"You should fit right in," Ari had said.
Gil had been forced to agree. It was just as well, he thought, that Domina Beka Rosselin-Metadi had already announced her intention to dissolve the government of Entibor-in-Exile and let the royal title lapse into oblivion. Perada Rosselin had concurred-there were a number of advantages, or so she claimed, to being officially dead, and she planned to enjoy all of them for some time to come.
Now, with Inesi syn-Tavaite on his arm, Gil made his way through the crush to the back of the pub, where the General was holding forth. Perada, her private talk with Mael Taleion safely concluded, was occupying the seat next to him, and looking smug about it.
"What are my plans for the future?" the General asked rhetorically. He had an interested audience of s.p.a.ce Force officers and merchant-captains, all of them pretending they didn't recognize the blonde, blue-eyed woman beside him. "I'm going to retire from the s.p.a.ce Force and spend my free time touring the galaxy and checking up on old friends." He caught Gil's eye. "And you, Commodore, are as far as I can tell the senior surviving officer in the late fiasco. If you aren't the senior survivor now, you will be by the time I'm done. You're going to take over my job."
Gil shook his head. "Oh, no, General. Not until I've used up my accumulated leave. I promised Inesi-Doctor syn-Tavaite, I mean-that I'd take her back home to Eraasi after the war was over, and I intend to keep my promise."
"Do it," said Metadi. "You can relieve me when you get back. Rosel's tour of duty isn't up for another year and a half, so she can show you the ropes."
Gil was beginning to feel trapped. "But didn't you get my message, sir? Commander Quetaya is dead-your aide is a Magebuilt replicant."
The General shook his head. "The Mages tried, but I'm afraid they missed."
"The last time I saw that replicant, I'd just stuffed her into a garbage hopper at Galcen Prime."
Metadi looked regretful. "She'd been well briefed, but not quite well enough, so I managed to get her before she could remove the original and take her place.
"I was right about the replicant," the General continued, "but wrong about who was responsible.
I thought it was the start of a coup by a faction inside the s.p.a.ce Force-I knew there was something funny going on there; I just didn't know what. And I knew that if there was one replicant there might be others, so I decided to keep quiet and take care of the problem myself."
"It worked out," Gil said, "and it put you in position to deal with Vallant."
"No, you dealt with Vallant-not to mention the Mage flagship."
"It was pure luck that got my missiles through to Sword-of-the-Dawn," Gil protested. "That's all."
"You had luck when you needed it. Those missiles. .hit at exactly the right time and the right place-and believe me, Commodore, I'm grateful."
"So am I," said Perada. "So am I."
"Under the circumstances," said Gil, "I suppose I should be grateful too." He turned to syn-Tavaite. "The evening is growing late. I think it's time for us to get back."
*Wait just a minute. Baronet!*
It was Merrolakk the Selvaur, resplendent in a celebratory coat of gold and silver body-paint.
"Ah, yes. Captain?" Gil said. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Metadi watching him with amus.e.m.e.nt. "You have a problem?"
*They say you're going to take her-* Merrolakk nodded at syn-Tavaite. *-back home to Eraasi.*
"Well, yes," said Gil. "I did promise, after all."
*You made me a promise too,* Merro said. *When I turned her over, you said that if she had any ransom value, it was mine.*
*Seven ships, Commodore. You traded her for seven ships. So the way I figure it, that's whatshe's worth. Pay up.*
Gil drew a deep breath. "I won't deny that Inesi syn-Tavaite is worth the ransom under discussion-"
*d.a.m.ned good thing, too.*
"-but I will point out that I don't have the price of seven ships at the moment."
Merro grunted. *Not my problem. If you can't pay, I'll take my prisoner back.*
"Like h.e.l.l you will," said Gil. "I'll just give you the ships, instead." He reached into his uniform pocket and pulled out a notepad and stylus.
Merro hooted at him with Selvauran laughter. *You're a pleasure to deal with, for a thin-skin.*
"There," said Gil, handing over the slip of flimsy. "Orders assigning seven vessels from the Net Patrol Fleet to you for administrative and tactical control. My aide will see to the details. Done?"
*Done,* said the Selvaur, and proffered a green-scaled hand.
They shook hands on the deal. Then, with a sigh of relief, Gil was finally able to start making his way back through the crowded pub toward the door. Beside him, Inesi syn-Tavaite was looking worried.
"Will you get in trouble for giving ships away like that?" she asked. "They belong to the Republic, don't they?"
"They used to," he said. "With the Net being dismantled they wouldn't have a lot to do, anyway.
But that isn't my problem. I'm taking you home before I do anything else. If the s.p.a.ce Force is angry with me for giving away those ships, they can cashier me. If I'm lucky, some job for a penniless baronet is bound to turn up."
"My people say, 'Luck belongs to the people who make it,' " syn-Tavaite said.
"I'm planning to make myself quite a lot of it," Gil said. He offered her his arm. "Starting now, I think. My lady, will you do me the honor of traveling aboard my flagship?"
syn-Tavaite took his arm and smiled. "With pleasure, my lord baronet."