“This hasn’t been publicized. It’s classified information.” She took the reader and tapped the top title with the stylus. Here it was, the entire contents of her Reigh research. “How did you get this?”
“It was brought to my attention by a party concerned that we may have a loose mouth in our midst.”
“You tapped the Embassy’s network.” She stared at him stunned. Lao-Tzu, what else he could have access to?
“It wasn’t that difficult actually.” He shrugged. “I can’t afford informants in my branch, no more than you can tolerate the blame for my father’s death.”
“I had no informants.” She handed the reader back to him.
“I realized that once I’ve read through your analysis. To have deduced that much from external indicators is remarkable.”
The extent of his arrogance was even more remarkable. Deirdre looked at him. “Then perhaps you would enjoy another deduction.” She slid the square of a reader card from her data bracelet and snapped it into the reader. The recording of a peace meeting from three decades ago filled the screen. “This is the Survey Captain Sean Kozlov. And this, I believe, is your father. They are performing a peace ritual–they have fished together and now they are sharing their catch.” She tapped the screen, forcing it to zoom. “They are eating redfish. And redfish caviar.”
Nagrad watched the screen. The impassive mask slipped and in his face she saw profound sadness.
“Your father wasn’t allergic to caviar,” she said.
“My father was born without immunity to black moss.” Nagrad kept his gaze on the reader. “A genetic failure, a mutation that for some reason wasn’t detected. He had survived for sixty four years without contracting the infection. We didn’t realize he was sick until he began coughing black dust. Very rare in these times, unfortunately, it still happens.”
The black moss was incurable. Two month incubation period and then a soft death, as the victim fell asleep to never awaken. Instead of passing on in his bed, the Reigh Lord died in agony amidst strangers. “He took his own life.”
Nagrad leaned back. “He felt his death must serve the Branch. The only difficulty lay in finding the poison that would imitate an allergic reaction to redfish. The death didn’t happen as quickly as we had hoped.”
The realization struck her. “You were there,” she said. “Were you the one who took the veled off my hand?”
He closed his eyes for a briefest of moments. “Yes.”
“You stood there and you watched your father die.”
“He was my Lord. I honored his wishes.”
“He died to give you an excuse to take a bribe from the Empire.”
Nagrad’s face gained a dangerous edge. “Yes. And the Branch desperately needs the money. And you may be assured, my Lady, that I will do everything in my power to squeeze every last unit I can from your realm. To do any less would be to dishonor his death.”
He took the card from the reader and offered it to her, but she closed his fist about it. “It belongs to you.”
Before he could say anything else, she shook her head. “I understand, Lord Nagrad. I truly do.”
“I suppose you despise me.”
“No. I admire you.” She walked away so he wouldn’t see her face.
The evening brought a cup of fragrant tea and a knock on Deirdre’s door. “Come in,” she yelled, wishing with all her being the visitor would go away. Nina Carrest entered the room. Dressed into a soft robe that looked like it had been slept in, her hair pulled back from her face in a hastily made pony tail, Nina looked radiantly beautiful.
It was simply not fair that a woman should do absolutely nothing and look this good.
“I’m not sure why I’m here.” Nina shifted uncomfortably.
“Please come in.”
They sat on the soft circular couch and drank tea together. “I feel responsible.” Nina rubbed her left temple. “I don’t want you to think that I came here because I feel guilty and I want you to tell me it will be fine and it’s not my fault. I just it should’ve been me.”
“It would’ve been me anyway.” Deirdre sat her teacup back onto the table. “The Reigh had hacked the Orbital’s database. I’m apparently the only one who didn’t know this. Robert fed them my research on purpose. Lord Nagrad very much wanted to meet me. He would’ve found an occasion to do so, one way or the other.”
“Still, I fed his father that appetizer.”
Deirdre offered her a smile. “I wouldn’t worry about that. The old Lord Nagrad didn’t die from an allergic attack. He was terminally ill and had taken poison so his son would have pretext to ask the Empire for the monetary compensation. His son was right there among the guards. He watched him die.”
Nina paled. “That’s monstrously cold bloodied.”
Deirdre sighed. Some things were harder to explain than others. She pulled her portable to her. A small part of her rebelled against interfacing this late. She had wanted the evening to last, to drink her tea, and enjoy the few minutes of comfort, to work on herself by being still. But the need to explain nagged her into dipping her hand into the liquid metal. She watched it creep up to mid-palm no need for more and waited until the sensation of stretching subsided enough to speak.
“The first colonists to have settled on some of the Reigh worlds pre-Second Empire were the Sureks. The word ‘lahiko’, the Reigh’s substitution for “clan”, is thought to have been a corruption of Surek Luh-iko, meaning literally ‘branch.’ However, if you ask a Reigh to pronounce it, he will say, ‘Lehgio.’ An almost perfectly preserved, true Latin pronunciation of legion.”
Deirdre played with the interface and it projected a small map of the Reigh territory. “During the Melasyan conflict, a large part of Melasyus’s army broke off, upset by his failure to secure peace. At this point they had been unpaid for over five standard years. They hadn’t seen their families. Most of them didn’t have families since the Planars had wiped planet after planet with their toxins. They’d had enough and they took their ships and left. Seven legions.”
She highlighted the home worlds of the seven branches of the Reigh one by one. “They were hardened veterans, disciplined, supreme warriors, whom Melasyus strove to make into ‘New Romans’. All they wanted was peace.”
Nina’s gaze was fixed on the map. She refilled their cups without looking.
“They came here?”
“I think so. There are more factors in play here than just a single word. For example, these branches on Nagrad’s standard. If we take off the leaves” she called up a standard and swiped the abundance of stylized leaves from the branches.” and we have the Roman numeral XXVI. The twenty-fourth legion. And so on. My theory is that the legionnaires put as much distance as they could between themselves and Melasyus’ ambitions and settled here, mixing with native Surek population. Thirty years ago they were found. Only eight generations since they had left. They are paranoid, extremely martially proficient, and ruled by a doctrine of personal discipline and distrust of outsiders.”
“The legionnaires had stripped several worlds before they perpetrated their escape. Their descendants stretched those supplies for a long time,” Deirdre continued. “But they lacked the expertise to really build an industrial base. I’ve pulled the logs of their known purchases and ran a projection analysis. They are adept at keeping the fleet and armaments going, but they are rapidly depleting their supplies. Chances are they don’t have access to tech developed in the last two hundred years. Also the fact that Lord Nagrad hadn’t undergone a genetic screening leads me to believe they’re running out of medical equipment. They need vaccines. They need production facilities. They need new tech, but they don’t have an overabundance of natural resources nor do they have access to some unique goods. They can’t make their money in trade. In fact, the only resource they can export is themselves they are superior warriors. Unfortunately their doctrine forbids them to do exactly that. They must fight for a cause. If this continues…”
“They will be overrun by the Vunta,” Nina said.
Deirdre nodded and shrugged the interface from her hand. “They must find a way to obtain financial resources without breaking the foundation of their society. Or they must give up being who they are. Lord Nagrad came up with a short-term fix. I believe his solution cost his son a great deal of pain.”
Nina looked at her. “Tell me about him.”
Deirdre thought about it. “Very smart. He has very light eyes, grey with a little bit of green. He’s tall. He bends slightly toward you when he speaks. He has large hands and almost never gesticulates. When you speak to him, you get a sense that if he hates you, he’d kill you in a second, but if he likes you, he would do all he could to keep you from harm. It’s a curious feeling.”
Nina was smiling.
“Did I say something funny?”
“Not at all. Will you really marry him?”
That was a question she had successfully avoided asking herself for two days now. “I don’t see how I have any choice in the matter. If I didn’t have to marry him, I would’ve requested an extension anyway. The research material I had compiled here is my best work. I want to know more about them. Looks like I’ll get to, just not in a way I had planned.”
The comscreen behind her erupted in a series of beeps and almost immediately somebody hammered on her door. She ordered it open, and Robert burst into the room.
“Get dressed! The Vunta overbid us!’ “What?”
“The Vunta just offered Nagrad the thirty billion he wanted in a Brotherhood Pact. He gets exclusive rights to raiding on the fourth world of the Colchida Cluster. We must bid higher, but I have to get approval before I can commit. It will take the com launch at least twenty eight standard hours to reach us with the answer. We must stall until the Treasury approves the expense. We have eight hours until the sun rises to come up with a plan.”