The lift stopped; one guard exited and the rest hung back as they had done below. And it was one more long walk down the dimly lit corridor aft from the lift; then an open doorway, and a dim chamber where a handful of kif waited attendance on one seated on an insect-legged chair, a kif who wore a silver medallion, whose black robe and hood were edged in silver that shone dimly in sodium-light.
“Hakkikt,” Pyanfar said, approaching this grim magnificence. And bowed with a carefully rationed measure of respect and self-importance.
“Kkkt.” Sikkukkut flourished his thin, dark-gray hand. “Ksithikki.” Kif scurried to the corners of the room and carried back two chairs and a low table, all at a virtual run.
Pyanfar nodded and sat down in one, feet tucked. Haral took the other. More orders from Sikkukkut, and a wave of his hand in a silver-bordered sleeve. Kif scurried after pitcher and cups with as great haste; and hurried to put a cup into Sikkukkut’s outstretched hand before it had had time to tire of waiting. A cup went to Pyanfar; a third to Haral. A kif had poured for Sikkukkut; and came quickly to pour for them from the same pitcher.
It was, thank the gods, parini. Liquor. Strong and straight and likely to go straight to the head; but it was nothing objectionable. Pyanfar sipped gingerly and tried not to think of obvious things like whether the off-taste was the ammonia in her nostrils or something in the drink.
But they were sitting in Sikkukkut’s hall, on Sikkukkut’s deck; in his starstation; in kif space; and drugged drinks here seemed as superfluous as removing their weapons, which no one had offered yet to do. Haral followed her lead and drank: Haral, whose stomach was redoubtable in station bars from Anuurn to Meetpoint and who always made her duty schedules without a hangover. For the second time she was glad it was Haral by her and not Khym.
“You turned down this invitation once at Meetpoint,” Sikkukkut said.
“I remember.” A sneeze threatened her dignity. And their lives. She fought it back with an effort that made her eyes water. It was psychological, this aversion to kif. She had taken the pills. And gods, those pills made a hazardous combination with the liquor, dried her mouth, dulled her perceptions. And her nose still prickled.
“I told you then I looked for a change of mind someday.” Sikkukkut dipped his nose into the ornate cup and drank. “And here it is. Kkkt. After an emergency on your ship. What sort of emergency, do you mind?”
Wits, get your mind working, Pyanfar Chanur. “There was a medical difficulty; but the emergency call to the mahendo’sat was a matter of convenience.” She looked straight at the hakkikt and prayed the gods greater and lesser for no sudden sneezes. Attack the matter straight on. Rob the bastard of all his carefully laid traps and surprises. “Actually it was an excuse for consultation with two of my allies-without the nuisance of a third, speaking plainly. On several matters. Your gift, hakkikt- gives me options to deal with that nuisance. That’s why I came. It may rid you of one too-since I think my annoyance and yours has one source.”
“Kkkkt.” Another sip, and a shadowed glance within the shadowing, silver-edged hood, black eyes reflecting the glare of sodium-light. “I take it then you don’t intend to kill this Tahar hani.”
“No. I don’t.”
“So you have asked for the crew as well as the captain. This would be a rather large gift on my part. They are unusual-kkt. Ikkthokktin. A mild rarity. Amusing. I don’t say I’m personally interested, but certain of my skkukun would be pleased to have one or another of them. Is it perhaps a certain-ethical reluctance-on your part? Should your desires mass more than others of my captains?”
Think. “I have reasons more than amusement.” Kifish logic. Pukkukkta. Let him lead himself astray. When outclassed in wit, create plausible complications and let the enemy think himself to death. “You have to understand, hakkikt, I’m sure you do-that Rhif Ehrran is no particular friend of mine. I don’t doubt you’ve heard from her, wanting them released to her.”
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