one of the biggest areas of good farmland on the planet; also, the preliminary survey said the locals were very thin on the pampas, even by the standards of the 1242 B.C. Americas, which meant an Islander settlement wouldn't be too disruptive. In the very long run, it would mean a big chunk of the world modeled on the Republic's ideals.

Put it in the discuss-with-the-Council file, he decided after a moment.

And it looked like Peter Girenas was going to get enough votes before the Meeting to finance his expedition. He scanned down the list of names on the petition form, stopped, and began to laugh. After a moment Martha stuck her head in the office door.

"Something funny, dear?" she said, arching an expressive eyebrow.

"Mebbe, or mebbe I'm laughing so I won't curse. Take a look at who's backing young Girenas and Company's petition for a grant."

She came over to his desk. "The usual suspects Emma Carson?"

"And all her friends." He shook his head. "I guess she thinks his chances of coming out of it alive are even worse than I do and Emma never did forget an injury."

"Plus, she thinks with him out of the way, the Rangers might not be so hard on her," Martha said thoughtfully.

"Not if we have anything to do with it," he replied.

On impulse, he pulled his wife down into his lap. She gave a small snort and arched that eyebrow again, but put an arm around his shoulders and kissed him.

"Am I correct in assuming you want to quit work early?" she said, stirring strategically.

"Ayup," he grinned. "Why not? We do have a treaty to celebrate."

The door of the Wild Rose Chance opened, letting in a blast of cold air and a few drops of stinging March rain. Peter Girenas looked up and waved his friends over. They came, after they'd wiped their boots and hung their rain slickers on pegs driven into the wall to drip into the trough beneath. Several paused sheepishly when one of the waitresses pointed to a sign stating: no weapons allowed and handed her their rifles or crossbows to be racked behind the bar.

Eddie Vergeraxsson was the first to reach him. He was a chief's son from Alba who'd been brought over as a hostage after the Alban War and decided he liked the Republic better and stayed; about twenty, brown-haired and hazel-eyed, lean and fast like a bundle of whipcord. He wore the fringed, camo-patterned Ranger buckskins as if he hadn't been brought up to kilts, and the bowie at his waist and tomahawk thrust into the back of his belt as if they'd grown there.

"Why so much ammunition?" he said, reading over the older ranger's shoulder. "Gonna be heavy."

Peter Girenas sighed a little, in the privacy of his head. Eddie was a good ranger-perhaps the best tracker and woodsman in the Corps, after Peter, good at languages, brave as a lion, deadly with any weapon. A nice guy to sit down and have a beer with, too. But he was Alban, and he had the manana attitude of his tribe deep in his bones. His people took to guns like Lekkansu to firewater, though.

"Eddie, we're going a long ways from home. We can't drop over to the mill and trade some venison for another hundred rounds. That's why I'm taking two stallions along as well as a dozen pack mares. Just in case everything takes longer than we thought."

"Oh. Okay, Pete, that sounds sensible."

He leaned back and took a pull at his beer. The table they'd taken at the Wild Rose Chance was littered with notes and letters and files, plus plates and bowls and jugs. Peter propped the paper he was reading up against a milk jug and pulled his plate closer, forking up ham steak in red gravy with a hearty appetite.

"I think we're going to make it," he said. "What the Meeting voted, it'll just cover what we need."

Nods went up and down the table. "You did good, Pete-made those lost geezers back on the Island sit up and take notice," Sue Chau said.

He felt himself puffing up a little but suppressed it. "Not too hard," he said. "Hell, I even got the Carsons rooting for me."

Eddie laughed into his beer. "Diawas Pithair, won't they turn red and blue when we come back richer than kings? And even richer in glory."

Peter nodded. He wouldn't have put it quite that way-"glory" wasn't a word he was comfortable with-but there was no denying that was part of the reason. Even more than the gold or the cheers, though I want to see it. I want to be the first Islander to see it, while it's stillfresh.

He looked around the table. There were probably as many reasons as there were people in his group; more, since each of the six probably had more than one.

Eddie wants to shine, and get enough gold to buy a big farm here and a horse-herd and throw parties and maybe take a vacation back in Alba and impress the hell out of his relatives, he thought.

Beside him was Henry Morris, the oldest in the group-over thirty. A big, slow, strong redhead, a pupil of Hillwater's; trained by Doc Coleman too. He had a thing about animals and plants and such; he was looking for a long-term career with the Conservancy Office. This would make up for a youthful indiscretion; he'd been involved with Pamela Lisketter, back when. Not much, but enough to make it difficult for him to get a government job. He'd be worth his weight in gold; no knowing when they'd need a sawbones.

Sue well, maybe 1 flatter myself, but Sue wants to come along because I'm going, I think. Partly, and partly for the sheer fun of it.

Dekkomosu the Lekkansu was quiet, down at the other end. Beer hit him that way; he was short and stocky and muscular, hair still in a roach, but he was dressed in a white woods-runner's buckskins rather than his native not-much. He and Peter were blood brothers, and there wasn't much left of the tribesman's family; they'd been hit heavy in the plagues. Figure he just wants to get far away and forget things.

And Jaditwara she's just so goddam strange. A tall, slim, blond Fiernan-she had the Spear Mark. Hard to tell what her motivations were; she'd just said that the stars told her Moon Woman wanted her to do it, and as far as she was concerned that was that. But Jesus, she could draw! No way they were going to let a Pre-Event camera and rationed film go along on this, and the Island-made equivalents were far too heavy and cumbersome.

"Good thing the Meeting wasn't held in Fogarty's Cove," Sue said.

Peter nodded, looking around the warm, crowded room. He had friends in Fogarty's Cove-that and looking at some horses was why he was here- but most of the Long Island settlers were against anything that distracted from pushing the frontier further west up-Island.

The taproom of the Wild Rose Chance was pretty full. They'd had a week of mild weather, but the March rain outside was near-as-damn sleet, and people near the door yelled whenever someone came in, bringing a little of it with them. Further in, that wasn't a problem; the big fireplace along the south wall was blazing. The air was thick with the good smells of roasting meat, baking bread, woodsmoke, and leather coats drying on pegs around the wall.

The staff were busy ladling and carving and running in and out of the kitchens with things that required more cooking than the hearth could provide; the bar was four-deep too.

"Hey, Judy!" Peter called. "Some of that mulled cider!"

"Here," she said. "And here." She unloaded plates for the others. "And I hope you all remember it when you're freezing and chewing on acorns in the middle of a snowstorm next winter, God-knows-where."

"That's a promise," Peter said.

"Bin'HOtse-khwon," Swindapa said, putting aside the sheet of daily returns from the flotilla that she'd finished reviewing.

Darling, Marian translated mentally.

"Mmm, sugar?" she said, looking up from the cabin table, where she had been pricking the map. They'd been making good time from Mauritius Base on their return; the crews were well shaken down and the wind steady steady so far, at least. Two and three hundred miles a day from noon to noon, and hardly a need to touch the lines.

"What will we do, when Walker has been put down and the war is over?"

The Fiernan was sitting on the semicircular couch that lined the stern windows. Those were open, slid back to let in the mild, silky warmth of the sea air above Capricorn, and strands of her yellow hair floated free in the breeze. Alston gave an inner sigh of pleasure at the sight, drawing a deep breath full of sea, salt, tar, and wood, of morning. Woman, you are dead lucky.

Behind the frigate ran her wake, a curling V of white against aching-blue sea. The sun was in the east, adding the slightest tinge of red to the foam of the wake, and to the sails of the ships following behind. It was very quiet, under the continuous creak-and-groan of a wooden vessel speaking to itself; the rush of water along the hull, the constant humming song of wind in the rigging, an occasional crisp order-and-response from the deck above, the cry of a seabird. Above that came the high piping of children's voices through the quarterdeck skylight; with the expeditionary regiment's marines and civilians landed at Ur, they'd brought Heather and Lucy on the Chamberlain.

Alston glanced upward and smiled. "Well, watch the children grow. Look after the Guard, of course. Design some more ships." Her grin grew wider. "Spend a lot of time making out."

"Oh, yes," Swindapa said happily.

"I was thinking, though," her partner went on. "Perhaps we could get a place in the country, as well as Guard House? That's the Town's, really. I'd like to raise horses, and it would be a place for our what do you call it retirement."

Alston chuckled a little ruefully. She was eighteen years older than her lover, almost to the day. She means my retirement, of course. Although she didn't expect Swindapa to stay in the Guard after she herself mustered out. She was a fine officer and loved the sea, but being a fighting sailor was something she did only because it was needful. And I don't intend to stay on after my usefulness ends, she told herself. One part of command was knowing when to let go.

"I thought you wanted to study more astronomy and mathematics?" she said. That was big a part of the Fiernan Bohulugi religion, and in her quiet way Swindapa was pious.

"That, too. Doreen will be back then. She wants to start some classes."

"Sounds good, then. We can pick up a place on Long Island, maybe." Not a raw grant; clearing temperate-zone climate forest was full-time work. Still, they'd invested their pay well, and developed land did come on the market.

That's actually a pretty good idea. I wouldn't mind having a garden to putter in when I'm old and gray and baking cookies for the grandchildren. "I warn you, though, I'm always going to need some salt water now and then!"

"How not?" Swindapa grinned. "We'll get a place with a pier and a boat. And maybe we should adopt again. I'd like a little boy, too. Maybe more? A house lives with children in it."

"Mmmm, let's think about that," Alston said. Swindapa's enthusiasm for babies was a bit alarming-even more so than her newfound passion for horses. There wouldn't be any real problem. Even though the flood of Alban War orphans had died down, there was still a steady trickle; she could probably arrange it through her relatives in Alba.

The ship's bell struck. Alston and her partner stood and put on their billed caps before heading out and up the companionway to the fantail.

"Captain on deck!"

"As you were," Alston said, returning the salutes. "Lieutenant Jenkins has the deck."

"It's freshening, ma'am," the second-in-command of the ship said. "Coming a little more out of the north, too, and tending eastward, I think. I don't much like it, somehow."

Alston nodded, looking up and squinting a little. Hmmm. She felt the motion of the ship beneath her, looked at sea and near-cloudless sky, tasted the wind. Not quite as soothing as it had been. Swindapa nodded slightly as their eyes met; they went over to the low deckhouse forward of the wheels and down the three steps into it.

"Carry on," she said to the watch there; this was the radio shack, as well as holding map tables, digital clock, log readout, the new mechanical chronometer, and the barometer. "Give me the hourly readings."

Her eyebrows went up a little as she read them and then took a look at the current level. Either the glass has broken or that's bad news. She flicked the instrument with a finger. Nope. Bad news.

"Signal to flotilla; two points to the east and make all sail," she said. Out on the deck, she stepped over to the wheels.

"Thus, thus," she said, giving the helm the new course. To the lieutenant: "Mr. Jenkins, topgallants and royals, if you please."

"Yes, ma'am."

He went to the rail and relayed the order; she could hear it echo across the deck until the mast captains' voices called, "Lay aloft and loose topgallants and royals!"

The ship heeled as more canvas blossomed out high above their heads, thuttering and cracking, and the standing rigging funneled the force of the wind to the hull. At Jenkins's unspoken question, she went on:

"I want sea room, Mr. Jenkins; we're too damned close to the southern end of Madagascar, if it comes on to blow."

"Rig for rough weather, ma'am?" he said.

"By all means. Lieutenant Commander Swindapa, message to the flotilla: Prepare for heavy weather, be ready to strike sail." The orders went out, and she added, "Oh, and get those two imps of satan down from the maintop."

He grinned a little at that and called to the tops. A dark head and a red one peered over the railing of the triangular platform, with one of the crew hovering behind them, ready to grab.

"Mom!" came a faint call; then, in a treble imitation of the lookout: "On deck, there! Can we slide down a backstay?"

"No, you cannot!"

The wind blew away the muttered complaints. They probably could slide down a backstay, she thought; they were nimble as apes after three months at sea. But not for a while; best to be cautious. After a moment, her mouth quirked. The definition of "cautious" had undergone some radical mutations, back here in the Bronze Age.

CHAPTER EIGHT | Against the Tide of Years | CHAPTER TEN