Marduk had three moons; a big one, fifteen hundred miles in diameter, and two insignificant twenty-mile chunks of rock. The big one was fortified, and a couple of ships were in orbit around it. The Nemesis was challenged as she emerged from her last hyperjump; both ships broke orbit and came out to meet her, and several more were detected lifting away from the planet.

Prince Bentrik took the communication screen, and immediately encountered difficulties. The commandant, even after the situation had been explained twice to him, couldn’t understand. A Royal Navy fleet unit knocked out in a battle with Space Vikings was bad enough, but being rescued and brought to Marduk by another Space Viking simply didn’t make sense. He then screened the Royal Palace at Malverton, on the planet; first he was icily polite to somebody several echelons below him in the peerage, and then respectfully polite to somebody he addressed as Prince Vandarvant. Finally, after some minutes’ wait, a frail, white-haired man in a little black cap-of-maintenance appeared in the screen. Prince Bentrik instantly sprang to his feet. So did all the other Mardukans in the command room.

“Your Majesty! I am most deeply honored!”

“Are you all right, Simon?” the old gentleman asked solicitously. “They haven’t done anything to you, have they?”

“Saved my life, and my men’s, and treated me like a friend and a comrade, Your Majesty. Have I your permission to present, informally, their commander, Prince Trask of Tanith?”

“Indeed you may, Simon. I owe the gentleman my deepest thanks.”

“His Majesty, Mikhyl the Eighth, Planetary King of Marduk,” Prince Bentrik said. “His Highness, Lucas, Prince Trask, Planetary Viceroy of Tanith for his Majesty Angus the First of Gram.”

The elderly monarch bowed his head slightly; Trask bowed a little more deeply, from the waist.

“I am very happy, Prince Trask, first, I confess, at the safe return of my kinsman Prince Bentrik, and then at the honor of meeting one in the confidence of my fellow sovereign King Angus of Gram. I will never be ungrateful for what you did for my cousin and for his officers and men. You must stay at the Palace while you are on this planet; I am giving orders for your reception, and I wish you to be formally presented to me this evening.” He hesitated briefly. “Gram; that is one of the Sword-Worlds, is it not?” Another brief hesitation. “Are you really a Space Viking, Prince Trask?”

Maybe he’d expected Space Vikings to have three horns and a spiked tail and stand twelve feet tall, himself.

It took several hours for the Nemesis to get into orbit. Bentrik spent most of them in a screen-booth, and emerged visibly relieved.

“Nobody’s going to be sticky about what happened on Audhumla,” he told Trask. “There will be a Board of Inquiry. I’m afraid I had to mix you up in that. It’s not only about the action on Audhumla; everybody from the Space Minister down wants to hear what you know about this fellow Dunnan. Like yourself, we all hope he went to Em-See-Square along with his flagship, but we can’t take it for granted. We have over a dozen trade-planets to protect, and he’s hit more than half of them already.”

The process of getting into orbit took them around the planet several times, and it was a more impressive spectacle at each circuit. Of course, Marduk had a population of almost two billion, and had been civilized, with no hiatus of Neobarbarism, since it had first been colonized in the Fourth Century. Even so, the Space Vikings were amazed⁠—and stubbornly refusing to show it⁠—at what they saw in the telescopic screens.

“Look at that city!” Paytrik Morland whispered. “We talk about the civilized planets, but I never realized they were anything like this. Why, this makes Excalibur look like Tanith!”

The city was Malverton, the capital; like any city of a contragravity-using people, it lay in a rough circle of buildings towering out of green interspaces, surrounded by the smaller circles of spaceports and industrial suburbs. The difference was that any of these were as large as Camelot on Excalibur or four Wardshavens on Gram, and Malverton itself was almost half the size of the whole barony of Traskon.

“They aren’t any more civilized that we are, Paytrik. There are just more of them. If there were two billion people on Gram⁠—which I hope there never will be⁠—Gram would have cities like this, too.”

One thing; the government of a planet like Marduk would have to be something more elaborate than the loose feudalism of the Sword-Worlds. Maybe this Goldberg-ocracy of theirs had been forced upon them by the sheer complexity of the population and its problems.

Alvyn Karffard took a quick look around him to make sure none of the Mardukans were in earshot.

“I don’t care how many people they have,” he said. “Marduk can be had. A wolf never cares how many sheep there are in a flock. With twenty ships, we could take this planet like we took Eglonsby. There’d be losses coming in, sure, but after we were in and down, we’d have it.”

“Where would we get twenty ships?”

Tanith, at a pinch, could muster five or six, counting the free Space Vikings who used the base facilities; they would have to leave a couple to hold the planet. Beowulf had one, and another almost completed, and now there was an Amaterasu ship. But to assemble a Space Viking armada of twenty.⁠ ⁠… He shook his head. The real reason why Space Vikings had never raided a civilized planet successfully had always been their inability to combine under one command in sufficient strength.

Besides, he didn’t want to raid Marduk. A raid, if successful, would yield immense treasures, but cause a hundred, even a thousand, times as much destruction, and he didn’t want to destroy anything civilized.

The landing stages of the palace were crowded when he and Prince Bentrik landed, and, at a discreet distance, swarms of air-vehicles circled, creating a control problem for the police. Parting from Bentrik, he was escorted to the suite prepared for him; it was luxurious in the extreme but scarcely above Sword-World standards. There were a surprising number of human servants, groveling and fawning and getting underfoot and doing work robots could have been doing better. What robots there were were inefficient, and much work and ingenuity had been lavished on efforts to copy human form to the detriment of function.

After getting rid of most of the superfluous servants, he put on a screen and began sampling the newscasts. There were telescopic views of the Nemesis from some craft on orbit nearby, and he watched the officers and men of the Victrix being disembarked; there were other views of their landing at some naval installation on the ground, and he could see reporters being chevied away by Navy ground-police. And there was a wide range of commentary opinion.

The Government had already denied that, (1) Prince Bentrik had captured the Nemesis and brought her in as a prize, and, (2) the Space Vikings had captured Prince Bentrik and were holding him for ransom. Beyond that, the Government was trying to sit on the whole story, and the Opposition was hinting darkly at corrupt deals and sinister plots. Prince Bentrik arrived in the midst of an impassioned tirade against pusillanimous traitors surrounding his Majesty who were betraying Marduk to the Space Vikings.

“Why doesn’t your Government publish the facts and put a stop to that nonsense?” Trask asked.

“Oh, let them rave,” Bentrik replied. “The longer the Government waits, the more they’ll be ridiculed when the facts are published.”

Or, the more people will be convinced that the Government had something to hush up, and had to take time to construct a plausible story. He kept the thought to himself. It was their government; how they mismanaged it was their own business. He found that there was no bartending robot; he had to have a human servant bring drinks. He made up his mind to have a few of the Nemesis robots sent down to him.

The formal presentation would be in the evening; there would be a dinner first, and because Trask had not yet been formally presented, he couldn’t dine with the King, but because he was, or claimed to be, Viceroy of Tanith, he ranked as a chief of state and would dine with the Crown Prince, to whom there would be an informal introduction first.

This took place in a small antechamber off the banquet hall; the Crown Prince and Crown Princess and Princess Bentrik were there when they arrived. The Crown Prince was a man of middle age, graying at the temples, with the glassy stare that betrayed contact lenses. The resemblance between him and his father was apparent; both had the same studious and impractical expression, and might have been professors on the same university faculty. He shook hands with Trask, assuring him of the gratitude of the Court and Royal Family.

“You know, Simon is next in succession, after myself and my little daughter,” he said. “That’s too close to take chances with him.” He turned to Bentrik. “I’m afraid this is your last space adventure, Simon. You’ll have to be a spaceport spaceman from now on.”

“I shan’t be sorry,” Princess Bentrik said. “And if anybody owes Prince Trask gratitude, I do.” She pressed his hands warmly. “Prince Trask, my son wants to meet you, very badly. He’s ten years old, and he thinks Space Vikings are romantic heroes.”

“He should be one, for a while.”

He should just see a planet Space Vikings had raided.

Most of the people at the upper end of the table were diplomats⁠—ambassadors from Odin and Baldur and Isis and Ishtar and Aton and the other civilized worlds. No doubt they hadn’t actually expected horns and a spiked tail, or even tattooing and a nose ring, but after all, Space Vikings were just some sort of Neobarbarians, weren’t they? On the other hand, they had all seen views and gotten descriptions of the Nemesis, and had heard about the ship-action on Audhumla, and this Prince Trask⁠—a Space Viking prince; that sounded civilized enough⁠—had saved a life with only three other lives, one almost at an end, between it and the throne. And they had heard about the screen conversation with King Mikhyl. So they were courteous through the meal, and tried to get as close as possible to him in the procession to the throne room.

King Mikhyl wore a golden crown topped by the planetary emblem, which must have weighed twice as much as a combat helmet, and fur-edged robes that would weigh more than a suit of space armor. They weren’t nearly as ornate, though, as the regalia of King Angus I of Gram. He rose to clasp Prince Bentrik’s hand, calling him “dear cousin,” and congratulating him on his gallant fight and fortunate escape. That knocks any court-martial talk on the head, Trask thought. He remained standing to shake hands with Trask, calling him “valued friend to me and my house.” First person singular; that must be causing some lifted eyebrows.

Then the King sat down, and the rest of the roomful filed up onto the dais to be received, and finally it was over and the king rose and proceeded, followed by his immediate suite between the bowing and curtsying court and out the wide doors. After a decent interval, Crown Prince Edvard escorted him and Prince Bentrik down the same route, the others falling in behind, and across the hall to the ballroom, where there was soft music and refreshments. It wasn’t too unlike a court reception on Excalibur, except that the drinks and canapés were being dispensed by human servants.

He was wondering what sort of court functions Angus the First of Gram was holding by now.

After half an hour, a posse of court functionaries approached and informed him that it had pleased his Majesty to command Prince Trask to attend him in his private chambers. There was an audible gasp at this; both Prince Bentrik and the Crown Prince were trying not to grin too broadly. Evidently this didn’t happen too often. He followed the functionaries from the ballroom, and the eyes of everybody else followed him.

Old King Mikhyl received him alone, in a small, comfortably shabby room behind vast ones of incredible splendor. He wore fur-lined slippers and a loose robe with a fur collar, and his little black cap-of-maintenance. He was standing when Trask entered; when the guards closed the door and left them alone, he beckoned Trask to a couple of chairs, with a low table, on which were decanters and glasses and cigars, between.

“It’s a presumption on royal authority to summon you from the ballroom,” he began, after they had seated themselves and filled glasses. “You are quite the cynosure, you know.”

“I’m grateful to Your Majesty. It’s both comfortable and quiet here, and I can sit down. Your Majesty was the center of attention in the throne room, yet I seemed to detect a look of relief as you left it.”

“I try to hide it, as much as possible.” The old King took off the little gold-circled cap and hung it on the back of his chair. “Majesty can be rather wearying, you know.”

So he could come here and put it off. Trask felt that some gesture should be made on his own part. He unfastened the dress-dagger from his belt and laid it on the table. The King nodded.

“Now, we can be a couple of honest tradesmen, our shops closed for the evening, relaxing over our wine and tobacco,” he said. “Eh, Goodman Lucas?”

It seemed like an initiation into a secret society whose ritual he must guess at step by step.

“Right, Goodman Mikhyl.”

They lifted their glasses to each other and drank; Goodman Mikhyl offered cigars, and Goodman Lucas held a light for him.

“I hear a few hard things about your trade, Goodman Lucas.”

“All true, and mostly understated. We’re professional murderers and robbers, as one of my fellow tradesmen says. The worst of it is that robbery and murder become just that: a trade, like servicing robots or selling groceries.”

“Yet you fought two other Space Vikings to cover my cousin’s crippled Victrix. Why?”

So he must tell his tale, so worn and smooth, again. King Mikhyl’s cigar went out while he listened.

“And you have been hunting him ever since? And now, you can’t be sure whether you killed him or not?”

“I’m afraid I didn’t. The man in the screen is the only man Dunnan can really trust. One or the other would stay wherever he has his base all the time.”

“And when you do kill him; what then?”

“I’ll go on trying to make a civilized planet of Tanith. Sooner or later, I’ll have one quarrel too many with King Angus, and then we will be our Majesty Lucas the First of Tanith, and we will sit on a throne and receive our subjects. And I’ll be glad when I can get my crown off and talk to a few men who call me ‘shipmate,’ instead of ‘Your Majesty.’ ”

“Well, it would violate professional ethics for me to advise a subject to renounce his sovereign, of course, but that might be an excellent thing. You met the ambassador from Ithavoll at dinner, did you not? Three centuries ago, Ithavoll was a colony of Marduk⁠—it seems we can’t afford colonies, any more⁠—and it seceded from us. Ithavoll was then a planet like your Tanith seems to be. Today, it is a civilized world, and one of Marduk’s best friends. You know, sometimes I think a few lights are coming on again, here and there in the Old Federation. If so, you Space Vikings are helping to light them.”

“You mean the planets we use as bases, and the things we teach the locals?”

“That, too, of course. Civilization needs civilized technologies. But they have to be used for civilized ends. Do you know anything about a Space Viking raid on Aton, over a century ago?”

“Six ships from Haulteclere; four destroyed, the other two returned damaged and without booty.”

The King of Marduk nodded.

“That raid saved civilization on Aton. There were four great nations; the two greatest were at the brink of war, and the others were waiting to pounce on the exhausted victor and then fight each other for the spoils. The Space Vikings forced them to unite. Out of that temporary alliance came the League for Common Defense, and from that the Planetary Republic. The Republic’s a dictatorship, now, and just between Goodman Mikhyl and Goodman Lucas it’s a nasty one and our Majesty’s Government doesn’t like it at all. It will be smashed sooner or later, but they’ll never go back to divided sovereignty and nationalism again. The Space Vikings frightened them out of that when the dangers inherent in it couldn’t. Maybe this man Dunnan will do the same for us on Marduk.”

“You have troubles?”

“You’ve seen decivilized planets. How does it happen?”

“I know how it’s happened on a good many: War. Destruction of cities and industries. Survivors among ruins, too busy keeping their own bodies alive to try to keep civilization alive. Then they lose all knowledge of how to be civilized.”

“That’s catastrophic decivilization. There is also decivilization by erosion, and while it’s going on, nobody notices it. Everybody is proud of their civilization, their wealth and culture. But trade is falling off; fewer ships come in each year. So there is boastful talk about planetary self-sufficiency; who needs off-planet trade anyhow? Everybody seems to have money, but the government is always broke. Deficit spending⁠—and always the vital social services for which the government has to spend money. The most vital one, of course, is buying votes to keep the government in power. And it gets harder for the government to get anything done.

“The soldiers are sloppier at drill, and their uniforms and weapons aren’t taken care of. The noncoms are insolent. And more and more parts of the city are dangerous at night, and then even in the daytime. And it’s been years since a new building went up, and the old ones aren’t being repaired any more.”

Trask closed his eyes. Again, he could feel the mellow sun of Gram on his back, and hear the laughing voices on the lower terrace, and he was talking to Lothar Ffayle and Rovard Grauffis and Alex Gorram and Cousin Nikkolay and Otto Harkaman. He said:

“And finally, nobody bothers fixing anything up. And the power-reactors stop, and nobody seems to be able to get them started again. It hasn’t quite gotten that far on the Sword-Worlds yet.”

“It hasn’t here, either. Yet.” Goodman Mikhyl slipped away; King Mikhyl VIII looked across the low table at his guest. “Prince Trask, have you heard of a man named Zaspar Makann?”

“Occasionally. Nothing good about him.”

“He is the most dangerous man on this planet,” the King said. “And I can make nobody believe it. Not even my son.”