How Firm A Foundation – Snippet 35

          Those eyes widened, despite his best efforts to conceal his surprise, as he read. He turned the first page and examined the second just as carefully, and his surprise segued into something else. Something tinged with alarm.

          He read the third and final sheet, then folded them back together, laid them on the tabletop, and looked at her intently.

          “Those are . . . an extraordinary list of transactions, Madam Pahrsahn,” he observed, and she startled him with a silvery little chuckle.

          “I believe you’ll rise high in your house’s service, Master Qwentyn,” she told him. “What you’re really wondering is whether or not I’m out of my mind, although you’re far too much the gentleman to ever actually say so.”

          “Nonsense,” he replied. “Or, at least, I’d never go that far. I do wonder how carefully you’ve considered some of this, though.” He leaned forward to tap the folded instructions. “I’ve studied the records of all your investment moves since our House has represented you, Madam. If you’ll forgive my saying so, these instructions represent a significant change in your established approach. At the very least, they expose you to a much greater degree of financial risk.”

          “They also offer the potential for a very healthy return,” she pointed out.

          “Assuming they prosper,” he pointed out in response.

          “I believe they will,” she said confidently.

          He started to say something else, then paused, regarding her thoughtfully. Was it possible she knew something even he didn’t?

          “At the moment,” he said after a minute or two, “the shipping arrangements you’re proposing to invest in are being allowed by both the Republic and Mother Church. That’s subject to change from either side with little or no notice, you realize. And if that happens you’ll probably — no, almost certainly — lose your entire investment.”

          “I’m aware of that,” she said calmly. “The profit margin’s great enough to recoup my entire initial investment in no more than five months or so, however. Everything after that will be pure profit, even if the ‘arrangements’ should ultimately be disallowed. And my own read of the . . . decision-making process within the Temple, let us say, suggests no one’s going to be putting any pressure on the Republic to interfere with them. Not for quite some time, at any rate.”

          She’d very carefully not said anything about “the Group of Four,” Owain noticed. Given the fact that she clearly came from the Temple Lands herself, however, there was no doubt in his mind about what she was implying.

          “Do you have any idea how long ‘quite some time’ might be?” he asked.

          “Obviously, that’s bound to be something of a guessing game,” she replied in that same calm tone. “Consider this, however. At the moment, only the Republic and the Silkiahans are actually succeeding in paying their full tithes to Mother Church. If these ‘arrangements’ were to be terminated, that would no longer be the case.” She shrugged. “Given the obvious financial strain of the holy war, especially in light of that unfortunate business in the Markovian Sea, it seems most unlikely Vicar Rhobair and Vicar Zahmsyn are going to endanger their strongest revenue streams.”

          He frowned thoughtfully. Her analysis made a great deal of sense, although the financial and economic stupidity which could have decreed something like the embargo on Charisian trade in the first place didn’t argue for the Group of Four’s ability to recognize logic when it saw it. On the other hand, it fitted quite well with some of the things his grandfather Tymahn had said. Although . . . .

          “I think you’re probably right about that, Madam,” he said. “However, I’m a bit more leery about some of these other investments.”

          “Don’t be, Master Qwentyn,” she said firmly. “Foundries are always good investments in . . . times of uncertainty. And according to my sources, all three of these are experimenting with the new cannon-casting techniques. I realize they wouldn’t dream of putting the new guns into production without Mother Church’s approval, but I feel there’s an excellent chance that approval will be forthcoming, especially now that the Navy of God needs to replace so many ships.”

          Owain’s eyes narrowed. If there was one thing in the entire world of which he was totally certain it was that the Church of God Awaiting would never permit the Republic of Siddarmark to begin casting the new model artillery. Not when the Council of Vicars in its role as the Knights of the Temple Lands had been so anxious for so long over the potential threat the Republic posed to the Temple Lands’ eastern border. Only a fool, which no member of the House of Qwentyn was likely to be, could have missed the fact that Siddarmark’s foundries were the only ones in either Haven or Howard which had received no orders from the Navy of God’s ordnance officers. Foodstuffs and ship timbers, coal and coke and iron ore for other people’s foundries, even ironwork to build warships in other realms, yes; artillery, no.

          Yet Madam Pahrsahn seemed so serenely confident . . . .

          “Very well, Madam.” He bent his head in a courteous, seated bow. “If these are your desires, it will be my honor to carry them out for you.”

          “Thank you, Master Qwentyn,” she said with another of those charming smiles. Then she set her cup and saucer back on the table and rose. “In that case, I’ll bid you good afternoon and get out of your way.”

          He stood with a smile of his own and escorted her back to the office door. A footman appeared with her heavy winter coat, and he saw an older woman, as plain as Madam Pahrsahn was lovely, waiting for her.

          Owain personally assisted her with her coat, then raised one of her slender hands — gloved, now — and kissed its back once more.

          “As always, a pleasure, Madam,” he murmured.

          “And for me, as well,” she assured him, and then she was gone.

* * * * * * * * * *

          “So what do you make of Madam Pahrsahn, Henrai?” Greyghor Stohnar asked as he stood with his back to a roaring fireplace, toasting his posterior.

“Madam Pahrsahn, My Lord?” Lord Henrai Maidyn, the Republic of Siddarmark’s Chancellor of the Exchequer sat in a window seat, nursing a tulip-shaped brandy glass as he leaned back against the paneled wall of the council chamber. Now he raised his eyebrows interrogatively, his expression innocent.

“Yes, you know, the mysterious Madam Pahrsahn.” The elected ruler of the Republic smiled thinly at him. “The one who appeared so suddenly and with so little warning? The one who floats gaily through the highest reaches of Society . . . and hobnobs with Reformist clergymen? Whose accounts are personally handled by Owain Qwentyn? Whose door is always open to poets, musicians, milliners, dressmakers . . . and a man who looks remarkably like the apostate heretic and blasphemer Zhasyn Cahnyr? That Madam Pahrsahn.”

“Oh, that Madam Pahrsahn!”

Maidyn smiled back at the Lord Protector. Here in the Republic of Siddarmark, the Chancellor of the Exchequer was also in charge of little matters like espionage.

“Yes, that one,” Stohnar said, his tone more serious, and Maidyn shrugged.

          “I’m afraid the jury’s still out, My Lord. Some of it’s obvious, but the rest is still sufficiently obscure to make her very interesting. She’s clearly from the Temple Lands, and I think it’s equally clear her sudden appearance here has something to do with Clyntahn’s decision to purge the vicarate. The question, of course, is precisely what it has to do with that decision.”