In our last thrilling installment, the identity of the pirate prince was finally revealed. It was none other than Pivor who represented the Zinera. He was exposed and purged from the inn to Baha-char, where the woman whose family he murdered exacted her revenge. It wasn’t swift but it was bloody.
Vercia finally got her just deserts when Orata dumped the entire responsibility for the Muterzen pirate prince into her lap. Branded, or rather celebrated as the hero of the Dominion who risked her own life to expose the terrible, awful, no-good pirate, Vercia realized that she has a space cruiser sized target on her back and attempted to request a room at the inn. The request was denied. Mmm, so satisfying.
Now the guests are in their chambers and the long awaited date between Cyanide and the Sovereign is beginning. Are you suffering from the sweltering summer heat? Read on, for relief is only a few words away.
The branching of the inns was a mystery. Most inns branched to Baha-char. It was rumored that the first seeds of the inns were brought to Earth by the Baha-char merchants, and the first branch of new inns usually opened at the galactic bazaar. Beyond that, there was no rhyme or reason to it.
Gertrude Hunt had a dozen branches, only a few of which were actually useful. The rest stayed mostly shut, and half of the time I forgot we even had them. However, today one of those forgotten branches got its chance to shine.
Cyanide made three requests with regard to her date: she wanted to be up high, she wanted a new view, and she wanted something soft to lay on. Like most big cats, she didn’t fancy walks unless it was the only way to get a delicious snack. We managed to deliver on all three counts.
Kosandion surveyed the rustic alpine lodge. I had created it just inside Gertrude Hunt, where this branch joined an alien planet. To be honest, in the case of this lodge, rustic was a relative term. It wasn’t rustic as in grandpa built a little cabin out of whatever timber he found handy, it was the luxury kind of rustic, a modern homage to a Renaissance Jagdschloss that sometimes occurred outside of the inns when too much money met the need to roleplay as a medieval Bavarian aristocrat hosting a hunting party.
The lodge was sixty feet tall, with a gabled ceiling made of redwood boards in a rich beautiful brown. If a small child was asked to draw a tree, they would pick this exact color out of the crayon box to draw the trunk and the branches.
The floor matched the ceiling. In front of me, a wall built with rough square slabs of grey stone housed a massive fireplace. A fire crackled within, radiating warmth. Thick timbers, stripped of their bark but left naturally round, thrust from the wall above the fireplace, supporting a narrow second story walkway. Matching wooden columns rose to the ceiling to meet thick beams.
The wall on my left was redwood and stone. The walls on my right and behind me were floor to ceiling glass, set into a redwood frame. Beyond the glass a winter wonderland stretched as fast as the eye could see.
We were high up on a mountain slope under a sky smothered with pale clouds. In the distance, on the left, a white peak rose from the forest, jagged and sharp, a sign of a young mountain range. Just beyond the windows, the ground dropped, rolling to the valley below. Alien trees blanketed the steep slope. Their branches, sheathed with long fluffy needles and coated with snow, cast blue shadows onto pristine white powder. It was one of the most perfect winter landscapes I had ever seen. You could almost hear the crunch of the snow under foot just by looking at it.
“Where is this?” Kosandion asked.
“I don’t know. There are no artificial signals coming from this planet. No radio waves, no energy readings. When that happens, the only way to identify the location is by taking an image of the night sky and running it through a Galaxy mapping unit, but I’ve never seen the stars here. It is always like this – a long blue winter under an overcast sky.”
Theoretically, we could get a small craft through the opening and fly up past the cloud cover to capture the image of the stars, but it would be dangerous and there was no need for it.
He crossed his arms and gazed out the window. He’d traded his Sovereign robe for a two-piece outfit that reminded me of the stylish senator wear designs from Nigeria: narrow hunter green pants and a matching shirt with an asymmetric hem that ended almost at his knees. The senator shirts tended to be cut a little loose, while Kosandion’s tunic, embellished with Dominion’s geometric embroidery, was perfectly tailored to accentuate the breadth of his shoulders and his narrow waist.
Kosandion’s body looked elegant, but his face looked troubled. It wasn’t his expression, it was in the eyes, a kind of weary introspective distance.
“How much trouble will Vercia’s mess cause you?” I asked.
“More than I would’ve preferred,” he said. “The Muterzen Fleet is an immediate threat, but the Zinera should keep them occupied. Still, arrangements have to be made, and contingency measures must be implemented.”
“What about her family? Will they make things difficult?”
“The Dominion politics are complicated. There will be quiet inquiries. Those who are perceptive enough will discern that show for what it was -a good save and a swift punishment. In the immediate future, her family will lobby for federal protection.”
“Will you grant it?”
He shook his head. “The penalty for impeding a public official is a tiered charge. The more power one has, the steeper the punishment. An ordinary citizen shouting over Resven would have gotten a warning and a small fine, but Vercia was a highly placed officer with a Liaison Corps. If the Justice Corps proceeded with the charges, she could have faced a prison term. She tendered her resignation last night, hoping to avoid it. Now she is no longer a servant of the people, therefore she is ineligible for the additional federal security. This will not endear me to her family in the slightest. They will bide their time waiting to stab me in the back, and I will spend the next couple of years slowly removing them from the positions of influence.”
He fell silent. First, Odikas and his Conservative Alliance looking for a leader, then the pirates, Vercia, her well-connected family, and that’s on top of the spousal selection and other matters pertaining to running the Dominion which didn’t stop just because he was trying to find a partner. He had a lot on his plate.
“Her Grace asked me to tell you something. I meant to do it last night, but things were hectic.”
Kosandion raised his eyebrows.
“Olivio teseres tares,” I told him.
“What does it mean?”
“Fate needs a mason,” he said. “It’s an old saying.”
She told him to build his own destiny. Interesting.
I felt Cyanide approach. It was time to put on a show for the viewers many light years away.
“Your date is here, Letero.”
The doors in the far wall opened, revealing Tony and Cyanide walking side by side. The big white cat saw the winter outside, opened her blue mouth, and panted once. I didn’t know enough about the Higgra to interpret that.
“Greetings, Candidate Cyanide,” Kosandion said.
“Greetings, Sovereign of the Dominion.”
Tony retreated and shut the door behind him.
Cyanide padded to the fire. I had made her a long ergonomic version of a cushioned chaise lounge, large enough for her to stretch out. Kosandion got a comfortable stuffed chair. I had put a couple of small tables here and there, but I kept it simple.
Cyanide examined the lounge and looked at me. “Sit here.”
I glanced at Kosandion. He frowned.
I sat on the edge of the lounge. Cyanide leaped onto it and flopped herself on my lap, all two hundred and fifty pounds of her.
Big golden eyes stared at me. “I require attentions,” Cyanide announced. “All of them.”
Kosandion raised his eyebrows.
“And the brush,” Cyanide said.
Whatever made this date go smoothly.
I reached out, and Gertrude Hunt pulled one of the brushes from the stables. They were soft with dense bristles, originally designed for the beasts of burden the Merchants sometimes brought with them, and I had sterilized them after each use. The brush landed in my hand, and I began working through Cyanide’s fur. Her eyes widened, flashing dangerous gold, then half closed, and she turned her head, presenting me with the corner of her jaw. Just like Olasard. Except he barely weighed seventeen pounds. If this went on for too much longer, my legs would go numb.
Cyanide made a soft rumble in her throat. It was too deep to be a purr and not violent enough to be a roar, more like an internal contented cough.
“Do you wish to tell me of your planet?” Kosandion asked.
Well, this was going swimmingly.
He tried again. “What would you rather talk about instead?”
Cyanide turned over on her back, her fuzzy paws level with my face. I glided the brush along her chest. Long claws shot out of her paws and withdrew.
“If I marry you, can I bring this human with me to serve me?”
“No,” Kosandion said.
Cyanide made her coughing noise again.
More silence. Kosandion really needed an image boost, and his spousal candidate was flat out ignoring him. How to salvage this…
Kosandion pulled out a small gadget, squeezed it, and it projected a tablet in front of him. He began scrolling through the documents.
A minute passed. Another.
What was going on?
“You should tell her about our arrangement,” Cyanide said, stretching to get a better brushing angle. “Or she won’t focus on attentions.”
“Is that wise?” I asked.
“This date isn’t broadcast live,” Kosandion told me, still absorbed in whatever he was reading. “Highlights only.”
“I thought all dates were live like Ellenda’s.”
Kosandion put the tablet device on the side table.
“Ellenda didn’t do well in the voting, but her presence guaranteed high ratings,” he said. “My mother was a mysterious, inscrutable figure for most of her stay in the Dominion. She spent twenty-two years there, and by the time she returned to her planet, most people knew just as little about her as they did when she first arrived. For the Dominion’s citizens, Ellenda was a chance to get a better understanding of the Uma, my mother, and my heritage. The Higgra do not generate the same level of interest.”
I thought that the spouse had to stay for the period of 25 years… Oh. Kosandion was twenty-one when his father died. His mother must’ve left when he ascended the throne. Was it voluntary? Did she want to go home?
“I do not care about the Dominion’s interest,” Cyanide rumbled.
“What do you care about?” I asked.
“The neural nets,” Cyanide said. “And Clan Sai.”
Clan Sai, the Merchants who claimed the Dominion as their territory. This was getting convoluted. Officially, the Merchants had no territories, and many of them competed for the best trade partners, trying to outbid each other. But they always strived for a monopoly, and once a Merchant Clan grasped a region in its claws, it was difficult to shake them loose. According to Cookie, a century ago, Clan Sai managed to push out the other three Merchant Clans vying for the Dominion, and they had been highly protective of it ever since.
“What’s a neural net?” I asked.
“There is a special plant that grows on our planet,” Cyanide said. “A fur lichen den, formed by the long tendrils of the fur lichen plant colony. Many organisms coexist within the fur lichen, some microscopic and others large enough to be visible by even a human eye. The Fuzzy Worms feed on the many creatures of the fur lichen den and craft their webs within it. We harvest the webs and weave them into neural nets with our tools and claws.”
“The neural nets are the best solution for regenerations of the nervous system,” Kosandion said. “Once they’re implanted, the healing is miraculous. People whose paralysis resisted every other treatment regain the use of their limbs within days. Transplants, nano therapy, artificial neurons, nothing else comes close.”
“We want to sell them to the Dominion,” Cyanide said. “But the Sai are blocking our way.”
“The Sai have moved a ship into the orbit of the Higgra planet,” Kosandion explained. “They’re pressuring the Higgra to use them as intermediaries for the sale. The Higgra have applied for a direct trade agreement with the Dominion; however, Clan Sai indicated that they are not above using their other trade agreements as leverage.”
“If you buy directly from the Higgra, the Merchants will pitch a fit and stop supplying you with other goods?” I guessed.
“Precisely,” Kosandion said. “According to federal guidelines, a thorough review of the potential impact must be conducted by the Commerce Department, which could take years.”
“So you’re cutting out the middleman and the bureaucracy by using the Higgra’s minor ask.” I brushed Cyanide’s throat.
“Yes.” Kosandion smiled. It was a sharp and cold smile. “I do not react well to blackmail.”
A lot of things suddenly made sense. I kept brushing. Cyanide rumbled, her eyes closed. In the fireplace a log popped, sending sparks into the flue.
“If Clan Sai suddenly cancelled their trade deals, it would put the Dominion’s economy into a difficult position,” I said. “If only there was another Merchant clan willing to step into the gap. Someone with a lot of resources, able to react to the situation quickly. Someone who might have sent a representative to observe this spousal selection.”
Kosandion chuckled. “By the end of this affair, we will make you into a proper Dominion politician, Dina. Let me know if you ever consider a career change.”
“No thank you,” I told him. “I’m happy right here, doing what I do now.”
Cyanide rumbled and turned on her side. Kosandion picked up the tablet and resumed his reading.
Outside the snow began to fall, fat fluffy snowflakes drifting softly to the ground. For the next half hour, I brushed the big cat and watched the snow, while the Sovereign caught up on his paperwork.