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CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

Rastar shook his head over the invitations laid out on the floor.


"Some of these I can only guess at, but you're right. Whether or not we get any support is going to depend more on these invitations than any Council meeting."


"Am I reading these right?" Roger asked. "Do they really say something like 'and bring a date'?"


"Yes." Rastar chuckled. "The local custom, decadent in the eyes of my people, is to have men and women at the same dinner. The women are supposedly there to lend an air of grace to the proceedings. I think the idea is for them to keep us from spitting on the floor."


"Bloody hell," Roger said. "Do they realize that one of my main advisers is a woman? And one of my senior officers, as well, for that matter?"


"I'm not sure," Rastar said. "But it's going to be very important for you to attend at least three of these if you hope to achieve anything here in the city. How you divide them up is going to be . . . interesting."


"Eleanora . . . ?" the prince said plaintively.


"I'll do my best," the chief of staff sighed. "I wish I understood the position of women in this society better, though. I'm getting this queasy feeling that we've arrived in the middle of the suffrage movement, which means that any time a female opens her mouth in a definitive manner, as I tend to, it's going to be taken as a political statement."


"Well, let's go on as we intend to end," Roger told her. "We're a mixed unit from a mixed society, and I don't intend to convey anything else, whatever the societal norms. Also, there's this story of a woman who organized the evacuation of D'Sley."


"There are three invitations from D'Sley nobles," Rastar noted. "But none from a woman."


"Julian," Pahner said. "Track down that story and get us some clear intel on it."


"You think it's important?" Roger asked.


"If we have to stay and fight, it will be," the captain said. "If she can organize a sealift one way, she can organize one the other way."


"Ah." The prince smiled. "Rastar, I get the feeling that D'Sley wasn't a democracy?"


"No," the Northerner said. "It was controlled by a council of nobles and a weak king. From what I've heard, the king is dead, and many of the nobles as well, but many of the commoners escaped, especially the women."


"And they're clogging the city," Julian added. "That's one of the sore points at the moment—all the D'Sley refugees."


"Just once," Roger said, shaking his head. "Just damned once, I would like something to go smoothly somewhere on this planet."


"There is a sense of déjà vu here, isn't there?" O'Casey laughed. "I'll set about divvying up these invitations with Rastar. You go discuss clothes with Matsugae. I'm going to need a clean and presentable dress or suit, as are several of the Marines. We can . . . elevate their social importance for the evening."


"Oh, Lord," Roger said, grabbing his head. "Just once. Please God, just once." He shuddered. "Poertena. At a formal dinner? The mind boggles."


* * *


Kostas Matsugae shook his head and grimaced.


"You really don't appreciate me enough," he said.


"Probably not," Roger agreed wryly. "But we need dresses or suits for myself, Pahner, O'Casey, Kosutic, and some of the other Marines."


"Why here? They seemed to do just fine with chameleon suits everywhere else."


"The locals are a bit more sophisticated in K'Vaern's Cove," Roger said. "They deal with so many different cultures that they're more likely to notice the . . . poor condition of the uniforms, even if they don't wear clothes themselves. Unfortunately, we can't afford to create anything but the very best impression, because we need something from these guys, like a fleet of ships, so Armand wants you to coordinate with Eleanora to see to it that any appearance we present is a good one."


"Oh, very well," the valet said with a sudden twinkle. "I'll think of something. There are a couple of bolts of dianda left, and I'm sure the locals have some of that serge-like material I found at Diaspra, if nothing else. And I've already seen some very nice wall hangings and tapestries here, so if I look really hard . . ."


His voice trailed off thoughtfully, and Roger stood.


"Right, well, I'll leave you to it," he said.


"Hmmm," Matsugae said with an absentminded nod, but then his eyes sharpened. "Do we know who's going to be attending these events? And when are they?"


"Uh, no," Roger said as casually as possible. "We're not quite certain yet who's on the guest list from our side. But the dinners are mostly tomorrow evening," he finished brightly.


"Tomorrow!"


"I guess I'd better get going now," Roger said, beating a hasty retreat.


"Tomorrow?!"


"Have a good time, Kostas. Use whatever funds you need," the prince said, and disappeared out the door like smoke.


The valet stood staring at the closed door, jaw still half-dropped, for several fulminating seconds, but then he began to smile.


"Whatever funds I need, hmmm?" he murmured. "And coordinate with Eleanora, is it?" He chuckled evilly. "This one you're going to pay for, Roger," he promised the absent prince. "In fact, I think it's two-birds-with-one-stone-time, young man!"


* * *


Eleanora O'Casey glanced up as Matsugae walked into her office, took one look at his expression, and chortled. Then she gestured at the scrolls scattered over the floor around her.


"Look at this before you complain to me about your problems," she warned him.


"Oh, I wasn't going to complain," he said with a decidedly wicked grin. "I was only wondering if you'd decided on who was escorting whom?"


"Well, we've got a minimum of two separate categories of meetings going on, and probably at least three. The first category consists of the ones which are going to be crucial to getting overall political support, so those are the most critical and I'm assigning senior officers and in some cases some of our more . . . polished NCOs to them."


"All right. And the others?"


"The second category are the dinners where I can reasonably expect the majority of the conversation to revolve around military-technical issues. Bistem Kar is hosting one of those, for example. For those, I feel comfortable sending experienced but slightly less polished NCOs. Then there's a dinner invitation from a shipyard associated with Councilor Wes Til. In fact, Til is hosting the banquet."


"So he'll be there in person?"


"Yes, and I'm not entirely certain whether that one ought to be considered overall political or military-technical . . . or possibly in a third category all its own. Call it, um, logistical. Or maybe financial. Whatever, I'm assigning it the same priority as category one. Particularly since Tor Flain, the local Guard's second in command, is also going to be present."


"So who's going to that one?"


"Oh, Roger. Technically, the Council chairman is higher in rank than Til, but given the fact that we're going to have to build our own ships, the combination of economic and military aspects make this the more important meeting, I think. And if military questions arise, I'm sure Roger can field them."


"And who's he going to be escorting?"


"I haven't decided yet. Given its importance, I suppose I should go with him, but there's another that fascinates me more. One of the other Council members, who's nearly as wealthy as Til, has arranged for a dinner to which a D'Sley nobleman will be bringing the female who arranged the D'Sley sealift."


"That does sound fascinating," the valet said. "Have you decided who'll be escorting you to it?"


"No, I hadn't," she said, then looked up and raised an eyebrow at his expression. "Really?"


"I would truly like to meet the . . . formidable lady who organized that evacuation," Matsugae said honestly. "And I believe my calendar is open."


"Okay," she agreed, pulling out an invitation scroll and making a note on it. "That's that one filled."


"Excellent. And, if I may, I believe I might have an appropriate suggestion for Roger's companion, as well."


* * *


"Christ on a crutch," Roger grumbled as he tossed his helmet on the bed the following afternoon. "I just came back from the harbor, and I see what Poertena means about tubs—those things must roll in a bathtub!"


"Well, some of us weren't able to go gallivanting about the city," Matsugae sniffed, and Roger smiled as he took in the valet's appearance. Matsugae wore a suit of dark blue velvet that was both extremely handsome and much too heavy for the local weather, and the glittering MacClintock crest of a palace servitor in personal service to the Imperial Family sparkled brightly on his breast for the first time since they'd arrived on Marduk. Its brilliance would have been sadly out of place on a chameleon suit, but it was also a proud award very few could claim, and the valet brushed it absently with his fingers as he returned the prince's regard.


"Nice outfit, Kosie! I take it Eleanora shanghaied you for the guest list, too?"


"I would scarcely choose the term 'shanghaied,' " Matsugae said primly, "but, yes, I will be attending one of the dinners tonight. In fact, Eleanora and I will be going together, thank you."


Roger's smile turned into a grin, and Matsugae sniffed again.


"It's certainly an evening out which I've earned," he said, pointedly. "While you were out playing in the harbor, I've had half the platoon cycling through my own private tailor's shop." Roger's eyebrows rose in surprise, and Matsugae gave him a triumphant smile. "I am—justifiably, I feel—quite proud of it, since I created it in a single day. And it's undoubtedly the largest tailor's shop I've ever seen, since I had to buy an entire idled sailmaker's loft to put it in!"


"Good work, Kostas! I knew we could count on you. Now all we have to do is replicate your outfit a few dozen times over, and we'll be able to attend all the boring dinners we have to to save our own buns and K'Vaern's Cove both! When am I scheduled for a fitting?"


"You will no doubt be happy to know that you won't require a fitting, despite the fact that you chose to spend the entire day playing hooky down at the harbor instead of assisting with the preparations. As it turns out, the St. John twins are both very nearly your size and build, so I was able to use one of them as a breathing manikin. You now have a new suit. Congratulations."


"Man, you were really upset at getting this dumped on you, weren't you?"


"Not as much as it might seem. You are, I believe, attending the small dinner party with Wes Til?"


"And Tor Flain," Roger agreed, unbraiding his hair and stripping off his chameleon suit. "I don't suppose there's time for a bath?"


"One has been drawn, Your Highness," Matsugae assured him. "And who are you taking to the party?"


"Eleanora, I'd presume," Roger said with a suddenly wary expression, one foot still in his trousers as something about the valet's tone sounded warning signals. "But you said you were going with her, didn't you?" he asked suspiciously.


"Actually, I did. The two of us are going to meet with Sam Tre and Fullea Li'it, the lady who arranged the D'Sley sealift."


"Oh." Roger finished stepping out of the uniform. "Kosutic, then?"


"Being accompanied by Sergeant Julian to a meeting with Bistem Kar, I believe."


"That should be interesting," Roger observed. "Too bad I didn't draw that one. So if not Kosutic, who? Gunny Lai?"


"Accompanying Captain Pahner to his dinner with Turl Kam."


"Okay," Roger said, turning to face him and planting his hands on his hips. "Spit it out, Kosie. Who?"


"Actually, I believe Sergeant Despreaux is the next most senior female Marine," the valet said with a bland expression.


"Oh," Roger oofed, his expression remarkably like that of a poleaxed steer. Then he shook himself. "Oh, Kostas Matsugae, I had no concept of the depths of wickedness lurking in your soul. You are an evil, evil person!"


"Moi? Well, perhaps. I can state without fear of contradiction, however, that she cleans up pretty. For one of the 'help.' "


* * *


"Such an evil person," Roger whispered to himself as Despreaux came through the door.


The sergeant's blouse was a lovely shade of off-white. The sleeveless and collarless garment was made of an opaque, white linenlike material that was almost paper thin but had an odd translucence, like mother-of-pearl. The base fiber was something called halkha, and it came from the pods of a hemplike plant unknown on the east side of the Tarsten range. The locals used it very much as Terrans had used cotton in the days when there were no synthetic fibers, for everything from wall hangings, to sacks and coarse-woven bags used to hold tubers and grains, to sailcloth. There was, however, an enormous difference between those rough, sturdy utilitarian fabrics and the fine threads and tight weaves required to make such lovely cloth, and Roger wondered where Matsugae had found enough, on no notice, to create several outfits.


Rather than buttoning up the front, the blouse was sealed with soft, beautifully tanned leather ties up the sides and at the shoulders. Roger supposed that was because it had been impossible even for Matsugae to introduce buttons and buttonholes to the generally unclothed Mardukans in the time available to him, but the ties lent the outfit an air of barbarism that was somehow in keeping with the whole crazy affair.


The simple peasant skirt that accompanied the blouse was also white, although a shade darker than the blouse. Its pleats swirled around her long legs, and Roger winced as he looked at her footwear.


"Court shoes? Where in the hell did he find court shoes?"


"Is that all you have to say, Your Highness?" the sergeant snapped, fiddling with the unfamiliar weight of the skirt. It was the first time in months that she'd worn anything but her uniform and skivvies.


"Uh," Roger replied, suddenly tongue-tied.


"I hope your 'associate' meets with your approval," Despreaux said in tones of deadly sweetness, and Roger grimaced.


"Look, I wasn't at my very best that evening, and that wasn't the word I really wanted. But neither was 'servant,' 'help,' or 'slave.' Sometime, maybe, I can explain what I did mean to say, and why. But right now, we have a mission. If it helps, I didn't ask for this, either."


Despreaux's eyes flashed, and she threw her hands up in the air.


"Oh, sure, that makes me really happy, 'Milord'! Now I'm not just stuck with you all night, I'm stuck with somebody who doesn't want his 'associate' to sully the evening!"


Roger grabbed his hair and started to pull it, then drew a deep breath and shoved the disarranged strands back into place.


"Sergeant Despreaux. Truce, okay? I'm sorry. Does that help? I'm sorry for offending you. I'm even sorry for not taking you up on your implication, or at least seeing if what I thought was an implication was, in fact, an implication at all. I am very attracted to you. Was, am, and will be. I was that night. I am tonight. I will be at some future date when perhaps we can sit down and discuss the . . . problems of one Roger MacClintock and why they cause him to keep making an ass out of himself in front of beautiful women."


He drew another breath and held a hand up before Despreaux could get a word in edgewise.


"But tonight, we have a mission to complete. A very important one. And that requires that we not be clearly at odds for the entire evening. Now, can we manage to act like we like each other? A little? For a few hours?"


Despreaux closed her mouth and let out her gathered breath through flaring nostrils, then nodded.


"Yes, Sir. We can."


"Very well. In that case, I think it's time." Roger started towards the door, only to be blocked by the sergeant's automatic reflex action—the Empress' Own always went through a door before its principal.


The prince looked at her and smiled. He also noticed that the court shoes, whose high heels had come into fashion once again, made her nearly as tall as he was. He still didn't have a clue how Matsugae had managed to find shoes, but he discovered that it was distinctly pleasant to have Nimashet Despreaux's eyes on a level with his own.


"Sergeant," he said, "tonight you aren't a bodyguard. Tonight, I'm your escort to dinner, and, as such, it's my job to open the door for you."


Despreaux smiled back and let him open it. Then she went through first, automatically scanning from side to side.


That's what you think, she thought. And where did the Sergeant Major get that holster? Try to get between these thighs tonight, Your Highness, and you've got a hell of a surprise coming!


It took her a moment to realize that she assumed both that he would try . . . and that she would let him succeed.


Oh, Nimashet, you've got it bad.


 


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