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Title: Tiger By the Tail
Author: Anderson, Poul
Language: English
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                           TIGER by the TAIL

                           by Poul Anderson

              The haughty, horned aliens from the planet
               Scotha had very well organized intentions
             of conquering the Terran Empire--and Captain
            Dominic Flandry, Terra's ace saboteur, suddenly
            found himself in a strategic position to louse
           up the works. How? Well, Achilles had a heel ...
               and what else could you call a Scothani?

           [Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
                     Planet Stories January 1951.
         Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
         the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]


Captain Flandry opened his eyes and saw a metal ceiling.
Simultaneously, he grew aware of the thrum and quiver which meant he
was aboard a spaceship running on ultra-drive.

He sat up with a violence that sent the dregs of alcohol swirling
through his head. He'd gone to sleep in a room somewhere in the stews
of Catawrayannis, with no prospect or intention of leaving the city
for an indefinite time--let alone the planet! Now--

The chilling realization came that he was not aboard a human ship.
Humanoid, yes, from the size and design of things, but no vessel ever
built within the borders of the Empire, and no foreign make that he
knew of.

Even from looking at this one small cabin, he could tell. There were
bunks, into one of which he had fitted pretty well, but the sheets
and blankets weren't of plastic weave. They seemed--he looked more
closely--the sheets seemed to be of some vegetable fiber, the blankets
of long bluish-gray hair. There were a couple of chairs and a table in
the middle of the room, wooden, and they must have seen better days
for they were elaborately hand-carved, and in an intricate interwoven
design new to Flandry--and planetary art-forms were a hobby of his. The
way and manner in which the metal plating had been laid was another
indication, and--

       *       *       *       *       *

He sat down again, buried his whirling head in his hands, and tried to
think. There was a thumping in his head and a vile taste in his mouth
which liquor didn't ordinarily leave--at least not the stuff he'd been
drinking--and now that he remembered, he'd gotten sleepy much earlier
than one would have expected when the girl was so good-looking--

Drugged--oh, no! _Tell me I'm not as stupid as a stereofilm hero!
Anything but that!_

But who'd have thought it, who'd have looked for it? Certainly the
people and beings on whom he'd been trying to get a lead would never
try anything like that. Besides, none of them had been around, he
was sure of it. He'd simply been out building part of the elaborate
structure of demimonde acquaintances and information which would
eventually, by exceedingly indirect routes, lead him to those he was
seeking. He'd simply been out having a good time--_quite_ a good time,
in fact--and--

And now someone from outside the Empire had him. And _now_ what?

He got up, a little unsteadily, and looked around for his clothes.
No sign of them. And he'd paid three hundred credits for that outfit,
too. He stamped savagely over to the door. It didn't have a photocell
attachment; he jerked it open and found himself looking down the muzzle
of a blaster.

It was of different design from any he knew, but it was quite
unmistakable. Captain Flandry sighed, relaxed his taut muscles, and
looked more closely at the guard who held it.

He was humanoid to a high degree, perhaps somewhat stockier than
Terrestrial average--and come to think of it, the artificial gravity
was a little higher than one gee--and with very white skin, long tawny
hair and beard, and oblique violet eyes. His ears were pointed and two
small horns grew above his heavy eyebrow ridges, but otherwise he was
manlike enough. With civilized clothes and a hooded cloak he could
easily pass himself off for human.

Not in the getup he wore, of course, which consisted of a kilt and
tunic, shining beryllium-copper cuirass and helmet, buskins over bare
legs, and a murderous-looking dirk. As well as a couple of scalps
hanging at his belt.

He gestured the prisoner back, and blew a long hollow blast on a horn
slung at his side. The wild echoes chased each other down the long
corridor, hooting and howling with a primitive clamor that tingled
faintly along Captain Flandry's spine.

He thought slowly, while he waited: No intercom, apparently not even
speaking tubes laid the whole length of the ship. And household
articles of wood and animal and vegetable fibres, and that archaic
costume there--They were barbarians, all right. But no tribe that he
knew about.

That wasn't too surprising, since the Terrestrial Empire and the
half-dozen other civilized states in the known Galaxy ruled over
several thousands of intelligent races and had some contact with nobody
knew how many thousands more. Many of the others were, of course, still
planet-bound, but quite a few tribes along the Imperial borders had
mastered a lot of human technology without changing their fundamental
outlook on things. Which is what comes of hiring barbarian mercenaries.

The peripheral tribes were still raiders, menaces to the border planets
and merely nuisances to the Empire as a whole. Periodically they were
bought off, or played off against each other--or the Empire might even
send a punitive expedition out. But if one day a strong barbarian race
under a strong leader should form a reliable coalition--then _vae
victis_!

       *       *       *       *       *

A party of Flandry's captors, apparently officers, guardsmen, and a few
slaves, came down the corridor. Their leader was tall and powerfully
built, with a cold arrogance in his pale-blue eyes that did not hide a
calculating intelligence. There was a golden coronet about his head,
and the robes that swirled around his big body were rainbow-gorgeous.
Flandry recognized some items as having been manufactured within the
Empire. Looted, probably.

They came to a halt before him and the leader looked him up and
down with a deliberately insulting gaze. To be thus surveyed in the
nude could have been badly disconcerting, but Flandry was immune to
embarrassment and his answering stare was bland.

The leader spoke at last, in strongly accented but fluent Anglic: "You
may as well accept the fact that you are a prisoner, Captain Flandry."

They'd have gone through his pockets, of course. He asked levelly,
"Just to satisfy my own curiosity, was that girl in your pay?"

"Of course. I assure you that the Scothani are not the brainless
barbarians of popular Terrestrial superstition, though--" a bleak
smile--"it is useful to be thought so."

"The Scothani? I don't believe I've had the pleasure--"

"You have probably not heard of us, though we have had some contact
with the Empire. We have found it convenient to remain in obscurity,
as far as Terra is concerned, until the time is ripe. But--what do you
think caused the Alarri to invade you, fifteen years ago?"

Flandry thought back. He had been a boy then, but he had, of course,
avidly followed the news accounts of the terrible fleets that swept in
over the marches and attacked Vega itself. Only the hardest fighting
at the Battle of Mirzan had broken the Alarri. Yet it turned out that
they'd been fleeing still another tribe, a wild and mighty race who had
invaded their own system with fire and ruin. It was a common enough
occurrence in the turbulent barbarian stars; this one incident had
come to the Empire's notice only because the refugees had tried to
conquer it in turn. A political upheaval within the Terrestrial domain
had prevented closer investigation before the matter had been all but
forgotten.

"So you were driving the Alarri before you?" asked Flandry with as
close an approximation to the right note of polite interest as he could
manage in his present condition.

"Aye. And others. The Scothani have quite a little empire now, out
there in the wilderness of the Galaxy. But, since we were never
originally contacted by Terrestrials, we have, as I say, remained
little known to them."

So--the Scothani had learned their technology from some other race,
possibly other barbarians. It was a familiar pattern, Flandry could
trace it out in his mind. Spaceships landed on the primitive world,
the initial awe of the natives gave way to the realization that the
skymen weren't so very different after all--they could be killed like
anyone else; traders, students, laborers, mercenary warriors visited
the more advanced worlds, brought back knowledge of their science and
technology; factories were built, machines produced, and some tribal
king used the new power to impose his rule on all his planet; and then,
to unite his restless subjects, he had to turn their faces outward,
promise plunder and glory if they followed him out to the stars--

Only the Scothani had carried it farther than most. And lying as far
from the Imperial border as they did, they could build up a terrible
power without the complacent, politics-ridden Empire being more than
dimly aware of the fact--until the day when--

_Vae victis!_


                                  II

"Let us have a clear understanding," said the barbarian chief. "You are
a prisoner on a warship already light-years from Llynathawr, well into
the Imperial marches and bound for Scotha itself. You have no chance
of rescue, and mercy depends entirely on your own conduct. Adjust it
accordingly."

"May I ask why you picked me up?" Flandry's tone was mild.

"You are of noble blood, and a high-ranking officer in the Imperial
intelligence service. You may be worth something as a hostage. But
primarily we want information."

"But I--"

"I know." The reply was disgusted. "You're very typical of your
miserable kind. I've studied the Empire and its decadence long enough
to know that. You're just another worthless younger son, given a
high-paying sinecure so you can wear a fancy uniform and play soldier.
You don't amount to anything."

Flandry let an angry flush go up his cheek. "Look here--"

"It's perfectly obvious," said the barbarian. "You come to Llynathawr
to track down certain dangerous conspirators. So you register yourself
in the biggest hotel in Catawrayannis as Captain Dominic Flandry of
the Imperial Intelligence Service, you strut around in your expensive
uniform dropping dark hints about your leads and your activities--and
these consist of drinking and gambling and wenching the whole night and
sleeping the whole day!" A cold humor gleamed in the blue eyes. "Unless
it is your intention that the Empire's enemies shall laugh themselves
to death at the spectacle."

"If that's so," began Flandry thinly, "then why--"

"You will know something. You can't help picking up a lot of
miscellaneous information in your circles, no matter how hard you try
not to. Certainly you know specific things about the organization and
activities of your own corps which we would find useful information.
We'll squeeze all you know out of you! Then there will be other
services you can perform, people within the Empire you can contact,
documents you can translate for us, perhaps various liaisons you can
make--eventually, you may even earn your freedom." The barbarian lifted
one big fist. "And in case you wish to hold anything back, remember
that the torturers of Scotha know their trade."

"You needn't make melodramatic threats," said Flandry sullenly.

The fist shot out, and Flandry fell to the floor with darkness whirling
and roaring through his head. He crawled to hands and knees, blood
dripping from his face, and vaguely he heard the voice: "From here on,
little man, you are to address me as befits a slave speaking to a crown
prince of Scotha."

The Terrestrial staggered to his feet. For a moment his fists clenched.
The prince smiled grimly and knocked him down again. Looking up,
Flandry saw brawny hands resting on blaster butts--not a chance, not a
chance.

Besides, the prince was hardly a sadist. Such brutality was the normal
order among the barbarians--and come to think of it, slaves within the
Empire could be treated similarly.

And there was the problem of staying alive--

"Yes, sir," he mumbled.

The prince turned on his heel and walked away.

       *       *       *       *       *

They gave him back his clothes, though someone had stripped the gold
braid and the medals away. Flandry looked at the soiled, ripped
garments and sighed. Tailor-made--!

He surveyed himself in the mirror as he washed and shaved. The face
that looked back was wide across the cheek-bones, straight-nosed and
square-jawed, with carefully waved reddish-brown hair and a mustache
trimmed with equal attention. Probably too handsome, he reflected,
wiping the blood from under his nose, but he'd been young when he had
the plasticosmetician work on him. Maybe when he got out of this mess
he should have the face made over to a slightly more rugged pattern to
fit his years. He was in his thirties now, after all--getting to be a
big boy, Dominic.

The fundamental bone structure of head and face was his own, however,
and so were the eyes--large and bright, with a hint of obliquity, the
iris of that curious gray which can seem any color, blue or green or
black or gold. And the trim, medium-tall body was genuine too. He hated
exercises, but went through a dutiful daily ritual since he needed
sinews and coordination for his work--and, too, a man in condition was
something to look at among the usually flabby nobles of Terra; he'd
found his figure no end of help in making his home leaves pleasant.

_Well, can't stand here admiring yourself all day, old fellow._ He
slipped blouse, pants, and jacket over his silkite under-garments,
pulled on the sheening boots, tilted his officer's cap at an angle of
well-gauged rakishness, and walked out to meet his new owners.

The Scothani weren't such bad fellows, he soon learned. They were big
brawling lusty barbarians, out for adventure and loot and fame as
warriors; they had courage and loyalty and a wild streak of sentiment
that he liked. But they could also fly into deadly rages, they were
casually cruel to anyone that stood in their way, and Flandry acquired
a not too high respect for their brains. It would have helped if they'd
washed oftener, too.

This warship was one of a dozen which Cerdic, the crown prince, had
taken out on a plundering cruise. They'd sacked a good many towns, even
some on nominally Imperial planets, and on the way back had sent down
a man in a lifeboat to contact Cerdic's agents on Llynathawr, which
was notoriously the listening post of this sector of the Empire. In
learning that there was something going on which a special agent from
Terra had been investigating, Cerdic had ordered him picked up. And
that was that.

Now they were homeward bound, their holds stuffed with loot and their
heads stuffed with plans for further inroads. It might not have meant
much, but--well--Cerdic and his father Penda didn't seem to be just
ordinary barbarian chiefs, nor Scothania an ordinary barbarian nation.

Could it be that somewhere out there among the many stars someone had
finally organized a might that could break the Empire? Could the Long
Night really be at hand?

Flandry shoved the thought aside. He had too much to do right now. Even
his own job at Llynathawr, important as it was, could and would be
handled by someone else--though not, he thought a little sadly, with
the Flandry touch--and his own immediate worry was here and now. He had
to find out the extent of power and ambition of the Scothani; he had to
learn their plans and get the information to Terra, and somehow spike
them even a little. After that there might be time to save his own hide.

       *       *       *       *       *

Cerdic had him brought to the captain's cabin. The place was a typical
barbarian chief's den, with the heads of wild beasts on the walls and
their hides on the floors, old shields and swords hung up in places of
honor, a magnificent golden vase stolen from some planet of artists
shining in a corner. But there were incongruous modern touches, a
microprint reader and many bookrolls from the Empire, astrographic
tables and computer, a vodograph. The prince sat in a massive carven
chair, a silkite robe flung carelessly over his broad shoulders. He
nodded with a certain affability.

"Your first task will be to learn Scothanian," he said without
preliminary. "As yet almost none of our people, even nobles, speak
Anglic, and there are many who will want to talk to you."

"Yes, sir," said Flandry. It was what he would most have desired.

"You had better also start organizing all you know so you can present
it coherently," said the prince. "And I, who have lived in the Empire,
will be able to check enough of your statements to tell whether you are
likely speaking the truth." He smiled mirthlessly. "If there is reason
to suspect you are lying, you will be put to the torture. And one of
our Sensitives will then get at the truth."

So they had Sensitives, too. Telepaths who could tell whether a being
was lying when pain had sufficiently disorganized his mind were as bad
as the Empire's hypnoprobes.

"I'll tell the truth, sir," he said.

"I suppose so. If you cooperate, you'll find us not an ungrateful
people. There will be more wealth than was ever dreamed of when we go
into the Empire. There will also be considerable power for such humans
as are our liaison with their race."

"Sir," began Flandry, in a tone of weak self-righteousness, "I couldn't
think of--"

"Oh, yes, you could," said Cerdic glumly. "I know you humans. I
traveled incognito throughout your whole Empire, I was on Terra
itself. I posed as one of you, or when convenient as just another
of the subject races. I _know_ the Empire--its utter decadence, its
self-seeking politicians and pleasure-loving mobs, corruption and
intrigue everywhere you go, collapse of morals and duty-sense, decline
of art into craft and science into stagnancy--you were a great race
once, you humans, you were the first to aspire to the stars and we owe
you something for that, I suppose. But you're not the race you once
were."

The viewpoint was biased, but enough truth lay in it to make Flandry
wince. Cerdic went on, his voice rising: "There is a new power growing
out beyond your borders, young peoples with the strength and courage
and hopefulness of youth, and they'll sweep the rotten fragments of the
Empire before them and build something new and better."

_Only_, thought Flandry, _only first comes the Long Night, darkness and
death and the end of civilization, the howling peoples in the ruins of
our temples and a myriad petty tyrants holding their dreary courts in
the shards of the Empire. To say nothing of the decline of good music
and good cuisine, taste in clothes and taste in women and conversation
as a fine art_.

"We've one thing you've lost," said Cerdic, "and I think ultimately
that will be the deciding factor. Honestly. Flandry, the Scothani are a
race of honest warriors."

"No doubt, sir," said Flandry.

"Oh, we have our evil characters, but they are few and the custom of
private challenges soon eliminates them," said Cerdic. "And even their
evil is an open and clean thing, greed or lawlessness or something like
that; it isn't the bribery and conspiracy and betrayal of your rotten
politicians. And most of us live by our code. It wouldn't occur to a
true Scothani to do a dishonorable thing, to break an oath or desert
a comrade or lie on his word of honor. Our women aren't running loose
making eyes at every man they come across; they're kept properly at
home till time for marriage and then they know their place as mothers
and houseguiders. Our boys are raised to respect the gods and the king,
to fight, and to speak truth. Death is a little thing, Flandry, it
comes to everyone in his time and he cannot stay it, but honor lives
forever.

"We don't corrupt ourselves. We keep honor at home and root out
disgrace with death and torture. We live our code. And that is really
why we will win."

_Battleships help_, thought Flandry. And then, looking into the cold
bright eyes: _He's a fanatic. But a hell of a smart one. And that kind
makes the most dangerous enemy._

Aloud he asked, humbly: "Isn't any stratagem a lie, sir? Your own
disguised travels within the Empire--"

"Naturally, certain maneuvers are necessary," said the prince stiffly.
"Nor does it matter what one does with regard to alien races.
Especially when they have as little honor as Terrestrials."

_The good old race-superiority complex, too. Oh, well._

"I tell you this," said Cerdic earnestly, "in the hope that you may
think it over and see our cause is just and be with us. We will need
many foreigners, especially humans, for liaison and intelligence and
other services. You may still accomplish something in a hitherto wasted
life."

"I'll think about it, sir," said Flandry.

"Then go."

Flandry got.

       *       *       *       *       *

The ship was a good three weeks en route to Scotha. It took Flandry
about two of them to acquire an excellent working knowledge of the
language, but he preferred to simulate difficulty and complained that
he got lost when talk was too rapid. It was surprising how much odd
information you picked up when you were thought not to understand
what was being said. Not anything of great military significance,
of course, but general background, stray bits of personal history,
attitudes and beliefs--it all went into the neat filing system which
was Flandry's memory, to be correlated with whatever else he knew or
learned into an astonishingly complete picture.

The Scothani themselves were quite friendly, eager to hear about the
fabulous Imperial civilization and to brag of their own wonderful past
and future exploits. Since there was obviously nothing he could do,
Flandry was under the loosest guard and had virtually the freedom of
the ship. He slept and messed with the warriors, swapped bawdy songs
and dirty jokes, joined their rough-and-tumble wrestling matches to win
surprised respect for his skill, and even became the close friend and
confidant of some of the younger males.

The race was addicted to gambling. Flandry learned their games, taught
them some of the Empire's, and before the trip's end had won back his
stolen finery plus several other outfits and a pleasantly jingling
purse. It was--well--he almost hated to take his winnings from these
overgrown babies. It just never occurred to them that dice and cards
could be made to do tricks.

The picture grew. The barbarian tribes of Scotha were firmly united
under the leadership of the Frithian kings, had been for several
generations. Theoretically it was an absolute monarchy, though actually
all classes except the slaves were free. They had conquered at least a
hundred systems outright, contenting themselves with exacting tribute
and levies from most of these, and dominated all others within reach.
Under Penda's leadership, a dozen similar, smaller barbarian states
had already formed a coalition with the avowed purpose of invading
the Empire, capturing Terra, destroying the Imperial military forces,
and making themselves masters. Few of them thought beyond the plunder
to be had, though apparently some of them, like Cerdic, dreamed of
maintaining and extending the Imperial domain under their own rule.

They had a formidable fleet--Flandry couldn't find out its exact
size--and its organization and technology seemed far superior to
that of most barbarian forces. They had a great industry, mostly
slave-manned with the Scothan overlords supervising. They had shrewd
leaders, who would wait till one of the Empire's recurring political
crises had reduced its fighting strength, and who were extremely well
informed about their enemy. It looked--bad!

Especially since they couldn't wait too long. Despite the unequalled
prosperity created by industry, tribute, and piracy, all Scotha was
straining at the leash, nobles and warriors in the whole coalition
foaming to be at the Empire's throat; a whole Galactic sector had been
seized by the same savage dream. When they came roaring in--well,
you never could tell. The Empire's fighting strength was undoubtedly
greater, but could it be mobilized in time? Wouldn't Penda get gleeful
help from two or three rival imperia? Couldn't a gang of utterly
fearless fanatics plow through the mass of self-seeking officers and
indifferent mercenaries that made up most of the Imperial power today?

Might not the Long Night really be at hand?


                                  III

Scotha was not unlike Terra--a little larger, a little farther from
its sun, the seas made turbulent by three small close moons. Flandry
had a chance to observe it telescopically--the ship didn't have
magniscreens--and as they swept in, he saw the mighty disc roll grandly
against the Galactic star-blaze and studied the continents with more
care than he showed.

The planet was still relatively thinly populated, with great forests
and plains standing empty, archaic cities and villages huddling about
the steep-walled castles of the nobles. Most of its industry was on
other worlds, though the huge military bases were all on Scotha and
its moons. There couldn't be more than a billion Scothani all told,
estimated Flandry, probably less, and many of them would live elsewhere
as overlords of the interstellar domain. Which didn't make them less
formidable. The witless hordes of humankind were more hindrance than
help to the Empire.

Cerdic's fleet broke up, the captains bound for their estates. He took
his own vessel to the capital, Iuthagaar, and brought it down in the
great yards. After the usual pomp and ceremony of homecoming, he sent
for Flandry.

"What is your attitude toward us now?" he asked.

"You are a very likeable people, sir," said the Terrestrial, "and it is
as you say--you are a strong and honest race."

"Then you have decided to help us actively?" The voice was cold.

"I really have little choice, sir," shrugged Flandry. "I'll be a
prisoner in any case, unless I get to the point of being trusted. The
only way to achieve that is to give you my willing assistance."

"And what of your own nation?"

"A man must stay alive, sir. These are turbulent times."

Contempt curled Cerdic's lip. "Somehow I thought better of you," he
said. "But you're a human. You could only be expected to betray your
oaths for your own gain."

Surprise shook Flandry's voice. "Wasn't this what you wanted, sir?"

"Oh, yes, I suppose so. Now come along. But not too close--you make me
feel a little sick."

They went up to the great gray castle which lifted its windy spires
over the city, and presently Flandry found himself granted an audience
with the King of Scothania.

It was a huge and dimlit hall, hung with the banners and shields of old
wars and chill despite the fires that blazed along its length. Penda
sat at one end, wrapped in furs against the cold, his big body dwarfed
by the dragon-carved throne. He had his eldest son's stern manner
and bleak eyes, without the prince's bitter intensity--a strong man,
thought Flandry, hard and ruthless and able--but perhaps not too bright.

Cerdic had mounted to a seat on his father's right. The queen stood on
his left, shivering a little in the damp draft, and down either wall
reached a row of guardsmen. The fire shimmered on their breastplates
and helmets and halberds; they seemed figures of legend, but Flandry
noticed that each warrior carried a blaster too.

There were others in evidence, several of the younger sons of Penda,
grizzled generals and councillors, nobles come for a visit. A few of
the latter were of non-Scothan race and did not seem to be meeting
exceptional politeness. Then there were the hangers-on, bards and
dancers and the rest, and slaves scurrying about. Except for its
size--and its menace--it was a typical barbarian court.

       *       *       *       *       *

Flandry bowed the knee as required, but thereafter stood erect and
met the king's eye. His position was anomalous, officially Cerdic's
captured slave, actually--well, what was he? Or what could he become in
time?

Penda asked a few of the more obvious questions, then said slowly:
"You will confer with General Nartheof here, head of our intelligence
section, and tell him what you know. You may also make suggestions if
you like, but remember that false intentions will soon be discovered
and punished."

"I will be honest, your majesty."

"Is any Terrestrial honest?" snapped Cerdic.

"I am," said Flandry cheerfully. "As long as I'm paid, I serve
faithfully. Since I'm no longer in the Empire's pay, I must perforce
look about for a new master."

"I doubt you can be much use," said Penda.

"I think I can, your majesty," answered Flandry boldly. "Even in little
things. For instance, this admirably decorated hall is so cold one must
wear furs within it, and still the hands are numb. I could easily show
a few technicians how to install a radiant heating unit that would make
it like summer in here."

Penda lifted his bushy brows. Cerdic fairly snarled: "A Terrestrial
trick, that. Shall we become as soft and luxurious as the Imperials, we
who hunt vorgari on ski?"

Flandry's eyes, flitting around the room, caught dissatisfied
expressions on many faces. Inside, he grinned. The prince's austere
ideals weren't very popular with these noble savages. If they only had
the nerve to--

It was the queen who spoke. Her soft voice was timid: "Sire, is there
any harm in being warm? I--I am always cold these days."

Flandry gave her an appreciative look. He'd already picked up the
background of Queen Gunli. She was young, Penda's third wife, and she
came from more southerly Scothan lands than Iuthagaar; her folk were
somewhat more civilized than the dominant Frithians. She was certainly
a knockout, with that dark rippling hair and those huge violet eyes in
her pert face. And that figure too--there was a suppressed liveliness
in her; he wondered if she had ever cursed the fate that gave her noble
blood and thus a political marriage.

For just an instant their eyes crossed.

"Be still," said Cerdic.

Gunli's hand fell lightly on Penda's. The king flushed. "Speak not to
your queen thus, Cerdic," he said. "In truth this Imperial trick is
but a better form of fire, which no one calls unmanly. We will let the
Terrestrial make one."

Flandry bowed his most ironical bow. Cocking an eye up at the queen, he
caught a twinkle. She knew.

       *       *       *       *       *

Nartheof made a great show of blustering honesty, but there was a
shrewd brain behind the hard little eyes that glittered in his hairy
face. He leaned back and folded his hands behind his head and gave
Flandry a quizzical stare.

"If it is as you say--" he began.

"It is," said the Terrestrial.

"Quite probably. Your statements so far check with what we already
know, and we can soon verify much of the rest. If, then, you speak
truth, the Imperial organization is fantastically good." He smiled.
"As it should be--it conquered the stars, in the old days. But it's no
better than the beings who man it, and everyone knows how venial and
cowardly the Imperials are today."

Flandry said nothing, but he remembered the gallantry of the Sirian
units at Garrapoli and the _dogged courage_ of the Valatian Legion
and--well, why go on? The haughty Scothani just didn't seem able to
realize that a state as absolutely decadent as they imagined the Empire
to be wouldn't have endured long enough to be their own enemy.

"We'll have to reorganize everything," said Nartheof. "I don't care
whether what you say is true or not, it makes good sense. Our whole
setup is outmoded. It's ridiculous, for instance, to give commands
according to nobility and blind courage instead of proven intelligence."

"And you assume that the best enlisted man will make the best officer,"
said Flandry. "It doesn't necessarily follow. A strong and hardy
warrior may expect more of his men than they can give. You can't all be
supermen."

"Another good point. And we should eliminate swordplay as a
requirement; swords are useless today. And we have to train
mathematicians to compute trajectories and everything else." Nartheof
grimaced. "I hate to think what would have happened if we'd invaded
three years ago, as many hotheads wanted to do. We would have inflicted
great damage, but that's all."

"You should wait at least another ten or twenty years and really get
prepared."

"Can't. The great nobles wouldn't stand for it. Who wants to be duke
of a planet when he could be viceroy of a sector? But we have a year
or two yet." Nartheof scowled. "I can get my own service whipped into
shape, with your help and advice. I have most of the bright lads. But
as for some of the other forces--gods, the dunderheads they have in
command! I've argued myself hoarse with Nornagast, to no use. The fool
just isn't able to see that a space fleet the size of ours must have
a special coordinating division equipped with semantic calculators
and--The worst of it is, he's a cousin to the king, he ranks me. Not
much I can do."

"An accident could happen to Nornagast," murmured Flandry.

"Eh?" Nartheof gasped. "What do you mean?"

       *       *       *       *       *

"Nothing," said Flandry lightly. "But just for argument's sake,
suppose--well, suppose some good swordsman should pick a quarrel
with Nornagast. I don't doubt he has many enemies. If he should
unfortunately be killed in the duel, you might be able to get to his
majesty immediately after, before anyone else, and persuade him to
appoint a more reasonable successor. Of course, you'd have to know in
advance that there'd be a duel."

"Of all the treacherous, underhanded--!"

"I haven't done anything but speculate," said Flandry mildly. "However,
I might remind you of your own remarks. It's hardly fair that a fool
should have command and honor and riches instead of better men who
simply happen to be of lower degree. Nor, as you yourself said, is it
good for Scothania as a whole."

"I won't hear of any such Terrestrial vileness."

"Of course not. I was just--well, speculating. I can't help it. All
Terrestrials have dirty minds. But we did conquer the stars once."

"A man might go far, if only--no!" Nartheof shook himself. "A warrior
doesn't bury his hands in muck."

"No. But he might use a pitchfork. Tools don't mind dirt. The man who
wields them doesn't even have to know the details--But let's get back
to business." Flandry relaxed even more lazily. "Here's a nice little
bit of information which only highly placed Imperials know. The Empire
has a lot of arsenals and munitions dumps which are guarded by nothing
but secrecy. The Emperor doesn't dare trust certain units to guard such
sources of power, and he can't spare enough reliable legions to watch
them all. So obscure, uninhabited planets are used." Nartheof's eyes
were utterly intent now. "I know of only one, but it's a good prospect.
An uninhabited, barren system not many parsecs inside the border, the
second planet honeycombed with underground works that are crammed with
spaceships, atomic bombs, fuel--power enough to wreck a world. A small,
swift fleet could get there, take most of the stores, and destroy the
rest before the nearest garrison could ever arrive in defense."

"Is that--_true_?"

"You can easily find out. If I'm lying, it'll cost you that small unit,
that's all--and I assure you I've no desire to be tortured to death."

"Holy gods!" Nartheof quivered. "I've got to tell Cerdic now, right
away--"

"You could. Or you might simply go there yourself without telling
anyone. If Cerdic knows, he'll be the one to lead the raid. If you
went, you'd get the honor--and the power--"

"Cerdic would--not like it."

"Too late then. He could hardly challenge you for so bold and
successful a stroke."

"And he is getting too proud of himself--he could stand a little taking
down." Nartheof chuckled, a deep vibration in his shaggy breast. "Aye,
by Valtam's beard, I'll do it! Give me the figures now--"

Presently the general looked up from the papers and gave Flandry a
puzzled stare. "If this is the case, and I believe it is," he said
slowly, "it'll be a first-rate catastrophe for the Empire. Why are you
with us, human?"

"Maybe I've decided I like your cause a little better," shrugged
Flandry. "Maybe I simply want to make the best of my own situation. We
Terrestrials are adaptable beasts. But I have enemies here, Nartheof,
and I expect to make a few more. I'll need a powerful friend."

"You have one," promised the barbarian. "You're much too useful to me
to be killed. And--and--damn it, human, somehow I can't help liking
you."


                                  IV

The dice rattled down onto the table and came to a halt. Prince Torric
swore good-naturedly and shoved the pile of coins toward Flandry. "I
just can't win," he laughed. "You have the gods with you, human."

_For a slave, I'm not doing so badly_, thought Flandry. _In fact, I'm
getting rich_. "Fortune favors the weak, highness," he smiled. "The
strong don't need luck."

"To Theudagaar with titles," said the young warrior. He was drunk;
wine flushed his open face and spread in puddles on the table before
him. "We're too good friends by now, Dominic. Ever since you got my
affairs in order--"

"I have a head for figures, and of course Terrestrial education
helps--Torric. But you need money."

"There'll be enough for all when we hold the Empire. I'll have a whole
system to rule, you know."

Flandry pretended surprise. "Only a system? After all, a son of King
Penda--"

"Cerdic's doing," Torric scowled blackly. "The dirty avagar persuaded
Father that only one--himself, of course--should succeed to the throne.
He said no kingdom ever lasted when the sons divided power equally."

"It seems very unfair. And how does he know he's the best?"

"He's the oldest. That's what counts. And he's conceited enough to be
sure of it." Torric gulped another beakerful.

"The Empire has a better arrangement. Succession is by ability alone,
among many in a whole group of families."

"Well--the old ways--what can I do?"

"That's hardly warrior's talk, Torric. Admitting defeat so soon--I
thought better of you!"

"But what to _do_--?"

"There are ways. Cerdic's power, like that of all chiefs, rests on his
many supporters and his own household troops. He isn't well liked.
It wouldn't be hard to get many of his friends to give allegiance
elsewhere."

"But--treachery--would you make a brotherslayer of me?"

"Who said anything about killing? Just--dislodging, let us say. He
could always have a system or two to rule, just as he meant to give
you."

"But--look, I don't know anything about your sneaking Terrestrial ways.
I suppose you mean to dish--disaffect his allies, promise them more
than he gives.... What's that word--bribery?--I don't know a thing
about it, Dominic. I couldn't do it."

"You wouldn't have to do it," murmured Flandry. "I could help. What's
a man for, if not to help his friends?"

       *       *       *       *       *

Earl Morgaar, who held the conquered Zanthudian planets in fief,
was a noble of power and influence beyond his station. He was also
notoriously greedy.

He said to Captain Flandry: "Terrestrial, your suggestions about
farming out tax-gathering have more than doubled my income. But now the
natives are rising in revolt against me, murdering my troops wherever
they get a chance and burning their farms rather than pay the levies.
What do they do about that in the Empire?"

"Surely, sir, you could crush the rebels with little effort," said
Flandry.

"Oh, aye, but dead men don't pay tribute either. Isn't there a better
way? My whole domain is falling into chaos."

"Several ways, sir." Flandry sketched a few of them--puppet native
committees, propaganda shifting the blame onto some scapegoat, and the
rest of it. He did not add that these methods work only when skillfully
administered.

"It is well," rumbled the earl at last. His hard gaze searched
Flandry's impassively smiling face. "You've made yourself useful to
many a Scothanian leader since coming here, haven't you? There's that
matter of Nartheof--he's a great man now because he captured that
Imperial arsenal. And there are others. But it seems much of this gain
is at the expense of other Scothani, rather than of the Empire. I still
wonder about Nornagast's death--"

"History shows that the prospect of great gain always stirs up internal
strife, sir," said Flandry. "It behooves the strong warrior to seize a
dominant share of power for himself and so reunite his people against
their common enemy. Thus did the early Terrestrial emperors end the
civil wars and become the rulers of the then accessible universe."

"Ummm--yes. Gain--power--wealth--aye, some _good_ warrior--"

"Since we are alone, sir," said Flandry, "perhaps I may remark that
Scotha itself has seen many changes of dynasty."

"Yes--of course, I took an oath to the king. But suppose, just suppose
the best interests of Scothania were served by a newer and stronger
family--"

They were into details of the matter within an hour. Flandry suggested
that Prince Kortan would be a valuable ally--but beware of Torric, who
had ambitions of his own--

       *       *       *       *       *

There was a great feast given at the winter solstice. The town and the
palace blazed with light and shouted with music and drunken laughter.
Warriors and nobles swirled their finest robes about them and boasted
of the ruin they would wreak in the Empire. It was to be noted that the
number of alcoholic quarrels leading to bloodshed was unusually high
this year, especially among the upper classes.

There were enough dark corners, though. Flandry stood in one, a niche
leading to a great open window, and looked over the glittering town
lights to the huge white hills that lay silent beyond, under the
hurtling moons. Above were the stars, bright with the frosty twinkle of
winter; they seemed so near that one could reach a hand up and pluck
them from the sky. A cold breeze wandered in from outside. Flandry
wrapped his cloak more tightly about him.

A light footfall sounded on the floor. He looked about and saw Gunli
the queen. Her tall young form was vague in the shadow, but a shaft of
moonlight lit her face with an unearthly radiance. She might have been
a lovely girl of Terra, save for the little horns and--well--

_These people aren't really human. They look human, but no people of
Terra were ever so--simple-minded!_ Then with an inward grin: _But you
don't expect a talent for intrigue in women, Terrestrial or Scothan.
So the females of this particular species are quite human enough for
anyone's taste._

The cynical mirth faded into an indefinable sadness. He--damn it, he
liked Gunli. They had laughed together often in the last few months,
and she was honest and warm-hearted and--well, no matter, no matter.

"Why are you here all alone, Dominic?" she asked. Her voice was very
quiet, and her eyes seemed huge in the cold pale moonlight.

"It would hardly be prudent for me to join the party," he answered
wryly. "I'd cause too many fights. Half of them out there hate my
insides."

"And the other half can't do without you," she smiled. "Well, I'm as
glad not to be there myself. These Frithians are savages. At home--"
She looked out the window and there were suddenly tears glittering in
her eyes.

"Don't weep, Gunli," said Flandry softly. "Not tonight. This is the
night the sun turns, remember. There is always new hope in a new year."

"I can't forget the old years," she said with a bitterness that shocked
him.

Understanding came. He asked quietly: "There was someone else, wasn't
there?"

"Aye. A young knight. But he was of low degree, so they married me
off to Penda, who is old and chill. And Jomana was killed in one of
Cerdic's raids--" She turned her head to look at him, and a pathetic
attempt at a smile quivered on her lips. "It isn't Jomana, Dominic. He
was very dear to me, but even the deepest wounds heal with time. But I
think of all the other young men, and their sweethearts--"

"It's what the men want themselves."

"But not what the women want. Not to wait and wait and wait till the
ships come back, never knowing whether there will only be his shield
aboard. Not to rock her baby in her arms and know that in a few years
he will be a stiffened corpse on the shores of some unknown planet.
Not--well--" She straightened her slim shoulders. "Little I can do
about it."

"You are a very brave and lovely woman, Gunli," said Flandry. "Your
kind has changed history ere this." And he sang softly a verse he had
made in the Scothan bardic form:

    "_So I see you standing,_
    _sorrowful in darkness._
    _But the moonlight's broken_
    _by your eyes tear-shining--_
    _moonlight in the maiden's_
    _magic net of tresses._
    _Gods gave many gifts, but,_
    _Gunli, yours was greatest._"

Suddenly she was in his arms....

       *       *       *       *       *

Sviffash of Sithafar was angry. He paced up and down the secret
chamber, his tail lashing about his bowed legs, his fanged jaws
snapping on the accented Scothanian words that poured out.

"Like a craieex they treat me!" he hissed. "I, king of a planet and an
intelligent species, must bow before the dirty barbarian Penda. Our
ships have the worst positions in the fighting line and the last chance
at loot. The swaggering Scothani on Sithafar treat my people as if they
were conquered peasants, not warrior allies. It is not to be endured!"

Flandry remained respectfully silent. He had carefully nursed the
reptile king's smoldering resentment along ever since the being had
come to Iuthagaar for conference, but he wanted Sviffash to think it
was all his own idea.

"By the Dark God, if I had a chance I think I'd go over to the Terran
side!" exploded Sviffash. "You say they treat their subjects decently?"

"Aye, we've learned it doesn't pay to be prejudiced about race, your
majesty. In fact, many nonhumans hold Terrestrial citizenship. And
of course a vassal of the Empire remains free within his own domain,
except in certain matters of trade and military force where we must
have uniformity. And he has the immeasurable power and wealth of the
Empire behind and with him."

"My own nobles would follow gladly enough," said Sviffash. "They'd
sooner loot Scothanian than Terrestrial planets, if they didn't fear
Penda's revenge."

"Many other of Scotha's allies feel likewise, your majesty. And still
more would join an uprising just for the sake of the readily available
plunder, if only they were sure the revolt would succeed. It is a
matter of getting them all together and agreeing--"

"And you have contacts everywhere, Terrestrial. You're like a spinner
weaving its web. Of course, if you're caught I shall certainly insist I
never had anything to do with you."

"Of course, your majesty."

"But if it works--hah!" The lidless black eyes glittered and a forked
tongue flickered out between the horny lips. "Hah, the sack of Scotha!"

"No, your majesty. It is necessary that Scotha be spared. There will be
enough wealth to be had on her province planets."

"Why?" The question was cold, emotionless.

"Because you see, your majesty, we will have Scothan allies who
will cooperate only on that condition. Some of the power-seeking
nobles ... and then there is a southern nationalist movement which
wishes separation from the Frithian north ... and I may say that it has
the secret leadership of the queen herself...."

       *       *       *       *       *

Flandry's eyes were as chill as his voice: "It will do you no good to
kill me, Duke Asdagaar. I have left all the evidence with a reliable
person who, if I do not return alive, or if I am killed later, will
take it directly to the king and the people."

The Scothan's hands clenched white about the arms of his chair.
Impotent rage shivered in his voice: "You devil! You crawling worm!"

"Name-calling is rather silly coming from one of your history," said
Flandry. "A parricide, a betrayer of comrades, a breaker of oaths, a
mocker of the gods--I have all the evidence, Duke Asdagaar. Some of
it is on paper, some is nothing but the names of scattered witnesses
and accomplices each of whom knows a little of your career. And a man
without honor, on Scotha, is better dead. In fact, he soon will be."

"But how did you learn--?" Hopelessness was coming into the duke's
tone; he was beginning to tremble a little.

"I have my ways. For instance, I learned quite a bit by cultivating the
acquaintance of your slaves and servants. You highborn forget that the
lower classes have eyes and ears, and that they talk among themselves."

"Well--" The words were almost strangled. "What do you want?"

"Help for certain others. You have powerful forces at your disposal--"

       *       *       *       *       *

Spring winds blew softly through the garden and stirred the trees to
rustling. There was a deep smell of green life about them; a bird was
singing somewhere in the twilight, and the ancient promise of summer
stirred in the blood.

Flandry tried to relax in the fragrant evening, but he was too
tense--his nerves were drawn into quivering wires and he had grown thin
and hollow-eyed. So too had Gunli, but it seemed only to heighten her
loveliness; it had more than a hint of the utterly alien and remote now.

"Well, the spaceship is off," said the man. His voice was weary.
"Aethagir shouldn't have any trouble getting to Ifri, and he's a clever
lad--he'll find a way to deliver my letter to Admiral Walton." He
scowled, and a nervous tic began over his left eye. "But the timing is
so desperately close. If our forces strike too soon, or too late, it
can be ruinous."

"I don't worry about that, Dominic," said Gunli. "You know how to
arrange these things."

"I've never handled an empire before, my beautiful. The next several
days will be touch and go. And that's why I want you to leave Scotha
now. Take a ship and some trusty guards and go to Alagan or Gimli or
some other out-of-the-way planet." He smiled with one corner of his
mouth. "It would be a bitter victory if you died in it, Gunli."

Her voice was haunted. "I should die. I've betrayed my lord--I am
dishonored--"

"You've saved your people--your own southerners, and ultimately all
Scotha."

"But the broken oaths--" She began to weep, quietly and hopelessly.

"An oath is only a means to an end. Don't let the means override the
end."

"An oath is an oath. But Dominic--it was a choice of standing by Penda
or by--you--"

He comforted her as well as he could. And he reflected grimly that he
had never before felt himself so thoroughly a skunk.


                                   V

The battle in space was, to the naked eye, hardly visible--brief
flashes of radiation among the swarming stars, occasionally the dark
form of a ship slipping by and occulting a wisp of the Milky Way.
But Admiral Walton smiled with cold satisfaction at the totality of
reports given him by the semantic integrator.

"We're mopping them up," he said. "Our task force has twice their
strength, and they're disorganized and demoralized anyway."

"Whom are we fighting?" wondered Chang, the executive officer.

"Don't know for sure. They've split into so many factions you can
never tell who it is. But from Flandry's report, I'd say it was--what
was that outlandish name now?--Duke Markagrav's fleet. He holds
this sector, and is a royalist. But it might be Kelry, who's also
anti-Terrestrial--but at war with Markagrav and in revolt against the
king."

"Suns and comets and little green asteroids!" breathed Chang. "This
Scothanian hegemony seems just to have disintegrated. Chaos! Everybody
at war with everybody else, and hell take the hindmost! How'd he do it?"

"I don't know." Walton grinned. "But Flandry's the Empire's ace secret
service officer. He works miracles before breakfast. Why, before
these barbarians snatched him he was handling the Llynathawr trouble
all by himself. And you know how he was doing it? He went there
with everything but a big brass band, did a perfect imitation of a
political appointee using the case as an excuse to do some high-powered
roistering, and worked his way up toward the conspirators through the
underworld characters he met in the course of it. They never dreamed he
was any kind of danger--as we found out after a whole squad of men had
worked for six months to crack the case of his disappearance."

"Then the Scothanians have been holding the equivalent of a whole
army--and didn't know it!"

"That's right," nodded Walton. "The biggest mistake they ever made was
to kidnap Captain Flandry. They should have played safe and kept some
nice harmless cobras for pets!"

       *       *       *       *       *

Iuthagaar was burning. Mobs rioted in the streets and howled with fear
and rage and the madness of catastrophe. The remnants of Penda's army
had abandoned the town and were fleeing northward before the advancing
southern rebels. They would be harried by Torric's guerrillas, who
in turn were the fragments of a force smashed by Earl Morgaar after
Penda was slain by Kortan's assassins. Morgaar himself was dead and
his rebels broken by Nartheof--the earl's own band had been riddled
by corruption and greed and had fallen apart before the royalists'
counterblow.

But Nartheof was dead too, at the hands of Nornagast's vengeful
relatives. His own seizure of supreme power and attempt at
reorganization had created little but confusion, which grew worse when
he was gone. Now the royalists were a beaten force somewhere out in
space, savagely attacked by their erstwhile allies, driven off the
revolting conquered planets, and swept away before the remorselessly
advancing Terrestrial fleet.

The Scothanian empire had fallen into a hundred shards, snapping
at each other and trying desperately to retrieve their own with no
thought for the whole. Lost in an incomprehensibly complex network of
intrigue and betrayal, the great leaders fell, or pulled out of the
mess and made hasty peace with Terra. War and anarchy flamed between
the stars--but limited war, a petty struggle really. The resources and
organization for real war and its attendant destruction just weren't
there any more.

A few guards still held the almost-deserted palace, waiting for the
Terrestrials to come and end the strife. There was nothing they could
do but wait.

Captain Flandry stood at a window and looked over the city. He felt no
great elation. Nor was he safe yet. Cerdic was loose somewhere on the
planet, and Cerdic had undoubtedly guessed who was responsible.

Gunli came to the human. She was very pale. She hadn't expected Penda's
death and it had hurt her. But there was nothing to do now but go
through with the business.

"Who would have thought it?" she whispered. "Who would have dreamed
we would ever come to this? That mighty Scotha would lie at the
conqueror's feet?"

"I would," said Flandry tonelessly. "Such jerry-built empires as yours
never last. Barbarians just don't have the talent and the knowledge to
run them. Being only out for plunder, they don't really build.

"Of course, Scotha was especially susceptible to this kind of sabotage.
Your much-vaunted honesty was your own undoing. By carefully avoiding
any hint of dishonorable actions, you became completely ignorant of
the techniques and the preventive measures. Your honor was never more
than a latent ability for dishonor. All I had to do, essentially, was
to point out to your key men the rewards of betrayal. If they'd been
really honest, I'd have died at the first suggestion. Instead--they
grabbed at the chance. So it was easy to set them against each other
until no one knew whom he could trust--" He smiled humorlessly. "Not
many Scothani objected to bribery or murder or treachery when it was
shown to be to their advantage. I assure you, most Terrestrials would
have thought further, been able to see beyond their own noses and
realized the ultimate disaster it would bring."

"Still--honor is honor, and I have lost mine and so have all my
people." Gunli looked at him with a strange light in her eyes.
"Dominic, disgrace can only be wiped out in blood."

He felt a sudden tightening of his nerves and muscles, an awareness of
something deadly rising before him. "What do you mean?"

She had lifted the blaster from his holster and skipped out of reach
before he could move. "No--stay there!" Her voice was shrill. "Dominic,
you are a cunning man. But are you a brave one?"

       *       *       *       *       *

He stood still before the menace of the weapon. "I think--" He groped
for words. No, she wasn't crazy. But she wasn't really human, and she
had the barbarian's fanatical code in her as well. Easy, easy--or death
would spit at him--"I think I took a few chances, Gunli."

"Aye. But you never fought. You haven't stood up man to man and battled
as a warrior should." Pain racked her thin lovely face. She was
breathing hard now. "It's for you as well as him, Dominic. He has to
have his chance to avenge his father--himself--fallen Scotha--and you
have to have a chance too. If you can win, then you are the stronger
and have the right--"

Might makes right. It was, after all, the one unbreakable law of
Scotha. The old trial by combat, here on a foreign planet many
light-years from green Terra--

Cerdic came in. He had a sword in either hand, and there was a savage
glee in his bloodshot eyes.

"I let him in, Dominic," said Gunli. She was crying now. "I had to.
Penda was my lord--but kill him, kill him!"

With a convulsive movement, she threw the blaster out of the window.
Cerdic gave her an inquiring look. Her voice was almost inaudible: "I
might not be able to stand it. I might shoot you, Cerdic."

"Thanks!" He ripped the word out, savagely. "I'll deal with you
later, traitress. Meanwhile--" A terrible laughter bubbled in his
throat--"I'll carve your--friend--into many small pieces. Because who,
among the so-civilized Terrestrials, can handle a sword?"

Gunli seemed to collapse. "O gods, O almighty gods--I didn't think of
that--"

Suddenly she flung herself on Cerdic, tooth and nail and horns,
snatching at his dagger. "Get him, Dominic!" she screamed. "_Get him!_"

The prince swept one brawny arm out. There was a dull smack and Gunli
fell heavily to the floor.

"Now," grinned Cerdic, "choose your weapon!"

Flandry came forward and took one of the slender broadswords. Oddly, he
was thinking mostly about the queen, huddled there on the floor. Poor
kid, poor kid, she'd been under a greater strain than flesh and nerves
were meant to bear. But give her a chance and she'd be all right.

Cerdic's eyes were almost dreamy now. He smiled as he crossed blades.
"This will make up for a lot," he said. "Before you die, Terrestrial,
you will no longer be a man--"

Steel rang in the great hall. Flandry parried the murderous slash and
raked the prince's cheek. Cerdic roared and plunged at him, his blade
weaving a net of death before him. Flandry skipped back, sword ringing
on sword, shoulders against the wall.

They stood for an instant, straining blade against blade, sweat
rivering off them, and bit by bit the Scothan's greater strength bent
Flandry's arm aside. Suddenly the Terrestrial let go, striking out
almost in the same moment, and the prince's steel hissed by his face.

He ran back and Cerdic rushed him again. The Scothan was wide open for
the simplest stop thrust, but Flandry didn't want to kill him. They
closed once more, blades clashing, and the human waited for his chance.

It came, an awkward move, and then one supremely skillful
twist--Cerdic's sword went spinning out of his hand and across the room
and the prince stood disarmed with Flandry's point at his throat.

For a moment he gaped in utter stupefaction. Flandry laughed harshly
and said: "My dear friend, you forget that deliberate archaism is one
characteristic of a decadent society. There's hardly a noble in the
Empire who hasn't studied _scientific_ fencing."

Defeat was heavy in the prince's defiant voice: "Kill me, then. Be done
with it."

"There's been too much killing, and you can be too useful." Flandry
threw his own weapon aside and cocked his fists. "But there's one thing
I've wanted to do for a long, long time."

Despite the Scothan's powerful but clumsy defense, Flandry proceeded to
beat the living hell out of him.

[Illustration: _"There's one thing I've wanted to do for a long, long
time," said Flandry ... and did it...._]

       *       *       *       *       *

"We've saved scotha, all Scotha," said Flandry. "Think, girl. What
would have happened if you'd gone on into the Empire? Even if you'd
won--and that was always doubtful, for Terra is mightier than you
thought--you'd only have fallen into civil war. You just didn't have
the capacity to run an empire--as witness the fact that your own
allies and conquests turned on you the first chance they got. You'd
have fought each other over the spoils, greater powers would have moved
in, Scotha would have been ripe for sacking--eventually you'd have gone
down into Galactic oblivion. The present conflict was really quite
small--it took far fewer lives than even a successful invasion of the
Empire would have done. And now Terra will bring the peace you longed
for, Gunli."

"Aye," she whispered. "Aye, we deserve to be conquered."

"But you aren't," he said. "The southerners hold Scotha now, and Terra
will recognize them as the legal government--with you the queen, Gunli.
You'll be another vassal state of the Empire, yes, but with all your
freedoms except the liberty to rob and kill other races. And trade
with the rest of the Empire will bring you a greater and more enduring
prosperity than war ever would.

"I suppose that the Empire is decadent. But there's no reason why it
can't someday have a renaissance. When the vigorous new peoples such as
yours are guided by the ancient wisdom of Terra, the Galaxy may see its
greatest glory."

She smiled at him. It was still a wan smile, but something of her old
spirit was returning to her. "I don't think the Empire is so far gone,
Dominic," she said. "Not when it has men like you." She took his hands.
"And what will you be doing now?"

He met her eyes, and there was a sudden loneliness within him. She--was
very beautiful--

But it could never work out. Best to leave now, before a bright memory
grew tarnished with the day-to-day clashing of personalities utterly
foreign to each other. She would forget him in time, find someone else,
and he--well--"I have my work," he said.

They looked up to the bright sky. Far above them, the first of the
descending Imperial ships glittered in the sunlight like a falling star.





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