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Roger moved the blade across slowly, trying to remember the way the move felt.

"What is that?" Cord asked. The shaman had begun teaching the human his own half-remembered lessons in the sword, but this move had a look he didn't recognize.

"I took a semester of something called 'kendo' when I was in school," Roger replied, frowning in concentration. His feet were wrong, and he knew it. "But I can't remember the moves!"

He made a small adjustment, but it was still wrong, and he growled inwardly in frustration as the ghost of Roger III and all those generations of MacClintock history fanatics enjoyed a hearty horselaugh at his expense. He'd fought tooth and nail to avoid his kendo classes. Officially, he had objected to them because they took time away from his other martial arts classes; in fact, as he'd made certain his mother knew, he had simply refused to embrace their stupid traditions. It had been a petty triumph, perhaps, yet one he had treasured at the time when she finally gave up and let him drop out.

Of course, that had been then, and this was now. . . .

Cord cocked his head and examined the stance. The four arms of the Mardukans meant that many of the methods of the humans, and not just weapons craft alone, were different in detail. But despite both the inevitable differences and the partial nature of what Roger recalled, Cord recognized a more advanced technique when he saw one.

The two had been working out with the sword Kosutic had procured for the past two days while the company rested and the commanders waited for better information. Pahner had joined them from time to time to watch Cord at work, and generally approved. The old scummy had been imparting far more than just weapons instruction; maybe what Roger had truly needed all along was a coach.

"It is always about balance, young prince," the Mardukan said, walking around Roger as the human moved through his kata. "You're off your center."

Roger stopped, and the Mardukan looked at his foot placement, then grunted. He tapped one foot with the butt of his spear.

"Try from there," he commanded, and Roger took the steps of the kata again, and smiled.

"You did it again, you old sorcerer."

"You need to learn to find your balance better," the Mardukan said, with a clop of teeth. "If you don't have your balance, everything is harder. If you have your balance it is not necessarily easy. But it is far easier than otherwise."

He looked up as PFC Kraft entered the salle. The training room was in a part of the castle distant from the visitors' quarters, so there was a squad of Marines outside the door, and the rifleman tapped his helmet to indicate that he'd received a transmission.

"Captain Pahner says he'd like to see you, Your Highness. At your earliest convenience."

Roger opened his mouth to retort angrily at the interruption of his session, then closed it again as Cord laid a hand on his arm.

"We'll be there in a moment," the Mardukan said. "Please send the Captain the Prince's regards."

Kraft nodded and withdrew, and, as the door closed, Cord grunted in laughter.

"Center, young prince. The wise monarch listens to his generals in matters of war, to his ministers in matters of state, and to his people in matters of morality."

"Ha!" Roger laughed. "Where did you hear that one?"

"It was in the writings of the Sage of K'land," the barbarian shaman admitted with a shrug.

"Why in the hell did you go back to the jungle?" Roger asked as he picked up a cleaner cloth to wipe down from the workout. He'd discovered that the shaman was as well read as any sage in the city, one of the reasons Xyia Kan listened to his pronouncements with such care. He was far more than just a "dumb barbarian," and now he clapped his false-hands in a Mardukan shrug.

"I had duties to discharge to my tribe. It needed a shaman; I was the shaman."

"I hope Teltan can fulfill the trust you placed in him."

Roger shook the cloth to clear the majority of the filth it had picked up. The cleaner cloths actively removed dirt and grime from any surface and were easily cleaned for reuse. Unfortunately, they eventually wore out, and soon the company would have to find a substitute, which wouldn't be easy. The Mardukans didn't bathe. They didn't need to, and their mucus coverings would have prevented the use of anything like soaps. They did have some cleaners designed for equipment, but they were unbelievably harsh. It would be an . . . experience to take a bath in them. Rather like lathering up with bathroom cleaner, Roger suspected.

There were many similar problems. Equipment had already started to break down in the oppressive heat and humidity. Several Marines were already without functioning helmets, and two plasma rifles had been deadlined by Poertena. As the journey went on, it would only get worse, and Roger wondered idly what they would look like at the end of the trip. Would they be covered in skins and swinging swords like the one he was putting away? It was an unpleasant thought when he considered that their ultimate objective was a fortified spaceport.

"We all have challenges to face," Cord said, and Roger had a sudden sense that the old Mardukan was responding to much more than the prince's comment about Teltan, as if he could read the other thoughts flowing through his asi's mind.

"It is each man's life to rise or fall to his challenges," the shaman went on gently. "Thus are we judged."

* * *

The command group sat on pillows on the floor of the room which had been designated as the headquarters. It was the first time since they'd left the shuttles that they'd all been gathered in a single place, and Roger gave a silent snort as he thought about what one grenade in the room would do. However, the only grenades were in the hands of the Marines, and they, so far, were supporting the chain of command. Or Pahner, at least.

The captain stood at the end of the room at parade rest as Lieutenant Jasco, the last member of the command group, came in and grabbed a seat. Pahner waited to be certain all of them had their pads out, then cleared his throat.

"Lieutenant Gulyas and Sergeant Julian have finished analyzing the take from their listening devices, and they're prepared to report on just what we're facing here. Lieutenant Gulyas has suggested that Julian present the data. Julian?" he concluded, glancing at the noncom who'd been trying to stay inconspicuous in the corner.

The normally irrepressible sergeant was clearly ill at ease as he got to his feet and took Pahner's place, looked around the room at the assembled officers, and activated his own pad.

"Ladies and gentlemen," he began, glancing at Cord, squatting behind Roger, "this report has been developed from several sources besides our monitoring devices. However, all sources clearly point to one conclusion: we're in a snake-pit.

"There are several factions in this town, most of them working at one or another plot, and mostly to cross purposes. If any of the locals, including the King, have any idea of just how many of these plots and counterplots there truly are, I would be very surprised.

"The single plot that's of particular interest to us, however, is the one which focuses on the issue of woodcutting, and why the woodcutters continue to violate treaty provisions, despite repeated threats from Cord's tribe." He looked at Lieutenant Gulyas as if in question, but the officer only nodded and made a "go on" gesture with one hand.

"As it happens," Julian said, turning back to the rest of his audience, "the Lieutenant and I see a clear opportunity in this situation for us. What we need is to. . . ."

* * *

"Would you mind explaining that to me again?" the king said carefully.

Cutting through protocol to arrange the meeting, especially quickly, had been difficult. In the end, the "guest list" had come down to Xyia Kan, Roger, O'Casey, Pahner, H'Nall Grak, the commander of the king's guards (and the only one in the room with a visible weapon), and Sergeant Julian. The choice for the final human member had been between Julian or the intelligence lieutenant, but Gulyas had recommended that they take the NCO. It turned out that most of the plan had been Julian's from the first.

"You're in what we call rok-toi, Your Majesty," he responded now. "That's a complicated and nasty food in our . . . land . . . that smells to high heaven.

"There are three Houses involved in a complex plot against your House. They've been sending the woodcutters and hunters, managed through intermediaries, into the woods to stir up The People. They've also switched out the high-quality goods in the last two shipments for those of lesser quality, also to enrage Cord's people.

"At the same time, they've been resisting your calls for increased defense, because they plan on taking over the town, using a group of Kranolta."

"That's the part I'm afraid I don't understand," the king admitted. "Not even the C'Rtena could be stupid enough to believe they could control the Kranolta inside the city walls! Could they?"

"Frankly, Your Majesty," O'Casey replied, "that's exactly what they believe. The group of Kranolta they've hired is fairly small, only a few hundred, and most of them will be fighting The People outside the walls. But they've been promised that after the fighting they can sack portions of the city: specifically, the bazaars where the independent tradesmen are based. The conspirators are of the opinion that they can limit the depredations of the Kranolta to the bazaars and the lesser houses. Perhaps one or two of the great Houses who aren't part of their plot. But any damage to those groups would only leave them in a better position at the end."

"They're mad!" Grak snarled. The scarred old soldier grunted in grim humor at the thought. "If the Kranolta leave one stone standing on another, it will only be so that there's something left for the rest of their tribe to pick over!"

"Well, yes and no," Julian said. "Our . . . information includes data on the Kranolta which is apparently new. It appears Voitan did fall, finally, but the Kranolta were significantly reduced in number in the process. The tribe remains smaller than it was, and it's more or less stagnated since the fall of Voitan." The intel NCO shrugged. "Of course, even granting all of that, I still think the correlation of forces is adverse."

Grak translated the translation and laughed again. "Adverse. Yes. And what do they think we shall be doing, hmmm? When they let the Kranolta in through the gates?"

"What they think, General," Pahner answered, "is that most of you will be dead. The Royal Guard is responsible for the defense of the city, and you'll spend yourselves fighting The People. Then the Kranolta will come in, wipe out the remnants of both forces, destroy the competitor minor Houses, and sack the independents in the bazaars. The King, who enjoys support among both groups, will be left without either a support base or a guard. He may keep the castle, but it's more likely he'll be deposed by the remaining guards."

"I'm fascinated to hear this," the king said. "But I would be even more fascinated to know where you heard it."

The humans had discussed how to answer that question when it inevitably arose, and had come to the conclusion that there was no good response. Pahner had originally wanted to avoid telling the locals anything which might reveal their intelligence-gathering capabilities or, even more importantly, limitations. Then there'd been the ticklish point that admitting that they'd spied on the Great Houses—and how—would probably start the king wondering whether or not they'd spied on him.

It was O'Casey, backed by Kosutic, who'd put forth the counter argument. By imperial standards, Q'Nkok and its monarch were primitive, but that certainly didn't mean Xyia Kan was unsophisticated. The likelihood that they'd spied upon him was going to occur to him whatever they said, so there was little point trying to hide the fact that they could. On the other hand, the king's confidence in them required that they at least make an attempt to convince him that they could gather otherwise unobtainable information reliably, and Julian faced the monarch squarely.

"Your Majesty," he said, "the information was gathered through what we would call 'technical means.' "

The king considered the sergeant's toot's translation effort for a moment, then grunted.

" 'The way of pumps'? What in the Nine Halls of Kratchu does that mean?"

"I'm afraid our translations aren't quite up to explaining that, Your Majesty," Roger told him, and Pahner hid a smile at his unwontedly diplomatic tone. "Your irrigation systems and their pumps require the services of highly skilled mechanics, so the device which translates for us chose that term to substitute for one of our language's terms which refers to something which also requires great skill and long training. With all respect, you've seen our multitools and other devices. Could your artisans duplicate them? Or explain to another how they function?"

"No." The king didn't appear excessively pleased at making the concession, but he made it promptly.

"That's because our artisans have learned things yours have not yet discovered, Your Majesty," O'Casey stepped in, once again wearing her diplomat's hat. "And those same artisans have constructed devices which may be used to . . . observe and listen unobtrusively at a distance."

"You have mechanical spies?" The king glanced around the meeting room with a suddenly speculative expression, then returned to his attention to O'Casey.

"Ah, yes. That is to say, in a manner of speaking—"

"That must be a marvelous advantage . . . assuming that it's true. And that your description of what they've reported to you is accurate."

"You're wise to consider whether or not we might have motives of our own to deceive you, Your Majesty," Pahner said calmly. "But would it be possible, now that we've brought this information together for you, for you to confirm it by other means without allowing any of your enemies to realize you have?"

The king thought about that for a moment, and looked at Grak. The old soldier fluttered his hands, and then, finally, clapped them in agreement and turned to the humans himself.

"Yes," he answered.

"And if we do confirm it, the method by which you obtained it will be beside the point," the king told Pahner. "The question is, what shall we do about it if your reports prove accurate?"

"Actually," Pahner replied with a grim smile, "that's the easy part, Your Majesty."

"We kill them all," Julian said.

"And let the gods sort them out." Grak snorted. "Yes, I've heard that one. But how? Three Houses against the Royal Guard is still a . . . What was that term you used?"

" 'An adverse correlation of forces,' " the sergeant answered. "Actually, you'd be at just about at parity, with the advantage of a single unified command against a bunch of conspirators who don't trust anybody—including each other—as far as they can throw them. Of course, they've been planning this for quite a while, so at best, you'd have about a fifty-fifty chance of kicking their butts. However, Your Majesty, General Grak, there's an intersection of needs here. We need equipment, supplies, and transportation across this continent. Frankly, we need funding."

"And you need a force to crack this conspiracy," O'Casey cut in, smoothly maintaining the double-team approach. "Our company can supply that force. We'll break the conspiracy, uncover all the evidence you need to prove the conspirators' intent to bring in the Kranolta, point out the other Houses that were aware of the woodcutting part of the plot, and force concessions from all of them in your favor. In return, we'll retain a portion of the seizure and fines, and you'll lend your weight to the filling of our needs so that we obtain the quality of goods and services we need."

"Mutual benefit, indeed," the king murmured. He rubbed his horns. "If, of course, there is such a conspiracy."

"There is," Pahner said. "But confirm it, by all means. Please. In the meantime, we'd like to begin cross-training our people in local weaponry with your guard. That will make a good cover for getting integrated with them.

"But we would greatly appreciate it if you could make your inquiries quickly, Your Majesty. We've discovered that we have a particular need to strike before the auction we've arranged for our goods. It turns out that the Great Houses have also conspired to fix the bidding," the captain finished sourly.

"Yes, they would." Xyia Kan gave a grunting chuckle. "Have no fear. I shall make inquiries quickly, and if they are, in fact, conspiring to release the Kranolta upon the city, then we shall act even more quickly."

"But beyond this," Roger said, "there's still the problem of wood. The crisis which the conspirators are busy exploiting isn't entirely artificial."

Pahner was a highly trained, superbly disciplined professional. Which explained why he didn't wheel around to glare at the prince. Roger had done quite well in helping to explain why they couldn't explain how their "mechanical spies" worked, but that contribution to the meeting had been discussed and agreed upon ahead of time. Given his rank among the human visitors, it had been all but imperative to put the weight of his princely status behind that explanation, and the fact that he had a flair for the local language had also been a factor.

No one, however, had suggested that His Highness had anything else to add. Certainly no one had discussed anything else he might contribute, which meant that whatever he was up to now was going to be ad-lib. So the captain gritted his teeth and reminded himself that he couldn't rip his royal charge's head off. At least, not in front of outsiders. All he could do was pray that whatever harebrained idea the young idiot was going to concoct this time wouldn't queer the deal just when things had been going so satisfactorily.

"No," Xyia Kan agreed with a hiss of dissatisfaction. "It isn't artificial. If it were, they wouldn't be able to use it so effectively. We must have a new source of wood if Q'Nkok is to survive, but we've exhausted our supply in the area the X'Intai permit us to cut, and the Kranolta hold the other side of the river. Woodcutters who cross to their side of the river do not return. Some solution to this must be found, for it would be pointless to stop the conspiracy and still have the X'Intai attack."

"As I understand it," Roger said, nodding in agreement, "besides building, the majority of the wood cut for Q'Nkok is used for cooking and metalworking. Mostly as charcoal. Is that right?"

"Yes," Grak answered. "The majority is used in cooking fires."

"For which coal would work just as well, wouldn't it?" Roger asked, tugging on his braid.

"Coal?" Xyia Kan produced a Mardukan frown. "Perhaps. It's used in some other cities, at any rate. But there's no coal source anywhere nearby."

"Actually," Roger said with a grin, "there's one on the other side of The People's territory. Just upriver from Cord's village, in the mountains. In fact, I saw indications of several unmined minerals up there, and just down the mountain from the coal, at Cord's village, the river becomes navigable."

"So the coal could be packed to the village on flar-ta," the king said with a pensive expression, "then transferred to boats for the trip to the city. But I've heard of this valley. It is filled with yaden. Who would be so foolish as to go there to dig mines?"

"Well," Roger said with a thin, cold smile, "I was thinking that you might start with the members of the deposed families and their guards."

This time Pahner did glance at the prince—not in irritation, but in surprise. He hadn't heard that particular tone of voice from Roger before, and he suspected that the ruthless side the prince had just revealed would have surprised any of his old acquaintances. His tone wasn't cruel, just very, very cold, and the captain suddenly realized that when the kid had delivered that suggestion he'd looked a good bit like his umpteenth-something grandmother, Miranda I. She'd been famous for a certain lack of pity where enemies were concerned. Of course, such things could be taken too far, but it also might be the first symptom of a spine.

Now if only it could be moderated into decency.

The king, on the other hand, only grunted in laughter and glanced at his general before he looked back at Roger with a handclap of agreement.

"An elegant solution, young prince. You would make an excellent monarch someday. I've noticed that if you have only one problem, it is often insoluble, but that if you have many problems, they solve each other. We have a conspiracy to break, a need to fulfill, and hands to fulfill it. Excellent."

"In order to pull all of this together, we need some of my officers," Pahner said. "And we need to get down to planning quickly."

"Agreed," the king replied. "But we don't move until I've confirmed this."

"As you say, Your Majesty," Roger replied for the group. "We exist but to serve," he finished sardonically.

* * *

On the way back to their quarters, Roger found himself nearly alone with Captain Pahner. He glanced around to ensure that no one besides Marines were in the area, then sighed.

"At least Mom doesn't have to put up with conspiracies like this," he said. "I'd hate to deal with backstabbing bastards like N'Jaa and Kesselotte all day long."

Pahner stopped as abruptly as if he'd just taken a round from a bead rifle and stared at the prince, who continued for another step and a half before he realized the Marine was no longer beside him. He turned to the captain.

"What? What did I say this time?" He could tell he'd upset the officer, but for the life of him, he didn't have a clue how.

Pahner felt breathless. For a moment, he could only shake his head, speechless at the naïveté of the statement while he tried to figure out if the prince was trying to feel him out or if the young idiot really was that blind. He finally decided that it could be either, as impossible as that seemed. Which meant the truth was the best answer.

"You—" He stopped himself just before he called the prince an idiot and cleared his throat.

"Your Highness," he continued then, in a calm and deadly voice, "your Lady Mother deals with plots ten times as Byzantine as this every day of the week, and twice on Sunday. And she comes up with, I guaran-damn-tee you, better answers than this one. She would figure out a way to have all the Houses continue under current leadership on a completely different political track, and I wish to hell that we could do the same.

"However hard we try not to, we are going to kill innocents with this 'bigger-hammer' approach, and that doesn't make me a bit happy. Unfortunately, none of us are as smart as the Empress, so we'll just have to muddle through and hope she manages to survive all the crap headed her way while we're trying to get home!"

Roger stared at him, eyes wide, and the Marine snorted bitterly. Whatever the prince might think, Pahner knew only too well just how false the surface serenity of the Empire of Man was, for he'd had access to intelligence reports very few mere captains would ever see.

"You think I'm exaggerating, Your Majesty?" he demanded. "Well I'm not, so for God's sake wake up and smell the coffee! You think, perhaps, that all of us are here on sunny Marduk because we want to be? You think that DeGlopper just happened to have a few minor technical problems which had nothing at all to do with your presence? Somebody slipped a toombie onto your goddamned ship and marooned us on this God forsaken planet, and I guarantee you it wasn't N'Jaa!"


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