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Chapter Twenty-Nine

"And I suppose Aleksandra's going to say this isn't significant, either," Henri Krietzmann said sourly.

"Of course she is," Joachim Alquezar snorted.

The two of them sat on the seaside villa's terrace, gazing out across the ocean into the ashes of sunset. Stars had just begun to prick the cobalt vault above them, the remnants of a light supper lay on the table between them, a driftwood fire burned in a stone and brick outdoor fireplace with a copper hood, and Alquezar leaned back in a chaise lounge. An old-fashioned wooden match flared in the twilight, and smoke wreathed upward as he lit a cigar. Krietzmann sniffed appreciatively at the aromatic tendrils, then reached for his beer.

"I'm beginning to really, really dislike that woman," he said almost whimsically, and Alquezar chuckled.

"Even Bernardus dislikes her, whether he's willing to admit it or not," the San Miguelian said. "After all, what's not to dislike?"

It was Krietzmann's turn to snort in bitter amusement, but there was an unpalatable amount of truth in Alquezar's quip.

"I just don't understand the way her mind works," the Dresdener admitted after a moment. "Bad enough Nordbrandt and those 'Freedom Alliance' maniacs are blowing people up and shooting them almost at random on Kornati, but at least everyone realizes they're lunatics. Westman, though." He shook his head, scowling at the memory of the reports from Montana which had arrived only that morning. "Westman is Old Establishment. He's not a marginalized hyper-nationalist politician-he's a wealthy, propertied aristocrat , or what passes for one on Montana. And he's smarter than Nordbrandt. She started off with a massacre; he started with a joke. She followed up with assassinations and scattered bombings; he followed up by blowing up the headquarters of one of the most hated off-world organizations on his homeworld and still did it without killing a single soul. He's like, like-"

"Like that ante-diaspora fictional character Bernardus was talking about?"

"Yes, exactly!" Krietzmann nodded vigorously. "What was his name the Crimson-No! The Scarlet Pimpernel, that was it!"

"Maybe so," Alquezar said. "But I hope you won't think me shallow for pointing out that I, and the other RTU shareholders and directors, aren't exactly amused by his choice of targets. However much debonair style and elegance he may display as he goes about his nefarious business."

"Of course not. But," Krietzmann gazed at him levelly in the light of the oil lamps burning on the table as darkness settled fully in, "I hope you don't expect me to shed a lot of tears over your losses, either."

Alquezar looked at him sharply, eyebrows lowered for just a moment, then snorted and shook his head.

"No," he said softly, and paused to draw upon his cigar. The tip glowed like a small, red planet, and he launched an almost perfect smoke ring onto the evening breeze. "No, Henri. I don't. And I shouldn't. But the fact that I feel that way, and that other people on San Miguel and Rembrandt-like Ineka Vaandrager-are going to have even stronger feelings about it, is only another proof of Westman's shrewdness. He found a target guaranteed to polarize feelings on both sides of his particular political divide, and that takes brains. You say you have trouble understanding Aleksandra's take on this? Well, I just wish I understood how someone who's obviously as bright as Westman is could have bought into something like this in the first place. He ought to be getting behind us and pushing, not blowing us up!"

"Bright isn't the same thing as well-informed or open-minded," Krietzmann pointed out. "And everything I've been able to piece together suggests that Westman takes the Montanan fetish for stubborn individuality to previously uncharted heights-especially where Rembrandt and the RTU is concerned. Not to put too fine a point on it, he hates your guts. He doesn't really care why you people were so busy sewing up the Cluster's shipping. All he knows-or wants to know-is that you were doing it, that you were about as ruthless about it as you could possibly have been, and that his world's one of several which feels it was royally screwed by your so-called 'negotiating technique.'"

The Convention President shrugged.

"I don't really blame him for that. If you people had enmeshed Dresden in your cozy little empire against our will, I'd probably resent you just as much as he does. The only real difference between Westman and me is that, first, I believe Bernardus when he tells me how he first conceived of the Trade Union, and why. And, second, whatever his real motives-and yours-might have been, annexation by Manticore represents the greatest single opportunity, and not just in economic terms, which has ever fallen the entire Cluster's way. I'm willing to forgive an awful lot to capitalize on that opportunity. But Westman's too focused on the old equation to realize how completely it's been changed."

"That's basically what Bernardus said," Alquezar said. "I suppose I follow the analysis intellectually. It's just that the mindset which can ignore all of that is so far away from the universe I live in that I can't get my understanding wrapped around the possibility it can even exist. Not on any emotional level."

"You'd better," Krietzmann said bleakly. "In the end, I think he's more likely to succeed in killing the Constitution than Nordbrandt is."

"Really?" Alquezar cocked his head. "I don't think I disagree with you, but I'd like to hear your reasoning."

"How much reasoning's involved?" Krietzmann grunted. "Oh, all right."

He leaned back in his own chaise lounge, cradling his beer mug.

"At the moment, O my esteemed fellow conspirator, you have about sixty-two percent of the delegates in your vest pocket. And Nordbrandt's extremism's actually pushed about ten percent of that total into your corner, I'd estimate. But Tonkovic and Andre Yvernau-and Lababibi-have an iron lock on the other thirty-eight percent. They've got most of the Cluster's oligarchs, aside from the delegates you and Bernardus can deliver from the RTU planets, and Nordbrandt pushed about ten percent of them away from your side and into Tonkovic's pocket when she punched the economic warfare button. Most of them could care less what happens on Kornati as long as it doesn't splash onto their own comfortable little preserves. But with her blowing up banks and shooting bankers, not to mention the local oligarchs, her particular version of destabilization threatens to spill over into other systems, and they're not about to sign on to anything that would, as they see it, hamper their existing political and law-enforcement machinery for dealing with neo-bolsheviks and anarchists on their own worlds. And, since it takes a two-thirds majority to vote out a draft Constitution, as long as she can hold on to the five or six percent of the delegates you still need, she can stonewall the entire process and try to extort concessions out of you. Out of us ."

"We agree so far," Alquezar said as Krietzmann paused to sip beer. "But that still doesn't explain why you should think Westman's more dangerous than Nordbrandt."

"Oh, don't be Socratic, Joachim!" Krietzmann said a bit impatiently. "You know as well as I do that Aleksandra Tonkovic and Samiha Lababibi have absolutely no intention of actually blocking the annexation. If they do kill the Constitution, it'll be by accident, because they genuinely believe that line Aleksandra was spouting right after Nordbrandt's first attack-that Manticore won't let the process fail. I think they're both-especially Aleksandra-too prone to view the Star Kingdom through the distortion of their domestic political experience, but that's how they see things. At the moment, at least. But if anything ever happens to crack that sublime confidence of theirs, they'll probably stop holding out for impossible demands and settle for the best fast, down-and-dirty compromise they can get.

"But if Westman pisses off enough of your oligarchs-the ones you and Bernardus roped up and convinced to support the annexation in the first place-we're screwed. If he ever convinces enough of them that he and people who think like him can inflict serious damage on everything the Trade Union's managed to build up, a significant percentage of them-possibly an outright -majority-would switch over to Tonkovic's side in a heartbeat, and you know it. And if they do, they'll shift the balance drastically. Not just here at the Convention, either. If Rembrandt and San Miguel and the rest of the RTU planets start opposing annexation, instead of supporting it, it's going to fail."

"You're right," Alquezar sighed after a moment. "That's another reason Bernardus went home to Rembrandt. He wanted Vaandrager out of the chairmanship before she could build a support bloc strong enough to challenge his control or get herself too deeply burrowed into the system government. Because she's exactly the sort to do what you're afraid of, especially if Westman can convince anyone outside his home system to throw in with his Montana Independence Movement."

"So," Krietzmann said, "what do we do about it?"

"If I had the answer to that one," Alquezar replied sourly, "I wouldn't need to worry about Aleksandra and Samiha. I could just wave my magic wand and fix everything!"

"Well, we're going to have to come up with something ."

"I know. I know." Alquezar drew on his cigar again. "I sent a memo to Baroness Medusa this afternoon, right after the dispatch boat from Montana got here. I expressed very much the same concerns you just have, and I suggested to her that it might be time for Her Majesty's official representative here to take a more direct approach."

Krietzmann looked at him with a hint of uneasiness, and the San Miguelian shrugged irritably.

"It's not an ideal solution, even if she does step in, and I know it. The problem is, I think we're fresh out of ideal solutions, Henri."

Chapter Twenty-Eight | The Shadow of Saganami | * * *