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CHAPTER TWELVE

"Seriously, You Councilship," Poertena said, leaning forward to point out the details of the design, "you can get a much better return from you ores. An' it would be easy to do with you technology. I surprised you don't do it already."


The molecular circuitry fleabug slid down the armorer's finger and across the desk to nestle into a crevice in the wood. It could hear every sound in the room, but detecting it would have required top-of-the-line modern sweeper technology. Only four more to do, Poertena thought.


"What's in it for you?" the council member asked suspiciously.


"Well, we not goin' to be back t'rough here. I'd t'ought about some cash up front."


"I thought you couldn't be bought," the Mardukan grunted, leaning back and looking at the water-driven trip hammers in the drawing.


"Well, t'is isn't a material's contract," the armorer told him with a grin. "It off tee books."


Of course, that wasn't, unfortunately, the truth, but the thought of helping to subsidize the company's coffers with bribes from the scummies he was bugging tickled the Pinopan's sense of humor immensely.


* * *


"How'd you get Grath Chain bugged?" Roger asked as he watched Julian flipping through conversations. The intelligence AI searched for indexed terms, but sometimes a human could still pull a nugget it had missed out of the sand.


"It wasn't easy, Your Highness." The intel NCO rubbed a blackened eye and winced. "He's refusing to have anything to do with anyone associated with 'the abominations.' He's not even letting most of the water priests in, but Denat finally suggested something that worked."


"What?" Pahner asked. So far they hadn't found anyone pulling Chain's strings, but the puppet master was out there somewhere, and the captain wanted to find him. Badly.


"We used a woman, Sir. Or a brooder-male—whatever. One of the mahouts' women."


"Well, it must've worked," Roger said, pointing at the conversation texts displayed on Julian's pad. Chain was definitely discussing his antipathy for the humans. In fact, he'd discussed it in private with just about every member of the Council. But so far they'd found no meetings in which he was taking orders. Nor, for that matter, was his suggestion of bribing the Boman being well received. He was pitching it as an arrangement in which the church would pay the tribute, but all of his fellow merchants knew where the money would actually come from in the end.


"Huh," Julian said, looking at the index list. "He's been to solicit everyone on the Council except the priests and Gessram Kar."


"Why not Kar?" O'Casey asked. Since the problem they faced was almost purely political, Pahner and Roger were leaning on her to untie whatever knot was threatening to strangle them. "He's in our corner, but so is Welan Gor, and Chain visited him."


"I've been thinking about that, Ma'am," Julian said. "The only explanation I can come up with is that the communication must already have been made before our bugs came online. Either Chain got a firm no, or . . . not."


"You mean that Kar could be conspiring against the throne?" Pahner asked.


"I submit that it's a possibility we can't afford to overlook, Sir," the intel NCO replied.


"We actually seem to have two different things going on here," the sergeant continued, pointing to the transcripts. "We have a debate taking place behind closed doors about the most effective method to deal with the Boman. Don't get these locals wrong; they all seem to think that they're doing the right thing. There are so many good intentions around here that you could mark a superskyway to Hell with them. Even Grath Chain is well intentioned, in his own—you should pardon the expression—scummy, self-centered, underhanded, devious, and treacherous sort of way. Oh, he's also upset about some economic losses and his loss of privilege, but mostly he just wants things to be back to normal. That means putting him back into the catbird seat, of course, but it also means a return to a situation in which the Boman aren't a threat to Diaspra, which isn't exactly a 'bad' thing."


"I'm perfectly willing to accept that all the parties involved have the best possible motives for everything they're doing," Roger told him. "Given the mess we're in, though, what does that have to do with anything?"


"Maybe not a lot, Your Highness, but then there's this other conversation going on in the shadows."


"What other conversation?" O'Casey asked.


"Here's an example. Welan Gor to Fan Pola. 'I think Grath's plan is an interference. We should use the humans for the Great Plan.' The caps are mine to reflect the emphasis all of them seem to be placing on it," Julian said.


"What's the 'Great Plan'?" Roger asked.


"That's a very good question, Your Highness. There's not much confusion about what it means among the five or six, Gessram Kar included, who apparently know about it. But if they ever get together to discuss the details of whatever it is, they haven't done it anywhere that we have monitored." Julian looked around the ring of puzzled and slightly worried faces. "Any ideas?"


"Have our bugs just missed it because of bad luck in their placement, or does there seem to be a particularly high level of security consciousness where this 'Great Plan' is involved?" O'Casey asked.


"Security consciousness is definitely high on this one," the sergeant said promptly. "At one point, a council member wanted to discuss something peripheral to it with Gessram Kar, and Kar got very upset. He said that not only was the conversation finished, but that such discussions could only take place 'at the times and places so designated.' Security's very tight on whatever it is. About the only thing I can tell you for sure is that whoever is orchestrating the 'Great Plan' is always called the 'Creator'."


" 'Creator'?" Roger repeated, then chuckled sourly. "Well, that certainly has a fine godlike ring to it, doesn't it?"


"Yes, it does, and that means it's probably something targeted at the hierarchy," O'Casey said with a nod. "I'll need to look at all the relevant conversations. Maybe I can pick something out."


"What do we do about Chain?" Roger asked. "That was the original point of this meeting, if I remember correctly."


"So far, he doesn't appear to be a viable threat, Your Highness," Pahner said. "Until he reaches the level of a viable threat, let's not do anything which would foreclose any of our options."


"Agreed," Roger said. "I think we ought to talk to Gratar again, though. Get a feel for what he thinks."


"About Grath Chain, or about the 'Great Plan'?" O'Casey wondered.


"About Chain . . . and whether or not he realizes there's anything else going on," Pahner replied grimly.


* * *


Honal waved his hand, and the hornsman trumpeted the call which brought the unit of civan to a stop.


"Damn it, Sol Ta! You were supposed to open out!"


"We're trying!" the infantry commander shouted back. "It's not as easy as it looks!"


"Yeah? Well, you ought to try pulling a thousand civan to an unexpected stop before they stomp all over your infantry allies!"


"Enough!" Bogess shook his head as he trotted his own civan over to where the two leaders were arguing. "Enough," he repeated more calmly. "It's the timing, Honal. And training. That's why we're out here, in case you didn't notice."


"Oh, I've noticed, all right," Honal said sharply, then drew a deep breath and waved over his shoulder at his troopers. "But my cavalry doesn't need training in basic movement orders. So we're going to cut back to just the minimum—myself and a company of about a hundred. Something that can stop unexpectedly if it has to without turning into this sort of confused mess . . . or walking on our allies."


"Fine." Bogess gave a handclap of agreement. "But this is important. I can see the humans' point about a charge at the end, rather than the beginning, but can you keep your cavalry under control? Wait for the order?"


"Easily," Honal grunted. "The ones who weren't with us on the trek down from the mountains might have been a problem before we got hold of them, but not now. Those humans know what they're talking about, and their tactics have never failed. As long as we can hold up our end, everything will be fine."


"Good," Sol Ta said. "But for that to happen, we have to get this maneuver right. And that means—"


"Back to training," Bogess finished for him. "In the meantime, I'm going to see how it's going with the recruit forces. If we're having this much fun, you can just imagine what training them must be like!"


* * *


"On the square!"


Krindi Fain groaned and stumbled wearily to his feet. For three endless weeks from hell, they had assembled on this accursed square at the edge of the city and practiced the simple drills of how to stand and march as squads and platoons. Then they'd been issued their sticks in lieu of pikes and taught to march and stand with their sticks and shields. And then they'd learned more complex countermarches, company and battalion formations, and how to form and break. How to move at a trot with pike and shield in hand. How to do the approved Mardukan pikeman squats. How to live, eat, sleep, and defecate while carrying a pike and shield.


For every endless hour of each long Mardukan day, they'd trained for fifty minutes with a single ten-minute break. Then, at night, they'd been mercilessly hounded by the human demons into cleaning their encampment and gear. Finally, in the middle of the night, they'd been permitted to get some rest . . . only to be awakened before dawn and chivvied back onto the square.


He gave Bail Crom a hand to his feet.


"Don't worry, Bail," the squad leader said with mock cheerfulness. "Just think—a couple more weeks of live pike training, and then, when it's all over, we get to fight the Boman."


"Good," the former tinker grumped. "At least I'll get to kill something."


"We're going to kill something anyway," Erkum Pol said nervously.


"What do you mean?" Fain asked as he led them to their places. If you didn't make it to your mark before the humans, there was punishment drill: trotting around the square with lead weights on your pike and shield while chanting "I am a slow-ass! I want to kill my buddies!"


"Somebody told me we gotta kill something to graduate," Pol said sadly.


"What?" Bail Crom asked. "A civan? A turom?"


"No," the simpleminded private said with an expression of great woe. "We have to kill a member of our family."


"What?" Fain stared at him. "Who told you that?"


"Somebody," the private said. "One of the other squad leaders."


"From our platoon? Who?"


"No," Pol said. "Just . . . somebody."


The squad leader looked around the mass of troops on the square and shook his head in a gesture he'd picked up from their human instructors.


"Well, I don't care if it was another squad leader, or Sergeant Julian, or Colonel MacClintock himself. We are not going to have to kill a member of our own family."


He reached his position just as Corporal Beckley came up to take over the formation.


"Are you sure?" the private asked, his confused face still a mask of woe.


"Positive," the squad leader hissed out of the corner of his mouth. "We'll talk about it later."


Frankly, he sort of wished the job of squad leader was someone else's. This leadership stuff was for the atul.


* * *


Roger stepped through the door at a gesture from the guard, then stopped in surprise. He knew that this wasn't a throne room, but he was shocked by the informality of the setting. The priest-king of Diaspra was invariably surrounded by dozens of attendants and lesser priests, but this room, although large, was virtually empty. There were five guards along the inner wall, but Gratar stood alone by a northeastern window, looking out at the rain.


The room echoed to the rumble of thunder. The Hompag Rains had come, and the city had been buried under the deluge for two days. The rain gurgled in the gutters, chuckled in the chubes, and filled the flood canals. Sheets of water wrestled with the dikes and threatened to overwhelm the defenses of the fields at every turn. The Chasten, once a clear blue-green from its mountain origin, now ran swollen and brown with the silt of the forests and plains, and everywhere the rains poured down and down and down.


After a glance at the guards, Roger walked to the window and stared out at the downpour beside the priest-king. The room was on the highest level of the citadel, and on a good day, the mountains were clearly visible from its heights. Now, the view was cloaked with rain.


The gray torrent gave patchy views of the fields to the east and of the dikes which protected them. That area was the drier upland of Diaspra's territory and should have been more or less immune to flooding, but beyond the dikes a sheet of water at least a meter deep—two meters, in places—washed across the landscape, hurrying to plunge over the cliffs and into the rivers and thence to the distant sea. That swirling sheet seemed not so much to spread from the river as to be a river a hundred kilometers wide; the actual Chasten was just an incidentally deeper channel of it.


The bluff line that created the normal Falls of Diaspra was now a hundred-kilometer-wide Niagara, clearly visible to the north. The mist from that incredible cascade should have filled the skies, but it was beaten down by the rain, and that same curtain muted the rumble of the plunging tons of water. The sight was both impressive and terrifying, and the prince suspected that that was the reason for having the audience here.


After a moment, the king gestured out the window without looking at the prince.


"This is the True God. This is the God all Diasprans fear—the God of the Torrent. We worship the placid God of the Spring, and the loving God of the gentle Rains, but it is the God of the Torrent we fear. This is the God we strive to placate with our dikes and canals, and so far, that has always worked, but only with unceasing toil.


"Your preparations for war take our workers from that toil. Already, the walls of the canals crumble, and the weirs are not turned in their proper times. Already, the slopes of the dikes erode, and the pumps fail for lack of maintenance.


"This, then, is our God, and our worship is a battle against Him." The king turned at last to look at the prince. "So, which enemy do we face? The Boman, who can be bought off with a few coins and pretties? Or our God, who can only be fought through toil and preparation?"


Roger stared out at the brown flood and the yellow lacework of its foam and understood the trouble in the priest's heart. It was only too easy to imagine how quickly the first Mardukan to look out at that sight must have gotten religion. Even as he watched, in the distance one of the massive forest giants slowly toppled and was swept over the cliffs. It looked like a toothpick in the distance, and was pounded into fragments that size in moments.


It was impressive and terrifying, yes. But a look to the east told a different story. The inhabitants of Diaspra had spent generations expanding their fields and making preparations for the annual rains, and it showed. There were dozens of flood canals between the city and the edge of the fields, with dikes interspersed between them. The primary purpose of the dikes was to break the force of the flooding water so that the weakened waters could be gathered by the canals and drained to the north and south. To the south, they drained into the swollen Chasten; to the north, they drained into an even more impressive native-made river, which, in turn, drained over the bluffs and into the lowlands.


A concentric set of three dikes protected the fields themselves. All of them led back to the city upland, and between each was a flood canal that led to an enormous storage basin which was kept pumped dry during the "dry" season, when it only rained four or five hours a day, not thirty-six. During the Hompag, however, the inflow outpaced the pumps, although not by much. The level of the reservoirs rose by only a handful of centimeters per day, and there was little likelihood that they were going to be overwhelmed before the end of rains.


Given that everyone had been commenting on how intense this season's Hompag Rains were, it looked to Roger as if the city could have made do quite handily with about half the defenses against flooding that it actually had. But trying to tell Gratar that was probably futile, so . . .


"There are several aspects to consider, Your Excellency," he said delicately, after a moment. "I've already referred to one: once you pay the Danegeld, you're never rid of the Dane. The Boman will take your treasure until you can't pay anymore, then they'll wipe you out anyway and plunder what they can from your ruins. And that treasure is what pays for all of this." The prince gestured sweepingly at the flood defenses. "If you're forced to give it to the Boman, there will be no funds to maintain all of this, anyway.


"But there's another issue which must be faced, Your Excellency. A delicate one which I've been reluctant, as a foreigner, to address." The prince continued to gaze out over the foam-streaked brown and amber torrents, but he no longer truly saw them. "Perhaps, though, it's time that I speak of it and tell you the story of Angkor Wat."


"Angkor Wat?" the priest-king repeated. "Who is he?"


"What, not who, Your Excellency," Roger said with a sad smile. "Angkor Wat was a city long, long ago on my . . . in my land. It was, and is, one of the most beautiful cities ever to exist—a paradise of gorgeous, ornate temples and lovely public buildings.


"It, too, was ruled by a priest class which worshiped water, and it was filled with magnificent canals and bridges. As you know, no doubt better than anyone else, such things take manpower to maintain, and in addition, the temples needed to be kept clean and the public buildings needed to be kept clear of greenery, as well. But the priests accepted that, and they dedicated themselves and their treasury—and their people—to the tasks of building and maintaining their magnificent city, and thus they lived for many, many years.


"They were a shining gem among lesser cultures, a splendid and beautiful vision, but there came a day when one of their neighboring rulers joined a group of fractious tribes. That neighbor saw the richness of Angkor Wat and was jealous. He had no fear of the wrath of their god, for he had his own gods, nor did he fear the people of Angkor Wat, for they were priests and temple workers, and Angkor Wat had few warriors.


"And so that shining gem fell before those barbarian invaders and its treacherous neighbor and was lost in the depths of time. So complete was its fall that its barbarian conquerors even forgot where it was. For thousands of years, it was no more than a rumor—a city of fables, not reality—until, finally, it was found again at last, and our searchers for antiquities cleaned the ruins. The labor required was immense, but they did the work gladly, out of the sheer joy of uncovering and restoring the beauty and magnificence which once had been and then had been destroyed.


"In the end, they made the entire city into a museum, a showcase of splendid temples and public buildings, and I went there, once. I was forced to go by a tutor to see the architecture. But I didn't come away with a love of the beauty of the buildings . . . I came away with a bitter contempt for the leaders of that people."


Roger turned and faced the priest-king squarely.


"Those leaders weren't just priests of a god. They were also the leaders of their people—a people who were slaughtered and enslaved by barbarians, despite the tribute that they paid and the battles they fought to build and preserve their city. They were butchered because their leaders, the leaders charged with keeping them safe, refused to face reality, for the reality was that their world had changed . . . and that they were unwilling to change with it."


The prince turned back to the window and the flood beyond.


"You can prepare for the water if you wish, Your Excellency. But if that's the enemy you choose to face, the Boman will kill you—and all of your people—before the next Hompag Rains come. The choice is yours."


The priest-king clapped his hands in agreement. "It is indeed my choice."


"The Council doesn't have a say?" Roger asked. O'Casey had been of two minds about that, and it wasn't as if there were a written constitution she could refer to for guidance. Not in a society which was based entirely upon tradition and laws of the God, which mostly bore on small group interaction and maintaining the dikes.


"Not really. They may advise, and if I discount their advice too many times and my decisions are shown to have been in error, I could be removed. It has happened, although rarely. But, ultimately, it is my choice."


The king rubbed his hands in distress, which was something to see in a four-armed Mardukan.


"There is a festival at the end of the rains," he said finally. "A celebration of rejoicing that the God has chosen to allow us to break ground again. I will make my announcement at that time, either to fight the Boman or to pay them tribute."


The monarch regarded the prince levelly.


"I have valued your advice, Prince Roger, and that of your adviser, the invaluable O'Casey. Yet I also understand your bias. You still must travel to the sea, and if we do not fight the Boman for you, that trek will be impossible. The Boman will never let you pass after your actions against them."


Roger's eyes rested once again upon the distant, thundering cascade. He said nothing for several moments, then he shrugged.


"Perhaps it will be impossible, but if you think the tales from the north are terrible, you never want to see the Empress' Own in true fury." He turned his head and smiled at the monarch. "You really, really don't, Your Excellency . . . and neither do the Boman. Better to face the wrath of your God of the Torrent armed only with belief, because when He's done, those of you who survive will still have silt in which to plant. When the Empress' Own are done, there will be no one to care."


 



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