The alarm chimed, sending tiny shivers through Deirdre’s fingers, coated in liquid interface. Five minutes to the opening speech. “All right, all right.” She shrugged the lead-grey metal off her hand and caught her reflection in the mirror. The hair. She had forgotten about her hair.
Her gown looked fantastic. She loved this dress; the cut and color suited her: a shimmering grey-black that caught her breasts, wound about her waist and fell down in clean lines to brush the floor. Unfortunately, the gown alone wouldn’t do it. Her hair set atop her head in an ugly pile, and it was too late to do anything about it. It’s your fault, Robert, she thought, pulling out the pins one by one. She dragged the brush through her hair and inspected the result.
That’s fine, she decided. Nobody can be expected to be ran ragged for nine straight hours and then attend a banquet looking perfect.
A knock jarred her from her thoughts. “Open!”
The door slid open, revealing Fatima Lee in her navy blue power-dress. Robert’s aide-de-camp looked perfect, her hair a glossy black wave, her face fresh as if she had taken a long refreshing nap instead of the grueling administrative marathon.
“Three minutes to opening speech. If we’re late, Robert will suffer a deep space fit.”
They headed out the door and down the winding hallway at the speed of a brisk march. Unbound by gravity, the makers of the Orbital Embassy had constructed an impossibly tall banquet hall, and the hallway circling it matched it in height. Today the huge walls and ceiling lost in darkness brought a sense of foreboding. Like going through some ancient Temple to be sacrificed.
Fatima’s communicator buzzed with voice of Michel Rashvili. “Where are you? Robert’s losing it.”
“We’ll be there in thirty seconds, tell his Excellency to keep his panties on.” Fatima snorted. “I don’t get it. The man can negotiate with terrorists with a needle rifle pressed to his temple, but banquets drive him up the wall.”
“That’s because he can’t control a banquet,” Deirdre murmured. “And the stakes are high.” 30 million lives hanging in the balance would give anyone a pause.
They rounded the curve. The huge doors of the banquet chamber waited wide open just ahead, under the banner depicting the Duke of Rodkill, Robert’s mentor and veritable legend in the annals of the Diplomatic Corps. Fatima zeroed in on the doors.
Several men dressed in black entered the hallway from a side passage, also aiming for the door. Deirdre caught Fatima’s arm. “The Reigh.”
The aide-de-camp halted. The Reigh moved in silence, like black ghosts, each carrying a vered, a short ceremonial branch, in left hand signifying their peaceful intentions. Tradition dictated they stayed silent when in sight of the enemy until given permission to speak by the Lord. For them, everyone is an enemy, Deirdre thought.
They had to be desperate for the money to even enter the Orbital. Unfortunately, taking money for their military services was the very thing that the Reigh doctrine categorically forbade.
A tousled man shot out of the doors at a near run. Michel Rashvili mumbling into his communicator. As if in slow motion Deirdre saw him crash into the nearest Reigh. The black-gloved hand let go and the sign of peace clattered to the floor. Oh great Lao Tzu.
Michel stumbled, caught himself. His face went slack with shock. A short-range plasma firearm leaped into Fatima’s hand almost on its own.
“Michel, kneel!” Deirdre approached and dropped to her knees.
Michel hit the floor next to her. Wide-eyed, he looked at the veled. “I’m so sorry. Should I?” His voice shook.
“No. Keep your head down, don’t look them in the eye.” Very slowly Deirdre reached and picked up the branch off the floor. Holding it on her open palms, she raised it above her head, like an offering. Their eyes fixed on the floor, they waited. Moments dripped by, long and viscous. Finally the Reigh closest to her stepped forward. Leather brushed her palm, and the Reigh moved on, still silent, into the banquet hall. Deirdre remembered to breathe.
“Sweet Jesus.” Michel straightened. “I can’t believe I knocked that out of his hand.”
“You didn’t.” Fatima’s firearm had vanished. There was no way it could be hidden in that tiny dress. “He dropped it.”
“You’re kidding me.”
“He dropped it,” Deirdre confirmed, looking after the Reigh making their way through the banquet hall. “When was the last time you fought in hand to hand combat, Michel?”
The adjutant ran a shaking hand through his hair. “I don’t remember.”
“They do it every day. Trust me, if that man didn’t want to run into you, you wouldn’t have touched him in a million years. Go hide somewhere.”
“Go hide, dimwit.” Fatima snorted. “When Robert finds out, he’ll blow his core. You want to give him a few hours to cool off.”
The words finally made an impact and the adjutant took off down the hallway.
Deirdre frowned. “We have been tested, and I’m not sure we’ve passed. Why do I have a feeling this isn’t going to end well?”
“Because it won’t.” Fatima’s face was grim. “Let’s go.”
For better or worse they entered the banquet hall.
The red-furred Vunta officer at Deirdre’s left smiled at her, exposing fifty two sharp teeth, arranged in twin rows in his cavernous mouth. The effect was enough to give a hardened Navy veteran a lifetime of nightmares.
“You wook wowery,” he offered, sounding very much like a Terran Scottsman with a mouthful of tissue stuffed into his cheeks. He hit her with a direct, unblinking stare.
Trying to dominate. He should know better. “Thank you.” She showed him her teeth and glared back.
For a moment they stared eye-to-eye, neither willing to back down. Deirdre ground her teeth. The sound died in the hum of the banquet hall but not before the Vunta heard it. A noise reserved for the alpha of the Vunta society, the grinding had the same effect on the Vunta as the scarping of the nails on a glass had on human ear. The officer wrinkled his muzzle and looked away.
Deirdre glanced across the hall at the Vunta, seated here and there at the tables. Too many flickering ears, too many flashes of teeth, too much animation in the gestures of furry paw-hands. Like sharks smelling blood in the water. What is going on? What do they know that we don’t?
She looked to Robert, seated at the head table between the Vunta Ambassador and the elderly lemon-skinned Monrovian with mournful iconic eyes. Sir Robert Sergei Sarvini, Ambassador of the Second Intergalactic Empire to the Branches of Reigh, looked perfect: hair slicked back into a horse tail, handsome face shaven, trim figure sharp in Diplomatic Corps formal midnight blue. Urbane, debonair, eloquent, every inch worthy of the long list of titles attached to his name.
Robert’s food lay untouched on his plate. Officially the banquet was thrown in honor of the successful treaty negotiations between the Monrovians and the Vunta Caliphate, for which the Empire, in the form of Robert, had provided a neutral meeting ground. Unofficially, Robert wanted to woo the Reigh. Unfortunately, he was stuck at the head table, sandwiched between the two treaty partners.
Their stares connected and in his eyes she read a confirmation. Yes, something’s up. No, we don’t know what. We can do nothing about it. Just sit tight and wait.
Deirdre sighed. There were four parties to this dance: the Vunta Caliphate, the Monrovian Republic, the Empire, and the Reigh. Each wanted something and would claw all others bloody to get it. All she wanted to do was to prevent a massacare.
She looked to the guest of honor table where the Lord Nagrad of the Reigh sat with Nina on one side and a white-furred Vunta dignitary on the other. The rest of the Reigh formed a line behind the table. None but the Lord had chosen to sit down. None ate or drank. A line from the Reigh Codex popped into her head: I will consume no food in the house of my enemy.
Nagrad’s scarred face was grim. Had he been from an inner Imperial world, she would’ve guessed him at eighty or ninety. Her painstaking research put him at closer to sixty. The only Reigh lord in the history of his people to entertain the idea of cooperation. His wife was dead. His entire family consisted of his son. And the Vunta Raiders were very afraid of him.
The Vunta dignitary shot Nagrad a toothy smile and said something. Nina cut in, smooth, breathtaking like a golden angel against the backdrop of black. Deirdre felt a stab of jealousy right in the stomach. Nina’s perfect six foot and one inch tall figure was wrapped in a strapless gown of champagne-colored lace, accented with complex swirls of golden thread. The dress hugged her like a glove. The color perfectly complemented her light blonde hair and light bronze complexion.
“Why couldn’t we have her job?” Fatima murmured at her right.
“Because we don’t score 8:13 on the proportion scale,” Deirdre said. “And because we haven’t been trained as escorts and we don’t have a perfect recall.”
“Bullshit,” Fatima said. “You know you could do what she does with your eyes closed. You’re a freaking cultural attache. You know more about Reigh than all of us combined. You should be picking the Reigh Lord’s brains, not she.”
“She knows what she’s doing. My job is to compile and analyze the information. Her job is to keep the object of her attention enraptured.” And it would be an incredibly difficult task, considering the strictness of the Reigh rules of conduct. Nothing off-color. Not a hint, not a joke, not even an idea of impropriety. No reference to sex, religion, or politics. Deirdre smiled. “I’m perfectly happy to advise her from the sidelines.”
Fatima sneered. “You have no ambition. In the next life, you’ll be reborn as a tea kettle.”
Nina reached for a small appetizer and artfully offered it to the Reigh Lord. He accepted the tiny twisted dough puff and bit into it. Nina continued talking. She had a way to totally engage a person in conversation, until speaking to her appeared to be a reward in itself.