Neayoruk, ca. 17 A.E (ca. 1233 B.C.)
It's not easy organizing a transcontinental invasion, but the appointed day had finally arrived.
My people have many virtues. Punctuality is not one of them. The sun had already reached too far past its zenith for lunch. Feasts came later these days than before Dad arrived – as you'd expect with a Wannax who'd grown up with electric lights – and it was a bit too early for dinner.
But the noblemen of Achaea nothing if not flexible (and hungry), so we'd soldiered through a sort of extended lunchner, running through five hours, large quantities of mutton, goat meat, one of our older cows, several baskets of Phaecian raisins, and gallons upon gallons of wine.
The meat cooked on coals. As each new animal was brought in, servants would distribute the cooked hearts and livers first. The rest sizzled on bronze spikes that the Nantucketers insist on calling kebabs, regardless of their local title. Twenty-six officers, priests, and bureaucrats ate in a row along the wall - twenty-five men and Kylefra. Empty, almost. No lyre-player, either. For security reasons, I hadn't invited the beggars and goat-herds to the great hall as often as I'd done once. Unlike what a proper king would do. Should do.
I looked out the window. Men in gray clothing shuffled past equally gray, blocky houses, dragging gray barrels through gray streets. A cracked barrel provided a splash of color. Dried oranges had spilled onto the dock.
It had rained recently, and Neayoruk's smog blanket had temporarily lifted. The sea air had some snap to it that morning; the sort of salty smell that wakes you up when you catch it. From the distance, I caught sight of one of the new frigates coming in: long and black, with a red painted prow.
The hollow ships resound with cannons' roar
And acclamation; every voice upraised
Resounding for the Wolf Lord, glorious King…
On the eve of the Egyptian intervention, Achaeans still called anything over a hundred miles a long voyage. I'm told that Tartessians and Nantucketers joked about our captains' habit of hugging the coastline in frigates.
But that's what I had the American Quarter for. Dad had dubbed it the "Gated Community", always with a smirk. I'd only gotten the joke years later, when I'd run across the phrase in one of his sociology texts.
"Jason Cuddy reporting, Lord Walker."
I looked up.
Cuddy The Younger looked back through thick glasses.
Most of my staff shot glares at him. He sniffed, running a hand through the once-curly hair that he'd only wrestled into a straight part with the liberal application of Nantucket's "gel". Mostly whale-oil-based, I think.
Kylefra licked her lips and winked at him. He stiffened and looked away. Quickly.
Like most of the American Quarter's inhabitants, Jason had roughly the same claim on American identity that I did: Not much. But the people who'd followed Dad from Nantucket had insisted on raising their half-Achaean kids as if they were still back home. Right down to their somewhat effeminate insistence that their wives should cook the animals they'd killed while hunting.
This, in turn, had left me with a small colony of half-Achaean Americans who preferred sending their kids off to "seasonal tours" of the Republic. (Before the coups, anyway.) I like to believe that my subjects' travel habits caused Nantucket's internal security service as much of a headache as it did ours. In any case, the Achaean nobility hated 'em enough that they'd never survive without my patronage. And they knew it.
"Well?" I said. "Are the maps ready?"
Cuddy seemed to snap to attention, and cleared his throat.
"Do you want the long version or short one, Lord Walker?"
He gave me the long version. After combing through the War College's mishmash of 20th century maps, our own coastal surveys, and purloined information from our enemies, we'd assembled a decentish group of maps for our officers. Whenever necessary, we'd marked time zones as well.
Translating the mass of Egyptian six-digit military maps had proved especially annoying, since they'd numbered their horizontal coordinates from right to left like their hieroglyphs. Their system for labeling hills didn't conform to ours, either. And then there was the hassle of copying contour intervals recorded in Babylonian cubits, Egyptian "royal" cubits, meters, khets, djesers, yards, steps, reeds, and dozens of other measurements from cultures too stubborn to use Mycenaean feet like civilized people.
But the maps were ready.
As for the rest…
"The last shipment of parched grain should be arriving in an hour," Cuddy said. "Wine bags, too—"
"I don't like these pine-built merchantmen," I said. "They'll crumple under fire. Shit, a few still have steering oars."
Jason Cuddy frowned.
"Our frigates can beat the Babylonian navy pretty easy," he said. "And oars work well if you're becalmed."
He must have caught the collective growl around the room, since he ducked his head and hastily added, "…my Lord Walker."
"I'm not worried about Babylon," I said.
"Then I'm not sure what you—"
"What happens if the Republic's frigates force the Pillars?" I said.
"We lose…um, Lord Walker."
"Coward!" somebody finally shouted.
The speaker fell silent when I raised my hand.
I sighed. Well, it was good that Cuddy had told me, at least. Honest advice usually means that you can't shoot the messenger. That had been an important point of instruction for Dad – almost an obsession: If they're afraid of you, they won't tell you anything. And if they don't tell you anything, Harold, you're fucking blind.
He bowed and stepped out.
I tried to let my mind drift to the hearth-fire's warmth, stirring the wine with my finger. I noticed a slave waiting at my elbow with a copper ewer. Oh. Right. I held out a hand. He poured water on it.
Achaea's power elite bickered and bantered in small groups; usually two to each small, sponge-washed table. Dad's attempt to introduce plates and tablecloths had been largely unsuccessful – why bother when you can just clean the tabletop better? – but at least a couple had knives and forks. The rest picked at the meat with their fingers. Notice that I said picked, not "tore". Lack of silverware doesn't make you a barbarian, whatever the assholes in Nantucket think.
I motioned for the herald. He carried the piece of honor to Oholotarix's table – a sizzling cut of pork that practically dripped fat and oil. Oholotarix accepted my offering of heart disease with an upraised wine cup.
I reached for the bread dish, dabbed a piece with sheep marrow, and put a few onion slices on top as flavoring. I took another a bite and a half before the sensation in my stomach went from stuffed to nauseous.
Well, it had to end sometime. I dusted off a few crumbs and stood. The rest of the hall stood with me.
"Okay, gentlemen," I said, "I don't know about you, but I'm taking a bath before the voyage. Feel free to continue eating. We have a tough campaign ahead."
"Oh, and Oholotarix? Remember to distribute the rest of the food to the beggars, would you?"
I said the necessary pleasantries and then proceeded for the bathing-room. Even with the watered wine, I felt a slight buzz on my way.
When I sank into my bath a couple minutes later, I finally allowed the adrenaline that had been pumping through my body to subside a little. Who needs coffee when you have an upcoming war?
I allowed the hearth-heated water to massage my arms and work out the knots in my stomach. They'd even provided a basket of pomegranates and curds from sheep's milk. Metal pressed against the back of my head, lulling…wait.
My eyes shot open. I jolted to the left, nearly upending the tub in the process. Water splashed. I flailed for the revolver that I kept at the side of the bath.
And then, I heard that just-off-key voice.
"Too slo-o-o-w, Harold."
Kylefra bounced my revolver in her hand, as if testing the weight.
"What are you doing—"
"Shall we bury you in divine raiment, King of Men?" she said. "Coated with fragrant oil and honey?"
She pulled the trigger. I couldn't quite suppress the flinch.
Empty chambers. Kylefra rolled the bullets in her palm, grinning. She ruffled my hair and dropped the revolver in my bathwater with a plunk.
"Look, I'm kind of in the middle of something here," I said.
Kylefra maintained her grin, holding up a bullet between her thumb and forefinger. Grease gave the jacket a brassy sheen in the lamplight. She dropped it into the bath.
Her shadow crept along the wall - tall and thin like a young palm tree, as the poets like to put it.
"I'm disappointed that you didn't ask a slave-girl to bathe you," she said. "Especially since you don't have a wife…Shame that I wasn't born dog-faced, don't you think?" she said.
"…Because then you'd have an excuse to ignore me."
For some reason, an image sprang to my mind: Kylefra drawing the Nile's water under the eyes of Egyptian overseers, her hands rubbed raw from working the shaduf.
It suddenly occurred to me that I just might have drawn her into something I shouldn't have. Kylefra had never received combat training like the "Claws" of her order
My witch sighed theatrically.
"I don't geld all my lovers, you know," she said.
While I began rethinking the whole guilt thing, Kylefra circled the bathtub, drumming her fingers along its copper edge. I caught my shoulders hunching as she passed behind me. She leaned forward until her chin rested on my back.
"Of course, it couldn't be…normal, either," she said. "I'd go easy on you, of course. Just a few toys to let you know who's in charge. Ropes, and a knout, and something to muffle the scream-"
"Aaaand we're done here," I said.
But she wasn't. Kylefra pitched her voice high and girlish. Her hands settled on my shoulders, fingernails pressing just at the edge of breaking the skin.
"Oh-h-h," she said. "I know. Maybe the King of Men wants his pet nightingale to cry like a tame rooster instead. Let's see…what's the Achaean male fantasy, hm? You could discover me playing with my maidens by the river bank. And…oh yes. Tossing a ball or something. And my maidens would flee at the sight of such a muscular, manly interloper, and you, ah, māratriis …"
Her eyes drifted a bit.
"Shall I spread my legs like a good little Achaean wife?" Kylefra said. "Because that is something you'll never get, Harold Hwalkarz."
"You lost my suspension of disbelief at manly and muscular."
She smiled at me. Well, smirked. It was the expression she always wore when she was eyeing a new slave shipment.
"…Or perhaps you want me to weave you something?" she said. "A purple cloak with flowers sewn into the hem, perhaps, like Odikweos's boring, boring woman would sew?"
"…Or a funeral shroud?"
"That's a little morbid—"
Sharp little pains lanced through my shoulders as her fingernails pressed a little too far. I felt warmth. A light trickle of blood was running down my right arm.
Kylefra put her face alongside mine, cheek to cheek. Her smile dropped.
"I can guess why you ordered most of the Sisterhood's leadership to come to Egypt with you, Harry," she said. "Oholotarix will not have an easy time."
The water had gone from warm to tepid. I could feel my muscles tensing accordingly.
"Opposing the king's regent is treason," I said.
"Opposing the Despotnia Algeos is blasphemy."
Kylefra's Iraiina accent had thickened – clipped and guttural like someone with a cough. It's a great language for threatening people, Iraiina.
"Then you're free to appeal to her," I said. "As for the other gods, they don't appreciate it when you pray with the king's blood on your hands."
She must have taken the hint, since her fingers loosened again. Nails withdrew from shallow punctures.
Her dress rustled as she stood up again.
She stopped at the door.
"You can't get you want from me, either."
"Oh? And what do you imagine I want?" she said.
"You're not Alice Hong," I said. "And I'm not my father."
Her hands tightened, and for just a moment she turned around. Eyes narrowed. She tensed her lips enough to form a rough approximation of a smile. A very unpleasant one.
"Oh, you're certainly not your father," she said.
And with that, Kylefra turned to leave. Her dress fluttered dramatically enough; Alice Hong had designed it with one eye toward the frozen-in-time plays that twentieth century people had watched on giant screens.
I found myself staring at Kylefra as she stormed out. Those swaying hips were very difficult to look away from, accentuated as they were by her tight black dress…
So I banged my elbow on the bathtub.
"I need a new surrogate family," I muttered.
The royal galleass loomed almost black against a dimming horizon. It was an Achaean's brainchild, actually; Tecton's guild had built it way back in the Hittite War. They'd realized that Alston-Kurlelo's frigates weren't ideal for Mediterranean conditions, and had adapted a Venetian design.
My people aren't really sailors, though.
Over the years, I've okayed a lot of banner designs for my new regiments. The officers usually suggest the theme, and they're surprisingly diverse: images of cattle, of plows, of swords, of dancers, and even of marriage processions. But only the 9th Guards – a Taphian regiment – ever proposed one with a ship. Even then, it was one of the single-decked, kitchenless pentekonters that had become obsolete a decade before.
Soldiers clogged the harbors. They swarmed around the boats like flies on spilled milk.
Regiment after regiment walked up the gangplanks. They embarked by platoons: three squads of three fireteams, with each platoon headed by one of the minor gentry. Younger sons, usually. Many still wore iron breastplates made from segmented strips – like their bronze predecessors, but dulled with paint. At least the officers had stopped wearing horsehair plumes.
We'd made some progress with smokeless powder during Dad's reign. Some. Not enough. For all intents and purposes, Great Achaea was going into the Egyptian civil war with a black powder army.
Ringapi troops with drooping moustaches and tartan trousers marched with Winchesters strapped to their backs. A few Achaeans from the Neayoruk regiments carried metal tubes. Cylinders stuck out from the ends like flower bulbs. Cuddy The Elder's new black-powder RPGs; the Schenkl fuses had permitted all sorts of interesting toys, though not in large numbers.
And then, there was the heavier stuff: six-pounder Krupp breechloaders, Gatling batteries, rockets, and our first attempt at poison gas. Hopefully, the last wouldn't be necessary.
Each fireteam also carried a single-barrel Nordenfelt - fourteen-pound weapons that looked like enlarged rifles except for the tripods and top-mounted magazines. Cuddy had promised a hundred and eighty rounds a minute with a good manual operator. I had my doubts.
But then, it's not like our opponents had any light machine guns, so beggars can't be choosers.
By the time I walked up the galleass's ladder-plank, the moon was already out. Moonlight reflected off the boarding pikes that my people still prefer to cutlasses and rifles.
We set sail.
I spent a while walking across the ship, encouraging the soldiers and sailors as a commander should. Except the captive oarsmen, since that would have been bad taste.
The night wind filled the sails' bellies. The canvas absorbed it easily enough. Younger sailors these days didn't carry as many trinkets to protect them against the winds from Thrace.
Putting their trust in vessels swiftly sailing
The seas they cross, the King of Men's retainers
Swift as a wing, or as a thought, their vessels…
I wrapped myself in a cloak. For a while, I watched the stern, where the captain nodded and signaled to his men almost hypnotically. I occasionally saw a light from shore, where shepherds must have built a campfire. When my eyelids finally got heavy, I listened to the sound of broad, fir oarblades sloshing through the wine-dark sea.