Authors: Tracy St. John
Tags: #erotic science fiction
She didn’t share any of her thoughts with her twin. Instead, she said, “I don’t know. You and a smarmy politician? What do his clanmates do?”
“The Nobek is the head of their prison system. He’s a fierce looking one, downright scary, in fact. Not pretty like his Dramok. The Imdiko is a judge of Kalquor’s highest court.”
It was the kind of match Jessica might have wrangled for Tasha, had they given her the chance. Cissy rolled her eyes and stuck her pinky out in a pseudo-sophisticated pose. “Well, lah-dee-dah.”
Tasha made her own snobbish face. “Lah-dee-dah is right. While I dine on caviar and champagne or whatever the Kalquorian equivalent is, you can have the alien version of chicken wings and beer. Let me hear you grunt, you animal.”
The women snickered at each other. They never truly butted heads over their differences most of the time. They enjoyed being unique in personality while nearly identical in looks.
A low beep sounded from the large vid on the wall. An electronic male voice said, “This is your reminder that you have a dinner appointment this evening.”
Both jumped to their feet. Cissy’s gaze went to the chronometer on the vid and she yelped, “Shit! Look at the time. We’ve got to get moving!”
They hurried to the door and jostled to be first out, rushing to meet their cousins.
* * * *
Early the next morning a Royal Council closed meeting was held. Diltan could hardly contain his excitement, though the anticipation had nothing to do with the meeting.
Several measures had been introduced and argued on the council floor. Now members of the council were standing in turn, publicly voicing their support for various pieces of legislation and on the matter of a peer review – the official examination of the late Dramok Zarl’s papers. Diltan had made his vote for the latest matter known. Now he fidgeted on the seating step where the councilmen gathered. He was a bundle of nerves, a fact that his friend Councilman Oiteil picked up on.
“This Matara Natasha must be quite the lovely lady. You can barely to keep still,” the elder Oiteil observed as they sat in a far corner of the room. “You’ve hardly paid attention to the vote as to who will review Imperial Father Zarl’s records.”
Diltan waved his friend and occasional mentor off. “Oh, that honor will fall to Maf. Everyone knows that.”
Oiteil raised a bushy eyebrow at him. For the mild-mannered Dramok, such an expression was akin to a shout, though there was the note of a chuckle in his tone. “With all the wheeling and dealing going on to give you the job?”
That got Diltan’s attention, ending his ruminations on how best to impress Tasha Salter. “What wheeling and dealing? What are you talking about?”
Oiteil’s grin faded. His eyes widened in astonishment. “You really don’t know? You didn’t recruit our allies to get the undecided to vote for you?”
“Why would I? I don’t stand a chance, not with Maf head of the Ethics Committee.”
“You’re on that committee as well. Most see you as much more objective than Maf on matters to do with the Imperial Family.”
“Well, that much is good to know.”
Diltan looked about council floor and noted Dramok Weslo was on his feet. The vote was drawing to a close if he was casting his. With solemn majesty, the white-bearded councilman intoned, “I cast my vote for Councilman Diltan.”
Diltan’s brow wrinkled. Weslo was conservative in his views and usually set against the younger councilmen. More than once he’d voiced displeasure over some of Diltan’s past proposals and arguments.
Thinking about that, Diltan told Oiteil, “I’m still marked by many as being enraptured with the Imperial Clan. These men don’t tend to forget such things easily.”
His friend quirked a knowing smile. “It’s a good thing you’ve kept your appointment with the empress’ cousin under wraps. In a few minutes the voting will be done, however, and who you attract for a Matara is no longer a factor – until the next time you want a piece of legislation passed.”
Diltan shrugged. “My choice for a lifemate is my business. A Matara lasts longer and is of more importance than my political career. Her connection to the Imperial Clan notwithstanding, Matara Tasha is a lovely woman.”
“And if she doesn’t work out, there is the sister, correct?”
Diltan snorted. “I have no interest in the twin. If Tasha is not compatible with my clan, I will happily move on to a woman with no Imperial connections.”
The wry tone he spoke with made Oiteil snicker. “It’s like that, is it? Alike in looks but not in personalities? Is it really impossible to tell the two females apart just by looking at them?”
Diltan thought about the rough-around-the-edges twin. The memory of that insolent sparkle in her eye which had first caught his attention made his heart quicken for a moment. Too bad she had such a poor attitude to go with that exciting inner fire. “They are identical physically. After a moment or two of talking to them, you get a good idea of which is which.”
Oiteil considered. “Isn’t that amazing? Two women, identical in features, brought up in the same household, and yet utterly different in personality.”
“Indeed. Matara Cissy is – how can I say this? Spirited. That’s a good word for it. Tasha is more, uh, sedate.” Diltan frowned. He’d almost described Tasha as ‘predictable’. Which she seemed to be, and that was a good thing. The last thing he needed was a mate that left him guessing all the time.
Oiteil turned his attention to official concerns. “Listen, we need to discuss more serious matters soon. If you aren’t picked to review Zarl’s papers, what does your calendar look like for the next week?”
“Nothing I can’t shuffle around. What’s up?”
“I’m trying to round up our like-minded associates on this matter of the Bi’is working with the Basma and Earth’s Holy Leader.”
matter of Bi’is involvement,” Diltan said. When Oiteil frowned a little, he added, “Oh, I agree there is something to the story, but it’s bad form to assume guilt. I like to approach each case looking at the facts with no rumor attached.” He grinned. “That’s what I get for having a judge as a clanmate.”
Oiteil nodded approvingly. “Your point is well taken. Yet you were there for the deposition. You know trouble is afoot.”
Diltan sighed. When it came to disputes with other empires only outright war could move things at a decent pace. “The Bi’is kingdom will swear up and down that any illegal biological research on our people is being carried out by renegade scientists. They’ll refuse to admit to any knowledge about the matter.”
Oiteil’s lip curled. “It’s bullshit, and you know it.”
“Without hard evidence to the contrary, the Galactic Council will have to side with Bi’is.”
Oiteil’s arms flung out in an angry gesture. “So what? We don’t have a meeting? We don’t lodge a protest? We sit back and do nothing?”
“Of course we have a meeting and send out a referendum of protest. As for doing nothing, I have it on good authority that our spyships are actively employed in finding the evidence we need against Bi’is.”
Oiteil’s lips thinned. “Meanwhile, the Basma and Copeland continue to prey on our ships. Confrontation with Bi’is should happen sooner rather than later.”
Diltan regarded him with patient worry. “Do you want to kill off the Empire? We’re just four years out of our war with Earth. We took a hell of a beating. The only way we could possibly fight another war is to put younglings not even of clanning age on the front lines.”
“The Earthers did it.”
“And it was wrong,” Diltan insisted.
Oiteil sighed. “I hate the idea of Bi’is getting away with such travesties as using our people as research animals. They used to abduct us on a huge scale for their experiments. It can’t be allowed to happen again.”
Diltan had to make him see that warranted or not, opening up another conflict would be too draining on the Empire’s resources – namely, its men. “Those abductions were hundreds of years ago, even before the virus. Don’t worry; the Galactic Council—”
“Your attention, please.”
The deep bass of Head Councilman Fernlen’s voice halted Diltan and Oiteil’s conversation, as well as all others. The councilmen turned their attention to him.
Dramok Fernlen stood in the middle of the council chamber’s floor, looking up at the stepped seats. An introspective man who rarely engaged in heated diatribes against his fellow councilmen or the Imperial Clan, Fernlen was well liked by most.
When everyone had settled into their seats and waited expectantly, the gray-haired head councilman smiled at them all. “Well, that went right to the very end, didn’t it? I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a tighter margin in any vote. Congratulations to Councilmen Diltan and Maf for their equal popularity.”
As the gathered laughed at Fernlen’s light teasing, Diltan blinked. The vote had been that close? Surely this was a joke.
Fernlen continued. “By a margin of only seven votes, you have decided that Councilman Diltan shall assume responsibility for former emperor Zarl’s records. Do you accept this task, Councilman?”
Diltan stared at Fernlen in shock as faces turned towards him. He saw Dramok Maf, down at the lowest tier of the steps, twist awkwardly about. The deformed councilman smiled and nodded to him, an acknowledgment of equals.
Diltan still couldn’t summon the sense to respond until Oiteil’s nudge reminded him that Fernlen waited for an answer. In a voice that didn’t entirely sound like his own, Diltan said, “Yes, Head Councilman. I accept the charge of my fellow councilmen to review Imperial Father Zarl’s records. I will answer this honor by serving with honor.”
Fernlen nodded. “So noted. This was our final vote for the session. I believe that concludes today’s full council business unless anyone else has new work to discuss? No? Council dismissed.”
Conversation buzzed as men rose from their seats and headed for the chamber’s exit. Those who passed Diltan offered their congratulations. He accepted the accolades, feeling numb as he did so. He couldn’t believe he’d been offered such a responsibility.
“Well done,” Oiteil praised him as they stood. The chamber was nearly empty now.
“I suppose. I can’t say that I worked for this opportunity,” Diltan said. “Maf seems to be waiting. I’d better speak to him.”
Despite the serene way Maf had accepted his defeat, Diltan couldn’t be sure how the other councilman was taking the matter. After all, he headed the Ethics Committee. Maf had fought hard against the disabilities that made his life painful and difficult. Even the men who didn’t like Maf or his quiet but steady demonstrations against the interbreeding of Earther women and Kalquorian men still respected him.
He’s been a thorn in the Imperial Clan’s side and more than half the council’s over the notion of us dying out pure
, Diltan thought as he neared the waiting man.
Could it be that is the reason he was passed over for this? Am I the lesser of two evils?
So much for being honored, if that was the case.
Maf’s twisted frame didn’t allow for the man to manage more than the suggestion of a bow. “Congratulations to you, my dear Diltan. I am sure you will do a fine job.”
Still wondering how this had come to pass, Diltan bowed deeper than was warranted. “Thank you, Maf. I hope I am up to such a great task.” He couldn’t help adding, “It should have gone to you.”
Maf chuckled and patted his shoulder with a gnarled hand that looked as if it should belong to a man three times his age. “Not at all, you’ll do splendid. If I couldn’t be allowed the honor, I am glad the duty falls to a man like you.”
“A man like me?”
“Of course.” Maf beamed at him, like a proud father might beam at a successful son. “Smart, loyal to the Empire, bound by duty – and with your wealth, not a man who can be bought if something less than flattering to the former Imperial Clan should come to light.”
Suspicion cast a shadow on Diltan’s thoughts. “Are you not the same man who once proclaimed me as devoted to Empress as the babe that suckled on her teat? Did you not insinuate that was where my hopes ultimately lay for my future?”
Maf roared with laughter. His face lit in merriment. “And it damned near had the emperors ready to tear out my throat with their fangs! If I was not such a crippled wreck, I believe they would have done so. Fortunately for me, there is no glory in killing a physically disabled man.” He grinned good-naturedly. “You have changed in the last few years, Diltan. I have no doubts when it comes to your honor any longer.”
Diltan wasn’t sure if he should feel complimented or insulted. Yet Maf was being a good sport about not winning the right to pour over the former emperor’s records. Diltan thought it best to be charitable with his response.
Plus there was the matter of the duty itself. Now that it had landed in his lap, Diltan felt overwhelmed. Maf’s response meant he could be both conciliatory as well as ask for support, and thus build an affiliation that might aid Diltan in the future. He hoped the waiting Oiteil would not be offended by him reaching out to Maf rather than his usual mentor.
“May I impose on you? I didn’t expect this to happen, and I’m worried I’ll be in over my head. Zarl’s reign was a long one, with much legislation passed under his watch. If I have any questions—”
Maf beamed with surprised delight. “Thank you for asking, Dramok Diltan. Indeed, do not hesitate to consult with me. My office is open to you at all times.”
Diltan bowed. “Thank you.”
Maf returned the bow as best his infirmities allowed. He limped off, giving Oiteil a nod as he passed. It was only then that Diltan noted Maf’s longtime aide Sitrel, a tall, handsome Dramok who had waited silently for the conversation to end. Sitrel fell in beside Maf as they left the chamber.
Before Diltan could explain himself to Oiteil, the elder councilman gave him a knowing smile. “A stroke of genius to request Maf’s assistance with any problems that arise from the review.”
Diltan blew out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. “I had hoped you wouldn’t take it as a slight. You are always my first choice when it comes to being set straight.”
“You made a smart move in diplomacy. When you want to see a piece of legislation passed, Maf will bring many votes to your corner.” Oiteil clapped a hand on his shoulder and joked, “There is hope for you yet.”