When the Centurion's boarding party arrived through the nadir lock, Captain Jobin Tax and the rest of the crew of the Alo Minh were waiting for them in Bay One.
Captain Tax, a calm man of considerable discipline, sternly instructed his crew to cooperate with the marines in every way. He spoke with an air of both authority and unconcern, absolutely convinced that his instructions would be followed to the letter. After a brief exchange with the Lieutenant in charge of the search, he suited up, descended the nadir lock, and entered the transport ship that would take him to the RTS Centurion.
He asked and was given permission to stand on the bridge of the transport so he could watch the approach to the Centurion. He was, to the satisfaction of the pilot and his escorts, suitably impressed, and asked many questions about what it was like to serve aboard a ship that size. By the time the transport ship had passed through the Maxwell into the landing bay, everyone on board decided they liked him. Any initial suspicions they may have had were dispelled by his open admiration for the battlecarrier.
Grif planned this part out carefully: he wanted Tax to marvel at the Centurion while at the same time be completely unconcerned by it. Jobin Tax had nothing to hide; he was there legitimately. As far as he was concerned, the Commodore was doing him a favor by speeding up his timetable, and would result in him reaching the planet's surface ahead of schedule. Whatever plans Mavis may have in store for Tax on the Centurion, Tax saw only an opportunity to make an ally… and he fully intended to enjoy the experience.
Tax displayed none of the stress Grif felt. The nervous, ragged hysteria Grif had nearly succumbed to earlier was now channeled into the task at hand: the more agitated Grif felt, the calmer and more relaxed Jobin Tax looked. In Tax's mind, everything was going well. Grif didn't bother dwelling on the state of his own mind. Introspection was a sure-fire way to wreck a con.
As he descended from the transport onto the flight deck, he was greeted by Commodore Hu Mavis himself. Grif made a point of having Jobin Tax bow--it was the preferred formal greeting in the Nyst Barony, where physical contact of any sort was confined to family members and moments of intimacy. Captain Tax asked permission to come board, and Mavis, smiling slightly, bowed in return and gave his assent. An aide stepped forward holding a data slate and held it forward out to Captain Tax.
"All visitors must be logged," Mavis explained apologetically.
Grif nodded and placed his thumb on the slate. The device recorded Grif's altered thumbprint--and, Grif suspected, also took a quick scan of his altered DNA--then blipped softly. Mavis took the slate from his aide, scanned it briefly, then nodded slightly and handed it back.
"Dinner awaits," Mavis said. He dismissed his aide with a wave of his hand, then gestured for Grif to follow. A single armed marine followed them.
They traveled by transit tube--due to the size of the ship, traveling on foot was impractical--and Grif felt a moment of vertigo as he was confronted by the sheer enormity of the Centurion. It was a small, moving city, and it required a public transportation system to allow the crew to move from one area to the other. They were traveling via a smaller transit system reserved for officers, but as they did Grif saw larger cars filled with enlisted rush past them on other lines.
"This ship must be very challenging to manage," Grif said.
Mavis laughed--a genuinely warm laugh that Grif found unnerving. "Some days it doesn't feel like captaining a ship," he said. "From time to time I feel as though I were imposing military law on a city. The Centurion is a city, in a many ways. She has to be, considering the role she is intended to play."
Grif looked at Mavis questioningly.
"If she is needed in a fleet action," Mavis explained, "she will be the primary base of operations for repair and refueling. She will be the primary hospital where crew are treated for serious injury, the tactical command center where all actions are planned. She is, essentially, a flying military base, rather than a warship. Though she is of course heavily armed…"
As Mavis continued to talk about the Centurion, Grif was struck with the uncomfortable realization that Mavis genuinely loved his ship. It wasn't merely pride in what the ship represented to the Throne, or the prestige that came from captaining it: the Commodore clearly believed that this was where he was meant to be, that the Centurion was his--exactly the way Grif felt about the Fool's Errand. In Grif's mind there were two types of ship captains: the ones who viewed what they were doing as a means to an end, and the ones who were serious about the life--honest-to-God "spacers" who would never feel comfortable unless they were on their ship. Grif thought little of the former. All of his closest friends were the latter.
Commodore Hu Mavis, personal nemesis, eternal thorn in Grif's side, was a genuine spacer.
"So unfair," Grif muttered.
"What's that?" Mavis asked sharply.
Grif mentally kicked himself, and forced Jobin Tax, captain of the Alo Minh, to smile sympathetically. "I said 'it seems so unfair,'" he said. "This ship is magnificent, make no mistake, but… I see you are married." Grif nodded toward a ring on Mavis' hand. "To be separated from one's family for so long… it seems unfair."
"Ah." Mavis frowned slightly as he regarded 'Jobin Tax' in a new light. Grif suddenly realized that Mavis had the same opinion about starship captains that he did, and he'd just decided Tax was a man who viewed captaining a ship as a means to an end rather than the end itself. That was lucky--while Tax would surely fall somewhat in Mavis' esteem, he would also not be as readily associated with a certain smuggler named 'Grif Vindh.'"
"My wife knew the kind of man I was when we were wed," Mavis said simply.
They lapsed into minutes of awkward silence. Finally the transport slowed down, then came to a stop. Mavis stood.
"Here we are," he said. "Dinner awaits."
The Wardroom of the Centurion looked like a posh, private restaurant or club. It was carpeted, with vaulted ceilings, and while the light fixtures were rigidly mounted to the ceiling they were designed to look as if they were ornate, hanging chandeliers. The entire outer bulkhead wall of the main room was transparent, giving them a magnificent view--which was marred, much to Grif's disappointment, by the brown squalid surface of Varkav itself.
Grif was surprised by the sheer size of it.
"One of the disadvantages of a ship this size," Mavis said, as he led Grif and their escort across the vast room. "The officer complement of the Centurion exceeds the total crew population of most ships, which tends to make the officer areas crowded. Fortunately we have access to more intimate facilities..."
They entered a stateroom set to the side of the main floor. It looked like a miniature replica of the main Wardroom--high ceilings, thick carpet, faux hanging chandeliers, and a completely transparent outer bulkhead. A single long table was set in the center of the room, where two men and a woman were already seated. They stood as soon as Mavis entered the room.
Mavis turned to Grif. "Captain Tax, allow me to introduce Ando Fargus, my XO, and Ubin Malvier and Katryn Valdyrs, both on my command staff."
Each officer nodded in turn. Ando Fargus was a heavy-set man with dark skin that gleamed under the light in the room. He exuded an easygoing confidence that filled the room, and grinned rather than smiled at him. Ubin Malvier was Ando's opposite--rail-thin, pale, almost translucent skin, and a tendency to tug nervously at the cuff of his left sleeve. He smiled politely at Grif, but the tightness around his eyes suggested no real warmth. Katryn Valdyrs was a slim, attractive woman who reminded him a little of Amys. Grif forced himself to pay as little attention to her as possible.
Grif bowed slightly to each in the room. Mavis moved to the head of the table--the captain's chair--and gestured for Grif to sit at his right. Ando Fargus sat immediately to Mavis' left, then Katryn Valdyrs. Ubin Malvier took the chair immediately to Grif's right.
Grif forced back the feeling of being surrounded and waited patiently as attendants set food and drink in front of them. He smelled roast beef and realized he was very hungry.
"It is synthetic of course," Mavis said. "I'm afraid we can't afford the real thing on an officer's salary. Still, it is a cut above the norm."
"It's well above the stock aboard the Alo Minh," Grif said, which was true. The color was a little too uniform for genuine meat, but it smelled exactly like roast beef, and the gravy was almost perfect. He looked up at the others, and realized they were all watching him intently.
Grif fought back alarm as he tried to figure out what they were waiting for him to do. He pretended not to notice, and examined his food more closely. Mavis was trying to catch him at something, but what? He quickly reviewed everything he knew about merchants in Baron Nyst's service. Finally he realized the trick, and almost grinned in admiration. He'd nearly missed it.
"Is there a problem, Captain Tax?" Mavis asked. Grif allowed himself to look slightly uncomfortable.
"I'm afraid I find myself in something of a difficult position," Grif said, trying to sound as diplomatic as possible. "It is customary to toast the Baron's health before dining, but I fear it may be considered something of an affront to your Emperor."
Grif had guessed correctly. Mavis nodded to himself, apparently satisfied.
"Perhaps," Grif continued, hit by sudden inspiration, "if we could drink a toast to your Emperor's health first, you might forgive me if I raised a glass to my Baron afterwards?"
Mavis smiled. "Of course," he said. "In honor of your courtesy, I believe that can be forgiven. Yes?" He looked at his officers, who all agreed politely. "Very well."
Mavis stood, raising his glass. His officers stood in kind, and Grif followed, raising his glass with the rest of them.
"To our Divine Emperor," Mavis said, "chosen by God Himself to ascend the Radiant Throne in glory, to lead us in wisdom, to guide us in victory, and unite the stars under divine providence and manifest destiny. May she live long and in glory."
"Amen," the others intoned.
Grif uttered a hasty amen, and drank. It was Varkavian whiskey, and a particularly good batch of it--he would have to be careful to moderate his drinking. He raised his glass again. "To Baron Nyst," he said. "May long life and prosperity visit his house, that it may visit our own."
It was the simplest and least potentially offensive of the toasts Grif knew. The officers nodded politely and drank.
Everyone sat back down and began to eat. Grif joined them, careful to eat slowly and solemnly. The faux beef was delicious.
Mavis was apparently satisfied--for the time being--that Grif was who he claimed to be. He began to pepper "Captain Tax" with questions about recent events in the Baronies.
"We all heard of the death of Mogra Tylaris with some surprise," Mavis said. "How is that affecting the region?"
Grif wiped the corner of his mouth with a folded napkin and set it neatly folded on the table. "Things will be more dangerous for some time," he said in a disapproving tone. "I had to hire a complement of guards to protect my cargo while we were in port, and I fear I will continue to need them."
"Piracy is on the rise then?"
"Not yet," Grif said. "Thuggery in the ports. When I left, there were no reports of ships being attacked in transit. But it's simply a matter of time..." On a hunch, Grif added, "especially with the rumors."
Mavis raised an eyebrow. "Rumors?"
"I hesitate to say, since I don't know for certain," Grif replied, "but it comes from sources that give me reason to worry. There's a rumor that Rolis Tylaris will apply for--and receive--autonomous membership in the Alliance of Free Worlds."
The statement provoked exactly the reaction Grif was hoping for. Mavis' face drained of color, and he spilled a bit of his whiskey on the table. Ando Fargus frowned, his normally cheerful expression turned to one of alarmed disapproval, and Katryn Valdyrs gasped alarm. Ubin Malvier simply increased the rate at which he tugged on the cuff of his sleeve.
Mavis smoothly mopped up his spilled whiskey with the corner of his napkin. "Are you sure of this?" Mavis asked. The tone of his voice was steady and unconcerned, and he betrayed no trace of the concern he showed the second before.
Grif shook his head. "As I said, it's only a rumor… but it's plausible. The new Baron isn't much like his father. He has no great love for work."
"And yet," Mavis said, "from what I hear, Mogra wasn't fond of work either."
Grif smiled. "True. But he didn't seem to consider politics work."
"That would be… a very bad thing," Ando Fargus said, speaking up for the first time. "Very bad news, if the Alliance were to gain the Tylaris Barony."
"It would be disastrous," Grif agreed, and it was a moment when Captain Tax and Grif Vindh were in complete agreement. "If true, business in the region will be destabilized for years to come. But at present it's a rumor only."
"Rumor or not, I may have to report it…" Mavis stared at Grif thoughtfully. "I am unexpectedly thankful I invited you to dinner this evening, Captain Tax."
Grif bowed his head. "I'm happy to have been of service."
They ate and talked more freely then, and Grif began to relax. He was still careful in what he said and how he said it, but he now believed that Mavis had accepted that Jobin Tax was who he claimed to be. That one piece of information had tipped the scales in his favor.
Halfway through the meal the stateroom door opened, and a junior officer entered the room. He handed Mavis a data slate. Mavis reviewed it carefully, nodded in satisfaction, tapped the slate once and handed it back.
"Congratulations, Captain. Your ship has passed inspection."
Grif felt relief wash over him. He smiled, unconcerned, as though he'd expected no other outcome. "I am very glad to hear it. Does this mean we'll be given clearance to land?"
Mavis nodded. "We're sending our report now. I fully expect permission to be given in the next one or two days."
The conversation became less formal after that, with the others joining in--except for Malvier, who ate silently, tugging at his sleeve the entire time. At one point Mavis asked about Captain Tax's family, trying to determine if there were a distant family connection, just as Bennet's people had predicted. Griff shrugged and suggested their similarities were nothing more than a strange genetic coincidence.
"Ah, but there are no coincidences in evolution, Captain," Mavis said. "Evolution is the Divine map of progress. It is creation reaching out toward its Creator. To remain static is to fall away and fall behind, so everything must move forward. There is purpose behind it all."
"I'd… never thought of it that way," Grif said.
Mavis smiled. "That is because you are, alas, an unbeliever. But don't fret--our reputation toward those who lack faith is undeserved. Mr. Malvier, here, is also an unbeliever, yet he serves the Radiant Throne with distinction, and we hope that some day he will come to know the divine light of truth."
Mr. Malvier nodded solemnly, and continued to tug at his sleeve.
"He accepts the reality of the world around him," Mavis said, "and has sworn fealty to our Emperor. For that, he is permitted his unbelief. We believe that in time he will come to see truth."
"I see," Grif said carefully.
"But enough of such things. I hope we will have many opportunities for such talks in the future. In fact I hope--"
A chime rang, and the stateroom door slid open. Another junior officer stepped into the room, looking very agitated.
Mavis looked at the officer and frowned in concern. "What's wrong?"
They found something, Grif thought, forcing himself to take a drink of whiskey instead of trying to bolt for the door. Maybe they found Ktk.
The junior officer hurried over to the Commodore and handed him a data slate. Mavis glanced at it, and his eyes widened in shock.
"Here?" he asked. "Now?"
The junior officer nodded mutely.
Mavis stood, wiping his mouth with his napkin. His officers, startled, stood as well. Grif hastily followed.
"Is something wrong?" Grif asked.
"My apologies," Mavis said, bowing slightly to Grif. "Something has come up, and duty demands I leave immediately. I apologize."
Grif felt relief--whatever it was, it had nothing to do with him. "Not at all. I thank you for your hospitality."
Mavis nodded. "I trust your stay on Varkav will be profitable. I hope we shall meet again. But for now, I--"
"Mavis!" The voice calling from the Wardroom was cold and demanding. It was a familiar voice, and the sound of it sent a chill down Grif's spine.
Mavis and his officers stood at attention. A moment later a figure wrapped in the robes of the Radiant Throne priesthood stepped through the door--a tall, thin man with almost no hair at all on his head, save for dark, thin eyebrows.
It was the Viceroy.
"My Lord," Mavis said. "I was just on my way…"
The Viceroy glanced at Grif for a moment and frowned. Grif shifted uneasily under the Viceroy's gaze--a perfectly reasonable reaction for anyone caught in that stare, even Jobin Tax. Finally the Viceroy turned his attention back to Mavis. "I am not angry," he said. "Simply impatient. I need to speak to you now."
Mavis nodded. "Very well, my Lord. If… I may… if I may introduce you to our guest. Captain Jobin Tax of the Alo Minh. The Alo Minh is a Maximilian-class trading ship from the Nyst Trade Barony. Captain Tax, this is the Viceroy. He is a Sword of the Radiant Throne."
Grif didn't dare look the Viceroy in the eye. He bowed formally, looking at the floor. "I am honored, sir."
He felt the Viceroy study him for a moment. "The ship?"
"Passed inspection hours ago," Mavis said.
Time slowed to a crawl. Grif stood and summoned every ounce of willpower he had to look at the Viceroy directly.
I can't look like I'm trying to avoid him, Grif thought, or he'll suspect. I have to look afraid but not specifically afraid. I'm afraid of him because he's a Sword, and no other reason. If he suspects… how can he not? How can he not know?
But the Viceroy turned away. "I apologize for interrupting your dinner, Captain Tax. Mavis, I must speak with you privately. Now."
Mavis bowed his head, excused himself, and followed the Sword out of the room.
The three remaining officers relaxed slightly. Ando Fargus smiled at Grif apologetically. "I'll take you back to the flight deck, Captain," he said, "and see that you get back to your ship."
Grif nodded wordlessly, thinking only of the force of the Viceroy's mind as it had sifted through his on Tyrelos station. They were, it seemed, hopelessly and utterly screwed.