It was when they crossed the grand square in a coach that Arthur noticed the absence of something he'd expected. He hadn't during his earlier stay here, for more than one reason. He looked out through the window to confirm his suspicions. "Harbend," he said, "do your soldiers help the farmers during spring sowing as well?"
"Yes, but that is several eightdays ahead?"
"Before we left last autumn you told me several regiments were stationed here. You said they were ordered out to help with the harvest."
"Well, that should be thousands of uniforms. I expected to see more on the streets, that's all."
Harbend looked out his own window before responding. "You are right." He frowned. "When I think about it I have only seen the Imperial Guard and the east gate regiment. The three others are gone."
"You know the reason?"
"No, I can't understand why," Harbend answered with a voice telling Arthur he was lying.
"But normally all regiments would be in Verd?" Arthur probed.
"Er, no," Harbend began, "they could be out patrolling," he finished, and Arthur knew for certain his friend was lying, and not even very skillfully.
"Must be a grand sight, those patrols," Arthur murmured.
"Thousands of men in their bright uniforms riding in perfect columns snaking along the road, or even better, on a line trampling all fields in a stretch so wide it couldn't possibly be missed from a drop shuttle," Arthur teased to let Harbend understand it was pointless to continue steering away from the truth.
"Look, they're out in force, and we didn't see any troops on our way here from the coast, so they're not hunting raiders." Arthur thought for a moment to let the matter lie, but they were heading for a meeting, or, if Arthur guessed right, an interrogation. If Harbend knew something maybe concerning them both Arthur wanted to know. Wanted to know things not concerning me the least for years now. Always digging up news for a show to blind my audience with my excellence, he admitted with a smile. He turned his thoughts back to more immediate concerns. "Harbend, you have an idea what's going on. Share it!"
Harbend shrugged, but a slight colouring told Arthur he was ill at ease. "Remember that debriefing, after we got you back?" he asked.
"I'm afraid your capture didn't end there."
There was a moment of uncomfortable silence. Arthur dimly remembered being cold, hungry and afraid. Harbend, though, had seen Trai killed. "Go on." Harsh memories or not, he needed to know.
"Punishing the perpetrator," Harbend said. "There's been a conflict brewing between Braka and the khragan tribes for eightyears."
Arthur had an idea where this was leading, but he didn't see the means. "How?" he asked.
"I believe Mindwalker Hwain contacted people close enough to Keen to have the message arrive here even before we reached Belgera." Harbend sighed.
"All because I'm a taleweaver. Braka gets a reason to call on their alliance with Keen and men in fancy uniforms march all the way over the mountains and across the Sea of Grass?"
"Ride, more likely. Keen has little use of infantry apart from garrisons. Horses aplenty as you must have seen."
"So my capture becomes a reason to send out an army killing people who were never involved in making me a prisoner?"
"They were involved, indirectly at least. The law leaves no room for being indirectly involved in trying to kill a taleweaver."
Arthur stifled a need to scream. "Damn it! Braka just wants a reason to burn khragan villages and Keen is only too happy to aid as long as they happen to gain control of the caravan route. Isn't that what this really is all about?"
Harbend had the decency to look ashamed, but he only nodded as an answer, and they continued their ride in silence.
The coach came to a halt. Leaving it and entering the grandiose castle dominating Verd's central square Arthur had more time than he needed to think of the consequences of armies running rampant on the Sea of Grass. He barely noticed members of the Imperial Guard escorting them through corridors brightly lit by the afternoon light and filled with a splendour made possible by hundreds of years of absolute power. Comrades in arms as well as trade Keen and Braka would probably divide up the lands between them after carrying wholesale slaughter to the khraga. All in all not that much different from when the Terran Federation converted a captured pirate base to a member state with breathtaking speed to avoid any questions whether the inhabitants of the installation wanted to be part of the federation or not. We're the same, only a millennium of technology separating us, but they've got the magic here to compensate for the difference, to a degree anyway. Arthur almost spat on the floor, but seeing the gleaming marble he remembered where he was. Took up some habits with only a cramped wagon as my quarters, didn't I.
He grinned and continued walking, Harbend at his side and armed guards all around them. Like we're prisoners. Yes, an interrogation rather than a meeting, that's for certain.
"You may be seated."
"I thought we were wanted at dusk," Harbend protested, throwing a glance at the rapidly darkening exterior, setting sun casting long shadows across the square.
"You'll be called when it's appropriate. Until then you wait."
Harbend shrunk into a chair.
"Hurry up and wait," Arthur murmured.
"Excuse me, sir?" a guard asked.
"I said I'm not in the mood for waiting," Arthur responded. "Now gentlemen, I'll open that door and get this meeting over with." He made for the door and as one the soldiers blocked his way. "Get the darkness out of my way," he growled, "or you'd better be prepared to explain how you came to manhandle a taleweaver!" Please had never been the magic word back on Earth, but taleweaver apparently was here, and the uncertainty glimmering in the eyes of the soldiers spoke volumes. Arthur pushed his way through to the door and opened it. "Harbend, we're in a hurry."
When Harbend rose he was roughly pushed back into his chair.
"Lord Taleweaver, you're free to enter, but," looking at the emblem on Harbend's left shoulder the soldier continued: "the master merchant stays."
So this is how it works. You can't get at me so you take it out on those around me. Rage streamed through Arthur's mind. I'm done being used by the bloody military. Keen or Terran, I don't give a damn! He Wove. All frustration he had experienced in the caravan, his shock when learning of the executions Harbend had ordered. Arthur forced the soldiers to join him on a nightmarish ride bound to their horses, made them share a dirty cell and run at his side while grenades tore down walls around him in Belgera. He remembered the pain. Pain? What pain? Damn you Harbend, you stabbed me! Pain! The fire in his stomach when the dagger was twisted.
"What the fucking hell was that?"
Arthur slowly turned. The soldiers, and Harbend, were writhing, clasping their abdomens and some of them gagging. In the reception hall, on the other side of the open door, more were copying the motions of the prone men around him, but one man was still standing, and he had addressed Arthur in English. Arthur stared. That was a fleet uniform. High ranking, and there was something familiar with the officer's features. Familiar enough to make Arthur understand he must have featured him in a holo show at one time or another.
"What the hell did you do to them?"
Why isn't he squirming like the rest? Shit scared for certain, but still standing. Oh, damn it, he doesn't understand De Vhatic! Bloody Federation finally caught up with me. "And you are?"
"I'm Erwin Radovic, and you still haven't told me what happened."
Erwin Radovic? I know this man! Erwin, Erwin... Lieutenant Radovic! One of two surviving officers, and the only to land here. "I Wove, a talent I've acquired here." Vivian McAdams, Captain McAdams that's the other one, but you're still up there. "You've made a career, haven't you, Radovic?"
Erwin smiled. "Rear Admiral now, yes. Mr Wallman, would you care to elaborate?" Erwin pointed at the people around him. All but one were at least on their knees now, but most were still gasping in pain.
"Weaving, the way holo casting would have been today but for the ban on neural implants." Watching the result Arthur shivered. "One of the wiser laws. I can see that now," he admitted when he saw the expression of disgust in Erwin's face.
"Call the Inquisition. I'll have him executed!" A young woman on shaky legs shot Arthur a glare filled with hatred.
"No! He's a taleweaver. That was a Weave, a disgusting one, but he didn't use the forbidden arts." Another woman, older, and despite the fear in her face Arthur could hear an underlying tone of command in her voice. He stared into the hall. They were coming to their feet all of them. None as young as the soldiers around him and all carrying decades of taking power for granted in their features. It had to be the Council of Twelve.
"Last time you wore the black and silver," Arthur said, unwilling to start a conversation with a member of Keen's government.
"They thought fleet red more suitable for a diplomat. Sending an assault trooper to negotiations conveys the wrong kind of signals," Erwin answered and gave his uniform an embarrassed glance. "Not that it matters much here. We don't shoot at them and they don't shoot at us. I think we made that mutually clear a dozen years ago or so."
You would know that, wouldn't you? Two carriers destroyed, five thousand dead and only eight to make it to the ground. "Mutually, yes that's a way of expressing it." And then you slaughtered a couple of thousand men here in return when they tried to capture the launch port you built. "You're done sending signals, aren't you? Yes, I'd say that deep red uniform of yours represents the signals you sent more than adequately."
Arthur stepped over the threshold and entered the hall. "Harbend," he called, "we're expected. After this meeting is done with we'll have one of our own. I know what you did to me when we left Belgera." He heard the merchant following him.
"Khar Escha said you wouldn't remember anything. He said the mindwalker would make you forget," Harbend muttered, and Arthur could hear the shock in his voice. It still hurt.
Damn you, you didn't have to admit you agreed to have me mind wiped! Arthur wondered what it would take to forgive the mental rape. Time probably. With memories came the recollection of how close he'd been to clubbing Harbend to the floor in his frantic attempts to take to the streets again. Yes, time, I guess. I will forgive you eventually.
"If this is not about my forced extraction, why is a Terran admiral here?" Arthur asked.
"Please have a seat. I am Mairild de Felder, Minister of Arts."
That was a command as much as the one he'd been given by the guard earlier, but it was voiced politely enough, and Arthur took a chair.
"You as well, Master de Garak. What can I offer you?"
Harbend, like Arthur, accepted a chair. "A vintage Kastarian red and cliff crawler eggs," he answered sardonically, "but I guess I'll do with whatever you have," he continued, and Arthur heard Harbend regaining some of his composure with his verbal retort. Minister de Felder was in command of all of hers, as were the rest of the council members taking places around the large table they shared. Wonderfully crafted it had to be a masterpiece from Erkateren. Arthur had seen enough of them to know by now, spending most of winter transporting furniture across the Sea of Grass as he had done.
He watched the men and women ruling what they considered an empire. Old, or at least older than a majority of their subjects, or citizens as they probably called those they ruled. Citizen, politer than subject, the preferred expression when they were overheard, but he wondered if any of them truly thought of the people as their peers. The Terran government was elected, at least in theory, which didn't stop them from making decisions making it perfectly clear how little they thought of the fifteen billion living in Terran space. Here, on Otherworld, they dispensed with that pretence
One of them turned to Harbend. "Whatever we can offer you, Master de Garak, is one item on our agenda today. Could we please leave the unpleasantnesses behind us?" He shot a glance in the direction of the doorway. The soldiers were busy cleaning up after Arthur's performance, and the sickeningly sweet smell of half digested food soon vanished when it was wiped away. Open windows let in a chilly wind cleaning out the last of the odour
"Don't think I've forgotten." The voice called Arthur's attention back to the table. It was the young woman who had threatened to have him executed earlier.
"Makarin, please. You're not obliged to like the man, but you have to respect the taleweaver." The one who had addressed Harbend. "Master de Garak, we're waiting for a few of us. Now let me introduce those present." The greybeard nodded across the table. "The Minister of Agriculture, Makarin de Hasselden, the Minister of Arts, Mairild de Felder and the Minister of War, Olvar de Saiden." Arthur and Harbend both nodded understanding. "I am Minister of Law, Verkai de Partaken. To my right, the Minister of Craft, Garkain de Krante. Two more will arrive."
"I thought we were called to enjoy the presence of the entire council," Arthur barked.
Verkai sighed. "Why the hostility? Besides, Construction, Education, Magehunting, Religion and Ceremony have little interest in what we're going to discuss anyway."
"You would have a Ministry of Magehunting, wouldn't you?" Arthur commented. Why not? They were only semi civilized after all.
There was an uncomfortable silence after that, not broken until a woman wizened by age arrived together with an equally old man Arthur vaguely remembered.
Harbend rose, mouth half open. "Master de Verd?"
"I am," he smiled in response. "Minister of Commerce since a few eightdays."
"You remember Glarien, good. Tenanrild de Dagd, Minister of Transportation, please join us," Verkai said as means of invitation and introduction alike. "Now, who would translate for our outworlder envoy?"
Arthur looked at Erwin and suddenly felt a moment of pity. The admiral didn't speak De Vhatic and must have spent the entire introduction feeling very much like a discarded item. Arthur knew that feeling all too well. Long months before he'd been able to communicate with anyone but Harbend, and mere months rather than years only as a result of meeting Gring, mindwalker and khraga in one brutally honest package. He missed her. But for her gifts he would have spent half a year with the caravan alone among people. That sharing was also the reason he spoke De Vhatic fluently now.
"Admiral, would you mind if I acted as interpreter here?"
"Eh, I don't..." Erwin looked at Mairild. "By all means. Madame de Felder could correct any eventual inconsistencies." He lingered on the last word long enough for Arthur to smile.
Ah, so you are equipped with a brain after all. And she understands English. "Then I'll be happy to do the honours," Arthur said.
Servants arrived with bottles and bowls. A light evening meal to loosen tongues. Arthur noted that there was more to drink than eat. Interrogation alright. I've played this game myself.
"Now when we're all seated could we please proceed to the reason for this meeting," Verkai said.
Arthur leaned back in his chair and glanced at Harbend. For now they were allies, but he didn't intend to let Harbend away with what he had done without a later trashing.
"To begin with. You arrived here far earlier than would have been possible by natural means," Verkai continued.
Arthur translated for the benefit of Erwin and answered. "Yes, we were jumped from Belgera. Khar Achnai from Khanati took care of that."
"That is in clear violation of our laws," Verkai said with a nod to the woman who had wanted Arthur executed. Still, it seemed to Arthur that the bearded minister wanted an excuse to close that matter once and for all rather than actually pursuing it.
"I'm no citizen of Keen, and as far as I know, neither is Master de Garak," Arthur answered. After translating he continued. "Add to that the fact that we were jumped from Belgera to Khanati. You may have outlawed the use of magic, but magic was never used within the borders of Keen." He translated again while the council members mulled over what he had said.
Liveried servants filed into the hall, some carrying more to eat and drink and others closing the windows to prevent the little heat left from escaping. Although working as silently as unobtrusively as possible their presence helped cover the uncomfortable silence. When the last of them had left and closed the doors behind her Arthur sipped some wine and turned to Verkai.
"But that isn't really the reason for this invitation, is it?"
"No," Verkai admitted. "We're more interested in the caravan."
"You're more interested in how well any goods it represents survived the reason we had to, evacuate, Belgera so hastily, you mean." Arthur watched the newest member of the Council. Glarien de Verd, Minister of Commerce. The last time Arthur had seen him he had been one of four master traders ruling the trading houses in Keen.
Glarien met his glare with one of his own. "Yes. The blockade has strained our trade beyond the acceptable." The old council member swallowed a piece of bread before continuing. "Traders can die. That's an inescapable risk involved in leaving Keen. Trade, however, mustn't die. It's the lifeblood of Keen."
"He's basically right. Overly dramatic, yes, but we can't afford losing trade any more than we can survive failed crops year after year," Verkai said. "We need to know if future caravans are likely to need as strong an escort as the one currently under way"
Arthur frowned. Then he remembered. "Darkness! That's where three regiments have gone, isn't it?"
"Yes, but it's a lot larger than yours."
Well, it had to be. A state sanctioned lifeline, and you couldn't know how ours swelled from a few dozen wagons to hundreds as we left the Roadhouse. "How much larger?" Arthur asked rather than voicing his thoughts.
"Enough to warrant a larger escort."
"A larger escort? You've sent several hundred soldiers with it." Then another piece of the puzzle fell in place. Damn! Damn you, Trindai! You didn't desert the inquisition, you were a plant! "Darkness! You gifted our small caravan with some kind of secret elite commando of yours!"
An older woman visibly winced at Arthur's words.
Maria, no, Mairild de Felder, Minister of, ah, Arts, yes that's it.
"How did you find out?" she requested.
"After half a year?" Arthur lied. "How did you expect me not to find out? Just because we've arrived here in sky ships a thousand years beyond what you primitives can build it doesn't mean we're idiots you know!"
The silence was absolute but for Arthur's translating his outburst to Erwin. The admiral did cringe as Mairild confirmed Arthur's wording.
"For being the undisputed master of communications of our time you behave like the fucking asshole I've come to suspect you really are. Nothing like those polished holos you've transmitted all over the solar system the last decades."
Arthur hadn't expected Erwin to be quite so outspoken, but insulting as the accusation was Arthur had to admit his own last outburst deserved nothing less. Then Mairild smiled, and translated, and the rest of the council joined her in varying degrees of grim smiles, as did Harbend.
Damn, I forgot she knew English. Oh hell, I had it coming. "I apologize," Arthur said. "That was uncalled for." He smiled sheepishly. "Anyway, how much larger, if I may ask?"
"Two thousand seven hundred and fifty wagons, and we didn't send out several hundred soldiers. We sent close to three thousand troops including a full company of foragers and four squadrons of the Holy Inquisition," Verkai answered.
Arthur caught his breath and stared at him. That is a lot larger than our caravan. Bloody hell! It's not a caravan-- it's a migration!
"I hope you understand our concern," Verkai continued unperturbed. "That escort represents a fourth of our standing forces, which for several different reasons makes this kind of undertaking unsustainable in the long run."
Arthur looked at Harbend and received a look as stunned as his own. It wasn't until Erwin tugged at his sleeve Arthur realized he'd forgotten to translate. Within a few moments all three men shared the expression of disbelief.
"That's a large brigade, or small division, moving cross country with a logistics organization that is a joke! Are they insane or merely incompetent?"
Arthur glared a Erwin. "And you told me I was impolite. Remember, the lady understands English."
The lady in question rose from her chair with a frown on her face. She waved away a request for a translation from Verkai and stared Erwin squarely in his face.
You could cut diamonds on that face, Arthur thought.
"Would you care to explain your line of thought, Admiral?"
And ships plates with that voice, he mused, careful not to face the harridan.
"How do you plan to feed all those people, not to speak of the animals?" Erwin answered, his voice betraying almost no strain at all. Arthur had to admire his calm.
"That's what the foragers are for."
"Incompetents then," Erwin said.
Mairild paled. "You would presume to teach..."
"The last time I presumed to teach you anything we annihilated two thousand of your professional soldiers before they had a chance to loose their weapons," Erwin interrupted. "This is not a game! I don't know who fed you with those pretty lies, but a hundred foragers or a thousand doesn't matter. That caravan can cover only so much ground each day and the food has to be in the area to begin with."
Arthur remembered being hungry almost every day as they crawled over the mountain range separating Ri Khi from the Sea of Grass. Even though several hunters had joined them as scouts it hadn't been enough, and but for Trai, Escha and a few battle mages from Rhuin they would have starved. Coming out on the plains had made life easier. Gherin, the giant six legged lizards, and wild horses had made a welcome addition to their diet, but they still wouldn't have survived but for the mages melting snow and jumping food and firewood along the caravan.
Still, something was wrong. The slaughter at the launch port over a decade earlier was the result of disparity in equipment, not brains, in as much as anything military could be associated with brains to begin with. If Keen organized soldiers in regiments it meant they must have the knowledge to move those regiments from place to place. Starving hundreds of armed men trained to kill other men was the kind of incompetence you only exercised once. So, if incompetence on a vast scale was out of the question, then what? Somehow there must be a planned solution for feeding the caravan. If for no other reason then at least to keep the powerful merchant houses, who were so important for Keen, happy.
Arthur bit off a piece of cheese, chewed, swallowed and listened to the strained silence filling the hall. As he downed some dried fruit with a mouthful of wine understanding slowly dawned on him. He whirled and faced Glarien. "You cold-blooded get of a gherin! You're invading Vimarin."
The old minister was so wrinkled it was hard to tell if he was frowning or smirking. "That's preposterous," he said. "Keen doesn't war. We keep the peace." Glarien radiated an aura of benign annoyance, almost like a father admonishing a child who had overstepped but should be forgiven his trespassing anyway. But for all that he looked like he could be Arthur's grandfather there wasn't much more than a dozen years separating them, and Arthur had spent a large part of his life clawing himself from relative poverty to stardom. He'd done so by reading people around him, knowing them and using that knowledge ruthlessly. Now he read all he needed from a slight shiftiness in Glarien's eyes and the almost invisible curling of fingers on hands that wanted to grip a dagger rather than stroke the head of an unruly child.
You're out of your league here, old man. You're treading water so deep you haven't even begun to grasp you're drowning. Arthur turned to an ogre of a man, a native of Keen who would have been noted for his size even back on Earth. Here he was a giant among men, closer in build to a khraga than his fellow humans. And sharing more than a little of their unappealing looks as well. "Mr Saiden, you were introduced as Minister of War if I recall correctly."
"Your memory does you honour," came a surprisingly soft reply. He leaned back in his chair until it creaked daring Arthur to approach. An ironic smile spread over his face reaching all the way to his eyes where Arthur found a glimmer of anticipation.
Careful here. He looks like muscle, but it's all brains. Bloody hell, Colonel Laiden, Admiral Radovic and now Minister Saiden. If intelligence like this continue to pop up in uniform it's going to put an ugly dent in my preconception of armed boy scouts!
Arthur quickly translated what had been said to an increasingly irritated Erwin, creating an excuse for gathering his thoughts before he embarked on voicing them.
"I suppose you don't make a habit of invading your neighbours"
"Correct. Minister de Verd said as much."
Damn him and his smug smile! He already knows where I'm going, so why the charade? "So I guess you usually move your troops within your borders."
"Yes, of course. We have the roads for rapid deployment of forces after all." The huge minister of war looked offended and half rose from his chair as if he wanted to send more than a verbal message. Doing so he dropped an apple, and Arthur watched it lazily bouncing over the table and into the lap of the crone who had arrived with Glarien.
No, not dropped. He did that deliberately! Why?
The old woman picked up the fruit and placed it on the table. She awarded Olvar an expression of consternation.
Oh, I'm an idiot! The Council of Twelve. Not what we'd call a democracy but not...
"I see you've made the same conclusion as the outworlder, Tenanrild," Olvar noted and sat down again.
"You, you! Have your bowels nailed to the city walls!" she yelled at Glarien. "Makarin, we have granaries close to Roadbreak?"
Tenanrild, Tenanrild de Dagd, Minister of Transportation, yes I can see why she suddenly exploded. And Makarin, she's Agriculture. She'll go through the roof when she understands as well. Oh Glarien, you were outmanoeuvred even before you tried to piss on me, but I don't mind being used by the giant, not this time anyway.
Makarin stared at Tenanrild. Arthur could see she still hadn't grasped the contents of the exchange, but she was young, surprisingly young for sitting in the council. "We do, why?"
"Why? After Roadbreak there's only a poor excuse for a road. Caravan be moving at half speed on a good day. It rains, they could as well not be moving at all! Farms along that dirt track all the way to Erkateren. We're not going to starve."
Any other time watching Makarin's face would have been hilarious. She looked like the older woman had slapped her, in public. Arthur, however, guessed she was frantically calculating how much food they needed to send east before mass starvation ate Vimarin like a plague.
"Erwin, I think Olvar," Arthur nodded at the minister, "just made a coup. He needed a majority, and we just served him one on a platter." Arthur translated the previous exchange and continued translating as it degenerated into a shouting match. From time to time he glanced at Mairild and Olvar trading satisfied smiles, even as the former took part of most of the shouting.
The meeting had deteriorated over an hour ago with Glarien stomping out of the hall. It dissolved shortly after that and among the last Erwin made his excuses and left together with Harbend. Arthur wasn't entirely happy with that. Harbend's English was excellent only making it that much easier for Erwin to milk him, hungry as he must be for information as well as the mere presence of anyone able to communicate with him. Well, that went both ways, Arthur guessed. Harbend wasn't one to let go of an equal opportunity. Admiral Radovic didn't belong to the exclusive group of traders who were the only Federation citizens normally allowed to travel here. That was changing now, of course. Arthur Wallman had been change incarnate for over twenty years by now, and he'd already seen the signs. Signs he needed to verify now that the three remaining ministers had agreed on a course of action to lessen the disaster brought upon the farmers in Vimarin.
"You've been silent," Tenanrild said.
"You've been confident," Arthur replied.
"Been laying down rails since shortly after you left for Braka."
Definitely not stupid. Minds like greased lightning bolts all of them. Greedy or not, they're anything but stupid. Arthur sighed. Nothing like the toads back home, but this council is running an empire, not bribing voters for another five year term of hiding forgotten promises.
"From Roadbreak?" he asked.
"Should be able to cover most of an eightdays worth of caravan crawling in a day with the new rail coaches."
"Engines not strong enough. You have better machines." She clipped her sentences in a peculiar way which had Arthur guessing she might not have been born in Keen. That didn't stop her from being to the point.
"The sky ship I saw landing?"
"New schedule. Lands every eightday."
Bloody hell! That explains the extra guests at Two Worlds. "So you've tripled your import?"
"Think so. Would be more, but your ministry of transportation isn't very efficient."
Arthur laughed. You have the guts to complain about our shipping capacity! A miner would need half a year from belt to Gate. We could have racked up shipping to full capacity the moment news of my arrival hit the holos and most of the sun barges would still be on their way here. He didn't say any of it though. Explaining space travel would take too much time, and he suspected someone who relied on horses wouldn't understand it anyway. "Well, I guess building new sky ships any faster would be difficult for us," he said instead.
"Don't need to build more. Fly more often instead."
Olvar de Saiden barked a laugh. "This is a long way from home, eh?"
Maybe they would understand after all, Arthur admitted glumly. "Yes, we could do that, of course." He studied Tenanrild. Small for an Otherworlder and slightly shrunken from age with a greying haircut distinctly shorter than was the fashion. Definitely not born here, he decided.
"I'm sure ships will arrive more often here in the future."
"Will do so," Tenanrild said. "Admiral of yours promised daily landings in less than a year."
Daily! You poor bastards! Might as well sign the death sentence now rather than wait. Another twenty years and your world is gone forever. "That's a... dramatic... increase from now," Arthur drawled, too stunned to say anything else.
"Change is inevitable," Olvar agreed. "Your limited presence has proved that. We can't stop change, but we may influence the direction it takes."
"What are you talking about? You'll end up with more Federation citizens than you could possibly imagine."
"Maybe, maybe not. Chach will stabilize sooner or later, and with a kingdom embracing the use of battle mages just south of the Narrow Sea we'll need the edge your technology gives us to stave of whatever they might plan after some self appointed king has their aristocracy firmly in his grip."
Arthur stared at Olvar, aghast at what he had just heard.
"He's right, you know," Makarin, who had been silently listening, shot in. "We've always had better crops than they. Mostly a cause of better farming, but they'd never believe that." She looked tired. "Gods, we got rid of titled landowners less than a lifeyear ago. Worthless parasites! Our fields yield almost half again what they do in the protectorates."
"Client states, mostly out of easy reach from the highways," Olvar explained. "They pay taxes and refrain from raising armies. We make sure about that! Otherwise they do as they like. Most kept their counts and dukes."
"But I don't..."
"Makarin's still right, though. For all their archaic practices the protectorates still grow more food than any fief in Chach. Raise more cattle as well," Olvar continued as if Arthur hadn't been there. In a way he might as well not have been. The faces around him told a story of long arguments and hard won experiences. They must have mulled over the situation countless times, and with raiders sinking their ships a difficult situation had turned into a dangerous and bleak future indeed.
"But you control the highways?"
"Idiot!" Tenanrild barked. "Merchant fleet lies on the bottom of the sea. Wharfs in Hasselden destroyed. Expect us to swim?"
Arthur blanched at the remainder that for all his education he still didn't fully grasp the differences between the Terran Federation and Keen.
"Not the most polished way to express the truth, but the truth nonetheless," Makarin said. "Now, this is where you come in."
"Yes, you're a taleweaver."
"Darkness, what's that got to do with anything?"
"You misunderstand. You're an outworlder taleweaver. We'll need more than metal. With your words luring your own people here we'll have a strong outworlder presence deterring any would be invader, or at least exterminating them, should need be."
Arthur stared at her. Pretty face and ugly mind, he thought. "And that's Olvar speaking with a female voice, I take it," he said.
"No, that's me speaking. I'm no one's proxy, thank you very much! I make sure our crops end up where it's needed. Olvar," she smiled at the huge man, "merely takes care of the vermin."
Olvar raised his glass of wine in salute. "She has a way with words, don't you agree?"
"I won't do it," Arthur protested. He hadn't come here to become a tool in a political game.
"But you already have. Mairild confirms that Admiral Radovic has already admitted as much. Called you a gherin spawned nuisance he did." Olvar emptied his glass and winked at Arthur.
Bloody hell! He would at that, Arthur admitted. No lost love between me and the military. Never been, never will be. "What did I do this time?" he probed.
"What did you..." Olvar shoved his empty glass out of reach of his bear paws and roared with laughter slamming the table hard enough with both hands that bowls and glasses bounced and were overturned, spilling wine, bread and fruit in an unholy mess that reached the edge and splashed onto the floor. "Darkness man, what haven't you done?"
Arthur stared at Olvar in bewilderment. "I left Verd with the caravan, but that hardly warrants..."
"Not so fast," Olvar interrupted, still shaking with near hysterical laughter. "Should we start with when you arrived here with your credentials falsified, or when you and Master de Garak turned a hundred years of merchant traditions on ends?"
Arthur nodded acceptance. Those subterfuges had been vital means enabling him to vanish from the capital before he was forced to return back home.
Olvar quenched his laugh and the grin was replaced by a grim expression he shared with both Makarin and Tenanrild. "But you know that, so maybe I should start with the renegade outworlders who landed here bent on a manhunt, burning and killing everything on their way to the Roadhouse, or maybe you'd prefer the tale of the official outworlder extraction team in walking armour we fooled. At least they only inflicted burning and killing on raiders, good riddance."
As Olvar finally started describing what had happened during Arthur's absence he could only listen in horror to tales of mindless destruction following in his wake.
It was close to midnight when Arthur, drained of any emotion, finished listening to and telling in return what had happened since autumn. When he left the imperial castle what had once been a fragmented puzzle was now a clear and horrible picture of events since his arrival here. And a nagging suspicion haunting him the last five years finally turned into knowledge. Somewhere, close to Belgera, Christina Ulfsdotir led her thugs on a murdering rampage, just as she had murdered his family. Strangely enough he felt no hatred, no despair, not even a dark longing. There would be a time for reckoning. He could hate then. Now he needed to sleep.