March to the sea im 2, p.28

March To The Sea im-2, page 28

 part  #2 of  Imperial March Series

 

March To The Sea im-2
 



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  Roger's chuckle died, and he nodded soberly.

  "I hadn't intended to make light of your predicament, Sir. Or your losses. I was simply anticipating Mother's reaction."

  "Indeed," Pahner said, and shook his head with a sudden grunting Mardukan-style chuckle of his own. "I can see our return now. Her Majesty will be most . . . amused."

  "Her Majesty," O'Casey said, "after she reads the reports, will be most . . . amazed. There's never been a saga to equal this one, Captain. At the least, you've placed your name in the military history books."

  "Only if I get him back to Her Majesty," Pahner pointed out. "Which requires crossing the ocean, making our way through whatever political zone we hit on the far side, and recapturing the spaceport with only thirty-six Marines and a half dozen suits of problematical powered armor. And that's why I would like to take a unit of civan cavalry and another of Diaspran pikemen, or riflemen or musketeers, whichever it turns out, with us."

  "Which means how many ships?" Roger asked.

  "Six," the Pinopan answered. "Six thirty, thirty-five-meter schooners. Lots of sail area, pretty good cargo volume, good sea legs, an' weatherly. Maybe topsail schooners. Square sails on tee main an' fore won' help much on tee trip over, but t'ey be good for tee trip back wit' tee prevailing winds behind you."

  "You can build one of t'ose—those?" Pahner asked.

  "Wit' a little help. T'ey gots most of tee techniques we need, they jus' use 'em all wrong. T'ese ships t'ey make are tubs—not all t'at bad for what t'ey does, but t'ey don' do much. Never sail out o' sight o' land, run for shore whenever a storm blow up, t'ings like t'at. T'at's why I don't t'ink nobody's gonna make it 'cross tee ocean in one o' t'ese toy boats. But smooth out tee lines, give some deadrise an' some more dept' of hull, lower tee freeboard fore an' aft an' bring it up some in between, an' you gots you'self a real tiddly ship. On'y real problem is, t'ey don' use buildin' drafts—t'ey designs by eye an' uses half-models to fair tee lines."

  "Do you have any idea at all what he's talking about?" Roger asked O'Casey plaintively, and the chief of staff laughed.

  "No, but it certainly sounds like he does," she said.

  "It not so dif'rent from some o' tee little yards back home," the Pinopan said, "on'y we use 'puter wire drawings, instead. You build you'self a model—tee scummies, t'ey do it out o' wood, 'cause t'ey gots no computers—an' t'en you takes tee lines direct from tee model to tee finished ship wit'out detailed plans. 'Course, tee scummies, t'ey don' know nothin' 'bout displacement an' stability calc'lations, an' t'eir mouldin' lofts suck, but I can handle t'at no sweat."

  "All of which means?" Pahner pressed.

  "I wanna make a half-scale model to test my numbers," Poertena told him. "T'at take about a month. T'en, if it good an ever't'ing go smooth, t'ree months for tee rest."

  "Four months?" Roger demanded, aghast.

  "Can't do it no faster, Sir," the sergeant said apologetically. "T'at's as fast as we can go, an' t'at's after we gets tee materials. I can start on tee model as soon as I gets some funds. Talked to a pretty good shipbuilder today, an' I t'ink we can work wit' him. But we gotta get timbers, an' more important, we gotta get a dozen or so masts—an' spare masts an' spars, too, an' sails, now I t'ink about it—from somewheres."

  "You were prophetic, Your Highness," Pahner said sourly. "This shipbuilder, Poertena—he didn't happen to have anything to do with a fellow named Wes Til, did he?"

  "Don' know, Sir. Is t'at important?"

  "Maybe, but not for the model, I think. Okay, you're authorized to draw funds as necessary. If it isn't terribly expensive, buy a small craft to unstep the mast for the model. And get that shipyard to work. I want the model completed in three weeks."

  "I try, Sir," the Pinopan said mournfully, "but I don' t'ink it gonna happen in t'ree weeks. I only say a mont' 'cause I know you not gonna let me have two. But I try."

  A quiet knock at the door interrupted the discussion, and PFC Kyrou poked his head into the room.

  "Captain Pahner, Sir, we have two Mardukan gentlemen out here with what I think are dinner invitations."

  Pahner raised one eyebrow and made a pointing gesture with the index finger and cocked thumb of his gun hand. The private shook his head in reply, indicating that neither seemed to be armed, and the captain nodded to let them in.

  Both of the Mardukans wore enough jewelry to open a shop, but to Pahner's admittedly inexpert eye, it didn't appear to be of very high quality.

  "I'm Captain Pahner. And you are?"

  "I am Des Dar," the first said, bowing slightly in the local fashion with clenched fists brought into shoulders. "I bring Prince Roger an invitation to a personal dinner with my employer, Wes Til." The messenger proffered a tied and sealed scroll. "The location and time are within. May I tell my employer that you accept?"

  "My name is Tal Fer," the second Mardukan interrupted quickly, proffering an equally ornate scroll, "and I am sent from Turl Kam with an invitation to Prince Roger to join him for dinner. May I tell him you accept?"

  * * *

  Kyrou saw three more functionaries, scrolls in hand, approaching the prince's room and judiciously turned off his toot's translator function. Then he leaned back in through the door and caught Captain Pahner's eye.

  "Three more scummy flunkies inbound, Sir."

  Cord, who'd learned enough English to recognize the untranslated human term for the locals, turned a grunt of laughter into a cough.

  "Sorry," he said when Des Dar and Tal Fer looked at him. "Age is catching up with these old lungs."

  Pahner frowned at the private and gave the old shaman a very speaking glance, then turned back to the first two messengers.

  "Sirs, please convey to your employers our delight at their invitations and—"

  He stopped, out of both polite phrases and his depth, and looked appealingly at Roger's chief of staff. O'Casey's eyes creased in a smile as she looked back at him, but she took over smoothly.

  "However, we are unable to respond immediately," she told the messengers. "Please convey that to your employers, along with the fact that we will reply to them as soon as possible."

  The messengers jockeyed for position as they handed their scrolls to the chief of staff. She took them smoothly, with a courteous refusal to give either precedence, then gave the same message to the trio Kyrou had spotted when they arrived. Two more turned up after those, and at that point Pahner ordered Kyrou to repeat the mantra for O'Casey and closed the door. Firmly.

  "We need some local input on these," O'Casey said, as she perused the documents. The text was readable, thanks to her toot, and the invitations were not only from Council members, but also from major merchants. She suspected that some of those might be more important in the long run than the Council members themselves.

  "Cord, could you pass the word for Rastar, please?" Roger said. "We're going to need to get his input on these invitations and some sort of stronger feel for whether or not his forces really intend to accompany us overseas."

  "Yes, My Lord," the shaman said obsequiously, and climbed to his feet. "Your asi lives only to obey, no matter what the dangers he must face. I will brave the hordes of messengers for you, although my heart quails within me at the very thought."

  "It is your duty, now that I think about it," Roger said with a grin, then touched the Mardukan on a lower shoulder. "Seriously, I'm not sure I dare go out there at the moment."

  "Not a problem," the asi said. "After all, I'm not the one they long to entice into their power."

  " 'Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil,' " Roger quoted with another grin. "I'll meet you at the room after this madhouse subsides."

  "I'll see you then," Cord agreed, and opened the door and forced his way into the crowd of shouting messengers.

  "And tell Kosutic to send some spare guards down!" Pahner yelled to Kyrou as the door closed, then looked at Roger with a crooked smile. "Ah, the joys of civilization."

&n
bsp; CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

  Rastar shook his head over the invitations laid out on the floor.

  "Some of these I can only guess at, but you're right. Whether or not we get any support is going to depend more on these invitations than any Council meeting."

  "Am I reading these right?" Roger asked. "Do they really say something like 'and bring a date'?"

  "Yes." Rastar chuckled. "The local custom, decadent in the eyes of my people, is to have men and women at the same dinner. The women are supposedly there to lend an air of grace to the proceedings. I think the idea is for them to keep us from spitting on the floor."

  "Bloody hell," Roger said. "Do they realize that one of my main advisers is a woman? And one of my senior officers, as well, for that matter?"

  "I'm not sure," Rastar said. "But it's going to be very important for you to attend at least three of these if you hope to achieve anything here in the city. How you divide them up is going to be . . . interesting."

  "Eleanora . . . ?" the prince said plaintively.

  "I'll do my best," the chief of staff sighed. "I wish I understood the position of women in this society better, though. I'm getting this queasy feeling that we've arrived in the middle of the suffrage movement, which means that any time a female opens her mouth in a definitive manner, as I tend to, it's going to be taken as a political statement."

  "Well, let's go on as we intend to end," Roger told her. "We're a mixed unit from a mixed society, and I don't intend to convey anything else, whatever the societal norms. Also, there's this story of a woman who organized the evacuation of D'Sley."

  "There are three invitations from D'Sley nobles," Rastar noted. "But none from a woman."

  "Julian," Pahner said. "Track down that story and get us some clear intel on it."

  "You think it's important?" Roger asked.

  "If we have to stay and fight, it will be," the captain said. "If she can organize a sealift one way, she can organize one the other way."

  "Ah." The prince smiled. "Rastar, I get the feeling that D'Sley wasn't a democracy?"

  "No," the Northerner said. "It was controlled by a council of nobles and a weak king. From what I've heard, the king is dead, and many of the nobles as well, but many of the commoners escaped, especially the women."

  "And they're clogging the city," Julian added. "That's one of the sore points at the moment—all the D'Sley refugees."

  "Just once," Roger said, shaking his head. "Just damned once, I would like something to go smoothly somewhere on this planet."

  "There is a sense of dejа vu here, isn't there?" O'Casey laughed. "I'll set about divvying up these invitations with Rastar. You go discuss clothes with Matsugae. I'm going to need a clean and presentable dress or suit, as are several of the Marines. We can . . . elevate their social importance for the evening."

  "Oh, Lord," Roger said, grabbing his head. "Just once. Please God, just once." He shuddered. "Poertena. At a formal dinner? The mind boggles."

  * * *

  Kostas Matsugae shook his head and grimaced.

  "You really don't appreciate me enough," he said.

  "Probably not," Roger agreed wryly. "But we need dresses or suits for myself, Pahner, O'Casey, Kosutic, and some of the other Marines."

  "Why here? They seemed to do just fine with chameleon suits everywhere else."

  "The locals are a bit more sophisticated in K'Vaern's Cove," Roger said. "They deal with so many different cultures that they're more likely to notice the . . . poor condition of the uniforms, even if they don't wear clothes themselves. Unfortunately, we can't afford to create anything but the very best impression, because we need something from these guys, like a fleet of ships, so Armand wants you to coordinate with Eleanora to see to it that any appearance we present is a good one."

  "Oh, very well," the valet said with a sudden twinkle. "I'll think of something. There are a couple of bolts of dianda left, and I'm sure the locals have some of that serge-like material I found at Diaspra, if nothing else. And I've already seen some very nice wall hangings and tapestries here, so if I look really hard . . ."

  His voice trailed off thoughtfully, and Roger stood.

  "Right, well, I'll leave you to it," he said.

  "Hmmm," Matsugae said with an absentminded nod, but then his eyes sharpened. "Do we know who's going to be attending these events? And when are they?"

  "Uh, no," Roger said as casually as possible. "We're not quite certain yet who's on the guest list from our side. But the dinners are mostly tomorrow evening," he finished brightly.

  "Tomorrow!"

  "I guess I'd better get going now," Roger said, beating a hasty retreat.

  "Tomorrow?!"

  "Have a good time, Kostas. Use whatever funds you need," the prince said, and disappeared out the door like smoke.

  The valet stood staring at the closed door, jaw still half-dropped, for several fulminating seconds, but then he began to smile.

  "Whatever funds I need, hmmm?" he murmured. "And coordinate with Eleanora, is it?" He chuckled evilly. "This one you're going to pay for, Roger," he promised the absent prince. "In fact, I think it's two-birds-with-one-stone-time, young man!"

  * * *

  Eleanora O'Casey glanced up as Matsugae walked into her office, took one look at his expression, and chortled. Then she gestured at the scrolls scattered over the floor around her.

  "Look at this before you complain to me about your problems," she warned him.

  "Oh, I wasn't going to complain," he said with a decidedly wicked grin. "I was only wondering if you'd decided on who was escorting whom?"

  "Well, we've got a minimum of two separate categories of meetings going on, and probably at least three. The first category consists of the ones which are going to be crucial to getting overall political support, so those are the most critical and I'm assigning senior officers and in some cases some of our more . . . polished NCOs to them."

  "All right. And the others?"

  "The second category are the dinners where I can reasonably expect the majority of the conversation to revolve around military-technical issues. Bistem Kar is hosting one of those, for example. For those, I feel comfortable sending experienced but slightly less polished NCOs. Then there's a dinner invitation from a shipyard associated with Councilor Wes Til. In fact, Til is hosting the banquet."

  "So he'll be there in person?"

  "Yes, and I'm not entirely certain whether that one ought to be considered overall political or military-technical . . . or possibly in a third category all its own. Call it, um, logistical. Or maybe financial. Whatever, I'm assigning it the same priority as category one. Particularly since Tor Flain, the local Guard's second in command, is also going to be present."

  "So who's going to that one?"

  "Oh, Roger. Technically, the Council chairman is higher in rank than Til, but given the fact that we're going to have to build our own ships, the combination of economic and military aspects make this the more important meeting, I think. And if military questions arise, I'm sure Roger can field them."

  "And who's he going to be escorting?"

  "I haven't decided yet. Given its importance, I suppose I should go with him, but there's another that fascinates me more. One of the other Council members, who's nearly as wealthy as Til, has arranged for a dinner to which a D'Sley nobleman will be bringing the female who arranged the D'Sley sealift."

  "That does sound fascinating," the valet said. "Have you decided who'll be escorting you to it?"

  "No, I hadn't," she said, then looked up and raised an eyebrow at his expression. "Really?"

  "I would truly like to meet the . . . formidable lady who organized that evacuation," Matsugae said honestly. "And I believe my calendar is open."

  "Okay," she agreed, pulling out an invitation scroll and making a note on it. "That's that one filled."

  "Excellent. And, if I may, I believe I might have an appropriate suggestion for Roger's companion, as well."

  * * *

 
"Christ on a crutch," Roger grumbled as he tossed his helmet on the bed the following afternoon. "I just came back from the harbor, and I see what Poertena means about tubs—those things must roll in a bathtub!"

  "Well, some of us weren't able to go gallivanting about the city," Matsugae sniffed, and Roger smiled as he took in the valet's appearance. Matsugae wore a suit of dark blue velvet that was both extremely handsome and much too heavy for the local weather, and the glittering MacClintock crest of a palace servitor in personal service to the Imperial Family sparkled brightly on his breast for the first time since they'd arrived on Marduk. Its brilliance would have been sadly out of place on a chameleon suit, but it was also a proud award very few could claim, and the valet brushed it absently with his fingers as he returned the prince's regard.

  "Nice outfit, Kosie! I take it Eleanora shanghaied you for the guest list, too?"

  "I would scarcely choose the term 'shanghaied,' " Matsugae said primly, "but, yes, I will be attending one of the dinners tonight. In fact, Eleanora and I will be going together, thank you."

  Roger's smile turned into a grin, and Matsugae sniffed again.

  "It's certainly an evening out which I've earned," he said, pointedly. "While you were out playing in the harbor, I've had half the platoon cycling through my own private tailor's shop." Roger's eyebrows rose in surprise, and Matsugae gave him a triumphant smile. "I am—justifiably, I feel—quite proud of it, since I created it in a single day. And it's undoubtedly the largest tailor's shop I've ever seen, since I had to buy an entire idled sailmaker's loft to put it in!"

  "Good work, Kostas! I knew we could count on you. Now all we have to do is replicate your outfit a few dozen times over, and we'll be able to attend all the boring dinners we have to to save our own buns and K'Vaern's Cove both! When am I scheduled for a fitting?"

  "You will no doubt be happy to know that you won't require a fitting, despite the fact that you chose to spend the entire day playing hooky down at the harbor instead of assisting with the preparations. As it turns out, the St. John twins are both very nearly your size and build, so I was able to use one of them as a breathing manikin. You now have a new suit. Congratulations."

 
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