Stunned, Jupiter gaped at them for exactly one second. Then strong arms grabbed her up, pulling her backward and off her feet and away. Someone moved to fill the space she'd vacated, but she could still see a glimpse of Caine slowly raising his hands, sinking down one knee at a time -
"Hey!" Jupiter kicked out, trying to get loose, but the arms didn't relax.
"It's all right, your Majesty, you're safe, we've got you," Rush's voice said in her ear, and he swung her around so he was between her and the Skyjackers and set her on her feet. "Everything's under control."
People were hurrying up to her. "Get her out of here," Rush snapped, and someone took her arm, trying to hustle her away. There was a babble of frightened voices, and Jupiter twisted around, trying to look back. What the hell is going on -
She couldn't see, there were too many people in the way. She tried to yank her arm free, but the person holding it - someone with a lot of quills instead of hair - had too good a grip. They were forcing her further and further away from him, what was going on, Caine -
Something in her broke loose, something strong and frightening. Jupiter planted her feet, took a deep breath, and used it.
The word cut through the noise like a bell. The babble fell silent, and the yank on her arm ceased. She glared at the quilly person, who immediately snatched their hand away and bowed.
Jupiter spun on her heel and strode back towards the tense knot of Skyjackers. The crowd melted out of her way. Rush tried to step in her path, his angel's face grim, but she met his eyes and didn't bother to slow down.
He fell back as if she were three times her size.
The closer she got, the angrier Jupiter felt. Between the tall bodies she could see Caine kneeling, his head shoved all the way to the ground and his hands bound behind him in some kind of handcuff-plate.
She stepped up behind Laur and Honch, put one hand on each massive bicep, and pushed. Somewhat to her surprise, they gave way.
Forthwith had her boot planted between Caine's shoulderblades, toe pressing into one wing and the other caught under her heel. He was unprotesting, face flushed and teeth showing but not fighting the restraints, and Jupiter's stomach twisted as his eyes met hers, because there was no appeal in them.
She hadn't thought it possible to get more angry, but that sight did it. "Let him go."
Forthwith jumped and stepped back; the others shifted uncomfortably. Rush stepped into her view. "Your Majesty, it's not safe. He diverted you to - "
Jupiter raised her gaze to his, and he faltered. The fury was an icy tide inside her, so different from her usual quick hot rage.
"Let...him...go," she repeated, not raising her voice.
Rush closed his eyes, then gestured. Forthwith sprang forward to undo the cuff-plate.
Caine pushed slowly to his feet. He was disheveled and still flushed, but as far as Jupiter could tell, unharmed. He fixed his gaze on the distance, raised his chin, and settled into the parade rest she'd seen whenever he thought he'd done something wrong.
She wanted to grab him and make sure he really was okay, but now was clearly not the time. Instead she turned to Rush, and kept her tone very, very cool. "Mr. Orig. Who ordered this?"
Rush swallowed, then went into the same parade rest. "I did, your Majesty."
Jupiter frowned. "Where is Mr. Apini?"
"Out looking for you, your Majesty. He took the rest of the squadron, and Captain Tsing has her crew. We didn't know where - "
Jupiter raised a hand, and he fell silent. "We'll discuss this elsewhere," she said tightly; the crowd was still there, watching breathlessly, and she absolutely did not want to have this out in public.
She did want to scream at them all that they were wrong and make them fucking apologize to Caine, but the cool whisper at the back of her brain told her it would be a bad idea just at the moment. Instead she took another breath and turned to face the crowd.
"I'm sorry our meeting was interrupted," she said, pitching her voice to carry, and they shifted and sighed, many bowing. "Please...go back to whatever you were doing. I'll try to see you all later."
This was not the speech they were expecting, judging from the blinks and murmurs, but no one argued.
Nor did they move. Crap. I guess I have to go first.
"Mr. Orig, find me someplace where we can continue our discussion. Mr. Wise..." Jupiter extended one hand, palm down. After the slightest hesitation, he paced forward and held out his arm, perfectly correct, for her to rest her hand upon. Rush, face impassive, stepped in front; the rest of the Skyjackers followed unbidden.
Rush led them past the skimmer to the back of the bay, and into a corridor that looked more like a hall in an expensive hotel than anything else - plushly carpeted and containing the occasional small table with something decorative on top. Doors lined it at intervals; Rush stopped at one, and it slid open to reveal a perfectly ordinary conference room, with a long table and a few chairs all floating on the blue hoverbeams.
Jupiter went immediately to the head of the table and seated herself in the chair there, sitting straight and curling her hands over the armrests. Caine took up his parade rest on the side of the room, close to her but not hovering. The Skyjackers clumped at the other end of the room, leaving their leader in front.
Rush - dithered, Jupiter noted, though only for a second or two before assuming the same stance and the same thousand-yard stare as Caine. Jupiter thought briefly about ordering them all to sit down, and then discarded it. The walk had given her a little time to think, but she was still furious.
"Explain, Mr. Orig," she said coldly.
He flinched, and she heard his wings rustle though they didn't extend. His gaze flicked to Caine, and away. "Your Majesty, are you sure you want him here for this?"
Jupiter looked over at Caine. "Do you want to leave, Mr. Wise?"
He wouldn't meet her eyes, but he licked his lips, then shook his head. His expression was still wooden, without hope or expectation, and it almost scared her.
"I think he has the right to face his accuser," Jupiter said, turning back to Rush, who looked as if he were going to be ill. "Go on."
Rush hesitated, then widened his stance and took a deep breath. "You are aware of Mr. Wise's history, your Majesty." At her nod, he continued. "From our point of view, your ship suddenly went off course and then portaled away. The only conclusion we could draw was that Mr. Wise had - had..."
"Snapped?" Jupiter suggested dryly.
Rush gulped. "Or betrayed you. Taken you hostage for purposes of his own."
A low rumbling sound reached her ears; Caine was growling.
Rush didn't stop; his words tumbled out faster. "Stinger said it couldn't be true, but we couldn't find you. They've been out searching ever since, but portals are almost impossible to trace, and then you cameback, and - "
"And if you'd thought it through, Mr. Orig, wouldn't you have realized that if Mr. Wise had betrayed me, there would be no point in bringing me back unharmed?" She couldn't believe how stupid this was.
Rush closed his eyes. "We didn't know - you're so, um, fond of him, he might have - "
Oh, so now I'm the besotted female too dumb to see Caine's the bad guy. "I think you'd better stop there, Mr. Orig."
Rush snapped his mouth shut; his face was almost green. Caine's growl faded. The rest of the Skyjackers were all looking at the floor.
"As it happened, the ship was sabotaged," Jupiter said. "Without Mr. Wise's expertise, I'd still be stuck out there, or worse." Rush blinked.
She leaned forward and fixed Rush with the hardest glare she owned. "I trust Mr. Wise," she said, wishing she could growl. "He's saved my life a dozen times. I don't know what bug you've got up your butt about him, but you had better straighten out your attitude before I get really pissed off."
"Your Majesty," Rush muttered, almost inaudible.
"That goes for the rest of you too," Jupiter added, switching her glare to the Skyjackers lurking at the back of the room.
She wanted to punish them, make them see how they were wrong, but Jupiter didn't have the least idea how.
So take Stinger's advice.
She sat back. "Now. Has anyone called up Commander Apini or Captain Tsing and let them know I'm safe?"
She half-expected the answer to be no, but Rush nodded. Jupiter exhaled. "Then tell Mr. Apini I want to see him as soon as he gets back." She pushed to her feet. "Mr. Wise?"
He didn't hesitate this time, but she knew the moment he stepped up beside her that he was still locked down tight. She put her hand on his arm again and strode out the door.
Behind her, Rush said something in a low voice, and Honch and Laur followed them out, the latter hastening ahead and bowing a little to show her which way to go. I guess I'm supposed to have the escort. She wanted to send them all away, but as they left the building and stepped outside into a damp wind, Jupiter could see people on the sidewalks and vehicles on the street. It was a very weird feeling to know that she might not be safe without the soldiers behind her.
The tall tower that dominated the city was their destination, according to the briefing Stinger had given her the day before, but while she could see it looming overhead, Jupiter couldn't tell how far away it was. But a large vehicle, looking like nothing so much as a black jellybean with a windshield, was parked at the curb, hovering a foot or so above the pavement. It didn't have a door as such - just an opening, and Laur hurried forward to look inside, then nodded back at her. "It's safe, your Majesty."
Caine handed her into the vehicle and stepped in as soon as she was seated in the single seat facing forward; the front panel in the compartment was translucent, and Jupiter could see Laur sliding in next to the driver and Honch next to Laur. Caine sat opposite her, and the opening shrank and disappeared. Then the front panel went opaque as well, though there was a window on the side furthest from the door-spot.
The vehicle lifted smoothly into the air. Jupiter immediately leaned forward to touch Caine's knee. "Are you okay?"
He didn't physically flinch, but she could sense his withdrawal all the same. "I'm not hurt, your Majesty."
Jupiter bit her lip; the roil of anger, frustration, and worry in her belly was making it hard to stay calm. "I don't know what their problem is, but I will make fucking sure that - "
"Your Majesty." Caine was looking past her again. "It doesn't matter."
Her jaw dropped. "What? Of course it matters!"
He shook his head, and she wanted to grab him and make him meet her eyes. But the vehicle was changing course, and she glanced out the window to see them banking towards the huge tower. Crap. No time.
And then straightened. Waitaminute, who's running this circus anyway?
Leaning forward, she knocked on the panel behind Caine's head. He started, then hastily tapped a control on his armrest; the panel went transparent again.
Laur turned in his seat. "Your Majesty?"
"Stop this thing," Jupiter said crisply. "Right now."
The driver, who was thin and had black-and-yellow stripes in their hair, glanced back, and the vehicle came to a halt, hovering in mid-air.
"Do you want to descend, Majesty?" Laur asked uncertainly. "We're already overdue at the Tower."
"Yeah, they can wait." It was rude, Jupiter knew, but Caine was more important. "Can you just hold here?"
Laur exchanged a glance with the driver. "It's not advisable, your Majesty," the Skyjacker said carefully. "A stationary vehicle is an easy target."
Part of her wondered again just how much danger they were in, on what should be her own planet, but she saved the question for later. "Then take us on a tour. City, ocean, I don't care. Keep moving until I tell you otherwise."
"Yes, your Majesty," the driver said in a thin, reedy voice, and they began to move again, arcing out around the Tower and over the city below. Jupiter sat back.
"Can you - " She pointed, and Caine made the panel go opaque once more. "Thanks. Can they hear us?"
He shook his head again. She blew out a breath. "Okay then. Now what the hell do you mean by it doesn't matter?"
Caine's hands closed slowly into fists where they rested on his thighs. "Your Majesty, I...I...you don't know yet. You haven't seen what it's like, the difference between Entitled and Splices."
"And I already told you, I don't fucking care." The anger that was rising inside her was her usual hot Bolotnikov temper, and that was reassuring, because the cold fury of before was not anything she ever wanted to feel about Caine.
He still wasn't looking at her. "But it will matter. And I'm not just a Splice, I'm defective. Dangerous. They - " He jerked his head at the panel, but Jupiter knew he was talking about more than the Skyjackers. " - will always distrust me because of it."
"That's their loss." Jupiter leaned forward again to slide her palms beneath his tight-clenched hands. His jaw flexed, but he didn't pull away, and she wrapped her fingers as far around his fists as they could reach. "Now tell me what's really going on with you."
He was silent a long moment, and Jupiter didn't push. Finally Caine closed his eyes.
"What happened on your Earth...I've never felt like that before," he said, so softly that she almost couldn't hear him. "Never had anything like that...like you. Never thought it was possible."
Jupiter set her teeth against a threatening sting of tears. This is about him, she reminded herself grimly. Don't distract him.
"I couldn't...you kissed me and I couldn't help it, couldn't stop it any more." His eyes opened, wide and pleading. "You wanted me, you wanted me, and you kept me with you and...and made a place for me. I never had a place before, not really. Not - not with someone."
Want.It's want.Jupiter held the words back, because she knew he wasn't done, but her grip tightened and she could feel his hands trembling, just the slightest bit.
"I let myself forget. I thought maybe it would be possible, that things could be different, Stinger said…" He swallowed. "But they're not, and I see now what will happen."
She didn't let go, couldn't let go. "Caine. Do you really think I would stop - " Loving you almost tumbled out of her mouth, and she snatched it back, because it was too much for right now, and where the hell had it come from anyway - "stop caring about you because some tight-assed snobs didn't like it?"
He stared at her helplessly. "I...I...don't know."
A knot of pain pulsed under her breastbone. Quit it, she told it silently. What kind of faith has he got to go on, anyway? He just told you he's had nothing his whole life.
His hands were shaking harder. "What do you think will happen?" she asked gently.
He closed his eyes again. "They will scorn you. Mock you. Treat you as less." It was just a hoarse whisper. "Jupiter, I know what you and Doctor Thompson intend to do. And it will be a thousand times harder if you have me by your side."
Clearly she and Aggie hadn't gotten far enough away from Caine's ears, but it didn't matter now. Jupiter had to swallow hard herself, and force her next words out past her tightening throat, because nowhere in there had he mentioned what they would do to him. "Do you want to leave me?"
"No." His fingers uncurled at last, turning to grasp hers tightly, as if she were about to be pulled away. "But I could guard you, nothing more, just that and - "
"No." The same word; the same denial. "Caine, no. Listen to me." She squeezed his hands until he opened his eyes. "You are the best part of this whole insane thing - hell, you're the best thing that's happened to me, ever. I am not giving you up, I don't care how hard it gets or what people say - "
His breathing was rough, the faintest high-pitched sound coming out of his throat, and she kept going, unable to stop. "As long as you're with me I can do this. Fuck 'em all if they don't like it - as long as you want to stay - "
The sound sharpened, and Caine abruptly slid to his knees in front of her, bending his head and lifting their joined hands so he could press his face against them. His lips moved against her skin, and she knew somehow what he was saying.
The tears returned, burning hot, and she bent her head over his, burying her face in the soft furry hair that smelled so good. His shoulders were quivering, wings trembling against his back, and Jupiter realized with another jolt of pain that his stuttering whine was - was crying, that her hands were dry because he couldn't weep like a human.
The small cruelty was too much. She pressed her lips to his temple, his ear, the brand on his neck. "Believe me," she ordered, speaking the words into the roughened skin as if they could take away all the pain of it. "I will not let you go."
His fingers tightened, and he nodded, beard tickling her skin. Jupiter tugged one hand free, but only so she could wrap her arm around his shoulders and just hold on, hold on.
Jupiter's hand was moving slowly through Caine's hair, a soothing stroke, and he didn't want to move his head from where it rested on her knees. He was drained, as after a difficult test or one of Stinger's life-or-death practices, but at the same time there was a lightness in the middle of his chest, a new sensation that he finally recognized as the absence of pain. The ache he'd carried all his life was gone.
I am not alone.
The last few months had been like a dream, one that had broken the second they'd stepped off the skimmer's ramp, but instead of waking to desolation he'd been - defended. Trusted.
On the surface it made no sense; he was the protector, by breeding, training, and choice. But deeper, it was perfection - it was Jupiter. It was her nature, as much as guarding her was his.
Her Majesty had chosen him, over and over again. Kiza had been wrong.
His Queen would not betray him.
It was a new strength within him. Caine had already laid his heart at her feet; now he knew that she had accepted it. And with that knowledge he felt as though he could take on the universe, if doing so would keep her safe. It wouldn't matter, what others thought of him, he'd learned long ago not to care; what mattered was what she thought.
Her other hand was still wrapped around his, thumb rubbing gently over the back of his hand. Caine watched the movement, wondering a little at the strength in Jupiter's grip...in her spirit.
He'd been defended before, accepted before; Stinger had taken him in, as much as he could, and saved Caine's life with his own sacrifice.
But liking and obligation and even honor didn't blaze as bright as Jupiter's unhesitating fearlessness, her utter confidence in him.
I will follow her anywhere.
Her Majesty sighed, sounding reluctant. "I guess we'd better get this show back on the road."
He didn't want to move either, but Caine nodded once, drawing in a long breath before straightening slowly. Jupiter's gaze searched his face, a little anxious, but whatever she saw seemed to reassure her, and she bent forward.
Caine reached up to touch her chin with his free hand, a silent request to still her so he could sip the last of her tears from her skin. So strange, and so sweet beneath the salt; evidence of her caring. It was a taste he wanted to remember forever.
And it was his privilege to finish at her lips with a proper kiss.
She pulled away reluctantly, sitting back as Caine returned to his seat, and poked gingerly at her armrest until she brought up the intercom control. "All right," she said to the air. "Take us to the tower."
A snappy "Yes, your Majesty," came back, and the transport banked. Jupiter stabbed the button again, mouth twisting wryly. "Why the hell don't these things have bench seats?"
That startled Caine into a laugh. "If your Majesty will permit?" he asked, and at her nod leaned forward to call up the proper controls on her armrest.
She squeaked as her seat expanded, the armrests drawing apart, and he turned another laugh into a cough, though her mock-glare told him she'd noticed. "Okay, space tech is weird," she said, and patted the new space. "Get over here, Wise."
He obeyed his Queen at once, and spent the rest of the flight with Jupiter leaning against him and his arms around her waist, tasting her scent as her stress ebbed and she relaxed.
When the vehicle settled onto a small landing pad near the top of the tower, there was another host of people waiting, though smaller than the crowd outside the skimmer. Jupiter stood and smoothed her gown and hair, biting her lip nervously; Caine took his proper spot by the exit. "You'll be fine, your Majesty," he repeated.
She shot him a tense smile, and then the vehicle irised open.
Caine helped her out, making a quick scan of the assembly, but he couldn't detect any danger. A tall android woman, her artificial skin done in a pattern of painted roses, stepped forward. "Your Majesty, welcome. I am Sevet, your Head of House here on Gabal. We are most pleased to welcome you back to your Tower."
"Yeah, about that." Jupiter held up a finger. "I am not Seraphi."
Androids didn't blink, but Sevet's head rocked back a fraction. "...Yes, your Majesty."
"Good. Nice to meet you." Jupiter gave her a smile, and Sevet seemed to recover her aplomb. She started to introduce the various people waiting, and Caine took stock as each one came forward, ignoring the occasional uncertain or apprehensive glance. Laur and Honch were not far behind him, and he knew he could depend on their skills as well, but he was leaving nothing to chance.
Jupiter smiled, repeating names and nodding as her new entourage bowed, one at a time. Caine knew she was tired, but she would have to meet these people eventually, and better sooner than later.
When Sevet ran out of people, she folded her hands at her waist. "We are all at your disposal, your Majesty."
"Great. You can - "
"Your Majesty!" Stinger pushed through the crowd, his face lit, and a wave of relief rushed through Caine at the sight of him. "You're all right!"
Jupiter returned his hug fervently. "Thanks to Caine, I am, but - "
"I heard," Stinger said, smile vanishing. "Majesty, I need to take Mr. Wise's report."
"Yes, of course." She glanced back and up at Caine, brow creasing in concern.
He dipped his head in acknowledgment and moved past her to Stinger, and Honch and Laur moved up to take Caine's place behind Jupiter as smoothly as if they'd done it a hundred times. Caine didn't like leaving her, particularly in this new place, but he didn't doubt the Skyjackers' loyalty to her, and logic pointed out that he himself couldn't guard her constantly.
Jupiter laid a hand on Stinger's arm. "None of it was Caine's fault," she said quietly, and Caine had to swallow hard at her words.
Stinger nodded. "I understand, your Majesty," he said, and gave her his own short bow before striding away.
Caine fell in to follow, and wished protocol let him look back.
Jupiter watched Caine and Stinger disappear into the building, Caine's shoulders stiff and his wings furled tightly, and had to wrench her attention back to the group surrounding her.
"Which would you like to see first, your Majesty, your personal quarters or the offices?" Sevet asked.
Jupiter squared her shoulders. "Let's start with the personal quarters." That can't take too long, can it?
Unfortunately, it could. Three floors of the tower's upper spire were given over to Seraphi's private rooms. Most of the mob peeled off early on, but there were still five or six people following along as Sevet led her through suite after suite of bedrooms, lounges, bathing rooms, dining areas, and places that had no obvious function to Jupiter's eyes. One area with about the square footage of the Bolotnikov house was clothing storage; after one boggled glance Jupiter declined the opportunity to go through it. Part of her yearned to explore, but - I'm too tired and too wired. Clothes can wait.
Most of the spaces were large but uncluttered, open and airy; the colors were mainly dark and almost masculine, quite a contrast to the overdone spaces on Cerise and Titus' clipper. Everything was exquisitely clean; but then, Jupiter thought, they'd had time to freshen the place up.
The tour wound up at the largest suite, which took up all of the third floor. It boasted an outer ring of force-shielded balconies, a bathing room twice the size of the others Jupiter had seen so far, another tub room with the same sort of equipment used when Kalique had had her Regenex treatment, and a number of sitting rooms, dressing rooms, and closets.
It also had a bedroom with an actual bed instead of one of those unnerving beam setups. The bed was as wide as a luxury car and had draperies to match its covers, and Jupiter immediately wanted to crawl into it and pull the sheets over her head.
"This was the one Seraphi used, right?" she asked Sevet when they had returned to the central sitting room.
"It was, your Majesty." Sevet had about half the emotional expression of Lieutenant Chatterjee, and the rose-patterns made her face harder to read, but she still managed to exude hopefulness.
Jupiter thought about moving to a different suite just on principle, but all the others used the hoverbeams for beds and she just wasn't into that right now. "Okay. It looks good."
Almost before the words were out of her mouth people were bringing in her luggage and starting to unpack it. "Let's leave the rest of the tour for later. I need to, um, freshen up."
"What else do you require, your Majesty? We are here to serve," Sevet said, looking pleased.
Jupiter opened her mouth to say "nothing", and then changed her mind. "I'd like a meal - something that can sit, sandwiches or something. Make that three - I'm sure Mr. Apini will be by soon and Mr. Wise hasn't had lunch either." No wonder I feel so funky. Aside from the snack on board the skimmer, she hadn't eaten since breakfast, and she wasn't even sure how long ago that had been.
"At once, your Majesty." Sevet bowed, her headpieces spinning and sparkling.
"In the meantime...I'll be in there." Jupiter pointed to the bedroom. "Let me know when Mr. Apini or Mr. Wise shows up."
Fortunately, Sevet took the hint and didn't follow her. Jupiter glanced back as she entered the bedroom, and saw Laur and Honch taking up guard position along the wall. She paused to catch their eyes. "You can sit if you want to."
Laur blinked, and Honch kept their usual impassive expression. Jupiter didn't wait to see if either chose to sit; after a moment of fumbling, she managed to get the door to slide shut, and the relief was so great she almost sat down on the carpet right there.
She felt like she had whiplash.
What the hell was all that?
The fury that had seized her had seemed to loose some other personality, someone who knew how to be in charge, and it was enough to make her shiver.
"You're not Seraphi," Jupiter muttered. It had always been a creepy little notion in the back of her brain - what if she really was a reincarnation? Not just DNA, but soul?
Well, if I am, clearly I should be pissed at myself for forgetting. That was absurd enough to make her snort, and Jupiter sighed and went to collapse onto one of the suite's couches. It looked sort of like the armless things Kalique favored, with one end curved up for sitting against, and it was quite comfortable even if it was floating in midair.
Jupiter closed her eyes and tried to relax. The anger was only the half of it; the other was Caine's instant assumption that everything they had together - including the hours on the skimmer - should be discarded because of this society's bigotry.
Jupiter pressed the heels of her hands into her eyes and tried to consider it dispassionately. He's got a point. I don't know what it will be like.
But she couldn't imagine discarding him, not for any reason - any more than she could imagine denying her own Russian heritage, or thinking that harvesting people for Regenex was a great idea. Some things just aren't right. No matter what anyone says.
I suppose I could do this without him. If I had to.
Jupiter dropped her hands and stared at the ceiling, feeling the same strength welling up that had got her through her first actions as Earth's Queen. But I'm not going to. And if anyone argues, I'll find an oubliette just to stuff 'em in.
That made her snicker, and she heaved a breath and turned her head to survey the room. It was quite big enough, larger than the entire Bolotnikov basement, but it was done in dark materials that made it look like an apartment out of one of those architectural magazines - clean and almost empty, but expensive. The oddest thing was the lack of windows; the suite lay in the heart of the tower, protected and shielded.
Just what do I need to be shielded from? The thought didn't make her feel any safer.
Sighing, Jupiter laid her head back on the lounge and tried to remember the keywords Sevet had listed. "Screen?" she said tentatively.
The wall across from her, which seemed to be some kind of abstract mural, abruptly went blank and lit up with a cool white glow. Jupiter thought for a moment. "Um, exterior view."
Without fuss, the screen produced an image of the city-island, spread out as from a height. Beyond it was the dark blue ocean, looking very cold and not terribly soothing. Jupiter could just see flecks of white appearing and disappearing on its surface. "Huh. I wonder what happens when there's a storm?"
"Gabal is not known for high-intensity storms, your Majesty." The bodiless voice made Jupiter jump. "But the city is equipped with a force dome for emergencies, and there are safe-vaults in the bedrock."
It was entirely gender-neutral, and unlike the chamber presence at Kalique's place it didn't give a name. "Would your Majesty like to examine the plans?"
"No, thanks," Jupiter said, then paused. Are you supposed to thank one of these things? I have noooo idea. "Um, how much attention are you paying?"
"This facility does not record without specific instruction," the voice replied. "Lifesign and safety monitoring overrides require alpha-level release codes. All else is available upon request."
"Okay, good. That sounds good," Jupiter said, trying not to babble out of the sheer weirdness of it all. "You just...keep doing what you're doing."
"Yes, your Majesty," the voice said.
"Oh, and if I want a question answered I'll ask for it. I am way too tired to try to break any habits right now." Talking to herself being at the top of the list at the moment - well, the voice or whatever it was would just have to deal.
"Yes, your Majesty." It was exactly the same intonation. Jupiter made a face, and watched the water for a minute, comparing it to the view from the Sears Tower back home. There were similarities, but Gabal's view was definitely more forbidding. And anyway this tower looks more like the Space Needle. At least in shape; it was much taller, and solid.
"Screen off," she said at last, and the wall went back to being a mural, a somewhat claustrophobic transition. Jupiter thought about getting up and looking around some more, but she just couldn't find the energy...
She was almost asleep when the genderless voice spoke. "Your Majesty, Commander Apini requests entrance."
Jupiter sat up fast enough to make her head swim thickly. "Come in?" she said uncertainly.
The door slid aside to reveal Stinger, and bless him, he was holding a large tray of food. "Your Majesty," he said with a tired grin.
"Oh, I'm glad to see you," Jupiter said fervently. "Pull up a chair. Or something."
Stinger obeyed, setting the tray down in the air next to her; it promptly generated its own blue hoverbeam and stayed there. Stinger towed over a legless chair done in something leather-like and sat in it, and Jupiter managed to move the tray in between them. "You didn't have lunch either, did you?"
Stinger shook his head, and didn't hesitate when she pointed, picking up something that looked mostly like a wrap and sitting back with a grunt. Jupiter helped herself to a flatter sandwich and took a huge bite, too hungry to be wary; fortunately, the filling tasted a lot like chopped ham, and she felt better almost immediately.
They ate in silence for a bit. Stinger made a decent inroad on his side, but there was a lot of it; Jupiter noted that Sevet seemed to understand combat-Splice appetites. Stinger really did look tired, and Jupiter thought guiltily that the last day or so had to have been pretty rough on him. But honestly, I don't know what else we could have done.
After his third sandwich Stinger sighed and slumped a little in the chair. "Before I report, your Majesty, can you tell me what happened, from your point of view?"
Hah. I bet Caine was being terse. "I'm not sure what happened, exactly. But the ship went off course all of a sudden, and then did the, the portal thing. Caine was trying to stop it but - " Jupiter shrugged.
Stinger nodded, clearly aligning accounts in his head. "What happened then?"
Um. Jupiter bit the inside of her cheek against the sudden rise of her pulse. "Caine said it was sabotaged, and that we could call for help, but it would be dangerous because we didn't know who'd find us first," she said, which was what happened.
Stinger nodded again, and she went on. "He ran a, what did he call it, a system cleanse on the computer, which took forever, and then we came here."
She could see Stinger's shoulders relax. "Good. Good lad, he called it right. There's plenty of scavengers out there would be happy to take advantage of a lost ship, and not all of them are low-end scum, either."
"That's pretty much what he said." Jupiter picked up a piece of fruit, something spherical and light blue; she had no idea what it was, but it smelled good.
"Aye. Well, to say watching you disappear upset us would be understating the case." Stinger's mouth twisted wryly. "Captain Tsing and I both tried to follow, but it's almost impossible to trace a portal unless you're scanning it when it happens, and we didn't have time."
He shifted uncomfortably, and Jupiter finally placed his expression as guilt. "Of course not," she said, a little surprised. "Whoever sabotaged the skimmer didn't want us followed."
...Then what did they want?
Before she could pursue the thought Stinger went on. "Yes, well. The Neva and my ship both started looking in whatever likely places we could think of for you - we didn't know what shape you might be in."
"Makes sense," Jupiter agreed. The fruit tasted something like a grape, though the texture was more pearlike; weird, but good. "I don't think Caine knew where we ended up either."
"Uncharted." Stinger shrugged. "Between systems. There's a hell of a lot of void out there."
"Where did you look?" Jupiter asked, curious, and he grimaced.
"Cerise, for one, and some of Lady Kalique's other holdings." He was looking guilty again. "She took you once, and..."
Jupiter snorted. "That'd be the first place I looked too," she pointed out.
He nodded, conceding. "I know Diomika also went to Lord Titus' primary world - just because he's in custody doesn't mean he's cut off from his people." He picked up a long slice of something that looked like a perfectly ordinary carrot. "And she checked Orus too, said she knew somebody in Arrivals who could tell her if a skimmer had come in."
He sighed, and snapped the vegetable in two. "The real question, your Majesty, is who sabotaged you."
"Yeah." Jupiter snagged a napkin from the tray; her grape-pear was juicy. "Are there space-CSIs?" At Stinger's squint she waved the fruit. "People who investigate crimes based on evidence."
"The Aegis," Stinger said, a little doubtfully. "But I'd prefer to handle it in-house, your Majesty. Caine can track whoever was last in the skimmer."
Oh. "Well, sure, if you think that's better," Jupiter said. "You're the expert." She hesitated. "You'll send someone with him, won't you?"
Stinger smiled, dryly fierce. "The Neva crew's already volunteered. I might send another Stormbreaker along, though, just for backup."
"Yeah, that's another thing." Jupiter sat straighter, incensed all over again. "Stinger, what the hell was that when we got here?I mean, I knew the squad didn't like Caine, but - "
Stinger winced. "My apologies, your Majesty. Believe me, Mr. Oreg and I are going to have a long talk about that." He rubbed his chin. "I'm not saying his suspicions weren't valid at first, but when you turned up safe he should have known better."
"Valid?" Jupiter glared at him. "How could they be valid, you know Caine better than I do!"
Stinger frowned. "Yes, and we both know he's - not capable of that. But Rush doesn't know him that well, and as senior on the ground he had to take the possibility into account. I don't like that, but it's true."
Jupiter could see that, which just made her feel sulky. "He still needs his attitude adjusted."
Stinger chuckled, startling her. "Majesty, I think you've already done that. If he slinks any lower he'll be on all fours."
That made a smirk tug at her lips, but it also brought a faint chill at the memory of wielding that...power. It was one thing to know that people would obey you because of your genes, crazy as that was; it was another to suddenly have so much force at your fingertips.
Yeah. I definitely need them all to keep me on track.
"However, I'll see to it personally that he doesn't repeat the error," Stinger added, expression going grim. "The situation's a bit complicated, but - "
The neutral voice interrupted him. "Your Majesty, Mr. Wise is at the door."
"Come in," Jupiter called, and Stinger frowned.
"The chamber presence can handle it, Majesty."
"Yeah, but that takes too long." Jupiter sat up a little as Caine came in; he had a duffel-type bag slung over one shoulder, riding outward so as not to foul his wing, and he promptly dumped it in the nearest corner, giving his commander a slightly defiant look.
"You're learning," Stinger said cheerfully.
Jupiter grinned at Caine. "Are you hungry? 'Cause there's lots left."
"I ate, your Majesty," he said, but she shoved the tray in his direction, which moved it about an inch.
"Let me guess. Three of those gross powerbars in two minutes, right?" Jupiter's private theory about why Legionnaires were so obsessed with food was because standard-issue rations took bland to a whole new level - and the pocketable nutrition bars they all carried around were worse. "At least have some dessert."
Caine's lips twitched, but he acceded, choosing a bite-sized pastry from the tray. Stinger stood, turning to Jupiter. "Well, your Majesty, if you don't need anything more just now I'll go see about that last little matter. We'll be keeping a closer watch while you're here, with a double guard besides your usual escort." He jerked a thumb in Caine's direction.
"Okay, but why?" Jupiter frowned. "If this was Seraphi's planet, what's so dangerous about it?"
Stinger blinked. "Nobody told you? Gabal is where Seraphi was murdered."
Startled, Jupiter stared at him. Stinger cocked his head. "They found her body at the base of the Tower - she'd been, ah, beaten and strangled before she was thrown off. They never found out who killed her."
"Balem," Jupiter heard herself say. "It was Balem. He...told me." The thought was distant, somehow, maybe because the memory still made her feel strange. Her side twinged, even though the bruises were long gone.
Stinger went very still, and Jupiter heard Caine's wings ruffle. "Oh," Stinger said at last. "Well. I'll...revisit that protocol, your Majesty, though maybe we'd best discuss it tomorrow."
Jupiter nodded, muffling a sudden yawn.
Stinger smiled dryly. "Get some rest. Lady Kalique will be here in twenty hours, and you'll need all your wits." He took one last sandwich, beating Caine's reach for it, and went out chuckling. Caine lifted a lip at Stinger's departing back and took a cluster of berries instead.
Their settled shorthand of a tease was so comfortable. "You have no idea how glad I am that you guys are here," Jupiter said, stretching.
Caine shot her a slightly disbelieving look around his mouthful, but she could see the tips of his ears reddening.
She yawned, and made herself get up before she fell asleep where she sat. "I need to go find my toothbrush. Hey, chamber presence?"
"Your Majesty?" the flat voice said.
"Can you set me an alarm for eight hours from now?"
"Yes, your Majesty," it replied. "What is your preference in waking sounds?"
Jupiter blinked. "Um, beeping, I guess." Note to self: review alarm sound files.
Her toiletries were spread out across an acre of counter in the enormous bathing room where someone had unpacked them, looking very lost. There had been something more space-y aboard the Neva back when she'd first ridden in it, like a cross between a toothbrush and a sonic screwdriver, but she'd barely figured out how to use it, and if this bathroom had something high-tech for the same purpose it wasn't immediately apparent. Just as well. I'm too tired right now, I'd probably end up with it stuck up my nose or something.
When she came back out Caine was handing the tray to someone at the door. Jupiter sighed as it slid shut. "Do you think anybody out there remembers where they put my clothes?"
"Of course," Caine said, raising a brow. "But your Majesty really should get some sleep first."
Jupiter snorted at him. "Duh. I just want my sleep shirt, that's all, but I'm kind of afraid it's vanished into that black hole Seraphi called a closet."
"Oh." He hesitated, then cleared his throat. "I, ah, can offer your Majesty a substitute. If she likes."
His ears were red again, Jupiter noticed, and that combined with the extra formality was just adorable. "Sure, okay."
Caine crouched to open his duffel, pulling out something long and black and shaking it out before handing it to Jupiter. She held it up; it was thin and almost silk-like in texture, a long-sleeved shirt with those mysterious invisible fasteners that so much galactic clothing used.
"It's worn under armor," Caine explained. "It's designed to be comfortable."
"I'll bet." Jupiter resisted the urge to rub it against her cheek. "It's perfect, Caine, thank you."
His smile was equal parts pride and shyness. Jupiter went up on her tiptoes to plant a kiss on his cheek. "I'm going to change."
He nodded, and cleared his throat again. "I need to speak to Laur. I'll be right back."
Jupiter watched him go, then changed into the long shirt, though she couldn't get all the fasteners to work. It felt amazing against her skin and fell nearly to her knees, and she sat down on the edge of the bed to roll up the sleeves so they didn't dangle past her fingertips.
Caine came back in just as she got the second one to stay. His smile returned, small and sweet, and he came over to fasten the shirt properly, hands gentle as he pulled the edges together.
Jupiter smothered another yawn. "Thanks."
He nodded. "There's no guard antechamber here. Do you want me in here, or out in the next room?"
That baffled her, and Jupiter tilted her head back to frown up at him. "You need to sleep too, you know."
Caine nodded patiently. "I can take the couch, it's big enough."
Exasperated, Jupiter squeezed her eyes shut for a moment. "I thought we had this discussion. What's wrong with the bed?"
Caine cocked his head. "It's your bed," he said, sounding a little surprised. "It's not for me to decide."
"The hell it's not." Jupiter reached up, and he surprised her by dropping to one knee to put their eyes on a level. She put one hand on his shoulder and cupped his cheek with the other, looking into calm eyes that still didn't see what she was saying.
So use his language.
She leaned forward to kiss him briefly, then pulled back just enough to speak. "Listen to me, Mr. Wise. This is as royal a decree as I'm going to get with you."
He licked his lips. "Your Majesty?"
Jupiter smiled. "I want you here. Not outside, not on a couch, not on the damned floor. I want you in the bed, with me. On one condition."
His brows went up inquiringly, and she held his gaze. "And that's, as long as you want to be there."
His lips moved in a silent oh.
"Our time in the skimmer...that wasn't a one-off, Caine. I meant what I said about a relationship. If you want to be with me, then I want you there all the way." She swallowed. "If you think that's too much, or you don't want to, that's okay too - "
He shook his head, exhaling on a long note, then touched her cheek as lightly as if it were still bruised from Balem's blow. "Your Majesty," he said again, this time hardly more than a whisper.
And then he rose again, reaching past her to pull back the covers on the bed. Jupiter found herself lifted smoothly and settled on the sheet, pillows at her back, and Caine drew the covers up to her waist. "Lights on dim," he ordered, and the light level dropped obediently.
She watched dreamily as he moved quietly around the room, stripping down to his underwear without the least trace of self-consciousness and then vanishing into the bathing room. She was barely aware when he returned, but the shift of the bed when he joined her woke her a little.
"'M always falling asleep on you," Jupiter mumbled, trying to open her eyes.
Caine laughed softly and gathered her close. "Yes," he said, and the word was full of satisfaction.
His chest was warm and firm against her cheek, and Jupiter managed to put one arm over his waist, fingers burrowing beneath his wing.
Her last awareness was his hand settling on her hip and the contented sigh that ruffled her hair.