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Chapter 4

 

They halted under the colonnade; beyond, the lower main terrace was crowded, and a medley of old love songs was wafting from the sound outlets, for the sixth or eighth time around. He looked at his watch; it was ninety seconds later than the last time he had done so. Give it fifteen more minutes to get started, and another fifteen to get away after the marriage toasts and the felicitations. And no marriage, however pompous, lasted more than half an hour. An hour, then, till he and Elaine would be in the aircar, bulleting toward Traskon.

The love songs stopped abruptly; after a momentary silence, a trumpet, considerably amplified, blared; the "Ducal Salute." The crowd stopped shifting, the buzz of voices ceased. At the head of the landing-stage escalators there was a glow of color and the ducal party began moving down. A platoon of guards in red and yellow, with gilded helmets and tasseled halberds. An esquire bearing the Sword of State. Duke Angus, with his council, Otto Harkaman among them; the Duchess Flavia and her companion-ladies. The household gentlemen, and their ladies. More guardsmen. There was a great burst of cheering; the news-service aircars got into position above the procession. Cousin Nikkolay and a few others stepped out from between the pillars into the sunlight; there was a similar movement at the other side of the terrace. The ducal party reached the end of the central walkway, halted and deployed.

"All right; let's shove off," Cousin Nikkolay said, stepping forward.

Ten minutes since they had come outside; another five to get into position. Fifty minutes, now, till he and Elaine—Lady Elaine Trask of Traskon, for real and for always—would be going home.

"Sure the car's ready?" he asked, for the hundredth time.

His cousin assured him that it was. Figures in Karvall black and flame-yellow appeared across the terrace. The music began again, this time the stately "Nobles' Wedding March," arrogant and at the same time tender. Sesar Karvall's gentleman-secretary, and the Karvall lawyer; executives of the steel mills, the Karvall guard-captain. Sesar himself, with Elaine on his arm; she was wearing a shawl of black and yellow. He looked around in sudden fright; "For the love of Satan, where's our shawl?" he demanded, and then relaxed when one of his gentlemen exhibited it, green and tawny in Traskon colors. The bridesmaids, led by Lady Lavina Karvall. Finally they halted, ten yards apart, in front of the Duke.

 

"Who approaches us?" Duke Angus asked of his guard-captain.

He had a thin, pointed face, almost femininely sensitive, and a small pointed beard. He was bareheaded except for the narrow golden circlet which he spent most of his waking time scheming to convert into a royal crown. The guard-captain repeated the question.

"I am Sir Nikkolay Trask; I bring my cousin and liege-lord, Lucas, Lord Trask, Baron of Traskon. He comes to receive the Lady-Demoiselle Elaine, daughter of Lord Sesar Karvall, Baron of Karvall mills, and the sanction of your Grace to the marriage between them."

Sir Maxamon Zhorgay, Sesar Karvall's henchman, named himself and his lord; they brought the Lady-Demoiselle Elaine to be wed to Lord Trask of Traskon. The Duke, satisfied that these were persons whom he could address directly, asked if the terms of the marriage-agreement had been reached; both parties affirmed this. Sir Maxamon passed a scroll to the Duke; Duke Angus began to read the stiff and precise legal phraseology.

Marriages between noble houses were not matters to be left open to dispute; a great deal of spilled blood and burned powder had resulted from ambiguity on some point of succession or inheritance or dower rights. Lucas bore it patiently; he didn't want his great-grandchildren and Elaine's shooting it out over a matter of a misplaced comma.

"And these persons here before us do enter into this marriage freely?" the Duke asked, when the reading had ended. He stepped forward as he spoke, and his esquire gave him the two-hand Sword of State, heavy enough to behead a bisonoid. Trask stepped forward; Sesar Karvall brought Elaine up. The lawyers and henchmen obliqued off to the sides. "How say you, Lord Trask?" he asked, almost conversationally.

"With all my heart, your Grace."

"And you, Lady-Demoiselle Elaine?"

"It is my dearest wish, your Grace."

The Duke took the sword by the blade and extended it; they laid their hands on the jeweled pommel.

"And do you, and your houses, avow us, Angus, Duke of Wardshaven, to be your sovereign prince, and pledge fealty to us and to our legitimate and lawful successors?"

"We do." Not only he and Elaine, but all around them, and all the throng in the gardens, answered, the spectators in shouts. Very clearly, above it all, somebody, with more enthusiasm than discretion, was bawling: "Long live Angus the First of Gram!"

"And we, Angus, do confer upon you two, and your houses, the right to wear our badge as you see fit, and pledge ourself to maintain your rights against any and all who may presume to invade them. And we declare that this marriage between you two, and this agreement between your respective houses, does please us, and we avow you two, Lucas and Elaine, to be lawfully wed, and who so questions this marriage challenges us, in our teeth and to our despite."

That wasn't exactly the wording used by a ducal lord on Gram. It was the formula employed by a planetary king, like Napolyon of Flamberge or Rodolf of Excalibur. And, now that he thought of it, Angus had consistently used the royal first-person plural. Maybe that fellow who had shouted about Angus the First of Gram had only been doing what he'd been paid to do. This was being telecast, and Omfray of Glaspyth and Ridgerd of Didreksburg would both be listening; as of now, they'd start hiring mercenaries. Maybe that would get rid of Dunnan for him.

The Duke gave the two-hand sword back to his esquire. The young knight who was carrying the green and tawny shawl handed it to him, and Elaine dropped the black and yellow one from her shoulders, the only time a respectable woman ever did that in public, and her mother caught and folded it. He stepped forward and draped the Trask colors over her shoulders, and then took her in his arms. The cheering broke out again, and some of Sesar Karvall's guardsmen began firing a pom-pom somewhere.

 

It took a little longer than he had expected to finish with the toasts and shake hands with those who crowded around. Finally, the exit march started, down the long walkway to the landing stage, and the Duke and his party moved away to the rear to prepare for the wedding feast at which everybody but the bride and groom would celebrate. One of the bridesmaids gave Elaine a huge sheaf of flowers, which she was to toss back from the escalator; she held it in the crook of one arm and clung to his with the other.

"Darling; we really made it!" she was whispering, as though it were too wonderful to believe.

Well, wasn't it?

One of the news cars—orange and blue, that was Westlands Telecast & Teleprint—had floated just ahead of them and was letting down toward the landing stage. For a moment, he was angry; that went beyond the outer-orbit limits of journalistic propriety, even for Westlands T & T. Then he laughed; today he was too happy for anger about anything. At the foot of the escalator, Elaine kicked off her gilded slippers—there was another pair in the car; he'd seen to that personally—and they stepped onto the escalator and turned about. The bridesmaids rushed forward, and began struggling for the slippers, to the damage and disarray of their gowns, and when they were half way up, Elaine heaved the bouquet and it burst apart among them like a bomb of colored fragrance, and the girls below snatched at the flowers, shrieking deliriously. Elaine stood, blowing kisses to everybody, and he was shaking his clasped hands over his head, until they were at the top.

When they turned and stepped off, the orange and blue aircar had let down directly in front of them, blocking their way. Now he was really furious, and started forward with a curse. Then he saw who was in the car.

Andray Dunnan, his thin face contorted and the narrow mustache writhing on his upper lip; he had a slit beside the window open and was tilting the barrel of a submachine gun up and out of it.

He shouted, and at the same time tripped Elaine and flung her down. He was throwing himself forward to cover her when there was a blasting multiple report. Something sledged him in the chest; his right leg crumpled under him. He fell—

He fell and fell and fell, endlessly, through darkness, out of consciousness.