This is the second part of a short story draft. Part I.
Had I had any sense whatsoever, I would have 'come down' with a terrible illness the moment I was invited to the Second Consul's office. Nothing good could come of such an invitation. But I suppose I took it as a sign the ice was thawing, so I walked into the office as innocent as a lamb gamboling by the slaughterhouse. I do not know how long I could have held it off in any case; a consul can only be put off so long before soldiers come by to haul you in.
"How is your father?" he asked, with a big smile. Both the question and the smile should also have set alarms ringing.
"He is doing quite well," I replied. "As active as ever. He is away with my brother looking into buying a seaside villa. The rents have been excellent the past few years."
"That is good," he said. "Would you like a drink?"
In general, you should never take a drink from someone who almost certainly favors your family's enemies, but you should also never refuse an offer of a drink from a consul. Caught between two political truths, I took the drink with thanks.
"I hope you will allow me to be frank," he said, after we had shared empty comments about the quality of the oak-aged brandy. "Your family's political fortunes have not exactly been at their highest in past years. I have always felt the situation to be regrettable, but the shifting political winds have never blown quite right for me to do anything about it. And I am not sure that they do so now. But necessity may accomplish what diplomacy cannot. An ambassadorial position has recently come open, one that can only be filled by someone of highest senatorial pedigree. It may be the route to restoring your family's political position. It is a politically sensitive position, and I do not claim that it would be easy in every way, but things are in motion that if properly kept in motion would ensure the finest political laurels."
It was this that in fact set off my alarms. I started running through all the ambassadorial positions that I knew were open, wondering what edge-of-everything hole in the wall they were going to try to stuff me, and thinking through the excuses that might get me out of them. The trouble is that there are very few excuses that you can give a consul to his face. I confess that part of my mind also began trying to figure out what my father could have possibly done that I wouldn't know about and yet could lead the Second Consul to think that he could move directly rather than through a senatorial committee; consuls normally went through great lengths to preserve the public appearance of neutrality.
I sipped my brandy, trying to sort this all out in my head. "What is the position?" I finally asked, unable to come to any likely possibilities on my own.
"The Matriarchate of Syan."
I choked on my brandy. It was worse than I had thought. Syan is where you send enemies whose careers you no longer need to destroy. It took me a while to quit coughing.
After I had recovered, I sighed. "I take it that the position was artificially rather than naturally opened."
"Officially it was a natural opening. Unofficially, he was certainly poisoned; we think he got sloppy and the Matriarch got wind of what he was doing."
"And we are just letting the Matriarchate get away with it."
"We would have to be in a position to do otherwise. You know how touchy they are; and we are in no shape to go to war over an assassination they can just deny. We could never get our allies to give money or troops for that."
He put down his snifter. "Look," he said. "I know you exactly what you are thinking. And normally you would be right. Your predecessor was stuffed into the position to keep him safely out of the way until precisely something like this would happen, or until he was too old to be useful. And in Syan it's a rare ambassador who grows old. But he was more cunning than his enemies expected, and he was somehow able to use the position to leverage some important concession from the Five Cities. Concessions we need. The Republic is planning to move against Syan. The deal is that we get the concessions by not intervening, at least until matters are in hand, beyond providing some minor cover. But we need someone there to reduce the chance that they will try to renege on the deal. The Matriarch knows us nearly as well as we do; she knows that it is a position given to members of disgraced high-level families; sending someone from a minor family would be taken as an insult, and to send someone from a family on the upswing would make her suspicious. We need a trustworthy black sheep. Even people who hate your family concede that you are, one and all, good citizens of the Empire, and you were deemed the least risky of your family." He spread his hands. "Such is politics; we are all puppets held by the strings of the very webs we weave."
"I take it, then, that there is no room for me to turn down this offer."
"Let us simply say that it is your duty as an Imperial citizen, and, as I said, whatever others may think of your family, nobody impugns your sense of duty." Which in senatorial circles is a polite way of telling you to shut up and just accept that you have no alternative.
And so I was packed off on the next transport to Syan.
to be continued