“Maybe,” Pyanfar said reluctantly, “Chanur and Ehrran ought to go in there solo and let you and yours hold the dockside. Kif know you, Jik. Know you real well. You stay here, back me and Ehrran up; that’s all we need.”
Jik rubbed his nose. “Long time I hunt kif. Sure thing they want me. Same want you, Pyanfar. Want bad. Maybe even want han deputy, a? But kif mind, that be crazy thing: we kill kif, no matter: that give us lot sfik with them. We not got sfik, they eat our heart number one sure. We got sfik, they want eat our heart-but same time think maybe they get sfik off us ‘nother way. Like deal with us. Like they hope maybe we make more trouble on their rivals, a, than we make on them? We all go talk to Sikkukkut. We lose sfik else.”
“You know what you’re doing,” Pyanfar said.
“Sure,” Jik said cheerfully. “Number one sure.”
It gave her no reassurance. Neither that nor that washroom door they passed in the lower corridor on their way to the lock: she glanced that direction, and the hair bristled on her nape.
Kill it, instinct said. Kill the kif hostage outright, let it vanish without a trace. Keep Sikkukkut guessing.
But where was the sfik in that, and what was she supposed to do with such a gift?
Be a fool and let it loose?
One stsho merchant was already loose and running, bolting dock. If one shot went off on that dock and panicked the traders, more ships might break loose from Mkks dock. ships lacking the stsho’s obsessively pacifist tendencies. There were the methane-breathers, for one large instance.
It was a trap, of course. They had suddenly lost the rhythm of things and kept the kif’s schedule, for a prize the kif still held.
No kif ever yielded anything without gain.
An eerie quiet persisted on the docks. A few blackbreeched Ehrran clan personnel were visible in vantage points, armed with rifles; .doubtless a few such were not visible at all; and there were two more Ehrran crewwomen stationed up inside the ramp, guarding The Pride’s airlock and accessway. Less ominous and more, a solitary, AP-wearing mahendo’sat slouched her way up to her captain in specific. Sleekly black, gold glittering as Jik himself, she had half an ear missing and a bald streak on a burn scar down her jaw.
Jik spoke to his crewwoman rapidly in some language they both shared, of Iji’s great multitude. “A,” the woman said, and with her hand on the AP gun’s butt, moved off again into shadows near the gantry.
“Khury,” Rhif Ehrran muttered to her aide, “get back to the ship; take charge. And if we don’t get back, get home directly and make a thorough report to the han.”
It was Enaury hani the Ehrran spoke; Pyanfar caught it: so would Geran, but not likely anyone else. And Pyanfar ducked her head and rubbed her nose-better say less than one knew than more, she reckoned. With the han deputy it was certainly the case. There were already mounds and mountains of reports aboard that ship, to the delight of Chanur’s enemies when Ehrran got back to Anuurn and that collection of complaints got to the han debating floor-
And a certain stsho check was on its way to a mahen bank at Maing Tol, if it had not gotten there already. When that hit the desk of a certain Personage-
The han’s deputy had not discovered that small matter yet.
Nor had Jik.
Pyanfar lifted her head and the oncoming kif welcoming committee looked almost friendly in that light.
They did not turn in at the same corridor as before. The half-dozen kifish guides brought them further and further down the open dock, and the paper and ammonia smell even surmounted the cold in this sector. The light was dim and murkish orange-gold, the only visual warmth in the gray and black of their surroundings. The signs were kifish, in crawling, dotted script.
Kifish ships were docked along the row at their left; kifish dens lined the right hand, deserted and quiet, which lent no reassurance at all. The hair prickled down Pyanfar’s back as more and more of the horizon unfurled; it went all bristled as all the missing kif suddenly showed up past the curtaining overhead girders of the station’s curve-a dark mass ahead, a gathering of thousands on the docks.
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