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The city-state was a larger version of the village of The People and was obviously expanding. The company had followed the river from Cord's village downstream to its junction with a still larger river, and the city sat on a small ridge on the eastern side of the new one. The ridge was near the apex of the confluence of the two streams and more or less covered with structures. A wooden palisade surrounded the intersection, but the palisade was obviously a temporary expedience, and several sections of it had already been replaced with a high stone curtain wall. It was nearing evening as the travelers came to the cleared boundary of the city-state's lands, and the sky over the town was gray with the smoke of the evening's fires.

The jungle ended with knife-sharp abruptness at the border of the city-state's territory. The stream that marked the boundary was the fourth one they'd crossed, but this crossing had significant differences from any of the earlier ones.

On the west side of the stream—the "civilized" side—there were large mounds every few hundred yards. They were surmounted by oddly constructed houses, and more mounds and houses were scattered throughout the valley of fields and orchards. The houses had no lower-floor doorways, and the upper floors extended out to overhang the walls of the lower sections, which were very stoutly constructed. For the life of him, Roger couldn't figure out why they were designed that way, but from their placement, they were clearly intended to defend the fields.

Also scattered along the banks of the irrigation ditches and poor roads were very simple huts. Compared to them, the huts of Cord's village were masterpieces. These were more stacks of barleyrice straw than true dwellings, and Roger was fairly sure they were temporary shelter for the peasants who worked the land. No doubt they were expected to wash away with the regular seasonal floods, for they could certainly be "rebuilt"—if that wasn't too grand a term—easily enough.

The cultivation of barleyrice took up the majority of the several square kilometers of cleared land. Unlike Terran rice, it was dry farming, and Roger thought it might be a tradable grain in the Empire. It was as easy to prepare as rice but had more and better taste, and if it lacked some amino acids, so did rice. Combined with the proper terrestrial foods, it would provide a balanced diet.

It was clear that the single biggest difficulty in cultivating the grain around Q'Nkok wasn't the jungle, but rains and floods. Most of the fields, especially in the lower areas near the river, were surrounded by dikes intended to keep water out, not in. Lifting pumps, like a sort of reverse waterwheel, were everywhere, pulling water out of depressions cut into the corners of the fields. Some were driven by peasants pushing circle wheels, but most were attached to crude windmills.

What was not evident were reasonably sized domestic animals. As they emerged from the jungle, they'd seen a line of what Cord identified as pack beasts entering the distant city, and Roger, along with several of the Marines, had used his helmet to zoom in on the large creatures. They'd been surprised, for the beasts were apparently identical to the flar beast which had threatened Cord. When Roger commented on it, Cord had responded with a grunting laugh and indicated that although the pack beasts, which he called flar-ta, might look the same as the creature he called flar-ke, which Roger had killed, there were huge differences between the two obviously related species.

The peasants who worked the grain were scattered throughout the area, weeding and planting. Some were done for the day and were drifting back to their dwellings, whether those were the temporary huts, the blockhouses near the jungle, or the distant town, when they spotted the travelers' approach and slowed abruptly.

As the humans followed the twisting roads towards the town, the crowd of workers became thicker. Some who'd gone ahead turned and retraced their steps, and others looked up from the fields and began to flow towards the roadside. Pahner had started to get a feel for Mardukan body language, and he didn't care for the hostile looks and gestures thrown their way. Nor did he like the occasional, half-understood insults . . . or the way one or two of them waved agricultural implements.

The hostility seemed to be directed more towards Cord and Delkra's sons than at the humans, although the strangers came in for some heaped abuse, as well, and as the crowd grew larger, its mood got uglier. By the time they neared the city walls, a large mob had gathered, and more people flowed out from inside the walls to join it. Shouts and the local equivalent of catcalls grew louder and bolder, and Pahner recognized a building riot with the Marines as its object.

"Company, pull in. I want a coil perimeter around Roger. Standard riot procedure. Armor to the front, link arms. Second layer, fix bayonets and prepare to repel rioters."

The Marines responded with automatic precision, folding the spread-out formation in which they'd been moving into a circle around the command group. Julian's armored squad moved to the section of road facing the city and passed their weapons back. The ChromSten-clad powered armor was capable of lifting five times its own weight, and no known Mardukan weapon could damage it, so mere weapons would only have been in the way for riot work.

The poorly graded road was about ten meters wide and bordered by high dikes, which allowed the coil formation to block it like a cork. The group at the Marines' back was relatively small—no more than fifty or sixty individuals. For it to join with the larger group spilling from the city, it would have to trample the growing crops to either side of the road. That balked them, since farmers tended to care about such things. A few of them rushed the rear ranks instead, trying to break through, and they went over the line from crowding to attacking. The bayonets protruding over the wall of Marines in the rearmost rank drove them back despite their large size. One Marine was badly injured by a threshing flail that cracked his clavicle, but his companions beat the Mardukans back without being forced to open fire.

At the front, the armored squad stymied the movement of the mob from the city. The newcomers obviously weren't farmers, for they were far more ready to spread out over the fields, but they were also less aggressive than the group at the rear. They threw a few stones, but their main weapon was lumps of fecal matter. The armored Marines quickly learned to dodge the stinking projectiles after one of the first hit Poertena. His sulphurous comments were a clear violation of his orders from the sergeant major, but she forbore to point that out, and some of them were so accidentally accurate it was hilarious.

Unfortunately, the situation was a stalemate. The town-dwellers couldn't get past Julian's squad, but neither could the Marines get past them without employing a level of force guaranteed to cause serious Mardukan casualties. Pahner was tempted to do just that as the rain of stones and other matter became denser, but killing or crippling several dozen members of the local citizenry, whatever the provocation, would scarcely endear them to the Q'Nkokans with whom they'd come to trade.

On the other hand, the rioters or protesters or whatever the hell they were were creating sufficient bedlam that whoever was responsible for maintaining what passed for civil order in the city could hardly fail to figure out something was going on outside his front door. Which ought to mean that any minute now—

A group of Mardukan guards suddenly emerged from the city. They were the first Mardukans the Marines had seen wearing any clothing, and even Roger recognized it as armor.

The leather armor was worn like a long apron, open at the back, and doubled in critical spots over the chest and at the shoulders. It stretched from shoulder to knee, painted with a complex heraldic device, and each guard also carried a large, round shield with an iron boss.

Their weapons were long clubs, apparently designed for riot work, not swords or spears, and they waded in with abandon. They didn't maintain any sort of formation. Each simply found a rioter to attack and charged, and the mob scattered away from them like pigeons from hawks, running out into the fields and back around the knot of soldiers into the town.

The guards paid no attention to those who ran away, concentrating instead on any who stood and fought or didn't run away fast enough. Those laggards were brutally beaten down with the long, heavy-headed clubs, and the guards seemed to have no compunction about the use of deadly force. Their weapons might not be edged, but when they were done, at least one of the rioters was obviously dead. His head had been split like a melon, but the guards showed no particular concern as they dragged the corpse—and several other inert bodies, most of which were probably simply unconscious—off the road before they gathered back together between the Marines and the city gate.

Cord passed through the cordon of Marines to approach the regrouped guards, trailed by Roger and a couple of nephews. Pahner rolled his eyes as the prince followed the shaman, then signaled Despreaux to take a group with him. She snapped her fingers at Alpha Team, and the six Marines chased after the prince as Cord approached the apparent leader of the group of guards—or the one who had been shouting the most, at least—and nodded.

"I am D'Nal Cord of the Tribe. I come to speak to your king on matters of treaty."

"Yeah, yeah," the guard answered surlily. "We greet you and all that." He looked at the Marines following Cord and snorted. "Where'd you find the basik? You could feed a family on one of these!"

At those words, Roger stopped abruptly. It hadn't occurred to him that although the Mardukans were no more cannibalistic than humans, they might not put humans in the same category as "people." He'd intended to make his own announcement along with Cord, but the guard's suggestion made that seem . . . less attractive, somehow.

"I am asi to their leader," Cord said definitively. "Thus they are bonded to my tribe and should be accorded the same privileges as The People."

"Oh, I don't know," the guard leader argued. "They seem like regular visitors, so they should fall under trader's rules. Besides, no more than ten of you barbs are permitted in the city at the same time."

"Hey," another guard put in, "let's not be hasty, Banalk! If you consider them traders, does that mean we don't get to eat them after all?"

He meant it as a joke—probably—Roger thought, but Pahner had been monitoring the conversation through a feed off of Sergeant Despreaux and decided that it was time to nip this particular discussion in the bud. He looked around for something relatively useless and found it quickly. The hills that supported the town were igneous basoliths, ancient granite extrusions from a deep magma rift. Their surroundings had slowly worn away until the erosion reached the stony outcrops, but although the refractory granite was much more weather resistant than the soil around, it still tended to crack and fissure over time. That had produced large boulders that congregated at the base of the hill, which the locals had dragged away from the town's wooden palisade when it was erected. One such boulder was no more than a hundred meters from the road, in easy sight of the guards and the few bystanders who'd remained outside the walls.

"Despreaux." Pahner placed a targeting dot on the boulder. "Plasma rifle."

"Roger," the squad leader responded, spotting the dot in her own visor HUD, then waved her arms to get the attention of the arguing group.

"Excuse me," she said in a pleasant soprano. "We think this conversation has gone far enough."

She'd already relayed the targeting dot to Lance Corporal Kane, and now the slight blonde hefted her plasma rifle and triggered a single round.

The plasma bloom left a scorched track through the green corn of the field, but that was nothing compared to what it did to the boulder. It struck with an explosive whipcrack of sound, and the transmitted heat caused diffusive expansion through the meter and a half boulder that shattered it like an egg. Pieces flew in every direction, from head-sized lumps down to relatively fine gravel, some of which reached clear back to the roadway before it pattered to the ground.

As the last echo faded, the last bit of gravel plunked into silence, and Sergeant Nimashet Despreaux, Third Platoon, Bravo Company, turned back to a suddenly frozen and speechless group of guards and smiled.

"We don't care if you treat us as The People or as traders, but they won't find enough to bury of the next one who suggests eating us."


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