Plague Ship

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That question was answered almost as it flashed into Dane's mind. But no Salariki lordling came through the door. Dane's self-control kept him in his place, even after he caught the meaning of the insignia emblazoned across the newcomer's tunic. Trader--and not only a Trader but a Company man! But why--and how? The Companies only went after big game--this was a planet thrown open to Free Traders, the independents of the star lanes. By law and right no Company man had any place here. Unless--behind a face Dane strove to keep as impassive as Van's his thoughts raced. Traxt Cam as a Free Trader had bid for the right to exploit Sargol when its sole exportable product was deemed to be perfume--a small, unimportant trade as far as the Companies were concerned. And then the Koros stones had been found and the importance of Sargol must have boomed as far as the big boys could see. They probably knew of Traxt Cam's death as soon as the Patrol report on Limbo had been sent to Headquarters. The Companies all maintained their private information and espionage services. And, with Traxt Cam dead without an heir, they had seen their chance and moved in. Only, Dane's teeth set firmly, they didn't have the ghost of a chance now. Legally there was only one Trader on Sargol and that was the Solar Queen, Captain Jellico had his records signed by the Patrol to prove that. And all this Inter-Solar man would do now was to bow out and try poaching elsewhere.

But the I-S man appeared to be in no haste to follow that only possible course. He was seating himself with arrogant dignity on that unoccupied stool, and a younger man in I-S uniform was putting before him the same type of equipment Dane had produced for Van Rycke. The Cargo-master of the Solar Queen showed no surprise, if the Eysies' appearance had been such to him.

One of the younger warriors in Paft's train got to his feet and brought his hands together with a clap which echoed across the silent gathering with the force of an archaic solid projectal shot. A Salarik, wearing the rich dress of the upper ranks, but also the collar forced upon a captive taken in combat, came into the enclosure carrying a jug in both hands. Preceded by Paft's son he made the rounds of the assembly pouring a purple liquid from his jug into the goblet before each chieftain, a goblet which Paft's heirs tasted ceremoniously before it was presented to the visiting clan leader. When they paused before Van Rycke the Salarik nobleman touched the side of the plasta flask in token. It was recognized that off world men must be cautious over the sampling of local products and that when they joined in the Taking of the First Cup of Peace, they did so symbolically.

Paft raised his cup, his gesture copied by everyone around the circle. In the harsh tongue of his race he repeated a formula so archaic that few of the Salariki could now translate the sing-song words. They drank and the meeting was formally opened.

But it was an elderly Salarik seated to the right of Halfer, a man who wore no claw knife and whose dusky yellow cloak and sash made a subdued note amid the splendor of his fellows, who spoke first, using the click-clack of the Trade Lingo his nation had learned from Cam.

"Under the white," he pointed to the shield aloft, "we assemble to hear many things. But now come two tongues to speak where once there was but one father of a clan. Tell us, outlanders, which of you must we now hark to in truth?" He looked from Van Rycke to the I-S representative.

The Cargo-master from the Queen did not reply. He stared across the circle at the Company man. Dane waited eagerly. What _was_ the I-S going to say to that?

But the fellow did have an answer, ready and waiting. "It is true, fathers of clans, that here are two voices, where by right and custom there should only be one. But this is a matter which can be decided between us. Give us leave to withdraw from your sight and speak privately together. Then he who returns to you will be the true voice and there shall be no more division--"

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