“I regret. No one by that name is associated with this firm.”
Shan yos’Galan Clan Korval, Master Trader aboard the Dutiful Passage, Thodelm of Line yos’Galan, until very recently an acknowledged gentleman of discerning, if occasionally odd, manner. . .struggled with, and mastered, the desire to stick his tongue out at the comm screen.
The screen being black, by choice of the call’s recipient, such a display would have offended no one, but it was the principle of the thing. He had it from no less an authority on Code and social grace than his cousin Kareen yos’Phelium, that a single deliberate breach of courtesy – even unwitnessed – was more than sufficient to send one tumbling down the treacherous slope of boorish behavior until one fetched up at the bottom, possessing no more manners than a Terran.
He took a careful breath, closed his eyes, and spoke, keeping his voice even and pleasant.
“I do beg your pardon. Perhaps, then you would be kind enough to direct me to the person in your firm who purchases fanchima?”
There was a slight pause on the other end of the line, and a perceptible intake of breath. The answer, when it came was admirably steady.
“I regret that this firm has no need for that commodity.”
Of course not. Why should an corish manufactory have any need whatsoever for fanchima, the ingredient that bound the specialized polymers and made them all but indestructible?
“I understand,” he told the blank screen, a palpable untruth. “Thank you for your time.”
“You’re welcome, sir. Out.”
“Out,” he echoed, but the connection light was already dark. Out of habit, he tapped the button on his console, leaned back in his chair, put his booted feet on the desktop, and crossed his arms behind his head, silver eyes aimed toward the ceiling.
He was still in that position nearly an hour later, when the door to his office opened to admit Priscilla Mendoza, captain of the Passage, and coincidentally, his lifemate. She cast a thoughtful look at him, tipped back and staring at the ceiling, moved quietly to the unit bar and poured two glasses of wine – one red, one white. These she carried to the desk, placing the red wine where he could easily reach it; keeping the white for herself as she settled into the upholstered chair across the desk from him.
She sipped, waiting.
It wasn’t long before he spoke, in a rather dreamy voice, his face still tilted toward the ceiling.
“Can you think of any reason, Priscilla, why the foremost supplier of corish in this sector might need a more-or-less steady supply of fanchima?”
Priscilla raised her eyebrows.
“The addition of fanchima to the recipe for ancorish makes the material practically indestructible. The material which has fanchima as an ingredient is called corish and it sells for ten times the price of ancorish. DuSales is the largest manufacturer of corish in this sector, and it has a standing call for fanchima listed in all the trade papers.”
Shan nodded, moved his feet off the desk-top, unfolded his arms and allowed the chair to bring him gently upright.
“Yes,” he said, reaching for the glass. “You will doubtless recall from our many conversations regarding this trip, that I had made sure to have a good quantity of fanchima in hand. The route as envisioned would see us here at DuSales early, the material, while not a high profit item, would surely sell in its entirety. I even had the name of an agent, from whom I hoped to meet other agents who handled other, hopefully more remunerative, items.”
He blinked thoughtfully at the glass in his hand, and sipped.
“I remember,” Priscilla said in her deep, calming voice.
“Good. That’s good,” Shan said. “Because if you hadn’t remembered, I would be in a fair way to thinking that I’d lost my trade-sense, if not my ability to reason.”
She sipped wine, considering him with senses both wider and deeper than mere sight. Her early training had been as a priestess of the Goddess, and vessel for the spirit of Moonhawk, one of the Living Names. She had left the temple, and her homeworld of Sintia, long ago, but her powers, far from dropping away from her in her apostasy, had increased with age, and practice, and the companionship of what Liad dignified as Healers, whose powers were remarkably similar to those of the Witches of Sintia.
Shan was himself a strong Healer and at the moment, he was making no attempt to shield his emotions or his inner self. So it was that Priscilla could feel his troubled annoyance clearly.
“Is there a problem?” she murmured
“Yes, I do believe that there is a problem, Priscilla. When the seven firms that specialize in producing corish each deny that the contact name listed in the trade bulletin is employed by the firm; and deny further that they have any need for fanchima – I would say that something’s wrong, wouldn’t you?”
“Given the known consumption rates, and the sales figures for this very item which are even now running from the port trade computers to my desk. . .” He tapped brown fingers on the desktop, in illustration, or perhaps in irritation. . .”One is led rather inescapably to the conclusion that what’s wrong is – us.”
Priscilla leaned forward to put her glass on the edge of the desk.
“We expected that there would be problems,” she said. “After all, Clan Korval fired on Liad, with. . .devastating results. That fact proceeds us; if it’s not everywhere it will be, soon enough. The reasons why – they won’t travel as quickly, if they travel at all. We knew that we’d face some uncertainty.”
“Which is why this is a trade-and-diplomatic mission,” Shan agreed. “But I submit, Priscilla, that diplomacy is difficult if no one will receive us, or even buy goods that they must want!”
He drank off what was left of his wine and put the glass aside.
“As if the damned Department of the Interior dogging us and every Korval ship it can locate wasn’t trouble enough. . .”
“We can’t huddle safe on Surebleak,” Priscilla said, and he laughed.
“Certainly, we cannot huddle safe on Surebleak! How could we, when nothing’s safe on Surebleak?”
“Pat Rin’s efforts have produced some. . .order, at least,” she said.
“I allow it, but, yes, I concur. Clan Korval’s trade ship does not languish about the new homeworld. The universe is our home; the trades routes our natural environment, and we will not be denied either! On that, the whole clan is in agreement. I confess that I hadn’t anticipated that idealism would trump profit.”
“Not idealism,” Priscilla said.
“There’s nothing to fear from a trade ship,” he objected; “we’re not pirates, Priscilla!”
“But we – this ship – was part of the ring of ships at Liad, and we stood off-planet as a battleship. If we ourselves didn’t burn that hole into Solcintra, we did nothing to prevent it from happening.”
“Unless DuSales is harboring a war bunker beneath the planet’s surface, they need fear nothing from us. We’re a trade ship again, and I daresay that, even if there was a war bunker below-ground, I’d be inclined to ignore the damned thing in favor of getting some business done!”
He tipped his head, silver eyes on her face.
“You’re amused, Priscilla; pray tell me what I’ve done to deserve it!”
“You’re thinking like a Liaden,” she said.
Ordinarily, that comment would have been delivered with a hefty dose of irony. Today, it was limned with a tentative dismay.
And, of course, things hadn’t been ordinary. . .for quite some time, now.
“Do go on, Priscilla. In what way am I thinking like a Liaden? It’s a habit I’ll need to break, after all, though I can’t imagine where I acquired it.”
“You’ve always had it,” she said, smiling at him. “In all the time I’ve known you, you’ve been straddling the lines – thinking like a Liaden and a Terran. I’ve always thought you were as much a Scout as your brother.”
“You flatter me,” he murmured. “And you still haven’t told me what I’m not seeing. Why should DuSales fear us, peaceful traders that we are?”
“Because we were in that ring around Liad.”
She raised a slim, pale hand. “I understand that the Passage was a battleship then, and that we’ve exchanged our weapons pods for trade pods once again. Our melant’i is completely different here on DuSales that it was, about Liad. A Liaden would immediately – would intuitively – understand that.”
She met his eyes.
“But DuSales is Terran.”
“And Terrans have long known that Liadens cannot be trusted to tell the simplest truth.” Shan sighed. “You’re right, Priscilla; I was thinking like a Liaden. Would you care to hint me into the way of thinking like a Terran?”
She shook her head.
“Do you think the delm will go along with the lease-to-own so Cresthaller can replace its station?”
“Far be it from me to try to predict what the delm might find it necessary to do. However, I did push the project in my last letter home, and I believe that both Val Con and Miri are aware of our. . .public relations problem.”
“So they may well – I mean to say, Korval may well take up this work, for the general good of the sector, and of Cresthaller in particular.”
“Let’s suppose it. What then?”
“Then I think that’s the way back into the trust of Terrans,” Priscilla said. “To be a good neighbor, and extend what assistance is possible – and to make certain that it’s known that Clan Korval is doing these things.”
Shan considered her.
“We’ll need to hire a firm,” he said, “to insure that the news gets out. No depending on the vagaries of the news channels.”
“Yes, and –”
The comm unit on Shan’s desk chimed.
“Yes?” he said.
“Tower here,” came the crisp voice of Comm Tech Sally Triloff, one of the numerous new hires among the Passage’s crew. “Captain left word she’d be with you, Master Trader. Call from crew on leave, condition yellow.”
Shan’s anxiety leapt to meet hers; Priscilla took one steadying breath for both of them, and spoke clearly.
“Captain here, Sally. Please put the call through.”
“Captain,” said the tech, and almost immediately came another voice, speaking quietly, and to Priscilla’s ear, carefully.
“Captain, this is Born Van Schell. Crew on leave is right now at Riggers Tavern in the port proper. Getting on to be time to leave, but. . .there’s a crowd outside the door, and it looks like, to us, that we might have some trouble getting out and back to the ship.”
“Have you been threatened?”
“Not directly, ma’am. But there’s been some talk, just loud enough for us to hear, if you understand me, about how this is a peaceable port, with a strong no-pirate policy. Talking about being surprised that we’d show our faces in legal space, after what we’d done, and never did understand why the Liad government let the ship go, instead of impounding it and making space safer.”
A short, rather shaky breath.
“More in that vein, ma’am, but no threats. But this crowd outside; we’ve seen some port police uniforms in the mix, but more that aren’t. One of the women who’d been talking loud went outside to stand with them. . .It’s – it might be nothing, but we don’t want to have an incident ma’am, and we – all of us, that is – thought it best to call for advice.”
Shan had spun his screen ’round so they could both see it, and his fingers were busy on the keypad. A map bloomed as she watched, a blue flag marking the spot of Riggers Tavern, three streets beyond the ship yards. Crew had heeded the instruction to stay close in, and to travel in groups. This particular group, as Priscilla recalled form the leave roster, was five – three Terran and two Liaden crew members.
And a group of uncertain-tempered locals between them and their ship.
“Hey!” Van Schell said sharply. “Tonee, get back here!”
Priscilla tensed. Tonee sig’Ella was old crew; small even for a Liaden, and tough as space leather. One-on-one, Terran or Liaden, she’d bet on Tonee. A crowd of chancy tempered citizens was another thing entirely.
“Tonee’s gone to the door, ma’am,” Van Schell murmured. “Wait. ‘nother spacer’s gotten in his way. Tom – get over there!”
There was a murmur, possibly an assent, then silence. Priscilla counted precisely to one hundred forty-four, feeling Shan’s impatience mounting. When she reached the end of her count, she took a deep breath, and slowly exhaled.
“Captain? Tonee, the guy who got between him and the door – petty officer offa Mazdula – he says they’re – the group outside, that is – they’re waiting to arrest us as pirates since Liad won’t do it. They can’t come into the bar because the landlord pays what they call here an itchenkala – means that the bar’s its own independent area, with its own rules. Itchenkala can’t call on the port cops to enforce its rules. The other side of that is the port cops can’t just walk in and arrest people in the bar; they’ve gotta wait ’til their on-port-proper.”
“So, you’re safe from threat while you’re in Riggers.”
“Yes’m, but there’s two problems with that. One is that Riggers has to close down – well, all the bars do – for two hours, between day-port and night-port. Everybody’s gotta leave. Closing time’s coming up. . .in about an hour, local. Guy offa Mazdula says you can get a transport order from the Office of Law and Decency. Catch there is that’s it’s pricey, and you gotta swear to treat us according to our crimes.”
Shan was busy at the computer again, no doubt calling up information on the Office of Law and Decency, and the prices set against various transgressions.
“I don’t think that will be a problem,” Priscilla said. “Sit tight, Born. I’ll call you back as soon as we’ve done the research.”
“Yes’m. The guy off Mazdula – he asked to be brought to Master Trader yos’Galan’s attention. Said Jif Nagra remembered him kindly, and hoped the reverse was true.”
She felt a curious little jolt from Shan, but when she looked at him, his attention was on the screen.
“Thank you,” she said to Born; “I’ll pass the message. Captain out.”
“Van Schell out.”
The comm unit’s light snapped out – and immediately snapped on again.
“Tower, Captain. I have Retribution Officer Blix from the DuSales Office of Law and Decency.”
Shan lifted his hands away from the keyboard, and turned toward her, his face expressionless. Priscilla felt a tingle, as if a tiny jolt of electricity had passed along her nerves.
“Please put Officer Blix through,” she said composedly.
Compliance was instantaneous.
“Have I finally reached the captain of the pirate vessel Dutiful Passage?” The voice was high-pitched and clearly angry. Priscilla felt a jolt of her own anger.
“This is Captain Mendoza of the tradeship Dutiful Passage out of Surebleak,” she said coolly. “To whom I am speaking?”
“Retribution Officer Blix,” the angry voice snapped; “Law and Decency. In accordance with DuSales Port Regulations 928A through 977M, pertaining to known pirates on-port, your vessel and its cargo are forfeit to this office; your officers and crew will be interrogated by this office, and those who are found guilty of piracy and related crimes will be placed in appropriate labor programs.”
Fear and anger flowed from Shan – fire and ice – mingling with her determination that Officer Blix would see her in hell before –
“If it were my decision alone, I would see the full weight of the law levied against all and any pirates that come to our port. However, I am guided in this particular case by the portmaster. Because a number of known-to-us to be lawful merchant ships have spoken in support of Dutiful Passage, you will be allowed to lift, upon forfeiture of your cargo of fanchima and a fine of twelve cantra.”
Almost, she thought she heard Shan laugh.
“These generous conditions have a time limit. You will off-load the fanchima and transfer the fine within the next local hour, or the full penalty will come due.”
“We have crew on port,” Priscilla said, marveling at how calm her voice sounded. “Crew in peril.”
“Representatives of this office will escort your crew to you, as soon as the cargo is offloaded and the fine is paid.”
“No. Our crew is returned first.”
“Nonsense. You’re not dealing from a position of strength, Captain. You will do exactly as I say or –”
“We will,” Priscilla interrupted, “offload the cargo. You will then deliver our crew, safe and unharmed, to our dock. Once they’ve boarded and been cleared by our medical personnel, we will pay the fine and lift, according to the portmaster’s instructions.”
There was a pause, growing lengthy. Then came a surly, “Very well. Commence offloading.”
“Yes,” said Priscilla, and cut the connection without saying anything else. She looked at Shan, surprised to find that she was shaking.
“Well,” he said, “it looks like we’ll be getting rid of that ghastly fanchima, after all Priscilla. No cloud so dark that there’s no silver at its heart, eh? Speaking of silver. . .”
He reached out and tapped the comm unit.
“Hello, Tower. I wonder if you wouldn’t be so good as to get Petty Officer Jif Nagra of Mazdula on comm; I believe you’ll find him at Riggers on DuSale Port. When you reach him, please route the call to me. I’ll be supervising the offloading of cargo.”
“Yes, Master Trader.”
* * *
The portcomm on Shan’s belt buzzed as the last bale of fanchima hit the chute and slid from the pod to the tarmac below. The Office of Law and Decency had, with commendable dispatch, roped off the receiving area, and had taken the added precaution of stationing four port policepersons, wearing fluorescent orange vests and large sidearms, around the perimeter of the area.
Happily, the unloading was an automated process, so that no one needed to have their patience – or their aim – tested.
Shan, on the pod observation deck, finished the comm from his belt and flicked it on.
“Tower here, sir. Connecting to Mazdula Petty Officer Jif Nagra.”
“Thank you,” Shan said, but another voice cut across his, sounding a little too hearty.
“Shan? Jif Nagra here. Long time, eh?”
It had, in fact, been a number of years. Shan had been a mere trader the last time he had spoken to Jif Nagra. It was not, of course, long enough to forget that the man had cheated him, but it seemed to have been long enough to allow acrimony to fade into a faintly pleasant glow of nostalgia.
“You sound exactly the same,” he said, which was nothing more than the truth. “I hear that I am in your debt.”
“Then you hear wrong,” Jif said flatly.
“So, you didn’t intervene in the on-going. . .situation with the Office of Law and Decency, and prevented one of the Passage’s crew from going out into the waiting crowd?”
“Oh, hell, sure I did that! Couldn’t see the honest citizens of DuSales Port put into mortal danger, now, could I? No telling what a guy like that might get up to!”
Shan grinned, reluctantly, thinking of Tonee sig’Alda’s spare and diminutive frame.
“He is among the most dangerous of a desperate crew,” he admitted. “But if I’m not already in your debt, then I fear I must place myself there.”
“Yeah?” Jif sounded tentative. Well, he had been a clever fellow, after all.
“If I could think of any other solution, I assure you that I would not dream of importuning you. But the case is that the Office of Law and Decency is engaging to escort our crew back to us. Those of us on-board have been denied port access.”
“And you want somebody to keep an eye on the cops. I’m not sure I’m the right man for this.”
“Are you still at Riggers?”
“Eh? Sure I am.”
There was a short silence, followed by a short laugh.
“How long’d it take you to earn back that loss I gave you?”
“About half a Standard.”
“I’d’ve thought longer. A lot longer.”
“So did my father – he predicted it would take at least a Standard and very probably a Standard and a half, to come back to even, given interest and the cost of lost opportunities.”
“Nice to know I can figure as sharp as a master trader. Could, at least. So, how’d you happen to com about so fast?”
“I got lucky. Jif, keep the escort honest until I’ve got my crew back, and we’re in Balance.”
“That’s a fast turnaround from you in my debt to me in yours, ain’t it?”
Shan counted to three.
“Are you still at Riggers?” he asked gently.
“Damn you – yeah. I am. And it’s bothered me all this time, taking that delivery outta your hands. Would’ve been one thing if we’d traded for it, but I plain stole that from you.”
“No doubt you had your reasons.”
“Now you mention it, I did, and they were good ones at the time. Still, like you point out, I’m here, so let’s get it all the way up to even. It looks like the citizen liaison’s heading in from the street, so I’m guessing they’ll want your crew to get moving. I’ll rustle a couple of pals and we’ll keep ’em company. See you soon, Shan.”
“Soon,” Shan said, but the comm was dead. He clipped it back onto his belt. The chute had withdrawn and the pod was sealing. Six cantra of fanchima gone, with no gain to show against it, aside the safe return of crew by port authorities he trusted so well that he had been prepared to go into debt to a thorough scalawag.
Happily for him, the scalawag had a conscience, but what niggled at Shan as he made his way back to the ship, walking briskly toward the crew hatch, was the strong feeling that extra protection was necessary.
“Do have some sense, Shan,” he admonished himself as he turned the corner into the crew log; “it’s only nerves speaking.”
“What’s nerves speaking?” Priscilla asked. She had the screen up and was anxiously watching the street, biting her lip. “We should have sent a security detail,” she said. “I have a bad feeling.”
Shan shivered. It was one thing for his nerves to be in overdrive, and quite another for Priscilla to have a bad feeling. He was a simple Healer, but Priscilla not only possessed several of the Greater Talents, she had been scrupulously trained in their use.
“Have you Seen something?” he asked.
She shook her head, sharply. “Nothing so clear, only a. . .feeling.”
“Well, if it will ease your feelings, I will tell you that I arranged with Jif Nagra to join the parade from Riggers to our ramp. Doing so made me feel somewhat better, I confess. But. . .” He let that drift off.
“Precisely,” Priscilla murmured. “But.” She leaned toward the board, upping the screen’s magnification.
“Here they come.”
Indeed, here they came, five familiar figures in Dutiful Passage crew jackets; two unfamiliar figures wearing the orange vests and ornate guns of the Office of Law and Decency, and three others in unfamiliar crew jackets, heads up and faces alert.
Behind the little band of ten followed a group of what Shan supposed to be interested citizens, some to see the criminals escorted to their pirate ship.
Priscilla touched the controls. In the screen, the outer hatch began to rise.
Shan watched it, breath-caught, scanning the street, the crowd, the approaching group. . .
The port cops and Jif’s crew stopped at the base of the ramp, allowing the Passage’s crew to continue alone. As soon as they were inside, Priscilla triggered the hatch, sealing them into safety.
Shan sighed, gustily, and Priscilla turned to smile at him as the inner hatch began to cycle.
“Just nerves, then,” she said.
He shivered – the wind, that was all, and offered her his arm.
“Just nerves,” he agreed.
* * *
Those who have read Alliance of Equals will recall that, due to the efforts of the Department of the Interior, the Dutiful Passage had been having a great deal of trouble in establishing a new route. They were rebuffed at ports that ought, by rights, to have welcomed them; while some other ports actively sought to cheat them. The above outtake shows the Passage having raised one of those ports felt that it was entirely appropriate to steal from a pirate, which is at best a risky philosophy.
The scene was removed because it took a wrong turn, that being the appearance of Jif Nagra. There was no room for Jif in Alliance, which already had a full cast, and a person which such an intimate history with Shan would require not only significant time in the novel, he would very probably need to Influence the Outcome in some way, and, err — that couldn’t happen. See “full cast” above.
But, yanno, the scene had potential, and I said to myself, said I, “Self? This could be the beginning of a great short story.” So, I put it in the working file.
Where it sat for eighteen months, or more. I’d look at it every so often, but — nothing. The backbrain just wasn’t interested. And, at my last read-through, last week, I realized that this notion that I had to do something with this piece was a road block to getting other work done.
So! Here it is on Splinter Universe — an a very fine Splinter it is! Something has been done with it, and hopefully now I’ve cleared the deck of that particular obstacle.
* * *
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