“Well, I’m sorry it’s like that for you,” said Lark. “Kind of inevitable though, don’t you think?”
With an apologetic shrug, Lark said, “I mean, you can’t live forever in the mountains. Eventually you have to come out and join the world, and it might not have been a nice introduction but now you’re here. And like you said, the outside world’s been invading you forever. I don’t just mean actual army invasions, but… You said you eat our food.”
“Northern Illanic stuff, yeah,” said Cob. “Not the spicy southern stuff.”
Lark smirked. “Well, that’s reasonable. Not like the northern Illanites eat southern Illanite food either.”
“Don’t you trade? I mean, I thought that was what Illane was all about.”
“In the past, yes,” said Lark. “Before the Crimson Army came and blockaded our south border and did its best to close our Shadow routes. But look, it’s not like Illane is a kingdom.”
“Neither is Kerrindryr.”
“But you bow to the Emperor now, which is the same thing. And even if you didn’t, a bunch of isolated little towns in the mountains? That’s nothing. No offense. Illane is more like…like thirty little cities kind of at each other’s throats and kind of getting along. You’ve seen some of the big ones–Bahlaer, Savinnor, Fellen, Riftward–but they’re just the ones on the land route. There’s Port Morgwi, Port Kiher, there’s Vashannor on the edge of the desert, Ilnaher in the orchard lands, Maeren near the border of Averogne…”
“Those are all cities?” said Cob, frowning. “With walls and militias and the like?”
“Well… All right, not all of them. The ports don’t have walls, they’re carved into the cliffs. We don’t actually have any ‘shore’ the way people think of it; the seacliffs just go straight down into deep water, so there’s a few coves that are cities now from necessity. That’s where we get our stuff from the Brother Isles and the south, since the Empire doesn’t have a navy and the only other ports in the north are up in Jernizan.
“But the other towns, yeah, they have walls. They have roads. Maybe they don’t have a lot of people like Bahlaer and Savinnor, but they’re their own people, you know?”
“So you don’t have a ruler or anythin’?” said Cob.
“Well, we have governors. One per city usually, except that time two fellows decided they were both the governor of Savinnor so the city split itself down the middle so as not to have a civil war while they decided things. I hear that was a strange time. Anyhow, the governors meet sometimes to hammer out trade agreements and the like, but mostly they leave each other alone, and us people leave each other alone. We’re all just here to live our lives, you know?”
Cob blinked. “You don’t fight over stuff?”
Shaking her head, Lark said, “Of course we do, but who needs to get all up in arms about it? For one thing, the Shadow Folk are all over the place now; used to be there were gangs running a lot of stuff, extorting people, ‘protecting’ them, doing some predatory moneylending, but back in Cayer’s time–thirty years or so, I think–there was a big turf-war between the gangs and the Shadow Folk, who decided they didn’t want to just stay in the coves and occasionally do a supply drop for some needy people. They wanted to have a hand in running the cities, you could say, only they’re not very political. They’re all about money, commerce, and aid when it’s needed.”
“You say ‘they’.”
“I mean ‘we’. You know what I mean.”
“I know you slip up the same way I do with the Imperials.”
Lark scowled at him, then shrugged with exaggerated disdain. “It’s not like I was born in the Shadow. So I forget sometimes, so what? Look, my family came up from Zhang, right? We’re not natives here, but I was born and raised in Fellen, so I’d say I straddle the line. And what I got from living in Illane is you deal with your own business, you don’t stick your nose in others’ business, you don’t make trouble unless trouble needs to be made, and everyone goes home happy. Now, with the Crimson Army tromping around, trouble obviously needs to be made–so we do that. But we’d be just as happy putting the weapons aside and getting back to counting our coins.”
“But you can’t be so…peaceful when you’re smack in the middle of the continent,” said Cob.
“Oh yes we can.”
“Look what it got you!”
“A bunch of occupiers who don’t know what they’re doing, who they’re fighting, or how to extricate themselves, all the while paying out the nose for everything we supply?” said Lark smugly.
Cob scowled. “That’s not the way it was and you know it. The Empire confiscated farms, it drafted all sortsa people, it takes everythin’ it can get…”
“So what? We have more. Not the people, of course. That part’s been harsh. But farms, supplies? Look, we’ve always been harried by our neighbors. The Padrastans, the Jernizen, the Kroviks way back before Gejara was a country, the Altaerans back when the Jernizen called themselves that–pikes, the Ruens back when Ruenwyn existed. Everyone comes here to conquer, and all they get is a lot of farmland and vineyards and orchards and maybe some lumber if they can pry it out of the wraiths’ hands.
“Important stuff, sure, but not what Jernizan wants; they have their own extensive farmland. Not what Ruenwyn wanted, because it was too difficult to control us from across the Rift. Altaera just wanted to conquer everything, so they stationed troops here just to have a presence and we worked around them. The Padrastans are as mercantile as us, but they don’t like the weather up north, so after they got as far as Ilnaher northeast of Bahlaer, they said ‘pike it, this place is too cold’ and most of them went back home.
“Except for all the ones that stayed and became farmers and merchants, of course.
“For the Kroviks, it’s too hot south of Savinnor. That’s why Savinnor is the only city with big stone walls: to give the ogres something to bash against until summer comes and they dry up and go home. Also why you won’t see many ogre-kin south of Bahlaer, except the ones down in Yezadra where they all originate. All lakes and rivers and swamp down there, I hear. Fiendishly hot but wet. Weird how they came from that but now they like the cold.
“But the thing is, they can just buy the food from us. They don’t have to come all this way to steal it. We have no qualms about who we deal with; pikes, we sell to the Jernizen, and they’re the ones who’ve raided us most often. And we’re the connecting route from east to west, north to south. You could say we’re a neutral mercantile territory where everyone can come to get what they want without having to resort to fisticuffs.”
“So what happens to that when someone conquers you?” said Cob.
Lark arched a brow at him. “You were there, what do you think happens? We price-gouge. You’ve– I mean, the Crimson blockaded the south, which royally pissed the Padrastans off, but like I said, they’re mostly merchants too–here on the north end, anyway. They don’t like it but they can live with it until y– The Crimson gives up and goes home. Because that’s what they’ll have to do, you know. They can’t stay encamped in the desert between Illane and Padras forever, and if they bust past Kanrodi, the Serpent Empress will come down on them like a mountain.”
“She doesn’t care about Kanrodi?”
“She understands that a border is a border, and there will always be scuffles and disputes. Fellen is the southernmost city, and it’s always had a good relationship with Kanrodi–well, not always, but things got much better after Kanrodi built its aqueduct and didn’t have to rely on the Losgannon River anymore. Anyhow, there’s always been sort of a…permeability between Padras and southern Illane, which is why there are so many people of non-Illanic blood living in Fellen and Bahlaer. Same with northern non-Illanics in Savinnor. We’ve been invaded and ‘conquered’ so many times, mixed up with so many different traders and travelers and the like, that I wouldn’t say Illanites are a coherent people except in their desire for people to stop dumping political idiocy on them.”
Cob snorted. “So the governors govern their cities, and everyone else jus’ what, governs themselves?”
“Well, why not?” said Lark. “Not like we don’t all know what needs to be done to get the crops in, or how to make change, make a profit, learn a craft, start a business. You learn from your parents or get apprenticed to a master or join a work-society, and maybe you beg on the street for a while but even that’s just a stepping-stone. There’s always new people coming in who need guides, porters, information brokers–maybe some spies with sharp ears and light fingers, that sort of thing–and then there’s the Shadow Folk, who are always happy to take in anyone who can do anything, as long as they can do it within the bounds of the Shadow Faith. We do our best to make sure everyone’s gainfully occupied.
“Well, occupied, anyway.
“The Trifolders help with that, of course. They take in stray children too young for us to put to work, and they donate a lot of their handicrafts to our cause–the ones they don’t give away free. The people support them and they more or less support us, because they know we’ll come when they call. We’ll feed them in famine, bring water in drought, and beat the shit out of bad people when the little shadows tell us to. In exchange they pay for our wares, let us store stuff, shelter our injured and our hunted… It works out well, I think.”
“The Trifold keeps people healthy, the Shadow Folk keep ’em from dyin’ of starvation in times of crisis?”
“And the governors do whatever governors do.”
“Mostly they get yelled at by everyone who’s irritated about the way things are,” said Lark with a laugh. “They’re elected, you know. Most foreigners kind of gawp when we say that, but yeah, all the big-time merchants in the city, the society heads, the militia, the Shadow Folk and Trifolder bosses, they all get together to hash out who leads us and for how long. I’m talking about Bahlaer specifically now. It might be different in the other cities. They do a lot of bickering over it, but the upshot is that there’s usually a new governor every five years or so, unless they’ve done really badly–in which case they could be out in a month–or they’ve done really well and everyone loves them, in which case they can stay for decades. But with those five bickering forces, there usually isn’t any long-term agreement; most of them have factions within themselves that do their own wrangling for position, so the entire political situation of the city can change from year to year–sometimes week to week.
“The bottom line, though, is that everyone gets fed and watered, nobody goes untreated for sickness, and we all do our best to fleece the shit out of anyone who thinks they can come here and fleece us.”
Cob shook his head incredulously. “I jus’… I don’t know how you can live so insecure like that, never knowin’ who’s gonna lead you next year.”
“What does it matter?” said Lark. “We keep them as long as they work for us. When they stop, they’re out. Back to being just citizens like the rest of us.”
“Do the goblins get a vote?”
Lark gave him a smirk and a shrug. “Not as such. The leadership knows they and the metal elementals are down there, though, and that the Shadow Folk speak for them. So whenever we bring up mineral rights and new technologies in council, they listen like you wouldn’t believe.”
“So there’s a council too?”
“Yeah. We wouldn’t give just one guy power over the whole city. That’s hogcrap. That’s like setting up your own monarchy-by-election. The governor is there because he’s–or she’s–convinced the council members of his or her strategy for the city and surrounding countryside and our dealings with the other cities and the world. The council brings up things they want dealt with, then the governor works to fit them into the strategy and taps people to implement it. We get a lot of governors retiring before their time because they didn’t realize how much trouble it would be, how much they’d have to do or how much they’d have to actually listen to their staff–not the council but the professional clerks and assistants and liaisons, all the people who are in advisory positions permanently but have no power, only knowledge. Governors who don’t listen to their advisors tend to either sink like stones or burn out gloriously.”
“Sounds like a rough job.”
“Yeah. They don’t get paid either. Though they can requisition a bit from the bursar to get clothes befitting a governor–but I hear he likes pointing them to the old governors’ clothes chests.”
Cob stared at her for a moment, then shook his head. “I don’t get you people. It’s like you thrive on chaos while saying you like peace and quiet.”
“A certain amount of chaos is peace and quiet,” said Lark, crossing her arms. “Who wants to do the same dull thing over and over, season after season? At least the political bickering gives us something to argue over in a tavern, or plot about in a back room. Life needs some spice.”
“And the Crimson taking over hasn’t changed that?”
“Pff. We still have almost all our elected governors. Savinnor has a Crimson figurehead in place but do you think his advisors are steering him at all the way he wants to go? This is complicated stuff, Cob. You can’t just drop a military man in and expect him to control it all–not when no one is standing and fighting him. We learned long ago that militaries are either to crush your enemy’s force or destroy their country, not to rule it. Their job is killing, and when no one shows themselves in obvious need of killing, they don’t know what to do.
“We don’t fight back. Not with weapons, not unless we have no choice.
“There are other ways to win.”