“What’s that?” I ask belatedly.
“Something to cover your smell.”
I start to take offense and protest that I’ve just showered, but that would be counterproductive. Maybe I do stink to him. I wish he’d mentioned it sooner, though. Now I’ll sniff self-consciously anytime he comes close.
“I’m sorry,” I mutter.
“I am used to you,” Vel tells me. “The others are not.”
I imagine he’s being gentle. The perfume he synthesized is so subtle I can barely detect it, but the human nose is one of our least powerful assets. As a species, we’re far more audiovisual. As he daubs me with the oil, I detect traces of mimosa and something sweet, but I cannot pin it down.
“Mimosa, jasmine, green leaves, and mandarin,” he tells me, as if he can read the curiosity in my face.
Does Vel know me that well?
I smile. “I can scarcely tell a difference.”
“You would not,” he agrees. “My people can communicate with pheromones, so our olfactory sense is more refined. Such conversation is not deemed suitable for formal occasions, however. It is a much more . . . intimate mode of expression.”
Since he’s being so delicate about it, I decide he must mean as a prelude to mating. I glance at Constance. “So how do I smell?”
“With your nose.” By her expression, I can’t tell if she just made a joke.
I laugh nonetheless. When we step into the hall, I’m amazed to find March, Jael, Hit, and Dina waiting. They’re all garbed in black, trimmed with gold, and they seem to be ready to play honor guard, just like those who make up the Grand Administrator’s retinue. They fall in by twos, flashing me conspiratorial smiles.
“They won’t let us attend the political stuff,” Jael says with a roguish grin, “but they can’t keep us away from the parties. We watched the verbal sparring for a little while this afternoon, but it was bloody boring.”
“You did well, though,” Dina says. From her, that’s a huge compliment. “At least from what I could tell via Vel’s translations. You really stuck it to Karom.”
Hit grins. “I thought he was going to burst wide open when she made him bow.”
“Yeah, there was serious loss of face involved. I hope he doesn’t try to have me killed.” I glance at Vel. “He wouldn’t do that . . . would he?”
Vel regards me for a moment before answering, “Not openly.”
While I’m thinking about the implications of that, March lends his arm to Dina, and Jael pairs off with Hit. That leaves Vel and Constance walking directly behind me, as I set off toward the hall. I feel weirdly like the queen of this procession, but I keep my steps measured in case they’re watching us. Maybe my paranoia will help instead of hurt us here. I try not to think about Tarn’s message or how much is riding on me.
High-ranking officials have been invited to meet us in a social setting, and I hope my crash course has been sufficient to avoid giving offense tonight. It’s understood that my “guards” will not have received the same training, so allowances will be made for them. They’re only ignorant humans, after all. But I’m supposed to be the best humanity has to offer. If everyone wasn’t watching me, I would snort over that.
I pause at the top of the stairs, tucking my arms tight to my body and executing a courteous wa. Counting, I hold the pose for five seconds, offering honor to those studying my movements. The room is a marvel by human standards. On the floor, they’ve grown that thick, sweet-smelling carpet of foliage, and the walls are hollow honeycomb, covered with the leaves that they use in so many different aspects of their bioarchitecture. Free-climbing vines bloom as they wind around the top of the ceiling, offering flashes of color in red and yellow.
This time, as I descend into the gathering, clicks and chitters resolve into more than noise. It’s both welcome and unnerving at the same time. I have to school my expression to blankness when the meanings assigned to sounds flash through my brain.
“Look at her mouth . . . scandalous. Does she think herself a hunter? Pure presumption, she has no claws at all.”
Serving-class Bugs circulate among us with crystal salvers full of unidentifiable tidbits. The sauces help further conceal what we might be eating. Ever brave, Dina snags something with a tail off one of the platters and pops it into her mouth.
She makes a face. “It’s better if you don’t chew.”
I pass the cluster of Ithtorians who seem fixated on my mouth, and listen to another snatch of conversation.
“I never thought I would see soft-skins walking among us. Are we going to invite them to our homes next? Disgusting. Sharis has gone mad.”
“Well, at least they have some idea how to behave themselves. The last ship that docked here was full of uncouth savages.”
The last ship was two hundred turns ago; humanity has made a few strides since then. But I’m not supposed to understand them. So I keep myself from reacting. I reflect that maybe I was better off not knowing—it doesn’t look like I’ll enjoy this party much.
“And the smell,” another agrees. “Wretched.”
“Their flesh is constantly rotting off them,” one says. “Did you know that? They leave little crumbs of dead skin everywhere they go.”
Claws click in shocked agitation. I study their owner, a tall Ithtorian with pale green stripes on his thorax. “That is revolting.”
Afterward, I realize I’ve learned to tell the genders apart by the barbs and slits low on their abdomens. They make no attempt to cover their sexual organs, and males are mirrors of the female, everything on opposite sides to allow latching-on for the exchange of genetic material. From what Vel told me, it’s not a pleasurable enterprise so much as a practical one. His people don’t have sex for fun, not when the female still occasionally loses her mind and tears off her partner’s head while in the throes of mating madness.
“This one does not stink,” a young-looking female dares to say. “In fact, she smells almost . . . agreeable.”
Thanks, Vel. I never thought my personal hygiene would be a subject for discussion at a diplomatic function. My detractors don’t have a lot to say to that, so the conversation shifts focus.
“I will concede that they are not as horrible as I recall.” Shifting to identify this new speaker, I’m surprised to see Councilor Sartha. “But I do wonder why Velith Il-Nok chooses to spend his life among a lesser species.”
Beside me, Vel cannot help but respond to this, as it’s a pointed observation within his hearing. “I was not content with the known,” he tells her. “I wanted more. That makes me anathema, I am aware.”
“Not to me.” Her wide, faceted eyes shimmer. “I would never have hurt you, no matter the stimulus. Did you not believe that?”
The arrival of Councilor Sharis forestalls whatever Vel might have said.
“Welcome,” Sharis says.
If he could smile, I’m sure he would, just to make me feel more at home, no matter what his people think about the baring of teeth. His wa reflects his great desire to do me honor. For whatever reason, he strongly favors the alliance. Unfortunately, most Ithtorians seem to be arrayed against us, and they may sway the vote.
By necessity, Vel translates, though I think we’re both tired of the pretense, and it’s only the first day since I got the implant.
“Thank you,” I answer, returning the courtesy. “This place is marvelous.”
Through Vel, we exchange a good five minutes of small talk, paying each other compliments. I find it tiresome in the extreme. If it were up to me, I would ask them to call a vote already and just end this before something terrible happens. I can almost feel it creeping up on me, despite my best intentions. It’s the rush of grimspace in my veins—the chaos that ripples through my DNA.
But the Ithtorians want ample time to interact with us before they open their homeworld to more human vessels. They want to test and study us before they give us access to their technologies. I can understand their caution, but under the circumstances, it frustrates me.
For all they care, the rest of the galaxy can go frag itself. They don’t mind if every other planet in the system implodes, as long as the debris doesn’t clog their view of their undoubtedly beautiful cloud-studded sky. I’ll have to do some fancy stepping to change their minds.
Hours pass while I do my duty, circulating with Sharis with Vel at my side. March keeps himself leashed. He doesn’t even growl, so I think we can conclude that meds are working. Otherwise, we’d probably already have had our first violent confrontation when a Bug deliberately stepped into his path, forcing him to bow and step aside. Whatever the colors on his thorax, the Ithtorian is lucky March didn’t twist off his head and shove it down his neck hole.
I don’t think anyone is having a great time. My people are busy pretending to be my honor guard. Vel is trapped between his duty to translate for me and the imploring glances that Sartha keeps sending his way. Even with my rudimentary ability to read Bug body language, I can tell she’s desperate for a moment alone with him.
I can relate, except I’d settle for being alone, period.
“It’s all right,” I say. “Go talk to her. I could use a moment anyway.”
He studies me briefly, then inclines his head. “I will be right back.”
“Vel . . .”
He pauses, glancing back at me. “Yes, Sirantha?”
“What was she to you?”
I’m glad he doesn’t pretend not to understand. “We were to be partners,” he says. “Her mother and my mother arranged a most beneficial alliance for both our families.”
“You didn’t want that?”
“I was afraid of that,” he answers inexplicably.
Then he sets off to talk to the female who has been eating him with her eyes for the last hour. Maybe that’s why he ran; he was afraid she’d do it literally, too. I think there’s more to it, though. When I get time, I’ll try to coax it out of him.
Before anyone else can move in, I slip off toward a niche I noticed earlier. It has a couple of things I’d call leafy benches, and I intend to make use of one of them. My crew starts to follow me, but I wave them off. “They’ll think it’s strange if we all disappear. Can you guys hold the fort? I just need a minute.”
My bodyguard regards me with icy eyes. “Not a chance. I stick to you like glue.”
But for Jael, they let me go without protest. Inexplicably, Dina has taken a liking to the food, so she and Hit set off in search of some more of those tailed things. In the old days, March wouldn’t have ever let me walk away from him. Right now, I’m glad of the space, even as I miss him.
I give a relieved little sigh as we leave the main hall. The nook I discovered earlier seems to be a retiring room. Sinking onto the flat seats, I imagine I feel the leaves shifting to accommodate me, according to the spread of my weight. The warmth feels good, delicately inching up toward my spine.