Warlord S. M. Stirling and David Drake



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Chapter Fifteen


"No, I'm not going to the pen-pushing bastard's party," Kaltin Gruder said, rising on one elbow. The servants had cleared the remains of the picnic lunch away, all except for the stone jugs of lemonade and thrice-watered wine. He sipped moodily at his. "Neither is Raj, you'll see."

"I really don't see what you've got against Berg," Gerrin Staenbridge said, leaning back against the oak tree and linking his fingers behind his head.

It was a comfortably warm summer's day, with the breeze off the sea; the headland park they had chosen was the highest land inside the walls, once a nobleman's pleasance, now the 5th's headquarters bivouac. Two weeks in Port Murchison had seen them well settled in, enough that the officers could take an hour or two for lunch. The air smelled of sea and warm grass, and he felt pleasantly drowsy, amused at the bitter passion in the other man's voice.

The rest of the picnic party were farther down the hill. Raj Whitehall was on all fours, with toddler Barton Staenbridge riding on his back and crowing delightedly; Hadolfo Zahpata crouched and gibbered in front of him, giving a remarkably accurate imitation of an arborosauroid. Barton Foley and Ehwardo Poplanich were lying on the rugs scattered under the jacaranda tree, singing to Suzette's gittar while Muzzaf kept time with a spoon on his knee. Pehdro Belagez and Hermano Suharto were doing slow-time fencing with wooden sabers in front of a wildly enthusiastic audience composed of Fatima and her new friends, Joni, Mitchi, and Karli. The three girls from Stern Island had turned out to be sisters, and they had all adopted Fatima as mentor.

"Berg should keep his hands off other men's wives," Kaltin spat.

Gerrin abandoned his abstract enjoyment of the four young women jumping up and down as they squealed and clapped—it reminded him of flowers swaying, especially given the varying hair colors—and turned wide eyes on the younger cavalry officer.

"Please," he said in a choked voice. "Tell me I didn't just hear the Rooster of East Residence, the Stud of Descott County, the man who's fought three duels over married women in the past year, say—" His coughing turned into helpless whoops of laughter.

Kaltin struggled and gave in to a sour grin, shrugging. "Well, that's different," he said, turning his own gaze on the fencers. Redheaded Karli blew him a kiss. He smiled briefly, then continued with a frown: "There's Raj's honor to consider."

Gerrin shook his head, pulling a handkerchief out of the sleeve of the uniform jacket next to him and mopping at his streaming eyes.

"You mehmacho types," he said, "just don't appreciate women."

It was Kaltin's turn to stare round-eyed. "Apart from the part between navel and knees," Staenbridge amplified. "And you might remember that Berg's testimony may very well be all that stands between us and the frying post when we get back." He sighed. "Not to mention putting Dalhouse there, where he belongs."

"Endfile to that," Gruder said; his hand stroked the hilt of his sword. "Although I'd prefer to see him get what that traitor Saylazar got."

Staenbridge grimaced; the evidence had been fairly damning, but he was still surprised that Raj had ordered the merchant impaled. He looked over; the General was bucking, with Barton Staenbridge's hands wound in his hair and heels drumming on his ribs. There were a few threads of silver in the thick black curls . . . and Ferteryo Saylazar was still alive that morning on the steps of the Palace, standing straddled over the sharpened stake rammed up through his anus. A strong man could survive three, perhaps four days on a short stake.

"I'd rather shoot Dalhouse in the back and be done with it," Gerrin said. "And speaking of sneak assassins, have you heard what M'lewis found?"

"Ah-ha." Kaltin shook off lesser matters. "The Admiral?"

"Might be. In which case . . ."

"Battalion sweeps," Gruder said happily. "Hi! O Great Leader!"

Raj stood, holding the squirming child under one arm while he dusted himself off with the other. Fatima reclaimed her son amid a cooing crowd of her three protegees; the fencers came drifting over too, arms over each other's shoulders. Belagez had been very fond of Mekkle Thiddo, and anyone who tried to arrest the man who betrayed him was a blood-brother, even if he did now command the 17th Cuirassiers.

"Who gets the first rip-and-run at the Admiral's beard?" Gruder asked.

"Well—" Raj began, and froze. The others turned at his expression, to see the heliograph on the topmost tower of the Vice Governor's palace clicking out its sun-bright flickers.

"Confirm please," Gerrin read. As one, they all pivoted to watch the eastern horizon; the hill was nearly as high as the tower, and they could all see the reply from the warship stationed at the edge of visibility.

"Multiple—sails—stop—estimate +40—stop—approaching—northwest—stop—Squadron—galleys—and—transports—stop—am—heading—in—stop—estimate enemy will arrive two hours minimum four maximum. End."

Four voices whispered it aloud. Seconds later the women and child were alone on the hill, staring after the soldiers.

Barton Staenbridge began to cry.

* * *

"Bloody hell, bloody hell," Raj said, squinting up the dockside street.

Port Murchison rose on low rolling ground from the water it enclosed on three sides. Like most cities originally laid out in the Civil Government, it was built on a partial grid plan; most of the waterfront was cut off by three- and four-story warehouses, there were tangles of alleys in parts, but the major streets ran more-or-less straight up from the water.

And on one of them, a barricade of wagons was visible. "Runner!" Raj said. "Message to whoever's in command up there, get those wagons into a side street and keep them there until the word's given.

"You," he went on, jabbing a finger at the harbormaster as the messenger clapped heels to his dog. "You've got the tugs ready?"

"Say, Messenor," he replied in nervous Spanjol: Yes, my lord.

They were tubby little vessels, with ten two-man oars to a side and a raised catwalk; a tiny lazaretto stood under the wheel at the stern. Two more just like them were towing the final Civil Government steam ram into the inner military harbor; the bosuns danced down the catwalk swinging their ropes' ends, and the oars splashed with haste. Low smoke showed over the stone forts, as the remaining six warships made steam in there; no help for that . . . He turned to the Captain of the 5th standing at his elbow.

"The men have been thoroughly briefed?" he said.

Tejan M'brust stroked his long black hair. "Yes, sir," he said cheerfully. "No sound unless the barbs catch on. Then they toss a grenade into the rower's pit and swim for it."

Risky duty . . . but the best way to keep the oarsmen honest, and they'd been told the orders too. M'brust would be going on one of them himself.

"Go to it, son," he said.

* * *

"Move, move, move," Menyez shouted.

The drum beat in a long continuous roll: to arms, to arms. Men poured out of the houses down the long narrow street, some hopping as they jammed their feet into boots, others buttoning tunics loosened for the siesta. Hobnails clattered as they fell in by platoons, then dashed off with rifles at the trail; at the intersection outside, traffic directors in guardia armbands were grabbing file-closers and pushing them in the direction they should go, then halting everyone in a chorus of bone whistles as a battery of guns went by, the iron wheels rumbling on the cobblestones.

"Look," Menyez went on, turning to the assembled company commanders. Not his own 17th Foot—they didn't need a pep talk, although he'd be with them when it started—this was the 10th Melaga, an ordinary line outfit.

"You showed the dogboys what you could do at the Slaughterhouse"—that was the nickname for the first engagement with the Admiral—"and now you're going to do it again. It's all quite simple; you stand in reserve at the assigned locations, keeping out of sight from the harbor. No noise, no movement—the longer it takes until they realize we're here, the better. Then when the signal comes, get the stuff across the street, lie down behind it and shoot. In the unlikely event they get as far as your positions, give them the bayonet. Understood, gentlemen?"

"Sir yes sir!"

* * *

"I make it thirty-zero-and-one meters," the sentinel sang out from the rooftop above.

"Keep it peeled and be ready to call it," the commander of the mortar battery said, before he turned back to Grammeck Dinnalsyn.

"Should be ready to go in less than twenty minutes, sir," he said.

The mortars were massive weapons; most of the weight was in the big circular baseplate of welded wrought iron and cast steel. Those had clanged to the pavement minutes ago, and the wheels on their cranked axles had been dragged away. Now the crews were pounding long iron spikes through its slots into the ground and shoveling dirt from the little plaza's garden into the trough that ran around the edge. The barrel was a stubby tube of cast steel with a 100mm bore, mounted on a ball joint in the center. As he watched, the men finished rigging a knock-down lifting tripod over it and ran a cable through an eyebolt at the muzzle. The aiming frame waited to take the barrel, a thing of rods and screw-wheels. Others were unloading crates of shells from a wagon.

"Good," Dinnalsyn said. "Remember, I want those things dropped right on the decks if I call for them."

"You'll get it, Major," the lieutenant said. "Glad to have someone in charge who knows a gun isn't fought from the same end as a dog," he went on.

"You'll find Messer Raj fully aware of that," the artillery specialist replied.

"Well, of course, him, sir!" The tone strongly implied Messer Raj used ships only because walking on water was tiring.

"Carry on." He mounted and heeled his dog, cantering until he came to the Captain at the head of a two-battery train of field guns.

"Got your position?" he said. The man looked up from a map he was holding across his pommel against the wind of passage.

"Checked it yesterday, sir," he replied. "The road goes over a lip there, no sight-line to the harbor. We can set up and then just manhandle the guns forward, and we'll cover the outer harbor mouth nicely. And the road down to the docks."

The forts at the outer entrance were useless for this work; they had been intended to keep ships out of the port, and were ruinous anyway.

"I'll go along to see you get that infantry support company," Dinnalsyn said.

The iron racket of the gunwheels echoed back from shuttered houses amid the whining panting of the dog-teams. No civilians were in sight: War had come to Port Murchison with a vengeance . . . and most of them would be indoors, imagining a vengeful Squadron force turned loose on the city that had betrayed their Admiral and their families.

* * *

"Do not break the windows out, you fools!" Barton Foley snapped. The trooper froze with his rifle butt poised. "Open them."

"Yisser," the soldier said, flushing.

Like children, Foley thought. They just love to break things. It seemed to be an ineradicable enlisted-man trait, like pyromania . . . Good men, though. Steady. None of them showing any nerves at being rousted out of a comfortable billet for a surprise battle.

There were a dozen men of A Company, 1st Platoon of the 5th Descott setting up in here; a fire team and a set of 500-round ammunition boxes back by the door. The room had been some merchant's salon until a few moments ago, when the Descotters broke in and threw the protesting family out to find their way uptown against the massive flow of military traffic. He stepped to the tall narrow windows and looked out over the balcony; the slanting road below made a dogleg here, giving a clear field of fire right down to the main docks. Across the way more troopers were settling in along the roofline with only their eyes showing, and he saw movement at the windows; at ground level there was a pounding of feet and tap of drums as company columns pounded past doing the double quickstep.

"Where's Lieutenant Ahlvayrez?"

"Up t' roof, Cap'n."

"All right, men," Foley said; acutely conscious of his own youth for a moment. He made a sweeping gesture with his hook. "Remember, don't let them see you—just like a sauroid hunt. This is a blind over a game-trail . . . memorize your firing positions and the terrain, then get well back and wait for your corporal to give you the word. Understood?"

Nods and grins, even on this unfamiliar urban terrain. None of them were townsmen by birth, and none of them had fought in a built-up area before either. That was rare enough that even the handbooks didn't deal with it, much.

"Carry on."

Gerrin was coming upstairs outside the room, slightly out of breath; they had time for a quick hug.

"Everything in place?" the older man said.

"More or less. They'll be settled in in about fifteen, twenty minutes." They both looked at their watches; an hour and a half since the heliograph message. "It's those cow-handed peon infantry I'm worried about—they take a week to chew the cud of an unfamiliar idea."

"Raj thought of that," Gerrin said, taking a deep breath. He squeezed the younger man's shoulder. "I'm off to the command post. Be careful, my dear."

Foley grinned and flourished the hook where his left hand had been. "Always," he said.

* * *

"Bloody odd way to run a battle," Raj said, leaning back in the deck chair and raising the binoculars.

The overall command post had been set up on a rooftop patio with a good view down to the harbor and a crenellated wall; that was meant to be ornamental, but the stone was thick and the gaps for riflemen quite functional. There was a map table set up, and a rank of messengers waiting; a portable heliograph stood with the operator's hands on the levers. The soldiers seemed incongruous among the potted rosebushes and bougainvillea. . . . The city had fallen very quiet; perhaps quiet enough to be suspicious, but there was not much he could do about that.

Not much I can do about anything, he thought, swallowing acid.

does it distress you to have to give orders and trust others to carry them out? Center commented drily.

Raj laughed, drawing awed looks from some of the troopers. It's easy for you, he thought.

is it?

Raj blinked in surprise, then turned to Suzette. "How's our mutual friend Berg?" he said, raising the glasses again.

The first transport was being towed between the ends of the breakwater; he could see the long blue swells creaming into surf on the rough line of interlocked stone that guarded the harbor. A substantial ship, bluff-bowed and three-masted; sailors were standing on the bare spars, at their ease—and away from the rowdy mass of Squadron warriors crowding the rails. Getting ready for the knocking-shops if they're from the country, and home to the wife and kiddies if they're not, he thought

"Nervous," Suzette said quietly. "He's . . . not a fighting man, after all."

"Well, I hope he doesn't bugger off for the bundu—the Admiral's out there somewhere," Raj said.

Two more ships were coming into the harbor mouth; there was a crowd of them dotted across kilometers of calm ocean, rising and falling with the long swells, bows to the wind under jibsails as they waited for their tows. Forty or more sail, and beyond them the long snaky shapes of war-galleys, their beaks flashing as the crews dipped the oars just enough to keep them head to the waves and holding station. They made a brave sight, familiar from the visions Center had sent him; from what he'd been told, they could be smelled a kilometer or better downwind. The Squadron navy used chained slaves and convicts as rowers, ten men to an oar and single-banked. The slave-barracks over on the military harbor had provided thousands of extremely enthusiastic volunteer laborers for the Civil Government forces, even though they were three-quarters empty with the decline of the Squadron's naval power.

"Feel that trembling in the ground?" Raj asked.

"What?" Suzette replied.

Raj gave a harsh laugh. "That's old 'Geyser' Ricks trying to burrow back from Starless Hell and strangle his descendants for ineptitude," he said.

Suzette sat beside him and took his hand; he squeezed back gratefully, feeling a little of the tension go out of his back. "What's going to happen?" she said softly.

"I don't know," he replied honestly. "As far as I can tell, I've got everything covered . . . but this isn't like a normal battle where you can sit on a hill and see everything." Most battlefields were less than a kilometer on a side, and in open country. "Even the reserve is decentralized—and I've got to keep enough men on the walls, just in case. I've told the front-line people to use their initiative."

The first transport was nearly to the docks, and a dozen more were inching in as the tug crews bent to their oars. It would be the men first, the dogs second, and then the warships following through to the inner harbor; tradition, for the Squadron. Convenient for him . . .

"Spirit knows what'll happen when they do that."

* * *

Hereditary Sector Commander Henrik Martyn leaped down the gangplank and fell full-length to kiss the grimy concrete of the dock.

"Home!" he howled, between smacks. "Eats! Booze! Pussy! No more hardtack, no more hairy hardcases!"

The men behind him on the ship yelled good-naturedly and poured down after him, slinging their weapons; servants and slaves would follow with their baggage.

"Fuckin' waste of a campaign," one of them said.

Martyn nodded, rising and dusting himself off; he was a tall young man, full-bearded and with shoulders like a bear. "Damn straight, Willi," he said. "Go to Sadler Island, sit in front of the city walls, scratch our butts, come back because somebody's seen a Civvie boogieman behind a peach tree."

"Too much peach brandy, maybe," one of his friends laughed. "Hey, come back to my place for dinner? Try out your lies on Marylou."

"Sure, can't head home until tomorrow anyway—then I'll kick some peon butt. Lazy bastards probably let my wheat rot in the fields."

They shrugged their slung flintlocks to their backs and strolled off away from the docks, peering around for the friends and family who should have been there to greet them. The broad paved area along the piers was deserted, except for the thousand or so men from the ships fresh in dock. No stevedores but the few handling the ground-lines, and those went about their work with heads down and mouths shut; no bustle around the anchored merchantmen, no trains of carts and slaves at the warehouses. It even smelled quiet, like a hot dusty day out in the country or in some little puheblo, not like Port Murchison. Granted it was siesta time, but this was ridiculous.

"Where the fuck is everyone?" he asked, as he and a half-dozen others ambled up one of the cobbled roads toward the central plaza. "There a bullfight or a baseball game on today?" He hitched uneasily at his swordbelt

"Naw—nothin' scheduled; it's Holy Week, remember? There aren't even any natives around. Earth Spirit—you don't think there's something to those latrine rumors about the Civvies invading, do you?"

"Those rabbit-hearted bastards? You've got to be—hello, that's better."

One of the dockside taverns seemed to be open, from the tinkling of a piano coming through the rippling glass-bead curtain that closed the entrance. A girl was standing in the doorway; Martyn angled over for a better look. Rowf! he thought: a high-breasted young one, with long shining blond hair and a complexion to match. She pouted at him as he approached, raising a wineglass to bee-stung lips and shooting out a hip. That made her slit skirt fall open, showing one long smooth leg right up to the hip; she turned and vanished into the door with a bump and grind as he came near.

"Hooo, darlin', wait for me," he called. "C'mon, boys, a drink before dinner!" he added, over his shoulder.

He ducked through the bead curtain of the door, blinking in the dim light. Then his eyes focused on the girl; she was leaning her buttocks back against the rail of the bar and raising her skirt in both hands. A natural blonde. Martyn roared happily and reached for his belt-buckle as he stepped forward.

Darkness, and the floor rushing up to meet him.

* * *

"Is he dead, Antin?" Joni asked anxiously, dropping her skirt and hurrying forward.

Antin M'lewis chuckled as he slapped the chamois leather bag of lead shot into his palm, then bent to expertly slit the Squadron warrior's wallet loose from his belt. It was gratifyingly heavy; he tossed it to the girl.

"Joni," he said; then paused for a moment. Outside a single shout sounded, a few meaty smacks as of steel buttplates chunking into flesh, and the distinctive butcher's-cleaver sound of a bayonet driven into a belly. Scouts dragged bound or dead or feebly twitching bodies in through the door.

"Not th' first man led ter ruin by 'is prick—er the fifty-first, Joni," he went on. "Ye jist git yer pretty ass back t' th' door; keep on earnin' that there manumission an' dowry, flies to the honeypot. Hell, er a 'baccy shop fer yer very own!"

A calloused hand smacked down on her backside. She pouted uncertainly and resumed her pose in the door as a voice sounded softly from the second story.

"More comin!"

* * *

"Mounted party, Cap'n," said the man with the mirror on a stick poked up above the window. "'bout twenty a' em. Real important lookin' barbs, fer sure. Nice dogflesh."

"Wait for it, everyone," Barton Foley said. "Not until they get past the dogleg." His stump was itching; it always did, just before. It itched, and he saw the hand—what was left of the hand—just after something snatched at it, and he looked around from urging his men on toward the Colonists and it was gone . . . . He checked his weapons one more time; the cut-down double barreled shotgun in the holster across his back, the pistol, the saber—and my hook. Better than a hand in some ways.

Dog paws thudded in the street outside, and suddenly he felt fine. Fine and clear and light; that always happened too. Almost as good as reading the old poetry or making love, except that this was a feeling of being more in control, not out . . . .

"Now."

He turned and rose, as the men knelt up and leveled their rifles out the ground-floor window, and more from above and across the street. The pistol was in his hand as he stepped out into the sunlight. Twenty mounted Squadrones, right enough; one with a banner covered in stitching and brightwork: the comet-and-planet of the Admiral's family. Gaudy richness on the sleek, beautifully groomed dogs—and that must have taken some doing on shipboard; jewels on clothes and belts and weapons. The men were roaring in surprise, clawing for their weapons; mostly in their thirties, hard-looking even by Squadron standards.

One lifted his flintlock. Crack, and the top of his head spattered away from a bullet. A twin file of men double-timed out behind Foley and formed up with bayoneted rifles leveled; the Squadrones' heads swiveled, their faces liquid with shock. More rifles bore on them from rooftop and window. Nor could experienced men doubt the trembling intensity of spirit in the eyes of the young one-handed officer standing with his revolver making small prodding motions. The dogs wuffled uneasily, snuffling their masters' fear. Two extended curious noses toward the blood and brains leaking out on the worn paving stones, and the dead man's animal whined in distress.

"Drop the weapons and out of the saddle by three or you're all dead," Foley shouted. "One! Two!" The hook rose.

The Squadron noble next to the banner swung down to the ground and unbuckled his swordbelt; the others followed suit, moving like men drugged or newly wakened. Troopers in bluejackets and round helmets with chainmail neckguards darted forward to lead off the dogs and drag away the corpse.

A gaping Squadron warrior blinked in disbelief. "Earth Spirit! It's the cunnarte gisuh sharums," he blurted in Namerique: the phrase translated into Sponglish as chickenhearted little darkies.

The man screamed and fell to his knees as a Descotter rammed his rifle butt home over the kidneys. Foley took him under the chin with his hook, very gently.

"Times," he said to the wide-eyed face, "have changed."

The senior Squadron warrior shook off his bewilderment as troopers grabbed his elbows and began to lash them together behind his back.

"Take your hands off me, you peasant dogs!" he roared. "I am Curtis Auburn!"

"Oh-ho!" Foley said. Auburn stared at his smile and fell silent. After a few seconds he began to shake.

* * *

"They captured who?" Raj asked incredulously; the runner grinned back at him and saluted with a snap. The General shook his head. "Get him back here by all means—immediately. And my congratulations to Captain Foley. By all means, congratulations." He was still shaking his head as he turned back to the harbor, standing close to the parapet and using a tripod-mounted telescope. The wharves were black with men, now; all the transports had docked. The war galleys were spider-walking in toward the inner harbor, a dozen or so still outside waiting. More shots crackling across the city; a half-dozen here or there, then the unmistakable slamming of a platoon volley. He focused on the docks; men were milling around in circles, twisting their heads to look up into the city, shouting questions at each other. Weapons were flourished overhead; a banner went up, and an ox-horn gave its dunting snarl. Warriors formed behind that, shouldering their way through the press toward the main road up from the harbor.

"It's time," he said, looking up to the man at the heliograph. "Now."

* * *

"Now!" the commander of the mortar battery said, swinging his saber down.

Two men dropped the heavy cylindrical shell into the muzzle of the mortar. SCHUUMP, and a tongue of flame and heavy smoke shot into the air; the bomb was almost visible, a blur arching up over the rooftop and down toward the harbor.

"Overshot seventy-five," the observer lying on the tiles of the roof shouted.

"Up three," the officer snapped. Men spun the main screw-wheel beneath the muzzle, and the fat barrel swung a fraction higher. "Fire!"

SCHUUMP.

Smoke was beginning to haze the street, drifting away slowly west. The loading crew had stripped to the waist, only their Star amulets swinging against their hairless brown chests as they waited with hands poised over the next shell.

"On target, right in the middle of 'em!" the spotter shouted exultantly.

"Fire for effect—all tubes—five rounds!"

* * *

"Now!" the infantry officer barked.

His men put their shoulders to the sides of the wagons and pushed; the ironshod wheels rumbled as they ran the vehicles out of the laneway and across the broader avenue. Boots thundered behind them, and they heaved in unison to tip the four-wheeled farm carts over. Scores of strong hands dragged them together, and the footsoldiers crowded up behind them as their sergeants cursed and pushed them into order.

"Aim!"

The bayonets winked as the long rifles leveled, a line three deep. Four hundred yards down the road, a black mass of Squadron warriors halted their tentative advance. There was just time for them to let out a scream of rage and begin to dash forward.

"By platoons—volley fire—fwego!"

* * *

"Now, lads!" Gerrin Staenbridge said.

Four hundred rifles spoke in a stuttering crash; from behind the barricade of furniture and boxes across the road, and from rooftops and windows along it. The head of the charging column disappeared; a two-wheeled cart they had been pushing ahead of them shattered in a shower of splinters and fell sideways. A wheel broke free and rolled away backward toward the harbor, overtaking some of the fleeing men who ran or limped or tried to drag wounded comrades back with them.

"Ser!" a man called from the back of the room.

Staenbridge turned just in time to hear the shot and see him stagger back with his face pulped by a shotgun blast.

"Face about!" he called crisply, bringing the blade of his pistol's foresight down on the window.

The rear of the room was a row of windows, giving out on the courtyard of the house. A Squadron warrior blocked one for a moment, and then the revolver kicked in his fist, the recoil a surprise as it always was when the aim was right. The body slumped and lay across the sill. Men turned from the street windows and fired from the hip, the ricochets as dangerous as enemy fire; one plucked at the sleeve of his coat as it wasp-whined by. Then the enemy were pouring through. He picked his targets and shot four times, dropped the empty weapon and drew his saber. Steel clashed about him, sword on bayonet; a charging barbarian came at him with long blade upraised above his head and practically ran up the outstretched point of Staenbridge's weapon.

"Feh," he said, kicking the man free of the saber and blocking another cut, locking wrists. The Squadron warrior fell away as a trooper drove his bayonet into his back, blade carefully horizontal to the ground to avoid catching on the ribs. The room fell silent.

"Lieutenant," Gerrin said, in a clear flat voice. "Take your platoon and check the courtyard and roofs, if you please."

* * *

"Messer Raj!" the company commander said in surprise.

"Damned if I'm going to sit on a couch all the way through a battle, Captain," Raj said, sliding out of the saddle.

The reserve company of the 5th was standing to arms in front of the pillared forecourt of a Star church, short a platoon already called away. The men were quiet, straining attention toward the firing nearer the docks; they gave a cheer as Raj's banner rode up, though. A panting runner skidded around a corner and jogged up to the steps.

"Ser," he said, facing Raj. "Major Staenbridge reports infiltrators tryin' to use the courtyards an' alleyways to git around his block-force. Thinks it's some Squadron chief got hisself a bright idear. Asks fer reinforcement to block it, got enough on 'is plate where we are."

"Sir, that must be—" the Captain began.

"I know, Captain Saynchez," Raj said. Center was painting a map on his eye, the most efficient route strobing across it in a red line. "Fall in and follow me."

There was a murmur of awe as they did, and a quick three-minute run to the mouth of an alleyway that gave into a gated internal patio shared by four houses. Downhill toward the harbor it was divided from a service lane by a low wall.

"Take up positions under that wall," he said. "Strict silence."

They crouched, the only sound their panting; these back alleys were heavy with the scent of stale garbage, and less pleasant things. Raj could hear nothing, see little, but Center shone a red light in front of his eyes. Then voices muttered on the other side of the wall; more and more of them, trying to be quiet. The narrow-heeled boots of Squadron warriors grated on the flagstones out there, and a sword clanged as it was brushed against a wall. The light before Raj's eyes turned green. He shot out a fist, conscious of the eyes on him, and extended one finger. Two. Three.

"Aim!" the Captain screamed, as the men leaped erect and leveled their rifles over the wall.

The Squadrones were massed not ten meters away, at least two hundred of them in the irregular opening beyond the wall and more down the five-meter alleyway between the houses. All their attention had been on the rooftops and to the west, where they hoped to filter through the buildings and move to take the 5th Descott's roadblock in the rear. Most of them had just enough time to look around when the rifles came level.

BAM. Smoke hid the enemy for a second; then it showed what happened when seventy-five rifles were fired into a confined space. Most of the bullets had found two or three targets, and the misses were bouncing down between the stone walls that lined the narrow lane.

BAM. The Squadrones were screaming in sheer horror as the rifles spoke again. A few managed to fire back; the young Captain beside Raj dropped, pawing feebly at the wound on his back. The legs did not move, except for a few pithed-frog twitchings as the severed spinal nerves sent their last impulses.

BAM. An attempt at a charge broke up in bloody chaos; Raj aimed his revolver carefully and gave mercy to a man crawling toward the Descotter guns with a mask of blood across his face.

"Marcy, migo!" A few voices called it out first: Mercy, friend. Then more, many more: "Marcy, varsh!" Mercy, brother. Some down at the end of the alley tried to run out, and more gunfire greeted them. All the Squadrones were throwing down their weapons now, those who could, and falling to their knees, crying out for quarter.

"Cease fire!" Raj shouted. A few more aimed rounds pecked out, and a man in front of him flopped backward, still kneeling, his long brown hair dropping into a pool of blood from the massive exit-wound in his back. "Cease fire, I said!"

The rifles fell silent, and men vaulted the wall to round up the stunned survivors. Raj suddenly felt a stab of pain and put a hand to the seat of his trousers; it came away red.

"Yer wounded, ser!" one of the troopers said, leaning his rifle against the wall and fumbling out the package of blessed powder and boiled gauze on his belt

"Only a graze," Raj said. There was a flat sadness in his tone as he watched the Squadron prisoners stumble by, disbelief on their blood-flecked faces. And only in the arse. The poor bastards couldn't find their own.

* * *

"Cease fire," Dinnalsyn said, raising his head from the telescope. "Signal the mortars to cease fire too."

All around him in the little park men slumped to the earth; air quivered over the scalding-hot barrels of the field guns, and the brass shell casings that littered the earth behind them.

Ships were burning and sinking all over the outer harbor; over the inner, too, from the smoke. One was on fire right in the mouth of the breakwaters, aground on the moles. Tiny figures dropped over the rails, wading on the half-submerged rocks; eager tentacled forms cruised just below the waves, moving forward to the scent of blood. Beyond them in the ocean the last half-dozen galleys were well out of range, helpless spectators to slaughter. A long black shape churned out of the inner harbor and turned for the outer, its low-slung ram casting back twin waves and its stacks fuming. Five more followed it in line, paddles beating the harbor water to froth, moving with a butting purpose utterly unlike the organic grace of sailing craft.

"Sweet merciful Avatars and Holy Saints," he murmured. The water was actually tinged with blood—pink more than red, but . . .

He turned the binoculars on the nearest street. Three field-guns fired as he watched, and the Squadron rush dissolved as the canister shot filled the roadway and bounced between the walls. Freakishly, the man who had led it remained standing for a second; he had dropped his banner because both arms were off at the shoulder, and he stood screaming amid the fragments of his men. The dismounted cavalry below the guns gave him a volley in mercy. Further down the street the last Squadron holdouts were trying to return fire from prone position behind bodies, but each time one raised himself on his elbow to reload his muzzle-loader, a Descotter marksman fired. From the roofs of some of the larger buildings heavier weapons were firing, huge rifles in the hands of squat figures in leggings and breechclouts who danced derision between shots.

"Not much longer," Dinnalsyn whispered.

* * *

"You made the right decision, calling for surrender," Raj said.

"I, ah, I—" Curtis Auburn stuttered.

The dogs whined as they picked their way among the hot shell-casings. The gunners were dropping them back into the round holding slots in the caissons, using tongs. Beyond the gun positions the sloping surface of the road was black with powder residues; beyond that, littered almost to covering with spent rifle cartridges. Auburn's eyes were farther down the street, though, on the windrows of bodies: the dogs whined more loudly as their riders pressed their knees tighter and forced them onto the slick-slippery surface. Prisoners were busy, working under guard to throw bodies and body-parts onto handcarts. Load after load was lumbering away, down toward the harbor.

There was a cleared lane down the center, more or less, but that was reddish-brown with a scum that pooled and clung. More flies than Raj had ever seen in one spot swarmed about, making the mounts toss their heads: The late afternoon sun was hot, and a miasma was already rising from the street.

"I've heard the expression," Raj murmured to himself as they proceeded at a slow walk. There seemed no end to the carpet of bodies, no impression the carts could make on their number. "But this is the first time I've actually seen a street run with blood."

Administrator Berg had been riding behind them, with a handkerchief pressed to his face. Now he stumbled out of the saddle and to the side of the road, bending over and heaving with his eyes squeezed tightly shut to avoid seeing what he was spattering with vomit Raj turned his toes inward to touch Horace's ribs; the dog stopped and began to sit, then straightened at his jerk on the reins. He looked around, feeling as if there was a thin pane of glass between him and the world. Only two hours, he thought. Only two hours. The blood had splashed and stuck far up the sides of the whitewashed buildings; blood and bits of flesh.

"We'll have to flood the streets and scrub everything down," he mused.

They were coming into the wider open areas around the warehouses; the bodies were scattered here, with room between them, although the blood from higher up had pooled and clotted around the dams of flesh. Many of them had been bayoneted or sabered in the back; others had the mutilated look produced by the 15mm Skinner rounds. On the dockside itself thousands were squatting with their hands on their heads, or helping to put out the fires that smoldered on the wrecked ships. The sea breeze was a touch of cleanliness—if you ignored the glistening shapes that cruised just below the surface of the harbor, broad smooth humps as they nearly surfaced, a fluke or a beak or a writhing arm protruding when they turned to dive. Shots had taught them to keep back from the dock—you could see intelligence in the huge unwinking eyes that showed now and then—but the water writhed when a corpse-cart was backed to the edge.

"And I hope you can persuade your brother to do likewise," Raj went on, in the same emotionless voice.

Curtis Auburn shook himself; on the third try his voice functioned roughly.

"Ah, I'm sure, recognition of the Civil Government's suzerainty—" he began.

Suddenly Raj reached out and grabbed the Squadron leader by the knotted braids on the side of his head.

"Look, Auburn!" he shouted, his voice a shocking roar. He forced the other man's head around effortlessly, despite the bull neck's resistance. A cart piled high with bodies tipped and slid two-score more into the waiting serrated beaks. "Look at that!"

The Grand Captain of the Squadron wrenched his head away and buried his head in his hands. Raj waited, lighting a cigarette and turning his eyes away.

"Don't try to bargain with me, Auburn," he went on, when the other man was calmer; his own voice had the metallic flatness back. "I beat Conner, I beat your Admiral Charles, and now I've beaten you. We've lost less than a battalion, and killed half the fighting men in your entire nation. Once might have been luck, twice a mistake—three times is the Voice of Heaven, man!"

He offered a cigarette, and a light when Auburn's hands shook. Not fear, not really, he decided. Shock. Curtis Auburn's entire world had vanished in an afternoon; this morning he'd been a ruler of a century-old kingdom, leading home a powerful army. Three hours later, the army was downdragger food—and he was a rightless prisoner.

"What do you intend for my men—for your prisoners?" he said quietly.

"Well, under the laws and customs of war, they're mine to do with as I please," Raj said grimly. Quite true; he could execute, enslave, or ransom them—and their families—as he pleased or his ruler instructed. Auburn would be remembering what his ancestors did to the Civil Government prisoners from the last expedition, blinded and castrated en masse. Raj let the silence stretch for a moment

"But Governor Barholm has decreed as much mercy as possible," he went on.

"Only those who refused to surrender when summoned on the march north will be enslaved." Several thousand, and a profitable object-lesson. "And any among the prisoners who refuse to swear allegiance, of course. Those who do swear will be formed into military units under Civil Government officers, and sent back to East Residence for retraining and deployment to the eastern frontier. All their property here is forfeit, of course—only those who came in voluntarily will keep their lands—but they'll have their families, and if they give good and loyal service, they can expect to rise in the hierarchy of Earth's proper government."

He leaned forward and caught Curtis's eyes. "If your brother comes in and makes unconditional submission, you and he can take your households with you; you'll be granted estates near East Residence"—carefully watched, of course—"and Charles's followers will get terms at least as good as those yours do. Failing immediate surrender, tell him he can run but he can't hide; I will send every living Squadron man, woman, and child to hell or the auction block and I will send Charles Auburn's head to the Governor packed in salt. By the living Spirit of Man, I swear it."

"Are you a man or a demon?" Curtis asked hoarsely.

"I am the Sword of the Spirit of Man," he said, with the conviction of absolute belief. "Now get out—and tell your Admiral what you've seen. Tell him everything."

* * *

"Well, a great victory, yes," Administrator Berg said. His eyes were carefully unfocused as they rode back toward the Palace; he seemed to be trying to avoid seeing either the man beside him or the world around. Raj handed him a clean handkerchief, and he accepted it gratefully. "We've been . . . very fortunate, yes, the Spirit has favored us."

"Oh yes, not with luck," Raj said calmly. Berg jumped a little at the normality of the tone. "The enemy made every mistake they could . . ." He paused to return the salute of a detail marching back to quarters. "And with men like these behind me, if they hadn't screwed up we'd have won anyway."


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