East Residence sat on a peninsula that jutted out like a thumb from the foothills of the coast range to the west, enclosing a narrow tongue of water on its south side. Eastward was the estuary of the Hemmar River, flowing from the south out into the Midworld Sea. Both moons were down; the Palace and the inner districts around it were bright with gas streetlights, while the bulk of the capital was a lumpy darkness of buildings and hills, black picked out by the yellow dots of lamps. Off in the west there was a sullen light from the foundries and factories, while to the east on the highest point the gold Starburst on the Temple's dome was underlit by electric arc-lights and touched by the first rays of the sun. There had been no night at the harbor-side, with thousands of torches to magnify the gaslights.
It was a cool spring morning, the sky cloudy and dark and drizzling down a thin mist of rain; coal smoke drifted down from the city's hills. The bitter smell of it mixed with the silty sewage-tainted tar stink of the harbor, and the smells of thousands of dogs and tens of thousands of men embarking.
The first ships of the Civil Government's fleet were making way out of the inner harbor, but the naval docks were still in a state of barely-organized chaos. Stubby little paddle-tugs and twenty-oar galleys were towing the big three-master cargo ships out east past the breakwaters; as each cast loose the sails went up with a series of rhythmic jerks and the long hulls heeled sharply, catching the northerly wind. Others were still loading, endless files of slave longshoremen trotting up the gangplanks with sacks and crates, the timbers of the cranes groaning as they swung field-guns and wagons aboard. Troopers were leading their riding dogs through side-doors in the hulls of specially fitted transports; most of them had thrown their jackets over the dogs' heads, for the comfort of darkness and familiar smell, but there was a constant whining and occasional outbreaks of thunder-deep barking from the big animals. The infantry stood in ordered clumps further inland by company columns. A hundred or so was the limit for a single ship, and it also served to discourage the press-ganged sailors from deserting.
Raj watched from the shadow of a crane as one unit made ready to embark:
"Company A, 17th Kelden Foot! Alo sinstra, waymanos! By the left, forward!" The soldiers marched bowed slightly under pack and rifle, a long centipede of maroon-clad legs and blue-jacketed bodies, faces stolid-set under their bowl-helmets as they followed the furled battalion standard. The hobnails clashed on the granite paving, and the men began a hoarse chanting:
"March! The mud is cakin' good about our trousies
Front! Eyes front, an' watch the color-casin's drip.
Front! the faces of the women in the houses
Ain't the kind of thing to take aboard the ship."
Star Spirit be with them all, he thought. Raj was standing by a warship; they would cast off last, being all steam-powered. Black smoke poured from the tall twin funnels on each; they were low-slung snaky craft, with big boxlike wooden covers for the paddlewheels on each side of the midships deckhouse, an iron-clad ram at the bows and six light breech-loaders along each side. Those were nearly hidden by the ton-weight wicker baskets of coal standing on the decks, crowding right up to the masts fore and aft.
"There's something wrong with the coal?" Raj asked the man beside him.
"Messer Whitehall, there's not much right with it," Muzzaf Kerpatik said. He sneered, the flash of white teeth brilliant against teak-dark skin and his pointed beard and mustache. "Half of it is shale—and the rest is soft, not hard anthracite. Half the price of good steam coal. Not one half the heating power."
"Tzetzas," Raj said with weary resignation, straightening. The big crane above them chuffed as the handler eased the steam-powered winch into action and swung the heavy net of fuel onto the warship's deck.
Muzzaf was a Komarite, from one of the southern border cities along the Colonial frontier; one of the strange new class of monetary risk-takers, men who invested large sums in manufacture or trade yet were not really merchants or moneylenders or artisans. It still seemed a little unnatural to Raj, gaining wealth without inheriting or plundering it.
"Back in Komar I thought myself wicked because I entered a conspiracy with the Chancellor's men to bilk the Fisc of soldiers' pay," he said. Neither of them needed to add that it was Raj Whitehall who had accepted his repentance, when that conspiracy left Muzzaf's native city defenseless. And Raj who had protected him from the Chancellor since. "Tzetzas . . . since coming to the capital, I have seen his hand in everything," the Komarite confirmed. "He has interests in the Coast Range mines." He straightened, flicking at the black dust on his brown cotton coat and the cloak draped over his arm; normally he was something of a peacock, but today he had limited it to a few pieces of silver jewelry and a spray of colored sauroid feathers clipped to the brim of his fore-and-aft peaked cap. "Messer, I'm surprised anyone ever makes a profit on anything in this city. Except the Chancellor and his cronies, of course."
Raj nodded. "I appreciate your work, Mezzaf. You've been invaluable. Try looking into the rest of the supply situation, would you?"
"As you wish, Messer," Mezzaf replied; he bowed and touched brow and lips, already looking abstracted. Behind him the sound of the soldiers' singing faded as they boarded the ship:
"Cheer! An' we'll never march to victory.
Cheer! An' we'll never live to hear the cannon roar!
The Large Birds o' Prey
They will carry us away,
An' you'll never see your soldiers anymore!"
The general gave a hitch at his sword belt as he walked out to meet the commanders one last time. They were standing in anonymous clumps, the heavy military cloaks about their shoulders. His eyes seemed to be ridged with sand, and everything stood out with a slightly feverish clarity. Complete exhaustion: about what you would expect putting this all together on short notice.
Barton Foley stood scratching his chin carefully with the point of the hook where his left hand used to be, his right clasped in Gerrin Staenbridge's. Jorg Menyez was talking to Mekkle Thiddo, who was still inclined to look admiringly at his own Battalion Commander's stars now and then; he had been a gentleman-ranker once, and a Lieutenant until the Komar campaign. Kaltin Gruder was saying goodbye to an implausibly large collection of ladies, most of them crying too hard to quarrel with each other as he shooed them firmly away. M'lewis was off to one side, conferring with a few of his Scouts; several of them managed the minor miracle of looking more furtively unsavory than their commander.
. . . and there were the strangers. Ehwardo Poplanich, Thom's cousin, for one. A little older, but with the same thin intellectual's face, a little uncertain in this company. Anhelino Dalhouse for another; and Mihwel Berg, the Administrative Service panjandrum, sulking as usual. He was supposed to set up the civil administration in the Southern Territories, once they took it back; talking to Suzette seemed to be animating him a little. Barholm had said he was a first-rate man who'd be a great deal of help. So far there was fuck-all sign of it, which was odd since the Governor was a judge of men, in his way.
Except he saddled me with Dalhouse, Raj thought sourly. That was fatigue speaking; he hadn't had a decent night's sleep in a week or more . . . about par for the course, out on campaign. Dalhouse probably had too many connections for Barholm to ignore. Besides that, Raj had asked for all the units that campaigned with him in the east—slightly suspicious, from a Governor's point of view.
"Good morning, Messers," he said.
One of the servants handed him his helmet, a plain bowl of black iron with a riveted neckguard of chain mail on leather at the back. The rank-badge over the brows was new, an eighteen-point star of gold and silver on a blue shield, orbited by seven more. He buckled it on, the familiar weight making the war seem real after the paperwork and quartermaster's nightmare of the last month. Dalhouse sneered slightly; his helmet was polished bronze with inlay in niello and silver, and the neckguard was torosauroid hide traded down from the northern steppes, the type that grew natural crystals of metal in the skin, brought to a high polish.
"Now, I'm going to give you some final instructions," Raj continued, deliberately dropping his voice slightly. Men leaned forward, straining to hear. "The fleet has been divided into ten sections, plus the naval escorts. While at sea, instructions from any naval officer commanding an escort are to be accepted as if they were mine. Is that understood?"
He waited until all the ten section officers nodded. "Admiral Gharderini, your first priority will be to keep the fleet together. If any vessel becomes separated for any reason whatsoever, the fleet will halt until the escorts bring in the strays. If we're scattered by weather, everyone will head for the assigned rendezvous for that section of the journey—check your maps, Messers. Anyone who gets ahead of the fleet may pray to the Spirit of Man of the Stars for help, for he'll get none from me. And anyone"—he paused—"anyone whosoever who turns back without authorization will be shot, and every officer on his ship, and every tenth enlisted man taken at random. Master Sergeant da Cruz, you may inform the men of that."
Slight chance anyone could use a little bad weather as an excuse after that; even if the threat was not altogether credible—many of the officers had family connections powerful enough to rescue them from anything short of heresy—but the men would believe it, and likely shoot anyone risking a decimation. There was a slight stir among the officers, and several of the Companions smiled. Several of the non-Companions looked again at the men who had campaigned with Raj Whitehall, noting the scars and missing limbs and limps; many of them looked a little green. There had been no great rush of commanders volunteering their units for this expedition. Dalhouse waited with elaborate patience, fingers tapping at the glossy leather of his Sam Browne belt.
"Final dispositions will be made at Sadler Island, according to what intelligence information we can pick up there"—because the Ministry of Barbarians has dick-all here—"and under no circumstances is anyone to attempt to enter Port Murchison without orders. We'll probably land well south of the city and work north by land."
Dalhouse snorted. Raj looked at him mildly, raising his brows. "Yes, Messer?" he said.
"Waste of time, ferramente, going all the way past Port Murchison and then walking back," he said, stroking one finger down a waxed black moustache. "We should sail straight into Port Murchison and kill the sons of whores, not flounce about in the bloody bundu. They outnumber us, so we should take them by surprise. Sir."
Gerrin Staenbridge laughed. "Advice from the depths of your many years of combat experience?" he said. Dalhouse let his right hand drop to the hilt of his saber and took a half-step forward.
"Messers," Raj said patiently. Don't provoke him, Gerrin, he thought. I know he's a fool and a fop, but the Palace wants him in. "Messer Major Dalhouse," he continued, "last year we fought the wogs out east. They had an army every bit as good as ours, much bigger, and commanded by Prince Tewfik. So I used the only advantage we had, position, and dug in where they had to come to us.
"Now," he said genially, "we're fighting the Squadron, who are the people the phrase 'dumb barb' was invented to describe. Fighting them, our advantages are our weapons, our organization, our discipline. We know what they'll do; they'll rush in like a pack of sicklefeet around a cow. Their advantages are their numbers and ferocity." Suddenly he leaned forward, pushing his face into the junior officer's.
His voice went flat. "So I'm not too entranced by the idea of wallowing into a blindsided street fight at close range, Messer Major Dalhouse. I do not intend to imitate a mob of racing enthusiasts in an after-game brawl. I prefer an open-field battle of maneuver to start with, I really do."
Dalhouse looked around. Most of the other officers were staring at him with the shocked almost-consideration they would have given a man who had just been run over by a hansom cab. Young Barton Foley had slipped the leather sheath-cover off his hook and was stropping the razor edge of the interior against a ceramic honing stick. Dalhouse began a sneer. He stopped as he met the young Companion's eyes, flushed darkly under his native olive, and fell silent.
"Now," Raj went on, voice mild and slightly under-pitched once more. "Dinnalsyn?"
Major Dinnalsyn nodded. "Seyhor," he said: Sir, with the flat East Residence accent of a City man. The artillery recruited many such, like the engineers and the navy. "Thirty standard fieldpieces, ready to go." Seventy-five-millimeter rifled breechloaders; the Squadron didn't use field guns at all, only fortress guns and muzzle-loaders on warships. It was something of an innovation to appoint an over-all artillery commander, but Grammek Dinnalsyn was a man he trusted. "We stripped out first-rate pieces from other units and dumped anything that looked chancy on them."
Jorg's long melancholy face sank deeper into gloom as he ran a hand through his thinning russet hair, damp from the almost-rain. He was from the northwestern provinces, Kelden County, and an infantry specialist by choice. Rare—cavalry was the prestige arm, and the Menyezes were very rich—but he was allergic to dogs.
"The foot regiments are all up to strength. Not too many of them are fresh meat, and they're fully equipped," he said. That was something; away from dangerous frontier posts some infantry commanders equipped their battalions with flintlocks originally made for trade in the trans-border barbaricum. His would all be furnished with standard Armory breechloaders. "Apart from that, they're about as usual, except for my 17th and the 24th Valentia."
Tzetzas had been very reluctant to let him take even those two infantry battalions from the force he'd had in the Army of the Upper Drangosh, out east. A matter of expense, since Civil Government infantry units were supposed to live off farms granted by the fisc, in the neighborhood of their garrisons; the enlisted men were paid only when on the move or in the field, between permanent postings. Cavalry and mercenaries received regular pay in hard cash, but they were the elite troops; infantry were press-ganged from the peons of the central counties, and usually fit only for second-line duties. Barholm had seen little difference between one infantry unit and the next. So would Raj have done, before he saw what Menyez could do with them.
"Making bricks without straw, that's the Army," Raj said resignedly. "Settling in all right with the Slashers, Mekkle?"
The young man grinned shyly. His family were what Descotters called bonnet-squires: possessors of an ancient name and half a dozen small farms, along with several hundred hectares of third-rate grazing; freeholders, but there were yeoman tenants who had more livestock and cash. Not many prospects, living on a Lieutenant's pay, although he had a fair education. Raj doesn't care about your birth, only what you can do, he thought. You worked harder under him than a mine-slave, but he'd bought back land his grandfather had lost, and married Maria. . . .
"The 1st Rogor Slashers are ready for action, sir," he said. "Took some getting used to—they're not as, hmmm, unflappable as Descotters"—the Slashers were recruited from the southern border—"and they don't like to sweat much, out of the field, but they'll fight, Spirit knows."
"Good, keep at them. Southerners tend to have more dash than sense. All right, Messers. Dismissed."
He saluted; the Companions leaving for their units stayed a moment longer, and they all slapped fists together in a pyramid of arms.
"Hell or plunder, dog-brothers," da Cruz said, the old Descott County war cry, and the officers dispersed to their commands.
Ehwardo Poplanich lingered for a moment. "Hmmm," he said, clearing his throat. "Sir?"
"Yes, Major?" Raj asked.
"I'd . . . like to thank you, on behalf of the men," he said quickly. At Raj's raised eyebrow: "I heard rumors, convincing rumors, that Poplanich's Own was to be disbanded after the . . . problem last year. I'm happy for the men's sake; they're used to serving together."
Raj nodded. The special uniform, dark-green with gold piping, told that story. Poplanich's Own was recruited from the family's estates, from among the more prosperous tenants-in-chief and bailiffs and such, and the family coffers paid for their initial equipment, against a remittance of land-tax. It was not an uncommon arrangement, particularly a few generations back, and it had the advantage of helping build unit esprit. Of course it also had its political risks, with a family that had fallen from power and favor but not from some political popularity among the older nobility.
Especially after Des Poplanich was fool enough to let himself be put forward as a figurehead for a coup attempt, Raj thought brutally. It was amazing that a man as smart as Thom had had a brother so politically naive. He remembered the screams when the flame-fougasse he improvised went off in the tower basement. The screams, and then the smell. "I did point out it would be a shame to waste a loyal unit," he said mildly. Ehwardo's personal fate had also hung in the balance, but Raj liked the fact that he thought first of his command.
"Yes. And"—in a rush—"I never believed those rumors about you having something to do with Thom's disappearance. He was your friend."
Raj nodded, his face implacable. "He was. However, Des was not. And I did kill him. With regret, but I did it."
The man who thought himself the last living Poplanich met his eyes. "I know. Messer Whitehall—" He stopped and looked both ways before lowering his voice. "I'll be honest with you; I don't approve of many of the Governor's policies, and I approve even less of some of his ministers. The Poplanich gens have a better claim to the Chair, too, although I wouldn't take that job if the Spirit of Man came down from the Stars and handed it to me. But Barholm isn't the sort of disaster that has to be deChaired at all costs; and the Civil Government can't afford an internal war. That above all."
He extended his hand, and Raj gripped it for a moment. That'll look bad if anyone's watching, he thought. And: To the Starless Dark with that.
"Those noncoms you lent me did a world of good," Poplanich added.
Raj smiled grimly. "This isn't a border skirmish we're going off to," he said. Poplanich's Own had been a central-provinces garrison unit until the change of dynasties, and doing routine patrol work up north since then. Ehwardo was conscientious about his profession—not a universal characteristic among well-born officers with a patrimonial unit—but inexperienced, despite being a few years older than Raj.
"It's perked up the men in more ways than one," Poplanich said. "A little regional rivalry; your veterans thought my people raw, and were pretty plain about it. The troopers are eager to show you can be a fighting man without being a Descotter born in a thunderstorm, half-Doberman and half sauroid . . ."
Raj joined in the chuckle, until an infinitely cold voice spoke in the back of his mind:
observe Center said.
* * *
—and a solid roaring wall of sound lifted from the crowded docks of East Residence, signal rockets lifting from the shining bulk of the Palace above as the bunting-decked ships edged toward the docks. Sailors and soldiers crowded the rails, waving bits of prize loot—
—and a single warship plodded wearily into the harbor, masts chopped off level with the deck for emergency fuel. A huge wail went up from the city, as the black flag at the masthead came into view—