"Get that thing off the road, get it the fuck off the road, do it now, er I blow yor fuckin' head off!"
Raj Whitehall heard the high-pitched scream of the 2nd's Battalion Master Sergeant and sighed. It had taken fifteen minutes for the huge procession formed by the two battalions to lurch to a halt, another fifteen to become frustrated enough to go forward and see for himself, and ten more to ride and edge his way forward to within hearing distance of the front.
Half a day, he thought. We can't get half a day out of East Residence and this sort of thing happens. He looked up at the reddish-orange disk of the sun; the glance at the position of Miniluna was a reflex from his youth, when the only watch on the estate was an heirloom his grandfather had brought back from the Army. Only one of the moons was up right now. And three hours just getting out of the gates.
Raj pressed his heels to Horace's sides. The wardog swerved out of the slow-moving column, ignoring the occasional sniff or yelp from the other mounts. And teams; half of the 2nd were in light overland carriages, big enough to carry four. Only a quarter of the 5th Descott's officers in coaches, he thought sardonically. Hooray, we're hardy sons of bitches, we Descotters. Spirit of Man of the Stars, give me strength!
that is not my function.
"Literalist," he muttered. Even a pious man could not talk with an angel daily and not become familiar.
The column seemed to go on forever, filling most of the eight-meter width of the road. This close to the capital the surface was of poured concrete, over a bed of stabilized earth and gravel; the shoulders were three meters wide, of crushed rock, and right now occupied by scores of indignant travelers. Most were peasants, with handcarts or single-ox two wheel wagons of fresh produce; a substantial minority were pilgrims, afoot and dressed in burlap robes, with staffs in their hand carved with mystic circuit diagrams and topped with the Star. The peasants waited with stolid patience, the pilgrims the same, or with a serenity that Raj found slightly disquieting. A few of those pushed off the road were wealthy enough to have carriages or riding dogs of their own.
One merchant on a high-bred borzoi tried to edge along beside the stalled, irritated troopers. The two soldiers nearest merely turned their heads in blank disinterest. Their mounts turned their heads as well, twisting them down and half-sideways in a snakelike gesture. Their ruffs stood up, but the dripping bare teeth were only incidentally and functionally a threat display. The borzoi's muzzle was encased in a steel basket as law required for civilian animals, while the wardogs wore only light halters that deliberately left their jaws unencumbered. Not that that made much difference, since each of the massive beasts was half again the borzoi's weight and a killer by breeding and training besides.
It backed away, crouching and whining and urinating in a thin stream on the dusty rock of the road verge. The dogs waited, visibly hoping it would come within reach. They ignored Raj and Horace; most wardogs recognized a sort of vague pack-sentiment to anything smelling of the Army, although putting a scratch unit together always led to weeks of trouble as they settled the pecking order. And to even worse trouble when that pecking order did not correspond with the human ranking of their riders.
Raj had expected Stanson to be at the head of the column; the other Guard had insisted that the 2nd have precedence on the road, after all. Instead there was still only the advance piquette of the Gendarmerie, and the Master Sergeant he had heard cursing half a kilometer back. The color-party were sitting their dogs uncomfortably; the standard-bearer was slumping a little, letting the long pole with the bronze Star and the citation ribbons of the five companies making up the 2nd Gendarmerie slant out from the cup in his right stirrup. The dogs were looking hackles-up at the thing in the roadway before them.
It was impressive; a steam traction engine, like a locomotive with a brace of wheels on a pivot at the funnel end of a long riveted iron boiler, and two huge spoked iron driving wheels at the rear; there was a tasseled canopy over the driver's seat, and behind it four huge six-wheeler wagons. They were loaded with hand-thick sheets of nairstone, fossilized quasi-coral cut from the occasional reefs of harder stone that rose from the alluvial floor of the Hemmar Valley. Rare and quite precious, used to pick out ornamental details on important buildings; the surface was basically a lustrous silver, streaked with swirling patterns of reddish ochre and blue.
There were a half-dozen armed guards with the train, even this close to the East Residence; they sat their dogs in a clump, surprisingly truculent, several with rifles across their knees. There was a stoker perched sullenly beside the driver's bench of the traction engine, a dark stocky huge-muscled man with a steel collar around his neck. And the driver himself, as broad as his slave assistant and much taller, in stained overalls, his woolen hat respectfully in his hands.
"Well, good sir, I can't—" he broke off as Raj rode up, taking in the three-star insignia of a Captain on the brow of his helmet. "Oh, thank the Spirit! Good my lord—"
"Sor—" the 2nd Gendarmerie NCO began.
"Quiet." Silence fell, even the crowds on the shoulders of the road ceasing their chattering. "Sergeant, could you tell me what the darklord is going on, here?"
"Ahh, well, sor." The NCO was elderly for this line of work, fifty if he was a day and bald as an egg. The narrow mustache on his upper lip still had streaks of yellow in it as well as gray, and his eyes were blue; Raj put that together with the accent and decided he was probably from Chongwe Island County, over on the western border. Skin tanned to the consistency of old leather, and a voice to match. "We've gots a bit of a transport problem, like. The other civvie stuff, it's moved aside, but this bastard here won't." The sergeant brightened, and dropped a hand to his saber. "Kill hem, sor?"
The guards stirred, and the dogs of the two parties exchanged tail-down snarls. The civilian opened his mouth to protest, looked up at the sergeant and suddenly realized there was real hope behind the request. He wrung the cap between his hands again, then burst out:
"Noble lord! Star Spirit and Holy Federation witness, I can't run this off the road, not here, m'lord. This thing weighs twenty tonnes, m'lord, not counting the cargo, the ground won't hold it, not unless I was an Avatar of the Spirit 'n could walk on water."
"Well, that's your problem," Raj said flatly, looking around.
They were headed south on a road that ran south-southeast, two kilometers from the river, with the Coast Range mountains floating on the western horizon, snowpeaks merging with low cloud. The ground rose up-valley, so the ramparts of the East Residence wall were still visible to the north, earthworks and ramparts and outlying forts larger than most cities, all a dim line on the horizon. The fields to either side were tabletop flat, long-reclaimed marshland; the road itself was raised two meters above ground level on an embankment. They had left the rice paddies of the delta behind, but the turned earth showed black and spongy between rows of young maize, and irrigation canals laced the landscape until it disappeared in the haze along the horizon. The wheat was just starting to head out, streaks of gold among the green, orchards in full leaf; sharecropper shacks were scattered across the fields, occasionally clumping into a hamlet with the spire and Star of a chapel at its center. Now and then a manor, although most landowners hereabouts would live in the city for all but a few months of the year.
"Right, sergeant, get a squad up here. We'll push—" "My lord, I'm under contract to the Church!" Raj touched his amulet. Oh. Now that he looked, the guards had Star emblems pinned to their shoulders, and they were the real electrum the Church issued to its secular servants, not brass. The 2nd's Master Sergeant sighed in vexation and let his sword slip back into the scabbard, the handspan of bright metal dropping into the lapwing-oil greased leather and wood with a slight shhhhp sound. This did put a different complexion on things. Sinful to offend the church, and stupid as well; the Governor was the Spirit's Viceregent on Earth, but . . . Raj cursed under his breath and unfastened his helmet; the mild damp breeze was a little chill on the sweat-dampened curls of his dark hair. It was from the south, smelling of turned earth and growing things, a wet fecund smell.
"It's for the New Temple, m'lord," the driver said eagerly. "The Vice-Governor hisself's in charge; a great work to the glory of the Spirit, it'll be!"
and to the glory of barholm.
The Spirit operates through human instruments, Raj thought tartly. It was widely known that the Vice-Governor had employed Abel Yunner, a heretic Earth-Spiritist from the Old Residence, as architect. "His soul may go to the Outer Dark, but his designs will honor the Spirit of Man of the Stars," Barholm had said.
exactly. human instruments such as yourself.
Raj felt himself flush with embarrassment, then wrenched his attention back to the practical problem at hand. The thought of himself as an Avatar, one in whom the Spirit in-dwelt, was profoundly disturbing . . . and seemed to be literally true.
"What's in that first wagon?" he said, pointing.
"Why, coal, your lordship."
Raj looked at the side of the road, the meter-deep ditch, the long slope down to the edge of the cornfield. Less than fifty meters beyond that to a row of poplars along a canal. "How much do those wagons with the nairstone weigh?"
"'bout two tonnes each, m'lord."
"Hmmm." He closed his eyes, estimating distances. There was a long length of cable coiled at the rear of the traction engine, first-quality woven-wire stuff.
"All right," he said. "Now, here's what we'll do. Sergeant, get . . ." he looked back down the column. "Oh, three twelve-ox teams from the baggage. Driver, uncouple the engine and pull the coal-wagon over there." He pointed to the right side of the road. "We'll tip it over—"
"M'lord!" Almost a bleat.
"—to form a ramp. Then we'll run that cable out to those poplars, rig that nice block-and-tackle I see you've got to one of them . . . better make that two, use a Y brace . . . and run the wagons one by one down the embankment."
"They'll bog, m'lord, right to the axles."
"Not if we use the cable to haul them out of the way. Then we run the traction engine down"—the driver's eyes bulged—"and all the Church's property is nice and safe, as soon as they want to come out here with equipment to dig it out."
"M'lord, the Reverend Sysup will skin me, and the damage to the fields, m'lord—"
"Sergeant, squad-present, if you please," Raj said.
The NCO's expression changed from one of blank disinterest to anticipation.
"Squad, saddle-fire, present!" he barked.
The color-party were troopers of the 2nd without enough money or influence to travel by carriage, street toughs from the capital; they looked sullenly out of place even this far into the countryside, and their white field uniforms were already soiled. There was absolutely nothing wrong with their basic drill, however. Their hands snapped down to the scabbards before their right knees in one movement, gripped the butts of government issue East Residence Armory rifles in the next, then flipped them up and out. The rein-hands slapped on the forestocks in unison, and the thumbs of the right hands caught in the trigger-guard levers. There was an oiled metallic snick as the bolts swung forward and down, leaving a grooved ramp on top to guide the shell into the breech.
Slap and the hands struck the bandoliers. A clicking rustle as they undid the clasps and brought their hands out with a paper-and-brass cartridge: click as thumbs pushed the heavy 11mm rounds into the breech: snick as the levers drove them home and cocked the firing pins.
The muzzles came up unwaveringly on the driver. He paled and began to shake. Some of the guards looked irresolute for a moment, then toed their dogs to the side.
"Certainly m'lord, at once!" the driver said. The confrontation dissolved into bustle.
"Where's Captain Stanson?" Raj asked, as he and the Master Sergeant rode aside to oversee.
The older man smoothed down his mustache. "In his carriage, sor," he said. "With his girl, like."
"Girl?" Raj said casually. The troopers were interpreting their instructions liberally, conscripting a few score of the sturdier locals stalled on the side of the road to unhook and push the coal wagon; well, whatever got the job done.
"Yes, sor, the boys was just fashion last yea—" The NCO spoke absently, attention focused on the group clearing the road, then brought himself up with a cough. "Well, I wouldn't be knowing, sor."
"Whitehall." A bored voice, down at his stirrup. Raj looked down; Stanson stood there, smoking a cigarette in the ivory holder the Vice-Governor and his Lady had popularized. His tunic was unbuttoned, and there was a wineglass in his hand. The bottle was behind him, in the hands of a spectacularly endowed redhead; from the way she stood with one hip cocked in her slit-skirted gown, it was obvious that the red hair was as natural as her other assets. Rare coloring, even rarer than blond. "What is going on here, my man?"
Raj showed his teeth in something approaching a smile. "Well, we've had a little problem, but it's cleared up now."
The squad leader handling the coal wagon had two dozen peasants and pilgrims lined up on the road side of the wagon, where it stood tilted with two wheels on the edge of the ditch.
"Right, you horrible lot," he shrieked, booting one of them in the buttocks with a flat smacking sound. "Push!" The heavy vehicle went over with a roar of loose coal. One by one the other wagons were manhandled to the edge of the road, dragged across the coal and down the low slope. The Gendarmerie troopers surged back, cursing and beating at the coal dust on their white uniforms.
"We wouldn't have had this problem if we'd gone up the river in barges. And we'd have gotten where we're going sooner. What's the problem, Whitehall?"
Well, you, for starters, Raj thought. Aloud: "The men need toughening up," though dick-all they'll get in a sprung carriage with a whore, "and sitting on their butts in a barge isn't the way to get it," he said mildly.
Stanson began to speak, then waited for a long mournful blast on the traction engine's whistle as it trundled over the verge, across the ditch on the bridge of coal, and into the cornfield. It began to sink into the soft uncompacted earth immediately. When the noise level sank low enough to permit conversation, he continued:
"Are you implying my men aren't ready to fight?" Stanson asked, dangerously quiet.
Raj opened his mouth: Fight their way out of a tavern brawl, perhaps—
* * *
—Raj saw himself, that's the worst of all, seeing myself, standing across from Stanson. It was early in the morning, from the slant of the sun: tomorrow, perhaps, Miniluna was still three-quarter and a waxing crescent of Maxiluna showed just above the horizon. They stood in a meadow, ten meters apart; Raj was under the shadow of an apple tree, with a few last blossoms still in the branches. Dewdrops sparkled from the tops of the tall grass blades, and birds were singing, a skin-winged dactosauroid the size of his palm flitted by to clamp miniature toothy jaws on an insect . . .
"Ready, gentlemen," an officer said. In 5th Guards blue; he raised a handkerchief. Raj saw/felt himself turn sideways, presenting a minimal target, working his fingers on the pistol's grip. Stanson did likewise, his face as calm as a carved saint in the temple. The images slowed as the handkerchief fluttered towards the ground, and Raj knew exactly how he was/would feel, the paper-dry mouth, glassy clarity of vision, it touched and both pistols came up, crack almost at the same time—
—and Raj was/would crumple, staggering. Open his mouth, and a gobbet of blood came out, spinning, Raj could see the wound on his own body. Below the armpit, through the tops of both lungs, massive exit-hole on the left side, my, nasty, he was using hollowpoints. Suzette rushing to hold the dead Raj's head in her arms, pale as the dying man, ignoring the blood that slicked the whole front of her jacket. Stanson stood over them, mouthing something. Suzette smiled, she smiled and rose and put one hand on his shoulder, and he was smiling when the derringer came out in her right and fired twice, pointblank range.
Blackness, and the voice of Center: Observe. the alternative, but the last projection is common to both.
* * *
—Raj saw himself beneath the apple tree, but this time they had sabers in their hands. Stamp-stamp-stamp of feet on the dew-wet grass, little hurried recoveries when a boot sole slipped, harsh panting breath, and the atonal music of steel on steel. His viewpoint swooped, until he was looking out at the eye level of the possible future Raj. Stanson's mouth was open in a snarl of effort; there was no fear in his eyes, only a merciless concentration on the task at hand. Stamp-cut-thrust; Raj saw the opening, Stanson was tiring, not in the hard condition of his opponent. Their swords formed an X, and then it was slide turn twist thrust, and he was shocked not to feel the resistance he knew, the soft heavy feeling and the jerks as the point went through membranes and muscle-sheaths. The blade before his eyes withdrew with the wrenching twist his wrist would execute without volition, and the other man fell.
"Expected . . . huhn . . . to be killed . . . jealous husband," Stanson managed to say, through tight-clenched teeth. Then he screamed, thrashing for a moment, and died.
Vice-Governor Barholm signed the paper. It was an execution notice, with the name of Raj Ammenda Halgern da Cruz Whitehall inscribed in the black ink and blocky letters traditional in such matters. "Well," he said in disgust. "That's the last of that idea on how to deal with the border situation."
General Klostermann smirked, picking up the decree and waving it to dry the ink. "Thank you, Your Exaltedness," he said. "These young hotheads would have done even more harm on the border . . ."
—and Tewfik was riding his dog into the waves of the sea, an army drawn up behind him. Raj recognized the location, it was the Kolden Straits, a hundred kilometers northwest of the East Residence, almost into the Middle Territories. The dog took a lap at the foam that broke on its chest, the salt taste producing a whine and slight jerk backwards. Tewfik's heels pressed the beast forward; his right hand held the banner of the Settler and his faith, and he plunged it into the waters and the sand beneath.
"Allah, I take you to witness!" he shouted, rising in the stirrups. "There is no ford here! If there was, I would cross!" Cheers rolled like thunder down the long ranks of the army on the hills behind.
* * *
"Well?" Stanson asked, his impatience growing. The girl tried to refill his glass; he turned on her suddenly, putting a palm on her face and pushing. "Get away, you stupid blowsy cow!" he barked; she fell on her backside and began to cry quietly, looking no older than the seventeen she probably was. "Well?" he continued, looking back to his nominal superior. "Daydreaming again, Whitehall?"
"I meant," Raj answered carefully, "no insult whatsoever to you or your troops, of course. Now, if you'll excuse me?"
He neckreined Horace around and clapped his heels to the hound's ribs.
* * *
Dusk had fallen by the time the column crawled into the way-station's yard and pasture, overflowing the weedy five-hectare plot and the stone-walled yard. The last arch of the sun was disappearing behind the distant peaks of the Coast Range to the west; a final ray blinked red-bright from the signaller's platform at the top of the six-story heliograph tower. Raj sat his saddle grimly, ignoring Horace's occasional efforts to sit down; hounds were like that . . . not undisciplined, exactly, just self-willed. The last of the 2nd had pulled their mounts or carriages into their assigned areas long ago; the 5th Descott were still milling around the area, as the NCO's Raj had assigned directed the carriages into a square apart from the other wheeled transport. Most were light four-dog models, with steel-rimmed wheels on leaf-springs and room for four inside, with baggage racks above, but there were a good half-dozen of the heavier six-dog vehicles. Almost all had collapsible leather roofs, and one—he noted it was Captain Staenbridge's, commander of the most understrength of the five companies—actually had movable windows, with eisenglass curtains and a fringe.
"Trumpeter," he said quietly. "Sound 'Officers to the Standard,' if you please." Raj waited impassively, until the second series of notes. "General Assembly, now."
There was a fresh burst of shouting and confusion, the thunder-deep barking of wardogs sensing their master's frustration and rage. The officers of the 5th Descott had all realized that their men were their capital assets, too valuable to allow to go slack, and the ranks formed fairly quickly. The officers cursed and dogwhipped their way through to fall into a ragged line before Raj where he waited with the signallers and Battalion standard; the companies fell in to the shouted commands of their NCO's, in no particular order with respect to each other but in columns of platoons within their own units.
"Gentlemen," Raj said, once the officers were together. "First order of business: Evening service." To the trumpeter: "Sound, dismount and stand to reins."
There was a long rustle as the other ranks swung down on the left side of their mounts and gathered the reins in, just under the lower jaw of their dogs. The mounts were mixed-breeds, mostly the spotted reddish Hills farmbred strain; sturdy strong-legged beasts of about fourteen hands with blunt muzzles and floppy ears and black whip-tails, but there was a scattering of everything from Border Collie to Newfoundland. They stood as motionless as the men; the 5th recruited from the yeomen class, men born to saddle and gun and the hunt. Most farmsteads in Descott sent a son to the Army, in lieu of taxes, and they sent him mounted and paid the price of his gear and uniform as well. Experienced recruits, blooded fighting Military Government raiders or bandits. Or blooded as bandits, Raj reminded himself sardonically. Stock theft was an old Descott tradition, and not considered disgraceful unless you were caught.
The unit chaplain stood forward, walking into the gap between the command staff and the assembled Battalion. He was an under-Hierarch, the sort of man they might all have known as Parish priest at home in the Descott hills, dressed in a simple kirted white robe with a silver Star around his neck. A saber scar down one cheek hinted that he had had some other calling before he took the ear-to-ear tonsure of the Church.
"Hear us, O Spirit of Man of the Stars," he intoned.
"Hear us," the group returned. It was a deep sound, a little blurred with three hundred male voices slightly out of synchronization.
The priest lifted both hands to the first of the stars appearing in the east. The assembled soldiers assumed the attitude of prayer, one hand over the left ear and the other raised with the fingers bunched.
"Code not our sins; let them be erased and not ROMed in Thy disks."
"Forgive us, O Star Spirit!"
"The Spirit of Man is of the Stars and all the Universe: this we believe."
"Witness our belief, O Star Spirit!"
"As we believe and act in righteousness, so shall we be boosted into the Orbit of fulfillment."
"Raise us up, O Star Spirit!"
"Deliver us from the Crash; from the Meltdown; from the Hard Rads; spare us."
"Spare us, O Star Spirit!"
"We receive diligently the Input from Thy Holy Terminal, now and forever."
"Forever, O Star Spirit!"
"As we believe, so let Thy Holy Federation be restored in our time, O Spirit of Man of the Stars; and if the burden of a faithless generation's sin be too great, may our souls be received into the Net. Endfile."
"Endfile!" The troops relaxed.
"My children," the priest continued, "the Honorable Captain Whitehall has graciously allowed compulsory unit purgation of sins, as of 20:00 hours tomorrow." There were a few subdued groans; that meant penances, usually fasting. "The Spirit be with you." A mumbled chorus of and in thy soul followed.
"Master Sergeant da Cruz," Raj said, his face more impassive than the priest's had been in the midst of the liturgy.
"Ser!" A Descott man of the old breed, this one, brick-built and hook-nosed and dark. He moved easily; one of the fast heavy men, rare and dangerous. About thirty-five, a decade older than the Captain. A finger missing from his left hand, and shrapnel scars all down the right side of his face. It drew his lips up into a slight perpetual sneer, but there was a hint of a smile in it now.
"Carry on as ordered, Master Sergeant."
"Battalion, attention t' orders," he bellowed, turning to face the men. Their ranks were a series of rectangular clumps in the gathering darkness; firelight from the windows of the rest station and the campfires of the 2nd picked out a detail here and there. Oily gleam from the chainmail neck guard of a helmet, light from a buckle or the bronze buttons of their blue coats, eyes, the teeth of the wardogs. "Battalion will encamp." A grin, made ghastly by the pulling effect of the scar. "Full kit inspection at 0600 tomorrow. Workin' party, report to me as instructed. Dismissed!"
"Inspection?" one of the Company commanders remarked, as they dismounted and handed their reins to their batmen. He stripped off his gloves and smoothed the kidskin; there was a shimmerstone stud in one ear as well. Kaltin Gruder, Raj thought, prompted by some internal filing system. Just in from Descott two years ago. Bit of a dandy. Devil with the ladies. And a distant relative of sorts, although you could say that of most of the County's gentry. At least there were no blood feuds between their families.
"Isn't that rather rushing things?" Kaltin continued, with a winning smile.
"Sir," Raj added.
"Sir," the younger man said, flushing slightly.
"That's exactly the point, gentlemen," Raj continued. "We made . . . what, twenty-one kilometers today, on a poured-stone road?" Looks of protest. "Yes, I know, the baggage train slows us. But we have to be prepared to move; and in the meanwhile, I don't intend to waste the time these lumbering oxcarts and our, ah, lavishly equipped comrades of the 2nd confer."
That brought a general chuckle; the 5th might have been in garrison for some time, but the 2nd had never been out of the immediate vicinity of East Residence, not in living memory.
"Speaking of which, I'd like to thank you gentlemen for the loan of your carriages."
Dead silence, a tension. Heads turned; a platoon-sized group of enlisted men were working on the vehicles, under the profane direction of da Cruz. Detachable hoods were stripped, thrown to vanish in the darkness, black leather against the ground. The fine springs jounced as the troopers climbed in and began handing down the luggage within, none too gently; shrieks of complaint turned to outrage as various servants, women and other hangers-on were elbowed aside. Another working party came up, bent under loads from the baggage carts. Ammunition boxes mainly, with medical supplies, bandages, and portable heliograph equipment.
"It'll greatly increase our tactical mobility once we reach our objective," Raj continued equably. "With the fine teams you so generously brought, those ought to be able to keep up as well as the guns do, nearly as much cross-country capacity as the troops. We won't have to return to base nearly as often."
Mouths dropped. Raj continued more gently: "You may note that my wife's carriage is on the end of the row, there." It was a spidery-fragile shell, deceptively slender; the body creaked as the metal-edged hardwood boxes of rifle ammunition were dropped in. The sound was muffled on the quilt-padded linen upholstery. "As I said, a very patriotic and pious gesture; especially as it might be misunderstood." His voice lost the undertone of banter, went flat and hard. "Since bringing nonregulation vehicles into the field is strictly forbidden under the Civil Government Army Code."
There was a crash of breaking glass. A uniformed aide walked over, blinking back tears; a boy of fifteen or so, with a fresh and livid bruise discoloring one cheek. Well-born by his manner, with an almost pretty face that showed promise of strong-boned regularity later.
"Gerrin!" he said, grasping Captain Staenbridge by the hand. "Gerrin, that brute of a trooper struck me, and they broke the windows!" He looked around, met Raj's eyes and those of the other officers, and straightened. "Sir," he continued, releasing the company commander's hand.
Staenbridge turned on Raj. "Sir, are you going to permit indiscipline of this sort?"
Raj met his eyes, held them until he saw a sign of wavering. "Messer Senior Lieutenant Staenbridge," he said dryly, "your . . . young friend is an aide by courtesy"—and because he's a Meffred cousin and of good family, Raj remembered—"and not in the chain of command." He looked pointedly at the youth's pistol, inlaid with mother-of-pearl, and the light saber at his other hip. Both were exceedingly nonregulation; Civil Government law was quite strict on possession of arms, here in the heartland territories. "I suggest that if he looks to you for example"—the traditional way of putting it—"you should set one. Any further questions?"
"Now, we're having inspection at 0600, as you heard. We're also having a field problem at 0730, which I expect to last all day. Since we're out of the city and have room . . . so, if you please, report to my tent by 0500, and we'll plan it." Suddenly he smiled. "These lowlanders have so much good land, they surely won't begrudge us enough to ride over . . . No questions? Dismissed."
* * *
"Did we really have to give up the carriage, darling?" Suzette asked.
Raj was lying on his stomach on the cot; his wife was astride his back, her strong slender fingers kneading at the muscles of his neck and shoulders. The muted sounds of a night camp came through the dark canvas; a sentry's challenge and response, and raucous singing from somewhere over in the 2nd's area. There was a strong smell of sweat, dog, canvass, leather and oil, blending oddly but pleasantly with the healthy female sweat and jasmine perfume from Suzette's body.
"Spirit," Raj said, laying his head face-down in the thin bedroll. "Don't you start."
She laughed softly, starting to rub his back from the waist up. "Something's got you tense; were the 5th that bad?"
"No," he sighed. "Crash and Meltdown, that's good . . . No, they're fighting men, or were, or they're boys who think war is glorious, which with training is even more useful, sometimes. It's that bastard Stanson."
Her hands paused for an instant, then continued. "Watch him; he's dangerous." The lazy affection had gone from her voice, without affecting the mellow tone. "And you got on reasonably well, back at Court."
"That was before I had to see him try to command a battalion in the field," Raj said. "He's not stupid, better at Court affairs than I am . . . but at this he doesn't know how and won't learn."
"Don't let him make you fight him," she said sharply. "I've seen him kill; he loves it. And he loses his temper, completely loses it, doesn't think about consequences until it's too late."
"I won't," Raj said bitterly. "I can't fight him; it would . . . ruin everything."
"You're tensing up again . . . that's right, relax . . . He's very well connected, too."
"A relation of the Welman County Stansons, isn't he?"
"Yes. And the Minister of Finance . . . who's a nonentity personally, but not somebody who can be ignored."
"Some sort of connection of the Chancellor's, too."
"Married to his wife's aunt's third cousin," Suzette said absently; she was better than the Book of the Starborn for noble genealogies. A pause, and her hands continued.
"Why did Barholm put him in joint command?" Raj asked, after a while.
"Well, at a guess, he wants to see how you both shape," Suzette continued, in the same abstracted tone. "This is the turning point in both your careers . . . and it was a bone to throw to the Minister of Finance. The man's so stupid he doesn't know he's a puppet, but he's got an uncanny memory for favors and slights." More briskly. "You'll just have to manage Stanson. He's not stupid, there's a nasty streak there, but he's mentally lazy and a man like that can be manipulated."
Raj groaned. "As if I didn't have enough to do!"
"Now you've tensed up again. Don't worry, something will work out . . . turn over."
He did; their faces were almost touching, as she slid down along his body. "I love you," she said; her face was shadowed, backlit and haloed by the dim light of the coal-oil lantern slung from the tent pole. Her voice was softly fierce, and the kiss that followed was bruising. Breathless, she laughed throatily. "And now, I will make you relax."
"Sweet, we have to sleep."
"Ah." The grin was urchin. "What was it you told me once about . . . field expedients? I know what you need."
Later, drifting off, he half-heard a whisper: "And I'll see that you get it, too."