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"Who did they say they were?" Samuel Mueller asked his steward.
"They said they were investors looking for sites for new farming domes, My Lord," Crawford Buckeridge replied. The steward had been with Mueller for over thirty years, and the steadholder did not miss the slight emphasis he'd placed on the verb.
He gave no sign of it, however. He often wondered what Buckeridge thought of his own . . . extracurricular activities. The Buckeridges had been in the service of the Muellers for generations, so whatever the steward might think, Mueller had no fear of his mentioning anything to anyone else. But Buckeridge was also a deeply religious man who'd been badly shaken by the murder of Reverend Julius Hanks and the proof that William Fitzclarence had been behind both that and the deaths of dozens of school children right here in Mueller Steading. While the steward disapproved of Benjamin Mayhew's reforms as severely as Mueller could have asked for, he'd been horrified that a steadholder could stoop to such actions, which probably meant it was fortunate that he'd never realized Mueller had been Fitzclarence's silent partner.
But not for that insane assassination plan of his, Mueller reminded himself. I still can't imagine what got into his so-called brain to inspire him to that. Brother Marchant had a lot to do with it, no doubt, but could even Marchant have been so stupid as to deliberately kill Reverend Hanks?
He shook his head, brushing aside a familiar sense of bemusement. It wasn't as if it really mattered. Marchant and Fitzclarence were both dead, and no one had tied him to either of them. Besides, he'd been out of his mind to get involved in something so crude, and he was just as happy to be rid of such incompetent allies. Violence, whether open or covert, was not the answer. Not because he had any particular moral objectionsindeed, one of his fondest dreams was of Honor Harrington and Benjamin Mayhew in the same air car as it blew up in midairbut because killing either of them at this point would probably be counterproductive. Especially since Harrington had come back from the dead and added that accomplishment to her Grayson hagiography.
Too many people were prepared to carry on if anything happened to her or Mayhew these days, and the only way to deal with that was to build a counterorganization, one openly dedicated to slowing the "reform" process . . . although only through legal, constitutional channels, of course. Since Mayhew had succeeded in institutionalizing his reforms, dismantling them would require an institutional framework of its own, and that was what Mueller had dedicated himself to building. At the same time, he'd retained some of his old clandestine connections. Most of them were pure information conduits these days, but he still had a few contacts tucked away that were a bit more action-oriented. He had to be particularly careful about those contacts, but he was a steadholder. And the leader of what had emerged as the equivalent of the loyal opposition, at that, which meant even Mayhew had to be very careful when dealing with him, lest it appear he were attempting to smear someone simply because that someone disagreed with him.
Mueller snorted at the thought. No one on Grayson had had any experience in running a system of government based on a division of powers eleven T-years ago. If they'd had that experience, they might have been able to hold Mayhew in check and prevent the entire damned "Mayhew Restoration." But they hadn't, and when Mayhew reasserted the written Constitution during the Masadan Crisis, he'd gotten away with resurrecting an autocratic system which the Keys, individually and collectively, lacked the strength to break.
Since they couldn't break it, they'd had to learn to work within it, and that took time. Whatever else he might be, Mayhew was a student of history and an extremely astute politician. He'd taken ruthless advantage of the Keys' temporary paralysis and overturned their autocracy and secured near total ascendancy for the Sword while they were still dithering and trying to remember what the ancient procedures had been. But they'd learned eventually, and the degree of autonomy they enjoyed within their own steadings had helped. At least they still possessed solid local bases of support, plus control of the organs of government and law enforcement in their home steadings. And Mueller, in particular, had emerged as a master of parliamentary tactics. He and his allies could only nibble away at the Protector's power at the moment, but he was patient. Benjamin IX's attention was being drawn more and more completely to fighting the war. No one could have the energy or time to do that effectively and keep a keen watch on all the domestic aspects of his government, and Mueller had convinced his fellow opposition leaders to work quietly and carefully in the shadows to which Benjamin could no longer pay close attention. It wasn't glorious or spectacular, but, in time, it would prove to be something much more important than either of those things: effective.
Still, his position as the clear leader of those opposedrespectfully, of courseto the Mayhew reforms put him in a somewhat exposed position. Every crackpot who had any hope of working within the system, and quite a few perfectly content to work outside it, saw him as a logical rallying point. The strangest people seemed to spring out of the very ground to bring him their plans and suggestions, and as he reflected on his steward's response to these two, he wondered how odd they were going to turn out to be.
On the other hand, one never knew when even the most unlikely tools could turn out to be just what one needed, could one?
"Show them into my officethe formal one. And have someone keep an eye on them. Hmmmm . . . Hughes, I think."
"Yes, My Lord," Buckeridge replied, and turned to sail majestically off.
Mueller smiled after him. Buckeridge didn't much care for Sergeant Steve Hughes. Not because of anything the armsman had ever done, but because, unlike the steward, Hughes was the first of his family in Mueller Steading. But that was all right with Mueller. For certain sensitive duties, he relied on people Buckeridge would have approved of, whose families had served his for decades or centuries. He could trust those people to keep their mouths shut and their thoughts to themselves, assuming they thought about his instructions at all rather than simply obeying. But Hughes was part of the new breed. A tall, lanky fellow, especially for a Grayson, he was far more comfortable than his more traditional fellows with the new technology gushing into Grayson. He was particularly good with computer software, and he'd been very useful to the Mueller Steadholder's Guard (and to Samuel Mueller personally) in that area.
More importantly, he was virulently conservative and almost rabidly religious, with an oppressive personal piety which was a rarity even on theocratic Grayson. Those character traits went a bit oddly with his fascination with the new technology pouring into his home world from the off-worlders he hated, but that didn't bother Hughes. And they did make him particularly valuable to Mueller. It was good to have someone who was reliable and intelligent (those two qualities, alas, did not always go together among his more traditional retainers) and technologically sophisticated.
Sergeant Hughes had only been with the Mueller Guard for about five years, and Mueller had been very cautious about him initially. As the man had proved his reliability and demonstrated his conservative bent, however, he had been gradually tapped for increasingly sensitive duties. Nothing seriously illegal, of course. Mueller didn't do much of that sort of thing anymore, and he knew precisely which of his armsmen to rely upon for the rare instances in which something a little . . . irregular had to be accomplished. But Hughes had amply demonstrated his fundamental reliability, and Mueller had come to depend on him in matters which were merely shady.
He chuckled again at the thought, then pushed back his chair. The office from which he actually ran his steading was far less grand than the formal one to which Buckeridge had just shown his guests. It was also more comfortable and much more efficiently arranged . . . and he had no intention of allowing anyone he did not know and trust absolutely anywhere near it.
He tucked a few record chips and several pages of old-fashioned, handwritten notes into a secure drawer of the desk, closed it, and spun the ancient but still effective combination lock. Then he shrugged into his jacket, straightened his tie, and walked slowly down the hall towards his waiting visitors.
The two men sat patiently in the armchairs to which Buckeridge had ushered them, and Mueller smiled as he noted the coffee cups on the low table between their chairs. They were from the everyday set, not one of the more formal china patterns. Obviously Buckeridge considered these people to be of sufficient potential worth to his master that they merited the rites of hospitality; equally obviously, he didn't much approve of what he clearly considered to be their devious, probably dishonest way of approaching his steadholder.
Poor Crawford. If he only knew, Mueller thought, but he allowed his expression to show no trace of it as he walked briskly into the room.
Sergeant Hughes stood just inside the door, imposing in Mueller red-and-yellow, and Mueller nodded to him as he passed. The strangers heard him enter and rose quickly, turning towards him with courteous expressions.
"Good morning, gentlemen." The steadholder sounded breezy, like the confident, busy, honest man he was. "I'm Lord Mueller. What can I do for you this fine day?"
The strangers glanced at one another, as if taken a bit aback by such cheerful gusto, and he hid an inward, catlike smile. It wasn't strictly necessary in this case, of course, but he did enjoy playing with people's minds.
"Good morning, My Lord," the older of them finally said. "My name is Anthony Baird, and my friend here is Brian Kennedy. We represent an investment cartel interested in agricultural expansion, and we'd appreciate a few moments to discuss it with you."
His eyes flicked meaningfully towards Hughes as he spoke, and Mueller allowed just a trace of his smile to show as he shook his head amiably.
"That worked fine to get you past my steward, Mr. Baird," he said cheerfully, "but I very much doubt that you or Mr.Kennedy, was it?have any particular interest in farmland. In which case, we should probably get down to your real reason for being here, don't you think?"
Both visitors were definitely taken aback by that, and they turned to look at one another much harder than before. Then, as one, their gazes swiveled back to Hughes.
"The sergeant is one of my personal armsmen, gentlemen," Mueller said, putting a cooler edge on his voice, and Baird and Kennedyassuming those were their real names, which Mueller doubtedpulled themselves quickly back together. Casting doubt on an armsman's loyalty had once been a swift way to a most unpleasant end . . . and it was still nothing a prudent man wanted to do in the presence of the armsman in question.
Accidents, after all, happened.
"Of course, My Lord. Of course!" Baird said. "It's just that, well, we weren't quite prepared I mean . . ."
"You mean, I imagine, that you expected to have to beat around the bush and work your way gradually up to whatever actually brought you here," Mueller supplied helpfully, then chuckled at Baird's expression as he sank into the comfortably padded chair behind his huge desk.
"Forgive me, Mr. Baird. I shouldn't let my levity get the better of me, but my position among the Keys uncomfortable with the Protector's so-called 'reforms' has made me a logical rallying point for others who are . . . uncomfortable with them. And since the 'Mayhew Restoration,' quite a few of those others have felt a need to avoid attracting the, ah, official attention of the Sword."
Baird started to speak, but Mueller waved a hand and tut-tutted him back into silence.
"I regret the fact that they feel that way, Mr. Baird, and I personally feel an honest man has nothing to fear from the Sword simply because he does not agree with Protector Benjamin in all things. The Test still calls us to take our stands for what we believe to be right and true, after all. Sadly, however, I can understand why not everyone would agree with me, and so I mean no disrespect if you and Mr. Kennedy are among those who prefer not to put my opinion to the test in that respect. My time is in short supply, however, so I'd prefer not to waste time on cautious, circumspect approaches."
"I . . . see," Baird said. He cleared his throat. "Well, in that case, My Lord, let me come to the true point of our visit." He nodded to Kennedy, and the two of them sank back into their chairs. Baird reached for his coffee cup once more and crossed his legs, obviously working hard to project an aura of relaxation.
"As you alluded to, My Lord, your position among the Keys who are distressed by the changes here on Grayson is well known. In our own way, my colleagues and I share that distress and have labored as best we might in the same cause. But while we have many friends and a degree of funding which might surprise you, we lack the prominence and position to make our efforts effective. You, on the other hand, lack neither of those things and are widely respected as an astute and thoughtful leader. What we would like to propose is an association between our organization and you."
"Your organization," Mueller repeated, swinging his chair ever so slightly from side to side. "And just how large would this 'organization' of yours be, Mr. Baird?"
"Large," Baird said flatly. Mueller looked a question at him, and he shrugged.
"I would prefer not to be very specific about numbers, My Lord. As you suggested earlier, most of us are more than a little uncomfortable about letting the Sword know our identities. While I would never criticize your own faith in the safety of honest men, I've also seen how many of our ancient rights and traditions the Protector has trampled underfoot in the last eleven years. The Sword has never been so powerful, and we fear it seeks more power still. If our worst fears should be true, then those of us less prominent than the Keys would be well advised to be cautious in openly opposing the 'Mayhew Reforms.' "
"I don't agree with your conclusions," Mueller replied after a moment, "but, as I said, I can sympathize with your concerns, and I respect your decision." He rubbed his chin. "Having said that, however, what does this 'large' and anonymous organization of yours propose?"
"As I said, My Lord, an association. An alliance, if you will. Many of us have been active in the picketing and protest movements. We have many friends among the hardcore members of those movements. They bring us information which could be very useful to someone in your position, and they also provide a visible and powerful medium for transmitting your positions to the public at large. We can also offer a useful infusion of campaign workers for the next elections, and we're quite good, if I do say so myself, at getting out the vote among those who share our views. And" he paused for just a moment "our members are as generous with their money as with their time. We are not, by and large, wealthy individuals, My Lord. Few of us are among the rich or powerful. But there are a great many of us, and all of us give as we may for the Lord's work. I realize that campaign finance sources are being looked at more closely than ever before, but I'm sure we could devise a . . . discreet means of contributing to your political war chest. To the tune, let us say, of ten or eleven million austens. Initially."
Mueller managed to keep his shock from showing, but it was hard. That was a substantial sum, equivalent to seven and a half to eight and a half million Manticoran dollars, and Baird seemed to be suggesting that it was only a beginning.
Wheels whirred behind the steadholder's eyes. He was too wily a conspirator not to recognize the skill with which Baird had trolled the hook before him. But his initial confidence that Baird was overstating both the numbers and power of his "organization" had just taken a severe blow. It would take an organization of considerable size to produce that sort of money from its members' contributions, especially if, as Baird was suggesting, they came from the middle and lower-middle classes.
What was most tempting was Baird's suggestion that the contributions would be slipped to him secretly. There was no legal ban on contributions from any sourceany such ban would have been considered a restriction of free speechbut there was a very strong tradition of full disclosure of donors. In fact, the Sword required such disclosure for any election which crossed the borders of more than one steading, which meant for any race for the Conclave of Steaders, the planetary government's lower house.
And therefrom hung a large part of the emerging Opposition's problems. They were strongest in the Keys, where the defense of power and privilege against the Sword's encroachments naturally strengthened opposition born of principle. In the Conclave of Steaders, the reverse was true. The lower house had been reduced to total irrelevance before the power of the great Keys prior to the Mayhew Restoration. Now it had reemerged as the full equal of the upper house, and the majority of its members, even many uncomfortable with Benjamin's reforms, were staunch Mayhew loyalists. It was there that the Opposition most needed to make electoral gains . . . and also where open campaign contributions from conservative sources would do a candidate the most harm.
But if no one needed to know where the money for those contributions had come from in the first place . . .
"That's a most interesting proposition, Mr. Baird," Mueller said after a moment. "It's sad but true that even the Lord's work requires frequent infusions of capital. Any contributions would be most gratefully accepted, and, as you, I feel sure we could find an unobtrusive way for us to accept your generous support. But I believe you also mentioned information sources and campaign organizations?" Baird nodded, and Mueller leaned back in his chair.
"In that case, gentlemen, let's take this discussion just a little further. For example, what about . . ."
Several hours later, Sergeant Samuel Hughes, Mueller Steadholder's Guard, ushered Baird and Kennedy from his steadholder's office and showed them back out of the sprawling, ancient stone pile of Mueller House. He'd said nothing while he stood post in Mueller's office, and he said nothing nowa taciturn fellow, Sergeant Hughesbut the teeny-tiny camera whose lens was hidden in the uppermost button of his tunic had caught the two visitors and their earnest discussions with Lord Mueller.
Lord Mueller didn't know that, however. Nor would he . . . until the proper time.
Unfortunately, nothing which had been discussed this morning wasquiteillegal. Not yet, at any rate. Once campaign money actually changed hands without disclosure of its sources a crime would have been committed. The best that anyone could hope for out of what had been said in Mueller's office was a conspiracy conviction, and even with the camera footage, convicting a man like Mueller in open court of conspiracy would be extremely difficult.
That was disappointing, or should have been. Yet Hughes felt no disappointment, for he sensed an opening. For the first time of which he was aware, an outside organization, not just an individual nut or a small cluster of them, had reached out to initiate contact with Mueller. Always before it had been the other way around, with Mueller very carefully approaching allies of his own selection. That had been one of the steadholder's greatest strengths, for he'd built his own contacts and alliances as a spider built its web, weaving the strands cautiously and artfully and always making certain they would bear the weight he chose to put upon them.
But if he accepted the offers Baird and Kennedy had made, and it looked very much as if he would, then he would have allowed an unknown into his web, and it would begin to generate strands of its own, whether it meant to or not. The steadholder's entire organization would become more porous and easily penetrated, and the number of potential witnesses against him would go up geometrically.
And that, Sergeant Hughes thought fervently, was a consummation greatly to be desired. Because Sergeant Hughes, who was also Captain Hughes, of the Office of Planetary Security, had spent the better part of five years worming his way into Mueller's confidence, and he still had very little to show for it. But if this morning's meeting was headed where he thought it was, that was about to change.
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