Chapter 68 Hat

        Sennary stood when the old man approached, but Justan the Great remained in his throne, silent. He signalled to his left; a lamb-fleeced chair slid gently across the Inquan carpet to rest two paces away, facing. His visitor nodded, slowly, wearily, and, after an open-armed bow, accepted the invitation to sit down. Sennary, to The King's right, followed.
        Justan spoke: "How precise of the Elets, to send a dying man as their grand emissary. A simple way of ensuring that imprisonment, torture and the like would have no effect on you at all." He smiled.
        The old man coughed, wetly, his lengthy beard shaking with the effort. "It is a tradition of my people," he wheezed, almost sadly. His bony hand raised a little, indicated the MSR inquisitor who had followed him in, now standing discreetly against the tapestried wall. "Yon spellwright, he is not required. These magics or yours," he waved at the shots on his temple, "they are ineffective. I can lie."
        Sennary glanced over to Justan, anxious. They'd tested the process late yesterday, one shot a minute, it had worked perfectly. Justan was scrutinising the emissary, eyes strong; without breaking his gaze, he raised an arm, pointed at the door. Head politely down, the army mage departed, backwards.
        "How do you do that?" The King asked, calmly.
        "Those adhesive patches, it appears they prevent one from saying what one knows to be false. They do not, however, prevent one from saying what one believes to be true, nor what one cannot determine. All things taken out of context may easily be thought of ambiguously. By framing words appropriately in my mind, I can say anything I choose. I granted it only fair to warn you, lest you assumed my guaranteed veracity."
        "I appreciate your candidness. Shall I order refreshments, or do you wish to begin our discussion?"
        "I shall state the Eletic point of view." He coughed again, phlegm gurgling in his throat, steadied himself. "Put plainly, the Elets, we regard the Lowlands as buffer states between our homeland and the world to the east. If you invade the Lowlands, we will come to their defence, and your empire will be destroyed as a consequence."
        Matter-of-factly. "You are aware, of course, that I have at my command an army of considerable size?"
        "It is large compared with those of other states, yes. It is not of any consequence in the absolute sense. Eighty percent of your population works on the land. These people are unable to fight, because if they did there would be no crops the following year, and famine would then be inevitable. Your army, it is therefore made up primarily of city people and nobles. The figures for Akrea and Estavia are better, because their farms are more efficient, but even they have forty percent of their people tied to the fields. Your army, it is also predominantly male, because most of your womenfolk fall pregnant to escape conscription - as would your menfolk, were it possible! Taking age constraints into account, you can perhaps at best wield an army numbering five percent of your total adult population. Of this, what fraction is currently required to keep the peace in your new territories? Would eighty percent be accurate, assuming your adoption of the Vitalists meets no resistance?" He hacked another cough. "The Elets, they all fight, even such as I. Is the population of your empire one hundred times larger than that of Elet?"
        Justan was looking to one side, knuckling his chin. He glanced back at the old man. "Probably, yes. Even were it not, I find your argument unconvincing. Will Eletic peasants fight today, knowing it means starvation tomorrow? Will parents abandon their children? Will the aged and infirm stand alongside the young? Will your people make no attempt to hold what they conquer?"
        "The Elets, when they attack, think of nothing but the death of their enemies. Death, mark, not mere defeat."
        "Once, perhaps, ten centuries ago. You're far too civilised now, I think, too soft to play the barbarian."
        "Can you be sure of that?"
        "Can you be sure of the opposite?"
        The emissary smiled, threw a liquid cough again.
        Justan leant back, deep into the velvet of his throne. "You must also be aware that I have magic at my disposal. You've seen the cloud I have mustered to the west; I could drown the Lowlands in a single night if I so desired."
        "You may be a megalomaniac, King, but you are no lunatic. Submerging the Lowlands would rob you of their wealth, and still would not prevent our counter-attack. It takes no more than considered preparation to defeat your battlefield magic, as the Messenger's army almost proved at Ganeizna Green; I can assure you that you'll have no chance to use it against the Elets. And at the more strategic, indiscriminate-destruction level, we are conversant with your plague spell and are taking the necessary precautions." He began to gesture, slowly but smoothly, his ancient hands creaking into place like weatherworn spokes taking strain in a wheel.
        Justan waited patiently for the light-prime to flash. He clapped, once. "Simple tricks, culled from child-school textbooks, are no defence against state-of-the-art meta-magic. I'm curious, however, to discover how you learned of our capabilities in that area."
        The Elet reached within the folds of his short cloak, withdrew a sheet of Porett-headed paper. Sennary jutted his chin. A secret pocket - the search had missed it? He flickered a smile as he recognised the green-brown of Hease and Eller tweed, a jacket reworked into a cape. Justan, unworried, took the note, casually read it.
        "This is interesting," he said, at length. "May I keep it? It could prove useful to me."
        The emissary hunched his shoulders. "It has served our purpose; do with it as you will. The lady Elidia, whose writing that is, I have for her a medicinal preparation. It is Lowlander in origin, and may facilitate her recovery. Can you arrange for her to be administered one drop a day, starting," he paused, "thirty days hence?"
        "It will be done." Justan held the paper to one side, released it into a controlled breeze that carried it softly out through the door.
        "There is more, King." The emissary coughed, long; he pulled out a handkerchief, emptied his mouth into it. He breathed deeply, cautiously, continued. "The Elets will attack you if you invade the Lowlands, as I have warned; immediate removal of climate control, it is a necessary precondition, to show your intent. We will also press attack if you do not put end to a certain practice: you have a way of mobilising the dead. An army of such creatures, in time, it could threaten us. You must cease their `production', and outlaw it."
        Justan folded his arms, tarried his reply while he gauged the pale, impassive blue eyes of the Eletic errant. He clicked his tongue. "You know many things, Grand Emissary, that are thought by some to be secret."
        Sennary felt embarrassingly uncomfortable.
        "We take an interest in your affairs... We know that Tetra Labs are working on a wide-area mind-scrambler that you have commissioned. We know that the Cadence consortium, formed to buy Agritech's pest- control division, is using its acquired expertise to design locusts which can survive northern weather, while flying always towards the setting sun. We know that Farmer's group at East/Trad has been thoroughly subverted, and is in the preliminary testing phase of a long-term invisibility spell - with comsphere guidance, I believe, rather cheeky of them, don't you agree?" He laughed, broke it into mucus. "In short, we have siphons on the spy networks maintained by you, Magicorp, Porett Technologies, Ansle of Malith, Lord Calter's Labs, MedSpell, KNews - indeed any individual or organisation with an interest in things magic."
        "That list is ... extensive."
        "We have many sympathisers, many spies, and have up till now enjoyed the advantage of not being suspected of piggy-backing on espionage rings. Now you know of our activities, though, you may be able to confound them, at least to some degree. We, however, need not concern ourselves with your reciprocal intelligence work in Elet, for indeed you have none! We document in detail all and everything about you, yet of us you know nothing. Is yours a sensible position from which to moot invasion?"
        Justan continued to study the old man. "A few chance-heard snippets - even educated guesses - could furnish those facts; they don't prove access to organised information-gathering nets. Cadence is run by Estavian financiers who thought they'd get into defence magic before it was too late; their locusts won't breed and are therefore useless. Tetra's scrambler has unpredictable effects on affected animals, birds and insects - probable as not they'll berserk anything still standing, for example the spellbinder..."
        "We have determined that the main issues are Porett's plague and the Academy's zombies. Both are usable without further modification. The virus, we can deal with that, but animation of corpses must cease."
        "Your request can be granted, of course. Consider, however, what you are asking of me. Were I not to invade the Lowlands, what would happen then? It is only perpetual war that keeps any semblance of order in my country. The mass of people are united, working together in common endeavour to defeat the `enemy'. They're bearing hardship, accepting harsh laws, and ignoring the suspension of long-held rights. They direct their energies against religious tyrants, decadent democracies, and wild barbarians; as they do, technology gathers pace, in ways which eventually may improve their lives. But what if there were no wars to fight? Without some focus, the people would lose their coherence and fall prey to manipulation by unscrupulous forces. Power would be wrested by faceless business conglomerates, criminal syndicates, secret societies and multi- faceted institutions that have long forgotten their original rôles. Perhaps, remaining among them will be a hand of independent individuals - a few aristocrats, mystics, Poretts. I, of course, would be overthrown with ease, or become a living statue only retrieved from storage when required for pageantry-related purposes. Justice would fall to the rot of corruption, with the law little more than a source of sometimes-useful excuses that may be convenient for cosily explaining the established factions' more noticeable excesses. And what of the people? The majority would be trapped in an existence of permanent wretchedness, with no access to, or any hope of obtaining access to, the technological or financial skills that would enable them to climb from their pit. Society would polarise: a small, privileged elite keeping down the great herd of uneducated nobodies, bleeding them; mercilessly and indifferently reacting to any real or imagined threat."
        The emissary showed no emotion. "When you run out of enemies, will it not happen anyway?"
        Justan head-pointed to Sennary. "My marshal here has made impressive progress in initiating democracy among the Purasans. Democracy brings with it a moral legitimacy which my own inherited position does not admit. If such a system were introduced throughout the empire, it would eventually grow strong enough to withstand all internal pressures. It could actually succeed in bringing together disparate nations for a lasting peace, crossing cultural boundaries in a way that business and criminal blocs would be unable to match. All I need to implement such a federation is time, but to gain enough of it I have to wage war."
        There was a long pause.
        "I'm afraid you are idealistic, King. Democracy without enforcement takes too long to work - at least one generation. If you hoist it on an inexperienced populace, things won't really change for years. The power-brokers at the top, they may disappear, but the petty politicians below will merely slide into the new governmental framework to carry on exactly as before. They will remain as corrupt, as lazy; they'll still give way to nepotism, graft and abuse of authority. In poorer areas - parts of the Messenger's shattered conquests - it is questionable whether democracy of any kind could even be contemplated without at least a decade of economic and agricultural reform - so disorganised and ill-fed are the folk who live there. Only by completely eliminating all personnel with counter- democratic attitudes could you hope to create a system from nothing that wouldn't immediately decay to totalitarianism or civil war. Do you really have the stomach to kill everyone who might be resistant to change?" He looked over to Sennary. "Do you?"
        Justan grimaced, coldly. "My own rank is doomed. Its validity will continually be threatened, and eventually I'll be destroyed. It matters not to me who has to die, so long as, in time, my subjects are safe, civilised, and free to rise as high as their talents determine."
        The emissary's eyes were moist, rheumy. "Were you not a king, you would have made a good king." He cleared his throat again. "We have analysed your situation. It is our assessment that you could wage a deliberately protracted war against Chaien for up to five years, a period amply long enough for you to secure your power base and eradicate your main enemies; a modicum of ruthlessness would be necessary, but you are well endowed with that particular quality. When ready, you could swamp Chaien, sweep westwards as far as Berea, and there consolidate your holdings. You would be able to live out the remainder of your days in comparative tranquillity, and die leaving your successor to worry about the empire's subsequent well-being.
        "An attractive scenario, my friend, but hollow. Your `assessment' is only superficial; have you details I can see?" The emissary shrugged, disinterestedly. "I thought not; I myself, however, have commissioned many studies, to examine all aspects of my position. The trends are not good. Without bold action soon, our society will collapse into either anarchy or corporate tyranny. Democracy lights the only path to a humane, enlightened future. At least it has that over your solution - I would be irresponsible indeed were I to allow my empire to implode upon my death."
        "You have not yet received the results of all your reviews. The Political Institute in Taltu will report in eight months: please wait until you hear what they conclude."
        "And afford you the opportunity to influence them? I think not, Grand Emissary. Besides, I fear I do not have the time; as of last week, my armies have been poised to strike at the Lowlands. If I hold them in check at this late stage, before their goal is complete, they may well rebel, depose me, and thereby plunge the whole empire into terminal darkness. They are not, however, expecting to attack Elet, and they never were. Elet is safe. But if I don't lead them into the Lowlands myself, they'll march in without me anyway."
        The old man rose, awkwardly. "I have delivered my message, King. Your future is yours to decide; the Eletic response will be automatic. Consider: if you fail to disperse yon rain cloud before a time seven days from now, we will go to war. If you do remove it, we will wait seven days from then for the complete destruction of your dead legion. This achieved, we will intervene thereafter only if you attack the Lowlands. Yours is the choice. Disregard us at your gravest peril." He raised a finger to his lips, shushed. "Make no wordly promises, King; we judge only by action."

* * *

        "Your opinion, Lord Sennary?"
        Justan had remained in silent thought for half a minute after the departure of the grand emissary; his sudden question caught Sennary off guard. Deliberate? "I haven't yet formulated one, sir."
        "The Elets are shrewd, and their society is more closed than ours. Many of the claims that were made here today were false, but some were true. The art is deciding which to accept, which to reject." He laughed, short. "Ha! This much for Lord Porett's truth shots!"
        "Will you accede to their petition? Abandon the Lowlands, impose democracy, purge all opposition without pity?"
        Justan sighed. "A king, introduce democracy? Faint chance, Lord Sennary."
        Sennary felt momentarily confused, puzzle-frowned until his vision crystalised. So. "Your talk of democracy was only for the benefit of the Elets." He shook his head, teeth bared. "You spoke well. I felt you had faith in your words." Perfidy.
        "The Elets are quite right, it does take too long for democracy to take a hold; beyond my lifetime, certainly - at least without a blood lake of the first order. The forcefulness with which I defended it, however, may cause them to reassess my position. I can now argue that I had little choice but to invade the Lowlands, yet have no intention of attacking Elet. I can profess my honourable aims, promise to vacate the Lowlands in the Spring, and the Elets may be disposed to believe me. They would never attack us so late in the year anyway; when the snows come, no army of any significant size can move."
        "So this meeting was a waste of time? You were always going to invade the Lowlands?"
        "Not at all. I might well have stopped at the Schaaldt had the Elets produced more substantial evidence of their ability to back up their threats. However, nothing the emissary said persuaded me that they had anything other than bravado in their armoury."
        "It can't all be bluff, sir."
        "They're over-confident. They think we'll have to fight by ordinary means, unable to call on magic all the time. They don't anticipate their plan's being known to us, and therefore don't expect we'll flaw it. However, Conley of Malith and Roween Sage will not reach Liagh Na Laerich; they will therefore not find whatever book it is they are, I assume, seeking; and they will thus be unable to formulate an antimagic gesture sequence for widespread use. They won't even cook a spell to counter Porett's plague. You will stop them. The Elets don't know that, can't therefore account for it, and it will be their downfall."
        "They know that I could find Conley whatever their security measures, and that I'm probably the only solo who'd recognise both her and Roween."
        "And also that you have a certain romantic `influence', yes. Additionally, they know that you're my eastern marshal, that you're indispensable, and that I'd be risking an uprising were you to abandon your post. You're so important to me that I even summoned you here to be present when meeting their emissary. They'll therefore reason that you cannot be spared, and that if I do suspect their game then I'll have to send in others instead. To this end, I have already recruited two bands of expensive mercenaries with orders to raze the Eletic library. Their number includes some of the finest attack mages in existence - the Elets would expect nothing less. The groups leave the day after you; they'll proceed separately, but one will be following in your tracks so as to explain some of the help I'll be giving you."
        "And who will take my place as marshal?"
        "You yourself suggested that the Purasan lands need little supervision; indeed, for a short period any territory can be relieved of the majority of its guard without serious risk of revolt." He leaned backwards. "I have decided to take the Lowlands by force of numbers. I shall move virtually all my armies west, storm the principalities in a matter of days, then return them; if it's all done with sufficient speed, only a wisp of an occupation army need remain behind. A few troubleshooting units of MSR- supported cavalry can douse any revolutionary fires that spontaneously ignite, and the regular army can take over once more upon its return.
        Sennary was frowning, but his mouth was a strained smile. "You've thought of all that just now?"
        Justan grinned, shook his head. "I've had it in mind since this morning. Within the week, I'll move the rainstorm to Elet, routing it over the sea so as to keep the Lowlands comparatively dry. Because of it, any troops the Elets have on stand-by will lose mobility and be powerless to reinforce the Lowlands when we subsequently move in. My heartfelt apologies will be relayed to the Elets without delay - the grand emissary has the necessary comsphere - and ready-prepared, sincere-sounding explana- tions will be made. Come Spring, we will know far more about our enemy, and should be able to launch an early surprise offensive. That will leave us with plenty of time for our major Summer campaign on two fronts against Talia and Chaien."
        "But if I fail to stop Conley and Roween?"
        "All depends on you."
        I doubt it, you'll have other safeguards... "Yet if I succeed? Will you release Porett's plague?"
        "The Elets must be made to think I will; it may hasten their surrender."
        "So you won't?"
        Justan smiled. "I would have to be drooling mad..."
        Sennary took that as a negative, hesitated. "And the undead?"
        "We don't have them in sufficient numbers. Against the Lowlanders, yes, perhaps, they may be effective for their shock value. My primary interest in them, though, concerns other matters closer to home..." He waved over his shoulder; someone appeared from behind a tapestry, a non-MSR mage.
        "So what will you do when you have your empire? How then will you keep control?"
        "I'll tell the people what they want, give them it, and then murder anyone who objects. Standard dictatorial practice. As the Elets' man said, my successor can worry about what happens after I die. Why should I care? My own place in history will be assured." Was his voice threaded with sarcasm?
        The mage bowed, Justan turned to him. "Round up everyone known to speak Eletic, excluding the grand emissary and his party. Those who live within a day's ride of here are to be brought to me. Otherwise, filter out the useful, put the rest to death."

Copyright © Richard A. Bartle (
21st January 1999: isif68.htm