There is something about a meal which could have been your last but is not that is exceptionally delicious. I took my time eating, and then made my way back to the Imperial office, although after two attempts in which I got lost, I had to ask someone to lead me through the maze-like hallways.
My chief of staff in his green jacket looked at me warily as I entered. I looked at him long enough for him to get antsy, and then I said, "What did the previous ambassador do for accommodations?"
"There is a cabin behind the embassy, Ambassador."
"A cabin behind the cabin. That seems rather less than appropriate to represent Imperial dignity."
"The seat of government here in Syan moves so often that there is not much point in doing more. It is surprising, in fact, that it has remained in Amansaiva so long. It is a nice cabin, with a view of the lake."
"I have not noticed any embassy security."
"There is a guard posted at your residence at all times, and one posted at the embassy itself during the night. But the area is not heavily populated. And the state punishes severely any trespassing on embassy lands."
"Hmmm. I cannot imagine why anyone tolerated the embassy being so poorly secured."
"We don't keep much there, Ambassador; most things are here."
I looked around at the not-much-more-than-broom-closet of the office. "In a room to which the Matriarch has keys, and from which she could shut us out, with scarcely any exertion of force at all."
"We also are not given much of a budget, either, Ambassador."
"So I can see." I stared at him again. "Where are you from?"
"Diamond Lake, Ambassador."
"Hmmm," I said again. "I have a cousin near Diamond Lake."
"Have you been there yourself, Ambassador?"
"My cousin and I do not get along at all." He seemed to relax, as well he might, because, while Diamond Lake was a convincingly provincial region for this very unimpressive chief of staff, he was very certainly not from Diamond Lake, to which I had indeed been, and with whose accent I was quite familiar. Hating members of your family is no reason not visit them. Nobody has family because they like them, but honor demands that family receive their due. Anyone from a senatorial family or even the landed gentry would know that. So: uncouth accent, not from Diamond Lake although presumably knowing enough about Diamond Lake that he had thought it safe to give as his origin, employed in a diplomatic office but neither senatorial nor gentry.
Abruptly, I said, "Please arrange for my return to the embassy; I have had a long trip, and I want to get to sleep. Tomorrow I don't think I will come here unless the Matriarch specifically requests a meeting. What I would like to do is visit the village and perhaps the surrounding areas, to see what is here. I would need a guard assigned. Can you arrange this?"
"Gladly, Ambassador," he said, and he did indeed seem glad.
The chief of staff was not wrong about the cabin having a nice view and, as cabins go, it was spacious and well-provisioned. But I hardly paid attention to the view, running through a number of things in my head, over and over again. I talked to the guard on duty, a nice, if not very bright boy from a landed family near the Bay of Shells, but over and over the same things kept going through my mind
The embassy was clearly understaffed, and the security clearly inadequate. (The guard clearly agreed; he said that most of the guards were in the barracks on the other side of the lands. "It is good to see you, Ambassador; there has been so little to do.") Neither could be the case without the knowledge of my predecessor. Syan was a posting for the disgraced and the politically dangerous, but it had a standing diplomatic mission, and was of some importance. It is true that the constant moving of the seat of government meant that a proper embassy building could hardly be built. (It occurred to me in passing that this might well be a reason for the policy, to create a limitation on the reach of diplomatic missions.) But senatorial family and standing mission are not minor things; the previous ambassador could have demanded, and would have received, everything required to impress the locals. Instead he tucked himself up in the woods, with minimal staff and minimal security. He was hiding something.
And what he was hiding was clear enough. The staff were spies, and deliberately brought in by my predecessor. No one could get a diplomatic staff position without being from established family, senatorial or gentry; as the joke went, diplomatic postings were positions of trust, so the Empire needed hostages. If you hired people without families of good reputation, then their families' reputations could not be harmed by their failures. The staff had none of the breeding you would expect even from gentry; the contrast with the guard from the Bay of Shells could not have been more clear. Thus the minimal security, minimal staff; the guards were Imperial, but kept out of the way, and guards and staff would not have mixed much.
Nor was there any doubt which was the power for which they were spies. They were not aristocrats, they did not think or act like aristocrats, they did not think or act like gentry interacting with aristocrats; and Diamond Lake is the province of the Empire that does the most trade with the Five Cities. When the Matriarch had said that the Empire was providing assistance to Republican spies, she was exactly right; we had in fact gutted our embassy to make it a Republican listening post. These nasty little republics, I thought, always one step away from iron-fisted dictatorships and utterly barbaric, infesting our outer branches like termites in soft wood. The worst thing was that we let them do it. The Matriarch had to be right about the mining lands, too; the Empire allowing this at all boggled the mind, but my predecessor had not been doing this wholly in secret, since the Second Consul had known at least the general outline of the plan. Territory is the only thing that could have tempted the Consuls, but mere territory would be inadequate; they would have to be nice lands indeed.
And then the Matriarch killed my predecessor, ripping off the bark so that the termites were vulnerable. I came along, and they were trying to play out the charade. At least for a while.
Two things bothered me about this. First, that the Second Consul had not told me more. I did not expect to be made privy to details to secret concessions, so I had not paid attention to his vagueness about them, but if I had been chosen by the Second Consul specifically to provide cover for spies in the embassy, I would have needed to know that in order to do it properly. Yet I was not told. Second, that the Imperial guard were kept so much out of the way. One reason you might do that is to reduce the chance that they might, without knowing it, say something in letters back home that might make someone suspicious. So I could not help but raise the question: Was my predecessor hiding something from the Empire as well as from Syan? Did he intend to defect? I could hardly imagine a man of his family would do so. Was he pocketing something? Had he cut a side deal with the Five Cities that he did not want know to the Senate? I needed to find out more information. But my staff were all spies, so I could not trust them with anything, and had to avoid making them suspicious. How to do that?
I slept that night with three weapons within arm's reach, if you can call worrying about how to get information from back home with occasional dozing 'sleeping'. But I need not have worried, as the problem solved itself the next day, in the form of a letter from my brother.
The letter was waiting for me at the embassy cabin-office when I walked to it in order to make sure proper arrangements were made for my going into the village. It was a nastily smarmy letter, full of fake politeness and several indirect but obvious jabs suggesting that it was my fault that I had been sent to Syan, and several veiled threats that I had better not make the family's position worse. I wish I could say that it made me unhappy to receive such a tasteless letter, but in reality it was exactly the sort of letter I would expect that ignorant, pompous, self-important jackass to send. I glanced it and needed do no more, but as my staff, including the chief of staff, was there, I pretended to read it through very slowly. Instead I was composing a return letter in my head.
Finally I had it. I dictated it to the secretary. It was very much what you would expect. "My dearest and most beloved brother," et cetera, et cetera, a long description of the view of the lake from the cabin, sprinkled throughout with our family code, then ended with a complaint about the accommodations and the sentences, "And my beloved brother, you would not believe the lack of civilization in this primitive backwater. There is nothing to do and they do not even seem to have books. Please send me a copy of the Aureate Histories, or at least the seventh volume, which I was reading before I left, as well as anything else you can think of that would make time more bearable among these worse-than-provincial barbarians." Then, "Your most affectioning and loving brother," et cetera, et cetera,
I had them summon an Imperial guard, whom I made courier, and off the letter went.
I headed out on my trip the village, two Imperial guards keeping me company, with a light heart. I was (probably) out of the pit. Now it was a race. But I was still at a disadvantage, behind and without any knowledge of how soon the finish line would appear. And, of course, I had to rely on my arrogant, pompous windbag of a brother to be competent for once in his life. But that is the good of family: even if they are nothing but jackasses, at least you have resources. That is a fundamental political truth.
to be continued