It was necessary to keep a bold front. The pagans could scent fear like a dog, and would turn on you much faster. But inside, where it wouldn’t show, Henrik quailed. Where did they get all these giants? Henrik was himself an Yngling of the upper class, well-fed, and not a small man – indeed, on diplomatic missions outside the Realm he had become used to towering over foreigners. Here he was a little below average in height and considerably below it in bulk. The Dovremenn loomed over him like trolls, an impression not helped by the vast shaggy beards that every man over twenty sported. Worse, they all moved with a tensile quickness, startling him anew with every other gesture; and they spoke that way too, quick bursts of sharp words, not too fast to follow but fast enough to make it an effort. But the eyes were the worst – ordinary enough eyes in a way, blues and greys predominant as usual with Norse, but looking at him with – what was it, in their eyes? Not contempt, precisely. He would have known how to respond to that. But it was something different, elusively familiar but difficult to put in words. It wasn’t until he had bedded down for the night that Henrik recognised the expression; he had been on the giving end of it, many times. It was the cool judgment he used when meeting a servant or worker, someone not of his own class: Evaluating them for usefulness or danger, judging how best to turn them to his purpose, looking not at a man but at a tool. They were Yngling eyes.
His host, Ragnar Einarson, seemed a little friendlier than the rest – perhaps that was why they gave him the job of putting up VIPs from the Storting at New Bergen – but it still felt rather abrupt when Ragnar laconically gave him the summons the next morning, over breakfast. “Inner Circle will see you today. Audience Hall. Noon.” Henrik blinked, but nodded. In some ways, it was a relief to deal with people who apparently always took the shortest line from A to B; he had once cooled his heels for two months in Baku, waiting for the Georgian bureaucracy to decide which department should have the prestige – or perhaps the bother – of dealing with him. But it was unnerving, too; diplomacy took place on a measured schedule so that men could have time to think, to avoid giving offense unintentionally or making mistakes forced by haste. Of course, this wasn’t diplomacy, exactly. The ancient Tings of Scandinavia – Eidsivating, Gulating, and all the others – were not sovereign. Still, it would be a ticklish matter, constitutionally, simply to order them to go to war on the word of the Storting; and so Henrik was here, for “advice and consent” in the old feudal phrase. And, in particular, he was here to speak to the Dovre King, as they called him, and his Inner Circle – the pagans to whom all of Scandinavia showed such inordinate deference. The Tingsmenn were remarkably touchy about their local autonomy – and who could blame them? – but all reports agreed that if the Dovremenn thought a measure necessary, then somehow it would come to pass, although no mention of the temple at Dovre would appear in a formal description of the constitution of Norway.
At some point, it might be necessary to deal with the was-it-or-wasn’t-it government at Dovre, but today was not the day. Henrik returned his attention to his surroundings. They were leading him down a tunnel dug into the living bedrock of Dovre mountain; it was lit by greasy lamps placed at long intervals, but the floor was smooth enough that the bad light did not hinder footing. Even so, it was a strange place for government business to be done. Why did men of power hide in caves, and poorly-lit, damp caves at that? Then they came into the audience hall, and Henrik only barely restrained a gasp. The place was enormous. Even with gunpowder, it must have been the work of decades to carve it out of the granite. The roof lay hid in shadow. Lamps glittered on far walls, reflecting off beaten-gold ornaments and mirrors and gleaming in the eyes and weapons of the men lining the path he must walk to reach the thrones on the far end of the room. Suddenly it was all clear to Henrik: This was not just the isolated Scandinavians being weird, they were going out of their way to deliberately intimidate him. The huge, badly-lit hall, with enough lamps to glitter uselessly but not enough to see by; the big weapon-festooned men half-hid by shadows but looming like trolls in the dark – nobody did serious business like this, it had to be a put-on.
Well, it wasn’t going to work. Snarling internally, he stepped forward. As he walked, the men on either side of his path began clashing their weapons on shields – ye gods, what an archaism; but the effect was barbarically intimidating. Was there someone behind him? A deep dread welled up in Henrik, one he couldn’t explain. It was only a show, a piece of theater; there was nothing to be afraid of, and yet sweat welled up in his armpits. He fought the urge to look behind him – he would lose face, and there was absolutely no risk that they would chop his head off, even though his neck crawled with the expectation of the blow.
After ten years or so he reached the other end of the hall, and could make his bow to the three men sitting on the thrones. The metallic clash of weapons ended at last, and the middle one spoke into ringing silence:
“Why do you come to Dovre, Henrik Knudsson?”
For some reason, the simple words made Henrik’s fear spike, and he wanted to sink down on his knees and howl. With an effort he pushed the unreasoning dread back, and answered firmly.
“I come to speak of war.”
It seemed to be the right answer; the speaker glanced quickly at his two silent companions, and nodded. He held up his hand, and the dread left Henrik like an axe coming down. The sudden absence of fear was almost as shocking as its coming had been. What the devil was going on here?
“It is well. It seems there are still men in the colonies; there are not many who can speak boldly in the Hall of the Dovre King. Follow me.” The speaker rose and opened a door behind his throne; yellow light spilled out. Henrik followed him and the two silent men into a much smaller chamber, well-lit, with a wooden floor and walls and a fireplace giving welcome warmth against the underground chill.
“Have a seat” – the speaker gestured to the small table in the middle of the room – “and we can discuss this seriously.”
Henrik stood his ground. “What was that, then – some sort of test?”
“Partly.” There was no apology in the voice. “We acknowledge the sovereignty of New Bergen, but there are limits; we demand a certain amount of personal courage in our overlords, and their envoys. And then, we do have a reputation to maintain.”
Henrik nodded, tight-lipped, and sat down. He hated to admit it, but it looked like that reputation for magic was a bit more deserved than he had thought. There had to be some trick to turning fear on and off like connecting a gear; a man of this machine age didn’t have to believe it was done with runes and chanting, but clearly they knew something he didn’t.
The other men sat down with him. The one who had been speaking introduced them: “I am Johan Torgeirson, Speaker at Dovre. With me are Norvald Bjarneson and Ingvar Janson. We are empowered to negotiate for the Inner Circle. Convince us, and your task here is mostly done. Speak to us, then, of war.”
Henrik nodded. “I will be brief. China has broken the Treaty of Shanghai; China grows in power daily; China must be destroyed. We are attempting to build a coalition to do so; envoys have been sent to the foreign powers, and also by necessity to, ah, the domestic powers. Pacta sunt servanda; a state that does not abide by its word is the common enemy of all, and all have an interest in seeing it punished.”
The Speaker blinked. He seemed different, somehow, from his silent companions – his speech patterns were unusual for Dovre, not so laconic or quick, more like what Henrik was used to, and he was not as large or as shaggy as his compatriots. Strange – but there was no time to consider it. “You are suggesting, then, that Norway go to war with China, that Yngling blood be shed, in order to uphold international law and the sanctity of treaties?”
He seemed to be holding in some vast emotion, but Henrik could not tell what it was, until he nodded “Yes”. Then the Speaker let go of his self-control, and howled – with laughter, Henrik was startled to realise. He laughed until the tears came out of his eyes; pounded the table and gasped for breath, doubled over; fell off his chair, still laughing between gasped inhalations. Henrik looked at the other two, but they seemed as startled and puzzled as he; at least, whatever the joke was, he wasn’t the only one not getting it.
At last the Speaker got himself under control and sat again on his chair, still chuckling but able to speak. “I apologise. It would take too long to explain the irony. Ah well, but we must deal with the world as we find it; and yes, China is a threat in the long term, if allowed to grow freely. Plus ca change… And the Finns who hold most of what would be Russia will be their lapdogs, as before; and perhaps our strength is not sufficient to the task. At least we needn’t fight under the shadow of the mushroom cloud; men and not missiles will settle it. So much we’ve won, at least.”
Henrik was mystified, and he wasn’t the only one. Norvald spoke: “You believe we should fight?”
The Speaker blinked. “Oh yes, isn’t that obvious? I was only laughing at the irony: The Ynglings to be the enforcer of treaties! Truly, the gods will have their jests. But yes, certainly we must fight. Never mind the niceties of international law. China is a threat, is indeed the reason I’m here, and must be destroyed. Besides, we could do with some field testing for our weapons, and field experience for the Hird.”
Norvald thought it over for a moment, then nodded. “Concessions?”
“Indeed. What will the Ting give us, for fighting in their war?”
“You just said you would fight; why should I give you anything?”
“I said I, myself, would support the war; that is not the end of the matter. My influence is not unlimited. But I can tell you what will do the trick: Disestablish the state church in Norway and Sweden; proclaim full religious freedom.”
Henrik thought about it. The state church in Scandinavia was effectively useless as a means of social control; the population didn’t listen to Christian priests. The Speaker was asking for a symbolic concession – not without its costs, the Christian wing of the Peace Party would howl, but the Ting had been prepared for actual tax breaks to get the pagan militias fully on-side. A symbolic concession that would actually save money, since any number of priests could be fired and churches sold, would be easy to find support for. The Peace Party’s howls would be drowned out by shouts of joy from the radicals among the Tingsmenn, and the center would find that an easy concession to make. In fact, a man skilled in the art of politics might find disestablishment not just in Scandinavia but all over the Realm a useful wedge, a great cause on which rhetoric could be expended. And if that man was also known as the one who had brought the Dovre militia into the field against China… Henrik smiled. “I believe that can be arranged, yes.”
The Speaker looked at his companions; they both nodded. “Very well, then, we have an arrangement in principle. Let us drink to that.” Norvald moved with that startling quickness to get a bottle of a fiery brown liquid. Glasses clinked together.
“Death to China!”