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CHAPTER FIFTEEN

Rus From led the prince and his bodyguards to a back corridor of the temple/palace and an inconspicuous door that revealed a long spiral staircase which appeared to have been hammered from the bare rock of the Diaspra outcrop. The dank, Mardukan-sized stone steps were both steep and slippery with condensation, and as the party descended, the temperature dropped precipitously.


The stairs seemed to spiral downward forever, but they finally reached bottom at last and emerged into a dark, soot-streaked room illuminated only by a few sputtering torches. The cleric led them from there down a curving hallway/tunnel that was at least partially natural. There were chisel marks in places, but most of the walls seemed to be natural, water-worn limestone.


Then they turned a curve, and the priest paused as the passageway disappeared ahead of them into a curtain of plunging water.


"I must ask your warriors to leave their helmets at this point," he said.


"May I ask why?" Roger asked, eying the curtain of water dubiously. "And am I to take it that we have to pass through that waterfall?"


"Yes, we do," From said. "There are two reasons to do so. We are about to enter one of the most holy of the Secrets of the God. Beyond that Curtain of the God is His other self: the Dark Mirror of the springs above.


"We chose to use this place as a meeting ground for that reason, but also for the same reason you must first remove your helmets then pass through the curtain. It is believed that this will disable your 'transmission devices.' They are, I believe, susceptible to damage from water, yes?"


"Yes," Roger said with a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach.


* * *


"Georgiadas!" Pahner snapped. "Tell the Prince to agree. Then set your helmet on retrans and we'll monitor the feed from your toots."


* * *


"Sir," Georgiadas said with a swallow, "it would probably be best to go with the priest's suggestion. That's what my . . . intuition says, anyway."


Roger looked at the lance corporal, then at his helmet.


"Right. Georgiadas, Willis, off helmets." He looked down at his practically new suit and winced. "Kostas is going to kill me."


* * *


"We can monitor, Sir," Julian said as he manually adjusted the gain on the video, "but we can't send them audio."


Pahner nodded in understanding. The toots pulled video and audio off of the appropriate nerves and rebroadcast them, but while the broadcast could be picked up and boosted by the helmet systems, the Marines' toots were not designed to receive audio and video. Marines were fighters, not intelligence agents. As such, they were supposed to have their helmets on whenever it might be necessary for them to receive anything like that. Roger's toot could both send and receive audio and video, but he couldn't retransmit through the Marine helmets, largely as a consequence of the enormously redundant security features built into the implant hardware of any member of the Imperial Family.


"We can send them text if we need to," the captain told the sergeant. "Bounce it through the helmets, then to the guards' toots, then to Roger. Input isn't that big a deal; I think Roger's going to be walking out of that meeting unmolested, and I've got the rest of your squad armoring up in case he doesn't."


"I hope it doesn't come to that," O'Casey said pensively. "If Rus From is being used as a messenger, we can assume that the group behind this plot is even larger and more powerful than we'd thought. If we have to use force, it will gut Diaspra at exactly the moment it most needs solidarity."


"If we know that, then they know that," the NCO said stolidly. "They have to, and they won't do anything to jeopardize the preparations."


"Let's hope so," Kosutic said, then smiled. "But, take it from me—His Evilness knows partisans aren't always reasonable."


* * *


"Well, that was refreshing."


Roger shook the droplets from his fingers and wrung out his hair, then looked around the torch lit room at the circle of hooded, lantern-carrying figures and fought down a smile.


The room was part-cavern and part-construct. The back wall had been mined out to enlarge a natural grotto, but the far wall was mostly natural, and a small spring welled up at the base of a wall of sculpted limestone. It was surrounded by stalagmites and stalactites, and the light of the lanterns shone through the stone and water with a hollow translucence. Behind the spring was a small, natural ledge, the edge of a dry waterfall. It had been scrubbed immaculately clean, but fine discolorations indicated that something other than water flowed over it from time to time.


The site was probably as secret as they came. And it was still lousy tradecraft.


"This is the Dark Mirror," Rus From said, stepping up to the spring. "It is the brother of the God of the Sky." He nodded at the gathered figures and waved his lower hands in a gesture of deprecating humor. "And this is the dark mirror of the Council."


"Unless I'm much mistaken," Roger said dryly, glancing around the gathered figures in turn, "it is most of the Council."


"Whether it is or not, is beside the question," one of the robes replied.


* * *


"Chal Thai," Julian said. The voice print recognition was almost instantaneous. "Shit."


* * *


"We represent the dark mirror of the surface," the robed figure continued. "On the surface all is agreement, but in the shadows there are questions."


"We seek to change the society of our city," From clarified. "To break it of its dependence on the temple."


Roger blinked.


"But . . . you're a priest," he blurted.


"Yes," the cleric replied with a gesture of resignation. "So I am. But what I am more than anything else is an artisan. An . . . artist. I create things with my hands, things that move and work, and that is my true calling. But to do that?" He made the gesture of resignation again, this time with a negative emphasis. "To be a creator of things in Diaspra, I must be a priest."


* * *


"The Creator," Julian said.


"Nicht scheisse," Pahner responded. "Send a message to Roger. Do not agree to anything, but don't turn them down flat, either."


"Yes, Sir."


* * *


"So why am I here?" Roger asked.


"We feel there is a need for change," another figure said. "The power of the temple has grown too great. It is . . . choking us. We could be a great city, a city as powerful and well-regarded as K'Vaern's Cove, but we have this great choking beast of the temple on our backs."


"We don't hate the God," another voice chimed in. "But we feel that it's time and past time for the power of the temple to be reduced."


* * *


"Gessram Kar and Velaum Gar," Julian read the voice print identifications aloud as he hit the "send" button.


"Hail, hail, the gang's all here," Kosutic whispered.


"Yes," Eleanora said with a note of desperation. "It's a 'quorum of the Senate of Rome.' "


"What?" Pahner asked.


"One of the arguments for Caesar's assassination having been legal was that the conspirators who effectively signed his death warrant constituted 'a quorum of the Senate,' " the history professor said.


"Oh," Pahner said. Then, "Oh."


* * *


Roger read the text message received by his toot and tried, again, not to smile. They must be having gibbering fits at the command post.


"To an extent, I agree," Roger said carefully. "And I'm sure—" actually, he was positive "—that my advisor on such things, Ms. O'Casey, also agrees."


"She does," From said. "Eleanora and I have had long discussions about the local political situation and your human political history. Our conversations and the points she raised were what convinced us to arrange this meeting. They gave us hope that you would . . . assist us in this endeavor."


* * *


Pahner's head turned like a tracking tank turret. His eyes nailed the chief of staff, who shrugged and held her hands out, palms up.


"How was I to know?" she asked.


"You didn't happen to give them a copy of Machiavelli or Permuster while you were about it, did you?" the Marine growled.


* * *


"The . . . precautions that we took on the way in were, of course, to defeat your 'electronic' transmitters," the priest/technician continued. "Conversations with your Marines indicated that they were susceptible to water damage. I presumed that your helmets were sealed, however, which meant they would have been unaffected by the Curtain."


By now, Roger was familiar enough with Mardukan expressions and body language to easily recognize smugness when he saw it. The question was whether he ought to pop the bubble or permit blissful ignorance, and he decided to go with ignorance for the time being.


"This is all very interesting," he said, "but you still haven't indicated what you want us to do."


"Isn't it obvious?" another voice practically hissed from the shadows. "This 'New Model Army' looks up to you. The people see you as saviors sent from the God. If you were to overthrow the temple, it would be over without the slightest bloodshed. Over in an instant."


* * *


"Grath Chain," Julian said in a surprise.


"No way!" Kosutic said, then glanced over his shoulder at the voice print labels and shook her head. "But . . . he couldn't have been in on the plot from the beginning, could he?"


"A recent and ill regarded addition, unless I miss my guess," Eleanora told her. "Note the distance between him and the others, his position in the group, and Rus' body posture. Not well regarded at all, at all."


* * *


"It's a bit more complicated than that," From said with a quelling glance at his fellow conspirator. "Gratar is a revered figure, what your chief of staff would call a 'saint,' although we have no such designation. Overthrowing him will be hard, but because he's so well-regarded and because he's so deeply and genuinely devoted to the God, he's doing more damage than any ten previous prelates."


"The taxes required to create and maintain the public works of this madman are choking us," the figure identified as Gessram Kar said.


"And whatever the taxes," From put in, "the lack of innovation is stifling us. The temple has always been conservative, which is death on the habits of thought which produce innovation. That's bad enough, but its narrow focus on the Works of God reduces ambition, as well. It's almost impossible to get capable young people to take up the crafts these days. Why should they, when they know they're going to do nothing but spend their days building and repairing pumps . . . and that many of those pumps are no more than backups to the backups to the backups? Pumps which will never be used?"


The cleric gestured at Roger and his two silent bodyguards angrily.


"And all of this when it is so clear that there's so much more to learn and to do and build! Those tiny, tiny transmitting devices we found in Gessram's office. The weapons you bear. The 'simple' devices that your Captain Pahner has described to me. There's an entire world of inventions there to be made; a world of learning to be drunk from! And what do we do? Pumps!"


* * *


"Oooo, that's got to be frustrating," Kosutic said.


"Obviously," Pahner said, with a shake his head.


"No," she said. "I don't think you've quite got it yet, Sir. I've got the feeling that this guy is like a Taketi or a da Vinci . . . stuck fixing pumps."


"Oh." Pahner rubbed his chin, then nodded. "Oh, yeah."


* * *


"And let's not forget the security aspects," another figure said. "Had you not arrived, there's no way we could have gotten the Laborers of God released to bolster the Guard of God, yet with the Northern states overrun, we can expect other waves of barbarians to follow this one like plagues. Without you, we would already have lost to the Wespar; unless we change the direction of the city, we will lose to the next wave."


* * *


"You don't have to tell me," Pahner said sadly. "Bogess. I recognized his voice."


"That tears it," O'Casey said. "The only major figure not there is Sol Ta."


"Who could just be one of the quiet ones, or not in the conspiracy because of his relatively low rank before we arrived," Pahner responded. "It really doesn't matter. If it weren't for the position Gratar holds in the eyes of the populace, they would've already moved. Damn."


"And they want us to counterbalance his prestige," O'Casey agreed. "What do we do?"


"Normally, I'd say 'tell them to at least wait until we leave,' " the Marine said, rubbing his chin once more.


"But Gratar is on the fence about fighting the Boman," Kosutic said with a raised eyebrow.


"If they kick off a civil war now," Julian put in, "we have serious problems. We'll be forced to choose sides."


"Teach your grandmother to suck eggs, Julian!" Kosutic snapped, then inhaled sharply. "Sorry, Sergeant," she said contritely.


"Not a problem, Sergeant Major, but it's so much more complex than that."


"Yep," Pahner agreed. "We'd be absolutely against it under almost any other circumstances, but . . ."


"Yes, 'but,' " O'Casey said. "But we don't know if Gratar's going to support fighting the Boman."


"We don't know, for sure, that this cabal is going to support fighting them, either," Kosutic pointed out. "Not if it includes Chain."


"We need clarification," Pahner said, but Roger had given up waiting for a message.


* * *


"Rus From, the rest of you," the prince said, smoothing back his hair, "you're under a few false impressions.


"We're not here to cure all of this world's ills. We weren't here to fight the Kranolta. We didn't come here to put down a coup in Q'Nkok, nor to install a rational regime in Marshad. We especially aren't here to interfere in internal Diaspran politics.


"We're wrecked here, and just trying to get home. And, frankly, kicking off a coup just before a major battle against an external enemy is not an action that favors that."


"Gratar doesn't favor fighting the Boman," the figure the computer—and Pahner—had identified as Bogess said.


"Neither does Grath over there!" Roger snapped. "What? You thought I wouldn't recognize his voice, Bogess?"


There was a moment of silence, and then Bogess threw back his hood and made a gesture of resignation.


"You humans all sound alike to us. We assumed you wouldn't be able to distinguish our voices."


"He cannot be allowed to talk!" Chain squeaked furiously. "We've come too far; we're too exposed."


"And what would you have us do, merchant?" the war leader asked with a grunting laugh. "Kill him? Have you seen those weapons of theirs in action?"


"I wouldn't suggest trying it," Willis said, unprompted. "I really, really would not."


"Yes," From agreed. "We are exposed. And that's the point. We've advanced our timetable on the basis of our hope that you would intervene."


"Well that was certainly silly," Roger said. "Until the battle's over, we're not about to interfere."


"But we must," Bogess told him. "Other cities had begun eyeing us with greed even before the Boman advanced upon us. With the damage we're certain to take from the Boman, they'll surely take advantage of us."


"Yeah," Roger said. "But not until after the battle. And they might not even then. If we beat the Boman soundly—which is possible, if we're not fighting a damned civil war at the same time—it will give them pause."


"And continue to leave businesses stagnant, if there's no change within the city," Gessram Kar said, still without lowering his hood.


"And our technology," From agreed. "Not to mention the fact that we who have sought to change things will undoubtedly be sent to visit the God."


"Guys, I don't know the answer to that," Roger said. "All I can say is, let's get the battle done. Then we can try to work something out. But until we get rid of the Boman threat, a civil war is out of the question."


"What if Gratar says we won't fight the Boman?" Bogess asked. "What then? As you've pointed out, we will have them as an astain on our necks for the rest of eternity."


"Oh, not that long," Roger said with a chuckle. "Just until they drain you dry and decide to finish overrunning you."


"But if Gratar decides to appease the Boman?" Kar asked.


"Then . . . we'll see," Roger said. "There are some ways we might be able to make a fast strike through to K'Vaern's Cove. We might not have to fight the Boman at all. And we'll know Gratar's decision soon enough," he added, directing a thought at his toot. "In fact, if we don't hurry, we'll all be conspicuously missing from his speech."


"If he says 'no,' " Chain hissed, "you'd better hope the Boman give you time to escape!"


* * *


"Captain Pahner, Sir," Private Kraft said from the door of the intel room. "Sir, St. John (J.)'s team has been trying to get hold of you, Sir. It looks like the Boman are moving."


 


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