Warlord S. M. Stirling and David Drake



Download 2.76 Mb.
Page3/35
Date16.05.2016
Size2.76 Mb.
1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9   ...   35

Chapter Three


"Captain the Honorable Messer Raj Ammenda Halgern da Luis Whitehall, Whitehall of Hillchapel, Hereditary Supervisor of Smythe Parish, Descott County, Guard to the Exalted Vice-Governor, presents himself for duty!"

Raj winced as the herald's bellow rang deafeningly in his left ear; she was using a megaphone that was no less functional for being built of thin polished silver with decorations in niello and diamond chip. The jostling crowds of petitioners fell silent for a moment, craning their necks towards the main doors and pressing against the line of Gendarmerie troopers in dress uniforms. The rifles they held were richly inlaid but loaded and in perfect working order; the whole hall where the Gubernatorial Levee was held was like that, he supposed.

All of two hundred meters long and fifty high; the ceiling was a mosaic, a wheeling galaxy of stars against indigo night, with the head and shoulders of the Spirit of Man looming above it. Much like the one in the Temple, and like that it always gave you a slight creeping sensation between the shoulderblades, as if the huge dark eyes were following you and looking into your soul. The floor was tessellated marble, and the walls point-topped windows filled with stained glass, mostly Scriptural scenes—computers, spaceships lifting off—or gruesome martyrdoms, or the triumphs of the Governors. A blare of trumpets, and the mechanical men spaced at intervals along the walls came to attention from parade rest, slapping the replica lasers with their left hands as they brought them to the salute. There was a hiss and whir from the compressed-air machinery of the automatons, and the arc lights along the angle of ceiling and wall popped and flared, shedding an actinic blue light and the occasional spark. The crowd moaned, bowing in unison before the awesome technology of the ancients.

Raj increased his pace slightly, the gold-alloy spurs on his high boots jingling. He was in full dress fig for this, and as always it made him feel like a dancer in a revue down on Carcossa Street; skin-tight crimson pants with gold piping down the seams, codpiece, jewelled saber-belt and tooled pistol holster, a tache so long and elaborate that he had to hold the scabbard of his sword in his left hand to keep it from dragging on the floor. The blue jacket hugged his shoulders so tightly he could feel the tickle of the epaulets, and the split tails nearly reached his ankles.

The horseshoe shaped end of the Hall was focused on the Chair, standing alone and untenanted at the top of a semicircular flight of white marble stairs. Vice-Governor Barholm was sitting in his usual chair of state on one of the lower steps; to either side were the Chiefs of Department at their inlaid desks. The ceremonial view-screens in each were symbols as well, the actual paperwork would be handled by the crowds of flunkies and aides who hovered at their rear.

Raj went down on one knee, bowing deeply: all that was necessary, considering Barholm's official status and his own. The Vice-Governor's long robe was so heavy with embroidery and jewelwork that it was probably as uncomfortable as Raj's uniform, even on a cool spring day like this. His face showed as little of that as did the other nine Guards who stood behind the bureaucrats. Or the bureaucrats themselves; this was part of the ritual of power, after all.

"Rise, Whitehall of Hillchapel," Barholm said. He was more typical of the Descott Hills than Raj himself, lacking the younger man's rangy height; stocky, with a torso like a brick, a heavy-muscled man who moved with a tensile quickness despite a sedentary life. But his accent was pure East Residence, smooth as a hired rhetor's.

Raj came to his feet, saluted smartly with his free hand and buckled on the plumed helmet; at least on his head it didn't tickle his nose the way it did under one arm. He settled to parade rest beside Hemlt Stanson, the Guardsman next in seniority. Their station was directly behind the Vice-Governor, and they rested their palms on the butts of their pistols. Not that they expected trouble, a very expert crew of chamberlains inspected everyone before they were allowed this far into the Palace. For that matter, there were two dozen very expert riflemen with 'scope-sighted weapons behind various pieces of ornamental grillwork. The status of Guard did not appear on any muster roll, but it could count for a good deal more than formal military rank. The Guards were all well-born, well-connected; fighting men who could be relied on for anything that needed doing.

a need shared by both vice-governor barholm and myself, Center observed, someday inquire as to the meaning of the term "bucellari."

Raj managed not to jump, and subvocalized: be careful, you might distract me. Consciously, he schooled his mind to acceptance; numinous awe was all very well for church, but he had work to do in this world, that was why the angel had chosen him. Act as if everything was normal, he told himself. Act well enough, and you'll grow to believe it in your gut as well as your head.

Silence, while the ushers shepherded forward the first batch. Three of them, two men and a woman in expensive but unfashionably up-country clothes, without the hired cicerone who could have shown them how to really penetrate court ritual. They began to go down in the full prostration, to be halted by the hissed outrage of the usher; that was for the Governor alone. Raj blinked, catching slight alterations in Barholm's expression—funny, I was never this good at that before—and decided that the yokels had done themselves no harm and the usher herself no good. It had been a long time since anyone got to the Chair without wanting it bad enough to wet-dream about it waking and sleeping; that was one of the Civil Government's problems. It would probably be better if somebody like Thom Poplanich could inherit the job for once.

Of course, Thom was a gentleman and a scholar; he wouldn't last a week.

"Messer Bendict Cromar Buthelesi, representing sundry gentlefolk!" the herald announced. Unusually blunt; somebody must have under-bribed.

"Your Exalted Vice-Governorship," the leader of the delegation began; Raj placed the accent, Gaur County, about halfway up the Hemmar River. "We represent the Gaur County Locks Association, and the Seven Hills coal proprietors." The voice was gathering a little assurance as it spoke, though his hands fumbled with the sealed package of documents. "As Your Exaltedness knows, the locks are being reconstructed to be passable for steam riverboats." Those had become numerous, over the last fifty years or so.

Most of the bureaucrats affected an elaborate boredom; an educated man learned of the doings of the unFallen, not the grubby, oily expedients which passed for technology in this degenerate age. Two were fully alert; Chancellor Tzetzas and Barholm. Who, being a Descott man and practical to a fault, was keenly interested in anything that increased the tax revenues of the State.

"Yes, yes," Barholm said, waving a hand to urge the man past the background data. "I've seen the plans."

The petitioner continued doggedly, obviously plowing through a rehearsed speech. Too wired tense to do anything else, even when a new factor entered the equation.

"Your Exaltedness . . . ah." Barholm's glare finally forced the speaker to summarize. "That is, His Supremacy the Governor Vernier, Vice-regent of The Spirit of Man of the Stars, we're orthodox in Gaur County, my lord . . . that is, the State advanced part of the cost of the renovations . . . but the materials have been so late, my lord! While the locks are out of operation, we . . . there's no cash flow, my lord, and the expenses . . . and, well, the coal has to go by animal haulage to below the falls. Your Exaltedness, we beg for relief, either on our interest payments or our taxes."

Barholm frowned, his fingers drumming on one arm of the chair while he beckoned an advisor. Tzetzas' face stayed as calm as a mosaic Avatar, but his fingers riffled through a small box of index cards.

I wonder what's behind all this, Raj thought idly. Porifro Rifera's Tactics and Strategy had a whole chapter on the importance of transport in extended operations, and the Gaur Falls were the major break on the river between East Residence and the head of navigation in the Oxhead Mountain foothills. Wonder how it'll turn out.

observe:

* * *

A rectangle blanked in the air in front of him, then split: the left side flashed

action by the Vice-Governor.

The falls, and the canal around them. Barges unloaded casks of cement, gangs of laborers, bundles of new-forged pickaxes and barrels of blasting powder. A side-wheel steamer tug pulled a train of barges into a basin whose sides shone with new-cut ashlar blocks; the barges were loaded with bales of hides, cauldrons of pitch, grain, dried fruit, others had holds piled high with gleaming coal. The town behind bustled.

reference to the Chancellor.

The same scene, but he could tell it was nearly a year later. The steamer tug bore the weighing-scale blazon of Tzetzas' family on the side of its stack; as did the carts bringing down coal from the mines. A coffle was being driven onto a barge by armed guards in the Chancellor's livery; the people on the chain had the black brands of debt-bondsmen on their cheeks. Raj recognized the petitioners, in rough burlap prison tunics rather than the quietly affluent clothing they wore today; behind them were their families, others that were probably their retainers. There was a scuffle as the guards unhitched a girl of fourteen from behind Bendict, began pushing her forward under the overhang of the barge as they stripped the tunic up over her head. She screamed and struggled, and so did Bendict until a truncheon struck the side of his head with a sound like a rock on melon.

* * *

"Well, delay is certainly a serious . . ." Barholm was beginning. Tzetzas's messenger threaded his way to the Vice-Governor's chair, leaned to murmur in his ear. Barholm's face changed, going smooth and hard. " . . . serious matter," he continued, in a harsher tone. "I expect better of those the State sees fit to aid than excuses! Direct your petition to Chancellor Tzetzas, and perhaps something can be done."

Beside him Stanson whispered sotto voce; with the acoustics in here, you could do that pretty safely.

"Yeah, talk to Tzetzas and you're done, the way the monkey did the miller's wife."

Raj made a noncommittal grunt; there were some people it was never safe to talk about.

"But my lord!" the petitioner wailed, dropping the package of documents. "He—the Honorable Chancellor—he owns the firms that have been delaying delivery of the construction materials!"

"Are you making allegations about my Chancellor? Perhaps you question my judgment, my uncle His Supremacy's judgment?"

"No, Your Exaltedness," the man whispered.

Barholm smiled like a wardog in a butcher's shop. "Well, move along then. As you mentioned, Chancellor Tzetzas has extensive interests in enterprises dedicated to the upbuilding of the State and the furtherance of the designs of Spirit of Man. Perhaps you could arrange a loan."

observe.

* * *

. . . and a banker in a skullcap was handing over deeds in a small office richly paneled in Zanj ebony, eyes cold with distaste as Tzetzas riffled through them. The gaslights glittered on the elaborate seals.

"And with these as security, I'm sure the further loan to His Exaltedness will go through at, oh, half of prime." Silence, then: "Unless, Joshua, you feel that you should join your compatriots in buying the forced war bond? Granted that it pays no interest at all, but given the Church's position on nonbelievers . . . "

* * *

Stanson nudged his foot, less likely to be seen. "What's that funny shimmer in front of your eyes?" he said.

Shut up, Raj said mentally. Whispering: "Quiet."

The other Guardsman shrugged slightly; Raj knew Stanson thought—what was the phrase he'd used—that Raj Whitehall had a serious pickle up the ass, and was too freshly down from the Descott hills. And I think he's a fop who feels his birth puts him above discipline. Not that it would be wise to say it; Stanson had killed four men in duels, and Raj had better things to do with his time than learn how to be a duelist-gunman. Now, with a saber it might be interesting . . .

The next petitioners were complaining about the tax formers in their district; everyone expected them to squeeze—that was where their profit came from, the difference between what they bid for the district to the government and what they could collect from the populace—but these were supposedly stripping productive assets, not just money and goods.

observe.

* * *

A peasant stood in the furrows, watching gape-jawed as the tax-farmer's men walked away with the oxen, and the plow itself for good measure. A typical low country peon in a rough linen tunic of unbleached fabric, his beard reaching to his chest and half his teeth gone. Middle-aged even at the thirty he looked to be, with a burlap sack wrapped around his head against the gray slanting rain and more rags about his feet. The animals bawled in panic, their great brown eyes rolling. It must be a more than usually prosperous farm, to afford a team so sturdy. At the sound the peasant seemed to shake himself, take a few lumbering paces forward.

"'are!" he said. "'are, wait nu, Oi've t' barley t'git in, y'kenna tek—"

The leader of the tax collectors was mounted on a fine black Alsatian, fifteen hands at the shoulder, whose bridle did not include the usual steel-cage muzzle. He was armed as well, pistol and shotgun, but he made no move toward the weapons; the dog half-turned, baring finger-long teeth and rumbling like thunder in the deep chest. The peon stopped, well out of snapping range, and stood with his fists clenched in impotent rage. The mounted man rode closer, the dog's feet sinking deep in the wet plowed earth; then he leaned over and slashed the peasant across the face with his crop.

"Well, then tell your master to pay his taxes, you clod! The oxen first, and your brats next year. Twenty pieces of silver, or two hundred bushels of corn, or a bale of first-grade tobacco; that's the assessment on this plot."

Raj's lips tightened.

action by the Vice-Governor.

* * *

The tax collector, face covered with tears and mucus as soldiers cut him down from the flogging triangle. Wagons unloading china and silverware at a small manor house, with the squire's lady bustling about giving sharp-voiced directions:

"Watch tha clod feet, ninny! Like enough half is stolen nor broke already!"

Movement: the peasant looking up, an incredulous gap-toothed grin on his face as he dropped the rope over his shoulder and ran toward the gravel-surfaced road where gendarmes lead his plow team. He had been pulling the plow, his wife beside him, shapeless in her rags with a face as wrinkled as a winter apple, and a half-grown boy holding the handles.

action by the Chancellor.

* * *

Nothing but the peasant's face, bent beside his wife's as they strained against the ropes. Their breathing sounded deep and labored, and their feet made wet sucking sounds as they came free of the mud, carrying twenty-pound lumps at each step.

* * *

Barholm made a slight gesture, the usher said, "Take your petition to the Honorable Chancellor, good sirs."

The next two petitions were for leave to exercise eminent domain; one for an ox-powered railway to bring marble to the coast, down on the Kolobassa peninsula, another to build a reservoir and canal system on the edge of the southern desert, in the foothills of the Oxheads. Both approved, and sent to the Minister of Writs and Sessions. Real action, Raj thought dryly. Well, even Tzetzas can't steal everything.

"Your Exaltedness."

A crisp military bow from this man; in conservative landowner's Court dress, his plain blue robe showing the tips of riding boots polished but worn. There were places worn shiny on his belt, as well, where a holster and saber-tache would hook. A thin eagle face, black eyes above high cheeks and a nose hooked enough for a Colonist or a Descotter. The usher brayed:

"Messer Mustaf Agrood Naxim, Hereditary Watch-keeper of Deep Fountain, County of Sna Barbra."

Raj pricked up a soldier's ears. That was on the upper Drangosh River, far to the southeast, not a hundred kilometers from Sandoral. On the border of territory controlled by the Colony, and yes, the man had the look of a borderer.

"My lord," Naxim said briskly. "The blessings of the Spirit of Man of the Stars be upon you." The border folk were notoriously orthodox. "Your wisdom—and that of His Supremacy, of course—is our shield. Yet Your Exaltedness cannot be everywhere, and it is my duty to tell you that your servants have been shamefully neglectful on the frontiers of my county. Within the last year, two villages on my lands alone . . ."

"Bandits are your responsibility, man," Barholm said impatiently.

Naxim lowered his eyes and continued. "My lord, these are no bandits, they are regular troops of the Colony and household retainers of Colonial noblemen, acting under orders. They brought artillery on the last raid! My lord, they burn and kill and carry off free folk as slaves. They trample the irrigation canals and cut down orchards to let in the desert! Those farmers are Your Exaltedness's barrier against the Muslim, and . . ."

"And you are authorized to fortify your manors and raise a militia for exactly that purpose," Barholm said. "The Civil Government remits taxes to the extent of . . . how much?"

The Minister of Finance turned to confer with his aids. Tzetzas' voice came smooth as water over tile in a courtyard garden. "To the extent . . . this is for the County of Sna Barbra alone, Your Exaltedness . . . of fifty thousand silver credits annually. That is the land tax; adding in the loss of the hearth tax, poll tax, salt monopoly, excise tax, water rates, billeting and tax-in-kind for garrisons, assumption tax . . . as much again, my lord."

"Well." Barholm sat back, steepling his fingers.

Naxim's eyes closed, and his lips moved in prayer for a moment. "Your Exaltedness, Sna Barbra—and the other border counties—finance from their own resources ten battalions, mounted and armed, the beacon system . . ."

"And yet you come whining to Us for help at the least trouble."

"My lord, we can deal with bandits, bedouin, even the amirs of the over-frontier, even the ghazi fanatics who come from all over the Colony to plague us . . . but we cannot deal with the regular armies of the Settler!"

"Take your petition to the Chancellor," Barholm continued coldly. "If further detachments of regular troops must be sent to the southeast, then the tax remittances must be reconsidered or altered. There are many calls on Our resources." Naxim bowed silently—

observe.

* * *

Naxim sat a lean-muzzled riding dog with a sand-colored coat, on a ridge overlooking a broad dry valley. Behind him were nearly a thousand troops; not regulars, but well-equipped and looking as tough as any Raj had seen, riding the same long-legged mongrels as the nobleman. Many wore turbans, with veils drawn across their faces, most were in long billowing robes, but a Star medallion gleamed on every chest, and there was a Hierarch Starpriest riding at Naxim's side. The snowpeaks of the Oxhead Mountains towered behind, floating on the horizon.

"Lord Naxim," the priest was saying, pointing down the rocky slopes. "You cannot let the infidel pass!" There was a growl from the men behind him, a clank and rustle of equipment, whines from the mounts.

An army was passing below, an army in scarlet and green, with the crescent banner of Islam before it. Ordered ranks of dog-dragoons under their regimental flags, infantry in solid blocks around the ox wagons of the supply column. Couriers dashed about on light agile Dobermans, and a galloper-battery of one-powder quick firing guns clattered along, drawn by Ridgebacks.

"I cannot stop them," Naxim said, slowly beating one gloved hand on his thigh. "They come twenty thousand strong."

"You could harry them, ambush their foragers . . ."

"As we have done before," Naxim growled. He spat on the sandy ground. "When we had support from the regulars. Where are they now? Drunk in barracks and pissing out our taxes! Should we leave our homes to be burnt and flee to the hills, when it will accomplish nothing?"

A rumble of assent came from the armed men. The priest bent his head and wept, clutching his medallion.

* * *

"The Ambassadors of the Free Canton of the Halvardi!"

Barholm crooked a finger; Raj leaned forward, whispering. "Lord, they're the eastern mountain tribe, the one that controls the best passes through to the Skinners in the northern steppes. And for the Skinners to come south, southwest into the Peninsula, southeast into the Colony."

The Vice-Governor nodded, and smiled affably at the dozen or so barbarians grouped before him. It was obvious even at a dozen meters that they greased their hair with butter, and never washed it; the hair was mostly blond, and both sexes wore it in long braids that fell to their waists on either side. They were dressed in jackets and pants of cowhide, adorned with horns and feathers and beads, draped about with enough edged weapons to arm a company, although they had been persuaded to leave the crossbows and halberds outside the Hall. Two brought a litter heaped with gifts forward; round yellow cheeses, wood carvings, small cedar kegs of beer, and some spectacularly beautiful fercat pelts, pure white and a meter long.

A shaman capered before them, waving a cross and ceremonial wooden house with a small jeweled bird within; he chanted, an eerie nasal kuku-kuku that sent not a few hands reaching for their amulets. The Supreme Hierarch Starpriest glared from the midst of a group of her ecclesiastical bureaucrats, but tradition and treaty kept foreigners not settled in the Civil Government outside the Church's jurisdiction. A hired diplomat paced beside the horn-helmed figure of the Halvardi chieftain, and he was a citizen, conspicuously holding a Star medallion to show he had not been tainted by his employers.

The Halvardi chief bowed slightly, raised both hands and began to chant: the hired diplomat translated line for line from Zvetchietz, the mountain tongue. To Raj it had a monotonous sameness, a hburni-burni-hrji sound endlessly repeated.

hburni-burni-hrji

"—Lizsauroid-Slayer Fren-kel, chief of the Houses of the Halvardi—"

hburni-burni-hrji

"greets the Great Chief of the Rich Houses—"

An aside: "Such is their rude way of acknowledging Your Exaltedness" hburni-burni-hrji

"—thanks him for the continued ah—" he glanced aside at the Halvardi, who evidently knew the Sponglish of civilization, or at least enough to keep a translation honest "—tribute for barring the passes against Skinner raiding parties—"

hburni-burni-hrji

"and also for the additional bribes to allow the Skinners through to burn and pillage the Colonist territories around Lake Quofur—"

hburni-burni-hrji

"which they have done. However—"

hburni-burni-hrji

"Jamal, the Settler of the Colony—"

All the Halvardi spat at the name, and the watching ushers winced.

"—has sworn to send an army into the mountains—"

hburni-burni-hrji

"kill or castrate every Halvardi of fighting age—"

hburni-burni-hrji

"—and seize the passes for Islam. Worse, he is sending—"

hburni-burni-hrji

"his one-eyed general Tewfik to do it."

hburni-burni-hrji

"In which case—"

hburni-burni-hrji

"—you had better do something yourself."

Barholm frowned. "You," he said, addressing the diplomat. "Are you empowered to negotiate?"

"Yes, Your Exaltedness, provided that the chief and his council agree and finalize it," he said. A grimace. "The shaman has to cut open a sheep, too." He made a gesture that anyone around Court knew, thumb and two fingers rubbed together: bribe him.

"Take them over to the Minister of War," Barholm said decisively. "This is serious." He signed to the usher.

"This audience is at an end!" the megaphone bellowed. "All hail, his Exaltedness, Vice-Governor Barholm!"

* * *

"Be seated, gentlemen. My dear," Barholm added to his wife Anne.

The conference room dated to the reign of Negrin III, three centuries before; the walls were pale stone, delicately painted with scenes of reeds and flying dactlysaroids and birds, daringly unreligious unless you counted the single obligatory star up in one corner. The conference table was a relic of preFall days, a long oval of plastic that no force known to modern man could scratch or scar. Raj seated himself at the end furthest from the Vice-Governor, nodding to Anne with a smile. She responded with one of her own, cool and enigmatic. Anne, Lady Clerett, was a tall woman, an inch or so taller than her husband, and from her figure she had kept up the dancer's training. In her thirties, but with an ageless look; long dark-red hair that fell to her waist, braided with silver, conservatively dressed in wide pleated trousers and tunic of maroon silk that set off the green of her eyes.

You could see how she had captivated a younger Barholm; it took a closer acquaintance to understand how she had maintained that hold, gone from kept courtesan to official mistress to Church-wedded wife, despite all the cries of scandal and political liability. Raj remembered her on the Plaza Balcony, during the riots, standing calmly and looking down at the sea of upturned faces; he had stood beside her, in an agony of indecision over whether he should force her within. Then she had raised her glass to the crowd and laughed, while torches and bricks fell short and the occasional bullet spanged off the ornamental stonework.

She'd smiled at him then, too, as she turned and walked back into the dubious safety of the Palace. Smiled, and said: "I always did perform best with an enthusiastic audience." Laughing at the shock on his face . . . She was a very good friend of Raj's wife, Suzette, who was still the only lady of rank who would receive her. Raj suspected that social blockade would be broken with a ruthlessness even greater than that of the society matrons, when Barholm ascended his uncle's Chair. There were weapons sharper than a snub, and Anne would have no hesitation whatsoever in using them.

"Lady Anne," he murmured. This was a semi-formal occasion; greetings went from most junior to the second-senior present. Then to the others, the men with formal power: "General Klostermann." Commander of Eastern Forces, the second-most important field command. Commander of Residence Area Forces was the most important, of course. Which was why the Vice-Governor kept it firmly in his own hands. "Chancellor Tzetzas." Lidded eyes and perfect courtesy. "Captain Stanson." A brisk nod. "And Delegate Hortanz." The hired diplomat of the Halvardi.

Servants ghosted in, set out trays of wine, kave, nibblements on trays, left with the silent self-effacement of the Palace staff. A military aide brought the big relief-map and spread it out on the table; such were a priceless asset of the Civil Government's military, rivaled only in the Colony and unknown elsewhere.

"Well, there it is," General Klostermann said sourly, when Barholm had nodded the meeting open for business. He was a middle-aged man, weathered by the savage winters and summer heat of his command. There were deep crinkles beside the slanted hazel eyes that looked out the gallery windows, down into a courtyard of fountains and flowerbeds. "Tewfik's closer to the Halvardi than I am, and they've got the farmlands around Lake Quofur to draw on. He can reinforce and we can't, and that's the truth. If we'd kept the roads up better . . ."

Tzetzas frowned. "General," he said quietly, "the Civil Government's resources are limited, though one would wish otherwise. One inquires if the distinguished general would prefer to have roads and no pay for his troops?"

"That's late often enough," Klostermann said. "My lord." Turning to Barholm, "Your Exaltedness, perhaps we could send the Halvardi a subsidy; arms, maybe, or some engineering officers to fortify the passes?"

Barholm leaned back and sipped moodily at his kave. He looked down at the cup, blinked. "No, we don't want to make the Halvardi stronger, we want to keep them dependent on us. Klostermann, surely we could send something in the way of troops?"

"Ah, your Exaltedness . . . well, perhaps a couple of companies of Daud's Dragoons?"

Tzetzas laughed. "One is confident they would feel at home, being mostly barbarians themselves."

The general visibly forced himself not to scowl at the Chancellor, who was not a safe man to antagonize. "They may be irregulars, but they can ride and shoot."

"Not fast enough to stop the sort of force Tewfik will bring," Stanson said, prodding at the map.

"Ah, if something could be sent, relations with the Halvardi could be improved considerably," Delegate Hortanz said. He made a refined gesture. "In which case, the, ahh, subsidy for this year could be forgone . . . perhaps distributed to worthier causes?" His eyes crossed Chancellor Tzetzas', a byplay lost on none of the others.

Raj looked down at the map. It showed the eastern portions of the Midworld Sea and the western provinces of the Colony, the lands of civilization. The Civil Government held the thumb-shaped peninsula on the northeastern shore, and areas to the north and south; they shaded out into vaguely tributary provinces inhabited mostly by tribal peoples. The mapmaker had been remarkably optimistic; the Skinners, for example, were listed as "vassal tribes."

Outer Dark, they have enough trouble getting on with each other, he thought. To business. The southern edge of the peninsula ended in the Oxhead Mountains, running inland from the sea to the deserts and the headwaters of the Drangosh; the fortress-city of Sandoral stood at the head of navigation. Southward and eastward were the deserts. Colonial lands, centering on the rich irrigated districts of Drangosh delta and the city of Al-Kebir. Rich and anciently civilized, the first parts of Bellevue to be settled.

observe.

* * *

Center's holograms overlaid the map with other projections: force ratios, roads and their conditions, march-times.

tewfik will also find it difficult to shift forces to the northeast, Center continued. A line traced up from Al-Kebir, then east into the rocky highlands of Gederosia and north through difficult country to the great oasis around Lake Quofur. it will strain their grain and dogmash supplies, and the heavy ordnance is in their capital, tewfik's own army of the south is still near hammamet, resting and refitting from the zanj wars.

"Ahh, my lord?" Raj said. Barholm looked up quickly. "My lord, it occurs to me that we're reacting to what the Colony threatens. We should be making them react to us."

Raj was uneasily conscious of Tzetzas' level gaze, of the throttled impatience of Klostermann, like a hard knot in his stomach. To the Outer Dark with Klostermann, he thought. He hasn't won so much as a skirmish in twenty years. Few Governors wanted too able a general in command of so many experienced and mobile troops.

"Tell us something that the manuals don't," the general said.

"Well, to secure the Halvardi passes, Tewfik would have to bring up most of their field army from the lower Drangosh, and then call out the amirs and their ghazis along the way through Gederosia." That was tough highland country, much like Descott, and contributed soldiers rather than taxes to the Settler. "Then they'd link up with the garrison forces around Lake Quofur and move west . . . and if they did take the passes, it'd put them in a position to move on Novy Haifa." His finger tapped the map at the extreme northeast corner of the peninsula, where the coastline turned north to form the eastern shore of Pierson's Sea.

Tzetzas winced slightly; Raj remembered that the Chancellor's family had tobacco plantations in the area, and interests in the grain and hide trade up into the steppe country. Barholm nodded.

"Well, how do we stop them?"

"We make them afraid of an invasion by us," Raj said, keeping his features immobile and cursing the sheen of sweat on his forehead.

For a moment Raj could not tell whose objections were making the most noise; Barholm pounded a fist on the table for silence, and glared at the young Guardsman in the quiet that followed. "Are you serious, Whitehall?" he asked. "I took you into the guard because you could think, not because I wanted a hillman fireater."

Raj swallowed. "Perfectly serious, my lord. I didn't say we should invade the Colony: I said we should make them think that we're going to."

He looked down at the map again, blinking. It was still a little unsettling, seeing the physical reality of the parchment overlain with the shining colored lights of Center's projection, moving unit-counters to Raj's command and finger-tip.

"First, we tie down the Colonist forces in the northeast."

"How?" Klostermann said sharply.

Raj looked up, and smiled with an expression copied from the Chancellor's cool malice. "Bribe the Skinners," he said flatly. Barholm grunted in interest and leaned forward, his eyes locked on the map. "And the Halvardi, to let them through. It's going on for harvest in the Quofur country, good pickings . . . ten thousand gold FedCreds ought to do it, to the Shefdetowt of the Bekwa and Traryvier tribes. That'll bring a couple of thousand warriors down from the steppe at least; or we could give part of it in powder, shot, and cartridges, even better."

"I hate to let those savages through into civilized country," Klostermann said. Raj found himself joining all the others present in staring at the older man; his eyes met the Vice-Governor's, and Raj knew they shared a thought. He's been out in the bundu too long.

"Five thousand gold," Tzetzas said decisively. "Half in cash, half in munitions." A quirk of the lips, half-hidden behind a hand. "One must remember these savages are not accustomed to East Residence prices."

You'd think it came out of his own pocket, Raj thought. Then: Well, it does, in a manner of speaking.

"Then we make demonstration raids all along the southern border," Raj continued. His finger traced an arc from Ty-Och in the west to Sandoral in the east.

"That'll be like sticking your dicks into a hornet's nest!" Klostermann half-shouted. Then, turning to Anne, "Begging your Ladyship's pardon."

"Granted," she said dryly, raising a sealion ivory cigarette holder to her lips and puffing.

"You'll set the whole bloody border aflame!" the general continued.

Raj remembered the petitioners. "It's already bloody aflame, you idiot! On our side!" His hand swept along the dotted line on the map. "If we let them think we're softening them up for an attack, they'll have to concentrate their forces. Which means they'll have to draw into places with enough food surplus to support large bodies of men and dogs; pull in their horns and group at the riverbank fortress-cities."

"Enough." They all looked up: the Vice-Governor had settled back in his chair, resting his chin on one fist. His orders rapped out, clear and decisive; it was no accident that Barholm Clerett had held the reins of power in East Residence for more than a decade. "We'll send the five thousand to the Skinners: Tzetzas, coordinate with the Ministry of Barbarians and see to it." A hot black glare. "And I want it done, Tzetzas, understood? None of your little games now. This isn't the time for them."

The Chancellor bowed with hand on heart. Barholm continued. "General Klostermann, you'll mobilize your forces, down to the infantry rabble, and deploy strong blocking forces in the passes over the Oxheads, leaving enough to cover the Halvardi if necessary—and to keep those devils of Skinners in line, remind them which direction they're supposed to go."

"Whitehall, Stanson," he went on. "You'll each take one battalion of Residence Area cavalry—pick as you please—with appropriate guns and supporting elements, and proceed east to the fortress-city of Komar. You'll take command there and use it as base for the demonstration raids. Kill and burn, chop up any Colonist units you can, make them think we've gone out of our minds. Oh, and don't leave a mosque standing, I've got that Outer Dark cursed ecclesiastical synod to oversee and I'd better show some zeal. Tzetzas, further orders to the Ministry of War, to General Heartwell in Sandoral. Probing attacks down the river and into the farm country to the southeast; maximum devastation, and I want to see some worthwhile loot, prisoners from the Settler's Regulars, and captured guns."

He stood. "Is that clear, gentlemen?"

Hard, Raj thought, as they all rose and bowed. Barholm's a hard man . . . but brittle. Cool decisiveness now; it was difficult to remember the Vice-Governor's hours of trembling panic during the riots. He shrugged mentally; there were plenty of men who could handle physical danger, the immediate and unexpected challenge, but who froze when they had to make the big decisions. Barholm's weaknesses were tolerable ones in a Governor, as long as he had a staff to handle the pressures he could not. And Lady Clerett; Anne has backbone enough for two.

"Dismissed. Not you, Whitehall."

The Vice-Governor's manner changed completely as soon as the door closed behind the last of the men. "Good work, Raj," he said, coming around the table and slapping the younger man on the shoulder. "Damned good work. We're not ready for a real war yet, Tzetzas is still filling the treasury, but by the Spirit this'll put the fear of civilization into that ragheaded wog bastard Jamal."

He handed Raj a glass, raised his own. "To victory!"

"To victory," Anne murmured. Raj became conscious of her with a slight start as she rose and came to stand beside her husband, laying an arm around his waist. It was amazing how self-effacing she could be at need; part of her theatrical training, he supposed.

"And," Barholm said, "good work taking care of the Poplanich matter. Smooth, getting him going on those trips with you before you dropped the axe. Very smooth." Anne was nodding and smiling in a way which nearly blanked out the undertow of attraction nearly every male felt in her presence. Spirit of Man, if I woke up with that on my shoulder I'd gnaw my arm off to get free without waking her, Raj thought in horrified fascination.

Aloud, he managed, "Ahh, I'm sure I don't know what you mean, sir."

Barholm laughed aloud, jovial and proud. "And they say we Descott men are bluff and simple!" He gave Raj an elaborate wink. "To be sure, the dirty little traitor—" for a moment his face twisted, then settled back into man-to-man good nature "—just happened never to come back. To be sure. Well, I won't keep you from your duties, Raj. A young man who'll go far, eh, m'dear?"

As Raj bowed salute Anne gave him a slow nod and another smile.

deadlier than the male, Center observed.

The young man felt the skin between his shoulder-blades ripple slightly as he turned to go.





Share with your friends:
1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9   ...   35




The database is protected by copyright ©essaydocs.org 2020
send message

    Main page