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CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

"You asked to see me, Your Excellency?" Captain Pahner asked.


From Roger's description, the room was the same one in which he'd met with Gratar during the Hompag. The previous meeting, however, hadn't included Grath Chain, who stood by the far wall. Mardukans didn't go in much for facial expressions, but the councilor looked like a three-meter cat who'd just swallowed a two-meter canary . . . or basik.


"Yes, Captain," the priest-king said, stepping away from the window and walking to the small throne on the far side of the room. His guards eyed Pahner nervously; obviously, something was up.


Gratar sat on the throne and rubbed one gem-encrusted horn thoughtfully as he looked at the floor. Then he raised his eyes to the human and clasped his hands before him.


"I have been given unpleasant news by Grath Chain," he said.


"I could play dumb," the Marine responded, "but there wouldn't be much point."


"Then you admit that you were—are—aware that there is a plot to overthrow the Throne of God?" the king asked very quietly.


"We were, and are. And if you hadn't decided to fight the Boman, we would have supported it," the captain told him. "My armored platoon was prepared to assault the Drying Ceremony, with orders to seize you and terminate Sol Ta and Grath Chain with prejudice."


The king clasped his hands again and lowered his head in regret.


"I have come to know and trust you, Captain, and as for the traitors of whose actions Grath has informed me . . . Many of them are men I know and trust and, yes, love as brothers." The king raised his head and looked at the human with sorrow, reproach . . . and building anger. "How could you be so disloyal?"


"I'm not disloyal, Your Excellency," Pahner told him levelly. "Nor, however, am I a Diaspran. My loyalty is to my mission, and my mission, as we explained to you on our arrival, and to the conspirators when they finally approached us, is to deliver Roger, alive and sane, to his mother. Any action we have to take to secure that reunion is an act of loyalty on our part. Any action, Your Excellency, no matter how personally repugnant it may be."


"So you would have overthrown the Throne of God?" the king snapped. "I should have your head for this! And I will have the heads of every member of this cabal!"


"The head of your recently victorious war leader?" Pahner asked with a raised eyebrow. "And of your second in command, the architect of so many of your favorite Works? The heads of the leaders of the Warriors of God? The head of your own guard force? Most of the members of your Council, all of whom manage businesses or farms that are the lifeblood of this city?"


"I—" Gratar paused. "Tell me the rot isn't so deep," he said despairingly.


"What rot, Your Excellency?" Pahner asked.


"The hatred of the Throne of God!" the priest snapped. "And through that, the hatred of the God, Himself!"


"Who said they hated the Throne of God?" the Marine inquired with a slight smile, pulling out a length of bisti root. "And who said that they hate the one who sits on the Throne of God? Do they chafe at the restrictions imposed by your defenses against the Wrath? Yes. Do they think those defenses are far more extensive and costly, in both time and effort, than they need to be? Yes. But they all swore to the depth of their admiration for you, personally, and not one of them has mentioned hatred of the God."


"Then why do they seek to overthrow me?" Gratar asked in confusion.


"I suppose I have to ask another question to answer that," Pahner said, popping a slice of the bisti root into his mouth. "How many canals and dikes does the God want?"


"Listen to him not, Your Excellency!" Chain exclaimed. "He but seeks to blind you with the false words of his people!"


"Shut up, Grath. Or I'll feed you your left horn through your butt-hole," Pahner said mildly. "You've obviously had your say. Now it's time for somebody else to talk."


Gratar seemed to pay the interplay little attention. He only waved vaguely at Chain, and his eyes were fixed on the human.


"How many dikes?" he asked. "As many as necessary to secure the city against the Wrath. We were lucky in the Hompag and lost only the outermost defenses, despite our inattention. But we must not depend upon 'luck' or forget the lesson of the Auteans."


"Lucky?" Pahner shook his head. "Your Excellency, I was under the impression that these rains were particularly fierce. That it had been twenty rains since last they were this heavy, and that only two rains in all of your recorded history have exceeded their intensity."


"Yes, but we were given a reprieve by the God," the priest returned. "We fought the Boman in His name, and so he forgave us for our inattention and chose not to overwhelm us as He could have. He might not always be so forgiving."


"Or, possibly," Pahner said carefully, "the outer defenses were sufficient against the threat. Isn't it possible that the God was satisfied with just them?"


The priest-king leaned back and clasped all four hands once more.


"Is this the crux of their argument? That there are too many Works to the Glory of the God? That we should follow the path of Aut and spread ourselves to the winds?"


Pahner looked that one over carefully before he replied.


"I'd say that that is the crux of the argument, more or less, of those who are honest in what they say," he admitted after a moment. "There are some," he gestured with his chin at Chain, "who were in it only for power or profit, no question; there are those among the conspirators that are the Sons of Mary to be sure. But even some or all of those believed that Diaspra would be a greater city if there were fewer Laborers of God and more . . . 'Laborers of Diaspra,' I guess you could put it. Laborers free to find their own work. Artisans free to work on something besides 'pumps, pumps, pumps that are never used.' "


"Rus From," Gratar sighed. "My oldest and, I thought, best friend. I'd heard his complaints before, but I thought them nothing more than . . . mild blasphemies."


"Rus is your friend, Your Excellency," Pahner said seriously, "and he certainly worships the God. True, he worships the art of technology, as well, but there's no real need for the one to exclude the other. It's just that he needs a greater challenge than, well, 'pumps, pumps, pumps.' "


"What shall I do?" the priest-king asked in a near wail. "My Council is against me, most of my soldiers are against me, the merchants are against me. . . . My back is to the wall, Captain Pahner!"


"Not quite," the Marine said. "Sol Ta supports you."


"Grath tells me otherwise," Gratar said, looking at the Council member.


"The human lies," Chain said. "Sol Ta has professed his hatred for you. He seeks your overthrow, that he might keep command of this accursed 'New Model Army,' and Bogess has promised it to him for his support."


Pahner gazed at him speculatively for a few seconds, then shrugged.


"That's the first I've heard of this, Your Excellency, and once we figured out what was going on we used some of our devices to infiltrate the cabal pretty thoroughly. We knew almost everything that was happening, I think, and all we've heard says that Sol wasn't even approached because he thinks darkness comes and goes at your command. Which was why, despite the feelings of the conspirators, he had to go to the wall right away. I can't, of course, explain why the testimony of such a selfless and trustworthy soul as Grath Chain might contradict that of every single other person involved, but perhaps some explanation for that might occur to you."


He and Gratar gazed into one another's eyes, and the beleaguered priest-king actually grunted a ghost of a laugh, but then the human continued.


"If you want a serious suggestion about what you should do, though, I have one. Several actually."


"I'll listen," Gratar said. "I've always found your advice to be, I believed, honest and well thought out."


"That's my job," Pahner told him, and clasped his hands behind him.


"Whatever happens, things are going to change," he began. "You took four thousand menial workers and turned them into pretty fair soldiers, and when the wounded heal, there will still be well over three thousand of them left. Some are going to be willing, even eager, to go back to their old jobs, but many others will be discontented. They'll feel that since they and their mates saved the city, the city owes them a living from here on."


"That isn't a logical conclusion," Gratar interrupted. "They saved the city because otherwise they themselves would have been killed when the city fell."


"But it's a conclusion they'll reach," Pahner said flatly. "In fact, some will already have reached it. It's common, almost inevitable, among veterans, and however illogical, it's still something you'll have to deal with. They've . . . changed. They've seen the high and the wide, and they can't go back to just rolling the lawn for the abbott."


"This is a nightmare," Gratar muttered, shaking his head.


"Don't think of it that way, Your Excellency," the Marine advised. "Instead, regard it as a test—one like the Wrath. You must put dikes where they're needed to stem the flow of change, and canals where they're needed to divert it into other channels. And, of course, you must learn to embrace change even as you embrace Water, recognizing both its light side and its dark."


The priest-king gazed at him, his body language arrested, and Pahner smiled.


"The other issue, of course, is the cabal and their feelings about the Works of God. Now, there's a saying in my land, that 'when you have one problem, you have a problem; but when you have a bunch of problems, sometimes they solve each other.' You're going to have to do something with your veterans. Many societies, placed in a similar pressure cooker, end up with an army they have to use, and so they proceed to go out and conquer everything in sight until stopped. For example, you realize that you could take over Chasten's Mouth and most of the other broken city-states rather easily?"


"We could," Gratar agreed with distaste, "but we wouldn't. The God is not a god of battle."


"From what I've seen and learned of your people, that would be my observation, as well, Your Excellency," Pahner said, then shrugged. "But if some other, less honest priest deposed you, he might not be so honorable, and a dishonorable priest can achieve terrible things by manipulating a people through cynical misuse of their faith. 'The God demands worshipers. These heathen cities have suffered at the hands of the Boman as His punishment for their worship of false gods. It's our duty to bring them to an understanding of the true God, if only to save them from His further just and terrible Wrath. And if they refuse to embrace the true God, then it's our duty to send them to their false gods!' "


"Is that a quote?" Gratar asked.


"More like a mosaic of quotes," Pahner admitted. "We humans have a . . . more varied palette to draw upon then you do."


"I couldn't see Rus doing that," Gratar objected. "He's no more a believer in conversion by the sword than I am."


"Oh, I agree, Your Excellency. But it's rare for the original revolutionaries to get to enjoy their revolution. Often they're too focused on fixing the things they see as 'wrong' to manage and maintain the structure and organization their societies require, and everything collapses into chaos for a period. In other cases, the idealism which got them to act in the first place makes them vulnerable to betrayal in turn. In either case, the feck-beasts any society contains generally pull them down and install one of their own."


The human very pointedly did not look at Chain.


"So are you saying we should go forth and conquer to keep our army out of mischief at home?" Gratar asked curiously.


"No. I said it's sometimes done. Raiden-Winterhowe in my own . . . land is an excellent example. They were a peaceful people until they were invaded by barbarians, much as you were by the Boman. And, like you, they had to learn war, fast. In fact, they were much more damaged by their attackers before they learned their lessons than you've been, but they learned them well in the end. In fact, they got much better at it than their enemies, and they won. Now they're aggressively expansionist . . . and a real pain in the ass to their neighbors. They know it, too, but they've established a tradition of expansion, and they can't stop. To them, the only question is how much air they can blow into their divers' air bladders."


"One could make an argument there," Gratar said slowly, rubbing a horn in thought. "We could blow up quite a large bladder at the moment, and without requiring our new subjects to embrace the God. I would never force them to convert to a faith they don't truly hold, but the payment of some tithes, now . . ."


"The problem," Pahner said with a grim smile, "is that you have no administrative structure for it. Question: Who administers the cities you conquer? Local officials, or a governor appointed from here? And how do you choose the governors? Is Grath here one? And what about military forces? Some of the locals, the ones with a degree of power, especially, are going to object to your control. Do you raise forces there to keep their opposition suppressed? Or do you raise forces here, or from your other conquests, and send them to keep the peace? And if you raise forces there, and keep them there, and the governor is from there, how do you convince them to send you tithes?"


"Ah . . . These are . . . interesting points."


"Interesting or not, the logic of empire would require you to answer them, Your Excellency," the Marine said. "And don't even get me started on roads. One of the reasons you guys don't have empires is because you can't move your forces over large distances or support them logistically on field operations, and you won't be able to without decent roads."


"There are many problems with roads," Gratar said. "As I suggested in my sermon, the God does not, apparently, favor them."


"Given your climate, Your Excellency, I'd have to call that a fairly drastic understatement." The human shook his head. "But without roads, forget empire. I doubt you could make it work. Hell, I don't think I could make it work on Marduk, and even if someone could hammer an empire together, it wouldn't last more than a generation. Transportation is simply too tough. No, you need another way."


"And you have a suggestion?" the priest-king asked. "Or are you just going to ask impossible questions?"


"Yes, I have a suggestion," Pahner told him. "But I wanted you to have a feel for your constraints before I put it to you.


"Some of your veterans are going to want to go back to their old jobs. Take them back. Repair the dikes and canals. Drain the overflow lakes. Fix the washouts on the roads.


"But some of them won't want their old jobs. They'll want to continue their new career. Some of them will have developed a taste for it. Soldiering isn't a career for the weak of heart, but some have a mentality—which isn't, mind you, a bad thing for society as a whole—that finds soldiering better than digging ditches. We Marines are going from here to K'Vaern's Cove, and there are Boman yet to be engaged on the far side of the Nashtor Hills. Send the veterans who don't want to leave the army with us as an 'Expeditionary Force' to help us relieve K'Vaern's Cove. That gets them out of the city while you work on some of the other problems, and it also raises your profile with your neighbors as an ally, instead of a threat. Or a potential victim. There will be other city-states who use the Boman and their defeat as an opportunity for expansion, and convincing them not to expand in your direction ought to be high on your list of priorities.


"Now, rather than sending Sol Ta with these forces, send Bogess. That gets the most sticky military threat off the board without kicking off a revolution by killing him. And send Rus From, as well. We're planning on giving the people of K'Vaern's Cove the designs for a variety of weapons. We would prefer to avoid engaging the Boman ourselves, if we can help it, but the secrets of those weapons should be worth the price of the trip across the ocean to the people who have no choice but to fight the barbarians. However, creating those weapons, especially in quantity, will be difficult, and tinkering with those problems will give Rus a chance for something other than 'pumps, pumps, pumps.' "


"You would have me reward them for their treachery?" Gratar demanded angrily.


"What reward? Do you think they love this city any less than you do? What I'm proposing is, effectively, exile from their home—the home in whose interests, as they saw them, at least, they were willing to risk traitors' deaths. Or would you rather try to fight them in a civil war? Bogess is no slouch as a military commander, and in a war in the city, I could see Rus From being remarkably dangerous. Whatever happened, it would be bloody and nasty, not to mention expensive. And without Bogess or Rus on your side, you'd probably lose."


"But without the Laborers of God . . ."


"And that's my final point, Your Excellency," Pahner said quietly. "You have to pull back on the Works of God. They were beautiful symbols during the time of stasis you've just been through, but this invasion is going to shake things up, and you're going to need those workers in other areas. You'll need them as soldiers, and as artisans working on things you don't even know yet that you have to produce. Even with your climate, we should have been able to fight this war with muskets or rifles, not pikes!


"You know now, if you think of what the God has told you, the extent of the Wrath of the God. Consult your temple's records, Your Excellency. Compare the worst ravages of the Wrath to the Hompag Rains which have just passed and judge what is the very worst flooding your God will send upon you, then design your dikes and canals to resist that degree of Wrath. That's what your God is asking for, no less and, probably, no more. But surely He doesn't expect you simply to go on building redundant dikes, digging redundant canals, and manufacturing redundant pumps forever when there are so many other things that His people also require."


"Now he presumes to speak for the God!" Chain snapped. "Haven't you heard enough treason and blasphemy yet, Your Excellency?"


"Grath," Gratar said mildly, "if you say one more word without my asking, I will have a guard . . . what was it? Ah, yes—'feed you your left horn through your butt-hole.' " He gazed at the council member coldly for several seconds, and Grath Chain seemed to shrink in upon himself. Then the priest-king turned back to Pahner.


"And what of the Council?" he asked.


"The Council is a snake pit," Pahner admitted. "But without Bogess and Rus From to give them legitimacy, they're a snake pit which will fang itself to death. Dump the problem of the displaced Laborers of God on them and watch them scramble for cover."


"Make the Council's members responsible, individually, for their maintenance?" Gratar mused. "How very . . . elegant."


"So long as you insure that it doesn't become a form of slavery," the Marine cautioned. "But, yes, that should work. This sort of thing is more O'Casey's area of expertise than mine, and I would certainly advise you to discuss the details with her, but I believe that the points I've laid out will defuse almost all the major problems. It won't be an easy time with all the region recovering from the Boman, whatever you do. But if you treat the changes as a challenge to be worked with, it should also be a profitable time. For the city and for the God."


"And Grath?" Gratar asked, looking once more at the conspirator standing by the wall.


"Do what you will," Pahner replied. "If it were up to me, I'd say give him a thankless job and all the worst people to do it with, and impose severe penalties for failure. But he's really a treasure if you use him properly. For example, you'll probably be threatened by another city-state soon, whatever you do. If that happens, send him there with some funds to destabilize it. If he succeeds, reward him. If he's found out, disown him and swear that whatever he did, it was never by your orders."


"But he has done me a service in warning of the coup," Gratar said. "Surely I owe him something for that."


"Okay," Pahner agreed. "Give him thirty pieces of silver."


* * *


"This way is probably for the best," Bogess said, gazing out over the canals and dikes in the first, faint light of dawn. "However early it is."


"Well, we need to be to the Nashtor Hills by nightfall," Rastar pointed out with a shrug. "Better to be hit there by the scattered tribes rather than caught out in the open."


"And how much of this precipitous departure is to prevent the people from seeing half their army and two of their leaders hustled off into the wilderness?" Rus From demanded with a growl.


The cleric shifted the unfamiliar weight of the sword baldric on his shoulder as he stood between the general and the Northerner prince and looked upon the flood-control works. He wondered if he would ever again see the Bastar Canal. It was the first project he'd worked upon as a young engineer under that old taskmaster, Bes Clan.


"The Boman are no threat to Diaspra; we made sure of that," Rastar replied, and it was true. The Northern cavalry, with the pillage and destruction of their own cities fresh in their collective memory, had been merciless to the retreating foe. If a thousand Wespar ever made it to their distant cousins, it would be astonishing.


"I had plans," From half-snarled.


"And now you'll have new ones!" the Therdan prince snapped. "You're the one complaining about nothing new. Haven't you heard the plans of the humans? Rapidly firing guns? Giant ships? Light, wheeled cannon? A 'combined arms force'? What do you have to complain about?"


The artisan turned slowly to look at the prince.


"What would you give to see Therdan or Sheffan once more? See them shining in the morning light as the tankett calls? See their people going about their business in peace and plenty through your actions?"


Rastar turned away from the cleric's hot gaze and looked out into the growing light.


"I see it every night in my dreams, priest. But I cannot return to my home; it's no longer there." He shrugged, the gesture picked up from the humans, and fingered the communicator on his harness. "Perhaps, in time, things will change and for some there will be a homecoming."


* * *


"Centicred for your thoughts?" Kosutic's voice was quiet, for Roger was definitely looking grim.


The prince leaned into the armored head of the flar-ta as his memory replayed again and again the sights and sounds and smells of the pursuit. It had been necessary. He knew that. But it had also been hideous . . . and the pleasure he'd taken in it as he poured out his anger and fear and frustration upon an enemy who'd really had nothing to do with creating his predicament in the first place had been still worse. There were dark places in his own soul which he'd never before realized were there, and he didn't like the look at them he'd just been given.


There was no one else in hearing distance. The Marines and Mardukans were engaged in final preparations for the fast march to the Nashtor Hills, and he turned his head to meet the sergeant major's eyes.


"I wanna go home, Top," he whispered. "I just want to go home."


"Yeah," the sergeant major sighed. "Me, too, Boss. Me, too." She gave Pahner a thumbs-up as the captain looked down the long line of march. All the mahouts and cavalry leaders gave the same signal, and she inhaled deeply. It was time to move out.


"The only way to get there is to put one foot in front of the other," she said, "and I guess it's that time." She looked up at the somber prince with a shrug and a crooked smile.


"Time and high time to be trekkin' again, eh?" the prince said. "Well, here's to the last march. To the sea."


 


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