“Two standard weight of gold,” Pher Ilinor repeated with an infinitesimal smile that barely hinted at politeness. “Would you prefer to credit the balance to your tax account, or receive remuneration now? The Institute can issue coins, treasury notes, or credit chips.”
Saffron could only gape up at him, aghast. Naturally, his implacable serenity did not so much as flicker in the face of her reaction.
“B-but—look at this thing!” She grabbed one end of the glowing hourglass where it lay on the desk between them, tipping it up to balance on its other end with her support. Ilinor’s graceful hands made an abortive twitch forward as if he meant to snatch it from her, but he just as quickly returned them to his sides as if the tiny lapse had never occurred. Saffron barely noticed it, wrapped up in her own outrage. “Just the gold it’s made of is worth considerably more than that.”
“Oh?” The Enlightened’s expression did not alter. “You happen to know the exact value of this precise quantity of gold off the top of your head?”
Saffron’s eyes widened further in sheer incredulity. “Are… Pher, are you accusing me of something?”
“Doctor Dystram,” Pher Ilinor replied, somehow making her academic title sound condescending, “if I had evidence of any wrongdoing on your part, I obviously would not offer you compensation for your…find. As it is, my offer stands.”
“I don’t understand how you can so devalue the importance of this discovery! The site itself is priceless, a First Phase tomb in completely pristine condition. And this, an unknown artifact showing Second Phase design sensibilities preserved in a place of honor within it, to say nothing of it containing a previously unknown physically active mineral! This is a treasure!”
“An archaeologist should know better than to let passion run away with scholarly restraint,” Ilinor said with an aloof serenity which did not soften the rebuke, nor had been meant to. “By your own account, Doctor, the site in question is significantly less pristine after your visit. Now, will you prefer a tax credit or direct compensation for this…artifact?”
“I prefer a fair compensation. Two standard won’t even cover my fuel costs!” That was an exaggeration, which he had to know, and certainly wasn’t helping her case. Saffron felt too swept up in the unfairness of it all to restrain herself appropriately.
“Doctor Dystram,” the Pher replied, again in that amazingly patronizing tone, “the Irilai Institute is not a fish market. The Institute does not purchase artifacts, as by proclamation of the Dhinsu Lhamin archaeological discoveries on Terminus are automatically the property of the Harmonious Union. The Institute fairly pays duly qualified citizens for the effort involved in their retrieval. Such compensation is subject to after-the-fact increase, should the discovery in question prove to be particularly important or valuable. As you have provided the coordinates of your…find…and a visual record of your exploration, subsequent investigation by the Institute survey team may merit further compensation. In that event, you will of course be notified. I urge you to keep in mind, Doctor Dystram, that the Irilai Institute is an academic institution devoted to the pursuit of science, not a commercial venture. We do not haggle.”
Saffron had once been enraptured by the eyes of the Enlightened, by their faceted surfaces and inner glow. One could feel, gazing at them, that one was peering into the fractal structure of reality itself, as if enlightenment and ultimate truth might be revealed in their gaze. Now, staring up at Ilinor’s beautiful, glittering, reddish-mauve eyes, Saffron felt only a sacrilegious urge to jam both her thumbs into them.
Instead, she tightened her grip upon the golden crown of the hourglass until her fingers whitened. Pher Ilinor shifted his head infinitesimally downward; the eyes of the Enlightened didn’t betray where they were aimed the way human pupils did, but she had the impression he was looking down at her grasp on the artifact. Mostly because of the disapproving tightening of his sculpted lips.
As a little girl with a limited grasp of theology, she had been totally awed by the Enlightened, a sense of wonder that had not truly diminished as she was schooled in the Harmonious Path and taught to regard them as guides and teachers, not literally divine beings. Intellectual knowledge only went so far; it was personal familiarity that made the difference. At Celeos she had had Enlightened teachers and even, to her amazement, fellow students. Even so, it had taken her the full nine years of her formal education to truly start regarding them as people. It had taken all of three conversations with Asda Ilinor for her to internalize the awareness that they could also be deeply flawed people.
He was just a Pher, apparently not qualified to participate in most of the Institute’s active research initiatives, and so consigned to the public desk. The Terminus branch’s lack of funding was the cause of both their troubles, ultimately, but at least Saffron tried to bear her disappointment with serenity as the Path taught. Ilinor managed to make everyone feel his dissatisfaction with being relegated to what, on a more civilized world, would be a human’s job—for example, by lecturing an archaeologist with a prestigious degree from Celeos on the basics of the Institute’s functions which he knew she had well understood for years.
She’d had a bad feeling about him starting at first sight with the slightly sacrilegious thought that he wasn’t nearly as beautiful as most of the Enlightened, with golden skin, bluish-white hair and those mauve eyes; they weren’t all equally color-coordinated, but she’d never before seen one who clashed. It was a terribly shallow basis upon which to judge anyone, much less an Enlightened, but his subsequent behavior wasn’t much less shallow. Asda Ilinor might be a sacred messenger of the Harmonious Path, but he was a smarmy, unctuous, petty, power-tripping sacred messenger, and the sole reason Saffron was capable of considering any Enlightened just a Pher.
“I was chased by zombies for this,” she hissed, clutching the hourglass until the rim of its cap dug into her fingers.
“Doctor,” Ilinor said with such a weight of condescension that it felt as if it should bear her physically to the floor, “do you hear yourself?”
The reminder brought an involuntary flush to her cheeks, and Saffron guiltily looked over her shoulder. Blessedly, the atrium of the Irilai Institute was unoccupied save for the two of them and the towering statue of Saint Irilai gazing sagely down upon them from her position above the door. Saffron turned back to Ilinor, finding him smirking faintly at her discomfiture. Because of course he was.
“You saw the recording,” she insisted in a more controlled voice. “It’s not as if I’m unaware how bizarre those events were, Pher. I was there, and believe me, it was far more disturbing in person.”
“I saw an apparently realistic depiction of ancient mummies coming to life and chasing you,” Ilinor replied in an openly bored tone. “I believe there is a similar adventure drama being screened in the theaters. Or was, recently; I have not checked recently whether it is still playing. Such entertainments are…not to my taste.”
“You’re suggesting I faked this?” Despite herself, her voice began to rise again. “Who even has the resources to make a— Pher Ilinor, I have been working with the Institute on Terminus for years. What indication have I ever given that I am untrustworthy?”
“That is the difficulty exactly, Dr. Dystram,” he retorted. At least he spoke her title normally, without the snide emphasis, but the pretense of civility was rapidly draining from his expression. “You’ve brought me an entirely unidentified ‘artifact’ of unknown origin and materials, reflecting vaguely Second Phase design sensibilities, which you claim to have unearthed in a First Phase tomb. You provided coordinates practically on top of a site the Institute has already thoroughly investigated, and found no such tomb. You included a video recording of wildly implausible events, as if this added to the credibility of your claim instead of undercutting it entirely. What you have, Dr. Dystram, is a basket full of fairy tales and nonsense, and I would dearly love to end this conversation by shooing you, your little adventure film, and your miscellaneous knickknack out of my Institute and filing a recommendation that your credentials be revoked. Were this your first or even your tenth visit, I would already be doing exactly that. But you have an established relationship with the Institute and have contributed materially useful scholarship on numerous occasions over the course of years, and so protocol compels me to treat what I suspect is either a prank or a con with a seriousness I don’t believe it deserves. Your recording will have to be painstakingly examined by specialists for any sign of fakery. It is entirely likely, given your record, that Lhamin Vidinsa will authorize an expedition to this putative tomb of yours to verify your claims—compelling the Institute’s sole survey team to waste time turning over rocks in a site they have already covered. Worse, as you have identified serious physical dangers, a military escort will have to be provided, at the cost of the Institute’s already strained resources and influence with the colonial government. Your academic credibility, Dr. Dystram, does not endear you to me at this time. It makes you a nuisance, as opposed to merely a kook.”
He leaned subtly forward, placing his hands upon the desk on either side of the artifact, which she still clutched. Ilinor’s glittering eyes bored into her own, all hint of politeness long gone from his expression.
“Now, Doctor Dystram. Please specify the manner in which you would like to receive my generous offered compensation, and then go be a pest elsewhere.”
Saffron stared up at him, momentarily poleaxed by the tirade. At least for a few seconds, shock reduced her anger to a faint background buzz. She had never been chewed out by an Enlightened, never even imagined that such a thing might happen. Serenity in the face of all conflict was one of the core teachings of the Harmonious Path. That he could act this way over something so…
Abruptly, she took a step back, picking up the hourglass and cradling it protectively against her chest. “As you wish, Pher. Walk with the Saints.”
She turned and strode away toward the front door.
“Dystram!” Ilinor snapped, bringing her to a startled halt. “All Terminus artifacts belong to the Harmonious Union. That is not a souvenir for you to keep!”
Slowly, Saffron turned to face him, tucking the hourglass under her arm. “Oh… So it is an artifact, now. I thought you believed I made the whole thing up?”
His eyebrows lowered in a frown. She couldn’t recall ever having seen an Enlightened scowl that way. “If you are thinking of selling it elsewhere, be warned that the Institute will prosecute the theft.”
“I wouldn’t dream of depriving the Irilai Institute of such an important prize, Pher,” Saffron replied, putting on a wide smile and making her tone downright syrupy. “Since we disagree as to its nature, and you are clearly busy with many important tasks, I will return later. Perhaps when an accredited scholar is manning the desk.”
She turned and swept out in long strides, moving so fast the doors barely had time to slide out of her way. He did not call her back. Probably out of sheer shock that she would dare talk to him that way.
Saffron bounded down the Institute’s front steps three at a time before coming to a halt and drawing in a deep, slightly ragged breath to calm herself.
That had not been wise.
She wasn’t at all worried about being prosecuted; invoking the Colonial Artifact Proclamation had been an empty threat and they both knew it, to the point it was actually surprising he would bother. Insulting an Enlightened could have real consequences, though, especially one she would have to deal with again.
Saffron breathed in and out, trying to let the anger and embarrassment of that debacle seep from her with each exhalation, as every child of the Union was taught. There was a lot of ill feeling in there, though; the meditative practice wasn’t making much headway against her agitation.
Raising her eyes, she drank in the sight of the city, rising all around her. Standing in the middle of Syre Liara, one could almost forget that Terminus was a nearly-uninhabited backwater with only the one city that deserved the title. In fact, even the city itself was sparsely populated; many of those gleaming ivory towers stood empty, built according to the standard colonial plan with ample room for future settlers to move in. But if you didn’t know that, to look at it was just like any Union city anywhere, especially in the core district where the Institute’s headquarters was located. Syre Liara was as clean, orderly, and safe as any metropolis on Celeos, Tarinis, or Dhin Limnasa itself.
That, finally, was calming. Saffron was committed to living on Terminus or she wouldn’t have come—it wasn’t as if packing up and going back to the core worlds was feasible. She loved exploring its ruins and unraveling all their nearly untouched mysteries. But still, the urban grace of Union civilization was what felt like home to her, what she sometimes longed for in her loneliest moments. Saffron’s work kept her out of Syre Liara enough that coming back here was always a soothing experience, never commonplace enough in her life to be taken for granted.
An Enlightened was walking up the sidewalk toward her, accompanied by an escort of four rzikeen lancers. Saffron didn’t know why such a person would be traveling through the city on foot—she was wearing a lhamin’s sashes—but obviously wasn’t going to stick her nose into an Enlightened’s business. She moved off the stairs and to the side, out of the way, bowing as the small procession passed.
Feline faces turned to glare at her as the rzikeen gripped weapons, which she took as neither threat nor insult; that was just how they were. The Enlightened, however, turned a warm smile upon Saffron, inclining her head deeply in polite thanks, the morning sunlight casting bewitching patterns across her gleaming onyx skin—which actually went very well with her matched crimson hair and eyes, something Ilinor could stand to learn from.
Saffron stood there for a minute after they had passed, watching the group move away and feeling calmer. The brief, apparently insignificant encounter had been a welcome reminder that this was how most Enlightened were. In fact, every Enlightened she had ever known, save the one. Respectful and kind, even to those far beneath their station. The universe had sent her just the right message just when she needed it. Saffron made a mental note to add a prayer of thanks to her evening meditations.
And, she amended grudgingly, one of penitence for speaking so rudely to Pher Ilinor. An Enlightened was an Enlightened, and if an Enlightened could be a petty, tyrannical creep, there must be a place for it along the Harmonious Path which it was not necessary for her to know. Saffron’s spiritual duty was not to govern Ilinor’s behavior, but to maintain her own serenity in the face of it.
But prayer later; whiskey now. Rarely had she so badly needed a damn drink.
Unfortunately, drunken indulgence was not only a sin, it was a generally bad idea, and Saffron sourly decided she had too much self-respect to get sloshed at this hour—it was barely noon in Syre Liara.
Fortunately, she was able to soothe her unhappiness with a different sort of indulgence. Upon returning to the outlying depot where she had parked the Overdue to secure the golden hourglass in the cargo hold, she discovered that her favorite diner was in port and had just opened for business. In just minutes she was blessedly stuffing her face with what the menu called a bacon cheeseburger, which was similar enough to the real thing that she wasn’t inclined to quibble.
“Now that’s a hunger of more than the body, by the look of it,” said Azyrvaide, looming behind the counter and watching Saffron eat with an amused little smile. The diner’s cook and proprietor had taken Saffron some time to get used to; she had rarely had reason to encounter mnemindae before coming to Terminus. Azyrvaide was never anything but friendly, though, even a little maternal at times. “Rough day, honey?”
“Mnbf,” Saffron grunted, then swallowed. “Serves me right for letting my expectations run away from me. Have you ever had something that you hoped…that you were sure was going to be the answer to all your dreams, and then suddenly it turned out to be practically nothing?”
“Oh, honey, business is full of disappointments like that,” Azyrvaide said with a kind smile that somehow didn’t look out of place on her hawkish, red-skinned face. Standing over two meters tall even without counting her towering horns, she couldn’t help being more physically imposing than most of her clientele and had refined the art of projecting a non-threatening presence through long practice. In the well-lit diner, even the eerie glow of her slitted eyes wasn’t evident. “It’s all about picking yourself up and getting back to work—that’s what we do. Course, there’s no harm in pausing to fill the soul with a cheeseburger,” she added with a wink.
Saffron glanced at one of the mnemindae totems hung in on the bulkheads between the movie posters, defining the diner area as a commercial space, which was very important in their religion. Just as quickly she dropped her eyes back to her plate. As much as Saffron was fascinated by pagan religions—she’d done her master’s thesis on them—she preferred to encounter them centuries dead. The mnemindae were the only non-Union race permitted to practice their faith openly in Union territory, ostensibly because it was a strictly racial creed. They not only didn’t proselytize but refused even to discuss the details of their dogma with outsiders. Of course, everyone knew the real reason.
The Triple Bee was a smaller mnemindae craftship, actually not much larger than Saffron’s own Overdue; the diner section took up most of it, leaving little personal space for Azyrvaide. Her people didn’t put down roots, conducting their various businesses from personal ships which never stayed long in one place. Even on Terminus, the closest they had to a permanent base was the mnemindae highliner in orbit. Azyrvaide’s diner traveled between Syre Liara, its various outlying stations like this one, and the less legitimate settlements which dotted the planet’s surface, doing a steady business in the best approximation of traditional human food Saffron had found on Terminus. She wasn’t actually sure what animals had contributed the “beef” and “bacon” in her burger; it wasn’t quite right. But it was close enough to be reminiscent, and good enough to stand on its own merits. A little comfort food was just what this morning’s letdown called for.
“I’m surprised how quiet it is,” Saffron said after another bite. “Your place is usually mobbed, Az.” She glanced over her shoulder; there were only two other customers present, despite this being the lunch hour. An older human man sat a few seats down the counter from her, working through a plate of fish and chips, and a young qrith was tucked in the far corner booth facing the door and grasping a large milkshake with all four hands as if he expected someone to take it away.
“Oh, everybody’s over at the starport,” Azyrvaide said cheerily, her hooves clopping on the deck as she turned around to face the cooktop. The spaded tip of her tail poked up right in front of Saffron, prompting her to move her plate away. “A new Union highliner’s just arrived and the shuttles will be unloading all week. You know how it is, everybody’s got to go gawk for themselves.”
“Oh. Huh. I’m surprised you aren’t there, then. Don’t you usually go where the business is?”
“Only when I can’t be where the business is going to be ahead of time,” Azyrvaide replied, turning to wink at Saffron over her shoulder. “The highliner is from Izarak, and you know what that means. The Union is not going to be welcoming rubberneckers. I give it another hour before the lancers get fed up and order everyone to vacate the port, and then most of them will come to the nearest depot where they can park.”
“Which is here.” Saffron picked up her burger again. “You never miss a trick, Az.”
“So, Izarak,” she murmured, staring at her food without taking another bite. “I wonder what they need more soldiers for.”
“Question is,” said the old man, “what did they think they were gonna need soldiers for fifteen years ago when the governor requisitioned another shipload of ’em.”
“Not all rzikeen are military,” said Azyrvaide. “Stereotypes only go so far, you know! This one’s a scheduled colony ship. Once it’s unloaded Terminus will have a proper rzikeen population, not just the lancers stationed here already. A full civilian colony complete with a queen, the way I heard it.”
“Well, good for them,” Saffron said vaguely. “Guess I can see why they wouldn’t want onlookers getting underfoot with that. Even more sensitive than an actual military transport…”
She busied herself with eating. When Azyrvaide turned back around, it was with masterful timing; Saffron was just swallowing a bite in time for the proprietor to brandish a fragrant pot of steaming black brew in front of her. “How about a cup of coffee to wash that down, Saff?”
Saffron eyed it warily. “Is that the artificial kind that tastes like tar? Or the authentic kind that costs more than starship fuel?”
“Hey, I do have to turn a profit, you know,” Azyrvaide protested. “I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but Terminus is just not important enough to get cargo shipments from Earth. What little real coffee still exists out here is only gonna get pricier, honey. And anyway, no, this is the other kind.”
“Ain’t that bad,” said the old man. “If there’s a pot brewed, I’ll have a cup, thanks.”
“Coming right up, Elliot,” said Azyrvaide, already sliding a mug in front of him and pouring. “Saffron?”
“Eh… Thank you, but I think I’m already about as tense as I need to be today.”
“Whatever you want, honey. I just figured you might like a little extra reminder from home, considering the mood you were in when you came in.”
Saffron sighed and didn’t bother pointing out that Earth wasn’t her home; she’d never found time to visit it. Well, too late now. It wasn’t strictly impossible she might one day board another highliner to leave Terminus, but for her as for most colonists the prospect was remote. She took another large bite of almost-cheeseburger.
“Wanna talk about it, honey?” Azyrvaide asked solicitously, clip-clopping back over to lean on the counter and give Saffron another gentle smile. She had always suspected mnemindae were so famously kind and hospitable as much to offset their frightening appearance as because it was good for business. There was a surprising prevalence of descriptions of demons and other evil entities from the primitive mythologies of a lot of worlds, dating back to before their discovery of interstellar flight, which looked unaccountably similar to mnemindae. Archaeologists did not agree on an explanation for this, but Saffron was in the camp which suspected Azyrvaide’s people had once been up to something very different from their modern emphasis on trade. Now, she knew the motherly routine wasn’t an act; they really were like that with their customers.
“Oh, it was the find of the decade,” she heard herself say wistfully, despite having already decided it might be wiser not to chatter about this in public. “The century, maybe. The most perfectly preserved kurrn tomb I have ever seen. That anyone’s ever seen! And the things in it…” She broke off, grimacing. “Well. I brought back a full recording of my exploration, the central artifact I retrieved, and full coordinates to the Irilai Institute.”
“Sounds like a precious find indeed,” Azyrvaide said, nodding sympathetically. “I take it they weren’t as grateful as you hoped?”
“Two coins!” Saffron growled, holding up her first two fingers. “Two! For all that! That’s what they offered me! I could maybe refuel and resupply my ship for that. Certainly the most important discovery I will ever make… Not to mention the wealth in that place could damn well fund the Institute itself for the next three decades!” She thumped a fist on the counter, growling wordlessly. “Two standard gold. Feh. I should’ve just ripped all the luminite out of the walls and sold it to VersaMax.”
“Now, you don’t mean that,” Azyrvaide said gently.
“…no, I don’t,” Saffron agreed grudgingly. The worst part was that she wasn’t entirely sure it was true. Defiling a historic site that way was among the gravest sins in archaeology. And yet, that stuff was worth so much money. Life had been so much simpler on Celeos, where she could afford to be in it for the sake of science, and not have to care about her own material needs…
“Two standard gold?” the old human grunted, looking from his coffee. “That’d buy you a hell of a lotta cheeseburgers. I didn’t realize archaeology was so lucrative you can afford to be disappointed by an offer like that.”
Saffron shot him a suspicious look. He was a ragged-looking character, with a shabby broad-brimmed hat and the high collar of a travel-stained duster protecting his well-lined face. Heavy sideburns and a bushy mustache decorated his visage where stubble didn’t, all of it steel gray. She also did not fail to notice that he was packing a rifle slung over his back on an ammo-laden bandoleer, and two pistols of a much heavier caliber than her own. Even if this wasn’t in the city proper, she couldn’t quite get used to the sight of people walking around Union territory armed to the teeth.
“It isn’t, when done properly,” she answered after a tense pause. Saffron didn’t care for the implied rebuke; she was right, dammit. As she’d complained to Pher Ilinor, the pure gold the hourglass was made from had to be at least fifty standard coins worth. “This is a frontier colony, after all. The Institute on Terminus has only a single survey team dedicated to archaeology and they won’t employ anyone but Enlightened directly. So they will purchase artifacts from those with proper academic credentials, so long as they come with sufficiently diligent documentation of every excavation conducted. If you have that, they pay well…usually. It helps cut down on treasure-hunters destroying fragile sites to pry out valuables, and at least gets some proper science done.”
Elliot, as Azyrvaide had called him, wiped his mustache with a napkin, frowning pensively. “So…it’s a question of resources? Cos it sounds like it’d be a lot more cost-effective t’just give jobs t’those archaeologists they’re buyin’ stuff off of.”
“If you’d like to explain that to the Institite, be my guest,” Saffron groused. “I’ve not had much luck. I’m…sure there is some good reason they do it this way. Lhamin Vidinsa knows what he’s about.”
“Does he?” The old man’s mustache twitched, pushed up by a lopsided smile. “How’re you so sure of that?”
Saffron stared at him. “Because he is a lhamin.”
“Oh, ‘course. Makes sense, my mistake.” Elliot went back to his fish and chips, still smiling to himself. Saffron gave him a lingering frown before returning her attention fully to her burger.
“Well, at least you got two standard gold out of it,” Azyrvaide offered, wiping a glass with a fluffy towel. There was no possible way she ran a place like this without an autowasher; Saffron suspected it as a cultivated mannerism meant to emphasize her homey image. “It may be less than you’d hoped, Saff, but that’s not nothing!”
“I didn’t take the money,” Saffron grumbled. “I know, I know, probably should have. I just… That was an insult. I can live with being cheated, but if someone’s going to look down their nose at me in the process, that’s where I draw the line.”
“Oh, honey,” Azyrvaide sighed. “A little pride is a good thing. Too much, and you end up alone and hungry.”
The mnemindae grinned, which she probably refrained from doing often because the sight of her enormous fangs was unsettling to most of her clientele. Saffron, for her part, was inclined to regard such little lapses positively. It would be too creepy to eat here if everything Azyrvaide did was part of an affected manner. By all indications, she really was just a nice person.
“So you’ve got ancient treasure weighing down your hold, then? I know you, Saff, that’s got to wear on your calm. What’re you going to do, try to sell it to VersaMax?”
“Never,” Saffron said immediately. “That’s a crime, and VersaMax are soulless buzzards.”
“Soulless buzzards who pay well,” Elliot observed.
“Look, I don’t know,” she groused. “I just wanted to have a good meal and not think about all this for a few minutes.” Well, her burger was close to finished, anyway.
“You got it, honey,” Azyrvaide said sympathetically. “Subject closed.”
“May wanna think about what’s in your pockets, at least,” Elliot suggested.
Saffron shot him an annoyed look. “What’re you on about?”
He looked over at her, then tilted his head down, dropping his eyes significantly to her waist. Saffron frowned, then twisted, following his gaze.
She was just in time to spot the young qrith from the corner booth, now plastered to the floor beside her stool, reaching up with one deft hand, his fingers almost in her coat pocket.
“Oi!” she shouted, leaping to her feet and drawing her revolver. The qrith yelped and scuttled away on all six limbs to hide under the nearest table.
“No shooting in my diner,” Azyrvaide snarled, lunging straight over the counter. For such a huge tower of wiry muscle she could move like flowing water at need; she vaulted straight across without her hooves so much as grazing the countertop, landing on the deck in a crouch. Her tail whipped across right in front of Saffron, its barbed tip missing her by centimeters; Saffron had the distinct feeling Azyrvaide knew exactly where all her extremities were and was fully in control. She reached under the table, seizing the qrith by the tail and dragging him bodily out. He squirmed, struggled, and tried to grab the booth for purchase, but the deceptive lankiness of Azyrvaide’s build was offset by her sheer size; there was more muscle in her arm than in his entire body. She straightened up, holding him off the ground by the tail and baring her fangs in a furious snarl. “Also not allowed in my diner? Thieving little lizards!”
The young qrith emitted a squeal of pure panic, trying to roll himself up in a ball with his legs tucked under and all four arms wrapped around his head.
Azyrvaide shook him violently by the tail, which she held up over her head, making him swing about like a dangling prayer bauble. “You come into my craftship, do business with me, and then try to steal from other customers?! I should bolt you to the Triple Bee’s nose and climb to high orbit!”
“If you’re gonna steal, son,” Elliot advised, a wedge of fried potato held almost to his mouth, “don’t steal from a mnemindae ship. You’d be in less trouble steppin’ on a rzikeen’s tail.”
Saffron slowly holstered her pistol, staring at this spectacle with a worried frown. Sure, he’d been trying to pick her pocket, but he was at least a few years short of fully grown, and now that she looked, thin enough that she could see his vertebrae. He was also dressed in ragged and mismatched clothes a few sizes too small. In theory, no one should ever grow up in poverty within the Harmonious Union. In practice, the Union on Terminus might claim the entire planet, but it controlled only Syre Liara and the surrounding agricultural land; border depots like this were the outer extent of Union sovereignty. And even within the city itself, the Irilai Institute wasn’t the only government office operating on scant resources compared to its counterparts in the core worlds. There were cracks, and people slipped through them.
“Hang on,” she protested. Azyrvaide turned her furious stare on Saffron and she almost flinched. Mnemindae were imposing enough when being nice; the sight of those eyes and teeth aimed at her aggressively set off all sorts of primal warnings in the primitive part of her brain. She met the cook’s gaze, however. “Look at him, Az. The kid’s just hungry.”
“He just bought—”
“The cheapest thing on the menu that actually has calories?” Saffron interrupted, glancing at the empty milkshake glass still sitting on the table in the corner booth. It appeared to have been licked clean. “Come on, I know you’re not actually going to hurt him. What happens if you hand him over to the police? He’ll spend an afternoon getting terrorized by rzikeen, then a few days in a cell for petty theft, and then tossed back onto the street. No lessons learned and nothing gained by anybody.”
“So what, I should just let him go?” Affronted, Azyrvaide drew herself up to her full height, causing her horns to graze the ceiling, and shook the qrith again. He was beginning to dangle more loosely, clearly having trouble keeping himself coiled up in that position. “Nobody steals from my ship!”
“I’m not arguing with you, Az,” Saffron said soothingly. “Just pointing out, I’m the one he tried to steal from, not you. If you call Union peacekeepers, they won’t do anything unless I file a grievance, and…I’m sorry, I just can’t bring myself to do it. I’ve shot people who tried to break into my ship before, but I don’t have it in me to make trouble for a desperate urchin just because he almost got into my pocket lint. Look at him, really. I was sitting here complaining about my bad luck, but let’s be honest, my bad day is his whole life.”
Trembling violently, the qrith peeked out from between his forearms, the inner lids still shielding his eyes. His head frills remained plastered down flat.
Azyrvaide scowled down at Saffron for a long few moments, then returned her attention to the qrith boy. Her scowl deepened, but then she heaved a disgruntled sigh and crossed to the airlock, still holding him up by the tail.
“You are banned from this establishment,” she informed him. “I ever see you in here again, so help me I will take off before tossing you out. Now get lost.”
She slapped the side panel to make the outer lock hiss open, then bodily hurled him through the hanging bead curtain that covered the inner door.
“Sorry for all the trouble, Az,” Saffron said, gingerly sitting back down.
“Oh, honey, you haven’t done anything wrong.” Azyrvaide patted her on the shoulder as she passed, heading back around behind the counter the proper way this time rather than bounding over it. “For as much of a hard case as you like to pretend to be, Saff, sometimes you’re too soft-hearted for your own good. But that’s not such a bad flaw to have,” she added with a kind smile.
“Hear, hear,” Elliot grunted around his last bite of fish. “In the long run, I always back the nice folk. They’re usually up to their eyeballs in trouble and constantly needin’ t’be bailed outta some mess or other, but in the end? It’s the nice folk who end up bein’ well worth knowin’.”
“Thanks for the validation,” Saffron said sardonically, picking up her cheeseburger again. It was cooler, but still good. There were only a few bites left, anyway.
Minutes later, she had settled up, said her goodbyes to Azyrvaide, and brushed through the hanging beads herself, feeling pleasantly full but once more lost in thought. Not happy thoughts, exactly, but less burdensome than dwelling on her unfair treatment at Ilinor’s golden hands, as she had been on the way in. The incident with the qrith boy had been a reminder: even on her worst day, she was blessed in many ways. Perhaps she had set herself up for all this disappointment simply by being too self-absorbed…
Saffron was distracted from her ruminations as she stepped off the gangplank by the sound of pounding feet behind her. She turned just in time to get an impression of the old man from the diner charging out of the airlock at her, his long coat flaring out with the wind, before he tackled her bodily to the ground.