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They were waiting as I stepped through the door into the taverno: three of them, preadult Yavanni, roughly the size of Brahma bulls, looming over me from both sides of the entryway. Big, eager-eyed, and territorial, they were on the prowl and looking for an excuse to squash something soft.
From all indications, it looked like that something was going to be me.
I stopped short just inside the door, and as it swung closed against my back I caught a faint whiff of turpentine from the direction of my would-be assailants. Which meant that along with being young and brash, they were also tanked to the briskets. I was still outside the invisible boundary of the personal territories they'd staked out for themselves in the entryway; and if I had any brains, I'd keep it that way. Yavanni aren't very bright even at the best of times, but when you're outweighed by two to one and outnumbered by three to one, brainpower ratio isn't likely to be the deciding factor. It had been a long day and a longer evening, I was tired and cranky, and the smartest thing I could do right now was get hold of the doorknob digging into my back and get out of there.
I looked past the Yavanni into the main part of the taverno. The place was pretty crowded, with both humans and a representative distribution of other species sitting around the fashionably darkened interior. It was likely to stay well populated, too, at least as long as anyone who tried to leave had to pass the three mobile mountains waiting at the door. A fair percentage of the clientele, I could see, was surreptitiously watching the little drama about to unfold, while the rest were studiously ignoring it. None of either grouplooked eager to leap to my defense should that become necessary. The two bartenders were watching me more openly, but there would be no help from that direction, either. This section of the spaceport environs lay in Meima's Vyssiluyan enclave, and the Vyssiluyas were notoriously laissez-faire where disputes of this sort were concerned. The local police would gladly and industriously pick up the pieces after it was all over, but that wasn't going to be much comfort if I wound up being one of those pieces.
I looked back at the Yavanni flanking my path, one a little way ahead and to my left, the other two to my right. They still hadn't moved, but I had the mental picture of coiled springs being tightened a couple more turns. I hadn't run, didn't look like I was going to run, and their small minds were simmering in eager anticipation of the moment when I put a foot across that invisible barrier and they got to see how many colors of bruises they could raise on me.
I wasn't armed, at least not seriously. Even if I had been, blasting away from close range at three full-size Yavanni was not a recommended procedure for anyone desiring a long and happy life. But there was a trick I'd heard about a few years ago, a nice little combination of Yavannian psychology and physiology that I'd tucked away for possible future reference. It looked, as the saying went, like the future was now. Gazing at each of the Yavanni in turn, I cleared my throat. "Do your mothers know you boys are here?" I demanded in the deepest voice I could manage.
Three jaws dropped in unison. "It's late," I continued before they could respond. "You should be home. Go home. Now."
They looked at each other, their earlier anticipation floundering in confusion. Talking like a Yavannian dominant male was probably the last response they'd expected from an alien half their size, and the molasses they used for brains was having trouble adjusting to the situation. "Did you hear me?" I snapped, putting some anger into my voice. "Go home."
The one on the left apparently had faster molasses than the other two. "You are not Yavannian," he snarled back at me in typically Yavannian-mangled English. A fresh wave of turpentine smell accompanied the words. "You will not speak to us that way." Paws flexing, he took a step toward me--
And I opened my mouth and let out a warbling, blood-freezing howl.
He froze in place, his alien face abruptly stricken as his glacial brain caught up with his fatal error. I was stationary and he was moving, which meant he had now violated my territory. I was the injured party, I had given out with the proper Yavannian accusation/indictment/challenge shout, and I was now entitled to the first punch.
By and by, of course, he would remember that I wasn't a Yavanne and therefore not entitled to the courtesy of Yavannian customs. I had no intention of giving that thought time to percolate through. Taking a long step toward him, I tightened my hands into fists and drove both of them hard into his lower torso, into the slight depressions on either side of the central muscle ridge.
He gave a forlorn sort of squeak--a startling sound from a creature his size--and went down with a highly satisfying thud that must have shaken the whole taverno. Curled around himself, he lay still.
The other two were still standing there, staring at me with their jaws hanging loosely. I wasn't fooled--flabbergasted or not, they were still in territorial mode, and the minute I stepped onto either's chosen section of floor I would get mauled. Fortunately, that was no longer a problem. The left side of the entryway was now free territory; stepping over the downed Yavanne, I passed through the entryway and into the taverno.
There was a small ripple of almost-applause, which quickly evaporated as those involved belatedly remembered that there were still two Yavanni left on their feet. I wasn't expecting any more trouble from them myself, but just the same I kept an eye on their reflection in the brass chandelier domes as I made my way through the maze of tables and chairs. There was an empty table in the back, comfortably close to the homey log fireplace that dominated that wall, and I sat down with my back to the crackling flames. As I did so, I was just in time to see the two undamaged Yavanni help their unsteady colleague out into the night.
"Buy you a drink, sir?"
I turned my head. A medium-sized man with dark skin stood in the dim light to the right of my table, a half-full mug in his hand, a thick thatch of white hair shimmering in the firelight. "I'm not interested in company right now," I said, punching up a small vodkaline on the table's menu selector. I wasn't interested in drinking, either, but that little fracas with the Yavanni had drawn enough attention to me as it was, and sitting there without a glass in my hand would only invite more curiosity.
"I appreciate what you did over there," the man commented, pulling out the chair opposite me and sitting down as if he'd been invited to do so. "I've been stuck here half an hour waiting for them to go away. Bit of a risky move, though, wasn't it? At the very least, you could have broken a couple of knuckles."
For a moment I gazed across the table at him, at that dark face beneath that shock of white hair. From the age lines in his skin he clearly had spent a lot of his life out in the sun; from the shape of the musculature beneath his jacket he hadn't spent that time lounging around in beach chairs. "Not all that risky," I told him. "Yavanni don't get that really thick skin of theirs until adulthood. Kids that age are still pretty soft in spots. You just have to know where those spots are."
He nodded, eyes dropping momentarily to the ship patch with its stylized "SB" on the shoulder of my faded black-leather jacket. "You deal a lot with aliens?"
"A fair amount," I said. "My partner's one, if that helps any."
"What do you mean, if it helps any?"
The center of the table opened up and my vodkaline appeared. "If it helps you make up your mind," I amplified, taking the glass off the tray. "About offering me a cargo."
A flicker of surprise crossed his face, but then he smiled. "You're quick," he said. "I like that. I take it you're an independent shipper?"
"That's right." I wasn't all that independent, actually, not anymore. But this wasn't the right time to bring that up. "My name's Jordan McKell. I'm captain of a Capricorn-class freighter called the Stormy Banks."
"Navigation and close-order piloting," I said. "My partner Ixil is certified in both drive and mechanical systems."
"Actually, I won't be needing your partner." He cocked an eyebrow. "Or your ship, for that matter."
"That makes sense," I said, trying not to sound too sarcastic. "What exactly do you need--a fourth for bridge?"
He leaned a little closer to me across the table. "I already have a ship," he said, his voice dropping to a murmur. "It's sitting at the spaceport, fueled and cargoed and ready to go. All I need is a crew to fly her."