"Miranda the Pirate Queen" by heartbeast
Andy was ever so pleased with how barmensis nobu was coming along. Her petals were brilliant, lustrous, and evenly shaped; her leaves a full, flourishing, healthy green. She'd come a long way from being the skinny, scraggly little thing she'd been when Andy had acquired her.
Should Andy put her away? No. No, she'd leave her on the table. Doctor Phylyxas was bound to see her when he came in to inspect her collection, and while she might just be a simple little plant, Andy was proud of her. Dr. Phylyxas's book had said that oftentimes the simplest victories were the most rewarding, at least on an everyday basis. Sure, it was immensely satisfying to keep up an enormous garden, discover new plant species, all that, but what did you wind up seeing the most, day in and day out? The flower on your kitchen table. So you might as well do a good job tending to it. She hoped Dr. Phylyxas would notice barmensis, and would realize she'd taken his lessons to heart. It was more nerve-wracking than she'd ever thought it would be, coming face-to-face with her idol.
It really was very kind of him to come--a Senior Royal Botanist like him. Andy's dad might be the most important official in this sector, but Andy was sure Dr. Phylyxas had many urgent demands on his time. They were opening a whole new wing of the Imperial Arboretum on the homeworld in less than a month. It was to be the most impressive wing yet. Andy thought it might be nice to see it someday. Not, she had to admit dolefully, that this seemed likely in the immediate future, with all the pirates marauding about. She'd been very relieved indeed to learn that Dr. Phylyxas's ship had landed safely in the hangar bay a few minutes ago.
Andy hurried out of her kitchen back into her living room, brushing aside various leaves and branches as she went. She reached her shelves and peered at her dozens of specimen jars. Yes, Cranli might do. The praying mantis waved his front legs as she took down the jar, no doubt eager to get back to his favorite plant. Well, he and mustopher illis would have to endure their separation for a few hours longer. "I'm just going to show you to a very important gentleman," Andy said soothingly to him. "You're such a pretty little guy. And you do such incredible work in the garden." Cranli did not look appeased. Then again, Andy supposed it was hard to tell with a praying mantis.
Maybe she should take a few deep breaths. It was obvious that her nerves were making her go even weirder than usual.
Just then she heard the door to her suite slide open. Andy gasped and almost fumbled the jar. He was here already? That was fast. Then she heard the voice of a sentry saying--jeeringly!-- "All right, you. In you go. Enjoy yourself."
Andy's jaw dropped. Was that any way to talk to the Senior Royal Botanist?! Gripping her jar, she hurried back through the trees, vowing to have a very stern word with the sentry. But then the door hissed shut, and Andy realized she was too late. She winced and emerged past the last tall bush that separated her from her kitchen and living area.
Then she blinked in surprise. Apparently someone had…misinformed her about Dr. Phylyxas.
For one thing, he was a she. For another, she looked nothing like Andy had always imagined a Senior Royal Botanist would look. Not that she'd ever really thought about it. If she had, she guessed she would have imagined a portly, balding man with holo-spectacles, wearing tweedy robes.
But apparently Dr. Phylyxas was a tall, regal-looking female with short silver hair. She was looking around Andy's quarters with an expression on her face that was two parts wary and one part disgusted. She was no doubt horrified by the sentry's behavior in welcoming her.
"Oh, gosh," Andy said, and Dr. Phylyxas nearly jumped as she turned to regard Andy with wide eyes. "I am so sorry," Andy added, clutching Cranli's jar to her chest. The woman looked at it briefly before her gaze flickered back to Andy's face. Her own sharp-featured face was closed, cold, reserved. The look in her eyes kind of made Andy quake in her shoes.
"I--I'll speak to that sentry," Andy added. "I can't believe he was so rude to you."
Now Dr. Phylyxas looked surprised. "You can't?" she said.
Andy blinked at her. Had their outpost gotten a bad reputation for hospitality somewhere? She hoped not. It would be dreadful if Dr. Phylyxas had come here actually expecting to be treated that way. "Um," she said hesitantly, "w-won't you sit down?" She gestured towards the kitchen table. The sight of barmensis nobu quickly revived her, and she beamed at Dr. Phylyxas. "I hope you'll like it." She pointed at the plant. "It took me a long time to perk him up, but I've been working hard at it."
Dr. Phylyxas looked at her, and then at the plant, with an utterly blank expression on her face.
Andy gulped, and then gasped. Bad hospitality, indeed. "Oh, gosh," she said. "I'm so sorry. I--do you want something to drink? I've got coffee. And tea."
"I--" Dr. Phylyxas shook her head quickly. It really was an elegant head. She was, in fact, an exceedingly elegant woman, even though she was dressed a little…simply…for a royal official, in a plain white dress that looked remarkably like what servants and slaves wore. Then again, it wasn't at all practical for a botanist to wear fine clothing--you spent so much time mucking around in the dirt and getting scratched by branches and thorns. Maybe Dr. Phylyxas had come to Andy's quarters in readiness to do actual work. The thought made Andy's breath catch in anticipation.
"Coffee," Dr. Phylyxas said, seating herself at Andy's kitchen table and giving Andy another, even warier look.
Well, that was sort of weird. "I…I grow and roast them myself," Andy offered. "The coffee beans. And the tea." She smiled again. "It's much better than what you'd get in the mess hall. I mean, if I do say so myself."
"Oh," Dr. Phylyxas said, looking back and forth between Andy and barmensis as if she had no idea where she was. "Well. That's…" Then she looked Andy up and down, taking in Andy's dress which, Andy was only now realizing, was covered in dirt.
She felt her face turning its most brilliant red, and gave a feeble laugh as she brushed down her skirt with one hand. "I…I guess I don't look very formal right now," she said. "I mean…not that I ever do, really…"
"I'm getting that impression," Dr. Phylyxas said.
"Well," Andy said helplessly, "I was just--I've been awfully excited about your visit, so I've been working all morning, trying to get everything--"
"My visit?" Dr. Phylyxas looked astonished. Andy stared at her. Then Dr. Phylyxas added, "I think that you've mistaken me for somebody else."
"Huh? You--" Andy blinked. "You're not Dr. Phylyxas?"
"I'm afraid not," not-Dr.-Phylyxas said, resting her elbows on the table and crossing her ankles, looking almost amused.
"Oh, golly," Andy gasped, knowing that she was even redder now. "I'm so--you must have thought…um, I'll go get your coffee." Face burning, she plunged back into her garden, cutting branches from coffea arabica with a trembling hand. Then, when she had the green beans in her hand, something occurred to her.
She poked her head back into the kitchen, where not-Dr.-Phylyxas was still sitting at the table, ankles still crossed, but looking positively boggled now.
"Excuse me," Andy said hesitantly, "but who are you, then?"
The woman opened her mouth to say something, but just then the door to Andy's quarters opened again.
This time, a portly, well-dressed man entered, followed by a sentry. Andy half-hysterically hoped it wasn't the rude sentry. The portly man looked exactly as Andy had expected him to look, right down to the holo-spectacles. He blinked at the sight of Andy standing in the middle of her kitchen with a coffee branch in her hand, and then looked down at the woman seated at the table.
"My goodness, Your Ladyship," he said to the woman at the table. "It's a pleasure to meet you. Ah, please don't get up."
"All right," the woman said, and indeed made no move to do so.
"Um," Andy said.
"I have to admit, I thought you were younger," Dr. Phylyxas added.
"My God," the woman said. "It's like watching a farce."
"I beg your pardon?" Dr. Phylyxas said.
"Excuse me," Andy blurted, "but I'm Lady Andren. Not her."
"I should say not," snapped the sentry, and both Andy and Dr. Phylyxas jumped as they turned to look at him. He was scowling at the woman at the table. "Get on your feet in front of your mistress. Or we'll whip your back to ribbons, and happy to do it."
"I wondered when we'd get to that," the woman said, and rose gracefully to her feet.
"I don't--" Andy looked back and forth between all of them. What had happened to the quiet, scholarly morning she'd hoped for? "I'm sorry, but what--who's--"
The sentry gestured in disgust at the woman. "She's Your Ladyship's new slave," he said.
Andy stared at him. "My…my what?"
"Captured off a pirate rig this morning," the sentry said. "Tiny little scouter. All killed but her--their serving-woman. And now she's your serving-woman, courtesy of your father." He glared at the woman. "Too stupid to know she's a lot better off now, if you ask me."
"I--I don't want a slave!" Andy said, horrified. "I mean--I don't need--"
"Well, they can come in handy," Dr. Phylyxas said. Andy turned to look at him in astonishment. He nodded towards the silver-haired woman. "Fetching and carrying and whatnot. I have four to help me maintain my personal garden alone. You'll be amazed how much easier everything is."
Andy looked helplessly at the woman. "Um," she said, "I'm sorry--but who--I mean, which pirates…?"
"Had the sign of the lily on the side of the scouter," the sentry said, sounding downright gleeful. "Mír's own private fleet."
Andy gasped and almost dropped the coffee plant and the cricket jar. "Mír?" she said.
"Yes, Your Ladyship. Only a scouter, mind you. But every little bit helps, doesn't it?" He glared at the woman. "Bet your old mistress won't be happy about this, will she?"
"I should say not," the woman said.
"Oh, my goodness," Andy said weakly. The idea made her shudder, that a ship, even a tiny scouting vessel, from Mír's fleet had come that close to their station. Everyone knew the queen of all the pirates had no mercy and no shame.
"It's all right, Your Ladyship," Dr. Phylyxas said, and laid a comforting hand on her shoulder. "I'm sure you have nothing to worry about. This place seems quite well-fortified."
"Nobody's getting in here, Your Ladyship," the sentry added, and glared at the woman. "As your former masters discovered."
"To their cost," the woman said, her voice mild, but with something much harder to decipher in her eyes.
"Well," Andy said, laughing awkwardly. "Let's not…I mean…"
"Indeed, indeed," Dr. Phylyxas said heartily, his hand still on Andy's shoulder, which struck her as very odd. "Let's not trouble our heads about all that now. I've come here to see your garden."
"Oh!" Andy had nearly forgotten in all the excitement. "Yes, of course! Thanks," she added to the sentry. "That'll be all. Oh, wait." She frowned at him. "Were you the one who showed her in here?" She tilted her head towards the woman.
"Yes, Your Ladyship," the sentry said.
"Then I think you ought to apologize," Andy said sternly. All three of them stared at her. "Well, if you rescued her from a pirate ship, then she's obviously had a very hard time of it. There was no need for you to be so rude." She raised her hand to wag her finger for emphasis, and realized she was still holding a coffee branch with it.
Both the sentry and the woman looked at Andy as if she'd grown another head, but the sentry turned to the woman anyway. "I'm so very sorry," he said, dragging out each syllable for the maximum possible sarcasm. "Ma'am."
A smile played around the woman's lips. "Apology accepted," she said sweetly. The sentry scowled at her, and left.
Dr. Phylyxas finally took his hand off Andy's shoulder, clapped them, and rubbed them together. "Well!" he said. "An interesting start to our visit, wasn't it?"
"Yeah," Andy said, smiling weakly. "T-talk about strange."
She looked hesitantly at the woman, who raised her eyebrows. "Indeed," she said. "I've never been through quite so many cases of mistaken identity in a single day."
"My lady," Dr. Phylyaxas said to Andy, "I am most anxious to begin our tour."
"Oh, of course!" Andy said. She looked down at her coffee branch, and then at the woman. "Oh, gosh. I'm sorry. Would you, um, mind waiting for your coffee?"
The woman opened her mouth, closed it, and then spread her hands in a gesture that said, 'why not?'
"Great," Andy said, relieved. "Of course, help yourself to anything you can find. The bathroom's over there." She pointed to the bathroom. Then she beamed up at Dr. Phylyxas, vowing not to let anything else ruin her morning. "Shall we begin? Oh!" She held up Cranli's jar as she led the way back into her garden. "I thought you might be interested in this…"
Four hours later, Dr. Phylyxas had concluded his inspection of Andy's garden. He'd apparently enjoyed himself, and had many nice things to say about Andy's work, plus several suggestions that Andy vowed fervently she would take to heart. He also seemed to enjoy patting Andy on the shoulder a great deal, or putting his hand on her back. Well, maybe that was how they did things on the homeworld--people must be a great deal more urbane and sophisticated there. Andy certainly wouldn't know.
When he left, Andy offered him the plant on the kitchen table. The woman wasn't sitting there anymore, and Andy wondered where she'd gone. Maybe she was in the bathroom. Or had gone to stretch her legs.
Dr. Phylyxas took barmensis nobu with a polite smile, and told Andy to look him up if she ever made it to the homeworld. "Always a pleasure," he proclaimed, "to meet a fellow enthusiast." Andy glowed.
Her glow lasted for about ten minutes after he'd left, when her door hissed open again, and the silver-haired woman stumbled inside, shoved by the sentry. "Get in there, you ungrateful bitch," he said, and then winced when he saw Andy. "Begging Your Ladyship's pardon for my language."
Andy stared in horror at the woman, who had a livid bruise forming on her cheek. "What happened?"
"Trying to run, wasn't she?" the sentry said, glaring at the woman. "Without so much as a by-your-leave. We all thought you'd sent her on an errand until we saw her heading for the hangar bay."
"Why did you hit her?" Andy demanded. "I'm sure she didn't mean any harm. Did you?" she appealed to the woman.
"Oh, no," the woman said, giving Andy another one of those inscrutable looks. "Perish the thought."
"There," Andy said to the sentry, "you see? You can go now."
The door shut behind the indignant-looking sentry, who no doubt wondered why Andy didn't share his barbarous outlook on life. Andy looked at the woman with concern. "You sit down," she said, and nodded at the kitchen table. "Gosh, that looks bad. Hold on, I've got some salve. I make it myself!" she added over her shoulder as she headed back into the garden.
She re-emerged a few minutes later holding a tiny pot. She unscrewed the lid, and dipped her fingers into the salve, reaching out to the woman's face. The woman looked back at her with such a stony expression that Andy gulped and offered her the pot. "Uh, m-maybe you'd rather do it yourself," she said.
"Thank you," the woman said neutrally, and took the pot, dabbing the salve over the bruise on her face like a pro.
She probably was. Andy trembled when she thought what this poor woman must have endured at the hands of the sort of people who worked for Mír. No wonder she was so distant. She'd undoubtedly been traumatized.
"It's not so bad here," Andy blurted. The woman looked at her. "I mean, it won't be like what you're used to. I won't let anybody hurt you, I promise." Then she winced at the bruise. "I mean…again."
"Oh," the woman said. "Good." She dropped the pot of salve on the table. "I'm sure it will be most pleasant, being your slave."
Andy gasped. "I don't--oh, please don't think of it that way." She clasped her hands. "I'm not…really, I wouldn't…um." She blinked. "I'm sorry. What's your name?"
"Slave," the woman said.
"Oh, come on," Andy said. "Please. Really. What is it?"
"What else could it be?" the woman said. "That is what the pirates do. Their slaves have no name but 'Slave.'"
"I'm not a pirate," Andy snapped. "Nobody here is. We're not like that."
The woman snorted derisively. "Aren't you?" she said. "You will have a hard time convincing me of that."
"I won't have to," Andy said stubbornly. "You'll see it for yourself."
"If you say so," the woman said.
"But what's your name?" Andy pressed. Then a horrible thought occurred to her. "You do have one, don't you?"
"No," the woman said.
"Oh my goodness," Andy said, and filled with righteous indignation. "That's terrible!"
"Of course it is! Everybody's got the right to have a name!" Andy thumped her hand on the table. "We'll just have to give you one. How about, um--" She glanced at the spot on the kitchen table where the flower had been resting. "Barmensis," she said. "That's the flower I had sitting here. She was really pretty. How about that?"
The woman looked utterly appalled. "You are not," she said, "calling me 'Barmensis.'"
"Oh," Andy said, and bit her lip. "Sorry. I guess I should let you pick it, huh?" How thoughtless could you get? You didn't name people like they were pets. No wonder the woman expected no better out of life, if that's how people treated her. "I'm sorry," she said again. "I'm, I'm not around slaves too much."
"I would never have guessed," the woman said.
"I don't want one, either," Andy added. "I think it's awful. Um. You…you don't have to stay with me, if you don't want to."
The woman glared at her. "And where else would I go?" she said. "If not you, they'll pack me off to somebody else. I belong to your father, not to you."
"Oh," Andy said, blushing. "I guess that's right."
"I have no name here," the woman said. "I want none."
"Well, I am not calling you 'Slave,'" Andy said, trying very hard to sound firm. It didn't come naturally. "So…um…how about…" Her face lit up. "Assistant!"
The woman blinked. "Assistant?"
"Sure," Andy said, suddenly excited. "Dr. Phylyxas was right. You can help me in the garden." She clasped her hands together. "Oh, I'd really appreciate that. I mean, if you wouldn't mind. I'm working on this big new project, and it would be really nice to have another set of hands--"
The woman looked down at her own hands. Andy could see they were slender and elegant, like all the rest of her, but also roughened from work--in a few places, anyway, like she was used to holding one thing in particular all the time. Like Andy was, with trowels.
"I'm working on developing a cross-strain between two different pea plants," Andy added. "Dr. Phylyxas said it sounded really interesting. It's never been done before, either. I'm hoping to come up with a totally different kind of pea."
"Really," the woman said.
"Yes. Hardier than the other two. If it can thrive in harsher climates, then maybe people in rougher environments can…can…" Andy's voice trailed off, and she flushed. "…and you don't care. Like, um, everybody else. Sorry. I didn't mean to rattle--sorry." She took a deep breath and tried to smile. The woman kept looking at her, her own face expressionless. "So," Andy said timidly, "if you don't want a name…is 'Assistant' okay with you?"
"I don't see why not," the woman--Assistant--said dryly.
"Good," Andy said, and gulped. "I guess--oh. Did you want your coffee? And oh, gosh. You must be hungry. I'm so sorry, I wasn't even thinking." She stood up quickly, and then swayed as the room spun around her. "Oop!" Assistant stared at her. "Sorry," Andy said for the millionth time, steadying herself on the back of her chair.
"Are you all right?" Assistant said, although she made no move to help Andy.
"Oh, yeah," Andy said, waving her hand. "I guess I'm hungry too. I forgot to eat this morning." She blinked. "And this afternoon. And last night too, I think. I was really busy. Sometimes I don't even think about stuff like that, when I'm into a project." She gave Assistant a quick look. "But you won't let me forget, will you? I mean, if you get hungry, don't hesitate to say something. I've probably just forgotten all about it."
"I see," Assistant said. "Don't worry. I will not forget to remind you if my stomach is on the line."
"Oh, good," Andy said, and gestured at the kitchen cabinets. "I think I've got some ration bars in there."
Assistant's jaw dropped. "Ration bars?" she said. "Aren't you the stationmaster's daughter?"
"Yes," Andy said, nonplussed.
"And you're eating ration bars?"
"They're fast," Andy protested. "I told you, I'm in the middle of something important."
"You don't cook?"
"No," Andy said. "I mean, I try sometimes, but I'm no good at it. Um…we can call for something from the mess, if you prefer."
"I definitely prefer," Assistant said flatly.
"Oh," Andy said, feeling very foolish.
"That's the intercom?" Assistant said, rising to her feet and heading for the box on the wall.
"Yes," Andy said. "You--uh--why don't you call for two plates? If you want. I don't know what they're making today."
"I'll take my chances, if the alternative is ration bars," Assistant said.
"O-okay," Andy said, and looked longingly back at her garden, where the plants never tried to talk down to her or make her feel dumb like people did. "I'll…I'll just be working back there. I can show you everything later, after you've--we've had something to eat. Oh," she added quickly, "I don't think you should try to leave again. The sentries aren't very nice and they might be looking for you."
"I've worked that out for myself," Assistant said. Her eyes were flat and cold. Andy gulped, and ducked back into the foliage with profound gratitude.
No. This day had not turned out at all like she'd expected it would.
It was not until four days later that Andy found the courage to ask Assistant a question.
They were hard at work in the garden. The past four days hadn't been that bad, really--strange, yes, but not bad. It was odd, but kind of nice to have someone else to help in the garden. Assistant was a natural at taking charge of things, and everything went much more quickly and smoothly with her there.
It felt less lonely, too, to have another person around. Andy spent so much time in her quarters that sometimes it was easy to forget that anything existed beyond them. But Assistant's presence was nowhere near as intrusive as she would have imagined, if she'd ever imagined such a thing, which she hadn't.
Andy was definitely eating more now, though. Neither was Assistant shy about saying when it was time to give up work and get some rest. Of course, she didn't eat or sleep until Andy did, so Andy was trying very hard to be more thoughtful about such things, but it was nice to be reminded. Assistant slept on a small bed in an alcove away from the garden. Andy had her own bed, of course, a bigger one, but more often than not she slept on a cot near her beloved plants. They were her home, her dearest friends. Why shouldn't she be near them?
Assistant didn't get Andy's love for her plants, Andy could tell. Well, nobody did. But she worked without protest, although Andy could tell that she wasn't really content. Restless, that was the word. Like she was waiting for something. But she didn't seem to hate Andy or anything; in fact, she seemed more bewildered by her than anything else. Sometimes even amused. Andy got the feeling not a lot of things amused Assistant, so she wondered if it might not be a kind of compliment.
Therefore, on the fourth day, Andy felt marginally confident enough to ask, "Assistant? What was it like? Living with pirates, I mean."
Assistant gave her a sharp look. The bruise on her cheek had nearly faded completely. "What do you mean?"
"I mean, what are pirates like? What do they do all day? I mean, when they're not…" Andy gestured vaguely with her trowel, and threw dirt on her own chin. "You know. Marauding and stuff." She wiped her chin off.
"Chiefly they're going between places where they maraud," Assistant said. "I understand there is also drinking and whoring involved. For some of them." She dug her own trowel forcefully into the dirt. "Not the ones I lived with, however."
"Whor…" Andy gulped, and blushed. Grasping frantically for a different subject, she said, "Did you ever see her?"
"You know. Mír." Andy kept her voice low, out of reflex. It was silly, but for two decades Mír had been used as a story to frighten children. Be good, or the ruthless pirate queen will snatch you away in the dead of night. Andy herself had gotten various versions of the tale when she'd been young.
"What about her?" Assistant inquired, lifting an eyebrow.
"Did you ever see her?" Andy repeated. "Nobody has. No free person. She's never on the holos. Nobody even has a voice recording."
"Yes," Assistant said. "From what I understand, she takes great care that this should be the case."
"Well, some people even say she's not real," Andy said. "Because nobody's seen her, you see. That she's just a story to frighten kids and somebody else is in charge of the pirates. Or several somebodies. Pirates-by-committee," she added, inspired.
"Oh, she's real enough," Assistant said, turning back to the dirt.
"So you saw her?" Andy gasped.
"Oh." Andy deflated. "Then how do you know she's real?"
"I know. You pick things up, out there."
"Is she as bad as people say?" Andy asked, her hands trembling just thinking about it. "Th-they say she never lets anyone go."
"True enough," Assistant said. She looked Andy dead in the eye. "She wouldn't spare your pretty face, I'll tell you that."
"Oh," Andy squeaked.
Assistant stabbed her trowel into the ground as she dug. "So you should be very, very glad that you are in such a sheltered," stab, "protected," stab, "well-guarded place."
"Hey, be careful," Andy said, reaching out to still her hand. "You'll damage the bulbs." Then she realized that Assistant had gone stiff beneath her touch, and pulled her hand away quickly.
They worked in silence for a few moments. Then:
"You think I'm pretty?" Andy said timidly.
"Oh, for God's sake," Assistant said.
"Sorry," Andy said, looking into the nearest packet of seeds, her face burning. "I, um, is it time for lunch?"
"Past time," Assistant said, stood up, and stomped towards the intercom, trailing sod as she went.
Assistant seemed rather miffed after that. Her replies to Andy's instructions were clipped and short. But she did as good a job as she always did, and soon enough they had all the bulbs planted by the next day.
"I think they look good," Andy said happily, and glanced over at Assistant, who was looking right back at her instead of the plants. "D-don't you think?" Andy added. "I, I think we did a good job." Assistant only looked back at her stonily.
"Look, I'm sorry," Andy said. "About asking you yesterday. About the pirates. I know you probably don't want to remember it." She bowed her head.
"Why do you never leave your quarters?" Assistant said.
Andy looked up at her, startled. "Huh?" she said. "I mean, I do, sometimes."
"I've been here nearly a week," Assistant said. "Not once have you left these rooms."
Andy blinked. "Well, I get busy," she said. "I've always got something going on in here. Oh." Her eyes widened. "You've been going stir-crazy, haven't you?"
"Just a bit," Assistant said.
"Oh, no," Andy said, genuinely penitent. "Of course you have, I didn't realize. Come on, let's get out of here. Let's go for a walk. I know! The Observatory." She brushed down her dirty apron. (Assistant had been making her put on aprons instead of crawling around the garden in her clothes.) "We've got some great telescopes. I like astronomy, you know, when I'm not working with the plants."
"Head in the stars, hmm?" Assistant asked, with a gleam of actual amusement in her eyes.
Andy smiled at her. "I guess so," she said. "Do you like stars?"
"Love them," Assistant said, and for once she sounded sincere. "Especially star-charts."
"Oh." Andy blinked. "Really?"
"Really," Assistant said firmly. "Are there any in the Observatory? To be perfectly honest, I'm not one hundred percent sure where I am."
"Sure!" Andy said, delighted to stumble on something Assistant actually enjoyed. "Dozens of them. I'll show you."
"How kind of you," Assistant said.
She definitely liked the star-charts. In fact, she paid much more attention to them than she did to the actual stars outside the Observatory windows. Andy watched how she flipped through them, missing no detail, and realized for the first time just how smart she really was. Oh, she'd never thought Assistant was dumb, of course: she was much too well-spoken. Sharp-tongued, even. But this woman bent over the star-charts obviously had a keen and fine mind.
"We can come back here again," Andy offered. "As often as you like."
Assistant gave her a long, considering look. "Thank you," she said neutrally. Then she added, "You are very generous in how you treat a slave."
Andy blushed. She didn't like thinking of Assistant as a slave. "Really," she said, "don't say things like that. Please."
"But you are," Assistant persisted. She tapped a star-chart with her finger, though her eyes never left Andy's face. "You are far kinder to me than Mír would have been to you. For example."
"Well," Andy said, laughing awkwardly, "I'm not exactly a pirate queen." She couldn't meet Assistant's eyes, for some reason, so she looked down and fiddled with her sleeve. "I mean, why shouldn't I be nice to you?"
"Why not, indeed," Assistant said. Andy looked up, and saw that Assistant was smiling. To her surprise, her heart thumped pleasantly. "I'm trying to imagine the sort of pirate queen you'd make."
"A lousy one," Andy said. "Oh, I'd be awful." Assistant chuckled. Happy to see this, Andy continued, "I don't think pirate queens get much chance to grow plants or do experiments. And they probably have to be, you know." She swallowed. "Harsh."
"That they do," Assistant acknowledged. Then, to Andy's surprise, she added, "But not always." She tilted her head to the side. "Even Mír can be gentle, or so I've heard. When she wishes."
"Well, of course," Andy said, and tucked a strand of hair behind one ear. "I guess everybody can. I mean, I hope everybody can. Nobody can be horrible all the time."
"As you say," Assistant said, and looked back down at the star-chart.
Andy glanced at a clock on the wall, and gasped. "Oh, gosh!" It was nearly time to-- "We've got to go turn the lamps on, or the dellinses won't bloom!" She closed the book of star-charts with a thump.
"But--" Assistant began.
"No time! Come on! We'll come back later, I promise!" Andy grabbed Assistant's arm and hauled her to her feet, hurrying towards the door. Now Assistant wasn't smiling. She had the same look on her face that she often got when dealing with Andy: plain and simple bafflement.
Andy had no idea why. It wasn't like she was that complicated.
Two nights later, Andy was obliged to leave her quarters again. She wasn't anywhere near as excited about it this time. Assistant had to accompany her. Andy got the feeling she wasn't happy either.
It was a banquet, of the kind her father occasionally threw for visiting dignitaries. Andy hated them. She had to get all dressed up and be awkward in front of dozens of people and try to remember which spoon to use.
"Surely you were taught basic etiquette," Assistant said in obvious disbelief, her voice carrying through the bedroom door as Andy struggled with her dress.
"What? Oh, not really," Andy said. "I mean, my mom died almost thirteen years ago, and ever since then Dad hasn't had much to do with me." She swallowed hard. "Which is fine," she added quickly. "I mean, I keep really busy, you see."
"Yes, I see," Assistant said.
Andy emerged from her room, tugging self-consciously at her skirt. It simply wasn't fair. Here she was, the stationmaster's daughter, practically unable to dress herself. And Assistant looked like an empress from the moment she got out of bed to the moment she retired back to it at night, no matter how much dirt she'd knelt in.
"Do I look okay?" Andy said.
"You have leaves in your hair," Assistant said. "Check the mirror."
"Oh, no," Andy sighed, and headed into her bathroom, picking samples of barbissa noctes out of her hair. "I wish I didn't have to go to this stupid thing."
"I admit, I'm having a hard time seeing you chatting with ambassadors' wives," Assistant said.
"Oh, I never talk," Andy said quickly. "I mean, unless somebody tries to talk to me. And then they never want to hear what I have to say, since I don't want to talk about politics or anything, so it doesn't last too long. Thank goodness."
"Really?" Assistant seemed truly surprised. "You're quite the little chatterbox in here."
"Oh, I don't mind talking to you," Andy said earnestly, dragging a comb through her de-leafed hair as she exited the bathroom. "You don't make me feel like I'm stupid. Much," she added, in the interests of honesty.
Assistant looked even more surprised. "Of course you're not stupid," she said, and gestured at the little forest in Andy's quarters. "Just look what you've done here."
Andy shrugged. "Nobody cares about what I do in here. Maybe they will, though, when I finish work on that new pea. It might be of use to somebody." Which was all she wanted, really: to be of use. Not just to be the weird girl who played with plants all the time.
"Perhaps it will," Assistant said, her voice unwontedly kind. But when Andy gave her a quick look, her face was as blank as ever.
It only took a few minutes for Andy to remember why she hated these dinners so much. For one thing, everything was much too noisy and out-of-order. For another, all the slaves had to kneel by their masters' sides, which Andy had always thought was really stupid and embarrassing, only now it was even worse because she had one of her own. So Assistant knelt by the side of her chair, and Andy could practically feel the rage emanating from her body.
"We'll leave early," she promised. "I'll say I have a headache. I can get away with that sometimes, if I don't do it too often." And she hadn't done it the last time.
Assistant did not reply. Andy did what she usually did at these events: kept her head down and listened to people talking around her, hoping nobody tried to talk to her.
Tonight, the conversation centered around one particular topic: the odd lack of activity from the pirates. Mír's ships had not been spotted in days. Anywhere. Scuttlebutt was that her fleet must have hidden itself in some out-of-the way, abandoned station, though nobody knew why.
"It's not as if she suffered a big loss recently," a woman said, sipping her wine. "At least, not that I've heard about."
"I don't like it when she's this quiet," Andy's father said, from the head of the table. Everyone turned to look at him. He didn't look well tonight: pale, and kind of tired. He often did, these days. Andy tried not to think about it. "Nobody with sense does. She's planning something."
"Do you think so, Lord Geiker?" asked a man to Andy's left.
"Of course she is," her father said, looking surprised that the man had even needed to ask. "That's what she does. That's who she is. Vicious animals don't suddenly become tame."
"I hear your people captured a scouter of hers," another woman said, and the excited murmurs rose all around the table. Andy immediately bit her lip and darted a glance at Assistant, who was holding herself as still as stone. Sure enough--
"Yes, but there was only one survivor," Andy's father said. He pointed at Assistant. "My daughter's new slave, right there."
Andy winced as everyone turned to look at Assistant. But Assistant did not cringe from their stares; she met them with her own, cold and unafraid.
"Did she have anything to say?" said the first woman, excitement in her voice. "Was she able to give you any useful information?"
"Unfortunately not," Andy's father said, shaking his head. "She was a slave on their ship. We questioned her, of course, but she said she knew nothing. And you know our lie detectors are never wrong."
"Oh, the poor thing," another woman said, looking sympathetically at Assistant. But it didn't quite seem like real sympathy. It didn't seem like what Andy felt when she thought about what Assistant must have endured--something that was both sweet and painful.
Assistant's own expression did not change one jot. The woman looked less sympathetic then, and glanced at Andy as she said, "I hope she realizes how lucky she is!" Then she turned back to talk to the woman seated next to her, and thankfully, everybody's attention was off Andy.
Well…almost everybody's. "Do you keep her busy?" inquired the man on Andy's left, pointing at Assistant as if Andy might think he was talking about somebody else.
Thinking wistfully of excuses about headaches, Andy managed, "She…she helps me in my garden. She's really good at it."
Of course, the man didn't ask her about her garden. He just wanted to know about her slave. Typical. "I've always felt that a woman of rank should have at least one house slave," he said. He glanced down at Assistant again. "Not bad. How old is she? She looks healthy enough."
"More than enough," Assistant said softly.
The man raised his eyebrows and looked displeased at this bit of insolence. "Well, she's definitely in need of discipline."
"Oh, um," Andy said.
"How often does she need whipping?" the man asked, in the same tone as if he'd asked what Andy's favorite food was.
"I--I don't whip her!" Andy gasped, horrified. "I'd never do that!"
"Your prerogative, of course," the man said, raising his eyebrows. "But she'd obviously benefit from it." He glared down at Assistant. "I know her kind. She takes advantage of any kindness you show to her. I hope she won't make you regret it."
He reached out to touch Assistant--take her by the chin, pet her hair, something like that. Andy saw Assistant take a deep breath, saw her bare her teeth--
"No!" Andy blurted, and raised her own hand, ready to slap the man's hand away from Assistant. Then she realized what a diplomatically awful idea that was, and she turned the motion into a weak finger-wagging at the surprised man. "I mean, I'm sure I won't regret it. I mean, please don't touch her." The man stared at her in astonishment. Andy quickly stood up, attracting the attention of everyone around her. "Um. I'm sorry. I have a headache. Please excuse us both."
Then she fled her seat, hearing Assistant rising to her feet behind her. She only stopped by her father's seat at the head of the table.
"Sorry, Dad," she said, and bent to give him a gentle kiss on his cheek. "I'm not feeling very well tonight."
Her father raised an eyebrow. "Again?" he asked, his voice soft enough that only she could hear. Andy gave him a guilty smile. He glanced to where Assistant was making her way to his seat, watching them both. "How does your slave suit you?"
"Oh, she's…" Andy's voice trailed off. Why had her father even given her a slave in the first place? "She's fine," she finished weakly.
"Tell the kitchen slaves to send some of the feast to your room," her father said, and patted her hand. "No need to go hungry tonight."
Andy smiled at Assistant, who'd drawn up within hearing range. "Oh, she never lets me go hungry," she said to her father. Assistant only raised her eyebrows and did not look the slightest bit deferential in the presence of the stationmaster.
"Good," her father said. He added to Assistant, "Don't let her run herself into the ground."
Assistant did not reply. Andy awkwardly patted his arm, wishing she could say as much to the slaves who cared for him. She might not see or speak to her father very much, but he was her father, and she wanted him to be well and happy.
Neither Andy nor Assistant spoke until they reached Andy's quarters. Then, when the door shut behind them, Assistant exhaled a long, hissing breath. Andy looked at her, and saw that she was shaking with the fury she had been containing for the last hour.
"I…I'm sorry," Andy said. "I--um--I'm sorry about--"
Assistant gave her the fiercest, angriest glare Andy had ever seen. Andy actually cowered at it. "Do you remember what you told me?" Assistant said softly. "That nobody here was like those horrible, nasty pirates? That you would never treat your slaves like that?"
"How often do I need whipping, anyway?" Assistant said. "Tell me that. I'm interested to hear your opinion."
"No!" Andy said, appalled. "You know I'd never do that. Don't you?" she added hesitantly.
"Not you, perhaps," Assistant said, and began to prowl the room. "You're unusual. I'll give you that." She glanced at Andy. "Why?"
"Do you know how I felt, when they told me I was a gift for the stationmaster's only daughter?" Assistant said. "What I envisioned you to be?"
"No," Andy said in a small voice.
"A spoiled brat. Rolling around in wealth and luxury, never having known a hard day's work, utterly ignorant of the realities of life--" She paused, and looked Andy up and down. "Well. One out of three isn't bad, I suppose." Before Andy could offer any kind of protest, she continued, "But you are not. You're--I don't know what you are. I've never seen anything like you." Andy hoped that was meant in a nice way.
"How is it," Assistant added, "how is it even possible that a girl like you has grown up in a world like your father's--and you have no idea how to treat a slave? That you react with such surprise when a fool tells you to beat me?"
"Well, you know I don't go out much," Andy offered feebly. It took all of one second to see that Assistant would not be satisfied with that. So Andy swallowed hard, and continued, "My mom died when I was about seven years old. And my dad never had much to do with me. Like I said." Assistant nodded. "So I was raised by, you know, servants. And slaves. They took care of me. I was used to doing what they said."
"Not to ordering them around," Assistant said, her eyes going wider with sudden understanding.
"Right, exactly," Andy said, relieved that she'd caught on. "I mean, I never thought of them as, as slaves. They were the people who helped me grow up and told me what to do. But we, um, moved around a lot, and we never took anyone with us. So when I was fifteen I told Dad I didn't want any more slaves or servants. I figured I was old enough. I just wanted to be left alone and tend my garden."
"Which you've done," Assistant said. Then she added, "You're not like your father. I knew that right away, when I saw him."
"My dad doesn't beat his slaves either," Andy offered.
"Oh," Assistant said. "Well, good for him." Andy gulped and wished she could think of something helpful to say.
"Your Empire," Assistant said suddenly, "is the most useless power structure in all of creation."
Andy stared at her. "What?" Where in the heck had that come from?
"You heard me," Assistant said, striding over to the nearest window and peering out at the stars. She clasped her hands behind her back. "Perhaps it was great, once. Generations ago. But what has your Emperor achieved lately, hmm? You tell me. Why has he left the defense of the Empire to the outposts--to men like your father?"
"Nothing's wrong with my dad!" Andy said at once.
She saw Assistant roll her eyes in the reflection of the window. "It's getting easier and easier for pirates to breach your defenses out here. And the Empire is only as strong as its weakest point. Any half-decent strategist knows that from birth."
"Well…I guess," Andy said.
"And it's rotting from the inside out. Do you think pirates are the only threat?" Assistant continued. "Or the threat of the Kazir only a system away…have they told you those are only fairy stories too? Like the wicked pirate queen?"
Andy blinked. "The Kazir? But they're not a threat. They haven't made an attack in ages. Everybody says so. The holos…"
"The holos," Assistant snorted. "There is one military force out there that is capable of withstanding an attack from beyond the Empire's perimeter. And that is the pirate fleet. The rest of you are sitting ducks."
"Well, they've been quiet lately," Andy said. "The pirates, I mean. Like everybody was saying at dinner."
A muscle jumped in Assistant's cheek. "Yes," she said.
"So--so maybe there's nothing to worry about," Andy said, and wrung her hands. Then she added timidly, "Why are you so upset?" Assistant stiffened. "It's because of what that man said at dinner, isn't it? I'm sorry. He was a creep."
Assistant's shoulders remained rigid for a moment--then they relaxed, and she actually gave a rueful chuckle. "On that we agree."
"We don't have to go to another one of those for a while," Andy said. "Maybe next time you can pretend to be sick and I can leave you here."
"Maybe so," Assistant said. Then she frowned at the door. "Wasn't someone meant to be bringing us dinner?"
"Oh!" Andy said, and smacked herself on the forehead. "I forgot to stop and ask the people in the kitchen--"
Assistant glared at her and stalked to the intercom. "You don't need a slave," she said. "You need a keeper."
"You're doing a good job of that," Andy said, suddenly feeling incredibly shy. "I--I mean, I really appreciate--not that you have a choice, and you haven't been here that long, but--" Assistant looked at her with that flat, guarded expression. "I can't even remember what it was like without you," Andy finished in a rush. "That's all I wanted to…sorry. Thank you."
"You're welcome, I'm sure," Assistant said. Her voice was as dry as ever, but there was something Andy couldn't read in her eyes.