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When the table was set in order after the meal and everyone had taken their places again, it was Talishi’s turn to state her piece. She said, “Mastema is Lord of this world. That no one denies, and House Gerash has always been especially devoted to him. And yet humans are not native to Barbelo. Long ago we were grafted in from Earth, where El Shaddai and Bat-El reign. Perhaps this is why House Sala have cast their lots with the God of the other world, and why the other houses of Barbelo, and even the inhabitants of the city of Salem in the Middle Land, have varying degrees of devotion between the two deities.

“This is tolerable to El Shaddai, I can assure you, since El Shaddai has always called human beings the Students, and one of the most important thing a student can learn is how to think, not what to think. But I can also assure you that this state of affairs is not tolerable to Mastema. I’m quite certain that he has already begun to make his move, and you will soon discover why he has maneuvered to keep the other four house off balance and at each other’s throats. For he does not call human beings students, but rather servants.

“I will not attempt to influence the decision of this council, but I do offer a warning that if you decide to present a united face to House Gerash that afterward you move with supernatural speed, for Lord Kirodiel will then be presented with no choice but to attempt to take out each one of the four houses one at a time. And now I would bid good King Arman Bellon to tell his tale.”

He stood up and said, “Thank you Lady Talishi. Your worlds are weighty and to be pondered deeply. We here in Rumbek have also played the fool for the arms merchants of House Gerash, despite the formidable water barriers which protect us on three sides, and the Nine Mile Wall which protects us on the fourth. At times during the last century we have campaigned often against the Red Beards and even crossed the Ice to assail House Larund. But for the last twenty years, with only one recent exception, the unfortunate incident with Count Zelus, we have been at peace with the rest of Barbelo. That is why when High Lord Patriarch Kirodiel came to me with tidings of House Antero building many portable pontoons designed to bridge the straits north and south of Magodon, I was not panicked into buying the catapults he was offering to repulse the supposedly immanent attack.

King Brogan Antero said, “Kirodiel did offer to sell us the prefabricated pontoons, King Arman, but I was never tempted to buy any of them.”

“So you said, King Brogan, through your ambassador, and thus we both knew Kirodiel to be a liar. It brought to mind a state visit to the Middle Land I had made some time prior, when I crossed the Ice and passed through Salem to Ganelon and thence to the city of Mastema. In Ganelon I saw some of the finest bottom land I have ever seen, better than around Saharad perhaps, with soil so deep and rich it was nearly black, yet there were no crops, save weeds.”

“The Middle Land has a manufacturing economy now,” said Lord Kirodiel with obvious pride, “not a primitive agricultural one like the other four monarchies.”

King Arman replied, “Your land is indeed a manufacturing economy, High Lord Patriach Kirodiel, but it manufactures weapons of war. Solely. Noble ones, let that fact sink in for a moment. Everyone who makes a living in the Middle Land is either employed to make weapons directly, or they support those do. Their livelihood rests on keeping us at each other’s throats.”

“I will tell you what our economy purchases for us,” Kirodiel countered. “In a legal sense even my guards are on the same level as myself, with the same rights and obligations to the state. Can any of you noble born say the same thing about yourself and any one of your servants? A lowly apprentice could rise to attain to my seat on the State Council. Blood counts for nothing in the Middle Land, only ability and loyalty to Mastema. We have a theocratic meritocracy.”

Queen Aurra smiled at this. “Not just individuals but kingdoms, too, may form republics after a fashion, Lord Kirodiel.” She stood up and raised her voice. “At this time I propose the creation of an entity I choose to call the Union of Kingdoms. Within each individual kingdom, we royals shall maintain our absolute sovereignty. Yet decisions which have an effect outside of our respective borders, such as concluding treaties or going to war, shall be thrashed out in council chamber with every kingdom represented.”

“I second your proposal, Your Highness,” said King Brogan Antero, standing up again as well. “At this moment you may consider House Antero to be joined to House Sala in a Union of Kingdoms precisely as you describe.”

After Brogan vowed to join Queen Alodra’s new Union of Kingdoms, Arman Bellon announced his decision to add his land to the Union as well, followed by Belen Larund, whose conflict with the Queen had accelerated this Council of Royals, and whose assent now at the end completed it.

Lord Kirodiel remained sitting. He was perceptive enough to know the White Beards were not and never would be invited into this Union. Without looking at any of the nobles he said, “Review your own history, O privileged ones. Can you remember a single battle between your kingdoms and House Gerash? Or even hearing about one? You cannot, and if you scratch a little deeper you will find that it was not for lack of trying. We clipped your little seedling attacks before they could proceed beyond a simple skirmish and take root. How were we able to do this time after time, you ask? Very simple. House Gerash, you see, always retains the newest and best arms for its own defense.”

“Yet there are unintended consequences to becoming makers of arms rather than customers,” King Arman countered. “We have a continuous warfighting tradition which you lack. Take extreme care, then, lest your attacks sputter to nought in confusion and your forces become prisoners.”

“No doubt your fathers of old weighed that very thing in their calculations as well,” Kirodiel countered. “The wise ones refrained from assailing the Republic. The foolish ones made their sorties and were repulsed. So this can be no new warning to you: If ever House Gerash should find your so-called Union of Kingdoms standing at cross-purposes to our interests, beware.”

Princess Kari Antero stood up then, drawing the diamond sword Dragonthorn from its jewel-encrusted scabbard strapped to her back. She was moved to say, “Lord Kirodiel would also do well to remember that the Middle Land is not the only realm which can bring unmatched weaponry to the field of battle!”

“Nay, daughter!” King Brogan admonished Keri sharply, “Your King now commands you! Stand down and restore the sacred blade to its place!” And the King was very wroth because Kari was the only person allowed to be armed in this chamber, and that only on a ceremonial basis.

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