Vel glances at me, his faceted eyes glittering in the morning light. “No, Sirantha. Unlike our chitin, your skin will take the color without that step.”
“What will the design look like?”
In answer, he sets down the equipment he’s prepping and moves to the terminal. Constance watches us wordlessly. Vel reaches around her and taps away, eventually pulling up a hauntingly lovely pattern with green as its primary color. It looks like the coppery patina of aged metal, interspersed with the delicate strength of growing things.
“That’s lovely. Who first designed it?” Random question, born of admiration.
But his answer surprises me. “I did.” He pauses, studying the screen with an intensity I cannot interpret. “I was not always a bounty hunter. Over the years, I have lived many lives. Most beings do.”
There’s a strange profundity in that. I remember Mair’s journal entries and wonder where she came from, what she was like as a young woman. What drove her from the only home she ever knew to settle on Lachion? What made her stay when she realized it wouldn’t be as easy as they might have hoped when the first ships arrived? Nothing ever turns out entirely as we expect.
Melancholy brushes me with its dove gray wings. I touch my throat, imagining Vel’s pattern on my skin. Oddly, I’m not even reluctant anymore; the rightness of it is undeniable. We’ll turn this setback into an asset, and I will come away better for facing my fear.
“Let’s do it,” I say softly. “Before the light leaves us behind.”
After I’ve said that, I realize it was a strange way to express my concern for the passage of time. What the hell is that chip doing in my brain? Rearranging the way I use language, among other things. I can only hope it doesn’t do anything worse. I trusted Vel blindly with the installation, just as I’m doing now.
“Lie back then. I added a mild topical anesthetic to the mix,” he adds as he fills a cartridge with the dark green ink. “You won’t feel a thing.”
Closing my eyes, I turn myself over to him completely.
At the merchant summit, I feel like a queen.
True, I wear the crown around my throat instead of atop my head, but I think the Ithtorians take the point. When I first enter the chamber, they murmur at the sight of me. I wish I was better at reading their body language, but I take comfort in the fact that there’s no human more schooled in it than me. So in this sense at least, I am the best humanity has to offer.
“It is a bold move,” I hear someone saying.
“She is a cunning strategist,” another agrees.
“And she understands our ways better than I would have imagined. Perhaps they are not all tree-dwelling savages.”
“Do you think she understands what it means?”
“I can only presume Il-Nok explained before he made the offer.”
Well, I think he did. But now that I cast back, I can only remember discussing that it would be taken as a show of strength. If it has any other significance, we didn’t discuss it. Nonetheless, I would have agreed to cover up the damage. As he said, it was the best solution.
“Who knows what that dog will do?” another replies. “His choice of partner indicates that he is no better than the lunatics we send to the mines.”
I’d love to get a look at the mines, which serve both as a source of revenue and a penal colony. There are deposits so deep and difficult to reach that the owners are reluctant to risk their costly droids in the hope of tapping them. That’s where the mad labor force comes in.
If an Ithtorian refuses to conform to behavioral expectations, that’s where he or she ends up. Talk about peer pressure. That’s a system I can’t get behind; I think people can be trusted to know what makes them unhappy. Maybe we don’t always know what we want exactly, but we can usually say what we don’t with a fair amount of specificity. No wonder Vel left.
He was right about something else, too. I didn’t feel more than pressure while he worked on me, and the resultant tattoo is beautiful and delicate, covering the mark of March’s hands with the green chain. My skin itches a little, but I can resist the urge to scratch, which would inflame the area and take away from my aura of confidence. Shoulders squared, I survey the room.
Another snippet of conversation comes to me. “From what she said in the earlier summit, we can expect a one-to-one exchange rate. That is, we will receive a full credit for every karel we invest outworld, and receive a full karel for every credit we convert back.”
“That is more than fair. I am especially interested in hearing about the opportunities for droid export. I just bought 40 percent into a research consortium.”
“Is that the one they started under Mount Eyetooth?”
Mount Eyetooth? I remind myself that the chip does pretty well, conveying approximate meanings from a dissimilar language. I don’t recognize these merchants, but many of them have been watching my performance from a distance for several days. Now they will have a chance to inquire about the new markets I’ve promised them. This may actually turn out to be more difficult than Karom’s interrogation, given my lack of background in business.
From my left, Constance slides a thin datapad into my hand. “I have been working on this all night. It contains projected figures related to Ithtorian exports that should be accurate to the tenth decimal place. I believe it will enhance your presentation.”
I skim the numbers, then commit them to memory, before handing it back. “To say the least. You’re the best.”
As always, she says modestly, “I am here to help.”
Sharis hastens over to greet us. He seems surprised by the necklace imprinted on my skin, but he covers it by executing a respectful wa. I return the courtesy before we attempt to communicate aloud, wondering what the minutiae of my movement said to him. Vel could tell me, but I don’t even want Sharis, who seems to be on our side, to realize how much I know. It’s better if they underestimate me.
“It is my great pleasure to greet you this morning,” Sharis says. I pretend not to understand, allowing Vel to translate. Then the councilor goes on, “You have greatly impressed the council, and I am cautiously optimistic about our chances when this matter is put to a vote.”
Once more, I pause before making my response. I’ll have to be careful not to answer before Vel is done speaking. It’s slightly disconcerting to hear everything twice before I can answer, but I need to get used to it.
“When is the vote?” I ask.
“The day after tomorrow.”
Something about that date niggles at me, but before I can put the pieces together, Devri joins us. He makes his wa to me with a grace that seems oddly suggestive. I don’t know why I think that, except for the arch of his spine and the proximity at which he chooses to make it. When Devri straightens, his head very nearly brushes my chin.
My gaze flicks to Vel, and, by his tension as he returns Devri’s bow, I have the impression he agrees. I won’t be able to confirm until later, but I make a mental note to do so. We can watch the logs if we need to. Constance is recording this session with her ocular cam. Maybe I need to ask Vel about the meaning of the hot spots on Devri’s anatomy, too. I hadn’t wanted to bring it up, but it might be a factor we need to plan for.
In lieu of a more formal verbal greeting, Devri says, “I like your neck paint.”
At least, that’s the best translation my chip can offer. Vel puts it slightly differently. “Our color looks lovely on your skin.”
Is that a mere compliment? Looking to Vel for guidance will lessen my personal strength, so I simply reply, “I appreciate your kindness.”
Should be safe enough.
“I am hosting a private dinner party this evening,” Devri continues. “I would be honored if you would attend as my special guest. I have a number of associates who wish to make your acquaintance.”
I watch Vel as he translates, hoping he’ll give me some sign of whether he thinks I should accept the invitation. Unfortunately, any indication I could detect would certainly alert Sharis and Devri as well. They are more sensitive to subtle movements.
Sharis agrees, “I would be honored to see you there.”
“May I bring Vel and Constance?” If it’s not a formal state occasion, then I don’t need the honor guard that escorted me down here. “And my bodyguard?” I add reluctantly. Jael will most likely insist.
Earlier, March didn’t look at me, not even once. He didn’t ask how I was. He didn’t even seem to see me.
And as soon as they walked me into the hall, Hit, Dina, and Jael all departed. They hate the uniform they have to wear for the sake of appearances, and none of them enjoys being surrounded by Bugs. Sometimes I feel like I’m going to lose all my friends over this alliance. I can’t explain the feeling, but since we arrived, I feel cut off from the old, easy camaraderie, like I’m not one of them anymore.
Maybe they feel like I’ve changed. The old Jax wouldn’t have had the patience for this posturing. She’d have told the Ithtorians, Here I am. Vote now. If you don’t want to ally with us, go frag yourselves. But the old Jax never saw anything as more important than herself either—except possibly Kai. However, the old Jax was also honest to a fault. So maybe they think diplomacy is making less of me, as it’s teaching me to dissemble.
“Certainly,” Devri says.
Fantastic. More time on display. More time watching my every move and focusing on not showing my teeth. I hear myself answering on automatic. “Then we would be delighted.”
We must have gotten here a touch early because the rest of the council is just arriving. Sartha comes in behind Mako and Karom. I don’t know what Vel said to her last night, but she doesn’t even look at him. Something in her body language tells me she’s sad. I don’t know why that would be the case, though. Vel told me his people don’t form emotional bonds as we know them, so whatever was supposed to happen between them—and didn’t when he left—she could only have been disappointed that one of her schemes didn’t come to fruition. Doubtless I’m projecting a human response to her based on what I know of their history.
Vel touches my bare arm, a gentle reminder that we need to move. Before the Grand Administrator arrives, which signifies her readiness to begin, we array ourselves in a semicircle around her empty seat. Otlili never lets her people forget, even in her absence, that she possesses all the power. I admire that even if I can sense her antipathy.
Ten minutes later, she deigns to join us. Her honor guard is larger than usual today, a full score of low-ranking Ithtorians who walk at her back. On closer inspection, I notice they’re all males.
Otlili does not bow to anyone in this room. Instead, she surveys us all with cold, glittering eyes. Her gazes linger on me, taking my measure. She has noticed the mark I bear at my throat. It feels like an empty boast now, not strength but effrontery. I feel the ice of her regard all the way down in my bones, and despair tries to follow.
In that moment, I feel sure there is no way I can prevail against her. I should confess my silent transgression before she discovers the chip on her own. My muscles quiver with the effort to remain silent.