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CHAPTER ONE

"It's a halyard."


"No, it's a stay. T'e headstay."


The thirty-meter schooner Ima Hooker swooped closehauled into aquamarine swells so perfect they might have been drawn from a painting by the semimythical Maxfield Parrish. Overhead, the rigging sang in a faint but steady breeze. That gentle zephyr, smelling faintly of brine, was the only relief for the sweltering figures on her deck.


Julian mopped his brow and pointed to the offending bit of rigging.


"Look, there's a rope—"


"A line," Poertena corrected pedantically.


"Okay, there's a line and a pulley—"


"T'at's a block. Actually, it's a deadeye."


"Really? I thought a block was one of those with cranks."


"No, t'at's a windlass."


Six other schooners kept formation on Hooker. Five of them were identical to the one on whose deck Julian and Poertena stood: low, trim hulls with two masts of equal height and what was technically known as a "topsail schooner rig." What that meant was that each mast carried a "gaff sail," a fore-and-aft sail cut like a truncated triangle with its head set from an angled yard—the "gaff"—while the foremast also carried an entire set of conventional square sails. The after gaff sail—the "mainsail," Julian mentally corrected; after all, he had to get something right—had a boom; the forward gaff sail did not. Of course, it was called the foresail whereas the lowest square sail on that mast was called the "fore course," which struck him as a weird name for any sail. Then there were the "fore topsail," "fore topgallant," and "fore royal," all set above the fore course.


The second mast (called the "mainmast" rather than the "aftermast," for some reason Julian didn't quite understand, given that the ship had only two masts to begin with and that it carried considerably less canvas than the foremast) carried only a single square topsail, but compensated by setting a triangular "leg of mutton" fore-and-aft sail above the mainsail. There were also staysails set between the masts, not to mention a flying jib, outer jib, and inner jib, all set between the foremast and the bowsprit.


The seventh schooner was different—a much bigger, less agile, somehow unfinished-looking vessel with a far deeper hull and no less than five masts—and, at the insistence of Captain Armand Pahner, Imperial Marines, rejoiced in the name of Snarleyow. The smaller, more nimble ships seemed to regard their larger sister with mixed emotions. No one would ever have called Snarleyow anything so gauche as clumsy, perhaps, but she was clearly less fleet of foot, and her heavier, more deliberate motion almost seemed to hold the others back.


All of the ships carried short-barreled cannon along their sides. Snarleyow mounted fifteen of them to a side, which gave her a quarter again the broadside armament of any of her consorts, but all of them carried a single, much larger cannon on a pivot mount towards the bow, as well. And every single one of them had ropes everywhere. Which was the problem.


"Okay." Julian drew a deep breath, then continued in a tone of massive calm. "There's a line and a pu—block. So why isn't it a halyard?"


"Halyard hauls up t'e sail. T'e stay, it hold t'e pocking mast up."


The Pinopan had grown up around the arcane terminology of the sea. In fact, he was the only human member of the expedition (with the exception of Roger, who had spent summers in Old Earth's blue-water recreational sailing community) who actually understood it at all. But despite the impression of landsmen—that the arcana existed purely to cause them confusion—there was a real necessity for the distinct terminology. Ships constantly encounter situations where clear and unambiguous orders may mean the difference between life and death. Thus the importance of being able to tell hands to pull upon a certain "rope" in a certain way. Or, alternatively, to let it out slowly, all the while maintaining tension.


Thus such unambiguous and unintelligible orders as "Douse the mainsail and make fast!" Which does not mean throw water on it to increase speed.


"So which one's the halyard?" Julian asked plaintively.


"Which halyard? Countin' t'e stays'ils, t'ere's seventeen pocking halyards on t'is ship. . . ."


Hooker's design had been agreed upon as the best possible for the local conditions. She and her consorts had been created, through human design and local engineering, to carry Prince Roger and his bodyguards—now augmented by various local forces—across a previously unexplored ocean. Not that there hadn't, as always, been the odd, unanticipated circumstance requiring last-minute improvisation. The fact that a rather larger number of Mardukan allies than originally anticipated had been added to Roger's force had created the need for more sealift capacity. Especially given the sheer size of the Mardukan cavalry's mounts. Civan were fast, tough, capable of eating almost anything, and relatively intelligent. One thing they were not, however, was petite. Hardly surprising, since the cavalrymen who rode into battle on their backs averaged between three and three and a half meters tall.


Carrying enough of them to sea aboard the six original schooners had turned out to be impossible once the revised numbers of local troopers had been totaled up. So just when everyone had thought they were done building, they—and somewhere around a quarter of the total shipbuilding force of K'Vaern's Cove—had turned to to build the Snarleyow. Fortunately, the local labor force had learned a lot about the new building techniques working on the smaller ships, but it had still been a backbreaking, exhausting task no one had expected to face. Nor had Poertena been able to spend as much time refining her basic design, which was one reason she was ugly, slabsided, and slow, compared to her smaller sisters. She was also built of green timber, which had never been seasoned properly and could be expected to rot with dismaying speed in a climate like Marduk's. But that was all right with Prince Roger and his companions. All they really cared about was that she last long enough for a single voyage.


Although she was scarcely in the same class for speed or handiness as Poertena's original, twin-masted design, Snarleyow was still enormously more efficient than any native Mardukan design. She had to be. The nature of the local weather was such that there was an almost unvarying wind from the northeast, yet that was the very direction in which the ships had to sail. That was the reason for their triangular sails. Their fore-and-aft rig—a technology the humans had introduced—made it possible for them to sail much more sharply into the wind than any local vessel, with its clumsy and inefficient, primitive square-rigged design, had ever been able to do. Similar ships had sailed the seas of Earth all the way up to the beginning of the Information Age, and they remained the mainstay for water worlds like Pinopa.


"Now I'm really confused," Julian moaned. "All right. Tying something down is 'making fast.' A rope attached to a sail is a 'sheet.' A rope tied to the mast is a 'stay.' And a bail is the iron thingamajig on the mast."


"T'e boom," Poertena corrected, wiping away a drop of sweat. The day, as always, was like a steambath, even with the light wind that filled the sails. "T'e bail is on t'e boom. Unless you're taking on water. T'en you bail it out."


"I give up!"


"Don' worry about it," the Pinopan said with a chuckle. "You only been at t'is a few weeks. Besides, you got me an' all t'ose four-armed monstrosities to do t'e sailing. You jus' pull when we say 'heave,' and stop when we say 'avast.' "


"And hold on when you say 'belay.' "


"And hold on tight when we say belay."


"I blame Roger for this," Julian said with another shake of his head.


"You blame Roger for what?" a cool female voice asked from behind him.


Julian looked over his shoulder and grinned at Nimashet Despreaux. The female sergeant was frowning at him, but it slid off the irrepressible NCO like water off a duck.


"It's all Roger's fault that we're in this predicament," he replied. "If it wasn't for him, I wouldn't have to learn this junk!"


Despreaux opened her mouth, but Julian held up a hand before she could retort.


"Calmly, Nimashet. I know it's not Roger's fault. It was a joke, okay?"


Despreaux's frown only underscored the classical beauty of her face, but it was dark with worry.


"Roger's . . . still not taking Kostas' death very well, Adib. I just don't . . . I don't want anybody even joking about this being his fault," she said, and Poertena nodded in agreement.


"T'e prince didn't maroon us here, Julian. T'e Saints an' whoever set t'at pocking toombie on us marooned us." The diminutive armorer shrugged. "I guess it wasn't very pocking punny."


"Okay," a chagrined Julian said. "You've got a point. Roger has been sort of dragging around, hasn't he?"


"He's been in a funk, is what you mean," Despreaux said.


"Well, I'm sure there's some way you could cheer him up," Julian suggested with an evil grin.


"Oh, pock," Poertena muttered, and backed up quickly. After a crack like that the fecal matter was about to hit the impeller.


"Now this is a mutinous crew, if ever I've seen one." Sergeant Major Eva Kosutic said, joining them. She looked from Despreaux's furious face to Julian's "butter-wouldn't-melt-in-my-mouth" expression and frowned. "All right, Julian. What did you say this time?"


"Me?" Julian asked with enormous innocence but little real hope of evading the consequences. The sergeant major had an almost miraculous sense of timing; she always turned up just as the action was hottest. Which come to think of it, described her in bed as well. "What would I have said?"


Now he looked from the sergeant major to the fulminating Despreaux, decided that coming clean offered his best chance of survival, and shrugged with a repentant expression.


"I just suggested that there might be a way to cheer Roger up," he admitted, then, unable to help himself, grinned again. "I guarantee I'm right. God knows I've been more cheerful lately."


The sergeant major rolled her eyes and crossed her arms.


"Well if that's your attitude, you'll damned well be less cheerful for a while!" She looked at the three noncoms and shook her head. "This is a clear case of His Evilness' finding work for idle hands. Poertena, I thought you were supposed to be conducting a class in rigging."


"I was trying to get Julian up to speed, Sergeant Major," the Pinopan said, tossing a length of rope to the deck. "T'at's not going too good."


"I've got all the stuff loaded in my toot," Julian said with a shrug. "But some of the data seems to be wrong, and the rest just seems to be hitting and bouncing. I mean, what's 'luff' mean?"


"It's when the sail flaps," Kosutic replied, shaking her head. "Even I know that, and I hate sailing. I guess we should've known better than to try to teach Marines to be sailors."


"We don't really need them, Sergeant Major," Poertena told her. "We've got plenty of Mardukans."


"We need to work on our entry techniques, anyway," Julian pointed out. "We've been engaging in all these open-field maneuvers, but when we take the spaceport, it's going to be mostly close quarters. Whole different style, Smaj. And we haven't really done any of that since Q'Nkok."


The sergeant major frowned, then nodded. She was sure Julian had come up with that because it was more fun than learning to sail. But that didn't mean he was wrong.


"Okay. Concur. If we wanted sailors, we should've left you on the DeGlopper and brought Navy pukes. I'll talk the change over with the Old Man. If he approves, we'll start working on close combat techniques for the rest of the voyage."


"Besides," Poertena pointed out gloomily, "we might need them before t'en. I've never seen a place like t'is t'at didn't have pirates."


"And then there's the 'fish of unusual size.' " Julian chuckled and gestured out over the emerald waters. "So far, so good, right?"


"Don't laugh," Despreaux muttered. "I read that log. I do not want to tangle with something big enough to bite a boat in half, even a small one."


"Well," Kosutic said, with a tug on her earlobe. "If worse comes to worst, we can always give Roger a pocket knife and throw him at it."


"Ooooo!" Julian shook his head. "You haven't even met one of these little fishies and you hate them that much?"


* * *


Prince Roger Ramius Sergei Alexander Chiang MacClintock, Heir Tertiary to the Throne of Man, turned away from the creaming waves to look across the shipboard bustle. The sergeant major had just broken up the huddle around Julian, and the four NCOs were headed in four different directions. He took a moment extra to watch Despreaux make for the fo'c'sle. He knew his depression was beginning to affect her, and that he needed to snap out of it. But the loss of Kostas was the one wound that would not seem to heal, and he'd had too much time to think about it since the frenetic haste of getting all seven ships built had eased into the voyage itself. For the first time in what seemed forever, he wasn't engaged in frantic efforts to train native troops, fight barbarian armies, build ships, or simply hike through endless jungle. For that matter, nothing was actively attempting to kill him, devour him, assassinate him, or kidnap him, and a part of him was distantly amazed to discover just how much having that respite depressed him. Having time to think, he had learned, was not always a good thing.


He supposed he could pull up the list of casualties on his implanted toot. But there wouldn't be much point. When they'd first landed, the Marines of Bravo Company, Bronze Battalion of the Empress' Own Regiment, had been just so many faces. And the officers and crew of the Assault Ship DeGlopper, long since expanding plasma, had just been blurs. But since some time after the pilots of the shuttles had brought them to deadstick landings on this backward hell, some time between the internecine fighting that had erupted at the first city they'd visited and the furious battles with the Kranolta barbarians, the Marines had become more than faces. In many ways, they had become more than family—as close as a part of his own body.


And each loss had been like flaying skin.


First the loss of half the company in Voitan, fighting the Kranolta. Then the constant low-level seepage as they battled their way across the rest of the continent. More good troops killed in Diaspra against the Boman, and then a handful more in Sindi against the main Boman force. The ones who fell to the damnbeasts and the vampire moths. And the crocs. The ever-be-damned damncrocs.


And one of those fallen had been Kostas.


Kostas. Not a Marine, or even one of the Navy shuttle pilots. Not one of the Mardukan mercenaries who had become welded to the Bronze Barbarians. Roger could, to an extent, justify their losses. The entire purpose of Bravo Company, and of the mercenaries, was to protect the once lily-white skin of Prince Roger Ramius Sergei Alexander Chiang MacClintock, and they'd all known it when they signed on. But that wasn't Kostas' purpose. He was just a valet. A nobody. A nonentity. Just . . . Kostas.


Just the man who had stood by Roger when the rest of the universe thought he was a complete loss. Just the man who, thrown the responsibility for feeding and clothing the company on its march, had taken it on without a qualm. Just the man who had found food where there was none, and prepared sumptuous dishes from swamp water and carnivores. Only the man who had been a father figure to him.


Only Kostas.


And not even lost to enemy action. Lost to a damn croc, five meters of rubbery skin and teeth. One of the innumerable hazards of the damned jungles of Marduk. Roger had killed the croc almost immediately, but it had been too late. He'd killed dozens of them since, but all of them were too late for Kostas. Too late for his . . . friend.


He hadn't had many friends growing up. Even as the least little scion of the Imperial Family, Roger had faced a future of power and wealth. And from the youngest age, there had been sycophants aplenty swarming around the prince. The innumerable Byzantine plots of Imperial City had sought constantly to co-opt one self-absorbed prince. And from the time he was a teenager, it had been Kostas—cautious, mousey Kostas—who had helped him thread the rocks and shoals. Often without Roger ever knowing it.


And now, he was gone. Just . . . gone. Like Hooker and Bilali and Pentzikis and . . . gods. The list went on and on.


Oh, they'd left a few widows on the other side in their wake. They'd made alliances when and where they could, even passed without a ripple in a few places. But more often than not, it had been plasma guns and bead rifles, swords and pikes and a few thousand years of technical and tactical expertise, blasting a swath of destruction a blind man could track because they had no choice. Which created its own problems, because they scarcely needed to be leaving any bread crumb trails behind them. Especially when they already knew they didn't face only "casual" enemies on the planet. True, there were more than enough foes who had become dangers solely because they felt . . . argumentative when the company had needed to cross their territory, but beyond them, Roger and the Barbarians faced the sworn enemies of the Empire and the Imperial House.


The planet Marduk was, technically, a fief of the Empire of Man. In fact, officially it was personally held by the Empress herself, since it had been discovered a few hundred years before by the expanding Empire and promptly claimed in the name of the House of MacClintock. For over a century, the planet had been no more than a notation on a survey somewhere, though. Then, early in the reign of Roger's grandfather, plans had been advanced for the Sagittarius Sector. Settlers were going to be sent out to the planets in the region, and a "new day of hope" would dawn for the beleaguered poor of the inner worlds. In preparation for the projected wave of expansion, outposts had been established on several of the habitable planets and provided with bare-bones starports. The Imperial government had put some additional seed money into establishing a limited infrastructure and offered highly attractive concessions to some of the Empire's biggest multistellar corporations to help produce more, but by and large, the planets in this sector had been earmarked strictly as new homes for the "little people" of the Empire.


Roger supposed the plans had spoken well for his grandfather's altruistic side. Of course, it was that same misplaced altruism and his tendency to trust advisers because of what he thought their characters were that had created most of the problems Roger's Empress Mother had been dealing with, first as Heir Primus and then as Empress, for longer than Roger had been alive. And it had also been an altruism whose hopes had been frustrated more often than not.


As they had been in the case of the Sagittarius Sector project.


Unfortunately for Grandfather's plans, the "poor" of the inner worlds were relatively comfortable with their low-paid work or government stipends. Given a choice between a small but decent apartment in Imperial City or Metrocal or New Glasgow or Delcutta and a small but decent house in a howling wilderness, the "poor" knew which side of their bread was buttered. Especially when the howling wilderness in question was on a planet like Marduk. For one thing, even in Delcutta, people rarely had to worry about being eaten.


So, despite all of the government's plans (and Emperor Andrew's), the sector had languished. Oh, two or three of the star systems in the area had attracted at least limited colonization, and the Sandahl System had actually done fairly well. But Sandahl was on the very fringe of the Sagittarius Sector, more of an appendage of the neighboring Handelmann Sector. For the most part, the Sagittarius planetary outposts and their starports had discovered that they were the designated hosts for a party no one came to. Except for the Saints.


One of the less altruistic reasons for the effort to colonize the sector in the first place had been the fact that the Cavaza Empire was expanding in that direction. Unfortunately, the plan to build up a countervailing Imperial presence had failed, and eventually, as the Saints continued their expansion, they had noticed the port installed on the small, mountainous subcontinent of Marduk.


In many ways, Marduk was perfect for the Saints' purposes. The "untouched" world would require very little in "remedy" to return it to its "natural state." Or to colonize. With their higher birthrate, and despite their "green" stand, the Saints were notably expansionist. It was one of the many little inconsistencies which somehow failed to endear them to their interstellar neighbors. And in the meantime, the star system was well placed as a staging point for clandestine operations deeper into the Empire of Man.


Roger and his Marines were unsure of the conditions on the ground. But after their assault ship/transport, HMS DeGlopper, had been crippled by a programmed "toombie" saboteur, they had needed the closest port to which they could divert, and Marduk had been elected. Unfortunately, they had arrived only to be jumped by two Saint sublight cruisers which had been working in-system along with their globular "tunnel-drive" FTL carrier mother ship. The presence of Cavazan warships had told the Marines that whatever else was going on here, the planetary governor and his "locally" recruited Colonial Guards were no longer working for the Empire. That could be because they were all dead, but it was far more likely that the governor had reached some sort of accommodation with the Saints.


Whatever the fate of the governor might have been, the unpalatable outlines of the Bronze Barbarians' new mission had been abundantly clear. DeGlopper had managed to defeat the two cruisers, but she'd been destroyed in action with all hands herself in the process. Fortunately, the prince and his Marine bodyguards had gotten away undetected in the assault ship's shuttles while she died to cover their escape and conceal the secret of Roger's presence aboard her. Unfortunately, the only way for the Marines to get Roger home would be to take the spaceport from whoever controlled it and then capture a ship. Possibly in the face of the remaining Cavazan carrier.


It was a tall order, especially for one understrength Marine company, be it ever so elite, shipwrecked on a planet whose brutal climate ate high-tech equipment like candy. The fact that they'd had only a very limited window of time before their essential dietary supplements ran out had only made the order taller. But Bravo Company of the Empress' Own was the force which had hammered fifteen thousand screaming Kranolta barbarians into offal. The force which had smashed every enemy in its path across half the circumference of the planet.


Whether it was turncoat Colonial Guards or a Saint carrier wouldn't matter. The Bronze Barbarians, and His Highness' Imperial Mardukan Guards, were going to hammer them into dust, as well.


Which didn't mean all of the hammers were going to survive.


* * *


Armand Pahner chewed a sliver of mildly spicy bisti root and watched the prince out of one eye as Kosutic approached. She was probably going to suggest a change in the training program, and he was going to approve it, since it had become abundantly clear that they were never going to make the Marines "real" sailors in the short voyage across the Northern Sea.


They were just about on the last leg of the journey they had begun so many months before, and he couldn't be more pleased. There would be a hard fight at the end. Taking the spaceport and, even more important, a functional ship would take some solid soldiering. But compared to the rest of the journey, it ought to be a picnic.


He chuckled grimly to himself, not for the first time, at how easily and completely a "routine" voyage could go wrong. Assuming they got back to report, this would definitely be one for the security school to study. Murphy's fell presence was obvious everywhere, from the helpless saboteur secreted within the loyal ship's company and driven to her suicidal mission by orders programmed into her toot, to the poor choices of potential emergency diversion planets, to the presence of Saint forces in the supposedly loyal system.


Once they'd reached the planet's actual surface, of course, things had only gone downhill. The sole redeeming quality of the trip was that they had left Earth guarding what was surely the weakest link in the Imperial Family. Now . . . he wasn't. The foppish, useless prince who had left Earth had died somewhere in the steaming jungles of Marduk. The MacClintock warrior who had replaced him had some problems of his own: the most serious of them, a tendency to brood and an even more dangerous tendency to look for answers in the barrel of a gun. But no one could call him a fop anymore. Not to his face, at least. Not and survive.


In a way, looked at with cold logic, the trip had been enormously beneficial, shipwreck, deaths, and all. Eventually, the old prince—unthinking, uncommitted, subject to control or manipulation by the various factions in the Imperial Palace—would probably have caused the deaths of far more than a company of Marines. So the loss of so many of Pahner's Barbarians could almost be counted as a win.


If you looked at it with cold enough logic.


But it was hard to be logical when it was your Marines doing the dying.


* * *


Kosutic smiled at the company commander. She knew damned well what he was pondering, in general, if not specifically. But it never hurt to ask.


"Penny for your thoughts, Captain."


"I'm not sure what his mother is going to say," the captain replied. It wasn't exactly what he'd been thinking about, but it was part and parcel of his thought process.


"Well, initially, she'll be dealing with disbelief," Kosutic snorted. "Not only that we, and Prince Roger in particular, are alive, but at the change in him. It'll be hard for her to accept. There've been times it seemed the Unholy One Himself was doing the operational planning, but between you and me, the prince is shaping up pretty well."


"True enough," Pahner said softly, then chuckled and changed the subject. "Speaking of shaping up, though, I take it you don't think we can turn Julian into a swabbie?"


"More along the lines of it not being worth the trouble," Kosutic admitted. "Besides, Julian just pointed out that we've gotten awful shabby at close combat work, and I have to agree. I'd like to set the Company to training on that, and maybe some cross-training with the Mardukan infantry."


"Works for me," Pahner agreed. "Despreaux took the Advanced Tactical Assault Course," he added after double-checking with his toot implant. "Make her NCOIC."


"Ah, Julian took it, too," the sergeant major said. Pahner glanced at her, and she shrugged. "It's not official, because he took it 'off the books.' That's why it's not in his official jacket."


"How'd that happen?" Pahner asked. After this long together, he'd thought he knew everything there was to know about the human troops. But there was always another surprise.


"ATAC is taught by contractors," Kosutic pointed out. "When he couldn't get a slot for the school, he took leave and paid his own way."


"Hmmm." Pahner shook his head doubtfully. "I don't know if I can approve using him for an instructor if he didn't take it through approved channels. Which contractor was it?"


"Firecat, LLC. It's the company Sergeant Major Catrone started after he got out."


"Tomcat?" Pahner shook his head again, this time with a laugh. "I can just see him teaching that class. A couple of times in the jungle, it was like I heard his voice echoing in my head. 'You think this is hot? Boy, you'd best wait to complain in HELL! And that's where you're gonna be if you don't get your head out of your ass!' "


"When in the Unholy One's Fifth Name did you deal with Sergeant Major Catrone?" Kosutic asked. "He'd been retired for at least a decade when I joined the Raiders."


"He was one of my basic training instructors at Brasilia Base," Pahner admitted. "That man made duralloy look soft. We swore that the way they made ChromSten armor was to have him eat nails for breakfast, then collect it from the latrines, because his anus compressed it so hard the atoms got crushed. If Julian passed the course with Tomcat teaching it, he's okay by me. Decide for yourself who should lead the instruction."


"Okay. Consider it done." Kosutic gave a wave that could almost have been classified as a salute, then turned away and beckoned for the other NCOs to cluster back around her.


Pahner nodded as he watched her sketching a plan on the deck. Training and doctrine might not be all there was to war, but it was damned well half. And—


His head jerked up and he looked towards the Sea Skimmer as a crackle of rifle fire broke out, but then he relaxed with a crooked, approving grin. It looked as if the Marines weren't the only ones doing some training.


 


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