SPACE SPRAWLED IN ALL ITS VAST INDIFFERENCE, on the nervecloth display of the rel-ship's inner hull.
Erien sighed and rotated the cockpit. Images of stars swung past him, silver against black. He was damned to a slow rebirth if he knew what was wrong with this ship. Not, he thought ruefully, that the expression was anything more than an idiom to him. He was too Reetion to put faith in Gelack superstitions.
He notched up shimmer, notched down gap. The stars flickered. A transient thrust of acceleration was supplanted by the nagging sense of something missing, or just plain wrong. Under the reality-skimming drive, which tapped the currents folded into unperceived dimensions of the universe, the spherical rel-ship flickered in and out of existence as it skipped across space, whining as it went.
The ship’s ailment was a tedious, demanding puzzle. Just the sort of job his superiors thought he deserved for his pro-Reetion sentiments. They were glad enough, all the same, to have a highborn working on Liege Nersal’s ship since the problem with DragonClaw surfaced at displacements that only a higher Sevolite could tolerate.
The more Sevolite a pilot was, the harder he could drive a ship. That was what being highborn meant, in the fleet, being able to endure reality skimming well enough to terrorize less Sevolite space farers. But Erien preferred diagnostic work to the greater glory of keeping the Reetions confined to their outpost in Killing Reach.
Erien ground his teeth. He could feel the resonance in the little spaces between his molars. Once more he enumerated possible causes of the dysfunction. A misphasing of the drive: in a well-maintained ship the usual cause was space combat, but this ship had seen none since before the problem began. A hull flaw: some blemish in the space-cast hullsteel encircling him, but no hull flaw had appeared in dockside scans.
It occurred to him that if he did fix the DragonClaw, Nersal would fly it against Rire when the war began. Erien was Gelack enough not to contemplate sabotage; that would not be honorable. His three years in the fleet hadn’t been easy ones, but they would have been impossible without Nersal. Undefeated in space or on the challenge floor, Horth, Liege of Nersal, didn’t have to prove a thing to anybody but he had proven to Erien that there was such a thing as Gelack honor. Nersal was consistent to the core in his maddeningly Gelack values.
Gelion was an oligarchy, dominated by Sevolites, where status depended upon one’s inheritance of the Sevolite genome. Rire was a compu-communist state where the burden of democracy was managed by artificial intelligence.
In Gelack, you had to know someone’s birth rank before you could structure a pronoun. Reetions weren’t comfortable with Ranar’s insistence he be named ‘ambassador’, because it sounded too much like a title. Reetions were confident about their social accomplishments, even to the point of being smug. In Reetion, to persuade was to conquer. The Gelack word for peace, which shared a common root with shame, implied death or dishonor.
A quiver disrupted Erien’s diagnosis of DragonClaw. It was foreign - the displacement field of another rel-ship brushing his own. Adrenaline surged like a small flame in his gut. No one else was supposed to be out here.
He found the moving point on the nervecloth lining of the hull. It was a single rel-ship, probably as surprised to find him where he was, as Erien had been to be swiped by its wake as it passed. It was heading toward the DragonSword, doing at least three skim’facs, on a course which would have brought it directly from the Reetion station, SkyBlue.
Except Reetion pilots did not fly at three skim’facs. Neither did nobleborn Sevolites, unless they were in a tearing rush.
The stranger executed a shimmer dance - a series of quick modulations - which identified him to the station before he got close enough to cause alarm.
Erien leaned into his harness, peering at the dancing point. He knew that pattern. It belonged to the man who had taken him to Rire when he was seven years old, and who had fetched him back again to serve under liege Nersal. His appearance, here, now, wasn’t comforting. Pureblood Sevolite Amel Dem’Vrel was a sore spot in Reetion/Gelack relations, and an ambiguous figure in the politics of Gelion’s Fountain Court.
Whatever he was here for would not be trivial.
Erien docked on the heels of Amel’s lozenge-shaped envoy craft.
Amel was talking to the dockmaster, a nobleborn named Nala, when Erien reached the staging platform.
“I’m here on the Ava’s business,” Amel was explaining, with his usual reluctance to enforce his right to speak down, “with a mail pouch for Liege Nersal.” He broke off at the sound of Erien’s footfalls, turned, and smiled. “Erien? Was that you out there just now?”
Erien had grown up since he first met Amel, but time had done nothing to dull the youthful glamour of the older man. Amel was a Sevolite Pureblood. Time, like the ravages of space travel, could gain no hold. He looked delighted to see Erien.
“That ship you’re flying has a funny warble in its signature,” Amel remarked. “Has someone rammed it through hard flying over the last couple of days, in this area? I’ve seen phase splicers with that history develop a sort of stutter - on engagement - almost as if they’re still encountering an echo. Damnedest thing to diagnose. Unless you’re skimming in the same ship within the echo’s time and space perimeter, it’s totally asymptomatic. Nice ship, though.”
Erien merely nodded, a ubiquitous Nersallian gesture of acknowledgment. Envoys were normally looked down on - the task of ferrying dispatches reserved for the childless afraid to risk combat - but he was unburdened by such Gelack attitudes and Amel was a pilot of wide experience. He was also Pureblood to Erien’s Highlord, a two-degree distinction in birth rank. Speaking in Gelack would oblige Erien to acknowledge that in his construction of pronouns, and he did not feel so inclined.
“Just a thought,” Amel said, with a mild shrug, and shifted the mail pouch onto his right shoulder.
“Is it convenient for me to see Liege Nersal now?” Amel asked the Nersallian dockmaster, speaking undifferentiated rel-to-pol, which was a significant condescension for a Pureblood addressing a nobleborn.
“Convenient, Immortality?” Dockmaster Nala was normally a sober woman, but Amel’s casual manner triggered Nala’s Vrellish instinct to perceive him as a sexual banquet. Beautiful. Space worthy. And Pureblood. Erien did not believe that Nala had anticipated such feelings, which made him annoyed with Amel on her behalf. If Amel behaved the way he should this wouldn’t happen.
“I mean I could wait,” Amel explained. “The dispatches are timely, but not urgent.”
“Oh,” said Dockmaster Nala. She resolved her problem with a deep breath and a wide smile reminiscent of the Vrellish of either gender looking for an opening in a duel. The change was not lost on Amel, whose expression shifted from patient amusement to something a little more guarded.
“Perhaps, then, you might like some company and refresh -” Nala began.
“I will escort you to Liege Nersal,” Erien cut her off.
Amel looked at him with a well-judged, startled pleasure, which Erien greeted impassively. “Thank you,” Amel said mildly.
“What about DragonClaw, Erien?” Nala reminded him, firmly, that although he might be her superior by birth, he was still her junior by fleet rank.
Erien said, “I will be back down to review Liege Nersal’s logs and to follow up the Throne Envoy’s suggestion.”
Nala dismissed him with a grunt of irritation, letting the matter drop, and Erien became less convinced that he had rescued her from embarrassment. He hated to think he had rescued Amel, instead.
Amel fell neatly into step beside him, picking up the rhythm of Erien’s stride. Erien had to remind himself it was not mockery. Amel had been trained as a sword dancer in his youth, due to one of the intrigues festooned about him, from his own disappearance at the age of four months to the theft of his infant half-brother, known only as the Throne Prince, which took place shortly after Amel himself was reclaimed as a Sevolite.
In between, Amel’s good looks cast him as a commoner courtesan in the very court he should have been heir to.
Even Amel’s reclamation had been a complete mess, muddying the waters of Gelack and Reetion relations for nearly two decades since. Reetions were appalled by the details of Amel’s abusive experiences as a commoner, while Gelack prejudices seethed over the very fact that Reetion bioscience has successfully meddled with a highborn. Erien, who had lived on Rire, knew that Reetions had a hard time believing Amel’s mistreatment was not typical of Sevolite behavior toward all commoners. He had spent enough time among Gelacks to know that they in turn did not even try to acknowledge that when the Reetions had used their psychiatric visitor probe on Amel, it had been done to save his life.
They drew eyes and a couple of anonymous wolf-whistles as they crossed the bridge over the maintenance docks. Amel’s past seemed to grant license which would be unthinkable if he had been raised Pureblood, or acted like he ought to by flying combat, wearing a sword, and properly speaking down. His commoner upbringing, Erien allowed, must have made for a hard start. But eighteen years should have been long enough to overcome any past, even if it did include formative years in the sex trade on Gelion.
Mercifully, they had the elevator to themselves. There was a fleeting moment of unsteadiness as the car began to move. Illuminated doors flashed past narrow windows. Erien held onto the rail, not for balance, but for resolution. He had only a few moments, and had no idea of how to ask what he wanted to know. Amel, as he knew from past meetings, was a master at evading inconvenient questions.
“Thanks for playing escort,” Amel broke the silence with his liquid voice. “I thought you weren’t speaking to me, after my gratuitous advice about a ship you know better than I do.”
“I expect your explanation will prove to be correct,” Erien said, annoyed at himself for letting his irritation show.
“That would make it worse,” Amel remarked, “if you were really a Nersallian.”
Erien shot him a sharp look. He did not need reminding that he was not ‘really’ a Nersallian. Not ‘really’ Monatese, either. And not ‘really’ a Reetion. Just a nameless youth who had to fit wherever he was put, whether that was pastoral Monitum, democratic Rire, or the Nersallian fleet. And possibly, just possibly, what he really was, was Amel’s bastard, born to a besotted courtesan initiate while Amel was still, himself, a courtesan. There had been such a child, spirited away from court by Di Mon, Erien’s Monatese guardian.
Erien put the thought away forcefully. In appearance, he could not help but resemble Amel - they were both descended from a limited gene pool, both black-haired and gray-eyed.
It meant nothing. Erien’s face had a sharper, more Vrellish look than Amel’s pretty Demish features.
“Ah,” Amel’s mouth toyed, very briefly, with a flicker of amusement, “I’ve offended. Sorry.”
“You have nothing to be sorry for, Immortality,” Erien said, stiffly.
“I thought we’d dealt with the Immortality stuff,” Amel said, the few times I visited you.”
“I was a child then.”
“Yes, you’re - what? Seventeen. I expect you will be called to court soon, to swear to Heir Monitum after his investiture. If Tatt’s mother; the regent, succeeds in investing him.” Amel was playing with the possibility of being amused, again. He had no right to be. Not over a matter so serious.
Monitum was Erien’s house, and Tatt - the heir to that ancient name - was the companion of Erien’s happy childhood. Tatt was also the reason that Erien held out hope he was not Amel’s bastard. It made sense that the late Di Mon would hide a highborn love child for the sake of protecting Tatt’s right of succession. Tatt was Ameron’s son, by outright gift, to his most devoted vassal house. In Gelack terms there was no greater reward one could bestow on a follower. Tatt’s birth had also restored at least one Royalblood to the weakening Monatese blood line, which was crucial if Monitum was to maintain its court status. No inconvenient by-blow could be allowed to threaten Tatt, even if he was the last liege’s direct descendant. Erien would never have thought to do such a thing, of course. It would be enough just to be the natural son of the man who had been his teacher and protector for his first seven years, and whose death by suicide had been his young life’s greatest tragedy.
“If Heir Monitum’s mother succeeds in investing him?” Erien kept his tone neutral as he paraphrased Amel’s glib remark. “Is there, then, some possibility that Heir Monitum will not become Liege Monitum?”
“No official possibility,” Amel demurred. “I know Tatt, that’s all. You’ve had an influence. He wants to introduce a sort of Reetion justice system that would make investigation of crimes against commoners a general Throne responsibility, in cases where the crimes are particularly deserving of attention. A sort of ‘cruelty to commoners’ society. Like your ‘cruelty to house pets’ organizations on Rire.”
Erien would not hear Rire mocked. Or Tatt. “Is it,” he asked “that you think the effort unworthy of him? Or Tatt, himself, ineffectual?”
There was a stinging silence.
Some expression, which Erien could not read, flickered across Amel’s face, then was smoothed away with exquisite courtesan control. Erien remembered then that Amel’s experience of Rire had been quite different from his own.
“No,” Amel said. “I didn’t mean either.”
The elevator slowed its descent, stopped, and shunted into a horizontal track, picking up speed. When at rest in real space, the battlewheel was a spinning torus, with the maintenance docks inside the inner ring and the main docks on the outer ring. The support staff areas were inboard of the maintenance docks, and the officer’s areas outboard of the main docks, with the highest Sevolites preferring the strongest gravity. Sevolite cardiovascular systems, designed to sustain high g’s, were not comfortable in low gravities. “Erien had spent most of his time up in the maintenance bays lately. The increased gravity was welcome.
“I apologize, Pureblood Amel,” Erien said as their car settled into its new, horizontal vector. “That remark was uncalled-for.”
The apology was stiff and sounded insincere, but was deserved and necessary, for Erien to ask what he wanted to.
Amel looked relieved, which was irritating. Amel was a Pureblood. Erien was a Highlord: still a highborn but two birth ranks his inferior. They reinforced their relative status with every sentence they spoke - or that Erien spoke, anyway. Amel slipped in and out of grammatical peerage, uneasy with speaking down. But that was the trouble with Amel. He occupied a place which he could not fill. Erien disliked having to depend on this man’s goodwill. He disliked feeling he did not deserve it. And he most disliked feeling that, despite everything, he had it.
Erien said abruptly, "You came from Rire, didn't you?"
This time there was no fleeting consternation; Amel's face was polished and unrevealing. Erien continued, "Or at the least from SkyBlue Station." He could feel - although the elevator had not yet started to slow - that they were near their destination. His sense of space was exquisite.
Erien came to the point. "Have you taken the Reetion Ambassador back to Rire?"
"No," Amel assured him, "Ranar is still on Gelion."