Sunday, 19 June 2011

#SampleSunday – 19th June 2011

This is from The Invisible Hand, book III of the series that I think of as "the price of freedom" or freedom's fool" depending on what mood I'm in, and follows on from The Last King's Amulet and The Key To The Grave. It is still in editing format, as you can see, but is none the worse for that, I hope. The book is done and stands at 150,000 words, longer than either of the previous books. All being well, the book should be vailable early to mid July.


"How far along is the census?" I wanted that information. It all comes down to information in the end. If you have it, you can make decisions. Without it, any decision you make is likely to be wrong.

"Should be complete. I ordered two copies made and we should have it today, I would have thought."

"Seed grain, tools," I was thinking out loud. "I want an inventory done, every damn thing here down to the last nail. How much material was scavenged from Learneth?" The place had burned to ground, more or less, but there had been warehouses outside the town walls that might have survived.

"More than can be easily moved. I hired Lendrin Treleth into shifting it up here as he has the mules and manpower for it."

I had forgotten about Lendrin Treleth and his trading post. "I'll talk to him later. I have no problem sourcing anything we need from him, for now. My biggest problem is getting money onto the economy, getting it started." I wondered what else Lendrin had been doing over the last few days; in one way he was my competition, as he would be looking to extract wealth from the area for himself, but would probably also need to put something in to get things started, and so in one way was my ally. In any case I would tax him; he was a noble and making money here, which made him liable to contribute to the administration; which was me for now.

Meran shrugged. "Why not just give everyone some money?"

I blinked three times before I figured out how to respond. It took so long because his comment displayed such a depth of ignorance on the subject that I kept discarding possible responses as being beyond his understanding. "It doesn't work that way. If you give someone money, they will spend it and then look to you for some more. It's human nature. We are what we are. You never give anyone money. Ever. It must be a transaction. It doesn't matter what kind of transaction, what they give in return, but they must give something. Don't even think about smiling." I knew what he was thinking. I'd been living of the largess of my family for most of my life. Which proved my point, rather.

"I wasn't." But the effort was costing him.

"Which reminds me, there is enough coin kicking around that I can clear my debts. Get it done. I'd rather keep the money in the local economy but I might need to borrow more later. The problem is that no one here has any money or any goods worth talking about. Nothing to buy and nothing to buy it with. The trick is to get people working for me first, and I'll pay them as I have all the bloody money, which isn't the way it's supposed to be. Houses; everyone needs one, so the more we get built the better. Land clearance, ploughing - we will need oxen, remind me later. I'll pay them to build farms and they can rent the land from me after an amnesty. Same with the houses, actually. What else? There are a lot of people here, they all need to be working. I need that census, to know what skills are available so I can fund workshops. That'll function somewhat differently, loans that can be repaid with interest on top of rent."

Meran had taken a seat and was taking notes. "How long will you keep the food dole going?"

"Until there is food security, sometime after the first crop is in. Find out who is working the land here, I noticed the hills behind us are terraced so there must be people who did and their wives and so on will be tending it as we speak, with any luck. Anything being neglected will be rented to anyone who wants it. I'll have to fix a rental rate per modius of land and I have no idea what that should be so we will offer to the best bidders, no man to offer on more than four modius."

"They probably haven't got any money," Mern reminded me.

"It doesn't matter. They can owe me. Am I forgetting anything?"

"Livestock. We recovered sheep, goats and cattle from around Learneth. There are plenty of pens but there isn't enough fodder here to sustain the cattle for long."

"Same deal. I need to get out of here and take a look at things." I'd started pacing and was beginning to feel hemmed in. Decisions and action go hand in hand.

"Breakfast," he reminded me.

Actually, I was ready for something. "Who is cooking? You hired staff? We are going to have to, a scribe, cooks, and so on."

"We're eating what the men eat."

On cue, there was a knock on the door and a soldier came in carrying food. The noise level in the hall beyond had increased steadily as we had talked. It was an intrusion I would continue to ignore for now but it made apparent what I already knew; there were too many people here, crammed into too small a place. I took a seat and forced down some porridge; there were a few bits of pork in it for flavour.

"Where are Sapphire and Dubaku?"

"Sapphire has the suite next to this but I haven't seen him this morning. Dubaku left with Jocasta; I thought you knew."

I hadn't. But perhaps it was just as well. We hadn't spoken since the burning of Learneth. I shied away from thinking about it. It was the past; no sense dwelling on it. "I owed him some money."

"He told me. I paid him."

I nodded. Poured myself another cup of wine. "Good enough." So much for my promise to help him find his people. Doubtless he thought Jocasta a better bet for actually getting the job done. And he was probably right; she would be in the city soon enough, in the centre of things; and our influence spreads for a thousand miles in any direction. She would find them for him. And what would he do for her in return? I'd had an idea involving illusory spell-forms and spirits to research new spells. That is what she had in mind; I'd bet my last coin on it. But it was my idea. To do something about it I needed another shaman, and an illusionist. I could send to the city and hire the latter, but where the heck was I going to get another shaman from? A possible answer tugged at my awareness but I was interrupted by raised voices before I could explore it.

I turned to glare at the door. "Who the hell is that?"

"Sounds like Orlek's widow, Anista. Want to see her?"

He sounded too cheerful. "Is she always that loud?"

Meran cocked his ear, the better to listen. He didn't need to make the effort. I could hear every word of her demands to speak with me, but not the more moderate response of the sentry on the door.

"If she marries again there will be at least one man who mourns her husband’s passing," Meran said.

I had a mouthful of wine, and managed to keep control so that I swallow it instead of spraying it across the room as Meran had clearly intended. "The guard isn't going to let her in, is he?"

"Not unless you change my standing orders, no."

"She can't be that bad," I told him as I opened the door and found out that I was wrong. Still, you don't solve problems by ignoring them.

The guard was standing with his back to the door. The frown that settled over my features was part irritation that there was a guard on my door and part confusion because he appeared to be calmly and patiently talking to himself. Beyond him, the room was full of women and children, the women clustered below the dais and the children running riot through the room and mingling with soldiers who were trying to rest. I stood in the doorway, taking it all in. Chaos. It wouldn't serve.

"As I have said, the commander is busy." The sentry was saying, he half turned to look over his shoulder as the door opened. "Sir?"

I leaned to one side so that I could see past him. He wasn't that big but the woman standing beyond him, hands planted on her hips, was tiny and had been entirely hidden from my sight until that moment. Her gaze snapped like a whip to lock with mine and for an instant I froze in the open doorway as the force of her personality struck me an almost physical blow. She fairly crackled with controlled energy, quivering with suppressed anger so that she appeared to be in motion even though she hadn't moved more than her eyes, which were green and bright.

"This cannot go on." She snapped the words at me like weapons, her voice harsh and loud. "I will not be forced to ignore my responsibilities and duties to my own people. Their problems are mine to resolve and I will have the freedom to address them. From here I can do nothing to alleviate their suffering or reassure their fears, nor can I assure myself of their well-being." I was hardly hearing what she was saying, nor did I much care about it. I kept eye contact but deliberately adjusted my awareness to take in the scene behind her; partly in self-defence.

Despite its size, some forty odd paces long and twenty wide, the hall seemed crowded. Meran had used the hall as a barracks and his men had staked claim to the areas adjacent to the long walls of the hall, bedrolls spaced evenly and war gear set neatly to hand. Some few were gathered around the women, clustering like flies around a honey pot. The rest ate at the two long tables either side of the fire pit or sat on their bed rolls at their ease, and talked or watched the slew of children who besieged them. They looked weary but in the noise and activity that surrounded them there was little or no chance of sleep and the doors at the far end of the hall were thrown open to admit light. That door was manned but one soldier. He allowed a young lad to swing the shortsword the boy had expressed an interest in. I watched as he taught the boy how to grip the hilt correctly and explained how the balance of the blade brought the point to bear naturally on the enemy’s belly.

I stepped forward and Anista gave ground but didn't stop talking; the guard stepped aside; all too willing to leave me to deal with her, I thought.

"The spiritual needs of my people are also not met; our priest of Hesta is imprisoned and he must be released at once to minister to the needs of my people. Are you listening to me?"

She was wearing wool of a fine weave that clung everywhere and more enhanced than concealed her figure, which was very fine. It didn't work with her auburn hair. "Black doesn't suit you."

"You should have thought of that before you made a widow of me," she snapped and continued on a new subject without hesitation. "And the children must be allowed outside; how are they to grow strong cooped up in here all day?"

I'd thought to take the wind out of her sails. It hadn't worked.

"I also require to know our status. The women look to me for answers and I have none for them. It is well known that the men of the city take their enemies for slaves yet this has not been done. Is it your intent to torture us with uncertainty about our future?"

Directly in front of me stood a high-backed chair of deeply carved dark wood. I moved to stand behind it, hands resting on its back. We stood on a raised platform, just one step higher than the rest of the hall. Here is where Orlek would have seated himself, raised above his fellows to preside over his small court. Here he would have heard complaints and resolved disputes, feasted with his household, his warriors and other notables, entertained guests.

It wasn't the way we did things. It was a symbol of authority; but it was a symbol of someone else's authority and it would have to go. For a moment I was tempted to make some dramatic gesture, like throwing it into the fire pit, but it was a nice piece of workmanship. It would serve some other purpose. In the office, I decided, and gave the order to the sentry. Anista at once stepped forward and place one hand on the chair. "My son's throne stays here," she stated it like a command, which I ignored, pretty much as I had been ignoring everything she said. So did the sentry. He moved slowly but with purpose and her strength was far from being a match for his. She gave it up as though it had never been an issue, her gaze never leaving my face as she continued airing her concerns. "And there are too many people here. Darklake cannot support half this number. The granary will empty in weeks and come winter people will starve."

I noticed that Meran had come as far as the doorway and had to move aside as the sentry dragged the chair away. He was smiling, but not too obviously. His attitude reminded me forcibly of his origins. He was a barbarian, and I suspected he had been a chieftain among the Alendi. His attitude to women, and to ruling, was that of his culture. A chieftain rules by consent, he does not command but rather cajoles and persuades his people. He had had some days here to arrange things to suit himself and had approached the matter as an Alendi chieftain would. He had allowed Anista to continue to think and act as though she were a chieftain’s wife, responsible for the welfare of the people. She acted as though her power and influence were unchanged. It was a precedent already established and that was a problem that could be handled two ways; I could either make the change harsh and sudden or slow and subtle. The simplest answer for me would be to make slaves of the lot of them and get them out of here, but I had the same problem that Meran had faced; I really didn't have enough men to escort sixty odd men and some hundreds of women and children south.

"... and the hall is too crowded; I am sharing a bed with two other women." This last seemed to offend her particularly, but from the size of her husband’s bed I would have though she was used to it.

"Do you ever stop talking?"

"Do you ever start listening?"

"I've heard enough." My attention had been snagged by movement at the far end of the hall; a prisoner was being brought forward by two soldiers and I let my gaze rest there as I answered her. "Every problem you have brought to my attention will be addressed once I have decided what might best be done about them. For now, the children may leave the hall but not the grounds." I wanted them out of here so then men could sleep. "See that they are supervised," I glanced at Meran to be sure he knew I meant that last partly for him. He nodded and made off to see to it.

I was sure she had also seen the prisoner but she had kept her attention focused on me. "And if they disobey, as children are supposed to?"

I suppressed a smile. "See that they don't. I've a mind to let your people remain here but in what exact circumstance I have not yet decided; in any case you and yours will be under probation. Understand that these are not your people and that your son will not be chieftain here. Your husband conspired with others to make war on the city without provocation and he has paid the price; unfortunately so have you and yours." I lifted a hand to stop her as she opened her mouth again. I wasn't done. "I have no idea if you were a party to his plans, or if you supported them, but I cannot doubt that you bear us ill will for your husband’s death, no matter that the risk was his idea and none of ours. I need to know if you are able to put that aside for the welfare of your children."

The nearest group of women had moved a little closer and were listening avidly. I meant them to hear.

Anista was also aware of them. "And our men?"

"They made war on us. What would you have me do with them?"

The prisoner was now close enough to hear this. I sized him up as his escort guided him to me; his arms were crooked around a stick and his wrists bound at his waist. He was a short but powerfully built man, shaven headed and his bare torso and arms smothered in tattoos and old scars. A warrior with a warriors bearing and attitude. He walked proud, as though the soldiers either side of him were his retinue rather than his guards. His gaze rested on me but I was sure his real attention was for Anista; I could practically hear him weighting up the situation, judging what authority she had here.

"Have them swear an oath of peace before Hesta and release them for my son to command."

"How would such an oath be binding? And have I not said I will allow your son no authority here?"

An expression of surprise flitted across her features for just an instant. "My son is not his father, and have I not told you there is a priest of Hesta here? He will summon a spirit to bind them to their oath."

The priest was another problem. He couldn't stay here, but maybe I could use him for this one thing before I sent him into exile. Of course, I could send a small number of people south, or just sell them to Lendrin Treleth and let him deal with the problem; but a priest wouldn't last long in the city; he would try and convert people to his faith and be condemned to death in no time. I didn't want the man's blood on my hands. Anista already struck me as a woman who didn't listen and would not easily give up her ambitions for her son; Treleth might be the solution for her, as well.



  1. Hey, Chris -

    Missed Sample Sunday yesterday; reading your sample today.

    It's intriguing, as always. I like the focus on logistics, particularly the way you make it into a puzzle and build suspense as to how he'll solve the myriad problems involved in managing conquered lands and subjugated people.

  2. Hey, thanks for the comment. You reassure me that I'm achieveing what I set out to do.