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CHAPTER THIRTY-FIVE

"Damn," Beckley said. "I didn't believe it could be done."


"Neither did I," Chim Pri said.


"You have no faith in the Laborers of God," Turkol Bes told them with quiet pride. "When the God rains destruction, you have to build and repair fast. It's what we're best at."


The road from D'Sley to Sindi, which had been reduced to so much soupy mud by Boman foot traffic, had changed. Engineering crews, working to Rus From's careful plans and equipped with giant crosscut saws, axes, sledgehammers, and splitting wedges, had altered the landscape almost beyond recognition. Massive trees, some of them more than a meter in diameter, had been cut off close to the ground, sawn into lengths, split, and dragged out to the side of the roadbed. Wood wasn't the best material for covering a road, especially on Marduk, because it rotted and broke too quickly. But this road was being designed for one purpose and one purpose only, and it only had to hold up for a few days of heavy use.


Behind the woodcutters and splitters had come other teams of Mardukans, including civilians impressed from D'Sley and K'Vaern's Cove, leveling and grading the beaten track and filling in the deepest bogs with gravel and gabions of bundled barleyrice straw. When they finished, a third group had taken the split logs by the side of the grading and laid them down to form a corduroy road. The entire project had been one continuous motion, and now that it was done, the first wagon loads of supplies and materials liberated from Sindi were creaking along it towards D'Sley.


Ther Ganau, one of Rus From's senior assistant engineers, trotted up on a civan and waved two hands.


"Stay out of the right-of-way, if you will. I don't want anything to slow traffic." He gestured at the heavy flow of nose-to-tail wagons. "What do you think?" he asked Roger.


Pri looked over at the silent prince, and sighed. "Brilliant, Ther Ganau. Truly amazing. I've never seen such a sight in all my days."


Roger remained silent, and Cord dug a thumb into his back.


"Say something," the shaman hissed, and Roger looked up at last.


"Very nice, Ther," he said listlessly. "The Captain said he wants us anchoring this end of the line. Where's the best place to dig in?"


The engineer began to reply, then paused for a moment as he noted the roll of material lying on the withers of the prince's flar-ta. He recognized one of the humans' devices for cremating their dead, but all the people who would normally have been around Roger in the field were still there, and he brushed the question aside. He could deal with that mystery later.


"Yes, Your Highness. The Captain has called most of our infantry forward from this end of the line, so if I could borrow the Carnan Battalion for close security and push your cavalry a bit further out to the west, I'd be grateful."


"Whatever," Roger said. "Take whatever you want." The prince kneed Patty towards the river and lifted his rifle from the scabbard. Unless the Tam was totally abnormal, there were bound to be damncrocs in it.


"What happened?" Ganau asked quietly, gazing after the flar-ta.


"A croc got Kostas," Beckley replied.


"The God take him," the priest-engineer said sincerely. "A terrible loss."


"Especially to the prince," the Marine pointed out. "Kostas was with him for years. And he's blaming himself."


"What should we do?" the engineer asked. "Is there anything?"


"I don't know," Beckley said as a shot rang out from the river bank. "I just don't know."


* * *


The incoming call's priority code said it came from the sergeant major, and Pahner told his toot to accept it.


"Pahner."


"We have a situation with His Highness," Kosutic said without preamble. "Beckley just called it in. She says Kostas bought it this morning, and Roger's in a total funk. He's turned over his command to Ther Ganau and isn't answering calls. Reneb says he's sitting down by the Tam shooting crocs and won't talk to anybody."


Pahner carved off a slice of bisti root and popped it into his mouth.


"You know," he said after a long moment, "I'm trying and failing to decide which part of that I like the least."


"Me, too. I'm gonna miss Kostas' damnbeast casserole. And I'm not sure I'll be able to eat croc again."


Pahner looked out over the gathering heaps of material outside the gates. The stores of Sindi, which soon would be the stores of D'Sley and K'Vaern's Cove, were unbelievable. Despite the tremendous inroads the Boman had made upon them, the food supplies of the city remained enormous. Sindi had completed its own massive harvest just before the invasion began, and it was also a central gathering point for the products of the entire region. More than that, it seemed obvious that the rumors that Tor Cant had been stockpiling grain for at least two full harvests in anticipation of the present war had been accurate.


The result, when gathered in one place, was a truly awesome mountain of barleyrice, and the Boman had barely begun to devour it. The barbarians had been too busy eating the draft animals of the city and its satellite communities to waste much time with mere grains and vegetables. All of which meant that even with the barges which had moved the infantry upriver, there was no way to recover those supplies before the Boman returned. The barges would have time to make one, possibly two, trips, but if he committed them to that, they would be unavailable in the event that the plan came apart and a precipitous retreat from Sindi became necessary. Which didn't even consider the fact that there had never been enough barges to lift the combat troops and Ther Ganau's engineers.


The city's magazines had also contained several dozen tons of gunpowder, but that posed no particular transportation problems, since From and his engineers were busily expending it as they completed the destruction of northern Sindi.


If they were going to get all the other captured supplies out, though—and God knew K'Vaern's Cove could use every scrap of food in Sindi, especially if things worked out to leave a Boman field army still active in the area—then that corduroy road through the swamps had to be held. And while this would-be Boman Napoleon, Camsan, seemed to be chasing Rastar and Honal as fanatically as one could wish, there were still other bands of barbarians wandering around out there. If one of them should hit the convoys of wagons and flar-ta lumbering back and forth between Sindi and D'Sley, the results could be catastrophic. Which meant he needed Roger functional. Now.


He thought about a solution and grimaced. The obvious one—which wouldn't work—was to call Roger and tell him to get over it. The one which would work, unfortunately, wasn't a good answer in the long-term. The consequences could be literally cosmic, but it was the only one that might work in less than the couple of days it would take Roger to get over his funk without it.


"Eva," he said, "I'm gonna have to break every rule in The Book. As a matter of fact, I'm gonna have to throw it away."


"Okay," the sergeant major said. "What are we gonna do?"


"Get me Nimashet."


* * *


Nimashet Despreaux paused.


The prince sat on the river bank, rocking back and forth, his rifle across his lap. She knew, intellectually, that there was no way he would use it on her, but she also knew that he wasn't tracking very well at the moment. So she cleared her throat just a bit nervously.


"Your Highness?"


Roger looked out over the rippling water. He was scanning for "v"s in the fading evening light, but even as his eyes watched the stream with the alertness and intensity of the hunter he was, he wasn't really present. His mind, to the extent that he was thinking at all, was in a brighter past. A past that wasn't filled with blood and death. A past where his mistakes didn't kill people, and where all he had to worry about was getting his mother's attention, if not approval, and not completely screwing up in the process. Not that he ever had. God knew he was a screwup. He always had been. It just did not make any sense to give him the slightest shred of responsibility. All he ever did was fuck it up.


He started without turning his head when someone laid a hand on his shoulder.


"Go away. That's an order. I'm busy."


"Roger. Your Highness. It's time to leave." Despreaux wondered if she could get the rifle away from him without inflicting—or suffering—damage, then decided to shelve that question. Even if she'd been able to get the rifle, he'd still have his pistol, and facing Roger with a pistol in his hand was a losing proposition. "We need to get your cavalry into position," she said.


"Fuck it," the prince said in a flat voice. "Let Ther tell Chim what to do. And Turkol. I'm done giving orders, or even making requests. All I ever do is fuck things up. Even us."


He looked up over his shoulder at last, and the sergeant almost stepped back at his expression.


"Look at us, what there is of 'us.' " He snorted bitterly. "I can't even carry on a fucking conversation with a woman I love without totally screwing up."


"You didn't screw up, Roger," the sergeant said, sitting down at his side. Her heart had taken a tremendous lurch at the word "love" but she knew he didn't need her throwing herself at him at the moment. "I did. I realize that now. In fact, I've realized it all along—I just didn't want to admit I have, because it was so much easier to go on being mad at you, instead. But all you were trying to say was that fraternization is a bad idea, and you were right. If you don't watch it, it screws up a unit faster than anything else ever could."


"That wasn't what I was trying to say," the prince said. "It is a bad idea, but with so much fooling around going on in the Company, what damage could one more affair do?"


"So what did you mean to say?" Despreaux asked warily. "I assume you weren't going to refer to the hired help?"


"No." Roger rubbed his face and looked out on the water again. "What I meant to say was: I don't fool around. Put a period on the end of that sentence. I did a couple of times, and they were outright disasters. And I felt like a shit each time. All I could think about was that I didn't want another bastard in the world. I didn't want to betray someone like my father and mother had."


He pulled his helmet off and set it on the ground. The river bank was covered in a low, soft ground cover, somewhat like short clover, under the shade of a massive jungle giant. It was as comfortable a place as any on the planet to deal with bleak despair.


"I didn't know what the relationship was between my mother and the bastard formerly known as 'my father,' " he said. "But I did know that wondering what the relationship was, and blaming myself for whatever it wasn't, had to be the worst way for a kid to grow up. And there are places in the Empire where it matters how 'pure' you've been, and I had to think about that, too. Most people think I never gave a good goddamn about my obligations as a prince, but that's not true, either. Of course, it's not surprising they think that way—I managed to screw up those obligations, too, after all. But that didn't mean I didn't care, or that I didn't recognize that the risk was too great for me to justify fooling around."


"At all?" the incredulous sergeant asked. "For how long? And, I mean, uh . . ."


"I lost my virginity when I was fifteen. To a younger daughter of the Duke of New Antioch. A very ambitious daughter."


"I've heard about that one," Despreaux said carefully. The "scene" was a minor legend in the Emperor's Own and the cause of one of the few resignations of a company commander in its history. "And I've heard that nobody had ever seen you 'with' anyone else. But, I mean, what do you—I mean, that's a looong time."


"Yes, it is. Thank you for pointing that out."


"It's not good for you, you know," the Marine said. "It's not healthy. You can develop an enlarged prostate even while you're young. Sure, they can fix it, but prevention is a much, much better alternative."


"Do I really have to discuss the details of my non-sex life with you?" the prince asked. "Especially right now?"


"No, you don't," Despreaux admitted. "But didn't anybody ever talk to you about it? Didn't you have a counselor?"


"Oh, sure. Plenty of them. And they all took the same position: I needed to release my bonds to my father, put my sense of his betrayal of me behind me, and take responsibility for my own life. This is referred to as 'reality therapy' or 'quit being such a fucking whiner.' Which would have worked real well, except that it wasn't my father I resented the hell out of."


"Oh." The sergeant tugged at an earlobe. "That has to be weird. Everybody in the Empire regards the Empress like, well, like a goddess, I guess."


"Yep," Roger said bitterly. "Everyone but her son. I never, ever forgave her for the fact that I didn't have a dad. She at least could have remarried or something. I finally figured out that was one of the reasons I went into sports—look at all those father figures."


"Oh," Despreaux said again, and then, very, very carefully, "And Kostas?"


"Sort of," Roger said with something halfway between a chuckle and a sob, then drew a deep breath. "Kostas was hard to see as the kind of larger-than-life pattern kids want in their fathers, I guess. But in every other way that counted, he was the closest I ever got. Could have gotten, maybe. He was always there when I needed him . . . and I wasn't there when he needed me. Of course."


Despreaux's arms twitched as she listened to his ragged breathing, but she made herself pause and think very carefully about what she was going to do. The intensity of Roger's emotions, and the jagged edges of his grief and self-hatred hit her like a fist, and she was more than a little frightened by the dark, pain-filled depths which stretched out before her. But fear was only a part of what she felt, and not the greatest part, and so, finally, she gave a slight shrug and gently took the rifle out of his hands and set it on the ground. Wordlessly, she wrapped her arms around him and pulled him down to lie with his head on her lap . . . and ran her fingers through his sweaty hair as he began, very quietly, to cry.


Her own eyes burned, and she wondered how many lonely years it had been since he had ever let anyone see him weep. Her heart ached with the need to reach out to him, but she was a Marine, a warrior. She knew what needed to be said, but not how to say it, and so she crooned wordlessly to him, instead, and somehow, he seemed to understand the words she couldn't find.


"I don't know what to do, Nimashet," he told her. "I . . . I just can't kill anybody else. I've killed so many of you already. I just can't do that anymore."


"You didn't kill anybody, Roger," she said gently, the words coming at last because she needed them so very badly. "We're Marines. We all volunteered for the Corps, and we volunteered again for the Empress' Own. We knew the score when we signed up, and we could've quit at any time."


"You didn't sign up to be marooned on a planet full of four-armed barbarians while trying to protect a deadbeat prince!"


She smiled, and if that smile was a bit misty, that was her own business.


"Not a deadbeat—more like a dead-shot. Your Highness, there are so many ways to die as a Marine that it's not really funny. This is near the top of the list of odd places and ways, but it's not clear at the top."


"Kostas didn't sign up to be a Marine," he said softly. "He didn't sign on to die."


"People die all the time, Roger." The sergeant combed the tangles out of his hair with her fingers. "They die in aircar accidents, and of old age. They die from too much parsan, and from falling in the shower. They die in shipwrecks, and from radiation poisoning, and by drowning. Kostas didn't have a monopoly on dying."


"He had a monopoly on dying from my mistake," Roger said in tones of quiet, utter bitterness. "I made a simple request and didn't think about the consequences. How many times have I done that—and not just to him? How many times on this march have you Marines been put in jeopardy—or killed—because of my stupid actions? My stupid unthinking actions?"


"Quite a few," Despreaux said. "But I think you're being a bit unfair to yourself. For one thing, I've talked to Turkol and Chim. You didn't ask Kostas to get you water; he offered. I know, I know," she said, laying one hand lightly across his mouth in what wasn't quite a caress. "That doesn't change what he was doing, or the fact that—just like always—he was doing it for you. But I think it does matter that it was his choice, not yours. And while we're on the subject of fairness, do you really think Kostas didn't know about the risks? Know the jungle is dangerous? Roger, he was along for every single step of the march. He was the one who oversaw the mahouts butchering the damncrocs when you and Julian had that shoot-off crossing the damned river before Voitan—you think he didn't know they lived in rivers? For God's sake, he's the one who was on safari with you on all those godforsaken planets none of the rest of us ever even heard of!"


"What are you saying? That it was his fault?"


"I'm saying it wasn't anyone's fault. Not his, not yours. He went to perform a routine task—not just for you, but for Chim Pri—and somehow, for some reason, he was too distracted to pay attention. It happens, Roger. It happens all the time, every day of our lives. It's just that here on Marduk, if your attention wanders at the wrong moment, you end up dead. You didn't kill him, and he didn't kill himself—the fucking planet did."


"And the Marines? What about them?" Roger demanded in a harsh, almost spiteful tone.


"Two things," Despreaux told him calmly. "One, every time you've 'put us in jeopardy' it was a relative danger. This planet is no place for a right-thinking Marine who wants to die in bed, preferably while getting a leg-over, but you didn't pick it, and you certainly didn't order us to come here. Second, a lot of those 'stupid unthinking actions' are the reason we love you. Looking at it sensibly, I guess it really isn't very smart of you, but you just throw yourself at the enemy and keep moving forward until you come out on the other side, and in some ways, Marines aren't all that different from Mardukans. We know the object is to kill the other guy and come home afterward, and we don't have any use at all for officers who keep hanging themselves—and us—out just to prove what great big brass ones they have. But for all that, we respond to COs who lead us a thousand times better than we do to those who send us out ahead. And whatever other faults you may have, we've discovered on this shit ball of a planet that you're one hell of a leader. You've got a lot to learn, maybe, about thinking your way through problems—I swear, if you ever faced a Rasthaus wartbeast, you'd throw yourself into its mouth and try to tunnel out the other end!—but you wouldn't do the one thing a leader can never do in combat: hesitate."


"Seriously?" Roger rolled over on his back and looked up at her, and she stroked his face and smiled.


"Seriously. The only thing a Marine truly hates is a coward. Hold still." She leaned down and kissed him. It was a hell of a bend, but she was limber, and Roger released her lips reluctantly.


"What are we doing? And how did we get from Kostas to here?"


"What? They didn't cover that in the Academy?" she asked with a soft laugh. "Call it the desire for life renewal in the face of death. A strong desire. The need to hold back the ferryman in the only way we know." She paused and ran a hand down his side. "Ten years, huh?"


Roger sat up and wrapped his arms around her. As he did, he noted that his tactful bodyguards had discreetly withdrawn out of sight of himself and their squad leader. Which made him wonder what would happen if another damncroc, assuming there were any left in the entire river after his extermination efforts, slipped up out of the water while they were engaged. Which made him wonder where his cavalry detachment had gotten to. He remembered giving the infantry to Ther Ganau, which made him wonder who was covering the supply convoys.


Which made him groan.


"What?" Despreaux asked huskily.


"Oh, God, Nimashet. We just don't have time. Where's my cavalry? How are Rus From's engineers doing at Sindi? What's happening with Rastar? Are the barges all in place, and who in hell is covering Ther's caravans?"


Her eyes flared, and she grabbed him by the front of his chameleon suit.


"Five minutes," she ground out through gritted teeth.


"More like thirty seconds," the prince told her with something almost like a laugh. "If we can get our clothes off in time, that is. But it's thirty seconds we need to not take. I've already lost hours with this despair shit, and we don't need to lose any more with the reverse."


She stuck her hip into his and rolled him over onto his back with the grip on his chameleon suit.


"Listen to me, Prince Roger Ramius Sergei Alexander Chiang MacClintock!" she hissed. "I want a promise. You can make it on anything you care to name, but you will make it! And that promise is that as soon as we get somewhere safe, and all the crises are past, you will take me to bed. And take your time at it. And do it well." She picked him up and pounded him lightly on the ground with each phrase. "Do you swear?"


Roger wrapped his legs around her, pulled her down on top of himself, and kissed her.


"When we're back on Earth. When all of this is behind us, when we're back in the Imperial Palace, and we can be sure it's not the situation. When I'm sure that I love Nimashet Despreaux more than life itself, and that it's not unbridled lust from all the pain and death and blood. Then I'll take you—as my wife, if I can get away with it, or as a senior partner, if I can't. And I will love you until the day I die. I swear it on my dead."


She pounded her head into his breastbone.


"All I want to do is to screw you, you idiot! You're supposed to be telling me you'll love me and marry me to get me to bed—not telling me that to get you into bed I have to marry you. That's my line!"


"Do you accept?" Roger asked.


"Of course I do!" she snapped. "I'd have to be an idiot not to. I love you so hard it hurts, and don't think I'll get over that just because we get back to Earth. Hell, I was so far gone I loved you when you were just an overblown, brainless, arrogant prick of a clotheshorse and I damned well should have known better!"


"Speaking of clotheshorses," he said, fingering the placket of her chameleon suit, "these uniforms could use some work. That's the second thing I'm going to do when we get back to Earth." He looked into her eyes. "So we wait?" he asked in a quieter voice. "You're okay with that?"


"I wouldn't use the term 'okay,' " she said. " 'Okay' is definitely not the adverb, or whatever. As a matter of fact, if there's a direct opposite of 'okay' for this situation, that's about where I am. I'm not exactly 'bad' with it, I guess, but I'm definitely sort of 'anti-okay.' On the other hand, I'm a big girl. I'll live."


Roger rolled over, then stood, and pulled her to her feet.


"You ready to go?"


"Sure," she answered sharply. "Let's go find something for me to kill before you start looking any better."


"Okay," Roger said with a smile. "I want you to know, I really do want you. But I don't get any easier with time."


"I've noticed," the sergeant muttered darkly. "Stubborn as a Mardukan day is long." She shook her head. "I have never had this much trouble getting a man to bed. For that matter, I've never had any trouble getting a man to bed. It was always the other way around."


"Frustration is good for the soul," Roger said. "Look at what it's done for me!"


"Yeah," Despreaux said with a sigh. "No wonder you're so dangerous. Ten years?"


 


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