Previous Page Next Page

UTC:       Local:

Home Page Index Page

By Schism Rent Asunder: Section Thirty Nine

       Last updated: Monday, May 26, 2008 01:32 EDT



A Palace Ballroom,
Tellesberg Palace,
City of Tellesberg,
Kingdom of Charis

    Ehdwyrd Howsmyn and Ahlvyno Pawalsyn stood beside the punch bowl and watched the colorful crowd.

    The two men were old friends, and one of their favorite entertainments at formal bowls and parties was to count noses and see who managed to turn up fashionably later than anyone else. Howsmyn's wealth and Pawalsyn's title as Baron Ironhill — and his position as Keeper of the Purse — virtually guaranteed that both of them would be invited to any social gathering. Neither of them were particularly fond of such affairs, especially Howsmyn, but neither of them was foolish enough to think he could have gotten away with avoiding them, either. So they tended to gravitate toward a quiet corner somewhere, sometimes accompanied by a handful of their closer personal friends, and observe the plumage displays of the wealthy, the powerful, and — above all — the foolish.

    "Now there's a gown," Howsmyn murmured, twitching his head unobtrusively in the direction of a matron of middle years who had just sailed majesticallyinto the palace ballroom with what looked like half a dozen marriageable-age daughters bobbing along in her wake. The confection she was wearing must have cost of least enough to feed a family of five for half a year. As such, it was ample evidence of her wealth; unfortunately, it was also ample evidence of her taste.

    "Well," Ironhill observed philosophically, "it may hurt your eyes, but at least Rhaiyan must have collected a pretty pile of marks from her to pay for it. And," he grinned, "speaking as the Crown's tax collector, I'm delighted to see him doing so well!"

    "You really shouldn't remind me on social occasions that you're the enemy," Howsmyn replied.

    "Me?" Ironhill said with artful innocence.

    "Unless it was someone else who just set the new wharf taxes. Oh, and the warehouse inventory duties, too, while I'm thinking about it."

    "But, Ehdwyrd, you're the one who told me that the Kingdom's merchants and manufacturers ought to be willing to pay a little more in order to finance the Navy."

    "Obviously, that represented a moment of temporary insanity on my part," Howsmyn shot back with a chuckle. "Now that I've regained my senses, I've become aware of that hand slipping into my purse again. You know — the one with your rings on it."

    "Ah, but I do it so smoothly you'll hardly even notice the pain. I promise."

    Howsmyn chuckled again, then turned to survey the ballroom once again.

    If pressed, he would have been forced to admit that he found this evening's gala less of a burden than most. His wife had been delighted when the invitations had been delivered, and this time he hadn't even tried to convince her she should go and have a good time while he stayed home with a book. Or perhaps arranged an emergency visit to the dentist, or something else, equally enjoyable. Zhain Howsmyn was the daughter of an earl, whereas Howsmyn had been born a commoner and still hadn't gotten around to acquiring the patent of nobility which his wealth undoubtedly deserved. For the most part, Zhain had absolutely no objection to being plain "Madame Howsmyn," rather than "Lady Whatever," but she did have a much more highly developed sense of the social dynamics of Tellesberg and the Kingdom as a whole.

    Howsmyn was very well aware of just how great an asset his wife was. Not only did they love one another deeply, but she refused to allow him to retreat into the social hermitage which, in many ways, would have suited him far better. Whether he wanted to go to affairs like tonight's or not, he truly couldn't justify avoiding them entirely. A man of his wealth had no choice about that, but Zhain generally saw to it that he attended the ones he had to and gracefully avoided every single one that he could.

    No one on the invitation list could have avoided tonight's formal ball, however. Not when it was being hosted by Queen Sharleyan of Chisholm in a ballroom she'd borrowed from her affianced husband.

    Howsmyn gazed across the room to the thick cluster of exquisitely attired, lavishly bejeweled courtiers gathered around King Cayleb and his bride to be and felt a stab of sympathy as he watched Cayleb smiling, acknowledging greetings, and chatting away as if he were genuinely enjoying himself.

    And he may well be, actually, Howsmyn thought, noting how close to Sharleyan's side Cayleb seemed to be glued. Obviously, no man with any sense was going to just wander off and leave his fiancée standing alone and forlorn at her own party. Cayleb, on the other hand, hadn't even allowed anyone else a dance with her yet. For that matter, Howsmyn rather doubted that anyone could have fitted a hand between the two of them. And, judging from Sharleyan's expression and body language, she was perfectly happy with that state of affairs.

    "I think this is going to work out even better than I'd hoped," Ironhill said very quietly, and Howsmyn glanced back at his taller friend.

    "I assume you're referring to the unfortunate twosome at the bottom of that feeding swarm of krakens?" he said dryly.

    "They do seem to be feeding a bit more aggressively than usual tonight," Ironhill acknowledged. "Hard to blame them, really, I suppose."

    "Oh, on the contrary, I find it very easy to blame them." Howsmyn grimaced. "Have you ever noticed how it's the most useless people who fight hardest to corner the guest of honor at something like this?"

    "I don't know if that's quite fair," Ironhill said, his eyebrows rising at the unusual asperity of Howsmyn's tone. The ironmaster had never had a very high opinion of "court drones," as he was wont to call them, but he normally regarded them with a sort of amused toleration. Tonight, he sounded genuinely disgusted. "Very few of those people have the sort of access to the King that you and I enjoy, Ehdwyrd," he pointed out. "Social occasions like this one are the only real opportunity they have to get the Crown's attention."

    "Oh, I know that." Howsmyn's left hand chopped at the air in a gesture which mingled acceptance of Ironhill's point with impatience. "And I also know that everyone wants to get as close to the Queen as he can, and why. I'm even aware that it's not all simply because people are looking for advantages and opportunities. But still . . . ."



    He shrugged irritably, his mood obviously darkening, and Ironhill frowned.


    "I've known you a long time, Ehdwyrd," he said. "Would you like to tell me exactly why you've got a spider rat up your leg tonight?"

    Howsmyn looked at him again, and then, as if against his will, laughed.

    "You have known me a long time, haven't you?"

    "I believe I just made that same observation myself," Ironhill said with a patient air. "And you still haven't answered my question."

    "It's just –"

    Howsmyn broke off for a moment, then sighed heavily.

    "It's just that I'm beginning to find myself in agreement with Bynzhamyn where the Temple Loyalists are concerned."

    "What?" Ironhill didn't quite blink, despite the apparent non sequitur.       "They've burned down the Royal College, they've attempted to murder the Archbishop in his own cathedral, and they're tacking printed broadsides denouncing the 'schismatics' and calling on 'all loyal sons of the true Church' to resist by any means necessary on walls all over the city," Howsmyn replied, his voice harsh. "I understand that the King and the Archbishop are leaning over backwards to avoid outright repression, but I think they may be taking it too far."

    "I don't know that I disagree with you," Ironhill said. "I see the King's point, on the other hand, and I think he's entirely right when he says we can't afford to tar every single person who opposes the schism with the same brush. If we do that, we'll only succeed in driving the law-abiding members of the Temple Loyalists into the arms of the sort of people who like to play with knives, or the ones who burned down the College. None of which gives me a clue as to why you're bringing that up at this particular moment. Did you eat something for supper that disagreed with you, Ehdwyrd?"

    "What?" Howsmyn looked at him sharply, then snorted in amusement. "No, of course not."

    "That's good. I was afraid it might be bellyache talking, and I was considering calling a healer to induce vomiting."

    "You can be a rather crude fellow at such a highbrow gathering, can't you?" Howsmyn chuckled.

    "One of the advantages of being born into the nobility, even if I am only a baron. Now, are you going to explain just what all of these cryptic utterances of yours are about?"

    "I guess it's just the guest list." Howsmyn shrugged. "I know there are rules about who has to be invited to something like this, but, damn it, Ahlvyno, it's time we drew a line and told the Temple Loyalists and their sympathizers that they aren't welcome guests here in the Palace anymore."

    Ironhill felt his eyebrows arching again and turned to consider the crowd around the king and queen more closely. He could see several members of the nobility who'd expressed at least some reservations about the Church of Charis, but none of them had been particularly vociferous about it. For that matter, almost none of the Charisian nobility had opposed King Cayleb's and Archbishop Maikel's decisions. Not openly, at least.

    "Who are you talking about, Ehdwyrd?" he asked quietly after a moment.

    "What?" From Howsmyn's expression, Ironhill's question had taken him completely by surprise.

    "Obviously someone over there near the King has you seriously worried, or at least pissed off. Who is it?"

    "You're joking . . . aren't you?"

    "No, I'm not. Who are you so worried about?"

    "Well, I don't know that I'd say I was worried about him," Howsmyn said a bit more slowly. "Pissed off, now — that would sum it up quite nicely."

    Ironhill gave him an exasperated look, and he shrugged just a bit sheepishly.

    "Sorry. And in answer to your question, the person I'm pissed off at is Traivyr Kairee."

    Understanding dawned in Ironhill's eyes, and he shook his head.

    "Ehdwyrd, I know you and Rhaiyan both hate Kairee. For that matter, I'm not too fond of him myself. But he is one of the dozen or so wealthiest men in the Kingdom. Not up to your weight, perhaps, or to Rhaiyan's, but, then, you two tend to be in a class by yourselves. He's certainly wealthy enough to put him on that 'have-to-invite' list of yours, though. And he's connected by marriage to something like a quarter of the peerage, as well."

    "He's a moneygrubbing bastard," Howsmyn said flatly. "He doesn't give a solitary damn about the men and women working for him, and his idea of trade is to produce his product as cheaply and as poorly as he can get away with and sell it for the most he can squeeze out of his customers. I wouldn't trust him to look after my dog for me while I was out of town for an afternoon."

    Ironhill's eyebrows went up yet again at the cold, bitter loathing in Howsmyn's voice. He'd known about the bad blood between Traivyr Kairee and Ehdwyrd Houseman for years, of course. Everyone in Tellesberg knew about that. But this was a new level of hostility, and it worried him.

    "What's brought this on just now?" he asked, turning to look back at the crowd around the king and queen.

    Kairee seemed to be keeping his distance from the royal pair, the baron noticed. He was part of the crowd clustered around them, but he'd settled for the outer fringes of that crowd, where he stood in conversation with a handful of others. Several other wealthy Tellesberg businessman were clustered around him, and they'd done their best to shanghai several of the more senior Chisholmians who'd accompanied Sharleyan to Charis. From the look of them they were busy trying to impress the visitors with what desirable avenues of investment their businesses represented. One or two of the Chisholmians, including the queen's uncle, looked as if they would vastly have preferred being somewhere else, but good manners precluded them from simply brushing the Charisians off.

    "I suppose most of it's coming from the 'accident' in his manufactory this morning," Howsmyn conceded.

    "What sort of accident?" Ironhill turned back to his friend, and Houseman's lips twisted in disgust.

    "The sort of accident someone like him attracts like a lodestone draws iron filings. He doesn't train his people properly, he doesn't worry about the dangers of the machinery around them, and he prefers 'hiring' children because he can get them so much more cheaply. And he managed to get three of them killed today. A pair of brothers — ten and eleven, if you please — and their fourteen-year-old cousin who tried to get them out of the shafting."

    "I hadn't heard about that," Ironhill said quietly.

    "And the odds are that you wouldn't have, if you and I weren't having this conversation," Howsmyn replied bitterly. "After all, he's scarcely the only one who uses children, now is he? That's exactly why Rhaiyan and I fought so hard to get the laws against hiring children through the Council. And why we were both so unhappy about delaying their effective date to provide an 'adjustment period.'"



    Howsmyn looked as if he were tempted to spit on the polished marble floor, and Ironhill sighed.

    "I understand, and I was on your side, if you'll recall. But there truly was some point to the argument that yanking everyone under the age of fifteen out of the manufactories is going to cause a lot of dislocation. And whether you like it or not, Ehdwyrd, it's also true that a lot of households who depend in full or in part on the wages their children bring home are going to get hurt along the way."

    "I didn't say it would be easy, and neither Rhaiyan nor I ever argued that it would be painless. But it needs to be done, and Kairee is a prime example of why. Look at him — just look! Do you see a single shadow of concern on his face? And do you think for a moment that he's prepared to pay any sort of pension to those three youngsters' families for their deaths? Why should he? Until the child labor laws go into effect, there'll always be more where they came from."

    The cold, bitter hatred in Howsmyn's voice was stronger than poison, and Ironhill shifted a bit uncomfortably. He couldn't dispute anything Howsmyn had just said. For that matter, he agreed with Howsmyn's position in general, although he sometimes thought his friend might take it to something of an extreme, trying to move too far too quickly. And there were those in the Charisian business community who took a considerably more jaundiced view of Howsmyn's and Rhaiyan Mychail's crusade to improve working conditions in their manufactories than Ironhill did. "Bleeding heart" was one of the terms bandied about from time to time, and many a businessman had been heard to mutter about the disastrous effect the policies they advocated would inevitably have on the kingdom's economy.

    Which, given the fact that Ehdwyrd and Rhaiyan routinely show the greatest returns on their enterprises of anyone in Charis, is particularly stupid of them, the baron conceded to himself. Still . . . .

    "I didn't know about the accident," he said again, quietly. "I can see exactly why that would make you angry. For that matter, it makes me pretty damned angry, now that I know. But how does that tie in with the Temple Loyalists?"

    "You really ought to sit down and discuss that with Bynzhamyn Raice," Howsmyn told him. "I'm sure that by now Bynzhamyn must have quite a dossier on our good friend Traivyr."

    "Why?" Ironhill's eyes narrowed.

    "Because the same bastard who couldn't care less about workers getting themselves killed in his manufactories is outraged by the very notion of our 'godless apostasy' in daring to tell the Group of Four that we're disinclined to let them burn our homes over our heads. It turns out that we've damned every soul in Charis to an eternity with Shan-wei in Hell, to hear him to tell it. Amazing how much more concerned he is over his workers' souls than over their physical well-being. Do you suppose that has anything to do with the fact that he's not going to have to pick up the ticket for their admission to Heaven?"

    The bite in Howsmyn's voice could have peeled paint off a wall, and Ironhill frowned. Traivyr Kairee had always been very much a part of the religious establishment. Given his normal business practices and the way he treated his employees, however, Ironhill had always assumed his attachment to the Church stemmed from the amount of business and patronage it controlled rather than from any genuine sense of piety.

    "Just how openly has he been expressing his views?" the Keeper of the Purse asked.

    "Not quite as openly as he was," Howsmyn acknowledged. "Right after Cayleb arrested Ahdymsyn and named Maikel Archbishop, he was a lot more vociferous. Since then, he's pulled back a notch or two, especially since the assassination attempt. I don't think he's talking about it very much in public at all, anymore. Unfortunately, I can't quite avoid moving in the same circles he does — not entirely — and people who know both of us tend to talk. Believe me, he hasn't changed his position, Ahlvyno. He's just been cautious enough to go at least a little underground with it. I doubt he's fooling Bynzhamyn's investigators into thinking he's changed his mind, but just look at him smiling and nodding over there. I don't like the thought of letting someone with his sympathies into stabbing range of the King."

    "I doubt he's prepared to take it quite that far," Ironhill said slowly. "If nothing else, it would take more guts than I've ever seen him display."

    "Maybe not. But what he would damned well do is to run and tell his fellow Temple Loyalists anything he manages to pick up at Court — or anywhere else, for that matter."

    "Now that, I could see him doing," Ironhill admitted. He frowned across the ballroom at Kairee for several more seconds, then grimaced.

    "Before it slips my mind, Ehdwyrd, let me thank you for how thoroughly you've destroyed my limited enjoyment of the evening."

    "Think nothing of it," Howsmyn said solemnly. "After all, that's what friends are for."

    "And don't think I won't find a way to return the favor," Ironhill warned him. "On the other hand," he continued more gravely, "you've given me quite a bit to think about. Kairee is bidding on several of the Crown's current contracts. In fact, unless I'm mistaken, he's probably the low bidder on at least two of them . . . including one for five thousand of the new rifles. Under the circumstances, I think it might behoove me to consider whether or not I want someone with his attitude that deep inside what we're doing."

    "I think it might, indeed," Howsmyn agreed.

    "I don't know how the King is going to react to the notion," Ironhill warned him. "He's serious about this not penalizing anyone over matters of conscience as long as they haven't violated any laws."

    "Ahlvyno, I respect Cayleb deeply. More than that, I'm ready to follow him anywhere he leads. But he's still a very young man, in very many ways. I understand his logic in refusing to adopt repressive measures, and I understand Maikel's position on the consciences of individuals. That doesn't mean I think they're right. Or it might be better to say I don't think they're entirely right. At some point, they're going to have to start making some precautionary decisions based on what amounts to suspicion. I'm not talking about arrests, or arbitrary imprisonments, and God knows I'm not talking about executions. But they've got to start protecting themselves against others like Kairee.

    "I'll be the first to admit that the intensity of my . . . dislike for him is driving my suspicions where he's concerned, to some extent, at least. And, like you, I don't think he's got the courage to risk dying for his beliefs. But there could be others who do have the courage . . . and who do a better job of hiding just how much they disagree with what we're doing here in Charis. Those are the ones that worry me, Ahlvyno."

    Ehdwyrd Howsmyn looked into his friend's eyes and shook his head, his eyes dark.

    "Those are the ones that worry me," he repeated.

Home Page Index Page




Previous Page Next Page

Page Counter Image