Demons Of The Past 02: Revolution – Chapter 07
Taelin waved Pinesa and Melysa off as he got his jacket on. “Not tonight,” he said with a regretful half-smile. “I’ve got a race tomorrow morning.”
Pinesa gave a momentary pout but then threw back her mane of black hair and smiled. “Tomorrow night, then,” she said, with a wink as she and Melysa gave him a good-bye kiss, bracketing his golden blonde with sunset red and night-dark for a moment.
He gave each of them a quick kiss. “Count on it!”
Once well away from the Sariman estate, he let out a small sigh. I can’t pretend none of this is fun; sometimes it’s almost like an extended vacation.
But I’d trade a thousand of them and all the races, all the challenges, for one more day with Trey.
It was a necessary part of who he was – or, at least, who he was playing – now, though. Taelin Ardan, née Mel’Tasne, perhaps not entirely cynical but going in that direction, kattasi who pretended to be perfectly happy with that. Rogue Great or Lesser family member now, running through whatever resources he had, supplementing them with racing winnings, wandering through the galaxy on a yacht that once had been the symbol of one of the Five.
A yacht that required very expensive upkeep.
He was slightly unsteady on his feet, Taelin noted with a bit of surprise. I must have not been tracking my drinking as well as I thought. Or some of those scent-sticks were more than just scent. That wasn’t really a problem, though; it just added verisimilitude to the pretense. I have to stop thinking of it as pretense, at least some of the time. I have to convince myself of this, live it, so that my reactions as “Taelin Ardan” are automatic, unconscious, reflexive.
I just don’t like Taelin Ardan very much.
The slightest sound behind him alerted him to the fact that he was not alone. He turned his head slightly, to see a well-dressed gentleman not far away – not quite so close as to be threatening, close enough to make it clear that he wished to speak with Taelin.
“An interesting place to seek conversation,” Taelin said, voicing his thoughts.
“Convenient for privacy, however – something of which I am sure a young man of your background is quite aware.” The man’s dark hair fell somewhat carelessly to one side of his face – an artful carelessness, the sort of disarranged hairstyle that Taelin himself often favored and which cost a great deal to maintain. The face framed by the hair was narrow, lined, with an elegant gray-streaked beard framing the mouth that had lines of both smiles and frowns graven heavily about it. He bowed and performed an excellent Six-and-One. “Donthis Curitanei,” he said, introducing himself.
Curitanei… I think that’s one of the Lesser Families. “Taelin Ardan,” he said, with an answering Six-and-One, and just the slightest hesitation where normally the name “Mel’Tasne” would have been spoken. “What does the Curitanei family seek of me?”
Donthis chuckled. “I am afraid I do not speak for all the Family. This is purely a matter of personal business; certainly some of my Family is involved, but it isn’t Family business, as you understand.”
We all have private ventures, yes… but not usually ones requiring discussions in isolated alleys. “I’m where I am because I found Family business boring, so that’s good.” I have to sound convincing. It’s so hard to do, though. “Not that business per se is necessarily better. Let’s drive to the center; what do you want, Donthis?”
“A direct young man, as I had heard. Of course, let us do so. You have a marvelous ship and, it seems, an even more marvelous skill for maneuvering her and other racing vessels. My business could profit greatly from your application of that skill in precise ways.”
He shrugged. “I fly for my own reasons,” Taelin said, and continued walking down the alley towards the landing field. “What do you offer that I can’t get that way?”
“Money, of course. I know how very expensive it must be to maintain a vessel like the Valabacal – I know very well. Something over a million a month, I would think. Leaving aside fuel and any unusual expenses from racing in particular circumstances. And a young man in your… current position probably finds that a difficult payment to meet.”
He’s well-informed. After they declared kattasi I lost all my Family resources and my private ones really don’t cover this level of maintenance. Which was of course part of the point. “All right. What do you want me to do?”
“Very little more than you’re doing now, in truth. Keep travelling, entering the finest races, all that kind of thing. Just – every once in a while – fly perhaps just slightly less well than you know you can.”
Taelin’s hand very nearly lashed out of its own accord; only the control drilled into him since he was born prevented it. No! This is exactly the kind of direction I need. I need to look fallen, devoid of care, reachable, so that when I arrive at critical places there are those who believe I am not only no threat, but perhaps a useful tool.
But by the Seven I would so wish it was otherwise.
Even the Taelin Ardan he was playing, of course, would not take the implication calmly. “You are saying you want me to cheat?” he said with cold anger, turning with narrowed eyes on Donthis.
Donthis stepped back a pace, clearly unnerved; he knew that kattasi did absolutely nothing to make a member of the Five any less dangerous to offend. “Cheat? That’s a hard and cold way to put it. Any man can have an off-day, can he not? Even one who was once of the Five. Perhaps,” he continued with a thin and venomous smile, “perhaps especially one who was once of the Five but is no longer.”
It took little acting to let his eyes blaze and teeth bare themselves in a momentary snarl. He took a deep breath and then spoke in a voice so quiet that the deadly cold tone was all the more clear. “You may have a point, Curitanei. A point you would be extremely well advised to never, ever mention again, but a point, nonetheless.”
Donthis Curitanei’s gaze had flickered sideways, both directions, as Taelin glared at him, and despite the danger he had seemed to actually relax fractionally. Without so much as a shift of gaze from the man in front of him, Taelin stepped back, hands whipping out to both sides and smashing with precise force into the midsections of the two men who had been closing in behind. Even through their body armor the impact jolted, just enough to throw their reaction off as Taelin continued the zairaka sequence, dropping flat to the ground and scissoring his legs to cut both men’s feet out from under them, rolling backward, reach-and-grasp and leap to his feet, now holding a pistol in each hand, pointed at the two bodyguards. Heh. Lukhas would be proud of that, anyway. Almost textbook-perfect.
Curitanei turned pale, his dark beard now looking more like a prop than an immaculately-trimmed part of his face. “S… sir. I…”
“I trust I have made my point very, very clear?”
“Abundantly clear, Taelin. I apologize most profusely for the offense.”
Taelin could see the two guards breathe sighs of relief when their weapons – rannai, high quality though not military, Taelin noted – hit the ground in front of them. “Apology accepted. And… let us say, for the moment, that I was willing to entertain your proposition. What would my compensation be, in that case?”
“In such a case, I would venture to say that you would find yourself in possession of an income which one might use to maintain two such vessels, if you had them.”
Two million Eternals a month. That would certainly extend my potential reach. I’d have to keep doing a fair amount of racing, though. The scheme was a common one in concept, but to actually pull it off in a convincing way would be almost impossible. You’d need someone who could actually win virtually all the races he entered, and who therefore was essentially always favored to win, so that you could arrange betting across large chunks of the Empire for major races which he’d have to throw. Any other way of rigging it would be far too easy to catch, and if Curitanei was smart – and he seemed to be – you’d only do it periodically, on a schedule that would be statistically very hard to catch, especially across Imperial distances.
No wonder Curitanei had approached him; at a rough guess, even if he only was asked to throw one or two races a year, Curitanei’s organization could make thousands of times as much as he was proposing to pay Taelin.
It would also be the sort of thing that people might eventually suspect but would be nigh-impossible to prove; just the kind of undefinable stain on his reputation that he was looking for.
Even so, it was almost impossible to manage the cynical, bitter smile. “I suppose that might even be adequate… assuming, of course, that there was an extremely secure and clever way to arrange both for that payment, and for my notification of when I might find myself not quite in top form, so to speak.”
Curitanei’s smile was just the slightest bit predatory. He knew, now, that the hook was set. Taelin’s implied question on arrangements told him that.
Outwardly calm, Taelin found his stomach once more in a burning, nauseated knot. I really need to convince myself that this is me. I’m not sure how many more victories like this I can take.