Chapter Thirteen : Finale

I gestured at Monica to forestall her climbing out of her seat. "Stay here," I ordered. "You'll be safer." I stood on the command couch and made to leap out of the cockpit. Behind me, Monica snorted.

"Maugrim will just be a very stylish tomb without you, Vladimir," she wisely pointed out. "I'm only safe so long as you're alive." I glanced back down at her – she was starting coquettishly up at me. "Besides," she murmured, "I don't much fancy letting you out of my sight." She reached up for me – my hands were on the edge of the hatch but I reached down and grasped hers. Our fingers intertwined sinuously. "Thank you," she said softly, "you were wonderful."

My voice sounded grim even to my ears. "Save your thanks for when we're out of Cologne," I said brusquely. I jumped out of the cockpit, standing on Maugrim's head. I crouched down, unlocking the toolbox mounted between her ears. Behind me, I heard Monica climb out of the cranial compartment. I tucked a magno-spanner and hydraulic bolt-driver into my belt and turned to face her. She was leaning against one of Maugrim's ears, nervously drawing patterns in the greasy smoke smirching the radar vanes.

"I wasn't talking about your combat skills," she said lightly. "I meant you were wonderful to never give up on me, never let me forget there might be more than my duty." I'd been hurrying, frantically moving quickly to get Maugrim's reactor back on-line and us out of hostile territory, but now I stopped and looked at Monica with new wonder. "I don't care if I die here, Vladimir," she said with deadly seriousness. "I don't care if I am captured and taken to Saxe-Eisenach and he collars me like a dog and keeps me locked up like Rapunzel so I never know freedom. Because no-one can take freedom from me now. You gave me that, and I can never repay you."

For a precious second I just stared at her, blinking back tears and desperately swallowing. "I . . . I have to fix the reactor," I croaked lamely. I bushed past her and stumbled down the ladder, moving to one of the computer access ports, trying to concentrate on the task at hand.

Machina pilots are rarely fine mechanics; we are often competent, able to swap out spares, re-tighten a bolt or even splice cables and hoses back together – but true skill eludes us. A good mechanic rates as a master craftsman, with the equivalent of several degrees in engineering, electronics, physics and even chemistry. Most are small and slight, their hands easily slipping into confined spaces, with a delicate sense of touch that seems to work through layers of rubber and Kevlar.

I unscrewed the access port, levering the armored panel open. I popped the seals on the inner skin and dismounted the shocks. The circuits are well-protected and shielded – hardened against EMP damage, mounted on independent springs to absorb mechanical shock, the works – which makes them hard to get at in the middle of combat. I cracked the final door, revealing a very small part of Maugrim's central nervous system. As is normal for machinae her computer systems are physically distributed and duplicated in separate redundant circuits running in perfect clock-sync with each other. If part of her system goes off-line or is damaged the load is picked up by the rest with zero loss of function. In theory, she can survive up to 85% of computer system loss with only a 10% drop in efficiency.

Of course, that figure of 85% assumes a distributed failure, not a targeted assault. I already knew the failure of all four reactor control circuits was such an attack, but I only realized just how bad it was when I opened the final seal. A cloud of stinking smoke billowed out from the access port, making me cough and choke. Glowing cinders burst into fresh flame as oxygen was sucked into the still-hot chamber. I frantically grabbed for the halon extinguisher, holding my breath as I squirted it into Maugrim's delicate innards. I fanned the smoke away with my hand and peered inside.

It wasn't hard to diagnose what had happened – Cardinal Pallavicini had simply installed a very small thermite bomb on the underside of the reactor control circuit board. Ceramic insulation and a refrigeration unit had kept it cool so it did not ignite with the heat of the circuitry. The remains of a small radio-controlled detonator showed how it had been set off. All very simple, all very direct. The circuit board was a charred oblong of brittle black plastic, boards next to it showing heat damage. I had to assume the other three circuits were just as toasted. I cursed softly, but that was probably an over-reaction – the mounting sockets for the board looked undamaged. I could strip it out and install a new one in a few minutes.

I fumbled inexpertly for the correct driver-bit and fit it into the hydraulic bolt-driver, reaching into the compartment and wincing as my hand brushed against still-hot metal and plastic. I backed out the screws one by one – they were charred and softened by the thermite, their heads burring as I unscrewed them. Using a set of pliers I tugged the crisped remains of the circuit board free, blowing ash and charred plastic from the mounting socket's contacts.

"Can I help?" asked Monica softly from behind me. "Or shall I just stay out of your way?" I glanced over my shoulder at her, looked down at her delicate hands.

"Yes," I said. "I mean," I clarified, "yes, you can help. Your fingers are smaller than mine – make sure the contacts are clean and clear. Don't burn yourself. I'll get the spares." She nodded, moving forward, brushing past me, her hands sliding over mine. I watched, fascinated, for a second as her manicured nails plucked fragments of charred insulation and burned wire from mounting sockets. Her touch was delicate, her face a picture of fierce concentration, wincing as her skin touched hot metal and live wires. She didn't complain or cry out.

I forced myself to look away, moving to the spares locker mounted under Maugrim's belly. I punched in the access code and waited until it lowered on hydraulics to eye level. I unlocked the door and went straight to the appropriate drawer.

I regretted wasting my curse earlier.

The drawer was empty – not merely filled with something else, but empty. I tugged open another drawer at random – it contained exactly what it should contain. I pulled open another drawer, and then another. It took me thirty seconds to search the entire locker and found what I had feared the moment I found the first compartment empty.

Cardinal Pallavicini had very deliberately not included a single spare for the reactor control circuits.

The word I called him cannot easily be translated into Latin. It is Romanian, exceptionally vulgar, and is generally speaking reserved for heretical traitors. It implies that not only did he rape a close family member, but also aborted the resulting child and then violated a nun with the corpse.

Dully, with the movements of a sleepwalker, I carefully closed each drawer, punching the code back in and watching the spares locker recede in Maugrim's belly. I passed my hand over my face – I had nothing left. I am no computer expert – I can scarcely install a circuit the right way up half the time. I certainly couldn't hope to jury-rig something as delicate and critical as a reactor-control circuit. If I had the time and the tools and lead-lined clothes I could have manually pulled the control rods clear, giving me a constant flow of power. But that would take hours and diamond-tipped saws and would leave Maugrim grotesquely vulnerable and both me and Monica with advanced radiation poisoning.

It was over. I lowered my trembling hand from my face, looking at the Order signet ring on the third finger. I clenched my fist, the muscles in my jaw popping as tears beaded in my eyes. I toyed with the ring for a second, tugging it free. I hadn't removed it in years – not since my right hand was shattered and burned during the defense of Saint Stephen's and the surgeons rebuilt it with titanium and skin grafts. It left a smooth divot in my flesh, a ring of shiny polished skin that almost looked like a scar. I clutched it in my hand so tightly my knuckles turned white and I could feel the ends of the metal rods that held my bones together biting into my flesh. "Monica," I called softly.

She did not turn around as I walked up behind her. "Nearly done, Vladimir," she said with laser-precise concentration. "Just a few more fragments."

"Monica," I repeated. The words caught in my throat. "Monica, it's over. There aren't any spares."

Her hands didn't stop moving, just hitching slightly and carrying on. She was intelligent enough to know what that meant; we were stuck here, there were simply no more options, we would be killed or captured. But something in her refused to accept it, as if simple denial could change the situation, as if it cleaning the contacts still mattered. She shook her head, not turning to look at me.

"Monica . . ." I couldn't think of anything to say except her name. There wasn't anything else I wanted to die saying, but I had to apologize. "Monica, I'm sorry . . ." She did not seem to hear me, furiously blowing into the chamber, blinking as dust and smoke stung her eyes. "Monica, turn around." She carried on with her work. My voice sharpened with desperation. "Turn around, dammit!"

She whirled around angrily, hands on her hips, ready to yell tearfully in my face I was a coward or a fool or giving up or just simply impolite. She stopped because she couldn't see me. It took her a split second to look down and find me on one knee in front of her, my signet ring held trembling out to her.

"I love you, Monica Pallavicini," I whispered. "I have nothing left to offer you, and I am so sorry I failed you." I hung my head, knowing this was a meaningless request she had every single right to refuse. "Will you marry me?"

An endless second absorbed me. I heard her breath hitch in her chest, a gasp escaping her lips. A single precious tear hit the dusty flagstones in front of me. "Oh, Vladimir!" she sobbed. "Oh, yes, yes, a thousand times yes!" Her hands caught mine, pulling herself down to her knees in front of me. She took my face in her hands, lifting it to hers and kissing me furiously, dragging me to my feet. "And you haven't failed me, we'll get out of here! We'll escape and we'll me married and we'll live happily ever-after and I will give you sons and daughters and we'll grow old and happy together!" Her voice was frantic, hysterical, as if she were trying to convince herself it could be real. Her left hand writhed around my right. I caught it in both of mine and slipped my signet ring on her offered finger. "Never say you failed me, you could never fail me!"

I felt the flagstones of the square vibrate unmistakably – not the slow, solid footfalls of a machina, but the rapid, ragged snare-drum of marching ironclads. I peered past Monica and between Maugrim's legs – now I wasn't concentrating on trying to repair one very specific aspect of her, I could see the hurts she had suffered; the horrible wounds, the scars and blows and buffets. It did not pain me as much as I thought it would – because in a few seconds I would be dead and Monica would be the property of Saxe-Eisenach. The footfalls were the marching boots of a squad of yellow-and-black ironclads. They were wearing the crest of the Count of Essen – one of the House Guard must have radioed them, or they had come to meet us and escort us in. It didn't matter which – their objective now was clear. "I just did," I whispered to Monica, stepping away from her and pushing her into the lee of Maugrim's armored leg.

Some machina pilots have a contemptuous view of ironclad-portable weapons – after all, .50 cal machine gun fire will bounce off even ironclad armor, and the most powerful weapons an infantryman can carry will not usually cause significant damage to a machina. But the truth of the matter is a single .22 round can kill an unarmored man – the twenty half-inch projectiles hurled every a second by a machine gun will reduce him to a red smear. Infantry armaments are only non-threatening when you aren't naked before them.

One of the ironclads snapped his rifle to his shoulder, a painting laser projected on my chest. I didn't even try to dodge or escape – it was futile. Standard main battle rifle for an ironclad is a 30mm gyrojet launcher capable of discharging multiple classes of projectile. It has – when interfaced with an ironclad's systems – a range of nearly a mile and can fire close to five-hundred rounds a minute. Running would simply mean I'd get shot in the back – and I would be damned before I died like that.

"Lord, into Your hands I commend my spirit," I whispered. I began an act of contrition under my breath, glancing over to Monica – there was nothing else I wanted to see as my last sight on earth.

She ran forward, placing herself between the ironclads and me. It was madness – they didn't want to kill her and a shot from one of their rifles would pass through both of us without even slowing down. I grabbed her, struggling with her, trying to get her to safety. There was no need for both of us to die. "Let me!" she howled. "Please!"

The sound of a gyrojet rifle is unique, utterly unlike anything else. They initially fire as standard, with a propellant charge forcing the bullet out of the barrel like a conventional firearm. A few feet from the muzzle of the gun the gyrojet kicks in – the rounds are basically mini rockets. Their velocity increases as they burn their fuel, spinning in the air thanks to vectored exhaust ports. The initial discharge is a sharp crack, quieter than you would expect, and then the rockets ignite with a dull roar that quickly rises to a scream. The bullet accelerates to supersonic speeds, the sonic boom assaulting your eardrums. What they sound like when they hit depends on the shell fired – some might give the target time to scream.

That is a single shot. Now, imagine eight of those a second and you have what an ironclad rifle firing on full-auto sounds like.

I could not help but wince when I heard that unmistakable report – the booming, roaring, screaming clatter that is the last thing so many have heard. I clutched Monica to me, flipping us around so I uselessly shielded her with my body, every muscle clenched, steeling myself for an agony I could only imagine.

It took me an instant to realize I shouldn't have been able to hear the German ironclads firing – the rounds would hit me before the sound reached my ears. By the time it did I would be a bleeding hash of raw meat. I suddenly realized what I heard wasn't fire from the other side of the square.

An over-sized glove of white ceramic armor at the end of a hydraulically-motivated arm gleaming in blue, orange, yellow and red grabbed me and Monica, dragging us behind the body of a harlequin. Bullets whined and pinged off his armor, lead-tipped hollow-point bullets deforming against thick ceramo-steel. "Stay here," his vox-caster growled, pushing us to the ground behind one of Maugrim's paws. He lifted his own rifle one-handed, sprinting across the square after his squad mates, his plume bobbing as he ran, his gyroscopically stabilized weapon firing as he moved.

There were five Swiss Guard, at least twice as many Lutherans. The Germans never stood a chance, not even when they switched to armor-piercing rounds – miniature versions of the shaped charge of a Barracuda warhead. The harlequins had used those from the first, blasting half the barbarians off their feet in the first volley. One of the Swiss Guard span sideways, his hand blown off at the wrist, the fountain of blood quickly stopping as the tourniquet systems of his armor kicked in. By then the harlequins were in among the Lutherans, swinging with their vibro-halberds. The Germans were competent – good fighters and carrying equally potent weapons – but they were no match for the Vatican elite who were simple death with a blade. When the dust settled, a dozen Germans lay dead on the floor and the harlequins were praying for the soul of one of their own and helping their one-handed brother to his feet.

Monica punched the air. "Yes! Viva il Vaticano!" She stopped when the flagstones of the square trembled as if a building had fallen, rattling her teeth. A massive shadow fell over the two of us. Suddenly cold, we both turned, tilting our heads back and back and back so we could take in the gigantic form of a scarlet Hercules machina looming over us. "Oh . . . Hell," Monica said, clutching me desperately.

I looked carefully at the machina for a second, and then smiled. And then chuckled, and began to laugh. It was a relieved laugh, tension bleeding hysterically away. Monica looked at me as if I had lost my mind, as if terror had robbed me of my senses. I gestured at the crest painted on the chest armor, at the yellow-and-white banneret flying from one shoulder, the bright scarlet (not dark crimson and gold) paintwork. "Carlo!" I yelled with a broad and entirely uncharacteristic grin on my face. "When did you start working for the Vatican?"

The machina's external speakers hummed as they powered up. "A House Pallavicini machina is approaching, Boyar." Carlo's voice echoed metallically over the speakers. "I will prevent him from assaulting you – threat estimate places the hostile probability at 57%." My grin widened – he was so young; focused on the mission, relying on computers for combat predictions.

"Revise that upwards," I said sardonically, "he's already shot me."

"I am most grateful for your aid, Signore Ruspoli." Monica had recognized the crest on the side of the machina. "But do not expose yourself to unnecessary danger – he may be willing to parley."

"My plan is to avoid direct engagement, milady," Carlo said carefully. "I intend to allow the Boyar the honor of the kill." Monica glanced up at Maugrim, battered and wounded and entirely powerless, clearly wondering if young Carlo was really observant enough to pilot a machina. Carlo swung north and began to stomp away. Monica turned to face me.

"Am I going to be able to go anywhere in Europe and not meet an ally of yours?" she asked in amazement. "Who is he, and what is he doing here?" I was about to answer her when a suit of combat-engineer ironclad armor in dull brushed steel landed with a ringing crash on the pavement behind her, fracturing the flagstones with its weight.

"He's my fiancé, Lady Pallavicini," a vox-caster growled. "Cardinal Griffin sent us." A steel-pincer hand lifted the suit's visor with a hissing of over-engineered pistons. Cleopatra looked at Monica, coolly appraising her with a long look up and down. She held out one of her arms – the hydraulic claw folded wide open and a metal iris cycled, a perfect facsimile of Cleo's hand in gleaming silver extending from the conical forearm unit of the armor. Gingerly, Monica took it. "Cleopatra Kristatos, heir to the Kristatos Factory," she said. "Thermite charges on the control circuits?" she asked me.

"Yes," I answered. "How did you know? Not that I am ungrateful – far from it – but what are you doing here?"

Cleo didn't respond. An identical hand to the first slid out of her other arm – now she had the delicate touch required to repair electronics, all without exposing her flesh. She removed a circuit board from an anti-static bag. She slotted it into place. "You'd better mount up," she said, "Carlo'll need your help; lots of activity out there."

I took Monica by the hand. "Get in," I said, "we don't have much time." She nodded, glancing at Cleopatra with a look of unsatisfied curiosity I knew was repeated on my own face. We were certainly not safe – we didn't have much time and we were still in dangerous terrain. Cleopatra would only be able to replace a single circuit before I needed to power the reactor back up and move out to join Carlo. Even then, we would be outnumbered and outgunned.

The thought of having to wade back into combat dulled my relief and joy at being rescued – not from fear of that battle, but because of what would happen afterwards. I'd fired on Pallavicini troops and kidnapped their daughter – at least, that was how it would be reported. I was a marked man, with a price on my head that would only rise with every bounty hunter I dispatched. The civilized parts of the Empire were no longer safe places for me – or Monica, for that matter.

But our immediate situation was still far better than it had been moments before. The appearance of the Swiss Guard and Carlo's machina flying Vatican colors and Cleopatra herself was nothing short of miraculous. I wasn't about to immediately put their presence down to an angel dropping them there, but I wasn't ruling it out either. I began to ask Cleo another question when the harlequin who had pulled me and Monica clear stomped up. He snapped his mirror-glass visor upwards, revealing a pale, handsome face we both recognized.

"Neil!" exclaimed Monica joyfully. I am not sure what surprised me more – that Wardenclyffe had a Christian name, that it was Neil or that Monica knew it. The harlequin's face cheeks colored very slightly at her informality and he dropped his visor down again. The remaining Swiss Guard were systematically combing Maugrim with bug sniffers – one of them got a positive return and delicately sliced the small transmitter magnetized to her armor with the very tip of his vibro-halberd. I inclined my head to Wardenclyffe.

"Hauptmann," I said politely. "Monica and I are both very grateful you are here – albeit unsure why."

"You are quite welcome Boyar, Lady Pallavicini," his vox-caster growled. "Cardinal Griffin's office became aware of saboteurs at the highest level in Saint Dunstan's." Even beneath the modulation it was obvious his words were chosen very carefully. "He required elements of the Swiss Guard to investigate the matter further. It rapidly became clear that rogue elements of the Black Nobility military were planning an assault, in conjunction with the saboteurs, on Vatican privateer forces and loyal Black Nobility. His Eminence was unable to secure papal approval for use of Vatican forces, hence our use of Black Nobility and civilian privateers."

Monica laughed. "That, Neil, should be written down as the perfect example of Vatican obfuscation. It is the most elegant way of saying my grandfather and uncle didn't care who they hurt marrying me off I can think of." She considered. "Was the Cardinal really unable to get approval, or did he just not bother asking?" she asked with a smirk.

"I could not possibly comment, Lady Pallavicini," he growled. "As you know, my squad's permanent assignment is bodyguard to His Eminence, hence our presence in Cologne."

"And where is the Cardinal?" I asked suddenly.

I couldn't see or hear Wardenclyffe's smile though the vox-caster and mirror visor, but he simply had to be grinning. "Officially, Boyar, he is visiting his brother Archbishop." Monica laughed again – she has the most wonderful laugh – but I frowned. I have never got used to politics – even after spending most of my life married to one of the most formidable political minds in the Empire I don't understand it, can't play the game, and find it still leaves a bad taste in my mouth. A city has hidden foes that can be found with radar and pitfalls a seismic scan will pick up – I feel so much more comfortable with open war.

"I didn't follow a damn word of that, harlequin," said Cleopatra abruptly – it seemed as if someone had even less skill at politics than I. She slammed the access panel shut and drove the bolts home with a squeal of compressed air. "I'm done here – start her up," she ordered me.

I automatically reached my left hand over to my right – an Order signet ring is more than a piece of jewelry, there are limited control functions built into it, together with a miniaturized locater beacon and several gigabytes of data storage. I immediately realized my mistake and took Monica's left hand, lifting it and turning the face of the ring. Maugrim responded by withdrawing the control rods from the reactor. The visual effect was minor – the lights in the cockpit high above us all brightened – but my heart sang when they did. I lay a quivering hand on Maugrim's leg. "Thank you, Cleo," I said gratefully.

Cleopatra did not answer me – she was looking at Monica's hand in mine, at my signet ring on her finger. She looked at me with a happy little grin. "Congratulations, Vladimir," she said simply. I blushed as she turned to Monica, the humor fading from her face. "You made the right choice, Lady Pallavicini," she said seriously. "You are an exceptionally lucky woman."

Monica lowered her eyes. "Thank you, Signorina Kristatos," she said demurely. She pulled herself closer to me, slipping my arm around her waist. She kissed me on the cheek and whispered, "I know."

There is an art to coughing politely in an ironclad so it sounds like you are coughing politely, and not like slabs falling into a pit. Wardenclyffe possessed that art. We all turned to look at him, listening to the voice that was deliberately careless even when modulated by his vox-caster. "Cardinal Griffin requires me to offer you transport and accompaniment back to Rome, Lady Pallavicini," he said neutrally. "What message would you like me to take back to him?"

Monica laughed, laying her hand on his brilliant armor. "Oh, Neil – I will miss you!" she trilled. She composed her face into careful formality. "Recorder on?" she asked. Wardenclyffe nodded, adjusting the camera mounted on his shoulder. She peered into the mirror-glass of his visor, toying with her disheveled hair. Satisfied, she looked directly at the camera and smiled. "Greetings, Archbishop Raymond Cardinal Griffin," she said easily. "May God bless you and your work abundantly this Easter season. My fiancé and I thank you deeply for your generous offer of Swiss Guard protection en route to Rome, but we must solemnly decline your kindness. We have no immediate plans to return to Italy as my new home lies far from there, and we also do not wish to expose Vatican troops to any further aggression from rogue Italian elements. As you will no doubt understand, Your Eminence, we wish to avoid any aggravation of what is – and will no doubt become – a sensitive situation between Papal forces and those of the Black Nobility. My future husband and I humbly ask for your understanding in this matter, assure you of our full support in the elimination of rogue elements, saboteurs and other heretics and traitors, and beg you for your prayers and blessing on our forthcoming marriage. God bless you, Cardinal. I remain, Lady Monica Anna Maria Pallavicini."

I had stood silent and stunned by during most of her speech, simply because she was using the words fiancé and future husband in casual conversation with a prince of the Church in reference to me. It was not, of course, something that I in any way objected to, nor something I should have found surprising – but it was something I wasn't used to. It made the whole thing real in a way it hadn't been before; prior to recording that message, she could have thrown back my ring and it would have been Cleopatra's word against hers that it ever happened at all (Wardenclyffe would not have been drawn on the subject, even under pain of death). Now, her acceptance was committed to posterity in the recording device of an Swiss Guard ironclad captain.

And not only had she made it very clear to the Vatican and Rome (and her family, because the recording would inevitably make its way back to her uncle and grandfather) where her heart was, but also where her political loyalties lay. It was clear even to me Griffin was throwing the gauntlet down to Giovanni Pallavicini and wasn't afraid of risking a war between the Church and the Black Nobility – why else would Wardenclyffe refer to Maugrim and I as 'Vatican privateer forces' and obliquely call Cardinal Pallavicini a 'saboteur'?

I suddenly felt very much out of my depth, as if my falling in love with Monica and my unwillingness to let her be used as a pawn had consequences I had never considered, that even now I was being used for someone else's purposes. I didn't much like it – I would feel much better with Maugrim underneath me and the control yoke in my fists.

I nodded at Wardenclyffe. "Thank you, Hauptmann," I said. "You and your men should leave – I can take it from here." I turned to Cleopatra, awkwardly embracing her and wincing as she didn't realize her armor's strength. "God bless you, Cleo," I said with feeling. "He is risen."

"He is risen indeed, alleluia," she responded. She paused, looking at Monica. "I suppose I don't need to worry about you not having someone to take care of now I'm getting married, Vlad," she said with a watery smile. She crushed me to her again and only released me when Carlo's voice crackled over the radio in the collar of her suit.

"Pallavicini machina is approaching your position, Cleo," he said. "Ask the Boyar if I should engage."

Monica caught my arm. "Vladimir – he doesn't have to kill him. He's just trying to do his job, he's worked for my grandfather all his life . . ." I nodded.

"Tell Carlo thank you, and no," I said to Cleopatra. "Both of you have done more than enough – I'll handle it from here. His job is to get you back to your father – I don't want the Kristatos hunting me as well as the Pallavicini and the Saxe-Eisenachs." She nodded, toggling her radio and talking quickly to Carlo. I looked at Wardenclyffe. "I am not happy with the Cardinal risking her life by getting her involved in this – she is not a combat mechanic, Hauptmann." I did not add that neither did she need the enmity of the Pallavicini by aiding an enemy of theirs, but Wardenclyffe was intelligent enough to grasp what I didn't say.

"You have my assurance she will return to Rome safely, Boyar," he said firmly. "You should also know she volunteered – her father was requested to provide a combat mechanic for this mission. Signorina Kristatos insisted she be the one to come." I looked over at Cleopatra, tears beading in my eyes. What had I ever done to deserve such loyalty?

"Go with God, Hauptmann," I said briefly. I ushered Monica to the ladder, the two of us climbing into Maugrim's cockpit. The HUD reported three reactor circuits off-line, one functioning – which was better than when I had last looked. I dismissed the warnings and ran my eyes over the damage report as I span the compressors up to speed. She was badly injured – one pulsar destroyed, several segments of the capacitors burned out, hydraulic system heavily compromised.

I could still win – especially since victory just meant escape.

I keyed the radio. "Vatican machina," I called on an open frequency – I didn't want Giuliani to learn who Carlo was if he hadn't already. "Do not engage the Pallavicini machina. Disengage and withdraw with the rest of the papal elements. Do you copy?"

Carlo responded instantly. "Received and understood, Boyar," he said crisply. "Godspeed, Boyar. May God bless you and your children, Lady Pallavicini." I had to admire Carlo for his youthful foolishness – his machina was emblazoned with the Ruspoli crest and colors. Giuliani would be able to identify it with a moment's visual. Carlo was practically declaring war on the most powerful family of Black Nobility on behalf of the Ruspoli.

He began to remind even me of myself – after all, wasn't I doing much the same for the Order of the Dragon?

In the radar I saw Carlo's machina swing around and begin to lumber south. I keyed the radio to Giuliani's frequency. "Call it even, Ceasario?" I asked without much hope. I'd killed several of his friends already and, as he had said, this wasn't personal. This was professional.

That same professionalism – not to mention logic – dictated I destroy his machina and kill him if at all possible. He might not have transmitted a report back to the Pallavicini yet. In that eventuality they wouldn't know about the Swiss Guard, Cleopatra and Carlo. That was something I wanted the Pallavicini finding out only when Griffin decided to reveal it, if at all.

"Even, you Slavic bastard?" Giuliani sounded angry, not to mention ignorant of anthropology (Romanians are not a Slavic people; we are descended from Roman legionnaires and the Dacians – the campaign is celebrated on Trajan's column). "You've killed my friends and you want to say we're even? To Hell with you!"

I gave a dreadful shrug. "If you want to finish even further behind, be my guest," I remarked casually. "I was hoping you'd know when you were beaten." I was plotting an exit trajectory on the HUD – a single jump would put me back into the no-man's-land between the Cathedral enclave and the Lutheran city. Even damaged as she was Maugrim was still far faster than Reaver, especially over the broken ground south of the Cathedral. The only problem would be if Giuliani really wanted to make a fight of it – then I would simply have to kill him. Part of me didn't want to do that.

In case you haven't realized, that part of me was riding as a passenger and wearing my signet ring.

I hit the jump jets and Maugrim leaped into the air, skimming the rooftops in front of her, landing amid the rubble with an easy flex of her knees. The concrete shifted underneath her as I pounced over a ruined building seconds before it exploded into a shower of brick dust as Rapier missiles hit it.

"Please, Ceasario!" begged Monica. "Don't make him . . ." She got no further before Giuliani finally got the range right and I had to jerk Maugrim back to avoid a missile strike. The fireball blossomed directly in front of her, warning klaxons going off and both Monica and I wincing against our restraints.

I glanced at the radar – four hundred yards to the right and I would have a direct line of sight for the lasers. He'd left me no choice. Maugrim covered the distance in seconds, all three of the lasers tracking a point she could not see but knew was there. I pushed the reactor to 76%, charging the capacitors.

Maugrim turned the corner, appearing half a mile of empty street away from Reaver. I didn't even need to press the trigger – I'd programmed her to take the shot just as soon as she had LOS. The three lasers spat packets of discrete-frequency luminal energy, gigawatts of power striking Reaver and melting through her armor in an instant.

I didn't see the machina explode in a dull orange fireball – I'd already jumped Maugrim into cover on the other side of the street – but the HUD showed its icon flare and then go black. I let out the breath I had been holding and slid the reactor down to about half. "I'm sorry, Monica," I said.

She passed her hand over her eyes. "Oh, Ceasario . . ." she whispered. She crossed herself. "Eternal rest grant unto him, oh Lord . . ." she began. I crossed myself too and joined her in the prayer – I would do that at least for him. When we had finished I looked back at Monica. She was sitting quietly in her chair, trying to process what had happened, imagining what a life with me might be like. She was slowly rotating the ring on her left hand with the fingers of her right, the chunky ring disproportionate on her delicate hand, a slow smile building in intensity as she looked at the pledge of my love.

She raised her head and looked at me with nervous wonder. "What now?" she asked softly. I answered her with a shrug.

"We're not safe yet," I reminded her. I swung Maugrim west – it was fifty miles to the Belgian border and Imperial territory, two hours if I pushed hard. Three hours until I would be confident we were beyond the immediate reach of angry Lutherans. Once in Belgium we could swing counter-clockwise, perhaps visiting Paris, and travel through Switzerland, Austria and Hungary and thence into Romania.

There is certainly much more to tell – not merely our immediate adventures in Europe, but also the rest of our courtship (if you think courtship is done the moment the lady says yes then you are certainly unmarried, and may stay that way), our wedding and marriage (the two are very distinct things, as even a cursory study of the sacraments will tell you) and the wars that came to dominate Europe few short years later.

But this tale will not tell of them. I began this story at the end of one journey and it is perhaps appropriate it ends at the beginning of another. As I have mentioned before, I am no great storyteller – I am a warrior first and foremost – and what skill I have in the art I learned from my mother and Scheherazade. Both of them taught me one very important lesson;

Leave your audience wanting more.

God bless, gentle reader. I will welcome you if you return.