At first, they all look alike to me, but as Sharis speaks and Vel listens, preparing to translate, I notice differences in eye placement and width of mandible. Some have colors on the tips of their claws, and others wear stripes on their thoraxes. Constance leans forward and begins imparting information about their social status, based on the placement and hue of their markings.
With Constance’s help, I locate the female Ithtorian who’s in charge of . . . well, pretty much everything. She’s tall and lean, even for an Ithtorian, and her claws are tipped with red. She also wears six xanthric stripes in a diagonal across her thorax. There’s nobody else on planet with those stripes; they’re akin to a general’s bars, except the Ithtorian’s uniform has been permanently integrated into her chitin.
Vel tells me her title translates best as Grand Administrator, but I get the feeling that designation doesn’t encompass the nuances of her real power. She’s surrounded by an entourage of lower-ranking Ithtorians; they ring her in a half circle, either for protection or sycophantic purposes. Possibly some enterprising males combine the two. In human terms, she’s along the lines of a chancellor, but she couldn’t veto the council’s decision after they voted to hear us out. That has to rankle.
From across the room, Grand Administrator Otlili Ib-Ekei returns my regard. I wouldn’t call her look warm either. By the cant of her mandible, she belongs to—or sympathizes with—the opposition party. Vel warned me about our enemies on the ship. The Opposition Party—OP—would like nothing more than to enslave the whole delegation and send us to work in a barbaric prison facility reserved for violent criminals and the incurably insane. Based on past interactions, Ithtorians reckon humanity as both the former and the latter.
Well, it doesn’t matter what they think. If I fail here, the Morgut will grow in strength and audacity. A shiver rolls through me, remembering the carnage on Emry Station. That little girl spent countless hours, entombed in their webs. If the eggs had hatched, they would have sucked all the nutrients from her living body and left her a withered husk. The worst part? Mature Morgut are worse.
A touch on my shoulder draws my gaze, pulling me out of reverie. “Vel is ready to begin,” Constance tells me.
The bounty hunter confirms with an abbreviated nod, another human gesture that sits oddly on him in his natural form. “Sharis bids you welcome to the feast convened in your honor. The most important members of the Ithtorian government have been invited to share this auspicious occasion, which marks a new chapter in Ithtorian-human diplomacy. We are confident you will be pleased with both the menu and entertainment, as our human preferences committee has devoted many hours to the planning.”
Boiled down? Hi, welcome to our world. Enjoy the food and the show.
When they wheel out a table that has to be six meters long if it’s a centimeter, full of strange, scary dishes—the contents of several appear to be writhing—I decide that might be easier said than done.
There are no plates. There’s also nowhere to sit down.
That doesn’t surprise me, however. I’ve been fully briefed on Ithtorian culture and customs. It’s good manners to reach into the communal dish and pluck out a single morsel without touching the other food, then eat. Ithtorian claws aid greatly in the neat execution of this maneuver.
“It reduces waste,” Vel tells me quietly. “People eat only what they take, no extra servings ladled into bowls and discarded.” He sounds vaguely disapproving of the idea that someone’s eyes would be bigger than his stomach.
I acknowledge that with a nod and select the least offensive-looking entrée. Trying to seem deft, I snag something in sauce that resembles seafood. The flavor is sweet and peppery; the morsel dissolves on my tongue. Sharis moves his mandible in what I take to be approval. I can’t understand the subsequent clicks and chitters until Vel interprets, but I receive the impression I’m doing well.
“That is candied kir,” Vel says after a moment. “You show high discernment in trying raw . . .” He pauses, as if his vocalizer doesn’t know what word to substitute. “Flesh,” he finishes.
Raw . . . flesh? I better not think about that too long. My stomach gives a lurch, but I manage a smile. “It was delicious.”
It was, too. I’m sure kir is some type of animal. I hope. My palms start to sweat as I realize I’m expected to eat as long as everyone else does. First impressions can be crucial, so I better not offend anyone.
If nothing else, I look the part. Vel has me garbed in a golden robe, half a step down from the royal yellow stripes on the Grand Administrator’s thorax. The garment proclaims my importance in my delegation. That’s why everyone else is wearing black, although with March it’s more of a mood than fashion.
Vel guides me discreetly, indicating which dishes I should try and which I should leave for the Ithtorians. The bounty hunter is good at his job, facilitating my communication with Sharis so smoothly that I eventually stop noticing his translations. When we’ve finished eating, low-ranking workers bring us damp cloths for our fingertips. I wipe my hands clean with all due ceremony and return the cloth to the server.
Then it’s time to mingle.
The Ithtorian representative leads me to the rest of the council members, including the Grand Administrator. Even I can tell how much power she wields, how the rest of her council holds her in awe. It’s apparent in their stance and posture, the way they stand a respectful meter from her, revering her as the nucleus of their group. Other Ithtorians who hold a high enough rank have been invited to attend the feast, but they don’t merit my attention, apparently. At least not right now.
There are six members on the council, of which Otlili Ib-Ekei is the titular head. As I understand it, she doesn’t actually vote, however. She shapes the creation of policy and administers other aspects of the government on her own. For instance, the judiciary and prison systems fall entirely within her sphere of control.
Each member represents his or her home constituency, voted in by popular accord. However, there is no time limit imposed upon terms of service. So long as the populace is satisfied, a councilor may remain active for life. However, the leaders of the three major political parties may call for an inquiry, then a vote for dismissal if there is evidence of corruption and/or incompetence. Ithtorians frown more on the latter than the former. That also includes physical infirmity. Only a powerful council member can suffer anything other than minor illness and expect to keep to keep his or her job. They don’t look well on weakness.
Bribery—or a complex system of favors and boons—seems to be a way of life here. We might be able to use that. I just don’t know if they would take kindly to incentives or gifts, as presented by outworlders. I’ll ask Vel once we manage to get through this first state occasion.
For now, I’m afraid it will be hard for me to match names and faces later, so I whisper to Constance, “Log this for me, please. And help me remember who is who?”
“Acknowledged,” she replies quietly.
Reassured, I devote myself to the minute courtesies expected of me. Sharis executes what looks like a half bow as he presents me to the assembled august company. Recognizing my cue, I tuck both hands beneath my arms, tight against my chest, and return the honorific. Vel touches me lightly on the spine, unseen, and I remember to lower my eyes for a count of five. This posture represents peaceful intent and high reverence for my hosts.
“Well done,” Sharis says, by way of Vel.
I acknowledge that with a smile, not showing my teeth because that could be construed as aggression. With some effort, I commit their names to memory: Devri Il-Waren, Mako Ib-Mithiss, Karom Il-Fex, Sartha Ib-Ulik, and, of course, Sharis and Otlili.
Devri is the tallest, so I won’t have a problem picking him out. His chitin shines with a coppery sheen, marked with pale green striations. If I had to choose, I’d name him the handsome one.
Mako is small, almost delicate in build, and her side-set eyes glimmer like onyx. Her thorax is dark amber, touched with darker green. Her stripes denote a lesser status, so it’s impressive she has risen so far. I notice she wears the same pattern as the workers who brought us the damp towels.
The third councilman, Karom, would be considered portly by Ithtorian standards. He stands the same height as Vel, but he’s easily half again as wide. His shell gleams dark blue, indigo, really. Matching the polished amber of his eyes, his stripes show tawny, signifying high status—not quite royal yellow, but he’s an important member of the council. Unfortunately, by the way he holds his mandible, he’s not a fan of the human delegation. Mentally, I cross him off our list of potential allies.
That leaves Sartha, who resembles Vel in terms of size and coloring. They’re both a dark green, bordering on olive, but like the other council members, she bears a pattern tied to her personal status. Vel looks more naked by comparison, and for the first time, I start to understand just how much censure he incurred by forsaking his homeworld.
By their standards, he has achieved nothing. The stories of his accomplishments should be etched on his thorax for all to see. Instead, he travels with human beings and even translates for them, which puts him in a subservient position. I wish I could change their minds about his worth, but I probably won’t be able to. I just hope being here doesn’t hurt him in some way I can’t fathom.
I’m surprised when Sartha acknowledges him. It’s a personal greeting, subtle and silent. I would have missed it if not for my recent crash course in Ithtorian body language. But I do notice the way she angles her head, letting her eyes meet his briefly.
Now I understand why Vel advised me to leave my arms bare. Here, my scars are fortuitous, signifying high social status. A totally unmarked person would be adjudged to have lived a singularly uneventful—and unimportant—life. The Ithtorians would reckon the appointment of such an undistinguished individual a mortal insult.
Through Vel, the council members say:
“I am honored to meet you.” This comes from Sartha.
Mako adds, “Welcome to Ithiss-Tor. May our association be long and profitable.”
“You do my house great honor with your fine wa.” Yes, I was right to call Devri the handsome one.
My what? Another question I need to ask Vel. After hearing his words, I decide he’s charming as well. If my ability to read Vel’s expressions translates at all, I’d say Devri is very curious about us. His gaze roams between Constance, Dina, Hit, Jael, Vel, March, then back to me. I wonder if they’ve studied up on humanity.
Karom looks as though it hurts him to be polite. “We are pleased to receive you.”
Yeah, right. I don’t buy that for a minute. He doesn’t want us here any more than Otlili does, which leads me to believe our support comes from lower-ranking Ithtorians. That makes sense, too. People who are satisfied with the status quo, enjoying their current level of perks and advantages, never want to see the natural order overturned.
Sharis has already greeted us, which leaves only Otlili, the Grand Administrator. She still hasn’t spoken, studying us with wide, glittering eyes. There’s an immense sense of leashed power about her, as if she could click her claws and have us all beheaded. Sadly, it’s probably pretty close to the truth. She doesn’t need a vote on the council to make her influence felt.