“Captain Vindh!” Yidoc Messhik, crime lord of the Tyrelos Barony and other principalities, beamed through the video link at Grif’s scowling face. More accurately, he appeared to beam, strictly by human standards, though his facial spines—an integral emotive component for every Invagi Grif had ever met—hardly so much as twitched in place. “I confess I didn’t expect to hear from you so soon. On the other hand, I didn’t expect someone to try to assassinate our Baron, either.”
His smile faded slightly. “If you had any dealings in that, Captain, I’m afraid we have no business worth discussing. The Baron was very good for business, and I’ve no interest in rewarding either her brother or Lord Sonim for foolish ambition.”
“Right,” Grif said. “First of all, I have zero interest in murdering the Trade Baron who spared my life last year. She was pretty much the only reason Station Authority hasn’t tried to come after me in retaliation for my daring escape.”
“That?” A hint of Yidoc’s grin returned. “But those were rogue Station Authority guards, taking orders from a rebel faction led by Lord Raphael Tyrelos as part of an ill-fated coup. You were simply defending yourself from traitors.”
“You know,” Grif said, “no matter how many times I say that, I don’t ever get the impression they’re listening.”
The grin widened. “Pride is a prickly thing, alas. Very well. I will assume, for the moment, that you have nothing to do with this… very unfortunate turn of events. If it has nothing to do with Baron Tyrelos, to what do I owe the pleasure of this call?”
“I said I wasn’t involved in blowing her up,” Grif said, trying to sound calm, “I never said it didn’t have anything to do with her. I don’t know if I mentioned it—say, maybe a minute and a half ago—but she was pretty much the only reason Station Authority hasn’t tried to come after me in retaliation for my daring escape.”
Yidoc paused for a moment. “Ah… I see. Yes, well I can understand your concern—she is dead, so your protection is dwindling rapidly. I suppose it’s too much to hope that you are calling to embrace my offer with open arms, eager to take advantage of all the resources and protections I can bring to bear?”
“While that would be a truly generous offer, on your part,” Grif said, hoping he sounded sincere, “we have a rather more immediate problem. Something someone of your skill and expertise could help us resolve.”
“I see.” Yidoc’s expression didn’t change, but his voice did: the warmth faded, the briskness and calculation crept in. Pleasantries, such as they were, had ended. They were now negotiating. “Why don’t you tell me what services you believe I can provide.”
Grif quickly brought Yidoc up to speed on the situation: the artificially prolonged exit queue, the careful way the orbiting ships were being divided up and moved around, the working hypothesis that Sonim was setting up someone to take a fall.
“All of which comes back to how Station Authority doesn’t like me much,” Grif said.
Yidoc nodded thoughtfully. “It seems the best solution would be to get you classified as a ship carrying cargo Tyrelos has deemed essential to their operations. That would give them significant financial incentive to overlook any… redress they may otherwise may be inclined to indulge in.”
“That is exactly what I was thinking,” Grif said. “I was hoping we might be able to come to some sort of arrangement.”
“Indeed.” Yidoc’s face grew larger as he leaned in to the screen.
Like a predator looking over his next meal, Grif thought.
“I think,” Yidoc said, “that your best option is to take me up on my offer.”
“That’s true,” Grif said. “From a purely tactical perspective, that’s absolutely true. But it’s not your best option.”
Yidoc’s eyebrows raised ever so slightly. “Isn’t it? It’s what I want you to do, after all. I’ve made no effort to disguise it.”
“Sure,” Grif said, “but I’m not ready yet. You know that—you knew it when you made the offer to begin with. All you did was dangle a carrot, because you knew threats would make me run as fast and as far as I possibly could, and it probably wouldn’t be worth the effort to track me down. You and I both know that if I accepted your offer now, I’d probably wind up doing the same thing.”
Yidoc’s eyes narrowed. “I can make that very difficult to do.”
“You absolutely can,” Grif said. “And the steps you would have to take would make it much harder for me to do the kinds of things that made you interested in me to begin with. What’s the point of taking on someone with a reputation for improvisation in the face of danger when you have to babysit them to the point where improvisation is impossible?”
“I don’t work for free, Captain Vindh.” All pretense of joviality fell away as Yidoc’s mouth dipped into a slight but noticeable frown. “It’s bad for business. And despite my interest in you, you don’t rate highly enough for me to make an exception.”
Grif raised his hands in a placating manner. “I don’t expect you to. And I don’t expect to come out ahead of this deal either. Mr. Messhik, what I am proposing is that I stick my foot in to your snare—but only my foot. Not my entire body. I will owe you one job, based on the terms you outlined in our previous meeting. I will be obligated to take it on and see it to its conclusion, as if I were a member of your organization. Just one. I’m sure you’ll make it interesting.”
Yidoc fell silent. His lips pursed thoughtfully. “An interesting proposition. I’m not sure how far I can trust your word, though. Why should I trust a man who has already admitted that he would run after accepting my employment?”
“Because I told you I’d run after accepting your employment,” Grif said.
“Repeating my concern as if it addressed my concern is a clever and audacious rhetorical trick,” Yidoc said. “It does not, however, actually address my concern.”
“Look,” Grif said, forcing back a rising wave of desperation as he tried to look unconcerned, “despite being in a situation where my alternative is very likely a mock trial and execution—or, even more likely, execution in lieu of a mock trial—I told you that I probably wouldn’t honor the deal you were most interested in making. That didn’t strengthen my hand, Mr. Messhik. It weakened it quite a bit. It increased the chance you’d decide I wasn’t worth the bother, and abandon me to my fate.”
“Then why make it?”
“Because I don’t want to cheat you,” Grif said. “Cheating you may not be more dangerous than stealing from the Radiant Throne, but cheating you on top of stealing from the Radiant Throne isn’t something I want on my resume. So I told you up front I had a limit in the hopes we could come to an arrangement that didn’t go there, then I made a counter offer. It’s not a bad one. It doesn’t rule out you forcing the issue at a later date.”
Yidoc’s frown softened slightly. His facial spines twitched once in unison. “I see. Well, that is a more palatable take on things.”
Yidoc lapsed into silence as he closed his eyes, lost in thought.
He’s not going to go for it, Grif thought. He won’t go for it because I thought it up—not setting the terms of the arrangement will make him look weak. I should have tried to steer him into coming up with the arrangement himself.
“Captain Vindh.” For a moment, Grif wasn’t sure how Yidoc was talking to him without moving his mouth. Then he realized someone was speaking to him from the bridge. His irritation rose at being addressed while he was on an open channel, then his irritation turned to alarm when he realized that it was Baron Tyrelos calling him.
“Now’s not a good time,” Grif said through gritted teeth.
Yidoc opened his eyes and locked his gaze on Vindh. “Beg pardon?”
“Captain,” the baron repeated. “If you would be so kind, please introduce me to your patron.”
“He’s not my—” Grif stopped in mid-sentence, thinking quickly. Faldyth had opened the channel, and everyone on the bridge—including the Baron—had heard the conversation so far. She wasn’t an idiot, and she wanted to get away. She thought she could help, so she must have had an angle he didn’t.
He remembered something Yidoc said at the start of the conversation: The Baron was very good for business, and I’ve no interest in rewarding either her brother or Lord Sonim for their foolish ambitions.
Right. Grif almost smacked himself in the forehead.
“Mr. Messhik,” Grif said, “I wasn’t lying to you about my offer, but I was lying to you about my motive.”
“I see,” Yidoc said, voice flat.
“Not that way!” Grif added hastily. “Still didn’t blow up the baron. In fact… uh… let me introduce you to someone. Faldyth, if you would be so kind.”
The video feed split, showing Yidoc on the left, and a remarkably composed Baron Minerva Tyrelos on the right.
“Hello, Yidoc,” the baron said. “It’s been too long.”
Grif had the immense satisfaction of seeing a crime lord gape in astonishment.
“I’d planned to stay out of this conversation,” the baron continued, “but it seems you won’t be persuaded by the good Captain’s offer of a pound of his flesh. Perhaps you will be more persuaded if I offer a pound of mine.”
“Minerva…” Yidoc stared out, brow furrowed, thinking furiously. “You appear to be alive.”
“While appearances can be deceiving,” Baron Tyrelos said, “in this case they are quite correct. I am not dead. I do, however, very much wish to leave before my would-be assassins figure that out.”
“I can imagine,” Yidoc said. He’d recovered quickly, and stared out at them thoughtfully. “Do you know who they are?”
The baron considered the question, then shrugged. “Sonim.”
“You said I was good for business,” the baron continued. “I don’t know if I’d put it quite that way, but I know the value of not making enemies I don’t need to make. Sonim will not share that view.”
Yidoc nods in agreement. “True enough.”
“Perhaps, Yidoc, if you see your way to arranging a smooth and uneventful departure, I will once again find myself in a position to owe you a favor.”
“How likely is that?” Yidoc asked. “You are not dealing from a position of strength.”
“Not at this moment,” the baron admitted. “But I’ve been expecting something like this for a long time. I’m not without resources.”
Yidoc frowned for a moment, then his eyes widened. Then he threw his head back and laughed.
“Your idiot brother,” he said. “Not quite the idiot he seems, I gather.”
The baron said nothing.
Yidoc lapsed into silence again, mulling his options. Finally, he grinned so savagely that Grif had to fight back the urge to flinch.
“The problem is,” Yidoc said, “that neither offer is enough. The good Captain Vindh’s offer to do a single job doesn’t balance the level of effort required to manipulate Station Authority bureaucracy to the degree required. And while the gratitude of a Trade Baron is a very compelling offer indeed… the gratitude of a deposed Trade Baron, while not without weight or value, still falls short. However…”
Against all probability, his grin grew even wider.
“I will accept both offers as payment. The combined debt of a deposed Trade Baron and a desperate smuggler captain will, I believe, be sufficient to procure my services.”
Yidoc fell silent, waiting expectantly.
“I accept.” The baron didn’t lose her poise, though her voice trembled slightly.
“Done.” Grif’s voice sounded harsh and rough. His stomach twisted into knots.
“Then it seems we are in business,” Yidoc said, voice turning brisk. “I will arrange everything from here. Station Authority should be contacting you within the hour, allowing you to leave shortly thereafter.”
“Great,” Grif said, trying to sound cheerful. “That’s fantastic.”
“I wish you both the very best of luck,” Yidoc said. Then the feed went blank.