"Apologies, master," the servant said.
Raj grunted, pulling himself out of a bright hologram of Tewfik's Colonists digging in around a border hamlet. The two slaves maneuvered themselves through the doorway, a huge wicker hamper of household goods slung between them on poles.
He blinked in surprise, then slid past them into the antechamber of his apartment. As a Captain, and more importantly a Guard, Raj and his wife qualified for a six-room suite in the South Wing, one side of a two-story block around a small garden quadrangle. It had seemed grand enough when he arrived, a single officer fresh from the backcountry. Hillchapel manor house was much larger, but it was as much fort as dwelling place and severely plain within. Nothing like these cool gray marble floors covered in Colony-made rugs, mosaic walls, tall clear-glass windows looking out on the fountain and lilac and potted lavender bushes of the courtyard.
The air was cool from shade and thick stone; there was a smell of dust in it, overlaying the usual odors of beeswax and incense and flowers. Most of the furniture had been pushed back against the walls and draped in canvas sheets, but everything else seemed to be going into hampers, and where had all that bedding and knicknacks and clothes and general folderol come from? Raj suppressed an uneasy consciousness that much of it had been Suzette's. She had agreed with matter-of-fact practicality that the jewelry she had received as gifts from others before their marriage should be sold—he had been surprised at how much it came to, and how shrewdly she invested the proceeds. He had no need to live on his pay or draw much on the estate, unless he wished. Many of the finer artwork and ornaments had come with her as well. The Wenqui line was as ancient in the City, as old as the Poplanich gens, and a few of the antiques were her family's heirlooms. Those that had not been sold in the long losing struggle against bankruptcy that had left her orphaned and not-quite-penniless at fourteen.
"Tingra, Mustfis, be careful with that!" Suzette's voice rang sharp from one of the inner rooms. Then: "Darling!" as she saw him and ran over to give him a kiss of greeting.
Raj felt something loosen in his chest at the sight of her; it was always that way, had always been since the first day he met her at Uncle Alois' garden-party. He had to bend to meet her face as she put her hands on either side of his; she was a small woman, barely up to his shoulder. Slim-built, with the greyhound grace of long breeding and a tensile alertness that did not make her look in the least jumpy. Feather-soft black hair was cropped close to her head, convenient for the long blond Court wigs she often wore; her eyes were a hazel-green, wide and startling in the dusky olive of her oval face, tilted by the fold at the corners.
"Congratulations, darling," she said, a trifle breathless after the kiss. The servants bustled on around them, ignored as such always were. Except that Suzette said you should always remember they had ears, that was one reason she insisted on paying them all a cash allowance, they heard things and repeated them to her. "Your first independent field command!"
"Well, Stanson's along," Raj said, unfastening the collar of his dress uniform. "Turbo, get my field blues," he added to the valet.
"They're laid out in the bedroom, master," the servant said, bowing over clasped hands.
"Stanson," Suzette said, waving a dismissive hand as they walked together into the inner chamber. "Anne said Barholm gave you seniority. The Vice-Governor knows who's competent. And who can be trusted."
Raj snorted, but looked around before he added: "Then why's Tzetzas still Chancellor?"
Suzette frowned slightly. "He's a very able man," she said seriously.
"Crooked as a dog's hind leg."
His field kit was laid out on the broad surface of the canopied bed; blue wool-linen jacket and red pantaloons, both rather baggy and unadorned except for the Captain's bars and strips of chain mail sewn to the shoulders of the coat. Saber, a plain good curve of Kolobassi steel with a brass basket hilt, revolver, pouch with fifty rounds, binoculars, map case and slide rule, boots, steel bowl helmet with a chain mail neck-guard. And beside it all Suzette's riding clothes, and her personal kit; a Colonial repeating carbine and a derringer.
Raj scowled. "Now wait a minute, Suzette-Lady-Whitehall," he began, stripping off the confining dress tunic and throwing aside the silk shirt beneath. "Where in the Outer Dark do you think you're going? Unless you want to take another ride up to Hillchapel and stay with Uncle Alois." Raj's father's brother was managing the family estates in Descott County while the younger Whitehall fulfilled the family tradition of service.
"I'm going with you, of course," Suzette said.
He turned, and found her wearing nothing but that slight enigmatic smile. "I ride as well as you, after all," she said, letting one eye drop in a slow wink. Her fingers touched lightly on the tight, sweat-damp skin of his shoulders and traced downward over the hard rippled muscle of his chest and stomach, toying with the belt buckle. Her fingers felt cool and delicate; there was a faint scent of hyacinths in her hair.
"And every second trooper," she continued, unbuttoning the trousers, "is going to have his poopsie or pretty-boy along, not to mention servants. Should you have to go alone?" She knelt to remove the skintight fabric. "You know," she whispered, looking up at him and moistening her lips, "unkind people used to say that when I wore riding clothes I looked like a pretty-boy. Did you?"
* * *
"Spirit of the Stars!" Raj shouted, leaping out of bed with a glance at the clock over the fireplace. "It's been better than an hour, the couriers will all be here."
The apartments rated a hot water shower; he washed and dressed with feverish haste, trying and failing to scowl. Suzette curved her lips and set her chin on her hands, lying on her stomach and swinging her feet up behind her; it made her look absurdly young.
"It won't hurt them to mill about for a while," she said lazily; she rinsed off quickly and threw herself back on the bed, towelling and pulling pieces of clothing towards herself. Dressing without standing; the process was distracting enough that Raj misbuttoned his tunic; their eyes met, and they laughed in unison.
"Get yourself covered, for the Spirit's sake," he said, redoing the garment. "Or none of us will ever get any work done."
"Which units are you and Stanson taking?" she asked, winding the cumberbund of her riding clothes around her waist. That hid the holster of the little two-barreled derringer; Raj hid a grimace of distaste at the sight of it. A gambler's weapon.
"Well, Stanson's taking the 2nd Gendarmerie Battalion," Raj said with a snort. He stopped to examine himself for a moment in the long mirror, part of the luxury of the bedroom. Buckling on the helmet and feeling the leather-lined neck guard rustle across his shoulders was like stepping across a barrier, away from this quiet room with its subdued elegance. The figure tapping his gauntlets into his palm did not belong in palaces.
Suzette raised a brow, as she stamped a foot into a tooled-leather riding boot with high heels. "It's a very fashionable unit," she said. "Overstrength by fifty men, and beautifully equipped."
"Poodles," Raj said briefly.
His wife sat back and rested her elbows on her knees. "Alsatians," she said. "They're mounted on Alsatians."
Raj quirked a smile. "How did I ever manage to pick someone with your combination of qualities?" he said.
"Oh, you didn't," Suzette said calmly. "I picked you, and mean to keep you . . . but about the 2nd?" There was genuine interest behind the question; she had started reading his military texts as soon as they returned from the honeymoon and he took up his duties.
"Palace poodles," he continued. "The 2nd aren't just Residence Area troops, they practically never leave East Residence."
"Father used to take me out to the Gendarmerie Picnics, when I was a little girl," Suzette said reflectively. "When they were on maneuvers up in the Bay Hills."
He looked around for a second, saw brief reflective melancholy on her face. Odd, he thought. How seldom Suzie's talked about her childhood. Suzette, Lady Whitehall, nee Wenqui, was twenty-six, a year older than her husband, and looked younger, but it was usually difficult to imagine her as a child.
Aloud: "That's a hunting park. And most of the 2nd are either city toughs, or scions doing some military service where it won't take them too far from the races, the theater, or their favorite cathouses. They've got beautiful gear because the scions compete with each other to rig their units out pretty for parades. About the only real soldiers in it are some long-service NCO's, and most of them are past it; the scions sponsor them in to polish the drill, and it's a retirement post for good men."
"They're useless?" Suzette asked.
"No, not useless. Reliable enough putting down strikes and riots."
For a moment the room vanished, and he was walking down a flight of outdoor stairs in the naval harbor, a vision of memory more vivid than Center's. The rank of Gendarmerie troopers was walking ahead of him, in their white "field" uniforms. Reload! over the screams of the mob—the people—below. Metallic clicks, tinging as the spent brass and paper cartridges bounced on marble and the fresh rounds clacked home. By platoons, volley fire—fire! And the CRASH of two hundred rifles, the rippling and thrashing along the line of the crowd where the heavy 11mm bullets struck. The bodies on the steps were dead, mostly; the blood flowed in little rivulets that made the bottoms of his boots stick to the stone with little tak-tak sounds.
"—and they'll die bravely enough. I'm going to take a Descott Hills unit with Field Force experience; the—"
* * *
Faces this time, a comparison left-right between the Company officers of the 12th Residence Battalion, the unit he had meant to take, and another. Faces thin and square, fox-mean and bovine, with a murmured commentary from Center on each.
* * *
"Darling! Are you all right?"
Raj staggered slightly, took his hand down from his forehead. "Why, certainly, sweetheart. Why?"
"You looked so . . . so strange for a moment," his wife said, raw anxiety in her voice.
"Aya, dummerlin," he said, shocked back into dialect for a moment. "It's all right, I was just . . . ah, lost in thought. I'd decided to take the 12th, but I've changed my mind. It'll be the 5th Descott Guards, instead."
Suzette stepped back, the immediate concern fading from her face. "But . . . darling, they're understrength."
Raj nodded. "But they've got a better set of Company commanders, and that will be crucial. It's a raiding mission, they'll have to split up into smaller groups and perform on their own, without always having me there to hold their hands."
Suzette's fingers tapped her chin. "You do know, Raj, that they're understrength because those officers are pocketing the pay and rations of the men who aren't there?"
Raj nodded. "Well, of course," he said, grinning. "I have been in East Residence for four years, my sweet. That proves they're sharper than the 12th, doesn't it?"
"But they're still short two hundred men," Suzette said thoughtfully. "Perhaps an order to draft replacements?"
Raj shrugged ruefully. Center, this had better work, he thought, then corrected himself for doubting . . . the Spirit of Man of the Stars? An angel, at least. "I'd look pretty silly, asking the Vice-Governor for that," he said. "After asking for the 5th in the first place."
"You might," Suzette said. "Men care about things like that. I'll talk to Anne, and I don't think she'll feel silly at all, when she talks to the Reassignments officer. I will not—" her voice took on an icy clarity "—have you endangered needlessly, Raj."
He inclined his helmeted head. "It's good of you to have made a friend of her, back when Barholm wasn't the heir," he said seriously. "And smart, too."
Suzette looked at him with a slight flare of her patrician nostrils. "The only difference between Anne and me," she said coldly, "is that I was older and had more money and choices when I was thrown out on my own. And a few contacts. She was sold to be an 'entertainer' at ten. I'll see you at dinner."
* * *
"Whew," Raj muttered, following more slowly. "Nobody can say married life is dull." A glance back at the rumpled bed. "Or uninteresting."
The first task would be a general inspection, without warning. As Raj stepped out into the anteroom he slipped out his watch and clicked open the heavy brushed-brass casing. 1100 hours, he thought.
The couriers were waiting, some leaning against the walls, a few chatting-up the more presentable of the maids—two were even helping with the lifting, true dedication—and one was even reading; Raj noted his face and name.
"At ease," he said as they braced to attention. A Palace courier was equivalent to a corporal in a line regiment; the post was a plum and eagerly sought. "First, to the officers of the 5th Descott Guards, platoon level and above; with the warrant officers, the Battalion Master Sergeant, the vet and the quartermaster. Battalion meeting at—" another glance at his watch. "—1550 hours, in the wardroom. Have the Surveyor General's office send down the designated maps, please."
He turned to the next brace of couriers. "You boys are going to have to earn your pay: this does not go out on the heliograph." Mirrors, signal-towers, telescopes, and lanterns provided the fastest means of long-distance communication, but they were unfortunately wide open to counter-intelligence. "Take the following, to depots 7 through 38, East Residence, all station commanders. 'Greetings. By order of the Civil Government, all supplies and refreshments necessary to the passage of the 2nd Gendarmerie and 5th Descott Guards, minimum 900 effectives—" an exaggeration, but better safe than sorry "—with the usual dependents, to be available from this date until further notice."
The couriers scribbled. They were all young men, fit and dressed in tight fringed leathers, armed with shotguns; they would ride fast down the post relays, changing dogs every fifty kilometers. The next five finished their messages, sealed them with prestamped wax and saluted before dashing off towards the stables. Raj followed them out the door, his remaining couriers trailing. The orders continued, metronome-steady.
"To the Master of Ordnance," he said. "Indent for three 75mm fieldguns, with full limbers and teams to report not later than—"
* * *
This time he could manage to walk, talk, despite what Center was showing him.
—Colonist banners waving above a walled village; he recognized the green-and-silver of the Lions of Medinha, Tewfik's personal guard regiment. The lean brown dogs were staked on picket lines, lying and panting resignedly in the bright sun; their masters and the camp followers were digging in, shoveling the earth out of rifle pits. The hologram swooped in, showing muscular, brown-skinned troopers stripped to their baggy pantaloons, sweating as they threw basketloads of sandy dirt out of the entrenchments. Quick-firers were being manhandled into revetments; a detachment of mounted scouts trotted out into the fields in column of twos, the butts of their carbines resting on their thighs. He focused on the leader's hairy brown hawk face, the beard trimmed to a rakish point under a spired helmet with a spike and canvas neck flap. The man turned and said something to the troop sergeant riding to his rear; the NCO laughed, making the brass hoop earring in one ear dance.
A blur, and he saw the command council of the regiment on a hilltop, the same red jellaba robes but more gorgeously embroidered. Military engineers were working over a mapboard, with slide rules and compasses and steel straightedges; the commander peered through a tripod-mounted telescope, and a detachment was putting up a heliograph tower.
—and in a riverport town on the Drangosh a train of barges was unloading, muscle-powered cranes squealing as they swung crates with the Settler's phoenix stencil on their sides to the dock. Wardogs were being led down a ramp, and black-tanned porters in loincloths and headdress were trotting down another gangway with 50-kilo sacks of soya dogmash meal on their backs, filling ox-drawn wagons that moved out with a squeal of ungreased axles.
There were lighter-skinned folk on the docks as well, more naked than the porters but wearing chain hobbles on their ankles, bound neck-and-neck with long ropes. They crouched, waiting to be loaded on the barges for the return trip downriver when the munitions were ashore. The porters sometimes paused to kick them as they passed, or loft a gobbet of spit in their direction, and a group of boychildren lurked at a distance, throwing clumps of garbage or occasionally darting forward to poke with a stick. Many of the chained slaves were slumped in an apathy so deep they did not even dodge the lumps of ordure. Flies buzzed, and Raj could imagine the stink so well that it was almost a physical presence, on the slow-moving river.
Clumps of townsfolk, all men in long robes, examined the fresh-caught slaves from the Civil Government. One wore a robe of dazzling white linen edged with silver, and a cord-bound ha'ik headdress. He was bargaining more seriously with a uniformed officer in charge of the prisoners; at last they slapped palms in a bargain-sealing gesture.
"By Allah," the civilian said, smoothing his gray-streaked beard with one hand, "I would have bought more if they were in better condition. Not worth my while to pay for transport if all they're fit for is the mines or the sugar plantations."
They were speaking Arabic, but somehow Raj understood far better than his nodding acquaintance with that language would allow.
"Look at that moon-faced beauty!" the slaver continued. He pointed with a long ebony staff at a plump girl who sat staring before her, ignoring the hardtack in her hand and the woman beside her who urged her to eat. "I could have gotten, two, three hundred for her in Al-Kebir, except for those infected bites all over her breasts. And she's mad besides; now, no more than fifty for a sailor's brothel."
The officer shrugged, glanced up at the cloudless sky and pulled a fold of his helmet's cloth neck-guard across his face. "By the Prophet, you can't keep troops too much in line when the loot's so scanty," he said, clapping his hands and pointing out one slave, then another. The guards untied them and hustled them forward; the slave trader's assistants formed them into a new coffle with bonds of woven coconut-fiber rope. All were males, prepubescent.
"But look at these," the soldier continued. "All healthy, sound of mind and limb; you'll get good prices for these, even if the fashion is for black harem guards."
"Kaphars have a certain value as well," the trader nodded. "But we lose half when we geld them; sometimes more, and then where is my profit?"
There was a crash behind them. Both men wheeled to look; the ropes had slipped unloading a heavy gun from one of the barges, a muzzle-loading siege gun with a barrel shaped like a soda bottle, built up with extra bands around the breech. It hung for a moment, teetering, then crashed onto the dock as the crew pulled frantically at ropes. There was a hollow thudding shudder through the brick arches beneath their feet. The soldier strode off, waving his riding-crop in the air and screaming imprecations.
"Peace be with you!" he shouted over one shoulder to the merchant, before returning to cursing the dockworkers.
"And upon you, peace!" the slave trader called back, patting one of the boys on the head. The child smiled up at him uncertainly. "But not too much peace," he continued happily.
* * *
Confident, Raj thought grimly. It's been a long time since the Civil Government won a major battle with the Colony.
Forty-three years two months seventeen days, Center prompted helpfully.
Thank you, Raj replied. Thank you very much. He looked up; they were nearly at the stables, the familiar rank odors of boiling mash and dog shit muted by the cool stone smell.
"We'll just have to make sure the record doesn't run to forty-four," he said aloud.