The Matriarch's guards took me through some winding ways and down a dusty road to an old country estate. I confess that as we proceeded I had a small crisis of confidence about whether I knew what I was doing. In a situation in which you could be assassinated for anything, being taken by soldiers to a deserted house is nerve-wracking even if you asked for it.
I breathed a small sigh of relief to find the Matriarch waiting for me in a small rustic dining room. That, at least, meant that she was curious. The shark was intrigued by the bait. I just wish the bait were not myself.
"Your message was very interesting and unexpected," said the Matriarch.
"My mind must be losing its edge," I said as I sat down. "I was baffled by such an abundance of pickle vendors. 'How can there be so many?' I thought. Competition alone should slim their numbers, but they are everywhere. And around here, it's rather like selling water or air. They would need some other income, but under circumstances that still made it reasonable to keep selling pickles. But then, of course, it was clear. The pickle vendors are all spies."
The Matriarch smiled. "'Spies' is such a harsh word. Most of them are not formally agents, if that is what you mean. Most just know that they get paid princely sums for pickles as long as they also share interesting information that they have picked up while vending. I have made a few very poor pickle vendors immensely rich because they were intelligent men who knew valuable information when they saw it. Only a few are in my direct employ, mostly to keep an eye on the rest."
It is not a good sign that she is being so forthcoming, I thought. Out loud, I said, "Yes, although those are fairly easy to pick out. Too suspicious. But, as I said, my wits must be growing dim that I did not see it immediately."
"Oh, there is no point in being so hard on yourself," said the Matriarch. "As far as I can tell, the spies of the Five Cities still have not found it out. You have a face for playing a handsome, stupid, and harmless Empire-man, but you will have to put on a much more perfect act to convince me of the stupidity part. Or the harmless part, for that matter."
"I am glad that you do not think me harmless," I said.
"And why is that?"
"Because if I were genuinely harmless, I would have nothing to offer. But I do have something to offer."
She looked at me a long moment, then said, "Well? You have my attention for the moment."
I looked at the wall, which was decorated with bright copper pots and pans, thinking through my words very carefully. "It is not a secret that my family is out of favor, and what is more, we have managed to make so many enemies that we are out of favor not just with the Emperor, which would not matter so much, but both Consuls and the leaders of several minority factions in the Senate. We have, to say it nicely, played our politics dangerously, so dangerously a weaker house would have been destroyed. Yet for all our enemies we still endure. There are many reasons for that. But one is that we are fantastically wealthy, far wealthier than we would ever show externally. The obligations of aristocracy are extremely expensive, and most aristocratic families drive themselves into poverty at some point or another; there are endless situations where you could like bright and shining to the world with just a little more money to get things done. Because of it, even many of our enemies owe us favors. Not that that deters them from trying to destroy us, of course, but it does hamper any attempts to do it directly. That would look so mercantile, you see."
"That does sound like an aristocracy," the Matriarch said drily.
"Aristocrats cannot directly dirty their hands with most kinds of trade, so the only way you can get the vast sums that you certainly need are by inheritance, by marriage, or by land. Land is tricky business, but my family are very good at it. And the most basic truth when it comes to wealth by real estate is that nothing impoverishes like fixation on a single idea. If the land seems bad, find a use for it. If the plan is not working, change it. If you do not like the deal, make a better deal." I took a deep breath. "The Five Cities made a deal with the Empire -- a real estate agreement, in fact. The Empire would overlook the Republic invading Syan in exchange for some nice mining lands. A byproduct of this was moving me into place as an expendable piece. Syan would certainly kill me in retaliation if the Republic failed. If the Republic succeeded, I would need to be removed to cover their tracks, so I would be killed, and the death would probably be blamed on Syan. I do not like that deal. So I would like to negotiate a better deal."
The Matriarch narrowed her eyes. "You would be willing to betray the Empire and violate the agreement between the Empire and the Five Cities?"
"Of course not," I said. "I already told you that I will not act against the interests of the Empire. Even if it were not a matter of honor, my betrayal would certainly mean most of my family being imprisoned and probably poisoned. I cannot stand most of them, but it would be immensely embarrassing to be the idiot who got them killed. I will not be a destroyer of my own house. You have said, and my sources in the Empire confirm, that the agreement between the Empire and the Five Cities is that the Empire will not militarily intervene in the Five Cities invasion. In exchange, the Empire gets some nice lands. So I propose an agreement between the Empire and Syan, one that will benefit the Empire more."
"The Five Cities plan is based on the assumption that Syan's army is in disarray. But I am convinced that this is not true. The whole agreement was based on a falsehood, and, what is more, one that originates with Syan itself. You are playing vulnerable to draw the Republic in; it is not an opportunity for the Republic to expand but an ambush. And it is foolish to make treaties with republics, anyway; they are states that by their nature cannot make up their minds, nor see anything beyond their own interests. They will renege as soon as they see an opportunity. It was just a bad idea. But we will uphold the agreement in the manner that befits our own interests. When the Republic's plan fails and Syan invades the Five Cities, I will personally guarantee that the Empire will not intervene militarily. I will not inform the Republic about Syan's plans. And I will even tell you when and where the Empire expects the Five Cities to attempt their plans, which is, after all, not a military intervention. The Five Cities made their agreement thinking they would not lose; I know they will. The Empire will never get the mining lands promised by the Republic, because the Republic will fail. But if Syan will make an agreement with the Empire promising Republican lands for all of the services I just mentioned, the problem is solved. And there is also no reason to kill me."
"There is no reason for Syan to kill you if you follow through."
"Well," I said, " I would not be the first nobleman to serve as treaty hostage for the Empire. In a sense, I was a treaty hostage already without knowing it; now at least I will be one on my own terms."
"And the Republic will certainly try to kill you."
"Yes, that is the trickier part. I am currently surrounded by Republican spies and so will have to arrange some sort of coup against my own staff."
The Matriarch smiled. "I could lend you guards, if you need them."
I laughed, and I hope it did not sound too strained. "Invite Syan to invade an Imperial embassy? The Empire would have me executed just for that, and certainly declare war on Syan for it. No, I have other plans in motion for that. It is a dangerous situation, but not actually a difficult one."
"If the Republic kills you before all this is done, what good would that be to Syan?"
"You would be where you were, except you would know when the Empire thinks the Republic will strike. You have but to make the agreement and you will already be better off than you were. And I am sure the Five Cities will be taken by surprise, in any case. It's a basic truth of politics that a republic will always assume that what it wants to be true is true."
The Matriarch laughed softly, reflecting a moment. Then she said, "The Empire may be rotting from the inside, but it is good to see that someone still has the old oak in them."
"Every forest has rot," I replied. "But there is a lot of wood in a forest."
We were quiet. Then the Matriarch said, "You have not actually told me what you expect Syan to give the Empire."
"Ah," I said. "The westernmost province of the Five Cities, Delnetica, is across the Great River from the Diamond Lake region of the Empire. Very rich farmland. And it is divided from the City of Delnetica by a long ridge of hills -- nothing difficult to get over, but it would make a serviceable border. The City you can keep, if you like. Your conquest is almost guaranteed; it will be the easiest of the Five Cities to conquer. And it is all old Imperial land, of course -- all these little republics only exist by infesting and devouring parts of empires. A former subprovince for Diamond Lake. And it would provide a buffer territory between the Empire and the new provinces of Syan."
"Looking to be a subprovincial governor, I take it?"
"I do not deny that would be nice. There are always wonderfully rich estates available after a conquest. But no, that would be in the hands of the Senate, and I am no position to guide the hand of the Senate in that direction. But I do hope to leverage this to be able to return home. No offense, Matriarch, but Syan is not a comfortable posting."
So a deal was struck, and I let the Matriarch know the information received from my brother's informants, that the Republic would strike in two weeks, on the fifth of the month of Springbloom. And I spent the next two weeks hoping that neither the Five Cities nor the Matriarch would decide to kill me before I could finally get home. I spent a lot of my days away from my office and inspecting and drilling my guards, which, I will admit, involved quite a bit of drinking with them as well. Which, of course, made it easy, on the fourth of Springblossom, to have the guard, who were entirely on my side by that point, arrest my staff on charges of treason. They had been passing as Imperial citizens, after all, so I had them tried on treason charges. It was easy to find evidence that they were passing information. They could not get out of it by claiming to be citizens of the Republic, because then I could have had them executed on the spot as spies; and had there been no evidence, I would simply have arrested them and sent them under Imperial guard to the Empire for trial, and let us say they would not have had an easy or safe journey. Imperial guards are always strapping young men who are eager for adventure but longing for home, and they had isolated the poor things in the barracks without hope of either, and without any good food, to boot. Amateurs, amateurs. They never stood a chance.
The war between the Republic and Syan lasted nine weeks; by the third, it was clear that the Republic was woefully unprepared for the forces it faced, and by the seventh Syan's victory was assured. The Matriarch fulfilled her part of the agreement, even if (as I suspect) it was mostly because she had more than enough on her hands in pacifying the former Republic; as her proclamation declared, she liberated Western Delnetica from its oppressors and returned it to its rightful place in the Empire. I was pleased by this until I received a letter from my brother congratulating himself on having successfully used the information I had provided to become subprovincial governor of the new territory, settling down into a splendid estate. The man is a venomous and verminous weasel in every sense of the term, and I had further proof of it on receiving a letter from the Second Consul congratulating me on having salvaged the bungling of the Five Cities and directing me to remain as ambassador of Syan, "your extraordinary value in that position having been passionately argued by your brother." No one stabs in the back like a sibling, and there is a truly fundamental truth of politics for you. The Matriarch, on hearing this, said, in her materteral way, "At least there will still be a pretty face around here."
In any case, that is how I survived my first exposure to the Matriarch of Syan, built a solution to an apparently insoluble problem out of nothing, and expanded Imperial territory by committing the Empire not to do anything. I will not lie and say there was no gamble or guesswork involved, but when I had to roll the dice, I rolled it well, if I do says so myself. And with that, I can put "The End" on my tale, although I hope that is not an omen for either my career or my life; ambassadorships to Syan have a tendency to stamp a rather gruesome "Finis" on both.