Oh you clever, clever lees. Maud leaned back and laughed.
Clan Nuan watched her, the little foxes caught in identical poses, their ears flicking. For some reason it cracked her up even more. She laughed until she snorted.
“Did I say something funny?” Nuan Cee inquired.
Maud managed to get the giggles under control, enough to squeeze out a few words. “How long was Nuan Ama waiting in that hallway for me?”
The room was suddenly quiet.
“I mean, it had to be since the beginning of the dinner, because you had no way of knowing if or when I would throw a hissy fit and storm out in a huff. I’ve been wondering since I came through the door why the Merchant of Baha-char, a distinguished guest, wasn’t at dinner. This is so well done, honorable Nuan Cee. The pillows, the veils, even the candy, all for my benefit. Here I am, all alone, a stranger in a strange land, and you’re bringing back all of my childhood memories. Such a clever, manipulative trap. I’m primed and ready to spill all of my secrets.”
For a moment the Merchant just stared at her. Then Nuan Cee raised his paw-hands and dramatically rolled his eyes. “You can’t win them all.”
The lees around them giggled.
“You’re as ruthless as ever,” Maud said.
“You flatter me, Matilda,” Nuan Cee said.
“Are there jammers active in here?” she asked.
“Please.” Nuan Cee waved his left hand. “Of course, there are. We jam the audio, but we do give them the video feed. We have to give them something or they will throw us out.”
They were being watched, but not heard. Just what she expected. “Did you bug the feast hall?” Maud asked.
Nuan Cee rocked his head side to side, then grinned. “Yes.”
Maud chuckled and popped another piece of candy into her mouth.
“You can’t blame me, though,” Nuan Cee said. “You wield great influence over the Marshal.”
“I wouldn’t go that far.”
“Oh please. Arland is besotted with you.”
“Yes. I’ve used that word correctly. If there was a river of fire and you were on the other side of it, he would strip off his ridiculous armor and swim through the flames to get to you.”
Maud laughed. “First, the tachi, then you. What is this really about?”
“I doubt the tachi know about your relationship. They are academics,” Nuan Cee said. “Which does not mean they won’t pounce on you once they know.”
“What is this about?”
“Business.” Nuan Cee bared a mouth full of sharp teeth. “And a great deal of money.”
He reached over, took a tall glass of some pink liquid from a side table and sipped it. “You have seen the battle station?”
“The battle station changed everything. This is now the safest area of space within this quadrant. There are many trade routes that intersect here, or they could, provided there was a safe haven. A place where a spaceship could dock easily without worrying about burning fuel in orbit. A place of trade and commerce.”
The light went on in Maud’s head. “You want House Krahr to build a trading space station.”
“Yes. And I’m trying to give them money for it.”
“A space station in vampire territory giving access to other species? Dozens of foreign vessels docking in the Holy Anocracy’s system? That has never been done.”
A little lees with turquoise fur brought her a glass of pink wine. Maud sipped. It tasted like watermelon, strawberry, and sweet grapes rolled into one.
Nuan Cee groaned. “How can a spacefaring species be so closeminded? They already built the battle station. They have made this expensive thing that can guard the whole of the system. It is sitting there and costing them money. I’m proposing something that would bring a huge profit for everyone. There is not a docking station anywhere within the quadrant.”
“Anywhere within the Holy Anocracy’s territory, except for the diplomatic space station near the capital star system, as I recall.”
“Exactly. Dozens of species desperate for a port facility. Dozens of species who now have to go around the vampire-controlled space. They’re hanging there like ripe fruit. All I am asking the vampires to do is to stand under the tree, open their mouths, and let the bounty fall into them. They could recoup the cost of the battle station within two years.”
He was right. The trading space station would earn House Krahr a fortune.
Nuan Cee moaned in genuine distress. “I do not understand. Do they not want to make money?”
“Is that why the tachi are here?”
“Yes. They have an archaeological dig on On-Toru. They have to travel hundreds of light years out of their way around the vampire space to get there. A space station here would give them a near straight shot to that colony. They’re willing to pay top prices.”
Maud leaned back. Getting the vampires out of their “by vampires for vampires” mindset would be next to impossible.
“You know vampires,” Nuan Cee said. “And you have influence with the Marshal.”
“As I said, my influence doesn’t go that far. Dina told me that you and House Krahr have reached a settlement on Nexus that made all of you rich. You should be the natural ally for the Krahrs. If they are resisting you despite all of your shared history, nothing I say would matter. I am a nobody here.”
“You are Matilda Demille.”
The family name slashed across her memory. Her parents were still missing. She missed them so much.
How would mom go about this?
“Have you noticed how obsessed with defenses they are?” Maud asked. “As a species, the vampires spend more time in armor than out of it. Take this castle, for example. A smaller structure would’ve sufficed, yet here it is, a monstrous fortress with impossibly thick walls and enough defenses to hold off an assault by an overwhelming force. I haven’t been under the castle, but I would bet that below us is a network of tunnels burrowing into the mountain, so deep, it would withstand an orbital bombardment. The chances of such an attack happening are exactly zero. You’ve seen their fleet. Arland’s destroyer alone can hold off a small armada. The system is already as protected as it could be, yet they built a battle station on top of it. You’re asking them to allow outsiders into their space, many different outsiders, not just a select few trusted allies. You are forcing them to go against their nature.”
“I’m offering to make them wealthy beyond their wildest dreams.”
“They don’t care. It’s not about money.” Maud swirled the wine in her glass and took another sip. “It’s about the Mukama.”
“I have heard about the Mukama,” Nuan Cee said, his face thoughtful. “But never from a vampire. You are almost a vampire.”
Maud smiled. “Would you like me to tell you about the Mukama?”
“Yes. There is a piece missing that I do not understand.”
“Very well. It goes back to the Law of Bronwyn.” The Galaxy had very few universal laws, but the Law of Bronwyn had proven true again and again, so often that it was simply accepted.
“Once a species is introduced to interstellar spaceflight, it will advance technologically but not socially,” Nuan Cee said.
Maud nodded. “Yes. Their individual standard of living may drastically improve, their technological progress will continue, but their social construct mostly stays the same. The ability to travel between the stars removes some of the pressure factors known to drive societal change. Once you get interstellar spaceflight, suddenly the population density is no longer an issue. Geographical limitations are gone. The competition for the natural resources is largely gone, at least in the initial stages. Different splinter groups within the society no longer have to learn to coexist; they can simply move apart from each other.”
Nuan Cee nodded.
“Societal change is hard, because a society is made up of the individuals. These individuals learn how to be successful in that particular social construct, and they resist change, because it threatens their survival. To really implement a change, one must convince the population that their survival as a whole is in doubt unless they alter their course. Because interstellar flight removes a lot of these survival factors, the society in question generally stays as it is once it’s achieved. If they were hunter-gatherers, they remain so. If they were a republic, they remain a republic, and so on.”
“Yes. It is a known fact,” Nuan Cee said.
“The Mukama invaded the Holy Anocracy when the vampires were in a feudal period. The vampiric society, at that point, consisted of powerful clans led by warrior aristocracy and bound together by a strong religion. The Mukama must’ve thought the vampires, so technologically behind them, were easy pickings. What do you know of the Mukama?”
“Not much,” Nuan Cee said. “They were a secretive species and this conflict happened a long time ago.”
“They were a predatory species,” Maud said. “They didn’t want the planet. They wanted the vampires themselves, particularly children. The adults were used as the workforce and the children as food source. The Mukama found children to be tender and delicious.”
Nuan Cee grimaced.
“The vampires retreated to their castles. Reducing castles to rubble would have destroyed all of the lovely meat inside, so the Mukama had to commit to ground assault. It was discovered that the Mukama didn’t do well in narrow enclosed spaces. They were an aerial species. They hunted from above. It was also found that the Mukama’s stun weapons didn’t work against a vampire in armor. It was a long war.”
“How long?” Nuan Cee asked.
“Almost two decades. At some point, about eight years into the conflict, the main Mukama flotilla lost contact with the orbital fleet dispatched to the vampire planet. It took them another decade or so to wrap up their previous engagements. Finally, they bestirred themselves and went to find out what happened. When they arrived, they found the orbital fleet exactly where it was supposed to be, in system. The ships were intact and filled with vampires.”
Maud swirled her wine om her glass and smiled. “Nobody has ever met a Mukama.”
“No,” Nuan Cee admitted.
“But here we are, enjoying the fresh air of their homeworld.”
Nuan Cee startled.
“House Krahr was one of the original greater houses,” Maud told him. “They were entrusted with this planet to make sure no Mukama ever breathed its air again.”
She set her empty glass on the table.
“When we started this story, I told you that a stable society is resistant to change. The Holy Anocracy is stable, honorable Nuan Cee. They won. Why would they change? Their way of life worked for them for thousands of years. They never stopped building castles or wearing armor; they just make them stronger. They never abandoned their faith, because it sustained them in their darkest hour. They cherish their children, they guard them like their greatest treasure, and they teach them to fight from a young age, because history taught them that children are both precious and vulnerable. Without children, the Holy Anocracy has no future. Above all, the vampires distrust outsiders. Nothing good ever came to them from beyond the stars. You are an outsider fighting against thousands of years of inertia. A single strange bird flying at a massive flock trying to change its direction. The kind of change you are seeking can only come from within, from someone deeply respected, someone rooted in their society. Neither you nor I have that kind of clout. But I will speak to Arland the next time I see him. If I see him.”
“Oh, you will see him,” Nuan Cee said. “He is coming down the hallway now.”
Maud took a deep breath.
A moment later Arland loomed in the doorway, carrying a large gray case. He saw her. “My lady.”
Helen waved at Arland. He took a step into the room, but the lees swarmed him, pushing him out into the hallway.
“You left her alone!”
“People were mean to her.”
“She was sad!”
Maud glanced at Nuan Cee. He smiled at her.
Arland looked at her above the lees, a pained look on his face and raised his arms in mock surrender.
“I suppose I should find out where he was.” She sighed.
“Come see me any time, Matilda,” Nuan Cee said.
“I will,” she promised and meant it.