Crowds gathered upon the curbs shouted and cheered as we passed by in open-topped cars. I smiled and waved to everyone, reveling in the acclaim. We made quite a parade, a tail of eight vehicles the size of goods transports. Parsons stood tall and forbidding just behind me, unmoving even when the car hit bumps in the ancient stone roads. The rest of my staff was in cars following ours. All of them, especially Nesbitt, were enjoying themselves as much as I was, making encouraging gestures to the happy people who had come to see us. To be the sinecure of all eyes was a pleasant experience. I could not help but find pleasure in a new world, with new landscape and colors and customs. Every face beaming at us from the edge of the road was covered in etchings of color in patterns ranging from a simple stripe over the nose of a baby in arms to full-face tattoos in rainbow hues. It was rather like looking at a catalog of wallpaper samples with eyes and cheering mouths.
It was not all adulation, of course. I had to pay attention as my hosts, the five councillors of the planet Boske, remarked upon every single feature that ran between the spaceport and the center of Pthohannix, a tongue-twister of a name. I could have done without the travelogue, but they seemed desperate to make a good impression with me. We passed through echoing canyons of tall, glass-sided buildings. It seemed curiously old-fashioned to me. Most of the architecture harkened back to Imperium designs, but the newest structures had a less coherent style than the older ones, as if the most recent builders were attempting to make a statement but were uncertain as to its reception with the public. Open spaces were laid out at major crossroads and tucked in between high buildings.
“We pride ourselves on our community gardens,” the young man known as Five said, pointing to one of the larger areas. “It’s a little late for the roses, but you should see them when they’re in bloom.”
I surveyed bare thorns and gave him a weak smile. I was not terribly impressed with the streets of Boske. Backwater was the first word that sprang to mind, though not to tongue. I would not have dared. My training as a scion of the Imperial house would have prevented it, if not the withering glance of Parsons that would have struck me dead. But everything was so desperately old-fashioned I felt as though I should revert to ancient forms of our standard tongue and use the appropriate antique pronoun forms. But our hosts did not speak that way, so I restrained myself.
Four, a pop-eyed woman in her middle years wearing curlicues of orange over her cheeks, pointed out the well-kept transportation system with pride. I nodded as she described how the light rail systems ran in tracks that had been slagged out of native bedrock a millennium ago. We in the Core Worlds had stopped using slot trains ages back when magnetic impulse tracks were perfected that could be virtually painted upon any surface, and the car systems would follow, traveling upon them with no trouble. They were safe to walk upon, even to touch one’s tongue to—not that I would admit to a living soul I had ever done that on a bet, though I had. I’d won ten credits from Xan for doing it. It hadn’t hurt at all, however foul it had tasted.
For the sake of my hosts I was as encouraging and fascinated as I could manage. The people were kind and welcoming, though I also sensed an underlying hostility like an itchy undergarment impinging upon me in many uncomfortable ways from a handful of the councillors. Parsons had warned me about that as well. I’d never been anywhere that the emperor’s name was not met with a smile and often a sigh of pleasure. Now that I knew the reason, or one of the reasons, why, I wondered if the genetic changes had been bred out of the Cluster population over the two centuries, or if the festering resentment overpowered the artificial biological imperative. Most of the anger in our ground car came from the First Councillor, a mild-looking older woman with blue tattoos in an almost floral pattern over a curiously pasty complexion. When she spoke, she was warm and kindly, but as soon as silence fell, so did the curtain of anger.
The hostility was even more palapable when we joined the rest of the council in the grand room at the governor’s palace which had been tricked out for an elaborate ceremony of welcome. Round tables for six were laid with brilliant white tablecloths and gleaming silver and crystal. Hangings from the ceilings, divisible by eight, depicted the flags of each of the Cluster systems. I knew them all from my studies. Parsons had been nothing if not thorough. At one end of the room, a podium upon a dais backed by pennants of blue silk was lit by two enormous projection lamps.
“I hoped I will not be called upon to make a speech,” I whispered to Parsons.
“It is customary, sir. You have your notes.”
I did, of course. I had worked upon them cursorily during our journey, but having prepared them I counted on not having to make use of them, in much the same fashion as carrying an umbrella ensured that it would not rain.
Parsons made introductions, and I did my best to recall all the names and/or numbers as they were given to me by wave after wave of notables, including the rest of the council who had been in the cars behind mine. I paid small compliments as I could. How I wished I had had access to the military codes that allowed me to unlock Infogrid files! That is, if they also opened Cluster Grid entries. It had worked so well on Smithereen, allowing me to connect to my new acquaintances as if they were friends. I kept the memory of that warm glow in mind as I shook cold hands, paws and claws. Plet, somewhere in the crowd, was on the job, seeking to find her way past the safeguards and firewalls of the local system. Her most important task, of course, was to discover the whereabouts of our missing ambassador. I tried to behave as if I was not desperately curious about what she had found every time her right eyebrow went up. I met humans by the score, a few Wichus and Uctus, but the most fascinating beings were the Cocomons, human-sized insects with bright blue carapaces and eyes. They were startlingly beautiful. I ordered my cameras to take as many exposures of them as they could without being too obvious.
There was nothing particularly exotic about the cluster. The most notable thing about the human population was the tattoos. Since the noble house was not permitted to make facial alterations of any kind (for reasons I now knew), I found it startling to see perfectly normal eyes looking at me out of wildly colorful masks. Most were just a design on the apples of the cheeks and over the bridge of the nose, but some covered every morsel of facial flesh. I had to pretend that I was at a costume ball, so I would not make a rude remark. I was made known to the governor, a prosperous and intelligent-looking man whose dark eyes peered out of a nest of red and black slashes. I took dozens of images so I could study them later on.
A handful of the forty councillors, including the woman in blue, spoke to me as little as possible. Most of the ruling body adored me on sight, which though I now knew would happen I found both gratifying and unsettling. Most of them paid compliments on my tunic, giving me an excuse to describe my home city and the beauties therein.
“I have many files of pictures and video from Taino that you will enjoy. I will show you all later on,” I promised. They expressed themselves delighted for the upcoming treat.
Most of the underlying anger flared when a tall, broad-shouldered man in the uniform of the Trade Union entered the room. He looked as grand as the surroundings. Those members of the council who had shown me friendliness went straight to him like dogs to their master. He greeted them briefly but with warmth, then broke loose to approach me.
“Lord Thomas, this is a pleasure,” he boomed. “I am Captain Emile Sgarthad. Welcome to the Castaway Cluster!”
My new friend was a big, handsome man with blue eyes, straight brows, a mighty jaw and a face as devoid of decoration as my own. The way he grasped my hand told me he had all the self-confidence in the world. He stared deeply into my eyes as if searching for something there. I regarded him affably. He frowned.
“I am pleased to meet you,” I said. “May I introduce my staff?”
“Of course,” Sgarthad said, beaming at them. “But I know them already from your manifest. Lieutenant Plet, Ensign Redius, Spacer First Class Oskelev, Ensign Nesbitt, Ensign Anstruther, and Commander Parsons.”
“Indeed, sir,” Parsons said, giving him a more austere look than I thought appropriate. I almost nudged him. My staff saluted him politely. He seemed to expect more. He turned back to me.
“I hear you are an accomplished tri-tennis player,” he said, slapping me companionably on the back. “So am I. We must have a match while you are here!”
“It would be my pleasure,” I said, feeling cheered.
“And a wit with a story, I hear, too?” An elbow found its way to my ribs. Sgarthad barked out laughter.
“Modesty forbids me . . .” I said, lowering my eyes so as not to seem too forward.
“Don’t let it, sir. I look forward to hearing some of your stories. If you will pardon me, I have some preparations to make before we begin.”
“Of course, Captain,” I said, with a graceful bow. I did not understand why some of the people here disliked him. He seemed very friendly.
“No tattoos, he,” Redius whispered.
“No,” Plet said. “He is not concealing at all that he is not one of them. Nor are those guards.”
“Very likeable fellow,” I said. “Quite a winning way about him. We seem to have all the same interests.”
Plet looked long-suffering. “He went through your Infogrid file, sir. I checked for hits on it since you offered your credentials.”
My companions grinned at me.
“Oh.” I turned to Parsons. “What is your impression of him, Parsons?”
“He seems born to command, sir,” Parsons replied. “I believe you asked so I would repeat the question to you, sir. What is your impression?”
“He looks,” I said ruefully, “exactly like my cousin Xan. Girls must fall all over him.”
“Indeed, sir,” Parsons said. “It is not a matter to bring up to a fellow diplomat.”
“Not before casual drinks, at any rate,” I mused. Parsons raised an eyebrow. “I see. I’ll wait for him to bring it up himself, shall I?”
“That would be tactful, my lord.”
I waxed thoughtful, thinking of our exchange. “He hasn’t got Xan’s inner poise, though,” I said. “He is trying too hard. I wonder why.”
“Perhaps you make him nervous, sir,” Parsons said. He tilted his head a micron to indicate a Cocomon in formal attire who was waving his claw-hands in the air. “The master of ceremonies is signaling to us. We should take our places, sir.”
I followed my aide-de-camp to a prominent position on the lit dais. We stood at the fore of the round stage beside Sgarthad and the governor in front of the rows of councillors.
My good mood lasted perhaps another four minutes. Then the banners at the rear of the stage went up, revealing a full orchestra in formal attire. They struck up the first anthem.
Anthems, I firmly believe, are written as instruments of torture. They are pieces of music like terrible, painful worms that insinuate themselves and wind painfully through one’s internal organs, rending nerve tissue as they go. I find them acutely uncomfortable to listen to, as would all normal, right-thinking people. Once the orchestra had played the “Glory of the Imperium,” I felt the relief that a prisoner must experience upon being released from a long and unfair incarceration. I was about to move toward my hosts to offer the elaborate compliments incumbent upon me as representative of His Imperiality, when another blaring chord issued from the speakers. I shot a look of horror at Parsons. He shook his head a millimeter to either side, warning me not to move.
“It is the Castaway Cluster’s theme, ‘Frontier of the Unknown,’ ” he said. “You listened to it on our journey here.” I put my ear to the test. After a screeching bar or two, I did recognize it. It possessed even fewer of the soaring crescendos that made “Glory of the Imperium” unsingable by any human who had not been trained in opera, but it was still awful. Then followed one after another eight more shards of music so terrifying that I assumed they had been written as part of a bet to see who could insult the audience the most. Tears filled my eyes with every fresh shriek.
When it was all over, I could not believe the blessed silence. A single tear traced its way down my cheek. I dashed it away. The eldest man with a crown of silver hair came to pump my hand. “I saw how moved you were by our anthem, Lord Thomas. It is most courteous of you. It is an ancient piece that tells of the suffering of our ancestors.”
“I can well imagine,” I gasped, bringing myself under control. “I felt it deeply.”
The woman with silver hair and blue tattoos smiled at me for the first time. By the way the others deferred to her, the position of First Councillor must be more than just numerary. She had a large man at her elbow, one of the untattooed faces, probably a personal aide. He stood closer to us than a similar associate would in the Core Worlds, but I was not at home, and customs were no doubt different here. I would check on the Infogrid later to see what the subtleties were.
“Did you enjoy the ceremony, First Councillor?” I asked her.
“It is most patriotic.” She gave me a mischievous smile. “Usually visitors wait until the ceremony of welcome is under way before showing up.”
“You mean it was expected of me to opt out of, er, listening?” I asked.
She tilted her head. “Yes. We expected it. Mention of the, er, custom was in the commentary that followed the protocol we sent to your ship. I must say that I am gratified that you didn’t. Your attention will mollify those who stand on each side of the question.”
“Indeed.” I aimed a hard look at Parsons. “Words will be exchanged later on.” He bowed very slightly, though he remained expressionless. I felt an immediate and permanent sympathy with any dignitaries who visited the Core Worlds from that moment on. Diplomacy was harder than it had first seemed. “And what question is that, madam?” I asked.
“Independence,” she said. She gave a glance toward her aide. His face remained stony. I presumed that she was worried about him overhearing us, but she made no move away from him. “You have come to inquire on behalf of the emperor whether we will accept his invitation to return to the fold.”
“Well,” I said, feeling awkward, “I’ve lived in the Imperium all my life. It’s a good place to be part of. There are beautiful and interesting—and historical—places to visit. I brought lots of images and videos of home, so you can see. Not that you don’t have history here, of course. There’s just more of it. His Majesty hopes you’ll say yes, of course, but I’m just an observer. It’s up to the emperor’s ambassador to persuade you, really. You won’t have met her, have you? His Majesty’s concerned about her. That’s why he sent me. And Parsons.” I tilted my head toward the grave mien a meter off my starboard stern. The two diplomats looked at him, then gave each other nervous looks.
“No, we have not,” the man said at last. “Er, seen her, that is. I mean, lately. She did communicate with us that she was coming. I . . . I trust she is well?”
“I hope so,” I said. “But it’s been a while since anyone’s heard from her. She’s about to incur a nasty fine for failing to update her Infogrid file, you know.” By their expressions, my joke fell flat. It was a serious thing, of course. I needed to change the subject. “Tell me, please. I’ve never been here before, of course. I notice that everyone has, er, facial art.”
The pair of diplomats seemed to relax. I felt good about putting them at their ease. I was doing my job, observing.
“An old custom,” the gentleman said, taking me by the arm and leaning on me as we walked toward the tables. “When humankind settled in the Castaway Cluster, the first system colonized was Cocomo. Humanity found that it was already occupied by an intelligent native species. They made us welcome.” He turned me by the elbow to face one of the insectoid beings. “Do you see their facial patterns?”
“Very handsome,” I said. All of them were different and complex. If I concentrated on the multicolored whorls and blobs, I could imagine wrought iron gates or flower petals, fish scales or fine calligraphy. “I am impressed by the beauty and detail.”
“Yes, indeed. We decided that in solidarity with these fine beings we would go so adorned. Each family chose its own pattern and color scheme, though there have been alterations over the centuries.” His expression suggested that he did not approve of those alterations.
“Most admirable,” I said, sincerely. It was a great concession on the part of humanity, which did not have a good record throughout the ages for accommodating anyone else. I was impressed.
“Is not epidermal art practiced in the greater Imperium?” he asked, peering at me and my fellows. “I believe that videos of the time before the . . . the separation, that I have seen beings wearing tattoos.”
“Oh, well, it is,” I said. “But as a member of the Imperial household, I’m not permitted to make any permanent changes to my person, neither physical nor genetic, to the angst of those of us born with long noses, small eyes or outstanding ears.” Knocking at the back of my teeth was the knowledge of my heritage. I pushed it firmly away. “If you stripped my companions bare, you might find a skin image or two, but don’t tell them I suggested such an impertinence.” My audience gave an appreciative chuckle. “My cousins and I do frequent the establishments of face-painters, especially for parties. Your patterns are most interesting. Tell me about them, if you wouldn’t mind.”
“Not at all, my lord, not at all!” the old man said, beaming. “My tattoos follow the color scheme of my sixteen-times-great-grandmother Genilla . . .”
Each of the councillors was eager to give me details of their history. Children wore stripes of color over the bridges of their noses from their naming ceremony at one month of age. When they reached their official adulthood, at the onset of puberty, they chose their permanent designs.
“Too early, what?” I asked, recalling what I had been like around that despicable time of my life.
“Not at all,” said the First Councillor.
“Don’t any of you come to regret your choices?” I asked, curiously.
“Of course not,” said the old man, whose name was Bruke. They were horrified at the thought.
“May I record yours?” I asked. “It would be a great favor.” They agreed. I set my Optique to capture their images from several different directions. The serene look on Parsons’s face said that he approved.
We sat down for the luncheon. Parsons and my staff were at the table adjacent to mine with the elderly gentleman and another older man with yellowing skin under his rather elaborate tattoos. They listened through my viewpad and two hovering cameras. Redius blinked at me with amusement. I occupied the hot seat among the most challenging guests. First Councillor DeKarn sat at my right hand, and a very attractive woman my mother’s age, Councillor Nineteen, at my left. Sgarthad, partnered with the governor’s wife, sat across from me.
“So you are a cousin of the emperor,” Sgarthad said, expansively, toasting me with a cup of wine.
“One of many,” I said. “Shojan and I share a number of ancestors. He is a Kinago, of course. One of the founding families of the Imperium. It’s in your history books.”
“Your history books,” he said. “I am from the Trade Union.”
“Do tell,” I said, hoping I didn’t look as if I had heard it before. “What are you doing here? Er, trading?”
Sgarthad chuckled. “More than that. These good people have taken me into their bosom,” he said. “We are making friends and opening ourselves to commerce and culture with an eye toward forming a permanent bond between us.”
“Not too permanent, I trust,” I said. “After all, this territory is within the realm of the Imperium.” I addressed my other tablemates. “We—that is to say, the emperor hopes you will also take him to your bosom.”
“I am afraid you are a little late,” the governor said, with a tentative glance at Sgarthad before he spoke. “The Trade Union has become a good friend to us.”
“And I am not unaware of history,” I said. “I am just saying, what about all the maps? They show the Cluster as part of the Imperium. I would hate to see that change. You can’t be cruel to all those cartographers!”
“They will cope,” Sgarthad said, flatly. “The Cluster does not wish to be associated any longer with the Imperium. That time is past.”
“I would rather hear it from the citizens of the Cluster itself,” I said, firmly. I regarded the governor and each of the councillors intently, giving them my most wistful expression. “I hope I can expect the same courtesy, to allow me to become your friend.” Yuchiko’s mouth spread in a beaming smile.
“You won’t be here long enough, will you?” the captain asked, quelling the governor before he could reply. “You have to get back to your busy life.”
“I haven’t a thing in the world to do except what the emperor commands,” I said, with more than a hint of truth. “Governor, councillors, I hope we may have a discussion over the coming days on the subject. I am keen to discern your views, and I wish to offer you mine—those I represent. After all, I am His Majesty’s observer.”
“Well, you know, it has been a long time,” Yuchiko said, timidly. “That time is past.”
I cocked an eyebrow. How curious that the governor should echo his visitor’s precise words. “Plet?” I whispered.
“I am on it, sir,” said the voice in my ear. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her eyes dip to her lap, and her fingers went to work on her viewpad.
“Lord Thomas,” said Councillor DeKarn, firmly, “you are correct. You do have the right to be heard. We would be honored if you would address the full council tomorrow. All eight systems have the right to hear you. We all wish to hear the emperor’s plans for our future.”
I would have sworn that she had told me shortly before that she favored independence for the Castaway Cluster. Then I sensed the roiling hostility I had felt when I first arrived. It was not meant for me, but for the man seated opposite. From the grimace Sgarthad wore, she had just tweaked his tail. She was terrified to do it, but brave enough to try. A-ha, I thought. I recalled my father enjoining me to discover not what they wanted, but what they feared. All was not the calm pond surface it appeared. This was an important fact. I made a note to include it in my report.
“You must be present, too, Governor,” the attractive woman at my side added.
“I would be delighted,” Yuchiko said. Sgarthad cleared his throat. The governor turned to him. He dipped his head like a chided schoolboy. “It is only courteous to our guest. I will maintain my own opinion, of course.”
I vowed to use that indecision to help sway the Cluster back into the Imperium’s fold. My mother would be proud of me if I managed to promote the cause of unity. And, of course, I would continue to observe.
By the purple cast of Sgarthad’s complexion, I perceived that I had pushed the subject as far as I could for the time being. I turned the table talk to my favorite subject, photography.
“You are right, Thomas,” Plet said. “A Grid pundit, endorsed by your distinguished friend there, quotes Captain Sgarthad as saying, “That time is past,” in reply to the question of Imperium ties. Several times, in fact. The phrase is a favorite of his.”
“Most amusing,” Redius said in an undertone that I heard through the miniature receiver above my ear. “Not know their own minds. But they know his.”