Structor Risa Macklin sneezed big when the ragweed caught her off guard, which it had done this time.
Some of the students–boys especially, of course–smirked and chortled behind their notebooks. Not that they were of the evil sort to take pleasure in a structor’s misfortune. Surely not. At any rate, the lead geology structor at Navri Caddemy was quick enough to retrieve the herbal sniffer from her desk once she realized the problem. The allergy came swiftly under control. After a few moments of nose blowing and tear wiping, she got the session’s discussion back on track.
“As I was saying, the mountainous Rim that both protects and defines our entire Bowl is not a single geological feature. Far from it. In fact, it is really quite amazing that so many different events could combine to produce the Rim at all. It’s a marvel, truly.”
“Truly,” Wake Specky whispered, mocking the structor. Had Wake spent as much time studying as he spent mocking, he’d have been in line for First Honors. Unfortunately, skilled as the fourteen year old was at mocking, he never could seem to get it through his head that Risa Macklin could hear a gnat fart in a hailstorm.
“Wake,” she said mildly, “are you awake?”
“Excellent. That being the case, you no doubt heard every word of today’s lecture, right?”
“Uh…sure. Yeah. Sure. I did.” Strangely enough, he wasn’t lying about that. Despite his apparent irreverence and lack of interest, the kid had a steel trap mind and a memory like the mythical elephant of a hundred thousand years ago.
“Enlighten us then, please. What formed the portion of the Rim known as the southeast quadrant?”
The youngster grinned. He knew this one. “That would be the Yellowstone caldera explosion, Structor, just 23,000 years ago.”
“Approximately 23,000 years ago. Not just 23,000 years ago.”
“Yes ma’am. I–” He stopped short, his attention drawn–as was everyone else’s–to the slim courier who’d slipped into the classroom. City Council business, this would be, and Council matters trumped all else. The runner moved to the front of the room, handed Structor Macklin a sealed envelope, turned on his heel, and departed. No one else drew a breath until she opened the thing, withdrew a sheet of paper, read its contents…and abruptly announced that class was being canceled for the remainder of the day.
“An emergency meeting of the Council has been called for the first hour after lunch,” she said. “I will not be able to struct you again until tomorrow. Class dismissed.”
Oddly enough, the students seemed to feel they could survive missing one afternoon of struction. Cheerful buggers.
On her part, Risa Macklin needed more time, but she would work with what she had. As the only female on the five person Council this decade…well, Chair Carson and the others had underestimated her at first, but she no longer had that advantage. The rain was slackening; it would be clear and sunny by the time session was called to order. This being an emergency, there would be no Call to the Public; they’d get right to the agenda. And the agenda would consist primarily, Risa was certain, of the Chair’s determined effort to place Captain Norkin in front of an arrow squad as the sole scapegoat. Seventy-eight fine street officers dead, thirteen severely wounded…the ords were demanding answers, even talking about forcing a recall election. Carson couldn’t have that. Of course he couldn’t. Point the finger of blame elsewhere, throw the most expendable man under the freight wagon, that would be his way.
Fortunately, she’d brought her notes with her to class, unwilling to leave them at home where a stray “burglar” might have taken them or a “mysterious” fire might have burned them to ashes. She might not be able to sway the Council entirely, but she hadn’t been caught off guard, either.
“Council Café for lunch,” she told her driver, “then Council Lodge.”
Old Bob merely nodded, holding the sorrels steady while she climbed into the coach unassisted. Society ladies preferred to have their doors held by handsome young male coachmen, often as not, but Risa McKee Darvis Macklin was cut from sterner cloth than that. The four outriders, peerless bodyguards one and all, took their positions, and off they went, Harry and Jinx in the lead, Veg and Gaph following.
It would take some minutes to reach the eatery; best to do her contemplation now. Trusting her people with her life, as she’d done these past six years since her husband’s assassination, the Councilwoman settled into the plush forward-facing seat, closed her eyes, and softly chanted the Hu. Ancient love song to the Creator, that sound; nothing better for achieving inner balance. Except her secret word, maybe, but the old one had gotten stale and no replacement had yet surfaced in her consciousness.
Balance achieved, at least for the moment, she left Old Bob to park the coach and wait as usual–he carried his own lunch but was not about to leave either the horses or the high end coach unattended in downtown Navri City, thank you very much–she strode into the Café with her usual style. Wags had gossiped when she was first elected to the Council two years ago, shaking their heads at her trademark sleeveless, knee length dress worn over hunter’s buckskins, the fringed leggings dropping over sturdy workman’s boots. “Eccentric crackpot” had been the kindest of the remarks, followed by “upstart female” and going downhill from there.
Those attacks had been blunted by her quick acceptance of the derogatives, turning hate labels into badges of honor. These days, her usual booth at the café was marked with a brass plate screwed firmly into the edge of the table–not with her name or official title, but with Upstart Female as a defiant declaration. Her attire had become something of a fashion fad, copied by rebellious women throughout the city.
There were plenty of women who detested her, of course, and even more men who’d like to see her go down in flames. But they no longer dared come at her openly; she’d proven herself too wicked an adversary. Now it was whispers behind closed doors and assassins chosen for their discretion as much as for their expertise.
“Your usual, Council?” Headwaiter Smarth, originally of the Track Crossing Smarths, stood ready to take her order by the time she’d settled herself into the booth, the skirt covering sheathed fighting blades strapped to either shapely thigh. Shapely, if you liked a woman built like a ring fighter, which some did, and which she had been for a time.
“Absolutely, Smarth,” she smiled easily, genuinely fond of the restaurant man. He was an endless fount of crucial intel, that one, as well as being the most efficient and personable waiter she’d ever met. That Soul must have many past lives as a spy, the role fit him so easily. “T.J. will be joining me.”
“Very good,” Smarth beamed, bowing just slightly and turning on his heel to head for the kitchen. He never had to ask what master smith Tawn Jenny wanted; the burly steel fabricator would be having a pound of prime rib, medium rare, with baked potato and greens.
T.J. arrived moments later, easing his considerable bulk into the booth opposite the Councilwoman with surprising grace for one so large. Surprising, that is, if you didn’t know the man.
“Word is out,” he began without preamble. “Carson’s going to try to pin it all on Norkin.”
“Alas, the poor Captain,” Risa murmered. “No blame to Deerwalker?”
“Come on, sis. You know better than that. The City Manager is the Chair’s number one lackey, after all. Carson would have to train up a new butt licker from scratch if he had that one arrowed, now wouldn’t he?”
“Brother,” she smiled, though it did not reach her eyes, “that was sarcasm.”
Headwaiter Smarth returned to their booth for a moment, pretending to consult the head of Jenny Steel Works about his order. There were no other customers, or for that matter café employees, close enough to hear. “Orders are out to double the guards,” he said quietly, looking expectantly at the big man but in truth delivering the message to the Councwilwoman.
“I’ll have my usual,” Tawn stated for the benefit of any who might be watching, though the cafe’s patrons seemed to be mostly intent on their own shady deals and conversations.
“I don’t like that,” he muttered once the waiter was gone. “The so called Council Guards all serve Carson, no matter their official designation. If they’re being doubled for this session, that’s a full dozen. Plus his four personals make sixteen, while you’ll only have your four with you. And the others might side with him if it comes to a hostile takeover. That would be twenty-eight total. I know your guys are good, but seven to one odds….”
“They wouldn’t all side with him,” she demurred. “Vengor will back me if it comes down to it.”
“Yeah. Okay. So, twenty-four to eight. Three to one odds. But still….”
“I take your point, T.J., and I agree. My guys, as you call them, are better even than you might think, but there’s no use encouraging the Chair to do something stupid. Feel free to activate the Family.”
“Thank you.” The master smith relaxed visibly. “I’ve already given the word, so it’s good you agree. I’d hate to find myself getting flogged for impertinence.”
Risa chuckled. It was an old joke between them.
Council Lodge, when she reached it, seemed deceptively normal…except for the accused miscreant upon whom sentence would be passed this afternoon. Captain Wallis Norkin stood at ease at the board, on display for all to see. By Navri law, he retained the right to appear in uniform, unchained, until he’d been convicted of his crime. Only his weapons were missing, not from any fear he might attack the Council when judgment was passed, but because he was not allowed to cheat by taking his own life. Risa thought he looked rather handsome today, neither defiant nor cowering, bearing up well against the knowledge that this would be a kangaroo court at best.
Had he not settled his affairs last night, she would be surprised.
Chair Carson, on the other hand, presented his usual weasel image. A fat weasel. Corrupt from the day he was born, that one, beady eyed, sharp nosed, and a thirst for power. Her Family had seen him coming from the outset, but they’d not been able to stop his rise through the ranks of city politics. Too much money dropped into the right pockets, too many lies effectively circulated. The ords saw Barger Carson as their champion, defender of the middle class, enemy of the rich…even as the weasel and his Family fleeced them thoroughly, widened the gap inexorably between rich and poor, and set themselves up to overthrow the City Charter completely. Nor would the Carsonite movement halt there unless someone stopped it with brute force.
The Rimlanders had put a kink in the Chair’s plans, though, and there would be a reckoning for that. Which Captain Norkin clearly knew as well as anyone; in his relaxed stance, an astute observer could see a man who’d come to terms with his own impending demise.
“Council will come to order!” The Crier made his announcement, and the game was on.
For the next hour, Carson droned interminably, spewing venom and beating around the bush, gradually but inexorably condemning the Captain. When he finally got ready to open the meeting to comments from lesser members–meaning anyone but him–Risa checked her notes, particularly those summarizing the Chair’s pitch for execution:
1. Captain Norkin of the City Militia, the police force’s supreme commander, had been given a direct order by the City Manager: Remove sufficient cargo from the Rimlanders’ freight wagons to cover the taxes levied by City Council.
2. None of the Militia had even reached the wagons, being confronted by the mountain people’s wagon guards.
3. Militia then engaged the wagon guards and were cut to pieces.
4. Considering the fact that nearly four hundred militia had been facing no more than one hundred sixty wagon guards, four for each of the forty wagons, overwhelming the Rimlanders should have been easy.
5. Since that turned out not to be the case, the resultant skirmish resulting in nearly a hundred of the Militia dead or severely wounded, the only explanation was gross incompetence on the part of Captain Norkin. After all, the Captain had recruited them, trained them, and used inferior tactics when directing them in battle; there could be no other explanation.
6. The penalty for gross incompetence was death; it was obvious that Norkin should be sentenced and executed by arrow squad at dawn tomorrow.
No one was surprised when Councilwoman Risa Macklin rose to her feet in rebuttal.
“Council,” she nodded to her peers in their carved mahogany chairs, “citizens, and Captain…I beg to differ with the esteemed Chair’s interpretation of events, his interpretation of the law, and his evaluation of Captain Norkin’s competence. Let’s start with the Captain’s record of service, shall we? This man has proven himself a faithful public servant for nearly nineteen years, working his way up from street officer to Captain of the entire force, the leader of every man out there who wears a badge. He distinguished himself in the firewood strike riot seven years ago, in the section strife two years back, and even in the trouble at the polls during the last election cycle. His judgment and tactics have never been called into question until now–and they should not be, even this time, even with the terrible loss of life among our city’s finest and the lesser yet significant loss of revenue through unclaimed taxes.
“No, it is not the Captain’s tactics that produced this debacle. It is the unreasonable order he was given, an order that was illegal according to the Cautan Confederacy Constitution. The city states have no authority to tax each other, nor do they have the authority to tax the mountain holdings. Yet this Council, ignoring the Constitution that governs all of us, chose to try such a thing. We acted illegally, fearing the power of the local guilds, not daring to tax them, foolishly thinking the Rimlanders would be easy pickings, that we could change the rules of trade without consequences.”
She paused in her pacing, picking up a cup of water for a quick sip before continuing. The politics watchers in the room knew what this atheletic, fiery eyed woman was really saying, of course. “We” meant the majority Council vote. She had not voted for those taxes but had in fact argued heatedly against them.
“Now,” Risa continued, “there are legal scholars who swear by their wigs that failure to effectively carry out an illegal order is not punishable by law. Period. Case closed. It can be argued that those who voted to issue such an order can be prosecuted, but not the poor schlub at the sharp end of the spear. By that rationale, Chair Carson should be on trial today, not Captain Norkin.”
That brought a gasp from the assemblage; not even Constitutional conservative Risa Macklin had ever before gone so far as to accuse the most powerful man in Navri City of capital malfeasance.
“She’s pulling out all the stops today,” a young fellow in the third row of the audience whispered to his wife.
“Sh-h-h!” His wife whispered back.
Macklin lifted her arms, palms upward in a what’re you going to do gesture. “Yet even if we reject the argument of those esteemed scholars and proceed upon the assumption that the Captain should have attempted to execute the order he was given, he cannot be blamed for finding his men outmatched when it came to combat. Archers could not be used; the two sides were too close together. And most of all, the City Militia is and always has been primarily a police force, not an army. It is the holders who field military men. Some choose not to believe it, but no one comes out of those mountains who has not been trained in arms from birth. Did you know that the Rimlanders teach a martial art called mort, a style of fighting in which every move is designed to kill? Not to wound, not to incapacitate, not to discourage. To kill.
“Yes, I know you’ve been told that’s a myth. It’s not. It’s true. A mortician, a master practitioner of mort, may well strike with his spear at your leg if your heart or your liver or your throat or eyes or ears are not available–but if he does, he will be aiming at your femoral artery so that you will bleed out in short order, saving a miracle. He may go for your gut, but with an eye to slicing up and through the diaphragm.
“In other words, the Rimlanders–at least those who come down from the mountains to trade–are stone cold killers, every one. Sending our police force against them was like pitting newborn kittens against hungry wolves. And Captain Norkin, who had no choice but to send them, cannot be faulted for the inevitable result.”
Stopping for a long moment, she glared at the audience, then at the rest of the Council, finally bringing her fierce gaze to rest on Chair Carson himself. The weasel faced leader didn’t look worried, not that you could tell, but a couple of beads of sweat rolled out of his hairline, tracking down across his cheeks.
Gathering herself, settling, Risa made her final point in a quieter voice. A voice that still carried, though; none present missed a word.
“And even beyond that, even if this Council were to choose to blind itself to the truth that Captain Norkin is not culpable in any way, he could not be punished beyond a certain level. Loss of his position, perhaps–but no more than that. Certainly not the death penalty. Nowhere in the Cautan Constitution, nowhere even in the City Codes, nowhere anywhere does the law allow a man to be executed for incompetence. Why, were such to be allowed, every politician in this room would be facing the arrows tomorrow!”
With that she sat down, accompanied by laughter from the audience.
But none of the Council members laughed, and in the end her entirely accurate summary of the legal parameters made no difference whatsoever. The vote to execute Captain Norkin went entirely as expected, three in favor, two opposed. The Chair was about to bring his gavel down when Risa Macklin leaped to her feet once again.
“Question! I call Question!”
“Councilwoman Macklin has the floor,” Carson admitted reluctantly, his expression that of a parent exasperated by a particularly dimwitted child.
“By our own City Codes, no man can be executed except by unanimous vote. The Captain cannot be executed.”
The Chair sighed. “What would you have us do, Councilwoman? Norkin has been convicted. He is therefore deemed a danger to society. We don’t run charity prisons for offenders like those decadent societies of the ancient Tales, you know.”
“Of course not,” she agreed, “but you know the Rule. He cannot be executed, he cannot be set free, but he can be sold into slavery.”
There was a collective gasp, an intake of air within the room. The weasel curled his lip in scorn. “That’s no option at all. What buyer would sign the papers to take this one? Go surety for his good behavior, as any slave owner must? Who would be that stupid?”
“I would,” she replied calmly, “and here are seventeen golds to prove it.” With that, she reached into her shoulder bag, fished out a small purse, and emptied the contents upon the scribe’s work table. A cascade of newly minted yellow eagles flashed and clattered to rest on the hard surface.
The Council Lodge erupted in excited conversation. Chair Carson banged his gavel to no avail. Three amateur Criers slipped out, nodding to door guards as they dashed to be first to spread the word, framing the announcements in their heads as they ran.
Councilwoman Risa Macklin Buys Goat of Central Plaza Disaster! Clearly has a crush on the disgraced Captain!
Yes. For sure. Risa Macklin was in love with the man. There could be no other explanation.