In the quiet stillness of a luxury apartment's reception room, two men bent over a Motavian daika board.
"The proposed course of action disturbs me," one commented, placing a smooth blue stone.
The gentle, refined strains of stringed instruments filled the air.
"Why is that?" his opponent said nonchalantly.
"The one possesses great respect for honor. The other is a rising star. Failure on our part may provoke the one to vengeance and the other to rise faster."
"There is no chance of that," countered the second man, placing a red stone.
The blue player chuckled.
"Do you know why I like this game, my friend? It is so like life. One must possess great skill to become a master, and yet," he added, gently touching the spinner with aged fingers and setting it into motion, "there is always the element of chance. Destiny is but a comforting illusion."
Ironically, the spinner came to rest on a result that proved negative for both sides.
* * * * *
Parties, Orakio Sa Riik decided, were a necessary evil in the corporate world. He was an up-and-coming executive in the Industrial Division at Palm's largest global conglomerate, Luveno Industrial Mechanisms. After a recent personnel shakeup, he'd been promoted to the position of division sub-chief. The fact that he had attained such a rank despite his youth indicated that he possessed not just ability, but that something special which marked a leader--especially since he strove to avoid the underhanded scheming and infighting that so often corrupted the business world.
All of which made his attendance at parties required. The arrangement between Luveno and the Nakagaki Corporation's microtechnology arm to combine on a joint project was largely his doing, and since this particular gathering had been given by Tedashi Nakagaki to celebrate the deal, Orakio's non-attendance would have been a slap in the face to LIM's new business allies.
Tedashi Nakagaki was the grandson of the founder of the corporation that bore his name and the uncle of its current Executive Director. Tedashi was the director of Nakagaki's Camineet operations, second only in size to the corporation's home branch in Eppi. Since Nakagaki was not Luveno but could play on the same field, this made him a very powerful and important man indeed. He was not a man to offend. Nor was fear of negative consequences the only reason Orakio did not wish to give offense. In fact, he had a great deal of respect for the aged corporate warrior, who brought a traditional sense of honor to the often shadowy world behind the economic glitter.
What he did not like were the false smiles and smooth tongues of men and women who saw this as an opportunity to make connections, cadge favors, spread rumors to plot and scheme for advancement. These people took the pleasure out of what should have been a pleasant occasion and turned it into work.
Since Orakio had nothing to prove, he remained as aloof as he could, admiring the traditional Eppi-region paintings on the walls of Nakagaki's home. One set in particular intrigued him. Though done in precisely correct styles as if from centuries ago, the snowy mountains and tundra fields looked wrong, even for Palm's more remote, polar regions.
"You seem to find these intriguing, Mr. Sa Riik."
Orakio turned, to find that the well-modulated voice had been that of his host.
"I do. Dezo, isn't it?"
Nakagaki did not precisely smile, but the thin line of his mouth flicked upwards a bit.
"Indeed. Dezolis, as the natives refer to it. But you are thinking that it is an unusual subject for this manner of painting?"
"I had. Admittedly, my knowledge of the subject wouldn't even qualify me for the title of novice, but I'd thought that this art form dates to over a thousand years ago, before space travel became feasible."
"That is quite true. These are originals, but not from a millennium ago. They were, in fact, done by me in my youth." He smiled now, with a touch of self-depreciation. "A point of vanity, perhaps, to display them so, but it salves my ego when people make no distinction between my unschooled daubings and the work of the masters hung elsewhere throughout my home."
"You underestimate your skill, Mr. Nakagaki."
He brushed the compliment aside.
"No, if there is any virtue in my works, it comes from the subject, not the artist. Dezolis possesses a stark beauty that can be truly breathtaking. I was able to visit only for a short period, but it had a profound effect on me. Seeing the fidelity paid to the long-standing traditions of their own culture reawakened my respect for our own, a respect which at that young age was flagging."
"I'm not familiar with Dezolian culture," Orakio said, interested. "Other than the fact that fire is their symbol of worship--not at all surprising on an ice planet--I only know the stereotypes and bits and pieces dropped by the popular media."
"Which as you correctly observe, do largely consist of stereotypes, the stoic and wise priest, the jovial village bumpkin, and the like." He paused and added, "Perhaps you would like to view my collection of Dezolian artifacts? You may find it most illuminating."
"Yes, I'd like that." Orakio would have agreed in any case as a courtesy to his host, but he was also genuinely interested in seeing Nakagaki's collection.
"Excellent. Do come with me."
He followed the older man from the room to an elevator, next to which stood a security guard. Like the several others Orakio had seen throughout the building, this one was dressed discreetly in an immaculately tailored two-piece carbonsuit cut to conceal whatever weapons he carried. Only the guard's stiff bearing and the Nakagaki logo on the left breast of his jacket marked him as an employee on duty rather than one of the guests.
"I am taking Mr. Sa Riik up to see the collection."
"Yes, Mr. Nakagaki." The guard turned and pressed a button; a moment later the doors opened. Orakio followed his host into the small chamber of mirrored black walls. Undoubtedly, he mused, they were being scanned for weapons even as they ascended; it would be standard practice to have electronic security measures in place in the home of a high-ranking executive.
The doors slid open, and they stepped out into a well-lit room. Another guard was present; his dark green hair clashed unfortunately with his "uniform."
"Do you wish me to escort you, sir?" he offered.
"No, Thomas; we will be fine on our own."
Nakagaki crossed the room to an archway and led the way to the next chamber, which was set up museum-fashion with displays throughout. Some of them were in cases, others merely surrounded by railings of thin wood. The lights were dim, making it hard to see the contents of the exhibits.
"Laerma-wood?" Orakio asked in surprise, touching a railing.
"Imitation only, I'm afraid, though I do have a sample of a Laerma-wood cane. The real thing is too precious to use for mere ornamentation. Lights."
The room illumination turned on at his voice command, banishing the shadows so the room was as bright as the elevator lobby. Orakio gave a little hiss of indrawn breath, and as he did he caught a secret smile dancing in Nakagaki's eyes. It seemed the man had planned his collection this way to catch the attention of the viewer there, in the first room, which was devoted to the tools of warfare.
The centerpiece of the room was a large case containing four swords. Unlike historic Palman blades, which were short and saberlike, the Dezolian form of the weapon featured a blade between three and four feet long, with an extended hilt for a two-handed grip. Two of the four weapons were nearly identical, with narrow, curving quillions and slender blades, one was broader and heavier with a leather-wrapped hilt, and the fourth, though otherwise unremarkable, had a blade that almost shone with a silvery gleam.
"Are you familiar with swordsmanship?" Nakagaki asked, noting his guest's attention.
"Very little," Orakio remarked, "I've had some cursory training, since hunters sometimes use swords even today, but I am more familiar with a gun."
The elderly man nodded.
"Indeed, this happened on Dezolis even as it did to Palm." He gestured at a case containing a trio of oddly-shaped pistols. "Dezolian flame-guns. A common sidearm of a thousand years ago. And yet today it is Palman firearms which are used on both planets, but it is their two-handed swordsmanship which is the form we now find among those who can still use a blade."
"Yes; it teaches the use of the weapon both offensively and defensively," Orakio said, glad that he was not completely ignorant.
"Just so. The two similar weapons, as you can see by the ornate flame designs on the hilts, are ceremonial temple blades, carried by fighting monks trained to protect their shrines and places of worship. Spears are also sometimes used in this function. I say ceremonial not to imply that the weapons are not lethal or are of inferior quality; neither is true. But, as I said, the Dezolians largely put aside their swords in favor of guns, and a temple guard would carry both a blade to represent their traditional role as well as a firearm, for the actual fighting." He shook his head, a faint sadness in his eyes. "I am not at all sure this was wise of them. There is more to the sword than merely fighting and killing."
It was not surprising that he should say that. The Eppi region, where the Nakagaki family was from, was well-known for forging Palm's finest swords. He did not linger on the topic, but indicated the heaviest of the four weapons.
"This belonged to a warlord, Midja, who led a revolt against the ruling theocracy in the eighth century AW. They call it the 'Heretic's Blade,' and it is said that anyone who wields it in battle will be cursed to suffer a horrible death. This is why I, a Palman, was able to purchase it." He smiled faintly and said, "I have not yet attempted to test the efficacy of the curse. Dezolis is a land of ancient magic, not all of which we understand today. The fourth sword is an excellent example of that. Though not a historically famous weapon, it is a sample of the highest form of the swordsmith's art. The blade is forged from laconia, the rarest metal in the Algo solar system, many times harder and stronger than steel."
Orakio knew that a laconian sword would cost tens of thousands of meseta on the open market, whether sold as a weapon or a collector's item. Nakagaki's collection was not only extensive, but immensely valuable.
They spent the better part of an hour going from room to room, proceeding from military equipment to other aspects of Dezolian culture and society. Orakio found it all fascinating and asked a number of questions which his host was only too pleased to answer. They were in the fourth room, discussing a selection of high-crowned hats and their role beyond mere warmth when the interruption came.
The sound was not loud, but in the quiet collection suite it echoed like a thunderbolt. It was harsh and metallic, an almost brutal noise that caused the two men to spin around.
It was Thomas, the guard from the elevator, and he was carrying a heavy pistol in his fist. Orakio recognized it as a cutdown model of the Redfield Brigade vulcan, with a shortened barrel and missing the front grip used by the left hand. The barrel length and added recoil burden would make it highly inaccurate, but at this close range it did not matter. The noise had been the bolt being drawn back to chamber the first round.
"What is this nonsense?" Nakagaki barked. There was no fear in his voice, only anger; if he felt threatened he did not reveal it.
"Hey, nothing personal, Mr. Nakagaki. I just got offered a hell of a lot more money than you'll ever pay me."
Nakagaki gave a hiss of anger. His personal guards were no doubt carefully vetted to see they had no outside entanglements--sexual, financial, or chemical--that could leave them open to blackmail but there was really no way to screen for bribability beyond the most venal level of corruption.
"See, somebody figured you'd want to give Sa Riik here the tour, and well, taking you two down together was too good a chance for them to pass up." Another shrug. "Not that I really get why they care, but I don't get paid for that. Now, I know you two aren't armed, and the only thing you might grab in this room to defend yourselves is a fur coat, so what say we make this clean, okay?"
As one might expect, they did not agree. Thomas realized this at a glance, and turned the vulcan on Nakagaki. Orakio, however, moved first, diving into the old man and tackling him out of the way just in time. The vulcan roared, shells shattering glass cases into thousands of shards, tearing through exhibits, crashing through the railings.
Orakio rolled off his host and scrambled, looking for either cover or some kind of weapon. Thomas kept firing, tracking him, but the recoil hurt his aim, letting the Luveno exec escape the lethal rounds as he stayed in motion.
If only I had a gun! he thought desperately, diving behind a case of luxuriant cloaks made of Dezo Owl feathers. Shells tore the garments apart, the roaring drumbeat of the weapon spewing repeated three-round bursts after Orakio. He owned a light sonic gun, a Redfield Executech, for self-defense, but he would hardly bring it to a formal corporate gathering. Right then, he wished he had.
Momentarily ignored, both because of his age and because Orakio was up and moving, Nakagaki reached out and closed his hand around a broken length of faux Laerma-wood railing. Seeing that the guard's eyes were not on him, he rose and lashed out like a striking snake. The four-foot length of synthetic wood cracked against Thomas's gun wrist. There was an audible snap of bone and he howled in pain, dropping the Brigade.
Neglecting the gun, he went for the old man, figuring on using his youth and strength to his advantage. Orakio saw this and broke from cover, hoping to retrieve the weapon before the traitorous guard could realize his mistake.
It proved to be completely unnecessary.
Holding his improvised weapon in an two-handed grip, Nakagaki parried the first punch expertly, then jabbed the end into Thomas's belly, driving the breath from his lungs. The piece of rail then snapped up and crashed against the side of the guard's head. His knees went to water and he slumped to the gray-carpeted floor. Orakio picked up the gun.
"Thank you," he said at once. "You saved both our lives."
"I feel great shame at having endangered yours by the inadequacy of my hiring practices. Any assistance I was able to render was no more than my duty, especially as you saved my life as well." Orakio knew the old man was not shamming. Despite the intrigues Nakagaki fostered in the corporate world, the man's sense of personal honor was deep and inviolate.
"Think nothing of it," the younger man insisted. "In any event, it was a small cost to pay for the valuable lesson you've given me in the worth of Dezolian swordsmanship." He looked meaningfully at the staff still clutched in Nakagaki's hands.
"It is a most noble art, Mr. Sa Riik, one which brings lessons both of a military nature and for the living of one's daily life."
Orakio nodded. In the hectic life of the corporate world, the study of something requiring focus and concentration would be a valuable tool to help set aside day-to-day stress.
And who knew? Someday, he might well be called upon to use the skill.