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This story is No. 7 in the series "A Different Future". You may wish to read the series introduction and the preceeding stories first.

Summary: On Tallura, Dawn and the others may be safely out of Glory’s reach, but their adventures are only just beginning. And safety is always a relative condition - sequel to "Fate's Little Plaything Volume One".

Categories Author Rating Chapters Words Recs Reviews Hits Published Updated Complete
Stargate > GeneralCordyfanFR1322266,6403127156,98014 Mar 1124 Jul 14No

Gatherings

Summary: On Tallura, Dawn and the others may be safely out of Glory’s reach, but their adventures are only just beginning. And safety is always a relative condition.
Pairings: None.
Disclaimer: I don’t own Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Stargate SG-1, or Stargate Atlantis.
Notes: Continued from Fate’s Little Plaything Vol.1 (it will only make sense if you’ve read that story).

 

Joyce’s Apartment, Imperial Palace, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 30th January 2001 (Earth Date)

Dawn smiled happily and pirouetted on the spot, admiring herself in the mirror.  Clad in her velvety deep green bespoke dress, elegant hand-made shoes, and – by Terran standards – gold and emerald jewellery worth a king’s ransom, the youngest Summers was positively gleeful.  Drayana’s personal hairdresser had spent a long time creating a perfect hairstyle, and Joyce had even allowed her daughter to wear a little makeup for once.  She only wished her sisters were here to see her looking like this and was pretty certain they’d both be green with envy.

Her thoughts were abruptly interrupted by a happy squeal.  

“Sulvia!  You’ll muss your hair…” Dawn plaintively shouted after the Princess Imperial, as the excited youngster practiced cartwheels down the corridor.

The heir to the throne was positively wired and she wondered if Drayana had been feeding her cousin pure sugar before leaving her here.  Just like Buffy used to do when she was younger.  They were only Sulvia-watching for a couple of hours, while the Empress and her parents dealt with a few official formalities prior to the Imperial Gathering, but it felt a great deal longer to Dawn.

Joyce’s head emerged from her bedroom. “Having fun, dear?”

“I can’t get Sulvia to sit down,” Dawn complained, making a futile grab for the agile eight year-old.

“Now you know how I used to feel.  And still sometimes do…” her mother pointed out in amusement.

“Oh Dawn?  Try to make sure she doesn’t spoil that pretty dress…” she added mischievously.

The youngest Summers tried to think of a suitable reply, but the only ones she could think of would likely get her into trouble.  If only Sulvia’s bodyguards were around, this would be so much easier.  The Amazons were adept at calming the little Princess, who had rapidly and gleefully adapted to life with her new family.

“Diana?  Can you help?” Dawn called out hopefully.

The Terran women were all preparing for the big event in Joyce’s apartment.  It was also an excuse for some girl time and a few glasses of Talluran wine, which was identical to the human variety.  Apparently one thing the Alterans had brought with them from Earth was a range of different grape vines.

“No she can’t,” Lam replied firmly. “I’m still fixing her hair.”

The Slayer had steadfastly refused the attentions of the royal beautician, but found that her fellow Terran women were harder to dissuade.  She’d therefore –albeit reluctantly - surrendered to the ministrations of Joyce and the SGC psychiatrist, who were currently fussing around their new project like a pair of mother hens.  Faith was actually showing remarkable forbearance – she was only cussing once a minute now.

“Can we play that game you showed me?  Leap Frog, you called it?” Sulvia eagerly tugged at her arm.

Dawn glanced helplessly at the little Princess Imperial, dressed impeccably for the occasion in a dark-red dress and jewellery that would be worth a small fortune back home.  Her own finery wouldn’t long survive that kind of game, either.

“I’ve a better idea…” she suddenly had a flash of inspiration. “We used to play a game called Statues when I was little.  To win the game, you have to sit perfectly still and quietly for as long as you can.”

“That sounds really boring,” Sulvia wasn’t convinced.

“It isn’t as easy as it sounds.  I’m sure you can’t sit in one place, without saying anything, ‘til it’s time for the Gathering,” Dawn decided on a little cunning, vaguely recalling a Buffy tactic when she was younger.

The Princess Imperial sniffed dismissively. “I could…  But I don’t want to!”

So much for being sneaky, Dawn told herself.  Maybe bribery would work instead.

“It’s a really good game.  And there’s a prize…  Next time I’m in town, I’ll bring another doll for your collection,” she offered.

Dawn would have to clear that with Drayana and her parents, though it wasn’t a huge gift, so approval was likely to be forthcoming.  In spite of her rank and position, they were being very careful not to over-indulge the Princess, and her allowance was carefully regulated.  Not that she was constantly demanding new material possessions – the child was happy just being with a family who loved her – but the Empress was determined that her adopted sister, former cousin, and Imperial Ward wouldn’t grow into some kind of spoiled brat.

Sulvia nodded eagerly. “The Imperial Guard pilot, with the spaceship?”

The heir to the throne had her girly-girl moments, but she also liked spaceships and enjoyed playing soldiers.  There was hardly a day went past, when Dawn wasn’t ambushed by Sulvia with a toy ray-gun.  On the other hand, the Princess also enjoyed dressing up and playing with her doll’s house, so she wasn’t one-hundred percent tomboy.  Still, she was particularly taken at the moment with the Talluran GI Joe equivalent, in its female version, and the latest addition to the series was a scale Comet-class fighter complete with curvy female pilot figure. 

Having seen the desired toy, Dawn actually found herself feeling a little wistful that she was too old for dolls, especially now that her own wannabe fighter pilot aspirations had been given a boost by a brief hop in the real thing.  Needless to say, Joyce was decidedly ambivalent about that particular ambition, and was encouraging Lam’s endeavours to push her youngest in the direction of a medical career.

In any case, it wasn’t a huge request on Sulvia’s part, and Dawn wanted to spoil her honorary cousin just a tiny bit.  After all, she might never see her again when she returned home.

Dawn nodded slowly. “I can buy you that one…  But I still don’t think you can be a proper statue for long enough…”

“Yes I can!”

Mission accomplished.  Dawn congratulated herself on her sneakiness, as the Princess Imperial obediently parked herself on the sofa, and adopted a “butter-wouldn’t-melt” expression.

 

Brhachon Colony, Jarrasi Empire, Vedda Galaxy – 30th January 2001 (Earth Date)

The Faceless One had chosen its next target purely at random, having memorised every Gate address displayed in the House of the Heavens.  It had no intention of returning to that planet where, no doubt, the Old Enemy was still vainly seeking it out.  The demon was under no illusions that they lacked the means to destroy it.  Their explosive device would have been too much for even the Faceless One to withstand, had it been allowed to detonate, while in the dim and distant past, its foe had certainly possessed spaceship-mounted weapons more than capable of bringing about its destruction.

Therefore, in order to reduce its vulnerability, the creature had to both grow physically and also restore its former powers, the first being very much necessary for the second.  Picking off colonies one at a time would certainly help the process and it had also found a comfortable little bolt-hole, again with a Hellmouth.  The latter had been barely active and the planet long abandoned, but the Faceless One was able to draw on its energy between off-world forays.

Deep inside the Jarrasi Empire, Brhachon Colony was a trading planet, together with another two worlds in the same system, and therefore lightly defended.  Its largely civilian population had no reason to fear imminent attack from anyone and day-to-day life was carrying on as normal, when the Stargate in the centre of its largest settlement abruptly activated.

The handful of guards were caught entirely off-guard by the unscheduled Gate activity.  They’d barely reached for their personal weapons and activated the two remote control Plasma Cannon turrets when the interloper emerged.  At first they thought it was a freak mudslide, somehow having passed through the wormhole from another planet.  It looked like mud, but was apparently able to keep a shape, while moving as fast as water.  When it apparently followed and instantly absorbed several terrified Jarrasi, the mudslide theory was rapidly abandoned, and the guards opened fire, in an effort to keep the rapidly growing gelatinous mass from the city centre.

All died within seconds and in vain.  In spite of its size and bulk, the Faceless One was able to pass through a Stargate very quickly indeed, and it swiftly set about consuming and destroying everything in sight.  As a species which hadn’t passed the hunter-gatherer stage when it first came to the Vedda Galaxy, the demon had never encountered the Jarrasi before.  Not that it cared, as the marsupial population of Brhachon Colony were just as nourishing as any other mortal species.  Reshaping itself to tower above the low-lying city, the Faceless One rapidly engulfed the area, selectively flattening, dissolving and devouring its structures and inhabitants.  Those who ran screaming through the narrow streets couldn’t move fast enough to escape the purplish-brown monster.  One or two individuals successfully triggered a distress call, but that was their last act, as the demon methodically destroyed everyone and everything in its path.

Half-a-dozen interceptors, launched from an orbital platform, were overhead to investigate within minutes of receiving the frantic calls for help.  The lightly armed craft arrived just in time to see the Faceless One leisurely making its way back to the Gate, having utterly destroyed the city and consuming everyone in it.  Stunned and bewildered by what they were seeing, the pilots promptly activated their weapons systems and dived to the attack.

The Jarrasi light interceptors were really only designed for local policing duties.  Their Plasma Cannon weren’t designed to deal with any more than other fighters or unarmed and unshielded transports, nor had there been time to load heavier air-to-ground munitions, even if these had been available.  The first salvo, fired at a distance, had no discernible effect, other than to make the unidentified attacker move slightly more rapidly towards the Stargate.  A pair of interceptors then peeled away from the main formation, to make a low-level pass, which was just what the Faceless One had been waiting for.

Reaching out with its telekinetic powers, the demon stopped the fast-moving craft in mid-air, then hurled them straight into the ground, repeating the process with the next pair.  The two survivors, about to follow their dead comrades in, decided that four interceptors hadn’t just dived into the ground on a whim, and aborted the attack, frantically contacting their base for instructions.  Ignoring the impotent mortals circling high above, the Faceless One transferred its telekinetic energies to the dialling device and – to throw off any would-be pursuers - input the coordinates for yet another uninhabited planet.  Only from there would the creature dial its current hiding place.

By the time a heavily-armed Jarrasi Strike Cruiser arrived in the vicinity, the demon had already gone, leaving devastation its wake.  For now, the Faceless One was small enough that simply attacking targets in close proximity to the Stargates provided sufficient nourishment.  As the demon grew, however, it would reach further and further into the target planets.  Soon, the creature hoped, one of the Old Enemy’s worlds would fall into its grasp, and then it would make the God King of the Primordium proud of his creation.  

 

Ballroom, Imperial Palace, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 30st January 2001 (Earth Date)

“Dunno what this is, but it tastes like really, really good chicken…” Faith tucked into a large lump of meat with considerable relish.

She’d never been invited to a meal like this, with eight courses – huge courses – in such a setting, or in this kind of company.  The ballroom was actually three enormous adjacent and connected rooms each, according to Joyce, decorated in a colourful mixture of classical-like design and eighteenth century Europe.  One was for the banquet, another designated for the dancing phase, with the third set aside for the guests to mingle.  Needless to say, the décor and atmosphere were worthy of the Imperial Palace.  The floors were polished like mirrors, huge chandeliers hung from the ceiling, and an orchestra played in the background.  It was, Faith considered pensively, all a long way from the monotonous fare and grey colours of Southern California Women’s Correctional and Rehabilitative Institute.

As Carolyn Lam continued to remind her during their therapy sessions, that was in the past and ought to be left there.  Tonight was for eating, dancing and fun.  Faith had expected this to be a purely stuffed-shirt affair and no doubt there were a few in the room who fit that category.  Drayana had, however, endeavoured to invite as wide a range of people as possible.  There were around one thousand invitees, of whom only a third were in Imperial and government service, or their families.  The other two-thirds of the invitations were allotted to the citizens of Yaherin Var by way of a ballot and, aside from the Empress’ table, dining places were similarly allotted at random.  The old Master of Imperial Protocol had been scandalised, but his Empress simply pointed out that there were no rules about who could, or could not, be invited.  On the contrary, the Imperial Gathering had always been an egalitarian affair and any pretensions to the contrary had only grown up during Ilarius’ tenure as Regent.  As with many other practices which had developed during that period, Drayana was only too happy to make her own changes.

Aside from her own family, the Empress had also insisted that all her Terran guests join her for the banquet phase, together with Aquiliani and her husband and Vesarian and his wife.  Joyce and Logan appeared to be getting along like a house on fire, while it didn’t take a genius to guess that Lam and Gaius Valarien would end up in bed.  The two physicians were practically undressing each other with their eyes.  As for Faith, perhaps Captain Bill Sato might get lucky tonight.  He might be a tad wholesome for the Slayer, but the SG-15 Exec was also appealing in a compact, well-muscled way.

“What is this, anyway?” Faith asked Vesarian, spearing another hunk of unspecified meat, dripping with a tasty rich sauce.

“Are you sure you really wish to know?” the Imperial Guard Centurion smiled.

The Slayer didn’t like the look of that smile.  She reminded herself that it was sometimes better not to know what you were eating on an alien planet.  The Tallurans had certainly been horrified at her descriptions of human fast food.

“Nah, I’m cool,” Faith replied quickly, as a crimson and gold liveried waiter topped up her wine glass.

Drayana glanced around the circular table, pleased to see that her new friends all seemed totally relaxed.  It was especially gratifying not to have Ilarius lurking around this year, while most of his friends had somehow fallen off the guest list.  Wholly by accident, of course.

“Diana?  There is a Crimson Supernova concert in Yaherin Var in two weeks.  Would you like to accompany me?”

Faith had been surprised to find something almost akin to her favourite Death Metal on Tallura Prime.  The instruments might be completely different, but the effect – and usual audience – were similar.  Crimson Supernova were probably the best she’d heard to date and Drayana was also a fan.  In fact, the Empress’ musical tastes were extremely varied.

“Count me in.  Way too long since my last gig,” Faith replied.

Livia shook her head disapprovingly. “I will never understand how anyone could listen to that discordant row…”

“We all have different tastes, mother,” Drayana replied defensively.

“Hey, you gotta respect the sound!” Faith agreed.

“How about you, Dawn?” the Empress suggested.

The youngest Summers nodded enthusiastically.  While neither Terran Death Metal nor its Talluran equivalents were quite her thing, she’d never been to a rock concert back home.

“Aren’t you a little young, dear?” her mother sounded dubious.

“She’ll be perfectly safe, Joyce.  Heck, I’ll be there to keep an eye on her…” Faith replied, pretty sure that a Talluran gig was perfectly safe.

Dawn might not be her sister, but she almost felt like one.  In Faith’s book, it was her job to introduce little sis’ to the finer things in life.  Like her very first mosh pit.

“And I will have my full protective detail, Aunt Joyce,” Drayana added her support.

Vesarian, meanwhile, thanked the Goddess that the evening shift would be accompanying the Empress to this particular event.  The Centurion liked his hearing just the way it was.

“Please, mom?” Dawn pressed hopefully.

Joyce reluctantly acquiesced, hoping that her youngest wouldn’t be returning home with the same taste in music – so-called – as Faith.  At least Buffy’s preferences were a little easier on the ear and the Slayer had even been known to borrow her mother’s Abba collection on occasion.

“Anyone else?” Drayana looked hopefully around the table, but had no further takers, apart from Sulvia – with Livia immediately and firmly exercising her parental veto.

Joyce noticed someone across the room and recalled a promise she’d yet to fulfil. “While you’re all enjoying having your eardrums shattered, I should probably visit your old bookselling friend, Drayana.  He sold me a stack of books at a knockdown price, in return for a few chats with him and his friends about Earth history and culture.”

The Empress’ eyes lit up. “You mean Hermenius Censorian?  He is a wonderful man.  Before my coronation, I used to visit every week.  We would argue about politics, history, philosophy – everything…  Now I no longer have the time.  But if you have the opportunity, there is little about Talluran history, art and culture he does not know.”

“You should also try to find time in your schedule to renew that practice, at least every few weeks, Drayana,” Myrnn suggested.

“Talking with Hermenius may also help with your – uh – other work, Aunt Joyce,” Drayana said quietly. “But we will discuss that later.”

Joyce was now an essential part of the so-called Alteran Cultural Survey, as the only one in the galaxy who could read Latin.  She needed local context, however, to properly translate the material now piling up on her desk.  A Latin dictionary would also, she considered, be invaluable.  This work was too important to make mistakes and there were some tricky terms which ideally needed double-checking.  The only problem was that the nearest Latin dictionary was untold light years away from Tallura Prime and not exactly accessible.

“We do not talk about work at the Gathering, Drayana,” Livia scolded mildly.

“Of course not, mother,” the Empress acknowledged, then scanned the male figures around the table.

“So who will permit me the honour of the first dance this evening?” she smiled.

 

Imshai Homeworld, Vedda Galaxy – 30th January 2001 (Earth Date)

Regent Ilarius had never liked the cold and, as he grew older, low temperatures made him increasingly uncomfortable.  On that basis alone, that brat of an Empress had picked the perfect mission if she simply wanted to make him miserable.  The Imshai idea of normal indoor heat meant he had to wrap himself in most of his cold-weather clothing and sit shivering through interminable meetings, while his hosts basked in the alleged warmth.  Of course, these things were always relative.  If he was foolish enough to set foot outside at the moment, even with the best protective clothing Talluran science could devise, Ilarius knew he wouldn’t survive for long.  The Regent just couldn’t imagine what attractions this icy wasteland of a planet held for any intelligent species.  If he could even dignify the Imshai with that term, he considered morosely.

Of course, the freezing temperatures were only one aspect of Drayana’s sadistic revenge.  He might have almost tolerated the cold, if it hadn’t been for the Imshai.  His hosts were pedantic to an astonishing degree.  Every aspect of life was affected by custom and tradition, from eating to arranging a diplomatic event.  Ilarius could even have dealt with that, except that there were several different interpretations of each custom, and the Imshai spent an inordinate amount of time arguing over which was correct under any given set of circumstances.

Not that the Regent was willing to argue with an Imshai over anything, given the potential personal consequences.  This species was big, heavy but fast-moving, and fierce.  Big and aggressive enough to take on a full-grown Ch’Hanis and win, for the most part.  The teeth and claws definitely made Ilarius nervous, while the white fur didn’t do anything to minimise the ferocious appearance, which was exacerbated by bright red eyes and their habit of growling.

“This room is not suitable for the conference,” one Imshai claimed.

“On the contrary, I would say that it is perfect,” another replied, with a blood-curdling snarl.

A third ground his teeth together. “The table cannot be properly aligned in a room of this size.”

“That can always be overcome, with the correct ritual,” the second Imshai retorted.

“Not if we stoop to using the untraditional rituals you and your people advocate,” the first Imshai argued.

Ilarius briefly closed his eyes.  The Empress might want to ally the Tallurans with these creatures, owing to their useful strategic position, but surely it couldn’t be worth this much trouble.  They’d been debating the seating arrangements for hours - ten frozen hours – and this was one of the less controversial topics on the list for discussion.  Almost all of that time had been spent arguing with each other and Ilarius decided that the Tallurans might as well be invisible, for all the attention their hosts were paying.  The Regent hated to think what would happen when they finally got around to discussing something important, such as the lunch menu.

It was all the fault of that vindictive brat back on Tallura Prime, clearly trying to make a point.  He knew it, she knew it, and the Diplomatic Directorate and security contingent knew it.  The Regent could barely go to the bathroom, without them checking to make sure he wasn’t selling state secrets or making unauthorised alliances.  Or, for that matter, keeping in regular contact with other members of his circle back on the homeworld.  Drayana had clearly and quite publicly stopped even pretending to trust him and Ilarius was tempted just to shoot the vile child next time they met, on general principles.  After all, the most protracted and agonising execution for treason couldn’t compare to weeks with the Imshai.

Ilarius had no doubt that the Empress had any number of equally onerous tasks waiting for him back home, in the hope that he’d eventually resign.  Equally, the Regent was stubborn enough to take everything she flung at him, confident that he and his followers would eventually prevail.  Then he’d personally hand Drayana over to the Xicavvar, as an edible host for their larvae, or feed her to a hungry Ch’Hanis.

 

Ballroom, Imperial Palace, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 30st January 2001 (Earth Date)

Licinia Vertain and her circle of friends were curiously watching Dawn’s every move, almost bursting to find out the truth.

“She carries herself like a princess – someone who was been trained for the role all her life,” the Proconsul for War’s daughter suggested.

“Dressed like one, too…” she added enviously.

“You know what we really need?” Palinia Tiburtian suggested. “One of us to actually ask her a few questions in person.”

The daughter of the Proconsul for Transport and Infrastructure was just as eager as her best friend to uncover the truth.  A young heir to a powerful alien empire, even if she looked just like them, was an exotic and unusual presence on Tallura Prime.  It gave also gave the Talluran teens something different to talk about, a pleasant change from who was dating whom, who was wearing what, and so forth.

“We do not know what the protocol is…” Licinia replied uncertainly. “I would not wish to cause an incident.”

“When I said ‘one of us’, I did not mean literally.  That is what younger brothers are for,” Palinia told her with a laugh. “Mine is, I believe, about the same age as the Terran princess.  She might even find the little nuisance vaguely attractive – much stranger things have been known to happen…”

Licinia still looked dubious. “I would not want to cause Camullus any trouble.”

Her friend chuckled. “How much trouble can we cause him?  He is twelve years old and hardly likely to be dragged away in disgrace to the cells.”

Palinia’s younger brother was duly summoned from his own peer group, which had far more important things to worry about than alleged Terran princesses.  Sports, music their parents didn’t approve of, the latest Gravity Car designs - the important things in life to twelve year-old Talluran boys.

Dragged away from his friends in the midst of an lively argument about the merits of two local sports clubs, Camullus glared at his sister and her friend from under a mop of curly light brown hair.

“Why should I?  Why not ask your own boring questions?”

“Because I will make your life a misery if you do not?” Palinia moved into domineering sister mode and caught her smaller brother in a headlock.

Noogies, it seemed, were an inter-galactic means of sibling harassment.

“Let me go, or I will tell mother that you have been sneaking out of the house at night…  I presume you must be chasing some boy again.  Maybe one that father does not approve of…” Camullus threatened.

“You are such an evil little traitor!  I am sure you cannot really be my brother…” Palinia reluctantly released him.

“Five Green Empires if you do this for us,” Licinia preferred bribery to threats and physical coercion. “Besides, she is very pretty and your friends will be jealous…”

Camullus was nothing if not open to opportunity. “Ten Green Empires and a list of questions.  And I do not want to appear foolish, so if any of these seem stupid, I will not use them.”

Admittedly, he was now slightly intrigued himself.  Besides, his sister’s friend was correct.  The Terran was indeed quite attractive.

“Seven – and no more.  You will also forget that you have seen me climbing out of my bedroom window…” Palinia turned her brother around and with a nudge between the shoulder blades, pushed him in the direction of his target.

Halfway across the floor, Camullus paused and looked back uncertainly, only to see the two teens grinning and gesturing for him to continue.  The Talluran boy only hoped this wouldn’t end in embarrassment or worse.  The Terran girl did, after all, have her own personal protective team.

 

Dawn was thoroughly enjoying herself.  Aside from a spin around the dance floor with Logan and some of the others from SG-15, she’d already had half-a-dozen invitations to dance from curious Tallurans, ranging from the Empress’ favourite bookseller to several Proconsuls.  Other had simply wanted to chat – and none were treating her like a child.  Every so often, a waiter would appear at her elbow with a tray bearing snacks or soft drinks, addressing her as though she was actually important.  It was a nice feeling, Dawn decided.

Part of her wanted to join the various groups of Talluran youngsters, to satisfy her own curiosity, but a brief attendance at one of their schools hadn’t exactly been successful.  Drayana had assured her that the bullying she’s suffered was an aberration and most Tallurans – young or old – weren’t like that, but Dawn remained wary. 

In any case, it wasn’t as if she was short of company tonight.  All she had to do was stand still for a moment, and some complete stranger would politely ask her for a dance – which they would then have to teach her – or engage her in conversation about Earth.  As an opportunity to people-watch, the Gathering was also wonderful.  Dawn had never seen so many elegant dresses and smart uniforms in one place, and especially not outside a movie.  Part of her half-expected to turn into a pumpkin at the twelfth stroke of midnight.

All at once, a Talluran boy appeared at her elbow.  He was probably around her own age, Dawn guessed, if slightly shorter.  The boy also looked nervous and kept glancing back at a group of older Talluran girls.  If he was just here to taunt her about being from a primitive race, then he’d quickly be returning the way he came.  After learning a few Terran words.

“Can I – uh – ask you a few questions?” the boy asked nervously.

“Sure you can…” she replied cautiously.

“My sister and her friends believe that you are the Terran Princess Imperial,” Camullus ventured.

Dawn almost snorted her juice all over him. “They believe what?”

“That you are the heir to a mighty Empire, here to make an alliance with Her Excellency.  They cannot think of any other reason why you would be here, staying in the Imperial Palace,” the Talluran responded, uneasily wondering if her visit was supposed to be secret.

“And how should I address you?  Is it ‘Excellency’?” Camullus decided that he’d best check on the formalities.

“You can try ‘Your Dawnship’, - or just plain Dawn, ‘cause that’s my name.  And your sister and her friends are so wide of the mark…” Dawn laughed, unable to believe her ears.

She had a pretty good idea of what had happened now.  Unless the Talluran teens were simply playing a prank on the younger boy, they’d persuaded – or threatened – him into spying for them.

Camullus shook his head. “So you are not the Terran Princess Imperial?  They seemed so sure – my sister’s friend has been studying you for days.  Though she has very little information.”

“Terran, yeah.  Been called a little princess before, but that was just my sister, when I was being a total brat!” Dawn sniggered. “As for the information thing?  Really not much to tell.”

The Talluran boy looked thoughtful for a moment, then grinned. “Perhaps we should not tell my sister immediately.  Let her believe what she wishes...  And can we perhaps talk about your world?  I have never met one of the Second Evolution…”

“ ‘The Second Evolution’, huh?  Sounds like a rock group.  But if you want to mess with your big sister, guess I can’t stop you.  And hey, I’ve a big sister, too, so I know how sucky it is to be the baby of the family.  Let’s go out onto the balcony, make them really curious…” Dawn suggested mischievously.

 

Qe’Exhava, Neutral Zone Between the Haamarii Protectorate, Forvon Imperium and Talluran Empire – 30th January 2001

Frontier planets such as Qe’Exhava might be a refuge for the Vedda Galaxy’s criminals, but they also provided a rich source of information for spies, and profitable pickings for bounty hunters.  As such, they weren’t necessarily one-hundred percent safe for those who were fleeing from the major powers.  While the neutral zones were intended to keep the military forces of antagonistic species apart, a blind eye was often turned if one side decided to raid criminal havens such as Qe’Exhava.  Similarly, while those who worked on these worlds necessarily had to be discrete and turn a blind eye to many things, if only to preserve both their business and often their very lives, some also played both sides of the fence.  That was particularly the case if a fugitive had a high price on his or her head, or if they were deeply immersed in political matters.  The latter was much more likely to bring about a raid than simply harbouring a few smugglers.

One particular tavern keeper on Qe’Exhava was generally noted for his discretion, but also didn’t like having those who courted political problems in his establishment.  He also, of course, wasn’t averse to making a small profit on the side by quietly tipping off the relevant authorities about such individuals, or even having his own people snatch them up until they could be handed over.  As such, he not only kept his ear to the ground in the bar, but also maintained a close watch on what was happening around the various homeworlds and major colonies.  To that end, there was a comprehensive list of wanted individuals under the bar, centred on the type of criminal – the most notorious pirates, terrorists, those wanted for treason – whose presence might end in a commando raid.  And that was very bad for business.

Today, he’d identified one such disreputable specimen, in the shape of the pirate Jugrub.  Wanted for a range of crimes by both the Ch’Hanis Freehold and suspected of others by Talluran Empire, the reptilian definitely came into the “dangerous to have around” category.  The tavern keeper, a somewhat rotund Aqqabaz of vaguely human appearance, uneasily weighed up his options.  If he informed on Jugrub, the authorities better get it right, else it would probably be his own neck the pirate sunk his teeth into.  Conversely, if he did nothing, it was equally likely that someone else would covertly tip off either the Ch’Hanis or Tallurans and his bar would be full of armed troops before he knew it.  The Talluran Imperial Defence Forces wouldn’t execute half his clientele on the spot, unlike the reptilians’ usual modus operandi, but neither was exactly desirable.

Not that half of his customers didn’t deserve to be lined up against the nearest wall and shot, but Qe’Exhava was also a stop-off point – albeit a risky one – for legitimate traders.  The tavern keeper definitely wanted to keep them out of any crossfire, lest they be tempted to move their business to a safer locale.

The best course of action, he decided, was to unobtrusively snatch the pirate from his bed and hold him somewhere secure.  The tavern keeper had a useful contact within the Ch’Hanis Security Police, who’d arrange for a prompt and quiet pick up, rather than sending a warship.

Across the poorly lit room, another visitor to Qe’Exhava was also considering his options.  One Mardeluvian – an insectoid species – was in the employ of the Talluran Security Directorate, who’d issued a description of Jugrub as a high-priority fugitive.  It was a ridiculously easy matter for the garishly-coloured bug to report his discovery.  While the long-range transmitter could only be used for short-duration coded micro-burst messages, rather than real-time exchange, it was small enough to conceal in one hand under the table.  One pre-arranged code later and a Talluran Heavy Cruiser was diverted from its routine patrol.

 

Ballroom, Imperial Palace, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 30st January 2001 (Earth Date)

Talluran ballroom dancing had some vague similarities to its Terran equivalent but, never having been any good at the latter, Faith wasn’t exactly in a position to learn the latter anytime soon.  Neither, for that matter, was Captain Bill “Two Left Feet” Sato, it seemed.

“Ooowww!” the Slayer yelped, as the SGC XO accidentally trod on her toes yet again.

“Sorry…” Sato replied sheepishly.

Faith sighed and laughed. “We’re pretty much even here.  I’ve trampled your feet at least four times!”

Slayer grace evidently didn’t automatically translate to a congested dance floor, she decided wryly.  Nor were the mirrors helping.  Two walls of the ballroom were lined with floor to roof mirrors, resulting in an infinity of dizzy-making reflections stretching away to both sides.  Then, of course, there were all those who actually knew what they were doing and for neophytes like Faith and her Sato, collision avoidance was a major issue.

“Okay…  Think I’ve got the hang of this fricking dance.  So it’s like –uh – step, step, step, step, hop, hop, the turning thing twice, hop…  Then back to the start?”

“Something like that,” Sato agreed.

His date grinned at him. “Feel kinda like Cinderella, with the dress and the orchestra.  No…  When I was in the Big House, they were showing this cheesy Brit musical one day.  What was the damned thing called?  Oh yeah, My Fair Lady.”

Back home, she didn’t exactly mix in the sort of circles for this kind of thing.  Balls and banquets were for the rich and wealthy, not young Slayers from broken homes.  And certainly not for a convicted murderess.  Prancing around a ballroom flew in the face of everything Faith despised – excessive wealth, privilege, snobbery – and definitely didn’t match the wild child image she worked hard to cultivate, even if many of the rougher edges had been smoothed away. 

Part of her, however, had to admit that it was nice to wear an elegant dress occasionally and to be pampered like a lady.  Moreover, the majority of the Tallurans here wore their wealth and status much better than their equivalents back home.  The upper circles were by no means looking down their noses at those from other walks of Talluran life, who Drayana had made a point of inviting to this year’s Gathering.  On the contrary, everyone was mixing quite naturally.

“Never figured you for Eliza Doolittle,” the SG-15 Exec replied lightly.

“Suppose not – ain’t got the diction.  ‘The Rain in Spain’ and all that crap…  But what d’you say to taking a spin again…” Faith suggested, launching herself into the dance with typical Slayer abandon.

A moment later, Faith and Sato were lying in a pile of bodies, having collided with another pair.  The Slayer only hoped it was no one really important.  To her relief, she found herself and Sato entangled with Joyce and Logan, who seemed to be having the same problems.

“Come here often?” Joyce grinned, seemingly unfazed by the fact that she’d just been knocked on her dignity in front of the Talluran great and good.

“Oh crap!  Sorry ‘bout that…” Faith quickly helped her off the floor, before palace staff rushed to assist.

“Enjoying yourself?” Joyce asked.

The Slayer nodded, smiling contentedly. “Never thought this kinda gig would be any more than a drag, y’know?  But yeah, it’s pretty neat.  Even the fricking dancing…  Reckon I’ll just fill up on the goodies, then we’ll try the waltz-polka-tango thing again.”

“Try not to break Diana’s feet, Captain…” Logan advised with a short laugh.

“Not sure I could, even if I wanted to, sir…”

Sato’s reply was cut off, as Faith caught her partner by the arm and dragged him in the direction of the buffet in the next room, which had once more been restocked.  The Tallurans certainly didn’t skimp when it came to feeding their guests and the Slayer aimed to take full advantage of the fact.

Joyce shook her head in wonder. “Never thought I’d see the day…  Diana actually enjoying herself, at something like this!”

It was certainly a long way from Faith’s horrific childhood, she reflected sadly.  At least no one in this galaxy would ever try to judge her.  Not that any of the visiting Earthlings would either, of course, but the Slayer’s past was largely unknown to the Tallurans – and nor did really they care.  On the contrary, those who knew what she was, chiefly the Empress’ Imperial Guard detail, held her in a quiet awe.  The woman who’d been instrumental in saving their beloved Empress’ life, to the extent that she now part of a Blood Bond, wouldn’t soon be forgotten.  As for tonight, Faith – just like the rest of Drayana’s Terran friends – was being treated like royalty.

“Not the only one.  Love’s young dream is still out on the balcony with that Talluran boy, making gooey eyes at each other.  Want me to go scare him some more?” Logan suggested.

“Not if you don’t want Dawn to be plotting your downfall for the rest of our time here…” Joyce replied with a chuckle. “She and Drayana have a pretty formidable range of practical jokes in their arsenal.”

“Diana and Vesarian are definitely doomed, then.  Think they’ve already given him the evil eye,” Logan laughed along with her.

 

Drayana took a sip from her enormous foaming tankard of ale.  Usually, she was too young for such things, but on this one evening, the rules were relaxed.  The law permitted younger people attending certain events to drink alcohol, so long as it wasn’t to excess.  Of course, her mother would have preferred her to be enjoying a glass of fine wine, but the Empress had her own tastes.  So long as Drayana didn’t stagger blind-drunk back to her room, singing obscene Imperial Guard Battle Songs, Livia was prepared to accept her daughter’s preferences. 

That had only happened once – just over a year previously - and it hadn’t been a special occasion.  She’d spent most of the next day with her head down the toilet, feeling as though someone had exploded a nuke inside her head, and wasn’t in a hurry to repeat the experience.  Needless to say, there had been other consequences, too.  Replacing her well-worn sandal on the usual shelf after giving it an extended work-out, Livia had sternly warned her horribly hung-over and well-chastised ward that even rumours of drunkenness would be invaluable to any enemies.  To the newly-crowned Empress, schooled though she was in the political arts, the idea of anyone being her enemy had still been a theoretical one.  Now she knew very different.  One or two tankards, sipped rather than gulped, were therefore the order of the evening.

Despite the size of the Imperial Gathering, Drayana felt totally relaxed.  The protocols for this event were comparatively few.  There were no rules on who she had to entertain, in what order, and for how long.  Much to the chagrin of what Faith had termed brown-nosers, a highly appropriate term in the Empress’ book, the handful of such individuals who’d actually been invited were also expected to respect her freedom for the night.  So far, none of them had forgotten themselves.

The Empress approvingly eyed her Terran friend on a balcony, overlooking the Imperial Palace gardens, with a Talluran boy of about the same age.  Both of them were laughing uproariously about something and Drayana decided she wanted to hear the joke, too.  People all too rarely shared such things with her, given court protocol and the formal settings of most of her meetings.  But few stopped to think that the Empress might enjoy a side-splitting anecdote as much as the next person.

“Y-your Excellency…” Camullus stammered, never having met the Empress personally.

“Proconsul Tiburtian’s son, from what I remember?” Drayana smiled warmly.

The Empress made a point of memorising the families of all her Proconsuls, if only so that she could make friendly small talk with her government officials.  It often helped to defuse tensions and, moreover, was only good manners in her book.

“Camullus Tiburtian, at your service, Excellency,” he bobbed his head.

“This is supposed to be an informal event, Camullus.  So you should get yourself an ale and unwind some,” Drayana advised, with a twinkle in her eye.

“My mother – uh – forbade it,” Camullus admitted sheepishly.

Dawn pouted slightly. “Mine, too…”

The Empress reminded herself that they were about four years younger, even if one was a close friend.  And she wasn’t about to press the issue, with formidable mothers lurking in the background, keeping a close eye on their offspring.

Drayana shrugged. “Never mind.  There are some excellent iced fruit drinks I can recommend…  But I would really like to hear whichever joke is apparently amusing you so much.”

She grinned at Dawn. “Have you been telling him some of these stories about your sisters?  Or the rude ones Diana Prince thought I did not hear?”

Dawn shook her head. “None of these – yet…  I just heard the funniest thing, is all!”

“Then by the power invested in me as Lady Empress High Defender of all the Tallurans – and to use Diana’s terminology – I command you to spill, damn it!” Drayana smiled expectantly.

“Just something Camullus told me…  His big sister’s friend told him that I was heir to the Terran Empire.  A Princess Imperial, like Sulvia.  This huge really advanced Empire that covers most of the Milky Way – and I’m here to sign a diplomatic treaty with the Talluran Empire…  Camullus was sent over here to investigate – like they were all too scared of little me!” Dawn giggled.

The Empress’ smile only slipped slightly, but her politically trained mind was already beginning to draw certain conclusions.  Whilst it seemed unlikely on the face of things, teenage gossip – removed from the usual channels monitored by the Security Directorate – might just be at the root of the diplomatically uncomfortable rumours which were causing some trouble at present. 

This obviously required some investigation.  And if she was able to uncover the truth before the Security Directorate specialists, so much the better.

“Really?  You have my congratulations, Princess Dawn!” Drayana chuckled – it wasn’t her guest’s fault, after all.

She turned to Camullus, who suddenly looked slightly nervous. “And your sister’s friend?  I should very much like to speak with her and find out how she came by this entertaining story…”

“Licinia Vertain, Your Excellency,” the Talluran boy replied.

The daughter of her Proconsul for War, the Empress noted.  They’d met on a few occasions and young Licinia was thoroughly likeable.  Drayana hated to bring trouble down on the girl’s head, but with her father occupying such an important position, she really ought to know better.

She nodded and smiled again. “If you would excuse me for a moment, I must speak with a few people.  I will return shortly.  And I will, of course, expect a dance, Camullus?”

“Of c-course, Your Excellency,” he returned to tongue-tied mode.

The Empress promptly made a beeline for her Proconsul for War.

Camullus winced. “I may be wrong, but I think Licinia is in real trouble.  Maybe my sister, too…”

Dawn groaned. “Great!  My big mouth, getting people into trouble.”

Her companion shook his head. “Not your fault.  With our parents being who they are?  One thing we are all taught, from quite a young age?  That we should never spread rumours and gossip about political matters.  It can cause a lot of trouble.  But some – like my foolish sister – cannot keep their tongues still…”

“Drayana won’t be too mad at them,” Dawn suggested.

“Her Excellency will not be the problem,” Camullus predicted gloomily.

 

Proconsul Paulius Vertain approached his daughter quietly, before she could escape.  Drayana had just explained her suspicions and, knowing his daughter all too well, the Proconsul was pretty sure that his Empress was quite correct.  If that was the case, Licinia was in a great deal of trouble.  Not only was it embarrassing to have his daughter  known as a gossip-monger, but in this case it might well have disturbed a veritable serpent’s nest of offended allied powers and paranoid hostile ones.  Not to mention quite possibly being the reason the Empress’ Terran friend almost had her brains scattered across a Yaherin Var street.

In general, the Talluran politicians’ offspring tended to hang around together.  Not necessarily because they thought they were any better than others in their age group – and they attended the same mainstream schools as everyone else – but simply because they often met at functions such as this one.  Tonight was no exception, with a group of Talluran teens laughing and joking with each other, his daughter at the centre of the group.  No doubt, her father thought to himself, stirring up even more rumours.

Licinia didn’t have a malicious bone in her body and never invented stories to deliberately hurt people.  She was simply too inquisitive and imaginative for her own good at times, while being overly inclined to jump to conclusions on all manner of things.  Having made said conclusions – usually erroneous, if also perfectly logical from some perspectives – the Proconsul’s daughter almost invariably felt inclined to share them with her friends.  Who would, in turn, feed the rumour mill even further.  Her father had seen it before, but he was also determined it wouldn’t happen again – at least, not at Licinia’s instigation.

Proconsul Vertain cleared his throat. “A word if you please, Licinia…”

“Yes father?” his daughter beamed, up to now loving every minute of this evening – she’d even set her sights on a likely date, who was also seemed more than interested in her.

“Would you like to share what you have discovered about the Terran Princess Imperial?” Vertain asked casually.

Licinia nodded, seemingly oblivious to the approaching storm. “It was not difficult to work out, father.  I overheard her protective detail in a shop on Dressmaker’s Street.  The seamstress said she would be make a dress ‘fit for the heir to the Terran Empire’ and her guards addressed her as ‘Excellency’…” 

His daughter, Vertain noted, also had an unfortunate attempt to take things literally.  Even not being present, he could easily see how there might be a humorous exchange of that nature.

“Is that all?” he probed.

“Oh no.  Then I thought about it.  Why else would someone be here from the Terran Empire, with their own security detail and physician present?  And receive her lessons alongside Her Excellency?  And why would Her Excellency spend so much time with her?  We are a long way from the Terrans’ home galaxy, so that suggests they are much more advanced than us – with inter-galactic travel capabilities – and therefore must be here to sign an alliance.  Probably their fleet is as large as the Khkerrikk or Jarrasi.  Else why would we want to ally with them?

“And since Her Excellency’s friend is so young – and there could not be any other reason for her to travel so far with the Terran group – she must really be the heir, as the dressmaker suggested…  Then we must also look at how easily the Princess knocked down Spurian Rufio, on the last day she attended our school.  That can only be Imperial protective training.  Besides, with the Terrans being our Second Evolution, it all fits together…”

To Licinia, it all made perfectly logical sense.  This time, her reasoning was flawless – she was certain of it – and her father would be proud of her.

Vertain, however, was slowly shaking his head, eyes closed.  Licinia suddenly realised that she’d made a mistake.  Yet again.

“Was it supposed to be an official secret?” she ventured nervously.

“No!” the Proconsul was trying hard not to shout. “The logic is quite sound but, as usual, you are quite far from the truth.”

“I am?” Licinia’s face fell.

“About as far as the Terrans’ galaxy is from us…  And I suppose you shared these observations with your friends?” Vertain glared at his foolish offspring.

“Some of them…” she hedged, now fearing for her hindquarters.

Her father exhaled. “How many, exactly?”

Licinia took her precious Comm-Pad from her bag and reluctantly opened the relevant Sent file, surrendering the device to an obviously irate parent.  The Proconsul quickly scrolled down the list, deciding that his daughter must have contacted half the teenage population of Yaherin Var, who’d most likely promptly passed the message along to the other half. 

His eye abruptly fell on one name in particular.  Melila Tsakonias, victim of a Ch’Hanis attack, had apparently opened the message some hours after she was reported missing.  Vertain suspected that her murderer was almost certainly the one responsible for spreading his daughter’s carefully crafted work of fiction far beyond the city’s teenage population.  It certainly fit the Security Directorate’s profile of Jugrub.

“What in the Fourteen Hells did you think you were doing?” he demanded, trying not to make a scene, but clearly very annoyed with his offspring.

Licinia’s bottom lip quivered.  Her father was usually the more easy-going parent.  She was his little princess and it always felt much worse when he was angry, compared to her mother who was much more strict and the usual enforcer of rules within the family.

“Everyone knew that Her Excellency has Terran guests in the palace, but not the reason why.  So I pieced together what information was available and tried to fill in the gaps with logic…  It was my personal research project.  I hoped that you would be impressed and that it might help in future, when I apply for a post with the Directorate of Alien Affairs.  They like to hire people who can build a picture out of small fragments of information…” her voice trailed away.

Vertain gritted his teeth. “If you do not stop this habit of creating and spreading rumours – no matter the reason – you will be lucky to find a post in the market, selling dried fish!”

He scowled at her. “Are you aware of the damage this has caused?  This ridiculous story has insulted our allies and seriously worried some of the more hostile powers.  Those very powers that are quite capable of mounting a pre-emptive strike if they feel threatened, Licinia.  Undoing the effects of your gossip – which seems to have fallen into the wrong hands - will take a great deal of diplomatic effort.  Misunderstandings of this type have caused wars in the past!

“You may also have been indirectly responsible for an assassination attempt on the Terran child, an attempt which came very close to succeeding and left her very frightened indeed.  Has anyone ever tried to shoot you down in the middle of the street, Licinia?”

“I did not mean any harm…” she offered in a tiny voice, wincing at the thought.

“You never do, Licinia…” Vertain acknowledged. “But in this case you have done a great deal of harm – and could have caused very much more.  I will expect you to apologise to both Her Excellency and Dawn Summers.”

“Of course – and I am very sorry…  But will you tell mother?” Licinia ventured nervously.

“I do not see that there is any real choice,” her father replied reluctantly. “This is too serious to ignore.  And it is not the first time you have been warned.”

One his daughter’s friends stepped forward. “It was not only Licinia’s fault.  I helped her fill in some of the areas that were unclear…”

“Then you may explain that to your own parents, Palinia Tiburtian,” the Proconsul glanced sternly around the group. “And I would suggest that any of you who have either embellished or helped to distribute this tale also inform your parents, before I am forced to have a personal word with them!”

“Father…” Licinia began.

“My mind is made up,” her father replied firmly, with an effort erecting his personal shields against sympathy-seeking big eyes.

The young Talluran nodded, accepting her likely doom. “I know.  But if my assessment was totally wrong, why are the Terrans here?”

Vertain almost laughed aloud.  Even in serious trouble, his daughter was still incorrigibly inquisitive.

“It is not my story to tell, but I believe Dawn Summers might be willing to visit us and tell you the truth.  It will seem much more fantastic than anything you could possibly conceive, however, and also more than a little frightening,” he warned.

Licinia allowed herself a small smile.  Despite the impending consequences, she’d at least discover the truth, which sounded fascinating.

Her father strode away, to find and brief his wife, leaving a pack of very apprehensive Talluran teens in his wake.  Suddenly, the evening was no longer so much fun.

Ten minutes later, Eris Vertain – a very tall woman indeed – loomed over her much shorter daughter.  Outwardly, she didn’t seem overly annoyed, but Licinia wasn’t fooled.  Her mother’s grey-blue eyes could speak volumes.

“Did we, or did we not, recently have a conversation about spreading unfounded rumours?  Or even the well-founded variety, given your father’s position?”

“Yes we did, mother…” a chastened Licinia replied.

“Neither the last conversation nor subsequent punishment appear to have had the desired effect,” her mother noted.

“So this time you will be confined to the house outside school hours for a month.  Your Comm-Pad will also be locked onto Education Mode only.  And we will now adjourn to the Cloakroom, where you can sit - by yourself - for the rest of this evening.  And your father and I fully intend to remain here until the very end of the Gathering.”

“Mother…” Licinia protested in dismay.

She was a very outgoing individual, who spent a lot of time with her friends.  To have all contact with them cut off outside school hours for a whole month was, to Licinia, the worst punishment her mother could impose.  She’d far rather endure an extended session across the lap, on the wrong end of Eris’ extremely hard hand.  Unfortunately, her mother also seemed to have figured out which punishment would be most effective.

Eris glared at her squirming daughter. “Would you rather I also used the normal approach, in front of your friends?  No?  I thought not.”

The youngest Vertain was promptly marched away, while a swarm of irate parents bore down on the group and began to question their own teenagers.

 

“Another person who’ll hate me…  And we haven’t even met!” Dawn groaned, as the Proconsul’s daughter was dragged away.

“Nonsense.  I have met Licinia and she is not the type to bear grudges,” Drayana assured her. “Though she might not be over-fond of me for a while, since I was the one who told her father…”

The Empress suddenly smiled. “I think we should visit Licinia at home, perhaps in a few days.  Actually meeting a Terran and hearing about your homeworld might just prevent any further speculation on her part.  I suspect she will be under some restrictions at home, of course, but I doubt if Eris Vertain would turn me away from their doorway.”

Camullus meanwhile grimaced, feeling – in spite of the usual sibling rivalry - sorry for his sister, who’d been hauled into a corner by their mother for a tongue-lashing.

“My mother will have the hide off Palinia when we get home,” he predicted.

Drayana shuffled her feet uncomfortably. “I could try to intercede, but even the Imperial presence does not tend to sway an angry parent in scolding mode…”

“It is probably deserved,” Camullus decided.

“And I am sure you are a paragon of virtue - just like me…” the Empress snorted, with a laugh.

“I have many people to see this evening.  And I believe I owe your father at least one dance.  So I will leave you with one Imperial command, Camullus…” she continued.

“Yes Excellency?” the Talluran boy replied nervously.

“Ensure that Dawn continues to have an unforgettable evening,” Drayana told him.

“Would you please tell Vesarian, Aquiliani, and all the others to stop glaring at poor Camullus every time they pass?” Dawn grinned. “It’s not like he plans to throw me over his shoulder and carry me off to have his wicked way…”

The Empress looked down at the boy, over a head shorter than herself, and feigned a serious expression. “You are not planning such a thing, are you?”

“Of c-course not, Excellency,” Camullus stammered.

“I am most glad to hear it, else the dungeons would surely have a new occupant…” Drayana teased.

Dawn punched her lightly on the arm, much to her companion’s horror. “Quit spooking my new friend!  Not like I couldn’t take him, if the hands wandered…”

“I would never…” Camullus assured her earnestly.

“Just kidding!  Sheesh…”

The Empress just laughed and wandered away.

“You hit the Empress!  And she just ignored it…  And could you really best me in a fight?” Camullus was astonished.

“I didn’t really hit her.  And why wouldn’t she ignore it?  We’re friends – not the first time we’ve had a wrestling match for fun, or in training with the Imperial Guard.  And the other thing?  Not bragging, but oh yeah, I could so kick your ass…  Vesarian and his people have been teaching me self-defence.  So have Colonel Logan and his guys…  And way better than that, even some Slayers – my sisters, Diana…” Dawn replied.

“What is a Slayer?”

 

Qe’Exhava, Neutral Zone Between the Haamarii Protectorate, Forvon Imperium and Talluran Empire – 30th January 2001

Jugrub didn’t expect to sleep much tonight.  Firstly, the bed was too soft for his tastes and, moreover, it – and the rest of the shabby room - smelled abominably from years of use by myriad different species.  Secondly, there was a storm outside, hailstones and sandy grit rattling off the thin metal and composite construction of the building.

Thirdly, and most importantly, the Ch’Hanis was all too aware that Qe’Exhava was probably the least secure place to hide.  Having met his Xicavvar contact and concluded their agreement, in future they’d meet elsewhere.  There were any number of frontier outposts safer than Qe’Exhava for fugitives such as himself, while he also had a few secret boltholes of his own, from his pirating activities.

Jugrub knew he’d have to return to his gang soon, for a while at least.  In his absence, he suspected that other ambitious individuals would be making a play for leadership, and some blood would no doubt have to be spilled in persuading them otherwise. 

That, however, was for another day.  Tonight, the reptilian was sleeping with a gauss pistol in one hand and his head towards the door.  If he had to make a rapid escape, his ship was fully charged and ready to leave, even if he had to fight his way to the landing area.  Not that Jugrub was unduly perturbed.  He’d been hunted, for one reason or another, many times over the years  Admittedly, he’d never before been subject to a Declaration of Anathema by his own government, nor had he attracted the uncomfortable personal attention of the Talluran Empress, but in his line of business such things were inevitable.  Eventually, the heat would die down and he’d be able to move a little more freely.  Besides, if his plans succeeded, both the Tallurans and Ch’Hanis would rue the day they declared him outlaw.

It wasn’t long before his enemies made their move.  In spite of their efforts to be stealthy, Jugrub’s sensitive hearing and keen instincts for survival picked up their movement even before they opened the door.  The Ch’Hanis was out of bed in an instant, covering the door with his gauss pistol.

If his assailants had kicked the door down and stormed the room with any degree of skill, they might have had some chance of success.  As it was, the leader cautiously opened the door and slipped furtively into the darkened room, hoping to catch their quarry asleep.  Crouching in a corner of the room, Jugrub waited until several were inside, silhouetted against the dingy light of the corridor outside, then opened fire.

On average, Ch’Hanis weren’t exactly the fastest moving species in the galaxy, but he had better reflexes than most.  A cloud of needles from Jugrub’s pistol took out the lead interloper, another Ch’Hanis, the tiny explosive filaments in each one detonating and exploding his head all over the wall.  The second, an Aqqabaz, died with a look of surprise on his face, a gaping hole where his chest had once been.  Then Jugrub moved in swiftly on the last two club-wielding assailants, relying on his natural weaponry.  Yet another Ch’Hanis was dealt with in an instant, throat torn out with a single slash of claws, while the fourth attacker, a Khkerrikk, turned to flee.  Jugrub easily caught the much weaker reptilian within a few steps and promptly snapped his neck.

It was, the Ch’Hanis decided, time to be somewhere else.  Snatching up his gear, he made for the door.  Recognising the four bodies as the tavern keeper’s personal enforcers, he considered revenge for a moment.  Right now, however, escape was more important.  The tavern keeper would still be here another day, after all.

If Jugrub had listened to the voice of circumspection, he would have taken his ship and made sure he was several light years away before anyone could react.  As it was, after taking down the pitifully inadequate security team on the landing pads, the Ch’Hanis decided to wait around, just out of curiosity, to see who showed up to grab him.  Jugrub’s small transport had been greatly customised over the years and one major shortcoming in the original vessel lay in the sensor system, both for detecting approaching threats and also targets.  The reptilian had, therefore, invested in the best sensors his ill-gotten gains could buy, capable of monitoring activity throughout an entire star system and beyond.  Over the years, it had paid off, both in terms of identifying targets and also saving his neck on countless occasions.

A huge gas giant in the middle of the system offered the best vantage point.  The planet’s rocky ring system, plus the intense magnetic field it generated, would shield him from various scanning systems.  While also affecting his own systems to an extent, outward sensor performance wouldn’t be nearly so badly affected.  In the unlikely event that someone detected him, Jugrub could be out of the planet’s rings and into hyperspace within two minutes.  Positioning his ship as close to a small asteroid as was prudent, the Ch’Hanis settled back to see who’d come looking for his hide.

 

Dromak hoped he’d arrived at Qe’Exhava ahead of the authorities.  The brother of Carthug, who’d been treacherously abandoned to the Tallurans off Thenatrix, the opportunity for revenge was too great for him to miss.  Having been tipped off by an informant inside the Ch’Hanis Security Police, the pirate’s two converted freighters were now exiting hyperspace as close to the frontier world as he dared.  The loose coalition of traders and criminals who ran the outpost didn’t have much of a security force, though enough to make a significant dent in his own forces if they tarried too long on the ground.  Dromak therefore intended to hit the tavern where Jugrub was apparently staying, snatch up his target, and also take as many of its clients for the slave markets or eating purposes as possible, then disappear before any organised resistance could be mounted.

Both of Dromak’s freighters possessed the somewhat primitive ring transport system used by the Ch’Hanis, and since Qe’Exhava had an atmosphere, it would be a relatively simple task to transport his assault teams directly to the front door of the dilapidated target building.

The pirate chief was just about to give the order, when one of his bridge crew yelled a warning.

“Ship coming out of hyperspace…  It is a Security Police transport!”

Dromak cursed and considered his options.  Both of his freighters were quite well-armed for civilian types and certainly capable of dealing with what was little more than an overgrown shuttle.  On the other hand, attacking a Security Police ship was also likely to draw the wrong kind of attention to himself.  Of late, he’d scrupulously avoided targets inside Ch’Hanis space, so the authorities were quite happy to let him continue his depredations elsewhere.   

But this promised to be a relatively profitable exercise and - from a revenge perspective – a thoroughly satisfying one.  The Security Police were a long way outside their jurisdiction and, with luck, no one would ever know what had happened to them.

“Jam their communications, lock weapons, and fire!” Dromak barked.

His well-drilled crew didn’t hesitate.  Incompetents tended to be flushed out the airlock on this ship, nor was it a good idea to argue with the pirate chief.  The Security Police transport barely had a chance to note the presence of two obviously pirate vessels, when a salvo of plasma bolts ripped the unarmoured, unshielded craft to pieces.

The debris cloud hadn’t even stopped expanding, before the Ch’Hanis was growling his next set of orders.

“Get those landing teams down there now!” Dromak instructed, assuming that they might have fifteen minutes to carry out their instructions, before local resistance became too fierce.

He sat back in his command chair and idly sharpened his claws with a small file.  Jugrub wouldn’t die either easily, or anytime soon, but there were innumerable ways of torturing his brother’s betrayer.  And Dromak aimed to try each and every one of them.

Meanwhile, his landing force was already wreaking havoc on Qe’Exhava, the locals vainly calling for assistance.

“There is another ship coming out of hyperspace…” another crewman called out.

Dromak grinned unpleasantly.  No doubt some passing trader, perhaps with a full cargo hold.

“Have a boarding party stand-by to…” he began.

“It is a Talluran Heavy Cruiser!” the crewman interrupted in alarmed recognition.

Before Dromak could respond, his ship was rocked by a series of plasma bursts, then an EMP burst abruptly knocked out the power systems and electronics.

 

Centurion Aryiano Callistia was delighted at this turn of events.  Normally, snatching up wanted criminals from these remote outposts was either the job of the Frontier and Customs Directorate, or much smaller Imperial Fleet units.  Heavy capital ships like her new command were generally employed on more important duties than dealing with dens of iniquity like Qe’Exhava.  These orders, however, had the unusual addition of an Imperial Priority code, meaning that they’d come directly from the throne.  This Jugrub was evidently no ordinary pirate.

Arriving to find the colony under attack by a pair of Ch’Hanis pirate vessels and the inhabitants screaming for help was an added bonus.  Pirates, according to what passed for galactic law, were fair game for the armed forces of any recognised power and these two Ch’Hanis freighters - with a disparate assortment of weapons bolted on – couldn’t be anything else.  It wouldn’t even approximate a fair fight.  Her Heavy Cruiser was just out of refit, impervious to the type of weapons used by the pirates, carrying a full load of fighters and, unusually, also the maximum complement of Imperial Defence Force troops on-board.  The latter had been intended to reinforce an important outpost, but were exactly what Callistia needed right now.  One thousand of the well-trained and well-armed IDF troops would be more than enough to restore a semblance of order on the surface and board and capture the two pirate vessels, while her forty fighters scoured the system for any other criminal elements.  

 

The tavern keeper cowered in the dirt behind his bar, as Ch’Hanis pirates rampaged through his premises, rounding up his customers for the slave markets or as screaming delicacies.  The local security forces – essentially an ill-trained gang of mercenaries and criminals of all species – were quickly overwhelmed and swiftly fell back to regroup and wait for reinforcements from elsewhere in the colony.  In the meantime, Dromak’s pirates were effectively free to rape, rob, murder and pillage their way through the tavern and surrounding structures, with instant death for anyone who showed even a flicker of resistance.

He cringed as one of the Ch’Hanis attackers almost casually gunned down a N’Gluk trader, who was trying to protect his wife and co-pilot.  These weren’t the Ch’Hanis the tavern keeper had expected.  A handful of Security Police, to pick up an already secured Jugrub, was a far-cry from a full-scale pirate assault.  Of course, his own people had fatally bungled their attempt to seize the wanted reptilian.

All at once, the signature flash of Asgard transporter beams briefly lit up the room in three different places, with another outside.  Each transporter beam promptly deposited a large group of Imperial Defence Force troops, in their grey-coloured all-enclosing Integrated Battle Armour.  The pirates, communications with their ships having been abruptly lost, were taken completely by surprise.  In an instant, the tide turned, as the Tallurans efficiently stormed through the room and beyond, shooting any Ch’Hanis who was carrying a weapon, and rounding up those quick-witted enough to surrender immediately.  A few larger groups of pirates found themselves beamed directly out of the building, without warning.  Whether that was into a holding cell, or the vacuum of space, the tavern keeper was uncertain.

Simultaneously, Callistia’s troops were seizing control of the two pirate ships, which had easily been disabled and left helpless in space.

A Centurion dragged the tavern keeper from the filthy floor, reminding himself not to eat or drink anything in this seedy establishment.

The junior officer pushed a holo-pad image of Jugrub under the Aqqabaz’s flattish nose. “Have you see this individual?  He is wanted for high crimes against the Talluran Empire. 

The tavern keeper nodded vigorously.  While the Tallurans – probably alone of any species which might raid Qe’Exhava – wouldn’t summarily execute him, he didn’t relish an extended period in one of their penal colonies.  Especially if anyone closely studied his own record of criminal activity in the past.

He swallowed nervously, face reflected in the Talluran’s helmet visor. “He was here…  My people tried to capture him – he is also wanted by the Ch’Hanis authorities – but he is very skilled.  He killed them all and took his ship…  Most likely, he has already left the system.”

The Centurion cursed.  Her Excellency wouldn’t be at all pleased if Jugrub had slipped through the net once more.  The presence of the Ch’Hanis pirates also suggested that the reptilian had more than the two powers’ authorities on his trail – the coincidence was too great.  But perhaps he might still be lurking in the system somewhere.  With that vague hope, he contacted the orbiting cruiser.

 

Monitoring his instruments, Jugrub was enjoying the show immensely, especially since it seemed likely that the three disparate elements had arrived specifically to capture him.  Not only had the Security Police been swiftly eliminated, but one of his rivals also had the serious misfortune to run into a Talluran Heavy Cruiser.  The timing couldn’t have been better, from Jugrub’s point of view.

All at once, his sensors picked up a quartet of Comet-class fighters streaking straight towards the planet’s rings.  Signal strength suggested that their own systems – and those of the distant Heavy Cruiser – had detected his presence, despite the confusing electromagnetic environment of the gas giant.

“Talluran fighter to unidentified ship.  You are ordered to move into a clear orbit and cut your engines.  Failure to comply will result in a lethal response,” the voice on the guard channel confirmed that he had, indeed, been detected.

Obviously Talluran sensors were more powerful and discriminate than he’d anticipated, Jugrub noted for future reference.  Assuming he had a future.  The fighters would be in weapons range in under a minute, he calculated.  His ship was completely unarmed – commercial spaceports tended to be suspicious otherwise – and in any case wouldn’t have been a match for even one of the formidable Talluran fighters. 

Manoeuvring carefully to avoid the massive lumps of ice and rock all around, Jugrub moved his fighter clear of the planet’s rings and activated his hyperspace engines, aware that his pursuers would pick up the energy spike.  Timing was everything here.  The high-pitched whine of weapons-lock was already sounding from the warning panel, when the Ch’Hanis slammed his clawed hand down on the controls, and the transport streaked away into hyperspace.  The pirate had eluded the authorities once more.

 

Ballroom, Imperial Palace, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 31st January 2001 (Earth Date)

The Gathering was finally beginning to break up, many of the Tallurans already having left.  The Terran contingent, on the other hand, were determined to stay the course.  After all, none of them had ever been at anything remotely like this.  The dancing was finally over, allowing the orchestra a well-deserved break, while yet more food was being served, just for the road.  By Joyce’s calculation, this was the fourth meal to be offered in the course of the Imperial Gathering, and the Talluran definition of a snack certainly differed from hers.

Faith, inevitably, was first in line to refill her plate, Sato still tagging along.  The SG-15 XO clearly enjoying the company of his eccentric partner tonight.  The Slayer was even managing to control her usual “get some and get gone” impulses.  Carolyn Lam and Gaius Valerian were, meanwhile, nowhere to be seen.  They’d spent the last hour or so out on the balcony, then quietly slipped away.  Joyce wished them luck.  The Imperial Physician seemed quite taken with his Terran guest and fellow medical professional. 

“I think it’s long past time a certain young lady was in her bed,” Joyce suggested lightly, as Dawn suppressed a yawn.

“I could go on for hours,” the youngest Summers protested.

Not only had she never been up so late – or possibly early, given that the sun was just about to rise over the horizon - but it had been a long time since she’d had so much fun.  Meeting a guy, who really liked her, was just added frosting on the cake, even if she’d have to leave him behind in a few months.  At least Buffy and Cordy weren’t around to frighten the life out of him, though Faith and Vesarian had both done their level best on that front.  It was a real pity that she wouldn’t be able to tell Janice about any of this, though at least Cassie would have the necessary background.

Dawn grinned cheekily at her mother. “Besides, with me being the Terran Princess Imperial and all that, shouldn’t you be calling me ‘Your Majesty’ or something, and be down on one knee…”

“Or maybe we could just move straight to putting you across the aforesaid knee, and royally spanking your sassy Imperial bottom, Your Excellency…” Joyce returned smoothly.

Dawn giggled happily, resting her head against her mother’s shoulder. “I don’t think it would make any difference tonight, mom…  This was totally the best!  Don’t think I’ll ever forget any of it…  Maybe I’m not a real princess, but everybody’s been treating me just like one.”

“That’s what Buffy’s been saying for years, honey…  Just don’t let it go to your head,” Joyce chuckled.

She looked across to where the Tiburtian family were preparing to depart.  Young Palinia was somewhat morose and apprehensive-looking, already sentenced to the same fate as her best friend.  Dawn’s new beau was quite another matter.  Camullus Tiburtian kept snatching adoring glances at her youngest daughter and was quite clearly as fascinated and smitten as a twelve-year-old boy could possibly be.  Logic told Joyce to nip this in the bud, before either of them were hurt.  Dawn could, after all, do without adding to a list of painful partings, nor would it be easy for the young Talluran if he became too attached her.

On the other hand, any clumsy interference would only serve to make Dawn unhappy right now.  Countless light years from home, the youngster had already faced a range of dangers, but was bearing up remarkably well.  Joyce, therefore, was inclined to deal with the emotional fallout later rather than sooner.  No doubt, she’d regret that decision in four months’ time, but there wasn’t always a neat solution for everything.

“Why don’t you say goodnight to your admirer?  I’ll be watching, of course…” Joyce teased.

“I’ll just stand in the corner and field-strip and re-assemble my M4…” Logan added mischievously. “Or even better, maybe have Diana sharpen her swords…”

Dawn turned bright red. “Mom!  I wouldn’t…  I mean, I don’t know how…  Heck, Drayana told me that guys don’t even kiss girls like – uh – properly, ‘til they’re fifteen…  Oh God!”

The youngster fled, cheeks burning, before the parental unit said anything more to mortify her.

“Funny thing…  When she’s teasing Buffy, anyone would think she was a world authority on making out,” Joyce noted in amusement.

“Not that I’m complaining.  Heck she hasn’t even reached the terrible teens just yet, though the hormones are definitely on the up,” she added to Logan.

SG-15’s CO laughed. “Probably safer here.  Talluran teenagers get up to the same sort of hanky-panky as ours, but traditionally a few years later.”

“I’m betting he’d be even more embarrassed than Dawn, if we teased him,” Joyce agreed.

 

Shrinking under the inquisitive and clearly amused glances of Proconsul Vipsania Tiburtian and her husband, Dawn tried to appear nonchalant as she approached her new friend.  Friend, she kept telling herself, not boyfriend.  Because the latter would be totally dumb, with her only here for another four months.

“I –um – just wanted to say thanks for helping to make this such a great night…” Dawn ventured, wondering why she was finding it so hard to speak right now, when things had been so easy earlier.

It was a staple of the trashy romance novels Buffy used to read and leave lying around, but she could have sworn that her knees felt wobbly and her heart was beating faster.

“It was my pleasure.  A chance to learn so much about the Terran homeworld, but especially an opportunity to meet you,” Camullus replied, hoping he sounded gracious enough.

“Perhaps we could meet again?” he ventured, eager to spend more time with his fascinating alien friend.

He glanced hopefully at his parents, who nodded their approval.  Palinia merely glowered, all too aware that her own freedom would certainly be curtailed for the next few weeks.  Not that any of her friends would be free outside school hours, either.

“I’d really like that,” Dawn beamed. “Just a pity we have to put up with the bodyguards…”

Meeting a guy with SG-15 or the Imperial Guard hanging around wasn’t exactly the ideal first date – or even a not-date, between friends – but there was no way around that.

“I do not believe that will be a problem,” the young Talluran replied, clearly pleased.

“I will arrange for a communications link to be set up between our home and the palace, if you wish,” his mother added helpfully.

“Neat!” Dawn grinned. “I mean – um – thank you very much, Proconsul Tiburtian…”

The woman nodded and smiled. “I look forward to seeing more of you, Dawn.  Perhaps you could visit for dinner soon?  But I think your mother is ready to drag you home to bed.  Which is also where Camullus should also be.”

“Yeah, Mom’s funny about things like that…” Dawn admitted.

She turned to her new Talluran friend and found herself gazing into his soft brown eyes. “Goodnight and I’ll – ah – call soon…”

“Goodnight Dawn,” Camullus bobbed his head in formal fashion, as befitted the surroundings and occasion.

Dawn wasn’t sure what possessed her, especially in front of dozens of witnesses, but she suddenly leaned over and pecked him lightly in the cheek.

Some Terran traditions evidently had their roots in Alteran/Talluran culture.  There was a sudden chorus of chuckles, hoots and wolf whistles, from Camullus’ parents, Drayana – who was with her own mother and father a short distance away – and, inevitably, Joyce.  Not to mention assorted other nearby Tallurans.

Camullus’ father turned to his wife, face suddenly grave. “Now, of course, they will have to wed…”

Vipsania nodded, equally seriously. “I suppose you are right…”

“But…  But… But…” Dawn stammered, wondering if she’d committed some dreadful Talluran cultural error. “I’m only twelve…”

“And she will have to become a Talluran citizen and remain here,” her husband continued.

“Otherwise, we must think of the scandal, Maximinus,” Vipsania agreed heavily. “It is the only way…”

“I didn’t mean anything!” Dawn almost wailed, turning to her friend.

“Tell them I didn’t mean anything!  Where I come from, it just means that you like someone…” she pleaded.

She liked Camullus, but the prospect of marrying him at her age - and never being allowed to return home to her sisters - was a terrifying one.

Camullus bobbed his head stiffly. “Here it means something quite different.  I had not expected to find myself betrothed quite so young of course…”

“Mom!  Drayana!” his new Terran friend squawked helplessly.

The Proconsul ruffled her hair. “We are only joking, my young friend.  Maximinus and I are notorious for our sense of humour.  Such open displays of affection are perhaps unusual for those of your age, but still quite refreshing.”

Dawn breathed out a sigh of relief and laughed nervously, as Drayana smirked broadly from across the room, making overt signs of encouragement until Livia lightly smacked the back of her head.

“I – uh – wasn’t taken in at all…” she tried to bluff her way out.

“Of course not, my dear,” Vipsania smiled tolerantly. “But we will still expect you for dinner very soon.”

Dawn’s eyes narrowed at a grinning Camullus. “Next time we meet, you are so in trouble, buster…”

“If that is the Terran way, I look forward to being in more trouble,” the Talluran boy grinned back.

“That will be quite enough of that,” his mother warned mock-sternly.

Dawn mumbled her thanks and goodnights, then fled back to the dubious safety of her mother and Logan.

“Get me outa here, mom!” she gasped, as Joyce chuckled and wrapped an arm around her.

 

Joyce’s Apartment, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 31st January 2001 (Earth Date)

Dawn was finally tucked up in bed, having fallen asleep the moment her head touched the pillow.  It had, nevertheless, taken Joyce some time to settle the still excited youngster, and the sun was already up.  She suspected that the rest of the day would be pretty much lost.

“You didn’t have to wait,” Joyce told Logan, as he drained his cup of Talluran tea.

The SG-15 CO shrugged. “I couldn’t leave without thanking you for tonight.”

“I’m glad you enjoyed it, with my meddlesome daughter playing at matchmaker…  She has a lot to learn,” Joyce shook her head and chuckled.

“I would have asked you in any case,” Logan assured her. “You’re a most remarkable woman.”

It was, he told himself, a miracle that she managed to hold together.  Knowing that the supernatural existed in all its bloody horror, with two daughters who were Slayers, and driven out of the Milky Way by a Hell Goddess chasing the other one, Joyce still retained a remarkable equilibrium.  On top of that, with assassination attempts and other narrow escapes since arriving here, she’d nevertheless managed to carve out a useful – even crucial at present – role on Talluran Prime.  After all, there probably wasn’t anyone else in the entire Vedda Galaxy who could read a single word of Latin.

It had been a while since he’d been on a date with a woman.  There had been once or two soon after the divorce, but it had been too soon.  The scars of that particularly rancorous separation, combined with the still-sharp pain of losing his daughter, meant that each date had been an unmitigated disaster.  Besides, with hindsight, they weren’t really his type.

Joyce Summers, on the other hand, just might be.  She was warm, caring, and intelligent, with a certain dry wit that he appreciated.  A man could do worse, he decided.

“If I’m not being presumptuous, can I ask you to dinner one evening?  Can’t promise a repeat of tonight, of course,” Logan asked.

Probably there was some rule that bodyguards should keep a personal distance between themselves and those they were supposed to protect.  The Colonel didn’t particularly care, given that he hadn’t been given time to learn the rules before being packed off to the Vedda Galaxy.

“I’m rather glad you can’t.  That sort of grand experience once or twice in a lifetime is probably quite enough.  But I’d love to join you at the local diner,” Joyce smiled.

Like the SGC officer, she’d also had a considerable drought.  Logan was a good and honourable man, in a different league to the asshole she’d married, and she enjoyed being in his company.  The fact that Dawn liked him was also a positive point in Logan’s favour.  Perhaps it had simply been the grandeur of the event, but she’d felt something sparked in her tonight that she hadn’t felt in a long time, though it was clearly too early to say for definite.  In any case, a few dinners couldn’t do any harm, and might even kindle that romantic impulse.

“Think I can do a tad better than that.  I’m sure Shar Vesarian knows the best places to eat,” Logan suggested, rising to his feet.

“Just let me know when and where,” Joyce replied, trying not to sound too eager.

“It’s a date then,” the Colonel confirmed, abruptly kissing the back of her hand. “And thanks you, once again, for tonight…”

The Olde Worlde aspects of Talluran culture were obviously getting to him, Logan decided.  He’d never kissed a woman on the hand before, and it seemed like an unnecessarily dramatic gesture.  Joyce, however, obviously appreciated the gesture, as she was positively beaming.

Even after Logan left, as Joyce slowly pried the shoes from her aching feet, she still had a smile plastered all over her face.  Maybe she was acting like a teenage schoolgirl, but the prospect of a little romance in her life was definitely an appealing one, and she hummed happily to herself all the way to her bedroom.
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