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They had made it over a hundred kilometers from the warehouse, through three checkpoints and one change of jurisdiction when the first alarm sounded. Taura didn't need to look at the screen showing the view behind the truck to know that a thin finger of smoke should just be making itself visible on the horizon. This was where things could get interesting very, very quickly.

When they had left the building, the only noise had been a thin whistle of oxygen flowing in regulated time from a canister, slowly turning the entire subbasement into a bomb. Without tripping any sensors, since the cheap poison-sniffers the owners had used checked only for toxins and for a lack of oxygen. Never a surplus.

Miles had toppled an empire with less fanfare. No, she corrected herself, she had. He'd slid his hand over hers and guided her, but she'd pressed the button that had ended House Ryoval financially. And when money dried up on Jackson's Whole, the vultures weren't far behind. It had been her first lesson in tactics. It had also been the first time anyone willingly handed power to her, other than the strength she had been born with.

This was the last major depot, and thus the most dangerous. News of the abrupt closure of a dozen seemingly unrelated minor sales outlets across several solar systems had not been connected by any reputable news agencies, but they'd expected the backers of the gunrunning operation to at least notice. And then the logical next step was to protect their investment by warning their local employees. Either their organization was poorer than Dendarii intelligence had calculated or less committed to the operation, and the nebulous they had declined the opportunity. Intelligence was still arguing with their employers over the exact identity of the initial seed money. Their employers had suggested Cetaganda as the ultimate source, while fleet intelligence was pointing their myopic gazes to the bowels of the bureaucracy of Nuovo Brazil. Miles had agreed with their employer; Taura -- and everyone else on the Triumph who had seen him walk through a corridor during that week -- knew he and Captain Quinn had disagreed over it. He had finally stated that their employer was picking up the tab, and if they wanted to see Cetagandans in every corner of the wormhole nexus, he wasn't going to stop them. Then he'd pointed out that in any case, the local operations had turned several little border wars into full-scale massacres, and the smugglers had chosen to reinforce the worst stereotypes of the profession. Which was bad for business all-around. No one would miss them, except their mothers. Then he'd gotten oddly thoughtful and added that he assumed their mothers weren't running the show.

Two days later, she had received her orders; she was to lead the most critical operation, the jeweler's rouge on her Sergeant's insignia still fresh and her team only half-formed. In another company, with another commander, it might have been punishment. Never from Miles, though. He was throwing her into the river to prove her worth, like one of his odd folk-stories. Something about a Count's three sons, a goat, and a ferry-boat.

What it amounted to was that he trusted her. The mission plan he'd handed out had been paper-thin. Get in, get out. She'd embellished it a little; they'd walked into the depot as customers. Miles had laughed when she described her plan, before reassuring her that it wasn't at her expense. He hadn't explained the joke, and she hadn't asked. He'd just recited one of Commodore Tung's ancient proverbs -- All warfare is based on deception -- in chorus with her, and signed off on the whole thing.

So far, the plan had survived the encounter with the enemy. They'd bought the weapons they'd need if they had to fight their way out at bargain prices while the explosives techs set up the delicate machinery of destruction. It was the sort of thing he'd do, and she'd been curious to see if she could duplicate even a fraction of his leverage rather than rely on force. Force was her default answer for everything -- she'd been built for it. And force, in numbers too great to overcome without subtlety, was on its way; a phalanx of the local militia was slowly gaining on them.

The lead car in the convoy slowly overtook them in a ponderous fanfare of dust and exhaust fumes. Taura motioned to Jankovic to stop and get out. She obeyed, hopping down onto the old-fashioned poured and steamrolled asphalt. Taura followed, unfolding herself slowly from a cockpit not designed for an eight-foot-tall passenger. The scowling functionary's eyes traced a familiar path up her unmarked fatigues to her fangs. He cleared his throat. Taura waited. He cleared his throat again, and started rushing through a routine.

"Unidentified vehicle, I order you to stop and submit for inspection by the authority of the Tau Verde Union of Allied States."

"Jankovic, kill the engine for the nice gentleman," she ordered, her voice a low rumble.

"B-b-but Ser--" Taura could see her neat series of contingencies upon contingencies falling apart with each stuttered syllable. Chance favors the prepared mind, but it didn't do any good if she was the only one playing her part. She couldn't let Jankovic get any further. So she reached out and grabbed her by the front of her fatigues, reaching through to the shock webbing underneath. She tightened her hand in the slippery, fire-resistant fabric, her sharpened, painted nails neatly piercing the cloth, and lifted. Jankovic paled, though whether it was the claws or the implicit dressing-down from her mission commander, she wasn't sure. This possibility had been in the mission handout -- she remembered writing it. It hadn't been the most likely outcome, though it was one of the best. She'd put it down at a tentative ten percent, behind no contact and a sniper-lined gauntlet. Had she done something wrong in briefing the troops? Whether or not she had, she couldn't afford to wonder right now. There's be time enough to talk to Jankovic later if they all got home from this in one piece.

The colorless little man with the convoy was watching this byplay with growing curiosity. Taura set Jankovic down, and shooed her off to shut down the engines. "There, now, we've stopped. What can we do for you?" she purred. Stopping was a risky gamble -- with the engines hot, they had a chance of outrunning the locals for long enough to call the shuttle and set up a hasty rendezvous. But Taura had gotten a good look at the convoy as they'd approached; it would be a nasty firefight the whole way.

The man had stopped trying to puff himself up. Interesting. He was going for obsequious, now. "We just need to see your identification and any customs documents, please?"

"Of course," she said, smiling -- the smile that showed off exactly how long her fangs were. He blanched even paler, an impressive feat. Gotcha. She ruthlessly suppressed a gleeful giggle, and handed over a thick packet. The receipt for the weapons they'd just purchased was casually set on top. The man glanced at it, and didn't bother pretending to look through the other pages before handing it back.

"Are you, er, on your way..." he trailed off delicately.

She took pity on him and let the smile fade. "We've rented a facility about fifteen kilometers from here." The facility was a warehouse big enough to hide a short-hop cargo shuttle, plus a half-hour launch window at a nearby pad, but he didn't need to know that. Besides, all of the paperwork had been in the stack he'd just inspected.

"Do you, er..." Was he asking if they wanted an escort? He was. While it would save any further delays, it would also create a very awkward scene when they loaded their goods onto a shuttle and made haste off-world, rather than settling in. The Dendarii had no interest in taking over a small, out-of-the-way smuggling depot. She just wasn't going to enlighten what had to be the local commerce bureau of that until it was too late. He wasn't stopping them to arrest them. He was stopping them to make sure they set up shop in his district.

"No, I think we can handle ourselves." And she smiled again, this time from relief, genuine and overwhelming, and waved a vague carry-on hand to Jankovic.