A Rake by Starlight

A Rake by Starlight: Chapter 16

A Rake by Starlight, by C. B. Wright

WHEREIN the Business Partner Evaluates the Merits of the Pitch

Baron Minerva Tyrelos was young for a Trade Baron. She wasn’t a girl by any means—in most professions, she would be considered someone with an extensive resume. But politics, as a profession, skewed old by default; with technology capable of extending human life by decades even without the use of age-slowing anagathics, the “default setting” was beginning to be viewed more as a minimum requirement. Most of the other Trade Barons had been around for a long time, and most remembered when she’d been a girl.

So when her father died, and she assumed his place, she found the transition difficult to manage.

It didn’t help that she was beautiful, which made her look younger than she was. She tried to compensate for this by dressing severely and eschewing makeup. All that did was demonstrate that she was beautiful even when she tried not to be.

Over time, she managed to beat expectations, force people to look past her age, and win over the Barony—most of it, at least, barring the faction that was actively trying to depose her. She was a successful Baron, known for being very hands-on, and had proven herself an excellent CEO of all the corporate interests the Barony controlled. She’d even won the respect of the crime families, who had initially hoped she’d prove weak and malleable, but eventually found her strength, while occasionally inconvenient, to be better for business overall.

She was not weak, nor easily manipulated. She had an excellent head for business, and the ability to consistently predict new trends and plan for the long term. It was, in the end, her business acumen that won over her detractors, wooed the crime families, and swayed the members of the board. It was her strength and determination that had kept her in the game long enough for all of that to happen.

At that moment, however, none of that was proving particularly useful. At that moment, she was surrounded by a bunch of rough-necked independents who were generally ignorant, unimpressed by matters of state, and who were realizing, for the first time, just how darn pretty the Baron actually was.

She forced herself not to scowl. She stared levelly at the large, ugly man with the red beard. He flushed, his eyes dropping to table, and she turned her gaze to the older, pensive-looking man who simply raised one eyebrow and scratched at his beard. She turned her gaze to Vindh, who leaned back in his chair, flashing a grin that was a mix of smirk, leer, and dare.

A dare!

She forced herself not to roll her eyes, and noticed the woman—Amys—staring at her with no expression at all. She had adopted a complete poker face, which the Baron decided meant that she was trying very hard not to laugh.

She settled on staring at the bug. She’d met a few in her day, though never as part of a smuggling crew—that was a new one—and found them fascinating.

The bug chittered something. She didn’t understand what it was saying, but she found the noise rather soothing.

“Ktk says you’re very pretty,” Grif said, his grin widening slightly.

Baron Tyrelos suppressed a snarl.

“I’m a very busy woman, Captain Vindh. I agreed to come here because… well, because certain information passed along at your behest has proven very useful in the past. But it wasn’t easy to get here—here, of all places—and I’m not happy. Say what you have to say, and damn it, Vindh… this had better be worth my while.”

The Captain’s demeanor switched to “all business” in an instant. He leaned forward, looking at her with a calculating expression she found mildly disquieting. Vindh was sharp—she had to remember that. A year ago someone close to her tried to stage a coup, and he’d been used as leverage to get the Radiant Throne to support it. The coup had failed, largely because Vindh had figured out what was going on and decided to be uncooperative.

“It’s been an interesting year,” Vindh said.

The corner of the Baron’s mouth lifted slightly. Vindh had a gift for understatement, it appeared: he once told one of his colleagues that he suspected the Alliance had murdered Baron Mogra Tylaris. His colleague had passed the information on to her, and she’d been able to use it to her advantage—to anticipate enough of what would happen to next to minimize some of the inevitable chaos in her system, and to attract the interest of independent traders, who had previously considered the Tylaris Barony their preferred base of operations. But her Barony was the closest to the borders of the Empire of the Radiant Throne, and they were none too happy about Rolis Tylaris’ decision to join the Alliance.

Interesting year, indeed. Rolis’ “defection”—that’s how most of the other Trade Barons saw it—had thrown everything into chaos.

“Yes,” she said. “Interesting.”

“How involved are you in the big chess game?” Vindh asked. “I try not to pay too much attention to it. Too busy dodging when all the pawns tip over.”

Baron Tyrelos narrowed her eyes. He was asking her if she was playing politics, which was an odd question. Of course she was playing politics—every Baron was. It was unavoidable, given the situation. Every Baron was trying to keep their holdings stable, every Baron was trying to increase their power, and on top of it all someone was actually trying to depose her.

“I’d say that’s something you probably want to stay out of,” she said.

“Oh, I agree,” Vindh said. The baron noted, with interest, that Amys’ jaw tensed slightly as he spoke. “On the other hand, what I have to sell is sort of applicable to that mess.”

“Is it now.” Baron Tyrelos didn’t bother to hide her skepticism. “And what would that be, exactly?”

“Information,” Vindh said. “Information, and a thing. Baron, I know what the revolution in the Tylaris system is all about. I know why it hasn’t stopped, and I know what will stop it. Not only do I know what will stop it, I have it.”

The baron’s heart skipped a beat. The revolution in the Tylaris Barony was the single most disruptive part of this whole mess. If not for that, the rest of the region would have settled down by now, and everyone would focus on figuring out how to get back to business. “I’m going to assume you’re not stupid enough to believe I’ll accept that at face value.”

“You assume correctly,” Vindh said, smiling slightly. “But I haven’t brought any proof with me. This is just my pitch.”

Baron Tyrelos considered leaving. She also considered having the lot of them arrested, and questioning each of them at length about this supposed “information” and “thing.” Vindh stared back at her, apparently completely at ease, but she was sure he was watching her very carefully. Reading her, even. In the past he’d displayed an uncanny knack for doing that.

In the end, she allowed her curiosity to move her forward. “All right. Give me your pitch.”

“OK,” Vindh said, leaning forward. “The best I can figure it, Rolis was working with the Alliance when they murdered Mogra Tylaris. That’s why he joined as an autonomous member so quickly: the agreements had all been worked out in advance, they just needed someone to sign on the dotted line.”

“That’s not new speculation,” she reminded him. “You told me enough about it last year for me to figure the rest out on my own.”

That comment provoked an interesting reaction among his crew: Amys looked completely unfazed by it, but she’d been present when they’d met. The two bearded men, though… their eyes widened in shock, both darting glances at Vindh, then struggling to keep their surprise in check. The bug emitted a continuous stream clicks that she couldn’t put in any kind of context.

Captain Vindh waved off the bug’s chattering, and stared at Baron Tyrelos with amusement. The expression on his face very clearly said well played. “That’s just the setup. The thing is, the Alliance and Rolis overlooked something important. Mogra had no intention of ever letting Rolis take his place. A few days before his death he had a synaptic map made of his brain, and made plans to send it out to a secret cloning facility on one of the Tylaris Barony fringe worlds.”

Now it was her turn to look shocked. She could feel her mouth hanging open as she gaped at Vindh, unable to do anything but stare even as she saw his grin broaden. “He… what?”

“In the event of his death,” Grif said, “Mogra Tylaris planned to clone himself. He intended to continue being Baron Tylaris long after he died.”

He frowned, thinking over what he just said. “After his initial death. And… well, not him, exactly, but the closest thing to him he could think of.”

The sheer audacity of the scope of Vindh’s claim, and what she thought he was implying, rendered her speechless.

Vindh pushed on. “Either Rolis didn’t know about the plan, or he knew and thought he could put an end to it quickly. He underestimated Mogra’s planning, which doesn’t surprise me, since Mogra had a reputation for doing that rather well, and Rolis has a reputation for being an idiot. The ‘revolution’ we’re seeing in the Tylaris Barony consists of the personnel loyal to the old baron, who are trying to clone him, so he can… well, I don’t know, exactly. I assume they think if his clone is walking around he can successfully challenge Rolis’ claim as Baron.”

For the moment, Baron Tyrelos set aside the question of whether Vindh was lying. If he was lying, it was a ridiculous con—if he wasn’t, though… well, it explained a lot of things she’d wondered about over the past year. She’d never understood how the insurrection had survived for so long when it appeared to have no visible base of support, or why it seemed to be so well-funded. If Vindh’s theory was true, it was well-funded because Mogra had funded it. It was, she admitted, exactly the kind of thing he would do.

“If you’re not lying to me,” the baron said, “then… yes. A clone of Mogra would be considered the legitimate successor to the Tylaris Barony. It wouldn’t be the first time that’s happened, and Trade Baron laws and treaties are very specific when it comes to cloning. The legal status of a clone is that—assuming it was created with the consent of the original—it’s effectively only a degree removed from the original, and has the right to claim that identity when the original is deceased. The specific legal term is ‘genetic imprimatur.’”

“Is this true outside of Trade Baron space?” Amys asked.

The baron shook her head. “I’m told the Radiant Throne believes cloning is an abomination. Alliance laws in the core worlds are complicated, and laws from its autonomous members are all over the map.”

“So there you have it,” Vindh said. “Mogra planned for his ‘genetic imprimatur’ to take over after his death, probably because he thought Rolis was an idiot. It seems to be the popular perception.”

“I’m not sure how he got that way,” the baron said. “His mother was as sharp as Mogra. But tell me, Captain Vindh, how exactly am I to believe this? It hangs together well as a story, but that’s all it is.”

“We have the synaptic map,” Vindh said. “And we know where to look for the cloning facility. That plus a little luck would let you clone the son of a bitch yourself.”

Baron Tyrelos was getting tired of looking shocked, so she transitioned to anger instead. She stood, fists resting on the table, and glared at Vindh. “What kind of an idiot do you think I am?”

The two bearded men flinched, while the bug chittered uneasily. Amys frowned, tensing warily—that concerned the baron, because Amys was clearly the most dangerous person in the room—but Vindh simply sat, looking relaxed, and grinned at her.

“I don’t think you’re an idiot at all,” Vindh said. “I’d never give an idiot the opportunity to clone the murdered and formerly most successful Trade Baron of all time. I’m not trying to con you, and you’ll have plenty of opportunity to confirm we have what we claim—assuming you’re interested. I assumed you would be.”

“And what,” the baron asked, “is to keep me from arresting you, impounding your ship, and tearing it apart piece by piece? I could do it, you know. One call and your ship would be in my hands, your crew in jail, and I’d have it anyway.”

The two bearded men looked on in horror. The bug chittered in an ever-increasing pitch, which the baron took to be an expression of extreme alarm. Amys was a coiled spring, waiting to lash out, and the baron wondered if it would be possible to throw herself backward before the other woman lunged across the table to attack.

Vindh, on the other hand, just shrugged. “As far as I know, there’s nothing to keep you from doing any of that. I just don’t think that’s how you do business.”

Damn him for being right.

She sighed, laughing ruefully as she shook her head. “All right. I’ll want to see the synaptic map, and I’ll want to bring in my own expert to verify its authenticity.”

Vindh nodded. “That’s fine.”

“I’ll need a week,” she continued. “A week to get my expert ready. And if I find out you’re lying to me, I’ll put a bounty on your head so large it’ll make the Radiant Throne’s warrant look like a pittance.”

“It won’t come to that,” Vindh said.

Utter confidence. Damn him again.

“Fine,” she said. “If I’m satisfied, I’ll take possession of the item and whatever other intelligence you have… and you will be extremely well paid.”

Captain Vindh smiled. It was a businessman’s smile—one the baron knew well. It was the smile of a man secure in the knowledge that he was going to get paid. That, more than anything, made her inclined to believe him.

“Pleasure doing business with you,” he said. “We’ll wait for your message, and accommodate you however we can.”

He stuck out his hand. She shook it. The deal was done.

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