By the time Kiri and I made it down to breakfast the next morning, Senaria, Rann and Gelhinda had already arrived. "Help yourself," bubbled Senaria, gesturing at the counter. I gasped at the array of sliced fruit and assorted juices, pancakes, and grain-based delicacies native to Deshtiris.
"This is really great, Sen," Rann mumbled appreciatively through a mouthful of potato pancakes.
"Looks wonderful," I agreed. "So what's the occasion?"
"I just felt like putting together something extra nice," she explained as she finished carving up a cantaloupe, apparently in rhythm to something she was humming, then sat down with us as Kiri and Gelhinda exchanged knowing looks.
About then Brinkman strayed in with a casual "Morning, everyone," helping himself to some juice and making himself comfortable. We all looked at him expectantly. "That was quite a ceremony yesterday," he said, sipping his drink. "How was the banquet last night? Not too many speeches, I hope. That new majority leader could put a hummingbird to sleep."
"Sen made the breakfast," Rann said nervously, sensing imminent danger. "What do you think?"
"Oh, is it your turn today?" Brinkman asked indifferently, only half-turning to her. "Who eats this kind of stuff for breakfast, anyway? Don't suppose you've got any bacon and eggs? But I imagine that's not really 'PC' here. So," he rattled on, turning to Kiri, "when'd you people get back? You must have turned in early last night." I could tell Kiri was starting to boil, but she had just opened her mouth when she was interrupted.
"Excuse me," Senaria said softly, standing up. Her face was an expressionless mask, and her tone a perfect match. "I'll clean up everything a little later." She silently walked out, as for several seconds everyone sat frozen.
"What was that all about?" I said finally, only to have Kiri mutter something about my being a hopeless dunderhead. Rann got up from his chair and ran after her, and a moment later we heard Sen's voice echo down the hall as she roared something I couldn't quite make out. A few moments later Rann returned, looking abashed.
"She told me to, er, go away," he muttered, apparently as mystified as I.
"Looks like someone's got a bad case of the 'morning afters'," Brinkman snorted, only to be met with a stony silence. Several times during the rest of the meal he unsuccessfully tried to strike up conversation, and finally noticed that something was wrong. "Oh, I guess I was a bit of a boor that time," he admitted magnanimously. "Well, I'd better go apologize." We all heaved a sigh of relief as he left, and conversation eventually returned to normal. He never did return to the breakfast table.
That the incident wasn't quite over was apparent later that morning, when Senaria hesitantly approached me during one of my rare moments alone. "Will," she said, "I think I've probably gone as far as I can with Alan's language lessons. After all, I'm not all that good in English, and he's a very fast learner. Do you think you could ask someone else to take it from here?"
"Sure," I said. "There're probably dozens of linguists who'd jump at the chance to work with a real Earth specimen."
She giggled uncomfortably. "That's a good description; he's a real specimen, all right."
"I thought he was going to apologize to you," I said cautiously. She gave me a wry grin, but there was no humor in it.
"I think he intended to, but by the time his male pride got through with him his 'apology' turned into something else. No harm done."
"And are you all right?" I asked her point blank. "That wasn't like you this morning."
"Oh, sure," she chirped, trying to sound casual. "I just wasn't feeling well all of a sudden. I guess I stayed out too late last night and it caught up with me. No problem. I hope I didn't worry anyone."
I shrugged my shoulders; I definitely wasn't buying it. "All right, I'll tell Alan I'll have another teacher for him as soon as I can. And thanks for all the time you spent on him."
"Glad to help out," she said, her voice trailing off absently. All that furor over a breakfast buffet, I mused. She stood up to go, but hesitated for a moment, then looked away for several seconds. "He said I should learn the difference between 'pillow talk' and reality," she muttered, and when she turned back her face was visibly dark with anger.
"I guess I should have said something earlier," I ventured, remembering my conversation with him on the way down the mountain.
"I don't need a chaperone," she snapped sharply, her fists clenching by her sides. There was an awkward pause. "Sorry," she finally mumbled. "Only-- Is something funny?"
In spite of the situation I couldn't help but smile. "Kiri said the same thing," I admitted. "I should have known better." The girl nodded sheepishly.
"She told me all about him years ago. I thought I saw something else there, though. Wishful thinking, I guess." After she left I called the main desk and asked to have Brinkman sent to my office.
"You're assigning me to someone else?" he complained when I broke the news to him. "Just because of that thing at breakfast?"
"Actually, Alan," I said patiently, "Sen requested this herself. She says you've learned about as much as you can from her, and thinks you ought to try someone else now."
"Maybe she has a point there," he grumbled. "Not a bad idea. All right, let me know who I'm supposed to see."
After that, I noticed that although Senaria was polite when she encountered him she made no effort to strike up, or carry on for that matter, any kind of conversation. He might have been a total stranger as far as she was concerned. This of course redounded to the benefit of Rann, who again had his beloved Senaria back to haunt.
That the realignment was official was made obvious the following morning when she asked Kiri for permission to teach Rann to fly the Futaba. Kiri of course granted it without a second thought; I knew she rated the young woman's flying skills second only to her own. "Just remember that Deshtiris isn't enemy territory any more," Kiri reminded her. "There are things like flight and traffic regulations to keep in mind." Soon Rann found his days well occupied, between flying in the morning and his afternoon bouts with Kiri.
Speaking of Rann, it was two days later that his hearing date finally came up. That it had taken nearly six months since the fall of the Brizali was not surprising; the job of collecting and collating the mass of documentation, virtually all of it electronic, had been immense. The destruction of Tar Deshta hadn't helped, either; although copies of most records were still available on other systems they weren't nearly as well organized.
The hearing room was in downtown Deshti, in one of the restored courthouses. Besides Kiri, Rann and myself, only Senaria and Gelhinda were in attendance. There were no reporters; after all, this was one of over a million such hearings being held all over the planet, and Rann was just another Brizal as far as the press was concerned. Somewhat cramped, with a small raised platform for the hearing officer, the chamber was relatively Spartan, with decorations limited to a Deshtiran emblem on one wall (flags are not much used on the Twin Planets) and on the rear wall the same photograph of the royal family that as a youth I'd once found in my guardian's possessions on Earth. The memory of the young girl with the red hair and giant green eyes had fascinated me for years afterward.
I imagine the hearing officer had seen that photograph staring back at him hundreds of times by now, but I don't think he had ever expected to see the Real McCoy standing directly underneath. Kiri, uncharacteristically, was apologetic. "We're only here as character witnesses for the defendant," she said humbly. "I don't expect you to give our testimony any more weight than any other citizen's." Yeah, right, I thought as the officer gulped and began the session.
To his credit, he conducted the proceedings according to strict form (even cutting me off at one point when I spoke out of turn). First the available record was read, and to our relief it contained no unexpected revelations of wrongdoing. Rann had indeed been a raw recruit, assigned to the most basic of chores, and at no time entrusted with any of the dirtier work of the Brizali.
It fell to me to describe our flight from Tar Deshta, as Kiri had been unconscious for most of it, and so I told how we had found Rann assigned to guard the Futaba against our anticipated return. A few moments' delay would have resulted in our vaporization with the rest of the city. Instead, recognizing the legendary Princess Mikiria, he had laid his sword at our feet and aided us in our escape. Literally seconds later we had been flashing away from the planet just ahead of the final fireball.
Kiri followed up by detailing Rann's loyal service since that time, stunning the official with the revelation that among other things he was now half of the royal bodyguard. After that there was little to be done. Giving the lad a mild reprimand for joining the Brizali in the first place, knowing of the atrocities laid at their feet, he cleared him of all charges and ordered the record expunged. Rann walked out a free citizen.
I sometimes wondered what the reaction would have been had the planet's inhabitants realized that an ex-Brizal was not only one of the royal bodyguards, but was regularly matching blades with the Empress herself as well as flying her legendary ship. The Deshtiran news establishment, unlike Earth's, had repeatedly shown its respect for the privacy of its new rulers, for centuries of experience with electronic media had demonstrated all too well that no one can govern effectively while living in a fish bowl. The general rule of thumb was that actions affecting the public were well-publicized; our private lives were left strictly alone unless we chose otherwise, as in the case of the palace restoration project.
That evening at dinner Brinkman seemed to be making a half-hearted attempt to mend fences with Senaria, rather to Rann's discomfiture. Senaria, to her credit, was bending over backwards to be civil (something obvious to Kiri and me, though probably not to Brinkman). The détente ended abruptly when the unlucky physicist began a rambling monologue comparing Earth women to the Qozernan product. I think he was making a misguided attempt to flatter the girl, but it was such a bizarre performance that I couldn't really be sure. For far too long Kiri and I alternated between embarrassment and an overwhelming desire to break out howling with laughter, while Senaria's expression gradually morphed into one of utter incredulity.
"Now take makeup, for example," he wound up with a flourish. "You really ought to consider trying some cosmetics. The right lipstick could complement your hair color." At that a hushed silence fell over the table, as I tried urgently to imagine myself somewhere else, anywhere else.
Cosmetics aren't at all unknown on Qozernon or Deshtiris. It's just that they're considered to be approximately in the same category of respectability as sex toys, something possibly to be experimented with behind closed doors when utter boredom has set in, but not generally mentioned in public. Cautiously I glanced around. Senaria had turned bright red (I did have to give Brinkman credit for actually making her blush, something not at all easy to do), and Kiri was hiding her face behind a napkin, wiping something invisible off her nose. Rann looked shocked. "Did I--?" began Brinkman hesitantly, at last noticing that something was amiss.
"Excuse me for a moment," mumbled Kiri, frantically trying to keep a straight face as she fled the room. I tried to look concerned, and said something about making sure she was all right as I hastily followed her. I caught up with her in the bathroom, where she was wheezing uncontrollably as she desperately tried to get her breath back. "Oh god," she gasped, "I can't believe that he-- that he actually--" and then words failed her as she quietly slid into hysterical laughter, dragging me along with her.
We finally managed to make our way back to the table, to find a much-chastened Brinkman carefully assaulting his food. Senaria and Rann were stifling grins as they did likewise. Brinkman finally nudged me in the ribs and whispered, "Look, will you explain to me later what it was that I said?" I nodded, altogether unwilling to trust speech at this point. Eventually things returned to normal, but I could tell from the mocking glances that Senaria shot in the physicist's direction from time to time that he had definitely not regained any ground with this particular campaign.
THE THREE MINDS. Copyright © 1998, 2000, 2001 Lamont Downs. All rights
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