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CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

The restaurant at which Roger and his "date" arrived after a long journey from the Citadel appeared to be little more than a shack right on the edge of the water on the seaward side of the city's peninsula. North of the main portion of the city, the location was a perfect half-moon bay, partially sheltered from storms by a reef of rock clearly demarcated by the swirl of luminescence where marine organisms glowed in the gentle swell washing over it. The bay, with its strip of rock and sand beach at the foot of the high limestone cliffs soaring up to the city wall, was quite pretty, if a trifle exposed. The haphazardly built structure of gray, weathered wood perched out over the water on piles driven into the rocky shore, open on the bay side and with two small fishing boats tied up in the shelving water beside it.


Roger slid down from their howt'e and turned to give Despreaux a hand down. The Triceratops-like beast was a smaller version of the flar-ta that stood "only" two meters at the shoulder, which was still amply large to make it just a tad ostentatious as a mode of transport through the streets of K'Vaern's Cove. Fortunately, like most flar-ta, howt'e were remarkably placid. But they were also expensive, and the fact that Wes Til had sent one to collect his human guests was both a statement of his wealth and—Roger hoped—a deliberate gesture of respect.


Despreaux would normally have handled unloading from the beast with athletic grace, but the fifty-millimeter heels the valet had somehow cobbled together got in the way of easy dismounts from Triceratops look-alikes.


Roger smiled at the thought, then smiled again as his squad of guards spread out around him and a team went in ahead to sweep the restaurant. He found the dichotomy odd. In battle, and even on the march, Pahner and the rest of the Marines had become accustomed to letting him risk his life alongside the lowliest private. They might not like it, but they'd finally accepted that it was going to happen. Get him into a "normal" situation, though, and their reflex protectiveness clamped down like armor.


The point team returned and nodded approval, and the remainder of his guards deigned to allow him and Despreaux to enter the restaurant themselves.


The interior of the shack was far superior to its inauspicious exterior. The building was broken into several smaller rooms, separated by simple woven walls that permitted the fresh sea breeze free run of the building. There were at least two dozen Mardukans in the first section, gathered around long, low tables, picking at trays of food and sipping from bulbous containers.


Roger's nose was assaulted by the scent of cooking as he entered, and he knew immediately that whatever else happened that evening, he was about to have a superior gustatory experience.


"Smells good," the sergeant whispered.


"Now I wish we'd brought Kostas," Roger said, as a jewel-bedecked Mardukan female approached.


"He's eating with Eleanora, remember?"


"That's what I meant."


"Welcome, gentle sir and madam, to Bullur's." The speaker seemed young to Roger, possibly the equivalent of a Terran teenager. "Did you make a reservation?"


"We're here with the Wes Til party," Roger said, handing over his invitation. He was moderately surprised by the fact that their greeter was female. It was the first time since Marshad that he'd spoken to a Mardukan woman, aside from exchanging a few words from time to time with one of the mahouts' women, although his observations in the markets and at the Council meeting had already confirmed that O'Casey was right in at least one respect. Here in K'Vaern's Cove, women clearly enjoyed at least some status.


"Very good, sir," the young lady said after a glance at the scroll. Her examination of it had been long enough, and purposeful enough, to indicate that she could read the angular script. "If you'll follow me?"


"Where are we going?" Despreaux asked, planting a restraining hand on Roger's forearm before he could move.


"Through here," the hostess replied in a slightly questioning tone.


"St. John," the sergeant said, and pointed with her chin.


"On it, Nimashet," the big Marine said, following the hostess with a grin. "Why don't you just let your hair down for the evening?"


"I don't think so," the NCO said primly as she and Roger followed St. John (J.) across the restaurant at a more leisurely pace, giving him time to check out the other room without being any more obvious about it than they had to.


"I think that would be an excellent idea," Beckley put in from behind the prince. "Letting your hair down, that is. Although, come to think of it, letting down his hair might be even more fun."


Roger drew a deep breath and bit his tongue rather firmly, but Despreaux's head whipped around and she gave the corporal a look like a solar prominence.


"I don't recall asking for your opinion, Reneb," she said in a dangerous tone, and the corporal chuckled.


"Nope, but them as needs help are usually the last to realize it. Just think of it as a friend trying to help you out."


"Reneb!" Despreaux began in a voice of mingled wrath and amusement, but she clamped her jaw when Roger put a hand on her forearm.


"It's not like she's the only one who thinks we're both being idiots, Nimashet." He sighed. "And the hell of it is, they're probably right! But," a wicked gleam entered his eyes, "if you won't tell them the deep dark secret of what passed between us in Q'Nkok, I won't!"


They reached the door opening into the last section of the building as he spoke, and St. John reappeared to nod that the room was clear just in time to see Sergeant Despreaux turn an interesting shade of crimson.


"My, my, my!" Beckley said in interested tones. "Whatever did happen in Q'Nkok, Nimashet?"


"Never you mind!" Despreaux snapped. "I mean, nothing happened in Q'Nkok! I—"


"Nimashet!" Roger's tone was one of shocked reproach. "How could you possibly have forgotten that wonderful morning?"


"There wasn't any wonderful morning!" Despreaux snarled, and then, as Beckley burst out laughing, the sergeant closed her eyes, drew a deep breath, and smiled in spite of herself. "Damn you, Roger," she half-chuckled. "I was willing to let you live for Ran Tai, but for that . . . ?"


She looked around the private room, the bodyguard reflex making personally certain that the room was indeed cleared, then relaxed ever so slightly. The area took up about a quarter of the interior of the restaurant, and it was occupied solely by the Councilman, his invited guests, and a few flunkies.


"Hey, you gotta catch me first," Roger told her with a wink as the Councilman and the K'Vaernian Guard's second in command came to their feet. "And kicking off those heels will give me at least a second's head start."


* * *


"Prince Roger Ramius Sergei Alexander Chiang MacClintock," Wes Til said, giving a shallow bow, "I believe that you've already met Tor Flain. May I introduce my life-mate, Teel Sla'at?" The woman beside him bowed at the waist and gave a gesture of greeting. She wore something Roger had never seen before, a magnificently worked harness of gold and lapis lazuli, and he returned her bow gracefully.


"Teel Sla'at, I greet you. And you as well, Wes Til. Well met."


"And may I introduce my life-mate, See Tra'an?" Tor Flain added. The guardsman had doffed his armor and instead was heavily bejeweled, with at least five necklaces, and bracelets on all four arms. His lady was even more heavily jeweled, with enough assorted metals and gems to be considered half armored. About half the total outfit consisted of a single sort of pearly gemstones, most of them greenish in cast and skillfully set in a pattern which emphasized the subtle gradations in their coloration. It made her look like some sort of Mardukan mermaid, and Roger wondered if the locals had that myth.


"I greet you, See Tra'an, Tor Flain," he said. The humans hadn't worked out the protocol for introductions at these dinners, although Eleanora had been sweating blood trying to figure it out. The biggest question was whether or not the women, who in virtually every other Mardukan society they'd encountered had been voiceless pseudo-slaves, should be greeted or even acknowledged. So far, none of the K'Vaernians had reacted with shock or outrage, and the female greeter and the conversations in the rest of the restaurant, which had involved mixed genders, also suggested that he'd hit just about the right note.


"And may I introduce Sergeant Nimashet Despreaux," he went on, gesturing to the sergeant . . . who, to his amazement, dropped a very creditable curtsy.


There was a momentary awkward pause, and then Teel Sla'at made a hand gesture of humor.


"Could you, perhaps, enlighten us as to your relationship to the 'sergeant'?" she asked politely.


Roger's eyebrows rose in a combination of surprise and dismay. Surprise because, despite the conversations that had gone on in the other rooms, he'd somehow assumed that the women would be along as a sort of window dressing. Dismay because he now had to explain his relationship to Despreaux, and even he wasn't sure what it was.


"Prince Roger and I are trying to determine if we're compatible to mate," Despreaux answered while he was still grappling with the question.


"And you have a choice?" Til asked. His tone indicated interest rather than distaste or shock, and Despreaux smiled as Roger chuckled ruefully.


"Oh, yeah, we sure do," the prince answered.


"Please, be seated," Til invited.


" 'Compatible to mate,' " See Tra'an repeated. "I understand that you humans are capable of mating at any time. Is that true?"


"Yes," Roger said uncomfortably, as he and Despreaux stretched out on the pillows scattered around the low tables. The escorting Marines took positions around the room, and Cord dropped into a lotus position behind Roger. "We can."


"Pseudo-mating is a form of social interaction and even recreation among us," Despreaux added. "On the other hand, it's a taboo subject in several of our subcultures."


"Is that a hint to drop the subject?" Teel Sla'at asked. The Councilor's mate slid a platter of thin, cooked slices of something in front of Despreaux and followed the motion by popping a slice from a similar platter into Wes Til's mouth.


The sergeant looked at the platter in front of her, then picked up one of the slices and ostentatiously ate it herself.


"Not at all. Neither Roger nor I are from one of those subcultures." She paused and picked up another slice. "This is good."


"Calan," Tor Flain said. "A shell-covered species that lives on the rocks. Preparation is laborious, but the result is excellent. How does one tell the difference between human males and females? You and R—the Prince are almost the same size."


Roger smiled as Despreaux fell momentarily silent. He picked up one of the slices and offered to feed it to her, and his smile became a grin despite himself as she glared silently at him.


"The easiest way to tell is to look for protuberances on the chest," he told the K'Vaernian guardsman. "There are other clues, but they're difficult to explain."


"Protuberances?" Flain repeated. "What are they? Or is that a taboo subject, as well?"


It was Despreaux's turn to laugh at the prince as his face flushed, and she kept her mouth shut, waiting to see how he would answer.


"It's a taboo to some people, but not to me," the prince said determinedly. "They are . . . similar in purpose to the heavier secretions on the backs of your females. They secrete a thin substance that's consumed for sustenance by human young."


"May we see them?" See Tra'an asked.


Roger rolled his eyes, and Despreaux smiled sweetly at him.


"Certainly," she said, and undid the ties at her shoulders.


"Hmmm." Til leaned forward and prodded the exposed breasts gently with his finger. "And you say these are used to produce food for your young? Is that their only purpose?"


"That and turning men into babies," Despreaux said with a silvery laugh as she did the ties back up, and Tor Flain looked at the prince.


"Your face has changed colors. Does that mean you and Sergeant Despreaux are going to mate?"


"No!" Roger said as Despreaux started laughing uncontrollably. "Oh, shut up, Nimashet."


"Is that a command, Your Highness?" the sergeant asked with a throaty chuckle.


"No, just a desperate attempt to steer the conversation onto less sensitive ground, I suspect," the councilor observed. "Unless I miss my guess, it seems that we've offended our guests."


"Only the more important one," Flain said. "Quick work. This is why I think inviting women to sensitive negotiations is insanity."


"Ah, my fine D'Sley import!" his mate said with a grunt of laughter. "You are so up-to-date."


"Well, it's true. You women are just too flighty."


"I wouldn't advise telling that to Eleanora," Roger said, taking another bite of the calan.


"She's your, what is the term, 'chief of staff'?" Til asked.


"Yes. She's my senior political adviser, as opposed to Captain Pahner, who's my senior military adviser."


"And a woman?" Flain asked.


"A woman," Roger agreed. "She's meeting with Lord Sam Tre and Madame Fullea Li'it this evening. And the person who's 'escorting' her isn't a senior adviser."


"So she'll be the one carrying the weight of the discussion?" Til asked.


"And any actual negotiations, political or financial, that might come up," Roger agreed, and didn't notice the looks that passed between the K'Vaernians at the word "negotiations" as he offered another bite to Despreaux. She accepted unthinkingly, and then they both froze as she nipped the slice off just short of his fingers.


"Ah, look," Tor Flain said. "He's turning red again. I say they're going to mate."


"I hope they can wait until after dinner," See Tra'an added. "I've heard wonderful things about the grilled coll."


Roger cleared his throat.


"We are not going to mate."


"Certainly not here, that is," Despreaux corrected.


"This is an interesting restaurant," Roger said, managing not to sound—quite—desperate as he changed subjects.


"One of my family's," Flain said, accepting the change. "Most of the employees are cousins."


"It's not much to look at on the outside," Despreaux said. "I take it that was deliberate?"


"Part of its charm," Teel Sla'at agreed. "If you don't know about it, you don't come here."


"It has excellent food, though," Til added. "Tor Flain's family is well known for their fish."


"It's what we do," the soldier said with a gesture of agreement. "Father started off small, concentrating on quality. He was sure there was a market for much more expensive and higher quality products than are usually available, and there was."


"And you, Wes Til? What's your background?" Roger asked.


"The Til are one of the oldest families in the city," the councilman's mate answered.


"We bought K'Vaern's dock from him the second time he went bust," the councilor said with a grunt of laughter. "And we've managed to keep a grip on our properties. Unlike most families."


"And didn't fade away," Roger said with a nod. "That's unusual over more than three or four generations. On the other hand, we're having a hard time getting much of the feel for time with you guys."


"And you, Prince Roger?" See Tra'an asked. "You're part of a politically powerful family? How long has it been in power?"


"The MacClintocks have been the Imperial Family for nearly a thousand years now," Despreaux answered for him. "However, we're long-lived, so that's only—" She paused.


"Twelve generations," Roger concluded. "Our family can be traced back for many more generations before that, with various members holding positions of power, but there was no Empire, which meant no emperors."


"So you grew up with the exercise of power," Til said. "Interesting."


"Yes and no," Roger replied as a group of servants entered bearing steaming platters. The centerpiece was a large fish with a broad, flattened head resembling a stonefish. The head was intact, but the body had been gutted and skinned and the entire fish had been grilled with some sort of glazing.


"I'm the youngest child," Roger continued as the platters were scattered around the low tables. "I have two very competent older siblings to manage the family affairs."


"Ah," Flain said, carving a section off of the fish as the servants moved around placing small bowls of side dishes by each diner. "So you became a military commander? That's what happened to me. There was nowhere in the family that fitted my interests, so I joined the Guard."


"Not really," Roger said. "The Marines are my bodyguards. I'm their ceremonial commander, but Pahner is the actual military professional."


"You've improved," Despreaux said, taking a bite of a sliced orange root. "Yow! That's hot."


"Thanks, but I'm still not a real commander," Roger pointed out. "Just because the Marines will obey me doesn't mean I'm a Marine."


"They no longer obey you for reasons of coercion," Cord said. "You are a commander in fact, whether the law supPORT 75,111,64,50,198,35 mouseover="PNo(2513)">"Unfortunately, it has a measure of truth to it," Flain said. "An inefficiency that my father expertly exploited."


"We will be making no decisions tonight," Roger said after swallowing more wine to clear his throat. "We might discuss some of the things that need to be worked out, but no decisions are going to be made."


"It isn't our tradition to make decisions over food," Teel Sla'at pointed out.


"But you do discuss things of importance?" Despreaux asked. She took a bite of the flaky fish and raised her eyebrows. "That's excellent. What's that glaze?"


"It's made from the same orange root," Flain said. "Ground very fine and mixed with wine, sea-plum juice, and some other spices which are a family secret."


"If you really want the recipe, I can get it," See Tra'an offered. "All it takes is scratching at the special place at the base of his horns."


"Is the fish a bottom feeder?" Roger asked, glancing at the centerpiece. He knew a good time to help someone by drawing fire when he heard one.


"Somewhat," Flain said quickly. "They lie on or near the bottom in large schools and rise to herd bait fish and clicker schools. They're generally caught on lines, although they can sometimes be netted with drift nets, and care is required in their preparation. They have a gland which must be removed before cooking, since it produces an oil which is quite poisonous."


"It isn't our tradition to make decisions over food," Teel Sla'at pointed out.


"But you do discuss things of importance?" Despreaux asked. She took a bite of the flaky fish and raised her eyebrows. "That's excellent. What's that glaze?"


"It's made from the same orange root," Flain said. "Ground very fine and mixed with wine, sea-plum juice, and some other spices which are a family secret."


"If you really want the recipe, I can get it," See Tra'an offered. "All it takes is scratching at the special place at the base of his horns."


"Is the fish a bottom feeder?" Roger asked, glancing at the centerpiece. He knew a good time to help someone by drawing fire when he heard one.


"Somewhat," Flain said quickly. "They lie on or near the bottom in large schools and rise to herd bait fish and clicker schools. They're generally caught on lines, although they can sometimes be netted with drift nets, and care is required in their preparation. They have a gland which must be removed before cooking, since it produces an oil which is quite poisonous."


Despreaux looked up quickly at that, and Roger chuckled at her expression.


"We have a similar fish in our own land," he assured the guardsman. "Some of our people actually prefer to sample small doses of the toxin it produces, though, and I gather from your tone that that's not the case here?"


"Hardly," Tor said with a grim chuckle. " 'Quite poisonous' is a slight understatement, I'm afraid. 'Instantly fatal' would probably be better."


"I see." Despreaux swallowed a mouthful, her expression uneasy, and Roger took pity on her.


"Remember Marshad and Radj Hoomis' cooking, Nimashet," he told her, and she glanced at him, then visibly relaxed at the reminder of the inept Marshadan monarch's attempt to poison his "guests" . . . without any notion of how alien their physiology truly was.


"Please, feel no concern," Flain said earnestly. "I assure you, our people—and especially my own family—have been preparing coll for many, many years. Care is required, but the preparation process is relatively straightforward, and no one has actually been poisoned in as longeir ships lose way before they can carry across the eye of the wind onto the opposite tack. Actually, I was a bit surprised that they tack instead of wearing ship." The sergeant rolled her eyes, and he grinned. "More sailorese, Nimashet. It means turning away from the wind in a near circle instead of turning across it when you change tack."


"And why should that be a surprise?"


"Because they use square headsails instead of the fore-and-aft jibs we use, and those are a pain to manage," Roger told her.


"Indeed they can be," Til agreed. "And you're quite right. At least half the time, our captains do prefer to wear rather than tacking. It takes more time, but especially in light breezes, it's often the only way to be sure you get clear around. But you have a new sail plan to allow us to avoid such difficulties?"


"I wouldn't go quite that far," the prince said, "but it should certainly make tacking a lot easier. You'll be able to sail much closer to the wind, too, so you won't have to tack as often, either. It'll still be easier to sail with the wind, but this ought to simplify things for you. A lot."


"So you can sail across the sea," Flain said.


"If there are any materials to build your ships," Til added.


Roger took another bite of coll. "Poertena believes we can purchase and cannibalize some of the local ships for parts."


"Still, that seems unnecessarily complex," Flain said, swallowing a bite of barleyrice. "It also will take some time."


"True," Roger agreed. "But there doesn't seem to be an alternative."


"Well, if the Boman weren't squatting on the forests, you could get all the masts and lumber you wanted," Wes Til pointed out. "For that matter, there's a huge stockpile in D'Sley. We've sent small raids over to recover raw materials, but the Boman are onto us now. They don't want to destroy the naval supplies, either—they may be barbarians, but they understand the decadent concept of money, and they intend to sell them at some point, no doubt. But taking any more would require an army."


"Hmmm," Roger said. "We weren't aware of that. It must be making the discussion with Eleanora interesting."


"Indeed," Flain agreed. "What are they discussing, do you know?"


"Eleanora wanted to meet the person who organized the D'Sley sealift."


"Ayeiii!" Til said. "When you mentioned that they were meeting with Fullea Li'it I hoped you were jesting."


"Why?" Despreaux asked. "Is there something wrong with her?"


"She's just—" The councilor paused, searching for a word.


"She is very direct," Teel Sla'at said with a laugh. "She speaks her mind. And D'Sley wasn't nearly so open with their women as we are, so a D'Sley woman speaking her mind is . . . unusual."


"She's also stubborn as a turom," Til put in.


"Then that ought to be an interesting meeting," Roger said with a smile.


"Fullea will press for your support in retaking D'Sley," Til said.


"There's no need for us to participate in that," Despreaux said. "We've done our fighting already."


"You have Bogess and Rus From to lead you," Roger pointed out, picking up another slice of orange root. "How does this do if you sauté it?"


"Quite well, actually," Flain answered. "But it's more piquant with the coll fish if it's raw. The problem is that no one trusts Bogess' understanding of the weapons or the tactics. Not like they trust you and Captain Pahner."


"Ha!" Roger laughed. "You'd trust unknown aliens over a known general?"


"We would when that's the reaction of the general's own army," Til said quietly. "And the reaction of the general himself. I doubt that the Council is going to be willing to leave the safety of the walls without the support of you Marines, your commander, and your 'powered armor.' "


"Bloody hell." Roger shook his head. "We're not here to fight your wars for you."


"Oh, I think we could fight our own wars, thank you," Flain said just a bit tartly, but then he paused and gave the Mardukan equivalent of a sigh. "Or we could, if we could build the support for it," he admitted unhappily, "and it will require some impetus to convince the populace that leaving the safety of the walls is the best plan. Which it is, since hiding behind the walls is a death sentence for the city, whether it comes by starvation or assault."


"Hmmm," Roger said, finishing off his fish. "Convincing populaces is one of Eleanora's specialties."


"That it is," Despreaux said. "I think that the meeting with the D'Sley contingent is going to be interesting."


 


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he general himself. I doubt that the Council is going to be willing to leave the safety of the walls without the support of you Marines, your commander, and your 'powered armor.' "


"Bloody hell." Roger shook his head. "We're not here to fight your wars for you."


"Oh, I think we could fight our own wars, thank you," Flain said just a bit tartly, but then he paused and gave the Mardukan equivalent of a sigh. "Or we could, if we could build the support for it," he admitted unhappily, "and it will require some impetus to convince the populace that leaving the safety of the walls is the best plan. Which it is, since hiding behind the walls is a death sentence for the city, whether it comes by starvation or assault."


"Hmmm," Roger said, finishing off his fish. "Convincing populaces is one of Eleanora's specialties."


"That it is," Despreaux said. "I think that the meeting with the D'Sley contingent is going to be interesting."


 


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