THE FIRST CHAPTER,
where Kissur the White Falcon gets in an accident while the first vice-minister of finance discusses the reasons for the dearth in the state treasury
The walls of the living room were covered with blue silk and the corners were overlayed with hexagonal tiles making the room an octagon, the shape guided its owner's success in life and smoothed all turns in his fate. Embroiderings grew over silk — blossoming lotuses with leaves lowered from heat, plum flowers opening up, a snow white duck in a pond and a sping sun. A light hung almost all the way down to the floor, looking like a transparent upside down mushroom and golden figures of animals ran over its rim.
A small table with a frosted jar and an armchair were next to the light. A 30 year old man sitting in the armchair was dressed in the silk pants and a jacket, girdled with a belt made from large silver links. His face was very handsome but cruel, with blue eyes and eyebrows rising at the tips. Old rings of delicate worksmanship looked strange on his predator's hands with untrimmed nails. His hair was twisted in a bun and held with a tortoise comb. A 3D transvisor on a fat golden leg stood in the left corner.
Periodically, the man would fill a small five walled cup from the jar, close the cup with a lacquered cap enclosing a straw, and stick the straw in his mouth. He was watching the transvisor.
On his left hand, a small drawing hung in a sable fur frame — a beautiful drawing of a sick chickadee in snow. The picture bore the Emperor's signature. It was a personal gift from the Emperor. Two golden rings of orchids and clematis hang next to it. A sonar rabbit ear antenna stuck up above the transvisor and a silvered pot with a blooming flower was behind the antenna. The flower had a artful name "furled belle's eyebrows."
The picture in the transvisor greatly differed from that on the silk paintings decorating the room. The transvisor was not showing either a sick chickadee or blossoming plums. The transvisor was showing a press-conference. A self-important patrician Earthman was talking and his piggish eyes were routinely squinting from camera flashes. A whole flock of microphones was gosseling out in front of the Earthman. He was earnestly attempting to look inside the room through the screen and he probably felt alien surrounded by blooming plums and golden flower rings.
Somebody asked the man on the screen in a thin voice, and he answered benevolently,
"While we are not interfering in any way with the independent nation and are not pressuring its government, the Federation of Nineteen would encourage the Emperor to conduct the first Parliament elections in the history of your country as a one more step in of your nation's integration into the galactic society."
The man sitting in the chair poured the last remnants from the silver jar into the cup. He slightly raised his hand and threw the jar at the forehead of the smiling Earthman on the screen. The Earthman stopped smiling and disappeared. The screen squeaked and exploded in tiny pieces. The "furled belle's eyebrows" loudly crashed, and the nauseating smell of burning plastic intestines filled the room. The painted doors moved apart and a middle-aged majordomo in a blue caftan rolled into the room.
"Take it away," the man in the armchair said without raising his voice.
The majordomo threw his hands up and exclaimed,
"Oh, Mr. Kissur, that's the third one this week."
Kissur jumped out of the chair, slammed the door and was gone.
The majordomo in the room stuck his hand in the empty jar, scratched it and licked… The lord was not even drunk, or almost not drunk — there was a light palm wine in a jar, generously diluted by the apricot juice. Kissur could get drunk and get drunk to his eyebrows, drunk enough to fight, drunk enough to cut dogs or people cut in half. But, he could do it only at merry party with a dozen friends. Kissur never drank by himself.
Kissur ran gasping down the staircase and leaped out into the inner yard. The night was already in. It smelled of mint from countryside gardens, gasoline and horses. A city mansion with a flat roof surrounded the yard on three sides. A left wing tower decorated with grape carvings rose gracefully like a reed leaf. In the past, high-ranking officials built towers like this, for them to touch the sky like little fingers. The towers would be like a staircase that Fortune walk down from the sky to the officials. In the past, people had said that only the Emperor's castle spires were higher. Now, one would not be able to say that, since a construction crane made from steel matches was showing up on the black sky background; the crane was touching the sky with its little finger. Enraged Kissur threw his fist to the sky and stomped flying down the moonlighted path.
A servant in a short blue jacket stood in the backyard, in front of the gates wrapped by brass vines. The servant lovingly washed a long glossy car like he would be braiding a horse's tail. The black sides of the car gleamed in the moonlight and the silver gills of the hydrogen engine air intakes shined.
Kissur ripped the hose out of the slave's hand and threw himself in a car. The tires screeched — the slave was barely able to jump away. The terrified booth guard hit the button on the keyboard, the gates bobbed up, and the car flew out on the deserted and wet night highway. "Once he won't be able to get the gates up in time", Kissur thought, "and I'll break my neck at my own wall."
The car was purring and eating hydrogen — isn't it strange that a horse eats when it's resting while this black ironmonger eats only when it's moving, and when it's not moving it doesn't eat anything. Yes! Seven years ago when gloom was sometimes eating at his soul, Kissur would take a black stallion with a wide back and tall legs and race him in the Emperor's garden, in the gullies overgrown with bushes and grass, till the sunrise. Where is this garden now? They peddled it, sold it like a wench in the market, for some glass contraption. It was shameful, since Kissur himself sold it to some corporation.
The highway ended abruptly at a flooded river; Kissur almost flipped over in the water on the sliver of the pontoon bridge. At least, this thing does race faster than a horse even if it stinks of iron. Only weapons smelled like iron in the past, while now in an every beaurocrat's house a barrel like this hangs out and stinks like iron. It's terrifying to think of the size of the motherland piece this beaurocrat sold for this barrel… Kissur turned around and slowly drove back. In a hundred yards, a cement road forked off the highway. Moon tatters floated in a little puddle at the road turn. "What road is that?", Kissur was curious and turned the car.
The road ended in ten minutes. The car beams tore at the darkness and illuminated a tall concrete fence with barbed wire on top and a lonely guard getting bored at the watchtower. A dark open field could be seen on the left and a yellow light beam from the beacon was hitting the field. Kissur got out of the car and walked down the field to the excavator that was ascending like a clockwork mole over a not-yet-fully-eaten hill. Tracks and wheels bulldozed the field and water gleamed in the clay ruts. The excavator was huge, taller than a poplar. It was one of these huge machines that swallow clay with some additives delivered from afar and spit out finished construction blocks.
Kissur climbed up a steep staircase to the top of the excavator. It was a long climb; the staircases twisted, went horizontal, changed in narrow paths between steel casings covering various mechanisms and finally finished at a tiny booth. The booth was locked; constellations of blue lights at the napping console looked at Kissur through the glass.
At this moment, the moon peered out of clouds again; Drunken River gleamed far away with the multi-coloured tower of Seven Clouds Bridge above it. Kissur suddenly recognized this field; it happened here, next to Seven Clouds, eight years ago. Kissur caught up with the rebel Khanalai right when he was going to enter the capital; Kissur and his five hundred horsemen drowned four thousand rebels in the river. The commander wore a ruby necklace; Kissur remembered very well how he cut off his head with one hand and stuffed the necklace in his coat with the other.
Kissur turned around and started to climb down the narrow staircase, smelling of oil and chemistry. His car purred quietly and complained about the open door. The guard hesitantly shifted from foot to foot in his nest. What's happening? Did some boss come in a luxurious barrel to look at the construction at night? It doesn't look like a robber… Take this excavator, such an insanely expensive machine that's tall like a cypress, walks by itself, digs earth by itself, piles the blocks behind by itself. They say that this machine costs three times more than the village that the guard was born and grew up in. They say even that it's more expensive than the Emperor's scepter covered with jewels and gold. That's probably bullshit; the Emperor's sceptor is the focus of the world and the buttress of power. When the Emperor knocks his scepter, flowers bloom and birds build nests; how can you compare it some ironmongery? You can't compare it to ironmongery and that's why people from the sky get angry and laugh at the scepter. Like it's all crap and the Spring comes not because the Emperor knocks the sceptor on the floor in the Hall of Hundred Fields but because Weia planet turns its side to the sun differently. But what if the people from the sky don't bullshit? What if their excavator is more powerful than the Emperor's scepter?
"Hey," Kissur asked, "what are they building here?"
" I don't know, sir", the frightened guard answered. "They say it will be a garbage plant."
"Who is building it?"
The puzzled guard was silent for a moment.
"I knew, sir, but the name is such difficult…"
The beacon from the tower was blinding Kissur's eyes, shamelessly eclipsing the moon. Kissur rolled on the heels, threw a coin to the guard, got in the car and left.
He didn't care where he went, but the wheels drove him of their own accord to Jasper Hills, the most expensive suburb of the capital. Painted walls extended behind the sidewalk covered with blue cloth; trees and turnip shaped turrets flashed behind the walls, and traffic lights blinked in the intersections illuminating statues of gods and road signs with transparent lights.
Kissur drove the wrong way down a one way street, turned the wrong way again and raced down night intersections not bothering to decrease his speed. He passed red lights twice without problems, but third time he was less lucky. Out of a white fence came a grey Daiquiri, looking like a gopher with a sharp snout, the last year model made by the Republic of Gera.
Kissur wrenched the steering wheel left even before the slow biolectronic guts of the car smelled danger. The brakes of both cars sang an ugly song in the night. Grey Daiquiri swerved left. Everything would have been fine, if not for the wet road cover. The grey car spun like a top and hit Kissur's car right side head-on.
Metal screeched desperately, like a chainlink mail parting under an old sword strike.
Everything became quiet.
The owner of Daiquiri jumped out of the car and rushed to the other auto; he jerked the driver's door open and looked inside. He was probably expecting to find a corpse or somebody severely wounded; he looked astonished when he discovered that the culprit was sitting in the car and getting his wallet out. Then, Kissur looked in rearview mirror, shifted from the collision, and noticed that his hair twisted in a bun was in disarray and the comb popped out of the bun like a button out of a safety switch. Kissur pulled the comb out and started to arrange his hair.
The other driver's face contorted like an image in a transvisor with a bad tracking; he started pulling Kissur out and hissed awfully in the language of the people from the stars.
"You, Weian monkey! Climb down a tree first, before you start driving."
The smile slowly left Kissur's face. He left the comb alone, grabbed the Earthman's wrists with his hands, got out of the car, and with a slight swing punched the Earthman in the solar plexis with his knee. He went limp and said "Ouch." Red unglazed tiles that were covering the ditch caved in with a crunch and the Earthman tumbled down through the tiles with his legs sticking up.
Kissur grinned, straightened up his shirt and started opening the car door.
In the next second, something gleamed above his head and refracted in the long titanium oxide rib of the car. Kissur turned with lightning speed. Great Wei! The Earthman dragged himself out of the tiled ditch and was flying at Kissur prancing like a goose. Astounded Kissur avoided the first punch, but the second almost shattered his jaw. Kissur was hurled in the corner between the door and rearview mirror. The mirror crunched and Kissur noticed the Earthman's right foot an inch away from his ear. Kissur grabbed and twisted this leg, but the masterly Earthman instead of smashing his face in the road, let out a war cry, threw his body strangely in the air and punched Kissur's belly with another leg. Kissur even fainted for a second. When he opened his eyes again, he found himself lying on the road like a pod from an eaten bean and the Earthman was going to punch him again. Kissur threw himself to the side; Earthman missed, and Kissur adroitly punched Earthman right in the place where the Earthman's corn grew from. This time Earthman's cry was less warlike. Kissur jumped with his back, bounced on his feet and hit the foe in the face, once and again; he went limp. Kissur prodded him in the groin to check, lifted him and flang the Earthman at the grey Daiquiri's windshield. The layered glass cracked and started to break, the Earthman dropped his head and lost consciousness.
Kissur stood breathing deeply and blinking with half mad eyes. He was trained to loose any self control during a fight; at times like this, Kissur's ancestors turned into wolves and bears. If Kissur had a sword, he would cut the scoundrel down. However, it would be stupid to wear a sword now and Kissur didn't have a liking for all these things with nulls, lights, gases — all having a hole in the middle like a wench. Though he had an automatic six pound laser and another very fashionable gadget in the car's trunk, Kissur didn't know even why he carried them. His friends did, so did he.
Kissur stood and shook his head purposelessly, slowly coming back in this world. The Earthman was lying on the car hood like a squashed frog. His white shirt and tie were hopelessly soiled with cranberry juice. The traffic light at the intersection blinked and changed color — the fugurine of a god-protector of intersections sparkled with green light. Kissur finally came to his senses. He chewed his lips and retrieved his round wallet out of a pocket. Kissur didn't respect plastic. He got out everything that he had in the wallet — he vaguely remembered that it was twenty or maybe fifty thousand — rolled the money in a wad and stuck it in the Earthmans's split lips. He didn't want them to say that he beat people free of charge.
Then he got in his car and left.
X X X
The car slowly rolled forward. Kissur felt slightly sick; blood dripped out of his nose. It wouldn't be proper to come back home looking like this.
Kissur passed several more mansions and stopped in front of beautiful brass gates. Horses and peacocks intertwined in a dance on the gates; the blue enamel on the horsetails glistened in the beam lights. The beauty of gates was such they seemed to lead from earth to heaven. Night garden's sweet smells wafted out from behind the gates. The turnip shaped turrets of the side houses stuck out from the dark mass of trees. Melancholic gods sat on the flat roofing of the covered road. At the side of the gates, a small ivory plaque glimmered, "Shavash Ahdi. The first vice-minister of finance. Vice prefect of the Sky City." A small figurine of the god-protector of the gates was next to the plaque. The god had a small basket with fish in his hand. A marble cup stood under the figurine. A piece of dried oil saturated cow dung burned in the cup; it demontrated the owner's modesty and honored the cane-built huts of ancient officials.
Surprisingly, the gates were closed — the vice prefect of the capital was not feeding either officials or paupers today.
The mansion's owner could've had numerous titles written on the plaque — the Keeper of Piety, the Brocade of Truth, the Flower Garden of the Wisdom Beyond the Sky, the Meadow of the State Virtue, etc… etc… He regularly received these titles from the Emperor and was supposed to engrave them on gate plaques. However, the owner of the mansion has often had visitors from the skies and he probably realized that the Brocade of Truth and the Flower Garden of Wisdom were not titles that would impress the foreigners.
Kissur blinked the lights; the gates suddenly moved to the sides without a call and Kissur drove in.
The yard was brightly lit. Streams of water and light erupted from the fountains and multi coloured balls bounced on the streams. Rows of columns and rose bushes led to the open front entrance. The columns tops made from carved jade and inlaid silver pointed to the moon. The host was already running down the staircase rushing to the wide path. A bowing servant opened the car door and Kissur stepped out of the car. Mr. Shavash froze as if he had ran into a wall but he recovered at once, opened his arms and embraced Kissur.
"Hello," he said.
"Well," said Kissur, "I was driving and decided to drop by. Sorry that I didn't warn you… I don't like these — beep, beep," Kissur traced a sickly body of a T-phone with his hand. "Are you busy?"
Mr. Shavash regarded the caved in car door and looked Kissur over from his head to his toes.
"Give me your driver's license," said the vice-minister of finance and the vice prefect of the capital.
Kissur bent his eyebrows, got the wallet out and handed his license over. The vice prefect waved the license, thought a bit, tore it apart and threw it in the lighted fountain.
"Whom have you run over?"
"I haven't run anybody over," answered Kissur, "I hit a pole."
This lie would have a short life span. If the Earthman is dead, Shavash will learn everything tomorrow morning. If he is alive, Shavash may learn about it tonight. Kissur, however, didn't come to Shavash to avoid a scandal. Thank God, the time hasn't come yet for a foreigner wearing a tie to turn in a complaint about a personal friend of the Emperor.
"The pole," mentioned Shavash, "had leaden fists."
"Are you waiting for somebody," asked Kissur, "did I come at a wrong time?"
Shavash became slightly embarassed.
"You are always welcome."
Shavash gave orders; Kissur followed to the guest chambers. A servant rushed along in mincing steps carrying a basket with clean sheets. Shavash said to Kissur's back,
"You will not drive again. Otherwise you will die sometime."
"It's ok," replied Kissur, "if Gods like a man, he dies young."
X X X
Twenty minutes later, bowing servants walked Kissur down the roofed path to the Pavilion of White Creeks.
There were two pavilions for receiving important guests in the Shavash's estate — the Pavilion of White Creeks and the Red Pavilion. Pavilion of White Creeks was decorated in the traditional style, the floors were covered with knee deep white rugs, flower spheres swang under the ceiling, incense flowed from golden braziers, silken scrolls rimmed with fur hang on the walls, while the corners (corners are indeed atrocious things, everything bad in a house comes from the corners) were hidden well from a random glance by long ivy plants rising all the way to the ceiling. Red Pavilion was designed by an Earthman.
Shavash usually received Weians in the Pavilion of White Creeks and Earthmen in the Red Pavilion. They claimed that these places had magical properties — when Mr. Shavash received Weians in the Pavilion of White Creeks he discoursed one way, but when he received Earthmen in the Red Pavilion his speeches were very different. For instance, when questioned about the reasons for the Empire's poverty in the Pavilion of White Creeks, he complained about the greed of people from the skies who only try to buy as much Weia as possible for a keg of marinated onions. However when asked the same question in the Red Pavilion, he complained about laziness and selfishness of Weian officials. Since these different speeches belonged to the same person, you have to agree, that the magical properties of these buildings had to be involved.
The servants brought trays of roasted goose and baskets of picked fruit and covered the table with vegetable and meat appetizers.The melon floating in a silver basin was delivered the last. Shavash seated Kissur as the guest of honor and broke off the top of clay wine jar. Kissur caught the top and glanced at the stamp.
"Good wine," Kissur, "if this stamp is not counterfeited."
"There are no fakes in my house," Shavash replied, "it was made in Inissa in the fifth year of sovereign Varnazd rein."
"It was made when the empire was still the empire. It was made when I was not a minister yet, when I was a brigand in Kharain mountains and when my wife was your fiancee.
Shavash smiled slightly and poured wine in the cups.
"I would," Kissur spoke, "drink a wine that was bottled in the times of sovereign Irshahchan. When there were no merchants and bribers and when all these barbarians from the mountains or from the sky didn't wave their swords or their science in front of our people's faces.
"I am afraid," Shavash replied, "that no wine that ancient exists. And even if it's around still, it has turned into vinegar."
The friends intertwined their hands and drank wine.
After that, Shavash started on a young bamboo shoot and a river calimari with a spicy Iniss sauce appetizers. Kissur, squinting, rolled a cup in his hands and looked at the man sitting across the table.
Even among Weian officials that nobody would suspect to be excessively uncorrupted, Shavash had made himself quite a reputation. Shavash's servants took bribes, Shavash's assistants took bribes, Shavash's wife (by the way, Kissur's wife was her sister) took bribes; they took bribes with lands and stocks, with licenses and money, with options and thoroughbreds, with the newest financial tools and ancient paintings, took bribes from provincial and center worlds, took bribes from the Federation of Nineteen and the Republic of Gera — though the dictator of Gera didn't take bribes and didn't really give much. One official asked what kind of place a supermarket was; they told him that it was a place where one could by anything. "Oh, it's Mr. Shavash's house," the astonished official exclaimed. Kissur once, after some really offensive deal, grabbed Shavash by his shirt at the Emperor's soiree and asked what the current price was for a pound of motherland. "I love motherland and I charge a lot for it," Shavash leered. Mr. Shavash liked to state that if a man says that he doesn't like money, it means that money doesn't like him.
Since the Earthmen came to the planet, seven years and four cabinets have passed. Every one of the cabinets fired all its predecessor's functionaries. Shavash was the only higher level official who worked for all the cabinets and survived. The first man he betrayed in order to survive was his teacher and lord, Nan, who had made him a big boss out of an street urchin thief. Thanks to such a long political life, Shavash was able to pull all the strings of power and influence in the country in spite of his relative youth — he was only two years older than Kissur.
Shavash could help or hinder anything. Even the biggest country bumpkin Earthmen — who came to Weia to invest in a construction of some resort in the middle of untamed nature or in the development of a uranium mine that will sooner or later finish this untamed nature off — knew that they should introduce themselves to the first vice minister of finance and they should invest in Shavash first, and in a mine next.
Kissur had just finished half of the goose, when a bowing servant slid in the room and handed Shavash a paper. "At the intersection of Spring Fires, the traces of a two car collision were found, the unglazed tile ditch cover was broken through, blood and fragments of headlights identical to the broken headlight of Kissur's car were present. The grey paint particles stuck to Kissur's car trunk match to the grey paint particles found at the collision place." That was the answer to the orders Shavash had given his secretary twenty minutes ago.
Shavash folded the paper sheet and put it in his pocket.
"What," Kissur asked, "are they building at the Seven Clouds field?"
The official pondered.
"Garbage processing plant," he said.
"Who? Another of their corporations?"
"The company CB Trade. The owner of company is Kaminski. What's the problem?"
"Nothing. I was just passing by and got curious."
"So, have they built the plant?"
"No," Kissur said, "they haven't built it yet. They built a big road to the garbage plant."
Shavash reflectively touched the paper in his pocket. Kissur sucked on a goose breast bone, washed it down with another wine cup and said, "Garbage plant! Our ancestors swept garbage out of their houses only at a full moon. They used to call a charmer, so that a warlock would not be able to pick up trash and put a spell on them. Imagine what would happen in Earthmen's houses if they threw garbage out only once a month? All their wraps and cans would rise above the ceiling even thought their ceilings are very high! How can a people that generates so much garbage call itself civilized? How dare these people teach us to manufacture goods only to dispose of them afterwards?!
Shavash didn't react to this tirade in any way. Kissur silently finished wine and his eyes became even more desperate.
"Why," Kissur asked, "does the capital need a garbage processing plant?"
"Probably," Shavash supposed, "to process garbage."
"Crap," Kissur objected, "Earthmen don't need plants to process garbage. They produce garbage, as an excuse to build garbage processing plants. Why don't we ask the sovereign to ban this construction? Almost in the center of the capital!"
Shavash pressed his thumb in the armchair and looked thoughtfully at Kissur. It looked like he was pondering something.
"Don't be afraid," Shavash said suddenly, "Kaminski will not built his garbage plant."
"As you mentioned, this is almost downtown. The status of the land will be reconsidered; industrial construction will be prohibited; the business and industrial land committee will submit a complaint; the sovereign will sign it and the garbage plant construction will be cancelled."
"But the foundation is already there."
"Mr. Kaminski will receive a compensation for the foundation — two million."
"Then, Mr. Kaminski will built a new business center instead of a garbage plant on the business zoned land."
"I am probably very stupid," Kissur remarked, "but I don't understand what's going on."
"Lands of the Empire that are sold to foreign investors as a private property," Shavash patiently explained, "can be divided in four categories — agrarian, residential, industrial and business lands. Industrial zoned land costs twelve times less than business zoned one. If Mr. Kaminsky had bought the land for a business center, it would have been too expensive for him."
"And what about the foundation?" Shavash spread his hands.
"I am not an engineer, of course, and they don't allow outsiders to visit the construction. If however, I was an engineer and I was allowed there, I would probably notice that the foundation and the underground communications confirm to a business center specifications and not to a garbage processing facility specifications."
Kissur's face froze.
"So," he said, "that's what Kaminsky will get two million compensation for?"
"Kaminsky," Shavash responded, "will not get the compensation. The compensation will be procured by a Weian official who affirms the complaint and transfer land from one zoning category into another."
"Hold on, this deal must have passed through your prefecture!"
"In this case, the contract did not pass via the prefecture. It passed through Mr. Khanida's department."
"I see. You can't forgive Khamida that it was him and not you to receive the money."
"This money wouldn't hurt me"
Kissur stood up and started pacing in the pavilion.
"Mutual profit," Shavash talked, "is the basis of cooperation. Kaminsky will save four hundred million; Khamida will receive two million. Weian officials cost cheap."
"What if everything falls through? If the sovereign fires Khamida before he changes the land zoning?"
"Well, Kaminsky gave Khamida only a little bit, less than seven hundred thousand. The rest Khamida will get only upon a successful completion of the deal and he will not get it from the Earthman — he will get it from the state. Khamida is not the one who invented it, it's a well known setup."
"What other setups are there?" Kissur asked quickly.
The official spread his hands smiling like a porcelain cat. He evidently didn't want to tell Kissur about all the different ways of selling his own country, even though he was much more nimble than Khanida in this business.
"Kissur, you haven't seen my watch collection in a while. Let's go and look at it." Standing up unhurriedly, Shavash approached a fifth dynasty cabinet that stood in the living room. Shavash' s collection of Weian pocket watches was filling the sparkling malachite shelves in the cabinet. The collection had indeed improved. A tiny sand watch in a tumbler braided with gold knots was added. Also new were three mechanical pocket watches that just started to appear in the Empire before the catastrophe and were luxury and therefore art, with fanciful ornament and decorations, with mother-of-pearl hands made in the image of the eternity god, hence they had nothing to do with this flat crap that even women now worn on their wrists. Other new additions were present: a tiny watch embedded in a lid of a jade powder box — it didn't have a glass cover, it had a twined filigree lattice and a single hour hand languished behind it as if in prison cell; an oval watch strewn with pearls had two faces — one face for the minute and another for the hour hand — and a long chain with jade pendants that high officials used to wear personal seals. A seal was at the botton and the watch covered with tiny jewels at the top.
Kissur suddenly grabbed Shavash by his right hand — a homely watch with a simple platinum face was there and twenty six hours of Weian time were marked with Earthern numerals.
"Yes," Shavash said thickly, "there are no more Weian numerals. Our time has been severed. Let my hand go now or you will break it again."
Grinning Kissur released Shavash's hand, turned to the shelf and picked up an onion shaped watch with a crystal top. Agitation briefly ran over Shavash's face — he loved this onion more than any of his concubines and Kissur knew that. Kissur squeezed the onion in his fist and waved it in front of Shavash's face.
"So," Kissur asked, "what other ways are there? How many of your monthly salaries did this onion cost?"
Shavash suddenly twisted like a cat protecting its kittens.
"Put it back now," he hissed.
Nobody knows how Kissur woud have answered if a brass gong had not banged at the hall entrance and an incoming servant announced,
"Mr. Bemish begs forgiveness for being late."
"Let him in," Shavash cried desperately.
Kissur's lips twitched; he put the onion back in place and for a second longer looked at the numerals in the hands of the eternity god twisted around the dial.
Isn't it strange? A while ago this fashion for watches was started by this scoundrel, minister Nan, who later appeared to be a barbarian from the stars, — Kissur couldn't stand this fashion — how could it be that a watch hand commanded a Man like an owner his slave. And now his heart hurt when he saw the Weian numerals and a Weian device.
When Kissur turned around, the official was already standing at the entrance and bowing ceremoniously to the Earthman.
"Please," Shavash said, "let me introduce you to each other. Terence Bemish, the general director of ADO company and Mr. Kissur, an Emperor's personal friend…."
The Earthman and Kissur looked at each other.
Kissur's eyes popped out; it was the same man he had a fight with only two hours ago. Great Wei! Kissur thought the Earthman had died and the guy even managed to change his shirt!
"We have met already," the Earthman reported in an even voice and added, "Mr. Kissur, I was just going to hand you over a letter." He stepped closer to Kissur and put a white envelope in his hand. Kissur felt a wad of crimpled money under the plastic paper.
Kissur guffawed and slapped Bemish on the shoulder. Bemish bit his lips for a second, pondering if he should punch the guy in the face, but Kissur was laughing so merrily that Bemish couldn't help but join him.
Shavash batted his eyelids apprehensively. The official had to solve several problems quickly and the most pressing one was where to receive the guests and what language to use. It was a very important question due to this strange quality of Shavash's soul; as we have discussed, a conversation in a different language seemingly transferred it to a different world. We have mentioned, that when somebody asked Shavash in
Interenglish about the reasons for pauperism in the Empire, Shavash denounced passionately unbearable state expenses and the state budget that half of the country's banks made fortunes on. However, when somebody asked him the same question in Weian, he castigated the gluttony of the people from the stars who were buying the country for a wine jar. Hence, Shavash avoided speaking Interenglish next to a Weian and speaking Weian next to a person from the stars. His brain got muddled otherwise.
Shavash carefully pulled a window curtain away and looked outside. A taxi stood far outside, behind the white wall. Oh, the Earthman flew in yesterday and rented a car — a grey Daiquiri. Hmm, to change a car is more difficult than to change a shirt.
"Well, gentlemen," Shavash said, still undecided about the hall, "the night is divine, why should we sit inside eight walls, let's go into the garden."
"I apologize," Kissur bowed, " but I need to go."
"What…" Shavash started.
"Gentlemen," Kissur said, "I'll only get in your way. Two respectable people are going to discuss an important business. It's not a place for a vagrant like me. You are not going to waste your time on small things like a garbage plant, are you?"
THE SECOND CHAPTER
Where the sad history of the Assalah spacefield is told while the ex-first minister of Empire finds himself a new friend
Next morning Terence Bemish sat in his room on the seventh floor of the local Hilton hotel nudging the back of his head and feeling annoyed. His head hurt as hell. A large peony-shaped bruise swelled on his cheekbone.
Somebody knocked in the door — Stephen C. Welsey, an employee of one of the largest investment banks in the Galaxy and Terence's colleague on this stupid trip, walked in.
"Wow," Welsey said, looking curiously at the peony bruise, "is it a local mafia?"
"Ah, a guy shattered my car's headlamps."
"And then?" Welsey asked with an undisguised curiosity knowing that a while ago the sixteen year old future corporate raider Terence Bemish got to the semi-finals of a youth kickboxing Galaxy championship.
"To be honest," Bemish said, "I was a complete pig. These jerks charged me three times more for the rent than this tin can really costs. I grabbed the guy by his shirt and called him a Weian monkey or something like that. He punched me in the face."
"Thank God, you were smart enough to hold back."
"To the contrary," Bemish said bitterly, "I punched him back."
Welsey's raised his eyebrows in astonishment.
"To summarize," Bemish explained, "he drove away and left me sitting with my butt inside the crashed windshield."
"What about Shavash?"
"I changed my clothing and went to Shavash."
"Shavash is a very intelligent person," Bemish said, "and his education is impeccable. He knows everything about IPO, underwriters, cumulative privileged stocks, etc… You have to admit that in a country where most people are sure that when an Earth starship reaches the sky, the Earthmen knock in the sky and God opens them a brass door, that's pretty impressive. He is a very intelligent man who encompassed the best in the both cultures — Weian and Galactic ones."
"What does it mean?"
"He can bankrupt you without breaking a sweat like a vulture fund manager and he can personally cut your head off like a true Weian official. He is the most charming man."
"So, what has the most charming man told you about your desire to buy Assalah?"
"That to agree to our proposal means to sell the motherhood for a sour cream jar."
"Well, should we pack our things and leave?"
"Not necessarily. Mr. Shavash hinted that he would be ready to sell the motherhood for a sour cream jar, if the jar was big enough."
"Don't I dream sometimes," he said, "that at some point the Securities and Stocks Committee will allow us to have an entry in a balance sheet — "for bribing of the developing markets officials" — and it will be tax deductible… How much does he want?"
"We didn't get to particular numbers."
Bemish was silent for a moment and continued,
"The company stocks are unbelievably under priced. I am not going to give him any money. Let him buy stock warrants, this way it would be in his interest for the company to survive and prosper."
"What is that you don't like?"
"Shavash is not the director of the company."
"Excuse me," Welsey was amazed, "what do you mean, he is not a director? All the forms say — Shavash Ahdi, the director of the state-owned Assalah Company."
"Stephen, it is a poor translation. The company is not owned by the state, it is owned by the sovereign. Do you see the difference? "State" and "sovereign" are two different conjugations of the same word in Weian — nouns have conjugations here — what a language… When the translation says, the state appoints, it really means, the sovereign appoints. The sovereign personally appoints and revokes the company president; the sovereign personally accepts financial plans. What if the sovereign does not accept the IPO plan? Bye-bye sour cream…"
"Hmm," Welsey said, "From what I've heard, you can't really say he spends all his time studying companies' IPO plans during the de-nationalization process. They say he has seven hundred concubines…"
"Yes, but what's the guarantee that some official that can't stand Shavash doesn't go to the sovereign and tell him about the sour cream jar."
"Giles from IC told me that we would not even be able to get papers for the space field preliminary checkup without bribing Shavash first."
Bemish retorted, "What is the IC? I've never heard about this company."
Somebody knocked in the door.
"Come in," Welsey shouted.
A boy with a card on a silver tray materialized at the entrance. As a local custom demanded, the boy kneeled down on a scrawny knee in front of the foreigner. Bemish took the card. The boy said,
"A gentleman would like to have a breakfast with you. The gentleman is waiting down in the foyer."
"I am coming," Bemish said.
The boy backed away and left. Bemish hurriedly pulled on pants and a jacket. Welsey took the card.
"Kissur," he read, "wow, isn't he the Emperor's favorite who filched a Van Leyven's bomber plane and slaughtered the rebels next to the capital? Didn't he later get on LSD and gang up with anarchists on Earth? Where did you pick this drug addict up?"
Bemish checked his bruise out in the mirror.
"Drug addicts," Bemish said, "don't fight like this."
X X X
Terence Bemish descended.
Slim and smiling Kissur sat on the car hood. He wore soft grey pants girdled by a wide belt embroidered with silver sharks and a grey jacket. A wide necklace made of jade plates set in gold glistened under the open jacket akin to a collar. The attire was similar enough to the contemporary fashion to look unobtrusive, except for the necklace and the finger rings. Bemish winced involuntarily and touched his cheekbone where Kissur's ring tore the skin off.
"Hello," Kissur said, "general director! Never in my life have I met a general director who fights like this. Are you special?"
"I am special," Terence Bemish agreed.
Laughing, Kissur embraced him, seated him in the car and started the engine.
"What have you seen in our capital?" Kissur asked.
"Have you seen nothing at all?"
"Well, I saw cards in the hotel hall," Bemish said, "and I also saw a warning there — don't eat fried river calamari on the market if the calamari are from the left river, where the leather processing plant "flows" to."
"Got you," Kissur said, "let's go then."
They drove over the river across a blue lacquered bridge, loaded with market stalls and people. Kissur stopped on the bridge in front of a wreath shop, bought three of them, put one on his neck, another on Bemish's and later left the third one in the temple of the Sky Swans.
After that, Kissur drove Bemish around the city.
The city, that Bemish hadn't seen yet, was both beautiful and ugly. Temple turrets and muraled precinct gates mixed with astonishing five storied shanty houses built from the stuff that Bemish wouldn't dare to build a cardboard box; potters on the floating market sold enticing jars painted with grasses and flowers and empty rainbow hued Coke bottles. Melon peels and colorful wraps floated down the canal — the remnants of everything that grew on Weia and came from the skies, everything that found a place in the mammoth belly of the Sky City but didn't find a place in the weak bowels of its sewage.
They watched a puppet show at the market based on a new popular TV series demonstrating the mutual integration of the cultures; they fed holy mice and dropped by the Temple of Isia-ratouph, where stone gods dressed in long caftans and high suede boots nodded to visitors if they dropped coins (bought here) down a slot in the wall.
Kissur showed the Earthman a wonderful town clock made in the very beginning of the sovereign Kassia's rule. There were twenty three thousand figurines next to the clock, a thousand for an every province, and they all represented officials, peasants and artisans. They spun in front of the dial displaying a blue mountain. Bemish asked why the mountain was blue and Kissur answered that was the mountain that stood above the sky and had four colors — blue, red, yellow and orange. The blue side of the mountain faces the Earth — that's why sky is blue. The orange side of the mountain faces the gods, hence the sky above the place where gods live is orange.
This was a standard cultural program except for the fact the director of a modest company registered in the state of Delaware, USA, Federation of Nineteen was accompanied by one of the richest people in the Empire.
Finally, Kissur stopped at a temple somewhere at the city outskirts. He, probably, stopped there because of a two thousand step long staircase leading to the temple. Kissur started running up the steps and Bemish desperately tried to keep up. He was out of breath and his heart was pounding in the chest, but the Earthman and the Weian got to the top of the colonnade side by side, looked at each other and laughed.
"Like a pig race," Kissur said, gasping for breath, "Terence, have you seen a pig race?"
"We must go there. I threw away twenty thousand last week on this Red Nose bastard."
It was dark and cool inside the temple. A bronze god in a brocade caftan and high suede boots sat amidst green and gold columns and his wife sat in the next hall. Kissur said that Weians didn't put much stock in bachelor gods. A god should be a good family man and an exemplary father, otherwise what can he expect from people?
Bemish listened to the strange silence in the temple and perused the face of the god and the family man.
"By the way, where did you learn to fight?"
"My father taught me," Bemish said, "he was a well-known sportsman. I almost became one myself."
The ex-first minister's eyebrows, furled in contempt were visible even in the temple dusk
"Sportsman…" he drawled, "it's a shameful business to fight for plebeian delight. Why haven't you become a warrior?
Terence Bemish was amazed. To say the truth, it has never occurred to him to join the army, not even in his wildest dreams.
"The army," Bemish said, "is for losers."
The ex-premier grinned.
"Yes," he replied, "for an Earthman, anything that can't procure wealth is for losers. The Earthmen make money out of wars no longer; they make money out of money.
"I didn't mean that," Bemish objected, "I want to be myself and not a trigger pulling machine. The army means the loss of freedom."
"Crap," said Kissur, "the army is the only way to freedom. There is nobody between a warrior and god."
"Maybe," Bemish agreed, "only our army hasn't fought for the last one hundred thirteen years."
They left the hall, walked through a rock and flower garden and found themselves in another temple wing — enticing smells wafted from there and Bemish saw cars with diplomatic plate licenses through a twined lattice. Bemish thought the temple rented this house out but Kissur told him that an eatery had always been there.
They walked down into the yard. A fountain babbled in the yard inconsolably and people sat at the tables under the swaying yellow tents. Kissur seated Bemish at a table, grabbed a passing waiter, plucked two wine jars from his basket and ordered food.
"So," Kissur said, pouring spicy palm wine down the clay mugs, "you have never been to a war. What do you do then?"
"I am in finance. The company that belongs to me will possibly be interested in buying some stuff here."
"Are you rich?"
"You don't have to be rich in order to acquire a company. You just have to have a reputation of a man who can triple the stock price of this company in a year and a financial company who can raise money for you."
"Aha. Do you have one?"
"Yes. My colleague Welsey represents it. It's LSV bank."
"Are foreign banks allowed here?"
"LSV is not a deposit bank. They are in investment business, "Bemish said, feeling slightly offended for the fifth largest investment bank in the Galaxy.
Here, Kissur astounded Bemish. The ex-first minister of the Empire of the Great Light looked at Bemish and asked,
"Oh, do banks engage in anything beyond usury?"
Bemish was silent for a moment. Then he carefully inquired,
"Kissur, do you know what a stock is?"
"Hmm," the ex-minister said, "it's when you get a loan?"
Bemish almost choked.
"Am I not right?"
"When they loan money and issue securities it is called bonds."
"That's what I am saying. Isn't it the same thing?"
"No," Bemish said, "When a company issues stocks, whoever buys a stock becomes a co-owner of the company and has a right to vote at a stock holder meeting. He also gets dividends and their size depends on the company's performance. On the other hand, when a company issues bonds, it means that it borrows money and whoever buys bonds will have guaranteed payments till the loan will be paid off, if the company does not go bankrupt, of course."
"Oh, how interesting," Kissur said; he snapped his fingers and shouted,
"Chief! Where is the jellyfish?"
Bemish had never eaten marinated jellyfish before and he wasn't particularly curious about it; he sincerely wished that the place ran out of them. However, the jellyfish arrived, looking like a pile of broken plexiglass smothered in with red sauce, and Kissur continued,
"What company are you aiming at?"
"The company that received a concession for the Assalah spaceport construction. Since the sovereign owns 65 % of the company's capital, accordingly to your laws he appointed the company director — Mr. Shavash."
Kissur, having some vague recollection that Shavash owned twelve more companies like that including the Galaxy's second biggest (and rated one hundred eighteenth in efficiency) uranium mine, silently nodded.
"Are you definitely buying it?"
"It depends on a number of factors."
"It depends on the current state of the construction, the state of the world stock market by the time of the IPO, the IPO volume and its prospects, — you see, LSV can act as an underwriter and get a profit selling securities but prices may go down after the IPO and then LSV will incur all the losses. It is also important what kind of securities it will be, stocks, bonds, or derivatives.
"Bonds would be better," Kissur said.
"You said it yourself — if anybody buys stocks, he also buys the company. What if somebody buys the spaceport? All these… trying to worm their way in here…"
Bemish choked a bit, but it was probably caused by the unusual taste of jellyfish.
"Tell me more about the company," Kissur demanded.
The Assalah Company was founded four years ago for the construction and the industrial usage of a spaceport with a twenty five square mile landing area that could potentially be increased. 15 square miles of peasant communal land was appropriated for the construction. The company issued six hundred forty million stocks with a nominal price of one hundred isheviks each. The state kept 65 % of the stocks and the management received five percent. The community peasants got about seven percent. Instead of getting cash for the appropriated lands, these people obtained a partnership in the future construction. Fifteen percent of stocks was sold via the over-the-counter market.
The construction was going along rapidly; the stocks were pretty high up and their price reached three thousand isheviks or eighteen Galactic dinars on the stock exchange. Then the director embezzled too much and a scandal burst; it became apparent that only one third of planned construction had been accomplished, the market crashed, almost all of upper managers were arrested, the workers scurried away picking up everything that the managers hadn't stolen yet; the construction halted on its own volition and never started up again. Shavash was appointed the head of the company, though I think that he had originally been on the Board of Directors.
"That's simple," Kissur said, "if Shavash was on the Board to begin with, it means that he quarreled with his colleagues and had them imprisoned."
"I don't know," Bemish said, "you see, this kind of stuff would not be included in IPO prospects. Shavash tried to set up an international IPO and he got in touch with "Merrill Roberto Darnhem." He almost pulled it off but the investors refused to undersign the issue in the end."
"Because," Bemish gleefully explained, "a rebellion or something the government considered a rebellion happened in Chakhar that month, and a certain Kissur led his tanks among other things through the production facilities of a soft beverage joint corporation, squashing under his tracks a manager named Rodger Gernis. After this little trip, the securities of six Weian companies that had passed the international certification plunged down and bruised themselves and nobody wanted to talk about a new IPO. Didn't you know about it?"
Kissur twirled his head thoughtfully.
"I've heard something about it," he said, "but I don't see anything wrong if your sharks don't eat our carp."
"Your carp won't get smarter if nobody swallows it."
Kissur raised his head and looked thoughtfully at Bemish. His jaws moved powerfully, crunching the jellyfish like it was not a jellyfish but at least a lamb bone.
"That's well said, financier, " Kissur mentioned, "it's frank, at least. Do you own a construction company?"
"More or less."
"What kind of construction?"
"It makes automated doors for monorail subway cars."
Kissur pondered. He was evidently trying to figure out the relationship between the automated doors and the Assalah spacefield and he just could not fathom it.
"Have you inherited it from your father?" Kissur asked.
"No, I bought it a year ago."
"To use it as a tool to acquire a bigger company."
This statement was more frank and even scandalous compared to the previous one about the carp. It would make the Galactic Reserve bureaucrat twitch but Kissur clearly didn't care.
Kissur poured Bemish palm wine and they drank a mug and then another one.
"What's so special about you, director?" Kissur asked suddenly.
Bemish was silent for a moment. He wouldn't mind having Kissur as an ally. He realized that Kissur detested everything to do with Earthmen and their money and he couldn't predict the Kissur's reaction to his next statement.
"Most general directors," Bemish delivered, "slowly climb up the corporate ladder, play golf with their equals and charge their own companies for the their cats' space travels. They won't let me play golf with them. They call me and my likes corporate raiders. We don't play by the rules. We buy companies and fire ineffective management. We buy companies with other people's money and pay off loans by selling half of what we bought."
Kissur sipped wine. He didn't care a fig that the Securities and Stocks Committee was now discussing the legal issues of corporate raiders' actions yet again, and that Terence Bemish's name was often being mentioned in not the most favorable way.
"So," Kissur said, "the Assalah spacefield. It's in Chakhar, at the border with the capital region… They grow great grapes in Assalah… Isn't one hole in the sky enough for Chakhar?"
"No," Bemish said, "one hole in the sky appears not to be enough. It was also supposed to be a temporary hole built in a swamp. The Chakhar capital becomes as inaccessible in the rainy season, as a marsh village during a flood. The landing blocks grow wet mildew and the spaceships hang out there in space and charge so much for the delays, that cost as much as ten spacefields or one palace. "
"How horrible!" Kissur exclaimed.
"Didn't you know that?"
"I am not a shopkeeper," the ex-first minister of the Empire was offended, "everybody, interested in this, starts giving bribes or making money sooner or later."
He was silent for a moment and then added, "so did you come to Shavash about this… hole in the sky? How much did he ask?" Bemish grinned savagely.
"I am not in the habit of giving anything to the management of the companies acquired by me accept for a kick in the butt. Assalah will be sold on an investment auction. I will win this auction and that's it."
Kissur's blue eyes bored in the Earthman sitting in from of him. "Something is funky here, "Kissur thought. "Either the Earthman is afraid to confess about the bribe or Shavash is going to get foxy on him. One of them is lying to me and I'll rub an onion in his eyes.
X X X
Bemish drove away in an unknown direction. Stephen Welsey shaved, took a shower, ate breakfast, prepared related papers, visited an official named Ishmik, who was connected to the state archive, where the financial documentation of the Assalah company's previous stage was stored accordingly to the Empire laws.
Next to the gates covered with silver curls and golden feathers, two guards squatted and shelled earth nuts.
"Is it Mr. Ishmik's house?" Welsey asked in Interenglish, slowing down and sticking his head out of the car.
"Yep," one guard answered.
Welsey got out of the car and barely stepped on a white sand path.
"Where are the gifts?" the guard said.
"What gifts?" Welsey was astonished.
"Gifts so that we announced you to Mr. Ishmik."
Welsey got back in the car, turned around and left. Five minutes passed by. The guards still sat shelling the earth nuts and looked thoughtfully at the empty road.
"Nissan 254, " one of the guards said, "last model."
"Such ignorance," the other said, "how can you visit a high official's house without gifts. Such an uncultured man!"
Welsey's next visit was to the land rights precinct. He needed to find out the exact status of the peasant and state lands acquired for the Assalah landing strips. The IPO documentation that he studied on Earth, mentioned a long term lease with a right to buy out, and Welsey needed to find out whether or not the acquisition had already happened. A plump official rumpled the papers in his hands for a while and even pretended to read English while holding the document upside down.
"Why isn't the paper signed?" he proclaimed suddenly, returning Welsey the sheet. "But this is the first page!" Welsey said, "The signature is on the second page."
The official knitted his brows.
"What if the first page is a fake?"
"Are you going to force me fly back to Earth to get the signature, " Welsey asked irritably, "why don't you pay for a ticket then?"
The official realized how ignorant the man was and did his best to get rid of him.
In the third precinct, Welsey barely stepped in the office, where a young official with smart penetrating eyes stood to meet him, when the door opened quietly again and a Tserrina consulate courier darted in, holding a large basket in his hands. The official looked desperately at Welsey and the latter uttered, "I'll wait outside, " and stepped out. In a moment, Welsey heard in Interenglish,
"Please accept this trifle from me and turn a benevolent face towards me."
Welsey rushed out.
X X X
After the pub, Kissur dragged Bemish home. Bemish didn't find Kissur's mansion to be entirely immured in the past — a closed circuit camera roved its eye and the powerful neon lamps hung among the marble columns flanking, customarily, the path to the main building. However, Bemish made out an altar in the garden and a lamb, slashed wide open, lay on it.
Evidently, Kissur brought Bemish home for dinner and their food at the pub was just the appetizing hors d'oervres. Bemish hiccuped. Kissur warned Bemish away from the women's quarters and went away vociferously instructing the proper preparation of pheasants.
The Earthman was left in one of the halls with windows facing the garden and walls draped with archaic silks. A weapons collection was arranged on the wall — an encrusted with mother-of-pearl and gold poleax, a simple battle-axe, swords, one arrow-head covered in blood. When Kissur returned, Bemish inquired about the strange collection theme.
"These are the weapons I was not killed with," Kissure answered.
He moved to the wall and picked a heavy spear with a blue pinecone at the end.
"In a two day trip from your Assalah, the mountains begin and I was cut off in the mountain woods with maybe a thousand people, and Kharan — that was the scoundrel's name — had about fifteen thousand. But while Kharan dawdled on the plains, I ordered the trees along the road to be axed part way. When they finally entered the forest, the trees started falling on their heads and we butchered the ones who were still alive. Still, it wasn't such an easy feat and I was almost killed with this spear."
Kissur was silent for a moment.
"It's silly to kill somebody with it now, isn't it? A laser would be way more reliable."
Kissur pivoted and threw the spear. It flew through the open window and implanted itself in a decorated gazebo pole. Bemish walked out to look — the spear had completely run through the pole. The pole was more than ten inch thick.
Bemish wrenched the spear out and returned to the room.
Having eaten, Kissur hauled his new friend across the river, where the Lower City shined and melted in the afternoon sunlight, thousand year old dwellings of artisans, shopkeepers, and thieves, filled with crooked back alleys making them impassable for cars and blocked by gates that the local denizens used to defend themselves against bandits and, occasionally, officials.
A market thundered deafeningly next to the river; it smelled of fried fish and fresh blood; an old woman with a face like a dried fig was quickly and deftly plucking a cock; passing by a cabbage cart while unloading, Bemish noticed a small rocket launcher under the cabbage.
Slightly further, people crowded around a movable stage where a show was taking place.
"Let's go, Kissur suddenly yanked the Earthman, "you have to see this."
Kissur and Bemish squeezed in closer.
A dignified oldster in a waving red dress manufactured two human figurines with an incredible nimbleness — one out of clay and another out of white rock — put them on the stage, covered them with a decrepit rag. He passed his hands, took the rag off — and where the clay figurines had been — two youths jumped up. The youths started to dance in front of the audience, and soon a lively conversation between them and the oldster issued forth. Intrigued Bemish asked Kissur what the play was about.
"The show is based on an old myth," Kissur said.
You see, when god was making the world, he made two people — one out of clay, another out of rock. Both of them knew as much as the gods knew but the clay man was simple and guileless while the iron man was envious and crafty. The gods took heed and thought, "People walk among us and they probably know as much as we do. We could get in trouble."
They called the iron man in and asked, "What do you know?" Since the iron man was crafty and secretive, he answered, just in case, that he was no smarter than the carp had in his basket. The gods dismissed him and called the clay man in. They asked him, what he knows. "Everything," the guileless clay man replied. The gods pondered and took half of his knowledge away.
After Kissur had explained the meaning of the play to him, Bemish started to follow what was happening on the stage. Soon it became evident to him, that nothing good came out of the man who lied to the gods and knew as much as they did. This man cooked up a lot of schemes, stole stars from the sky, made an iron horse plow fields for him and was caught when he took a god's image and fornicated with his wife.
After that, the god in the red dress chased after the iron man with a bundle of whips; the iron man squealed and flipped over into an open hatch. The audience guffawed. The show came to an end and the god in the red dress started to walk among the people with a plate.
Bemish enjoyed this folk show much more than the morning TV play.
"Did I get it right that the iron man died?" Bemish queried.
"No. He dropped underground and he had children and grandchildren there. Since then, the iron people live underground and they are responsible for all the calamities above ground. They cajole the mountain spirits to start earthquakes and generals to rebel. Accordingly to the legend, at the end of the world, the iron men will crawl out from underground in the flesh, or more precisely, in the iron; will take the land away from the people, the sacrifices away from the gods and will generally misbehave."
"Will there be the second act?" Bemish asked. He wanted to see how the iron men cajoled generals to rebel.
"Inevitably," Kissur grinned.
Then, the god stopped in front of them with the tray full of jingling coins; Kissur, grinning widely, put two large pink bills with a crane picture on the tray. "Braggart," Bemish thought irritably. He didn't want to appear miserly, and he looked in the wallet. He didn't find any large Weian banknotes there but he had about hundred dinars in the passport just in case
— the Earthman had been warned that ATM machines didn't readily present themselves. Bemish extracted two notes and put them on the tray.
The god in a ragged dressing gown took the gray interplanetary money with rainbow water signs along the edge, waved them in the air, merrily announced something to the crowd — and tore them apart. Bemish stupidly took it for trick.
"What did he say," he asked Kissur.
"That he doesn't take iron men's money," Kissur replied.
The crowd parted quickly and menacingly and Kissur quickly dragged Bemish out — several gibes and a rotten tomato flew at the Earthman.
In just a moment, they were crossing the gleaming river over the lacquered pedestrian bridge covered with shops. Bemish was still upset. He didn't care about money, but he just couldn't figure out how a man who earned twenty coins for the performance tore apart a sum hundred times bigger. Bemish would have never done it himself.
"Is he mad, this illusionist?" Bemish asked.
"They use the performances to draw people in."
"Who are they?"
"Well, you would call them an opposition, we would call them a sect."
"There is a large difference between a sect and an opposition," Bemish noted irritably. "Why have I come to this planet?" a thought passed his mind, "who claimed that the Federal Committee guys would be able to prove anything in the RCORP stocks story? I just bought them, that was it…"
"The difference, " Kissur agreed, "is ample. An opposition hangs out in a parliament and a sect hangs on the gallows. Don't worry about the money. They are great tricksters; he certainly didn't tear it apart and he is now buying vodka for the local trash with it, since the trash believes the shows but it believes them even better when watered with vodka.
He waited a moment and then added,
"There are things on Weia that you, the Earthmen, will not understand. You will never understand why this oldster calls your automobile a phantom and why they call you iron imps when they see your spaceships. You can take in account the copper in our mountains, but how will you take this oldster in account?"
"We can take him in account perfectly well," Bemish objected drily.
"In the stock price. In your stock prices, Kissur, that cost cheaper than toilet paper. The name for this oldster is country risk."
X X X
When Welsey returned to the hotel in the evening, angry and disheveled, the porter handed him over a note from Bemish. Bemish announced that Welsey shouldn't expect him in the evening since he flew to Blue Mountains for a fishing trip.
Bemish was out of town all week, while Welsey continued knocking on the state precincts' doors. It appeared to be absolutely impossible to get the simplest things done, to sign papers for a permission to transport necessary equipment to this damned planet with a discount tariff, or to gain access to the spacefield's stinking ruins. Stephen filled forms and refilled them, he paid the scribes and he paid the officials.
At the White Clouds street precinct, he said,
"I would be very grateful to you if you sign this form."
"May I know the size of your gratitude?" the official replied immediately.
At the Fertile Valleys street precinct, he was told to fill all the forms in Weian. Welsey found a scribe and filled everything. The official leafed the papers through and said,
"It is not allowed to accept the papers from Earthmen that they didn't fill out themselves."
"Be merciful!" Welsey said.
"Mercy is an honorable trait." the official agreed pompously.
At the Autumn Leaves street precinct, Welsey banged his fist on the table and screamed,
"Aren't you afraind of prison?"
"In our world," the official objected, "fright follows tranquility, tranquility follows fright and only the sovereign's well-being is always serene."
Then he asked Welsey for a ten thousand isheviks bribe.
In a week, Welsey cracked a bit. He was not an innocent maiden, and he had had to appear twice before the Securities Committee. Admittedly, the LSV bank was not only the fifth biggest but also the most notorious investment bank in the Galaxy. Welsey knew how to give bribes to influence an election's results and he had been telling dirty stories about Federation officials all his life. Verily, he had never ever heard a Federation official reply to, "I am grateful to you," by explicitily asking about the size of your gratitude.
On Friday evening, Welsey dropped by the central communication station and called the work number of Ronald T. Trevis — the head of LSV bank — the man that some people called the un-crowned king of the Galaxy finances and the others called the un-crowned bandit.
"How is it going?" a normal voice from a normal planet reached Welsey.
"It's not going," Welsey replied, "I have not obtained a single signature in a week. I've been twice in their central office — their secretaries know nothing and there is nobody around besides them."
"Terence Bemish is fishing in Blue Mountains," Welsey said with a vengeance.
"Who wants bribes and how much do they want?"
"I don't know," Welsey said, "there is a man named Shavash, the finance vice-minister and a local Talleyrand, considered by some to be the hope of the evolving nation. My impression is that the hope of the nation received a huge bribe from IC so that not a single serious IC competitor could take place in the auction."
"Do you think that your difficulties were caused by Mr. Shavash himself?"
Then, something clicked in the receiver and the connection disappeared. Welsey was going back to the hotel down the evening streets when he
heard a siren coming from behind him. A police car made him pull over. A guard in a yellow coat — national police uniform — and with an assault rifle in his hands jumped out of the car and tore the driver's door out of the Welsey's "environmental" car with a hydrogen tank looking like a swollen cucumber.
"What's are you doing?.." the Earthman started extending his driver's license out.
But the guard didn't even look at the celluloid rectangle. He bent over Welsey, grabbed the yellow briefcase lying on the passenger's seat and pulled it out of the car.
"How dare you?" Welsey clamored.
The guard elbowed the sky boor off.
"It is a personal order of the minister himself!"
Crappy tires screeched and the police car drove away.
Welsey sat in his cucumber on wheels and felt totally shocked. That was not a minor bribe anymore. That… There could be only one explanation — the connection with the Earth didn't break off accidentally. He was followed by the Shavash's agents. The conversation was tapped.
The consequences were catastrophic.
As mentioned before, he was not a virgin child and certain sums of money had transferred hands from him to the Empire officials. While he was not able to obtain even the most trivial information in some places, he obtained absolutely confidential information in other places — and some confidential materials lodged in his briefcase. The rough drafts of the IPO were also there, including various financial machination notes and even the approximate numbers of kickbacks.
This information would not hurt the Empire officials but, oh my God, what could it do to LSV bank! From the moment of Ronald's Trevis meteoric rise, LSV bank has joined the ranks of the most profitable but not the most ethical banks of the Galaxy. The financial establishment used any pretext to set "these bandits" back; the managers of the companies, passing away under LSV-staged hostile takeovers, complained about wiretapping and employees being bribed; two of Travis clients' inner circle members were in prison — for insider trading and stock parking.
Actually, Terence Bemish, young and promising upstart supported by Trevis, got the hint that his presence at the civilized capital markets was not appreciated — that's why he went to Weia. In this country of de-nationalizing economy, there were many companies with poor management and no stock exchange rules.
And now, the Federation newspapers had a great opportunity to grind Terence Bemish, Ronald Trevis, and Welsey himself flat — all this caused by the Welsey's bumble. His future appeared to the young banker darker than night. Trevis had thrown people out for smaller blunders and a banker, fired by Trevis, could expect a cashier's job in a supermarket at best.
Welsey drove slowly to the nearest police precinct, pushed a frightened guard away and walked to the supervisor's office.
"My name is Stephen Welsey," he said, "I represent a financial company LSV and I flew in here from Sydney to consult our client taking part in an investment auction. I have just been stopped by a police car with a plate number 34-29-57. The guards confiscated my papers and escaped. This is probably a misapprehension. I hope to receive the documents back within three hours, otherwise I will act with no holds barred.
A young police official squinted frightened at the Earthman, ran in a next room and chattered away on a computer keyboard.
"Number 34-29-57," he finally said, "That's wrong. There is no car with this license plate number registered in the police department. In fact, there is no car registered with this license plate number at all.
X X X
Three hours later, Welsey came back to hotel feeling atrocious. If he needed a final proof that there was no law in this country, he got it. He washed the lip cut by the sharp policeman's (or fake policeman's) fist, opened the case and started to throw his belongings in randomly. He called the spaceport, found out that the next Earth flight would be in eleven hours and reserved a ticket.
The case was packed in fifteen minutes. Welsey looked at his watch — he had ten more hours before the flight's departure. The trip to the spaceport would take two hours. Welsey shrugged his shoulders, walked to the draped window, pulled the curtain away, and looked from the fifth floor down at the street. Thank God, he will leave this planet in ten more hours! The country of scoundrels! Bribers! Malingerers! Oh my God, why did he give a five thousand bribe to this bug-eyed guy from the eighth precinct? Now, if Shavash arrests Welsey, he would force the guy to claim that the bribe was hundred thousand and the official promised… Ouch!
The square in front of the hotel was brightly lit. A delicate eight-columned temple stood slightly lower and across it. The garden beds were arranged in front of the temple, and the spotlights hidden among the flowers beamed right at the temple, illuminating marble columns and turnip roof curls from below, scattering in a faraway fountain in the middle of the temple yard, challenging large ripe stars. "Such beauty!", Welsey thought suddenly.
Right then, a car appeared at the square's far end. It drove over a flower bed edge, flattened a spotlight, swerved to the opposite lane and stopped down there at the hotel entrance. Pulling in, it crashed into a truck standing in front of it, but not too badly, no deeper than five inches. Welsey's eyes popped out.
The car door opened and Bemish landed outside. Two valets rushed to him from the glass entrance. Bemish stepped left, then right. Thence he lifted his head and, swaying, started to contemplate the lighted entrance. He sighed and sat on the curb. Even from the fifth floor, it was evident that he was boozed up to the hilt.
Welsey shrugged his shoulders and walked down.
Two valets were already deferentially half carrying half supporting Bemish towards him. Bemish resisted and assured everybody that he was totally sober. He aspired to sing and invited both valets to fish in the Blue Mountains. Valets quietly and with concentration dragged him up the staircase to the room. They possibly couldn't understand him. They were probably used to these sights.
Welsey felt himself blushing. Bemish was dragging the high status of Earthman and beacon of civilization right down in the mud. Welsey stepped towards him, grabbed Bemish by his tie and, with the valets' assistance, dragged him to the room. Bemish was rolling his eyes around and opening his mouth like a karaoke singer with the sound track turned off.
When Welsey threw Bemish on the couch, he swung his finger drunkenly and said,
And he fell asleep. A pig. A drunken pig.
Welsey tore his pants and jacket off, hung them on the chair and got out. The jacket was too heavy — the chair tipped over and the jacket crashed to the floor. Welsey returned and picked the jacket to hang it back. The jacket inside pocket was crammed with rumpled papers. Welsey pried the papers out and unrolled them. These were all the requests and power-of-attorney forms that police in yellow jackets confiscated three hours ago. Welsey leafed through them and found the right signatures on them all. More than that, the forms were stamped with personal seals and that was plain impossible.
Welsey went downstairs. He checked the Bemish's car out and found the yellow briefcase, seized by the police, in the trunk. Mysteriously, there was a grilled lamb lying next to the briefcase in the trunk. The lamb held a thick gold ring in the mouth. The lamb was lying on a silver dish.
Welsey walked upstairs and put the recovered papers in the recovered briefcase. He called the spaceport and canceled the reservation. He called a boy valet and they hauled the lamb, the ring, and the dish upstairs.
The rest of the night, Welsey spent next to the window in his room looking at the pink eight-columned temple, thoughtfully chewing on a grilled lamb leg and washing it down with disgustingly warm carbonated water.
X X X
The most bewildering part of that all, was that Bemish couldn't even recall how the signatures came to existence. He remembered perfectly well the temple, two hundred kilometers away from the capital, that he and Kissur drove to, and the manor, that belonged to a Kissur's friend, Khanadar the Dried Date, next to the temple. They had fun in the manor — at first with weapons, then at the table, and then with the chicks. Khanadar and Kissur took turns making bets and shooting at a peach on each other's head at first with a bow and then with a gun. The trick was to hit it right in a pit. Bemish refused decisively to shoot the bow and, to assert his manhood, he had a horrible fight with sinewy Khanadar, strong like a steam press.
Khanadar the Dried Date was the most extraordinary man — he was on of the bravest Kissur's commanders and one of the best Empire's poets.
He plundered huge spoils during the civil war; he squandered money as quickly as he got it and started looking for more. Piracy was the choice and Khanadar wrestled a smugglers' space boat away from them. The boat was designed with escape rather than attack in mind, but Khanadar decided that the cowardly dogs from the skies wouldn't really notice this trifle if their pockets were threatened. Unfortunately, Khanadar was not as good with a photon reactor as he was with a Kharran sword and at the end of the second trip the newly assigned pirate dinghy dug a three meter deep ditch in the ground and was no longer in any shape to fly.
It was awfully fashionable to assist Weia then and Khanadar almost received a literature Nobel Prize for his songs, full of wild beauty. So, the information agencies are making two announcements in one day — that Weian poet Khanadar is nominated for a literature Nobel Prize and that somebody named Khanadar is wanted for the transgalactic liner "Mekong" robbery. This is how Khanadar did not receive a Nobel Prize first time.
Then, Khanadar became the Arakka governor and generously gave money to the people and tax cuts to the entrepreneurs. The money was from the state budget and it was quickly gone; and since the tax cuts were abundant, the money didn't come back. Khanadar asked a local polymetallic factory for money; an Earthman owned the factory. The Earthman gave money once, once more, and stopped; the people loved their governor and laid waste to the factory.
Meanwhile, the time for the next Nobel Prize approached. Hence, the information agencies are making two announcements in one day — that Weian poet Khanadar is nominated for a literature Nobel Prize and that governor Khanadar incited a mob and caused a three billion denars damage to MetalPMOre company. This is how Khanadar did not receive a Nobel Prize second time.
Then, the sovereign revoked Khanadar's appointment for overstepping his bounds and Khanadar peacefully resided in a manor bestowed to him, next to Shechen river in Inissa. Why did the head of the planet Gera trade mission have to buy himself a villa nearby?
So, another year passes by and the Gera chief trade deputy sues Khanadar for brawling on his land and burning his pig farm. Khanadar attends the trial and asks the judge to give him a small paper cutting knife. The judge offers him the knife and Khanadar attacks the trade deputy with the knife right in front of the jury. The trade deputy escapes from the court yard and does not return. Since it is a personal suit and the plaintiff is not present in the court, the judge cancels the trial and Khanadar saves bribe money.
Again, the Nobel Prize time approaches, and the information agencies are making two announcements — that the famous Weian poet Khanadar is nominated for a literature Nobel Prize and that Khanadar well-nigh cut down a representative of a civilized nation right in a court.
This is how Khanadar never received his Nobel Prize, but it's an old story and we should come back to Terence Bemish.
The next day, Khanadar, Kissur, Bemish, and two servants loaded themselves in a helicopter and flew to the Blue Mountains. They harpooned large white fishes and had many fistfights. Sun and merriness were abundant. The helicopter rotated its winglets next to a raspberry colored tent with silver stakes; the slaves brought horses for the evening. Four days went by.
Khanadar asked Bemish what brought him to the Country of the Great Light and Bemish told him what he had already told Kissur. Khanadar the Dried Date said the foreigner would drown in the paperwork, and Kissur said that they should help him.
On Friday afternoon they flew to the Kissur's palace — the first guests were already crowding there. Kissur introduced Bemish to the Shavash's direct boss — minister of finance — and to the minister of police and to many other respectable people. Shavash was also there. The minister of finance told Bemish that his — minister of finance's — friend had seen Bemish's friend, Welsey, and he was the fairest and the most honest man. The minister of police told Mr. Bemish that, from this moment on, the goal of his life would be to do what Mr. Bemish tells him to. The foreign trade minister invited Mr. Bemish to his mansion and told him that he would roll his Iniss carpet out under the wheels of the Mr. Bemish's car.
Bemish didn't remember how exactly it all got to the signatures. By that time the heads of the Empire were drunk and Bemish was drunk even more. The minister of police called his secretary and commanded to find a man named Welsey immediately, take the papers from him and bring them here. The secretary was probably drunk too and he, moreover, had with him a girl that was licking his ear. In an hour, the papers were delivered to Bemish.
Bemish didn't really remember the rest. He remembered how roses poured down from the ceiling, how some drunk girl jumped across a golden ring entwined with burning paper, how they waded in a large pond with the girls, how he couldn't share a girl with somebody, in the God's name, how was it possible not to share a girl if there were two of them per man? Wasn't he pissed off at Welsey? He remembered perfectly well how he got pissed off at Welsey. Puritan! Pig! He just handed the papers rudely over to the secretary but he refused to come himself.
Bemish decided that he would drive to the hotel and get Welsey. They were probably trying to stop him. But Bemish outfoxed them — he tore through the grapevines, got in the car and went for the banker. Yes, he had the papers with him and he knew for sure that they were signed.
But who collected the signatures? For God's sake, he couldn't remember. Kissur was likely to get them — he was more sober than others and though he drank he wasn't getting drunk. Or… No, it was not Kissur, it was Shavash — Shavash, smiling gently, was handing a form over to the minister of finance while Kissur, yowling horribly, was cutting some rag with a sword on a bet.
X X X
Bemish was splashing in the shower, when somebody knocked in the door. Welsey opened it — a large basket stood by the door and an errand boy looked from behind.
"The gifts from Mr. Ireda for Mr. Bemish, " he declared, unloaded the basket and he was off.
Welsey carried the basket in the room but, before he arranged it on the table, somebody knocked in the door again. Welsey opened the door — the messenger had a blue caftan on instead of a yellow one and had a casket entwined with bands instead of a basket.
"Let Mr. Bemish accept these trifles from Mr. Ranik and a portal to the heaven open in his soul, " the messenger said.
Welsey put the casket on the bed and noticed something leaking from the basket. He hurried to the basket. Right then, wet and sad from the hangover Bemish looked out of the shower. The phone rang and somebody knocked in the door the same moment.
"Come in," Bemish said and picked up the receiver.
"Mr. Bemish," a soft caressing voice said in the receiver, "it's Shavash speaking, vice-minister of finance. I would be happy if you could visit me at 2pm."
"Of course, " Bemish said and put the receiver down. The door slid open.
"Let me introduce you, Welsey, " Bemish said, "to Kissur. Kissur, this is Welsey. As I have told you before, he is represents LSV bank here."
Kissur and Welsey looked at each other. Kissur saw a skinny young Earthman with a face white and round like a headache pill. Welsey saw a blue-eyed rascal, a bit above thirty, with a real golden chain on his neck descending all the way down to the belt on the narrow washed down jeans. In the open shirt neck there was a tattoo — a bird of prey crossed by a pink scar. Welsey learned later that this was a falcon and this way of tattooing was an old custom of the barbarian aloms. If they cut a war chief head off in a battle and undressed him, how else would it be possible to recognize the body?
Kissur looked at Welsey and said,
"Listen, Terence, you want to buy the spaceport but what is this whey-faced fish doing here?"
"I explained it to you," Bemish replied, "I don't have money. LSV gets money for me."
"Will they loan it to you?"
"They will underwrite the bonds."
Kissur pondered it and asked then,
"What interest do these usurers charge you?"
"The interest on the bonds will be sixteen percent."
"Why is it so expensive?" Kissur was aggravated.
"Because there is no collateral," Welsey gave voice, "if the company goes bankrupt, it won't have any property it could sell off to cover the debts."
"Shut up, leech," Kissur recoiled, "nobody is asking you. By the sovereign Irshakhchan laws, usurers were boiled in oil and the Golden Sovereign forbade interest rates higher than 3 %"
"What was the inflation rate at the Golden Sovereign?" Welsey inquired.
"I don't know what the heck the inflation is," Kissur declared, "but I do know that the Golden Sovereign would hang the first official, who tried to arrange it, so high that nobody would even dream of it afterwards."
Welsey kept a shocked silence.
"Well, let's go? Kissur told Bemish.
"I would rather take a nap," Welsey uttered nervously — he didn't want to get himself deeper in a capital market discussion with Kissur.
In a moment, Kissur and Bemish were downstairs, missing another basket of gifts on the way.
They got in a car and Kissur dished out a wad of money to Bemish. Bemish was dumbfounded,
"What the heck?!"
"We, " Kissur said, "are going to Mr. Ireda. The man was nice to you — you should express your gratitude."
"But…" Bemish started.
They arrived to Ireda's palace in half an hour and gave him money. Ireda's palace was located right next to the sovereign's palace wall.
The wall was huge and thick; wooden silvered geese stood on the top lowering their heads and looked down with disapproval. Coolness flowed from the yawning gate in the middle of the wall oozed like from a well and all the space in front of the gates was crammed with multi-hued cars.
"The Gate of the Barbarians," Kissur said.
"In the ancient times, there were four gates facing four sides of the world.the Gate of the Emperor's Paramount Appearance, the Gate of the Officials, the Gate of the Commoners, and the Gate of the Barbarians. Dumb illiterate chiefs in loincloths entered the palace through the Gate of the Barbarians. I was ten year old when they brought me to the palace via the Barbarians Gate and all my friends teased me and laughed at me."
Kissur was silent for a moment.
"Now, only Earthmen enter the palace through the Barbarian Gate."
Their car was slowly crawling by a colorful crowd of parked vehicles. "What about the present sovereign? How did he feel when our presence
ended the war?"
"An insignificant Emperor's subject does not dare to consider his sovereign's thoughts," Kissur answered. Bemish jerked.
"What about you?"
"I was quite impressed," Kissur answered after a pause.
Bemish couldn't help but smile — during the day that Kissur first met the Earthmen, he called them vultures, hijacked a military plane and, having massacred the rebel camp, finished the civil war.
"What impressed you? Our weapons?"
"No, your weapons didn't faze me. I thought that in six months our sovereign would buy the same stuff, maybe slightly older and cheaper. Then, I saw the houses your commoners reside in and the vehicles they drive and I thought that there was no way our sovereign would buy our people the same houses and cars either in six or in sixty months.
"Haven't anything shocked you?" Bemish asked, "our pop culture, our commercials… A lot of people say that Earthmen have too much material life and not enough existence. They use Weia as an example."
"If somebody is unhappy, they can visit us. I 'll send them to my Iniss mines and they will have a lot of… existence."
He grinned and added,"
"Good-bye for now, Terrence. I need to go to the palace and it's time for your visit to Shavash."
Bemish appeared at Shavash's place right on time.
Mr. Shavash received the Earthman in the Red Office.
The host and the visitor bowed each other ceremoniously. A polite servant poured tea in the porcelain cups and disappeared behind the gold-gilded doors. Bemish noticed no paintings drawn and signed by the Emperor hanging on the office walls, otherwise decorated with the utmost grace. Bemish didn't know yet that a roll signed and bequested by the Emperor costs more than a rank and a title, and that Shavash offered half a million to the Emperor's suckling brother, Ishim, to persuade the sovereign Varnazd to bequest him a gift. Ishim, however, had to return the money — somehow, the sovereign did not like Shavash.
"I am very grateful to you," Bemish mentioned at the desert, "that you signed all these papers yesterday and agreed to help me."
Shavash smiled gently,
"Verily, everybody at the court can only talk about your great success. How can such an insignificant person as me, assist you with anything."
Bemish lowered his eyes.
"Are you and Kissur old friends?"
"We met just before the end of the civil war."
"In a duel," Shavash said calmly, "Kissur rushed at me with a sword and I shot at him with a revolver."
Bemish thought for a moment and wondered
"What revolver? The Earthmen hadn't…"
"It's a long story," Shavash waved his hand, "and a revolver was jury-rigged."
"What happened then?"
I almost missed and Kissur's friends charged at me and started to teach me how to conduct duels. Then, they tied me to a rope and dragged me all the way through the city. My back and ribs were broken… Then, the Earthmen appeared and managed to heal me. I've been limping slightly since. And my hand…
Bemish noticed a while ago that Shavash was holding the cup with the left hand while his right palm was shriveled and the fingers were slightly twisted.
"What were you fighting about?"
"A woman. Lady Idari, Kissur's main wife had been my fiancee before Kissur became the first minister and I became a roadside pebble. Kissur arrested a man that I owed my carreer to and obtained his position and my fiancee."
Shavash suddenly followed Bemish's glance and hid the right hand under the table, but Bemish managed to notice his twisted fingers shaking.
"Now we are married to two sisters. My wife is the Lady Idary's younger sister."
"Why is he telling me this?" Bemish was horrified.
Shavash put a peach morsel, soaked in honey, in his mouth and said after a brief hesitation,
"Mr. Bemish! I would like to warn you as a friend. Kissur is the sovereign's favorite. He can obstruct you easily, but he can't really help you. A lot of officials hate Kissur for being Kissur. For the disdain Kissur has towards bribers and entrepreneurs, while he lives by the sovereign's benefactions. For the Kissur's opinion that no fortune is more disgraceful than a merchant's profit. For the feasts he throws for the people; for the zealots and heretics calling him the sovereign Irshakhchan reborn… Mr. Inada promised to roll Iniss carpet under your car's wheels when a friend of Kissur visits his villa… Mr. Inada will roll Iniss carpet under your wheels and he will plant a plastic bomb under the Iniss carpet. The offiicials will be signing your papers and playing foul behind your back. Kissur will praise you to the sovereign — they will prove to the sovereign that Kissur is mistaken. My advice to you is to keep your distance from him.
Bemish chewed on his lip.
"Mr. Shavash," he said, "I would like to remind you that if LSV is interested in acquiring your company, we will just buy it at an open-access auction. I guarrantee you that we will offer higher price that IC will, and that nobody will be able to kick us out of the auction due to some invented technicalities. Regarding the access to the financial documentation, I am sure that without Kissur I would have spend two more years obtaining it and I know probably the reasons for it. Also, if I may advise you, when you fake the reports, pay more attention to secondary indicators. You know, it's impossible that the construction rate increased by 300 % while the energy consumption stayed the same.
The official was silent for a moment and he closed his eyes.
"Of course. Good-bye, Mr. Bemish, and I wish you the best luck."
X X X
Bemish has barely driven through the Shavash's mansion gates, when a white limousine, long like a sturgeon, slid a millimeter away from him. Kissur's stuck his head out of the window and waved a hand. Bemish will-less swerved to the curb. They got out of the cars and embraced.
"Let's go drive," Kissur demanded.
Bemish glanced at his Urun indecisively.
Kissur clicked his tongue — a small servant in linen pants got out of the back seat. Kissur pointed a finger at him.
"Give him the keys and he return the car." Bemish gave him the keys and sat next to Kissur.
"There is a great pub nearby," Kissur said, "let's go there."
The pub was low and damp; a fountain splashed in the middle of a octagonal yard. Next to the fountain, a flat dancing god stood, with an colossal-sized penis and four breasts. The god was generally naked except for a huge advertisement boards covering him on three sides. The ad called to buy 3D-sets by the Corund company.
A nimble chief appeared next to Kissur and placed a great grilled goose, sprinkled with lime juice and covered with a golden crust, and a palm wine jar in front of the guests. Kissur noticed that Bemish was ogling the god and asked the host,
"How much did they pay you for putting the boards up?"
"Here is four. Go and scrape this offal away." Bemish lowered his eyes. He felt crappy after the yesterday's binge, he didn't eat anything at Shavash's place — he couldn't even look at the goose! What should he do now? Bemish realized that, when Shavash mentioned the offiicials hating Kissur, he meant himself first of all — that's why he told Bemish about his fiancee and his shriveled hand… Should he tell Kissur that his brother-in-law hates him? But they are friends. It would look like an Earthman dropped by, did some fishing with Kissur and quickly contrived to sow a discord between him and his brother-in-law. Should he not say anything? What if Kissur considers Shavash his friend and will be snared sooner or later?
Though, Kissur is hardly all that innocent. Bemish remembered how, despite being totally stoned, he was shocked by one of the Khanadar's songs about a battle with Akol people. A local tribal king dispatched his brother and other highly placed war chiefs to Kissur asking him not to attack the tribe. Kissur said, "So it will be," and showered the envoys with the gifts way more luxurous than customary. They couldn't refuse the gifts, of course, without insulting the Empire's most powerful military commander. So, they returned to the king and Kissur sent them letters in such a way that the king intercepted them. Kissur reminded in the letters that he promised not to touch their land in exchange for their king's head and he asked them when they were going to fulfill their part of agreement. The rich gifts were presented as a bribe for the king's head. The king, naturally, ordered the butchering of his brother and war chiefs, beheading the army leadership and arousing the tribe's discontent. After that, it took Kissur two days to finish him off.
And even though everybody agreed that Kissur was not even close to deceased Arfarra with the tricks of this sort — he still didn't resemble a guileless lamb.
Kissur, meanwhile, poured wine in the cups, covered them with the lacquered tops with straws going through, and offered Bemish a cup.
"You are driving," Bemish reminded him.
Kissur grasped the straw imperturably and, seemingly, gulped all the wine in a minute. Anyway, he opened the cup immediately and started to pour more wine.
"Why are you so sad?" Kissur asked, "was the bribe, Shavash demanded from you, too large?"
"No. It's just that I've never found myself in such a position. I don't know what to do."
"You are doing great," Kissur laughed, "you have already fleeced Shavash for six million."
"What?" Bemish was astonished.
"Didn't you know? The IC company gave Shavash six million so that it gets the spaceport. Shavash has to return money now as an honest briber."
"It's impossible," Bemish said, "the auction takes a precedence over bribes."
"How do you know that it all depends on the auction?"
"I came here," Bemish said drily, "only after I had learned the experts' names and met the other companies' representatives, for example, Eseko. None of them had any difficulties obtaining a permission to participate in the auction."
"What about you?"
Bemish got a bit embarrassed.
"Well… small officials wanted small gifts…"
"It has nothing to do with gifts," Kissur said, "IC paid Shavash six million dollars so that not a single company, that could really compete with it, took part in the auction. This Eseko of yours could get all the permissions with no sweat, while you and some other folks were blacklisted."
"Shavash is really afraid this Trevis of yours. He is nervous that Trevish will devour him whole."
"What's he raving about?" a thought passed Bemish's mind. "Where could this IC, a small and practically unknown company, scrape up such a bribe? And why? It's local mythology and tabloids."
"I am sure," Bemish said, "that's you are not correct."
Kissur burst out laughing and waved his hands.
"Yeah! Shavash has already started digesting these six millions and — kabloom! You get the company!"
Kissur laughed, happy with Shavash's failure.
"Hold on," Bemish exclaimed, "firstly, I didn't get the company, I just obtained a permission to take part in the auction. Secondly…"
Bemish wanted to say that, secondly, he wasn't all that hot about quarrelling with Shavash…
"But you will win the auction!"
"If my offer is better than the others,"
Here, Kissur slid his hand in the pocket and pulled out, to Bemish's astonishment, a small white box.
"What is it," Bemish asked.
"It's a plasma bomb," Kissur answered, taking it amiss that the Earthman has never seen such a commonplace invention of his own culture."
"Why what? We'll leave it under the IC representative's door and, if he doesn't get out of the planet then, we'll stick it under his pillow."
Bemish was dumbfounded for a while and, then, he said drily,
"I will not do that."
"Why? Are you afraid to get bagged?"
"Kissur, listen," the Earthman asked, "is it true that you engaged in a personal combat during your wars, with the enemy's commanders before the battles."
"Why wouldn't you, during the fight, order your archers to shoot your opponent?
"Are you nuts?" Kissur was astounded, "all my troops would abandon me after such a base trick."
"Was it the only reason?"
Kissur lowered his eyes. Of course, it was not the only reason.
"You know, Kissur, we grew up in different worlds and, if I was a military commander, I wouldn't engage in a personal combat before a battle. But, when I participate in an investment auction, I will not slip a bomb to my opponent. You should have some decency."
"I've always thought, " Kissur said, "that, when money comes into play, there is no place for decency."
"It may be true on Weia," Bemish said, "but it's not true on Earth."
Kissur put the bomb back in his pocket as casually as a pack of cigarettes.
THE THIRD CHAPTER
Where Kissur opens the Emperor's eyes to a foreign briber while Terence Bemish received a gift of a luxury villa
The next morning, Kissur was desperately bored. He called Bemish but Bemish was running around somewhere like a chicken with his head cut off. Kissur could find him but what was the point? The man is rushing from one office to another — you can screw a slut together — but bribing an official is a private matter; why would Bemish need Kissur as a witness? The other guy, Welsey, said that tomorrow they would go to the spaceport.
Kissur beat a servant with no reason — Kissur didn't beat him really, he just pushed him a bit, but the servant slammed into a bronze vase and hurt himself badly with the vase. Kissur ate goose and marinated liver pirogi for breakfast and went to a pub and, after that, to the fortune-tellers. All the damned fortune-tellers were familiar, however, with the sovereign favorite's mug and Kissur didn't learn anything interesting.
Finally, Kissur returned home, undressed and dived in a huge pond, inlaid with heavily veined Chakhar marble and surrounded by blooming trees, with an altar in the Western Gazebo hanging over the water.
Kissur was leisurely swimming in the pond, when a faraway car rustled behind the carved lattice. A door banged, voices clamored excitedly, a man from the car evidently shook the servants off and stomped down the garden path.
Kissur dived. When he got to the surface, shining leather shoes stood on the pond's marble edge. Excellent quality grey pants ascended above the shoes.
"Ok, how much do you want?"
Kissur raised his head — an unfamiliar Earthman, with a red and round, like a street light, face stood in front of him. The Earthman's eyes were crazed and his chin stuck out aggressively.
"How much do you need?" the Earthman repeated. Kissur got out of water unhurriedly and shook himself like a dog. The water drops from his blond hair splashed the Earthman's expensive suit. The Earthman was clearly uncomfortable — Kissur bathed naked, out of an old Alom habit, and he didn't even try to cover himself with a towel, demonstrating his contempt for the visitor.
"Who are you?" Kissur asked, "And what has happened to you?"
"You know perfectly well who I am!"
Having planted his feet against the pond's marble edge, Kissur moved his bare toes. Reddish Weian sun danced on Kissur's wet hair and on the water drops stuck in the cracks between his powerful muscles.
"Ok. My name is Kaminsky. Five months ago, I bought the land and they promised me to classify it as industrial zoning. I started to build a garbage processing plant. Now, thanks to the complaint you filed to the sovereign, it is classified as business zoning. If I want to keep this land, I have to pay the difference in price — two hundred million. If I don't want to pay the difference, I can get my money back and the land will be resold."
"What's my part here?"
"Khanida demanded one million and three hundred thousand more; how much do you need?"
"I don't sell my country."
Kaminsky burst out laughing. His stout face shook — he was probably starting to get hysterical. He stuck his fat finger at Kissur.
"All Weian officials can be bought and they can be bought at a clearance price. I have never seen people who want to sell so much of their motherland at such a low price."
Kissur paled and his eyes narrowed a bit.
"These words," Kissur said, "are not like the land in Godfather's Dale. You will pay full price for these words."
Kaminsky burst out laughing and he suddenly pulled out a large crocodile skin wallet.
"Of course," he said. "I'll pay. How much should it be per word? Will ten thousand be enough? Just don't tell anybody, please, that I pay money for every spit or people will be waiting in line to spit at me…"
Kissur grabbed the Earthman by his broad tie with one hand and twisted his arm and pulled him towards himself with the other. The Earthman flipped over in the air, drew an arc and, with a thundering splash, landed in the pond. Kissur wrapped a towel around himself and, not interested in the least, whether or not his pestering visitor drowned, walked to the house.
X X X
Bemish spent all night studying the company reports (clearly fabricated) and he spent all day dashing around the precincts.
He spoke to Earth three times. They told him that Werner McCormick, the LSV expert on industrial construction, would arrive at the spaceport, next to the capital, in the evening.
At three o'clock, Bemish drove to DJ Securities. One of the best broker firms in the Empire resided in a tiny place in a distinguished neighborhood. It was located in the palace pavilion's western wing — previously the building had housed the Cheese Bureau. All these bureaus were dissolved, along with the palace administration that used to duplicate the state apparatus. The Earthmen moved in the former palace officials' pavilions. The small building, crammed with super modern hardware, greeted Bemish with wondrous flower smells and a silver fox snout jutting out of the bushes.
The broker, he came to talk to, was a fat young man with eyes, merrily jumping, like the numbers on a money counter display, and smooth golden skin. His name was Alexander Krasnov.
Krasnov led Bemish to an office, closed the window facing the garden, turned the air conditioning on, and they started to talk about Assalah. The approaching investment auction rumors slightly raised the Assalah shares' prices. Almost nobody was, however, willing to sell them. The Assalah stocks could still be considered non-liquid assets — the difference between the buying and selling price had reached 20 %.
Bemish was greatly impressed with the fine emanations of success, coming from the small office, excellent employees' cars and cute long-legged secretaries.
Before coming to Weia, Bemish had carefully studied various Weian companies' conditions and prospects; he had chosen Assalah and acquired in advance quite a significant block of shares- more than 80 % of the stocks had been acquired through Krasnov. These were bearer stocks, but an owner of a block of shares larger than 5 % was supposed to register. Bemish currently owned 6 % of the Assalah shares but he had not intention of declaring it.
Bemish and Krasnov discussed their financial dealings and, then, the young broker plunged into his reminiscences of the Weian securities' fabulous cheapness. The brokers had literally paid cents buying securities but it would not happen again unless the "Followers of the Path" gained power.
"It was such a margin," Krasnov described. "Imagine, they sold stocks for a rice vodka crock. Do you know how much I paid for twenty seven thousand shares of Ossoriy nickel concession? A vodka barrel for the village and a Hershey chocolate bar! Do you know how much I sold them for? I sold them for four hundred thousand dinars!"
Bemish grinned, "How much did you pay the peasants for the Assalah shares?"
The broker was silent, pondering. Then he did something unexpected. He started to undress. He took off his jacket and wide wine colored tie; then, he took off a fashionable shirt with a vertical collar and turned his back towards Bemish. Horrified Bemish loudly exhaled. The Krasnov's back was covered with pale, but still noticeable pink welts, from the neck to the tailbone.
Krasnov put the shirt on and coolly explained.
"When I arrived in Assalah, a local official met me. "Broker?" — "Broker." — "Buying stocks?" — "Yes." — "Let's get to the precinct, I'll weigh you the goods." We came to the precinct, and he put me in a manure pit overnight, gave orders to whip me with a whip soaked in brine, and told me, "I wouldn't like to see you in Assalah again."
"Oh, my God!"
"By the way, he kindly explained his actions to me. He claimed that the people are like children, selling stocks for a vodka crock, and the officials should take care of the people's welfare. While he is alive, not a single foreign hyena will dare show its face in Assalah. Not that I couldn't appreciate his welcome, really. You know, I hadn't been whipped with a brined whip before."
"Haven't you sued him for the whipping?" Bemish wondered.
But Krasnov just looked at him in such a way that Bemish realized what a stupid thing he just blurted out.
Having returned to the hotel, Bemish felt hungry and ambled to the restaurant. Galactic dinar prices were the only civilized part of the restaurant. Bemish randomly tapped couple of entries. In a moment, the waiter brought him a full bowl of steaming soup with dumplings, several small plates with appetizers and an object that reminded belatedly to Bemish about the locals' favorite — dog meat burgers.
Bemish had just finished the appetizers, when a guy took a sit next to him. Bemish raised his eyes — it was a middling tall man with stern eyes, transparent like gasoline, and with a body that local peasants described as "a really inept god hewed him out." However, upon more careful inspection, the guy's face didn't go together with the overall crude image — it was hard, as if made from the twisted together wires.
"Good day, Mr. Bemish," the man said, "My name is Robert Giles. I represent IC company — you know, we are participating in the Assalah spaceport investment auction.
"What a coincidence," Bemish said, "I am participating also in it."
"But you are not in good standing with Mr. Shavash."
"It's not a reason for disappointment."
"I recommend you, Mr. Bemish, to leave this planet before they kick you out of here."
"And I recommend you to get out of this table before I bathe you in my soup."
"Believe me, Mr. Bemish. A company's hostile takeover is intended for a civilized country. While, if you try to buy a local company, when its director doesn't want it… do you know that this director has his own jail?"
"I know," Bemish said, "that this director can be dismissed by the sovereign if somebody close to the sovereign proves that this director doesn't act in the company's best interest. Have you heard what happened to Joseph Kaminsky thanks to Kissur? Have I made myself clear?"
"Quite. So, Kissur stands behind you and Shavash stands behind me. Who will flatten whom into the ground?"
Here, the waiter brought Bemish the dessert and, elongating his neck, inquired Giles if he liked to order anything.
"No," Giles said, "I am leaving. And if you, Mr. Bemish, knew the local cuisine well, you wouldn't have ordered a guinea pig burger."
X X X
Kissur spent the rest of the day with Khanadar, the Dried Date, and a couple of close friends in the pubs. Kissur lost twenty thousand in dice and he didn't really drink much, though he did thwack somebody's mug. In the evening, Kissur got in his car and drove to Shavash.
Shavash was in the Cloud Gazebo and he had an Earthman as a visitor. The Earthman had to be a close enough associate because, firstly,
Shavash received him in the gazebo for the Weian guests and, secondly, two beautiful girls were also there. They were more undressed than dressed; one girl sat on the Earthman's knees and another one, breathing zestfully, licked that particular object sticking its bloated head out of Shavash's unzipped pants. Shavash reclined, leaning backward, on the carpet and his jacket and shirt sprawled nearby. The table was filled with appetizers and fruits — the friends had finished the business part were starting to relax.
The Earthman shook the wench off and got up.
"Robert Giles," Shavash said, "the IC representative."
Kissur silently took the Earthman's chair and sat astride it.
"I guess, I should go," the Earthman said, glancing at the girl regretfully."
"Go," Kissur said, "these girls cost five isheviks per pair next to Trans-Gal, don't be greedy."
The Earthman left. Shavash pulled the girl on himself, half closing his eyes, and the girl mounted him. Shavash breathed heavily and greedily.
"Lie on your back," he told the girl. She followed the command obediently.
Kissur waited till Shavash came.
"Why don't you go, bring a jar of Inissa wine," Kissur told the girls. "Both of you."
The girls left the gazebo. Shavash lay on the carpet groping for the shirt with his hand.
"Everybody, like, is running around with this spaceport," Kissur said, "and they all run to you."
"I am the company director."
"Who was the director before you?"
"A man named Rashar."
"Hey, wasn't he your secretary? So, at first you sent him to the director's chair, and then to jail."
"You shouldn't steal," Shavash replied, "in busloads."
"Come on. He would give you away half a busload and you wanted three quarters. You will waste the country, scoundrels."
Shavash finally buttoned up the shirt and pants, propped himself up and poured a cup of wine.
"Kissur, one little tank trip of yours over the Coke plant cost more to the country than everything I have ever stolen and I will ever steal."
"Why do you all fret so much about this stupid factory?" Kissur exclaimed. "And Terence was just yakking about the same thing." Shavash silently sucked on a straw.
"Whatever. Bemish will buy your company and make you all sweat."
"He will hardly buy the company," Shavash said. "Mr. Bemish often acquires companies but I haven't heard him actually buying a single one."
"What do you mean?"
"Mr. Bemish is quite a good financier but he made his money the following way. He would buy a company stocks threatening it by a takeover, and then sell the shares back to the company at higher than market price. It's called greenmail. He worked with very small companies in the beginning, then, he switched to the larger ones but, then, they asked him to get out of the civilized countries. He hasn't really broken any laws but they made it clear for him and his boss that they should go out and have fun someplace else."
"His LSV boss. Ronald Trevis. Where do you think he got the greenmail money? Trevis raised money for him and Bemish was just a cudgel. Did you see a gentleman named Welsey, next to Bemish? This is Trevis — a morsel of Trevis."
"I see," Kissur said.
"LSV is a cool company," Shavash continued, "They find people, ready to get out of their own skins and skin the others to scrape together a dinar, a crown and a dollar, and they set them at large companies. They are not financiers — they are gangsters. They would be shot dead on our planet. They were reproached elsewhere and they decided to move to the places with no strict financial laws and a lot of under priced property."
Shavash was silent and, then, added,
"This rascal bought 7 % of the Assalah shares through the dummy agents and he has been buying them in small blocks for many months to not disturb the market."
The girls came back with wine and one of them sat on Kissur's knees and other one crawled to Shavash and started to touch him with her hands under the shirt and Shavash laughed and put the wine glass on the table and reclined on his back again.
X X X
The next day, the first vice-minister of finance Shavash stood in front of the head of the government, old Mr. Yanik.
Mr. Yanik became first minister a year and a half ago after the death of his predecessor's, a certain Mr. Arfarra. Everybody unanimously considered Yanik to be a nonentity and a temporary replacement. Who cares how to plug a hole as long as it doesn't leak? However, the nonentity clung to his position way longer than many people who thought him to be a temporary incident.
Yanik and Shavash belonged to different generations, and more importantly, to different parties. Shavash occasionally expressed quite loudly his opinion about Yanik while the latter occasionally and quite loudly used the former, as an example to express his regret about the old times when the overly rapacious officials would find themselves hanging on all four palace gates — a quarter per gate.
"Make yourself familiar," Yanik said, handing Shavash a white plastic folder.
Shavash opened the folder and concentrated on reading.
It was a construction project of a humongous aluminum complex in the east of the Empire, in Tar'Salim, rich in alumina but poor in energy resources. The construction consisted of the aluminum extraction and processing facilities, two power plants — fission and magneto-hydrodynamic ones, and a small plant making composite alloys for gravitonic engines.
The total construction estimated expenditure was two hundred million galactic dinars. The company was naturally state-owned.
Shavash turned the last page and found what he was looking for — the person nominated for the company general director position was Chanakka — the first minister's twice removed grandson, an empty-headed and debased man who had already failed at at least three projects. Cosmopolitan Shavash, with his impeccable knowledge of the major Galactic languages and stylish suits, especially loathed Chanakka's fanatical nationalism.
"This," the first minister said, "is an unquestionably important project. No longer will we drag behind the Civilized Worlds. No other planet has such a facility!"
Shavash thought that both Tranar and Dakia had the same facilities. They, however, were not state-owned.
"In two year," the first minister said, "we will control the space engines market! Your department has a week to budget seventy million dinars for the primary equipment."
"We can't do that," Shavash said coolly.
"We don't have money. The officials in Chakhar haven't been paid since last year."
Yanik looked at the finance vice-minister disapprovingly. Shavash was too young. Yanik still remembered times when the words "We don't have money" just didn't carry any meaning in Weian Empire. If money ran out, more of it could always be printed. None of it influenced the prices, since the merchandise prices were determined not by the amount of money in circulation but by the Bill of Prices for goods and services.
"Mr. Shavash," Yanik asked, "what is your monthly salary?"
"It is three hundred isheviks," Your Eminence.
Is it true that your last toy, a private space yacht of the Emerald class cost four hundred fifty thousand isheviks?"
"It was a friends' gift," the official smiled.
"Mr. Shavash," Yanik said, "Tas'Salim is the our country's most important construction. We must find money for it. Otherwise, we will take care of your yacht. Do you understand me?"
X X X
Shavash returned to his luxurious office sincerely upset. He snapped at the secretary, flung a fashionable jacket on the chair's back, threw himself in the armchair, and sat immobile for a while. Those, who knew Shavash superficially, would be certain that he was upset by the first minister's open threat — the beautiful yacht clearly aggravated some people. However strange it may sound, Shavash was upset due to totally different reasons. In any case, in the absolute quietude of his office equipped with a dozen counter-tapping devices, he allowed himself to wrap his hands around his head and quietly utter,
"What are they doing? Do these fuckers understand what they are doing?"
He turned the office speaker on and ordered. "Daren! Could you find Stephen Sigel for me, quickly?"
Stephen Sigel was a representative of Naren and Lissa Joint Bank, the twelfth largest bank in this Galaxy sector; he had showed up on Weia a week ago hoping to start joint projects.
Stephen Sigel appeared in the first finance vice-minister's office in two hours.
"Mr. Sigel," Shavash rushed head-on, "the Weian government would like to obtain a seventy million galactic dinar loan immediately from the Naren and Lissa Joint Bank for six months at a nineteen percent interest. Could we do it?"
Stephen Sigel swallowed. 19 % interest was a very sweat deal. The Federation bonds had 7 % interest rate, the Earth Bonds — 7.5 %. Though, the Weian Empire finances were, no doubt, in a way worse state than the Earth's finances, the bank would've considered 16 % to be quite a decent number.
"Yes," Stephen Sigel said.
"Great," the official replied, "the credit agreement will be signed one hour after one half of a percent from the loan appears on my table, in an envelope."
Next morning, one hour before the government meeting, the first vice-minister of finance Shavash put on the first minister Yanik's table the credit agreement with the Naren and Lissa Joint Bank.
"Here is your seventy million," he said, "I assume there is no point including it in the budget revenue. The money is allocated as an out-of-budget industry support fund.
He turned away and left the office.
"He is such an incredibly deft man," the touched first minister thought, "How has he managed to procure money so quickly?"
Of course, the first minister understood vaguely that there was some connection between Shavash's ability to obtain galactic credits quickly and his buying trinkets like a private space yacht. On the other hand, the first minister enjoyed the thought that the money Shavash grabbed on this deal, paled next to the rake-off his twice removed grandson would make buying the galactic equipment for his company from the front intermediaries at doubled prices.
X X X
The same day, when the budget problems for the Galaxy's fourth largest aluminum facility were happily solved, McCormick, Welsey, and Bemish drove to another construction — also state-owned and also humongous.
Halfway to their destination, they almost drowned in a huge pothole — the road started again in seven meters after the rut. An oldster, living nearby, gathered the people and they dragged the jeep across the pothole on a sledge. They charged so little that Bemish even relinquished his suspicions about the old guy digging the hole himself to make money on it. Later Bemish learned that two districts joined at that point and their heads could not agree on who would fix the pothole.
At the ruins, Bemish felt such sadness as he had never felt in his life before — from the inconceivable waste of nature and construction equipment. The black gate on the landing field lonely stuck out on the blue sky background like a victory arch, it was decorated by various appeals to gods and demons. Ponds, yellow and round like owl eyes, bloomed in the landing chutes. The giant overpass had fallen apart, grass and flowers grew on the poles and the blocks, ants dashed back and forth on the road designed for multi-ton trucks.
An even and incredibly thorny hedge with little blue flowers and half inch barbs covered exactly half the space field making it look like a forest surrounding the Sleeping Beauty's castle. Alas, the thorns didn't disappear with Bemish's arrival.
The spaceport administration wing was cleaved at the first floor level and an elevator chute pointed right in the sky. There was no way, somebody could work here but Bemish remembered clearly an office expenditures entree in a company report and it was about this building. There was something horrifying in this place that ceased to be a part of nature but didn't become a part of the industrial world.
"However, the construction' expenses will be twice lower here," Bemish noted.
The sun was hurrying up to noon, when Bemish and McCormick left the building for a small bamboo grove rattling in the background of the bright stainless steel hangar. Bemish saw that they were not the only ones here — a helicopter stood on the fanned out paws behind the bamboo grove and the wind, raised by its wings, entangled gentle green grass stuck to the landing field. Bemish walked down to the helicopter. Under its belly, a man, in washed out jeans, laid out a napkin and was eating a ham sandwich. Having recognized Giles from IC, Bemish smirked. Another man stood nearby, petting on the back a red horse with white stockings — Kissur.
"Good day," Bemish said, approaching. "Did you fly in together?"
"No," Kissur said, "I am riding."
And he pointed to the side, where two more riders were circling — Khanadar the Dried Date and a servant.
"Did you ride here from the capital?" Welsey was shocked.
"I have friends nearby, and they have a private airport," Kissur explained.
"Yeah, they know how to build here," Welsey said, "they juiced five billions in and nobody even mows the hay down. Why don't they, do you have any idea?"
"They are afraid of ghosts," Bemish supposed.
"Exactly right," Kissur said, "Do you know how a witch gets born?"
None of the Earthmen was a witch genesis specialist and Kissur explained.
Sometimes, a temple or even a simple house is built at a road intersection and then the world changes its masters, the temple gets forgotten or a house owner moves away, God knows where to. The house cries, grows older, grass grows on the roof and a hat of moss covers the gate poles. Water starts to cut doodles and lines on the pole and a crow builds a nest there. In the evening, the locals get frightened passing by the pole — they think, somebody is standing guard in the dark. The fear grows into the pole, covers its features and seeps in its soul. The pole's soul gets born of fear and wind, it starts to watch the moon and walk in the rain and slush — that's how a pole witch appears.
Kissur pointed at the wide open gate on the summer field and added. "Who knows, maybe these poles also stroll around at night?"
Giles chortled. Kissur turned to Bemish and asked.
"So, does it cost a lot?"
"You should ask McCormick," Bemish replied. "I am not a specialist here. My field is finance."
"They abandoned the construction to sell it cheaper afterwards," McCormick said. "They built it for a while and abandoned in three years."
"Why was it exactly three years?" Kissur wondered.
"Because, accordingly to your laws, a start-up company is salary tax-exempt and can import equipment with half the custom tariffs for three years," Bemish replied.
"Ahh," ex-minister drawled, "and whom are they going to sell it to?"
"Not to me," Bemish noted.
Kissur turned around and stared at Giles. The IC representative feigned a yawn.
"It's time to go," Giles claimed. "I can give a ride to the capital to anybody except the jeep."
"Terence will stay here," Kissur said. "We will ride horses together."
Kissur nodded to one of his companions and he jumped of the horse. They walked the horse closer to Bemish and he stared in a large brown eye. The horse chewed on its mouthpiece and her sides rose and lowered. The horse watched Bemish and Bemish watched the horse.
"This is the tail," Kissur said, "this is the head and the driver's seat is in the middle. What are you waiting for? Get in."
"I don't like," Bemish replied, "that it moves before I turn the ignition on."
Kissur and his servants laughed agreeably.
Bemish, however, had to climb on the horse and trek through a crazy forest where the power line poles entwined by lianas grew instead of the trees. Bemish tired out, battered his butt and finally almost drowned in a lawn which in reality proved to be a swamp inside a landing chute.
Kissur said, that he would cripple the horse riding this way, and Bemish said that he would like to observe Kissur driving a car ten years ago. Then, Kissur sent his people off with the horses and walked on foot next to Bemish. Bemish enquired, where they were going, and Kissur explained that the future owner of the spaceport should better get acquainted with the local villages. "In ancient times, a good official always arrived to his appointment region incognito, to learn the problems and difficulties of the oppressed locals," Kissur said with admonition. Bemish wanted to point out, that he was not an official and he was not going to solve the locals' problems, but he was afraid of overdoing it and he shut up.
By the evening, they both departed from the spaceport through a hole in the wall and walked in the dusk down a beautiful beaten dusty road, winding by the neatly planted gardens and rice paddies. They were both unbelievably dirty. Kissur braided a water lily wreath for himself and dashed around the road, laughing.
"Kissur," Bemish said, "I have a request for you."
"The spaceport is built on the peasant land, even though there is a lot of state land around. But it was built on the communal land and the families were handed shares in the way of compensation. I could buy them out."
"How much will you pay them?"
Bemish hesitated. He would happily buy them for a rice vodka jug but he could still see the whip marks on the Krasnov's shoulders.
"These shares aren't liquid, Kissur. They cost no more than three hundred isheviks each. I am ready to pay this money."
"And, when you build the spaceport, will each one cost three hundred thousand? You will swindle this money out of the peasants."
"They will not cost three hundred thousand if I don't build the spaceport."
"Shavash told me that you are not even going to build it."
"Shavash said," Kissur continued, "that you make money, buying a company stocks, and then threatening the company management, till they buy the stocks back at triple price, and that you are reputed to be such a man, a greenmailer. Is it true?"
"Yes," Bemish said.
"So, are you going to buy Assalah?"
"Why haven't you bought the other companies before?"
"I wanted to buy them. Only, the stock price increased so much during the fight, that it would be stupid to buy them. As Shavash maybe told you, two companies, whose management bought me off, went bankrupt."
"Has it happened because of you?"
"It was their choice to set a ludicrous stock price."
"The same will happen to Assalah, won't it? The price will seem too high for you, you will sell the stocks and the company will go bankrupt."
I don't think so. You see, enormous amount of money was sunk in Assalah and, despite all this view around us, — Bemish here gestured with his arm encompassing the bamboo growth far away and the semicircular administration center hulk, looking like an empty watermelon rind- despite all this, the spaceport is more than three quarters built. If we try hard, the first ships will start landing practically in six months. You heard, why it was abandoned — to cost very cheap. Also, everybody has heard, that it's dangerous to invest in a market like yours, but not everybody understands that spaceports and, also, interstellar communication systems are the only safe parts of your economy. This item will not be abandoned at any government and it depends on the local communications, in the least, because its main profits come from the sky. Assalah costs now less than two eateries in the middle of Toronto but, really, it is impossibly under priced. So, the stock price may increase tenfold but it will still be a good acquisition.
Kissur was silent for a moment.
"Are you buying the Assalah stocks now?"
"How much do you have?"
"The Empire Fund Committee requires registration of any company stock acquisition of more than 5 %. I have more now but I would ask you to keep it confidential. I haven't registered it."
"How is it possible?"
"Several companies act as the dummy agent stockholders for me."
Kissur paused and asked then,
"What is this investment auction of yours?"
"Ffty one percent of government stocks will be divided in two blocks — 20 % and 31 %. As you see, I will have a controlling block of shares even if I get only a 20 % block at the auction."
"Wouldn't it be better to offer a good price at the auction?"
"I am not entirely satisfied by the tender conditions. They are defined so cleverly that they allow, for instance, the government to raise the price after the winner is selected."
"What, if you don't come out as a winner, and Shavash sells the company to somebody else, will you sell these stocks with a multiple-fold profit?"
"I will buy Assalah."
Kissur was silent. The birds fluttered out of the grass, a lost cow mooed far away in the field, and the sun, round like a pumpkin, rolled above the Earthman's and the Empire ex-first minister's heads.
"What did the clerks do? The ones bankrupted by you?"
"Well, these…" Kissur clicked his fingers, "general directors."
"Nothing. They are civilized people."
"Now remember this, Bemish. I will help you. But, if you do as Shavash said, I will shoot you."
Kissur got up and walked down the road.
X X X
Richard Giles, the IC company representative, found the finance vice-minister, Shavash, performing a ceremony. Shavash walked stately around the new building of Adako bank carrying in his hands a golden basin, with a burning candle floating on a splinter, and two dozen children in the identical silk clothes followed him with the same candles in their arms.
Numerous gapers enjoyed the view.
Shavash entered the building, sluiced water on the marble floor and, with the proper words, handed the basin to the new bank's president — his good friend's nephew.
When the ceremony finished in five minutes, Shavash withdrew to the future director's office. Giles followed him. Shavash dropped the billowing silk vestment and an impeccable white suit underneath revealed itself.
"Oh, that's you, Dick," he said. "Welcome here, how didn't I see you at the ceremony start?"
"I flew to Assalah," Giles replied dryly. "Bemish was also there."
"He is in his right," Shavash shrugged his shoulders. "You have to agree, if the company wants to participate in the auction, its general director can visit a spaceport."
"We had an agreement that he would not take part in the auction."
"A man can't fulfill all his promises," Shavash explained, "especially, if the other offer is better."
Giles swore glumly and said. "Damn it, if we pay a dinar per share, we can't afford somebody else applying for the auction!"
"I regret, but you will have to raise the price. Terence Bemish is offering seven point seven dinars — just raise the price."
"I didn't pay you, Shavash, to pay for the shares. Kick Bemish out."
"I am sorry," Shavash said, "but Bemish is a Kissur's protege. If we show him the door, Kissur will complain to the sovereign. Do you want a second Kaminsky scandal?"
"Enraged Giles silently slammed the door. His friend was waiting for him in the corridor.
"The damned briber!" the enraged Earthman hissed, "Kissur's protege, my ass! Do you know who got the officials' signatures on the papers when they were all drunk? Kissur? Devil's spawn! Kissur was lying with a wench — Shavash was getting the signatures! He will now harry us with this Bemish till we pay three dinars for a share."
X X X
By four o'clock, Bemish was fatigued. The road was dusty and covered with potholes, the spaceport disappeared a long time ago behind the endless flat fields and the rows of olive trees, planted next to the road so that the dust settled on olives and they ripened faster. They made at least twenty five miles, not including the morning spaceport trip. Bemish was tired as a dog and was slowly getting nuts — what is Kissur trying to prove? That he walks on foot better than Bemish? It comes as no surprise in a man who fought in a country with motorized divisions consisting of one horsepower units! The temptation to make it all clear to Kissur was pretty strong. But Bemish still kept silence and dragged himself after the ex-minister like a dog's tail.
By the evening, Bemish and Kissur reached a local village and came in a tavern. Both wanderers were dirty up to their ears and looked so unprepossessing, that the host didn't even move seeing them at the entrance. Only, when Kissur sat at the table and bellowed, did he amble to the visitors. Kissur inspected the geese the host offered, demanded to grill one of them and ordered, additionally, mushroom sauce, appetizers and wine.
The goose soon appeared in front of the travelers in the grilled state and it was impossible to recognize — such an appetizing crust covered it and so cheerfully did the goose fat drip down in the steaming rice plate. The travelers embarked on the food and, though Bemish was very hungry, he soon realized that he had no chance holding his own with Kissur. They conversed in English. Bemish noticed suddenly that Kissur was trying to not to bang his spoon on the plate and was listening to the conversation between two poorly dressed peasants — they were scraping rice quickly out of their plates with their heads down. Finally Kissur couldn't hold it, he bid them come to the table, handed over some goose and started to ask questions. Bemish, being barely able to understand a few words, inquired what the problem was.
"These are the peasants from the second village," Kissur said, "and they are going to the manor's headman. Two years ago, their father became sick and they borrowed money from the headman for medical treatment, at first, and then for the funeral. In two years, the interest grew to match the original loan size. At that point, the headman sent his servants to the village and took their sister as a loan payment. The guys went to their relatives to borrow money but it didn't work out and they are going to the headman again." They were silent for a while.
"What about the shares," Bemish wondered. "Did you ask them about the shares?"
"They don't know what shares are," Kissur replied, "if you mean the red paper pieces they were issued for their land, they gave it to the headman as a name day gift."
"But they cost ten isheviks a share even now!" Bemish exclaimed involuntarily, totally forgetting a vodka crock.
The peasants swung their heads nervously, listening to two bums talking — they were clearly speaking some thief's argot — the peasants couldn't make a single word out! Kissur pulled a wad of money out of his pants, counted two hundred isheviks and gave them to the older guy.
"Hold it," he said, "that's for your sister's bail." The peasant's eyes bulged out at the bum, he fell down on his knees and started kissing the earth in front of Kissur, till Kissur threw him outside.
"Where are we going now?" Bemish asked when the peasants left.
Kissur opened his dirty coat's flap, making sure that the gun was still there, and said, "Let's spend a night in the manor where the sister was taken to."
By the late evening, tired as a dog Bemish slogged after Kissur to a hilltop crowned by a toothy tarred fence. Upon the travelers' arrival, a gate appeared in the fence and a servant with a flashlight and an assault rifle appeared in the gate.
"Talk," Kissur elbowed Bemish.
"I… our… sleep," Bemish started.
The servant raised his flashlight a bit, realized that he was dealing with the foreigners that understood the human speech worse than dogs and let them into the manor with hardly a word.
X X X
It's should be pointed out, that the headman, in the manor they came to, was an awful man. He fleeced the peasants mercilessly, traded in girls, purchased stolen goods and ruled a racketeering gang. He had a great relationship with the regional authorities. At the same time, he attempted to look honorable. Fleecing the peasants, he always referred to the manor owner's merciless orders. Since the local peasants were really dumb, it had never even come to their mind to complain to the manor's owner, living in the capital and totally ignorant of all these depravities. In such a simple way the headman persuaded the peasants that he was their protector.
So, Kissur and Bemish found a place in a hay bale inside the cattle yard and watched the peasants come to the meeting hall. The headman even came out to meet them.
"I am so sorry about this," he declared, "but I have already sent your sister to the lord in the capital, so there is no way to get her back. If the lord likes her, you are lucky — maybe he will agree to forgive you the rest of your debt."
"But we managed to get the money," the peasant said happily and handed the banknotes over.
Who could guess that the headman had quarreled with one of his servants yesterday and bashed his head in with a stick? He stuck the body into the trunk afterwards, got it out of the manor and threw it into the bushes next to the construction. In the morning, he said that he had sent the servant to buy some stuff in the capital. He was going to report the servant as having deserted afterwards but an incredible idea came to him, when he saw the money. He leafed through the bank notes again and, suddenly, he pulled one of them out — it was a twenty isheviks note with a "200" ink bank mark.
"Hold them," he cried to the servants. "I gave this twenty isheviks note to my servant Anai when I sent him out yesterday. Anai should have returned this morning; they must have robbed and killed him. Otherwise, where would they get the money?"
The servants grabbed the bewildered peasants.
"Where did you get the money?" the headman attacked them.
"Your grace," the elder begged, "a bum gave us the money; it looked like he followed us here — he is sleeping now on the hay bale! How would we know if he robbed somebody?"
The headman ordered the servants to take a look and they reported in no time that, truly, one sturdy bum was sleeping on a bale and another one had dug himself in it. The headman was pleased. "The prey comes to the hunter on its own," he thought, "I will arrest these bums and accuse them of the murder!" But then he changed his mind. "Who knows where these bums came from? Only bandits carry this kind of money on them and they won't be overjoyed, if I accuse an acclaimed gang member of murder and robbery! I will meet my end this way. To the opposite, the bandits will appreciate my tact if I don't get them mixed in this business."
And he assailed the peasants.
"It's such nonsense! Where would bums get this money? You don't even stop at accusing innocent fellow travelers." And he ordered to bring whips and canes.
X X X
Kissur was by no means sleeping in the bale at that time. He aspired to see his philanthropy's results. To avoid attention, he took the boots off and stuck them in the hay, so that they looked like a sleeper's legs, noiselessly climbed on the barn roof and jumped from there to the main house. He took off his belt with a hook on the end, snatched a post on the roof with a hook and lowered himself down the belt, to a cornice encircling the house. He walked down the cornice to the entry hall. Hanging down there, he heard the peasants being accused of the servant's murder and he heard them breaking down at the torture and confessing their guilt.
In a while, the prisoners were taken away, the headman locked the money in the small metal safe in the corner and everybody left. Having waited for half an hour, Kissur carefully pried the wooden frame open with a knife and climbed inside.
X X X
Bemish woke up in the middle of the night — Kissur was missing. "Where is he hanging his ass out?" Bemish got angry. The moon shined and the roofs of wing houses and utility shacks were clearly outlined on the night sky background. Just then, Bemish saw a man's silhouette sneaking along the main house rooftop with a sack under his armpit. Bemish shuddered and rubbed his eyes. The man jumped over to the garage roof and disappeared inside. "Hold the thief!" a scream issued, and something glistened in the house. Bemish jumped.
Something boomed in the garage, its gate was thrown wide open and a truck rushed out puffing.
"Jump!" Kissur screamed.
Bemish leaped on the truck, tore the door open and fell on the seat. The truck scurried around the yard, kicked out the gate and sprinted down the slope. Awaken servants rushed after it but, since everybody was afraid that the robbers could start firing and make some holes in the lackeys' hides, — they limited their activities to the loud screams and flashlight hustling.
The headman silently contemplated the stripped safe. "These robbers are crummy people," he thought, "in my benevolence, I didn't prosecute them for the murder and they thanked me in such a way!"
X X X
The truck swerved down the night road and, inside the truck Bemish castigated the Empire ex-first minister. Bemish finished and Kissur asked,
"Terence, have you killed anybody at the construction?"
The Earthman only flapped his hands at such a question.
"I also think that you haven't killed anybody," Kissur agreed, "then, how did the headman recognize this note?" and he started recounting, what happened between the headman and the peasants.
"I think," the Earthman said, "the problem is, that the headman has already sent the girl to his lord and he is afraid to call her back. That's why he kicked this hoax with the money off; the servant ran away somewhere or he will come in a week."
"You think well," Kissur said, "and the peasants likely think the same way. Keep it."
And to the financier's horror, the Empire ex-minister handed him over a wad of square notes that Bemish immediately recognized to be the Assalah bearer stocks.
"My God," Bemish moaned, "what is this?"
"These are your stocks. Do you remember the peasants' story, how the headman requested them as a gift?"
"You said it yourself, that if you have these shares, you will be able to control Shavash."
"Kissur! Firstly, I can buy low and sell high but I've never acquired securities yet with a bandit's lock pick. Secondly, exactly five minutes after this story comes out, not a single bank will agree to finance me. Thirdly, this story will surely come out, since the headman will complain about one of the robbers being a foreigner and there are not that many foreigners…"
"He won't run to complain," Kissur said, "or he will have to explain, how he got the shares as a gift."
Bemish gestured with his hand and became silent.
It took them an hour to drive back to the beginning of the destroyed overpass, where Bemish and McCormick had abandoned the car in the morning — the car was still there. Kissur got out of the truck, threw the stolen stuff on the back seat and took the clean clothes out of the trunk.
"Change you clothes."
Kissur drove the car and Bemish grouched, kept silence and, looking at Kissur, thought, "He is not a man, he is a walking scandal." They arrived at a crumbly town and stopped in front of a red lacquered gate. Bemish realized that it was a district precinct. It was probably the same precinct where Krasnov was whipped for an attempt to acquire the shares.
"Are you going to rob another precinct head?"
Kissur, not responding, knocked in the gate. The district head, having learned about the Emperor favorite's visit, put the clothes on and went out to meet them. Kissur introduced Bemish to him.
"We were inspecting the construction till the nightfall and we were barely able to get out," Kissur explained.
In the morning, even before Kissur and Bemish walked downstairs, a bustle issued in the house. The official reported, bowing.
"Mr. Kissur! Your manor is located nearby, and a modest man named Khanni is the headman there. Yesterday night, two bums robbed the house and stole four hundred thousand! Probably, these two guys also killed his servant and lifted his money — the servant's body was found today in the riverside bushes!
Bemish understood some of the official's talk and froze.
They drove to the headman — a dozen Kissur's servants, that he called that night from the capital, joined them on the way. The district head entered the yard, with a large crowd already assembled, and Kissur stayed in the crowd screened by his servants.
The murdered servant's body was delivered, two peasants were brought in and the headman accused them.
"Everything is clear. These two made a deal with the bandits and robbed and killed my servant — they didn't expect me recognizing the money. You were going to rob the manor together next but, since you were arrested, the bums went ahead on their own. Answer me — where did you bump into them? Imagine it, I was trying to protect you before your lord, turned your sister over to him, so that he would become lenient."
Here, the crowd moved and Kissur moved out of it surrounded by three sturdy chaps.
"Hey, Khanni! What was this girl you turned over to me?"
The headman went gray in the face with horror. The crowd reacted.
"How much, are you saying, they stole from me?" Kissur continued.
"Four hundred thousand," the headman fretted. Here Kissur took the sack of his shoulder and emptied it right out for everybody to see.
"Khanni," Kissur stated, "when I gave you this manor, I said, 'Don't oppress the people, only take one tenth.' Yesterday, I was passing by, with a friend, and I decided to check, how you obey my orders, and when you arrested the people I gave money to, claimed this money for yourself, and told them that I dishonored their sister that I haven't even met, it looked to me, that you obeyed my orders like a pig you are — that you sucked on the people's marrow and drank their blood. I decided to look in your safe and I carried away from it not four hundred thousand but, rather, six and half thousand and, secondly, I carried away from it the loan agreements signed with my signature — and this is a fake signature. Then I realized that I didn't waste my time poking into this safe, because you would doubtfully have shown me these faked agreements!"
The headman could not speak — he bleated and crawled at Kissur's feet.
"Spit it out," Kissur barked. "How many girls have you sold to the whorehouses in my name?"
"Twenty of them, at least," somebody in the crowd responded.
Here, Kissur leaped at the headman and crushed his nose and many other parts, and then ordered to "hang this fucker on the gate" — Bemish could barely persuade him to call the lynching off.
They still stuffed the headman in the stocks at the punishment pole. By mid afternoon, hundreds of peasants drifted into the manor.
"That's what happened," the peasants were saying, "the damned headman lied to us and cheated the master! Thanks to the master for coming here and sorting things out!"
Kissur ordered to set a table across the pole, sat down at the table and started to hand the loan agreements out to the peasants while the district head, happy to still have his nose whole, was certifying that the deeds were fake.
By the evening, the headman was taken away in the stocks and the satisfied crowd dispersed.
X X X
Kissur and Bemish stayed in the orphaned manor overnight.
"So, how was I?" Kissur inquired Bemish at the dinner. He reminded Bemish of a victorious fighting cock.
"If a society's fairness," Bemish said, "depended on the number of squashed noses, then your Empire would be the fairest place in the Universe. However, the situation is reversed."
"The objective is," the Earthman said instructively, "not to break the corrupted officials' noses. The objective is to position the officials in such a way that they couldn't harass the people."
"How do you like this place?"
"Wonderful place," Bemish said, "one could build a heaven here or, at least, a wondrous chicken farm."
Kissur burst out in laughter and slapped him on the shoulder.
"It's all yours, then!"
Bemish was astonished.
"I can't accept such a gift."
"Why? You just stated that the goal is not to kick a bad owner's butt, but to find an honest one. You are all bark and no bite."
"But I don't even speak the language."
Kissur, however, wasn't even going to listen.
"Also, you need to live somewhere," he declared, "you will surely get this company in your pocket, don't worry! I will wheedle it out of the sovereign for you."
And he started enthusiastically treating Bemish with wine.
X X X
Bemish woke up late. The sun was pushing in the open window and dancing on a deity's jade mug, grinning above the door, on an ancient silver lantern where an electric light bulb bloated like a white bubble. With an effort, Bemish recalled yesterday events. "There was a fight… We drank… Oh, my God! He granted me the manor!" Bemish jumped up in the bed — the house deed and a note from Kissur lay on the table — he returned to the capital.
In an hour, Bemish thoughtfully consumed breakfast on a veranda. Frightened servants ran around. He could barely talk to the servants and was absolutely unable to understand their replies. He thought for a moment, went inside and called to Mr. Shavash's office.
"Mr. Shavash," the Earthman said, "could you recommend me a really honest administrator?"
The first finance vice-minister assured him, in a slightly ironic voice, that he would be happy to find for Mr. Bemish anything in the world — an eternal phoenix, three-headed dragon, and even an honest administrator.
X X X
At the other end of the line, Shavash hung up the receiver. He pondered for a moment and, then, he called the secretary and gave the necessary orders.
Soon, a young man, with a round face and pleasant but sad azure eyes, entered his office. The young man's face was unusually pale, a raw dough color. An Earthman or another ignorant person would think that the face's owner was unhealthy or hadn't left home for a while. A Weian would immediately suspect that the guy had been in jail.
So, the young man named Adini, approached to the official's table and froze three steps away, waiting for orders.
"Kissur," Shavash said, "bestowed to a Earthman, named Terence Bemish, a manor next to Assalah and the Earthman is looking for a manor's headman. I would like to bestow you to him."
"Yes, master," Adini said deferentially.
"You will watch him and report all his meetings and plans to me."
Shavash picked a sheet of paper with a personal seal out of a folder. "The moment Bemish leaves the planet," Shavash said, "this sheet of paper will be destroyed. It is in your best interests, to operate so that Bemish leaves the planet quickly. Do you understand me?"
"Terence Bemish is a smart man and he, most certainly, expects me to use this opportunity to send him a spy."
"Why did he ask you for a headman, then?"
"He hopes to allure the spy to his side. Once he has given you enough favors, you may pretend that it indeed has happened. Remember, however, that Bemish can give you money or a stipend but only I can get rid of this paper for you. Also remember that, if Bemish had this sheet, he would not act as a good Samaritan towards you. He will be kind to you only because he doesn't have another weapon."
X X X
Bemish was enjoying the ancient mosaic overlaying the walls on the second floor, when he heard a descending flyer's characteristic rustle. He walked out to the gallery — a white flyer stood in the yard, the last "rainbow" shimmers were beating above its wings. In a moment, the "rainbow" dimmed, the flyer's roof opened up like a poppy flower carpel, and two people got out of the car — a handsome lithe youth in a strict white suit and another guy, more scrawny than slim, in a checked shirt with torn-off sleeves and a red flower in his hair, following the contemporary rebel fashion.
"You can live here two months and more," the youth in the strict suit said loudly in English, evidently being sure that nobody could understand him, "no one will say a word. The local headman has sinned quite a bit and he won't even tell my brother about you."
"And how much has he sinned?"
"Not more than any damned bank director."
Here, the older youth turned around and noticed Bemish who was standing openly at the gallery encircling the villa at the second store.
"Hey, who are you?" the youth called out in Weian.
"I am Terence Bemish and I am the villa's owner."
"That's nonsense! The villa belongs to my brother."
"That's true. However, Kissur threw out the manor's headman yesterday and gave the manor to me."
The youth span his head nervously and Bemish said,
"You are welcome. I don't think that Kissur would be happy to know that I showed his brother and his guest off."
Bemish ordered the servants to serve the terrace table and, soon, he and his unexpected guests were devouring an ample breakfast. Kissur brother's name was Ashidan and his companion introduced himself, not without sarcasm, as John Smith.
"What do you do?" Ashidan asked.
"I am a financier."
"My brother makes strange acquaintances," Ashidan noticed.
"What do you do?" Bemish inquired from the new guest.
"It's none of your business, shithead."
Bemish was a bit flustered.
"Excuse me," he asked, "didn't we meet two minutes ago? I don't know anything about you. What do you know about me to call me a shithead?"
"What class did you fly coming here?"
"That's it. How can a man with enough money to fly first class not to be a shithead?"
"Are you an anarchist," Bemish wondered, "a communist?"
"I am a sympathizer"
"Whom and what do you sympathize with? Esinole? Marks? Le Dan?"
"I sympathize with the people that the likes of you shit on with money."
"Why do you sympathize with them on Weia?"
"This planet is interesting for me," Smith said. "People here haven't choked on their money.
"Yes," Bemish agreed, recalling peasants, crawling in the fields, "they haven't. But I hope to fix it."
"I will help them to choke on their money," Bemish stated.
"It's nonsense! You don't care about anything except your profits!"
Bemish was unhurriedly eating the morning soup. Last time he heard the same thing from the former ADO general director, whom he kicked out from a comfortable for him, but burdensome for the company, armchair.
"Don't push it, Johnny," Ashidan said sarcastically, "or he will be calling police in a second."
"I would certainly call police," Bemish said, "if I saw you making a bomb. Since you are just yakking, why the heck should I call them?"
"Will you tell my brother?"
Bemish carefully looked at Ashidan. "What a brood," a thought passed his mind, "one drives tanks down the foreign companies' facilities and another reads Marx in Princeton… Why didn't Kissur give him the villa?" Bemish fished a satellite phone out of his pocket and handed it to the youth.
"Tell him yourself," Bemish suggested.
Ashidan got up and walked to the garden to make a call. Right then, the servants rushed to the terrace to announce the district head's arrival.
The district head brought gifts with him — three dishes of grilled meat with garlic, a suckling pig, salads in flat baskets and, also, a plate of walnut shaped cookies and a round sweet quince pie decorated with the Bemish's last name misspelled on top.
Bemish walked the guest to the garden gazebo. The official bowed to him with the pie and said, "It's a great honor for us, Mr. Bemish that you will now, in a way, live with us. I am happy to express my gratitude to you. Thanks to your help and Kissur's courage, a crime of unimaginable magnitude and horror was uncovered.
"I think you were aware of it," Bemish said.
"Hola, how can you say so?! I was shocked, squashed like a frog under a wagon!"
Bemish shrugged his shoulders. A servant knocked and appeared in the door with a steaming teapot and sweets in woven baskets.
The guest and the host treated each other with tea and, then, the district head inquired,
"They say that you will be in the charge of our construction?"
"It's too early to say," Bemish said.
Here it seemed to Bemish that the district head winked his eye at him in a coarse and canny way.
"Well, say," the district head said, "there is no reason to doubt now. Believe me, I and the others around will be utterly happy to do everything they can for Kissur's friend and their future colleague."
"Did you whip Krasnov?" Bemish asked.
"I mean the trader, who came to Assalah for the stocks. You said, that you wouldn't allow foreigners to rob the people."
The district head nodded understandingly. His face became now important and benevolent.
"Unfortunately," he said, "the people are like children and officials should protect them. How can I let them sell invaluable property for two cents?"
"You can't let them sell it for two cents but you can let them sell it for free? To pay for the taxes you invented?"
"Hola!" the district head exclaimed, "how can you say so?"
His round kind face reddened and tears appeared on the wide open eyes.
"Do you have company shares? Did you pay a cent for them?"
The district head's eyes looked at Bemis honestly and directly.
"From now on," the district head said, "the meaning of my life is to serve you! What would you like me to do? Tell me and I will carry it out."
"I would like you," Bemish said, "to sell me the Assalah shares at the same price the peasants sold them to you — for free."
The official choked.
"Otherwise," Bemish continued, "the sovereign will know how you chased foreign vultures from here with a brined whip to bleed the people on your own."
The official was silent for a moment and then bowed and pronounced, "It will be my honor to serve you."
"I should get him fired," Bemish thought, "so that a man grateful to me for the appointment and not the man hating me because of the shares is head of the precinct.
X X X
When Bemish walked down in the garden, Ashidan was standing on the swimming pool edge and throwing thin well sharpened darts into a fat pot.
"Well, did you talk to this mongrel? Ashidan asked, "How much money did he give you, so that you didn't prosecute him?"
"Don't be rude, Ashidan."
"This district head is a real weirdo, "the youth continued, "He is the only local official who spends every day in the office. Do you know what he engages in in there?"
"He locks himself with his young male secretary since his wife comes from a much better family than he does, and she doesn't allow these little tricks at home."
THE FOURTH CHAPTER
Where Kissur tells investment bankers how to train a highwayman's horse while Terence Bemish makes an acquintance with other contenders for Assalah stocks
The next day after his return to the capital, Bemish found himself at a party thrown by the district prefect to celebrate the plum blossoming or some other divine occasion.
The party was grand. All of the high society arrived.
The officials discussed the inflation and the importance of the preservation of the customs. The people from the stars discussed the inflation and the importance of the preservation of the customs.
In a corner, the foreign entrepreneurs shared more particular impressions from the local business surroundings with each other.
"So, this abbot comes to me and offers to bless the bank against a misfortune and he asks for two hundred thousand dinars for the ceremony. I refuse and the next night a fire starts in the office. The next day this vermin comes to me again, expresses its condolences, and asks for two hundred thousand again. When I complained to the police, they gave me the advice — don' buck and cough up the money — the abbot is connected to Horn's gang."
"By the way, speaking about banks — do you know that only the companies, with accounts in Shavash controlled banks, received the budget financing this month? They say that Shavash had a ten percent kickback.
And so on. And so forth.
Bemish met the Federation of Nineteen envoy, an elderly Malaysian, and the envoy led Bemish into a corner immediately and started telling him true stories from local officials' lives.
There were about dozen envoys present. Bemish was suddenly surprised by the number. He thought that only fifteen… not even fifteen — ten years ago — the envoys' number would be way smaller. The Earth colonies were leaving the Federation of Nineteen one after another, peacefully or with swords drawn.
Bemish was also introduced to the Gera envoy. The envoy was talking to two people that looked familiar to Bemish.
"Mr. Lawrence Edwards," the envoy introduced one of them.
"Mr. Jonathan Rusby," he introduced the other one.
Bemish didn't bat an eyelid.
Half the Galaxy police have been looking for Mr. Lawrence Edwards. Mr. Edwards had owned one of the Galaxy's largest and most respectable businesses. An airport technician's son, he made a five billion dinar fortune by the age of thirty. He used land allotments he acquired for construction purposes, as collateral to obtain the bank loans, and the banks trusted him completely. Unfortunately, Mr. Edwards had more and more difficulties in the last several years and he created a network of companies buying these land allotments from each other and using them later as collateral for bank loans. At the fifth act's end, Edwards escaped. When disappointed banks arrested the land allotments and unfinished skyscrapers, they found out their real price was very different from the price paid by the affiliated companies, and it didn't even cover one twentieth of Mr. Edwards loans.
As for Mr. Rusby, he had also been a financial legend and the manager of a successful offshore fund investing citizens' savings in risk free government securities. Unfortunately, the interest promised by Mr. Rusby exceeded the possible government securities trading profits by 3 % and, henceforth, Mr. Rusby, while promising the complete safety, invested his clients' money using much more profitable but much less secure financial instruments. The clients, lured by high risk free profits, crowded at his office, the modest retirees and dishwashers who would have never invested in his fund if they had known the fund's structure, brought their money to him. Rusby, with his incredible nose for trading, often gleaned up huge pickings buying a bankrupted company's shares at 5 % of the face value that would later rise to 90 % and he had a great time meanwhile with the margin between his take-in and his payments to the clients.
It was not economical but rather political quandaries that destroyed him — a new tax law on Aegeia, where his head office was, and a couple of the adroit auditors. Rusby's assets were arrested, his wife divorced him scandalously, the fund immediately bankrupted and Rusby escaped to Gera, where he kept insisting that, all this time, he fulfilled his obligations towards the clients and paid them exactly as he promised.
By the way, the federal committee didn't argue that.
It just claimed that if the Rusby investments' real risk level had been known, he would have had to pay the investors five-fold.
"Eh, Mr. Bemish," Rusby said with a friendly smile, "I heard that you were also taking part in the Assalah auction?"
"Also?" Bemish winced. "Wow! Would Shavash really let this man, wanted by the Galaxy police, participate in an auction."
Next to a lighted pond with gold fish, a small man stood — Shavash.
"Thanks for the headman," Bemish said, "what salary should I pay him?"
"Nothing — he is your slave."
"I thought there is no slavery on Weia.
"Call it the way you want. This man owes me two hundred thousand isheviks and he signed a contract that he would work this debt off any way I choose. I will transfer the contract to you and send it tomorrow with the courier."
Bemish was silent.
"By the way," Shavash asked suddenly, "they say, all the Assalah documentation was transferred to you. What's your opinion?"
"What do you mean?"
"I meant just what I said. You just familiarized yourself with the most detailed documentation, you are a financier. What do you say?"
I'd say that I realized how they make money on Weia. They make money not on private profits but on state expenses. They fed off Assalah in two ways. The first way was the inflated contracts and the second way was the written-off equipment. For instance, the company Alarcon was in charge of the land works. The same man was both the Assalah director and the Alarcon founder. He owned 20 % of the shares. There is the geological study's conclusion, that Assalah stands on an excellent basalt foundation with a forest situated above it. There are, also, seven million isheviks paid to Alarcon for draining swamps that have never existed. There is construction equipment paid for with the budget money at triple fold prices. And the same equipment was sold to Alarcon in two weeks and 97 % of the resource was claimed to be exhausted. How can you exhaust 97 % of the resource of a step excavator in ten working days? I bet, it was still standing unpacked at a warehouse, new and shiny! Any action was a financial pump that pumped state budget money from the company a manager was in charge of, to the company the manager owned.
Shavash listened to the Earthman with eyes half closed.
"You said that the director owned 20 % of the Alarcon shares. Who owned the other 80 %?"
"I assume that you owned it, Shavash."
A deferential waiter stopped next to them and Shavash took a crystal glass on a thin stem from the silver tray.
"However, I didn't understand certain things," Bemish continued, "what is an "ishevik bill of credit"?"
Shavash spread his hands.
"We were forced to do this. When the ministry doesn't have money, it has sometimes to issue short-term bills of credit maturing in three months. You need to pay the contractors somehow."
"In other words, you, Mr. Shavash, issue your own money."
"Not exactly," the vice-ministry pointed out indifferently, "Money costs as much as it costs. While, when you obtain "ishevik bills of credit", you go to a bank to exchange them for money. The bank can pay you thirty percent of the face value or it can pay you hundred percent. It depends on how good friends you, I and bank are."
"I believe," Bemish enquired, "it's meaningless to ask you if you approve of cutting the ineffective industry subsidies down."
"Theoretically speaking, I approve of it," Shavash said tiredly. "You don't read local media. I am an enthusiastic supporter of the budget deficit curbing. This Assalah thing swallowed two billion isheviks while the real expenses were not even two million."
The official's voice didn't carry either cynicism or sarcasm in it. Bemish kept silent — he didn't know how to snub a man who issued pseudo money as the first finance vice-minister, received it on the Assalah's account as a Board of Director's member, and ferried it to his personal account as real money.
Right then, Bemish realized a very simple thing — Kissur can bequest a villa to him, Kissur can secure Assalah for him — but only Shavash has the life and death power over money in this country.
"Who was the man who visited the manor with Ashidan?" Shavash asked suddenly. "Did you recognize him?"
"No," Bemish came to his senses.
Shavash silently opened the folder he had with him and extracted a newspaper article. The article showed the late Ashidan's companion and the title announced, "The main suspect in the Menszel trading exchange center escapes in an unknown direction."
Bemish hadn't heard about the explosion and he leafed through the text quickly. The explosion was indeed a small one — two or three doors cracked and a computer had its brains blown out. The blast was small because only one explosive device performed — a non-fragmentation demolition shell with ten grams of trinex. A case with the equivalent of three kilograms of dynamite was next to it but, miraculously, it didn't detonated. If the case had exploded, the victim count would have been in tens or, even hundreds.
"They left the villa," Bemish said, "the same day."
"Ashidan has nasty companions, " Shavash said. "Though this guy is a friend of Kissur's."
"Pardon my curiosity, Mr. Shavash — it's surprising how you know everything. You know even what happens at a villa two hundred kilometers away from the capital. Are you a vice-minister of finance or of police?"
"I am simply a rich man," the small official said. "And a rich man is not the man who owns a personal villa or a personal spaceship. It is a man who owns a personal jail."
"A personal jail? Is that a joke?"
"Would you like to see it? I can organize a trip."
"Never joke about jail, Mr. Bemish," calmly and coldly the Empire official said. They were silent for a moment and, then, Bemish said,
"How much is IC going to pay for the stocks? I can pay more?"
"It doesn't matter, Terence, whether you pay more or less for the stocks," Shavash grinned. "Imagine, that you pay for the stocks more but your application is not set up correctly."
"How much does a correct application cost?"
In the uneven light by the lamps outside the window, the small official's raised eyebrows were easy to see.
"Come on," Shavash smiled.
"Listen," Bemish said quietly and clearly, "a fantastic sum given to you by IC was mentioned to me. I don't know whether or not it's true. I am not going to offer you this kind of money. If, however, I buy the company and you buy the stock options, in three years, your shares will be worth eighteen times more than any of IC's pitches."
Shavash only smiled.
"You know perfectly well what IC is, Shavash. And you know that it will bankrupt Assalah, and you know why it will do it."
Shavash had a perfect composure but Bemish noticed surprise or, even, horror passing in his eyes.
Here, the Gera envoy with another man entered the hall and Bemish bowed and walked away to the balcony.
Giles sat at a corner table on the balcony. A glass of palm vodka, mixed with mango juice, stood next to him and an open magazine, that Giles was probably reading, was under the glass.
"Good day, Mr. Bemish! They say that you already own half the Assalah with a cute villa on top?"
Giles was drunk. He lamented probably that half the Assalah didn't belong to him.
"I haven't asked for this gift," Bemish said, "and, anyway, I found myself in an idiotic position."
"Especially, since you are not going to buy the company anyway, are you?"
Bemish was tempted to empty the glass of vodka in the Giles face.
"Let me introduce you to our executive director," Giles said lazily, "James McFergson."
Bemish turned around — behind him, a stout short man with unusually lively eyes and a mole on a pug nose was smiling and extending amicably his hand.
"Overjoyed to meet you," MacFergson declared, shaking Bemish's hand. It really looked, as if he was overjoyed to meet Bemish, and, as if no Bemish existed in this world, he would fall dead with sorrow.
Here, the stage in the garden under the balcony was lightened, the harmonious sounds of flutes and lute-shells poured forth and a performance started below — in not too prudish dresses, four beauties were dancing a complex dance with swords. Quite a crowd surrounded the stage quickly and, when the performance finished, a guest — likely drunk- climbed the boards to kiss the dancing girls.
"Who is this bloke?" Bemish enquired.
"The Adana envoy, " McFergson answered. "The envoy fits the country."
"An Earthman?" Bemish said with surprise.
"They are no longer Earthmen," McFergson smirked, "the planet Adana, for your information, was settled by SD Warheim. So, Warheim brought there several dozen thousand unemployed people — subsidizing their one-way tickets. In just a short while, the unemployed realized that there were a lot of jobs on Adana and no unemployment benefits. So, they all screamed that it was slavery in disguise and demanded that the company transport them back to Earth. When the company offered the opportunity to earn money for the transportation fees on their own, they called it Earth imperialism and declared independence. However, I heard that their current President makes them work way harder than the company did and in concentration camps rather than free."
"Mr. Bemish knows that," Giles interrupted his colleague. "Just when the trouble started, he bought United Ferrous shares and sold them later at triple fold price when the new Adana government transferred all of Warheim's concessions to United."
Several people from the group of Weian officials noiselessly approached the conversing Earthmen. Among them, Bemish noticed Jonathan Rusby with the smiling Gera envoy.
"Mr. Bemish has also provided a great assistance to Andjey Gerst. In my opinion, your decision to create a Gera-oriented portfolio investment fund made many financiers pay attention to Gera economics."
"What's so bad about it?" Bemish enquired irritably.
"Gerst is a dictator."
"And how exactly does it show?"
"So far, it shows, " Giles said, "in him attracting high level scientists and advancing huge loans to local companies for the newest technologies development — our government is forced to spend this money on social expenses. And Gera banks are reputed to be the most reliable in the Galaxy, though not due to the government protection but rather due to the very strict laws specifying the total personal responsibility of the management."
"Whose nails do they pull out?"
"And where is the dictatorship?
"Eh," Giles said, "in your opinion, a dictatorship is when they pull the people's nails out and talk stupidly… Only a weak dictatorship pulls the people's nails out, it's not a dangerous dictatorship, it will expire of its own accord, it's doomed because when they pull the people's nails out, the people don't work as much and the less they work, the more nails they have to pull out."
"Do I understand you correctly," Bemish inquired, "that any state, where they don't pull your nails out, is a strong dictatorship? I think you just envy that Gera is better off than your own eh…?"
"Australia," Giles said, "I am an Australian. I understand you, though. You have better opinion of Gera than of your own country because Gera's Dow index grows faster."
He stood up.
"It's a stupid argument," he said, "I've been to Gera and I could give you hundred proofs that its Leader is thousand times more dangerous than all the psychopaths… Why don't you think about this — the Gera army's total military capabilities are approaching those of Earth and all the other Federation of Nineteen members' armies combined, and every time, when somebody in the Federation Assembly proposes to boost the defense spending, the owners of the accounts in the stable Gera banks start screaming that we should not spend money on war, we should spend the money on social assistance."
Kissur came in after midnight — by his looks, he spent the evening in a more interesting way — in a pub. He ran into Bemish on a garden path, next to a grotto that, due to an evident reason, Bemish needed to visit in private.
Kissur slapped Bemish on the shoulder and noted.
"I haven't expected to meet you at this zoo! So, trader, haven't you yet changed your mind about buying Assalah?"
"I will buy Assalah," Bemish said, "no matter what. At least, so that Giles wouldn't get it."
"What's the difference between Giles or you buying it?" Bemish was silent for a moment. Kissur was clearly drunk and Bemish wasn't a picture of sobriety either.
"The difference? I guess, I will explain to you, Kissur, what Giles is doing. Giles represents a company that nobody knows anything about. He says that a private financier stays hidden behind the IC initials and he is ready to invest ten billion in this business. That's bullshit. There are no such investors."
"Why is he doing that?"
This is chicanery. Whoever is behind Giles gets Assalah and issues the new shares. Your planet desperately lacks the space infrastructure, it's generally a state property, and private spaceport investments should be fantastically profitable. The stocks prices rise through the ceiling, IC makes billions on the price differential and gets out. Shavash gets millions, IC gets billions and the Federation investors with the Empire nationals get a fly speck. I spent this week making enquires about IC. It is a phantom. This is a trickster company that had a couple of projects on some planets that nobody has heard anything about, — and these planets had been expelled from the United Nations. A planet that's not a UN member — from a financial viewpoint — Kissur, is a planet where the public companies' accounting doesn't have to follow the Federal financial committee standards. They have a well developed system — they bribe an official, issue the stocks, advertising their "connections to the government", peddle these stocks to fools through a phony company, the stocks grow, the company cleans the cream off, and then — kabloom! Got it?
"Got it," Kissur said. "I got it, that our companies have a merry choice — they can choose between a disreputable greenmailer and a company like IC."
Kissur left soon, having loud-mouthed the Federation envoy and publicly promised some official to set the dogs at him, "If you, bastard, demonstrate your disdain to the sovereign again by parking your ill-gotten with bribes Rolls-Royce next to the Nut Pavilion."
He did, however, invite Bemish for a dinner at Red Dog restaurant the day after tomorrow.
X X X
The next day, Bemish returned to the city and went, first thing, to DJ securities. The flower pot with summer hyacinths, right in front of the office entrance, was bent in by bulky jeep tires and people bustled through the wide open office doors like ants in a smashed anthill.
"What's going on?" Bemish inquired from Krasnov coming out to meet him.
"Tax police visited us," Krasnov said. "They locked up all the paperwork."
"What laws did you break?"
"You should better ask what laws we didn't break! What laws can you avoid breaking in a country where the regulations are made not with the goal of paying the taxes to the state but with the goal of paying the hush money to the tax collectors!"
"Haven't you tamed the tax collectors?"
"We? Come on, Bemish, every month… They apologized — we wouldn't do it but we were ordered to…"
"Who exactly signed the order?"
"A man named Danisha. He is a protege of Shavash's, by the way."
"Is it because of Assalah?"
The broker shrugged his shoulders.
"Have you seen the article?"
` "What article?"
Krasnov took a battered yellowish newspaper from a desk drawer and gave it to Bemish. The newspaper was local and Bemish was only able to make out Shavash's picture and he was barely able to get the paper's name — Red Star. On the picture, Shavash appeared from the waist up, presenting an outrageous sight with a girl, dressed only in a band, coquettishly tied around her neck.
"What is it about?"
"It is about the Assalah company investment auction, where a corrupted and lewd official Shavash settled with a foreign shark Bemish to sell him Assalah for the price of a rotten melon."
Bemish took the newspaper with him and, in half an hour, he drove through Kissur's mansion gate. The majordomo wordlessly walked him to the living room; excited voices were coming from it. Bemish entered. The voices stopped. A very beautiful thirty-year-old woman, with the eyes, black as boysenberries, and a black braid tied around her head, rose to meet him. On the coach, dismayed Shavash pressed himself against the pillows. Shavash hurled the bundle of papers, he held in his hands, to the floor and said,
"Let me introduce you — Terence Bemish — the house mistress." Bemish realized that Mrs. Idari, Kissur's wife, was in front of him and he bowed awkwardly. The woman laughed. Her laughter was akin to a silver bell.
"Where is Kissur?" Bemish asked stupidly.
"Kissur is not here," the official answered. "He will fly in tomorrow."
Bemish suddenly felt himself blushing furiously.
"I… I will go… I didn't know…"
"Please stay," Idari said politely, "I will leave. It is not befitting for a woman to stay too long with a man her husband hasn't introduced to her."
She bowed and left — only the black braid tied around her head glistened in the door. Bemish was looking after her and blinking piteously. Then, he turned to the official.
"Sit down, " Shavash waved his hand, "sit down and eat. Every time this obnoxious majordomo sees me with his mistress, he would even bring a peddler to the room."
The peddler comparison didn't please Bemish.
Shavash took him by his hand and walked him to a veranda where a round table covered for two people stood next to the gold-gilded rails. A plump maid was already standing next to a silver hand washing jar. Bemish washed his hands and dried them carefully with an embroidered towel and, when he turned around, the servants were already loading on the table a flat leather dish with an aromatic mound of chopped steaming meat.
Having propped himself on the pillows, Shavash watched the Earthman.
"What is, "Shavash asked, "sticking out of your pocket?
"The Red Star article."
"Ahh," Shavash drawled. "These nutcases… Where did you get it, by the way?"
"My broker showed it to me. Tax police busted him. A man named Danisha."
Bemish got used to Shavash enough to be ready now for an ugly snub from him. He could easily imagine Shavash smiling and saying, "Oh, Terence, what should we do! The Earthmen allow themselves so much on Weia, it's scary! These people had three different sets of books and didn't pay any taxes this year. They can loose the license."
But Bemish didn't expect to see what happened next.
Shavash's eyebrows levitated in astonishment.
"What are you saying!" the small official said. "Verily, if you send an idiot to bring you water, he will revert a spring to your house!"
He grabbed a T-phone off his belt.
"Danisha," Shavash started speaking in the receiver in several seconds, "what happened to DJ securities?"
The receiver quacked.
"I'll show you three sets of books," Shavash screamed. "I'll show you taking the license away! You will bring me the fine, they paid you, personally. And you will bring me, what Giles paid you! You will bring it in an hour or you can go away to Inissa as a cheese inspector in two hours."
Shavash threw the receiver down.
"Not convincing," Bemish said.
"I have nothing to do with it," Shavash snorted. "I just introduced Danisha to this scoundrel of Giles."
"And the Red Sun article is not yours."
"Come on!" Shavash drawled. "That's disgusting sleaze. I would sue them but I don't want to get my hands dirty."
"Well, this article came out just right for you. Now, you can refer to the article to say, 'if I sell this company to Bemish, I will lose my reputation."
Shavash shrugged his shoulders.
"I don't even want to listen to you, Terence. Red Star is the zealots' newspaper. They tried to assassinate me twice."
"You saw them yourself while walking with Kissur — remember the iron people show?"
Bemish shuddered slightly. As if it's not enough, that Shavash already knew who and when anyone visited Kissur's villa in Assalah! What's he doing — does he follow Bemish's every step?
"Where did this iron men story come from?"
"It was an old book," the finance vice-minister smiled, "with an iron braggart story. There was a prophecy at the end of the book, that at the world's end, plagues, hail and dishonest officials will come, and the iron men will crawl out from the underground. I have to say that every time rebellions or barbarian invasions happened in the Empire, the rebels were thought to be the iron men. However, once the rebels took power, everybody would immediately realize that they were not the iron men. As for the Earthmen — you don't grab the power and don't hang your enemies. Can't you be anybody else but the iron men?"
"The ones that crawl out from underground?"
"The ones that crawl out from the underground, eat children's brains, and carry naeve peasants and officials underground, down their bewitched halls, to inflict visions on them."
"And how many people believe it?"
"A lot of people," Shavash said, "peasants, officials, artisans. Hey, I fired my secretary, Akhhar, because of that, right after our US tour."
Bemish finally realized that Shavash was making fun of him.
"Well," he said, smiling, "you secretary, having flown to Earth, is unlikely to think that we crawled out of hell."
"My friend," Shavash said, "Akhhar just considers it to be an allegory, the wisdom of our ancestors who possessed the hidden knowledge and warned us about the danger. You see, when you talk about science, you either understand how a nuclear reactor works, or you don't. A myth, meanwhile, is capable of joining together the most different people's groups and minds. A simple peasant understands the prophecy literally, while an educated man interprets it metaphorically."
"And how," Bemish asked, "do the preachers understand the prophecy?"
"Oh, while talking to the authorities, they claim it is an allegory! Are they idiots to admit that they know the real truth about the iron men?"
"It's incredible," Bemish muttered. "Can't you explain to your crazies what's really going on?"
"It's impossible to explain to them, it's only possible to hang them. I think, however, that if we start hanging people for believing Earthmen to be demons, than you, the demons, will raise a horrible buzz."
Bemish lowered his head.
"Don't feel bad. These people have a special gift of quarrelling not only with the state but also with each other. Take cars, for instance. One sect will believes that cars don't exist, that they are demonic phantoms, and that you are not moving in a car but rather are moved by a demonic force. Another one believes that the ancestors themselves sent us the cars, but the iron demons grabbed the gift on the way and used it illegally."
Shavash picked the newspaper up, waved it at Bemish's nose and said.
"I am explaining all this to you, Bemish, so that you understand how difficult it would be for me to get an article published in Red Star, where, on the top of it, they christen me," Shavash squinted slightly and started translating the text, "a foul dung beetle, "a cockroach with a sack of gold instead of the heart," and "the foam of sacrilege…"
Shavash paused for a moment and unexpectedly added.
"You know, what my conclusion from the article is?"
Bemish couldn't help but glance. The dirty article, as it has been mentioned, was accompanied by the picture of Shavash naked and Bemish imagined for a moment, what he would feel if he appeared on a newspaper page in such a saucy way.
"My conclusion is that I should lose some weight. It's a shame of a picture, don't you think so?"
X X X
Bemish was leaving the mansion when a dark skinned servant reported to him, bowing.
"The mistress is expecting you in the Blooming Plums Gazebo."
Bemish walked into the garden. The woman that had withdrawn from the room before the dinner was now walking on a white garden path, overcast with sideways moon shadows, and the lace decorating her dress sleeves resembled moon rays coiling around her wrists.
Bemish bowed shyly and said.
"Believe me, I am very sorry that you didn't dine with us."
"Men and women do not eat together," Idari objected. "Are you the Earthman that has been buying Assalah via DJ securities?"
"You are informed surprisingly well," Bemish muttered abashedly, realizing that the Idari's husband is unlikely to even know that DJ securities exist.
"Well, if women eat separately from men," Idari smiled, "it doesn't really mean that they don't know anything. Are you married?"
"I am divorced."
"Did your wife love you?"
"She loved my bank account."
Idari sat down on a bench in a fluid catlike motion and Bemish heard a hydrangea bush rustle against her skirt. Idari gestured Bemish to sit next to her.
"I appreciate everything you have done for my husband," Idari said.
"I haven't done anything for him," the Earthman objected, "while he has done a lot for me."
"You are the first man from the stars that he made friends with. It's so strange that this man belongs to Ronald Travis' circle."
And Bemish was again quite surprised by Idari's awareness.
"I thought he had Earthmen friends."
"Yes. People who throw bombs at the supermarkets and use drugs to liberate themselves from the corrupting influence of the civilization."
Idari and Bemish sat very close to each other. The night had descended already but the two moons shone powerfully like beacons and Bemish could clearly see Idari's profile, a small head with the black braid wrapped around the head and the hairpins glistening in the moonlight.
"My husband exerts a great influence on the Emperor," Idari continued, "and you may exert a great influence on my husband. It would have been very bad for my country, if Kissur had befriended, instead of you, the people he had met two years ago on Earth."
"What do you know of our history?"
Bemish flushed. His ignorance of everything related to Weian history was practically absolute, it could only compare to his ignorance of Earth history. If anything was of interest to him on this planet — it was the budget deficit size or the central bank interest rate. The central bank interest rate did not depend on history in any way.
"Is the name Arfarra familiar to you?"
"He was the first minister…"
"He was the first minister twice. Once, before Earthmen. Second time, after them. Once the Earthmen came to Weia, the Emperor appointed a man named Nan as the first minister. Then, Nan was removed — with my husband's help."
Bemish vaguely remembered the five-year-old scandal — since the scandal took place on Earth, not on Weia. There was something about Kissur — the Weian ex-first minister, hanging out on Earth. Or was it on Lann? Amidst terrorists and drug abusers. A stolen car, drugs, a beaten policeman, the arrest of a terrorist activity suspect, a scandal diligently stirred up by somebody, and finally Kissur's statement that Nan was the main culprit in the tragedy that happened after the hijacking of a military plane. This statement played a part in the Earthman-minister resignation.
"Afterwards, a different premier and a different program of state investment policy were instated. The taxes were high and the budget expenses were huge. The only money left in the country was that in the state treasury and in the banks with the highest officials as the stock holders. The workers were not allowed to leave the companies they worked for and to testify against their owners."
Idari grinned and added.
Shavash was, at that time, one of the most active supporters of the state investments. He needed to clean his reputation up after his friendship with Nan and he invented all the programs for the government, where money just sank in the sand. Three tons of concrete were claimed where one ton of concrete was used; five kilos of paint were reported where one kilo was applied.
Concerning the laws that enslaved the workers, he wrote a memorandum where he claimed, that the Weian way is different from the Galactic one, since an owner doesn't exploit the workers as a hired cattle, but rather takes fatherly life-long care of them. It should have ended with the destruction of the country but it ended with a rebellion and the government's resignation.
Then, Arfarra came in. He cut the state expenses down and rescinded the employment laws. Meanwhile, my husband crushed the rebellions in the places where the governors missed the old times.
Bemish almost didn't hear, what the woman was saying. The crossed light bands from the two full breasted moons gleamed on the marble garden path and silver bracelets like many-winged snakes entwined Idari's wrists, as thin as ivy twigs.
"A bit later, Arfarra said to a man, named Van Leyven, that used to invest a lot of money in Weia, "we are selling state constructions now, why don't you buy Assalah?" — "I won't do that," Van Leyven said, "it's the most disgusting of all Shavash's feeding troughs." — "Weian economics improved a lot this year," Arfarra said, "but you used this year to freeze the constructions, sell them to the state or get rid of the stocks via dummy fronts. Why?" — Van Leyven thought for a bit and said. "I invested a lot of money in Weia and incurred big losses. I staked it all and I lost. You let the time slip by. The people lost their trust to the officials, the Earthmen and the sovereign. You are old and sick, what will happen when you die?" — "I've been dying for six years," Arfarra got angry, "will you buy Assalah or not?" — "No." They parted then. Arfarra died the next day.
Bemish was now listening and holding his breath.
"My husband idolized Arfarra," Idari continued, "and it was extremely difficult for me to persuade him not to take vengeance on Van Leyven outside of Weia. He still had to leave Weia, since his death here would have been certain, and he lost much more money than he had expected. I am saying this, Mr. Bemish, so that you realized that profit and death walk closer to each other on Weia, than they do on Earth. Especially if you buy Assalah and make friends with Kissur."
Bemish returned to the hotel late at night. Dogs yapped far away in the city, stars hung above the white temple and, in the next block, a sad woman's voice was singing something accompanied by a flute.
Falling asleep, Bemish thought about the woman, with the black eyes and the black braid wrapped around her head, and about the two people who had lost their heads over that woman — Kissur and Shavash. He also thought about Clyde Van Leyven; he knew a lot about this man, unlike the other actors of the Idari's story. Since, Van Leyven was a billionaire and the financial community watched his each step holding its breath. Unlike Idari, Bemish knew that Van Leyven almost died half a year after the Weian events — the brakes on his air cushioned seven-meter-long limo failed, the car broke through the rail and dived in water from a twenty-meter-high bridge, the driver drowned, the bodyguard broke his head on the front panel, and Van Leyven miraculously survived. This story didn't hit the newspapers thanks to Van Leyven's connections. And now Bemish was not sure that Kissur had held on to his promise not to retaliate outside of Weia.
The Red Dog tavern was located in a less than prominent neighborhood. Its entrance was gated by two snake gods entwining around two brass door poles, brass lamps with sparkles swung under the planked ceiling, and the wooden walls were decorated by a couple dozen signatures and crosses. The signatures have been collected for the last twenty years and they belonged to the most famous literate thieves of the current sovereign's rule. The crosses belonged to the most famous illiterate thieves.
At least two people from this respectable circle sat in a corner discussing their
crooked dealings and, upon Kissur's arrival, approached to greet him.
Kissur introduced them to Bemish. The first thief, a glum golden-toothed middle aged handsome man extracted a business card out of his pocket, where he was presented as some company's director, and assured Bemish, that he would be happy to be of any service if Bemish ever needed him.
Hence, both thieves, accompanied by their bodyguards, left in an unknown direction. Kissur glumly mentioned that they were going to a meeting with their competitors and, if they were apprehended, there would be one less shoot out in the city.
"Apprehend them, then," Bemish suggested.
"Why? Let the spiders devour themselves."
Kissur and Bemish had just started on a suckling piglet, rising like a soft white mountain from a savory sauce sea, when Kissur suddenly raised his head — Kaminsky stood in front of him. The businessman had a somewhat down-hearted look to him. He had a huge blue spot under his eye — like a shaman painting himself before a divination- and his hand hung in a silk sling.
"I came to say good-bye," Kaminsky said. "I am flying to Earth tomorrow."
Kissur was looking at him silently.
Kaminski pushed a chair away and sat down.
"I was wrong," he said. "Out of all the Weian officials you are indeed the only honest one. You didn't want a penny from me. Having returned, I'll certainly tell all my friends, that there are two types of the Weian officials — the officials who demand bribes from the Earthmen and use them as pawns in their feuds and the one honest official who bathed me in a swimming pool."
"You will also," Kissur said, "tell them that you are an innocent victim of the dark machinations; that you wanted to buy land for twelve millions but the officials persuaded you to buy it for a million and a half with a knife at your throat."
"No," Kaminsky said.
I will not tell them what exactly has happened. But I wouldn't mind telling you about it, ex-minister, to improve your economics education. I arrive here and go to Khanida, "I would like to build a business center." Khanida is politeness personified. He pours lavish praise all over me. He has the utmost desire for future collaboration. He praises my unselfishness and is so overwhelmed with it that he offers me the land not for twelve million but for a million and a half. Reluctant to engage in doubtful dealings, I refuse. Well! Twelve million it will be. Mr. Khanida is so happy. He says that a base man cares about profit and an honorable man cares about fairness. He sees both of us belonging to the honorable people ranks. I start the construction and invest the money. Meanwhile, the land is still not bought yet — they assure me — it's a pure formality. On a nice day, I visit Mr. Khanida and he starts the million and a half talk again. I refuse politely. Khanida shrugs his shoulders and becomes as cold as a frog. He says that he is breaking the contract off. I lose it — come on, I've already sunk big money in! For an answer, Khanida utters through clenched teeth something about exploitators sucking on Weia's blood and liver. Then, I go to Shavash, your dearest friend. He offers me… it's enough to say, Mr. Kissur, that he offers me something similar but he wants twice more than Khanida. I made a mistake here. I should've turned away and left. Screw the expenses. But I felt bad about the lost money. I've already inhaled enough of your stink. I saw that Khanida would do what he promised and I signed the contract. My mistake was that I forgot about Shavash, who offered me the same deal as Khanida. Shavash was irritated that Khanida didn't share the loot with him. Naturally, the local customs code didn't allow him to rat on me directly. And so, having chosen a right moment, he tells you the story and you raise the buzz! And this buzz reverberates in Shavash's soul with coins jingling pleasantly. And the Empire is left empty-handed again, and Shavash is left in the full confidence that Khanida will give him half the money next time, just to avoid the problems!
Kissur got the checkbook out of his pocket and asked.
"How much money did you give to Khanida?"
Kaminsky was astounded, and then, laughed.
"I don't need your money."
"Money is the only thing the Earthmen need. That's why the Earthmen's destiny is suffering, since money not spent for friends and alms brings trouble."
"Where do you get money, Kissur, eh? You don't trade, you don't take bribes and you don't rob passers-by! Where does the money come from? The Emperor just gives it to you, doesn't he? And it doesn't cost anything to the Emperor — when the treasury runs out of money, he invents another tax. You call a man who sells and buys a criminal, and a man who collects the taxes for you, the cornerstone of the state! That's why you won't like it if a parliament forms and only parliament can authorize the taxes collected in this country."
"Do you want to swim again?"
Kaminsky took heed.
"No," he said bitterly, "I don't want to swim. You almost killed me that time. Since you don't have any arguments other than swimming, I would rather be silent. But I will advise all my friends on Earth and, by the way, Terence Bemish, sitting next to you, never, under no circumstances, do any business on Weia since nothing will come out of it besides debasement and shame. Believe me, Mr. Kissur — I could still patch everything together. But I am grateful to you that I lost this money; I recalled again that I have honor and self-respect."
He turned and walked away.
Kissur looked at Bemish.
"Well," Kissur asked, "is he correct?"
"Yes," Bemish said.
"Will you leave?"
"No," Bemish shook his head "I won't leave. You, however, should."
"Too late," Kissur replied. "I applied to the Federation Military Academy. They didn't accept me. I am not interested in any other place in your Galaxy, full of worms like a year-old fig."
X X X
The next day, Bemish flew to the villa, where several members of his team and two LSV employees arrived. They had a simple task — to develop the contract's financial shell by the week's end.
The bankers worked day and night. In two days, a helicopter arrived, carrying a cheerful and slightly drunk Kissur and a much more sober Shavash. Kissur barged in the central hall where the bankers, having pulled an all-nighter, were finishing the IPO prospectus.
"You are not asleep, too!" Kissur heartened. "Where did you ditch the girls? Let's drink!"
And he banged a jar of expensive Inissa wine on the table next to the printer, spitting out the financial projections. At this point, generally phlegmatic Welsey, scared to hell by Kissur, demonstrated a true greatness of the spirit.
"Kissur," he said, "I will drink with you only after you help me to calculate the cash flow in the company if the embargo on the Gera trade is enacted and the cargo flow decreases correspondingly."
Kissur was astounded. He was not able to calculate cash flows.
"C-cads!" he muttered drunkenly.
Bemish found him a girl in the village and returned to the office, where Shavash was waiting for him. Shavash sat in the armchair next to a window looking thoughtfully at the neglected garden.
"What's your price," Shavash asked.
"Eight fifty five for a share."
"Thirty four million total," Shavash noted. "What are your investment obligations?"
"Sixty million. I am going to land the first ships in six months after the construction starts."
"You don't have any experience building spaceports, do you?"
"I have experience involving professionals and setting up financial contracts, Mr. Shavash. This company should start bringing in cash flow in less than a year, otherwise it will go bankrupt."
"How are you going to finance the deal?"
"The banks provide ten million out of ninety four. This is a ten percent loan, with the company property as collateral. Eighty four million are financed through the high interest bonds issued by my company ADO and placed by LSV on the intergalactic exchange market. Approximately four million belong to me and my friends."
"So, you risk only four million of your money out of ninety four."
"I risk the other people's money and my own head." Shavash reclined in the armchair.
"As far as I know, it's a standard way for buying the companies with existing cash flow used to pay interest. While you are buying a hole that you need to fill with piles of money."
"We will try to construct the contract's financial shell in such a way that we won't pay anything this year. We are planning to issue some zero-coupon bonds with a two year maturity time. It means," Bemish explained, "that the bonds will be sold at a discount to their face value and the difference between the selling bond price and the maturity price, equal to the face value, will make a profit."
"Don't take me for Kissur, Terence," Shavash pointed out. "I know what zero-coupon bonds are."
Bemish quacked in exasperation.
"We are also considering securities with the alternative coupon payments — they can be paid with money or with the new bonds."
Shavash paused. Trumpet sounds suddenly entered the room through the window — the shepherd was herding the cows back to the village.
"That's a risky affair, Mr. Bemish. I am not sure if your bond price will get to 70 % of its face value on the market. What will remain then, from your so-called eight and a half dinars per share?"
Bemish swallowed. He knew that the official was all too correct.
"The securities will cost dinar for a dinar," Bemish said. "The IPO prospectus has a condition, that the bond interest will be re-evaluated a year after the issue so that the securities cost will be equal to their face value."
"It's quite an unusual decision," he said finally.
"This decision will allow me to lower the cost of financing the deal by three percent."
"What if, to the contrary, your securities price falls?"
"The price will only rise," Bemish said.
Terence Bemish was so sure of himself that he was not going to frighten the investors by a predetermined ceiling of the adjustable rate. As it came out afterwards, he had signed the death verdict to Assalah project.
Then, however, Shavash seemed to be positively impressed with Bemish's words.
"There are Weian banks," he said, "that would be glad to take part in this affair and buy your bonds on a big scale. However, the affair is quite risky and you need to sweeten it up a bit. I suppose that the large investors could have an opportunity to buy, besides the bonds, the stock warrants for three years — ten shares for a dinar. You could reserve 20 % of the shares for this purpose."
Bemish raised his eyebrows slightly. Shavash's idea meant that the warrant's buyer will be able to acquire the Assalah stocks at their current price in three years. Bemish hoped that, in three years, the Assalah shares will cost hundred times more.
"So, who will buy the warrants?" Bemish asked.
"The Weian banks which will acquire the bonds."
"Can you be more precise?"
"It will be I and my friends."
X X X
In an hour, Welsey and Shavash descended to the central hall. Bemish stayed on the upper floor to take a shower and change his shirt — he had broken a sweat. When he walked down, Kissur was sitting in the hall and instructing two young Trevis' aides how to train a highwayman's horse, so that it could find the road in the dark and didn't neigh in an ambush. The bankers listened attentively. Their young and honest faces expressed a sincere interest. The bankers were used to express a sincere interest to any client. One could suppose that setting up ambushes among rocky gorges was their primary occupation.
"If the path is rocky, you should wrap the hoofs with felt," Kissur said.
He turned around to the sound of steps.
"Why are you so glum, Terence," he said in Weian, "and why is it all so dirty?"
Kissur trailed his fingers in disgust down an expensive pink wood table — a banker dropped pizza on the table, hurriedly eating it.
"You don't have a woman — that's the problem," Kissur noted. "Idari says the same."
The headman, having noiselessly approached on the side, bowed and quickly popped in.
"If the lord needs a maid, I have a good candidate — a small official's daughter, a seventeen-year-old maiden, gentle as jasmine petals. Her father was caught stealing and he is currently under an investigation. To collect the money to butter the judges up and secure his daughter's future, he could sell her for fifty thousand."
Bemish glanced quickly towards his colleagues — the conversation was in Weian and they clearly didn't understand it.
"I'll think about it," Bemish said.
"There is nothing to think about," Kissur stated. "I'll check the girl out and, if she is as good as this scoundrel claims, she is yours."
A printer rattled at the table nearby and the last financial projections crawled out of it.
X X X
When the next night, deathly tired, Bemish walked up to his bedroom at two o'clock, he found that he was not the only one there. In the bed, coiled like a doughnut, a cute girl of about seventeen years age was sleeping tranquilly. Bemish pulled the blanket off her and found her to be quite naked — Adani probably brought her in the evening and he was afraid of bothering the master, busy with calculations — the girl waited and waited some more and fell asleep.
Once Bemish raised the blanket, the girl got cold — she woke up and stared at Bemish with her eyes, large and round like the moon. She had small budding breasts with tiny nipples, heavy thighs and long white legs. Her pubic hair was shaved off. The girl looked at Bemish unabashedly, as if unknown foreigners inspected her, naked, every day.
"What's your name," Bemish asked, mangling Weian words.
"How old are you?"
"Are you a maiden?"
"Of course, master. Mr. Kissur has chosen me himself."
Bemish jerked his eyebrows irritated.
"How did Kissur choose you?"
"He took me to Mrs. Idari," Inis said, "and the mistress said that you needed a woman for your body and your house. She checked that I was a virgin and that I cooked well, and she was satisfied."
When Idari's name was mentioned, Bemish's hands perspired suddenly. The girl smiled and added teasingly.
"She was afraid of leaving me to Kissur. She is a very good wife. Do you have a wife?"
Not answering her, Bemish released the blanket and it covered the girl again. The thought about Jane destroyed all the pleasure. And also Idari! He knew that, while caressing the Idari's gift, he would always think only about the gift bearer.
"Put your clothes on. Ask Adini to find a bedroom for you."
"Won't we make love?" the frightened girl asked.
"Why did you buy me?"
"So, that somebody else wouldn't buy you."
It could be a sixty-year-old sadist in the district head rank, who makes love to his secretaries in his office.
The girl was upset.
"If you made love to me," she said, "you would give me a new skirt and earrings but you won't give me anything now."
"What skirt do you want?"
"I've just seen one at a fair — a long blue silk skirt, with a "dancing flowers" embroidering and with three bands along the lap with pictures of fishes, animals, and birds."
Bemish grinned. "All they want is money for the skirts," he thought about Jane. "Blessed is the world, where they just ask openly for it."
He lay silently on the bed, in the pants and the jacket.
"Undress me," he ordered Inis.
THE FIFTH CHAPTER
Where Terence Bemish is being persuaded to drop out of Assalah stocks auction while Shavash reminds the visitors that he is not familiar with the financial term dictatorship
One and a half tons of the equipment (out of the three tons ordered by Bemish) arrived at the spaceport, and the Earthmen were spending days and nights there.
On the third day, the precinct head herded the peasants to fix the road with old concrete blocks so that the new White Villa master could drive his iron barrel from the villa to the construction site.
The next week Bemish started to search for the missing equipment and found it at Ravadan spaceport where it had been from the beginning. He had to go to Ravadan.
Passing by the nearest village, Bemish noticed an unhitched wagon — the peasants were gathering at the wagon and unloading the planks for the assembling stage. It seemed to Bemish that the oldster in charge of the construction was the same oldster, who played a god on the market in the capital and tore apart the banknotes Bemish gave him.
An inspector in Ravadan claimed that the equipment containers were emitting gamma radiation (it happened, rarely) and that they had to undergo an expensive treatment. Bemish silently gave five thousand isheviks to the inspector and, in half an hour, he was organizing the boxes being loaded in a rented truck. The containers didn't emit any radiation whatsoever.
The boxes rode to Assalah, while Bemish stayed at the capital for a reception given in the honor of the sovereign's ancestor, who had slept with a mermaid three hundred and forty years ago.
There were very few women at the reception and Bemish's heart skipped a beat when he saw Idari next to a lighted pool. She had a black dress with sparkles and black shoes on. Two heavy braids entwining her head were held by a butterfly shaped hairpin, strewn with the pink pearls, and a necklace of the same pearls encircled her neck. She was talking to Shavash and another man, unfamiliar to Bemish.
"Here you are, Bemish," Shavash turned around. "Let me introduce you — the Empire's first minister, Mr. Yanik."
Bemish had been looking at Idari till then; he quickly turned to the first minister. He was a neat senior man with a head, slightly flattened at the temples, and grey eyes, more clever than intelligent. He was dressed accordingly to Galactic fashion. Bemish didn't see anything striking in his face and he immediately recalled the rumors about Yanik being a temporary figurehead, a non-entity, put forth to the Emperor, till his patrons couldn't settle on a compromise; the non-entity stuck to his position, however, for a longer time, than the patrons had planned.
"Mr. Bemish would like to buy Assalah spaceport," Shavash said.
"Where will the money come from?"
"Mr. Bemish expects to collect the necessary money via the high-interest bonds, underwritten on the world market by the well known LSV bank."
At that point, a voice came from behind.
"It would be great, if Mr. Bemish explained where he will find the money to pay the interest if the spaceport doesn't give two cents in the first year."
Bemish turned around. Quite a number of people approached Yanik and the words belonged to Giles.
"Mr. Giles' company," Shavash explained, "is also participating in the auction,"
"The spaceport's owner," Bemish said, "will jump out of his pants to find money. What will you do, however, besides buying the shares at one price and offering them at the market at another? What will prevent you from washing your hands?"
"That's right," another voice came in. "Your company's reputation is not the best one."
"Mr. Rusby," Shavash introduced, "is another investment auction participant."
Bemish and Giles turned around almost simultaneously.
"It's not for you to talk about reputation," Giles cried out.
"Who, exactly, is financing your offer?" Bemish was surprised.
Standing next to Rusby, the Gera envoy inclined his head slightly and said.
"Several Gera banks support Mr. Rusby."
"Be careful," Giles grinned, "this man cheated the Galaxy investors out of one and a half billion."
"The Securities Commission cheated them out of one and a half billion," Rusby objected. "Nobody can blame me in failing to pay what I promised, in unsuccessful investments or in a pyramid scheme."
Giles went blue in the face.
"Is it true, Mr. Shavash," he said, "that the man who bankrupted two hundred thousand investors, is participating in the Assalah auction?"
"Everybody is participating in the auction," the small official said.
"Including a rogue supported by the dictator's money?"
"I am not familiar with a financial term dictatorship," Shavash replied.
Bemish looked around and noticed another witness of this ruckus — Khanadar the Dried Date looked at him out of a corner. Bemish quietly came to him and asked.
"So, how do you like the business world?"
"Once, twenty years ago," he said, "my comrades and I were coming back from a not-so-successful trip. We had been going to pillage a town but when we came in, the town had already been pillaged and the guys, who had pillaged it, drove us away. We were famished since we didn't eat anything for days. Even our horses croaked. Finally, we reached the coast and a town, and the food and the loot in the town. Then, we got friendlier to each other and began to hug and we had tried to keep a ten step distance, before, — to avoid being eaten."
"I see. So, the Earthmen resemble you in this trip, before you found this town."
"Eh, Terence-rey (Khanadar used a respectful Alom postfix.) We only needed three rolls for a man not to worry about being eaten, but I still haven't figured out how much an Earthman needs, not to eat another Earthman."
X X X
The officials attended to Bemish extensively and soon the whole villa was filled by their gifts — Bemish, however, had to make gifts of his own in return.
Shavash send Bemish a painting as a gift. The painting was done in the "thousand scales" style with spider web lines drawn on silk; a girl, feeding from her hand a dragon that stuck its head out of the water, was depicted. The girl with black hair and eyes, big like olives, resembled Idari and Bemish hung it right above the table in his office. At their next meeting, Shavash praised Bemish's taste and said that it was a fifth dynasty painting, most probably, an excellent copy of a Koinna's masterpiece. Bemish, somewhat galled that the gift was only a copy, inquired about the original's location and Shavash, laughing, told him that the original was stored in the palace and was fated to an eternal confinement, like the Emperor's wives.
X X X
"However," Shavash added with a grin, "they now sell the palace treasures left and right. I think that nobody reaps as much money as the custodians of paintings and bowls; at least one third of everything that has ever been painted and potted in by Eukemen is stored in the palace. Nobody except the Emperor and the custodian in charge has access to the treasures, there is absolutely no order there — steal as much as you want."
The headman heard this conversation and, arching his body in the usual way, told Bemish that a far relative of his worked in the palace and would love to meet the Earthman.
Bemish met him. The far relative appeared to be a small red nosed official from the Department of Paintings, Tripods, and Bowls. The relative showed Bemish color photographs of the astoundingly beautiful fifth dynasty vessels and several paintings done in the "morning fog" style, most popular at the Golden Sovereign times, and in the "thousand scales" style. The girl and dragon painting was not there. Or, more precisely, it was there and not one, but several of them — it was a popular sea prince tale — but none of them belonged to Koinna's hand.
The official offered Bemish to sell anything the latter would like and the price he asked for the fifth dynasty last survived silk paintings was twice less than what any modern doodle, sold in Bonn's galleries, would cost.
Bemish thanked the official and refused.
X X X
Kissur arranged for Bemish an audience in the Hundred Fields Hall. Bemish left his car next to the Sky Palace wall and he was escorted down the sanded paths and fragrant alleys.
In a light flooded hall, resembling a fragment from a fairy tale from the sky, the officials whispered, dressed in ancient court clothes. In half an hour, a silver curtain moved to the side — the Emperor Varnazd was sitting on the amethyst throne. The Emperor was dressed in white, he had a sad delicate face with strikingly made-up eyebrows, rising at the tips. It looked like a silent single actor play. Bemish thought it to be a very sad play.
The curtain soon moved back and the officials dispersed to attend their own business.
Bemish crossed the fragrant gardens and exited the palace gate. The square in front of the palace gasped with heat, two half-naked brats explored a stinking street rut with their hands.
Bemish opened his car, foraged in the glove compartment and dished several chocolate bars out to the brats. They tore the wrappers apart sinking their rotting teeth into the chocolate.
"Hey," Bemish asked in his crappy Weian, "do you know what Earth is?"
"Of course. It's a place in the sky, where we'll go after we die, if we behave ourselves and obey the Emperor."
Having turned the air conditioning on, Bemish sat in the car for a while, looking at the silver beasts on the palace wall crest, remembering the Hundred Fields Hall's immense luxury, the golden ceiling and jade columns. "A very rich government of a very poor nation," he thought.
X X X
In two weeks, Bemish was at a party that the first minister threw to celebrate his birthday. There was food and binge drinking and girls. There was swimming in a night pond. There were various contracts made and papers signed amidst the dishes with stuffed dates and the dishes with everything that was raised in the sky and raised on the ground, these very papers would normally involve huge bribes; the bribes, however, were still supposed be paid later. There were also songs and poetry. A ministry of finance official — was his name Tai? — took something resembling a lute and started playing music and singing.
Then, a girl sang a song — it was a very lyrical song. Bemish was told that an official named Andarz had written this song about twenty years ago. He was the police minister and he had suppressed the Chakhar uprising, having hung everybody who couldn't buy him off and letting off everybody who could. Coming back to the capital, he wrote the cycle of his best poetry about the four seasons. Bemish felt chills run down his spine, he leaned over to Kissur and said.
"This is a great singer."
The girl finished the song and sat, by Kissur's order, on Bemish's knees.
Afterwards, they started playing rhymes. Bemish, of course, didn't know Weian good enough to compose a verse with a given rhyme or to finish a line. But, somehow, he felt that he wouldn't do any better in English than in Weian.
A street singer was brought in.
Bemish recalled how he was driving from the spaceport and asked his interpreter — the guy had started as one of the Weians that washed dishes on the ground — to stop the car. He wanted to look at the street puppeteer with a crowd gathered around him on the curb. The interpreter answered that it was "uncultured." Bemish asked what was "cultured," and he found out that it was "cultured" for the whole neighborhood to attend trashy Hollywood and Seilass movies.
Here, among the higher officials, nobody thought that listening to a street singer was uncultured.
The street singer sang praise to the guests and they tossed money into his hat and showed him to the kitchen. The officials started singing themselves.
If only they hadn't sung! Then, everything would have been fine and it would have just been corrupted bureaucrats' drunken debauchery. But they sang so well! Bemish had a difficulty imagining state department officials coming to their boss's party and singing so well — or signing such papers at the same party.
Or was it all related? And will the poetry follow the corruption on its way to extinction? Mr. Andars departed Chakhar, burned by him, for the capital and composed his most beautiful poetry cycle about summer and fall. He was probably very happy. He probably obtained a lot of booty on the Chakhar trip.
Eight years later, Kissur and Andars found themselves on the different sides of the same sword and Kissur had hung rebellious Andars and loved listening to his poetry.
The next week, Bemish arranged a return feast at his villa.
During the dinner, Shavash kept glancing at Inis, who was serving the guests. When she, having provided the guests with the sweets, walked by Shavash with an empty tray, the official pulled her to himself suddenly and seated her on his knees. Inis jumped off hurriedly, upsetting Shavash's cup with her sleeve. Fortunately, there was no wine left in the cup.
Excusing himself, Shavash left earlier than the others. Bemish walked him down.
Getting in his car, Shavash said.
"Inis is charming, Terence. They say you made her your secretary? She is as smart as she is attractive, isn't she?"
"I will never believe it! Would you like a bet — I will take your secretary in for two weeks, and if I am satisfied, I owe you fifty thousand."
Bemish was silent.
"I can't do you this favor, vice-minister."
"Let me have her for one night, then. She can choose afterwards."
"Look, Shavash, have you asked Kissur to let you have Idari for a night?"
"How can you compare it?" Shavash was offended. "Idari is a highborn lady and what do you have here? A small briber's daughter that you bought for thirty thousand — they cheated you by charging twice more than the regular price."
"Get out of here, vice-minister," Bemish said, "before you hurt yourself over my fist."
X X X
In the evening, after all the guests had left, Bemish walked upstairs to the bedroom. Inis lay in the bed. Bemish sat on the blanket's edge and the woman, propping herself up, started to unbutton his jacket and shirt.
"This official, Shavash, asked me to hand you over to him," Bemish said. "At first, he hoped that I would offer you myself and, then, he couldn't hold it any longer and just blurted it out. I almost trounced him."
"Don't give me away to Shavash," she said. "He is a nasty man. He has five wives and a whip for each one. He hangs out in red light streets at night and locks himself with his secretaries during the daytime — a week ago a secretary of his hanged himself — they said he embezzled too much. And how he entertains himself in bawdy houses!"
Bemish reddened. His knowledge of Shavash's behavior in bawdy houses was based on personal observations. And he doubted his behavior was much better.
X X X
The next day, when Bemish walked upstairs, Inis's room was empty. A pale note lay lonely on the table. "I hate him. But he called me and said that he would hang my father."
Bemish was at the ministry of finance in an hour. He threw a frightened secretary away and appeared at Shavash's office door.
"You scoundrel," Bemish said. "I'll tell Kissur everything. I'll tell the sovereign…"
"And the human rights committee," the official nodded. "I don't want to place you in an uncomfortable position, director. I assure you that Inis's father deserves a rope — I have his dossier here. It's pretty horrible — all these dirty tricks that a small, stupid, and greedy briber can commit, the dirty tricks that ended with deaths and dishonor. Can you believe that — for a bribe, he switched some names on the arraignment orders after the Chakhar rebellion, he accepted as completed a water dam that burst in a month and destroyed a whole village. I assure you — if you complain to the sovereign, her father will certainly be executed."
"Give me back my wife," Bemish screamed.
The official stood up unhurriedly from his armchair, walked around the table and stopped right next to the Earthman. Bemish stared right into his attentive golden eyes and long lightly mascara coated eyelashes.
"What do you want from me?" Bemish said. "Deals? Bribes?"
Shavash smiled at the Earthman without answering. Shavash was still very beautiful, maybe slight overweight for his height, and Bemish was surprised to notice some grey strands in his hair.
Shavash raised his hand slowly and suddenly started to unbutton Terence's jacket. Bemish was confounded and he closed his eyes. The hot hands slipped under his shirt and a soft voice sounded right next to him.
"If you want to quench your thirst, don't quarrel with a spring, Earthman."
Bemish didn't feel repulsion. But he definitely felt horror. Shavash's lips appeared next to his and, at least a minute passed, till Bemish realized that they were kissing. Then, a phone rang far away.
Bemish came back to his senses.
His jacket was unbuttoned, the shirt stood out above the pants in a funny way and something jutted in the pants. The small official stood in front of him and looked at the Earthman with laughing eyes.
Bemish raised his hand lifelessly and wiped his mouth with the palm. "Beat it," Shavash said. "Take your concubine and beat it. She bores me. She mewled in bed all night."
Bemish retreated crabwise to the door, turned around and rushed out. "Button yourself, at least!" the official sarcastically shouted after him.
Having torn out the office door handle, Bemish jumped out into the foyer. Something flapped in the air and a plastic folder fell at Bemish's feet with multicolored pages standing out. It was the folder with the Inis' father dossier. Bemish snatched it and kept running.
X X X
Nobody believed that Kissur would make friends with the Earthman. Greenmailer, par venue, gobbler that has recently swallowed a small automated door company with LSV help and used it as a step to swallow something bigger; one of the youngsters, that Trevis made his money with — a nobody without Trevis. This man had the crappiest reputation on Wall Street. "The hungriest of Trevis's scoundrels," the director of the automated door company said about him after he had been fired. How could Kissur, who considered a well-behaved president of, say, Morgan James to be an usurer fit for the gallows, be friends with this financial horse thief?
The friendship between the Earthman and Kissur caused a bit of harmless gossip — everybody expected that either the Earthman calls Kissur a pedigreed bandit or Kissur reproaches Bemish with the latter's passionate avarice. However, Kissur's presenting Bemish with his manor, caused thoughts and glances in the five main precincts.
Bemish visited the capital police prefect to sign a paper with a blue line. The prefect congratulated him with the manor, sighed and said.
"You shouldn't be so close to Kissur. Do you know how he launched his career? He and his seven friends robbed a state caravan. They killed thirty six guards and Kissur put the caravan master's head on a stake, thought the man was not guilty of anything except having children and an old mother that he needed to support. Then, Kissur quarreled with the robbers because their leader didn't want to step aside for him and he baked the leader in an earth oven."
"But now," Bemish quipped, "Kissur doesn't have to rob caravans."
The prefect passed his hand over his cheek.
"There are, alas, dozens of people around Kissur. These people can handle weapons, despise bribers and traders and think robbery to be the only respectable profit source. Do you think that our country is poor due to bribers and large taxes? Alas, our businessmen don't pay money to the government, they, instead, pay money to the bandits who protect them from the other bandits."
"Nobody," Bemish said, "asked me for the protection money."
"Exactly," the police prefect said.
Bemish wanted to grab the damn official by his neck and ask him whether he was hinting that Kissur was in charge of the capital criminals. He, however, thanked him for the signature and left. Although, Kissur did take him to one of the city's most famous thief's taverns and he was welcome there — Bemish learned later that if he ambled in this tavern without a pass, he wouldn't have just been killed there — the tavern's guests would have been fed his body in a soup — that was their cute way of getting rid of the corpses.
X X X
That day, Bemish was in the finance ministry, at Shavash's. Entering his office, he stumbled upon a pale upset man, dressed in standard clothing but having soft Weian manners.
Shavash led him into the garden, where fountains and birds chirped, and ordered a table with appetizers. Somehow the conversation unnoticeably drifted to Idari, Kissur's wife. Shavash said that if not for Idari, Kissur would have smashed his head long time ago.
"He loves her a lot," Shavash said, sighing. Three months ago, he feasted the people at her naming day, and he spent three million."
He paused and added.
"Where do you think Kissur gets so much money if he doesn't take bribes and doesn't do any business?"
"It's the tax police business and not mine, to know where he gets the money," Bemish said. "And it's the sovereign's business, since he bequests him an oil well or a manor every month."
Shavash waved his hand and started drinking tea. In five minutes, he suddenly said.
"Do you know the man who left just before you came in? He is the Damass insurance company director. It was robbed yesterday. They took twenty million dinars in cash."
Bemish was surprised — newspapers published nothing about the robbery.
"Why did they have so much money in cash?" Bemish inquired.
"That's exactly the problem," Shavash sighed. "That's the question, who is the company going to pay such a sum of money to — on a holiday evening?"
"It will not appear in the newspapers. But the company was indeed robbed."
"Will it appear to the police?"
"Yes," Shavash said, "since our police — if asked — will not inquire why the company needed this money."
Bemish finished his coffee and asked.
"Listen, Shavash, are you trying to tell me that Kissur robs banks at nights or that you, at least, will do your best to convince the sovereign of it?"
"Come on, Mr. Bemish," the official was taken aback, "why did you…" And suddenly he tousled his hair. "He is a madman! If he is passing a house on fire, he will rush inside to get a child out and, if he is passing a house that's not burning, he will set it aflame."
Bemish bit his lip. The official was lying gently and consciously but he was correct on one point — Kissur despised bankers unflappably and he would approve of a bank robber. The words "order," "debt," and "commitment to the sovereign" were never far from his lips but Bemish knew perfectly well, that this adherent of order lived his life in such a way that he far outperformed any anarchist and rebel buff. Kissur wouldn't rob a bank for money but the sovereign's favorite could easily take the money for fun and throw it in the next canal.
X X X
In the evening, when Bemish dropped by the hotel, yearning for the food of his childhood and hoping to get something other than a marinated jellyfish or a guinea pig burger, somebody called him. Bemish turned around and recognized Richard Giles and another Richard — MacFarlein — the IC people.
"Drop it," Giles said.
"Drop this project. You won't get anything out of it, anyway. Do something else — build the business center instead of Kaminsky."
Bemish felt his face paling with rage. It looked like Giles has already picked up the local officials' manners.
"I," Bemish said, "have invested too much in this business to just drop it."
"How much have you invested," Giles smiled. "IC will pay your expenses."
"How is that? Since when do the private companies pay the competitors' expenses?"
"You will not win this auction," Giles said.
Here, McFarlein spoke softly.
"Mr. Bemish," he said, "why do you need this planet? Bribers, criminals, heretics, zealots, and now, terrorists. Have you heard that yesterday an Earthman was shot in Chakhar — he owned several plants. By the way, the Chakhar governor's son did the shooting — a Sorbonne graduate, an anarcho-communist or something like that. Another lad, an Earthman, was with him… "We will instigate a full-scale terror against the Earth exploitators, weed the bribers out and build the Crystal Palace on Weia afterwards, and erect two monuments in front of the palace — for Karl Marx and for the sovereign Irshahchan."
Bemish stared at him dumbfounded. "Uh-huh," a thought passed his mind, "isn't it the same lad who came with Ashidan?"
And Giles cast a transparent eye and delivered.
"Yeah. Aren't you afraid to be shot by a heretic, a local or an imported one?"
Bemish took Giles by a button and said.
"Listen, Giles, have you seen how Kissur casts a spear?"
"What does a spear have to do with it?" Giles was astonished.
"Kissur just casts a spear and the spear runs through a hefty birch all the way. And today one guy told me that I should keep away from Kissur since he robbed caravans and another hinted that I should keep away from Kissur since he robbed banks. And though Kissur doesn't rob banks — I am sure, you know, that if I pass our conversation to Kissur, and I'll do it, and I am killed afterwards — then Kissur will kill you, Mr. Giles and you, Mr. McFarlein. And he will assuredly kill you — nobody has heard yet about Kissur wanting to kill somebody and failing."
Giles stepped back. Clearly, he didn't like all that much the words about the spear and the birch.
X X X
Richard Giles walked upstairs to his room still under the impression from the conversation in the hall. Whistling through his teeth, he dialed the personal Shavash's line number — no secretaries — and, in two seconds, he said in the receiver.
"This son of a bitch, Bemish — are you still going to admit him to the auction?"
"I guarantee you," Shavash replied, "that this man is absolutely harmless. Everything will happen accordingly to our plan."
"Harmless?" Giles screamed. "Do you know that half of his inquires on Earth deal with IC? Do you know what he told Kissur?"
"I know," Shavash said ironically, "if I am not mistaken, you got the taped conversation from me."
"Damn it! Yes, that was you. Anyway, do you think that's fine? What if Kissur repeats these words to the sovereign? Where will we be then?"
"What do you want?"
"I will not take any action," Shavash said, "causing your newspapers to write that the Empire is an unsafe place for foreign investors. If you take such an action, you will not get even the tiniest piece of Assalah, not even the size of a melon seed. Have I made myself clear?"
"Very clear," Giles muttered.
"You have no reasons to be nervous," Shavash said.
"No reasons? What if he just buys the damn company?"
"You will have to offer a bit more for the shares. Nine point one dinar, at least. You have to agree that I just can't give the company away to an investor that paid twice less for it. Everything has a limit."
"Son of a bitch," Giles said, slamming the receiver down. "He is just using this Bemish to squeeze more money out of us. Nine point one! How can I get a clearance for this money?"
"No problem," his companion said. "We can use an alternative approach and deflate his ego meanwhile."
"Have you heard, what he said?"
"I heard it. I said — a totally alternative approach. Who finances this Bemish guy? Trevis…"
Bemish left the hotel for the city. He spent some time in the temple that he had visited with Kissur and descended to the tavern. A young man met him in the tavern.
The young man offered to sell him twenty thousand Assalah shares at six hundred a piece.
They bargained a bit and Bemish bought the shares for five hundred eighty.
Bemish silently pulled the checkbook out and tore of a check that was already filled with the correct number. The young man looked at him respectfully and said.
"How did you know what price we would agree on?"
Bemish grinned. He had three checkbooks in his pockets and all of them had the first check filled out — the other two checks Bemish would feed to the garbage burner in an hour.
Bemish signed the check and gave it to the youth.
"Would you like to eat?" Bemish asked.
"I'd rather go."
"Hold on. How did you get the shares?"
"They are not mine, they belong to my uncle."
"How did your uncle get them?"
"He bought them."
"Why did he buy these shares in particular?"
"He bought a lot of securities."
"Why did he decide to sell them?"
"He needs money urgently. He got sent to prison."
The youth pointed at his basket.
"Because of the Assalah shares?"
"The investigator was asking him about these shares at the interrogation. He hinted my uncle that he would let him go if my uncle gives the shares to a higher official that would like to acquire them."
"Don't say it out loud. It works this way, Mr. Earthman — while a word is in your mouth — you are its master, and when the word is out of your mouth — it is your master."
"Why didn't your uncle give the shares to the official?"
"He went nuts, when he heard it," the youth said. "He said that he would give these shares to a man that can kick the official in the butt."
"He could sell them cheaper, then."
"No. The jailers take too much. Good food in the jail costs more than in the best restaurant, you know. Also, very strict orders concerning my uncle have been given and the jailers charge him a higher price for being benevolent."
"Oh, well," Bemish said. "It could be worse, two million for half a percent."
The youth hesitated.
"It's actually," he said, "no more than twenty five hundredth of a percent."
"Don't you know that? Half a year ago, when the share price was lower than the moon in a well, Shavash secretly issued additional shares and distributed them among his friends."
"What's wrong with that?"
"Nothing, this is first time in my life when I stumbled upon this particular type of securities manipulation. And how many shares have been issued?"
"I don't know. Some people say that it was a million and a half, some people say that it was two million."
"Who says that? Where could I find this out?"
"Promise not to refer to my uncle's name."
"I don't know his name, how can I refer to it?"
"Still, promise it."
"I think that the Assalah district chief judge has these shares and knows a lot."
X X X
Bemish returned to Kissur's villa late at night. He almost always stopped there now when he visited the capital. He wanted to see Idari more often.
A phone call woke Bemish in the middle of the night.
Bemish almost jumped up. The LSV director was talking to him from Earth.
"We have a great offer for you," Trevis said, "the Union Disk company. They make laser disks. Get here. It can be bought."
"I am working on Assalah."
"It's not a promising deal. We will not finance it."
Bemish fell apart inside.
"Ronald! You guaranteed it…"
"We will pay you the forfeit."
"I don't need the forfeit, I need Assalah."
"Get back to Earth," Trevis said, "and we will talk about Union Disk."
"What should I do with the Assalah shares? I bought 17 %!!!"
"Sell them. It's your profession."
"If you don't finance this deal, I will find another company."
"You will not find another company, Terence, because no other company lets you on their doorstep. You are nothing, Terence. You are a greenmailer with twenty million dollars in your pocket. We made you. Nobody else needs you. You are a financial pirate. I will be waiting for you tomorrow in my office, at fifteen thirty. If you don't get stuck in traffic, you will make it."
And Ronald Trevis put the receiver down.
X X X
Bemish turned the light on, put the clothes on and sat at the table. He sat there for a while, till he heard the door creaking. Bemish turned around
— Kissur and Khanadar the Dried Date walked in. Khanadar looked quite dashing in black laced pants and a brocade barbarian jacket. Kissur had a grey suit and a tie on.
"Hey," Kissur said, "it's fantastic that you are not asleep. We decided to get some kicks in a pub. Let's go."
Bemish was silent.
"What has happened to you, Terence? You look like a fly in insect spray!"
"I am screwed," Bemish said. "Trevis refuses to finance the deal."
"I don't know. I don't know where Shavash got such powerful connections."
"I see. What are you going to do?"
"I am going to sell the shares. I don't have any other choice."
"Are you going to sell them at the higher price than you bought them at?"
"Naturally… I hold a large block. I can make IC's life hard if it doesn't buy it at the price I want. If I, for instance, appeal IC's actions in an international arbiter court, it will get into one hell of a trouble…"
"It's called greenmail, right?" Kissur specified.
"Shavash was right, then," Kissur said.
"How dare you!" Bemish shouted, leaping up — and he saw Kissur's contorted face in front of him and the white knuckles on his fist. Bemish managed to duck the first punch. The second one threw him off the chair and to the floor. Bemish somersaulted and bounced back on his feet, the Kissur's boot square tip missed his ear by a centimeter.
Bemish had a chance of holding his own against Kissur but Khanadar the Dried Date was also in the office.
"Dumb jerk," Bemish screamed getting in a fighting stance but here Khanadar grabbed him by the elbows. At the next moment, Kissur's knee collided with Bemish's groin; Kissur turned and kicked Bemish in the ear with the same leg. The Earthman collapsed to the floor. Kissur sat atride him and started to choke him.
"Haven't I told you," Kissur hissed sitting astride the expiring Earthman, "that I would kill you?"
Bemish grunted and hissed striving to say something. Khanadar approached and stood next to them.
"Let him go for a second," Khanadar said, "let him admit that he wanted to cheat us from the very beginning. He thinks it's a planet he can take a good crap at."
Kissur grinned and loosened up the clench. Bemish lay like a worm on a garden path.
"Idiot," the financier coughed, "I wanted to buy Assalah."
An atrocious kick with a boot in the ribs silenced him.
"I wanted to buy Assalah. Trevis was ready to finance the deal. I don't know why he refused. He was browbeaten."
Another kick followed, this time it was the groin.
"Liar! Trevis didn't refuse anything. You were playing your favorite game! You took us for worms, didn't you?"
"I wanted to buy Assalah. Trevis was browbeaten."
"Yeah? Why wasn't it IC?"
"IC has headquarters in an Arkansas dog's kernel. Their balls are too small to push Trevis around. They should buy a new fax machine first."
"Why is Shavash afraid of you?"
"Shavash wants a buyer who will blink at all his frauds. It was not a company — they were just pumping the budget money into private pockets! Last year Shavash secretly issued more bonds! I think that this goes against even the bizarre local securities regulations."
"What is "secret bond issue?"
"I don't know. I have never stumbled upon such a financial product as a secretly issued bond in all my life. But, basically, it means that Shavash re-divided the company accordingly to his wishes — he gave his friends more and he devalued the stocks belonging to his enemies or bystanders."
"What about the state's share?"
"It depends on how many additional shares the state obtained."
"He is lying through his teeth," Khanadar said. "They would have arranged it with Shavash about thieving. He was going to cheat us from the very beginning."
"All right," Kissur said. "I will believe you but only with one condition. You will sell the company shares at the same price you bought them."
Kissur grinned and took one of the swords hanging in the room from a prop. He got it out of the sheath and pushed its triangular tip in Bemish's throat.
"Yes, or I will kill you."
Bemish licked his lips. He didn't doubt that Kissur would kill him. It's stupid. Terence Bemish, a successful financier, half-crook half-genius, had never considered ending his life in a huge city manor of an Empire ex-minister — in the manor, where not a single servant would ever blurt out anything about his fate or, to the opposite, all the servants would swear that Bemish left the manor gate whole and unhurt… Nobody would ever prove anything. Even Shavash would not kill him. Not because he minded killing, but because he was a rational man and he clearly would not want Weia to be declared a place where foreign investors were found with their throats cut… Nothing is cheaper than hiring a killer. But Shavash didn't kill Bemish, he went for Trevis instead — it was an order of magnitude more difficult and expensive…
"If I don't sell the shares with a rake-off," Bemish said, "I'll go bankrupt. They will point their fingers at me. I will not do what you want."
"Take your knife, Kissur, and cut his balls off, " Khanadar said, "it doesn't befit you to dirty your noble sword by a money-grubber."
"You wanted that from the very beginning, didn't you?"
"No, I wanted to buy Assalah."
"How much do you need to buy Assalah?"
"If only half of my potential creditors fulfill their promises without Trevis, I'll need five million."
"I will find this money," Kissur said, throwing the sword back in the sheath and he left.
THE SIXTH CHAPTER
Where company AC declares its real name while Mr. Shavash mentions several unexpected thoughts about democracy's drawbacks
The announcement of the investment auction for the acquisition of the state-owned block of shares was published in the government's White Herald a day before the application deadline. The announcement mandated that the auction participants should turn in a deposit of 6 % of projected investment and should demonstrate reliable proof of being able to fulfill the assumed financial obligations.
Trevis hadn't called Bemish since — it was below his dignity. On the other hand, the corporate financing department head called and told Bemish that he didn't need to hurry back to Trevis' headquarters since he wouldn't be received anyway.
The next day, Bemish stepped out of a luxurious limo that arrived at the ministry of finance, formerly first minister Rush's palace. A crowd was already there, including the local financiers who, having heard about the Assalah fray, were willing to risk taking part in the auction. Kissur appeared in the registration hall at almost the same time as Bemish.
Shavash, the director of the company offered for tender, ignored Bemish utterly. He was talking to an Earth journalist. The subject of the talk was the importance of foreign investors — only they were able to force Weian companies to correspond to international audit standards and raise Empire finances to a new level.
Bemish silently watched the official registering his application and entering the necessary financial contrivances into the computer. What if this bastard makes an error and Bemish won't be allowed to participate on technical grounds.
The official finished the registration, shoved an embossed sheet with the application in the printer and, having printed everything, carried it to Shavash for a signature. Shavash, without being distracted from the progressive interview, signed everything.
Bemish moved away to a small table where, by Weian custom, fruits and a special bowl constantly filled with peach juice stood. The juice filled the bowl through a special tube and symbolized the everlasting plenty. Bemish poured some juice in a cup and here Giles approached him.
"Can I ask you where you got the money?" Giles enquired.
"The investment company Plana offered me credit."
"What kind of company is it?"
"It's a company located on Gera," Bemish replied gloating.
"A company located on Gera? Why not a company located in a devil's arse? When did it come to being, yesterday?"
Bemish looked at his watch.
"To be precise, it came to being today, three hours ago."
Meanwhile, Shavash finished his enlightened interview and led Kissur aside.
"Did you," he asked, "loan Bemish money?"
"Am I a usurer?" Kissur was offended, "to loan money? It was a gift."
"You were born of a Barsharg goat!" Shavash swore. "This is the last you'll see of it."
"Let's see," Kissur said, "who wins the auction."
Here, another Earth journalist approached Shavash and the company director started repeating how only a scrupulous foreign investor could save Weian economics.
By the evening, the bored journalists, hanging out at the cafe, could record in their notebooks that three companies were interested in the state's offer — Bemish's ADO, IC Corporation, and Rusby and C — were offering to buy the shares out first and to finance the construction out of the galactic company resources afterwards. Five or six large investment banks were also interested. They were not going to buy Assalah shares themselves. They mostly offered to the government various alternatives of convertible bonds that these banks would distribute to the Galactic investors — the bonds would be converted, at some date, to Assalah shares now belonging to the state. Such a large number of investment bank aspirants had surprised Bemish at first but he was told later that actually his modest person was the source. The players on the fund market ferreted out that Terence Bemish was going to buy some blip-blop limited in some banana republic, decided that it had to be a swell deal and followed him like the honey gatherers follow a bee.
X X X
A phone call from Kissur woke Bemish up at 3am.
"Hello, Terence. The investment auction is cancelled. Two hours, after the applications had been submitted, Shavash sold 51 % of state-owned Assalah shares to IC Company at five and a half dinars per share."
"What do you mean sold?" Bemish choked.
The line went off.
X X X
Fifteen minutes later, a car stopped under the hotel windows and Kissur jumped out of it.
"Dress," Kissur said. "We are going to the sovereign."
At this point, the phone rang again. Bemish picked up the receiver.
"Terence, this is Shavash. Call your complaint off."
"Don't pretend. Call off the complaint that you wrote to the sovereign requesting to arrest me for bribery."
"Have you lost your mind? I've never written this crap!"
"Terence, if you go to the sovereign you will be squashed flat. You can forget about working in a bank — they won't hire you as a cashier in a supermarket. Got it?"
Shavash slammed the receiver.
"I signed the complaint for you, Bemish," Kissur said. "The sovereign will examine it at this morning audience."
Bemish grabbed his head.
"Oh, my God, Kissur are you nuts? If you don't have mercy for me, have mercy for your own country!"
"I have mercy for my country," Kissur said. "You explained to me, what IC is yourself. They will just rob us and that's it. Or, were you bulling me?"
"I didn't bull you, Kissur. Just get it — the contract has been signed. That's it. Finita la comedia. These stocks are IC's property. If they find out that an international company can have its property taken away from it on your planet just because some authorities think that some bribes were involved, you will not need any spaceports anymore! No financier will ever come here! It's worse than tank trips over a joint company. "
Kissur stuck out his lip stubbornly. Clearly, the threat that no more dinar and dollar fans appear in the Empire, didn't frighten him much.
"Get it, you stupid idiot, that any losses resulting from Assalah sold off incorrectly won't even come close with the losses resulting from the cancellation of a completed contract. I will not even mention that nobody will let me back to LSV. I will not even mention that IC is totally in its right to sue me in arbitration court even if I get your complaint thrown back at my face!"
"But I will say that it's my complaint."
"And they will, of course, believe you on the spot," Bemish waved his hand. "Well, leave me alone for these three hours."
"What are you gonna do?"
"Think," Bemish said.
X X X
Exactly four hours later, Bemish, accompanied by Kissur walked down the sovereign garden's paths to a small six room pavilion. Above the pavilion entrance, a flag with an inscription Fairness and Concentration Hall was swaying. Two golden peacocks of wondrous craftsmanship guarded the inner hall entrance. The sovereign Varnazd sat in a down armchair next to a window. He wore a long white dress, with wide sleeves fastened at the wrists by pearl clasps and, uncovered, his face, thin as onion undergarment peels, looked somewhat lost and naeve. Shavash followed Bemish into the hall and first minister Yanik also came in. Shavash and Yanik were draped in the ceremonial kaftans with all their rank insignias — Bemish had never seen them before. A red fiery dragon, with rubies sewn in his claws, on the first minister's dress dazed him unexpectedly and Bemish suddenly felt something he had never suspected before — a certain meagerness of his impeccably made cashmere wool suite compared to the red dragon with the ruby decorated claws. As for Kissur, he was dressed the same way as he had been earlier, visiting Bemish, — in ragged leather pants.
"You filed a complaint, Mr. Bemish," the sovereign said, "could you describe how you were mistreated."
"I didn't file this complaint," Bemish said. "And, having certain business ethics views, I consider it impossible to request a re-consideration of a completed contract. However, I have a question to Mr. Shavash — what was your decision to cancel the investment auction based on and what was your decision to sell the company for a three times less money, than I offered, based on?"
The sovereign turned to the vice-minister of finance.
"I would like to hear your answer, Mr. Shavash."
"We didn't cancel the auction," Shavash stated. "We just ran it on a shorter time scale. Considering Mr. Bemish's application, we judged it to be incomplete since LSV investment bank, which had been expected to underwrite the bonds, and several other large commercial banks, which had been expected to advance credit to Mr. Bemish, pulled out having realized that the offer had been overpriced.
"After some investors pulled out, I found others!" Bemish cried out.
"The company from Gera, that loaned money to you, doesn't have any credit history and is very suspicious. SC Trading that promised to distribute your bonds is a tiny investment boutique with absolutely no authority on the capital market. We doubt that the bonds distributed by it will be worth more than fifty cents for a dinar. Therefore, your application is comparable with that of IC."
Shavash paused and continued.
"Meanwhile, Mr. Bemish's actions clearly demonstrated that he was not going to acquire Assalah. Long before his arrival, he had been buying Assalah stocks through several companies. Violating the law, he didn't register the fact that he owned in reality more than 13 % of Assalah stocks. The only goal of his actions was to put pressure at the future company management so that they would acquire the stocks at a higher price. To achieve this purpose Terence Bemish didn't shrink from anything. A foreigner ignoring the ways and customs of our country, thinking only about his rake-off, — he abused his position as a manor owner forcing the peasants present him with their shares. Using his highly placed connections, he browbeat a local official into giving him the Assalah shares that the latter acquired when their price was forty ishevik a share; afterwards, he had the gall to fire the official. Since Terence Bemish violated the regulations regarding share block registration, I demand the companies Raniko, Alvisir Trust and LLA be removed from the Assalah stock owners list without any compensation. "
The Emperor raised his hand.
"These are serious accusations, Mr. Bemish. Can you answer them?"
"Can I answer them? Of course! Shavash has just mentioned 13 % of shares that the peasants had received free of charge as compensation for the spaceport construction taking place on their land. Would you really believe that Shavash waited for me to seize the stocks from the peasants? Yes! I confiscated the stocks from the official and I didn't pay him anything — because I was going to return these stocks to the peasants. Shavash accuses me of violating the local securities regulations. It would have taken place if Raniko had owned more than 5 % of shares and hadn't registered it. Otherwise, there are no violations involved. Unlike me, Shavash can be accused of many things, most importantly, that when the stock price plummeted to the minimum, Shavash secretly issued more stocks and distributed them among his friends. Weian securities regulations are quite bizarre but those actions are criminal even here. I will be bold enough to claim that IC was aware of this outrage taking place and that nothing but this thievery caused Mr. Shavash to sell the company to the people that will not make any complaints.
"Can you answer these accusations, Mr. Shavash?" the Emperor asked.
"Of course," Shavash said. "I will, however, need a computer with a CDROM."
It took a moment, for a CD player (instead of a computer) to be delivered to the room. Shavash fished a disk out of his pocket, inserted it in a slit and pressed a button.
An open tavern veranda appeared on the screen, together with a table and a window. Bemish sat at the table with a small man — tensing, he recognized the palace official offering him the paintings from the Empire treasury on sale.
The official pulled several photographs out and Bemish started to leaf through them. The camera zoomed in on the photographs where Bemish suddenly saw the Koinna's painting. Then, Bemish pointed at a girl and a dragon with his finger and he chose several more photographs. The official nodded.
Then, the camera glanced over a group of people delivering several boxes to Bemish's villa and zoomed in on a girl and a dragon in his office.
"This man talks about ethics," Shavash said, "buying, meanwhile, for a thousand dinars the paintings that cost millions — the paintings from the forbidden chambers that a mere mortal could not put his eyes on! The Koinna's painting is a national treasure, this painting numbers among the palace's first hundred sacred objects, the Emperor's ancestors brought bloodless sacrifices and prayed for the dynasty fortune in front of this painting — in his gall, this man hung this painting above his table — so that the two founders of the Alom dynasty could look at the doughnuts that the Earthman eats at his table assessing the Empire value at his computer! I don't know, what punishments fit the exchange brokers, but nobody has yet rescinded the law about palace thieves having their guts torn out! And nothing is written there about exceptions being made for Earthmen, since the law was enacted four hundred fifty years ago when the Empire was the center of the world and nobody heard a whisper yet about all these people from the skies!"
The first minister Yanik even clicked his tongue in admiration listening to Shavash. Unlike the Earthmen, he knew very well that the sovereign was indifferent to securities and uranium mines, that he knew very little about, but that he was enraged to the utmost by palace robbery; almost everything stolen had not only artistic value but was also sacred, and the ignorance of the Earthmen buying invaluable objects for a penny hurt the sovereign to his heart.
"You gave me this painting!" Bemish shouted.
"I gave you a copy, while you arranged it with the thieves to substitute it for an original!"
"You are a piece of shit and a scoundrel," Kissur screamed at Shavash. "And this tape is a fake."
"I am ready to submit this tape to an international examination," Shavash claimed, smiling, "with experts' opinions published in all the newspapers."
Giles quietly leaned towards Bemish and whispered.
"They warned you, Bemish, that they would flatten you into the ground. That they would make egg powder out of you and send it as humanitarian aid to Ganaya lizards. Do you understand that you stand a chance to be hanged?"
"Can I have your complaint, please, Mr. Bemish?" the Emperor said.
Bemish sat completely dismayed. He was close to bursting into tears. Shavash smiling impudently pulled the folder out of his hand and handed it to the sovereign. The sovereign took an ancient quill dusted with gold powder and signed the complaint. Then, he took the seal, showing a dragon catching its tail, off his neck, pressed the seal to a pad saturated with incensed phoenix's blood ink and stamped it on the paper. He handed the sheet over to Bemish and said.
"Accept my congratulations, Mr. Bemish — I relieved Mr. Shavash from the company director position and appointed you at this post."
"But sovereign," Shavash exclaimed with indignation. The sovereign spun and his embroidered sleeves cuffed Bemish in the face.
"Be silent, vice-minister. I do not need foreign experts to tell me who is the scoundrel — you or the Earthman! And if you dare show your tape even to a frog in a road ditch, you will lose more than Assalah!"
Bemish picked the paper sheet with a lifeless hand, glanced at it and noticed with astonishment that the order was dated with yesterday's date. The papers asserted that Shavash had been fired before he signed the contract with IC.
Pale with spite, Shavash silently stood up and left the room.
"Could you, kindly, leave me, gentlemen," the sovereign said smiling sadly. "You tired me out. Kissur, visit me tomorrow morning."
X X X
Bemish was too shocked to think coherently. Having departed the pavilion, he dragged himself to a rocky pond, where white-bellied seals splashed, and slumped on a flower hill, probably breaking all the etiquette rules. The question was — what should he do next? Next, Terence Bemish, the Assalah state company director, will sell this company to Terence Bemish, the ADO director. Dammit, Assalah has to be sold to ADO so that intergalactic, instead of Weian, securities land on the market… What will the business ethics committee say? Having watching the tape… A shadow stood above his shoulder and Kissur slumped on the grass nearby.
"It's very clear," Kissur said, "that you haven't smelled shit. They used to say that I had fish scales on my sides and my ears grew together at the back of my head — big deal, a spliced tape."
"He was ready to submit the tape to any examination," Bemish said. "He was not bluffing. Do you understand what it means? Where did he get the hardware to bake a forgery that can withstand any examination? Do you understand that this hardware was not acquired for a single usage, that this hardware was not acquired for me, it was acquired for you, for Yanik, for the other local officials…"
"Well," Kissur said, "we need to wash this deal down. Let's go to a pub."
And they went to a pub.
X X X
It was dark when they left the pub, and large constellation bundles shone in the sky faded like an old watercolor, so alien to Bemish, and a man in a summer silk suit and white jacket dallied leaning on a long car shaped like a water droplet.
"I will give Mr. Bemish a ride," the silky man said. He raised his head and Bemish recognized the small official.
They sat silently on the back seat. The car started. Shavash dug a fat package from under his feet and handed it over to Bemish.
"What is it?" Bemish said.
"This is the company documentation. You have seen most of it, new director. This is the original tape; you can throw it in a brazier tonight."
And the small official handed the laser disk box to Bemish.
"Are you sure that it's really documentation," Bemish inquired, "and not a remotely controlled bomb, two hundred thousand in Gera currency or a drug load I will be arrested tonight for possession?"
The small official was silent.
"Damn you," Bemish said, "if, perchance, your Emperor had woken up in a different mood today, I could have been hanged for real. I should hate you for your tricks."
"And I should hate you."
"All of you, Earthmen."
"Why? What have we done to you?"
"What? Do you know what it means to be an official of the Empire that owns the world, and suddenly this Empire appears to be a pebble on a beach, crummy and penniless as well?"
"We, at least, left you free," Bemish noted, "but would you, Mr. Shavash, like this country to be occupied by another empire and you being turned into a slave who rubs his owner's back?"
"That's exactly right. You left us free. If I became a slave and rubbed my owner's back, I would be a headman there in two years and I would be manumitted and appointed to a minister position in two more years. But you left us free and I can become the first minister on Weia with no problem but, you have to agree, that even if I emigrate — what is the chance of me becoming a Federation Assembly member?"
Bemish gaped. He had not met yet such an interpretation of the fatherland independence concept. They drove in silence.
Parting with Bemish at the hotel cabin gate, Shavash suddenly grinned.
"You have a guest, don't you? I will not hinder your meeting."
Indeed, a white like goose down Volvo dallied next to trimmed bushes and a man with a colorless face dressed in a cream colored suit — Richard Giles — walked back and forth the terrace. Bemish drew himself together.
"Good day," Giles rendered, "I have been waiting for you for three hours."
"Why did you come around?"
"I came," Giles said smiling, "to offer you a job in our company."
"Why is that?"
"Why not? We have a history of several projects that were carried out quite successfully…"
"You are nuts," Bemish said, "three blown soap bubbles in countries kicked out of UN…"
"Oh-oh," Giles interrupted him, "Nika and Sadun have joined UN a while ago and the Lakhar situation has started to improve recently…"
"But at the time you were there, they were not UN members yet."
"Exactly," Giles said. "When we came here, they had nutcase governments in charge. That's why I am saying, 'successfully carried out projects', in spite of their evident financial bust."
"What do you do?"
Giles silently pulled a plastic card out of his pocket and handed it to Bemish. It was an ID of a senior Federal Intelligence and Counterintelligence Bureau officer.
"I can't believe it," Bemish said. "I had no clue that our spies made billions on fake stocks. And afterwards they collect taxes from us for democracy development!"
"Yes," Giles agreed. "We usually offer not exactly reputable financial projects to our partners in the government of the country that makes us nervous. And these officials, having pocketed several millions, find out that if they want to have more millions and not to have a scandal, they should push certain political decisions through."
"Why does this country make you nervous?"
"Weia? This country doesn't make anybody nervous. This country, Mr. Bemish, is now located in the Galaxy backyard and it will be there for another two hundred years… Whatever political adventures happen here, they will not cause problems for anybody except the Weians themselves. It's Gera that makes us nervous."
"Yeah. Weia is located halfway between Gera and the Federation planets. It is a strategically important Galaxy location — an ideal base for the defense forces — and if it gets to a war between Gera and the Federation, it would be better if…"
"If the war happened around a corrupted planet in the Galaxy's backyard," Bemish completed.
"And how are you going to transform a financial gamble in a military base?"
"Like a charm. We buy the company, we build as many bases as we can, we do the construction behind barbed wire, we do not publish financial reports and we arrange a leak claiming that the barbed wire is caused by the total absence of any construction. The company's shares plummet; the defense committee buys all the securities and announces that it has a military base for a scrap of the price. "
"Are you serious?"
"Come on! You can build a business center on this planet calling it a garbage processing facility. You can make narcotics using tax breaks reserved for the production of medical drugs! A military spaceport instead of a civil one — is nothing by local standards!"
"Why are you telling me this?"
"You upset our plans and became the company director. Now you are going to build the base."
"Will you leave on your own," Bemish inquired, "or should I throw you over the rails?"
"Don't you want to help your own country?"
"You are out of your mind," Bemish said. "You wanted to drown me in shit! You made this mucky tape — now I understand why Shavash assured us it would withstand any examination — and when they sent you to hell, you have a gall to come to me with this talk."
"That's your personal aggravation. What about the good of the country?"
"The good of the country!" the raider exploded. "The good of the country is when the state doesn't stick its nose in corporate business! I guarantee you that, in half an hour, I will find in your project five incorrect decisions and ten less-than-optimal ones! I haven't seen a state project that was less than three times pricier than a private one! Why? Because, the more expensive the project is, the more important the official in charge of it feels! You can't save a penny and here you are, discussing the good of the country. Save money on this construction and this will be for the good of the country!"
"Is that all?" Giles queried.
"No, that's not all! This is only economics. As for the rest, what you call "preventive actions" is what actually starts wars. You say, "We don't want to fight but we should be able to defend ourselves!" Gerans say, "We don't want to fight but they built a military base right under our nose!" Before five years pass, both sides will be armed to their teeth, the taxes that you collected from me will turn to vapor, and you'll raise your hands on TV screens and catechize, "The Gerans wouldn't be so impudent if we invested five billion more in defense!" And the citizens squawk and give you five more billion!"
Having heard this, Giles, instead of leaving, sat in a low armchair, trimmed to the floor with feathers, leaned all the way back and asked.
"So, do you think that there is no difference between the democracy officials and the Weian ones?"
"There is a difference," Bemish said. "Here, the state is set up in such a way that the officials' pickings go directly to their pockets. Democracy doesn't give you this opportunity. You, however, have an opportunity to push through the projects that will require tripling the taxes I pay but will also enlarge your departments and demonstrate your importance. If you simply embezzled, it would cause less harm."
"So, you won't work on our project."
"No. If Gera is dangerous, try to push this project through congress."
"One month before your arrival," Giles said imperturbably, "I talked to Mr. Shavash. I found out that we could pay the state a billion and a half, get the permit and build the military base ourselves. We could also pay the state a billion and a half, get the permit and build the civil spaceport. We could also pay seven million not to the state but rather to Shavash, and then the state will take care of the above mentioned construction. A dummy front company would get the spaceport, both sides would share the expenses and, if the reporters on Gera or Earth ferreted out anything about the construction, Earth would have nothing to do with it — see, the Weian officials, known for their ingrained tendency to cheat their own people, started quietly to make a military base out of a civil spaceport."
"Shavash doesn't believe his motherland is worth much," Bemish muttered.
"It's even cheaper than you think. Since we found out that if we openly start building the military base, the Weian people and the sovereign may have issues with it. They may say for instance that we are clandestinely occupying the country. Or that we are making Weia a pawn in a big game — if the war with Gera starts, Weia will be attacked first as the closest to Gera Federation military base. If however Weia was in charge of the spaceport construction, all these issues would not arise."
"And did you," Bemish uttered through his teeth, "decide to save money?"
"It's not the question of saving money. As you acutely remarked, the state unlike private companies doesn't really care about savings. But you know perfectly well that while the President has minority in the Assembly, we will never obtain funding for one more military base — that's one problem. All the peace lovers, free ones and the ones on Gera payroll, will raise their hands with banners to the sky and take it to the streets to get on the evening news — that's the second problem. The base is twice more important if it's kept under wraps — that's the third problem."
Bemish was silent. Somehow the whole thing seemed especially disgusting. Yes, everybody around traded in the sovereign's name, but, in the end, it was the private agents and companies that gave bribes on Weia. But, for a bribe and such a huge bribe to be given by the Federation of Nineteen… Has it happened because parliament wouldn't approve of this project?
"Out of this money," Giles said, "one half has already been paid and quite a number of classified documents are in Shavash's hands. If Shavash doesn't get the second half, to squeeze some profit he will find a way to sell the papers to Gera. It won't hurt Shavash — such deeds are considered to be valiant on Weia — but what a scandal will burst in the Federation."
Bemish could easily imagine this, jumbo titles everywhere.
"Bribes instead of bread!", "A little bit of war", "We are controlled by the Intelligence Service."
"Shavash," Bemish said, "will not get what he deserves, because he is an Empire official, and you will get everything you deserve because you are democracy officials. If you have to build a base, you should be able to explain it to the people. If you can't explain it to the people, than you are lying about the construction being necessary. If the President considers that he can't make certain things public but he has to do them, he should change his occupation immediately. Why didn't you raise the question about the base in public?"
"Because everybody thinks the way you do," Giles shrugged his shoulders.
"Because nobody looks beyond his personal profit and, once the government endeavors to do something about the common good, they all get nervous about raising the taxes! Because thanks to the idiots like you, Gera, while lagging great distance behind us economically, has already surpassed us militarily."
"Not before we shake hands on it," the spy said, lying in the armchair.
The next moment, Bemish jerked him out of the armchair with one hand and socked him on the jaw with all his heart. The punch was strong enough for the Federation agent to flip over the armchair and to the floor. He however somersaulted over his head, bounced softly in a fighting stance and hissed.
"You are Geran slut."
Thence Giles attempted to land a right hand punch on Bemish's temple. He shouldn't have done it. The bungling spy's hand was blocked and twisted and Giles squeaked piteously and dropped on his knees facing away from Bemish. He couldn't move — his hand would break.
"Your training isn't any good," Bemish commented, "if a financier can wipe your mug!"
"I will wipe your mug; I will jail you for illegal parking for five years… Ouch…"
At this moment, Kissur showed up on the terrace — behind their yells, Bemish and Giles didn't even hear the rustle that the car made entering the gate. Bemish freed the spy's wrist. Giles hissed something through his teeth, picked the folder off the table, locked it in his black case and said.
"I am sorry, but I have to go. I'll see you tomorrow noon as agreed, Mr. Bemish."
"Did I get in your way?" Kissur inquired, looking over the recent discussion participants with curiosity.
"Not at all," Giles said, "sorry, I am in hurry. I will not take your time, Mr. Kissur."
He fixed the collar torn by Bemish and disappeared. The next moment, a flyer whistled taking off in the backyard.
Bemish was chewing on his lips and tapping on a twined rail pole. "Where have I seen his mug?" Kissur said. "Oh, yes, he was also at the sovereign's. This is the jerk that bribed Shavash so that nobody except his company could get the spaceport concession. IC. Yes, IC Company. What did he want?"
"He let me know that the contract will be sabotaged. You know, the workers will go on a strike, the officials will support the workers…"
"You don't have to tell me," Kissur said. "I know how it happens. I was the first minister myself. What are you gonna do now?"
At this point, an idea came to Bemish's mind, simple and evident like a soft beverage commercial. "I'll leave. I'll drop it all and leave. If somebody has to be a bastard, at least, it won't be me. Let it be the day of farewell."
"Let's go riding," Bemish said. They trotted for a while down yellow roads amidst blue fields and they tied the horses afterwards and had a bare knuckle fistfight and swam in a pond, round and green like a bottle bottom.
Bemish rode back, tired and reticent, looking at the road, with the palm trees planted along it, and a fair spread beneath the white wall of a capital suburb. The day was hot, the clouds boiled away, the sun bubbled like an egg yolk on a frying pan. Kissur kept glancing at his friend. Somebody really upset the Earthman. They had let him know that they would foul the contract up. Well, construction is different from a duel. You can go to a duel uncaring whether you win or die. You can't work on construction, understanding that you will not obtain any profit. He will leave. It's too bad. Kissur suddenly realized that he became attached to this man. He lied much less than the local officials and he had some honesty inside in spite of his occupation that didn't encourage honor.
"What was this parking thing that Giles was going to jail you for?" Kissur asked suddenly.
"It's not here. It's on Earth," Bemish replied mechanically.
"No way!" Kissur was astonished. "Where did you park your auto to get five years in prison? Did you drive on the Federation Assembly roof?"
Bemish wanted to explain that it wasn't about parking but Kissur continued.
"What kind of laws are you guys making? They fine their citizens for spitting on the streets and allow Gera more than we allow our bandits! Though we, I have to admit, allow our bandits a lot."
"What has Gera got to do with this?" Bemish exclaimed in anger.
"Well, while you feed the homeless and make laws that protect green parrot species from getting extinct, they finance military programs and they will conquer you in five years! Even a donkey would get that, so I can."
"They won't conquer us," Bemish objected, "we are more powerful."
"You are not more powerful," Kissur said, "you are richer. The history has it that the rich, but lacking in spirit, countries get conquered by the poor and warlike countries. See, wealth makes a country stuffed and lazy like a fat ram while poverty makes it sinewy and greedy like a wolf."
"In this case, Gera will conquer you first — you are weaker."
"Why would they conquer us? Nobody needs us even free of charge. Wolves feed on sheep, not on northern moss."
Bemish puffed up and kept silence. It was nonsense. Barbarians have indeed gobbled empires up because their citizens were lazier than the barbarians while barbarian weapons were not any worse. While Gera — damn it, Gera's weapons may be the same… Still, the analogy is stupid. History doesn't gallop in a circle anymore. It's funny that the Federation Intelligence thinks along the same lines as an educated barbarian…
They parted by midnight and Kissur returned to his palace. He sat in a hall for a long while and, then, he called a servant to arrange a sacrificial basket and walked to a small room, adjoining his bedroom, where an Arfarra memorial altar stood. In front of the altar, a candle burned fixed atop a tortoise shield and a fresh pine branch floated in a silver water bowl. Kissur kneeled in front of the altar and sipped a bit from the bowl.
"Arfarra," he said quietly, "what should I do? My gods are silent. They have been silent for seven years. You had been next to me before that. You made decisions for me everywhere except war and I was free at war because there is nobody between a warrior and god. Can't I do anything for my country or can I only muck things up? Send me somebody! I have nobody. What are these Earthmen? The best of their best have credit cards, where their hearts should be, and the others are god knows what! Khanadar is like a goldfinch, who can only sing silly songs, and this man, Nan, that I could ask for an advice, would advise me to break my neck because it will be most useful for the country and most pleasing for Nan."
Kissur prayed like this for a while and called Arfarra. Suddenly he felt a draught coming from the door. Kissur froze. The door slowly opened and somebody's shadow stretched at the doorstep
"Great Wei!" Kissur cried out jumping on his feet and turning around. "Oh, it's you."
The Earthman stood in the door frame — Terence Bemish.
"Have you been waiting for somebody?" Bemish was concerned. Kissur looked at the altar with his head bowed.
"No," Kissur responded, "he will hardly come."
Bemish sat in the armchair.
"You were right, Kissur," he said. "IC did give Shavash six million dollars for this contract. But it was not IC money. This money belonged to Federation Intelligence. IC is just a front. They wanted to cram the spaceport with surveillance hardware and then with military equipment. They want to watch Gera first, and then…"
"But then Weia," Kissur said, "will become an Earth's military ally."
"It will become a military ally for those who don't want to fight. And when it all comes out, Weia will become a target for Gera and the Federation, the first point to attack in the case of war!"
"A military ally," Kissur repeated. His eyes lit, he looked over Bemish to the altar.
"Don't sprout crap!" Bemish cried out. "If Gera is not going to fight, why would the Federation need military allies? And if it is — imagine what your planet will be turned into. You will be the grass that elephants trample as they fight! Your planet's destruction will be, of course, a great rallying cry for the Earth's people indignation — Earth will wake up at your expense."
"Military ally," Kissur repeated for the third time. And he laughed. "And did Shavash charge your government six million for such a gift?"
"And so they wanted to cover me in mud with this tape — you understand, Kissur, it was our Intelligence that made the tape for Shavash — and after that they have the gall to come to me and offer me a dance at their tune!"
"I hope you said, yes."
"I refused. I make money out of air but not out of shit."
At this moment, the door squeaked again and Shavash entered the room. "Just as I thought," he declared, taking a look at disheveled enraged
Bemish and Kissur, coldly baring his teeth at the altar.
Kissur approached Shavash, embraced and kissed him.
"I am sorry," he said.
Shavash gently freed himself from his embrace and turned to the Earthman.
"So? Has Kissur persuaded you yet?"
"No," Bemish shouted, "you are both blockheads! You, Shavash, are ready to sell you motherland for a fried chicken and, when this guy hears the word "war" he's jumping out of his pants with joy."
"I…," Shavash started with dignity.
Bemish threw the folder at him.
You can have it! The contract is here. I am leaving for Earth.
Shavash picked up scattered papers and suddenly he gawked at them fixedly. His eyes gaped wide in astonishment and his face assumed such an astounded look that Bemish couldn't help but ask.
"What are you reading there?"
"Tomorrow newspapers," Shavash said sweetly, "it's written here that the zealots from the Marked by the Sky sect killed Terence P. Bemish who had been appointed by the sovereign to the Assalah construction director position. Or… no, not Marked by The Sky but Following the Way. Yes, of course! This sect has a branch next to Assalah and they also learned of the dishonest ways that Bemish used to obtain the shares… These ways will of course be published, too…"
"How dare you?"
"Mr. Bemish! I dared much more than that. And I saved you from a certain death twice when Giles was ready to pay for your head! If the zealots kill you, it will cause wide spread abhorrence. If you suddenly decline the sovereign's appointment, it will cause a lot of false rumors and your silence is not guaranteed."
"He doesn't look like a man who will keep silent," Kissur said.
Bemish came to the table where a phone was, picked up the receiver and dialed a number.
"Is it Ravadan? When is the next Earth passenger flight? Is it in twenty hours? No I don't want a stopover. Yes, I would like to buy two tickets, please. Terence Bemish… hmm… Inis Bemish. Yes, damn it, your Weian name — Inis. No, just one way, I don't need round trip tickets.
During the conversation, Shavash was whispering something at Kissur's ear. Bemish finished the phone call, pulled a table drawer out and took out Kissur's small laser that he knew Kissur tended to keep there. He stuck the gun under his belt and left.
Kissur rose to follow him but Shavash grabbed him by his hand.
"Don't do it — let everybody see that he left this house alive and unhurt."
X X X
At the night's wane Bemish appeared at the finance vice-minister's mansion. The small official sat in the office sleepily checking some numbers.
"Why didn't you take off?" Shavash asked.
"Why didn't you kill me?" Bemish snapped back.
He sat in an armchair on bird legs and said.
"I agree on one condition."
The official raised his eyebrows.
Bemish silently handed him a paper sheet. Shavash looked the text over — it was an act abolishing ishevik bills of credit."
"Do you understand," Shavash said, "that without ishevik bills we would spend three times more in subsidies?"
"Why don't you abolish subsidies together with ishevik bills."
"Do you know how much money you, Terence Bemish, could make on it?"
"I would make nothing. I would make this money for one, two, three years. Then, the Galactic Bank, where like in any other large company where only idiots are employed, will finally realize that ishevik bills are pseudo money printed personally by Mr. Shavash, all this shit will turn to hyperinflation, your insurance rating will keel over and I will lose five times more on my stocks than I'll steal on ishevik bills.
Shavash raised his eyebrows just a bit.
People like you, Mr. Bemish, used to come to a bad end in the old times. They handed the sovereign reports about the importance of integrity and…"
"And they had their heads cut off," Bemish grinned.
"Yes, sometimes they had their heads cut off. And sometimes the sovereign would turn his ear towards their reports and they started to cut the other people's heads off."
THE SEVENTH CHAPTER
Where all investors' difficulties are solved in the best way
The full transfer didn't take much time — less than five days. Everything worked out in the end. Bemish became the Assalah president and CEO. Richard Giles, who believe it or not had resigned from IC, became the first vice-president. Shavash kept his appointment at the Board of Directors.
Trevis, naturally, started financing the whole project again. The financing layout developed by Bemish was not changed. 51 % of the company, meaning the whole state stock block, was sold by the Assalah company director Terence Bemish to the ADO director Terence Bemish and the observers commented acidly that the shares were sold at not such a high price. The same day, Ronald Trevis sent out a note that his bank assured — it would be possible to raise the money necessary for the investment through ADO bonds. In a month, ADO issued junk bonds for two million dinars that made up the first-round financing and big-league investors fought for the bonds like starving hyenas.
The second-round financing was made of convertible bonds. These bonds had 8 % coupons and could be converted in stocks within one year at the present stock face value. This operation promised to be incredibly profitable — if everything worked out, the Assalah stock price could increase hundred fold. Even technically, the stocks were available only to a very small investors' circle — to those who were allowed to invest money in the derivatives of, accordingly to the Galaxy business world virtuous choice of words, "the third reliability category markets." Bemish, Trevis and Shavash narrowed this circle down even more, having sold the bonds mostly to the people they needed.
Additionally, there were warrants — the stock warrants acquired at three dinars per warrant. In two years, they enabled the buyer to acquire Assalah stocks at their present cost. In the worst case, the buyer would lose three dinars, in the best he would acquire a share at a price hundreds times less than the current one. The project, submitted to the sovereign, pointed out that warrants were needed to encourage the biggest investors, necessary to attract their attention to a remote and dangerous market. Mudslingers claimed that 50 % of the warrants ware shared among Shavash, Trevis and Bemish. The mudslingers were wrong. These three shared 75 % of the warrants.
The relationship between Bemish and the state proved to be mutually profitable. For instance, it was great to have a spaceport, of course, but how would you pass the loads and passengers further? The highway from Assalah to the capital was built in sovereign Irshahchan times, and though in sovereign Irshahchan times it was a miraculous highway enabling government informers to reach Assalah in two days and the troops, sent to pacify the rebels, in four days, it didn't really satisfy contemporary requirements. From the north — from Liss, the region promising to become one of the Galaxy's largest mining areas — a modern highway stretched. But it was cut off forty kilometers away from the spaceport by Orkh River, one of the largest rivers in the Empire. These forty kilometers also needed to be connected somehow.
Bemish spent this month delivering popular presentations at all the Federation financial centers. Two air flights a day and three space flights a week were normal for the new director and his team. The success thundered. Really, junk bonds and developing markets seemed to be created for each other. A fringe market company acquired by a small Federation company that had passed Galaxy exchange listing; and this company later financed the production issuing junk bonds — it was beautiful. It was bold.
Neither Kissur nor Shavash attended the presentations. Kissur could frighten a Swiss mutual fond representative or a London insurer to death with his escapades. Shavash's position — a finance vice-minister of some dinky empire, or even the first vice-minister — wouldn't mean much for an uninformed man.
Shavash asked the Empire first minister, Yanik, however, to attend and the investors rightfully concluded that Bemish had good relations with the Empire authorities. Shavash also asked an Empire ex-first minister, Nan, or more precisely, David N. Streighton, to attend.
Having resigned after his adversaries ran a smear campaign — that a man from the stars shouldn't be in charge of the Empire — Nan resided on Earth and he didn't try to hide that his Weian appointment made him not just a millionaire, but a billionaire. His knowledge of Weian current events was unsurpassed and his active buying of Assalah securities boosted their trading to a great degree. It is should be pointed out that Nan obtained 20 % of the warrants out of remaining 25 %.
The only dark spot blemishing Bemish's triumph was headman Adini's fate. There was no doubt that he had been the culprit in the trick with the paintings and that he had acted on Shavash's orders.
When Bemish, Khanadar and Kissur flew to the villa the next day, the young headman was bustling around there as if nothing had happened. Bemish was especially surprised that Shavash hadn't even tried to warn his spy, though he knew perfectly well that Adini wouldn't get out of it unscathed.
Kissur, who had never been noted for exquisite manners, threw Adini to the floor and kicked him a couple times and, then, having snatched his throat with one hand and lifted him to the knees with the other, demanded all of the truth from him, "So that I knew whom to hang on the same log with you."
Adini blurted everything out and, accordingly to his tale, Shavash and Giles should have hung on the same log with him.
Having gotten attached to the young headman, Bemish started to ask him how he, Bemish, had maltreated him and Adini covered with blood, sweat and tears confessed that, having been young and silly, he had taken part in palace pilfering a year ago — just a little bit, two Iniss rugs, not particularly old, were the only things that he had peddled. A powerful gang, probably connected to Shavash, ratted on the competitor or they decided to write the stolen stuff off using Adini. Thus, he found himself in Shavash's personal jail and he was freed only after he had admitted of being guilty in three hundred million dinars worth of palace thefts.
Bemish ordered Adini to beat it but Kissur snatched the young guy and said that the cad should be hanged and that to let him go would mean to lose face. Bemish said that hanging Adini would be like an official, castigated by his superior, venting his anger at his wife.
Kissur agreed with this argument but he claimed that he would keep Adini and have some words with him about his pilfering — it's kind of doubtful that Adini had stolen only two rugs. Bemish agreed and he shouldn't have — the next morning they found Adini hung on the gate of Shavash's luxurious mansion.
Everybody thought that the Assalah company director himself had gave this order and they respected Bemish mightily for adhering to local customs; Kissur proved to Bemish that it was crystal clear — the guy was rotten all the way through, complete as a water putrefied nut. Hanged Adini visited Bemish's dreams for a week or two and then stopped. The painting with the dragon and the princess Terence, of course, returned to the palace the same day with apologies.
Five carts and priests dressed in heavy brocade pallias came for the painting.
X X X
In a month, Bemish arrived at Assalah accompanied by a large retinue of investors. Shavash organized a brilliant reception for them in a temple complex located about twenty kilometers away from the spaceport — the Black Valley.
About two and half thousand years ago, one would have found there a wonderful Temple of Isii-ratouph, who was depicted then not as a squirrel but rather as a webbed snake and was considered to be not a woman but a man. Nothing was left from the old temple besides the huge columns — and right around here, about a kilometer away, the sacred gardens began with chapels strewn here and there.
The reception was wonderful. Blooming rhododendrons stood as if dressed in multihued fur coats, brocade leg and jasmine fragrances rode over the aroma from the delicacies and tame squirrel-ratouphs with gilded tails jumped amidst the invited guests. Assuming a certain ignorance of Weian history, the dishes served to the guests could be taken for the exact copy of the delicacies present here ten years ago at the province governor's appointment celebration.
The guests were served with a wondrous lamb, just lanced and grilled for a god (the gods were fed smells and the guests would be fed meat) and Shavash stood and made a short speech. Shavash said that he was happy to inform the guests that the territory belonging to the company had obtained immunity by a sovereign's bill — it was now exempt from the local officials' jurisdiction and the company had revenue and judicial rights within its territory.
"However," Shavash immediately reassured, "the company won't really have to pay taxes since the sovereign's bill gives it extensive tax deferral for the next two years.
Once the dumbfounded guests had digested the pleasant news, that somewhat compromised the state sovereignty in the company's favor, Shavash continued that poor communications was one of the main Assalah drawbacks, considered at the examination of the project — the direct highway to the capital had been built in sovereign Irshahchan times and the road to the rich Liss region was cut off forty kilometers away from Assalah by the second largest Empire river. Shavash was happy to inform the guests that the state had already allocated funds for the road and the bridge construction.
Why, would you think though, should the government bustle about? If Assalah needs it, let Assalah build it, Assalah has loads of dough, why would you spend budget money in a starving country?
Large investors are an intelligent crowd and they all took a note of Shavash's part at the presentation and the very polite attitude displayed by the first minister Yanik towards him. Five people or so asked Bemish if he was going to limit himself to Assalah or to create a Weian stocks investment fund.
After Shavash's speech, Trevis, having met Shavash in person for the first time, approached him trying to clarify the tax referral situation. Shavash, however, avoided a direct answer.
"Don't worry, either way this company will not pay taxes," he said imperturbably.
Here, a cute girl appeared in front of Trevis, the girl held a silver tray, of ram grilled with plants and roots, in her hands. The girl bowed and sang that an ancient custom commanded to meet a guest with a black sacrificial ram.
Trevis took a piece with pleasure.
"A great custom," he noted, trying tender meat out, "so coming back to tax exempts…"
"The custom is great," Shavash replied, "but it's not exactly like this."
Trevis raised his eyebrows.
"The ancient custom says to meet a guest with a grilled black dog," the official explained.
Trevis almost dropped the plate and, then, he burst in laughter.
"Why doesn't he want to become a first minister?" Trevis asked Bemish, when Shavash stepped aside.
"The Emperor will never allow it."
"He is an amazing man."
"Yes. Once he expressed his regret about the Earthmen not having conquered the Empire and enslaved him. He said that by today he would have been the Earth Emperor's senior trusted personage…"
"I would like to have slaves," he said suddenly, "especially people like Shavash. Do you have slaves, Bemish?"
Bemish frowned slightly. Adini was his first slave.
"Yes. These three, cleaning up the tables — but I haven't bought them, I have obtained them as gifts from different people."
"We are investing money in a funky business," Ronald Trevis muttered.
Bemish nodded heedlessly.
"By the way," Trevis said, "when we were driving by your villa, I noticed a tall peasant standing in the crowd, he was missing his left ear. I am sure that I saw him next to the hotel in the capital and he was not dressed as a peasant then, he sat deep inside a Hurricane."
"You are as watchful as usual, Ronald," Bemish said. "He is not a peasant, he is one of the best known Weian criminals."
"Oh, my God! Does he want to fleece some foreign sheep?"
"To the contrary, doing a favor to some influential people, he is protecting these sheep from some lice."
"What are you whispering about?"
Bemish turned around. Kissur stood in front of him, dressed in Earthern clothing and not even a bit drunk. During the whole evening, Kissur hadn't caused any disturbance yet — he hadn't broken a single investor's jaw and hadn't washed anybody in a pool. The reason was very simple — Kissur was with his wife, Idari.
"Let me introduce you," Bemish said, "Ronald Trevis, the head of LSV bank. Kissur, an ex-owner of the same villa."
"Also an ex-minister of the Empire," Kissur finished with a grin. And he added right away, talking to Bemish. "I didn't know that the sovereign bestowed you with immunity."
"You see, Kissur, after you gave me the villa, the local official herded the peasants to fix the road for free, to curry my favor. I don't want the local officials to curry my favor this way. And I promise you to fleece the peasants three times less and to hang five times less criminals."
"That's exactly wrong," Kissur stated. "In order to be respected, you have to hang twice more, otherwise why do you need this immunity? What do you think, Trevis?"
It was ten in the evening, when the temple abbot noiselessly approached Bemish, standing on a lawn and encircled by the guests, and whispered in his ear that Shavash wanted to talk to him in private. Bemish finished the cocktail and left the guests unnoticed.
He found Shavash on the temple tower second floor — the small official stood with a wine glass in his hand and he seemed to clink the glass with a goddess dancing in the alcove. Having heard the Bemish's steps, he turned around. Bemish brandished his hand welcomingly and sat in an oak-backed armchair standing to the right of the window.
"Trevis says that you will raise twice more money than you need. People really stand in lines to buy a piece of Weia if Bemish himself handles their finances. What are you going to do with the extra money?"
"I could create a couple of funds," Bemish said.
Shavash, half turned to the window, gestured with the glass. Outside of the window in the sunset light, the dense gardens' greenery and the even squares of rice patties gleaned. Ivory imps danced above the window and smiled mockingly at the official. Bemish noticed that Shavash was drunk — not as much as he was at Weian feasts when everybody walked on their hands and knees by a night's end, but much more that it was customary on Earthmen's business meetings.
"This planet," Shavash said, "is a planet of mad opportunities. It has the least developed natural resources in the Galaxy. It has human resources. It doesn't have money."
Shavash turned around abruptly.
"You will bring this money in, Terence. How much can you raise for your funds?"
"I could raise five hundred million in the first year. Then it depends on the fund's profitability."
"You will sell what I say and buy what I say. First year your profit will be seven hundred million. Your real profit will be one billion. But you will give three hundred million to me. Do you understand it?"
"They jail you for such things."
Shavash leaned over the Earthman.
"You are mistaken, Terence. They jail you for such things on Earth. On Weia, they cut your head off."
"Why are you risking your head for money?" The pale vice-minister's face with mad golden eyes and raised eyebrows' tips moved right to the Earthman.
"You understand nothing here, Terence. I don't need money. I need to turn this country in something decent. It is possible only if I become the richest official in this country. For that — I need money. I need huge money, money that this country doesn't have. But, the Galaxy has this money and you, Terence, will deliver this money from the Galaxy to here."
X X X
To conclude, the reception worked out great if not for an accident at its very end. It was already midnight, the time when men liked to have fun was getting closer and the wives of several higher Weian officials hurried to take leave and disappear and women's laughter started to come out of the temple gazebos. Bemish and Trevis walked down a garden path under falling cherry petals by the gods cramped in the darkness. They had discussed everything already and they simply enjoyed in silence the dark and tart night, dusted by the fragrance of night flowers and the faraway singing of expensive whores.
The road led them to a small pond, where a marble god in a brocade caftan stood on the bank.
"Here is Shavash," Trevis said, "but it looks like the timing is wrong."
Shavash half sat under the god's statue and fondled a midnight cowgirl. Something made Bemish hearken and he stopped.
"Let's get out of here," Trevis restrained him.
Suddenly something gleaned in the woman's hand.
Bemish didn't remember how he dashed across the lawn. He remembered only Idari's voice and the dagger in her hands. The next second, Bemish pulled the official to the side. A fish scale flash of the dagger tore air right where Shavash had just sat. Idari leaped to her feet, lithe and agile like a sand lizard.
Shavash stank with cognac and palm tree wine — a killer combination. He was boozed up to the hilt — much more than he had been an hour ago in the tower.
"What are you doing?" the official rasped.
Bemish silently pulled a short jab at Shavash's jaw. The official closed his eyes and went down to the ground. Trevis rushed to Bemish, pale as death.
"Bye-bye your fund," Trevis muttered.
"He will remember nothing," Bemish objected.
"I hope that you will also remember nothing," Idari said.
Bemish's heart was hopping like a mouse in a jar.
"Should I walk you?" he asked Idari.
But the woman only shook her head slightly and, in a moment, she disappeared in the bushes. The dagger had vanished even earlier in her blowsy sleeve folds. Shavash mumbled something, turned over on his back and started snoring.
"Why did you have to beat him?" Trevis got angry. "Is she your lover or what?"
Furious Bemish turned around. Trevis pulled back.
"Just forget it," Bemish muttered finally, "otherwise we will all get a lot of problems."
They were almost at the house, when Bemish, having kept glum silence all the way, suddenly said, "If a civil war starts in this Empire, it will start on this woman's account."
X X X
The morning after the reception, some guests signed a treaty of intent — about creating together with Shavash and Bemish several joint companies specializing mostly in export-import operations. Weian tariffs were quite high, but Shavash hinted to the people present that they probably wouldn't have to pay them.
The official was pale after the yesterday's binge and a huge bruise blossomed under his cheekbone, artistically masked by various powders. Bemish didn't have to torture himself long about whether or not the official remembered who socked him. Having returned to his room, Bemish discovered there a gift basket full of soft turquoise figs and Shavash's note. "As you see, I can be grateful," Shavash wrote in calligraphy. "You had given me one fig and I gave you hundred." A bruise was called a fig in Weian.
X X X
The next day after the investors had left Bemish returned to the villa and was stopped by a small peasant crowd.
"What's the problem?" Bemish asked.
A tall barefoot old man stepped out of the crowd.
"They told us," He said, "that the great Lord from the stars will build a magic city in this place."
"More or less," Bemish agreed.
"They told us that this city will be built on our lands. What will happen to us?"
"You will have the lands across the river," Bemish answered.
"We are happy that the Lord from the skies gives out part of our land to us. But our old land was taken away from us without any payments."
"You were paid by company shares," Bemish said. "You squandered these shares and you don't retain any rights to them."
"Does it mean that the Lord from the stars has money to treat officials, but he doesn't have money to pay us for our land?"
"I will not pay you a cent," Bemish cut them off.
Having learned about this accident with the peasants, Kissur said.
"You acted like a man, Terence. Why do Earthmen act like men only when it comes to money?"
The new headman approved of his boss altogether.
"These people are such," he said, "that if you show them a finger, they will devour the whole hand. They are but spongers!"
"Don't you come from the same people?" Bemish cut him off and the new headman shut up, offended.
X X X
Bemish had to see Idari quite often. A great number of the company's contracts — lumber, concrete, tungsten glass — in a nutshell, everything that was cheaper and more profitable to buy in the Empire, passed through Kissur's estate and his wife was in charge of it.
Only gradually Bemish realized how important a part this graceful fragile woman plays not only in the economics of Kissur's estate but in the economics of the Empire. Thanks to her and only to her, not a single oil well that the sovereign had bestowed on Kissur passed away or was sold to cover debts — to the opposite, every gift was preserved, multiplied and grew and this fragile woman controlled with an iron fist at least three banks and the second biggest Weian aluminum plant. They said that the applicants for the bank positions had interviews in front of a curtain — Idari didn't consider it possible to talk in private with a male stranger and Bemish had never seen her in anything other than Weian dress.
Idari had only one son and Bemish saw that it deeply hurt her, because in her view, a good wife should bring a litter every year. To conceive more children, she had even submitted to an Earthman physician but the physician had only raised his hands and said that nothing could be done. Three boys that Kissur fathered whoring around and a total orphan that Kissur extracted from under his own tank tracks were being brought up in the house.
A lot of maligners told Kissur that the Earthman visited Idari somewhat more often that the business contacts required but, since the people who said that wanted very much to obtain everything Bemish had from the Empire, Kissur ignored these words.
THE EIGHT CHAPTER
Where Terence Bemish pays taxes with fallen leaves while the rock with an ancient foretelling is dug out at the construction
Ashinik was born into a peasant family that was ruined during the civil war. His father was recruited into the local prince's army and killed there and his mother died just quietly. In the last year, Ashinik was also recruited, but by this time the prince's army had dwindled down to five hundred people and the prince was called a prince no longer but he was rather called a bandit. When the prince heard that nothing was left of Khanalai's army, conducting a siege on the capital, but two barns of ashes and that the new masters — the people from the skies — were giving orders in the capital, he was scared and rushed in to beg for peace. The sovereign forgave him and the people from the stars gave everybody a fancy can with a picture of meat in sauce drawn on it. Ashinik hid the can under his head and went to sleep and when he pulled the can out in the morning, he found out that it didn't have the bottom and was empty. Ashinik rushed to his friends that had just finished the breakfast and they burst in laughter and they said that it had been this way from the beginning.
Ashinik dragged himself from the city back to the village, to the land, but there was no land. A fence of brushwood and concrete was where the land had been and the Earthman was behind the fence. It came out that Ashinik's father bequeathed the land to the prince and the prince sold this land in the capital to a trust that dug a hole in the ground. Having heard Ashinik out, the Earthman went crazy and threw him out.
What happened was that the Earthman had long ago realized the prince cheated him and he hadn't held the title for all of the land. He gave money to the first petitioners and, having heard about it, all the locals rushed picking up their relatives and friends and testifying that they had held such and such piece of land. With their peasants' minds they instinctively sized Earthmen up as a power-to-be and held it for a virtue to cheat the trust that was so stupid that it was ready to pay for the land which had already been sold to it, even if the people that sold the land didn't own it. The Earthman had seen that he was being hoodwinked and now he kicked out everybody who came with a complaint about the land as cheaters.
"I didn't get much from the Earthmen for my field — an empty can and a kick in the butt," Ashinik thought. Ashinik left for his relatives in the neighboring province, but he got sick on the way. An old couple picked him up and ministered to him. Having learned that the total strangers washed him and spoon fed him, the youth burst into tears — it was the fourth year he lived as a snail without a shell, only a lazy man wouldn't step on him.
The people, who nursed Ashinik back to health, were tanners. Ashinik started helping them with their work and with the house. At first, Ashinik didn't notice anything except that they didn't eat meat in the house but then, listening to the masters' conversations, he started to realize that his hosts were some sect's members. This sect had existed for a long time and it was based on a prophecy about iron people who would appear from underground to destroy the Empire. On numerous occasions, they had taken barbarians and rebels for iron men but then a rebel would become an Emperor and it would become clear that the prophecy was not about him. The masters hinted to Ashinik a number of times that Earthmen were these iron demons, and that they wanted to destroy the Empire and that the mine, he was invited to work on, was nothing else but a hole to hell — the demons would drag him down there and eat him.
At first, Ashinik didn't really believe it. He had also heard some really dirty gossip about zealots — they were rumored to entice people with their lies, nurse the infirm, pick up orphans, and then preach stupid stuff and engage them in orgies and even worse on their meetings. But he felt uncomfortable arguing with the elders who had saved his life and he also had nowhere else to go.
Soon, they took him to a meeting where they directly said that Earthmen were demons and all the things they owned were either phantoms or had been stolen from the gods. Then a teacher, clothed in white, in front of their eyes grew a golden staircase out of a seed, climbed up it to the skies and came back with a fancy pot that the gods gave him.
Ashinik started taking part in the weekly meetings but doubts assailed him. "Of course, all I got from the Earthmen for my field was an empty can and a kick in the butt," Ashinik thought. "But if I consider everybody I got a kick in the butt from to be demons, there would be more demons than people." Finally, these thoughts hurt him so unbearably that once in the repair shop Ashinik fainted and crashed to the ground. When he came back to his senses, people were crowded around him — it appeared that a great spirit had seized him and he had been preaching.
Ashinik was taken to the teachers, they housed him with them. Since Ashinik's words were always taken with great attention, the fits started to happen more and more often but Ashinik never remembered what he was saying. Thanks to his prophecy gift and natural cleverness, Ashinik suddenly started to climb quickly up the hierarchical ladder. Ashinik was especially shocked by the following. The zealots he found himself with at first believed that Earthmen were really demons. On the second level, they told him that words iron devil and demon with respect to Earthmen should be treated metaphorically and Earthmen live on the sky rather than underground. He was told that the stupider were the rumors about Earthmen, the easier the dumb people would believe them. But on the third level, he was told that Earthmen were demons! And they explained to him that the more metaphorical the prophecies' interpretations were, the easier would silly officials believe them since they wouldn't see the gut sense behind the false reasoning. And on the fourth level, he was told again that the prophecy should be treated metaphorically!
When he achieved the seventh level — there were ten of them all in all — Ashinik couldn't distinguish anymore where a metaphor was, where the reality was and where the deep meaning of both of them was. Talking to a commoner, he spoke as if he was on the first level. Talking to an educated man, he spoke as if he was on the second level. He believed what his audience could believe. Thanks to that, his sermons gathered huge crowds. He was also taught to prophecy right at the meetings and he usually remembered what he had said.
Four years passed this way — Ashinik was now twenty. Once the White Elder called and commanded him to leave for Assalah village on Chakhar border. He said,
"The demons build their holes there. They call this hole a spaceport and they say that they fly to the sky out of these holes, but, in reality, these holes go underground all the way to hell. The Assalah demons wronged our peasants mightily and we have a strong society there. But yesterday the society head died. Go to Assalah and take his place."
X X X
This time the trip to the capital took eight hours instead of two months — the next day's morning a yellow bus left Ashinik at the road fork going to spaceport.
Ashinik threw his sack over his shoulder and started walking. The trucks, looking like huge silk worms, flew past him to the construction, a cloud of dust and bad smells hung over the road and in the fields, recoiling from the curb, ripening rice ears were covered with a thick layer of cement dust. It was a long walk and Ashinik tried waving a twig several times to hitch a ride but nobody stopped. Even during the worst war years Ashinik remembered always being able to get a ride from a passerby in a cart. They could kill you once they had picked you up, but at least they would always pick you up.
Suddenly a car slowed down. Ashinik nervously saw that it was not a truck but rather a passenger car shaped like a tiny bug. The driver threw open a door — after a brief hesitation Ashinik climbed inside. They drove in silence for a while.
"Are you going to the construction site?" the driver asked. He spoke in demon's brogue.
"No," Ashinik replied, "I am going to the village."
"Who are you going to?"
"My uncle called me in. His son died — maybe he will adopt me."
"There are a lot of zealots," the driver said, "in this village. Following the Way. Are you one of them?"
"What level are you?"
"What do you know about levels?"
The driver looked the lad over — he had a round good-natured face, wide lips and adjoining thick eyebrows over his beautiful brown eyes.
"A week ago," the driver said, "the local Following the Way man died. You are coming to replace him, aren't you?"
"What do you do?"
"My name is Terence Bemish, I am the Assalah company director."
"Do you pick all passersby up or did you know that I was coming?"
"I pick all the bums up," Bemish said. "The drivers at the construction rarely give a ride to anybody and if you are a bum, they might even kill you. They have already killed two people this way."
"Your workers aren't any good."
"It's difficult to get any worse. They drink, steal, and make the newcomers do the same. There are gangs among them. Two of them were caught yesterday — they sold an anti-corrosion paint box. How much do you think they sold it for? They sold it for a rice vodka crock! Yesterday, one guard shot at another guard — he was boozed up. They arrested him, started an investigation and discovered that he was wanted in the capital for robbery and murder. Everybody who wants to escape the capital after screwing something up there, go here."
"Yes," Ashinik said, "it's not easy. I have never had to own people that drink, steal and eat meat. A master is like a seed and his subordinate is like grass that grows out of the seed. Grass follows seeds. It's not surprising that the demons' servants steal anti-corrosion paint from them."
Bemish was so upset by this comment that he lost his self control. His true nature emerged and Ashinik noticed at once that Bemish's head was really just a meat egg. Ashinik felt himself very uncomfortable. "What if he asks now — do you really think I am a demon?"
But Bemish didn't ask anything like this, he shook his meat egg and said.
"The village is just beyond this hill. Would you be uncomfortable entering the village in my car? Would you like to get out at the turn?"
"Not a problem at all," Ashinik said.
In the evening, the whole village listened to their new prophet's stories about riding in the chief demon's car and seeing a meat egg on the demon's shoulders.
X X X
Bemish was not exaggerating the problems in his conversation with the future zealots' guru. The construction situation worsened every day. The worsening, however, was reflected neither in the balance books nor in the profits and expenses reports and the most meticulous auditor would not be able to enter the locals' feelings into the company's debits column.
It was also partly Bemish's fault. As an ardent player who felt better next to a computer screen rather on the construction site, Bemish visited the latter only occasionally, being engrossed completely in the capital business maelstrom.
He started up a hedge fund acquiring Weian stocks — it was quoted in the intergalactic system. Trevis raised money for him, a sum unheard-off for a developing market — five hundred million dinars. He acquired the broker house DJ securities and used it to conduct the hedge fund operations; he also acquired 12 % shares of the bank that Assalah Company had an account in.
Together with Idari, Shavash and two other useful people, he founded a local Assabank and soon, by a special sovereign's law, all the budget funds allocated by the government for the construction of the roads, communications and the other Assalah infrastructure passed this bank.
Bemish swam like a fish in the market where the quotes often fluctuated 30–40 % a week, where even relatively liquid shares had an 8 % spread and where trading based on insider information was not a crime but a norm. He had disposed of almost all the stocks a week before the government announced the new tax regulations that caused a market crash and by the year's end his fund was the only one showing a profit gain of 36 % compared to the other funds' losses fluctuating between 14 % and 86 %. The real profit was even higher, but as it had already been agreed on, Shavash obtained one third of it.
However, while Terence Bemish hung out in the capital, bought and sold accordingly to Shavash's hints, opened new banks, had fun with Kissur and gave an interview to Galamoney as the head of the company in charge of the most successful fund of the year, other people controlled the construction, most of all the company vice-president Richard Giles. Oh, of course, Bemish received the construction and money flow reports every day. A minor financial glitch, not even close to larceny, would not remain unnoticed.
"Why do you have this leftover at the active accounts?" angry Bemish screamed at the receiver. "Couldn't you place an overnight credit?"
And the leftover was only five thousand dinars.
But the peasants and workers' attitude was not reflected in any way in the financial reports and increasing theft was at first written off by Bemish as the bad heritage of two thousand years of socialism.
As Bemish realized looking back, a lot of things would have been different if the construction had started not when the peasants had been planting rice and when every pair of hands had been precious. But the construction started right in the spring — the peasants didn't let their lads go to the construction site and the guys who came later met with a construction lifestyle already in place — the lifestyle of lost city dwellers, bums and simply bandits that stole watermelons from the fields, trampled rice down, fought the village lads en masse and considered hard porn with stereo effects to be the highest achievement of the alien culture.
At one point, Bemish ran into a ceremony of Following the Way on a road and the sect's head, a tall old man with a grey beard, pointed his finger at him and started calling him a sorcerer of the basest type. Bemish inquired what exactly his sorcery was and received an answer.
"All your flashy labels and commercials, cigarettes and movies — they are all your dirty magic and rituals. You use all this to get people together."
"I am sick of these commercials no less than you are."
"This is even worse," the old man grinned. "It means that you have one culture for small people and another one for big people. This is ill-conceived because everything can be different for small people and for big people — what they own and what they wear — but their culture should be the same. The spring day is celebrated by a farm hand and in the palace. And if your workers go to see The Triple Strike and you don't… What's the point of talking about it?!"
He thought and added with curiosity.
"Is it true, that you live underground just like the wild people in the North who change their ruler every four years and, having changed him, eat him?"
"We change a ruler," Bemish admitted, "but we don't eat him."
The old man died then, Ashinik arrived to take his place and the situation worsened. Whatever Bemish did, it came out wrong. They delivered a worker to the hospital with appendicitis for surgery and Ashinik made everybody believe that the demons from the skies cut the guy's corn off and attached a goat's equipment instead and now only goats would be born from him.
Bemish had loaned some money to the village, at the previous village headman's time, and Ashinik started a rumor that they tricked the headman using his poor knowledge of English and made him sign a paper permitting the Earthmen to demolish the whole village. There was another rumor also contrived by Ashinik that Bemish had a black cord. One end of the cord was in a table drawer, in the villa, and the sovereign himself was tied to another end. If the Earthman pulled on the cord, the sovereign would toss and groan and hail would start coming down from the sky.
Slowly, bypassing official district authorities and official construction management, underground organizations started to form in the village and at the construction site. The sect grew quickly in the village. The number of zealots increased from the starting few as quickly as a crystal grows in a saturated solution once a seed crystal is submerged there. As for the construction… let's be honest, mafia started to rule the construction.
At some point, a name appeared among the private cofounders of new import-export companies — O'Hare — the same O'Hare who had been introduced to Bemish in the thief's tavern and who had taken care of the presentation.
Bemish crossed the cofounder's name out with red ink commenting that such a company would end up selling drugs and that would be really disgusting. Giles, as an Intelligence employee agreed with the company director wholeheartedly.
Only now Bemish realized how horribly he had been tricked by the small official Shavash when he agreed to take the construction out of the local authorities' jurisdiction. The district officials were corrupted and unceremonious. They could have managed both the bandits and zealots and happily ignored any humanitarian issues. They could have relocated the whole village to, say, Chakhar in three days or just burned it to the ground.
Unlike them, Bemish would not be able to drive a tank over the village or land in the middle of it, "as a miss", a sixty thousand ton space freight ship — as Shavash suggested to him altogether seriously. And not a single international legal system existed that would ban planet dwellers from singing songs and going nuts en masse.
Now, Bemish found himself in a classical chess fork — if he started arresting the zealots himself, even the most pro-Earthmen officials would be indignant. If he asked for the authorities' help, it would be a sign of his utter powerlessness.
The tipping point for the village and construction confrontation was the following. They started to dig the foundation pits for service buildings on the northern hill and dug out old temple complex remnants.
Having checked it out with archives, they found out the remnants were the old temples of Adera-benefactor goddess that had prospered almost two thousand years ago when the capital officials hadn't dared to force their way into these surroundings calling the local dwellers "bandits" but not, however, making any attempts to eradicate them.
This Adera lady had quite an irritable disposition, she had a tendency to appear in people's dreams extorting gifts and even human sacrifices, threatening with floods; indescribable orgies took place at her celebrations. The sovereign Irshahchan obliterated the temple mercilessly, recognizing this cult to be a crime against humanity and disobedience to the authorities.
Having being trained to respect any ruin, Bemish stopped all the construction there and asked Shavash and Kissur what he should do. Kissur told him to clean up the damned temple and recycle it for construction materials, if needed. Shavash took a look at the altar where boys were rumored to be offered as a sacrifice and said that the altar was not impressive as a cultural monument since carving was too crude.
The newspapers did hear about the temple however. The newspapers demanded the Earthmen to take their dirty hands away from the national heritage. Bemish snapped back tactlessly that the Weians themselves had destroyed the temple while the Earthmen actually found it.
Soon, the most unbelievable myths related to the temple riches emerged. They had dug out a large two hundred meter deep well in the temple, and a rumor emerged that every local dweller had thrown his most valuable belongings down this well as a sacrifice to Adera for centuries. Half-drunk construction workers and deranged religious peasants believed every inch of it and were climbing over the fence built around the temple twenty four hours a day. Bemish ordered an exploration of the well's bottom and, in the presence of the authorities and the journalists, loads of flint arrowheads, brass round handles and clay female figurines with huge bellies was extracted. There was a possibility that the local denizens had indeed thrown their most valuable belongings down the Adera well but, during these times, flint arrowheads had been the most valuable things here.
That, of course, didn't hurt the myth. Everybody saw how much equipment was thrown at the well and that a hundred men spent three days around it! No need! The rumors assured that the well appeared to be empty because the managers had robbed it earlier. The money amounts, the names of the spaceships used to transport the treasure to Earth, the names of the museums, the name of the construction director and Shavash's name were specified.
The morning of the eighteenth, Bemish found himself in the capital at a conference dealing with developing countries investments issues. Bemish was presented there both as a speaker and an exhibition object.
Bemish conversed with the relevant people and, immediately after the talk he left for the spaceport, having picked up a man named Born — a United Galactic Fund representative who was observing the situation with the stabilization credit allocated for the Empire.
A flock of local journalists waited for Bemish at the helicopter and attacked him with their questions.
"Mr. Bemish, is it true that when an old catalpa was ripped out at your construction, blood appeared at its roots? Doesn't this omen foretell misfortunes?"
"Is it true that a she-goat nearby changed to a he-goat?"
"A she-goat didn't change to a he-goat."
"Is it true, that they dug out a rock that had been buried during White Emperor's times and it had words written on it, "In a month after this rock is extracted the construction will perish."
"It is true. The words were, however, written with phenyl paint developed and set in production five years ago. If the zealots decide to counterfeit the White Emperor's words again, I would advise them not to buy paint in the nearest kiosk."
"Mr. Bemish, is it true that you paid taxes this year with Weian National Bank bonds at their face value?"
Here, Bemish's escort — he, accordingly to a local custom, obtained himself three beefy flatheads — socked the peppiest journalist on his jaw and the newspapermen bolted.
On the return helicopter trip to Assalah, Born inquired why the journalist's had been punched in his mug.
"He is from White Sky," Bemish answered. "This is a newspaper owned by zealots who think Earthmen to be demons crawling out from underground. They say that if we flew from the sky, we would meet gods on the way. He was asking boorish questions."
"Ah, zealot," the satisfied banker drawled, "zealots aren't dangerous."
"It's not dangerous but it's annoying," Bemish agreed.
"What were they asking about taxes?"
Bemish paused deciding whether or not he should explain. But the whole thing had raised a stink and they had mentioned about it in the newspapers couple times.
"There was a bank," Bemish said, "that went bankrupt. The government nationalized it, restructured its loans and turned them into bonds."
"And what is the bonds' value?"
"It's seven-ten percent of their nominal value."
"And at what value were your bonds appraised?"
"They were appraised at hundred percent of their nominal value."
The banker grunted with astonishment, but he controlled himself and didn't say anything.
Bemish asked Born what Weian official he liked the most, and Mr. Gerald Born named Shavash without hesitation. And he added, "What do you think — would Mr. Shavash agree to resign from his Empire appointment and head the developing markets department in our bank?"
Bemish almost gaped.
"Why do you think," He asked cautiously, "that Shavash may want to retire?"
"Because of all this slander directed at him! I can tell you with total frankness that not a single tranche of our credit would reach its destination if it was not for Shavash! The local officials would have embezzled everything! This is the only man who is doing something to save the country's economy. And what does he get back? The best Empire economist languishes under a dimwitted minister and the officials fling disgusting slander at him being unable to endure one honest man in their midst. I think that the best solution for him would be to leave this planet. Do you disagree?"
"No, not really," Bemish said, "Shavash is an amazing man — you are right."
Bemish wanted to pass Born into Giles's hands, so that the latter dealt with the guest till the take off, but Giles vanished somewhere and even his cell was off — Bemish resolved to thrash him soundly.
Bemish personally walked his old acquaintance to the boarding ramp. The latter was pleasantly surprised having learned that the spaceport had an extraterritorial status and the spaceport's management collected taxes and had independent jurisdiction."
Bemish had barely returned to his office when a phone rang.
Bemish picked up the receiver.
"Hello, Terence," the fairest Empire economist told him. "What's the story with Golden Deer Company? I heard that you detained their freight."
"There is no story," Bemish said. "It's just that there is forty tons of electronics there and they paid tariffs for five tons only. Why don't they pay everything required and pick it up."
"Terence, be so kind. Their guy will drop by — stamp his papers and let him go." And Shavash put the receiver down not waiting for a reply.
Giles announced himself in half an hour. He shakily walked in the office. His face was smashed and his expensive suit was splattered in mud.
"Oh, my God, Giles what's happened to you?"
"Somebody attacked me."
"Who was it?"
"Who was it? It was some hoodlums. It was all the damn hoodlums of this planet who don't have anything better to do than to get hired at this construction!"
"Security is your problem, Giles. If your crappy service can't pacify two dozen crooks, how is it going to pacify two dozen dictators?
"We will pacify crooks," Giles exploded. "Security troops will be here in a week."
"What? Have you sent a request?"
"I will send it today."
"I forbid you."
"Because, at the moment it becomes public, everybody will start selling my securities! At first, Federation Special Forces will send their troops to devaluate the construction and then they will buy it dirt cheap, won't they?"
"Won't zealots and bandits devaluate it?
"Exchange market doesn't care about zealots! It doesn't know what they mean. It perfectly well understands what the Special Forces mean!"
Giles touched his torn cheekbone.
Bemish picked up the receiver and called Shavash.
"Shavash, my deputy was assaulted today. Who? Crooks! Send your police in and eradicate these hoods."
"Terence, only Federation laws are valid at the spaceport territory. You can call your troops in but not our police."
"Call this stupid immunity off!"
"You grumbled about corrupted officials yourself…"
"Your corrupted officials, at least, will not overload themselves with legalities bashing these hoods' teeth in."
"I am glad that you see some advantages of our officials."
"They have advantages only compared to your crooks."
X X X
On the other end, Shavash switched to another line and told his secretary to summon a car. In an hour, a narrow silver car drove Shavash to a decorated gate of a bawdy house, famous across the whole country. Having ignored the welcoming girls who leaped up at his arrival, Shavash walked upstairs.
In a secluded office, a fully dressed short fifty-year-old Weian was cooling his heels off.
"You got it," Shavash said. "Bemish is going to cleanse Assalah of crooks using federal troops."
"It's not good if Long Stick sends the troops," the short man said.
"I can't do anything here," Shavash spread his hands. "It's your fault. Who robbed Giles?"
"I will find out," the man said.
"Find it out, please. It's useful to know sometimes what your people do."
Shavash paused and added.
"You, O'Hara, are like a parasite at the construction. You suck but you don't feed, you harvest and you don't plough. Why would Bemish love you? While if you helped him…"
"How can I help him? Should I not steal? How will I make my living?"
"Why should you not steal? For instance, Bemish has serious problems with zealots. If you step on the zealots' tails, you will help Bemish."
The guy looked at the vice-minister with animosity. Weian crooks didn't attack zealots as a rule. The pickings would be slim, and the zealots would go totally mad — if you touched them they wouldn't rest till they cut the whole gang down and declare it to be gods' wrath.
"I have a feeling that the zealots blighted you, not Bemish," the thief said, "and that I will do a favor to you rather than to Bemish."
X X X
Two hours later, Bemish's helicopter landed in Kissur villa's backyard. "The master is not at home," a maid reported, "the mistress will see you in a moment. Could you, please, step into Lake Hall?"
Idari met him dressed in a blue skirt with golden sable trim and a jacket embroidered with peacocks and squirrels. Her hair was pulled up in a large black bun and a silver hairpin in the shape of a Lamass rowboat pierced the bun. Bemish looked at the hairpin and it seemed to him that the hairpin was piercing his heart.
Bemish kissed the house mistress' hand and said.
"I am touched that you received me in Kissur's absence."
Idari sat on the couch and pulled a tambour with a partially knitted belt onto her knees.
The belt was embroidered with clouds and rivers. She almost always had needlework with her.
Two servants brought fruit and cookie baskets to the veranda and departed. A tame peacock dropped by the veranda, unfolded his tail, scratched the doorstep with his red foot and left for the garden.
"What are you upset about, Mr. Bemish?" Idari asked. "Do you have any problems with the fund?"
"No," Bemish said. "It's just that while I bought and sold other people's stocks, I possibly wasted my own company."
"I thought that you finished assembling the first line of landing pads a week before you planned."
"I mean the mood at the construction — zealots and crooks. I can't eradicate them. Shavash tricked me when he obtained legal immunity for the construction." Idari was silent.
"Why did he do it?" Bemish cried out. "Did he need me to hang the zealots? Does he need the Earthmen to butcher these idiots instead of the Empire, so that his hands are clean and the Earthmen's hands are smeared with shit?"
"What am I saying?" a thought passed in Bemish's mind. "I am sitting with a woman that I would give all of Assalah away for — ok, not all of Assalah but at least thirty percent of it — and I am talking to her about god knows what and she considers me to be a greedy and cowardly Earthman."
"He is not fully satisfied with you," Idari said.
"What is he not satisfied with? The only thing I don't export is drugs!"
"That's exactly right."
Bemish froze, as if he just collided with a wall.
"I mean that all the legal violations taking place at the spaceport deal only with taxes. You have not broken any criminal laws yet, Terence, and Shavash doesn't like that. If you break tax laws you can be prosecuted only at this planet. If you break criminal laws, you can be prosecuted across the whole Galaxy. The more crimes you commit, the more power Shavash will have over you."
"Bastard," Bemish muttered glumly. "If only I had known…"
"Shavash is better than you are," Idari objected.
"Shavash will be forgiven many things because he wants a lot. He wants women, power, glory, while you want only money."
"I want you. I want you more than money," Bemish wanted to say.
"You are right, Idari," he said, "I like money more than anything else."
X X X
The next evening, the phone rang in Bemish's office. Ross called — an ex-colleague of Giles — now his deputy on security issues.
"We have an emergency," Ross said. "A packer boy was knifed. We got the killer."
"Did he resist?"
"No. He is quite a lout."
"Bring him to me," Bemish ordered.
Murders happened quite often at the construction. Generally, the killers could not be found. Even if a man was killed in broad daylight, somehow nobody saw anything.
Bemish was leafing through a draft of the yearly company report prepared by the PR department on Earth when two wide-angled guys from the security department brought the killer in the office — an inconspicuous sixty-year-old man in washed out jeans and a jacket with white trim showing that he worked in the fifth roadwork team. The killer's hands were twisted behind his head and locked with handcuffs.
The guys left and Bemish pointed the involuntary visitor to a chair.
He sat silently. Bemish was leafing through the report's last pages.
"Why don't you let me go, boss. They say you have a right to do it."
Bemish was staggered by his gall.
"Why did you kill the lad?"
"I wanted to talk to you, boss," the visitor said. "See, it ain't easy to speak to you. I made an appointment with you, see, three times and you were just cooling it off. I make another appointment today, come in and they tell me, "the boss ain't here for you, Weian peasant mug, the boss is driving a big dog around the construction, it's not your lawn anymore, move it — go back to your barrack. So, I went back and it put me out. Why won't I do something that the boss notice me?"
Bemish didn't interrupt the man yet. He had realized a while ago that sooner or later the bandits would visit him but he hadn't suspected that they would choose such an original way. And this knave is also reminding in a subtle way — I have no problem knifing a boy down or you, boss…
"That was not a good idea," Bemish grinned, "because they will cut your head off now."
"Our authorities?" the bandit laughed out, "Boss, it's not my first murder, and my head is still with me. Do you think you will find witnesses against me?"
That was true. The witnesses were available when the bandit had to meet Bemish. Concerning his head though…
"What did you want to offer me in person?"
"Let's get things in order."
"What's all this mess around? They pick up stuff, swear — you know what's going on — steal materials, drink people away. Say, yesterday, a gang came in and started to play, six people sold themselves into slavery. So they are slaves and what happens next? They work and their owner rubs his belly and gets paid. We, on the other hand, would tidy things up."
"And what do you want in return?"
"Appoint me the landing field security manager."
"Do you want to traffic drugs?"
"Why should I traffic drugs, people make fortunes just on cigarettes. Say, you boss, made a company with Shavash and everybody says that the company hauls everything it wants and doesn't pay any tariffs."
"Is that it?"
"Pay us ten million dinars."
"Why should I pay you exactly ten million dinars?"
"You carried away two hundred million worth of Adera treasure and this treasure belongs to the people. The brothers think that if you return people one twentieth part it would be fair.
"The Adera treasure," Bemish said, "doesn't exist. There is neither gold nor silver in Chakhar, where could the treasure come from two thousand years ago?"
"Don't bullshit me, boss," the bandit said, "and don't act like a little white lamb. You hang around with Shavash, he stole half the country and we only pick up the crumbs…"
"I won't collaborate with you."
"Aha, you can do it with Shavash but you can't do it with us."
"There is a certain intelligence gap," Bemish said, "that makes our collaboration impossible. Shavash can pocket several million after a financial trick but he will not believe that a well with emerald walls exists in a God-forsaken hole."
And he barked into the intercom.
"Escort the prisoner!"
In a moment, the security department guys were dragging the thief out of the chair.
"Remember," he turned around at the door, "you stole more than your underling, boss, but it would be just as easy to knife you."
"Move it," a beefy guy, barbarian Alom, said and jabbed the thief in his ribs.
Bemish turned the air conditioner on and opened the window wide to clear the office of the thief's smell.
The night air was stuffy and soaked by the dust raised by the dozens of excavators and the hundreds of trucks. Far away a compressor station rumbled and the stars, large and jagged like the shards from a bottle that the gods smashed at the stone firmament, were cooling off above him.
Bemish was dismayed. Life was a disgusting and useless thing. He was building a military spaceport on a crazy planet with corrupted officials and an illiterate population and, as if it was not enough already, mafia coming to him and offering to transfer cars and cigarettes via the functioning spaceport's sectors. At the same time, it was totally clear to Bemish that the thief acted on Shavash's hints and all his castigations against the vice-minister were probably staged by this same small official. Idari is right this man will not stop pestering him till he starts exporting drugs via the spaceport…
The door squeaked.
Bemish span around and darted to the table where a gun was stored in a drawer. Needless to say, the thief's warning made a strong impression on him.
The gun, however, would not be needed. On the doorstep, Kissur stood in fancy velvet pants and a multihued shirt embroidered with kissing ducks.
"Oh, my God! What brought you here?"
"Ah," Kissur said, "I spent too much time at home. I thought, "I haven't inhaled that gasoline smell at Bemish's for a while." But I should get used to it. Soon, my whole country will stink like your spaceport."
Bemish was silent.
"Why are you so sad?"
"A thief today told me straight that if I didn't collaborate with mafia, I would regret it. Do you know what he asked as a proof of our friendship? He asked me for the Adera treasure."
"Hm," Kissur said, "Maybe you should give this treasure away to the bandit? I've heard it brings misfortune to its owner, anyway."
Terence stared at Kissur with astonishment. The latter suddenly broke into laughter and slapped the Earthman on his shoulder.
"I gotcha!" Kissur cried out, "I gotcha again! Don't you get jokes?"
A phone squealed. Bemish picked up the receiver and slammed it back down.
"It's not that I just stopped getting jokes," Bemish screamed. "I will start believing in this treasure myself tomorrow! I will believe in a field witch that is born of a rotten pole, in a tin can witch that is born of an old tin can and in a carburetor witch coming from a carburetor dumped in a swamp. I will believe that I am building a hole to hell, put a white robe on and go preaching to the Following the Way that Earthmen are demons and everything made by them is a phantom because I am not able to prove it's not true."
"Actually, it's very easy," Kissur said.
"It's easy to prove that Earthmen don't send phantoms."
"Be so kind, tell me."
"It's a very old trick," Kissur said, "I used it myself eight years ago when I ran across a gang of crazies in some province. Their chief assured that he was invulnerable to arrows and I told him that if it was the case why wouldn't he stand next to a wall and I would shoot at him with my bow. And he believed what he was saying and he stood next to a wall. I struck him so that my arrow entered his chest and stuck out of his spine for a full elbow and he pulled his legs from under himself and hung from this arrow and his followers ran away, disappointed. It would be enough for you to take an assault rifle and suggest to their preacher to place his belly in the way of a rifle burst. If you, say, stay alive than all our hardware is a phantom and I promise you to leave, and if you die than you lied. Don't you like it?"
"Why? Are you afraid the rifle will misfire?"
Bemish paused and asked.
"So, Kissur what should I do with the bandits? Should I make peace or war?"
"How are you to make war with the bandits?" Kissur got angry. "I am telling you — if you want to kill the zealots off, take a gun and shoot at a zealot — he will approach you himself! You don't want to shoot at a zealot that will stick his belly at you. Do you think that a bandit will stick his belly at you?"
"What would be your advice then?"
"You are a chicken, Terence. You turned the construction in a shithouse. Just recently Shavash was amazed how you accounted for some equipment in such a way that you managed to shave the tax by half a million and he was so amazed by this — even he didn't know this trick. And while you were accounting your contraptions and books…" and Kissur grinned. "Well, if gods didn't give you the ability to shoot, you will have to make peace."
"What if I asked you to kill the bandits off?"
"I won't do it."
"Why? Do you have a lot of good friends among them?"
Kissur paused. At this moment, the office door flung open and angry Giles flew in.
"Why don't you answer the phone, Terence," he shouted, "what is this habit of hanging the receiver!"
"Do you have something urgent?"
"Urgent? Do you know what's happening at the Adera Temple? This preacher, Ashinik, brought a crowd in, they broke the fence, forced their way into the temple and they are having a worship service."
Bemish turned and picked up a close-knit hemp overcoat that he often wore at the construction to be less conspicuous.
"What are you going to do?"
"I am going to attend the worship."
"You're going nuts," Giles said. "Call Shavash. Call the troops in. They have finally broken the laws!"
"Call the troops in and what? Should I jail the whole village?"
"You should jail the rabble-rousers."
"And I should turn the others from ill-wishers into terrorists, shouldn't I?"
"Bemish was tying the overcoat's laces decisively."
"I know what Terence wants," Kissur said, "I will go with him."
"Where are you going? Just the two of you? Oh, my God!" the spy roared and seeing Kissur and Bemish rushing out of the office, followed them.
THE NINTH CHAPTER
Where the demons' boss makes a pact with the pious people
Adera's temple floated in the night lit with torches from below. The crowd was huge — people in woolen jackets and grass overcoats girdled with red belts crowded in the broken hall where the sky instead of a roof covered a hurriedly built stage. Kissur and two Earthmen, dressed in rural hemp overcoats, were ignored. Only when Bemish, while elbowing energetically to the stage, pushed somebody in the back a guy jammed him in return and said rudely, "Don't push like a demon!"
On the left and on the right of the stage, huge copper lanterns burned and a round basin with fragrant water steamed on the altar. At the very edge of the stage, Ashinik stood — the young preacher of Following the Way. His face, thin as an onion peel, reddened, his eyes glistened in the torchlight and the crowd responded with an ardent bellow to his every word. Ashinik was dressed in a red hooded overcoat embroidered with red winged bulls reaching all the way to the ground. His belt was made out of polished copper plates.
Black suede high boots looked out from under the overcoat. A bound white goose lay at Ashinik's feet.
Ashinik preached about Earthmen. More precisely, he preached that the clothing sewn by demons should not be worn.
"Two hundred years ago, in the last years of Emperor Sashar's rule," the man in the red overcoat gleaning in the torchlight was saying, "a fashion spread among the people from the country of Great Light — a fashion to wear the clothing made out of wool brought in by barbarians. It was a clear omen that the barbarians would conquer the country. And now people wear the clothing sewn by demons — a clear omen that the demons will conquer the country. So, everyone wearing their foul jeans or jackets is, basically, walking naked. You should know that everything that demons make is just phantom and deceit. And they can't make anything but phantoms. Although they are very powerful sorcerers, we are even more powerful than they are."
"Bullshit," Kissur said.
Everybody present turned facing him.
"Who are you?" Ashinik cried.
"My name is Kissur the White Falcon and this is Terence Bemish, the construction boss, my best friend and we came today to see how you go nuts."
"It doesn't befit you, Kissur, to hobnob with demons," Ashinik spoke harshly, "Since many people call you Irshahchan reborn but, truly, even a white cloud dirties itself over an unclean mole."
Kissur unhurriedly ascended the stage and poked the youth in the chest. Ashinik's bodyguards stirred agitatedly — didn't Ashinik see Kissur in his last sovereign prophecy?
"You are a dog and you are a dog's bone," Kissur shouted with the same voice he used to command an army of many thousand troops and the voice carried above the quelled crowd without any speakers — you addle people's minds and prattle a lot of nonsense and you say that white is black and mix up hell and Big Galaxy and nothing but harm to the state comes from zealots. And if you think that everything Earthmen make is phantoms — do you see what this is?"
"It's a weapon of theirs," Ashinik said.
"Laser gun Star-M," Kissur thundered, "fan effect with improved specifications. And you will stand at this gross shithouse that you call an altar and I will shoot at you with this gun. And if Earthmen's weapons are phantoms and you are a sorcerer, you will stay alive, and if the Earthmen's weapons are weapons and you are a liar and a cheat, you will keel over and go to hell that you say so much crap about."
Ashinik paled. He had never stood in front of a laser barrel. He heard many times that the demons shot at the pious and it all came out to be a phantom. But…
"Are you afraid?!" Kissur shouted. And he turned to the peasants. "Yes, he is afraid; he knows that he is lying to you!"
"Shoot," Ashinik cried.
"Go to the altar!" Kissur shouted. "And all of you move aside and watch with two eyes and don't tell people afterwards what didn't happen."
The crowd quieted and only breathed intensely. Ashinik snarled at his bodyguards and they crawled aside hurriedly. Ashinik came to the altar, raised his hands and faced Kissur.
"It's all stupidity and phantom," Ashinik said and you, Kissur, fell prey to it. But when you shoot and I come back alive, your delusion will disperse and you will not shame your name any more and will stand with us against demons.
Kissur silently picked a fresh "doughnut" out of his pocket, recharged the gun and turned off the safety switch with a clip. The eye on the "doughnut's" top swelled with green light. Ashinik closed his eyes and extended his hands forward. Bemish could clearly see the zealots' leader young face covered with sweat and his chicken neck in the torchlight. "Good lad," Giles whispered nearby. Kissur raised the laser.
"Don't you dare shoot, Kissur," Bemish said.
"What are you doing?" Giles hissed from the side.
Bemish pushed him away and leaped on the stage.
"Idiot," Kissur smirked.
"I can't allow you to kill a man right at my eyes, whatever this man believes in!"
"You are demon!" Ashinik shrieked, "Look, people, he knows that he can't kill me!"
The crowd clamored threateningly and rocked to the stage.
"Son of a bitch," Giles screeched, yanking a Kalet laser from under his armpit.
"Kill them," Ashinik screamed. "They can't harm you!"
People were pushing at the stage.
"One more step and we will shoot," Giles shouted.
"Stop!" Bemish cried out.
Strangely, the crowd stopped for a moment.
Bemish turned to the crowd spreading his palms — a local greeting gesture.
"What are you blaming me for?" he asked. "Not all the Earthmen, just me, you know, I can't be responsible for every conman born on the other side of the sky. What do you blame me personally for, Terence Bemish, the Assalah construction director?"
Jumbled shouts came out of the crowd.
"They beat the villagers… Walk around drunk… Took the land away… Make a lot of money…"
"Ah, make a lot of money!" Bemish shouted. "Why don't you make a lot of money? Have I offered you a job? I have! I have hundreds of jobs for you! Whose fault is it that you make less? Is it mine? Or is it those who don't allow you to work at the construction?"
The crowd was getting restless. It was evident that the idea about the sect being guilty of current problems had indeed popped in various minds, especially the young ones but nobody had said it aloud and it's as if an unsaid idea doesn't really exist.
"There is no order at the construction," a cry came out of the crowd.
Bemish raised his hand.
"You are right. I was not able to establish order at the construction."
And he turned to Ashinik.
"Will you be able to establish it?"
"The god is capable of everything and I am his servant here, in the village," Ashinik said.
"Excellent," Bemish said, "Your adherents are right. I can't maintain order at the construction. The sovereign, after all, can't maintain order in this whole country, who am I to maintain order in the spaceport? Scoundrels and cads trickled in to the construction and I can't figure out who the culprits are. So, I am asking you, Ashinik, to become my vice-president, fire everybody you would like to and hire everybody you would like to."
The zealot looked somewhat shocked.
"I can't serve demons," Ashinik said.
"In this case," Bemish said, "You will be responsible for the every binge, fight and depravity happening at the spaceport. Since, if you worked at the construction, you would be able to prevent this depravity. Why do you refuse to do good for the people? Can't you do this? Why then do you muddle people's minds calling yourself a man of power? Don't you want to do this? Why do you call yourself a pious man then?"
The grey crowd looking like a huge centipede with burning eyes made of the torches turned and moved and voices reached Bemish, standing on the stage.
"If Ashinik became a boss, everything would be really different."
Ashinik was silent. Bemish waited — what kind of man is he and what's stronger in him — the desire to hurt the people from the stars or the desire to help the peasants.
"You know my beliefs, Mr. Bemish," Ashinik uttered. "Do you think I will exchange them for your window they disburse money from?"
"I," Bemish said, "Believe in the freedom of conscience. The freedom of conscience is not, when you let your employees believe in what you like, it's when you let your employees believe what they want to. If you want to consider me a demon — go ahead. If you are afraid that a close encounter with me will weaken your beliefs, then they aren't worth much."
"All right," Ashinik said, "I accept your offer."
"You are nuts, Bemish," Giles said dismally.
Annoyed Kissur weighed the gun in his hand and threw it down the black Adera well.
"You are a fool, Terence," he said, "and all of you, Earthmen, are fools. It looks like your chicanery is of more use than your weapons."
The next day, the old bandit was taken to the capital in a truck. On its way, a crowd of peasant zealots stopped the truck, pulled the bandit out and dragged him to the village, somehow the bandit happened to be torn apart on the way.
Not informing local police, Bemish called special troops in masks but with an evident barbarian accent from the capital — mostly they were Kissur's ex-warriors — and they scoured the hired workers' barracks mercilessly fishing everybody suspicious out. They found about fifty such people, beat them senseless, deposited them in a net and attached the net to a freight helicopter. The helicopter made three triumphal circles above the spaceport and flew to the capital.
Afterwards Bemish let Ashinik and his zealots into the barracks. He gave full power to Ashinik and he proved to be right. The young fanatic was a great manager and his intelligence service seemed to know the background of each worker. They knew who in the barracks was a perspective zealot cowed by the bandits and the thieves, who was an honest worker away from all these catfights, who had robbed an Iniss bank last year and who had begged in Upper Kharaine. Ashinik just brought Bemish the lists of workers to be fired and Bemish initialed them without asking for any explanations that he wouldn't get anyway.
The same day, Shavash called Bemish and insistently demanded the arrest of all of the zealots. Bemish refused saying that they was necessary to exterminate the bandits. Shavash said that he would give Bemish two weeks to finish the bandits off and then Bemish should consecutively arrest all the zealots for abusing their authority, lynching and sadistic treatment of their subordinates. Actually, Shavash didn't suggest this plan out loud but rather pretended that it had been Bemish's plan from the very beginning. To destroy one infection using another one and then to write off all the depravities that had happened during the extermination of the former to the latter.
During that week, order and cleanliness came to rule the construction. Bemish didn't entertain any illusions about the methods the zealots used to attain this cleanliness — he saw how two janitors were whipping their colleague for a rug that he hadn't washed at his shift's end — they whipped him bloody with cries and brined whips.
For two weeks, Bemish wordlessly signed Ashinik's requests including a request for buying, at the company's expense, three hundred meters of white silk and three white geese even though Bemish was totally aware that white silk would be used for belts the zealots covered with spells and wore on their bodies and the three geese would be used for the divination about the demons' fate.
In the beginning of the third week, Bemish found his new human resources manager sitting and reading an acetylene welder construction and repair manual that a zealot, considering acetylene welding to be a phantom and illusion, was not supposed to do.
X X X
The next day, a highly placed committee from a Federation financial advisory body arrived. The committee was supposed to study Weian economics and collect data on the Galactic Bank target loan provided by the Federation. From Bemish's point of view, this endeavor was pointless since he hadn't seen a single target loan yet that was used for purposes other than the construction of suburban villas for the officials in charge of the credit distribution. The loans were humongous and the villas came out luxurious. And since the loans were guaranteed by the state, the Federation officials didn't give a damn what they were used for.
The committee landed in Assalah spaceport and expressed a desire to examine the finished buildings and also the construction's next stage, separated from the spaceport's operating part by steel mesh.
The committee was absolutely impressed with the order at the construction site. Parting with Bemish, the committee head, the Galactic Bank of Development Assistance vice-chairman, told him that he had a brilliant trade union leader.
"It's incredible! Terence, where have you found this treasure? Have you seen how the workers listen to him? They listen to him holding their breath as if he was a prophet, and he is not even twenty yet!"
The vice-president said that this guy should immediately get a scholarship and go to Havishem or Harvard and promised to write him a reference letter.
Upon the committee's departure, Ashinik asked Bemish why Shavash hadn't arrived with the Earthmen, since he had mostly been responsible for the distribution of the above mentioned loans. Bemish answered that Shavash had been busy. In fact, Shavash had called an hour before the flight and said that he would come on one condition only — if he could take back with him Ashinik's head in a sack. Shavash expressed himself exactly this way — "head."
"Do you know," Shavash asked, "That these Following the Way guys organized the last attempt at my assassination?"
"How would I know," Bemish snapped back, "If you hanged completely different people for it?"
X X X
The next day, Bemish saw the Okuri company stock price skyrocketing and it happened since Okuri perchance had secured from the sovereign the rights to develop copper deposits recently found in the Chakhar mountains. Bemish called Shavash to find out if Okuri had really gobbled this chunk or if somebody was spreading the rumors to pick some dough and to find out if there really was any copper ore in the Chakhar Mountains to begin with.
"I will exchange information about Okuri on Ashinik's balls," Shavash said.
"No," Bemish said.
"What's happened to you, Terence, have you fallen in love with him? I haven't noticed you leaning this way before."
"I am kidding. Since you love a different — woman," Shavash said heavily and with a hidden meaning. And he dropped the receiver.
This evening, when Ashinik was having a dinner in the common cafeteria, Bemish sat next to him. After tea, Bemish asked.
"Why does your sect dislike Shavash so much?"
"Shavash is a briber and a scoundrel."
"Ashinik, sonny, all Weian officials are bribers and scoundrels. You, however, dislike Shavash much more than, say, Khanida or Akhaggar — while they cause just as much harm."
"Khanida hasn't tried to destroy us."
"That's why. And has Shavash tried?"
"Yes. He filled our circle with spies and dissidents. He bribed those who were not firm in their convictions and they started preaching a lot of nonsense and many people let themselves be lured."
"What kind of nonsense did they preach?"
"He bribed Dakhak and Dakhak started saying that it's wrong to deny salvation to demons and that they would not be damned forever. And he bribed Amarn and Amarn started teaching…" Ashinik suddenly stopped. "Our teachings are none of your business," he finished.
Bemish couldn't conceal his smile.
"Are you sure that every zealot that doesn't believe the same things you do, is necessarily bribed or seduced?"
"These people were bribed by Shavash," Ashinik cut him off.
Bemish paused. Really, Ashinik's words could be true. Shavash himself told the Earthman that nothing was more efficient at killing the zealots than discords among the sects. And the whole thing just looked like Shavash's doing. Yes, this official stole, embezzled and it was not an accident that a joke about him traveled around — out of all gods Shavash envied ten handed Khagge the most — imagine how much you can steal with ten hands? At the same time, only Shavash among all the bribers surrounding him could be seriously concerned with the future danger of Following the Way.
Yes. It makes sense that Shavash tried to take care of the sect in a way that wouldn't cause an international scandal. It would be one thing to hang the zealots publicly pissing off all the human rights committees and another thing to make them throttle each other.
X X X
At the end of the third week, Bemish found Ashinik on the border of an unfinished sector. The lad was holding Bemish's gun that he had probably picked up in a drawer in the office and, having extracted the battery, was contemplating the "doughnut" thoughtfully. Ten meters away from Ashinik, a huge basalt rock arose; it had been left on the field since it was too heavy to transport. Now, a regular Atari could drag the rock away in two trips — it was cut in half and black basalt foam bubbled at the jagged wound's edges.
The light on the "doughnut" top blinked red — the battery was dead. When Bemish approached, the zealot threw the gun on the grass and asked.
"Why didn't Kissur shoot me?" Bemish rolled on his feet.
"I've already told you. I can't let a deliberate murder happen right in front of me even if the victim doesn't mind."
"I thought that this thing couldn't shoot me. At that moment, I thought that you didn't allow Kissur to show that I was right."
Bemish silently looked at the youth. It would be interesting to know how much time it took him to quarter the rock. Star's "doughnut" is specified for forty eight minutes of uninterrupted shooting.
"It's very difficult," Ashinik said, "when you had seen that something was black and then it appeared to be white."
"Have you really had visions, Ashinik?"
"I still have them."
"What are they about? Are they about Earthmen being demons?"
"Yes," Ashinik remarked, "Tell me, could a man be born out of a golden egg?"
"Read a biology textbook," Bemish dryly suggested.
X X X
The next day, Ashinik was managing the forest clearing in a new area and he fainted in the workers' view. He regained his senses in ten minutes and continued working even though Bemish told him on the radio to go and rest.
Ashinik felt fine for two days and he fainted again on the third one. Then, he told the workers that he would turn them into cockroaches if they told Bemish about the fits and Bemish didn't know anything till, in two weeks, Ashinik fainted at a morning business meeting.
He recovered quickly but Bemish, not letting him open his mouth, dragged him to the health services — to Isaak Malinovskii who was in charge of influenza, accidents and malaria at the construction and who also kept terrorizing Bemish with the possibility of a cholera epidemic.
Malinovskii took the youth's blood pressure, put him on the couch, wrapped him with wires and ran a tomography on him. Ashinik didn't resist. He didn't seem to care.
"What problems do you have?" Malinovskii finally asked, having covered the youth with a blanket and sitting next to him.
"Am I fine?"
"You have a bad case of nervous exhaustion. What happens to you before you faint?"
"I see different pictures. I was sitting, for example, at the today's meeting and then everybody around started growing horns and snouts and a wall tied around me and began choking me."
"Tell me, doctor, am I crazy?"
"Why are you asking this question?"
"I have visions. I read this thick book — a psychiatry textbook. It said that if a man saw what others didn't, it meant that something was wrong with his brains."
"If an Earthman came to me and told me what you had just described, I would definitely recommend him a psychiatrist. But the specific subculture you belong to is very different. For Following the Way a trance is normal and the ability to fall in a trance is one of the ways to prove your leadership skills. You are a very nervous and excitable man, Ashinik, but you are mentally normal. And I think that your visions will disappear soon because here, working for the company, you've found another way to be a leader.
Malinovskii attached a plastic drug vial to a syringe and said, "And now you need to sleep long and well."
When Ashinik woke up, it was already day time. The fiery snouts that had buzzed in his mind yesterday disappeared. He lay in a wide bed in a room with carved pink wood walls and a wide open window. A cardinal sat on the windowsill and studied him with eyes that looked like mercury droplets and far away, behind the bird's red feathers and bush greenery two hundred meters of Assalah spaceport control tower soared in the sky.
Ashinik realized that he had probably been moved to Terence Bemish's villa. He hadn't been to the villa yet because there was a lot of work at the spaceport and because Bemish either slept at the spaceport or flew to the capital on business.
Ashinik turned his head and saw a girl sitting next to him. The girl was dressed in a velvet jacket and a long bell shaped skirt sewn with flowers and grasses. A hazy silk belt tied with a five-petal knot fluttered behind her back like butterfly wings.
The girl smiled at Ashinik shyly and Ashinik suddenly smiled back. Something scurried between them — Ashinik imagined for a moment a furry little animal jumping out one smile into another.
"Mr. Bemish said that you should stay in bed and should not get up."
"Are you Bemish's concubine?" Ashinik asked. His voice suddenly acquired the cold confidence that he preached to hundreds of people with.
"I heard about you. You are Inis. How much did he pay for you?"
"He paid for me as much as they asked."
"Does he love you?"
"Mr. Bemish likes me quite a bit." Inis said.
"Why haven't I seen you at the construction?"
Inis smiled guiltily.
"Mr. Bemish really wanted me to be at the construction," Inis said.
"He taught me himself how to work with accounting software and make accounting reports. He made me his secretary. And then this crap happened…
I was once sitting in the office in the evening when three workers came in.
They were going to file a complaint about their manager but when they saw me sitting there alone, they assaulted me and… I was just able to call for help. After that, I asked Mr. Bemish to let me stay in the villa and he agreed."
Inis straightened up and added proudly.
"But I do a lot of stuff here. I check all the bills and last month I saved Mr. Bemish two hundred thousand when I noticed one local official running fake accounts through the company."
She sighed and added.
"We still had to give this official a fifty thousand bribe."
"What software do you use," Ashinik asked.
He had practically no experience with computers and, frankly, he was afraid of these scary answerers that Earthmen always carried with them like handkerchiefs and at every third word took them out of their pockets and spread open. Seeing them always reminded him one of the most popular sect myths — that demons took their souls out and put them in these organic silicon handkerchiefs or iron boxes and the demons' souls felt lonely and blinked on the monitors with multicolored lights.
Inis started saying something but Ashinik had drifted off. "The demon is not very jealous if he leaves his concubine alone with a young man," he thought.
X X X
Ashinik returned to the construction in three days and Bemish was very happy since it was quite difficult to manage things without him. Bemish happened to send Ashinik to villa several times for important papers or with some orders and Ashinik always drove there with a visible delight.
Soon Inis appeared in Bemish's office again as a secretary and Ashinik's frequent trips to the villa came to an end. Ashinik and Inis were quite a bit younger than Terence Bemish — she was seventeen, he was twenty — but Bemish just didn't notice how Inis' blushed when his young deputy entered the company director's office and how often Ashinik and Inis ate together in the company cafeteria or in one of the port's restaurants that had grown around like mushrooms.
Although, Terence Bemish declared at his first meeting with Inis some words about the freedom of will, in reality this freedom of will extended only as far as him making Inis his secretary — while Inis was a nice and kind girl, blindingly bright she was not. Bemish was quite happy when she handed him a clean shirt and socks in the morning, excellent coffee at noon and spent nights in his bed — when, of course, the Assalah company head was not having fun in a capital bordello or at a high rank official reception that would usually come to an end in the same bordello.
Bemish took as good care of her as he did of expensive house furniture but he knew that nothing better than a secretary could come out of Inis — a nice pleasant girl with a warm heart and, let's admit it, not a very smart head. And Terence Bemish assigned automatically any unintelligent person to a place at the very bottom of his rating list.
X X X
The next week, Trevis visited the construction. The meeting had been planned a while ago and had nothing to do with the zealots' affair but Trevis probably heard something during the flight. His first question upon arrival was,
"Terence, what's going on here? They say that you appointed some zealot to be your deputy?"
"Let me introduce Ashinik to you," Bemish said.
Ashinik bowed. Trevis stared at the youth.
"Do you consider me a demon?" Trevis inquired.
"I am not familiar with you," Ashinik answered seriously, "But what I've heard about you makes me think that a lot of people would call you a demon and you wouldn't take an offence at this name anyway."
Trevis laughed out.
"Well, even if you are a zealot, at least you are not crazy," he said.
X X X
On the eighteenth, Bemish spoke to the sovereign Varnazd. It happened the following way.
Bemish collected quite a number of papers requiring Shavash's signature and he arrived to the capital in person bringing the papers and gifts with him. He was told that Shavash was in the palace and he would be there till morning. Bemish went to the palace. He entered without an issue.
Umpteen pavilions and inner yards and the gardens breathing with freshness were so unexpectedly beautiful that Bemish, tired of the banging concrete blocks and of all the filth of his huge construction, forgot everything walking thoughtlessly amidst the dancing gods and pompously cackling peacocks. Suddenly somebody called him out of a carved gazebo.
Bemish turned around and came closer trying to recall where, out of all the endless receptions, he saw this young official with a nice and uncertain face and eyebrows pulling upwards like a sparrow's tail.
"Don't you recognize me?" the official asked smiling.
"Oh, my sovereign," Bemish exclaimed, going down on one knee, "How can one not recognize you?!"
The sovereign pointed Bemish to a woven chair deep in the gazebo. Bemish sat in the chair and pushed the paper folder behind his back.
"I wanted to ask you," the sovereign continued, "What is "unfathomable?"
"What?" Bemish was astounded. The sovereign picked a volume lying in front of him and read, stretching the vowels slightly.
Unfathomable sea, whose waves are years,
Ocean of time, whose waters of deep woe,
Are salted with the salt of human tears…
Bemish lowered his eyes looking at the front page — it was Percy Bysshe Shelley.
"Ah," Bemish said, "Unfathomable means bottomless. It's a poetic word. I don't think anybody would need it now."
"Yes," the sovereign nodded, "A lot of poetic words disappeared from your language. But numerous abbreviations appeared, didn't they?
"It's a pity," the sovereign said, "that they don't translate your old books. They translate dictionaries and manuals but not Shelley."
"Do you like Shelley?" Bemish asked with trepidation to maintain the conversation, even though the only Shelley he had read was a certain A.D. Shelley, one of the co-authors of a book Assembling Radiowave Beacons on Geostationary Orbits in Order to Correct the Spaceship's Trajectory in the Proximity of Planets."
"Yes," the sovereign said, "Reading him I understand that we and Earthmen are very much alike. Or we were alike. You know this representation of time that brings downfall to the best and the proudest, goes backwards…"
The sovereign paused.
"Were you looking for someone?" he said suddenly, nodding at the folder a corner of which was sticking out of the armchair.
"Yes, I was looking for Shavash. I need his signature."
"Maybe I could sign something here? I am sure you don't have anything… reprehensible."
Sovereign Varnazd smiled shyly saying these words and Bemish had an unpleasant feeling. What does he mean, "anything reprehensible?" Does he mean that Bemish is not a swindler? Or that all the filth doesn't touch the papers?
"So would you like me to sign anything?"
Bemish hesitated. On one side, two papers indeed required the sovereign's signature — he would have to wait three weeks to get it. On the other hand, what if Shavash gets displeased? He will think that Bemish crept into the garden, found the sovereign behind the Shavash's back, told him God knows what, left Shavash without rightly earned gifts and, to conclude, acted improperly.
Bemish raised his eyes. The Emperor suddenly smiled bitterly and spoke. "I am sorry. I know that my signature doesn't mean much but I often forget that it can also cause damage."
Oh, my God! — Bemish was astonished — he understands everything! But why…
"I would like to do something nice for you," the sovereign said.
"You… I have seen some of your paintings. May I see others?"
The sovereign smiled.
In five minutes, they passed through the sovereign's bedroom into a light room with eight corners. The guards gaped, if any Earthmen — Van Leyven or Nan — had found themselves in the guarded halls, at least, it had happened a long time ago.
Bemish wasn't mistaken — the sovereign's Varnazd drawings were wondrously good. He probably wasn't a genius painter, he likely followed one of the old masters — every single drawing was done in a traditional manner with light watercolors, slightly faded from the beginning, — and there was something sad and defenseless in all of them, something that resonated surprisingly well with the face of the sovereign of Great Light Country. "I wouldn't hire him even as a department head," Bemish thought.
Bemish stopped for a long while in front of a certain drawing. It depicted a view out of a window — probably a palace one, judging by a curled frame corner — a view of a winter garden. Huge wet snow sheets pushed dry flowers to the ground, four commoner gardeners looking like sparrows with ruffled feathers, were starting a fire in the middle of a large black clearing. A forlorn spear was poised behind the fire. It was clear that the painter felt bad for these people but he thought that he couldn't change anything. It was winter coming year after year. Unfathomable sea whose waves are years…
"Well," the sovereign Varnazd said, "Which one do you like the most?"
Bemish pointed at the drawing with the gardeners at the fire.
Bemish picked another one.
"You have an excellent taste," the sovereign said. "These are the best."
"Have you painted them a while ago?"
"Yes, it was seven years ago when I was a Khanalai's prisoner. These are my guards. Do you see the spear?"
Bemish paled. Yes, sovereign Varnazd was a Khanalai's prisoner seven years ago and not just a prisoner — Khanalai did everything but starved him, wiped his fingers at Varnazd's hair during his feasts, and just waited for the full victory to execute an unworthy emperor…
"It's possible that to draw well, you have to suffer. I had a reason then to pity myself."
"You seem not to pity yourself," Bemish dared. "You seem to pity the peasants that guard you."
They left the eight cornered room for a terrace. A light armchair with a golden head and spreading wings at the sides — it seemed to be flying — stood next to the balustrade and several foot stools stood next to it. The sovereign sat in the armchair and showed Bemish to a stool. They sat down, the sovereign paused and asked.
"They write in your newspapers that I should have a parliament elected and transfer the power to the people — that is, they say, the only way to manage corruption and power abuse. And my officials keep pointing out that the people are poor, lost and embittered and that there are a lot of underground sects in the country. If only rich are allowed to vote, a rebellion will fire up and if everybody is allowed to vote, crazy zealots will make one half of parliament and the officials bribed by the criminals — another half. They also say that an assembly can rule only during easy times, and one man should rule during uneasy times. It is in assemblies' nature to think slowly and in the uneasy times one has to make fast decisions and any slow decision in uneasy times will be a wrong one. What do you think?"
Bemish felt uncomfortable sitting on a gilded perch — he wasn't a parrot, was he? He stood and said.
"I think that one can always find a thousand reasons why democracy is not good. And I think that all these reasons are untrustworthy. I don't think that people are as stupid as unscrupulous politicians picture them and I bring you my apologies, sovereign, but I am sure that it is more difficult to fool a million of stupid commoners than one smart emperor."
"When I was Khanalai's prisoner, I thought a lot about it. I thought that my own errors caused the civil war and the worst of it was that it wasn't really my fault. It's just that if everything depends on one person, the officials around him want to solve all their problems by fooling this person and they, of course, succeed. And I decided that one man shouldn't rule the country because perfect sovereigns don't exist and only the sovereigns who consider themselves be perfect, exist."
"I apologize, sovereign, but it's not really evident that you have chosen this way."
"I was talked out of it," Varnazd said, "By the Earthmen — Nan and Van Leyven. They started arguing that an election would cause anarchy, that the people would consider it to be a shame and a concession to the Earthmen who forced their decisions on the freed emperor, that even Khanalai realized that the Empire of Great Light existence was based on worshipping God-king while an elected assembly would be despised, not respected. It may all be correct, but the real reason was that Nan and Van Leyven knew it would be easier for them to rule in my name than in an elected assembly's name. Yes, they talked me out of it."
"I don't think so," Bemish said. "You let yourself be persuaded. You had shrunk away from power when you hadn't had it, but when you got it back you didn't really want to refuse it."
Bemish expected anger or an emotionless "no" but the sovereign lowered his head suddenly and tears showed at his eyelashes.
"It's so strange," Varnazd said. "I told myself what you've just said many times. And now you told me the same words and I am ready to hate you for it."
And he flapped his sleeves.
"Where is it, my power? You are even afraid to get your papers signed, the same ones that Shavash will bring tomorrow for my signature! You are afraid that Shavash will suspect you conniving something and will not let you use the papers signed by me! And you and Shavash are friends!"
"Sovereign," Bemish said, "if you understand everything, why do you act this way? Why wouldn't you set an election day?"
"Do you know," Varnazd asked, "who will become the Empire's first minister after the election?"
Bemish shrugged his shoulders.
"Shavash! I don't believe that my people will elect a zealot or a fool! They will elect a smart man. Shavash will bribe everybody and everybody will like him, he will even find a path to the zealots' hearts using his spies — but while I am alive, Mr. Bemish, I will not allow Shavash to rule my people. We don't have a god similar to your Satan but believe me, if we did, Shavash would be his son."
Before leaving Bemish, the sovereign Varnazd suddenly brought his guest to a pavilion where the paintings drawn the previous centuries hung. The paintings covered the wall like a spotty carpet — like an iconostasis — small marble altars, braziers and gold basins with fresh pine branches floating in them, stood in front of the most beautiful paintings.
Bemish saw a girl and a dragon immediately — an altar stood in front of it — and Bemish thought worriedly whether the brazier smoke harmed the drawing or, to the contrary, protected it.
"I would like to give it to you," the emperor said. Bemish bowed.
"Your Eternity, I can't accept such a gift."
"But I would like you to!"
"A man was killed because of this painting. It will always remind me about his death."
"Who was he?"
"It was my headman, Adini. The man, who swapped the original and the copy, following Shavash's orders."
Bemish hesitated, considering whether he was going to say something that would be taken as an affront, and finished.
"I would prefer the gardeners around a fire."
The sovereign didn't give Bemish the gardeners, of course. Two days later, he however bestowed a watercolor to the Earthman that depicted mermaids, imps and people in a dancing frenzy around a fire soaring to the sky. The colors were painfully bright, the people's pupils narrowed from the blinding light and the fire itself was formed by a circle of the intertwined transparent snakelike demons. One of the guests whispered to Bemish with a smile that somewhere around fifth century, the god of wealth secret worships had been depicted in such a way.
Terence Bemish had an overcoat, that such gifts were supposed to be accepted in, put on his shoulders and he kneeled and kissed the emperor's hand and the golden brush attached to the roll's right corner.
The very fact, that the emperor bestowed one of his own paintings to a man from the stars, brought forth many rumors — Terence Bemish was the first man born on the sky that received such a gift. The whispers started that the foreigner would soon be offered a Chakhar governor or a minister of finance position but better informed people shook their heads and said that nobody would change a bill prohibiting people from the stars from taking Empyreal appointments — this bill had been designed specially to kick Nan out of the country.
X X X
The day that Bemish spent talking to sovereign Varnazd, his first deputy Ashinik spent at the new site A-33. The place was barely developed — a tractor path wove in the middle of it but it was enough to step ten meters away to see birds fluttering out of the grass and lizards presenting their green back to the sun on the spotty rocks. When lunch time came, the workers climbed in a jeep and drove to the cafeteria. Ashinik wanted to spend some time alone. He walked up a sunlit hillock, sat on the grass and uncovered a rug his lunch was wrapped in — two flatbread pieces with sheep cheese and butter.
Somebody settled down on the grass next to him. Ashinik turned around. Near him, a man sat in a rough hay overcoat and a yellow repairman belt — it was not a repairman, however, but a man named Yadan. Yadan was the very same zealot that had taught Ashinik and raised him to the third level. Yadan was not the head of the zealots, there was one man above him who was not supposed to be called by his name and whom everybody called White Elder. White Elder was not a nickname — it was a position. If the White Elder died, Yadan would become the White Elder. Yadan was the most uncompromising Earthmen's opponent in the sect and he was the second in its hierarchy.
"Good day, Ashinik."
"Good day, teacher. Why didn't you say that you wanted to see me? It's dangerous for you to come here. What if somebody identifies you?"
"Why is it dangerous? I thought that this is the safest place in the whole Empire for me. Isn't everybody working at the construction devoted to us?"
"What can you require from simple peasants, teacher? It's easy to tempt a man with a high salary and a thick bun and this demon Giles stuck his steel eyes everywhere and watches me all the time. All that he wants is to use me to catch a big fish that will feed demons' Intelligence and that Shavash will enjoy."
Ashinik was saying these words mechanically squeezing the unwrapped rag with a bun and cheese in his hand. He felt fear shoving its sticky fingers in his heart. What will Yadan ask from him? The teacher's voice didn't promise anything pleasant. He will be punished now… Why? What rules has Ashinik broken? He always followed all rituals and customs carefully. An evening hasn't passed yet without Ashinik calling the workers in for a brief prayer, a morning hasn't passed without him getting out of the bed and splashing his left shoulder with water… And still Ashinik's heart fluttered….
"You are afraid," Yagan said unexpectedly. "Why are you shaking, Ashinik?"
Ashinik was silent.
"Oh, I am sorry my lad, that I am asking such a stupid question," Yadan spoke suddenly. "It's difficult to live amidst demons and not be afraid, isn't it?"
"Yes, of course."
They were silent for a moment. Yadan, dry and rangy, stared at the uprooted patch and a covered with clay excavator immobilized at a huge foundation pit.
"I am hungry," Yadan spoke suddenly.
Ashinik hurriedly broke the bun in half.
"Hola, my lad!" the zealot said quietly. "Do you eat demons' food already?"
Ashinik looked at the bun in horror.
He picked up the snack at a road stand where a village matron was selling cheap Weian food. The bun was frankly of the simplest kind, the same one as women had baked here for the thousands of years and the cheese was homemade sharp goat cheese rolled in small white balls. But red hot sauce between cheese and onions — here Yadan was totally right — came not from the local places but out of an imported demons' can. Ashinik went cold. Even a month ago, he, Ashinik, would have noticed himself that it was demons' food and here he just bought the bun and wrapped it in the rug automatically. Gods, what's happening to him, Ashinik, that he doesn't notice so simple things? Or, is it all that important what can this sauce comes from?
Ashinik blushed furiously and threw the bun in the pit filled with water.
"How often do you eat their food?"
Ashinik kept guilty silence. Constantly having body cleanliness and the teacher's admonitions in mind, he mostly tried to avoid the Earthmen's dishes but it wasn't easy. The first time, he had to eat their food was at that bank committee reception. Ashinik was seated with the other people at a banquet table and, though Ashinik could handle hunger, he couldn't handle the understanding and relaxed look that Terence Bemish glanced at Ashinik's empty plate with.
Then — either a meeting after which Inis gets a pizza or working till late night and a hamburger — it's difficult to live with the demons and not eat their food. Forget about the food, it such a shame that Ashinik has a suit hanging in his closet — made out of the same demons' cloth that he frightened the believers with.
"Do you eat demons' food often?" Yadan repeated his question.
"I have to sometimes," Ashinik uttered.
"So, that's what is happening," Yadan grinned. "The gods addled the demons' minds and turned them into the gods' tool — did we suppose that the demons would handle their main construction over to us…"
And he stood suddenly.
"It's enough of demons' food for you; the time has come for you to eat food for your soul. Come to Inissa by the sixth, you know, where you should be."
He turned away and disappeared.
Ashinik sat unmoving for a while. He thought that everything could have been way worse. Yadan could order him to kill Bemish or to set a bomb off next to a passenger terminal. What would have Ashinik done then? He couldn't refuse…
Instead of this, they just called him to Inissa for an all-round sect meeting. What does it mean? Do they approve of his actions? Or are they going to bring him to a trial and the sixth will become his life's last day? Or he will be commanded to make up for his crime by killing the very same man that tempted him away from the true road — Terence Bemish?
Ashinik stood up abruptly. He suddenly felt how his body became sticky with sweat and he also felt horrible hunger pangs. Really, he hadn't eaten since five am. He would have happily picked up the bun if he had thrown it to the ground. Ashinik was a simple and resilient village lad and by the war's end, during the famine, he had to eat not just buns covered in mud but also live caterpillars. But he had thrown the bun away in the foundation pit, should he swim after it?
Ashinik slowly lumbered west where the spaceport's hangars and technical services started on the other side of the torn out fence's planks.
In five minutes, he entered the main building via an underground tunnel. Weian and English words blinked on a board, alien words hang in the air like flies and thousands of people scurried back and forth.
Ashinik spun his head around looking for the nearest Weian seller but, then, he turned sharply and approached a huge gleaming fast food stand covered with all kinds of hamburgers and bottles full of dyed water.
X X X
In half an hour, Ashinik ran right into Giles on the twelfth floor. Ashinik didn't like Giles. He knew that the latter was Shavash's close friend, and unlike Terence Bemish, who never grilled Ashinik about the sect or the reasons behind his orders, Giles constantly wondered about customs and meetings and more than once or twice he would start explaining pompously to Ashinik why, accordingly to Earth scientific laws, nothing could get born out of a golden egg.
"Hey, Ashinik, what do you need here?" Giles inquired.
"The report that I gave to Mr. Bemish yesterday," Ashinik answered. "I need to fix some stuff."
"Ah, hm-hm," the security chief said mysteriously. Here, the elevator doors opened finally, Giles jumped in and left.
Ashinik twitched his mouth and opened the door to Bemish's personal office. He told Giles the truth and nothing but the truth — he did need his yesterday's report. Leaving for the capital, Bemish said that he scribbled some remarks on it and Ashinik needed to fix the report accordingly to the remarks and hand it over to Bemish when the latter returned.
The report however was nowhere to be found. Ashinik cautiously searched the papers strewn across Terence's table and found nothing. Ashinik hesitated and, having approached a door at the far end of the office, he pushed it and entered.
It was Terence Bemish's personal residence. A forty square meters living room started right behind the office doors, its windows, made out of soundproof glass, faced the landing pads. A personal elevator could deliver the owner to the bedroom and the guests even higher, to the very tower top where a rocky garden with cactuses and agaves was set out. Other plants didn't take well to this height, either wind got in their way or it was the nonstop roaring of the ships taking off — there was no soundproof glass around the plants.
Going to his bedroom, Bemish generally used, instead of the elevator, a wide and beautiful staircase that started right in the living room.
The report was not in the living room either. Ashinik thought that Bemish had slept here yesterday and most probably he had left the report on a table in the bedroom. Bemish had left papers there before occasionally and he had sent Ashinik after them. Ashinik, after a brief hesitation, walked upstairs.
Semi-darkness and cleanliness ruled the bedroom and Ashinik noticed the blasted report at once — it lay under the bed, next to Bemish's slippers, and one could see how mercilessly it had been scribbled over even all the way from the door. Then, something moved to the side next to a mirror. Ashinik turned his head and saw Inis.
"What are you doing here?" Inis said.
"I came to get the report," Ashinik answered, bending and picking up the papers. "And you?"
"Don't you see? It's the new skirt!" Indeed, Inis stood next to the mirror twisting around to see her own profile and, instead of a somber business suit that she had had on in the morning, she was dressed in a wraparound skirt.
Ashinik, still holding the report in his hands, sat on the bed edge mechanically.
"Has Mr. Bemish bought it?"
"Silly! It's a surprise. It's a gift from Idari."
Inis picked the skirt edge with her fingertips and raised her hands and suddenly swirled across the room. Entranced Ashinik looked at her white legs.
He had never noticed before what Inis was dressed in. He had always undressed her in his thoughts.
"It's beautiful. Isn't it beautiful, really?"
"It's very beautiful," Ashinik whispered.
Inis laughed and ran to the door on her toes. Her hand groped for a switch. She turned the light off. However, it was still quite bright in the bedroom, thanks to wide windows going across the whole wall. The windows had no curtains — a layer of special compound inside them of them blocked incoming light either partially or completely. Now, the windows were working part way, softening blinding lights of the launching pads and, the lights' positions told Ashinik that a ship in K1 pad was going to take off any minute.
It should be howling outside by now, but the walls cut the sound off. "Imagine, Mr. Bemish would sit like this, and I would appear here,"
She swirled around the room and suddenly froze spreading the skirt at the lighted window background. At that moment, the yellow take off lights fired, the nose of a large freight Atlant shuddered and moved up, fire and smoke beams started under its exhausts, bulky like hippopotamus legs, the room was lit in a blinding blood red color and Ashinik saw Inis's black silhouette standing out on this blood red light background.
"Ouch," Inis cried out, stumbling for a moment.
She fell on the bed and Ashinik pressed her to himself at the same moment.
"Exactly," Inis spoke laughing, "Here, Mr. Bemish will embrace me like this… let me go…"
Not answering, Ashinik was kissing her.
"Let me go!"
Ashinik and Inis had kissed several times before that, but now Ashinik wasn't really controlling himself. He was madly frightened by the conversation with Yadan, the darkness and the faraway light bursts excited him and he was absolutely certain that Terence Bemish was in the capital, two hours away, and nobody would enter his bedroom.
"Inis, I am leaving soon. I can't leave without that." Ashinik whispered.
Inis was fighting him no more. The girl, having thrown her head backwards, let him kiss her and moaned slightly. Ashinik pulled her closer.
"Hold on," Inis suddenly said, "I will take the skirt off or you will tear it."
Ashinik relaxed his hands and looked at Inis unbuttoning her blouse and pulling the skirt over her head in a lithe feline movement. Then, her hands embraced the youth and before Ashinik figured out what's happening, the girl unbuckled his belt and her thin nimble fingers slid down to his male nature…
"Wow, what a python I have awakened," Inis whispered.
X X X
In half an hour, they were still lying completely naked in the Assalah company director's wide queen size bed and Inis was thoughtfully gliding her finger over Ashinik's flat boyish stomach. Going into the sky torches were still blazing up and fading behind the window. Ashinik extended his hand and having found the transparency regulator, made the window slightly darker.
"Where is the master sending you to?" Inis asked suddenly.
Ashinik didn't immediately figure out what she meant.
"It's not the master. It's… I just need to go back to my place."
They were silent. Ashinik felt a strange fury thinking that tomorrow night she would be lying with Bemish the same way and everything that she was able to do — and she was able to do a lot and she had demonstrated it to Ashinik — all of it she learned from the man from the stars.
"In the past," Insis said thoughtfully sorting Ashinik's hair, "they put adulterous concubines in sacks and threw them alive into a river."
"Terence Bemish will hardly through you into the river," Ashinik objected. "He is an Earthman."
"I wonder, what he would do to us," Inis pondered.
"He won't do anything to us if we tell him nothing."
"The workday is finished. Stay here," Inis suggested. "The master is in the capital anyway and he won't return before the morning."
"I still need to fix the report," Ashinik said.
"You can fix it in the morning."
And Ashinik stayed.
Bemish indeed returned only the next day and not even in the morning, but in the afternoon. Ashinik had managed to fix the report but Bemish didn't even look at it. He called a meeting and demanded that work on the fifteenth launch pad be temporarily frozen and all freed workforce to be used at the new storage construction. Ashinik sat at the meeting not raising his eyes. A full bookshelf hung behind Bemish's back and Ashinik remembered that a Lassal's demolition manual was on the shelf. Ashinik needed this book but he was afraid to take it out that morning because it seemed to him that the security head Giles had indeed seen old Yadan and if Ashinik started reading demolition manuals after Yadan's visit, then Giles would place surveillance bugs even in Ashinik's pants.
"Ashinik, do you understand what you need to do?"
Ashinik raised his head bewildered. Bemish was telling him something, but he missed it all. Ashinik nodded and only then he noticed the company director's swollen cheeks and dark circles under his eyes — he had probably had a lot of fun yesterday.
Yikes, bordellos — demons' pastime where corrupted officials put Weian girls in the demons' beds…
"Yes, I got it."
"Ashinik, what's wrong with you? Are you sick?"
"I am all right. I'll go…"
"You will go and lie still in my bedroom. Do you understand?"
Bemish embraced the lad with one hand and flung the door to the inner living room with the other. Out of the wide open office door, Inis caught embarrassed Ashinik's glance and smiled at him slightly.
X X X
Of course, when in two hours, Bemish walked upstairs to the bedroom, he found Ashinik not lying in bed but, to the contrary, sitting hunched on the floor and reading a book. Bemish approached him and looked over his shoulder. The lad shuddered. The book was a Lassal's demolition manual.
"It's an old manual," Bemish said. "Let's go — I'll try to find a better book."
They walked to Bemish's office and the construction director having rummaged around in the books, dug out a fundamental and intelligible Feinstein's textbook.
"Here it is," Bemish said.
Ashinik held the book tightly like a shepherd would hold a sick lamb, hunched and walked to the door. Bemish watched him carefully. It seemed that Ashinik was expecting a question — why would he need a demolition manual, though why would a manager at the construction that uses up three kilos of TNT equivalent a week — not read this manual."
Ashinik pushed the door open.
"Hold on," Bemish said, "I need to talk to you."
Ashinik returned and sat down obediently. "Giles spied on me and Inis," a thought glanced in his mind. "Or he spied on Yadan. Great gods, let this conversation be about Yadan!"
"Is it very difficult for you?" Bemish asked.
"Why should it be difficult for me?" Ashinik responded in a dull voice.
"Because you became my deputy to establish order in the company but you could do it only as the head of the sect that considers the construction to be demons' business. So, you could be my deputy only being the sect's head and you can be the sect's head only not being my deputy."'
"I will manage, Ashinik said.
He was still looking down hunching.
"You almost fainted two hours ago."
"What do you want?"
"You could leave," Bemish said. "They send many people to study overseas. It's not right that you work fourteen hours and then sit reading books."
"He is throwing me out!" a thought lit in Ashinik's mind. "He used me to establish order at the construction and now he is throwing me out at Shavash's order!"
"May I go to Inissa for a week?" Ashinik asked.
"You don't have folks in Inissa, do you? Are you going to a sect's meeting?"
Ashinik was silent.
"Of course, you can go, Ashinik," Bemish said.
X X X
Ashinik had barely stepped out of the office, when Giles took his place. Strangely, Bemish and spy became good friends. The reason was that Giles demonstrated good businessman qualities — he scurried around all the country, looked for the best agreements, contrived, plotted, gave bribes and pushed himself to the limit for the company. He, also, appeared to be an amiable companion. He often slept over at the villa where he, like most Earthmen employees, had his own room; he was a charming talker and got along well with Inis. He never talked to Bemish about the good of the Federation, having figured out that a businessman and a spy had absolutely opposite views to what was the good of the Federation.
"What happened," Bemish inquired.
Giles threw a picture on the table.
"Do you know this guy?"
Bemish looked at the picture for a while. The guy on the photo sat near a fire in ragged local clothing with his feet under him cramming gruel.
"Beats me… Maybe I've seen him somewhere at the construction…"
"You haven't seen him at the construction. You have seen him at your villa with Kissur's brother, Ashidan." Bemish shuddered. Of course!
""Damn it! Does he work at the construction?"
"He worked here till yesterday."
"And what happened yesterday?"
"Yesterday, one of my people found out that somebody was trying to crack the security software at five in the morning and at five in the morning this guy was cleaning his room."
"Somebody was able to warn the guy. He took off."
"I will ask Ashinik…"
"Nobody besides Ashinik's people could've warned him. It's a funny combination — Following the Way sect and an anarcho-syndicalist demon, isn't
"It's totally unbelievable."
"There is something even more unbelievable — the guy came here from one of Kissur's manors. And his reference letter was signed by Kissur. You know — that he was a diligent worker and gathered hay just great…By the way, he is an old acquaintance of Kissur's."
"What exactly was he ferreting out?"
"Oh, his interests were all-inclusive. Mostly, however, he was interested in certain trading operations of Weian New Age fund. For instance, he was interested in the situation when several hours before an announcement about transnational Metal Uranium buying a totally non-liquid uranium mine came out, you had bought two hundred thirty million worth of this mine's shares. And you sold them in two days at three billion. Oh, there is another strikingly interesting accident — Shavash's friend Igon who was in charge of the country's international loans, claimed that Weia was considering postponing paying off the interest on the international loan known as Iron Bonds. Since, say, some bearer's bonds had been stolen at
Lamass bank robbery and they needed to find out how the current bonds' owners had acquired them. The securities' rating collapsed almost by a factor of two and in a day Shavash threw Igon out with a scandal, published a denouncement and paid the interest off right on time so that practically in a week the rating was back to normal. Remarkably, you bought forty million worth of these securities right after Igon's announcement and sold them in a week at, correspondingly, eighty million. You were also reckless enough to transfer, at the same time, quite a significant amount of money to Shavash's and Igon's accounts."
"Has the anarchist dug it out or has it been your work?" Bemish inquired.
"It was the anarchist. He spent a month in your computer and then he tried hacking into our systems and he was uncovered. He was also likely to find out a lot of interesting stuff about the spaceport."
Bemish was silent. The guy could surely learn a lot of interesting stuff about the spaceport. Bemish clenched his teeth sometimes realizing what was happening at the spaceport. The "fan" approach to the formation of export-import companies that existed for two months only, till the deadline for the first tax declaration, was the most innocent trick out of what was happening.
But there was nothing else to do — so many gifts were required, so many unofficial expenses were needed on the top of official ones, and Bemish sadly realized that the larger was the embezzlement scale, the safer the embezzlement was.
X X X
The next day, the security department crew got together in Bemish's office again.
The size of the damage caused by the anarchist was quite large; Bemish's calls had most probably been tapped. Certainly, the anarchist had had access to the Assalah director's personal computer and therefore to the files dealing with the funds' operations.
"Frankly," Giles admitted after the conversation had been finished, "The theft itself bothers me less than the guy's contacts with Kissur. He is such an unpredictable man! He patronizes us and at the same time he patronizes the guy who would smear a launching chute with plastic explosives without any guilt whatsoever!"
"Would you like, Giles, to prevent Kissur from hanging out together with terrorists?"
"He applied to the military academy, didn't he? Accept him."
"Firstly, this man started his acquaintance with our equipment kidnapping a military airplane that he immediately put to its intended use. Secondly, Kissur is a savage. He should learn algebra first."
"Come on, you are not going to make a rocket battle cruiser commander out of him. Eight years ago this man was an excellent war leader. War and freedom were the same for him because freedom was for him the right to kill. And when the sovereign asked him to eradicate separatists three years ago, he and his people appeared to manage rocket launchers pretty well."
"Are you asking this on your own volition," Giles inquired, "or has Kissur asked you?"
"I am asking this on my own. Kissur will die first before he asks Earthmen for anything. But I know, Giles, that he is capable of God knows what if he is not busy with something useful. He is not going to take bribes, he can't be a sovereign's lapdog, the only thing he can do is to fight. Earthmen came and destroyed his old war. He applied to the academy but they didn't let him into the new war. How can a man, who won more battles that our generals conducted maneuvers, take it?"
"The new war is not what Kissur thinks it is."
"That's exactly why it would be useful for Kissur make a closer acquaintance with it."
X X X
In two days, Shavash finally appeared at the spaceport. It was an official visit — Shavash accompanied a Joined Economics Assembly committee — and they were in public during the entire visit. At the second chute, Shavash leaned to the company director's ear and asked quietly,
"Where is your deputy, Ashinik, by the way?"
"He took a one week vacation," Bemish said.
"Ah, he took a vacation… You know something akin to a Following the Way meeting started in Inissa, in Gaddar. They are having a celebration of somebody's "resurrection" and working meetings of the circles' heads.
"Well?" Bemish said.
"These people are very dangerous," Shavash shook his head. "We have to smile and tell the world community that the people who consider Earthmen to be demons are no more important than the people on Earth who spend their time in mental institutions and claim themselves to be Napoleons — but I warn you, Terence, that even you don't know how dangerous they are."
"What are you whispering about?" a committee member asked.
Bemish turned to his countryman and said that they were whispering about local Dahan factory that supplied the construction with titanium supports and started explaining the problems they had with supplies.
The Tenth Chapter
Where Terence Bemish becomes familiar with provincial life of the Empire while Mr. Shavash offers an original plan for the restructuring of the state debt.
Giles returned from Earth in three days and he brought a bulky bundle of papers sealed with vacuum tape — for authorized personnel only. Giles handed the bundle to Bemish and locked the door, and Bemish mounted his legs on the table and engrossed himself in the papers.
In an hour, having looked through the documents, Bemish said,
"That's great but have you talked to your bosses about my request?"
"What request do you mean?"
"I mean Kissur and the military academy."
"Yes. They are against it."
"Terence, tell me, have you told Kissur what we are building here?"
"How does it matter?"
"It matters because five years ago, after Kissur had escaped from Earth, he found himself in a Gera training camp. It was there that he learned how to handle rocket launchers and all the other modern killing machinery that he manages now so well."
"Is that all?"
"No, it's not all. Haven't you forgotten the guy who came to the construction with Kissur's reference letter and hacked your computer?"
"It was not Kissur's reference letter. It was a reference letter from one of his bailiffs. These letters cost ten "pinkies" a piece on the local black market. Would you like me to get a dozen for you by tomorrow?"
"A month ago Kissur flew to Cassandra. He met an old acquaintance of his there — this guy."
And Giles fished a photo out of his pocket and put it down in front of Bemish.
"This man, by the way, led at some point anarcho-terrorist group ABC. He has on his account…"
"I am not interested in his account," Bemish cut off the spy.
"Really? Shavash was quite interested."
"I would recommend to you not to discuss these matters with Shavash — you and Shavash have different goals."
"What do you mean?"
"You want to figure out whether or not Kissur is connected to terrorists and Shavash wants to prove that he is connected to them. Of course, he will proove it."
"Will his conclusion be purely arbitrary?"
"Kissur is a thousand and one adventures. If a house next to him is on fire, he will run in and save a child. If a house is not on fire, he may start one. Of course, a terrorist visited Kissur. Kissur is too colorful a figure not to be visited. So what? I didn't see Shavash right when you were asking him this question but I could swear that he was dying of laughter. If he had answered you honestly, he would have said on the spot that a man who dared to compare the sovereign Irshahchan with this wasted Earthman Marx — this man was risking taking a bath in a swimming pool right there. But Shavash didn't say that because Shavash hates Kissur. You dished an idea out to Shavash — he will find the proofs. He will find terrorists' liaisons to Kissur and he will train them what they should say. Kissur is an unpredictable man but Shavash can predict even him. If a man approaches Kissur and says, "Let's bomb this bank for a glorious future's sake," Kissur will throw him out of a window. While a man instructed by Shavash will approach Kissur and say,
"Why don't we bomb this bank and feed these bribers with a dish they deserved?"
"What a wonderful idea!" Kissur will exclaim. It will enable Shavash to annihilate Kissur even though it would be proper to jail Shavash and not Kissur for the bank robbery."
"I thought the same, Terence," he said. "I started shouting that it was all crap… To make the long story short, they introduced me to an investigator. Kissur traffics in drugs."
"Kissur sells drugs. They grow a lot of wolf's wisk on his lands in Upper Warnaraine. It happens with a full blessing of the landowner. I am very sorry Terence but we can't accept to the military academy one of Weian drug mafia bosses."
And the spy left the office, having carefully closed the door behind him.
In about five minutes, Ashinik walked into the office with a bunch of printouts.
"What's wrong with you, master? Are you crying?"
Bemish was not responding.
"Are you ok? Should I call a doctor?"
X X X
In three days, Kissur with Khanadar the Dried Date, Aldon the Lynx Cub and a couple of dogs dropped by Bemish and all five of them left for a horse ride.
The field they were riding over was already covered with concrete blocks. Tree stumps stuck out far away on a knoll like teeth leftovers in an old man's mouth and a cheerful red tractor was pulling them out of earth amidst din and screech.
The new road ended unnoticed — the riders raced down an old Empire track with yellowish stone ruts, wide palm trees and narrow pyramids of poplars planted along the road accordingly to the ancient laws… Green knolls and rice paddies covered with water flashed far away. Bemish spun his head excitedly — the beauty around seemed to be like a photo.
A squirrel sat on a poplar branch and ate a nut. Amusing himself, Khanadar the Dried Date shot at the nut and knocked it out of the squirrel's paws; it whisked up the tree in horror.
"Hunting used to be good here," Khanadar told Bemish. "And now the only big game here is your bulldozers."
"Hey," Kissur said, "Why don't we go to Black Nest? Hunting is great there."
"Why don't we go there right now?"
"That's a great idea," Kissur said. "Let's ride!"
Khanadar laughed uproariously.
And they raced. Bemish felt as good as he had never felt in his life. He wanted to cancel all the meetings in the world, he didn't give a damn about the spaceport and the investment funds — he just wanted to ride down this road where his car would get stuck and his bulldozer would just tear up.
By the evening, Kissur pointed at an altar house overgrown with burdocks and inquired,
"Will we sleep over here or in the field?"
Bemish came to his senses.
"Kissur," he said, "I have a business meeting tomorrow at eight in the morning. Will we be able to return before sunrise?"
Khanadar almost fell off the saddle laughing.
"Terence," he said, "Black Nest is Kissur's clan castle in Mountain Warnaraine. Old Elda lives there and Ashidan arrived there a week ago."
"Hold on," Bemish said. "It's fifteen hundred kilometers!"
"It's sixteen hundred thirty, if I haven't forgotten your damned units," Khanadar chortled. Bemish turned his horse back.
"I am sorry gentlemen," he spoke, "but I don't have time for a ten day ride next to good highways."
"Hey," Kissur said, "you can't go back on your word! You promised me a hunt in Black Nest!"
"I didn't promise to ride a horse there," Bemish stormed.
"One can't," Khanadar said, "reach a real castle by a car. One has to ride to the real castle for five days and five nights. And the Earthman's butt is already sore."
The comment was unfair. It was especially unfair since Bemish had been riding a horse around the construction in the morning for the last two months, having admitted the advantage a horse had over a heavy-assed jeep and a fleeting flyer. So, Bemish became quite a decent horse rider though he was not in the same league with the barbarians whose fathers had put them on horses before their mothers started teaching them to walk.
"All right," Kissur said, "You can go back but I will be waiting for you in Black Nest on the twenty third."
"What do you mean twenty third? Are you going to ride your horse to the castle in five days?"
"Seven years ago," Khanadar said, "I made this trip in five days and I had two hundred shield and spear horsemen with me and we had a skirmish every day."
"All right," Bemish said," I will take a car and drive to your Nest, whether it's black or white, and I am sure that I will get there before you."
X X X
The guests came in the next morning — the Federation envoy, Mr. Liddell, Shavash and his direct boss, the finance minister Sarjik. The finance minister was in really bad shape — his bald head shook and his watery eyes kept running. Shavash extracted this man from somewhere in Chakhar province where he had been sitting since sovereign Neevik's times. Accordingly to the non-confirmed rumors, the finance minister didn't have credit cards and, seeing other people using them, he would shake his head, "Nothing good will come out of it I assure you! Say, Shakunik Bank had also issued private money and then the bank was confiscated and the money was lost! What if the Federation government runs out of money and confiscates your bank?" The old minister firmly grasped in his youth the following rule
— the richer is an entrepreneur, the more the state covers his riches — and he couldn't change himself.
They abandoned the minister in a room and Shavash drove examining the construction.
"Where is Kissur," he asked. "And why are you so disheveled?"
"Kissur," Bemish said, "rode to Black Nest with his friends, on a horse back."
"And what's happened to you?"
"And I rode back all night. There was not a single phone in the villages around and I was dumb enough not take a satellite phone with me."
Bemish was exhausted, since he rode slowly, afraid of tiring the horse out, and he couldn't sleep in saddle and he wasn't going to learn this skill.
"I see," Shavash said, "Khanadar the Dried Date is going to ride down the glorious battles' path. These people live in the previous century."
In the end, Bemish asked, where the story of Kissur trafficking in drugs came from, but smiling Shavash claimed his total ignorance.
X X X
Upon serious consideration, Bemish decided to drive and he was very proud that he would see the Country of Great Light not through an airplane window but through a windshield.
He chose an old 4WD jeep with large wheels and he put in the trunk the second spare tire, high hunting boots, a whole battery of drinking water bottles and several tinned food cans. He welded steel supports to the rack and fastened a light motorcycle to them. Bemish remembered how Khanadar had smiled saying that it was impossible to reach Black Nest by a car and one had to ride there on a horse. Knowing Khanadar, he suspected that he had been a butt of a dirty joke and a car road to the castle existed only on the map.
Bemish was driving out of the Empire's center to its barbarian outskirts and it seemed that every kilometer, put between him and the capital, was transposing him backwards in time. Cute manors with satellite dishes disappeared first, foreign goods on the road stands disappeared next, factory-made shirts on people around him disappeared last. A different landscape stretched around him — rice paddies covered with water, clay villages where dogs barked and drums boomed in precincts and where peasants in hemp pants sang thousand-year-old songs while collecting the harvest, and only a perfect highway, like a bridge spanning over time for a curious observer, connected a sprightly rolling jeep with the faraway world of glass and steel.
In thousand kilometers the road finally ended — the jeep started hopping down a rocky mountain path — the highest achievement of the construction methods in sovereign Irshahchan's times. The animals became more audacious and began crossing the road. Occasional people, however, dashed away from a weird cart into the woods. Rice paddies disappeared; the few villages existing in these mountains still lived by hunting and gathering and by robbing occasional travelers.
In the second day's evening, Bemish saw five familiar horses at a roadside tavern and stopped there.
Kissur and his companions were sitting at a plank table and gobbling up a wild boar. Bemish joined them.
"I'll leave you behind," Bemish said.
"Hmm," Kissur said, "By the way, I could order to puncture your tires." Bemish bantered back, "And I can sue you."
Kissur was chewing greedily on the boar.
"This is my land. I am the master of taxes and jurisdiction here. So, if you sue me, I may as well sentence you to hanging for perjury."
"Do you judge this way often?"
"Never," Kissur said. "If you sentence a man to death, his relatives will start hunting you in a vendetta. Who will avenge you?"
"Nobody will avenge an Earthman," Khanadar the Dried Date agreed. "Earthmen think that their government should avenge them. Soon, their government will sleep with their women for them."
Bemish was assigned the best den in the tavern and Kissur sent him a girl. The girl had been washed and she was quite cute. She stood shyly tugging at a mat with her bare toes. Bemish seated the girl on his knees and started fingering her necklace. There were numerous coins on the necklace — several heavy silver asymmetric coins with a hole inside and a partially rubbed off Gold Sovereign's seal, a dozen of dimes and quarters, a Swiss frank and even as far as Bemish could decipher German, one Cologne subway nickel token.
Bemish pushed the girl off his knees, dug in his wallet and spilled all the change on his hand. He found there a dime that had spent a long time in the wallet, showed it to the girl and tapped with his finger a silver "unicorn" the size of a chicken egg, square shaped and with a round hole in the middle and an encryption glorifying sovereign Meenun on the girl's necklace.
"Let's exchange," he said.
The girl's eyes blossomed with joy. She quickly started pulling the necklace off her neck. Bemish grabbed her hand.
"Listen, stupid," he said. "If you take this dime and one more and a hundred more and a thousand more and fill this coffer in the corner with all these dimes, the whole coffer will be worth less than this silver coin. Got it?"
The girl nodded.
"And now get out," Bemish said. The girl's eyes saddened.
"Won't we exchange?" she asked looking at the dime with an unconcealed longing. Bemish gave her the dime and kicked her out.
When Bemish woke up next morning, Kissur and his retinue were no longer there, they had ridden away at the crack of dawn.
"Will I catch up with them soon?" Bemish asked the hostess.
"No," the hostess said, "You need to take a detour via the White Pass and they rode straight. You will reach the castle by the evening."
"And what will happen to them?"
"Hmm," the woman hesitated, "If snow melts a bit in the daytime and an avalanche comes down, you, of course, will get their first but if no avalanche happens they, of course, will get there before you."
"Is the straight path hard?"
"I don't know. Since old Shun broke his neck there ten years ago, nobody has taken it."
The mountain road winded like a pumpkin vine. Heavy rain shredded with snow started suddenly. The wipers were not able to handle it. Bemish was horrified for Kissur — he was not old Shun, of course, but he still could break his neck.
This mountainous area was wild to the utmost. Trade had flourished in the coastal regions and three dozens years ago local cities such as Lamass or Kudum could brag about their good communities and abundant traders. The civil war in the Empire turned everything around — the castles' inhabitants straightened up, the traders' sons left for the castles' regiments and their daughters became concubines. The demand for warlike Alom nobility was such that an average knight could rob more in two month in the Empire than an average trader could make in two years. By the war's end, trading paid off so little that Lamass traders became extinct and it was the land of bandits and robbers that welcomed the people from the stars.
The hands of the Empire could barely reach this strange region; formally a castle owner was responsible for upholding order in the local lands but he usually happened to be the biggest bandit. Nobody even considered mine development here because horsemen with rocket launchers under their armpits invariably approached mine engineers to demand a tribute.
No passerby was safe here. The most disgusting accident happened three years ago when a World Bank vice president, an amateur mountaineer, and two friends of his decided, damn it, to conquer a local mountain Aych-Akhal.
While approaching the peak, he was taken prisoner by a local pedigreed bandit and escorted to his castle. Next day the bank received a fax with a picture of the vice president sitting chained in a real underground pit and a one trillion dinars ransom demand. The World Bank stock capital was five trillion dinars.
The media howled.
The Galaxy demanded the Empire to take decisive actions. The Galaxy demanded to locate the castle the prisoner was in. "Whatever," the Empire envoy shrugged his shoulders, "Whoever caught him keeps him." The Galaxy demanded the decisive actions to be taken at this region.
The castle owner announced that if anybody resorts to decisive actions, the prisoner would have his throat cut. Kissur helped the World Bank out. He flew to his castle immediately and called the local lords in for a feast and counsel. They arrived. Kissur imperturbably arrested the three dozens guests that came to visit him and announced that he would shoot all these folks if the vice president was not released.
The landowner who took the vice president prisoner was not present among Kissur's guests. However, his brother and his father-in-law were there. The same night, the vice president was released without any ransom. Afterwards, Kissur didn't even bother meeting the man he had saved.
By the evening, Bemish reached the main and the only one street in Black Village; faraway on the mountain amidst the clouds, the castle and its wall, jagged like an EEG, showed up for a moment.
Right at this moment, a goose appeared on the wet road.
Bemish expected the goose to move aside and let the car pass since, in the Earthman's opinion, roads were created for cars not geese. In the goose's opinion however, roads were created for geese and accordingly to his views the goose stared at the car with curiosity and then turned its back to it and lowered its head.
They explained to Bemish afterwards that he should have lowered speed and driven over the goose and the goose would have been unharmed and the car would have been fine. But Bemish wasn't familiar with local geese' customs.
He turned the steering wheel to the right and floored the brake. The car spun like a feather. Bemish flew into boysenberry bushes that the locals used for fences and he almost split his head apart over the steering wheel. The car shuddered and froze. Bemish slammed the door and stepped out to take a look. The front wheels sat deep in the rut and one of them fell off. Bemish looked around. The gosling, glancing sideways, desperately ran away from the road. "Son of a bitch!" Bemish said loudly.
It was getting dark quickly. There was no way to fix the car. A dog behind the boysenberry fence tried to compensate for a lacking fire alarm. More and more dogs were joining it. As for the people — the village seemed to be dead.
"Hei," Bemish shouted, "is anybody there?"
He had to shout for a while. Finally a house door opened and somebody asked from a doorstep,
"What's this shouting in the dark?"
Something was gleaming behind the door but Bemish was not able to see the man.
"Do you have a phone?" Bemish asked.
"I don't have a phone. I have a fan laser," the answer was.
Bemish bared his teeth.
"I have a fan laser myself."
The guy shut the door. Bemish kicked the car thoughtfully. He threw the fan emitter on his left shoulder, a daypack on his right shoulder and took the small bike off the rack. "Fan laser," he thought, thinking about the gleam in the opened door, "No way, it's a fan laser, damn it — it's at least a plasma rocket launcher."
X X X
The guards let Bemish into the castle without any surprise; bike or no bike — who can understand these Earthmen? "Yes," Bemish thought, "people here are very different from the plains' dwellers, they hugged their swords in silence for a thousand years and now they silently hug their rocket launchers, every trial verdict starts a vendetta here…"
It was slippery and wet in the castle yard, like in a defrosted refrigerator. Kissur hadn't arrived yet. Old Elda was napping in an armchair in the upper hall. She looked at the nervous Earthman as she would look at a frog and said that the Earthman's iron cart would fall apart on the Earthmen's roads smooth like a eunuch's cheek before her son falls from a steep slope in the local mountains.
Bemish took off together with his nerves.
The young castle owner Ashidan, a Cambridge student, was passed out in the main hall having dropped his golden curls into a plate with leftovers. A bull mask with torches in place of horns bared its teeth above him and something smoldering in the fireplace under the mask produced a horrible smell; at a closer view it, appeared to be a hand phone remnants.
"What is it?" Bemish asked the majordomo.
"Lady Elda," he answered, "said that she didn't want any witchcraft objects in her house. She just found it in the morning having gone over the rooms."
Bemish looked Ashidan over more carefully. He slept shuddering nervously and he didn't appear to Bemish to be drunk.
"Aren't there any communication devices in the castle?"
"Oh," the servant said, "what communication are you talking about?! Look — even the cloth is homespun. She would burn anything else." And he pointed at his dress. Bemish felt his sleeve — it really was burlap. He hadn't understood that at first and thought in surprise that the servant had a very luxurious jacket — thick knotted cloth like this was fashionable this year.
Bemish didn't sleep at night and tossed; old pines squeaked behind a narrow window, designed to shoot out from not to look out of, and their squeaking branches made sounds like a hanged man's rope. Bemish pulled an antenna out of a small radio and started listening. Suddenly while he was searching for a station, he heard his name and a long string of words spitted out in Alom — Bemish didn't make them out through the noise. Bemish turned the dial again but the conversation had ended. "Hmm," Bemish thought, "Somebody in this castle hid a transmitter away from old Elda."
X X X
In the morning Bemish left for the village. He didn't really want to complain to old Elda that his iron cart fell apart on the road that even a ram would pass through in a snowstorm and he was also sure that the castle inhabitants knew as much about cars as he knew about divination on oil. Bemish walked down a fresh road passing boysenberry fences and curious chicken, thinking about this strange area where a phone in a house was a luxury and an assault rifle was a necessary tool.
He reached the car and stopped in surprise.
The car stood at the same place and the busted wheel still hunched in the rut. The other three wheels had disappeared in an unknown direction — the lonesome car sank on its axles. The wipers were gone off the windshield and the windshield was also gone. Bemish's eyes traveled into the car — radio, head supports, rugs, handles and all five windows beside the windshield had carefully packed up and left. An untouched first aid kit sat in the back seat.
Bemish walked around the car and opened the trunk. There was nothing inside except for a pair of old worn out bark sandals. Bemish was surprised at first because he didn't have a habit of wearing bark sandals but then he realized that the thief probably put Bemish's leather boots on and left the bark sandals there. With gloomy anticipation, Bemish raised the hood and gazed at the engine. Bemish was quite familiar with the car's design. He immediately realized that the night thieves were much more familiar with this design.
Bemish looked around — geese and turkey with red snot surrounded him and the same rocket launcher old guy was digging cabbage in his garden. He didn't have the rocket launcher next to him, probably thanks to the daylight.
"Hey," Bemish said.
The old guy turned around. He wore a shirt that used to be white in its youth and the pants that nobody would be able to say anything about.
"Come here," Bemish said. The old guy approached. Further into the garden, his son hoed the ground mechanically without looking around. Bemish waved the bark sandals and extended them over the fence.
"Do you know," Bemish said, "Who owns these?"
The old man took the sandals and fished out a ten dinar note that Bemish had pushed down the toe earlier. He rolled the note and stuck it behind his ear and handed the sandals back to Bemish.
"I don't know," he said.
Bemish lost his speech.
He looked at himself suddenly with the peasant's eyes. He looked at a well dressed alien coming out of the world that all the people, who worked well and obeyed the authorities, would go to after death — and he looked at this half bare destitute village where no phones existed but news about a car that could be stripped spread quickly without the phone, where no toilets existed but mortars were available, and everybody knew everything but would say nothing about his neighbors — and he realized with utter clarity that even if the night adepts had stripped the car in the view of the whole village and it probably had happened this way, not all the police in the world would be able to find out who had done this.
Wheels rustled on the road.
"What's the problem?"
Bemish turned around. Behind him in a sport car, turquoise and narrow like an orchid petal, Kissur's brother, Ashidan sat. A perfect shirt, a precise hairdo, the smell of cologne — a starting manager and a Cambridge graduate — Bemish felt his world pleasantly coming back to him.
Terence Bemish sardonically raised the bark footwear.
"Here," he said, "somebody decided to exchange transportation means with me."
But Ashidan had figured it out already. He got out of the car, opened the passenger's door and bowed to Bemish inviting him into the car. Bemish got in. The peasant watched them with frightened eyes.
"Hey," Ashidan shouted to the guy in the garden, "come here!" The peasant approached.
"Get in the car," Ashidan told the guy.
Bemish stretched to open a door.
"Get in the trunk," Ashidan added, looking in disgust at the guy's bare and dirty feet. "Ah, well, you may change your clothing."
The guy ran to the house. Bemish regained his speech.
"Why do you think," Bemish asked, "that he stripped the car? It could be anybody…"
"If," Ashidan said in an even voice, "a crime is committed in a village and the criminal is not apprehended, the lord should arrest several village inhabitants and keep them as hostages till they die or till the others deliver the guilty party."
Bemish stared at Ashidan with wide opened eyes. The charming boy — and he was a very beautiful lad — looked very much like a successful manager. "In this voice his ancestors spoke generation after generation," Bemish thought, "It looks like progress here is characterized by the lord putting a peasant in a car's trunk instead of tying him to a horse's tail."
"This man," Ashidan said, pointing at Bemish, "is a named brother of my brother and a guest of my ancestors. My brother is coming today — the servants brought news that he got stuck at the Trekking Pass and took a detour via Lokh."
The peasant dropped to his knees.
"Master!" it was unclear whether he addressed Ashidan or the alien.
The peasant's son walked out of the house in clean white clothing with a satchel in his hand. A ten-year-old boy accompanied him.
"Master," the oldster continued, "take the younger one, we have so much work now!"
Ashidan thoughtfully tapped the leather steering wheel.
"Our ancestor's guest," he said, "had a bad dream that somebody robbed his car. I had this dream, too, and I hurried here. But now it seems to me that it was a false dream and that the car, complete and unharmed, will return to the castle by the evening."
Having said this, Ashinik floored the accelerator and the car sprayed the white peasant's dress with a load of mud and rushed away.
X X X
Kissur reached the castle only by noon. The rumors appeared to be correct — an avalanche had descended off the Trekking Pass and it had brushed by the people and the horses. Everybody was alive but Kissur's horse, Stargazer, with a white arrow on his forehead and wide hooves, was dragged down and only a red spot blinked in the snow for a moment. They took the same road that Bemish had used; Kissur's eyes swelled with blood like ripe cherries because of the horse. Kissur glanced at Bemish and snapped,
"You won the bet. We will hunt tomorrow." And he ran upstairs.
Bemish didn't pursue him. Something scary suddenly hung in the air, the stone gods' masks grimaced with their mouths at the Earthman and clanged their teeth. Bemish turned around — pale Ashidan stood next to him rubbing his temples.
Kissur locked himself in a corner tower and didn't let anybody in. Khanadar explained that he was mourning the horse following the customs.
When Bemish's car drove into the castle's yard in the evening, Bemish was sitting on a guard tower looking at the dragon-like clouds. Bemish ran downstairs.
A well-built flaxen guy stepped out of the car and, bowing, handed the keys to him. Everything was fixed including the broken wheel. Bemish looked the guy over and said,
"Thanks. How many auto repair shops are in the village?"
"One," the guy answered without blushing.
Bemish looked at the guy's feet — he stood in a pool wiggling his bare toes. The Earthman walked around the car and unlocked the trunk — the case bristled there self-importantly. Bemish opened the case — underwear and clothing was there, only two shirts were wet — clearly, they had been washed and ironed. Bemish extracted leather boots out of the case.
"Hold it," Bemish said, "That's a gift for you. The guy gasped and took the boots. Bemish stuck his hand in his pocket, took three hundred local "unicorns" out and handed them to the guy.
"It's for your work."
"Mister," the guy said, "we just fixed the wheel. It costs twenty "unicorns."
"Where are you going now?" Bemish asked.
"I am going to the Blue Ravine, to the village's left end."
"Get in," Bemish said, "I'll give you a ride." The village stretched along the road, between the mountain and the canyon. It was rarely more than hundred meters wide and about eight kilometers long. The guy squeezed himself in a corner almost under the seat and kept silent. One could think that he sat in the car first time in his life. "Hmm," Bemish thought, "on the other hand, a master and an alien is giving him a ride for the first time… I hope I am not compromising White Falcon clan's honor."
"How long has Ashidan been living in the castle?" Bemish asked.
"It's been two months, master."
"Does he drink?"
"No, master," the guy said nervously.
Bemish dropped the guy off at a field where girls in blue and red skirts were already starting to dance and came closer to see what it was that they grew in this field. He was going to ask for how long the peasants had been growing this stuff but the bailiff rushed towards him. Bemish turned around and drove away.
It was just before the sunset — he drove down a forest till he found a nice lawn to the road's left. He drove into the lawn, turned the ignition off, lifted the hood and gazed at the engine.
The carburetor was assembled like a bird's nest from many different parts and the air filter was also taken from another car. The night thieves from the only auto repair shop in the village had installed everything else where they had taken it from.
Bemish turned around and drove back.
Kissur had already descended to the yard and they explored the castle together. It was huge, the walls rose one after another like cabbage leaves.
The castle sat on the very mountaintop and only one road led to it from the west. The outer wall hovered above an abyss on all the other sides and the abyss had been hewed off for better defense, forming a wall smooth like glass.
Kissur showed his guest a yard where Kanut the Falcon had been killed and a small castle garden where Kissur's great grandmother had sinned with a winged two-headed bull under an apple tree. Bemish told Kissur that tourists from the whole Galaxy could visit the castle.
"This castle is not fit for tourists," Kissur smirked, "It does not have disabled access." And he squeezed himself nimbly onto a narrow and incredibly steep staircase spiraling along one of the outside walls.
Merriness ruled the castle in the evening — the grooms braided the horses' tails, servants dragged out of the closets huge yew old bows, wrapped in old rotten cloth with silver inscriptions. Bemish glanced into a semi-dark stable and froze — Kissur, smiling coldly, was hiding a stubby black assault rifle in a saddlebag.
Bemish stepped inside. Kissur lowered the woven bag lid.
"What game," Bemish asked, "are we going to hunt tomorrow?"
"In this area," Kissur said, "people have been hunting big game — boars, bears — since old times."
A question hung on Bemish's tongue tip, "What kind of boar would you hunt with an assault rifle?" But Bemish licked his lips and swallowed the question.
They rode out before the crescent left the black sky, equipped the same way as eight or hundred years ago — Kissur wore grey suede tall boots, decorated with lilies, with high red heels but without spurs, green pants and a red jacket girdled with a heavy belt made out of gold plates — every plate depicted a beast or a fish. Kissur's overcoat was also green, with two wide lanes sewn with golden mesh. A bow hung on his shoulder and a leather quiver hung behind his back; arrow feathers, white like plastic foam, stuck out of the quiver. A throw-axe hung at his belt and two yew javelins and a sword hung at the saddle. The other nobles were dressed the same way. It would be wrong to call it carnival dress — Kissur, like the majority of Weians, dressed archaically even in the capital and he practically always wore a wide necklace, made out of jade plates set in woven gold and depicting falcons. As for Bemish, he clearly understood that his hunting bib layered with PVC would call the local gods' fury at his head and they would withhold the game that they guarded, from him. Now he felt like an impostor in leather pants embroidered with silver.
Before leaving, Kissur threw a piece of fresh meat on an altar next to the gate and tapped a bare sword over a rock to attract the god's attention.
Bemish looked at the sword with interest; it was very heavy and long, with a three edged blade and some engraving that looked like running horses along its edge. The handle had been made in the shape of intertwined snakes. Bemish asked why they needed a sword and Kissur replied that gods didn't grant fortune without a sword since the road to the other world went along its edge and they brought and took away beasts down this road.
They watched the sunrise from a mountaintop, aerial wind danced in their horses' tails — they said that this wind used to mount fillies in ancient times and black horses with white spots had been born of this wind — shells scrunched occasionally under the hooves reminding that a sea had been there millions of years ago. Then, Kissur espied a deer that also decided to enjoy the sunrise and they released the dogs and rode following them.
There were five nobles — Kissur, Ashidan, Khanadar the Dried Date, Aldon and Bemish, there were also eight dogs and three servants — they drove the deer at Kissur and he, having opened his eyes wide and screamed wildly, threw a spear handed to him by one of the servants. Painted yellow, with a green pinecone on the end, the spear almost pierced the deer all the way through easier than it pierced the old maple in Kissur's manor in the capital. Suddenly the forest buzzed and leaves flew. Either it entered Bemish's mind on its own or the gods gave him a hint, "Kissur will get in an accident. The mountain took the horse yesterday, today…"
By noon, Bemish was drunk with blood, the servants lagged somewhere behind, he, Kissur and Ashidan rode out to a lawn overgrown with red flowers. Kissur, having ridden to another side of the lawn, was making out moss on a tree, he was probably foretelling.
At this moment, a bear cub jumped out on the lawn and crazily rushed up the tree.
"Don't do it," Kissur told his brother, "It's a bad omen."
But Ashidan had already pulled his bow and shot — the cub let the tree go and fell. Ashidan jumped off the saddle and ran to the cub. The bushes were pulled apart, a roar issued forth and a huge black and brown she-bear barged in.
"Ashidan," Bemish screamed.
Ashidan turned around. The she-bear rose on her hind paws and the youth stood in front of her, bewildered with a broken arrow pulled out of her son.
Bemish snatched at his gun. Before he raised his hand, Kissur had rolled off his saddle with a sword in his hand and dived under the bear's belly. Ashidan with a squeal jumped aside. Bemish fired. The bear swung its paws heavily in the air and crashed on Kissur. She shuddered and froze like a pile of peat dumped off a truck.
Bemish and Ashidan rushed to the bear.
"Kissur are you alive?"
No answer issued.
Bemish approached the bear and started pulling it by its ear. At this moment the pile of seemingly dead meat moved and Kissur materialized.
"Damn," he bared his teeth, "sword…"
But the sword, after they had turned the bear over, appeared to be fine
— it had entered her belly almost all the way to the guard. They examined her snout — the bullet hit the bear right in her eye.
Yes, the hunt was excellent, even Dried Date who was not capable of smiling screamed and hooted. He sat at the fire next to Kissur's knees and started singing his songs that Bemish had heard so many times from boom boxes in the workers' barracks that he came to liking them.
They rode back in the dusk. The horses walked down the path two abreast, black oily earth crumbled under their hooves, a forested slope rose like a dark wall on the right, the fuzzy sun was rolling behind the faraway mountains covered with gleaming snow like a cake glazed with white. The birds fluttered up from under the hooves and life was wondrously good. "Oh, my God, it's such a great place for a hotel," a thought passed Bemish's mind. He was a practical man and he always sought for ways to adjust nature to money.
After the bear cub accident, Ashidan saddened and it happened somehow that Kissur and his retinue raced in front and Bemish lagged behind them and rode next to Ashidan. The latter was pale — either due to the weed that the peasants grew in a local field or because of Cambridge. Bemish leaned to Ashidan and asked quietly,
"Does Kissur know that you are a drug addict?"
"I am not a drug addict, I am just curious! I can stop this any moment."
Bemish sniggered involuntarily. The youth shuddered. Then he abruptly turned his grey eyes to the Earthman. His pupils were unnaturally contracted.
It's not my fault, it's yours," he said, "Seven years ago Warnaraine was ruled from this castle, and now it's a dump because there is no eight line highway next to it! You have chased our gods away and what have you given us instead, a Pepsi can?"
Ashidan grabbed the Earthman by his hand.
"This weed has always grown here! They ate it to speak to the gods! You declared even talking to the gods to be a crime!"
"Come on, Ashidan! You don't converse to a god or a demon, you just gobble this weed up to get high and you are afraid of Kissur because he will throw you into a hospital for drug addicts or just chain you."
"I am afraid of the sword he took," Ashidan said, "I saw this sword in Khanalai's hand and if people are killed, their souls enter their swords."
Khanalai was the rebel that fought Kissur seven years ago.
"Khanalai?" Bemish was astonished, "Have you met Khanalai?"
"He took me prisoner," Ashidan answered.
Bemish stared at the youth — he was young, slim like a snake and incredibly beautiful, with golden hair and grey eyes heavily mascara coated for the hunt.
"Oh, my God! How old were you?"
"I was fifteen, almost fifteen. Kissur entrusted me with five thousand horsemen and Dried Date and Aldon's uncle — Aldon the Striped — were with me. We should have waited for Kissur in the Black Mountains. But we heard that down there, in the town of Lukhun, merchants had come in for a fair and were bunched all together there because of the war. We decided to seize this town because we would get more loot if we didn't wait for Kissur.
So, we approached this town with a guide and when the sun came out we realized that it was a trap — Khanalai's army encircled us. Khanalai was going to catch Kissur."
Ashidan rocked in the saddle.
I rode forward and challenged Khanalai to a duel. My shield had an image of the White Falcon on it; Khanalai thought that Kissur himself got in his trap. He really didn't want to fight but he had to accept the challenge. He was afraid that his captains would mock him.
There is not much to say about this fight — Khanalai split my shoulder and threw me to the ground like a kitten and then he removed my helmet to cut my head off. He was really surprised and he asked me, "Who are you, brat, to wear a White Falcon shield?" I told him that my name was Ashidan and that my brother Kissur would avenge me and why wouldn't he just shut his lousy trap and cut my head off. I was a very cute boy and Khanalai suddenly took pity on me. He raised his sword and then he thought, "I will die — and these words contained all the horror of irreversible, you couldn't sleep at night having heard them. So, would it be worth it to bring the sword down?" At least, that's what he told me afterwards. So he threw me like a wench over his horse's back and rode to his army. And my army was obliterated down to the last man. You see, it was a war very different from a war between two countries. When one country and another country make a war, it's fair to spare the enemy and to make him your vassal. While when a government fights rebels, it's fair to obliterate the rebels completely.
"What happened to Dried Date?" Bemish suddenly realized.
"Dried Date and old Aldon were taken prisoners."
"And what happened next?"
They brought me and Dried Date to Khanalai's tent where he was feasting after the battle and Khanalai said that he would like to hear a song about this battle from Dried Date. Dried Date answered that the battle was not finished yet because not everybody, supposed to be executed after this battle, was executed and when Khalai executed everybody who was supposed to be executed, there would be nobody left to sing this song. Khanalai grinned and gave his new lute and his sword to Dried Date, and this sword was so valuable that it cost more that Dried Date's honor. He sat and sang a song of praise to Khanalai and I don't think that you'll ever hear it from Dried Date or on a tape recorder. Then, Khanalai turned to me and said that he would like to let me go. I was insolent to him. He paused and said, "All right, they will crucify you tomorrow, brat. At first they will crucify Aldon and then you."
"What happened tomorrow?"
"They brought Aldon and me out and Khanalai said, `If you let me pardon you, I will let Aldon go.' I spit in his face."
Ashidan paused. He face paled completely and Bemish suddenly imagined how cute a boy he had been at "almost fifteen."
"Khanalai rocked on his feet for a while and then said, `You are too beautiful a boy to die.' They crucified Aldon and quarreled for a while and then took me away."
"And what happened to Dried Date?"
"Dried Date sang songs of praise to Khanalai till he was offended, that he, a man from a noble family, was serving a commoner who used to tread cow dung in his childhood. He cut one of Khanalai's aides head off, threw it in a sack and raced to Kissur with this ransom. And he also gave Khanalai's sword to Kissur."
Ashidan paused and said, "I also met Khanalai's son there — we were of the same age and the lad was quite gifted. I think that Khanalai took mercy on me because of him. He asked me once, "What if Kissur gets a hold of my son? Do you think he will let him live like I let you?"
"Yes," Bemish thought, "Kissur, however, didn't take mercy on Khanalai's son and he didn't take mercy on anybody else."
"Hey," Khanadar the Dried Date shouted ahead, "have you fallen asleep? Come here quickly!"
Bemish and Ashidan hastened their horses. The road split in two in front of them, the riders grouped at the fork.
"We should go left," Kissur said, "We should visit Aldis so that the next hunt would be even more fruitful than the last one."
"Well," Ashidan objected, "we won't reach the castle before nightfall."
"No problem," Kissur said, "we will sleep over at the old altar house."
Ashidan's face fell.
"Look," Khanadar said, "you aren't afraid of the old altar house, are you?"
And he continued having turned to Bemish,
"Aldis the White Falcon is buried next to the old altar and two families were assigned to take care of the grave. But they ignored their duty and Aldis ate them and he liked it — he started climbing out every night, chased passersby with all his retinue and herded them into his place for a feast. A traveler passes by and sees a manor with lights on, and only his bones are left by the morning. People took notice — if on a new moon night there were fire and commotion at the old altar house — then, some family would wail somewhere soon enough. They would have pounded a stake down his coffin long time ago if he had been a commoner but they are afraid of doing it — you know, he is Kissur's great grandfather." Ashidan grinned.
"It's not fitting to visit ancestors' graves with an Earthman outlander," he said, "It's enough for a stranger that we took him for a hunt."
"I have never hunted here before," Kissur answered, "and not shared my booty with my ancestor."
And they rode to the old altar house, having dismissed the servants and having tied the bear cub's body to a saddle.
The old altar house sat between a forest and a horseshoe shaped mountain on the very edge of a sheer, as if cut with a knife, gorge. Behind a black carved fence, one could see a roof tied in a knot; yellow light issued forth from a round window, people's voices were coming from behind the fence. Ashidan's face acquired a pallid color of toothpowder.
"Oh-ho-ho," Kissur said, "is Aldis getting rowdy again?"
The riders quietly dismounted, Kissur petted his horse so it wouldn't neigh and stuck covertly a stubby assault rifle under his overcoat. A pine tree, that had fallen last year, crushed the fence and miraculously spared the chapel — they took a look over the tree log into a wide yard. There, on a stone site, a small space boat Orinoko-22 stood looking like a striped squash. People in body suits were standing in a line and passing sacks from the altar house to the boat.
"Heia," Kissur said loudly, "that's called progress! Even ghosts can no longer fly without engines!"
He bounced over the log and stepped in the lit circle. Frankly, it was Kissur that looked more like a ghost here — a hunter in an ancient green caftan with a yew bow hanging over his shoulder and his face painted with blue stripes for the hunt — amidst people in flying suits who froze for a moment next to a cargo hatch. The people dropped plastic sacks. Three guys jumped out of an altar house window with long barreled lasers in their hands. A horse quietly neighed — Khanadar and Ashidan stepped out into the light from the other side, leading their horses.
"False alarm," somebody said, "these are the landlords."
Kissur unhurriedly walked to a short round eyed character whom Bemish recognized to be the local bailiff.
"Oh, it's you Lakhor. What are you doing here?"
"You know, my Lord," Lakhor said with a certain dignity, "We are loading…"
Kissur placed his foot on a sack, dragged a hunting knife from his belt and ripped the plastic cover from top to bottom.
"I swear by god's goiter," Kissur said, "Everybody around says "Lord," "Lord" to you, kisses your knees while you don't even know what it is that you lord over. What are these oats you are hauling to the boat? Nothing but oats has ever grown around here, if my memory doesn't fail me."
Kissur scooped up a bit out of the sack with his hand and sniffed it.
"No," he shook his head, "no way, oats could smell like this. Khanadar, do you know what it is?"
Khanadar also picked a sack, tore it apart with his whip's claw, picked some weed up and stuck it under his horse's nose. It neighed and turned its head aside.
"No," Khanadar said, "I don't know what it is but it's not oats. Look, Striped is putting its nose up and it doesn't want it." At this point, Aldon the Lynx Cub joined the conversation.
"Hey, it's hemp," he said, "wolf's whisk." Weian zealots and local serfs have used it since old times to visit the skies and now people carry it to the Sky in plastic bags. I heard, they pay a lot of money for this weed on the sky. Earthmen always pay a lot of money for what a horse put its nose up away."
The only thing that Bemish couldn't understand was why they were all still alive.
Here, Ashidan's breaking voice sounded.
"Kissur," he said, "it's my fault. I failed to ask your permission."
Kissur span around.
"Are you trying to say," he spoke with a phony astonishment, "that you allowed my serfs to trade weed grown in my lands without asking for my consent?"
"But I was not sure…" Ashidan started.
"Tell me," Kissur inquired, "who is the senior in our clan, you or me?"
"And who owns the land and everything above it and below it, the senior or the junior?"
"The senior does."
"Then, why are you breaking the law and pocketing the profit from this business?"
"I was afraid that you won't understand…"
"Of course, I won't understand," Kissur thundered, "my serfs on my land start a business and don't pay me two cents! Who should feed me, the sovereign or my own holding?"
"My Lord, my Lord," round eyed Lakhor hurried, "We didn't know that master Ashidan paid you nothing, I'll turn into a frog if we wanted to break the law!"
At this point, a man in a flying suit ducked out of the cargo hatch.
"I bring my apologies, Mr. Kissur," he said in Interenglish, "We really didn't know that you were not aware of our modest business."
Kissur looked him over from head to toes.
"How much do you pay my brother for a sack?"
"You will pay me twelve. I want money now."
"Do you think I have so much?" the pilot snapped.
"Don't cross him," Lakhor peeped in horror.
"I am waiting," Kissur said coldly, "or I will rip all the sacks apart."
"Don't pick a fight with him," another Earthman said, "he is livid."
"You would become livid here," Khanadar the Dried Date objected, "when your own serfs don't pay you their taxes fairly and you brother cheats you — hasn't Ashidan promised you Kissur's protection?"
Kissur and the pilot disappeared in the hatch opening. Ashidan sat on the log not raising his pale face. Bemish's mind was reeling. If Kissur hadn't known whom he would meet at the old altar house, why had he brought the assault rifle that he was now carefully hiding under his hunting coat? And if he had known, why had he dragged Bemish with him? Did he think that Bemish would keep silent? No, damn it, did he think that Terence Bemish would swallow even that? Or would he suggest landing these boats in Assalah spaceport?
Kissur and the pilot stepped out of the hatch again. The pilot was smiling. It was clear that in his opinion he got away cheaply and found himself such a protector that all Weian police would not be able to lay a finger on him. Kissur stuck the money in his pants pocket and, having bent his leg, placed it right in front of the pilot on a boarding ramp's aluminum stair.
The latter started looking around confusedly.
"Stupid," old Lakhor hissed, "Kiss the foot, the Lord's foot."
The Earthman shrugged his shoulders and bended down to the dusty boot. At this moment, Kissur kneed the pilot under his chin. The pilot squealed. His body flew upwards and Kissur's joined hands crushed his neck — his backbone crunched.
Out of the corner of his eye, Bemish barely managed to see how Aldon plucked Ashidan and threw him into the bushes. Kissur went flat behind a steel landing support, whipped his gun out and started firing at the confused people, Aldon and Khanadar joined the fray.
Three Earthmen with guns went supine, the fourth one, unnoticed by Kissur, leaped out of the altar house. Bemish jumped at him and kicked his gun away; both of them went to the ground. The gunman seized Bemish's throat and started choking him. Bemish rolled on his back and quite nimbly kicked the attacker in the place where legs grow from. The latter said "ouch" loudly and let Bemish go but he immediately recovered and butted him in the stomach and then punched him with the right hand. Bemish intercepted this punch, seized the gunman's sleeve with his left hand and, with fingers spread apart, hit him in the eyes. One eye burst and oozed down his cheek.
"Aaahhh!" the gunman screamed. In a tight embrace, they rolled down to the abyss over boulders and hummocks.
Bemish banged a rock with his back badly and he fainted for a moment. The gunman whipped an arrow out of the quiver, hanging behind Bemish's back. The arrow was sharp and firm, with white icy feathers. A hexagonal titanium tip gleaned in the moonlight above Bemish. "That's it," Bemish thought.
The smuggler dropped the arrow, however, and then he sighed and fell on Bemish's chest. Bemish shook himself up and climbed from under his enemy's body. A long knife was stuck in the guy's back and Khanadar the Dried Date stood over the knife.
Date extended his hand and helped Bemish get up. They climbed the loose rocks uphill to the lighted altar house and space boat.
Everything had already been done there. Bemish counted the corpses — sixteen people, five wore body suits or jeans and the others were locals. The gunpowder smell of shots mixed with the smell of fresh hemp and blood. Ashidan sat on a rock holding his head in his hands.
Following Kissur's orders they gathered the corpses and the sacks next to the altar house walls, poured gas over them and lit them on fire.
"I feel bad about the grave," Khanadar said.
"It's desecrated now, what can we do?" Kissur responded. Still, he untied the bear cub off the saddle and threw it in the fire.
Afterwards, Kissur tore off the emergency control seals, turned the safety block off and started clicking the switches till the main screen swelled red and screamed in an ugly voice.
"Mount," Kissur yelled, running out of the space boat. Khanadar had already leaped across the broken fence and he was prancing on his horse next to the forest.
"Should I repeat it for you?" Kissur screamed at Ashidan, "It will blow up in a moment."
Ashidan raced following the others.
It blew up in such a way that the moon almost dropped off the sky and fire imps leaped out of the mountains and danced over the altar house left behind; when people in the village found the remnants, they said, with astonishment, that old Aldis had dragged stupid travelers from the sky to him and nothing good, of course, had come out of it.
With his head low, Ashidan rode between Aldon and Khanadar and Khanadar held his horse's reins.
Bemish rode behind everybody. He didn't feel all that good. A dull pain walked up and down where his spine had banged against the rock and his side was skinned in places. Kissur suddenly slowed his horse a bit and waited for his friend.
Kissur jabbed Bemish with his elbow and said, with a laugh,
"So, Earthman, admit that your feet got cold? Admit that you decided I would ask you to land this boat next time in Assalah spaceport?"
"You should have called police in."
"I," Kissur said, "am the master over this land's taxes and courts. What would have happened if I had called police? Firstly, I wouldn't have found this boat, because our justice is worse than a whore and they would be warned away. When the justice sells out, a man should take it in its own hands. Or do you think that I acted wrongly?"
"Yes," Bemish answered, "I don't think that you acted right. It was not justice you cared about but rather shame besmirching your clan's honor. If you had executed people accordingly to their guilt, Ashidan would have been executed first since he knows perfectly well that selling drugs is a crime, unlike a stupid old serf who did what his master told him to and anyway he had no clue that it's illegal to eat this weed, since all the shamans in this village have been eating it for the last thousand years and so what? You would have given him couple lashes and sent him away."
They rode down a broad dark path between the abyss and the cliff and the sky on the other side of the cliff was red and crackled.
"Ashidan," Kissur quietly called out, "do you hear what Terence is saying? He is saying that your guilt is larger than that of people who are dead already and it's not fair."
Even in the light brought by the moon and by the faraway fire one could see the youth's shoulders shaking.
"Get off the horse, Ashidan," Kissur ordered. Ashidan dismounted. Kissur also jumped down and pulled the sword with the intertwined snakes handle out of the sheath fastened to the saddle.
"Get on your knees," Kissur ordered.
Ashidan wordlessly kneeled next to the abyss. The wind started playing with his golden hair and it glistened in the moonlight. Ashidan lowered his head and pulled his hair off the base of the neck with his own hand.
"It would have been better," Kissur spoke, "if you had died of his sword eight years ago and not now," and he raised the sword over the brother's bowed head.
Bemish jumped off his horse and seized Kissur's hand.
"Isn't enough for today, Kissur? You are drunk with blood."
"You said it yourself," Kissur objected, "that I acted unfairly. I don't want people to say that about me."
"Damn it," Bemish said, "you did everything correct. Let the lad be."
"Get in the saddle, Ashidan," Kissur spoke quietly.
X X X
In a week, Bemish returned to the capital. He was buried up to his neck in work, he had to attend a benefit dinner, a risk strategy and investment conference, a Fall Leaves celebration in the palace, and a negotiation round with the management of a Chakhar company that Bemish had plans for.
Ronald Trevis was also at the conference, he gained some weight since they had met last time and, as Bemish learned, he had exchanged his third wife for a fourth one. Shavash invited both friends to join his retinue and visit Chakhar and after the vice minister had introduced the two Earthmen to the company director, the negotiations were concluded surprisingly quickly.
In the evening, Bemish and Trevis suddenly found themselves at a villa with Shavash while the rest of his retinue hung out at another hotel. The guests were served an incomparable dinner but, when the girls that had circling around the guests left and a waiter from the security department brought a counter surveillance device with the desert, Bemish realized that the serious conversation was just starting.
"I would like," Shavash said, leaning back in his armchair and putting an empty bowl for the glazed fruits aside, "to discuss with you our state debt. We are stuck all the way to our ears. The interest payments alone are bigger that one third of our GDP."
"I wouldn't say that you have a large state debt," Trevis mentioned, "You just have a very small GDP."
"That's what I have in mind," Shavash nodded, "when I suggest restructuring the debt."
Trevis bounced in his chair about to protest against this idea but Shavash's next words caused his eyes to pop out.
"I think that it would be possible to create a private company that will be responsible for paying interest on certain state debt tranches and this company will obtain Chakhar."
"What do you mean, Chakhar?" Trevis was astonished.
"I mean Chakhar or any other province where this company would be able to collect taxes, make laws and build factories. If a province frightens you, you can limit yourself with some mining deposits."
A long silence ruled the table.
"Shavash, aren't you afraid that someday they will arrest you for treason?" Trevis finally inquired.
The small official shrugged his shoulders.
"Why? It's just a way to decrease budget expenses. If a company doesn't pay the state debt out, it will, of course, loose the license. I've already talked to Dachanak and Ibinna and they are ready to be the company's co-founders. Mr. Bemish will fit perfectly there and as for you," here Shavash smiled charmingly at the banker, "I would like you, Ronald, to handle the negotiations with the bonds' owners."
Ronald Trevis leaned forward — his eyes reflected the lights from the candles burning on the table and the green illumination coming from the counter surveillance device. "He will never stop," a thought passed Bemish's mind, "He will handle the most fantastic deals for Shavash because Shavash can offer him what nobody has ever done in the Galaxy yet. He will be a consultant if Shavash asks him to privatize the ministry of finance."
Three days later, Bemish dropped by Assalah, for a couple of hours — he was accompanying a Galactic Bank committee.
The committee was shown a new section of finished launching pads, numbers seven to seventeen, and was escorted down the unfinished but already working spaceport building with twelve underground service floors and a fifteen story tower that housed Bemish's office on its very top.
Bemish entered his office with the bank vice president and contemplated, smiling slightly, his table covered with a barely perceptible layer of dust.
After the committee had left, Giles walked into the office.
"How is Kissur's castle?" the spy inquired.
Bemish mumbled something vague.
"By the way," Giles said, "satellites observed a space boat explosion in this area. It was something like a Colombine or a Trial with a boosted up engine — they use them to traffic drugs. By any chance, have you heard about it?"
"I witnessed it," Bemish said. "Kissur blew up the boat. Before that, he torched ten million worth of drugs and killed sixteen men. Afterwards he almost cut his own brother's head off. Ashidan was involved in the business."
"Did you memorize the space boat's license plate number?"
"It was D-3756A Orinoko, if the plate wasn't a fake."
"Do you think that Kissur took you with him on purpose? Did he know that we suspected him in drug trafficking and that they had refused his application to the military academy exactly because of this?"
"Yes. Only, Kissur is a proud man and he will die before he says it out loud."
Giles was biting his lips.
"Where is Ashidan now?" he asked finally.
"Ashidan stayed in the castle. More precisely, he stayed in the castle's cellar." Bemish specified.
He paused and added,
"You said that you had proof of Kissur's connection to drug dealers. Where did you get this proof?"
"Make a guess."
Giles nodded and spoke,
"But he could just be mistaken."
Bemish blew up and banged his fist on the table,
"There is no way this bastard could be mistaken!" he screamed, "You can fool the Earthmen from a sky far away and tell them that Kissur traffics in drugs! You can't fool Shavash! He has better spies that all the local gangsters combined! He knew for sure that Kissur had nothing to do with it! But he also knew that Kissur, if cornered, would sooner or later break his head!"
"But Shavash is Kissur's friend…"
"Friend? The only thing he wants is to get into Idari's bed! If Kissur keels over, before a year goes by, Idari will have a choice — either to go bumming or to marry Shavash!"
Giles looked at Bemish and said suddenly,
"I think that Mrs. Idari will also have the third alternative — to marry the Assalah spaceport director. Not that a barbarian from the stars could really allure her…"
THE ELEVENTH CHAPTER
Where Terence Bemish's assistant goes to the sectants' meeting in Imissa while Kissur the White Falcon looks around the Galaxy for abandoned warheads
Two days later, Ashinik returned to the spaceport and he didn't drop a word about the Inissa meeting. It could not be ruled out that the zealots had made certain decisions and that these decisions could include an order for Ashinik to plant a bomb for Bemish or to throw it down a launching chute. But Bemish didn't have time to think about it.
Three days later, Bemish wandered into his office for half an hour to dictate a whole pile of documents, Ashinik interrupted him calling from somewhere in the port.
"Mr. Bemish, could you find an hour for me? There is a man here who would like to meet you. "
"What man?" Bemish asked.
"It's an… old man."
Bemish was quite impressed. He cleaned up his office and changed his jacket, just in case; he hung his regular one in the closet and picked out a light grey jacket that had one very useful feature — it could resist a laser burst at a three meter distance.
Ashinik led into the office an eighty-year-old man in peasant clothing, with white and bushy eyebrows, straight back and a square cap on a seemingly bald head. The old man looked at the Earthman with scary bulging eyes.
"You," the old man said, "are the boss of this place. And who am I?"
"You are probably," Bemish said, "the boss of the people who don't like this place."
"We don't have bosses," the old man declared, "We have students and teachers."
Bemish had nothing to reply, so he asked, "Would you like some tea?" Strangely, the old man agreed. Bemish ordered it and soon Inis entered the office carrying a tray with a teapot, cups, and several baskets filled with sweet cookies.
The old man disapprovingly stared at Inis' skirt. It was exactly one meter shorter than what he would consider decent. Even Bemish, in the back of his mind, disapproved of Inis strolling in this skirt anywhere outside of his bedroom. But what could he do? Inis enjoyed very few things besides skirts and earrings and Bemish felt sorry for her and never contradicted her about her skirts.
The main demon and the arch foe of the demons silently drank tea for a while.
"How are you going to scamper from here to the sky?" the White Elder asked. "I walked around your construction and I saw holes going down but I haven't seen any ladders going to the sky."
"We don't use ladders," Bemish explained patiently, "to go to the sky. We use space ships. Before starting, these ships stay in underground chutes, like pigeons resting in a pigeon house between flights."
The White Elder looked at him with interest and Bemish started explaining where to and why ships flew. He tried very hard. He even got to the concept of an escape velocity when the old man interrupted him and asked, "Ok, I believe that you fly to the sky and not underground. But why wouldn't you still build a ladder so that people don't get confused?"
Bemish suppressed a desire to burst into hysterical laughter. Then he recalled the stories about the zealots' cunning and how they enjoyed placing a man in absurd situations and watching his actions. What if the old man understood everything about space ships? He knew exactly that Bemish would be able to explain to him what an escape velocity was but he didn't know what Bemish would do after such a question.
Bemish hadn't exactly shown himself in the best light and he stuck his nose in the tea cup.
"Listen," the old man said, having realized that he wouldn't get an answer, "you talked to this puppy and to Kissur and to the great sovereign and even to this briber Shavash and you managed to find the common ground with everyone. How have you managed it?"
"I don't know," Bemish said. "It probably happened because I always try to speak truth. People rarely tell the truth to each other. They either flatter each other and think that they are lying or they are rude to each and think that they are telling the truth. But they tell the truth very rarely."
"What truth will you say about yourself? Will you admit that you are a demon?"
"No," Bemish said, "I will not lie and say that I am a demon and I will not say that you are wrong. You see, I grew up in a country where they think that the people are always right. If so, many people feel themselves slighted, they must have reasons for it. If so many people hate Earthmen they must have reasons for it. I think that the main reason is that you are poorer than Earthmen. And I think that the only way to change it is to help you to become as rich as Earthmen. That's why I am building this spaceport."
"You are connected to some very bad people," the old man said, "For instance, to a man named Shavash. He is a backside of the world, a jerboa turned into a man, a filthy duck with seven tongues and no soul. His black shadow found its way into our counsel and his black shadow stretches over the construction. Think upon my words."
Having said this, the old man stood and left without bowing. Ashinik rushed out with him.
X X X
Three more days passed and Ashinik said, "Mr. Bemish, if you wish to talk to the White Elder again, you should be in the capital, in the hotel Archan the day after tomorrow at the dew hour."
Bemish couldn't fall asleep throughout the night. Archan was unquestionably the Empire's most luxurious hotel. It was located in the Emperor's palace territory, where the place where the Cloud Houses for visiting officials used to be. Archan retained all the crazy luxury of the dwellings built for visiting provincial governors and judges of the ninth rank; additionally it acquired all the newest comforts, including computerized climate control. Evil tongues added that Archan also retained hidden passages that executioners had used to visit the governors called to the capital to receive capital punishment. The medieval spy holes had been adapted for communication equipment and much more modern surveillance hardware had taken over.
The fact that White Elder stayed at Archan and not at a five star Hilton demonstrated that the sect not only had considerably more money that Bemish had suspected before but it also had some patrons at the very top. Who were these patrons? Clearly, it was not Shavash. The old man spoke about Shavash with fresh disgust. Bemish was ready to swear that an informer of Shavash's had either been near Iniss or even attended the meeting itself and that crabs had already feasted on him.
Bemish lay in his bed and thought that maybe he, the main demon of the Empire, who never sent spies, never bribed and never intrigued, managed to succeed where the cunning official Shavash failed. He managed to make the White Elder, the Earthmen's enemy, reconsider his policy.
"You are absent-minded tonight," Inis said. "Has anything happened?"
Terence smiled in the dark.
"It's nothing. Sleep little one."
The woman carefully caressed his chest.
"Oh, Mr. Bemish, I can feel that you are troubled. I hope that it's not due to the ac