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Balance - Epilogue, by Martin Odoni



         "This feud," explained Lady Mercury with calm vigour as she warmed to her subject, "could have ended many years ago, and should have done. But it did not. It continues to this day, for one reason, and one reason alone." She took half a step forward, and enunciated what she saw as the 'killer' word, so to speak. "Profit. Your war, the deaths of dozens in your families and among your friends and neighbours, the destruction of your homes and lands... it was all highly profitable."


         The expressions on the faces of many of those she was addressing were blank. In some cases, it was simply because they spoke no English, but even most of those who did understand her words could not grasp their meaning.


         "The feud came close to ending a number of times," persisted Lady Mercury, "including this very week. Each time, something went wrong, and it appears that it was out of the control of either clan. And it was because someone else was controlling the events." Confused looks were evolving into looks of doubt, so Lady Mercury decided not to pause now. "Whoever was providing you with weapons was selling equalising weapons to the McGrew Clan. These sales to both sides kept the two Clans at the same strength all the time, and so the feud could not end decisively."


         More blank looks, even a few looks of defiance at the suggestion that the McGrew Clan could be considered the equal of the Campbells.


         "Don't you see?" appealed Lady Mercury. "As long as the feud carries on, the need for weapons carries on too. Both sides continue to purchase regular supplies of weapons from the same provider." She paused just briefly, allowing her words to sink in, then added, "The provider will keep getting richer and more powerful as long as both sides keep purchasing from him. The provider needs the war to carry on indefinitely! Therefore every time there's a sign the war might come to an end, the provider intervenes. Creates some scandal."


         And that was what it was all about, Lady Mercury thought to herself with a very slight grin. Whoever the providers were, and she was fairly sure from the Latin text Lorna had mentioned that she knew who they were, they were playing both ends against the middle on a very grand scale. They were selling advanced weapons to both sides, probably at an obscene profit, but while also making sure that whichever weapon one side got, the other would get a weapon that neutralised its advantage. Thus there was little chance of the feud being decided on the battlefield, thus fighting would continue, and the clans' need to purchase still more weaponry would continue unabated, perpetuating the resultant profits. "That," she thought with grudging admiration, "is such contemptible business ethics that I should have thought of it first."


         Leytan stepped forward. "The war has to end, and it has to end now." He gestured to Alexander and Lorna. "Look at these two. They've known it for some time, that the war had been carried long past its natural span. How ironic that it takes a pair of teenagers to see what the older, supposedly wiser eyes are blinded to. Look at Alexander. Look what has become of him, and all for what? For falling in love with someone whose only crime is her name." He looked Donnchad in the eye. "All these decades of war, and the worst aspect is that neither clan can be the winner. Even if the feud were to end decisively now, it would already have been won by whoever has been manipulating you. They won many, many years ago. It would be interesting to find out exactly who they are, but first things first. Before you worry about finding them, the war must end."


         There was a long silence. It was clear that the meaning of their words had sunk in. It was also clear that there was acceptance.


         "As your esteemed Chief will be delighted to hear," commented Wren, "we'll now abide by his wishes and return home. We've given you the knowledge you need to move forward at last. What you do with that knowledge is up to you."


         Donnchad nodded bleakly, while Donnauld stood up. "The Clan Campbell honours its debts." He gave his older brother a sour look. "Even those incurred under irresponsible leaders. We owe ye five hundred sovereigns."


         A girl stepped up, carrying a bag of gold coins secured by an ornate drawstring. She presented the bag to Lady Mercury with a gracious bow, then retreated back into the crowd.


         "As to the rest of what ye tell us," continued Donnauld, "we will consider yer words, every word. I confess, they make a sense far more pleasing to my mind than sixty years of war ever could."


         At this, Lady Mercury performed an elegant curtsey, and with that she led her crew out of the hall, to begin the long, awkward journey south, back to the border, and to England. Crossing Winteria was still not going to be easy, but it would be far easier now they had no weapons shipment to guard. And for certain, they had no wish to travel by sea again.


         There were no fond farewells, no rituals of goodbye. No one even saw them off. But in truth, none of them cared anyway. Dusk was not far off as they set on their way, and that did not concern them either. The excursion to Scotland had been a gruelling ordeal. They did not want affection, or even thanks. They just wanted to go home.


         *                                           *                                           *


         A week had passed. Rogo D'Ara had only just arrived in Oxford when he was accosted by two men in dark grey livery, who 'politely' asked him to accompany them to meet their employer, a man of Rogo's acquaintance. Rogo knew immediately who it was they meant, and what this meeting could entail.


         They led him to a rather nondescript hall on the market square. Rogo had been there several times before and had always been impressed by how understated it was in comparison with some of the grand emerging architecture elsewhere in Oxford market, and that of course was the whole purpose. The hall needed to be large enough to accommodate the work that carried on within, but it also needed to be discreet enough not to catch the eye. Dozens of people would pass it every hour without altogether noticing it was even there.


         Rogo was taken inside. The hall was divided into many small, dusty, slightly poky rooms, all of them loaded up with shelves and desks full of papers and hand-written books, giving the impression of a library sliced up by a giant knife. It all looked very dull, dismal, official and barren, which was again an impression that was intentional for discouraging attention, but also happened to be accurate. These were all very carefully arranged accounts, purchase and sale records, and personnel listings.


         Rogo was led to one of the smallest offices right at the back of the hall. It had no windows, and was lit only by frame-guarded candles on opposite walls, leaving the room so full of murk and so dingy that Rogo could scarcely make out the unforgiving, backless timber bench that he was made to sit on.


         Although the two men in grey immediately took their leave, Rogo could sense that he was not alone in the darkness. There was a compact oak desk ahead of him, and he knew the identity of the invisible figure sitting on the other side of it.


         "You honour me with a personal audience, Chairman," Rogo heard himself saying, and quietly cursed himself for offering such a grovelling and hackneyed greeting.


         As if in answer to this very thought, the Chairman's sepulchral voice uttered a contemptuous rebuke. "Spare me the ingratiating noises, Rogo. We are here to discuss business, as I always prefer it, not to play flattery-tennis."


         "Apologies, Chairman."


         "We are also to discuss the future," continued the Chairman. "The future of the clan feud, and your role in it."


         Rogo was cautiously relieved to hear that. It meant he might still have a future of some kind, or why would the Chairman bother talking to him about it? Why not just execute him and have done with it?


         "Is there news from the feud that I have not heard?" asked Rogo.


         "You were in Scotland more recently than I," the Chairman pointed out, "if there is news, you will know it."


         Rogo took the point with a polite nod. "The future then?"


         "The ultimate weapon is the future, Rogo," explained the Chairman. "We have done well to maintain the conflict for many years, but the signs are that it has been extended as far as we can take it. At least by old methods."


         "Ultimate weapon..." muttered Rogo uneasily. "Whatever its precise nature, such a device, by definition, would mean annihilation of the clans."


         "The weapon we have in mind," persisted the Chairman, "will be a way of re-igniting the mutual paranoia and suspicion, while maintaining the deadlock we have so skillfully constructed. Both sides will feel as compelled to continue stockpiling arms in the peace that will ensue, as they had in time of war."


         "Peace?" Rogo boggled. "Surely the only hope they will have for peace is if such weapons are destroyed..."


         "You are a fool, Rogo," sniffed the Chairman. "That would be aiming at the wrong target entirely."


         "I do not understand."


         "You do not prevent a war by destroying the ultimate weapon!" the Chairman decried, like an impatient teacher screeching at a wayward pupil. "The one sure way to prevent a war is to destroy all obsolete weapons, then make sure both sides are armed with the ultimate weapon. Both sides will know that if either one uses it, the other will too, and both will be wiped out. That way, the ultimate weapon becomes its own deterrent, and neither side has anything else to fight with!" He paused as if satisfied with his explanation, then added an afterthought, "And even if they do, neither one will win. Balance, Rogo. Keeping two enemy factions in perfect balance. That is the Trinity's secret, the skill that has enriched it for a lifetime, the skill that has made the Trinity what it is, and will continue to do so for many lifetimes to come."


         Rogo did not answer. He still looked a little uneasy, but just nodded his understanding.


         The Chairman's tone changed. "This point is a digression in any case. We do not wish to end the war, merely to heighten the fear that surrounds it. Fear, Rogo, is what discourages thought, fuels the human need to feel hatred. As long as the clans do not think, they will not realise the true cause of why they fight, or that their motivation to battle each other is not justice." His tone suggested that he had started to smile. "It is not to correct the inequities over the 'death' of a boy from six decades ago. That is irrelevant, a mere pretext. Their motivation is simply to have someone to hate..."


         *                                           *                                           *


         Two weeks later, representatives of the two clans met in Scone to begin negotiations on a peace agreement. It took just three days for those negotiations to break down.


         From there, both clans were once more in the market for powerful weapons...