Amulet Rampant (Fiction)
The third book of the 6-book Princes' Game series covering the Chatcaavan War.
- 1 Publication Data
- 2 Blurb
- 3 Tags and Content Notes
- 4 Buy Links
- 5 Synopsis
- 5.1 Prologue
- 5.2 Chapter One
- 5.3 Chapter Two
- 5.4 Chapter Three
- 5.5 Chapter Four
- 5.6 Chapter Five
- 5.7 Chapter Six
- 5.8 Chapter Seven
- 5.9 Chapter Eight
- 5.10 Chapter Nine
- 5.11 Chapter Ten
- 5.12 Chapter Eleven
- 5.13 Chapter Twelve
- 5.14 Chapter Thirteen
- 5.15 Chapter Fourteen
- 5.16 Chapter Fifteen
- 5.17 Chapter Sixteen
- 5.18 Chapter Seventeen
- 5.19 Chapter Eighteen
- 6 Characters
- Series: Princes' Game
- Book: 3
- Publication Date: February 2016
- Editions: Ebook, Paperback
- Revisions: 2
In an effort to stop a war and hold the Thorn Throne, the Chatcaavan Emperor has embarked on the bloody subjugation of the rebels who are tearing the Empire apart to serve their ambitions. He has left the palace in the hands of the newly christened Queen Ransomed and encircled her with his allies.
One of them is a traitor.
All the lessons the Queen has learned—in personhood, in agency, in courage—may not be enough to equip her for the challenges before her. Nor is she the only one facing a revelation that could shatter worlds: Lisinthir Nase Galare, newly returned to the Alliance, has invited his cousin to their promised assignation, and discovered by accident a weapon that could turn the tide.
Book Three of the Princes’ Game begins with a tryst and ends with a clarion call to battle. How many will answer the call? And will they see the end of the conflict unchanged?
The war is waiting.
Tags and Content Notes
- Tags: psychology, ensemble cast, tryst, politics, kink, dragons, furries, elves (space)
- Rating: R for violence, explicit sexual situations
Despite everything that had transpired, the Queen remained surprised that the Emperor had made her a promise and kept it. The Emperor shows up at her door, reminding her that she'd asked to see the sea. As he saw her looking out the window, he adds that he'd looked outside for contrails, too. They spend a few moments talking about their missing third, before again inviting her to see the shore. The way he does so, however, with her hand slipping over her palm, reminds her strongly of how the Ambassador made a gift of his pattern to her. Cryptically, the Emperor says that they'll discuss that later tonight and doesn't say more.
The actual trip to the sea took longer than she expected, though probably because she was measuring it against how it looked from her tower window: a straight drop down. But the Emperor drove her (!) to the shore. From up close, it's nothing like the view from the tower, with the cold tide and the beating water and the scent...! She spends a few moments mesmerized by the novelty of it before abruptly asking the Emperor if Chatcaava can swim ("With difficulty"). It's almost an overwhelming experience, but when she turns away, reflecting on the events that got her to this place, she is beckoned to leave, as the Emperor needs to get back to work. She asks if he'll come to her later, and he reiterates that they have much to discuss.
The conversation turns out to be about the Touch and the Change, since the Queen has the greater experience in it. She tells the Emperor that practicing the Change improves speed and ability to hold the shape, but patterns are created at the moment of the Touch, and one can only practice that by Touching other species to make them truer to original forms. Even so, she's flattered that he accepted her greater mastery so easily, showing his obsession with understanding reality.
The Queen confirms that initial patterns won't be as good as later ones, but also that paying attention to the process, losing oneself to the Touch helps the pattern set better. After mumbling to himself that it's hard for him to lose himself to anything, he states that he needs practice at the Touch and, thusly, aliens. The Queen mentions that they should be willing, and he dismisses any other possibility before, curious as ever, wondering aloud if it makes a difference. Reflecting on her own experiences (first two patterns from frightened slaves, the Eldritch princess who pulled away, the Ambassador who made a gift of it), she concludes that she thinks it does, since a good Touch takes time and concentration.
He approaches and, noting that she doesn't have to curl up in order to Change, asks her how much practice she's had at it. She replies that she was alone a lot and Changing gave her something to do. Noting that this was something she could do well and be proud of doing so, the Emperor uses that to dismiss the idea of Chatcaavan females having no desires. The Queen amends that to Chatcaavan females having no needs, but the Emperor says either way, the idea is wrong and kisses the corner of her mouth. However, the Queen continues, saying those in power can make it so if they want to. But he counters that they will, until their blindness causes them to make a mistake, and the oppressed destroy them.
This spooks the Queen, because she had spent so much of her life powerless to effect change, but now that she is aware of her own agency, that brings its own set of stresses. So, he distracts her from that path by asking if he will find aliens, and he tells her that his next trip will take him near enough to the border that he may find an opportunity to visit some of the Pelted worlds. He makes an offhand comment about the Admiral-Offense, which causes the Queen to worry about him doubting her Emperor. However, the Emperor says that the Admiral-Offense is his, and that his actions with Second have proved his mettle, even guessing he may become as dependable an ally as Command East, who he plans to leave here as the new Second.
The Queen offers her help. The Emperor presses her, asking her if she means it, and if she would tell him she is nothing, which the Queen recognizes as a small trap. However, she sees the way out as he waits patiently for her answer, and thusly concludes that while she may not be like other allies, she has unique talents to bring to the table. She reminds him that she is the Queen Ransomed, most exalted of all females in his Empire and... that she is not used to thinking of herself in this way. The Emperor reminds her not to let anyone tell her differently, and that she already helps by teaching him, and that she will serve him here better than she may know.
More to the point, he hates to leave her and expresses a desire to take her with him, hardly caring if it makes him look weak. He suggests that instead, they practice the Change and indulge themselves in some pleasure before he has to leave. The Queen hates that he has to leave, and the Emperor admits that he hates to leave, but they must pass through this to reach the other side. He asks for her help to walk that path, no matter the cost. She tells him that in the past, she thought that if she died, she couldn't be caged again, and that she still has that thought sometimes, and asks him if he feels pity. Instead, he feels pride, because it is a thought worthy of any Chatcaava.
They comfort each other by wearing the borrowed shape of their lover when they spend time together. In one particular moment, she has a thought that the Emperor choosing to use that form would draw her compliance with a glad heart, especially since it reminded them of what they'd lost. However, they are interrupted by the sound of boots on the landing, which means a guard. Seeing who it was causes the Emperor to tell her to watch closely. The guard, professional in demeanor, initially tenses when he finds an alien in the arms of the Slave Queen.
But having recognized the Emperor, he relaxed some, passing along that he was told to find the Emperor. The Emperor, after making him wait a few moments, rolls to his feet in a distinctly dragon-like way, telling the guard that he's discharged his errand and calling him by name. The guard gives a brief hesitation but bows, and as he rises again, the Emperor catches him by his nose and he freezes, though he still has his wings tilted forward in respect. When prompted, the guard states that the Emperor wears the shape of the alien who came from the Alliance and killed Third, and confirms that he is not repulsed by this appearance. Pressed to explain his lack of repulsion, the guard hesitates, then finally says "The Change is our birthright, Exalted... yet I have never seen it. That seems... wrong... to me."
The guard asks if it's wrong to be curious, but does state that he hasn't been punished for it, though he has been cautious. The Queen notes his pose, how still he was, and guessing this is a reason why he stood out. Saying that he rewards curiosity coupled with respect, he asks if the guard has wished to see the Change. Then he presses the guard on whether the Change is greatness, and his initial answer ("Because we can do it") is insufficient. He gives a better one: "Because through it we may understand the subtle and unknown... and knowledge is safety, and power."
Impressed, the Emperor drops his hand from the guard's nose and invites the guard to a greater test. The look in the guard's eyes... the Queen recognizes it as one of hunger for something never had before. The guard, Huuru, asks the Emperor to have his mettle, and the Emperor surprises everyone by stepping back to include the Queen Ransomed, calling her by title. More intriguing is him asking her what she thinks of Huuru. She asks Huuru if he recognizes her title, and he states that he's read the histories. "The Empire was different at its inception." The Emperor chimes in that it's not usual for males to read such histories, as it gives males and females dangerous ideas, the latter only if they were allowed to read. The Queen states a desire to read them, and Huuru is surprised she can read. Surprised and fascinated. It turns out that he is curious about the Queen, noting her lack of punishment for not speaking the way most females speak, and that she reads and has seen the Change. But then he's further shocked that she taught the Emperor the Change.
The Queen throws out a challenge of a question: "Does that make me great?" but Huuru surprises her by laughing with delight, then saying that the Queen reminds her of his dam. She's shocked to find that she likes him. The Emperor then turns to the guard, touching him with a finger under his chin, and asks him if he's offended to be judged by a female. The guard, however, states that she is the Queen Ransomed and -- after some gentle teasing from the Emperor -- that he loved his dam dearly. The Queen really likes him now, but the Emperor says that he could be lying. She looks at him askance because he's touching the guard with Eldritch fingers but the guard might not know what that means. So she plays along, saying that he couldn't say what he said out loud without being visibly disgusted.
Huuru pipes up that a practiced enough liar could and cautions her not to trust everything she's been told. Then, the Emperor asks her again if she's certain she likes the guard, and she reiterates that she does, reflecting on the grace with which Huuru submitted to this test. The Emperor then recaps the guard's assignment, then discards his name and gives him the title of the Knife. To the Queen, he gives a brief rundown of the title, which is the head of security for the Queen Ransomed, as well as her personal guard. The new Knife tries to pass off this responsibility as too great and himself as unworthy, but the Emperor tells him that he's been watching this new Knife, who couldn't hide his curiosity from every test. Further, he quizzes the Knife on what shape he's wearing, and the Knife answers correctly that it's an Eldritch's shape. It's here that the Knife puts together that since Eldritch feel through their skins, that the Emperor touching him was an additional part of his evaluation. When asked if he accepts, the Knife says "who would say no?"
Then, the Emperor checks with his Queen Ransomed to make sure she likes this choice, for her own reasons, then Changes back to his true form and leaves them to confer.
The Emperor returns in the evening, agitated. When asked, he states that he has to leave tonight, as matters have become urgent, perhaps even pivotal. They could even pass through this gate and thereby make the change that is needed. At her shiver, he quickly reassures her that in so striving, they shall know glory, win or lose... but he has no plans on losing. Still, she fears for her Emperor against those of the status quo and how they would fight change. He changes the subject to how she finds the new Knife. It turns out that he's changed the guard rotation and is working on fortifying the base of the tower to increase security.
Another thing that stuck with her was that the Knife loves his dam, and through that she brings up the Emperor's comment of the Empire not being the court. Elaborating, the Emperor tells of the Empire's size and how change foments in urban areas, then erratically trickles outward depending on trade routes and military expansion. In essence, the more provincial the Chatcaava, the less extreme attitudes towards females and aliens they have. Conversely, they also are far from centers of commerce and power, so those beliefs remain those of the poor and disenfranchised. This is one of the Emperor's challenges. The Queen catches on, saying that he began with the Navy and is using it to break apart existing power structures, since the Navy is widespread.
Complimenting her on her underestimated understanding, he says that his intentions prior to the Ambassador tearing through the court were less noble, that he wanted the throne because it was what males with ambition do, and speaking very slightly of his origins. The Queen feels a sudden desire to pry into these origins, but doesn't know how to frame the questions. Instead, she shifts the conversation to finding new uses for these tools, like with the Knife. The Knife was apparently due a reward for his exemplary performance, so the Emperor assigned him harem duty as a prize. After a brief digression into whether or not the harem is treasure, the Emperor tells her to use the weapon he's given her, and also see to the safety of the children. Now, he sees his children as seeds to catalyze the changes needed so they survive in the Empire.
Unfortunately, he has to leave the disposition of the children to her, as he has to fight the more obvious battle against those who see the change and believe it weakness. The Emperor will kill them all if need be, if it drags on too long, and that some forms of compassion "are a little too Alliance for me yet." The Queen pushes him on this, and he says he doubts he'll change, but also a year ago he also doubted he would change. Then, he drops on her that she now has computer access and the Knife should teach her how to use it, even to send a note to her "pretty Seersa girl".
After a night of sex, the Queen wakes up, bereft of the Emperor's presence even in the form of bruises or aches. Dismayed at how fast he had to leave, she guesses that he'd left securing the court to this new Second, once Command-East. So she had her own tasks as she saw it: contact Laniis, secure the 'treasure' in the tower, see to the children. And, she had a Knife to do it. This seemed significant, because even though he didn't seem concerned, the Emperor had still left her a weapon... so was he expecting trouble?
The Queen comes to the realization that he was treating her as a true partner, like how her new title entailed. Thus, she had a responsibility to make her own title true. After allowing herself a few moments to just be astonished that she had work to do, she takes a few breaths to calm her anxiety, then goes to consider how to grapple with these tasks.
The Night Admiral states Lisinthir's desire rather starkly: "So you want permission to fly off to the contested border on the eve of an intergalactic war and dig around until someone notices and decides to kill you." Lisinthir is, of course, relaxed, conscious he's projecting arrogance and conscious that the Night Admiral, a dark-furred Hinichi, was probably picking up on it. Also, the Night Admiral is extremely busy, and yet he was able to get an appointment. So he answers: "Yes." The Night Admiral, who was making himself a cup of coffee, simply looks over his shoulder, cocks a brow, then acquiesces. Even though Lisinthir senses he's found an ally, he replies with, "Just that."
The Hinichi offers coffee and Lisinthir accepts, requesting it black. The admiral brings both cups to the table in front of him and takes a seat across from him. Idly, Lisinthir wonders if the view of water by the desk is real, since he was not told where the Pad he took to this meeting would be transporting him. Finally, the Hinichi asks him if he's surprised, but Lisinthir tells him he didn't have any expectations, having simply come here to learn something. But then, he goes on to say that if the Admiral hadn't said yes, he would have done it on his own... which is why the Admiral said yes. Seemingly amused, the Hinichi tells him that it was to have visibility, and that he and his organization could outfit him better than his Queen could. Lisinthir approves the pragmatism, and the Night Admiral says that his job demands at least some.
Briefly (and to an extent, inexplicably) bothered by the address of "Lord Nase Galare," Lisinthir goes into a discussion of specifics. The wolfine tells him that certain parameters are non-negotiable, which Lisinthir agrees to on the grounds that he can ask an impertinent question: "Is it a technological solution that makes you black with golden eyes? Some sort of glamor? Or have you dyed your fur and filmed your irises?" The Hinichi puts his cup down and waits, but, ever the hunter, Lisinthir waits as well, finding it restful.
Finally, the Hinichi asks what made Lisinthir ask that question. Lisinthir replies that he saw a hair before he sat down, and brushes off the protestation that it could have been the Night Admiral's last guest. He's the Night Admiral, he undoubtedly has cleaning people or cleaning machines. Besides, Lisinthir's done some research, and the last Night Admiral (a chance picture in a news archive) was also black with golden eyes. Again, the wolfine brushes this off, when Lisinthir finally tells him that he doesn't carry himself like a black wolf with golden eyes. Having finally penetrated the man's calm, the Eldritch goes on: Though he doesn't exactly know how he knows, he reads that the wolfine moves like someone wearing a mask, who is unafraid to be recognized.
Lisinthir asks for confirmation, and is pleased that the Night Admiral opts to tell him the truth. He could probably have worked with a Night Admiral that chose to lie, but it wouldn't be optimal. As it turns out, the Night Admiral's true colors are silver fur with brown eyes, and Lisinthir compliments the latter. The wolfine goes on to say that it is a technological solution, a projection that Lisinthir will have himself for protection, because Eldritch stand out. When asked if it could make him look like something else, the Night Admiral sings the praises of the device, saying Lisinthir could present as an Akubi, and someone would be able to touch his head, nine feet off the ground. Amused by Lisinthir's surprise, the Hinichi goes on, saying that it's best to change as little as possible, which will preserve the illusion in other ways. However, his own was literally just a color overlay, so how Lisinthir could see through it was impressive. The Eldritch shrugs this off. When asked if he usually touches others to do what he does, Lisinthir replies that his intuition has been "...rigorously exercised". As he expresses interest in acquiring one of these items, the Night Admiral tells him that the Fleet tech isn't trivial, and that he won't be able to lose it.
Wondering briefly how that is accomplished, Lisinthir returns the conversation to the non-negotiable parameters, the first of which is that the Night Admiral pick the personnel. Lisinthir easily agrees to this, as he knows nobody he could recruit, but then the Night Admiral reminds him that he does. When the Hinichi presses the point, Lisinthir tells him that he wasn't thinking of her until maybe that moment, and is unsure if he's lying. The Night Admiral insists on picking the personnel, and again Lisinthir agrees, with the caveats that he be allowed to say if one seems unsuitable to the task (to which the Night Admiral agrees) and that she be given the choice to come or not.
The Night Admiral starts a staring contest at that, which Lisinthir wins. He is pleased, however, that the wolfine didn't back down, saying that he won't send anybody that could be a liability. Lisinthir attempts to get a statement on the person in question's medical status, but the Night Admiral cuts off the conversation with a touch of a growl. However, he does say that he'll agree to put the mission to her, assuming the healers clear her. Lisinthir agrees, and, feeling the understanding between them, states aloud something he'd only just put together: the Night Admiral is a woman.
Very surprised at this, the Hinichi demands to know how Lisinthir knows, but the Eldritch says with a smile that he's a "special case", then gently changes the subject to timing. Before they move on, however, Lisinthir assures the Night Admiral that he'll keep the other's secrets, and "no shapechanged Chatcaava borrowing an Eldritch's abilities will ever get close enough" to find out.
Timing is, of course, the hard part. Not just because the Night Admiral needs to scare up the resources, but also because he insists that Lisinthir take the time to recover and recondition his body. That, and the dream he had seemed terribly accurate that he not enter the field before time, so he's able to tolerate the delay. Plus, it gives him time to keep his promise to Jahir, so it's a bit of a holiday. Especially since he needs to rebuild his wardrobe and buy gifts and supplies.
To those ends, Starbase Alpha would be ideal for his purposes, but before that, he has an errand and drops by Fleet Central Hospital, where he had his acclimatization training. A half hour later, he runs into who he came to see, Elena Dovin, who expresses surprise and delight that he's come to see her, and grins when he offers to buy her a drink. Elena and her brother Kazimir were two healer-assists who were his primary points of contact while he was going through the regimen, and they always had an off-color joke and steady hand.
At the bar, Elena -- though flattered that he asked for her -- comments on Lisinthir's still somewhat emaciated state. Lisinthir tells her she doesn't want to know, and he may not be able to tell her. Then, Elena gets down to business: Why is he here? The reason makes her pupils dialate: "An Eldritch is asking me to induct him into sexual perversity?" Immediately, she demands to know why her, and when he tries to brush that off as a joke, she covers Lisinthir's drink with her hand, calling him out on using it to help hide his expression from her. Lisinthir has a friend who he suspects "needs rough treatment." He doesn't know how to give it safely, and hopes that either she or her brother or both will be able to instruct him. After all, they've established body-trust already, and they are both healers-assist, and have an understanding of injury and healing.
It seems that Elena's brother is on vacation, and Elena's boss has been pressing her to take time off, so she considers this the biggest of all available signs that she should stop working so hard. That, and this is going to ruin every gift-giving holiday for a good long time, so Elena feels she has to say yes. She does apologize for smudging Lisinthir's glass, but Lisinthir says that she has good, intriguing instincts: she moved to control the situation. He asks her if that is what appeals to submissives, and she responds by laughing that this is going to be a fun education. Guessing that time is short, she moves to immediately arrange a place for them to meet in a more private setting, so they can tell how long it's going to take for him to get that knowledge, and that he'd better learn it before touching anyone. Lisinthir calls her alet as he agrees, but she responds that it's 'arii' since they are going to be quite intimate in the days to come.
Information was the first thing the Ambassador needed, what he always thirsted for. The Emperor's curiosity was also driven by information, so the Slave Queen sought to emulate them by seeking information and putting it to some use. So, she went to the console and woke it, having had some experience with similar interfaces in her youth. However, the Emperor had given her complete access, and the amount of information at her fingertips was dizzying. But then, she thinks that the Emperor had given her the tower to caretake, so why not begin there? And that necessitated the questions of who lived there, how many females, how many children?
But that leads to another question, one she poses to the Knife when he arrives: The official tally has scratches, and what does that mean? Evidently, scratches refer to the confidence of an estimate, and three means it is an unreliable estimation. In essence, nobody knows nor particularly cares how many females and children are in the harem. They are the Emperor's property, as the Knife explains, but if they escape or are stolen, it's no big deal. Females and children simply consume resources, and are considered liabilities. Seeing the look on the Queen's face, he quickly adds that this idea is not common where he comes from, but in the throneworld and in places of power, females have limited uses.
This thought process isn't new to the Queen, but to have it starkly laid out for her made it real. However, she sets her dismay aside, because the Emperor considers them valuable, otherwise he wouldn't have given her a Knife. Said Knife goes on to clarify that things in the Navy are different, as one rises according to their ambition and ability. The Queen brings the conversation to guard duty, and how it's seen as a reward. Despite the lack of value perceived in the larger court of guarding the harem, it is the trust in guarding it that conveys value... but basically it's about males and how they appear to other males. However, the Queen informs the Knife that things are changing, that the females and children are now genuine assets, and the Emperor wants her to decide what they can be used for. Then, she tells him about her search for more information, and the Knife offers to tell her about logistics.
Jahir is working on a lesson in Chatcaavan grammar when the summons finally came. After reading it, he goes to the kitchen and reflects that he'd picked up his partner's association of cooking with safety. Idly, he wonders how he'd be seen back home, cooking like a menial, and his thoughts drift from that to the scars he'd gotten on his side. After touching one, he goes for cream.
When Vasiht'h comes home 15 minutes later, he stops short to suggest that they dip something into whatever Jahir was cooking. He offers some suggestions, then tastes Jahir's offering and decides on churros. He then intuits that Lisinthir sent for Jahir, and through Jahir's relief they talk a bit about how Lisinthir's a bit overdue while setting the table for their impending snack.
After they've eaten, Jahir asks what Vasiht'h will do while he's gone, and Vasiht'h admits that he's been thinking of talking to a priestess to have kids. Both are surprised by Jahir's happiness at the announcement. Vasiht'h goes on to explain how the process works: he needs to apply at the temple and find a priestess with a compatible genetic profile, then children. Further, he explains that he won't marry the priestess, that the priesthood is basically a network of surrogates that serve the Goddess by creating kits on behalf of those who can't or don't want to themselves.
Jahir wonders what he would be to his partner's children, and what he would be as a parent. Vasiht'h doesn't know either, but gently suggests that Sediryl would count in his favor that he has experience raising children. Jahir admits that he doesn't know if she wants children, which also answers that yes, he also holds a candle for her, and after admitting such to Lisinthir, he wonders a bit why he waited so long to tell Vasiht'h directly. And yet, they are both at ease with it, and with the irrevocable change.
They talk about when Jahir is to leave, and arranging their caseload. Vasiht'h says that he intends to stop over on Tam-lay to see his sister before going to Anseahla. They spend a moment simply holding hands while Jahir reflects about life, and then they clean up from their snack.
Later, Jahir is resting on the bed while Vasiht'h is in the shower. He reads Lisinthir's short note again, knowing he's seeing innuendo in the note that isn't indicated by the words on it. He writes his reply in the white mode, and Vasiht'h comes back in as he's sending it off. The Glaseah brings up probably moving to a place with more rooms, and Jahir can feel the anxiety in the mindline that belied the casual statement. He agrees that they'll find one if need be, and reiterates that they're moving on with their lives. With "I love you"s said in the mindline, they go to sleep.
While the Knife finishes his lecture and goes off to secure the Queen's computer, she sits on the windowsill or paces and thinks. It's clear that the females and children being guarded are, in the estimation of the status quo, worthless. Guarding them is really only to create jobs for an Empire that doesn't quite have enough of them for eager followers. But the Emperor considers it an opportunity, and discovering what that opportunity was wouldn't come from information she could access on the computer.
The nursery was on a different level, and guarded by the ubiquitous guards and also tongueless female slaves. Going there wasn't the best feeling in the world, as, if she were still capable of bearing a child, she'd want to bear this Emperor, as he is now, one. Still, they're his kids, and now hers, in a matter of speaking, at least to ward for him. So in she goes, and then she stops.
The Mother is in there, a child clinging to her leg, another to her tail, and an infant in her arms. The one in her arms was probably female, but the two hanging onto her had wings and were male, and the two male children were in an area that was reserved for female children. Had the Mother wanted to see her own child, she would have gone to the exterior room where the male children were kept.
Typically, a harem female who serves as the mother gives up the right to see their infants a month after birth, when the jewels of the Mother were returned to the Slave Queen. But the Queen didn't remember receiving them (she was kinda caught up in things) and the Mother wasn't wearing them. And she was in the nursery.
Said Mother begins to stammer an apology, but the Queen stops her, telling the Mother that the Queen is not her better and to not address her as male. The Mother apologizes again, visibly trembling, and the Queen, slowly, tells her that she doesn't need an excuse but does want an explanation. The Mother mumbles that she likes children, which completely throws the Slave Queen. And yet, when she attempts to confirm that the reason the Mother is in the nursery is simply a love for children, the Mother lifts her chin and says nothing. Because of that, she gently guides the Mother to a bench, telling her she can keep the baby in her arms.
One of the children (who the Slave Queen can't guess the age of, having not seen enough children) demands to know what they're supposed to do, and begins standing up for the Mother despite her attempts to shoo him off and placate him. The Slave Queen, however, tells him that she means no harm to the Mother, and this seems to allow him to relax long enough to withdraw, though the Mother tells him to ask permission from the Slave Queen to leave, since she is the Queen. Gale, as he is apparently called, asks if she is worthy of respect, and the Mother cites the time when the Slave Queen intervened to save her life. This seems to satisfy him, and he and the other child leave, with the Slave Queen's permission, though they go to join a game of sticks with two other females in the females' room. Baffled, the Queen asks about that, and the Mother tells her directly that they are friends with two of the females, and indirectly that males and females intermingle when unsupervised by those not guards.
The Queen brings up the fact that the Mother likes children, and the Mother admits it, saying it's perverse. The Slave Queen tells her it may be the opposite, then notes the Mother not giving back the jewels of her title and that she was kind to Laniis, and calls her a rebel. The Mother objects, but the Slave Queen admits that she has been retitled, calling herself Treasure of the Emperor, and soul-changed. The Queen the moves the conversation to how long the Mother has been here, and if the baby she's holding is hers. The Mother assents and immediately offers the Queen the infant, and she contends with making sure she's holding the baby right without the extra arms to stabilize. Finally, the Mother admits that she's been coming since she was separated from her child, saying the other children are so lonely since the caretakers can't speak and the guards don't.
What the Mother does do is tell them stories, ones she heard from her mother, who heard them from her mother, about the old religion. The Slave Queen is surprised she says this, but then the Mother tells her that she named her bodyslave "Khaska." The Queen, of course, didn't expect that this would reveal her, since she didn't know anyone who followed the old religion, much less knew that children were used to call the celebrants to worship. The Slave Queen's mother had never told her these stories.
The Slave Queen tells the Mother that she won't punish her, but "what I do instead may seem like punishment, however." She then gives the infant back to the Mother, telling her that she'll be sent for, and that the Mother can keep the jewels. She then calls Gale, and entrusts him with the Mother and also to not do anything to attract attention, and also to disperse when they see females they don't recognize.
As she goes toward the door, the Slave Queen has a thought regarding the females guarding the nursery. On her way back up, she wonders about these tongueless females, and if they could be allies as well. Her thoughts drift to the Mother being a rebel, born of rebels, and is seized by the potential in these children and females, and resolves to protect them. But then, the thought becomes, what if she can't?
Jahir, having the easier, shorter trip, sees Vasiht'h off earlier in the day, then has the apartment to himself for the night. Fortunately so. He spends the trip catching up on medical journals and doing more lessons in Chatcaavan, surprised he can concentrate when he's heading off to an assignation. But then, the anxiety was in the decision to go, and with that made, he was comfortably in Lisinthir's hands. Starbase Alpha was his destination, the first Starbase and the one located in the same system as Karaka'A, Seersana, and Selnor. Considering all the traffic, Jahir is amazed there's only a half-hour delay between arrival and landing.
Once he's off the shuttle, Jahir realizes he has no idea where he's meeting Lisinthir. He doubts he can ask anybody, since The Veil prevents even him, who's been living on Veta for years, from having his address listed publicly. And yet, when he consults a starbase directory from habit, he finds Lisinthir on there as well as a location for him. Puzzled that he was able to find such information, he leaves the dock.
It's expected that Lisinthir chooses a section of the base that looks like a base instead of having that aspect hidden away. Jahir stops at an observation portal to look down at the city beneath its shielded sphere. When he does arrive at the suite, he wonders if it is taken by someone else and starts to compose possible responses. But Lisinthir opens the door, gripping him by his shirt, and pulling enough to make him sway forward into a kiss. Lisinthir pulls from the kiss, compliments him, and leads him inside.
Lisinthir telling Jahir and Vasiht'h that he doesn't like coercion doesn't seem entirely accurate, because he finds himself very willing to shape Jahir. So he uses that as an excuse to trap Jahir against a wall to kiss him again. The Harat-Shar were right, there was something erotic about someone breathing, and leaning hard on Jahir's ribcage to make him shake was erotic to Lisinthir. But then, he gives his cousin another kiss of welcome, and offers to take his bag. Jahir, thrown by the sudden change of subject, assents.
In Universal, Lisinthir offers Jahir something to eat, which the latter declines, having eaten on the shuttle. Lisinthir admires Jahir's dress before setting the other Eldritch's bag in the bedroom and returns, asking if Jahir likes the view from the window. Jahir is unsurprised though wonders if the suite is due them being Eldritch lords and used to space. While privately, the view reminds Lisinthir of nights spent in the Emperor's tower, he says that the penthouse was large enough for a royal court and this was a "fine compromise." Jahir immediately calls Lisinthir out on that, which Lisinthir accepts with grace.
However, that leads to a language switch, with Jahir commenting in gray that he's nervous. Lisinthir bids him to sit and drink wine, asking about Vasiht'h. Upon learning that Vasiht'h is going home, he comments that Vasiht'h is building the generational chain to keep pace with Jahir. Jahir, however, doesn't react to this, keeping his eyes lowered and thereby giving away his agitation. Lisinthir beckons Jahir closer, though notes that Jahir's feelings are affecting the way he moves. However, he does sit (more collapse) at Lisinthir's feet when pulled closer, and Lisinthir pulls his cousin close.
Jahir mentions that part of him wants Lisinthir to just do it already, though Lisinthir returns that that action lacks ceremony. Lamenting the anticipation, Jahir suddenly asks if Lisinthir's first time was like this. After a gentle teasing, Lisinthir asks for clarification in such a way that causes Jahir to think rather than react. Jahir admits he thinks Lisinthir remained chaste, which surprises Lisinthir, since that also stated an assumption that all Eldritch nobles were like that. Lisinthir then educates Jahir on the seedier side of Eldritch noble politics, one he wouldn't have gotten through his paragon of a father: "What I mean to tell you, cousin, is that all men have affairs and molest the help... The rest of us were told not to impregnate the girls with tumbled. Mostly."
Finding Jahir's purity beautiful, Lisinthir tones down his rhetoric somewhat, telling his cousin that most nobles did not marry for love or love didn't survive the Eldritch lifespan. In addition, his father openly encouraged him to dally, since he could hold that against his mother. When Jahir begins to imply that Lisinthir slept with servants without their consent, a tired but amused Lisinthir tells him that he didn't coerce, he was chased and allowed himself to be caught by women who fully intended to use him for their own purposes. Jahir's further shock prompts Lisinthir to slide the conversation back into Universal to reveal that two of the women wanted money since he was a rich heir, neither encounter of which moved past fondling, and a third that happened when he was young and a woman wanted to bear a child since her husband hadn't gotten her with one yet. Even though he was pleased with himself for having brought a woman pleasure but not with child (since that would cause his parents to fight), he realized later what the woman might have been after and said he wouldn't have wanted a child that way.
But that wasn't the virginity Jahir was asking after. To answer, Lisinthir says that any warning probably wouldn't have been enough, but it is not how he plans things for Jahir. Lisinthir lost his innocence not when lovemaking, or even rape, but a physical contest with the Emperor, and that he could have died. After needling Jahir by throwing his own words back at him, he says that he won't tumble Jahir when he's so fresh from the shuttle, and that they've got about two weeks to spare. Jahir wonders what took so long, but Lisinthir replies that he'd prefer not to say because he doesn't want Jahir to know things that could be pried from him. He expects Jahir to protest, but he doesn't, because Jahir "[tries] not to make promises unless [he] knows [he] will keep them." Lisinthir then details that part of the delay was the medical attention he needed, and the logistical challenges of summoning a group of Alliance spies who will accompany him as he seeks intelligence on the war from the Chatcaavan side.
Lisinthir then gives Jahir a rundown on how the Chatcaavan Empire is falling apart: the system lords used to hold all the power, so the Emperor wrested power from them via the Navy. But now someone in the Navy has betrayed the Emperor. Jahir makes the connection of the Chatcaavan vessel carrying more crew than it could technically support, which means the Navy was either observing the system defense forces or the other way around. Lisinthir agrees and takes pleasure in Jahir's agile mind, but is thrown a bit when Jahir kisses the thumb he'd rested against the other Eldritch's lower lip. Recalling the importance of transitions, Lisinthir abruptly suggests they go walking and eventually have dinner, but when they get back, "[t]here will be kissing and touching, but no deflowering."
Amused, Jahir nevertheless objects to the terminology, but Lisinthir insists on it. Remarking that it's better than the analogy of being ridden like a stud and put away wet, Jahir is taken off guard by Lisinthir saying the new metaphor "makes up in elegance what it lacks in accuracy." Enjoying Jahir's glaring blush, Lisinthir calls him delicious and guides them towards the door, grabbing a coat. Jahir remarks on the coat being fancy and asks if he goes out conspicuously, and Lisinthir tells him that he does so that when he goes dancing, it isn't as noticeable. Jahir makes an observation about the hair being a giveaway, then realizes that maybe Lisinthir was serious about going dancing. Lisinthir, of course, is.
Jahir has no idea if he's relieved or anxious or both. While he's sorting out his feelings, he does take a look at his cousin, and marvels at how much better he looks than the last time he saw him. He could have met Lisinthir at court, had the attended at the same time, and idly wonders what he would have thought of that Lisinthir. To add to that, it's a wonder the world ever held him, since he obviously did not belong on the Eldritch homeworld or even in the Alliance, for all the ease with which he moved through both. What would Lisinthir be like among the dragons...?
Lisinthir asks him for his thoughts, and he says "Dragons." Lisinthir smiles but doesn't press.
They take the lift not to a Pad station or any other place Jahir expected, but to to a shadowed promenade lit with colored lights. Lisinthir bids him to keep close, and the two travel through the crowd, with Jahir grateful that it was at least easy to keep track of Lisinthir. Despite the crowd within, the market fascinates Jahir in its contrast with Veta's markets. Particular the emulation of the night sky, and the people wearing glowing clothes or paint.
Lisinthir draws his attention and mentions that this is like some of the clubs they'll go to later, and in order to do so, they'll be going to a shop to "decorate" themselves. It's that, or "an alternate plan". Lisinthir then shrugs off Jahir's question of if he should be worried, then mentions that he's been here a bunch of times before, and that the Trenches has an interesting history that he'll tell Jahir over dinner.
They arrive at their destination, a shop draped in technology to make it seem darker than outside, and that muffles and obscures people within displays. The masks, the displays of which were the only sources of light he could see, struck him with their glory. They were art, and didn't have prices listed next to them. Jahir asks if Lisinthir means for them to go masked to this club, and Lisinthir mentions that the club requires costume. Plus, Jahir has a practice and a partner, so it might behoove him to go masked to keep trust. Which means that Lisinthir intends them to be dancing in a salacious manner. Jahir says that Lisinthir may be disappointed (and wonders why) but Lisinthir has confidence he won't be.
They look through the place, which calls to mind a museum of some kind with an erotic flavor to it. They find Lisinthir's, "a half-mask in black leather with sleek horns: the face of a demon, or a dragon, unadorned save for the starkness of its uncompromising lines" and agree that it's meant for him. Jahir's was, to his surprise, just as easy to find, ornamental to Lisinthir's austere, asymmetrical and reminiscent of a swan descending. Lisinthir, upon seeing it, denies Jahir the chance to say no to it and goes to purchase it, leaving Jahir to look at the mask again.
He asks to pay for the mask when Lisinthir comes back, but Lisinthir already went and paid for it. However, he volunteers that Jahir can pay for the expensive dinner, which helps Jahir relax some. Stating that the masks will be delivered, Lisinthir leads them from the store and to their next destination, a restaurant that looks like an art installation.