Chapter Seven


 Taking the Power


Ragarian stamped into the Council Chamber in a filthy temper, his robes swirling about him like banners leading an infantry charge.  Looking directly ahead and ignoring those already seated, he all but marched to his throne set at the end of the table furthest from the door.

The table was crowded with his administrators, each with their own body servant stood behind them ready to run errands, or serve their respective masters every wish.  Then there were twenty five of Ragarian's Personal Guard evenly placed around the perimeter of the room, with a further grouping of assembled clerks and heralds at a table behind his throne, ready to look up references and take complete notes of everything that was said.  More than one hundred people had been sweating and breathing in this dark and dank mausoleum for the past hour.  The place stank!

"Open the windows and let some air into this place."  Ragarian snapped at some minor clerk as he took his place.  Before that the room had been completely silent from the moment he had entered.  Servants and even some of the clerks ran to obey the command, throwing open the great leaded windows to let a great flood of fresh ocean scented air into the room, accompanied by the far off sounds of the waves that forever crashed onto the granite cliffs two hundred feet beneath them.  "We shall dispense with the usual rigmarole Gentlemen, I am late and there is much to deal with. . ."  He waved away the herald stepping forward to recite from the Court Role the agenda for the day, much to the startled embarrassment of the poor man, who hustled off trying to contain within his fumbling hands the ceremonial sized roll of parchment as he did so,  ". . .We can also forget the usual social and court rubbish, this meeting is going to get some very real results, or I will be replacing some of the members of this council before the day is out."

No-one volunteered comment or suggestion, which was just as well, for Ragarian felt that the first pandering fool to begin some preamble of sanctimonious fawning might easily lose his head, understanding the Priest of Priest's present mood.  All around him these days Ragarian found only bureaucracy and inefficiency, where every task down to the most menial job in his administration seemed to have no less than a dozen people involved in it, with not one of them able, or willing, to take the responsibility when it was invariably botched.  He waited at least a full and very pregnant minute before he spoke again and when he did he noticed that not one of the officials present seemed willing to take their eyes off that small area of the table's surface directly in front of them.

"In the last month it would appear that the God's themselves have taken on a very strange sense of humor, in that all the news I hear is bad news.  One month ago we sat here and discussed how we were going to stop losing ships at sea, prevent outlaws from burning off our crops and destroying bridges, and how we were going to gain control over the corruption and crime which appear about to declare a state of anarchy within Khanlar.  Instead the reports of accidents, mishaps, crimes and man-made disasters are increasing with every passing day."  He paused for a few seconds and then changing from what had been almost shouting he said quietly, "Is there anyone present who would like to take responsibility for this crisis?"

Now they looked at him.  A few incredulous looks, a few sidelong, careful and evaluating glances, but the majority just showed how inept they were for their faces betrayed no emotion whatsoever.  Ragarian's wrath gave way for a few seconds to complete frustration, making him feel like a man trying to reinforce a crumbling dam with handfuls of mud as it disintegrated all around him.  As he replaced one bumbling incompetent, he without fail uncovered the existence of at least three more.  

Finally General Toragor rescued him from the feeling of having lost the initiative, by offering an almost whispered statement that no doubt he hoped would please his Lord.  "Sire, we have canceled the proposed demobilization of the 6th Army and I am re-assigning them to patrolling the Southern Nations."

Ragarian almost smiled at the politically correct reference to the Nations of the Asigan Alliance, however the humor left as soon as it had risen.   "I read the Court Roll as well General.  I notice that in the last month we have lost two granaries, neither of them in the Southern Nations I might add; seven fully laden ships have left port never to return, a point I emphasize because I find it strange that the only ships we lose seem to be laden to the gunnels with valuable cargo and that to date we have not lost one ship returning home empty.  Our tally for murdered soldiers in our army this month sets a new record, eighty one men dead when we are not at war, twenty five of them in a single ambush on an open road in broad daylight.  Seven ferries on the Waterway have mysteriously caught fire and been sunk, before our valiant fire-fighters found out about it.  One hundred and fifty seven highway robberies, God's know how many other acts of mayhem. . .  I gave up reading in disgust.  It has to stop.  We have to bring it to an end!"   He slammed his fist down on the table making everyone jump in surprise, immediately regretting it as the pain shot up his arm.

"Sire we are no longer fighting an organized army that we can bring military tactics to bear upon. . ."   General Toragor halted to see if he was going to gain the approval to continue.  Ragarian nodded at him, his face set as if in anger, as he tried to hide the pain in his right arm.  "Sire. . . "  The General continued,  " I would need men at every corner, every crossroads and every ferry, to stop what is happening.  The outlaws come out of hiding, strike and then disappear before my troops can get there.  If I did not know better I would swear that they were all operating under a very sophisticated central control system."

"Maybe they are."  Ragarian said very softly.

"What?"  Exclaimed a large man at the other end of the table.  Ragarian searched his memory, Portanlin, the Bishop of Mozag, appointed immediately after the war by his predecessors.  Again Ragarian felt as if he and he alone, truthfully understood the situation in the countryside outside of the major cities that was bringing calamity upon Khanlar across the land.  He aimed both his gaze and his words directly at Portanlin, staring directly at that spot between the Bishop's eyes with monolithic intensity.  It was a trick he had learned many years ago and it almost always reduced the person it was aimed at into dropping their eyes, for to them it appeared as if the person doing it was in fact out-staring them, when in reality the user of this trick never had to achieve actual eye contact themselves.

"We fought a very well organized army when we took on Prince Zorigan Bishop Portanlin, why is it unbelievable that some of the officers we failed to round up should not now be creating a central command?  Come to that we never did identify Prince Zorigan amongst the dead did we?  That old goat was one of the greatest minds Khanlar has ever seen, and even if he is dead, why is it impossible that he could have made plans for annoying us in case he was defeated?"  Ragarian found that even as he spoke the words his sarcastic jibe, it in fact had much in it's favor from a logical point of view, so much so that he found his temper cooling, for here was a new possibility for his intelligence to examine.

"Sire if this is so, and it has it's logic by the God's, then there must be a way to breach it.  Such a sophisticated organization would need to have at least one permanent center, or at the very least enough temporary ones for us to infiltrate."  It was Bishop Canarar from Araz who spoke next,  "I would suggest Sire that instead of waiting for them to attack us before we can act, we might find it more profitable if we prepared a trap for them that was too opportune for them to resist."

"Make it so, if it is possible to do so."  Ragarian said, "Suggestions gentlemen?"

The room broke into many conversations at once and might have continued until Ragarian chose to end it, except that Bishop Vanatin of Rangar stood up at that moment.  Vanatin was a man that Ragarian had little liking for, however he held the popinjay in high esteem.  The man dressed effeminately, had his hands manicured daily and always smelled as if he had just left his bath, but his mind was as sharp as any in Khanlar.   "Sire."  Even his voice was sweet, it was far too affected however to be any measure of what he might be thinking,  "I for one would trust any man in this Chamber, however. . ."  Ragarian smiled, for he truly doubted that Vanatin had ever trusted anybody, but he nodded to the man to continue, making a mental note to investigate this obviously politically gifted man as soon as resources allowed.  ". . .however, it might be wise to expect that if such a clever plot has been hatched, then it is not unlikely that there just might be a spy in this very room as we speak.  I would suggest therefore Sire, that you choose a small committee from amongst us and retire to discuss strategy in more secret a manner.  I apologize to everyone present, I really do not mean to presume anything, nor cast doubt upon anyone, but I think we all know that what I suggest might be possible."

"Agreed."  Ragarian said, feeling even more respect for this man's ability with a situation needing delicate control  "Let us continue and deal with the more mundane matters of our responsibilities gentlemen, I will then send my guards to collect a small contingent of you later, say half a dozen to begin with and we shall pursue this matter further.  Thank you Vanatin, your advice is well taken, as always."

The meeting then settled into an embarrassed few moments of contemplation of what had just transpired, before Ragarian allowed the clerk to begin reading the roll, noting just how astonished the man was with what he had just heard.  

 * * * * * * *

Council of War  

A few hours before sunset Ragarian sat in his study with the five men he had chosen to discuss the possibility of an organized campaign against his realm.  General Toragor stood near the fireplace, nursing a goblet of cognac he had barely touched in the thirty minutes since he had poured it.  In his early sixties Toragor looked every inch a General, nearly as tall as Ragarian himself, the man had half again the Priest of Priest's bulk, all of it distributed with the obvious demeanor of a man who exercises regularly.  He was related to several of Khanlar's oldest Royal Houses and had received his education in the Monastery City of Mansa, which had for centuries produced some of the finest military brains in the Church Army from it's military monks.  Bishop Vanatin sat opposite Ragarian, his legs crossed beneath his robe affecting a pose that would have not been out of place amongst nuns in a convent.  The man oozed education and arrogance, he knew his abilities and everything about him projected that assured knowledge.  Bishop Canarar occupied the chair to the right of him and Admiral Vishnay sat to Ragarian's left.  At the far end of the small table between them Administrator Polonik sat with a note pad ready to take notes.

"Let us begin with the obvious."  Ragarian started the conversation,  "Firstly we must assume that many of our own people may be involved in this scheme for the sake of profit, if not for political idealism, therefore we must be sure that we do not show our hand before we have achieved our objectives.  I therefore expect gentlemen, that we shall leave this room with each of you charged with individual tasks that you shall perform in utmost secrecy.  Charge those you use only with the task at hand and tell them no more than they need to know to carry out their own individual responsibility to our scheme.

The nods and agreement were those of people hearing the stating the obvious, however it was Admiral Vishnay who threw the first conversational dice that evening.  "Sire, if there is indeed an organized rebellion taking place, then I must believe that they have a base of some sort somewhere.  You do not take ships at sea by swimming up to them, they must have ships.  If they have ships, then just so they must also have a base to supply and support them!"

"Not necessarily so Admiral."  It was Vanatin who spoke.  "It is also possible that these pirates who are attacking our ships are using ships that return to our own ports after they have taken one of our vessels.  They would merely have to sink each vessel they capture after robbing it of it's cargo, from there proceeding on to killing the crew and feeding them to the fish.  If it happened at night, or in deserted waters, who would know?  Then, having dropped off the stolen cargo at some deserted beach for their fellows to hide, they could sail back into port without suspicion."

"I could put a stop to that by searching every ship about to leave port for the armament they would need to carry off such a capture."  General Toragor looked almost happy for the first time in weeks,  "Come to that we could inspect them when they return as well, compare their papers, check for injuries, for it would be a rare occurrence if some of them did not get injured in their line of work, and we could search each vessel that docked anywhere in Khanlar for any clues that they might have loaded and off-loaded contraband cargo between leaving port and returning."

"What if they left Araz and sailed to Cimar, or some other port, and then returned to Araz quite innocently after doing as you suggest Bishop Vanatin?  How would we ever discover their extra little escapade had happened en route?"  It was Bishop Canarar's talent that he was a cynic.

"Put a soldier on every ship leaving port with papers to hand to the Garrison Commander at every port that vessel puts into."  Admiral Vishnay snapped.  "Pass a law saying that every ship sailing the seas must carry what we could call an Inspector General, pay these bodies well so that they can not be bribed and make them understand the penalties for failure and you will know for sure that no shenanigans will go on on the open sea between legal activities."

"Make it so."  Said Ragarian, confirming that Polonik was actually still making  notes of the conversation,  "Brilliant Admiral, a simple yet certain solution."

"Unless Sire they do have a base unknown to us."  Vanatin said quietly.  ". . .and if they do Sire, it has to be where normal sea traffic can not discover it, which would place it on the seaward side of one of the many islands around our coast.  It could be anywhere, or there might be a secret bay somewhere along our very great coastline which is not on our maps."

"If that is the case then it can be found.  I will put a squadron of ships to sailing around the whole continent to search for such a bay."  Said Admiral Vishnay.  "And so that it does not become common knowledge, even to those carrying it out, we can in fact charge them to re-map our entire coastline."

"And I will assemble a regiment of Cavalry to ride around the continent along the coastline to search from the land-side."  Said General Toragor.  "I can charge the Colonel leading the regiment with the task of seeking out areas that could be used by smugglers.  That will raise few eyebrows my Lord, the God's know smuggling has become a national pastime these last few years."

"Agreed.  Make it happen soon gentlemen."  Ragarian stated.  Finally he felt that they were achieving something and he made a mental note that it was indeed probable that it was the traditional system of large, almost ceremonial, meetings that had been used to rule the Church all these years, that might in fact be contributing to the failures in his administration, then he added,  "That will be the first part of our plan, then if no such bay is found and if all of our ships prove innocent, we will know for sure that these pirates operate from one of the island Nations.  If three months from now we know it must be so, then we shall send a fleet to blockade those nations and enact our wrath upon the perpetrators."

"Sire."  It was Polonik who spoke, "I have noted that the only Island Nations with their own ships, are Lunza, Mardis, Dag, Morlan and Goja.  I would suggest Sire, that it might be sensible to send squadrons of our best fighting ships to investigate the other islands that are without Nation status around our coastline as soon as possible."

"Consider it done."  Said the Admiral.

"Sire."  The smooth voice of Vanatin once again entered the conversation,  "I would if I might, suggest another possible avenue that we might use to ferret out these criminals.  I have several retainers that I trust completely whom I could employ to search out information.  I believe that we all have such people available to us.  What if we were to combine these resources and send them out to begin seeking answers to our other problems.  They might find out things that alone would be useless, but assembled into an overall report we just might identify where our land based problems are coming from."

"I would expect you to organize that my friend."  Said Ragarian, hearing his voice say the words of trust, while his heart at the same moment instructed him to keep a very watchful eye on this man, whose assistance tonight was only proving that he might well be a formidable adversary one day if things continued to disintegrate around them.

"I would be honored Sire."  Vanatin replied.

And so the most important matters were resolved.  The conversation continued another hour, but it only held minor improvements on the original plan.  Ragarian however was pleased when they left his chambers that night.  Perhaps they were about to turn the tide.

* * * * * * *


Chapter Eight

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