Ansle had donned the illusion as usual, but yet again it hadn't
really been necessary. He'd had to sound like Chewt, of course, but all he
ever saw when he answered her marbled comsphere was the back of a
man's head; or, as some believed, a god's...
He tapped out, dropped the Chewt figment, tapped in again while he thought of another, particular comsphere belonging to Justan. There was a long pause, but he kept tapping; it always took time when he called the secure link. The metal-grille box containing it was heavy, and only The King knew the password to its binder. Sometimes when it glowed he went to it, but more often it was carried to him.
"Chancellor Ansle. You've been busier than I expected."
"Your majesty." He eyed Justan; The King hadn't shaved this morning, three days in a row now. The background was unfamiliar, but indoors - Akrea?
Justan smiled, but didn't look pleased. "Yes, it worked. Estavia surrendered this morning, as I suggested to you they would."
"We didn't even need the second wave?"
"No. Taking the army commanders was enough: the parliamen- tarians agreed to my terms at an all-party session overnight. They now act only in an advisory capacity, absolute authority being vested in me. I've banned the Message as a legal religion, and instructed the entire Estavian army to stamp it out. It'll give the ranks a constructive way to exercise off their anger, and the junior officers an opportunity to show their worth."
"What of the Akrean army?" His own spies had told him, but best keep up appearances.
"What's left is now no more than a collection of individual garrisons, holding cities; we'll negotiate. Some regiments were thinking of coming over to us anyway - they were none too pleased at the way their rulers were trying to appease the Messenger instead of taking him on." He glanced aside. Someone asked him a question, he muttered an order, waved them to leave.
"The Messenger doesn't know yet, he still thinks I'm Chewt."
"Good. You spoke to him? Told him what I said?"
"Yes, just now - it's why I called. I don't know if he'll sucker for it, he's ... flaky. I did find out that he has mages of his own, though: the best one is top class, so it seems he trained the others - and he definitely is a he, although I don't have his name. He seems to double as the Messenger's principal adviser, yet, strangely, he apparently doesn't know about the Chewt comsphere connection. Whatever, you shouldn't relax your guard against possible magical assassination attempts."
"Which brings us to the subject of my wife."
Ansle had an uneasy feeling about the way Justan said that. "Is she unwell?"
"She choked to death yesterday, in the same manner as did two hundred Estavian generals."
The chancellor paled. She was supposed to go in two weeks, once the Davian army had been thrown at the Messenger's horde. Now was the wrong time, completely - it changed, well, everything! "I ... I don't understand, she..."
Justan rubbed his chin, peering into the comsphere so close that Ansle could hear the bristles crackle, wet logs on a fire. "She choked, breakfast. I had an autopsy done, bone in the throat, one of those expanding ones. Your lot's methods."
"Not under my orders, sir, I swear it! Is there resistance in Davia? Someone killed her for selling out to us? Or did you - ". He cut, cold on continuing.
"I'll find the culprit soon enough, but in the meantime we have a problem. The Davian army yet needs to be broken; although they're formally our allies, they cannot be trusted. I have to use their regiments of foot sacrificially, and in so doing draw the Followers into a trap; it's the quickest way we can be rid of them, and it will help minimise our own losses. However, they are not likely to co-operate if they know their queen is dead."
"What, what can we do? Is news of her death contained?"
"For the moment, yes, but if she makes no appearances, people will suspect: rumours will grow, and reach the army. Who is our foremost illusion expert?"
Ansle hesitated. The group at East/Trad was paramount in illusion research, with all the best people. He himself had some lesser specialists, as did Magicorp and Khrov (Soat), but with Chewt gone there was no-one outside of East/Trad of any stature. "How good do you want them to be? I can put an Academy team onto it, toss together some disguise people from Espionage, if there's an image of her somewhere we - "
"Ansle," Justan's voice sounded tired. "Stop trying to find a way of bringing it under your control. If cobbling together a bunch of nobodies was a solution, I could have done that myself. I want someone able to create a realistic lookalike Mitya that will last fifteen days without detection. Now, is there anyone who can do that, or do I have to adjust my other plans?"
Ansle swallowed hard. "Farmer at East/Trad."
Justan nodded, smiled, shook his head. "Tell Porett the price is now fifty million, and I want Farmer on this immediately."
"Just tell him - that is, if he doesn't know already." He turned, left. Someone else placed the comsphere in the cage, tapped out.
Ansle's comsphere immediately shone green, Porett calling.
He answered. "Did you get all that?"
"Not what the Messenger said, no, but I heard Justan alright. He definitely suspects his communications are compromised."
Ansle threw his arm out, exasperated, his loose silk sleeve billowing with the speed of the motion. "Never mind that, what's this fifty million business?"
Porett grinned, or was it a smirk? "Justan is good - very, very good. I set up the hit on Mitya; you bought those gro-bones from me, from a black-fac Technologies pulls in CBT via a couple of our dietary subsidiaries. With Mitya dead, Justan implicated, and the Davian army still very much alive, I knew His Maj would be in deep trouble. He'd either have to set our army onto the Davians - which would probably cost him the war against the Messenger - or keep Mitya's death quiet. Naturally, he chose the latter course of action. That means he now needs a substitute Mitya for a while, and that in turn means he needs Farmer and his group at East/Trad. Now, as well as Mitya and your generals, East/Trad's Estavian board of directors keeled over yesterday, too. I let Justan know I arranged that by offering him thirty million for their shares; under occupation law, the crown can claim such loose holdings as spoils of war. He could have sold them to Magicorp for three times as much, given time, but now he's under pressure to stabilise the company as soon as possible, so Farmer can perform his tricks. If he lets me buy them out, I can send in my managers, and Farmer can start tomorrow with my financial backing. If Justan won't sell, however, East/Trad runs on inertia, and he has to pay for Farmer's Mitya out of the treasury. Fifty million is a fair estimation of East/Trad's worth. Besides, if he did let Magicorp take over, the resulting combine would command enormous power, could threaten even him. Would certainly threaten you. He's just being practical."
Ansle found this hard to believe, that anyone could take these kind of chances playing for such great stakes. "You stitched The King just to get your hands on East/Trad? You could have brought the Holy Army down on our necks, you seriously jeopardised my position, and all to make some paltry business deal?"
"Not just any deal, Ansle," snapped. "This makes Porett Technologies 10% bigger than Magicorp. We'll be the largest manufacturer of magical goods in the world, interests in a dozen other industries. In business, you have to take risks; I took some, they paid off. Now quit worrying."
Ansle wrinkled a smile. "So be it. But I warn you that I know you haven't told me everything: there was no reason to kill Mitya if all you wanted was East/Trad - you could have acquired it in other ways. No, you have other motives that you're keeping hidden." He straightened, sneered his eyes. "One day, Porett, you're going to make a gross miscalculation, and I doubt you'll live to see the day after."
21st January 1999: isif23.htm