Consequences emerge from Aric's dalliance with Queen Ansha, some of them more obvious than others. Things heat up in Tabisthalia.
A clean chapter! This is more focused on bringing the plot of the novel to a head, although that won't really happen fully until the next chapter—but the pieces are all here, and I hope that this still seems... reasonable. Patreon subscribers, this should also be live for you with notes and maps and stuff.
Released under the Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license. Share, modify, and redistribute -- as long as it's attributed and noncommercial, anything goes.
The Valiant and the Bold, by Rob Baird. Part 5, "Scepters"
I was finding it increasingly difficult to square the various conflicts with one another. Obviously there was no way for me to deny that many Aernians had been let down by their rulers: the ruins of the Silk Row alone were testament to that.
But I did not—could not—believe that the Republican Society truly had the answer. Colonel K'nSullach and Hallun Couthragn were right to describe them as pawns. There wasn't really anyone I could talk to about my concerns… certainly not, as it were, 'in public.' But I crossed the Martel bridge to observe the rubble being cleared from time to time.
Every day, at least, there was less of it. We were making progress. I wanted that to be enough to mollify my concerns.
When Siron Yanisca found me there, her first comment expressed her surprise that the rumors of where I was had been accurate. “Strange place to spend your leave, Aric."
“It's that or the Iron Hall, though."
“We could try sailing again?" the otter suggested. “But I understand what you mean. Queen Ansha didn't want to go along with His Majesty? Or were you not invited?"
“She doesn't like hunting. I think she prefers the palace when it's quiet, too."
King Chatherral and the two princes were on holiday in the northwest; with the spring warm and pleasant, there was no telling when they might return. Ansha was spending the day at some high-society function or another. She told me she expected it to be tedious, and instructed me to take the day off—as she commonly did when she felt my presence would merely be an imposition on me, and add no value to her.
So I had come to the ruined quarter. Since the previous week more of the stones were gone, and the Temple of Artem had been knocked down completely. The streets were once again passable, and speculation had started about what might be done in the course of rebuilding.
“I was supposed to go with the king," Siron said. “Sometimes when they visit the northwest, they sail to Ailaragh, too. Always good form to make sure that's done with the appropriate pomp."
“They decided not to?"
“In any case, I was disinvited. I'm not too bothered—I can't shoot worth a damn, and it's not like they'd let me command the ship to the islands." She paused, surveying the scene before us. “All that being said…"
Siron stopped herself and, though I waited a few seconds for her to continue, nothing was forthcoming. A wagon arrived; workmen began loading it with debris. The tired-looking mules flicked their ears once or twice at the sound, but their equally tired driver didn't even manage that much.
“I wonder if I understand why you come here."
It was an odd way to have finally broken her silence. “What do you mean?"
“I could've been somewhere beautiful. I hear King Chatherral's hunting grounds are particularly well-kept. Some of them have been owned by the royal family for centuries. That's quite a privilege."
I nodded. “I imagine they're gorgeous."
“Of course, on the other hand, he could've been here, too. But why would he? It doesn't really matter to him. An old captain told me that when King Chatherral was younger, and the shipping lanes were safer, he'd make sure the families were taken care of after a wreck. That stopped. Do you think he stopped caring?"
“Maybe not in such blunt terms," I ventured. “Maybe it got to be too much."
“I think it's safe to say that nobody cares for the people who used to live here. The factory owners found out that you borrowed our explosives for the demolition work. They've been after Lord Ashenar for compensation." Siron scoffed and shook her head. “Can you imagine?"
“Most of them were insured for the buildings and machinery." That made it worse to me, though, I went on. The loudest voices had, truly, remarkably little stake in Tallachet—or in Tabisthalia, for that matter. If clearing the debris took too long they could simply relocate to Stanlira, or Tinenfirth, or one of the other big cities.
Looking at the rubble, I didn't think of the lost warehouses. I thought of the tenements we'd cleared—the people pleading that they had nothing else. None of them would think to petition Lord Ashenar and, if they did, nobody at the Admiralty would lose a moment's sleep for ignoring them entirely.
“The Republican Society is saying it's all a sign of how the people of Tabisthalia have been ignored. They're quite bold about blaming it on the king and the excesses of the Royal Guard."
“Do you agree?" Siron asked me. “Not the bit about the Guard—I'm sure we're of the same mind there. Would we be better off without a king?"
“I don't know. Awful as this is, it does remind me of what a whole bloody lot of Dhamishaya looked like when the Carregan Railroad was done with it. Let's say I'm not inclined to hand power over to the factory owners."
“Can't blame you, there."
“What strikes me most of all is how many are interested in saying the people of the quarter were abandoned, and how few of them really mean it. They just wish they were the ones in power to do the abandoning. But what can I do? What do you do?"
The otter sighed, patting me on the shoulder. “The best I can. I don't expect that to satisfy you, but it's all I have."
Two days later, my worst fears about the fate of the city came to a head. I was in Queen Ansha's room, waiting for her to finish a letter to one of the eastern lords, when an aide arrived with a message intended for the doe.
Watching her read it, and seeing her face darken, I felt a chill tense my stomach. Her fingers tightened as she read the note again. “By the Gods," she said at last. Her voice fell to a horrified whisper. “Please wait outside."
The aide bowed and silently left us.
“The camp in Sylvethia Park rioted," Ansha explained, voice still soft. Sylvethia Park, towards the outskirts of the city, was where nearly a thousand survivors of the fire had settled. “Asking for an answer about where they can go or what will be done for them."
“I take it the constables responded badly?"
“They killed at least twenty people, and cast the rest out. Gods, what horror this is—to lose everything, and then to lose it again? They're our citizens! We're supposed to be responsible for them. I… I need to do something, Aric. I should visit them." She set her jaw, setting the note aside and getting to her feet.
“Should I send for an escort?"
The suggestion brought her to a halt. She turned slowly to me. “I suppose…"
“I can't protect you by myself, Ansha. Especially not if they're given to riot."
The doe sighed heavily, and sat back down. “Yes, of course you're right. I don't know what I would be doing, anyway. Trying to keep up my considerate appearance? It's a scandal how badly we've responded to this all, though."
“What was really expected?" The survivors were already being provided with food, and shelter where it was necessary. At Ansha's insistence, mothers with young children had their rent paid from the royal treasury.
The sight of the rubble in Tallachet still unsettled me, and I held to what I'd told Lieutenant Commander Yanisca: few indeed were truly given to care about the victims. Ansha herself appeared to be one of them; she'd done plenty. And when all was said and done, a force of tremendous destruction had swept through the quarter. Its effects simply could not be reversed immediately.
Queen Ansha didn't answer my question directly. Instead she said, simply, that something has to be done—and ordered me to accompany her as she went to the chambers of the Old Council.
I was not permitted inside the room, so I waited outside at attention. Nobody disturbed me—nobody even passed by. I heard raised voices from within the chamber, but the heavy door was well-insulated and it proved completely impossible for me to determine what any of them were saying.
Two hours went by before Queen Ansha reemerged, by herself. Her expression was fixed in the fiercest, scowling glare I'd ever seen from the doe. She shook her head fiercely when I opened my mouth to ask what had happened, and began briskly walking back in the direction of her residence in the Iron Hall.
The time spent motionless had locked up my legs, and she was moving swiftly. By the time I was mobile again, I had to jog to catch up to her. Ansha's breath whistled from her nose in shallow, angry panting.
She dismissed her attendants with a sharp, stabbing gesture towards the open door. The ladies-in-waiting didn't even bother asking—they fled like startled birds, and Ansha slammed the door shut behind them.
“Bloody useless idiots!" she snapped.
“The Old Council?"
“Unacceptable. Even Nantor stood his ground. That fucking prick. That pompous, arrogant, lapdog of a duke—like he'd know what Tullen wants! Like any of them know what the king himself desires?"
It was more anger than I'd ever seen from her. “May I inquire about the topic of discussion?"
“How irrelevant the Old Council is," she fumed. “That was the topic of discussion!"
She sighed, at last, and sat down. After a few sips of wine, she'd calmed enough to tell me that she'd gone to the Old Council to release money for rebuilding Tallachet. Obviously, judging by the state in which she'd left the chamber, the doe had been rebuffed.
“Even though this should already have been settled! The Old Council pledged to manage the reconstruction. Nantor promised it to me directly—his bargaining chip for keeping my husband on his hunting expedition."
“That was not the king's choice?"
Ansha shot me a look. “How much of anything is truly his 'choice,' Aric? He does what his friends tell him to, and Arkenprince Tullen 'gently suggested' that he remain in the west while the city settles down."
While, she did not say, more competent authorities undid the worst of the damage and pacified the building mobs. As she'd hinted, the king's kindness was tempered greatly by his susceptibility to those around him.
In the barracks at Cassalmure, I was beginning to hear rumors about unrest in the Midlands: unhappy towns, with their mayors unable to act without instructions from the king. Protests, and acts of vandalism—mild, for now, but worsening.
And the city, at the epicenter of it all, certainly hadn't settled down; the Sylvethia massacre demonstrated that. In Queen Ansha's view, the rising pressure from the displaced only magnified the need to expedite their relief.
“But the Old Council doesn't see it that way," I ventured.
Her fingers clenched on the wineglass. “No. They do not. The Royal Treasury is strained, according to those august princes. We simply do not have the money. And they refuse to authorize any funds without the consent of the king."
I nodded. “Would I be greatly mistaken if I assumed that, at the same time, Duke Cirth-Arren is hesitant to recall His Majesty to the city?"
“You would not be mistaken. He has a point," Ansha sighed. “My husband might not do much to make things better. I'd rather he be safe, and distant. But that's no excuse for doing nothing. Not while people are suffering. We have to be able to do something to help them."
The Republican Society's 'office' was in the smoking lounge of the department of history at King Rawlon's College. On arriving I was told to wait; the lounge attendant left me alone in the empty room.
It was dark and stately: refined, but not opulent. One of the walls had been decorated with a sequence of maps, each of them showing the extent of the Iron Kingdom at some point in time. The most recent had not yet yellowed. On it, Aernia's reach now included the former Dhamishi Bhiranate.
Including that colony required depicting a far larger section of the world—not just the Aernian homeland but the Menapset Desert, and the Low Kingdom, and all the other nations that carved out spaces in the intervening forests and wastelands.
Much of the map was empty, and that tugged my attention towards the yet-unwritten. Something about the starkness of those spaces next to the vibrant hue of Aernia proper suggested to me that they were not merely blank, but waiting for the Iron Kingdom's embrace.
I did not know what message the mapmaker intended to convey. For me, though, seeing Aernia's expansion reminded me that we had been a kingdom for the entirety of our existence. The steady hand of the Lodestone Sovereign had charted the course that brought us to the present day, and the color that stretched Aernian influence far off to the southern jungles.
When the door opened at last, I was joined by half a dozen men. One of them wore a simple tunic and trousers: except for the weasel's fur, flawlessly white as it was, he could've come from working in one of the city's foundries. All the rest had the kind of appearance I expected from Tabisthalia's upper class.
The weasel held his paw out for me to shake. “Mr. Laner? I'm Davesh Calchott. But 'citizen' is my preferred appellation, or 'Davesh' if you require it. This is Mr. Barnard, Mr. Korydd, Mr. Riddea, Mr. Habbeth and Mr. Witish." He introduced all of them in turn; none, I noted, offered their own paws.
“It's nice to meet you," I said, ignoring the mild slight. They were, after all, my betters, even if Calchott hadn't provided any of their titles.
“I'm the head of the Tabisthalian Republican Society," Calchott went on. “We don't really have a proper office, as you've seen, but I really do like this place. It has an air of… solemnity. Wouldn't you say?"
“I would," I said, nodding. “I haven't been here before."
“I hope you enjoy it." Calchott gestured towards an ornate oaken table, evidently prepared for our meeting. As we walked, he continued talking. “I love the artifacts, in particular. Take the maps, for example! I look at them and I see the triumph of the Aernian people. All of us! It never fails to remind me that we're truly owed our equal station in the country's affairs. But, of course, that's just my opinion."
“And we were called here for a reason," Mr. Korydd grumbled. The old hare was the first to take his seat. “Perhaps you would make it quick."
“Ah… perhaps." Chastened, Davesh Calchott hurried to settle into a chair. “Mr. Laner, you had a message, right? I was told to expect a soldier."
“In the Royal Army. I'm detached at the moment to the Iron Hall. It was decided that a neutral party would be better to present this message, I believe." I deliberately used the passive voice, even though I was certain they could already guess on whose behalf I spoke.
Ansha had told me to keep the proposal simple. On the one hand, the Lodestone Sovereign believed in his divine responsibility to the general public, and taking care of them after the fire in Tallachet was certainly part of that. On the other, certain voices in the city had been demanding additional power, and perhaps a balance could be struck.
“If the Republican Society can arrange funding for the reconstruction of Tallachet, the government is prepared to grant a measure of autonomy to this city. In particular, the establishment of the mayorship as an elected position, rather than an appointed one. And, with that, the mayor's prerogative to decide matters of land ownership and use."
“And the crown would renounce their authority over Tabisthalia?" Calchott prompted. “Recognizing its true owners as the city's residents?"
“Yes. Of course, Tabisthalia is still in Tabis-Kitta, and Tabis-Kitta is still part of Aernia—it isn't as though the capital city would be made independent."
The ermine nodded eagerly. “But still—it's a monumental step in the right direction! The Society definitely felt that something like this was possible. That's why I asked these men to join us."
Mr. Korydd, I learned, represented the Royal Aernian Telegraph Company. Mr. Barnard spoke for the Carregan Transcontinental Railroad. Mr. Riddea was with the Shipwright's Guild, Mr. Habbeth belonged to an association of factory owners in the eastern quarter, and Mr. Witish's family owned a large investment firm.
Riddea, a distinguished-looking otter with thin glasses balanced on his velvet pelt between sharp eyes and neatly trimmed whiskers, cleared his throat. “Autonomy must include removing the Royal Army from within the city limits. The entire Royal Army, including the Guard."
“This is not, as such, a negotiation, sir, I'm afraid. I'm not really qualified to debate specific details. This is what the government is offering."
“So this is how seriously they're taking us," Korydd snorted. “Some damn servant."
Davesh Calchott raised his paws. “Please. Mr. Laner is a soldier. He serves this country, and he deserves our respect. Now—"
“Spare us," the hare shot back, rolling his eyes. “Fine, Laner, we don't have to know all the details. We'll have to work it out on our own. There won't be complete agreement here in this room over everything. The franchise, for one—what limits it?"
“All citizens residing in the city, of course," Calchott said at once. “I thought that would be clear."
“Paying citizens," Korydd countered. “There's plenty who don't—especially in Tallachet. If they're not paying taxes, I see no reason why they should be able to decide the mayorship."
Barnard, of the Carregan Railroad, nodded and rapped his fist on the table to signal agreement. “Hear, hear. Especially not with so bloody many of them. We'd be swamped. That part is absolutely critical for the Railroad."
Calchott raised his paw gently—aiming, I gathered, for respectful acknowledgment of the wolf's position. “They would have a vote, Mr. Barnard, because they live here, and would be subject to those rules. The entire point is that a representative government must represent—"
But the wolf wasn't having it. His muzzle curled. “Not this again. Calchott, your bizarre obsession with the nobility of gutter trash needs to stay in your pamphlets. The 'entire point,' as you say it, is that the present sovereign has utterly and reprehensibly neglected investment in the capital city. The rail depot is a catastrophe, and we're not even permitted to discuss its expansion even though we've known for fifteen years it's well over-capacity."
“Aye," Habbeth agreed. He was older than the wolf—Barnard seemed around my age—and lacked his canines, but the buck was just as fiery. “And the property tax on factories along the river is pure extortion. Now, do you mean to fix that, Davesh, or are you wasting our time?"
“Well… well, it can all be discussed," Calchott stammered. “The point of the matter is that they're willing to talk. I'm hoping we can say with some certainty a few of the very fundamental details. With sufficient concessions, can we—or can we not?—find the money to rebuild Tallachet?"
Witish, of the investment company, sneered that money was easy: the concessions were hard, especially without knowing what they were. But they all, gradually, understood themselves to be in a position of relative power. If what Ansha offered wasn't entirely suitable, at least—for the first time—there could be dialogue on the matter.
Calchott also reminded the men that they had no other options. “A deal like what we're hearing now is how we restore power to its rightful owners," he said, without further commentary on who, exactly, he held those to be. “What else would you do? You can't take it."
Barnard raised his eyebrows. “We could. It just wouldn't be pleasant."
“Or profitable," the weasel quickly added. “Right? But it won't come to that. You know it, and I know it. This is our peaceful opportunity. We need to make the most of it."
Davesh Calchott steered the discussion back to this point time and again as the afternoon wore on. Spirits improved markedly after the first round of whiskey. Calchott and I were the only ones to decline. I did so because I was still on duty. Davesh, I suspected, abstained because he saw just how precarious his hold on the others was.
For the last hour I said nothing at all, and he said scarcely more. Habbeth and Witish wound up in a detailed conversation about the actual rebuilding of the neighborhood, and whether the tenements would need to be replaced. Honestly, I don't see why, Habbeth muttered. Too good land for useless people.
It was one of several instances in which I saw Calchott open his mouth to say something and think better of it. The core of the question had been settled, and it was with that certainty that I returned to Queen Ansha. Given control over Tabisthalia's affairs, the capitalists were willing to rebuild Tallachet.
“Good," the queen said. “Now we can go back to the Old Council and get them to agree to it."
I cocked my head. “They haven't already?"
“They can't agree on whether their eyes are open or shut without a day's debate and a ten-course dinner, Aric." She was settling the crown on her head, getting ready to make her way over to the council's chambers. “But, with a proposal from the Republican Society guaranteeing they don't have to spend one precious pound of the Royal Treasury, they won't have any problem. They've wanted to be rid of governing the city for decades, anyway. This is just like getting them to send aid to Alethna—all we have to do is find a way to make it sound like their idea to begin with."
She made it sound simple enough, although I thought that the Old Council might have some more objection now that her suggestion involved yielding to less palatable parts of Aernian society. But I trusted her, and sat quietly to wait.
Lady Suttin waited with me, leafing silently through one of Queen Ansha's books of poetry. I couldn't tell if she was even reading it—she seemed on edge, more than I at least, and when someone rapped sharply at the door the vixen looked startled.
Then, regaining her composure, she rose and went to the door to open it. “Greetings, your grace. Her Majesty is not in, at present."
“I know, Nara." I heard Nantor, Duke Cirth-Arren's voice. “What about her escort, Major Laner. Is he here?" She pushed the door open and the bear entered as I stood, coming to attention. “So you are. No, at ease. Did Queen Ansha send you on an errand earlier today, major?"
He frowned deeply, turning to the vixen. “Give us the room." After she'd left, he indicated that I should sit down again, and took a seat facing me. “What was the errand? Were you sent to the Republican Society?"
“They requested independence for the city in exchange for financing the reconstruction of Tallachet? And you brought that proposal back to the queen?"
I thought I could see what he was really asking. “No, sir. Not exactly. I brought the proposal back, yes, but it came from Ansha herself. She told me that presenting it as though it had come from the Republican Society would make it more palatable to the Old Council."
Nantor shut his eyes tightly. “What the fuck was she thinking?" Suddenly it was all too obvious why he'd asked for privacy—his voice carried, and I was only more certain of the fury in it at the blazing heat of his glare. “She told you that, did she?"
“Because in the Old Council, they're wondering why the Republican Society is attempting to usurp the authority of the king in Tabisthalian affairs. We're already dispatching constables to round up the members we know of—Gods, why would she think this was a good idea?"
I said nothing.
Nantor steeled himself. “Why? Do you know?"
“She was unhappy that the Old Council has taken so long to finance the rebuilding in Tallachet, especially after the uprising in Sylvethia."
“Which has compelled us, already, to take separate action. Sometimes I think she doesn't consider—no. Forget I said that, major. Thank you for being candid. I can't say what the… consequences of this will be, yet, but… we'll manage them."
I did not know what the consequences would be, either, but I found out two days later when K'nSullach ordered her senior staff gathered at a hastily organized meeting. There were more officers at Cassalmure than I'd ever supposed.
The Royal Guard had other duties beyond protecting the monarch and his family—they also watched the princes, and managed the royal carriages and their escorts, and took care of administrative affairs too significant for city constables to handle. My assignment kept me relatively isolated, though: the meeting K'nSullach called also was the first time I'd met many of my colleagues. I knew them only by name.
Colonel K'nSullach was agitated. Her ears were up, and they twitched at every sound outside the room. When the last person arrived, the Border Collie stabbed her finger at an empty seat; the hapless captain took it hurriedly.
“Last week in the general memo I told you all that I was worried about the rumors of unrest in Tabisthalia and the suburbs. It's gotten worse. This morning, we raided a house in the New Quarter and uncovered a cache of weapons and gunpowder. We were tipped off by a loyal citizen who says it's not the only one of its kind."
The cache was only twenty-six muskets, and twenty balls apiece for them. But we all understood the weapons, by themselves, were not the problem. Someone had smuggled them into the city. The house's owner, now under arrest, claimed to know nothing about who had rented the room from them.
Our commander was not inclined to speculate. She told us that we were to travel armed, and always in groups of at least four. And we were to report anything out of the ordinary to her at once, no matter what our other assignments happened to be. Further, she wanted us to trade in our ceremonial uniforms for something more functional.
This last one was the most startling, and from a glance around the room I saw I wasn't the only one to have detected the significance. Our garish dress was one of the things that legitimized the Royal Guard's presence in what was intended to be a demilitarized city. Even if everyone in the room still held a commission in the King's Own Army, something had changed.
“I've invoked my authority to call up additional troops. The Old Council will approve it at an exceptional session this morning, and send word to His Majesty. Over the next few days, I intend to establish a strengthened regiment at Cassalmure. Until then, we have to be careful. With Major Harrell and his command accompanying the king, we're undermanned here. Major Laner."
I straightened in my chair. “Ma'am?"
“I'm detaching Captain Cavell's first and second platoons and assigning them to you. Make sure the Iron Hall is safe. Lay in supplies and prepare a report for me on its defensive readiness."
“Captain Cavell, you'll take over assembling whoever shows up at Cassalmure into something that looks like it can fight. Sergeant-Major Perran will help you. Captain Sergid, ride to Fort Athin and bring their cannon back here at once. They should have six twenty-pound batteries."
The fox blinked and stammered. “Cannon?"
She did him—and us—the benefit of pretending he was startled merely by his own selection at the task. “You're the only one with experience in the artillery, captain. The fort's commander already knows we'll be taking the guns."
She parceled out orders to the others: shoring up the defenses at Cassalmure itself, assembling and guarding depots closer to the city, readying the field hospital. To Major Granjan, our liaison to the city constables, she left the most unsettling order, a request to inform the constables—and by extension the mayor—that they should open the ominously named 'red-stamped letter.'
Colonel K'nSullach held me back when the rest of the Royal Guard had left. “Some at the palace might try to get in your way. You have Duke Cirth-Arren's support—he got Arkenprince Tullen to propose the order authorizing these measures. Use him, if you need to."
“I need your complete honesty, major. Has the queen said anything—anything—that might be of use? Anything about who might be bringing weapons into the city? Who they might intend to wield them?"
“No, and nobody I met with in the Republican Society gave me any impression that something was being planned. But that might have changed."
“Yes." The Border Collie lowered her ears and closed her eyes for a second, gathering her thoughts. “It's going to get worse, then, particularly with the arrest of their leaders. The Society has been distributing handbills in the restive districts. They don't make threats, they say nothing specific, but they 'remind' the reader that the king's wealth should belong to the people of his domain."
“Will anyone believe that?"
“Some will. Some others will be upset that those caught posting the bills have been detained. Those malcontents will doubtless join the people rather justifiably aggrieved by the excesses of the constables."
K'nSullach fretted because she didn't know whether it was all tied together—whether there was an actual goal at work. By themselves, those displaced by the fire had understandable grievances, and the city could deal with them. Despite the rhetoric at the meetings I'd attended, there was no logical reason that the demands of the victims and the demands of the Republic Society in general should be thought of as related.
But by imprisoning the leadership of the Republican Society, the city's government ensured that its free members now had grievances of their own, more closely aligned to open suppression. At least, K'nSullach told me, none of the Republican Society had resisted when confronted by the constables.
“And they're neither numerous, nor well-armed," I pointed out.
“No. But the greater concern of mine is that it spreads beyond the capital city, and I could see that happening. Similar reports are coming from Garstead now. I won't be able to count on any reinforcements from the province."
“Protests and angry letters, for the moment," she said. “But the Royal Army is being asked to keep the peace there. If the Guard is seen as oppressing the downtrodden of Tabisthalia—if there's a repeat of the Sylvethia Park incident—and I depleted the local garrison to help do that…"
I saw what she meant. But what could I do but hope that it didn't come to that? I promised to do what I could at the Iron Hall, and to send regular updates on our preparations. And then, suppressing my gnawing unease, I went back to Kenley Hill.
“Fortify the palace? For what reason?"
“Security, lieutenant. The safety of the royal family."
“Well—where's Captain Sergid, then?"
“Sent to Fort Athin for supplies. We need to begin work here, until he returns."
Lieutenant Franklyn looked plainly uncomfortable. “What kind of work?"
I quickly realized the driving motivation behind Colonel K'nSullach's selection, though she hadn't been impolitic enough to say it outright. Pærtha Franklyn was a young dog, probably too young for his commission; influential parents had nudged him in the direction of the Royal Guard. Under Sergid's command, he'd been responsible for little more than checking to make sure palace visitors were attended to.
At Cassalmure, though, the colonel had been able to operate without such constraints. Lissa Cavell, overall commander of the garrison, was competent and bold. I recalled her appearance during the fire in Tallachet—how her side had been soaked with blood from an injury sustained in evacuating the quarter's residents, and how willing she'd been to carry on regardless.
That gave me greater confidence in the two platoons K'nSullach had detached. Lieutenant O'Rathess arrived with her men first. The badger balked when I directed her to begin fortifying the palace's outer walls—not because she misunderstood me, but because she understood me far too well.
“Iru's much better for that, sir. I can start, but he's like as not to tear the whole thing down."
“Yes, sir—he's an engineer from the Ruovanians. Captain Cavell relied on him heavily for reworking the barricades at Cassalmure."
“Yes, I know. He helped with the Tallachet fire, too."
Lieutenant Marcorring was only an hour or so away, so I elected to wait. O'Rathess and I walked the perimeter of the Iron Hall, examining its lines of fire. Given her accent, I wasn't terribly surprised to learn the badger came from the Aernian March. I was more surprised that, officially, she still served in one of the borderland militias instead of the Royal Army.
“It is uncommon," she admitted, and explained further as we conducted our survey. K'nSullach asked for special permission to have a few dozen borderlanders inducted into the Royal Guard, where their talents made up for areas in which the detachment was otherwise lacking.
“Cavalry?" I guessed.
The badger grinned, gesturing to herself with a broad sweep that called attention to her stout limbs. “I don't have much reach with a saber, unfortunately. The Banner of Ash Grove doesn't ride if we can help it. We have a reputation for marksmanship, and a long hunting tradition. I was supposed to train the Royal Guard."
“How have you fared?"
“My platoon would almost pass muster as reservists under the Ash Grove banner, and I mean that in all respect to them."
“What do you think of the Iron Hall? Don't spare me."
“The outer wall can't be held with a full regiment, let alone two platoons."
But she agreed with me, too, that if we gave up the wall fighting in the palace's inner courtyards would be messy and dangerous. If they'd ever been trained in hand-to-hand combat, most of the soldiers in the Royal Guard were badly out of practice.
Lieutenant Marcorring—as O'Rathess had predicted—came to different conclusions. In his view, there was no advantage to the outer perimeter. The bear pointed out that Kenley Hill was in the middle of the city, and with all the buildings around most of the approach was already going to be spent in cover.
Consequently, as far as he was concerned, time and manpower would be better spent turning the Iron Hall into an improvised fortress. He recommended stockpiling weapons, and preparing defensive plans for the inevitability that the outer wall would be breached.
I agreed, partly in deference to his expertise. At the same time, when I spoke to her Queen Ansha reminded me that nothing was certain to happen whatsoever. We were not preparing for an impending and unavoidable assault, we were hedging our bets in case the constables weren't able to restore order.
“I have my doubts that they'll be able to," I said.
Ansha nodded. “So do I. I don't think the people are any more satisfied now than when they first petitioned us. But perhaps we'll be able to talk to them. Perhaps the Old Council will find a way to assent to their demands without viewing it as some kind of surrender."
Perhaps. I held out hope that nothing in the city would truly boil over. But as the day wore on, and more of the Royal Guard arrived, I judged their number—and their experience—against the weight of the masses gathering on the outskirts of the city.
For now they remained relatively scattered: continued good weather meant the light shelter of their hastily improvised tents was enough to keep the refugees safe. And of course, I knew that for the most part they were all just trying to survive, not interested in launching some kind of rebellion.
Whether or not I thought a peaceful outcome still remained a possibility didn't change my conviction that Ansha should not be around to witness it in person. I left Marcorring marking out the contours of a trench to be dug through the palace gardens and went back to Ansha's quarters.
“It's not safe for you here. You should go."
Ansha neither bristled nor shook her head, giving no sign of irritation or slight. But her tone was firm. “I will not. I'm staying here, Aric."
“My responsibility is to protect you, Ansha."
Her voice stayed level; so did her gaze. “I understand that. But my responsibility is to the citizens of the Iron Kingdom. I would be no queen worthy of the title if I abandoned them for my own safety. I shall remain in the palace, Major Laner. Do as you will."
“Yes, Your Majesty." Colonel K'nSullach wouldn't be happy—but then, she'd known such a possibility existed. Queen Ansha at least agreed to keep me informed of her whereabouts—and promised to not so much as leave her wing of the Iron Hall without letting me know first.
Despite her stubbornness in remaining, therefore, I felt she understood the gravity of the situation. Intermittently I received updates from Cassalmure. First, that another cache of weapons had been discovered and destroyed. Then, that the building's owner had been shot attempting to escape.
Finally, that men were gathering again in Sylvethia Park. The city's constables were hesitant to engage them—not, I had to grant, without cause. Instead the police had withdrawn to a perimeter a few blocks away, content to monitor the goings-on. That first night, I slept fitfully, waking twice at what I thought were the sounds of distant gunfire and proved to be nothing so much as footfalls.
Just after breakfast we learned the harbor had shut down due to concerns that it might come under attack. By lunch it was open again, the rumor mill having moved on to other things… but incoming traffic paled next to the laden ships and cargo wagons leaving the city.
Lieutenant Commander Yanisca provided that update herself the following morning, having traveled incognito from the docks. “Merchants are always skittish," the otter said. “But it's where they're going that strikes me. They're all heading east. Only a few ships are headed for Ailaragh or Barland."
“How…" I chose my words carefully. “How cautious do you want to be in interpreting those omens?"
Her smile was thin; a mirthless grimace matched to darkening eyes. “I think it could be bad, Aric. It's not a question of trusting the Royal Navy, for them. It's a question of who they trust when they put into port."
“Does that mean the east might have something to do with this? The Governor's League? The private armies?"
“Don't ask me. I'm a simple southwesterner," she reminded me. “I can't say. All I can say is the Royal Navy isn't expecting traffic to our western harbors from Tabisthalia. There aren't any reports of the Signalers or the Iron Corps mobilizing, are there?"
“Don't ask me—I'm a simple guardsman," I said, echoing her own protest. “Colonel K'nSullach says the Royal Army remains stood down, and she hasn't mentioned the mercenaries. I imagine they're treating this as a local affair for as long as they can."
If I wanted to speculate more incautiously, the merchants were sailing east because they expected the uprising to become open. And when it did, they feared having their cargos impounded by vindictive leaders in the Aultlands. Concerns, unfortunately, that were likely not unfounded.
Shortly after Yanisca left, Lieutenant Marcorring appeared. Any hope that he was simply updating me on his work vanished when I saw his look. “Major Laner, a message from Cassalmure. Armed men are on the move from Sylvethia Park. They've swept aside the barricades and the constables believe they mean to make for Kenley Hill."
“How many of them?"
“We don't know, sir. Hundreds. Colonel K'nSullach requests that you return to Cassalmure immediately."
I left defense of the palace to Lieutenant O'Rathess, ordering the positions manned until we had more information. I told her that the Guard was not to fire first—to respond only if they, or the royal family, were directly and immediately threatened.
In the heat of battle, that would be difficult to discern, and we both knew it. But O'Rathess promised to do her best. I followed the messenger back to where his carriage—a requisitioned cab, I saw, nothing identifiable as belonging to the Guard—was waiting.
Tabisthalia's streets were eerily desolate. I saw constables on a few corners, looking nervous—and, I couldn't help but notice, unarmed. The mood was palpably tense.
“Has anyone been hurt?" I asked the messenger.
He shook his head. “Probably, but accurate information is difficult to come by."
“Do we know their leaders? Their aim?"
“The colonel says she has information, but she wouldn't disclose it to me in case…" He swallowed, nervous. “In case something happened."
As we crossed from Kenley Hill to the western outskirts of the city, it was clear we both felt the weight of just such a possibility.
Cassalmure buzzed with greater activity than I'd ever seen before. It was hard to know if that was reassuring or not: if I thought that we might be able to bring the situation under control, or if the mere presence of so many armed men was a sign that we'd already lost the opportunity to do so.
Colonel K'nSullach wished first to know what had been done to secure the Iron Hall. I told her everything that we'd been able to manage, considering our limited manpower. The Border Collie kept her unflappable demeanor about her. “What does Marcorring say?"
“Lieutenant Marcorring is optimistic that the inner walls can be held for a few days, at least, depending on what the opposition is. We assumed, at the time, it was… rabble."
“It is rabble, major." Six hundred men and women, most of them survivors of the fire and most of them armed with little more than torches. The constables, K'nSullach said, had not been overwhelmed, not even by sheer weight of numbers.
Instead, in her judgment, they had simply abandoned their post. For a heartbeat, little more, disgust was plain on the Border Collie's muzzle. With the city's police in retreat, the mob was advancing quickly, making their way straight towards the heart of Tabisthalia.
“You weren't able to make any progress in compelling the queen to leave, I suppose?"
“No, ma'am. She was quite… resolute."
K'nSullach tensed and set her jaw. Clearly she wished to add her own opinion to my choice of adjectives—but she held back. “We captured someone from an Alurethian cell. Their objective is the queen herself."
“They're gambling on two different things. To start with, they think Queen Ansha will surrender to them rather than risking bloodshed on Kenley Hill… not simply from the sake of tradition, but because she presents herself as a friend to the vulnerable. Then, they gamble that King Chatherral will be willing to offer substantial concessions in order to win her release."
Even before Colonel K'nSullach asked me, I knew that neither 'gamble' was especially risky. If the alternative was repeating the massacre in Sylvethia Park, Ansha would order Lieutenant O'Rathess to stand down and give herself up to the rebels. And even if neither of us were willing to say it aloud, Chatherral wasn't nearly strong enough to resist giving in to whatever would be asked of him.
They asked for simple things, some of them ones in the proposal I'd first taken to the Republican Society: that the mayor of Tabisthalia be elected, rather than appointed. That the Governor's League be given a seat on the Old Council, though not one with a vote. And, last of all, that the League be 'consulted' on the process of succession.
I cocked my head. “I'm not sure what that means, even."
“They want it to appear as though they might have a say in the matter. They do not. And, mind you, none of these demands are official. They won't put them in writing until the queen is in captivity. So we need to act quickly. That's why I summoned you."
“What do you want me to do, ma'am?"
She left her office and made for the stairs that led to the fortress's walls. The Border Collie halted at the parapet, waiting for me to come along side. And then, she nodded. Someone must've been watching, for a bugle sounded from further down the wall.
Before us were four columns of men, eighty or so to a column, and while I saw no standards they were all in the uniform of the Royal Army. Just behind them two dozen wagons waited. These, too, were unmarked—and slightly odd-looking, heavier than the Army's cargo wagons.
With a gasp, I realized they were caissons. “The guns from Fort Athin…"
“Yes. Here's that battalion you wanted on the frontier, major. It's what I've been able to put together on a few days' notice—mixed from three different regiments, plus the battery. It isn't ideal, but unfortunately I need to consider the politics."
“Ensuring none of them are from the same province?"
“And ensuring the commanders would let me have their men. I didn't say what will be done with them. What I need you to do."
She put her paws on the parapet, staring at the battalion instead of me. “Stop them at all costs, major, and I mean that. You're to show them no quarter—as soon as you're in position to do so, open fire. If they want to lay down arms, so be it, but shoot them like animals until they get the message. This cannot continue."
“Ordering the Royal Guard to shoot civilians…"
Her head jerked, and she spun towards me. “They're not civilians, Major Laner."
“If they're unarmed…"
“If they're unarmed, bearing cakes and Lake country bloody wine, then by all means, major: dance with them. Meet some lovely peasant girl. Resign your commission and raise a family. But I wouldn't ask you here if they were unarmed, would I?"
And K'nSullach, despite the order, was no Prince Cædor. I set my muzzle. “No. You would not."
“This isn't a protest, major. This is an insurrection. Your men will be loyal—I've done what I can to ensure that. I don't have time for the Old Council to rouse themselves into action and bring us more soldiers. If we keep delaying, this madness will only spread. End it. Do I make myself clear?"
I could have wished to meet my first proper command under better circumstances, but I'd now spent enough time in the capital city to understand what K'nSullach had not told me explicitly. She meant for the Royal Guard to test the very limits of its charter, and to preempt any weakness in the Old Council or the city's leadership.
So we had to move. I knew Captains Cavell and Sergid; the other two columns were led by two men named Gelfur and Arstois. I called them into conference while their men began the march towards the city. “We're outnumbered, two against one, but our… our enemy is weakly armed and poorly disciplined. They should break easily enough."
“Aye, with luck." The growl came from Captain Gelfur, a muscular wolf with sharp eyes and a rumbling western accent. “We were told there's not more than forty guns between them. We'll make quick work of that."
“They might've captured the armory in the Green Tower," Cavell pointed out. She tapped its location, halfway between Syvelthia Park and the river. “I don't trust that the constables would've secured it or removed the weapons."
A safe assumption, unfortunately, reinforced by new information that the mob had slowed to regroup. It might be possible to cut them off before they reached the palace, if we hurried. “If they make Wainsmet Park, it's too late. We need to hold them south of the river."
“We can take the Corrow and the Martel Bridges. The Broad Street Bridge can be raised, and the machinery's on our side of the Tabis," Captain Cavell suggested. “And if they start heading for the Galith Bridge, we can redeploy in time."
“Agreed. Captain Gelfur, what do you think? How quickly can you move, if we secure the bridges?"
“I can be in position on the north side of Danreth in an hour," he declared. “Flush them towards you—the lines of fire are bloody awful on those streets, but bayonets'll do the trick and ye can shoot down any that don't fancy the blade."
Captain Cavell blanched. “I imagine that'll be many of them."
“No stomach for it, lass?" the wolf asked. “The colonel's orders were plain: we take no prisoners. Aye?" That was directed at me.
I nodded. “Those were her orders."
“An' they ain't earned more than that," Gelfur intoned. “Not for takin' up arms against the crown. They're no longer any kin of ours, an' we all know it."
Like Cavell, I hoped we might be able to prevent open slaughter. But K'nSullach had been abundantly clear. I sent Gelfur forward to rejoin his men and take them across the river into the heart of the city. Then I ordered Arstois to join him, and to be ready to engage the rebels at close quarters—on my direct orders, and no sooner.
Sergid thought the cannons would be useless. Things were moving too quickly to get them into position, and most of the city was useless for a cannoneer. We could get them no further than Chenwyck Park.
On the other hand, Chenwyck Park was along one of the more logical approaches for the mob to make its way to the Iron Hall, and a message from Cassalmure said Captain Wainsmet's flying company had been able to take the remaining western bridges over the Tabis. I told Sergid to dig in before redeploying Gelfur and Arstois, aiming to funnel the rebels into the park and force a confrontation.
I hoped the mob's leaders, whoever they were, trusted that—in the end—we would not shoot. I knew they were unlikely to have seen the wrong end of a cannon. Together that gave us the element of something very much like surprise, even if they knew where we were.
“But you will shoot?" Lissa Cavell asked.
“Your men need to be extremely clear on that point," I said. “I'm asking them to do something unthinkable. But they must. K'nSullach said they'd be loyal."
The lioness nodded. “Yes, sir." I had not answered her question.
As we waited, a messenger arrived with news that we were being reinforced by a detachment of Royal Marines and their gunboat, sent under extenuating circumstances by the Naval Lord himself. Before I could let this reassure me, though, a second runner made his way over to us.
Arstois's company had skirmished with what amounted to a vanguard of the rebels, who were now adjusting their course to move through Chenwyck. We'd see them soon enough; it was time to draw the trap tight. I sent the runner back with orders for Arstois and Gelfur to advance, slowly, until they could support the other half of my command in the park.
If they were aware that they faced proper soldiers this time, not outmatched policemen, the rebels didn't show it. They strode boldly into Chenwyck: a ragged, rough-edged mass of Tabisthalian society, pushing through the trees and towards the line of Sergid's artillery.
I wrote one last order to Sergid and went forward to meet them.
To the extent that the mob had a front line, it was no more than three or four dozen men with firearms, mostly antique hunting pieces. A few of them had pistols, too; one of these men stepped from the line as I approached.
“Stand aside," he said. It was a rather bold command from the fox. He wore a stiff leather vest as armor, but the clothes beneath it were fine and well-kept—the uniform of someone who'd spent his life in an office.
From the corner of my eye I saw smoke rising from the stack of an approaching ship: the gunboat, carefully making its way upriver and beneath the Corrow Bridge. “I won't be doing that. I shouldn't have to tell you."
Nor did I let him meet me halfway. I kept walking until I was nearly amongst the line. The fox, obligingly, backed away with me. “We're going to the Iron Hall," he said. “You're—"
“No, you're not. Either you disband, or you die."
“We choose to—"
I cut the fox off again. “You don't choose anything. What's your name?"
My tone had clearly started to unnerve him. He paused before answering. “Cal—Citizen, I mean. Citizen Var Calbeth."
“You're their leader? The choice in whether they live or die is not yours. It's mine, let's make that clear." I held my glare for a lengthy pause. “I'm from the Royal Guard. My commander, Ivra K'nSullach, fought in the Harvest Rising. I served in the civil war in Dhamishaya. We both know damned well what it's like to shoot someone who speaks your language, so don't get it in your head that I care about that."
“Those were wars," Calbeth answered. “This is a peaceful—"
“Don't lie to me."
“Peaceful," he repeated. “We're not here to fight. But we are going to the Iron Hall. We are going to Kenley Hill."
“As invaders," I growled darkly, showing teeth. Gelfur's phrasing proved to be handy. “The moment you took up arms, you ceased to be our kin. Now, whether you disperse or whether I slaughter you is an interesting problem. For the moment I think you'll disperse."
“If you force us, we'll fight back."
“With what?" I turned, roughly tugging the flintlock from one of the nearest rebels before he could stop me. Not that it would've mattered: the gun was unloaded. I gripped it by the barrel and stock, slamming it against the side of my iron armor. Cheap wood splintered, and the barrel began to pop free.
Contemptuously, I tossed the thing aside. And I gave Var, and his followers, a spell to reflect. Not just on the ruined flintlock, but on how none of the others had tried to stop me. They gripped their own weapons tighter—but not a single one had been raised.
“You won't fight back. Everyone here knows that, too, Citizen Calbeth." I lifted my voice, addressing the others. “It's why none of you have resisted. Nobody's shot me yet. You see that the moment that you do, those cannon open fire. And the soldiers to the north of the park. And the Royal Marines. You already know what would happen."
My antics had held their attention. At the mention of the marines, I saw a few heads turn to the riverbank, where the gunboat had pulled alongside and sailors were making their way down the boarding plank. Armed. Probably not truly marines, despite Lord Ashenar's promise, but was anyone likely to argue? Would they know the difference?
“The first choice I'm making is that you will disperse. Anyone who wants to set down their weapon and walk away, this is a perfect opportunity. My soldiers won't open fire—not while I'm here. Do it, if you'd like."
“As much power… as much power as the king thinks he has in—in ordering you to kill us, we… this is our right. Cargal'th, we're owed this—after everything—we are owed the—this is—this is our city." He had been trying to regain the initiative, but as long as he kept stammering the crowd was biding their time.
“By tradition, His Majesty allows for free assembly within Tabisthalia. It's been true since the First Concord. But that's assembly. It says nothing about arms. Now, if you were unarmed, this might simply be some… intriguing citizen's march. But that isn't what you wanted, is it?"
“It should be our right to—"
Taking a sharp, quick step towards Calbeth was enough to silence him. As for the others, the longer they waited the more the sight of armed men facing them sapped the energy of their earlier march. Whether or not they still thought I would shoot, it was obvious none felt we'd be so easily dispensed with as the constables and their barricade.
“What do you want?" someone asked.
“It's not important," Calbeth answered. He didn't look at the speaker. “Remember, citizen, we make our case at the Iron Hall. Not before."
“Citizen Calbeth may want me to choose that he dies," I said, ignoring the fox and turning to the lioness who'd raised her voice. She looked like a younger, more ragged version of Lissa Cavell—her clothes were heavily patched, and the fingers that held her musket were already gnarled from use, the fur on them worn away to bare callouses. “Would you disagree?"
“I asked what you wanted."
“I don't take great pleasure in killing. My choice is that you put down your weapons and return to where you came from. Anyone who does will face no repercussion from me."
“Then it's all been for nothing." Calbeth took a step back, putting himself between me and the lioness. “You're telling us to give up everything."
“I'm choosing for you to do that instead of dying here in this park. Understand, citizen: far bloodier things have been done in the name of keeping order than just felling a few hundred would-be revolutionaries."
“What happens if we do?" the lioness asked. “If we go away?"
“I'm not the one who makes or keeps those promises. And, obviously, not all of you can go away. This is not an action free of consequences. Your leaders will be taken under arrest, by me. Taken to the Iron Hall, though, not to Cassalmure. If you have a case to the crown, perhaps you can plead it there."
“As a prisoner."
I turned back to Var Calbeth. “That or a corpse, but I think you'd be more articulate as a prisoner. Either way, your followers don't have to die here. They can leave. And let me be clear to you all," I went on, raising my voice again. “This is your last opportunity to leave. Even if you escape, even if you're unharmed, you'll be fugitives—bandits who fought the King's Own Army. You know what happens to them. You know it won't simply be forgotten."
Calbeth was quiet.
“You think you have demands—a cause, even." I looked over the nearest of the crowd. I could see the unease in their expressions. Not even the unease of men before battle: this was the look of people realizing they had gone too far, and wondering if it was still possible to turn back. “This is your opportunity to become—forever—citizens of that cause. Martyrs of that cause, if you must. Or you can remain Aernians."
Var Calbeth did not put the question to a vote. The fox must've been able to see, as I saw, the unsteadiness of his support. The mob had not rejected him—perhaps if he struck me down and charged Sergid's lines, they would even follow. But he could see that the charge would waver. And that, in its hesitation, any chance it had would be squandered.
He was not foolish. Nor, in spite of his demeanor, did I think of him as a coward. It was arrogant cruelty to presume a man's resolve in facing certain death, and I suspected he'd never had to do so before.
Before facing the indignity of watching the crowd surrender for him, he told me to take him into custody. Calbeth was joined by the lioness, and seven others who gave themselves up as fellow leaders of the mob. It might've been out of solidarity, but that was good enough for me.
I led them back to the front lines, and passed word for Gelfur and Arstois to stand down. Then I found Captain Sergid. “For the moment, we're done, I think. Do you have the order I gave you?"
“Give it here."
He looked puzzled, but dutifully handed the paper back. As I tore it into tiny, illegible pieces, I caught glimpses of the words. full salvo—your signal will be—with powder only.
“Thank you, captain."
The adrenaline had yet to leave my veins. It lingered, indeed, well after we returned to the palace. Hallun Couthragn found me, and lifted an eyebrow at what must've been the obvious tension on my face. “Major Laner, are you in command here?"
“Yes. Well, of the Guard, at least."
The badger grunted. “That makes you in command. Would you come with me, please? Duke Cirth-Arren wishes to speak to whomever is in charge." Out of earshot, striding through the quiet corridors of the Iron Hall, he spoke again. “You'll need to be honest with the duke, Aric."
“Everything that's happened today, from your perspective. Fuck politics, major—you're not going to be good at it, anyway."
“I appreciate that."
Was his snorted laugh mocking me? Resigned at the slight to his own station? “You should," he said. “But you should also believe me. The Royal Army is mustering in Teppingshire. Duke Cirth-Arren is waiting for a report from General Lord Chalver, but I expect the general doesn't want to move on the city, and the Old Council won't want them to."
“Where is the general at present?"
“Sidley, at last report, but I'm sure he's with the Royal Army now. I'm not qualified to brief you, major." We'd reached our destination; Couthragn rapped sharply at the door, waited a moment, then nudged it open. “Your grace, I have Major Laner with me."
Duke Cirth-Arren was the only one in the room. “Thank you for bringing him. Close the door, please—and remain here, Mr. Couthragn. Major Laner, I've been told the mob is broken and we have a number of its leaders in custody."
“Yes, your grace. The constables are holding them under guard. As for the rest of the… mob," I said, echoing his use of the term after a brief pause to consider whether something more dire would be more apt. “They've dispersed, but we have seized their weapons and they know they're to leave the city at once. The constables are supposed to be enforcing that, but of course, I can't give them orders and we're having a hard time finding anyone who can."
“Not surprising. The chief of police has fled, it seems, and so has the mayor." The duke nodded his confirmation at my look of surprise. “The chief, I believe, is simply a coward. Mayor Arblack, however, appears to have other problems. The Old Council is meeting at this moment to discuss an official means of sanctioning all those who have failed us."
He stared at me, waiting for me to say anything. I couldn't—couldn't think of what even might be said. The notion that Arblack might've been part of the uprising still shocked me.
“Arkenprince Tullen appreciates the quick response of the Royal Guard. You are, I understand, the architect of that response?"
“Congratulations are warranted. Colonel K'nSullach, however, might not consent to them. Your orders were to execute all those participating in the insurrection, weren't they?"
How had he found that out? I swallowed, realizing that this was the honesty Hallun Couthragn had demanded of me. “Yes. Yes, sir."
“That would make you insubordinate. But it's not that simple—nothing seems to be simple anymore. Mr. Couthragn would agree. That's what he told me."
Hallun seemed to know that he was expected to speak. “The wires have been busy. It's already known in the larger cities that the Royal Guard defused a protest against the crown. There might be those who would have hoped—"
“Hallun," Duke Cirth-Arren interrupted. “Spare the fuzzy language."
The badger's shoulders heaved in a quick sigh. “This could've been a disaster, major. The Royal Guard acting like an army is bad enough: going on the offensive, in uniform—cargal'th, with cannons, even. In the cities where the king's popularity is at its lowest, bloodshed would've tipped the scales."
“In Nattenleigh and Keloch, similar popular crowds have already clashed with the town guards. And, in Keloch, with a detachment of the Royal Army, as well. Editorials in radical papers charge His Majesty with subjecting the Aernian people to grave and injurious tyranny. But in Tabisthalia, a crowd was—what did Mr. Couthragn say? It was 'defused,' instead of massacred. Anyone hoping for an inciting incident will be disappointed."
In short, the duke summarized, I had prevented a larger conflict, for the moment. The Royal Guard's reputation was intact. And, he went on, it was important that their reputation remain intact.
“If word gets out that K'nSullach ordered those peasants shot, there will be problems. She's a political liability. We need to be rid of her. What do you think, Major Laner?"
“She was doing what she thought was necessary to protect the queen, and the others in the Iron Hall."
“And what of her order?"
“It was… rash," I admitted.
“It must've been. You disobeyed it. I heard the orders rumored from the other soldiers—so they knew, too, clearly. They would've agreed to follow it, I think, if you'd asked."
“Perhaps." I didn't know with any certainty, of course. Captain Gelfur definitely had no fondness for the rebels, though, and Colonel K'nSullach would've known to pick reliable commanders. It did not seem impossible that they would've opened fire.
“I was worried that he'd say that, your grace." Hallun kept looking at me, though he addressed the bear. “If it sounds like the Royal Guard would've obeyed, a court martial would be fraught—at best."
Nantor sighed heavily. “So it's to be poison, then, Hallun? Gods, your business is dire."
“That's why it's mine, your grace, and not yours. But no, I'm not sure it has to come to that."
“What if she was sent to a different posting?" I suggested. “The frontier, for example. The Whistling Pale. I have no reason to doubt her abilities. Or her loyalty."
“You're fond of her," the duke said.
After a fashion, but I was also thinking about something Queen Ansha had said. She'd derided K'nSullach, telling me 'life rarely finds a way of happy endings for feral bitches.' “May I speak freely, your grace?"
“You might consider not doing so," Hallun suggested.
But Duke Cirth-Arren gave me a gentle smile. “For the moment, don't listen to Mr. Couthragn. What's on your mind, major?"
“If Colonel K'nSullach was aggressive, sir, it was in service to the Lodestone Sovereign. I don't just mean King Chatherral or Queen Ansha, but the entire institution. In some way, sir, I feel that institution now proposes to abandon her for that service. She would never say so. She wouldn't want me saying so, either… but as you've noted, I am evidently insubordinate."
“Your insubordination comes from an uncommon instinct for decency," Duke Cirth-Arren said. “Don't think I esteem it lightly."
“It's different serving under Colonel K'nSullach than it was being posted to Dhamishaya. There, I simply thought I was… well, serving. Doing my part for the crown. Here I am forced to realize not only who I'm serving, but how easy it will be for me to be discarded one day, in a conversation not unlike this one."
The old bear held his smile, despite what he said next. “You do not know your station very well, Major Laner. If you've realized that you can be cast aside, you should also realize why that is so. The consequences are higher. One colonel can provoke an uprising. One major can prevent it."
“Hallun, do you trust Major Laner?"
Duke Cirth-Arren chuckled. “More or less than you trust Ivra?"
“Somewhat less. I can discuss the details in private."
“You can, but let's have them here. The Royal Guard will need a new commander, after all. Arkenprince Tullen will want a recommendation, and he'll expect me to provide it."
“And you want to know my opinion on Major Laner?"
“His military record is commendable. He was not born to this tradition. His family are farmers. They are of foreign descent, but there is no reason to question their loyalty and no hint of impropriety in their moral or financial affairs."
“And his personality?"
Hallun shrugged. “He's more of an enigma, and his support is less unwavering. You must admit, troubling as it is, that Ivra's willingness to draw blood in the king's name so hastily shows a refreshing degree of commitment."
“Do you mean that you don't think he'd throw himself on his sword so readily?" the bear prompted. “You told me he was close to Queen Ansha, though. Could that not be an advantage? She never liked K'nSullach much."
“He is close to Queen Ansha in a complicated fashion."
Nantor stiffened, his smile cracking briefly wider until the bear regained his stately bearing. “I see. It could still be an advantage, though. Here is my concern, Hallun—speaking for myself and not His Majesty Prince Tullen: appointing a fresh commander of the Royal Guard requires time that we do not have. Major Harrell is a good soldier, but… unambitious."
“I would agree with that, yes. What about Granjan? He has connections to the city government, too—he's their liaison to the constables."
“Elith strikes me as a charismatic bureaucrat. I don't dislike him, but he's made for the polished uniform of the Royal Guard."
“He's also uncontroversial."
“I'm sure. Major Laner has served in a line regiment, as you know, and he's proven himself to be quite capable here. We haven't heard the last talk of uprising, have we? Certainly Keloch will continue to challenge our authority—but even in the capital, I doubt we're completely safe. I want a man like Laner in command, Hallun, for a reason you wouldn't tell me."
Couthragn tilted his head, his muzzle parting warily. “I would tell you anything, sir."
“Anything you knew. If I was Major Laner, and you asked why I disobeyed the direct order, I don't know what I'd say, but I know what I'd think. I'd think that I fought in a rebellion in Dhamishaya. I'd think that I've seen what it looks like when we turn on one another, and I'd think it my responsibility not to do so lightly. Is that correct, major?"
My nod proved to be gentler than I intended, like the admission was difficult. I had to speak aloud. “Yes. Yes, your grace. That would be correct."
“Can you live with it, Hallun?"
The badger shrugged. “I can live with it."
“Then I'll recommend to the arkenprince that General Galtlowe be relieved of command at Mirhall, and have K'nSullach transferred. If she's amenable, we can hint that maybe it would be nice if the Whistling Pale could be pacified without relying on the Railroad to do everything. Major Laner, we'll need to speak at more length in the near future. For now, though, you've earned some rest."
“I suppose it's not really worth pretending that you weren't involved in this," K'nSullach said. She did not sound upset. If anything, the Border Collie looked relaxed—more at ease than I'd ever seen her.
She smiled at me. “For what it's worth, I think they picked the right person. I'm happy they didn't decide to be… weaker. There are plenty of eager barons who might've taken the post, colonel."
“For what it's worth," I offered in trade, “I think they picked the right person to pacify the Whistling Pale." Her smile widened at that. “Good luck with it."
“Good luck with the Royal Guard." K'nSullach slid the last of her paperwork into one of the wooden crates that would be sent south with her to Castle Mirhall. Her upbeat mood faltered. “Keep an eye on the city, Colonel Laner. I don't know that you've escaped spilling blood in the name of the sovereign. Maybe you'll be that lucky. But… maybe not."
It was a warning I kept in my thoughts, though there had been no sign of another uprising. With the leaders of the Republican Society imprisoned and the mob dispersed, the Old Council saw fit to provide for rebuilding Tallachet. And, now that they were doing it on their terms, to offer food and shelter to the refugees back in Sylvethia Park.
Outside of Tabisthalia the news was rather more uncertain. As K'nSullach's successor, I received the same intelligence updates that she once had. I knew that Garstead teetered on the brink of revolt, with the Royal Army mobilized and given orders to respond with force to any sign of disobedience.
Lieutenant Commander Yanisca wanted to meet for dinner, so I took a carriage to Kenley Hill and walked the rest of the way to Darlan's. It seemed, from the activity around me, that Tabisthalia had begun to settle down. The market stalls were stocked again, and they had plenty of customers.
I couldn't see the constables, who'd been a highly visible presence in the first week after the confrontation in Chenwyck Park. Then they'd started to go unarmed, and there were fewer of them, and finally it was almost as if I had not had to stare down six hundred men with a cannon battery at my back.
“The paperwork isn't quite official yet," I said. “But thank you." It should, after all, have been a formality: with Duke Cirth-Arren's backing, I had the patronage of Arkenprince Tullen, and the existing favor of the royal family. “How are things on the docks?"
“Returning to normal, more or less. Nobody's asked yet why the Royal Navy subordinated itself to the Guard, but since everything worked out I expect they'll decide to forget. That's in everyone's interest."
Yanisca ordered a bottle of wine and waited for it to arrive before continuing. The interim was smalltalk: the weather was good, and a shipment of Jarnshire beef had just arrived—the Navy was considering a small feast in celebration.
With two glasses poured and the curtains of our booth closed, her mood shifted. “What's going on in Garstead?"
I cocked my head. Abruptly, I realized that K'nSullach and Yanisca must have spoken regularly. She was palace liaison for the Royal Navy, and her immediate superior well outranked the mere commander of the Royal Guard.
But there was no official communication—nothing in writing. Meetings like these, I imagined. Clandestine, driven simply by the need to cooperate in the chaotic environment of the imperial court. Siron's own head tilted at my expression. “What?"
“Nothing, sorry. Ah, the situation is decaying. What was the last you'd heard?"
“Olmor was camped on the river just north of the city with three regiments, and the city's garrison was arming against the shire's farmers. Unofficially, of course, we hear lots of rumors. Supposedly, it's more than just farmers and they've got more than…" She allowed herself a laugh. “More than just old muskets you can break over your knee."
“It wasn't my knee. Is that what they're saying?"
“The sailors were impressed. They don't see much fighting."
Well, I supposed it was good to have a reputation. “I see. In any event, General Olmor has now shut down all traffic on the Afenpetch, and closed the railroad station to any traffic that won't submit to inspection. Two more regiments joined him earlier this week, the 5th and 7th."
“The Old Line." She used the traditional name for the 5th Corrish regiment—formerly pikemen, to whose fortitude a second-century king was said to owe his life. “Where is the 7th from?"
“Arrenshire. Everything in Garstead is from the Reach. I don't know what to make from the stories about the uprising itself, though. If the Carregan Railroad is supplying them with weapons or money, it hasn't been clear enough for anyone to tell."
“We're dancing around the issue," the otter said, sighing. “And not just in Garstead. The squadron at Giral Moss has been ordered to search ships traveling to and from the Shrouded Rocks—officially, to ensure compliance with safety in the northern waters."
Unofficially the only 'ships traveling to and from the Shrouded Rocks' belonged to the Carregan Transcontinental Railroad, which operated mines there. The Royal Navy was provoking them, demonstrating their power over the company.
They had no recourse, with King Chatherral now in the second month of his holiday in the west and being kept from any audience. The Old Council, I felt sure, saw no problem in prodding the hornet's nest that Carregan Transcontinental could prove to be.
“On land, at least, the Iron Corps is still biding their time. I don't think they'd be willing to challenge us over Garstead—I've asked for more detailed reports, but it's a minor spur for them."
“Maybe it's a distraction?"
Siron's suggestion was immediately unsettling. “From what, though?"
“From letting us get our feet beneath us. Keep the whole country at a low boil, and they can finally hit wherever they want to. That is, if their aim is really taking power. Who knows?"
I certainly didn't.
There were fewer Republican Society handbills in Darlan Hill, I noticed, walking back in the direction of Cassalmure. The aristocratic core of the city largely rejected their flirtation with the ideology after the brief period of rioting marred its allure.
Further away, though, I saw more of them. Nobody stopped to read any, but the papers were fresh and the lettering bold:
CITIZENS OF TABISTHALIA
By what measure does ONE MAN gain the privilege to condemn ONE HUNDRED MILLION to SLAVERY? Is it not banned by LAW within OUR NATION? Ask yourself: what would happen if YOU claimed your birthright and asserted the FREEDOM that has always been YOURS?
Who did you beg permission to pose this question? NO ONE. Your MIND belongs to YOU. Your BODY belongs to YOU. Your LABOR belongs to YOU.
TO WHOM THEN DOES THIS LAND BELONG?
Probably the more philosophical in the Republican Society—men like Davesh Calchott or Var Calbeth—had answers to that question. Perhaps they even had answers for my own concerns. The handbill seemed to assert some sort of ultimate freedom… but it was never that simple.
The Royal Aernian Telegraph Company, or the Carregan Transcontinental Railroad, framed it in terms of profit and loss. Theirs, though, was the right of a businessman to build and operate his factory. It was not the right of their neighbors to breathe clean air.
It certainly wasn't the right of any desert dwellers to retain ownership of an oasis the Railroad desired. Or to prevent the RATC from running telegraph cables wherever they so pleased. In fact, I took it to mean the “right" to do whatsoever was in one's physical ability, and damn anyone who tried to stop you.
Calchott would disagree, certainly. His was a fuzzier and more ambitious view where the Aernian commoner “asserted"—in the language of the handbill—a right to self-determination. But no sooner had I considered this than I was brought back to the discussion in the smoking room, and how powerless Calchott had truly been to check the desires of the others.
Just as he'd been powerless to keep the constables from tossing him into prison.
A guest was waiting for me at Cassalmure: Duke Cirth-Arren. I apologized for keeping him, but Nantor told me he'd only just arrived—a meeting of the Old Council had run late, and now they were recessed until the following morning.
“Carregan Transcontinental wants a permit for establishing a small guard at the Tabisthalia station. They went to the Governor's League with it, knowing the Old Council would reject it out of hand. Coming from the League, such a request would, implicitly, justify overruling the traditional injunction against having armed forces within the city."
“But," I guessed, “you aren't comfortable with it?"
“The thin end of the wedge," the bear confirmed to me. “Unfortunately, the Governor's League isn't interested in compromising on this point. They would not dare say it, but they feel they've taken enough lumps from us while seeing nothing in return."
“But they're not directly loyal to the Railroad, either, sir—correct?"
“Do you know how 'small' the guard would be?"
“Probably a company, just enough to protect the trains against… well, you see, don't you, colonel? A small guard wouldn't be enough to protect them, but a meaningful force would be patently unacceptable to the Old Council."
The thin end of the wedge, indeed. The constables wouldn't be allowed to inspect such a depot, naturally—I didn't even have to ask on that point. And if a few more Iron Corps mercenaries snuck in, who would know any better? By then the matter would have already been settled.
It felt more like the Railroad was testing us. I'd read a book on the Iron Corps doctrine, all of which could be reduced to attacking the enemy at their weakest point. They didn't hold lines when they had a choice—always mobile, always probing for any vulnerability to exploit.
Checked at Garstead, and in the Shrouded Rocks, they were probing the capital city. “Could we offer a different solution, your grace? What if they were given permission to put such a depot just outside the city—close enough to protect their trains if, gods forbid, anything were to happen."
“But not close enough to mount a swift challenge to anyone within Tabisthalia? They'd never consent to that." Having said it, Duke Cirth-Arren chuckled. “But the Governor's League would. The Railroad has a major depot in Tersinia, just east of here. I'll propose it, and I'll let you know."
As it happened, the discussion produced a secondary consequence: a permanent increase in the size of the Royal Guard. The Old Council could do this without consulting the Governor's League or anyone else, and it served as a riposte to the indignity of giving in to the League's demands on behalf of the Railroad.
Eventually, they desired that Cassalmure host a full regiment of its own. This would take time. And, in particular, it would take officers. I was staring at a stack of recommendations, collected by one of Duke Cirth-Arren's assistants on behalf of the Old Council.
Some of them I could easily approve just by looking at their service records. Others did not have files that naturally recommended them to the Royal Guard. Every time I hesitated, the badger sitting on the other side of my desk held out his paw.
Whatever misgivings he'd had, Hallun Couthragn wasted no time. He was the first person I'd spoken to after K'nSullach left; he said nothing about my history with Queen Ansha and nothing about my abrupt promotion. In a way, that was reassuring: Couthragn had been here before I arrived, and he would serve the next commander when I was gone in the course of his fealty to Duke Cirth-Arren.
“Difficult," the badger said, reading over the paper I'd handed him. “His family is influential, and they're close to Arkenprince Salda. It would be good to keep Hutwick pacified—especially in military affairs."
“They've a regiment in Garstead, don't they? No—two. This man is a captain at age twenty-three, Mr. Couthragn. He only left the military college last year."
“Something… inconsequential, perhaps? Could the mess hall use additional oversight? I imagine so, given how many more soldiers they'll have to serve."
I sighed, took the paper back from Hallun, and added it to the stack of appointments I intended to approve—when I could find a place for them. “And Captain Culeth Talber?"
“A dullard, but also the Baron Madrall. You can't ignore him."
“The attached note says that 'it is expected he be assigned to a line company.' What about Garstead?"
Hallun arched his eyebrows. “I might find that amusing—or I might not—but I'd be careful who overheard you saying something like that. Lord Madrall believes some foolish things, courtesy of his upbringing—a few rather… thoughtless essays published in the university journals. But in the company of good men, he might do better. In any case, he's one of few Kittaland lords who haven't been infected by republicanism. Take him, and make him work with someone reasonable. That lioness, perhaps, Cavell."
“I'm not sure she'll take the offer."
“Command of the battalion? She will. Her family's plantation is quite old, but they've always been diligent about ensuring the crown knows their continued loyalty. Her father served briefly in the Royal Marines—as did her brother. Phrase it in terms of service to His Majesty, and she'll fall in line."
His ability to recall such details both impressed and unnerved me, as it had since the day we'd first met. “You know, K'nSullach said that you were a member of the Artem-Jana Guild. Or, that she guessed it…"
“I'm an observant man, colonel. One doesn't require membership in mythical organizations to be observant, does one?"
“Of course, Ivra was also smart enough not to ask questions like that."
I shook my head with a resigned snort. “Right. I think she's probably happier on the frontier."
“I imagine you're right," Hallun said. “Freedom, after a sense."
“She said as much to me the day I arrived here." That seemed impossibly long ago, rather than only six months—the way she'd told me that it was good I knew how to ride a horse, because those were the only moments of freedom I'd ever get.
It naturally suggested the question of what would happen to me when I'd outlived my usefulness to Hallun and the other politicians… but I was not willing to ask that question. Not yet.
“I can recommend Franklyn's promotion, if you force me, but he's not right to guard the prince. He should go to Cassalmure, if he needs to be moved up."
“That's not the issue." The badger took Lieutenant Franklyn's file; his eyes flicked rapidly over the details. “Is he an idiot?"
“Timid. And he lacks initiative. In this case, sir, it's too important for me to care what family he comes from. What about Valmer Wainsmet? We're disbanding the flying company. She needs a new role."
“Wainsmet served in the Harvest Rising." He paused, catching himself. “So, like you, she's fought her countrymen. I recall she's received high marks, come to think of it. She'll work, if you think so. Make sure she stays out of the gambling dens in the Butcher's Quarter, though. It's too easy to be compromised, playing games there."
“Is there anyone you don't have followed, Mr. Couthragn?"
“Those I can trust. So… no." He gave me a rare, vanishingly brief smile. “You'll come to thank me, eventually. Even if you never say it out loud—and you probably won't. Now, if Franklyn—"
My adjutant knocked on the door. “Sir. Apologies, but there's a visitor. Lord Erdurin, he says?"
Haralt Berdanish looked around when he entered: Couthragn's presence seemed, for a heartbeat, to twitch his ears. “Good afternoon, you two. Major—Colonel—Colonel Laner, my apologies. Congratulations on the promotion. It is a good choice."
“Thank you, my lord. Might I ask what brings you to the barracks?"
“Yes. My father sent me to check in on you."
Before I could inquire further, Couthragn spoke: “how was the east?"
Haralt's eyes flicked towards the badger. “That was not a public mission. Why did my father tell you? What did he say?"
“He didn't. Nonetheless, how was it?" Haralt delayed too long in answering for Hallun's liking. “Lord Erdurin was on a brief inspection of the Iron Pale on the frontier. Aberdeyas down to Chauserlin. I can guess at the reason, considering how quiet that frontier has been…"
The bear bristled, but gave in. “Fine. Yes, it's true. The Arkenprinces Tullen and Salda wanted someone to speak to the March lords on the subject of what's been transpiring in the capital city. The Landsmoot didn't call a special session for that purpose. I had to meet with them individually."
“What was the outcome?" I asked, though I could guess already at the politics involved.
“Ivra K'nSullach was something of a hero to the easterners. She participated in the Harvest Rising, and yet became commander of the Royal Guard. It was… significant. Deposing her is not being taken kindly—especially not in Dalchauser and Rudkirkshire."
The home of the Rising, in other words. I pointed out that she had not, exactly, been 'deposed'—she'd been promoted, and sent to the kind of combat posting that seemed far more suited for one of the easterners. Guarding the palisade, no less. “It's an important assignment. More valuable to the king than the Royal Guard was."
“They're backwards on the Pale, Colonel Laner, but they're not stupid. They're also aware that her replacement is a midlander, and someone who fought in the Civil War without directly challenging the Railroad. Their influence is diminished, and they know it."
“And your father sent you to me, sir? With all due respect, what am I supposed to do about it?"
Haralt Berdanish didn't have an answer to that. Couthragn, who'd stayed quiet, began sorting through the papers I'd set aside. He selected one of them, and handed it over for my review. “Don't reject him, for a start."
“A sergeant-major? Why did I reject him to begin… right, this is Bealde. A drunk, an ex-Railroad soldier, and a criminal? You didn't argue when I passed on him before."
“And now things have changed, as I thought they might. Sergeant-Major Bealde served with Viceroy Gyldrane in the Royal Frontier Corps. Lord Gyldrane speaks highly of him, and the recommendation comes from Lady Dalchauser—also known as General Sutheray. She's commanded troops in the field, which I suppose means that he's probably not a bad soldier."
“And it would curry Lord Gyldrane's favor?"
“Yes. And it will help with the image you need to begin constructing," Hallun said. “You're not just an appointee of Arkenprince Tullen because Tullen likes you. You're a dedicated soldier with an impeccable service record. You're assigning Mr. Bealde to the Royal Guard because you know that, despite everything else, he's a good sergeant. Everything you do is from the perspective of professionalism."
Everything. I tried to keep that in mind as I settled into my new duties. The most pressing task, to my way of thinking, was finding my own replacement in escorting Queen Ansha. Troublingly, I had little in the way of guidance—all I could do was rely on what Hallun Couthragn could tell me.
In the end I settled on a Captain Gevreth Selva—“Gev," to his friends, according to the official citation for valor in his file. With the platoon pinned down by encroaching soldiers, and no relief in sight, Selva had charged on his own initiative, flanking the attackers and driving them back with only a handful of unwieldy grenades.
Those were probably better than what his foes had been armed with. Like me, he'd been deployed to the frontier. But even if it was only against barbarians, he'd fought before, and that threatened to be a useful skill. Couthragn had decided there was nothing in his background that would particularly worry anyone in the Tabisthalian court.
Until Captain Selva could be recalled from his posting, I was still directly responsible for the queen's safety. “I'll miss you," she said—and I trusted her on this account. I hoped the new guard would prove to be up to the task.
For the moment, though, I was still Ansha's escort. And Tabisthalia remained tense, so I accompanied her wherever the doe needed to be. This, it transpired, included returning to King Rawlon's College for a meeting of the Republican Society to reflect on everything that changed over the previous weeks.
I didn't know how they would be inclined to see those changes. King Chatherral had yet to return from his hunting trip—by now even I was hearing rumors that the delay was intentional—and nothing official had changed in the governance of the city.
On the other hand, the Old Council had finally provided money to begin rebuilding Tallachet. In my most optimistic view, that was the primary concern of the Republican Society.
This time, none of the business-owners were there. Davesh Calchott was, and I saw Dr. Kirchvar as well. Both of them looked happy to see Queen Ansha—on the other hand, drinks had already been poured and the Republicans appeared to be well into the party.
Ansha took Davesh's paw, and grinned when the stoat kissed her cheek politely. “It's good to see you, Mr. Calchott. I hope there wasn't too much trouble, in the end…"
“No, no. Not too much," Davesh replied. “I was treated fairly well. It's good to have the queen's favor, I suppose."
“Has to count for something," Kirchvar added, laughing. Then he pointed at me. “And this is the man who failed to do his job, isn't it?"
“I'm not certain what you mean, sir."
The white-maned hare's eyes twinkled—it would have been grandfatherly, if not for the implications. “When the Sylvethia uprising began, I think we all feared the worst. There were rumors that the Guard had even been ordered to attack them…"
It wasn't the kind of gathering where I was likely to benefit from asking Ansha's permission to speak—the Republicans would only have found that deference droll. “My orders were to keep the peace. Against, I should add, an armed body of Tabisthalians. But they didn't shoot, and neither did I. I should hope we're all grateful for that."
“We are, we are," Kirchvar assured me. “Brandy, my good lad?"
I declined the offer, and sat quietly as the meeting began. I'd been expecting something more formal, but it was clear that the Republican Society wanted to take the opportunity to celebrate their success.
In Kirchvar's view, the Society had gotten republicanism into the public consciousness. Everyone in Aernia knew about what had happened in Sylvethia Park the first time that the constables had taken action. Now they knew what had happened when the refugees took it upon themselves to march on the Iron Hall.
Even if that march hadn't been completed—even if the crowd had been dispersed, and Sylvethia Park was the site of a temporary camp funded by the Old Council out of the royal treasury—Kirchvar said Aernians would know “the truth."
“And," he continued, “we see the effects already. The general strike in Garstead is on its second week with no sign of letting up. Will the Royal Army really permit arms to be taken up against our own people? I doubt it. They'll collapse, and when they do we'll finally have what we need."
“A base of operations?" Ansha asked.
The old hare shook his head. “A catalyst. This is where the royal authority begins to crack. If they can't hold Garstead—or they're not willing to do what they think is necessary—they have no claim on any of the Midlands. Or the Reach, for that matter."
One of the other Republicans cleared her throat—a rabbit, like Kirchvar, but soft-spoken and far younger. “I'm not sure I agree. With all due respect, doctor, I'm from Garstead. If they have to fight, I'm not sure they will. And with rumors of loyalist troops… well…"
“Just rumors," Kirchvar answered. He looked to Ansha.
The doe raised her eyebrows. “You don't expect me to reveal military secrets, Dr. Kirchvar, do you? Not that I'd even know them—I don't ask about things like that. The nature of what might be transpiring in the Royal Army is well beyond my authority. I'm only the queen."
“You'd let us know, though, wouldn't you?" Queen Ansha remained silent; I wondered if that was supposed to be for my benefit. Kirchvar let the matter drop. “If it's true, we might need to reconsider where we look to for support."
“Here, or in Garstead?" Davesh Calchott asked.
“They'll have to handle themselves in Garstead," the hare replied. “But I think that probably points to where our thinking should lie. We do have some contacts in certain… quarters."
“The Railroad." Ansha's voice was flat. “They can't be trusted, doctor. Their motivations are entirely selfish—even if it's true that they're providing aid to the Garstead-folk. If it's true, they're not doing it from any love of the province."
“Of course, citizen, if I knew whether those rumors were true I'd no sooner comment on them than you'd comment on the army's movements." I didn't like Kirchvar's tone—neither his lack of respect for the queen nor the hint that he did, in fact, know what was going on in Garstead.
Dr. Kirchvar would admit nothing. All he said, ominously, was that the Republican Society had 'allies.' That the time was coming when those allies might prove useful.
“And you'd do well to remember that."