It wasn’t necessarily true, Zarel thought, but it was probably fair. She inclined her head, a little stiffly. “As you wish, Brother. You are The Kerant.” She took refuge in formality, but it did not appease him. He glowered at her.
“Dammit, Zar, even if you don’t care about the family obligation, you might consider our duty to the people,” but even as he said it, he flushed, aware he’d overstepped. “I’m not discounting the sacrifices you’ve already made. But do you realize what’s at stake, here?”
Probably better than you, you little smarp, she thought, but allowed her face to show no trace of annoyance. She assumed a feminine meekness which, had Jarvin known her better, would have set off all kinds of alarms. “Brother, I’m well aware that civ is disastrously short of leadership, but so too are the Church and the Military. We are all, as you pointed out so eloquently in your last Emergency Message, in this pod together. You’d be opening yourself to considerable censure putting a female, and one who’s so near a relation, in such a sensitive post at this point— why take the risk? Of course I’ll do what I can to help, behind the scenes, as it were.”
He was mollified. Their brother’s advice, “Never let your guard down with her for an instant,” might have been ash floating in the vortexes that engulfed the ravaged planet below them, for all he remembered. “Trust me, Zar. It’ll work out all right. In this case, it’s not so much a case of having you in the position, as not having someone else there. A Tarvine, for instance. Or a Kleksal. You see? You’ve seen the rosters, you know who we’ve got to work with, reconstituting an Administration. The Tarvines and the Kleks—among others—both have to have significant roles, but can you see the surviving doyens of either family in that Seat?”
He had a point. The Tarvine and The Kleksal had both been killed in the Conflagration, among fourteen of the seventeen Seated Members of the Klarosian Civil Administration. Their responsibilities had necessarily devolved to the senior males surviving in each family, which meant in the case of the Kleks, (who were Kerant allies,) a promising but appallingly inexperienced cadet who’d been completing a Practicum rotation on the Port Authority, and in the case of the Tarvines, (who were Kerant rivals,) a venal time-server in Commerce who’d been “inspecting” some incoming cargoes on Kitran.
“Don’t you see? That hitch you did as Adlitem Trustee for Ranlis and Yallan makes it perfectly reasonable to put you in as Finance Pro Tem. Even Harlis agreed your performance was stellar, and that was a complicated Trust. It’s enough experience to make it a reasonable Pro Tem appointment, and without a Klek or Tarvine capable of contesting it, it will have to stand for now. And at least I won’t have that to worry about. I’ll give you some of the best fixers we’ve got left, all you’ll have to do is keep an eye on things and flag me if anything comes up.”
She surveyed her younger brother for a moment, without letting her amusement at his transparency show. He wanted a puppet in Finance, and would doubtless set her up with some fixer from his staff—Galdrin, maybe, or Porlot—to do all the work, while his “lazy” older sister attended Administrative meetings and looked meek and nonthreatening. She wondered, not for the first time, what Harlis could possibly have been thinking of, to confirm this youngest of their father’s sons to the Seat, rather than appointing a Pro Tem for his own younger son Duglis. Just as well, as it turned out, since Harlis, Duglis and his older brother Teb, their sisters and most of their cousins had been vaporized with Kelarant, the family dome, in the Conflagration. At least the Kerants had an adult, functioning doyen who was already in the Administration, which made him almost an automatic choice for Speaker.
She spared a thought for Wallen Torans, who’d died with his hand on the controls when the Conflagration had engulfed Center. There’d been a window of perhaps an hour or so, once the news of the chain reaction at Rayki had been transmitted. Torans could have evacuated—there was always a surface-to-orbit shuttle standing by for the Speaker’s exclusive use—but he’d chosen to load it, methodically, with crucial data cubes and a few priceless historical artifacts, and then put his Chief of Staff’s three young children, who’d been visiting their father’s office as part of a school project that day, into the passenger seats and ordered the shuttle to launch for Station One with seconds to spare before the Northring jathrin domes had begun to collapse.
Jarvin was no Wallen Torans, and Protectorate Affairs had been the least important Administrative Seat. But he’d always been ambitious, according to Harlis. Zarel hardly knew him, he was the son of their father’s fourth wife, and younger than any of her own children. Almost young enough to be a grandchild. “He’s a scrapper, though,” Harlis had said. “And not as stupid as he looks, which is a valuable thing, even if he does take after his mother. One of us—Teb or I—just has to sit on him from time to time to keep him in line. And the extra vote in a pinch is a Creator’s blessing. I let him vote against us from time to time, just keep them guessing, but I can yank him in whenever needed.”
She’d seen Jarvin less than half-a-dozen times, but had never been particularly impressed. He’d been a greedy, pushy, unattractive little boy, and grown into, so far as she could tell, a greedy, pushy, unattractive little man, acquiring nothing of value along the way except a thin veneer of subtlety and a Parkel wife. And now you’re not around to yank him in anymore, Harlis, and he’s an Oligarch, with his hands on the fate of nearly a million survivors, all that is left of Klaros.
But a Kerant Oligarch, at least. How their father would have laughed. Or maybe raged. It had been nearly a hundred years since the last Kerant had sat in the Speaker’s Chair. Tolvin Kerant had spent his whole life scheming to restore the Kerant fortunes after the disastrous Mutiny and the near civil war that had followed had decimated the family’s holdings, and he’d carefully groomed Harlis to be the next Kerant Oligarch. How bloody ironic that this youngest child, least regarded of his offspring, the late flowering of a final near-senescent fling with a fourth wife who had nothing more than looks to recommend her, would take the Chair.
Zarel stood, in a feminine deference that would have had Harlis’ eyes narrowing in suspicion, as Jarvin rose to take his leave, the cares of state almost visibly weighing on his shoulders. “Thank you, Sister. I knew I could rely on you. You’re not nearly as…” he chose a word, carefully, “…flighty, as family reputation makes you out, you know. Now if you can just, uh, tone down… some of your eccentricities… We have to inspire confidence, you know. We’re all the people have,” he said in his most solemn politician’s manner, seemingly oblivious to the offensiveness of his earnest advice.
She didn’t call him on it. She had nearly forty years on him, and a much better-developed sense of proportion. “I’ll do my best to be less eccentric,” she said; in a tone of voice dry enough to wrinkle the very air of the tiny cabin. It was wasted on Jarvin. “I knew I could rely on you to look to your duty in this time of crisis,” he repeated, and then, apparently dismissing her from his thoughts, he bowed perfunctorily and left.
Heavenly Bride! If Jarvin hadn’t been gifted with the infamous Kerant nose, it would have been easy to believe that fashionable mopstick of a bride had played her father false. Duty, indeed, and here it was, descending on her like an avalanche, she who had shirked duty and responsibility successfully, now, for nearly fifteen years. With a wry twist to her mouth, she turned to the datapak he’d left on the little fold-down desk, and began to make herself mistress of the financial affairs of a dead planet.