“I’m here to answer any questions you may have.”
My words rang hollow, even in my own ears. I froze, still wearing that stupid smile, as I stood looking at the mystery alien. It smiled back at me, the picture of perfect politeness. I resisted the urge to squint slightly, like the answer would jump out at me if I only looked hard enough. What did that smile mean? Was that the look of a reserved and polite P’nar? Or was that a T’kel diplomat, hiding its brutality behind a pleasant face?
I squashed the questions. For now. I couldn’t risk my entire species over a stupid smile. I needed something more definitive to go on.
“You are the one assigned to take us to our quarters, like you say?” It asked, tilting its head slightly.
That’s what I just said, yes. I bit the words back before I had time to more than think them. I fell back on a simple nod instead.
“That’s correct. I’m…..I’d be glad to take you straight there.” I cursed myself inwardly. The words I’m sure you’re tired after your trip here had been on the tip of my tongue. Damn all those TV shows and movies I’d been watching. Lingo like that implied that they were tired. If they were the T’kel, they could be insulted by that.
I chose to count that as one bullet dodged rather than nearly ending us with our first exchange.
I moved to turn back towards the path, but something held me in place. I glanced down. That talon was still on my shoulder. The diplomat smiled blankly at me.
“This Conclave, it has a great many races attending, yes?”
I resisted the urge to grit my teeth. Both of us were well aware that the Conclave would have a variety of races attending. That was the whole point of it.
“There are a total of thirty-two races from this quadrant attending this year, yes. It will be a large event.” That much I could remember from the notes I had been passed. I tentatively shifted on my feet, to see if I’d answered the question.
The talon stayed fixed to my shoulder. I sighed a little.
This was all becoming a bit aggressive, wasn’t it? Not letting me move? That was a T’kel way of handling things if ever I saw one. But even as I thought it, the other side of my mind roared up in protest. The P’nar were insufferable in their own arrogance. They’d think nothing of holding an attendant in place until their questions got answered.
Perhaps these two races really weren’t so different, I thought sourly to myself. But I pulled myself back to reality in time to catch their response.
“Yes, yes, of course. We read the introductory packet.” The diplomat sighed, waving its claw in an apparently universal motion for ‘get on with it’. “But with so many races attending, we begin to worry about our accomodations. We have…unpleasant relationships with some of the other factions that are attending. Was there thought given to where we will be housed?” It stared at me with one beady eye. “We’re very selective about who we associate with, you see. We’d hate for anything unfortunate to come about during our stay here.”
First half, P’nar. Second half, T’kel. My mind was so caught up in trying to identify the speaker that I almost missed the fact that I was expected to respond. Kathy faked a stumble, bumping into my foot. I straightened with a jolt, coming back to myself.
“Of course. We’ve planned all of the accomodations to be as sensitive as possible to the current diplomatic realities of this varied group.” The polite-sounding nothingness burst out of my mouth on pure force of habit. Kathy was smiling, ever so slightly, seeing my automatic reaction for what it was. I glanced back at the alien diplomat.
“If I may, is there a name that you would prefer to be called? I don’t believe we’ve completed our introductions. This is my assistant, Kathy, by the way.” I said with a wave. My assistant blushed, ducking a quick bow while staring furiously at the ground. My heart leapt as I saw the ambassador nodding. Finally, some answers.
The diplomat sighed.
“I suppose. You may call me Olit, envoy of Pariir.” It sniffed, with a wave of its feathered arm. “I trust, then, that we’ll be given suitable separation from our cousins?” It spat the word disdainfully. I bit back a curse. Pariir was the planet. I remembered that much. Both the P’nar and the T’kel still claimed it as their own, despite the fact that both races had long since expanded away from the battered, tired world, and away from each other. Pariir, as it existed today, was little more than a symbolic homeland.
Damn it, I was hoping for more to work with. But if that’s what I had, I’d have to make do. I nodded once more.
“A pleasure to meet you, Envoy Olit. Yes, your counterparts will be housed on the other side of the compound.” I pulled myself free of the gripping talon with a quick smile, waving down the path. “And now, we really must be off. The Conclave has a very busy schedule planned.”
At the words, my blood chilled. I could see a trace of panic seeping into Kathy’s eyes, from her place beside me, but I tried not to show my own fear. I focused on keeping us moving, refusing to let Olit slow us down.
“Oh, if you look on your left, you can see the Highland Downs out past the courtyard. In the summer, we use them for local sports tournaments. Unfortunately, all of the usual events have been cancled for the Conclave, but if you like-”
I tried to tour-guide my way through the ice that suffused the air, but Olit cut me off again. The envoy was still following, but its arms were crossed. And its talons were tapping. I wasn’t sure if that meant that it was about to write back to its government angrily or if it were about to gut me, but I knew either way it wasn’t good.
“I apologize if my words gave offense. Your cousins from Pariir. We are aware that your relationship with them is…not suited for close quarters.” I managed. Kathy nodded once, as though reassuring me. Olit did not look reassured. It still glared down at me. Whichever race this was, they sure were tall.
It sniffed at me again. Haughtily.
“Very well then, I suppose. I trust that we’ll be safe at this Conclave? We have many enemies.”
I brightened. If they were concerned about safety, then these were P’nar! At last, a breakthrough! The T’kel were proudly self-sufficient, especially if it came to something like security. They’d never worry about something like if the event had guards. I relaxed, ever so slightly, and put a little more warmth into my smile.
“Of course, Envoy. The event has a special private security force attached to it, to ensure the safety of all delegates. And, all of your quarters are locked to you, genetically. No one will have access to your room but you.” I almost beamed. And then my smile collapsed, moments later, as Olit sneered down at me.
“We’re not concerned with the petty guards at your little meeting, human.” It hissed. “Our own defensive systems will be established to protect our person. We have not come to your strange system unprepared. But what of your event? Have you considered explosives? Political attacks? Rival races, seeking to take out many enemy leaders, all in one fell swoop? Can your meeting hall withstand an attack from an enemy vessel?” It glared down at me, waiting for a response. I could only splutter.
“I- that is, every precaution has been taken, I’m sure.”
“You’re sure?” The Envoy seized it. It really wasn’t going to give me a break, was it? “You don’t know, then?”
I took a deep breath, centering myself. I could see Kathy’s hands quivering. And then I put on my best fake smile and plowed onwards.
“I was not involved with the plans for how the security at this facility was designed or laid out. I would be more than happy than to have a security liason report to you with a full assessment, though.” I hissed through gritted teeth. The ambassador smiled grimly, as though recognizing that it had managed to get under my skin.
“Please. We prefer to only receive our information from those who are properly informed.”
I let its snipe slide by, turning us down the main hallway to the living quarters. And then my steps faltered.
“There is a problem?” Olit asked sharply, noticing I had slowed.
“No, of course not.” I responded automatically. But my steps still dragged.
Like I’d said, we’d tried to halfway pay attention to the way we’d laid out the complex for an event of this magnitude. We’d tried to accomodate the alliances and rivals of this quadrant. Housing enemies side by side would only create problems. And so we’d put the T’kel and P’nar far, far apart. On opposite ends of the housing wing, in fact.
And now, with one of the two in tow, I realized that I had no idea which end of the complex I was supposed to be taking them to.
My mind raced, lining up all of the little pieces and snippets I’d gathered from our walk over.
Where was the line between violent arrogance and peaceful arrogance? Was Olit merely assertive, or was it actually aggressive? Was aggression inherently violent? Was I reading too much into this?
Nothing changed the fact that as confused as I still was, the path was forking ahead, and I was going to have to pick one oway or another. Despite myself, I let my glance flick to Kathy. Help.
But her eyes were as wide and panicked as mine. I stared at her for a long moment, betrayed. And then I made my choice. I led them down the path to the T’kel side. They were too aggressive, too assertive, too bold. Even for a diplomatic T’kel, it stood out. I held my breath as we walked down the narrow garden path towards the living wing.
And then we turned the corner, and froze. There, in front of us, we saw another group of feathered, taloned aliens. Walking towards our group’s rooms.
They saw each other. Their eyes locked.
Damn. Guess these were P’nar.