Into The Maelstrom – Snippet 24
Hawthorn had spent the last decade keeping his own council in the back of beyond so was unlikely to become indiscrete now. He had never cared enough for money to bother stealing any. Indeed, he rarely got around to spending the modest investment income he had inherited.
Allenson made some notes on his datapad. Hawthorn would need a security pass to attend the rest of the meeting as an observer so he could get a feel for the main players. Allenson thought long and hard about what else Colonel Hawthorn would need to perform his duties as Head of Security.
The meeting dragged out to a desultory close without coming to a decision. Buller had rattled many of the political radicals and they in turn unnerved the plantation owners. The scale of the undertaking and the risks involved percolated into all concerned. The delegates were inevitably a hotbed of cold feet. Allenson wasn’t entirely unhappy at the turn of events as such matters had to be faced. It might as well be sooner rather than later.
Todd met him by the door and held out a sealed envelope.
“From Sar Stainman, leader of the Heilbron delegation,” Todd said.
Allenson was intrigued. Sealed envelopes were the stuff of romance novels. He slit it open with his thumb nail and read the enclosed single sheet. Then he folded it and placed it carefully in a jacket pocket.
“Convey my compliments to Sar Stainman and tell him that I accept,” Allenson said.
Todd looked desperate to ask what was in the message but contained himself.
“Very well, uncle.”
Allenson smiled at Todd’s back as he dodged back through the exiting delegates. The lad was learning. An aide was his principle’s assistant not necessarily his confidant.
Later that evening, Allenson idly flicked through the information channels on his pad while he waited in the reception area of the Inn. Nortanian news was parochial even by colonial standards, mostly limited to weather predictions and the fluctuating price of agricultural commodities. The providers seasoned factual matters with discussions about the comings and goings of various local celebrities of whom Allenson knew little and cared even less.
Boswell sat patiently opposite watching some sort of drama on his datapad. Allenson couldn’t see the screen but the sound channel conveyed explosions and heavy breathing.
A large carriage towed by four Nortanian quadrupeds pulled up outside the Inn. A brightly striped canvas weather roof supported by four wooden poles protected the Heilbronites sat within but otherwise it was of open design. Allenson stood up.
“If you please, sar, I believe I should establish your visitors’ credentials,” Boswell said.
Allenson sighed but acquiesced as matters had to be done properly. Boswell went outside to confer with the coachman before coming back and bowing to Allenson, winking as he straightened. Once the societal rigmarole was finished, Allenson took a seat in the carriage. He took the precaution of choosing one well to the rear as far away as possible from the quadrupeds’ rear.
Stainman introduced the other Heilbron representatives. Allenson noticed that Horntide was not amongst them. Strange, the man had been prominent and outspoken in the Hall. They made small talk all the way to the restaurant. A maître d’hôtel met them at the door with much bowing and hand rubbing. He had slicked back his hair with perfumed vegetable oil much to the Heilbronites obvious discomfort. The oil failed to prevent a small snowstorm of dandruff falling onto the wide collar of his dark green suit.
The maître d’hôtel intrigued Allenson by conveying the party to a private room that must have been booked in advance. He anticipated merely social networking when he accepted the invitation to dine but it appeared that the Heilbron delegates had more meaty discussions in mind. When they sat down Allenson noticed that there was one place too many set at the oval table.
Waitresses brought in self-heating tureens filled with various pungent stews. They arranged them in the center of the table alongside bottles of water, imported wine and plum brandy. The maître d’hôtel swept the waitresses out with both arms like a man herding sheep. Then he backed out, closing the double doors with a flourish and a final “bon appétit!”
Allenson helped himself to portions from two of the nearest dishes without taking much notice of the contents. He poured a small measure of plum brandy into a wine glass, taking the precaution of diluting it with a much larger volume of mineral water. He had the feeling he was going to need a clear head tonight.
The Heilbronites poked around in the dishes in an effort to ascertain the contents before serving themselves. Allenson thought they were wasting their time because in his limited experience Nortanian cuisine favored highly seasoned and spiced dishes whose flavor depended little on the identifiable components. The art of Nortanian cuisine seemed to involve making everything taste like something else.
Conversation was desultory while everyone satisfied their initial hunger.
“Ascetic Horntide not joining us tonight?” Allenson asked, innocently.
“He’s indisposed,” Stainman replied briefly in a tone that discouraged further enquiry.
Indisposed could mean anything from a hot date to an encounter with a dodgy oyster restricting one to close proximity with a water closet. It could also mean being locked in a room with two heavies guarding the door so one couldn’t disrupt a serious pragmatic negotiation with unwelcome fanaticism.
“You expressed the opinion that war might be averted,” Stainman said.
“Indeed,” Allenson replied.
“Unfortunately, you’re mistaken.”
Allenson paused, spoon halfway to his mouth.
“What do you mean?” he asked sharply.
Stainman looked glum.
“The fighting’s already started. I received word today.”
“Go on,” said Allenson, heart sinking.
“A group of radicals on Trinity staged a protest outside a warehouse at the increase in import taxes on luxuries like tea.”
Trinity was the most developed of the Heilbron Worlds so was arguably the wealthiest trans-Bight colony and well able to support a luxury import trade.
“I thought the price had dropped sufficiently that tea was still cheaper than last year despite the tax rise,” Allenson said.
“Well, yes, Brasilia allowed us to import straight from the producers cutting out the middle men. That greatly reduced the price but it was the principle, you see.”
“The principle, right,” Allenson said, thinking of Hawthorn.
“Things got a little out of hand and the warehouse, ah, burnt down.”
“The owners thought so and protested to the Brasilian authorities who landed a sizable force of regulars to protect private property.”
Allenson winced. The next step was as predictable as two schoolboys squaring up to each other in the playground.
“No doubt some of the radicals launched direct attacks on the soldiers.”
“Only some minor stone-throwing although the loss of life when a vehicle went off the road was regrettable.”
“And the soldiers retaliated, yes?”
“They shot unarmed civilians,” a Heilbronite whose name Allenson had forgotten said hotly.
“Unarmed except for stones,” Allenson replied neutrally.
“And hunting rifles,” Stainman said, conceding the point.
“That is the current situation?” Allenson asked.
Stainman looked even more uncomfortable.
“Well no, I received another letter by fast cutter. Peytr Masters who is the senior colonel of militia on Trinity has called in militia regiments from all over the Heilbron Worlds to besiege the Brasilian regulars in the city of Oxford.”
“He’s not thinking of storming the city?” Allenson asked, alarmed.
“No, least I don’t think so,” Stainman replied, somewhat defensively.
“What military experience does Masters have?” Allenson asked.
“He’s very highly thought of,” replied the delegate who had already spoken. Allenson now recalled that Tobold was his name. “He was a ship’s captain and has a successful import-export business. He’s most eloquent in debate.”
“No doubt,” Allenson replied. “But that does not answer my question.”
“Masters was commander of the Trinity Militia Regiment of Oxford when it was part of Levit’s column during the Terran War,” said Stainman.