Through the iron gate Rhiane assessed the tall building with eight floors, the top three of which had deep, inset balconies with hand-wrought iron parapets. It was made of a white stone that showed only the most appropriate signs of age. She could see the door, Han-high and four-abreast wide with knobs of brass in an elaborate frame of trace and hammer. The grounds were immaculate, green and fresh.
Zia stiffened noticeably as an Uncia wearing a soft brown blouse and flared, bell-bottomed pants of silk approached them directly on the sidewalk. She dropped to one knee briefly, then offered her hand in formal greeting. "Are you Rhiane Rho?" the Uncia said. "I understand if you don't want a mouthful of fur."
Rhiane had become familiar with kissing fur, so she accepted the hand. She growled, "I'm very pleased to meet you as well." She stopped, coughed, said "Ow."
Reff grinned. "You said that very well!" She cocked a head at Rhiane's companion. "I don't suppose you speak Unczit?" Reff was tall enough to look down on the other woman, which made Rhiane want to giggle. Nobody else among the Sterlings was quite so tall. She repressed the urge. "Who is this?"
"Lt. Zia Tau. My security detail."
Zia looked deadly serious. She nodded briefly to Reff. "Ma'am."
Reff smiled. "I see. Is she here to watch you, or watch me?"
"Neither, I think," Rhiane said. "She's here to make sure I'm not accosted while out on the streets. Command believes that I'm highly visible in uniform and might be the target of threats. Is that even possible?"
"I'm sure it is. Citizens of the Corridor are just as capable of making choices of an inappropriate nature as women of the Free Worlds," Reff said. "Perhaps moreso. And your people are currently the most popular article of news and entertainment we have. There are crazy people, fans and fanatics, even here, and you do stand out, Miss Rho. I was told to expect a Miss Thavas as well?"
"Ilonca was delayed," Rhiane said. "She'll be here later."
"Come inside," Reff said. "Let me show you around." She led the way. "You've been assigned a building with eleven floors, three below ground and eight above. The top three floors are currently residential, although you can ask to have them reconfigured. In keeping with your current tech level, the configuration is manual, meaning we would have to hire a contractor to come in and rearrange around the support structures."
Reff led them through the front door, showing the security arrangements for the reception area, the receiving offices, the defense in depth including the retreat spaces. It was as modern an embassy as Rhiane could imagine despite the hand-worked look. Reff led them to the elevators, and they took it down to the subfloors. She showed the teaching theater, the computation room, the backup power supply "that no embassy has ever needed," the network control center, and the storerooms.
Upstairs, there were more teaching and conference rooms, and the residences were quite large. Bare at this point without furniture, rugs, or signs of human habitation, but the bathing facilities were as large as anything Rhiane had seen on the starship.
The residences on the top floor were quite nice, although right now they seemed mostly constructed of large studios with minimal cooking facilities. They stopped in one when Rhiane felt something odd against her temple. She changed her focus slightly and read her glasses: "I'm outside."
Rhiane tapped her frames twice. "Come on up," she said aloud. "Top floor."
Ilonca arrived via the same elevator they had taken, and when she was within an arm's length of Rhiane the two women grabbed one another and kissed in a manner that would have shocked their mothers. Both of them knew that Zia would never report them and they had certain expectations about Pendorians. Rhiane turned to introduce their hostess, who was kneeling by one of the windows, tracing doodles in the thin layer of dust. "Reff?" Rhiane said.
"I'm sorry. It's late in the day, I understand your people have been under a lot of stress and... Why don't we discuss the changes your people might want." She looked at Ilonca. "That is your responsibility, yes?"
Rhiane and Ilonca both nodded. Rhiane had learned to read Uncia faces along with many other skills she had developed in the past five months. "Reff?" she asked. "Is something wrong?"
"No. Thank you."
They went back down to the first floor, Zia looking a little more relaxed now that they were off the main street, and found a large empty room off the corridor leading rearward. "This embassy's a little bigger than the first one I ever opened," Reff said.
"When was that?"
"In the year 101. It was Pendor's embassy to Earth."
Rhiane heard the words but did not understand them for a moment. When what Reff had said connected with knowledge, she looked up. "You're six thousand years old?"
"Give or take," Reff said. "I spent some of it on a slowboat, so relativistic speeds have shaved off a few hundred years here and there. I was in the first wave of cultural contact specialists Pendor was teaching. Taking care of cultures we hope to integrate with is my job. You might even find a picture of me in your histories, somewhere."
Rhiane stared. Reff didn't look "old," she looked vibrant and powerful. She recalled Ash and Arwen's description of Zia, "Scary, like an Uncia!" Reff didn't look scary. If anything, her attitude was pensive and perhaps a bit sad.
Reff gestured and the room seemed to come to life, making the three women jump. A see-through wireframe of the building appeared before them, the walls glowing softly. "Obviously, you'll discover more needs as time goes on. This building is designed for the functioning of about fifty people, and my understanding is that you have only twenty or so in the Ambassadorial staff, correct?" Rhiane nodded. "Then you'll probably only need the bottom two floors for now, and one floor of the basement. Unless you intend to have your military detail here as well?"
"I don't know what the arrangements are for Commander San Txema's people," Rhiane said. "Lt. Tau here is part of the Embassy security detail, which is a separate division." They looked through the wireframe as Reff pointed out the reception and events hallway. Rhiane grinned at Ilonca. "Is that close enough to the kitchen?"
"It is," Ilonca said, pointing. "We could hold a wedding reception there."
Rhiane jerked her head toward Ilonca, and Ilonca smiled at her. "You're not serious."
"Rhiane, I've let you make every first move. Let me make one."
"Every one except the very first," Rhiane said.
Ilonca grinned, and Rhiane laughed softly and leaned over to kiss her. When they separated, Rhiane saw Zia fighting a grin. Reff, on the other hand, was studiously not looking at them. "I'll make it formal later," Ilonca said.
"You do that," Rhiane said. She leaned in close and whispered into Ilonca's ear: "I don't think we need to do much here. I think our guide needs a coffee, though."
Ilonca nodded. Rhiane sat back and said, "The arrangements look more than adequate, Miss Ng. My, um, steward and I would like to know if we could take you out for a coffee, or something? Since we'll be working closely together for the next two years, it might be suitable if we got to know one another more closely. Unless, of course, Lt. Zia here thinks there is a security risk."
"No more than usual," Zia said.
"I'm afraid Uncia don't drink coffee," Reff said. "It gives us nausea. Chocolate, too. But there are other things we do like, and the cafe' up the street will certainly have them."
In the cafe' they all sat closely to one another at a small table in the corner. Zia sat where she could see the rest of the room, watching with practiced professionalism. Rhiane said, "My people are grateful for the use of the embassy space, Miss Ng. It's very beautiful."
"I'm glad you think so. We do keep one in the ready for Reservationists whenever one is found, so we will have to build another one very soon for the next reservation."
Ilonca said, "Is something wrong, Miss Ng? You've been very distant this morning. That's not something I would associate with someone assigned to associate with primitive colonists."
"It's not the colonists particularly. Just you two. You remind me of someone I knew a long time ago. Which is odd because neither of you look anything like her. She was tall, and red-headed, and very pale with many freckles. I was so in love, once." Her eyes took on the kind of distant look that Rhiane would have thought impossible in a big cat. She suddenly reached across the table, so fast that Zia reacted with a shrug of her shoulder, a reach for her pistol, before she realized that Reff had just grabbed Ilonca and Rhiane's hands. "Tell me something. Tell me... tell me that you're both getting TRT, or you both aren't."
Rhiane managed to stutter, "I... I am. I had planned on it."
"Good," Reff said. "Because you shouldn't fall in love with someone who doesn't want to spend eternity with you."
That night, as Ilonca hummed quietly to herself in the bathroom of the hotel room they shared, Rhiane examined herself in the mirror. She had different eyes, now, she thought: she saw what Ilonca saw in her. But she also knew that other people saw it, too. She was no longer desperate for attention, for longing, for love.
Ilonca came out. "What are you looking at, lover?"
Rhiane shook her head and quickly pulled her robe closed, tying the belt. "Ilonca, will it really last forever? I mean, if we got married, what would it really mean for you and me?"
Ilonca sat down on the bed. "I don't know. What do you think it would mean?"
"I don't know, either. I was talking to Yesyka the other day. She has a daughter. I asked what became of the father. Yesyka laughed and told me that it was a mother, and that she and Yesyka had lived together for about 25 years, long enough to fall in love, have a little girl, and raise her. Then when it was over, she said that they discovered they had not much else in common and they broke up. I'm afraid that that's what'll happen to us."
Ilonca reached out for Rhiane's hand. "It might. Does that frighten you?" Rhiane nodded. "It shouldn't. At least when the quarter-century is up we'll be able to say that we did good by it, won't we? You're not wrong for me, Rhiane. Am I wrong for you?"
"No, no you're not. I just... I just... " A tear ran down her cheek. "I love you so much right now, Ilonca, and Reff kinda scared me. I don't think she meant to. I like her. I'm pretty sure I can work with her, if she doesn't get reassigned. But all the different things that happen out here-- I don't know that I like all the weird things that the Pendorians call 'freedom,' beloved." She laughed. "Who knew I was such a conservative?"
"I did," Ilonca said. "Oh, I knew a long time ago. Stewards are conservative by nature, since our job is to uphold the traditions of our matrons. I could see it in you. But I'm not frightened by the freedoms of the Pendorians. I know that I get to pick the ones that are right for me and nobody can tell me otherwise. Right now, I want to stick with tradition. Wait here." She got up, walked over to the closet, pulled out her jacket. "I was going to wait a couple of months for this, probably until the signing ceremony, but it can't wait." She held out a small box made of a light-colored wood, lovingly lacquered and polished. It had two small clasps on it, one on each side.
Rhiane stared at it. She knew what it was. She had seen one on her mothers' bedstand, many many times. "Ilonca?" she said.
"Open your side." She held it out.
Rhiane held the box no larger than a small prayer book and pushed open the clasp on her side with her thumb. Ilonca did the same on the other side. "Ready?" Ilonca said. Rhiane nodded. "One, two, three." They both pushed open the lid.
Inside sat two identical rings, made of thick titanium with deep inset white stones. Rhiane stared at them and fresh tears came. "Rhiane," Ilonca said. "If it lasts a year, or a child, or an eternity, we can call it a success because-- it was born in my love for you." She spoke the words of a ritual: "Rhiane Rho, you have opened the box of soft keyless locks with me. Will you marry me?"
Rhiane managed a tiny nod, then a bigger one, then finally, "Yes. Yes, I'll marry you. I want to be the first to marry in the Church of the Goddess of the Free Worlds of the Prophet Jehanne Sterling on llerkin, and I want to marry you, Ilonca, and bare your daughters, and teach them to bless Her."
Ilonca smiled. "Reverend Butler would faint hearing those words from you."
"Some things are best taught in context," Rhiane said, smiling through the tears coming down her cheeks. "Goddess, Ilonca, you are so going to make an honest woman of me, aren't you?"
"I can," she said, reaching over and slipping a hand up the loose folds of Rhiane's robe, holding her close. They both cried for a moment, but both of them also felt the heat of their bodies, the undeniable extra connection that lived between them. It was one of Rhiane's deepest and most peculiar pleasures: the knowledge that she and Ilonca had a sex life that showed signs of resilience. Ilonca felt it as well. "Would you like me to spend a few moments of dishonesty?"
Rhiane nodded, leaning forward until her mouth met Ilonca's in the sweetest kiss she could ever have felt. Ilonca sighed her joy, and the two of them fell against the bed, Rhiane barely atop Ilonca.
The passion they built for one another on the bed was as pure and honest as it had been that first night in the drift chambers, perhaps moreso because both of them understood where it came from and what it meant. Ilonca's fingers became wet with Rhiane's desires as they kissed and caressed one another, every stroke, every touch a signal of acceptance. Rhiane had been in a Realm, and she knew just how easy it was for Pendorians to smooth away the details of life, to erase the colors of existence until all that was left was a glossy afterimage of a human being not quite entirely faithful to the original. She found Ilonca's warmth reassuring, the mole on her shoulder familiar, the strong smell of her desire euphoric. She wanted to hold on to these things for no other reason than that she would be less herself without them.
Rhiane's hands found Ilonca's breasts and then her mouth discovered Ilonca's sex as if for the first time, a discovery so monumental it ranked up there with Landing Day. That she had been here before did not dim her ardor, nor did her familiarity with the salt sea smell of Ilonca's desire lessen her own. She first kissed with blessing then licked like dessert at Ilonca's petals, not merely unashamed but truly honored by the blessing Ilonca bestowed upon her, the privilege of granting Ilonca heartbeats of pleasure, peaks of ecstasy. The two of them moaned softly as Ilonca came.
Ilonca pounced on Rhiane, her eyes wet. "I love you," Ilonca said gently. She silenced herself by following a similar trail down Rhiane's belly, down to the dark thatch of pubic hair and in, through the fur like an intrepid explorer, granting Rhiane pleasures she had learned she deserved, if only because Ilonca said she did. Ilonca gave her more than she could ever have asked of anyone. Rhiane felt the wet, strong tongue of the sweet steward of her soul between her thighs and she knew she would have her own ecstasy soon. She did with a gasp and a tremble in her legs.
They lay together afterwards, cocooned in their desire for one another and Rhiane whispered, "Do you want to have an X or a Y?"
"We could always let the clinic choose for us."
"Oh, Goddess," Rhiane said. "Maybe we shouldn't get married. I know Tempany has been dodgy with the regs, but they can hardly deny our involvement if we get, y'know, legal."
"Do you always see the bad side of things, beloved?" Ilonca asked.
"No, just thinking through the ramifications of disturbing the system. That's what I'm good at. That's why Tempany keeps me. Just like you deliver pleasure and order to our lives." Rhiane giggled. "I manage chaos. You create order. No wonder we get along so well."
Ilonca hummed softly to herself. "We'll find out tomorrow when we ask her."
"Yeah," Rhiane said. "Tomorrow."