Ehon leans forward, seemingly titillated. “The two of you were together last evening?”
“I accompany the ambassador to all social events,” Vel responds, in what I imagine to be a quelling fashion. “How could she communicate, if I did not?”
With a click of his claws, Ehon dismisses the issue, borderline rudeness there. “So you attended a party hosted by Councilor Devri last night, and neither of you departed until quite late. Were you together the entire time?”
I have to admit that we were not. I wait until it’s safe to answer, once Vel has repeated everything, then I say, “Vel spoke privately with Devri for a time, and Sharis himself kept me company. He only left my side when Mako arrived. I stood in full view of a roomful of Ithtorians during that time.”
Which is all to the good. Ehon seems to be trying to establish opportunity, so I’m glad I never wandered off on my own. Vel tells him what I’ve said, and the interrogator taps his claws thoughtfully, processing the information. Then he enters it via a series of taps on the datapad.
“Very good,” the interrogator says. “Once you left the party, what then?”
From my peripheral vision, I glimpse Vel nodding ever so slightly as his vocalizer restates Ehon’s question. Giving me the go-ahead? Okay then, I’ll spill.
“Vel and I went back to my quarters then,” I say quietly. “He remained there with me until dawn.”
I assume he’ll correct me if that’s wrong. It might even have been his early departure that woke me this morning. For some reason, I’m not at all surprised to hear him repeat my words, nearly verbatim.
Ehon recoils visibly at hearing this, so I don’t need to be told what interpretation he has put on the information. He clicks his mandible in fastidious dismay, but to his credit, he does not pursue the matter further. The interrogator simply enters the facts into his datapad. Discretion aside, I have no doubt he’ll be drinking on this for days.
“Are you both willing to speak oaths that neither of you left each other’s company during the early-morning hours?”
Vel doesn’t wait for my response. “Yes.”
The interrogator levels a hard look on Vel. “You would not lie for the ambassador, would you, Il-Nok?”
A hiss escapes Vel. He curls his claws in deliberate insult. “If you were not an interrogator, I would demand satisfaction.”
“And Councilor Devri will vouch for your whereabouts prior?” Ehon asks, ignoring Vel’s outrage.
When I’m given the opportunity to answer, I say, “He will . . . and a hundred other prominent Ithtorians, as well. As I recall, we had a lovely conversation with two merchants named Arqut and Kalid.”
Ehon makes further notes on his datapad, then he unfolds to his feet. “I believe I need nothing further at this time. But if I do need another moment of your time, I will know where to find you. I will permit you to escort the ambassador back to her quarters, but I require you to return to assist with the other sessions within an hour.” His wa in parting sends a cold chill down my spine.
Gray adder hunts soft, sleepy prey. Quiet kill.
I cloak my visceral reaction, stilling my shiver. Thanks for the warning, asshole, but I’m not as sleepy as you think. After I reply with a controlled wa, I step out of the interview room, grateful to leave the sticky heat and the cloying smell of hothouse blossoms. Vel follows a few steps behind, one claw on my shoulder, not for guidance or protection, but in accordance with some tradition that escapes me at the moment.
“This looks bad for you,” I say, once we exit the building. A cold wind sweeps over me as we make for the tram.
“The further degradation of my reputation is scarcely a matter of concern to me,” he returns. “It already hangs in tatters, and there is no altering that we provide each other with an alibi, so it is fortuitous I felt moved to indulge in a confessional last night.”
My teeth chatter in response. Vel hurries us into the station, but I tell myself he is fondly amused by my longstanding tradition of never having a coat when I need one. This time, however, he doesn’t have his bounty-hunter pack to amend the lack.
Once I’ve warmed up a bit, I protest, “They’re going to think you’re a deviant.”
It doesn’t seem fair that they always think the worst of him. He regards me for a moment, only the distant rush of the tram to break the silence. Here, near the jurisprudence center, it is oddly deserted.
“And that would make me perverse, if it were true?” The vocalizer renders the question conversational. “If I enjoyed human lovers?”
My eyes widen. “I don’t . . .”
Hell. I didn’t see this coming. Of all possible outcomes, I certainly don’t want to wound him. After all, it’s not my repugnance speaking; it’s the way his people seem so uniformly revolted by human beings.
“Let me simplify matters, Sirantha. Living in exile made me rethink many taboos I took for truth. All beings experience loneliness in some form or other, and over my long exile, I did take human lovers, but they generally did not know my true form. In fact, you met one of them.”
Before I can frame a response to that, our train arrives.
As we board, questions bubble on the tip of my tongue, such as Who? When? and What happened between you and her? Or him, I suppose. Though it’s a tough call, I decide circumstances don’t lend themselves to prying into Vel’s private life. We have more pressing concerns.
So I simply say, “No, that doesn’t make you perverse. I should have realized you’d adapt to life off Ithiss-Tor.”
And as he said, no being wants to spend all its time alone. His relationships might not even be primarily sexual in nature, and even if they are, it’s none of my business. I can’t entirely quash my curiosity, however. We’ve met a lot of people in our travels, so which one was it? And did he or she realize who Vel was?
Ithtorians are uncommonly long-lived, so he might stay with a human lover for a great span of time by our standards. At regular intervals, he could even age himself appropriately, but he would need substantial privacy to do so. I consider watching someone you care about grow old and die while you remain perpetually the same. It doesn’t sound desirable; in fact, it sounds like a particularly hellish punishment.
Even if he can’t love as humans do, even if the bonds he forms are not the same, it stands to reason that loss hurts him. I cannot imagine it being otherwise for any sentient creature, which is why I am haunted by the image of a frog-mother on Marakeq keening her sorrow to the indifferent stars.
“I applaud your restraint,” Vel says eventually, as we disembark.
Suspicion blooms, distracting me from the unquestionably fascinating subject matter. It seems odd they would simply let us walk away, given the severity of the crime. Before we’ve gone too far, Bugs emerge to tail us discreetly. If we inquired, doubtless they would say it’s for our own protection, but I realize our days of free passage are over. We won’t be able to make a move now without it being documented in triplicate and reported to five separate factions.
I pretend to ignore them as we head for my quarters to wait for the others. They’ll start by interrogating my inner circle, but eventually they’ll want to talk to the whole crew. Instinct tells me I can’t sit by powerless while that happens; I need to find some way to get them to make me part of this investigation, or I’m going to lose all the face I’ve built up over my time on planet. But maybe I’m not the best arbiter of what should come next. My instincts aren’t infallible, as I’ve learned to my cost.
Once we’re safely inside, Vel checks the place for newly implanted listening devices. To nobody’s surprise, he finds one. They must plan to teach someone to interpret, or maybe they’ll lay hands on a chip somehow. If they bounce an order off world, they can purchase plans for one and have it built. That will take days, but until then, they’ll have a log of everything we say.
While I consider the problem, Vel excuses himself with a silent gesture. When he returns, he has his bounty-hunter backpack. At first I’m surprised the Bugs didn’t confiscate it; but then, if I know Vel, he secured it well before leaving his quarters.
He works quietly for a moment, then he says, “I’ve programmed it to report a random and banal variety of small talk in a fair approximation of our voices. They’ll notice the pattern eventually, once they have some way to understand what’s being said, but this should buy us some time.”
My rooms have been searched. Though I don’t have much in the way of possessions, I can tell things have been moved and replaced. I check the sleeping area next. At least Constance is still on the ship, where she’s safe.
“Will they want to question Constance, too?”
“They think she is human,” he points out. “It is natural she would be taken for interrogation when they realize she has been omitted from their lists.”
Ah, shit. “How bad will it be if they discover her true nature?”
“Bad. Prestige is earned by not being caught.”
I suspect he’s understating the problem. Can Constance keep up the charade under duress? She’s not programmed to dissemble. I feel myself start to sweat. It feels like everything is crumbling to pieces, and there’s not a damn thing I can do about it. The worst part is—if they catch me in one deceit, they’ll start looking for other offenses.
They might scan me and find the chip.
How I wish I could just jump and get the hell out of here. I’m so hungry for grimspace and the distant throb of the beacons, the colors streaming through my mind. A shudder rolls over me, nearly bending me double. When things were going well, it was much easier to block this craving.
Now all my instincts are telling me to cut and run—that it’s not going to get better. It’s only going to get worse, and I don’t want to be around when it does. That’s definitely consistent with my instincts. In the past, I haven’t been the most reliable individual; I think of my own well-being first, and to hell with everyone else.
If my mother knew, she’d be laughing her ass off. What did she say? That my mere presence would be enough to create havoc, despite my best intentions. Mary curse it, I don’t want to prove her right.
Focus, Jax. What allies do you have on world?
“Would we be able to see Devri?”
“We cannot keep the visit secret from security, but yes, we should be able to access him. If we cannot, then things are worse than I had imagined.”
I consider that. If we draw attention to him right now, we might lose an ally. On the other hand, if we do nothing, we’ve already lost, but I’m not the best at judging what differentiates a strategic retreat from a virtual surrender here. Maybe lying low for a while would be the smart thing. All diplomatic functions have been suspended while they figure out who poisoned Sharis.
“I need to know what you talked about when you had that private chat.”
Vel answers with no hesitation. “Devri alerted me to the existence of extremist factions that would stop at nothing to prevent this alliance from coming to pass.”