IN THE STORMY RED SKY – snippet 41:
The Angouleme Palace, Karst
Daniel stood at parade rest, looking down the audience hall with a faint, friendly smile. The Headman’s court had the gaudy enthusiasm of prism bugs swarming, or perhaps of a peasant wedding. A Cinnabar gentleman didn’t take this sort of thing seriously, of course, but it made an amusing display.
“Rise, Chieftains Harry Holland and Dennis Little,” said the official standing on the platform of the gilded–or even golden? Adele would know–throne. “Hear the wisdom of his holy majesty Headman Hieronymos.”
The Enunciator’s voice was piped through a public address system with a good deal of distortion. The hall’s acoustics weren’t impressive, since the pillars and the ceiling coffers muddied the words. Mind, in the present company it would’ve been a surprise if the setting were any better.
“Chieftain Holland, Chieftain Little!” said Hieronymos. He looked like a child being engulfed by a golden robe and turban, but his voice was clear and as strong as that of his Enunciator. “You may rise to hear my judgment.”
The throne was on a three-step platform, gold like most of the hall’s other trappings. The Enunciator was immediately below the Headman, while on the wings of the broad bottom stage sat a man and a woman on less ornate, silver-covered, chairs.
The silver-clad woman had a regal, utterly bored, expression. She was young but not, if Daniel was judging correctly, as young as Hieronymos. The plump, middle-aged man wore garments slashed with black and silver stripes. His lips smiled, and his eyes were as cruel as a cat’s.
“That arrogant little worm,” hissed Senator Forbes, who stood between Daniel and Lieutenant Commander Robinson at the back of the hall. “If he goes on like this, he may find himself the first man in three hundred years that the Republic has flayed and stuffed with straw!”
The two petitioners–Daniel didn’t know what the term “Chieftain” implied, and it wouldn’t be practical to ask Adele at present–had been kneeling beneath the throne, both hands on top of their lowered heads. Now they rose to their feet.
They were wearing what looked like military uniforms, but so was almost everyone else in the audience hall. Given the variety of styles and bright colors, always complemented by metallic braid, this must be civilian fashion on Karst: the Hegemony couldn’t possibly have that many different military organizations.
Daniel hoped the locals standing nearby hadn’t heard the ambassador’s whispered reference to the execution of the Burghers of Rainham, or anyway hadn’t heard it clearly. Not that there wasn’t justification for her anger: when the Cinnabar delegation entered the hall, an usher had barred their way forward with his gilded staff.
Daniel’s smile spread a little wider. For a moment, he’d thought Forbes was going to feed the usher his staff by the back way. After that, well, Dress Whites weren’t ideal for a fight and Hogg wasn’t present to watch the young master’s back, but Tovera out in the anteroom would no doubt prove useful if the need arose.
The need wouldn’t arise. Forbes might be harshly insulting, but she wouldn’t have risen to prominence in the Senate if she’d been in the habit of brawling with servants.
“Chieftain Holland, you entrusted three thousand tonnes of dried fish to Chieftain Little,” the Headman said, his tone as portentous as that of a man speaking of the world’s coming doom. “Chieftain Little, you shipped the fish to Cameron on a vessel owned by your brother-in-law in accordance with your undertaking to dispose of the fish at your sole cost and expense, with half the profit to accrue to you. The ship never reached Cameron.”
The chieftains were bobbing their heads in agreement. Little wore a bright green outfit with gold braid on the seams and a fourragere; Holland’s jacket was black, but his kepi and trousers were puce and he had just as much gold ornamentation as his rival. The hall more reminded Daniel of an ill-arranged garden than it did a real courtroom.
“He’s holding us up to discuss fish,” Forbes hissed. But of course he wasn’t: Hieronymos–or the grinning shark below him–kept the Cinnabar delegates waiting to demonstrate his contempt. He probably thought he was demonstrating power as well, but an RCN officer knew that real power wasn’t a matter of words and precedence.
“After consultation with my learned advisors…,” the Headman said. The plump scoundrel below the throne smirked to the audience. “I have decided that because Chieftain Little didn’t sell the fish, he has failed in his contract. Chieftain Little must pay the full Karst value of the fish to Chieftain Holland.”
“This is unjust!” Little cried, raising his fists skyward in a theatrical gesture. He didn’t sound really upset, however. It seemed likely enough that he and his brother-in-law knew more about where the cargo had gone than appeared in the official report. “May the Gods justify me!”
“In addition,” Hieronymos said, “Chieftain Little forfeits the profit expected had the shipment been sold on Cameron as a fine to the Hegemony, as represented by my august person. The audience is hereby at an end.”
“What?” said Little. “This is criminal! Scully, you took my money, you slimy bastard!”
Little lunged toward the greasy courtier. Four attendants converged on him; they wore cloth-of-gold tabards, but their electromotive carbines were quite functional. They tripped the disgruntled chieftain, then beat him silent with their gun butts before dragging him out. The woman in silver turned her expressionless face to follow the bleeding victim.
It’s always a mistake to underbribe an official, Daniel thought. He continued to smile, but what he’d just seen reminded him of maggots fighting in offal.
Hieronymos murmured in the ear of his Enunciator, who straightened and boomed, “His holy majesty Headman Hieronymos will now hear the worshipful envoys of the Republic of Cinnabar!”
Senator Forbes strode forward, her arms crossed before her. The usher hopped out of her way a little more quickly than perhaps he’d intended to; that saved his shins a knock from the thick sole of the buskin which, worn beneath Forbes formal robes, added three inches to her modest height.
Daniel and Lieutenant Robinson stepped off to the Senator’s right and left, keeping a pace behind her out of courtesy. Besides, to catch up they’d have to run, which would still further increase the affair’s resemblance to farce.
Daniel had never been good at formal drill, but fortunately Robinson was. By matching his step to his First Lieutenant’s thirty-inch strides, they were able to look professional, though the Senator drew noticeably ahead along the fifty yards of aisle to the base of the throne. There she waited, her arms still crossed, while the RCN officers completed the necessary three further paces to flank her again.
“Headman Hieronymos!” Forbes said. “Your grandfather came down from his seat to meet the representatives of Cinnabar, as befits all who wish to retain the Republic’s good will.”
Her voice wasn’t being amplified. The officials in front of her would have no difficulty understanding, but the audience in general was going to find her address a muddy hash. Knowing that probably made Forbes tone even more raspingly angry than usual.
“A great deal has changed since Headman Terl’s day,” said the official in black and silver. “Terl was an old man, perhaps too old to properly hold such a responsible position long before he passed.”
Forbes turned slightly toward the official, then back to Hieronymos with the precision of a lathe making a cut. “I am here on behalf of my government,” she said, “to speak of the Headman of the Hegemony. Not with some fat flunky!”
Hieronymos continued to look straight ahead. The Enunciator, obviously briefed for this ahead of time, said, “His holy majesty Headman Hieronymos chooses to speak through the person of his trusted councillor, Chieftain of Chieftains Scully.”
“His holy majesty Headman Hieronymos conveys his deepest sympathy to you, Mistress Forbes,” Scully said. If his voice were any smoother, there’d have been oil dripping from the corners of his mouth. “He knows that the complete destruction of your republic’s forces in the Montserrat Stars is a tragedy rarely if ever equalled since time immemorial. How your hearts must ache! How your cities will grieve, while your enemies rejoice!”