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CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT

The "tavern" was a large tent, open on all sides and located on one side of the square that defined the beginning of the bazaar. A series of upended barrels at one end served as the bar, and behind the barrels the carcass of some unknown beast turned slowly over a large brazier.


There were several long tables scattered throughout the tent, and the Mardukans gathered at them shoveled in the barleyrice, meat, and vegetables being served with gusto.


The square was a bazaar in its own right, with temporary booths scattered around its periphery. It wasn't a planned opening—simply a space between one of the Great Houses, a warehouse, the bazaar, and a drop off. Two roads led out of it: one down past the warehouse, and the other up past the Great House. The square was also, clearly, a hangout for the guards from the House. They strode around in their leather armor and carrying their broad headed spears as if they owned the area, which in a way, they did. The merchant eyed them warily, and Koberda doubted that they paid for most of their trifles.


The NCO looked up from his heavily spiced stew and waved to Poertena. The armorer had picked up another scummy, this one an old guy, and he looked pleased with himself.


"Hey, Corp," the Pinopan said. The tables everyone else was standing at came nearly to his head, so he found an empty barrel, rolled it over, and upended it to provide himself with a highchair. "Watcha eating?"


"Some hot shit," Andras said, taking a pull on his beer and waving at his mouth. "I don't know what they're putting on that damn stew, but it is hot, hot, hot."


"Sounds good!" Poertena headed for the bar.


"I made a deal with the guy," Koberda said. "We all eat free for one of those Eterna-lights."


"Ayah!" The new scummy clutched his head. "That I didn't need to hear! I'll go see if I can negotiate being included in it!"


Denat laughed and picked up the jug in the middle of the table. He shook it, took a sip, and grimaced.


"Pah! Shit-sitter piss!"


"Better than that rotgut you served," PFC Ellers said with a laugh. The grenadier took another bite of meat and sipped more beer. "At least you can taste something of the beer."


"Hey," Cranla, the third of Cord's nephews, protested. "We just expect some taste in our drinks."


"Taste, sure," Ellers agreed. "But did you have to add the turpentine?"


Poertena turned back up with a large platter and put it on the table. The table was long, constructed of a thick slab of almost black wood taken from a single trunk. The humans had occupied one end, and the tribesmen gathered around them, snatching at the hot slices of meat on the platter. There were also slices of fruit, and a sliced root the humans didn't recognize. It was good, though—somewhere between a sweet potato and a white potato.


"Smells good," Denat said, popping a piece of the highly spiced meat into his mouth, then choked. "Ayeeeeii! Peruz!" He grabbed for the beer jug as the spice kicked in.


"Pock!" He took a huge gulp of beer and gasped. "Whai-ee! I guess that beer's not so bad after all!" he wheezed.


* * *


"Where are you, Koberda?" Kosutic asked over the communicator.


"Ah, my squad is just finishing up lunch, Sergeant Major," the NCO replied, putting down his cards and looking around.


The squad was sprawled around the tables, taking it easy. The heat of the day had been building, and most of the Mardukans had beat it for cooler climates. But it wasn't really all that bad under the tent: no more than 43 Standard, or 110 on the old Fahrenheit scale.


Poertena had started up a poker game. He'd apparently taken the old Mardukan merchant for a ride dickering over a couple of Eterna-lights and lighters. Now the old guy was trying to get his own back . . . in a game he'd never played before.


Koberda picked his cards back up and looked at them in disgust. Poertena had let him exchange some of his imperial credits for a few pieces of the local silver and copper. He knew he should've kept them in his pocket.


"Fold."


Poertena looked over his cards at the old Mardukan. The merchant looked at his cards, then at the pot.


"I raise you," the Mardukan said. He thought about it, then tossed one of the Eterna-lights into the pot. "That should be worth more than that pile."


"Yeah," Poertena agreed with a smile. "Or lunch for twelve."


"Ayah! Don't remind me!" Pratol snapped.


"Pace it," the Pinopan said. "Koberda got taken!"


"Well," the squad leader said, wondering just how much the little Pinopan had squeezed out of the obviously experienced pawnbroker, "somebody did."


Poertena gave his cards another glance and shook his head.


"Fold."


"I like this game!" Pratol gave a couple of grunts and reached out with all four arms to scoop in the pot.


"Yeah, yeah," Poertena said as he dealt the next hand. "Just you wait."


"Hah!" Tratan said suddenly. He had gotten sense and dropped out while he still owned his weapons. "Look at those shit-sitter pussies!"


A group of five armed scummies was passing the eatery. The Mardukans were armed with swords, which they carried in the open, rather than scabbarded. The swords were long, straight, and broad; they would have been two-handed weapons—at least—for any of the humans.


Unlike other guards the humans had seen, these wore full coverage leather armor, with plate patches on the shoulders and breast. They were obviously guarding the lone unarmored scummy in the middle of their formation, who carried a small leather purse slung on a strap around his neck. Apparently, he had less than total confidence in the stout-looking strap, since he also clutched the purse in both true-hands.


"What's t'at?" Poertena asked. He picked up his cards and stayed very, very calm.


"Gem guards," Pratol replied. He tossed in two for draw.


"Pussies," Tratan repeated. "They think all that fancy leather makes them immortal."


"I wouldn't mind some armor." Koberda picked up the beer jugs and shook them, looking for one that wasn't empty. "If Talbert'd had some armor, she'd still be here."


"Yeah," Poertena agreed as he drew two cards. It was down to three players, and that was too few for a good poker game. Denat was still hanging in, though. He'd traded a couple of nice gems to Pratol for some silver and credit on goods. Now he was trading on some of Tratan's silver and the edge of his credit. Poertena glanced up at him as he looked at his draw, then set his cards down in disgust.


"Fold."


Poertena looked at his own cards and didn't smile. Fortune favored the foolish.


"Raise you." He looked at his pile, and flicked over a tiny lapis lazuli. It was an exquisite royal blue, shot through with lines of raw copper.


"Hmmm." Pratol pushed over a pile of silver and added his own lapis, slightly larger and polished into a large oval. "See you and raise."


Poertena looked at the pile and rolled over a ruby.


"See you an' raise, ag'in."


Pratol tilted his head to the side suspiciously, then pulled out a tiny sapphire like a flick of blue fire, and placed it carefully atop the pile. The blue and red gems were of a piece, dark but translucent. The gems of the region were its greatest treasure, and watching them glow in the center of the table made it abundantly clear why that was true.


Poertena picked up the sapphire and the ruby and put them side-by-side. Then he looked at the rest of the items.


"I t'ink the pot's light," he said.


"Okay." Pratol tossed a few pieces of silver and a small citrine onto the table. "Now it's not."


"Call," Poertena said. "Four sevens."


"Crap!" The merchant slammed down his cards. "I still like this game."


"I'm out," Denat said. "I want to keep my weapons."


"Why, young tribesman?" a new voice asked. "I'd be happy to sell you more."


Kosutic and the merchant she'd stopped to talk with were both smiling as they watched everyone else jump. They'd approached the group so silently that no one had noticed them coming, and Koberda cleared his throat.


"Ah, Sergeant Major, we were just . . . uh . . ."


"Gathering energy for the coming march?" she asked. "Don't sweat it, Koberda. But you need to keep at least one person alert at all times. We're still not out of the woods here. Clear?"


"Clear, Sergeant Major," he said, and then an eyebrow crooked as he noticed the oddity sticking up over her shoulder. "Is that what I think it is?"


"Yep." Kosutic drew the sword over her shoulder. The ripples of silver and black were muted in the overcast gray sunlight, but it was clearly a work of art. "I like it, but I actually got it for the prince. It was designed for the child of a king, so it's human-sized."


"Yeah." Koberda nodded. "I can understand that. But what about other weapons?"


"Alas," the hook-handed merchant replied, "this isn't a good area in which to look for large supplies of weapons or armor. The weapons available here have mostly been made elsewhere. They're from T'Kunzi, or even relics from Voitan, as is this one."


"Folks, meet T'Leen. He used to be a trooper until he lost the arm. Now he sells swords."


"Spears and knives also. Anything with a blade. Mostly to the guards of the gem merchants and the occasional group of mercenaries," T'Leen said, fingering one bronze-capped horn. "Or the House guards, occasionally. There are both independent gem merchants and those of the Houses in the town. Although," he added, "the House merchants sometimes make it . . . hard on the independents."


"Pah!" Pratol said, looking up from his examination of the poker deck. He really liked this game. It was better than knucklebones because it included elements of bargaining and skill as well as luck. Very interesting.


"The Houses are all peopled by bastards!" he went on. "They squeeze us until we're dry, then have their bully boys come around to wreck us so that we leave town!"


"That has, admittedly, happened more often than one would like," T'Leen agreed soberly. "This is a piss-hole of a town."


As if to punctuate his remark, there was a crash of metal across the square.


Two groups, one a cluster of toughs from the local House, and five fighters from a rival, had clashed near the edge of the square. The home team far outnumbered their rivals, but they didn't use their superior numbers to overwhelm the invaders. Indeed, the invaders seemed to be far more proficient as individuals, particularly two who were each using a long dagger or short sword in a lower false-hand. The additional weapon was used almost purely for blocking, and Kosutic wondered why they didn't use something like a small buckler shield. Since the local fighters persisted in taking on their more skilled opponents one-on-one as scummy military tradition appeared to require, they were also taking heavy casualties despite their numerical advantage.


The spears were used somewhat like bayoneted rifles, Kosutic noticed. Their technique emphasized blocking and thrusting, but also parries and ripostes which humans weren't normally taught with bayonets. There was very little contact, but what there was was bloody, for the broad spearheads caused wide and deep wounds.


The injuries being suffered were serious, but clearly not life-threatening. If one of the local fighters felt he was getting ready to lose, he simply withdrew, and someone else took his place.


The rival house's fighters had so far not faced anyone who was their equal, but just as it seemed that the locals were going to lose totally, the doors of the House opened, and a group of guards in heavier armor emerged.


"Ah, now you'll see something," T'Leen said. "The guards from Crita were chosen from among their elite. They came here to see what the new N'Jaa guards are like, and now they will. The newcomers are N'Jaa's elite—they're considered the best in the city."


"Are they?" Kosutic asked.


"Possibly," the weapons merchant snorted. "But that's not saying much. The local bully boys aren't up to any but local standards. They should go collect debts for the House Tan."


The two groups squared off, and the battle began. The local elite was both more heavily armored and unwinded, so it was short and furious. When the two groups parted, two of the Crita fighters were laid out, apparently dead, and so was a N'Jaa. The surviving Crita had beaten a hasty retreat, chased by jeers from their N'Jaa opponents.


"There!" T'Leen said. "Did you see that riposte in secundus K'Katal made?"


"I don't even understand what you just said," Kosutic replied, tapping her mastoid bone to get the toot to translate into Standard. "What's secundus?"


"Down here." T'Leen gestured with a false-hand. "Great move! I've only seen it once before, in Pa'alot. Very difficult to execute—you have to have your feet positioned just so. But if you perfect it, it's very difficult to defeat." He pantomimed the move and grimaced when the necessary contortion drew a twinge from some scar tissue. "Ouch."


"Where'd you learn all this?" Koberda asked. "I mean, what? Were you a guard?"


"Yes," T'Leen said, abruptly losing the animation he'd drawn from his explanation. "But not for a long time. My fighting days are over."


"He was from Voitan," Kosutic said quietly.


"I was an apprentice weapons maker," the old merchant explained. "I'd traveled with a caravan to T'an K'tass when word came back that the Kranolta had swept down and taken all of the outlying cities. Gone was S'Lenna, shining city of lapis and copper. Gone was fair H'nar, perhaps the most beautiful city I've ever seen in all my travels. Gone were all the other sister cities of far Voitan.


"Voitan held, though. We had word through the few who could trade with the Kranolta without losing their horns. The barbarians attacked her repeatedly, but the walls of Voitan were high, and they not only had great stores of food, but could still trade across the ranges to the cities on the far side.


"T'an K'tass knew the worth of Voitan. No one in all the lands knew the making of weapons as did the Steel Guild of Voitan. No one else knew the secrets of the Water Blade. And Voitan and the region around it were the source of most of the metals that T'an K'tass and the other southern city-states depended upon.


"The Council of T'an K'tass called upon the other cities to send a force against the Kranolta, to drive through to the aid of Voitan. But no such thing had ever been done, and the other cities didn't see the need. They saw only the wealth of Voitan, as the Kranolta had, and laughed at the fall of all that fair land."


His face turned very bitter, and he became quiet, looking back over the years at that memory.


"The King of Pa'alot and the Houses of this stinking Q'Nkok both repudiated us. That was before the House of Xyia arose to the kingship. I will admit that Xyia spoke for us, or so I have heard.


"I was on the delegation from T'an K'tass that went to Pa'alot to plead our case, but they said that each state must survive or fall on its own. They asked what they had gotten from Voitan that they should risk their money and goods, and to that question I could make no answer." He clapped his false-hands in sadness. "I could not answer for my lords of Voitan.


"So T'an K'tass sent out a force by herself. And we met the Kranolta in the Dantar Hills." He clapped his false-hands again, softly. "We were defeated. The Kranolta were as numerous as the stars in the sky, as the trees in the forest! And fierce, fierce!


"We fought through the day and into the next, but we were defeated. Finally, we could fight no more and retreated in good order. But the Kranolta pursued us to T'an K'tass." He clapped his false-hands once more. "They followed us wherever we went."


"And they took that city," Kosutic concluded grimly. "And two others in the area. And that was the last news of Voitan that anyone has heard."


"Some few of us remain," T'Leen said sadly. "A few of the House Tan escaped with the force. They're doing well financially; they got out most of T'an K'tass' specie and went into the banking business. We talk from time to time.


"And there are a few left of Voitan. Such as myself. A few." The Mardukan shook his head. "So very few."


"How long ago was this?" Koberda asked.


"I was a youth," T'Leen admitted. "Long, long ago."


"No seasons," Kosutic pointed out with a shrug. "No sun. They don't count time like we do, and your guess is as good as mine how old any of these guys are."


"Hang on a second," Bosum said, setting down a glass of water. "This is the place we've got to go next?"


"You betcha," Kosutic said with a grim smile. "Or at least the way we have to go. Right through them Kra . . . Kra . . ."


"Kranolta," Poertena said helpfully.


"Yeah. Them bastards," Kosutic said with a laugh. "I'd suggest you make sure your plasma rifle's in good shape, Marine."


"Yeah," the newly arrived corporal agreed. "No shit."


 


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