"Well, fuck me," the trooper on the observation platform of the heliograph tower said, lifting the helmet from his head and drawing a sleeve across his face.
"Not whiles there's goats in t'world, Saynchez," the duty corporal said from below. "Keep yer eyes open, I wants to know when the El-Tee's gettin' back."
Fuck yer, too, Hallersen M'kintok,Trooper Billi Saynchez thought silently, settling the infinite weight of hot metal and leather-backed chain mail on his head again and pacing the two steps that took him to the other side of the heliograph tower. Them stripes has gone right to yer arse and pizened yer brain.Only early spring, and the days were already as hot as high summer back home . . . and what miserable grass there was had already burnt brown, sometimes in a crust across pits of salt mud.
Hell of a place,he thought. To the west, nothing but desert that grew flatter and more desolate the further you went. To the east the scarred bluffs above the Drangosh, and then the dense carob and legbiter bush that grew in the narrow floodplain. Across the river was the higher east bank, raghead country, and they'd love to slip across one night and bring back a Descott County boy's balls . . . the water had looked inviting the first week here; in the second it was a taunting, teasing reminder of coolness. Nothing but the tower, and the thatched shelters for the dogs, mostly empty now that the bulk of Third Company was out on patrol. Barges on the water now and then, sometimes a steamboat churning upriver towards Sandoral.
"Jine the glorious 7th Descott Rangers an' get travel, adventure, plunder, an' girls," he muttered softly to himself, leaning the rifle against the mud-and-twig wall of the platform.
The only cooze he'd seen out of this was old man M'aylez's daughter, who liked a uniform. And he'd been so drunk on his enlistment bonus all he remembered was waking up in her bed with her father whaling away at them with his dogwhip, he'd had to run barearse naked half a klick through the snow before he lost him; the other recruits had spread it through the battalion and they were still riding him about it. Then a snow-season march over the central plateau and the Oxheads; Sandoral would have been all right, plenty fancy enough for a country boy, if there hadn't been fifteen thousand other soldiers trying to get into the same bars and knocking-shops, with prices so high the only hookers he could afford were bag-on-the-head ugly and poxed to boot.
And field drill six days a week. And those arsemouth bastards in the 5th throwing their siller around an lettin' us all know how they'd run through a dozen harem girls each last year. Got their butts kicked good and hard after that, didn't they?
"Talkin' t'yerself agin, Snow-Balls?" Not the corporal; one of the other six drowsy soldiers taking advantage of the crowded shade below. "Talk to me: tell me why yer ain't a beautiful hoor."
He yanked open the wicker trapdoor. "Loik yer mother?" he snarled.
The corporal came to his feet. "Next arsemouth farts out gets t'water the dogs all next week!"he shouted. "Yer mouth cain get yer killed, place like this." Outpost duty saw more than its share of fights. "An' Saynchez, yer supposed t' be a lookout, so keep lookin'."
Beer, Saynchez thought, hunching sullenly against the parapet. I could be at Moggorsford tavern right now, puttin' back a beer.
With that barmaid swinging her hips at him. . . . Or he could have done another year as a vakaro for Squire Hobbez, sitting his dog under the edge of the pines, rifle across his knees, watching the beefalo and sheep grazing their way across the meadows, grass rippling in the wind off the volcanoes . . . He adjusted his sword belt again, trying vainly for a spot that did not chafe the raw spots on his hips, feeling the salt-stiff cloth of his jacket grating at the skin under his armpits and at his neck.
Something thin and hard whirled around his neck. His hands flashed back toward the man who must be behind him, but there was a knee in his back and the world was fading black.
* * *
Raj wiped his face with the red-and-black checked neckerchief; there had been a warehouse full of them in El Djem, and they had become a point of pride with the veterans of the 5th. He glanced at the trooper at the right of the squad braced to attention beneath the temporary heliograph tower, the one with the circular bruise around his neck.
"Stand easy," he said. The men relaxed, except for the corporal, who stood braced with a blank expression that undoubtedly hid a mind frantically willing its own vital functions to cease, as it had been since the 5th's troopers had stuck their rifles through the tower slits with a cheery bang, yer dead, girls."I said, stand easy,Corporal M'kintok. No records, no pack drill.
"And Warrant Officer M'lewis, perhaps you were just a little too rough on Saynchez there? You can cough, trooper."
"Beggin' yer pardon, Messer Brigadier ser, but 'e didn't even have 'is rifle slung. Powerful difficult 'tis to get the wire round the neck of a man what has his rifle next to it." A smile that shone with gold teeth. "Don't think the ragheads would'a stopped when I did, nohow, ser."
True enough."All right, lads, just a lesson . . . now, you're Descotters, not peons, so you should be able to think. Why do you think I've got you out here in the first place, putting up these towers and spending your days in the desert? Besides my reputation as Brigadier Brass Ass, that is?"
A long moment's silence. The corporal spoke, "Keep a close eye on the ragheads, ser?" Hesitation, then, "And to keep us from spendin' too much time fukkin' off in town, ser?"
"Right on both counts, soldier. Look, we're not here for the scenery. Or the beer." A relieved chuckle from the squad; the quality of the local brew was a favorite grumble for troops from north of the Oxheads. "We're here because a bloody great wog army is coming, in a little while or so. Corporal, you were a quarryman back home, weren't you?"
It was a safe enough bet, with those shoulders. "Ever see a man killed for not looking where he was going?"
"Summat often, ser. Rope allays breaks if yer turns arse on it."
"It's the same in this trade, lads: sweat saves blood. Habits keep you alive or get you killed, so when you're bored, think of today." The slight smile left his face, and he saw them stiffen. "Now, if we have to launch out"—the common euphemism for dying—"to get the mission the Governor assigned done, then we do. But I will not let any of you get your asses killed unnecessarily, not if I have to work you all to death to prevent it!"
Raj touched his foot to Horace's leg, and the dog crouched. He stepped across the saddle, feet finding stirrups as the hound came erect. "Dismissed to duties," he said, as the men of the 5th fell in behind him. "Oh, and your Company is being rotated back next week. A detached Company of the Novy Haifa Dragoons is coming in, and they need a tour of the beauty-spots."
* * *
Jorg Menyez sneezed.
"Sorry," Raj said, and maneuvered Horace around to the other, downwind side of the Kelden County officer. Menyez was mounted on one of the long-legged riding steers some of the nomads north of Pierson's Sea used, bridled with a ring through its nose; the great forward-sloping horns were tipped with steel, and it rolled its eye at the hound.
"Muuuuuuh," it said warningly.
"Werf?" Horace's head went down towards its ankles; Raj freed a foot from the stirrup and thumped the dog on the side of the jaw with it.
"Not bad at all," Raj said, as they finished their tour of the field fortifications Menyez's men had been working on for most of the morning.
Two battalions digging, and two making a route-march through the scrubby wadi-and-gully country to the west, to simulate an attack. The trenches were neatly aligned at the bottom of a low ridge, fronted with cloth sacks full of the dirt. Good idea,Raj thought. Bloody good idea.Menyez had thought of it, back in the fall when the mud had been too soft to keep its shape as the men shoveled. They'd bought the cloth wholesale in Sandoral and put the camp followers and peasant women for fifty kilometers around to sewing them. Reusable, with a slip knot to fasten them, and the foot soldiers could hump them around by the hundreds when they were empty. More up on the crest of the hill, semicircular waist-high positions where the field guns could be pushed up to fire and then recoil out of sight for reloading.
"All right, let's get on to the next bit," Raj said. They trotted in across the field of fire, past rows of straw figures on stakes, woven to roughly human shape and given sticks for rifles. There were clay jugs full of water in the stomach of each. Up to the low parapet of the trenchline, with the helmets of the troops below, waiting to step up onto the firing platform. As the two officers walked their mounts across a board bridgeway that spanned the trench, a soldier somewhere down the line called out:
"General salute for the King of Spades!"
"Silence in the ranks!" an officer or noncom shouted; Menyez saluted.
The men had thrown up a low observation platform behind the trenches; Raj and Menyez took their positions there, beside the infantry commander's personal guard and standard, and the lounging figures of a 5th Descott squad around Raj's banner.
"Proceed," Menyez called.
Drums and bugles sounded, and orders relayed down the long trench. The men stepped up onto the firing platform; their heads were still below the top level of sandbags, but regularly-spaced gaps had been left below that, and the rifles slanted through. Raj looked over his shoulder; the barrels of the 75's were sliding out.
POUMP. POUMP. POUMP.Shells whirred by overhead, their ten-kilo bursting charges raising poplar tree-shaped plumes of dirt three thousand meters downrange. POUMP. POUMP. POUMP.In a prepared position like this you could build sloping ramps behind the guns. They recoiled up the slope, gravity killing momentum, then slid down nearly into battery again, ready to be reloaded and pushed the final meter or two; it saved a good deal of time. POUMP. POUMP. POUMP.Barked orders, and a quivering of the rifle muzzles as the soldiers pushed at the stepped wedges under the rear sights of their weapons, setting them for maximum range.
"Prepare for volley fire," Menyez said. Repetitions like echoes, down to the platoon sergeants. POUMP. POUMP. POUMP.This series on the outermost row of straw figures; fragments and pieces of wooden pole spun up into the air.
The slamming ripple of massed rifles ran along the line, and the staggered rows of targets began to disintegrate; leg-thick poles sagged and fell, and water jugs sent out spectacular fountains of clear liquid to glitter in the late-morning sun.
"Aim low, aim low!" Shouts along the firing line, as shots kicked up dust-spurts beyond the target. There were not too many of them, far fewer than there had been six months ago. Raj listened carefully; the volleys came fast and crisp, none of the telltale stutter between. Thick grayish gunsmoke pooled before the muzzles. Officers with binoculars were standing behind each unit's section of trench, ready to run out and assess the results; drummer boys and corpsmen and stretcher-bearers were stepping up with dippers of water from the buckets they carried, not for the men but to dash over the barrels and breeches of the weapons. It hissed and sizzled as it struck the hot metal; more maintenance work afterward, but it cut down on extraction jams and the even more disastrous occasional cook-off, rounds exploding as the thumb pushed them into contact with an overheated chamber.
"Cease firing!" A long bugle call. "Battalions will pass in review, by the left!"
"Shaping nicely," Raj said to Menyez. "They don't tire as fast, they're starting to hit what they shoot at, and they're starting to act as if they believed they were soldiers, too."
"It helps that they know they're not getting fucked over by the people in charge," Menyez replied, cold anger mixed with satisfaction in his tone.
Half the infantry battalion commanders had been transferred or retired since they arrived to join the Army of the Upper Drangosh, and a good third of the Company Senior Lieutenants. For everything from age and incapacity, through persistent absenteeism—several had not seen their putative commands in years—to selling their ammunition allotments.
"You tell people long enough that they're shit," the brown-haired man continued, "that they're not fit for anything but to suck mud in front of the paws of anyone who rides by on dogback, and they believe it and act like it." His pale eyes watched as the thousand men of the two battalions mustered in a row of columns of fours. "They're still nowhere near as steady as I'd like, except for the Ausarians. And my Kelden County Foot."
"Tewfik's going to outnumber us badly, and if I can I'm going to make him come to us," Raj answered. I'd better; if I can't manage to force the enemy to assume the tactical offensive when they are invading us, then I'd better just get circumcised and be done with it. "I think they'll hold, in field entrenchments."
There was a roll of martial music, as the fife-and-drum unit behind each battalion standard struck up; they had rifles slung over their shoulders, but Raj had seen to it that every outfit produced a band. The officers had bought the instruments out of their own pockets; a "suggestion" from Raj relayed through Menyez and backed by his writ of extraordinary authority from Barholm. Some of the infantry outfits hadn't even had standards; he had made the men contribute to those themselves, then had the ArchSysup of the Southeastern Diocese bless them in as impressive a ceremony as the cleric and he could come up with together. That sort of thing was almost as important as prompt pay and sound boots and seeing that the sutlers kept their cheating within bounds. . .
"Pass in review!"
Tramp of marching feet, the whole line moving like a uniform centipede with a blue body and red legs; sunlight glittered on flags and bayonets and polished brightwork.
"Eyes . . . right."He and Menyez saluted; behind him the standard of the 5th dipped in answer to the flourish of the infantry banners as each passed. The men's arms swung briskly, their shouldered rifles in perfect alignment; officers and noncoms whirled their swords in flourishes. Perfectly useful skills . . .
"Purty," one of the cavalry troopers behind him muttered.
. . . not least because they reminded the foot soldiers that they were something other than men who had the bad luck to be visible when the press gang came around, and too poor to bribe their way out. His Descotters and the other cavalry units were mostly here because they'd wanted to be, or their families had . . . or at worst, because a father had come after them with compulsory weddings in his eyes and a loaded gun in his hands. They didn't need as much prompting to think of themselves as fighting men rather than victims.
Of course, it was debatable whose perception was more accurate.
The column had passed down to the end of the trenchline, wheeled and marched back. This time as the midpoint passed the mount, different orders rang out:
"Halt. Ay-bout face,"A wheel and stamp, and they were facing him and Menyez. "Ground . . . arms."The rifle butts thumped the ground, held rigidly between left arm and flank; the tips of the bayonets were shoulder-high. "Stand at . . . ease."Each right foot moved out to shoulder-width from the left, while the rifles swung in to rest slanted across the body and held at the muzzle in the folded hands; it was an easy posture to maintain, where the rigid attention would produce a crop of men fainting, under a sun like this. Many of the men before him were from the northwestern provinces, as naturally pale-skinned as the officer beside him.
Menyez's leather-lunged Master Sergeant bellowed, "All units, attention to orders! Stand by for address by the Honorable Messer Brigadier Raj Whitehall, Commander of the Army of the Upper Drangosh."
Raj leaned forward, pommel under his palms. "Right, fellow soldiers," he said, his voice pitched to carry. There was no other sound besides the soughing of the wind through the banner behind him, and a distant hissing from a flock of dactosauroids flying toward the river.
"Today you've shown that you can march, dig, and shoot," he continued. "All good preparation for your real work, which is to kill the enemy." An almost imperceptible rustle of uneasiness; that enemy would outnumber them badly—Sandoral traded across the river into the Colony, rumor abounded, and it had exaggerated what was coming up from Al-Kebir even beyond the unpleasant probable truth.
"Before they get a chance to kill you." No harm in reminding them of the unfair but inescapable fact that in the event of defeat cavalry had some chance of getting away, and infantry none at all. "Just remember this: men aren't any more bulletproof than those scarecrows you just blew the hell out of. Put a bullet through a man, and he falls down and dies. Messer or cropper, raghead or believer, the bullet doesn't care. And if he's on a dog—" Raj slapped Horace's neck, which twitched "—it just makes him a bigger target. Spirit of Man of the Stars firm your aim, for the restoration of the Holy Federation!"
"Endfile," the soldiers murmured in unison.
Menyez nodded. "Carry on, Top," he said to the senior noncom.
"Attention to orders! 17th Kelden County Foot, Fifth Company, second platoon, is hereby judged best unit of today's exercise, and will be issued a 24-hour pass to Sandoral, effective from 12:00 hours tomorrow! 21st Olgez County Rifles, First Company, first platoon, is low-ranked and will do double fatigues for the next week. Dismissed to duties!"
"Ah, Raj," Menyez coughed; it sounded embarrassed, a social gesture rather than the product of his affliction. "Your lady was kind enough to invite Aylice and myself to the entertainment tonight. Shall we arrange a carriage together?"
Semul Falhasker was staging a revival of Minalor's Foreshadows of the Fall,classical mime-drama. No expense had been spared: a full orchestra and troupe from the East Residence, with fireworks and illumination on the Drangosh to follow. Little enough, for the richest merchant in Sandoral.
"No, thank you," Raj said, looking aside. "I'll be, ah, that is, too busy. I'll be dropping by for the banquet and review afterwards." On torchlit barges out on the river; that was being staged by Wenner Reed. Captain Wenner Reed, if you please; Falhasker's bitter rival, second-richest merchant in Sandoral, and commander of the city militia. That made it a matter of military courtesy to attend . . . "Enjoy yourselves by all means."
He straightened. "No rest for the weary; I've got to go drop by on the Skinners, before they forget why they're here and decide to burn down the city on a whim."
Menyez nodded, compassion flickering in his eyes for a moment.
"And I don't envy you the Skinners," he continued, changing the subject with a slight shudder. Nobody liked the barbarian mercenaries from the far northeast; compared to them, the western tribes of the Military Governments, the Brigade and Squadron and even the Stalwarts, were models of civilized sophistication.
"Well," Raj said, "they do have one great qualification."
"No," he said, reining around. "The fact that they're the only people around here, Tewfik possibly excepted, who are really looking forward to the fighting."
* * *
"Ser," M'lewis and da Cruz said, almost simultaneously. They eyed each other, and the Master Sergeant continued first. It was his responsibility to inform the commander of possible threats, after all.
"Skinner, left about one thousand, in t'ditch, ser," he said. "Lookin' real unobtrusive like, but he's aimin' at us."
Raj rolled his head as if stretching his neck muscles. Was that a glimmer of sun on iron? Impossible to tell, and the wind was in their faces, no warning from the dogs.
"Right an' behinds us, in t'tree, ser," M'lewis said. Da Cruz was startled enough to whip his head around, swearing.
"Eyes front," Raj said. Better to ride right in and let the barbarians think all their scouts had been spotted and ignored.
There were probably more of the Skinners watching behind their heavy two-meter sauroid-killer rifles. Not because anyone had assigned them to it, simply because that was what those particular warriors had chosen to do. The camp up ahead contained half his Skinners, it would be an offense against the patron Avatars of the Army to call them a battalion of soldiers . . . and this was better organized than his other war band of them; he kept them well north and south of the city respectively, they came of different clans and had a habit of casual sniping whenever he brought them in range of each other. The chiefs assured him that would stop when a real enemy came in sight.
The Skinners had been assigned an evacuated village on the fringe of the cultivated lands as their camp; it was almost all destroyed now, the huts burned down, the orchard trees hacked for firewood or used for target practice or simply destroyed in idle vandalism. Some of them had rigged sun shelters of sauroid hides—they were hunters, mostly, at home on the northern plains—and more simply dropped and slept wherever impulse took them. The stink was enough to make the troopers behind him gasp and breathe through their mouths; enough to make him, too, if dignity had not prevented.
There were flyblown half-eaten sheep carcasses lying in the muddy patches between shelters, some writhing with maggots; flies clustered blackly on the mouths and eyes of men lying sleeping against their saddles. Dogshit and human dung littered the ground; as they watched, a Skinner undid his breechclout and squatted. Another staggered out of a roofless hut with a jug clutched in one hand, swayed, pirouetted, vomited, and fell facedown in the result, twitching and mumbling. Hounds of every color raised their massive flop-eared heads as the party from the 5th trotted by, scratched at fleas or simply slept.
Raj suspected that his own relative popularity with the Skinners was based on Horace; few other peoples rode hounds, with their incorrigible tendency to do exactly as they pleased with very little regard for consequences . . . which, come to think of it, was very much like the Skinners themselves.
"Spirit on crutches, this place looks like an invitation to an attack," one of the troopers in the color party muttered to another.
"That's what they thought," da Cruz replied with grim amusement; he had been here with Raj before.
They were coming up on a relatively intact hut, one that had not been burned down, at least, and whose tile roof was mostly still there. Also there were at least fifty heads, identifiable as Colonists by the spired helms, lined up in the eaves trough of the house or dangling from the branches of a dead orange tree beside the door; some had fallen, and been casually kicked into corners. The trooper took a look and went eyes-front, making an audible swallowing sound.
There was a hound lying on its back beside the door, rumbling a deep snore and occasionally twitching one of its splayed-out paws as it hunted in its sleep. The Skinner chief was kneeling on the threshold, behind a woman with her dress thrown up over her head; he took one hand off her hips and waved as Raj and his men reined in, without interrupting the rhythm of his thrusts. They jingled the long cartridges in the belts slung across his chest; for the rest, he wore the fringed leggings and beaded moccasins of his people's dress; the breechclout was thrown aside for the moment. Two-inch sauroid fangs were sewn onto his vest and tangled in the scalplock of hair that fell from the crown of his head to his waist; for the rest the head was as bald as an egg and brown as the rest of his body.
"Eh, my fren', amitu!"he called, in an atrocious mixture of Sponglish and Kanjuk.The woman squeaked as he finished in a flurry of grunts and withdrew. "You sojer-man who mal cumme nus,bad like us! You wan' cushez cet fil,eh? She pretty good." Massive, at least, which was how comeliness was measured among the northeastern nomads.
"Not right now, thank you," Raj replied politely.
"Eh, good, you drink wit' me." He gave the woman a ringing slap on her presented buttocks and stood, scratching his crotch energetically. "Fetch drink, woman."
She rose and scurried into the hut, returning with a clay jug. The Skinner drank noisily, liquid running down his chest, and handed the jug to Raj. Gritting his teeth and conscious of the beady eyes watching him, he took a healthy swig, spat a mouthful out.
"Dog piss," he said politely, and drank again; thank the Spirit he'd had the foresight to stuff himself with bread soaked in olive oil before coming out here. The liquor was basically arak,a sort of gin distilled from dates; the additions were those traders dealing with the steppe had found popular, chili peppers, sprigs of wormwood and a little turpentine.
"Want eat?" the chief said, pulling a stick of dried meat from a bag hanging from the eaves.
"No," Raj said: that was no breach of etiquette among Skinners, they could gorge and then go for days without a bite, as indifferent to hunger as they were to any other physical discomfort.
"So," the barbarian said, the formalities having been satisfied. "What you want, sojer-man? Mez gars,my men, they no kill any more farmers?"
Not since we took to shipping the liquor up here by the wagonload,Raj thought. That was a solution of limited use, though: he wanted them alive when Tewfik got here. On the whole, he wished that the Minister of Barbarians had been a little less efficient in moving the Skinners across the Civil Government and down to the frontier; it would have been more convenient had they arrived later. Most troops benefited from extra training, but if you kept Skinners in one place too long all they did was rot. On the other hand, there was no knowing exactly when the Colonists would make their move, now that the campaigning season was open.
"There are to be fireworks tonight," he said. The chief frowned, scratching himself again and tying on the breechclout. Raj amplified: "A great feast; meat, drink, music, women." Sandoral's dockside knocking-shops had agreed to furnish volunteers, heavily subsidized from Army funds. At that, Skinners rarely actually hurt cooperating females; they considered it beneath a warrior's dignity. "Lights—lights in the sky."
The barbarian's eyes lit with comprehension. "Ah, medicine dance!" He crossed himself vigorously. "Kill cattle for Juscrist an' de whetigo. Fais thibodo!We make great medicine feast before fight, take lots of heads, good fighting!"
He ran into the hut, returned with his rifle and shooting-stick. The weapon was taller than he, beautifully cared-for and gleaming with cleanliness. He opened the breech with a snick of oiled metal and slid in a cartridge from the belt across his chest; resting the barrel on the cross-stick of the rest he fired downrange without seeming to aim. A bronze cauldron leaped into the air, and the ringing metal pealed across the camp. Seconds later over a hundred warriors were on their feet, many mounted, all with their long rifles in hand.
"Feast!" the chieftain bellowed, shaking his weapon in the air. "Nus fais'z thibodo,then we fight!"
Now, how do I tell them they've got to get on a barge? Raj wondered. Ah, I'll tell them it's part of our battle-magic.
* * *
"Cursed if I'd have been able to handle this without you filling in on the paperwork, Gerrin," Raj said, throwing down the muster roll. Thirty demondark cursed battalions!he thought. All up to strength, now: fifteen thousand men, from the drummer boys to officers with twice his years and experience, every one of them convinced he could do it better. Possibly rightly.It was almost time to head down to the river for the celebrations, but . . . I like it better here in Gerrin's billet.
"Well, I haven't been bloody good for much else, have I?" the other man said. "I'm going to be ready by the time that arsecutter Tewfik shows up, if it kills me."
Thunder rolled outside the window; man-made thunder, now that the thin rains of winter were giving way to the clarity of spring; volley firing from the ranges outside Sandoral. It was still pleasant to have a blaze going in the fireplace of an evening, although noon was already giving more than a hint of the savage furnace heat summer would bring to the Drangosh Valley; the thin desert air lost warmth quickly, once the sun was down. The smell of coal smoke mixed pleasantly with kave and wet boots steaming, and the underlying tang of massage oil and tobacco; there was still a smell of the day's stew from the bowls soaking in the kitchen bucket.
"You kill yourself, not be much good fighting," Fatima said sharply, in accented but passable Sponglish, as she kneaded the scented oil into the mass of scars along Gerrin's flanks. "Lie still!" She walked away toward the kitchen.
"Insolent wench," Barton said from the corner chair, without looking up from his noteboard.
"Your own fault, you manumit me," she called, coming back in with a bowl of heated towels and laying them over Gerrin's ribs.
"And you teach me read, always spoil a woman," she continued sardonically. Some of the thick muscle was coming back on his shoulders, but the bones still showed more clearly than they had nine months earlier, when the 5th Descott marched into the basin of El Djem. An infant's wail came from up the stairs. "Master calls," she said, unbuttoning her blouse as she climbed.
"You going to adopt it?" Raj said.
Gerrin nodded, reaching out from his stomach-down position to snake a sheaf of papers out of a pile. "Jellica and I aren't going to produce any, not after six years of regular attempts," he said amiably. "Doesn't matter who the father is—" he glanced over fondly at Foley, who wrinkled his nose at him "—and it'll be rather a relief to stop trying. I only did because I couldn't stand the thought of my brothers-in-law inheriting the estate; my sisters are dear girls, but lack my taste in men." Foley threw a half-eaten dried fig without looking up, bouncing it off the older man's skull. "How are the infantry shaping?"
"Better than I expected," Raj said. "That's the Kelden Brigade out there now; Jorg has a real gift for it." Getting Menyez on the strength had been a stroke of luck.
"Nice enough sort, if you avoid all mention of dogs," Foley continued. The door banged open. "Speaking of dogs," he continued, "what do you call people who track mud in the door?"
"Soldiers," Kaltin Gruder said, but he stopped to use the bone scraper. "Ground's firming up nicely, though. What's that?" he continued, looking over Gerrin's shoulder at the document in his hands. "Nice fancy seals." He turned and called up the stairs, "Can't a man get a drink, around here?"
Fatima climbed halfway down the stairs and sat on a tread, cradling the infant to her breast. "This man get drink first, Messer Gruder," she said. "Wine on hearth."
"It's yet another missive from our distinguished Chancellor, moaning and whining about the infantry drawing cash," Gerrin said, skimming it expertly into the fireplace. The heavy linen paper curled and browned on the bed of coals before bursting into flames.
"Well, what does he expect?" Gruder said, taking down a cup from the mantel and dipping the mulled wine out of the pot. "Field armies always draw their wages in cash; there isn't enough Fisc land inside a hundred kilometers of Sandoral to assign farms to ten thousand men." Only a third of the infantry in the new-minted Army of the Upper Drangosh were part of the normal regional garrison. "And the Fisc is collecting the rents on the landgrants of the men stationed here."
Raj laughed, with a hard edge to it; he picked up a coal from the fire with the tongs, lighting a cigarette. The red glow highlit new lines scoring down from beside the heavy beak of his nose.
"He'd rather we let them sit in their billets all winter, worrying more about the barley than drill, and bring them here by forced marches just before the campaigning season started so they could be good and miserable as well as exhausted and slack when we needed them. It'd be cheaper."
"Spirit, does the man want Tewfik on his doorstep?" Kaltin asked, spinning a chair around and sinking down with a grateful sigh, his arms resting on the chairback.
"No, he's just an East Residence pen pusher who's never been more than two days' travel from the city," Raj said, leaning an elbow on the mantle. "But don't underestimate him; he's no fool, and he's not lazy . . . notice how he's been becoming steadily less polite, all winter? Getting back into favor at court, I'd say."
"I'd like to get him out here on the border . . . Spirit of Man, what am I saying, keep Tzetzas as far away from me as possible, Oh Holy Avatars!" He sipped at his cup. The scars from the shrapnel that had killed his brother were mostly healed, standing out like thin white lines against neck and cheeks, one scoring a slight v in his lower lip. "Ahh, that's good, Fatima; what did you put in it?"
"Sugar, little cinnamon, half a lime, and pinch of, how you say, nougar.Want I should show your girls?" The other scars had begun to heal a little as well, but it was noticeable that Kaltin avoided the highborn women who had once been his main recreation.
The Arab girl switched the baby to the other breast; Raj stared into the fire, and Kaltin watched a trifle wistfully. "Tell me something, Fatima," he said. "How did you know you were pregnant, when Tewfik kicked our butts out of El Djem?" She had shown up half-dead when they were nearly at the border, another of the steady trickle of fugitives that came in all during the nightmare retreat.
"Not know then," she said, stroking the boy's cheek as he suckled.
Kaltin blinked at her. "Then why on earth did you follow us?" he asked, bewildered.
"Oh, plenty reason," she said. "I fifth daughter of concubine with no sons, mother die have me. I servant, not even valuable like slave; always talk back, get beaten. No dowry, so have to marry poor man, or be small-small—" she looked over at Foley.
"Insignificant," he told her.
"In-sig-nif-icant concubine like mother." For a moment an old anger brooded in her eyes, the slights and petty cruelties of the harem. "Then, El Djem fall, I have no house and not virgin any more. No Muslim man want me; have to be whore on streets if I stay in Colony. Better here, I know these two good masters, not cruel men: take risk of dying, but better that than life so hard." She grinned. "I right, too. Now I freedwoman, my son heir to rich shayik.Better to be woman here anyway, not kept in all the time, go—" she broke into Arabic.
"Mad from boredom," Gerrin said.
"Yes. And besides," she said, her grin growing wider. "Concubine for these two, how you say, light work."
Foley raised another fig.
"The baby!" Fatima said sharply.
"No fair," he said, as Raj and Kaltin doubled over with laughter. "Besides, I didn't notice you complaining before Gerrin got better."
"Fair is for men," she sniffed, and cocked an eyebrow at Kaltin, whose three concubines were friends of hers; the officer's billets were all on the outer streets near the city wall. "Men all like baby, bigger here—" she pointed to her eyes "—than here," and patted her stomach. "All want, two, three, more women, walk like rooster and then don't know why . . ." More throaty gutturals. Gerrin gave a shout of laughter: " . . . the women always buy cucumbers but there are never any in the salad," he translated.
Raj threw the tail-end of his cigarette in the fire and straightened, scooping his sword belt from the table. "No rest for the wicked," he said. "Sorry to drag you away from domesticity, Barton," he continued.
"Hint, hint," the young man replied, standing likewise. A good deal of the puppy fat had left his face, the hard planes of his cheekbones beginning to match his eyes. Both men threw heavy military cloaks around their shoulders. Foley paused to touch his friend's hair. "You be careful," he said. "You've been spending more time in the saddle than you should; we've got a little time, and you nearly died,you know."
Raj watched with hooded eyes as he paused by the stairs to kiss the baby.
* * *
"Poor bastard," Kaltin muttered, bringing his chair over to Gerrin's side and handing him a mug of the mulled wine. Fatima had taken the baby upstairs to change him, and they could hear the faint crooning of an Arabic lullaby.
"Our esteemed leader?" Gerrin said, raising his brows and sipping. "Spirit, women may not be essential but they do add to the comforts of life . . . yes, for once, fellow Companion, I think we agree. He's a driven man: they may write books about him, someday, but I'll be glad to be one of the footnotes."
Kaltin stared at him in confusion. "I meant that bitch of a woman he's married to," he said, keeping his voice low.
Gerrin sipped again. "I wouldn't call her that, not in any pejorative sense," he said thoughtfully. The lamp had died down, and the coals flickered ruddily over the heavy bones of the Descotters' faces; they had a distant-cousin likeness. "A complex person, very. And not easy to know."
"It's easy enough to know what she's doing to him," Kaltin said bitterly. "A man in a thousand, one warriors are ready to die for, and she . . . first she went sniffing around Half-Arse Stanson, now it's these bloody merchants,of all things."
"More a matter of them sniffing around her," Gerrin said equably. "Tongues lolling, when they aren't snarling and snapping at each other."
"Parties, barge cruises, hunts, operas—" Kaltin rolled his eyes. "She's always on the arm of one or the other, out till all hours. Who the darkgulf doesn't know it? Men who should respect him are laughing at him behind his back."
"Not soldiers," Gerrin replied. "Unless you count Wenner Reed."
"That militia of his is a joke.And don't try to change the subject."
"I'm not. You may have noticed it's considerably less of a joke since he stopped interfering with us working on them. And a little dactosauroid hissed in my ear that that was Suzette's doing."
Gruder stared at him in horror: "You're not saying that Raj pimps to . . . to . . ."
"Oh, shut up, Kaltin," Gerrin said wearily. "Of course not. How old are you, anyway?"
"Twenty-three, and one year younger than you, O graybeard."
"There's years, and there's experience: at sixteen, Barton's got some advantage on you, I think. Fatima is years ahead, and she's not turned seventeen yet . . . Anyway, Suzette hasn't repudiated him, fostered spurious issue, or created an open scandal. He can petition a Church court for divorce, or call out any man he feels is encroaching."
"But he loves her, Spirit dammit! The man's suffering, you can see it—he drives himself beyond his strength."
"Raj was born to be a hero, which is to suffer," Gerrin said ruthlessly. "If not one way, then another: his conscience will do that to him, if nothing else, as long as he's a soldier. Working for Barholm, at that . . . As for love and Suzette, like most women she's more practical than you, m'boy, whatever she's doing or isn't. Don't confuse who she opens her knees to and who she opens her heart to."
Fatima stuck her head down through the stairwell, upside-down; the long hair hung a meter and a half below the urchin smile. "Take me to see fireworks," she wheedled, "and I open anything you want."
Gerrin snorted. "You're not taking that child down to the zoo on the docks, my girl."
She sighed, looking younger for a moment. "True," she said mournfully.
"We'll watch them from the rooftop," he relented. "You can bring the cradle up there."
"If you'll make another pot of that mulled wine, I'll bring Damaris and Aynett and Zuafir over, we can all watch them together," Kaltin volunteered.
"I go get blankets."
* * *
"Ahhhhhhh,"the crowd around Raj sighed, as the silver sphere exploded over the domes. The sound rippled across the river, from pleasure boats and barges and rafts; the water threw the light of the fireworks and their torches and lanterns back in spatters of liquid diamond.
From here, Sandoral was an enchantment, like a vision of a city before the Fall. Raj knew the reality, a city mostly of filthy alleyways and mud brick hovels, like any other . . . but from the barges lashed together offstream you saw the Legate's Palace floodlit by its arc lights, white marble domes and colonnades shining. They had been built a century ago, when Sandoral was rebuilt after a Colonial sack . . . Elsewhere in the city lamps and torches were shining points of light at windows and flat roofs, as the people clustered to watch their betters at play, kind shadow picking out the russet-colored stucco.
Raj scooped another glass off a tray, then almost choked on it; Muzzaf's face looked back with perfect aplomb from under a servant's kerchief. They turned their backs to each other, and Raj muttered, "Anything?"
"Messer Falhasker has a number of people of Colonial stock on his staff," the Komarite said. "I've had no trouble in passing myself off as a Star convert of that stock." Posing as a Muslim was a little too risky. "Yes, he deals extensively in the Colony, and has continued to do so." Technically illegal, but Sandoral was a town that lived by long-distance trade; with the locks at Giaour Falls, down past the border, you could navigate the Drangosh all the way to the Colonial Gulf. Short of actual fighting or putting people up against the wall, there was no way to stop it.
It was actually more to the benefit of the Civil Government's forces, at the moment. Fifteen thousand mouths—not to mention their hangers on—was a massive burden for a city only six times that in peacetime. Much of the Army of the Upper Drangosh was being fed from Colonial fields, and even clothed in uniforms made of cloth woven and dyed in Hammamet and Dasra and Al-Kebir itself. So there was no excuse to put people up against the wall; he was here to fight, not enforce border regulations made by people in East Residence. No excuse.
"Beyond this, nothing. I managed to glimpse his books, and his rate-of-return on ventures into the Colony is suspiciously high, but that might simply be good management, not favors for espionage."
You could not shoot a man just because his worst rival, and the town gossip mongers "knew" he was passing information to the enemy. Or because he wanted your wife. So much intelligence data passed through Sandoral that it was virtually useless, half the spies were not sure themselves who they really worked for; he had had confirmed reports from half a dozen sources that Tewfik was on the march . . . sent against the nomads of Sogdia . . . down with malaria . . . plotting to seize the Settler's throne . . . only a week from the border . . . Quite probably one of the reports was right, but how could he tell which?That was the whole point of spraying out disinformation, it clouded the waters until the truth was invisible even if it leaked.
"But of Messer Reed's household, I have learned something. There is a new servant there, who calls himself Abdullah ibn 'Azziz"—the Colony equivalent of "Saynchez," it was so common—"who is suspiciously functionless. He seems to have moved here from the west recently. I will try to find out more."
* * *
The fireworks display ended with a spectacular blaze of red, blue, green, and silver starbursts, almost an exact duplicate of the Holy Federation Flag. Above him on the quarter deck, Raj could hear Suzette's voice:
"Oh, Wenner, they're glorious!"
"Come, come, my dear, after the Governor's Court in East Residence, I'm sure you find it boring and provincial, like all our little amusements . . . pretending we're big frogs in our little pond. How all the ladies resent the way you make them seem dowdy and out-of-date!"
"No," she said seriously. "That's not true; it's Sandoral—and the people I've met here—who make the capital and the court seem . . . artificial, and unreal . . . the frontier has such . . . vitality."
Raj let the Gederosian crystal goblet drop, and marched forward to where Barton Foley was backed into a corner by three local society beauties. He seemed to be deriving considerable amusement as he egged them into competition with comments very much in Gerrin's style.
"I'm leaving, Barton," he said abruptly.
The social smile dropped off Foley's face, as if wiped away with a cloth. "Where to, sir?" he asked.
"There, first," Raj said, nodding downstream. The Skinner's barge erupted in shrieks and roars and a volley from the massive 15mm rifles fired skyward that made fireworks of its own; in the dark the muzzle flashes were longer than the weapons themselves. "To get very thoroughly drunk. And tomorrow, you and I and the 5th/1st/1st"—Foley's platoon, first in the first Company of the 5th Descott Guards—"are going looking for Tewfik. Enough of this sitting on our butts sniffing the wind."