The escort moved forward, silent like a shadow, and held the second chair out for her. Here we go. Her knees trembled. This is so stupid. Why am I scared?
She forced herself to walk across the carpet. Timur followed. The Reigh gave him a flat stare and the chief of security halted a few feet away. Deirdre sat.
“Lord Nagrad, I presume.” Her voice sounded almost normal.
The Reigh inclined his head. She could see him now. He had a hard face, not handsome but not unpleasant. Square jaw, strong nose. The same sharp intelligence she saw in his father’s eyes showed full force in his. How old is he? Thirty?
“Deirdre Lebed. I know.”
The sound of his voice almost made her jump. She looked past him, trying to collect herself, and saw four shadows in the depth of the room. Bodyguards.
Take away the initiative. Right. “Would you mind if I asked you a question?”
“Please, feel free.”
“Why choose a foreign wife? One who is unfamiliar with the traditions and culture? Why not just take the monetary restitution?”
He braided the fingers of his hands into a single fist. “To accept a bribe for the loss of life is forbidden by the doctrine. Besides, a woman from outside the Reigh has several advantages. The man is the trunk of a family, but the woman is its root. In our society, men own the children and the means of war. Everything else is owned by the woman. And too often a woman’s first loyalty is to her mother instead of her husband. It tends to make matters complicated. A woman of the foreign blood has no one to turn to. She would exist solely at the mercy of her husband.”
Fantastic. This conversation was going a long way to allay her concerns about becoming a bride.
“And,” the Reigh Lord permitted himself a small smile. “Our traditions are rather binding. There are certain things a man could ask of foreign woman that would be considered unclean by the women of the Reigh.”
“What kind of things?”
“Things of sexual nature. Do you consider yourself open-minded in those matters, Lady Deirdre? Would you do all those things at my request?”
If he was willing to walk down the road, it was perfectly fine with her. With Reigh being as rigid as they were, it was likely he’d bail first. Deirdre arched her eyebrows. “Very few women within the Empire do all things, Lord Nagrad. I cannot confirm what I may or may not do without knowing what you have in mind. Would you be more specific?”
She smiled and waited for him to back off.
“Would you suck my cock?” he asked.
She stared at him for a long moment, trying to make sure she didn’t mishear. Behind her someone made a strangled noise.
The Reigh Lord waited for her answer. His face was perfectly solemn.
“Well.” She cleared her throat, desperately hoping she didn’t blush. “I suppose that could be hrhm arranged under certain circumstances. Is there any other requests you would like to make?”
He raised his hand. One of the shadows detached itself from the gloom and brought a platter with a thin pseudo-paper magazine. She hadn’t seen pseudo-paper since her days at Altair museums during her graduate on the Colonial Journalism.
Nagrad took the magazine off the platter and put it on the table. The digital photograph on the cover left no doubt as to what kind of a publication it was. He flipped the pages and pushed the magazine toward her. “Would you do this?”
He flipped another page. “This one?”
She felt the blush creeping onto her cheeks. “Yes.”
“What about this one?”
She squinted, trying to make sense of the naked shapes. “Is that even possible? Wouldn’t you have to have low G for this?”
“Or a very strong woman.”
“I’m not sure I’m that strong.”
“I suppose we could arrange a shuttle trip than,” he offered.
“No, thank you. Thirty billion is an outrageously large sum.”
“You think so? Considering the scale of the injury, I believe it’s just right.” He flipped the page. “How about this one?”
Robert’s face was incredulous. “You didn’t drop him at all? Not even by half a bil? Oh Hermes, a child could’ve done better.”
Deirdre threw the recorder onto the table. Nagrad’s face, frozen on the screen, mocked her with grey eyes. “What do you want from me, Robert? Every time I tried to bring up the money, he would show me more porn. The man asked me if I would suck his cock! How do you counter that?”
A soft voice interrupted, “By saying, ‘That would depend on the size of your instrument, my lord. Would you care to take off your pants so I can determine if it would be a good fit?’”
Robert bent in a half, “My lord.”
She turned to see an older man in soft green tunic. He gave her a light smile, as if he was too polite to laugh at his own off-color joke.
“Holy crap, the Duke of Rodkil.” Fatima’s heels clicked together.
Deirdre bowed. The living legend placed his hand onto her shoulder. Imposing on the portraits, in person he appeared rather slight, short with narrow, bird-boned frame. “No need to bend your back, my dear. I understand Robert called me as soon as he knew, but despite all of our progress, there are times when the interstellar travel isn’t quite fast enough.” He nodded at Nagrad on the screen. “A very shrewd man. Let’s see if we can cut him down a bit, shall we? I’ll need all of the background you have.”
Deirdre shrugged the interface off her hands and leaned back against the seat. Her head throbbed. The ancient diplomat was still speed-reading, submerged in the interface up to his elbow.
“What’s the significance of kneeling? Submission?”
She rubbed her temples. “Not exactly, Your Grace.”
“Jason,” he corrected.
“Jason,” she repeated, trying to ignore the absurdity of referring to a recipient of the Diamond Sword by his first name. “The Reigh don’t submit. Not even in battle–when they surrender, they raise their hands to the sides, daring a thrust to the stomach. The kneeling It’s more a gesture of ultimate respect. A Reigh kneels only before his Lord and only once, at the acceptance into service. A Reigh Lord kneels before no one.”
“A quaint culture. So many references to the vegetative symbolism.”
The Duke Jason glanced at her. “You should sleep, my dear. You look exhausted. He’s likely to call for another meeting tomorrow.”
She sighed. “Why? I couldn’t haggle him down. He’d be smart to avoid us so he can hold on to the original sum.”
“But he knows you don’t control the proverbial purse strings. He’s perfectly aware the real fight is ahead and he doesn’t want to give us enough time to regroup.”
She sighed. “He caught me off-guard. I expected coldness, some sort of brutal physical test, perhaps a ritual where I’d have to untangle tree branches without breaking the leaves or untie an impossible knot. I didn’t expect dirty pictures. It goes against everything I know about them. It makes me question my assumptions.”
Jason shook his head. “What I’ve seen so far is both thorough and well documented. Your conclusions are logical and, I wager, quite accurate. Robert is very lucky to have you, and he knows it, otherwise he wouldn’t have called me.” The Duke chuckled. “Quite a hit to his pride, to have to call your former mentor out of retirement. But back to the Reigh, don’t doubt the entire body of your research on the basis of Lord Nagrad. In diplomacy, like in great many other things, the rules of engagement survive only until one remarkable person decides to break them. It’s just our luck we stumbled across such a person.”
“That, and the fact that I’m a lousy diplomat.”
“To each his own. You’re an excellent analyst. Not everyone is born with the gift of snappy comeback. But you should rest. And don’t worry, we may yet get you out of this mess.”
This time the meeting fell onto afternoon, and the sunlight filled the room. Nagrad waited in precisely the same position Deirdre had seen him the first time.
“Greetings, Lady Deirdre. And Your Grace.”
Jason smiled. “I wasn’t aware I’m well know to the Reigh.”
“You are,” Nagrad assured him.
“Very well, Lord Nagrad.” Jason rubbed his hands together. “In that case shall we dispense with preliminary niceties? Let’s talk money.”
They launched into the foray like two warriors, amidst clashing blades and thudding shields. By the second hour Deirdre lost the thread of the argument. By the fourth she caught herself dousing off.
Nagrad’s voice snapped her from her reverie. “I do believe the lady is tired. Let us take a break.” He offered her his hand. “Would my lady care for some fresh air?”
To say no would’ve been an insult. She put her hand in his and let him lead her out to the balcony. Big enough for a decent size party, the semicircular balcony extended out good twenty five meters. Nagrad maneuvered all the way to its farthest point and stopped at an ornate amber and white rail. The keep protruded from the side of the mountain and as she looked down below to where the forest shimmered awash with green leaves, a curious feeling of peace filled Deirdre. Bright blue and red birds flittered from branch to branch. Somewhere a distant relative of the Vunta howled once. She inhaled the air. It tasted sweet.
“Beautiful,” she murmured. “I forgot how lovely the planetside can be.”
“It’s home,” he said simply, putting the world into a single word.
Deirdre leaned on the rail. “Why me?”
“Because you’re attractive,” he said. “And I greatly admire your body.”
“Of work,” he added and offered her his reader. A list of recent publications lit the screen. The top one.