“A quaint culture. So many references to the vegetative symbolism.”
The Duke Jason glanced at her. “You should sleep, my dear. You look exhausted. He’s likely to call for another meeting tomorrow.”
She sighed. “Why? I couldn’t haggle him down. He’d be smart to avoid us so he can hold on to the original sum.”
“But he knows you don’t control the proverbial purse strings. He’s perfectly aware the real fight is ahead and he doesn’t want to give us enough time to regroup.”
She sighed. “He caught me off-guard. I expected coldness, some sort of brutal physical test, perhaps a ritual where I’d have to untangle tree branches without breaking the leaves or untie an impossible knot. I didn’t expect dirty pictures. It goes against everything I know about them. It makes me question my assumptions.”
Jason shook his head. “What I’ve seen so far is both thorough and well documented. Your conclusions are logical and, I wager, quite accurate. Robert is very lucky to have you, and he knows it, otherwise he wouldn’t have called me.” The Duke chuckled. “Quite a hit to his pride, to have to call your former mentor out of retirement. But back to the Reigh, don’t doubt the entire body of your research on the basis of Lord Nagrad. In diplomacy, like in great many other things, the rules of engagement survive only until one remarkable person decides to break them. It’s just our luck we stumbled across such a person.”
“That, and the fact that I’m a lousy diplomat.”
“To each his own. You’re an excellent analyst. Not everyone is born with the gift of snappy comeback. But you should rest. And don’t worry, we may yet get you out of this mess.”
This time the meeting fell onto afternoon, and the sunlight filled the room. Nagrad waited in precisely the same position Deirdre had seen him the first time.
“Greetings, Lady Deirdre. And Your Grace.”
Jason smiled. “I wasn’t aware I’m well know to the Reigh.”
“You are,” Nagrad assured him.
“Very well, Lord Nagrad.” Jason rubbed his hands together. “In that case shall we dispense with preliminary niceties? Let’s talk money.”
They launched into the foray like two warriors, amidst clashing blades and thudding shields. By the second hour Deirdre lost the thread of the argument. By the fourth she caught herself dousing off.
Nagrad’s voice snapped her from her reverie. “I do believe the lady is tired. Let us take a break.” He offered her his hand. “Would my lady care for some fresh air?”
To say no would’ve been an insult. She put her hand in his and let him lead her out to the balcony. Big enough for a decent size party, the semicircular balcony extended out good twenty five meters. Nagrad maneuvered all the way to its farthest point and stopped at an ornate amber and white rail. The keep protruded from the side of the mountain and as she looked down below to where the forest shimmered awash with green leaves, a curious feeling of peace filled Deirdre. Bright blue and red birds flittered from branch to branch. Somewhere a distant relative of the Vunta howled once. She inhaled the air. It tasted sweet.
“Beautiful,” she murmured. “I forgot how lovely the planetside can be.”
“It’s home,” he said simply, putting the world into a single word.
Deirdre leaned on the rail. “Why me?”
“Because you’re attractive,” he said. “And I greatly admire your body.”
“Of work,” he added and offered her his reader. A list of recent publications lit the screen. The top one.
“This hasn’t been publicized. It’s classified information.” She took the reader and tapped the top title with the stylus. Here it was, the entire contents of her Reigh research. “How did you get this?”
“It was brought to my attention by a party concerned that we may have a loose mouth in our midst.”
“You tapped the Embassy’s network.” She stared at him stunned. Lao-Tzu, what else he could have access to?
“It wasn’t that difficult actually.” He shrugged. “I can’t afford informants in my branch, no more than you can tolerate the blame for my father’s death.”
“I had no informants.” She handed the reader back to him.
“I realized that once I’ve read through your analysis. To have deduced that much from external indicators is remarkable.”
The extent of his arrogance was even more remarkable. Deirdre looked at him. “Then perhaps you would enjoy another deduction.” She slid the square of a reader card from her data bracelet and snapped it into the reader. The recording of a peace meeting from three decades ago filled the screen. “This is the Survey Captain Sean Kozlov. And this, I believe, is your father. They are performing a peace ritual–they have fished together and now they are sharing their catch.” She tapped the screen, forcing it to zoom. “They are eating redfish. And redfish caviar.”
Nagrad watched the screen. The impassive mask slipped and in his face she saw profound sadness.
“Your father wasn’t allergic to caviar,” she said.
“My father was born without immunity to black moss.” Nagrad kept his gaze on the reader. “A genetic failure, a mutation that for some reason wasn’t detected. He had survived for sixty four years without contracting the infection. We didn’t realize he was sick until he began coughing black dust. Very rare in these times, unfortunately, it still happens.”
The black moss was incurable. Two month incubation period and then a soft death, as the victim fell asleep to never awaken. Instead of passing on in his bed, the Reigh Lord died in agony amidst strangers. “He took his own life.”
Nagrad leaned back. “He felt his death must serve the Branch. The only difficulty lay in finding the poison that would imitate an allergic reaction to redfish. The death didn’t happen as quickly as we had hoped.”
The realization struck her. “You were there,” she said. “Were you the one who took the veled off my hand?”
He closed his eyes for a briefest of moments. “Yes.”
“You stood there and you watched your father die.”
“He was my Lord. I honored his wishes.”
“He died to give you an excuse to take a bribe from the Empire.”
Nagrad’s face gained a dangerous edge. “Yes. And the Branch desperately needs the money. And you may be assured, my Lady, that I will do everything in my power to squeeze every last unit I can from your realm. To do any less would be to dishonor his death.”