“The air on my ship is clean and pure, I can feel the engines sing their song. Heat! Pressure! Flow! On! There on the ground there’s a different tone, rising up through the mud. Oil! Sweat! Water! Blood!”
-from “Grounded”, traditional spacer song
The restaurant was two stories tall, and looked fairly upscale. The second floor had a balcony with tables, but no one was sitting there. Yan made note of the fact that there were several unmarked but somewhat suspicious looking cars parked outside the building. There clearly was security here, just some that she couldn't see. Yan looked up across the street. She thought she saw a figure shift on the roof of a building. Not dwelling on it, she followed Halen and Sandreas into the building.
The interior of the restaurant was classy and dimly lit. Yan was rather unfamiliar with actually dining in restaurants. As she watched Halen exchange a few hushed words with the host at the desk, she tried to count how many times she had actually been to a sit down meal in a formal restaurant. Her uncle had taken her to a few when they were in port, and when she was at the Academy her friends sometimes wanted to go out for a birthday dinner, but primarily they ate at the dining hall or ordered takeout. This was certainly the fanciest place she had ever been in her life.
The host led the group towards a stairway, and they climbed to the second floor. Yan glanced longingly at the balcony, but they passed right by it and headed to a back room. Though the first floor of the restaurant had a few diners sitting around, the second floor was empty.
The back room had a guard stationed outside it. Halen spoke a few more quiet words to him, and he moved aside and unlocked the door with a pass card. Halen opened the door and stepped inside, letting Sandreas, Yan, Kino, and Sid inside. He shut the door behind them.
Inside the room, there was a rectangular table set with dishes. Four people were already seated along the left side of the table. Yan recognized one of them as Ungarti Vaneik, the head of the Trade Guild. Vaneik was a tall, stiff looking man with braided black hair that fell behind his abnormally large ears. The other three people were also clearly spacers, with the same overly tall builds that Yan, and to some extent, Halen, had. The man sitting on Vaneik's left side was probably his personal bodyguard, and Yan supposed that the young woman on his side was Yuuni Olms, and the similarly aged man at the end of the group was Nomar Thule.
The whole seated group stood up as Sandreas entered the room. Halen and Sandreas briefly ran their hands over their faces to cancel the images that were hanging there. Sandreas walked towards the table and reached across to shake hands with Vaneik. Halen followed to stand silently behind him, and Yan, Kino, and Sid all took their cues from Vaneik's apprentices and stood in a line to Sandreas's side.
"Ungarti, it's been a minute," Sandreas said, giving a strong handshake. Despite his professed hatred of the man, Sandreas had a perfectly pleasant expression on his face. Vaneik was the same.
"It's good to see you again, Aymon. I was worried you had stood me up," Vaneik said, extracting his hand from Sandreas's grip. "New apprentices?" He asked, nodding at the trio.
"Yes," Sandreas said, pulling out a chair across from where Vaneik had been sitting. After Sandreas sat down, the rest of the group followed. Yan ended up sitting across from Yuuni. Halen was across from Vaneik's bodyguard, Sid was across from Nomar, and Kino was left partnerless at the end of the table.
"Isn't three a bit much?" Vaneik asked.
"Well, it's as they say, an heir and a spare," Sandreas said rather callously. "When I was an apprentice, two of my cohort didn't make it the full five years."
Yan didn't know whether to be grateful or not that he didn't say specifically if Sandreas's apprentices had died or simply left. Considering how hard it was to quit an apprenticeship, Yan didn't really like the sound of those odds. She swallowed nervously.
"I'm sure these ones will all do fine. The Academy did alright with mine, I suppose," Vaneik said.
"I'm glad to hear that," Sandreas said, a thin smile on his face.
"I see for once I'm in a meeting with you where the spacers have you outnumbered," Vaneik said cheerily. "You've loaded the group against yourself." He pointed at Yan. "What ship are you from?" He asked.
Yan glanced nervously at Sandreas, looking for permission to speak, but he gave her an impassive look and so she squeaked out an answer. "The Iron Dreams, Guildmaster."
"Oh, BarCarran's ship. He's a good man," Vaneik said, and then moved on. It was odd for Yan to hear her captain and cousin referred to by his last name, when everyone aboard the Iron Dreams called him by his first, but she wasn't completely surprised that Vaneik was familiar with her family. After all, the Trade Guild was small and dynastic.
"How have you been recently, Ungarti?" Sandreas asked.
"It's been business as usual. Yourself?" Vaneik responded.
"Busy as always. You know how it is," Sandreas said.
"Do I?" Vaneik asked. "I'm often so out of the loop."
"You bring that upon yourself, you know. If you stayed on planet like any reasonable person you wouldn't ever miss the news updates," Sandreas said.
"And how would that look to the rest of the Guild?" Vaneik asked with a smile. "Not all of us can bear to be planetbound. I stay as up to date as I can."
Yan suspected that this was not simply referring to the public news that was passed around between all planets via their ansibles.
"I'm glad to hear you're not completely dead to the goings on of the universe," Sandreas said. "How's Marne doing?"
"Oh, she's doing wonderfully. I don't know if you know this, but she's been advising our son on how to run the family ship. It's nice to not have to worry about that while I'm away on Guild business," Vaneik said with a smile. "And you're still the confirmed bachelor, I see."
Down at the foot of the table, Kino stifled a cough that sounded an awful lot like an unintentional laugh. Clearly she had not missed the tender moment that Halen and Sandreas had shared in the car. Everyone at the table ignored her.
"I have slightly more important things to attend to than finding a wife," Sandreas said flatly. "But I'm glad to hear that your son is turning out to be an asset to your family." Though the words were perfectly pleasant sounding, they were delivered in the same dry tone that indicated that Sandreas thought the son was anything but.
"Well. Shall we eat?" Vaneik asked. "You're a busy man, I don't want this meeting to drag on too long."
"Of course. When are you leaving the system?" Sandreas asked.
"Next week. Yuuni and I will be taking the Neutron Star out to Calbrais to oversee the opening of their new mining route," Vaneik said.
Vaneik's bodyguard stood up and went behind the table to a small door embedded in the wall. It was a dumbwaiter filled with food and drinks. Clearly the food had been ordered in advance, because there were exactly enough meals for everyone, stacked up in covered metal dishes. Vaneik's bodyguard passed them out on the table.
"That sounds thrilling," Sandreas said. "Which families do you predict will win the bidding on the route?"
"Oh, I couldn't possibly say," Vaneik said.
Yan knew that the bidding on new trade routes was less of an actual bidding war for who could work with the least expensive contract, but actually a careful process of currying favor within the Guild. The actual bidding was a formality at best. This was basically an open secret within the Guild, though it really wasn't polite to point it out as Sandreas had done.
"Thank you, Tybee," Vaneik said when his bodyguard passed him his meal. After all the meals had been distributed, Tybee retrieved two bottles of wine from the dumbwaiter. Vaneik made a motion to remove the lid from his dish, but stopped when Sandreas looked up at him. "I suppose you don't want to say the blessing, do you," Vaneik said.
"As a matter of fact, I do," Sandreas said. He raised his hands palm up above the table. Halen, Yan, Sid, Kino, Yuuni, and Nomar all followed suit. This was the signal to start quite a long blessing, which all the Academy graduates, and apparently Halen, knew. It seemed to be yet another passive aggressive jab at Vaneik. Yan personally felt slightly offended at the idea of a prayer being used for pettiness and politics, but still. A prayer was a prayer.
Sandreas said the first line of the prayer, then the rest joined in.
"Blessed are you, Lord of all creation. We came into this world at Your bidding, and it is through Your grace that we remain. You provide us with sustenance and strength to do Your will throughout the world. In our waking and our sleeping, keep us in Your presence. In our rising and our setting, lead us to Your truth. From the beginning of this world to its ending, You adorn the darkness with Your light. Bless this work of our hands, and bring us ever closer to Your presence, we pray."
At the end of the prayer there was a moment where everyone was silent, then the silence was broken by Vaneik finally taking the lid off his dish.
"I love this place, always try to stop here when I'm in Imperial Center," Vaneik said. "Absolutely the best pasta I've ever had." Vaneik's dish was indeed a massive plate of spaghetti and meatballs.
Yan had noticed during the prayer that Halen had taken that time to subtly send his power out through Sandreas's dish and examine it. She figured that he must be checking for poison. Presumably he had found nothing and communicated that in some way to Sandreas, because he opened his own dish, which was also pasta.
"Since you're a guest on the planet I figured I'd let you pick the restaurant for our meeting," Sandreas said. "Pasta is as pasta does, as far as I can tell."
Whatever that meant.
Vaneik and Sandreas began eating, and continued trading petty remarks with each other, but Yan tuned it out for a moment.
She took a look at her own dish. For a moment, she contemplated investigating it with her own power for poison, but after seeing the apprentices across the table from her dig in without going through that exercise, she figured it was Halen's job to be paranoid.
Next to her, she saw Sid initiate a signed conversation with Nomar, who responded about as clumsily as Yan would have, had she not spent her entire summer practicing sign.
Across the table, Yuuni Olms gave her an inquisitive look. "So, new graduates, hunh? How's the Academy been since Nomar and I graduated?"
"The past four years?" Yan asked. "It's been fine. Same as ever, I think." She swirled her spaghetti around on her fork and tried some of it. It was decent, but, as Sandreas said, pasta is as pasta does. "What's it like being almost done with your apprenticeship?"
"Pretty exciting. I've liked working with Guildmaster Vaneik, but it's exciting to get to spread my own wings," Yuuni said.
"Are you going to stick with the Trade Guild?" Yan asked.
"In a sense. I..." Yuuni struggled to find something diplomatic to say. "I think I want to take a step back from high level affairs, at least for a while."
"Is it boring working on Guild politics?" Yan asked.
"Oh, absolutely not! I just want to get some practical experience. If you're worried about politics being boring in your apprenticeship, God, it's anything but." Yuuni seemed sweet.
"I'll take your word for it. This is actually," Yan laughed a little, "My first day on the job."
"Oh, wow. You've got a lot to look forward to! Do you think you're going to miss being a spacer?" Yuuni asked.
"I haven't really felt like a real spacer since I went to Academy, to be honest. Spending most of the year off a ship really takes you out of it," Yan admitted. "But I will miss spending my summers there. I got to navigate, this past summer, which was excellent."
"Was that your first bridge shift?" Yuuni asked.
"Yeah, it was really exciting. I mean if I wasn't doing this..." Yan waved her hand, "I feel like I would have wanted to just stay there and do that forever."
"Like everything on a ship, even your bridge shifts get routine after you've done them enough," Yuuni said. "I think your apprenticeship will be significantly more exciting than living on your family's ship forever."
"You think being on your family ship is boring?" Yan asked.
"Oh, absolutely not. I'm going to get a ship of my own, I'm sure. I just think that... How best can I say this... If there's something unusual happening on a ship, something is going wrong. It's such a contained environment where everything has to be regulated the exact same way every time for the whole system to function. If you're out doing things other than shipping runs, something unusual can happen at any second of any day, and it isn't immediately a crisis one hundred percent of the time." Yuuni explained.
"I guess I see that. The first time I ever went on a planet I was completely overwhelmed by just how much was happening everywhere," Yan admitted. "Maybe I've gotten spoiled by living planetside for so long, I'm used to it."
"In terms of excitement, I'm sure you haven't seen anything yet," Yuuni said. This sounded more ominous than Yuuni probably intended. Yan took a bite of her pasta so she wouldn't immediately have to respond.
Around her, Sid, Kino, and Nomar were having an awkward three way conversation where Kino seemed half left out. On her other side, Halen was silently eating and listening to Sandreas talk to Vaneik, nobody really bringing up the topic that they were supposed to be discussing. Maybe that would wait until after dinner. Everyone involved seemed to be doing their best to keep the conversations civil and away from any sensitive discussions, but there was a strange tension in the air that came mainly from Vaneik and Sandreas’s faked politeness.
The slightly strained atmosphere continued throughout the dinner, with everyone making pleasant small talk until they had all finished eating. Tybee, Vaneik's bodyguard, cleared the dishes away and replaced them with cups of coffee for everyone. This was apparently the signal for the discussion to begin in earnest.
"So," Vaneik started, "What was the favor you wanted to ask of me?" After having spent the past hour dodging the topic, this was an abrupt transition.
"Do you have any guesses?" Sandreas asked.
"Oh, I have a few. But I'm going to let you say your piece before I reject whatever proposal you have," Vaneik said.
Sandreas smiled thinly. "Colmorn, Vos, Mikolon, Ampola, Olar, and Kelsale. What do all those planets have in common?"
"Outer edge planets, mostly new colonies? Nothing special about them as a group." This was Vaneik playing dumb.
"And how many Guild ships make runs out from those planets, do you think?" Sandreas asked.
"If we're talking regularly scheduled runs..." Vaneik stopped for a second. "There's the Circle run- the Blue Sky, the Mother's Love, and the Fantastic are doing that run, but they visit more planets than just those. As for regular routes to the trading center out of each of those planets... I don't remember off hand which ships are doing that, but there should be one for each planet. I could look it up for you. Of course, there's special chartered ships, too, but those don't run on any particular schedule."
"I see. So you'd say that each of these planets should have... let's be generous here, about five or six different ships visiting them? Not numbers of visits, but in terms of unique ships."
"Sure. That's being fairly low on chartered ships, but that sounds reasonable in terms of traffic for any outer colony," Vaneik agreed.
"That's about how many Lonn gets," Sandreas agreed. "My home planet, you know. I like to keep a special eye on it."
"Lovely planet, that one," Vaneik said. "Massive trees."
"Yes, it's about the only thing it's got going for itself," Sandreas said. "So, tell me, why is it that all of those planets that I mentioned are getting upwards of twenty unique ship visits a year?"
"Well, there's the chartered ships," Vaneik said.
"Yes, and that will usually account for maybe two or three a year, maximum. It's expensive to hire a ship, and outer colonies don't typically have the funds or reason to be chartering ships constantly."
"What my captains are paid to work for is not particularly my business. If they can't get a stable run and they want to fight for the scraps of charters, some of them will take whatever they can get," Vaneik said callously.
"Bad answer," Sandreas said. "It is, in fact, your business to know how much your ships are being paid, what they're carrying, and where they're going."
Sandreas looked down the table to where Vaneik's apprentice Nomar was sitting. "Nomar, is it?" Sandreas asked and the man nodded. "I hear you have a head for finances. How much would it cost if someone wanted to charter a ship to carry, oh, timber, let's say, from Lonn to Galena? They don't have many trees there, maybe there's a sudden surge in popularity of imported wood furniture."
Everyone watched as Nomar did the calculations in his head. "That's about a month's worth of work for the ship, so... Twenty million charges? Plus typically a two percent cut from the sale of the wood. Sorry, I don't know what the going price for timber is since it's usually not shipped in mass quantities."
"It would be quite hard for a planet to pull together an entire shipload of timber. But the point isn't the timber, specifically. It's hard for any planet to amass that amount of resources outside of a typical trading run, and it's not pocket change to charter a ship, especially for an outer colony, which are typically strapped for cash to begin with. So why is it that these colonies specifically are chartering so many ships?"
"Again, what my captains choose to work for is not something that the Guild chooses to regulate," Vaneik said.
"Oh, but if everyone were willing to work for these low rates that you feel are happening, why don't we see massive shipping out of every outer colony?" Sandreas asked.
"Perhaps the other colonies don’t have as much interest in trade," Vaneik said.
"You can drop your pretense of not knowing what's happening here. This information is not leaving this room, so you don't have to worry about the Guild's good name being sullied in the press," Sandreas said.
"I want you to tell me what you think is going on," Vaneik said. "Stop leading me around the issue."
"Fine. Your Guild ships are supplying a black market that's operating heavily out of those planets. Chartered ships don't come and go like that unless they're carrying valuable, illegal, cargo stashed among their reputable but less profitable wares. There's no way all of those chartered ships would be willing to work for the pittance that import and export to outer colonies would bring."
"You're accusing my Guild of selling to pirates?" Vaneik asked.
"And buying from them, yes," Sandreas said coldly.
"You're out of your mind," Vaneik said.
"I don't care how much you want to pretend like you don't know about this, or if you want to bury your head in the sand. You don't have to like what I'm telling you, or believe it, or even stop pretending like you don't already know. All you have to do is exactly what I say," Sandreas said.
"And what do you think you want me to do about it?" Vaneik said. "I'd have a revolt on my hands if I started ordering my captains around."
"What I need you to do is to carefully and quietly reduce those chartered ships coming in to those planets specifically," Sandreas said.
"Why would I want to cut off a valuable income source for my ships? And how would you expect I do that, anyway?" Vaneik sounded angry.
"I don't care how you do it. And I'm prepared to make you an offer to sweeten the deal," Sandreas said. "If it helps keep your captains happy, I can put an extra... three... stardrives up for sale this year."
Across from her, Yan saw Yuuni's face light up. So she hadn't quite secured a stardrive for her hypothetical ship yet. Yuuni noticed Yan and quickly replaced her interested face with the impassive one she had been watching the whole conversation with.
"That's not going to help the people who will actually be losing business from this," Vaneik said.
"A business that is, as we've established, unprofitable if it's legal, and only makes sense if it's black market goods, yes," Sandreas said. "I feel so bad for all your captains trading in drugs and other, less pleasant things." Yan wondered what the other goods could be referring to. She made a mental note to ask later. There were just too many possibilities, most of them fairly bad.
"Oh you don't have a heart to feel anything," Vaneik snapped. Halen looked at him blankly and Vaneik leaned back in his seat.
"Here's my other offer," Sandreas started. "You can let all your chartered ships keep on moving exactly as they had been before, and I take six of my Fleet ships, and I station them in orbit right there. Then every time one of your shipping runs comes through, I send my people on board to inspect every piece of cargo that passes in and out of that planet's gravity well."
"What do you expect that to accomplish?"
"I expect that it will cause enough of your people to reconsider their shipping practices to accomplish my goals of throttling the black markets," Aymon said. "But the choice is up to you, in the end. If you want to embarrass yourself in front of your own captains by having Imperial ships inspecting your cargo, that's your prerogative."
Vaneik understood better than anyone the tenuous position he held as the head of the Trade Guild. Not only was he there only because all the ships under his command collectively tolerated it, but the military force of the Empire also meant that he basically was beholden to Sandreas, no matter how much he would like to think otherwise.
"And how do you feel the governors will like me diverting trade away from those planets?" Vaneik asked, sounding incredibly resigned.
Sandreas took a sip of his coffee. "That's for me to worry about, and not you. But if I end up having to place a ship in their orbit, well, I doubt they'll find they have much ability to complain."
"I see, two birds with one stone," Vaneik said.
"Well, I would prefer to take care of this whole mess without the fuss of doing that," Sandreas said casually. "Though the blame for allowing black markets to flourish on these planets can be shared, I think the solution is fairly simple."
Saying that the Imperial government had some hand, or lack thereof, in this problem was a concession that Sandreas seemed willing to make.
"I see. Are you going to do anything about the governors?" Vaneik asked.
"We'll see. If there are further problems, I will take more decisive action. But cutting off all the financial incentives on these particular worlds will at least move the problem somewhere else, and that will take time."
"And you will be on the lookout for any more of these black markets popping up?" Vaneik asked. "So that my law abiding ships don't get implicated in this?"
"That is an interesting way of describing your captains," Sandreas remarked. "Yes. We will be keeping an eye."
Yan suspected that Vaneik was going to covertly spread the word to be less blatant about congregating around certain planets. It still seemed shocking that this problem could be so easily noticed. How was it not obvious that ships constantly going in and out of outer colonies was unusual? But then again, who actually was watching what ships were doing? Certainly no civilians were. The Trade Guild knew where all their ships were, but even then, captains weren't really beholden to anyone except their contractors and the Guild leadership. Upper level Empire officials and Guild coordinators might be the only ones who were actually looking at the movements of ships as a whole. If it took several years for a pattern to establish itself, that was enough time for a black market to start to flourish and get careless. Yan could see it: if someone thought no one was actually watching, since there seemed to be no oversight from the Trade Guild, which was supposed to be self policing, they might start to do whatever they wanted.
And maybe there was an incentive to make it look like no one was watching? After all, then it was easy to catch and track the black market. Not that that seemed to be a high priority?
Yan thought about this as she watched the conversation unfold. There was a lot about this that seemed ever so slightly off. But it was literally her first day on the job. Yan figured that there was just no way she could grasp the whole scale of Imperial politics in less than one day.
She was coming up with a rather extensive list of questions to ask Sandreas, or, if she had to, Halen, when she got a chance. Halen, she noticed, was keeping quite quiet during this dinner. For all that both sets of apprentices had had a pleasant conversation while they were eating, Halen hadn't said a word. She wasn't sure why that was. Maybe Vaneik was as distrustful of Halen's origins as Yan was.
"So," Sandreas started. "What is it going to be, Ungarti?"
Vaneik sighed, but he didn't have a lot of options.
"I'll do my best to redirect some ships, but I can't guarantee that the whole thing is going to go away just like that," he said reluctantly.
"An excellent choice. I'm not expecting miracles, I'm just expecting an honest effort from your corner," Sandreas said.
"About those extra stardrives, same price as always?" Vaneik asked.
"Of course," Sandreas said. He waved his hand. "Do what you like with them."
"What should be the official reason for the increased offering?" Vaneik asked.
"They're being put up in anticipation of the beginning of the Anthus colony," Sandreas shrugged. "That would be the line that I suggest."
"Plausible enough," Vaneik said. "When is that colony launching?"
"If the schedule is correct, two years from now, which should give you enough time to construct the ships for those stardrives," Sandreas said.
"So you do expect those ships to actually support the new colony?" Vaneik asked.
"I expect that the Trade Guild will support it in some way, and if having extra ships makes that easier, then I expect that colony to get as much Guild attention as it needs to thrive," Sandreas said, taking a sip of his coffee. "Enough and no more," he said after a moment.
"Yes. Exactly the right amount of ships," Vaneik said.
"I'm glad we can agree on that point," Sandreas said. "While we're here, having this friendly conversation, is there anything you need from me?"
Now this, Yan thought, was an unexpected gesture of goodwill. She took a sip of her own coffee.
"About the Malstaire mining colony..." Vaneik started.
"Absolutely not, it's too dangerous," Sandreaas said with finality. "Was there any more reasonable request you had?"
"We've been having a lot of trouble with pirates in the Zhani region. Would it kill you to post an imperial ship around there?" Vaneik asked reluctantly.
"Consider it done, but a temporary posting. Send along the specifics of what you need and where."
"Thank you," Vaneik said, putting down his coffee cup. "That should make at least a few of my captains happier."
"Glad to hear the Empire can be of service to them," Sandreas said, somewhat sarcastically. It was as though he couldn't resist being mean to the man, even though they had both agreed to help each other not two minutes ago. "We couldn't possibly continue to have the outer colonies suffer at the hands of pirates."
Vaneik sighed. "I'll send along the information. Was there anything else you needed from me?"
"Not at this moment, though I'd appreciate it if you could stay within contact range," Sandreas said.
"And stay planetbound? Not a chance," Vaneik said. "You're missing out on the joys of space."
"I've been on plenty of ships in my time, and I don't see the appeal," Sandreas said.
"Leadfeet just don't understand," Vaneik said, looking down the table towards the other spacers, Yan, Halen, Yuuni, Nomar, and his own bodyguard.
Yuuni rolled her eyes. "Maybe they don't, but they're the ones missing out," she said jokingly. Vaneik smiled at her.
"Well, if we don't have anything else to discuss..." Vaneik said.
"You leave first," Sandreas said. "If you're finished with your coffee, that is."
"Alright." Vaneik looked at his apprentices and stood up. That whole side of the table followed him. Sandreas, and, following his example, his entourage, stayed seated. Yan thought this was a little rude, but his relationship with Vaneik wasn't something that she was really ready to interfere in.
"Keep me updated on how your rearranging of the outer colony routes goes," Sandreas said, holding out his hand for Vaneik to shake.
"Wilco," Vaneik said. "And you let me know when you're sending that ship and those stardrives."
"I'll have my secretary contact you, when you're near enough to a planet to catch the ansible," Sandreas said. They shook hands. "Send your wife my regards."
"I will. Till we meet again, Aymon," Vaneik said.
"May God hold and keep you," Sandreas said.
Vaneik, his bodyguard, and apprentices all left the room, with the apprentices giving respectful nods in Sandreas's direction.