"Justan R," he wrote, and handed the contract back to Porett.
Porett passed him the second copy; he checked it, nodded, signed it also.
"I'll have my bankers release the funds immediately, sir; they should be available for your use early tomorrow."
Justan said nothing, beckoned to one of the mages standing discreetly against a wall; he gave her the contract, and bade her leave along with the others. Porett watched them depart.
"So," said The King, "even after splashing on East/Trad, you still have a hundred million clicks on deposit. The magic business must be very profitable..."
"Well, I have it until tomorrow, anyway!" Porett grinned, wished he'd not done up his top button, hidden beneath his beard anyway. "Most of the money is Estavian, I've sold off a number of my subsidiary concerns; Estavians are eager to buy into the home market of their new rulers."
"They were keen enough before. Perhaps I should have confiscated their banks, as well as their major manufacturers."
"I think you were wise not to; economic chaos would have followed, you couldn't have sold off anything else you took as spoils."
"I can dispose of very little this early even as it is. Otherwise I wouldn't need to borrow from you."
A smile flickered across Porett's face. "Well if you don't want to repay it, just make sure you never defeat the Messenger. Then the deal will never close!"
Justan laughed, politely. "With those new toys and patented spells of yours, I doubt we could lose even if we wanted to - not unless the Messenger finds a way of levelling magic permanently."
"I agree - so long as you continue to give the impression that your conquest will stop with the Messenger's empire. If people think you might go further, they'll react. I'm hearing worried voices from trading partners in Talia, and everyone knows the Chaienish city states are concerned. The Panavian Northic countries are even talking seriously about resolving their inter-clan rivalries and forming a military alliance, and recently, I saw an advertisement for founding professors at a new magical school starting as far away as Berea, of all places. You may soon have more enemies than just the Holy Empire."
"All these things are known to me, and our ambassadors are working to allay such fears."
"Well they're not succeeding. At first, the big players were happy to see you take on the Messenger, it saved them from having to do so themselves, gave them an idea of his strengths. When the democracies fell to you, though, it tripped the international alarms. If you can break the Messenger's army in the next month or so, there'll be nothing to stop you sweeping across the north, swallowing the Lowlands whole before Winter sets in. Even with their ancient form of magic, Chaien's fragmented forces will be so outnumbered by Springtime that their defeat will be inevitable, and a campaign against Talia could begin in the Summer."
"No, my ambassadors and legations are performing adequately. The great nations of the south are mobilising their armies, but it is the Messenger who gives them cause, not I. As for the north, the Lowlanders in particular seem to fear no threat of invasion - not that they know what fear is, however, being a nation of complete cloud-heads. All I require of my diplomats is the prevention before Winter of the formation of a grand alliance; by then, we will be unstoppable. Even if Talia sent all its legions into Chaien, by Spring we will have sufficient force of arms to attack on two fronts. Three years from now, we'll have an empire larger even than Estavia's at its height."
Porett frowned, puzzled. "Larger? You'll take Ca-Atl, or the Westlands?"
A shake of the head. "No, I refer to Elet; a thousand years ago, its people were as barbaric as the Guels, the Estavians never bothered to conquer them. Now, they seem a little more prosperous, perhaps worth losing a few conscripts invading."
Porett slipped his hand beneath his beard and loosened his collar. That's better! Was he putting on weight? He never used to have this problem. "So you are indeed intending to continue advancing beyond the Messenger's empire?"
Justan put both hands behind his head, leaned back, smiled.
"Doesn't it worry you that there may be an uprising at home while you're hacking in distant lands?"
"Not in the least," Justan yawned, "I have my best commander, General Nolley, stationed there both to deter and quash any baron-inspired troubles; also, Chancellor Ansle's new job has the dual effect of both keeping the population well fed, and the Academy subdued. There'll be no unexpected attempts to overthrow me."
"Ansle, yes, I've been having some trouble with him of late." Why was Justan half-smiling?
"If you're expecting me to overrule him and release Vyval Reeve from military service, you'll be disappointed."
Porett felt suddenly cold. Who had warned Justan? His com-self had been patching in to the secure ... Sennary! He chuckled. "The fact that I've just loaned you enough money to pay your army for months to come makes no difference?"
Justan leaned forward, grim, an icy menace suddenly about him, enough to cause Porett to shy back involuntarily. "Remember that I am your king, and that everything in my domains is ultimately mine. I took a loan from you because the consequences of sequestrating the money were less desirable than borrowing it with no interest other than granting you lordship over Estavia's main northern port. You only offered me access to your corporate funds because then your company accounts wouldn't look quite so fraudulent when Chancellor Ansle's new ministry came to investigate your tax affairs. Do not attempt to use your temporary position as my banker to influence me in other matters. If it were public knowledge how my wife died, no-one would condemn me for taking whatever actions I chose regarding your business. Or your life."
Porett's face was drained of blood. His earlier conceits, that Justan could be played as if he was husked, had simply melted in the heat of reality.
"Why exactly did you kill Queen Mitya, Lord Porett?" Justan leaned back again, the ancient throne creaking as he did so.
"To force you to find a buyer for East/Trad," he heard himself explaining. "If you wanted the company to do something for you, you had to install new management and give it a massive cash shot. Selling was your only real option. Magicorp were still preparing their offer, and you'd moved so fast that there was insufficient time for any of the new consortia to issue anything even as solid as a prospectus, let alone organise a bid."
"There were other ways to put that kind of pressure on me. Only Porett Technologies and East/Trad make wrap-pouches; wrap-pouches are necessary to ensure the army has fresh supplies. If you'd stopped production, burnt or flooded your factories perhaps, I'd have still been pushed into selling off East/Trad earlier than I would have liked. No, Lord Porett, you had another reason for resorting to murder."
Porett was squirming inside, tried to appear calm. What would happen if he didn't tell Justan? Could he bluff it? Buy time, think. "As far as the world is concerned, Mitya died at the Erva like so many others with prosthetics. Can't you just leave it at that? You wanted her dead anyway, you even ordered it."
"I know you had been in contact with Queen Mitya for some time prior to her death. What did your discussions concern?"
How could he know? Did she tell him? He was guessing, no proof. What if he did have proof? Lying would be a really bad way to react, in that case. Half-truth, see what he knows. "I concede that I threatened to kill Mitya if she didn't use her influence on you to remove Ansle from the Academy and replace him with a board of governors from industry. When she refused, I carried out my promise. Control of East/Trad simply determined the time and the method."
Justan narrowed his eyes, folded his arms. Porett could almost sense his gaze drilling into him. He considered flicking out an illusion, make himself look more composed, Justan's mages were gone. Or were they? What illusory guards stood hidden beyond the range of his see-into lenses?
"Not enough, Lord Porett. A man like you wouldn't throw it all so easily. You'd put on more pressure, a minor injury perhaps, to show you were serious, maybe try bribery or blackmail. You wouldn't straight away execute her; no-one in your position would. Besides, you're Ansle of Malith's nominal confederate."
Porett spread his hand on the table, looked at it, tapped with his forefinger a couple of times. "Very well, I'll tell you. But not everything, not yet, there's still some testing to be done." Heavy breath. "Mitya, in some ways she was naïve, but she was courageous. She'd have done anything to save Davia and the Davians from being destroyed by what she saw as your imperialist ambitions. She wanted to know how magic could be used to prevent your army from storming the world, gave an example of what she meant. It really stung me, brilliant, a dance of an idea. I knew I couldn't let her walk around with something of that magnitude in her head, I had to have it for myself. So I had her killed."
Justan tipped his head back a little, looked down his nose. "Greed. Greed for power. Yes, that clicks."
"No!" Porett surprised himself with his adamance. "Not greed for power, greed for," he faltered, trying to phrase his feelings. "I just needed to implement it, it was so, so new, I hadn't come across the concept before, it was, well, so original, but I could see in my mind just how to spell it." He shook his head, defeated. "I just had to cut it."
"And you won't tell me what it was?"
"No, I can't; it may not work out, I don't want to commit myself to producing something I might be unable to deliver. I'll know in maybe three months. If it cuts, you should be able to wipe an army without firing a single arrow. Maybe a whole population."
"Tell me about it. Now."
21st January 1999: isif37.htm