“Bad news from back home,” said Ambassador Mornwell, reading the transcript of the telegraph message that an assistant had just handed him. “The prisoners of war escaped back to Carrow.”
There was no change of expression on the Brigadier’s face as he digested the news. “All of them?” he asked.
“About thirty thousand,” replied the Ambassador, scanning the transcript with his eyes. “The rest were either killed or recaptured, but thirty thousand battle hardened veterans is easily enough to give Carrow the manpower it needs. They launched a full scale assault on the Steel Curtain at Stepford, punched a hole right through it, then held it open while the prisoners escaped through. We lost a lot of men. Men we can't afford to lose.”
“So the invasion’s back on,” said the Brigadier. “As soon as they've replaced the equipment our men sabotaged in their garrison cities.”
“How long, do you think?”
“Depends on how fast their factories can turn steel into big guns. Not more than two months. They may be ready already, as soon as they've put guns in the hands of the escaped prisoners. It would make sense for them to attack before we can repair the hole in the Steel Curtain, if they can. If they don't invade within the week, then we've probably got at least a month.”
“So it was all for nothing! The attack on their garrison cities, that whole mad gamble, all for nothing!”
“It was not for nothing! If not for Leothan's daring and courage, Carrow would have invaded weeks ago! Helberion might already have been conquered! That mad gamble bought us valuable time, we have to make the best use of it we can.”
“Indeed. Hopefully, my visits to the Smokescreen will have given me some notoriety amongst the Emperor's other guests. It should give me the opening I need to make friendships with government ministers.” He eyed the Ambassador. “There will be government ministers there, I presume?”
“I'd be astonished if there weren’t. Lesser people such as myself will be kept safely away from them, though. You'll have to find a way to penetrate the inner circle.”
“I'll find a way. I'm not going to let Kelvon aristocratic pride and jingoism keep me from saving my country. Not to mention the rest of the human world. Has my new uniform arrived?”
“Yes, a delivery carriage from the tailors brought it this morning.” He smiled despite the grim situation facing his country. “Very splendid! You'll steal the show!”
“I'll feel like a bell capped jester wearing it, but if that’s what it takes to complete my task here...”
“If you like, I can ask my equerry to help you get dressed tonight.”
“I think I'll manage. Tonight, then.” The Brigadier nodded to the Ambassador, then went to his room to complete his preparations for the evening's entertainment.
A carriage arrived for them at six, and the two men climbed aboard, the Brigadier wearing his new uniform. It was indeed splendid, as the Ambassador had said. Covered in far more gold braid than even a Field Marshall’s uniform normally carried, with gaudy epaulettes and twice as many brass buttons as would normally he needed, crowded close together and each with its own horizontal strand of gold finery, contrasting vividly with the velvety dark blue of the uniform's material. He'd designed it himself to be visually impressive, and the result was something that violated the military code of Helberion in more ways than he could count. If he'd worn it while still actively serving in the army, he would have been severely reprimanded for being out of uniform.
His left breast was covered with every medal he'd ever been awarded, most of which he'd never worn before out of principle since he firmly believed that just doing one’s duty should not be cause for celebration. He could feel the weight of them pulling his left shoulder down, making him feel horribly self conscious, as if he was boasting about all his accomplishments and victories like some common bar room braggart. He consoled himself by reminding himself that, while for everyone else present the Emperor's reception would be a purely social occasion, for him it was a mission, a mission of the most vital importance, and that his uniform and medals were the equipment he'd need, like a piece of field artillery.
It was a five minute drive to the palace, where a doorman came to meet them. “I have a chest in the baggage,” the Brigadier told him. “A gift for the Emperor. It contains a selection of curiosities that I collected during my adventures across the world that he may find amusing.” The doorman nodded and summoned a couple of men to carry the chest inside, where it would be searched for weapons and explosives. It contained the Hetin artefacts they’d brought back from Mekrol, and the Brigadier watched anxiously as they carried it away. So much depended on the contents of that chest, on convincing the Emperor of the Radiant threat. What would happen if the Emperor simply deposited them in a storeroom somewhere, to gather dust for years, without even looking at them? Without reading the explanatory notes that the Brigadier had spent long hours writing over the previous days?
The two men were searched for weapons, and the Brigadier produced his sword and pistol, showing the Emperor's men that they were nothing but harmless props, incapable of being used as weapons, before being allowed to put them back in sheath and holster. They were then showed into the palace and escorted along wide, elaborately decorated corridors to the suite of rooms in which the reception would take place. A man took their coats, and then they were shown through to the central ballroom, where most of the festivities would take place.
“Ambassador Frederick Mornwell of Helberion!” announced the doorman, “and his guest, Brigadier Weyland James of Helberion!” A few heads turned, but most of the guests who'd arrived before them just carried on with their conversations. It was almost as if the gamblers at the Smokescreen Casino had been brought here an masse, the Brigadier mused. The same military uniforms, the same expensive suits. The only difference was that instead of gambling tables there were tables covered with food and expensive decorations made of gold and ice, while waiters wandered among the guests with trays bearing drinks. At the end of the room, a small band was playing light music that formed a pleasant background to the hubbub of conversation, while behind them the doorman was announcing the arrival of someone else. The two Helberians moved further into the room to make way for them.
“Well, I guess we'd better separate,” said Mornwell. “You can do what you came here to do better without me hanging onto your coattails.”
“When will the Emperor arrive?”
“If he comes, it'll be after nine. We've got a few hours yet, I'm afraid. Still, gives you time to work your magic on the other guests.”
“If he comes?”
“Sometimes he doesn't. Affairs of state, or maybe he just doesn't feel in the mood. We'll just have to wait and see.”
“See you around, then.” The Brigadier took a drink from a passing waiter, then strolled over to where a group of people in expensive business suits were talking.
They looked at him as he joined them, then ignored him as they continued their conversation. “Aggregates,” one of them was saying. “The Empire will always need aggregates. For industry, for construction, transport... You can't go wrong. Get him into the aggregates industry and he'll never look back!”
“He'll need to be guided there,” one of the others was saying, though. “Newly declared men are all romantic, wanting to go off and join the army, find adventure in far flung corners of the world. A little bit of military experience is a fine thing, of course, but if he’s like me he'll settle down after a year or two and want a proper career doing something sensible, reliable.”
“Aggregates,” said the man they both seemed to be talking to.
“Or agriculture. There's plenty of outfits out there looking for proper management. When I first started, my father set me up as junior partner in a turnip farm in Ambleside. Now, I control thirty percent of the Empire's total turnip production! Your son could do just as well, with the proper guidance...”
“Farming is dependent on the weather,” the first man put in, though. “One bad summer and you can lose a whole harvest! All your profits wiped out just like that! Aggregates, though... So long as people want to build things, they’ll want sand, concrete, cement... Solid, dependable income.”
“Quite right,” agreed the Brigadier, making them all look at him again with a little resentment for intruding on their conversation. “The military is also totally dependant on aggregates. Forts, barracks, stables... Without a dependable supply of building materials the armed forces would soon be in big trouble! I speak as a lifelong military man. Many’s the time I've had to defend some totally barren and empty spot in the middle of nowhere with no cover whatsoever from enemy fire. I would have sold my soul for some good concrete walls to hunker down behind! There was this one time...”
“I’m sure you have many exciting stories to tell,” interrupted the aggregate man impatiently. “You must tell them to us sometime.” He turned back to the father with the unemployed son. “If he needs a leg up into the business, I'd be glad to lend a hand. I know of a firm in Haymarket I could slot him into. The owner owes me money, which gives me a certain amount of leverage.”
“And if you did this for me, I would be in your debt, I assume.”
“My dear fellow, there’s no talk of debt between friends! This is what friendship is! I help you out when I can, and you help me out when you can. Your son needs proper employment to pull him away from his wayward lifestyle. I can help you, so I will!”
“Well, there’s no denying that something must be done. He spends his whole month’s allowance in just two days at the races, then spends the rest of the month sponging off his friends who only see him as a foot up the social ladder! I can't let it go on! I have to do something!”
“So I'll get in touch with my friend in Haymarket, shall I?”
“Alliances are important,” put in the Brigadier, nodding to the aggregate man. “Make contacts, earn favours. You ask any military man. At the battle of Emerol, we'd have been in big trouble if I hadn't made friends with the Duke of Marley a few months before...”
“Excuse me!” said the aggregates man angrily, “but we are trying to have a private conversation here!”
“Yes, of course,” said the Brigadier, chastened. This wasn't going very well. The trouble was that he had very little experience with this kind of social interaction. He'd always tried to avoid these kind of occasions in the past, and when he'd had no choice but to attend he'd always stood in the corner, actively avoiding actually having to talk to anyone. Now, though, he had no choice. He had tonight to learn the art of conversation if his plan was to succeed.
The other problem was that these people were clearly businessman, not ministers as he'd hoped. Maybe he should have started with a group of military men, got chatting with them about battles and tactics and such in the hopes that some government ministers would drift over and join in. He thought about leaving these people and starting again with another small group, but giving up was a dangerous habit to get into. He decided to try once more, therefore.
The mistake he'd made, he decided, had been trying to hijack their conversation. He was a complete stranger to them, what he'd done had probably been antisocial and offensive. Maybe he'd have better luck if he simply engaged in the conversation they were having already, spent some time just talking to them, learning about them. Making friends with them. Forget about Carrow and Radiants and the threat to mankind for a while and just talk about aggregates.
He had a bit of luck there, because the name of Haymarket was nagging at his memory, and after a moment or two of hard thought it came to him, where he'd heard it before. “Pardon me for interrupting again,” he said, “But does Haymarket export to Helberion?”
The aggregate man turned angrily to the Brigadier as if about to reprimand him again, but then he paused, a thoughtful expression on his face. “I believe Courtney did say something about Helberion, yes. Why?”
“I believe we use Kelvon ballast when laying railway tracks. Shortly after I was promoted to Brigadier I was at a staff meeting where we were discussing where to buy materials for the Rigby to Tunibal railway track, and I seem to remember Haymarket being mentioned. If it's a major source of aggregates, I was trying to remember whether the ballast for the tracks came from there.”
“Relph Aggregates does do railway ballast, I believe, and they do export it.”
“It must be a good firm, then. King Leothan insists that we only go to the best suppliers, even if it costs more. It was basalt, which is why it stuck in my memory. There's not a lot of basalt in Helberion, but everything in Kelvon seems to be made of it.”
“Yes, Courtney does mainly deal in basalt.” The man seemed to be warming to the Brigadier now. “There's a vast seam of the stuff running under most of the Empire. It’s a volcanic rock, you know. There must have been the mother of all volcanic eruptions here, once upon a time. Long, long ago, thankfully. There's a lot of younger rock on top of it.”
“Are you in the aggregates business yourself, mister...?”
“Brenn. Arthur Brenn. Sort of. I'm in the building business, so I buy a lot of stuff from Relph Aggregates. Sand, gravel. Not cement, though. We get that from Bluefinch, like everyone else.”
“Bluefinch is in trouble,” the man with the unemployed son said, though. “Money troubles, they say. A lot of people are moving their business to Castle Industries these days.”
“A vastly inferior product!” said Arthur Brenn, gesturing with the hand holding a glass of wine to emphasise the point. “Doesn't weather nearly as well, especially in cold climates. Too much lime! They have to add a ton of calcium to balance it out, and that adds to the cost. Bluefinch is both better and cheaper.”
“So why are they going under?”
“Who says they're going under? I haven’t heard any such thing!”
“I heard they're in troublel” said the third man. “I heard Castle is thinking of buying them out. Might be a good time to buy shares in Bluefinch.”
“Could be a rumour put about by Bluefinch themselves,” suggested the father. “An attempt to drive up their share price.”
“Their shares are doing fine!” insisted Arthur Brenn. “More likely to be Castle spreading rumours, trying to drive Bluefinch's shares down so they can buy them out. Bluefinch and Castle have been at each other's throats for years!”
“Seems big business has more in common with a battlefield than most people realise,” said the Brigadier with a chuckle. “We fight with sword and pistol, they fight with rumour and gossip. I’ve got a bit of spare money knocking around, I was thinking of investing in something, getting it working for me. Aggregates might be a good place to look.”
“Nowhere better!” agreed Arthur Brenn. “There'll always be a need for aggregates, and Relph Aggregates are doing well on the market right now. You could do a whole lot worse!”
“I’ll get my financial advisor to look into it.”
“Just how much money do you have to invest, if I might ask?”
“A fair bit, and more all the time. I have a steady supply, you might say.”
“Yes, I’ve heard of your visits to the Smokescreen Casino,” said the father. “Throwing money around like it's going out of fashion! That was you, wasn’t it? There can't be two Helberian Brigadiers in Farwell at the moment.”
“I have been visiting the Smokescreen, yes. I had no idea that I'd attracted such attention!”
“Did you think you could throw away ten thousand crowns three times in the past week and no-one would talk about it? My dear fellow, the whole city is talking about you!”
The Brigadier was glad to hear it. Thirty thousand crowns would have been a lot of money to waste. “All my life, I’ve served the King and his father faithfully, and although it was a high honour to do so, a Brigadier's wages and pension seemed small reward for such service. Now that I've come into some money, I intend to enjoy life for a change. Enough battlefields for me. Enough trenchfoot and lice. I want to see what the other side of life is like. This side.” He gestured around the room, at all the splendidly dressed men and women clustered in small groups, chatting and laughing while the waiters went from one to another with their trays of drinks.
“And where did you come by this money, if I may ask?”
“Oh, there are always opportunities for a man who keeps his eyes and ears open.” He took a sip from his drink and looked around the room again, allowing the enigmatic comment to do its work in the minds of the other men. Something dishonest, they would be thinking. Blackmail, perhaps. What dirty secrets had he gathered over the years? What kind of leverage did he have on powerful and important people around the world, in all the places he'd travelled during his long and illustrious career? Maybe people in his own home country, maybe even his own royal family! Good. That was exactly what he wanted them to think. There were almost certainly people right here in this room with secrets they'd do anything to protect, and soon they'd be taking great comfort from the fact that this was the Brigadier's first visit to the Empire. That was also good. The Brigadier didn't want to make enemies. He wanted to earn their trust. I am just like you, he wanted to say to them. I am just as corrupt as you. You can tell me all your evil plans...
Well, it probably wouldn't be quite as simple as that, but then again, you never knew. How many times had he won a great victory against great odds because his opponent had done something incredibly stupid? The trick would be to make sure it wasn't him who made the stupid mistake.
Now that he'd broken the ice with this small group of men, he found himself enjoying his chat with them, during which he learned many interesting things about the aggregates industry, but time was passing and he only had a few hours in which to convince as many people as possible that he was as bent as a paperclip, while not making it so obvious that that was what he was doing. He didn’t want to arouse suspicion. After a few more minutes, therefore, he made his apologies to Arthur Brenn and the others and moved off to find another group.
Now that he knew how not to enter a conversation, he was able to engage with other people quite successfully and he made himself listen intently as they described what they did for a living and the difficulties they had to contend with. The idea of buying shares in whatever companies they were involved with, which he'd stumbled across quite by accident, served him well both as a way of keeping their interest and introducing the idea that he had somehow acquired a suspiciously large fortune. As midnight approached, he'd joined and left half a dozen groups of people, some composed of military men, others foppish aristocrats, and it was while he was talking to a tall, pale member of the seventh group that he realised with relief that he'd finally found what he'd been looking for. A group of politicians.
“I'm afraid the Constituents Assembly doesn't pay nearly well enough for it to be worth my while getting interested in the stock market,” the tall man said with a rueful smile. “I’ll be satisfied if I can earn my pension and retire with enough to fend off starvation.”
“Ah, an honest man!” said one of his companions with a loud guffaw. “Gentlemen, we have the honour of having found the only honest politician in Farwell!”
The Brigadier laughed along with them as they took turns to shake his hand in mock admiration. “Something you want to tell us, Morburn?” asked the pale man. “All that temptation just too much for you, is it?”
Morburn laughed long and hard as a way to avoid answering the question, and the Brigadier was encouraged to see one eye flickering momentarily on his direction. Wary of saying something incriminating on front of Helberion's greatest blackmailer! Excellent! “How much simpler it must be in your country, Brigadier!” Morburn continued. “An absolute monarchy, with a King who can do literally whatever he wants. No chambers of parliament with members taking bribes from all and sundry, no politicians being canvassed by wealthy special interest groups... Farwell must seem like a steaming morass to an ideologically simple military man such as yourself!”
“I'm afraid Helberion isn't quite as simple as that,” replied the Brigadier, though. “There's an awful lot of jockeying for the King’s favour. And even if you win his favour, it can be a double edged sword because you make an awful lot of enemies.” He had to be careful spinning this kind of fantasy, because there could well be people listening who knew the truth about life in the Royal Court. “Poison, knives in the dark, a careless fall down the stairs... Being the King’s favourite can seriously shorten your life, but if you make it into his favour a life of privilege and luxury awaits you! It's a prize well worth aiming for, if you don’t mind the risks.”
“And do you have the King’s favour?” asked Morburn, eyeing him shrewdly.
“I have something better. I have the King’s friendship. We've known each other since before we were fully human. We used to play together, go to school together, go everywhere together. We have no secrets from each other, we know each other’s minds, we can read each other’s every thought. I have no need to play court games. What we are to each other, no-one else can ever replace.”
“So what brings you to Kelvon?” asked the pale man.
“I’ve never been here before,” replied the Brigadier. “I thought it was time I found out if all the stories told about the Empire are true.”
“And are they?”
“So far, yes. This is a very entertaining place, the perfect place to spend money! I've tried the gambling dens, now I'm thinking of trying the horse racing. Maybe I'll buy a racehorse or two, give training a try. All my life I’ve been nothing but a soldier. Now, at last, I have the chance to discover all the other things life has to offer, and where better than Farwell, the greatest city in the world?”
“Here here!” agreed Morburn, miming clapping his hands silently. “I promise you you'll have a great time, Brigadier! At least until you run out of money.”
“That shouldn't be a problem any time soon.”
“Where do you get your money, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“All over the place my dear sir! Money is easy to get hold of if you know how.”
“You must tell us your secret, Brigadier! Every man here begs you to share it with us!” He looked at the other men gathered around, who all enthusiastically agreed to the request.
“But a secret shared is no longer a secret. Tell me, is Minister Skelby here tonight? I was looking forward to speaking with him.”
The Brigadier hoped that, by asking the question right out of the blue, with no preamble, one of the men present might answer automatically, directing him to Tiver, his deputy, if he was present and if Skelby himself hadn’t yet recovered from his ‘illness’. The pale man's eyes darted momentarily to a group of men a small distance away, and the Brigadier took note of them, intending to join them next, but then they were all looking at him again, their eyes giving nothing away. “Minister Skelby is still too unwell to attend this kind of event,” said the pale man, an edge of fake sadness in his voice. “We all hope he recovers soon, of course. What did you want to talk to him about, may I ask?”
“I heard he was interested in training horses. I was hoping he could give me a few tips.”
The pale man laughed. “I don't know where you heard that! He's never shown any trace of interest in horse racing, so far as I know! You'd do better talking to Philips, over there. He owns shares in the Osman stables, the finest racing beasts is Kelvon! He can put you in touch with the right people.”
The Brigadier thanked him, then moved away to mingle with the crowd. He didn't make straight for the group the pale man had accidentally given away with his eyes, but kept a careful watch on them as he went to one of the tables and popped a couple of snacks into his mouth. A woman in a blue dress bedecked with colourful feathers gazed at him curiously while chewing on a sweetmeat and he nodded politely at her, searching for something appropriate to say if she should try to start a conversation with him. If there was one thing he found harder than casual conversation with men, it was casual conversation with a woman.
Fortunately, he was rescued from this dilemma as the band fell silent. He'd long since stopped hearing the music, but the moment it stopped it left a kind of sonic vacuum in which the sound of voices suddenly seemed harsh and loud. The Brigadier guessed that something was about to happen, and he looked around the room to see that a new group of people were standing in the doorway, the first new arrivals in over two hours. The music hadn’t stopped for any of the other arrivals, so the Brigadier guessed this was someone important. Conversations stopped as other people came to the same conclusion, and the doorman who stepped forward became the focus of everyone's attention.
“My Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen!” he cried in a voice loud enough to command the attention of everyone in the room and silence those few conversations that were still continuing. “His Imperial Majesty Alexis Alexander Tyron! King of Farwell, Lord Marshall of the Imperial Host! Master of the Treasury! Protector of Mankind! Emperor of Kelvon!” He then stood aside as two heralds blew a fanfare on their trumpets, and then Emperor Tyron, looking magnificent in his military style uniform and accompanied by a pair of attendants, stepped into the room.