Her Majesty was on a tear.
It was the first time Stinger had seen her really lose her temper, and his inbred deference was urging him to go find someplace else to be just at the moment, but he ignored it. For one thing, any moment now she would -
"Did you know about this?" Jupiter whirled on him, one hand still gripping the sheave that had set her off. Stinger held back a shrug.
"It's standard procedure for farmed worlds, your Majesty," he said carefully. "A globally secure population tends to stabilize growth at a level too low for profitable Harvesting."
"So you people send down agents to make things worse?" She smacked the sheave against her other palm, ignoring its pained beep. "Stir things up, keep people fighting each other and having bad ideas and I don't know what the fuck else? Like a Harvest isn't bad enough!"
Stinger did not point out that he had nothing to do with it; it wouldn't help. "That's economics, your Majesty," he said, as diplomatically as possible.
Jupiter growled under her breath. "Get them here," she said abruptly.
That took him aback. "What? Your Majesty."
"Get them here. I want to see them. In person."
Well, if anyone had the right, but - "Ah. Your Majesty, I'm not sure here is the best place."
She looked around at his home, distracted enough to frown. "If you don't want them here, I guess - "
He dared to interrupt. "That's not it. You really, uh, need someplace more...impressive."
"Oh." Jupiter frowned, her temper dying back, but the set of her mouth told him that she was still furious. And determined. "You have a point. The apartment's the only other option, really."
"You have a third," Stinger reminded her. "The Aegis ship."
Her smile was equal parts approval and anger. "Good idea. I'll call Captain Tsing."
Stinger cleared his throat. "If you'll permit, your Majesty, I'll set it up. You'll need to, ah, present a more royal appearance."
Jupiter glanced down at her faded shirt and thigh-length pants, and snorted. "Very tactful, Stinger. Okay, I'll find something else to wear. What kind of timeframe are we looking at?"
He was already heading for the comm. "About half an hour." A royal command superseded time zones, after all. And he'd need at least four of the Stormbreakers; the former Aegis were good, but nothing beat size and wings for looking impressive.
He heard Jupiter yelp, and then she was gone, feet pounding up the stairs, and he let himself smile. Entitled she may be, but she's still - her.
And wasn't that a blessing, somehow?
Within the promised half-hour the Queen was settling gingerly into a cushioned chair someone had dragged hastily out of Captain Tsing's quarters. She'd changed into her Aegis outfit, which looked formal enough if not very Entitled, and pulled her hair back in that severe tail; in Stinger's opinion, she'd do quite well.
The ship's officers' mess wasn't a large room, but it was the best option, and had ordinary chairs enough for the personnel Jupiter was summoning. Stinger positioned Rush and Absaba behind her - the combination of their height and faces would make a good impression - and let Tsing place a few of her people around the room. Technically the agents on Earth were her Majesty's employees, but there was a reason Entitled kept squads of guards on hand, and it wasn't for the honor of it. Stormbreakers Honch and Glasta could handle escort; Honch was large, and Glasta was pointy, and together they would be enough to make most potential assassins reconsider.
"How many are coming?" he asked Captain Tsing in a low voice as Officer Percadium swung a last chair into place at the table.
"Five. We couldn't raise the sixth; I sent Chatterjee down to check, but I suspect that he dissolved his network and left when the planet changed hands." Her sniff expressed disdain for someone running out on their assigned duties, and Stinger had to grin a little.
"Probably figured better scarper than face the unknown. Well, her Majesty's about to spin their worlds the other way."
Tsing's brow creased in worry. "She does understand they were only doing their jobs, yes?"
"Aye, but whether they'll keep them is another thing." Stinger kept a small doubt to himself. Jupiter was smart enough to understand the difference, but she was still upset - and Entitled weren't known for sweet reason. He spared a moment to wish Caine was back from his leave - the boy did have a steadying effect on her - but if wishes were feathers we'd all be flying. "How many are on board?"
"We're about to pick up the last one." Tsing cocked her head, listening to her implant, then murmured a reply. "Will you give the Queen a heads-up? He's up and we can bring them in on her word."
"Got it." Stinger threaded his way past the table and the extra personnel to halt by Jupiter's chair. She was chewing nervously on her lip, but her eyes were still bright with anger. "Ready when you are, your Majesty."
"Right. Do I look okay? I can't believe I just asked that." Jupiter tugged on her tail of hair.
Stinger kept his mouth straight. "You're fine, your Majesty."
"I can hear you laughing. Okay, send them in." Her twitch of a smile disappeared and she straightened in the chair, crossing one leg over the other and resting her hands on the chair's arms. It worked; suddenly she had an air of stern dignity that hadn't been there a moment before.
Not bad, Stinger thought, and nodded to Percadium by the door. The ex-Aegis opened it with a flourish, and five people filed in, trying not to look alarmed and failing badly.
They were all pure human, since they worked on Earth, and the two women and three men were all wearing what Stinger had learned was business attire for the nation Jupiter lived in - trousers for the men and slim skirts for the women, and light jackets all around. They stopped at the far end of the table to bow to their Queen, and Stinger could see their pulses running fast even from his place at her side.
Jupiter let them stew for about five seconds, then spoke briskly. "Sit down."
They sorted themselves into chairs. Stinger kept a sharp eye on them as they did, and knew that everyone else in the room was doing the same; they had all been scanned on arrival for weapons, but a good assassin wouldn't need one.
The one who'd come in first, a heavyset male past youth, folded his hands on the table and cleared his throat. "Your Majesty," he began.
Jupiter raised one finger. "No. You're here to listen."
That left him with his mouth hanging open, but he had the sense to close it instead of continuing, and Stinger gave him full marks for wit at least. Jupiter looked them all over thoroughly, taking her time, until they began to shift in their seats.
"As of right now," she said at last, "you're all fired."
That made them sit up even straighter, and the first man flushed with indignation, but before he could muster a response the Queen continued.
"Whatever you're doing right now, shut it down. I have no interest in promoting chaos on Earth at this time."
"But your Majesty," the man protested. "Without our efforts this planet - "
Jupiter frowned, and he cut himself off with a gulp. "As I was saying," she went on, her tone chilly, "I'm really more interested in the opposite, at least for now. You people are obviously experts. I'm willing to offer you the opportunity to switch tactics - on a provisional basis."
The five exchanged glances. They had good game faces, Stinger acknowledged, but he - and probably every other Splice in the room - could tell that they were astonished by the Queen's decision.
Once again, the heavyset male was the first to react. Drawing himself up with great dignity, he bowed stiffly. "Your Majesty," he said, biting off the words, "with your permission I will withdraw."
Jupiter nodded. The man turned and marched towards the door; two of Tsing's people fell in behind him, and when the door swung open Stinger could see Honch looming outside, ready to escort him back to the transport beam and wherever he'd come from.
Slowly, two of the others and then a third rose and bowed as well. Jupiter said nothing as they turned to go; their exits took half the personnel in the room with them, leaving it much less crowded.
The last was one of the women, not much taller than the Queen, who looked as if she'd come from the nation known as India, though Stinger doubted she was from Earth at all. She regarded Jupiter with interest. "Your Majesty," she said at last, "I've often wondered how our techniques could be applied to the other side of the balance."
Jupiter smiled. "That's exactly what I want to hear," she said. "Tell me more."
Stinger held back his smile.
It took Jupiter a little while to notice the way the Skyjackers behaved around Caine. The former Aegis were fine, they all seemed to consider him a hero - which obviously embarrassed him - but they were a looser bunch to begin with. The Stormbreakers deferred to Caine without question in matters of her security, acting at his direction if Stinger wasn't there, but they didn't talk to him otherwise. And occasionally she caught a glimpse of one deliberately avoiding him - not quite a snub, but close.
The fact that Caine seemed to expect it made her heart hurt.
Jupiter knew it was no good asking him - he'd either evade the question or give her some bullshit about deserving it. And asking Stinger would make it sound like she was complaining, which she wasn't.
She just wanted to understand.
So when Caine was offplanet getting his tattoo altered, Jupiter lay in wait in her apartment's living room, watching through the passthrough until Forthwith Antinari settled in the opposite room to work on some small piece of machinery. The Skyjacker was one of the more alien-looking of the Stormbreakers; there were Earth women her size, but her skin was a striking pattern of blue and gold, and she had no hair at all. Jupiter didn't know if she was naturally or just shaved her head every day; her twin brother had the same skin pattern in red and gold, but wore a long ponytail. Jupiter suspected the coloring was engineered, but hadn't yet figured out how to ask.
When Forthwith saw Jupiter stepping through the passthrough, she rose hastily to her feet, wings snapping into position. "Your Majesty!"
Jupiter waved at her. "Hey, relax. No, sit down, it's okay." She pointed to the chair Forthwith had been sitting on, and dropped to the thin carpet herself. "What are you working on?"
Forth was one of the less uptight Skyjackers; she only dithered a moment before deciding that if the Queen wanted to sit on the floor it wasn't her place to object. "Um, just a minor repair, your Majesty." She sat, slowly, as if someone was going to spring out of nowhere and yell at her for it. "The projection unit needs tuning."
Jupiter didn't ask for an explanation; she figured she wouldn't understand it anyway. Instead she grinned. "You're an engineer?"
Her smile seemed to relax Forth a little. "Not as such, Majesty, no, but we can all turn our hands to things like this." The Skyjacker was still holding the boxlike device, and she spun it a little, looking down at it. Jupiter took a moment to admire the grace of Forth's movements; somehow the Stormbreakers managed to make size look like the only way to go. "The tech's pretty simple."
"If you say so," Jupiter said drolly, and a flicker of a smile touched Forth's lips. Jupiter leaned back on her hands, crossing her ankles. "There are days when you all make me feel like a geezer confronted with the Internet."
That made about as much sense to Forth, Jupiter guessed, as "projection unit needs tuning" had to her, but the Skyjacker nodded. "It must be a very...big change, your Majesty."
Jupiter knew by now that it was no good trying to get any of them to stop using the title, so she let it slide; Stinger's little lectures on expected behavior were annoying, but he did occasionally have a point. "You have no idea. Or maybe you do - what kind of planet did you come from?"
Forth shook her head immediately, reaching for the tool she'd set down when Jupiter had come in. "I don't have a home planet, your Majesty. I was bred on Finder Seven, it's a station in the Javna system." She started tinkering with the box. "My Splicer owns most of one of the sections. We did have training sessions on planets, though."
"Yeah?" Jupiter asked encouragingly, and Forth grimaced down at the projector, her wings shivering slightly.
"I like space better. Though Earth is quite pleasant," she added quickly, and Jupiter had to suppress a snort - she sounded like Kiza.
"No worries. Though maybe I should take your whole crew on a trip to the Grand Canyon, just for the flight opportunities." Not that she'd ever been there herself.
"As your Majesty pleases," Forth said politely. Jupiter managed not to roll her eyes.
Before she could pursue her original goal, the beep of the door unlocking interrupted, and Jupiter glanced over to see Laur coming in. It didn't surprise her; the twins were never apart for long unless on separate assignments. He bowed smoothly to Jupiter as he entered, and she wiggled her fingers at him in acknowledgment, but his gaze was on his sister. Forth didn't look up from her work, but one of her wings stretched out to him, and he stepped into its curl.
Jupiter wondered abruptly how they'd interacted before they'd become Skyjackers. The wings were integrated so well that all the squad looked as if they'd been born with them.
She opened her mouth to ask her original question, but it suddenly seemed a lot harder with the both of them there. "Hey, I've been meaning to ask, what do you guys think of Stinger?" she asked instead.
That made them both look up, startled. "He's...an excellent commander," Laur said cautiously. His voice was so close to his twin's that sometimes it was hard to tell which one was speaking.
"Sure, I knew that," Jupiter said amiably. "I mean, you guys didn't know him before he got assigned to lead your unit, did you? Was it weird to suddenly have him in charge?"
The two didn't exactly exchange glances, but the effect was the same. Forthwith's reply was more relaxed. "It's unusual, to change commands so abruptly, but it's not unheard of, and honor guard is almost always a promotion. And Commander Apini's got a good rep."
Laur snorted. "Good? The man's practically a legend. Highest kill count in his sector, excellent pilot, and he's known for his loyalty to his unit. Nice to see exile didn't spoil him."
"Yeah, and didn't Honch work with him way back when? Before Bellicosa. I can't remember the squadron name, though." Forth wiggled the tool she was holding. "You could ask them, I suppose."
Them wasn't the precise term for a neuter person, Jupiter knew, but that was how her translator implant handled it in English. Honch was a very large individual best described as hulking, and Jupiter didn't think she'd heard them say more than five words yet. "Yeah, that'll work well," she said wryly.
Laur looked taken aback to hear her joking, but Forth chuckled. "Every squadron needs a strong silent type."
Since she'd seen Honch lift up the back end of Kiza's convertible when it got stuck in a pothole, Jupiter couldn't argue with the descriptor. But before she could think of another angle for her question, the door in her apartment beeped, and the sound had her shoving hastily to her feet. Only one person would be coming in that way without knocking first.
"'Scuse me, see you later," she said hastily, and half-ran back through the passthrough. Caine was just closing the door behind himself, and when he turned and saw her coming his face lit. Jupiter felt her breath catch in her throat at the sight.
She didn't slow down; his arms reached for her, but his wings got there first, all but scooping her closer, and Jupiter kind of ruined the kiss because she was smiling too widely. Judging from the way Caine gathered her up, he wasn't bothered.
"Missed you," Jupiter said after a second, proper kiss. "I thought you were only going to be gone two days!"
"I had something I had to do." Caine was smiling too, the small shy look that always melted her heart. "I wasn't sure I was going to make it back in time for your appointment."
Jupiter glanced over her shoulder at the wall clock. "You came in just under the wire, Stinger's due to pick us up in about fifteen minutes." She ran a hand up his bicep, careful to avoid the outside. "Hey, can I see?"
One brow rose, and Caine shrugged out of his jacket, revealing the shimmery lines of his tattoo. Jupiter couldn't read it - yet - but the wheel at the top now held a simpler version of the sigil on her wrist. The bracket below was altered as well, presumably naming him one of the Stormbreakers, and Jupiter cocked her head for a better look. "Amazing," she muttered, remembering the etching of the stardust symbol into her arm - it had tickled and fizzed, but not hurt. "Somebody ought to open a parlor with this tech. They'd make a fortune."
"If royalty begins to pall, perhaps your Majesty can switch careers," Caine murmured, eyes crinkling as Jupiter snickered. On impulse she pressed her lips to the altered image, and heard him suck in a breath.
"I'll keep it in mind. You still need to change before we go, though."
Caine nodded, and his wings folded back behind him. Jupiter stepped away to let him bend for his bag, and watched him duck through the passthrough. And wondered if the twins were still in the living room, and whether they'd ignore him again.
Then she looked at the clock again, and swore. I have to change too.
When Stinger pulled up in front of the Queen's apartment building, he was glad to see Caine waiting with her out front. Caine had called as soon as his transport hit the solar system, as per protocol, but he'd cut it awfully close.
But the boy did take his duties seriously, which Stinger was glad to see - it looked like pairbonding after all this time hadn't loosened his wits any. He handed Jupiter into the car and climbed into the back, despite the tight fit.
The Queen took the front passenger seat and kept shooting uneasy looks at the seat behind Stinger, the one that looked empty but that Caine kept out of. She had what she referred to as a squick regarding Keepers.
"Tell me more about this economist, your Majesty," Stinger said, sniffing the air coming in the open window. He didn't like air conditioning. "She teaches high school, you said? That doesn't sound, ah, complex enough."
Jupiter faced forward and smirked a little. "She used to teach at the graduate level," she explained. "And she wrote Essentials of Economic Theory As Applied to Modern Problems of Industry and Public Policy. And a whole bunch of textbooks."
And three editions of Economics for the Inept, Caine had reported to Stinger the night before; information searches might not involve scent, but unleashing a tracker of Caine's calibre on even this world's primitive infonet had turned up what there was to be had. Most of it was journal publications, but there had been a couple of images - a pure human about thirty years' her Majesty's elder, with her arms around a couple of students or posed in a head-and-shoulders shot with a polite smile. Energetic-looking, but nothing that especially stood out.
"Why her, though?" he pressed. "What makes you think she may be able to cope with the truth?"
Jupiter folded her arms, looking a bit frustrated. "She used to watch Star Trek? I don't know. It's just a feeling, I guess."
Stinger nodded and concentrated on driving. Her Majesty's free and easy manner tended to bring out the tendency to challenge her, but then his genes would remind him that he was supposed to defer, not argue. It could get confusing, on occasion.
They didn't have too far to go; Dr. Thompson's neighborhood was much like Stinger's own, endless fields of corn and soybeans under the summer sun. Her house was at the end of a long gravel road that cut between fields - clearly the remnant of some farm property, as there was a ramshackle barn nearby, though the small house made smaller by a giant oak was much newer. As Stinger parked, the door opened and a woman stepped out onto the stoop.
He felt a small pulse of surprise. The dynamic woman of the pictures, crowned with beaded braids, looked older and quieter now, her hair a fluff of greying black. She wore a tank top and a long skirt, and her face was drawn in lines of patience, but when the Queen climbed out it lit with pleasure. "Jupiter Jones!" she said, holding out her arms. "It's good to see you again."
Her Majesty returned the hug warmly as Caine and Stinger unfolded themselves from the car. "Hi, Doctor Thompson. Thanks for agreeing to meet with us."
"Honey, call me Aggie. I'm not your teacher any longer." She looked beyond Jupiter, smiling. "Who are your friends?"
Jupiter waved at them in turn. "Mr. Apini and Caine Wise. This is Doctor Agnes Thompson."
Stinger nodded formally, allowing none of his doubts to show. Caine kept his usual impassive expression; his more lupine traits were camouflaged by what her Majesty had taken to calling a "likealizer" - because, she claimed, "tertiary-world personal-skinfield anonymizing transmitter" was way too much of a mouthful. As long as it was powered, he looked Earth-ordinary.
Dr. Thompson took them all in with an assessing look, then leaned back to pull open the screen door. "For something this serious, whatever it is, you'd better come inside."
Her house was cool and dim, made up of soft fabrics and muted colors. She waved them all to seats and made the ritual offer of something to drink; Jupiter accepted, Caine demurred, and Stinger took the glass of lemonade but didn't taste the contents.
"So what's this all about?" Dr. Thompson said, seating herself across from Jupiter in an armchair. "You're not in trouble, are you?" The glance she shot Stinger and Caine was sharp.
Jupiter shook her head. "No, no. It's just...we've got this project going on, and I'm hoping you can help me."
"It's summer, I'm at loose ends," Dr. Thompson replied easily. "Let's hear it."
To Stinger's mind, the scenario her Majesty laid out didn't sound particularly believable. She was claiming to be working for an author composing a sweeping saga - "Think Wheel of Time," Jupiter explained, whatever that was - and who wanted expert advice on how to move his protagonists through the intricate society and economy he'd already created.
"The first book's been sold," Jupiter added ruefully as she finished a rough outline of the galactic economy. "He can't change the setup now."
Dr. Thompson, leaning her elbow on the arm of her chair, pursed her lips thoughtfully. "Too bad, because that's a hell of a mess he's got there. And more than a little sick, if you don't mind my saying so." She glanced Stinger's way, and he kept his face as neutral as possible. Caine, hulking on the couch next to her Majesty, just looked dour.
"Mow," somebody said loudly, and Caine started; Stinger felt himself twitch. But the Queen's face lit. "Oh, dust!"
What? That made no sense to Caine either, judging from his frown, but Dr. Thompson shook her head.
"No, Dust passed away a couple of years ago." She leaned out of her chair to peer back towards the kitchen. "Edsel, come out here and say hello properly!"
Another mow heralded the appearance of a strange-looking little animal; it took Stinger a minute to recognize it as the species Earthlings called "cats", since it was very different from the barn variety that was all he usually saw. It looked exaggerated - overly long, overly thin, with huge ears and a narrow pointed face. Its coloring looked like someone had started to paint it brown and run out of paint halfway through, but its eyes were a brilliant blue.
It stalked past Dr. Thompson, who watched it with a smile, and went to sniff delicately at the hand Jupiter extended. Stinger could hear the faintest rumble of a growl coming from Caine, but her Majesty reached back to put her other hand on his knee, and it faded.
The little animal looked up at Caine, and Stinger could see the lift of its lip; its tail lashed. Caine growled again, louder this time.
The overlarge ears went back, and then the animal turned its back on Caine and paraded - there was no other word for it - over to Stinger. He looked down at it dubiously.
"Are you allergic?" Dr. Thompson said, eyes crinkling with amusement.
Stinger honestly didn't know what to do when the cat sprang up to his knee. It wasn't showing an aggressive posture, merely a curious one, and her Majesty laughed. "Hold out your hand," she said.
Gingerly, Stinger complied. Edsel repeated the sniff routine, then licked its nose, blinked, and collapsed into a loose circle in his lap and started vibrating.
Dr. Thompson chuckled. "Edsel is an impeccable judge of character," she said. "You appear to have passed, Mr. Apini."
"Right," Stinger sighed. "Where were we, y-ah, Miss Jones?"
Dr. Thompson asked a number of questions and even started taking notes. Jupiter couldn't always supply the answers, but Stinger was ready to step in if necessary - when he knew the answer, which he didn't always. Jupiter begged a sheet of paper and started taking her own notes on what to "ask the author".
The whole thing was as flimsy as a paper house, Stinger thought, but as her Majesty had pointed out earlier, Dr. Thompson might not believe them but she was hardly going to guess the truth on her own. And as long as she was willing to help...
Eventually the economist seemed to have learned all she wanted, and she and Jupiter chatted for a little while about memories of school and other students. Stinger was not so much bored as disconnected; at some point, he realized, he'd started stroking Edsel, whose vibrations had intensified at the touch. The fur was surprisingly pleasant to feel; soothing.
"We won't keep you any longer," the Queen said at last. "Thanks for helping me out, Aggie."
Stinger noted with some amusement that she and Caine were actually holding hands. He caught the lycantant's eye. "Better go out and see about things," he said, knowing that Caine would take his meaning and dismiss the Keeper.
Caine nodded, rose, ducked his head to Dr. Thompson, and thumped out. Dr. Thompson watched him go with an amused twist to her lips. "Your taste has improved," she said dryly.
Jupiter blushed, and Stinger had to smother a chuckle. "If we have more questions I'll get him to put you on retainer," Jupiter said quickly.
"Oh, that's not necessary, honey," Dr. Thompson protested, but Jupiter shook her head.
"Value for services rendered - I remember that much, at least!" She rose, and Stinger shoved gently at Edsel. The cat uncoiled and bounced away, looking indignant, and Stinger stood as well.
Dr. Thompson walked them to her front door, chatting lightly. "What do you do when you're not escorting young ladies around the countryside?" she asked Stinger as he passed her.
"I keep bees," he said, because he still did, and it was still a satisfying job.
Her brows went up, and she nodded approvingly, a motion cut short as Edsel leapt up to her shoulder. "Nong," the cat commented, sounding anything but approving.
Her Majesty laughed again. "'Bye, Edsel! Talk to you soon, Aggie." Caine was already starting the car, and Stinger nodded farewell as Jupiter turned away.
Dr. Thompson's gaze caught his, and he realized that they really hadn't fooled her at all; but for whatever reason, she wasn't going to make an issue of it. "Nice to meet you, Mr. Apini," was all she said, holding the door for them, and Stinger gave her another nod and followed his Queen out into the sun.
"That went pretty well," she said hopefully as Caine turned onto the main road.
Stinger grunted. "She wasn't buying it, your Majesty."
He was quiet on the drive back, sitting alone in the rear seat since the Keeper had departed on its own. The depth of Dr. Thompson's knowledge and insight had taken him aback. Face it, you're used to thinking of tercies as simple.
Well, most of them were, he argued to himself. Primitive people on primitive worlds, most of them never getting beyond their own atmospheres; one didn't get involved with them, for obvious reasons.
Grumbling to himself, Stinger set the whole mess aside. He had bigger worries.