Page 3 of A Mere Formality

“What I would like is to travel back in time twenty four hours and strangle the sushi chef. How could we not know Nagrad was allergic to redfish caviar?”

Deirdre heard the question. It sank in slowly, fighting its way through her focus.

“Numerous reasons,” she said, still reading. “Nagrad could have not known he was allergic. He could have deliberately hidden the allergy so it wouldn’t be used against him. He could’ve been distracted by Nina and not realized what he was eating. The Vunta could’ve poisoned him. Your theory is as good as mine–all of them are total rubbish. ”

Robert startled. “Why?”

The tone of her voice snapped her out of her search. “Because the Reigh are suspicious paranoiacs, who also happen to be very poor actors.”

She tossed the recording of the banquet to one of the side screens, fast-forwarding to the right frame. “Look at him. Yes, he’s taking pains to listen to Nina, but he’s hardly absorbed. He can’t even pretend to be interested enough to fool a casual observer. He’s definitely not distracted enough to ignore poisonous food. Look at the line of faces behind him. They are about as relaxed as stone idols on New Barbar and they are watching him so hard, they don’t even blink. Do you really think they would let him put something bad in his mouth? Not really. Nor would they let the Vunta mysteriously sprinkle something on his food. This whole thing makes no sense at all.”

The main screen ignited and the face of Timur Gonzales came into the view. The Chief of Security looked slightly baffled, hooded dark eyes melancholy, long phlegmatic face relaxed, as if he just woke up from a long nap in sunshine. It made total sense that the Reigh would demand communication through him the Branch Nagrad and the Empire were now technically in the state of war. Unfortunately he had about as much diplomatic ability as Deirdre herself.

Timur dragged his fingers across his chin, stroking an imaginary beard. “We have contact.”

Robert looked up. “Patch them through.”

“They won’t talk to you,” Deirdre said, almost at the same time as Timur. “Why not?”

“Because you’re technically responsible for Nagrad’s death. They would be honor-bound to kill you on sight,” Deirdre said.

“What she said,” Timur added.

Robert growled. “Fine, patch them through on the side screen as a closed feed.”

“They’ve already delivered the terms.”

The veins in Robert’s temples bulged. “For Zeus’s sake, would you stop wasting my time then and give me the bloody recording?”

A harsh-faced Reigh filled the screen. “You’ve robbed our Branch of a great man. You must atone. The bloodtree must be replenished. You will provide a woman for Lord Nagrad so an heir can be born. And you will pay a dowry. A very large dowry for the insult was grave. Thirty billion units.”

Deirdre blinked. Brilliant. Lao Tzu, that was simply brilliant.

Robert exhaled. “Out of the question! The entire Reigh Branch can survive for a decade on that money. Tell him.”

Deirdre cut in. “Robert, a marriage would make you related. He would be honor-bound to protect your possessions.”

She watched the thought sink in. Robert’s face took on an intense look of a hound closing in for a kill. “Ask him if the marriage would mean Branch Nagrad would protect the Cluster in the event of a raid or invasion.”

Timur intoned the words. Deirdre tuned him out, going back to her notes. She already knew the answer.

“Yes,” Timur relayed.

Robert leaned back. “So here it is. Nagrad Junior doesn’t waste time, does he? Thirty billion is a bit steep, but it’s doable.”

“I’ll do it. It’s my responsibility.” Nina rose with dignity, her voice hoarse. “You may tell Lord Nagrad that I accept his proposal.”

“He doesn’t want you,” Timur said.

“Well, who does he want?” Robert asked.

Deirdre finally hit on the correct recording, thirty-two years ago, one of the first contact missions to the Reigh. The ceremonial trading of the swords, and sharing of the food. She zoomed the picture, focusing on the platter before the Survey Captain and a young-looking Reigh warrior.

Robert’s face penetrated the projection. She looked up at him.

“Deirdre,” he said, his voice quiet and earnest. “Do you remember your oath to the Diplomatic Corps? The part where you promised to dedicate your body and mind.”

“To serve to the most of my ability and to sacrifice my life should my duty demand it. Of course I remember.”

Robert tried to pick up her hands but they were covered in the liquid interface. He settled on holding her shoulders instead. “How do you feel about sacrifice in a form of a marriage?”

“Lord Nagrad desires a meeting with his bride,” the Reigh said. “He wants to determine that she is of sound body and free of mental retardation. She must be ready in one hour.”

Robert wheeled about. “Our shuttle. Tell him our people are coming with her and we want her safely delivered back or the deal is off.”

After a momentary pause, the Reigh inclined his dark head. “Agreed.”

Chapter 4

The hallways of the Nagrad Keep looked unlike anything Deirdre had imagined. She had pictured bleak dark walls; instead she found wall-long windows and a palette ranging from rust to fresh mint green. As she walked down the corridor between Timur and Johanna Bray, the red rays of the rising sun danced on the wall and slid on her gray dress, adding color to the fabric.

It didn’t make her feel any better.

She recalled Robert’s briefing: You’re going there to haggle. Get him down to twenty billion. Take the initiative and don’t let him control the conversation. I’m sorry I can’t be there with you, but I promise you, I won’t send you to him without backup again. This is just the first step, Deirdre. We have a long way to go before we’ll agree on the amount.

The fact that she was being appraised like a cow at market apparently didn’t bother him at all.

Their escort, a Reigh woman in black leather, led them to a wooden door and stepped inside, closing it behind her.

“Why me?” Deirdre murmured.

“Because you’re hot,” Timur said. “Because he hates blondes. Because a bug bit him this morning when he got out of bed.”

“He had it on the first one,” Johanna said. “You’re pretty hot. Don’t worry, we’ll get you back up to the Orbital in one piece.”

Tags: Ilona Andrews Science Fiction
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