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David Weber, John Ringo

March Upcountry

This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental.

This book is dedicated to our mothers.

To Alice Louise Godard Weber,

who put up with me, taught me, edited me, believed in me, and encouraged me to believe I could be a writer . . . despite all evidence to the contrary.

I love you. There. I said it.

To Jane M. Ringo,

for dragging me to places I didn’t want to go and trying to make me eat stuff that would turn a monkey’s stomach.

Thanks Mom. You were right.

CHAPTER ONE

“His Royal Highness, Prince Roger Ramius Sergei Alexander Chiang MacClintock!”

Prince Roger maintained his habitual, slightly bored smile as he padded through the door, then stopped and glanced around the room as he shot the cuffs of his shirt and adjusted his cravat. Both were made from Diablo spider-silk, the softest and sleekest material in the galaxy. Since it was protected by giant, acid-spitting spiders, it was also the most expensive.

For his part, Amos Stephens paid as little attention as possible to the young fop he had so grandly announced. The child was a disgrace to the honorable name of his mother’s family. The cravat was bad enough, and the brightly patterned brocade jacket, more appropriate for a bordello than a meeting with the Empress of Man, was worse. But the hair! Stephens had served twenty years in Her Majesty’s Navy before entering the Palace Service Corps. The only difference between his years in the Navy and his years in the Palace was the way his close-cropped curls had shifted from midnight black to silver. The mere sight of the butt-length golden hair of the farcical dandy Empress Alexandra’s younger son had become always drove the old butler absolutely mad.

The Empress’ office was remarkably small and spare, with a broad desk no larger than that of a middle- level manager in any of the star-spanning corporations of Earth. The appointments were simple but elegant; the chairs sensible, but elaborately hand-crafted and covered in exquisite hand-stitching. Most of the pictures were old master originals. The one exception was the most famous. “The Empress in Waiting” was a painting from life of Miranda MacClintock during the “Dagger Years,” and the artist, Trachsler, had captured his subject perfectly. Her eyes were open and smiling, showing the world the image of an ingenuous Terran subject. A loyal upholder of the Dagger Lords. In other words, a filthy collaborator. But if you stared at the painting long enough, a chill crept over your skin and the eyes slowly changed. To the eyes of a predator.

Roger spared the painting one bare glance, then looked away. All of the MacClintocks lived under the shadow of the old biddy, long dead though she was. As the merest—and least satisfactory—slip of that lineage, he had all the shadows he could stand.

Alexandra VII, Empress of Man, regarded her youngest child through half-slitted eyes. The carefully metered bite of Stephens’ ironic announcement had apparently gone over the prince’s head completely. Roger certainly didn’t seem affected by the old spacer’s disdain in the slightest.

Unlike her flamboyant son, Empress Alexandra wore a blue suit of such understated elegance that it must have cost as much as a small starship. Now she leaned back in her float chair and propped her cheek on her hand, wondering for the hundredth time if this was the right decision. But there were a thousand other decisions awaiting her, all of them vital, and she’d spent all the time she intended to on this one.

“Mother,” Roger said insouciantly, with a micrometric bow, and glanced at his brother in the flanking chair. “To what do I owe the honor of being summoned into two such august presences?” he continued with a slight, knowing smirk.

John MacClintock gave his younger brother a thin smile and a nod. The galaxy-renowned diplomat was dressed in a conservative suit of blue worsted, with a practical damask handkerchief poking out of one sleeve. For all that he looked like a doltish banker, his poker face and sleepy eyes hid a mind as insightful as any in the known worlds. And despite the developing paunch of middle-age, he could have become a professional golfer . . . if the job of Heir Apparent had allowed the time for it.

The Empress leaned forward abruptly and fixed her youngest with a laser stare. “Roger, We are sending you off-planet on a ‘show the flag’ mission.”

Roger blinked several times, and smoothed his hair.

“Yes?” he replied carefully.

“The planet Leviathan is celebrating Net-Hauling in two months—”

“Oh, my God, Mother!” Roger’s exclamation cut the Empress of Man off in mid-sentence. “You must be joking!”

“We are not joking, Roger,” Alexandra said severely. “Leviathan’s primary export may be grumbly oil, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a focal planet in the Sagittarius sector. And there hasn’t been a family representative for Net-Hauling in two decades.” Since I repudiated your father, she didn’t bother to add.

“But, Mother! The smell!” the prince protested, shaking his head to toss an errant strand of hair out of his eyes. He knew he was whining and hated it, but the alternative was smelling grumbly oil for at least several weeks on the planet. And even after he escaped Leviathan, it would take several more weeks for Kostas to get the smell out of his clothes. The oil made a remarkable musk base; in fact, it was in the cologne he was wearing at the moment. But in its raw form, it was the most noxious stuff in the galaxy.

“We don’t care about the smell, Roger,” snapped the Empress, “and neither should you! You will show the flag for the dynasty, and you will show Our subjects that We care enough about their reaffirmation of alliance to the Empire to send one of Our children. Is that understood?”

The young prince drew himself up to his full hundred ninety-five centimeters and gathered the shreds of his dignity.

“Very well, Your Imperial Majesty. I will, of course, do my duty as you see fit. It is my duty, after all, is it not, Your Imperial Majesty? Noblesse oblige and all that?” His aristocratic nostrils flared in suppressed anger. “Now I suppose I have some packing to oversee. By your leave?”

Alexandra’s steely gaze held him for a few moments more, and then she waggled her fingers in the direction of the door.

“Go. Go. And do a good job.” The “for a change” was unstated.

Prince Roger gave another micrometric bow, turned his back quite deliberately, and stalked out of the room.

“You could have handled that better, Mother,” John said quietly, after the door had closed on the angry young man.

“Yes, I could have.” She sighed, steepling her fingers under her chin. “And I should have, damn it. But he looks too much like his father!”

“But he isn’t his father, Mother,” John said quietly. “Unless you create his father in him. Or drive him into New Madrid’s camp.”

“Try to teach me to suck eggs, why don’t you?” she snapped, then inhaled deeply and shook her head. “I’m sorry, John. You’re right. You’re always right.” She smiled ruefully at her older son. “I’m just not good at personal,

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