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CHAPTER ELEVEN

"You know," Roger said as he hurried from one meeting to another, "they say that the waiting is the hardest part. Does 'waiting' include the preparation, too?"


"Yes, it does, Your Highness," Pahner replied, matching his rapid stride. "You'd do better to quit playing cards all night."


They were passing through one of the outer sections of the vast palace/temple complex, down a cobbled walkway the size of a small street but unoccupied except for themselves. The low wall to their right looked out over one of the city's innumerable canals, and beyond that to the eastern fields. This section used a pumped-out dry canal as a flood preventative, instead of the more normal dikes or walls, and there was a clear view of the vista of fields and trees leading to the purple mountains in the distance. A few farmers could be seen moving in the closer fields with a protective escort of Northerner cavalry.


"Ah, it's not slowing me down," Roger said. "I don't sleep much. It used to drive the teachers at boarding school nuts. I'd be up in the middle of the night, trying to get other kids to play with me."


"You spent a fair amount of time in your cabin aboard the DeGlopper," Pahner noted dryly.


"Yeah, well," Roger said with a grin, "I was sulking, not sleeping. Big difference."


They reached the end of the path and started to ascend a series of steps that stretched up and to the left around the central hill. Although the steps were quite shallow for the locals, they were anything but for the far shorter humans, but by now Roger and Pahner had grown accustomed to that, and the prince admired the palace architecture yet again while they climbed. Like most Mardukan structures, the city had started out atop a hill, but over time it had sprawled down to the flatlands, and the Diasprans, as water worshipers, had taken a different approach to the regular flooding to which all of Marduk was prone. Their technique was to work with the water, accepting and controlling it with strategically placed channels, holding pools, and canals rather than fighting it with unbroken lines of dikes. Oh, there were dikes—some of them more massive than any others the humans had yet seen—but they were placed more to divert water into other channels than to stand like a fortress in its path. Only the truly critical areas of the city and the areas most vulnerable to flooding had the sort of impervious barriers other cities routinely erected, although Diaspra's were constructed on a far vaster scale where they existed at all.


That relative sparseness of the dikes and coffer dams which served other Mardukan city-states as a sort of additional set of fortified outworks had almost been the Diasprans' downfall when the Boman assault arrived. Fortunately, they'd been able to slow the initial rush of the barbarians by selectively flooding their fields and occasionally artificially inducing flash floods to catch groups of raiders.


In the meantime, the priesthood, accustomed as it was to large-scale public works, had organized vast labor gangs to link the dikes and canals which already existed into one continuous defensive circuit. It wasn't perfect, but the walls, dikes, and canals had combined to stop the barbarians' second, more concerted rush.


It was in the interval after that second assault, when the Wespar had withdrawn to lick their wounds and prepare for a third attempt, that the humans had arrived. And that was also when the barbarians had cut the most prominent and religiously important public work of the entire city-state: the Diaspra Aqueduct.


Roger and Pahner passed under one of the flying buttresses of the massive aqueduct as they continued up the hill, and the prince looked up at it and shook his head in something very like awe, for the aqueduct was a structure fit to make any Roman proud. Normally, it carried water from a reservoir at the foot of the mountains to another reservoir within the city itself, from which it was pumped still further up the hill. At the very summit of the small mountain upon which Diaspra sat was the final reservoir of the city, the source of all its water for use and worship.


The reservoir had originally been a small cluster of very high output volcanic springs which fed a bowl-like lake whose temperature was high even for Marduk. The most ancient part of the city clustered around the lake, and its venerable structures—the oldest the humans had yet seen anywhere—had been carefully preserved. The ancient springs were the focus from which the locals had spread their worship of water, whether it came from the ground, or the rivers, or the sky. They had studied its movement and nature, trying to glean an understanding of their changeable god, and in the process, their understanding of hydraulics had become astounding.


The larger, cooler reservoir below the original lake was tapped for many different purposes. There were public drinking fountains throughout the city, where people came to draw fresh, clean water and make offerings to their god. In addition, there were thousands of decorative fountains, ranging from tiny carvings of Mardukan piscines that spat water a meter or two to a couple of giant structures that fired compressed water jets tens of meters into the sky. There were misting fountains, and playing fountains, and fountains that danced. There were wading pools, and swimming pools, and hundreds of canals.


Or there had been, for all the fountains were dry, now. The Boman had cut the aqueduct at its source, and for the first time in local history, water had to be drawn from the many canals. There was no chance of any Mardukan city running out of water—not with the daily cascades of rain—but for a people who worshiped water, the loss had been devastating.


"I wish there were a way to use water as a weapon," Roger said with a sigh, running his hand over a small fountain carved like a civan. "The way these people work with it, the Wespar would be screwed if we could come up with a way to use it."


"I'd considered it," Pahner said, stepping forward to open one of the heavy doors into the temple proper. The temple was a graceful structure over all, comprised of arches, curving lines, and narrow domes like the miters of bishops, but its doors were just as heavy—and Mardukan-sized—as any others. "But aside from the use of strategically placed inundations, which the locals already understand perfectly well, nothing really suggested itself to me."


"So we're still going to have to fight this out with weapons from the Dark Ages," Roger said, entering the dim corridor beyond the door. The passage was lit at intervals by light wells on the outer side, and although the wells were sloped to prevent water from coming in, it was obvious that another heavy rain had started.


"Well," Pahner told him with a dry chuckle, "it would seem to me that fighting a Mardukan with water would be like fighting a Marine by shooting beer at him."


* * *


"Today," Julian told the assembled platoon of Mardukans, "you graduate from your first phase of basic training! And everyone gets a beer."


The recruits had shaped up to a remarkable degree. Despite a disastrous start, Krindi Fain had even turned out to have a head on his shoulders. All four shoulders. The squad leader was, whether he knew it or not, in line for the platoon sergeant position, and his promotion would arrive sooner than he could possibly have expected, for there was a severe shortage of NCOs.


The recruits had learned to make their own tents and even gotten to sleep in them for a day or two. They'd been issued boiled leather and had cut and sewn their own armor. Then they'd marched in it.


All of them—even Erkum Pol, who appeared to have had a lobotomy as a child—had mastered the arts of standing at the various positions, marching in straight lines, and simple column movements. But that had been without weapons in their hands.


Now it was "calculus" time, and from the expressions on their faces (and even more so on their instructors' faces) it was obvious that despite all they had learned so far, the recruits once again had not a single clue. Each of the students held a four-meter wooden shaft in his upper two hands, and a three-meter-square plywood shield in the lower two. And it was abundantly clear that they didn't know what the hell to do with either one. Much less both of them.


"But that's for this evening!" Julian continued. "Today, we will begin your real training. Today, you'll be issued your pikes. And the pike simulators you have in your hands. Because if you think we're going to trust you four-armed monstrosities with real pikes, you've got another think coming. Until you learn what it means to be a soldier, you can just look at them and long for the day you get to hold them! In the meantime, we will begin study of the manual of arms!"


Gronningen stepped forward and began to demonstrate the first movement of the manual of arms, as rewritten for four-armed Mardukans and pikes and demonstrated by two-armed humans. The recruits watched with both intensity and anxiety, and as they did, the blunted pike shaft slipped out of Erkum Pol's nervously sliming hands and hit a second squad team leader on the head. The team leader responded by turning in place and laying out the slightly "slow" recruit with his own four-meter shaft of hardwood. At that point, things . . . devolved.


Somewhere, in the distance, there was the melodious chanting of priests going about their daily rounds. From the city stables came the lowing of civan and turom, and from the work gangs still laboring on city projects came the sound of deep-voiced work chanties. But the only sounds from the training square were those of wooden pike shafts hitting wooden shields and the coarse bellowing of foul-mouthed Marines.


* * *


The line of supplicants approached one by one, each kneeling in turn before the high priest to receive the blessing of their god. Gratar stood before an altar which consisted of a square marble base with a hollow, liquid-filled top. Crystal-clear water flowed up from below through the base, spilling over the edges of the top in a perpetually renewed, glass-smooth cascade that rippled like a living creature as it slid endlessly into the gold and gem-ornamented catcher basin at the altar's foot. Four additional fountains flanked the priest, pouring water into basins of polished lapis, where it was sucked away to join the rest of the underground flows. Spreading his arms to either side, the priest-king chanted as he scooped water from the fountains in a complex ritual and cast the handfuls over the worshiper kneeling at his feet.


The benediction over, the supplicant walked out through a fine shower, signifying that he had been purified, and the next worshiper came forward.


"We should have taken our time," Roger whispered.


"They say the waiting is the hardest part, Your Highness," Pahner joked.


The captain looked across the room and out to the northwest. The audience chamber was at the summit of the hill, a broad theater surrounded by columns and covered only above the stage where the priest-king performed his ritual. Behind him was that holiest of holies, the springs from whose bosom the entire religion had issued. The water from the springs filled the ancient lake and then flowed across natural rock to spill down into the reservoir and away to the north along its endless path to the Chasten River.


The large open area in front of the stage was filled with worshipers and other supplicants, including a delegation of merchants there to protest the rationing plan the temple had imposed. Dozens of the locals stood in the pouring rain, another sign of blessing from their god, patiently awaiting their turn for a moment with the priest-king. The narrow roofs of the surrounding pillars channeled the water into innumerable sprays which interacted with the pounding rainfall to wash down over the worshipers in abundant cascades of shimmering silver.


Roger and Pahner, on the other hand, stood in pride of place under the limited cover at the end of the stage behind the priest-king. Roger noticed that the Marine was distracted, and turned his head to look in the same direction. The rain, like every Mardukan rain, was heavy, but even through the downpour it was possible to see the swollen, dark charcoal clouds blotting the skies to the northwest. Despite their drenching power, it appeared that the current heavy showers were no more than a dress rehearsal for the true deluge to come.


"Usually this would be lightening up by now," Pahner said, "but it looks like we're in for a long one."


The last of the worshipers passed through the spraying water, and Gratar stepped away from the liquid altar.


"Hear now, hear now!" the master of ceremonies bellowed. "His Most Holy Excellency Gratar, High Priest of the Waters, Lord of Diaspra, Chosen of the God, will now hear petitions and grievances."


The stentorian bellow had to compete with the hammering rain and the rumble of overhead thunder. It won the contest, but it was a near thing.


"This reminds me of a Slaker concert," Roger said with a chuckle. He didn't bother to lower his voice, since nothing but a bellow could possibly have been heard more than a meter away over the sound of the storm.


"One of the ones where they use a weather generator to make a hurricane?" Pahner asked. "Ever been to one?"


"Just once," the prince said. "Once was enough. Their groupies all look like drowned sailors."


The two humans stood as patiently as they could. Both of them had better things to do, but they had no real choice but to wait for the petitioners for relief from the rationing. Technically, Poertena could and should have answered any questions which the complainants might pose. Eventually, however, it would inevitably have reached their level anyway, so it made more sense to just get it over with now.


"I wish we could have bugged all the merchant houses," Pahner said. "I feel like we're flailing around without any intel at all."


Roger frowned. While he shared the captain's frustration at the holes in what they knew, he had begun to question the wisdom of depending on eavesdropping for all their decision-making.


"We might as well start getting used to not having that intel," he replied after a moment. "It's not like we could get away with planting bugs everywhere on Earth. For that matter, I'm not even sure it was legal in Q'Nkok and Marshad. This is a Trust World of the Empire, after all."


"True, Your Highness." Pahner smiled faintly. "Believe it or not, I considered that when we first hit Q'Nkok. But the planet is also currently controlled—as much as anyone really 'controls' it—by the Saints, which means that we're in a de facto state of war."


"Oh." Roger furrowed his brow, trying to dredge up long-forgotten legal clauses O'Casey and his other teachers had tried to drum into him while he'd paid as little attention as possible. "So we're operating in a wartime condition in a combat zone?"


"Yes, Your Highness." The Marine's grin widened slightly. "So your mother shouldn't have a problem with it," he said, and Roger grinned back.


"Actually, I wasn't thinking about Mother. I was thinking that when we get back, I'm bound to end up somewhere in government. I might as well start learning not to cut corners now."


"I sort of agree, Your Highness. But let's get you off the planet alive before we get too ethical, okay?"


"Okay by me," Roger agreed, but then his grin faded. Gratar had dealt rapidly with the first two petitioners—some arguments about dike and canal maintenance. Now it was time for the main event.


The merchants' spokesman was Grath Chain, naturally. He'd remained a thorn in the side of the defense preparations throughout, and his constant carping and complaining were getting worse, not better. It seemed likely that the relatively low-ranked councilman was being used as a tool by the more senior merchant houses—certainly something gave him the confidence to oppose his ruler's decisions, and the only two possibilities which suggested themselves to Roger were truly invincible stupidity or the knowledge that he possessed powerful backers of his own.


Which made him all the more dangerous.


"Your Excellency," the councilor said when Gratar gave him permission to state his grievance, "I come before you as a humble petitioner. I hope that you will deign to listen to my just grievance—a grievance which you alone are able to remedy.


"A month ago, these foreign mercenaries came to our city. They antagonized the Boman beyond the walls and provoked a fresh attack upon the city. They physically threatened me before the entire Council. They have forced upon us the most grievous of measures, whereby the poor starve and the wealthy are impoverished. They have taken the men from the just Works of the God and instructed them in foreign and unfamiliar ways of fighting.


"All of this they do in the name of defending our city against the Boman. But need we make these hasty preparations? The great Works of the God, His dikes and canals, falter beneath the rains, and soon the Hompag Rains will come. Perhaps they are already upon us." He gestured at the sky, where the downpour continued unabated. "With the men 'training' and the women preparing the barbaric materials of war, who then shall repair the ravages of the God?


"And is this even truly necessary? Have we explored alternatives? Surely, if permitting unnecessary ravages to the Works of the God was an act of apostasy in previous Rains, it must also be apostasy now. And surely this is a time to avoid apostasy, not to embrace it! Yet have we explored all other possibilities to avoid angering and outraging the God? No, we have not."


He paused for effect and gestured around at the temple.


"We are a great and rich city, but our strength has never rested in weapons or warlike preparations. Our strength has always been in our riches, and the love of our God, the one running from the other. Our treasury overflows with gold and silver. Certainly, this was offered to the God, but the God calls for sacrifices to serve His greater purposes, and now His temple's walls fall while its treasury is fat. Surely, if a small portion of that treasury were offered to the Boman, they would leave us to plunder other cities. Then the Laborers of God could return to their accustomed duties, preventing the fall of the Works of God."


"Oh, shit," Roger said quietly.


"Yeah," Pahner responded. "Actually, I'm surprised nobody suggested it before. Real surprised."


"Why now?" the prince asked, thinking furiously.


"Probably somebody had a rush of inspiration. Maybe they've even made contact with the barbs already. Who knows?"


Gratar regarded the councilman with obvious disgust but signed official acceptance of his petition.


"Your statement is understandable and has merit," he said, not sounding particularly as if he believed his own words. "However, what you suggest is too important to be decided in haste. It shall be considered by the full Council of the city and the temple."


"Your Excellency," the councilor interrupted in a terrible breach of protocol, "there's scarcely time to consider. Surely we must quickly contact the barbarian host, lest they come upon us by surprise and the opportunity be lost."


"You should learn your place, Grath Chain," the priest-king retorted sharply. "Your place is to bring forward petitions and argue their merits. Mine is to choose the time and place for them to be debated. Do I make myself clear?"


"You do, Your Excellency," the councilman agreed quickly, lowering his eyes and head in chagrin.


"The Hompag Rains are upon us," Gratar continued, gesturing at the skies. "There is no way for the Boman host to move in the floods of the Hompag, and so we have until the rains pass and the ways dry to make our decision. We shall deal with this petition expeditiously, but without unseemly haste. Yet before that, I wonder if our visitors have anything to say upon this matter?"


The local ruler gestured at the humans standing under the sheltering portico, and the two Terrans barely managed to conceal their surprise. Gratar had obviously had at least some prior information about the petition and its content when he'd asked them to attend the ceremony, but he hadn't shared that information with them. Or not fully, at any rate. His message had made it clear that he would want to hear their responses to any specific complaints the grain merchants raised, but it had never suggested that they might be required to respond to a formal petition to completely abandon military preparations! Certainly no one had suggested they would have to do so in an open forum before Gratar himself reached a decision, and so neither was prepared to make any public statement about it. It was a decidedly awkward situation, which the king seemed to have arranged specifically for their public humiliation.


Roger cleared his throat and stepped forward into the rain. The slight dais at the end of the temple made a satisfactory stage, and he'd been trained since birth in public speaking, but he usually had a script to work from and time to prepare his delivery. This time, he had neither, and he thought furiously for a moment about the proposal and its implications while he gave mental thanks to Eleanora O'Casey for drumming at least some history into his head. Then he looked at Chain and his supporters and smiled. Broadly.


"We have a saying in my country, Your Excellency. 'Once you pay the Danegeld, you will never be rid of the Dane.'


"What does that mean? Like the history of your own home, beautiful, water-washed Diaspra, our history goes back for thousands of years. But unlike the peaceful history of your city, ours is a history drenched in blood. This invasion which is so unusual for you, which makes your skin dry in fear, would be no more than a single bad day in the distant history of my country. Many, many times we have had to face the depredations and devastation of barbarian invasions—so often that our priests once created special prayers for deliverance from specific barbarian tribes. Like the Danes.


"The Danes, like the Boman, were raiders from the North. But they came in lightning-fast boats along the seashore, not by land, and they swooped down upon the coastal villages, killing and enslaving the locals and despoiling their temples. They had particularly gruesome ways of butchering the priests, and mocked them as they died, for they had called upon their god and been greeted only with silence.


"So, in desperation, one of the lands they raided offered up its gold and silver objects, even the reliquaries which had been created to show its people's love for their god, as Danegeld. As a bribe to the Danes, a desperate effort to buy immunity for their own land and people. Lords from all across their land contributed to the goods offered to the Danes in hopes that they might stay far from their shores.


"But their hopes failed. Instead, the Danes, finding that they were offered such tempting wealth without even a fight, moved in. They took lands about the area and became the permanent overlords and imposed their gods and their laws upon the people they'd conquered. All that society, that beautiful shining land of abbeys and monasteries, of towns and cities, fell into darkness and is forgotten. Of all their great works and art and beauty, only a few scattered remnants have come down to us over the years, preserved from the Danes. Preserved not by the Danegeld, but by the few lords who stood up to the Danes and defended their lands with the cold, keen steel of their swords rather than soft gold and silver and so preserved their people, their gods, and their relics.


"So if you wish to gather your own Danegeld, gather it well. But don't expect to be rid of the Dane."


Gratar considered the prince levelly for a moment, then turned back to the petitioners.


"This measure will be considered by the full Council in ten days. And this audience is now closed."


With that, he turned away from the petitioners and the humans alike, and left the temple by a side entrance, followed by his guards.


"Captain," Roger said as they watched the petitioners begin to file out of the temple, "you remember what I just said about intelligence and eavesdropping?"


"Julian's pretty busy drilling the troops," the captain replied thoughtfully as he pulled out a slice of bisti root.


"He couldn't get in to see the councilmen, anyway," Roger said. "But I know who can."


 


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