Poul Anderson: A Knight of Ghosts and Shadows

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Poul Anderson A Knight of Ghosts and Shadows
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A Knight of Ghosts and Shadows: краткое содержание, описание и аннотация

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Dominic Flandry, troubleshooter for the decaying Terran Empire, returns to the spaceways and becomes tangled up in the well-laid plans of his lifelong enemy, Aycharaych.

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A Knight of Ghosts and Shadows

by Poul Anderson


Every planet in the story is cold—even Terra, though Flandry came home on a warm evening of northern summer. There the chill was in the spirit.

He felt a breath of it as he neared. Somehow, talk between him and his son had drifted to matters Imperial. They had avoided all such during their holiday.

Terra itself had not likely reminded them. The globe hung beautiful in starry darkness, revealed by a view-screen in the cabin where they sat. It was almost full, because they were accelerating with the sun behind them and were not yet close enough to start on an approach curve. At this remove it shone white-swirled blue, unutterably pure, near dewdrop Luna. Nothing was visible of the scars that man had made upon it.

And the saloon was good to be in, bulkheads nacreous gray, benches padded in maroon velvyl, table of authentic teak whereon stood Scotch whisky and everything needed for the use thereof, warm and flawlessly recycled air through which gamboled a dance tune and drifted an odor of lilacs. The Hooligan, private speedster of Captain Sir Dominic Flandry, was faster, better armed, and generally more versatile than any vessel of her class had a moral right to be; but her living quarters reflected her owner’s philosophy that, if one is born into an era of decadence, one may as well enjoy it while it lasts.

He leaned back, inhaled deeply of his cigarette, took more smokiness in a sip from his glass, and regarded Dominic Hazeltine with some concern. If the frontier was truly that close to exploding—and the boy must go there again … “Are you sure?” he asked. “What proved facts have you got—proved by yourself, not somebody else? Why wouldn’t I have heard more?”

His companion returned a steady look. “I don’t want to make you feel old,” he said; and the knowledge passed through Flandry that a lieutenant commander of Naval Intelligence, twenty-seven standard years of age, wasn’t really a boy, nor was his father any longer the boy who had begotten him. Then Hazeltine smiled and took the curse off: “Well, I might want to, just so I can hope that at your age I’ll have acquired, let alone kept, your capacity for the three basic things in life.”

“Three?” Flandry raised his brows. “Feasting, fighting, and—Wait; of course I haven’t been along when you were in a fight. But I’ve no doubt you perform as well as ever in that department too. Still, you told me for the last three years you’ve stayed in the Solar System, taking life easy. If the whole word about Dennitza hasn’t reached the Emperor—and apparently it’s barely starting to—why should it have come to a pampered pet of his?”

“Hm. I’m not really. He pampers with a heavy hand. So I avoid the court as much as politeness allows. This indefinite furlough I’m on—nobody but him would dare call me back to duty, unless I grow bored and request assignment—that’s the only important privilege I’ve taken. Aside from the outrageous amount of talent, capability, and charm with which I was born; and I do my best to share those chromosomes.”

Flandry had spoken lightly in half a hope of getting a similar response. They had bantered throughout their month-long jaunt, whether on a breakneck hike in the Great Rift of Mars or gambling in a miners’ dive in Low Venusberg, running the rings of Saturn or dining in elegance beneath its loveliness on Iapetus with two ladies expert and expensive. Must they already return to realities? They’d been more friends than father and son. The difference in age hardly showed. They bore well-muscled height in common, supple movement, gray eyes, baritone voice. Flandry’s face stood out in a perhaps overly handsome combination of straight nose, high cheekbones, cleft chin—the result of a biosculp job many years past, which he had never bothered to change again—and trim mustache. His sleek seal-brown hair was frosted at the temples; when Hazeltine accused him of bringing this about by artifice, he had grinned and not denied it. Though both wore civilian garb, Flandry’s iridescent puff-sleeved blouse, scarlet cummerbund, flared blue trousers, and curly-toed beefleather slippers opposed the other’s plain coverall.

Broader features, curved nose, full mouth, crow’s-wing locks recalled Persis d’Io as she had been when she and Flandry said farewell on a planet now destroyed, he not knowing she bore his child. The tan of strange suns, the lines creased by squinting into strange weathers, had not altogether gone from Hazeltine in the six weeks since he reached Terra. But his unsophisticated ways meant only that he had spent his life on the fringes of the Empire. He had caroused with a gusto to match his father’s. He had shown the same taste in speech—

(“—an itchy position for me, my own admiral looking for a nice lethal job he could order me to do,” Flandry reminisced. “Fenross hated my guts. He didn’t like the rest of me very much, either. I saw I’d better produce a stratagem, and fast.”

(“Did you?” Hazeltine inquired.

(“Of course. You see me here, don’t you? It’s practically a sine qua non of a field agent staying alive, that he be able to outthink not just the opposition, but his superiors.”

(“No doubt you were inspired by the fact that ‘stratagem’ spelled backwards is ‘megatarts.’ The prospect of counting your loose women by millions should give plenty of incentive.”

(Flandry stared. “Now I’m certain you’re my bairn! Though to be frank, that awesomely pleasant notion escaped me. Instead, having developed my scheme, I confronted a rather ghastly idea which has haunted me ever afterward: that maybe there’s no one alive more intelligent than I.”)

—and yet, and yet, an underlying earnestness always remained with him.

Perhaps he had that from his mother: that, and pride. She’d let the infant beneath her heart live, abandoned her titled official lover, resumed her birthname, gone from Terra to Sassania and started anew as a dancer, at last married reasonably well, but kept young Dominic by her till he enlisted. Never had she sent word back from her frontier home, not when Flandry well-nigh singlehanded put down the barbarians of Scotha and was knighted for it, not when Flandry well-nigh singlehanded rescued the new Emperor’s favorite granddaughter and headed off a provincial rebellion and was summoned Home to be rewarded. Nor had her son, who always knew his father’s name, called on him until lately, when far enough along in his own career that nepotism could not be thought necessary.

Thus Dominic Hazeltine refused the offer of merry chitchat and said in his burred un-Terran version of Anglic, “Well, if you’ve been taking what amounts to a long vacation, the more reason why you wouldn’t have kept trace of developments. Maybe his Majesty simply hasn’t been bothering you about them, and has been quite concerned himself for quite some while. Regardless, I’ve been yonder and I know.”

Flandry dropped the remnant of his cigarette in an ash-taker. “You wound my vanity, which is no mean accomplishment,” he replied. “Remember, for three or four years earlier—between the time I came to his notice and the time we could figure he was planted on the throne too firmly to have a great chance of being uprooted—I was one of his several right hands. Field and staff work both, specializing in the problem of making the marches decide they’d really rather keep Hans for their Emperor than revolt all over again. Do you think, if he sees fresh trouble where I can help, he won’t consult me? Or do you think, because I’ve been utilizing a little of the hedonism I fought so hard to preserve, I’ve lost interest in my old circuits? No, I’ve followed the news, and an occasional secret report.”

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