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Tras Sofu had no intention of becoming a Servant of God.


He had escaped from the slave pens of the High Temple once. Only a handful of Servants could make that claim, and even fewer of those who had escaped had evaded recapture. That was a point which had been forcibly borne in upon Sofu when he realized that Agents of Justice were everywhere in Kirsti. That was also when he'd decided that the sailor's life was for him. Trade among the Lemmar Islands was dangerous—there were not only the pirates to consider, but many shoals and other hazards to navigation. But given the choice between sailing the shoals and risking the Agents, he'd take shipwreck any day.

Now, though, his bet had backfired, and he was probably headed right back to the pens. It was rumored, however, that the Lemmar would sometimes keep particularly good workers around. There were always plenty of Lemmar who wanted to work their ships—the greatest problem with the Islands was a lack of shipping, not lack of labor for the boats—but a good crewman, as Tras was, might be better than an untrained landsman. So whenever there was any little thing that needed doing, it was always Tras Sofu who was right on it. Any line that needed coiling was coiled immediately, and when the crew went aloft, it was always Tras Sofu in the lead.

His Lemmar captors—and his fellow crewmen, for that matter—knew what he was doing. Whether the Lemmar approved or were just sizing him up for the ax was another matter, though. He knew that the pirates could give slime whether any Krath lived or died. The way they'd casually chopped the heads off of the captain and the mate had made that point crystal clear. And, truth to tell, he wasn't all that much fonder of the pirates than he was of the Fire Priests themselves. But while a part of him hated acting as an accomplice in his own enslavement, being indispensable to his new masters was the only way he knew to avoid his old ones . . . and the pens.

None of the other crewmen seemed to share his attitude. They were sunk into apathy, never taking initiative at anything. The Lemmar literally had to whip them into position, and they acted as if they were already Servants, beyond redemption. Certainly none of them seemed to have any interest in emulating Tras's ingratiating eagerness.

Which was why it was Tras, always head-up and looking out for any change he might turn to advantage, who first spotted the strange, triangular sails on the horizon. The single ship closing fast on an impossible tack, practically straight into the wind, was the most outlandish thing Tras had ever seen—and he paused for a moment, staring at the sleek, low-slung craft as the slower Krath merchantman dipped into a swell. He wondered briefly what worm had devoured the brains of anyone stupid enough to sail towards a Lemmaran ship. Of course, the merchant ship didn't look very much like a raiding vessel, so perhaps these lunatics didn't realize what they were dealing with. If that were the case, was it his responsibility to try to warn them off before they sailed into such danger?

He considered the proposition from all angles for several breaths, then decided that other people's sanity wasn't his problem. Staying alive was, so he cupped his true-hands into a trumpet and turned towards the prize crew's captain.

"Sail ho!"

* * *

Roger refused to look across at Kosutic.

He knew that whatever emotion the sergeant major might be feeling wasn't going to be evident. Which didn't mean what she was feeling was happy.

The prince's blistering argument with Pahner had been as private as possible on a ship as small as the Hooker. But the fact that the argument had taken place—and that the captain hadn't won—was obvious to the entire command. It was one of the very few times since their first arrival on this planet that Roger and the commander of his bodyguard, the man who had kept him alive through the entire nightmare trek, had had a clear and cold difference of opinion. And it was the very first time since landing on Marduk that Roger had pushed it to the wall.

He was aware that that sort of rift was a serious problem in any command, but he also felt that there'd been two positive aspects to it. The first was that even Pahner had been forced to concede that he really was the best close quarters fighter in their entire force, better even than Kosutic or Pahner himself. Both of those senior warriors had started the trip with far more experience than the prince. But this odyssey had involved more combat than any Marine usually saw in three lifetimes, and along the way Roger had proven that there was no one in the company as fast or as dangerous in a close encounter as the prince the company was supposed to protect. That meant that, argument or no argument, from any tactical viewpoint, he was the right person to have exactly where he was.

And the second positive aspect was that what he and Pahner had had was an argument. For all its ferocity, there had been no shouting, no screaming. The disagreement had been deep and fundamental, and in the end, Roger knew that his rank as a member of the Imperial family had played a major role in Pahner's concession of his point. But he also knew that Armand Pahner would never have conceded it anyway, whatever the potential future consequences for himself or his career might have been, if he hadn't learned to respect Roger's judgment. He might not share it, and at the moment the captain might not be particularly aware that he "respected," it either. But Roger knew. The spoiled prince it was Captain Armand Pahner's task to protect would never have won an argument with the Bronze Barbarians' company commander. The Colonel Roger MacClintock, the official commander of Pahner's regiment, who had emerged from the crucible of Marduk, could win one . . . if he argued long enough.

On the other hand, nothing Roger could say or do could change the fact that, from Pahner's perspective, this entire operation was completely insane. However great the political advantages of recapturing the Temple's merchant ships might be, the loss of Roger's life would make everything all too many of Pahner's Marines had died to accomplish on this planet totally meaningless. Roger knew it, and he knew Pahner did, too. Just as he knew that the commander of his bodyguard was capable of applying ruthless logic to the command decisions that faced him. Which left Roger just a bit puzzled. He supposed that some officers in Pahner's position might have looked at the shifting structure of interwoven loyalties and military discipline in The Basik's Own and decided that it was time to apply that age-old aphorism, "Never give an order you know won't be obeyed." Especially not when the Marines' erstwhile object of contempt had metamorphosed into their warrior leader . . . and into the primary authority figure in the eyes of the "native levies" supporting them.

But that wasn't Pahner's style. If the captain had sensed that he was losing control—and, with it, the ability to discharge his sworn responsibilities—to a very junior officer (whatever that junior officer's birth-rank might happen to be), he would have taken steps to prevent it from happening. And Roger had come to know Pahner well enough to be certain that any steps the captain took would have been effective ones.

So there had to be another factor in the equation, one Roger hadn't quite identified yet. Something which had caused Armand Pahner to be willing to allow the prince he was oath bound to keep alive, even at the cost of pouring out the blood of every one of his own men and women like water, to risk his neck on what was essentially an operation of secondary importance.

Not knowing what that factor was . . . bothered Roger. It seemed to underscore some deep, fundamental change in his relationship with the man who had become even more of a father figure for him than Kostas had been. And though he would never have admitted it to Pahner in so many words, that relationship had become one of the most precious relationships in his entire life.

But at least things had gone smoothly enough so far to suggest that Colonel MacClintock's plan was an effective one. This was the fifth ship they'd approached, and each of the others had fallen like clockwork. The Lemmar couldn't seem to conceive of the possibility that two people could be so dangerous. Kosutic and Honal were the only ones with obvious weapons, so they tended to focus the pirates' attention upon themselves . . . and away from Rastar and Roger himself. Which was unfortunate for the Lemmar.

Rastar wore a robe, similar to a djellabah, open on both sides, that concealed the four pistols he had holstered across the front of his body without slowing him down when he reached for them. The ancient Terran fable about the wolf in sheep's clothing came forcibly to mind every time Roger glanced at the big Northern cavalryman. Not that he was any less dangerous himself. Pahner might have lost the argument about just who was going on this little expedition, but he'd flatly refused to let Roger take the human-sized revolvers he'd been carrying ever since they left K'Vaern's Cove. Conserving irreplaceable ammunition for the Marines' bead pistols was all very well, but as he'd rather icily pointed out, there was no point saving ammunition if the person they were all responsible for protecting managed to get his idiotic self killed. Which was why Roger wore a cloak of Marshadan dianda to help conceal the pair of bead pistols holstered under his uniform tunic.

Now, as the sailing dinghy came alongside its fifth target, Roger stood behind Rastar, looking as innocuous as possible, while Honal and Kosutic handled their own weapons with a certain deliberate ostentation designed to make certain all eyes were on them.

"Hullo the deck!" Rastar bellowed in a voice trained to cut through the bedlam and carnage of a cavalry battle.

"Stand clear!" one of the pirates bellowed back almost as loudly. The caller was amidships, on the starboard side, shading his eyes to pick out the small craft. Most of the rest of his fellow pirates seemed to be concentrating on the Hooker, which had taken up station a tactful three hundred meters off the prize ship's starboard quarter. On the other hand, Captain T'Sool had his gun ports open and the carronades run out. These Lemmar wouldn't have any more clue about the deadliness of those weapons than the first pirates the flotilla had encountered, but they'd recognize them as a deliberate warning that their visitors had teeth of their own.

"We want none of you!" the pirate spokesman added harshly. "Stand clear, I say!"

"We're just here to buy!" Roger shouted up at him, taking over with the toot-given fluency in the local languages Rastar couldn't hope to match. "We've crossed the eastern ocean, and it was a longer voyage than we expected! We're short on supplies—especially food!"

He gazed upward, watching the Mardukans silhouetted against the gray-clouded sky, and glad that both Pedi Karuse and Tob Kerr had been able to confirm that it was fairly common practice to barter with chance-met ships when one's own supplies ran short. Of course, one normally avoided dealing with people like Lemmar raiders in the process, but there was—as far as these raiders knew—no way for the people in the small boat sailing up beside them to realize they weren't honest merchant traders.

"We'll send two people aboard—no more!" Roger added, his tone as wheedling as he could manage. "And we'll transfer anything we buy to small boats, like this one. Don't worry! We're not pirates—and our ship will stay will clear of you! We're willing to pay in gold or trade goods!"

There was a short consultation among the members of the prize crew, but in the end, as all of their fellows had done, they finally acquiesced.

"Keep your hands out from your sides—even you, vern-looking fellow! And only two! The leaders, not their guards."

"Agreed!" Roger called back. "But be warned! Our ship is faster than yours, and more heavily armed. And we aren't 'leaders'—just pursers and good swimmers! Try to take us prisoner, and we'll be over the side so fast your head swims. After which our crew will swarm over you like greg, and we'll take what we need and feed you to the fish!"

"Fair enough!" the Lemmar captain shouted back with an undergrunt of half-genuine laughter. He wasn't entirely happy about the situation, of course. After all, he'd seen how rapidly Hooker had overhauled his own lumbering command, so he knew perfectly well that he could never hope to outrun her. And however undersized those bombards looked, the strange ship obviously mounted a lot of them, whereas his captured merchantship mounted no more than four pathetic swivels. Nor was he unaware of the ancient law of the sea: big fish ate little fish, and at the moment this clumsy tub of a merchant ship might turn out to be a very small fish indeed if it came to that. So if he could get through this encounter by simply selling some of the cargo—especially for a good price—so much the better. After all, he hadn't paid for any of it!

And if the negotiations went badly, these two peculiar 'pursers' could become Servants, for all he cared.

* * *

Roger caught the thrown line and went up the side of the ship hand-over-hand. Like the other merchantmen they'd taken, this one was nearly as round as it was long. The design made for plenty of cargo space, and with enough ballast, it was seaworthy—after a fashion, at least. But the ships were slow, terribly slow. If this thing could break six knots in a hurricane, he would be surprised.

It was also the largest they had so far encountered, which probably meant the prize crew was going to be larger, as well.

He reached the top and nodded at the staring Lemmar who'd thrown the rope, keeping his hands well away from his sides and the one knife he openly carried on his belt as he swung over the rail. Two of the pirates greeting him held arquebuses lightly in their true-hands, not pointed exactly at him, but close. There was a third pirate by the helmsman, and another directing a work party up forward. There'd been five pirates aboard three of the four ships they'd already taken, and seven aboard the fourth, so there was at least one still unaccounted for here. Given the size of the ship, though, Roger's guess was that there were at least three more somewhere below-decks. Possibly as many as five or six.

Rastar climbed over the side behind him and made a complex, multi-armed gesture of greeting.

"I greet you in the name of K'Vaern's Cove," he said in the language of the Vashin. "I am Rastar Komas, formerly Prince of Therdan. We are, as we said, in need of provisions. We need ten thousand sedant of grain, at least fourteen hundred sedant of fruit, four thousand sedant of salted meat, and at least seven hogsheads of fresh water."

Roger nodded solemnly to Rastar and turned to the obviously totally uncomprehending pirates.

"This is Rastar Komas, formerly Prince of Therdan," he announced through his toot. "I am his interpreter. Prince Rastar is now the supply officer for our trading party. He has listed our needs, but to translate them properly, I require better knowledge of your weights and measures, which must obviously be different from our own."

He paused. The prize crews of the other four ships had all reacted in one of two ways at this point in his little spiel, and he and Rastar had a small side bet as to which of those responses this group would select.

"You said something about gold?" the larger of the arquebus-armed pirates asked.

Ah, a type two. Rastar owes me money.  

"Yes. We can pay in gold by balance measure, or we have trade goods, such as the cloth from which this cloak is made."

Roger spread the drape of the silken cape to the sides, then spun on his toes to show how well it flowed. When he turned back around, his hands were full of bead pistols.

The inquisitive pirate never had time to realize what had happened. He and his companion were already flying backwards, heads messily removed by the hypervelocity beads, before he even had time to wonder what the strange objects in the outsized vern's hands were.

"By the Gods of Thunder, Roger!" Rastar complained as he took two shots to drop the Lemmar by the helmsman. "Leave some for the rest of us!"

"Whatever," the prince snapped. A third shot dispatched the pirate who had been supervising the work party up forward, and he kicked the arquebus out of the hands of a twitching body at his feet. Then he turned to examine the hatches as Kosutic swarmed over the side. The work party forward had taken cover behind the body of their erstwhile supervisor and showed no inclination to move out from behind it, so he couldn't form any idea of where the other pirates might be hiding.

"Take the stern. We'll start from the bow," he said, stepping forward. "Be careful."

"As always," Honal answered for his cousin. The Vashin noble jerked the slide on his new shotgun, which had a six-gauge bore and brass-based, paper cartridges. Then he tossed off a salute. "And this time, watch your head," he added. "No ramming it into the undersides of decks!"

"Speaking of which," Kosutic said, clapping the prince's helmet onto his head. "Now be a good boy and flip down the visor, Your Highness."

"Yes, Mother," Roger said, still looking at the forward-most hatch. It was lashed securely down from the outside, but it could just as well be secured from the inside, as well. He flipped down the helmet visor and sent out a pulse of ultrasound, but the region under the deck seemed to be a cargo hold, filled with indecipherable shapes.

"What do you think?" he asked the sergeant major.

"Well, I hate going through where they expect, but I don't want the damned thing to flood, either." Kosutic replied.

"At least they didn't have any bombards before they were captured," Roger pointed out. "Which means there's no powder magazine, either."

"Point taken," Kosutic acknowledged. "Swimming beats the hell out of being blown up, I suppose. But that wasn't exactly what I meant."

"I know it wasn't," Roger replied, and took the breaching charge the sergeant major had extracted from her rucksack. He laid out the coil of explosive on the foredeck and stood back from the circle.

"Shouldn't be any flooding problem coming down from above," he pointed out. "And I'm sure we can convince the original crew to fix any little holes in the deck for us later."

A deep "boom" sounded from the after portion of the ship as Honal broke in his new shotgun, and Roger reached for the detonator.

"Fire in the hole!"

* * *

Honal once again acknowledged how much the humans had taught the Vashin. The human techniques of "close combat," for example, were a novel approach. The traditional Vashin technique for fighting inside a city, for example was simply to throw groups at the problem and let them work it out. But the humans had raised the art of fighting inside buildings, or in this case ships, to a high art.

He jacked another of the paper-and-brass cartridges into the reloading chute and nodded at his prince. Rastar had finally finished reloading one of his revolvers and nodded back. They were more than halfway through the ship, and so far they'd encountered four more of the Lemmar. None of the pirates had survived the meeting, and given that only one of the Krath seamen had been killed along the way, the "breakage," as the humans termed it, had been minimal.

Rastar closed the cylinder and eased cautiously forward towards the bulkhead door in front of them, then paused as he heard the distinctive "Crack!" of one of Roger's bead pistols. Then both Vashin heard a second shot. And a third.

"Careful," Rastar said. "We're getting close. One more compartment, maybe."

"Agreed," Honal replied, barely above a whisper, as he lined up on the latch of the door. "Ready."


Honal triggered a round into the latch and kicked the door wide, then stood to the side as Rastar went through it. The space beyond was apparently the ship's galley, and the only occupant was one of the Krath seaman—the cook, or a cook's mate, presumably—crouching in the corner with a cleaver in his hand. There were, however, two more doors: one in the far bulkhead, and one to starboard.

The sound of Roger's fire had come more from starboard, so Rastar kept one eye on that door in case the prince came barreling through it.

"Clear," Rastar called . . . just as the far door opened.

The Lemmar who came through it (a senior commander, from the quality of his armor and weapons) was tall as a mountain, and clearly infuriated. He'd turned to his left, towards the starboard door, as he entered, so he'd probably intended to intercept Roger and Kosutic on their way aft. Unfortunately, he'd run into the Prince of Therdan first.

Rastar's first shot took him high on the left side. It wasn't in a vital spot, which made it a poor shot indeed for Rastar, so he was able to raise his short sword and charge forward. Worse, two more Lemmar came through the door right behind him, both with arquebuses.

Rastar fired a second double-action shot at the leader from his upper left revolver, then followed up with his upper right true-hand. Both rounds hit his target's chest, barely a handspan apart, and the pirate officer's charge came to an abrupt end.

Rastar's lower left pistol was out of bullets, and only a single round remained in the lower right, but he used that one to hit the starboard arquebusman as he stepped around his now-falling commander. But that still left the port arquebusman, and Rastar's normally lightning reactions had never seemed so slow. His pistol hands seemed to be in slow motion as they swung towards the Lemmar, and his brain noted every detail as the Lemmar carefully raised his weapon, sighted, and lowered its burning slow match towards the touchhole—

Only to fly back in a welter of gore as Honal leaned around his cousin and triggered a single round.

"Told you to get a shotgun," Honal said as he stepped past the former prince.

"Oh, sure," Rastar grumped. "Just because they made you real cartridges, and I still have these flashplant things!"

The starboard door swung open, and Kosutic's head came slowly into view. She looked around the galley and shook her head.

"You're a fine one to talk about 'leave some for the rest of us,' "she observed dryly.

* * *

Roger watched the galley easing alongside Ima Hooker and shook his head.

"Why do I have this worm crawling up my spine? he asked softly.

"Because we're about to lose a measure of our control," Pahner replied calmly. "Uncomfortable feeling, isn't it? Especially since it's pretty clear that if we upset these people, they can squash us like bugs."

Kirsti was huge. The harbor was a collapsed caldera, at least twenty kilometers across, that was cut by a massive river. The entire caldera, from the waterline to its highest ridge, was covered in a mixture of terrace cultivation and buildings. Most of the buildings were one- and two-story structures of wood frame, with whitewashed adobe filling the voids, and they were packed in cheek by jowl.

Nearer water level, the majority of the buildings were finer and larger. According to Pedi, they were residences for the hierarchy of the city, and they were constructed of well-fitted basalt blocks. On each of the caldera's landward flanks, where it was bisected by the river, there was also a vast temple complex. The westerly complex was larger and ran from the base of the slope up the massive ridge to the very crest.

Northwest of that temple were three obviously active volcanoes whose faintly smoking crests rose even over the massive caldera walls. And beyond the caldera a large valley—presumably the famous Valley of the Krath—faded into blue mystery.

The river was at least three kilometers across where it entered the harbor. The flooded portion of the caldera was close to twelve kilometers across, and the outer break was at least six kilometers wide, so the harbor enjoyed two massive natural breakwaters to either side of the entrance. Strangely, given the quality of the harborage, most of the boats in sight were local craft—small fishing caiques and dories, many of them pulled up on the basalt and tufa of the shore. There were a few larger merchant ships, like Rain Daughter and the other members of her ill-fated convoy, but most of the boatyards looked to be capable only of building smaller vessels.

The majority of the merchant and fishing vessels were in the eastern harbor, while the majority of the military vessels—a collection of galleys and small sailing vessels—were on the western side, close to the larger temple. Massive forts with gigantic hooped bombards flanked the outer opening, and a pile of wood and rusting chains on the western shore indicated that the harbor could be closed with a chain boom at need, despite the immensity of its entrance.

The river's current was strong where it entered the caldera, and the harbor's outflow had been evident for the last two days of the flotilla's approach to the city. With that sort of current, and the river's obvious silt load, any normal harbor would have filled up and become a delta in very short order. In Kirsti's case, though, all the silt seemed to be washing on out to sea, which Roger thought probably said some interesting things about the subsurface topography. On a more immediate level, the effects from the river's current must make things even more "interesting" for the local navy.

The flotilla had acquired its escort very early the day before, when two Krath galleys had appeared over the horizon and headed rapidly towards them. They'd slowed down quite a bit when they realized just how large—and peculiar-looking—the flotilla actually was. But the minor priest in command of them had also quickly recognized the recaptured merchantmen for what they were and continued onward to make contact. After looking the situation over and taking testimony from Tob Kerr and some of the other crewmen aboard the retaken ships, he had determined that any decision making needed to be done at a higher level.

The convoy had been ordered to proceed to Kirsti, accompanied by the junior galley, while the CO took his own ship ahead. The schooners had continued to laze along behind the slower Krath ships until they finally reached port, still accompanied by the junior galley, which was obviously trying to decide whether it was an honor guard or a captor.

Now the other ship had returned, and a group of clearly senior functionaries was prominently visible on its afterdeck. Actual first contact was about to be made with a group that was also in contact with the spaceport.

No wonder it was an . . . uncomfortable moment, Roger thought. They'd come a long way to reach this point, and it had felt at times that, given all they'd already overcome, nothing could possibly stop them now. But the reality, as demonstrated by this massive city, was that the hardest part of the journey was yet to come.

"There's no good way to do this part, Your Highness," Pahner continued. "We don't even know if this end of the valley is aware of the Imperial presence, and we have no feel for what the upper valley's attitude might be. If Kirsti's rulers are aware of the Imperial presence, and happy with it, then we can't exactly come right out and say we're going to evict the current residents. If they're not aware of the Imperial presence, then trying to explain our purpose would require a lot more explaining than any of us want to get into. So we'll just tell them we're shipwrecked traders, traveling with other traders and envoys from 'lands beyond the sea' to their capital to establish commercial and diplomatic relations with their High Priest. Trying to talk our little army past them should be interesting, though."

Roger looked over at the captain, then back at the galley. The fact that Pahner had said that much, at this point, didn't strike him as a good sign. It was as clear an indication of nervousness as he had ever seen out of the normally sanguine Marine.

"We're not going to be stopped at this point, Captain," the prince said. "We're going to the port. We're going to take the port, commandeer the first tramp freighter to come along, and go home to Mother. And that's all there is to it."

Pahner shook his head and chuckled.

"Yes, Sir, Your Highness," he said. "As you command."

Roger took a deep breath as the first of the local guards swarmed up the boarding ladder, then nodded sharply to his bodyguard's commander. They were going home, he thought . . . or his name wasn't Roger Ramius Sergei Alexander Chiang MacClintock.

* * *

Sor Teb tried to simultaneously control his shock and wriggle gracefully out of the silly rope and wood contraption that had lifted him aboard. The returning galley commander's description had taken nearly a day to filter up the chain of priests and high priests until it hit someone who knew of the human presence on the Plateau. When it did, of course, everyone had panicked. Given the political and personal friction between Gimoz Kushu and the Mouth of Fire, it had been immediately assumed that the humans had come as messengers from the Plateau, and that was the basis upon which Teb had been sent to greet them.

But one look at these visitors told him all of the hierarchy's elaborate calculations had been wrong. These people were clearly different from the ones on the Plateau.

First of all, there weren't very many of the humans. In fact, he saw no more than seven or eight of them currently in sight, which was a severe shock to the system. He'd never seen a senior human with so few guards! But apparently these senior humans had different priorities. Indeed, they actually seemed to be using the Mardukans in their group as personal guards, whereas none of the Plateau humans would have dreamed of trusting locals that deeply.

Second, although these humans' travel-worn uniforms were similar to the equipment of the guards of the Imperial port on the Plateau, their weapons were not. Those weapons weren't arquebuses, either, though. They fell into some middle ground, with that undeniable look of lethality which seemed to characterize all human weapons, but also with the look of something that had been manufactured locally, not brought in aboard one of their marvelous vessels from beyond the clouds. But what was most astonishing of all was that their native guards and attendants carried what were clearly versions of the same weapons which had been modified for their greater size. No human from the Plateau would ever have considered something like that!

At least one of the humans wore a holstered pistol of obvious Imperial manufacture, but Sor Teb saw none of the fire weapons—the "plasma guns"—that the Plateau guards carried. He didn't even see any of the "bead guns." There might be some on board this remarkable vessel, but if there were, why weren't any of the humans carrying them?

He wondered for a moment what their story was. And he also wondered what they would say. And, last, he wondered how he would determine the difference between the two.

It would be interesting.

* * *

Eleanora O'Casey nodded and smiled, her mouth closed, then backed away from the cluster of priests.

"Curiouser and curiouser," she said as she turned to Roger and Pahner.

"Pretty cagey, aren't they?" Roger replied. "I'm not getting anything."

"They're in contact with the port," O'Casey said. "No question about that. And at least two of them have met humans. Notice how they don't seem as goggle-eyed as the others?"

"Yep," Pahner said. "But they're not being real forthcoming, are they?"

"No, they're not. I think there are two things going on. This satrap isn't in contact with the port, but one of the 'minor' members of the party, that Sor Teb, has been to the capital and had dealings with humans recently. That's probably why he's part of this whole party. I'm guessing that he's the closest they've got to a 'human specialist,' so he's here as something like an ambassador from the court."

"Or a spy," Pahner pointed out.

"Or a spy," O'Casey agreed. "I also think he's really the one in control of the entire group, too. Nothing that they've done, but whenever he says something, the entire conversation shifts."

"Can we land?" the Marine asked, getting back to the point of the conversation.

"Yes, although they're obviously not real happy about having a small army come right through their city."

"We have to have the guards," the captain said firmly.

"It's more a matter of how many," the chief of staff replied. "They're not willing to permit more than three hundred at a time off the ships. And all of them have to carry their edged weapons peace bonded and their firearms unloaded, though they can carry ammunition with them. Everyone's going to be issued 'identification' showing what they're permitted to carry and where. All very civilized, frankly. Oh! And officers can carry loaded pistols."

"Well, that's the first company of attackers," Roger laughed. "Between Rastar and me."

"Okay," Pahner said unhappily. "I don't see any option but to accept their terms. But we've got gear to get to wherever we're barracking. And that's another thing—we have to be located together in a defensible spot."

"I covered that," O'Casey assured him. "I pointed out that Roger was a high noble of the human empire, although I called him Baron Chang. It wasn't even a lie, since it's one of his minor titles. But as a human baron, he's required to be secure at all times. And I also told them that we have quite a lot of bags and baggage. They're okay with that."

"And they don't have a problem with the official reason for our visit?" Pahner asked.

"Not yet, at any rate," O'Casey said. "I explained that 'Baron Chang' was shipwrecked on the other continent, and that the locals there aided him and his party. As a reward, and to discharge his honor obligations to those who helped him, the baron has guided representatives of the local merchants and princes to this continent to establish relations with the Krath, as well as to accompany him as guards to his 'friends' at the spaceport. They seem to accept all of that as reasonable enough, but they want us to barrack down here in the port area. I don't think they've dealt with large contingents from other civilizations before, but they're reacting a bit like Meiji Japan did. They're establishing an acceptable zone for the foreigners and making the rest of the city off limits to general movement.

"You'll need to approve the quarters when we get there, but they should be adequate. Also, we won't be able to just let the troops roam at will. They're going to get upset if there's a noticeable presence of foreigners wandering around, so our people will need to stay mainly in quarters,"

"Remember Marshad," Roger said quietly.

"Oh, yes," Pahner agreed with a frown. "We'll deep sweep the walls this time."

He looked back at O'Casey.

"What about the civan? And how do we resupply? People will have to go to the markets. And I'm not sure about keeping all the troops cooped up until they decide what to do with us."

"These people aren't used to foreigners," O'Casey said with a shrug. "The leadership is going to try to quarantine us as much as possible, and the populace is probably going to be a bit hostile, so keeping the troops close would probably be a good idea, anyway. And whatever else happens, the civan will have to stay down here with us by the docks. The Temple doesn't seem to have any stables. For that matter, there don't seem to be any civan on this continent at all, although they do have turom. Anyway, there's no proper stabling to be had further up in the city, but there are stock holding areas down here by the docks which should work for them, and we can get fodder and forage from the local merchants."

"Can we trade directly with the merchants?" Roger asked. "Or do we have to trade through the Temple?"

"We have to turn over a portion of the trade goods to the Temple as a tax. Actually, the toots translate that as a 'tithe.' Other than that, we can deal direct with the local merchants."

"I'm sure T'Sool will get right to work setting up contacts for Wes Til," Roger said, laughing.

"There are some additional restrictions," O'Casey went on, her expression thoughtful as she accessed her toot. "Lots of them. We'll each be issued plaques that define where we can go and under what circumstances. None of us can enter a temple, cross to the eastern city, or enter any private residence without specific, official permission. Officers and specified guards—no more than five—may enter Temple offices which are more or less secular property. And there's a pretty strict curfew: no being out of our compound after dark or during religious observances. I've got a list of ceremonies for the next couple of weeks, so we should be able to schedule around them without too much trouble."

"Jeez," Roger said. "Real friendly folks. Now I wish we'd let their damned ships go!"

"Arguably, their response could have been worse," O'Casey pointed out. "The problem is that this is an 'alles verboten' society. If it's not specifically permitted, it's forbidden. They also tax everything but breathing, apparently. And I'd bet they're working on that!"

"Well, if you're in agreement, Captain, I'd still say let's do it," Roger said with a frown. "We'll take a company of the Carnan Battalion, with Fain in command, and leave the rest on the ships. They can land to stretch their legs, and we'll rotate the units. Same with the cavalry, but we'll take Rastar and Honal with us and leave the ship side with Chim."

Pahner looked around the massive city, then nodded his head slowly.

"Concur, Your Highness. But we'd better keep our heads down and be really patient. Any alternative to getting along with these people just doesn't bear thinking on."


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