Sennary strode down the long, bare corridors, following the
unctuous, one-time Trade Minister of Davia whose function it now was to
prime people prior to their meeting Justan. Sennary wasn't sure whether her
irritatingly ingratiating manner was natural or affected, but it certainly had
the desired effect: you were overcome with joy when finally admitted to the
presence of The King himself.
The hall was large, white, a lower ceiling than he'd expected. Justan was seated at a table, signing papers proffered by a thin, beaky- looking secretary permanently hovering in his mid-fifties. Sennary bowed, watched his king dismissed the scribe with a wave of the hand.
"Lord Sennary, you travel quickly; I wasn't expecting you until tomorrow." He rose, pocketed a holed, gold medallion from the tabletop.
"I rode all night, your majesty; the mage-storm forming to the west is pulling in cloud from all around - if I'd rested I could have been caught in the rains."
Justan grinned. "My apologies; these large-scale magics have second-level effects that are not always desirable. The frontal system will be ready to move in two or three days, according to the MSR."
"Towards the Lowlands?" He realised his question was naïve. "Floods, I see, they don't like water..."
"There won't be enough to cause widespread irreparable damage, just a peripheral amount to worry them, to show them a little of our power. I have other ideas for the substance of the downpour."
"You think they'll surrender without a fight?"
Justan looked at Sennary's hand; it was clenched. "They don't appear to care who rules them, so long as their supplies of drugs aren't affected; that's what I find intriguing. Sit down?" He indicated a tall- backed chair facing his throne, walked over.
"You're wondering why the Messenger never invaded."
"The more I find out about the situation, the stranger it seems. In two days' time, I'm holding an audience with an envoy from the Elets. They have made some `suggestions' that at first seem rather amusing, but which on closer inspection perhaps have body. They back them up with carefully-worded threats, stated unemotively, but showing a great deal of forethought. Their central demand is that we do not invade the Lowlands."
Sennary considered. Was Justan asking his advice? Or had he been summoned here for some other purpose? Be noncommittal, see. "We can assume that the Messenger received a similar ultimatum, and listened to it."
"He did: my search squads found the original letter in the records. His followers burned entire offices, destroying name-lists, but they didn't torch absolutely everything: many comparatively unimportant documents in out-of-the-way rooms escaped their attentions, the Messenger's letter from the Elets being among them. It's similar to mine in its overall requirements, but it carries no details of what the Elets planned to do if their wishes were not observed. I assume they supposed he knew."
"The danger with barbarians is always that there are so many of them, they can sustain tremendous losses; they're also very mobile. They could cause considerable - " he stopped; Justan had signalled him to do so.
"The Elets are not barbarians. The more I learn about them, the more they concern me. The Lowlandic countries are an ideal buffer between the Elets and the other nations of the north. They're small principalities, loosely federated only so as to share a single currency and certain common institutions - overseas trade delegations, embassies..."
Sennary was nodding. "Yes, the way they are organised is very convenient for the Elets. They're like the Purasans, in a way: it's hard for them to unite for long enough to attack their neighbours, but if they themselves are invaded then they'll fight as one."
"The comparison is not exact, because the Lowlanders are kept particularly docile by the drugs they all take. I've had some research done: their primary intake is of a substance called `Bliss', which they make from the tap root of a certain swamp plant. Historically, it was introduced into the Lowlands shortly after a great flood fifty or sixty years ago; people found it sprouting everywhere. Clearly, it was water-borne, but as to how it actually got into the water, no-one seems to know. At the time, no-one cared, either, particularly once its `therapeutic' effects were discovered - far more pleasant and safer than what they'd been stuffing into themselves before. Now here's the disturbing part: where do you suppose the plant grows naturally?"
"I'm hoping you're not going to say Elet..."
Justan folded his arms, shook his head, tut-tutted. "Nothing so obvious: Ca-Atl. It's their most sacred herb, they use it in initiation ceremonies for the mortal lovers of their god-rulers." A chuckle. "Very mortal - they kill them after a year, pregnant or not." He waited for Sennary's smile, continued. "The question is, how did plants that grow in the protected salt marshes of Ca-Atl get washed up in the Lowlands? More to the point, who put them there - because it sure as magic didn't happen spontaneously. The Ca-Atlans wouldn't have done it themselves at any price, so someone else must have stolen cuttings and grown them secretly. To account for the kind of numbers that finally appeared in the wash of the Lowlandic flood, the herb must have been cultivated for decades in advance of its being used. And once the perpetrators were ready with enough plants, how long did they have to wait beyond that time before a Cold Sea deluge occurred of sufficient magnitude that they could use it surreptitiously to supply the Lowlanders with the raw materials for their own Bliss industry, and tie them to its charms?"
Sennary blew a silent whistle. "If what you suspect is correct, then the Elets are far more ambitious and calculating than anyone had previously imagined."
"That's why this emissary's visit is no small matter. I don't believe they will bluff; if they tell us they want the Lowlands left alone, they think they can support their bluster with action."
"I don't know." He rubbed the stubble on his chin with his thumb, a raking noise that spoke of his early start to the day. "We have magic; they must know that however good their army is, they can't prevail against us forever. Eventually, they'll be sliced."
Justan raised a hand. "Unless, for some reason, magic won't enter the equation. Remember what happened at the Erva? You weren't there, but..."
Sennary closed his eyes. So that was why Justan had brought him here. "Conley and Roween. They brought down the Messenger, and now you think they're going to help the Elets try to bring down you."
"I've discussed it with the Academy's theoreticians. Conley's reputation is formidable: if there is anyone in the world capable of tuning a wide-area antimagic blanket from this Roween's coarse, individual-specific spell, it's her."
Sennary bit on his tongue; of course, Justan didn't know Conley's secret. A question then rose in his mind: why was Roween tolerating Conley's presence at all, if, as she must, she knew the mage was a fraud? She wouldn't need a scrap of help from Conley to prove any spell in existence.
"Lord Sennary, you will have realised by now that I wish you to find both Dr Conley of Malith and her companion, Roween Sage, and to prevent them by force from interfering in any way with the use of magic. I would prefer you to keep at least one of them alive, but if circumstances prevent that then so be it."
Sennary was skidding through the possibilities, bought time. "I am relieved of my command?"
"You wanted to return to more active service, and this is your chance. You can draw on whatever resources you require, or even think you may require. A large army would be somewhat conspicuous, but a small unit, perhaps, moving at night?" He eyed Sennary, closely.
"No, no, it would have to be done solo." How can I justify that? "Nothing covert, subterfuge is out, we'd be recognised immediately for what we were, couldn't swing it. One person, moving alone, heavily armed and on a good horse, he could maybe get through without being taken. Enough of Porett's wakers, and I could travel virtually non-stop."
"So you know where to find these women: that's good."
"I have a sure idea, yes..." He suddenly remembered something. "The storm, I'll need to speak to Ansle, have him call it off."
Justan smiled, one-sidedly. "Don't concern yourself with the chancellor, Lord Sennary, he isn't reliable. Draw up your proposed route, and I'll personally ensure that it's clear of bad weather. The storm's creation will still proceed, but I intend to send it on to Elet: if everyone except you is mudding up under its effects, your quarry will be easier to overtake."
"It's that important?"
He nodded. "Paramount."
Sennary back-gripped the hilt of his sword. "I'll make preparations."
"You have three days."
"Three days?" That all?! "But I'll have to find an enhanced horse, fix up supplies, organise maps, get myself tagged..."
Justan was looking at him, patiently. "Time is not with us. I would have said leave tomorrow, the very day I expected you to arrive here, but I want you to listen to what the Eletic grand emissary has to say. I intend to use Porett's truth shots to find out exactly what the Elets know, and what they really intend to do. They may be hoping to gain some power over spells, but they may even have some Chaienish-like magic of their own. It might be that Conley is deeply involved, but perhaps she's merely an unwitting lapdog. Whatever the case, there is every reason to believe that at least something of what we discover will be of later use to you on your mission."
"I trust so, sir."
21st January 1999: isif62.htm