Peters sipped coffee and looked around the conference room, still wondering why he was here. The long-delayed trade conference had finally gotten underway; Prethuvenigis had said the ferassi-Grallt were insistent that he should attend. Gooligis, the representative of Trader 1049, had been smirking ever since Peters had showed up, obviously in on the joke. His expectations–that they were going to hit him up about a smallship and a pair of good-looking women having departed the ferassi ship under less than routine circumstances–had not been met so far.

A male Grallt nearly the size of Tollison was holding the door open for a girl. She was small, deliciously pretty to those who knew the Grallt aesthetic; both were in blank tan ferassi-style kathir suits. An elderly Grallt with short white hair and a long flowing mustache followed, his suit decorated in the forest-green of Trader 1049 with enough slanted lines on his arm to signify a person of considerable status.

The old man scanned the room until he found Peters, and his face lit in a broad smile. He began pushing, very politely, through the group, and the two in blank suits followed. «Peteris of Llapaaloapalla, I assume,» he said when he was in earshot.

Peters rose. «I am he.»

The Grallt bowed from the waist. «My depa’olze sends greetings and best wishes,» he said smoothly. «He bids me give you this, and present to you a small gift.» The economical wave that went with the latter phrase seemed to include the other two Grallt; “this” was a buff envelope.

Peters took it and nodded. «I return the greetings and best wishes,» he said slowly. What the Hell is this? «Perhaps you would be so good as to explain your mission in more detail.»

«That is the function of the note, depa’olze,» the old Grallt said, eyes twinkling. He bowed once more and left without further ceremony, oblivious to Peters’s strangled «Wait!»

The envelope was made of paper, rare among the Grallt, and so was the note inside. He recognized the script, the blocky Russian-looking characters of the ferassi language, but no more. «Ssth,» he hissed. «I can’t read this.»

«Would you like me to read it to you, ze Peteris?» the girl asked timidly, then looked down, seemingly abashed.

«Yes, please,» he said, and held it out. She reached to take it, hand trembling, and her expression wasn’t apprehension or abashment; it was full-fledged, jelly-limbed fear, bordering on terror.

Peters took a step, touched her gently on the shoulder, and said softly, «Calm yourself. You are among friends.»

«Enh,» she grunted, in mingled fear, astonishment, and–shame?

Peters looked around. The byplay was attracting attention; Gooligis was grinning like a successful thief. «Come with me,» he said in a tone as gently neutral as he could manage. «We will go to a place where you can recover your composure.» She nodded, still looking distraught, and Peters urged her toward the door with minimal touches on her shoulders. The big male followed unbidden.

At the end of the long veranda was a round table, with four wicker chairs upholstered with pillows of white chintz printed with purple flowers. Peters looked up at the man. «What is your name?»

«I have been called Dzheenis.»

«And her name?»

«She has been called Khurs, ze Peteris.»

«Are you a mated pair?»

«No, ze Peteris.»

«I see, I think… Khurs, Dzheenis, if what I suspect is true you are about to hear from me the last command you will hear in your lives,» Peters said, attempting lightness. «Sit down.» He gestured firmly, and they took seats, trying to maintain an alert posture but failing in the soft broad chairs. Peters nodded and said to the n’saith servitor: «A pot of thvithith tea, if you please, and small foods that can be eaten with the fingers.»

«At your direction.» The waiter nodded and took himself off.

Peters sat. «I now inform you of a fact of greatest importance to you,» he said, looking from one to the other. «Among my people, the possession and trading of persons as chattel is utterly forbidden; the taboo is among the strongest we have.» Dzheenis’s head jerked back; the girl’s mouth formed an “O” of astonishment, and Peters nodded. «Your intuition is correct. From the moment you were presented to me you have been completely without duty or obligation to anyone, least of all myself. You owe no deference, save that which you grant out of respect or in recognition of accomplishment; you may order your lives without reference to the wishes of others, unless you yourself grant those wishes power. Have I been clear enough, or should I explain further?»

The waiter came with a cart, and Peters relaxed his intensity and leaned back into the cushions, catching their eyes in turn. Their faces underwent changes: uncertainty, fear, joy, astonishment, finally a dawning realization that Peters encouraged himself to think contained a trifle of hope. When the waiter had arranged the table to his satisfaction he glanced at Peters, expecting acknowledgement; when he received it he set off, pushing his cart, which rumbled softly on the unfinished boards of the floor.

Dzheenis rubbed his chin, apparently inspecting the teapot but plainly not seeing the object; Khurs stared wide-eyed into space, her jaw slack. Both started to speak; they stopped themselves short, and Khurs deferred with a little wave of the hand. The big man focused a thoughtful regard on Peters. «The terms of your exposition were interesting,» he remarked. «I note particularly that at no point did you use the word ‘free’. Given the nicety of your phraseology, I must assume that this was not an omission.»

«It was deliberate,» Peters affirmed. «’Freedom’ is a noble ideal, but has no referent in the perceivable Universe. None of us is truly ‘free’ so long as we require air, water, food, and shelter to survive. This is as true of any here as it is of you.»

«Yes.» Dzheenis caressed his chin, this time pinching his lower lip between thumb and forefinger. «The subject has been discussed among us at length. We have generally arrived at a similar conclusion… Khurs, I believe you had a comment?»

«I have several comments. I am trying to order them.» Her voice was astonishingly deep, a baritone only a little higher in pitch than Peters’s. «We are dependents of the ferassi; the word ‘slave’ is not used.»

Peters smiled without humor. «The word used by the person who presented you was ‘gift’. Distinctions of phraseology are irrelevant and distracting.»

Peters used the ensuing long pause to pour tea, rising to serve first Khurs, then Dzheenis, and finally himself. The two Grallt were again taken aback, but Khurs’s expressive face showed dawning comprehension. «Incredible that such a small act could have such large implications,» she breathed.

«How so?» Peters asked.

Dzheenis was regarding a teacup as if it were an utterly unfamiliar object. He set it down and said, «Ze Peteris, you would appear to be a ferassi of the ancestry called ‘darkling’; that is, of the highest possible caste. In the Universe we have inhabited all our lives, if tea were to be poured in the presence of such a man either Khurs or I would perform the service.» He looked away, then back, and tears were forming in the corners of his eyes. «I am reaching for a comparison… it is as if the ship turned inside out, or I discovered that I was able to breathe water. I would have been no more astonished if you had given birth to a child before my eyes.»

«That’s not at all a likely eventuality,» Peters observed.

«It seems no less probable than the others. Hm.» Khurs’s tone was speculative. «Ze Peteris, I see a plate of pastries with fruit fillings. I find them delectable; would you care for one?»

«Yes, please,» Peters replied. The woman nodded, selected a pastry, and handed the plate to him. He made his own selection and passed the remainder to Dzheenis, who took it with a hand that trembled slightly, removed one to a saucer, and set the plate down with grave care.

«Delicious,» said Khurs.

Peters handed her a napkin, saying with forced lightness: «It appears that they are very juicy. Some has escaped from the corner of your mouth.»

She fixed her eyes on his, reached to take the napkin, and burst into laughter, beginning with soft chuckles like clucks that quickly escalated into a submachine-gun paroxysm. Dzheenis was quickly infected, and the two Grallt laughed helplessly, their shoulders shaking, tears in their eyes.

At some length Dzheenis regained control of himself. «I apologize for my lack of control,» he said, wiping his eyes with a napkin. «The matter isn’t really all that amusing.»

«You needed the emotional release,» Peters said with a nod, glancing at Khurs, whose involuntary reaction had subsided to hiccups.

«I believe you are correct,» the big man noted. «Ah, me… it is a situation I had never imagined, a concept that could never before have entered my mind: to sit at table, taking tea on equal terms with a depa’olze

«’Depa’olze‘,» Peters repeated. «The one who presented you used the same term, I believe. How does it apply to me?»

The two Grallt exchanged glances. «The root of the word is pa’ol, a group of persons related by ancestry, together with their dependents,» Khurs explained, her tone cautiously didactic. «The best translation in the Trade would probably be ‘clan’. The syllable ‘de’ is common between the two tongues, with the same meaning: ‘eight’, ‘maximum’, ‘highest’. Combined with the honorific ‘ze’, the term would be rendered most accurately as ‘highest clan person’. ‘Clan master’ might be considered more colloquial.»

Peters looked out over the valley, his gaze as unfocused as the Grallt’s had been a few moments ago. The daystar was sinking, and purple twilight was creeping up the base of the hills… at length he said slowly, «I don’t see how the term might be considered applicable. Three persons hardly constitute a clan.»

«The ferassi consider the usage valid.» Khurs shrugged and smiled faintly. «For that matter, so do I… they have spoken of little else these past two llor.»

«I don’t–didn’t have as much contact with the ferassi on a day to day basis as Khurs… did,» said Dhzeenis, «but even I have heard the talk. The ferassi consider your actions remarkable, deserving of the highest respect.» He grinned wryly. «Like Khurs, I do as well. Probably it is the influence of too much romantic literature.»

«Romantic literature?»

«Oh, yes,» said Khurs. «In days long gone, before Belsar Flen established control over the Jewel and took the ferassi into space, the establishment of a new pa’ol was an affair of force and grandeur. Literature is filled with such exploits: a lone adventurer, or the leader of a small band of desperadoes, penetrates the defenses of an established clan, carrying away treasure and the beginnings of a tuwe which serve as the basis of his future fortune.» She produced a wry smile of her own. «As Dzheenis says, we may have been unduly influenced by the tales as well. Certainly I always found them exciting; the better writers can make the scenes in the tuwe particularly poignant.»

«I enjoy the tales of deceit and subterfuge,» Dzheenis put in, «but Khurs is correct about the scenes in the tuwe, although ‘poignant’ is not precisely the word I would choose to characterize them.» She poked out her tongue at him, eyes twinkling, and waggled the tips.

«I still don’t see how that applies to me,» Peters observed.

«Do you not? Consider the recent past from the ferassi point of view.» Khurs held up a finger. «First, when minions were sent to abduct you you dispatched them handily, with the aid of a single henchman. Next, you were abducted while unconscious and placed in close confinement; you escaped the confinement and defeated your captors. Then you spun such a tale as hypnotized them, seduced the keepers of the tuwe, and made away with a valuable spacecraft and such females as you chose. It is the stuff of legends. They all feel they have fallen into the pages of a story-book, never mind that they themselves are the hapless villains in this particular tale. Fredik Fers in particular is positively swaggering.»

«Hm,» said Peters. «I suppose I see how that might be the case… certain elements seem to be lacking, such as the sword-swinging escape, leaving spear-carriers scattered like so much chaff.»

Dzheenis smiled and fingered his jaw. «Here we enter the realm of more modern traditions,» he commented. «Some considerable time ago, but not in antiquity, there arose a thinker called Chazis Mar. He opined that the ferassi would find greater prosperity in trade and equable relations than in raid and rapine, and such were his powers of persuasion that the ferassi accepted his doctrines and put them into effect.»

«Except for the dar ptith», Khurs interjected. «The epa’ol of the dar rejected those teachings, and maintain the customs and practices of earlier eras.»

«Yes… Chazis Mar also decreed that girls should be taught to speak, read, and write, and that the best should be preserved past their first maturity; this policy was adopted as well.»

«Yes.» Peters leaned back again in the deep cushions. «It’s still not clear how this is applicable to my case.»

«No?» Dzheenis grinned. «I will be specific, then. In addition to having performed a feat of deceit, daring, and general derring-do of a magnitude not seen outside the covers of a book for squares of uzul, you have managed to do so entirely within the precepts of Chazis Mar!»

«Consider,» Khurs interjected, and began ticking off points again. «You refrained from taking the life of Fredik Fers, even though you had extreme provocation. The story that mesmerized the ferassi contained nothing but limpid truth; you even admitted your relatively low status instead of indulging in vainglory. You selected adult girls instead of dipping into the tuwe, and seduced them with nothing more than your own attributes and force of personality. During your escape you were presented once again with the opportunity of taking life; once again you demurred, giving Chester Zin nothing worse than a sore head and a hearty shove to safety–»

Peters held up a hand. «You refer to the guard on the smallcraft deck? I assure you, I was seeking nothing but my own safety at that moment.»

«Would it not have been more prudent to simply shoot him? If he had succeeded in giving the alarm your escape might have come to a rapid and sad conclusion at that point.»

«Perhaps so,» Peters admitted.

She nodded. «Just so. To continue: You gave your pursuers ample opportunity to withdraw; when they scorned that option, you held your fire well past the point of prudence, launching your blow only when faced with the stark choice of kill or die. The blow itself was clean and decisive, and you did not remain to boast or gloat, nor did you seek retribution.» She faced him with a broad grin over the fingers she had folded down. «Throughout the episode you made repeated offers of amity and cooperation, which were contemptuously pushed aside. Really I hadn’t thought it all through myself. My admiration is rekindled; your only omission was that you failed to take with you a number of Grallt to serve you in your new establishment.»

«Hmph,» said Peters. «The events you describe scarcely seem related to the ones I experienced. What I recall is pain, fear, and desperate improvisation.»

Dzheenis pinched his lower lip again. «That detracts not a whit from the tale,» he said judiciously. «If anything it adds. To keep ‘desperate improvisation’ so far within the bounds of civilized custom is remarkable in and of itself.»

«Hmph,» Peters grunted again. «So you would expect that this missive–» he indicated the note «–contains offers of amity and cooperation?»

«I know what it contains,» Khurs declared. «I helped draft it. Would you like me to read it to you?»

«I would appreciate it, if you would be so kind.»

She nodded. «’You may order your lives without reference to the wishes of others, unless you yourself grant those wishes power,’» she quoted. «I am not under direction; nevertheless I choose to grant your request, of my own will. Are these the proper terms of reference?»

«They are, and I thank you.»

«Defer your thanks until I have finished.» She picked up the note, glanced at it for a moment, and began to read in her strong clear baritone:

«Depa’olze Peters –»

«Disgraceful,» Dzheenis muttered. «He omits the honor-syllable from your name.»

Peters shook his head. «I take pride in being so addressed, but it is an innovation of the Grallt of Llapaaloapalla. He has my name correct in its original form.»

«Now shush,» Khurs admonished. Dzheenis subsided, and the girl began again:

«Depa’olze Peters,
I send you greetings and felicitations, along with wishes for an extended and prosperous existence. Your exploits among us have been remarkable, both in themselves and in the clever, even artful way you have blended the old and the new to induce our admiration and excite our imaginations.
You have taken nothing from us but the most rare and precious, beyond a few trifles of incidental equipment. I feel secure in assuming that those trophies, together with your own formidable resources, will assure your continued and ultimate success. In aid of that, however insignificant that aid may be, I present you with the two before you.
They are called by us Dzheenis and Khurs. Dzheenis is a male of proven vigor, and a supercargo and accountant of great skill and precision. Khurs is a scribe of notable accomplishments, fluent in three tongues of the kree and capable in two others, as well as glib and precise in Language and the trade speech. Unless maltreated they cannot fail to add luster to what is already an establishment of considerable brilliance.
Again, felicitations and best wishes. I hope to encounter you in person at some time in the future, under amiable conditions.
Candor Zin
Depa’olze of the zin pa’ol»

Peters started to comment, but she held up a hand. «Wait, please. He has added a postscript which was not part of the document I drafted.» She scanned, colored, and began again to read aloud:

«The girl Khurs is also a purveyor of sexual gratification of unique competence: warm, clever, inventive, and compliant, besides being an amiable companion in the intervals. If your taste includes such sport, you will not find her wanting in any way. And Luter sends her regards, along with wistful regrets that you were unable to take her along. For my own part I cannot regret the latter. I treasure her companionship more than may be entirely reasonable, and am glad she remains with me.
CZ»

She looked over the top of the note, her face a bright-pink mixture of embarrassment, dread and–regret? «Does your taste include such sport, ze Peteris?» she asked.

«I have indulged in such ‘sport’, and believe I gave satisfaction as well as receiving it, although no male can ever achieve certainty in that regard.» He held her eyes. «Two factors intrude: first, I strongly prefer not to indulge in ‘sport’ unless I believe the female to be at least equally so inclined; and second, my appetites are fully satiated, and my physical prowess might be considered oversubscribed, by the arrangement I find myself in.»

«You don’t find me desirable?»

«I didn’t say that.» He grinned. «My first thought upon seeing you was ‘deliciously pretty’, and I have not changed that assessment. Under proper conditions I would certainly make the proposal, in hope and anticipation.»

In the gathering twilight he could no longer make out the color of her face, but she grimaced, then smiled a little wanly. «You are complimentary.» She looked down, then met his eyes again. «In a way it is something of a pity. Candor Zin is–was–kind and considerate, and taught me much in what he calls the ‘intervals’; I looked forward to the occasions with pleased anticipation. I suppose I was entertaining the hope that you would accept my services in that regard, as well as my person.»

Peters shook his head. «That option is permanently closed. For me to even consider it would be such an offense against the custom of my people as to be loathesome; carrying it out would be an act of insupportable vileness.»

Dhzeenis sighed in the growing gloom. «In any case I would have no such inducement to offer. Come, Khurs. We have intruded upon ze Peteris’s attention far beyond the bounds of necessity; I wonder that he is so patient. In addition, I note that it is growing dark and cold. We should leave ze Peteris to go about his affairs, and seek shelter and sustenance for ourselves before our bodies take on the same attributes.»

«You have the right of it,» said Khurs, regret coloring her voice. She rose. «Depa’olze Peters, we thank you for your attention. You are kind and considerate, and a philosopher as well. May your affairs go as you desire.»

Peters grimaced. A gentleman and a scholar, is it? «Wait,» he said. «Please seat yourselves. There are matters we have not yet attended to.»

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