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Chapter One

Commander of One Thousand Klayrman Toralk sat upright in the personnel carrier strapped to his circling command dragon's back, despite the buffeting wind of the beast's passage, so that he could see clearly over the edge of the windshield. The sight was impressive, he admitted, watching critically while the final few transport dragons, scales glittering with gemlike intensity in the last light of day, settled like huge, multihued insects onto the handful of islets clustered in the middle of so many endless miles of swamp. Unfortunately, "impressive" wasn't exactly the same thing as "well organized." In fact, the words which came most forcibly to mind were "awkward as hell."

And the reason the maneuver looked awkward was because it was awkward, he thought sourly. Despite his deep respect for his immediate superior, this entire operational concept could only have been put together by a ground-pounder. Any Air Force officer would have taken one look at the topographical maps and informed his superior roundly that he was out of his mind. Crowding this many transport and—especially—touchy, often ill-natured battle dragons into such a constricted space violated every precept of peacetime training regulations and exercise guidelines.

Too bad Ekros never heard about all those regs and guidelines, Toralk thought. Or maybe he did. After all, how could even a demon make sure that whatever could go wrong did go wrong if he didn't know exactly what he was screwing up?

The thousand chuckled with a certain bare minimum of genuine humor. Yet even as he did, he knew that if Commander of Two Thousand Harshu hadn't pushed him—hard—on this, he would have told the two thousand it was impossible. Fortunately for Arcana (if not, perhaps, for the tender sensibilities of one Thousand Toralk), Harshu wasn't particularly interested in the artificial safety constraints of peacetime. He wasn't overly hampered by excess tactfulness, either. But he was completely willing to absorb a few casualties, among his dragons as well as his troops, to get Toralk's attack force into position with its beasts sufficiently well rested to maximize their combat radius.

And it looks like that poisonous little prick Neshok was right—barely—about whether or not I could fit them all in, Toralk conceded.

The last of the transports landed a bit short of its intended island, and a towering, mud-streaked fountain erupted as the huge dragon hit the water. Fortunately, it was shallow enough that the beast wasn't in any danger of drowning or miring itself in the muck, and the levitation spell kept its towed cargo pod out of the water while it floundered ashore. Of course, Toralk had no doubt that if he'd been a little closer, he would have heard an interesting chorus of yells and curses coming from the infantry inside that pod. It might have stayed out of the water, but that hadn't kept it from bouncing around on the end of its tether like some sort of insane ball. And all of that water and mud the dragon's impact had thrown up had had to go somewhere.

Toralk grinned behind his helment's visor, despite his tension, then shook his head and leaned forward to tap his pilot on the top of his flight helmet.

"Yes, Sir?" The pilot had to raise his voice to be heard, but not by very much at this ridiculously low speed.

"Let's set it down, Fifty Larshal," Toralk said, and pointed at the larger island at the center of the half-dozen congested, swampy hummocks which had been chosen for his forward staging points.

"Yes, Sir!" Larshal said, and the command dragon lifted onto its left wing tip, banking more steeply as it circled down towards the indicated perch.

Toralk gazed into the west, where the embers of sunset still glowed on the horizon. This particular bivouac wasn't going to be much fun for anyone, he reflected. Maybe that would be for the good, though. Men who were thoroughly pissed off after spending a wet, muddy, bug-infested night not sleeping were likely to show a little more . . . enthusiasm when it came to shooting at the people responsible for them being out here in the first place.

* * *

Hulmok Arthag was an unhappy man.

Someone who didn't know the platoon-captain well might have been excused for not realizing that. Or, rather, someone who didn't know Arpathian septmen well might have been excused for not realizing Arthag was any unhappier than usual, given how little an Arpathian's expression normally gave away.

He stood under the forest canopy—thinner than it had been when the Chalgyn Consortium survey crew had been slaughtered, just over two months ago—and gazed into the predawn darkness, longing for the empty plains of home. Life had been harder there, but it had also been much less . . . complicated.

"Copper for your thoughts, Hulmok."

The platoon-captain turned at the sound of Platoon-Captain Dorzon chan Baskay's voice. The Ternathian cavalry officer looked improbably neat and clean—not to mention well-dressed and freshly shaved—for someone who spent his nights sleeping in a tent in the middle of the woods with winter coming on. Arthag had sometimes wondered if there were a special Talent for that, one that was linked by blood to the families which routinely produced the Ternathian Empire's diplomats. Not that chan Baskay had ever wanted to be a diplomat, whatever the rest of his family might have had in mind for him.

Which just goes to show the shamans were right. No man can outrun his fate, Arthag reflected with the faintest lip twitch of amusement.

"I don't know if they're worth that much," he told the Ternathian after a moment.

"I'm pretty sure they are," chan Baskay responded. Hulmok raised one eyebrow a fraction of an inch, and chan Baskay shrugged. "I've heard all about your 'instinct' when it comes to picking people for your command. And while I'll admit you've got a remarkably good gambler's face to go with it, it's pretty clear to me that something's jabbing that 'instinct' of yours as hard as it's jabbing every single one of mine."


"Hulmok, they've been talking to us for over a month now," chan Baskay said. "In all that time, they haven't said one damned thing except that they want to talk, instead of shoot. And they've been throwing grit into the machinery with both hands for the last week and a half. Which, you may have noticed, exactly corresponds to the point at which I finally got formal instructions from the Emperor. You think, maybe, it's pure coincidence that they got even more obstructionist as soon as I stopped sparring for time?"

"No." Arthag shook his head. "No, I don't think that—not any more than you do."

The two men looked at one another. Chan Baskay's expression showed all the frustration and anger he couldn't allow himself to display across the floating conference table from the Arcanan diplomats, and Arthag's very lack of expression showed the same emotions as both of them contemplated the Arcanans' last week or so of posturing. Rithmar Skirvon, the senior of the two Arcanans, had hardened his negotiating posture noticeably. His initial, conciliatory attitude had all but completely evaporated, and he seemed determined to fix responsibility for the initial violence of the clash between his people's troops and the civilian survey crew on the dead civilians.

That was a pretty significant shift from his original attitude, all by itself, but it was obvious to chan Baskay that Skirvon's instructions were exactly similar to his own in at least one regard. Neither side was prepared to give up possession of the Hell's Gate portal cluster to the other under any circumstances. Chan Baskay hadn't found it necessary to be quite as . . . confrontational as Skirvon, since Sharona currently had possession of the cluster, but he could at least sympathize with the Arcanan on that point.

What he couldn't understand was why Skirvon seemed actively intent on forcing a breakdown in the talks. He wasn't simply stonewalling, simply withdrawing into an inflexible position which he could always have blamed on instructions from his superiors. Instead, there'd been a whole series of insults, "misunderstandings," and "lost tempers" coming from the Arcanan side. And by now, chan Baskay no longer needed Trekar chan Rothag's Sifting Talent to tell when Skirvon was lying. All he had to do was check to see whether or not the Arcanan's mouth was moving.

"Hulmok," he said after a moment, his eyes unwontedly somber, "I've got a really bad feeling about what's going on. But that's all I've got. I don't have a single concrete thing to hang my worry on. So, if you've got something specific, I damned well need to hear it before I sit back down across from those bastards in a couple of hours."

Arthag considered the Ternathian for several moments, then shrugged very slightly.

"I do have a Talent," he acknowledged. He wasn't entirely pleased about making that admission to anyone, for several reasons, but chan Baskay was right. "It's not one of the mainstream Talents," he continued, "but it's run in my bloodline for generations. We've produced a lot of shamans because of it."

"And?" chan Baskay prompted when he paused.

"I can't read minds, and I can't always tell when someone's telling the truth, the way Rothag can. But I can read what's . . . inside a man. Tell whether he's trustworthy, honest. Recognize the ones who'll cave in when the going gets tough, and which ones will die on their feet, trying. And—" he looked directly into chan Baskay's eyes "—the ones who think they're about to slip a knife into someone's back without getting caught."

"Which pretty much describes these people's school of diplomacy right down to the ground, assuming Skirvon and Dastiri are representative samples," chan Baskay snorted.

"I'm not talking about double-dealing or cheating at cards, Dorzon," Arthag said somberly. "I'm talking about real knives."

"What?" Chan Baskay stiffened. "What do you mean?"

"I mean that little bit of 'lost temper' yesterday afternoon was carefully orchestrated. I mean that when Skirvon demanded that our people apologize for provoking it, he'd rehearsed his lines well ahead of time. I mean that the lot of them are pushing towards some specific moment. They're not only working to a plan, Dorzon—they're working to a schedule. And the thing that's driving me mad, is that I don't have any idea why they're doing it!"

Chan Baskay frowned. Commander of Fifty Tharian Narshu, the senior officer of Skirvon and Dastiri's "honor guard," had exploded in a furious tirade over a trivial incident between one of his soldiers and one of Arthag's PAAF cavalry troopers the day before. The Arcanan officer had actually "allowed himself" to place one hand on the hilt of his short sword, which chan Baskay was positive had to be deliberate posturing on his part, rather than a serious threat. After all, Narshu had to know what would happen if his outnumbered men wound up matching short swords against H&W revolvers.

But by the same token, an officer in Narshu's position had to be equally well aware of his responsibilities as part of the diplomatic mission . . . and if he wasn't, then certainly the diplomats he was there to "guard" were. Yet Skirvon had reprimanded Narshu in only the most perfunctory manner, even though both Arcanan negotiators must have been conscious of the example their escort's CO was setting for the rest of his men.

"How confident are you of that, Hulmok?" he asked after a moment. "The schedule part, I mean?"

"I'm not as totally confident of it as I'd like to be," Arthag admitted. "If these were Sharonians, I'd be a hundred percent certain. But they aren't." He shrugged ever so slightly. "I keep reminding myself that it's remotely possible I'm misinterpreting something. After all, it's only been two months since we even knew they existed. But still . . ."

Chan Baskay nodded again, wishing his stomach muscles weren't tightening the way they were.

"One thing I'm certain of," he said slowly, "is that they don't have any intention of actually negotiating any sort of real resolution. For one thing, they're still lying their asses off about a lot of things."

"For example?" Arthag raised his eyebrows again.

"Exactly how Shaylar died, among other things," chan Baskay said grimly. "And these repeated assurances about their eagerness to reach some sort of 'mutually acceptable' disposition of the portal junction, for another."

"And about who shot first?" Arthag asked.

"No." Chan Baskay grimaced. "On that point, they're actually telling the truth, according to Rothag. They don't have any better idea of who shot first than we do. And oddly enough, they also seem to be telling the truth when they insist that the officer in command at the time tried to avoid massacring our survey crew."

"I think maybe Rothag better have his Talent checked," Arthag said bitingly.

"I know, I know!" Chan Baskay had the air of a man who wanted to rip out handfuls of hair in frustration. "I've Seen Shaylar's message myself. I know chan Hagrahyl stood up with his hands empty and got shot down like a dog for his pains. But they insist that wasn't what their officer wanted, and Rothag's Talent insists they're telling the truth when they say it."

"They may believe they are," Arthag snorted. "But if they do, it's because the bastard lied to them about what happened out here."

"Maybe." Chan Baskay shook his head, his expression half-exasperated and half-hopeful. "I keep wishing Shaylar had managed to contact Kinlafia sooner." He grimaced. "That sounds stupid, I know. The fact that she managed to reach him at all under those circumstances, much less sustain the link through what happened to her and all of her friends . . . Gods, it was nothing short of miraculous! I can't even imagine the kind of guts it took to hold that link. But we didn't actually See or Hear anything until after chan Hagrahyl went down."

"But we know what happened, anyway," Arthag pointed out. "Darcel—Voice Kinlafia—was linked deeply enough to know that from the side traces. Besides, she told him so."

"Granted. But she Told him, and she Showed him her memory of chan Hagrahyl going down with his hands empty and the crossbow bolt in his throat. That's not the same as Seeing it happen for ourselves. We have what she told Kinlafia, but we don't have anything before the actual event, don't know if there was something Shaylar didn't see herself, or saw but didn't recognize, or didn't realize it had happened at all, in those few seconds we didn't actually See."

"I'm sorry, Dorzon," Arthag said after a moment, "but I can't think of anything which could possibly change what happened or why. And even if I could think of anything now, it's too late for it to have any effect."

"I know. I know." Chan Baskay gazed off into the depths of the forest. "But they're still insistent that they didn't want any of this, that what happened was against their standing orders to establish peaceful contact with any new human civilization they encountered, and Rothag's Talent insists they're telling the truth about that. Which presumably means it accurately represents their government's long-term policy, no matter how badly things have gone wrong on the ground. To be honest, that's the only hopeful thing I've heard out of their mouths yet! Unfortunately, it's outweighed by everything else . . . especially what your Talent is telling you."

"Well," the Arpathian said slowly, "what do you plan to do about it?"

"Gee, thanks," chan Baskay said. "Drop it on my plate, why don't you?"

"Well, you are senior to me," Arthag pointed out reasonably. "My promotion was only confirmed last week. And you're the official diplomat around here, too."

"I know." Chan Baskay drummed the fingers of his right hand on his thigh for several seconds, then shrugged.

"The first thing is to have Chief chan Treskin Flick a dispatch to Company-Captain chan Tesh. I'll tell him what we're worried about, and ask him for instructions. And the next thing is probably to have Rokam pass the same message back to Company-Captain Halifu for relay up the line to Regiment-Captain Velvelig."

Arthag nodded. Chief-Armsman Virak chan Treskin was the Flicker who'd been assigned to relay messages to chan Tesh's senior Flicker, Junior-Armsman Tairsal chan Synarch. Petty-Captain Rokam Traygan was chan Tesh's Voice, but despite everything, they were still desperately understaffed with the long-range telepathic communicating Talents out here. Traygan had originally been slated to hold the Voice's position at Halifu's portal fort in New Uromath. In light of the situation here at the Hell's Gate portal, he'd come forward to replace Darcel Kinlafia when the civilian Voice headed back to Sharona with Crown Prince Janaki. Fortunately, the Portal Authority had managed to scare up a third Voice—Petty-Captain Shansair Baulwan, a fellow Arpathian—to hold down Halifu's fort, and they were working hard to get still more Voices forward. But for right now, at least, there was absolutely no one else to spare in Hell's Gate or New Uromath, and it was critical that chan Baskay have the shortest possible message turnaround time . . . and the greatest accuracy and flexibility when it came to relaying diplomatic correspondence. So they'd ended up assigning Traygan to him and Baulwan to Halifu, at the critical inter-universal relay point, while chan Tesh (who was in the potentially stickiest position of all) made do with written messages relayed through the Flickers. It was clumsy, but until they could get more Voices deployed forward, it was the best they could do.

"And in the meantime?" the cavalry officer said after a moment.

"And in the meantime," chan Baskay replied with a grim smile, "we do the best we can. I'm inclined to trust your Talent, even if these aren't Sharonians. So, pass the word to your people. I don't want them going off half-cocked, but I don't want them taken by surprise if these people are working to a schedule and they decide to push further than they have."

"Swords and crossbows against pistols and rifles?"

"If that's all they have, that's one thing." Chan Baskay shook his head. "On the other hand, it's been a month now, and we need to be careful about letting familiarity breed contempt. So far, they haven't produced anything man-portable that looks like some sort of personal super weapon, but for all we know, they've just been waiting for us to get accustomed enough to them to let our guard down."

"Point taken," Arthag agreed. "I'll talk to my people."

"Good. And when they get here this morning, I want you handy. Close to Skirvon, as well as Narshu."

* * *

As he climbed down from the back of the completely unaugmented horse the Sharonians had "loaned" him for the trip from the swamp portal, Rithmar Skirvon found himself wishing he'd been in the habit of spending more time in the saddle. Whatever the rest of him thought of his current assignment, his backside didn't like it at all. And the miserable nag his "hosts" had provided didn't make it any better. He suspected they'd deliberately chosen one with a particularly unpleasant gait just for him.

He pushed that thought aside as he handed his reins to one of Fifty Narshu's troopers and started across the now-familiar clearing towards the Sharonian negotiating party. Deeply drifted leaves rustled about his boots like bone-dry dragon scales, and the air was cool and bracing, particularly compared to the hot humidity from which Skirvon had come.

Despite that, his "hosts" didn't look particularly happy to see him as they waited under the towering forest giants' multicolored canopy, and, as he contemplated what was about to happen, Skirvon had never been more grateful for all his years of experience across the bargaining table. For that matter, his taste for high-stakes card games had served him in particularly good stead over the last two or three weeks, as well. His face was in the habit of telling other people exactly what he wanted it to tell them, and while he'd developed a certain wary respect for Viscount Simrath, he was confident the Sharonian diplomat didn't have a clue what was coming.

Of course, he reminded himself as he reached the floating conference table and his waiting chair, there's always the possibility that I'm wrong about that.

But, no, that was only opening-day nerves talking. If the Sharonians had suspected the truth, they would certainly have reinforced their "honor guard" here at the conference site. For that matter, they wouldn't have passed Skirvon and his diplomatic party through the swamp portal at the crack of dawn this morning, either.

Face it, Rithmar, he told himself as he settled down in the chair across the table from Simrath yet again, your real problem is that you're scared shitless.

His lips quirked ever so slightly at the thought as he waited for Uthik Dastiri, his assistant, to sit beside him. That, however, didn't make it untrue, and he reminded himself once again that this entire ploy had been as much his idea as acting Five Hundred Neshok's. In fact, Skirvon had probably done even more than Neshok to sell the concept to Two Thousand Harshu. Somehow, though, he hadn't quite envisioned his own direct participation in sufficient detail when it had sounded like a good idea.

Mul Gurthak is so going to owe me for this one, he thought. He may be in the Army, but I'm damned well not drawing combat pay!

He watched Viscount Simrath and Lord Trekar Rothag sitting down opposite him and suppressed a sudden urge to pull out his chronometer and check the time.

"Good morning, Master Skirvon," Viscount Simrath said, as courteously as if he didn't realize Skirvon had been deliberately stalling for at least the last two weeks.

"Good morning, Viscount," Skirvon replied, as courteously as if he really thought Simrath didn't realize it.

"I trust we may be able to move forward, at least a little bit, today," the Sharonian diplomat continued. Under the formal rules and schedule they'd agreed to, it was his turn to control the agenda for the day.

"Progress is always welcome, My Lord," Skirvon conceded graciously.

"I'm pleased to hear that. However, the fact remains that I'm still awaiting your response to the points I made to you following the receipt of my last message from Emperor Zindel," Simrath said pleasantly. "In particular, I note that you continue to insist that the Union of Arcana must receive title to at least half the portals contained in this cluster. A cluster, I remind you, which is in Sharona's possession and which was first surveyed by the civilian survey crew which your troops massacred."

"I'm afraid I must disagree with you, Viscount," Skirvon said in his most respectful tones. "You appear to be implying that Arcana has taken no cognizance of Sharona's insistence on retaining total possession of this cluster—despite the fact that it's still to be established who actually fired the first shot, and the fact that our total casualties have been much higher than your own. In fact, we have taken cognizance of that insistence. Our position may not have changed," he smiled the empty, pleasant smile of a professional diplomat, "but rejection of your emperor's . . . proposals is scarcely the same thing as not responding to them."

The Ternathian noble leaned back in his chair—the floating chair, provided by Skirvon—and folded his arms across his chest. The leaves whispering wind-songs overhead were growing thinner by the day, Skirvon noticed as a shaft of sunlight fell through them and illuminated the tabletop's rich, polished grain and glittered brilliantly on the translating personal crystal lying between him and Simrath. Those leaves remained unfortunately thick, however, and a part of him wished Two Thousand Harshu had decided he could wait just a little longer.

Which is pretty stupid of you, Rithmar, when you've been pushing him just as hard as you dared from the beginning.

"Master Skirvon," Simrath said, "I'm at something of a loss to understand Arcana's motives in sending you to this conference table."

"I beg your pardon, My Lord?"

"Officially, you're here because 'talking is better than shooting,' I believe you said," Simrath observed. "While I can't disagree with that particular statement, ultimately, the shooting is going to resume unless we manage to resolve the issues between us here, at this table. So it strikes me as rather foolish for the two of us to sit here, day after day, exchanging empty pleasantries, when it's quite obvious you're under instructions not to agree to anything."

Despite himself, Skirvon blinked. He was ill-accustomed to that degree of . . . frankness from an opponent in any negotiation. After all, two-thirds of the art of diplomacy consisted of wearing down the other side by saying as little as possible in the maximum possible number of words. The last thing any professional diplomat truly wanted was some sort of "major breakthrough" whose potential outcome lay outside the objectives covered by his instructions.

More to the point, however, Simrath had observed the rules of the game up to this stage and taken no official notice of Skirvon's delaying tactics. So why had he chosen today, of all days, to stop playing along?

"In addition," the viscount continued calmly, "I must tell you that the distressing number of . . . unpleasant scenes between members of your party and my own do not strike me as being completely, um, spontaneous, let's say. So I have to ask myself why, if you're so eager to negotiate with us, you're simultaneously offering absolutely nothing new, while either encouraging—or, at the very least, tolerating—extraordinarily disruptive behavior on the part of your uniformed subordinates. Would you, perhaps, care to enlighten my ignorance on these matters?"

Skirvon felt a most unpleasant sinking sensation in the vicinity of his midsection.

Stop that! he told himself sternly. Even if they've finally started waking up, it's too late to do them much good.

At least, he damned well hoped it was.

"Viscount Simrath," he said in his firmest voice, "I must protest your apparent charge that the 'unpleasant scenes' to which you refer were somehow deliberately contrived by myself or any other member of my negotiating party. What motive could we possibly have for such behavior?"

"That is an interesting question, isn't it?" Simrath smiled thinly. It was a smile which never touched his gray eyes—eyes, Skirvon realized, that were remarkably cold and clear. He'd never realized just how icy they could be, and it suddenly struck the Arcanan that Simrath was not only extraordinarily tall, like most of the Ternathians he'd already seen, but oddly fit for a diplomat. In fact, he looked in that moment like a very tough customer, indeed, and remarkably little like someone who spent his days carrying around nothing heavier—or more deadly—than a briefcase.

"What, precisely, do you wish to imply, My Lord?" Skirvon asked with the air of a man grasping a dilemma firmly by the horns.

"I wish to imply, Sir," Simrath said coolly, "that it's never actually been your intention to negotiate any sort of permanent settlement or mutually acceptable terms. For reasons of your own, you've seen fit to initiate these negotiations and to keep Sharona talking. To this point, I've been willing to play your game, to see precisely what it was you truly had in mind. However, neither my patience, nor Emperor Zindel's tolerance, is inexhaustible. So, either the two of us will make significant progress over the next twenty-four hours, or else Sharona will withdraw from the talks. We'll see," if his smile had been thin before, it was a razor this time, "how you prefer shooting once again, rather than talking."

Skirvon felt Dastiri stiffen at his side. Despite the Manisthuan's espousal of garsulthan, or "real politics," Dastiri's skin had always been thinner than Skirvon's. Fortunately, the younger man appeared to have himself under control, at least for the moment. Which was actually about as much as Skirvon could say about himself, if he wanted to be honest. He managed to keep himself from looking over his shoulder at Commander of Fifty Narshu, but it wasn't the easiest thing he'd ever done.

"That sounds remarkably like an ultimatum, My Lord," he said.

"Does it?" Simrath cocked his head to one side, as if carefully considering what Skirvon had said, then shrugged. "Good," he said in an even cooler tone. "After all, that's what it is."

"The Union of Arcana is not accustomed to bending to ultimatums, My Lord!" Skirvon's response came out harder and more clipped than he'd intended.

"Then perhaps you should seek to profit from the novel experience, Master Skirvon," Simrath suggested. "Or, of course, if my plain speaking has sufficiently affronted you, you can always withdraw yet again to . . . how was it you put it the other day? Ah, yes! Withdraw to 'allow tempers to cool,' I believe you said."

Skirvon was astounded by the sharpness of the anger Simrath's words—and scornful attitude—sent jabbing through him. He felt his expression congeal, his nostrils pinched in ever so slightly, and the slight flicker in Simrath's eyes as the Sharonian obviously observed the physical signs of his anger only made that anger even sharper.

At that moment, Skirvon would have like nothing better than to stand up and storm away from that table. Or to snatch an infantry-dragon out of some outsized pocket and blast the smiling aristocratic bastard across from him into a smoldering corpse. Unfortunately, he could do neither of those things . . . yet.

"My Lord," he said through gritted teeth, instead, "I must protest the entire tone of your comments and your apparent attitude. As I say, the Union of Arcana is unaccustomed to bending to ultimatums. However," he made himself inhale deeply and sat back in his own chair, "whatever your own attitude, or that of your government, may be, my instructions remain unchanged." Which, he reflected, is actually the truth. "As such, I have no option but to continue my efforts to achieve at least some progress in resolving the matters which bring us here before anyone else is killed. I will continue to pursue my duty, but not without telling you that I most strongly protest the insulting nature of this exchange."

"If the insult is too great," Simrath said, almost indifferently, "please feel free to withdraw. Otherwise, I trust, you'll at least stop insulting my intelligence by simply repeating the same, worn out, and completely pointless positions again and again and again."

* * *

Dorzon chan Baskay watched the Arcanan diplomats' faces darken with anger. The younger of them, Dastiri, had never been particularly hard to read, and his anger at chan Baskay's confrontational language sparkled in his dark eyes. Skirvon was obviously older and more experienced than his assistant, but despite that, he was nowhere near as good at concealing his emotions as he clearly thought he was. And the fact that even though Skirvon was as furious as he obviously was, he'd swallowed not just the content of chan Baskay's words, but the deliberately insulting tone in which they'd been delivered, as well, told the cavalry officer quite a lot.

Unfortunately, chan Baskay wasn't certain exactly what that "lot" was. The fact that Skirvon hadn't stormed away from the table in yet another of his patented temper tantrums was interesting, though. Whatever these bastards were up to, Skirvon clearly needed to be here this morning.

Which, coupled with Hulmok's observations, doesn't precisely fill me with joy.

He didn't so much as glance in the Arpathian officer's direction, but he did withdraw his gold fountain pen from his breast pocket and toy with it. He turned it end for end, watching it gleam richly in the morning sunlight. He had no doubt that the Arcanans would interpret it as another insolently dismissive gesture on his part. That didn't bother him particularly, but it wasn't the real reason for it, and the corner of his eye saw Arthag's tiny nod as the Arpathian acknowledged his warning signal.

"I deeply regret that you've apparently so completely misconstrued and misunderstood my efforts, My Lord," Skirvon told chan Baskay through stiff lips. "Since, however, you seem to have done so, by all means explain to me precisely what sort of response to your emperor's terms you would deem a sign of 'progress.' "

* * *

"For a start," chan Baskay told Skirvon in an only slightly less indifferent tone, "you might begin by at least acknowledging the fact that our current possession of this junction—paid for, I might add, with the blood of our slaughtered civilians—means we are not, in fact, negotiating from positions of equal strength. We need not even discuss sharing sovereignty over this junction with you. We already have it. As Sharona sees it, Master Skirvon, it's your job to convince us first, that there's any logical or equitable reason for us even to consider giving up any aspect of the sovereignty we've secured by force of arms, and, second, that there's any reason we should trust your government to abide by any agreement you manage to negotiate."

Skirvon ordered himself not to glower at the arrogant Sharonian. That sort of blunt, hard-edged attitude was far more confrontational than anything he'd seen out of Simrath to this point, and he wondered what had prompted the change.

But it's too little, too late, you prick, he told Simrath from behind the mask of his eyes. All I have to do is keep you talking for another hour or so, and then . . .

"Very well, My Lord," he said after a moment. "If you insist upon rejecting my government's efforts to reach some arrangement based on something other than brute force, I suppose I have no choice but to meet your proposal on your own terms.

"As you say, Sharona is currently in possession of this junction. I would submit to you, however, that it would be a grave error to assume that that happy state of affairs—from your perspective, at least—will continue indefinitely without some indication of reasonableness from your side. My government has stated repeatedly, through me, that talking is better than shooting. That doesn't mean shooting couldn't resume if our legitimate claims are rejected on the basis of your current military advantage."

Skirvon sat forward in his chair once more, hands folded on the rock-steady table floating between him and Simrath, and looked the Sharonian straight in the eye.

"In all honesty, My Lord," he said with total candor, "given the fashion in which you've just spoken to me, and spoken about my government, a resort to military force isn't totally unattractive to me. I suspect, however, that your masters would be no more pleased than my own if that should happen. So—"

Rithmar Skirvon went on talking, making himself pay no attention to the steadily ticking seconds and minutes flowing away into eternity.


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