Authors: Kristine Smith
Jani heard the French doors open, but didn't turn to see who her visitor was. She already knew. “It's so nice and quiet out here.”
Footsteps from behind, soft on the tile. “NÃ Tsecha's over at the never-ending project that is the new meeting house.” Dieter Brondt, her secular suborn and resident spy, drew up next to her. “He's arguing with nÃ Dathim about the tilework.”
“Again? And what does he want me to do about that?”
“Make nÃ Dathim see things his way.” Dieter grinned, the expression lighting his round face. “Because we all know how well nÃ Dathim listens to you.”
“About as well as he listens to anyone.” Jani paused to rub her eyes. Her head ached from the brightness of the sun off the water, yet the last thing she wanted to do was leave the balcony.
Dieter bent and picked up one of the crystal shards. “I ran into Captain Pascal on the walkway, and immediately directed him to a bathroom.” He examined the fragment, then looked around at the other pieces scattered across the balcony floor. “It didn't sound as though lunch agreed with him.”
“Heat and brandy.”
Dieter winced. “He's on his way to Fort Karistos. Got a com from Pierce to report immediately. âScarface blinked,' was how he put it.” He gave the shard a last look, then tossed it aside. “Is everything all right?”
“John and Val.” Jani beat a cadence on the railing with her fists. “Where are they?”
“The clinic.” Dieter planted his feet and folded his arms. He wore a wrapshirt and loose trousers in patterned orange and white. Hybridization had claimed him late and done little to lengthen his bones or slim his stocky frame, leaving him resembling a fitter than average Buddha with cat-yellow eyes. “Doctor Shroud took Doctor Parini on a tour.” He cocked his head. Concerned Buddha. “Is something wrong?”
“Captain Pascal gave me some news before he went to lose his lunch. I don't know whether to believe it or not.”
“Would the fact that the good doctors have been holed up in Doctor Shroud's office for the whole of their tour help you decide?”
Jani shot the male a hard look. “Does anything happen around here that you don't know about?” She fielded his blank stare and shook her head. “Val's been sent here to cut John's heart out.” She stopped, as though speaking the words would give them a reality they didn't otherwise possess.
But they are real, dammit.
When it came to digging out the nasty, Lucien gave Dieter a run for anyone's money. “He's to buy out John's share of Neoclona. At two cents on the Common dollar.”
Dieter's brows twitched skyward. “That'sâ¦a kick in the teeth.” He stroked his chin. “But is it a surprise?”
“Maybe not. Cut off the money, and the Thalassan beast will sicken and die.” Jani turned her back to the water and studied the stark white facade of the Main House. “Maybe the surprise is that they waited this long to do it.” She pushed off the railing and started for the dining room. “I'm going to stop off at John's office before I go to the meeting house.”
“Jani?” Dieter hurried after her, soles crunching on bits of scattered glass. “There are solutions, surely?”
“They should've been put in place already. Assets transfers take time. So do setups of dummy corporations.” Jani stepped out onto the walkway that ringed the third floor of the office-laboratory-apartment complex that was the administrative, social, and medical focus of the Thalassan enclave. “That's why Val didn't let John know he was coming. Whoever sent him didn't want to give John the time to adjust.” She looked over the railing and down to the ground level central courtyard, where the kitchen crew were setting up for mid-afternoon sacrament, jamming and angling mess tables as best they could amid the planters and fountains. “First rule of auditing. Never call ahead.”
“I wouldn't have.” A little of the old Colonel Brondt, Elyas Station Service liaison and spotter of smugglers and other illicit life-forms, flashed in Dieter's eyes. “Neither would you.”
“Maybe.” Jani caught a whiff of curry from the dining area below. She'd have savored the aroma normally, but nerves had claimed her gut as their own and she felt the acid rise in her throat instead. “Bit different when you're on the other end, though.” She headed around the walkway to the lift, nodding to the hybrids she passed along the way while at the same time keeping an eye out for any sign of Lucien.
“Doctor Parini can be made to listen?” Dieter followed after her, a misshapen shadow. “He and Doctor Shroud have been friends for so long.”
“Depends who has Val by the short hairs.” Jani thumped the lift call pad with her fist. The cabin openedâshe stepped inside, then turned to face her suborn. “He didn't come here because he wanted to, he came because he was forced, and by someone who knew just how hard to yank. Pretty select list, don't you think?” She raised a hand in farewell as the lift door closed in Dieter's worried face.
The basement laboratory-clinic proved the same low-key madhouse as always, technicians and medicos bustling along the maze of corridors like the white-coated ants they were. Jani negotiated the twisty trail to John's office, then paused
and pressed her ear to the door to check if any yelling could be detected through the combination of sound-shielding and the vibration-dampening door panel. She sensed nothing. Took a deep breath and hit the door pad.
John and Val fell silent as she entered, just-spoken words charging the air like static. John sat at his desk, working a small exercise ball with one hand, rolling it over and over again between his long fingers. Val sat on a short couch set against the wall, arms folded and shoulders hunched.
“Jani.” John glanced at Val, then away. “We've just been catching up on oldâ”
“Two percent.” Jani dragged a visitors' chair to the side of the desk opposite John and sat. “No more practicing medicine. No more research.”
Val's mouth dropped open. “Howâ¦?” Then his face flamed and he covered his eyes with one hand.
Yes, Lucien ratted you out. What the hell did you expect?
Jani looked across the polished ebony desk at John, who stared back as though she'd just plucked a rabbit out of thin air. “I have my sources.”
“Without a doubt.” John shook his head, then bounced the ball atop the desk, caught it, and bounced it again. “Val is here at the
's request. Given the deteriorating relationship between the humanish and idomeni, Li Cao feels that a hybrid at the head of one of the largest commercial entities in the Commonwealth is too great a security risk to tolerate.” He gave the ball one final bounce, then stashed it in a drawer and stood. “Anyone want coffee?” Without waiting to see whether anyone actually did, he walked to a lowboy at the far end of the room and started assembling the brewer.
“I'm just the messenger.” Val glanced at Jani sidelong, as though reluctant to meet her eye. “The real negotiations will go on in Karistos between lawyers from the Justice Ministry and ourâ” He shot a look at John, then concentrated on his hands. “âand Neoclona's legal team.” He shrugged. “And whoever John hires to represent his interests.”
“These negotiations began last week, apparently.” John
offered Jani a chill smile. “I'm left to scramble. I've already contacted a firm in Karistos that I believe can hold its own.” He set out cups, cream, and sugar on a tray while the weighty aroma of his coffee filled the office.
“Why now?” Jani edged away from the desk so John could set down the tray. “John's been here a year. It took Cao that long to decide he was a threat to Commonwealth security?”
Val rose and walked to the desk. “She called me in one day, about two months ago. Oh, it had been busy. Tsecha had just let loose one of his theological broadsides, a story about you had appeared in a scandal sheet, and one of the more conservative ministers questioned John's loyalty during public debate.” He spooned sugar into a cup, then waited while John filled it to the brim. “That's when I screwed up.” He paused to sip. “She asked if I felt whether the idomeni could win John's loyalty.” He looked at John and shook his head. “I told her that the only two things that had won John Shroud's loyalty were his work”âhe closed his eyesâ“and Jani Kilian.”
John set down the carafe. “Very dramatic, Val, but not the wisest choice of words.” He hoisted his own cup, then set it down with a clatter, sending scalding brew in all directions. “
He grabbed a dispo tissue from the dispenser on his desk and wiped hot coffee off his hand. “What is she afraid of, that I'll start working for Rauta ShÃ¨rÃ a? Even if I wanted to, CÃ¨el wouldn't take my help on a plateâit would be a repudiation of everything he believes. Or does she think I'll infect the entire Commonwealth with a hybridization bug?” He crumpled the dispo into a tight ball and hurled it into a deskside trash bin. “It doesn't work that way, Valâdidn't you tell her? Hybridization is still a slow, labor-intensive process tailored to the individual, and that's not likely to change anytime soon. If she's worried about hybrids by the millions overrunning her government, she's an idiot!”
“She wants to take out the financial underpinnings of this place.” Jani gripped her cup in both hands. John had lowered
the office temperature in deference to Val, leaving it much too cold for her comfort. “Something happened, and she thinks shutting down Thalassa will help solve the problem.”
Something to do with secession. Cao must have heard the rumors.
She picked over one possibility in her mind, then another, until she sensed the stares. Val's unspoken prayer that something she'd say could get him off the hook. John's, that she could give him something to pry Cao's grip from his throat. “I don't know what that could be.”
“Well, so much for that.” John doffed his medcoat and draped it over the back of his chair. “I have an appointment with my new legal team in an hour. I need to get ready.” He looked at Jani. “I'd like you to be there. I know they'll have questions for you. I'm hoping you can at least answer those.” He brushed past her and out the door without waiting for a reply.
The door closed. Silence settled. Jani touched her cheek. The sense of having been struck, but without the blow.
Val walked to the wall opposite and focused on one of the framed hangings. “He still has that one.” A shade of a smile, soon vanished. “It's hitting him now. It takes a while, with the big things. He got angry when I told him, yeah, but now it's sinking its roots.” He hung his head. “I'm just letting you know. I don't think you've seen it. It can get rough.”
“Thanks for the warning.” Jani turned to look at the image. It must have dated from Val's and John's medical school days. Two gangly young men with toothy grins standing on the steps of a building. Val's hair flopped over his forehead, while John wore a wide-brimmed hat that he'd angled to shade his eyes from the sun. “Is there anything you can do?”
“My influence with Li Cao doesn't extend beyond the tip of my nose.” Val's shoulder twitched. “She's declared this a matter of Commonwealth security. If I fight her, she'll take away both our shares and hand them over to Eamon, which would be pretty much the same as her taking over the company.” He walked back to the desk and set down his cup. “But there's the election in three months. Yevgeny Scriabin
is standing against her, and he's a reasonable man. Most of the pundits are predicting he'll beat her.”
“That's three months. A hell of a lot can happen between now and then.” Jani swallowed hard as John's coffee took up where the aroma of the curry had left off. She set down her cup, then rose and headed for the door. “I need to see Tsecha before I meet with John's lawyers.”
“I'll go with you.” Val hurried after her. “At least part of the way. I need to walk. Cooped up on a ship for six weeks withâ” He stood aside so Jani could precede him through the door, then hesitated. “This isn't like I thought it would be, to say the least.” He stepped out into the corridor, glancing up as though he feared the ceiling might fall on him. “I envisioned a nice, relaxed visit. Dinners in little out-of-the-way places, capped off by dancing and plate smashing. Maybe some sailracing during the day. Then one day, Li Cao calls me, and it all falls apart, bit by bit.” He quieted until they entered the lift and the door closed. “I haveâ¦some explaining to do.” He tried for a weak grin, but managed only a wince. “I tried to work up the nerve after lunch, but His Highness sent me out of the room.”
Jani shook her head. “Not now, Val.”
“If I don't tell you now, I'll lose my nerve.” He stepped aside so she could exit the lift first, then fell behind her as they cut across the central courtyard and through a series of demirooms separated by aquaria and low screens.
Jani waited until they departed the Main House and rounded the vast rear yard. “Val?”
“I think I'm losing it. My nerve.” He dragged off his suit jacket and slung it over his shoulder. “Dammit.” He stopped at the top of the cliff road and looked out over the water. “It's so beautiful here. Hotter than fucking hell, butâ” He ran a hand across his brow, already dotted with sweat. “But everything beautiful has a price, doesn't it?” His eyes brimmed. “I'm sorry.”
Jani waited until Val cleared his throat and wiped his eyes. “Want me to tell you what happened? You can nod or
shake your head at suitable intervals, and it will be like you never really said anything at all.”
“You think you know all the words to this one, do you?” Val started down the road, his step slowing as the soles of his dress shoes slid on the gravel.
“In several languages.” Jani tried to study him without seeming to. He kept his eyes fixed on the road, braced for the words he didn't want to hear. “First verseâLucien started hanging around your flat after I left Chicago to return to John. His pretexts were feeble at best. Some bit of news from one of the ministries, or a rumor he'd heard at Sheridan. Being a man of the world, you saw through his act immediately, even felt irritated by his lack of subtlety. But even though you knew he was trying to play you, you just couldn't make yourself send him on his way. He had a connection to me, and he offered all the right responses when you railed against John, which I'm sure you did at least a few times or you wouldn't count as a living, breathing being.” She looked away as Val's face reddened, allowing him an illusion of privacy. “Besides, he's just so damned decorative. You did once tell me that you could watch him all day.”