"Would you like a drink, sir?"
"Yes, a small arrack, please." Allek looked up and smiled at the hostess. She was a young one, Vherokior he reckoned but perhaps mixed tribe. One of the "Republic's Children" he thought to himself with an internal half-grimace, half-smile.
He looked out of the window at the ground rushing past the flyer some thousand meters below. The great plains of Eyniletti, quite far to the south now. Many kilometers further away from the great metropolis of Matar City with every minute. Closer to neutral territory. Well, that was the idea. He chuckled to himself at the notion and considered the book he'd been reading. He was enjoying the new study of ancient Krusual warlords all the more because it was remarkably free of the usual overblown rhetoric about Krusual heroism. A real history. About time we started to look at ourselves with a clear eye, he thought. Allek sipped his drink and went back to reading the book.
Allek felt the flyer banking and looked up from a chapter on Jarvika the Fang, a particularly treacherous bandit king of the eastern Tronhadar, to see the edges of the southern desert and the south-western hills out the window. They were on the final approach to the new airfield. He marked his page and turned off the datapad, balancing it on his lap as he sat up straighter in his chair. Funny thing about flying, getting ready to land, steeling yourself, when after all there was nothing to do but wait. He caught himself thinking about this, smiled and relaxed, looking out of the window with interest. Last time, he'd come by road-train and he wondered if he'd get a good view of the Great Caravanserai.
Allek felt the flyer shift under him again and then he saw it. Magnificent yet somehow a melancholy sight, the ancient building loomed over the dusty plains with the hills to its back, and the vast expanse of the desert hinted at by the shine and shimmer of bright sand off to the left. This was the most majestic of the caravanserai, those waystations, trading posts and meeting grounds of the ancient Minmatar. This was the "Great Caravanserai," so-called for its size and architectural beauty but also for the ambition of those who had built it. This place predated the Minmatar Empire. This place was where, it was thought, the tribes had begun to edge towards unity and an eventual global peace. Well, perhaps. Such speculation was shrouded in forgotten histories and fragments of memory. One thing was sure though, this caravanserai was neutral ground for all the tribes and in all the tales where it figured it had always been so.
That was what made Shakor's choice of this place as the ground to hold the tribal assembly so inspired. To use the Great Caravanserai was a clear signal of the old ways informing the new. Additionally, it pleased the Thukker as their ancient ancestors had built the caravanserai to have a place to trade with the many tribes and clans of the plains and hills in some safety. All in all, the wily old white-eye had judged things perfectly when it came to the location. No-one could argue with holding the assembly on the one piece of ground that everyone regarded as neutral. Allek craned his neck to get one last look at the great building before the flyer made its landing. Yes, an inspired choice. A pity the handling of the assembly itself had not been so inspired and sure.
"How much for this?" Allek lifted the edge of a datapad - apparently loaded with a recently-recovered account of the Amarr occupation written by Arekal the Betrayer - with two fingers while smiling at the stall-holder.
The man squinted at him and hesitated before answering, "For you, seven parts." The man was asking for seven-tenths of a Uranium-Backed Quantum: an increasingly common currency that used quantum entanglement to link data tokens to the uranium depository that underpinned the represented value. Ordinarily, venturing a price in a currency such as UBQ would be an extreme discourtesy on the seller's part as the use of electronic money was normally for the buyer to raise as a convenience to both parties. If the seller were to offer a price and force a buyer to admit they were incapable of trading in such currency it would be tantamount to an insult. Even offering a price in local currency or scrip would be regarded as somewhat rude without first going through a polite ritual of weighing up kudos and apologetically citing some formulaic reason for having to charge for the item at all.
Allek, however, merely smiled, held up his copy of the new history of the Krusual warlords and said, "Ah? This one cost me only five parts."
The data dealer, a short Sebiestor with an unflattering rough fringe of hair around his ears, making his head look like an egg in a nest, became watchful and glanced around the surrounding stalls of the west bazaar before muttering, "Come around into my office, friend, I have bargains there if your taste is for history."
Allek sighed inwardly, the dealer's manner gave him a presentiment of trouble. That or the man was a buffoon and what he had would be next to useless. Even so, he walked around the counter and followed the man into a small office in a curtained-off section of the deep alcove, one of hundreds in the caravanserai, from which the man, like so many others, did his business. Allek looked around the cluttered and disordered area and wondered if it was all a clever camouflage. The stall-holder went to his desk, too big for the space, and pulled a small device out of a drawer, placed it on the desk and switched it on. As soon as he had done that, the man's whole demeanour changed and he straightened up as he turned to Allek.
"You're Allek Berialsh then? I'd heard you were big for our kind. Some Brutor or Krusual in the blood?"
"Probably both, you know the way of it. How many of us are pure these days?" Allek had revised his opinion of the man the moment he'd seen the device. The casual questioning confirmed it. This one knew his business.
"How true that is, despite all our chiefs and fathers tell us. Still, you're working for the tribe, eh? Even a corrupted creature like me can admire that. Feels nice to belong, yes?"
Allek wondered if the man was mocking him. However good he was at his job, he couldn't know the truth or Allek wouldn't be here. Allek didn't like to think where he would be if this venal old bastard knew the truth about him.
"It feels nice to have some kudos. Ever regret leaving behind the old ways of favors given and favors received?"
"Ha! I might have left behind the open favor and the 'gifts of family, clan and tribe' but I still deal in favors right enough. Money just clarifies who owes what to whom, you understand?"
"Enough of this, old man. You've had your 'clarity' already, I think you owe me a favor, yes?"
"True, youth. Here, this is what you want." The Sebiestor pulled a datapad out of another drawer in his vast desk and handed it to Allek. He watched while Allek accessed it and verified the contents.
"This is encrypted and shielded?"
"Of course, though don't you know? They say no sniffers are allowed in the assembly quarter." The man smirked.
Allek didn't bother replying, he knew as well as the dealer that data sniffers and passive sensors were all over the assembly quarter, whatever Shakor's public relations people might say. He looked at the old Seb again, shuddered imperceptibly and walked away without another word.
Allek walked quickly down the long vaulted corridor of the west bazaar breathing deeply to clear his head of the unpleasant impression of his encounter with the data broker. The pad was still in his hand. He glanced at it. An historical survey of the Starkmanir migrations by a respected Sebiestor historian. At least, that was what it purported to be and that's what the shielding would tell any sniffer that pinged it. The pad actually had the entire history on it. What it also contained was political intelligence vital to sensitive negotiations ongoing in the tribal assembly. The Sebiestor tribe needed this information. Karin Midular needed this information to shore up her hand in the discussions. She also needed no-one else to know about it.
Allek placed the datapad in his coat pocket next to the Krusual history and tried to think about something else. Unconsciously he'd come to a halt. He looked about and was taken aback to see two Ni-Kunni behind a stall that seemed to be dealing in antiquities and other art objects. He thought a second and realized they must be free traders. Most Ni-Kunni stayed in the service of their Amarr masters, even if they were nominally "free" and this applied to their merchant class no less than any other Ni-Kunni. Some though went into business as so-called "free traders." They had no direct ties to any noble house or territory. They were subjects of the empire to be sure but they could largely do as they pleased. It was an option the more adventurous Ni-Kunni tended to take. It could also bring large rewards, which appealed to the avarice of some members of that race.
The Amarr Empire found these free traders useful. They could go places that True Amarr trade vessels could not go and in greater overall safety in many other places. Much of the trade that went between the Amarr Empire and the Republic was done by such men. Lately, with the free traders having carried so many freed slaves to the Republic from the Empire, the Ni-Kunni merchants were even treated with a grudging respect. Even so, they usually restricted themselves to space stations or starbases. Evidently the new atmosphere and the absolute guarantees of neutrality in force in the caravanserai had tempted these two down to the planet where they would likely be able to get a better price and cut out planetary shipping agents.
Allek mused on the free traders a moment, watching them hawking their wares and chattering animatedly with browsers. He felt an odd kinship with them in that moment. He couldn't define the reason why and it unsettled him. Shaking himself, Allek walked on, less quickly but at a brisk pace, out of the west bazaar and towards the assembly quarter.
The assembly quarter was on the south side of the caravanserai, an unbroken, fortified area that had once functioned as a kind of redoubt into which all unable to bear arms would go in the event of raids by outlaws and casteless bandits in the ancient times. It was also built several stories higher than the flanking west and east sides of the edifice and one story higher than the north side's gatehouse. It was the natural location for the assembly to base itself while the rest of the caravanserai functioned much as it had in the old days. The assembly's presence here had drawn a small town's worth of officials, technicians, security, journalists, ambassadors - in short, all the types of people you would expect to gather around the government of a nation. Naturally, this drew traders, tourists and many others, legitimate and not so legitimate. The Great Caravanserai easily accommodated them all and in this respect too the wisdom of the choice of location was apparent.
Allek turned out of the vaulted corridor of the west side and into a low-ceilinged walkway, a kind of open colonnade running the length of the south side and saw the vast courtyard. Open to the sky and thronged with people and with yet more booths and stalls around the edges, a large section in the center functioned as a vehicle park. Walking along the covered way, Allek wondered if the tribal council would make its home here. It looked very much as if the council would be the power in the new Minmatar tribal republic and there would be a symbolism in it choosing to use this place. The new center of power would be at some remove from the parliament, a body that would likely remain as a rather sad and toothless rump implementing the directives of the council of chiefs.
The negotiations on all this were at a critical stage within the assembly. When you cut through the political niceties, the assembly's main purpose was to define the new balance of power in the Republic. The main outstanding issues revolved around old and new tensions: the rivalries between the four tribes of the "first republic", the precarious positions of the two "recovered tribes", and the vexed question of the Thukker and their special arrangements.
Political realities being what they were, the concessions to the Thukker were simply going to have to be accepted. The Thukker were a fully-fledged independent power in a way that no other tribe was. Not to say they were more powerful necessarily, they simply had a freedom of action that couldn't be ignored by the very nature of their society. All the talk about it in the assembly was in the manner of a smokescreen and the Thukker cheerfully played their role knowing full well they'd get what they wanted in the end.
No, the real issue was the Nefantar and the Starkmanir and how those two tribes would disturb the balance of power in the Minmatar home worlds. The established tribes were playing a game of maneuver and counter-maneuver around the two returned tribes. These two were in their turn playing their hands for all they were worth to get what they could. Power politics, as murky and raw as it could get without turning into an open breach. That was the business of the assembly. That was why Allek was here.
Turning into the wide entryway of the assembly quarter, Allek became conscious of the heightened security here. Visible guards at regular intervals. A full security suite at the inner portal. There had been extensive work done in the old fastness to make it as much a modern fortress as it had been an ancient one. That naturally included fortifications in the realm of information warfare. Allek shrugged slightly and walked forward, this was the moment when all could go very wrong for him.
He passed the guards, a mix of men and women from all the tribes in neutral military dress. Old Shakor had tweaked Karin Midular's nose here and had the assembly guard emblem based on a stylized Khumaak. Allek had been present when Midular had seen the guard turn out for the first time, and had admired the way she had simply smiled wryly and clapped a hand on the Sanmatar's arm in appreciation. The woman had mellowed by all accounts. Allek hadn't known her before she fell from power but her temper had been legendary in political circles.
Coming to the security checkpoint, Allek resisted an urge to pat his coat pocket and walked by the duty officer while slipping his pass out of an inner pocket. The officer merely nodded and watched as Allek walked through the scanner. His presence was hardly necessary, had the pass not been valid, or had Allek been carrying certain items, or even if he were modified in certain ways, the scanner would have activated a security cage to instantly trap him, and followed it up with a powerful dose of narcoleptic gas. In this instance the scanner simply registered the pass, detected no threatening or questionable items and allowed Allek to walk on into the assembly quarter proper.
Relaxing, Allek headed for the assembly chamber confident his pass would clear him through the multiple visible and hidden checkpoints on the way there. It was all down to the datapads now. The datapads and a cool head.
The assembly chamber was the ugliest room Allek had ever seen. He'd thought that the first time he saw it, empty and waiting for the assembly to start its work, and seeing it full of people didn't improve it any. Someone had had the bright idea of adapting one of the old meeting halls by putting facades that represented the architectural styles and symbolism of all the tribes over the fine old original architecture of the hall. The point of this was to avoid giving the impression of Thukker preeminence because, having built it, the architecture of the place was ancient Thukker. Allek thought this was a nonsense as ancient Thukker architecture barely resembled modern Thukker architecture. Some organizing committee had liked the notion though and so a grotesque hodge-podge of styles had been crudely stitched together to make an assembly chamber. In Allek's opinion it was an unfortunate metaphor for how badly the assembly process had gone. Nice idea but once inside the process, or room, and it was clear the execution was terrible.
Allek looked about, the chamber was busy but not in formal session. There was a lot of political horse-trading going on informally though. The fall-out from the attack on Vard VII had yet to be fully resolved and tensions were still high. Perfect timing, in the confusion of the moment he could approach both principals discreetly. He looked around the chamber more searchingly, not many people were in their places. Maleatu Shakor, the Sanmatar, was up on the dais talking to some aides, trying to given an impression of being above the fray no doubt. Allek caught sight of Tenerhaddi Dykon moving purposefully towards the dais and smiled. The Sanmatar was going to get an earful. The Krusual Chief was not the most conciliatory presence at any table.
Allek moved around the sides of the chamber, there was Isardsund Urbrald, Chief of the Vherokior, standing impassive while Wkumi Pol appeared to be ranting in his face. He paused and looked again. Yes, Pol was actually red in the face, turning the Brutor Chief's complexion a shade uncomfortably close to that of fedo hide. Allek shook his head and moved towards a loose clot where a large number of functionaries were clustering. Something going on there. Ah, Karin was holding court again, with Eleca Valkanir and Jeoran Setul, the new chiefs of the Nefantar and Starkmanir respectively, in her orbit. Good enough.
Allek pressed through the crowd, skillfully elbowing past while murmuring apologies and stood up straight. The Sebiestor Chief caught the movement and she glanced into his eyes. Allek nodded slightly, smiling. The Ray of Matar turned to the other chiefs and within a few minutes had brought the discussion to a close. The new chiefs moved back to their respective positions around the chamber, Allek suspected they derived some security from having places at the table, and the crowd broke up.
Karin Midular stood up, walked over to Allek, and without ceremony asked, "Do you have that book you mentioned?"
Allek reached into his coat pocket and extracted the history of Krusual warlords, "Yes, here it is, I think your new interest in ancient history will profit you in the here and now, my Chief."
Midular glanced at the title, not at all interested or in any way expecting anything different as Allek knew, and nodded. "I'll glance at this over coffee. Krusual warlords, eh? Heh, perhaps it'll give me some ideas on how to deal with that rogue Dykon."
Allek smiled, nodding, and smiled even more inside, she'd played along with what she took to be part of the misdirection. He'd hoped she would. Now though, would the guesses keep working?
"Allek, you know, I think you might do me a favor. The Starkmanir are short of political researchers. Perhaps you'd offer your services with my compliments?"
"Certainly, my Chief."
The Starkmanir might or might not have been short of political researchers, but they weren't short of friends with good intelligence and an accurate read on the situation, thought Allek as he walked over to Chief Jeoran Setul's delegation. People thought the Starkmanir were at the mercy of the big tribes' charity and expertise. Well, that was worth playing on, and the colony on Vard VII had certainly benefited from Sebiestor help, but the Starkmanir weren't interested in being in debt to the other tribes forever. The new chief had his own plans and his friends were good at finding new friends.
Allek touched the history of Starkmanir migrations in his pocket and thought about the information on it. As they'd sat together in his pocket the two datapads had synchronized everything except their respective covering data. He'd given Karin Midular the information on planetary commanders and their political links that she'd purchased through him, and it would help her in the talks over the "clone soldier" situation so far as it went. But he'd also be giving the Starkmanir the same information and Jeoran Setul would be able to play the high-stakes political game that much better for knowing what Midular knew.
Allek's mind was drawn back to the Seb data dealer. Shrewd old devil but he'd missed a trick. He'd spotted another bloodline in Allek true enough but he just hadn't guessed right.