"Pleased to make your acquaintance," Lieutenant-Captain Allthog Mathaclorian said politely, also adopting the speech form indicating the presence of an equal, "Are there others here today representing the Culture that I should greet?"
Mathaclorian knew that humans from the Culture were often accompanied by a machine, a drone, when visiting other people's planets or habitats. Whether this was for the human's protection, or to make sure the bio did not do or say anything embarrassing, was unclear, although the Lieutenant-Captain had long wondered if the Culture liked to keep its human citizens under continuous surveillance, just because it could.
The Culture person screwed up his face in a strange manner which Mathaclorian eventually realised was supposed to indicate amusement.
"Ah, no," Hy-Golten said after a moment, "Just me, I'm afraid. And you, do you have an entourage, a staff, colleagues that I should greet?"
The Lieutenant-Captain was reminded, to his chagrin, that the Deluger Franchisement considered this assignment of litte importance, which is why a mere Acting-Captain from a disgraced family was directed to attend, and certainly explained why he was entirely lacking in toadying flunkies on this mission.
"As you, sir," Mathaclorian replied, "Just me to represent the honour of my civilization."
The human waggled his head up and down, which the Lieutenant-Captain took to mean some kind of agreement or at least understanding.
"Just the two of us, then," the human said, "Tell me, Captain, am I correct in recalling that, long ago, the Ambalshore clan received an unforgiveable insult from a member of our Contact section? Something to do with a sacred relic, was it not?"
Mathaclorian was impressed. The human had not taken on that glassy-eyed look that showed, as plain as the Twin Moons, that he was communicating elsewhere using some device in his head. A prior search on the official ambassadorial guest list provided to all guests would have revealed his name - although he had been a late substitute - and the embarrassing incident was no doubt in the records of the Culture somewhere, but he had not expected that he would be buttonholed within two minutes of a first meeting.
"Sir, you are correct," the Lieutenant-Captain replied, "And my complements on the perspicacity of your insight. Yes, an ancient ancestor of mine once requested the assistance of the Culture in retrieving an important and time-honoured cultural artifact known as the Dynastist's Foot - stolen by the Blitteringueh Conglo during the War - and which is even now held hostage by them. My ancestor requested - begged might be a better term - the Culture to assist him in retrieving this relic. He sincerely thought you people were going to help, but then the Culture-man just refused and walked away."
The human did his head-waggling movement again. Mathaclorian still thought it looked silly.
"I confess I researched the incident," the human called Hy-Golten said, "I dare say your clan has received numerous apologies in the past, and I would certainly like to add my own, if that is of any consequence. But they were desperate times, for the Culture. A time when the Culture might even have been in fear, afraid that its own existence was threatened. There were good reasons - at the time, of course - to focus all resources on something that threatening. Unnecessarily, as it turned out. But the Minds coordinating the response were being ultra-cautious, and our records show that every resource - not matter how minor - was redirected."
Lieutenant-Captain Mathaclorian was perhaps slightly mollified; still, it was his own clan, all those years ago. Even now, his own promotion was being held back by something that happened elsewhere in the galaxy and was entirely not the fault of his infamous ancestor.
"I can perhaps comprehend," he said carefully, "How an existential threat to your civilization would cause a rapid re-prioritization. But, the Dynastist's Foot is still held by the Blitteringueh Conglo as a spoil of war, much to the dissatisfaction of the Deluger Franchisement Central Council, and to me personally."
The Culture person did his amused-face thing again.
"Well, it is quite true that the Blitteringueh Conglo still have the Dynastist's Foot," Hy-Golten answered, "Although it is certainly not treated as a prize. The Blitteringueh Conglo do not have the same profound sense of history as you do. I have it on good authority that your hallowed reliquiae is treated merely as some dusty historical relic, an artifact mostly forgotten and stored in some dull basement never to see the light of day."
Mathaclorian was immediately enraged, his diplomatic training vanishing in a moment.
"Forgotten!" he bellowed angrily, "Do they not know the importance of this thing?"
The human waved both arms up and down, a gesture whose meaning the Acting-Captain had long forgotten.
"Dear Captain, please calm yourself," the human said placatingly.
Mathaclorian looked around and remembered exactly where he was. A few beings nearby might have been looking curiously in their direction, but there was little to see and the Deluger language tended to be loud in normal use anyway. He took a deep breath, distending his chest like a balloon, then let it out slowly.
"Sir, please accept my apologies," he said politely and much more quietly, "It is not you who has inflamed my ire, but those damn Blitteringueh bastards."
"Apology accepted," the human called Hy-Golten replied, "Let us talk more about this precious relic of yours."
Their further discussion was interrupted by an announcement that the Empress herself would shortly address the gathering from her High Seat.
Safanariumians were humanoids; a body pattern which seemed to crop up in the greater galaxy on a regular basis, evolving on small-ish rocky planets which had a moderate water cycle: not so wet that amphibious or aquatic forms would be preferred, nor so dry that more compact forms would be selected. To Hy-Golten's eyes, they looked like pretty standard people: slightly squat and blocky, almost entirely hairless and with large round eyes which nevertheless seemed strangely expressionless. Mathaclorian thought they looked nearly indistinguishable from Culture humans.
The Empress lived permanently at the top of her stairs, on a large platform - perhaps parade ground might be a better description - upon which was placed everything Her Imperial Highness needed: beds and chairs and tables, and a proper conventionally-sized throne, and bathing and dressing and ablutionary conveniences; all that would allow a person to live very comfortably. What it lacked was walls; there were no dividers, curtains, separators of any kind on the vast plain of polished stone where she lived. There was no attempt at privacy in the slightest. Her bodily needs were catered for by a small army of servants, walking up and down the many kilometres of stairs carrying her breakfast, or taking away wastes; no servant was permitted to linger at the upper-most level for more than a very few minutes.
No doubt the original intent of this idiosyncratic arrangement was as a defence against assassination; there were few places even the most able human cutthroat could have remained unseen and even fewer ways of approaching the person of the Empress. Not that it would have made any difference to, say, the kind of technology that the Culture, as an example, could have brought to bear, in the unlikely event of it being considered necessary; it was, in truth, just a tradition that had refused to die, much like the Empress herself.
The current incumbent of the High Seat was now more than fifteen hundred years old. A considerable fraction of the one-time wealth of the Safanariumal Empire had been spent on anti-aging treatments for the Empress herself. A great many different medical technologies, pharmaceutical treatments and therapeutic rejuvenations had been applied to her body over the centuries, giving her a continuing air of great beauty, albeit in a slightly stretched, over-exposed kind of way.
In any case, the contents of the long and involved speech were mostly anodyne: involuted and prolonged welcomes to friends old and new; threats - entirely unspecific - to enemies, most of whom seem to have been long extinct or otherwise removed from the galaxy, and all of which had absolutely no representatives in the audience - and glowing epithets to the continued glories of the Safanariumal Empire.
So, it was entirely reasonable for delegates to continue their conversations in the gaps in the discourse, or perhaps use the pronouncements as an excuse to disengage from whatever tiresome bore or prissy nuisance they were speaking with and move on to more interesting or useful discussions.
It was in this very moment of confusion and change that Hy-Golten chose to step very close to Lieutenant-Captain Allthog Mathaclorian and spoke in the quietest tones possible in the Deluger tongue.
"Let me make you an offer," the human said, "I will bring you the Dynastist's Foot, to return to your society and restore the standing of the entire Ambalshore clan, if you will consent to perform a personal favour for me."