March to the sea im 2, p.30

March To The Sea im-2, page 30

 part  #2 of  Imperial March Series

 

March To The Sea im-2
 



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  "Your face has changed colors. Does that mean you and Sergeant Despreaux are going to mate?"

  "No!" Roger said as Despreaux started laughing uncontrollably. "Oh, shut up, Nimashet."

  "Is that a command, Your Highness?" the sergeant asked with a throaty chuckle.

  "No, just a desperate attempt to steer the conversation onto less sensitive ground, I suspect," the councilor observed. "Unless I miss my guess, it seems that we've offended our guests."

  "Only the more important one," Flain said. "Quick work. This is why I think inviting women to sensitive negotiations is insanity."

  "Ah, my fine D'Sley import!" his mate said with a grunt of laughter. "You are so up-to-date."

  "Well, it's true. You women are just too flighty."

  "I wouldn't advise telling that to Eleanora," Roger said, taking another bite of the calan.

  "She's your, what is the term, 'chief of staff'?" Til asked.

  "Yes. She's my senior political adviser, as opposed to Captain Pahner, who's my senior military adviser."

  "And a woman?" Flain asked.

  "A woman," Roger agreed. "She's meeting with Lord Sam Tre and Madame Fullea Li'it this evening. And the person who's 'escorting' her isn't a senior adviser."

  "So she'll be the one carrying the weight of the discussion?" Til asked.

  "And any actual negotiations, political or financial, that might come up," Roger agreed, and didn't notice the looks that passed between the K'Vaernians at the word "negotiations" as he offered another bite to Despreaux. She accepted unthinkingly, and then they both froze as she nipped the slice off just short of his fingers.

  "Ah, look," Tor Flain said. "He's turning red again. I say they're going to mate."

  "I hope they can wait until after dinner," See Tra'an added. "I've heard wonderful things about the grilled coll."

  Roger cleared his throat.

  "We are not going to mate."

  "Certainly not here, that is," Despreaux corrected.

  "This is an interesting restaurant," Roger said, managing not to sound—quite—desperate as he changed subjects.

  "One of my family's," Flain said, accepting the change. "Most of the employees are cousins."

  "It's not much to look at on the outside," Despreaux said. "I take it that was deliberate?"

  "Part of its charm," Teel Sla'at agreed. "If you don't know about it, you don't come here."

  "It has excellent food, though," Til added. "Tor Flain's family is well known for their fish."

  "It's what we do," the soldier said with a gesture of agreement. "Father started off small, concentrating on quality. He was sure there was a market for much more expensive and higher quality products than are usually available, and there was."

  "And you, Wes Til? What's your background?" Roger asked.

  "The Til are one of the oldest families in the city," the councilman's mate answered.

  "We bought K'Vaern's dock from him the second time he went bust," the councilor said with a grunt of laughter. "And we've managed to keep a grip on our properties. Unlike most families."

  "And didn't fade away," Roger said with a nod. "That's unusual over more than three or four generations. On the other hand, we're having a hard time getting much of the feel for time with you guys."

  "And you, Prince Roger?" See Tra'an asked. "You're part of a politically powerful family? How long has it been in power?"

  "The MacClintocks have been the Imperial Family for nearly a thousand years now," Despreaux answered for him. "However, we're long-lived, so that's only—" She paused.

  "Twelve generations," Roger concluded. "Our family can be traced back for many more generations before that, with various members holding positions of power, but there was no Empire, which meant no emperors."

  "So you grew up with the exercise of power," Til said. "Interesting."

  "Yes and no," Roger replied as a group of servants entered bearing steaming platters. The centerpiece was a large fish with a broad, flattened head resembling a stonefish. The head was intact, but the body had been gutted and skinned and the entire fish had been grilled with some sort of glazing.

  "I'm the youngest child," Roger continued as the platters were scattered around the low tables. "I have two very competent older siblings to manage the family affairs."

  "Ah," Flain said, carving a section off of the fish as the servants moved around placing small bowls of side dishes by each diner. "So you became a military commander? That's what happened to me. There was nowhere in the family that fitted my interests, so I joined the Guard."

  "Not really," Roger said. "The Marines are my bodyguards. I'm their ceremonial commander, but Pahner is the actual military professional."

  "You've improved," Despreaux said, taking a bite of a sliced orange root. "Yow! That's hot."

  "Thanks, but I'm still not a real commander," Roger pointed out. "Just because the Marines will obey me doesn't mean I'm a Marine."

  "They no longer obey you for reasons of coercion," Cord said. "You are a commander in fact, whether the law supports you or not."

  "Whatever," Roger said uncomfortably. "But my 'career' isn't yet set."

  "You're a sailor, as well?" Til asked.

  "Only a dabbler," the prince responded, taking a slice of orange root of his own. "Wow! That is hot. But sweet, too." He took a sip of wine to reduce the burn, and shrugged. "I've sailed with people for whom it's a hobby, but one of our junior personnel who's meeting with your shipyard manager and the owner of the boatyard that's producing our model comes from a land of professional seamen. He's our real expert, and he worked for some years in a shipyard in his land while he was attending school, but I can talk about seafaring generalities, which is one of the reasons I'm meeting with you."

  "It's a tradition among our people to assure that if any decisions are to be made at a meeting, no one there knows what they're talking about," Despreaux said. "Do your people have the same tradition?"

  Roger choked on his wine, and Til grunted.

  "I take it that that's a joke," the laughing councilman said.

  "Unfortunately, it has a measure of truth to it," Flain said. "An inefficiency that my father expertly exploited."

  "We will be making no decisions tonight," Roger said after swallowing more wine to clear his throat. "We might discuss some of the things that need to be worked out, but no decisions are going to be made."

  "It isn't our tradition to make decisions over food," Teel Sla'at pointed out.

  "But you do discuss things of importance?" Despreaux asked. She took a bite of the flaky fish and raised her eyebrows. "That's excellent. What's that glaze?"

  "It's made from the same orange root," Flain said. "Ground very fine and mixed with wine, sea-plum juice, and some other spices which are a family secret."

  "If you really want the recipe, I can get it," See Tra'an offered. "All it takes is scratching at the special place at the base of his horns."

  "Is the fish a bottom feeder?" Roger asked, glancing at the centerpiece. He knew a good time to help someone by drawing fire when he heard one.

  "Somewhat," Flain said quickly. "They lie on or near the bottom in large schools and rise to herd bait fish and clicker schools. They're generally caught on lines, although they can sometimes be netted with drift nets, and care is required in their preparation. They have a gland which must be removed before cooking, since it produces an oil which is quite poisonous."

  Despreaux looked up quickly at that, and Roger chuckled at her expression.

  "We have a similar fish in our own land," he assured the guardsman. "Some of our people actually prefer to sample small doses of the toxin it produces, though, and I gather from your tone that that's not the case here?"

  "Hardly," Tor said with a grim chuckle. " 'Quite poisonous' is a slight understatement, I'm afraid. 'Instantly fatal' would probably be better."

  "I see." Despreaux swallowed a mouthful, her expression uneasy, and Roger took pity on her.

  "Remember Marshad
and Radj Hoomis' cooking, Nimashet," he told her, and she glanced at him, then visibly relaxed at the reminder of the inept Marshadan monarch's attempt to poison his "guests" . . . without any notion of how alien their physiology truly was.

  "Please, feel no concern," Flain said earnestly. "I assure you, our people—and especially my own family—have been preparing coll for many, many years. Care is required, but the preparation process is relatively straightforward, and no one has actually been poisoned in as long as I can recall."

  "I'm sure we'll be fine, Tor," Roger said, and smiled encouragingly at Despreaux as the sergeant gamely helped herself to another generous bite of the fish.

  "Yes. In the meantime," the guardsman went on with the air of someone once again seeking a deliberate subject change, "I'm fascinated by these ships you envision. Triangular sails?"

  "We'll have a model built fairly quickly," Roger told him. "We could do one on a smaller scale as a demonstrator, I suppose. I was down at the harbor earlier, watching some of your shipping, and I saw that you already know how to beat to windward."

  " 'Beat to windward'?" Til repeated.

  "Sorry. A human term for tacking back and forth across the wind."

  "Ah. Yes, we know how to tack, but it's a laborious process, and in light winds, especially, our ships often get caught in irons."

  " 'In irons'?" It was Despreaux's turn to repeat a phrase, and Roger nodded.

  "He means their ships lose way before they can carry across the eye of the wind onto the opposite tack. Actually, I was a bit surprised that they tack instead of wearing ship." The sergeant rolled her eyes, and he grinned. "More sailorese, Nimashet. It means turning away from the wind in a near circle instead of turning across it when you change tack."

  "And why should that be a surprise?"

  "Because they use square headsails instead of the fore-and-aft jibs we use, and those are a pain to manage," Roger told her.

  "Indeed they can be," Til agreed. "And you're quite right. At least half the time, our captains do prefer to wear rather than tacking. It takes more time, but especially in light breezes, it's often the only way to be sure you get clear around. But you have a new sail plan to allow us to avoid such difficulties?"

  "I wouldn't go quite that far," the prince said, "but it should certainly make tacking a lot easier. You'll be able to sail much closer to the wind, too, so you won't have to tack as often, either. It'll still be easier to sail with the wind, but this ought to simplify things for you. A lot."

  "So you can sail across the sea," Flain said.

  "If there are any materials to build your ships," Til added.

  Roger took another bite of coll. "Poertena believes we can purchase and cannibalize some of the local ships for parts."

  "Still, that seems unnecessarily complex," Flain said, swallowing a bite of barleyrice. "It also will take some time."

  "True," Roger agreed. "But there doesn't seem to be an alternative."

  "Well, if the Boman weren't squatting on the forests, you could get all the masts and lumber you wanted," Wes Til pointed out. "For that matter, there's a huge stockpile in D'Sley. We've sent small raids over to recover raw materials, but the Boman are onto us now. They don't want to destroy the naval supplies, either—they may be barbarians, but they understand the decadent concept of money, and they intend to sell them at some point, no doubt. But taking any more would require an army."

  "Hmmm," Roger said. "We weren't aware of that. It must be making the discussion with Eleanora interesting."

  "Indeed," Flain agreed. "What are they discussing, do you know?"

  "Eleanora wanted to meet the person who organized the D'Sley sealift."

  "Ayeiii!" Til said. "When you mentioned that they were meeting with Fullea Li'it I hoped you were jesting."

  "Why?" Despreaux asked. "Is there something wrong with her?"

  "She's just—" The councilor paused, searching for a word.

  "She is very direct," Teel Sla'at said with a laugh. "She speaks her mind. And D'Sley wasn't nearly so open with their women as we are, so a D'Sley woman speaking her mind is . . . unusual."

  "She's also stubborn as a turom," Til put in.

  "Then that ought to be an interesting meeting," Roger said with a smile.

  "Fullea will press for your support in retaking D'Sley," Til said.

  "There's no need for us to participate in that," Despreaux said. "We've done our fighting already."

  "You have Bogess and Rus From to lead you," Roger pointed out, picking up another slice of orange root. "How does this do if you saute it?"

  "Quite well, actually," Flain answered. "But it's more piquant with the coll fish if it's raw. The problem is that no one trusts Bogess' understanding of the weapons or the tactics. Not like they trust you and Captain Pahner."

  "Ha!" Roger laughed. "You'd trust unknown aliens over a known general?"

  "We would when that's the reaction of the general's own army," Til said quietly. "And the reaction of the general himself. I doubt that the Council is going to be willing to leave the safety of the walls without the support of you Marines, your commander, and your 'powered armor.' "

  "Bloody hell." Roger shook his head. "We're not here to fight your wars for you."

  "Oh, I think we could fight our own wars, thank you," Flain said just a bit tartly, but then he paused and gave the Mardukan equivalent of a sigh. "Or we could, if we could build the support for it," he admitted unhappily, "and it will require some impetus to convince the populace that leaving the safety of the walls is the best plan. Which it is, since hiding behind the walls is a death sentence for the city, whether it comes by starvation or assault."

  "Hmmm," Roger said, finishing off his fish. "Convincing populaces is one of Eleanora's specialties."

  "That it is," Despreaux said. "I think that the meeting with the D'Sley contingent is going to be interesting."

  CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

  "So you are a female." Sam Tre's tone made the statement a question, and a fairly tentative one, at that. Despite his role as escort to the redoubtable Fullea Li'it, the D'Sley nobleman seemed confused at finding himself carrying on a serious conversation with a human woman, especially one who'd been represented as one of Prince Roger's senior officers.

  "Yes," O'Casey said sweetly. "I am."

  "And the 'Chief of Staff,' " the D'Sley female reclining on both left elbows across the low table said. "Fascinating."

  "And your companion? Kostas, you are a senior officer also?" Tre asked.

  "I don't think so," the valet replied with a smile.

  "He's one of our logistics and supply experts," O'Casey said tactfully.

  "That's one way of putting it," Matsugae said, picking at his rubbery basik. "Tastes like chicken and twice as many ways to prepare it," he muttered, then looked back up at his host with a slightly apologetic smile. "Excuse me. I can't help noticing the food, which is fair enough I suppose. For want of a better explanation, I'm the cook for this expedition."

  "He's in charge of support for the Marines," O'Casey corrected. "He was Roger's body servant, and was pressed into service for his present job. Which, I might add, he's performed admirably."

  "Ah," Fullea said. "So we have a D'Sley nobleman, a female chief of staff, a D'Sley fisherman's widow, and a human cook." She grunted in laughter until Eleanora was afraid she would choke. "This is quite a party."

  "I wish you had cooked, Kostas Matsugae," Tre said. "You're correct—there are many good ways to do basik, and this isn't one of them."

  "I fear I made a poor choice of restaurants," Fullea admitted ruefully. "I'm learning as fast as I can, but hosting important dinners in foreign cities wasn't part of the station to which I was born."

  "You're a fisherman's wife?" O'Casey asked.

  "I was," the D'Sley woman replied. "Not a poor fisherman; he owned his own boat and shares in his brother's cargo barge. But not . . . rich. Not a noble by any stretch, nor a man of means."

  "And he was killed by the
Boman?" Matsugae asked.

  "Earlier, actually," the widow said. She made a gesture of resignation. "Swept off the deck by a line. Never found the body."

  " ' . . . The men who go down to the sea in ships,' " O'Casey quoted softly. "I'm sorry."

  "The sea gives and takes away," Fullea said. "But the problem was his brother. Tareim felt he should take over the business. I was, after all, just a woman, even if I had been advising my husband for years. In fact, he'd far surpassed Tareim in gain, and it wasn't because my husband was an astute businessman. But Tareim didn't want to hear that. He didn't want to hear anything which might have made him 'subservient' to a mere woman, and the law favored him. There was little I could do, when he took over, except watch everything start coming apart, and things kept right on going from bad to worse until I . . . persuaded him to let me advise him. After which the business recovered."

  "Our device translated that as 'persuaded,' " the chief of staff observed, toying with her wineglass. She supposed, given the restaurant's obviously costly fixtures and the jewelry of the other patrons, that the wine must be an expensive vintage, but it was also thin and tasteless as vinegar. "Would that be an accurate translation?"

  "The term she actually used has overtones of gentle persuasion," Tre agreed. "However, in the context, it can be assumed that the reverse was true."

  "I had two thugs accost him and threaten to break both his false-arms if he didn't put me back in control." The widow made a dismissive gesture. "Of course, they never said they were working for me. In fact, they didn't know they were. I'd hired them through a friend of my husband's, and they believed they were from a moneyman Tareim owed money to. Since part of the arrangement that put me back in charge also put me in direct contact with the moneyman and left me controlling all of Tareim's payments to him, no one was ever the wiser."

  She chuckled softly, and the humans joined her.

  "A neat solution to the problem," O'Casey said. "But what did this have to do with the sealift?"

  "I'd built up a small fleet of ships by the time the Boman swept down from the north. When Therdan was surrounded and I realized the barbarians had no intention of stopping with the cities of the League, I decided that it would be good to move my base of operations, so I'd already arranged to shift everything to the Cove." Fullea picked at her dinner for a moment. "At first, when the Boman surrounded D'Sley in turn, there was a great deal of money to be made from ferrying rich nobles to the Cove. But then all of those who could pay to go were gone, and there were still all those people left."

 
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