“We got trouble,” Haral said. “Gods, we got trouble.”
“Oh, it gets worse, cousin. Jik used some kind of credit at Mkks to get that tc’a to go with us. The knnn are definitely into it. They’ve already sent one message to Maing Tol-that packet that we sent on with Banny Ayhar, if you can believe Goldtooth that far. I don’t know what else Jik did at Mkks but I’m betting he gave the tc’a stationmaster our navigation data and got a tc’a to run cover for us and make sure Kefk fell without a shot. The knnn may consent to it. Or the knnn may have taken exception to it. Gods-rotted sure they took the tc’a. We don’t know how they think. Or what they want. But humanity, remember, is cutting real close to the knnn’s territory in getting here, if they haven’t cut right through it; gods know where the knnn think their zones extend-if they even understand borders. And Tully says humans have fired at knnn ships.”
Eyes dilated all round the bridge. Ears flattened.
“So here we are,” Pyanfar said. “We moved into Kefk and caught Kefk by surprise and a high dice roll, and Kefk did the kifish thing and bellied down to the deck fast as they could spit. Sikkukkut takes everything on the table.
“Except for one thing. Akkhtimakt’s got one recourse. The stsho hire mahen guards for top security, right? The stsho don’t trust hani for anything but the lowest level guard jobs, and they trust kif for bully jobs. But. But. Mahendo’sat are trying to get the humans into the Compact, same way they bullied the stsho into admitting hani once upon a time. Now we have a common border with mahendo’sat that kept us satisfied with trade in that direction for a long time; and we’ve got a natural barrier on the stsho side, with a gulf our ships can’t jump. Hani haven’t been bad neighbors for the stsho. It’s a lot different with humanity. Humanity wants through stsho space. Wants through tc’a and knnn space. Through kif space, if it can’t get the other routes. That’s got the stsho worried. Real worried. And meanwhile, on Anuurn, we’ve got a division: we’ve got hani who took to space and we’ve got hani who’re gods-be near as xenophobic as the stsho. Old-fashioned hani who don’t know the stsho. They aren’t capable of knowing the stsho-gods, they aren’t capable of imagining the stsho. But stsho money gets to them and buys votes in the han. Sets up new hani authorities of a mindset the stsho approve. That takes care of one border problem. Hire hani guards, then. Displace the mahendo’sat from every security post they hold on stsho property. Get them out. That takes care of the in-office stuff and gets rid of the mahen stranglehold; and gets mahen fingers out of stsho lines of communication. But there’s one more thing the stsho need to stop the humans, something the nonspacing faction of the han can’t provide them and no stsho can possibly handle gtstself. Armed ships. In numbers.”
“O my gods,” Tirun said.
“You’ve got it, cousin. The humans are headed either for Meetpoint or for Kefk. Goldtooth planned it that way. Put pressure on the stsho to get closer to the mahendo’sat. Make ’em deal with humanity: Bring Akkhtimakt down hard when he can’t stop the human advance right under kifish noses. But the plan’s backfired, partially thanks to Jik and thanks to us. By taking Kefk, Sikkukkut just piled a pressure on Akkhtimakt that’s forcing Akkhtimakt to do something he’d never ordinarily do-he can’t handle Sikkukkut and the mahendo’sat and the humans without more help than he’s got. So Akkhtimakt’s headed to Meetpoint to deal with the stsho. Same as the han is. The han’s just ended up on Akkhtimakt’s side.”
There was profound silence. Sound whispered from a loose complug; the ducts hissed.
“Well, we got a real problem, don’t we?” Haral said.
“Well, it’s the han!” Geran said. “It’s the likes of Ehrran, it’s the likes of Naur and all of them back home, the gods-be fools!”
“We end up,” Pyanfar said, “alone on this side with the mahendo’sat. And the kif. We’re headed for Meetpoint. That’s where the hakkikt will take this party for sure, he’s sure humanity’s going there and not coming here to take Kefk. That’s the one thing he’s got to be scared of-the one thing that could sink him, destroy everything he’s built-and Goldtooth might do it to him. He wants to know that. He desperately, wants to know that, and Goldtooth isn’t talking. If you want other possible motives for Goldtooth coming tamely in to dock-try the possibility that he’s got help coming. A lot of it. That has to worry Sikkukkut. He daren’t move til he has some way to cover himself and he daren’t stay here and lose his momentum with his own followers. Goldtooth’s got him worried bad, and Goldtooth wants to keep it that way.
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