The Reigh Lord finished the puff. A nervous tick jerked his face once, twice. A grimaced twisted his features, baring his teeth. He arched his back, biting at the empty air. His hands flailed, knocking over the goblets and plates. A spasm gripped his body. He shuddered, froze, and fell back against his seat, foam sliding from his lips down his chin.
For a moment absolute silence claimed the hall. And then chaos broke.
The situation made absolutely no sense.
Deirdre dipped her fingers into the interface. The liquid metal coated her hand, climbing from her fingertips all the way to her wrist. It slid between her fingers, slightly cold, dry but slippery with silky smoothness, the way very fine sand might feel if individual sand granules were perfectly round. As the synaptic implants under her skin made connections with free floating nanoclusters, she felt her hand–skin, muscle, ligament, and bone–stretch impossibly far. She thought of the archive. The four petals of the unit ignited with pale green, and the huge collection of files, the sum total of her research and archival documents, flared into existence, projected into space above the petals
Ten feet away Robert slumped in the chair. In the corner Nina rubbed her face with her hands. The room was dim, the huge communication screens on the wall silent and dark, all except the one on the right side, showing the map of the sector. In the center of the map hung the Colchida Cluster, three stars, eleven habitable worlds total, four warp points, thirty million colonists. It used to belong to the Monrovian Republic. Situated too far from Monrovian industrial centers, it was all but worthless to the Republic. But to the Empire, the Cluster was a diamond in rough. Had the Empire been given a chance to develop the Cluster, it would’ve become the biggest industrial and commercial base of the sector.
Unfortunately the Vunta Caliphate very much enjoyed raiding the Cluster while it was in the Monrovian possession. The numerous stars of the Caliphate, tinted with pale blue to show the territory boundaries, hung in the corner of the map like a storm cloud. It would take the Empire at least two decades to build up the defenses of the Cluster to a survivable level. Until then, the only guard against the Vunta were the Reigh, a thin ribbon of worlds tinted with green.
The Vunta wanted to make the last run at the Cluster, stripping it of all valuables. Hundreds of lives would be lost. The Empire would threaten war and the Caliphate would back off with apologies, but the budding economy of the Cluster would be wrecked. It would take decades and billions to recover.
The Empire needed to protect the Cluster. The Reigh needed the money. But the Reigh doctrine forbade trading payment for military service. And so the staff of the Embassy had to figure out how to skirt the Reigh doctrine. To find an underhanded way to exchange money for protection with the people, who were forbidden to become mercenaries. Now it would never happen.
They were responsible for the safety of 30 million colonists and they blew it. The thought made her stomach lurch.
Deirdre sank deeper into the interface, both arms up to the elbow, speed-reading through the flurry of documents and her notes. She couldn’t quite put her finger on it, but she was sure if she just figured out what it was her subconscious was trying to tell her, the situation would become logical.
Fatima moved on quiet feet to stand at Robert’s side. “Would you like some tea?”
“What I would like is to travel back in time twenty four hours and strangle the sushi chef. How could we not know Nagrad was allergic to redfish caviar?”
Deirdre heard the question. It sank in slowly, fighting its way through her focus.
“Numerous reasons,” she said, still reading. “Nagrad could have not known he was allergic. He could have deliberately hidden the allergy so it wouldn’t be used against him. He could’ve been distracted by Nina and not realized what he was eating. The Vunta could’ve poisoned him. Your theory is as good as mine–all of them are total rubbish. ”
Robert startled. “Why?”
The tone of her voice snapped her out of her search. “Because the Reigh are suspicious paranoiacs, who also happen to be very poor actors.”
She tossed the recording of the banquet to one of the side screens, fast-forwarding to the right frame. “Look at him. Yes, he’s taking pains to listen to Nina, but he’s hardly absorbed. He can’t even pretend to be interested enough to fool a casual observer. He’s definitely not distracted enough to ignore poisonous food. Look at the line of faces behind him. They are about as relaxed as stone idols on New Barbar and they are watching him so hard, they don’t even blink. Do you really think they would let him put something bad in his mouth? Not really. Nor would they let the Vunta mysteriously sprinkle something on his food. This whole thing makes no sense at all.”
The main screen ignited and the face of Timur Gonzales came into the view. The Chief of Security looked slightly baffled, hooded dark eyes melancholy, long phlegmatic face relaxed, as if he just woke up from a long nap in sunshine. It made total sense that the Reigh would demand communication through him the Branch Nagrad and the Empire were now technically in the state of war. Unfortunately he had about as much diplomatic ability as Deirdre herself.
Timur dragged his fingers across his chin, stroking an imaginary beard. “We have contact.”
Robert looked up. “Patch them through.”
“They won’t talk to you,” Deirdre said, almost at the same time as Timur. “Why not?”
“Because you’re technically responsible for Nagrad’s death. They would be honor-bound to kill you on sight,” Deirdre said.
“What she said,” Timur added.
Robert growled. “Fine, patch them through on the side screen as a closed feed.”
“They’ve already delivered the terms.”
The veins in Robert’s temples bulged. “For Zeus’s sake, would you stop wasting my time then and give me the bloody recording?”
A harsh-faced Reigh filled the screen. “You’ve robbed our Branch of a great man. You must atone. The bloodtree must be replenished. You will provide a woman for Lord Nagrad so an heir can be born. And you will pay a dowry. A very large dowry for the insult was grave. Thirty billion units.”
Deirdre blinked. Brilliant. Lao Tzu, that was simply brilliant.
Robert exhaled. “Out of the question! The entire Reigh Branch can survive for a decade on that money. Tell him.”
Deirdre cut in. “Robert, a marriage would make you related. He would be honor-bound to protect your possessions.”
She watched the thought sink in. Robert’s face took on an intense look of a hound closing in for a kill. “Ask him if the marriage would mean Branch Nagrad would protect the Cluster in the event of a raid or invasion.”
Timur intoned the words. Deirdre tuned him out, going back to her notes. She already knew the answer.
“Yes,” Timur relayed.
Robert leaned back. “So here it is. Nagrad Junior doesn’t waste time, does he? Thirty billion is a bit steep, but it’s doable.”
“I’ll do it. It’s my responsibility.” Nina rose with dignity, her voice hoarse. “You may tell Lord Nagrad that I accept his proposal.”
“He doesn’t want you,” Timur said.
“Well, who does he want?” Robert asked.
Deirdre finally hit on the correct recording, thirty-two years ago, one of the first contact missions to the Reigh. The ceremonial trading of the swords, and sharing of the food. She zoomed the picture, focusing on the platter before the Survey Captain and a young-looking Reigh warrior.
Robert’s face penetrated the projection. She looked up at him.
“Deirdre,” he said, his voice quiet and earnest. “Do you remember your oath to the Diplomatic Corps? The part where you promised to dedicate your body and mind.”
“To serve to the most of my ability and to sacrifice my life should my duty demand it. Of course I remember.”
Robert tried to pick up her hands but they were covered in the liquid interface. He settled on holding her shoulders instead. “How do you feel about sacrifice in a form of a marriage?”
“Lord Nagrad desires a meeting with his bride,” the Reigh said. “He wants to determine that she is of sound body and free of mental retardation. She must be ready in one hour.”
Robert wheeled about. “Our shuttle. Tell him our people are coming with her and we want her safely delivered back or the deal is off.”
After a momentary pause, the Reigh inclined his dark head. “Agreed.”
The hallways of the Nagrad Keep looked unlike anything Deirdre had imagined. She had pictured bleak dark walls; instead she found wall-long windows and a palette ranging from rust to fresh mint green. As she walked down the corridor between Timur and Johanna Bray, the red rays of the rising sun danced on the wall and slid on her gray dress, adding color to the fabric.
It didn’t make her feel any better.
She recalled Robert’s briefing: You’re going there to haggle. Get him down to twenty billion. Take the initiative and don’t let him control the conversation. I’m sorry I can’t be there with you, but I promise you, I won’t send you to him without backup again. This is just the first step, Deirdre. We have a long way to go before we’ll agree on the amount.
The fact that she was being appraised like a cow at market apparently didn’t bother him at all.
Their escort, a Reigh woman in black leather, led them to a wooden door and stepped inside, closing it behind her.
“Why me?” Deirdre murmured.
“Because you’re hot,” Timur said. “Because he hates blondes. Because a bug bit him this morning when he got out of bed.”
“He had it on the first one,” Johanna said. “You’re pretty hot. Don’t worry, we’ll get you back up to the Orbital in one piece.”
The door opened and their escort invited them into the room with a sweep of her hand.
Deirdre stepped through. Despite the large window, gloom pooled in the corners and snuck across soft rug. A single table stood in the middle of the room, lit by soft yellow light of a cluster lamp. Two chairs flanked the table. In a far chair sat a Reigh. Lean. Dressed in black like all of them. Black hair, cut short. He sat just outside the circle of light, and shadows masked his face. What a cheap trick.