Travel Broadens: Episode 17

Craig sits in the club's bar, sipping slowly on a fine whiskey. The quality of the drink is quite wasted on him at the moment. He takes another mouthful of the fine amber liquid and lets it trickle down his throat. For all he cares right now, it might as well be horse piss.

Craig is struggling to digest what Markius has just told him. He can't believe that a relative of his, even one as ivory-tower crazy as Fennik, would do such a thing as donate to a channel.

Craig struggles to calm himself. He must think rationally if there's to be any hope of salvaging something from this fiasco. He comforts himself with the thought that at least the insanity can't be hereditary; Fennik is related only by marriage and not by blood. However, he does own a bigger block of GMM stock than Craig's 9%.

Craig's mind goes around and around the problem, trying to find an angle to turn this situation into some sort of benefit for himself or for the company. Or better yet, for both at once. However, he can't get himself past the mental image of slimy hot tentacles, wrapping themselves around a human wrist.

Fennik sits comfortably on the club's patio, sipping his coffee and thinking about Fridda. He's glad he managed to get rid of Markius. What a crude young man.

Craig, with a heavy sigh, stands and picks up his drink, then walks slowly towards the patio where Fennik still sits. He still doesn't know what he's going to say or do.

Fennik gazes at the rose garden and idly wonders if there are similar clubs with similar rose gardens in Nivet.

Craig opens the sliding door and glances around the patio, then spots Fennik sitting in a quiet corner. He crosses the deck, focusing only on the sound of his feet on the wooden flooring.

Fennik turns at the sound and sees Craig holding his glass of whiskey. Drat!

Craig: Jon.

Fennik: Craig.

Craig looms over the seated professor.

Craig: May I sit?

Fennik feels compelled by common courtesy to consent.

Fennik: Of course.

Fennik is glad he doesn't have to watch that his words match his feelings to avoid offending Simes here.

Craig sets down his drink and settles into the chair across from Fennik.

Craig: Jon, I've just been talking to Markius.

Fennik: Hmm?

Craig: He tells me you went to Sime Territory and...

Craig's voice drops to a hush.

Craig: ...donated.

Fennik: Well, I donated before I went, but yes.

Craig puts on his best "more in sorrow that in anger" expression.

Craig: Jon. How could you?

Fennik: Hmm? It was no real trouble. And it made my attendance at the conference more pleasant and productive.

Craig: I know that your recent... change in circumstances...

Craig isn't going to be so crude as to refer explicitly to Fridda's death.

Craig: the sort of thing that can unhinge any man. But really, Jon. To let a snake touch you?

Fennik: It wasn't so bad. The channel was a very dignified gentleman and made it quite tolerable.

Craig struggles to restrain himself, but finally curiosity gets the better of him.

Craig: What... what was it like?

Fennik doesn't think much of Craig. While his business acumen is undoubted, he clearly values money and profit above the truly important things in life. His proposal to use and then murder Simes was utterly repugnant.

Fennik: It was very simple. The channel held my arms, made a five-point contact, drew the selyn. It took only about a minute, including a scan for health problems. I didn't feel a thing.

Fennik's description is more a paraphrase from one of the books he's read than an accurate account of his own experience.

Craig shudders. Maybe it's just as well that Fennik has kept his description so clinical.

Craig: I....

Craig closes his eyes and shakes his head.

Fennik decides to take the offensive.

Fennik: Why the prurient interest, Craig?

Craig: I'm sorry, Jon. I just keep imagining those hot, slimy tentacles wrapping around your wrist, and....

Craig shakes his head, then takes a big swallow of whiskey.

Craig: Let's talk about something else. You know what will happen if Ruthven finds out.

Fennik: Oh, he already knows. He's annoyed, but he'll get over it. He can't always have his own way, you know.

Craig: It could ruin his political backing if it gets out. Unless, of course, he distances himself from you completely.

Fennik: He's not my keeper. And everyone knows academics are eccentric. I don't think he has much to worry about.

Craig: Listen, we can make this easier for you. I have a line to a very good therapist, a grief counselor. I can set you up with him. Then, all you have to do is come out against this crazy plan to bring snakes into the mine. If word gets out, we'll just say you were temporarily unhinged by your... unfortunate loss. Otherwise, Ruthven will have to throw you to the wolves to save his own career.

Fennik: I don't think it's a crazy plan. I think it's a clever one. Apparently Markius and Ruthven agree. Besides, what wolves? I've got tenure, and donating isn't regarded with quite the same odium in academic circles. I needed to donate to engage in typical and entirely justified professional activities, and I did so. There's no scandal there.

Fennik was careful to set it up that way.

Craig: But Ruthven's a senator. As soon as this gets out, reporters will be all over it, and you.

Fennik: I never talk to reporters except about my work.

Craig: You know reporters. They'll go over every inch of your trip to Sime Territory, looking for any impropriety. A young lady at that conference, a handshake with a snake. Whether or not you talk to them, you'll be the center of a scandal.

Fennik makes a dismissive gesture.

Fennik: The public isn't much concerned about the activities of a professor of Ancient literature, whoever his brother-in-law may be.

Craig: But the Senator's backers are very concerned about anything involving his family, and GMM's stockholders are concerned about the company. Some of those are the same people.

Fennik: Well, Craig, what's done is done. I suggest you find other things to fret about.

Craig: I'm trying to find ways to salvage this.

Fennik: I'm sure Ruthven can manage.

Craig frowns.

Craig: If you were still just a minor stockholder, it wouldn't look so bad. It's the big block of stock from your dear wife, that you were holding in trust for... well, anyway, it's your large new holdings that make you worthy of notice. If you were to, say, sign them over to someone trustworthy...

Fennik sighs. Now it comes out. So obvious.

Craig: In return for which I would plead your case with Ruthven and his backers...

Fennik: No, Craig.

Fennik knows he has a much better relationship with Ruthven than Craig does. Besides, he agreed with Ruthven on the Sime surveying issue, unlike Craig.

Craig: (coldly) in that case, it may be me, and not some reporter, who investigates exactly what you were doing while you were out there among the snakes.

Fennik is glad that his control of his expression is far better than his control of his nager.

Fennik: Do you want the list of attendees at the conference, so you can interview several hundred of them? The conference organizers may have it available.

Craig is thinking about the many opportunities for indiscretion at an academic conference. He vastly overestimates just how many opportunities for indiscretion there are at such events.

Craig: I have staff who can follow up on that sort of thing. I prefer to use my own research sources. Yours might omit something.

Fennik: Craig, I assure you I didn't have a dozen Sime dancing girls entertain me in my room. Nor did I become inebriated and dance around with a basket of fruit on my head.

Craig chuckles at these images.

Fennik: Go ahead and waste your time and energy. I have nothing to hide.

Fennik knows a Sime could tell that he's lying.

Craig decides it's time to turn up the heat.

Craig: You also have no way to prove that every minute of your time is accounted for while you were over there. If, for example, you went somewhere outside the conference grounds... anywhere at all. You would have no way to refute whatever story might be published about what you did when no witness can be found.

Fennik is getting rather tired of these threats. He would have expected something more subtle from someone with Craig's reputation.

Craig thinks subtlety is wasted on this effete clod.

Craig: A story about a grieving father, searching through Sime Territory for his lost daughter, unable to believe she's really dead...

Fennik: No, Craig, you can't have my stock.

Craig: A diagnosis of insanity, and you'll be off the board, with a trustee appointed for your holdings. You won't have a lot of say about who. Or vote with me on the Cordvain Valley, and I'll let you off the hook.

Fennik: Go away, Craig.

Craig knows he's made an enemy of Fennik now, but isn't too concerned. Only competent enemies are a problem.

Fennik figures if anyone is in line for a diagnosis of insanity, it's Craig.

Craig: I'm not going anywhere.

Craig finishes his drink, and signals a waiter for another.

Fennik also knows that giving in to a blackmailer, even a little, is a lifetime sentence of slavery. It's a common theme in literature.

Tsibola strolls onto the patio in time to hear this last exchange.

Tsibola: Jon, is Craig giving you a hard time?

Fennik: He seems to be trying to, not very effectively.

Craig: Ruthven, did you know that the family scapegrace has been chasing across Sime Territory, looking for his lost daughter?

Craig figures he can always manufacture the evidence later.

Tsibola raises an eyebrow.

Fennik: He's got some notion that he can get me to let him vote my stock by threatening to spread silly stories like that. Another one he proposed was that I engaged in "indiscretions" at the conference.

Craig: The poor man has been unhinged by his loss.

Tsibola's expression grows ~~ stern ~~ with the formidable expression that has cowed more than one fractious committee to vote his way.

Craig: Jon, I'm not going to let you ruin Ruthven's career with this.

Fennik: As I've said, Ruthven is perfectly capable of protecting his own career from ruin.

Tsibola: Craig, I won't tolerate blackmail. I particularly won't tolerate incompetent blackmail, in a member of my family.

Craig: It's not blackmail. I'm trying to salvage a public relations disaster here.

Tsibola: It became blackmail when you tried to get voting rights to Jon's shares, by threatening him with exposure. It became incompetent blackmail when you threatened to "expose" deeds that are so implausible that no sane person could see your story for anything but what it is.

Craig: The only way to salvage this mess is to take a hard line on the Cordvain Valley. Jon hasn't the guts to do it.

Tsibola: And if he did? You still won't have a controlling interest. Honestly! Chasing around Sime Territory searching for his missing daughter?

Craig raises an eyebrow.

Tsibola: Who would believe that, when all he'd have to do is write to the appropriate Sime Center and ask where she'd been sent?

Fennik: As if I could accomplish much in a week, almost all of which was spent in Arreven at an academic conference.

Craig keeps his eyes rock-hard. He's always been a good poker player.

Craig: Which Sime Center would you suggest that I write to?

Tsibola makes an ~~ impatient ~~ noise.

Tsibola: Academic conferences, in case you were wondering, Craig, seldom involve activities more scandalous than a heated discussion or two.

Fennik: Well, the students do get a bit rowdy on occasion. Of course, "rowdy" is pretty mild with academic types.

Tsibola: I am merely making the point that no one will believe that Jon was criss-crossing Sime Territory on a search that could be resolved from the comfort of his home.

Craig is tracking an idea, and is no longer concerned about the possibility of Fennik dancing with a lampshade on his head.

Craig: If you will excuse me, gentlemen, I believe I have some research to do.

Tsibola: If you try to spread such a rumor, you'll be the one who's made to look ridiculous, not Jon.

Craig: We'll see about that. Unless you just want to come clean with me, either or both of you?

Fennik waves him off.

Fennik: Go away, Craig.

Craig: As you wish, Jon.

Craig stands and turns to go.

Craig: Be careful, Ruthven. This fool could ruin you.

Craig walks briskly away, headed (as usual) for the washrooms.

Tsibola looks after Craig, shaking his head.

Tsibola: That boy never did have any sense. I'm sorry he gave you a hard time, Jon.

Fennik: So blatant, so unsubtle, so crude. Is he really a genius in business?

Tsibola: Not a genius, but he's been dependable for routine tasks, in the past. If he keeps bothering you, let me know.

Fennik: A thoroughly unlikable man.

Tsibola: He's family, and he's useful enough, if you don't confront him with anything new.

Tsibola: What you did -- well, I admit, I'm having trouble coming to terms with it, myself. Particularly since it's my fault.

Fennik: It's not your fault, Ruthven, it was my own decision.

Fennik lowers his voice.

Fennik: I wouldn't have been allowed to visit her without it.

Tsibola: Ah. I wondered how he convinced you.

Tsibola looks very ~~ sympathetic ~~

Fennik: It really was necessary. Even with the donation, I could see the effect I was having on Simes. I really might have hurt her unintentionally.

Tsibola: I see.

Tsibola: Jon, I... I can't blame you for giving in to that sort of pressure. Was... was it worth it?

Fennik: Yes, certainly. She's still the same person, Ruthven, just more matured by her dreadful experience. We still love each other deeply. She was so afraid that I didn't really mean what I'd written to her. But she can tell now. She can zlin through hypocrisy.

Fennik smiles.

Fennik: If only we could.

Tsibola shakes his head.

Tsibola: Believe me, Jon, the government would fall apart in a week if everyone were forced to be honest about how they felt. Not knowing makes things much, much easier.

Fennik laughs.

Fennik: You're right, of course.

Fennik reaches for his coffee, realizes it's cold and desists.

Tsibola: The Simes have to use a different tactic, obviously.

Fennik: She's doing well. She'll be going to Capital soon. The university there has a program for entering students with inadequate preparation, to get them up to speed.

Tsibola: Apart from learning the language, she should be ready for anything she might face there.

Tsibola doesn't consider subjects like the history of Nivet and Simelan literature important.

Fennik: Simes can learn much faster in their first year after changeover, so she'll pick up the language quickly.

Tsibola: What does she plan to study?

Fennik: She's not sure, but definitely some economics to start.

Tsibola: Well, that will be useful. She seems to have the family head for business.

Fennik: It was so good to see her again, to meet her as an adult... It worked out well. We even managed to hug each other.

Fennik doesn't mention the tears of joy on both sides.

Tsibola: You hugged her? Jon, I consider myself a brave man, but I don't know if I could have done that. And not because I don't love and trust Fridda.

Fennik: She's still my daughter. In all the important ways she hasn't changed.

Tsibola: There are one or two important changes. They make a difference, Jon. Even though you still love each other.

Fennik: Well, she'll probably never be able to visit us here, but I can visit her again.

Tsibola: When you do... tell her I wish her all the best.

Fennik: I've told her that. It meant a lot to her that you visited her just after it happened. She sends her love to you too.

Tsibola gives a sad smile.

Tsibola: Well, I'm glad that you had a chance to see her, although I wish I'd stayed with you in the embassy. Seruffin is as slick as they come.

Fennik: He's a good man, Ruthven. He has integrity.

Fennik isn't going to point out that he also has a good deal of patience.

Tsibola: Less than you assume, Jon. He doesn't lie, of course. Simes don't acquire the habit. But that doesn't mean he didn't deceive you, by being very selective about the truth he told you. I've been up against him in negotiations a time or two, and he's as tough as they come.

Fennik: I don't doubt he's a skilled negotiator, but he wasn't trying to get anything out of me.

Tsibola: Oh? He got a bunch of selyn out of you. Not to mention that you went into Sime Territory on his terms, not yours.

Fennik laughs.

Fennik: It's all right, Ruthven. Once I saw the effect on the Simes around me, I would have donated just out of concern for what I might do to Fridda.

Tsibola: You wouldn't have had any effect on the Simes around you -- or on Fridda -- if you'd gotten the waiver. Your Escort would have prevented it. But Seruffin's primary loyalty is to the Tecton, and the Tecton benefited twice through his efforts: they didn't have to assign you an Escort, and they have your selyn.

Fennik: If they had allowed me to visit her, I might have hurt her. Escort or no.

Tsibola: Seruffin told you that?

Fennik: He said I wouldn't be allowed to visit her without donating, even with an Escort. That I'd be restricted in where I could go. And I saw my effect on the Simes at the conference, even low field.

Fennik: Ruthven, one Gen's selyn isn't a big deal to them.

Tsibola: Jon, they don't think like we do. They don't think in terms of large groups of people. They just go on, recruiting one Gen at a time. And they always try to go for a donation.

Fennik realizes how silly this sounds to him now, when a few months ago he would have been nodding his head in agreement.

Tsibola: For some reason, they assume that any Gen who donates is a supporter, and anyone who doesn't, isn't. No matter what their politics.

Fennik shrugs. Politics is not of great interest to him.

Fennik: It worked out well for Fridda and me. I don't regret it.

Tsibola: Seruffin is a Sime, and a channel, and a diplomat. When he saw the chance to make the situation work out for the Tecton, he didn't hesitate to apply pressure. And Simes read emotions; he'd have known exactly how to convince you to donate, before he even brought the subject up.

Fennik thinks this sounds paranoid to him now, but he's not interested in arguing with Ruthven.

Tsibola: I'm glad to know he took the trouble to make it as easy on you as he could. He's a good man, in his way. But don't assume he was looking after your interests, except as they served his own.

Fennik: He seems to be a very intelligent man, and no doubt skilled in his professions. Perhaps you're right.

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