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Xyia Kan entered the audience chamber and ascended his throne. The Council had been summoned immediately at his insistence. And, also at his insistence, the single traditional armed retainer of each councilor had been stopped at the chamber door. The only visibly armed Mardukans present were his guards, lining either side of the room, where, at a single gesture from him, they could stop the intrigues that were plaguing him in their tracks forever.

And insure the end of his dynasty.

Once he was settled, he simply sat and looked at them. Just . . . sat. He let seconds tick by, then a full minute. Two minutes. Even the hardiest of his councilors looked away, confused and perplexed or confused and angry, depending upon their personalities and exactly how much they understood about the stakes for which they played, under the insulting weight of his baleful gaze. He felt the tension singing about him, but he made no move to break it until, finally and somewhat predictably, W'hild Doma burst with fury.

"Xyia Kan, I have a House to manage!" he snapped. "I don't have time for games. What is the meaning of this?"

Since Kan was particularly furious with the W'hild, he almost cracked. He wasn't furious because the house-leader had switched out good weapons in the tribute for bad. Among other things, if that had been done in the House W'hild, the monarch was virtually certain Doma was unaware of it. No, he was furious because Doma, whom he trusted to be both capable and loyal, had let someone sucker his House so thoroughly.

But he managed to not even flinch, simply looked at the fulminating W'hild and stared him down. Doma was hardly the sort to cower, but even his angry eyes finally fell under the unrelenting weight of Xyia Kan's, and the heavy silence returned until, finally, the king relented.

He leaned sideways and spat on the audience chamber floor.

"Women!" he snarled. His councilors, already simultaneously uncertain and angry, looked at one another in confusion, and he spat on the floor again.

"Women," he repeated. "All I see before me are stupid women!"

This time, there was no confusion. Fury at the carefully chosen insult overwhelmed any other emotion, and three or four of the councilors actually came to their feet. Fortunately, Xyia Kan had warned his guard captain, and his warriors' spears remained at their sides, but his own hands slammed down on the arms of his chair.

"Silence!" The pure venom of his wrath sliced through the shouted posturing of their outrage like a whetted spearhead. "Be seated!"

They sank back into their chairs, and he glowered at them.

"I've had another visit from D'Nal Cord. He will be leaving for good when the humans leave, for he is now asi to the human leader."

"Good!" W'hild shot back. "Maybe with Cord gone, Delkra will understand that we cannot control every peasant who sneaks into the forest!"

"Delkra will have our heads!" Kan snapped. "It has been Cord restraining his brother all along, you fools! Without him, the X'Intai will roll over us in a day! Either I must have more guards, or I must have command of the household guards in the event of an attack!"

"Never!" P'grid shouted. "If the barbarians attack, however unlikely that is, the Houses will provide for their own defense, as always. It is the duty of the King to protect the town as it is the duty of the House to protect itself. This is as it has always been!"

"In the past, we weren't looking at being overrun by the X'Intai! And if you think that after having a spearhead break and kill the son of Delkra, the protégé of Cord, that they are not going to attack, you are a greater fool than even I believe you can be!"

"Spearheads break," P'grid said with a grunt of laughter. "One less barbarian for you to lose sleep over."

"Especially spearheads like this!" the monarch snarled. He whipped out the offending weapon and hurled it at the floor, and it shattered, scattering splinters of iron among the councilors.

"Where did that come from?" Doma demanded sharply. "Not out of the last shipment!"

"Yes, Doma," the king retorted. "Out of the demon-cursed shipment. Your demon-cursed shipment. That you were responsible for! I ought to send the X'Intai your head!"

"I am not responsible for this!" the councilor shouted. "I shipped only the finest wrought iron spearheads. I took a loss!"

"Nevertheless," the king said flatly, "this is what the X'Intai received. And what killed Deltan. So if anyone has anything to say about this, now would be a good time!"

Again there was much glancing around, but none of the eye contact seemed to mean much. And not many of the eyes were willing to meet Kan's. Finally, Kesselotte J'ral clapped his false hands.

"What would you have us say, O King?" he asked. "Would any of us jeopardize this fair city? The city that is our home, as well as yours? What purpose would it serve?"

"Most of you would sell your mothers for a hunk of scrap bronze," the monarch hissed. "Get out of my sight. I doubt that we'll have another council meeting before the X'Intai come over the wall. And woe betide you then, for the gates of this citadel shall be shut against you!"

* * *

"—shall be shut against you!"

"Interesting," Pahner said. The video from the nanitter bug was extremely grainy. There was only so much any system can do with a nanometer of visual receiver, but the audio enhancement at the receiving end did a much better job with the sound. "Hmmm. 'It was an August evening and, in snowy garments clad . . .'"

The nanite transmitter resembled, in many respects, a very small insect. It could move itself, not just stay in one place, and this one had jumped from the spearhead Cord had given Xyia Kan to the king's ear. From there, it was party to every conversation the king had, and it had made it evident that the king was either on the level or a very good actor.

"I think he's serious." O'Casey wiped her face with a cloth that came away sopping with sweat. "I can think of a double-blind situation where he might be trying to crack the Great Houses through the threat of Cord's tribe, but I don't believe that's what he's trying for two reasons. First, he sounds awfully angry, and I don't think he's that good an actor. And second, even if he was, any attempt like that would be terribly risky. He'd have to have a second force available to act as the cavalry. Where is it?"

It was a particularly hot and muggy day and the room had both windows open to catch the breeze. One of Marduk's gully washers had just finished, and even the skeeters seemed to be sluggish as they struggled through the incredibly humid air.

"He could be collaborating with Cord's enemies," Kosutic suggested, tugging at an earlobe. "The other two tribes. The . . ." She paused to consult her toot and slapped at a bug. Her hand came away red. "Hah!"

"Dutak and Arnat," Roger said offhandedly. He was holding a bit of meat up, trying to teach the dog-lizard simple obedience. "Sit!"

It wasn't working. The dog-lizard measured the distance to the meat, the gravitational forces, and Roger's own reactions, and flashed out like a snake.

"Damn," Kosutic said with a laugh, wiping her hand on the tabletop. "Down another morsel, Your Highness?"

"Yeah," Roger said sourly. The animal was friendly enough, and seemed to be intelligent, but it was completely uninterested in learning tricks. It came when called, but not if too much time elapsed between treats. Although, even when it wasn't called, it followed Roger around most of the time now. When he went to the audience, it had been closed up in one of the smaller rooms and, from reports, none too happy about it. It had two vocalizations: a sort of hissing purr that it made when it was happy, and a battle-roar. The dog-lizard was still young, but its roar was already rather loud.

"You should name it," Kosutic told him. "Call it 'Bullseye.' "

"'Cause it's so accurate at taking bits from my hand?" Roger sounded testy.

"No, because one of these days you're gonna shoot it!"

"If we can get back to business?" Pahner suggested. "Sergeant Major, do you actually find it likely that Xyia Kan is collaborating with the other tribes?"

"Nope. That was more in the nature of brainstorming, Sir. I'm fairly sure that Cord or his brother has some intelligence on those tribes, and we should check that out with Cord. If they do, they'd be bound to know about something that large."

"Agreed." O'Casey said. "Cultures at that level usually know, in a broad sense, what's going on with surrounding tribes. If one of the tribes were preparing for a full-scale assault, it would be known."

"And these people don't seem to have roving mercenaries," Pahner observed. He pulled out his pack of gum and counted the slices, then carefully put it back away in its sealed container. "What's the upside for one of the other Houses?"

"Unknown." O'Casey consulted a pad and snorted. "What I wouldn't give for a copy of The Prince right about now! Fortunately, I've got most of it memorized, but we need more information."

"Right." Pahner scratched his chin. "I think we need to bug the Great Houses."

"What pretense could we use?" Kosutic asked. "Why do they let us in?"

"Well," O'Casey mopped her brow again, "we're going to have to buy equipment and supplies anyway. Why don't we send a squad and one of the officers around with a list of bids?"

"That could work." Pahner started to fish out his gum again, and stopped. "We'll just send Julian along."

"Why do we care?" Roger asked. He had, with difficulty, placed a morsel of meat on the dog-lizard's nose. Now he slowly withdrew his hand, planning on stepping back before giving the dog-lizard the word that she could have the choice bit.

The dog-lizard had other ideas. The instant the pressure of his hand on her snout was relieved, she flashed her muzzle in two directions with an intervening "Clop."

"Damn." Roger gave up for the time being and looked up with a shrug. "I mean, why should we care if these barbs beat each other bloody? We just need to get our supplies and get out of the way. Let The People overrun them. Or not."

He looked around at the staring faces, and gave another shrug.

"What? We're not here to save the world; we're here to get off it. Isn't that what you've been telling me, Captain Pahner?"

"We're going to be here for a few days at least, Your Highness," O'Casey pointed out carefully. "We need a fairly stable area to prepare in before we head out."

"And we need the local boss backing us," Kosutic said, without meeting the prince's eye. "Having strong backing is a whole different thing from just having him say 'ain't that nice.' If the King is really backing us, we'll have a much easier time. The troops will have an easier time."

"Correct, Sergeant Major," Pahner said formally. "I strongly recommend, Colonel, that we obtain more intelligence before we fail from either action or inaction."

"Oh, very well," Roger said. "But I hate the thought of staying in one place any longer than necessary." He looked out the window towards the distant jungle. "Maybe Cord and I can see what sort of game there is in the jungle."

"If you do, Your Highness," Pahner said in a painfully expressionless tone, "might I ask that you take a significant force with you. Also, we won't be able to spare the armor. We seriously drained the power systems on the march here; we'll need to pack the gear from here on out."

"And that means we need some of those big pack beasts, Sir," Kosutic said. "And handlers for them."

"And we need local weapons," Pahner agreed. "We have to have the advanced equipment to take the port and for emergencies, but we need to obtain local weaponry and start training with it as soon as possible."

"And all of that will take money and time," O'Casey said. "And that will require a stable base."

"I got it." Roger sounded even testier than he'd intended, but the heat and humidity were starting to get to him. "I'll talk to Cord about the training. He's been wanting to teach me the spear already. I'd prefer a sword, though."

"Be hard to make a good sword with this rotten metal they've got." Kosutic looked around as the others regarded her with surprise and shrugged. "It's not a big deal; I know that much about swords. Good ones are made out of fine steel, and I don't see much steel around here."

"We'll have to see what we can find," Pahner said. "Sergeant Major, I want you to get with the platoon sergeants. We don't let the troops out until we get the lay of the land. I'll assign that to you, initially. Move out with a group and get a feel for what we're dealing with and what sorts of trade we can get for our items. And when the troops do go out, I want them moving in groups. Understood?"

"Understood, Sir. What are we going to do for pay?"

"Is that a problem?" Roger was surprised. "We're feeding and clothing them, and they are getting paid. We just don't have access to it."

"It will be, eventually, Your Highness," Pahner told him. "The troops will want to buy souvenirs, local food . . ."

"Alcohol," Kosutic grunted.

"That, too," Pahner admitted with a grin. "And that takes pay. We'll need to factor that into our budget."

"Arrgh!" Roger clasped his head in his hands. "I don't care what we get for those shovels and lighters. It won't be enough!"

"All the more reason to have a friend at court, Your Highness," Pahner pointed out, then glanced at the others. "I think that wraps it up. I'll pass on the relevant sections to the lieutenants, including the intel pass. Sergeant Major, tomorrow I want you find the local market and check it out. Take a squad and a couple of the headquarters people with you."

"Yes, Sir," Kosutic said. She already had the relevant group in mind.

"Your Highness," Pahner said, "I know you feel cooped up here. But I'd really prefer that you not go hunting in that jungle."

"I understand," Roger sighed. Maybe the heat was sapping him, but he just didn't feel like getting into an argument. "But I can circulate in the city?"

"With sufficient security," Pahner conceded with a thankful nod. "At least a squad and fully armed."

"But not armor," Roger argued.

"Fine," Pahner said with a slight smile, then nodded briskly. "I think we've got us a plan, people."


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