March to the sea im 2, p.29

March To The Sea im-2, page 29

 part  #2 of  Imperial March Series


March To The Sea im-2

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  "Man, you were really upset at getting this dumped on you, weren't you?"

  "Not as much as it might seem. You are, I believe, attending the small dinner party with Wes Til?"

  "And Tor Flain," Roger agreed, unbraiding his hair and stripping off his chameleon suit. "I don't suppose there's time for a bath?"

  "One has been drawn, Your Highness," Matsugae assured him. "And who are you taking to the party?"

  "Eleanora, I'd presume," Roger said with a suddenly wary expression, one foot still in his trousers as something about the valet's tone sounded warning signals. "But you said you were going with her, didn't you?" he asked suspiciously.

  "Actually, I did. The two of us are going to meet with Sam Tre and Fullea Li'it, the lady who arranged the D'Sley sealift."

  "Oh." Roger finished stepping out of the uniform. "Kosutic, then?"

  "Being accompanied by Sergeant Julian to a meeting with Bistem Kar, I believe."

  "That should be interesting," Roger observed. "Too bad I didn't draw that one. So if not Kosutic, who? Gunny Lai?"

  "Accompanying Captain Pahner to his dinner with Turl Kam."

  "Okay," Roger said, turning to face him and planting his hands on his hips. "Spit it out, Kosie. Who?"

  "Actually, I believe Sergeant Despreaux is the next most senior female Marine," the valet said with a bland expression.

  "Oh," Roger oofed, his expression remarkably like that of a poleaxed steer. Then he shook himself. "Oh, Kostas Matsugae, I had no concept of the depths of wickedness lurking in your soul. You are an evil, evil person!"

  "Moi? Well, perhaps. I can state without fear of contradiction, however, that she cleans up pretty. For one of the 'help.' "

  * * *

  "Such an evil person," Roger whispered to himself as Despreaux came through the door.

  The sergeant's blouse was a lovely shade of off-white. The sleeveless and collarless garment was made of an opaque, white linenlike material that was almost paper thin but had an odd translucence, like mother-of-pearl. The base fiber was something called halkha, and it came from the pods of a hemplike plant unknown on the east side of the Tarsten range. The locals used it very much as Terrans had used cotton in the days when there were no synthetic fibers, for everything from wall hangings, to sacks and coarse-woven bags used to hold tubers and grains, to sailcloth. There was, however, an enormous difference between those rough, sturdy utilitarian fabrics and the fine threads and tight weaves required to make such lovely cloth, and Roger wondered where Matsugae had found enough, on no notice, to create several outfits.

  Rather than buttoning up the front, the blouse was sealed with soft, beautifully tanned leather ties up the sides and at the shoulders. Roger supposed that was because it had been impossible even for Matsugae to introduce buttons and buttonholes to the generally unclothed Mardukans in the time available to him, but the ties lent the outfit an air of barbarism that was somehow in keeping with the whole crazy affair.

  The simple peasant skirt that accompanied the blouse was also white, although a shade darker than the blouse. Its pleats swirled around her long legs, and Roger winced as he looked at her footwear.

  "Court shoes? Where in the hell did he find court shoes?"

  "Is that all you have to say, Your Highness?" the sergeant snapped, fiddling with the unfamiliar weight of the skirt. It was the first time in months that she'd worn anything but her uniform and skivvies.

  "Uh," Roger replied, suddenly tongue-tied.

  "I hope your 'associate' meets with your approval," Despreaux said in tones of deadly sweetness, and Roger grimaced.

  "Look, I wasn't at my very best that evening, and that wasn't the word I really wanted. But neither was 'servant,' 'help,' or 'slave.' Sometime, maybe, I can explain what I did mean to say, and why. But right now, we have a mission. If it helps, I didn't ask for this, either."

  Despreaux's eyes flashed, and she threw her hands up in the air.

  "Oh, sure, that makes me really happy, 'Milord'! Now I'm not just stuck with you all night, I'm stuck with somebody who doesn't want his 'associate' to sully the evening!"

  Roger grabbed his hair and started to pull it, then drew a deep breath and shoved the disarranged strands back into place.

  "Sergeant Despreaux. Truce, okay? I'm sorry. Does that help? I'm sorry for offending you. I'm even sorry for not taking you up on your implication, or at least seeing if what I thought was an implication was, in fact, an implication at all. I am very attracted to you. Was, am, and will be. I was that night. I am tonight. I will be at some future date when perhaps we can sit down and discuss the . . . problems of one Roger MacClintock and why they cause him to keep making an ass out of himself in front of beautiful women."

  He drew another breath and held a hand up before Despreaux could get a word in edgewise.

  "But tonight, we have a mission to complete. A very important one. And that requires that we not be clearly at odds for the entire evening. Now, can we manage to act like we like each other? A little? For a few hours?"

  Despreaux closed her mouth and let out her gathered breath through flaring nostrils, then nodded.

  "Yes, Sir. We can."

  "Very well. In that case, I think it's time." Roger started towards the door, only to be blocked by the sergeant's automatic reflex action—the Empress' Own always went through a door before its principal.

  The prince looked at her and smiled. He also noticed that the court shoes, whose high heels had come into fashion once again, made her nearly as tall as he was. He still didn't have a clue how Matsugae had managed to find shoes, but he discovered that it was distinctly pleasant to have Nimashet Despreaux's eyes on a level with his own.

  "Sergeant," he said, "tonight you aren't a bodyguard. Tonight, I'm your escort to dinner, and, as such, it's my job to open the door for you."

  Despreaux smiled back and let him open it. Then she went through first, automatically scanning from side to side.

  That's what you think, she thought. And where did the Sergeant Major get that holster? Try to get between these thighs tonight, Your Highness, and you've got a hell of a surprise coming!

  It took her a moment to realize that she assumed both that he would try . . . and that she would let him succeed.

  Oh, Nimashet, you've got it bad.


  The restaurant at which Roger and his "date" arrived after a long journey from the Citadel appeared to be little more than a shack right on the edge of the water on the seaward side of the city's peninsula. North of the main portion of the city, the location was a perfect half-moon bay, partially sheltered from storms by a reef of rock clearly demarcated by the swirl of luminescence where marine organisms glowed in the gentle swell washing over it. The bay, with its strip of rock and sand beach at the foot of the high limestone cliffs soaring up to the city wall, was quite pretty, if a trifle exposed. The haphazardly built structure of gray, weathered wood perched out over the water on piles driven into the rocky shore, open on the bay side and with two small fishing boats tied up in the shelving water beside it.

  Roger slid down from their howt'e and turned to give Despreaux a hand down. The Triceratops-like beast was a smaller version of the flar-ta that stood "only" two meters at the shoulder, which was still amply large to make it just a tad ostentatious as a mode of transport through the streets of K'Vaern's Cove. Fortunately, like most flar-ta, howt'e were remarkably placid. But they were also expensive, and the fact that Wes Til had sent one to collect his human guests was both a statement of his wealth and—Roger hoped—a deliberate gesture of respect.

  Despreaux would normally have handled unloading from the beast with athletic grace, but the fifty-millimeter heels the valet had somehow cobbled together got in the way of easy dismounts from Triceratops look-alikes.

  Roger smiled at the thought, then smiled again as his squad of guards spread out around him and a team went in ahead to sweep the restaurant. He found the dichotomy odd. In battle, and even on the marc
h, Pahner and the rest of the Marines had become accustomed to letting him risk his life alongside the lowliest private. They might not like it, but they'd finally accepted that it was going to happen. Get him into a "normal" situation, though, and their reflex protectiveness clamped down like armor.

  The point team returned and nodded approval, and the remainder of his guards deigned to allow him and Despreaux to enter the restaurant themselves.

  The interior of the shack was far superior to its inauspicious exterior. The building was broken into several smaller rooms, separated by simple woven walls that permitted the fresh sea breeze free run of the building. There were at least two dozen Mardukans in the first section, gathered around long, low tables, picking at trays of food and sipping from bulbous containers.

  Roger's nose was assaulted by the scent of cooking as he entered, and he knew immediately that whatever else happened that evening, he was about to have a superior gustatory experience.

  "Smells good," the sergeant whispered.

  "Now I wish we'd brought Kostas," Roger said, as a jewel-bedecked Mardukan female approached.

  "He's eating with Eleanora, remember?"

  "That's what I meant."

  "Welcome, gentle sir and madam, to Bullur's." The speaker seemed young to Roger, possibly the equivalent of a Terran teenager. "Did you make a reservation?"

  "We're here with the Wes Til party," Roger said, handing over his invitation. He was moderately surprised by the fact that their greeter was female. It was the first time since Marshad that he'd spoken to a Mardukan woman, aside from exchanging a few words from time to time with one of the mahouts' women, although his observations in the markets and at the Council meeting had already confirmed that O'Casey was right in at least one respect. Here in K'Vaern's Cove, women clearly enjoyed at least some status.

  "Very good, sir," the young lady said after a glance at the scroll. Her examination of it had been long enough, and purposeful enough, to indicate that she could read the angular script. "If you'll follow me?"

  "Where are we going?" Despreaux asked, planting a restraining hand on Roger's forearm before he could move.

  "Through here," the hostess replied in a slightly questioning tone.

  "St. John," the sergeant said, and pointed with her chin.

  "On it, Nimashet," the big Marine said, following the hostess with a grin. "Why don't you just let your hair down for the evening?"

  "I don't think so," the NCO said primly as she and Roger followed St. John (J.) across the restaurant at a more leisurely pace, giving him time to check out the other room without being any more obvious about it than they had to.

  "I think that would be an excellent idea," Beckley put in from behind the prince. "Letting your hair down, that is. Although, come to think of it, letting down his hair might be even more fun."

  Roger drew a deep breath and bit his tongue rather firmly, but Despreaux's head whipped around and she gave the corporal a look like a solar prominence.

  "I don't recall asking for your opinion, Reneb," she said in a dangerous tone, and the corporal chuckled.

  "Nope, but them as needs help are usually the last to realize it. Just think of it as a friend trying to help you out."

  "Reneb!" Despreaux began in a voice of mingled wrath and amusement, but she clamped her jaw when Roger put a hand on her forearm.

  "It's not like she's the only one who thinks we're both being idiots, Nimashet." He sighed. "And the hell of it is, they're probably right! But," a wicked gleam entered his eyes, "if you won't tell them the deep dark secret of what passed between us in Q'Nkok, I won't!"

  They reached the door opening into the last section of the building as he spoke, and St. John reappeared to nod that the room was clear just in time to see Sergeant Despreaux turn an interesting shade of crimson.

  "My, my, my!" Beckley said in interested tones. "Whatever did happen in Q'Nkok, Nimashet?"

  "Never you mind!" Despreaux snapped. "I mean, nothing happened in Q'Nkok! I—"

  "Nimashet!" Roger's tone was one of shocked reproach. "How could you possibly have forgotten that wonderful morning?"

  "There wasn't any wonderful morning!" Despreaux snarled, and then, as Beckley burst out laughing, the sergeant closed her eyes, drew a deep breath, and smiled in spite of herself. "Damn you, Roger," she half-chuckled. "I was willing to let you live for Ran Tai, but for that . . . ?"

  She looked around the private room, the bodyguard reflex making personally certain that the room was indeed cleared, then relaxed ever so slightly. The area took up about a quarter of the interior of the restaurant, and it was occupied solely by the Councilman, his invited guests, and a few flunkies.

  "Hey, you gotta catch me first," Roger told her with a wink as the Councilman and the K'Vaernian Guard's second in command came to their feet. "And kicking off those heels will give me at least a second's head start."

  * * *

  "Prince Roger Ramius Sergei Alexander Chiang MacClintock," Wes Til said, giving a shallow bow, "I believe that you've already met Tor Flain. May I introduce my life-mate, Teel Sla'at?" The woman beside him bowed at the waist and gave a gesture of greeting. She wore something Roger had never seen before, a magnificently worked harness of gold and lapis lazuli, and he returned her bow gracefully.

  "Teel Sla'at, I greet you. And you as well, Wes Til. Well met."

  "And may I introduce my life-mate, See Tra'an?" Tor Flain added. The guardsman had doffed his armor and instead was heavily bejeweled, with at least five necklaces, and bracelets on all four arms. His lady was even more heavily jeweled, with enough assorted metals and gems to be considered half armored. About half the total outfit consisted of a single sort of pearly gemstones, most of them greenish in cast and skillfully set in a pattern which emphasized the subtle gradations in their coloration. It made her look like some sort of Mardukan mermaid, and Roger wondered if the locals had that myth.

  "I greet you, See Tra'an, Tor Flain," he said. The humans hadn't worked out the protocol for introductions at these dinners, although Eleanora had been sweating blood trying to figure it out. The biggest question was whether or not the women, who in virtually every other Mardukan society they'd encountered had been voiceless pseudo-slaves, should be greeted or even acknowledged. So far, none of the K'Vaernians had reacted with shock or outrage, and the female greeter and the conversations in the rest of the restaurant, which had involved mixed genders, also suggested that he'd hit just about the right note.

  "And may I introduce Sergeant Nimashet Despreaux," he went on, gesturing to the sergeant . . . who, to his amazement, dropped a very creditable curtsy.

  There was a momentary awkward pause, and then Teel Sla'at made a hand gesture of humor.

  "Could you, perhaps, enlighten us as to your relationship to the 'sergeant'?" she asked politely.

  Roger's eyebrows rose in a combination of surprise and dismay. Surprise because, despite the conversations that had gone on in the other rooms, he'd somehow assumed that the women would be along as a sort of window dressing. Dismay because he now had to explain his relationship to Despreaux, and even he wasn't sure what it was.

  "Prince Roger and I are trying to determine if we're compatible to mate," Despreaux answered while he was still grappling with the question.

  "And you have a choice?" Til asked. His tone indicated interest rather than distaste or shock, and Despreaux smiled as Roger chuckled ruefully.

  "Oh, yeah, we sure do," the prince answered.

  "Please, be seated," Til invited.

  " 'Compatible to mate,' " See Tra'an repeated. "I understand that you humans are capable of mating at any time. Is that true?"

  "Yes," Roger said uncomfortably, as he and Despreaux stretched out on the pillows scattered around the low tables. The escorting Marines took positions around the room, and Cord dropped into a lotus position behind Roger. "We can."

  "Pseudo-mating is a form of social interaction and even recreation among us," Despreaux added. "On the other hand, it's a
taboo subject in several of our subcultures."

  "Is that a hint to drop the subject?" Teel Sla'at asked. The Councilor's mate slid a platter of thin, cooked slices of something in front of Despreaux and followed the motion by popping a slice from a similar platter into Wes Til's mouth.

  The sergeant looked at the platter in front of her, then picked up one of the slices and ostentatiously ate it herself.

  "Not at all. Neither Roger nor I are from one of those subcultures." She paused and picked up another slice. "This is good."

  "Calan," Tor Flain said. "A shell-covered species that lives on the rocks. Preparation is laborious, but the result is excellent. How does one tell the difference between human males and females? You and R—the Prince are almost the same size."

  Roger smiled as Despreaux fell momentarily silent. He picked up one of the slices and offered to feed it to her, and his smile became a grin despite himself as she glared silently at him.

  "The easiest way to tell is to look for protuberances on the chest," he told the K'Vaernian guardsman. "There are other clues, but they're difficult to explain."

  "Protuberances?" Flain repeated. "What are they? Or is that a taboo subject, as well?"

  It was Despreaux's turn to laugh at the prince as his face flushed, and she kept her mouth shut, waiting to see how he would answer.

  "It's a taboo to some people, but not to me," the prince said determinedly. "They are . . . similar in purpose to the heavier secretions on the backs of your females. They secrete a thin substance that's consumed for sustenance by human young."

  "May we see them?" See Tra'an asked.

  Roger rolled his eyes, and Despreaux smiled sweetly at him.

  "Certainly," she said, and undid the ties at her shoulders.

  "Hmmm." Til leaned forward and prodded the exposed breasts gently with his finger. "And you say these are used to produce food for your young? Is that their only purpose?"

  "That and turning men into babies," Despreaux said with a silvery laugh as she did the ties back up, and Tor Flain looked at the prince.

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