The Nublis Chronicles
Moonlight lay in silver bars on the carpeted floor and the rich scent of roses wafted through the bedroom's open balcony doors.
In a wondrous end to the most wonderful day of her life, Isolde had never imagined anything like Balthasar's passion. Not even in her wildest dreams. Truly a Prince in every sense of the word now he was hers and hers alone. As her bridegroom threw back the covers and sat up on the edge of the bed, she murmured sleepily, "What is it, love?"
Turning away from the night air's sudden chill against her bare skin, she reached for her share of the bedclothes and savoring the memory of his warmth against hers, she snuggled even further into the lavender-scented pillows. Hearing her new husband move around the bedroom, she had a thought. If he desired a drink or something to eat maybe she should ring for one of the servants. She was the mistress of this house after all and his care and comfort should be her first concern.
His voice was harsh in her ear. "Time to get up, Isolde. I have something to show you."
Her eyes flew open. "A gift?"
"Not exactly. This is our wedding night and there's an ancient tradition I must fulfill."
Were those tears on his face? Surely not. "Balthasar! What is it?" When he didn't answer, she sat up, gathering the sheet against her naked breasts. "What do you need from me?"
"Please, Isolde. Come with me and make no sound."
Silent and trusting, she followed him down the moonlit stairway. Then he led her through a doorway she'd never seen before. At the end of a long stone passageway, he reached an iron key down from a hook on the wall and unlocked an outside door.
It opened into an exquisite rose-filled garden. A pool stood in the garden's center, overshadowed by a graceful willow tree and somewhere a nightingale sang. Above them, the pale moon swam like a silver ship through the night's dark seas and a light breeze brushed Isolde's burning face.
"This is lovely," she breathed but Balthasar shushed her. He beckoned her forward and she felt the caress of the cool grass beneath her bare feet.
When she saw the small Grecian temple at the garden's end, she drew back. Something about its shape warned her to go no further, and too late, she recalled her mother's anguished words.
'Don't go with him, Isolde! Make him tell you what else he is!'
The sound of the key turning in the lock grated against her heart and suddenly she wanted nothing more than to flee. Whatever awaited her in that silent building, she would be no part of it. "Please, Balthasar. Let's go back to bed."
Her husband's voice was that of a stranger and his grip on her arm was hard as steel. " I love you, Isolde, and I would sooner...."
A silky whisper came from deep within the temple. "You'd sooner what, little brother?"
As the door slammed shut behind them, a thrumming echoed through the warm darkness and a reddish light sprang up along the walls. They stood in a vast echoing space, dominated at its far end by a glittering, elaborately carved golden altar on a raised dais.
Without warning, Balthasar pulled the horrified Isolde's arms behind her back. Then he took a cord from his pocket and bound her wrists tightly together. A lump rose in her throat, choking her, as a cloud of fire-laden smoke roiled up from behind the altar.
The voice spoke again, clearer now, its tones echoing over and over until they finally disappeared in the invisible ceiling. "What is her name?"
"Isolde, Honored One. She is a daughter of Astarte."
"A fine provenance. You took your pleasure with her, I trust?"
"As is our custom."
As is your custom? Yet you claim to love me? Isolde swallowed hard and finally found her voice. "Whatever sick game you have in mind, I'll have no part of it. I want to leave. Now!"
Balthasar bowed his head without speaking and only the whisper replied. "Bring her to me. If she speaks again, silence her."
As she sagged against him in shock, Balthasar gathered Isolde in his arms and carried her to the altar. The embrace she had reveled less than an hour ago was now only a mockery and consumed by sudden hate, she reared back and spat in his face. However, when she desperately summoned them, not a single spell came. She abruptly realized she was in the presence of magic that far exceeded her own.
The voice chuckled. "Ah. She has spirit, I see. Now, show her to me."
After placing his bride on the altar, Balthasar took his jeweled dagger and carefully slit her gossamer gold-threaded robes from throat to hem. Laying the delicate silks aside, he exposed her, almost lovingly, to whatever waited in the smoky shadows. Then he secured her ankles to the corners of the altar. Her beseeching eyes met his and they told her everything he dared not say.
"Who is he?" she breathed, "and what is he to you?"
Still he didn't speak and the warm tears falling from his face onto hers were Balthasar's only reply. When he left her, she did not know, but all at once, she was alone with whatever horror inhabited this place.
A shaft of ice thrust its way between her opened legs, penetrating her most secret parts. At the same time, a rasping tongue forced her unwilling lips apart, filling her mouth and silencing her screams. Cold claws flickered over her shivering body, lightly tracing the outline of her breasts and the soft swell of her stomach. Then they moved inexorably downward in a macabre retelling of Balthasar's gentle explorations. All the while, the thrumming continued, a merciless background chorus to match the pounding of Isolde's heart and the rush of blood in her ears.
How long she lay in the temple, she never knew. She came to in her bridal bed with Balthasar sponging the blood from her body. Bars of sunlight dappled the richly patterned carpet and outside the open balcony doors, a chorus of birds greeted the new day.
"Get away from me," she hissed, "and don't you ever touch me again!"
His distress was obvious. "You need tending."
"Get one of the maids, then. If she thinks you did it, so much the better, because I'm leaving you."
"What do you mean, I can't?"
"You must stay until your child is born."
"My child?" Putting her hand on her belly, Isolde recalled a half-forgotten spell. The birds outside fell silent and the bedroom suddenly darkened and chilled.
"If I must stay, I curse you, Balthasar de Morel, and I doubly curse the child you conceived on me last night. From the moment of his birth, your son will be a blight upon this land and he will never know one second of happiness until the day he dies."
On the other side of the galaxy, Elon's perennially drunken master had failed to come up with the rent again and they'd just been thrown out of their sleeping room. Bleary-eyed from the previous night's binge, he fumbled for Elon's arm and staggered with him toward the marketplace.
"This time, I really have to sh-sh-shell you!"
Just as they reached their destination, he loosed off a couple of massive belches and hiccuped. Blinking hard, he managed to summon enough of his wandering wits to negotiate with the slave booth's owner and shove Elon in the general direction of the stage. As the young slave set a sandaled foot on the wooden steps, the booth owner snatched away his robe. Then he pushed him out to face the crowd as naked as the day he was born. An ebony-skinned rarity such as this was always in high demand and Elon recognized several of the city's brothel keepers milling about near the stage.
Barely eighteen, he was well muscled, with a handsome face and good teeth, and as one of them commented, excellent equipment. When the buyers finally completed their examining, fingering and poking, the slave booth's owner began the proceedings.
The bidding soon grew spirited.
One by one, the buyers fell away until there remained only two.
The first was a mountainous harridan of indeterminate age. Dyed blond curls cascaded around a face holding one last remnant of beauty. All traces of softness had long since vanished from the Madam's hooded emerald eyes along with her forgotten innocence.
Chill though the woman's glance might be, the other bidder's was even worse. A heavy-set, elegant creature in his mid-thirties, just the sight of him in his lavishly embroidered amethyst caftan set chilly fingers running up and down Elon's spine. This particular brothel keeper had tried to buy him once before but his master had flatly refused to sell. He'd explained that his would-be buyer catered to a wealthy clientele with strange and exotic tastes. Then he'd told Elon exactly what that meant.
When Purple Robe topped the harridan's final bid, she turned away, muttering, "This is too rich for me."
With a triumphant smile, he was stepping forward to claim his prize when a voice interrupted from the back of the crowd. "One hundred thousand credits!"
The man in the purple robe looked around, angry, and the crowd fell silent.
It parted to reveal a blond blue-eyed youth in simple desert garb. He glanced up at the naked Elon and flashed him a lazy smile.
Purple Robe surveyed the newcomer with open contempt. "One twenty-five!"
Even for a rarity like Elon, these figures were unheard of. His abruptly sobered master looked open-mouthed from the one bidder to the other and the crowd began to murmur and swell.
Purple Robe almost choked. "One seventy-five!"
The young man shrugged. "Two hundred!"
The brothel-keeper hesitated. After one last yearning look at Elon, he drew himself up and stalked away. The young man approached the booth and the crowd broke into spontaneous applause.
While his new owner completed the formalities, Elon quickly donned his robe. The young man beckoned, then walked away in the direction of the spaceport without looking back. As Elon obediently followed him through the crowd, he never so much as glanced at his former master.
Chapter 1 - A Royal Wedding
At Cyrenia's spaceport on the small planet-empire, Nublis, Elon led his guest aboard his brand new starship.
With his golden brown hair, electric blue eyes and amiable features, young Timothy was the image of his father at the same age. It was as if the hands of time had turned back to the day Elon first met Ephraim in the slave market.
He realized with a start that had been over forty years ago.
Elon's tiny wife, Nona, met them at the entrance to the bridge. As black as her husband, she too had been a slave until the day Ephraim hired her to cook for his crew and she considered the entire Seiran imperial family her personal property. Ephraim once told Timothy he'd deliberately thrown Elon and Nona together to get her out of his hair. Then he jokingly remarked it was no wonder her husband was as bald as an egg.
The Seiran Emperor's four sons might be grown men but to Nona they were still her precious lambs and, in her eyes, they could do no wrong. She would still chide Empress Thamar as if she was in her teens and as for the way she treated His Majesty--the less said about that the better.
She opened her arms wide and gave Timothy a hug. "Let me look at you, child! You've grown like a weed but you're much too thin. I'm just going to have to feed you up and put some meat on those bones."
As Timothy rolled his eyes, Elon smiled down at his tiny energetic spouse. "He's closer to thirty than twenty, my dear, and you may no longer treat him like a child. Timothy's our Trade Ambassador to the Interplanetary Synod Assembly now. He needs to be addressed as such, especially in front of the crew."
Nona was unabashed. "Well, just look at him. He's as skinny as a rail and I know he hasn't been following a proper diet. Have you, Your Excellency?"
Her husband sighed. "I give up. Come on, Timothy. After you've met the officers and crew, I'll show you the rest of the ship."
Timothy hadn't heard him because he was too busy gazing at the creature stationed by the navigation computers. It had the size and form of a small man, an iridescent coat of what looked like small blue feathers, and the head of a bird.
"What in the world is that?"
Elon chuckled. "An Aeolian and his name is Hoya. The Aeolians are a unique people from one of Seira's jungle islands and the finest navigators in the universe. It has something to do with their circadian rhythm. Hoya's a telepath like you and he speaks quite a few languages. You'll find he's a real character."
As if sensing Timothy's gaze, the creature swiveled around and a pair of brilliant black eyes met his. Then he heard a voice in his head.
It was light with an almost musical quality. "You must be Seira's new Trade Ambassador and I gather the captain just told you who I am. My name's Hoya and I'm pleased to meet you. Now, if you'll excuse me, Your Excellency, I have work to do."
The creature turned back to the navigation computers and, as the fascinated Timothy watched, the Aeolian's blue feathers took on a rose color, deepening to crimson.
Elon started toward the console. "I'd better see what's wrong. Hoya's color changes according to his mood and red indicates a problem. This is a brand new ship and we're still working out the bugs."
Nona sighed. "Which means they'll be tied up for hours. Come on, Timothy. I'll show you your quarters. Then you can meet me in the galley for a snack and catch me up on all the gossip."
Over at the Nublian imperial palace, Seamus was irritated. This was unusual for him, considering he was an Omega genius class robot, albeit he looked exactly like a three-foot leprechaun.
"Adrian, will you quit fussing. You look perfectly fine."
The Duke of Ceila tentatively put one foot in front of the other and turned to look at himself in the triple mirror again. He was still a trifle unsteady after being in a wheelchair for so long. This electronic brace affair took some getting used to and if he wasn't careful he tended to balance too far forward and fall flat on his face. At last night's wedding rehearsal, he hadn't done too badly though. Going up the altar steps, he had only tripped once and one of the pages had caught his arm.
Having once used a similar brace himself, Nublis' Emperor Julian had given Adrian some tips. "Don't put your chin ahead of your toes. Remember where your feet are and don't move too fast. Above all, keep your chin and tail tucked in. Then you should be all right."
It pleased the Duke no end to find he was taller than his intended bride. He easily topped his medical attendant, Jared Barlow, by a full head and as for the diminutive Seamus, all he could say was, "How's the weather up there?"
When Alyssa saw him walking for the first time, her huge gray eyes widened.
"Why, Adrian, you're actually tall! Oh, my! They're not going to be able to call you little any more, are they?"
Only the Emperor Julian's brother Cassius was as tall as Adrian. The bastard Prince noted his imperial sibling's reaction with some amusement because this was the first time the Emperor had seen the Duke on his feet for many years.
"Oh, heavenly days," Julian exclaimed, "the two of you look like a pair of bookends."
"Hmmf!" snorted Cassius. "Little brother, you're just jealous because you're so terminally short. The gods knew what they were about when they gave you such a tiny wife because you finally got someone into the family who was shorter than you. Now, I suppose, you won't want to be seen with Adrian in public any more."
Julian ignored his brother's gibes. "Incidentally, Adrian, how goes the battle with the Countess of Aram? Are you still under siege?"
As he read the Emperor's lips, the Duke winced, then signed to Cassius who translated. "Don't remind me. She's graduated from leaving love notes at my door to hiring a violin trio to play outside my window at night. They follow me wherever I go. Apparently, the woman's forgotten I'm deaf. The rest of the household is complaining mightily that they can't get any sleep."
"Have you tried doubling whatever she's paying?"
Adrian signed back with a wicked grin, "Your son Cass tried to have them arrested for bad playing. The local security boys didn't agree. They told him they sounded quite nice. He ordered me not to pay them any more money on general principles."
"Where are they now?"
"Right now, they're entertaining the temple guards in their barracks. Personally, I've become quite fond of them and I've begun to think of them as household pets."
"That's only because you can't hear them!" snapped Alyssa. "If I have to put up with one more night of their caterwauling, I'm personally going to break their damn instruments over their heads!"
"Actually, the problem is solved," remarked Julian. "Thanks to the tabloids, your little trio's become quite famous. An agent I know has arranged a concert tour. They're only sticking around long enough to say goodbye."
"Thanks, Grandfather," said Alyssa with real feeling and she kissed the eighty-five-year-old Emperor's cheek.
"Well, that much, I could do. But Adrian, I'm not sure you're taking the Countess seriously enough. The woman's unbalanced and she's been known to do some strange things. I don't trust her as far as I can throw her and I'm detailing a personal bodyguard to each of you."
That had been yesterday.
Adrian turned around and looked over his shoulder. The back of his bottle green uniform jacket fit perfectly and his close-fitting doeskin breeches and brilliantly polished black boots were immaculate. He turned to inspect the front. The silver wings on either side of his high collar and the ruby ring on his left hand were his only adornment and there was nary a wrinkle in sight. Finally satisfied, he picked up the dress cap and tried it on for the umpteenth time.
As he adjusted and readjusted it, Timothy entered the bedroom. He instantly mindlinked with Adrian. "Oh, my. Look at you. Tall and distinguished isn't the word for it. Your Grace, you're the classiest bridegroom I've ever seen. Are you ready to go?"
"He's been ready for the past hour, at least," scoffed Seamus, who could also read minds. "If it's possible to wear out a mirror, he will."
Adrian smiled a mite sheepishly. "I have to get used to the new image. It feels strange not to be sitting with a set of wheels under me. I was looking up at people for so long. Now, all of a sudden, I'm on my feet and looking down at them instead."
Timothy grinned. "Well, I have to tell you something and this may come as a shock. Pathos is no longer a part of your image and you'll have to find some other stock in trade with which to wow the ladies. Maybe, now you're on your feet and taller than she is, your would-be inamorata will find some other object of affection."
"One can always hope," replied the Duke. "It's time to go, isn't it?"
The crowd rippled with applause as Adrian entered the great sanctuary with Timothy at his side and there were more than a few gasps. Carefully, he walked to the foot of the altar steps. Then he turned to greet his bride as she came up the flower-strewn aisle on her father's arm.
The Prince kissed his daughter on the cheek. He stepped back and Alyssa came forward alone. Adrian offered her his arm and, side by side, they gracefully ascended the steps to the altar where Nublis' masked Archon and his scarlet-clad Major Domo awaited them.
With her mane of silver-gilt hair piled on top of her head and crowned with a simple wreath of white roses, Alyssa was simply arrayed in a straight shaft of pure white Nublian silk. Her magnificent rose-pink pearls were Adrian's wedding gift. They came from his native island in Nublis' southern seas.
The Aeolian navigator, Hoya, and Elon had been delayed by a technical problem and they were late. When they hurried through the sanctuary doorway, something about a woman in the last row caught Hoya's attention. As she rose to her feet, he saw her aura was almost black and that she was pointing something at the bride.
With a shrill scream, he launched himself into the air like a small missile. When he reached the woman's upraised arm, he grabbed at it with his tiny, feathered hands and beak-like mouth and hung on for dear life.
The woman was shrieking and beating at Hoya with her other hand when Adrian caught his bride's reaction and turned around. As the guards came running, the woman's blonde wig fell off and he recognized his stalker, the lovesick Countess of Aram. Something or someone was attached to her right arm and he could see her screaming.
A weapon dropped from the Countess' hand at the same time the guards wrestled her to the ground, crushing Hoya in the process.
Timothy and Elon reached the tiny navigator at the same time. Hoya's iridescent feathered coat had faded to a soft gray and he lay unmoving near the hysterically shrieking Countess.
Timothy did a quick mind scan. "He's still alive. But we'd better get him some help or he won't be for long."
"He saved Alyssa," marveled Elon. "He spotted something and before I knew it, he was hanging onto that woman's arm."
The Archon signaled the choir to stop singing and the proceedings came to a complete halt. He whispered something to his scarlet-robed assistant, who hastened down the steps and toward the back of the sanctuary. By now, the guards had the struggling Countess subdued and the Emperor Julian's brother-in-law, Jonah, was crouched over Hoya's limp form. The doctor examined him briefly and looked up at Elon.
"What is he?"
"An Aeolian. One of the bird people of Seira."
Jonah spoke rapidly into the communicator on his wrist. "We probably have his specs in the clinic's main computer. A team of medics should be here any second. Is there any significance to his plumage color?"
Elon frowned. "Hoya's normally blue but the shade changes according to his mood and physical condition. Gray's not a good sign."
Jonah listened to his earpiece for a moment. "They're pulling up his specs now. I've never seen this species before and I have no idea how to treat him. Is he bird or mammal?"
"Mammal, I believe. We have special supplies and food on the ship for him. His people live on one of the jungle islands of Seira. They evolved differently but they're fully rational beings. Are you getting any response from that mindlink?"
Timothy shook his head.
"Is there anything we can do to help?" asked the Major Domo.
"There's a team of medics.... Ah, here they are!" exclaimed Jonah. "As soon as we've gotten the Countess and this little fellow out of here, continue with the wedding. Have Seamus tell Adrian what's going on. Timothy! Elon! You come with me! Major Domo, I'll advise you of his condition as soon as we know more."
As the medics gently lifted Hoya onto the stretcher and began wheeling him out of the sanctuary, the Major Domo signaled to the choir to resume.
Adrian and Alyssa turned toward the altar again and the Archon began the ceremony.
Hoya stood near his parents' house on the edge of the jungle, looking at his reflection in the fishpond. His mother joined him and their eyes met in the mirrored surface.
"Hoya, are you sure you want to do this? The world out there is totally unlike ours. Their ways are not our ways, and when you're different, people can be very cruel. Every time someone new sees you, they'll ask what you are. They'll point fingers and maybe even try to touch you. And heaven forbid you should ever get hurt. Who will take care of you then? You'll be all alone in a universe of strangers not one of whom can even begin to understand you."
"Oh, Mama! I want to see the universe, travel on the great ships and see strange worlds in other galaxies. The men from the city say I have a rare gift and they're willing to pay well for my services."
"But you're so young and you haven't even had your first gender change yet. Out there, you'll have to go through it all alone. There'll be no one to keep you company until the strangeness has worn off. Oh, Hoya!" She gently caressed his face and began calling his name again and again.
"Hoya! Can you hear me? Hoya! Open your eyes!"
It wasn't his mother's voice after all and he wasn't standing near the pond. In fact, he wasn't standing at all. He was lying on something. Where he was, he did not know and there were strange sounds and smells all around him.
Another voice spoke. "Keep calling his name. He's barely conscious but he can hear you. We have to wake him. According to the computer, he needs to eat and soon. Come on, Hoya! Open your eyes!"
Jonah eyed the small figure on the bed in total frustration. According to the computer, the Aeolian metabolism was much faster than any human's. But even though Hoya's caloric needs were infinitely higher than the average patient's there was no way to get nutrients into him except by mouth. Elon had had Hoya's special medical pack brought from the ship. Among other things, it contained several vials of a highly concentrated special nectar. According to the enclosed instructions, the nectar was specifically intended for a situation like this. But it was useless unless Jonah could get Hoya to swallow it. The only way he could accomplish that would be if he was awake, and Hoya wouldn't wake up.
As the little Aeolian opened his eyes, he could hear a strange hissing near his head. Someone was pushing into his mind and he opened the gate.
"Hoya. It's me, Timothy. Wake up."
"Timothy? Who's Timothy? Oh, I remember now. You're the Trade Ambassador. The one Elon was showing around yesterday. Hello again, Your Excellency. The last I saw you, I was a little busy. That new ship has more technical problems...."
The tone in his head was urgent. "Hoya, just be quiet and listen to me. Don't worry about the ship and its technical problems. You were hurt and you're in Nublis' temple clinic. Right now, you need to eat. It's very important. Do you understand me?"
"What color am I?"
"What's that got to do with it? Oh, all right. You're a pale gray and it's getting lighter all the time."
"Well, then, I'd better eat, hadn't I? What have you got?"
"There's this nectar. It was in your medical pack. Here, I'll lift your head. There, can you manage now?"
Hoya tried to lift his hand to take the cup Timothy was holding. But he couldn't move it or his arm which was in some sort of splint. Jonah took the cup from Timothy. With practiced ease, the doctor put the cup to Hoya's beak-like mouth and tilted it. The liquid trickled onto Hoya's parched tongue and he accepted it gratefully. It tasted wonderful.
As Jonah fed him the nectar, drop by drop, Hoya's feathers took on a faint tinge of blue. The color deepened until the gray disappeared altogether.
"What is this stuff?" asked Timothy, still speaking mind to mind.
Hoya answered in the same manner. "A special honey harvested from wild bees deep in the jungles of Aeolia. That's where I'm from. It's very strong and we only use it when someone's ill. Hey, I'm feeling better already. Why can't I move my arms? In fact, come to think of it, I can't seem to move anything. Ouch, that hurts!"
"I shouldn't wonder. When you went down, you had the Countess and three guards right on top of you. It looked for a moment as if they'd mashed you as flat as a pancake. Whatever possessed you to do such a thing?"
"I saw her aura. It was a deep, deep purple, almost black. Even when she stood up, no one else seemed to notice. She was about to do something to the bride, so I stopped her. Or at least, I tried to. The couple getting married were friends of Elon's and he's my captain. That's why I did it."
"Are you saying you attacked the Countess because of her aura? Before you even saw the gun?"
"Sure. An aura that color means great evil. I didn't know what she had in her hand but she certainly intended to hurt the bride. I just thought it was a spell or something. My only intention was to distract her and get the attention of the guards. I certainly didn't plan on getting squashed! But I'd forgotten how big and heavy you people are and I really didn't have a chance to get out of the way."
"What's he saying?" asked Jonah. After Timothy told him, the doctor observed, somewhat dryly, "You got squashed all right. The computer said not to put you on our regular scanner so it took us longer than usual to set your broken bones and check your other injuries. Fortunately, your emergency medical pack included a hand-scanner and a set of monitors we were able to use. If it's all right with you, Hoya, I'd like to keep you here for a few extra days to do some studies and tests. That way, if any of your people ever come in here again, we'll know how to treat them."
Hoya looked up at Timothy a little nervously. "What does he mean by studies and tests? I'm not sure I like the sound of that at all. And Timothy, when your ship leaves for Aretz, I don't want to be left behind. I don't know anyone here and I'll be all alone."
When Timothy translated, Jonah frowned. "Let me talk to Julian about it." Then he turned and looked down at Hoya. "I don't think you realize what a debt the Nublian imperial family owes you, little fellow. The lady you saved happens to be Emperor Julian's granddaughter, Princess Alyssa. She and her husband want to come and see you as soon as you feel up to it, and believe me, you'll be far from alone. You already have a list of would-be visitors a mile long which doesn't even include the press. As far as being left behind, don't worry. As soon as you're on your feet again, Julian can send you to Aretz on a private ship. He has a whole fleet of them, you know. He's my brother-in-law and he generally does what I ask him."
"Oh," Hoya said aloud. "I didn't know that." The little navigator continued rather shyly, "Elon just brought me along because he thought I'd enjoy seeing a Nublian wedding. But he hadn't told me who any of the people were. I thought the bride and groom were ordinary folk."
Jonah smiled at that. "Well, I see you can talk without an interpreter. That's good."
"Oh, yes. I speak several languages too. Since I'm a telepath, I can communicate either way depending on who I'm talking to."
"That's good. The lady's husband, Adrian, has been a deaf-mute from birth and he'll be delighted to know you're a telepath. The only problem with Adrian is he tends to talk a mile a minute and you may not be able to get a blip in edgewise."
Timothy grinned. "That's true. Incidentally, Hoya, how old are you?"
"I'm eighteen and my parents said I was much too young to be leaving home. But I got a chance to go to navigator school in the city and it seemed like too good a deal to turn down. Elon hired me for his new ship and here I am."
Jonah was amazed. "You have parents? The computer says Aeolians are hermaphrodites and that you reproduce on your own without a partner."
"That's true, but we have a sex life just like everyone else. It's just that our gender changes every six months. In the female phase, we can reproduce if we want to. Aeolians are social, affectionate beings and we like living in a family structure."
"Isn't that confusing, having your parents' genders switching back and forth like that?"
"No. They're still the same people, regardless. It's just that sometimes my mother is my father and vice versa. Occasionally, they're the same gender. While one is my mother, I don't know which is actually my physical parent. But it really doesn't matter. I have four siblings and we all get along very well."
"Are you all the same color?"
"We're all blue but there are many different shades. One of my parents is silvery while the other's almost purple."
Jonah noticed Hoya's feathers growing progressively darker. "Would you like some more of that nectar? There's a little left."
Timothy was curious. "Can I try a taste of that?" When Hoya nodded, he took a little on his finger and put it on his tongue. "Whoo! That stuff is strong. It makes me feel buzzy as if it were a drug."
"Well, actually, it is. Those particular bees harvest their pollen from a plant with certain pharmacological properties. It's not only a drug but it's highly addictive. That's why we only use it in certain instances. It tastes good, doesn't it? We call it Nirvana."
"Do the drug dealers know about this stuff?"
"No! No one knows about Nirvana outside Aeolia and I probably shouldn't even have told you. Its use is highly restricted and I may never take it again as long as I live. I hope not, anyway. Almost a thousand years ago, the five Plutarchs of Seira found out about Nirvana and tried to force my people to produce it commercially. Those few Aeolians the Plutarchs didn't torture or kill fled deep into the jungles and stayed there for centuries. That was when we evolved into what we are today. Only after the revolution and the accession of the Emperor Josea... er, Ephraim, to the throne, did the Aeolian people finally emerge from the forests and begin to live the way they do now. That's why there are so few of us. It's also why my parents didn't want me to leave home. But our numbers are beginning to come back and I was curious to see the rest of the Synod."
"Elon says the Aeolians are the best navigators in the known universe," remarked Timothy, "that it has to do with your circadian rhythm."
"That's true. Our internal body clock is attuned to the stars and we always know where we are. That's how I found out the new ship's guidance computers, systems and controls were off by several degrees. When you've got landmarks to go by, it doesn't matter so much. But out in deep space, even one degree can make a huge difference. You'd just walked onto the bridge when I discovered the discrepancy. I normally don't get that upset, but this was a factory defect that could have cost people their lives."
"Are you saying we could have gotten lost between here and Aretz?"
"Relying on those systems, almost certainly. There's a specific point when you're out of contact with everyone and totally on your own. Elon calls it the Big Blank. It happened to him just once. After that, he went shopping for an Aeolian navigator. That was quite a few years ago and I'm his third or fourth one. He complains his turnover's so high because the other captains keep hiring his navigators away from him."
"Hmm," Timothy made a mental note to tell his father. "Jonah. How soon will Hoya been on his feet again? I'm beginning to see why Elon values him so highly and I'm not sure I want to take off for Aretz without him."
"Or her." Hoya's tone was mischievous. "I'm due for a gender change in about a month. It'll be my first."
"Are you going to reproduce?" asked Jonah.
"Heavens, no. I'm not nearly old enough to do that. Besides, I don't think I'd care to unless I had a mate. Childrearing's pretty hard if you're a single parent and it's a whole lot less fun."
"When Elon said you were a character, I can see what he meant. Incidentally, he's outside in the hall. Would you like to see him?"
"Sure. For one thing, I want to know if I still have a job. I'm not like you rich people, you know. I have to earn my own living and if I don't have this job anymore, I'll have to find another one as soon as possible."
Timothy shook his head and looked at Jonah. He went outside and returned with Elon.
"Hi, Captain," said Hoya. "Sorry about this. It looks like I'll be out of commission for a while."
Elon grunted. "It would seem so. Next time you get in a fight, do me a favor and pick on someone your own size. The crew's gotten kind of fond of you and they don't want me to replace you. Does Jonah have any idea how long you're going to be in here?"
"You mean I still have a job?"
"Well, of course you do, you twit! Nona's been catching insects and she says you'd better hurry back because she has a whole potload."
"What's he talking about?" asked Timothy. "And come to think of it, do I want to know?"
He couldn't really tell, but it looked as if Hoya was smiling.
"That's what I live on, along with fruits, grains and nuts. Nona says I'm the best thing that's happened to her kitchens since the zap ray. I can eat regular food if I have to but I prefer bugs. To me, a cockroach is a great delicacy. Especially those giant Andromedan ones. Yum!"
"Ecch!" exclaimed Timothy. "That's disgusting!"
"Well, I like fish too. And it's very good for my coat."
Elon chuckled. "Except he prefers it raw and kicking."
"Well, I'm glad you told us something about your diet," said Jonah. He made some notes in the small computer hung on his belt. "There's some dried stuff here that Elon had sent over with your medical pack. Are you hungry?"
"He's always hungry," said Elon. "When he's awake, Hoya never stops eating."
"Actually, the nectar took care of that. For the time being, anyway."
"Well, the computer says to keep feeding you the nectar for as long as you're sick," said Jonah. "Apparently it contains all the nutrients you need. It's so concentrated, a very small amount seems to go a long way. So there's plenty."
Hoya sounded plaintive. "Do you have some powder there for my feathers? I like to stay clean and well groomed. Of course, preening's going to be a bit difficult if I can't use my hands."
"Well, you can't," said Jonah firmly. "Not with those splints on your arms. Until they come off, you'll just have to tell the attendants what to do. I can see you're going to be something of a nursing challenge. Now, is there anything else I need to know? I assume you use a bathroom like everyone else."
"Of course. I've been housetrained since I was two. Aeolians are very fussy about things like that."
"The attendants will be glad to know that. We had a mathematician in here from Sirius a couple of months ago who wasn't. He was a certified genius too. The attendants threatened to quit en masse if he ever came back."
Hoya's feathers had turned bright green and he shook slightly.
"That means he's laughing," said Elon. "If he turns red, he's upset. But if his feathers turn gold, watch out."
"What does that mean?"
"Aeolians are very attracted to the opposite sex. At the moment, Hoya's in his male phase. When he gets, um, excited, his feathers turn gold."
Jonah's eyebrows shot up. "Are you saying Hoya likes women?"
"Oh, yes. And you'd be surprised how many of them reciprocate. Hoya can be very charming when he wants to be. Let me give you some advice, Jonah. Whatever you do, don't let him talk you into giving him female medical attendants. If I know him, he'll try it. Just remember, he's only eighteen and this is his first time away from home. Whatever he lacks in finesse, he certainly makes for up in enthusiasm."
Hoya sounds like a boy after my own heart, thought Timothy. I wonder how he's going to react when he first sees Alyssa. Hmm. Maybe I can get her to stroke his feathers. I still owe Adrian for that business with Giuliana, dammit!
The beautiful Giuliana Bainbridge was a reporter who had been working undercover on the luxurious space-station resort, Nephtali. Parked over Nublis for the Emperor Julian's fiftieth anniversary jubilee, Nephtali belonged to Timothy's father and that was where they met.
Timothy blackmailed Giuliana into going on a date with him by threatening to expose her. Then Adrian mischievously interfered. Until Alyssa reined him in, the wheelchair-bound Duke definitely had a roving eye. To Timothy's extreme annoyance, it lighted on Giuliana. With his classic Grecian features, enormous dark eyes and tousle of black curls, Adrian's slight air of pathos was catnip to every female he encountered and she'd been no exception to the rule.
Timothy had been unable to get to first base with her after that. The morning after their date, Giuliana departed for Aretz without a word of farewell. After watching him mope around, his father finally took pity on Timothy. He appointed him his Trade Ambassador and ordered him to Aretz to settle things with the lady, one way or another.
There was a knock on the door and Jonah opened it to admit the Major Domo. "The banquet's finally over and people are asking how the little fellow's doing. The Archon says if he needs anything, just to let him know. The Countess has been carted off to a high-class mental facility on one of the southern islands. The guards said she kept carrying on about being attacked by a parrot and is now convinced she's going to die of some tropical bird disease."
When he saw the Major Domo's masked face, Hoya's feathers turned gray and he shrank back in terror. "Calm down," said Timothy. "This is the Archon's Major Domo and he always looks like that. He just came to see how you're doing."
Jonah offered Hoya another sip of nectar, which he accepted gratefully.
Gradually his plumage returned to its normal shade of blue and the doctor looked at the time. "I'm due to make evening rounds. I'll send an attendant in to settle Hoya down for the night and I think we'll bar all further visitors until tomorrow. Timothy, can you and Elon stay for a little while? At least till the attendant gets here."
The Major Domo said, "I'll be going too. The Archon's waiting and I don't like to leave him alone for too long."
Just as the Major Domo was leaving, Adrian and Alyssa came in. They were still decked out their wedding finery and Adrian was in his wheelchair.
To Timothy's vast amusement, Hoya's feathers promptly took on a golden tinge and he made crooning noises in his throat.
"Why you poor little thing!" cried Alyssa when she saw the splints on the tiny navigator's arms and legs. "We heard what you did and we had to come and thank you in person. That was so brave!" Taking one of Hoya's tiny, feathered hands in both of hers, she began stroking it.
The little navigator's plumage brightened until it almost literally began to glow.
"Hoya!" said Timothy. "She's married! Her husband's right there, and may I remind you, he's one hell of a lot bigger than you are!"
Hoya sighed. "I know. But she's gorgeous, isn't she? Anyway, I can't help it. Especially when she's stroking my hand like that. Wow!"
Adrian looked at Timothy suspiciously. "What's going on, may I ask? Why did his color suddenly change like that?"
"Um," said Timothy. "He... His feathers change color, on and off, all the time." He added mischievously, "You can ask him yourself because he's a telepath. His name's Hoya."
Uh oh, thought Hoya. Timothy! That wasn't very nice of you!
As the wheelchair moved closer to the bed, the little Aeolian's feathers gradually reassumed their normal shade of blue. He looked somewhat nervously up at the Duke and their minds linked.
Adrian smiled. "I owe you an enormous debt. If there's anything you ever need or want and it's within my power to provide it, it's yours."
"With the exception of the Duchess, of course!" chortled Timothy.
Hoya was nothing if not polite. "Why, thank you, Your Grace. That's most kind of you. And may I offer you my congratulations on your marriage. Your bride is certainly lovely."
"Yes, she is," responded Adrian. "Was she the reason your feathers changed color?"
Hoya gulped and his plumage took on a gray tinge.
"It's all right," said Adrian kindly. "I understand. And you'll be fine just as long as you don't try to do anything about it." He signed to Alyssa, "Hoya's probably tired and he looks as if he needs his rest. I know I do."
"Oh! You're probably right." The Duchess gave Hoya's hand a slight squeeze and let it go. Then she bent forward and gave him a light kiss on his forehead. "That's a thank you for what you did."
Hoya's feathers tinged gold and he shivered in ecstasy. "Thank you. Your husband's a very lucky man!"
Seeing Alyssa's blush, Adrian asked, "What did you just say to her?"
When Hoya told him, the Duke reflected, "I'm luckier than you could possibly know and I meant exactly what I said. We owe you a great debt and you'll always have a friend in the House of Ceila."
Alyssa smiled at them both. "I think it's time to say good night. Here comes your attendant and he looks ready to throw us out of here. We'll come by again tomorrow. Good night, Timothy."
"That's probably my cue to say good night too," said Elon. "Nona's going to be wondering where I got to. Hoya, I'll see you tomorrow. For now, just get some rest and don't worry about your job."
The attendant approached the bed with a container of powder. "You need to tell me exactly how to do this. The instructions aren't very clear."
Timothy looked down at the little navigator. "It looks like you're in good hands so I'm going to say goodnight too. I'll come by to see you in the morning."
As he left, Timothy heard Hoya giving a stream of instructions on exactly how to give him his powder bath. The little navigator was a character all right and he found himself looking forward to their continued association.