“In what way, Master Qwentyn?” one of his other guests asked in guarded tones.

“It seems evident that the Grand Inquisitor’s objective is to minimize contact between potentially apostate Charisians and the citizens of the Republic,” Qwentyn said calmly. “One can hardly draw any other conclusion from the his directives, not to mention his explicit instructions to the Lord Protector and to the other heads of state of the major mainland realms. The possibility that the consequences of his directives may very well exceed his intentions clearly exists, however. It’s been suggested to me that perhaps it would not be inappropriate for those of us deeply involved in international trade and investment to consider ways in which certain of those unanticipated consequences might be minimized.
“For example, the Grand Inquisitor has specifically directed that our ports are to be closed against any and all Charisian-flag vessels. None of us, I’m certain, would ever even consider setting our own will in opposition to the commands of the Grand Inquisitor. However, his directives refer specifically to the realm where a ship is registered; there was nothing in them which pertained to where a ship might have been built, or even where its cargo might have originated.” He smiled benevolently at his listeners. “My own House has recently signed a long-term lease-purchase agreement by which we have taken possession of several dozen Charisian-built merchantships. Since the agreement is a lease-purchase, it’s obviously in our best interests to secure our ownership interest in the vessels, especially in these troubled times. Accordingly, their registries have been transferred from those of the kingdom in which they were built to the Republic, where their current owners are located.”
Eyes narrowed around the table as his guests digested that. It was true that the Grand Inquisitor’s orders had specified the seizure of Charisian-owned vessels. If ships were no longer registered in Charis, and if their owners were no longer Charisian subjects, then the letter of Vicar Zhaspahr’s commands would no longer apply. Still . . . .
“Have you discussed these ‘lease-purchases’ with the Chancellor’s office?” the Charisian-accented guest asked slowly.
“There’s been no need to involve the Chancellor in such routine transactions,” Qwentyn said tranquilly. “Obviously, his office is aware of them, however, since it’s responded most favorably and promptly to our requests to expedite the registration of the transfers of title.”
“I see.”
The Charisian and the others seated around the table digested that, as well. Given the fact that the vessels themselves would be useless without crews to man them, and given the fact that the Siddarmarkian merchant marine was virtually nonexistent, a rather delicate question arose. After several seconds, one of the other guests cleared his throat.
“I can well appreciate how the transactions you’ve described would go far towards meeting the Grand Inquisitor’s desires while simultaneously providing the necessary bottoms to keep essential commerce moving. My own shareholders might well be interested in participating in similar transactions, but, alas, we do not possess a stock of trained sailors from which to provide crews.”
“As a matter of fact, that presented certain difficulties to us, as well,” Qwentyn said, nodding gravely. “We determined that the simplest decision was to hire the additional sailors we required. In fact, the sellers were kind enough to provide us with the trained seamen we needed. The simplest solution, actually, was simply to hire the passage crews who delivered the vessels to us. Obviously, they were already familiar with the ships in question, and the majority of them had no objection to sailing under Siddarmarkian colors. One ship is very like another, after all.”
Eyebrows rose. It was abundantly clear that the legal maneuver Qwentyn was describing was no more than a paper transaction. And if that was clear to them, they felt confident it would be clear to others. The possibility that Zhaspahr Clyntahn would be . . . unhappy when he learned of it appeared significant, but it was obvious Qwentyn was, in fact, acting as the Lord Protector’s messenger in this instance. And while it was undoubtedly true that the Grand Inquisitor’s wrath and the disapproval of the “Knights of the Temple Lands” was not something to be lightly contemplated, it was also true that the Lord Protector was far closer to them. With winter closing in, it was even conceivable that some five-days would pass before anyone in Zion learned of this particular maneuver. And if — or when — Vicar Zhaspahr learned of it, the Church’s long-standing policy of not pushing Siddarmark too hard would undoubtedly come into play. The most probable negative outcome would be a forced repudiation of the “lease-purchases,” and it was highly probable that the Republic’s diplomats (and law masters) would be able to spin even that out for months. Months during which the official owners of the vessels in question would be making money hand-over-fist in markets where the general reduction in shipping would enforce scarcity and drive prices steadily upward.
And if the Lord Protector’s administration was prepared to pursue this arrangement, who knew what other arrangements it might be prepared to sanction, as well?
Several eyes slid sideways, towards one of the guests, in particular. He was neither Charisian nor Siddarmarkian, and his tunic sleeve carried an embroidered crown surmounted by crossed keys. The crown in question was orange, not white, which meant he was a senior bailiff for a member of the Council of Vicars, and not some lowly archbishop or bishop. His presence had been unexpected, and more than one of the other guests waited to hear him denounce what Qwentyn had just said.
Instead, he simply frowned thoughtfully. If he felt the intensity of the regards directed at him, he gave no sign of it, but after a few moments, he nodded.
“As you say, Master Qwentyn, the consequences of the exclusion of Charisian-owned shipping have already been profound. And, like most of the people in this room, I’m responsible for serving the best interests of my patrons. Clearly, the upward surge in prices is making that significantly more difficult. I feel quite confident that my employers would wish me to explore every possible avenue by which those rising prices might be controlled. I think this lease-purchase arrangement of yours has a great deal to recommend itself as a means whereby the Grand Inquisitor’s directives and intentions can be given effect without bringing about a total collapse of our maritime commerce or imposing disastrously high prices. In fact, it would seem to me that the purchasing approach you’ve chosen to follow is only one of several possible options. For example, had you considered –”
The atmosphere around the table shifted noticeably as the bailiff leaned forward, his eyes intent. Business is business. They could almost physically hear him saying that, although they all knew he would never, under any circumstances, admit that he had.
The arrangements they were discussing probably wouldn’t last, yet they might very well hold up for quite some time. And if the Lord Protector remained as willing to pursue . . . innovative solutions as he clearly was at this moment, some fresh arrangement would undoubtedly be waiting in the wings when the Church finally got around to quashing this one.
Which suggested all sorts of interesting future possibilities . . . .