A Call To Arms – Snippet 02

“My apologies, General,” he said. Slowly, he eased his hand out of the jacket to show the data chip between his first two fingers. “As your time is valuable, I thought it only fair that I compensate you for your generosity in allowing me some of it.” With a careful flick of his wrist, he sent the chip sailing across the table to land in front of Khetha.

The general made no move toward it. “Ulobo?” he said.

With a brief wrinkling of his nose, the plump man carefully picked it up. He pulled a tablet from his jacket and plugged the chip into the slot. “Another lock box combination,” he said, peering at the display. “Purportedly containing another fifty thousand in diamonds.”

“A very generous gift,” Khetha said, eyeing Llyn thoughtfully.

“Merely gratitude for your own generosity,” Llyn assured him. Especially since that gift had also shown him exactly where one of his guards’ weapons was located. Fifty thousand was a very fair price to pay for that kind of information. “May I take it that means you’re granting me a hearing?”

Khetha smiled. “Certainly. You have ten minutes.”

“Then I’ll be brief.” Llyn nodded toward the samovar. “I wonder if I could also prevail on your hospitality to the extent of a cup of tea?”

Khetha smiled again, this one with a hint of triumph flavoring it. By asking for tea instead of waiting for it to be offered, Llyn had lowered his status vis-à-vis his host’s, which had now put Khetha into a stronger bargaining position. If the visitor knew the custom, Khetha had just won a point.

If he didn’t, well, it wouldn’t affect the upcoming negotiations at all. But it would still mean a great deal to Khetha.

And maybe that was all the Supreme Chosen One really cared about. People who’d lost almost everything only gripped what little they still had even more tightly.

The nuances and motivations of this particular bit didn’t matter a frog’s damn to Llyn. All he cared about was getting some tea.

And now, having won the round, Khetha could afford to be a thoroughly gracious host.

“Of course,” he said, gesturing to Ulobo. Scowling some more, clearly still wary of the visitor, the plump man pushed back his chair and headed for the sideboard. “Your minutes are running,” the general added.

“The situation is simple,” Llyn said. “Four T-years ago you were deposed and exiled from Canaan. Ever since then you’ve been looking for a way to return and reestablish your rule. Over the course of that time, you must certainly have made the acquaintance of some large pirate or mercenary groups whom you hope to interest in supporting that effort.”

“We’ve had contact with one or two,” Khetha said. “Most of them are too constrained by legalities or outmoded ethics for my needs. All of the others are quite expensive.” He gestured to the data chip. “I appreciate your contribution to that fund.”

“And therein lies the crux of your problem,” Llyn said. “As you say –” he broke off, nodding Ulobo his thanks as the other set a steaming mug of tea in front of him “– the most effective mercenary groups don’t come cheap.” He paused again, picking up the mug by its top and pretending to take a sip.

Not that he had any intention of actually drinking any of it, of course. Not only was it too hot to touch without burning his tongue, but he had no idea what secret ingredients Khetha or Ulobo might have put into it. Lowering the mug, he set it back onto the table.

And as he did so he dropped the two small capsules he’d been palming into the steaming liquid.

“My problem, on the other hand, is just the opposite,” he continued, casually pushing the mug a few centimeters further from him. “My client finds himself in need of one of these, shall we say, below-the-radar groups. And while he has plenty of money — as you’ve no doubt already noted — he has no idea where and how to contact one.” He pursed his lips. “Nor do I.”

“A dilemma, indeed,” Khetha said. “How do you intend to resolve it?”

“My hope is that you and I can build our respective problems into a pair of solutions,” Llyn said. Was the pounding of his heart starting to ease up a little? “You have contact information. I have access to money. I propose that you offer me an introduction to the most promising of these groups. In return –” He smiled. “My client will provide the funding for your return to power.”

Ulobo sat a little taller in his chair. “The entire funding?” he asked disbelievingly.

“The entire funding,” Llyn confirmed. Yes; his heart was definitely slowing from its earlier frenetic pace.

“You’re very generous with your client’s money,” Khetha said, his expression giving nothing away. “One has to wonder if he would approve.”

“No worries,” Llyn said. “I have his complete confidence, along with a financial carte blanche. He also knows that the timing at our end is critical — the longer we delay in making a deal with your mercenaries, the less profit he’ll realize. Assuming the operation is launched within the next, say, five years, his profit will be high enough that paying the extra fee for the mercenaries to reestablish you on Canaan would be hardly noticeable.”

“It must be a high-profit venture, indeed,” Khetha said thoughtfully.

“It is.”

“And you could easily spend those five years you mention simply exchanging messages with mercenary groups in hopes of finding one which will meet your needs.”

“As you said, my dilemma,” Llyn said. “You, in contrast, have nothing to lose and everything to gain by agreeing to this joint venture.” He smiled. “And the gain won’t just be your return to power.”

“What do you mean?” Ulobo asked.

“He means,” Khetha said, “that if his client pays all costs, then the fund we’ve been building will no longer have to go to the Volsungs.” He cocked an eyebrow. “And no one outside this room would ever need to know that.”

Ulobo’s face cleared. “Ah.”

“Which fund, I’m guessing, already runs into the hundreds of thousands of sols, Solarian credits, or whatever,” Llyn said, suppressing a smile. So now he had a name: Volsungs. One step closer to making his move.

“You’re still asking a great deal,” Khetha said, “on what basically amounts to your word.”

“Not really,” Llyn said. “The worst possible case is that I take the name and contact information and you never hear from me again. In that event, all you’ve lost is a little time before your return. Time, I might point out, which your enemies are using to rebuild Canaan’s economy. Actually, now that I think about it, the longer you wait, the more you’ll have to return to.” He nodded toward the chip still in Ulobo’s tablet. “And you’ll still be a hundred thousand credits ahead.”

Khetha looked at Ulobo. The plump man still didn’t look exactly happy, but he gave a reluctant nod.

“But all this presumes that your merc group has the resources my client needs,” Llyn continued before either of the others could speak. “I’ve laid out my cards. Time to lay out one or two of yours.”

Khetha inclined his head. “What do you wish to know?”

“Let’s start with their location,” Llyn said. “Planet, city — all of that.”

Khetha pursed his lips, then gave a small shrug. “They’re headquartered in Rochelle on the planet Telmach. That’s in the Silesian Confederacy –”

“I know where it is,” Llyn said. Interrupting a despot’s ego was risky, but he had no choice. His heartbeat was nearly back to normal, and he needed to close this off quickly. Any minute now Ulobo or one of the guards would notice that his hands were starting to feel a little numb. “What kind of resources do they have? Specifically, how many warships and what types?”

“They have what you need,” Khetha assured him.

“How many?” Llyn repeated.

Khetha’s eyes narrowed. But he merely nodded to Ulobo, who tapped a fresh access code into his tablet. “They have four battlecruisers,” the plump man reported, peering at the page that came up. “Cruisers — let me count — eight of them, light and heavy, plus ten destroyers and frigates. They also have three troop transports and a handful of other auxiliaries.”

“Excellent,” Llyn said. Yes; Ulobo’s hands were definitely moving slower than they had earlier. Fortunately, his brain was slowing down in the same proportion, which meant that his recognition of his puzzling clumsiness should take another few seconds. “That should do nicely. And you have contact names and recognition codes for someone in the group?”

“Not just someone.” Ulobo tapped his tablet. “Our contact is the head of the group, Admiral Cutler Gensonne himself.”

“I’m impressed,” Llyn said. There was no harm in soothing Khetha’s ego a bit, after his impolite interruption a moment ago. “I presume you also have a ship standing by that can take us to him?”

Ulobo frowned. “Excuse me?”