Scot yawned and rubbed his eyes with one fist, the other hand resting on the control stick of his favorite skimmer. “That is three hours I would like to have refunded to my lifespan,” he said.
“How boring that was!” Erita said, peevishly. She reached over the back of the seat and into the chilled hamper of delectables we had brought with us for sustenance. “Wine, either of you?”
“Please,” I begged her. “After that excruciating hike I need a restorative. Every tissue is desiccated. I already had a hard morning, breakfasting with Mother.”
“Bad, was it, dear?” Erita asked.
“You talk about your inquisitions. If there is anything I did in the last few months that she doesn’t know by now, it is because I have utterly purged it from my memory.” And, speaking of purging, I flicked through the numerous pictures and videos I had taken in our tour, deleting nine of every ten from each of my cameras. I picked the unwanted images out of midair, tossing them away as the trash they were. Some were marvels of focus and composition, but the subject matter was simply too mundane to waste storage space on. I had only taken them as a compliment to our hostess, and now we were out of sight. I mused over the perfectly framed picture of a slate-roofed shop, then flicked it out of existence. “One has to admit that the only thing that set Broch apart from any other of a million small, antique villages in the Imperium is that it belongs to our Jil. Alas, but that makes it interesting only to her.”
“I know,” Scot said, smirking. “She has had her fun with it. Now that she’s shown it off to all of us, she can dispose of it and move on to a more worthy pursuit.”
We all laughed at that.
“What worthy pursuit?” Erita demanded, hoisting her glass merrily. “We have gone through the required naval service, our last commitment to the Imperium. There is nothing for us left to do but marry—not for at least three years, over my rotting corpse—perhaps breed, and die.”
“Ugh, unfit subject for conversation,” I protested.
“Corpse? Sorry, dear.”
“No! Marriage,” I replied. We laughed again.
“I apologize,” Erita said, patting my arm. “It’s not my intent to be distasteful.”
“Forgiven, dear cousin.”
Scot’s handsome face twisted in an enigmatic expression that I could not have solved in a month of restday puzzle solving. “Where can I drop you, Erita?” he asked, casually.
She looked at the skimmer’s paired chronometers, one set to Taino time and the other to local time, which as we watched shifted to match the first readout, meaning that we had reentered the home city time zone. “I have a fencing match arranged this afternoon, dears. It’s been set up for so long with Jacque Mirz—you know, the pro that won the last Tour de Force championship? I’d like an hour or so to limber up before we play.”
“You fortunate thing, you!” I admit to taking in an audible breath of envy. She must have offered Mirz a fortune. I had had one lesson with a previous year’s winner, but none since had been willing to face one of us. Not alone, anyhow. I blamed Xan, who, I think, had tried to seduce the next one. Erita smirked.
“I’ll let you know how it goes,” she said. Scot entered the directions she gave him. The skimmer picked up speed and altitude, putting Broch far behind us. We all sat back against the upholstery to enjoy the small feast assembled by the Kinago chefs and one another’s company.
We landed before the salle, a grand sports emporium designed for the ancient arts where we had all taken lessons—I with my now-damaged antique sword. Erita alit, vaulting out of the low car with grace. She leaned back in to kiss us each on the cheek.
“See you later, darlings,” she said.
“Fight well,” I called.
Scot waited until she had disappeared through the wrought steel doors, then kicked the skimmer into operation. We zoomed over the buildings, attaining empty azure sky with a speed that propelled me backwards into the padded seat. I was surprised. Scot did not usually put his passengers at risk.
“Are you well, old fellow?” I asked.
“I just couldn’t take any more spouting of self-satisfied chitchat,” he said.
“That’s nearly all we do spout,” I reminded him. He looked preoccupied, which concerned me. “What is troubling you?”
I knew when to let things be. Perhaps he was jealous of Jil’s idea, but three hours of walking in a place where we were clearly not welcome should have disabused him of any pleasure we might have taken in following her example. I sat back to enjoy the fine weather in silence.
We followed the usual route toward the grand cream and rust-colored spires of the Imperium palace that echoed the stone towers of the surrounding canyon walls. I breathed an appreciative sigh. No landscape so delighted my senses as that of my home. Scot glanced up, then ran his hands over the controls. The car veered several degrees off to the left.
“I thought we were going home,” I said.
“I told you I have something to show you,” he said. He shot me a worried glance. “You must not tell anyone else. Swear it?”
“You need to ask me to keep your confidence?” I struck my thorax with a balled fist. “We who were so nearly brothers that our mothers suffered their confinements side by side? I am crushed.”
“No, be serious,” Scot protested.
“Very well,” I said. “I think I can feign sincerity better than that.” He looked so devastated that I put on a serious face. “Very well, show me. You know you can trust me to the last breath in my body. After that, we have no verifiable information.” My attempts at humor only elicited a look of constipation. I simplified my vow further. “I will keep your confidence.”
“Thank you,” he said. From a concealed pocket in his sleeve hem he removed a tiny chip of crystal, which he put into the skimmer’s system.
The navigation screen turned red, and the thin line tracing our path toward my family compound disappeared. The chip had to be a short-cutter, a device that disabled the tracking system and fed a false pattern into the memory and the city’s grid recorder. When we landed it would file a report that we were up to several kilometers from our actual destination. We had all used them at one time, but I had a new sensitivity to subterfuge. I wondered suddenly if I was in the presence of another traitor like Bek. The thought chilled me. Scot and I had been friends all our lives. We were family. Our mothers were cousins. What if Scot had become a traitor? We hadn’t been together for months. He sent me a quick smile. It was a warm and genuine expression. I tried to relax, but found I could not. I smiled back weakly.
We did, in fact, land at some distance from our destination. Scot set down the vehicle at the rear of a seedy lot that sold used vehicles of the same make. I kept my frown to myself. The neighborhood into which we emerged was not of any type that we were used to frequenting. I scanned the streets for a club or other amusement that would have attracted him to this place. Instead, my gaze was met by the blank windows of rows of simple, aging one- and two-story domiciles, the kind occupied by our employees who did not live in the compound. He took the hamper out of the rear seat and tucked it under his arm. My questions as to why and wherefore were ignored. Instead, we walked.
Even with my long legs, I had to open my stride to keep up with Scot. He gave me another eager grin. We turned up the walk toward one of the small houses. Instead of knocking, he produced a key card. He passed it over the reader switch, and the door slid open.
“Daddy!” exclaimed a small voice. Scot stepped inside and scooped up a tot of about three years from among a pile of old toys. She had the same green eyes and warm complexion as he did, but slender limbs and a round chin. “Play with me!”
Scot kissed the child. “In a moment, Tina,” he said, setting her down. “Where is your mother?”
The child took the time to point further into the house before returning to her blocks.
“You brought me here to introduce me to your mistress?” I whispered.
“Not my mistress,” Scot said. “My wife.”
“Wife?” I caught myself goggling, and clamped up my jaw. Nothing had prepared me to hear such a thing. “So it is not a courtesy title. You are ‘Daddy’?”
Scot looked proud. “That’s right. This is my family. I live here during the times I am not required to be on duty or in the compound.”
“Here?” I asked, looking around me. The entire structure, garden and all, could have been placed in the Kinago great room with space for traffic around it. I laughed aloud with relief. Not treason after all. Just a love story that I could not wait to hear. “By Forn, who would believe it? You must tell me all. How did you end up here, of all places?”
“You’re making fun of my house,” Scot complained.
“No! It’s charming,” I protested. It was the size of one of Jil’s cottages, but clean, well-kept and modern. “Did you say your wife? I’m crushed. How long have you kept this secret from me?”
“Almost five years,” he said. When I evinced dramatic surprise, he shrugged. “You know I have wanted to tell you. I’ve wanted to tell someone, but I just couldn’t find a way. All of you are so set against marriage and families.”
“Not altogether,” I said. “Just not yet. I have told you how greatly I dislike the thought of having my bride chosen for me.”
“So did I,” he said, with an unfamiliar set to his jaw. “I did approach the Family Secretary about Jerna, and was told that it was out of the question. Her genes were not vital to the Imperial line. So, we took matters into our own hands. It was . . . liberating.” His eyes lit up. I could almost see the story unfold within them.
It was not to be told yet. A lady came into the room. She was not spectacularly pretty, with a speckled complexion and eyes that looked just a little too wide-set. Her nose was broad at the tip and bent a little to the left. Such a feature made her unusual, since we nobles tended to have very regular features, so it rather entranced me. She was very thin, except for a slight belling-out at the waist.
“Hello, Foxkin,” she said, coming to slip an arm around his waist. They exchanged a loving kiss, then she held out her hands to me. “How do you do? I’m Jerna.”
“Thomas,” I said. I bent to kiss her fingertips. “My pleasure.”
“We’d just like to talk for a while, beloved,” Scot said. “Will you mind?”
“No. I’m making lunch. Please stay, Thomas,” she said. “There’s plenty.”
I glanced at Scot for permission. He seemed torn. We did need to talk. “I am waiting for a call, but if I may, I would love to.”
She led us out through the house—there was not much more of it—to the back garden and left us alone with a bottle of wine.
“It’s nothing fancy, but drinkable,” Scot said, as we settled into a pair of chairs beside a round wrought iron table. He unfastened the bottle’s seal and poured the purple liquid into two nondescript goblets. “We live here on a fraction of my allowance, but more than that would draw too much attention, and you may guess I do all I can to avoid that. I live an ordinary life here. I like it.”
“What is Foxkin?”
“We go by Fox,” he said. “It was easy to obtain a false identification plate, for a price. Amazing what one can obtain for the correct amount of money. She likes the name, so we took it. I almost feel more like Fox than Loche many days.”
That shocked me almost more than the presence of the children. How anyone could turn his back upon millennia of history was more than I could encompass. As nobles, we had a responsibility to family, and could not think of endangering our standing within it. I took pride in my lineage. To defy the Family Secretary meant risking one’s allowance, or worse. One of the things I had not told the curious Chee Rubin-Sign and her cohorts on Smithereen was that beside being able to command his subjects to marry or mate with someone specific, the Emperor also had the power to order them not to. No noble was permitted to wed a commoner without permission, and it was never given. Still, Scot had had years to think about the consequences, and I only minutes.
The children were a genuine presence, not anything that had to be imagined. Young Tina had a small brother, at the creeping stage. He had a very round head with a couple of wisps of dark hair on top and round, button eyes. Both of them made their way out to play at the feet of Daddy and Uncle Thomas, attempting to include us in their games. They were irresistible. I dismissed the feeling of discomfort and scooped them up.
“So I am an uncle,” I said, settling them both on my knee. I regarded them solemnly. “I can’t wait to tell you stories about your daddy when he was your age. I warn you, you should never follow his example. You’ll get in trouble.” The boy giggled and struck me with a plastic toy. The girl studied me with a precocious wisdom in those green eyes. “But it is also my job as an uncle to spoil your dinner.” I opened the picnic hamper and extracted a box of fruit sections. The exotic varieties came from trees and vines in the Kinago hothouse, lovingly tended by a pair of enthusiastic young gardeners and an LAI as head gardener who had been with us five centuries. I selected the fruit for its sweetness, meant to counter and complement the savory items still tucked away. The children accepted spears of brilliant coral and green with alacrity. “Now, see if you can’t go and grind them into the carpet,” I advised them. “That’s what your daddy would do.”
Luckily, the children looked bewildered by my instructions. They toddled off to the end of the stone tiles to eat their prizes. I watched them with a proprietary avuncularity that I was beginning to enjoy. They were so adorable that I could not resist taking pictures of them. Using the screen of my pocket secretary—how I missed my naval issue viewpad and its superior screen!—I lined up shots of their intent little faces as they sampled the unfamiliar treats. Soon, their beaming faces were smeared with juice.
“Does Jerna know who you are?” I asked in a low tone.
“Yes. She doesn’t mind, now that she knows that we are not all as bad as our reputations in the media. I haven’t used her and discarded her, as Xan would. Our children are legitimate.”
“Correct me if my observation is at fault, there’s a third on the way?”
Scot nodded. “Three is what we are hoping for, and then we will stop. I’d love to have five, but that would attract too much attention in this neighborhood. The usual number of offspring is two children.” He gave the tots a fond glance. “Her name is Thomasina, by the way. I named her after you. My son is Enrik, after Jerna’s father.”
“I shall be a proud uncle to Thomasina and Enrik,” I said. “On those occasions when gift-giving is appropriate.”
“Don’t go mad,” Scot said. “They’re not used to getting every toy in the shops.”
“When have I ever shown inappropriate moderation?” I asked, then dropped my voice still further. “Scot, what about their future? They’ll lose their citizenship if it’s ever determined that they are an extension of the Imperial gene pool. You’ll lose your allowance. You won’t have any way to support them. Three of them, to see to adulthood, to higher education, to a trade, a position in the service, a home?”
Scot’s chin set firm. “I don’t care. We’ll figure it out if that day comes! I don’t want to be a noble any longer, curse it. I wish I was an ordinary man. No one should be able to demand that I have children or don’t have children.”
“But it is the way things are,” I said.
“Do you think I don’t know that?” he asked, the pain on his face deep. I regretted that I was the catalyst, though not the cause of it.
“I know you do,” I said. “You were always one of the smartest of us. So, how do the neighbors think you support your family, and what’s your excuse for being gone so often?”
Scot smiled. “I have a job I go to occasionally. I am an art teacher.”
“You? With pupils and attendance sheets?”
“It’s a bit more casual. I have a studio in an art school a few blocks from here. We meet about twice a week. My payments are listed as ‘miscellaneous expense,’ as are those of the other artists. Creatives are often paid irregularly. It’s a gray area, and one I exploit.”
“I will bet you are much admired and loved,” I said, warmly. “The favorite teacher, around whom everyone congregates even when class is not in session. I will also wager they confide in you and ask your advice.”
He was too modest to concede that I was right, but he looked pleased. “I also have a few private students who will pay anything for decent instruction, and since I learned from the best, I have techniques at my fingertips they have never seen demonstrated. Jerna puts the money away in case—well, you know, I was away on our naval deployment. It was possible that I wasn’t going to come back. I’ve settled money on her in the will, with no explanation of who she is or why she is receiving a bequest.” I nodded. None would be needed. It was assumed that we had our little flings, though they were not supposed to end in matrimony or procreation, and it was common for a gift to be left posthumously. “You know what could happen.” We both knew. Accidents were likely, considering the way we nobles lived, but once in a while we suffered assassination or abduction for political reasons. It didn’t matter that there were many of us; the Imperial house was supposed to be sacrosanct, and striking out at one of us was a typical insurgent’s statement.
“I know you will outlive me,” I said, “but if it is within my power to see that your last wishes are fulfilled, I will.”
“Thank you, Thomas,” Scot said, touched. “You are welcome here any time.”
“I would be glad to come and visit again,” I said. “In the meanwhile, lower the profile.”
“I will. I do.”
Jerna called us then. We rose, still so many things left unsaid, but we both knew the concerns the other was feeling, so deep was the bond between us. Scot scooped up his son and I my namesake. She wiggled. I laughed as I carried her toward the kitchen table.
* * *
“Thank you for a most delightful lunch,” I said, bowing over Jerna’s hand a pleasant hour later. She smiled, charmed by my courtly behavior. To her, hand-kissing was a novelty to be enjoyed, unlike our cousins who scarcely noticed anymore. The delight on her face was as nourishing as the food we had just consumed. “I can see why Foxkin is enchanted with you.”
“Thank you, Thomas,” she said, smiling up at me. “Come back any time. The children adore you.”
“And I them,” I said. I waggled my fingers at Tina, who decided she was now shy, after hours of proving otherwise, and hid behind her mother. Jerna and Scot wrapped one another in their arms, eyes intent upon one another. I turned away, feeling as if I was intruding on a private moment. Shortly, Scot tapped me on the shoulder.
“Come on,” he said, reaching for the door. I could not help but observe his reluctant posture. His feet said go, but his body was nearly arching itself backwards to remain.
“Do you want to stay here?” I asked. “No one is expecting to see us for hours. They think we’re all out with Jil. She won’t tell anyone. I doubt she has noticed we’re gone. She was still talking away when we left.”
Scot chuckled at the thought. “Don’t you need transport home?”
“I can find my own way.” To forestall the protest I could see bubbling up behind his lips, I held up a hand. “I will go far away from here before I summon a ride, I promise. Enjoy your restday.”
“Thank you,” he said. He interlaced his fingers with Jerna’s and squeezed her hand.
I left him with his wife and family, playing house.
Not playing, I corrected myself, as I cut through alleyways and commercial yards on a wide diagonal, laying a false trail away from the little neighborhood. He meant what he was doing much more than I did with anything in my life.
I returned home feeling unaccustomedly sober. Marriage between a noble and a commoner was not only frowned upon, it was illegal. I could fall into trouble by merely knowing about it and not reporting it. But I had made a promise, and there were worse things I had prevaricated about in the past. My conscience was clear that I was not condoning treason, theft or corruption of the young. Scot seemed so happy it almost—almost made me reconsider my heretofore absolute refusal to get married; I had told him so. He looked happy. I could not and would not interfere with that.
When I reached home at last, I locked the doors of my suite and checked the room for listening or hearing devices, using another illicit device that my cousins and I had made frequent use of in our ill-spent youths. It was not uncommon for compound security to run an occasional examination of family residences within its walls. We had come to accept, even condone them as a measure to preserve the safety of the Emperor, and, by extension, ourselves. If we ourselves bent the rules, we didn’t see it as piercing that secure wall; we would never do anything to put the Emperor in danger. I knew I would sooner die myself—painlessly, if possible—to prevent that.
My rooms, in the second-oldest part of the family compound, had belonged in turn to a famous general, a diplomat, two scientists, a beloved sage, and my uncle Laurence. I had sitting rooms, reception rooms, a dressing room, a water room that contained bath, shower and spa pool, a library-cum-music room, and my bedroom, to which I retreated when I wanted privacy. (When Uncle Laurence came to stay, so infrequent as to make each visit remarkable, the servants set up a bed in the blue sitting room for his use.) The suite was luxurious by any comparison, but overpowered Scot’s tiny love cottage like a man standing beside an ant. A part of me wanted to sneer, but I put that down to envy. For shame, I chided myself.
Securing the bedroom door against all interruptions, I threw myself into my favorite armchair and launched the Optique into the air. It began to play the pictures upon my small antique reading table, the red-stained fruitwood lending a honey glow to the images. Thomasina-Tina, lithe and fairylike, exuded grace even when playing tag. I didn’t read that into her movements, even though she was my namesake and the daughter of my oldest and best friend. Of course not. Enrik, stocky like his father, but freckled like his mother, was still in the lurching stage of toddlerhood. Scot and Jerna, hand in hand in their tiny castle, still seeing miracles in one another’s eyes.
I looked at the pictures over and over. An idyllic life. An impossible dream. A secret, I realized, that I must keep at all costs.
I captured my hovering camera and entered the code that erased all the images, not keeping even one. I went to bed feeling strangely conflicted. My long-held worldview had undergone another change—more than one. Perhaps I was growing up.
I hated to think so, but there it was.