Okay, I have to confess to a small amount of retcon– really, just a tiny bit– after floundering a while trying to figure out the shape of a Part Two to Chapter Ten, I decided to let this be its own thing as Chapter 11, which meant going back and modifying the title of the last installment to just read Chapter 10. Hopefully all my retcons on this story will be that minor.
One thing I have noticed in writing Horse Tamer is that I usually have more goodies in mind than I can conveniently fit into one reasonably sized chapter (I want to avoid any more 5000 word installments). Material I had planned to include here is basically being deferred until later chapters. This at least means I won’t run out of stuff to write, but it is a little frustrating.
FYI, I continue to make progress on Princess of Fire, but it seems to come in fits and starts. However, I am, by the grace of God, once more over 85,000 words. No projections at this point as to a time-frame for completion of the first draft. Bulletins to follow….
Copyright 2014 Douglas Daniel
Mankin made it to the far doors. Beyond the audience chamber was another large room. Here those foreigners who had already presented themselves milled about, talking to their Speakers. Mankin, however, did not see Deremanoi. He felt like a child who had strayed away from its nanny.
Nevertheless, he sighed in relief. At least that was done. Mankin heartily wished he could go home now, but Deremanoi had insisted that he would have to stay on hand for awhile, in the hope that certain of the Highborn would want to speak with him personally, once the presentations were over. Mankin couldn’t possible imagine why any of these Venians would want to talk to him, but here he was, just in case.
He was still surprised when a man wearing the livery of a Highborn house– Mankin was not sure which; he was still learning to distinguish the colors and sigils of each– approached him and bowed. “Honored guest,” the servant said. “My master desires words with you.”
“And your master is…?” Mankin asked.
The servant looked surprised at Mankin’s ignorance, and more than a little disdainful. “General Decius Procus, Senator, and, in former times, Triumvir.”
“Your pardon,” Mankin said. “Yes, I would be honored to speak with the general.”
The servant’s look said Yes, you should be. Aloud, however, he said nothing. He simply bowed, turned and led Mankin through the crowd.
They passed through a small doorway and down a flight of wide flight of steps. They crossed a wide court planted with orange trees. The trees were still in blossom– rather late, Mankin thought, but then perhaps they were a variety he wasn’t familiar with. The scent of the blossoms was a sweet counterpoint to the close interior of the audience chamber, which had smelled of lamp oil and people.
On the other side of the court the servant led Mankin into a portal; inside it was a set of solid bronze doors. By these stood two city militiamen, fully armed and armored. Mankin’s eyes widened a little at the sight of them. The two militiamen eyed him in turn, but neither of them moved to stop him, nor did they say anything as the servant opened the doors and led Mankin through.
Inside was a spacious chamber, well-lit. At first Mankin thought the light came from candles, but a second glance revealed several nolore on stands about the room. Mankin was surprised again; he had seen these sort of ancient lamps before, but never so many in one place. They illuminated the room with a cool, pearly light that left few shadows. There was a scattering of furniture, a couch, chairs and desks.
In the room stood, or sat, three men in the robes of Venian citizens. One was an older man, somewhat heavy with age, but whose bearing was that of a soldier. He stood by the cold hearth– no fire was laid on this warm night. The other two citizens were men of middle age, or just short of it– a solid, rather square man, seated on a hardwood chair, who glared at Mankin as he entered, and a rather more sleek and elegant-looking fellow, who was making a show of reading a book as he stood by the far wall, which was lined floor to ceiling with shelves of books.
To one side two scribes sat at writing desks, styluses, ink and paper ready. This was obviously not a private meeting, then– not only was Decius Procus– Mankin guessed he was the older fellow by the fireplace– not alone, he was going to have the discussion recorded. Mankin was rather relieved– the walk here had been just long enough for him to begin to wonder if it had been strictly wise to accept a conference in private, where whatever was discussed might be distorted. Not that a written record absolutely prevent that, but scribes plus additional witnesses at least suggested that Procus meant to keep things above-board.
One of the scribes, Mankin noticed, was in the garb of a freedman. No surprise there, half of the Imperial bureaucracy was populated, it seemed, with freedmen of one stripe or another. The other scribe, however, was clearly a Venian, although he wore no robe of citizenship. Mankin wondered if the man felt it a degradation to work alongside a former slave, or if things were close enough to the knuckle in Venia for ordinary men that he was just glad for the job.
The older man turned as the slave escorting Mankin announced, “Mankin, son of Toren, of the Attau Hegemony,” and ushered Mankin in. The slave smoothly stepped back and closed the door with a thud.
“Mankin,” the older man said. “I am General Decius Procus, senator and consul. Thank you for agreeing to speak with us.”
Mankin bowed. “I am honored by your request, sir.”
Procus gestured toward the others. “May I make known to you Kaius Marius, senator,” this was the squarish man, “and Junius Valerius, who is here in the stead of the Triumvir Polius Manico, who is unavoidably detained at the moment, as you well know.”
“Lords,” Mankin said, bowing to each. He reflected that all this diplomacy was liable to give him a backache. “I am honored.”
Marius’ look seemed to say that he damn well better be, but Valerius closed his book, turned and inclined his head toward Mankin, a surprising courtesy to a foreigner. “I, for one, am glad for the opportunity to speak with someone of your rank, grandson of Vikeres.”
Mankin refrained from pointing out to Valerius that rank did not work the same way in the Hegemony as it did in Venia, at least as far as heredity was concerned. “Thank you, my lord.”
A slave came in from a side door, carrying a chair. He placed it on the floor by Mankin, bowed and shuffled out. “Please be seated, Mankin,” Procus said.
“Thank you, my lord.” Mankin sat, while wondering if they would burn the chair when the interview was finished.
Valerius came and sat in one of the chairs by Marius; Procus, however, remained where he was. “Young sir,” he said to Mankin, and the pens of the scribes began to scratch, “first off, allow me to also extend my apologies for the incident this morning. I know His Honor, the Triumvir Farus Tolius, was sincere in the feelings he expressed, and I want to tell you that all the powers of the Empire will be used to hunt down the conspirators.” The hint of a grim smile touched his lips. “Those who are left, that is.”
“Thank you, my lord,” Mankin said. He hid the odd twinge Procus’ speech gave him. Two apologies from high-ranking Venians to a foreigner within a single hour– if it were not unprecedented, it was undoubtedly rare. It actually raised the hackles on the back of Mankin’s neck– something’s afoot.
Marius did not hide his disgust at Procus’ words. It was obvious that he did not feel that much courtesy needed to be spread over whatever hurt feelings Mankin entertained. Valerius, however, nodded in solemn agreement, although he said nothing.
“I asked to have a private conversation with you,” Procus went one, “because your mission in Venia is well-known to us. As it happens, we three constitute a major portion of the Senatorial quorum which will consider any requests from your nation for funds, and pass them on to the full Senate with recommendations.”
Ah. The mystery began to lift. “I see, my lord.”
“As such,” Procus went on, “we thought it wise to have a quiet talk with you, informally, to get your impressions of the state of your nation, and its immediate needs.”
“I am at your service, sir,” Mankin said.
“Of course,” Procus said, “we followed the course of the war with great interest here in Venia, but even official dispatches from our Speaker could not round out the picture for us. Perhaps,” he said, nearly hesitating, “you could tell us of the state of the country, in your own words.”
Mankin took a breath, and tried. He spoke, in broad terms, of the course of armies, and what came in their wake– the devastation of the valley of the Jalan, the rape of Hazana, the pillaging of the Kesani Plain. He told the three men of entire districts of burnt farms, fields filled with slaughtered livestock, the wrecked mines of Sitana. He described the vast refugee camp at Jusoma, where farmers and their families huddled in caves and brushwood shanties, and died of dysentery and fever. He told of men, veterans, fighting for bread in the streets of Deilu-amere.
Mankin stopped himself. “Your pardons, my lords,” he said, clearing his throat. “The short of it is, my nation is wounded, and we need help to put things right. What I described to you are things I have seen myself, and they are not half of what the Hegemony suffers at the moment.”
Marius’ expression had not changed through all of Mankin’s description. Valerius listened with apparent interest, but nearly as little change of expression; but Procus, from the somber look he wore, seemed to be picturing every scene as Mankin laid them out. Procus, of course, had been a general; on first impressions, Mankin doubted the other two men had ever even touched a sword.
“Does your Eldest fear a renewal of the war?” Procus asked.
“Not with the Black Party,” Mankin said. “There are stragglers, but they are scattered. There are, however, other factions in the Hegemony, and hungry people will listen to anyone who promises bread.”
“So the loans you seek,” Valerius said, “will be to keep your people from starvation?”
“Only in the coming months,” Mankin said. “We will be close to famine if the planting does not go well, true enough. But in the longer term, we need the money to rebuild, and to pay the army, so we can keep order and stabilize our government.”
“You spin a truly piteous tale,” Marius said. He didn’t sound particularly moved. “It occurs to me to ask, however, what concern is all this to the Empire?”
At least, Mankin thought, the man was to the point. “My lord, the Hegemony has been a loyal tributary of the Empire for three hundred years. It is our swords,” and the Sarnians’, but Mankin had to leave them out of it at the moment, however much it pained him, “that guard the far eastern frontiers of civilization. I would venture to suggest that it is very much in the Empire’s interest to keep the Hegemony strong and in the hands of people who understand the role their nation plays in the scheme of things.”
“Barbarian,” Marius said, glowering, “do not presume to suggest the Empire cannot defend itself.”
“Kaius,” Procus said, rather severely, “remember that this young gentleman is our guest.”
Marius glared, but fell silent. Mankin glanced at Procus, then said to Marius, “My lord, such was not my intention. It is not a question of whether the Empire can keep its borders secure– it is whether the Empire cares to take on additional costs and greater complications at this present time.”
He intentionally did not mention the eastern war, but he sensed he did not need to. The look Marius gave Procus, and Procus Valerius, was enough. “I believe we understand you, young man,” Procus said. “Thank you for your honesty.”
Marius stood. Mankin hastily stood as well, out of courtesy. “This has been a waste of time,” Marius said. “You’ve gone soft in your old age, Decius.”
“Perhaps,” Procus said. Mankin saw the older man’s jaw tighten, and wondered what words he bit back. “Nevertheless, this is an issue we will have to face over the next few weeks. Mankin, I am afraid that it will be needful for you to repeat what you have told us to other groups of senators, perhaps several times in the near future. There will also be questions– yes, a great number of questions, I’m afraid.”
Mankin bowed in acknowledgment. “I am, as before, at your service.”
Marius snorted. “He’s very polite, for a barbarian. Look, outlander– the Empire has no need of foreigners, whether they’re tributaries or not. Your sordid little civil war was your own business. As far as I am concerned, you can clean up your own mess.” He brushed past Mankin, nearly shouldering him aside, ignoring another bow, and left the room.
A blare of trumpets. “Ah,” Valerius said, standing, “your pardon, but that is my call to action. The presentations are over, and I must go attend on the Triumvir.” He nodded to Mankin, who bowed once more. “I look forward to speaking to you again, sometime soon.” He left as well.
“If you have a moment, Mankin of the Attau,” Procus said, “I would be pleased if you would walk with me. I have something to show you.”
They stepped out into the courtyard. There was a buzz of distant conversation from further within the basilica, but there was yet hardly anyone here. Procus led Mankin down a flight of steps to a lower level. Here, under a stretch of night sky– to one side Mankin glimpsed the top of the Sky Pyramid, over the roof of the basilica, in the distance– Procus led Mankin to a corner of the yard. There stood a large black stone, covered with moss. It seemed an odd thing to find, tucked away in a corner of the immaculate courtyard.
Odder still, as they approached Procus began to mutter under his breath. Mankin recognized the tongue– it was not modern Venian, but Old Venish, the most ancient dialect of Venia. Mankin had studied the tongue, but his command of it was shaky– at the moment he seemed to be catching no more than one word in three. Procus appeared to praying, invoking the favor of his ancestors. Mankin intentionally lagged a step or two behind the general, giving him space.
As he came close to the stone, Procus confirmed Mankin’s interpretation by going straight into a prostration. Mankin stood well back as the older man lay flat on the pavement before the stone, speaking his prayer aloud.
Mankin struggled with conflicting feelings. This was no worship of the Unchanging, who was beyond being tied to any image or object– but the reverence with which Procus approached this monolith struck a chord with him. He waited quietly, keeping well back.
Procus finished his prayer and stood. For an older man he got to his feet without too much difficulty. “I must beg your forgiveness, Mankin, but I cannot approach this monument without prayer.”
“There is nothing to forgive, sir,” Mankin said.
Procus advanced, and laid a hand, gently, on the mossy stone. It was almost a caress. “I doubt you know what this is. Why should you, when so many Venians have forgotten it?”
“Your reverence tells me much about it, sir,” Mankin said. “It is, I take it, a venerable monument of your people?”
Procus nodded. “The most venerable. When the ancient Venians wandered down out of the north and reached the sea, Sarus, our first king, chose this very spot for the heart of our first settlement. It was here that the first council hall was erected. Two thousand years ago– but sometimes to me it seems as if I lived through it all in my own flesh.”
“Here, on this spot, Sarus raised this stone. There is no inscription on it, for our ancestors then could not read or write. He raised this stone, and told the people, who were gathered all about, that it would stand for all their ancestors, and for all those who had perished in the Long Journey. So it did, and it does, and I come here on every Day of Remembrance, to pay my respects to our remotest ancestors.”
Mankin shivered. He understood, now, Procus’ reverence. This is a powerful place.
Procus looked around. “But how many do you see here, besides you and me?” he asked. He smiled, but it was filled with sadness. “Inside they are now starting in on dove and candied fruit and wine. If you queried a hundred of my fellow Highborn, I think not one in twenty could tell you what this old rock means. We say we honor the Ancestral Dead with this day, but for too many the true meaning has been lost.”
He turned away from the stone. “I’ve shown you this, outlander, because I want you to understand that my people have deep, deep roots. In the coming days, though, I am afraid you will see a great deal of the spirit Marius showed you just now. He is a valuable ally, and powerful in his own way, but…limited in his point of view. We have become a forgetful people, Mankin, forgetful that we were once foreigners and wanderers, forgetful that we are not the only race in the world, forgetful even….” He hesitated, as if thinking better of something he had been at the point of saying. “Forgetful that, as powerful as we are, we need friends,” he finished.
“I understand, sir,” Mankin said.
“I favor the loans your government requests of us,” Procus said. “And suspension of the tribute for a term of years. The Hegemony is valuable to the Empire. The difficult task will be to convince the rest of the Senate to see that value. Some of my colleagues are…less than perceptive. I will help you as much as I can.”
“I am grateful, sir,” Mankin said, and he meant it.