“. . . And the pirates were taken into the loving custody of the Imperium’s own Red Fleet. I’m afraid the hoteliers are rather annoyed with me,” I said, contemplatively sipping from the delectable pale green wine in my glass. Bobbing in blood-warm water, in a fresh, new swimsuit that came from the storeroom where the management of the resort kept supplies in each size required by their members. It was all part of the rather exorbitant annual fee at the Starling Island private resort, but as the service matched the setting, none of us minded. Thoughtfully, I twirled the goblet stem between my fingers and stared up at the ornate carved, gilded and enameled ceiling. The room was lit by floating globes filled with flickering flames of gold. Priceless rare birds and animals, all well-trained so as not to cause a nuisance, roamed, swam or flew around the pool and its ten acres of environs, which had been landscaped to resemble a woodland glade. This room was only one of sixteen tableaux in the resort, and was my cousins’ and my favorite, at least this year. “I did offer to pay for damages, but Parsons stated that such a gesture on my part was not necessary. I believe they were more annoyed by that. He instructed them how to apply for reconstruction funds under the Victims’ Compensation Act, even looked up the appropriate forms from an obscure file in the Infogrid. I had no notion such a thing existed. Do you suppose that the owner of the bar on Kewick Station did that after we caused all of her commodes to seize up two years ago?”
“With that industrial glue powder?” asked Jil Loche Nikhorunkorn, a maternal cousin of mine, with a fierce grin. Jil, who shared my age and propensity for loftiness, also shared a penchant for a good prank. Her brown eyes were shaded by epicanthic folds, which concentrated her long lashes in broad, black fans. She had a long, slender figure that was barely concealed by a tiny swimsuit of brilliant ultramarine. I noticed that she had indulged in a swirl of gems attached around her navel. I didn’t tell her the trend was passé—the damage to her skin from the gems’ removal would keep her out of the sun for a precious two weeks of the desert summer. She’d find out soon enough, then disappear for a while with a face-saving excuse, undoubtedly after the season ended. “She saw the number on my scooter and called my father. Father withdrew a good deal of money from my account. I almost couldn’t go to Tark Sands with everyone else.”
We all agreed that would have been the real tragedy. Tark Sands was a favorite of ours, too. I recalled its ruby dunes and warm, orange sun with a good deal of pleasure. In particular, I remembered a lovely lady who worked as a climate programmer who shared my taste for pomegranate Rhapsody cocktails. With difficulty, I returned my mind to the enjoyable event at hand.
“What are real pirates like?” demanded Scot, who had followed my narrative more closely than most of the others, who were already perusing the dinner menu or toying with the latest of gadgets or one another. He always was the best of listeners. I smiled.
“I can’t speak to all illicit crews. These were nearly all reptilian. The captain was a very ugly Croctoid with a crooked jaw. A quantity of Uctu, three humans, more Crocs, and a Solinian. That wretched fellow bit great-grandfather Morris Ubunte Kinago’s pistol in half!”
My audience laughed.
“I’d heard they eat unrefined ore for breakfast,” said Jil, with a twinkle. “Nice to hear it confirmed.”
“But imagine my surprise when the creature’s teeth did prove equal to the task,” I said. “My heart skipped at least three beats.”
“Do you have pictures?” asked Xan. He lay sprawled with his latest young lovely companion in a hollow that was artfully made in the top of what looked like a dangerous shoal of rocks. When the waves were turned up all the way in the fountain, they crashed convincingly up the slope.
“Some,” I said, cocking a finger to the hovering Optique to display what images Parsons had left in my storage crystal. I had no idea why he had confiscated the majority, but Parsons not moving in mysterious ways was hardly Parsons at all. The glass-smooth waterfall at the end of the fountain pool made an excellent screen. My cousins gasped as the open-jawed visage of the captain blinked into being upon its surface. I narrated the still frames and short segments of video as they appeared, to appreciative laughter and applause. I had, in fact, captured the moment when the gigantic reptile had snapped my pistol off. I let the image linger upon the wall for a moment.
“You must have been just terrified!” Erita said, sounding as though the notion bored her inutterably.
“Later on,” I said. “At that moment I was surprised and a trifle indignant, if you want the truth. I mean, how dare he?”
“You look very brave,” Jil assured me. “Not scared at all.”
“Thank you, dear,” I said.
“But all that running, darling,” Erita said. “Wasn’t that tedious?”
“At the time, no,” I said, lying back to choose a canapé from the tray of one of the serving arms secreted in the false rocks around the pool. The tray ran a sensor over my wrist and, knowing my tastes, shifted so that a different piece was just within reach of my fingers. The chunk of steak inside the round, pale pink mushroom ball was just slightly underdone and the spicing was divine. I sighed happily. I had missed the finer elements of food while in space. The hors d’oeuvre was gone in two bites, but it dispelled all thoughts of survival rations. “I call it just amazing how many thoughts that the mind can cram in when under pressure. I had charts of the restaurant’s floor plan and the general layout of the level of the colony, the rules and tricks of swordplay, giving orders and listening to the soldiers, annoyance at Lieutenant Plet’s disapproval, awareness of the savory scent of the food in the restaurant as well as its slipperiness under my feet, concern for the patrons, and a faint worry about Parsons all going at the same time—and those are only the items that I can think of at the moment. I told the maternal unit all about it, and she informs me that it is a common phenomenon. Minds run more efficiently and swiftly on adrenaline. An old-fashioned piece of wisdom, but true nevertheless.”
“What did Aunt Tariana say about the rest of your stint?” Scot asked. “I got the impression from some of your messages on Infogrid that the captain of your ship didn’t appreciate all the help you gave him.”
“That is putting it mildly,” I said. dryly. “Mother did say that the admiral, while an excellent leader and able administrator, has no sense of humor. I stand as witness to insist that that is true, beyond a reasonable specter of doubt, not that I think specters are reasonable. Alas, I feel she did not entirely take my side of the argument.” I allowed a poignant and wistful expression to crease my brow.
“Are you all right?” asked Nalney Ven Kinago, a second cousin, two years older, and a close friend from infancy. His face was the same heroic square as my father’s, but his eyes were a muddy hazel. He sent the wine tray bobbing toward me over the surface of the fountain in which we lounged. He’d had a few run-ins with Mother, one in particular over the matter of the unwitting loan of a standing wardrobe that was a family heirloom. When recovered at the bottom of a ski slope, it was in dire condition, a state that Mother had passed along to him as the guilty party. I am happy to say I had not been involved in that incident.
“It was a bit rough,” I said, indicating to the bottle-holder that it should top up my glass. I sipped the glorious pale wine, which gave me the strength to continue my confession. “Mother took a lot of the skin off my back. It is, after all, her Navy, so you can see she feels strongly about it. I am avoiding the aunts. They set about me as I left Father’s workshop with a host of prospects for marriage. They have had months without my interference to examine the genetic rosters for just the right kind of girl. Starting tomorrow they want me to have coffee or wine with at least one of their prospects per day. The concept is that I will choose one of them, or die in the attempt.”
Scot shuddered. “I’d rather die. When the day comes that I must settle down, I’ll . . . I’ll know the love of my life. My own love, not someone else’s vision.”
“Hear, hear,” said Nalney.
“I prefer to leave true romance to fate,” I said, lyrically. “Preferably a fate long in the future. I hate eating my dinner with a sword hanging over my head, particularly one composed of two steely-eyed aunts and a lace-trimmed extravaganza, liberally festooned with nagging. I’d rather go out with the fleet again. Not that that’s likely,” I added.
“Oh, well, you’re back now,” said Xan. “You don’t have to worry about taking ship again. All that’s over with. We’ve done our service, and the Emperor can count us as loyal officers.”
“Yes,” I echoed, feeling more lost than I thought I would have. “It’s behind us, isn’t it?”
“Don’t tell me you’re sorry to see it end?” Scot asked, in astonishment. “Regimentation, hobnobbing—if you can call it that—with the lower classes. The food! Even though the Tirisiani had state of the art kitchens and the head chef from the Autumn Sunrise restaurant on staff, it could not compare to this!”
“No,” I agreed faintly. “It doesn’t compare.”
To my amazement and horror, I felt a pang of longing. I enjoyed my cousins’ company, as I always had, but I found that the thought of never sitting at a table with my fellow ensigns again a sorrowful thing. The shock of dismissal was the worst part. I had had no inkling that Admiral Podesta would have called for my removal. I studied my reaction to see whether I was just suffering from an attack of pique. It took three more canapés and half a glass of wine before I decided that it was not so. I had felt useful. I had been heroic, if I must say so myself. I had struck up friendships with people to whom I was not related and who had no stake beyond simple camaraderie in mind, and found them enjoyable. It was a shame that I would never see them again except at reunions.
“You’re not alone,” Erita said, her voice laced with abundant sympathy.
“I’m not?” I asked, a trifle surprised. Of all the cousins who had started their service at the same time as I, she was the most put out by our lack of comforts and freedoms. My heart went out to her. “You feel the same way as I do?”
“Oh, yes,” she said, feelingly. “All of our relatives are putting pressure upon us to marry.”
I put aside my sense of brothers-in-armsness, which had been disappointed. “Ah, but not with the same doggedness as my aunts. Alone, either would be formidable, but together, they display the tenacious quality of permaseal along with the taste of a tongueless beggar. Though there are only two of them, they seem to form an infinite host, surrounding me and haranguing me with voices of iron. They persist in pulling in impoverished female nobles from the provinces in hopes of finding me someone to whom I cannot object based upon previous acquaintance. None of their choices so far would fit into my life, not that I am ready to share it.”
“That is true,” Nalney agreed. “Thomas’s aunts form a unique bond in pursuit of the unsuitable. My immediate relational units merely make suggestions. I ignore them and behave charmingly, and they leave me alone.”
“Me, too,” said Xan. “Otherwise, how could I enjoy the company of the delightful Meghan here?”
“It’s Meghtila,” the girl in question replied, with a frown. Xan turned his attentions upon her, and she was soon persuaded out of her bad mood. They rose from the shallow water, looking for a privacy booth, and we went back to our conversation.
“What will you do now that you are home, Thom?” Scot asked. “Can you come out with me tomorrow? I’ve got some things I want to show you.”
“Me, too!” Jil burst out, unable to contain her glee any longer. “I bought a village!”
“Really?” I said. “Congratulations! Is it on this planet?”
“Yes, and I had to pay a premium for that,” she said. “My goodness, when my agent told me what it would cost for the location I chose, I nearly expired.”
“How did you decide which one you wanted?” asked Erita.
Jil waved a casual hand. “I glanced at a map. I thought it would be fun to have a personal place to recharge in between the capital and my parents’ estate in Olhinha. It was so cute! It has a town square with old-fashioned brick streets, and a couple of little shops, an entertainment palace, a night club, and all these adorable stone houses. No wheeled traffic permitted in the historical district. I took over the town hall as my residence, of course. You should have heard the whining and complaining when I made the councillors move their offices, but you couldn’t expect me to live in one of those cottages, darling. My dog has a larger house. Besides, I kept in mind the maxim that the agent kept pouring in my ear over and over again: location, location, location. I wanted to make certain that my new people would keep me in mind whenever they passed by. The gardens are lovely, and there’s a stone fountain that absolutely dates back to pretechnological times, darlings.”
I found myself filled with envy and admiration. I wish I had thought of such a thing first. A whole town, to trifle with as one pleased! To follow in her footsteps now would brand me as a copyist, not an original. I sighed. “That is one of the most brilliant moves, my dear. How are you enjoying being the most important person in town?”
Jil pouted. “Truthfully, Thom, darling, it just is not as much fun as I thought it was going to be. All of the tenants nag me all of the time. The little problems they think are important! I said, ‘Go to your town council. I bought them along with everything else.’ And they do, but they always come back. They say, since I own the town, I am responsible. Well, I do try to be responsible, but there are limits even to my patience! My bills for infrastructure repairs are shocking, just shocking! There’s always another hole to pour money into. I think I’ll donate the whole mess to charity. I’ll get a writeoff for the Imperial purse at the same time ridding myself of the nuisance. But before I do, you must come and see it. I put up a statue to myself in the village square.”
“I will,” I promised.
“What did you call it? Jilville? Locheton?” Scot asked, mischievously.
“Oh, you!” Jil cried, tossing her glass at him. The delicate crystal sank in a whirlpool. She reached out and the wine float brought her a replacement. “I had to keep the old name, Broch. It was in the town charter. Broch. How boring is that? But enough about my village. I think I will try an island next time.”
My heart sank. Drat. I had just been about to say that. Another idea scooped. Best to do my thinking when I was not around my cousins. Our minds did tend to run along the same grooves.
“What about the rest of you?” I asked. “What are you going to do now that you’re on leave?”
Nalney snorted. “I am utterly done with the service. Been there, done that, posted the Infogrid image.” He noticed my expression, and his eyebrows flew up. “What, you’re not seriously thinking of continuing? It’s so dreary!
“Oh, I know,” I said, assuming the pose of idle indifference the rest of my cousins habitually wore. It surprised even me that I considered going on, though it was a futile thought now that Admiral Podesta had banned me from the Red Fleet. “But I have a few things I left unfinished, much more interesting than drills or swabbing decks, not that I did much of that.” I sent around a sly glance. “My greatest accomplishment was accumulating an immense file of humorous anecdotes that I guarantee are unknown within the Imperium Court.”
“Jokes in the Navy? How?” Nalney demanded.
“Oh,” I said, “I have . . . connections.” I was not inclined to reveal the means by which I first came across those precious references, even if it would not have violated the protocol of my former office.
“You have to give me a copy,” Scot begged. “Aren’t you my best friend in the entire universe? How can you hold back such a treasure from your loved ones?”
I grinned lazily, crossing my feet on the end of my rock chaise longue. “I knew you would be gagging for one. It’s mine. But I will tell you what I will do: I will let you have an edited version. A few of the best stories.”
“No!” Jil said. “The whole thing!”
I put my hand to my breast in mock outrage. “I can’t give away all my material on the first day back! When I have squeezed every drop of original laughter out of my collection, I will share it with everyone. But not yet.”
“Oh, you spoilsport!” She threw a bite of bread at me. One of the trained ducks that floated on the rippling water sailed over and nibbled it up. “Tell us some, then!”
I knew they would come around, since the truth was nearly all of them would have preferred to have stories told them than listen to or read the entire file themselves.
“Very well,” I said, propping myself up so I could see the eager faces of my audience. “This was the first one I found, and still consider my favorite.”
I stretched out the Uctu anecdote as long as I dared, judging by the anticipatory glints under their lowered eyelids to ensure I was keeping their interest. When I came to the words, “fire extinguisher,” I caught them all off guard. In fact, they laughed so hard they couldn’t even retain their customary bored expressions. I captured a wonderful spit-take from my cousin Erita that was so wonderfully explosive that I ordered the camera to stow it in my secret file immediately. They applauded so long I was almost embarrassed.
“More!” they clamored. “More!”
“He’s not supposed to be the entertainment,” Scot protested. “We are supposed to provide it. This is his celebration.”
“But we were together for months, darling,” Jil said. “He’s the only one who did something different.”
“Scot, it is my pleasure to be able to tell these to a new audience,” I said, proud of the warm reception. “I don’t mind a bit.”
“Well, if you’re sure . . . ?”
“Hand on heart,” I assured him.
“More!” Nalney bellowed, slapping the water with his palm.
I nudged my memory for my best stories. I could have called for my pocket secretary, but it would have detracted from my performance to have to refer to notes. Fortunately, the flood of quips and anecdotes that sprang to mind was more than enough to keep the merriment going for a long time. The laughter rang off the painted ceiling and caused the birds to explode upward from the fountain’s surface. This was indeed a wonderful welcome home.
* * *
My skin was wrinkled into a remarkable representation of prune-skin and my throat’s lining shredded to fibers by the time our delightful evening concluded. I was full of contentment as well as the most exquisite delicacies, not to mention my mother’s vintage wines. I had been admired and fussed over, and it felt wonderful. My cousins bade me affectionate and damp farewells as we staggered with some difficulty toward the resort’s courtesy skimmers that would take us to our limousines at the front gate.
“Wait!” Scot cried, wriggling into my transport at the last moment through the narrow window. He landed on top of Nalney, who was sprawled limply on the seat across from mine, considerably the worse for wine. “Thom, come and see me tomorrow, all right? I need to talk to you.”
“I already said that I would, on the way to Jil’s village. What is it about?”
With an expression I could not identify, Scot opened his mouth to speak. But trouble interrupted him.
I thought I had heard the faint noise of protest during the party, but had dismissed it as unimportant. There were often partygoers who had had a little too much good cheer and became argumentative as a result. I had been one myself at times. The management was always careful to prevent interruption of their most honored guests during a private function, but true soundproofing was impossible where there was the passage of atmosphere.
Bodies landed upon the soft awning of our skimmer and struggled to get inside. I could not see much of them by the pale amber lights studded about the interior, but if I was not utterly mistaken, they were wearing rented evening attire.
“Out, curse you!” Scot sputtered. “This is a private car.”
The eldest and most indignant of the invaders glared at us. His face was suffused with red to the point where even with sufficient lighting I would not have been able to ascertain his original complexion. “You worthless pieces of dung, you spoiled my daughter’s wedding!”
I fixed an eye upon him. “I don’t believe we are acquainted, sir. Please leave our transport at once!”
It seemed they had said all they came to say. They withdrew from our skimmer, but dragged us out of the vehicle with them. Two large men twisted their fists into the front of my drying robe and pulled. Before I knew it, I and my cousins were in the midst of a crowd of ill-dressed party-goers, all shouting at us. I was beset by a well-muscled young man, the worse for drink, who kept poking me in the chest. A small, elderly woman with a shrill voice berated Scot and banged upon his head with her blue beaded handbag. He shielded his person as best he could and struggled back toward the doors. At her cry, three men in hired suits leaped upon him. Scot fell to his hands and knees upon the enameled tiles of the vehicle pad. The men belabored him with their fists.
I pushed the hand of my chest-poker out of the way and sprang to my cousin’s defense. Two of them hauled him upward and held him so the third could pummel him about the midsection. I seized the shoulder of the right-hand immobilizer and spun him out of the way. Scot, listing sideways, tottered to his feet. I placed myself between me and the other two assailants. They seemed to take my interference unkindly, and turned their attention to me.
In spite of my sybaritic evening, I was not as impaired as I might have been, thanks to my need to be alert in my brief turn as a comedian. I grabbed the left wrist of the man on my left and the right of the other, and tugged them sharply upward, as I had once done with two Geckos. Thanks to physics, which worked the same here as on Smithereen, the two men, arms forced to an acute angle with regard to the other’s, were propelled forward and crashed into one another. They toppled to the ground. Before they could rise again and retaliate against me, I unwound their unspeakable cummerbunds from about their waists and secured their hands with them. They sat on the stones moaning.
“Thanks, old fellow,” said Scot. “You were a whirlwind! Is that what they teach one on the plebeian ships?”
I glanced back at my handiwork, a trifle shocked. The movements that disarmed my opponents had come naturally to me. I gave Scot a sheepish smile.
“All that drilling, out of sheer boredom, I assure you. What is wrong with these people?”
“I have not the inkling of a clue,” Scot said. “I didn’t waste a moment of the evening on strangers.”
Other cousins were in need of our aid. A stout, older woman in a horrible fuchsia evening gown made for Xan’s eyes with her fingernails curved. We both flew to his side.
It was unnecessary. Xan stepped toward her, not away. She ended up in an unwitting embrace, chest to heaving bosom. He dragged her toward the nearest light. Putting her at arm’s length, he gazed deep into her eyes.
“Now, you don’t want to do that, my darling,” he said, in a soft, passionate voice.
Her expression softened from fury to a dazed wonderment.
“No, I don’t,” she said.
Scot and I exchanged looks of puzzlement.
“She must know him,” I said. “You know our Xan, man of a thousand conquests.”
“Indeed,” Scot said, admiringly. “Although I would not have picked her as one of his typical choices.”
“Who knows?” I asked. “There are questions in this world to which I do not want to know the answers.”
Xan let the now quiescent woman go and went to extract Erita from an argument with three young women in matching gowns. We scuffled with a few more angry patrons.
Into the midst of the disturbance swept a number of vehicles bearing the logo of resort security. Numerous men and women dressed in uniforms both subservient and soothing in appearance sprang out and began to mingle with the crowd. I and my cousins were cut out of the herd and urged in the gentlest possible way toward one end of the patio, whereas the disgruntled mob was surrounded and contained. I was pleased that I didn’t have to employ any of the martial arts I had learned. There was no need for anyone to be harmed. The manager of the resort, an old friend of my mother’s, made toward us, his hands raised in a placatory manner.
“What is going on?” I demanded. “Mr. Banion, we are not accustomed to such ill-treatment on the very threshold of what has until now been our favorite haunt.”
“And will continue to be, I hope, please, Lord Thomas,” Sted Banion said, in hand-wringing distress. “We were delighted to host you today. There has simply been a small misunderstanding.”
“Small?” A large man in one of the ill-fitting hired suits came bustling toward Banion. His face was crimson with anger. “My daughter’s wedding has been in your schedules for a year! It cost us a fortune! And to have it suddenly cancelled by you this afternoon, with four hours’ notice? What do you call that?”
“Mr. Felash, please,” Banion said, turning smoothly to confront the angry man. Two security guards came to flank them just in case. I started toward them, to help out if wanted, but a young lady in spectacles with striped lenses smiled up at me.
“Please stay here, Lord Thomas. This will all be straightened out to everyone’s satisfaction.”
“They’re nobles, do you see?” Banion whispered to the father of the bride, but loudly enough that I and those cousins near me could hear.
“What does that matter?”
“I apologize, Mr. Felash, but it doesn’t do to annoy the Imperial house. I offer you the deepest apologies of the resort. We will refund your deposit on the chamber, naturally.”
“What about the rest of the bill?” Felash asked, as calculation caused his left eye to squint at the unhappy manager.
“Your daughter did have her wedding here, didn’t she?” Banion asked. “It was a beautiful, may I say a memorable event? The images have already been posted to your Infogrid file and those of your guests.”
“But I wanted to have it in that woodland glade!” The bride, overhearing the conversation, swooped down upon the unhappy manager.
“Please accept my congratulations on your marriage,” Banion said smoothly. “You look very lovely. Did you enjoy the special marberry dessert? It was compliments of Sparrow Island. It has been such a pleasure to have you here.”
“But . . . !”
By then, fresh transports arrived, and we were herded to them. I was glad to get into my carriage. My skin was still damp, and desert nights are chilly. We were swept away into the starry night, but the press camera-eyes zoomed around us. I frowned. The transports let off a burst of static with audible code. I’d heard it before. It was a scrambling signal. Few of the images would make it to the all-day, all-night news stations, perhaps making a mention in the celebrity gossip. I hope they hadn’t captured my image. My mother was cross enough at me.
“That was unpleasant,” Xan said. His lady friend had been packed into a different car, but my cousin did not seemed troubled by her absence.
“I for one did not appreciate the nasty comments about uselessness,” I said.
“What?” Xan asked. “Ignore them. They have no idea of our responsibilities.”
I tried to follow his advice, but the comment continued to sting me.
“So, Xan, who was the lady?” Scot asked, with a wink at me.
“The lady who seemed so stunned to see you,” I said. “The one in the flamboyant sequined brocade.”
“Her?” He frowned. “No idea.”
“But she calmed down immediately on seeing you,” I said.
Xan smiled modestly. “Women can’t resist me,” he said. “It’s my good looks and charm. A most powerful combination, or so I have been told.”
We fleered. “No, it’s true!” he protested. “I’ve always been able to do that. I turn my most sincere gaze upon them, and they calm down. It’s been a useful skill.”
“Mood-levelers,” Scot said decisively. “He must have them in a poison ring.”
Xan seemed hurt. “If either of the two of you had any charm, you’d be able to do it yourself.”
“I’ll try it one day,” I said. But Scot and I exchanged amused glances.