Raj nodded and gestured for silence; the Komarite was a mine of information himself, but given the least encouragement he would give you much more than you wanted to know, mostly about trade. He could see the small black smudge on the distant land where the smelters' coal-smoke stained the sky; Kobolassian cast-iron and steel were famous throughout the Civil Government. There was no hint of the sulfurous smell, only the huge purity of the waves, whitecapped across the darkening sea, breaking in thunder-foam on the breakwater of the harbor of Hayapalco Town, where the fleet waited to enter.
Elsewhere the high spine of the Kobolassian peninsula hung like a dark-blue saw to their south and west, tinged with blood-red where the evening sun touched the glaciers. The upper slopes of the mountains were dark with forest, reddish-brown native whipstick and featherfrond, black-green with beech and silver fir. Lower the steep mountainsides gave way to open hills covered in russet grass and dotted with olives and cork-oak; lower still narrow irrigated valleys drew wandering strips of green through arid scrub occasionally scarred by mine tailings or marble quarries. Whitewashed villages stood amid orchard groves and small checkerboard fields; the narrow coastal plain bore scrub, coconut groves, sisal plantations, and estates on recently drained and irrigated marsh with large square plots of cotton, indigo, sugar, and rice.
"Coal's available?" Raj said.
"In plenty, Messer," Muzzaf said. With a tinge of bitterness: "The best and cheapest in the Civil Government. I have kin here"—he seemed to have relatives in every province south of the Oxhead mountains, come to that—"and much money has been invested in collieries of late, and railways. Yet high-priced trash from the old Coast Range mines has the monopoly in East Residence, even in the Armory foundries."
"Tzetzas," Raj said.
"Tzetzas," Muzzaf confirmed.
"You two using foul language again?" Suzette asked, coming up behind them; she stood a little behind Raj, squeezing his arm.
Her fingers were slim and strong on the muscle of his biceps. The faint jasmine scent she wore carried lightly through the odors of tar and sea. Muzzaf moved down the rail, and they waited in silence while the little galley-tug came out to take them in tow. The strong choppy motion of a ship riding "in irons" changed to a longer plunge as the sailors made the towing-line fast. The transport inched through the narrow channel between the breakwaters; each ended in a massive stone-and-concrete fort, the walls sloping upward to the gun ports. The snouts of huge cast-steel rifles showed through, and after that it was not surprising that there was no seawall.
It's grown, Raj thought.
He had studied perspective and plan-drawings of all the major cities in the Civil Government, mostly with an eye to their fortifications. Hayapalco was medium-sized, forty thousand at the last census, but the old-fashioned curtain wall he remembered had been torn down and a broad avenue laid out in its place. There were suburbs and tenements and factory developments beyond, although most of the town was a tumbled maze of pastel and whitewash cubes climbing up the hills to the district commissioner's palace and the Star temple. A new aqueduct showed raw in cuttings and embankments on the mountain slopes beyond, a big new bullring, and the beginnings of modern earthwork ravelins and forts adequate to stand up to siege guns. The docks were thronged, with everything from little lateen-rigged coasters and fishing smacks to the big three-master beastcatchers, hunting craft for taking the big marine thalassasauroids. Wharfside was black with people, and massed cheering roared out as the first of the fleet steamed in.
The sound of brass bands followed. "I hope they keep singing," Raj said grimly. His hand touched his wife's. "I . . . need to talk to Berg," he said.
* * *
"I hope you'll report that Hayapalco shows its loyalty," Sesar Chayvez said.
The District Commissioner of Kobolassa leaned back, making an expansive gesture out the french doors; the brass bands that had followed the command group up to the Palace were still playing. Behind them the city streets were filling with more purposeful sound, marching feet and the heavy padding of riding dogs as the Expeditionary Force disembarked. There would be a week or so to exercise the men and mounts, lay in supplies of fresh fruit and meat . . . and have a last taste of city delights before the campaign, of course.
Which probably accounts for the citizens' good nature, Raj thought cynically. Fifteen thousand well-paid men with hard coin in their pockets could do a great deal of spending in a week. Although the Arch-Syssup's blessingwas probably sincere. All the southern territories were notoriously pious: inland, because of the Colony and its Muslim hordes just over the border; here on the coast for that and for the ever-present menace of Squadron pirates. The western barbarians were followers of the heretical Spirit of Man of This Earth, which added extra zest to their plundering of churches and burning alive of any clergy they could lay their hands on.
He looked at the Commissioner: a southerner, much like Muzzaf in appearance if you added thirty years and ten kilos, his tunic shining white Azanian torofib, clanking with decorations; the hand that stroked his goatee and double chin shone with rings. It had taken several strong hints to get this meeting before the ceremonial banquets began, and the round of bullfights announced in honor of the visiting troops, and the ball . . . and their little cats too, he thought. Even more hints to strip the meeting down to himself, Gerrin Staenbridge, Suzette, Berg, the Commissioner, and his private secretary.
"I hope so too, Your Honorability," Raj said. "Unfortunately, there's a small problem. Two small related problems."
"Problems?" Chayvez said, frowning slightly.
There was a noise outside the doors, shouting, the heavy thump of a steel-shod rifle butt striking a head. Barton Foley stuck his head through the leaves, winked and saluted with his hook before drawing them shut. Outside the glass panes on the other side of the room a line of figures took stance at parade rest. The Commissioner's head swiveled to note them: Regulars in bluejackets and maroon pants holding rifles with fixed bayonets, not his private troops. A closer look showed stocky beak-nosed brown-skinned men. Descotters.
"Don't worry, I've just taken the precaution of replacing the Palace guards with men from the 5th Descott," Raj said soothingly. Chayvez jerked slightly; everyone knew that was the unit that had followed Raj to hard-fought retreat at El Djem and massive victory at Sandoral. "For the duration.
"Now," Raj went on, "first there's the matter of the coal."
"Coal?" Chayvez echoed. His face was fluid with disbelief, anger struggling with the shock of sudden physical fear.
"It seems the wrong variety was loaded in East Residence. An accident, I'm sure. Luckily, you have excellent steam coal here in Hayapalco, I'm told, so we'll just unload what's left of ours and take on all that we need from the government stores. We'll exchange it weight-for-weight, and pay the difference with sight drafts; do be prompt in paying them, won't you?"
Raj drew his pistol and rapped sharply with the butt on the satinwood table, leaving a dent in the soft silky-textured surface. Even then Chayvez winced; he had been Commissioner for over a decade, and must have a highly proprietary attitude to the Palace.
The doors opened again; Antin M'lewis came in, leading two troopers with slung rifles. The solhados carried a box between them, one hand gripping the rope handles on either side. They heaved it onto the table with a thump, and M'lewis flipped it open. The interior was filled with dark brown rectangular biscuits. A stale, musty odor filtered out.
"It's the hardtack, you see," Raj said.
"Hardtack?" Chayvez said, with a lift of his brows.
"Hardtack, Messer," Raj said. "Such a humble thing, isn't it? But armies march on hardtack, when they're far from home and markets. As on a long sea voyage away from landfalls, which the Expeditionary Force is about to make." To M'lewis: "Show him."
"Yis, ser," M'lewis said cheerfully, leaning over the table.
He picked up one of the biscuits and held it on his palm in front of the bureaucrat's nose, then slowly closed his wiry brown fingers. The hardtack crumbled at once, falling onto the brilliant white fabric of Chayvez's tunic in streams of dirt-colored powder; when the soldier opened his fist nothing was left but a single weevil, hunching its way over the calloused palm. M'lewis grinned with golden teeth and crushed it between thumb and forefinger, wiping the remains off on the priceless torofib silk. The Commissioner's protest died unspoken.
"Yer knows," the ex-trooper said companionably, "this stuff oughten t' be baked twice. Costs summat, though; gots to use charcoal."
"And," Raj continued in a voice suddenly flat and gray as gunmetal, "this hasn't been twice-baked from whole-wheat and soya meal. Fired only once, using dry dough to hide the fact; so now I have several thousand tones of moldy wheat dust in the holds of my ships. An unaccountable accident—since the Chancellor's office listed all of it as first-class ration biscuit from approved contractors, didn't they, Messer Berg?"
The Administrative Service representative's face was sheened with sweat, far more than the dry heat could account for. The soldiers' heads turned toward him like gun turrets tracking, and he smiled sickly. It was far too late now to back out; he had said too much.
"Bruha," he mumbled softly. "She's a witch. He's mad, but she's a witch."
"What was that, Messer Berg?" Raj asked implacably.
"Ah,ferramente,certainly, the books"—he gestured at a large leather-bound ledger, with the Star symbol of the Civil Government embossed in silver on its cover—"show it quite clearly."
Chayvez hesitated, giving Berg a venomous glare before smoothing his features into a bland smile.
"Well, Messer General, you know these accidents happen," he said, with a broad men-of-the-world gesture. "In any case, it shouldn't be a problem, not at all. You must have specie along to pay your troops"—at six-month intervals, although advances were sometimes given—"so you can just buy ordinary flatbread here, and make up the difference from plunder after your victorious campaign in the Southern Territories is concluded."
"Well, that's one possibility," Raj continued. M'lewis had gone round to stand behind the Commissioner. "I really don't think much of spending the troops' pay on rations for which the Civil Government has already paid—Messer Administrator Berg . . ."
"Eighteen thousand four hundred sixty-four gold FedCreds," the functionary said.
" . . . more than eighteen thousand gold."
"There doesn't seem to be much alternative," Chayvez said, licking his lips.
"Messer Berg?" Raj said.
Berg wiped his face with a linen handkerchief and opened the account book, spreading out several loose sheets of paper stamped with the golden seal of the Central Land Registry Office.
"According to these records," he said, coughing. "Ah, according to these, our Most Excellent Chancellor owns a grand total of twenty-three thousand four hundred and twenty-two hectares in landed estates in the four Counties making up Kobolassa District. Of which five thousand fifty-six are irrigated grainland, not counting smaller amounts on fighting-bull ranches and—" Raj rapped the pistol-butt on the table again.
"Ah, yes. Yielding—according to the taxability receipts of the fisc"—which meant a fifty percent underestimation—"over a quarter of a million bushels of wheat, barley, maize, and rice. The wheat and barley should be just harvested and threshed."
"That much!" Chayvez said, blinking. Then he nodded: "I'm sure the Most Excellent will be glad to sell sufficient for your troops."
"I'm sure he would," Raj replied. "Unfortunately, I haven't the hard currency to pay for it, so he'll have to accept barter. To be precise, thirty-kilogram boxes of double-baked wholewheat and soy meal biscuit."
Raj looked over at Berg. The man swallowed unhappily and began to recite:
"Fifteen thousand troops, three weeks' rations at one and a half kilograms of bread equivalent per day, plus four thousand sailors, equivalent, plus three thousand two hundred civilian auxiliaries, ditto. Carrying the boxed biscuit at book price, East Residence quote—"
"Don't forget a reasonable shipping charge," Raj interjected helpfully.
"With ten sentahvos per ton-kilometer, the value of the biscuit should cover all necessary grain purchases," Berg said, his voice speeding up into an almost-babble. "Plus a surplus of two thousand three hundred gold FedCreds. That's after grinding, transport, and baking expenses, of course."
"Of course," Raj said, "we'll take the surplus in cash, or salable assets from the estates." He slid a parchment with multiple seals across the table until it nudged Chayvez's hands. "The requisition and exchange order, signed by Messer Berg, as representative of the Administrative Service and the fisc, by me as Expeditionary Force commander—and by you, Your Honorability, right there at the bottom, as head of the District government."
"I'd as soon sign my own death warrant," Chayvez whispered. "You fool! Do you think—"
Raj nodded. M'lewis moved, his fingers snatching at his belt and tossing backhand; the woven-wire garotte hummed as it cut through the air. The other wooden toggle slapped into his left hand as it completed its circuit around Chayvez's neck and he pulled on his crossed wrists with a knee braced against the soft tooled-leather backing of the chair. The garotte did not cut the bureaucrat's skin yet, although it sank nearly out of sight; it was not piano wire. It did begin to cut off breath and blood, and if M'lewis used all the strength in his arms against the leverage of the loop it would amputate all the way to the neckbone.
Chayvez's eyes bulged, and his hands scrabbled strengthlessly behind him. Raj waited until he smelled the ammonia stink of the other man's bladder releasing, then leaned forward on both hands.
Benefits of having an ex-bandit among your followers, he thought bitterly. Bufford Parish was famous for its rustlers and bushwhackers even in not-very-lawful Descott County . . . and Antin M'lewis had made even Bufford unwelcoming enough that the Army seemed a better proposition. Loyal man, though. Service to Raj had brought him from despoladho to riches.
The bureaucrat's private secretary had started to reach inside his jacket; he was a boyish nineteen, but his hand moved very quickly. Gerrin Staenbridge seemed almost leisurely by comparison, but before the long schinnnng sound of steel on wood was over, the point of his saber was tucked under the young man's chin. A single point of blood showed on the clear olive skin, then trickled slowly over the damascened patterns in the steel. Staenbridge's wrist was thick, and his hand held the sword as motionless as a vise, but the secretary froze.
"There's a good fellow," Staenbridge said, with a charming smile. "Under other circumstances we might be good friends—but right now, would you please bring whatever-it-is out with two fingers, and slide it over the table to me?" It was a four-barreled derringer, with a carved grip of sauroid-tooth ivory. "Splendid taste."
Raj waited impassively, until the Commissioner's feet began to scrabble at the El Kebir rug. "Ease off a little," he said. M'lewis obeyed, and Raj pushed his face into Chayvez's, until their eyes were only centimeters apart. The bureaucrat took several cautious, whooping breaths, and the black flush faded from his cheeks.
"Now, Your Honorability," Raj said bleakly, "are you listening to me? Are you?"
A nod, quickly checked as it dragged the wire deeper into his flesh.
"You see, Your Honorability, I'm a soldier. I'm used to being screwed over by people like you . . . or our beloved Chancellor. But nobody—absolutely nobody—fucks over my men's rations or pay while I can do anything about it. I have a job to do, for the Civil Government of Holy Federation and the Spirit of Man of the Stars, and I'll do whatever I have to do to get it done. Anything at all. Understood?"
"Ci! Ci, Messer General, yes, yes, I'll sign, get him away from me pahvor,please!"
At Raj's nod M'lewis freed the garotte with the same easy motion, flipping the left-hand toggle to the right with a hard snap that swung it around to clack into his right palm. Then he stepped back carefully, swinging the wire back and forth through the air with a whisking sound.
Chayvez coughed raggedly, massaging his throat where a thin red line circled it. Staenbridge withdrew his sword and wiped the tip carefully on one sleeve, sheathing it without looking down. The young secretary's eyes were as steady as the hands that opened a writing-box and handed his employer a freshly dipped pen. Only then did he pull a handkerchief from one sleeve and press the cloth to the underside of his jaw. Staenbridge smiled toothily.
"I'll just keep this, thank you," he said, scooping up the derringer. His right hand rested on the butt of his revolver.
The Commissioner signed the document in the three blanks left for him; his secretary peeled the greased-paper cover off a disk of soft wax and fixed it to the empty circle on the bottom of the page. Chayvez banged his signet-ring down on it with unnecessary force.
"You'll be here more than a week," he said. With triple authorization there was nothing—nothing legal, at least—that Chancellor Tzetzas could do; and the Governor had already made clear that Raj Whitehall was a tool nobody else could break. Sesar Chayvez would simply have to plead force majeure with his patron; it was even possible it would work, if he made up enough of the loss from his private funds. There were fifteen thousand troops in the city, after all. That was a major force by anyone's standards.
"Much longer than a week," the Commissioner went on. "The bailiffs on Tzetzas's land aren't government employees. They're going to think a lot more of the Chancellor's anger than any paper you wave at them. If you wave guns, you'd better be prepared to shoot, and explain that to His Supremacy."
Raj nodded. The Tzetzas estates would be run the usual way, rented out on five-year leases to men who were themselves gentlemen of some wealth, able to furnish working capital and making their own profit on the difference between the rental and the net sales. It was a variation on the tax-farming system the Civil Government used to collect its own revenues, and like that worked well enough if carefully supervised to prevent the lessee running the estate down for short-term gain. Tzetzas would see to the supervision; nobody had ever accused the Chancellor of being stupid or lazy, and nobody in their right mind would cooperate in stripping a Tzetzas estate. Not if they knew what was good for them. There would be endless delays . . . and it would not look very good to send Civil Government Regulars out on plundering expeditions against the private property of the Chancellor. "I have my methods," Raj said, almost smiling.
* * *
"Va, va!" the wagoner cried. The oxen leaned into the traces and the ungreased wooden axles groaned.
Gerrin Staenbridge leaned to one side in the saddle, and his dog skittered sideways, upslope from the road. The long train of wagons wound across the hillside; tall reddish-tawny three-leafed native grass rippled, under the twisted little cork-oaks and silver-leafed olives men had brought here a millennium and a half ago. The road was cut into the low hillside and ditched on both sides, surfaced with a packed layer of gravel. That crunched and popped under the iron wheels of nearly a hundred vehicles, two- and four-wheeled, drawn by anything up to a dozen yoke of oxen. The hot dry air had the hard musty smell of sweating cattle, gritty dust from the road, and the lanolin and dung scent of the big herd of sheep being driven in downslope of the path.
The wagons were heavily loaded with woven sisal sacks of grain, figs, dried tomatoes, and beans, but there was no point in denying the men a little fresh meat, either. The dogs would be glad of the offal and bones.
The estates being put under contribution had furnished the transport, most of it standard gaudily-painted farm carts; they could haul the Expeditionary Force's worthless biscuit back if they pleased. Pigs might eat it, if they were hungry enough.
Staenbridge whistled sharply, and a platoon of troopers peeled away from the double column at the end of the wagon train. Master Sergeant da Cruz and a special squad of double-pay men were sticking close to one small cart with sealed heavy chests . . . and Barton was leading up the duty platoon. He felt the familiar twist of guilt at the sight of the hook flashing in the sun; Foley would not have left to follow the drum so young if Gerrin had not—
Guilt's an emotion for shopkeepers, he told himself.
Foley reined in and saluted, grinning. He was a pretty boy, Staenbridge thought, and now he's an exceedingly handsome young man and even more irresistible. The dogs paused to sniff noses, panting slightly and waving their whiplike tails; they were farmbreds, mottle-coated, point-nosed animals sixteen hands at the shoulder, weighing in at about a thousand pounds each.
"You think those recalcitrants will be ready to pay up?" Foley said.
"After having a troop of Skinners as house guests for a week?" Gerrin said. "My dear, they'll be enthusiastic. And we'd better be prepared."
Foley turned to the soldiers. "Sergeant Saynchez, rifles at the ready, if you please. We're paying a call."
"Ser!" the noncom said, and half-turned in his saddle. "Plat-oon, rifles at the saddle ready—draw."
A multiple rattle sounded as thirty-two hands slapped down on the rifles in their scabbards by the right knee; polished brown wood and blued iron flashed as the long weapons were flipped up. Slap as the forestocks came down in the soldiers' rein-hands, then chick-chack as the right thumb was thrust into the trigger guard-lever. That brought the bolt down, its grooved top making a ramp for a thumb to push one of the heavy 11mm cartridges into the chamber; then chack-chuck as the levers were drawn back to lock position.
Foley looked back and nodded satisfaction; the sergeant straightened, and Gerrin suppressed a slight smile of his own. Barton had had some problems with the men when he was an aide, protege-cum-boyfriend of then-Captain Staenbridge; very little since he had carried Gerrin's unconscious and bleeding body into the laager at El Djem; none at all since he lost a hand and won field promotion and the Gold of Valor at Sandoral.
"Remember, we're visiting our allies," the young officer said, turning away. He snapped open his combination watch and pocket compass and chopped one arm forward across the ridge to their left; the farm lane lay in the valley beyond.
Behind them the sergeant whispered hoarsely: "That means yer arse if ye pop off without orders, Hermanyez."
The soldiers rested the butts of the rifles on their thighs and settled into a steady trot behind the officers. They crested the ridge in a flutter of tiny dactosauroids startled out of their nests, little jewel-scaled things about the size of a man's hand, with skin wings and long naked tails that ended in diamond-shaped rudders. One flew past Staenbridge's face close enough for him to hear it hiss and see the miniature fangs in its lizard mouth as it banked and glided down the slope ahead. The dactosauroids paused to dart at the insects stirred up by the cavalry's paws. Wings flashed above, and a red-tailed hawk dove in turn, snatching one of the little pseudoreptiles out of the air.
There's a metaphor for you, Staenbridge thought.
"We're ridin' on relief over burnin' desert sands, Six hundred fightin' Descotters, the Major an' the Band Hail dear away, bullock-man, ye've heard t'bugle blowed, The Fightin' Fifth is comin, down the Drangosh road!"
The soldiers were singing for amusement, and to let the Skinners know they were coming and were not afraid; the tune was a folk song from Descott County, roared out by thirty strong young voices. As they rode along the little country lane. Staenbridge cast an eye left at the mountain spine of the Kolobassa peninsula and sighed slightly.
"Homesick?" Barton teased.
"Only when I'm not there," Gerrin replied dryly.
This was actually prettier country than most of Descott—the County's landscape was often grand but seldom pretty—and much richer. The Staenbridge kasgrane, manor-house, was a stone barn compared to most of the estates they had visited here. Home was bleak volcanic upland, sparse rocky twistgrass pasture, badlands, canyons, thin mountain forests, here and there a pocket of soil coaxed into production with endless care. Descotters lived more from herding than farming, and nearly as much from hunting—wild cattle, feral dogs, and the fierce, wary native sauroids. There were no towns except for the County capital, and that was a glorified village; no peasant villages, just scattered steadings; no peons and few slaves. The Civil Government had never gotten much in the way of taxes out of Descott; what it did produce was men like those riding behind him, sons of the yeoman-tenants and vakaros. Hardy, independent, and bred to saddle and gun. And I miss the homeplace, now and then. He even missed his wife occasionally, and he was a man who did without women quite well most of the time.
"Skinner," Barton said quietly. His head inclined slightly, indicating a copse of umbrella pines a thousand meters to their left; extreme range for Armory rifles, but middling for the great sauroid-killing guns the northern barbarians used.
"Ah, for the eyes of youth," Gerrin said.
There were probably others they had not seen, possibly within a few meters. The road was lined with waist-high whitewashed stone walls, and planted with eucalyptus trees, dipping down toward a small lake held back by an earthwork dam. Staenbridge stood in the stirrups and held up a hand for halt as they rounded the last corner and started down the road to the kasgrane of the estate.
"Whew," he whistled softly.
The big wooden mill-wheel down by the dam was a twisted, charred wreck; so were the timber and tile buildings that held the gristmill, cane-crusher and cotton gin. Water poured unchecked through the mill-race, already eroding the earth away from the stone channel, probably flooding the irrigated lands that spread away downstream like a wedge where the land opened up toward the coast, too. The fields and orchards there were empty, and so was the peon village of adobe huts along the edge of the main canal. They had been gone before the Skinners arrived, driving the stock up into the hills. . . .
The manor had survived, mostly. The windows were all gone, except for shards that sparkled in the flat afternoon sun; it had been a big square building around a patio, two stories high and built of whitewashed brick overgrown with bougainvillea. Most of that had been stripped away, for some unfathomable barbarian purpose or for its own sake. There were plumes of black soot above several of the windows; a pit had been dug in the garden before the main doors and a whole bull roasted above it on a fire kindled with furniture. Half a dozen Skinners were baiting another in the open space of the drive, stripped to their breechclouts. The bull was a prize fighting animal nearly as tall at the shoulder as a man. As the soldiers entered the driveway, one of the near-naked men leaped forward to meet its charge, whooping, bounding up over the horned head and backflipping over its rump. A long knife flashed in his hand as he landed, and the animal gave a bawling cry of pain as its tendons were slashed. Laughing, the others waded in to butcher it alive as it threshed, crowing mirth at its struggles and at one of their number who took a deep stab in the thigh from the horns.
A few of the Skinners lounging around the open ground looked up from the killing; they were variously occupied, sleeping or working on their weapons, playing odd games with pebbles and boards scratched in the dirt, or fornicating with an assortment of cowed-looking women, girls, and boys from the manor's household staff. Their dogs mostly just slept, huge flop-eared hounds with brindled markings and drooping-sad faces; a few of them raised their muzzles and growled warning at the cavalry mounts.
"Deploy, if you please," Foley said to the platoon sergeant.
"In line—walk-march, halt," the noncom barked; the platoon peeled off in two columns of twos to either side, halting smoothly in a double rank behind the officers and facing the Skinners. The ones butchering the bull barely even looked up, a knot of glistening-red figures reducing a thousand FedCreds of pedigreed ring-bred animal to ragged gobbets. One of the recumbent Skinners rose, scratching his buttocks vigorously and urinating on a pile of tapestry. Elaborately casual, he rearranged his breechclout and lit his pipe before walking over to an upended barrel of brandy and sticking his head into the broached end. Coming up blowing, he spat out a mouthful, drank hugely and then picked up a battered golden cup from the ground beside it and filled it to the brim.
"Eh, sojer-man," he called, walking over to where Gerrin sat his dog, kicking aside bits of shattered crystal, trampled cloth, human excrement, bones, and dog turds. "Why I no kill you all now, eh?"
He stood grinning at arm's length; a Bekwa Skinner, with four-inch sauroid teeth through the lobes of his ears, face a mass of scars, some ritual, and crossed belts of huge brass shells on his chest. The feral smile on his flat slant-eyed face showed two incisors filed to points; even with the nose-stunning smell of the courtyard, the rancid butter smeared on his skin and shaven scalp was noticeable. A scalplock, woven with diamonds and rubies and bits of crushed gold jewelry, bounced down his back.
At least he speaks some Sponglish, Staenbridge thought as he reached down and took the cup, mouthing a swallow and spitting it out on the Skinner's feet.
"Where did you get this dog-piss?" he said; actually, it was excellent brandy, but you had to observe the amenities. "I spit it on your sow-mother's grave, corpse-fucker." He drank the rest, letting a little trickle out of the corners of his mouth, crushed the goblet in his fist and threw it over his shoulder.
The Skinner's grin grew wider. "You got nuts cum pomme, like apple, sojer-man," he said, and slapped his chest. "Moi—me—Pai-har Tradaw, fils d' Duhplesi, shef bukkup—big chief. Who you, what you want?"
"Gerrin Staenbridge, and I bring you word from the shefdetowt, the big chief of chiefs, Raj. He says get off your useless arses, come down to the ships—we go to fight"
"Ahh, Raj—he mal cum mis, bad like us, that one!" The chief's face almost split with his smile. "Hang, shoot—kill all de time! We go, make big thibodo, kill lots."
Still smiling, he turned and let the two-meter rifle drop from his shoulder; his hand released the crossed shooting-stick at the same time, and the heavy weapon fell neatly onto it. He fired without bothering to bring the weapon to his shoulder, and two hundred meters away an iron weathervane pealed like a bell and sprang into blurring motion. The long lance of flame from the rifle's muzzle stabbed into the sky, and before the puff of gray-white smoke had drifted roof-high the Skinners were in motion. Men sprang up, snatched their sacks of loot and jumped onto the backs of their dogs. The bull-killers paused a minute to pile lumps of the raw meat into the animal's hide and roll it up before joining the rest; big Skinner hounds jumped the low garden wall as outlyers and scouts poured in. Four minutes from the shot thirty Skinners boiled out of the estate's gates at a pounding gallop, screeching shrilly and firing their weapons in the air.
"Mamma, yer won't see that comin' down t'road from Blayberry Fair," the sergeant said with a slight tone of awe in his voice. "Orders, ser?"
"Allya waymanos," Foley said; all of you get going. "Picket the dogs out in that paddock—not worth our while cleaning up here."
He swung down out of the saddle and walked over toward one of the women, still lying huddled on a blanket; her stringy hair clung to her shoulders in black rattails, and she scuttled backward with a shriek as she saw the hook gesture.
"Shhhh, danad malino nayw, machacha," he said soothingly: nothing's the matter now, girl. "I won't hurt you. The Skinners are gone, understand? Gone."
"Stop that," he said firmly, rapping her lightly on the top of the head with the back curve of his hook. "Now, go find your master"—it was a safe bet all the house servants knew where the bailiff had taken the estate stores and money—"and tell him they're gone, and won't be back if he comes down and cooperates. Comprene? Understand?"
Between hysterical fear and the singsong southern dialect of Sponglish it took a few moments before she did; then she wrapped herself in a blanket and sprinted out the gate and up a path into the higher hills beyond the olive groves.
Foley walked back to his dog shaking his head. "That's disgusting," he said quietly, his face troubled. "I don't like seeing women mistreated like that, even if I don't have much use for them myself."
"Don't let Fatima hear you say that, sweet one," Gerrin grinned. "She's hard enough to handle as it is. Next campaign I'm definitely parking her back in Descott with the wife—between the two of you you're going to wear an old man like me out."
"Oh, she's an exception," Foley said, raising a foot to the stirrup.
"Don't let her hear you say that, either."
The younger man snorted laughter, then looked around at the wreckage. "I hadn't realized how true the stories about Skinners are," he said.
Seaborne Skinner raiders from north of Pierson's Sea had landed in Descott County a century or so ago, and the tales were still told; presumably in the northern steppes as well, since only half a dozen wounded survivors had escaped, and nobody had tried that again since. Besides which, the Skinners had killed off all the inhabitants of the old northern coastal towns who had once furnished them with ships and seamen.
"This isn't the half of it," Gerrin said, brushing the backs of his fingers over the other's cheek as he swung back into the saddle. "Well done, by the way, my dear. No, this is how Skinners act when they're on good behavior." His eyes scanned the ruined house.
"Back when I was about your age and a new-minted Ensign, I was up in the northwest provinces, around Byrgez, when we had a bad raid. They fight like devils . . . but it's worse than that: they're the death of the land, wherever they go. They burn forests and poison wells and break down irrigation canals because they can live in total wilderness and nobody else can. Compared to them the Brigade are Renunciate Sisters and the Stalwarts a bunch of boon companions."
"Well, what about the Squadron?" Foley said, smiling and leaning into the hand for a second.
"The Squadrones, my heart, are the essence of evil."
"Because they're going to be trying to kill us. Compared to that, the Skinners seem as cooing pigeons. Back to the ships; Stern Isle awaits."