March to the sea im 2, p.4

March To The Sea im-2, page 4

 part  #2 of  Imperial March Series

 

March To The Sea im-2
 



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  The open window looked out over the flat roofs of the city and the lake beyond. A constant wind blew from the lake and across the city, following the river that flowed down the slope to the distant jungles and carrying the scent of the spices for which the region was famous to the window.

  The reason for Ran Tai's existence had become clear on the walk to the town—as clear as the broad, carefully cultivated fields of nearpeppers that spread in every direction. It turned out that the spice, an important component of many of the dishes that Matsugae fixed, could be raised only in high, dry environments. That made it extremely expensive on a planet whose sentient species required high humidity and temperatures, and its cultivation and preparation, along with a few other spices, was the basis of half of the region's income.

  The other basis was mining. The mountains were a major source of gold, silver, and iron. There were also small concentrations of gems scattered through the hills around the city, most in alluvial deposits. The combination made Ran Tai a rich, if harsh, town.

  But it was a town with a problem.

  "Maybe there's been a change in the weather patterns," O'Casey said, shaking her head. "That's one of the few things I could think of that would explain invasions on the scale these people seem to be talking about."

  "We don't want to have another set-to with the Kranolta," Roger said definitely.

  "Oh, Satan, no," Kosutic agreed, rubbing the still-fresh scars on her arm. "I'd rather go toe-to-toe with a Saint strike force than face up to those Kranolta bastards again. The damned Saints at least know when they're beat."

  "Well, these aren't like Kranolta, exactly," O'Casey told her. "Or not like our Kranolta, anyway. The Kranolta were a fading force by the time we met them. From the description, these seem to be more like the Kranolta when they first swarmed over Voitan."

  "Oh, great!" Julian gave a slightly hysterical chuckle. "New, fresh Kranolta instead of tired, worn-out Kranolta!"

  "This group," O'Casey went on, "is apparently coming from the same hill country up on the edge of the northern plains that the Kranolta spread from, but the Kranolta found a gap in the mountain barrier over here, where it flattens out to the east." She gestured at the low detail map, pointing at the far northern region of the huge continent they had been crossing and tracing the dividing mountain range Sen Kakai had called the Tarstens with a fingertip.

  "These Boman are pretty much more of the same, but they seem to be distinct from them in several ways. The most obvious one, of course, is that they haven't found a way around the Tarstens—they seem to have hit the range and slid along it to the west, instead. They also seem to have started their migration somewhat later than the Kranolta, and their weaponry is significantly different. The Kranolta didn't have gunpowder, but at least some of these Boman use arquebuses, although I suppose they might have gotten them from trading with this area.

  "Actually, the Boman—like the Kranolta—seem more like a loose confederation of tribes than anything we might call a unified force, and there appear to be varying levels of technology among different tribes. For example, the tribesmen who apparently act as the leading edge of their movement are considerably more primitively armed than what we might call the 'core' tribes who give their invasion its real weight, with traditional muscle-powered projectile weapons instead of firearms. You might think of them as, um . . . skirmishers, I suppose. Lightly armed and expendable, filtering forward like tentacles to feel out the local opposition and opportunities."

  "Great," Pahner said with a dry chuckle. "More Fuzzy-Wuzzies and their shovel-headed spears. So what's driving them? Why have they begun their invasion now? When we're passing through?"

  "I can't tell you that," the historian admitted, shaking her head. "Certainly not with any degree of confidence. The motivations of barbarian expansions aren't always clear, but I wasn't joking when I said that there may have been a change of weather. On the other hand, it could be simply a matter of a particularly effective tribal leader looking to carve himself the local equivalent of a Mongol empire. Or it could be that a climate shift has permitted them a higher than normal reproductive rate, providing an expansion in military age manpower. Or it could be the converse—a weather shift which is putting a squeeze on their ability to feed their people where they are and fueling a survival-oriented migration." She shrugged. "Whatever's causing it, they're sweeping down through this region, crushing everything in their path and pushing other tribes ahead of them."

  "Which is why the guard was so nervous," Roger said, taking a bite out of something the natives called a targhas and which seemed to fill the same niche the ubiquitous kate fruit had filled on the southern side of the Tarsten Mountains. The company had become very fond of the kate fruits, but the kiwi-dates seemed unknown in this region, as did dianda. Barleyrice, luckily, was common to both sides of the mountain range, but Roger already missed the kates. The targhas had a completely different taste and texture—more like a persimmon crossed with a hairy-skinned crab apple—and he wondered what the troops would dub this one. Persapples? Crabsimmons? Apsimons?

  "They've probably got raiders coming up from the jungle as these new barbarians push in," he continued, "and eventually, the Boman themselves are liable to get down here, as well."

  "We need to resupply." Pahner looked over at Poertena. "Is that going to be a problem?"

  "I been checkin' prices in tee market." The armorer shook his head. "We can get good prices for tee dianda. Goood prices. But tee barleyrice is all brought up from tee jungle." He shook his head again. "Food 'round here is expensive."

  "So we buy what we need to get to the jungles, then buy the rest down on the plains," Pahner said, then paused as the armorer shook his head. "No?"

  "They harvests is po—messed up." The Pinopan shrugged. "Barleyrice is hard to find, even down on tee plain. We walkin' into another war, Cap'n. Food, it's gonna be hard to find."

  "Wonderful." The captain sighed and looked at the ceiling. "Just once, could something go right?" he asked God.

  "If it did, you'd figure there was a catch," Roger told him. "Okay, so the bottom line is that we need more cash?"

  "We could use it, yes, Sir," the Pinopan said. "Tee barleyrice is gonna be expensive, and t'at don't count tee fruit or spices."

  "I would like to get quite a bit of those," Matsugae said. Roger's valet usually attended these meetings, partly to make sure that everyone had refreshments, but also as the expedition's head cook and true logistics manager. "The nearpeppers in the markets around here are absolutely fabulous. Also, there are some other spices that I'd like to get a few dozen kilos of. I've already spotted some very good dishes that I want to try. And we should also think about hiring some camp help, even if they're not mahouts."

  "That takes cash, Matsugae," Pahner said pessimistically. "If we hadn't had to buy the flar-ta, it would be one thing. But the treasury's pretty bare. We have enough for now, but there's no apparent source in the future."

  "So we raise some cash." Roger shrugged. "We've been doing that all along."

  "I hope we're not going to have to take any more towns," Gunnery Sergeant Lai said. "The last one was bad enough for me."

  "No towns," Roger agreed. "But," he continued, sitting up, "we need money, and we're a top-notch combat unit. There's a massive migratory movement going on, and lots of fighting because of it. There should be a high-paying mission around here that we can do with minimal casualties."

  "You're talking about becoming mercenaries," Pahner said incredulously.

  "Captain, what else were we in Marshad? Or, for that matter, Q'Nkok?" the prince asked with a shrug.

  "We were Bravo Company of the Bronze Battalion," the captain replied with a tight smile, "forced by circumstances to fight. Then taking payment for services rendered because it made sense to. We were not common goddamned mercenaries!"

  "Well, Captain," Roger said quietly, "do you have a better alternative?"

  The Marine started to open his mouth, then closed
it with a snap. After a moment, he shook his head.

  "No. But I don't think we've sunk low enough to be mercenaries."

  "Poertena," Roger said. "Do we have the funds to buy enough barleyrice to make it to the coast?"

  The armorer looked from the prince to his company commander wildly. "Hey, You' Highness, don' get me in t'is!"

  "Yes, Roger," Pahner said tightly. "We do. But eventually we'll run out of cash. Of course, we can forage once we hit the jungles. That will eke out supplies a little longer."

  "Which will double our travel time," Roger pointed out mildly, one eyebrow raised. "And wear down the flar-ta. And use up our dietary supplements. Not to mention that we'll undoubtedly be out of funds when we reach the coast . . . and need to charter or buy ships for the next stage."

  "Captain," Kosutic said, and paused. "We . . . might have to think about this. There's more than just the barleyrice to consider. The troops need a break, and I don't mean sitting in the jungle. They could use some downtime in the city, drink a little wine, do a little shouting. And not having to forage would really speed up the march. It . . . might make sense to look around for a . . . job. But it would have to pay enough to matter."

  Roger looked at Pahner and could see that he was thoroughly pissed by the situation. He smiled gently at the commander of his bodyguards and shook his head again.

  "What was it you told me? 'Sometimes we have to do things we don't like.' I think this might be one of those times. And I also think that whatever we do to get me home is within the mission parameters. We need cash to do that, so this is within the parameters. And as a last point," he added with a broader smile, "if we don't get Kostas his nearpeppers and spices, he might go all sulky." He winked at his valet, who returned the look blandly.

  Pahner regarded the tertiary heir to the throne of the Empire of Man darkly. It had been a vast relief when Roger finally accepted that there truly was nothing—literally nothing at all—more vital than returning him safely to the imperial court on Terra. The captain knew that it had been hard for the prince to come to grips with the notion that his life was that important, given the estrangement which had existed between himself and his mother, the empress, for as long as he could remember. The simple fact was that Roger had believed no one in the entire universe, with the sole exception of Kostas Matsugae, had given much of a good goddamn for him. Which, Pahner had to admit, had been true in many ways. Even, he had come to realize, in Roger's own case, for the prince hadn't much cared for the spoiled, petulant brat he'd seen in his own mirror each day. If anyone had ever sat down and explained to him the reason his father had been banished from court things might have been different, but it had become painfully clear that no one ever had. Personally, Pahner suspected that Eleanora O'Casey was right—everyone had simply assumed that someone else had explained his father's inept conspiracies against the throne to him.

  No one had, however, and the fact that Roger was the very mirror image of his incredibly handsome, incredibly spoiled playboy father had made things immeasurably worse. Since everyone "knew" Roger was aware of the reasons for his father's disgrace, they'd assumed that the fact that he seemed bent on turning himself into a physical duplicate of that father represented some sort of declaration of defiance . . . or worse. Nobody except Matsugae had ever guessed how much of Roger's "spoiled brat" exterior had been the almost inevitable response of a little boy who had never understood why no one seemed to trust—or love—him to the pain of his loneliness. Certainly no one in Bravo Company had ever guessed just how much more there might be inside him before events in Voitan and Marshad.

  But like the other changes in his personality, Roger's new awareness of the realities of the political instability which plagued the Empire of Man, and of the fact that the MacClintock Dynasty truly was the only glue holding that empire together, had proved to have a nasty double edge from the perspective of the commander of his personal security detachment. It meant that the prince had finally learned to accept that there truly was a reason he had to allow his bodyguards to die if that was what it took to keep him alive, and also that nothing could be allowed to stand in the way of his return home. But it had also brought the famous MacClintock ruthless practicality to the surface. If nothing could be allowed to stand in the way, then by the same token, there was nothing he was not prepared to do . . . including turning Pahner's beloved Bravo Company into raggedy-assed mercenaries on a planet full of barbarians.

  The captain knew that, and the prince's reasonable and all too logical arguments didn't make him feel one bit better about it. He glowered at Roger for a moment longer, then turned to the two gunnery sergeants.

  "What do you think?"

  "I don't want to take any more casualties if we don't absolutely have to," Lai said immediately. "We've got quite a way to go and a battle at the end. We need to keep that in mind." But after a moment she shrugged. "Having said that, I have to side with His Highness. We do need the cash. And the downtime."

  The captain nodded, then turned to the other gunny. "Jin?"

  "Yeah," the Korean said. "I gotta go with the merc idea. But it's gotta pay." He looked up at his CO. "Sorry, Cap'n."

  "Well," Pahner said, patting his breast pocket. "It looks like I'm outvoted."

  "This isn't a democracy, as I believe you've pointed out once or twice," Roger said mildly, propping himself sideways. "If you say 'no,' the answer is no."

  The Marine sighed. "I can't say 'no.' You're right. That doesn't mean I have to like it, though."

  "Tell you what," the prince offered, sitting up straight. "We'll handle it. You just sit back and make sure we don't screw up. That way you can imagine it wasn't really Bravo Company that did it." He smiled to take away any sting in the words.

  "We can do it 'incognito,' " he continued. "I won't be 'Prince Roger.' I shall be . . . 'Captain Sergei!' And it will be 'Sergei's Raiders' who perform the mission, not Bravo Company of Bronze Battalion." He chuckled at his own suggestion, but O'Casey raised an eyebrow.

  "So you'll be incognito, Your Highness?" she said, smiling slightly. "With your incognito band of bodyguards?"

  "Uh, yeah," he said suspiciously. "Why?"

  "No reason," the historian told him. "No reason at all."

  "Oh, whatever," Pahner sighed. "Okay, Roger, you take it. Find the mission, plan the mission, command the mission. Just make sure that it's as low risk and high pay as possible."

  "Those are usually contradictions in terms," Jin said darkly.

  "Maybe we'll come up lucky," Roger told him confidently.

  CHAPTER THREE

  "Well, I think we came up lucky for the downtime," Kosutic said, floating faceup in the lake. She sat up in her jury-rigged float chair and took a sip of wine. "And with the apsimons. Real lucky."

  From the humans' perspective, Ran Tai was a pleasant change from the previous towns they'd visited . . . which meant it was Hell itself for the Mardukans who lived there. Not that they hadn't done their best to make their Hell as civilized and bearable as possible.

  The town was wrapped around the stream which led from the lake, and every street had wide gutters that were washed from the same source. These gutters, or chubes in the language of the area, were used by street cleaners to keep the well-paved streets clear of manure from their bipedal mounts and packbeasts. In addition, the city had an aqueduct system to provide water that was used for drinking and also pumped throughout the city through clay pipes, and there were fountains and spigots everywhere, drained by the chubes. Ran Tai's infrequent—by Mardukan standards—rains made it the first city the humans had encountered where the need to provide water was even a consideration, but the aqueduct and lake between them made it widely available, despite the climate. That permitted the homes and taverns to spray the water across mats of grass specially grown for the purpose, which, in turn, increased the indoor humidity of the buildings to the point that it wasn't—quite—a trauma for the mucous-covered Mardukans.

  But the very things w
hich made the city's climate so unpleasant for its normal inhabitants were what made it a virtual paradise for the humans. The valley was above the lower cloud layer, so the sun was frequently visible. In fact, at the moment, it was near zenith and bathing them in pleasantly damaging UV. Not only that, the upper layer of clouds rarely produced rain, which was why the valley wasn't continuously pounded with monsoonlike downpours. The daytime temperature rarely got above thirty-two degrees Celsius, and the nighttime temperatures frequently fell into the twenties.

  The waters of the lake were near perfection, as well. Since the lake was clear, cool, and untroubled by the large predators which seemed to infest every body of water in the planet's jungles, the humans had been able to go swimming on a daily basis—something that had been impossible on the march. In addition to swimming in it, they bathed in it, an almost forgotten luxury. The standard issue waterless cleaning cloths provided by the Imperial Marine Corps had continued to hold out to an extent, permitting the Marines to avoid the worst of hygiene problems, but the smooth waters of the lake and the improvised soaps that Matsugae had been able to create made the baths heavenly in comparison. Thus, most afternoons found the troops recovering from their morning sword drill by swimming and floating in the lake.

  They'd been surprised to find Mardukans swimming alongside them, but only until they realized how much the locals preferred to be submerged in water rather than exposed to the dry air. The locals had problems with the cool lake temperatures; they had to get out from time to time and warm up. But practically the entire population of the city came down in the afternoons to take a swim.

  There'd been a lot of curiosity about the humans at first. It was clear that they were different, but, as in other areas through which the company had traveled, the locals weren't as bothered by their lack of limbs as humans would have been if the situation had been reversed. After the first few days, many of the locals had become well-known to the company, and the humans were accepted as just another visiting caravan.

 
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