The next day I paid Tavrin a visit to start working out plans for Nethwillin’s new home. The dark elves had been amazingly helpful since they’d moved to my island, especially after I’d appointed their clan head as my new castellan. But while they were capable traders I’d recently discovered that they were basically a ninja clan as well, so I figured it would be smart to give them as many reasons as possible to be loyal. They’d spent a thousand years grappling with a serious infertility problem caused by Midgard’s low ambient mana levels, so I figured building them a refuge where that problem didn’t apply should be good for morale.
Tavrin showed me a light spell he wanted to use that produced a spectrum similar to Svartalfheim’s sun, a blue-white glow barely half as bright as normal sunlight. There was a lot of ultraviolet in it, which might explain something about their complexion.
“Your human retainers are going to get sunburned pretty easily under this light,” I pointed out. “They’re all northerners.”
“Yes, some of our older texts mention that problem. Humans will acclimate if their exposure is gradual, correct?”
“Depends on what part of the world you got their ancestors from. Most people will build up a tan if you increase their exposure gradually, but sometimes northern tribes lose that ability. You’ll need to keep an eye out for people who just sunburn repeatedly, and never adjust. But if it does come up I think I can fix it.”
We had to work out how high to push the mana level in their habitat, and then there were a lot of smaller details about the layout and facilities. I was basically just going to build some big rooms and let the elves handle all the detail work, but we still had to agree on an overall design. We were working through the details when a servant poked her head into Tavrin’s office to let us know I had a visitor.
“He says he’s the harbormaster,” she told me. “There doesn’t seem to be an emergency, so we’ve put him in one of the waiting rooms.”
“Harbormaster Lund is out of bed this early? Interesting. Can you let him know I’ll be down in a few minutes? I think we’re almost done here.”
“Of course, milord.”
I spent a few minutes hashing things out with Tavrin before I took my leave. I was surprised at how awkward it made the situation, though. I didn’t want to keep Lund waiting forever like some self-important asshole, but I also didn’t want Tavrin to think I was more concerned with some human outsider than I was with taking care of his clan. Ugh, politics. I guess this is why important people normally have someone managing their appointments.
The harbormaster seemed years older than when last we’d met. There was more gray in his hair, and he’d lost weight as well. He jumped to his feet when I entered the waiting room, and bowed.
“Good day to you, lord wizard. Thank you for seeing me on such short notice. I’m sure you must be a very busy man these days.”
“For every problem I solve, three more pop up,” I agreed. “How have you been?”
“Holding on, milord. If not for those iron buildings you made I likely wouldn’t be here, though. When Hel’s ships attacked the harbor they docked right by my house, and we barely got out ahead of them. We bribed our way into a shelter, and then did it again after the earthquake.”
“Bribed?” I asked.
“The mayor never had a chance to appoint overseers for the shelters,” he explained. “The refugees in each one have taken them over, and chosen their own leaders. With grain rations as short as they are they take a hard line on letting anyone into their space, even in an emergency.”
“I suppose that’s to be expected. Is that what you wanted to talk to me about?”
“It’s only a symptom, milord. I’ve been speaking with the other influential men in the district. The masters of the Mariner’s Guild and the Fishermen’s Association, the grain factors and warehouse magnates, even what’s left of the shipwrights. We can all see the writing on the wall, milord. The truth is the whole city is falling apart, and there doesn’t seem to be anyone who can put it back together.”
“I’m hoping we’ll have a bit of a breather now,” I confided. “The ape men were pretty well wiped out in that last mortar attack, and if another army shows up we’ll just do it again. This leadership mess is another matter, though. There doesn’t seem to be anyone who can step up and take charge.”
“Some of the men thought that might be your cue, milord,” he said cautiously.
“Tempting,” I admitted. “But I don’t think it would work. The Conclave wouldn’t stand for it, and if I got into an argument with them there wouldn’t be much of a city left afterwards.”
“As you say, milord. Most likely that means the city will splinter, though. We don’t dare try to reconvene the city council, because that would just force things to come to a head. So the leaders over in the Military District will all look to the nobles for direction, the ones in the Wizard’s Quarter will turn to the Conclave, and so on.”
That made sense. Of course, the Trade District didn’t really have a local power center to turn to, and the Harbor District…
Oh. Well, now I understood why Lund was here.
“It doesn’t sound like the Harbor District has anything you could call a unified government,” I observed.
Lund frowned unhappily at that. “Not as such, no. I’ve gotten the guilds all pulling together, but that doesn’t account for the whole district. The refugees keep to themselves, and the fishermen have all banded together to take over a warehouse down in West End. There’s the Harbor Watch as well, but they haven’t been much use since the earthquake.”
“Why is that?” I asked. “I imagine you must know their commander.”
“Unfortunately he died in the earthquake. The men elected one of their sergeants to take over, but they haven’t been paid since the mayor died. They’re demanding that someone make good on their payroll before they go back to work.”
I snorted. “Figures. Well, money isn’t going to be a problem, but it sounds like the district has a lot of other issues. How bad is the shelter situation?”
“Bad, milord. About a fourth of the district fell down in the earthquake. That left the survivors packed in like sardines, where they aren’t just out in the cold. We’ve been forced to scavenge the rubble for firewood, and the garrison claimed a lot of timber for the barricades they’ve been throwing up to protect the breaches in the city wall. At this rate folk will start running out in a few weeks, and we’ll all freeze not long after. I might also mention that the city granary is over in the Military District, and things will get tight in a hurry if the nobles stop doling out rations.”
Which would probably happen at some point, when whichever noble ended up in charge of the granary decided to try starving his opponents into submission. In theory I could just seize the granary, but I wasn’t sure the Conclave would stand for that. Besides, then I’d have to guard it, and my men were stretched thin just defending my own citadel. No, I’d have to be a little more subtle than that.
Was I really going to do this?
Yeah, I was. It would be stupid not to.
“I don’t suppose there’s any space left in your fortress, milord?” Lund asked cautiously.
“Only for loyal retainers who can adjust to having strange magical affairs going on around them all the time,” I told him. “We can’t just resettle a crowd of displaced people here. I think it’s better not to put all our eggs in one basket, anyway. If I spent a day throwing up some defensible buildings along the waterfront it would make the whole district a lot more secure.”
“That would certainly help to keep the harbor running,” he agreed. “We’re starting to see loads of food coming up from the south along with the regular trade. Mind you, not many folk can afford to buy at the prices they’re asking. I’m better off than most, and my own means are feeling a bit stretched these days.”
“Oh, I think we can do something about that,” I said. “How do you think it would go over, if you quietly put the word out that I’m willing to take over the payroll for all the city officials in the Harbor District? Maybe we could hire some work crews to clear away rubble and shovel the snow off the streets while we’re at it.”
“I’m sure most everyone would be pleased to accept your generosity, milord. I know I will.”
“Good. I’ll have Tavrin, my castellan, get with you to arrange the details. How hard would it be to set up meetings with all of these independent groups? We need to get everyone working together here as soon as possible.”
“I’m sure I can arrange something, milord.”
Well, that all sounded fairly promising. I stopped by Tavrin’s office to fill him in on the situation, which seemed to amuse him.
“I’m sure we’ll find that the city payroll records have mysteriously vanished,” he said. “But of course we can take their word about what they were being paid.”
I shrugged. “I’m fine with letting everyone give themselves a raise, actually. They’ll spend most of it on food, and the profits will keep those merchant captains making the trip to deliver more. Just make sure we don’t end up paying the watch captain for troops who don’t really exist, or anything dumb like that.”
“That much I can manage. Are you planning to let Lund put himself in charge of the district?”
“I’m not sure yet. He’s corrupt, but he’s also pretty competent and he tries to take care of his people. We’ll need to do something with the leaders of these other groups, though, or they’ll wind up causing problems. I’m tempted to set up some kind of local governing council so we can give everyone a seat. Trouble is, then we’ll end up having endless meetings about everything instead of just getting the job done.”
“Make it an advisory council,” he suggested. “You’ll need to be involved in everything anyway at first, since so many of their problems will require magical solutions. Once you’ve spent some time working with them you’ll be able to pick out the best man to put in charge. Then he can deal with the council meetings.”
“Not a bad plan,” I mused. “I may do that.”
My next stop was just a few doors down the hall, where Pelagia had set up her office. She’d already found herself a secretary, a nervous-looking young man who immediately jumped up and ushered me in.
Pelagia was wearing a proper dress today, instead of armor or that gauzy negligee thing she’d shown off when we first met. But the close-fitting bodice did nothing to hide her spectacular figure, and the skirt only came to mid-thigh. The way she jumped to her feet with a huge smile the moment she saw me didn’t help with the urge to throw her over her desk and have my way with her.
“Hello, Pelagia. How’s my favorite nymph today?”
“Daniel! Good morning, my lord. I’m well enough, although I fear the tasks you’ve set me are proving quite formidable.”
The secretary hurriedly vacated the room, closing the door behind him. I raised an eyebrow. “What’s with him?”
“Oh, Edvin is a lover of men. I believe I make him nervous, but it’s better than the alternative. I’d never be able to keep my hands off of him all day if he were normal.”
I chuckled. “That’s one way to do it. So, I’ve got a job for you. Think you can find a merchant who’d be willing to sell us a few tons of grain on the sly?”
Instead of returning to her seat Pelagia just perched on the edge of her desk. “Willing to? Certainly. All we need to do is offer an outrageous price for it. Able to? That will be more difficult. The granary is heavily guarded now, and a line of wagons is hard to miss.”
“I suspect the elves can solve that problem for us,” I pointed out.
“Oh, that’s right. Nethwillin does a lot of smuggling, don’t they? They’re bound to have suitable magic.”
“They have a collection of bags and boxes that are a lot bigger on the inside than they look, and they’re pretty good at being stealthy. I’m sure Tavrin could figure out a way to smuggle the grain across the city easily enough. I’m going to be building a granary of our own on the island this afternoon, so we have someplace to put it.”
“Very well, my lord. I shall arrange it.”
That was good to hear, but good god this woman was distracting. She’d put her hands down on the desk behind her, and now she was arching her back slightly. Her mountainous breasts were nearly a match for Tina’s, and her position made it almost impossible to tear my gaze off them. Especially when her nipples started to tent the thin fabric of her dress. She couldn’t really be getting that turned on just from talking to me, could she?
Of course she could. She was a nymph.
“I hear you’re also arranging a revel, whatever that is?”
“An evening of celebration, for our new patron. You will attend, won’t you, my lord?” She licked her lips, and took a deep breath that left the lacings of her dress straining to contain her assets.
It went against my own cultural hang-ups, but it was about time I got over those. So instead of looking away and pretending I hadn’t noticed, I took a step closer and put my hand on her thigh.
“Of course I’ll be there. I wouldn’t want your girls to think I was rejecting them or something. Although you’re not making it easy to wait.”
She hooked an ankle around my leg to pull me closer, and ran her hands up my chest. “We don’t have to wait, Daniel.”
I cupped her cheek in my hand. “Some things are worth doing right, Pelagia. Besides, I’ve got an officer’s meeting in half an hour. That isn’t nearly enough time.”
She groaned, and laid her forehead against my chest. “Ugh! You don’t know what torture it is for a nymph to resist temptation, Daniel. Please, promise me you aren’t just teasing? You’ll really attend, and seal our bonds properly? No evasions, or last minute rejections?”
“I promise, Pelagia. I’ll admit, I was a little nervous about you at first. But you’ve been nothing but helpful, and I think it’s about time I listened to all the people who have been telling me not to worry. Although I doubt you want things between us to be like they are with Cerise and Corinna.”
She shook her head sadly.
“My heart is far too old for such innocent games, and I fear my scars run too deep. As well, you have your ladies to attend to, and I have no wish to upset the balance of your coven. But nymphs were not meant to bear the burden of leadership, and it weighs heavily upon me. I would be grateful for the opportunity to lay it down from time to time, in the arms of a man who has no need to take advantage of my moments of weakness.”
Somehow, my arms had ended up around her. I hugged her gently.
“I understand, Pelagia. Friends with benefits sounds pretty good to me, too.”
“They have a term for it in your land? How unusual. I have not seen a society where humans admitted to such things since Rome fell.”
“Yeah, I’m from a strange place. Still can’t tell you anything about it, though.”
“I did not ask. I have no need to pry into my lord’s secrets, especially when they involve Dark Hecate. I would rather turn my imagination to more pleasant ends. Tomorrow evening, then? Come to the grove an hour before sunset, and we shall show you the hospitality of the Bloody Thorns. Feasting and performances, dance and song, and all our arts of pleasure.”
“As long as none of those arts involve shedding blood. I’m not going to judge what you do with each other, but seeing pretty girls in pain is a major turn off for me.”
She gave me a pleased look. “I’m glad to hear it. A proper lord of the land should have no need of such contrivances. But be warned, I expect to be properly conquered by the evening’s end.”
I pulled her into a kiss. Her lips were sweet against my tongue, like some exotic tropical fruit. They parted at my touch, and I plundered her mouth with unhurried thoroughness. Controlling the kiss with a hand in her hair, listening to the throaty sounds of delight that she made. Finally I released her lips, and gazed into her eyes across a distance of inches.
“You won’t be disappointed,” I told her.
I let her go, and stepped away. She swayed towards me for a moment before she regained control of herself, and slumped back onto her desk. “Tease. You’d best bring a full measure of your sorcery of endurance, for you shall surely need it. Now get out of here, before I lose what vestige of self-control I yet retain.”
“I could always tie you to the desk-”
“Go! Or I shall not be responsible for my actions!”
I went. I had to stop and adjust myself once the door was closed, but it was worth it to get the best of her. Once I would have been intimidated by the prospect of being the guest of honor at some kind of nature spirit orgy, but these days I was confident that I could handle it. Too bad my next appointment wasn’t going to be as fun.
Demetrios had set up a war room while I was away, and while it wasn’t fancy the elder satyr had made sure it had the essentials. A map of Kozalin and the surrounding region was spread across a large table in the middle of the room, and decorated with little wooden tokens representing the local military forces. A second table held a map of Varmland, with tokens marking settlements that were still holding out and the monster forces that threatened them. On one wall a rough sketch of Europe was taking shape, although our information from that far afield was pretty limited.
Demetrios and Captain Rain were already there, along with a couple of the sergeants. Tavrin arrived moments after I did, with his daughter Sefwin on his heels.
“So, how’s our military situation looking?” I asked.
“Improving, but still damnably poor,” Demetrios replied. “That’s what I wanted to discuss. With the city threatening to fragment we have several opportunities, but also a lot of problems.”
“I know,” I agreed. “First things first. The island.”
Demetrios nodded to Tavrin, who fielded the question.
“Black Island is currently well secured against a conventional assault by troops of ordinary skill, which includes most of our likely opponents. My people are implementing security measures to prevent infiltration by goblins or andregi airborne commandos, and your wards will keep out ghosts and spirits. But the regular garrison is only two hundred men, and half of them are barely trained. Our military security rests on the power of the mortars combined with the obstacle represented by the walls of the Black Fortress, and any enemy who can bypass those defenses will easily overwhelm our troops.
“The supply situation is considerably better, at least for our own people. The first crops of peas, beans and radishes have come in, with wheat and barley soon to follow, and we’re now harvesting crops a bit faster than we eat them. I’ve set up regular lumbering runs to keep our carpenters supplied with wood, and we’re stockpiling lumber and stone against future needs. Clothing is still in short supply, but our first crop of flax should be ready to harvest next week. So our truly essential needs are being met internally, and we needn’t worry about starvation in the event of a siege.
“Our greatest threat is from Kozalin. We have hundreds of civilians visiting the market down on the street level every day now, and their numbers are growing as word gets around. Those stores you set up to sell conjured building stones and mass-produced lights are making money hand over fist, and so are the farmers at the produce market. But it’s impossible to vet so many people, and we don’t have the manpower to keep all the street level exits properly guarded. A clever enemy could easily infiltrate the island with troops mixed in among the shoppers, and cause havoc.”
“Elin’s clinic is a potential target,” Sefwin put in. “I only have twenty agents, so I can’t devote a lot of personnel to security there without exposing the palace. She always has two elves with her when she’s healing, but I’ve had to rely on garrison troops to keep an eye on the place when it’s empty. I don’t have any confidence at all in their ability to spot hidden interlopers setting up traps.”
“How secure would you say the palace is now?” I asked.
“Not as safe as it looks,” she replied. “The fortifications are excellent, and having a sealed environment helps as well. But Avilla’s maids are a serious security risk, which the psychological aspect of your wards doesn’t fully address. The sheer size of the place is also an obstacle, since it will slow down our response to any disturbance. It helps that your ladies can all defend themselves, of course, but I still don’t consider the situation adequate for protecting a pregnant woman.”
Captain Rain shook his head. “You elves see assassins everywhere. No queen of Varmland has ever been as safe as Lord Black’s ladies, Sefwin. But the news on our field company is much the same. I’ve managed to assemble a force of two hundred men, with rifles and enough training that we can count on them to point the things in the right direction. Only half of them are proper soldiers, though, and their morale is a bit shaky. We don’t have enough skimmers to transport them either, and I wouldn’t like to get into a serious battle beyond the reach of the mortars.”
Vehicles. Right. That was going to be a hell of a project. It took several hours to build something as complex as an armored skimmer by hand, and we needed at least twenty of them. I’d had some ideas about building a factory enchantment to make the things instead, but getting all the mechanical parts to fit together properly would make it a big project. I wasn’t sure when I’d have time to tackle it.
“Alright, so we have some challenges. What do we do about them?”
“Against the infiltration threat, I’d say the key problem is that our human soldiers are simply too vulnerable to dirty tricks,” Demetrios said. “We need to make them harder to fool, or at least harder to disable. Better senses, basic magical defenses, perhaps something to make them more durable or harder to target for a quiet takedown. It doesn’t need to be powerful, just effective enough to upset an assassin’s plans.”
“Some of that should be doable,” I mused. “Think you’d get any volunteers for a wolfen conversion?”
“A few,” Demetrios replied.
“Not many,” Captain Rain added. “A man has to be desperate or crazy to agree to something like that, and the men aren’t feeling so desperate these days. Something about the size of these walls. But Gronir keeps asking among the refugees, and I know his list has at least thirty names on it.”
“That brings us around to the morale issue,” Demetrios said. “As Marcus observed, a lot of our troops are too green for comfort. We’re training them as hard as we can, but we all know it takes a few months for that to pay off. Until then, I think the best thing we can do to ensure they’ll stand their ground is to give them something to protect. There are plenty of desperate young women in Kozalin right now, so it shouldn’t be hard to arrange for a few hundred young men to find themselves wives.”
“That just trades one problem for another,” Captain Rain grumbled. “They’ll be forever shirking their duties for a chance to sneak off to their women.”
“I’ve seen that handled pretty well,” I said. “It’s just a matter of setting up the right incentives. First we set up a special housing area for the families of each unit, so their wives are all neighbors and gossip with each other. Then we make being absent without leave a fairly serious offense, but arrange our schedules so that each man gets to spend a day or two with his family every week. Make the standard training schedule five days of work followed by two days of leave, or something like that.”
“I suppose that might work, my lord. I’m not sure how to arrange the matchmaking, though. Our boys don’t have a lot of contact with the refugees, and most of them are a bit young to be looking for wives.”
“That’s an easy one,” Demetrios said. “Pelagia is already recruiting craftsmen and farmers from the refugee shelters. We’ll just let her recruit hopeful would-be brides as well. Set up a barracks and living area for them, tell them they’ve got three weeks to find a husband before we kick them back out, and let the men visit when they’re on leave. They’ll be hitched before you can blink.”
I chuckled. “You know, Brand was trying to get me to take in two or three women for every man on the island. Maybe we should let them have more than one bride?”
The men all laughed at that. Sefwin groaned.
“Two women sharing a man who’s gone most of the time, with no magic to prevent jealousy? Not unless you want them murdering each other, Daniel. Let the sergeants take concubines if they want, but the enlisted men are way too young and stupid to handle that kind of thing.”
“She’s right about that,” Demetrios agreed. “The civilians are another matter, though. There’s a lot to be said for taking in extra women while we can. I think Black Island has a good chance of surviving this trial, but the rest of the city is another matter.”
“Yeah, that’s the kicker,” I agreed. “Between the earthquake and the andregi attacks the city defenses are in sorry shape, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. We’re going to have monsters infiltrating to prey on the civilians soon, and who knows what the next big threat will be. The question is, what do we do about it?”
“The main threat to us would be a Great Beast,” Demetrios said. “I don’t think we have anything that can kill a monster like that. The cannons aren’t powerful enough, and the mortars would have trouble hitting a moving target.”
“Desperate mobs will eventually be an issue,” Tavrin added. “We need more manpower to ensure we can deal with them appropriately. Some measures to limit the number of outsiders visiting the island would also be wise. Perhaps we could set up a market at the other end of the causeway?”
“Yeah, that sounds like a good idea. What about recruiting opportunities? There are so many troops in the city, there’s bound to be a company or two who’ve gotten orphaned.”
“I have a few contacts among the officers,” Captain Rain said. “I can put the word out, if you want to make an offer. But the nobles will all be thinking the same thing, and most men feel a bit nervous about working for a wizard. It could be expensive.”
“We have money,” I pointed out. “Actually, that’s something I wanted to mention. Since we’ve got plenty of gold in the treasury I want to give everyone a raise. The best way to keep ships coming into the harbor is to make sure they make a fat profit, so I want to give our people enough money to afford the inflated prices they’re charging.”
That was a popular idea.
The meeting dragged on for longer than I would have liked. There were endless details to arrange, and a lot of decisions the men wanted my approval on. Understandable, since we hadn’t been working together very long, but it all took time.
Demetrios was a bit surprised at my plan to take over the Harbor District, although he seemed to understand my reasoning.
“We need a recruiting pool, and a place to put uncertain allies,” I explained. “The only people I’m going to let live on the island are the ones we can trust to fight on our side if the city turns against us. But it takes time for people to make up their minds about things like that, and more time for us to recruit them. So we can’t just close our doors and let the city go to hell.
“I’m thinking I’ll put up some fortified buildings around the district, and put one of the local big shots in charge of each of them. They can move the local businesses that are still running inside them, and organize militias to defend them the next time the city is attacked. With some basic defensive enchantments they’ll be proof against earthquakes, frost wraiths and monster raids.”
“That will certainly reduce their casualties,” Demetrios agreed. “Assaulting a district dotted with little fortresses like that would be a nightmare. But I’d suggest repairing the breaches in the wall as well. It will help control movement in and out of the district, and limit the number of monsters that can sneak in. Not to mention that it’s a clear way to mark the limits of your territory.”
What I wanted to do was repair the city’s outer wall, and maybe melt the moat while I was at it. But if I did that the nobles would think I was staking claim to the entire city, and that would only cause more trouble. Besides, I didn’t have time to rebuild the whole city. I had too many other urgent projects on my plate.