So Sten's R&R began on a somewhat less than idyllic note. That slightly off-key note continued to sound. The pinnacle was everything it had looked on the vid, punching straight up for almost a thousand meters through the low clouds. It was at the end of a small, rising alpine meadow with its own spring and bone-breakingly cold pond. The meadow was surrounded by the pinnacle's sky-touching big brothers. No one lived in the meadow, except for some small tree-dwelling marsupials, some long-wild bovines, and, Sten thought, a small night-loving predator he never saw.

He pitched his tent, and his bodyguard followed orders, pitching their camp one quarter kilometer, to the exact pace, away, semihidden behind brush on the other side of the pond.

Sten cooked, ate, and went to bed just after dusk. He slept dreamlessly, then rose, collected his climbing pack, and headed for the rock.

For a few hours he lost himself in the rhythm of the climb, the feel of the rock under his palms, and the attention to balance. He wedged a nut into a crack, tied himself off, and dug into his day pack for a snack. He looked up. Not bad. He was almost 250 meters up. Maybe he could spot a bivvy site farther up, do a one-man siege later on, and actually get to the summit before his vacation ended. He had already spotted at least six other fascinating routes he wanted to try.

Then he looked down.

Eight faces looked up at him. His bodyguards were sitting in a semicircle near the base of the pillar, doing their job. Hell. Climbing was not a spectator sport.

He thought of throwing a piton or shouting something. Come on, Sten, he told himself. Aren't you being a little childish? However, he found himself climbing down a couple of hours before he had planned, and the descent was not nearly as mind-absorbing as going up had been.

The next day, he tried another route, this one chosen not just for its interest, but because he did not think there was an observation point for his damnably faithful bodyguards.

They found one anyway. He forced himself to ignore them and climbed on. But his concentration, his ability to lose himself, was... not shattered. He still reveled in what he was doing. But he was... aware of other things.

That night, after he had cooked a rather unimaginative, underspiced curry and eaten solo, he found himself sleepless. Across the pond, he could see the low flicker from the Bhor's campsite. They must have found some dry wood and built a tiny fire. He could almost, but not quite, hear voices. Almost, but not quite, hear the crystal chime of a laugh.

Sten swore to himself again. He hunted through his expedition pack and found a bottle. Then he put his boots back on and found his way around the pond to the firelight. There were only four bodyguards around the fire. He tapped the bottle against a tree and stepped forward. Cind and a Bhor came out of the blackness and lowered their weapons.

"What's wrong?" she snapped, eyes sweeping the night.

"Uh... nothing. I... just had trouble getting to sleep. I thought... if I wasn't intruding..."

They welcomed him to their campfire and politely sipped from the bottle of Imperially synthesized "Scotch" Sten had brought along until they could find an excuse to dig out their own supply. Stregg. The Eternal Emperor had once said that stregg was to triple-run moonshine—whatever that meant—as moonshine was to mother's milk.

Regardless, Sten and his bodyguard got royally potted. The quiet alpine meadow was broken by occasional shouts of "by my father's frozen buttocks" and other Bhor toasts. The evening was culminated when three Bhor threw Sten into the pond.

A very juvenile evening, Sten thought confusedly when he woke the next day. Then he hurt too badly to assess the adultness of his situation. He was still in the Bhor camp. His head was pillowed on one Bhor's calf, and another Bhor was using his stomach for a pillow. Sten realized that he was being attacked by lethal air molecules, smashing into his body everywhere.

Cind and a Bhor walked—lopsidedly—into the camp.

"Wake up, you scrots," she snarled. "It's your shift. Oh, Christ, I hurt."

"Hurt quietly then," Sten whimpered. He found the bottle of Scotch that was still unfinished and chanced a swallow. No. No. His stomach tried to climb the distant pillar. He got to his feet. His soles hurt. "I am going to die."

"Do it quietly, then. Sir. Admiral." Turnabout was fair and all that.

By rights, Sten should have proven his ability at command and taken everyone for a five-klick run or something equally Admirally-Heroic. He managed to strip off his coveralls and—clot decency—wade into the pond until the freeze told him that the molecules were not attacking. Then he pulled his coveralls back on and decided to eat something.

There was no climbing done that day.

But from that point, the R&R became something very different from Sten's original plans.

One of the Bhor asked about climbing. Sten showed him some of the tricks on a nearby boulder. Cind had already taken a basic climbing course, although the course had specialized in going up the sides of buildings.

And so it went. Climb during the day. Twice he just went for hill-scrambling around the mountain bases nearby. At night, they ate communally. Sten moved his tent into the Bhor campsite.

He spent a lot of time with Cind.

She was easy to talk to. Sten supposed this was some kind of breach of discipline. What discipline? he asked himself. You aren't even an admiral any more—technically. Even if you are, do you want to be? He managed to get Cind to stop calling him by his rank, and even to drop most of the "sir's" with which she salted her speech.

He told her about the factory hellworld he had grown on. He mentioned—briefly—his family. He told her about Alex Kilgour, and the many, many years they had adventured together.

He did not tell war stories.

Cind, at first, was disappointed. Here was a chance to learn from the greatest warrior of them all. But she found herself listening to other tales—of the strange beings he had encountered, some human, some otherwise, some friendly, some less than that. Again, there was no gore to those stories.

The alpine meadow heard, many times, the chime of crystal.

Cind talked about how strange it had been, growing up as the daughter of the warrior sect of a jihad-prone religion, a religion not only shattered by war but one whose gods had been proven frauds and degenerates. It had seemed natural to her to gravitate toward the Bhor.

"Although now I wonder sometimes. Was I just, going from wanting one kind of belief-shelter"—she used the Talameic word—"to another?"

Sten raised an eyebrow. True or not, it was a sophisticated observation from someone as young as Cind.

He told her about the worlds he had seen. Tropic, arctic, vacuum. The redwoods of

Earth. His own world of Smallbridge.

"Perhaps... I could show it to you. One day."

"Perhaps," Cind said, smiling very slightly, "I would like to see it. One day."

They did not sleep together. Cind might have gone to Sten's tent, if he had asked. He did not.

A very odd R&R, Sten mused, as his self-alloted vacation time expired and they loaded the gravcar. Not what I expected...

But maybe what I needed. 

CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO

The Tribunal was nearly ready to announce its decision. After the last witness had been called and the final bit of evidence presented, the judges withdrew to their chamber. Several weeks of backbreaking clerical work followed as they pored over the mounds of testimony.

At first, Sten felt it was a great privilege to be allowed to watch. He, Alex, and Mahoney huddled in the far corner as Sr. Ecu and the three judges debated the relative worth of every detail. As recorder, Dean Blythe oversaw the efforts to officially document the private proceedings for legal history. Sr. Ecu was particularly wary that whatever the outcome, there would be no oversight anyone could use against them.

The judges assumed their roles with a fury. Warin remained totally impartial. Apus, despite her hatred for the Council, was an ardent defender. Sometimes Sten had to shake himself to remember what her true feelings were. One side of him grew angry when she relentlessly hammered away in the privy council's defense. The other side of him admired her for taking her duties so seriously.

Still, it was hard not to get pissed when things like the information he had retrieved from Lovett Arena were dismissed as nothing but rubbish, a trick of science or possibly even planted evidence.

Rivas, on the other hand—who only disagreed with the council for philosophical, not personal, reasons—became their angry tormentor. In public, and even in the privacy of chambers, he shouted down any attempt to weaken the case against the council. Sten did not bother the reasonable side of himself when Rivas went at it. He purely enjoyed the being's constant attacks. It was Rivas who kept pointing things back, talking about how circumstance after circumstance could not be ignored. And he mightily defended the council's secret agreement as proof of opportunity to conspire, if nothing else.

Then, as the weeks lumbered on, Sten's eyes glazed over. Alex and Mahoney were no better. They slipped away whenever possible. Unfortunately, dodging the waiting livie newscasters was worse than boredom. So mostly they stayed and dozed.

But finally it was nearly over. The Tribunal was getting down to the vote. Rivas and

Apus had shed their roles as advocates and had joined Warin in impartial consideration. The suspense had Sten's interest stirring again. He leaned forward so that he would not miss a word.

"I don't think we can delay any longer, gentlebeings," Sr. Ecu was saying. "Are you ready for your decision?"

Sten did not hear the answer. Alex had planted an urgent elbow in his ribs. Mahoney was at the door making frantic motions for them to join him outside chambers.

Mahoney wasted no time. As soon as the chamber doors closed behind them he collared Sten and Alex.

"It's Otho," he said. "There's some very strange business at the spaceport. We're wanted. Now, lads."

As they hurried for the spaceport, Mahoney filled them in with what little he knew.

It seemed that they were being blessed with a high-level visit—from Dusable.

"What do those clots want?" was Sten's first reaction.

"Thae's all snakier villains ae any Campbell," was Kilgour's.

"That's all too true," Mahoney said. "But we can't be judging too harshly. We need all the help we can get, no matter how slimy the source."

By help, Mahoney said, he meant that no matter how crooked, Dusable was a recognized governmental body in the Empire—an important body. Not only that, but no mere representatives had been sent. Accordingly to Otho, the newly elected Tyrenne Walsh was on board, as was the president of the Council of Solons, that master of all political thieves, Solon Kenna.

"They are here to officially recognize the Tribunal's proceedings," Mahoney said. "Also, any bill of indictment they may hand down. So they're ready to jump in front of the cameras and announce their stand against the privy council."

Sten did not need a refresher course in politics to know what that meant. When slimy pols like Kenna and Walsh climbed on board, the political winds were definitely blowing in the Tribunal's favor. And when the council's other allies saw that, there was a good chance of many more shifts in the balance.

Only Otho and some of his Bhor troops were at the ship to greet them. The ship had just landed and the ramp run out. He hastily advised Sten that livie crews had been alerted and would soon come crushing in.

"By my mother's long and flowing beard," he growled, "luck is sticking with us. I knew you were lucky the first I met you, my friend." He gave Sten a heavy slap on the back.

Sten noticed that crude as Otho may appear, he was too wise a ruler not to figure out for himself what the sudden support from the Dusable fence sitters would mean for him. No political explanations were needed.

The ship's doors hissed open, but it was long moments before anyone stepped outside. Then Walsh and Kenna emerged, their aides following in an odd straggle. Sten was confused. He expected a typical display of pomp. Maybe it was because the livie crews had not arrived yet. Still, the two pols made a rather drab appearance.

Walsh and Kenna approached—a bit nervously, Sten thought. They almost jumped when Otho growled orders for his troops to draw up to smart attention—at least, as smart as any bowlegged Bhor could be. What was bothering the two? This should be an expected, if a bit puny, honor.

Mahoney stepped forward to greet them. Sten and Alex moved with him. There was a muffled sound inside the ship. Sten was sure it was someone cracking out a command—and he swore he recognized that command. Personally, knew it. He barely noticed as Walsh, Kenna, and their entourage hastily ducked to the sidelines. Sten was too busy gaping.

Squat little men with dark features and proud eyes exited in a precise spear formation. Their royal uniforms glowed with the records of their deeds. Their kukris were held high at a forty-five-degree port arms, light dazzling off the burnished facets of the blades.

Sten knew those men. He had once commanded them.

The Gurkhas! What in hell's name were they doing here? On a ship from Dusable?

Then he saw the answer. He saw it. But he didn't believe it. At first.

The most familiar figure in Sten's, or any other being's life, marched at the apex of the spear line. He towered over the Gurkhas. He looked neither left nor right, but kept those fierce eyes fixed royally ahead.

Sten could not move, speak, or salute. Beside him, he felt the frozen shock of his own companions.

"By my father's frozen buttocks," Otho muttered. "It's Him!"

As it reached them the spears parted and then reformed. Sten found himself staring into those oddly ancient/young eyes. He saw the recognition, and heard his name uttered. Alex jerked as his own name was mentioned after a momentary furrow of those regal brows.

The man turned to Mahoney and gave him a wide, bright grin.

"I'm glad you stuck around, Ian," the Eternal Emperor said.

Mahoney fainted. 

CHAPTER THIRTY-THREE

Not all of the privy council's vengeance fleet was composed of bloody-handed loyalists to the New Regime. Blind obedience cannot make up all of a resume—particularly when the assigned task must be accomplished.

Fleet Admiral Fraser, not happy with her orders but as always obedient, commanded the attacking force from the bridge of the Imperial Battleship Chou Kung —such as it was. The privy council had stripped AM2 depots bare of their remaining fuel for the fleet. There was enough to get them to Newton, engage... and then that stolen AM2 convoy had best have been parked in the Jura System if any of them planned a return journey.

One problem Fraser did not have: her ships were not as undermanned as customary. Would that they were, she thought. The council had ordered all ships brought to full strength. So just as the fuel depots were stripped, so were noncombatant ships and ground stations.