Page 2 of A Mere Formality

Robert’s food lay untouched on his plate. Officially the banquet was thrown in honor of the successful treaty negotiations between the Monrovians and the Vunta Caliphate, for which the Empire, in the form of Robert, had provided a neutral meeting ground. Unofficially, Robert wanted to woo the Reigh. Unfortunately, he was stuck at the head table, sandwiched between the two treaty partners.

Their stares connected and in his eyes she read a confirmation. Yes, something’s up. No, we don’t know what. We can do nothing about it. Just sit tight and wait.

Deirdre sighed. There were four parties to this dance: the Vunta Caliphate, the Monrovian Republic, the Empire, and the Reigh. Each wanted something and would claw all others bloody to get it. All she wanted to do was to prevent a massacare.

She looked to the guest of honor table where the Lord Nagrad of the Reigh sat with Nina on one side and a white-furred Vunta dignitary on the other. The rest of the Reigh formed a line behind the table. None but the Lord had chosen to sit down. None ate or drank. A line from the Reigh Codex popped into her head: I will consume no food in the house of my enemy.

Nagrad’s scarred face was grim. Had he been from an inner Imperial world, she would’ve guessed him at eighty or ninety. Her painstaking research put him at closer to sixty. The only Reigh lord in the history of his people to entertain the idea of cooperation. His wife was dead. His entire family consisted of his son. And the Vunta Raiders were very afraid of him.

The Vunta dignitary shot Nagrad a toothy smile and said something. Nina cut in, smooth, breathtaking like a golden angel against the backdrop of black. Deirdre felt a stab of jealousy right in the stomach. Nina’s perfect six foot and one inch tall figure was wrapped in a strapless gown of champagne-colored lace, accented with complex swirls of golden thread. The dress hugged her like a glove. The color perfectly complemented her light blonde hair and light bronze complexion.

“Why couldn’t we have her job?” Fatima murmured at her right.

“Because we don’t score 8:13 on the proportion scale,” Deirdre said. “And because we haven’t been trained as escorts and we don’t have a perfect recall.”

“Bullshit,” Fatima said. “You know you could do what she does with your eyes closed. You’re a freaking cultural attache. You know more about Reigh than all of us combined. You should be picking the Reigh Lord’s brains, not she.”

“She knows what she’s doing. My job is to compile and analyze the information. Her job is to keep the object of her attention enraptured.” And it would be an incredibly difficult task, considering the strictness of the Reigh rules of conduct. Nothing off-color. Not a hint, not a joke, not even an idea of impropriety. No reference to sex, religion, or politics. Deirdre smiled. “I’m perfectly happy to advise her from the sidelines.”

Fatima sneered. “You have no ambition. In the next life, you’ll be reborn as a tea kettle.”

Nina reached for a small appetizer and artfully offered it to the Reigh Lord. He accepted the tiny twisted dough puff and bit into it. Nina continued talking. She had a way to totally engage a person in conversation, until speaking to her appeared to be a reward in itself.

The Reigh Lord finished the puff. A nervous tick jerked his face once, twice. A grimaced twisted his features, baring his teeth. He arched his back, biting at the empty air. His hands flailed, knocking over the goblets and plates. A spasm gripped his body. He shuddered, froze, and fell back against his seat, foam sliding from his lips down his chin.

For a moment absolute silence claimed the hall. And then chaos broke.

Chapter 3

The situation made absolutely no sense.

Deirdre dipped her fingers into the interface. The liquid metal coated her hand, climbing from her fingertips all the way to her wrist. It slid between her fingers, slightly cold, dry but slippery with silky smoothness, the way very fine sand might feel if individual sand granules were perfectly round. As the synaptic implants under her skin made connections with free floating nanoclusters, she felt her hand–skin, muscle, ligament, and bone–stretch impossibly far. She thought of the archive. The four petals of the unit ignited with pale green, and the huge collection of files, the sum total of her research and archival documents, flared into existence, projected into space above the petals

Ten feet away Robert slumped in the chair. In the corner Nina rubbed her face with her hands. The room was dim, the huge communication screens on the wall silent and dark, all except the one on the right side, showing the map of the sector. In the center of the map hung the Colchida Cluster, three stars, eleven habitable worlds total, four warp points, thirty million colonists. It used to belong to the Monrovian Republic. Situated too far from Monrovian industrial centers, it was all but worthless to the Republic. But to the Empire, the Cluster was a diamond in rough. Had the Empire been given a chance to develop the Cluster, it would’ve become the biggest industrial and commercial base of the sector.

Unfortunately the Vunta Caliphate very much enjoyed raiding the Cluster while it was in the Monrovian possession. The numerous stars of the Caliphate, tinted with pale blue to show the territory boundaries, hung in the corner of the map like a storm cloud. It would take the Empire at least two decades to build up the defenses of the Cluster to a survivable level. Until then, the only guard against the Vunta were the Reigh, a thin ribbon of worlds tinted with green.

The Vunta wanted to make the last run at the Cluster, stripping it of all valuables. Hundreds of lives would be lost. The Empire would threaten war and the Caliphate would back off with apologies, but the budding economy of the Cluster would be wrecked. It would take decades and billions to recover.

The Empire needed to protect the Cluster. The Reigh needed the money. But the Reigh doctrine forbade trading payment for military service. And so the staff of the Embassy had to figure out how to skirt the Reigh doctrine. To find an underhanded way to exchange money for protection with the people, who were forbidden to become mercenaries. Now it would never happen.

They were responsible for the safety of 30 million colonists and they blew it. The thought made her stomach lurch.

Deirdre sank deeper into the interface, both arms up to the elbow, speed-reading through the flurry of documents and her notes. She couldn’t quite put her finger on it, but she was sure if she just figured out what it was her subconscious was trying to tell her, the situation would become logical.

Fatima moved on quiet feet to stand at Robert’s side. “Would you like some tea?”

Tags: Ilona Andrews Science Fiction
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