March to the sea im 2, p.26

March To The Sea im-2, page 26

 part  #2 of  Imperial March Series

 

March To The Sea im-2
 



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  "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 aske
d 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.

 

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