RedhurstMature

The Captain stood silently in the Headwind's flight cabin, alternately watching Bainbridge manipulate the controls and gazing out of the cabin's large windows. It was clear Bainbridge was intimately familiar with the controls. He hardly looked at them as they flew, pulling a lever here or pushing a foot pedal there, actions like afterthoughts as he watched the countryside roll away below them. Now and again he would glance at the mysterious array of gauges mounted above the consoles, but it was for no more than a second. The Captain recognized one of them as a compass, but the purpose of the others eluded him. 

They came upon Redhurst with surprising speed. What would have taken a man on foot days had taken the airship mere hours. Even from the furthest distance the city state of Redhurst bore marked differences from Marsten. The two cities were sisters, both products of a kingdom long fallen. But while Marsten had been built on trade to feed that long dead kingdom's need for coin Redhurst had been built for a different purpose. Her walls were thicker, and where Marsten had a civic building her sister had a castle. Redhurst had been a place to raise armies. But those were the differences of long ago, and The Captain's scrutinizing eye picked out other things to set them apart. Marsten sprawled, pushing past the boundaries of her protective walls in a rambling expanse of hastily planned network of streets. There were squares and open spaces aplenty for merchants and their caravans.

Redhurst was more compact, more tightly knit, more organized. Marsten had but to open it's gates and the wealth of the world would come flowing in. Redhurst, on the other hand, worked hard for it's livelyhood. Factories were spread across the city, devoted to the creation of weapons, furniture, textiles, and anything else they thought they could make money from. It was clear that every new extension of the city was meticulously planned with one thing in mind - industry. As they got closer The Captain began to see just how carefully planned Redhurst was. Each district had a purpose. One would be devoted to factories, while the neighboring district would be nothing but warehouses, and the one on the other side was housing for those who worked in the factories. And it was, all of it, laid out in a set of concentric circles, separated by wide thoroughfares that bustled with traffic - the very arteries of the city. 

The precise manner of the city's construction drew The Captain's thoughts to it's ruler, Prince Haldran. Marsten had five Princes, each constantly weighing their power and influence against the others. Redhurst had but one Prince. In another time he would have been called King, but even after so long the trappings of empire were taboo among the city states. By now, The Captain mused, it was an attitude bred into the very bones of the people. The city states ruled themselves. They were united by trade, and by treaty, and never by force of arms. It was the reason Marsten allowed itself to grow past it's defensive walls. While the city states warred with one another - and even Marsten and Redhurst had marched armies against one another -  it was always over trade rights, access to resources, or matters of perceived honor. Never was it about conquest, because for one city state to conquer another would raise the specter of the old kingdom. And so Haldran was a Prince, though nobody would ever think he was anything less than the complete and total ruler of Redhurst.

"Ye gods," Bainbridge commented as they drew ever closer to the city. "I hadn't realized last night just how many factories were here. I was impressed with the number of them in Marsten, but they must have at least twice as many here. You should have had your technology fair here," he said, looking briefly at Her Ladyship.

"What, and deny my city the glory of hosting the first of it's kind? I think not," she told him. "But don't worry, I'm sure Haldran's planning one of his own, if only so it can be twice as big as mine. The man does love to show off." 

"Provided we're in any shape to have another when this is through," The Captain reminded them. 

"Hmm," Bainbridge acknowledged.

"That should be the airfield," Her Ladyship said, pointing towards a plot of land just outside the city that had been marked off with brightly colored flags. It must have been hastily outlined during the night, though it's edges seemed perfectly straight. As Bainbridge circled the field to pick out his landing spot The Captain could see that Haldran's men were already there, geared up as if for war, piles of boxes and sacks closely guarded at the edges of the field. 

They landed and disembarked, leaving Bainbridge to see to his airship. An officer of Redhurst's army met them as soon as their feet touched solid ground. He took them to a waiting carriage, and they were whisked away through the city's streets towards the castle.

*****************

Haldran's audience room was situated on one of the castle's upper floors, providing him and anyone who came to see him a grand view of the city below. He stood at one of the large windows and looked down at Redhurst, fingers idly toying with a large signet ring on his right hand. "We don't have room for them all," he said. "It's just not possible." He looked back at his guests and held up a hand to forestall argument. "Oh, we could set up something temporary. And we are, I assure you, but your people cannot live in tents forever. I understand their predicament is dire. Make no mistake, I will offer what humanitarian aide I can, but I will not - cannot - feed and house so many people for free indefinitely. They cannot stay."

"Where else will they go?" Her Ladyship demanded. 

Haldran shrugged indifferently. "I'm sympathetic to your plight, my lady, but that is not my concern. My concern is the well being of my city, my people. And right now yours threatens to swarm upon mine like a plague of locusts. There are other cities not too distant from here. Dispersed among the other city states they would be less of a burden overall. Besides," he crossed the room and sat heavily upon a chair that, while not technically a throne, filled the same purpose. "If this situation in Marsten becomes an Incursion in earnest Redhurst is the last place your people will want to be."

"It's almost certain to be the next city attacked," The Captain agreed with Haldran. The thought of all of Marsten's refugees trying desperately to cram themselves into a city where there was no room for them, or worse yet stuck outside when the attack came, gave him a momentary chill. 

"Then we should focus on retaking Marsten as soon as possible," Noron spoke up. "That way none of this will be an issue. And the sooner we strike the less time the enemy has to build it's numbers; the more likely we are to succeed." 

"I remain unconvinced that an immediate attack is in our best interests," Haldran told them, a calculating look on his face. "If we do this we must be sure of victory, otherwise our first move will be our last. It's a fine line to walk... wait too long and no amount of force will be enough. Strike too soon, with too little strength, and it destroys our ability to deal with the situation at all." 

"What if we turn that around?" The Captain asked, and Haldran raised a questioning eyebrow. "Gather as many forces as we can, as quickly as possible," he explained. "Lure the enemy into striking us here, where our defenses are strongest. Let them waste their strength on us, and when they're spent we counterattack with all we have left."

"That's an incredibly risky gamble," Haldran said. "I would argue against it on the grounds that it places my city in unnecessary danger, but I suppose it's coming one way or the other, isn't it? In any case this doesn't have to be decided right this very instant. Take some time. I'll consult with my generals, you consult with yours. We'll have a planning session this evening. In the meantime I'll have our army continue to mobilize at Laptom. With the use of that flying ship, if you'll allow it."

"I insist on it," Her Ladyship said. "I did have one other favor to ask."

"Oh?" Haldran inquired.

"The first group I brought in on the Headwind are inventors. They were in Marsten for the technology fair, and when we evacuated they were forced to leave most of their equipment behind. Several have come to me wanting to help. If they could have access to your factories, maybe they could turn out something useful."

"Hmm," Haldran scratched at his chin thoughtfully. He made a show of considering the idea, but The Captain could tell that he'd already made his decision. " Very well," Haldran said at last. "I'll have orders sent around to the factory masters that your inventors are to be given whatever assistance they require. If they can produce ideas that will help defend Redhurst then so much the better."

And if Redhurst could keep those ideas after the Incursion was stopped, then so much more the better, The Captain knew. In fact, he suspected from the speed with which Haldran had made his decision that the Prince had already heard some of those ideas, and he'd liked what he heard.

"I want Noman in on the next flight," The Captain told Her Ladyship as they left Haldran's audience room. She gave him a curious look. "He's fought against demons before," he explained. "I want him at that planning session, and I want him to work with those inventors. As much as I hate to admit it he might be the best resource we have right now." 

"And will it balance the scales?" she asked in return. "If his help saves the lives of thousands because it helps us stop the Incursion, does that erase the murders he committed in Marsten?"

The Captain pressed his lips together and gave her an annoyed look. "What answer do you want me to give you?" he asked.

"Whatever one you think is right."

"Then I'll have to get back to you on that," he told her. "Because right now I don't know." 

The End

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