"I have not been pushing the female candidates forward," Vierran said. "It's only that the Reigner Organization's been passing up half the galaxy's talent for the last millennium and the last event's number still skewed heavily male. I'm trying to undo the damage. Make the women feel welcome."
"You're doing a bang-up job of it," said Martin, cheerfully blithe. "I think it's working."
The two of them had patched into the new Reigners' still somewhat irregular daily meetup via 3D imaging. They were kept away on the other side of Homeworld, running a recruitment function at the House of Cash. Sweeping away corruption sounded an excellent idea in the abstract, but even a cautious approach and a slew of emergency promotions had left more than one sector running with a skeleton staff, at a time when the still-recovering galactic markets required more than usual attentiveness. Fresh blood was wanted, and plenty of manpower – and womanpower, of course. Vierran wasn't wrong about the mistrust created by the late Reigner Three's well-known hatred for other women.
Martin and Vierran had linked in from a sort of alcove. They were seated side by side on a dramatically upholstered sofa in front of a window with a view of glittery spires against a none too dark night sky. They were a flashy bunch at the House of Cash.
Mordion, Hume, and Artegal – Arthur, rather – were gathered in the temporary meeting room. It had been temporary for months now. None of them had liked to use the old Reigners' conference chamber, or even really got near it. Mordion and Hume between them had rearranged that part of the building so what remained of the room wouldn't have known itself. Then they'd chosen a room somewhere quite different, at random, and set it up however they could. Arthur kept warning them that if they didn't change it soon it would become permanent, however much they kept calling it temporary, but no one felt that was much of a threat. And they were certainly comfortable. It was probably, Mordion had remarked cheerfully, the shabbiest room in the entire House of Balance.
"But there were no problems?" Mordion asked. "No more assassination attempts, at least?"
Vierran flinched, then tried to cover it up. He thought it was at his voice asking the question. The assassination attempt had been singular, but it had also been their first real crisis, and Mordion had been away during it. While it hadn't ended badly, there should have been no need for Vierran to defend herself.
Time would tell how well they'd handled the situation. Certainly it had left its mark.
Martin nudged Vierran with an elbow and grinned. "Nothing. We're being treated like glass. No one's even asked a rude question, so I've had to start coming up with the answers on my own. Besides, you don't think I'd let her get hurt?"
"As if I'm not the one here to look after you," said Vierran.
A look passed between them that seemed to settle the matter, or at least table it. They really did seem like siblings, Moridon thought wistfully, and looked it, too. The same coloring, and more and more now traces of the same expressions. Vierran's parents had so thoroughly adopted Martin that she'd had no choice but to go along. "Though it's too bad how Mother spoils him," she'd said more than once. "She never spoiled me like that." Mordion had answered, philosophically, "I'll wager he can use a little spoiling." Vierran had said it was probably true, but it did make her rather the villain of the piece, always forcing him back to work.
"Now that that distraction is over with," Arthur began, instantly capturing everyone's attention without raising his voice a bit, "we have one last question to address."
The others groaned comfortably, and Hume cried, "No more!"
Arthur went on as if there had been no reaction. "The issue isn't a new one. We just keep not getting around to it: formalized approval procedures."
Hume had mouthed the last two words along with him. Shaking his head, he said, "Again? We've already agreed."
"We've agreed nothing," said Arthur. It was wonderful how he could sound so affable when in fact he was a stern and rather relentless taskmaster. "Which is rather the point, as you could tell us, Merlin."
Hume looked abashed, as well he might. Months back he'd drawn their attention to a fact that had slipped out of common knowledge. Simply put, the establishing charter for the House of Balance required that no decision be taken by the Reigners without unanimous support. A simple majority didn't cut it. Hume had relished pointing this out at the time. Probably he'd still been smarting from the Bannus backing him into another term as Reigner. He'd wanted to make some mischief. At least, that was how Mordion would have understood it when Hume had really been Hume – been the child he'd been raising – and he had no reason to suppose otherwise for Martellian.
He'd had cause to regret it, anyway. The first outcry had been considerable. Then Mordion had pointed out that in their first months on the job they had made only unanimous decisions, however much bludgeoning argument it had taken to arrive at them. They'd all felt it was right that they should agree. And then Vierran had gone digging through archives they'd unearthed – literally – and come up with an early copy of the charter itself and explanatory notes from the committee responsible for it. After they'd modified (through intimidation more than anything) a device into compatibility with the four-thousand-year-old files, they'd found plenty to digest. But, most relevantly, the committee had noted the reason for the unanimity requirement: preventing the formation of cliques among the Reigners. Well, it was hard to argue with that. Unanimous decisions it was.
In practice it wasn't even that bad. There were provisions that allowed a solitary Reigner, acting off Homeworld, to take unilateral action. It was presumed ratified by the others unless they challenged it. In fact once they'd read the whole charter, in between about a dozen semi-emergencies, Arthur had spoken for them all in proclaiming it a nice bit of work. "Though it goes against the grain for me, having it written down like this. Much more convenient to have your protocols fossilize and get passed down by doing." And Vierran had kindly explained that what worked for a kingdom on primitive Earth wasn't going to cut it for a galactic corporate entity, and they'd made a very nice debate of it. Hume had sided enthusiastically with Arthur and Martin just as eagerly with Vierran – Mordion had sat back and watched.
He found himself doing that often: sitting back, letting Arthur or Vierran lead the conversation. He'd tried taking the more direct role at first, but he wasn't comfortable with it, and the other two were. He was ready to step in when he saw an opening, or when his input was needed. Quite a lot of the time he found himself deliberate leaving space for Martin to speak up: part of Vierran's strategy to teach Martin responsibility.
Hume tried to keep out of it, too, or anyway he always said he was keeping out of it. Actually he make about as convincing an elder statesman as he would have a goat.
Vierran had remarked as much, inconveniently in Martin's hearing, and he'd gone and passed it along to the target, who'd found it amusing enough that all of them had got tired of goat-related humor very quickly. It went like that a lot. That was one thing they'd all learned: privacy was hard to come by in a group of five telepathic individuals. ("Four!" Vierran had protested once, when they'd been joking about it. "I can't read minds." There'd been some laughter at this, and then Arthur had told her, "Only because you're too right-minded to try, and you can do without, anyway." She'd flushed up a little at that and looked very pleased indeed.)
Which, taken together, brought them back to the formalized approval procedures.
"All right," said Hume, "name one time, just one, when it could cause a real problem. Because I'm not seeing it."
All it meant was that there were an awful lot of little decisions that came up when you were overturning a galactic business and couldn't yet be sure what was safe to delegate. Wouldn't it be helpful, then, to have some ground rules for problems that were going to come up a lot?
It had been Arthur's suggestion, and a damn good one, but unfortunately he'd brought it up under that pompous-sounding name, probably picked up from one of the business manuals he had set to seriously digesting before they'd even arrived back on Homeworld. There was something hilarious in it. And that was it: he'd no sooner said it than all of them had been incapacitated with laughter in a telepathic feedback loop. From then on it became a sort of joke: not unimportant, but on the galactic scale small enough that it could stand being batted about a while.
"Office plans," said Arthur.
Mordion snorted. "There I have to contradict you," he said.
"No, listen," Mordion said. "The last time the office plan question came up, what happened?"
"I know this one," Martin called. "Last time someone wanted to change the layout of their sector office – you were right, you know, Ann, those open plans are a form of torture – the last time someone put in for a change, it came up to me, and I went ahead and said it was fine, we'd let them know if there was going to be a problem. And then I told you, and then there wasn't a problem, was there?"
"There wasn't," said Mordion, firmly. "What we do keep trying to tell you, Arthur – "
" – is that you're stuck on this notion of protocol that's just all rote and no fun," Hume broke in, "and the thing is, there's no reason to waste time on that, when we can just set things up so we can get them done. Like this room. It's not very formal, and you keep telling us we're going to be stuck with it, but do you really mind?"
Arthur was visibly being drawn in. The natural kind-heartedness of his nature had broken through and was shining all through his face. "I suppose I wouldn't mind. The chairs are comfortable."
Hume laughed lightly, then nodded and didn't say anything else.
"My dear Uncle Wolf," Martin said in a stage-whisper, "all grown up at last."
"Hush, you," said Vierran. "And was that a decision? Are we deciding to let it go?"
"You're all impossible," Arthur said, "but I suppose the procedures will wait until we have something to apply them to."
"Huzzah!" cried Martin. "Progress at last. And now if the company will excuse me, there seems to be something I need to attend to..." He half-waved and wandered out of the frame, leaving Vierran alone and shaking her head after him.
"There does seem to be nothing further to accomplish," said Mordion.
"He's going to get the recruits drunk and teach them drinking songs. Or he's thought of something worse by now. That's what it was last time."
A brief look passed between Arthur and Hume – not telepathy, not really, just the mark of people who had once known each other well and had a great deal in common – and then Hume said, "Well, we'd better go make sure nothing's gome up in flames since we went in here."
"The alerts would have sounded," Arthur said mildly, but the two of them were already on their way out.
Only Vierran and Mordion were left on the connection, grinning helplessly at each other.
"They aren't very subtle, are they," Mordion said.
"It's sweet," said Vierran, dubiously. "Or they mean it to be. How are you?"
"Oh, good. Fine. No new crises since you left, what was it, fourteen hours ago?"
She laughed. The spires behind her had dimmed into a faint sparkle. "We'll talk when I get back, then."
"Preferably before the next time all five of us are assembled."
They might have cut the connection then, but they waited, almost another minute more, smiling at each other across the slight distance.