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Five men sat around a circular table. The tabletop was of rose marble, the carved and elaborate pedestal legs of oiled and carved lorken so dark that it could have passed for ebony. Three of the men wore the blue-and-cream uniforms of the Southern Guard. The fourth wore the silver vestments of the Recorder of Deeds. The last was the Lord-Protector, who wore a tunic of violet blue, trimmed in cream, similar in cut and style to those of the officers.
The cold silver light of a winter sun flowed through the tall and narrow windows on the south side of the room, windows whose lorken casements were framed by rose marble columns. Under a white-plastered vaulted ceiling, rose damask covered the walls between the pillars framing the windows, but failed to impart warmth to the conference room.
"You have all heard and understood what the Recorder of Deeds has said, have you not? You know the limitations of the Table?" asked the Lord-Protector.
"It cannot show what will happen, and it can display only what is happening or what has occurred recently. Is that not so?" Marshal Wyerl paused and cleared his throat, then brushed back a short lock of light brown hair. Despite the lines radiating from his eyes, his clean-shaven face conveyed boyish charm. As almost an afterthought, he asked, "How recently?"
"Two or three days past are most clear," replied the older man in the silver vestments. "Most happenings can be recalled for a week. If an event has great impact on what will be, then it can be discerned for perhaps a month, even a year, but it is impossible to predict what events the Table will regard as having great impacts." The Recorder added, "It will usually not show anyone possessing great Talent, and even the results of their actions will show in silver shadows only for a few glasses or a day at most. Of course, by what is not shown, one can at times deduce the use of Talent by one's enemies."
The younger blond man, also wearing the uniform and insignia of a marshal in the Southern Guard, asked, frowning slightly, "Why does it not show those with Talent?"
"The Tables were designed and created at the height of the Duarchy by those with Talent. I would rather imagine that they did not wish it used against themselves." A dryness infused the Recorder's words.
"Do we face anyone with such Talent?" Marshal Wyerl inquired.
The Recorder of Deeds smiled faintly. "There are always those with Talent in Corus, but they are few indeed. The Matrial was the only one that the Table could not focus upon directly. Others may arise, but for the moment, all those with some vestige of Talent who oppose us can be discerned in the Table."
"Such as Aellyan Edyss?"
"The nomad warleader appears clearly in the Table," the Recorder affirmed.
The Lord-Protector cleared his throat and looked pointedly at Wyerl. "You were about to report, Marshal?"
"Yes, Lord-Protector." Wyerl squared his shoulders. "The Regent of the Matrial has fortified Dimor as well as the high road approaches on the south side of the South Branch of the River Lud and placed at least ten regular horse companies there. There are five foot companies, and possibly as many as another ten Auxiliary companies. They retain the terrible crystal spear-thrower." The marshal inclined his head toward the younger marshal. "Marshal Alyniat can provide more detail on the situation in Zalt and Southgate."
The Lord-Protectorthe youngest man at the table by at least a decadenodded.
"Lord-Protector," began Alyniat, "in one respect, we were most fortunate. Because the Recorder of Deeds discovered the crystal spear-thrower, we could alter our tactics. The siege of the fort at Zalt was effective in forcing the Matrites to retreat, but the Matrites were careful to use the spear-thrower to cover that withdrawal. We now hold Zalt, and it is largely intact, as is the fort there, which we have enlarged and reinforced. However…all those in Zalt have settled in Dimor and put their energies to strengthening it. With those forces, and the crystal spear-thrower remaining there, it is most unlikely we will be able to take Dimor in the next several years without an extraordinary commitment of troopers and supplies, and…" Alyniat paused, as if he knew his next words would not be well received. "I would strongly recommend against any such effort."
The Lord-Protector laughed. "You have delivered Zalt and Southgate when those before you failed. I accept your recommendation." His next words were slow and deliberate. "So long as we continue to hold Southgate." A brief smile followed. "Now, what of the seltyrs there? The ones who remained?"
"Seltyr Benjir vanished in the final attack on Southgate. None have seen him or his sons in the year since. The new advisory council to the Lord-Protector remains under the control of Seltyr Sinyen. They have accepted the rule of Lanachrona, and the change in tariffs. As you know, we had to execute several of the seltyrs and some of their families before they grasped the concept that bribing tariff collectors was no longer acceptable. Those who have accepted the rule of law, as opposed to the rule of coin, are prospering, and they will soon control most of the commerce of Southgate. We have been most careful to spare the women and to insist that they receive the same treatment as women do in Lanachrona." The blond Alyniat shrugged. "That also required some executions, but the women are most kind to our troopers and merchants, and, over time, we will have a most loyal province."
"My lady, and indeed, most of the women in Lanachrona, will find that pleasing," the Lord-Protector replied, before turning to the sole submarshal, a thin-faced older man with graying hair. "What of the shipyards and commerce?"
"We captured the shipyards without great damage, and to date we have completed three deep-ocean trading vessels. Two were already under construction. The first warship will be ready within the season, and we can build five more in the next year, if the coins are available."
"How many will be required to take Dramur?" asked the Lord-Protector.
"More than we can build in ten years," replied Submarshal Frynkel. "We will also have to develop a school or a system for training officers and crews for sea war."
The Lord-Protector frowned. "The problem of Dramur will not vanish, but we must also consider the growing strength of Aellyan Edyss. Already, we are receiving protests about the tariffs he is levying on trade along the Lost Highway. He is also beginning to take over sections of Ongelya with his new Myrmidons."
"That will take years," Frynkel pointed out. "Ongelya stretches over a thousand vingts from the northwest to its southeast border. His Myrmidons can only travel so fast on horseback."
"He has conquered all of Illegea in but a handful of years," replied the Lord-Protector.
"He now holds the northern third of Ongelya, and I would not doubt he will hold all of it within a year, if he so desires. There is little of worth in the south, not compared to, say, Deforya."
"Yet we hear of his depredations in the south," offered Frynkel.
"He may be spreading such reports to lull us into believing that, while he moves elsewhere," suggested Marshal Wyerl. "Most likely into Deforya. Why else would the Landarch have consented to sell his note from the Iron Valleys Council to the Lord-Protector?"
The Lord-Protector frowned.
Ignoring the expression, Wyerl continued. "Edyss already controls the Lost Highway. If he moves into Deforya and takes Dereka, he will gain control of the Northern Pass high road"
"And all land trade with Lustrea." The Lord-Protector nodded. "By tariffing both high roads, he can expand his coffers and purchase arms…But who would sell him arms? Certainly not the Praetor of Lustrea. We would not."
"Ah…Lord-Protector," interjected the Recorder of Deeds, "like the Iron Valleys, the Landarch of Deforya has iron mines. Unlike the Iron Valleys, the Landarchs have always maintained a foundry and an arms manufactory. Their weapons are excellent."
"But the Deforyans do not fight so well as the Iron Valleys Militia," added Marshal Alyniat.
"What would you four suggest, then?" The Lord-Protector's voice contained equal measures of amusement and exasperation.
"Just a message of support to the Landarch," replied Wyerl, "one perhaps hinting that the Lord-Protector stands by his friends, and that is why you relieved him of a nonproducing note with hard golds. But wait for Aellyan Edyss to act first. All view us with suspicion. If we act or press ourselves upon the Landarch, he may turn to Edyss as the lesser of evils. Also, his forces and the mountains that surround Deforya may defeat the nomad warrior. If so, then you are free to address whatever enemy is the most pressing. If not, and the Landarch requires support, send enough forces to be meaningful, but not so many as to look as if you plan to turn them against him."
"What of the Iron Valleys?"
"All the traders of Dekhron wish is the freedom to trade and gather golds. All the herders of their north wish is to herd and to be left in peace," said Wyerl slowly. "Surely, there must be a way in which those needs could be met honestly and fairly. Since you hold their note for, what, six thousand golds plus interest, you might even forgive most of it if they agreed to become a Lanachronan province."
"You think our Traders' Guild would accept them as equals?"
"One trader is like another. Our lands speak close to the same tongue, and neither their traders nor ours wish higher tariffs to support a war." Wyerl smiled. "You might even suggest that an additional tariff of but one part in twentyor fiftyis a small price for both sets of traders to pay for avoiding a war, and that you will pledge that the same laws that apply in Tempre and Borlan will apply in Dekhron, and, further, that no Southern Guards will be placed anywhere in the Iron Valleys, save upon the request of the Traders' Council of Dekhron."
"And what do we gain by such?"
"More tariffs, Lord-Protector, and the ability to move many of the Southern Guard companies to the eastern borders. You also avoid the cost of a war with the Iron Valleys, and that cost could be most high, as the late Matrial discovered."
"And what if they reject such?"
Wyerl smiled. "Then perhaps someone else should attack them, and you will offer condolences…and wait. You might also suggest that few will want to trade with them if they do not honor their debts."
The Lord-Protector laughed-explosively. "Bring me a plan, Marshal, and we shall see."
"As you request, Lord Protector."
The faintest trace of a sad smile played around the mouth of the Recorder of Deeds as the Lord-Protector stood to end the meeting.
Copyright © 2003 by L. E. Modesitt, Jr.