Niil and Ambar had been warned that Julien was on his way back and that the new Mirror would be with him, and so when he arrived they were impeccably turned out in a pair of fetching Ksantiri hatiks. In fact they looked so presentable that Julien had to bite his tongue to prevent himself from actually congratulating them on their appearance. Of course Tannder had been the one who had made the necessary arrangements, and so there was also a large collection of food and drink on the table – because Julien had taken Lord Tahlil at his word and had invited him to share salt with him.
After the two boys had been introduced ("This is Niil of the Ksantiris, my Privy Councillor, and his brother Ambar, who is also my pupil") and Tahlil had offered them his condolences on the death of their father, Ambar offered their guest – who was clearly not used to the warm weather of Nüngen and was flagging a bit – a large tankard of chilled beer, and while he was doing that Julien sent for Tannder and asked him to join them.
"Tahlil," said Julien, "in a moment Tannder is going to tell you an interesting story, one which directly concerns me. After all, if we're going to be working together it's probably only fair that you know exactly what is going on. If you still want to stay on the Council once you've heard it, I'll be happy to answer any questions you might have. But first I'd like to hear a bit about you and your family – oh, and if you can do it without using the High Speech, that would be nice. We try to avoid using it when we're in private. People generally just call me Julien, or if you absolutely can't bring yourself to do that, I suppose 'My Lord' is just about bearable."
"Well, there's not a lot to tell you, My Lord. The Rent'haliks rule a small archipelago of eight islands. Our resources are adequate, and in fact we are able to export part of our balang crop. We have a few good armourers, and our potters are famous throughout the Nine Worlds – indeed, I can see that there's a Tsang Niyeh fruit-bowl here on your table.
"Lady Wang Tcho, my wife, has given me two sons and three daughters. My eldest son, Tengtehal, will soon be fifteen cycles old and his tutor says that he's a good student. Our family trankenn cannot in any way be considered comparable to that of the late Lord Ylavan, but it gives a good account of itself in all weathers. Lord Aldegard tells me that you're intending to build me a new First Trankenn with funds drawn from the Imperial Treasury, and obviously I'm very grateful for the gesture – but perhaps that money should be used where it is more urgently needed."
"A lot of small islands are too poor to offer much in the way of support to the widows of those who perish at sea. That also happens in some of the more far-flung possessions of some of the Great Houses. There are some welfare societies, but often they are unable to meet the need. And another issue is that some of the smaller islands don't have the resources to pay a proper wage to teachers and minor Health Masters, and as a result several islands, and even some complete archipelagos, have neither."
"Well, it's impossible for you not to have a trankenn that reflects your rank of Mirror. But I can make you a proposal: investigate this problem in detail, decide what needs to be done to resolve it, and I promise I'll do whatever I can to help."
"Actually the solution isn't that complicated. I think that a well-run merchant shipping company could probably generate enough funds, and it wouldn't have to be too big, either. The main obstacle would be the amount - probably a quite considerable amount - that would need to be laid out in order to get such a company up and running."
"I might be able to help you there, too. It's true that the Emperor isn't supposed to interfere in the politics of any of the Nine Worlds, but I don't think it's forbidden for him to offer a helping hand when one is needed."
"Well, if I absolutely have to have a new trankenn, perhaps I could convert my existing ship into a flagship for a new merchant fleet. It probably wouldn't be too difficult, and if you're going to pay for the new First Trankenn it seems only fair, too."
"That's an excellent idea. But tell me: if you're aware of this problem, how is it that Lord Ylavan didn't do something about it?"
Tahlil remained silent for a few seconds while he weighed his words.
"Well," he said, "it would seem that Lord Ylavan had some difficulty in receiving your advice - over quite a long period, in fact."
"You probably mean that he wasn't able to meet me?"
"That's what the rumour said, My Lord."
"The rumour was true. But Ylavan didn't need my blessing to at least start tackling the problem."
"Ah... you see, over the last few years at least, I don't think Lord Ylavan was getting all the information he should have been. I don't want to offend Lord Niil, but I'm afraid his Noble Brother rather tended to interfere with the way the Ksantiri lands were run, and the word is that quite a lot of the Family revenue was diverted into preparing for war."
"If you're suggesting that my brother had dreams of launching a war of conquest," Niil told him, "I'm afraid you're right. But I expect he'll go a bit quiet now, in the short term at least. And I want you to know that I am completely opposed to his plans."
"I don't doubt that for a moment, Lord Niil. I'm sure you wouldn't be sitting here at this table today otherwise."
"I think," said Julien, "that maybe this would be a good time for Tannder to explain to you just why Ylavan was unable to reach the Emperor. And after that you can relax a bit and enjoy the Bakhtars' marvellous cooking."
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