Jupiter woke slowly to silence and low light, and just lay still for a while, appreciating the perfect firmness of the mattress and the coziness of the light blanket, and the warm security of the arm banded around her waist. It wasn't until she pried her eyes open that she realized the blanket was actually a brown-and-amber wing, a spread of feathers draped over her from shoulder to toes.
It made her smile, half in pleasure and half in wonder at how much had happened the day before. Well, it got us here...that's a definite plus.
Jupiter didn't think she'd moved, but a soft "Good afternoon, your Majesty," was murmured against the back of her neck, and her smile widened. How'd he know?
She stroked the wing-edge nearest her face, watching with fascination as the feathers rippled in reaction. "Hey there."
Caine's body was solid behind her, a heat source to be envied; his normal temperature was a few degrees above Jupiter's, and she couldn't help thinking how nice he'd be to have around during a Chicago winter. Part of her wanted to just pull his arm closer and go back to sleep, but she'd woken up too far - and anyway, there were probably a million things she had to do before Kalique arrived.
So Jupiter rolled over slowly, trying not to ruffle the feathers. For an instant she felt - shy, almost; her hair was a mess, and she knew she had morning breath.
But her self-consciousness vanished at the look on Caine's face. It was the same expression as he'd worn the day before, the silent, joyous wonder of a man who has woken to find his impossible dream is true.
Very carefully, as if giving her time to back away, he tilted his head and kissed her. Slow, and sweet, and wonderfully tender, and for a long moment Jupiter couldn't even think, only kiss him back and revel in the fact that Caine was there, at last.
It made her feel - powerful, somehow, and as if all she wanted to do with that power was heap happiness on him until his hands could hold no more.
His fingers were tracing her spine, and Jupiter laid a hand on his chest, but the feel of fabric distracted her a little. Still, it took her a moment to summon the words when Caine was so close, mouth moving from her lips to her cheek as if he wanted to taste her skin all over again. "You're dressed," she managed finally, and felt his smile against her temple.
"I don't need as much sleep," he said, and Jupiter finally connected the dots - he'd gotten up for his clothes and then come back to bed to be with her.
Really should have done this weeks ago, she thought, ignoring the fact that there hadn't been that much privacy, and slid her hand up to rest her thumb in the hollow of his throat. "Did I miss the alarm?"
Caine eased back enough to look at her. "No; it's only been about six hours."
"Mmm." Jupiter stretched her legs out. "I suppose I have to get up and go out there to be royal now."
Caine smiled again. "If your Majesty says so."
That made her snicker, and Jupiter leaned forward to plant a kiss next to her thumb; for some reason that particular spot felt like hers. "You hungry? Scratch that, stupid question." Kiza had been right about Legionnaires.
She moved to sit up, and Caine retracted his wing; the cooler air didn't quite make her shiver. "Sevet will have a meal for you as soon as you're ready," he said easily. "I should report in with Stinger."
Jupiter watched as he rose, his wings - the other had been spread out behind him - folding up neatly along his spine. "Only if you promise me you'll have real food for - what is it, lunch?"
"Yes, your Majesty," he said obediently, still smiling, and she grinned back and stretched all over before sliding off the bed. Caine's shirt really was comfortable; even the sleeves had stayed neatly rolled up, and Jupiter wished she could just steal it.
"Lights?" she said, a bit tentative, and the room got brighter. "Hey, what's the weather like out there?"
Like the sitting room, the bedroom had one wall that was mostly mural, and it too faded to white before showing an image of the city from above - no, a live image, Jupiter realized when she saw vehicles moving. It looked much the same as it had earlier, sunny but chilly, and she decided it had to be mid- or late afternoon by now. Gabal's day was about twenty-eight Earth hours, which meant that Kalique would probably be arriving before dawn, but - I guess when you go from planet to planet day and night are less important. The idea felt weird, but Jupiter gave it a mental shrug; there were other things to worry about.
Something huge and winged flashed past in the image, directly in front of the camera, and Jupiter jumped. "What was that? I thought this place didn't have birds!"
"Back," Caine said crisply, and the picture reversed its flow, though not its speed. He looked sharply at the screen, then shook his head and relaxed. "It's Glasta. He's probably on patrol out there."
"Oh." Jupiter blew out a breath as the image started going forward again. "Well, now I feel stupid."
"Why?" Caine asked, looking genuinely curious, and Jupiter blinked.
...Good question. "Never mind." She waved her hands as if to clear the air. "I'm going to go clean up, and see if I can find some clothes."
Caine nodded and bent to retrieve his heavy boots, sitting on the low lounge to pull them on. Jupiter knew she should get moving, but she couldn't help dawdling a bit, just to watch him.
Once he walked out the door, she knew, things would start, and this little bubble of peace would break. It had to happen, but it still felt a little unnerving.
Caine stood, snugging his control wristband into place, and Jupiter sighed before coming over to put her hands on his shoulders and kiss him. The way he cupped her face, fingers brushing her pulse, nearly had her dragging him back to the bed right then, but she restrained herself. "See you soon."
Caine's smile still held that edge of wonder, and he stepped back as if it were an effort to do so; and then he was gone, striding out at a fast pace. Jupiter sighed again, stripped off his shirt, and went to investigate the bathing room in more depth.
Depth was the word; it had a tub that was more like a pool - almost big enough, Jupiter thought with amusement, to teach Caine to swim in. It was already full, and the water eddied gently, looking very inviting. But she knew if she got in there, she wouldn't want to get out.
Fortunately, there were also two separate showers, one of the waterless type like the ones she'd seen on spaceships, and one that was almost like something from Earth. She chose the latter, which was big enough to share with a couple of friends and resembled an architectural magazine more than a common facility, and Jupiter spent a luxurious time in it, figuring out how to adjust the water and sniffing at the various soaps and shampoos available. At least, that was what she thought they were. Anything's possible, I suppose.
Her stomach was complaining by the time she got out. There were no towels; instead the shower itself dried her off with warm air, and Jupiter immediately started wondering if it was possible to install something like it in the family house in Chicago. Imagine what it'd be like in January…
But with the lack of towels came the lack of anything to wrap around herself. There was nothing resembling any kind of clothing in the bathing room or the main room, and even Caine's shirt - which she'd left on the bed - was gone. Puzzled and a little annoyed, Jupiter managed to pull the sheet from the mattress and turned it into a rather oversized toga before it dawned on her that she could just ask. "Hey. Chamber presence?"
"Send somebody in here with a robe or something? A bathrobe," she added hastily, before she ended up with something formal. "Dressing gown. You know."
"Yes, your Majesty."
Less than two minutes later, which Jupiter spent brushing her hair and putting it in a ponytail, the neutral voice spoke again. "Sa Brem requests entrance, your Majesty."
The name sounded familiar, though Jupiter couldn't put a face to it. "Sure, let them in."
The outer door slid open to reveal someone short and round and feathery - clearly a Splice - who was carrying a pile of soft cloth; Jupiter kind of remembered them from the mob the day before. "Your Majesty," they said in a piping voice. "You requested a robe?"
"Yes, thanks." Jupiter tossed her hairbrush onto the bed and went to take the robe, only to stop short as the Splice held it out and open - obviously waiting for her to drop her sheet and step into it.
No. I don't care what Entitled usually do, I am not getting naked in front of somebody I've just met.
Jupiter reached out and plucked the robe firmly from the Splice's hands. "Thank you," she said, and watched them blink. "I'll meet you outside in a second."
Brem hesitated a moment, then bowed. "Yes, your Majesty."
Jupiter watched them leave, then sighed and stripped off the sheet. I wonder if I can get them to call me something else.
The robe felt like silk several layers deep, and fit perfectly, though it was a shade of green Jupiter had never considered wearing. She managed to get all the fasteners done herself, this time, and stepped out into the sitting room with her chin up, trying to feel in charge of the situation.
This time Absaba was standing on guard, and Sevet was waiting near a table set with food and what Jupiter took to be a place setting. Brem and a half-dozen other people were scattered around the room, and Jupiter recognized a couple of them from the day before.
"Your Majesty," Sevet said, bowing. "Your meal is ready, and your schedule awaits your pleasure."
Jupiter gave the room in general a polite smile and walked over to the table, trying not to feel underdressed. "Thanks." She sat down at the only chair and surveyed the meal, which did smell good. "So what's the schedule look like?"
The food was, again, tasty, though there was a lot more than Jupiter could eat; she suspected it was more to give her a choice than because Seraphi had been a big eater. She kind of wanted to ask Sevet to find a chair and sit down, because it was a little unnerving to have her looming next to the table, but Jupiter had the feeling it would just make the android woman uncomfortable.
"Your main event today is Lady Kalique's arrival," Sevet was saying as Jupiter nibbled on a pastry. "Quarters for her and her court are in readiness, though she may elect to return to her ship to rest; she has done so in the past."
Jupiter nodded, wondering if that was considered rude, or just practical in a society where your family members regularly tried to kill you. "Okay. What t - how long before she gets here?" Because her iPhone probably hadn't synced up with Gabal's local time.
Sevet's polite expression didn't change. "Approximately sixteen hours, your Majesty. She may be late."
"Fashionably, I bet," Jupiter muttered, and took a cautious sip of the liquid steaming gently in a delicate cup. It tasted mostly like strawberries, and she had a sudden, intense desire for coffee.
"Indeed." Sevet's tone offered no opinion. "You will need to dress two hours prior, and Mr. Apini has requested an interview before Lady Kalique touches down, concerning security changes. Aside from that, you have not completed your tour of the Tower." She folded her hands at her waist, and Jupiter bit her tongue on asking why she would need two hours to get ready for a visitor, and took a closer look at her new Head of House.
In her limited experience, androids were really hard to read and moved stiffly to begin with, but there was just something about the set of Sevet's torso that seemed off to Jupiter. "This isn't really your job, is it?"
The android's earpieces spun a little faster. "Technically speaking, my job is whatever you desire, your Majesty."
She sounded like Caine before they got things straightened out, like Kiza on her knees, and Jupiter wanted to hurl the fragile little cup at the wall and tell them all to not be so scared of her, but - Throwing lunch won't help. "But it's not in your job description."
Sevet shook her head slowly. "I am a domestic management model, your Majesty. My programming is flexible but if you wish me to become your secretary I will require new software."
"What, I can just reprogram you?" Jupiter gaped at her, horrified when Sevet nodded. "Oh hell no. Look, I'm going to get a secretary as soon as I can, things have just been pretty busy lately. Just...I don't know, wing it for a bit, okay?"
Sevet's right headpiece popped out a half-inch, then went back in, but she seemed to relax slightly. "As you desire, your Majesty."
"Great." Jupiter stuck a fork into something that looked promisingly savory. "Let's finish the tour as soon as I get dressed, and then go from there."
Much as Jupiter was interested in the vast closet-slash-dressing room she'd seen earlier, she opted for something out of her own luggage for the rest of the tour, in the interests of saving time, and at her direct request Brem produced the clothes that had been put away before her nap. Sevet looked very slightly pained when Jupiter emerged from the bedroom wearing a pair of boot-cut jeans and her Aegis vest, but she didn't say anything, and Jupiter pretended not to notice.
The rest of the tour took two and a half hours; Jupiter timed it. It seemed that most of the Tower was offices related to Seraphi's business - only the top part was living quarters - and Seraphi had had a lot of business. Given how long it took, Jupiter was grateful that the rest of the entourage had stayed behind; apparently they were all on the private side of the staff.
"How much of this is still going?" Jupiter asked at about the ninety-minute mark. Many of the offices had people in them - who all sprang to their feet and bowed when Jupiter, Absaba, and Sevet passed through - but some were dark and empty. "I mean, Seraphi's been - gone - almost a hundred and fifty years, right? Can all of these interests run on their own that long?"
Sevet gave the impression of shrugging without actually doing so. "That is a question for your business managers, your Majesty."
Jupiter had the sudden impression that she was back on Orus. "Right," she sighed, and kept going.
Caine showed up about when Stinger was expecting him - just in time for a meal. The boy had always had an extra sense when it came to food, and since Stinger had already made up to the Tower's provisions officer - his first move at any new billet - there was plenty to share.
"Help yourself," he said around a mouthful, waving Caine to a seat across his desk. "How's her Majesty?"
"Feeling better," Caine said, and though he kept his face straight Stinger could see the contentment behind the professional expression. He reached for a sandwich. "Nice office, Stinger."
Stinger looked around with a smirk. "Yeah, it is, isn't it? The arsenal's impressive. The late Queen took her security seriously." He sobered a bit. "For all the good it did."
He knew Seraphi's death probably wasn't the fault of her guards; given that her murder had gone unsolved, she'd most likely sent them out for some privacy. Though he would love to know how Lord Balem had gotten to her without anyone seeing him, and it wasn't just academic interest.
The Head of Security's office was large, and nicely appointed; it served as a communications hub, with plenty of comms available, and any number of security feeds. Stinger didn't know how long they'd be on Gabal, but while they were he would easily be able to stay on top of things.
He took another look at Caine. "You doing all right?"
The boy ducked his head, but the contentment was still there. "Yeah. I think so."
Stinger nodded back. "Aye, big changes. But I told you she'd make it work. Once that one decides something, the rest of the universe had better get out of the way."
Caine looked as though he wanted to argue the point, but he just took another sandwich instead. Stinger felt for him; Jupiter had turned his life upside down and shaken out the dust, and the lycantant was still struggling to cope, especially after the last day or so. Having your dream come true isn't all meat and malt.
But her Majesty would do right by him, that much was clear as day, and since Caine was as good for her as she was for him, Stinger felt it was really his duty to keep them together where he could.
"I'll be discussing security with her Majesty later," Stinger went on. "Normally I'd put you in for close-guard automatically, but we need to run that saboteur down and you've the best nose for it."
Caine lifted a lip just enough to show his canines, a familiar promise to his quarry, and their eyes met in perfect understanding. "Yes, sir."
Stinger gave him another nod, approving. "Captain Tsing's putting the Neva at your disposal, but I want to send a Stormbreaker with you too."
Caine frowned at that, an unhappy look, but Stinger continued. "Urdur or Soren, your choice, but I want a Skyjacker watching your back." Both of the two had been out with him when Jupiter and Caine had arrived and hadn't been involved in that debacle.
Caine didn't look any happier, but he didn't argue. "Urdur. Her Majesty prefers females for close-guarding if it's not me; Soren can fill in."
"Makes sense given where she's coming from," Stinger agreed. "Urdur won't give you any trouble. They may not have been there for her Majesty's tongue-lashing, but believe you me, all of them heard about it."
Caine grimaced, and Stinger sat forward. "Don't think I didn't see what was going on with them all, but I was hoping they'd get their heads out their backsides." He recognized the small unhappy shrug, the one that said Caine deserved what he got, and he couldn't fault the boy for it - but things were different now, and the sooner they got rank sorted out, the better. "Didn't happen, so I had a little talk with them myself. I can't say Rush loves you any better than he did, but he'll be more polite about it."
Caine's snort was eloquent. Stinger knew that half of Rush's problem wasn't the contempt most of the Skyjackers felt for a Splice who'd lost control, but jealousy of Jupiter's preference for Caine; but he'd keep it under control now, or Stinger would know the reason why.
"When do you want me to go?" Caine asked, flexing his wings a little. "Before or after Lady Kalique arrives?"
"As soon as you're ready," Stinger replied. "The armory's stocked if you want something, and I'll give Urdur their orders and Diomika a ping. She said she'd need about an hour."
Caine nodded. "I need to go over the skimmer again first." He rose. "With your permission, Commander?"
"Go on with you," Stinger said, and Caine gave him another sharp smile and left.
Stinger swallowed a last bite of fruit, and went to call Urdur.
The skimmer was still in the landing bay. Caine didn't call up the lights when he boarded it, letting the emergency guide-lights provide illumination, and closed his eyes to them as well to sift the scents left behind.
The strongest were his own and Jupiter's, and he blessed the quick wits of whoever - probably Stinger - had ordered that the skimmer not be touched until Caine could get back to it. He pushed past them, though, opening his mouth a little to catch the fainter odors on his tongue as well.
As before, he didn't recognize them. Two people, one of them with the muskier undertones of a Splice, though not a cross he was familiar with. Caine had tracked any number of people in his career, sometimes specifically as a kill mission, but each person had a unique scent.
Under those were the slightest hints of others, but they were old enough that he didn't bother with them. The skimmer had probably sat unused for years if not decades; whoever had sabotaged it had to have come in later, since Jupiter hadn't been there to threaten until recently.
The damage had most likely been done right there in the control room, since it involved the software rather than the hardware, but Caine checked the rest of the little ship as well, just to be sure. The lifepod was still sealed, untouched; he tapped the door control for the living quarters and stepped inside.
And stopped, breathing deep, as the scents swept over him. It smelled like them, like her, like sleep and sex and being shown, most emphatically, that he was the one his Queen wanted.
If he could have bottled the air to keep, Caine would have. Instead he forced his senses past that bliss to whatever might be older, and found nothing. Nor was there any real trace in the 'fresher or the tiny space that passed for an engine room.
All right. He returned to the control room and made doubly sure he had the older scents memorized. His reputation for being able to track genes across actual star systems was slightly exaggerated, but even so this was a tougher task; he had no genetic material to start from, just the fading wisps of passage.
But he'd succeeded with less. I will find you, whoever you are.
You tried to hurt my Queen. You will answer to me.
When Caine returned to the Tower to take his leave of her Majesty, he heard laughter coming out of the dressing area of her suite. The door was open partway, and someone was protesting. "Your Majesty - "
"No, no," Jupiter said, still laughing. "It's okay! Really. I'm not mad!"
Leaning in through the door, Caine was bemused to see Jupiter sitting on a high stool in the middle of the room, the blush-pink gown she was wearing mostly hidden in a cascade of her own dark hair. It tumbled from her crown to the floor and far past her feet, making her look small and a little lost, except for the amusement on her face.
"Caine! Check this out. Apparently the magic hair loop is a little on the fritz." She waved at him, and he came in, carefully skirting both the astonishing cloak of hair and the attendants twittering fretfully at its edges. There were three, one feathery Splice and two androids - one male, one female. Caine recognized them all from Stinger's security brief; they were wardrobe and cosmetic servants. "I had no idea those things could do something like this."
Caine considered the cascade. "It looks very dramatic, your Majesty," he said, trying to suppress a smile. "But perhaps a little, ah, restrictive."
Jupiter scrunched up her nose at him, still chuckling. "I've always been more of a Cinderella than a Rapunzel," she said. "But apparently the 'less' setting doesn't work any more. Too old, I guess - it was Seraphi's, after all."
The servants were still fussing - the Splice was ruffled and both androids' headpieces were spinning fast - but clearly none of them knew how to cope with the situation. Caine wanted to roll his eyes, but instead he pulled his combat knife from its sheath on his thigh and held it up. "With your permission?"
"Your Majesty!" the male android blurted in dismay, but Jupiter waved it down with true royal unconcern.
"Please," she said. "Kalique's going to be landing soon and apparently I'm nowhere near done here."
She reached up and started gathering the mass together at the nape of her neck. Caine waited for the ends to drag closer to the stool, then stepped around it to stand behind her. He clamped the knife blade between his teeth and used both hands to help Jupiter twist her hair into a rope as far down as her buttocks.
"About there," she said, leveling one hand at her waist. "I think there's a pair of scissors in my stuff if we can't find anything else, so you don't have to be too precise."
Caine nodded, even though she couldn't see him, and looped the rope in his fist so he could cut it without yanking. His knife was always sharp; he dropped it into his free hand and sliced through the fine strands with one quick movement.
The mass of it fell around his boots, and he let the rope go and sheathed his knife, watching with some fascination as her hair sprang back a little to cover her spine like a cape. Jupiter shook her head, making it ripple back and forth, then grinned at him over her shoulder. "Great, thank you."
He really wanted to bury his face in the stuff, and perhaps it showed a little, because she bit her lip before glancing around at the servants. "Can you guys leave us alone for a bit? Just wait out there, thanks." She pointed at the door, and they all dipped bows and left, though not without a backward glance from the female android.
When the door slid shut behind them Jupiter reached up and back, and Caine bent down into her grasp, rubbing his cheek against the crown of her head and breathing in the warmth of her scent, tinged with ozone from the malfunctioning groomer tool. Jupiter purred, leaning back against him, and for a moment he just held her close.
But they were both on schedules. When he released her, Jupiter spun around on the stool, hooking her fingers into his belt and looking up at him. "Stinger said you were going out to look for whoever sabotaged the ship," she said, smile fading. "You'll be careful, right?"
Caine covered her hands with his, thumbs stroking the soft skin of her wrists to memorize it, and reveled in the caution. "As your Majesty commands."
She raised a brow, half humorous. "Consider it commanded, then. When do you have to leave?"
"Captain Tsing's prepping the Neva right now. Within the hour."
Jupiter nodded. "I wish you didn't have to go," she said quietly. "I know that's not what I should say, but it's true."
It was astonishing, how easily she could rob him of words. Hearing her say she would miss him was like a prize given all unexpected, for something he didn't even know he'd done, and Caine held onto it to remember later. Then he bent, combining obeisance and desire in one movement as she rose to meet him.
"I'll come back as soon as I can," he mumbled eventually against her mouth, and felt Jupiter's smile tremble.
"You better," she said sternly. "Soren snores."
He choked on a laugh, and Jupiter pushed back, mouth still curved. "Go on. I have to get ready for the fashion-off with Kalique."
Caine nodded, then took her hand and bent again to press his lips to her fingers. "Your Majesty," he said, and strode out. He still had to collect his gear before reporting to the Neva.
Captain Tsing was waiting when he boarded the cruiser, hands folded behind her back. She, like the rest of the crew, was wearing civilian clothes, since Jupiter hadn't had time to choose a livery for them, but she still managed to make the soft shirt look like a uniform. Caine dipped his head a fraction; he liked Tsing. "Captain."
She gave him a nod back, calm approval. "Mr. Wise. Where are we headed?"
"One of Queen Seraphi's storage and repair stations over in the Local Arm." Caine held up the data wafer he'd put the location on, and when Lieutenant Chatterjee extended a hand he spun it through the air to her. "The skimmer and the mistico were brought over by transport tug when Gabal's people started hoping her Majesty might visit."
Tsing nodded; she knew as well as he did that tugs could move small fleets without having to power up a single ship. "So the sabotage happened at the station."
Caine tilted his head a fraction. "There's a small chance that the tug was intercepted along the way, but whoever did that would have to fix its logs. Easier to do it on-site." The data regarding the ships was open-access; tracking it had taken him mere seconds. He hoped that the station's records would be equally transparent.
"Very good. We'll be departing in about ten minutes. Mr. Wise, as you know, there's not a lot of space on board so I'm afraid you'll be sharing a cabin with Sa Urdur." Her smile was small. "You'll have to take turns stretching your wings."
Caine gave her a Legionnaire's shrug, the gesture that said such things were beneath a soldier's notice; she nodded back, and he went to put away his gear. Guess now I find out if Stinger's right.
The felid Splice was in the cabin when Caine opened the hatch, just coming out of the tiny 'fresher unit. They nodded warily at Caine, one ear flicking a little, but they smelled more uneasy than hostile, which was heartening. Caine raised his brows. "Which bunk do you want?"
Urdur blinked large eyes, then relaxed a bit, wings rising just slightly behind their back and then dropping out of sight. "Top's fine."
Caine tossed his bag onto the bottom bunk. Urdur blinked again. "How soon before we portal?"
"The Captain said ten."
"Thanks." The Splice slipped out the door. Caine wondered briefly if they were one of the kind of people who enjoyed watching portals, or if they just had a last message to send before leaving, but either way the interaction had gone better than he'd expected.
He'd just finished putting his gear away in one of the two small clothespresses when someone knocked on the hatch. "Delivery!"
When Caine opened it, whoever had knocked was gone, but a small package sat on the deck just outside. It smelled faintly of her Majesty, as if she'd handled it recently.
Caine sat on his bunk to open the box, finding a velvety sheet of Entitled stationary bearing Jupiter's somewhat hasty writing.
Caine - in Earth's past ladies would give their knights a token to wear when the knights went off to battle. You don't have to wear this but I thought you might like it. - Jupiter
Next to her name she'd drawn a tiny shape he didn't recognize, two symmetrical curves. Beneath the note was a dark circle of braided hair, glossy and smooth, and Caine ran a reverent finger over it before scooping it out and lifting it to his nose. Her scent lingered in the coil, a perfume all her own, and he closed his eyes for a long moment to savor it.
The circlet fit perfectly around his bicep. Caine flexed his arm against its soft grip and shook his head in wonder, then smiled at the memory of what he'd left behind when he'd picked up his gear.
The Neva hummed as the portal generator cycled up, and Caine braced himself for the transition.
And made a mental note to look up the definition of knight.
"How do I look? I'm serious this time." Jupiter twitched the skirt of the gown the wardrobe android - Norwen Cal - had chosen for her, and raised her brows at Stinger.
"Entitled," he assured her, and fingered his collar. It was the first time she'd seen him in the Skyjacker dress uniform, which included the sleeveless vest that Caine favored; it suited Stinger just as much, and Jupiter could see her sigil in Stinger's own tattoo as well.
Soren and a very stiff Rush were similarly garbed and standing behind her in proper guard position as the transport carrying them arced away from the Tower. The big landing pad on the edge of the city, much larger than the one the skimmer had come to, would accommodate both Kalique's shuttle and the guards needed to honor her, Jupiter had been told.
She touched an uneasy hand to the elaborate construction of her lengthened hair; it wasn't as ridiculous as the things Titus' servants had done to her head, but she hadn't had time to get used to it. The gown was less revealing than the one Kalique had given her when they first met, but it was similar enough that Norwen assured her it would be a "delicate compliment" - his words - to Jupiter's guest. Jupiter was willing to roll with that for the moment.
She let her hand drop a little to her own collar, slipping a finger under it and smiling to herself. The lingering tender spot from Caine's bite wasn't really visible on her skin, which was probably a good thing given how many people were dressing her and making her up these days, but she didn't even have to touch it to remember the look in his eyes when she'd offered him her throat. Or the soft sound he'd made when his teeth had closed so carefully -
Stop that. Jupiter dropped her hand and forced her mind back to business. Now is not the time.
But she really wished they'd had a little more time before he'd had to leave.
Jupiter stepped up to the window to look out as the landing pad came into view. It was already populated with the near-ubiquitous gun-bots and the rest of the Skyjackers, much as the underground bay had been when she arrived; there was also a small wedge of various servitors that Sevet had arranged to be at Kalique's disposal, though she would also have a host of her own with her. And I thought I couldn't pack light.
She bit her lip. It was easy to look on Kalique's Entitled habits as baffling or even silly, but it was also a buffer against Jupiter's increasing nervousness. Kalique seemed friendly, and as far as Jupiter knew the woman hadn't done anything to harm her, but she was also fourteen thousand years old and saw her own mother every time she looked at Jupiter, and Jupiter just didn't know how to cope with all of it.
I don't even know if I can trust her. But there was only one way to find out.
The transport settled into place, and Stinger touched his comm implant and glanced over at her. "The shuttle's about to hit atmosphere, Majesty."
Jupiter nodded and took a deep breath. "Let's go."
The transport's back end opened, extending a ramp, and Jupiter just managed to not look back and make sure Soren and Rush were following. Stinger walked ahead of her, the shotgun-like weapon he preferred carried at a parade angle, and Jupiter could feel the gazes of the waiting people fastening on her.
There was a small shelter set up at the edge of the landing pad; Jupiter thought it looked like a cross between a large gazebo and an old-fashioned lawn swing, though it was half-smothered in gauzy fabrics and the couch within was doing the floaty thing. She followed Stinger to it and settled gingerly on the couch as Rush and Soren took up positions next to either end, and watched as the transport folded up its ramp and lifted silently away.
She wished Sevet had come along; the android had arranged the whole setup, apparently knowing exactly what protocol to use, but it seemed that protocol didn't include the Head of House joining in the parade.
At least the weather's nice. Gabal's sun didn't seem to have quite the intensity of Earth's, because at home on Earth a day so clear would have had Jupiter squinting, but she didn't feel cold even in the gown and the breeze that fluttered the shelter's draperies was just refreshing instead of chilling. Jupiter could just see a glimpse of the ocean surrounding the island past various distant buildings, and wondered abruptly if anyone went sailing on it.
Stinger nodded in response to something only he could hear, and looked up and out of the shelter. A dark dot appeared in the sky almost directly overhead; as Jupiter watched, it grew larger, and a low throbbing hum began to vibrate the air.
For an instant, it felt like any alien invasion movie Jupiter had ever seen - the impossibly huge craft swelling as it descended, locking attention, carrying something powerful and potentially terrible on board - and she suddenly felt alone, so very far from home and surrounded by people she didn't know or understand. The weight of their expectations, especially Kalique's, threatened to squash her as flat as she would be if that ship landed on her.
She took a long breath, fighting panic. Crap, how do I do this? She thinks I'm her mother, for pity's sake -
- And that made her think of Aleksa, who would no doubt have something deeply sarcastic to say about the whole situation, and just like that her anxiety collapsed. Jupiter swallowed a slightly hysterical giggle, wishing that Aleksa could have come along somehow, and tried to relax.
The shuttle slowed to a stop about two stories above the landing pad, and after a moment a space opened in its underside and a transport beam appeared. It was wider than all the others Jupiter had seen so far, and as she watched people began descending in it in pairs - first in dark and relatively simple outfits similar to the Skyjackers', and then in the much more elaborate getups that Jupiter had seen on Kalique's people on Cerise. Duh, she probably has her own honor guard from the Legion.
Both sets arranged themselves in a semi-circular pattern around the beam's end-point, and then there was a brief pause before a single figure appeared in the beam. Jupiter had to give Kalique points for perfect timing - and for somehow managing to keep a skirt that long under control when she was floating down through the air.
"That's your cue, your Majesty," Stinger murmured, and Jupiter stood to walk to the front of the shelter. Her people had better timing than Titus's; they snapped to attention the instant Kalique's feet touched the ground, not two seconds before, and Jupiter could see her smiling.
Of course she's smiling.
Then it was time to pace forward and greet her visitor. Kalique reached out to touch Jupiter's hand in the same gesture they'd exchanged the first time, and Jupiter found herself smiling back without effort. It was genuinely good to see someone she already knew, even if the acquaintance was slight. "Thank you for coming."
Kalique was gorgeous in a gown the color of Gabal's huge ocean, with a sparkling pattern laid over it; her hair was dressed high, and she was wearing as much jewelry as she had been the first time Jupiter had seen her. "My dear, of course! You look so well - Entitlement suits you."
Jupiter wasn't at all sure about that, but she let it pass. "So do you," she replied honestly. "Come on in out of the breeze."
She led Kalique - and the two servitors and three guards who followed - back to the gazebo, which had quietly manifested a second couch while Jupiter's back was turned. Kalique settled comfortably on one while her people disposed themselves behind her, and Jupiter took the other one. "Did you have a good trip?"
It seemed like a stupid question when traveling meant walking onto a ship, waiting half an hour, and getting off again, but Jupiter had to start somewhere.
"Oh yes, quite nice," Kalique said. "This voyage is the maiden run for my new clipper - you'll have to come try its paces with me."
"Sounds like fun," Jupiter said, wondering if Kalique's ship had enormous statues too. One of her people, a pure human whose name she couldn't quite remember, paced forward holding a small tray with glasses and a two small platefuls of confectionary. He extended it first to Jupiter, who took a glass, and then to Kalique; it seemed rude to Jupiter, but Sevet had explained that it was a courtesy ritual to demonstrate that the host was not afraid to eat from the same plate offered to a guest - a ceremonial guarantee against poisoning.
That made little sense to her, since it would be easy to poison one set of anything ahead of time if you knew you were going to pick first, but she knew better than to argue. Kalique herself accepted both a glass and one of the dainties, and the man took himself over to the side of the gazebo to wait.
As he did so, the whole contraption rose smoothly about five feet off the ground and began gliding away from the pad and towards the broad street leading to the Tower. Stinger had warned her this would happen, so Jupiter didn't jump; Kalique didn't even seem to notice - or more likely, expected it.
"I have no end of plans for you," Kalique said, sipping delicately as the gazebo swung onto the street and the guards surrounded it; it wasn't going fast enough for them to break out of a walk. "Fortunately the season is just beginning, and we can plan your debut without haste."
"Season?" Jupiter asked, half her attention taken up by the people lining the streets to watch the procession pass. When did this turn into the Thanksgiving parade?
"Yes, it lasts about three years," Kalique said. "It's the best opportunity for mingling, for introducing you to the First Estate. No end of parties, gatherings, and the like." She gestured with her glass, beaming. "Don't worry, my dear, you'll take them all by storm."
Jupiter didn't think that was a pun on her guards. "I like parties," she said cautiously. As much as the next girl, she supposed, but she didn't think Entitled gatherings featured beer, loud music, and gossiping friends. Or maybe they do, what the hell do I know?
Kalique nodded. "You'll be expected to host eventually, of course, as the House of Abrasax's First Primary, but of course everyone will understand that you'll need time to work up to it. Allowances are made for new Recurrences, particularly those from tertiary worlds."
"Good to know." Jupiter tried to imagine putting on a party for Entitled, then decided that some things were just outside the scope of her imagination.
Kalique held out her glass, and the servant stepped forward to refill it. Jupiter looked out at the people they were passing, and spotted a little girl in the crowd, standing close to her parent. The kid was, Jupiter realized, the first child she'd seen outside of Earth, and on impulse she wiggled her fingers in a wave, smiling.
The kid's eyes widened, and after a second she waved back shyly, before being eclipsed by the edge of the gazebo.
Jupiter turned back to Kalique. "I'd really like to know more about Seraphi's business interests," she said, taking a swallow of her own drink, which was more of that strawberry stuff. "Since I'm here, and all."
Kalique made a moue. "At our level, business and pleasure are often the same thing," she said. "I wasn't current on most of Mother's projects, but I may be able to give you some pointers. How is Malidictes' choice working out for you, by the way?"
"Virtu? She's great." Jupiter twitched her skirt over her ankle. "She's very good at explaining things." And had gravely referred to her Majesty as a very quick study, which had made Jupiter feel a little less overwhelmed by all the data coming her way.
"Malidictes has a gift for choosing personnel." Kalique looked pleased. "If you need any assistance, please feel free to make use of him. He knows all the best splicing facilities."
Jupiter went cold. There is no fucking way I'm going to go buy people. For anything.
But she couldn't say that to Kalique, at least not yet, so she tightened her jaw and tried to keep her expression neutral. "I'm still trying to figure out who I've got already. But thank you."
If Kalique noticed Jupiter's shift in mood, she gave no sign of it. "Your formal entree into society will take planning, as I said, but I'll host a few casual gatherings first, so you can get a feel for things. There's so many people to introduce you to, you know."
She was still smiling, slightly flushed, and something clicked in Jupiter's head. She's excited about all this. She really is.
...I must be the most interesting thing to happen in the last thousand years.
The concept was too bizarre even to laugh at, which was just as well. Jupiter listened as Kalique went on about couture and etiquette and power brokering, trying to take it all in, but on one level she was wondering how much of Kalique's enthusiasm was for her mother's memory, and how much was delight over a new toy.
Well, this toy has a mind of her own. She thought of Earth, so fragile and bright, and as before seemed to see behind it the ghosts of the other planets she owned. And beyond them, yet more worlds, equally vulnerable. And I don't intend to play by the rules.
But first she had to know what the rules were. So Jupiter listened, and memorized, and wished she could take notes.
Like, note: hire secretary to take notes for me.
And, as she finished her strawberry drink, she thought of one more.
Send someone back to Earth. For coffee .