After three tense days passing through Carrow, it was with great relief that Arwin Tsocco and his guests crossed the border into Kelvon, and they stopped for the night in the small town of Invermirren, in the province of Sibwell. The town had a large and comfortable coach house which catered for all the traffic passing through this part of the world and, after enjoying a nice evening meal, the three men found themselves sharing the common room with a party of Carrow merchants whose wagons, they'd seen on the way in, were carrying wool, timber and half a dozen unrelated men who’d hitched a lift, in return for a small fee, for safe passage through the dangerous country.
Along with their twenty guards and a small group of locals, the common room was pretty full and the air buzzed with half a dozen conversations as Arwin, Malone and the Brigadier took seats around a small table in the corner of the room. Arwin went to the bar and brought back three standards of ale which dripped froth down their sides as he placed them on the table. The Brigadier nodded his gratitude to the former ambassador as he picked his up, held it up to the light to judge the clarity of the golden brown liquid, then drank half of it in one long draught.
“I've travelled to almost every part of the human world,” he said, “And one thing I've learned is that you can judge a country by the beer it serves. Kelvon ale is strong, warm and refreshing, not unlike the country itself.”
“While the beer you serve in Helberion appears weak at first taste, but soon leaves you lying on the floor with a headache,” replied Arwin with a grin. The merest hint of a smile appeared on the Brigadier’s face, his equivalent to a broad grin, and he raised the tankard for another long swallow.
Malone took a sip from his tankard and had to keep himself from shuddering at the bitter taste. I've still got a dog’s taste buds, he thought. Alcohol of any kind still left him feeling a bit queasy, like eating rancid fruit, but he made himself drink half the glass anyway, not wanting to be left out of the social occasion. They were both treating him like a fully declared human and he was determined to show them that he appreciated it.
He wasn't the only undeclared human in the room, he saw. One of the locals was a half raised brown bear who was struggling to hold a tankard in a hand that bore long, black claws. Half the beer ran down the sides of its muzzle as it tried to drink it, making its companions roar with laughter. All except one, presumably its father, who glared at his friends until they slapped the half human bear on its hairy back and apologised with total insincerity, one of them winking at one of his friends to share the joke with him. The bear opened its jaws wide in a grin, apparently not yet human enough to realise that it was being mocked.
“Is this your first time in Kelvon?” Arwin asked Malone.
“Yes,” replied Malone, glad for the excuse to put the tankard down. “Forgive me for saying so, but it looks just like any other country so far.”
“Well, this is just one of the outermost provinces. It only joined the Empire thirty years ago. Before that it was an independent nation ruled over by a Council of Barons. Thirty years isn't long enough for Kelvon to have made much of an impact on the local culture. Only about a quarter of the population was raised under imperial rule. Most of the rest still think of themselves, in their heart of hearts, as Sibwellians.”
Malone nodded, remembering his history lessons. “They were starving. The crops had failed for the third year in a row. They thought the Empire would feed them if they joined. The Barons tried to oppose it, but they were dragged out of their palaces by howling mobs and hung from trees.” He looked to the Brigadier for confirmation that he'd remembered right.
“There's nothing more dangerous to the ruling elite than hunger,” agreed the Brigadier. “That's the lesson for rulers everywhere. Feed the people first. Everything else comes second.” He turned to Arwin Tsocco. “What is the food situation in Sibwell now?”
“As part of the Empire, they can buy and sell food, and anything else, to every other part of the Empire without tariffs. They just need to be able to pay for it.”
“And can they?”
“If they can't, they can just get up and move to another part of the Empire where there’s more food. Free movement of people is another benefit of being part of the Empire. Any of these people could get on a horse, ride to Farwell and get a job in the capital itself any time they wanted.”
“And would the people of Farwell welcome their arrival?”
“Possibly not. That's why the government has a vested interest in making sure they're happy to stay here. That's how the Empire works, by making sure that everyone is happy being right where they are.”
“Do you think Carrow might want to be part of the Empire one day?” asked Malone.
“They see Helberion as the answer to all their problems, not the Empire,” replied the Brigadier. “They lost their best farming land to us fifty years ago and tell themselves that we stole it. They refuse to acknowledge that it was the people of the Tweenlands themselves who came over go us, to escape from Carrow tyranny.”
“You'd think by now they’d have a better name for it than the Tweenlands,” said Arwin with a smile.
“It's simpler than calling it the consolidated regions of Barrow, Tippler and Anthropol,” said the Brigadier.
“Bit of a mouthful,” agreed Malone. “Much simpler to just call them the Tweenlands. Seriously, though, if they did join the Empire...”
“They don't want to be part of someone else's empire,” said Arwin. “They want an empire of their own.” The Brigadier nodded his agreement.
“But that’s not going to happen, is it? Young empires grow by swallowing up the countries around them, but for the past hundred years Carrow has been shrinking. They've only become a threat to us now because they've converted to a total war economy. They're bankrupting themselves building up a huge army. They're gambling the future of their country on conquering us. If they fail...”
The ghost of a smile reappeared on the Brigadier’s face. “You may not be completely human yet, but there’s nothing wrong with your mind. Yes, they're desperate. Maybe that's what's driven them to...”
“To what?” asked Arwin. “The Radiants?”
The Brigadier looked around to make sure there was no-one close enough to overhear. “Maybe they're unwilling dupes of the Radiants,” he said. “Being driven towards a war that will leave their country as ruined as ours. Or maybe...”
“They've been promised an empire,” said Malone. The Brigadier nodded.
“But they can't know what the Radiants have in mind for us,” said Arwin. “They can't possibly want that for mankind.”
“We don't know for certain what the Radiants have in mind for us,” said the Brigadier. “Maybe they think it would be simpler to have one group of humans keeping the rest of us under control. All the human world becoming a prison with the Carrowmen as the guards, making sure science and technology never rises above bows and arrows anywhere. Maybe they searched the human world looking for a country with big ambitions but lacking the means to achieve them on their own.”
“No, that doesn’t make sense,” said Arwin, though. “Carrow might be able to take down Helberion but they're just a mouse compared to the Empire. They couldn't possibly...”
“Unless the Radiants give them more direct assistance,” said the Brigadier. “Have there been any natural disasters in the Empire lately? Storms, earthquakes?”
“Not that I've heard. We could be barking up the wrong tree entirely. I can't believe that even King Nilon would willingly collaborate with Radiants to enslave humanity. I've met him. He's too ruthless and ambitious to be anyone’s puppet. Even the Radiants.”
“The Brigadier nodded. “You may be right,” he said. “Once we've concluded our business in Kelvon, Carrow has to be the next focus of our concern. We need to know more of what's going on there.” He turned to face the former ambassador directly. “We have people in Carrow’s government. Not many, but a few. I would imagine that Kelvon has more.”
“I can only speculate about that, but I would imagine you're right. When we reach Farwell we can see whether the Emperor is willing to share any information.”
The door opened and a group of Imperial guardsmen entered, their splendid uniforms splattered with drying mud. Half the conversations in the room immediately stopped and the Brigadier looked around to see what was going on. The small group of locals was glaring at the guardsmen. One of them leaned over to whisper something to another, making him chuckle, but not in a nice way. One of the guardsmen looked around at them and began to move in their direction, but their leader snapped a word at him and he changed his mind. They went to the bar, where they ordered tankards of beer.
“What's going on?” The Brigadier asked Arwin Tsocco.
“I don't know. The guard is a peacekeeping force, they get on well with the locals, or at least they always have.”
“They're not locals themselves then?”
“Some of them probably are, but when you join the guard you can theoretically be posted anywhere in the Empire. Their leader has the look of a Kurstian to him. I would guess that he earned a promotion and this was the only place they needed a new Captain.”
One of the junior guards was chatting to the man behind the bar in a familiar way, as if they knew each other, but the barman kept glancing at the locals as if afraid that they might resent him for associating with them. The Brigadier got up and walked over to the next table, where some of their escort riders were also watching the interplay. “Bad blood between guards and locals?” he asked.
“There never has been,” one of them replied. “We stop here every time we travel between your country and ours and It’s always been quiet and peaceful.”
“That was before the taxes went up,” said a man at the next table over. It was the father of the half raised bear, the Brigadier saw. “They say they need the money to fight sedition in the west.”
“Sedition in the west?” asked the escort rider.
“That's what they say. Rebellion in Ukrann and Listania. Separatists plotting and causing trouble. The army's cracking down on them and the rest of us have to pay for it. Least that’s what they say.”
“When did this start?” asked the escort rider. “We were through here just six months ago!”
“All I know is what I hear. What I know is that those bastards have been given the job of calling on people who can't pay their taxes. They kick doors in, take any valuables they can find to pay off the shortfall.”
“But they can't do that! They're peacekeepers, not debt collectors! They don't have the authority to do that!”
“They're whatever the Prefect says they are, and he’s given them a whole lot of new powers. They're the Empire's tax enforcers now. They say they don't like the job but they do it none the less. The guy giving them the evil eye? His brother had three horses taken to pay off his taxes. He had one of them picked out to be his son!”
“By how much did they raise the taxes?” asked the Brigadier, a cold shiver running down his spine.
“Fifty percent.” The man spoke loudly, as if he wanted to be overheard, and indeed the guard who'd reacted before looked over at him. “They've been recruiting new guardsmen too. The kind of people who like having power over other people. The new Prefect says they need strong men, men who don’t take any nonsense from troublemakers.”
“The new Prefect?” said the Brigadier.
“Silden, the old Prefect, wanted nothing to do with it. Said it was a recipe for trouble, said he wasn't going to run his country that way, so Skelby had him replaced with Forrt and he was much more willing to go along with it.”
“Secretary of State. Member of the Emperor's government. A moderate, or so we thought.” He shook his head in disbelief. “I dunno. It's like we woke up one morning and found ourselves living in a police state. It never used to be like this. Everyone was happy, the guards were easy going. Taxes were low, everyone had enough to get by. Now, people are...” He caught himself and looked around fearfully, as if realising he’d gone too far.
“People are what?” asked the guard, striding over with an arrogant swagger. One look at him was enough to tell the Brigadier everything he needed to know about him. Round about the belly, thick around the neck, a casual glance might have left a person thinking he was fat and stupid, but the Brigadier saw hard muscle under the fat and a hard gleam in his eye. This was a man who enjoyed exercising power over other people, the kind of man that King Leothan kept out of positions of authority at all costs. The kind of man who would deliberately stir up trouble just so he could beat someone to a pulp while arresting them for ‘disturbing the peace’. Almost certainly bigoted against foreigners and deeply in love with his weapon of choice. Probably a cudgel of some kind. The Brigadier could tell instantly that there would be no reasoning with this man. He would take anything other than instant submission as a challenge to his authority, a challenge to his very manhood. If the two of them were alone, the Brigadier would just kill him rather than waste a single word trying to appeal to his non-existent better nature. Here, in a crowded common room, with four other guardsmen and twenty escort riders whose first loyalty was to the Emperor’s law, the Brigadier knew that they were all in deep trouble.
Fortunately, the man was bright enough to know when to backpedal. “People are having to tighten their belts to pay the new taxes,” he said. “Nobody wants any trouble.”
The guard scolded at him. “What's your name?” He demanded.
“I don't have to give you my name!”
The guard reached for the weapon at his belt. It was a cudgel, as the Brigadier had suspected, and it had probably seen a lot of use. “Your name!” He repeated, louder.
“Ludger!” called the Captain of the guard. “That's enough!”
“I'm questioning a suspect, Sir,” replied Ludger, not taking his eyes off the local man. “A troublemaker.”
“I said that’s enough, Ludger. Get back here!”
The Brigadier breathed a sigh of relief as the guard gave the local man a last warning glare, then moved away to rejoin his fellows. The escort rider shook his head in wonder. “You except that kind of scene in Carrow,” he said, “but here...?”
“If violence had broken out, whose side would you have taken?” asked the Brigadier.
“Wouldn't have been any of my business. It's their job to keep the peace, not mine.”
“That wasn't keeping the peace. That was the exact opposite!”
“I'm with the army. The army can't get involved in civilian matters. That's martial law!”
The Brigadier nodded reluctantly. The man had a point. He got up to return to his own table, then on an impulse went over to where the guards were standing. Ludger glared suspiciously at him as he took his place at the bar beside them, but said nothing.
“I'd like to buy you all drinks,” he said, and smiles broke out among the other guards. All except Ludger and the Captain. “I want to let you know that I appreciate the good job you do. You risk your lives to keep ordinary people safe. You need to know that we appreciate it.” He beckoned the barman over and ordered five tankards of ale.
“Thank you,” replied the Captain, but he was watching the Brigadier warily. “We can't do our jobs without the support of the locals.” His eyes turned to Ludger, and the guard stared back resentfully before turning his gaze back to the Brigadier.
The Brigadier ignored him and kept his attention on the Captain. “Weyland James,” he said, holding his hand out.
“Roger Turney, Captain of the Sibwell Constabulary.” He took the Brigadier’s hand and shook it. “Pleased to meet you. I'm guessing you're Helberian, and a nobleman by your dress and your speech. What brings you to Invermirren?”
“Just passing through. I have business in Farwell.” The drinks arrived and the guards took one each. The Captain took a sip, then put his tankard back on the bar.
“What kind of business?”
“I have to try to convince the Emperor that Helberion isn't out to steal your export markets. Now that we're at war with Carrow, we desperately need Imperial support.”
“Don’t expect too much of that. More and more of the troops stationed in the east are being sent west.”
“To Ukrann and Listania?”
“Yes. There are barely enough soldiers left in this part of the country to defend our own borders, let alone go off and get involved in a foreign war. We couldn't get involved even if...” He glanced up at the Brigadier, suddenly looking guilty. He took another sip of ale to cover it.
“Even if you wanted to.”
“We have enough troubles here at home. You know how it is.”
The Brigadier smiled his understanding. “Don’t worry about it,” he said. “I wouldn't write Helberion off just yet, not if I know the King. Carrow wants a war because they think they can win easily. If we can show them it won't be so easy, they might reconsider.”
The Captain nodded his gratitude, then gestured towards a small table beside the entrance, a little distance away from the other patrons. The Brigadier nodded and they went to sit there. Once they were away from the other guards he felt able to speak more freely. “So, what's going on in Ukrann and Listania?” he asked,
The Captain paused for a moment, as if he didn't think it quire right to discuss the troubles of the Empire with a foreigner, but then he sighed. “The Separationists are getting bolder, more vocal. More and more people are saying they'd be better off outside the Empire, and the more the Empire clamps down, the more people flock to their cause. There's talk of open rebellion. People getting organised, ringleaders plotting. Acts of sabotage, even murder.”
“That's work for the guard, surely. People like yourselves.”
“The guard can't handle it. There’s even talk that the guard itself has been infiltrated by seditionists. Most of the guard are locals, you see. They have sympathies with local grievances. The army, though, come from all parts of the Empire. They don't have any emotional connection to the locals. To them, they’re just another subject population.”
“And now it’s starting to happen here too,” the Brigadier guessed.
The Captain stared. “Well, no-one really knows how it began over there.”
“I can make a guess, I think. They made some excuse to raise the taxes, recruited less desirable people into the guard. People like Ludger. People who like bullying people around, who get drunk on having power over others. Then they give the guard more powers, get them to do things that make them unpopular, like collecting taxes.”
“You're saying someone in the government is behind this? Stirring up trouble for his own ends?”
“If I'm right, the same person will be behind the rebels too. Firing up the people against the government and firing up the government against the people. Laying the groundwork for a major uprising...”
“Which he'll use to seize power! You're talking about a military coup!”
The Brigadier wished that were all it was, but he couldn't say what he really feared because he knew the Captain would think he was mad. “I wanted to warn you to be careful,” he said. “It's people like you who are the real threat to this person. The old school, genuine peacemakers. People who do what you did just now, intervene to keep the peace. How long have you been recruiting people like Ludger?”
“Just a few months, and there are a lot of them. People who once got thrown in the cells are now wearing the uninform.” The Brigadier could tell from his voice that he was deeply unhappy about it. It's Forrt. The new Prefect. He must have been promised a place in the new regime. What can we do? How do we fight this?”
“You fight it by continuing to do what you've been doing. Keep the hotheads in check, make sure the guard continues to keep the peace. If there are enough of the old guard, the newcomers will gradually assimilate. No matter how nasty and brutish they are, if they’re surrounded by good, decent guardsmen they'll act the same way, outwardly at least, and the plot to throw the country into chaos will falter. The conspirators will have to take other measures to achieve their goals, and that will run the risk of exposing them. If this country is basically good, and I think it is, they will fail.”
“But if there are too many of the new recruits, the assimilation may go in the other direction. If there are enough of them that they dominate the culture of the guard, it is we who will find ourselves having to fit in with them, or be lost.”
“You said there were a lot of them. How many?”
“About one in three, but all in junior posts so far. If you're right, though, Forrt will be wanting to promote them fast. Ludger is already bucking for Sergeant. I've managed to block it so far, but I don't know how long I can keep doing so.”
“Do the best you can. And keep them separate. Don't let them form their own little clique in which they do things their way. Each one must be surrounded by decent guards who set the moral compass of the guard. Ludger and his like will have to suppress their baser selves in order to fit in. You may think that what you do in this little town won't amount to much in the grand scheme of things, but if there is someone like you in every town, you will win.”
The Captain stared at him. “Your name... You're the Brigadier, aren't you? The Brigadier! The one they tell the stories about!”
“Well, most of them are exaggerations...”
“When you get to Farwell, is there anything you can do there, at the heart of the problem? I know that the problems you're facing in your country are far greater than what we're facing here, but...”
“If there’s anything I can do, I will, I promise. I'll try to meet with Minister Skelby, get the measure of the man. I'm hoping to meet with the Emperor himself. If this is indeed a coup in the making, he's the one person we can be sure isn't a part of the conspiracy.” If it is a coup, he thought. Those Above grant that that’s all it is!
“He must see what's happening! Why would he let it go so far? Maybe he's so insulated in that palace of his that he doesn’t know what's really happening out here! Maybe all he needs is someone to tell him!”
“Maybe. I'll know more when I get there. In the meantime, keep up the good work, and be careful! I wouldn’t put it past them to arrange a little ‘accident’ for you.”
“I'll be careful. Thank you, Brigadier! Good luck!”
The Brigadier nodded his reply, then returned to his own table. In a low voice, careful not to be overheard, he repeated the conversation to Arwin and Malone. The former ambassador cursed under his breath. “That I should return to my own country to find this!” He said. “The Radiants?”
“People working for them, possibly. Or maybe the Captain is right and It’s just the normal jostling for power and influence that takes place in the heart of all great empires. We'll know more when we get to Farwell.”