a second. Settling his robes, Alen followed.

He found the trader fiercely denouncing his chief engineer for using space drive to heat the ship; he had seen the faint haze of a minimum exhaust from the stern tubes.

'For that, dolt,' screamed blackbeard, 'we have a thing known as electricity. Have you by chance ever heard of it? Are you aware that a chief engineer's responsibility is the efficient and economical operation of his ship's drive mechanism?'

The chief, a cowed-looking Cephean, saw Alen with relief and swept off his battered cap. The Herald nodded gravely and the trader broke off in irritation. 'We need none of that bowing and scraping for the rest of the voyage,' he declared.

'Of course not, sir,' said the chief. 'O'course not. I was just welcoming the Herald aboard. Welcome aboard, Herald. I'm Chief Elwon, Herald.

And I'm glad to have a Herald with us.' A covert glance at the trader.

'I've voyaged with Heralds and without, and I don't mind saying I feel safer indeed with you aboard.'

'May I be taken to my quarters?' asked Alen.

'Your—?' began the trader, stupefied.

The chief broke in; 'I'll fix you a cabin, Herald. We've got some bulkheads I can rig aft for a snug little space, not roomy, but the best a little ship like this can afford.'

The trader collapsed into a Ducket seat as the chief bustled aft and Alen followed.

'Herald,' the chief said with some embarrassment after he had collared two crewmen and set them to work, 'you'll have to excuse our good master trader. He's new to the interstar lanes and he doesn't exactly know the jets yet. Between us we'll get him squared away.'

Alen inspected the cubicle run up for him—a satisfactory enclosure affording him the decent privacy he rated. He dismissed the chief and the crewmen with a nod and settled himself on the cot.

Beneath the iron composure in which he had been trained, he felt scared and alone. Not even old Machiavelli seemed to offer comfort or council: 'There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or, more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things,' said Chapter Six.

But what said Chapter Twenty-Six? 'Where the willingness is great, the difficulties cannot be great.'

Starsong was not a happy ship. Blackbeard's nagging stinginess hung over the crew like a thundercloud, but Alen professed not to notice. He walked regularly fore and aft for two hours a day greeting the crew members in their various native tongues and then wrapping himself in the reserve the Order demanded—though he longed to salute them man-to-man, eat with them, gossip about their native planets, the past misdeeds that had brought them to their berths aboard the miserly Starsong, their hopes for the future. The Rule of the College and Order of Heralds decreed otherwise. He accepted the uncoverings of the crew with a nod and tried to be pleased because they stood in growing awe of him that ranged from Chief Elwon's lively appreciation of a Herald's skill to Wiper Jukkl's superstitious reverence. Jukkl was a low-browed specimen from a planet of the decadent Sirius system. He outdid the normal slovenliness of an all-male crew on a freighter—a slovenliness in which Alen could not share. Many of his waking hours were spent in his locked cubicle burnishing his metal and cleaning and pressing his robes. A Herald was never supposed to suggest by his appearance that he shared moral frailties.

Blackbeard himself yielded a little, to the point of touching his cap sullenly. This probably was not so much awe at Alen's studied manner as respect for the incisive, lightning-fast job of auditing the Herald did on the books of the trading venture—absurdly complicated books with scores of accounts to record a simple matter of buying gems cheap on Vega and chartering a ship in the hope of selling them dearly on Lyra.

The complicated books and overlapping accounts did tell the story, but they made it very easy for an auditor to erroneously read a number of costs as far higher than they actually were. Alen did not fall into the trap.

On the fifth day after blastoff, Chief Elwon rapped, respectfully but urgently, on the door of Alen's cubicle.

'If you please, Herald,' he urged, 'could you come to the bridge?'

Alen's heart bounded in his chest, but he gravely said: 'My meditation must not be interrupted. I shall join you on the bridge in ten minutes.'

And for ten minutes he methodically polished a murky link in the massive gold chain that fastened his boat- cloak—the 'meditation.' He donned the cloak before stepping out; the summons sounded like a full-dress affair in the offing.

The trader was stamping and fuming. Chief Elwon was riffling through his spec book unhappily. Astrogator Hufner was at the plot computer running up trajectories and knocking them down again. A quick glance showed Alen that they were all high-speed trajectories in the 'evasive action' class.

'Herald,' said the trader grimly, 'we have broken somebody's detector bubble.' He jerked his thumb at a red-lit signal. 'I expect we'll be overhauled shortly. Are you ready to earn your twenty-five per cent of the net?'

Alen overlooked the crudity. 'Are you rigged for color video, merchant?'

he asked.

'We are.'

'Then I am ready to do what I can for my client.'

He took the communicator's seat, stealing a glance in the still-blank screen. The reflection of his face was reassuring, though he wished he had thought to comb his small beard.

Another light flashed on, and Hufner quit the operator to study the detector board. 'Big, powerful and getting closer,' he said tersely.

'Scanning for us with directionals now. Putting out plenty of energy—'

The loud-speaker of the ship-to-ship audio came to life.

'What ship are you?' it demanded in Vegan. 'We are a Customs cruiser of the Realm of Eyolf. What ship are you?'

'Have the crew man the squirts,' said the trader softly to the chief.

Elwon looked at Aleij, who shook his head. 'Sorry, sir,' said the engineer apologetically. 'The Herald—'

'We are the freighter Starsong, Vegan registry,' said Alen into the audio mike as the trader choked. 'We are carrying Vegan gems to Lyra.'

'They're on us,' said the astrogator despairingly, reading his instruments. The ship-to-ship video flashed on, showing an arrogant, square-jawed face topped by a battered naval cap.

'Lyra indeed! We have plans of our own for Lyra. You will heave to—'

began the officer in the screen, before he noted Alen. 'My pardon, Herald,' he said sardonically. 'Herald, will you please request the ship's master to heave to for boarding and search? We wish to assess and collect Customs duties. You are aware, of course, that your vessel is passing through the Realm.'

The man's accented Vegan reeked of Algol IV. Alen switched to that obscure language to say: 'We were not aware of that. Are you aware that there is a reciprocal trade treaty in effect between the Vegan system and the Realm which specifies that freight in Vegan bottoms is dutiable only when consigned to ports in the Realm?'

'You speak Algolian, do you? You Heralds have not been underrated, but don't plan to lie your way out of this. Yes, I am aware of some such agreement as you mentioned. We shall board you, as I said, and assess and collect duty in kind. If, regrettably, there has been any mistake you are, of course, free to apply to the Realm for reimbursement. Now, heave to!'

'I have no intentions of lying. I speak the solemn truth when I say that we shall fight to the last man any attempt of yours to board and loot us.'

Alen's mind was racing furiously through the catalogue of planetary folkways the Rule had decreed that he master. Algol IV—some ancestor-worship; veneration of mother; hand-to-hand combat with knives; complimentary greeting, 'May you never strike down a weaker foe'; folk-hero Gaarek unjustly accused of slaying a cripple and exiled but it was an enemy's plot—

A disconcerted shadow was crossing the face of the officer as Alen improvised: 'You will, of course, kill us all. But before this happens I shall have messaged back to the College and Order of Heralds the facts in the case, with a particular request that your family be informed. Your name, I think, will be remembered as long as Gaarek's— though not in the same way, of course; the Algolian whose hundred-man battle cruiser wiped out a virtually unarmed freighter with a crew of eight.'

The officer's face was dark with rage. 'You devil!' he snarled. 'Leave my family out of this! I'll come aboard and fight you man-to-man if you have the stomach for it!'

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