Three weeks before the war began
Titrius Mertinus felt perplexed by the devastation he heard Rhumborus Rorltus speak of, because he simply didn’t know what to do about it. His palms were sweaty and his stomach queasy. He sat opposite Rorltus, his Ministry of Defence legate. Opposite each other at the dark-orange, oval table. Rorltus read aloud a report about disconcerting events, which sounded flat and stony in Mertinus’s ministry office in Xintito.
Rorltus spoke with a twang.
While Mertinus listened, he casually ran a fingertip along the edge of the table’s top, and felt the polished finish.
The legate declared aloud, like a priest at the pulpit, the latest Hrexan incursions into Cuian-controlled space, and highlighted atrocities committed against Cuians in those places. Mertinus noted Rorltus’s stork-of-a-frame, thin and gaunt. Hair cropped short. His tawny beard was long and pointed. His eyes dark orbs, recessed in his pale, light-bulb skull. His legate’s uniform was the blue-black of his office.
Mertinus, however, considered himself a patient, steadfast, dilettante. Almost an autocrat. And today, felt his age, but not badly; saw his reflection in the table’s mirror finish, and noted the hair streaked with white. He smeared a sweaty palm on the cloth of his robes of office, was smooth to the touch, and the pride rise in him like smoke of incense from a slowly swung brazier.
He scanned the large oval table, from end to end, as he listened to Rorltus. Noticed the thick rays of sunlight that streamed through a side window, a slit in the wall; beams of soft yellow light. Noticed how some of the beams touched his upper back, could feel the warmth as some of the rays rested between his shoulders. His table-top reflection showed the rays backlit him, and produced a halo of soft diffused light. His edges were brightened, and affected an image of divinity. He didn’t feel particularly pious today, though, given what he heard, but wouldn’t let anyone think otherwise, in any event.
Hearing of the atrocities, though, he realised they had to find faster, more efficient ways to detect Hrexan incursions, so they could respond more appropriately. Had to find a better deterrent, too, he thought. He knew they couldn’t extend shield technology everywhere; it was impractical, as well as expensive. The City of Xintito couldn’t afford it; and by extension, neither could the Cuian Ministry of Defence, although he had ways to skim funds off the top. And he skimmed he did, and often. But it wasn’t enough, he realised, for times like these. Protection could only be offered the sensitive, important areas right now; like Xintito and other major centres of trade and culture. Rural districts would suffer the most if there was a major raid on Xinar. And he hoped there wouldn’t be.
Asmundus III was on his mind and asked about it.
Rorltus read aloud the inventory of loss, etched on chartaceous parchment. The legate was a model of self-control, more than usual, Mertinus thought; tried to seem less concerned than he was, he knew; his voice a slowly-played cello. But his concern was soon revealed as it creased his face.
The loss on Asmundus III was great: Forty-two dead, a multitude wounded, some seriously. Structures damaged, some beyond repair. And a massive loss of precious minerals and ores. Rorltus sighed, as he lowered the parchment to the table and it crackled. Surely this indicated how he felt about these events.
His long, bony fingers then reached for the ceramic jug in the middle of the table, and poured himself a drink.
Mertinus bemoaned the cost, and howled (in his mind) like a wolf that had lost its mate. Three raids already this month alone! And costly.
Focused on Rorltus then, more precisely than usual. Estimated the legate’s thinness, the cultivated beard, and the uniform that fit him like a glove. Remembered how Rorltus had come to him less than a year ago. Euton May, Commander of Xintito’s Security Forces, had recommended him. He wondered whether the legate wouldn’t be his successor? Twenty or thirty years from now, he thought, a pout of pessimism creased his face; he wasn’t in any hurry to retire, just yet.
Rorltus declared Hrexan raids had also occurred near Plautus and Irkreig II, which added to their already long list of losses. Of note was the loss of a Frettman class ore transport.
Mertinus exclaimed, was anguished by the transports’ loss, had intended to emphasize its importance rather than simply echo Rorltus.
Rorltus sat steely-eyed opposite. The man didn’t flinch; didn’t show any signs of stress or regret. Except perhaps the twitch around the eyes. This impressed and disturbed Mertinus. This impressive display of self-control signalled his legate’s education and training, of course. But the legate was unlike him, in many ways. He, on the other hand, was given to temperament and emotion filled outbursts.
He cursed and slapped the table. If the loss kept up, the Hrexan could absorb their resources, and within a decade they’d be an underclass of the Hrexan.
Thrust his chair back, yelped at the tiled floor, and sprang to his feet. Swirled and strode to the window. He stopped and stared out at the city, and hoped to find some clarity. The city buildings stayed, transports crisscrossed the lilac sky. People busy with purpose. This was Xintito. This was the centre of business, politics, and religion. And its business was trade and commerce. The politics, occasionally theocratic. The religion, a form of old Catholicism; more pluralistic than monotheistic in its outlook these days. Flexible rather than rigid. Few people, these days, emphasised proselytising, though the Purists did. The de-emphasis displeased them. But no one had come to blows over it. And a good thing too, he thought; civil unrest with religion at its heart, was the worst kind. The religious aspect he could see spread throughout the city. Church spires pointed heaven-ward in every direction, and reached for their god; a finger in a ‘creation’ themed painting he once saw. A third of the city, at least, from his window; pointing fingers. But, how the king religion, as it was sometimes called, would save them, this city, from a Hrexan raid, the implications disheartened him and shortened his breath, he hadn’t a clue. The problem glared like the polar star, for a culture that teetered on the brink of a theocracy at least once a year. As for the Hrexan raid, many suspected it presaged death. The gods were annoyed, some said. Others, that the gods had abandoned them.
Would a sacrifice or two appease the gods? Mertinus didn’t think so, and groaned. It reflected one of the many problems of using religion to control the masses, which he assented to (in his heart), but didn’t fully give his brain to; to claim that same god directed its leadership, well …
He knew the Cuian religion claimed its roots in Catholicism, an ancient religion that allegedly originated on a planet called Old Terra. The planet was known by other names, but this was the one he knew: Old Terra. And preferred to call it that, and was about a hundred light years away, and still only a Level 1 civilisation; still hadn’t even developed star travel. So, it wasn’t included among the duchies and clans and tribes that made use of star travel. There were others.
But he knew Old Terra was known and occasionally visited. Also, knew the Cuians traced their ancestry back to one of its ancient and strange species called the Mesoptamians, but no one was sure. Wasn’t even sure if he correctly pronounced the name. There was no clear evidence of a connection with a city called Old Roma either, the contradiction obvious if anyone looked too closely. A shine was put on it, to make sure no one saw the missing link. Religiosity served a purpose, though, as did all organised religion. Conformity and control. The lack of surety had been taken advantage of, and rendition deployed when and where necessary. When was it never necessary? The Cuians modified history to meet their needs, as they saw fit, and applied it to whatever circumstances they found themselves in.
A kind of mutual reciprocity.
Putting an end to his wondering thoughts, he asked Rorltus whether they’d heard from everyone, and from all sectors.
Most sectors, apparently. All except Cicette and Malldrium.
Mertinus directed Rorltus to get in touch with those sectors’ representatives; he needed to know what was going on out there.
Heard a scratching sound as Rorltus made notes in his chartaceous notebook. No doubt he’d digitise them later. Records were kept of everything.
In addition, almost as an afterthought, he ordered Rorltus to get in touch with their neighbours. Caution overruled everything when the Hrexan were on one of their damnable raids. Perhaps their neighbours experienced the same thing? In any case, they needed to know if the Hrexan were about to embark on one of their damnable raids. Would be top priority the next few weeks.
If he had to describe the Hrexan, he’d say they were like ghostly forest dwellers; they hid in the trees and immerged to rob you of your hard-earned denarii. One minute you were attacked and robbed and relieved of your possessions; the next, you stared at an unruffled forest and heard the soft tweets of the more indigenous population, and wondered where the hell the thugs had gone.
Rorltus excused himself. As he left, the door opened with a few clicks and clacks and closed with a solid clunk behind him. Mertinus focused his attention skyward, and watched the late afternoon sun create long shadows across the city. He shivered. The long, shadowy fingers created a gnarled, menacing hand, complete with long fingernails, over the city.
It seemed to him that the Hrexan were about to raid Xinar. He groaned at the thought. And all he could do right now was send Rorltus to collect information. Sorely need information. And he hoped the information would give him insights into Hrexan intentions, their mood, and help him decide what to do next.
A rumour of war
The sky over Lloridan, the Lledumarian duke’s spring retreat, was bright and caused him to squint, though he revelled in it. Lohwrune enjoyed the warm spring air on his face. Spring was in control, and the world bloomed with all manner of life. Flora and fauna. The bees buzzed and birds sang. Life couldn’t be better, he crooned. In his Keep, located in Llantan, a few days’ ride from here, handmaids would shuffle about their chores dutifully in his chambers. Perhaps his dear dulcinea would be there, too? The Lady Amelia Davonclynne. He smiled. They’d be spring-cleaning the drapes that hang near doors, dust the paintings that displayed his family, friends, nobles and dignitaries, and the landscapes that surrounded Lloridan. The wooden tables displayed earthenware jugs of wine and, on some of them, a spread of coloured books. The handmaids would smile and make jokes about members of his household if not him. They’d shove dirty linen into a rickety basket and squeaked as they were trundled off to the laundry. Others would spread clean linen on the royal couple’s bed, and throw big smiles at each other. They’d laugh lightly. Others would clean the coloured, decorative windows in his royal chambers and the Keep – a castle made of grey stone and decorative marble. Some would speak of his concubine with great affection. Then they’d discuss the day’s events, and wonder aloud what activities he’d scheduled.
This was the life, he mused, and swayed gently as his horse trotted.
Exiting the forest, after a day’s trek, he soon saw his Keep, a large stone and marble palace, several floors high, and parapets his house guards trundled, to keep everyone safe. He smiled at his chief of security, Hattran Symlis, who rode beside him. They were a kilometre or two from the Keep now, as they rode high on their return from his spring retreat. They were soon on the Keep’s grounds which reverberated with the clip-clop of horses’ hooves and crushed gravel beneath the boots of liverymen as they clambered to attend them the instant they stopped. Turned his face to the warm and friendly sun, one last time, before he entered the Keep and start the work-day proper. The golden globe seemed pleased he and his people existed; seemed to have their best interests at heart.
He smiled at the thought.
The liverymen soon greeted him and his entourage, one had hold the reins, firm against the horses’ steeping and gently reassured it with friendly chat and welcoming pats. The horses were handled with loving care. He usually let them whisk them away seconds after he and his companions dismounted, but not today. Today he held the reins of his horse a moment, inspected the horse’s rump and patted it; prevented the liveryman from leading it away too soon to the stables.
Symlis complimented him on the lovely beasts, obvious in his tone of voice, a warm, mellow bassoon. This revealed his great affection for the horses.
Lohwrune scanned the man’s uniform, a two-tone green and brown, splashed with gold livery, and observed how it bore his rank and title, declared his position in his Keep. Symlis was a sturdy man, energetic and agile. Loyal, too. His loyalty radiated from him like the brightness of the sun. He loved his duke. Observed his strong hands take hold of the horse’s harness, as he relieved the liveryman of it, and then rubbed the horse’s neck. But soon handed back the reins to the liveryman to lead it away to the stables. Noticed the smile and the freckled faced that beamed at him, the red hair tied back in a neat rounded bun. Symlis soon nodded to the waiting house guards. They responded and quickly moved into position around them as the duke and his entourage headed for the Keep’s entrance.
Facing outward, the house guards formed a semi-circle around him. Gravel crunched beneath their boots as they rushed to form a protective barrier. The security men who’d accompanied him wandered away to their respective barracks, to rest up and return to duty tomorrow.
The tread of boots on stone and marble was soon hushed by carpets. Sturdy voices now permeated the foyer and hallways. Looked back as he heard the whine and roar of a transport as it broke air, and hurled itself spaceward. The whine echoed momentarily in the background.
Symlis soon informed him of the day’s schedule. He’d soon meet a waiting emissary and served morning tea. Lohwrune listened to Symlis as he paced alongside him, as they headed through the large foyer to a west wing antechamber. His entourage formed a large, chatty group in their wake.
A Glanxin emissary?
Lohwrune queried the presence of the Glanxin, and frowned at Symlis. They hardly heard from them, other than for commerce. So, what’s his story?
Symlis’s shrug indicated he didn’t know, but he’d personally checked and cleared the emissary.
They soon entered the large antechamber, his entourage poured in behind like ants from a nest. The chamber was a large meeting room with high ceilings, tall, thin windows inset in one wall, burgundy and green drapes and oil and pastel paintings on the others, some small, others large with gilded frames. Many of the paintings were of his ancestors, head and shoulder poses; some of the Lloridan country estates; still others, of tranquil scenery.
Symlis waved a hand at a seated man, a communications man, who soon opened a panel on one section of the wall, and revealed technology. Some of the technology was small and large screens, with flat, iridescent keyboards. The technology brandished the heading, ‘communications technology’. Small lights flickered on and off. The communications officer soon touched a screen and the panel radiated: steel greens and off-whites that flowed like slowly trickled water. Some of the screens projected the Lledumar seal: a moon and sun banner.
Another officer stepped forward, a metre from him and spoke in a firm voice, and introduced the emissary; called him Xerxe Mendlin. The officer then stepped back from him and the dignitary, to a vantage point a few metres away. He stood sturdy, alert, and prepared to act if necessary. Mendlin was robed in dark green and burnt orange regalia that swirled about him.
Lohwrune spoke the man’s name and welcomed him to his Keep. He gestured with his hand to Symlis, and introduced him as his head of household security, though they had meet times before, and said his name in full: Hattran Symlis. Then he gestured to a chair, and suggested they sit.
As they sat, Lohwrune asked Mendlin whether he’d care for something: Water, or tea perhaps?
The emissary shook his head and said he’d been offered refreshment while he waited for his highness. And declared he had an urgent message to communicate.
Lohwrune glanced at Symlis, and beyond him saw staff were about to bring tea and edibles, which he’d expected anyhow. In any case, it was Lledumarian custom to be polite and show generosity.
He soon asked the reason for the emissary’s visit, on such a fair day. He observed all the forms of protocol for visiting dignitaries, and extended courtesy to the dignitary. But why though, was the emissary being overly formal this morning? This wasn’t his usual open, self-satisfied demeanour (recalling the last time he’d met him); quite the opposite. Wondered what this visit to his Keep could be about, if it wasn’t about the usual day-to-day things. The man seemed tense and concerned. It couldn’t possibly be about his accommodation or their trade pacts, they were spotless.
Mendlin came to the point, directly, and didn’t try to suppress the urgency. A rumour had come to him that the Hrexan were on one of their damnable raids.
Lohwrune didn’t miss the sharp look from Symlis, then back to Mendlin. Hrexan? They’d not heard of any raids in their sector. Not for a long time.
Mendlin sought his assistance in the event the barbarous Hrexan were headed their way.
Lohwrune thought on this, was quiet a moment. Pondered the ramifications of a Hrexan raid.
He pressed the emissary for hard data on the Hrexan. He’d given him fair warning, and thanked him for that. But he needed to know the numbers: threat levels, estimations. If Mendlin could furnish him with whatever data he had, it’d be a big help. He could then project contingencies, meet the threat with confidence.
Showing Lohwrune deference, he said he only had rumours. He sighed hard. If he had hard data, he’d certainly share it.
Lohwrune pondered the situation. He knew the Glanxin well enough to know they’d share the data if they possessed it. The relationship they had with the Glanxin was friendly and open. But no hard data made it difficult to project eventualities. The data was sorely needed.
Symlis’s eyes offered him a warning. Lohwrune spoke to Mendlin and urged him to get the hard data so he could better assist his people, as he knew he would, when there was a threat. Could he secure the data?
Mendlin promised to try, and sounded conciliatory. He’d put in a request immediately. And on behalf of his people, thanked Lohwrune for considering the request. But hoped to the heavens the Hrexan didn’t present them with such a choice. They’d barely recovered from the last minor attack.
Lohwrune told Mendlin the feeling was mutual. He called him friend, and hoped they’d continue to live in peace and harmony.
Mendlin rose and bowed in deference, then took his leave to do the thing promised. Let Symlis lead him to the communications console to initiate the requisite action that would bring their two peoples together in times of trouble.
Lohwrune watched Symlis lead Mendlin to the communications console and speak to the communications officer who pressed buttons and turned knobs on the console.
Symlis left Mendlin with the communications officer and strode back to stand beside him, but glanced at Mendlin.
He muttered the name that sent fear into the heart of many, his voice creased with concern. He rubbed his chin, then sat back in his chair at the table.
Symlis soon asked whether the rumour was true or not. Were the Hrexan really on another raid? One that would bring them here? His bright bassoon distorted with worry.
Lohwrune could only affirm the rumour to his security man and childhood friend.
Symlis affirmed they needed the hard data, before they could accept the Glanxin’s word for it. Respectfully, he said. Otherwise, they’d disrupt life on Lled for no good reason. Then, seeing his face creased with concern, he added that he agreed that it’d be better to be prepared than sorry.
Lohwrune suggested he get in touch with the Cuians, and find out what’s happening in their neck of the woods. The Hrexan always touched them. They needed more data; hard data. Then report back when he knew more.
He then searched the bowl of sliced fruit pieces for something that appealed. Found one and popped it into his mouth. Turned to watched Symlis cross to the communications officer. Mendlin had departed. He chewed the fruit and reflected on the exchange with the Glanxin emissary. Though he was hungry, but now disquieted to hear of a possible Hrexan raid, in times like this he usually suppressed appeasing his hunger until harassed by the likes of Symlis. Or his love, the Lady Davonclynne, who he was now eager to see.
He wondered what the rumour of a raid really meant. The Hrexan were seasonal in their damnable raids, true. This, thankfully, gave them and the others in this quadrant time to prepare and adjust before everything went sideways. Being prepared was one thing; being unprepared yet another. He had to be prepared. They’d make contact with the Cuians and go from there. In any raid, the Cuians tended to be hit first. Thankfully, the Hrexan tended to concentrate on larger clans like the Cuians, and barely touched others. Spoils from raids on small duchies weren’t always worth the effort, didn’t seem to satisfy. Better to snatch those of an advanced culture and wait while the others caught up. That was clever; planned. But touch those smaller clans and duchies, they did. He’d be in a better position to act if the Cuians also had hard data on Hrexan movements and numbers. Until then, it was business as usual, though he’d remain alert for anything that smelled of a Hrexan raid.
Strangers among them Cuians
Aelius Aronnum, sector politico in Nimbus on Xinar, the Cuian homeworld, watched fluffy white clouds drift overhead before he returned his attention to the spectacle of celebration. Although there were large patches of blue here and there in the sky over Nimbus, the sunlight was dimmed. It was spring, so everything was perfect for today’s event. The accursed heat in summer, he thought; would be unbearable when summer came. Aronnum suffered dehydration too easily and had to maintain a steady intake of fluids, despite the inconvenience of having to relieve himself every few hours. He didn’t look forward to that. Though it was a perfect spring day to watch the New Lunar Moon celebrations of the local Ginthaunese people, it wasn’t a Xinarian celebration. A thing Faine Zann, his Chief of Security, would remind him of, if he were here. That celebrating the local people was vain. He might even say un-Cuian. But not to him. He would counter that, and argue it helped build relations with the local Ginthaunese. Trade with them was good for business. It also kept them happy. Besides, he huffed, and tried to think positive thoughts, the celebration was a colourful distraction from the incessant tedium of local politics in Nimbus.
At sudden movement to his right, and looked up to see Faine Zann, his Chief of Security. He instantly said the man’s name, but not in a way that sounded like he was pleased to see him. Zann stood before him on the covered patio for special guests and VIPs. He was sarcastic when he said it was lovely to see him. Said he’d missed some of the dance routines, that they’d been superb.
Zann was blunt when he called him ‘Aelius Maximus’, rather than his actual name – Aelius Aronnum. And sarcastically claimed that Nimbus was illuminated by his brightness.
Aronnum groaned momentarily at Zann’s demeanour, to hint his annoyance. He wasn’t sure whether to have Zann flogged in public for showing such disrespect in front of his patrons and guests and hangers-on, or pay him more laros to say something better. After he’d made Zann feel uncomfortable with a stern stare, he invited his ‘friend’ to sit beside him. He gestured to a seat already occupied by a local merchant. The merchant was surprised, looked first at Aronnum and then at Zann. Soon realising for whom he should give up his seat, opened his mouth to speak, but speechless, the merchant made a swift exit, and bowed many times as he backed away.
Unlike him, Zann didn’t stand on ceremony. His dislike for him was public knowledge. Felt the man’s loathing like the sun’s ultraviolet radiation. He’d made the kinds of decisions Zann would never make, would never entertain, if he were sector politico. But the man would never be sector politico, so he dismissed the thought with a pout. When it came to managing the local situation, Zann would’ve done something different. Aronnum knew he played with fire by appearing to praise the gods of lesser mortals. That was one of their main differences. Zann was a stickler for the true article of faith, whereas he was a moderate and appeased as many as he could, without drawing criticism from Xintito, that is, when he did. So long as there were a few extra denarii, laros if it were on offer, in it for him, he’d take advantage of it. His balconies by the sea in Uother, a rumour had spread, suggested it must have been purchased with the laros of unusual agreements, if not generous gifts from invisible, unnameable acquaintances.
Unnameable shall they remain, he thought.
Zann would admit though, that he had made Nimbus rich in culture. Filthy with laros, Zann would probably say.
Zann soon said he’d brought news that may interest him.
Heard Zann’s sincerity, if not the respect.
Aronnum bade him tell, as he sipped a bi-carbonated ginger drink. The bubbles tickled his nose as he drank, and caused him to rub the bottom of his nose after each sip.
The word on the street was that strangers were among them. They’d been spotted on the outskirts of Nimbus, and were seen to buy large quantities of supplies with illaros.
Illaros? Aronnum was surprised, and interrupted Zann before he could add more to his tale. Wasn’t that …
An older currency, confirmed Zann. But one that still held some value.
Aronnum waited as Zann paused to watch a dance brigade perform nearby, as though he waited for the moment he should laugh at a bad joke.
Apparently, the strangers had been asking questions about Nimbus’s military bases and installations. Zann looked at him to suggest there might be something in it.
There it is, Aronnum thought. Unusual, yes; but it was a constant issue in every city on Xinar. And rarely turned out to be of great significance. Zann was disquieted, though. So, he asked him if he knew who the strangers were.
Zann wasn’t sure, but had sent his people into the streets to find out. They’d know soon enough.
Aronnum turned from Zann, was quiet as he watched the dance brigades twirl and jump to the cymbal music as it tinged in the background. As he watched, he wondered what it meant to ask about military places. If the strangers were only after supplies they’d probably be gone in a few days, a week at most. Get what they want and get out again. Offworld traders sometimes used the old illaros because they came here so rarely. There was nothing untoward about it, he knew, never any real problem. He shouldn’t worry, he thought. Just enjoy the celebrations and let Zann, the zealot, deal with it. That’s what he did; that’s what he was good at. And what he paid him for, he thought, sourly. But he had to watch his back with Zann. Had to be extra-careful. He was never quite sure about Zann. There was always a malodorous taciturnity hanging around him, like the hint of sandalwood on a night feline.
He spoke to Zann of the lovely dancers, rather than the other. Didn’t look directly at him. Spoke of their colourful costumes, and the beauty of their intricate dance routines that created a beautiful spectacle, like when bees indicated the nearest pollen’s location. After a pause, he looked directly at Zann and asked him why he opposed the lovely spectacle?
Zann said he wasn’t opposed to it, just opposed to allowing the religion of other species to flourish when they were their masters, their overlords, and it was their gods they should worship not the gods of lesser mortals.
He accepted Zann’s idea on the chin, but studied him with a sideways glance. Then looked him in the eye, and explained how and why they differed on the issue. He’d much rather they be happy and not have an excuse to rebel, whereas Zann would probably give them a reason to rebel.
He noted Zann’s sharp, unsettled look.
He waved a hand dismissively when he saw the response on Zann’s creased face, and told him not to worry about it. Told him merchants and farmers were no match for their security forces. And there hadn’t been an uprising since he’d been appointed sector politico, nor since the time of Marius II.
Zann soon relented, and said he was quite right, of course. Exhaled a deep sigh. He hoped he was also right about the strangers. Zann then stood, and intended to leave. He wished him a good day, and declared he had things to attend to; security business.
Aronnum nodded. He watched him go, and at the same time wondered what the strangers were up to. He hoped he was right about the strangers. If strangers were here, among them, then trouble might soon follow. Better to take a ‘wait-and-see’ attitude, he thought. Let Zann do his job, as he always did, and report back. Zann was good at his job; couldn’t help himself. He wanted to do it. For Zann, doing his job settled him. He agreed. Then he returned his attention to the festivities, and smiled and commented on the dancers and their routines to everyone within earshot.