The volley rang out in crisp unison, and the boulder designated as target went pockmarked as seventy or eighty rifle bullets from First Company struck as one. Raj lowered his binoculars with a grim smile, scanning across the rolling plain. Second Company were hauling in out of a gallop five hundred meters ahead of their comrades and sliding to the ground, running for cover.
Crash. Their volley had the same mechanical perfection, and the clump of daggerbrush that was their aiming point disintegrated in a cloud of dust and fragments. The First was already remounted and pounding forward in line abreast, leapfrogging to a new firing line. Raj nodded to the signaller beside him; the man was using a portable heliograph, an affair of mirrors and lenses on a collapsible tripod. He began to click the slatted cover in coded patterns, setting pulses of reflected sunlight to the lip of a gully nearly a thousand meters away. The Captain raised his glasses once more; the erosion slash looked like a thousand others on the rolling plain, deserted, rimmed in saltbush.
Then it flashed and smoked, as Third Company popped their heads above the rim and opened up. Couldn't see them myself, and I knew they were there, Raj thought. Fourth and Fifth surged over the rim a moment later, mounted and sabers out. Without pausing to dress ranks or needing to they joined into a blunt wedge and charged, screeching exultantly. Shells burst ahead of them as the two 75s below Raj's hilltop command post bucked and roared. Grey smoke drifted in clumps across the scrubby plain smelling of brimstone, but the sounds of firing seemed to disappear into that endless waste.
"Not bad at all, Master Sergeant," Raj said.
"Mebbe, ser. Mought wish the new men'd been with ussn longer, gots doubt about how steady they is."
"Well, there's only one way to find out, isn't there?" he replied. "Sound Regroup and Reform, trumpeter." He stood in the stirrups and stretched; Horace took that as a sign to lie down, and Raj pulled firmly on the reins.
"Up, you son-of-a-bitch," he said affably. The dog sighed and looked over its shoulder at him, mournful eyes and drooping floppy ears, tongue the size of a washtowel out and jiggling as he panted.
Horace was a premier product of the Hillchapel stud, but his sleek black coat put him at a disadvantage under the merciless southern sun. The peaks of the Oxheads were to their left and north, now; the last week since they crossed the passes had been a steady eastward trudge through the foothills, where great wedge-shaped spurs ran out into the steppe. Easier to put the road further out, from an engineering standpoint, but there was very little point in having a road without water and fodder for the men and beasts that travelled it.
"Water and fodder," Raj remarked aloud as the Battalion formed up behind the colors.
"Messer Captain?" the guide sent out from the County Legate in Komar said, smiling.
He smiles a lot, Raj thought, looking at the rather dashing face, white teeth gleaming in the dark-tanned face against black point-trimmed mustache and beard. The guide wore an odd little cap with a fore-and-aft peak, wound 'round with a snowy white cloth whose end dangled down his neck and could be drawn across the face in a sandstorm. Muzzaf Kerpatik was a sleekly prosperous person, in his long light-brown jellaba and curl-toed boots, a Star medallion around his neck in silver and diamond chips, two amulets dangling from his belt, mother-of-pearl inlays on the scabbard of his dagger and the butt of his pepperpot revolver.
"Not much water or fodder around here," Raj amplified. The 5th was drawn up in column of march; the command party took its place at the head. He held up a hand and chopped it forward.
"Battalion . . ."
"Company . . ."
"Platoon . . ."
"Dressing by the left . . . walk-march . . . trot." With a jingle of harness and a mass panting of dogs, the Battalion broke into motion, a single great blue-and-dun snake a thousand meters long coiling across the plain like some steel-tipped centipede of war.
Muzzaf nodded, stroking his beard; he was a travelled man, a man of affairs, who had been east to Sandoral, west to Kendrun, and to the capital several times. He looked about, seeing with a northerner's eyes. The southern slopes of the mountains were themselves dry, unlike the dense broadleaf forest of the other slope; open scrub, grass, a few glades of cedar or bottletree higher up. Down here was pasture, verdant enough in the winter rains, but drying out now, the carpets of wildflowers long gone. Already the sheep were being herded up the valleys and into the high meadows, vast bleating herds surrounded by mounted guardians. Several were in view from here; the land was not really flat, it rolled like the frozen waves of the sea, and from a ridgeline like this you could see a score of kilometers.
"Yet there is good trade in wool done here, Messer," he said; his Colony-bred whippet kept pace with the great black wardog easily enough.
* * *
Raj looked at the man the legate had sent, frowning slightly as his body adjusted with a lifetime's practice to the up-and-down sway of a dog's travelling pace. This Muzzaf Kerpatik was neither soldier nor bureaucrat, landowner or peasant, nor a shopkeeper or an artisan or laborer . . . "You're a merchant, Citizen Kerpatik?" he said politely.
"Ah, not exactly, Messer Captain," the man said, gesturing widely as all these southerners seemed to do. "That is, I have trading interests, yes. And in manufacturies; then again, shares in mines and the alum pits, and in a property of rents in the city."
Raj made a rapid mental adjustment: "rent" was familiar, at least. "My apologies, Messer," he said.
"Simply 'Citizen' will do. My father was a man of middling rank, and my mother a concubine from the Colony; hence my inheritance was small, and I had my own way to make in the world." Another of those flashing smiles. "I am as we would say here in Komar County, a—"
The word that followed was unfamiliar to Raj: something like "person-of-doing." "That's a dialect term?"
"No, no, common in many cities these days, though I think first in Kendrun. One who risks moneysavings in affairs of profit."
Extraordinary, Raj thought. Getting rich without inheriting or stealing it. Odd, and rather unsettling; and if he had so much wealth in cash and goods, why didn't he buy land, the only wealth that was really real?
The Komarite hesitated. "Your pardon, Messer Captain . . . you think, then, that your force will be sufficient to defend Komar County against the Spirit-Deniers?"
Raj looked at him in puzzlement. "Defense is the local garrison's concern," he said. "We're here for offensive action."
Muzzaf paused again, moistening his lips as if considering speech, then shrugged. "As you say, Messer." Oddly intent: "Yet if there is any way I may aid you, however humble . . . Komar is my home, and it has been good to me. A man should pay his debts."
Raj nodded abstractedly. Behind him he could hear the Master Sergeant talking, agreeing, by the sound of it. Then a Company noncom bellowed:
"Sound off, 5th Descotters!"
The Captain grinned; they all knew that one, and it was a good sign after a hard day's work in this heat. Five hundred strong young male voices roared it out:
Oh, we Descoteers have hairy ears—
We goes without our britches
And pops our cocks with jagged rocks,
We're hardy sons of bitches!
Raj laughed aloud, drawing a deep breath of the hot dry air. I like this country, he thought. They were angling east of south, now, and the dust column of the 2nd and the transport was visible in the far distance; they rounded a mountain spur, and the valley on the other side was inhabited. The villages were high up along the sides, wherever there was a spring. Like home, he thought, but different. Patches of cultivation around the houses, growing olives and figs to supplement the grain, mostly, rather than the apples and plums and cherries of his homeland. The architecture had a functional similarity, walls and defensive towers, but these lacked the grimly foursquare build of the County's black-basalt farmhouses and keeps. Descott County's prime exports were plum brandy, fighting men, dog trainers and skilled masons; here they seemed to be content with fieldstone cemented by mud, like giant dactosauroid nests.
We fuck the whores right through their drawers
We do not care for trifles—
We hangs our balls upon the walls
And shoots at 'em with rifles.
I like the people, too, he decided, as they passed a shallow depression in the plain; it had collected enough water to grow a catch-crop of barley, five hectares or so. Women were throwing the stooked grain onto two-wheel oxcarts. They wore vests over their striped robes, sewn with coins and brass bangles and bits of shell, and wide hats to shelter their faces from the sun. He had noticed no woman covered her face in the border country, although many men veiled for comfort; it was for the same reason the borderers made a point of eating pork and drinking wine, and spitting at the name of Mohammed, he supposed. The wars in this strip of land had been long and bitter.
Much joy we reap by diddlin' sheep
In divers nooks and ditches
Nor give we a damn if they be rams
We're hardy sons of bitches!
Not much chance of giving offense, Raj thought. The Descott dialect of the common Sponglish tongue was archaic to outside ears, and the local country folk talked a sing-song version larded with Arabic loanwords. The column slowed as the women ran to the edge of the field, holding up leather bottles of water or pieces of dried fruit, giving an ululating cheer to the passing soldiers. Raj swung his hand out, and the order passed down:
"March . . . walk!"
The women trotted along beside the dogs, holding up their gifts and refusing offers of payment; the soldiers passed the jugs among themselves, blasphemously happy when they found the water had been cut one-quarter with the strong local wine. A trooper swept a girl up before him one-armed, trying to steal a kiss; she returned it with enthusiasm, then reared back and punched him neatly in the face, hard enough to bloody his nose. He shouted with pain and clapped his hands to it as the girl dropped nimbly down and ran to rejoin her friends; his comrades howled laughter, nearly falling from their saddles.
So did the male kinsfolk of the women who were riding guard for the harvesters. They were men much like those who had been trickling in to volunteer by ones and twos for the past hundred kilometers, drawn by a hatred older than the hills and the smell of loot. Glad they're taking it in good humor, Raj decided, saluting as the riders waved. Slight, lean men, whipcord next to the bull muscle of his Descotters; about the same shade of skin, where they were not burned black, which made them rather darker than most in the Civil Government, and they dressed for rough use, in sand-colored doghair robes and headcloths. Some carried buckets of light javelins, a few lances; more had short horn-backed bows or long-barreled flintlock rifles, and nobody seemed to feel dressed without half a dozen knives up to a foot long.
Raj looked upslope to the rock-built villages, and imagined fighting his way into the foothills. Long guns and hairy hawk-faces behind every rock, screaming rushes out of the side gulleys, ambush, rockslide, guerrillas . . . and these people were fanatics, they didn't just hate the Muslim enemy. Apart from Muzzaf he had heard scarcely a person south of the Oxheads who didn't invoke the Star Spirit every second sentence, and every hamlet had a church, usually large, no matter how squalid a flyblown slum the town was.
Raj's hand chopped forward once more, and the 5th rocked into the steady wolf-lope again. The riders who had been guarding the women spurred alongside for a moment, shouting and waving their weapons in the air:
"Aur! Aur! Despert Staahl!" Awake the Iron, the local warcry.
"Star Spirit of Man with you, brothers! Kill many! Kill!"
"I'm surprised the Colony finds it pays to raid," he said, as they peeled off back to their charges.
"Hmmm, you might be surprised what a Bedouin will do for a sheep, Messer," Muzzaf said. "Also, there are mines of precious metals and silver in the mountains . . . and," he added with a smile that seemed less assumed than most of his expressions, "you have not yet seen the Vale of Komar."
"Tomorrow," Raj said, glancing up at the moons. There's something odd about this Muzzaf, he thought. He gave an impression of always being about to sell you a rug, and that was normal enough, yes. But there was also . . . as if he can't decide whether to be glad to see us or to run for the hills, Raj mused.
* * *
"Oh, Raj," Suzette whispered. "It's . . . beautiful."
They were sitting their dogs on the crest of the ridge, while the long creaking stream of baggage flowed down the slanting cutbacks of the road into the valley. It was . . . green, Raj decided. Spirit of Man of the Stars, I hadn't realized how much you could miss green. In form much like any other foothill outwash cone, but bigger. Canals threaded it, and where they passed there was life. Plots of dark-green sugar cane, waving in ripples like the sea; grain stubble already showing verdant with the next crop; orchards of bushy glossy oranges and lemons . . . And in the center of the valley, rising on a hill, the city: glowing with a white that blazed in the noonday sun, like a heap of cubes of pure sugar, like a set of blocks carved out of snow, the White City of Komar.
"Well," he said to Suzette, "let's go down." I really shouldn't be snatching time like this, he reminded himself. Then, savagely: At least she's not in the carriage with bloody Stanson. That was a little unfair, the 2nd had been in the saddle and doing some field drill these past four or five days . . .
* * *
" . . . and here," Muzzaf droned on, "you see the canal extension: wonderful are the works of the Spirit! The new concrete dam, another ten thousand hectares under cultivation, financed by the city and our most benevolent and well-loved Vice-Governor, may the Spirit . . ."
Raj tuned him out for a moment. The civil administration seemed to be moderately efficient, here: not much traffic to be pushed aside, at least. The road was arrow straight, up to East Residence standards. The long-settled part of the Vale was to their right, small holdings intricately cultivated. Tall date palms, with fruit trees beneath; beneath that were grain or vegetables, cotton or sugar or grass, with even the goats tethered and hand-fed. The farmers' dwellings were white cubes, sometimes surrounded by flowers; he could see that almost every one had a craft/workshop of some sort attached, men and women weaving cloth or baskets, tanning leather, embroidering, hammering at brass-ware or tinware, turning pots. Everyone waved, and many ran out to cheer. Dainties were handed up; split pomegranates, huge golden-skinned sweet oranges, joints of sugar cane and clay cups of fruit juices.
A girl ran along at his stirrup for a moment, holding up her laden hands. Raj bent to take the grass plate she offered, and the strong brown fingers threw a flower wreath around his neck.
"Dammit," he muttered, watching the grins on the faces of his command group. The plate held fresh dates; dried dates were a one-a-year luxury for gentlefolk back home, expensive even in New Residence. "Dates," he muttered. "We've been eating the bloody things for two weeks, and I get dates." Gerrin Staenbridge was peeling an orange, feeding segments to a laughing Foley. M'lewis had a banana, bit into it and made a grimace; da Cruz showed him how to peel it, looking as near to smiling as Raj had ever seen him.
The left side of the road was less festive; the new lands had been laid out in large fields of sugar cane and cotton and indigo, slave-worked. Mounted guards watched field gangs, many in chain hobbles, Colonists by the look of them. He peered closer: one or two were actually black, with the wooly hair and flattened features he had heard of. Zanj, or even Azanians, from southwest of the Colonial Gulf. They don't look glad to see us at all, Raj thought sardonically.
Muzzaf spoke, responding to his last words. "Yes, Messer; if you have eaten dates in the North, you have eaten our dates . . . See, many of the sugar-mills are run by steam; marvelous is Progress and the works of the Spirit of Man of the Stars. This year, our first steam-powered cotton mill! And there—" he pointed to the northeast of the city, visible now through the thick vegetation "—our railroad!"
Raj looked up with genuine interest, dropping his mental calculation of billeting ratios. Railroads were important, the only means of moving bulk goods cheaply overland, although the need for that was limited. Most people were peasants, after all, and lived from what they grew or made; cities fed from their immediate hinterlands. But a railroad could be very convenient from a military point of view, it was a pity they were so few.
"North from tahe city to the mines," Muzzaf was saying. "Our Vice-Governor, the Exalted Barholm Clerett, upon whom the Spirit of Man shall surely shed Its light, loaned us half the cost. No less than sixty kilometers, finished this year!"
He nodded, impressed; that made it the third-longest in the Civil Government, and the only one south of the Oxheads. Muzzaf bowed low in the saddle.
"It has been an honor to assist you, noble Messer," he said. "But . . ."
They turned the corner into the cleared space any city kept before its walls, here used for low-growing crops, tomatoes and beans and garden truck. Komar's defenses were formidable, even if you could see the buildings on their hill behind—a twenty-meter ditch, and steep turf earthworks before the stone curtain-wall. A hexagonal shape overall, quite modern, with outlying bastions, not one of those high flimsy affairs that rifled guns could batter down in an afternoon. All familiar, there were layout plans and perspective drawings of the fortifications of every city in the Civil Government stored in East Residence, and Raj had gone over them thoroughly. The main gates were open between their fortress-bastions, and a procession was filing out. Litters with the County Legate, officers in dress uniforms, choirs of children in white tunics. A Grand Hierarch ArchSysup of the Church, with acolytes in goldcloth jumpsuits swinging incense censors, bearing a circular computer-core set in gold and silver and lapis lazuli . . .
"Shit," Raj muttered.
* * *
The line of men and dogs moved with glacial slowness through the narrow twisting streets. Sprays of flowers flew toward the troopers from the crowds that blackened the rooftops and crowded up against the walls, leaned from wrought iron balconies and windows . . . And pushed in where they bloody don't belong, Raj thought savagely; they were handing bottles up to the soldiers, as well, and not fruit juice this time, either. Crowd noise was deafening, though not quite loud enough to drown out the sound of an NCO screaming:
"Next sumbitch takes a bottle I will personal gouge out his eyes and skullfuck 'im to death!"
There were priests on every corner, spraying holy water and scented smoke with abandon; voices were calling the blessings of the spirit on the Governor, on the Vice-Governor . . . and I'll be dipped in shit if somebody wasn't calling a blessing on Tzetzas, there's a first. Somebody else ran out with a pork-roast and tried to feed it to one of the dogs, nearly losing an arm in the process. Renunciate Nuns would be handing out blowjobs, at this rate.
Da Cruz came up on his left. "What do they think this is, a bunch of groomsmen on their way to a wedding?" Raj screamed.
"Wait 'till the 2nd settles in, they'll think we're an outing from a girl's school!" the noncom shrieked back.
They passed what looked like a fancy cathouse, with the whores leaning out of their balcony, squeezing their breasts together and shaking them at the troops, with a sign unrolled below: "One Free Trip to Paradise For All Members of the 5th Descott and 2nd Gendarmerie."
Even the Master Sergeant grinned at that. "It's a first." Then he paused. "Ser, we need to talk."
"Companion's briefing after we dismiss," Raj returned. "Two hours past sunset."
* * *
" . . . and anyone," Raj was saying, from the steps of the Tribunate building; it fronted the only square in the city big enough to address the Battalion, "who abuses billeting privileges will be up on charges. And if I get any complaints from husbands, brothers or fathers, the malefactor will be looking for work as a harem guard south of here." A rolling cheer at that; he looked down on the sea of grinning faces and felt a twist at the base of his stomach. How many of them will be alive in a month? he thought. The weight of responsibility descended on his shoulders, heavier than the world.
"All right, boys," he continued, forcing a smile. "Everyone loves us here. Just remember why." He pointed south. "They don't love us, and they're not going to be throwing flowers, either." There was a murmur, not displeased but slightly sobered. Good. "Enjoy yourselves, but remember we're heading out on Starday next. A day to play, a day to recover and a day to go Enter your sins—" he pointed to the city temple, towering in traceries of glass and stone on the opposite side of the plaza "—in the Terminal booths and wash your grimy souls. Then we earn our pay. Spirit of Man of the Stars pervade you. Up the 5th! Descott Forever!"
"Trumpeter, sound Dismissed to Quarters."
* * *
Suzette, Lady Whitehall paused on the steps of the tribunate; the plaza was dimly lit by the glow from the windows above her, and the municipal lanterns set high in brackets on the public buildings roundabout. The chanting of a MainFrame service came from the Temple, and the paving stones were being swept and shoveled by City convict gangs, swept free of bougainvillea and roses, dogshit and fruit rinds and shattered bottles. Lights were coming on all over the city, and she could hear the tinkle of water in fountains, and the plangent sounds of gittars, and singing; Komar was still celebrating what it nervously hoped would be deliverance.
Captain Stanson cantered his Alsatian up to the steps, sweeping off his silvered helmet and bowing; there were hyacinths woven in his hair.
"Ah, my dear," he said, kissing her hand. "A lovely evening for the loveliest of ladies. I've found the most enchanting little place, and reserved a table for two."
"I'm sure you and Merta will enjoy it," she replied, with an ironic lift of her eyebrow, gently tugging on her hand.
Stanson's face fell. "But, I mean, I had planned . . ."
"Table for two, bed for three? Very sorry, my dear, but that's your particular fantasy." She pulled harder on her hand, slipping the other under her sash to the hard lump of her derringer. It remained there, when he released her fingers. "The Prancing Bitch is offering a free first-time, they'd probably give you a very good discount on that."
"You lying slut!" Amazement struggled with rage. "You . . . you promised— You lying whore!"
"Tsk, tsk, my poor Helmt, all your life at Court and you believed a promise? And the word you're looking for, under the circumstances, is 'tease,' not 'whore.'" Suzette watched a baffled curiosity overcome anger, for a moment: that surprises me, she thought distantly.
"Why?" he said.
"Well, you see, Helmt, I don't need you any more, that's all."
He jerked the dog's head around and heeled it savagely; with a whining bark, it sprang across the pavement, nearly running down the sweepers. Suzette made a moue and tapped a finger against her lips.
"A mistake, perhaps," she murmured. "But occasional fits of truthfulness are so enjoyable."
* * *
"Everyone's here," Gerrin said, as Suzette slipped through the door and seated herself at the foot of the table.
Raj glanced around the table. The Companions had grown to nine, not counting him or his wife: Gerrin Staenbridge and Foley, of course, and the Gruder brothers. Another Lieutenant from Kaltin Gruder's Company, Mekkle Thiddo by name, Raj and he were cousins of a sort and near-neighbors back home; two gentlemen-rankers from Thiddo's platoon, Holdor Tennan and Fitzin Sherrek, younger sons of bonnet-squires who were clients of the Whitehall family.
"M'lewis isn't, ser," da Cruz said. Several of the others winced. Descotters were less class-conscious than most, nobody objected to da Cruz's membership; he came of respectable yeoman stock. The scruffy trooper was something else again, even gentry from the Bufford parish district of the County were not well-regarded.
"Probably out picking pockets," Kaltin muttered.
"I hope so," his brother Evrard said: both of them were sensible enough to listen to their noncoms, but a platoon leader was closer to the enlisted men's grapevine. "If he's just drunk . . . well, sober he could talk a Renunciate Nun flat. Drunk he wouldn't know a sow from his sister, and either would do willing or no."
"He's on an errand for me," Raj said, seating himself at the log ebony table. There was a wall fountain behind him, a blaze of colored tile against the stark white marble of the walls—and a useful plashing that made it unlikely anyone listening at a peephole would get much of a quiet conversation. "Now, Companions, we've got a situation here."
"Arserapin' right," da Cruz said. An informal etiquette had already established itself for these meetings, rather different from the one they used when wearing their official hats. "What keyed me, was the way the townsfolk were poppin' off t' welcomes us. Especial the Messers, they was sweatin' happy to see us, but commonfolk, too. The whores is givin' it away. Only reason fer that I kin see, they're certain-sure the ragheads was comin' over the wall, real soon now, least we didn't stop "em."
"My thoughts exactly," Raj said. Sweet Spirit, I could use a bath and a neckrub and twenty hours' sleep in a bed.
Gerrin Staenbridge frowned. "This town's as close to impregnable as any its size can be," he said in a slightly pedantic tone; siegecraft was a hobby of his. "It's only fallen, what, twice—"
"Three times, once in a civil war," Foley interjected.
"Thank you, Barton," Gerrin said. "To continue, there's over fifty fixed pieces on the walls—muzzle loaders, but good ones—and a garrison of, what, three battalions of regular infantry." There were a few snorts at that. The foot soldiers of the Civil Government were conscripted from the peons of the central Counties around East Residence, and even the barbarian mercenaries who made up a third of the army ranked higher. "I know, I know, but they are trained soldiers with Armory guns. If all they have to do is sit in bunkers and fire out the slits at the ragheads as they run up, well, really now."
At least they didn't send them down here with flintlocks, Raj thought, tapping at his pad with a graphite stick. Not uncommon, in the interior Counties; the trade guns made for export to the savages were much cheaper. A knock sounded; Evrard sprang up to open it with his hand on his pistol, and Antin M'lewis stepped through. He slid into a seat down the table, grinning through his bad teeth and looking somehow furtive even now. It's amazing. When he's trying to cheat somebody, butter wouldn't melt in his mouth. It's when he relaxes you put your hand on your valuables.
Kaltin took up the argument. "And even if the garrison isn't worth much, there's forty thousand people within the walls; you saw the way it's built." A maze of laneways, twisting and turning between blank stone walls. "This is a rich city, too, with a secure water supply. Holy Avatars of the Spirit—"
Raj forced himself not to wince; technically, that term included him, now. I am not worthy! something cried within himself. He forced it down, like the tiredness and the sore butt that came of too long in the saddle.
"—you'd need twenty thousand men and a siege train to take this place."
"M'lewis?" Raj said. "What did you find?"
"Best dam' party I ever missed on m'own, Messers," he said. "Couldn't pay fer booze 'r cooze if yer wanted to. . . . Beggin' yer pardon, Lady. Anyways, I finds out what yer wanted."
Raj nodded. "I got suspicious when I saw a beggar saluting us from an alleyway," he said dryly. "More remarkable than girls with flowers, if less sightly."
"Bought 'im a drink, ser. Well, passed on one I's given, loik. Private in the 23rd Foot; they's here, with t'81st Rifles an' the Kelden County Foot."
"Wait a minute," Kaltin said. "Those aren't the units that were supposed to be here!"
"Ay-up. Moved in last month, ser. Ain't gots they land grants settled yet, either. Sellin' they uniforms, beggin', workin' at that'ere cotton mill, which is worse to my way a—
Another knock at the door. The Companions exchanged glances, and Kaltin and his brother bracketed the entranceway. Foley reached over his shoulder for the shotgun in its leather scabbard and drew it, clicking the breach open for a second and snapping it shut, then laying the weapon in his lap under the table.
Raj was lighting a cigarette as Muzzaf Kirpatik walked through the opened door and threw himself on his knees. That startled the Gruder brothers, but not so much that they did not seat the muzzles of their revolvers in his ears and half-carry him forward to their commander's end of the table. Hands plucked his weapons away as they moved, frisking him thoroughly. The pepperpot revolver, two derringers, a long knife from one boot, a stiletto punch-dagger down the collar of his robe . . . Indeed, a man of affairs, Raj thought.
"Forgive me, lord," the local said brokenly; the singsong southern accent was more noticeable, and he tried to bend his head to the marble tiles of the floor.
Raj blew smoke. "It might be easier if I knew for what," he said.
"I have betrayed you—I have betrayed the Spirit of Man of the Stars, may I be damned to . . . well, forgiven—I have betrayed the Civil Government."
Kaltin Gruder thumbed back the hammer of his revolver. "Spying for the ragheads?" he said, in a voice as metallic as that sound.
"No, no! The Tribune arranged with . . ." a visible internal struggle " . . . with authorities in East Residence, I think the Chancellor . . ."
"Tzetzas," the Companions chorused.
"Watch your language," Suzette observed.
" . . . to transfer the garrison. It is the land grants, you see, until title is cleared the rents are still collected but the soldiers get nothing, nothing!"
Raj nodded sickly. There was never enough money in the central government Fisc to pay the foot soldiers directly, not and keep the more important cavalry units supplied . . . not to mention the mercenaries from outside the Civil Government, who wanted good hard cash in sound coin, no bank drafts please. Revenue melted on the way from the Counties to the capital, and on the way back out for disbursements; instead, the infantrymen were each assigned a farm. Worked by tenants, so that they had time to drill, although many ended up spending more time helping in the fields than marching. If the unit was transferred, the soldiers were supposed to be settled into equivalent holdings immediately. Even when it worked the way it was supposed to morale dropped hideously every time an infantry regiment moved.
Kaltin was nodding thoughtfully. "You know, one of the infantry Captains was wearing a uniform coat tailored from Azanian torofib." That was a fiber spun to line its nests by a burrowing pseudoinsect that lived in the savannahs inland from the Zanj coast. "The real thing. He didn't buy that on an infantry officer's pay. I couldn't afford it, myself." And the Gruder estates pastured ten thousand head of pedigreed Angoras.
"But . . ." Evrard burst out, "that's . . . that's despicable!" The others looked at him pityingly; he had been out from Descott less than a year.
Gerrin shrugged. "That's Tzetzas," he amplified.
Muzzaf nodded, tears streaking his face. "The Legate suggested it, but he's the Chancellor's appointee. That was before Tewfik moved, nobody thought there would be more than raids on the outlying settlements."
"What was your share?"
"I . . . acted as agent, to collect the rents. Five percent to me; out of . . . three thousand silver FedCreds. A quarter to the officers, and the rest to the Legate, I don't know how he split that with the Chancellor." Brokenly: "My lord, I did not know . . . it seemed that all the others were doing it, and they said Komar would still be safe. The Spirit of Man and of the Stars and the Civil Government have been good to me, my lord: now I see you are Their true servant. I have served a corrupt man in corruption—let me serve you in honesty!"
"Merida," Raj said quietly. Shit. "So much for our secure base. How many actual troops are there in this town?"
He looked at Muzzaf: a man of mixed blood, probably bitterly determined to make his loyalty unquestioned, as many such were. Who could blame him, for following the lead the Legate and Chancellor gave? An able man as well, invaluable if his remorse was lasting and not a mere fit . . .
"Ahh, there is the Legate's personal guard, mercenaries from Asaura County." A few snorts; that was in the mountains north and east of the plateau-and-canyon country of Descott, part of the Civil Government only by courtesy. The County Legate of Descott was chosen by the area's gentry, in practice if not theory; the County Legate of Asaura was appointed in East Residence and stayed there, if he had any sense. Even Descotters considered Asaurans backward, but they were much in demand as elite infantry.
"Well, good enough fighters, except that when they're drunk, which is usually, they cut every throat in sight and rape the corpses," Mekkle Thiddo said. "How many of them?"
"About a hundred. Then, there is the town militia, but they are for manning the guns, only. And one of the infantry Captains, he has been maintaining two hundred of his men at his own expense, I think that the others forced him to go along with the billeting scheme by threats. And perhaps as many again, among the retainers of the Messers in town, but they are not organized."
"Not nearly enough to hold the walls," Raj said. Heads turned toward him, eyes full of unspoken questions. And
* * *
—he was looking through his own viewpoint, seeing the hands on the table before him move as they would when he shrugged.
"Well," he said/might say, "there's nothing we can do about it but pray; the Legate's in charge here. We'll just have to be sure we don't need a secure base, let the enemy worry about that—"
POM-POM-POM—the quickfirer shells slashed into the mass of screaming humans and animals that jammed the gates of Komar. It was dark, lit only by the moons and the fires that were turning the buildings of the White City crimson and black. White-hot metal slashed dogs and oxen and men into things that fell twitching, to be trampled underfoot; others were pushed off the edge of the bridge, into a moat whose bottom bristled with angle-iron stakes.
Raj was halfway through the gates himself, blood from a scalp wound coating one side of his face in a glistening sheet. "Rally!" he shouted, beating at fugitives with the flat of his saber, forms in the blue of the 5th and the white jackets of the 2nd Gendarmerie, or the dun robes of peasants. The noise overrode everything he could say; everything but the triumphant roar of the Colonist troops as they scrambled down into the moat on ropes and raised the scaling ladders against the inner side. A cannon fired from the ramparts, another, loads of grapeshot cutting paths of moaning, twitching meat through the bright-clad ranks. But they were too few, and only the odd rifle cast its muzzle flame beside them.
"Ul-ul-ul-Allahuu Akbar!" The shrieks were like files on stone, thousandfold, as the soldiers of Islam poured over the walls in a flood, a flood whose surf shone in the firelight with eyes and teeth and the edges of their scimitars.
A jump; morning, that would have been bright if the smoke had not lain so heavy. A pile of bodies was growing in the center of the plaza before the Tribune's palace; Colonist infantry were pitching new loads onto the growing heap. One was Barton Foley, his eyes wide and a gaping cut from ear to ear that nearly reached the backbone. The foot soldier at his shoulders giggled, calling attention to it:
"Hai, this one has had the hallal, brothers!" he said, giggling. The ritual throat cutting which the Shari'ah, the Road to a Watering Place, prescribed for animals slaughtered for meat. "Would any feast on this tender dainty?"
A mounted officer leaned over and lashed a nine-thonged whip on the soldier's back, bringing a yelp of pain.
"Silence, you blasphemous son of ten Berber pigs and a syphilitic whore!" he shouted. There was a huge crash from the temple across the plaza, as the great silver starburst was thrown down and shattered its way through the roof to a chorus of jeers. The officer looked up with a chill satisfaction, then down at survivors of the 5th lined up against the palace; two of them supported a half-fainting Raj, with bandages swathed around his head.
"You kaphar dogs have seen," the officer said, waving his lash over the burning city, "that there is no strength in shirk, idolatry. Indeed there is no God but God. Which of you will renounce your idols and embrace the Faith?" Glares and silence. "As God wills. These are strong men, they will work well in the mines—wait," he continued, as the soldiers began to prod them away. "That one." He pointed at Suzette. "She will be comely, once she puts some flesh on her bones. Cover her face from the sight of men and take her to my quarters."
* * *
* * *
—he was looking through his own viewpoint, seeing the hands on the table before him move as they would when he shrugged.
"Well, we'll just have to try and pry the supplies for the infantry loose," he said.
A blur, and he was watching a pouting bureaucrat stamp his seal on a document.
"You could have done this last week," Raj said, snatching it up.
The civil servant was about to speak when the door swung open, and an orderly leaned in with a casual salute.
"Beggin' yer parden, ser, an' the officer of the day requests yer presence. Raghead columns approachin'."
* * *
Enough, Raj thought: Center's holograms faded. "We've got to do something, and do it fast," he said, tight-lipped. "What was the name of that infantry officer, the one who's paying his men out of pocket?"
"Messer Captain Jorg Menyez," Muzzaf said, drying his eyes with the back of his hand, then pulling a handkerchief from one sleeve to blow his nose.
"I know the family," Raj said. Landowners up in Kelden County, by the straits of the same name, the narrow waters between the Midworld and Pierson's Seas. Quite well-to-do, you saw their wine sold by name in East Residence, and they had . . . oh, yes, marble quarries, too. "What's he doing in an infantry outfit in the bundu? Never mind; Mekkle, if you'd be so good, look him up and have him come by my quarters tomorrow at, hmmm, 1400 hours, that should give us enough time." He planted his fists on the table and rose. "Now, here's how we're going to implement a little matter of administrative reform. At reveille, Gerrin will—"
* * *
"This is utterly irregular!"
The Vice-Assistant Legate of Komar was a local man, but dressed in the height of East Residence fashion. The corridor Raj and Staenbridge and Foley had tramped down was lined with open rooms, clerks sitting cross-legged at low desks and chattering as they read and annoted reports and letters; they had fallen nervously silent as the Descotters tramped through, boots ringing on the pebble-surfaced concrete. This office was rather different, walled in hand-painted tiles; the outer wall was stone fretwork laced with a flowering jasmine vine, dew-spangled with the cooling water that flowed down from jets above the ceiling. A secretary huddled wide-eyed on a bronze-legged couch in one corner of the room, almost as ornamental as the vine in her tight red dress. The bureaucrat's desk was at chair-height, northern style, a slab of porphyry almost empty save for neatly arranged pens and a lithograph of the Governor, Vice-Governor, and Chancellor in court robes.
"If you read carefully," Raj said, plucking the parchment sheet out of the man's hands, "it authorizes me to levy contributions and assert the authority of the Civil Government by any means necessary." In gold, vermilion, and silver ink, complete with six ribboned seals, starting with the Vice-Governor's and running down through the Chancellor to the Minister of War and the Master of Soldiers, Residence Area. "And it enjoins all civil authorities to cooperate."
"But—that is for operations over the border!" The Civil Government recognized no other state on Earth—
bellevue, Center interjected in Raj's inner ear.
—on Earth as sovereign; all other territories were in rebellion.
"Oh?" Raj said, unrolling the document and giving it a quick scan. "Not that I can see; not a mention of borders in here; it just specifies 'Komar and area.' This is Komar; so I'll thank you to sign that order for immediate transfer of title on the land grants, if you please. Plus arrears of rent, to be met out of the County treasury."
"Out of the question," the bureaucrat began, then faded into silence as Raj turned his back and braced a steel-toed boot against the door, wedging it shut.
Foley reached over his shoulder and drew the shotgun. He swallowed, visibly nervous, but even a man as unacquainted with first-hand violence as the plump Vice-Assistant did not doubt his willingness to use it. If anything, the slight tremor in the twin muzzles made it more terrifying still.
Staenbridge came up behind the civil servant and pushed him back into the chair with a thump. "You're right-handed, aren't you, Citizen?" he asked politely.
"Yyyyes," the Vice-Assistant stuttered.
"Good, wouldn't want to leave you unable to sign," the Descotter continued cheerfully, and grabbed his left wrist. There was no struggle—or rather the bureaucrat struggled; Staenbridge laid the hand on the smooth stone of the desk without noticeable delay. Whistling between his teeth he drew his pistol with his right hand, flipped it around to grip by the barrel, and brought it down in a blurring arc that ended on the pudgy clenched fist.
The sound of impact was like a bundle of sticks breaking, combined with the thump of bread dough on a kneading board. The Vice-Assistant screamed in antiphonal chorus with his secretary, then slumped out of his chair, sprawling. The Companion's grip on his wrist pinned the limb to the surface of the desk as effectively as an iron staple would have, however, so he could not slump all the way to the floor. His face had gone grey-brown and saliva dribbled from the corner of his mouth to match the tear streaks around his eyes. Then he spasmed and whinnied as Staenbridge shifted a thumb and ground it into the soft mush of shattered small bones at the center of his hand.
The Companion bent low, tapping the other man's nose sharply with the pistol butt to attract his attention. "Now, do sign the papers, there's a good little capon," he said. "Or shall I continue?" The thumb brushed across the wound once more, lightly.
* * *
"It's out of the question," the Director of Municipal Supply said, glaring at the Gruder brothers; their blocky shoulders filled the space in front of his desk. "Two thousand infantry tunics and trousers, shoes, belts, cartridge cases . . . out of the question! I have their rifles in store, for reissue when the land grants are cleared and they resume regular duties, but this—!" he riffled at the request form. "Ridiculous!"
"The land grants are bein' taken care of right now," Evrard said patiently. Someone who knew him well would have realized how dangerous the trace of brogue was. "And this is Komar? Got cotton mills, dyeworks, tailors, tanners, cobblers? Export cloth and boots? Just append an authorization for rush contracts, down there at the bottom."
"Get out of my— Here, you man, what do you think you're doing?" he said, looking sharply around the blocky forms of the Gruder brothers.
Antin M'lewis looked up and grinned, snaggled brown teeth and cold brown eyes. "Stealin'," he said, wrapping the silver paperknife in a dirty handkerchief and tucking it into one of the patch pockets of his jacket. "Gives us summat in common, loik, eh?" The office walls were lined with shelves for knickknacks; he picked up a glass bubble with a miniature house inside, laughing like a child as he shook it to produce a tiny snowstorm inside, then dropped it in beside the knife.
The Director's eyes bulged, and his face turned purple, but the bellow died in his throat as Evrard's saber came out with a smooth sshhunng sound. The tip settled under his nose, touching just enough to dimple the skin of his upper lip.
"Evrard," Kaltin said. He touched a statue of a dancing girl, only six inches high but vibrant with life; it was of honey-toned spicewood, and he rubbed his fingertips on it before holding them under his brother's nose. "Excellent taste, don't you think?"
"Mmmm. Smells almost as nice as a real girl," Evrard said.
"But these," Kaltin continued, indicating a set of blown-glass animal figurines, "are definitely common." He began picking them up and dropping them over his shoulder, one tinkling crash after another.
"Damn you all to the Outer Dark, crash your cores and burn, demons eat your eyes," the Director hissed. There were beads of sweat on his forehead and upper lip. "You can't intimidate me this way!"
"Oh? How disappointing," Evrard said, wiping the tip of his sword on his sleeve and sheathing it. "M'lewis, what do you think we should do, then?"
"Dunno, ser," the trooper said, frowning. He brightened. "Throw 'im out the window, ser?"
They pounced, lifting the writhing, yelling form between them. "One—" The windows were glazed, with the outer wooden shutters latched against the sun "Two—
The scream was cut off by a brittle crash and the crunch of breaking wood. The Director bounced back into the room; there were half a dozen superficial cuts on his face, and he spat out a tooth as he tried to climb to his hands and knees. The Descotters came around the desk and the Gruders seized him by ankles and belt; then they used his head and shoulders as a battering ram, to clear what was left of the windows and shutters out of the way. His bloodied hands scrabbled frantically at the frame, careless of the spikes of glass, before the inexorable pressure left him dangling head-down, supported only by their one-handed grips on his ankles. The struggles ceased then, as he realized that kicking free would send him fifteen feet straight down onto the cobbles.
M'lewis came up and pulled off one of his shoes. "Wouldn't fit nohow," he said regretfully, standing on one leg while he measured it against his own sole. The shoe went out the window, followed by the other and the red-and-blue checked socks; M'lewis reached behind his back and drew the skinning knife, held the hilt in his teeth while he rolled up his sleeves. "Tum-te-tum," he hummed, testing the edge by shaving a patch of hair from his corded forearm. "Well now, sers, m'father always said, you want a man to accommodate yer, skin 'im from the feets up. Er down, as we has heres."
"Keep him away from me!" the Director squealed, kicking again as the trooper drew a line of thin red down the bottom of one of his feet. "I'll sign!"
"I knew you would," Kaltin said.
* * *
"As per orders," Mekkle Thiddo said, dropping the documents on the table in front of Raj; the Companions were meeting in the same room as they had the day before. They rustled against the stack of papers already there, as the Companion sucked on a skinned knuckle and then went to rinse the hand in the fountain.
"Three months' rations for the full complement. No killing, but mine's going to be eatin' real careful."
Raj nodded briskly. And the men these penpushers depend on for their lives won't be begging in the streets, he thought with bleak satisfaction. "Is that infantry Captain here yet?" he asked. And what sort of a Menyez is he, to end up commanding an infantry Battalion?
* * *
Captain Jorg Menyez was a tall man, with much the same broad-shouldered, narrow-hipped build as the cavalryman he faced; Raj remembered suddenly that his maternal grandmother had been from the Kelden Straits country. There was little resemblance otherwise; Menyez was in his thirties, a pale-eyed, straight-nosed man with russet brown hair, sun-faded and thinning on top. The pale eyes were red-rimmed now, watering behind the wire-rimmed spectacles; he sneezed into his handkerchief and cleared his throat repeatedly as he scanned the documents. His lips thinned as he looked up:
"Thank you," he said. "For the men's sake. I tried, but—" A shrug, that turned into a grab for the handkerchief. "Chooo! What will Colonel Dyaz say?"
"Colonel . . . Messer Dyaz has taken indefinite leave of absence for reasons of health, Messer Acting Colonel," Raj said, in the same gun metal flat tone.
Menyez sat silent except for his wheezing. "Well." Another pause. "It must be . . . satisfying, to have such power."
"No it isn't!" Raj roared suddenly. "It isn't satisfying at all to have to act like a mountain bandit to get people to do their fucking jobs. It isn't satisfying that the agents of the Civil Government won't perform without a fucking pistol up their nose! But it's better than having this city undefended." He nodded to the documents in Menyez's hands. "Now you've got the tools, at least."
Menyez straightened, saluting crisply, respect in his voice along with the unwilling gratitude of a man who has been given a long-denied due. "Well, I'd better get out there and do my job, then." He strode briskly from the room.
"I just realized something," Gerrin Staenbridge said suddenly. "Why he's in the infantry." The others glanced over at him. "The poor luckless bastard's allergic to dogs."
* * *
Suzette chewed the end of her pen; the others had left quickly, overdue for the work of preparing their own departure. She stretched, alone with the sound of falling water and the lingering odors of gun oil and leather, dogs and male sweat that went with soldiers. She thought, dipped the steel nib of the pen in the inkwell of her portable writing desk-cum-briefcase, and continued the letter:
. . . and I'm sure your husband will be as interested as mine in how Tzetzas' appointee prepared the defenses of Komar, where the Cleretts have so many investments.
Was that a little heavy-handed? No. Unfair, yes; nobody had expected Komar to become a theater of war anytime soon. If he had, the Legate would not have allowed the defenses of his own home to become quite so run down, though it was amazing what men would do with the prospect of short-term gains before their faces.
Tzetzas had gambled and lost, that was all. Luck was good, or bad: bad, for example, when the child-prostitute one brutalized at age twelve became the mistress and then the wife of an up-and-coming Gubernatorial relative named Barholm Clerett . . . Coming up from the underclass meant spending long years when assaulting bureaucrats was an unattainable dream. Anne would thoroughly enjoy the description of Raj's tactics, more than the men who had carried them out and far more than the man who had ordered them.
You are too sweet for this Fallen world, my angel, Suzette thought with a sigh. Best not to over-elaborate, let Anne think up her own political tactics. Her pen scritched:
Your loving friend—
And only friend, I'm afraid, she thought,
—Suzette, Lady Whitehall.
She picked up the bell and rang once. The door opened and a small nondescript man in border County herdsman's robes padded in, bowing low.
"Here, Abdullah," Suzette said, handing over the sealed message. "To Lady Clerett, and none other. Into her own hands, not those of a servant."
"Your command, my Lady," the man said; he bowed again, touching the letter to forehead, lips, and heart. "It shall be one week, or ten days if Allah is unkind."
"And watch that!" Suzette added sharply. "Here, that could get you stoned."
The full lips quirked. "Do not worry, my Lady Whitehall," he said quietly. "Those Sunni dogs over the line would be even quicker with the rocks; I have passed for a borderer before." Druze were scarce, these days, and their weird subset of Islam had always allowed a politic lie in the face of persecution. More gravely, "For you, who saved my family from slavery, my life is always ready to stand forfeit." A grin. "And you pay well, besides!"
"Peace be with you, Abdullah. Go."
"I go, Lady. And upon you, peace."