Authors: Kristine Smith
“Are you worried, nÃ¬a?”
Jani looked back over her shoulder at Tsecha. He stood in the middle of the meeting room, hands clasped before him like a headmaster greeting the first class of the term. He wore a tunic and trousers in shades of tan and off-white, topped off by his propitiator's overrobe. The garment's red-slashed sleeves proved the brightest thing in the room, drawing Jani's eye despite her growing nervousness. She tried to recall the last time she'd seen Tsecha wear it. Weeks, possibly months.
Dressed to kill.
“I'm waiting for Markos. John and his lawyers think that Li Cao could have him arrested.” Jani turned back to the window, which overlooked the street at the point where it angled down toward the beach, on the watch for a flash of reflected sun off a skimmer chassis.
“I would have something to say about that, I think.” Tsecha drew up beside her. “I have heard that he did leave his house near to sunrise.”
Let's hear it for the Elyan HaÃ¡rin spy network.
“Then he should have been here an hour ago.” Jani gripped the window ledge, massaging the rough stone with her thumb until the pain stopped her. “Even if he took the roundabout route and came in from the south, the trip would take an
hour, tops.” She yawned, then rubbed grainy eyes. John had slept through the night, but she hadn't quite managed.
New dreams for old.
But in this one, the shooter fired.
“NÃ¬a.” Tsecha tapped her shoulder. “I see a skimmer.”
Jani ran out of the room and through the entry, pausing in the doorway just as the dark blue double-length drifted to a stop a few doors down from the meeting house. Reached beneath her shirt-jacket and undid the clasp of her shooter holster, just in case.
The skimmer's passenger side gullwing swung upward, and Governor Stanislaw Markos emerged into the morning. He looked down the street in the direction he'd come, as if he feared he'd been followed. Then he turned to Jani and blew out a long breath. “Jesus Christ.” He seemed at first glance the sort of man one saw on Family fringes, a door opener and holder of the coats, all slicked silver hair and expensive tailoring. But he was Phillipan by birth and colonial to the core, and his lack of affection for Chicago had blossomed over the years into mutual enmity.
“Good morning, Excellency.” Jani adjusted her shirt to hide the shooter holster, then walked out into the street. “You look like you've had an interesting morning.”
“It was a near thing.” Markos's voice emerged guttural, raked by anger and more than a little fear. “Two officials from the Justice annex visited me last night. âA plot to overthrow your government,' they said. âYou must remain in your home, under guard.' Bullshit. The only plots those idiots know of are those they hatch themselves.” He smoothed the front of his cream daysuit and eyed Jani expectantly.
“I think it has to do with John.” Jani tried to see who else sat inside the skimmer, but Markos's bulk blocked her view. “And the concept of Thalassan sovereignty.”
A corner of Markos's mouth twitched. “I wondered when that would come back to bite me.” Then he smiled. “Thank God for friends in high places.” He smacked the skimmer roof, and the rear door of the double-length opened. “Come out, Zhenya. We're the first ones here.”
The man who emerged paused to stretch, then muttered something to Markos in Elyan Greek that made them both laugh. He stood shorter than average and stockier than was fashionable. His hair had been trimmed in a haphazard bowl that accentuated his broad face, its blond more an absence of color than a brilliant statement, dull as it was and streaked with grey. He wore a loose-fitting outfit in off-white, some new style of tunic and trousers with an open collar and tucks and seaming that betrayed the presence of ventilation panels.
Deputy Commerce minister, and the greatest threat in a decade to Li Cao's hammerlock on the prime ministry. Jani watched him approach, her trepidation an undercurrent, like the first rumblings of food poisoning.
Anais Ulanova's nephew.
in the Commonwealth-spanning NUVA-SCAN business conglomerate.
Not the sort I'd turn to at a time like this.
“Your Excellency.” She extended her hand as he closed in.
“NÃ¡ KiÃ¨rshia.” Scriabin's hand enveloped hers. “I hope that's the correct appellation. I tore through every idomeni language guide I could put my hands on, but didn't find much that proved helpful.” His voice was a rough baritone, his accent a mÃ©lange of Michigan Provincial seasoned with Old Russian. “Finally, I broke down and asked my driver. He proved surprisingly helpful.”
Jani looked past Scriabin to the skimmer just as his helpful driver emerged.
“Mornin', gel!” Niall smoothed the front of his dress desertweight tunic, then set his brimmed lid. “Not used to all this subterfuge and evasive maneuvering so early in the morning. Felt like I was sixteen again, running the White Line in the Wodonga Mountains.”
Markos laughed. “A Victorian boy, are you, Colonel?”
“Born and bred, Your Excellency.” Niall circled around the vehicle toward them, eyes bright with the thrill of the chase. “Shaped and baked to a crusty turn.”
Scriabin cocked his head. “The white line?”
Niall slowed. “The White River, Your Excellency,” he
piped a bit too brightly. “Loops around the northern half of the city of Wodonga. My school chums and I enjoyed many a summer rafting trip.” His grin at Jani held a touch of friendly malice. “You look surprised to see me.” He herded her into the doorway, leaving Scriabin and Markos standing by the skimmer.
“Rafting with school chums.” Jani kept her eye on the two officials, who leaned against the skimmer and waited for the other governors. “Make that running stolen goods from the Wodonga shuttleport to where the hell ever.”
“We used rafts sometimes.” Niall pulled out his case and plucked out a 'stick. “When the jungle got too dense and the skimtrucks couldn't hold the track.” He cracked the tip and took a long pull as he slumped against the polished stone. “I know enough about John to fill in the rest. Cao wants him out at Neoclona. I'm surprised it took her this long. What's Parini's role?”
“Stunned bystander.” Jani stifled another yawn. “They let him come here to inform John only after the legal surgery had already started. Now he's hiding out in the Main House, trying to pretend he's just visiting and not having much luck.”
“If he fights to defend John, he's out, and Cao hands the whole Easter egg over to Eamon DeVries, third in line and incipient gutter sot.” Niall sneered, his scarred lip curling to reveal a pointed canine. “Here's your choice, boy. We destroy you a little or we destroy you a lot.” Another pull, a drift of smoke. “Smuggling was cleaner. When you over-stepped, they just shot you.”
“Who shoots, Colonel?” Tsecha poked his head between them and bared his teeth.
“Figure of speech, nÃ Tsecha.” Niall pulled the 'stick from his mouth and hid it cradled in his hand like a schoolboy caught out during recess.
Tsecha turned and vanished back into the comparative dark of the meeting house. “Smoke your nicstick, Colonel, before you choke.”
Niall stuck the 'stick back in his mouth, then examined his palm for burns. “Look, gel, I know Markos isn't here just to admire nÃ Dathim's tilework. I've been here for nigh on six months, and I'm not fuckin' blind. Or deaf.” He took one last drag, then tossed the spent 'stick into a nearby planter. “I am, in point of fact, the Service representative at this little discussion, as ordered by Admiral General Hiroshi Mako himself.”
It's too early in the morning and I'm too tired to be surprised.
Jani looked out toward the street, where another skimmer had joined the governor's. “Any danger of Lucien turning up?”
“He's blogged down with transfer paperwork,” Niall said as he headed toward the skimmers. “Should keep him busy for the day.”
Scriabin hurried to the new skimmer just as the passenger gullwing drifted upward. “You finally made it.”
Jani heard an all-too-familiar voice emerge from the vehicle and froze.
“ânot since Rauta ShÃ¨rÃ a, when we all feared for our lives every moment.” Exterior Minister Anais Ulanova, dressed in cool blue, as ever the elegant hatchet, disembarked the skimmer and immediately latched onto her nephew's arm. “Zhenya, you left Karistos too quickly. We lost youâ” She stopped when she saw Jani, mouth stalled in mid-word as though caught in the midst of a scream.
Jani heard Niall emit a low, tuneless whistle.
“Tyotya Ani.” Scriabin patted his aunt's hand. “I believe you and nÃ¡ KiÃ¨rshia know one another.”
Jani bowed as low as her sensibility allowed, which wasn't much. “Excellency.”
Anais Ulanova said nothing, even when her nephew touched her arm and spoke in her ear. She simply stared, eyes dark as space and just as cold.
“Minister Ulanova.” Tsecha glared SÃ¬ah daggers over the top of Ulanova's head at her nephew. “Minister Scriabin should have informed us.”
“NÃ Tsecha.” If Ulanova noticed the tension in Tsecha's manner, she ignored it. “I trust my nephew implicitly, of course, but given the sensitive nature of this discussion, we felt that the presence of a first-level minister would lend more credence to any agreement reached.”
“I know what you're thinking,” Niall said as he joined Jani at one end of the long table.
“If you did, you wouldn't sit next to me.” Jani continued to watch Ulanova, who still hung onto Scriabin's arm then laughed too loudly at something Tsecha said. “Who was the genius who pulled her into this?”
They had adjourned to the largest meeting room, which opened out onto a small garden complete with bubbling fountain. Jani concentrated on the trickling burble in the hope that the sound would calm her, and knew from the roil in her gut that she hoped in vain.
“She's been Exterior Minister for a long time.” Niall lowered his voice as the governors from Amsun and Hortensia, Avelos and Wallach, took seats nearby. “She does know the lay of the land out here.”
“The first hint of trouble, she'll sell you out to Cao.”
“Not as long as her nephew's involved. He's our insurance. If he falls, she tumbles with him.”
Ulanova took a seat near the head of the table, next to Scriabin. Since the initial shock of recognition, she had ignored Jani, and seemed determined to carry that standard throughout the balance of the meeting. She greeted Avelos and Wallach like the old friends they likely were, and complimented Markos's neckpiece before directing her attention to the recording board set before her by an aide.
“Looks like I don't rate a personal greeting.” Niall sniffed. “I'm crushed.”
“That's what you get for sitting next to me.” Jani pulled a folded sheet of parchment from the inner pocket of her shirt-jacket and spread it flat on the table. “Feel free to move if you'd rather sit with the popular kids.”
“Nah. I've always been a back-of-the-room type.” Niall
grinned, the expression altering to a formal smile when Avelos pointed at him.
“So, your Mako's hip-deep in anti-Cao factionitis.” Avelos was an angular woman with a voice to match, the light bouncing off her lofty cheekbones and casting deep shadows under her eyes. “Doesn't surprise meâthose two never got on. They've been trying to cut one another off at the knees for years.”
Niall shook his head. “It's much deeper than that, Your Excellency. There's a fundamental difference in how we view the state of the Commonwealth and her relations with the worldskein. With her colonies.”
“The Service is stretched to the brink out here.” Wallach, a skinny whip of a man with an unfashionable receding hair-line, doodled in the margins of his recording board display. “No one's gotten to the bottom of the dock attacks, and CÃ¨el is threatening to call the HaÃ¡rin back into the worldskein if any more of their facilities are hit.”
“CÃ¨el can call all he wishes.” Tsecha had seated himself at the head of the table, hands clasped lightly in front of him, no note-taking device to be seen. “The HaÃ¡rin will not go.”
“Then he'll send his warrior skein to come and get them.” Wallach shook his head as a series of interlaced loops appeared on his board. “And who will save our sorry asses from a colonial version of the Night of the Blade?” He glanced across the table at Niall, then resumed his doodling.
“I thank you for raising the subject of defense, Your Excellency.” Niall adopted his instructor's voice, world-weary and wise. “His Excellency Minister Scriabin and I, along with those we represent, are also examining this matter from that point of view.” He stifled a cough. “Six Common months ago, I was charged with the task of evaluating the situation at Fort Karistos. Over the last two weeks, I have collated my findings. I've concluded that thanks to years of neglect by Chicago, the Service personnel stationed there have evolved in sensibility to the point that they feel more loyalty to their base colony and the mixture of races surrounding it than to their nominal homeworld.”
“It's taken you long enough to figure it out.” Jani paused as another yawn threatened.
Not now, dammit.
“It's been that way out here for a generation, at least.”
Niall nodded agreement. “The decision we're faced with is, do we clean the place out, restaff it with more traditionally loyal forces we can't spare, and alienate the local populations?” He took a stylus from the holder in the middle of the table and rolled it between his fingers. “Or do we work with the situation as it stands, maybe even help it toâ¦evolve, then concentrate on developing a close relationship with whoever happens to wind up in charge.”