The next morning it was Rush who brought the word, soft in Stinger's head through his comm implant. "Commander, there's a vehicle coming this way, looks like it's heading for your turnoff."
Stinger pushed away from the two-way unit on his table, envisioning Rush far overhead on skywatch. "Make sure you're out of sight, her Majesty doesn't like blanking if it can be avoided. Just the one?"
"Just one," Rush confirmed. "But I don't have eyes on the Queen or Caine."
Stinger thought fast. "They were headed south when they took off. Raise him on the comm while I deal with this. It may just be a customer." He didn't encourage visitors, but as her Majesty had proven Apini Hives wasn't impossible to find.
He put the rest of the Stormbreakers on alert as he headed for the door; this was most likely absolutely nothing, but he hadn't made commander by taking that kind of chance. He snagged the nearest jacket to cover his wings and reached the porch just as the silver sedan jolted into view.
It was hard to see the driver through the accompanying cloud of dust, but when the car stopped and the haze settled Stinger's stomach gave an odd lurch at the sight of Dr. Thompson climbing out of the vehicle.
An obviously upset Dr. Thompson, at that. Stinger sighed, and signaled Rush.
"It's her Majesty's economist. Ask the Queen if she'll come back, discreetly, and see Dr. Thompson." It wasn't that he didn't trust Jupiter's judgment; it was her finesse that worried him. Braking still escaped her on occasion.
The economist slammed the car door and stomped towards him, and Stinger could see how she'd made a success at teaching adolescents. She was no Entitled, but part of him still wanted to give way.
"Doctor - " he began as she neared, but she cut him off.
"What the hell are you playing at, Mr. Apini? Where's Jupiter?"
"She'll be along shortly," he replied mildly, giving up on the lie.
"She'd better be." Dr. Thompson glared at him.
He folded his arms and cooled his tone. "What's this all about? I might remind you this is private property, Doctor."
She wasn't noticeably cowed. Holding up the tablet she'd brought with her, she turned it on, tapped it, and lifted it so he could see. "You tell me."
It was a security video, the kind without sound. The view was Dr. Thompson's yard, though from far enough to the side that Stinger realized the camera must have been installed on the barn. As he watched, Stinger saw Caine emerge from the little house and walk over to the car, open the back door, and stand staring in for a few seconds; the picture wasn't good enough to see if he was speaking.
Then a small, brownish creature climbed out of the vehicle, its limbs bending in ways no Earth creature's did, and after staring back up at Caine for a moment it scuttled off down the drive and out of sight. Stinger suppressed a groan. What was the damn thing thinking?
"Well?" Dr. Thompson snapped. "Is this some sort of practical joke, because if it is - "
"Dr. Thompson? Aggie, sorry." Much to Stinger's relief, Jupiter jogged out from behind the house. She was windblown and still wearing her Skyjacker boots, and frowned when she sensed the tension. "What's the matter?"
"She saw the Keeper yesterday." Stinger grimaced.
"The what?" Dr. Thompson asked. She was still holding out the tablet, and with a glance for permission Jupiter restarted the video. Her lips parted in dismay as she watched.
"Are they allowed to do that?" she asked when it finished. "Never mind. Aggie, you'd better come inside."
Stinger sat on his objection. This was, after all, what her Majesty had been aiming at; it had just happened faster than planned.
As they followed Jupiter up the stairs, Dr. Thompson squinted at the Queen's usual escort of bees. "You really are an apiculturist, then."
Stinger shrugged, and held the door for them both.
The dining room was empty, but Stinger could hear Caine lurking in the kitchen. "Game's up," he called. "Might as well come out."
The query of "Your Majesty?" came back, and Jupiter sighed.
"If the demo doesn't make her call the psych ward. Yeah, okay."
Caine's wings were folded and not immediately visible, but his ears and brand were fairly obvious. Dr. Thompson's eyes narrowed at the sight of him before she turned to Jupiter. "'Your majesty'?" she inquired.
Jupiter blew out a breath and gestured the economist to a chair. "You know that long story I told you yesterday? That's not even half of it."
Dr. Thompson sat slowly. "Go on."
Stinger took his own chair, reversing it to straddle it; as Jupiter talked, he pulled off his jacket. It was, he knew, pure perversity on his part, wanting to startle the tercie, but she'd have to know sooner or later and it might as well be in here instead of one of the Stormbreakers dropping on her head.
Dr. Thompson, listening closely, did a beautiful double-take as Stinger slowly extended his own wings. Her mouth opened, closed, opened...and then with a visible effort she returned her attention to Jupiter. Stinger had to grin a little.
When her Majesty ran down, Dr. Thompson pushed slowly to her feet and walked over to the window. Caine was leaning against the sideboard, his wings mantled, but she gave him barely a glance, instead staring out into the sunshine for a long time, one hand pressed to her mouth. Jupiter fidgeted anxiously, but said nothing, and they waited.
"It's like The Saliva Tree with a side helping of State of Decay," Dr. Thompson muttered at last, then turned around. "So what are you going to do about it, Miss Jones?"
Her Majesty grinned. "I was hoping you'd ask," she said, and Stinger mentally upped the personnel rolls by one.
The weeks piled up. Jupiter spent most of her days at Stinger's farm, either learning to fly or sprawled on the couch studying up on the culture of the universe she was going to have to enter. And there was tons of it. History, technology, culture, legal stuff - the Entitled protocols alone gave her a two-day headache.
Dr. Thompson studied right along with her, spreading her work over the dining room table - though she concentrated on the economics of the system, making copious notes and occasionally ranting under her breath about the people who'd set it up. She usually brought Edsel with her; he would hang out on a windowsill, wisely ignoring the bees, until Stinger sat down somewhere, and then would go and imitate a loaf on the Splice's lap.
Stinger, also wisely, didn't protest the loafing.
Jupiter also worked on getting an idea of what she had actually inherited. It was hard to visualize, especially when she didn't even know what some of the stuff was; but she still went over the lists and inventories, trying to take it all in, because sooner or later she would have to deal with it. The sheave of spaceships alone made her boggle, in part because they were so hard to tell apart.
She scrolled through the list, her mind tripping over the strings of letters and numbers. "Don't any of these things have names?"
Caine, who had been doing some reading of his own, came over to peer over her shoulder. "They all do - that's the second column."
Jupiter huffed. "No, like - titles. Enterprise, Bismarck, Santa Maria, that kind of thing."
When she tilted her head up, he looked distinctly baffled. "No."
It always felt a little like stepping on a stair that wasn't there, tripping over some little cultural difference. "You guys don't name your ships - huh."
"Earth people do?" Caine cocked his head.
"It's bad luck not to." Jupiter grinned and swiped a finger along the list to make it blur past. "Well, I'm not going to sit here and dream up titles for every one of these right now, but we're gonna start with the new one." Not that she actually believed in luck, at least that way, but the notion fit. If we're going to do this, let's do it in style. "Where's Captain Tsing?"
It took a bit more explaining, but in the end the Abrasax Cruiser 12-Delta-5 was rechristened. In name if not in fact - breaking a bottle of champagne on the prow was difficult in vacuum, and Jupiter didn't want to make that much of a production of it anyway - but one of the crew did actually suit up to paint it on the hull. The Neva took its place among Jupiter's fleet, and its crew - bemused but pleased - began identifying themselves with that name.
Just when Jupiter thought things were calming down (and she really had to stop thinking that) the mavericks started showing up. At least that's what Stinger called them.
A few were legitimate - assigned, like he had been, to Earth for one reason or another - but most were there unofficially; galactic citizens who, for whatever reason, preferred a tertiary world as a dwelling place, and were willing to hide their natures to stay there.
Jupiter wasn't even sure why they came. "It's not like I'd know if they were here or not," she complained to Caine. "Most of them are already under the radar."
Caine, watching with wary humor as a tall, gaunt human dressed like a Goth trucker mounted the porch steps, just shrugged. "They want to see you, your Majesty. Earth is yours; they want to acknowledge it."
That still didn't make sense to her, but she rolled with it. The legit ones all wanted to swear fealty, or at least renew their contracts, depending; the others mostly just wanted to stare, as Caine said. It made Jupiter uncomfortable, but they didn't stay long.
There was one who came in and tried to spit at her instead of bowing, but Caine swooped down and crumpled him up like a piece of scrap paper, ejecting him out the door before Jupiter had time to do more than blink. Judging by the cursing, a few other Stormbreakers made sure he got off the property; Jupiter hoped dryly that he wasn't too damaged in the process.
She was getting to know them better, at least some of them. Rush was third-in-command and had blue-black hair against blue-white skin, and could have passed on Earth if not for the wings; Glasta had been Spliced with something that had a lot of very sharp claws and teeth, and reveled in his appearance. Absaba had white-blond hair and the austere, gorgeous features of an angel, while Soren was exactly Stinger's height and had skin that matched her wings. It was easier to tell them apart by physical features at the moment, but other traits were starting to stick in her mind too - like, Soren swore using words Jupiter's translator refused to deal with, and Absaba was so awed by Jupiter's title that he could barely speak to her.
It was easy to see that they were a unit, too, except for Caine. They bunked together in Stinger's ramshackle barn, now somewhat repaired; they ate together when they were off shift, filling up his kitchen with strange cooking smells, ribbing, and the occasional stretch of wing. Jupiter sometimes wished she could join them, but merely appearing in the kitchen for a drink of water made them all get quiet and "Can we help you, your Majesty," and she didn't have the energy to try to break them of it. Stinger wouldn't approve anyway.
She did have to make another call to Kalique, or Malidictes as proxy, to request another favor. Jupiter thrashed it out with Stinger and Caine and Aggie ahead of time, because she knew Kalique would call in the debt eventually, but Aggie held firm. "I need the perspective," she said. "And you need someone taking over that task. It may give Lady Kalique another hold on you, but having her handle your affairs is a larger one."
So Jupiter gave in, and the request went through. And the next week, a small ship settled down on the edge of the cornfield in Stinger's backyard.
The woman who stepped off what Stinger called a skimmer looked Vietnamese to Jupiter, except for the turtle's beak she bore and the spots and streaks on her skin. "Your Majesty," she said, bowing deeply and looking not at all fazed by the shabby living room or Caine looming formally nearby. "My name is Virtu, and I am pleased to serve you."
Jupiter was getting a little more used to the term of address, though she still didn't really want to hear it from anyone but Caine. "Yeah, hi. So did Kalique pick you out herself?"
Virtu held out a sheave, which Caine leaned over to take before Jupiter could move; he flipped it over, glanced at both sides, and then handed it to Jupiter with deference. She played along for the moment, though this much ceremony seemed more than a bit silly for someone seated on a beat-up couch in a house half held up by honeycomb.
Virtu clasped her hands together at her waist. "No, your Majesty. I was selected and briefed by Mr. Malidictes. My record - " She nodded at the sheave.
Jupiter thumbed it on, glanced at the index, and shut it off again. It's gonna take me half an hour to work through that. She wasn't going to make Virtu stand there while she did it.
"You're by Chordan Du, aren't you?" Stinger said, not moving from where he leaned in the doorway. "That's good work, your Majesty. Du always codes for brains."
Jupiter resisted a brief urge to throw the sheave out the window and yell at them all about slavery - Caine's gaze flicked to her and then away again - and instead regarded Virtu, who nodded once to Stinger.
"All right. I've just got one question for you." Jupiter leaned forward and looked directly into Virtu's eyes. "Who are you really working for?"
The woman didn't blink. "You, your Majesty. If you permit."
She heard Caine pull in a breath, and looked his way. It felt very weird to use him like this, but he'd been so pleased when Stinger suggested it -
He nodded too, face solemn but not concerned. "She's telling the truth."
Jupiter sat back, feeling a pulse of relief; she really wanted someone to handle this for her. "Okay then. You're hired, Miss Virtu. You'll be working with my economic advisor, Doctor Thompson; she'll be here tomorrow."
The turtle beak seemed incapable of either a smile or a frown, but Virtu's eyes crinkled and she bowed again. "Of course, your Majesty. In the meantime, would you like to take a closer look at your current holdings? I have the files in my luggage."
More homework. Jupiter suppressed a sigh, and got on with it.
"Mama." Jupiter returned her mother's warm hug, suddenly grateful for the familiar arms around her now that she was about to leave them so far behind. "It's good to see you."
"You're looking well," Aleksa told her brusquely. "This new job, it suits you."
Jupiter shrugged a little, not quite sure what to make of that. "Let's get some coffee and sit before all the tables are taken."
The little bakery was more carry-out than eat-in, but there were a few spaces for seats, and its clientele and food were mostly Russian. It was a good place to meet; visiting the Bolotnikov household always meant a stay of several hours drinking tea and listening to gossip and family stories. Not that Jupiter minded, but she just didn't have the time today.
"I will get the table. You fetch coffee," Aleksa commanded, and Jupiter obeyed happily, waiting in the fast-moving line to order pastries as well. Outside Soren was idling by the window, playing with the smartphone Stinger had obtained as a prop for these undercover missions; Caine was, Jupiter knew, on the roof of the building, just in case.
She'd offered to buy them coffee, but they weren't allowed to snack on duty, apparently, which Jupiter thought was kind of unfair.
"So how is everybody?" she asked as she sat down, sliding a cup towards her mother and setting the bakery bag in the middle of the table.
"Very well, very well, Moltka got an A on his book report," Aleksa said, and for the next little while Jupiter heard about Lyudmila's arthritis, Zeno's truck, and Vladie's latest girl. It was familiar and comforting, and Jupiter stored up each word, because as nosy and exasperating and overbearing as her family could be, they were Earth to her - absolute normalcy, a symbol of what she had to protect.
Even if she'd been willing to sacrifice them all to do it.
"How is new job?" Aleksa asked at last, eyes sharp. "Still can't talk about it?"
Jupiter shook her head and reached for another pastry. "It's about to get pretty busy, though."
Aleksa's hand trapped hers briefly against the bag. "You'll stay in touch." It was half assumption, half order, and Jupiter appreciated the nuance.
"I will. You know I have Skype set up on my computer; we can use that. Moltka can show you how." Captain Tsing had promised her that the top-level comm tech available to Entitled would mesh better with Earth systems than the standard Aegis issue.
Aleksa nodded, picking up her cup again. "Vassily's so full of himself about the money you're sending that I'm about to kick his задница."
Jupiter laughed out loud, watching her mother's evil grin. "Just make sure he spends enough on you!" She made a mental note to start sending Aleksa a check too. Vassily was a good manager, but his sense of priorities could sometimes get a little skewed.
They talked for a while longer, even after the sweets were gone, but eventually Jupiter's phone alarm beeped. She swiped it off, but before she could apologize Aleksa nodded.
"Time for you to go, I know. What do I tell the others?"
Jupiter bit her lip. She didn't like the lying, but she didn't see much choice. "Miss Apini wants to visit an Italian spa, a really remote one. We might be there for months."
Aleksa's mouth tightened at her last word, but she didn't argue. "Call home," she commanded instead.
"I will, мамочка." They rose, and Jupiter hugged her mother again, tight and tight. "As often as I can."
Jupiter looked up from the sheave about spaceships - it seemed to be written for eight-year-olds, which was good, because that was all her brain was capable of absorbing at the moment - to see Aggie in the doorway. "Hey, what's up?"
The economist glanced at Caine, who was sitting across the room cleaning a weapon. "Could I speak to you alone?"
Jupiter cocked a brow at Caine, but he shook his head; he wouldn't go farther than just outside the door, and she knew he could hear from there. She thought a moment. "Why don't we go for a walk?"
They ended up strolling down Stinger's rutted driveway towards the road, with Caine and Honch in the air overhead - too far up to hear them, Jupiter hoped, but satisfied with keeping her in sight. "Okay, is something wrong?"
"No, no." Aggie put her hands in her sweater pockets. "I've finished my analysis, that's all. Well, as much as I can from here."
"Oh - oh." Jupiter blew out a breath. "Yeah?"
Aggie nodded, looking tired. "Yeah. And let me say again, this is a very twisted society."
"No kidding." Jupiter huffed. "And I thought Earth was bad."
"Earth still is bad," Aggie said sharply, stopping to look at her. "Don't close your eyes to its flaws even if they're small in comparison."
Jupiter winced. "I know. I know. I wish I could do more about it, but owning the Earth isn't..."
"It's not the same thing as ruling it, yes, I understand." Aggie sighed. "And I will admit that you have other concerns at the moment."
"Yeah." Jupiter started walking again, sniffing the cooling air. "More than I can keep track of sometimes." She kicked at a pebble. "So - what should I do?"
"That depends on your goals," Aggie said slowly. "If you just want to assimilate into this society, nothing. You're well-placed to take advantage of it for as long as you like."
"Oh please." Jupiter shot her a disbelieving look. "I admit the whole money thing is kind of cool, at least until I remember where it came from, but if you think I'm going to go along with all this bullshit - "
Aggie chuckled. "I didn't think you would, honey. But I have to lay out all the options."
"You can skip forgetting about it, because I'm not going to do that either," Jupiter said, still a bit indignant. "All that would do is postpone those Harvests for another five or six decades."
"Yes." Aggie nodded. "So the third option is - change."
The word seemed to hang in the dusty air for a moment before a bee cruised through and broke it. "Yeah." Jupiter laughed softly. "It sounds really stupid, how can one person change things and all that, except from what everybody keeps telling me I really do have that much power."
"If you choose to use it," Aggie agreed. "And there's danger in that."
"Yeah," Jupiter said again. It scared her, that thought; look what it had done to the Abrasaxes, after all. Even Kalique was...not right. "That's why I need all of you guys, you know, to keep me straight."
It was so true; she'd never have the guts to take any of this on if it weren't for Caine, and Stinger, and all the rest of them standing behind her, even if they didn't have the same goals she did.
Aggie smiled. "You'll have plenty of them, I think." She cocked her head. "So the problem is two-fold, at least at the gross level. The manufacture and use of Regenex in nearly all parts of society and technology, and the oppressive social strata."
"I'm not sure which one makes me want to puke more," Jupiter muttered, glancing up to make sure their two guardians were still out of earshot.
"Right there with you," Aggie replied dryly. "Well, as far as I can tell, you can't remove the purpose of Regenex. The lure of immortality - not to mention its use as medicine - is just too strong and too interwoven into the society. So, you'll have to replace it."
Jupiter gaped at her. "With what?"
Aggie laughed. "I have no idea. But think about it, honey. This business has been going on for millennia. I'm willing to bet that someone out there has found an alternative - maybe lots of someones."
Oh. "But someone bought out the patents to keep control of the market."
"You never were slow - once I got your attention," Aggie said with a grin, and Jupiter felt herself blushing a little. "Yes, or whatever the equivalent is. Or took more direct methods. This is definitely an industry that doesn't like competition."
"Oh yeah." It seemed so obvious, now that Aggie had brought it up. "And even if there isn't something available, I might be able to get someone to invent something. You know, sponsor a lab or something like that."
"Exactly. It may take time, but I'd lay odds that you can find something, or the start to something."
They fell silent to let the noise of a passing truck grow and fade, and Jupiter wondered idly if the driver had seen the Skyjackers. Probably thought they were turkey vultures. The thought of how that would annoy them tickled her.
"And the other half?" Jupiter asked at last.
Aggie shook her head. "That one...I don't have an answer for you there."
Jupiter bit her lip, aware of the differences between them. Aggie glanced over at her. "Lead by example, honey. That's a start, anyway. And always be aware of it."
Jupiter nodded. They walked on for a while, eventually turning around to go back; Jupiter waved at her guards overhead, but neither accepted the offer to come down and join them.
"I'm going to have to go soon," Jupiter said finally. Part of her was looking forward to exploring, but the other part dreaded stepping into whatever limelight Kalique had in mind. "If I'm going to make this work..."
"I don't envy you the task, Jupiter." Aggie pushed a stray curl out of her eyes.
"Want to come along?" Jupiter said jokingly, trying to lighten things again. "I could put you on permanent retainer."
She expected Aggie to laugh, but instead the economist looked thoughtful. "It would be quite the adventure," she said, almost to herself.
Jupiter felt a surge of hope. "Seriously? You'd think about coming with? I could really use the help."
Aggie pursed her lips, her expression almost wistful. "As it happens, I was planning on taking a leave of absence this semester. But it wouldn't be permanent, Jupiter, I could only come for a little while."
"I don't care," Jupiter said fervently. "Just come along, please, don't leave me alone with all these weird people from outer space!"
As she'd hoped, that made Aggie laugh. "I think there's at least one you wouldn't mind being alone with," she teased, and Jupiter blushed again. Yeah, but there's never any opportunity.
"Don't get me started," she grumbled. "Hey, will you bring Edsel?"
"I'll have to," Aggie said. "He won't be pleased."
"Doesn't surprise me," Jupiter replied, wondering how the cat would react to another world. Sheesh, how will I react? "I'd like you to meet Kalique, though. See what you think of her."
"Yes, that should be interesting," Aggie murmured. They came abreast of the driveway and started down it, their escort descending for a landing, and Jupiter held her peace.
I won't be alone, she told herself. I can do this.
Really I can...
But when Aggie went back inside, Jupiter hesitated, then circled the house, knowing Caine would come up to walk with her. She reached out for his hand as soon as he was beside her; the wrap of his long fingers around hers was reassuring, as was the curl of his wing around her back until the tip brushed her far shoulder.
"What troubles your Majesty?" he asked after a bit, when they'd almost reached the edge of the far cornfield.
Jupiter slowed to a stop and considered her list of problems - the short list, anyway. I'm overwhelmed by how much I have to learn, I'm scared spitless of going up into space and trying to fake my way into Entitlement, I've got more stuff than I can keep track of and whole planets of innocent people depending on me to keep them from being turned into youth juice, and right now the thing I want most is to drag you off into a dark corner and find out if you're as incredible in bed as I think you are.
Odds were that he knew them all already, even the last one, but the trouble with that was there was no privacy to be had - protocol dictated that the Queen have at least two guards within eye- or earshot at all times, and even the double apartment wasn't private enough. And while Jupiter thought she might be able to order the second guard away for a while if she forced the issue, it would upset Caine, which was no way to begin a seduction.
And it's probably going to have to be one. He was so deferential that Jupiter knew she was going to have to make the first move - probably a lot of them, in sequence. It didn't bother her, it was actually kind of nice not to have a guy pushing all the time, but again - that sort of thing really needed space and time that they didn't have right now.
Jupiter sighed, and settled for the truth, but only part of it. "Aggie said some things that are going to make stuff harder when I get up there." She leaned her head against Caine's shoulder, and his wing curled closer.
"And they will already be difficult," he agreed, his voice almost more vibration than sound.
"Yeah." Jupiter felt like asking him to wrap her up entirely in feathers for, oh, the next ten years or so, but that wouldn't make any of the problems go away. She shifted until her forehead was pressing into his bicep, a little surprised at how depressed she was getting. "Sorry. I guess I'm just tired."
"You have every right to be." His free hand slid up the back of her neck and buried itself in her hair, gently massaging her scalp, and Jupiter moaned a little at how good it felt. "But we are all here to help."
"And don't think I don't appreciate it." She burrowed closer, letting him go so she could wrap her arms around him. "Do I pay you guys enough? I'm gonna get Virtu to double your salaries."
Caine laughed softly. "You'd have to renegotiate our contracts with the Legion. More trouble than it's worth." Jupiter made a discontented noise, and he stroked her hair. "But bonuses paid directly are always welcome."
"Oh good." She said it against his skin. "'ll keep it in mind."
"Your Majesty." His voice was tender. "You really need to eat."
He was right. She'd missed lunch, driving back from seeing her mother and full of latte and vatrushkas, and as if in agreement her stomach grumbled. "Probably."
Caine bent and scooped her up, but he didn't bother lifting off, just carrying her easily towards the house. Jupiter grinned. "You're going to make them think something's wrong."
"If something were wrong I'd be running," he replied. "You do realize there are Entitled who never walk anywhere at all?"
Jupiter snorted. "You're not making this royalty thing sound any better, you know."
His only reply was an amused sound. Jupiter let her head rest against his chest and watched the light fading from the sky, until he carried her inside.
Kiza was at the kitchen table when they entered, chatting with Absaba; the latter immediately evaporated out towards the living room as soon as Jupiter appeared. Jupiter rolled her eyes. "Sorry about that," she said as Caine set her carefully on her feet.
Kiza laughed. "It's okay. I keep telling him you only eat babies, but he won't believe me." She cocked her head. "Are you all right?"
"She needs to eat," Caine said, eyes crinkling. "Babies aren't ideal, though."
Jupiter snickered, and walked over to the fridge to peer inside, trying to locate something she recognized. She'd set up a fund for domestic expenses as soon as she'd started spending so much time at the house, and it was another example of cultural differences that neither Stinger nor Kiza had tried to refuse; they'd simply accepted it with the pleasure that comes with a gift one wasn't really expecting. Kiza often cooked for Jupiter and anyone else who was around, but she claimed to enjoy it. And since Jupiter could barely boil water, she didn't try to argue.
"Don't even start," Kiza said, rising to shut the fridge door firmly. "I'll make you an omelette."
"All right," Jupiter said meekly, and sat down at the table. Caine nodded in satisfaction, then touched the comm implant on his neck.
"Excuse me, your Majesty," he said, and when she nodded slipped out of the room. Jupiter could hear him thumping up the stairs; for a stealthy hunter he could make a lot of noise at times.
She watched Kiza moving around the kitchen, her bright hair bound up in a bandanna and her bare feet tapping on the uneven linoleum, and steeled herself to ask. "Are you going to come along, when this circus takes off?"
Kiza glanced back, a little surprised. "Of course I am, I can't leave Dad. Unless, if you order me not to," she began, looking alarmed.
Jupiter sputtered. "Kiza - you don't work for me, I can't order you to do anything!"
"You're an Entitled, and you rule Earth," Kiza countered, eyes wide. "I'm one of your subjects."
"You're not a citizen of Earth, are you?" Jupiter frowned, suddenly unsure. "Or are you? I don't know what the rules are." Better move that one to the top of the study list.
Kiza shrugged. "Gyre citizens who choose to live on tertiary worlds are usually considered to be subjects of whoever rules the planet."
"Anyway, I own the place, I don't rule it," Jupiter said firmly. "And I can't order you to do anything, Kiza. You're my friend, not my employee or my subject."
"Is that a decree, your Majesty?" Kiza asked, but she was smiling, and Jupiter made a face at her and reached idly for the fork sitting on the table.
"I just wasn't sure if you can leave the hives and all that." And whether Stinger would allow his daughter to follow along into what could be a dangerous situation, but Jupiter had no idea what the age of majority was in space society either.
"He doesn't really want to, but Judy from Blossomfield Bees will come in to look after them for us. Dad figures that you'll be back for visits sometimes, and he can drop back in."
"Makes sense, yeah." Jupiter sniffed at the luscious scent of browning butter and fiddled with the fork. "I'm glad you're coming with." Because I'm going to need every friend I can get out there.
Kiza grinned. "It's going to be an adventure, your Majesty. I wouldn't miss it for the world. Even this one." She flipped the omelette neatly onto a plate and slid it in front of Jupiter. "Besides, someone has to look after Dad. Caine will be busy looking after you."
"'Zat a comment on my self-care abilities?" Jupiter asked wryly, slicing into the hot egg.
"Oh, aye." Kiza's grin widened, and she sat back down opposite Jupiter to watch her eat, sipping at a glass of tea.
"Well, it's going to be soon," Jupiter admitted after she swallowed her bite. "If I wait too much longer I'll wimp out."
Kiza simply nodded. Jupiter ate another few bites, wondering absurdly whether something as homey as an egg was available out in space, but all that did was lead to visions of Pigs in Space and that end was madness, so she wrenched her thoughts back on track.
She couldn't figure out how to say I'm sorry for putting your dad's life in danger, because that was what it was, even if nobody was coming out and saying it. Jupiter had read enough, now, to know that the "honor" part of honor guard was only half the story. These guys are prepared to die for me if they have to. And unlike Caine's devotion, it definitely gave her the weirds.
But she knew Stinger wouldn't have it any other way. I just hope I don't have to look Kiza in the eye and really apologize, someday.
"How soon?" Kiza asked after a minute. "Because if we're going, there's a couple of DVDs I'd like to get to take along. Not to mention a few other things you can only get here."
"At least a few days, Stinger says I should call in one or two ships. The Neva isn't really big enough for everybody at once." Which made no sense to Jupiter since as far as she could tell the whole trip to Seraphi's business world would take about forty-five minutes, but she was prepared to roll with it. "But you'd better go for expedited shipping."
Kiza snickered. "I'll pick up the rest of the ElfQuest comics then. Caine loves those."
"Huh." Jupiter grinned back. "We'll have to look into that anime exporting idea some time too. What else is there here that they don't have out there?" She forked up another bite.
"Toblerone," Kiza said, rising to pour herself more tea. "And salt and vinegar potato chips, but Dad's the only one I know who'll eat them."
Jupiter had to laugh. "So noted."
He was off-duty, so Caine decided to practice a little. He flew up to the roof of Stinger's house and perched on a flat spot, enjoying the light of Earth's tiny moon - surprisingly bright for so little reflective surface.
The double-pipe warmed quickly in his hands as he ran through scales. It felt good to play it again. He'd missed the instrument in the Deadlands - not that he'd have used it there, the noise would have attracted attention - and he hadn't had much chance to play since it had been returned to him.
So he worked his way through some old favorite melodies, Legion drinking songs and tunes that had been popular years ago, just whatever came to mind. It was soothing. Sometimes he harmonized with the instrument, humming deep in his throat to add a third thread of sound, enjoying the challenge of staying in key.
Of course he was aware of Jupiter the moment she stepped outside; even if he hadn't heard the door open and close, her scent would have risen to him like a beacon. It seemed to seek him out, and he pulled it in, some small tension relaxing at the knowledge that she was close by.
He stopped playing as she looked up his way, pushing her hair from her eyes in the habitual, unconscious way she had when she was too tired to remember to refasten the tail.
She waved. "Do you mind company?" she asked softly, knowing he could hear.
"No," he replied, pitching it just loud enough to carry, and started to spread his wings; but she made a "wait" motion and switched on her boots just long enough to climb to his perch.
Caine slid to one side and held out an arm, and she settled next to him with a weary sigh. He draped one wing around her, and she caught the tip to stroke it briefly before snuggling into his side.
"You can't sleep?" he asked quietly.
Her Majesty sighed. "I'm nervous about tomorrow."
He could understand that. Tomorrow would be her first major step into the world of Entitled - journeying to Gabal, the business world of Queen Seraphi, and officially taking possession of it. And while Caine was certain she would manage magnificently, it was no surprise that she didn't feel certain about it.
"You'll be fine," was all he said. Jupiter snorted, and leaned closer, arms folded loosely across her chest.
He simply sat, and savored it. Others were watching tonight; he could afford to relax a little, to just enjoy the fact that his Queen came to him when she was tired and stressed, that she drew comfort from his presence.
After a while he began to play again, the soft lullaby one of the crèche attendants used to sing late at night, and her breathing slowed and her scent grew less metallic as her stress ebbed. He wound the tune around itself, varying it on each pass, until she was sound asleep with her head in his lap.
Caine let the music die away, and watched the moon track across the sky, content.