Operation Caesar’s Folly (part XXIII)

Issac considered for a moment that he should feel the urge to smile right now. His plans were working perfectly, after all. The meetings had picked up at 11, and Gavrilović had immediately started in on his earnest plea for compromise: Istria and Dalmatia, for Tripoli and Tunisia.

“I’m afraid that’s entirely unacceptable!” Ricci exclaimed.

“I beg your pardon?” Gavrilović asked, taken aback.

“That’s almost twice the territory we ask for,” Ricci barked. Issac wasn’t sure that was true.

“Hardly,” Gavrilović waved a hand, “And besides, it is mostly desert. You, on the other hand, ask for rich green lands. You ask for quality, and we for quantity. It seems very reasonable to me.”

Ricci frowned, but sputtered and failed to come up with an adequate reason he must refuse. He had to refuse though. Italy had fought hard for its North African holdings. Perhaps not as brutal a campaign as the Turkish had fought for their territories during the Islah Savaşi, but conquest was conquest.

Ricci tried to talk around the issue, offering to talk trade whilst he came up with a reasonable excuse beyond “I don’t want to,” but then it was the Turkish turn to make accusations about avoiding certain topics.

Gavrilović looked to him at one point, silently asking what the hell Issac had gotten him into, and Issac made a small show of incredulity directed at the Italians.

“I’m as confused at this reaction as you are,” was the message he was trying to convey. He hoped it worked.

The shouting was quieted by another reminder from Issac that everyone was a friend here and if anyone wanted to shout they were welcome to try and be heard over the sound of 0sc4r’s whistle. The Turks reluctantly agreed to table the Africa swap for a time being and focus on trade, slightly bitter since this was the very thing they’d suggested this morning (not that they were complaining!).

Oddly enough, the trade discussion was at least somewhat productive. They very nearly talked right through lunch on establishing mutually low tariffs on Mediterranean trade. Issac took copious notes on who wanted what. He wasn’t sure it would be any use to him, but the Skymarshal or somebody back in Intelligence might find it all very fascinating, so he keeping jotting down lines in the simple cypher he’d chosen for the conference.

All the most pedestrian issues were making their way around the table. Things like shipping rights, tariffs, port fees; though none of these discussions ever reached concrete numbers, since the question on who would own which coastlines was still a bit in flux. A point they had very nearly returned to, courtesy of an Italian aide’s slip of the tongue, when Sig. Baroncelli stood and addressed the room.

“My goood Gentlemen and Ladies; let us adjourn for lunch on this high note, shall we?”

The release of tension was palpable as the territory issue was narrowly avoided yet again.

Issac closed his notebook and sighed.

“Not going as planned is it?” Col. Stein asked, gathering up her own small notebook.

Issac felt worn out. Just sitting and listening, with the occasional dissatisfactory grunt or veiled threat to unleash 0sc4r didn’t seem that hard, but somehow the very fact of pretending to be someone was almost a physical pressure he felt exerted upon him. The colonel, by contrast, was hideously alert. Her eyes moved fluidly around the room, watching everyone and no one. When those eyes fell on Issac, he was almost certain they could somehow see his falsehoods.

She was smiling that smile, the one which made Issac uneasy. A knowing smile, full of confidence and mischief.

Issac smiled back, as best he could, “Not entirely, but what ever does?”

Stein stood, and Issac followed her to his feet.

“In that regard, diplomacy and war are very much alike,” she said.

Issac chuckled, “Yes, I suppose so.”

He walked with Stein to the door, all the while she seemed to watch him.

“So where are you from, Herr Schulz?” she asked, perhaps innocently

“Heidelberg. Though I grew up in Worms,” Issac did his best to not sound like he was reciting the dossier he’d been given on himself.

“Heidelberg? A university man?” Stein asked.

“Guilty I fear,” Issac tried to sound jovial, like this was natural, but he couldn’t help but feel beads of sweat forming on his brow.

“How did you end up in the Foreign Ministry then?” Stein continued.

“We all feel the call of civic duty at some time I think, colonel, but not all of us have the fortitude for military life,” Issac said, totally honestly. The work in Military intelligence was challenging, and Issac loved that, but it was work that, while impressive, would never be known by his peers and colleagues. His Cambridge friends all thought we was doing work for the Exchequer.

“Why did you tell the Turks to ask for Tripoli?” the question came out like a slap in the face. Issac might have expected it, but they weren’t even back to the room yet. Anyone might be listening in this hallway.

Issac stumbled, then silently cursed himself. A stumble was a prelude to a lie, and Stein knew that. Her eyes were cold, and gave nothing away without intention, but she was making no secret that his next words had better be good.

I have to lie about what I was about to lie about, Issac thought quickly, but I need to make that lie the sort of thing I would lie about as Schultz. Issac was so frustrated with this role he was forced to play he could scream.

He let out an exasperated sigh, “Truthfully?”

Stein raised an eyebrow.

“There are two truths here. There are truthful, pragmatic, political reasons, and then there are real actual reasons,” Issac said. He used this little bit of rhetoric in his classrooms sometimes. The real reason, or the real reason. It drew people in.

“Both then,” Stein said smiling.

“Politically it makes sense. The Turks will accept it, the Italians will get what they want without emptying their coffers as Sig. Ricci feared. It is the clear compromise,” Issac said truthfully, “But truthfully,” he lied, “I needed a test.”

“A test?” Stein folded her arms.

“Of course it is too much of a shift in the discussion to be answered today. No doubt moments after Gavrilović suggested it to the table some Italian aide wired the demands to Rome. They’d have to discuss it there before Ricci could seriously respond. But that’s not the point,” Issac found the lies flowing naturally now. There was some truth after all, and he had thought he might paint a picture like this to defend his actions. He just hadn’t expected to be doing it here in the hallway.

“The point is,” Stein picked up the thread for him, “Ricci rejected it outright.”

“Exactly,” Issac tried his best hand at a mischievous smile.

Stein smiled, but this time it wasn’t sly or knowing, simply a smile, “Which tells you worlds about Ricci.”

She looked Issac up and down, as if seeing him for the first time.

“Would you like to accompany me for a walk?” she finally asked.

“I…I beg your pardon?” Issac stumbled again.

“There was a lovely bistro just past the square the last time I was in the city,” She gestured toward the door out of the palace.

“I…,” Issac felt stupid. Say something damn it! “I’m not sure it would be entirely proper.”

Stein laughed, threading her arm through his, “I think I shall survive the scandal.”

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