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By Heresies Distressed: Chapter Four

       Last updated: Monday, April 6, 2009 07:07 EDT



House of Qwentyn,
City of Siddar,
Republic of Siddarmark

    “It seems we’re all present, gentlemen. Please, be seated.”

    The half-dozen men in the private dining room looked up as one when their host stepped through the expensive, paneled door and smiled at them. Answering smiles were notable for their absence.

    If the immaculately groomed, silver-haired man was perturbed by the taut expressions of his guests, he allowed no sign of it to cross his own face. He simply stepped forward, with the assurance that went with both his age and his stature within the Siddarmarkian business community.

    His name was Tymahn Qwentyn, and he was probably the wealthiest private citizen in the entire Republic of Siddarmark. At seventy-three years of age (sixty-six in the years of Old Earth, although no one in Siddarmark was even aware that a place called “Old Earth” had ever existed) he remained vigorous and actively engaged. It was said, not without reason, that there was not a business transaction in all of Siddarmark which didn’t have a Qwentyn involved in it somewhere, and Tymahn was the acknowledged patriarch of the world-spanning family business. He was one of the Lord Protector’s intimates and a financial adviser to dukes, princes, kings, and vicars. He knew everyone, everywhere, and he had built a lifetime reputation as a man who’s word could be trusted and whose enmity was to be feared.

    When Tymahn Qwentyn issued a dinner invitation, it was accepted. Even if some of the individuals on the guest list were more than a little anxious about just what he might have in mind. This evening’s invitees strongly suspected the reason they’d been called together, and there was a general air of nervousness as they waited to find out if their suspicions were accurate.

    “Thank you all for coming,” Qwentyn said, exactly as if there’d been any probability that they might not have. “I’m sure that in these times of uncertainty, all of us can appreciate the necessity for men of goodwill to extend the hand of friendship to one another,” he continued. “Especially when the well-being of so many other people depends upon the decisions those men of goodwill make.”

    The tension ratcheted slightly higher, and he smiled as if he both sensed their increased anxiety and was amused by it.

    “I’m quite confident that all of us know one another,” he said, seating himself at the head of the table. “That being the case, I see no particular need for introductions.”

    One or two heads nodded in agreement. Most of them did, in fact, know one another, but there were definitely times when official anonymity was greatly to be desired.

    “I’ll come directly to the point, gentlemen,” Clyntahn continued. “I invited you here not simply in my private capacity as a senior stockholder in the House of Qwentyn, but also as a concerned citizen of the Republic. I have concerns of my own, obviously, but I have also been the recipient of certain statements of anxiety from other citizens, both within and without the government. Obviously, those anxieties have been expressed as one private individual speaking to another private individual, so please do not make the mistake of assuming that this meeting bears any particular official . . . stamp of approval, as it were.”

    No one bothered to nod this time. Despite any qualifications he might voice for the record, Tymahn Qwentyn did not mention contacts with anyone “within and without the government” unless he was, in fact, speaking for that government. Or, at least, for those with very powerful interests within it. And given his close personal relationship with the Lord Protector, the chance that he would even consider acting against Greyghor Stohnar’s expressed desires was effectively nonexistent.

    The only question in the minds of his guests was not whether or not he was being used as a sub rosa conduit by the Lord Protector, but rather exactly what it was that Stohnar wanted to tell them.

    “Recent events both here in the Republic and elsewhere,” Qwentyn continued after a moment, “have resulted in extraordinary dislocations of business and finance. I’m certain all of you have experienced some of the dislocations to which I refer. And, as myself, I feel certain, you’re deeply distressed by the open schism between the Kingdom of Charis — excuse me, the Empire of Charis — and the Knights of the Temple Lands. In a time rife with so much uncertainty, it becomes inevitable that markets will be depressed, that trade will be dislocated and businesses will falter, and that some of those businesses will fail, with disastrous consequences not simply for their owners and shareholders, but also for those who depend upon them as a means to earn their own livelihood.

    “While I feel confident none of us would dispute the Knights of the Temple Lands’ right to formulate their own foreign policy as they see best, or contest the will of the Grand Inquisitor when he acts to protect all of us from potential heresy and spiritual contamination, we may, perhaps, be aware of certain consequences of those decisions which have not occurred to those charged with making them. In particular, the decision to ban all Charisian-flag merchant vessels from the ports of the Republic — and, for that matter, of every other mainland port — is already producing business failures. At the moment, that’s largely due to the panic effect, but the consequences — the ultimate consequences — will be only too real. To be blunt, the collapse of more than a few trading houses would appear to be imminent, and if and when those houses fail, their collapse will be like stones dropped into pools of water. Ripples of additional failure will sweep outward from them, crossing and crisscrossing with potentially disastrous effects which will know no limitations of flag or border.”

    He paused, and four of his guests very carefully did not look at the remaining two. Silence lingered for several minutes, and then one of the men no one else was looking at cleared his throat.

    “No doubt your analysis is as accurate and pertinent as always, Master Qwentyn,” he said with a pronounced Charisian accent. “And I trust you’ll forgive me if I might seem to be getting ahead of events, or perhaps even appear to be putting words into your mouth. But may we assume that one of the reasons for your invitation this evening is to discuss ways in which those unfortunate repercussions could be . . . ameliorated?”

    “In a manner of speaking, certainly,” Qwentyn replied. Then he leaned back in his chair, folding his hands before him on the tabletop, and smiled almost whimsically. “Obviously, the spiritual well-being of the Church’s flock must be the first responsibility and concern of the Grand Inquisitor. No one could possibly dispute that fact. Nonetheless, there have been occasions in the history of the . . . Knights of the Temple Lands when their policies have required the interpolation of those outside the Temple Lands if their true objectives were to be accomplished. Several people I’ve spoken to over the last few five-days are of the opinion that it’s at least possible this may be another of those occasions.”



    “In what way, Master Qwentyn?” one of his other guests asked in guarded tones.

    “It seems evident that the Grand Inquisitor’s objective is to minimize contact between potentially apostate Charisians and the citizens of the Republic,” Qwentyn said calmly. “One can hardly draw any other conclusion from the his directives, not to mention his explicit instructions to the Lord Protector and to the other heads of state of the major mainland realms. The possibility that the consequences of his directives may very well exceed his intentions clearly exists, however. It’s been suggested to me that perhaps it would not be inappropriate for those of us deeply involved in international trade and investment to consider ways in which certain of those unanticipated consequences might be minimized.

    “For example, the Grand Inquisitor has specifically directed that our ports are to be closed against any and all Charisian-flag vessels. None of us, I’m certain, would ever even consider setting our own will in opposition to the commands of the Grand Inquisitor. However, his directives refer specifically to the realm where a ship is registered; there was nothing in them which pertained to where a ship might have been built, or even where its cargo might have originated.” He smiled benevolently at his listeners. “My own House has recently signed a long-term lease-purchase agreement by which we have taken possession of several dozen Charisian-built merchantships. Since the agreement is a lease-purchase, it’s obviously in our best interests to secure our ownership interest in the vessels, especially in these troubled times. Accordingly, their registries have been transferred from those of the kingdom in which they were built to the Republic, where their current owners are located.”

    Eyes narrowed around the table as his guests digested that. It was true that the Grand Inquisitor’s orders had specified the seizure of Charisian-owned vessels. If ships were no longer registered in Charis, and if their owners were no longer Charisian subjects, then the letter of Vicar Zhaspahr’s commands would no longer apply. Still . . . .

    “Have you discussed these ‘lease-purchases’ with the Chancellor’s office?” the Charisian-accented guest asked slowly.

    “There’s been no need to involve the Chancellor in such routine transactions,” Qwentyn said tranquilly. “Obviously, his office is aware of them, however, since it’s responded most favorably and promptly to our requests to expedite the registration of the transfers of title.”

    “I see.”

    The Charisian and the others seated around the table digested that, as well. Given the fact that the vessels themselves would be useless without crews to man them, and given the fact that the Siddarmarkian merchant marine was virtually nonexistent, a rather delicate question arose. After several seconds, one of the other guests cleared his throat.

    “I can well appreciate how the transactions you’ve described would go far towards meeting the Grand Inquisitor’s desires while simultaneously providing the necessary bottoms to keep essential commerce moving. My own shareholders might well be interested in participating in similar transactions, but, alas, we do not possess a stock of trained sailors from which to provide crews.”

    “As a matter of fact, that presented certain difficulties to us, as well,” Qwentyn said, nodding gravely. “We determined that the simplest decision was to hire the additional sailors we required. In fact, the sellers were kind enough to provide us with the trained seamen we needed. The simplest solution, actually, was simply to hire the passage crews who delivered the vessels to us. Obviously, they were already familiar with the ships in question, and the majority of them had no objection to sailing under Siddarmarkian colors. One ship is very like another, after all.”

    Eyebrows rose. It was abundantly clear that the legal maneuver Qwentyn was describing was no more than a paper transaction. And if that was clear to them, they felt confident it would be clear to others. The possibility that Zhaspahr Clyntahn would be . . . unhappy when he learned of it appeared significant, but it was obvious Qwentyn was, in fact, acting as the Lord Protector’s messenger in this instance. And while it was undoubtedly true that the Grand Inquisitor’s wrath and the disapproval of the “Knights of the Temple Lands” was not something to be lightly contemplated, it was also true that the Lord Protector was far closer to them. With winter closing in, it was even conceivable that some five-days would pass before anyone in Zion learned of this particular maneuver. And if — or when — Vicar Zhaspahr learned of it, the Church’s long-standing policy of not pushing Siddarmark too hard would undoubtedly come into play. The most probable negative outcome would be a forced repudiation of the “lease-purchases,” and it was highly probable that the Republic’s diplomats (and law masters) would be able to spin even that out for months. Months during which the official owners of the vessels in question would be making money hand-over-fist in markets where the general reduction in shipping would enforce scarcity and drive prices steadily upward.

    And if the Lord Protector’s administration was prepared to pursue this arrangement, who knew what other arrangements it might be prepared to sanction, as well?

    Several eyes slid sideways, towards one of the guests, in particular. He was neither Charisian nor Siddarmarkian, and his tunic sleeve carried an embroidered crown surmounted by crossed keys. The crown in question was orange, not white, which meant he was a senior bailiff for a member of the Council of Vicars, and not some lowly archbishop or bishop. His presence had been unexpected, and more than one of the other guests waited to hear him denounce what Qwentyn had just said.

    Instead, he simply frowned thoughtfully. If he felt the intensity of the regards directed at him, he gave no sign of it, but after a few moments, he nodded.

    “As you say, Master Qwentyn, the consequences of the exclusion of Charisian-owned shipping have already been profound. And, like most of the people in this room, I’m responsible for serving the best interests of my patrons. Clearly, the upward surge in prices is making that significantly more difficult. I feel quite confident that my employers would wish me to explore every possible avenue by which those rising prices might be controlled. I think this lease-purchase arrangement of yours has a great deal to recommend itself as a means whereby the Grand Inquisitor’s directives and intentions can be given effect without bringing about a total collapse of our maritime commerce or imposing disastrously high prices. In fact, it would seem to me that the purchasing approach you’ve chosen to follow is only one of several possible options. For example, had you considered –”

    The atmosphere around the table shifted noticeably as the bailiff leaned forward, his eyes intent. Business is business. They could almost physically hear him saying that, although they all knew he would never, under any circumstances, admit that he had.

    The arrangements they were discussing probably wouldn’t last, yet they might very well hold up for quite some time. And if the Lord Protector remained as willing to pursue . . . innovative solutions as he clearly was at this moment, some fresh arrangement would undoubtedly be waiting in the wings when the Church finally got around to quashing this one.

    Which suggested all sorts of interesting future possibilities . . . .

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