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Excerpt: Councilor by L. E. Modesitt, Jr.

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L. E. Modesitt, Jr., bestselling author of Saga of Recluce and the Imager Portfolio, continues his brand new, gaslamp, political fantasy series with Councilor the thrilling sequel to Isolate. Welcome to the Grand Illusion.

Continued poor harvests and steam-powered industrialization displace and impoverish thousands. Protests grow and gather followers.

Against this rising tide of social unrest, Steffan Dekkard, newly appointed to the Council of Sixty-Six, is the first Councilor who is an Isolate, a man invulnerable to the emotional manipulations and emotional surveillance of empaths.

This makes him dangerous.

As unknown entities seek to assassinate him, Dekkard struggles to master political intrigue and infighting, while introducing radical reforms that threaten entrenched political and corporate interests.

Please enjoy this free excerpt of Councilor by L. E. Modesitt, Jr., on sale 8.9.22.


Prologue

Findi

24 Fallfirst 1266

On Findi morning, Dekkard was up early, thinking about the day ahead, and that by noon he and Avraal would be married, little more than a week after he’d proposed. They’d not had much choice about the timing, not after he’d been suddenly selected to fi ll the Council seat left open by Haasan Decaro’s untimely death.

He glanced around the small staff bedroom, musing that, after more than two years, he’d spent his last night in the Obreduur house. Avraal had left the night before, when she and Dekkard had used their newly purchased gray Gresynt to carry the last of her clothes to her sister Emrelda’s house, where she spent the night . . . and where Dekkard and Avraal would be living after the wedding.

Another necessary accommodation to reality.

Recognizing that the last thing he needed was to be late, Dekkard quickly shaved and washed up, then threw on a set of old security grays to wear to breakfast. He hurried down to the staff room, where the normal Findi breakfast platter was already laid out, and poured his café and took two croissants, with his usual quince paste.

He ate quickly and had just stood to leave when Hyelda and Rhosali appeared.

“You’re leaving already?” asked Hyelda.

“Not quite. I have to load a few things in the steamer, then change into my formalwear for the wedding. You’re both going to be there, I trust?”

Rhosali grinned. “I wouldn’t miss it. You’re both good people, and I’ll be able to tell the family and everyone that I was at a councilor’s wedding.”

“I’ll be there.” Hyelda offered an amused smile. “Someone has to settle Rhosali.”

“Good.” Dekkard smiled, then turned and walked into the back hall and up to his room, where he packed his few remaining clothes, then dressed in white formalwear and carefully made his way downstairs, carrying the case, and out to the gray Gresynt.

After loading and lighting off the steamer, he waited for full pressure before starting down the drive. Since it was well before third bell, he had plenty of time. Still, he worried. Because it was a Findi, and because the New Meritorists had often created demonstrations on endday, especially at Imperial University, which was on the way to Emrelda’s and the Hillside Trinitarian Chapel, he wanted to have time to avoid any disruption. Fortunately, the university was quiet, and less than a third of a bell later he pulled the Gresynt into the chapel’s parking area, where there were only two steamers, that of Presider Buusen and another Realto he didn’t recognize.

He locked the Gresynt and walked toward the chapel with its gray stone walls and gold- tinted side windows that turned the greenish- white sunlight into a golden hue— when the sun shone through the green haze that suffused the atmosphere most days when it didn’t rain. When he entered the chapel, he could hear the harmonium, suggesting that the other Realto belonged to the organist. He vaguely recognized the music. At least, he thought he’d heard it before, but since he’d been raised in a household essentially of lapsed Solidans, his only exposure to Trinitarian hymns and music had been at the Institute and when he had accompanied the Obreduurs to chapel.

Presider Buusen’s study door was open, and Dekkard looked in and saw Buusen, clad in a simple green cassock, standing and looking out the half-open window.

The presider, a slender man, slightly taller than average height, possibly four digits shorter than Dekkard, with short-cut sandy and silver hair, turned and gestured for Dekkard to enter. “You’re a little early, Steffan.”

“More than a little,” admitted Dekkard. “I didn’t want to be late, and delays always occur when it’s most inconvenient. I also wanted to thank you, again, for being so accommodating.”

“I was free at this time.” Buusen smiled as he went on. “Emrelda’s been a good parishioner, and since you and Avraal will be living with her for a time, how could I resist the opportunity to have another young couple become part of the ward? Especially such a distinguished young couple.”

“We may not be quite so faithful in attending as Emrelda,” Dekkard replied. “I’ll have to spend time in Gaarlak, since that’s now my district.”

“I understand. There have been other councilors attending during my time here.” The presider gestured to the chairs in front of his desk. “We might as well sit.”

“Thank you. How did you come to be a presider, might I ask?”

“I actually trained as a chemist, and there were questions that science couldn’t answer. Not to my satisfaction. Science is good at explaining how. I found it lacking in answering why. Perhaps it’s my weakness, but why do we think . . . or think we think . . . better than other creatures? Some believe that seabears are as intelligent as children, but they have no voices and no hands. Is it just random that we have hands and voices? Science so far cannot answer that question. There are fossilized bones that suggest we developed from arboreal creatures . . . but why us and not mountain ursinoids . . . or seabears.” Buusen shrugged. “Those questions led me here. How did you get here?”

Dekkard smiled. “It’s a very long and simple story . . . but the mostly simple fact was that I wasn’t a very good artisan and I turned out to have some ability as a security aide, where I slowly fell in love with my partner, who let me discover that by myself.”

“What about her?”

“We’re both reserved, Avraal more than I am, although most people wouldn’t see that.”

“How are you finding being a councilor?”

“Very carefully,” replied Dekkard wryly.

While Dekkard summarized how he’d gone from being a security aide to a councilor, what he didn’t mention was that, while he knew the routine and outward duties of a councilor, if only from observation, he had no firsthand political experience. There was also the added fact that councilors had become targets of either Commercer-linked interests or of New Meritorist demonstrators. Over the four months before the recent election, five councilors from the Council of Sixty-Six had been assassinated, and there had been four attempts on Premier Obreduur when he’d still been a councilor, attempts that Dekkard and Avraal had thwarted.

So you have to not only worry about learning how to be a councilor, but also deal with possible assassination attempts . . . and being married.

Dekkard pushed those thoughts away—for the moment—and finished his summary. Before long, the organist stopped practicing and began playing what Dekkard would have called prelude music. Then Emrelda appeared, wearing an ankle-length teal dress with matching gloves, shoes, and nearly transparent headscarf.

“Avraal’s ready, Presider Buusen.”

“So am I,” said Dekkard as he stood, followed by Buusen.

The presider smiled. “I won’t be the one to hold up the ceremony. We’ll give you a few minutes to get back to the bride, and then we’ll take our places.”

“She looks so beautiful,” said Emrelda, her voice catching just slightly. “You’ll see.”

Then she turned and walked back toward the main entry to the chapel.

A minute or so passed before Buusen said, “It’s time.”

Dekkard handed the two rings to the presider. “I imagine you’ll need these.”

“It will make the ceremony go a little easier.”

Dekkard and Buusen left the study, then walked along the corridor paralleling the nave, before entering the chapel proper. Dekkard stopped just short of the middle of the center aisle and turned to face the rear of the chapel. Buusen took the low step up to the sanctuary and also turned, looking down the center aisle.

Behind them was the usual golden-edged tapestry, hung from a shimmering brass rod that extended nearly the width of the sanctuary wall. Against a pale green background three golden orbs formed an arc. Within the orb on the left was a silver-edged green maple leaf, while the middle and highest orb held a silveredged ray of golden sunlight splitting a green waterspout, and the orb on the right portrayed the outline of an antique four-masted ship haloed with the reddishgold light of sunset on a calm sea. Though the tapestry changed each season, only the background color varied, currently a pale golden red for autumn.

Dekkard surveyed the small group in the five front pews—Premier Obreduur and Ingrella, as well as Gustoff and Nellara, although the Obreduurs’ oldest child, Axeli, was in his second year at the Military Institute; Isobel Irlende, the security empath who was replacing Avraal; Hyelda and Rhosali; the office staff members of Obreduur’s office and the few staffers from Dekkard’s office; and in the back of the chapel, two Council Guards in their green-and-black uniforms, there to protect the Premier.

Svard Roostof, seated beside Ivann Macri and his wife, flashed a warm smile at Dekkard, and then the organist began playing the bridal processional.

Not that it was really a procession, just Emrelda, followed by her younger sister. Avraal wore a long-sleeved, high-necked, and ankle-length bright emerald-green dress, which suited her trim, petite, but slightly muscular figure far better than the more traditional pale green flowing gown. Her gloves and shoes matched the dress, as did her veil, although the veil was also more transparent than traditional, revealing more clearly her shimmering bobbed black hair. She did carry the traditional bridal bouquet of white and green gardenias.

Her gray eyes were on Dekkard, and his eyes were on her.

When Emrelda neared Dekkard, she smiled and stepped to the side, watching Avraal, as was everyone in the small assemblage of friends and guests. Suddenly, or so it seemed to Dekkard, Avraal was beside him, and the two turned to face Presider Buusen.

“Today, we are gathered here to witness and acknowledge the marriage of Steffan Delos Dekkard and Avraal Mikaila Ysella and to grant their union the blessing of the Three.”

Buusen turned first to Avraal. “Is this indeed your wish and intent, freely given?”

“It is.”

Then he turned to Dekkard and repeated the question.

“It is.”

Buusen’s eyes went to those in the pews. “As we acknowledge before the Three, our days are but fleeting threads in the fabric of time, yet in this transitory existence, one buffeted by the storms of fate and chance, the ties we make and hold enable us to weather the storms of life. Among the strongest of these ties is the commitment of a man and a woman to each other. So powerful and meaningful is this tie that it is specially blessed by the Three.”

The presider turned his eyes back to Dekkard and Avraal. “Marriage is a commitment not to be taken lightly. While it can afford the greatest of rewards, it is not a commitment to abandon in times of trouble or temptation. For, like threads that are stronger when woven together, remaining bound together in times both of triumph and tribulation leads to the greatest of rewards.” Buusen turned to Avraal and nodded.

She handed the wedding bouquet and her gloves to Emrelda, then turned to face Dekkard.

Buusen lifted the two rings and said, “These rings symbolize your decision and commitment to each other. In the sight of the Three and those gathered here, you pledge that commitment.” He handed one ring to Avraal.

She accepted the ring and slipped it onto Dekkard’s finger, saying as she did, “With this ring, I pledge my faith and love to you and to us both.”

Buusen handed the second ring to Dekkard.

As had Avraal, he placed it on her finger, saying, “With this ring, I pledge my faith and love to you and to us both.” In a murmur, he added, “With thanks and gratitude for your patience and love.” He squeezed her fingers gently before releasing them.

They turned back to face the presider.

“In the sight of the Three, you have affirmed your love and commitment. May it always be so.”

1

NEW PREMIER VOWS PROSPERITY FOR ALL

At the opening business session of the new Council, Premier Axel Obreduur was direct and forceful in declaring that “The people of Guldor have spoken. They want prosperity for all, not just the wealthy and fortunate.” Premier Obreduur went on to attack indirectly the policies of the previous government by claiming that the people wanted “meaningful work in Guldor, not cheap goods produced by impoverished susceptibles in other lands.” Only after those points did he address the concern felt by most Guldorans, the need for a “return to stability and order” after the demonstrations and violence mounted by the extremist New Meritorists in recent months.

The Premier claimed that the demonstrations resulted from a failure of government to understand that destroying Guldoran jobs to increase short- term corporacion profi ts only meant that most Guldorans suffered immediately and that such increased profi ts would be short- term and temporary . . .

Gestirn, 24 Fallfi rst 1266

2

On Unadi morning, when Dekkard settled himself behind the wheel of the gray Gresynt, he wore one of his new gray suits, with the red cravat of a councilor. Avraal sat beside him as he eased the steamer down the narrow drive at Emrelda’s house.

As he turned onto Florinda Way, he couldn’t help but hope that most of the administrivia and personal changes that had occupied much of the previous week and a half were largely past. With Premier Obreduur’s suggestion and blessing, he’d hired Svard Roostof as his senior legalist and Margrit Pettit as his personal secretary, and after bells of interviews settled on a junior legalist named Luara Colsbaan, who’d been highly recommended by Ingrella Obreduur, and two typists. All of the staff had been at the wedding and the reception following, hosted by Emrelda.

“It was quite an endday, dear, or should I say, ‘Ritten Ysella- Dekkard’?” he asked playfully, reaching out to squeeze his wife’s hand.

Calling it quite a day was an understatement. After all the changes— especially from security aide to councilor and from being single to being married— the simple act of driving to the Council Offi ce Building left Dekkard with a sense of the surreal, a sense heightened by the early- morning mist too light to be rain and too transparent and warm to qualify as fog.

“It’s been quite a year,” she pointed out, ignoring his use of the title.

“But yesterday . . . was special.”

“Yesterday . . . or last night?”

“Both,” he managed, with only the slightest of hesitations.

“Last night,” she said with an impish smile, squeezing his hand in return.

Dekkard flushed, but kept his eyes out for other steamers as he turned south on Jacquez.

“The last few days have been busy and different,” he fi nally said as he turned onto Camelia Avenue. “But I’ve been thinking. We haven’t talked about what you should be doing. I don’t see you sitting around waiting for me or Emrelda to come home. Maybe you could take Isobel Irlende’s place working for Carlos Baartol, at least for a while.”

“Obreduur mentioned that possibility last week. I also thought about looking into working for the Guilds’ Advisory Committee directly.”

“Do they have any empaths?”

“Isobel said they didn’t, but they used to. Carlos hired her, and they never replaced her.”

“Then he obviously pays more.”

“I want to work,” Avraal replied, “but pay isn’t everything.”

“Then talk to them both.”

“I set up appointments last Quindi.”

“You didn’t mention that,” he said with a smile.

“That’s because I wanted to see if you brought it up.” She paused, then added, “I’m glad you did.”

If likely almost too late. “So am I.”

The rest of the drive was much like that of most mornings over the past two years. Dekkard watched the streets and the steamers on them. Avraal kept sensing emotions of anyone who neared the Gresynt. Yet neither of them worked for Obreduur anymore. Dekkard was a councilor in his own right, and Avraal couldn’t work for either. Neither wore the gray security uniforms they’d donned for years, but gray suits, his with the appropriate councilor lapel pin, and hers still showing her as a staff aide, a matter they needed to take care of as soon as possible.

After Dekkard parked the Gresynt in the covered parking reserved for councilors, the two made their way across the drive to the Council Office Building. He carried a heavy gray leather folder holding various forms and papers.

As they neared the bronze doors, a Council Guard greeted them. “Good morning, Councilor.”

“Good morning,” replied Dekkard warmly.

Once inside, they took the central staircase to the second level, turning east toward Dekkard’s office.

Except for Margrit, the outer office was empty, but she immediately said, “Good morning, Councilor, Ritten.”

“Good morning,” replied Dekkard, then called out, “Svard?”

“Here.” Roostof hurried out through the open door from the staff room, where he’d likely been talking to Illana Zullt and Bretta Soike, the two clerktypists hired the previous Quindi . . . or possibly Luara Colsbaan, the newly hired junior legalist.

“Come on into my office.”

In little more than moments, Roostof and Avraal were seated in front of Dekkard’s desk.

“How are you coming with Illana and Bretta?” Dekkard asked.

“So far so good. You chose well.”

Dekkard grinned. “You selected them, because you’ll be the one supervising them. Avraal and I just approved your choice. You can take some credit, you know.” He paused. “Now . . . there’s one other thing. We’ve put off considering a technical or economic specialist. We need someone with an engineering background, preferably who comes from a hands-on family background and has been overlooked by the big engineering corporacions like Siincleer or Haasan Design.” Dekkard hadn’t wanted to make the decision on the position until his committee assignments on the Security Committee and the Workplace Administration Committee had been confirmed late the previous week.

“Bright, but without high-level corporacion connections,” added Avraal.

Roostof offered a puzzled frown.

“You might recall that, just before the election,” replied Dekkard, “there were some newssheet stories about how small engineering firms had unlikely, unfortunate circumstances befall them—rather consistently—and how the costs of government procurement have increased enormously. Now, with as many as fifteen possible Security buildings to repair or replace . . .”

“You think that’s going to come before the Security Committee?”

Dekkard smiled wryly. “I’m going to do my best to see that it does.” Particularly since the corruption of the engineering companies had led to the disappearance and likely death of Markell, Emrelda’s husband. “Do you have any contacts where you could put out the word?”

“I know a few people . . .”

“Do what you can. It will be a while before it comes up.” And it will come up, before one committee or another, if not several. Dekkard looked to Avraal. “We’ll have to go before long. Is there anything else?”

“Not right now.”

Dekkard stood. “Then I’ll see you later, Svard. Avraal and I need to take care of her paperwork and spousal passcard.”

Once Roostof had gone back to the larger staff office, Dekkard turned to Avraal. “Are you ready to go?”

“I am. But it feels strange not to be a staff aide anymore.”

“You’ll have the same access.” And a little bit more. “Or is it because the access comes from me and not from your qualifications?”

“I’m glad you understand.”

“The sooner we get you your spousal pin and passcard, the sooner you can talk to Carlos and the Guilds’ Advisory Committee.” Dekkard picked up his leather folder and gestured toward the door.

As they left his personal office, Dekkard turned to Margrit. “We’re headed to administration. I’ll be back as soon as I can.” Not that he expected anyone to be looking for him at the moment, since very few even knew who he was— except job hunters and influencers.

On the walk to administration, the halls were mostly empty, unlike at midday or just before the Council was in session.

Once Dekkard presented all the forms to the head clerk, she looked up and said, “This won’t take long. The Premier already told us to have Ritten Dekkard’s lapel pin and passcard ready. Just have a seat.”

As they seated themselves, Dekkard said, “An additional wedding present to you.”

“And to you, in a way.”

Dekkard nodded. “I suppose so, but the chance to meet you was the greatest gift.” After a slight pause, he smiled sheepishly and added, “Even if it almost took me too long to realize it.”

“I wouldn’t have been ready for you before. You can ask Emrelda.”

“She’d tell me the same thing, I’m sure.”

“You won’t mind my working somewhere else?”

“Of course, I mind. I’ll miss having you close.” He grinned. “But now I’ll have you closer at night and when we’re not working. You need to do something meaningful, just like Ingrella. I’ve known that almost from the time we first met.”

In less than a sixth of a bell, the clerk returned, and Avraal turned in her staff pin and passcard and received a spousal pin and passcard. Then Dekkard walked her to the west doors of the Council Office Building, where he handed her the keys to the Gresynt. “Take the position that suits you best, not for the marks.”

“You’re assuming I’ll be offered a position.”

“You’ll get offers from both.” There was no way she wouldn’t, Dekkard knew. Not with her being an extremely strong empath, and her experience working for the new premier as well as being the wife of a councilor.

“I’ll let you know.” She smiled again before leaving the building, heading across the drive to the covered parking.

When Dekkard returned to the office, he started in on the contents of the two inboxes on his desk, into which Margrit had sorted the day’s letters and messages. Heliograms, infrequent as they were, just went on the desk. That system couldn’t last, he knew, but since he’d never seen everything that had come into Obreduur’s office, he wanted a better idea of what came into his own before letting it go through Roostof first.

He pulled out a letter from the Textile Millworkers of Gaarlak, frowning as he did. It was likely from Gretna Haarl, the recently chosen guildmeister. She had reportedly played a key role in the Gaarlak Craft Party’s decision to recommend Dekkard as the replacement for the deceased Haasan Decaro. Despite assurances from Obreduur, Dekkard had doubts about that report, given that in his last—and only—conversation with Haarl, she had been acrimoniously critical of him.

He opened the envelope, extracted the letter, and began to read.

Dear Steffan,

The Guild would like to congratulate you on your becoming the Councilor for the Gaarlak District. As you may have heard, the Guild felt that you would be a far better choice to represent us than any other candidate suggested.

Your selection does present certain future problems, however. We hope that you will take steps to remedy them as you can. Some commitment to a residence or property on which a residence might be built would be an excellent beginning.

We look forward to seeing you and meeting with you on your next trip to Gaarlak, which we trust will be as soon as practicable. We also hope that you will retain the counsel and advice of Avraal Ysella.

The signature was, indeed, that of Gretna Haarl.

At least you can reassure her that you’re definitely retaining Avraal’s counsel. Except, given Haarl’s prickly insistence on the equality of women in all spheres, Haarl might well regard their marriage as minimizing Avraal. Dekkard decided he needed to think on how to respond . . . and get Avraal’s advice. But the fact that Haarl had indeed still supported him remained a puzzle . . . and a potential problem over time.

As he set that aside, the address on an expensive parchment-paper envelope caught his eye—Northwest Industrial Chemical—located on West Council Avenue, but that had to be a local office, because the corporacion’s main plant and headquarters were in Chuive. He slit open the envelope and extracted the single sheet, immediately glancing to the signature line:

Jaime Minz

Assistant Director of Security

Shaking his head, he began to read.

Dear Steffan—

Congratulations on being selected as Councilor from Gaarlak.

While I shouldn’t have been surprised, given your abilities and those of the Premier, I have to admit that it was masterfully done, although you must have mixed feelings about having to part ways with your partner. I’m most certain she’ll be successful with whoever her next isolate may be.

As you noted in our last conversation, the corporacion will likely face inquiries concerning the presumed theft of the dunnite used by the New Meritorist terrorists in their destruction of Security Ministry buildings. I can assure you that Northwest Industrial Chemical’s records show a complete and unbroken chain of custody dealing with all sales of dunnite to government ministries and other corporacions, and that the corporacion will be completely forthcoming in providing such documentation should the Council or any Committee of the Council require such.

Once more, my congratulations.

When he finished reading, Dekkard smiled wryly, especially considering the words about Avraal. Even in a letter announcing his influencing intents, Minz can’t resist throwing in a few words to undermine you.

Minz, even if he was no longer a senior Security Committee staffer, was not someone to be ignored or minimized, especially with his new position and his long-standing connections to powerful Commercer councilors, past and present, including the previous premier. Dekkard continued reading the letters and messages, but less than a bell later, Margrit rapped on the door and eased it open.

“Svard and Luara would like a few minutes with you.”

“Have them both come in.” Dekkard straightened behind the desk and waited.

Moments later, Roostof entered the inner office with a mahogany-haired woman of medium height and the dark-honeyed skin more common among those from the southwest of Guldor, particularly those with a Landor or professional family background. That wasn’t surprising, since Colsbaan was from Brekaan, but had received her degree in law from Imperial University prior to working as a legalist for the Women’s Clerical Guild. She was also a good ten years older than Dekkard, and married with two children.

Dekkard motioned to the chairs in front of his desk.

After both were seated, Roostof said, “Luara and I were discussing the difficulty of proceeding without the records of issues and problems facing the district.”

Dekkard turned to Colsbaan. “You found it hard to believe that there were no records, I take it?”

“Years ago, I worked briefly for Councilor Marrass, in a temporary position just before he stood down. He was most insistent that the office records went to his successor.”

“I understand that has usually been the practice,” replied Dekkard, “but my predecessor was ordered to destroy all records by the Landor Party leadership. One way or the other, we don’t have any records. The Premier told me that was true in all the districts where Craft councilors replaced Commerce or Landor councilors.”

A look of surprise appeared on Colsbaan’s face and then immediately vanished.

“The Commercers don’t take being defeated or thwarted very well, and they clearly exerted pressure on former Landor councilors as well,” added Dekkard.

“I’d heard rumors, but I’m sad to have it confirmed that the Commercers aren’t any more ethical in the Council than in practicing law, not that I expected otherwise.”

“Is there anything else?”

“No, sir. It was just so unexpected, even after the . . . abuses by the Special Tactical Force.”

Dekkard definitely had the feeling that Colsbaan was finding it hard to believe that any legalist would destroy records, possibly because guild legalists were always under scrutiny from the Justiciary Ministry, unlike corporacion legalists.

“The previous government engaged in a number of unexpected practices,” Dekkard said dryly, “including the attempt of the recently deceased Treasury Minister to kill the Premier . . . or the situations where Security agents shot unarmed female demonstrators in the back. While Premier Obreduur has restricted the use of firearms by Special Agents and the STF, that’s only a partial and temporary measure. We can only hope he can address some of the larger problems before the New Meritorists stage more demonstrations. If you have any thoughts along those lines, write them up. I’ll be happy to look at them.”

Colsbaan looked somewhat surprised.

“I mean it.” I’ll need everyone’s best ideas . . . and then some.

“Yes, sir.”

After Roostof and Colsbaan left his office, Dekkard continued going through the letters and Council notices, but the only one of immediate interest was about the backgrounds of Obreduur’s proposed ministerial appointments, since Dekkard had never heard of most of the proposed appointees, and votes were scheduled on several of the appointees on Duadi. After he finished reading the letters, he turned them over to Margrit to give to Roostof for response, except for those from Gretna Haarl and Jaime Minz.

By then, it was time for him to leave for the floor and the Council session. The Premier had called a vote on a resolution modifying emergency appropriations legislation passed by the previous Council to defer any spending on rebuilding Security buildings damaged by the Summerend New Meritorist demonstrations.

Although Obreduur hadn’t mentioned the reasons behind that exception clause, it was clear to Dekkard that the Premier felt voting to rebuild Security buildings without first looking into the abuses of Security agents and the Special Tactical Force would be politically catastrophic. It would send a message to the New Meritorists that the new Council was no different from the old Council. While Dekkard had been appointed to the Security Committee, the new chair of the committee, Fredrich Hasheem, had held off having the committee meet until Duadi, likely to give himself time to plan out his strategy for the coming year.

“I’m walking over to the Council Hall. I’ll likely be back in a bell or less,” Dekkard told Margrit as he left the office.

He’d just reached the central staircase when he saw Amelya Detauran and Elyssa Kaan escorting a dark-haired councilor almost as tall as the imposing Amelya, and a good fifteen years older than Dekkard. That councilor had to be Kaliara Bassaana, the Commercer councilor from Caylaan, whom Dekkard had never met.

“Councilor Bassaana,” Dekkard said politely as he neared the three.

Amelya immediately said something to Bassaana.

The councilor smiled politely and turned. “Councilor Dekkard . . . Amelya has told me so much about you.”

“Alas,” replied Dekkard, “she’s told me almost nothing about you, except that you respect Premier Obreduur and have considerably less respect for Eastern Ironway.”

Bassaana offered an amused laugh, then said, “We might as well chat on the way to the floor.” She paused before starting down the central staircase. “Do you still carry throwing knives?”

“I do, since a councilor carrying a gladius and truncheon is likely to be frowned upon.”

“Then I’m certainly secure, with two armed isolates and an excellent empath around me. I understand you’re to be married soon . . . to your former security partner.”

“Actually, we were married yesterday.”

“Congratulations. It must be quite a change for both of you, isn’t it?”

“Only for me. Ritten Ysella merely became Ritten Ysella-Dekkard.”

Dekkard thought Bassaana paused just for an instant before she said, “I don’t believe many people know that.”

“Most don’t, but her father is descended from the last king of Aloor. Her brother, of course, is the heir to the lands.”

“You chose well.”

Dekkard laughed softly as he and Bassaana stepped out of the Council Office Building and onto the covered walk to the Council Hall. He also noticed Bassaana’s hand signal for Amelya and Elyssa to give them more space. “Avraal never told me. I found out from Ingrella Obreduur after I’d asked Avraal to marry me.” That wasn’t quite true, but it was true in spirit and close enough. He glanced around, but saw no sign of anything untoward, unlike the times during summer when there had been armed demonstrators. “The selection as councilor forced us to schedule the ceremony much earlier than we’d anticipated.”

“You had no idea you were to be selected?”

Dekkard shook his head ruefully. “Even the Premier and the regional Craft Party coordinator were stunned.”

“How did anyone even know who you were?”

“The Premier toured Gaarlak during Summerend. Avraal and I accompanied him. We stopped another assassination attempt, and there was a rather large news story about his tour and about how Avraal and I caught Councilor Aashtaan’s assassin. We talked with local Guild officials, legalists, and others as part of his efforts in support of the Craft Party. He never said, but I surmised that was because Emilio Raathan had not been that visible and had to stand down in the election.”

“Did he ever mention anything about your becoming a councilor?”

“He told me several times that in years to come, if I kept working and learning, I should think about it. He also said that I had a great deal to learn.”

Bassaana chuckled, then asked, “Why do you think you were selected?”

Dekkard had thought about it a great deal. Still, he wondered whether it was wise to offer his opinion, but decided that Bassaana either knew or would find out. “Because I’m reasonably intelligent, mostly personable, necessarily loyal to the party, and one of the few suggestions that would block whoever else Obreduur had in mind in a way that he couldn’t object to.”

For a moment, Bassaana said nothing.

Dekkard said, “You already surmised that. There was no reason not to confirm it.”

“To a Commercer?”

“To one of the five Commercers who voted for Obreduur.”

“I can see why Amelya said I should talk to you.”

“She’s why I approached you,” replied Dekkard pleasantly.

“For what purpose?”

“For mutual benefit . . . although I have no specific end in mind, except to preserve the Great Charter before it’s effectively destroyed by the excesses of the New Meritorists or the previous premier.”

“You’d equate the two?” Bassaana’s voice was cool, but not edged.

“Only in their inability or unwillingness to understand that absolute power vested in either complete popular rule or complete rule by an elite would destroy Guldor.”

“You’re advocating moderation, Steffan. Moderation is not popular in troubled times.”

“What’s popular, especially in its extremes, is seldom best. At least, that’s what history indicates. That’s why the Great Charter shields councilors from the worst of popular opinion.”

As Dekkard and Bassaana neared the bronze doors of the Council Hall, she said, “It’s been a pleasant conversation. I look forward to meeting your wife.”

Dekkard understood and stepped aside, opening and holding the door for Bassaana, Elyssa, and Amelya. As Amelya passed, he murmured, “Thank you.”

She gave a quick smile and nod, but did not pause.

Dekkard waited for a minute or two before entering the Hall and walking toward the entrance to the floor of the Council chamber. The pair of Council Guards standing just inside the doorway to the councilors’ lobby glanced at Dekkard just a moment longer than at the Craft councilor preceding him, Harleona Zerlyon, from Ondeliew, the chair of the Justiciary Committee. Dekkard headed for his desk at the far-left end of the back row. He was standing beside it when Councilor Hasheem approached him.

“Steffan . . . I’m so glad you’ve been assigned to the Security Committee . . . Axel mentioned that you had an interesting suggestion for dealing with the problems with the Security Ministry. We should meet in the dining room . . . say, at noon, tomorrow?”

“I’d be more than happy to, sir.”

“Just Fredrich, please.”

“I look forward to it . . . Fredrich.”

“Excellent . . . excellent.”

As Hasheem moved toward his own desk, Dekkard considered the implications of the brief conversation. Given the reactions of Gestirn and The Machtarn Tribune to Obreduur’s views—that the New Meritorists were a symptom of a problem and not the problem itself—Hasheem’s conversation strongly suggested that, while Obreduur agreed with the Security Ministry reforms Dekkard had proposed, the Premier didn’t want to be seen as the one pushing those ideas. Especially right now.

At that moment, the lieutenant-at-arms appeared and thumped his gold and black ceremonial staff. “The Council is now in session.”

Guilhohn Haarsfel, as Craft Party floor leader, and thus the majority floor leader, stood on the dais and announced, “The legislation having been read and discussed in the previous session, the Council is in session to vote on the amended emergency appropriations legislation. All councilors have a third in which to register their vote and deposit a plaque.”

As Haarsfel finished speaking, Obreduur gestured, and the deep gong sounded once.

Dekkard waited as the more senior councilors walked to their party’s plaque box and picked up two colored tiles, one signifying yes, one no, and tinted on one side to show party affiliation. Then each walked to the voting box set on the front of the dais, where one tile went into the ballot slot and the other into the null slot.

He recognized only a handful of councilors by sight, generally those few he’d been introduced to or met in passing through Obreduur, such as Hasheem or the three floor leaders.

Finally, as one of the more junior councilors, he went to the Craft plaque box and picked up his tiles and took his turn, placing the yes tile in the ballot slot and the no tile in the null slot. Finally, the deep chime rang again.

“The vote is closed,” declared Obreduur. “Floor leaders, do your duty.”

The three floor leaders watched as each voting tile was removed from the ballot box and placed in one of two columns in the counting tray, each column separated by party. Then the clerk wrote the vote totals on the tally sheet, and each of the three floor leaders signed the sheet.

As the majority floor leader, Haarsfel carried the tally sheet as he stepped onto the dais. “Those councilors approving the amended emergency appropriations legislation, twenty-nine Craft councilors, eight Landor councilors, and three Commerce councilors, for a total of forty. The legislation is hereby passed and will be enrolled and sent to the Imperador.”

After another pause, Obreduur announced, “There being no other business, the Council is adjourned until the first afternoon bell of Duadi, the twentysixth of Fallfirst.”

Dekkard looked to see if Obreduur might gesture to him, but the Premier left the floor with Haarsfel.

When Dekkard returned to his office, Margrit immediately said, “Did anything interesting happen?”

“We voted for an emergency spending measure, but one that did not include marks for repairing Security buildings until the Council can look into all the problems with Security.”

“Someone should. I still can’t believe they shot all those unarmed people.”

“The problem is that the New Meritorists aren’t that much better,” replied Dekkard, “and the Premier and the Council are caught in the middle.” And it might not be very long before there are more demonstrations . . . if not worse. Dekkard offered a wry smile before he entered his office and closed the door.

Once behind his desk, he took out several sheets of paper and began to write out specific points for the reform of the Security Ministry, based on what he’d mentioned to Obreduur. He hadn’t had time to work out the details earlier, not with all the work setting up the office . . . and getting married.

In some ways, it’s still hard to believe. The son of Argenti immigrant artisans marrying the descendant of royalty . . . and such a brilliant and talented descendant. His single regret was that neither his sister nor his parents had been there, but there hadn’t been time to wait, and the cost of an ironway ticket was not insubstantial for one person, let alone three, and to come that distance for such a short time . . .

He pushed those thoughts away and went back to drafting his Securityproposal outline. Almost a bell later, he looked at a sheet of basic points.

1. Rename the Ministry of Security as the Ministry of Public Safety.

2. Restructure Ministry of Public Safety to remove Special Agents from the chain of command and to require senior officers to have served at least ten years as patrollers or patroller officers.

3. Transfer the Special Tactical Force from the Ministry of Security/Public Safety to the Army.

4. Restrict the powers of Special Agents to investigation and information collection, authorized in writing and approved by the Justiciary Minister.

5. Rename Special Agents as Information Officers and prohibit their carrying and use of firearms.

Then he left the sheet on his desk and walked out into the staff office, where Roostof was talking with Colsbaan. “Svard . . . I need a moment. Close the door when you come in.”

“Yes, sir.” Roostof followed Dekkard into the private office.

Dekkard did not sit, but handed the single sheet of paper to Roostof. “Svard, you’re the legalist. Take a look at this and tell me the best way you know to accomplish it. You’ll have to do this on your own, because no one else should know about it yet.”

Roostof began to read, and his eyes widened, but he finished reading and looked up. “I can see why you want this kept quiet. Is this . . . a possibility?”

“It’s definitely a possibility.” Whether it’s a stalking horse for Obreduur, a veiled threat, or something more is another question. What wasn’t a question was that current high-level Security officials would oppose it any way that they could, and at present, Security agents were armed and would follow any order. “Treat it like it’s a realistic legislative possibility . . . and one you don’t want Security or Commercers to see or hear about. I need the best you can do by fourth bell tomorrow morning.”

“Yes, sir.”

After Roostof left, Dekkard checked his watch. Another bell to go, at the earliest, before he could expect Avraal. That gave him time to go over the background material on the proposed ministerial appointments.

Copyright © 2022 from L. E. Modesitt, Jr.

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