"I wept and I wailed when I saw the unfamiliar land."
—EMPEDOCLES OF AGRAGAS
A spark flew, spiraling upward from the massive frame of the new Port Authority building. Its fiery light winked out against the heavy plastic pane that separated the deep pit of the construction bay from the temporary spaceport offices.
Two young women sat on a padded bench by the huge overlook. One, black-skinned and black-haired, watched the work below. The second, looking pale and light-haired mostly in contrast to her companion, studied the words she had just typed into her hand-held computer slate. She frowned.
"What are you writing, Tess?" asked the first, turning back to her friend. Then she grinned. "Sweet Goddess, what language is that in?"
Tess tapped save and clear and the words vanished. "Just practicing." She shrugged. "That was late American English. It's only about 300 years old, so you could probably puzzle it out given time. I built in a translation program. Here's how the same thing would look in classical Latin." Words appeared again. "Ophiuchi-Sei." The letters shifted to a fluid script. "And here's court Chapalii. Formal Chapalii. And colloquial enscribed Chapalii. You'll notice how the glyphs differ in written form only in the tails and in the angling of the curve—"
"You are nervous, aren't you? What if the captain refuses you passage?"
"He won't refuse," muttered Tess. She brushed her hand across the screen, clearing it. "And steward class Chapalii of course has no enscribed counterpart at all, so I've transcribed it into Anglais characters. What do you think, Soje? It's an act of rebellion, you know, for stewards to write."
Sojourner lifted her brows questioningly and glanced out at the new port building rising behind them along alien lines. Along Chapalii lines. "Is that why the chameleons think we humans are barbarians? Because we allow everyone to write?"
Tess laughed. "That doesn't help. No, because our spoken tongue and written tongue are the same, and a standard. Because we're too egalitarian. Because we're so young, as a species, as a culture, compared to them."
"Because our physiological system is so inefficient, compared to theirs?" Sojourner waved toward the building behind them. "Just like our technology is primitive? I hate them." She glanced around the waiting chamber. The walls, a muted orange in the fading daylight, curved in at the top; their dullness diminished the thirty meters between the ends of the room. The air smelled of heat and spices: cinnamon, cloves, and cardamom. It was an alien room, designed for the taste of Chapalii, not humans. "No. I don't hate them. They've proven neither cruel nor harsh as our masters."
"Their grip is soft," said Tess in an undertone.
Sojourner gave her a sharp glance. "But it chafes," she replied, quieter still. "Tess, are you sure you really want to go see your brother? Jacques isn't worth this. He was a spoiled, pretty rich kid who wanted to get ahead without working for it. He's not worth your running away—"
Tess winced. "I'm not running away. I finished my thesis. I've got obligations to Charles now."
"What about your research? I know you don't want to follow in Charles's footsteps. Why go now?"
"Soje, leave be." The force of her comment silenced both of them. "As if I could follow in his footsteps anyway," Tess murmured finally.
Sojourner lifted up her hands in defeat. "Goddess, you're stubborn. Go. Be miserable. Just remember I told you so. You've always hated Odys. You always say so, and that one time I went there with you, I can't say as I blame you. Ugly planet."
"It wasn't before the Chapalii got through with it," said Tess so softly that Sojourner did not hear her.
A chime rang through the room. A seam opened out of orange wall to reveal a nondescript man in police blues. His shoulders shrugged in an exaggerated sigh when he saw them.
"Office is closed," he said, obviously used to saying that phrase frequently. "And it's off limits to humans at all times, except for the midday hour if you've got a dispensation." He regarded them, measuring. What he saw, Tess could well imagine: two young women, only a single valise between them, dressed without any particular style that might mark them out as rich enough or important enough to rate a dispensation or otherwise be allowed entrance into the private corridors of humanity's alien masters.
"If you'll allow me to escort you out," he said, firmly but kindly.
Sojourner looked at Tess expectantly. Tess felt frozen. Again it came down to this: retreat with meek dignity, as any other human on Earth would have to, or use her brother's name like a weapon. How she hated that, having a name that meant something in four languages. Having a name that, through no work of her own, had become so identified with humanity's one great rebellion against the Chapaliian Empire that the name was now synonymous with that rebellion. Charles had come so early to a realization of what he had to do in his life that surely he could never comprehend her struggle. But she had backed herself into a corner and had no choice but to go forward.
"You must leave," he said, coming briskly toward them.
"My name is Terese Soerensen," she said, despising herself as she said it. "My companion is Sojourner King Bakundi."
The second name did not even register. He stopped stock-still. His face changed."The Soerensen? You're his sister?" He hesitated. Then, of course, he looked both abashed and eager. "It is an honor. An honor, to meet you." She extended her hand and he flushed, pleased, and shook it. "I have a cousin. She fought at Sirin Wild, with the last fleet, on the Jerusalem. She was lucky enough to escape the decompression."
"I'm glad," said Tess sincerely. "Where is she now?"
He grinned. "She's a netcaster now. Ferreting information. For the long haul."
"For the long haul," echoed Tess fiercely.
Sojourner murmured, "Amandla."
A hum signaled a new parting of the wall. The guard, startled, spun to look. One of the ubiquitous Chapalii stewards entered the room. Like all the Chapalii serving class, he wore long, thick pants and a heavy tunic belted at his narrow waist. A hint of green colored the pale skin of his face—a sign of disapproval.
"What is this intrusion?" he demanded. He spoke in the clean, clipped Anglais that those few stewards assigned to direct intercourse with humans used. "I insist these offices be cleared." His gaze skipped from the guard to Sojourner. "Of these females."
Tess stood up. The Chapalii steward looked at her. Like an indrawn breath, the pause that followed was full of anticipated release.
The green cast to his white skin shaded into blue distress. His thin, alien frame bent in the stiff bow Chapalii accorded only and always to the members of their highest aristocracy.
"Lady Terese," the steward said in the proper formal Chapalii. "I beg you will forgive my rash entrance and my rasher words."
Unable to trust her voice for a moment, Tess simply folded her hands together in her human approximation of that arrangement of hands called Imperial Clemency. The steward's complexion faded from distress to blessed neutrality again, white and even. Sojourner rose to stand next to Tess.
"I am here," said Tess in strict formal Chapalii, high rank to low, "to advise the captain of the Oshaki that I will board his vessel and depart with it so far as my brother's fief of Dao Cee."
He bowed again, obedient. "You would honor me, Lady Terese, if you granted me the privilege of showing you in to see Hao Yakii Tarimin."
"Await me beyond." Tess waved toward the still open seam in the wall. The steward bowed to the exact degree proper and retreated. The wall shut behind him.
"God, but it gives me pleasure to see them ordered around for a change," muttered the guard. Tess flushed, and the man looked uncomfortable, as if he was afraid he had offended her.
"Are they difficult to work for?" asked Sojourner quickly.
"Nay. Not if you do the work you're hired to do. They're the best employers I've had, really." He lifted his hands, palms up. "Which is ironic. Say, did you say Sojourner King?"
Sojourner chuckled, and Tess watched, envying her friend's easy geniality. "Yes. I was named after my great-grandmother, that Captain Sojourner King of the first L.S.Jerusalem." She intoned the words with relish, able to laugh at her inherited fame in a way Tess had never managed. Then she sobered and turned to Tess. "I guess we part here, Tess. Take this, for luck." She took an ankh necklace from around her neck and handed it to Tess. "Keep well."
"Oh, Soje. I'll miss you." Tess hugged her, hard and quickly, to get it over with, shook the hand of the guard, picked up her valise, and walked across the room. The wall opened before her, admitting her to forbidden precincts.
"And don't you dare forget to send me a message from Odys," Sojourner called after her.
Tess lifted a hand in final farewell as the wall seamed shut, sealing her in to the corridor with the silent, patient steward. He bowed again, took her valise, and turned to lead her through the branching corridors. His lank hair and achromatic clothing lent the monotonous bleached-orange walls color in contrast, or at least to Tess's sight they did. She did not know what the walls looked like to his vision: like so much else, that was information not granted to humans.
It was hot, so hot that she immediately broke out in a sweat. Her hand clenched the computer slate. She felt like a traitor. Because she had no intention of going to Odys. She was afraid to go there, afraid to tell her own and only sibling that she could not carry on in his place, that she did not want the honor or the responsibility—that she did not know what she wanted, not at all. She did not even have the courage to tell a good friend. And Sojourner had been a good friend to her, these past years.
In the suite reserved for the captain, three Chapalii stood as she entered, bowed in by the steward. He hung back, retraining his hold on her exalted valise, as the wall closed between them. Tess surveyed her audience with dismay. To interview the captain was bad enough. To face three of them ...
She refused to give in to this kind of fear. The captain, thank God, was easy to recognize, because he wore the alloy elbow clip that marked his authority as a ship's master. She drew in her breath, lifted her chin, and inclined her head with the exact degree of condescension that a duke's heir might grant a mere ship's captain.
Before the captain could bow, one of the other Chapalii stepped forward. "Who has allowed this interruption?" he demanded in formal Chapalii. "Our business here is private, Hao Yakii." The Chapalii turned his gaze on Tess, but she knew her ground here; indeed, conduct was so strictly regulated in Chapalii culture that she usually had a limited number of responses. It made life much easier. Knowing he was at fault, she could regard him evenly in return. As he realized that the captain, and, belatedly, the other Chapalii, were bowing deeply to her, his skin hazed from white to blue.
"I am honored," said the captain, straightening, "to be the recipient of your attention, Lady Terese. May I be given permission to hope that your brother the duke is in good health and that his endeavors are all flourishing and productive?"
The slightest reddish tinge of satisfaction flushed the captain's face. He bowed in acknowledgment and gestured to his companions, introducing them in the formal, long-winded Chapalii style, not only their names but their house and affiliation and title and station and level of affluence: Cha Ishii Hokokul, younger son of the younger son of a great lord, no longer well off, traveling back to the home world; Hon Echido Keinaba, a fabulously wealthy merchant traveling to Odys to negotiate several deals with the merchants of the esteemed Tai-en Soerensen's household. Hon Echido bowed a second time, skin white, secure in his quick recognition of the duke's sister and doubtless hoping that his acumen here would stand him in good stead in the haggling to come. Cha Ishii bowed as well, but it was not nearly as deep a bow as a duke's heir merited.
Tess acknowledged them and nodded again at the captain. "Hao Yakii. I desire passage on your ship, to the Dao Cee system."
He did not hesitate. Of course, he could not. "It is yours, Lady Terese. You honor me and my family with your presence."
Before she could reply, Cha Ishii compounded his first offense by addressing the captain in court Chapalii. "Hao Yakii, this is impossible that a Mushai's relative should be allowed on this run. You must prevent it."
Hao Yakii went violet with mortification, whether at Ishii's effrontery or at some mistake he had just realized. Hon Echido watched, neutral, unreadable, and doubtless unsure whether any human could actually understand the intricacies of court Chapalii.
But Tess's dismay had evaporated, drawn off by her irritation at Ishii's assumption that she could not understand him, and by sheer human curiosity at the mention of that name, Mushai. "You refer, I believe," she said directly to Ishii in court Chapalii, thus indirectly insulting him, "to the Tai-en Mushai. Was he not a duke who rebelled against one of your ancient emperors?"
Ishii blushed violet.
Violet and pink warred in the captain's face. Approval won. "Lady Terese, it is, as you would call it—" A long pause. "A fable. A legend. Do you not have legends of ages past when your lands ran with precious metals and all people of proper rank had sufficient wealth to maintain their position, and then a traitor who would not adhere to right conduct brought ruin to everyone by his selfish actions?"
Tess almost laughed. How often as a child had she and her classmates been told of that time a mere two centuries ago when a consortium of five solar systems bound by inexplicably close genetic ties and the enthusiasm of newly-discovered interstellar flight had invested their League Concordance as law? A brief golden age, they called it, before the Chapaliian Empire, in its relentless expansion, had absorbed the League within its imperial confines.
"Yes. Yes, we do," she replied. She felt a fierce exultation in confronting these Chapaliians whom she now outranked, thinking of her brother's failed rebellion against the Empire, ten years before her birth, because he was not a traitor to his kind, to humankind, but a hero. Even now, when the Chapalii, for reasons only Chapalii understood, had ennobled him. Even now, made a duke—the only human granted any real status within their intricate hierarchy of power, given a solar system as his fief, endowed with fabulous wealth—Charles Soerensen simply bided his time, and the Chapalii seemed not to suspect.
"The honored duke will be pleased to see his heir on Odys," said Hon Echido.
His colorless words shattered her thoughts, exposing her to her own bitter judgment: that she was afraid, that her life lay in chaos around her, and that even what little her brother asked of her she could not grant. She wanted only to retreat to the quiet, isolated haven of the palace in Jeds and be left alone, with no one expecting anything of her. Suddenly she felt oppressed by these Chapalii watching and measuring her. She felt short and grossly heavy next to the gaunt delicacy that swathes of fabric and flowing robes could not disguise. Ishii's skin bore a blended shade that she could not recognize nor interpret. Yakii seemed torn between addressing a duke's heir and Ishii's demands.
"Lady Terese," said Hon Echido, either sensitive to these currents or else simply pressing his advantage, as a canny merchant must, "it would be a great compliment to my house if you would allow me to escort you personally to the Oshaki. With Hao Yakii's permission, of course." He bowed to her and acknowledged the captain with that arrangement of hands known as Merchant's Favor.
With mutual consent, the parting went swiftly. Tess left Yakii and Ishii to their debate, and walked to the shuttle with Hon Echido in attendance, the steward carrying her valise five paces behind. There would be time enough to arrange with Hao Yakii that she was going to Rhui, not to Odys. Both planets, being neighbors in the Dao Cee system, were on the Oshaki's scheduled run.