Volun Embyri Qiie was waiting for him outside the Nirvan Baths when he eventually descended from the hills.
“Pecha … Balch,” the shaggy Fliei said. He spoke Xidh without a translator now, although his accent was still endearingly stilted. All too acutely aware of the situation, Volun had changed out of his customary etched grey leathers and was wearing a colourful pair of trousers to go with the loops of beads decorating the long hair covering his upper body. “I was concerned.”
“Don’t worry, Volun,” Bortemus said, smiling up at the big mammal. “I’m not going anywhere. Did you find a place that sold ambrosia?”
“Several places,” Volun replied. “It is an almost universal dietary requirement of Heaven-folk, this I think you know, but they sell it in many different varieties for visitors as well. This one,” he produced a dark canister from his trouser pocket, “is flavoured like a forbidden thing called a fellflower,” he offered the canister to Bortemus. “It does not contain fellflower,” he added earnestly. “It is only flavoured like it.”
Bortemus sipped the syrupy ambrosia, and managed not to make a face. It tasted like a heavy-loader full of sugar being flown by someone who might have eaten a fellflower once, but that was about all he could say. “It’s sweet,” he said, and handed the canister back with a smile.
“Does a God really live here?” Volun asked, turning his furry head towards the gleaming structure.
“Not here in the Baths,” Bortemus said, although from what he’d heard about the Pinian God he wouldn’t have been at all surprised. “In the big palace in the middle of the city, though, yes.”
“My people have not believed in Gods for a long time,” Volun declared.
“Yes, I seem to recall you mentioning that once or twice,” Bortemus said, tension making him unnecessarily curt. He moderated his tone. “Well, out here Gods are really just a different order of life-form, and They have a nasty habit of existing whether we believe in Them or not.”
“And this is the source of our current difficulty,” Volun said, “is it not, pecha-Balch?”
Bortemus considered this. “Yes,” he said eventually, “I suppose you could say it is.”
“And we cannot ask this God for aid?”
Bortemus shook his head. “I’m afraid this particular God has more immediate problems,” he studied the Fliei for a moment. “Do you trust me?”
Volun sipped his ambrosia. “No,” he replied. “Not at all.”
Gartuda Felhbron and Team Member 7, elderly Molran male and Uternlan female of indeterminate age respectively, were waiting for them in the dining area inside the Baths. The booking had been placed at short notice and consequently exorbitant expense, under Balch’s name, and coupled with the cost of bringing the two specialists to the Void by private cruiser it wouldn’t be too much of an exaggeration to say that Bortemus would have to sell a filter-set to every phobe in Piniandom in order to make the whole effort worthwhile. And he did not anticipate selling a single damned thing.
Molran and Uternlan rose and watched, the former’s face unreadable and the latter’s making it seem expressive in comparison, as Bortemus and Volun were led over by the ebonchrome-plated Gatunwode waiter. The bulky creature somehow managed to trundle silently across the tiled floor on its four massive feet.
“Bortemus Balch, I presume?” Felhbron said. The old man stepped out around the table – his movements were heavy and ungainly, his skin at once wrinkled and too-smooth – and sized Bortemus up with a slow and not-completely-disapproving glance. Then he turned to Volun. “Which makes you Volun Embyri Qiie of the Fliei investigative task force.”
“Greetings,” Volun said.
“He is not Bortemus Balch,” Team Member 7 said. Bortemus didn’t have much experience with Uternlans. They were catastrophically bad at the legality-skirting nuance required for operations that were his usual field, which made them nothing but a liability. Team Member 7’s professional and private history were a matter of painstaking public record, and while Molren were physiologically incapable of sleeping Bortemus was convinced another ten or fifteen minutes reading 7’s life story would have sent him off. “We all know who this man is and I refuse to take part in this farce.”
“You can of course call me what you like, Team Member 7,” Bortemus said smoothly, “although as a matter of legal record and codified identity, my name is Bortemus Balch and all required corroborating documentation is in good order.”
“That is true,” Team Member 7 said. While almost any other creature would be disgruntled by having to concede this fact, the Uternlan simply accepted it. Facts were her religion, her ideology, her biological imperative. “The documentation is all falsified,” she said, “but to such a degree of accuracy as to deny me the practical option of satisfying the burden of proof.”
“That must be a real dilemma for you,” Bortemus said, and ushered Volun to a seat before taking his own. Each of the four items of furniture around the table had been perfectly scaled and sculpted to fit the three different species and four different builds of the guests. Again, at very short notice and very considerable expense.
“Greyskin, Balch?” Felhbron said in a low voice as the two members of the Standard 3 Aquatic Environment Diplomatic Team also sat. “Really?”
“It was the best I could do in the time I had,” Bortemus admitted. “The consultant I hired to set up this meeting said it was fine.”
“And how much did you pay this consultant?”
“I am uninterested in banter,” 7 said. “I want to know why we have been flown here, what the true purpose of this meeting is, and why I was involved when it is obvious that my only recommendation can be that we escalate this entire affair to the High Council – or the police-” she added, her pale eyes flicking in Bortemus’s direction, “-regardless of the meeting’s content.”
“Perhaps your role in this is to escalate it to the High Council,” Bortemus said. “It would certainly look better coming from you than from me.”
“What, a highly reputable sanitary appliance vendor like you?” Felhbron said with what Bortemus had to concede was forgivable smarm.
“Alright, I will make it plain,” Bortemus said. “I am here to swap caseloads with you.”
Felhbron and 7 exchanged a glance, then both looked at Volun.
“And are you … fine with that, Volun?” Felhbron asked.
“I am personally unhappy,” Volun said, “and I know the sentiment is shared by many of my fellow Fliei. But there are factors at work that are beyond our control, and pecha-Balch has assured us that this change in situation will not take place unless his standards and promises are upheld.”
“I’m afraid if ‘pecha-Balch’ wants the High Council to take your case, it will be a standard offering,” Felhbron said. “And probably starting from scratch, and certainly not handled by an aquatic unit. And neither we nor any other unit would be authorised to promise you the technology Balch’s … sponsors … have been supplying you with.”
“You know perfectly well this is a special case,” Bortemus said.
“Is it?” Felhbron raised his ears quizzically. “It’s an unfortunate case, certainly, but it always is when we encounter slave / oppressor sentient groupings.”
“There’s even legal precedent with the Skyward Wanderers and the Drab Underbeasts of Ezim,” Bortemus insisted. “Yes, that was an avian species with a landbound slave-species, but the respective patronage of the High Council and Bazilard of Quam meant that the handover was accompanied by equivalent gifts of technological-”
“Bazilard was only a Class Five criminal, wasn’t she?” Felhbron asked.
“Actually she was a Class Six until her little cultural anthropology games with the Underbeasts got her promoted,” Bortemus said.
“Not that it’s a competition or anything,” Felhbron quipped.
“…but that doesn’t affect the legal framework,” Bortemus finished.
7 had evidently heard enough. “We cannot swap,” she snapped, her rigid pallid face stiffening still further in disapproval. “Our part in this induction was concluded almost three years ago.”
“She’s right,” Felhbron said. “The Standard 3 Aquatic Environment Diplomatic Team has taken part in over seventy contact missions since Tantur.”
“Seventy-four,” 7 inevitably clarified. “Including one in which we were still actively involved, albeit in a handover capacity, before we were dragged away to dabble in … luxury criminality.”
“Now to be fair-” Felhbron started.
“I know you’re authorised to go back and reopen old induction cases, and to negotiate adjusted Corporate entry offerings,” Bortemus said, “if new information about the dumblers in question comes to light.”
“And what new information would that be?” Felhbron said, while 7 looked acutely uncomfortable.
Bortemus went on studying the Uternlan for a few seconds, then addressed his next comment to the other Molran. “You can’t reopen this one, can you?” he said. It wasn’t really a question. He’d had his suspicions, and his sources, for some time. “The High Council has closed the book on Tantur. They may have opened another book, but it’s not one they’re showing you. You can’t swap dumblers with me because they won’t let you back in. And they won’t tell you why.”
Molran and Uternlan alike pressed their mouths closed and looked grim. Bortemus exchanged a glance with Volun, which the Fliei returned with blankness that was evident despite his alien features.
“I still don’t know what you expect from us,” Felhbron said eventually. “Particularly if what you say is accurate – if – then I don’t know why you’d even bother…”
“Don’t worry,” Bortemus said, and raised a left hand to wave over the waiter. The massive gleaming Gatunwode detached from the far wall and approached at an eerie quadrupedal glide. “We’ll eat, and I’ll do all the talking. I will tell you everything, and you can tell me nothing, and I’ll pay for lunch. And it absolutely adheres to your diplomatic policies on gifts, bribes and exchanges,” he added for 7’s benefit. “You can check the fine print.”
“I already have,” 7 announced. “But I intend to check it again before eating a bite.”
“You’re not likely to get a better deal,” Bortemus said. The waiter loomed above them. “We’re ready to order,” he told it smoothly, and turned to the diplomats. “Aren’t we?”
Gartuda Felhbron squinted at Bortemus a few seconds longer, then nodded.
“Yes,” he said, “I believe we are.”