Warlord S. M. Stirling and David Drake



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Chapter Seven


"Not bad at all," Stanson said, leaning back in his camp chair and sipping at the wine. "I'm surprised we don't see more of this vintage in the capital."

"It doesn't travel well," Staenbridge said. "Be glad while we've got it; over the passes the wine is thick as syrup, you have to cut it with water, and they put pine sap in it."

Silence fell again. It had not been a convivial evening, here under the outstretched flap of the 5th's command tent. For one thing Stanson had brought his mistress Merta with him. No problem, if it had been an all-men affair, but there was a married gentlewoman present, which made it something of an insult. Or simply slovenly, even for a war-camp. They had begun with pan-fried trout, easy enough now that they were getting out of the lowlands; then a main course of roasted lamb stuffed with spicy sausages on a bed of saffron rice, salads and quick-fried vegetables on the side. Staenbridge's cook had even managed to whip up a chocolate compote, which was next to a miracle under field conditions.

Raj grinned behind the mask of his face. Expected to condescend to a pack of monkeys from the wilds, eh? he thought. Staenbridge had turned out to be, of all things, a gourmet and oenophile; Kaltin Gruder and his brother talked fashions and racing dogs with the best; young Foley had an encyclopedic grasp of classical drama . . . And none of them was particularly impressed by their guest's reputation as a duelist; in East Residence he might pass for a killing gentleman, but the other men around this table had been brought up to the traditions of the blood-feud. In the end, Stanson had spent most of the time talking to Suzette, who had dropped into the intricate jargon of the Palace without missing a stride. A private language of their own, filled with in-jokes and malice.

Raj held out his cup again for the server, then drank. Staenbridge winced and sipped.

"Captain?"

The duty squad's corporal came in, drew to attention, and saluted. "Captain, we'z got summat strange here. Woman out here, says sommat of bandits, says you know 'er man. Speak strange-like, she does, cannat tell snout from arse of it, beggin' yer pardon, ser, Lady." Which was not to be wondered at; the noncom's own Descotter brogue was thick as tar, and the local peasant dialect was radically different.

Raj stood, glad that whatever-it-was had come up before the drinking seriously started, because if he had ever been in a mood to get fighting-drunk, this was the time. Then a woman stumbled in between two troopers. Grey-haired, as her fallen headscarf showed, wrinkled face fallen in on a near toothless mouth, body like a shapeless bag of potatoes under a good wool skirt with some stitching on the hem and a dirt-grey linen blouse. Probably about forty . . .

"Justyc, mlud," she gabbled; between the dialect and her toothlessness and the sweating exhaustion that left her panting, he caught about one word in three. "Hep uz." Hands work-gnarled and covered in cracked callus reached out as she knelt.

"Stop," he said. "Nod yes or no. Your man came here yesterday?" Yes. "Bandits have attacked your farm, and you think they're still there?" Yes. "Can you guide us." Yes. "Were the men who attacked your holding in uniforms?" He splayed fingers towards his own blue tunic. If it's that Bufford parish bastard M'lewis I'll hang him from a tall tree— The woman looked doubtfully at him, more doubtfully still at Stanson in his whites, then shook her head.

"All right," Raj said. He straightened, fastening his jacket and picking the webbing belt with his saber and pistol from the back of his chair. "I'll take—"

"Me for one," Gerrin Staenbridge said. Foley stood as well, then Kaltin and Evrard Gruder, and several of the others he had invited.

Stanson laughed, turning so that he did not notice how for once that evening Suzette did not echo him. "Well, this is just like one of the old songs," he said. "The hero and his loyal companions off to slay the monster and rescue . . ." his gaze fell to the sobbing peasant woman, with an expression more suitable for a man scraping something off his boot as he went indoors " . . . the beautiful lady." He made a moue. "Actually, I'd think it was more a matter for the parish constables, but I'd be glad to come along?" He pushed back his chair and half-stood.

"No, enjoy your dessert," Raj said, watching dispassionately as the man sank back into his chair and reached for his wineglass.

"And do save us some of the compote," Gerrin said with a toothy grin, scooping up a finger load and eating it. "It's so hard to get fresh ingredients out here, don't you know?"

Stanson covered a yawn with the back of his hand. "Certainly," he said, and reached for a dried fig from the bowl, across Merta's bosom. He ignored her, glancing over at Suzette. "There'll still be one lovely lady here; we shall sing songs and gossip until dawn, awaiting your return."

Raj's last sight of the tent was Merta looking pure hatred at them both.

* * *

The air outside had turned cooler and drier; they were a hundred meters up from the flood plain of the Hemmar, and the increased altitude was more than compensating for the lower latitude as they headed south. The moons shone on the Oxheads to the south, making their peaks gleam like silver or salt, up in the high knot where they united with the Coast Range. The passes would be chilly, high tumbled rock, and then they would be down into the baking plains of the border Counties, foothills smoothing down into sparse pasture and then out into the erg of the deep desert, where nothing grew except around the salt lakes or the rivers of the east. Down where the riders of the Colony were waiting for them.

Someone led a dog in out of the darkness; it was da Cruz, the lamplight slick on the keloid lumpiness of his facial scars.

"Thought yer mought be needin' me, ser," he said.

"A positive plague of volunteering, eh, loyal companions?" Kaltin Gruder said softly, with a chuckle under it.

Raj slapped his gauntlets into his hand. "Five minutes, gentlemen," he said. "Evrard," he continued, and the younger Gruder straightened, "turn out your platoon . . . twenty-seven rifles, isn't it?"

"Twenty-five, sir: two men down with the flux."

"By all means. The rest of you, sabers and sidearms, please." He paused. "Oh, Foley." The young man drew himself up, bristling-ready to defend his right to come along. "Get yourself something with a little more stopping power, eh?" He nodded toward the 8mm pistol at the boy's belt.

"I've got just the thing," Foley replied.

They all paused for a moment, and then turned as Raj drew on his gloves. "Gentlemen?" A check. "Thank you."

* * *

The dogs' feet padded through the night at a loping trot beneath the stars and the moons, thudding and crunching softly on the crushed rock surface; the chink and rattle of equipment was louder, but still not enough to break the peace of the night. Dew was beginning to settle, bringing out the spicy scents of the crops and trees, the spoiled-honey scent of native vegetation. The peasant woman perched on his saddlebow stank, too, a hard dry scent like an ox that has been working in the sun, no more unpleasant than any soldier who had been in the field for a week or two; it was the things that crawled across from her clothing and bit that were a nuisance. Her shoulders were still shaking with an occasional hiccupping sob, and he patted her back absently.

"Hier," she said, pointing.

The main military highway turned eastwards, and a local track continued south of east, bordered by eucalyptus that filled the night with their sharp medicinal smell. The track was graded dirt, just wagon-wide, but well-kept, arrowing off into the rustling darkness. Raj flung up a hand.

"Yo!" da Cruz's voice was pitched low, and the column came to a halt.

"How far?"

He listened to the woman's breathy gabble for a moment, cursing inwardly. She had apparently never heard of kilometers, and judged all distances by the time they took to walk; the campground the soldiers had been using was as far as she had ever travelled, and everything beyond was "foreign parts," the land of legends and monsters.

"Ah, ser," a voice said.

Raj handed the peasant woman down and turned in the saddle. It was Trooper Antin M'lewis, holding himself straight in the saddle and looking blankly ahead.

"What the fuck are you doing here, soldier?" Raj asked.

"Gettin' my rum ration unstopped, ser," the man answered; his face was pure regulation, but . . . "Thought the Messer Captain might needs me, seein' as I knows this ground."

You have to give him credit for effrontery, Raj thought. "Tell me," he added, and gave a gesture of reassurance to the woman, who had recognized M'lewis and shrunk back.

"Draws a dirt map, ser?"

Raj gestured to da Cruz, and a whispered order to dismount brought men and dogs crouching; it was not a dark night, and they did not want to be noticed before they struck. M'lewis flattened a stretch of soil and sketched with his ringer.

"Ser, 'tis no more than half a klick up thisshere laneways," he said, with quick efficiency. "Farmstead scattered out, loik they does hereabouts." In Descott, an isolated dwelling was built around a courtyard and walled. "Barn by the road; house back mebbe ten meters, sheds n' whatnot, chickenhouse, a well, kitchen-garden. Road turns just before, go quiet 'n yer doesn't get seen 'till yer right up their arse."

"Good, very good," Raj said. "Hmmm, we need someone to scout it."

"I's yer man, ser," M'lewis said cheerfully. They stood, and their eyes met for a long moment. The trooper's grin died away for an instant.

"Good man," Raj said. "See to it, then. We'll be—" he nodded to his right "—about five hundred meters that way."

M'lewis nodded. To Raj's surprise, he did not go for the rifle in its scabbard by his saddle; instead, he stripped off jacket and boots, hung them on his saddlebow with his saber-belt. He was wearing a black cotton shirt, not the off-grey most men bought; the kerchief he took out and tied around his head was the same color. For weapons he tucked a long curved skinning knife in its sheath through the narrow waist belt of his trousers, over the small of his back, and took something out of the pocket of his jacket. Raj stepped closer and looked; it was a wire cord with wooden toggles on both ends, and M'lewis tucked it through his belt with care, the handles secured but easy to reach. Then he bent, rubbed dirt over his face.

"Loik old times t'home, 'tis, ser," he said, and was gone into the night.

"Evrard," Raj said.

"Sir?"

"Leave four dogholders; we'll go up the lane, quietly please, and wait. Clip the stickers, a round chambered. Quietly is the word, gentlemen," he repeated to the others around him, drawing his pistol and snapping the cylinder out for a final check. Just habit, but habits saved your life or killed you, in this line of work.

"Forward, Companions," Gerrin whispered, and the others chuckled softly; they seemed quite taken with the archaic title.

The noncoms relayed the orders, and the men stepped out of the saddles of their crouching dogs, with firm murmurs of stay to keep them in place. A series of rapid click-chick sounds as the forearm-long blades of the bayonets snapped home under the muzzles, spring-clips holding them to barrel and cleaning rod, and the oiled-metal sound of loading. Raj heard the platoon sergeant go down the squads, giving the men a quick check and delivering softly fervent promises:

"En I will cut a new asshole in any yer bastids pops it, unnerstan?"

The trees left a narrow slit of moonslight down the crown of the dirt road; the men of the 5th advanced up the sides by sections, alternating right and left. There was surprisingly little noise, but then these were hunters, after all; part of a boy's training back home was to be sent out with a rifle and one round, with a beating and no supper if he came back without game. Raj could smell the sweet-yeasty scent of barley in the milk ear stage behind the low adobe wall of the field on his left; water gurgled in an irrigation ditch, and pale silver light flickered through the leaves. Then they were coming up to the curve; a vineyard on their right, and broad-leafed tobacco on the left. Good cover, he thought, motioning backward with his hand. The column halted and sank down, men resting on one knee.

"I think I can see light, about four hundred meters ahead on the left," Foley whispered. Gerrin laid a finger over his lips. Raj strained his eyes. Nothing, but then Foley had the eyes of youth. Damn, stop being a teenager, start dying, he thought, then a figure rolled over the fence wall at their left and landed on noiseless bare feet.

"Ser," it said, as a dozen bayonets poised. It was M'lewis; Raj motioned his Companions close. "Warn't no problem, ser. It ain't no bandits, neither. It's them pretty boys from the 2nd."

"Numbers and positions, M'lewis," Raj said.

"Four of them carriages out in the yard, dogs tethered an' eatin' on the stock they's killed. Men and boys— I figger five, six, family and mebbe a slave—tied up in one the sheds. Six mebbe seven from the 2nd, officers an' gentleman-rankers, with they whores and slaves, they party pretty loud. No sentries." M'lewis seemed faintly sorry at that, and touched the garrote at his belt.

"How do we handle it, Raj?" Gerrin asked. As if to punctuate his remark the faint echo of a scream drifted down the road from the farmstead.

Raj opened his mouth. Now, how do I say "kill them all" suitably? he thought. Then—

observe.

* * *

troopers of the 2nd falling screaming before their guns and Raj and the companions broke into a farmhouse kitchen. Reaching for their weapons, jerking, dying, slammed back by the lead. Servants and mistresses screaming and bleating pleas for mercy, holding their hands over their faces as troopers of the 5th drove the bayonets home again and again. Blood flowing sticky into the dirt floor, splashing on walls and ceiling in trails of red—

and Stanson's face behind the pistol on the duelling ground. It was a different place this time, the other/Raj was standing on bare ground beside a road. Spectators, Trahn Minh looking on with satisfaction on his thin arrogant face; Suzette white-lipped with anxiety. Stanson sneering, bringing the pistol up in a smooth arc as the handkerchief touched ground—

Stanson falling as Raj's saber gashed his throat—



Tewfik riding his dog into the surf, and the ululating cheers of the Colonist army behind him, the great green banner snapping in the wind.

* * *

"—we do this by the regulations," Raj said. "No firing on," the next words seemed to choke him slightly, "fellow soldiers of the Civil Government except in self-defense or on my order." With deadly precision: "Is that understood?"

"What about the camp followers?" Kaltin asked.

"Fair meat, but don't start anything unless they try to fight or run . . . best we keep the platoon outside for a blocking force, unless it drops in the pot. Evrard, send your platoon sergeant around back with M'lewis and half your men. The rest will come with us and secure the farmyard and the vehicles. We'll deal with the scum inside ourselves. Follow my lead. Understood?" A chorus of nods. "Let's go, people."

* * *

Raj poised his foot above the doorlatch. The rhythmic screams from the farmhouse had stopped a minute ago; now they started up again, weaker and more shrill, muffled as if they came from a room behind this one. The peasant house was a single-story square, whitewash peeling from adobe walls and tiles missing from the roof; probably this single large kitchen-cum-everything in the front, a bedroom behind, and a half-loft above. The old farmer lay outside, his hands clutching a wooden pitchfork and his eyes staring upward. The face had been recognizable, even after a careless saber slash left half of it dangling down in a slab of meat and gristle, baring the pink bone and an eternal smile. Eight-legged native quasi-insects walked across his tongue to reach the eyeballs.

The air smelled of poverty and dog shit and blood and cooking; raucous noises of celebration and snatches of song came through the plank door, almost louder than the screams. Smoke ghosted white from a squat mudbrick chimney in the center of the roof.

"One," Raj said. There was a small metallic sound behind him; Foley had brought a sidearm with stopping power, all right. A double-barreled shotgun, cut-down to riot gun size, about 18-gauge.

"Two." Gerrin was at his side, pistol in one hand and saber in the other, quivering eager. Behind him Kaltin dusted one sleeve absently, and Evrard's lips moved silently in prayer; Master Sergeant da Cruz's mutilated face looked closer to peace than Raj had ever seen it.

"Three." Raj felt the world pause and go crystal clear, attention narrowing down to a diamond-bright focus. There was a taste of metal in his mouth, somewhere in his head the knowledge that he might be dead in a few seconds. Namelessly dead in this squalid little yard where nothing had ever happened but the endless repetitions of misery . . . And there was a job to do.

The sole of his boot crashed against the cheap pine-wood of the door next to the latch, and it came away in a shower of splinters. The door banged open. Raj fired a round into the ceiling as he stepped forward, moving aside to let the others file in.

It took a moment for the activity in the room to cease. It was L-shaped, lapping around the bedroom on two sides, with a single wickerwork door between them. There was another door at the end of L's short arm, out to the rear yard and the well. The long arm was filled with a table, crowded with the remains of a feast, roast piglets, a goose . . . more chickens were turning on spits in the fire, and a small ceramic crock of a clear yellowish liquid was surrounded by a scatter of cups. Raj glanced at it and was no longer surprised at the slow stunned looks of many of the feasters; that was the local homebrew, distilled from grape skins left over after the wine was pressed, and it had a kick like a sicklefoot.

There were four people he judged to be part of the farm family: all women, from one who looked to be a blousy-but-attractive forty and was probably a decade younger at least, to a just-pubescent girl; he could tell that easily, because like the others she wore only dirt and bruises. The older three women had been cooking and serving, while the youngest was on her knees before a seated 2nd Gendarmerie officer, her head bobbing up and down as she fellated him. His left hand stroked her hair; he smiled dreamily, and rested the point of a fighting knife on the skin between her neck and collarbone. Four others in stained white uniforms were sprawled around the table; and three times as many servants, mistresses and general hangers-on, frozen at the sound of the shot in every activity from drunken sleep through vomiting and shouted song to vigorous fornication.

The oldest of the peasant women screamed sharply as the door flew open. The girl stopped at her task as she felt the knifepoint lift from her arteries; looked up and scuttled on all fours over to a wall-side bench and hid beneath it, curled into a ball with her eyes closed. Silence fell as the Companions stepped through behind Raj, weapons ready; silence except for the last shriek from the bedroom. That door banged open, too, and a man in the 2nd's uniform stepped through.

"What the Outer Dark—" he began, then focused owlishly on the gun-muzzles staring at him across the room. His trousers were unbuttoned, and there was blood on the slack genitals and clotted in the wool. Raj could see him forcing alertness, eyes narrowing and hand dropping to his pistol as a man in servant's livery stepped through the door behind him. The servant's trousers were stained as well, although it was harder to tell against the burgundy fabric. He was pushing a nude boy of about ten ahead of him, gripping his neck.

"I'll put the tightass snottie back with the others, Messer—" he began. Faster than his master, or simply less drunk, he pushed the boy away sprawling and crouched. That would be the boy Tuk, Raj thought, surprised at the clarity of his mind, watching the child haul himself across the packed dirt with a red sheet glistening in the firelight across the backs of his thighs. Center's scenarios played themselves through his mind; he did not need the angel-computer to prompt them now. Tewfik riding his dog into the sea . . .

"Messers," Raj began, his voice high and clear. It was very important to enunciate clearly. "Thank you for your timely aid, in, in apprehending these bandits."

More silence, broken only by the whimpering of the raped children. Then a babble of voices, hooting laughter from some of the servants and mistresses, shouts of anger from the soldiers of the 2nd.

"Spirit curse you, what bandits?" the man with the fighting knife still in his hand said, blinking; the other hand fumbled his garments closed, a human male's first instinct in a conflict situation. Adrenaline was sobering him a little, but not much. "Thersh . . . there's nobody here but our servants, man!" He peered. "Why, it's the Descotter sheep-diddler, the one who spends all day wallowing in the dirt while his wife—"

Raj fired into the ceiling again; it was roughly-barked pine logs with lathes laid over, and dust filtered down from the bullet hole. He suppressed a sneeze.

"It shows great initiative of you to hold them helpless here, after the atrocities they've committed on Civil Government subjects," he went on, overriding the man's voice. Ignoring him, in fact; instinct told him that only the one in the door to the bedroom was much problem. That one hadn't bothered to button his fly, and his weight had gone forward on the balls of his feet. A glance went between the officer and his servant.

Raj smiled, an expression much like those of the sicklefeet his men had killed the previous day. "Because now we are going to take the bandits out and kill them, each and every one."

Movement: the servant by the bedroom door snatched up a cleaver from the board that served as a mantle and lunged. Movement: Foley's shotgun roared. The target was less than five meters away, far too close for the double-buckshot load to spread much. It did chew the man's stomach into a pink mass, through which red-grey loops of intestine showed; he flew backward into the fireplace, toppling the spit with the chickens. The smell of burning pork added itself to the fug of the room, and scorched wool as his clothes caught fire. The young companion turned like a gun turret, the stock of his weapon clamped against his ribs. The stubby barrels stared at the officer of the 2nd, who had managed to clear his pistol and bring it up to half-port in the fraction of a second it had taken to kill his servant.

"Drop it," Foley said; his voice cracked in the middle of the words, but the cut-off shotgun did not waver, one barrel smoking and the other black readiness. "This one's for you, Messer."

Several of the 2nd's hangers-on were whimpering now. "Since your valiant part in this is over," Raj continued, "perhaps it would be better, fellow-soldiers, if you all undid your gun belts . . . yes, just carry them in your hands. Out now, please. You bandits, too, and if you don't think fifteen minutes more of life matters, try something."

One of the liveried men did; he plunged erect and out the rear door of the kitchen with an athlete's agility. The door banged closed behind him, and there was a short wet thunk sound that many of the men present could identify; a bayonet driving home. A choked grunt, and then a long bubbling scream; more of the thunking, and the door swung open for an instant. The severed head bounced on the table, spattering gravy, and rolled to a stop against the crock of white lightning.

The 2nd's officers were still babbling protests as they filed out, but none of them were resisting. Raj smiled at them again, nodding and making a depreciating gesture.

"No, no, no thanks," he said cheerfully. "Just doing our duty. Now," he continued, when everyone was outside, "separate those women."

While the men were being roughly bound, troopers' bayonets prodded the mistresses to one side; they were in varying states of undress, but all of them wore their jewelry. The primary store of liquid assets, in their trade, and not likely to be let out of the wearer's reach. Some of them were quite spectacular, if genuine. Much of the gold was, certainly.

"Strip them, and take the jewels." He took a blanket from one of the carriages and spread it. "Pile the gauds here. All of them, trooper M'lewis." Raj waited until the women were huddled together, staring at him in wide-eyed fright. "Go," he said softly, when they were still. "And if you're ever within the perimeter of my camp again, I hereby announce you're not under my protection."

They were professionals, too, in their way; they looked around at the troopers' wolf-grins, turned in a body and began trudging down the dirt lane, heading south toward the town at the ford.

Raj noticed that the old woman who had run to bring him was back, panting and wheezing up past the barn. She stopped at the sight of the farmer lying with his pitchfork in hand, then squatted beside him, rocking herself and moaning. One hand reached out to touch the corpse's face, then drew back. The moaning continued, low and eerie; the next-oldest of the farmstead's women was standing on the porch. She had clothed herself, but looked uncertainly around at the armed men.

"Goodwife," Raj continued: there were a number of things to be done, before this cursed night was over.

"Yes, Messer?" she said, her voice surprisingly strong as she went to her knees. Well, you had to be strong, to survive the sort of life these people led. "Thank you, Messer, but . . ." there was a tremor to her voice as she looked about " . . . they ate everything we needed for the season, Messer, and—"

"You see this?" He toed the pile of ornaments and dresses. "It's yours." Her mouth dropped open; there was enough there to buy a farm the size of the one her family sharecropped, and stock it besides. "I'd advise you to hide it under the hearth and sell it carefully and in small amounts." Because a peasant who came into money was like one of the legendary cooked pigs who ran about with knife and fork in its back, squealing "eat me." "Don't let your men out of the shed for an hour or so." No point in having enraged civilians complicating matters.

"Master Sergeant," he continued.

"Ser?"

"M'lewis is a watch-stander?"

"Ser. Readin', writin' and numbers, summat."

"Have him transferred to Battalion staff as a courier." The scrawny trooper whooped as he rebuttoned his uniform tunic; there was a suspicious hang to one sleeve, but Raj decided to ignore it for the moment. "M'lewis, there should be woodworking tools on a steading like this; bring anything in the way of mallets and hammers, and stakes, wooden treenails, anything like that. Run." As he sped off: "Now bring the prisoners down this way. You, too, Messers," he added to the soldiers of the 2nd Gendarmerie "You should watch the results of your valiant work."

The outer wall of the barn was only five meters from the laneway; it was a little more than head-high, built of large adobe bricks mortared with mud, and no whitewash had ever been wasted on it. Quite sturdy enough, Raj decided.

"Line them up against it." Rough hands pushed the men to stand against the hardened mud; some of them were weeping, and a few fell to their knees to beg. Raj looked up into the crystal purity of the night.

* * *

"Ahh, firin' squad, ser?" da Cruz asked.

"By no means, Master Sergeant: by no means." There was a wait; Raj remembered to turn and clap Foley on the shoulder. "Quick work, Ensign," he said.

The boy had been looking nausea-pale; he straightened. "Thank you, sir," he said, looking down at the shotgun and fumbling it open. It took several seconds for him to unload it. "It's . . . a good weapon, Gerrin— Senior Lieutenant Staenbridge got it for me."

"Use it well," Raj said; the youth snicked it closed and went to stand beside Staenbridge, accepting an arm around his shoulders with a grateful sigh. M'lewis came panting up with his arms full.

"Messer Captain, gots a bit," he said. Quite a bit; three large wooden hammers, the sort used to drive vine-props, and several dozen stakes of turned hardwood the length of a man's forearm.

"Excellent, M'lewis," Raj said, bringing his eyes down to the line of men against the wall . . . eleven of them. Fifteen to fifty, East Residence born, you could see the mark of the streets on them. Eyes bewildered, eyes defiant, cringing.

"Master Sergeant," he continued, listening to his own voice as he might have a strange sauroid calling in the forest. "This laneway leads to the ford over the Torunavir, doesn't it? Passable for the Battalion?"

"Yes, ser. Bit more direct than the highway. Take a little longer, mebbe."

"Excellent," Raj said again. "Have the men draw straws for a crucifixion detail, if you please. And a detachment to see nobody touches the bodies until tomorrow morning."

Raj heard the Gruder brothers hiss in surprise behind him. The servants stared uncomprehending until the soldiers spread-eagled the first of them against the wall and brought up the stakes. They began screaming, then.

* * *

Raj walked into his tent; the table had been cleared and the flap lowered. Suzette sat in a folding chair under the single lamp, a snifter of brandy in one hand and a cigarette in the other, with a book open in her lap. Unspeaking, he walked to the sideboy and poured himself a stiff shot of Hillchapel plum brandy, tossing the clear liquid to the back of his throat. He followed it with another, motions as controlled as a machine, then threw the glass out of the tent, listening as it crashed and tinkled in the darkness outside.

"Raj?" Suzette said, closing the book and laying it aside. Some detached portion of his mind noticed the gold-leaf title on the spine: Gentry, Nobility and Estates of the Southern Counties.

He walked to her side, moving like one of the compressed-air automatons in the Hall of Audience, sank to his knees and laid his head on her lap.

"Suzette—" he croaked.

"Shhh," she said, stroking his hair.

"What I . . . had to . . ."

"Shhh, my brave one. It'll be all right. Shhh, sleep now."

* * *

Ten of the servants were still alive, spiked to the wall like butterflies in a specimen box, when the banner of the 5th Descott went by, twelve hours later.


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