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"If you hadn't come, we would have lost."

Roger took a sip of wine. The vintage was excellent, but then, all of the tent's appointments were excellent, from the finely tooled leather of its walls, to its hammered brass tables. The cushions on the floor were covered in a cloth the humans had never seen before, silky and utterly unlike the more common rough and wool-like material found in Q'Nkok. Obviously, T'Kal Vlan traveled in style.

"Perhaps so." The last ruler of T'an K'tass picked up a candied slice of kate fruit and nibbled it. "Yet even so, you would have destroyed the Kranolta. That's surely worth something even in the eyes of gods of the most distant land!"

Captain Pahner shook his head.

"I'm sorry, Your Highness, but it isn't. We come from an empire so vast that the Kranolta and all the valley of the Hurtan are an unnoticeable speck. I'm glad that you're glad, but the losses we took might mean the prince won't make it home." He grinned at the Mardukans. "And that would really disappoint his mother."

"Ah!" Roger exclaimed. "Not that! Not Mother angry! God forbid!"

"A formidable woman, eh?" T'Kal Vlan grunted a laugh.

"Rather," Roger told him with a shrug. "He has a point, though. I'm sure that if I died, Mother would visit me beyond the grave to chastise me for it."

"So, you see," Pahner continued, "I'm afraid I have to count this one as a straight loss."

"Not really, Captain," the prince said, swirling his wine gently. "We've cleared the way. One way or another, we had to get to the other side of this range of hills, and none of the choices were particularly good. There's no reason to second-guess this one. If we'd gone south, we would've been walking through a war, and we would undoubtedly have second-guessed ourselves then and said 'I bet those Kranolta pussies wouldn't have been this much trouble.'"

"Well, I for one thank you for clearing out most of those 'Kranolta pussies,' " T'Leen Targ said, with his own grunt of laughter. "Already, the ironworkers we brought with us are building the furnaces. We have gathered all the surviving masters of the art and their apprentices. Soon the lifeblood of Voitan will flow once more."

"Aye," T'Kal Vlan agreed. "And the sooner the better. My own treasury is flowing away like blood."

"You need to capitalize," O'Casey said. The chief of staff had been quietly sipping her wine and listening to the warriors' testosterone grunting with amusement. This, however, was her specialty.

"Agreed," Vlan said. "But the family has already liquidated most of its holdings to fund the expedition. Short of borrowing, at extortionate rates, I'm not sure how to raise more capital."

"Sell shares," O'Casey suggested. "Offer a partial ownership of the mines. Each share has a vote on management, and each gains equity and shares in the profits, if any. It would be a long-term investment, but not a particularly risky one if you're sufficiently capitalized. "

"I didn't understand all the words you just used," Vlan said, cocking his head. "What is this 'equity'?"

"Oh, my." O'Casey grinned widely. "We really must have a long conversation."

"Don't worry," Pahner told her with a shrug. "We're not going anywhere for a while."

* * *

Roger sat up in his tent, damp with sweat and panting and looked around him. All clear. Tent walls faintly billowing in the wind that had come up. Camp gear. Eyes.

"You should be resting, Your Highness," said Cord faintly.

"So should you, old snake," Roger said. "You don't heal as fast as we do." He sat up on the camp cot and took a deep breath. "It just, you know, comes back."

"Yes, it does," the Mardukan agreed.

"I wonder how . . ." The prince stopped and shook his head.

"How?" the shaman queried, lifting himself up with a grimace.

"You should be flat on your back, Cord," Roger said with another headshake.

"I grow weary of lying about like a worm," the Mardukan countered. "How, what?"

"Not one to be distracted, are you?" Roger smiled. "I was wondering how the Marines handle it. How they handle the fear and the death. Not just ours, God knows I got enough Marines killed here. But the Kranolta. We've ended them as a tribe, Cord. Piled them up against the wall as if they were a ramp. They . . . don't seem affected by that."

"Then you have not eyes, Young Prince," the shaman countered with a grunt. "Look at young Julian. Your people, too, have the laughing warrior who hides his pain with humor, as did our Denat, he who I lost to the atul. Always he faced danger with laughter, but it was a shield to the soul. I'm sure that he jested with the very atul as it ate him. Or young Despreaux. So young, so dangerous. I am told that she is beautiful for a human. I don't see it myself; she lacks . . . many things. Horns for one. And her shield is that face like a stone. She holds her pain in so hard it has turned her to a stone, I think."

Roger tilted his head to the side and played with a stray lock of hair. "What about . . . Pahner? Kosutic?"

"Ah," Cord grunted. "For one, you notice that though they are capable warriors, they control from afar. But mostly they have learned the tricks. The first trick is to know that you are not alone. While I was in the cavern still, Pahner came to visit, to see the wounded, and we talked. He is a font of wisdom is your captain. We talked of many things but mostly we talked of . . . song. Of poetry."

"Poetry?" Roger laughed. "What in the hell would Pahner be doing talking about poetry?"

"There is poetry and poetry, my Prince," the shaman said with a grunt. "Ask him about 'The Grave of the Hundred Dead.' Or 'Recessional.' Or 'If.' " The shaman rolled over to find a more comfortable position. "But ask him in the morning."

"Poetry?" Roger said. "What in hell would I want with poetry?"

* * *

"Eleonora?" Roger asked. The chief of staff was on her way to another of the numerous meetings she had arranged with the Voitanese forces. She apparently considered herself a one-person social reengineering team, or at least the best equivalent available. She was determined that when she left, the Voitanese would have the strongest governmental structure available to the situation. Since that was probably a rational oligarchy it fit in well with the Voitanese plans.

"Yes, Ro . . . Your Highness?" she asked hurriedly. Her pad was almost overloaded with notes and there were only a few days left to get everything in place. Whatever Roger wanted had better be quick.

"Have you ever heard of a poem called 'The Grave of the Hundred Dead?' "

The chief of staff stopped and thought then consulted her toot. "The name is familiar, but I can't quite place it."

"Or 'Recessional.' " Roger's brow wrinkled but he couldn't think of the other. "Or something like 'If?' "

"Ah!" the historian's face cleared. "Yes. That one I have. Why?"

"Uh," Roger stopped, caught. "Would you believe Cord recommended it?"

O'Casey laughed merrily. It was a twinkling sound that Roger realized he had never heard. "Not without some sort of body transference, Your Highness."

"I think he heard of it from someone," Roger explained stiffly.

"Set your pad," she said with a smile and transferred the file.

There was a blip and Roger looked at the translation remark on his pad. "You keep it on your toot?" Roger asked, surprised.

"Oh, yes," O'Casey said as she started back down the path. "I love that poem. There are very few pre-space poets that have even one poem known. Kipling has to be right up there with the Earl of Oxford. You might see Captain Pahner. I believe Eva said he has the collected works in his toot."

* * *

Warrant Officer Dobrescu tossed the chunk of reddish ore from hand to hand as he gazed up at the towering wall of red and black.

And, lo, the answers come clear, he thought.

The last two weeks had been good for the company. The troops had been given time to rest and get some separation from the terrible losses inflicted in the battle. Since Voitan was going to be held by "friendly" forces, Captain Pahner had decided to leave all of their dead. If they made it through alive, they would come back for them. If they fell along the way, these Marines, at least, would be honored.

The Voitanese had opened a vault in their own catacombs, which had been looted by the Kranolta. The sepulcher had been the resting place of the city's royal guards before its fall, and there were still a few of their bones moldering in the back. The Marines had been bagged but not burned and laid to rest along with their brethren. Sergeant Major Kosutic, as the only registered chaplain in the company, had performed the ceremony, and if any of the Marines had objected to their honored dead being prayed over by a High Priestess of Satan, they hadn't mentioned it.

The pause had also given the wounded time to recover, and a regimen of heavy eating and bed rest had done wonders. All but the most critically injured were back on their feet and training, and, from a purely selfish point of view, it had given Dobrescu time to scratch a few itches.

The first itch had to do with the local steel. The point had been made again and again that only the "water steels" made in Voitan were of the finest quality. That steels from other areas, even if processed in what they thought was the same way, did not possess the "spirit" of Voitan's Damascene steels.

The second itch had to do with the Mardukan biology. Something had been bugging him ever since they landed and ran into D'Nal Cord, and the downtime and necessity of working on Mardukan wounded, as well as human, had given him the opportunity to do a little studying. What he'd discovered would startle most of the company, but the warrant thought it was hilarious. He hated it when people made assumptions.

Time to go watch some people cringe, he thought with an evil smile.

* * *

"So the steel has a high percentage of impurities," O'Casey said. "So what?"

"It's not just that it has a high percentage," Dobrescu said, consulting his pad. "It's what the impurities are."

"I don't know what this 'impurity' is," Targ said.

"That's going to be difficult to explain," Eleanora said with a frown. "It involves molecular chemistry."

"I'll give it a shot," Roger said. "Targ, you know how when you first smelt the ore, you get 'black iron.' The brittle stuff, right?"

"Yes," T'Kal Vlan agreed. "It's what was given to Cord's tribe, that broke so easily."

"You have to remelt it," Cord put in. The wounded Mardukan was seated behind Roger, as was proper, but stretched out on cushions to save his ravaged legs. "Very hot. It's hard and expensive, which is why black iron is cheaper."

"Okay," Roger went on. "Then when you heat it in a crucible, 'very hot,' as Cord said, you get a material that's gray and very easy to work."

"Iron," Targ said. "So?"

"That's what we call 'wrought iron,' and it actually is almost pure iron. Iron is a molecule. Black iron is iron with carbon, which is what's in charcoal, mixed into it."

"What about steel?" T'Kal Vlan asked. "And why do I think we need an ironmaster here?"

"Somebody else can explain it later," Roger said with a laugh. "The point is that iron is a pure element, a kind of molecule. Is that sort of clear?"

"I hear the words," Targ replied, "but I don't know their meaning."

"That would be hard to really explain without teaching you basic chemistry first," Dobrescu said. "You're just going to have to take our word for most of this and I'm not sure how much you can do with it."

"The point is that steel is also iron with carbon in it," Roger said. "But less carbon, and heated to a much higher temperature."

"That much is well known to our master smiths," Targ said, with a human-style shrug. "Yet mere heat and tempering does not produce the water steel. Even in exile, our smiths have forged weapons far superior to those of other city-states, but never the water steel of Voitan."

"No, steel is complicated," Roger agreed. "Especially 'water steel'—what we call 'Damascene.' We—well, I—was really surprised you had it and of such quality. It's unusual at your technology level."

"I think it's driven by their pumping industry," O'Casey interjected. "They have quite a bit of refined technology dedicated to pumps. Once that starts to spread out a bit, look for an industrial revolution. I wish they were just a bit further along. If they were, I'd introduce the steam engine."

"Let's stick to the subject, if we can," Pahner suggested with a slight grin, "and reengineer their society when we can do it with a regiment at our back. Okay?"

"His Highness is right," Dobrescu went on to Targ, ignoring the captain's amusement. "Normal steel is specially formed iron with a bit of carbon and high temperature, but you need some other impurities, if you want good steel, which explains Voitan blades. The first thing to realize is that the local ore is what we call 'banded iron.' "

"I know," Roger said. "Geology, remember? It's formed by early oxygen-generating organisms. Prior to their evolution, atmospheres are mostly reducing, and iron can remain on the surface in a mostly pure state. But once the first green or blue-green organism occurs and starts producing oxygen, the iron rusts. Then the oxygen gets used up over millions of years, and there's a band of non-rusted ore, then another band of rusted ore. Right?"

"Right," the warrant officer agreed. "Which makes it some of the best possible taconite, so it's comparatively easy to work. But, even better, it's contaminated with vanadium, which is one of several possible hardening agents for steel. Molybdenum and chrome are a couple of others."

"Molybe—molby—?" Cord grimaced. "I can't pronounce that."

"Don't worry about it," Dobrescu said. "The point is, Targ, that it really is the local ore, and your know-how, that's special. And I ran a tap in on one of your main mines, and it's all laced with impurities: vanadium and molybdenum. In fact, I'd give odds that by the time you get back into full swing, you'll hit a vein that makes the best steel you've ever seen."

"Ah, good," Targ said. "We have long wondered what it was that made our water steel. That's part of it, surely."

"Hold on a minute," Roger said, frowning at Dobrescu. "Vanadium and molybdenum are important, yeah, but not really critical for sword steel, Doc." The warrant officer blinked at him in surprise, and the prince chuckled with a humor that was more than slightly sour. "I won't claim to be an expert on the topic," he said, "but no MacClintock can avoid learning at least a little about ancient weapons . . . no matter how hard he tries."

"Oh?" Dobrescu cocked an eyebrow, and Roger shrugged.

"Oh," he replied. "Vanadium helps produce a finer grain structure in heat-treated steel, which helps with the tempering process and eliminates some of the problems in overheating steel. And it helps prevent loss of temper in reheated metal, so steel with vanadium in it can withstand higher temperatures before losing its temper.

"Molybdenum does some of the same thing by helping to transmit the temperature deeper into the steel, and it also increases hardness some and helps reduce the fatigue factor. But carbon is the most critical element in hardening steel."

Both of Dobrescu's eyebrows had risen during the prince's explanation, and the warrant officer's surprise was not an isolated phenomenon. Even O'Casey was staring at her one-time student, and Roger shrugged.

"Hey, like I said, I'm a MacClintock," he told them.

"According to something I read years ago, though," Dobrescu said, "vanadium and molybdenum were what produced Damascene steel."

"Almost right," Roger told him. "The 'water pattern'—those white lines on the black background—are a crystalline damask that's largely the result of those sorts of impurities. But you can have that kind of pattern on a blade that really sucks. Good Damascene steel hits a carbon content of something like one and a half percent, if I remember correctly, but even then, the trick is in the tempering. There are some beautifully patterned blades in the Roger III Collection that were never properly heat treated. I think their Rockwell number was only thirty or so, which would make them pretty useless as real weapons. You need to hit a Rockwell of around fifty if you want something to cut through mail and bone like this baby." He touched the katana lying beside him even in T'Kal Vlan's tent

"Really?" O'Casey asked, trying to hide her delight at hearing Roger—her Roger!—in professorial mode. Sort of.

"Yeah. There were different techniques for making the good stuff back on Old Earth," Roger told her. "Europeans did it with pattern welding, the Japanese used mechanical construction, but the Indians probably did it closest to the way Voitan smiths did it, judging from this." He touched the katana again. "They heated the steel in sealed clay crucibles that allowed the iron to soak up lots of carbon."

"That is, indeed, how our craftsmen work," Targ said, regarding Roger narrowly. "It is part of our closely held craft secrets," he added, and Roger grinned.

"Don't worry, Targ—I don't plan on telling anyone else. But the humans who used that technique produced something called 'wootz' steel that happened to have the very impurities the Doc here was talking about thanks to the local ores. And he's probably right that their presence helps account for at least some of your weapons' superiority, but don't let that distract you. The real secret's in the tempering and how well you judge temperatures and what quenching techniques you use. You might not get as pronounced a 'water' pattern using steels without the impurities, but your people would still be turning out some of the best weapon-grade steel in the world!"

"But it is the water steel which warriors associate with the superiority of our blades," Targ pointed out. "It shows the soul of the steel."

"And it's flat out beautiful, too," Roger agreed. "I'm not saying the nature of your ore isn't important, just that you shouldn't sell yourselves or your smiths short. The hardest thing of all in making a true master blade is the tempering, and you guys obviously have that down. For the rest—" He shrugged. "Now that you've got access to the right ores again, everyone else will see that the true 'water steel' is back. I imagine that's going to do good things for your income while you rebuild the city."

"True," T'Kal Vlan put in. "It is what warriors and merchants will look for when they judge the quality of our blades, and it is well to know what creates it. But where else do we find these ingredients? If we do start to have problems, we could mine them separately and add them, no?"

"Yes," Roger said with a frown. "The problem is finding them and separating them. I'd say that for the time being, you should probably just use what you have. I'll talk to a couple of your ironmasters if you want. Between us, Dobrescu and I might be able to explain it and point them in the right direction. If I recall clearly, chrome is actually easier to detect and separate."

"It is if you have an acid," Dobrescu agreed. "Less so, otherwise. And it's tricky to hit the right proportions and heat treatments. Humans didn't turn out good chromium steel until, oh, the last century and a half or so before space flight, I think. Of course, they didn't have anyone from the outside telling them how it worked, either."

"No, but they had more or less started figuring out chemistry on their own by then," O'Casey pointed out, and frowned thoughtfully. "I wonder if we could help them make that jump," she mused, and Pahner snorted.

"It sounds to me like we could probably spend a year or three just trying to remember what we don't remember about the processes," the Marine observed. "It would be better to just come back with a lander filled with science texts."

"Agreed." Roger chuckled. "Or, hell, a lander filled with a social reconstruct team. I don't want to crack Mardukan society; I like most of what I see. But I do want to bring them into the Empire."

"We can do that," O'Casey said. "God knows we've brought in enough devolved human societies without smashing their forms."

"Like Armagh?" Roger asked with a grin.

"Well," the chief of staff said, "there's something to be said for a planet full of battling Irishmen. Look at the Sergeant Major."

"True, true," Pahner said. "However, to bring back a Soc team, we need to get to the port. And to get to the port . . ."

"We just have to put one foot in front of the other," Roger said. "And that means breaking up this little party."

"Yep." Pahner nodded. "Targ, Vlan, thank you for coming."

"Not a problem," Vlan said. "We're at your disposal until you leave."

"Thank you," Pahner said, carefully not raising an eyebrow at the surreptitious signal Dobrescu flashed him. "I think we'll see you tomorrow. Until then?"

"Yes," Targ said. "Thank you. And good night."

Pahner waited until the Mardukans had left the tent, then turned to the medic.

"Yes, Mister Dobrescu? You had something to add without the Mardukans present?"

The warrant officer glanced at the shaman behind Roger.

"Yes, Sir. But I'm not sure about Cord."

"He stays," Roger said coldly. "Whatever you have to say, you can say in front of my asi."

"All righty, Your Highness," the medic said. "It's about the Mardukans. And about some assumptions we've been making."

"What assumptions?" Pahner asked warily.

"Oh, it doesn't relate to security, Captain," Dobrescu said with an evil grin. "I'm not sure it matters at all, actually. But, you see, we've got their genders confused."

"What?" O'Casey demanded. As the manager for the translation program it was her job to make sure that that sort of thing didn't happen, and she started to bristle indignantly. Then she remembered all the times the program had tried to switch gender, and looked at Cord, stretched out behind Roger.

"But . . ." she began, and blushed.

"What you're looking at, Ms. O'Casey," the medic told her with an even wider evil grin, "is an ovipositor."

"An ovi . . . What?" Roger asked, checking his impulse to turn around and look. Dealing with the habitually nude Mardukans had slowly inured the humans to the size of the natives' . . . members, but he wasn't about to turn around and get all depressed again.

"Gender is a slippery term when you start discussing xenobiology," the medic continued, pulling up a different entry on his pad. "But the current 'definitive' definition is that the 'male' gender is that which supplies numerous gametes to fertilize a single gamete. However that's done."

"I take it, then, that Cord and his 'gender' do not supply numerous gametes," Pahner said carefully. "They certainly look . . . capable of doing so."

"No, they don't, and yes, they do," Dobrescu responded. "The gender we've been calling 'male,' Cord's gender, that is . . . implants, is the correct term, between four and six gametes that are functional cells, with the exception of a matching set of chromosomes. Once these have been implanted, they're fertilized by free swimming zygotes resident in the egg pouches of what I suppose should technically be called 'brooder males.'" The medic pursed his lips. "There are a few terrestrial species of fish that use a similar method, and its common on Ashivum in the native species."

"So, Cord is actually a female?" Pahner asked.

"Technically. However, there are sociological aspects that make the 'males' fill traditional female gender roles and vice versa. That and the physiology are what have been confusing the program."

"And me," O'Casey admitted, "but I'll bet you're right. We didn't have much of a language kernel to start with, and I never tried to get at its fundamental, underlying assumptions. Even if I'd thought about it, I wouldn't have known how to access them or what to do with them once I had. But given what Mr. Dobrescu just said about 'definitive' definitions, I'd guess that whoever prepared the kernel in the first place knew that Cord and his gender were technically 'female.' It tried to switch gender a couple of times, which is just the sort of literal-minded lunacy you might expect out of an AI with partial data, and I wouldn't let it."

"I am not a female," Cord stated definitively.

"Shaman Cord," Eleanora said, "we're having a problem with our translator. Try not to pay any attention to the flipping gender discussions."

"Very well," the shaman said. "I can understand problems with your machines. You have them all time. But I am not a female."

"What was the word he actually used there?" Dobrescu asked.

" 'Blec tule'?" O'Casey consulted her pad. "The etymology looks to be something like 'one that holds.' 'One that holds the eggs'? 'One that broods'? I bet that's it."

"What about Dogzard?" Roger asked, looking at the faintly snoring lizard.

"Another interesting aspect of local biology," Dobrescu answered. "There are two dominant families in Mardukan terrestrial zoology. You can think of them as equivalent to reptiles and amphibians if you want. Cord is from the 'amphibian' type. So are damnbeasts and damcrocs and bigbeasts. They all have slimy skin and similar internal organ structures.

"But the feck beasts, the dogzards, and the flar-ta are completely different. They have a dry integument with some scaling and radically different internal structures. Different heart chambers, different stomachs, different kidney analogs."

"So is Dogzard a he or a she?" asked Roger in exasperation.

"She," Dobrescu answered. "The 'reptile' analogs are set up, sexually, much like terrestrial reptiles. So Dogzard will eventually have puppies. Well, eggs."

"So what do we do about the translator?" Roger asked.

"We don't do anything about it," Pahner said. "We inform the troops of the physical aspects, and explain to them that the Mardukans are flipped gender, but we'll continue with our current distinction. As Elenora just suggested, the difference is purely technical, and since none of us are xenobiologists, I think we can get away with ignoring it. I can't see that it matters one way or the other, anyway, and this way we keep from confusing the troops. And the software."

"Just make sure that they're aware," Cord said stiffly, "that I am not a brooder."

* * *

"He's a female?" Julian asked.

"Sort of." Roger laughed. "But just keep treating him like he's a male. And hope like hell the software doesn't slip up when you get a visualization miscue." The implant-based software had already miscued once, with Poertena and Denat. Fortunately, it was a minor wound. The Pinopan would heal quickly, and the tribesman had accepted the explanation.

"Oh, man," Julian said, shaking his head. "I cannot wait to get off this planet. I got so much culture shock I feel like my dick's stuck in a culture socket."

* * *

Roger touched PFC Gelert on his shoulder as he strode past. The Marine grinned back at him, and hefted the spear over his shoulder. He obviously still found it an odd item for a Marine to carry.

All the Marines were armed with Mardukan weaponry. There'd been thousands of ex-Kranolta weapons available to choose from, and the New Voitan forces had let no time pass getting the first forges lit. They weren't up to custom work yet, but they were able to modify most of the weapons to fit the smaller humans, so the company was now well armed with short swords—long daggers, to the Mardukans—and Mardukan-style round shields, as well as at least one spear or javelin per Marine.

During the three weeks of rest while the company recovered, the Marines had begun their training. They had nowhere near the ability of the Mardukans, who'd practically been born with weapons in their hands, but unlike the natives, they were soldiers, not warriors. All of their training emphasized teamwork and cooperation, not individual, uncoordinated prowess, and they only needed to be good enough for one platoon to hold a shield wall—which no Mardukan seemed ever to have heard of—while the other one got out the real weapons.

Roger grinned back at the private and jabbed a thumb to indicate the sword over his own shoulder. The entire company looked better for the rest, although a few of the most seriously wounded were still going to be riding flar-ta.

Roger tossed a salute toward Corporal D'Estrees. She'd been one of the worst burn cases, and Dobrescu had eventually been forced to remove her left arm from the elbow down. Now she waved in return with her pink stump and scratched at the growing bulb of regenerating tissue. It itched like mad, but in another month or so, she'd be back in gear.

Roger finally reached the pack beast assigned to Cord. The shaman gestured to the straps holding him in place.

"This is most undignified."

Roger shook his head and waved at the endless row of grave mounds along the woodline. Figures could be seen moving down there, cutting wood for the charcoal pits and clearing brush from the beds of former roads.

"Be glad you're not in one of those."

"Oh, I am," Cord said, with a grunt, "but it is still most undignified."

Roger shook his head again as Pahner approached from the opposite direction.

"Well, Captain, are we ready?"

"Looks that way, Your Highness," the captain answered as a delegation headed by T'Leen Targ and T'Kal Vlan approached.

"We're leaving a lot of good people behind," Roger murmured, his smile fading just a bit as he glanced at the entrance to the city catacombs.

"We are," Pahner agreed quietly. "But we're leaving them in good company. And to tell the truth, Your Highness, I think it's better this way. I know it's a Marine tradition to bring our dead out with us, but I've always thought a soldier should be buried where he fell." He shook his head, his own eyes just a bit unfocused as he, too, gazed at the catacomb entrance. "That's what I want if my time ever comes," he said softly. "To be buried where I fall, with my comrades . . . and my enemies."

Roger looked at the Marine's profile in surprise, but not as much of it as he might have felt before reading "If." Or the other dozen or so Kipling poems Elenora O'Casey's toot had contained. There were depths to the captain which the old prince had never suspected . . . and which the new one respected too deeply to mention out loud.

"Well," he said cheerfully, "I'll bear that in mind if the time comes, Captain. But don't go getting any ideas! You're strictly forbidden to die until you get my royal butt home where it belongs! Clear?"

"Aye, 'Colonel,'" Pahner agreed with a grin. "I'll bear that in mind."

"Good!" Roger said, and the two of them turned back towards the approaching delegation together.

"I'd say this is the farewell committee," Kosutic observed, coming around the pack beast. She gestured at the groups of soldiers gathering along the route out of the rebuilding city. "I think they're getting ready for the big sendoff." She scratched at her own pink skin.

"I'll put on a bigger hat," Roger said jokingly, and flicked at a bit of leaf on the front of his chameleon suit. The suit was indelibly stained in places, but it was still self-cleaning, to an extent, and was more or less intact. Many of the company's uniforms were in tatters from where they'd been cut off in the course of hasty first-aid.

"Well, if you can find one, you can wear it," Pahner said calmly.

"Why, thank you for that permission, Sir." The prince grinned. "Should I go look?"

"I wouldn't suggest it at the moment, Your Highness," O'Casey said tartly. The little chief of staff had snuck up behind them so quietly that her unexpected voice made Roger start. "I think we need to thank our benefactors."

"I suppose," Roger answered impishly. "Of course, they might have saved our bacon, but we wiped out the Kranolta for them," he pointed out, and Pahner smiled again as Targ approached.

"I suppose there is that," the captain agreed.

It took an hour, but the company finally broke free of its brothers in arms, after profuse expressions of eternal friendship and undying mutual fealty, and started back on the long trail to the sea.

Marching upcountry.


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