It was like finishing a word puzzle. You sit staring at it, looking for more spaces to print letters into, and suddenly you realize that there are no more, that the puzzle is done. That was how the space-battle of Marduk, the Battle off Marduk, ended. Suddenly there were no more colored fire-globes opening and fading, no more missiles coming, no more enemy ships to throw missiles at. Now it was time to take a count of his own ships, and then begin thinking about the Battle on Marduk.

The Black Star was gone. So was R.M.N.S. Challenger, and R.M.N.S. Conquistador. Space Scourge was badly hammered; worse than after the Beowulf raid, Boake Valkanhayn said. The Viking’s Gift was heavily damaged, too, and so was the Corisande, and so, from the looks of the damage board, was the Nemesis. And three ships were missing⁠—the three independent Space Vikings, Harpy, Curse of Cagn, and Roger-fan-Morvill Esthersan’s Damnthing.

Prince Bentrik frowned over that. “I can’t think that all three of those ships would have been destroyed, without anybody seeing it happen.”

“Neither can I. But I can think that all those ships broke out of the battle together and headed in for the planet. They didn’t come here to help liberate Marduk, they came here to fill their cargo holds. I only hope the people they’re robbing all voted the Makann ticket in the last election.” A crumb of comfort occurred to him, and he passed it on. “The only people who are armed to resist them will be Makann’s storm-troops and Dunnan’s pirates; they’ll be the ones to get killed.”

“We don’t want any more killing than.⁠ ⁠…” Prince Simon broke off suddenly. “I’m beginning to talk like his late Highness Crown Prince Edvard,” he said. “He didn’t want bloodshed, either, and look whose blood was shed. If they’re doing what you think they are, I’m afraid we’ll have to kill a few of your Space Vikings, too.”

“They aren’t my Space Vikings.” He was a little surprised to find that, after almost eight years of bearing the name himself, he was using it as an other-people label. Well, why not? He was the ruler of the civilized planet of Tanith, wasn’t he? “But let’s not start fighting them till the main war’s over. Those three shiploads are no worse than a bad cold; Makann and Dunnan are the plague.”

It would still take four hours to get down, in a spiral of deceleration. They started the telecasts which had been filmed and taped on the voyage from Gimli. The Prince-Protector Simon Bentrik spoke: The illegal rule of the traitor Makann was ended. His deluded followers were advised to return to their allegiance to the Crown. The People’s Watchmen were ordered to surrender their arms and disband; in localities where they refused, the loyal people were called upon to cooperate with the legitimate armed forces of the Crown in exterminating them, and would be furnished arms as soon as possible.

Little Princess Myrna spoke: “If my grandfather is still alive, he is your King; if he is not, I am your Queen, and until I am old enough to rule in my own right, I accept Prince Simon as Regent and Protector of the Realm, and I call on all of you to obey him as I will.”

“You didn’t say anything about representative government, or democracy, or the constitution,” Trask mentioned. “And I noticed the use of the word ‘rule,’ instead of ‘reign.’ ”

“That’s right,” the self-proclaimed Prince-Protector said. “There’s something wrong with democracy. If there weren’t, it couldn’t be overthrown by people like Makann, attacking it from within by democratic procedures. I don’t think it’s fundamentally unworkable. I think it just has a few of what engineers call ‘bugs.’ It’s not safe to run a defective machine till you learn the defects and remedy them.”

“Well, I hope you don’t think our Sword-World feudalism doesn’t have bugs.” He gave examples, and then quoted Otto Harkaman about barbarism spreading downward from the top instead of upward from the bottom.

“It may just be,” he added, “that there is something fundamentally unworkable about government itself. As long as Homo sapiens terra is a wild animal, which he has always been and always will be until he evolves into something different in a million or so years, maybe a workable system of government is a political science impossibility, just as transmutation of elements was a physical-science impossibility as long as they tried to do it by chemical means.”

“Then we’ll just have to make it work the best way we can, and when it breaks down, hope the next try will work a little better, for a little longer,” Bentrik said.

Malverton grew in the telescopic screens as they came down. The Navy Spaceport, where Trask had landed almost two years before, was in wreckage, sprinkled with damaged ships that had been blasted on the ground, and slagged by thermonuclear fires. There was fighting in the air all over the city proper, on building-tops, on the ground, and in the air. That would be the Damnthing-Harpy-Curse of Cagn Space Vikings. The Royal Palace was the center of one of half a dozen swirls of battle that had condensed out of the general skirmishing.

Paytrik Morland started for it with the first wave of ground-fighters from the Nemesis. The Gilgamesh freighter, like most of her ilk, had huge cargo ports all around; these began opening and disgorging a swarm of everything from landing-craft and hundred-foot airboats to one man air-cavalry single-mounts. The top landing-stages and terraces of the palace were almost obscured by the flashes of auto-cannon shells and the smoke and dust of projectiles. Then the first vehicles landed, the firing from the air stopped, and men fanned out as skirmishers, occasionally firing with small arms.

Trask and Bentrik were in the armory off the vehicle-bay, putting on combat equipment, when the twelve-year-old Count of Ravary joined them and began rummaging for weapons and a helmet.

“You’re not going,” his father told him. “I’ll have enough to worry about taking care of myself.⁠ ⁠…”

That was the wrong approach. Trask interrupted:

“You’re to stay aboard, Count,” he said. “As soon as things stabilize, Princess Myrna will have to come down. You’ll act as her personal escort. And don’t think you’re being shoved into the background. She’s Crown Princess, and if she isn’t Queen now, she will be in a few years. Escorting her now will be the foundation of your naval career. There isn’t a young officer in the Royal Navy who wouldn’t trade places with you.”

“That was the right way to handle him, Lucas,” Bentrik approved, after the boy had gone away, proud of his opportunity and his responsibility.

“It’ll do just what I said for him.” He stopped for a moment, to play with an idea that had just struck him. “You know, the girl will be Queen in a few years, if she isn’t now. Queens need Prince Consorts. Your son’s a good boy; I liked him the first moment I saw him, and I’ve liked him better ever since. He’d be a good man on the throne beside Queen Myrna.”

“Oh, that’s out of the question. Not the matter of consanguinity, they’re about a sixteenth cousin. But people would say I was abusing the Protectorship to marry my son onto the Throne.”

“Simon, speaking as one sovereign prince to another, you have a lot to learn. You’ve learned one important lesson already, that a ruler must be willing to use force and shed blood to enforce his rule. You have to learn, too, that a ruler cannot afford to be guided by his fears of what people will say about him. Not even what history will say about him. A ruler’s only judge is himself.”

Bentrik slid the transpex visor of his helmet up and down experimentally, checked the chambers of his pistol and carbine.

“All that matters to me is the peace and well-being of Marduk. I’ll have to talk it over with⁠ ⁠… with my only judge. Well, let’s go.”

The top terraces were secure when their car landed. More vehicles were coming down and discharging men; a swarm of landing craft were sinking past the building toward the ground two thousand feet below. Auto-weapons and small arms and light cannon banged, and bombs and recoilless-rifle shells crashed, on the lower terraces. They put the car down one of the shaftways until they ran into heavy fire from below, at the limit of the advance, and then turned into a broad hallway, floating high enough to clear the heads of the men on foot. It looked like the part of the Palace where he had lodged when he had been a guest there but it probably wasn’t.

They came to hastily constructed barricades of furniture and statuary and furnishings, behind which Makann’s People’s Watchmen and Andray Dunnan’s Space Vikings were making resistance. They entered rooms dusty with powdered plaster and acrid with powder fumes, littered with corpses. They passed lifter-skids being towed out with wounded. They went through rooms crowded with their own men⁠—“Keep your fingers off things; this isn’t a looting expedition!” “You stupid cretin, how did you know there wasn’t a man hiding behind that?” In one huge room, ballroom or concert room or something, there were prisoners herded, and men from the Nemesis were setting up polyencephalographic veridicators, sturdy chairs with wires and adjustable helmets and translucent globes mounted over them. A couple of Morland’s men were hustling a People’s Watchman to one and strapping him into a chair.

“You know what this is, don’t you?” one of them was saying. “This is a veridicator. That globe’ll light blue; the moment you try to lie to us, it’ll turn red. And the moment it turns red, I’m going to hammer your teeth down your throat with the butt of this pistol.”

“Have you found anything out about the King, yet?” Bentrik asked him.

He turned. “No. Nobody we’ve questioned so far knows anything later than a month ago about him. He just disappeared.” He was going to say something else, saw Bentrik’s face, and changed his mind.

“He’s dead,” Bentrik said dully. “They tortured him and brainwashed him and used him as a ventriloquist’s dummy on the screen as long as they could; when they couldn’t let the people see him any more, they stuffed him into a converter.”

They did find Zaspar Makann, hours later. Maybe he could have told them something, if he had been alive, but he and a few of his fanatical followers had barricaded themselves in the Throne room and died trying to defend it. They found Makann on the Throne, the top of his head blown away, a pistol death-gripped in his hand, and the Great Crown lying on the floor, the velvet inner cap bullet-pierced and splattered with blood and brain tissue. Prince Bentrik picked it up and looked at it disgustedly.

“We’ll have to have something done about that,” he said. “I really didn’t think he’d do just this. I thought he wanted to abolish the Throne, not sit on it.”

Except for one chandelier smashed and several corpses that had to be dragged out, the Ministerial Council room was intact. They set up headquarters there. Boake Valkanhayn and several other ship-captains joined them. There was fighting going on in several places inside the Palace, and the city was still in a turmoil. Somebody managed to get in touch with the captains of the Damnthing, the Harpy and the Curse of Cagn and bring them to the Palace. Trask attempted to reason with them, to no avail.

“Prince Trask, you’re my friend, and you’ve always dealt fairly with me,” Roger-fan-Morvill Esthersan said. “But you know just how far any Space Viking captain can control his crew. These men didn’t come here to correct the political mistakes of Marduk. They came here for what they could haul away. I could get myself killed trying to stop them now.⁠ ⁠…”

“I wouldn’t even try,” the captain of the Curse of Cagn put in. “I came here for what I could make out of this planet, myself.”

“You can try to stop them,” said the captain of the Harpy. “You’ll find it even harder than what you’re doing now.”

Trask looked at some of the reports that had come in from elsewhere on the planet. Harkaman had landed on one of the big cities to the east, and the people had risen against Makann’s local bosses and were helping wipe out the People’s Watchmen with arms they had been furnished. Valkanhayn’s exec had landed on a large concentration camp where close to ten thousand of Makann’s political enemies had been penned; he had distributed all his available weapons and was calling for more. Gompertz of the Grendelsbane was at Drepplin; he reported just the reverse. The people there had risen in support of the Makann regime, and he wanted authorization to use nuclear weapons against them.

“Could you talk your people into going to some other city?” Trask asked. “We have a city for you; big industrial center. It ought to be fine looting. Drepplin.”

“The people there are Mardukan subjects, too,” Bentrik began. Then he shrugged. “It’s not what we’d like to do, it’s what we have to. By all means, gentlemen. Take your men to Drepplin, and nobody will object to anything you do.”

“And when you have that place looted out, try Abaddon. You were aground there, Captain Esthersan. You know what all Dunnan left there.”

A couple of Space Vikings⁠—no, Royal Army of Tanith men⁠—brought in the old woman, dirty, in rags, almost exhausted.

“She wants to talk to Prince Bentrik; won’t talk to anybody else. Says she knows where the King is.”

Bentrik rose quickly, brought her to a chair, poured a glass of wine for her.

“He’s still alive, Your Highness. The Crown Princess Melanie and I⁠ ⁠… I’m sorry, Your Highness; Dowager Crown Princess⁠ ⁠… have been taking care of him, the best way we could. If you’ll only come quickly.⁠ ⁠…”

Mikhyl VIII, Planetary King of Marduk, lay on a pallet of filthy bedding on the floor of a narrow room behind a mass-energy converter which disposed of the rubbish and sewage and generated power for some of the fixed equipment on one of the middle floors of the east wing of the palace. There was a bucket of water, and on a rough wooden bench lay a cloth-wrapped bundle of food. A woman, haggard and disheveled, wearing a suit of greasy mechanic’s coveralls and nothing else, squatted beside him. The Crown Princess Melanie, whom Trask remembered as the charming and gracious hostess of Cragdale. She tried to rise, and staggered.

“Prince Bentrik! And it’s Prince Trask of Tanith!” she cried. “Just hurry; get him out of here and to where he can be taken care of. Please.” Then she sat down again on the floor and fell over, unconscious.

They couldn’t get the story. The Princess Melanie had collapsed completely. Her companion, another noblewoman of the court, could only ramble disconnectedly. And the King merely lay, bathed and fed in a clean bed, and looked up at them wonderingly, as though nothing he saw or heard conveyed any meaning to him. The doctors could do nothing.

“He has no mind, no more mind than a newborn baby. We can keep him alive, I don’t know how long. That’s our professional duty. But it’s no kindness to His Majesty.”

The little pockets of resistance in the Palace were wiped out, through the next morning and afternoon. All but one, far underground, below the main power plant. They tried sleep-gas; the defenders had blowers and sent it back at them. They tried blasting; there was a limit to what the fabric of the building would stand. And nobody knew how long it would take to starve them out.

On the third day, a man crawled out, pushing a white shirt tied to the barrel of a carbine ahead of him.

“Is Prince Lucas Trask of Tanith here?” he asked. “I won’t speak to anybody else.”

They brought Trask quickly. All that was visible of the other man was the carbine-barrel and the white shirt. When Trask called to him, he raised his head above the rubble behind which he was hiding.

“Prince Trask, we have Andray Dunnan here; he was leading us, but now we’ve disarmed him and are holding him. If we turn him over to you, will you let us go?”

“If you all come out unarmed, and bring Dunnan with you, I promise you, the rest of you will be let outside this building and allowed to go away unharmed.”

“All right. We’ll be coming out in a minute.” The man raised his voice. “It’s agreed!” he called. “Bring him out.”

There were fewer than two score of them. Some wore the uniforms of high officers of the People’s Watchmen or of People’s Welfare Party functionaries; a few wore the heavily braided short jackets of Space Viking officers. Among them, they propelled a thin-faced man with a pointed beard, and Trask had to look twice at him before he recognized the face of Andray Dunnan. It looked more like the face of Duke Angus of Wardshaven as he last remembered it. Dunnan looked at him in incurious contempt.

“Your dotard king couldn’t rule without Zaspar Makann, and Makann couldn’t rule without me, and neither can you,” he said. “Shoot this gang of turncoats, and I’ll rule Marduk for you.” He looked at Trask again. “Who are you?” he demanded. “I don’t know you.”

Trask slipped the pistol from his holster, thumbing off the safety.

“I am Lucas Trask. You’ve heard that name before,” he said. “Stand away from behind him, you people.”

“Oh, yes; the poor fool who thought he was going to marry Elaine Karvall. Well, you won’t, Lord Trask of Traskon. She loves me, not you. She’s waiting for me now, on Gram.⁠ ⁠…”

Trask shot him through the head. Dunnan’s eyes widened in momentary incredulity; then his knees gave way, and he fell forward on his face. Trask thumbed on the safety and holstered the pistol, and looked at the body on the concrete.

It hadn’t made the least difference. It had been like shooting a snake, or one of the nasty scorpion-things that infested the old buildings in Rivington. Just no more Andray Dunnan.

“Take that carrion and stuff it in a mass-energy converter,” he said. “And I don’t want anybody to mention the name of Andray Dunnan to me again.”

He didn’t look at them haul Dunnan’s body away on a lifter-skid; he watched the fifty-odd leaders of the overthrown misgovernment of Marduk shamble away to freedom, guarded by Paytrik Morland’s riflemen. Now there was something to reproach himself for; he’d committed a separate and distinct crime against Marduk by letting each one of them live. Unless recognized and killed by somebody outside, every one of them would be at some villainy before next sunrise. Well, King Simon I could cope with that.

He started when he realized how he had thought of his friend. Well, why not? Mikhyl’s mind was dead; his body would not survive it more than a year. Then a child Queen, and a long regency, and long regencies were dangerous. Better a strong King, in name as well as power. And the succession could be safeguarded by marrying Steven and Myrna. Myrna had accepted, at eight, that she must some day marry for reasons of state; why not her playmate Steven?

And Simon Bentrik would see the necessity. He was neither a fool nor a moral coward; he only needed to take some time to adjust to ideas. The rabble who had bought their lives with their leader’s had gone, now. Slowly, he followed them, thinking.

Don’t press the idea on Simon too hard; just expose him to it and let him adopt it. And there would be the treaty⁠—Tanith, Marduk, Beowulf, Amaterasu; eventually, treaties with the other civilized planets. Nebulously, the idea of a League of Civilized Worlds began to take shape in his mind.

Be a good idea if he adopted the title of King of Tanith for himself. And cut loose from the Sword-Worlds; especially cut loose from Gram. Let Viktor of Xochitl have it. Or Garvan Spasso. Viktor wouldn’t be the last Space Viking to take his ships back against the Sword-Worlds. Sooner or later, civilization in the Old Federation would drive them all home to loot the planets that had sent them out.

Well, if he was going to be a king, shouldn’t he have a queen? Kings usually did. He climbed into the little hall-car and started up a long shaft. There was Valerie Alvarath. They’d enjoyed each other’s society on the Nemesis. He wondered if she would want to make it permanent, even on a throne.⁠ ⁠…

Elaine was with him. He felt her beside him, almost tangibly. Her voice was whispering to him: She loves you, Lucas. She’ll say yes. Be good to her, and she’ll make you happy. Then she was gone, and he knew that she would never return.

Goodbye, Elaine.