Warlord S. M. Stirling and David Drake

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Chapter Thirteen

"Thank you, no," Raj said firmly.

The delegation under the high arched gate looked downcast and astonished. It was fairly impressive for something cobbled together on short notice: the heads of the merchant guilds in long robes of a cut that had been fashionable in East Residence fifty years ago; a scattering of old aristocracy families who had hung on under Squadron rule; the underground Arch-Syssup of Port Murchison, understandably overjoyed to be representative of the State church once more; with a chorus of hymn-singing girls in garlands and white dresses and a flock of priests. . . .

"Messers, Messas," he went on, in careful Spanjol, "my troops have just won a major battle and their blood is up. The war isn't over, and it wouldn't do discipline any good to let them scatter in a rich city at night—nor, to be blunt, would it do your city much good, at all. We'll enter the city tomorrow, and I'll call you together then to settle billeting and other arrangements."

"But . . . but, there are still Squadrones inside the walls, thousands of them!" the head of the delegation said. Even now he was visibly afraid of the overlords. All to the good, or else the mobs would have torn them all limb from limb.

Former overlords, Raj thought. "Are they under arms?"

"No—no, most of the fighting men marched out with Conner Auburn." And died, many under the walls when the gates were shut against them. "They crowd into the Earth Spirit temples, and into our Star churches, even, seeking sanctuary."

"Then give it to them. Post guards. Tomorrow, Messers, if you please."

Raj stretched and sighed, looking upward. The stars were very bright, with only a three-quarter Miniluna to dispute the heavens; it was mildly warm as they rode away from the torchlit bulk of Port Murchison's walls. Those were the old-fashioned curtain type, twenty meters high and ten thick with a rubble core in none too good condition, but they bulked huge in the darkness. The cookfires of the Expeditionary Force were a glowing constellation of their own, through the groves and gardens outside the city; it was rich land, well tended with noblemen's country-seats. Wagons and handcarts were creaking out of the city with food and cooked delicacies, although the guards were supposed to be turning back anything too blatant in the way of liquor or whores. Mostly the men seemed too tired to be restless and too excited to sleep.

"You sure about the war not being over?" Gerrin Staenbridge said, as he and Foley fell in beside their commander. "What happened today . . . that was about as decisive as anything I've seen or heard of."

Foley nodded. "We must have killed, oh, eight or ten thousand," he said with a slight shiver. "Toward the end they couldn't fight and wouldn't give up . . ." Gerrin reached over and squeezed his shoulder.

Raj nodded absently. "It was no more trouble than slaughtering pigs in a pen, Spirit strike me blind for a Christo if I lie," he said. Except to poor Thiddo and a hundred or so others, every one of them as dead as they'd be if the barbs had won. "I doubt if five thousand of their main force got away: we took twenty thousand fighting men prisoners, and twice that number of civilians. They must have lost nearly thirty thousand dead—over forty thousand counting the ones here and the two thousand the Skinners slaughtered. We'll have plague unless we get them underground fast, in this weather."

That meant half of all the Squadron males of fighting age were dead or captured, if the Ministry of Barbarians' figures were anything like accurate. Of course, the Squadron could mobilize every non-cripple; they didn't have the vast peon mass the Civil Government did.

"But the Admiral got away, worse luck, and the evil, senile old bastard will probably do his best to get all his people killed. He can still raise another forty or fifty thousand men from the western counties, if they answer the call, and the ten thousand Curtis Auburn has out on Sadler's Island are their best anyway."

"Gah," Gerrin said. "I didn't join the Army to work in an abattoir."

"Well, we can't count on their being as obliging next time," Raj pointed out. "See you in the morning," he said, as they came up to the villa that was his billet.

He walked Horace into the courtyard, then halted him with a silent touch of the rein. Suzette was sitting on the veranda in a pool of lantern-light, playing her long-necked gittar, and two-score men were crouched motionless on the flagstones at the base of the stairs; roughneck Scouts as quiet as the officers and Ludwig Bellamy, who was looking at her with the expression of a man who has just been struck hard on the head.

"For we are all one way riders—
Riders on that one way street,
That runs across a golden valley
Where the rivers of joy and hope run deep."

It was her favorite song, one a Stalwart nurse had taught her as a child.

"Rain must fall and winds will blow—
Lost men die in the mountain snow
Souls break their wings on heaven's wall
Night must come, come to us all—"

She rose and set the instrument aside as he walked toward her, lamplight sheening on the raven's-wing hair and gilding her eyes. He knelt and kissed her hand, then swept her up effortlessly in his arms as he rose and carried her indoors. Good-natured cheers followed them as he kicked the door shut behind him.

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