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CHAPTER TWO

"Now that's something you don't see every day," Julian said tiredly.


"I guess you do around here," Despreaux replied.


The beast looked like nothing so much as a bipedal dinosaur. A large bipedal dinosaur, with short forelimbs and extremely atrophied mid limbs . . . and a rider.


"Cool," Kyrou said. "Horse-ostriches."


The rider reined in in front of the company, said something in a loud voice, and raised a hand for them to stop. The reins, which led to a bridle arrangement much like that for a horse, were held with the false-hands, leaving the upper hands available for things like imperious gestures . . . or weapons, and Kosutic walked forward, holding up her own open hands.


"Ms. O'Casey to the front, please," she called over the company frequency. "I can't get a bit of what this guy is saying."


"On my way," the academic's voice replied, and Kosutic returned her attention to the mounted Mardukan. He was clearly a guardsman of some sort, for he was heavily armed and armored. Not that the arms and armor bore any resemblance at all to the equipment in common use on the far side of the mountains. He also looked like a tough customer who wasn't entirely pleased to see them, and the sergeant major clasped her hands before her in the nearest approximation to a Mardukan gesture of polite greeting a human's mere two arms could achieve.


"Our interpreter is on her way," the Marine said pleasantly in the trade tongue commonly used throughout the Hadur. There was no way in the world that the local was going to understand her, of course, but she hoped the tone and body language would get through, at least.


It seemed to work, for the guardsman gave her a Mardukan nod, lowered his raised hand, and settled back to wait. He still didn't seem overjoyed by her company, but his own body language indicated that he was willing to be patient . . . up to a point, at least.


The sergeant major took advantage of the delay to study her surroundings. She rather suspected that the locals had known they were coming at least a little in advance, for the mounted soldier had intercepted them just as they emerged from the dense tree cover higher up the mountain on the edge of their destination's cultivated fields.


The peasants tending those fields had looked up at the commotion, turning from their drudgery for a bit of distraction. They wore dark colored robes that covered them from head to foot. The rough, dark cloth was wet in patches, and as they stopped, several unstoppered water bags and wet themselves down. It was obvious how the locals dealt with the, for humans, pleasant dryness of the plateau.


The plants they were tending were thoroughly unfamiliar, however—some sort of low climbers, staked up on pole-and-string arbors. They were also in flower, and the heavy scent of the millions of flowers drifted across the company like a blanket.


In addition to their odd dress and plants, the locals had the first beasts of burden—other than flar-ta—the humans had seen in their entire time on Marduk. The elephant-sized packbeasts were unsuited to any sort of agricultural use, but some of the local peasants were plowing one of the nearby fields, and instead of the teams of natives which would have been pulling the plows on the far side of the mountains, they were using low, six-limbed beasts clearly related—distantly, at least—to the "horse-ostrich" ridden by the guard.


Kosutic looked away from the natives as Eleanora O'Casey walked up beside her and gave the local a closed-mouth smile and a double hand clap of greeting. The march had toughened the prince's chief of staff to a degree the little academic would have thought flatly impossible before she'd hit Marduk, and she'd become thin and wiry as a gnarly root, with knotlike muscles rippling up and down her forearms.


"We are travelers passing through your land," she said, using the same trade tongue Kosutic had used. "We wish to trade for supplies."


She knew the local wouldn't understand a word, but that was fine. The original, extremely limited Mardukan language kernel in the linguistics program she'd loaded into her toot had acquired a far wider database during their travels. It was much more capable than it had been, and if she could only get him to talk to her a bit, it would quickly begin finding points of commonality.


The guardsman gobbled back at her. His tone was stern, almost truculent, but the words still didn't mean a thing, and she concentrated on looking inoffensive as she nodded to encourage him to continue speaking while she studied him. His primary weapon was a long, slim lance, five or six meters long, with a wicked four-bladed head. The lance's point was oddly elongated, and the chief of staff finally decided that was probably to help it pierce the tough armor of the capetoads. It made sense. The giant herbivores were undoubtedly a major pest in the area.


In addition to the lance, the rider had a long, straight-bladed sword sheathed on his saddle. The weapon would have been the equivalent of a medieval two-handed sword, but since Mardukans were nearly twice the height of humans, this weapon was nearly three meters long.


The last two accouterments were the most startling. First, the rider was armored in chain mail with a back and breast cuirass and armored greaves on thighs, shins, and forearms. The overall covering of armor was in stark contrast to the leather and gabardine apron-armor of the Hadur and Hurtan.


Second—and even more interesting—was the large pistol or short carbine stuck in a holster on the saddle. The weapon was of the crudest possible design, but the workmanship was exquisite. It was clearly made from some sort of blued steel, rather than the simpler iron in near universal use on the far side of the mountains, and the brass of the butt was as pale as summer grass. Nor was it the matchlock arquebus she'd expected. Instead of a length of slow match which had to be lit ahead of time and then used to ignite the weapon's priming, this pistol clearly was fitted with the Mardukan equivalent of what had been called a wheel lock on Earth. No doubt that only made sense for a mounted warrior, but coupled with the armor, it clearly indicated a remarkably advanced metal-working industry.


No, they definitely weren't in Kansas anymore.


The soldier reached an apparent stopping point in whatever he was saying, jabbed a hand back the way the company had come, and asked a sharp-toned question.


"Sorry," she told him apologetically. "I'm afraid I still can't quite understand you, but I think we're making some progress."


In fact, the software was signaling a partial match, although it was still well short of true recognition or fluency. The local language appeared to be at least partly derivative of the language used by the natives living around the distant spaceport, but that didn't mean much. The software would have gotten the same similarity between Mandarin and Native American. It just showed that this area was divorced from the region—and language families—across the mountains behind the company. Still, she thought she had enough to make a start, at least.


"We come in peace," she repeated, using as many of the local words as possible and substituting those from the original kernel where local ones were unavailable. "We are simple traders." The last word was part of the language the soldier had been using. "Captain Pahner," she called over her radio, "could you have someone bring up a bolt of dianda? I want to show him that we're trading, not raiding. We probably look like an invasion force."


"Got it," Pahner replied, and a moment later Poertena came trotting forward with a bolt of their remaining dianda. The beautifully woven silk-flax had turned out to be an excellent trade good throughout the Hadur region, and she hoped it would be as well received here.


Poertena handed one end of the bolt to Kyrou, and the two of them spread it out, being careful to keep the cloth off the ground. The result was all that O'Casey could have hoped. The guard fell silent, then dropped the reins of his mount to the ground, seated the lance in a holder, and dismounted with the sort of casual grace which always struck a human as profoundly odd in someone the size of a Mardukan.


" . . . this . . . cloth . . . where?" he asked.


"From the area we just came from," O'Casey said, gesturing over her shoulder towards the mountains. "We have a large amount of it to trade, along with other goods."


"Bebi," Poertena said, guessing what would interest their greeter, "go get me one of t'ose swords we gots left from Voitan."


The corporal nodded and disappeared, returning a moment later with the weapon rolled in a chameleon cloth cover. Poertena unrolled it, and the ripple pattern of Damascene steel was clearly recognized by the Mardukan cavalryman, who exclaimed at the beauty of the blade. He glanced at O'Casey for permission, then picked up the weapon at her handclap of agreement. It had a broad, curved blade, somewhere between a saber and a scimitar, and he waved it back and forth, then grunted a word in laughter.


"What'd he say?" Poertena asked. "I t'ink it important."


"I don't know," O'Casey said.


The Mardukan saw their evident confusion and repeated the word, gesturing at the sky and the fields around them, at the mountains, and then at the sword in his true-hand.


"Well," O'Casey said, "two things. We now have the local word for 'beauty' and agree on definitions. I'm pretty sure he just said that it's as beautiful as the sky, as beautiful as the flowers of spring and the soaring mountains."


"Oh." Poertena chuckled. "I t'ink we gonna do okay tradin' here."


"Come meet our leader," Eleanora invited, gesturing for the rider to accompany her, and the guard gave the blade back to Bebi reluctantly as he turned to follow the chief of staff.


"I am Eleanora O'Casey," she said. "I did not catch your name."


"Sen KaKai," the Mardukan said. "A rider of Ran Tai. You apparently understand our language now?"


"We have a remarkable facility for learning other languages after listening for a bit," the chief of staff replied, putting enough of a grunt into her laugh to make it clear she was chuckling.


"So I see, indeed." The guard chuckled in response, but his eyes were busy as he examined the small force of humans. "You are . . . oddly armed," he commented, waving at their hybrid Roman-Mardukan weaponry.


"Conditions are very different on the far side of the mountains," O'Casey told him. "But that region isn't our original land, either. We come from very far away, and we were forced to adapt local equipment to our needs. None of these swords and spears are our customary weapons."


"Those would be the guns on your soldiers' backs," the guard guessed.


"Yes," the chief of staff replied briefly. She looked across at the heavily armored cavalryman. "Your armor is closer to what we're familiar with," she said, and he nodded.


"Your equipment is quite unusual," was his only comment, then his gaze sharpened as he saw the bulging skins lashed atop the packbeasts. "Are those sin-ta skins?" he asked in obvious surprise.


"Uh, yes. Or, at least, I imagine they are, although we call the beasts flar-ke, not sin-ta. We were attacked by a herd of them just up the valley." O'Casey paused. "I hope they weren't a . . . uh, protected herd."


"Hardly," Sen Kakai said, his eyes round as he noted the size and numbers of tuskhorns beside the skins. "That herd had just moved into the area. It was one of the reasons I was patrolling up here. I'm sorry about your greeting, by the way. We've been having some problems lately."


"Problems?" the chief of staff asked as they approached the command group. "What sorts?"


"It's been hard, lately," the guardsman replied. "Very hard times."


Eleanora thought about that as the introductions were made all around. She also thought about an ancient Chinese curse which she was beginning to think had been specifically created for Bravo Company. Even if it hadn't been, it was certainly an excellent fit, and speaking simply for herself, she was thoroughly tired of living "in interesting times."


* * *


The caravansary was set on the edge of the main market. The cries of the vendors carried over the walls of the large hotel and stable and all the way to the third-story room the command group occupied.


The open window looked out over the flat roofs of the city and the lake beyond. A constant wind blew from the lake and across the city, following the river that flowed down the slope to the distant jungles and carrying the scent of the spices for which the region was famous to the window.


The reason for Ran Tai's existence had become clear on the walk to the town—as clear as the broad, carefully cultivated fields of nearpeppers that spread in every direction. It turned out that the spice, an important component of many of the dishes that Matsugae fixed, could be raised only in high, dry environments. That made it extremely expensive on a planet whose sentient species required high humidity and temperatures, and its cultivation and preparation, along with a few other spices, was the basis of half of the region's income.


The other basis was mining. The mountains were a major source of gold, silver, and iron. There were also small concentrations of gems scattered through the hills around the city, most in alluvial deposits. The combination made Ran Tai a rich, if harsh, town.


But it was a town with a problem.


"Maybe there's been a change in the weather patterns," O'Casey said, shaking her head. "That's one of the few things I could think of that would explain invasions on the scale these people seem to be talking about."


"We don't want to have another set-to with the Kranolta," Roger said definitely.


"Oh, Satan, no," Kosutic agreed, rubbing the still-fresh scars on her arm. "I'd rather go toe-to-toe with a Saint strike force than face up to those Kranolta bastards again. The damned Saints at least know when they're beat."


"Well, these aren't like Kranolta, exactly," O'Casey told her. "Or not like our Kranolta, anyway. The Kranolta were a fading force by the time we met them. From the description, these seem to be more like the Kranolta when they first swarmed over Voitan."


"Oh, great!" Julian gave a slightly hysterical chuckle. "New, fresh Kranolta instead of tired, worn-out Kranolta!"


"This group," O'Casey went on, "is apparently coming from the same hill country up on the edge of the northern plains that the Kranolta spread from, but the Kranolta found a gap in the mountain barrier over here, where it flattens out to the east." She gestured at the low detail map, pointing at the far northern region of the huge continent they had been crossing and tracing the dividing mountain range Sen Kakai had called the Tarstens with a fingertip.


"These Boman are pretty much more of the same, but they seem to be distinct from them in several ways. The most obvious one, of course, is that they haven't found a way around the Tarstens—they seem to have hit the range and slid along it to the west, instead. They also seem to have started their migration somewhat later than the Kranolta, and their weaponry is significantly different. The Kranolta didn't have gunpowder, but at least some of these Boman use arquebuses, although I suppose they might have gotten them from trading with this area.


"Actually, the Boman—like the Kranolta—seem more like a loose confederation of tribes than anything we might call a unified force, and there appear to be varying levels of technology among different tribes. For example, the tribesmen who apparently act as the leading edge of their movement are considerably more primitively armed than what we might call the 'core' tribes who give their invasion its real weight, with traditional muscle-powered projectile weapons instead of firearms. You might think of them as, um . . . skirmishers, I suppose. Lightly armed and expendable, filtering forward like tentacles to feel out the local opposition and opportunities."


"Great," Pahner said with a dry chuckle. "More Fuzzy-Wuzzies and their shovel-headed spears. So what's driving them? Why have they begun their invasion now? When we're passing through?"


"I can't tell you that," the historian admitted, shaking her head. "Certainly not with any degree of confidence. The motivations of barbarian expansions aren't always clear, but I wasn't joking when I said that there may have been a change of weather. On the other hand, it could be simply a matter of a particularly effective tribal leader looking to carve himself the local equivalent of a Mongol empire. Or it could be that a climate shift has permitted them a higher than normal reproductive rate, providing an expansion in military age manpower. Or it could be the converse—a weather shift which is putting a squeeze on their ability to feed their people where they are and fueling a survival-oriented migration." She shrugged. "Whatever's causing it, they're sweeping down through this region, crushing everything in their path and pushing other tribes ahead of them."


"Which is why the guard was so nervous," Roger said, taking a bite out of something the natives called a targhas and which seemed to fill the same niche the ubiquitous kate fruit had filled on the southern side of the Tarsten Mountains. The company had become very fond of the kate fruits, but the kiwi-dates seemed unknown in this region, as did dianda. Barleyrice, luckily, was common to both sides of the mountain range, but Roger already missed the kates. The targhas had a completely different taste and texture—more like a persimmon crossed with a hairy-skinned crab apple—and he wondered what the troops would dub this one. Persapples? Crabsimmons? Apsimons?


"They've probably got raiders coming up from the jungle as these new barbarians push in," he continued, "and eventually, the Boman themselves are liable to get down here, as well."


"We need to resupply." Pahner looked over at Poertena. "Is that going to be a problem?"


"I been checkin' prices in tee market." The armorer shook his head. "We can get good prices for tee dianda. Goood prices. But tee barleyrice is all brought up from tee jungle." He shook his head again. "Food 'round here is expensive."


"So we buy what we need to get to the jungles, then buy the rest down on the plains," Pahner said, then paused as the armorer shook his head. "No?"


"They harvests is po—messed up." The Pinopan shrugged. "Barleyrice is hard to find, even down on tee plain. We walkin' into another war, Cap'n. Food, it's gonna be hard to find."


"Wonderful." The captain sighed and looked at the ceiling. "Just once, could something go right?" he asked God.


"If it did, you'd figure there was a catch," Roger told him. "Okay, so the bottom line is that we need more cash?"


"We could use it, yes, Sir," the Pinopan said. "Tee barleyrice is gonna be expensive, and t'at don't count tee fruit or spices."


"I would like to get quite a bit of those," Matsugae said. Roger's valet usually attended these meetings, partly to make sure that everyone had refreshments, but also as the expedition's head cook and true logistics manager. "The nearpeppers in the markets around here are absolutely fabulous. Also, there are some other spices that I'd like to get a few dozen kilos of. I've already spotted some very good dishes that I want to try. And we should also think about hiring some camp help, even if they're not mahouts."


"That takes cash, Matsugae," Pahner said pessimistically. "If we hadn't had to buy the flar-ta, it would be one thing. But the treasury's pretty bare. We have enough for now, but there's no apparent source in the future."


"So we raise some cash." Roger shrugged. "We've been doing that all along."


"I hope we're not going to have to take any more towns," Gunnery Sergeant Lai said. "The last one was bad enough for me."


"No towns," Roger agreed. "But," he continued, sitting up, "we need money, and we're a top-notch combat unit. There's a massive migratory movement going on, and lots of fighting because of it. There should be a high-paying mission around here that we can do with minimal casualties."


"You're talking about becoming mercenaries," Pahner said incredulously.


"Captain, what else were we in Marshad? Or, for that matter, Q'Nkok?" the prince asked with a shrug.


"We were Bravo Company of the Bronze Battalion," the captain replied with a tight smile, "forced by circumstances to fight. Then taking payment for services rendered because it made sense to. We were not common goddamned mercenaries!"


"Well, Captain," Roger said quietly, "do you have a better alternative?"


The Marine started to open his mouth, then closed it with a snap. After a moment, he shook his head.


"No. But I don't think we've sunk low enough to be mercenaries."


"Poertena," Roger said. "Do we have the funds to buy enough barleyrice to make it to the coast?"


The armorer looked from the prince to his company commander wildly. "Hey, You' Highness, don' get me in t'is!"


"Yes, Roger," Pahner said tightly. "We do. But eventually we'll run out of cash. Of course, we can forage once we hit the jungles. That will eke out supplies a little longer."


"Which will double our travel time," Roger pointed out mildly, one eyebrow raised. "And wear down the flar-ta. And use up our dietary supplements. Not to mention that we'll undoubtedly be out of funds when we reach the coast . . . and need to charter or buy ships for the next stage."


"Captain," Kosutic said, and paused. "We . . . might have to think about this. There's more than just the barleyrice to consider. The troops need a break, and I don't mean sitting in the jungle. They could use some downtime in the city, drink a little wine, do a little shouting. And not having to forage would really speed up the march. It . . . might make sense to look around for a . . . job. But it would have to pay enough to matter."


Roger looked at Pahner and could see that he was thoroughly pissed by the situation. He smiled gently at the commander of his bodyguards and shook his head again.


"What was it you told me? 'Sometimes we have to do things we don't like.' I think this might be one of those times. And I also think that whatever we do to get me home is within the mission parameters. We need cash to do that, so this is within the parameters. And as a last point," he added with a broader smile, "if we don't get Kostas his nearpeppers and spices, he might go all sulky." He winked at his valet, who returned the look blandly.


Pahner regarded the tertiary heir to the throne of the Empire of Man darkly. It had been a vast relief when Roger finally accepted that there truly was nothing—literally nothing at all—more vital than returning him safely to the imperial court on Terra. The captain knew that it had been hard for the prince to come to grips with the notion that his life was that important, given the estrangement which had existed between himself and his mother, the empress, for as long as he could remember. The simple fact was that Roger had believed no one in the entire universe, with the sole exception of Kostas Matsugae, had given much of a good goddamn for him. Which, Pahner had to admit, had been true in many ways. Even, he had come to realize, in Roger's own case, for the prince hadn't much cared for the spoiled, petulant brat he'd seen in his own mirror each day. If anyone had ever sat down and explained to him the reason his father had been banished from court things might have been different, but it had become painfully clear that no one ever had. Personally, Pahner suspected that Eleanora O'Casey was right—everyone had simply assumed that someone else had explained his father's inept conspiracies against the throne to him.


No one had, however, and the fact that Roger was the very mirror image of his incredibly handsome, incredibly spoiled playboy father had made things immeasurably worse. Since everyone "knew" Roger was aware of the reasons for his father's disgrace, they'd assumed that the fact that he seemed bent on turning himself into a physical duplicate of that father represented some sort of declaration of defiance . . . or worse. Nobody except Matsugae had ever guessed how much of Roger's "spoiled brat" exterior had been the almost inevitable response of a little boy who had never understood why no one seemed to trust—or love—him to the pain of his loneliness. Certainly no one in Bravo Company had ever guessed just how much more there might be inside him before events in Voitan and Marshad.


But like the other changes in his personality, Roger's new awareness of the realities of the political instability which plagued the Empire of Man, and of the fact that the MacClintock Dynasty truly was the only glue holding that empire together, had proved to have a nasty double edge from the perspective of the commander of his personal security detachment. It meant that the prince had finally learned to accept that there truly was a reason he had to allow his bodyguards to die if that was what it took to keep him alive, and also that nothing could be allowed to stand in the way of his return home. But it had also brought the famous MacClintock ruthless practicality to the surface. If nothing could be allowed to stand in the way, then by the same token, there was nothing he was not prepared to do . . . including turning Pahner's beloved Bravo Company into raggedy-assed mercenaries on a planet full of barbarians.


The captain knew that, and the prince's reasonable and all too logical arguments didn't make him feel one bit better about it. He glowered at Roger for a moment longer, then turned to the two gunnery sergeants.


"What do you think?"


"I don't want to take any more casualties if we don't absolutely have to," Lai said immediately. "We've got quite a way to go and a battle at the end. We need to keep that in mind." But after a moment she shrugged. "Having said that, I have to side with His Highness. We do need the cash. And the downtime."


The captain nodded, then turned to the other gunny. "Jin?"


"Yeah," the Korean said. "I gotta go with the merc idea. But it's gotta pay." He looked up at his CO. "Sorry, Cap'n."


"Well," Pahner said, patting his breast pocket. "It looks like I'm outvoted."


"This isn't a democracy, as I believe you've pointed out once or twice," Roger said mildly, propping himself sideways. "If you say 'no,' the answer is no."


The Marine sighed. "I can't say 'no.' You're right. That doesn't mean I have to like it, though."


"Tell you what," the prince offered, sitting up straight. "We'll handle it. You just sit back and make sure we don't screw up. That way you can imagine it wasn't really Bravo Company that did it." He smiled to take away any sting in the words.


"We can do it 'incognito,' " he continued. "I won't be 'Prince Roger.' I shall be . . . 'Captain Sergei!' And it will be 'Sergei's Raiders' who perform the mission, not Bravo Company of Bronze Battalion." He chuckled at his own suggestion, but O'Casey raised an eyebrow.


"So you'll be incognito, Your Highness?" she said, smiling slightly. "With your incognito band of bodyguards?"


"Uh, yeah," he said suspiciously. "Why?"


"No reason," the historian told him. "No reason at all."


"Oh, whatever," Pahner sighed. "Okay, Roger, you take it. Find the mission, plan the mission, command the mission. Just make sure that it's as low risk and high pay as possible."


"Those are usually contradictions in terms," Jin said darkly.


"Maybe we'll come up lucky," Roger told him confidently.


 


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