March to the sea im 2, p.13

March To The Sea im-2, page 13

 part  #2 of  Imperial March Series


March To The Sea im-2

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  Poertena could understand why; the relatively small Mardukan ran rings around his more established competitors. Accustomed as he was to rapid turnaround of orders—something almost unthinkable to the hidebound leaders of the larger houses—there was no chance that he would lose any business to those larger houses. Indeed, it would be the larger houses who would have to keep an eye on their rearview cameras.

  He also appeared—bizarrely, for a Mardukan—to have no interest in cheating at cards. He'd been raised and trained in a business which required him to calculate lengths and volumes in his head, and he played a conservative game that stuck strictly to the averages. While, of course, watching his opponents' hands.

  He was currently peering at the Mardukan in half-armor across from him. Sol Ta, the commander of one of the newly raised assegai regiments, had just laid down a handful of jacks and started to scoop in the pot.

  "Card check," Non said, throwing down his cards face up and raising all four hands above his head.

  The purely Mardukan variant of poker, which would have made the professionals of New Vegas choke if they ever saw it, said that any player could call a check of all the cards once per game. The rule also required that all the Mardukans at the table throw all of their cards on the table and raise their hands above their heads.

  "What?" Sol Ta said, then looked at the single jack sitting faceup in the other Mardukan's hand. "Oh." The guardsman raised his hands with the rest as Poertena got up and started checking.

  The Pinopan had found that the locals had become downright fiendish about where they hid their cards. One of these days, he half expected to find one with a hollowed out horn, and he looked at Honal, the fourth Mardukan at the table, and raised an eyebrow.

  "You wanna 'fess up now?"

  The young cavalry commander was notorious, even by Mardukan standards, but he only wrinkled his brow and grinned in the human style.

  "I have nothing to hide," he stated, wiggling all eighteen fingers.

  Poertena sighed and started with the backs of his hands, then worked his way down. In fact, he was pretty sure the cavalryman wasn't holding—this time—but poker rules were poker rules.

  Roger kicked back and laughed silently while he watched. The locals had the oddest approach to cheating he'd ever heard of. If you weren't cheating, they considered you stupid. But if you got caught, they considered you a gross incompetent. As soon as they'd started figuring out the ways they could cheat at cards, they'd leapt in with abandon. Spades and the other whist derivative games were the only ones where they couldn't hide cards, but even then they bottom-dealt, cross-dealt, and stacked decks so cold they froze. And yet they still played for money.

  Poertena stood back and shook his head. The cavalryman's harness and tabard were clean. Nothing in his holsters, nothing in his scabbards. The Pinopan knew from experience that it was entirely possible that he'd missed a card somewhere, but he let the Mardukan lower his hands anyway.

  Next, he started on Sol Ta. The Diaspra infantry commander wasn't as heavily armed as Rastar's cousin. He had a broad spatha kicked out under the table, and his harness sported only a single wheel lock pistol, but lack of hiding places didn't prevent him from regularly managing to fool them anyway. After a close search, the human stepped back and shook his head, then turned to Chal Thai. The other merchant sat patiently, with an air of benign amusement, while Poertena searched him minutely . . . and without success.

  "I gots not'ing," he told Med Non with a shrug, and the merchant looked over at the last Mardukan present as Matsugae quietly entered with fresh drinks. The room was buried deep in the local palace-cum-temple, and had actually been provided by the last player.

  Rus From waved the water-colored scarf that was his badge of office.

  "What? Surely you don't believe that a humble cleric would introduce a jack into the deck? What possible reason could I have?"

  Roger smiled again as he took a glass of cool wine off the tray. He winked at Matsugae, who rolled his eyes in return. The Mardukans seemed to spend better than half their time arguing about who was the more clever at cheating. And the other half denying—purely for the record, of course—that they themselves would ever even consider something that dishonest.

  "Oh, I don't doubt for a moment that you'd do so," Ta said suspiciously. "I just wonder what involved plot it's a part of."

  "I?" the cleric asked, spreading his hands in front of him. "I am but a simple cleric," he added ingenuously. "What would I know of involved plots?"

  All five of the others laughed as Poertena carefully counted the cards. The complex hydraulic engineering that was the hallmark of the Diaspra priesthood was managed, almost wholly, by this "simple cleric." There were higher posts to be found in the local theocracy, but "Bishop of Artificers" was arguably the most powerful. And the most technical. This "simple cleric" had the local equivalent of a couple of doctorates in hydraulic engineering.

  "Besides," he added, as Poertena silently held up the spare jack from the pile, "I don't understand this human fascination with simple adjustments. Isn't it your own Sergeant Major who says 'If you aren't cheating, you aren't trying'?"

  "You cheat you own side, you gonna screw you'self," Poertena said, discarding the jack, sitting back down, and shuffling. As he dealt, he had to stop periodically to unstick cards.

  "But we're not exactly cheating, are we?" Sol Ta replied, looking at his hole card. "We're just . . . trying for an advantage."

  "Whatever." Poertena shrugged.

  "No, seriously," From said. "I'm wondering where you got this odd attachment to 'fairness.' It has very little purpose, and is so very easily used against you. It seems to be a weakness."

  "Maybe so," Poertena said with another shrug. He finished dealing and tossed a silver piece on the pile. After a moment, he looked around and realized that they weren't going to let him get away without answering.

  He thought about it for a minute. He knew the answer, but he'd never had to explain it to anyone, and he was far from certain how to do so. From his point of view, you either understood it, or you didn't, but he decided to give it a try.

  "Okay. Chal, you 'member the firs' time you come and offered you price for spears?"

  "Sure," the Mardukan said, tossing a small raise onto the pot.

  "You remember what I give back?" the Pinopan asked.

  "Sure." The merchant grunted in laughter. "My sales gift."

  "Right," Poertena said, and looked at the others. "He hand me a bag of silver an' a nice little statue. An' what I say?"

  " 'No thank you, and I won't say it twice.' I thought you were hinting that I should offer something a bit larger, but then I realized what you really meant," the merchant said, setting down his cards and picking up the cup of wine Matsugae had left. "So I took the cost off the bid I gave you."

  "I had Fri Tar give me a gif' prob'ly ten time as nice as you," the Pinopan told him. "If I made tee call on tee basis of tee gifts, we'd be tryin' to get our gear outta pocking Fri Tar."

  "Good luck," Sol Ta snorted. "I've been trying to get him to complete a set of swords for the past six months."

  "Right." Poertena picked his cards back up. "That's you answer."

  "But how did you decide on Chal, then?" Roger asked, taking a hand in the discussion as he saw the natives' continued puzzlement. "If not by the size of his gift, I mean?"

  "He was tee only one take tee cost of tee gif' back out of tee bid, You Highness," the Pinopan said, and Roger nodded and smiled, then looked at the other players.

  "I know you Mardukans think this is a quaint custom," he said, "but it's the only way to really build a society."

  "We got 'sale gift' some places, too," Poertena said. "It call 'baksheesh.' But if tee size of tee baksheesh is mos' of a salary, people stop workin' for t'eir pay and start workin' for baksheesh."

  "And then you have the goddamn plasma rifles," Roger growled. "An excellent example of why you don't want your procurement people taking little gifts."
  "What's that?" Rus From asked, looking at the up cards, then grimaced. "Fold."

  "We discovered that we . . . had a problem with one of our main weapons," Roger said, tossing in his own cards. "It would have helped us out several times. In fact, we'd probably have twice the people we do now—if we'd only been able to use it reliably."

  "But t'ey blow tee pock up," Poertena said bitterly. "Sorry, You Highness."

  "Not at all, Poertena," Roger told him, and looked at the Mardukans. "As he said, they blow the pock up when we try to use them."

  "Well," Ta said with a wave of one true-hand, "guns always tend to blow up. But . . . most people survive." He waved his hand again in the local equivalent of polite amusement. Arquebuses were notorious for blowing up, as were the local pistols.

  "If one of these were to blow up, it would take out this wing of the palace," Roger said, taking a bite out of an apsimon fruit.

  "Oh." The guardsman looked suddenly thoughtful and took another sip of his wine before he tossed in a silver piece to stay in the game.

  "Now a situation like that occurs for one of two reasons," Roger went on, leaning back and looking at the ceiling. "Either somebody's been incompetent, or, more commonly, somebody is cutting corners. Usually, cutting corners happens because somebody got greedy. And it usually means that at least one person has had his palm greased."

  " 'Palm greased'?" Honal asked, raising the stake by a couple of silvers, and Poertena pointed at the pot with his chin and rubbed his fingers together.

  "Money," he said bluntly. "Somebody got paid off."

  "Ah." Thai gazed at the young cavalryman speculatively, then folded and turned his attention fully to Roger. "That's why you explained in our first game that the next time you caught me cheating in your favor, you could no longer play."

  "Right," the prince said. "It's a really strange concept, but it's all about playing fair with your own side. If you don't, since we're all interconnected, you inevitably pock yourself."

  "But what about what Sergeant Major Kosutic says?" Honal asked, scooping in the pot without ever showing his hole cards, since everyone had folded rather than stay in the game.

  "Ah," Roger said, pulling out a strip of bisti. "That's a bit different, you see. The Boman aren't our side. And in that case, 'if you ain't cheating, you ain't trying.' "

  * * *

  Despreaux slid into the spider hole and nodded to Kileti.

  "Tell them we've found their main base," she whispered.

  The small hole was on a slight elevation, twenty-five kilometers northeast of Diaspra. It was crowded and close with four Marines and the gear for two more. The team from First Squad was one of three sent out to find the main enemy concentration, and Despreaux was pretty sure she knew why she was here. Since her pissing match with Roger back in Ran Tai, Kosutic and Pahner had been going out of their ways to keep her separated from the prince. Since she was a squad leader, that meant keeping her squad separated from the prince. And in this case, it meant putting them out on the sharp end . . . all because His Highness was a stuck up, aristocratic prick.

  She pulled out a leather pouch and dumped out the bleeding head of a killerpillar.

  "It nearly got me," she said while her quick fingers extracted the valuable poison glands and dropped them into a plastic bottle. Both the neurotoxin and the flesh-dissolver were much sought after by the local apothecaries. Harvesting the bounty of the forests was one of the ways the individual troopers made their drinking money, so patrols had become a privilege rather than a task.

  PFC Sealdin picked up his own translucent bottle and shook it.

  "One of the mamas came by a few hours ago," he told her cheerfully. The vampire moths had stopped being a danger as soon as the Marines learned to sleep in their sealed personal shelters, but with the invention of a sticky trap, they'd become another source of funds. The anesthetic they produced was one of the most effective available for the Mardukans.

  PFC Kileti picked up a plug and jacked it into his helmet com. The microscopic wire attached to the plug ran out of the chameleon cover over their hole and up a nearby tree, from the top of which a small transmitter sent short, directional burst transmissions and bounced them off of the micro meteors that skipped into the atmosphere on a regular basis.

  Report complete, the PFC sent a command to his toot, and nodded at the team leader.

  "On the way," he said, and the leader, St. John (J.), nodded.

  "Okay, Macek and Bebi are going to keep an eye on them for now. We'll switch out tomorrow. In the meantime," he continued, digging into his rucksack and pulling out a strip of jerky, "we wait."


  "You know," Roger said as he hurried from one meeting to another, "they say that the waiting is the hardest part. Does 'waiting' include the preparation, too?"

  "Yes, it does, Your Highness," Pahner replied, matching his rapid stride. "You'd do better to quit playing cards all night."

  They were passing through one of the outer sections of the vast palace/temple complex, down a cobbled walkway the size of a small street but unoccupied except for themselves. The low wall to their right looked out over one of the city's innumerable canals, and beyond that to the eastern fields. This section used a pumped-out dry canal as a flood preventative, instead of the more normal dikes or walls, and there was a clear view of the vista of fields and trees leading to the purple mountains in the distance. A few farmers could be seen moving in the closer fields with a protective escort of Northerner cavalry.

  "Ah, it's not slowing me down," Roger said. "I don't sleep much. It used to drive the teachers at boarding school nuts. I'd be up in the middle of the night, trying to get other kids to play with me."

  "You spent a fair amount of time in your cabin aboard the DeGlopper," Pahner noted dryly.

  "Yeah, well," Roger said with a grin, "I was sulking, not sleeping. Big difference."

  They reached the end of the path and started to ascend a series of steps that stretched up and to the left around the central hill. Although the steps were quite shallow for the locals, they were anything but for the far shorter humans, but by now Roger and Pahner had grown accustomed to that, and the prince admired the palace architecture yet again while they climbed. Like most Mardukan structures, the city had started out atop a hill, but over time it had sprawled down to the flatlands, and the Diasprans, as water worshipers, had taken a different approach to the regular flooding to which all of Marduk was prone. Their technique was to work with the water, accepting and controlling it with strategically placed channels, holding pools, and canals rather than fighting it with unbroken lines of dikes. Oh, there were dikes—some of them more massive than any others the humans had yet seen—but they were placed more to divert water into other channels than to stand like a fortress in its path. Only the truly critical areas of the city and the areas most vulnerable to flooding had the sort of impervious barriers other cities routinely erected, although Diaspra's were constructed on a far vaster scale where they existed at all.

  That relative sparseness of the dikes and coffer dams which served other Mardukan city-states as a sort of additional set of fortified outworks had almost been the Diasprans' downfall when the Boman assault arrived. Fortunately, they'd been able to slow the initial rush of the barbarians by selectively flooding their fields and occasionally artificially inducing flash floods to catch groups of raiders.

  In the meantime, the priesthood, accustomed as it was to large-scale public works, had organized vast labor gangs to link the dikes and canals which already existed into one continuous defensive circuit. It wasn't perfect, but the walls, dikes, and canals had combined to stop the barbarians' second, more concerted rush.

  It was in the interval after that second assault, when the Wespar had withdrawn to lick their wounds and prepare for a third attempt, that the humans had arrived. And that was also when the barbarians had cut the most prominent and religiously important public work of the entire city-state: the Diaspra A

  Roger and Pahner passed under one of the flying buttresses of the massive aqueduct as they continued up the hill, and the prince looked up at it and shook his head in something very like awe, for the aqueduct was a structure fit to make any Roman proud. Normally, it carried water from a reservoir at the foot of the mountains to another reservoir within the city itself, from which it was pumped still further up the hill. At the very summit of the small mountain upon which Diaspra sat was the final reservoir of the city, the source of all its water for use and worship.

  The reservoir had originally been a small cluster of very high output volcanic springs which fed a bowl-like lake whose temperature was high even for Marduk. The most ancient part of the city clustered around the lake, and its venerable structures—the oldest the humans had yet seen anywhere—had been carefully preserved. The ancient springs were the focus from which the locals had spread their worship of water, whether it came from the ground, or the rivers, or the sky. They had studied its movement and nature, trying to glean an understanding of their changeable god, and in the process, their understanding of hydraulics had become astounding.

  The larger, cooler reservoir below the original lake was tapped for many different purposes. There were public drinking fountains throughout the city, where people came to draw fresh, clean water and make offerings to their god. In addition, there were thousands of decorative fountains, ranging from tiny carvings of Mardukan piscines that spat water a meter or two to a couple of giant structures that fired compressed water jets tens of meters into the sky. There were misting fountains, and playing fountains, and fountains that danced. There were wading pools, and swimming pools, and hundreds of canals.

  Or there had been, for all the fountains were dry, now. The Boman had cut the aqueduct at its source, and for the first time in local history, water had to be drawn from the many canals. There was no chance of any Mardukan city running out of water—not with the daily cascades of rain—but for a people who worshiped water, the loss had been devastating.

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