“And that, my friends, is the last word I will say on the subject. Vote to rejoin the Imperium,” Councillor Thirty said. Her curly red hair had wilted around her shoulders, and her face was pink with the effort of her speech. “It is the right thing to do.”
DeKarn looked wearily at the time. Of the forty councillors present, sixteen of them had taken up their full allotted time exhorting one another to convert his, her or its vote to that of the speaker. After every speech, she had called for another poll. The numbers had changed slightly now and again, but no clear majority for any of the three possibilities had emerged and, it seemed, never would. Her back ached, her eyes burned, and her head pounded. She was fighting not to be bored into nodding off. Nothing new was being said, except about Captain Sgarthad.
The Yolkovians kept fretting toward the closed door of the chamber, as if hoping for a glimpse of their rescuer. His image was constantly on one screen or another. DeKarn was getting weary of seeing it.
“The vote, please?” she said hoarsely. She recorded the results without looking at them and swept the number to Rengin.
“This is ridiculous!” Sixteen said, rising. Protests arose with him.
“You are out of order, Councillor!” snapped Bruke.
“Oh, what does it matter?” asked Six. He had messed his fancy hair into a bird’s nest from impatience. “I move we should interrupt the debate to listen to him. If he has something new to say.”
“Seconded,” DeKarn said rapidly, to forestall another protest. They all knew that Councillor Sixteen was a patient and just man. If he had something to say, it was most likely worthwhile, and thank goodness!
“Thank you,” Sixteen said. He straightened his robe. “My friends, we are not going to agree, not so soon. How long did it take us to work out the details of our biennial market, and we all wanted that event! This is far more important. I move that we discuss our doubts and misgivings with the ambassador and hear what the Imperium has to offer. Then we can vote out of knowledge. It could be that there is no good reason but that we were once a part. If Shojan—”
“His Imperial Highness,” Twenty-Three interrupted, with peevish punctiliousness.
“—His Imperial Highness Shojan XII wants to redress the wrongs of the past, then it may sway some of you to change your minds.”
“Oh, anything to get me out of here before my next birthday!” snapped Ten. “I hear a ‘but’ in there. What is it?”
“I want to go back to the earlier discussion on having one face, one voice, to represent the council. We can be overwhelming as a body. To have one being acting on point would be more efficient than the full quorum. That person should conduct the interview with Ambassador Ben, and report back to us. We could even watch the interview remotely, as long as it is understood that our questions were to be submitted to our representative and not put directly. It wastes the good ambassador’s time and our own to do otherwise.”
“A fine idea,” DeKarn said. “I believed it to have merit. So did Twenty-Nine, whom I thought would be an excellent representative.”
“I rather thought I . . .” Sixteen said, looking hurt.
“You, too, would be a fine choice,” DeKarn said at once. “Very well, colleagues, what do you say?”
“Anything to get out of here,” Ten said. “So moved.”
“Second,” Six said, raising a finger.
“We have a proposed candidate for the job, as well,” Quelph said. The screens of the Yolk contingent all lit up with the same image. “As we need a strong person to put the right questions, Captain Sgarthad is willing to take that position to support us. He would meet the ambassador on an equal footing.”
“Not him again!” Eland wailed.
“Absurd!” Tross exclaimed. “He is not a member of this council or even a citizen of the Cluster!”
“But we all agree wholeheartedly,” Pinckney said, flattening a sincere hand on his chest. “I for one would follow him anywhere.”
Guffaws erupted through the council chamber. “Keep your personal life personal,” snorted Six. “I find him fanciable myself, but that doesn’t change our laws.”
“But why not use him?” Urrmenoc asked, waving a paw for attention. “We hire agents to do business for us all over the galaxy who are not native to our worlds. He is a good speaker, and a good businessbeing. He showed us his account books in his ship. I wish I could wring such profits out of a deal. Here. I’ve got a copy of his life file. You could see how much of an asset he’d be to us.” The floating icon split up and zipped to each councillor. It opened at once. A portrait of the man lurking in their corridor appeared before them.
The two youngest members of the council, Twenty and Four, looked up at the enormous image, exchanged blushing glances and giggled like schoolgirls.
“Councillors!” DeKarn exclaimed, shocked. “Councillor Pinckney, it would be improper to employ him as an agent for several reasons, the chief of which is that he represents a rival interest!”
“He might be useful to us,” Twelve spoke up in her soft voice. “Perhaps as an ombudsman. He is disinterested whether we choose to be independent or rejoin the Imperium.”
“He is not disinterested!” exclaimed Zembke.
“Well, I liked him,” Five said. “I think he’d be good. At least we know he doesn’t dither, like too many people in here. He’d get the facts for us. In my opinion. I say yes.”
“Five!” DeKarn said, horrified.
“I’m sorry, First Councillor,” he said, contritely. “He’s very direct. You saw that. It is an admirable trait. I know I don’t have it.”
“No!” Marden shouted. “Are you all drunk? Have you inhaled fumes?”
“Do you have to be so insulting?” Five asked, making a sour face. “I feel like I’ve been given an insight into wisdom. If our visitor would agree to intercede between us and the Imperium, the ambassador would see that we were not automatically falling into place. It’s a brilliant idea. I am for it!”
“I am certain he would agree to act,” Quelph said, beaming at Five. “He said he would do anything we need.”
“It is a wonderful idea,” Tross said. “That way the ambassador can play no tricks on us! She won’t be able to hypnotise us, or drug us into signing away our rights!”
DeKarn stared at Tross. He never believed anyone unless he could check the facts independently.
“I, too, would consider him,” Seventeen said, raising a finger. “Hearing our arguments from an outsider might also give us insights.”
That was an opinion of a different type. Seventeen was a pessimist but not paranoid.
“I don’t know,” DeKarn said, beginning to waver.
Others joined in the argument, but it was clear that the council was beginning to agree with Councillor Quelph. Was Sgarthad the answer to their need for a single negotiator? True, he didn’t belong to the council, but that might be an advantage. He lacked the resentment of those who felt the Imperium abandoned them. He had no loyalties to any one of the eight systems in the Cluster, he would not show favoritism in presenting their requirements to the ambassador. And she would not know the breakdown of the council of who favored repatriation and who independence. On the face it was an outrageous suggestion, and yet . . . and yet . . .
“All those in favor of asking Captain Sgarthad to represent us, vote now,” Councillor Pinckney said. He turned on his light. All around the room, lights went on. DeKarn found her finger hovering over her voting key. What should she do?
“No!” Marden roared. “Captain Sgarthad is a suitor for our hand, just like Ambassador Ben. Put them both in quarters until we have hashed this out, without their input. It has been too long since we made a decision. It must be unanimous, majorities in all eight systems agreeing.”
Thank fate for Marden, DeKarn thought, pulling herself together. What was she doing even considering such a ridiculous suggestion?
“I agree,” she said, jabbing her forefinger at the master control. All the screens around the council chamber went blank. The members burst out with their protests, then halted, looking around in bafflement.
“First Councillor, I am so sorry,” Five said, breaking the silence.
“Me, too,” said Twenty.
“I’m not,” Tross said. “I fear subterfuge on the part of the ambassador.”
“Well, that is a chance that one of us will have to take,” DeKarn said. “I will contact the city-state governor, Dr. Yuchiko, to make arrangements to house our two guests in comfort and isolation until we have come to our own conclusions, then we will send one of our own to speak to them.”
“One at a time, or together?” Councillor Bruke asked.
“We can decide that later,” DeKarn said. “And now, I would like to adjourn for the day. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I would like to eat and rest.”
“Can we see Captain Sgarthad?” Ruh Pinckney asked eagerly.
DeKarn exchanged glances with Zembke, Marden, Tross and Bruke. “I don’t see any harm in it, but he is not to approach any other members of the council unless we send for him first. You may so inform him.”
“Of course, First Councillor!” Pinckney said, looking overjoyed. “Then move to adjourn!”
“Seconded,” said Six, planting both palms on the table and boosting himself to his feet.
“Then we are adjourned until the tenth hour tomorrow morning. Good night, all.”
DeKarn rose and rubbed the small of her back with both palms. Councillor Nineteen sidled up to her. They watched the Yolkovians all but shoulder the rest of their colleagues to one side to be the first out of the chamber. She glimpsed the handsome silver head and one quick flash of those blue eyes before she looked away.
“Gorgeous, isn’t he?” Nineteen asked. She lowered her long, black lashes slyly. In her life before the council, the actress Barba Linden was known Cluster-wide on the digitavids for her roles as temptress and siren. Behind the luscious looks, she was a chemist, a philanthropist and a long-married mother of four. She was an old friend, to whom DeKarn felt she could say almost anything.
“Too gorgeous,” DeKarn agreed. “Think what he’d look like in tattoos.”
“Breathtaking,” Linden said, running a delicate fingertip over the pattern of vines and minute blossoms on her cheek. “But I’ve often wondered what it would be like to go bare-faced like that. Why the warning to the others? Afraid of what you might say if you met him on the street?”
“That, and afraid of what I might do,” DeKarn agreed. “Perhaps, perhaps I don’t trust myself. That is the most forceful charisma I have ever encountered. It’s attractive and dangerous, like a tiger.”
“All you have to do is close your eyes and say no.”
DeKarn smiled. “I hope I can remember to do that. In the meanwhile, it is better if none of us meet him until we have come to a decision.”
“We might have to buy each of them a mansion to wait out the argument, dear,” Nineteen said. “It could take years.”
“It shouldn’t,” DeKarn said, closing down her station and palm-locking the data. “Zembke is right. In two hundred years we should have come to a conclusion already. This forces us to take a direction. In a way I welcome it.”
“In the meanwhile, I’m starving. Do you want to come home and eat with us?”
“Thank you, dear, no,” DeKarn said. “I had better be alone for a while. I need to think hard about my vote.”
“Well, you know mine,” Linden said with a smile. She touched DeKarn on the arm and glided out of the room.
DeKarn remained in the chamber. On her personal communications device she touched the link to her assistant. On the small screen—she deplored that others in the council used the full holo when speaking to others outside; it made it seem as if there were others in the room—she saw the young man glance up from his keyboard. He had a long nose and thin bones like a jester, but his bright eyes were intelligent. The lines of scarlet and gold tattooed on his cheeks were like exclamation points, drawing more attention to those eyes. “Colm, come in here, will you?”
“Yes, Madam Councillor,” he said. He sprang to his feet. The screen went dark.
DeKarn had time only to settle herself in her chair before Colm Banayere appeared at her side. He had come in through the privy door, an ancient term for both privacy and for the relief booths in the hidden corridor behind the chamber.
“I guessed that you didn’t want me to be seen, madam,” he said.
She smiled. She appreciated his instincts. “One moment,” she said. On the table console, she activated privacy mode. It was never used during open meetings, to prevent secret deals, but had never been purged from the programming. She waited until the lights at both doors flickered subtly to indicate that no transmissions from the chamber would be detected, and no listening or viewing devices from without would work. She nodded.
“What do you require?” Colm’s best trait was that he never asked stupid questions.
“I need an investigation of the ship and the beings that brought the Yolk contingent here to Boske.” She keyed in a code on her comm. A pip erupted in Colm’s own unit, indicating that it had been received. “This is a video-capture transcript of this afternoon’s meeting, from their arrival to adjournment.”
“What am I looking for?”
She tapped the table with a forefinger. “I am not certain there is anything to find, but that man . . .”
Colm smiled, throwing the apples of his cheeks into sharp relief. “The Trade Union captain? There have been a lot of messages through the Grid during the last several hours. The TU ship is larger than any vessel presently serving the Cluster. The captain himself is handsome and charming. He seems to make friends everywhere he goes, from the port authority across the city to this building. Everyone who meets him likes him.”
“That is just it,” DeKarn said, frustrated. “It is uncanny. Yolk treats him like a friend, a mentor and a savior. True, he did save them when their ship was damaged . . .”
“Or so he says, madam.”
She blinked and stared at him. “But all five councillors said he rescued them.”
The young man waved a hand. “Perhaps I am too cynical, madam. What do you require?”
He raised more questions, but DeKarn had to keep her mind on the first and foremost. She scanned the room, half-lit once the others had left. She let her gaze rest on the place where Sgarthad had stood.
“It was not only the councillors from Yolk who found him irresistible. I found him unbelievably attractive. I believed what he said while he was saying it. Only after I had a chance to think that my own cynicism—if you like—came back. He charmed me. He gained influence over my colleagues in moments. They were ready to accept him after having seen him only once, without knowing anything about him. That is a dangerous thing. What did he do to us? How did he do it? Such a response had to be artificial in nature, but I didn’t smell anything or see anything unusual. Was he wearing a device of some kind that affected our minds? Did he dispense a gas or a nanoparticle of some kind? It’s vital that I know, so I can decide how to react. He is being sequestered in the governor’s mansion for now, but beware of his crew.”
“What became of the ship carrying them before the Marketmaker took them on board?”
“Lost,” DeKarn said, “or so he said. But the Little Darling would fit into a landing bay on that behemoth.”
Colm’s right eyebrow rose. “It’s a puzzle of many pieces, I see. I will investigate.”
“Thank you, Colm. I know I can depend on you.”
He smiled. “Always, madam.”
Silently as an owl, he departed. DeKarn marveled at his ability to analyze a mystery as if he had been given advance notes. Once more, she was grateful to have him in her service. Four years, now, he had worked in her office, gradually promoted from receptionist to data clerk to personal aide. He was willing, quick-moving and eager. If he had had an ounce of ambition for public office, she would have backed him to take her seat when she retired—whenever that day would come, but he had shown no interest in being in charge. He liked solving problems, and that was that. A puzzle was a puzzle.
Colm was a Cluster-wide champion of puzzle-solving, eking out his government salary with prize money from contests and tournaments. Several times a year he brought in a holo-trophy or a medal with the name of an obscure kind of puzzle engraved on it. A plaque on the wall over his desk spelled out his primacy in a number enigma no one else she knew could even understand. Her personal secretary felt indulgent toward him, as if he was a bright son with an acceptable idiosyncracy. DeKarn supposed she felt the same way. Others, she knew, were jealous, but that was the way office politics went. Nothing to be done about it.
Fortunately, Colm paid his critics no attention—the best way to deal with them. He came from Carstairs, though he had shed its harsh accent without a trace. She blessed the utility of an aide she could always rely upon. As now.
With that investigation under way, she had to handle the other problem that had dropped into her hands. Still in the security of the chamber’s secrets mode, she keyed in the number of the Imperium’s envoy.
Hiranna Ben was gently outraged. “I await your pleasure, of course, First Councillor, but His Imperiality demands my return at the earliest possible moment.”
“I understand, Ambassador. Please understand that it is not intended as a personal affront. Our council was only made whole hours before we heard from you. We are . . . rather behind in our negotiations. I trust it will be a brief interval before we are able to meet with you.”
“May I know the nature of the delay?”
DeKarn bowed her head. “It would be improper of me to discuss unfinished business of the council chamber. I hope you understand.”
Ben cocked her head. “It doesn’t have anything to do with that handsome man I see all over the press this evening, does it?”
DeKarn squinted as the screen changed to show the beginning of the best-known evening opinion report. She seldom watched the transmissions; they were rarely kind to politicians, whether planetary or interstellar. Still, the various channels were key to understanding segments of the population. Yes, there in the midst of a huge, clamoring crowd, was Captain Sgarthad.
“My friends!” he was saying. He raised his hands, palms out. “Your support is gratifying! I promise that the Trade Union will be a good partner to the Castaway Cluster!”
She clicked back to Ben’s image. “May I visit you later?”
Ben’s lips were pressed together with grim humor. “I hope you will.”