Wednesday, April 14, 2021

The Ambassador, Part I

This is a short story draft that I never quite finished putting up, so it seems due for a completion as well as a revision.

Nobody except the Matriarch of Syan knows exactly what happened to my predecessor, but I can imagine many of the details, some of which are likely true. The Matriarch of Syan does not at first give an impression of extraordinary power. One hears of Matriarchs who have done so, but it is not the look that makes a Matriarch. I am not sure what does; but perhaps it is the the ability to smile coolly at the destruction of enemies. And I have no doubt that the Matriarch was smiling coolly as my predecessor  sat down to dinner with her.

He was a cautious man, and carefully ate nothing except what was tasted by the food-tasters, a young man and a young woman. I hope they were well-paid for what must be a harrowing occupation; but perhaps they, like canaries in the coal mine, were simply drafted. But everything was tasted by one or the other, and the Matriarch herself began to eat, and so he ate.

"I have heard an interesting rumor," the Matriarch said abstractedly as she looked down at her wine and swirled it in her cup. "I have heard that you have had a meeting with the ambassador from the Five Cities Republic."

"'Having a meeting' is hardly the name for it," said the ambassador. "We happened to meet in passing and exchanged some words."

"Half an hour of words, it seems."

"That is certainly an exaggeration." You have to give the man credit, after all; he was part steel, the sort of man who could lie like that and calmly continue eating.

"Rumors often are," she said carelessly. "I only bring it up because there are interesting things happening in the Republic. Or perhaps they are rumors, as well."

"Those rumors I have heard," he said, clearing his throat, then clearing his throat again. He drank some wine. "The Republic appears less stable than it used to be."

"Republics are always less stable than they used to be," said the Matriarch. "I am thinking more particularly of the tales I've heard that certain statesmen there are interested in trying to destabilize the Matriarchate."

The ambassador perhaps turned slightly pale, but no other sign of distress would have showed. "Indeed? But I am not really surprised. The Five Cities are always a cesspool of intrigue, as you know. I am sure that they are plotting and plotting to unsettle the Empire in half a dozen ways, as well."

"No doubt," said the Matriarch. "The Republican ambassador said nothing to you about the matter?"

"Nothing whatsoever," was the reply.

"Interesting." The Matriarch carefully cut her steak. It is a quirk of hers, the extraordinary care with which she eats her food, everything in precise bites.

After a few minutes of quiet eating, she spoke again. "I actually wanted to ask you about the Imperial training exercises."

The ambassador would have cleared his throat. "Training exercises?" he said, his forehead getting slightly damp.

"Training exercises," she said. "That is what the excuse would have been, would it not? 'We are not really building up our forces in preparation for an invasion. It is a training exercise. It is only near your borders because the location allows for' -- what would it be? -- 'because the location is ideal for practicing mountain maneuvers'? Let's see. Ah, yes, 'all routine; if you would like we can arrange for observers from Syan, but it would take time to get the permission, since you would have to notify the Imperial City and the local commanders.' Something like that would be the excuse, would it not?"

"Well," said the ambassador, perhaps a little weakly, "there are some training maneuvers going on, but there always are, you know. They don't keep me informed of every detail. Surely it is not so many that you could regard it as a serious threat."

"I am sorry to be so blunt, Your Excellency, but the Empire is long past being a serious threat to anyone, regardless of numbers. Nonetheless, it seems somewhat reckless to engage in 'training exercises' so close to the border without any prior notification. It seems only a matter of courtesy to let us know. After all, it could be taken very badly. To take just an example, there are all these rumors about the Five Cities plotting to assassinate me, and should I be out of the way, who would not think that the Empire might be tempted to annex the mines across the border, just to take advantage of a temporary moment of weakness on the part of Syan? Or perhaps to lend troops in assisting the Five Cities in opposing the Infanta? Or perhaps the Empire would be happy to cut a deal with the Republic to recognize and support its invasion in exchange for some valuable favors? There are so many possibilities for bad interpretation in the whole matter."

The pallor of the face and the beads of sweat on the forehead were quite pronounced. The ambassador cleared his throat. "If you wish," he said weakly, "I can file an official report registering your protest, in addition to any your ambassador to the Empire might file directly." He cleared his throat again.

"That would be very kind," she said. "You see, it is not the single event that causes consternation. But there are combinations of things that should always be avoided, even if singly they are perfectly harmless." She took a drink of wine.

"I heard about one that will no doubt amuse you," she continued. "There was an incident in my predecessor's day of someone important dying suddenly and mysteriously. And it turned out that the death was caused by two completely harmless substances. You see, when they are separate, they have no ill effect. But if you were to mix the two under just the right circumstances, they convert to a highly toxic compound. As it happened in that case, one of the substances had been in the food, and another in the drink. If he had just taken wine, or had water instead of the wine, he would have been perfectly fine; but he had both, and as it turns out, the acids of the stomach are the perfect conditions for the combination of the two compounds. Is that not remarkable?"

Whether the ambassador thought it remarkable would doubtless be difficult to determine, since he would by this point be sweating profusely, breathing raspily, and doubled over as if in pain. It would not be long before he slid onto the floor, dead.

The Matriarch had his body shipped back to the Empire in grandest honors, expressing her deepest sorrow at having lost someone who had worked so hard for the mutual benefit of the Empire and the Matriarchate. The official story was food poisoning; which I suppose was completely true.

Of course, as I said, no one knows precisely what happened except the Matriarch; these details are all how I imagine it, but they are well-founded details. I like to think that my predecessor took it stoically, in the finest Imperial tradition, as his forefathers would have. I hated the man myself, but he was an Imperial citizen, after all, of an old senatorial family, and I would hope that some of that would show itself in the end. And, I suppose, being killed by the Matriarch, which you can guarantee will be an inconveniently undignified and unpleasant death, cannot but make me have some sympathy for him. After all, I am likely to go the same way one day.

Obviously my own involvement in the matter began after the body had been shipped back to the Empire with all the crocodile tears the Matriarch could ship with it. 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, being an incurable optimist, took it as a sign the ice was finally thawing, and I walked into the office as innocent as a lamb gamboling up to the door of 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 in my head.

"He is doing quite well," I replied. "As active as ever. He is away with my brother, looking into buying a seaside villa. Our 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 favors your family's enemies, but you should also never refuse an offer of a drink from a consul. Caught between two irreconcilable 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 alarms in my very slow-witted head. I started running through all the ambassadorial positions that I knew were open, wondering in 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. Part of my mind also began trying to figure out what my father could have possibly done that, despite not knowing about it, 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 fiction of neutrality.

I sipped my drink, 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."

"To do otherwise, 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, and the Mercenary Legion is dealing with the vice-governorates of the Southern March."

He put down his snifter. "Look," he said, "I know you exactly what you are thinking. And normally you would be right. The recently deceased and entirely unlamented ambassador 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, one way or another, 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 crucially important concessions from the Five Cities. Concessions we need. The Republic is planning to move against Syan. In the deal, we get the concessions by not intervening, at least until matters are in hand, beyond providing some minor cover. It is ideal for us. But we need someone there to reduce the chance that they will try to renege on the deal, and it is here that we face a fundamental problem. 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 sending someone from a family on the upswing would make her suspicious. We need a trustworthy black sheep, a loyal disgrace. 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. The circumstances chose you, not I." 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." In senatorial circles, that is a polite way of telling you to shut up and just accept that you have no alternative.

And they lost no time sending me on my suicide mission; I was packed off on the next transport to Syan.

to be continued

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