Sphene stood perfectly still behind her captain, one hand on her shoulder. This segment had been standing perfectly still this way for the past hour as the holorecorders buzzed faintly around them, and theoretically could remain that way for much longer. But Minask was starting to twitch under its hand; she was bored, and her muscles were beginning to ache, and she was irritated by the plumed bird who stood posed next to her, its long tail feathers tickling her side. Sphene wanted to lie her down, rub out the knots in her back, bring her a cup of tea for her throat (slightly dry) and dim the lights, but instead it sent a calm “almost finished, Captain” directly into her ear. Minask huffed a small sigh.
Three more segments were arranged behind them both, holding the cape from Minask’s formal uniform spread and rippling slightly, as if in a breeze. They would not show up in the final portrait, which would show only the captain and Sphene’s representative, chosen carefully for its beauty as well as its intimidating posture (still several inches shorter than Minask when they were both standing, and far more wiry, but the portrait committee had liked the contrast as well). They were surrounded by symbols of the Nenkur House and its wealth—the birds, which more commonly roamed the Nenkur grounds, long bolts of silk with complex metallic embroidery, mirrors set with scenes done in stained glass, and of course, both of them draped liberally in sphenes. Minask’s own gemstone was the pink diamond, and the two gems were mingled in her vast cloud of hair, connected with delicate gold chains. Sphene’s representative was only slightly more conservatively dressed: in formal uniform, wearing on its high collar both the pin that designated its role and its captain’s House pin. Its smooth black hair was pulled back severely, decorated with a single gold chain, and its gloves embroidered only at the cuffs, buttoned with more small sphenes.
“How much longer,” Minask transmitted back to Sphene, somehow managing to sound cheerfully petulant even in the twitches of her fingers. Sphene had to suppress a smile from touching the lips of its representative. Minask had only been its captain for a few months and it was already far too fond of her, taking more care than usual not to indulge her unnecessarily. It was good for a captain to live in complete comfort; it was less good to encourage her to flout standards or become soft. But Sphene could tell by her feed that Minask was more joking than truly petulant, her emotions teasing and amused. She thought the portraiture was a bit silly and excessive, but also couldn’t help enjoying the attention. She was trying not let on that she enjoyed it, so Sphene would never mention it directly, but it filed the information away for future reference.
It was twenty more minutes before the holorecorders clicked in satisfaction and zoomed across the room to their docks, beginning the process of rendering the portrait from their data. Minask immediately flopped over the arm of her chair, shooing the nearest bird away from her. The segments holding the cape laid it carefully on the floor and swooped in to herd the birds away to be returned to suspension and sent back to the estate, while Sphene’s representative immediately removed Minask’s heavy outer jacket and began to rub her shoulders.
“Well, what do you think, Sphene? Have we outdone my mother with all of that nonsense?” she asked, referring to Sphene’s last captain, who had retired those few months ago to make way for her daughter. It was customary for each generation to put together a more spectacular portrait than the last, often helped along by the first captain of a new ship utilizing a relatively plain setting, to make the House appear as if it had grown in wealth each time.
“I’m certain you have,” Sphene said, moving its fingers into Minask’s hair. It deftly removed her hair ornaments before setting to a scalp massage that made Minask sigh happily and relax deeper into the chair. “Arit only had stuffed birds, not live ones.”
“Excellent. Now let’s never do that again.”
The other ancillaries had finished with the birds, and returned to clear away the rest of the setting. One kneeled before the chair to remove Minask’s boots, then rose to take off her pin-laden sash, Minask shifting agreeably to help it along. The segment with its hands in her hair had procured a hairbrush, and another began removing the jewelry that was too bulky for everyday wear.
“Until your retirement portrait, sir,” Sphene said.
“Ugh, must we,” Minask murmured. She shook out her hair as Sphene paused in its brushing, and it fell in waves over Sphene’s hands. “How is it coming? I want to see before I go to bathe.”
The recorders were nearly finished rendering, and the portrait was beginning to take shape on the wall behind them. One that was slightly larger than life would be displayed in the hall with the rest of Sphene’s captain portraits, and smaller ones would be set into pins for Minask’s use. The pins were already on the docks with the recorders, large oval sphenes set in gold, with small pink diamonds embracing them from underneath. On the back would be a sensor that one could touch to call the portrait forth, shimmering up from the central sphene in perfect detail. Minask walked to the wall, shedding her outer shirt as she did so. The dock beeped softly, signaling that the portraits were saved successfully to the pins.
“Come here, Sphene,” Minask said, and Sphene’s representative was next to her almost immediately. Minask began to undo the buttons on its jacket, pulling the collar away from its neck and shoulder.
“I know it isn’t traditional,” Minask said, and to Sphene’s surprise she was blushing very slightly, “but I want you to keep one of these.” She fixed the pin to the inside of Sphene’s jacket and buttoned it up again. The pin couldn’t be seen from the outside, but Sphene felt it as a chilly point above the segment’s heart, slowly taking on body heat as it rested against its skin.
“Yes, Captain,” it said, and found itself once again struggling slightly for its customary impassivity. This captain was going to be a handful indeed, and Sphene suddenly felt in itself an excited uncertainty that it was up to the challenge.