The Reformer | Chapter 10 of 21

Author: S.M. Stirling | Submitted by: Maria Garcia | 1652 Views | Add a Review

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SEVEN

"Preble," King Casull said.

His pointer tapped down on the map table. The greatbeast hide there showed an island covered in buildings, shaped like a peach pit with a stretch of blue water down the middle. Puff-cheeked wind spirits were drawn to represent the prevailing winds, and a line eastward showed the mainland coast. A few men stood around it: his heir, Tenny; Esmond; Adrian; and the Grand Admiral of the Isles, a half-brother of Casull who'd supported him in his thrust for the crown and had no sons of his own. A cooling evening breeze blew curtains aside to reveal the harbor of Chalice, crammed with shipping, a tarry reek penetrating even this far above the harbor. It was growing dark, but a flicker of red showed on the underside of the clouds that hung in the deep-purple sky—reflection of the lava in the craters above the city.

"We held Preble under my predecessor, Casull III, may his spirit rest with the Sun God," Casull went on. "Justiciar Marcomann took it away from us, along with the old mainland possessions of the Kings of the Isles. It's barely half a mile from shore—you can see the old city, Sor, here—but it's a magnificent naval base and does a heavy trade. According to my spies, who are many there, there's only a small Confed garrison there, barely a battalion."

Silence fell around the table. The Crown Prince cleared his throat. "A strong party loyal to the Kings of the Isles has risen in Preble," he said. "They have extended an invitation to me, to come and free them from the tyrants of the mainland, and then to rule them as men are meant to be ruled."

"And not to pay the Confed tribute anymore," Casull added. "It's heavy; they don't really understand sea trade . . . farmers, really."

Adrian nodded in unison with Esmond. No doubt a little gold from Chalice was spread around to get that Royalist party going, Raj said. But yes, on the whole, it looks like a good opportunity to test the Confeds. 

probability of initial success is 77%, ±10, Center interjected. high degree of uncertainty indicates several factors, principally— 

We'll discuss that later, Adrian thought firmly. Aloud: "My lord King, perhaps we can take Preble," he said. "Can we hold it?"

Tenny's lower lip stuck out slightly. Adrian cursed himself silently; he should have framed that a little more tactfully. Casull nodded.

"That is the question," he said. "Normally, no. The island is too close to the mainland, to the Confed armies, and to their fleet. The fleet's laid up in ordinary"—meaning stripped and hauled up in boat-sheds—"but they can put it to sea fairly quickly."

"As sailors, they'd make good cowherds," Tenny observed. His father frowned.

"True, but don't underestimate their numbers, or their discipline, or the way their infantry fights once they get on your deck—previous Kings of the Isles have done that, to their cost." Casull III, for instance, had paid with his life for doing exactly that. "With 'zieur Adrian's new weapons, we may have a chance of holding it."

Adrian traced the narrow strait with a finger. "What's the depth, here, my lord King?"

"Ah, you see the problem. Shallow—full of shifting sandbars. Impossible to interdict with warships, but fine for shallow-draft barges carrying assault troops."

"They might try a causeway, then," Adrian said thoughtfully. "If they could round up enough peasants to dig."

Casull winced slightly. "That would be even worse. Damn them, they're always trying to turn sea into land."

"By the Lord of the Trident, they'll regret it this time," Esmond said confidently. "Most of Adrian's new weapons have the range to turn the straits into hell for them."

"So we'll put them into the hands of the Shades." Tenny chuckled, licking his lips. "And I will be King in Preble."

"Under me," Casull added dryly, and the Prince looked down. Patricide was an ancient tradition in the Isles. "By sending you, my son, I assure the men of Preble that they are to be free subjects, not a possession to be squeezed."

"What about the city militia?" Esmond said. "There ought to be . . . what, eight, ten thousand of them? In a city that size."

Casull nodded. "They will not be involved initially," he said. "Not if our plan goes as expected. Then they will have no choice but to fall in with us, and fight for us."

"Certainly, if the Confed thinks they were disloyal," Esmond said. "I take it, my lord, that the Strikers are to be the spearhead of this enterprise?" He bowed to Tenny. "Under your valiant son's direction."

"Of course," Casull beamed. "And your brother will be with you, to see to the emplacement of the new weapons to defend our new city. We will follow with the fleet."

The two Emeralds smiled and bowed to the King of the Isles. Adrian needed no voices from beyond the world to know exactly what the King was thinking: if the throw of the dice failed, he was out only one replaceable son and some Emerald mercenaries; if it succeeded, he had one of the richest cities in the Western Sea.

That's how a King has to think, lad, Raj said. Adrian had an image of gray eyes, weary and amused. I never had to be that, for which I thank the Spirit of Man of the Stars. 

"When do we strike?" Esmond asked.

"As soon as may be. With the fleet gathered, Confed spies will swarm here like flies to velipad shit, and this is a logical step. I will feed them a dozen contradictory stories—that way even if they learn the truth, it may drown in a storm of plausible lies—but better still to strike before they decide to reinforce all their coastal garrisons."

Esmond nodded. "Then if my lords will permit, my brother and I will withdraw, to make our preparations. The Strikers will be ready to sail within three days."

"My Lightning Band within a week," Adrian said. "I will need time to modify some equipment and gather others."

* * *

"You gave her what?" Esmond laughed, cracking a nut in his palm.

"Well, it was what she wanted," Adrian said defensively.

"Flowers, a hare, jewels—but you gave her a sword?"

"Well, the one she had wasn't really very good quality," Adrian explained.

He was tired; they both were, with the load of work they'd been doing. A light meal stood between their couches on a low table: cured fish, olives, oil, bread for dipping, watered wine. The room was plain whitewash with a pattern of leaves in blue around the upper edges, and a door gave out onto a garden full of lilacs. It might almost have been in Solinga, even the smell of the sea was familiar, if it weren't for a subtle wrongness in the noises, an undersmell of strange spices and rank lushness to the familiar reek of a port. Another table at the end of the room was littered with wax-covered board diptychs, scrolls, and scraps of reed-paper, models.

Esmond pulled a piece off a long loaf of bread. "Well," he said, with malice aforethought and a brother's cruelty, "it was a good enough sword to gut Lord Sawtre very effectively. If you finally had to take up with a woman regularly, and with a Confed woman, you at least picked one with some unusual talents." He laughed. "At least she's not Audsley's wife—or Justiciar Demansk's daughter."

His brother might not be a Scholar of the Grove, with an ageless machine and an ancient general's ghost at the back of his mind, but he was an Emerald and no fool—which was to say, a keen observer.

"Wait a minute!" Esmond said, half-rising. "Shit among the Shades, she is Demansk's daughter—the one captured by pirates."

"Shut up!" Adrian barked.

Shocked, Esmond fell silent for a moment. Adrian rarely spoke roughly; this time he fought for a visible instant to control his temper, something rare enough to make his brother's eyes go wide.

"You will not speak of that again," he said coldly.

"But why?" Esmond said.

"Because I don't want her to think I'm using her as some sort of angle against her father—which I'm not, by the way, and won't be."

Esmond's blue eyes blinked in bewilderment. "But why, brother if—oh, no. Don't tell me you've been scratched by one of Gellerix's cats and caught a fever!"

That was the slang term for being hit by love; any sensible Emerald regarded it as a form of infectious madness sent by the gods to plague mankind with suffering—the divinities could be remarkably petty and cruel, sometimes.

Adrian looked down and toyed with a dried fig. "That's one way to put it. You might also say that I like and respect her," he snapped.

"Adrian, my brother, please—think." Esmond stopped for a moment, and snorted. "Here I am, stealing your lines, like an actor . . . but really, think, brother. At least there's no question of marr—oh, Gellerix!" he broke off at Adrian's expression.

"Esmond, have you any conception of how dull most women's conversation is?" he snapped. "How dull most women are? It's not their fault, the gods know, most of them shut up all the time and uneducated, but—"

He stopped at Esmond's expression of bafflement. Your Nanya was like a trembling dove, he thought with kindly exasperation. And the gods know, the Wodep in your soul would make that seem the sum of all womanhood to you. Me, I'm differently made, my brother. 

"She's—"

A dangerous glance passed between them, and an unspoken message: You don't call her used goods and I won't say anything about Nanya, that's about it, Adrian thought.

"Adrian," Esmond said slowly. "Demansk's daughter is going to be a Confed—not just by origins, she'll have been brought up on their old stories, walked past the death masks of Demansks who were Justiciars and Speakers back to when Vanbert was a mud-and-wattle village. How do you think she's going to feel when she finds out you're fighting to bring the Confederacy of Vanbert to the ground?"

I should remind myself how smart Esmond is occasionally, Adrian thought, wincing. His brother didn't have the temperament for a Scholar, but he had at least as much raw brainpower as his younger sibling, and a tremendous ability to focus.

"That's . . . for the time it has to be faced," he said slowly. "Look, Esmond . . . can't I have a few days? Just a few?"

"Of course," Esmond said. His eyes grew slightly haunted. "I know how brief that can be."

Feet clattered outside, and voices rang; one a high clear soprano. Helga Demansk swept in, wearing women's dress this time, a long blue robe with a fold of her mantle over her hair. That was tied back with a ribbon, and twisted into plaits.

"Adrian!" she said, handing her shopping basket to a maid. "It fits! Oh, hello, Esmond."

"Helga," he said, half-rising and bowing his head. "What fits?"

"The cuirass and helmet," she said. "They do good metalwork here, I've got to admit, even if they are pirate dogs." Adrian winced slightly, and looked around. "Oh, don't worry, Adrian," she went on. "They're proud of being pirates."

"But not dogs," he said.

"Are you going to tell me yet where this new expedition is headed?" she said, a green gleam in her eye. "Casull will have all the islands soon, at this rate."

"Are you so eager to slay men, lady?" Esmond asked.

This time Helga looked aside slightly. "Well, no," she said. "Not really. But it's . . . exciting, you know what I mean?"

"Unfortunately I do," Esmond agreed.

Helga reached into the basket. "And look at what I found," she went on more brightly. "A copy of the War of the Thousand Ships. I kept myself sane partly by reciting big chunks of it from memory, but it's been so long since I had anything to read."

Esmond laughed. "You and my brother were made for each other by the gods, lady. Even when we were running for our lives, two pack-velipads full of scrolls followed us."

Helga chuckled, but scowled slightly. "That idiot Audsley got a lot of good men killed, from what I hear," she said. "Damned traitor . . . and of course he got his head handed to him when he met . . . Justiciar Demansk. Demansk is a real general, and he has the interests of the State at heart."

correct, Center said. which is why with a high probability he would be hostile to our innovations. however, it would be advisable to gain a fuller psychostatistical profile of him—the subject helga demansk would be a valuable source of data. 

Shut the hell up, Adrian thought. He could feel Raj agreeing with him, an eerie nonverbal communication, like some ghostly equivalent of seeing expression on a man's face.

"Sorry," Helga went on after a moment. "Sometimes I forget you're Emeralds."

"Emeralds and Confeds are near-as-no-matter blood brothers here in the Isles," Adrian said lightly—which was true in one sense, and an outright lie in another.

Helga met his eyes and smiled, and worries seemed to dissolve themselves in time sweeter than honey. After a moment Esmond cleared his throat and stood.

"Well, I can tell when I'm the third wheel on a chariot," he said. "Tomorrow, then, brother."

* * *

"We're getting sort of close to the mainland, aren't we?" Helga said.

"That is the mainland," Adrian replied.

The galley had been under sail alone, one squat square sail driving the lean hull eastwards. Adrian stood on the quarterdeck, with his arm and cloak around the woman beside him; he'd been still, because if he was still all he need see was the frosted arch of stars above, the ghostly arcs of the moons, the smells of salt water and sweat and tar and the mingling of jasmine and clean healthy woman that was Helga. If he did not think, his mind need not crack and bleed. . . .

"Sir . . ." began the ship's captain; he was Casull's man, and they were not authorized to be anywhere but on the approaches to Preble.

"Shut up, you," Simun said.

The Islander skipper looked at him, and at the scores of Adrian's arquebusiers sprawled about the galley's deck, sleeping wrapped in their cloaks, throwing dice in the hollow of an upturned buckler, chewing hardtack and dried fruit, or simply sitting patiently on their haunches. His crew numbered roughly the same, though all but fifteen of them were oarsmen and sailors, tough hardy men and handy in a fight, but no match for soldiers with swords and light body armor. And from the flat dispassionate stare of the little underofficer, they'd be perfectly happy to slit his throat, throw the crews' bodies after his, and turn pirate if this Emerald gave the word. They were his men, not the King's.

"Your orders, sir?" he said to Adrian.

"Beach the ship lightly," he said, then looked ahead. "There's shallow shelving water and soft sand there—just touch her."

The captain shivered and made a covert sign with his fingers. Those eyes . . . They're not like those of other men. As if demons or spirits—or gods?—were looking out of them. Telling him things, that's what the tales say. He's not canny. 

He turned to give his orders to the steersmen and sailing master. The sail and yard came down with a muted thump and were furled; below the oarsmen stirred in sleepy protest. There was a yelp or two as the bosun's rope-end persuaders swung, and then the oars came rattling out, poised, dipped down into the dark star-reflecting water and bit. The ship turned towards the black line of the shore, where low waves and white foam and pale sand made a line in the night. It was calm water, and the ship was a raider, built for 'longshore work. Behind him the sorcerer was talking with his woman in Confed, a language the captain knew only a few words of.

"Adrian," Helga said. "What's going on?"

The Emerald drew a deep breath. "I didn't tell you where we were bound," he said. "Because I didn't want to spoil things more than . . . earlier than I had to."

"You're bound to attack Confederacy territory," she said, her voice quiet and level as her eyes.

"Yes," Adrian said.

"Preble? It's the logical target and weakly held."

Adrian felt a knife twist deeper. This woman has brains, he thought. Some of the Scholars of the Grove held that the only true love was between man and youth, because only then could there be a meeting of minds and not merely of bodies. He'd admitted the theoretical force of the argument, but not anymore, not anymore. . . .

"Yes."

"Adrian . . ." She stepped closer and put a hand on his shoulder. He could barely feel it through the shoulderpiece of his corselet, but a heat seemed to gather beneath.

"Adrian, don't do it. You'll be killed, you can't understand even if you win at first, the Confederacy always comes back in the end, please, don't throw yourself away—"

She's thinking of me, he realized with a glow of wonder. He shook his head and went on:

"I've . . . got to back my brother. And I'm not going to ask you to fight against your country . . . possibly against your father's own troops."

Shock turned Helga's face white. "You knew?"

"You favor him. And I knew about the raid." His hand came down on hers, where it rested on the bronze of the armor. "Helga . . . I didn't give a damn. Don't now."

She looked at him for a long slow moment. "I believe you," she said. "And you're not sending me back now as a gift to him?"

His mouth quirked. "Your father is notoriously patriotic. Who was that ancient Confed general, the one who executed his own sons when they proposed surrender . . . ?"

"Louis deVille," she said automatically. "That was in the war of King Peter."

The one who came up with the phrase Petric Victory, a scholar's corner of Adrian's mind remembered. That was long before the Confed conquest of the Emerald lands, when an Emerald—or half-Emerald—general could still invade there himself. But he'd won no concessions, although he'd carried half a dozen bloody fields against the nascent Confederation's army. The problem was that they could replace the men, and he couldn't.

"Well, if deVille was ready to sacrifice his sons, I think your father—much though he must love you—will sacrifice a daughter for Preble. I'm not going to be buying any favors from him with you."

Her eyes searched his. "How well you must know him," she said. "Is there nothing you don't know?"

"I don't know how to come by what I want most in the world and still keep my honor," he said.

The tears that glittered in her eyes stayed unshed; he'd found the one argument that would weigh heaviest with someone raised in the household of a Confed noble of antique virtue. The fact that it's the miserable truth is sort of a bonus, I suppose. 

The cry from the bow was soft but carrying. "She shelves."

"Avast oars!" the captain called. "Brace for grounding!"

Adrian and Helga did, with an arm around each other as well as a grip on the rigging. The ship surged softly, and half a dozen crewmen dropped over the bow to hold her steady; the water was to their waists. For all its length and wicked bronze-sheathed ram the galley was absurdly light, a racing shell of thin pine planking.

The man and woman walked to the bow, hand-in-hand, in silence. Adrian vaulted over into the cold water, caught Helga by the waist and lifted her down. She was a solid armful, with the light corselet on her and the rest of her kit. Arquebusiers of the Lightning Band handed down the servant he'd bought her in Chalice, and a light duffel.

"There's enough here to see you safely to Grand Harbor, and the Confed garrison there," he said, tucking a soft heavy purse of chamois leather into her belt pouch. "And . . ."

"And?" she asked, chin up.

"And I may not be the Confederacy's enemy forever," he said in a rush. "When—if—that happens, may I come to call?"

She smiled with a courage that wrenched at his heart. "Yes," she said. "I will so petition my father." A moment's urchin grin. "I told you what my marriage prospects are, didn't I?" Solemnly: "Stay alive, Adrian."

"I'll do my best. Yes, best I go. Gods go with you."

He watched the two figures walk up the beach, towards the tree-lined trail a hundred yards inland; it shone white in the moonlight, a wanderer's ribbon across the moor that bordered the sea here. Then he turned and accepted a hand; others boosted him back to the deck. He stood there, unspeaking, while the crew pushed off and the oars bit, backing water and turning the galley's prow to the west.

* * *

Esmond Gellert decided that the waiting was the hardest part.

The Briny Kettle was no warship, no sleek galley lavishly equipped with oars. She was a tub, a merchantman that carried grain and fish and oil and general cargo along the western coasts, out to the Islands, down south to the barbarian country. The only oars she had were half a dozen sweeps on a side, used only for working in and out of awkward ports. For the rest she was a deep-bellied teardrop, with a swan's head curving up over the quarterdeck and steering oars at the rear, one tall mast in the center, and bluff-cheeked bows up front. At five hundred tons she was quite large, and that and her high sides and substantial crew, plus a couple of dart-casters, was usually enough to discourage pirates. Longshore raiding paid better anyway, usually.

"Yeah, waiting's the worst," Donnuld Grayn said.

Esmond started slightly. "Hell, I didn't know I was talking."

The older mercenary grinned gap-toothed, and offered a skin of well-watered wine—one part to three. "This business, you spend most of the time being bored, and a few minutes out of every hour shitting yourself," he said philosophically. "When you're not being seasick, that is . . . this tub pitches worse than a galley."

The Briny Kettle carried no cargo but armed men; five hundred of them, packed like cured fish below decks, or lying flat on deck to ride concealed from anyone else—anyone, for instance, like the inspector in the little customs galley that was coming alongside. Its dozen oars easily matched the long slow rocking-horse pitch of the merchantman, avoiding the bows where a creamy V of white water pointed towards the low dark bulk of the city ahead. Reddish lights glimmered on the water from some of the lights there, and from masthead lanterns on the clustering ships docked to it, and from sentries pacing on the high crenellated walls.

"You're late, Sharlz," the official called out, holding up a lantern.

That glittered on the water, on his bald scalp and big-nosed face and on the gold hoop in one ear. He was an Islander himself, not a Confed—Preble was officially a free city in alliance with the Confederacy, although the Confed prefect here would have a lot more say than the council of magnates.

"Tide and wind and a woman's mind, Juluk," the captain said, scratching at his hairy chest where the open shirt showed a mat of grizzled hair; he was a very tall man, enormously tall for an Islander, and his nose was a beak that made even the customs officer's look moderate.

"Where from, this trip, and what cargo?"

"Chalice. Ornamental stone, fig brandy, dried tentacle fish and hot peppers, indigo in cakes, conqueror root, and coffee," he replied calmly.

"Ah. Any sign the King in the Isles is getting stroppy?"

"Not that I saw—but I keep my head out of such things."

"Well, good for you," the customs man said. "Keep it under seal until tomorrow, eh?"

"You eat shit too, Juluk—am I going to start breaking bulk in the middle of the night?"

"I could come aboard and inspect now, Sharlz."

Captain Thicelt unhooked a purse from his belt and tossed it across the gap that the customs boat's crew kept open with fending oars. "The usual sweetener—and you don't need to share it with your boss, out here."

"Not all of it," Juluk said, weighing it. "Sail on."

They came to the entrance of the narrow canal that split Preble from north to south—a natural channel between two skerries, when this had been a dwelling place of fliers and seabeasts, rather than men. A semicircle marked the harbor, wharves and jetties three-deep with ships, some as large as theirs, others of all sizes down to fishing smacks. Their masts made a lifeless, leafless tracery against the sky, an angular forest that creaked and rustled and swayed. Light died as ships and buildings dimmed moons and stars, and the clean smell of the sea gave way to the ever-present stink of a major port. Plops and rustlings came from the water, and once a pair of huge silvery eyes glinted—the scavengers that feasted on the filth, and inconvenient bodies, and drunks who fell off gangways at night.

"Strike sail," the captain of the Briny Kettle said, and turned to Esmond. The Emerald could see the sheen of sweat on his face by the dim reflected lights of lanterns and sky, and smell it. "Out sweeps to the canal entrance . . . All yours from here on, excellent sir General."

Esmond clapped him on the shoulder. "Good work," he said. "You've earned what the King pays you—and more besides. Don't forget to come and see me about it after the city's ours."

A grin split the tall Islander's face. "That I'm not shy about, you'll find, excellent sir."

Even this late at night dock-wallopers were ready with a team of heavy greatbeasts. They caught the cable the sailors threw, hitched their team, and began hauling the ship through the sea gates and into the town.

Paved roadways lined both sides of the canal, from one half-moon harbor to the other; behind them warehouses loomed, linked until they formed seawalls of their own, preventing any enemy from storming into the city from this open water. Heavy iron grills closed the occasional roadway that led deeper into the town; iron chains could close the canal at need, as well.

Men were waiting halfway down the length of the canal, men with shuttered lanterns that they blinked briefly. They surrounded the laborers, and Esmond caught a gleam in their hands—probably long knives in one, and gold in the other. He knew which he'd have taken if he was a sleepy municipal slave on night watch at the harbor. They backed away, followed by their bewildered greatbeasts, and more lines flew to the roadway. Willing hands grasped them, drew them tight. Timber crunched against stone.

"For the King and the gods," a voice called softly.

"For Prince Tenny and liberty," Esmond replied.

He vaulted easily from the rail to the pavement four feet below. "General Esmond Gellert, with the Prince's troops. You're ready?"

"Enry Sharbonow, Suffete of Preble. Ready and more than ready. This way."

Esmond turned. "Disembark according to plan," he called. "No shouting, and I'll geld the first man that breaks ranks!"

Except him, of course, he thought sourly, as Prince Tenny jumped ashore in a swirl of purple cloak and clash of silvered armor—plumed spired helmet, back-and-breast, engraved armguards . . . The half-dozen friends-cum-hangers-on he had with him were just as gorgeous, or had been before some of them got seasick. Tenny, to give him credit, didn't look nervous as some of them did, either. Brave, or too stupid to understand the risks, or both, Esmond thought.

The Prebleans went to one knee before the Prince. He smiled and signaled them to rise. "Be at ease, my friends," he said, in a trained orator's voice. "Soon the night of Confed tyranny will be lifted—as the sun rises, so will a new, independent city of Preble."

Several of the Preblean conspirators seemed inclined to answer the Prince's speech with ones of their own. Esmond was relieved to see that Enry wasn't one of them.

"Your Highness, welcome to your loyal city," he said. "This way, please—the garrison doesn't patrol, but they're not blind and somebody will alert them if we don't move quickly."

The Strikers had formed up rapidly, and with as little noise as five hundred armored men could when moving on flagstones in the dark. Esmond fell in at their head, beside the banner and the commander's runners. Donnuld Grayn grinned at him out of the side of his mouth.

"Think the Prince'll screw things up really bad?" he said, sotto voce. 

"Hopefully, not until we've taken the town," Esmond said. "By the way, I wasn't joking about taking the balls of anyone who starts chasing coin or skirt."

Grayn nodded. "You'll have to take 'em off the man dead, after I'm through with him," he said. "Probably will be one or two idiots—keeping hired soldiers in line in an enemy town, at night, ain't going to be easy."

"This isn't an enemy town. It's supposed to be our town, and we're taking it from the Confeds."

Grayn's grin grew wide. "That's not a distinction your average trooper is real interested in," he said. "But they'll understand my boot up their backside—and don't worry, sir, they're not going to upset a good thing. You've won us a couple of hard fights now; if you say paint ourselves green and hop around like kermitoids, most of the men'll do it."

* * *

"They've got the gates open?" Donnuld said incredulously.

"Wouldn't have believed it either, if I hadn't seen it myself," Esmond said.

Enry Sharbonow coughed discreetly; he was a discreet man, middle-aged and slim, with a pointed beard and a small gold ring through his nose; the cutlass at his side looked to have seen some use, though.

"We arranged a party for the commandant and his officers," he said. "As proof of our loyalty to the Confederation, you might say. They're all away at the Town Guildhall right now. And we sent in a wagonload of wine and roast pigs and fairly high-priced girls so the men could have a good time too. Some of the girls are getting a bonus, and they saw to the door."

"Brilliant." Esmond grinned. "I hope you'll do as much for my men."

"Oh, of course, excellent sir," Enry said. "And we won't spike the wine with cane spirit, either."

Esmond laughed aloud. Colorless and tasteless, but if you tried to drink it like wine . . .

"All right," he said, unfolding a square of reed-paper. "Donnuld, Makin, as far as I can see there's nothing to prevent us going straight in the front gate. The barracks are in a square around a paved court with a well, the usual arrangement; Confed regulars on these two sides, this is the command block, and here's where the light infantry are stationed. Half of the men are out in the square, eating and boozing, and half are back in their barracks screwing their brains out, or vice versa. They've been at it for a couple of hours, more or less. Makin, you bottle up the light infantry. We'll try and get them to surrender. Donnuld, you take care of the men in the square. I'll secure the barracks and the headquarters."

It was no use trying to get Confed regulars to give up, unless they bashed their heads in first. That was one of the reasons Confed armies usually inflicted heavier losses than they suffered, even when they lost—they rarely ran away, and it was in rout and pursuit that the real killing was done. One could spear a running man in the back while chasing him, but he couldn't fight back.

He looked up at the Preblean conspirator. "What about the commandant and his staff?"

"Oh," Enry said, "I don't think you need worry, excellent sir."

Esmond winced mentally; the wine servers stepping up behind men relaxed and unwary, only this time with curved daggers in their hands, instead of flasks. That had happened to the commanders of a famous Emerald mercenary unit serving in Chalice, just after the Alliance Wars, although the men had mostly been able to fight their way out—quite an epic. In a way it was fortunate, reminding him of the thin crust he walked, over an active volcano. He was never safe here, never . . . and it was no consolation that the local magnates played the same game among themselves. They were Islanders; they liked it.

It was strange. He hadn't really been happy since Nanya died; but it wasn't like he was numb. He could still feel some things just as well; he could be afraid, anxious, angry . . . hatred was stronger than ever. It was as if some section of his psyche had been cauterized.

And I can still fight, he thought. And now he could fight Confeds, not just Islander pirates. I was wrong. I can still be happy . . . in a way. 

He drew his sword. "Walking pace," he said. Men running were more alarming than men walking. "Follow me."

Esmond turned the corner, walking lightly on the slimed cobbles. The streets here were narrow between banks of four-storied tenement houses, canyons of darkness with only a narrow slit of stars and moons above. The bright lights from the Confed garrision buildings were almost blinding by comparison, although the broad square of light there was narrowing quickly.

"Shit—charge!" Esmond yelled.

So much for being subtle. The doors were still open, but they were swinging closed; a section of frowsy-looking Confed regulars was doing it, under the direction of a noncom, a brick-built bristle-headed graying man with legs and arms like gnarled, scar-slashed tree trunks. He was wearing a scarlet dress tunic rather than armor and transverse-crested helmet, but there was no mistaking exactly what he was—and drunk or sober, he wasn't going to leave that door open. It was sixty yards between the alley where the Strikers had been waiting and the barracks gate . . . they'd have plenty of time to drop the bar in place before the first Emerald mercenaries reached them. It wouldn't save them—the force had grappling hooks and ropes and the wall was low—but it would turn the battle into a bloody dogfight.

Esmond's body reacted with automatic reflex, turning his run sideways as the javelin went back over his right shoulder. One skipping sidestep, two, and arm and back and shoulder moved with the smooth inevitability of a machine. The javelin disappeared, arching up into the night. He'd practiced throwing at the mark, stationary and moving hoops, nearly every day of his life since he went into the boys' palaestra at six.

The Confed noncom looked up at the whistle of cloven air just before the long narrow steel head of the throwing spear punched into his throat above his breastbone. Eight inches of it disappeared, and the point crunched into his spine between the shoulderblades. He toppled like a cut tree, with only a single galvanic jerk as his heels came off the ground.

That paralyzed the men pushing at the door for a crucial two seconds; few of them had the noncom's experience, and they'd all been drinking wine much more potent than they thought it was. Time enough for twenty or thirty other Strikers to throw; they weren't Five Year Games victors, but they were closer, and there were a lot of them. Falling bodies knocked the gates wide again, and the Strikers burst through, roaring.

The courtyard had been set with trestle tables and lighted with tall iron tripods holding baskets of burning pinewood. Most of the Confed soldiers were sprawled about the picked-clean remnants of the pigs, bowls and cups in their hands, some of them with women in their laps, others watching a convoluted act involving four nude dancers and a very large trained snake. It took them gaping seconds to react, and none of them had weapons other than their eating knives at hand when hundreds of fully-armed alert soldiers poured through.

The first rank of Strikers launched their javelins and drew their swords; the second rank threw over their comrades' heads and plunged after them. Confed soldiers were dying—not only soldiers, Esmond vaulted over a whore in spangles and body paint, whimpering and pulling at the spear through her gut—and others were running, probably for their weapons. Some tried to make stands, grappling with the Emeralds or snatching up stools and eating utensils.

Esmond plunged through the chaos, over flagstones slippery with wine, spilled food, already wet with blood. Sword and buckler moved in clear, precise arcs; he seemed to be wading through honey, in a strange amber world in which everyone else moved very slowly, and he had more than enough time to do whatever was necessary. A solid wedge of men were following him, shields up and swords out. . . . A scrim of bodies marked the entrance to the barracks, men trying to get in, others trying to get out with snatched-up shields and assegais. The one in front of him stumbled and went down with a spear in his back, and then Esmond was facing an armed man at last.

The big shield with the crossed thunderbolts of Allfather of Vanbert on it—Allfather Greatest and Best—punched at him. The tip of the assegai glittered, held low and point-up for the gutting stroke. Esmond spun to the side, light on his feet as a dancer, hooking his buckler around the far edge of the oval shield and wrenching sideways to pin the Confed's spear arm against the frame of the door. His sword hilt went up high, like a beast fighter dispatching a greatbeast in the Vanbert arena after he'd teased it with the cape. The point punched down, in over the collarbone—unnecessary, the man hadn't had time to don his mail shirt, but you didn't think in a fight, you reacted on drilled reflex.

A wrench and jerk and the Confed went down. Esmond's foot and point snapped forward in a longe-lunge, skewered a thigh, pulled out with a twist to open the artery. He slammed his shoulder into another hastily-raised shield, and he was through the door. A Striker crowded through behind him, and in the dim light of the oil lamps he could see swarming confusion within, whores running and shrieking and the more sensible ones hiding under cots, men ripping weapons down from racks or stumbling in drunken bewilderment and getting in the way of their more sober comrades . . . and more of his men coming in the tall open windows. Barracks didn't run to glazing, but you wanted plenty of ventilation in this climate.

"Strikers!" he shouted. "Strikers to me! Down Vanbert! Down Vanbert!"

The Strikers were mercenaries, yes. They were also Emeralds almost to a man, and if there was one battle cry in all the world Emeralds could agree on, it was that.

Half an hour later, Esmond tucked his helmet under one arm and walked into the shrine room of the Confed headquarters, stepping over the bodies of the knot of men who'd died on its threshold. The slash on his thigh would make the leg stiffen in a little while, but for now he ignored it as he lifted out the ebony pole, with its golden wreath and hand and campaign-ribbons. He carried it himself onto the colonnaded porch that overlooked the courtyard, and the assembled Strikers roared his name as he held it high.

"Men!" he shouted, when the noise had died down a little. "So much for the invincible Confederacy!"

Another roar, with heartfelt emotion behind it this time. "Strikers," he went on. "We're soldiers loyal to our salt. But we're Emeralds, too. This—" he waved the standard "—has fouled the land of the Hundred Cities far too long. This war is against the Confederacy." A hush, then. "You know the gods favor my brother and me."

Nods. Or at least, my brother's productively crazy . . . hands of the Shades, maybe the gods do talk to him. Something does. 

"The gods foretell the fate of the Confederacy—they tire of it. Vanbert shall burn!"

Wild cheers, and Donnuld Grayn looking at him with a raised eyebrow—the expression looked a little odd on the scarred, beaten-iron face.

"And think of the loot stacked up there," the mercenary shouted.

This time the cheers split the night.

* * *

"Where the hell were you?" Esmond asked.

"I had an errand to run," Adrian said, walking down the gangway.

Esmond peered behind him. "Where's Helga?"

"As I said, I had an errand," Adrian said, and forced a smile. "Look, let's forget about it, okay? Business."

"Certainly, brother," Esmond said. "This is Enry Sharbonow, Suttete of Preble, Chief Minister to the sovereign, Prince Tenny of Preble."

Adrian bowed, returning the Preblean magnate's more elaborate salute. "Everything went well? Where's the Prince?"

The northern dock of Preble was busy enough, although most of it seemed to be ships loading for departure—Adrian could see an entire household, from a portly robed merchant to veiled wives and a dozen children to skinny porters under huge bundles wrapped in rugs. They were scuttling up the gangplank of a freighter, and they were far from the only ones he could see. There was a smell of smoke in the air, as well.

"Things got a little out of hand," Esmond said. "There aren't many Confed civilians left in town, either. We're letting some of the non-Prebleans leave."

Enry spread his hands. "The Confeds are not—were not—popular here," he said.

Adrian nodded. They never were; the first thing that happened in a country taken under Confed "protection" was a tribute levy, and then officials to collect it. The Confed Council didn't like hiring bureaucrats much: too many opportunities for political patronage with implications at home. They put tribute and tax collection up for competitive bidding; that might not have been so bad, if it weren't for the fact that the successful bidders had no fixed fee. The winning syndicate made its profit by collecting whatever it could above the amount it had paid for the contract, with the Confed army to see that nobody objected. Then Confed merchants swarmed in, to buy up goods and property at knock-down prices as the locals frantically tried to raise cash, and Confed bankers to loan at fifty percent interest, compounded, to those who couldn't raise the cash. If anyone defaulted on the loan, they'd sell every stick and rag he had, and march him off to the auction block, and he'd find himself hoeing beans on some Confed Councillor's estate outside Vanbert.

The nod was general; everyone knew how the system worked. "Funny," Adrian said. "The Confed peasants go into the army, because they can't compete with the big slave-worked estates . . . then they go out and get the Councillors the money and slaves they need to set up the estates in the first palace."

"Nice work if you can get it," Donnuld Grayn said. "Meantime the civvies ran down and killed maybe a thousand of 'em last night, once word got around we'd taken out the garrison." He smiled, a nasty expression. "Sort of commits 'em, don't it? What's that Confed saying?"

" 'I am a Confed citizen; let kings tremble,' " Adrian said. "They're not going to be happy at a massacre."

Enry Sharbonow shrugged. "I put my arse above the stake when I enlisted in Prince Tenny's cause," he said. "Now everyone else in town is in the same boat."

"Where's Prince Tenny?" Adrian asked.

Enry coughed discreetly; it seemed to be his favorite expression. "He is occupied with setting up the Royal household," he said. "In his mercy, he has decided to take into his hareem the now-protectorless females of the Confed commandant and his officers, or some of them."

Adrian winced slightly. One of the drawbacks of this business, Raj said at the back of his mind, is that you usually end up working for some son of a bitch. Politics attracts them. 

"Well, we've got business to attend to," Adrian said. "I suppose I should start setting up the artillery?"

"Too right," Esmond said. "I don't think the Confeds are going to wait long to try a counterattack—some refugees will have made it out, over the wall and swimming if no other way."

"Sir!" One of the Strikers came up, panting. "Lord Esmond, Confed troops are putting out in small craft from the shore—barges, some ladders."

Enry made a small, appalled sound. Esmond nodded. "Numbers?"

"Fifteen hundred, sir."

The blond Emerald slapped Enry on the back. "Not to worry. That's the local commander, trying it on in case this is just some sort of pirate raid. Your militia ought to be able to see them off; there's seven or eight thousand of them."

"If they turn out," Enry said, taking a deep breath.

* * *

"Wait for it," Adrian said.

"Sor," Simun whispered back, "why don't we have the arquebuses up here? They're such lovely targets!"

technological surprise, Center whispered. you may define this as— 

"Because we don't want them to know about the arquebuses until we really need them," Adrian said.

"They'll have heard."

"That's not the same thing as seeing something for yourself."

The landward edge of Preble had a narrow strip of sand studded with crags and boulders below the city wall, which was big ashlar blocks, enclosing a concrete and rubble core. It was crowded with men now, crouching down below the crenellations or behind the tarpaulin-covered torsion catapults. They were keeping surprisingly quiet, for civilians; nervously fingering bows, spears and slings, but not talking much. Esmond's Strikers probably had something to do with that; they'd kicked and clubbed a few noisy ones into unconsciousness to begin with.

Adrian turned his eyes from the mass of robed figures, from gleams of starlight and moonlight on eyes, teeth, the edge of a blade, out to the sea. The Confed flotilla was led by two light war galleys, each towing a string of barges; for the rest there were fishing boats, small coastal traders, a merchantman or two. They were crowded with men as well, probably the local coastal garrison; this area had been taken away from the Islanders by Marcomann only a decade or so ago, and it still resented Confed rule.

He turned to his brother. "Wasn't there a military colony around here?"

Esmond nodded. "Paid-off Marcomann veterans," he said. "Allied Rights settlement. I wouldn't be surprised if the governor had mobilized them."

Adrian nodded in turn; that was what a military colony was for, after all. They'd be ready enough, too; a successful revolt would let locals who'd had their land confiscated to make farms for the ex-soldiers get their own back, literally and metaphorically.

The ships were close enough to hear the rhythmic grunting of the oarsmen under the creak of rigging and wood. Adrian peered into the darkness, and suddenly it took on a flat silvery-green light.

"They've got ladders on those galleys," he said. "And on the barges—ladders with iron hooks on the ends. And what look like modified catapults. I'd say they're rigged to throw grapnels with rope ladders attached."

Esmond grunted. "Standard operating procedure," he said. "Looks like the local commander really is going to chance the walls being lightly held." He cocked a sardonic eye at the militiamen. "Enry has earned his corn—I hope King Casull is paying him generously. He's had agents out all day, pointing out to the locals exactly what'll happen to them if the Confeds retake a city where six or seven hundred Confed citizens were massacred."

"Forward, sons of the Emerald! You fight for your homes and families, for the ashes of your fathers and the temples of your gods!"

The poet had said that about the League Wars, when the Emerald cities had turned back the Kings of the Isles. It was just as true here. In the open field, all the determination in the world wouldn't have stopped the Confed's armor and discipline; but fighting behind a wall, all the militiamen really needed to do was not run away.

"Ready," Esmond said. "Ready . . ."

The barges were coming forward, awkwardly, the oarsmen too cramped to pull efficiently. The square raftlike craft dipped at the bows, as armored men crowded forward with the ladders.

"Now!" He stood, waving a torch—three times, back and forth.

Brass trumpets rang along the wall. The men of Preble—sailors, craftsmen, shopkeepers—stood and shot. Arrows hissed out towards the Confed troops in a dark blurring rush, hard to see in the faint light, but appallingly thick. Flights of javelins followed, not very well thrown but very numerous, and sling-bullets, rocks, cobblestones. The Confed troops roared anger and surprise, with a chorus of screams from wounded men under it. Shields snapped up in tortoise formation, overlapping. At this distance some arrows drove right through the thick leather and plywood; rocks broke arms beneath them, crushed helmets. The catapults on the wall and its towers fired their four-foot arrows, pinning men together three in a row. A rock hurler sent a fifty-pound lump of granite skimming over the quarterdeck of one of the galleys, taking off the head of the captain as neatly as an axe and crushing the steersman against the tiller.

"Damn, they're still coming," Esmond said.

Men picked up the ladders of the fallen and ran them forward; others set the points of assegais against oarsmen's backs, to encourage them to keep rowing. Others beached their craft and jumped ashore, whirling grappling irons. A ladder thumped home against the crenellations of the wall, and then another. Men toppled off the rungs, and others replaced them; archers and slingers were replying from the invasion craft, concentrating their weaker fire on the crucial space around the heads of the ladders.

Four militamen came hurrying past Adrian, their rag-wrapped hands on the carrying handles of a huge bronze pot that had been bubbling quietly over a charcoal brazier. Adrian swallowed at the familiar scent of hot olive oil.

They reached the parapet and heaved the cauldron up, poured. The screams from below were unearthly loud and shrill, as the boiling oil ran over men's faces and through the links of their mail shirts. He could see Confed troopers throwing themselves into the ocean and drowning as they tried to extinguish the clinging agony.

"All right, Lightning Band," he called in a high carrying voice. "Let's see them off."

Adrian stepped up to the parapet, taking a grenade out of his satchel and lighting the fuse. One of the galleys was not far away below, more Confed troopers clambering over the pile of dead men in the bows to reach the grapnel-throwing catapult. Adrian waited a second for the fuse to catch fairly and then lobbed it overhand, an easy throw. The sputtering red spark of the fuse arched through the night; the clump of men suddenly turned white as faces went up to see what was coming at them.

With malignant, unplanned precision the grenade burst just above head-height, sending fragments slicing into the faces. Men scattered, screaming. Other red sparks were arching out from the wall, lobbed by hand or thrown with the sling at craft still trying to come up to the wall. Adrian threw two more; one rolled under the quarterdeck of the galley, and when it burst, pine planks shattered and began to burn. Several others of the invasion flotilla were burning as well, lighting the surface of water dotted with the heads of swimmers and men clinging to bits of wreckage—those must be oarsmen and sailors; anyone who went over the side in sixty pounds of armor wasn't coming ashore unless he walked along the bottom.

"Go back, you fool! Get your men out of here!" Esmond was shouting as he threw another javelin. "Order a retreat, gods condemn you!"

Adrian listened to the voices at the rear of his mind. "Their commander is probably dead," he said grimly. "There's nobody to order a retreat, and his underofficers are operating on their last instructions—press the attack."

"Wodep!" Esmond said. His eyes on the carnage below were full of a horrified pleasure. Adrian could read the thoughts on the shadowed face: They're Confeds. But they're brave men, too. 

Even Confed discipline could take only so much. One by one the barges and fishing boats backed away, set sail or began to thrash the surface of the narrow channel with frantic oars. On a few of the craft fighting broke out, men who wanted to live in frantic close-quarter struggles with those determined to follow their orders regardless. Neither of the galleys was going anywhere; they were both outlines of yellow flame on the dark water, with men going up like torches or jumping overside. Some climbed the masts, scrambling frantically higher as the flames licked at their heels, screaming as the rigging burned through and the pine poles toppled over towards the water. Some of the water was burning too, pools of olive oil flickering with sullen orange-red.

"Gray-Eyed Lady," Adrian whispered.

The screams from below were drowned by the cheers of the militia, dancing and shrieking their relief and incredulous joy at beating back the Confed attack. They capered along the parapet, shaking fists and weapons, some lifting their robes and waggling and slapping their buttocks at the retreating enemy. The narrow strip of beach and rock below the walls was black with a carpet of men, a carpet that still crawled and moaned slightly. Adrian looked up at the stars for relief from the sight, and started.

"It's a full hour," he said wonderingly. "I'd thought fifteen minutes, thirty at the outside."

"Time flies when you're havin' fun," Simun said beside him, shaking and blowing on a hand scorched by a fuse that burned too fast. "We ought to get some men down the wall, sor—salvage them mail shirts 'n helmets. Better than some of our lads have—better than almost anything the milita here got. Must be seven, eight hundred we could get at."

"I suppose so," Adrian said quietly, looking down. If you can accomplish the work, you should be able to look at the results, he told himself.

"Victory!" Enry Sharbonow said, coming by with a train of servants carrying wineskins. "Oh, excellent sir, honorable sir—here, have a drink."

Adrian took a flask, swallowing rough red wine, unwatered.

"A great victory," the Preblean said.

Esmond lowered his own skin, looking around at the cheering milita; his own men were cheerful enough, but much quieter as they leaned against the parapet and watched the Confeds flee.

"I'd call it more of a skirmish," he said. "Come and tell me about our victory in a month or two."

 

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Alice
Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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