The walk from the human base to the Rownt town gave Liam time to think. The wind gently swayed tree branches with their green-gray leaves, and now that Liam faced a demotion and reassignment, he realized he would do anything to stay. The new colonel was unreasonable, and he clearly wasn’t impressed by Liam’s last psych review, but other men were worse off than Liam. Others had seen things on the front that made them wake up screaming. Liam’s minor panic attacks and his difficulty handling emotions or relationships barely even tipped the psych scale.
Besides, as a linguist, Liam had access to the comm system, and he knew how to crosswire an inbound missive as well as Craig, even if he didn’t get caught nearly as often. He’d seen the colonel’s file, and it was a minefield of psych red flags. He just had to wait the man out. That’s all. God, please, let me wait this man out.
An old grandmother gave Liam a smile—a certain tightening across her cheeks and forehead indicating pleasure—and Liam quickly offered her a deep bow of gratitude for her attention. It earned him a rumble of approval as she passed, her huge form easily topping eight feet, which dwarfed his relatively small six feet one. Luckily the traders Liam usually dealt with were male and younger, which translated into closer to human size.
The houses started appearing closer together, some sharing the overhead awnings that carried solar and communication arrays. This was as close as the Rownt came to a city, with high tech tucked behind hand-painted walls and well-tended gardens. Liam took a deep breath, the scent of flowers and fresh dirt mingling with the faint spice of Rownt bodies.
Ahead, one of the central squares stood with an arched roof that canted to the right. The walls were nothing more than trellis made of durable Rownt steel. Flowers and vegetable vines and weeds all climbed toward the sun, their leaves entangled. Liam had no idea which traders, if any, would come today, but he hoped it would be Ondry. That Rownt had a way of playfully slipping new words into the conversation, almost as if he knew Liam found the language irresistible. Every new term would lead to hours of research in storyscrolls and databases. Some days Lieutenant Spooner teased Liam that he was trying to outperform the ranking linguist of the mission. Of course that was as far from the truth as a person could get. After that, Liam made sure he gave his results to the lieutenant instead of filing them in his own records.
As Liam came around the corner, he noticed his favorite trader leaning against one trellis wall with a thumb stuck in his belt and his tail wrapped around his right leg.
The day was improving.
Ondry hovered over a neatly arranged table of trade goods as Liam walked through the archway to the covered communal area. With the grace of a hunter, Ondry paced the length of the table, watching Liam. Despite his most recent troubles, Liam pasted on a smile. Besides, he was genuinely happy to see Ondry.
Traders never exchanged words before seeing the goods, so Liam opened the bag of samples he’d brought. As usual, he found himself shifting to keep Ondry in sight as he worked. He didn’t fear him. Not exactly. He did have an unnatural sense of where the male was at all times. Unpacking a series of glass art pieces that Liam suspected would attract Ondry both for their resale value and their artistic value, Liam widened his smile as he went to start the official trading.
“You appear unhappy,” Ondry said before even glancing at Liam’s sample goods.
Liam froze. He had the best command of Rownt language and cultural norms in five solar systems. He could tell a glurble from a gurgle and translate the emotion behind each. After all, as much as the Rownt appeared to be purplish-plum-colored, tall, flat-faced humans, they weren’t.
They were a tailed, bipedal race with a set of rules that defied human logic. And they always focused on the trade. Always. Personal conversation came later when you were trying to figure out a better way to screw the opposition the next time you did business.
“I am…having no strong feelings at all at this moment,” Liam lied as he tried to school his features into something milder.
The problem was he wasn’t entirely sure the Rownt used facial expression rather than scent or body language. They did a lot of snuffling when they were unhappy.
Ondry paled, a sure sign of emotion. Liam’s chest tightened as he found himself suddenly lost in this new cultural landscape.
He hated this. Colonel Thackeray with his unreasonable demands had him up against a wall, but Liam expected stupidity out of new officers. They came to Prarownt expecting to make a mark only to find that the Rownt didn’t take manipulating as well as some underdeveloped species. Oh, they enjoyed watching humans try to manipulate them, but it never ended well for the humans idiotic enough to think they could take advantage of an advanced species who practically worshipped at the altar of business acumen.
But Liam expected better from Ondry. He expected Ondry to be predictable, reliable. He expected Ondry to create a stable, friendly environment for them to try to cheat each other blind in trades. Then he expected Ondry to buy him a meal and cluck sympathetically after Liam only managed to secure half the mineral resources his officers demanded. That was how it worked.
Only now Ondry had lost most of his color, which was definitely new. Sometimes he would develop patches of lavender when Liam surprised him or when they talked about the publicly known facts surrounding the human war. After all, the Rownt had their own communications satellites and a trading network that touched a half dozen species. Liam couldn’t avoid all discussion of war when Ondry brought up the subject, the areas around his nose and eyes losing color from the intense emotions.
But the slight paling caused by these past conversations was nothing compared to the way the blood rushed from Ondry’s skin, leaving his face nearly the color of Liam’s flesh. And Liam was not a darkly colored human. His light brown eyes and dark hair came with a fairly pale complexion. So for Ondry to pale that much, Liam had just royally fucked up. Somehow. He just didn’t know how. He loathed this gnawing fear that he had somehow disappointed Ondry.
Ondry’s deep blue eyes searched Liam with something that looked suspiciously like concern. But that was wishful thinking on Liam’s part.
Liam tried again. “The human base has a new commander. The transition is difficult.” The Rownt did understand rank and the difficult realities of scrambling for power in a command structure.
“Were you not asked to take the position?” Ondry’s eyes widened more. Curiosity—an old biological habit of searching the horizon for more information turned into a cultural habit of widening the eyes when confused. Liam knew all that. He didn’t know how to explain why Command Central would laugh itself to death before promoting him to that particular position.
“I’m not qualified for that position,” Liam said carefully. Issues of promotion and personal success were touchy with the Rownt. The color slowly returned to Ondry’s face, but Liam had the feeling he didn’t like the answer.
Ondry moved closer, that hunter’s grace making his footfalls utterly silent against the hard-packed ground. Many Rownt did hunt the lowlands, and Liam often wondered if Ondry’s occasional absences from the trading plaza were because he was out there hunting Prarownt’s formidable predators. He continued stalking nearer until Liam finally had to take a fast step back. Liam was a soldier, a well-built man who stood six feet tall and could look down at most humans, but Ondry stood a foot taller and carried at least an extra fifty pounds. With Ondry this close, Liam couldn’t escape the feeling of being seriously outmatched.
“You trade well,” Ondry said. He allowed Liam to keep the small personal space he’d gained by retreating, but their bodies were still close enough to leave Liam slightly unnerved.
“I don’t lead well. My superiors like my work, but they don’t—” Liam stopped. They didn’t trust him because he tended to screw up spectacularly when given too many responsibilities. He developed high blood pressure. He made bad calls. Worse, he was from the wrong part of earth and had none of the right connections required to qualify as an officer. Yeah, none of that would impress Ondry, and Liam didn’t want to lose value in the other man’s eyes. He liked Ondry, and he wanted to think that Ondry liked him as much as any Rownt could like a human.
Ondry’s eyes were open so far that the secondary ring of black was visible all around the iris. “You do not seek promotion?”
Liam cringed. If he admitted the truth, Ondry might ask for another negotiator, a sane one who scrambled after promotion like a normal sentient being.
“The issue is more complex with humans than with the Rownt,” Liam hedged.
Ondry’s eyes slowly narrowed to their normal size as he considered Liam. “You wish to trade.” The change of subject came out of nowhere, but that was the way with Rownt.
“Yes. Please,” Liam said, and he couldn’t keep the desperation from his voice. He needed normal, and Ondry gestured toward the trading table, offering him normal. But somehow things didn’t feel settled, on either side. The difference was that Ondry was still a shrewd negotiator when off his game, and Liam wasn’t. Liam slipped and misspoke, offering too many units, and Ondry jumped on the mistake, quick to agree to a deal that would put Liam in a difficult spot. Knowing he couldn’t keep his status as a trader without sucking it up and agreeing to the bad deal, Liam flipped the Ginal
coin over to signify acceptance.
Colonel Tucker was going to skin him alive when he got back to base.
“I shall buy you a meal,” Ondry said with a tightening of the cheeks that suggested pleasure. Ondry should feel pleasure after this trade, but Liam knew when to avoid contact. When you were tired and worried, you didn’t need to spend the afternoon trying to mentally translate every word into a language as difficult as Rownt while attempting to avoid cultural pitfalls. Nope. It was time for Liam to go home, take his reprimand, and hide in his tiny quarters.
“I have a new officer. I should report back to him,” Liam offered with a small bow of apology. Maybe he should show the back of his neck for this. For all he knew, he was giving his best trading partner some horrible insult by not sharing a meal, but the reports from the traders who had served on Prarownt in years past never included eating meals with their trading partners.
Ondry dipped his own head low—an acceptance. But that didn’t explain why his tail had come out and begun twitching. Liam rarely saw a Rownt tail do anything except curl and uncurl around the same leg. “I am disappointed, but I hope to best you later and use the profits from our next trade to buy you a good meal.” The formality made Liam’s stomach ache. Ondry wasn’t formal with him—not like some of the other traders who made it clear that a human had no status in their eyes.
“And I hope next time to force you into a trade that leaves you with no meal to eat,” Liam returned. It felt like a rather cruel thing to say, and he definitely didn’t mean it, but the Rownt did have social customs that deserved respect. Liam worked hard to respect them.
Liam headed for the table to pack his samples so they could be added to the shipment he now owed Ondry. Reaching for the glass fish, he went still as Ondry moved dangerously close. Rownt were not a species that touched, not like the Anla or the Imshee. Liam stared at the glass pieces as Ondry leaned in, his breath coming in little huffs.
“Good trading, Liam Munson of Earth,” Ondry said, and then he slowly backed away. Liam stood with his heart pounding and his stomach clenched, even if both reactions were ridiculous. Ondry was a friend. Okay, maybe he wasn’t a friend as much as a business partner, but he certainly wasn’t dangerous. Despite that, Liam couldn’t get his heart to slow down as he forced his shaking hands to carefully pack away the figurines.
With one last unsteady smile for Ondry, Liam headed for the archway. Since the first days of humans on Prarownt, the Rownt had offered to allow them to work here and only here. Normally, Command would have ignored a planet’s request on something like that, especially since the Rownt had valuable mineral deposits. But when a planet also had interplanetary travel and their own defense grid, Command became much more respectful.
Liam had not moved beyond even the closest ring of houses before he saw Colonel Thackeray striding down the path, Gina from security following behind. The colonel had blond hair just starting to turn white on the sides, and a solid frame. Under other circumstances, Liam might be attracted, but it was hard to lust after someone you knew was a prick who would rip your heart out with both hands and not even notice.
Nevertheless, the sight surprised Liam so much that for a second he didn’t react. With only four officers on base, Command normally issued standing orders for the officers to stay inside base security while enlisted soldiers like Liam and Gina went into town. Liam sent Gina a half-panicked look, but she gazed back with a mask of indifference that made it clear something had happened. Liam was guessing that Thackeray had torn into her.
Liam went to attention in the middle of the curving Rownt road and threw up his arm in a smart salute. Thackeray continued to meander down the path, ignoring Liam until Liam’s shoulder started to ache. After stopping to investigate a local flower, Colonel Thackeray finally turned and saluted back, which at least allowed Liam to put his hand down to his side.
“I planned to watch negotiations, sergeant.”
“I’m sorry, sir. I was not informed of your interest, and I completed negotiations already.” Liam kept his eyes straight ahead. This was clearly the worst trade of his career, and this was the one trade Thackeray had to show up for. Great.
The universe hated him. Of course, Liam had realized that back when he was twelve years old, and his mother had thrown him out in favor of feeding her younger children.
Off to the side, Liam could see Ondry leaning close to a grandmother, talking to her with his head tilted up toward her taller frame. Most of the time, Liam noticed that males avoided the grandmothers outside the temple. Something made the males circle wide even as they smiled and ducked their heads low in respect. However, Ondry often took the least expected path to any end. Liam wished he understood what end Ondry was angling for now.
“How much tremanium
did you secure, Sergeant Munson?” Colonel Thackeray was circling around toward Liam’s back.
“One ton, seven units, sir.” Liam kept his eyes forward, but he could hear Colonel Thackeray stop.
The man leaned in so close Liam could feel the body heat. “We will discuss that trade when we reach base,” he whispered. Idiot. Rownt had excellent hearing, and they were not amused by public shows of disunion within a group. Either their audience now believed Liam had no skill and needed more supervision, or they believed that Thackeray had no ability to lead. Given how the last trade had gone, the first was far more likely.
“Yes, sir,” Liam answered. Parade-ground shine and sucking up were going to have to get him through this because his skill as a trader had definitely failed him.
“Sir,” Gina offered softly. The nine-foot-tall grandmother was ambling toward them. Her lower belly was heavy with eggs that she’d be laying soon. She was old.
With Rownt, old meant stronger, and in the case of females, taller. Sometimes the soldiers on base called the Rownt “turtles” as an insult. Like earth turtles, the Rownt lived hundreds of years and seemed to grow larger with every passing year.
However, Liam doubted that the men chose “turtle” for those biological reasons. He suspected they meant to insult the lipless faces that could almost look turtle-like in the wrong light. And he knew they meant to make fun of the Rownt penis. The Rownt had penises a turtle would envy—huge things that came out of a sheath that lay along their backbone. When soft, the penis vanished under the muscle along the spine. When Liam had first landed, Craig had put aside his illicit porn to show off a tape with a long-lens view of two Rownt mating. Liam had felt like closing his legs for the next month or so.
While Liam understood the logic behind the turtle insult, he simply couldn’t look at this grand old woman who might be five hundred or a thousand years old, and feel anything except respect. This grandmother had an angular face that reminded Liam of Ondry. He risked turning his head just enough to look at Ondry and then back toward the grandmother. Most humans claimed Rownt looked alike, but Liam didn’t think so. Ondry had higher cheekbones that gave him an aristocratic look and a more angular shape to the eye. This grandmother had both.
“Sergeant!” Thackeray snapped, and Liam put his eyes front and center again. Crap. He was so royally screwed. Actually, Liam would be happy to get screwed if it meant keeping this posting, but Colonel Thackeray was probably too uptight to even find his damn prick.
“You are the new human commander,” the grandmother offered in a deceptively quiet voice. Around them, Rownt hushed. Even the few children on the road moved closer to their respective parents.
“Yes, ma’am. I am Colonel Richard Thackeray of the Forward Command.”
Liam couldn’t get a good look at her, but he could hear a snuffling noise.
The silence dragged. “Command is hoping I can improve the trade. I am hoping to speak to the ruling council to discuss how we can better help each other. We specialize in pharmaceuticals, and I do hope to reopen the discussion of importing them, at least those that are well-established as safe.”
Liam cringed. Oh that was not good.
“Such issues were previously decided.” The grandmother had her most reasonable voice going.
“Reexamining an issue can only bring more options to the table,” Thackeray said in a voice that had probably charmed a dozen different men and women. He had the sort of unctuous flair that wealthy boys from the Heights used on Bayview kids to talk them into bed.
“Or it can upset the table.”
“I would never want that,” Thackeray said. The Rownt language flowed with trilled r
’s and th
-fronting, but Thackeray managed to make it sound like badly pronounced German. He kept slipping English words into the middle. Normally Liam would encourage that in a new speaker since the Rownt understood English well enough even if they couldn’t pronounce it and even if they preferred visitors to have the courtesy to speak their language. However, when Colonel Thackeray used the human pronunciation of the word “Rownt,” things went from bad to horrific.
“The Rownt people are such a dignified, powerful race,” Thackeray said. “I look forward to many years of working together, and toward that end, I will work hard to prevent any tables from getting knocked over on my watch.” He moved, and just happened to bump into Liam’s back. Putting out a foot to catch himself, Liam immediately went back into position.
“I had asked the grandmother if we could have a temple ceremony tonight,” Ondry said as he stalked into the middle of the scene. He stopped where he could stare straight into Liam’s face from the middle of the narrow road. Sweat broke out down Liam’s spine. He wasn’t stupid. Ondry clearly had something rattling around in his brain, but Liam didn’t have a clue what it was. Worse, Liam had a long record of trusting the wrong people, so his trust button had broken long ago. He just gazed back at Ondry, unable to decipher the pale circle of skin around his mouth and eyes.
“Youth. So impatient.” The grandmother clucked disapprovingly. Liam found that a little ironic since Ondry had to be over a hundred in Earth standard years.
“I am, grandmother. I apologize. I have so little patience for some things.” Again, Ondry’s gaze found Liam.
“I understand the feeling,” Colonel Thackeray added with his own glare in Liam’s direction.
Liam’s guts tangled into one huge knot. Okay, Colonel Thackeray attacking him was a given, but it almost sounded like Ondry was agreeing with Thackeray’s assessment. True, Liam had had a disastrous trading day, but he’d had others that were better—some that were even good. He turned in better annual numbers than any other trader assigned to Prarownt, and he had done that for five years. Panic started to crawl up Liam’s throat, and he had to swallow it back down before he vomited up the fear on his clean boots.
Ondry paled more, but the grandmother was moving in now, and he shifted backward.
“I do want a temple ceremony, Colonel Thackeray. You and Trader Liam must come.” The grandmother’s tone came closer to a command than a request.
“I would be pleased.” His voice sounded less than pleased, but Liam didn’t know if a nonhuman would hear that. “I am sure you understand that the junior crew members need time off, so I cannot require Sergeant Munson to attend.”
Well, that didn’t sound ominous, not at all. Liam suspected he had a long night with a latrine ahead of him.
“I must insist. We cannot have a ceremony without your trader,” the grandmother said.
“Well, I suppose we can arrange it,” Colonel Thackeray said, his voice tight. Liam noticed that no one consulted him.
“Good.” The grandmother walked right up to Liam, her nose wide and her eyes showing two concentric rings of black around the teal iris. Her face had mottling that imitated a leopard’s spots. This was an old grandmother. She leaned down into Liam’s personal space, and he held position despite his pounding heart. Having one of the grandmothers this close could intimidate any human.
“Then I shall see you both there tonight,” she said. Her face darkened with satisfaction before she turned and started down the road without a backward glance.
“Tonight,” Ondry offered, and he too had a satisfied expression. There was something in the tightness around his eyes that made Liam think Ondry had just gotten his way with something. Or maybe he was still pleased about shredding Liam in today’s trade. With Rownt, who knew?