Operation Caesar’s Folly (part XVIII)

“You cannot possibly expect us to give up territory for such a small sum,” Gavrilović scoffed.

The Italian side of the table began loudly grumbling, but fortunately 0sc4r’s whistle was still ringing in their ears, which kept them from breaking into a new shouting match. The Italians, having laid out their proposal, wanted Istria for a start, the coast of Dalmatia, and the islands in between. In exchange, they were prepared to offer an amount of money that Issac had almost actually gasped at. He knew that matters of state involved the movement of millions of pounds, naturally, but it is one thing to be aware of the fact, and quite another to be in the room whilst it was being spent. He wasn’t entirely sure where the pound was in relation to the mark these days, but he thought the figure was somewhere around 15 million pounds. This seemed like quite a lot to Issac, and the Italians clearly thought so too.

“I hardly think 25 million goldmarks is a small sum,” said the Italian foreign minister, a man named Ricci who looked like a bank clerk, “Especially for so little territory.”

“The Sultan regards all his holdings as precious to his empire,” Gavrilović said frowning, “You might as well name a price for one of his own children.”

“I wonder how the people of Istria would respond to being referred to as the Sultan’s ‘children,’” Ricci said, hardly making the tactful effort to disguise his sarcasm. Gavrilović chose to ignore it.

“We are prepared to offer a deal where Italian ships may conduct business freely, without taxation, at a sizable number of ports in Istria and Dalmatia. It should allow your people access to that which they desire while keeping the border unchanged and uncomplicated.”

“You’re changing the subject,” Ricci snapped, “Trade is well and good, but it is the view of His Majesty’s government, and mine personally, that these people are Italians! We cannot abide seeing their land occupied and the their citizen’s mistreated.”

“Mistreated? What are you implying?” It was the Turkish side of the table on the verge of shouting now.

“Imply? Nothing,” Ricci snapped his fingers. An aid brought him a folder of papers, and Ricci made a grand gesture of opening it and flipping through the pages. “We have reports of the widespread seizure of property, the burning of pro-Italian publications, and the assault and jailing of those advocating Italian sovereignty.”

“You cannot dress up police actions against terrorists as oppression of an Italian state that does not exist.”

“So you do not deny these accusations?”

“I refuse to dignify them with a response.”

This went back and forth for some time. Ricci would focus on Janissary atrocities, Gavrilović would deflect to talk about trade concessions. Issac was reminded of the worst of the his college’s debates he’d ever attended. Meetings nominally about one thing, but all parties clearly there with very different things they intended to discuss. Though at university, the worst case scenario was bruised egos and six months of departmental drama at most (Save the case of Professor Bullsworth and his etheric field calculations, which was still a point of heated discussion around Cambridge some five years on). Here though…nations hung in the balance.

This can’t be how it works, Issac thought, bitter men in back rooms, having two different arguments. Is this how wars start?

“Gentlemen, please,” Issac said standing. He took a moment to compose his own answer, which he noticed added a small, but nicely dramatic, pause between when the room went silent and he started speaking. Whether this was because of his alleged position as an emissary of the Kaiser, or another dividend paid towards the threat of 0sc4r’s whistle was anyone’s guess , “Let’s try to be civil. We are after all, here to defuse the situation. Now; Minister Gavrilović, our Italian friends have offered 25 million German goldmarks for the territory. Is the problem the price or the territory?”

“Both,” Gavrilović said, nodding to Mr. Ricci, “The territory is too vast, and the price is too low.”

“How much territory is acceptable then?” Issac leaned over the table, bracing himself lightly against its surface with extended fingers.

Gavrilović thought for a moment, “Istria, for 40 million goldmarks.”

“That is half the territory for almost double the price. Unacceptable.” Ricci shouted.

“Gentlemen, please!” Issac bellowed. That’s a start, we can negotiate from there, Issac thought, before remembering that he was here to prevent consensus, not create it. “It has been a trying morning. Shall we take a brief recess?”

“Can I get you anything?” Victoria offered as Commander Lal took his seat, “Tea?”

“No. Thank you, Ma’am,” he said. Victoria took a moment to examine the man more closely. She’d seen his record of course, and had requested him as a navigator for her ship based an a line of recommendations that stretched from here all the way back to London. He was a shorter man, not thin by any means but he carried himself with the effortless grace of a gentleman.

“Very well. I assume you’re wondering why I asked you to have Jackson escorted to her quarters under guard.”

“I have a guess, but I am reluctant to…,” Vishram hesitated.

“By all means,” Victoria said spreading her hands.

“You have reason to believe she is the traitor,” said Vishram.

Vic raised an eyebrow. “‘The’ traitor?”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

“Do go on.”

“The agent in Milan becoming exposed could have been coincidence, as could the apprehending of a British spy observing our own operation (these things do happen, after all),” Vishram made a vague gesture with his hand, “but the fact that you asked me to alter our course from Pula to Zadar implies that you believe the operation to be compromised to some degree. Confining a crew member to quarters after that reads fairly obviously I think.”

Victoria smiled, “Very good Mr. Lal. Tell me though: do you think Ms. Jackson is a double agent?”

Vishram paused, “I have never had cause to doubt her loyalty to the mission, but I highly doubt you would confine her without good reason.”

“A prudent answer. How should we proceed?” Victoria asked.

“I beg your pardon, Ma’am?” Vishram blinked.

“I am curious,” the Skymarshal leaned back in her chair, steepling her fingers, “How would you proceed, given the current complications to the mission?”

Vishram paused for a moment, shrug his shoulders and said, “I would change the target, but you’ve done so once already. It would be good to know how much Ms. Jackson gave them, but since we cannot in trust anything she says in good faith, I would change the target once again, but I would tell no one, and I would wait to change course until we were much closer to Zadar.

“Then, I would interrogate the man we have in our infirmary. Jackson is in custody, but if this mission is being assailed by members of the British government, as it must be, there may be more surprises in store. Perhaps another double agent? What about mechanical sabotage begun while we were in port? There are far too many unknowns.”

“All important steps that must be taken. On that we are agreed,” Victoria nodded, “But you forgot one important item.”

Vishram blinked, “Did I, Ma’am?”

“Indeed,” the Skymarshal said standing. Vishram quickly followed her to his feet. “I will need a new First Lieutenant for the duration of this mission.”

It took half a moment for Vishram to draw the connection. When he did, he shook his head, “Ma’am, I am flattered, but there are several more qualified officers aboard.”

“Nonsense,” Victoria said as she stepped around the table, “Higher ranked, perhaps, but I’ve seen your record, Mr. Lal. Distinguished Service in Gibraltor, Afganistan, the Arabian Sea, as well as several other citations for valor and general excellence in the field of Airship Navigation. Thrice wounded in battle, two of those while risking your life to save a comrade who would most certainly have died. Believe me when I say, Mr. Lal, when I chose the crew of this ship I did not just let anyone aboard. As a matter of fact, the Admiral himself has spoken so well of you, I had a suspicion that perhaps he was hinting I marry you.”

Vishram flushed, “Ma’am! I–”

“Relax, Commander. I am not currently in the market for a husband,” the Skymarshal said with a broad smile. She extended a hand to Vishram, adding, “The job is yours, if you will accept it.”

Vishram hesitated, then slowly shook the Victoria’s hand, “I will. For now. Until a more suitable replacement for Ms. Jackson can be found.”

“A cautious answer, but I will accept it,” Victoria said, “First order, report back to the bridge and take the con. Mr. Mills will take over as chief navigator for now. Inform him along with the rest of the command staff of the change, and keep us on a steady course for Zadar.”

“Aye, Ma’am. But…,” he hesitated.

“Speak your mind, Mr. Lal. It’s the first officer’s job to question the captain’s intent every now and again.”

“Shouldn’t the announcement come from you, Ma’am? I only ask because it is standard procedure.”

“Normally, yes,” Victoria said as she walked to the door. Vishram fell in behind her as she exited her quarters. “I have some other business to see to for now. I’m going to speak to our ship’s doctor about waking up our at-once prisoner and patient.”

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