Chapter Sixteen

Luiz Rozsak felt his mouth watering in anticipation as he cut through the pastry “jacket” into the juicy center of the nicely rare Beef Wellington. Mayan “beef” actually came from “mayacows” — locally evolved critters that looked sort of like an undersized brontosaurus crossed with a llama. Unlike the Old Earth animal from whom it had taken its name (more or less) the mayacow was oviparous, and quite a few of the local population were partial to mayacow omelettes. Those had never really appealed to Rozsak, but he’d decided over the past several T-years that he actually preferred mayacow beef to Old Earth beef. There truly were enormous similarities, yet he’d discovered some delightful, subtle differences, as well. In fact, he’d invested a modestly hefty percentage of his own income in backing a commercial ranching venture on New Tasmania, Maya’s smaller continent. Unlike a great deal of the planet, New Tasmania was tectonically stable, remarkably lacking in volcanoes, and blessed with huge expanses of open prairie. Even today, there was plenty of room for operations like the Bar-R to grow and expand, and Rozsak was already showing a tidy profit on the new markets he’d opened up in Erewhon.

He put the bite into his mouth, closed his eyes, and chewed slowly, with a self-satisfied pleasure he didn’t even try to hide from his dinner companion.

“This is delicious, Luiz,” Oravil Barregos said from his side of the small dining table.

The two of them were seated in Rozsak’s kitchen. Very few people realized that cooking was one of Rozsak’s favored hobbies, and he suspected that even fewer would have realized (or believed) that stern, driven, hugely ambitious Sector Governor Barregos actually enjoyed sitting down to an informal dinner, where he and his host served their own plates and poured their own wine, without hordes of servants hovering somewhere in the background. Or, at least, without hordes of supplicants plying him with food and wine in an effort to worm their way into his confidence.

“I think the asparagus might be just a little overcooked,” Rozsak replied self-critically.

“You always think something’s ‘a little’ something,” Barregos retorted with a smile. “And, frankly, I think it’s rather ridiculous, since you seem to be physically unable to stop ‘tweaking’ your recipes.” He shook his head. “I don’t think you’ve ever actually served me exactly the same dish twice; you keep fiddling with it so that there’s always something different about it.”

“Perfect culinary consistency is a bugaboo of small minds,” Rozsak told him loftily. “And a bold spirit of experimentation shouldn’t prevent a true chef from recognizing where his efforts fall short — marginally, mind you, only marginally — of his expectations.”

“Oh, of course! And such monumental shortcomings, at that. Last time, if I remember correctly, the guacamole was a bit too thin to be perfectly satisfying.”

“No,” Rozsak corrected with a smile of his own. “That was time before last. Last time it was the Sauce Châteaubriand.”

“Oh, forgive my faulty memory!” Barregos rolled his eyes. “How could I have forgotten? Something about the local shallots not measuring up, wasn’t it?”

“Actually, it was my decision to experiment with that strain of shallots which has evolved on Erewhon.” Rozsak’s artful professorial manner would have fooled most people, since most people wouldn’t have been able to recognize the gleam of humor in his dark eyes. “It should have worked,” he continued, “but there was a degree of acidity I hadn’t counted on. Oh, the meal was satisfactory, of course. Don’t misunderstand me. Still –”

“Given the fact that you’re the only person I know who makes Châteaubriand at all, and that your degree of fanaticism in the kitchen can be truly terrifying, I’m amazed to hear you saying something like that,” Barregos interrupted. “‘The meal was satisfactory’? You mean you’re willing to admit that? Dear Lord, the end of the universe is at hand!”

Both of them chuckled, and the governor shook his head. It always amused him that Rozsak, supremely confident in so many ways, was never truly satisfied with his own culinary efforts. He truly was constantly experimenting, tweaking, tinkering with ingredients, and he was far and away his own sternest critic.

Of course, he doesn’t have a lot of other potential critics, does he? Barregos thought. It’s not a side of him he shares with a lot of people, after all. I wonder why he keeps it so private? Because it’s the one real escape he allows himself and sharing it would make it less of an escape somehow? Because the domesticity of it would be so at odds with his hard-as-nails, tough-minded, cynical admiral public persona?

“Well,” Rozsak said, almost as if he’d just read his guest’s mind, as he reached for his wine glass, “given the way things are heating up, I’ve discovered that I need to relax in the kitchen just a bit more than I used to.”

“If one of the side effects is producing meals like this,” Barregos replied, keeping his tone light as he reached for his own wine, “maybe it’s a pity I haven’t kept you under more pressure all along.”

“Oh, I think you’ve managed quite nicely in that respect,” Rozsak reassured him, and the two of them snorted almost simultaneously.

“Speaking of Erewhonese vegetables –”

“Roots, Governor. Roots,” Rozsak corrected. “Like onions.”

“Speaking of Erewhonese plant life,” Barregos said with a stern look, “how are our other Erewhonese ventures coming?”

“On the financial side, you really need to discuss that with Donald and Brent,” Rozsak said rather more seriously. “My impression is that so far we’ve had enough cash to cover everything.”

An arched eyebrow and rising inflection turned the last sentence into a question, and Barregos nodded.

“There’s actually turned out to be even more cash in the till than I’d expected,” he replied. “I don’t think we can siphon any more out of our official budget without risking questions from Permanent Senior Undersecretary Wodoslawski’s minions at Treasury, but it’s rather impressive how much some of the transstellars’ local management has been willing to kick into my ‘discretionary fund’ for those ‘subscription ships’ of yours. And even better, Donald’s managed to arrange things so that a good seventy percent of our total costs look like — and are, for that matter — good, sound investment opportunities.” He shrugged. “We’re still racking up a pretty impressive debt, but Donald and Brent are both confident we’ll be able to service the interest and pay down the Sector’s own public debt within no more than five to ten T-years.”

“I’m glad to hear it.” Rozsak cut another morsel of beef and chewed it slowly, then swallowed.

“I’m glad to hear it, but unless I’m pretty badly mistaken, our expenditure curve is about to start climbing steeply. Chapman and Horton are ready to start laying down their first locally designed SD(P)s. Which means, of course, that we’re about ready to start doing the same thing. Discreetly, of course.”

“Oh, of course,” Barregos agreed. He smiled tightly. “The first half dozen of those were factored into the numbers Donald and Brent discussed with me last week, though.”

“They were?” Rozsak sounded surprised, and the governor chuckled.

“Actually, we ended up owning a considerably larger chunk of Al Carlucci’s new shipbuilding capacity than we’d anticipated.” Barregos’ chuckle segued into a grimace. “Having Pritchart and Elizabeth go back to shooting at each other hasn’t helped the local economy. It probably wouldn’t have helped things anyway, but I don’t suppose anyone in Erewhon was really surprised when Manticore hammered them with that increase in transit fees.” He snorted. “Actually, I’d imagine that if anyone in Maytag was surprised by anything it’s that Manticore didn’t smack them on the wrist even harder.”

“A seven hundred and fifty-percent increase in Junction transit fees, a seventy-five-percent duty on any Erewhonese product in the Star Kingdom, and a seventy-percent capital gains tax on any Erewhonese investment in Manticore strikes me as a pretty substantial ‘smack,'” Rozsak pointed out dryly. “Especially given the fact that Manticore’s been Erewhon’s biggest single trading partner for decades.”