Authors: Colin Alexander
Tags: #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Science Fiction, #Adventure, #Space Opera
“Why? You mean you expected to be treated like this because you’re a daughter instead of a son?”
“Yes,” she told me, “my father would have shot a son who went freebooter, safe conduct or no safe conduct. Every position has certain advantages. Anyway, you lied to him about my having to be a freebooter. You know the truth as well as I.”
“It seemed like a good idea at the time,” I said. “What he doesn’t know can’t hurt you.”
“It doesn’t matter. My father is seen as a bulwark of the empire. The appearance is all that matters.”
At this point, we were facing each other, a good deal closer than customary speaking distance. Her eyes, which were all I really saw, seemed much softer than usual. It was then that a loud “Ahem!” from Angel broke into whatever might have been. He had been with us all along, but I had completely forgotten about him from the moment we faced Tyaromon.
“Are you two planning to go see dear brother Valaria?” he asked.
“Yes,” Jaenna answered for both of us.
“Yup,” Angel said, mostly to himself. “Well, while you two were lost in conversation, I heard a couple of the guards discussing a dice game. I’m not much for family reunions, so unless you need me along, I’ll see how good they are.” He managed to keep the chuckle out of his voice while he delivered his lines, but nothing could keep the grin off his face.
Assured that we could do without him, he went off to find the dice. His ideas about what we would be up to doubtless kept him amused. (To be honest, I had similar thoughts, but the middle of a hallway, outside Tyaromon’s doors, was not the place.) Off we went, to see Valaria. He turned out to be a younger version of Tyaromon, the chief differences being his smooth face and blond hair. When it came to his greeting, however, any resemblance to his father vanished.
“Little Jaenna!” he shouted when we came in. He didn’t wait for us to enter the room, but bounded across the floor to sweep her off her feet. Her face was scarlet by the time she regained her feet and stayed that way as we completed our introductions.
“We’ve heard about what you’ve done. I was thrilled when the Fleet squadron brought word that you would be coming. Have you seen father?”
“Of course,” Jaenna answered. “He has heard all the news, too. I don’t need to tell you how that went.”
“Don’t worry about it.” Valaria swept the space between them with his hand. “We are proud of you. Father has just lived in his position so long, he can’t show it. Not even privately. That, at least, is one of his problems I don’t have to share. Jaenna, I would love to talk, wait until I tell you about the agreement we have with Duromond, it’s fantastic, but I have to be in the capitol until late tonight. I’m glad you caught me before I left. Tomorrow maybe? And if you have time then, Captain Danny a Troy, I would like a chance to speak with you as well.”
I agreed. I doubted that I would have much else to do.
“Good.” Valaria clapped his hands together. “Father, I am sure, said nothing about your quarters. The North guest suite has been set for you. Your old rooms would not be very appropriate, would they Jaenna?”
“No,” she said, turning even redder. “If you must go, Valaria, I would like to see Haranyi and Norboh before everyone goes to the celebration tonight. Are they around the Residence?”
“Haranyi, certainly. He’ll be at his cottage now. I can have the guard call him when I leave.” Then he paused for a moment. “Norboh, I’m afraid has not been very, ah, visible of late. I really don’t know and can’t go into it now. I have got to fly. You do remember your way?”
Jaenna knew her way, but the way she went was not toward the guest suite. Valaria’s tossed off remark about Norboh, a name completely unfamiliar to me, seemed to weigh heavily on her. She wanted to see Haranyi, as soon as possible if not instantaneously. Myself, I would have preferred the guest suite and a nap, but my curiosity soon took over.
Haranyi was the commander of Tyaromon’s guards, which meant all the ground forces on the planet. He was also the person who had trained Jaenna. For a long time, I had wondered what he was like. In my mind, I pictured him as a little, old Japanese in a kimono. He turned out to be small, five foot six tops, and old, with snowy white hair, but his pale blue eyes and pug nose were not the least bit Asian. By virtue of his rank, he enjoyed a small cottage away from the main Residence, set amidst a grove of trees.
The door had been left open for us, with Haranyi awaiting us in a chair in the entryway. He greeted me in the way one would expect him to greet someone he had spent much of his life preparing to fight, cool but very correct. Then, he turned to Jaenna. His face might have stayed impassive, but there was a twinkle in his eyes when he took her hands in his.
“I rejoiced when I heard you were still alive, child, and unlike most, I don’t feel compelled to take issue with how you did it.”
Jaenna’s answering smile was relaxed. Clearly, this greeting was what she needed to reduce the concern that mention of Norboh had raised. She did stick up for her brother, however, pointing out that he had shown no reservations either.
“Bah!” was Haranyi’s response. “Valaria may feel that, he was always a good boy, and he may say it in private, but he is becoming mindful of his place in the hierarchy. You’ll see that he is much more circumspect now, in public. Certainly, he will not go jogging around the Residence with you on his shoulders.”
Jaenna laughed in return. “It has been several years now since I was small enough for that. I can’t fault Valaria if he begs off.”
“No, I suppose not,” the old Srihani said. “At least he isn’t a debauched ass like so many of the heirs today.” Haranyi put his arm around her shoulders. “Come on out back. I have a small daymeal waiting.”
“Out back” the house opened onto a shallow bowl, in which a pond was set. A row of trees resembling willows stood on the far bank. On the near bank a table was set at the water’s edge.
The table was granite, the top polished to a mirror. Three chairs were arrayed around it and looked to have come from the same stone, but that was deceptive. A firm cushion greeted me when I sat.
The meal consisted of sliced fruits and nuts, complemented by a cold soup. The conversation belonged, almost exclusively, to Jaenna and Haranyi. I might as well have been another chair. It reminded me of coming home from my first semester at school, a recitation of all the events since my departure played back at the table, albeit with a few inappropriate bits snipped out. It was my turn to blush when they fell to discussing our adventures and battles.
This was odd. Normally, other than telling my own stories, I like nothing better than to hear someone else tell them, especially with suitable embellishments. But this wasn’t going to be a panegyric. They were so caught up in their talk that they seemed unaware of my presence as they dissected my moves and decisions. I thought of a number of uncharitable comments about Monday morning quarterbacks, but left them unsaid. By the time a hot spiced drink arrived, the conversation had shifted to the more comfortable topic of family gossip. At least, it was comfortable for a while. Then Jaenna mentioned Valaria’s comment about Norboh.
Haranyi’s face darkened visibly at the name and it was a while before he replied. “Norboh had a problem here,” he said carefully. “I don’t know what it was, and anyone who does isn’t talking about it. The fact is, one day he was here, the next gone.”
“And who was Norboh, and why does it matter?” I asked. Those were my first words since saying hello. Jaenna’s face had already told me that he was someone who mattered.
“Norboh was one of Tyaromon’s advisors,” Haranyi told me. “He was also one of Jaenna’s first teachers.”
That figured. “Are you saying that he had a falling out with Tyaromon and got killed for it?”
“No, not killed.” Haranyi stroked the side of his face, almost absently. “I would know about a killing. Which also means that it was not Tyaromon. The rumor is that his fight was with Valaria.”
“My brother?” was Jaenna’s shocked question. “What could it have been about?”
“I don’t know.” Haranyi looked more ill at ease with each passing minute. “I’ve had our forces search for him, but without success. My guess is that he has left the system, which makes a certain amount of sense. If you are going to feud with the heir apparent, it’s smart to leave before said heir is invested with real power.”
“I can’t see my brother having Norboh killed,” Jaenna insisted. It makes no sense. He has served Kaaran and our family too long and too well. Haranyi, he saved your son’s life, many years ago. You always told me that story when you wanted to make a point about what a debt of honor was.”
“True. All true.” Haranyi sighed and looked even older. “Unfortunately, it’s hard to repay a debt if you can’t find the creditor.” On that gloomy note, our visit ended.
We tromped back to the main building, Jaenna out of sorts and me tired and confused. I doubted that I would ever understand life on Kaaran. Too many players, too many motivations that I couldn’t fathom.
But at least the accommodations were decent. Decent is an understatement. The North guest suite was on the upper floor of the Residence. It was appointed in a manner similar to Tyaromon’s study, but it was huge. We could have lost the entire strike force in it. Windows looked out on a grove of trees whose tops extended far above the roof. I took one good look outside, one deep breath and then collapsed on a low couch. Physically, I’d done nothing the entire day, but I still felt as exhausted as if I’d partied all the previous night and played a game that day.
“Why don’t you take a nap, Danny?” Jaenna suggested. “We should be at the celebration tonight, and I’m sure Valaria will be back too. In fact, you can count on being at the celebration each night until the ceremony.”
Somewhere between Texas and the Galactic Empire, I must have gotten old. Usually, just the word party was enough to perk me right up. Instead, I lay back on the couch. My eyelids were closed before she finished talking.
anny, wake up,” interrupted my dream. I moaned and turned over, not wanting to give it up. I was directing a winning drive in the Super Bowl in front of a packed stadium and Sam Doroty was the other coach. I wanted to finish that dream. “Danny, wake up.” The voice wouldn’t let me.
I sat up and rubbed my eyes. The fantasy was gone. I was back in reality, a thousand parsecs from the nearest football field.
“Danny, tell me what you think.”
The voice was Jaenna’s, but I had to rub my eyes again, wondering if I had fallen into another dream. Gone was the plain gray shipsuit she always wore. In its place was a filigreed dress of a fabric that lay against her skin without a single wrinkle and changed from translucent to opaque white depending on the angle you were looking. It had a high neck and ran to wrist and mid-thigh, but it concealed little. Her slim legs were bare below it and she wore sandals with nearly invisible straps on her feet. A flower made of jewels glittered in her hair above one ear. She was one of Tyaromon’s crystal sculptures come to life.
What did I think? There was no question in my mind, it just took a long time to get the words out.
“Jaenna,” I said, “I told you a long time ago that I thought you were beautiful, but this is stunning.”
“Do you really think so?” She smiled and laughed when I nodded. “Good,” she said. “I had this made nearly two years ago, but I could never get up the courage to wear it in public.”
An interesting statement that was, coming from my Strike Force Commander. Makes you wonder what courage is anyway. Regardless, that was my invitation to join the celebration. I thought we made an odd couple, Jaenna looking gorgeous and me in my plain old tunic, groggy after only an hour of sleep. Fortunately, Jaenna didn’t seem to mind.
I need to take a moment here to explain about this celebration. In a typical American wedding, shotgun or otherwise, the party follows the ceremony. Not here. The original custom, as I understand it, was that the son’s family provided an open house for a full day prior to the signing ceremony for the tie. Anyone affected by the tie was welcome. This meant, for example, that if the tie involved the ownership of a farm, then anyone who worked on the farm, or a competing farm, or who bought from the farm could come to the open house. There was no entertainment, simply round-the-clock food and drink and talk. Apparently, it was generally accepted as a time to gorge yourself to the point of bursting while also drinking yourself blind.