|1138 Hours, August 14th, 2558
Imperial Palace, Iradu, Voden System
"His Excellency will see you shortly."
As he watched the Unggoy footman scurry away through a side passage, Issac Kenner let out a sigh of relief. It had taken a week of travel and a further three days of waiting in Iradu's spaceport to attain this meeting, but it would all be worth it. After all, it wasn't every day that you got to meet an Emperor, even if he refused to use such a title.
"Told you it wouldn't be long, Thaler," Kenner said as he adjusted his tie. "They're friendlier to humans than people think."
Thaler, a younger man in a business suit, grunted acknowledgement as he turned to admire the towering statue that dominated the chamber, depicting an armoured Sangheili warrior with sword held aloft. Illuminated from all sides by well-placed lights, every intricate detail of the exquisite craftsmanship could be seen clearly.
"So that's him," he spoke with some distaste. "Their dear leader."
Kenner stood beside him, mopping his bald head with a handkerchief. "That it is. You don't approve?"
"Of the statue? Not when the subject is alive, no. Of the person? Well, I'm here, aren't I?"
"Not because you want to be."
"No." Thaler glanced around to make sure they weren't being spied on. "He's a dictator, Kenner. Some of the guild had very strong feelings about this deal."
The older man smiled. "And they were outvoted. Putting feelings like that into business is bad for everyone."
The pair stood in silence for a few moments, thinking things over. The Imperium of Clarity was merely some distant patch of former Covenant space of little interest to most human traders, but to an enterprising businessman like Kenner, it was a prime target for new investments. Representing the Guild of Free Traders, an independent outfit of no fixed headquarters save an unofficial office on Venezia, they had sought to expand their salvaging and acquisition operations into this new territory and had spent nearly a month bartering with a group of Kig-Yar traders to take them here.
Thaler sighed. "You'd think that they would have changed by now. The Covenant, I mean. All those years of blindly following orders, and then most of them go back to working for whoever's got the biggest army."
"Did you expect them to fall into democracy's loving arms the moment the war ended?" Kenner chuckled. "Not that it meant much to us during the war."
"On the frontier, maybe. It was martial law or extermination. Life went on as normal back on Earth."
"I'm told that this place was the frontier for the Covenant, too. Perhaps they needed this. Besides, your 'normal' came pretty damn close to falling apart during the invasion."
"Desperate times, Kenner."
Arguments like this had plagued them the whole trip, though it helped to pass the time at least. The bald merchant set down his briefcase and stretched out, yawning loudly.
"So you say, but have you ever seen a planet get glassed?"
"No," Thaler turned towards him, half-intrigued and half-worried. "Have you?"
"My homeworld, Troy. I was aboard my father's ship when it happened, you see. We were able to hide by some nearby asteroids, and watched as they glassed the entire colony."
Thaler bowed his head. "I heard about Troy. I'm sorry."
His business partner shrugged. "Why? You had nothing to do with it. Neither did the UNSC, apparently. There wasn't even any resistance when they attacked. Still, it taught me something valuable."
"That nothing's as permanent as we'd like to think it is, and that when you get right down to it, the guy with the most power always wins."
His associate snorted. "That's just common sense. Anyone with half a brain knows we might've lost the war if those Sangheili hadn't allied with us."
"True, though you don't see much criticism of their Arbiter, do you? I don't recall hearing of a vote to put him in charge."
"And so we're coming back to the original debate," Thaler smiled. "Firstly, the Arbiter's on our side. Secondly, I'm of the opinion that we not interfere in how they run their society."
"But this Imperial Admiral of theirs," Kenner waved back towards the statue. "He's the distasteful one?"
"Because from what I've seen, this whole 'Imperium' is nothing but a colossal vanity project! The whole place is madly in love with a warlord!"
Kenner shot Thaler a venomous look and approached, not stopping until they were almost nose-to-nose. "Keep your voice down," he hissed. "Remember where we are."
"Right," the other man muttered, staring at his shoes. "You've got to admit, it's a bit ostentatious, don't you think?"
"It is," Kenner admitted. "But did you notice what I saw coming in?"
"Nothing special, no."
"One of those 'Imperial Guards' was female. You ever seen something like that before?"
"I can't tell the difference with them, honestly. Why's that important?"
"Because it's new and different, that's why. Half these so-called Covenant groups are following one radical sect of their religion or another, and even the Arbiter's lot are getting used to being a little more open with things. How many Sangheili have you dealt with who haven't waxed lyrical about their honour or the gods?"
"Exactly! Now we've done our fair share of work with aliens, but when was the last time you saw them building new cities? Not treating Unngoy like trash? Heck, even trading with us without both sides being ready to shoot at any one moment. Face it, Thaler: This place may be the best thing to happen to the Covenant since it collapsed."
"And the only price is dictatorship." Thaler folded his arms. "Living happily and freely, as long as you don't ever question the guys in charge."
"I'd call that a fairly benevolent dictatorship if you ask me. Could be worse."
"Let's say this Imperial Admiral dies, then. Anyone who knows their history - human or alien - knows that this benevolence isn't going to last."
Kenner grinned. "Nothing does, friend. That's why we're here to do business as long as is necessary."
At the end of the hall, a great metal door slid open, and the two humans turned to face it. A quartet of ornately-armoured guards approached, carrying exotic weaponry of neither human nor Covenant design. Behind them stood a tall figure in a resplendent suit of shimmering white and gold, who regarded the pair with a look of supreme imperiousness. Having been briefed on proper protocol by their Unggoy guide, they both sank to their knees, keeping their eyes planted firmly on the floor as the Sangheili spoke.
They did so, wary of the guards that surrounded them. Imperial Admiral Toru 'Makhan gave a wave, and they stepped back to give them some room. After a few moments of heavy, awkward silence, Kenner took the initiative and stepped forward, unclasping his briefcase.
"Your excellency, I am Issac Kenner of the Guild of Free Traders. I have come here with a request regarding mining rights in the Montak system that may be of interest to your Imperium's expansion and future prosperity."
Makhan crossed his arms. "You may proceed."