The first explosions seemed very far away: a string of distant, muffled bangs, booms, and thuds that might have been nothing more than thunder on the horizon. Joseph, more asleep than not in his comfortable bed in the guest quarters of Getfen House, stirred, drifted a little way up toward wakefulness, cocked half an ear, listened a moment without really listening. Yes, he thought: thunder. His only concern was that thunder might betoken rain, and rain would spoil tomorrow's hunt. But this was supposed to be the middle of the dry season up here in High Manza, was it not? So how could it rain tomorrow?
It was not going to rain, and therefore Joseph knew that what he thought he had heard could not be the sound of thunder — could not, in fact, be anything at all. It is just a dream, he told himself. Tomorrow will be bright and beautiful, and I will ride out into the game preserve with my cousins of High Manza and we will have a glorious time.
He slipped easily back to sleep. An active fifteen-year-old boy is able to dissolve into slumber without effort at the end of day.
But then came more sounds, sharper ones, insistent hard-edged pops and cracks, demanding and getting his attention. He sat up, blinking, rubbing his eyes with his knuckles. Through the darkness beyond his window came a bright flash of light that did not in anyway have the sharpness or linearity of lightning. It was more like a blossom unfolding, creamy yellow at the center, purplish at theedges. Joseph was still blinking at it in surprise when the next burst of sound erupted, this one in several phases, a low rolling roar followed by a sudden emphatic boom followed by a long, dying rumble, a slow subsiding. He went to the window, crouching by the sill and peering out.
Tongues of red flame were rising across the way, over by Getfen House's main wing. Flickering shadows climbing the great gray stone wall of the facade told him that the building must be ablaze. That was incredible, that Getfen House could be on fire. He saw figures running to and fro, cutting across the smooth, serene expanse of the central lawn with utter disregard for the delicacy of the close-cropped turf. He heard shouting and the sound, unmistakable and undeniable now, of gunfire. He saw other fires blazing toward the perimeter of the estate, four, five, maybe six of them. A new one flared up as he watched. The outbuildings over on the western side seemed to be on fire, and the rows of haystacks toward the east, and perhaps the field-hand quarters near the road that led to the river.
It was a bewildering, incomprehensible scene. Getfen House was under attack, evidently. But by whom, and why?
He watched, fascinated, as though this were some chapter out of his history books come to life, a reenactment of the Conquest, perhaps, or even some scene from the turbulent, half-mythical past of the Mother World itself, where for thousands of years, so it was said, clashing empires had made the ancient streets of that distant planet run crimson with blood.
The study of history was oddly congenial to Joseph. There was a kind of poetry in it for him. He had always loved those flamboyant tales of far-off strife, the carefully preserved legends of the fabled kings and kingdoms of Old Earth. But they were just tales to him, gaudy legends, ingenious dramatic fictions. He did not seriously think that men like Agamemnon and Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan had ever existed. No doubt life on Old Earth in primitive times had been a harsh, bloody affair, though probably not quite as bloody as the myths that had survived from that remote era suggested; but everyone was quite sure that the qualities that had made such bloodshed possible had long since been bred out of the human race. Now, though, Joseph found himself peering out his window at actual warfare. He could not take his eyes away. It had not yet occurred to him that he might be in actual danger himself.
All was chaos down below. No moons were in the sky this night; the only illumination came from the flickering fires along the rim of the garden and up the side of the main wing of the house. Joseph struggled to make out patterns in the movements he saw. Bands of men were running up and down the garden paths, yelling, gesticulating furiously to each other. They appeared to be carrying weapons: rifles, mainly, but some of them just pitchforks or scythes. Now and again one of the riflemen would pause, drop to one knee, aim, fire into the darkness.
Some of the animals seemed to be loose now, too. Half a dozen of the big racing-bandars from the stable, long-limbed and elegantly slender, were capering wildly about, right in the center of the lawn, prancing and bucking as though driven mad by panic. Through their midst moved shorter, slower, bulkier shapes, stolid shadowy forms that most likely were the herd of dairy ganuilles, freed of their confinement. They were grazing placidly, unconcerned by the erupting madness all about them, on the rare shrubs and flowers of the garden. The house-dogs, too, were out and yelping: Joseph saw one leap high toward the throat of one of the running men, who without breaking stride swept it away with a fierce stroke of his scythe.
Joseph, staring, continued to wonder what was happening here, and could not arrive at even the hint of an answer.
One Great House would not attack another. That was a given. The Masters of Homeworld were bound, all of them, by an unbreakable webwork of kinship. Never in the long centuries since the Conquest had any Master struck a blow against another, not for anger's sake, not for greed's.
Nor was it possible that the Indigenes, weary after thousands of years of the occupation of their world by settlers from Old Earth, had decided finally to take back their planet. They were innately unwarlike, were the Indigenes: trees would sing and frogs would write dictionaries sooner than the Indigenes would begin raising their hands in violence.
Joseph rejected just as swiftly the likelihood that some unknown band of spacefarers had landed in the night to seize the world from its present masters, even as Joseph's own race had seized it from the Folk so long ago. Such things might have happened two or three thousand years before, but the worlds of the Imperium were too tightly bound by sacred treaties now, and the movements of any sort of hostile force through the interstellar spaces would quickly be detected and halted.
His orderly mind could offer only one final hypothesis: that this was an uprising at long last of the Folk against the Masters of House Getfen. That was the least unlikely theory of the four, not at all impossible, merely improbable. This was a prosperous estate. What grievances could exist here? In any case the relationship of Folk to Masters everywhere was a settled thing; it benefited both groups; why would anyone want to destabilize a system that worked so well for everyone?
That he could not say. But flames were licking the side of Getfen House tonight, and barns were burning, and livestock was being set free, and angry men were running to and fro, shooting at people. The sounds of conflict did not cease: the sharp report of gunfire, the dull booming of explosive weapons, the sudden ragged screams of victims whose identity he did not know.
He began to dress. Very likely the lives of his kinsmen here in Getfen House were in peril, and it was his duty to go to their aid. Even if this were indeed a rebellion of the Folk against the Getfens, he did not think that he himself would be at any risk. He was no Getfen, really, except by the most tenuous lines of blood. He belonged to House Keilloran. He was only a guest here, a visitor from Helikis, the southern continent, ten thousand miles away. Joseph did not even look much like a Getfen. He was taller and more slender than Getfen boys of his age, duskier of skin, as southerners tended to be, dark-eyed where Getfen eyes were bright blue, dark-haired where Getfens were golden. No one would attack him. There was no reason why they should.
Before he left his room and entered the chaos outside, though, Joseph felt impelled by habit and training to report the events of the night, at least as he understood them thus far, to his father at Keilloran House. By the yellow light of the next bomb-burst Joseph located his combinant where he had set it down at the side of his bed, thumbed its command button, and waited for the blue globe betokening contact to take form in the air before him.
The darkness remained unbroken. No blue globe formed.
Strange. Perhaps there was some little problem with the circuit. He nudged the “off” button and thumbed the initiator command again. In the eye of his mind he tracked the electrical impulse as it leaped skyward, connected with the satellite station overhead, and was instantly relayed southward. Normally it took no more than seconds for the combinant to make contact anywhere in the world. Not now, though.
“Father?” he said hopefully, into the darkness before his face. “Father, it's Joseph. I can't see your globe, but maybe we're in contact anyway. It's the middle of the night at Getfen House, and I want to tell you that some sort of attack is going on, that there have been explosions, and rifle shots, and – ”
He paused. He could hear a soft knocking at the door.
“Master Joseph?” A woman's voice, low, hoarse. “Are you awake, Master Joseph? Please. Please, open.”
A servant, it must be. She was speaking the language of the Folk. He let her wait. Staring into the space where the blue globe should have been, he said, “Father, can you hear me? Can you give me any sort of return signal?”
“Master Joseph – please – there's very little time. This is Thustin. I will take you to safety.”
Thustin. The name meant nothing to him. She must belong to the Getfens. He wondered why none of his own people had come to him yet. Was this some sort of trap?
But she would not go away, and his combinant did not seem to be working. Mystery upon mystery upon mystery. Cautiously he opened the door a crack.
She stared up at him, almost worshipfully.
“Master Joseph,” she said. “Oh, sir – ”
Thustin, he remembered now, was his chambermaid – a short, blocky woman who wore the usual servant garb, a loose linen shirt over a half-length tunic of brown leather. To Joseph she seemed old, fifty or so, perhaps sixty. With the women of the Folk it was hard to tell ages. She was thick through from front to back and side to side as Folk often were, practically cubical in shape. Ordinarily she was a quiet, steady sort of woman, who usually came and went without attracting his notice, but she was animated now by distress. Her heavy-jowled face was sallow with shock, and her eyes had taken on an unnerving fluttering motion, as if they were rolling about free in their sockets. Her lips, thin and pale, were trembling. She was carrying a servant's gray cloak over one arm, and thrust it toward him, urgently signalling to him to put it on.
“What's happening?” Joseph asked, speaking Folkish.
“Jakkirod and his men are killing everyone. They'll kill you too, if you don't come with me. Now!”
Jakkirod was the estate foreman, a big hearty red-haired man – tenth generation in Getfen service, according to Gryilin Master Getfen, Joseph's second cousin, who ruled here. A pillar of the house staff, Jakkirod was, said Gryilin Master Getfen. Joseph had seen Jakkirod only a few days before, lifting an enormous log that had somehow fallen across the mouth of a well, tossing it aside as if it were a straw. Jakkirod had looked at Joseph and smiled, an easy, self-satisfied smile, and winked. That had been strange, that wink.
Though he was bubbling over with questions, Joseph found his little hip-purse and began automatically to stuff it with the things he knew he ought not to leave behind in his room. The combinant, of course, and the reader on which his textbooks were stored, and his utility case, which was full of all manner of miniature devices forway farers that he had rarely bothered to inspect but which might very well come in handy now, wherever he might be going. That took care of the basics. He tried to think of other possessions that might be important to take along, but, though he still felt relatively calm and clear-headed, he had no idea where he might be heading from here, or for how long, or what he would really need, and Thustin's skittery impatience made it hard for him to think in any useful way. She was tugging at his sleeve, now.
“Why are you here?” he asked, abruptly. “Where are my own servants? Balbus – Anceph – Rollin – ?”
“Dead,” she said, a husky voice, barely audible. “You will see them lying downstairs. I tell you, they are killing everyone.”
Belief was still slow to penetrate him. “The Master Getfen and his sons? And his daughter too?”
“Dead. Everyone dead.”
That stunned him, that the Getfens might be dead. Such a thing was almost unthinkable, that Folk would slay members of one of the Great Houses. Such a thing had never happened in all the years since the Conquest. But was it true? Had she seen the actual corpses? No doubt something bad was happening here, but surely it was only a wild rumor that the Getfens were dead. Let that be so, he thought, and and muttered a prayer under his breath.
But when he asked her for some sort of confirmation, Thustin only snorted. “Death is everywhere tonight,” she told him. “They have not reached this building yet, but they will in just a little while. Will you come, Master Joseph? Because if you do not, you will die, and I will die with you.”
He was obstinate. “Have all the Folk of House Getfen rebelled,then? Are you one of the rebels too, Thustin? And are you trying to lead me to my death?”
“I am too old for rebellions, Master Joseph. I serve the Getfens, and I serve their kin. Your lives are sacred to me.” There was another explosion outside; from the corner of his eye Joseph saw a frightful burst of blue-white flame spurting up rooftop-high. A volley of cheers resounded from without. No screams, only cheers. They are blowing the whole place up, he thought. And Thustin, standing like a block of meat before him, had silently begun to weep. By the furious flaring light of the newest fire he saw the shining silvery trails of moisture running down her grayish, furrowed cheeks, and he knew that she had not come to him on any mission of treachery.
Joseph slipped the cloak on, pulled the hood up over his head, and followed her from the room.