“I don’t want to know,” he says.
That wounds me because it symbolizes how he prefers distance when he used to crave closeness. I guess I should be careful what I wish for because I remember wanting him to leave me alone. That was a long time ago, but my wish has been granted.
Time to go. Time to stop thinking about things I can’t change right now. We leave Vel’s quarters and head off the ship. The spaceport is quiet, no other ships in dock. Not surprising considering how xenophobic they are here. If they have any new vessels, they’re hidden. They probably don’t want us checking out their technology until we have hammered out this deal. And I don’t blame them. It’s also possible that these antiques on display are all they have.
Vel finds us a private car to take us back to council quarters. This time I pay more attention to the view out my window. The vehicle is closed, totally automated. We pass through the maintenance tunnels once more, and I gaze out the glastique panels on either side, admiring Ithiss-Tor at night. This place has a haunting loveliness. The constellations gleam bright as diamonds, and they’re arranged in alien formations.
A light snow has begun to fall, dusting the world in white lace. Their buildings are tall, interconnected with a warren of tunnels and enclosed bridges. Nobody travels on the surface here. The architecture here reminds me of nothing so much as an insect hive. I’ve seen similar structures built by wasps and bees, but the Ithtorians construct their homes from titanium and steel instead of earth.
I remain intrigued by the apparent contradiction between their architecture and the way they design the interiors of their structures. Am I to assume that the Ithtorians present a hard carapace to the world but in truth they are softhearted? I don’t think I can use Vel as my example in this case; he is no longer typical of his people, if he ever was. Since he chose to leave his home, I think that he was not.
Nobody speaks as the car purrs along, coming up from the tunnels into the station that adjoins the government center. It apparently knows it can take us no farther because it stops and offers a basic “thank you, have a nice day” sort of sound. Vel, March, and I climb up, heading up the ramp into the foyer.
With Vel to guide us, we pass much more quickly through the government warren into the housing annex. When we reach the council quarters, there is only a single guard on duty. To my vast pleasure, I understand what Vel says to him, but I keep my expression blank. It will completely devalue my advantage if they realize what I’ve done. Not to mention spoiling any possibility of an alliance.
“We needed to retrieve something from the ship,” Vel explains.
The guard answers, “Was there any trouble in the square? The council was concerned about the ambassador.”
“As you can see, she is well except for a minor scratch, but she, too, has concerns about the candor of the council. She will discuss them tomorrow at the summit. For now, we are all weary and would seek our rest.”
March seems remarkably calm about not knowing what’s going on. It must be the drugs. He just waits patiently for Vel to conclude his business. The guard waves us in.
To show that I know something of their culture, I fold my arms flat against my body, hands tucked beneath my forearms and execute a tight bow. A wa, one of the councilmen called it. I read astonishment in the clicking of the guard’s mandible, but he returns the courtesy
Maybe I should talk to March, but I can’t tonight. I need to get some sleep before the summit. His room adjoins mine, but he has his own entrance. So I part from him in the hallway, and we go our separate ways.
I hope it’s not symbolic.
Vel escorts me into my suite.
I don’t know if he’s concerned about my welfare or if he just wants to make sure I stay put this time. That idea makes me smile faintly.
“Wa is the bow made in greeting and parting?” I ask as we go into the living area.
“Correct,” he tells me. “I will go over all the nuances at another time. For now, I will bid you good night, Sirantha. If you have need of me, you know how to reach me.” That’s a very mild rebuke, based on what could have happened if he hadn’t turned up in such timely fashion. I acknowledge that with a nod. Vel executes a neat wa before he goes, and I practice mine as well.
Constance waits politely for us to finish our conversation. “There is a break in the surface of your face,” she observes. “Do you require treatment?”
I shake my head. “I’ve already seen Doc. If he’d thought it needed attention, he would have done something about it.”
She accepts this. “Have I displeased you in some fashion, Sirantha Jax? I understood I was to assist you under all circumstances.”
Oh man. It’s too late for me to want to reassure an android who, not too long ago, could be tucked into my pocket or snapped shut when I didn’t want to deal with her. When Dina installed her in the Pretty Robotics frame, it enhanced the type of tasks my PA could perform, but it also makes her harder to ignore.
I say, “No, of course not. I didn’t expect to be gone so long. Don’t worry, you’ll see plenty of work tomorrow.”
That’s the primary difference between her and a human being. She doesn’t look for subtext; she doesn’t second-guess me or wonder about my motives. While I get ready for bed, she jacks into the terminal to recharge. I’m glad my bed is in another room. I don’t mind sharing space with her, but it might be a little weird trying to drift off with her sitting motionless in sleep mode.
Just before I retire, Jael stops by my quarters, so he must know the symbols well enough to have gotten back from the spaceport on his own. Constance lets him in while I’m changing, and I hear him making conversation with her. That softens me because he’s about the only one besides me who treats her as more than a san-bot.
He already looks better. The bruises on his face could be several days old at this point. Ah, the advantage of being Bred. Given the way they persecute him, however, I don’t think I’d want the ability if it comes at such a price.
“I just wanted to check on you before bed,” he says by way of greeting.
“You mean make sure March hasn’t beaten me to death? He’s medicated.”
“I know you trust him, but you shouldn’t. I’ve seen this kind of thing before. As your bodyguard, I’d be remiss if I didn’t advise you to move him out of those quarters.”
I raise a brow. “And put you in there instead?”
He shrugs. “Since I’m in my right mind, I’d offer more protection if the Bugs get any inhospitable ideas.”
“Thanks, but I’m fine.”
“If you’re sure.” He pushes to his feet, subjecting me to a lingering look. “If you need anything, just let me know. I’ll be here.”
Though I’d once have sworn he wasn’t interested in me that way, there’s a certain warmth to his look. I tell him gently, “I won’t.”
“Fair enough. Good night, then.”
As I get into bed, I tell myself he’s just doing his job. There’s nothing special in the way he treats me. If he were guarding Doc, he’d make the same recommendations.
In the morning, I wake in a gilded cage.
I cleanse myself according to Ithtorian customs, but I hope they will forgive me if I wash my hair as well. The Bugs don’t have to worry about that aspect of personal grooming, but I’m pleased to report that my hair is finally growing back. It hangs in coarse black spirals down to my shoulders. When March hacked it off, hoping to hide me from bounty hunters on New Terra, I cried. I can finally look at my reflection without cringing, which is good, because a lot of Ithtorians will be watching me today.
The last step comes in donning the golden robe that leaves my arms bare. Constance watches me as I prepare for the summit, her face blank as only an android’s can be. She’s unplugged from the terminal and ready for the day, clad in her sober black suit.
“Your hair should be up,” she tells me, surprisingly. “This is a state occasion. I can replicate the style other ambassadors favor. It also possesses the virtue of giving your head a shape more pleasing to the Ithtorian aesthetic. Would you like me to do so?”
“If it will make them take me seriously, go for it.”
Without another word, she goes to work on my hair, wrapping it into a pair of neat twists on the back of my head. Her motions feel deft and sure as she affixes the sweep in place with jeweled pins. I touch it gingerly when she’s done.
“There. We have seven minutes before we are expected at the summit.”
“I didn’t think I had enough hair for this yet. Thanks.” My smile goes unanswered, and I wonder if she’ll eventually assimilate human facial expressions. I’m not sure of the limits on what she can learn.
“I am here to serve.”
I square my shoulders. “Let’s do this.”
The summit is being held in a meeting hall downstairs. It’s an interesting place, I decide, as Constance and I enter. The walls are smooth black metal, overlaid with a lattice of complex stonework that seems curiously light, almost hollow in fact. It gives the impression, as does the rest of this city, of a hive. A soft, rich compost material covers the floor in lieu of carpet or tile; the chamber smells oddly of jasmine, but that might be the greenery that aids in climate control and ventilation.
The chairs, if you could call them that, are oddly shaped, a distorted L, and by watching the councilmen who filter past us, I can see they sit backward as we think of it, with their carapaces resting against the spine of the “L.” There’s a circular viewing chamber through which other high-ranking Ithtorians can watch the proceedings if they so desire. Just thinking of it makes me sweat.
I recognize Sharis first. In case I failed to do so, Constance whispers, “That is Sharis Il-Wan heading toward us.”
So I greet him with a respectful wa, not as low as the one I will offer the Grand Administrator when she deigns to arrive. Somehow I imagine she will be fashionably late, a subtle way to convey her disdain. He returns the courtesy with a pleased click of his mandible. I notice he did indeed hide all of his claws, which means he’s not offering me false civility.
The Ithtorians have so many sly ways to convey an insult; I need to be wary I don’t inadvertently cause offense. So far, so good.
He doesn’t try to talk to me because Vel hasn’t arrived yet. Instead, he hurries to intercept another council member. I recognize Devri at once. His tall, slender figure towers over the rest. This morning, his coppery chitin has been burnished to a sartorial gleam. Yes, he’s the handsome one.
I try to look bored as Sharis says, “Things are not off to a good start. The Grand Administrator has already heard of the riot in the plaza.” The translation offers no sense of his mood, just interprets the sounds in a way my brain can process them. I attribute the emotional response all on my own.
Devri glances over at me. “Her actions seem impulsive. She does not listen well, even if she is not as homely as some of her compatriots.” His faceted eyes slide along my scars. “Perhaps they erred in sending us a well-adorned human. As important as this is for both our peoples, they should have sent a smart one.”