Chapter 13 of Quest for the Blue Crystal

It was rather sparse for a staff meeting, thought Sarral. Only invited principals and a few direct reports were here. General Messick had a map of the Salminerian continent spread out on the table before him; he and a young officer pondered over it, pointing out various fortresses in Condeu, Mileu and the Rauder Lands. Sarral stared at the youth’s face and let his augmented brain automatically pull up the name from his memory. Ponce. Lieutenant. Cleared for secret and sensitive information of a military nature. Fair strategist, but spent most of his time womanizing. Placed under a discreet security watch by Kratia after she had learned that Ponse and the wizard Juran had enjoyed a ménage a trois with one of the local prostitutes.

Ponce was indicating probable Rauder strongholds—a highly speculative supposition, since attempts to verify their village locations, major travel routes, or anything else in the northern wastes had met with very limited success.

Sarral shifted his eyes. Vejij Onwei was here; the science advisor was attempting to communicate with Brutus Parks, the manager of the hydro power station near the base of cliff below the castle. Sarral smiled. Although Parks technically reported to Jed Nalton, the Palatine, Kratia had made it clear to Parks that he was to follow Onwei’s directions when it came to any special modifications or actions involving the power station. Unfortunately, each man held the other in utter disdain.

Onwei was so cerebral that few people were able to understand him without considerable effort; his thoughts and directives regarding the power station usually involved complex design changes and experiments meant to increase efficiency.

Parks was basically a nuts and bolts man, excellent at maintaining the equipment and the muckers, but unsupportive and incapable of understanding much else. In practice, Parks actually reported to Sarral if there was anything of importance to report, and Sarral ensured that all of Kratia’s directives involving the power station was relayed directly to Parks in a manner that he could understand.

Parks looked towards Sarral and rolled his eyes; Sarral smiled and nodded slightly, but did not offer to come to Park’s rescue. Vejij would eventually communicate to Parks the necessary actions that had to be taken in order to set up the secret feeder cable to the castle. Dirty work, especially when it involved the muckers, but at least it was simple, straight-forward work. Parks could handle it, even if he didn’t understand all the genetic engineering involved.

There were other things of greater importance for Sarral to worry about. His uncle, Zand Cullo, was one of them. The elderly Minister of Finance seldom left his office for any reason, even for these monthly staff meetings; on the few times he had attended he had made very blunt statements condemning certain policy actions, and made equally clear that he controlled the power of the purse strings. What made it all the worse was that he was not one of those “in the know”. The dances they all had to do when Zand attended a meeting would have been humorous, if Kratia hadn’t made the seriousness of it all too clear.

Zand also had a very disturbing tendency to make embarrassing statements concerning the ownership of Minas Palanar, especially if he was upset about one of Kratia’s directives. Zand knew a great deal about the law, and could quote verbatim the Esaf decree of 4744, which denied wizards the right to own any real estate with the sole exception of the Guild building. Sarral owned Krashbrinae, not Kratia. And Zand delighted in addressing questions concerning the castle and the castle staff directly to Sarral just to irk Kratia. Zand just didn’t seem to appreciate where the real power lay. Perhaps his uncle would behave himself today.

The internal clock in Sarral’s head told him it was time for the meeting to begin. Kratia was normally quite punctual, and everyone else was present. There was a lot of material that needed to get covered today. He was about to check on her when the door swung open and Kratia entered.

The assembled staff rose stiffly to greet her. She was accompanied by a young man that Sarral did not recognize, though apparently General Messick did, judging from his smile. Probably Drake, the other Earther. Kratia wore a low cut translucent gray dress that behaved more like swirling smoke than fabric, and Sarral sensed that magic was indeed a major ingredient.

She sat at the base of a narrow triangular table, the stranger sitting beside her. The staff took their assigned places along the other two sides.

“General Messick,” she began without preamble and without a smile. “What is the status of troop strength and combat readiness?”

The general stood and cleared his throat. “Lord, you currently have two hundred twelve conscripts. Twenty-nine of these are defectors from Esaf Mileu; sixteen are defectors from Esaf Condeu. The remainder are for the most part homeless street people, attracted by the offer of food, shelter, and a few Ks to spend. Their fighting ability is unfortunately quite low,” the general paused to frown at the Finance Minister. “But I have been unable to attract better quality men since I have virtually no financial incentives to offer.”

Kratia stared coldly at the general for a span of at least twenty heartbeats. Then she said, “I believe that Michael Drake will be able to ensure that the fighting abilities of our conscripts are brought up to acceptable standards. Michael brings to us many years of intensive and extensive combat experience which may prove useful in our war against the Reps. Michael, stand up.”

Drake somewhat annoyed, stood up as the general collapsed heavily into his chair, sweat beaded on his forehead. Sarral noted the general had lost all trace of his previous smile. Kratia’s stare often did that to people.

Drake gave a nod of general acknowledgement to the people in the room. He turned to look at Kratia, and said, “If you expect me to turn your force into something effective, then you are going to have to provide me with some real weapons. Swords and crossbows just don’t cut it.”

Kratia smiled at Drake. “I agree totally. After the meeting, I want you and general Messick to discuss your needs with Vejij. He will work with you on implementing your ideas. What else beside armaments?”

“Your tactics suck. Your security force is trained to fight just like the army of Condeu or Mileu, and they suck, too.  When fighting against a large army based mainly on mounted cavalry and foot soldiers you need to find ways to neutralize their advantage in size and mobility.”

“And how are we supposed to do that?” Messick asked.

“Well, here are two quick ideas off the top of my head. Dig trenches, with spikes at the bottom. Conceal them with covers of vegetation. When an enemy cavalry charges in, they fall into the trenches, everyone behind them crashes in a big pile up, and your soldiers and archers move in for a quick kill.”

Messick nodded.

“You said you had two ideas,” said Kratia.

“Yes,” said Drake. “The second one is to get an air force. One of the reasons the Reps are so effective is that they have air superiority. If you could develop a flying machine, or even create something similar to the Reps but on your side, they would make effective fighters. Or even bombers, delivering a barrage of arrows or bullets or rocks or any damn thing they wanted to drop on the enemy. Get gravity working for you, as well as controlling the ultimate high ground.”

Drake sat down, not bothering to wait for a reply.

“Thank you, Michael. That gives us something to think about,” said Kratia. “Vejij, what is the status of your prototype weapons development, and how quickly can you work these new ideas into the program?”

Vejij Onwei licked his lips nervously. “I have almost completed the first prototype gun, my Lord. But I will need more funding to try out other designs. And I don’t have any energy budgeted to start on totally new projects.”

Kratia raised an eyebrow. “Your budget could support a small city, Vejij. Why do you need more?”

“My Lord, the budget cuts have deeply curtailed…”

“What budget cuts?” interrupted Kratia, shifting her gaze to Zand Cullo. The old man seemed unperturbed; almost smug.

“Minister Cullo,” Kratia stated softly. “I stated at the last meeting that I considered it a high priority to raise an independent army of at least one thousand men and have it functional within sixty days. The men are absolutely needed if we are to effectively end the threat of the Reps. Have you been supportive of that goal?”

Zand Cullo stood slowly, raising his old but respectable bulk of 300 pounds to its full height. “The fiscal policy of this organization is my responsibility, and it needs to be viable over the long term,” he said. He drew a breath to continue but Kratia cut him off.

“Financial policy exists to serve the strategic interests of an organization. My army needs weapons to function effectively. The development of weapons is therefore a vital goal that needs to be supported. So I repeat, have you been supportive of my goals?”

“In fact, I have not, Lord Kratia,” he stated gruffly, angry at being cut off. He arched his eyebrows and looked down his nose at her. “I think that you may not realize what you are getting yourself into. The Treaty of Corona clearly forbids any wizard from raising an army; only the Esafs have that right. Violations are an act of insurrection, and could bring down a calamity upon our heads!”

Kratia’s frown deepened as he continued.

“Lord Kratia, we all know that you bend the rules here and there; it is sometimes necessary to get things done. Your quest to rid the world of the threat of the Reps is a noble one; but raising an army? Leave that to the Esaf! Believe me, they take military power seriously, and if they think you’re accumulating a fighting force, they can bring political pressure on the wizards guild that could get you stripped of your title, if not your powers. You don’t need an army. Let the Esafs use theirs. The Reps are dangerous, but they’re not worth the risk of being accused of treason. Get Esaf Condeu on you side; he has an equally strong motivation to rid his nation of the danger, and his seasoned troops can accomplish your needs far more safely and efficiently than a new and inexperienced one.”

Kratia closed her eyes, a darkness growing across her features. “You froze funds earmarked for Messick and Onwei,” she said very slowly, each word an island in her sea of anger.

“I knew you would not contemplate such an act unless under great strain, and so I refused to release the energy until you had more time to consider the ramifications of your actions.” Minister Cullo smiled condescendingly, white eyebrows rising in a grandfatherly image. “Have you talked this over with Sarral? He could give you a better perspective on this.”  He turned his head briefly to Sarral, but Sarral kept his face impassive and unreadable.

Kratia’s eyes opened, and she turned to each of her staff, locking eyes for a moment with any who were brave enough to meet her gaze. Her eyes stopped finally on Minister Cullo. “In the future, those of my staff that feel that they cannot support all of my goals would do well to discuss their opposition with Sarral. As Chief of Staff he will ensure that all parties have a clear understanding of my wishes, and will ensure that those wishes are fully supported.”

Kratia’s face relaxed; she smiled. “Minister Cullo is correct of course. I have been growing frustrated with the refusal of the town council to petition the Esaf. I have been reluctant to petition him directly, but perhaps that should be our course. The Reps are a serious threat, Zand, and need to be stopped. I believe a private, specialized army will be needed for that.

“But enough on that topic. Have you negotiated the energy transfer loans that I requested?”

“The papers are prepared but I have not signed them. Because something seems amiss here as well.”

Everyone but Minister Cullo sucked in their breath as they saw Kratia’s sudden stiffening. The room grew stifling warm and thick with an electric tension. As if to emphasize this, a long roll of thunder boomed outside the castle walls. Sarral stared hard at Kratia, wondering whether she had tried something that attracted the Crystal’s attention. If so, she had suppressed her magic too quickly for him to detect it. There was a saying going around the castle. ‘Hear the thunder-maker, call the undertaker.’ It was a grim joke that became grimmer with each unsuccessful prophecy. There were six attempts prior to Juran. Six wizards whose death knoll was a blast of thunder in a clear sky. But today there were clouds in the sky, and he didn’t feel a pulse of magic accompany the thunder. Most likely it was merely the weather.

Kratia’s face revealed nothing, and the Finance Minister seemed unperturbed by her stare. He continued as soon as the thunderclap had subsided.

“The papers make no financial sense. The loans you wish to give are far below market interest rate – your profit is barely at break even when the full overhead is factored in! Worse, the size and numbers of these loans will deplete the entire stockpile of your energy assets.

“I assume that is why you also had me prepare papers to acquire several rather large loans; but the interest payments on these loans will bankrupt you! Lord Kratia, you don’t have the assets or the economic and political contacts to raise that much energy on a long term basis. Why, it would require the entire year’s energy output of a major power plant! What you are proposing is simply foolish; it has no purpose!”

Cullo had finally managed to work up some emotion;  Sarral knew how passionate his uncle could be where energy was involved, especially when he was responsible for those funds. Finished, the Finance Minister sat down, pulling out a handkerchief to wipe his sweating red face and muffle his labored wheezing.

Kratia stared at him. A cold fire smoldered in her eyes. “You must control your emotions, Minister Cullo,” she stated without any inflection in her voice. “At your age such excitement could produce an unhealthy strain upon your heart or brain.”

Sarral detected irritation creeping into her voice as she continued, although it was  almost covered by a veneer of sympathy. “You should have been more supportive of my wishes, Zand. No doubt the recent Rep attack on your granddaughter has clouded your normally clear mind.”  Cullo started to reply, but she waved him into silence. “No doubt that is why you failed to notice that the loans I’m making have a clause that allows us to call the loan in full at any time.”

The Minister objected. “Why make a loan if you need to call it back before you make any profit off it?  It’s pointless.”

“We can discuss this in more detail later,” Kratia said.

She turned to Vejij. “What progress have you made on the music synthesizer? Or is funding for that curtailed as well?”

“Oh, no, my Lord,” answered the little man nervously. “That project progresses quite well. Master Nikademos has been quite helpful in helping us develop the proper harmonic responses. A functional prototype has been built and delivered to his quarters; he plays and lets me know what doesn’t seem right and I work on it. A few more days, and well be ready to incorporate the modifications you ordered. Then some tests, before the full scale version.”

She pursed her lips in a very thin smile. “At least something goes right.” She turned to stare at Cullo again. “As for you, Finance Minister, believe me when I say that I have a keen appreciation for what you have said and done.”

Zand Cullo nodded, apparently satisfied, as the staff let out a collective sigh. They were not used to Kratia taking criticism so calmly.

“Sarral, is Nikademos still confined to his quarters?” asked Kratia.

“Yes, Lord,” said Sarral. “Those were your last instructions. Do you wish to modify them?”

“I want Nikademos to be in the same state of mind as he was on Earth; there he lived practically as an Esaf. I want him to have full run of the castle, and his every demand granted, save only if it conflicts with one of my orders.”

Sarral nodded. “As you wish, Lord.”

Kratia turned to Brutis Parks, manager of the hydro power station at Hornblower. “Brutis, I’m glad you could make it to the meeting. I know your duties working at the plant keep you busy.”

“Neither Esaf nor the Palatine mind me attending, Lord Kratia,” he answered. “Both realize that you are one of the largest energy consumers in the nation, and they appreciate me meeting with such an important client.”

“Thank you, Brutis. I understand that you may miss next week’s meeting though. Official travel?”

“Yes, I’ll be visiting the power station at Retil, comparing the procedures and techniques used at the Mileu plants with ours. But the trip got moved up. I’ll be leaving today right after this meeting.”

“I’m sure they will benefit from your expertise in muckers. Please see Onwei Vejij before you leave; he has a few things to discuss with you about power couplings, I think.”

Brutis nodded and the rest of the meeting passed without significant event. When the meeting was dismissed, Kratia told Drake to go with Messick to review the science labs with Onwei. She motioned for her chief of staff to remain with her as the others filed out to leave them alone.

“Sarral, I want you to take the loan papers that were discussed earlier and meet me at ten o’clock tonight in my chambers. You will deliver the papers to John Anaso tomorrow.”

“The Vice‑President of the Free Trade Bank?” Sarral replied after only the briefest hesitation.

“Your memory enhancements are working quite well!” She smiled. “Ensure that he honors the terms of the contract immediately and explicitly. Take a contingent of guards if you feel it is prudent. The energy rods must be physically taken to the exact location shown on this map.”

A map appeared and hovered above the table. “Messick will take possession at that point,” continued Kratia. “Tell the general to proceed there with a squad of troops before dawn.”

Sarral stared at it committing it to memory. He nodded, and the map vanished. Sarral looked thoughtfully at Kratia. “There will be further objection on the part of Cullo, Lord.”

“No there won’t. You will see to it. The Finance Minister has been under so much strain; it was no idle speculation that I made on his health. There is a very real chance of him suffering a heart attack. Why, it might well happen tonight. Before you come to see me, in fact. Don’t you think so, Sarral?”

Sarral nodded, the implants in his subconscious automatically blocking the rush of emotion that would otherwise have made him shiver.

“As you wish, Lord,” he said calmly.

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