"To a balance of power!" Blake raised his glass toward Jenna and the others, then took a healthy gulp.
Jenna raised her glass a sour handbreadth in response, but she drank. "May the best person win."
"That," said Avon, "remains to be seen." He sipped with caution at the celebratory spirit. Vila contented himself with an appreciative swig, and a second, and a third. Gan followed suit.
Cally, who'd sniffed at her glass and set it down untasted, said thoughtfully, "Sinofar was quite correct. I was taught the same, on Auron."
"To settle wars by single combat?" Jenna recalled Sinofar's appearance on Saurian Major: warlike, avenging, and entirely singlehanded.
"To revere deities."
"Nonsense," said Jenna. "She was there. And so was the other one. The old woman. They were real as I am."
"Nevertheless, she was a deity," insisted Cally. "You were both in their presence. I saw them as you did. Did you not feel them both?" She glanced around the assembly in Liberator's common room. Everyone but Vila was staring at her.
"Perhaps Cally is right," said Avon into the silence. "Zen didn't detect any life on that planet. Where did your two judges come from?"
"I'd wondered," Blake admitted. "But it's hardly our problem now, is it?" He took another healthy swallow of the whatever-it-was that Liberator's synthesizers cooked up that humans used as wine.
Jenna gave him a final glare of irritation and drained her glass in one long drink. The concoction was indeed rather tasty, and it was nothing a spaceport bar would stock. And with Liberator's service programming there was an infinite supply. Why waste it on Vila, or Gan — or Blake? Louts. She nudged Cally's arm. "You haven't even tasted your drink. Go ahead."
Cally glanced around again at the half-empty glasses, at Gan pouring refills. She nodded and tasted the wine or whatever-it-was carefully. "I was going to add," she said, "that I was taught to revere such as Sinofar, but I liked Giroc much more." She raised her glass. "Death to my enemies."
The circle of faces around her looked abruptly nonplussed. Avon was the first to raise his glass. Jenna said, "I'll drink to that," and drained her drink again.
All the same, it broke the tone of the gathering. Gan and Blake finished their drinks and drifted off to check on Zen. Avon seemed inclined to remain with Cally — no doubt, Jenna thought wryly, to discuss her enemies. Vila seemed inclined to stay near the pitcher of the wine or brandy or whatever-it-was.
Jenna had no intention of letting him have it all to himself. She poured herself a third glassful and stretched out her legs on the chair Blake had vacated, listening in amusement to Avon's notion of Cally's political theory.
"The Auronar aren't entirely pacifist, then," he said, with the affability of a hunter baiting a trap.
Cally took a mouthful of the wine, blinked, and swallowed. "They are," she said when she was done. "I'm not."
"Is that why you," he paused delicately, "chose to leave?"
"I choose to work with the anti-Federation resistance," said Cally. "My people agreed and supported me."
"Until you failed," he pointed out.
"It is I who failed, not they." Cally drank off half the glass with a gesture Jenna recognized, belatedly, as a copy of her own. "But perhaps we could discuss something else," she added gently.
Avon lifted the pitcher from Vila's elbow and refilled her glass. "By all means." He ignored his own partly-empty drink and, pointedly, Vila's.
Cally sipped again at the wine (or brandy) consideringly. "Do humans really like this?"
"Frequently," Avon assured her, flicking a significant look at Vila.
Vila did not perceive the shade of significance Avon had intended. "S'great," he affirmed, happily. "Makes everything look better." He grinned.
"Except you," said Avon.
"Ah, but I don't have to look at me."
"If only the rest of us were so lucky," said Jenna.
Vila looked hurt. "I think I'll take that as a hint." He got up, not without a wobble, and made his way out, no doubt toward a service bay. He'd claim he was discussing program refinements with Zen, or perhaps the compatibility parameters for human consumption. Vila kept himself useful and busy, by Vila's lights. Now that he was leaving, Jenna felt almost tolerant of his weaknesses.
"You know the Federation from the inside," Cally was saying when Jenna turned her attention back to the conversation. "Perhaps you've never thought how it appears to peoples it does not govern."
"How?" asked Avon. "Enlighten me."
"Quaint," said Cally, "and outmoded. But destructive."
Jenna, remembering her dealings with out-Federation traders, nodded agreement. "Independent planets are amazed at the resources the Federation puts into regulating its people. Sometimes the observers are openly hierarchical and repressive societies themselves. They're still amazed, or say they are." Not all port bar conversation was about gambling or who-needs-a-new-first-mate-and-why. Heated arguments about economic policy were entirely possible. Jenna sat back, savoring the mellow glow of the alcohol and the rare pleasure of lecturing Avon.
"Oh, destructive, repressive... I agree," said Avon lazily. "But it works, in its way."
"At enormous human cost," said Cally. "Blake, all of us here — even you."
"I," said Avon, "defied the system knowingly, attempting to enrich myself at its expense. I'm a criminal, not a reformer." He glanced at Jenna. "As is our gallant pilot."
With his first glassful barely empty, Avon had relaxed rather alarmingly. Jenna smirked at him. "There is sometimes a theoretical distinction between trade, however illicit, and plain theft."
"Why is trade, even 'free trade,' illicit?" asked Cally. "Why is a reformer a criminal by definition?" She emptied her glass and turned a bright, penetrating gaze on Avon. "If I understand Vila's explanation correctly, it was not even real money you were stealing, but artificially-created credit. Why is the only thing that you could find to want imaginary? And, the Federation treated this imaginary thing as if it were real! Perhaps that is self-consistent, but to an outsider, neither side of it makes sense."
"So money is imaginary?"
"Isn't it?" she asked, puzzled.
Jenna guffawed and refilled everyone's glass, enormously entertained. Cally eyed her briefly, then transferred the gaze to Avon, who was leaning back in his seat and apparently pondering his reply. The Auron woman smiled, letting her grimace stretched a little too wide to look quite pleasant on her narrow face, and leaned back into her padded chair.
"An interesting question," said Avon finally, "and not without philosophic value. But it sounds as though you think everyone in the Federation is insane."
Cally said, enunciating slowly, "Aren't they?"
"You have to admit, Avon, that there isn't much evidence to the contrary," said Jenna.
"Well, Blake is hardly a case of raving sanity."
Cally giggled, then. "Nor you. Oh, no, Blake is nearer sane than you are. At least he thought to resist." Yes, Jenna decided, there was a definite hint of fuzziness to her speech.
Not so Avon's. "He lost half his mind for it."
Cally was nearly drawling, slow but deliberate. "The half remaining is still quite determined to overthrow the Federation."
"Is that," inquired Avon, "your criterion for sanity?"
"It doesn't sound too wrong to me," said Jenna. "Free traders have a profit motive, true, but those of us who deal in Federation territories have a good idea what the tariffs and proscriptions mean to the populations. We get scarcity prices on common goods, a lot. It's an easy market for us, but not for the customers. They're insane to put up with it."
"Easy until you get caught."
She glared at him. "I wasn't the only one, was I?"
Avon intoned, "'Tis a gallant thing, to be a pilot queen." He smiled at her. "Isn't it?" It was a moment before Jenna realized he must be, ever so slightly but definitely, drunk. On little more than one glass of not-quite-brandy. Well, it wasn't much wonder. Federation-controlled society discouraged overindulgence even for Alphas, and Avon wasn't the type to flout that particular taboo — unlike Mad Jan Stan, the well-known connoisseur (in some circles) of port bar liquors. Jenna tasted the liquid in her glass again, assessingly. It did have a bit of a kick. Pleasant.
Cally drawled, serenely, "Money and its distribution are only a symptom of the Federation's malaise. Blake wishes to reorient the power structure."
"He wishes... wants to tear it down completely. I suppose you could call that a reorientation." Avon had acquired a pedantic little drawl of his own. Jenna topped up his glass before he could prevent her.
Cally went on, "We won't change anything by sitting at home like nrivas ... like plants."
"It would be safer."
"For me," said Avon, perfectly straightforward for once.
Scratch an egocentric, thought Jenna, and you find an ego.
"But you didn't sit at home. You..." Cally paused, struggling with her deteriorating Standard, "sucked credit."
Jenna felt a whoop of mirth building inside, and quickly said, "Clumsily, too," before it burst out in a loud cackle. Cally, after a moment's all-but-visible thought, joined in with a will.
Faced with the two laughing, hiccupping women, Avon stood, gathering rather more dignity than necessary. "I don't think this conversation is getting anywhere. Perhaps you'd rather continue it without me."
"Nooo," yodeled Cally, in a minor key. Somehow, this did not slow his exit.
"It was just getting interesting," warbled Jenna, and went into another fit of laughter.
Eventually, they quieted. Cally smiled toothfully again and regarded Jenna with puzzled eyes. "What did I say?"
"Never mind. I'll explain later, maybe. But it was perfect, Cally, perfect!"
"He called you a queen. Is that rude?" For the first time, Jenna saw Cally relaxed, her words hesitating a little, daring to question her companions.
"Not usually. Avon can make anything sound unkind. He has a regular talent for it."
Cally nodded with an air of enlightenment that might have been the brandy. As long as she was ready to talk... "Tell me," asked Jenna casually, "how you saw Giroc and Sinofar from the ship."
"The others told you. Zen received transmissions of your contest."
"The others didn't see those women."
"Oh." Cally sat without speaking for a moment. "Yes, I wondered about that. I saw them."
"Yes. He is a good telepathic relay."
"Whose thoughts," said Jenna carefully, "was Zen relaying?"
"Those of the planet's deity, perhaps. I don't know how Zen perceived the message, but what he relayed to me was everything all four of you saw and heard and felt." Cally put down her glass to gesture with both hands, turning them palms-up together. "How else would a goddess send messages but completely?"
"If you knew what we felt..." Jenna backed up. "Did you know what Travis and that mutoid were thinking?"
"Not their thoughts. I didn't like Travis last time I met him so I stopped listening to him. The mutoid didn't feel much at all."
"But you saw their side of things."
"Yes." Cally sat back and said calmly, "I felt you and Blake more clearly, for I know more of you both. Does that affront you?"
The candor was a little frightening. "I'm not sure," she said, wondering how much the drink was affecting them both. Avon had got more than he'd been looking for from Cally, for once, but he hadn't like it. "You didn't know our thoughts, you said. Maybe your goddesses didn't know them either?"
"I can't judge. I would guess not, or those might have come with the transmission as well."
"Good," said Jenna, relieved. "I don't fancy my head being an open book. But— can you still sense what I'm feeling?"
"Only if it's very strong. Such as..." Cally broke off and picked up her glass, running a finger around the rim.
"I was abou' to intrude on a sub'ect you wou' think taboo," she drawled, not looking up.
"I would?" Jenna raised an eyebrow. "Go ahead, shock me." This might be interesting.
"Why?" asked Cally seriously.
"Why not? It seems it's taboo to you to break my taboos. If you say whatever it is, we'll still be even. You've got me curious."
"A species cha'acte'istic for both of us," said Cally with evident difficulty.
"You feel a high level of sexu'l desire, fre'uently. Even now." The words were clear in spite the drawl.
Not terribly surprised, Jenna finished her drink. "Yes. Absolutely. No argument whatever, my friend." She lifted the pitcher. "More?"
"The drink makes you feel more stron'ly."
"Very likely," said Jenna, and poured each of them a final half-glassful to empty the pitcher. "'Increases the desire but takes away the performance.'"
Earth saying about alcohol and sex." She looked at Cally over the glass. "You didn't say if the subject is taboo on Auron."
"Not in the same way."
"Oh? What way, then?"
"It... Not sure I can ex'plain. At some circum'tances, taboo to say it to possible par'ners, but not others."
"Hmm." That hadn't been entirely clear but, "Does that mean you consider me a possible partner, or not?"
Cally met her eyes. "You react most stron'ly to Blake, not to me."
"I suppose I do," said Jenna. "Spending the night up a tree with him wasn't very... Say, you can tell whether he feels any of the same for me."
Cally smiled the wide, thin Auron smile. "Another taboo, to tell you. Nor wou' I di'cuss what we speak of now with Blake."
"Glad to hear it," said Jenna. "I can make my own guess anyway. You know, then, that he isn't the only person I, um, react to."
"Nearly everyone," said Cally, straight faced.
"Humans are a cu'ious species." Cally smiled again, and Jenna wondered again exactly what it meant. "And motivated on occasion by useful in'ibitions."
"Your in'ibitions have been in'ibited by this beve'age." Cally grinned, a bit alarmingly, and drank from her glass.
Jenna laughed. "A little, I concede. But we pirates — oh, yes, Avon doesn't know half of it — have to learn how much recreation we can handle. If I'm ignoring this taboo, it's because I want to."
Another set of inhibitions, that governed fair play in love and war, must have been functioning for Jenna found she had to say, "But you're not used to this stuff, are you? Is it fair of me to ask you to bed right now?"
Cally looked up, still smiling. "Are you asking?"
"Yes." Fair might be fair, but you had to stand your ground.
"I accept," said Cally, "and you need have no qualms." Her voice had shifted tones again.
Jenna looked at her sharply, then grinned back in rightful acknowledgement of the maneuver. "Don't tell me, let me guess," she said. "Alcohol doesn't affect Aurons as much as humans."
"That is correct."
"Why, then? What's your game? It wasn't just a trap for me, surely?"
"It is Auron custom, when one is off world," explained Cally gravely in perfectly clear, neutral-accented Standard, "to follow the customs of one's hosts. It seemed that one was, properly, to become intoxicated by the drink."
"And so you insulted Avon..." Jenna couldn't help laughing again at the memory. "But the rest of us weren't pretending!"
Point and game. Jenna decided she'd better win the war before Cally could win any more battles. "It's customary to act on drunken propositions before the drink wears off," she said, standing. "Unless you've changed you mind?"
"Not today," said Cally, and rose to join her.
* * *