The ambient chittering from the assembled Ithtorians quiets as if in anticipation of her speech. I can just about hear March breathing behind me; the room is that quiet. When she finally speaks, I wish I could interpret the sounds on my own, but I have to wait for Vel to listen, process, then employ his vocalizer. By the response her words receive from the gathered company, I suspect it must be rousing, patriotic, and possibly inflammatory.
“Honored guests,” he begins, “esteemed countrymen, we are gathered on the cusp of greatness. The time has come for Ithiss-Tor to set aside its separatist ways and take our place among the stars. There is no reason we should not seek our fortunes and make our voices heard in the wider galaxy. Of a surety, do we not possess wisdom and technology superior to those who squabble for the right to govern?”
I don’t like the sound of that. To my mind, it hints that Otlili would like to subjugate humanity in exchange for protection against the Morgut. The Conglomerate won’t be interested in accord on those terms, even if it would be cosmic justice on some levels, considering what humanity did to the La’hengrin.
As a result of first contact, which resulted in armed conflict, humanity seeded their atmosphere with a pacifying chem. It was supposed to make them amenable to trading with us. We didn’t take into account their adaptive physiology; our interference left their species unable to fight, even to save their own lives. With our ignorance and hubris, we created a slave race. The knowledge makes me sick, and I worry that the Ithtorians might balance our karmic scale. The Grand Administrator certainly looks forbidding enough.
Once she speaks, Otlili dismisses us, and Sharis says, “Enjoy the party.”
The entertainment arrives then. I’m hard-pressed to identify what the Bugs are doing. Sometimes it resembles a dance; other times it looks like enthusiastic acrobatics. I glance at Vel for clarification.
“It is a display of the most popular fighting forms.”
Oh. Now that he’s pointed it out, I can see the martial applications. After the show, I make the rounds, meeting and greeting everyone who shows an interest in our delegation. I don’t have to worry about names and faces because Constance is logging them for me, but I must admit I’m relieved by the time we’re escorted to our quarters. I can use some time to talk to my team and think things over.
The hard part lies ahead of us, no question.
My suite is palatial, if alien.
It’s decorated in shades of gold, making me feel as though I’ve stumbled into a jeweler’s shop by mistake. I wouldn’t call it restful, but the opulence leaves me no doubt the Ithtorians care about making a good first impression. The furniture isn’t quite right—for instance, the chair seats slope slightly downward—but I can tell they tried.
They’ve filled the room with genuine human artifacts, such as a hand-built console suitable for a human interface. I particularly like the standing lamp. I haven’t seen anything like it outside a museum. Idly, I wonder how old the schematics were that they downloaded from the satellite, or perhaps they’re working off the data they received from the first human landing party over two hundred turns ago.
Based on the way this terminal looks, that makes sense. It has no voice-command system; you have to key everything and manually bring up the software to send a message. Thankfully, they did include a video program.
But there are no windows in here, which worries me. I can’t decide if I’ve been imprisoned or if I’m being protected for my own safety. Neither option strikes a note I want to hear. Both scenarios bode ill for the alliance.
First thing, I fire up the terminal and bounce a message to Chancellor Tarn. I want to assure him I’m serious about doing this right, and I can do that best by keeping him in the loop. My first report is by necessity brief, but I’m pleased to tell him the initial meeting concluded without a hitch. I don’t think anyone could have done better.
Vel has quarters in this same wing. He took Constance with him to improve her database on Ithtorian customs. I expect them to come by later. Jael has a room next door; he claims he’s ever vigilant with regard to my safety, but I stand by my initial assessment. He’s the worst bodyguard ever. By now, he’s probably back on the ship, running a gambling racket on clansmen who’ve never been off Lachion before.
March settles quietly on one of the sloping chairs, regarding me with a detachment that makes me nervous. It had to be tough for him to stand in a room surrounded by aliens without reacting to what feels like a threat. Outwardly, he bore the strain well, but he’s showing signs now. His eyes look darker than usual, his face sharp and haggard.
“That went well,” he says. “You impressed them.”
I settle into a nearby chair with a heartfelt sigh. “I hope so. I feel like I’m picking my way through a minefield.”
If things were different, I’d curl up in his arms. But March can’t stand being touched now; human contact triggers swift, sure violence, not warmth. I think there’s something askew in his head that makes him register any contact, however gentle, as a threat. While he remembers what he felt for me, he can’t access it anymore. He’s cool and remote as a sunrise on Ielos, full of the same stark, dangerous beauty.
I want him so much I ache with it, but I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to replicate what Mair did when she fixed him. He doesn’t talk about it, so I have no way of knowing how she went about it. Making matters worse, she had training and advantages that I lack, but it won’t stop me from trying . . . once I have some idea what I need to do. Impotent gratitude weighs on him. He wanted to repay Mair for her kindness, which he tried to do by acting as a general on Lachion. That cost him dearly.
For now, I haven’t entirely processed the idea that he survived the carnage on Lachion—or that he came back to me, as promised. He could have left, gone back to the life he had before. But he wants more than endless war for himself, or he did, at least. I’m not sure what this March wants. I don’t recognize him.
“Yes, the situation is precarious. And I’m going to prove a detriment,” he says quietly. “I was hoping I could control it, but I can’t see those Bugs as anything but a threat. Sooner or later, I’ll snap. I wish I’d stayed on the ship.”
Is this where I make a hard decision? Do I go with his self-assessment and send him back to the ship for the duration of our stay on Ithiss-Tor? I don’t know if March can be impartial. He seems to believe himself some kind of monster. And maybe he’s right; I didn’t see what he did on Lachion. I know he has nightmares.
I exhale slowly. “If you really believe that, we should have Doc check you out. He can probably prescribe something to keep you calm.”
I’d like to see if he could fit me with a translator, too. Waiting for Vel is getting old, and we were only in there for an hour. I don’t mention that to March, however.
March studies me for a long moment, jaw taut. I know him well enough to realize he loathes the idea of behavior-altering drugs, but he eventually comes to his feet without protest. “Let’s go see Doc,” he agrees.
First I change out of the ornate, cumbersome robe and don my usual trousers. I don’t want to draw more attention than we must. They asked us to stay in our quarters until morning while they make arrangements for the first session, wherein I will have an opportunity to plead the Conglomerate’s case, and the council members will be allowed to voice their concerns about the alleged benefits of an alliance.
I do wonder why they don’t want us wandering around unsupervised, however. Is it for our own safety, or is it because they have secrets they need to safeguard? I’d call for an escort, but I think it’s ill-advised to reveal that my lover may have a psychotic episode if he’s not medicated.
If Jael paid more attention to his job, he’d notice me slipping out, but there’s no sign of him as we pass from our room into the corridor. We’re housed well away from the Ithtorian dignitaries, and I don’t know if I should be alarmed or honored by that. But, then, we already know this will be an uphill battle.
All the hallways look more or less the same to me, and there’s no map, even assuming we could read one. I look left and right, admiring the lovely biosculpture of the walls. The densely woven leaves gleam nearly aquamarine in the filtered light, but the exotic beauty doesn’t help me navigate.
“Right,” he says without hesitation.
“You’re sure that goes back to the ship?”
“Relatively.” For a moment, I see a glimmer of the old March in his eyes, just a ghost of humor that reminds me of how he used to smile.
“Then let’s go.” Trusting him, I make the turn.
Along the way, we pass a couple of Ithtorian workers, who gaze after us with apparent puzzlement and distrust. They don’t try to interfere with us, however. It wouldn’t do them any good if they did—we don’t have our interpreter with us. I’m not sure how we’re going to get back to the docks, assuming we can find our way out of the warren where we’ve been quartered.
If I turn, I’ll see no sign of what he means on his face anyway, so I don’t look back. I think I remember making a left here. “What for?”
“Letting you down.”
A fierce wave of love washes through me. I wish so hard I could comfort him, but he has wounds in places I can’t reach. Tears burn behind my eyes. “You didn’t. You’re here, aren’t you? You could have walked. But you didn’t. So that tells me deep down that you hope I’ll be able to fix you.”
His voice sounds gravel-rough. “I don’t hope for that. I dream of killing, Jax. I wake up twitchy with the need for it. The least things make me angry—that’s about all I feel these days—and I want to lash out. I haven’t felt like this since I punched Hon in the face, stole his ship, and fled Nicuan.”
Somehow I manage not to say “I told you so.” I saw the darkness swallowing him up, even before I left Lachion, but he would have stayed, no matter what. He felt like he owed it to Mair’s memory to assist her granddaughter, Keri, who has been struggling to hold on to the reins of Gunnar-Dahlgren ever since her grandmother’s demise.
The clans are full of outlaw types, who glory in frontier life, but it also comes with its share of risk. Sure, nobody else wants to try to settle on Lachion, which means the clans remain free to govern themselves, but the conflicts can be brutal and devastating . . . to say nothing of the risk of native planetary wildlife. It’s not my favorite place in the galaxy, but March has ties there.
We make a right turn. I’m going by instinct, but the low hum of the building’s walls, which seems oddly like a pulse, seems to drive us this way. I hope it’s toward the front of the building and not some alien security measure that will wind up with us facing some awkward interrogation about our intentions. As I walk, I try to think of what to say to him.
“Do you remember what you said to me when I was screaming my head off over things other people couldn’t see?” I ask at last.