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CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

"So you are a female." Sam Tre's tone made the statement a question, and a fairly tentative one, at that. Despite his role as escort to the redoubtable Fullea Li'it, the D'Sley nobleman seemed confused at finding himself carrying on a serious conversation with a human woman, especially one who'd been represented as one of Prince Roger's senior officers.


"Yes," O'Casey said sweetly. "I am."


"And the 'Chief of Staff,' " the D'Sley female reclining on both left elbows across the low table said. "Fascinating."


"And your companion? Kostas, you are a senior officer also?" Tre asked.


"I don't think so," the valet replied with a smile.


"He's one of our logistics and supply experts," O'Casey said tactfully.


"That's one way of putting it," Matsugae said, picking at his rubbery basik. "Tastes like chicken and twice as many ways to prepare it," he muttered, then looked back up at his host with a slightly apologetic smile. "Excuse me. I can't help noticing the food, which is fair enough I suppose. For want of a better explanation, I'm the cook for this expedition."


"He's in charge of support for the Marines," O'Casey corrected. "He was Roger's body servant, and was pressed into service for his present job. Which, I might add, he's performed admirably."


"Ah," Fullea said. "So we have a D'Sley nobleman, a female chief of staff, a D'Sley fisherman's widow, and a human cook." She grunted in laughter until Eleanora was afraid she would choke. "This is quite a party."


"I wish you had cooked, Kostas Matsugae," Tre said. "You're correct—there are many good ways to do basik, and this isn't one of them."


"I fear I made a poor choice of restaurants," Fullea admitted ruefully. "I'm learning as fast as I can, but hosting important dinners in foreign cities wasn't part of the station to which I was born."


"You're a fisherman's wife?" O'Casey asked.


"I was," the D'Sley woman replied. "Not a poor fisherman; he owned his own boat and shares in his brother's cargo barge. But not . . . rich. Not a noble by any stretch, nor a man of means."


"And he was killed by the Boman?" Matsugae asked.


"Earlier, actually," the widow said. She made a gesture of resignation. "Swept off the deck by a line. Never found the body."


" ' . . . The men who go down to the sea in ships,' " O'Casey quoted softly. "I'm sorry."


"The sea gives and takes away," Fullea said. "But the problem was his brother. Tareim felt he should take over the business. I was, after all, just a woman, even if I had been advising my husband for years. In fact, he'd far surpassed Tareim in gain, and it wasn't because my husband was an astute businessman. But Tareim didn't want to hear that. He didn't want to hear anything which might have made him 'subservient' to a mere woman, and the law favored him. There was little I could do, when he took over, except watch everything start coming apart, and things kept right on going from bad to worse until I . . . persuaded him to let me advise him. After which the business recovered."


"Our device translated that as 'persuaded,' " the chief of staff observed, toying with her wineglass. She supposed, given the restaurant's obviously costly fixtures and the jewelry of the other patrons, that the wine must be an expensive vintage, but it was also thin and tasteless as vinegar. "Would that be an accurate translation?"


"The term she actually used has overtones of gentle persuasion," Tre agreed. "However, in the context, it can be assumed that the reverse was true."


"I had two thugs accost him and threaten to break both his false-arms if he didn't put me back in control." The widow made a dismissive gesture. "Of course, they never said they were working for me. In fact, they didn't know they were. I'd hired them through a friend of my husband's, and they believed they were from a moneyman Tareim owed money to. Since part of the arrangement that put me back in charge also put me in direct contact with the moneyman and left me controlling all of Tareim's payments to him, no one was ever the wiser."


She chuckled softly, and the humans joined her.


"A neat solution to the problem," O'Casey said. "But what did this have to do with the sealift?"


"I'd built up a small fleet of ships by the time the Boman swept down from the north. When Therdan was surrounded and I realized the barbarians had no intention of stopping with the cities of the League, I decided that it would be good to move my base of operations, so I'd already arranged to shift everything to the Cove." Fullea picked at her dinner for a moment. "At first, when the Boman surrounded D'Sley in turn, there was a great deal of money to be made from ferrying rich nobles to the Cove. But then all of those who could pay to go were gone, and there were still all those people left."


She made another gesture of resignation.


"She organized the fishermen," Tre took up the story. "And the cargo barges. Begged, bullied—whatever it took—and started moving anyone who turned up at the docks across to K'Vaern's Cove."


"Not able-bodied men," the widow countered. "Not until the Seven tried to leave, anyway."


"Yes," the nobleman agreed with a grimace of distaste. "The Council tried to flee in the middle of Fullea's evacuation—on private boats, and without telling the military commanders, most of whom were mercenaries, anyway."


"That's when it all came apart," Fullea sighed. "We still refused to take soldiers if there were women and children, but more and more of the soldiers turned up. Then they started seizing the boats and not coming back. Finally, we called it off."


"You could see where the Boman were by the burning houses," the nobleman said quietly. "It was raining, hard, so the flames didn't spread from house to house—not on their own . . . but you could see the fires marking their line of advance."


"You were there," Kostas said.


"Sam held the rearguard for quite a time," Fullea responded. "But then he was wounded, and some of his men brought him down to the docks and loaded him on one of the ships. It was almost the last one out."


The nobleman clapped his hands in a Mardukan shrug. "After that, it got very bad. The final ships out . . . what they saw wasn't good."


"Sacks of heavily defended cities are like that," O'Casey said. "Fortunately, we humans, as a society, are pretty much past that. We had a bad period about a thousand years ago—the Dagger Years that caused the formation of the Empire. But since then, we haven't experienced organized pillaging. Not of major cities, at any rate."


The chief of staff toyed with the limp vegetables of a side dish.


"Are you going to go back?" she asked. "When the Boman settle down or move back north?"


The nobleman made a gesture of uncertainty.


"The Boman have vowed to remain on the southern lands until all of the cities of the south are destroyed, including K'Vaern's Cove," he said. "So we can only return if the Cove survives, and even if the Boman don't overwhelm the city walls, the Cove is weakening day by day while they squat on the timber and ore and fields. When the Boman leave, there may not be any reason to return."


"For me, I don't know," Fullea said. "I lost everything in the ferry efforts and the Battle of the Bay." She pointed at the two small necklaces she wore. "Would I wear a pair of simple coll pearl necklaces if I had more left? No bracelets, no rings. No ships, no funds. For me, it's all to do over." She made another gesture of regret. "I'm old. I'm not sure it's in me to start over again."


"There's also a labor problem," Tre pointed out. "We lost much of our population fighting the Boman. At least, much of our labor force. All we have left are . . ."


"Women and children," O'Casey said with a glance at Matsugae.


"Yes," the nobleman confirmed.


"And then there's the whole sticky political question," the widow added with a grunt of laughter, and the nobleman sighed.


"Too true. The Council lost all its political capital when its members tried to flee, and all the noble houses are now stained with the same reputation."


"But the nobles had portable funds," Fullea pointed out, "so they're the only ones with the money to rebuild the city."


"And no one trusts them to rebuild it and stay the course?" the valet murmured. "I can think of half a dozen ways to fix that."


"So can I," O'Casey said. "More, of course, but I think your half dozen are probably the same as the ones on my shortlist. Just one would be to offer shares in ownership to K'Vaernian interests. That's your funding problem solved right there. Offer lesser shares and a small stipend to volunteers from K'Vaern's Cove interested in rebuilding the city. Things like that. You'd end up with a limited corporation managing the city. However, it would be an economic vassal of K'Vaern's Cove."


"That's the weirdest thing I've ever heard of," Tre said. "Who's in charge?"


"The chief executive, strictly limited by a binding charter," Matsugae said, and glanced at O'Casey. "Therean Five?"


"Something along those lines, anyway," the chief of staff replied, taking an absentminded bite of limp vegetables. "But, in general, societies like that are lousy in wartime. Therean Five was a special case of a homogenous militaristic agrarian society." She paused and chuckled. "With a really funny charter, if you're a history buff."


" 'And this time, we really, really mean it,' " Matsugae quoted. "And the majority and minority opinions of the framers are required for every amendment."


"Right," O'Casey agreed, then turned back to Fullea and Tre. "But if that wouldn't work here, you could try a limited monarchy, like the Empire. The nobles get an upper house with specific powers, the commoners get a lower house with specific powers, and there's a hereditary executive that must be approved by both houses. Various other restrictions and controls have to be cranked in as well, of course. The judicial branch, for example. And it's very important for long-term success to provide for ongoing periodic replenishment of the upper house. Like I said, lots of details, but that's the broad outline."


"Do you know all the details?" Fullea asked after a moment's pause.


"You could say I have a firm academic grasp of them," O'Casey replied with a smile. "One point about it—whatever system you use, you really need to have either unlimited suffrage or citizenship through service. Muzzling half your population won't work as technology advances."


"You're speaking of giving women political power," Tre said.


"Yep."


The nobleman glanced over at his dinner partner, his body language clearly troubled.


"While there are certainly individuals . . ."


"Oh, shut up, Sam," the widow said tartly. "There was no reason—outside of some truly stupid laws written by men—why Tareim should have inherited, and he squandered it all until I forced him to give it back. And there are other women who could do just as well as I did—possibly better."


"But few are prepared for it, or able for that matter," the nobleman argued.


"How do you know until you try?" O'Casey asked. "I've heard this argument throughout this entire journey, but look at K'Vaern's Cove."


"Well, the Cove isn't necessarily what we'd want to become," Fullea said. "But it is a good argument and case in point."


"You're going to need them as a work force," Matsugae told the nobleman. "And I think they'd probably surprise you. I've worked with women from many of your people's societies on this trek, and almost all of them were more than their men were willing to admit. Even the 'open-minded' ones," he added.


"Ayiee. I get your point." Tre picked up one of the overcooked tubers. "But I'm definitely choosing the restaurant next time."


"All of this is extremely interesting, and probably valuable, but doing anything about it depends on retaking D'Sley," Fullea pointed out.


"What we don't have is the funds to hire enough mercenaries to do that," Tre said with a sigh. "Even if there were enough mercenaries in the entire world."


"So you have to convince K'Vaern's Cove that it's vital to them," O'Casey countered. "Everyone seems to agree that if the Boman squat on the resources, K'Vaern's Cove is going to wither away. So why aren't they taking the fight to the Boman?"


"Because the Boman have smashed every army that's dared to face them." Tre made a gesture of resignation. "They far outnumber the K'Vaernian Guard, and this branch, at least, is ably led. Leaving the walls would be suicide."


"And you don't have the traditions, techniques, or tactics for conscript armies, so there's no structure to allow for rapidly increasing the size of the Guard," O'Casey said, nodding in understanding.


"But all of those are easy enough to get," Matsugae put in. "Right?"


"If you're willing to pay the political cost," the historian agreed. "But for that to happen, someone with a significant political base has to see the light."


"I think that you'll find it difficult to have ships commissioned under the current conditions," Fullea said. "And you have some political capital."


"No," O'Casey corrected gently. "Rus From and Bogess have some political capital, and we've given them sufficient information to be able to take the fight to the Boman. Perhaps the wrong people are having this dinner?"


"No," Fullea retorted flatly. "Neither Bogess nor Rus From show a clear understanding of the techniques and technologies you've given them. It's unfortunately clear that they're still feeling their own way into adapting to these new ways of war, and because it is, the K'Vaernians are understandably reluctant to depend on them. They won't follow the direction of Bogess in the field the way that they would your Captain Pahner, who Bogess has told them is a military genius."


"Captain Pahner is very good," O'Casey said with a smile, "but not a genius. He does have that ability to stay calm in a crisis which is critical in a military commander, but generally he draws on historical background to fight his battles. 'Genius' implies innovation."


"But Bogess doesn't know the same history," Tre observed shrewdly. "Does he?"


"No."


"There you go."


"Fullea, Sam Tre," O'Casey said, "I understand your desire, but we have a schedule to keep. We must keep that schedule, and we're already far behind where we need to be. We can't dally in K'Vaern's Cove to help you fight your battles, and we most especially are not going to fight the Boman for you. We're not mercenaries."


"What would it take to convince you to help?" Fullea asked. "Besides a decent dinner, of course."


Eleanora smiled faintly. "I'm not the person who makes those decisions, and if I told you anything it would be the minimum requirements for us to consider assisting."


"Understood," Tre told her. "And those minimum requirements are?"


"We'd require more information about the Boman, their location, and numbers. We'd require a real plan, and the wholehearted support of K'Vaern's Cove, and that would have to include full support for the building of our ships and the outfitting of the army. We'd need to ride roughshod over some of the largest businesses in the city, and they'd have to take it and smile."


Tre winced and sat back, but Fullea remained leaning forward, all four hands clasped, as still and calm as a Vedic statue.


"And if all those requirements were met?"


"Impossible!" Tre exclaimed. "The K'Vaernians just aren't like that!"


"And if all those requirements were met?" the widow repeated.


"If all of them were met, Pahner would consider it," Matsugae said. "Especially if the campaign took no longer than building the ships did."


"There's no way to guarantee that," Tre said firmly.


"No, but by the time the ships were finished he'd have been able to train someone else and help them develop the experience and knowledge to take over," O'Casey pointed out. "And by then either the Boman would've been pretty well shattered or else they'd be at the walls."


"So we have to get the whole Council behind it?" the widow asked. "I can see getting most of them . . ."


"Even more important, you have to get the whole body of the citizenry behind it," O'Casey clarified. "Not because they control the Council, but because they'd have to work willingly for the cause."


"Do you have any ideas about that?" Fullea asked, taking a sip of wine.


It's not going to be a short dinner, is it? O'Casey thought.


 


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