Doubleblind (Sirantha Jax #3)

7,121
07.03.2019

Hey, I resent that. Maybe.

“Velith Il-Nok thinks well of her,” Sharis protests. “And given his family connections, he might have been a council member himself by now if he had not fled prior to the election. So perhaps she is not entirely lacking in value. We will simply have to wait and see. For now, I am more concerned with how we present the recent unpleasantness to the council. Further proof that the OP will vehemently oppose this alliance can only hurt us when it comes to a vote.”

“By vehemently, you mean violently,” Devri says.

Sharis clicks his claws scornfully. “They know no other way. They’re almost human in that regard.”

Ouch. It’s a little harder to pretend incomprehension, but they wouldn’t understand me if I were to tell them off. Unless one of them has a secret implant? If I did it, why couldn’t they? It’s a giant case of the left hand not knowing what the right is doing, so I make a mental note to prepare my people for this eventuality. We’ll guard our tongues unless we’re on the ship, or convinced of our privacy in quarters. That includes running a sweep for any potential listening devices. It’s incredibly wearing to consider I’ll have to be on my guard almost every minute of the day.

“Agreed,” Devri says. “The opposition are savages, but perhaps we can turn that to our advantage. This female seems cognizant of the niceties.” He turns to me then and offers a polite wa.

I respond in kind, knowing I’m being tested like an animal that knows one cute trick. Nonetheless, I make sure my bow is a little lower than it needs to be, somewhere between respectful and obsequious. I hold it for a full three seconds before straightening.

“She’s almost civilized,” Sharis agrees. “If we can make the Grand Administrator see that, perhaps she will set aside her old grievances.”

Devri’s claws open and close, revealing extreme agitation. “It was a nasty business, the last time we had humans on world.”

But before I can hear what would undoubtedly be a juicy piece of gossip, Vel arrives. For the first time, I notice the way the other Ithtorians’ eyes skitter away from him, as if they find it unpleasant to gaze upon his unadorned shell. The bounty hunter is the epitome of wasted potential to them, I suppose. Ithtorians put no stock in happiness or personal pleasure.

“Are we ready to begin?” Vel asks in Ithtorian.

I’m delighted to understand it. He doesn’t look at me as he converses with Sharis and Devri. Good of him—I wasn’t sure how far his ability to dissemble went, but Ithtorians can be sly, especially when it comes to business negotiations.

“Unfortunately, we are still waiting for Councilor Sartha . . . and the Grand Administrator,” Sharis answers.

I realize that while I was eavesdropping, the other council members arrived, so I face each in turn and give a deep, deferential wa. They return the courtesy with varying degrees of sincerity. Mako radiates genuine friendliness and sincere curiosity. Karom shows me his claws curled around his forearms in a silent threat he thinks I’m too simple to catch. Somehow I manage to restrain the urge to bare my teeth at him. Vel told me a wide smile would be construed as an aggressive gesture, here.

During this quiet drama, the Grand Administrator makes her big entrance.

Let the games begin.

CHAPTER 10

The Grand Administrator enters with all pomp and ceremony. Her retinue trails her, an honor guard present to attest to her consequence. The low hum of conversation ceases as she takes her place among us. Each council member greets her with a wa, lower than any they’ve offered me or each other, for that matter.

She holds her pose for a few seconds, cognizant of the drama about to unfold. Then she takes her place at the head of the room. The chairs are arranged in a semicircle around the one where she sits. Other than the Grand Administrator, none of us enjoys a position of superiority. She is clearly the leader among us, and her seat reinforces that fact. Red-tipped claws trail idly along her lower limbs, bespeaking faint impatience.

“We all know why we are gathered here,” Sharis says. “So I will simply introduce the ambassador and permit her to make the opening remarks.”

This is it, time for me to shine. Thank Mary I spent my time on the ship well, and I’ve prepared a speech for this occasion. Otherwise, I’d be nervous as hell.

Using Vel’s body language as a guide, I step to the center of the room. Around me, the council members take their seats, some of them ready to listen and give us a fair shake. Others have already made up their minds. I can tell by Karom’s posture that he wants to get this over with and thinks this is a waste of time. I don’t imagine we’ll sway his vote.

“Esteemed hosts, I thank you for this opportunity . . . and for your hospitality. I come now, ready to articulate the many advantages our people will enjoy, should we join forces on a galactic scale. I have taken the liberty of researching the goods you manufacture, and I can assure you that there is a huge market for the specialized weapons you produce. They would certainly sell well off world, to say nothing of the sophisticated mining equipment. There are a number of automated outposts that would be interested in your droids.”

I pause to take stock of my audience’s response. Unfortunately most of them are still, and I am not skilled enough to judge a reaction without movement from claws or mandible. Vel looks encouraging, however, as he translates. So I forge onward.

“In addition to commerce, we can offer you a voice in galactic government. If you should choose to join the Conglomerate, Ithiss-Tor will be added to the roster of tier worlds, which are foremost in making policy that applies to all annexed planets. Some are too small in terms of population or annual revenue to qualify for a voting representative, but that is not the case for Ithiss-Tor. You would receive an immediate vote and to qualify for all emergency and protective services at the Conglomerate’s disposal.

“In return for these services, we would expect Ithiss-Tor to participate in the senate by electing or nominating your own representative and sending him or her to New Terra. We would also expect your support in the event of any armed conflict and for your people to abide by all Conglomerate laws that do not contradict cultural mores.”

This doesn’t seem like the time to mention our worry about the Morgut. I thought I covered the topic nicely anyhow by talking about the vague possibility of armed conflicts. I signal that I’m finished speaking by executing a low bow in the Grand Administrator’s general direction. Then I wait for Vel’s translation to catch up.

A rumble of clicks, chitters, and hisses sweeps over the room. But this time the sounds coalesce into sense for me.

The slim, dainty councilor, Mako, murmurs to Devri, “That was well-spoken.”

And he agrees with a twitch of his mandible. “Well enough, but now let us see how she stands up to questioning.”

Oh, I’m not looking forward to that.

I have the feeling the Grand Administrator will go last. She’ll let her minions wear me down before she goes in for the kill. Not surprisingly, Karom goes first. After being recognized by Sharis, who is moderating the summit, he gets to his feet in a lumbering motion.

“Our economy is solid,” he says. “I fail to see the value of gaining more politics for the dubious value of selling our goods off world. Can you defend changing the status quo in such a way, which dishonors the way our ancestors lived, when we gain so little?”

There’s a huge advantage in understanding what Karom says as he says it but pretending to wait for Vel’s translation. That gives me time to think about how I’m going to answer. And that’s a damn good question. How am I supposed to respond? While Vel repeats this dutifully in universal, I ponder.

“With greatest respect, honored Karom, there is a difference between preserving one’s heritage and eventual stagnation. There is a precedent that demonstrates how civilizations that failed to evolve eventually fell into a slow decline. Think about that, no new technologies or innovations. Sometimes it takes an outside stimulus to catalyze beneficial change.”

Vel translates. I don’t like being in the center like this. It makes me think all they need to do is pile up some wood and tie me down. Primitive genetic memory makes me feel hunted. I hope I’m not giving off the stink of fear. I should’ve asked Vel about that.

Was what I said too much? Did I insult him in some fashion? Surely, Constance would signal me, but she’s across the room, out of nudging range. I can feel myself start to sweat, but I don’t want to reveal my case of nerves with restless movement. Forcing myself to stand still, I present a composed face as Karom resumes his seat. By the contemptuous click of his claws, he thinks that was a fine piece of specious oratory.

The councilors discuss my answer. A couple of them, Devri and Mako, seem to agree with me. Sartha, who came in just before the Grand Administrator, keeps stealing looks at Vel. She doesn’t seem engaged by the summit; the bounty hunter holds most of her attention. Sharis says nothing, but I know he’s on our side.

There’s a low rumble from the viewing area above, as they register the translation. From what I understand, those observing today’s session would all be high-ranking officials, perhaps aspiring council members. Though they don’t have a vote on this issue, they do influence the councilors who represent them.

Devri signals Sharis, letting him know that he has a question. The proceedings are very quiet, almost intimidating in their silence. And maybe that’s the point because they’ve managed to intimidate me. Maybe it’s a way for them to test my steel.

The tall, coppery councilor stands, offering me a quiet gesture of reassurance by briefly cupping his claws together. For the average Ithtorian, such silent communication offers as much variety in meaning as the sounds they make. It’s useful that I remember and identify many of the signs. Otherwise, I might be in a flat panic by now.

“When you say ‘all Conglomerate laws that do not contradict cultural mores,’ how much latitude is offered when making that judgment?”

Whew, an easy one. I’m so glad I don’t have to sweat over this question, especially after the last one. I wait out the translation, pleased to have a ready answer.

“All such determinations are made by the home planet,” I say immediately. “The Conglomerate is not interested in forcing people to comply with regulations that would irrevocably alter the way people live. This applies to traditions, customs, and religious ceremonies as well. On Nicuan,” I continue, “some Houses still practice ritual sacrifice before a battle—and Nicuan is a Conglomerate world. It is not the galactic government’s place to regulate a people’s way of life. So as you can see, joining the Conglomerate would not necessarily curtail any of your freedoms, only augment the prosperity you currently enjoy.”

“Until you drag us into your wars,” Karom mutters. “And spread your filthy diseases by wandering around our planet.”

Sharis hisses at him. “You have not been recognized. One more breach of protocol, and you will forfeit your right to remain in attendance at this summit.”

❮❯