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CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

Roger bowed to the king and presented his documentation as a member of the Imperial Family. The piece of paper was in Standard English, utterly unintelligible to the locals, and he had no idea if it was a protocol that they observed. But the king looked it over, and it was certainly impressive enough with its gold lettering and vermillion seals. He handed it back after several moments, and Roger launched into his prepared speech.


"Your Majesty," he said, throwing back his head and interlacing his hands behind him. "We visit you from a distant land. In our land we have come far in the areas of technology, the knowledge of making things, yet we continue to seek more knowledge of all aspects of the world, and that search often takes us upon long journeys. We set out on such a voyage of discovery, but our ship was blown far off course, and we crashed on the eastern shores of this land."


Eleanora O'Casey stood back and watched the prince's performance. The toot seemed to be adequately translating the speech into the clicks and growls of the local dialect. It was impossible to be certain without any reliable native to return the translation, but Roger had tried most of it out on Cord, who had pronounced it fit, so it should be okay. At least so far there'd been none of the laughs or grimaces which were normal signs of a flop.


"The eastern shores are beyond the high mountains," Roger continued, gesturing out the windows which ringed the throne room. The room was near the pinnacle of the citadel, and had high windows on every side to catch the breezes. It was, for Marduk, remarkably cool and comfortable, with a temperature that couldn't have been much over thirty degrees Standard.


The throne itself was elevated and elaborately carved out of some lustrous wood. The room was paneled in carefully contrasting multihued and grained woods, and each panel was itself a work of art. The panels depicted scenes of everyday Mardukan life, alternating with images of the various gods and demons of the local pantheon. Given the monsters the local wildlife gave the natives as models, the demons were particularly good.


It was a beautiful and obviously expensive display, and, just as clearly, no expense was spared for the security of the king. The walls were lined with guards in the same leather apron armor as the ones who'd escorted the humans to the palace, but this armor was reinforced in strategic spots by plates of bronze. And instead of clubs, these guards carried spears that were nearly three meters long. Those spears were apparently designed not only for stabbing, but also for slashing, given the keen edges of their broad, meter-long heads.


"We traveled over those mountains," Roger was continuing, "for we do not share your form or your desire for damp and heat, and met upon the edge of them with my good friend and companion, D'Nal Cord. He has since guided us to your beautiful kingdom, where it is our desire to trade and prepare for a great journey."


The prince had a deep, rich baritone which had been trained (often over his strenuous objections) as an oratorical instrument, and it seemed the Mardukans responded to oratory in many of the same ways humans did. O'Casey had begun to develop a feel for Mardukan body language, and the speech had so far evoked a positive response. Which was good, because Roger was about to shock them.


"We know little of your lands, but we do know a place where a trading mission from our own land exists. It is a long journey from here, which will take many, many months. And it will take us through the lands of the Kranolta."


The group of Mardukan nobles gathered at the audience began to buzz with conversation, and there were occasional grunting laughs, but the king simply looked grim.


"This is sad news," he said, leaning forward in the throne. His son, sitting on a stool at his feet, on the other hand, looked very excited at the pronouncement. But he was young. "You know that the Kranolta are a vast and fierce tribe?"


"Yes, Your Majesty." Roger nodded gravely. "Nonetheless, we must pass through that region. Far to the northwest lies an ocean we must reach. I have spoken with Cord, and he tells me that most of your trade goes to the south. As you know, the ocean in that direction lies several months' journey further away. We . . . don't have that much time."


"But the Kranolta are fierce and numerous," Xyia Kan's son put in. He glanced at the team of armored Marines, and tapped his half-hand fingers nervously.


Roger had been surprised by the amount of backstage negotiations which had gone on to set up this meeting. Pahner and O'Casey had been up half the night negotiating with the local equivalent of the palace chamberlain about who was going to be allowed into the king's presence.


The problem was the guards.


Pahner wasn't about to let Roger wander into the king's presence without at least a squad of guards. First of all, it wasn't done. A member of the Imperial Family didn't meet with a barbarian king without some retainers. But even more to the point, there was no reason at all to trust the monarch, so both protocol and sense dictated having guards in attendance. But the locals were no dummies. It was clear that the town was highly factionalized, and the king had long since mandated specific limits on the number of guards permitted in his presence.


Commoners and merchants weren't allowed to bring guards or weapons of any form into the royal presence. Nor were members of the lesser houses of the city-state. The heads of the Great Houses who made up the town council could each bring up to three guards, but no more than fifteen total as a group. Since the council numbered fifteen, it had become the custom for each counselor to bring a single guard as a token of his status. Which meant that Pahner's insistence that it was impossible for the prince to travel with less than eight guards was a major sticking point.


The number finally settled on was five, and despite the stubbornness with which he'd held out for eight, Pahner had to admit that Roger in armor and Julian with his Bravo Team, also fully armored up, probably had the king's guard outnumbered.


Hell, they probably had all of Q'Nkok outnumbered!


"Even with your fierce guardians and your powerful weapons, you will surely be overwhelmed," the king commented now, in apparent agreement with his son.


"Nonetheless," Roger said grimly, "it is to the north we must go. We will try to make peace with the Kranolta." He shook his head and clapped his hands by his waist in an attempt to replicate the Mardukan version of a shrug. "But if they will not have peace, then we will give them war to the knife."


The king clapped his upper arms and grunted in agreement.


"I wish you luck. Well it would be to be rid of the Kranolta. They have never attacked this side of the mountains. Indeed, they have been much weaker in my generation than in my father's. But the mere fear of them keeps many traders from coming up the river. Any aid we can give you will be proffered."


He looked around the throne room and grunted again.


"And speaking of war to the knife, I fear that I know why D'Nal Cord is back so soon." The words were strong, but the intent appeared to be friendly. "Come forward, counselor and brother of my friend Delkra, and tell me what transgression has brought you from your beloved forest hell this time."


Cord strode forward gravely, and raised his hands towards the monarch.


"Xyia Kan, I greet you in the name of The People and the name of my sibling D'Net Delkra. I bring sad tidings of continued cutting beyond the Treeline. Further, much of the last shipments of spears and javelin heads have been of unacceptable quality. I am deeply grieved to inform you that my nephew and apprentice D'Net Deltan was killed when the spear he was using snapped. It was of inferior quality, or he would still be alive."


The shaman stepped forward and carefully withdrew a reversed spearhead from his cloak. He handed it to the king, who examined it with care. On the surface, it appeared to be good iron, but one tap on the arm of the throne revealed the rotten tone of poorly smelted material, and Xyia Kan's expression was grim as he set it down and gestured for Cord to continue.


"This has gone beyond the pale." The shaman clapped his hands emphatically. "There is now a blood debt." He clasped his hands gravely and looked at the floor.


"I am now . . . asi to this young prince. I go with him on his quest to reach Far Voitan and the fabled lands beyond. I shall not be here to see the results if this is not resolved quickly and clearly." He looked up again and clacked his teeth in anger. "But, yes, I would think that if the words sent back are once again simple platitudes and promises that it will indeed be war to the knife.


"And the burning of Q'Nkok will rise to the sky to mingle with fallen Voitan's."


 


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