Authors: Tracy St. John
Tags: #erotic science fiction
I’ve known people who seemed perfectly fine and turned out to be anything but. Never judge a book by its cover ... even one as nice as Dramok Diltan’s
one as nice as his
Fortunately, Lindsey wanted to talk to Cissy as much as Cissy wanted to talk to her. Lindsey intercepted her cousin and motioned that they should stand a little apart from the rest of the gathering.
Side by side, they walked towards the emptiest spot in the crowded bay. Two Kalquorian men were leaving that section, and the one in council robes nodded and smiled at Lindsey with recognition. She returned the smile.
“Hello, Dramok Rajhir. You’re looking well. How are the twins?” she said.
“Thank you for asking, Imperial Sister. Everyone is well.”
“Please give Amelia my best wishes. Let her know I’ll com her soon.”
“I will. How are you? Ready for your own younglings yet?”
There was a teasing note to Rajhir’s tone, though Cissy saw his smile seemed a little strained. The other man chuckled, as if in on a private joke.
Lindsey glared at them both. “I hear enough of doing my ‘duty’ from my clanmates’ mothers. Don’t you and Ospar start in on me too. ”
The two men laughed outright that time. Ospar nudged Rajhir.
“I wonder who else I’ve heard say such things?”
The men moved off. Cissy followed a chuckling Lindsey to where they could talk in relative privacy.
“Spill the beans,” she urged her cousin. “What’s up with that Dramok Diltan?”
Lindsey wrinkled her nose as she eyed the councilman still chatting up Tasha. “I’m not at liberty to go into details, but know he’s something of a status-seeker.”
“Not at liberty?” Cissy frowned at the other woman.
Lindsey shrugged. “I made a promise that I would not discuss my specific objections to the man, not to anyone. I want to keep peace anyway. He invested the bulk of the capital that got my clan’s businesses started.”
Cissy looked at the devastatingly handsome Dramok with narrowed eyes. “Uh oh. You owe money to a guy you don’t like?”
Lindsey waved a dismissive hand. “Oh, he made back his investment. We don’t owe him a thing now.” She made a face. “In truth, I should let bygones be bygones. He didn’t charge us interest or keep any profit he was entitled to. I’m not a good Buddhist when it comes to Diltan.”
“Having trouble unloading past grudges? That’s one of my stumbling blocks too.” Cissy recited the lesson her late father had done his best to get her to heed. “Holding onto grievances only extends the harm done. Forgiveness cures the heart.”
Lindsey nodded. “Still, you know how it is when someone pulls a stunt that you pretty much regard as unforgiveable.”
Cissy knew that feeling all too well. “Do I need to drag Tasha away from Diltan?”
“Still protective of her, I see.” Lindsey chuckled.
“She doesn’t need it. You should have seen how tough she was when we were hauled in by the authorities to answer for Jessica becoming Empress. Then after Armageddon, she got tougher still.”
“I can imagine.” Lindsey’s gaze went distant, as if remembering her own trials back on Earth. “It’s amazing the strength you discover you have when the chips are down.”
Cissy nodded. “Tasha doesn’t need me to keep her safe, but she’s all I have left. It’s hard not to go back to those old patterns.”
Lindsey’s brow rose as she regarded Cissy. “She’s not all you have left.”
Cissy leaned into her cousin’s embrace when Lindsey put her arm around her shoulders. For a moment, she thought she would cry. It was hard to believe she was back among those she loved.
“It is so good to be with family again,” she said, not caring about the husky emotion in her voice. “There is nothing more important,” Lindsey agreed.
Dramok Diltan lived close to the Government House where the Royal Council chambers were located. When the weather was good, he walked to and from work. However, the weather was blustery cold with winter’s last gasp, the kind of cold that stole a man’s breath the first second he was in it. Diltan had taken his shuttle to work. It barely took a minute to travel home that night.
Like the Government House, Diltan’s home was cut out of the seaside cliffs of the Eastern Seaboard Territory. He owned the top two levels of the cliff dwelling, high above where the waves crashed upon the shore. It was prime real estate on Kalquor, perhaps the most expensive that could be bought since the Royal House where the Imperial Clan and their family lived could not be sold. Even so, buying the dwelling decades earlier had barely made an impression on Clan Diltan’s financial well-being.
Diltan’s clanmates had come from prosperous families, just as he had. Yet it was his eye for business that had made them ridiculously wealthy. Diltan’s ability to spot a lucrative start-up was a gift, one he wielded for the rush of achievement rather than for the financial rewards. Getting a new company on its feet, watching it grow and succeed just as he’d foreseen, the excitement of knowing he’d proved himself again ... it was what kept Diltan in the game long after it ceased to make financial sense to continue investing.
Diltan’s expansive home, complete with guest suites that were better and more comfortable than most people’s dwellings, was a testament to his success. The hollowed-out cliff boasted an indoor pool, an art collection that resembled a mini museum, and a music hall in which concerts were played for Clan Diltan’s friends. The only trapping of success that he lacked was a full-time household staff. His clanmates preferred to not have cleaning and cooking personnel underfoot all the time. Unless they had guests for a lengthy stay, janitorial services showed up once a week. The complex’s kitchen sent up their meals when they chose not to cook for themselves.
Diltan stepped into the opulent greeting room where the clan hosted formal parties. He strode past comfortable but luxurious conversation areas, the full-sized bar that would have been at home in an upscale restaurant, the entertainment vid system where friends often gathered to watch kurble championships and other sports-related events, and a collection of gaming tables. Diltan didn’t see the vast room empty of people. His memories of wonderful gatherings played out around him as he moved on to the formal dining room with its long table, and down the hall.
As the Dramok wandered towards the clan’s private common room, he swept his council robes off, dumping them into the laundry intake that was conveniently secreted within one wall. Such intakes were scattered throughout the home. It kept things simple, a must for men who dealt with more than enough complexities in the outside world.
As Diltan had expected, he found his clanmates in the common room, playing a round of akmag at the gaming table. Wal was tossing the stones as Diltan walked in. Rolat groaned and flung a card at the grinning Imdiko as one of the vid tokens moved across the holoboard.
The entertainment vid system, slightly smaller than the one in the greeting room, was predictably off. While Diltan found it necessary to keep up-to-date on the news once a day, no one in his clan was a fan of the dramas that played on the broadcasts. Documentaries, educational lessons, and the occasional concert were more to their tastes. The three men saw more than enough news and drama in their everyday lives.
Wal’s evil grin turned gentle as he looked at Diltan. Warmth pulsed through the Dramok’s heart at the welcoming expression from his clanmate. Looking at that caring countenance, it was hard to believe that Wal had once despised him with all of his being.
Diltan loved the expression that transformed the quietly handsome Imdiko into a beautiful man. Nothing about Wal stood out as noteworthy until he smiled. His features were well-formed but not memorable. His hair was the typical Kalquorian black; wildly curly, slightly below shoulder-length, usually pulled back off his face at the temples. He was toned but not overly muscled, his frame long and more elegantly shaped than either of his clanmates’.
He had a tendency to look serious or worried, no surprise for a judge who sat on the most important cases that affected the Empire. It was not the typical career for an Imdiko, but having been raised by a family steeped in law enforcement, Wal had found a niche. Still, it was a tough vocation for the nurturing breed. The corners of Wal’s mouth were slightly lined because he found too many reasons to frown. He had sentenced men to life sentences and even execution. It wore on his conscience to do so, to the point that his clanmates had found it necessary to monitor his drinking when sensational cases came Wal’s way. Without supervision, the Imdiko tended to find more solace in the bottle than was wise.
Diltan grinned at Wal, delighted to see his clanmate in good spirits. Even after decades of clanship, the sight of Wal’s smile was enough to thrill the Dramok.
Rolat beamed at Diltan too, the cheerful countenance at odds with his bestial, heavy-browed face. His good humor was something of an oddity for one of the warrior Nobek breed. The easygoing attitude was even more a rarity since he was the Empire’s Head of Penal Colonies. Diltan often wondered if Rolat kept that side of himself secret from everyone but those closest to him. The eldest of their clan, Rolat often acted the part of a wise uncle, particularly when Wal and Diltan weren’t making the best of decisions.
“Did the cousins of our empress make it here safe and sound?” Rolat asked by way of greeting.
Diltan nodded at his Nobek. “They did. Empress Jessica is beside herself with joy to have them here.”
Wal wanted to know, “Are they really identical? Could you tell them apart?”
Twins were a rarity on Kalquor. Only a few of the Earther-Kalquorian hybrid pregnancies had resulted in such remarkable births. As far as Diltan knew, none of those had been identical.
He told his Imdiko, “You can tell one from the other, though they appear the same on the outside. They dress differently, plus their attitudes are completely at odds. The one they call Tasha has a sweet, open personality. She’s got wonderful manners and a proper carriage.”
Rolat shook one heavily muscled arm as he rolled the stones. “And the other twin?”
Diltan grimaced. He wasn’t sure how to describe Cecilia Salter. The brief encounter he’d had with the woman defied easy explanation.
He tried. “She’s – I don’t know. I hate to use the word ‘provincial’—”
Wal choked back laughter. “Careful, my Dramok. Your rank is showing.”
Diltan scowled as hard as Rolat, who was not doing well in the game. “Damn it, I’m not trying to be a snob. She’s beautiful. Spirited too. But I’m sure the clothing she wore was more suited to an Earther male than a woman. She has an aggressive way about her that I can only describe as rude.”
Rolat brightened, his heavy brow lifting with interest. “Aggressive? Really? That sounds like fun.”
Diltan flopped down on a nearby seating cushion. “Fun for you, maybe. I’ve heard some refer to Empress Jessica as a female version of a Nobek. Well, this one was even more so. Maybe more ill-natured than a Nobek.”
“Hopefully, she’s prettier than me too,” Rolat teased. He didn’t mind not being conventionally handsome.
Diltan didn’t mind either. Rolat was brute masculinity personified, and that suited the Dramok fine. He liked his Nobek’s strength.
He also liked Rolat’s tendency towards lightheartedness, something he hadn’t seen much of in Cissy. He told his clanmates, “Matara Cecilia seemed more interested in confrontation than accepting the well wishes of us councilmen. She was damned near insulting. Others I spoke to remarked on it.”
Wal shrugged as he shook the stones and let them fly. He grinned at Rolat’s curse before telling Diltan, “Maybe she just wanted to be with her family. Who wants to be bothered with a bunch of strangers when you’ve just landed on your new home?”
As usual, the Imdiko had seen to the heart of things. Diltan had to agree with Wal’s take on the matter. “You’re probably right. Yet her sister showed all the signs of gentle breeding. Matara Natasha displayed manners and patience. Plus, she knows how to dress. Those clothes Cecilia wore ... ugh. Such a pretty girl shouldn’t wear ugly things.”
“Clothes do not make a person good or bad,” Rolat opined. He arched a brow at Wal.
Diltan chuckled as the Imdiko made a face. Wal’s closets overflowed with clothing. The man had a fetish for the latest fashions.
Wal said, “So the sisters are pretty?”
The Dramok said, “Quite lovely. Pleasing figures that make a man think rude thoughts.” That spark in Cissy’s eyes had given Diltan some thoughts as well, but her sarcastic tone had been enough to turn him off. Almost.
Barely aware he spoke aloud, Diltan added, “Cecilia should take more care with her appearance. Maybe she thinks her rank as cousin to the Imperial Clan is all she needs to attract good mates.”
Wal rolled his eyes. “Believe it or not, Diltan, some people could care less about rank.”
It was an offhand remark, yet Diltan’s face heated at the words. He had never told his clanmates about the time he’d tried to lure the Imperial Sister Lindsey into de-clanning her young low-status mates for his clan. The memory of being shamed by Lindsey and the mothers of her clanmates made his stomach twist in a sickened loop. He’d never been so humiliated in all his life.
At least the four women had stuck to their promise to not disclose his ill-conceived attempt. Diltan was more than ready to admit to himself he’d been an ass to try and worm his way into the Imperial Family. He just didn’t want anyone else to know about it.
To his Imdiko, he grouched, “I know rank isn’t everything, damn it. I fight the urge to chase further accolades and symbols of success. Why do you insist that I still put prestige first?”
It was Rolat who answered. “Because though you are a good man and a good Dramok, you remain ambitious as hell. You still feel the need to prove your worth to everyone else.” He rolled the stones and made an angry sound. He picked them up and tossed them at Wal, conceding defeat.
Ducking the flying game pieces, Wal added, “You also remain a bit of a snob, though I agree you are fighting that tendency.” He grinned at Diltan. It wasn’t clear whether his victory over Rolat or giving Diltan hell made him happier.