Breygart House,


Hanth Town,


Earldom of Hanth


            "Move, damn you! I want this street cleared!"


            Colonel Sir Wahlys Zhorj reined his horse around so angrily that the animal sunfished under him. He reacted — predictably, in Captain Zhaksyn Maiyr's opinion — by pulling the reins even shorter and leaning forward to slap the back of the horse's head.


            Sir Wahlys (only Maiyr wasn't supposed to know that the "Sir" was self-bestowed) snarled and jabbed his index finger in the general direction of the waterfront.


            "I don't give a damn how you do it, Captain, but you get this street cleared all the way to the wharves, and you do it now!"


            "Yes, Sir," Maiyr replied in a stony voice. Zhorj gave him one more fulminating glance, then jerked his head at his small party of aides and went cantering back towards the center of town, leaving Maiyr to his own devices. Which, in a lot of ways, suited Maiyr just fine.


            Of course, in other ways, nothing about this entire bitched-up situation suited Zhaksyn Maiyr at all.


            He turned a glare of his own towards the shouting, smoke, and general hullabaloo of the street Zhorj had ordered him to clear. It was going to be an unmitigated pain in the arse however he went about it, he reflected. And whatever "Sir" Wahlys might think, it wasn't going to make the situation any better.


            He isn't really idiotic enough to think it'll do any good, Maiyr thought angrily. He just doesn't have any better ideas. Which isn't all that surprising, either, I suppose.


            The truth was that Colonel Zhorj was a reasonably competent field commander, with a genuine talent for managing the logistics of a mercenary cavalry company, which happened to include Maiyr's mounted arbalesteers. No one knew exactly where he'd come from originally, but his reputation as someone prepared to ask very few questions of his employer had preceded him. And for the last couple of years, he'd been Tahdayo Mahntayl's senior troop commander here in the Earldom of Hanth.


            And mightily unpopular he's made himself . . . and all the rest of us, Maiyr thought bitterly.


            "All right," he told his troop sergeant, "you heard the Colonel. If you have any bright ideas, this is the time to trot them out."


            "Yes, Sir," the gray-haired sergeant said sourly.  He was a highly experienced man, and his expression was even sourer than his tone as he looked past Maiyr at the defiant riot and shook his head. "As soon as one occurs to me, you'll be the first person I tell."


            "Well, that's remarkably helpful," Maiyr observed dryly.


            "I'm sorry, Sir." The sergeant's voice was a bit chastened, and he shook his head again, in quite a different manner. "I just don't see any way to do it without leaving blood in the street, and I thought we were supposed to be avoiding that."


            "Apparently, the Colonel has just changed our orders in that regard." Maiyr and the noncom exchanged speaking glances, and then the captain shrugged.


            "Well, whether it's a good idea or not, we've got our orders. On the other hand, I'd just as soon not kill anyone if we can help it."


            "Yes, Sir." The sergeant's agreement was obvious, although Maiyr doubted he felt that way for the same reason the captain did. The sergeant simply understood that bloodshed begat bloodshed, and that there was no nastier kind of fight than one against a true general insurrection. Maiyr, on the other hand, was familiar with the House of Ahrmahk's reputation, and he thought giving King Cayleb any more reason to come personally looking for one Zhaksyn Maiyr was an enormously bad idea.


            Besides, it went against the grain to kill people with as many legitimate reasons for hating their local earl as these people had.


            "Most of them aren't that well armed," he thought aloud for the sergeant's benefit. After all, he added to himself, we've spent the last two years confiscating every weapon we could get our hands on. "They're also on foot. So we'll try a show of force, first. I want half of our troopers mounted. They'll take the center of the street and try to push the rabble in front of them. I don't want any casualties we can avoid, so tell them that they're to fire over the rioters' heads unless we're actually taking fire from them. Make sure that's understood."


            "Yes, Sir."


            "I want the other half of our men dismounted. I know they'll bitch about walking to work, but if these people scatter into the alleys and warehouses, we need someone who can follow them — at least long enough to make sure they keep running. Tell them to take their staffs with them. I don't want edged weapons used except in direct self defense."


            "Yes, Sir."


            The "staffs" in question were heavy, three-and-a-half-foot long lengths of seasoned ironwood. They might not be edged, but they were easily capable of breaking bones or crushing skulls. Still, he hoped the rioters would recognize that he and his men were doing their best to avoid general bloodshed.


            Not that there was really much likelihood of that.


            "We'll push straight down the street towards the harbor," he continued. "I want the squad leaders to make sure the buildings on either side of the street are really cleared. I don't expect them to stay that way for long once we've moved on, but let's at least give it our best shot, Sergeant."


            "Yes, Sir. Whatever you say." The sergeant was obviously content to leave the responsibility up to Maiyr. As far as he was concerned, orders didn't have to make sense, as long as there was at least a reasonable chance of carrying out the ones he'd been given.


            "All right, Sergeant," Maiyr sighed. "Let's get them saddled up."