Cauldron of Ghosts – Snippet 07

“Yeah, they’re still mad that Haven restarted the war with Manticore before the ink on our mutual defense treaty had barely dried.” He shrugged. “On the other hand, because we made no effort to get them to join the hostilities, they aren’t that mad. Certainly not enough to take the risks involved in producing a major rupture with us. So, everyone agreed to one of the time-honored diplomatic code messages. ‘You don’t get an ambassador, you louses. Just a high commissioner etc., etc. So there.’ I think that’s aimed more at the Star Kingdom than us.”

“Star Empire,” Sharon corrected him. She ran fingers through her hair. Short hair, these days. She’d dyed it a nice auburn color since he’d seen her last and cut it back quite a bit. Truth be told, he preferred her hair longer. But that was an age-old tug of war between men and women that men invariably lost once a relationship congealed. Yuri might not be the sharpest pencil in the box when it came to romantic relationships, but he wasn’t obtuse enough to venture into that mine field.

“I think you’re probably right about Manticore,” she said. “The Erewhonese love their subtle ploys and gestures. ‘See? We made it real clear to Haven that they’re in the dog house, the rotters.’ I’m not sure how much good it’ll do them, though.”

“Might be quite a bit. The Star Empire’s current prime minister is as sophisticated as they come and he’s probably familiar with Erewhon’s somewhat peculiar mores. And for sure and certain the Winton dynasty will pay attention. They’re no slouches themselves when it comes to hints and veiled messages. You wouldn’t think a royal lineage would have that much in common with a long line of gangsters, but there it is.”

“Ha! If Victor we’re here, he’d say they were cut from exactly the same cloth — so why shouldn’t they speak the same patois?”

That brought a few seconds’ worth of silence. Then Yuri sighed and leaned back in his chair. “I still don’t like the basta — man, but I have to admit I was glad to find out he was still alive. It’s like the old saying: ‘yeah, he’s a ruthless son-of-a-bitch, but he’s our ruthless son-of-a-bitch.”

“Are you still holding a grudge, Yuri? La Martine was years ago.”

“He told them to break my nose. On purpose!”

“He sure did. That made you a bloody mess — and may very well have kept you alive.”

Impatiently, Yuri shook his head. “I understand the logic, Sharon. I still don’t like the man. He gave you a beating, too. I was madder about that than I was about my nose. Still am.”

“Are you aware that he’s been a consistent influence — no small one, either — boosting your career? Mine, too. Ever since La Martine. I’m pretty sure he’s the main reason you got this posting. Kevin Usher listens to him. So does Wilhelm Trajan, although” — she grinned, here — “I don’t think he does so nearly as cheerfully as Kevin does.”

Yuri looked a bit guilty. “Well… Yeah, I sort of figured that out a while ago. Look, I’m not saying my attitude toward Cachat is rational. It’s probably not. Okay, for sure it’s not.” Stubbornly: “I still don’t like him.”

The com unit on the wall chimed, indicating someone desired a connection.

Sharon punched the acceptance key. The screen came to life.

Seeing the familiar face on the screen, Sharon said: “Walter. I assume you called to talk to Haven’s new ambassa — ah, high commissioner and — ”

“– and envoy extraordinary and whatever other twaddle terms we need to keep up appearances.” Walter Imbesi gave Radamacher a quick, almost perfunctory smile. “Actually, no. I’d been planning to give you a day or so to — ah, renew acquaintance — before bothering you with business. But something’s come up that we think is pressing. As in really pressing.”

Both Sharon and Yuri sat up straight. “Which is…?” said Yuri.

“It seems Victor Cachat is back from the dead. Presumed dead, rather. Anton Zilwicki also. I have been asked to convey to you the government’s displeasure at not being informed of Cachat’s survival. Given that we are formally allied, they feel they should have been notified. If not at once, certainly in less time than two months.”

“The ship they used to carry the message to me was an Erewhonese vessel,” said Sharon. “Are you seriously going to claim you didn’t get the news as soon as I did?”

“I grant you we learned the fact of their survival as soon as you did. The government’s displeasure stems from your failure to formally notify them and provide any further details..”

Yuri decided to let Sharon keep handling things, even though it would normally be his job as ambassador. (Fine. Envoy extra-crispy etc., etc., but in practice it came to the same thing.) But he’d just arrived and hadn’t been fully briefed. More precisely, he hadn’t been briefed at all. Well, leaving aside carnal matters that were none of anyone else’s damn business.

Sharon obviously agreed, since she spoke without hesitation or so much as a glance in his direction. “Let’s translate that statement out of diplomatese, shall we? The triumvirate that runs the show — we’ll skip all the silly stuff about ‘the government’ — is ticked off but since they’re probably not that ticked off — yet, anyway — they sent you as their spokesman since you don’t officially have any political position or power — we’ll all agree not to collapse in riotous laughter here — and so they figure coming from you it’ll have less of an edge to it.”

Sharon shrugged. “It was Victor’s order not to divulge anything, and he’s my boss.”

Imbesi pursed his lips. “The conclusion I come to is that Cachat thought gaining a few weeks of secrecy was important enough to risk irritating an ally. Fine. The few weeks have now gone by — so we can move to the critical question, which is what did he and Zilwicki discover that warrants these extreme measures?”

He waved his hand again in a gesture which, though dismissive, was not small at all. “And please spare me the usual drivel about ‘the needs of security,’ Sharon. I’ve gotten to know Victor Cachat rather well over the past couple of years. Perhaps unusually for someone in his line of work, he’s not obsessive about secrecy.”

“Generally, no. You’re right. But in this instance” — Sharon spread her hands in a gesture that simultaneously conveyed I speak the solemn truth and it’s out of my hands anyway — “he told me nothing in the first place.”

Imbesi was silent for a few seconds. Then, pursed his lips. “You’re not lying, are you?”

He looked at Yuri. “I know what happened on La Martine, High Commissioner Radamacher. We compiled an extensive file on the affair — on anything involving Victor Cachat’s history, once it became clear how large a presence he was going to have for us. One of the conclusions I drew from the affair was that Cachat has an almost eerie sense for selecting his subordinates. The two of you — others — and then he gives them lots of leeway and doesn’t micromanage. Some people might even accuse him of recklessness, in that regard. But I don’t know of any instance where his judgment has proven faulty.”

Yuri had to fight a little to keep an expressionless face. He really didn’t like Victor Cachat. But as much as any person alive he knew just how capable the man was. Fiendishly capable, even. But Yuri didn’t doubt at all whose fiend he was: Haven’s, as sure as any law of thermodynamics.

So he was just as surprised as Imbesi to learn that Cachat hadn’t told Sharon what he’d learned and where he was going with it. They hadn’t talked about it, simply because… Well, more pressing matters arose. But he’d assumed that would be part of the briefing Sharon would give him afterward.

The Erewhonese politician’s assessment was quite correct. Cachat was supremely confident in his ability to select his assistants, and then he didn’t second-guess himself.

He hadn’t even told Sharon?

Imbesi said it for him. “So all hell’s about to break loose.” He nodded, more to himself than anyone else. “I’ll let the triumvirate know. Sharon, High Commissioner Radamacher — ”

“Call me Yuri, please.”

“One moment, Walter.” Sharon leaned forward a little. “As long as we’re on the subjects of secrecy and all hell breaking loose, when can we expect a briefing from you regarding the new relationship you’ve forged with Maya Sector? Congratulations, by the way. You’ve come up in the galaxy. You used to launder money and now you’re laundering superdreadnaughts.”

She smiled sweetly. “Seeing as how we’re allies, as you just pointed out.”

There was no reaction at all on Imbesi’s face in response to those comments. Which were obviously something else Yuri needed to be briefed on.

After a moment, Imbesi just said: “I’ll have to get back to you on that. Have a pleasant day.”

The screen went dark.

“I can’t remember feeling like such a complete ignoramus since I was twelve,” Yuri complained. “When I got called on in class to enumerate the noble gases and I didn’t have a clue what the teacher was talking about. Since when did chemical elements have an aristocracy?”