I was on my way home from Illium when it happened.

This would have been . . . Strange. For once I have trouble placing the event in context. I had gone to Illium to attend an entirely unmemorable scientific conference, and I've been to hundreds of those over the centuries. The entire trip was unmemorable, aside from that one encounter. I do recall it was about a decade after I retired from politics for the first time, so sometime in the early 2250s by human reckoning.

I voyaged aboard the luxury liner Thessia Serenity for the occasion. After decades of passage aboard cramped little personal ships or military vessels, I had entered a phase of preferring to travel in style. A slow, three-day trip from Illium back to Thessia was very welcome. Even my acolytes agreed to watch over me from a discreet distance, trusting somewhat in the liner's security, granting me the illusion of solitude.

On the first evening of the voyage, hours out from Illium, I wandered into one of the starboard lounges. I hoped to find a quiet place to drink a glass of wine and look out at the stars. Yes, for my remembrance of Shepard . . . something your mother has always tolerated, I should point out, even then when we were still maidens together and our bonding was new.

To my surprise, the lounge stood empty and dark. I glanced around and wondered how such a stunning view could go unappreciated. At least the room wasn't closed. I crossed to the great viewport and stood quietly, sipping my chilled meliteia and staring out at the glory of the Galaxy.

"Apologies," came a frighteningly deep voice. "I do not wish to alarm you."

My heart skipped a beat, and I barely managed to avoid dropping my wine-glass. I whirled, staring into the darkest corner of the room.

A huge shape moved there, came forward slightly so that I could pick out details in the starlight. Tall, bulky, crowned by a pair of great arching horns. Eight clustered eyes regarded me from the shadows.

A yahg.

Almost without conscious thought, I activated my daimon. {PRIORITY: Call Nerylla!}

"I recognize you," the yahg said calmly. "Liara T'Soni. I am deeply honored."

{What is it, despoina?}

I forced myself to stand still, controlling my breathing and my heartbeat, desperately striving to show no sign of fear. I cursed the desire for privacy that kept my acolytes at a distance. At that moment I truly did want a squad of tough-minded asari commandos on hand.

{There is a yahg in the lounge here!}

{I'll have the rapid-reaction team there immediately.} Nerylla seemed as calm as ever, but I could tell she was frightened too. Oh yes, Nerylla can be frightened, especially when any of our family are in danger. Even if she doesn't make a great show of it.

"You fear me," said the yahg. A statement of fact, no trace of either concern or pleasure in it.

"Yes," I said at last. "You startled me."

He made a deep rumble that might have been humor. "I also am yahg, and it is known that your remarkable career began with a private war against one of my people. I take no offense."

"No offense was intended." The creature was so urbane. I felt less threatened by the moment. "If you sought solitude here, I apologize for interrupting you. I will withdraw."

{Nerylla, stand down for now. He's not making any threatening moves. He seems to want to . . . talk.}

{As you command, despoina. I will have the team wait in the corridor just outside.}

"There is no need for you to depart," said the yahg. "Please permit me to introduce myself. I am Taryan tan-Chula. In your language, Taryan of the Chula pack."

"What, no list of those you've slain?"

"It is considered impolite to recite one's full name to star-creatures. It seems to make them uneasy, at least if they understand the custom of prey-names."

{Daimon, records search: Yahg. Taryan tan-Chula. No prey-names available.}

{Yes, Dr. T'Soni.}

"I can't imagine why." Then I shook my head, mastering my emotions. "I apologize again. I'm not usually this rude."

"That is so." He moved again, more of his body visible in the dim light. I could hear dry humor in his voice. "Your reputation suggests a talent for diplomacy. Unless you are taken off-guard by large and possibly hostile strangers. Then your reputation suggests a talent for carnage."

I sighed. "Let's begin again. Hello. My name is Liara T'Soni."

"Hello, madam President."

"I haven't held that title for several years. Hopefully I won't ever hold it again."

"I do not understand this desire to give up power. Perhaps it has to do with being asari and very long-lived," the yahg observed. "Will Dr. T'Soni suffice?"

"That would be lovely. What calls you away from the Protectorate?"

Taryan strode forward, stopping well outside my personal space, and turned to the viewport to look out at the stars. "I am what your culture would call a merchant. I venture out into the galaxy, acquire goods and technology that are permitted to my people under the treaty, and arrange for their distribution at home."

"Not a vocation I would have expected."

"Because I am yahg? Success in commerce requires boldness, cleverness, and persistence. One must compete fiercely against others to make a profit. The opportunities for personal advancement are unlimited. Many of my people find such work congenial."

"I suppose that does make sense."

My daimon chose that moment to present a data-burst: everything it could discover about the yahg on a few moments' notice. I managed to prevent surprise from showing on my face. Taryan tan-Chula was much more than a simple merchant. He held a considerable fortune even within Confederation space, amounting to several billion credits. I could only guess what kind of wealth and influence he must have accumulated among his own people.

The yahg rumbled deeply for a moment. "I also am a student of games."

I cocked my head, not certain I had heard correctly. "What sort of games?"

"I prefer abstract games of strategy, although I have spent some time studying games of chance as well. I find them to be a useful psychological tool. Examine the games a species enjoys, and you understand that species more fully. Observe a stranger while he plays a game, and you gain insight into his mind."

"Not to mention that games provide more opportunities for competition."

"This also is true." Taryan turned slightly to look down at me with half of his eyes. "I hesitate to make a suggestion . . ."

I glanced at him, schooling my features into bland politeness.

Taryan, did you know I was on board this ship? Did you somehow arrange for a lounge near my cabin to stand empty, so that you could lie in wait? You certainly have enough money to bribe the liner's crew to keep other passengers away.

I felt almost amused at the thought of this massive creature, this fearsome carnivore, scheming to win a quiet hour with me over a gaming table.

"What do you have in mind, Taryan?"

"I am rather fond of the human game chess. Do you play?"

I smiled warmly. "To be honest, I prefer poker . . . but yes, I'm familiar with chess as well. I learned many years ago, aboard the Normandy."

His ear-flaps quivered, and he turned further to stare at me with all eight eyes, full of keen interest. "Did you play with the famous Commander Shepard?"

"No. I'm afraid chess was not one of his skills. I first learned the game from another human crewman, a young woman who worked on Shepard's staff. She was a master-class player, and I fear I didn't present much of a challenge to her at the time, but I have practiced since then as time permits."

"I see." The yahg turned away from the window, crossing the lounge to a row of storage cabinets on the back wall. A few moments of searching, and then he found a chess set. The case looked tiny in his enormous hands. "A Staunton set in red and white marble. This will do very well."

Bemused, I followed the yahg over to a table, sitting down across from him while he activated a holographic board and removed the pieces from their case. Once all the pieces were out on the table, he picked up a pawn of each color, concealed them in his hands, and then held them out for me to choose.

I pointed to his right hand, not quite willing to risk touching him.

"White," he rumbled, opening both hands to reveal the outcome of my choice.

I began to arrange my pieces on the board. "What rules?"

"I suggest a casual game, with no need for a clock. Although I feel the touch-move rule is simple courtesy."

"I agree." I took another sip of my wine and looked down at the board, trying to discipline my thoughts. "You should know that I have a daimon-implant. I'll put it in standby mode while we play."

"A welcome concession," he said, settling his great bulk into an extra-large chair. "I find the game is much more interesting when neither player has access to computer analysis."

{Daimon, enter standby mode. Call Nerylla at once if my vital signs show evidence of immediate threat.}

{Acknowledged.}

A ghostly sense of presence withdrew from the back of my mind, as the implant AI shut down its active mode. I glanced down at the board for a moment, and then pushed my king's pawn forward two squares.

If anyone had told me this was how I would spend my evening, I would have laughed in her face.

Taryan immediately moved his own king's pawn two squares, blocking my pawn. His hands moved with incongruous delicacy on the piece. "I hope you have no objection to conversation while we play."

"Not if this is a casual game." Knight to king's bishop three. "I will admit to some curiosity."

The yahg rumbled deep in its chest, an expression I couldn't interpret. Knight to queen's bishop six. "What has aroused your curiosity?"

I nodded to myself and decided to commit to the Spanish opening. Bishop to queen's knight five, threatening the yahg's knight. "Taryan, it's clear that you have gone to some lengths to arrange this meeting. Why?"

Deftly, he reached out to move his king's rook's pawn one square forward, a conservative defense. "Surely you make a jest. You are quite famous. Scientist, spymaster, politician, diplomat, President of the Citadel Confederation for seven years . . . anyone would be honored to have your undivided attention for a brief time."

"Most people are satisfied to make an appointment with my secretary." I pulled my bishop back one rank, to queen's rook four, still threatening his knight.

"Most people are not yahg. I had no confidence that your secretary would be responsive to me. In any case, I could see the opportunity would be fleeting. As soon as this vessel reaches Thessia, you go your way and I go mine." The yahg brought his other knight to bear, on my king's bishop six.

"So you're just indulging in a moment of celebrity stalking?" I decided to take the opportunity to castle king-side.

"No," the yahg admitted. "I have other motives."

We played in silence for several moves. The yahg was conservative in his play, building a closed defense and passing up several opportunities to take my pieces. He played cautiously enough to surprise me, in fact. At that time I would have expected a scream-and-leap offensive, if I had ever envisioned a yahg playing chess in the first place. I followed suit, perhaps a little more aggressive, moving my pawns toward strong chains and deploying some of my senior pieces.

"If it is not an impolite question," I ventured after a time, "may I ask whether you fought in the war?"

"That was a long time ago."

"Not that long. Thirty to forty years."

"True." Taryan reached out and took my pawn on queen's four. First blood. "Yes, I served the salarians in the war when I was young. I gained much valuable experience during that time."

"What kind of experience?" I took his pawn on the same square in exchange.

"Galactic technology, especially weapons and defensive systems. I also studied naval architecture and starship drive design, so far as we were permitted." He moved a knight onto my side of the board, to my queen's knight four. "I learned a great deal about our enemies. All of you star-creatures. Krogan, turians, humans . . ."

"What about the salarians?"

"Especially the salarians. We knew from the beginning that they had not chosen to uplift us out of generosity. We were pawns to them. It was a very grave insult."

"So you turned on them."

"Once we were able." A few more moves went by in silence, and then Taryan made the rumble I was beginning to associate with grim humor. "It surprised them a great deal when we escaped the biological constraints they had placed upon us."

"By eating them, in many cases."

"It was a chaotic time. Our rebellion isolated many of us, with no supply lines. Our body mass requires a great deal of meat to sustain it." Black pawns continued to inch in my direction. "You will note we ate no krogan or humans during the war. It would have been . . . in bad taste to devour those with whom we hoped to ally."

"Do you still consider us star-creatures your enemies?"

"Only the salarians. Their actions will not soon be forgotten."

"Understandable." Rook to queen's rook three. "So how do you regard us today?"

All eight eyes flicked up to watch my face. "As prey."

That quickly, I found myself fighting for my life.

A pawn exchange, a rook exchange, and then a series of lightning-fast moves in which one of his knights executed a very aggressive fork against a bishop and the other rook in my back rank. I took the knight, but lost my other bishop in the exchange. We both moved quickly, no time for talk. If a clock had been on the table, we would have been slapping it in turn, seconds apart.

Taryan deployed his queen for the first time, to my queen's rook five. I found myself in trouble. At least I still stood one pawn up, after all that carnage.

"I'm somewhat aware of yahg psychology," I pointed out. "I had to be, given my position during the war and the negotiations that followed. I know that you don't intend that statement to be taken literally."

"Perhaps. It is true that aside from the emergencies of war, my people do not seek out the flesh of sentient beings to eat. Star-creatures do not taste well, and some of their flesh is poison. Yet predation takes many forms. One seeks to seize resources held by others and apply them toward one's own sustenance."

I decided to risk my remaining knight against the yahg's black queen. "You're speaking of commercial competition."

"Yes. One profits through ruthless efficiency and seeking an advantage over others. No one normally dies, but the successful merchant thrives by attacking his competitors and even his own dependants. Their profits are curtailed so that his may grow. Predation."

The yahg maneuvered his queen, snapping up one of my pawns, but then I was able to implement my own knight fork. His other rook went down before he could dispose of my knight. A fair trade.

"Most of my people do not see things in this manner." The huge creature seemed almost to shrug, a body-gesture of supreme indifference. "They choose to have nothing to do with you star-creatures. This leaves the range open for the few of us who do see the opportunities. The few of us who can deal with you without constantly feeling the urge to slaughter."

"Which makes you dominant back home," I guessed, deploying my own Matriarch at last to take an annoying black pawn on queen's three.

"Of course. There has been much change on Parnack in the last century. Where once warrior packs held sway, now we merchants occupy the pinnacle of our society. Which is as it must be."

I glanced up at the yahg, hearing a trace of tension in its voice. Whatever his motives for accosting me, we approached their heart. "What do you mean?"

He pushed his queen out into the center of the board, taking one of my pawns at king's bishop four. I saw our queens now stood one knight's move apart, unable to threaten one other directly. "In many ways we yahg are superior to any of you star-creatures. Larger, stronger, faster, more physically powerful, more aggressive and ruthless, more intelligent . . . did you say something?"

"No," I assured him, covering my involuntary snort of amusement at the creature's easy arrogance. I moved a bishop to king's knight three, threatening his queen to force him into retreat.

He refused to withdraw, instead moving his remaining knight to my king's five to threaten my queen.

"We could leap out and try to conquer you all," he said calmly. "Some of us indeed wish to do that."

I hesitated, but only for a few moments, watching that monstrous "face" with all its eyes. Then I took his queen, sacrificing my own in exchange.

"You see," he rumbled. "Perhaps if you were weak, like most prey beasts, we might succeed. You are not. You are willing to do what you must to win. You defeated the Reapers. You defeated the salarians, even with we yahg at first in their camp. If we tried to conquer the galaxy, you would defeat us. Then there would be no hope for us, ever again. Parnack would burn."

"We wouldn't go that far," I protested.

"After the horrors we would inflict on you, even while failing to conquer the galaxy?" The yahg snorted, a cavernous sound. "Your Citadel Confederation seems magnanimous enough, but I would not care to put its generosity to the test. No. The war of conquest must never begin. Which means I, and those like me, must continue to hold our position on Parnack."

Finally I see the motive.

"Are you asking me to use my influence in your favor?" I gave the yahg a sharp-edged smile, suddenly remembering a similar expression I had once used against the Shadow Broker. "Secure trading rights for you, perhaps? Relax the restrictions on what technology may be imported into the Protectorate?"

"Nothing so crude." Taryan heaved a great breath, and reached out to continue the game. "I thrive well enough now, and so do others in my line of business. All we ask is to be left alone. Do not permit fear of the yahg to push the Confederation into hasty action against us."

"No new restrictions or regulations, then. Nothing to upset the balance of what you are trying to accomplish."

"Yes. Perhaps over a generation or two, our people can be taught to live with you star-creatures in a new way. We need time."

I frowned, thinking it through, playing through the game with only half of my mind. I now had an advantage on the board anyway. "I don't have any formal power since my retirement . . . but I do still have contacts in Parliament and the executive branch." I glanced up at the yahg, held its many-eyed gaze for a moment. "I'll do what I can."

"Good." Taryan put my king in check, then a second time, but the attacks were weak and unsupported. I suspect he was only going through the motions at that point. "My people are apex predators, Dr. T'Soni. We require vast ranges to support ourselves. We do not crowd into great hives like you omnivores do. On all of Parnack there are no more than one hundred million of us, and we consider even that too many. We could colonize other worlds, but that process would be difficult for us. We would have to bring whole ecologies along with us. Our numbers would expand slowly, since we have few offspring and must invest a great deal of time and energy in them. Perhaps if the Reapers had destroyed all of you, we would have inherited a range as wide as the galaxy and plenty of time to grow into it. As it stands, we must learn to live with you."

"Perhaps it's for the best," I said, playing through a last set of exchanges that left us with only a few pieces on the board. "We've learned to value diversity. We grow by living with the Other, learning to appreciate what the Other has to offer us. The yahg can benefit from that too."

"A very asari point of view."

"Sometimes. I actually learned it from a human." I moved my last rook. "Check, and mate in five."

Very delicately, the yahg reached out and tipped over his king. "A pleasing game. My compliments to a worthy opponent."

"Thank you."

"I must ask. What is your FIDE rating?"

I cocked my head at him. "I don't have one. I've never had the time to play competitively."

"A shame. Mine is in the low twenty-four-hundreds. I hope to earn my Interstellar Master's title soon."

I couldn't help but grin. "I would love to see the reactions when you walk out onto the tournament floor."

He leaned back in his chair, his ear-flaps quivering, his eyes gleaming. The picture of smug satisfaction. "There is usually a great deal of consternation."

I stood and extended my hand across the table. "I've enjoyed our talk, and the game. Now I had better call my guard detail and make sure they know I didn't turn into an evening snack."

"That would be wise," he rumbled, and touched my hand briefly.

I didn't see him again for a long time, and when I did it was not under such pleasant circumstances. Even so, yes, that was how I met one of the strangest friends I've ever had.