We started off the next morning lounging around my mother's pool. By mid-June the temperature in Las Vegas is usually hitting the hundreds, and even though the air is so dry that it doesn't really seem all that hot, swimming is still a great way to get some exercise without collapsing from heat stroke. For the first half-hour we swam and dove in a respectable manner, but before long things degenerated into a game of mutual tag. It was horseplay, it was fun, and it was also, I realized libidinously, a socially acceptable excuse for considerable physical contact, as Rann grabbed me by the waist and pulled me under the water for the nth time and I made plans to do likewise--once I managed to get my breath back.
Although this news may astonish the reader, in spite of the extreme summer heat the majority of homes in Las Vegas don't boast swimming pools. This has nothing whatsoever to do with water conservation, even though the Las Vegas Valley's population growth has far outstripped any increase in available water supplies (not to mention the already overburdened Colorado River, which is just a sad trickle by the time it gets to Mexico). Nor has the local gambling (euphemistically referred to here as "gaming") industry shown much restraint in the ever-increasing number of fountains, lakes, and other decorative waterworks under construction. No--it's just too expensive to chip through the stubborn layer of caliche that lies anywhere from a few inches to a few feet below the surface in most parts of the Valley. That we had a pool was a legacy from my unlamented father, or rather from his highly lucrative medical specialist's practice (a.k.a. License to Steal).
"Tell me about this Empress Mikiria," I said as we settled ourselves into deck chairs during a brief respite. I wondered if speaking her name aloud would render me guilty of lèse majesté‚ or worse, but after all Rann had mentioned her quite a few times, so I thought it ought to be safe.
What I wasn't prepared for was the burst of enthusiasm that erupted from him like water from a hydrant. "She's just incredible," he gushed. "The most brilliant computer genius on three planets, the best swordsman I've ever seen, and amazing agility. She can leap--"
"Tall buildings in a single bound?" I finished skeptically for him. It didn't even slow him down.
"She can jump straight up at least six feet," he resumed, having hardly taken a breath. "She has astonishing strength. It's all part of the genetic tinkering her father did to her before she was born. That and the eyes," he added, his own a bit starry.
"Her eyes," I repeated. "What about her eyes?"
He looked nonplused. "Oh. I never told you about her eyes?" I shook my head. "Well," he continued, "they're at least twice as big as yours or mine. They're also green. I mean really green, like emeralds. For some reason they remind me of a cat's. I think it's because the pupils are a little taller than they are wide. Sometimes I catch myself just staring at her eyes if I'm not thinking about it. Oh, and something else I forgot. She has deep red hair, really red, not what you call red hair."
"She sounds pretty interesting," I said noncommittally. The mental picture I'd formed by now was not a pretty one. "But how is it that you get to hang around an Empress, anyway?" I added suspiciously. "Does everyone on Deshtiris get to stare into the Empress' eyes? Or are you related to her?"
"It's a long story," he said rather abruptly. "Maybe another time." I noticed that he blushed slightly as he said it. I made a mental note to follow up later.
"All right," I summarized. "Green eyes, red hair, super strength, athletic prowess in fencing, and highly marketable computer skills. Not quite your standard qualifications for Ruler of the Universe. So how is she as an Empress? From what you told me earlier, she hasn't exactly spent her life doing this. And didn't you say there was an Emperor, too?"
Rann looked startled at my comment, even shocked. "She's a wonderful Empress," he protested. "Everyone loves her. And Emperor Wilorian, too."
"There's more to leadership than being lovable," I argued. "How are they as rulers? Do they get things done?" I've always been fascinated by power, by how people get it and use it. At one point I used to read a lot about Hitler and the Nazis, wondering how people like that ever managed to take over a civilized, technologically sophisticated nation like Germany. Of course, I had to admit that part of it too was that no matter how much I read, it still all ended up somehow sounding like wildly improbable science fiction. I sometimes found it hard to grasp that something so outlandish had actually happened. But now I had an envoy of the Empress of Deshtiris in my house, and I was admittedly finding it a little difficult to get a handle on that as well.
Rann had been thinking very hard all this time, and when he did regain the gift of speech he was clearly putting a lot more thought into it. "They are good leaders," he said finally. "They've accomplished an awful lot since freeing the planet. I guess they're what you'd call administrators, getting all the different organizations that actually do things to pull in the same direction. But even more than that, they've persuaded everyone to follow them. I don't really know how, but somehow when you hear them speak, you know that they're doing what they think is right, not just what will benefit one group or another. There's a kind of 'rightness' about them. Not 'righteousness,' " he added hastily. " 'Rightness' is the best word I can think of. I really don't know how to say it better than that," he finished helplessly.
" 'Rightness.' " I repeated the word thoughtfully. "I think you're saying it pretty well, actually." It suddenly occurred to me how aptly the word fit Rann himself.
We were just about to dive back in for another bout of water wrestling when I saw it. "Where did you get that scar?" I said in some surprise. It was about an inch and a half long, located on his left side a few inches below his armpit.
"There're two, actually," he informed me proudly, and turned around. There was a second one on his back, just a few inches from the first. I suddenly realized that something had gone through several inches of flesh, probably grazing a rib or two in the process.
"That had to hurt," I commented with a shudder. "How did you get it?"
"It was when we rescued Senaria," he answered. "Some of the Brizali didn't want to give up without a fight. One of them managed to slip past my guard for a moment with his sword." He winced at the memory.
"A sword?" I said in astonishment. "Your society is advanced enough to build starships and you use swords?"
"We quit using firearms centuries ago," he explained. "With a sword you have to be physically close to someone to hurt them. People are less likely to indulge in mindless violence when they have to see the results of their actions at close range. Not to mention that firearms have a way of mutating all by themselves into ever more deadly strains."
"Besides," he added enthusiastically, "sword training is great exercise. It's a very popular sport back home." I couldn't argue with that, I thought, again admiring his physique.
"I'm surprised you still have a scar," I said. "I'd think that with all your advanced technology you could have easily healed without one."
He shook his head. "Sure. But it's our choice. People often decide to leave them alone as a kind of souvenir, if it was in a good cause. This was."
"Did you know," he added as something occurred to him, "that Kiri got run clear through the heart in that crazy adventure at Tar Deshta?" It took a second for it to sink in.
"You mean with a sword?" I finally choked. "And she's still alive?"
"I told you how her father enhanced her genetically. One of the enhancements was a second heart. Saved her life." He looked perfectly serious, too.
"You are kidding, aren't you?" I said weakly, already knowing he probably wasn't.
"No, really. She was up and around a week later, too. Anyway, she still has the scars from that. Says she wouldn't remove them for anything. They're really almost invisible, though," he added.
"Oh, you've seen them?" I said innocently. "So where are they, exactly?"
"Well, one's on her back, on the left side," not seeing the trap until it was too late, "and the other's on her--her--uh--her left--uh--"
"Yes?" I prodded him sweetly.
"Uh, over her heart, of course," he finished lamely. By then it was all I could do to fend off a nearly uncontrollable case of the giggles. Rann, you really are a guileless soul, I thought to myself.
This page last updated 2/5/2010.|