SOME GOLDEN HARBOR – snippet 38:

CHAPTER 10: Charlestown on Bennaria

The Council Hall was a round, domed building. The center of the polished stone floor was white; twenty-seven backless chairs were set around the black border. There were balconies on both sides. Neither would hold more than a dozen people, but Adele, Daniel and Luff had the left-hand one to themselves.

The balcony opposite had six in it, the chief aides to the five Councilors who’d met with them at Manco House–and Corius’ servant Fallert. The humans were clumped in the corner farthest from the snakeman.

Fallert grinned and made a sweeping bow to Adele when she entered the box with her companions. Luff flinched away. Adele responded with a curtsey, thinking of how pleased her deportment teacher would be that she’d remembered her lessons after twenty years of disuse.

“Our distinguished guests from the Republic of Cinnabar are present,” said the Chairman of the Council, an eighty-year-old with a walker who looked to be a hundred. Adele’s vantage point emphasized the fellow’s hunch, of course. “Does anybody know if we can expect more of our colleagues to join us?”

“That’s Monson,” Luff whispered. Adele knew the Chairman’s name; so did Daniel if he’d read the briefing she’d prepared for him. “He doesn’t have any real power. The chairmanship is a rotating office.”

“We have a quorum, Honorable Chairman,” said Waddell. He sat on his chair like a gross golf ball perched on its tee. “I don’t think we need delay this matter if the constitutional requirements are met.”

Only fifteen of the places were filled. Three Councilors were ill, and two houses were headed by youths below the minimum age of sixteen.

Judging by the private discussions among the five chief members–which Adele had perused in detail–the remainder of the absentees were simply unwilling to come to the capital when the populace was in a state of unrest. They were largely the less wealthy Councilors who didn’t trust the size of their private armies to protect them.

The meeting was already past its scheduled midday start time, but a ship had landed in the harbor just as Monson was laboring to his feet. He’d had to wait till the echoes from the thrusters died away before starting to speak.

Though the Council Chamber wasn’t quiet even now. The public wasn’t allowed inside, but by tradition the double front doors were thrown back so that in theory they could listen to the deliberations.

Today the Councilors’ retainers stood outside shoulder to shoulder in front of the building, each group wearing a colored beret or similar livery to mark their affiliation. The crowd beyond made a sound like an angry sea, washing in and out of the domed chamber. It half-smothered the Chairman’s voice.

“This is a special meeting, called by Councilor Corius,” Monson quavered. “As is the right of any of us. I therefore turn the floor over to the honorable Councilor.”

He made a slight gesture with his hand, then settled cautiously onto his chair. His walker trembled.

Yuli Corius rose with a flourish. His choice of unadorned white robes made him stand out among the garish colors of his peers like a marble faun in a tulip bed. He was standing almost directly beneath Adele’s balcony, so mostly she saw only the top of his head.

She wasn’t terribly interested in looking at Corius anyway. There were no seats in the balcony so she’d placed her personal data unit on the floor between her and the railing. Its holographic display was capable of projecting images twenty feet with reasonable sharpness, so raising them from the floor to a short woman’s working height was no trouble at all.

“Fellow Councilors, I’ll get right to the point,” Corius said; his delivery was breezy. “Our friends and allies on Dunbar’s World–our close business associates on Dunbar’s World–are faced with a threat which at best will overturn all existing trade arrangements unless it’s successfully countered. I propose to counter it in the name of Bennaria but at my own expense. Do I have your approval?”

The other Councilors reacted in everything from laughter to the stark anger of Councilor Fahey, who leaped to his feet and pointed his finger across the room at Corius. Waddell made a small gesture. When that didn’t work, he spoke sharply enough to get Fahey’s attention. Fahey sat down, flicking his angry eyes from Corius to Waddell and back.

“You can’t expect us–you couldn’t expect anybody–to give you a blank check, Corius,” said Councilor Waddell. He smiled at his rival, but his face was hard under the feigned amusement. “That’s particularly true when you’re making promises that you can’t possibly fulfill.”

“Well, Waddell, we differ on that matter,” Corius said. His smile was wider than Waddell’s but equally forced. “And on so many others, of course. But this one’s easy to test: as soon as the government of Bennaria authorizes me, I’ll go to Dunbar’s World and either succeed or fail. Not so?”

The aides in the other balcony were taking calls from retainers outside the building; expressions of horror settled onto their faces. Fallert’s grin was a predator’s gape.

“Mistress?” said Tovera through the bead receiver in Adele’s ear. “Troops’re joining the mob in the square outside. I think they came from the ship that just landed.”

She paused, then added, “They’ve got their right sleeve blue over battledress and they just carry clubs, but they’re pushing a cart that could carry guns for fifty or sixty.”

Adele didn’t have a microphone to reply orally, but she used her data unit to send a text acknowledgement. Her servant would read it on the miniature display she was using to monitor sensors outside the building. Tovera was an information technician, not an artist like Adele herself, but she was a very well-trained and painstaking technician.

Adele already knew about the men advancing from the harbor, though. The aides on the opposite balcony had been informed as soon as the first of the prepositioned barges crossed the strait and unloaded in Charlestown.

Fallert had presumably known earlier than that: these were the mercenaries Corius had been hiring. Adele frowned, still sure that Corius wasn’t planning a coup. He was too smart to believe he had enough men to succeed, and the weapons he’d brought were basically defensive.

“Corius, it’s not news to me that you’re pushy and full of yourself,” Waddell said, losing even the semblance of good humor. “It shouldn’t be news to you that you can’t push us. Now–when you provide the Council with a detailed plan of the proposed operation, that’ll be time for the Council to begin deliberations on whether you’ll be allowed to carry them out.”

He turned from Corius to sweep the circle with his eyes. “Or so I would propose to my colleagues,” he added. The smile was back, this time with an oily sheen.

“Full of myself, Councilor?” said Corius pleasantly. He patted his belly with his left hand, striking hard enough to slap the fingers audibly against the hard muscles beneath his robe. “Not words I’d have expected to hear from you, to be honest.”

Several of the Councilors grinned. Knox, seated at Waddell’s right hand, blurted an open laugh which he quickly suppressed with his hand. He didn’t meet Waddell’s eyes.

“But for the rest…,” Corius continued, meeting the eyes of his fellows one by one as his expression settled into speculative lines. “Councilors, every hour we delay makes success more difficult. Besides, I don’t have a detailed plan; it’d be impossible to make one without knowing more than we can know until I’m on Bennaria with my troops. Give me the authorization, and I’ll give you–give Bennaria–the victory. That or die trying.”

The aides were signalling furiously to their principals beneath. “That’s odd,” said Luff in a husky whisper. “Nobody’s allowed to step onto the floor while the Council’s in session. I think those fellows are trying to get their masters to leave the chamber so they can tell them something!”

Adele said nothing. Luff was correct, of course, but it was so obvious a conclusion that she couldn’t imagine why he’d thought it necessary to voice.

Councilor Layard started to rise, his eyes on the balcony. Waddell gestured him back with curt anger.

“Honorable Chairman?” Waddell said. “Our colleague demands we vote on his proposition immediately. I therefore move that we deny his request and adjourn to our homes!”

“Second,” said Layard, still glancing up at his aide in obvious discomfort. “Call for an immediate vote.”

Adele smiled coldly. He probably thinks a vote’s the quickest way to learn what crisis had just broken. He was right about that.

“Well, ah…,” said Monson. “Why yes, ah, will the honorable Council please vote on the motion before it.”

“That we reject Corius’ proposal!” Waddell said forcefully, staring at his rival.

Yuli Corius remained standing, his head cocked. He wore a faint smile.

“Yes, of course,” said Monson. “Ah, a voice vote, I believe.”

“Aye!” said Waddell, and the remaining Councilors echoed him with, “Yes,” or “Aye,” or–from Councilor Fahey–clearly audible over the chorus of murmurs, “Too bloody right!”

Councilor Waddell wobbled to his feet. “I don’t know about the rest of you,” he said, “but I’m going home now. Corius, I suggest you either drop this notion or work out a plan that the rest of us can consider.”

“I’m afraid I won’t have time for that, Waddell,” Corius said, raising his voice to be heard over the shuffle of chairs and feet on the stone. “I have to chair a popular assembly in the square outside. I’m going to ask the people of Bennaria to authorize my proposal, since the Council hasn’t seen fit to do so.”

“Popular assembly?” Fahey said, his face growing blotchy with anger.

“Yes, indeed, Councilor,” Corius answered brightly. “I suggest you all come to watch. And I can assure you there’ll be no violence: I’ve brought two thousand men from my estate to keep order!”

“Oh my God!” said the Manco representative, wringing his hands. “Oh, what does this mean?”

“Well, Master Luff,” said Daniel. “I suggest you come with me and watch as Master Corius suggested. That way we can learn first hand.”