"Gentlemen," Raj said. "That's the situation. Your Reverence."
With that he bowed to the Sysup-Suffragen of Sandoral, whose presence was obligatory. It was notable that the County Legate was absent; the head of the County's clergy and Wenner Reed were the only nonregulars present. Aside from the two Skinner chieftains halfway down the table; one of them had his vest before him, hunting lice and popping them into his mouth, and the other was digging at the inlays in the ancient satiny wood with the point of his knife. The battalion commanders were present, none of whom could be slighted—some of the cavalry units felt offended that their infantry counterparts were there at all—and the Companions. And Suzette, of course; after what had happened at the ferry this afternoon, no one had quite had the gall to object.
Raj watched the faces for a moment. Expecting an invasion all winter, preparing for one, was not quite the same thing as knowing the Settler's army would arrive in three days. Even now in this high cool room it seemed remote, unreal beside the glow of sunset and the blinking yellow of Sandoral's lanterns as they showed in the windows of the streets below.
Three days if they were lucky.
"My children," the Sysup said, touching the Star medallion on her chest, "I am not a soldier. The temples of the city have been cleared, and my healer-priests are ready. With the assistance of the army's noncombatants, ably organized by the Messa Whitehall." A nod of the lined, fine-featured head. "For the rest, we will pray."
"Messer Reed?" A soft-looking man, if you only noticed the body and face and not the eyes.
"Sandoral was founded as a fortress-city," Reed said. "So long as Sandoral holds, the frontier holds, and we deny the Upper Drangosh to the enemy as a route of attack. Our defenses are the strongest in the Civil Government, outside the capital itself; let Jamal and Tewfik sit in front of them, until they starve and their army rots away from disease."
There were murmurs of approval; the local authorities here had been spending continuously since the last sack, three long generations ago. Sandoral had more than walls; concrete pillboxes studded the approaches, miles of ditch filled with razor-edged angle iron, massive covered redoubts filled with obsolescent but very functional muzzle-loading guns. The Skinners looked around them, bewildered: one stood and began reciting his deeds and those of his ancestors, starting with the last man he had killed. It took a moment to restore order, and Raj felt the eyes on him like the wave-front of an explosion, crushing and twisting.
* * *
—and the Oxheads were close on the northern horizon. A long earth barrage stood across the valley mouth, with a lake backed behind it; on the hill beside, Jamal's banner stood. This day it fluttered merrily, crackling like thunder beneath a clear blue sky scattered with puffball clouds, the beards and robes of the men who stood beneath cuffing and fluttering as well. They seemed in high good humor; to the south stretched a vast flat plain, laced with the silver glimmer of irrigation canals, patchworked with crops and orchards. Pillars of smoke were spotted across it, bending before the northerly breeze; singular and emphatic where villages and manors burned, smaller trickles from the woodwork of water-lifting wheels, more diffuse where orchards and ripe grain smoldered.
Jamal clapped his hands together with a shout; he was a stout man in later middle age, dressed in a burnouse and ha'aik of classical simplicity, black and white Azanian silk, wearing no weapon but the jeweled dagger whose curved sheath was thrust through his belt. He was almost ostentatiously plain, compared to the peacock splendor of the amirs and generals ranked behind him, the glowing colors of the carpets on which they stood; plumes nodded from turbans clasped with rubies and opalescene, and servants held aloft parasols whose canopies were intricately worked with Koranic verses in pearl and lapis.
"So many fires!" the Settler laughed. "We have been careless, my sons. It is only courteous we should do what we can to put them out."
Two younger men in gorgeously embroidered robes nodded and laughed with their father; Ali, slight and nervous-faced with a twitch at the corner of one eye, Akbar fingering his goatee with a plump hand. One-eyed Tewfik stood a little apart in the blood-red uniform of his troops, his face held like a clenched fist, but it was he who signalled to the uniformed engineers. An imam knelt and prayed toward Sinar, and the engineer whirled a crank. Spouts of rock and dirt punched out from the middle of the dam's face, in the center curve where it bent against the huge weight of water pressing down from the mountains. Thunder rumbled back from the stony walls, the ground shook. Then the first spouts of water arched out, beautiful and deadly as their spray cast rainbows across the gorge.
The dam crumbled like a child's sand castle beneath their power.
—and a cart trundled noisily over the cobbles of darkened Sandoral, pulled by men in head-to-foot robes; nothing showed but a slit above their eyes, and they stopped to rest often, although there were only a few bodies in the vehicle behind. "Bring out your dead!" one called, whirling a wooden noisemaker. "Bring out your dead!"
Artillery flickered and rumbled, the flashes visible over the roofs of the buildings, because no other light showed; nothing but the orange smudge of a building that had burned down to its foundations. The men pulling the cart ignored it; so did the folk who shuffled from an opened door, carrying a small bundle between them.
"Bring out your dead!"
—and a man lay in a roadside ditch. It was spring, and flowering vines grew across the stumps of trees; thin grass sprouted on bare clay in the fields beyond. The man had been very thin when he died; whoever had hacked the meat from his arms and legs had had to haggle chips into the bone to get a worthwhile amount. From the look of it, after a while they had lost patience and started chewing.
* * *
Raj blinked, the faces returning to focus before him. Smiles from a few of the Companions, sneers or doubtful mutual glances from some of the other battalion commanders, who had heard of his fits of introspection. He shuddered slightly; Spirit knew, a vision of a battlefield was bad enough . . .
"No, gentlemen," he said, uncovering the map on the easel at the head of the room. "Observe." He tapped Sandoral city. "There are nearly a million people in this County—" probably an underestimate, nobody liked the census takers from the Ministry of Finance "—of which no more than seventy thousand live in Sandoral City itself. It isn't the trade or manufactures that constitute the value of this city, it's the fact that it keeps the Upper Drangosh in Civil Government hands."
His pointer swept downstream. "When Tewfik comes up with the Army of the South, the Colonists will have more than enough manpower to invest Sandoral closely, then burn and kill their way north around us—while the only Civil Government field army in the east sits and eats its boots; a few months, and the dogs will have gone into the stew pots." Not so much to feed the inhabitants, as because each ate more than a dozen humans. "And there goes our strategic mobility.
"The plain truth of the matter is that the Colonists are closer to the centers of their power—" he tapped the stick down on Al-Kebir "—than we are." Moving it two thousand kilometers to the east, to the Hemmar Valley and the coastlands of the Peninsula.
"This land north of Sandoral is the only densely populated and productive area available to support a defense line. If we let them into it, the Colonists can wait for Sandoral City to wither on the vine, no matter how long it takes. And I doubt we'll be able to hold them south of the Oxheads or west of Komar. It would take centuries to rebuild what they destroyed, even if we could." He took a deep breath, closing his eyes for a moment, and then opened them with a brilliant smile that almost fooled himself.
"I am instructed to defend this frontier. The only way to do that is to remove the threat posed by the Colonist field army operating on the Upper Drangosh; which means, to meet it outside the walls and crush it utterly."
Uproar, shouting; cheers from the younger Companions, a slow nod from Jorg Menyez. Suzette met his gaze, her eyes gleaming slightly with unshed tears. Cries of horror from most of the rest. Raj held up his hand for silence, but many of those present were driven by visions of their own; running with the yelping war cries of the Colonist cavalry behind them, he suspected. Death, mutilation, slavery.
"Quiet!" he called.
"ATTENTION TO ORDERS." Da Cruz's bull bellow silenced them more effectively than a gunshot might have. "Commander said quiet, Messers," he added mildly. "Ser."
"Thank you, Master Sergeant. Yes, Messer Reed."
Reed hunched forward. "But you said that their armies outnumber you badly—how badly, you don't know. This is suicide!"
"Not if we pick the ground carefully, and see that the enemy come to us."
The militia commander's eyes narrowed: not fear, Raj decided, but the look a man gives an enemy. "How?" he said.
Raj smiled again, rising on the balls of his feet and bending the pointer between his hands. By praying for a fucking miracle, he thought. Aloud, "Messers, I don't intend to fight an open-field battle of maneuver . . . not against an enemy one-third again my strength and more mobile to boot. Instead—" he flipped back the map, showing another of the city and its immediate environs. "I intend to entrench to the west of the city. Even if they have thirty thousand men, Tewfik and Jamal cannot invest a perimeter that includes the field army and the city both. Nor can they leave an intact mobile force of fifteen thousand in their rear, and the city with its steamboats blocks the passage of supplies by river. If I move to the west of the city, they must destroy the Army of the Upper Drangosh or force it back within the walls before they can proceed."
A hand raised by one of the battalion commanders: Beltin, the 12th Rogor Slashers. "Commander, if we stretch our line so that they can't outflank it, they can punch through. And if we thicken our firing line, they can outflank us; even if we dig in, we don't have the men."
Raj nodded. "Time, space, and force, gentlemen. You know what the terrain right along the river is like; impossible, and worse as you get north. Furthermore, north of the frontier forts—" which mounted huge cast-steel rifles, capable of smashing anything that floated "—we control the river; that is why they're building a bridge sixty kilometers downstream.
"They'll have to march every meter of the way, tending away from the riverbank. Twenty, thirty thousand men, possibly forty thousand, but let's not scare anyone, as many animals, every one of which has to eat, and still more importantly, drink, my friends. More than once a day. How many thousand liters carried up from the bridgehead? This—" the stick was unsatisfactory; he snapped the tough oak across and stabbed with his finger on a dry riverbed running east just southwest of the city "—is where we'll entrench. Impassable terrain to our left; bad-to-rough to our right, and supplies only five kilometers behind us in the city—and a line of retreat, worst comes to worst. If they move to the west, they make their supply situation impossible and expose their flank to us. If they wait, fine—we're on the defensive.
"Of course," he added, "we'll have to thicken the defenses any way we can. We'll strip the city of all movable artillery—" Reed shot to his feet, genuine horror on his face. Raj looked at him for a moment, lips pulled back from teeth. Please. Give me an excuse. I won't have even you taken out and shot out of hand for personal reasons, please give me an excuse. The Companions' heads turned toward Reed like gun turrets tracking. The civilian swallowed and slumped back into his chair.
"—for the field fortifications. The militia gunners will accompany me; the remainder of the militia will hold the walls. All refugees in the city—" they had been trickling in for weeks "—all able-bodied persons not members of the militia or the medical teams, and all transport animals and equipment are hereby conscripted as labor battalions." He took out his watch. "I expect to begin in about two hours. Any further questions?"
"Sir." Menyez again, frowning down at his notes. "Sir, we'll need overhead protection for the entrenchments." An airburst could turn an open trench into an abattoir, and guns and dogs were even more vulnerable. "Timber, sir."
"There's plenty on the slopes of the Oxheads," Raj said, and laughed aloud at the expressions. "And they've been shipping it down the Drangosh and putting it into buildings for a long time, gentlemen; we'll just take it out." Reed looked ill; he was about to lose a considerable proportion of his income, even in victory.
Silence fell, and Raj leaned forward and rested his weight on his palms.
"Messers," he said, deliberately pitching his voice low, watching them strain forward to listen. "You're all fighting men; worse, many of you are cavalry—" a brief flicker of humor "—so you've been raised on stories of victories. Elegant victories, somebody takes somebody in the flank, a commander's nerve breaks, a dashing charge disrupts the enemy's line."
His head turned, singling out one man after another. "Those battles are like two-headed dogs; they happen, but you can't count on them. They usually turn on one side being grossly inferior, in numbers or weapons or morale, training or leadership."
One fist rapped the wood lightly. "We're not fighting barbarians. We're fighting a big, tough army, well-equipped and trained. Men not afraid to die, under commanders who've learned in a hard school. I'll use every trick, every surprise I can—but tricks and surprises will not win this battle.
"There is," he paused, and frowned as he sought for words, "a certain brutal simplicity to most engagements between well-matched forces. We're going to fight that sort of battle, and our only real advantages are interior lines and position. The enemy will march right up to us, and we're going to plant our feet in the dirt and systematically beat him to death. Kill, and keep killing until their hearts break and they run. And then, we will have fulfilled our mission and made this province safe."
A long quiet, even the Skinners sensing the solemnity of the mood. Raj's voice was soft, "Messers, the Spirit of Man of the Stars is with us: I know this, know it as if shown a vision. But the Spirit acts through fallen, imperfect men. Through us. So let us do what men may, and suffer what we must like men." Louder, "Meeting dismissed!"
* * *
The long roar of falling adobe woke the infant slung across Fatima's breast. She soothed it absently, looking back down the street of officer's billets; hers had been the last to go. Soldiers and conscript civilians surged forward even before the dust settled; mud brick has great strength in compression, almost as much as stone, but it will dissolve back into the earth it was made from under lateral stress. Townsmen shouted, dragging at lumps of clay with mattocks and shovels and picks; the Descotters tossed their lariats to be snubbed to the ends of beams, took turns around the pommels of their saddles and dragged the long baulks of pine timber back into the street, their dogs hunching and tucking their tails between their legs as they backed. Torches lit the faces of men who strained and grunted as they heaved in unison, flinging the rafters onto wagons.
It was the fourth hour past midnight; odd, she thought, for the streets to be lit like day, at an hour meant for sleep. It had often been her favorite time, catnapping between the times she fed the baby, lying quietly and listening to the breathing of the men . . . odd also to be always with men, after so many years in the world of the women's quarters. She brushed a tear from the corner of her eye with her shawl.
"Why are you sad, Fatima?" Damaris Tinnisyn said, heaving a bundle up to the bed of the wagon; Kaltin Gruder's household had been next to Staenbridge's, and they were sharing the chores of moving their gear to the temple.
She stopped to look wistfully at the baby's face for a second, and the other two concubines gathered about to coo and gurgle as well. They were all a few years older than the Arab girl, pretty but harder-faced.
"He's really going to adopt him?" Zuafir said.
Fatima nodded. "Papers already made," she said, with satisfaction; there was a certain . . . solidity to legal documents; notarized copies nestled in the money belt about her waist that Barton and Gerrin had insisted on, along with her manumission papers. "Raj . . . Messer Whitehall and his Lady stand Starparents."
The other's envy was friendly, without the edge of hostility it might have had if she had used her good fortune to try and domineer. Governor Barholm's wife had started from far lower than they, an outright prostitute rather than an acknowledged mistress: but that was a fairy-story, a tale like Djinn from a lamp or wagons that flew and talking picture-boxes; gentlemen did not marry the girls they picked up on campaign. Fatima's good fortune meant an honorable place for life, and a nobleman's status for her son. The sort of stroke of luck they dreamed of while they scrimped and saved, for a dowry that would make a working-man overlook certain things, or enough capital to open a shop.
"Then why are you sad?" Aynett said. The wagon creaked off, and they followed: they would all be working together in the aid station, you picked up a practical knowledge of wounds and their treatment if you followed the drum. The 5th took care of its own, but expected more in return than an ability to lie on your back.
"I happy there," Fatima said softly. "Nobody beat me, scorn me, tell me I stupid useless imp of Shaitan; house my own." Her head came up. "Pray Alia—Spirit of Stars our men return safe and victorious."
* * *
"And back two!" Jorg Menyez said, looking through the lens of the surveyor's level. The open valley where the Civil Government troops would make their stand glistened bone-white and black and orange beneath the moons.
The team of soldiers down the line of string pounded in another stake. Menyez straightened, putting his hands to his back; it was cool as the desert nights always were, and the stars had a hard brilliance. Only a winter night had that sort of clarity up in Kelden County; summer nights were softly luminous, smelling of clover and dew-damped ground. That was a rich land, rolling hills and orchards and thick oakwoods, not like this country south of the Oxheads; here the bones of the earth showed through, and the only fertility was what men had made. The desert waited, with sand to fill their canals and scorching winds, waiting for their labor and vigilance to stop.
"And we put half our efforts into killing each other," he murmured.
"Jorg?" Raj said, looking up from his mapboard. Officers clustered around it, making quick notes on their own pads, occasionally jogging off to fix a view in their minds.
"I was thinking we should have a permanent engineering corps, the way the Colonists do," he answered, a little ashamed of the unsoldierly thoughts.
"Hmmm, there are arguments both ways," the commander answered. "More flexible, our way, giving everyone the basics. Although I'm lucky you made such a study of it; too many of my cavalry commanders might as well be Squadron or Brigade nobles, not interested in anything unless they can drink it, hunt it, ride it, or fuck it. Right, here's the schematic and perspective."
The valley ran from the northwest to the southeast, out of tumbled choppy loess hills, and into the scree and badlands that ran down to the river. Water flowed here only two months of the year, but it left a broad streak of sand winding down the middle of the depression; there was a one-in-ten slope behind toward the higher ground of the city, and a long smooth rise southwest to the low ridge a kilometer away.
"From above, like this." Raj's finger traced a broad V with its point toward the enemy; the arms were of slightly unequal length. "Two-point-eight clicks on the left, two-point-two on the right; that's the easier approach and I want it defiladed from the center. Right here—" his finger tapped the point of the V "—is where the command post will be, the redoubt, and where the 5th will stand. Also half the artillery, the heavy pieces from the city. Space the rest of the stuff from the walls, and all the 75's and field-howitzers, in 4-gun batteries down the wings at equal intervals, except—" he tapped the extreme right, the western anchor of the line "—I want this to have six of the howitzers, sighted in on the ravines off our flank, just in case they get cute. Also, I'm putting the bordermen in there." Two hundred had shown up a week ago.
"Damned," he added "if I know why, but since I led the 5th to its notable corncobbing at El Djem, those mad bastards from the Komar hills seem to like me.
"Now, apart from the 5th, I want the cavalry battalions in a second line about fifty, sixty meters back from the first—just far enough to have a clear field of fire over the front line. Cover for the dogs just behind them. And behind all that, pile the spoil and then dig in a road, nothing elaborate, right across the arms of the V. Communications trenches between all positions."
"That's an awful lot of digging, Whitehall," Menyez said.
"You've got fifteen thousand soldiers and thirty thousand civilians on their way," Raj replied. They all turned and looked upslope behind them, to the lights and ant-murmur of the road out from Sandoral. Torches lit the ridgeline, and a load of squared timbers was dumped to avalanche down towards them.
"Furthermore," Raj continued, "I want a staggered line of holes, about two hundred meters up the opposite slope—" he pointed "—thirty of them. Slanting upslope in the direction of our gallant wog adversaries, just enough to hold a hundred-liter urn, you know, the type they use for oil and wine around here?"
"You don't want much, do you?" Menyez laughed.
"I want victory," Raj said flatly.
The older man looked away. "Tell me," he said suddenly. "What would you do if you were Jamal, or Tewfik?"
"Stay at home under a jasmine vine, sipping kave while harem girls dropped peeled grapes in my mouth," Raj replied promptly. There was a chuckle from the group of officers about them. "If I had to attack now? About what they're doing; there really isn't an alternative, as long as we have Sandoral and a reasonably-sized army and they don't control the river, which they can't since we have superior riverboats. They've got better engineers, we've got better mechanics . . . I'm glad it's Jamal in charge, though."
"Why?" Gerrin asked, glancing up from a whispered consultation with Kaltin Gruder.
"Tewfik's a saber general; feint, feint, off with your head. Jamal . . . I've studied his campaigns in the east, and down against the Zanj. He uses the hammer-hammer method; walk up to someone and start whipping on them with your hammer. If it breaks, you send back to stores for a bigger hammer."
"Let's just hope he doesn't have one big enough."
"This time, at least," Raj said thoughtfully.
* * *
"What are you doing!"
A voice called out into the street from the window above. Antin M'lewis squinted up into a carbide lantern; the house was large, with only the one exterior window above the big brass-strapped door, the sound of tinkling water coming from within where fountains played in courtyards.
"This Messer Bougiv Assed's house?" he asked, conscious of the two squads at his back, and the light wagon that had once been an officer's coach.
"Yes, it is! And the Messer will not be amused at this intrusion."
"Fuck 'im," M'lewis said casually. "This is t'place, dog-brothers."
Troopers dismounted, one rattling the gate. " 'Tis locked, Warrant," he said.
"Ye, slavey," M'lewis called up to the window. "C'mon down an' open it."
"Out of the question!" indignation hardened above fear.
"Ar. Well, yer bastids heard the sumbitch," M'lewis continued.
"Right yer are, Warrant," the trooper said, holding the rifle muzzle a handspan from the lock. "'Ware bouncer."
The others led their dogs to the wall. The rifle blasted, with a chung!-ping of parting steel and a diminishing whine as pieces of soft lead and tempered metal bounced off stone. M'lewis dismounted and cradled his weapon in his arm, kicking the tall doors in as the broken lock rattled.
"Allays wanted to do that," he said, flashing a gold-toothed grin. "Kick in a Messer's door, that is."
"Tired a' pickin' t'locks?" one of the others asked. They formed up and tramped in his wake, gawking around at the carved-stone and fabric splendors.
"Hoo, Spirit!" M'lewis whistled. There were lords of ten thousand acres in Descott County who had nothing half so fine. Of course, back home the gentry counted wealth in livestock, dogs, fighting men, weapons and stout walls; all difficult to steal . . . from Descotters. "Nao, I don't pick locks. T'wives and daughters lets down ropes fer me; pow'rful tirin', befer I gits around to stealin'."
A stout middle-aged man in expensive nightclothes came stamping down the stairs; the guards following him with lanterns and pistols slowed to a stop as they saw the dozen helmeted soldiers staring about the foyer of the mansion.
"I am Messer Assed," he said in a tone of furious control. "Who do you think you are, soldier, breaking in here! Your officer will have you flogged, flogged."
"I doubts it," M'lewis said tranquilly. The broad friendliness of his smile did not alter, even as he flipped the rifle up and poked it into the aristocrat's stomach. "Allays wanted t'do this, too . . . Now, I thinks I's the man wit' t'gun, an' my officer sent me here. Fer one—" he looked down at the pad tucked into his belt. "El-ect-ri-cal gen-er-ator. Befer," he added genially, "we starts knockin' down yer outbuildin's fer the timber." A wink. "But don't'cher worry yer heart, Messer, I gots a government receipt, right here."
* * *
"Careful with that, yer arseface," da Cruz said.
The jar that was being manhandled off the wagon was taller than a man and nearly as wide as it was tall; even with six troopers on the stout handles the thick terracotta walls of the storage vessel made it an awkward burden. It had been full of olive oil until recently, and the smell was as disagreeable as the slipperiness.
"Ye got it?" he asked, looking down into the hole. It had been dug at a steep slant down into the silt, kept from collapsing with wicker basketwork propped on sticks. The man head-down in it was a gunner, you could tell that by the dark-blue trousers with the red piping up the seams, and by his arrogant contempt for anyone not initiated into the mysteries of his art.
"Mmm-hmm," the artilleryman said, "that's got her." He raised a voice muffled by the dirt. "Murchyzen, get off your useless butt and send the wire down."
There was an arm-deep trench running downhill from the pit; at the head of it a piece of wooden pipe showed, running up from the base of the hole below. Another gunner had been squatting, smoking his pipe and watching the civilians and cavalry troopers working with the enjoyment any soldier felt when someone else was pulling the detail. Now he rose and carefully lifted a length of cable; it was braided copper, the outside coated with a sap gum that was shiny and flexible, although a bit tacky in this heat. The end for a meter back had been stripped of insulation and unbraided into a fan of bright metallic strands, each one wrapped around a half-dozen big percussion caps, the type used to fire muzzle loading artillery. The gunner shook it slightly, making a clinking sound something like a sistrum.
"Ya dicking around again, Murchyzen?" the man in the pit asked with dangerous patience.
Da Cruz looked at the detonators with loathing; he had worked as a quarryman in his youth. Until his father was blown into assorted gobbets by a misfired charge; they had found his boots with the feet and sections of calf still in them. But the commander had asked him to see that the fougasses were done properly, and by the Spirit they would be.
"Here it comes," the gunner said, wrapping a cloth around the detonators and feeding the cable down the wooden pipe; for all his casual familiarity, he did it with a craftsman's deft gentleness. The Master Sergeant craned his head to watch the gunner in the fougasse pit working. Once the cloth-wrapped tip of the cable showed through the man spread the wires out across the canvas below him like the roots of a tree, pinning them in place with pieces of bent twig. Finished, he grunted satisfaction and called over his shoulder:
"Now the powder." Ten one-kilo cotton sacks, coarsegrained propellant charges. Whistling tunelessly, the gunner ripped each with a diagonal slash of his knife-bayonet, then turned them over and tapped them gently into place with the pommel. When he had finished he stroked the lumpy surface and wriggled out backward, squatting on his hams and blinking in the bright sunlight.
"Yer needs that many detonators?" da Cruz said, handing him a canteen.
The artillery sergeant was a wiry man, about forty; from Chongwe Island, by the accent and the blond hair that stood out against a skin tanned almost as dark as a Descotter's. He rinsed his mouth out and spat, then poured half the contents over his head, to join the sweat-runnels through the dirt on his bare chest.
"Na," he said. "Two or three ought to do her. But I figure, what they hell, we got 'em, why not use them?"
Blue eyes met black, and da Cruz nodded in complete agreement. One thing you learned in this business was that it rarely paid to get too subtle, and it never hurt to kick a little harder than you needed to, just in case.
"Let's slip it," da Cruz said, once the gunner sergeant had had a chance to catch his breath; even if you hated explosives, it was always a pleasure to watch a good professional at work. The civilians attached to the detail were unloading the barrels and smaller jugs that would be poured into the large one to make the load of the flame-fougasse; liquid bitumen, tar, naphtha, sulphur, and the thick green vile-smelling oil rendered down from the greasy flesh of the avocat fish.
"One of my fav'rite occupations, slipping it in," the sergeant said. The troopers were manhandling the huge jar over to the hole. "Ah, friends?" They looked up. "You know, there's an earth lip around the powder, so even if you dropped that it shouldn't hit hard enough to set off the detonators, but all the same I'd appreciate it if you put her down, you know, a might soft."
* * *
Raj looked up from the lip of the bunker; a man was picking his way towards them across the tumbled earth of the trench line. A tall man, as tall as Raj, dressed in expensive cotton-drill khaki and a wrapped headdress; fifty, with sun and wind stamped into his flesh and salt-and-pepper beard. A pistol was strapped high up on his right hip, and Suzette had her arm tucked through the crook of his left. She was wearing elaborate Court riding-dress, complete with a wig of blond braids.
"Messer Falhasker," Raj said in a neutral tone. Although it was dubious whether he deserved the title; self-made wealth rather than inherited, and mostly in trade at that. "Good day, Messer. My thanks for your assistance." Which had been valuable; the merchant had organized his riverboat crews to help with the construction, donated every scrap of sailcloth in his warehouses for sandbags and even had them sewn up by the hundreds of women textile workers who spun and wove the fine cotton he traded up from the Drangosh Delta.
The Delta was the heartland of the Colony, and the land from which Falhasker's mother had come; she was the daughter of a prominent merchant house of Al-Kebir . . . a politically prominent family; the Colonists did not share the Civil Government's prejudice against traders.
"We're all in this together," the merchant said; Suzette gave his arm a slight squeeze. He nodded to the scene around them. "And in only two nights and a day!" he continued. "I only wish I could get them to work half as hard for me. And I pay them, too."
Forty thousand pairs of hands had been at work for thirty hours; the five-kilometer stretch of dry valley looked like a garden plot infested with geometric-minded gophers. The basic outlines of the trenches had been dug, the main line for the infantry to hold and the fortlets behind them where the cavalry would support their fire and be ready to block a penetration or launch pursuit. Evenly spaced semicircles marked the gun platforms, and zigzag communications trenches linked them all. The redoubt at the center was a huge pit right now, nearly two stories deep; the fighting deck would have a cellar beneath it. Even as the long timbers went in to support the floor hands were stacking powder and shot on the bottom level.
Temporary ramps had been left, and two hundred soldiers and civilians were backing a cannon down it, heaving against a spiderweb of ropes. The gun was one of the city's defensive weapons, a three-meter tube of black cast iron on wheels taller than a man, throwing thirty-kilo shot. It trundled the last few yards and set-tied onto the overlapping timbers of the redoubt's floor with a rumbling thunder; there was a ratcheting pig-snarl behind it, as one of the armored cars backed and turned, ready to follow the gun. Raj looked at the turtle shape without affection: there were a dozen of the armored vehicles in Sandoral, shells of wrought-iron boilerplate driven by the only internal-combustion engines in the Civil Government. There was room for a dozen riflemen within, and the armor would turn small-arms fire and shell fragments. It would not turn any sort of artillery projectile, and the things were monsters to maintain, broke down at the slightest excuse, suspensions so fragile they had to be hauled to the scene of battle on ox-drawn timber skids . . . and potentially decisive, at the crucial moment.
Unfortunately the Colony had them, too.
Falhasker cleared his throat, and Raj started slightly. "Oh, yes. Well, they're working for their lives, you know," he said mildly.
* * *
"Falhasker's called Reed out," Suzette said, when the merchant had walked a little aside to examine the armored car.
"Oh?" Raj said, looking up at the ridge opposite instead of the woman at his side. We should have a skirmish line there, he thought: a lot of things in life were easier to do if you focused on your work. With a goal, everything was easy. A skirmish line would probably mean they'd encamp on the crest. Useful. You did whatever you had to do, to get where you were going.
"Reed called him a damned raghead spy in public."
"Quite possibly true," Raj said. Kaltin? Yes, I'll want a Companion for that. The 7th, they could handle it.
"Falhasker said Reed was a damned fool."
"Certainly true." They stood silent.
"Suzette," Raj said after a moment. "You know, it might be . . . advisable to let Falhasker know that we were only able to scare up five generators for the fougasses. So only five on the far right flank are hooked up, the others are quaker cannon."
Actually, each generator powered a board that would fire six of the flame weapons.
A light touch on his elbow. "I'll tell him," she said softly. "He's very interested in technical things."
Anything you had to do. Anything at all.