My editor frequently advises me that I don’t get around to starting the actual story until three chapters into my draft; and my agent agrees, so I’m outnumbered. (Also, they’re right.)
For “Crimes Against Humanity” I had to cut some of my favorite bits, just because they didn’t have anything in particular to do with a strong opening. I was able to bring enough narrative coherence to one major thread to sell it to Baen before CAH’s publication (so it’s in the Baen Free Library as “Chancellor Witt,” https://www.baen.com/chancellorwitt); but not the “extraordinary rendition” part with Stildyne, the wolf-pack, and Medith Riggs (special guest appearance: Cousin Stanoczk!).
And we’re off . . .
So Medith – Medith Riggs, cargo handler third class, well on her way to cargo manager level one trainee – was done being on rest-cycle and itchy to get a new load and a new hull to stow it on and leave port Tsemash, not because there was anything wrong with Tsemash. Tsemash was a nice, clean, quiet port, which wasn’t true of the places where Medith spent most of her time, and it was close to home.
She’d been home to visit her family, in fact, with her mam and her aunts and her sisters and brothers and all. She’d eaten cold-meal mush and flat-cakes with syrup until she’d started developing an aversion. She’d slept a lot. She wanted out before she could reasonably be expected to make a repeat visit.
The place to get an assignment was at the launch-fields. She hoped something interesting would be waiting for her; ever since she’d first stowed cargo on the Kospodar thula Fisher Wolf with its gravel-voiced “Chief” Stildyne and its wolf-pack of a crew, all ex-bond-involuntary Security troops, she’d been a little spoiled for excitement and adventure.
That thula never carried the same cargo twice. Most of the time she wasn’t in on exactly what might be in some of the crates she was fitting into place but they were almost always going somewhere interesting. The problem of the thula Fisher Wolf was interesting too, because there was an apparently permanent half-dome of something sticking up out of the decking and running right through her main cargo bay for most of the length of that shark of a ship to work around.
One of the wolves had told her that it was a main battle cannon, which was clearly absurd. Garrity had a sense of humor, but it was deep and devious, and she could never be completely certain of when he was joking; so far as she could tell, he liked it that way.
When she got to Incidental Labor offices at Tsemash’s launchfield there weren’t many people there and something was suspicious. People didn’t bother going out for midmeal in Tsemash because the food in the canteen was not very good and too expensive; no, people generally ate in, so the absence of anyone behind the service counter couldn’t be explained as a beverage break, especially not three people at once.
Also nobody smoked lefrols around anybody’s midmeal. It made everything taste like the spent ash of the herb, which was already objectionable, and it was also already objectionable to be enjoying anything that filled the air with smoke and particulate matter inside a publicly-frequented office.
She thought she recognized the stink. As a particular stink, over and above the general lefrol stinkiness. And it appeared to be coming through the half-closed door of one of the discussion rooms along the side of the wall of the office where people went to discuss the particulars of a job on offer.
Medith nodded at the few people sitting in the waiting area and headed for the half-closed door as though she had a pre-arranged appointment, trying to look nonchalant and slightly guilty – about the smoke, since she was associating herself with it, indirectly – at the same time.
Yes. The person was waiting for her. So she did have a pre-arranged appointment, she just hadn’t been notified. She’d seen him before, doing her jobs with the Fisher Wolf; he and Chief had a general frisk gong.
He had his feet up on the table, leaning back in his chair with a flask in one hand that was probably wodac or cortac or something; and smoking a lefrol. He looked better than he had the last time she’d seen him. More relaxed. Friendlier. A little drunk. It was a good look for him, Medith decided.
“Cousin Stanoczk,” Medith said, and closed the door even though it was the last thing she wanted to do in a room with a man who was smoking a lefrol. “What brings you to Tsemash?”
“You are sounding suspicious,” the man said, taking his feet off the table and sitting up to stub the coal-end of his lefrol out, putting the smelly thing away with a promptitude that was gratifying to behold. “May one not take advantage of the chance to visit?” He had a deep voice, with an accent that came and went and a tendency to put his verbs in unusual places. “I thought we were friends. No. Perhaps not. Perhaps it is that I am an admirer, among many.”
No such thing: she happened to know that Cousin Stanoczk didn’t frisk with females. He wasn’t her cousin, either, but that was what he was called. Lek Kerenko, who was the thula’s primary pilot, had explained it to her once; “Cousin” Stanoczk was a Malcontent, belonging to an obscure Dolgorukij religious order that functioned as the secret service of the Dolgorukij church which was apparently monolithic and omnipresent. And he was a slave, Kerenko had said.
Kerenko being Dolgorukij she supposed Kerenko knew, and Cousin Stanoczk did from time to time claim that as the mere slave of the Saint he was not to blame for things like smoking lefrols in other peoples’ offices which had never seemed to really follow as far as Medith was concerned.
She sat down. “I’m listening.” He waved his bottle at her in an inquiring manner, so she took it, and had a sniff. Cortac brandy. She liked cortac, if she could drink it for free; the thula carried an ocean of it, because its most frequent elite passenger apparently had liquor in his veins and was in frequent need of a top-up. It was a little out of her general recreational drinking budget, otherwise.
She didn’t take offense at him flirting because they both knew he wasn’t the least bit serious, though in his case it was true that unlike most other men she couldn’t knock him down unless she cheated. Maybe not even then. He wasn’t tall, but he was quick. She’d seen him. “What have you got for me?” She took another drink before she passed the bottle back; she needed it, to rinse the taste of lefrol-perfumed air out of her mouth.
“It is that there is a ship carrying wood for carving of trinkets and things of that nature to a place called Delgacie. And also coming to Delgacie a few days from now at the same time will be the wolves that pack, and who go from there to places where the assistance of an efficient person would be very welcome. I have of course no knowledge of where they go with whom or what or why, but there may be challenges that contribute to the attainment of your long-term goals and ambitions in the area of cargo management which are admirable and worthy of support.”
She thought about it. But not for long. It was true that there’d been times when she had wondered whether she might better have gone for more mundane cargos, but also no question in her mind but that Fisher Wolf gave her more opportunities to stretch her skills than anything she could imagine getting from anywhere else.
“All right.” She’d wanted something interesting for her next job. Fisher Wolf was fit to description, so that toggled the switch. “Packets?” Of letters. For her to deliver. Lefrols, maybe, since Chief smoked them too, but never on board outside the privacy of his own sleep-space and with the vents going on full. “And when do I leave.”
Cousin Stanoczk stood up and flipped a stink-tab hitherto concealed between the middle fingers of one hand to the floor, crushing it under the heel of his boot as though he was grinding a lit stub into harmless quiescence. No more lefrol stink. Residue, yes, but that’d clear, and probably no one would even notice it.
“Immediate on your report,” he said. “I have the tedious preliminaries all completed, because I am good at your hand-signing, if I say so who just did. The freighter-tender Waldsquire will be expecting you. Give to all my compliments, please, and hoping to see you again in as good health as I find you now. I will owe you cortac.”
And he was gone out the door and away, with the peculiar habit he had of being able to loaf along casually at speed. Or hurry himself along at a fast loaf, one or the other. Medith followed more slowly, mindful of the wisdom of not being associated with people like Cousin Stanoczk in public as a general rule; and went loafing off at her own rate of casual speed to pack her bivvy and locate a ship called Waldsquire outward bound for Delgacie.
She’d finished her job and been paid off board, so Medith went down into Delgacie to see what she was supposed to do next. There’d be something: blond men with dark brown eyes who smoked lefrols with their feet up on other peoples’ desks never had only one thing going at a time.
He hadn’t told her she’d be offloading onto a freighter, but on a deep-space carrier like Timoted that wasn’t much different than doing it downplanet. The environment was cleaner. Waldsquire had been cleared to enter the freighter on exchange of authorization codes; had docked at a slip close to the hull, unloaded a few bits and bobs, and picked up a few parcels with mildly unusual secure codes.
Then they’d departed, no chance to tour the ship which was a bit of a disappointment to Medith, and continued their journey. When they reached Delgacie – right on time – they’d finished unloading at a perfectly respectable dirtside docking slip, paid her off with their compliments and genial waves good-bye, and picked up their own cargo handler to load out. That was all right with Medith. Cousin Stanoczk hadn’t said anything about two stages.
Now Waldsquire was gone. It’d been quick, not more than a day between the freighter and her pay. The freighter had been a thing of beauty, though, what she’d had a chance to see of it. She’d never traveled on one; cargo management on a bulk carrier of that size required multi-soul crews and was way beyond her current quals and rating.
At Delgacie she checked in with Incidental Labor to wait for a new job, because that was what people did. Requirement, unless she was on vacation, and she wasn’t, she was just some functionally anonymous cargo handler in search of her next pay packet. Her payoff from Waldsquire had included a meal ticket, reasonable and customary since she was being released so close to the next scheduled third-meal local time and she wouldn’t be taking one on board.
The clerk at Incidental Labor gave her directions, and Medith went out in search of something to eat. It wasn’t hard to find because it was one of the larger buildings within walking distance, and it was in the vicinity of the warehouse farm so maybe it had been a warehouse itself once.
She could smell a river, somewhere, though she couldn’t catch a glimpse of it from the warehouse area. Downslope, she hoped. The ped-pavements were already wet, and the ground to either side looked a little soggy beneath the cloudy skies. Thick grey-purple clouds. Rain, if not snow.
She located the right entrance – the one marked “to eat, through here” – and went in. The meal-hall portion only occupied one end of the building, but Medith found that it was actually a very nice restaurant, in an honest working sort of way. Small tables as well as long benches. Table-linen. Enticing aromas.
She hadn’t changed her clothing since she’d left Waldsquire; she was clean and presentable but not dressed nice in particular, so she decided to keep to the wall side of one of the communal tables with its row of eight chairs down a side, and there were menus and a fresh sheet for her to look through. Meat. Potatoes. Gravy. Cabbage. Pickled beets.
It all sounded good, because she was hungry. Large glass of black bappir, there was no telling what exactly that was, but it looked promising, at least from its picture on the menu.
She gave her order to the server, who was a cute youngish woman who Medith didn’t mind smiling at because it was just polite, after all, and no disrespect of her sweetie. After the basket of hot bread and cold crackers, but before her meal was set down, she was joined by a man who came up and sat not quite directly opposite her without so much as a nod. That was all right. She recognized him easily enough – Lek Kerenko, the primary pilot on the Malcontent’s thula Fisher Wolf.
The place was filling up a little, Medith noted. Meal break, of course it was, that was why Waldsquire had given her a meal ticket in the first place.
The server came back with Medith’s meal. For a moment Medith thought chicanery because as a meal it looked like at least two meals with a substantial start on three; so-called cutlet the size of her head with a full pitcher of gravy on the side, potatoes in a dish of their own steaming and glistening with butter. But the server gave her the nod, I’ll be right back with your bappir, hon, and turned to the man to ask if he knew what he was having. What she’s, he said, with a nod in Medith’s direction, and the server went away.
Oh well, Medith told herself, with insincerely felt resignation. Free food, all good. Kerenko had given no sign of recognition, so in return she’d naturally never seen him before. Since they were strangers she didn’t bother waiting until he had his meal to start in on her own.
He waited until she was head-down and concentrating before he spoke. “Freight-tender,” he said, quietly. She wondered why it was Kerenko who’d come; but he was maybe less memorable by appearance at first glance than some of the other people in his wolf-pack. Shortest of the bunch, and a generally face-in-the-crowd sort of a fizz.
Garrity was gorgeous, if in a masculine sense; Robert was charismatic as far as the opposite sex was concerned; a man as dark-complected as Pyotr would be drawing polite and frankly impolite curious stares in any smaller port, Chief Stildyne’s face wasn’t something a person saw every day – and so on.
“Huh,” she said to her plate. She had plans for the potatoes but she meant to finish her meat first. She looked at the two dishes of veg the server had brought and admired them, because her mother and her aunts were always wanting her to eat the green stuff. Or, in this case, the red stuff, and the yellow stuff. There. She was done with the vegetables. “Details?”
Godsalt or Hirsel could have come instead, Medith supposed. Maybe they didn’t like chewing their bappir, but she did, and the stuff the server brought her was almost thick and delicious enough to do just that. It wasn’t up to her to wonder.
Now there were three men coming to sit at the communal table. Chief Stildyne in the flesh, and he’d brought Hirsel and Godsalt with him. The server had brought Kerenko’s meal and had turned to ask the newcomers what looked good to them; Medith didn’t hear what the details were, but the server made some notes on her wrist pad and went away again.
“Straight to launch-field,” Kerenko said. “Ask for Perigot. Any questions, I owe you money.”
So they didn’t think she needed to check back with Incidental Labor. If she hadn’t checked in for an assignment after three days they’d shrug their shoulders and strike her off the “pending” list. She wondered if she was even still on “pending.” She wondered whether some other Medith Riggs would be reporting tomorrow in search of her next assignment.
She hoped not, because that could mean presentation of quals in form, which would mean someone had forged some. That would be too shocking. She certainly could never agree to such a blatant violation of the code of the cargo handler. Just as well that any such thing might go undetected practically forever, as efficient as the cargo management master systems was in Gonebeyond.
Kerenko had gone through his meal with commendable alacrity; maybe he’d come from a large family too, once upon a time, not that it was anybody’s business and she wasn’t asking. “Cargo on site in two, three hours,” he said, spooning gravy over his beets and eating them with a spoon. Medith tried the red stuff. It was pickled, and slightly sweet, but it still tasted like a vegetable.
She traded her full dish of yellow for his empty one. He took the full dish to himself without a sign he’d noticed the substitution, except that he might have winked at her. Thanks. “Too much to load before nightfall,” he said, snagging what gravy she’d had left. “Make it so, finish by fourth-shift. We may be in a hurry. Server’ll be joining.”
Wiping his mouth with unnecessary thoroughness with the towel-like napkin that had come with the table-setting he pushed away from the table and stood up, just as the server came back. She had a tray of tall flasks of that good bappir balanced in one hand and two plates offset in the other, two huge portions of cake. “Dessert?” she asked Medith and Kerenko, dealing out the plates. “Comes with.”
She turned to distribute bappir while she was still finishing that phrase, comes with. Medith looked from her cake to the server, as if stunned by the size of the portion – which really was of generous proportions – or delighted that she didn’t have to pay for it. “Thanks, Miss,” Medith said. “Don’t mind if I do.”
Kerenko had wrapped his cake to take away with him. It took two of the napkins, but the place settings came with several, so that was all right. The server was back with hot cavene in a thermal jug for Medith, bread service for the others. Two or three hours, Kerenko had said. She had time.
More people were filling up the communal table. Anonymity was good. She kept her eye on the traffic. If people started stacking up waiting for seats, she’d want to eat up and get out; but there was apparently enough room. She had time. Medith sat contentedly and ate her cake, and drank her cavene, hot, no sweetener, no whitener, knowing that whatever was going on she had the cargo handling angle covered.
Brachi Stildyne, who had been Security Chief aboard the Jurisdiction Fleet Ship Ragnarok but who wasn’t any more, stood at the bar in the beerhouse with one foot on the low foot-rail of the massive black oiled counter between him and the shelves full of liquor bottles, and ale taps, and the five people who kept the beer flowing, and the little glasses full of spirits fully as strong but much more strongly flavored than anything Andrej Koscuisko had ever tried to kill himself by drinking, watching the activity going on behind him in the polished metal reflectors that backed the wall.
He was at peace with his life, enjoying his drink. It was a full deep rich brown-black bappir to go with the dark green-black of the woods all around Delgacie, in a shaped stone carafe meant for one but holding enough to serve three men Stildyne’s size if they weren’t drinkers, smelling toasty and sharp with the traditional herbs of the place and wet like the rain on the black slate roofs of the residentials.
Life was good. There before him on the bar were glistening white pickled onions on little sticks, trays of sliced fat with a little meat left in it as a sort of garnish, crunchy green herbed things that were actually quite tasty even for a man who’d never cared for green things, heaping stacks of a starchy tuber sliced and fried in meat fat and salted. Or sugared. He liked the salted kind.
It was raining, outside. The river was due to crest, if not overflow its banks, some time on toward morning, by which point it would still be raining and there was nothing anybody could do about it so they all might just as well have another three-man flask of bappir. Good, thick, malty bappir, as good as third-meal all by itself and together with the bar snacks it made up a full third-meal, didn’t it?
Was this what retirement was like? He had no duties, no particular concerns, nothing to do but enjoy his bappir and the figure of the tall bearded blond who was even now putting a thick creamy cap of foam on another four of flasks for one of the waiters. The barman was working too hard for Stildyne to want to distract him by attempting to flirt, and flirtation was a skill with which he was familiar only in concept. He’d never done it himself.
The closest he’d ever come to exploring the art had been with an amorous partner who almost couldn’t stop flirting, but Stildyne hadn’t seen Stoshi for a few months, so he lacked any recent refresher course on the topic. It didn’t matter. There was plenty of interest to be found in the watching of what was going on in the room behind him, in the reflectors.
There’d been mirrors that size – but of silvered glass – at Chelatring Side, in Andrej Koscuisko’s ancestral home in the mountains of Chetalra on Azanry in the Dolgorukij Combine; Stildyne had seen them. He didn’t think they would suit, in this busy bar. They’d be broken every week, no doubt, and it was a long way from Port Delgacie to anywhere a man might purchase replacements.
He saw the man coming up behind him, a tall man with brown curly hair with his back to Stildyne, and knew what would happen. Forewarned, he set his bappir safely down before the man collided with him back-to-back, looking over his shoulder at Stildyne with evident astonishment as he did. Stildyne just sent him on his way again with a gentle push: he had no reason to resent the accidental clumsiness of a man a little too deep into his drink. It was all good.
He had a few green tree-fruit, pitted and cured, wrinkled from being dried under Delgacie’s briefly hot summer skies and packed for the cold months in layers of salt. They were good. One thing Delgacie had was salt, but there was no trading potential there – anybody could synthesize a salt – unless they could manage somehow to create a specialty demand and a luxury market to serve it.
Not just any salt. No. Salt racked out of the cold coastal waters and dried on layers of thick green seaweed, scented with the resinous fragrance of Delgacie’s evergreens, to be placed in carefully fabricated “rustic” dishes and dealt out in specially carved spoons, on tables in places that had never seen the black evergreen trees or the rocky inhospitable shore.
Stildyne himself had not seen Delgacie’s seas, except from above, on approach to the launch-fields. The river was fresh water, down from the tall steep black-rock mountains with their sheets of ice and snow that filled a poor boy from Supicor with wonder.
Searching the crowd reflected in the mirror Stildyne found a woman who caught his attention, sitting off to one side at a small table against the wall near one of the beer-hall’s emergency exit doors. She looked Dolgorukij to Stildyne, as well she should, since he knew she was; but not out of place all the same She could be Combine city people, maybe, Stildyne thought. Someone from a trading family, that would make sense; a Dolgorukij merchanter could make a market in Delgacie sea-salt if anybody could.
Or maybe it was to be the specialty bappir of the place, open-fermented by wild yeasts in great wooden vats beneath the cold blue moon, covered over with a raft of green boughs that had to be replaced from month to month as they gradually sank to the bottom of the vat. Maybe salt fish, but not to Dolgorukij markets, unless they could convincingly present it as not a proper fish at all.
Amongst the Dolgorukij a man’s fish was his member of generation, as Koscuisko would put it, and so eating one had too many awkward associations; easier, Stildyne had been told by his lover Stoshi, to avoid it altogether, and leave a reliable high-quality protein unharvested to feed the underclass of people who would otherwise have no source of protein at all.
When Andrej Koscuisko called his cousin Stoshi a “filthy fish-eating Malcontent” it was a phrase of affection, and referred strictly to intimate behaviors with which Stildyne considered himself to be privileged to be familiar when it came to Stoshi, the Malcontent Cousin Stanoczk. Andrej had never called Stildyne a fish-eater, though Andrej certainly knew what Stildyne got up to in bed.
That was different, Stoshi had told him. Stildyne wasn’t Dolgorukij. He could eat all the fish he liked in either sense without losing Andrej’s respect, now that he and Andrej had settled some things between them.
The music started up again, a rousing boisterous tune from the dance floor at the end of the beer hall. There were no mechanical sound management devices in effect; the music itself was loud enough, an unlikely assortment of instruments each capable of near-deafening a roar.
There was a sort of forced-air hand-held wind instrument with a keyboard full of chords. Something Stildyne recognized as a horn or a trumpet, not inexpertly played; stringed instruments either floor-mounted or held at shoulder height and played by drawing a bow made of resonant materials across its strings, of which it had many, not like the primitive two- and three-stringed fiddles of Stildyne’s childhood; and a kind of Nurail wind-pipe, tuned sharp and piercing, and loud enough to overwhelm all the other instruments almost completely with the exception of the big booming bass drum.
He checked in the mirror for the woman he had his eye on, because it was his business here tonight, to the extent that he had any, to be sure he knew exactly where she was at all times. She’d been joined by a couple, man and woman, her friends perhaps? They certainly had their heads together. A person would have to speak mouth-to-ear to be heard at all, with Nurail wind-pipes in play. Stildyne could sympathize. It was loud in there.
There was the curly-headed man who’d collided with Stildyne, but Stildyne was actually more interested in his bappir than watching the man joining one loosely-organized group of revelers after another only to abandon them in the same manner. Trying to get to a quiet place, Stildyne expected, a place where he could lean up against the wall without danger of knocking into semi-retired chiefs of Security and interrupting their quiet time at the bar.
There was a good meal to be had in the dining hall on the other side of the bar, its doors closed against those wind-pipes. Bread, fatty meat, sweet spices, brown or white gravy, and bappir. What more could a man ask for? And no green things. A generous helping of some fermented flower-buds with overly flattering opinions of themselves, taken well before they went to seed; that was almost a vegetable, true enough, but it didn’t taste like one, and it was served with sweet stewed apples to help balance the sharp acid of the fermentation and the salt.
For a moment or two Stildyne entertained the idea of going through for a platter of Delgacie sausages with a side of peculiar flower-heads sliced and cured in salt. And some sort of an aromatic seed, he didn’t know what it was, but it went well with salt.
Maybe there was something to be said about salt raked out of the sea rather than the synthesized product of Supicor, after all. But he didn’t think he had time for a sit-down meal; he was going to have to get back to his ship, and shift hull. His memories would have to do instead, he thought, with resignation. Next time fate brought him to Delgacie he’d have two meals.
There were people on the dance floor, though Stildyne couldn’t make them out easily as one individual or another at a distance. One man, clearly drunk, was just standing there on the periphery hugging himself and turning solitary circles out of step with the others, not keeping to the beat of the drum. Some peculiar Fimidji sort of cadence, Stildyne supposed, because that was where Godsalt was from, after all.
A tall man – dark enough to be Skaltskarmell, maybe, but the lights weren’t really bright enough to be able to tell for sure – came stumbling out of the crowd to put his hand on the circle-turning self-partnered dancer’s shoulder, and off they went. One of the women behind the bar turned the lights down just that little bit more at the Stildyne end of the room, leaving the dance floor bright; and the general level of gaiety seemed to increase in inverse proportion.
One woman had elbowed her way up onto the raised band-stand, her head barely visible over the press of the crowd even standing on the risers; there was money changing hands, clearly enough, and the band quieted sufficiently that Stildyne could almost hear he singing – something cheerfully rude, apparently, because her performance was well-received. He just hoped nobody was going to try to play the wind-pipes.
There were a large number of Nurail in Gonebeyond – almost all of the Nurail that survived had done so by escaping from Jurisdiction space – and they all thought they could play the Nurail wind-pipes on instinct alone. And they were almost invariably wrong, in Stildyne’s experience: a thing which was disastrous, on an instrument like the wind-pipes.
Stildyne went back to his bappir. Port Delgacie was a Spinner community, and the only person he could see that might be Nurail was sitting at a table against the wall, like that woman and her friends having their discussion. So that was a relief. Something seemed to have caught the attention of the tall blond behind the bar; he was looking in the direction of the table with that woman and her friends, or maybe at the might-could-be-Nurail sitting a table or two off.
Or he was looking at the man who was apparently on his way toward the toilets, because Garrity was just that perceptible bit taller than the barman and impressively broad-shouldered of figure and had started to cultivate a beard and was letting his hair grow long. Stildyne had had his occasional taste of Garrity once or twice when he’d first arrived on the Ragnarok, but he’d stopped helping himself to the bond-involuntary Security troops under his care when he’d realized what worse things Captain Lowden liked to do with them.
He didn’t like to think of some of the things that the man he’d been had done, now that he’d developed a different perspective. None of them had done any of the things they might have done to express or requite old resentments, now that they could; he appreciated that, because he’d earned resentment fairly and fully.
It had been two years. He wasn’t dead yet. It was beginning to look like he wasn’t going to be, which was good. Dead men couldn’t play tiles with Andrej Koscuisko, which turned out to be one of the greatest comforts Stildyne had ever imagined he would have in his life.
There was another man, though, pursuing the big beautifully built blond on his way to the toilets; dark-haired, lithe and slender as many Dolgorukij appeared to be – only this one was actually Sarvaw, and Stoshi, who was Aznir Dolgorukij, had instructed Stildyne with mock severity that “Sarvaw” and “Dolgorukij” were not to be spoken in any sort of proximity to one another unless it was in order to compare them; unfavorably, in the case of the Sarvaw.
The tall blond on his way to the toilets had stopped, as if by casual impulse, at the table Stildyne had been noticing from time to time, apparently asking for a light for the cense-stick he had with him. Garrity and cense-sticks. But Stildyne had begun to smoke lefrols out of sheer self-defense – because Koscuisko did – and was in no position to point fingers.
It was at the moment that the dark man in pursuit of Garrity caught up with him, taking him by the arm to speak urgently into his ear, that Stildyne reluctantly un-retired. It was time. There were several people headed off for the toilets, as it seemed, but it was all done so easily that nobody apparently noticed that two of them didn’t seem inclined to go.
People could get a little belligerent when they’d been drinking, but once a person got a temporary taste of a husher-dose put through by means of a little dose-dart past their clothing they got really very tranquil and quiet and manageable. The only problem was that they seemed to be headed for the emergency exit. An alarm would go off; there might be a panic, a stampede, people could get hurt.
Pulling that one exit’s controller-box – small and flat, and removed first thing this morning after Stildyne had had his meal and sought the toilets – out of the breast-pocket of his perfectly ordinary overblouse, Stildyne set it down on the bar counter, covering it with a generous tip in cash to ensure that one of the people behind the bar would notice it relatively quickly and restore it promptly to its duty station. Nobody needed to know that it had ever been missing, really.
Then he tucked both controller and cash between two carefully arranged bowls of bar-snacks so it wouldn’t be seen too soon, and left the beer-hall with all the practiced unobtrusive bearing a Security troop learned early and well if he wanted to stay out of trouble, clearing the main entrance and out into the clear cold night-time streets with their not overly intrusive lights just as the emergency exit door closed behind Garrity, the last of that casual group-not-group of men with their three new suddenly friends.
Their ship would have been the Malcontent’s thula Fisher Wolf, but that sleek sexy elite armed courier would have called far too much attention to itself in a small port like Delgacie. Fisher Wolf was safely at rest in a deep space freighter in tethered holding high above Delgacie, waiting for them.
In Port Delgacie itself there was a small dirt-landable family merchant freighter, the sort of thing low-level traders in piece goods used to travel from one out-of-the-way port to another, world to world. Their berth was pre-paid only until dawnish, local time, so they’d logged their departure clearances and had their inventory validated already.
It was true that three of the souls they were leaving with were not the same souls that had come in with them, but that was to be no problem. There was always a certain amount of incidental ferry traffic back and forth from Carifil to Hyrocamb, just off the exit vector at Parangor.
A ship as nimble and powerful as the Fisher Wolf could run all the way to Couveraine over the Hyrocamb vector. Couveraine was where the action was: Couveraine, identified during the course of debriefings of captured Angel of Destruction personnel (to speak the name of which was as to spit, as Koscuisko would frequently say, reflexively) as the hub and headquarters of a criminal cartel that had been slaving in Gonebeyond for fourteen years.
They had four days before the thula would have to leave its freighter in time to make speed and spin for the vector; plenty of time for an experienced Malcontent debriefing team – and Andrej Koscuisko – to find out everything the Nurail spymaster general needed to know from the two foot soldiers of the criminal cartel they’d collected from the beer-hall tonight.