The end of the Secession Wars left the bulk of humanity’s settled planets free, independent and poor. You cannot eat sovereignty, and worlds that had been developed to fit niches in the United Nations’ planned mercantilism were ill-equipped for self-sufficiency. Standards of living crashed as each planet’s economy was forced to adapt to suddenly having massive over-production in some sectors whilst being woefully inadequate in others.
This post-colonial depression gave rise to a period of rapid expansion by the merchant houses, who parlayed their position as the lifeblood of the insurrection into a network of highly profitable trade routes as they brought the worlds back together in a new configuration without the dead weight of Earth at its core. It also pushed many of the newly independent worlds together to survive. Both the Polaris Federation and the Albion Star Empire grew quickly and with remarkably little bloodshed in this period, and even the People’s Republic of Greater China, the so-called Celestial Raj, added a number of border worlds that (somewhat) willingly chose caste-bound bureaucracy over starvation.
These two trends came together on the coreward side of the Sagittarius Reach, where the European and American colonial arms ran close together. The Draconis Customs Union began as a consortium of six merchant houses, and a package of trade agreements they offered to each of the planetary governments where they did business. What it became was something altogether stranger…
The Dragon’s Rise: An Analysis of the Draconis Alliance by Professor Jen Guatella, Margrethe University Press
Elysian’s sun was rising over the Mirrormere lake as the shuttle glided across the estate that shared the lake’s name. The landing pad was a good half mile from the house and discreetly screened by a natural-looking copse of Terran trees – birch, ash and the occasional oak – that ensured the early arrival did not disturb any of the guests at the great house. A trio of open-topped electric carts waited by the landing pad, each with its own driver sitting patiently as the shuttle settled under anti-grav alone for its landing, but there was no other welcoming committee.
Once the shuttle was grounded and it had extruded a passenger ramp, the first people to disembark were a pair of men in open-collared formal business dress with long-tailed coats, followed closely by a young woman in a somewhat old-fashioned knee-length skirt, blouse and jacket. The half dozen others who followed were clearly staff, allowing enough of a gap for their principals to speak without being overheard. The two men made for a striking contrast – the one on the left being tall, burly, dark and with a full beard, while his sandy-haired companion was almost a head shorter, slight of build and with narrow features.
“Welcome to Mirrormere Master Bardan, Mistress Bardan,” the smaller man said with a slight bow and an equally slight smile and gesturing towards the first of the carts. “The Tremayne will be waiting to greet you properly, if discreetly, at the house.”
“Will you still not call me Louis?” the big man sighed as he climbed into the cart, beckoning for his companion to sit beside him and waving the young woman to sit up front with the driver. “We have too much to be done here for you to be saying Master Bardan to me every time we speak, and there will be entirely too many Master Tremaynes here for me to call you so without confusion. And having to say Master Paul Tremayne every time is entirely too cumbersome!”
“Then Louis it is, and of course you may call me Paul,” Paul Tremayne said with the same slight smile. The driver put his foot to the cart’s floor pedal and they were underway with no more sound than the crunch of gravel under the tires and a medley of birdsong, both Terran and the Elysian equivalent, from the trees. The young woman looked attentively towards the trees whilst Louis and Paul spoke behind her.
“I sense that you do not really approve of this alliance,” Louis said. “You are too much the diplomat to ever say so, and your work to bring us this far has been impeccable, but there is no, how to say, no spark there. Shall we speak honestly, here and now, before we meet with Alexander? If there is anything I can do to help warm you to this alliance… as I say, your work with us so far has been impeccable, but I sense with your whole-hearted cooperation you could be a truly formidable ally.”
“Honestly…” Paul shrugged. “Honesty is a large part of it, Louis. You must admit that your house’s reputation is somewhat damaged in that regard.”
The young woman gasped, showing that she had indeed been listening, but Louis shushed her. “No Maria, Paul is right. Our family made a great mistake – no, we did a terrible thing, and we have to pay for it. It does not matter that the lawyers have settled their cases and the cheques have been written. This sort of debt is not so easily paid, not to the sort of people who are worth having as allies. And this is not just an abstract matter for you Paul, is it now? You are not one of the unfortunates, I would remember your name from the lists – someone close to you perhaps?”
“Not quite. My name was very nearly on your list, though. And I should have known something was wrong.”
“Why? Because you’re a Tremayne? Perhaps you take your family’s reputation for omniscience a little too seriously, Paul. I knew nothing at the time, and my cousin headed the project, my own brother was the head of the house.”
Paul laughed. “But I was in charge of intelligence on House Bardan back then, Louis. It was my job to know more about your business than you did – more than your brother did, if I could manage it. And he out-foxed me. Don’t believe all the stories, Louis. It is possible to fool the Tremaynes. Your own brother managed it, at the worst possible time!”
Louis shrugged. “I always knew Philippe was clever. And at the last, I realised that he was, as the English used to say, too clever by half. I am not so clever as he was, but I like to think myself clever enough and honest enough to know just how cleaver I am, and no more. Unlike Philippe, also, I have a purpose to work towards – to try and make amends for what he did. Anyway,” he said, looking up at the house, “here we are! I have to ask –are you Tremaynes compensating for something?”
Paul snorted and the first genuine smile touched his lips. “Not exactly, not in the sense you mean at least. It does look rather grand, doesn’t it? The exterior is an exact copy of Blenheim Palace in England, back on Earth. Black Jack Tremayne had it built ninety years ago, straight after the Seccession Wars finished, when we first came to our understanding with the Elysian government. Said he wanted a fancy country house and by God, he was only going to steal from the best! The interior layout’s completely different from the original, of course. This place is designed for modern living and needs to support a working staff as well.”
“So, this is the headquarters for your family’s operations?” Louis asked as they entered through an unprepossessing side door.
“Not really. Things are quite decentralised, each of the businesses has its own separate headquarters and even the Foundation has the bulk of its administration done elsewhere, but the Tremayne – Alexander – bases himself here so he has a resident staff, and various visiting family members need support as well. And just running this estate requires a fair sized office.”
“And this would be the office wing of the house, I assume?” Louis gestured at the corridor the walked down. The walls were oak panelled and the dark blue carpet was sumptuous, but the rooms they passed were clearly working spaces, albeit empty at this time.
“I’m afraid so. If it were up to me, we would have let you get settled into your suite but the Tremayne was quite insistent he wanted to see you straight away” Paul said as he ushered Louis and Maria into one of the rooms.
“You can drop that ‘the Tremayne’ crap, Paul,” the room’s occupant said waspishly. “Louis, good to see you again. Mistress Maria, it’s a pleasure” Alexander Tremayne continued as he levered himself out of one of the deep leather armchairs arranged around the fireplace. Unlike the rest of the wing, this room could easily have been part of the residence – a luxuriously appointed library-cum-study with shelf upon shelf of real books as well as a couple of high spec display units and a holo workstation. There was a silver coffee service on a sideboard along with a selection of pastries and muffins, with which Paul made himself busy whilst Alexander shook hands with his guests.
The Tremayne could easily have been Paul’s older brother at first glance, rather than a slightly younger cousin. Alexander’s hair was a shade darker than Paul’s and receded a touch more at the temples, but they had the same sharp features and lively intelligence in their eyes. He wore the same dress as his visitors but without the coat, and judging from the empty cup on the coffee table by his chair had already started on the refreshments.
“You’ll have to excuse me. I know you’re still on station time and that’s early evening, but here it is oh God awful in the morning, which is not really my best time at all. So please sit, let Paul see to the refreshments and let me welcome you extremely informally to Mirrormere. I suggest you take a couple of days to adjust yourselves naturally to local time instead of messing your systems up with jet lag drugs. After all, we’re not in that much of a rush over these negotiations. Enjoy the facilities here – there are all sorts of sports available here for the youngsters and those sort of people who enjoy exercise, horses at the stables, boats down on the lake, Connor has his endless poker game open to anyone foolish enough to try, and there’s a rather good library upstairs.” Alexander smiled. “We’re deliberately informal here, apart from dinner of course.”
Louis looked startled. “I thought you were going to keep us secluded?”
“Not really necessary. Our staff here are very discreet and very loyal, and the only family members staying currently are ones who can be trusted to keep their mouths shut about family business. It’s normally something of a madhouse here – there are usually people with prospective partners and various youngsters of the family invited here so I can see them at first hand, but my staff have massaged the schedule to give us a little more privacy for a couple of weeks.”
“Very good, Alexander. It all sounds most delightful. And now that you have us at the mercy of your sports facilities and your boats and horses – what do you intend to do with us?” Louis asked with a smile.
“Hammer out an alliance that suits both of us, of course. I don’t think it’s any secret what you need from this – you need to stabilise your finances so that House Bardan can keep its seat in the Draconis Council. We can help there by buying some of the assets you’re having to divest at a fairer price than you would get from any of our competitors…”
“But not so fair you don’t make a good profit on the deal,” Maria interjected with a frown.
“Of course they will make a profit on the deal, my daughter. The Tremaynes are looking to be our allies, not a charity. So, we point you towards the most promising of the businesses we will be selling, and you will uplift your bids for those by twenty percent, shall we say?”
“That much seems a little obvious,” Paul replied. “What do you think, cousin? Ten percent?”
“Fifteen,” Louis replied firmly before Alexander could speak. “Not too much, but enough to be noticeable, and that will make the others wonder. You Tremaynes have a reputation for always knowing that bit more than the information you sell to the rest of us. They will see you pay a higher price than they would have done and think maybe there is more to the Bardan assets than they know.”
“That works,” Alexander agreed with a nod. “We’ll let your staff and mine work out the details later, of course. And in the longer term there are some promising joint ventures where we can make sure you get a good deal on the partnership, which will let you rebuild. In a generation, people will forget House Bardan were ever in the biotech business.”
Paul and Louis both frowned at that, both thinking that there was a good reason why people would forget in a generation.
Alexander ignored the brief awkward pause and continued. “As for what we get out of it… well to start with, we aren’t going to make a loss on any of those details. It’s the founding principle of the whole Draconis Alliance – free trade benefits all parties. The other thing we gain is keeping you on the Council. We need all the Liberal votes we can to counterbalance the Confederate factions these days. We don’t even need to tell you how to vote in return for our assistance – by and large, you vote the way we want on all the big issues anyway.”
“But you will expect us to owe you a favour for this, nonetheless.”
“You’ll owe us several favours for this, but don’t worry. We will be gentle in how we call upon them.”
“So…” Louis passed for a moment. “Perhaps it would help if we understood exactly what your aims are in the Council.”
Alexander looked surprised. “They’re straightforward enough. We take care of our family’s best interests, and we’re Liberals like yourself – we want to keep the government of the Alliance small and have it interfere in business as little as possible.”
“Not quite like us. We are Liberals because everything the Alliance Directorates do has to be paid for out of the dues from the houses. We want to keep our costs down, they are squeezing us too much as it is. For you, it seems more ideological. But then you are the ones behind this expansion of the navy…”
Alexander raised an eyebrow at this.
“No denials, please. I know you got Steiner and Cova to propose the plan, but it is very much an open secret that you had your minion over there put them up to it. Which leaves a lot of people wondering why any secret manoeuvre by the famously Machiavellian Tremaynes is an open secret!”
“Do you really want to know? It’s quite simple – it made you and the other Liberals much more comfortable with the idea, knowing that one of their own was the source of the idea. If some power-hungry ambitious gobshite like Philip Cova had actually originated the proposal then more than half of the Council would have run a mile away from the idea.”
“But why propose this at all? It imposes a massive cost on the houses for the build-up, and this transfer of our warships to the Alliance Navy puts so much power in the hands of a Directorate… as I said, your Liberalism always seemed ideological to me, and this seems counter to that ideology.
Alexander looked serious. “Because we believe that the Alliance government – in as far as it is a government – should have no more power than necessary, but our read of the situation out there is that it is actually necessary. We’re Liberal, but we aren’t stupid.”
“Perhaps. But I have to tell you Alexander, that the others are becoming worried that perhaps you are playing one of your deeper games here. Nobody is pleased about this thing with your nephew.”
Paul and Alexander exchanged worried looks. “At the risk of destroying my family’s reputation for omniscience,” Alexander said slowly, “What thing? And for that matter, which nephew?”
Alexander sighed at Louis’ frown. “Trust me – and if we’re going to make an alliance work, then you are going to have to trust me – I am not playing some sort of game here. I genuinely do not know what this ‘thing’ you mention is. Given that we were just talking about the Navy however, I would venture a guess that the nephew in question is Duncan?”
“Just so. Duncan Tremayne. Commander Duncan Tremayne, one of the very few officers in the regular Navy with close ties to one of the Council houses. And all of a sudden he is Captain Duncan Tremayne, promoted early and given command of one of the Navy’s new battleships over the head of more experienced officers who do not have those close family ties. Are you really telling me this is not your doing?”
Alexander shook his head. “I really am telling you, it is not. And just to be clear, Duncan is not going to be at all happy about this.”