Pethoukis shrugged. “The Prince said that his men are all well equipped. And his knights have better gear than goblins ever dreamed of. So he wants to give us all the stuff they took from goblins who won’t be needing it anymore, since carting it all back home is, uh, problematic. Best that someone get use of it, and preferably friends, he says.”
The Captain looked at the gear that Pethoukis’ detail was still unloading. I can’t hardly say no to that, can I?
Pethoukis looked through the rapidly growing pile of bags, and pulled one out marked with a large red cross. “This one, sir, the Prince said was special for you.”
Pethoukis opened up the sack and started pulling out armor. It didn’t look like goblin armor. The armor wasn’t gold, like the Prince’s, but it had the same style. Lewis picked up the breastplate. The silvery metal surface was finely engraved. Lewis had never seen anything like it. The lines were hair-thin and densely packed; a topo map of staggeringly baroque mountain. They didn’t form pictures, but there were subtle patterns. It could look like most anything if you looked at it long enough, he thought. It was beautiful.
“The Prince’s sideboy, Baron Siegfried, said we’ll have a party of armorers up in a little bit to help fit the armor. We were lucky, apparently, when we hacked up the armor for the five of us. I couldn’t follow most of what he said, but it seems if you’re not careful you can poke a hole and all the magic runs out.”
“Very well.” Lewis pointed at the armor suit. “Leave that until the armorers get here, I’ll deal with it then.”
“Walk with me.” Lewis aimed toward the Taverna down the street, and Pethoukis fell in beside him.
“Tell me what you saw.”
“Sir. They’re well organized. Not sharp and properly squared away, but smooth. A bit of mess around the edges, but there’s no confusion. They set up their camp quick and no fuss. Their working parties were efficient. On the military side, the average soldiers were pitching in with no more than normal grousing.”
“Gamez was talking to Father Pietr while we worked. The knights are the ones with the super armor. If I hadn’t seen what they can do in that armor, I’d never believe it. The stuff is like out of Starship Troopers, sir. Increased strength, speed. But not all of ‘em have that. The average joes have gear that’s more like what the goblins had.”
“Father Pietr wasn’t shy about answering our questions. He asked a lot of his own, too. The men who were working with us were pretty obviously fascinated with us but they minded their manners, mostly. Captain, I gotta say that these crusaders seem decent enough. You’ve seen the difference between working with the Arabs and the Kurds; and how different either of them are from the Germans. They feel a lot closer to the Germans, if you follow.”
“Anyway, the Father said the military arm of the embassy is fifty lances. Ten men to a lance, led by a knight with a squire and the rest regular soldiers. I got the impression that this little army is a little more gunned up than usual for them.”
“You’d expect that, I guess, with a Crown Prince and a mission to another world. You go loaded for bear,” Lewis commented.
Pethoukis nodded agreement. “And sir, they’re building a godawful big pile of loot from the goblins, sir. There were maybe 1500 left after they hit us, and the knights did for most of them. I doubt more than fifty got away north. And the Prince wants for you to have a fair share of it. The way they do it, the Father said, the Captain gets the biggest share. There’s food, stores, and gold, sir. A lot of gold.”
“I don’t think the Commandant would approve of me taking a personal share. I don’t know how we’re going to play this. I don’t even know what the rules are for this sort of thing. It’s not like we’re normally in a position where the enemy’s kit is better than what Uncle Sam gives us.” Lewis paused.
“When the armorers get here, distribute the armor and weapons, and we’ll call it, what? A special issue of equipment. We’ll load whatever we can of the rest on the trucks and donate that to the Corps. We need that gear, and we need it badly. But we – the United States, I mean – also need to figure out how this stuff works.” Lewis stopped in the middle of the street and turned to Pethoukis.
“Sergeant, I can and will rationalize taking weapons and armor. We need them. Supplies, I don’t think we’d have any issues with. But I don’t think I can possibly justify accepting gold and treasure from a foreign Prince.”
Pethoukis looked concerned. “Captain, from what I’m seeing, if you turn it down, you’re going to offend the Prince. Touching on his honor, and all that. And besides, technically we’re taking it from dead goblins.”
“A point. But there are rules for that, too. I’ll consider it. We’ve already salvaged some armor from the ones we killed on the wall. I’m sure the armorers can help us with that, too.”
Lewis walked over to their ad hoc motor pool in front of the gas station. Over to the side, in the shade of building’s wall, the Prince’s armorers were turning goblin armor into Marine armor. A group of Marines were being turned this way and that as the armorers measured them. Father Pietr in his homespun robe and Gamez were there to provide translation but it looked like everything was well in hand. The two were talking quietly while the armorers got most of what they needed with pointing and hand signals.
“Gamez! Time to go!” Pethoukis shouted from where he waited by the humvees. Gamez and Father Pietr moved to join him. Pethoukis had managed to get one of the locals to wash some of their clothes, and the dinner party had all managed to shower and shave. Not fit for the Marine Ball, but more presentable than they’d been for a week.
Father Pietr had told them that the dinner would be informal. That was a blessing since the nearest dress uniform was probably five hundred miles away. Weapons, it seemed, counted as informal wear in their kingdom so Lewis and his entourage mounted up on the humvees with swords, axes and sidearms.
The drive down the road was as rough as Lewis feared. The craters from the dozens of explosives they’d detonated under the goblins had made a hash of the road surface, to say the least. The sun was still up, and the wind was shifting to the south and picking up. A sandstorm was the last thing he needed right now, but with comms still cut off he didn’t have access to weather reports.
The drive wasn’t long. Lewis listened as Father Pietr, sitting in the back with Gamez, repeatedly asked the corporal the names of objects in the humvee. Seat. Seat belt. Window. Lewis turned back and looked. The priest had an intent look on his face, clearly concentrating hard. Every time Gamez named a thing the father repeated it. He had a good ear, Lewis thought. He matched Gamez’ mild accent almost perfectly. Lewis had noticed earlier that the priest always had a rosary in hand. Each time he repeated a word, he moved the rosary in his hand, advancing to the next wooden bead.
Pethoukis pulled the lead humvee to a stop near the front of the former goblin encampment. Lewis, despite having watched much of the activity from the village through his binoculars, startled at the changes. As Pethoukis had said, there was an enormous pile of loot off to the left. Not really a pile, it was a depot. All the equipment and gear the crusaders had stripped from the goblin dead and their two camps was neatly organized in piles by type. The armor was stacked ten feet high, and there was a forest of neat tripods of spears and swords. And on the other side of the entrance to the former goblin camp the Prince had had erected a large pavilion. Really it was a small circus tent, Lewis thought, brightly striped in bold red and blue, with a pennant snapping in the wind at the peak.
At the door of the tent two guards in full armor stood at attention. A few steps in front Lewis recognized Siegfried, Baron and aide to the Prince. Out of his armor now, the Baron stood relaxed in a loose but comfortable-looking robe of pale green and gold. His blond hair was cropped short; rather like Lewis’ own Marine-issue high and tight. Beside and a half step behind stood the Prince’s pet Arab translator Burhan. Father Pietr walked over to the Baron, ready to translate.
“Captain Thomas Lewis, welcome,” the Baron said through his translators. Lewis had brought Private Gamez along to check on the translation. Their only other competent Arab speaker, Thompson, had died on the wall that morning.
“Baron Siegfried, good evening,” Lewis said.
The Baron nodded graciously. “Please follow me. The Prince and his council await you inside.” He bowed slightly, and gestured elegantly to the door of the tent.
As the Prince’s aide-de-camp, Baron Vischennes, ushered them into the pavilion Lewis waited for his eyes to adjust to the dimmer light, and looked around him. A few torches in sconces along the periphery contributed some illumination to the interior. But they really weren’t needed as the roof of the tent was almost translucent, the material allowing a fair amount of light to pass through. Strange, Lewis thought. It had looked like regular canvas from the outside but from this side it looks like fine silk.
The walls of the Pavilion were hung at intervals with tapestries depicting battle scenes and, from the halos on some of the figures, religious scenes too. To Lewis’ untrained eye, the style was similar to the Byzantine mosaics he’d seen, only done in thread instead of stone. In the middle, a large wooden table had been erected. Candles and place settings were arranged down the center. The floor beneath the table was covered with thick, Persian-style carpets. The carpets were in red and blue, with geometric patterns around the perimeter. The middle of each carpet had a different image, some flowers, some animals. If those carpets were sold by the same kind of people who sold them on Earth, it cost someone a lot of money, Lewis thought.
The Baron led Lewis, Pethoukis, Evans and Arp along with Private Gamez as an additional translator toward the head of the table, while servants led the rest of the party – Coleman and Angelo – to places at the other end. Lewis smiled, thinking that the two of them probably would have exploded had he left them behind.
The Prince stood by his place at the head of the table. Arranged down the table, Lewis saw the other men that had accompanied the Prince up to the village earlier in the day – the Strategos, Odo; the Abbot Thibaud, and Archimandrite John. There were others as well, all dressed in comfortable-looking robes. Despite the crusader’s casual dress, Lewis somehow felt a little underdressed in his utilities.
Burhan, standing behind the Prince and next to Father Pietr, introduced the others at the high table. To the Prince’s left was Grand Duke Gerard, a barrel-chested man with a bristly beard. “He is Kouropalates, and my Uncle,” the Prince added. Burhan added, “I believe this is something like a Prime Minister.” Further to the right was Berengar Duke Pilashsu, Consul. A Latin title, then a Greek title. Strange, Lewis thought. The Consul was a slender, dark-haired man with a bright smile. And next to him stood Nikephoros Duke Ambhrail.
On the Prince’s other side was the clerical contingent. First, Metropolitan Legate Macarius, with a salt-and-pepper Orthodox beard that reached to his stomach. “The Metropolitan is second in honor among the prelates of the Church, below only the Patriarch himself,” said Father Pietr. Next in line, Burhan introduced Archbishop Gregory of Oloron, an aristocratic-looking man and clean-shaven. Both had toned-down versions of the priestly vestments Lewis had seen earlier. Filling out the last spot was Abbot-Bishop Thibaud.
Christ, Lewis thought, I’m about to have dinner with their Vice-President, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Supreme Court. Is there such a thing as a Vice-Pope?
The Prince started speaking. Lewis was struck by his voice. Loud and commanding, but yet pleasant to listen to. After few seconds, the translation started up.
“Welcome, Captain Thomas Lewis. And to you, Sergeant Pethoukis; Corporals Arp and Evans. We are thrown into legends. More so for you, I suspect. Terrible things, wondrous things both await us. We will speak of this, but first join us and break bread with us; and share our humble table.” Lewis imagined that the original was rather more lyrical, and suffered through being translated twice before reaching his ears.
A passel of servants came up from behind and led Lewis and his party to their seats. Lewis was placed next to the Prince, on his right between the Prince and the what? Metropolitan Legate? That sounded Orthodox and Roman Catholic at the same time. Pethoukis, Arp and Evans were distributed evenly among the Prince’s council, while the rest were seated below. A servant pulled his chair. Lewis wondered, what was the protocol, here? The Prince sat and on that cue everyone else took their seats. Well, that answers that, Lewis thought as he took his seat with the rest. Father Pietr and Burhan remained behind the Prince, ready to provide translations.
The Prince said something to the Metropolitan, who began speak, clearly and sonorously. Lewis supposed he was saying grace, and so bowed his head with the others. Listening, he thought he heard some Latin in there, dimly remembered from his childhood at Catholic elementary school. The Priest completed his prayer, and the whole company crossed themselves.
Lewis glanced over and saw Pethoukis looking surprised. He noticed too that they all crossed themselves backwards from the normal Catholic right to left. That’s another Orthodox tradition, Lewis knew.
Servants filed in from the back of the pavilion, carrying platters heaped with food. Dear God, that smells good, he thought. Fresh bread, barbecue, vegetables on skewers – Lewis felt his mouth flood. After a week of MREs, the thought of fresh food…
As the servers were placing the food on the tables, Lewis opened his mouth to speak but the Prince caught his eye and smiled. He held a finger up and said, “Dear Captain, you must wait.”
“It is not our custom to discuss matters of importance at the table. A full belly makes for wise counsel. Let us eat, and after we eat, we talk.” The Prince looked around at the food being served. “I apologize, Captain, for the sparseness of my table. We have no entertainment for you. This is a soldiers camp, in the place of our enemies. Though truly, I think, you and I are more comfortable here than some.”
The Prince directed a smile past Lewis toward the Metropolitan. “Metropolitan Macarius, do you miss your Cathedral?” Lewis was becoming accustomed, slowly, to listening to the speaker for tone of voice and to the translator for the sense of the words. Not much different from watching a foreign film with subtitles once you got used to it, he thought.
The Priest – no, Lewis remembered, Metropolitan was a high-rank kind of Bishop, wasn’t it? – laughed out loud. That deep, rolling laugh was obviously something he did a lot of, from the wrinkles around his eyes.
Burhan translated for him, “I admit, your Highness, your pavilion is not so comfortable as my palace. But I am not so much older than when I traveled in the Ursene highlands, preaching the Word of God on little more than cold mountain water and stale marching bread. Your table is much more luxurious, and my companions now are not so likely to want to remove my head for a decoration on their fireplaces.”
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