The meeting with the lees and the tachi was set in the Maven’s Gardens, located at the top of a small mesa, which jutted next to the Marshal Tower, the same tower that housed Maud’s and Arland’s quarters. The gardens were accessible from within the tower and by a long, covered breezeway that curved around the tower from one of the bridges connecting it to the rest of the castle. Consisting of a small, stone plaza ringed by lush greenery, the gardens were at once a very private and completely exposed space. The trees and shrubs hid it from outside observers and its location, on the very edge of a sheer drop, made outside surveillance impossible. However, the cameras and turrets, mounted on the walls of the tower directly above, had the perfect view of everything that transpired.
From inside the plaza, the gardens looked calm and inviting. Blue, turquoise, and pink blossoms rose from the flower patches beneath old trees. Here and there, plush furniture, some made with vampires, some with other bodies in mind, offered comfortable place to sit and reflect. A natural-looking waterfall that had to be engineered and carefully installed filled the silence with soothing sounds of falling water, which coincidently made audio surveillance even more difficult, as if the dampners installed along the perimeter of the mesa weren’t enough. Maud decided she rather liked it.
Helen splashed through the shallow edge of the fountain, watching the water cascade over a perfect reproduction of a neighboring mesa, only ten feet in height. The waterfall landed into a pond made to resemble a lake. Helen stumbled through it, waving her arms, like a giant about to take on a mountain. Maud came to terms with the simple fact that if there was an inch of water, her daughter would be in it. She showed no signs of illness. Maud had only checked her personal unit three times in the last six minutes, which had to be a heroic feat of willpower.
Otubar loomed next to Maud, like a silent mountain himself. She still had no legal status, and for negotiations to succeed, she needed to borrow some authority. Maud would have preferred Arland as a back up for this meeting, but he was sleeping off his booster, and she had to admit Otubar had authority in spades. The Lord Consort projected quiet menace, emphasis on the quiet. He didn’t speak, he made no small talk, he asked no questions. He just towered like some legendary bastion of vampire might.
The lees and the Tachi arrived at the same time, each delegation led by a vampire knight through the side tunnel. Nuan Cee wore his usual silk apron, the kind Maud saw him wear at this shop, and a necklace of white and blue shells that matched his silver blue fur. It wasn’t the bejeweled ensemble he donned for important meetings. The two lees behind him bounced up and down as they walked, looking like two fluffy, excited kits.
The Tachi queen strode next to the Merchant, elegant and seemingly weightless despite her size. Her exoskeleton was a cheery, beautiful azure, like the waters of the Mediterranean Sea. The two tachi following her exhibited color as well, one deep lavender, the other a familiar green. Ke’Lek. She had expected a neutral grey. A pleasant surprise.
Good. The tachi are in a receptive mood.
“Lady of sun and air.” Maud bowed her head. “The great Merchant. Welcome.”
Nuan Cee waved his paws magnanimously. “No need, no need. We are all friends here.”
The tachi queen bobbed her head. “I am relived to see you well. And your child.”
“Please,” Maud murmured and pointed to a table with four chairs. Two were the typical vampire seats, large, solid, with simple but functional lines. The third chair to Maud’s right was a divan, piled high with soft pillows. The fourth chair on Maud’s left looked like a mushroom with plush, padded cap and round protrusions to the back and the sides. It had taken Maud a good half an hour of drawing and explaining to convince House Krahr’s fabricator supervisor to manufacture one. She still wasn’t sure if the proportion of the stem to cap was off by an inch or two, but it looked right and it was the best she could do.
The queen saw the chair. Maud held her breath.
A flash of deeper color rolled over the royal and she perched on the chair, locking her vestigial appendages on the protrusions. Nuan Cee sprawled on the divan like a Roman patrician.
The tachi bodyguards split up. Ke’Lek remained behind the queen, while the other tachi headed to the fountain. The Nuan Cee relatives followed the tachi to where Helen was splashing. The significance wasn’t lost on Maud. If anything happened to either Nuan Cee or the tachi queen, Helen would be a primary target. The thought should have disturbed her, but she took with easy calm. Either too much happened and I am now inoculated, or I’ve gotten used to high stakes negotiations.
A vampire retainer delivered pitchers of green and red liquids, one wine, the other spiced juice with slices of local fruit, and platters of baked snacks and artfully arranged fruit and vegetable slices, and withdrew. It felt like an odd tea party. Here she was serving cosmic cookies and wine to a queen of enlightened predators and the head of a clan of ruthless assassins. Nothing much at stake except an interstellar alliance. Whee!
Maud sipped some juice. This would have to be done very carefully. If she offered either of them a finger, they would bite her entire arm off. No time like the present.
“Have you rested from the interstellar travel?” she asked. “I always find planetside to be a relief.” Not the best opening, considering they were both the planet for the last two weeks, but it would do.
The tachi queen glanced at her. “This planet is rather beautiful.”
“I do so enjoy the planetside,” Nuan Cee said, “However, as regrettable as it is, one must commit to the unpleasantness of space travel to pursue one’s goals.”
So far, so good. “I do wonder how space merchant marines do it. Long voyages, expensive cargo, and I hear pirates in certain quadrants.”
Nuan Cee’s eyes narrowed slightly. “Yes. One does have to make sacrifices in the name of profit.”
“Or scientific achievement.” The tachi queen speared a cookie with a long talon. “The quest of knowledge can not proceed without the fuel of labor.”
“It always rankles me when opportunistic beings attempt to cash in on the labor of others.” Maud studied the contents of her glass.
“It is both unfair and predatory,” the tachi queen said. “However, one may not always have a choice in selecting their path. Sometimes course must be plotted through rough space, because one has no alternative.”
Here we go.
“If one were to provide a safe harbor, a protected haven, for such courageous seekers of wealth and knowledge, perhaps new routes could be plotted to take full advantage of it.”
Nuan Cee sat up straighter. “If such a harbor were to appear, one would be a fool to not take advantage of it.”
Maud pretended to toy with her glass. “Yes, but would one example, even that of an illustrious being, inspire others?”
“Those of us in positions of power can be remarkably persuasive,” the tachi queen said.
Maud held back a sigh of relief. They had just promised to actively campaign to divert traffic from the Kozor system to this one, provided a trade station could be built. It was their own version of a fire triangle: to create fire, three things are needed, heat, air, and fuel. Remove any one of those three things and fire stopped. To prosper, a nation of pirates had to have prey, weapons, and means of fencing the stolen goods. If the shipping lanes shifted away from Kozor, it would remove both prey and the means to dispose of the stolen merchandise. Kozor and Serak would wither while House Krahr reaped the benefits.
Nuan Cee crunched his cookie, delicately brushing crumbs from his whiskers. “Of course, to truly commit to such a course, one would have to have a vested interest in the venture.”
Maud took a sip of her juice. Ilemina was very clear on what could be promised. “A safe harbor in space has three major applications. First, it is a base of scientific inquiry, a natural gathering place where multiple species could come together in comfort and security to share their findings. Second, it is a hub of shipping and supply, a port where cargo can be bought, sold, and moved, and weary sailors can rest before resuming their journey. Third, it is a military installation, equipped to repel attacks and shelter those within. The might of the Holy Anocracy, and House Krahr in particular, is unmatched. If only suitable partners could be found to fulfil these other roles.” Maud sighed. “of course, such cooperation could only be possible if iron-clad alliances could be agreed upon and financial and other obligations were determined and evenly assumed by all involved.”
The queen’s color darkened. “An even contribution from each species would be only fair. Such a place would require advanced technology and modern construction to be truly effective.”
“And of course, it would require a sufficient infusion of capital coming from a partner intimately familiar with the peculiarities of space trade.” Nuan Cee bared his teeth in a quick smile.
“If such plans would be put in writing, in secret, of course, progress could be made on the path of mutual cooperation. And benefit.” There, she laid it out. Send us the plans, and we’ll get the ball rolling, provided you agree to military alliances.
Nuan Cee turned to Otubar. “Does the Undermarshal agree?”
Otubar stared back at the Merchant. “I’m standing here with her, am I not?”
Maud had to seal the deal. She nodded at the retainer waiting at the other end of the plaza. The woman disappeared behind the tree and returned with a huge metal chest. Square and reinforced, it looked impregnable enough to take a grenade blast from the inside. The retainer carried it over with obvious strain, set it on the ground next to Nuan Cee, and withdrew.
“A gesture of good faith from House Krahr,” Maud announced. “We are grateful for Helen’s rescue and hope Clan Nuan will share the antidote with us for future use.”
Her personal unit, which she had programed prior to the meeting, sent a signal to the box. It split with a clang, and a metal spire shot out, like the pistil of a flower. The top of the pistil unfolded, revealing the bottle of green mist.
“A weapon of Nexus,” Maud said, “meant to render the lees infertile.”
Nuan Cee jerked back.
“House Krahr has no need of such things now that it has found a willing and reliable trade partner in Clan Nuan,” Maud said. “We do not commit lightly and once we do, we stand fully behind it.”
“The depth of your commitment is stunning,” Nuan Cee said. “It is a proper bargain. We shall share the antidote.”
“It brings me and Lord Consort great joy,” Maud said.
Lord Consort was doing his best to impersonate a thundercloud.
Maud nodded. “Of course, one has to wonder why certain parties would seek to sever the buddying ties of alliance between the honored guests of House Krahr present here and their hosts. What possible short-term gain could one achieve by making either one of you to withdraw?”
The tachi queen crunched her mouth, sounding like a handful of walnuts being crushed, as close as she could come to giggling. She leaned forward and said softly, “One has to wonder what both of us have here that could pose a threat or inconvenience our other guests. Something we have in common, something that brought us both here.” She rose. “This has been a most enlightening meeting, Maud of the Innkeepers. We have many plans to make.”
Polite goodbyes were said and both the lees and the tachi departed. As she watched them walk toward the breezeway, Maud turned to Otubar. “They both have ships in orbit.”
“Well armed ships,” Otubar said.