Back | Next
Contents


CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN

"It worked," Wes Til said as he swept into the room, and Turl Kam looked up from the letter he was drafting.


"They agreed?"


"They're willing to agree, with some tremendous qualifiers—the most serious of which is that we have to demonstrate our willingness to fight a 'war to the knife,' as Prince Roger puts it. He seems awfully fond of that phrase . . . I wonder if it could be the motto of his House?" The councilor thought for a moment, then made a throwing-away gesture. "At any rate, that's what they demand—that we throw the entire power of the city into the war. No faction fighting, no politicization of the commands, and no graft."


"That won't be simple," Kam said, sitting back. "To get agreements, we're going to have to make promises, give favorable contracts, that sort of thing."


"As long as it doesn't have any negative effects, I think anything goes." Til sat on a cushion. "They also require us to throw our support behind building these ships of theirs. They want them completed while the campaign is actually underway."


"Where do they expect us to get the materials?" the Council chairman demanded in exasperation.


"Well, they've already said that the first stage has to be the retaking of D'Sley to use as a base, so the materials will be available. And let's be honest, Turl. Sure, materials are tight here in the Cove, but they're not as tight as we've been telling them. The Navy is still sitting on its minimum stockpiles, and if the Council officially agrees to help build their ships, you and I can pry at least the keels and ribs out of old Admiral Gusahm if we have to."


Kam grabbed his horns and pulled at them.


"Krin! I hate trying to get things out of Gusahm. He seems to think he invented the entire concept of navies and that everything that floats is his own private property!"


The chairman stared into space, trying to suppress a shudder as he pictured the looming confrontation with Gusahm, yet he knew Til was right. Eventually, Gusahm would yield, however gracelessly, to the direct orders of his civilian superiors. The real problem was going to be lining up the political support to meet the rest of the humans' demands.


"Can you swing your faction? I think I can convince the fishing contingent, and the trade faction is already screaming for me to do something."


"We need to do more than convince them," Til said. "We need to get them enthusiastic. To raise an army the size of the one the humans insist is necessary, we're going to need every able-bodied sailor from the Navy, and we're going to have to triple the Guard, as well, and that will require volunteers."


"Our citizens are very civic minded, but I'm not sure we can get all the volunteers we need with a straight appeal to civic duty. You have any suggestions?" the former fisherman asked. "Because I'm not sure those kinds of numbers are possible."


"Yes, I do have a suggestion. Or rather, O'Casey had some," the merchant said. "Very good ones, at that. That human is tricky."


"Suggestions such as what?" the chairman asked skeptically.


"You know," the councilor said pensively, "the Cove has a reputation for pinching coins till they squeal. I'm certain a lot of that reputation comes from jealousy among other cities that can't seem to pinch quite as tightly as we do, but there may be a little truth to it. So what we have to ask ourselves is what one factor could convince our mercenary countrymen that taking on the Boman would be a good thing?"


* * *


"So are we going to fight, or not?" Chem Prit asked as the squad of New Model pikemen navigated the streets of the city.


"I don't know, Chem," Krindi Fain said. This was the first evening their company had had off, and he didn't really care one way or the other about what the high command was thinking. He and Erkum Pol had a pouch of silver each, and he was far more interested in the fact that somewhere up the street was a tavern that served soldiers. "When Bogess tells us to fight, we fight. Until then, we wait."


"I hate waiting," Prit complained.


The private was a replacement, and not much of one, for Bail Crom. He'd been at the Battle of Diaspra, but not with Fain's squad, and he wasn't fitting in well.


"You hate everything," Fain responded. His tone was absent, for he'd spotted the tavern he'd been told about. Most of the drinking places in the town had prominent signs denying entry to thieves, itinerant singers, and soldiers. Unless they wanted to go all the way down to the docks, this was one of the few taverns available.


"Keep your hand on your cash," the corporal said as they approached the open door. "I hear a singer."


The dirt-floored room was long and low. Something about the setup made Fain sure it had been a stable at one time, but if there was any remnant of the stable smell it was overwhelmed by the stench of urine and rotting beer. Drinkers lounged on piles of barleyrice straw, their drinks and food propped on low tables that were no more than heavy planks set on split logs, and listened to the crack-throated singer in the middle of the room.


The bar, such as it was, was at the far end—a broad plank laid on a set of upended kegs. The corporal led the half-dozen pikemen through the gloom, stepping over and around vomit and less identifiable substances, until they reached their objective.


"What've you got?" Fain asked the barkeep, turning sideways to the bar to keep an eye on the scene behind him. With itinerant singers around, there were bound to be thieves, as well.


"Beer or channy leaf," the bartender replied. "There's a mite of plum wine, but I doubt you've the pocket for it."


"How much is the beer?" Prit asked.


"Three silver a mug."


"Three silver? That's outrageous!" the replacement snapped. "By the God, I never should've left Diaspra! These damned K'Vaernians are all thieves!"


"Shut up, Chem." The corporal backhanded the loudmouth on the ear. "Pay no attention to the idiot," he told the barkeep. "He hasn't got the wet out from behind his horns."


"You need to keep him muzzled, then," the bartender said, setting down something heavy and pulling his false-hand out from under the plank. "In case you Diaspra fuckheads hadn't heard, we've been cut off from most of our supply for fucking months. He'd better be glad there's beer to be had at all. And another shitass remark like that, and I'll have you out the door."


Prit started to open his mouth, and Fain backhanded the private again before the retort got out.


"We only have bar silver," he told the bartender.


"I've the weights," the barman said, opening a lockbox.


"You don't mind if I take your measure, do you?" the corporal asked. "Not that anything would be off, of course."


"Not if yours are right, there wouldn't be," the bartender replied with a grunt of laughter.


Fain pulled a sculpture of finely carved sandstone out of his pouch and compared it to the silver-piece weight on the K'Vaernian's scales. The two pans balanced almost perfectly, and the corporal grunted in satisfaction at the proof that the bartender was fairly honest in his scale and base measure.


"There's a law against illegal measures in the city," the barkeep said as he measured out the silver in the corporal's pouch. "I'll give you a hair over standard measure on the silver if you want to change it all for coin," he added.


"Why? Because you love our faces?" Prit asked.


"By Krin, you really are a walking invitation to have your face smashed, aren't you?"


"All the same, he's got a point," the corporal said. "Why give us better than standard measure?"


"My littermate's a silversmith. A bit over standard is still better than he has to pay for bar silver."


"Done," the corporal said. "I'd rather have it in coin, anyway."


"Where'd you come up with all this?" the barkeep asked, serving out mugs as he weighed and changed the contents of their pouches. The bulk silver was in irregularly shaped thumb-sized nuggets that looked like shiny knucklebones.


"Them Boman was rolling in it," Prit said. "We just got our pay from that last fight."


"Thought so," the barkeep said. "You Diaspra guys are the only silver we've seen in a while. Surprised to see infantry with cash, is all."


"It's why I came in with these twerps," the private told him. "I'm for some more loot, loot, loot! These Boman took Sindi, they're going to be shitting gold."


"You'll be shitting yourself when you finally see them, you gutless infantry bastard," a Northern cavalryman said, looming out of the darkness. "Give me some more channy leaf, you K'Vaernian thief."


"You'll be keeping a civil tongue in your head, or you'll be chewing with one side," the bartender snapped. "Five silver."


"It was two before," the cavalryman snarled.


"The price goes up with the aggravation," was the reply. "Make that seven."


"Why you pissant thief!" The cavalryman's hand dropped to his sword.


"Let's not get carried away here," Fain said, looking to see if there were any cavalry NCOs in the joint.


"Fuck off, you infantry maggot," the cavalryman slurred, spinning on the slightly smaller junior NCO. "It wasn't for you fucking Southerners, we wouldn't be in this mess."


"Hey, forker, we're all soldiers together," the corporal said with a grunt of laughter. "Let me stake you to a round of beer."


"I don't need any of your damned silver, either!" The Northerner slapped the corporal's hand and sent the freshly counted coins, more than an infantryman's pay for a month, spinning into the gloom. "Short leg bastards. Do nothing but slow us up."


"Corp," Pol said slowly. "He knocked . . ."


"I know, Erkum," the corporal said calmly. "Look, fellow, that was uncalled for. Now, I know you've got problems—"


"I don't have any problems," the cavalryman growled, picking the junior noncom up by his harness. "You do!"


The corporal hit the low table sideways, spilling beer and less mentionable products of the local economy across the revelers. He rolled away from the group as it surged to its feet and tried to come back upright himself, only to run into another set of backs instead.


"DIASPRA!" Prit yelled, and plowed into the cavalryman, all four arms windmilling.


Fain took a kick to the ribs and flipped the kicker onto his back, then came vertical with a twist and a heave, but by the time he regained his feet, the bar had turned into a giant free-for-all. A club hit him in the side of the face, and he felt a hand pulling at his pouch.


"God bedamned minstrels!" he snarled, and grabbed the itinerant singer by the horns and spun the thieving bastard off into the melee. He ducked another swinging club, catching it on his own horns, and kicked the club swinger in the balls. His assailant went down . . . and he suddenly found himself faced by the Northerner and three of his larger friends.


"It's time to clean up this bar," the original troublemaker snarled.


"Let's be sensible about this, folks," the infantry corporal said, although sense seemed to be in short supply. "Nobody wants to get hurt."


"And nobody's gonna get hurt," another of the cavalrymen said. "Except you."


"Leave my friend alone." Erkum Pol's voice was so quiet it was almost inaudible through the tavern's bedlam, but the order was accompanied by a whistling sound.


"Why?" the original cavalryman scoffed, never looking away from Fain while he raised a large chunk of wood purposefully overhead.


If there was a verbal answer from the simpleminded soldier, it wasn't audible over the sodden thump and the crunch of bones as the hard-driven plank crashed into the foursome.


Fain stepped back as the cavalrymen hit the ground, then grabbed the tabletop before the improvised battering ram could be drawn back for another swing.


"Good job, Erkum. Now, eet's time to pocking leaf."


"But I never got a beer," the private complained.


"Take one," the proprietor said from behind his pile of kegs. "Take a keg. Just get out of here before the Guard arrives."


* * *


"They destroy our taverns and inns, carousing day and night," Dersal Quan complained. The Council member twisted his rings in frustrated exasperation. "And the stench!"


"Yes, and that's another thing. What with the shortages and all, we don't need all these soldiers waving their money around. It's just driving up prices and leaving the penniless . . ."


Sual Dal, the representative for the cloth merchant's guild, paused, trying to find the word he wanted.


"Pennilesser?" Wes Til suggested. "Yes, yes. It's a terrible thing. People having money to spend is quite awful. Fortunately, that's not much of a problem in a city like K'Vaern's Cove just now."


"Don't take this so damned lightly, Til!" the guildsman snapped. "I don't see any of these folks buying sails or any of their silver lining the pockets of my guild. It's all going for beer and channy leaf."


"And fish," Til countered. "And whatever other consumables can be found in the city. For that matter, there was a large purchase of fine woven materials lately, wasn't there?"


"It was all material bound for Sindi," the guildsman said with a gesture of resignation. "We practically took a loss."


"Practically and actually are two different things," Til replied. "The problem isn't the soldiers from Diaspra. Nor is it the Northerners. Or even the refugees. The problem is the Boman, and until we get rid of them, we're all going to be taking a loss."


"That's all well and good to say, Til, but it's not so easy to do," Quan said, twisting his rings again.


"No," Til agreed. "It won't be easy, and it won't be cheap, but until it's done, we're all going to do nothing but lose money. Sooner or later, it's going to catch up with us. I'm set pretty well, but I understand that you, Quan, had already paid for a large shipment of copper ore coming out of Sindi. Yes?"


"Yes," the businessman growled.


"And are you ever going to get that shipment?"


"No."


"And how are the rest of your investments doing? Well?" He paused, but there was no answer. "Thought not. As for sails, I don't see any ships being built, do you, Sual?"


"No," the guildmaster admitted.


"On the other hand, the humans are planning at least six very large ships with a brand-new design of sail. A very special kind of sail whose new shape and size will, I'm sure, require only the best of weavers and sailmakers."


"Ah?" the guildmaster grunted. "Really? That's . . . interesting news."


"But to build those ships, they need materials—lots of materials. They were going to just buy some of the ships that had been laid up and take them apart, but if we could retake D'Sley and get the materials from there, it would be much better for them. And, of course, that would mean that they wouldn't be cutting up the already available sails from the ships they'd purchase to make their new, special sails."


"Ah."


"And as for you, Quan, they're discussing a radical new version of arquebus and a new-style bombard. All of them will have to be made somewhere, and if I recall correctly, your foundries aren't doing a lot of business just this minute, are they?"


"Ah." The industrialist thought about that for a moment. "Where's the money for all of this going to come from?"


"Where did the money all these soldiers have been throwing around come from?"


Wes Til leaned back and watched as the concept settled into their minds. Oh, yes, that Eleanora O'Casey was a sly one. Better to do anything to get her on her way before she decided to just go ahead and take over K'Vaern's Cove lock, stock, and barrel! But for now, at least, they were all headed the same way, and O'Casey's shrewd contributions were pushing the ship along nicely.


 


Back | Next
Framed