March to the sea im 2, p.22

March To The Sea im-2, page 22

 part  #2 of  Imperial March Series


March To The Sea im-2

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  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 Rai
ns 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."


  Dergal Starg waved at the bartender.

  "Give me another, Tarl. Nothing better to do."

  It was the fifth time he'd said that, and Tarl was probably getting tired of hearing it. Not that the bartender was going to say anything.

  Ownership of the Nashtor mines had been disputed between three different city-states right up until they and the armies they'd kept glowering at one another might actually have been some use. Right up until the Boman had smashed two of the city-states into rubble and cut the mines off from K'Vaern's Cove, the only one of the three which had ever been worth a solitary damn. But none of those cities had ever believed they could control Nashtor, whoever might officially claim ownership. Those mines were the province of one Dergal Starg. Merchants could merch, warriors could war. But it took a by-the-gods miner to mine, and in all the lands of the Chasten and Tam, in all the Nashtor Hills, there was no miner to match Dergal Starg.

  Which was what made the present situation so bitterly ironic, of course. Because what was needed right now was one of those iron-head Northern war princes. Or a K'Vaernian guardsman. Or even an idiotic war priest from Diaspra. Because no matter how good a miner you were, a mine without markets was just a hole in the ground that you poured money into.

  Sure, a few hundred miners and a group of engineers had been able to create defenses the Boman avoided. Sure, they were able to keep mining, even with the occasional probing foray by the barbarians. But even though the sounds of the surrounding mines and smelters continued to echo through the tavern, they weren't quite right. At any other time, he would have been down Shaft Five in a heartbeat, for example. He could tell the lazy bastards were lying down on the job down there, but what was the point of working yourself to death, of building inventories, when there were no buyers?

  There was none, of course, but Dergal Starg still ran the mines and smelters. And the miners were, by the gods, going to keep on mining right until the mines ran out of food, new picks, and t
he thousand and one other things they got from the stupid, cheating merchants.

  And the bartenders were, by the gods, going to tend, which was why he glared at Tarl when his mug of wine wasn't immediately refilled. But then he noticed that the bartender was staring over his shoulder with wide eyes and all four hands thrown outward in a gesture of surprise.

  Starg turned around to see what the nincompoop was staring at, and froze. The crew which had just walked under the roof of the wall-less structure was a flatly amazing sight, and not just because the mines were sealed off from everyone else in the entire world by the Boman, yet he'd never laid eyes on a single one of them before.

  Four of them were obviously Northerner iron heads, two of them wearing some of the nicest ironwork it had ever been his pleasure to admire. The fluting on one of the cuirasses followed the new trend coming out of K'Vaern, picked up apparently from some outlandish place which had never heard of steel on steel. No doubt it reduced the weight of the armor by a good bit, but traditionalists—and Starg, by the gods, put himself in that category—thought it was likely to backfire. The damned stuff was bound to catch the point of a weapon or crack under any heavy pounding, although he had to admit that this armor was as hacked about as any he'd ever seen, and it seemed to have stood the test well. From the look of the wearer, it would probably be a better idea not to make any sarcastic remarks about it, either.

  But the ironmongery, however impressive, wasn't the most interesting thing about the group. One of the iron heads' companions was a lightly armed, gods-be-damned priest. One of the damned water boys, no less, unless he was mistaken, and a senior one by his gear. Starg had seen a couple of water boy missionaries in his time, but most of them had been youngsters. This fellow was anything but, and the wrench he wore on the golden chain about his neck made him an artisan priest. Artisan priests were like legends ; you never saw one outside Diaspra. But that still wasn't the most interesting thing about the group—that had to be the basik in the middle.

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