"...Your particular brand of stock isn't worth what it once was... If you expect The Society to pay premiums, then you must rightly expect that the product we are bartering for is of equitable quality."

The statement - or perhaps more correctly, insult - silenced the room. One or two looked away, eager not to meet the man's gaze, lest their face be remembered in any connection with the comment. Others more senior leaned into one another in lowered voice to exchange short words. At the centre of the group, the glimmer in his eyes darkened as he lifted his chin imperceptibly. He didn't say a word as the barterer finally continued to speak.

"...As it was, the advice you invested in cost your Chapter countless millions in assets. You never did disclose the total sum of losses to the Exchequer. Oh, it was subtle to be certain, and it's a point of accounting I might be convinced to keep between us in exchange for the right consideration of my position in this negotiation. A column shift from one market besieged by failing equities, to offset the losses of your stunning misventures in speculation. You wagered a considerable fortune on the security offered by one of the crudest thugs in the entire Futara Mundi. What did you really think was going to happen?"

Still the man said nothing. He sipped the tapered glass of ruby-red liquor and set it aside, swallowing and closing his eyes as he appreciated the burning sensation it produced on the way down. When he finally exhaled, a small puff of steam escaped his lips. "Amusing."

The barterer blinked. "Amusing? I fail to see your position as entertaining by even the slightest measure. An exposure of your accounts is a slight on the integrity of the entire Society. I'm only standing here out of respect for the status you earned in the Commission. None of the others were willing to make an offer at all."

"Let me make it simple for you," he said quite calmly. "These... outsiders... They sit on that space station of theirs thinking themselves invulnerable. Oh yes, the ancient ones certainly challenged them, but it was fate - not prowess - that bested them. I am prepared to offer you something that I believe you will find exceptionally palatable."

"And that would be?"

"...Security, and immunity from their reach."

The scoff was almost a guffaw. Again there were frowns from the rest of the assembly. Civility was rapidly disappearing, and if it continued, none of them particularly looked forward to the consequences. "Security? From Starfleet? This is the same thing your former colleague promised you. A worthless proposition."

The man smiled a little, and again sipped his drink. "Twenty cycles. That is all I require. I believe we are done here?"

"...Done?" the barterer queried in protest. "How in Xhandra's name do you-"

-He raised a hand, and locked eyes with him. Immediately, the barterer stopped speaking.

"To this point, I have honoured the Contract," he said softly - his voice a delicate whisper that staccatoed precisely on every syllable, loud enough to be heard, but not so loud to ruin the calm of the room. "Continue to disrespect me in my own house, and I will take your tongue. Convey that to the others. And get out."

The barterer blinked twice, his mouth agape like an Asheran eel, and finally bowed deeply. "As you wish."

As the barterer left the room, his entourage filed out in turn, leaving the man and his senior counsels to watch them in silence. Only when the door closed behind them did he sigh, and look to the tall lieutenant closest to his right. "...Have you heard from our contract?"

"We have. I am assured we will have the requested information in three cycles."

With the very slightest smile, the man nodded his approval and looked back down to the ledger slate and the holo-image of the  small, furry creature that excitedly shivered its fur at him. It had a soothing quality to it, he admitted to himself. With a precise flick of his index finger, he sent another red orb flying through the virtual air to land on top of the creature. With a burst of animated light and charm, it disappeared into the orb, and he grinned.

"...Such a fascinatingly novel little opportunity, wouldn't you agree?"

The lieutenant smiled, and with a polite bow, he and the the other counsels followed the way the barterer and his own assistants had left.

In the dim light, the man leaned back, and sipped his drink again.

((Join us on Saturday, 27 August at 2130 US EST for "It's all fun and games"!))