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CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN

Lieutenant Gulyas looked elsewhere as Julian dealt with the guards.


"My officer has come upon matters of trade," the sergeant said grandly. "He wishes to speak to the Kl'ke." The Mardukan guard might overtop him by a meter and a half, but a Marine could out hauteur any old barb. "We are expected," he concluded with a slight sniff of derision.


The guard looked down his nose at the diminutive human, but turned and banged on the door.


The House of Kl'ke was of a piece with the other Great Houses the squad had visited. The walls were granite, unlike the wood of the rest of the town, and coated in highly decorated plaster. The walls of the Great Houses were covered in bas reliefs and decorative arches, and the dominant theme of each House's art was its primary trade. In the case of Kl'ke, the bas reliefs depicted a variety of forest prey, for the House had been founded on the skin and leather trade. There were no windows on the first floor, and, as in the citadel visitors' quarters, the narrow openings in the second-story walls were more like arrow slits than windows.


As with all the other Houses, the front door was massive—over two stories high and constructed like a castle gate. The heavy wood was a Mardukan equivalent of ironwood that was virtually impervious to fire, and the door was banded and studded with bronze. Knocking it down would require time and a good battering ram.


Set into it, again, was another of those odd doors like the entrance to their visitors' quarters. Low enough to require a Mardukan to duck to enter it, it not only put a visitor's head in position to be opened up like an egg, but also symbolically caused him to bow to the holder of the House.


The lower portal opened to reveal another impassive guard. This worthy waved them in, and they entered one by one. Unlike Mardukans, the humans could walk through standing up.


The interior was similar to a series of concentric Roman villas. The outer wall held inward-facing rooms on all levels, but there was also an "inner" building of wood which was where the majority of the House's business was conducted. The area immediately behind the gate was a vaulted entranceway, with several doors to either side. It was open on the inner side, revealing the gardens that surrounded the inner sanctum.


The guard led them through the gardens and from there into the inner house. This was also open at the center, and surrounded yet another garden. Passing around the edge of this garden, they entered the back of the house, where Gulyas and Julian were separated from their squad of guards and led to a small, high-ceilinged room. The room was open on both sides to let in the air, and the walls were of multiple woods, cunningly crafted to give an impression of rolling waves. It held a high table, behind which the Kl'ke stood making notes in a ledger.


Gulyas had the spiel down pat now and nodded to Julian, who began laying out samples.


"As you know, Sir," the lieutenant began, "we are visitors from a far land. The items that we carry are very few, but of such surpassing workmanship that each is, in itself, a jewel of craftsmanship."


Julian had laid out the chameleon cloth, and now began demonstrating the utility of the multitool. The part that got to the Kl'ke was the same as the one which had so intrigued all the house-leaders: the final "blade" function which cut cleanly and easily through one of the soft iron spearheads.


"There are only a limited number of each of these items, and when they're gone, they're gone. We'll be holding an auction for each of them," the lieutenant continued as Julian demonstrated Eterna-lights and fuelless lighters.


"The auction is to be held in the public square on the fifth of T'Nuh." That was six days from now; time enough for the Houses to conspire to cheat them if they so chose. Of course, the humans would be listening to every word if they did.


"In conclusion," Gulyas said, stepping forward, "let me offer you this lighter. It is useful for starting any type of fire, and is impervious to wind."


The lieutenant demonstrated this time, ensuring that the bug was well and truly planted on the alien. He'd let Julian plant the others, but he wanted to do at least one himself.


"Does the Kl'ke have any questions?"


The Mardukan thumbed the lighter and held it to a piece of the local paper until it flamed. He put the small fire out quickly, and cocked his head at the humans.


"You say 'not many' of these devices," he said, gesturing with the technological artifact. "How many is 'not many'?"


"That hasn't yet been determined," Gulyas admitted. "For the multitools, somewhere between seven and twelve."


"Ah." The house-leader made a Mardukan gesture of agreement. "Not many, indeed. Very well, I shall ensure that a factor is present to bid and has full instructions."


"Thank you, Sir," Gulyas said. "And, of course, most of the money will be coming back to Q'Nkok. We'll be purchasing food, equipment, and pack beasts for our long journey."


"Ah, yes." The Mardukan lord grunted a laugh. "Your quest for fabled Voitan."


"It isn't actually Voitan we seek, Sir," Gulyas corrected tactfully. "But from Voitan there are routes to the northeast. Thus we must pass near Voitan."


"Well, it's still a waste of good transport," the Mardukan said with another grunt. He seemed undisturbed by their probable death. "But I have a full stable of the beasts. The best in the city."


"We'll keep that in mind," the lieutenant said, bowing his way out of the room.


"See that you do," the house-leader snapped as he went back to his ledger.


* * *


Roger looked into the distorted mirror and turned his head to the side. The ponytail left hair dangling everywhere, especially in this damp heat. What he really needed was a braid but there was a problem with that. Finally, he took two more leather ties and wrapped the ponytail in the middle and at the bottom. Now if they'd just stay in place, his damned hair would stay out of his face.


The knock on the door was followed by its opening so quickly that the two blended. He spun in place to scorch whoever it was, but paused when he saw that it was Despreaux. Just because he was having a bad hair day didn't mean the sergeant should be blasted.


"What?" Unfortunately, the question came out before he could control his irritated tone. So even without meaning to, he managed to sound like a jerk.


"Captain Pahner has called a meeting for 14:30," the sergeant replied blandly.


"Thank you, Sergeant!" the prince snapped, then sighed. "Let me try that again, if you don't mind. Thank you, Sergeant."


"You're welcome, Your Highness," the Marine said as she closed the door.


"Sergeant?" the prince called hesitantly. They were going to be on this planet for a long time, and he might as well bite the bullet on this one.


"Yes, Your Highness?" Despreaux replied, opening the door again.


"Could I have a moment of your time?" Roger asked, quite sweetly.


"Yes, Your Highness?" the sergeant repeated rather more warily as she stepped into the room.


"If you don't mind," Roger said, clearing his throat, "this is somewhat private. Could you close the door?"


Despreaux did, then crossed her arms.


"Yes, Your Highness?" she said for a third time.


"I know you're not a servant," the prince said, fiddling with his hair, "but I have a little problem." He took a deep breath and went on despite the hammerlike look on the sergeant's face. "It's something I can't do for myself: Could you possibly braid my hair for me?"


* * *


"There's no reason for them to notice the plant, Sir," Julian said as they walked away from the building.


"So why am I drenched in sweat?" Gulyas asked.


"Because . . . it's hot?" Julian suggested with a smile. "Sir?"


Gulyas smiled at the NCO's quip and stopped to look back at the building.


"What do you think?" he asked quietly. As long as they used Standard, no one was going to be able to know what they were talking about. But it never hurt to be careful.


"Like shooting fish in a barrel, Sir," Julian responded. "Two exits. Complex interior, but not bad. All the guard rooms at the front, servants at the back, family in the middle. If we need to take one, or even two or three, it won't be much of an op." He paused and then continued ruminatively. "Of course, it would use up ammo."


"Not much," Gulyas responded. "Okay, only three more to go. You can plant those; that was too much fun for me."


"Ah, that's nothing, Sir. Did I ever tell you about the time I stole a space limo?"


* * *


"You never learned how to braid your own hair?" Despreaux asked. The prince had the best hair she'd ever run across, solid without being too coarse, and long as a Mardukan day. "This is gorgeous stuff."


"Thanks," Roger said calmly. He wasn't about to tell the sergeant how sensuous it felt to have her brushing it. "Just another legacy of illegal gene engineering."


"Really? Are you sure?"


"Oh, yeah," Roger said ruefully. "No question. I've got the twitch muscles of a shark, the reactions of a snake, and way more endurance than I ought to have. Somebody on either Mommy or Daddy's side, or both, did a lot of engineering back in the Dagger Years, but I guess anyone who had the cash would have done the same thing then, rules or no rules. I even got enhanced night vision out of it."


"And Lady Godiva's hair. But you'd better learn how to do this yourself."


"I will," Roger promised. "If you'll show me. I've always had someone to do it for me, but I think servants are going to be in short supply on Marduk, and Matsugae didn't know how, either."


"I'll show you how. And it can be our little secret."


"Thanks, Despreaux. I really appreciate it. Maybe you can get a medal for it," he added with a laugh.


"The Order of the Golden Braid?"


"Whatever you want. As soon as we get back to Earth, I'm rich again."


* * *


"Rich city," Kosutic said.


This was the third bazaar the team had found, and it was of a piece with the others. The majority of the market was permanent, wooden stalls set side-by-side on narrow alleyways. There were also occasional open areas where temporary carts were set up, selling everything imaginable, but most of the trade was in the back alleys.


Kosutic had initially entered those with care. She'd been on enough planets and around enough alleys to know that they contained both the best and the worst available on worlds like this. The Marines had dispensed with armor, and if she gave them the chance, these Mardukans could be a nasty proposition at close quarters. So she was slow. And careful.


As it turned out, the alleys were generally the best part of the market. The small shops were very old and established, and had not only the best items, but better prices. Unfortunately, the products weren't what they wanted.


The region was a supplier of raw material and gems. There was more than sufficient food and leather goods available for their purposes, but what they really needed—pack beasts and weapons—were expensive and hard to find.


She stopped at one of the small booths selling weapons as a sword on its back wall caught her eye. The Mardukan running the booth squatted on a stool, and still overtopped her. Even by Mardukan standards he was a giant, and it appeared that he might not always have been a merchant. His left true-arm ended in a stump at the elbow, and his chest was an Escher painting of scars. Both horns had been capped with bronze points that were wickedly sharp, and a hook depended from the arm stump.


He looked up at what she was staring at, and slapped his hook with his remaining true-hand.


"You know that?" he asked.


"I've seen it before," she said carefully. "Or something similar."


The weapon was unlike the others she'd seen in the bazaar, for the steel was damascene. The black and silver water pattern was clear as day. The blade was long for a human, short for a Mardukan, and curved to a slightly widened end. It was neither precisely a katana nor a scimitar, but something in between.


And it was flat out beautiful.


She'd seen swords of that type on several worlds, but all of them were much more advanced than this one's tech level. Or than the local tech level, at least.


"Where is it from?" she asked.


"Ah," the merchant said, clapping his cross hands. "That's the sad part. This is a relic of Voitan. I have heard of you visitors, you 'humans.' You are from a far land, so do you know the story of Voitan?"


"Some of it," Kosutic admitted. "But why don't you tell it to me from the beginning?"


"Have a seat," the local invited, and reached into a bag to extract a clay jug. "Drink?"


"Don't mind if I do." Kosutic looked over her shoulder at the small group which had been following her around. Besides Koberda's squad, it consisted of Poertena and three of Cord's nephews. "You guys go circulate." They'd each been given an Eterna-light and a lighter. "Do a little trading. See what they bring. I'll be here."


"Do you want someone to stay with you, Sergeant Major?" Sergeant Koberda asked. His tone was mild, but the orders had been fairly strict.


Kosutic raised an eyebrow at the merchant, who grunted in reply.


"No," she said with a headshake. "I'm just gonna sit here and shoot the shit for a while. I'll give a holler when I'm ready to head back, and we can link up."


"Aye." Koberda gestured at his squad; he'd seen a place that looked a lot like a bar a few alleys back. "We'll be circulating."


* * *


Poertena followed Denat down the alleyway. He figured that three of Cord's nephews counted as "a group," and the Mardukan swore he knew the best pawn shop in the city.


The shopkeepers and artisans to either side of the narrow way looked up with interest as he passed. Word of the humans' arrival had spread through the grapevine, but he was surprised that there wasn't more overt curiosity. On most human planets, there would at least have been a group of children following him around, but not here. For that matter, he didn't see any children or women, and hadn't since they arrived in the area.


"Where are tee women?" he asked Denat as the Mardukan took another turn. Poertena decided that if they got separated he would be in trouble finding his way back.


"The shit-sitters lock them away," the tribesman said with a grunt of laughter. "And the children. A stupid custom."


"Well, I'm glad you got pocking respect for tee locals," Poertena said with a bark of laughter of his own.


"Pah!" Denat spat and made a derisive hand gesture. "Shit-sitters are for killing. But if we kill one, it's the knife for us, as well."


"Yah." Poertena nodded. "I guess they probably give a fair trial and slit your throat."


"No." Denat stopped for a moment to get his bearings. "The town law doesn't apply to us. If we violate a town law, we're turned over to the tribe. But for a killing, the tribe will give us the knife as quickly as the town. And any townsman found violating our laws is turned over to the town. Just as our tribe judges us more harshly than the town would, the town judges its people very harshly.


"Ah." He'd obviously located the landmark he sought. "This way. It's close now."


"Put why do tee town kill t'eir folk for breaking your laws?" Poertena was confused.


"Because if they don't," Tratan said from behind him, "we'll burn their abortion of a shit-city to the ground."


Denat grunted in laughter but clapped his hands in agreement.


"They dare not offend us too greatly, or we'll attack them. Or camp outside Q'Nkok and pick them off in the open until they don't dare step outside their gates to relieve themselves. But they can also attack us, attack our towns. We had a war soon after this city started to grow, and it was terrible on both sides. So we keep the peace."


"For now," Tratan said with a hiss.


"For now," Denat agreed. "And here we are."


The shop was similar to all the others, if a bit smaller. Made of some hardwood, it was abutted on both sides by other shops and looked to be about five meters deep, but the opening was half covered with a leather curtain that shadowed its interior. Inside, dim shapes of piled skins and containers could be barely discerned, but there were more goods piled outside on a leather ground cover spread out into the narrow alley.


The products were a magpie's nest of gewgaws. There were a few spearheads, some jewelry (ranging from decent to quite bad), tools for wood and metalworking, cups and platters, candle holders of ruddy brass, leather and wood boxes (some elaborately decorated), spice containers, and a myriad of other items piled haphazardly.


Squatting in the midst of this disorder was an old scummy. His right horn was broken at the tip, and the mucous covering his body was patched and dry, but for all that, his eyes were bright and interested.


"Denat!" The merchant got creakily to his feet. "You always bring such interesting things!" he continued, eyeing Poertena.


"Time to do a little trading, Pratol," Denat laughed. "I brought a few things, and my friend here wants to show you some others."


"Of course." The merchant pulled a bottle and some cups out of one of the boxes. "Let's see what you brought. I know you'll cheat me, as you always do, but if you promise not to take too much of my money, perhaps we can bargain!"


"T'at sounds like we goin' to tee cleaners," Poertena observed with a chuckle of his own. It felt like home.


 


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