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«The Seventh Stone», Warren Murphy и др.

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Destroyer 62: The Seventh Stone

By Warren Murphy and Richard Sapir

Chapter One

Before there was an Out Island Spa owned by Del Ray Promotions, before there was a Bahamian government, before there was the black slave or the British colonizer, back when the little Out Islands were too small to bother with, even for the Carib Indians, and the beaches were truly-as centuries later, advertisements would say "without footprints," there came to what would one day be known as Little Exuma Island a foot.

The foot was in a silver brocade slipper and before it touched the sandy beach a servant tried to place a gold carpet beneath it. The servant was waved away and so was the carpet as the royal feet were joined by others, wearing bronze and steel shin protectors.

They were the feet of soldiers and quickly they spread out, beyond the beach, into underbrush, scaring birds to flight and sending lizards scurrying to holes in the sparse white coral rocks. Neither the birds nor the lizards had ever seen men before, least of all men with glistening chestplates and helmets, swords at the ready and spears poking bushes and shaking the low-growing scrub trees.

On the beach, the prince shook off his slippers and pressed his bare feet into the pure white sand. He had never seen sand this white or a sea as turquoise blue before, and in the last few years he had seen many seas.

He looked back at his great royal barks, anchored in the sheltered cove, each with the single great sail, now only white, but once embroidered with the crossed swords of his royal family to proclaim its presence and powers.

But the crossed-swords crest had been shamefully unstitched years before on different seas as his men tried to disguise who he was. Even his standards had been removed from the prow of the boats and if his barks had not been so large, they could have belonged to any common merchant from any port in the world.

"Do you think here?" one of his lords asked the prince.

"Bring me the maps and my navigator."

The navigator was rowed from the main bark, wine-sotted and weeping. One of the noblemen readied his ivory-pommeled sword, sure that his prince would demand the navigator's head.

Two lords helped the weaving stricken man to stand. Another gathered the leather-bound tubes which held the maps. The iron breastplates and helmets, so good against arrow and spear, burned the flesh in this strange sun. By every lord's calculation, they knew it was winter, but there were no snows here, not even cold winds, just the burning sun and the scrub brush and that strange turquoise sea.

"The maps were useless, your Majesty," sobbed the navigator.

"Let us make sure of that," said the prince. The parchment maps, each protected by a thin wax coating, were laid out on the sand and held down by flat heavy swords at each corner. Some of the lords, seeing their passage on these maps, felt the anguish of lost homes and lost lands. They saw on the map the great city of Rome. They had been guests there of the great Augustus Caesar, emperor and god. They had been under his protection.

And of course his protection had been useless too.

On another map was the civilized China. They all remembered the courts of the Tang Dynasty. For an entire case of jewels, such as even the Tang emperor had never seen, they had been granted sanctuary within his palace walls.

But after just a few days, the Tang emperor had returned the jewels and told them to leave. "Are you admitting, great Emperor, that you do not rule in your own courtyards?" their prince had asked. "For if you are afraid of one man-any man-then you do not rule in your kingdom." The Tang court was hushed at such effrontery to their emperor, but the emperor had only laughed.

"You believe that?" asked the emperor.

"I do," said the prince, righteously.

"You still believe that, after all that has happened to you?"

"I do."

"Then let me give you more wisdom, Prince, because your throne-which you do not sit on any longer-was once almost as grand as ours," said the emperor. "When it is cold, one is not a coward to put on furs. When it is hot, it does not take fear to put on a shade hat. A man can rule only what a man can rule. Otherwise, he winds up as some who are too prideful, fleeing from one kingdom to another, without a throne, without lands, like a beggar on a dusty road."

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