Back | Next


Roger looked around the room and nodded in satisfaction. The space was relatively small but comfortable, placed on the seaward side of the citadel and looking out over the blue K'Vaernian Sea, and the sea breeze that blew in from the windows on that side blew back out through inner windows which overlooked a courtyard on the other side. The citadel's bell tower was less than fifty meters from those windows, and the prince winced inwardly at the thought of what it would be like whenever the K'Vaernians' "clocks" went off, but he was willing to accept that as the price of the windows. There wasn't anyplace in the entire city where he could realistically have hoped to escape the bells, anyway, and the breeze wafting through the room felt almost unbelievably good after the sweltering steambath of the city streets.

The chamber contained the ubiquitous low cushions and tables, but Matsugae had already set up his camp bed and acquired a taller table from somewhere. Together with his folding chair, it made for a comfortable place from which to contemplate their next steps.

The plan was simple. They would show the K'Vaern's Cove people some of the military technologies from humanity's bloody past which would be within reach of their current capabilities in return for a trip across the ocean. It had sounded reasonable when they worked it all out before leaving Diaspra, but Poertena had already given his opinion of the seaworthiness of the local boats, and it wasn't good. Roger's head was ringing with such phrases as "deck stiffness," "freeboard," and "jib sails," most of which he already knew from his own yachting days. Poertena, however, seemed to be a veritable mine of information on practical, sail-powered work boats, and that mine was saying "No Way."

So it looked like simply putting a better sail plan on one of the local boats might be out, which would mean months of time spent building new boats. Or at least refitting one of the local boats from the keel up.

The rest of the plan was beginning to look iffy, as well. They hadn't yet met with the local council, but Bistem Kar clearly felt that K'Vaern's Cove wasn't as unconquerable as Rastar and Honal had believed. If his attitude was shared by the Council in general, simply saying "Hey, here's a few tricks. Have fun, and we're out of here," might not work.

All of which sounded as if it might mean yet another battle, and Roger wasn't sure he was ready for that.

He gazed out over the sea and sighed. He'd spent most of his seventeenth summer blue-water sailing off of Bermuda, where, unlike Pinopa, sailing was the recreational province of the rich rather than a matter of economic survival. The blue-water races in the Atlantic were comradely competitions between members of the monetary elite and their handpicked crews, and the yachts used bore as little resemblance to what was needed here as a race-flyer bore to a hover-truck, but given the choice between sailing a cargo sloop through a Mid-Atlantic gale and battling the Boman, Roger was sure what his answer would be. Even with the possibility of sea monsters thrown in for good measure.

Someone knocked on the door, and he turned towards it. The guard outside was Despreaux, and she refused to meet his eye when she opened the door to let Matsugae enter. The incident in Ran Tai still lay between them like a minefield, and he had to get past it. Ran Tai had proven that it wasn't smart to get too close to the troops, but it was even less smart to have a bodyguard who was poisonously angry with you. And it wasn't as if Despreaux could ask for a transfer, so, sooner or later, he had to talk to her about it and try to smooth the waters.

Besides which, he was still deeply confused about his feelings for her.

He sighed at the thought, then smiled again as he heard Matsugae puttering around behind him. The little clucks as the valet straightened the eternal mess were soothing.

"Are you glad to be out of the kitchens, Kostas?"

"It was a very interesting experience, Your Highness," the valet replied, "but, all things considered, yes, I'm quite glad. I can always go back and putter there if the mood takes me, and it's not as if I'm really still needed at this point." With over five thousand total persons, human and Mardukan, with the column, cooks were easy enough to find.

"But we'll all miss your atul stew," Roger joked.

"I'm afraid you'll just have to suffer, Your Highness," Matsugae responded. "It's funny, really. I gave that recipe to one of the Diasprans, and he just stared at me in shock. I suppose it's the equivalent of Bengal tiger stew to humans. Not what they'd consider normal fare."

" 'Skin one Bengal tiger . . .' " Roger murmured with a chuckle.

"Exactly, Your Highness. Or perhaps, 'First, fillet the Tyrannosaurus.' "

"I can just imagine Julian's stories about this little jaunt once we get home," the prince said.

"Perhaps, but the jaunt isn't over yet," the servant retorted. "And on that subject, you have the meeting this afternoon with the K'Vaernian Council. I obtained some cloth in Diaspra. It's not as fine as dianda—the threads are somewhat coarser, and the weave isn't as tight. However, it made an admirable suit, and I found enough dianda to line it and provide two or three dianda shirts to go with it."

Roger glanced at the proffered garments and nodded, but he also cocked one eyebrow quizzically.

"Black? I thought you always said black was only for weddings and funerals."

"So I did, but it was the best dye Diaspra had available." The valet looked uncomfortable for a moment, then shrugged. "It's what they make their better priestly vestments from."

"Works for me," Roger responded with a smile. "You know, you really have been a tremendous boon throughout this entire hike, Kostas. I don't know what we would've done without you."

"Oh, you would've made do," the valet said uncomfortably.

"No doubt we would have, but that doesn't mean we would have made do as well as we have."

"I suppose it is fortunate that I learned a little something from all of the safaris on which I've accompanied you," Matsugae conceded.

"A vast understatement, Kosie," the prince said fondly, and the valet smiled.

"I'll go make sure the arrangements for this afternoon are in place," he said.

"Very good," Roger said, turning back to the window and allowing Matsugae his space. "And pass the word for Cord, Eleanora, and Captain Pahner, if you would. We need to have our positions clear before the meeting."

"Yes, Your Highness," the valet replied with a small smile. The Roger who'd taken off from Earth would never have given that order with such certainty, assuming that the need to worry about preplanning would have occurred to him at all. Which it wouldn't have. At least this "little jaunt" had been good for something.

* * *

The council chamber was rather smaller than Roger had expected. The long room at the foot of the city's central and tallest bell tower was low-ceilinged (for Mardukans) and filled to capacity by a cross-section of the city. The actual Council—fifteen representatives of various groups within the city—sat at one end, but the other end was a public gallery, open to any voting citizen of K'Vaern's Cove, and there wasn't enough room to sneeze at that end.

The city-state was a limited republic, with the franchise restricted to those who paid a vote tax, which amounted to ten percent of a person's yearly income. It was the only direct tax levied upon the citizenry, but there were no exceptions from it and no exemptions for the poor. If you wanted to vote, you had to pay the tax, but even the poorest of the poor could come up with that much if they were frugal. It was obvious to Roger that although the vote tax provided a goodly chunk of income for the city, it was really intended primarily to limit the vote to those willing to make a genuine sacrifice to exercise their franchise. Other taxes and duties levied on warehouses, imports, and port usage by ships not registered to a K'Vaernian citizen provided the majority of the city's operating capital. Which, of course, raised interesting questions about future budgets now that the Boman had managed to eliminate at least two-thirds of the Cove's usual trading partners.

The Council was elected "at large," with the whole body of citizenry voting for all council members. In effect, however, each represented the particular social group from which he came. Some were guild representatives, while others represented the entrepreneur class that was the economic lifeblood of the city. Still others represented the class of hereditary wealth, and a few were even representatives of the poorest of the city's multitudes.

All of which meant that the Council was a diverse and—to Roger's eye—fairly hostile bunch as it greeted the human and Diaspran representatives.

The spectators behind the visitors were an even more diverse lot . . . and considerably more lively. The public gallery was open to all voters on a first-come, first-served basis, and while there were tricks the rich could use to pack the chamber if they really wanted to, the current audience seemed to be a pretty good cross-section of the city. And a raucous lot they'd been as the Diasprans began their presentation.

Bogess had started with a precise report on the Battle of Diaspra, complete with a long discussion of the preparations, including some of the more controversial training methods introduced by the humans. Those preparations had occasioned some loud and derisive commentary from the crowd of onlookers, but it was his description of the battle which had drawn the most responses. As seemed to be the case for the entire planet, the K'Vaernians had never heard of the concept of combined arms or, with the sole exception of the League cavalry, disciplined mass formations. Bogess' description of the effectiveness of the shield wall had been scoffed at so loudly by the raucous crowd that the chairman of the Council had been forced to call for order. His description of the effect of the Marines' powered armor, however, had drawn the loudest response. At first, his account had been greeted with stunned silence, but that had quickly given way to loud derision and the mockery of disbelief.

"They are very noisy," Cord commented to Roger.

"Democracy is like that, Cord," the prince responded. "Every yammerhead who thinks he has two brain cells to rub together gets his say." As he spoke, he noted that there were many Mardukan women in the group. They were just as vociferously involved in the debate as any of their male counterparts, and he decided that that was probably a good sign. It was certainly unlike anything they'd seen elsewhere on Marduk, with the sole exception of the reconstituted government of Marshad.

"I must say," the old shaman grumped, "that I would prefer some less noisy method of doing business."

"So would I," Roger agreed, "and the Empire is a bit less wide open and raucous than these people are. We're a constitutional monarchy with a hereditary aristocracy, not a direct democracy, so I guess you could say we're more representative than democratic. Then again, direct democracy wouldn't work very well for something the size of the Empire of Man, and all of Mother's subjects get to vote for their local representatives in the Commons. Every citizen is absolutely guaranteed the rights of freedom of speech, public assembly, and the vote, too, which means sometimes we get just as loud and noisy as these folks are . . . or even worse."

"Then you should make changes. Much quieter changes," Cord sniffed.

"Funny, a lot of people keep saying that . . . whatever form of government they have. The only problem is, if you tell the yammerheads to shut their gobs, you don't have real representation anymore. If everyone isn't free to speak his mind, then, ultimately, no one is, and in the end, that will come home and bite everyone involved on the ass. Noise and disagreement are part of the price you pay for freedom."

"The People are free," Cord said. "And they aren't noisy."

"Cord, I hate to break this to you, but the People aren't free," Roger disagreed. "The People are locked into a system in which there are two choices: be a hunter, or be a shaman. Well, three, since you can choose to be neither and starve to death, instead. Freedom entails the making of choices, and if you only have two choices, you aren't free. For that matter, the People's lives are no picnic. Doc Dobrescu's determined that the tribal clans have an average life span two-thirds as long as the townsmen. They also have twice the death rate among their young. That isn't freedom Cord. Or, to the extent that it is, it's the freedom of misery."

"We're not miserable," the shaman argued. "Quite the opposite."

"Yes, but that's because you don't know, as a group, any other way to live. And, let's face it, the People are very tradition-bound. All cultures at that tech level have a tendency to be that way, and traditions and customs help restrict your choices and inhibit change. Look at your own case. You studied in Voitan before the Kranolta wiped out the original city, and you came home a scholar and a sage, but you also came home still a shaman of the People. I don't doubt for a minute that you loved your life and your tribe, however many worthwhile things you may have found during your stay in Voitan. And I certainly agree that the 'shit-sitters' in the People's neck of the woods weren't exactly shining beacons of the very best that civilization—and democracy—can offer. But the traditions which brought you home again may also have blinded you to the fact that the People as a whole simply have no concept of how much better their lives—or their children's lives—could be."

Roger shrugged.

"There are some humans—like the Saints—who think it's always best to let native peoples continue in their native conditions without 'corrupting' them by suggesting any sort of alternative. Despite the death rates, despite the pain and suffering they experience in day-to-day life, it's better to let them 'seek their own paths' and 'retain their cultural integrity.' Well, the Empire disagrees. And so do I. We don't want to come in and force any culture to embrace social forms which are anathema to its values or to impose some 'one size fits all' cultural template by force, but we have a moral responsibility to at least make them aware of the alternatives. There are many problems with our modern human society, but dying of malnutrition or an impacted tooth isn't one of them, and no other sentient should have to die of them, either."

"So it's better to have this?" the shaman asked, gesturing to the screaming matches at the back of the room. Bailiffs had been busy while Roger spoke, breaking up the handful of fistfights which had broken out. Now they were in the process of throwing out the terminally vociferous and combative, but it was still a noisy lot.

"Yes, Cord, this is better than life in the tribes," Roger said. "Most of the people in this room saw all of their littermates survive. Most of them are going to live twenty to thirty years beyond your own relatively long life span. Very few of them go to bed hungry at night because the hunters failed to find game, and very few of them have suffered from scurvy, or rickets, or lost teeth, or been reduced in stature because they were hungry all the time as children. Yes, Cord. This is a better life than the tribe's."

"I don't think so," Cord said with a gesture of disagreement.

"Well, see?" Roger grinned. "We've got a disagreement. Welcome to democracy."

"If this 'democracy' is so splendid," the shaman said, "why is it that Captain Pahner does whatever he feels is right without constantly calling for discussion and votes?"

"Ah. That's a bit different," Roger said with a shrug. "Democracies need militaries to protect them, but no effective military is a democracy."

"Oh, I see. It is yet another internal human contradiction," Cord remarked with a certain undeniable edge of satisfaction. "Why didn't you simply say so at the beginning?"

* * *

"Order! We're going to have order here!" Turl Kam banged his heavy staff of office on the floor. The burly ex-fisherman had been a minor boat owner until a clumsily run line had removed his lower leg. He might have been able to continue with the peg which had replaced it, but he'd opted to sell the boat and go into politics, instead. After years of wheeling and dealing, he had attained the pinnacle of power as head of the Council, only to have the Boman invade on his watch. It was very frustrating. His constituency was the local fishermen and short-haul cargo sailors, and there was little or no good to be extracted from the situation for them. There was, however, a great deal of ill to be expected from it, which was why they were so restive at the moment, but that was no reason for them to take it out on him.

"There's been a bunch of stuff said by the folks from Diaspra that's hard to believe," he agreed, "but—" One of his own constituents jumped to his feet and started yelling, but the chairman stared him down. "The next one of you lengths of fish-bait spouts off, I'm gonna eject you. And the guard's gonna dip you in the bay for good measure! Now, I got the floor, so everybody just shut the hell up and stop interrupting the speakers! We're gonna give our visitors their say, by Krin!"

Someone else began a shouted objection—which ended abruptly as Turl Kam nodded and two of the bailiffs booted the loudmouth out of the chamber. One or two others looked as if they were contemplating saying something, but mouths closed all around at the chairman's glare, and he snorted in satisfaction.

"As I was saying, what they're saying is hard to believe. But it's also gonna be easy to prove or disprove, and when the time comes, we'll get some proofs. But now isn't the time or place.

"And, furthermore, there ain't no reason for them to be lying. They got nothing to gain by coming here—K'Vaern's Cove is less important than spit to Diaspra, so you just keep that in mind when they speak.

"Now it's the turn of the Cleric-Artisan Rus From. Rus From, if you would give us your words?"

From stepped forward and bowed to the Council, but instead of speaking to them, as Bogess had, he turned to the common citizens packing the chamber.

"You wonder at the statements General Bogess has made, and that's hardly surprising. We speak of miraculous-sounding events—of walking walls of spears and shields that broke the Boman like a twig. We speak of the very lightnings of heaven striking the enemy from the weapons of our human companions, and you wonder and doubt.

"Some of you know my name, and if you've heard aught of my own small achievements as an artisan, I ask you to remember that when I speak to you now of wonders beyond wonders. These visitors, these 'humans,' bring marvel after marvel. Their own devices and weapons are as miracles to us, yet in many ways, what they can tell us about our own crafts and technologies is even more miraculous. We cannot duplicate their lightning weapons, or the devices which allow them to speak and act as one over vast distances, but they've brought us new methods of doing, new methods of thinking, and new methods of making other things which we can duplicate and use. And by showing us the thinking behind those other things, they have opened up, for me, at least, a vast panorama of new ideas and new inventions. Ideas and inventions that will change our way of life forever.

"Many of these ideas and inventions would not have been well regarded in my own land. The Boman invasion has shaken up my city, but you know it well. It's a city of priests, where the responsibility of new thought is rigorously maintained. One is absolutely required to have a new thought once in one's life. No more, and no less."

He waited for the audience's grunting laughter to die, then continued.

"So when I was told 'Go to K'Vaern's Cove,' I was awash with excitement, for of all the cities between the mountains and the sea, surely K'Vaern's Cove would be the one where the reality of these new ideas and new devices could reach its fullest flower. Surely, in K'Vaern's Cove the people of Krin of the Bells would greet new ways of sailing and learning and manufacturing with the same enthusiasm I did! Surely, in K'Vaern's Cove, if anywhere, I could find thinkers and doers to rival my own thinking and doing! Surely, in K'Vaern's Cove, if anywhere, I could find people ready and eager to accept the challenge put before them! For the people of K'Vaern's Cove have never quailed before any challenge, and surely they would not quail before this one."

He paused and looked around at the assembled group.

"And now I am in K'Vaern's Cove, and what do I find? I find disbelief," he gestured at one of the more vocal locals, "derision," he gestured at another, "and mockery." He gestured at a third, and clapped hands in a gesture of grief and surprise.

"Was I, a foreigner, wrong in my opinion of your city? Is it in fact the case that K'Vaern's Cove, as noted for its acceptance and open-mindedness as for the majesty of its bells, is unwilling or unable to accept new ideas? New ways? Is K'Vaern's Cove unwilling to face new challenges? Has it fallen into the slothful trap of the lesser cities—the traps of fear, insularity, and complacency? Or is K'Vaern's Cove still the shining beacon that it seemed to be from distant Diaspra?

"The answer is up to you," he said, pointing at individuals in the audience. "It's up to you, and you, and you. For K'Vaern's Cove is not ruled by an oligarchy, as Bastar. It isn't ruled by a priest, as Diaspra, or by a despot, as Sindi. It is ruled by the people, and the question is, what are the people of K'Vaern's Cove? Fearful basik? Or courageous atul-grak?

"The answer is up to you."

He folded all four arms and gazed levelly at the suddenly much more thoughtful audience for several long moments, then turned to the Council and gave a very human shrug.

"For my own presentation, I have only this to add. The humans have given me designs for weapons which can fire bullets farther and straighter than you can imagine. They can also be reloaded far more quickly than any arquebus or wheel lock, and, perhaps even more importantly, they can be fired even in a rain to rival the Hompag and strike targets accurately from as much as an ulong away. They've showed me how to reduce the size of our bombards to such an extent that they can be pulled by civan or turom and be used against the Boman at short range in the open field of battle. I don't say that producing these weapons will be easy or fast, for we lack the skills and the techniques which the humans would employ in their own homeland, but I do say that they can be produced using our own artisans and our own resources. Given all of that and the support of the people of this glorious city, we can destroy the Boman, not simply defeat them. Or you can huddle here like basik until your grain runs out and the Boman come and take your horns.

"It is up to you."

"And what does Diaspra gain from this war against these invaders?" one of the Council members asked skeptically.

"Not much," Rus From admitted. "Everyone is fairly certain that the Boman are uninterested in the lands south of the Nashtor Hills. Once they've reduced K'Vaern's Cove, most of them will return to the North. Others will settle in these lands. Eventually, we might have to settle the Nashtor Hills with fortified cities against them, as the Northern League once protected the cities north of the hills, but that would be a far day in the future. Soon enough, we would be able to negotiate the reopening of Chasten Mouth, which would give us our sea trade back. Actually, without the competition of K'Vaern's Cove, we'd be the center for trade from the Tarsten Mountains and the Nashtor Hills. Financially, we would be well set.

"On the other hand, without your landward trade, there's little use for K'Vaern's Cove. In time, the trading ships will stop coming, and you will dwindle. Even if you reach an accommodation with the Boman and survive, you are bereft without the downriver trade of the Tam through D'Sley. In time, you will be nothing but a ruin and memory."

"Well, that's all the reasons you shouldn't be here," Turl Kam ground out between clenched teeth. For all of the K'Vaernians' legendary volubility, no one, not even Bistem Kar, had been so brutally honest about their predicament. "So why are you here?"

"I'm here because my master sent me," From replied. "I was happy to come in many ways, but I must admit that I also had projects and plans which would have kept me fully occupied in Diaspra." He chose—tactfully, Roger thought—not to go into exactly what all those projects and plans had been. "But Gratar had other ideas, and I'm here at his orders," the cleric finished.

"And what was his purpose?" the Council member who'd spoken earlier asked, and From remembered his name. He was Wes Til, a representative of some of the richer merchant houses. Anything to get me out of town, the priest almost replied, then thought better of excessive candor.

"I think that the words the humans gave me fit best," he said instead. " 'In the face of evil, good persons must band together lest they fall one by one, unpitied sacrifices of a contemptible struggle.' Certainly, we could make an accommodation with the Boman. But that doesn't mean such an accommodation would be just, or right, in the long run or the short. And even leaving the question of justice aside, that accommodation might or might not hold. If it doesn't, and we've allowed those we should have aided—and who might have aided us in our need—to fall through our inaction, then whatever disaster comes upon us will be no more than we deserve.

"And so we bring iron, purchased from Nashtor by the guarantee of Diaspra's temple, and we ask only that its purchase be repaid after the war. However, I also come with two thousand infantry which must be kept and maintained, and we brought no great sums of treasure beside the iron. If, after the war is over, you have supported our 'Expeditionary Force' with food and goods sufficient to pay for the iron, then the account will be considered balanced by Diaspra.

"Thus we bring you your much-needed iron and a force to aid you, and effectively ask only for maintenance.

"Personally, I think Gratar is insane to be so generous in such a time of peril for us all. But then, I'm not as nice as he is."

"You sure are blunt, Rus From," Turl Kam said, rubbing his hands in worry.

"I'm a priest, not a politician," the cleric responded. "Worse, I'm an artisan, and you know what they're like."

"Indeed," Wes Til grunted in a laugh shared by the citizens behind the priest. "But where are these wonder weapons of the 'humans'? And what of the humans themselves? They have yet to speak."

"Yes," Kam agreed. "Who's gonna speak for the humans?"

* * *

Roger recognized his cue and stepped forward with a gracious nod to From as the priest relinquished the floor to him.

"Members of the Council," the prince said, half-bowing to that group, "and citizens of K'Vaern's Cove," he added, turning to give the crowd of spectators the same bow, "I speak for the humans."

"Why are you humans here?" Kam asked bluntly. The Council had already been informed of the humans' plans, in general terms, at least, but only informally.

"We aren't from around here, and we want to go home," Roger said. "That may sound fatuous, but it's important to understanding our needs and objectives. In order for us to return home, it's necessary for us to reach a city in a land which lies beyond the Western Ocean, and our time, frankly, is running out. Because of that, it's our intention to purchase passage—or ships, if necessary—and depart for that distant land as soon as possible. Our ship expert is of two minds about how best to proceed. He's of the opinion that the local ships aren't well designed for blue-water sailing, despite their excellent construction, and he's uncertain whether or not we could convert them to our needs. If he decides that we can't, and I believe he's inclining in that direction, then it will be necessary for us to build ships from the keel up."

"That will take time," Til said. "Time you said you don't have. And the cost will be substantial, especially in time of war."

"We have funds," Roger said, and managed—with difficulty—not to glare at Armand Pahner, who'd finally gotten around that very morning to revealing the true fruits of Ran Tai to him. "I'm sure," the prince went on, "that we can afford the construction or modification."

"Maybe you can, and maybe you can't," Kam said. "There's a shortage of building materials, and our navy had a short and nasty fight with the Boman out on the Bay after D'Sley fell. The stupid bastards seemed to think they could get through from D'Sley using rafts and canoes. We taught 'em better, but however dumb they may be once you get them on the water, they don't have a lot of give up in their nature. We took some pretty heavy damage of our own, and most all our timber, especially for masts, comes down the Tam. There aren't masts to be had for love or money, and there won't be none until we retake the lands where the cutting is done."

"We'll manage," Roger said with determined confidence despite a severe sinking sensation. "We've crossed half this world. We've fought our way across rivers in the face of an army of atul-grak. We've destroyed tribes almost as numerous as the Boman without support. We've crossed unscalable mountains. We've driven paths through the burning deserts. One stinking little ocean isn't going to stop us."

"The sea's a lady, but that lady's a bitch," Kam told him reflectively. "I turned my back on that bitch just once and lost a leg to her."

"You turned your back more than once, you old drunk!" one of the crowd shouted.

"I ought to have you ejected for that, Pa Kathor," Kam said with a grunt of laughter. "But it's almost true. I wasn't drunk—I was hung over. But the point is that the sea is a bitch, and a mean one when the mood strikes her, and the ocean's worse. Lots worse. You might want to bear that in mind, Prince Roger."

"We're aware of the difficulties and dangers, Turl Kam," Roger replied. "And we don't underestimate her. But whatever her mood, we must cross her, and we have many things going for us. For one thing, we have a technology, a simple rigging innovation, which permits us to sail far closer to the wind than your own ships can."

"What?" Wes Til asked in the suddenly silent room. "How?"

"It isn't difficult," Roger told him, "although it would be easier to demonstrate than to explain. But it permits a ship to sail within thirty or forty degrees into the wind."

"How?" Turl Kam took up Til's question. "That's impossible. No one can sail closer than fifty degrees to the wind!"

"No, it isn't, but as I say, it's something better demonstrated than explained, and we will demonstrate it. We'll teach your sailors and your shipwrights how it's done while we prepare for our own voyage, but that's only one of our advantages. Another is that we have much better navigational arts than you, and we know where we're going. We know approximately where we are on a map, we know where our destination lies, and we know how to keep track of our position while we sail towards it, so when we set out, we'll be heading for a specific destination on a course we can plot reliably, rather than making a blind voyage of discovery."

"And this destination lies across the ocean, does it?" Til mused aloud.

"Yes. It's a large island or small continent, a piece of land the size of the lands between the mountains and the sea."

"So you'll be building a ship . . . ?"

"Or ships," Roger corrected. "Precisely how many will depend on their sizes and the quantity of supplies or pack animals we must take with us."

"Or ships," the Council member accepted the correction. "But you're going to build them, then sail across the ocean to this other continent. And once you get there, you'll find a port waiting for you. And then what?"

"We'll probably sell the ships. Our eventual tar—destination is in the interior."

"Ah," Til said. "So you won't need the ships on the far side. So if someone were to participate in building the ships, perhaps pay for it entirely, and then give you passage for a nominal fee . . . ?"

"Someone wouldn't be thinking about getting a lock on a new market, would someone?" Kam asked through the scattered laughter.

"I'm sure that something could be worked out with someone," Roger said with a closed-lipped, Mardukan smile. "Which is an example of what I meant by not letting things get in our way. We have much to offer, but we also have priorities which, however much we might like to vary our plans, call for us to proceed on our way without delays."

"But you could stay and fight?" Til persisted.

"If we did, it would change several equations," Roger replied cautiously. "A delay to fight here would mean we would have to make a faster passage, which would require different ships. And we wouldn't be fighting directly, because there are too few of us to matter against a foe as numerous and geographically dispersed as the Boman. What we could do would be to act as trainers and leaders for your own forces, as we did in Diaspra. And although we're too few in numbers ourselves to fight the war for you, perhaps we could act as shock troops in one or two critical battles, again, as we did in Diaspra.

"But that isn't our intention. If K'Vaern's Cove throws its weight into the battle against the Boman, you should win, even in an open field battle, without us. And if you don't throw your full weight into the fight, it would hardly be in our interest to support a half-hearted war."

"But with your aid, would our casualties be lighter?" Til pressed.

Roger opened his mouth to reply, and stopped. He thought for a moment and almost turned to look at Pahner for an answer, but he already knew what the answer was.

"If we threw our full effort into it, your casualties would be lighter. We've described the new weapons to Rus From, but their construction is complicated, and we weren't able to tell him exactly how to solve all of the problems he would face in building them. Not because we deliberately chose to conceal or withhold information, but because we're simply not fully familiar with your manufacturing capabilities. Our own land has many technologies and machines which yours doesn't, and we don't know the best and most efficient way to adapt your own capabilities to solving the problems.

"To be honest, we didn't worry about that aspect. Rus From's reputation is well known, even here in K'Vaern's Cove, and from our own observation in Diaspra, that reputation is well-deserved. We were confident that he would be able to overcome any difficulties in time, and, unlike us, time is something which he—and you—possess. Not as much as we thought before we learned the true state of your supplies, perhaps, but still longer than we have if we're to reach our destination alive. Even without us, Rus From—and your own artisans, of course—would almost certainly be able to produce sufficient of the new weapons to defeat the Boman before lack of supplies defeats you.

"If, on the other hand, we remained in K'Vaern's Cove, our own artisans would be available to help with that production. We'd be able to learn what we don't currently know about your capabilities, and with that knowledge we could probably save a great deal of time in putting those weapons into your warriors' true-hands. Also, at the risk of sounding conceited, our Marines would be far better trainers than the Diasprans. We have an institutional memory to draw on, and a degree of personal experience which they lack. As an analogy, the Diasprans would be apprentices teaching unskilled people to be apprentices, while our Marines would be master craftsmen teaching others to be journeymen."

"How would you go about the actual fighting?" Til asked. "Would you go to some point and dare the Boman to attack you? Or would you try to draw them forward against our own defenses? Would you attack Sindi?"

"I can't answer those questions," Roger said, "because we haven't discussed the matter among ourselves. As I've repeatedly stressed, we aren't here to fight the Boman. We need to cross the ocean. Having said that, if we did take the field against them, we would probably begin by recapturing D'Sley to use as a base of supply. Trying to supply around the Bay would open you up to interdiction."

"Uh," Turl Kam said. "What was that last word?"

"Sorry." Roger realized he'd used the Standard English word and pulled up the translation software on his toot, then grimaced when he discovered that there was no translation. "You don't seem to have a word for it, so I was forced to use our own. Let's just say that packing stuff all the way around the Bay opens you up to having your supply line cut. Interior lines of supply are always better."

"So you'd want to retake D'Sley as a start," Til said, rubbing his horns. "What then?"

"Any moves after that would depend on what intelligence we'd gathered."

"What . . . thinking you'd brought together?" Kam said carefully. "Are you saying it would depend on what you decided as a group?"

"No," the prince said. "Look, this is getting complicated. What I meant was that when we knew where the Boman were and how they were moving, or if they were moving, then we could think about what strategy to use. But we're not going to be doing any of those things because—"

"Because you have to cross the ocean," Kam said. "Right. We got that. So what we've got is some soldiers of dubious worth and some half smelted iron from Diaspra. We're supposedly going to get some new toys—but not the best toys—from you humans by way of the Diasprans. And with these gifts, we're supposed to go out and beat up on the Boman. Because if we don't, Rus From tells us, the Cove is going to die on the vine."

"Don't know when I've ever heard it put more clearly," Wes Til said. "Krin knows, we've clearly died on the vine in every other war we've been involved in! So I guess that just about sums it up."

"Yes, it does," Roger said, grinning widely and this time letting a mouthful of pearly teeth show. "Now, as I was saying. Since from what you just said you guys are clearly having no problems with the Boman, perhaps you can tell me where I could buy a dozen masts?"


Back | Next