Crammed into one corner, a twelve-piece band played a quiet waltz. The tension that Anlestin had borne for the last twenty minutes finally become unbearable and she said, "Excuse me, but I see someone with whom I must speak." Without waiting for a reply she pulled out of the standing circle of nobles, including Lord siss-talek, and walked over to where Aaden was engaged in a conversation all his own. Her bodyguard followed her closely. Aaden towered over the smaller llerkin, a black-and white giant among the green and golden revelers. She thought of him as one of a few friendly faces within the crowd. "Captain Satpulov?" she asked, addressing him by the only title she knew for him.
"Yes, your highness?" he asked without a trace of irony or sarcasm. She admired that quality in him. Too many Pendorians could not take the idea of Goddess-given nobility seriously even as they lived under their far more mundane kind of legal system. Perhaps even because of it.
"Could I speak with you privately for a moment?" she said.
He nodded. "Where would you like us to go?"
"My study is down that hallway a short distance. Pal, see to it that we are not followed. We shall only be a few minutes."
"Of course, your highness," Pal replied with the same kind of dignity and calm she had always carried, restraining the other two members of the guard from following. Anlestin led Aaden down the hallway and through a door that clicked open as she reached it and clacked shut and locked after they had passed through.
She turned and looked up at her large, furry acquaintance. He was watching her with intense curiousity. The militaristic uniform he wore, the show uniform of the Pendorian Fleet, Captain, fit him perfectly, and he fit it just as well. "Aaden, I know we don't know each other very well, but... I need to ask a very large favor of you."
"If I can," the Mephit replied calmly, "I'll do whatever you ask."
She walked into his arms and wrapped hers around his torso. "I need a hug."
Aaden smiled then pushed her back a step. To her surprise, he sat down in a chair and gestured for her. She thought for a moment to reconsider, then sat in his lap. He put his arms around her, allowing them to drape around her back, and for a moment she felt comforted in the warm and furred embrace of this mel her beloved appreciated so much. She was as close to Ken as she could get, and she liked this tall, professional mel who in turn loved Ken so much. "Is that all?" he asked as she disengaged from him.
"For now," she said. "It was getting too much out there. I hate being nice to that monster. You're not Ken and I understand that, but since you love him so you seem to have some of his qualities, and right now your optimism and friendliness are a comfort and a joy. That," she said, gesturing towards the door, "is driving me crazy." She took a deep breath and expelled it with a satisfied hiss. "It is too bad you're more Roiche's type than mine."
He smiled. "Thank you for not seating him next to me. There are other members of the nobility who share not only my predilections but also my tastes. I'd rather talk to a straight pilot than a gay politician any day. Did you really consider marrying him?"
She nodded. "He is a nice person. A little shallow, but nobody ever said the Queen's Great Husband had to have any depth to him. Lesser husbands and concubar could fill in where necessary if I need depth and love." She released him, stood back. "It is too bad that one of the few men I would have fill that position cannot do it."
Aaden knelt down, took her hand, kissed it gently. "He's not mine to keep."
"No, but Ken is Pendor's to keep, if nobody else's. And he is his own. And he does so adore both you and P'nyssa in a way that cannot be described. He will continue to whirl into and out of my life like a typhoon, leaving confusion in his wake. And we are both happier for it in that fashion." Now that he was down to her eye-level, she reached out and touched his ears gently, making him shake his head with a kind of pleasure. "Come. The guests are probably frantically gossiping about your state and mine."
They returned to the verbal melee' in progress as nobles jockeyed for positions in ways that only Jamis or Reeds could keep straight. Tomorrow, she would consult with Jamis, the local AI at the Queen's Reach on Pendor, and figure out who had gained what from last night's conversation. Certainly, they would all be doing the same. Jamis, who had once been the AI on llerkin itself until the war, would play no favorites. At least, no apparent favorites.
She decided to join Aaden as he rejoined his circle. The conversation had moved on, but quickly returned to the question of llerkin's ecological status, a subject in which she knew Aaden to be intensely interested. Although he insisted that his contributions had been minor, his value both to the psychological well-being of the recovery team and to the propaganda effort had been invaluable. He had actually fought for the botanical restoration project that had finally been chosen, throwing into the ring not only his position as Shardik's coimelin but also as a well-respected xenobotanist in his own right. She had seen the results of his work when she had visited llerkin and she approved. His decision had been a correct one-- emphasis on the 'a', she thought, with all the skill of a trained politician. There had been competing ideas that had had their applications and suitability. She smiled, watching as he listened to suggestions from the crowd. She could even feel him thinking. She approved of Ken's good luck.
As the party wound down, Anlestin found herself feeling less tired than when the entire event began. She commented on it to Pal, who asked, "Is that bad?"
"I don't know," Anlestin mused. "Usually this time I feel like I've been run over by a Magi arbortank," she said, referring to one of the larger robot systems deployed to plant whole forests on llerkin. "I'm just not tired right now, Pal, and I know I need to go to sleep."
"Is there anything I could do to help?" Pal asked, her voice as innocent in its own way as Aaden's had been.
Anlestin sighed. "No, I don't believe so, not tonight."
"You're missing Ken, aren't you?" her bodyguard and confidant asked.
"Always, but yes, especially tonight. It has been too long since we had more than a fleeting day together. This isn't fair, Pal."
Pal put her hand on Anlestin's shoulder, a gesture of familiarity that would have shocked her mother. "No, Anni, it isn't. He'll come back. In the meantime, does that suitable suitor over there look like he could be of interest?"
Anlestin's eyes followed Pal's across the room to where Rulyon, young heir of the Reffom family, cavorted playfully with a young lady of the court as they wheeled around the room to the waltzing band overhead. "He does," Anlestin agreed. "You aren't proposing I take him up to my rooms like I did when I was a princess, are you?"
"The old ways are sometimes the best," Pal said with a smile. "You became queen in a crisis, Anni, and you have always been a queen in a crisis. Ever since your first day out of the hospital. Perhaps since your rescue. You have not taken a lover in so long I start to wonder about your suitability to the throne. The very fact that you have had Ipsi draw up a list is refreshing."
"You're starting to sound like a noble," Anlestin grumbled, but then gave her old friend a smile.
"You made me one," Pal pointed out with equal amusement. "I can't encourage you enough, Anni."
"I know," Anlestin sighed. "Make it so."
"I shall do that. Shall I have it announced that the queen has taken her leave for the evening?"
Anlestin gave Pal a mournful look. "Please don't. And when you get him, do so discreetly, will you?"
"Did I ever fail in the past?"
"No, of course not," Anlestin replied. "This would just look..."
"Since when are you into keeping appearances?" Pal asked, surprised.
Anlestin looked over at her friend as she tried to get her feelings back under control. "I've always been careful about my appearance," Anlestin responded.
"No, you were always cunning about your appearance, Anni. You let everyone know, in subtle but unmistakable terms, exactly who you were courting as Princess. You were also completely shameless about letting everyone know that you had had Ken Shardik for the night. Your sudden swing into celibacy has bothered quite a few people. It happened after you became queen, when everyone expected your mother to live and reign long enough for you to find a husband and whelp an heir before your succession. It has long since past the time when you were supposed to go back to your old ways and find lovers again."
"I found one! I found two, even!"
"And neither of them can give you children," Pal said patiently. "I love you, Anni. But you are queen. An you can't stop being queen until you have an heir. Or else Duke Conta siss-talek will become the next king of llerkin."
Anlestin growled, "Never!"
"Then go upstairs, and I'll bring the handsome young Rulyon to you."
Anlestin smiled. "Thank you, Pal."
"Thank me after you're sated." Pal watched as her old friend disappeared quietly down a hallway. She turned around and quietly made mental notes as to who had watched the exchange, then found one of the many circular tables occupying the edges of the room. She flagged down a waiter and took a drink, non-ketonic, from his tray, and slipped him a note. "Take this to that young man over there."
The waiter nodded. She watched as he walked back to the kitchen and disappeared, only to reappear on a direct course for Rulyon. He was a waiter; people treated him as if he were invisible, a part of the furniture, and few noticed what was apparent to Pal. But she had been doing her job for a long time. So, apparently, had the waiter. He handed to note to Rulyon without saying a word.
Rulyon, despite his youth, knew better than to look up or acknowledge the note. He simply placed it in his pocket and returned to his drink. Pal watched as he excused himself from his courtiers, walked to the restroom, then walked back towards her table. He sat opposite her, took a drink as yet another waiter walked by, and smiled. "You're the queen's senior guard," he said. Despite his calm exterior, Pal saw a nervous youth underneath, watching her with great attention. He was barely thirty years old; she had centuries on him. The differences were obvious to her. Then again, they had probably been obvious to her when she was thirty. She couldn't remember.
"Yes," she said quietly. "I have been asked to escort you someplace."
"May I ask where?"
"No," she replied, smiling at his discomfort. "Don't worry, Rulyon, we will have you home before your father begins to miss you too much. And I'm sure he will be pleased at your adventures tonight." She glanced him over, curious about this mel in whom Anlestin had taken an interest. He was about average height, with those very tall ears in which the nobility of recent centuries had taken as fashion, although mainly in the female population. His face was soft, with a broad, muted muzzle, and a nose the color of a tiger-eye stone. His scales were very small; almost to the point of appearing uniform at short distances, and a handsome green, but it was obvious when he moved in the light that they had an underlay gloss the same color as his nose; a very rare and handsome appearance. He had no particular bulk, indicating no obsession with exercise. His taste in clothing, at least for this event, had run to the conservative although Pal noticed touches here and there that she admired. He hadn't worn stockings, which might be considered insulting by some since they were currently the very height of fashion, and although velvet was also the height of fashion he wore only silk. To Pal, who despised the feel of velvet, this spoke of common sense as well as luxury. He knew what he liked to wear and he wore it without worrying about the opinions of his fellow nobles. Either that or he was deliberately provocative, but that didn't seem to go with the rest of the mel she saw before her. No, he wore what he wore for his own reasons.
Rulyon pulled out a small communicator and spoke into it. Pal heard her name but tried not to listen in on the conversation all the same. After only a minute of conversation, he put the phone back into his jacket. "I am yours for the evening."
"Not exactly," Pal replied, again with a smile. "But close enough. Come." She rose and he followed. She led him down one hallway, then another, then to an elevator. The doors to the lift closed behind them and Pal said, "Jamis, I believe you know where we are to go."
"Indeed," the AI replied as they were lifted up to near the top floor of the castle.
The door opened and Pal indicated that he should step out. As he did, the door closed behind him and the elevator as a whole seemed to sink into the floor, leaving him stranded in what appeared to be a very large and opulent bedchamber. The floor was inlaid with a beautiful tilework that he recognized as scenes from the crowning of Anlestin's ancestor, King Rit, the first Monarch of All llerkin. There were two centerpieces to the room, each not actually in the center. One was a water-filled bath set into the floor; the other was a large bed. Both were covered with netting to keep insects out, and even as he noticed the nets he also noticed that all four walls of this room were missing and it was open to the elements. The lights that burned low were clearly not flames, although they flickered comfortably as flames would.
"Do you like my room?" a voice asked. Rulyon turne and watched as Queen Anlestin appeared from the shadows, holding two tall chalices. She smiled and held one out to him. "Please. Drink. I know you are old enough for that."
He was too surprised to disagree and took one of the glasses. This was happening far too fast. He found his voice well enough to stammer, "On Pendor, everyone is old enough for that."
"To believe so is to misunderstand them," Anlestin replied. "You may do anything you wish on Pendor, but for many things you must find people willing to help you. Have you traveled much outside the Reach?" She asked it simply and without provocation.
He nodded his head no. "I'm afraid I have not, your highness. I have often wished to, but I have not had much opportunity."
"Rulyon," she chided. "I know better than that. You have chosen not to. It is only a step to reach any Pendorian city or town. This isn't a trip to Tegor or Suru. This is a simple visit to another land. Have you traveled within the Reach, then?"
"Oh, yes," he replied. "I have been to our five cities here, and have looked over much of the magnificent lands. I have even climbed the Rit mountain range and visited that beautiful lake at its center."
She smiled. "'Magnificent.' 'Beautiful.' I take it you are one of those people who approves of the life we have made for ourselves here on Pendor?"
He sipped from the cup she had given him. The wine warmed him more than he would have thought, and he gave the glass a cautious look. "It's ketoned port," she explained. "A Terran drink with a llerkin twist. It's rather popular. My question?"
"I don't know how to answer it. Yeah, I think we've created a good life here. But I've never been to homeworld. How would I know how to compare it?"
"I did not ask you for a comparison."
"Then yes, I think the life we have here is a good life. The land is beautiful, healthy, and ancient. The cities we have created are models for the future. This land is truly a gift."
"A gift is easy when it represent one one-millionth of your worth," she said.
"But it is one one-millionth that he can't take back. And to a Pendorian, every square inch here is precious. They talk about how much they adore the Terrans, but they haven't given Terrans this kind of gift."
Anlestin nodded her head, deciding not to debate the Unity decision. "Join me in the bath? I'm chilled."
"You're asking me to... ?"
"Get naked with the queen, yes," she said, smiling. "Or bathe, at any rate." She gave him a reassuring smile. "I will not ask too much of you. I assure you."
"I guess I must accept, then," he replied. Anlestin smiled and fingered the crease of her robe, allowing it to fall to the floor. She could see the surprised look on Rulyon's face as he looked over her body. "You are quite lovely, my queen."
"As are you," she complimented as he removed his shirt. He had a handsome torso to compliment his beautiful scales. She reached out to brush her hand along his chest, touching the glossy, soft scales that covered the criss-crossed bands of muscles underneath. "As handsome as your father."
He blushed. His father had been something of a rake in his youth and both he and Anlestin knew that period of history well. "I'm pleased that you think so," he said.
She took his hand and led him to the bath, stepping down into water so warm steam listed slowly across its surface. She sighed as the water reached up over her chest and shoulders, and then smiled back up at Rulyon as he joined her. "My queen, may I ask you something?"
"You just did," she said, suddenly laughing aloud afterwards. "I'm sorry, Rulyon. But I have asked that same question of others so often, and recognized it for what it is, that the irony of it has became funny. What is your question, Rulyon?"
He sank into the bath and found a seat some distance from her. "Why am I here tonight?"
"You are here, Rulyon, because your queen wishes for you to be here, and because it is no hardship for you to be here. If you want to know why I wish you to be here, let's just say that I am in need of company. Male company. And if you call me queen once more, I shall scream. Call me Anni."
"Do you have a familiar name?"
"Ruly, perhaps, although I understand that in Anglic that means 'easy to control or discipline.' I am not comfortable with that definition."
"Anglic is used so rarely these days, Ruly, I suspect that I won't get you confused with someone who is easy to control. That is a quality more admired in the common man than in the noble."
"But it is admired in the common man," Ruly admitted.
"That seems to bother you," she observed.
"Shouldn't it?" he asked.
"I don't think it should," she replied. "It is important that a certain element of conformity exist among most people in the population. Try to remember the early 20th Century of Terra, Ken Shardik's own time, when the vast majority of people were indoctrinated by their environment to rebellious individualism. It was a particularly nasty time as most people reacted badly to both the knowledge that they were herd animals of a sort, and that their 'individuality' was in fact created by a propaganda machine so subtle that it was hardly noticed."
Rulyon looked puzzled. "Doesn't media do that now, too?"
"Not the way it did back then. In our culture there are a lot of people who rebel and pay for it with tragic consequences. And there is a literature that shows that part of the rebellious process as well, too. Tragic though it might be, it is often the real consequence of stepping outside." She slid closer to him, smiling with amusement at the look of confusion on his face. "Ruly, please. Try not to be afraid of me."
"I do not think I can avoid it, Anni. You are..."
"A person. Flesh and blood. A woman, and right now one who desires you. Is that difficult for you to grasp?"
He looked at her, momentarily confused, and then nodded. "It is, actually."
"Because I have never looked upon the queen and seen someone who would want for anything. Passion included. I spoke with my father before coming here. He told me to behave in a best possible fashion as you might be looking for a husband. When you are asking me to become, well, carnal with you, I do not know what my 'best behavior' might be."
She kissed his shoulder, touching her lips to his hide for a brief fashion. "Do you think you know enough to please a woman, Ruly?"
"I am not sure about that, either," he gulped.
"What is there not to know?" she asked, looking into his eyes. "You just have to let go and do what you think is best-- and whatever I ask for."
"I won't ask you for anything too strange, Ruly. I mean that." She leaned her head against his shoulder, appreciating the feel of someone nearby again. "I have been lonely for many years, and yes, I am looking for a husband. But I am also looking for a lover. Would you be that for me?"
Rulyon's hand touched her arm and reached down the length to find her own hand. "I will be whatever my queen commands," he said, his face aglow with a smile that said he was joking, but only partially.
"Then come here and share a Pendorian decadence with me," she said, closing the gap between their mouths, kissing him softly, and she was pleased when he reacted positively, kissing her back, their mouths touching, the slightly thickened ridges of their lips meeting and touching. In the warmth of the bath his hands actually felt cool upon her chest and arms as he reached for her and pulled her closer even as he broke the kiss. "You do that well," she said. "Are you sure you don't know enough?"
"I will give anything a try. Once or twice."
"That's the proper spirit," she whispered into his ear. "Oh, Ruly, thank you for staying."
"Did I have a choice?" he asked, surprised.
"Yes," she said, simply. She wondered if she should say anything else. Perhaps 'yes' would be enough, being the truth. "Come," she said. "Let's retire."
"Anni? When we are... done... "
"You may stay the night and recover. Or you may return home. Whichever suits you. Jamis will see to your needs, in either case."
"Thank you," he said, following her out of the tub. She presented him with a large terrycloth towel and he accepted it graciously.
Soon, she was pulling him towards the bed, and when she had him next to it, she pushed him over before tumbling beside him, crawling close to him and draping an arm over his naked body. "Tell me about yourself, Ruly."
"What do you want to know?" he asked. "My life on Pendor has been one of idle luxury, like most peoples', I'm afraid. I actually hope we get back to homeworld soon; I think too many people here feel like they don't have enough to do."
She laughed. "Oh, Ruly, keep saying things like that and I will marry you!" She kissed his cheek with new enthusiasm. "It's true; on Pendor, Pendorians have figured out what they have to do to find happiness, but I'm afraid that too many of the llerkindi don't have that kind of insight. And since the AIs see to it that they won't starve or freeze to death, they wonder what they have to do next."
He nodded. "Did we come to bed to philosophize?"
"No," she said, turning over and kneeling up on her knees. "But it's good to hear that we think the same way." She leaned to kiss him again. "Think of this as a kind of job interview."
"For which position?"
"Queen's Great Husband, of course." She felt his body stiffen. "Is it not a job you want?"
"Can I refuse?"
"Only if we haven't become such friends that to do so would break my heart," she said.
"That's a hard position to find," he replied. "Will you tell me when we're getting there?"
"Would you refuse me?" she asked.
"I haven't decided yet. I'm only thirty, Anni. You are now almost four hundred. Your generation discovered immortality and still thinks of thirty as grown."
She nodded. "I'm sorry, Ruly. Oh, I am doing this all wrong!" She turned over and sat down abruptly.
"No, no!" he said, sitting up. "Really, Anni, I like you. I think you could be a ringing person, when you're not being queen."
She smiled. "'When I'm not being queen.' Very well, Ruly, then I am not queen. For tonight, I am your Princess, understand?"
He laughed aloud, then reached for her and nearly threw her down onto the bed, straddling her naked body with his. "Okay, my Princess." He smiled momentarily. "I believe I like the way that sounds."
His sudden show of strength shot a thrill through her she hadn't felt since... since Ken had visited her on llerkin. "I had a feeling you would," she replied as he kissed her mouth, hard, and she responded back with all the passion she felt tied up within her, forgetting for a moment the gulf of loneliness behind her, the one that yawned between her and Kennet. She wanted Rulyon to be more than a diversion. She wanted to find in him the kind of pleasure she had found elsewhere.
The warmth of his kisses spread through her body; she felt her sex grow wet and full; she heard whimpers before she realized they were coming from her. "Ruly," she gasped.
"Shhh... Princess." His kisses touched her throat, then her chest, easing down the length of her body. "I know a little of what I'm doing." She touched his head, mindful of the tips of his ears, and tried to guide him all the way, but he resisted, instead kissing her flat belly and the narrow hollows where hip meets thigh. He lavished his attention on her hide, kissing the insides of her thighs even as she opened her legs to let him in. He kissed at the lip of her sex, touching the now-pouting knobs of flesh that surrounded her circular opening, sending thrills through her that she hadn't experience in far too long. Pal was good, but Pal... was Pal. It wasn't even that she was fem. Anlestin liked fems. Pal was just dedicated, rather than impassioned. She could feel it from Rulyon, the wish to do this because it would suit his needs just as well as hers. His hands were on her thighs, parting them even as he settled down onto the bed between them, providing him with a view of her that was all too obvious. He looked up. "Jamis? Lights to one-fourth." The lights dimmed as he requested. "There," he said, looking up the length of her body.
"You... are already on my 't' list, Ruly."
"Mmmm," he sighed as he kissed the soft ridge at the very front of her sex, making her thrill as bolts of pleasure swept up through her. She whimpered a little louder, as if to ask him for more, to demand more of him. But he was going to be patient, and for that she blessed him as his tongue swept into the crevices of her sex and sought out her secret places. Each touch made her want more, each kiss demanded that she respond with a desire for more. She was quickly being carried into paradise, and a fragment of her wondered if he had been joking about his lack of skill. He was not lacking in anything at all, so far. He had just needed permission.
Rulyon's fingers crept under her buttocks, one hand slowly easing itself into position to invade her more forbidden back door. She lifted her legs a little more to give him better access. He took the hint readily, slowly easing one finger against the rear slit of her asshole, pressing the sides apart gently, prying her open. His tongue continued it's tempered assault on her sex, probing deeper, each touch finding someplace new. She could hear herself breathing fast and allowed herself to sink into the sensations. The invasion of his finger within her ass was almost more than she could bear, jerking a gasp out of her even as Rulyon's ministrations promised more to follow. His other hand caressed her soft belly, tickling out the ridges of cartilage underneath, forcing her to press her hips upward. She wanted so much more of him! It was almost as if he were trying to not understand her requests, no, her demands! Didn't he hear her moans, see her thrusts, taste her wetness? It didn't seen to matter to him as he became yet more insistent. The finger within her backside squirmed its wet way further into her, probing corners of her that had not been touched in... was it really centuries? His tongue caressed her sex to even hotter heights.
She couldn't take more. She needed something else. "Ruly... fuck me."
"Fuck me, please!" she begged him. He slid his finger out of her slowly, rising between her legs to position himself, his long, narrow cock pointed into the billowing cup of her sex. He plunged downwards into her; she felt his cock pass the narrow of her sex and her whole body clamped down onto his cock, holding him in. He moaned as her whole sex seemed to fold around his shaft and grasp ahold, milking his cock. She pushed her hips up against his body in a violent spasm as she strove to take even more of him into her. He thrust against her, his body pummeling her against the bed, giving her what she asked for and more, giving her the pleasure she had sought all evening long. His eyes were close, his face a mask of male concentration as he gave her everything he had, but the look registered only for a second in her mind as she allowed her body to give way to the tumult going on between her thighs, allowed him to give her what she has asked for.
It was over soon enough, but not too soon. Ruly came with a cry of his own pleasure, a few final spasms marking the end of his tour of duty. He sighed and subsided next to her, taking his breaths hard and sharp. She could feel each hot exhalation against her hide, and each one made her want him to do that again... not immediately, but soon. "Tomorrow?" she said aloud.
"Excuse me, your... I mean, Anni?"
She giggled. "Nothing, Ruly. I was just thinking to myself that it would be nice if you came back and did that again tomorrow."
"To... Tomorrow?" he asked, laughing. "I suppose I could be talked into such an endeavor. I have not met a woman such as you in a long time. You truly enjoyed that! Especially after--" He cut himself off as if catching himself about to say something... inappropriate. Anlestin knew exactly what he had been thinking.
"After my Pendorian lover?" she asked. "Ruly, you needn't have worried. You were wonderful. Your tongue reaches places his cannot, and so does your manhood there," she said, pointing to his subsiding member. "This is not a competition. He cannot be my Great Husband, and you know better than to expect monogamy out of me."
He nodded, his face seeming sad. "That may be the one thing that discourages me from accepting any offer you may make. I think I would prefer it."
"What do you mean? Monogamy?" He nodded. She touched his cheek softly. "Rulyon, I said not to expect monogamy. That does not mean you should expect profligacy. I cannot see myself doing that either, no matter what my youth may have been like. If I were enough for you, could you be happy knowing that you may not be the only one for me?"
A look of confusion crossed his face. "I may have to think about that. But that sounds more palatable to me than many alternatives."
"Such as my father killing me for not accepting the Queen's offer to become her Great Husband." He paused. "How can you extend such an offer to me anyway? I understand that I'm at the very front of a long line of auditions."
"No," she said. "A very short line. Less than thirty nobles actually fit my criteria out of the several thousand now alive. You were first on the list because I liked what I saw. It was my position to ask you, not the other way around. Rulyon, there will be others, at least for a little while. But I like you." She touched his cheek. "We have discovered that we are good in bed. At least, I was pleasured. Were you?" He nodded, blushing bright blue at his eartips. "Good. We have much else to discover, but the simpler things are now sure. Too many marriages have been ruined because this discovery was put off until too late; I am determined to not make this mistake. And although it may not seem like it would matter much to a Queen, I have to ask you-- Rulyon, can you cook?"
"I can, your highness. With some skill, I believe."
"Good. You will have to show me someday soon." Sudden exhaustion swept through her with a yawn. "I think I am now going to get some sleep, Ruly. What will you do?"
"Is the offer to spend the night still open?" he asked.
"It is," she replied. "If that is what you really want."
"I would not think of doing otherwise," he said with a smile. "Jamis, lights off." For some reason Anlestin found their positions reversing often, he leading, then she, then he. It excited her, this give and take of power and control. She wondered how open he would be to... She put those thoughts out of her mind, even as she began to fall asleep. She felt Ruly cuddle up close to her and wished him a night visited only by the sweeter spirits. Her favorite sweeter spirit was still light years away, but she felt that at least now she had one a little closer.
Standing on a balcony outside the main dance hall, Duke Conta siss-talek looked up and across the royal campus to the Queen's pyramid. He saw the lights go down, and then a while later go out. He waited.
The glass doors parted and his personal aide, Mahrn, joined him. The Duke tossed a privacy ball into the air; it hovered over the two of them, extending a field that even the AI couldn't penetrate to hear.
Satisfied, Duke siss-talek leaned back against the railing and asked, "Did you find anything?"
Mahrn nodded. "She is no closer to choosing a first husband, much less a second or third. You are not on the list, as far as I can tell. I received the impression that Ipsi would like you on the list, but that Anlestin would have her flayed alive if she raised your name as a suggestion. I also received the impression that she had tried."
"So she won't have me as husband?" Conta growled. "I had a feeling she may not. Is there any movement?"
"The rumor has it that she chose to break her celibacy tonight."
"Yes, I saw some activity in her quarters that suggested more than light reading before bed. Do you know who it was?"
"The evidence points to siDuke Rulyon. Guard Neshlid led him away from the party about an hour ago."
"Rulyon?" the Duke said, surprised. "He isn't fit to be a king. He's still a boy!"
"My Lord, in your great grandfather's age, being Rulyon's age was more than enough to have received a commission in the military, a position leading men into battle, and the power of law at your left hand. The Emperor Hunach was said to have conquered the entire world before he was twenty seven."
"But that was before my great grandfather's age, Mahrn. In these days, his age is barely enough to be considered out of puberty. And he has never set foot on llerkin itself! What does he know about the homeworld? What does he know about the war, the hardship, the terror?"
Marhn bit back that Conta had been only three when the war occurred and probably didn't remember all that much himself. "He is still a noble of the house of Reffom, My Lord."
Conta shook his head. "Not content to remain an eggless, bestial whore, she has to go tromping into noble cradles now to get her thrills. The more I think about it, Mahrn, the more I come to the realization that something must be done about Anlestin. Something... permanent."
"Sir, you aren't proposing..."
"I haven't proposed anything. We simply have to find a way to convince the people, and Anlestin, that I belong there, on the dais of the throne."