Ken Shardik turned the corner and stopped, surprised. "Hi. Didn't know you were still here."
"Yeah." Furry looked up from her book, a thick tome entitled Memetic Assumptions In Civil Archeology.
"I thought you were going sailing with Garth and Kiza yesterday."
"I didn't want to."
"You're worried about Nickolai, aren't you?" Ken slowly eased around the table and, dropping the bag he had slung on his shoulders, sat down in one of the wicker and wire chairs. "He'll be okay."
"He was right here, Ken. It's no fair that I could hold him for just two days and then he vanishes again."
"It's just for a week."
"I know. It's just hard to be enthusiastic while he's away."
Ken nodded. "I know."
Furry registered exhaustion in Ken's voice and wondered about it. Ken opened up his bag and took out a thermos and a sandwich on thick slabs of rounded bread and began eating. She finally decided to ask about it. "Something wrong?"
"If being at war is 'something wrong,' I guess you could say yes."
"What? War? With who?"
"Terra." Ken took a bite of his sandwich and smiled in her direction. Furry waited for him to swallow, expecting an explanation. Ken finally gave her one. "They didn't like my press conference yesterday afternoon. They seem to think that disabling the morphing technology is some sort of threat to their sovereignty."
"It is," Furry said. "You know it is."
Ken nodded. "But a threat is not an action. Assault is not battery. They have to understand the difference. Citizenship should be a matter of declaration, not biology."
Furry put her book down on the table, being sure to fold over a page. "So we are at war?"
"Not yet," Ken replied. "They're talking about it in economic terms." He laughed harshly. "As if they could survive without us. No, this will blow over when they realize they can't. Meanwhile we have to put up with them screaming and ranting and raving. On the other hand--" He dug into his bag and pulled out a data display-- "There's an enormous number of people booking flights out of Terra headed for other planets. I also see those planet ticketing agencies buying up huge numbers of unspecified outbound tickets for Terra, no passenger names attached. What does that say?"
Furry recognized the technique; one of her teachers used it on her often in class. "It means that they're preparing to circumvent a planned embargo by making connections outworld. Probably the heaviest traffic is going to come either from Wisdom or llerkin."
"Both," Ken said. "You hit the predictions right on the head from the data. Congratulations. Anything else, my wise archeologist?"
"The rush is going to tax Pendor's economic system to a large degree, but that it shouldn't be nearly too bad to justify a diversion of resources on a grand scale. The AI's will handle the number explicitly." She opened her eyes. "You've got a huge headache with dealing with the influx. The Hall is going to have to limit its effectiveness, although I have no idea what its capabilities are."
"Over a thousand a day."
"It would take a long time to take care of the whole human race."
"121,000 years at that rate," Ken agreed. "I hope we don't get that many."
"I don't think you will."
"I agree with Jofuran, but it's still an ugly number. We'll have to announce limits on the Hall. Less than three hundred thousand people can go through it in any year. We'll have to make that clear."
"It won't appease some. They'll complain about resource hoarding." Ken pointed out.
"This was your decision," Dave said. "Yours and the councils'. We knew this would happen. In any event, I've ordered John Masters to prepare a public statement on resource limitations. Between that and the economic counter-pressure we should get the Terrans to settle down relatively quickly."
Furry leaned back in her chair. "It's going to be an interesting century."
"It's already an interesting century," Ken agreed. "You're looking less mopey."
"Court intrigue was always one of my favorite subjects," she laughed. "Thank you for letting me in on the view."
"Oh, pshaw." Ken laughed. "This is just the tip of the iceberg. So, tell me, what plans do you have for you and Nickolai? I know he's studying in your field because he loves you, but have you two talked? How good is he at the field?"
"He's pretty good. In the letters we exchanged on the subject, he has a good idea for it, although he's more interested in bioarcheology then in the civil stuff I go after."
"Between the two of you, you should make a pretty effective team."
Furry nodded. "I hope so."
As the first flash of approaching night swept over them, voices from behind them told Furry that Kiza, Skii and Garth had returned from their sailing trip. "Hi, kids!" Ken shouted. "We're over here!"
The three, like sunburnt musketeers, traipsed around the corner arm-in-arm. "Well," Ken said, "I see you three are becoming friendlier."
"It's works," Skii said. "Admittedly sometimes sailing with these two can be an adventure."
"It would have been less of an adventure if our sailmaster here had told us that five hours of sailing in the driving rain was his idea of fun!" Kiza said.
"Grumbling would not have gotten us home any faster," Skii replied.
"In any event, it's good that you guys are home tonight. Garth, I have to tell you something. Terra has demanded that all Terrans currently on Pendor for the duration of the quote 'current emergency' endquote return to Terra immediately. It's your call; I can definitely get you on an outbound vessel for Terra in less than an hour, or you can wait your remaining twenty-six days and see if the emergency has ended by then. If it has, we can get you home as just another tourist and nobody will be the wiser."
"Are a lot of people staying?"
"More then half," Ken nodded. "It seems Terrans are not so interested in the politics as in making sure they get their money's worth out of their vacation stay on Pendor."
"Then I think I will stay too." Garth smiled.
"Good!" Ken smiled, seemingly pleased with himself. "Okay, then, well... we've got dinner cooking downstairs, that was first flash. We're going out tonight; you said you wanted to see a play performed by Pendorians, well, The Wizard of Oz is being performed at the Marbletop Ampitheatre North. Are you game?"
On their return from the theatre, Furry found herself feeling somewhat lonely. Kiza was treating her just as she had asked her to, as if they were no longer lovers. That much, apparently, was true. It hurt, too, to know that while Kiza had eased out of her life with little fanfare, Nickolai was still somewhere in the Great Hall, actual location or condition unknown. While there were no documented cases, there were rumors that the Hall just rejected some people and they 'never came out.' Thoughts like that had given her nightmares last night when she had slept alone. She shivered slightly and walked along behind the people she had come with. Although Skii was trying hard to be all over Garth, she could see that Garth and Kiza had made up their minds a long time before; they weren't keeping their hands to themselves very successfully. Any closer and they might as well have been wearing each other's clothing.
Ahead of them, Ken, Aaden and P'nyssa walked along. Although their strides propelled them just as fast, there was something serene about they way they carried themselves, as if they hadn't a care in the world despite the political pressures Ken had been talking about hours earlier, conversations that had occupied his every free moment at dinner. P'nyssa was in the middle, Ken and Aaden with their arms around her. Furry found herself envying their ease.
She shook her head as she walked, last to board the SDisk. Ken said "Castle Shardik" and the world blinked, leaving them in the off-white receiving room of Shardik Castle.
Garth and Kiza walked out first. "Thank you, Ken," Garth was saying. "That was fascinating. Goodnight, Skii, Furry, P'nyssa, Aaden. See you all in the morning."
"Goodnight, Garth," Ken said, waving. "Take care of yourselves."
"Oh, we will." Furry thought it would have been more appropriate if they had skipped rather then walked as they disappeared out of sight. Skii, too, made his way to his room, leaving just herself and the three Shardiks alone as they walked through the Common room.
"Huh?" She looked up, her introspection interrupted by Ken calling her name.
"You okay? You seem a little lost."
She shook her head. "I'm fine. I'm just thinking."
She felt the words forming in the back of her mind and debated letting them loose. Finally they rushed her mouth, taking the decision away from her. "Do you three all sleep together?"
Ken's eyes seemed to widen a little in surprise, his eyebrows wiggling. Then he smiled. "Sometimes."
Ken looked up at P'nyssa and then at Aaden. Both shrugged noncommittally. "Sure. Why not?"
"Could I... " She couldn't believe these words were coming from her. "Could I join you? I mean, you've got one of those huge beds, right?"
Ken nodded, smiling patiently. "Rocchodain. Sleeps six comfortably. But... I thought you didn't want to get involved with a lecherous old man like me."
"I don't want... that. I just want someone to be next to me. In case I have nightmares."
P'nyssa looked at Furry. "Have you been having a lot?"
Furry nodded. "I'm afraid for Nickolai. I know nothings going to happen to him, but you hear all those awful rumors about the Great Hall, like how it sometimes throws people away who aren't appropriate anywhere, and how it changes people, even if it doesn't look like they change, and I... I just don't want to be alone."
"I have no objection," Ken said.
"I think I'd like it," P'nyssa added.
"Then it's settled," Aaden said, finishing for the three of them. He reached down for Furry's hand, and as she reached up to take it, he swept her up off her feet. "Whoops!"
Furry giggled. "Hey!"
"Sorry, but beautiful young women shouldn't pout and be sad," Aaden said. "I just had to do something. You could have measured the tension in here by the tone of plucked strings."
"Still can, in some ways," Ken said. "Come on, let's do that bed thing."
Aaden carried her into their house and put her down. She looked around. It was the same place she had visited two years ago; not much had changed. "Do you shower before bed?" Ken asked?
Furry shook her head. "Aaden and I usually do. Nyss, would you see to her needs while we clean up?"
"Sure." Taking that as a cue, Ken and Aaden disappeared down the grav tube. "Do you need anything, Furry? Bedclothes, toothbrush, anything like that?"
"There is some in my room that I'd like to get."
P'nyssa smiled. "Aaden should have let you go and get them before he carried you in here. Dave?"
"Outside the door, Nyss." P'nyssa found Furry small black bag outside the door and pulled it inside.
Furry dug through it, finding a nightshirt. "Can I change in here?"
"Sure. Do you want something to drink before bed?"
"Please." P'nyssa poured her a glass of what turned out to be orange juice as she stripped off her day's clothing and pulled the nightshirt on. An understated pink shirt that reached down below her knees, it was trimmed on the edges of the collar with flower motifs in pink and white.
"That's very pretty," P'nyssa said.
"Are you wearing that because you want to remind Ken and me that you're off-limits, or to remind yourself that you're supposed to be off- limits?"
Surprised at the question, Furry stopped for a few seconds to think about why she'd chosen to wear the nightshirt; she usually slept naked. She also had to process that P'nyssa had included herself in the list of potential seducers. "None of the above, I think."
"Do you wear that regularly?"
Furry shook her head. "No, only when I'm feeling... bad. Insecure." She smiled wanly. "It makes me feel like I deserve a hug."
P'nyssa smiled and pulled Furry close, hugging her. "You can have a hug whether you're wearing that shirt or not."
"I know," Furry said, tugging at the trim of the shirt. "This just makes me feel that way."
"Come," P'nyssa said. "Let's get into bed and wait for the men to return."
Furry nodded. Ken and Aaden walked out of the bathroom while they were crawling into bed and pulling down the covers. "So, did you boys enjoy yourselves?"
"We just showered, Nyss," Ken said, smiling.
"I'm not in the mood every minute of the day, Nyss, no matter how bad my reputation is." He leaned over and kissed her on the cheek, his hand straying and covering one breast unconsciously. "Love you."
"And I love you. So, who sleeps on the outside edge?" Aaden raised one hand. "I guess I get the other," P'nyssa said. "That puts you and Furry in the middle."
"Easily done," Ken said. They settled down, and Furry found herself between Ken and P'nyssa. Ken rolled over close to her. "Furry?" He was whispering.
She smiled and reached out to hug him. He hugged her back just as warmly. "Good night, Ken."