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The Space Between The Stars (A Corsair/Mim Adventure)

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May 30, 2013
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3,216
#1
"Yusra you could at least pretend to be excited." The Queen Mother fussed over the princess's doek, despite having been shooed away multiple times. Yusra fumed and batted at her hands again.

"Oh yes, I am so excited to be sold into slavery by my own brother," she snapped irritably, scowling.

"He is doing what is right for our people." Her own mother, the Queen Consort, smoothed down a few wrinkles in her dress and adjusted her jewelry. "You should jump at the opportunity to be an instrument of peace."

"He is doing what is right for him," she argued, "with no regard for my happiness whatsoever."

"Now that's not fair, Yuyu." King Adjatay Zambarau Njiwa poked his head in to ensure everyone was decent before coming in and putting his hands on her shoulders. "I want what's best for my little sister."

Half sister she thought bitterly, but was wise enough not to say aloud. "Why is everyone touching me?" she demanded, waving them all away. "Stop touching me!"

~*~

"Mamakutomba!" Her screeching was loud enough to wake her companion. Even if it hadn't been, the bottle of perfume flying through the projection and shattering against the wall would have been. Yusra shrugged off the hands on her shoulders and reached for a vase, only to have those same strong hands grip her wrists. "They won't stop showing it!" she shrieked, tears of anger leaving shining rivers along her cheeks before falling from her chin onto the blanket.

"Well it's supposed to be good news." Bomani carefully pried the vase from her grip and set it back on the nightstand and gathered her up into his arms. "It could work out to your advantage, you know."

"I don't see how." Yusra allowed herself to relax against his chest.

"...That my sister, Princess Yusra Rusayla Quosi, shall be wed to Pri--" With a flick of Bomani's hand the projection was gone, cutting off the image of their king standing with the king of the Hyades Commonwealth, before he tightened his grip around her to prevent her from lashing out again.

"I'll tear his lungs out," she growled between her teeth, her nails pressing painfully into his ribs. "I'll tear his skin off and have it tanned into leather to upholster my throne! I'll--"

"Perhaps," he interrupted cautiously, "marriage to the Hyadean prince could be fortuitous."

"Once again you offer optimism without telling me exactly how," she complained, pushing away from him and out of his grip but not reaching for anything else to throw. She sat back on her feet and crossed her arms. "Well?"

"Well..." he offered, leaning toward her with a smile. Yusra couldn't help but smile back as he crawled up her body, forcing her to lean farther and father back until she was laying beneath him on the bed. "If you marry him," he settled himself between her legs and kissed her decolletage, "and he happens to die in some accident with your brothers," he kissed her neck, "that leaves you not only queen of the Milky Way..." a kiss landed on her shoulder, "and the Pleides..." another on her throat, "and Betelgeuse..." he pressed a long, slow, warm kiss to her lips. "It leaves you, the tragic widow and grieving sister, as also queen of the mzungu and all of their holdings."

Yusra inclined her head to the side, both to allow him better access to her neck and to concede that he had a point. "He has siblings who would kill me the first chance they got," she pointed out. "And it would be suspicious if they, too, just so happened to be involved in the same accident."

"Study their inheritance laws," he suggested, his tip rubbing against her slit teasingly. "I'll bet you all of the stars in the sky if you already had an heir there would be nothing for it."

"Your heir, I'm sure." She arched an eyebrow and he smiled bashfully but didn't deny it. "Breeding stock, is that all I am to you?"

"You are my queen," he murmured, taking one dark nipple into his mouth. "And I--" He jumped when the door flew open, but didn't move.

"Aren't you taking the title of body guard a bit too literally?" Chief Gatimu looked thoroughly unimpressed.

"Where better to guard her body?" Bomani smiled charmingly before bending to kiss her neck.

"You can guard her just as well out in the hallway." Gatimu waited as the guard looked at the princess, who sighed and gestured toward the door with her chin, then got up to dress and leave. "He's in love with you," he said once the door was closed.

"That isn't news." Yusra sat up and folded her arms across her breasts. "This had better be good."

~*~

"This had better be fucking worth it," she snarled, walking down a hallway flanked by her brothers. Yusra's nipples pressed against her dress in the freezing hallway. Most of the Stellar Union, not to mention all of the Heyadeans, were mzungu and seemed incapable of handling even the slightest amount of heat. It was as though they were all trying to recreate their original habitat on Old Earth, with no consideration for others. Not helping matters was the fact that everything was marble, steel, and chrome without a tapestry or rug in sight, so even the walls and floors felt so cold you might stick to them.

"The lives of our people are worth it," Okot assured her, squeezing her shoulder. "Give him a chance, Yuyu. You may even come to love him some day."

"Says the man who chose his own wives," she snapped back. Her brothers cared for her and she knew that...but they didn't know what it was like, being the youngest, the secondary heir...the girl. "Is it true they only have one?"

"One what?" Adjatay sounded alarmed and raised his eyebrows.

"One wife, idiot."

"Oh that. Yes, that's true."

It was Yusra's turn for alarm. "So if I don't like him I can't take another husband?" she demanded. Neither brother said anything, but continued to walk. "This isn't fair! What right do they have--!"

"It would complicate their inheritance laws," Okot explained calmly. "And they--"

"Rassclaat," she hissed, clenching her fists.

"Yes, sister," he replied wearily, leaning down to kiss her temple. "Very attractive."

"You're one to talk about attractive," she spat, "marrying me off to a mzungu leper."

"Are you just going to wait until he figures out that mzungu isn't exactly complimentary, or are you going to start getting out of the habit now?" Okot was the long-suffering middle sibling, used to playing referee. He had no doubt that role would continue between his sister and her future husband. "Or do you even care?"

"Nope!"

~*~

"What do you mean, no?" Yusra's hand itched to hurl the vase again but she refrained, clenching it instead into a fist.

"I mean no," Chief Gatimu reiterated. "The other tribes won't serve a mzungu king."

"Well he won't be king, will he?" she snapped. "They listen to you, Gatimu. Where the Nuhutu go the rest follow."

"I'm trying the best I can," he sighed, shrugging and putting his hands out to his sides, "but there is only so much I can do. It is difficult to convince anyone to follow you when they don't know who will be king, if the Heyadean won't be. Most especially my own men." His hand began to drift to his belt, but Yusra was too quick. She produced a knife from Gods only knew where and it was at his throat before his hand could complete its journey to his belt where his own weapon was sheathed. His cock twitched as the cold steel kissed his throat and her bare body pressed against him.

"Then I think you had better try harder," she snarled. "If we can't count on your men, we can't count on anybody, can we?"

"As I said," he replied calmly, setting his hands on her hips and walking her back toward the bed slowly, "it's difficult when they don't know who will be king. What does someone like, say, a body guard know about leading a people?"

"You want to be my primary husband?" Yusra laughed, grabbing his middle and turning them so that it was he who landed on his back on the bed. Gatimu didn't seem to mind too much, even as she kept the knife to his throat while straddling him. "What makes you think I like you enough for that?" Her slit left his pants damp as she ground against his dick.

"Because you like me enough for this," he shrugged, gripping her hips and enjoying the undulating motion as she moved on him, the thrill of danger as the knife left a paper-fine nick in his skin. "And because without the Nuhutu army your support will collapse."

"I hate you, Gatimu."

He smiled. "And I hate you, my queen." He made a noise against her lips as she crushed them against his and her free hand began tugging at the waist of his pants.

~*~

"You hate me," Yusra whispered, peering out the curtain at the crowd, half of which was sickly pale.

"I love you," Adjatay countered. "And we both love our people. Just remember: it's for our people."

As she walked down the aisle, one brother on each arm, Yusra caught sight of the only man who didn't look like a leper in the entire opposing party. Her heart rose just a little and she smiled at him, hopeful that maybe her brother did care enough for her to not wed her to a mzungu prince. But it fell again as they reached the end and Okot kissed her temple and Adjatay gave her hands to a pale man who might have possibly been handsome if he hadn't been so sickly looking. Even a tinge of melanin would have been preferable to this. Truly he was wedding her to a leper. She took a deep breath and gave him the biggest smile she could muster, which was barely one at all. Even as the "neutral party" official began to speak she kept glancing over her intended's shoulder, to the Pleidan who had accompanied him. To accompany a prince he must be at least a noble of some sort--or whatever their primitive society had instead of nobles--so he could perhaps be of use for informational purposes if nothing else.

"We're gathered here," the Stellar Union official announced, his voice amplified in the large, circular space, "to recognize the betrothal and intent to marry of the Princess of the Pleides Kingdom and the Prince of the Hyades Commonwealth. With the treaty already signed, and their union, there shall be peace between these two planetary kingdoms." A cheer rose from the crowd before he could continue.
 
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#2
He awoke to a soft body pressed against his side, and a soft hand gently stroking his morning erection. “You’re awake,” a husky voice purred, breath hot on his ear. “I was afraid I’d have to start without you.”

He shifted a little, rolling slightly to face his companion of the evening, the Contessa Alexis de Subray, cupping one of her breasts as she continued stroking him. “And would that have been so bad?” he murmured, teasing a nipple erect with his tongue. “Letting me wake up to you pleasuring yourself?”

She arched her back, offering more of herself to his mouth. “I much prefer this,” she replied, squeezing his cock, “to my fingers.”

“You’ll have to show me,” he smiled, rolling atop her. His lips found hers, drinking deep. “Gould I...”

A fist hammered on the door, sending echos through the room. “John! John!” He ignored it, in favor of tracing the curve of the Contessa’s throat with his lips as she shifted her legs, opening herself to him. His length slid over her, drawing a sigh from both of them. “John! Damnit, John, this is important!”

He sighed, staring down into the Contessa’s dark eyes. “I’d better check,” he sighed, “or we won’t get any peace.”

Prince Johnathan Theodore Logan Harker slipped from the bed and padded across the hardwood floor, pausing just long enough to throw on a robe before opening the door a crack. “I’m in the middle of something, Phil,” he hissed, catching the dark-skinned man on the other side just as he was raising his fist to knock again. “Can’t it wait?”

Sir Phillip Trip, his adjunct and half-brother, handed him a bronze-colored tube. “No,” he replied. “Read that.”

“Right, right.” John placed his thumb on the cap, allowing the message tube to read his thumb print and compare his DNA. Then h twisted the cap open and extracted the sheet of printed film. “Whoa,” hecsaid after a momen. “What is this?”

-*-

“Married?” he bellowed. “And to one of the Rastafari heathens? What are you thinking?”

“I was thinking,” replied His Royal Majesty Robert Jordan Graves Harker,”that it was the culmination of a year of highly sensitive negotiations bringing an end to our decade of war with the Kingdom of the Milky Way.”

“Milky Way?” John sneered. “Those arrogant kaffirs rule perhaps five hundred stars and think they can lay claim to the entire galaxy! And you...”

“That is enough!” thundered his father the king. “This is already agreed to, and you will not defy me! Not in this!

John glared at his father, then sighed. “It’s that important, then?”

“It is,” the king replied.

“Tell me why,” John said. “I can’t reason without data, father.”

“I’ll do better than that,” the king answered. “I’ll have the architect of the peace tell you.”

-*-

“The Stellar Union,” Commander Joseph Adams stated, “faces an existential threat.” He tapped a control on his belt, and a hovering machine projected a holographic image of a ship of unknown design. “Five years ago, this vessel destroyed the heavy cruiser Agamemnon. Since then, several more have been sighted, leaving destroyed colony worlds in their wake.”

John studied the image carefully, memorizing the information displayed alongside it. “How many worlds, and where?”

“Forty-three,” Commander Adams replied. “All on the leading edge of the Sponward March, corewards.”

“Forty-two in five years,” Philip murmured, considering. “At the risk of sounding callous, that is a pinprick to the Stellar Union. It hardly warrants being declared an existential threat.”

“Single ships have done this,” the Commander replied. “And the attack’s are escalating. Twenty colonies were destroyed in the past twelve months. The Architects project that, if we cannot find and stop these entities, half the Stellar Union will be wiped out within a decade.”

-*-
“The Architects,” John sneered, parrying the thrust of the training work. “The Union puts their faith in machines that think.” Sliding his blade down the work’s blade, he riposted and drove his point at the mechanism’s heart. It partied with a second blade.

“A failing of Old Earth, yes,” Philip agreed, sipping from a goblet of wine as he watched the Prince fence. “But do you disagree with the projection?”

“No,” John replied, turning a counterattack aside. “Not in any meaningful way. Based on the data provided, a first-order analysis confirms their analysis with an error margin of plus or minus fourteen months.”

Philip watched his half-brother strike home. “Still, I’m surprised Parliament confirmed the treaty.”

Towling sweat from his face and vest, John accepted a cup of wine. “They almost didn’t. Even with the Stellars presenting the evidence in closed sessions, it passed with a simple majority.”

“And now you’re to be married to a Rastafari princess,” Philip laughed as John slumped into the seat next to him. “Any idea what she’s like.”

John leaned his head back, calling details to memory. “Princess Ysra Rusayla Qosi,” he said in the sing-song pattern of mnemonic recall, “holds the title of Warden of the Eastern Milky Way. She is the half-sister of King Adjatay Urujuani, and...”

“Yes, yes, I’ve read her file as well,” Philip laughed. “Do you know what she looks like?”

“No,” John answered. “Extrapolating from her half-brother, I have full confidence that she will be darker than me, and a three-quarters confidence that she will be lighter than you.”

“That should make the Lords happy,” Philip chuckled. “They might riot if an African ascended the throne of Hyades.”

-*-

“They still might riot,” Prince John whispered.

The assembled throng in the Cathedral of Hubbard roared in delight at the pronouncement of the official from the Stellar Union. Not Commander Adams, but a diplomat from Mars. John leaned a little closer to his brother, trying to be heard. “Which one do you think she is?”

“No idea,” Philip hissed back. He nodded at one of the women. “But I may have to chat her up, when this is over.”

“No kidding,” John murmured. “She’s been eying you ever since she came in.”

“Prince John,” called the ambassador. It had been decided that he would preside over the betrothal, while the question of the marriage ceremony was being worked out. “Step forward.”

“Here goes nothing,” he murmured, striding out to meet the ambassador.

“Princess Yusra,” the ambassador called. “Step forward.”

It was a struggle not to react, as the darkest-skinned woman in the party - the one his brother had been planning to talk to - stepped forward. Her? he thought wildly, trying not to stare. She’s black as space! The Lords will never accept this!

“Take her hand in yours,” the ambassador stated.

With the briefest of hesitations he did so. She hesitated as well, and his trained perceptions caught a flicker of disgust in her carefully controlled expression. Her grip was warm and strong, like that of a trained soldier. Was she one? The Rastafari has strange ways, after all.

Carefully, the ambassador wrapped a slim platinum chain about their linked hands. “Let this act,” he declared, “symbolize the union of these two noble houses and the peace between these two nations.”

Sure, John thought. Right until I’m murdered in the revolution.
 
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#3
It was an effort not to recoil as they took one another's hands. Not that, she was sure, he was any more pleased to be here; she'd caught the look in his eye, the flicker of surprise and disgust as she'd stepped forward. His hands were dry and thin and felt like she would break them if she squeezed hard enough. Yusra had difficulty looking up at her betrothed, instead choosing to glance again over his shoulder at the Pleidan in his party. Ambassador Carter wrapped a delicate chain of platinum around their hands and Yusra could have sworn it was iron shackles taking her into bondage, and in all the wrong sorts of ways. Surely this was all some horrible nightmare. Surely Adjatay, when he said he loved her, meant he loved her more than to force her to share this primitive, sickly mzungu prince's bed.

Yusra didn't listen to Carter's words but to the sound of her own heart pounding in her ears. For the throne, she told herself. Bomani was right. I set myself up as queen of half the galaxy if I do this. It's all for the throne. It sounded like a lie even without saying it aloud, but it was all she had at the moment, really.

The reception was some quiet, sterile affair with bland food and weak drink. Yusra made a beeline for the Pleidan who had accompanied the Hyadeans, intent not only on charming him but also on satisfying her own curiosity as to why he had taken up with them. Was he a fugitive? A spy? A prisoner of war? Any one of those answers was intriguing. Nearly halfway to him, though, she was waylaid by Adjatay and guided toward her betrothed. After the ceremony the Queen Mother and Queen Consort had stuck by her sides to ensure she couldn't slip off, and now it was big brother's turn. She grit her teeth so hard she was surprised they didn't break as he took her arm and guided her toward the prince.

"Prince John!" Adjatay was polite enough, able to feign genuine pleasure at their meeting. His Stellaran--a Russian-English creole used as a common language throughout the Stellar Union, derived from an Old Earth pidgin commonly used on the ISS and, at first, the original Martian colony--was only lightly accented. It only made the hatred boil in Yusra's gut, to hear him speaking Stellaran the way they did on Mars, trying to sound like them instead of the proud prince of Betelgeuse he ought to be. But the hatred was masked behind a polite smile as he put a hand on her back to guide her forward, toward her fiance. "May I present my sister, Princess Yusra, warden of the Eastern Milky Way. You two didn't exactly get to know each other beforehand, so I thought a more official introduction to be in order."

"A pleasure to finally meet you, Prince John." Her accent was unlike that of her South Sudanese ancestors, but at least it was better than Martian and truer to her own language, her own people. Yusra shook his hand and resisted the urge--the instinct really--to wipe it on her dress as though he had some disease, or as though his touch alone could suck the pigmentation from her skin. Adjatay, looking pleased, kissed her temple.

"I'll just leave you two to it," he said cheerfully, giving her a look behind the prince's back before going off to find his own wives.

"My brother is extremely proud of this arrangement," she said, groping for some small-talk topic. She never had been good at that. "I know the details of the ceremony itself are still being hammered out, but when do you think we ought to do the scarification ritual? Tonight, perhaps, to allow for as much time to heal as possible?"

Scarification was a traditional denotation of a married status, the ceremony a mark of devotion to their spouse. Each line of scars--the X pattern with the vertical line through the center--represented one spouse. In general among the common people men were the only ones allowed to have more than one wife and to take lovers. Rules were, as they always had been, bent for aristocracy and royalty, and it was not uncommon for noble women to take lovers and for royal women to take more than one husband. These husbands however, just as the multiple wives of commoners, were expected to remain faithful to the princess or queen they had married; royalty transcended gender in these cases, and the same went for women fortunate enough to marry a prince or a queen. When a spouse died, scarification of the face was a part of the grieving ritual and funeral ceremony.

"I know it is a long way," she said, deliberately misinterpreting his look of shock. She knew mzungu didn't scarify, and that was one of the many reasons they were weak in battle; they couldn't take pain. "But you may stay in our palace as long as you please. Even the whole recovery time, if you find you are unable to travel. It is, after all, one of the most important parts of getting married." Yusra offered a warm smile, as though nothing would make her happier. In truth, nothing would make her happier than if he got an infection after the ritual and died, calling the whole thing off.
 
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#4
“For the good of humanity itself,” John murmured to himself, snagging a drink from a passing waiter. “If I don’t make this work, it could mean the end of us all.” Grimacing, he knocked the drink back at one shot.

“Lie back and think of the Hyades?” Philip laughed, clapping him on the shoulder. “Hey, it could be a whole lot worse. At least she’s hot.”

“Hot?” He thought about it, calling her image to mind once more. If you ignored the garish colors in the gown she wore, she did have a nice figure. For an ebon-skinned kaffir, a thought that sent a stab of guilt through him as he looked at his half-brother. “Why is it?” he wondered, forcing himself to give voice to the problem, “that your dark skin doesn’t bother me but hers does?”

Philip shrugged. “I suspect it’s more to do with the compulsory marriage than her melanin.” He grinned. “Or you’re a fucking racist...”

“I am not...!” John began.

“...and my skin doesn’t bother you because you’re not planning on fucking me.” Philip finished.

“...racist, and what is wrong with you?” John made a move as if he was going to throw a punch. “Honestly!”

“Hey!” Philip laughed. “Made you stop sulking. And look lively!”

John looked in the same direction, then straightened himself as the Rastafari King Adjatay approached with his new fiancée in tow. “Prince John!” he said warmly, speaking nearly accentless English. “May I present my sister, Princess Yusra, warden of the Eastern Milky Way. You two didn't exactly get to know each other beforehand, so I thought a more official introduction to be in order."

He hid it well, but John could see and hear the little signs of distaste in the King. Fair enough, he supposed. Their nations had been at war since he’d come to the throne. Yusra didn’t manage to disguise her distaste it contempt anywhere near as well. "A pleasure to finally meet you, Prince John,” she lied in a rich accent.

Drawing himself upright, he resolved to do his duty. “And to meet you, Princess Yusra,” he lied as well, bowing and pressing her fingers to his lips. She tasted of strange - and not unpleasant - spices and perfumes. “I hope you are enjoying your visit to New Zion. And may I present my brother, Sir Phillip Trip?”

Phillip bowed, but kept his hands to himself. Not being part of the nobility, kissing the Princess’ hand would have been a breath of etiquette. “It is my honor, your highness,” he murmured, placing his fist upon his heart.

“I'll just leave you two to it," the King said cheerfully as he walked away.

“As shall I,” Philip added, Boeing and backing away.

"My brother is extremely proud of this arrangement," Yusura said, watching her brother and his leave.

“As he should be,” John answered, hoping he didn’t sound too stiff as he tried to decide what to say. “He has accomplished the seemingly impossible and made peace between our nations.” At the price to be paid by us,

“I know the details of the ceremony itself are still being hammered out,” she said, “but when do you think we ought to do the scarification ritual? Tonight, perhaps, to allow for as much time to heal as possible?"

“The what?” John didn’t think he gasped the question out in shock, but he couldn’t be sure. And even as he grappled with the emotional component of his response, his mind brought the details he’d memorized about Rastafari culture back to mind. They wore scars as a mark of honor and distinction, similar to dueling scars in some Hyadean military academies except that they were inflicted to commemorate different life events. Which events were commemorated, of course, depended on specific planetary and religious cultures.

"I know it is a long way," she continued. "But you may stay in our palace as long as you please. Even the whole recovery time, if you find you are unable to travel. It is, after all, one of the most important parts of getting married."

Reflexively, he tagged the statement with a semi hypnotic suggestion that would drive him to research it later. “That is a generous offer, your highness,” he said, make by an effort to sound sincere. “And I would be delighted to visit your palace.” A statement that was far more sincere, because it would be interesting. “And to honor the customs of your people - soon to be our people - as doing so shows respect for them and for the Third Dynamic. Likewise, although I doubt that embracing the Church will be a condition of our marriage, I am certain the Chairman of the Religious Technology Center will insist that you attain a clear state through auditing.” He chuckled. “It’s not scarification, but it is tedious.”
 
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#5
He was well-spoken, she would give him that much. Not that she had met very many, but most of the Hyadeans Yusra had encountered had had a very poor grasp on Stellaran and even, insofar as she was able to tell, their own language. Of course, begging for clemency was bound to make anyone lose their heads (a poor turn of phrase but one she found amusing), but still. She flinched, however, when the prince referred to Pleidans as their people. They were not, and never would be his people, regardless of their kings' intentions. When he mentioned the Third Dynamic she flipped through them in her head, imagining the cheat sheet to Scientology that her mother had given her on the way here. Strange that what had on Old Earth gained notoriety as a dangerous cult should be given a venerated status so far from its origin.

"And how does one attain a clear state?" If it was what she was thinking, it sounded an awful lot like what had been described as "confession" in one of the ancient long-dead religions of Old Earth. "It's a shame you find one of your religious rituals to be tedious. Scarification, and other rituals, are meant to bring us closer to God and to the ancestors and to mark our paths through life. I always find it...rejuvenating." Yusra smiled. Her betrothed hadn't smiled a single time since she had first laid eyes on him, though his brother had, and that made him instantly untrustworthy. Who makes it through life without ever smiling? "But let me notify someone before I forget that the ritual will need to be prepared ahead of our return." She took a few moments to remove what had appeared to be a large hematite bead from her bracelet. On the underside was a tiny touchscreen with a number of keys with symbols on them. Yusra took her time entering the keys, telling Bomani to have the shaman prepare the ritual and complaining about how tedious this prince seemed. The bead vibrated once, confirming receipt and offering a few words of commiseration, before she replaced it on her wrist.

"Standing is tedious," the princess announced suddenly, taking his arm. "Let's take a few turns about the room, shall we? See who bothered showing up, who looks elated by the news and who looks angered. I find that keeping note of angry people at a happy occasion usually comes in handy; at least it won't be a surprise when you find a knife in your back." She chuckled a little and steered him toward the perimeter, her keen eyes flicking back and forth to do just this. "Besides, people will be wanting to congratulate us whether they're happy or not; I imagine we'll be courted as powerful allies once your father dies and that all begins right here. By the way, if we are to be married you may as well just call me Yusra." She smiled pleasantly, making a point of surveying the crowed and smiling or waving to people she knew personally who had caught her eye.

"So your brother," she said after a long pause, still steering him about the room. "He looks as though he was raised on the wrong end of the galaxy, doesn't he? I didn't think mz--men of your race were very interested in women of mine. Is that why he is 'sir' and not 'prince'?" Yusra glanced sideways at John, taking note of the careful way he seemed to always compose his face.
 
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#6
“Oh, I don’t find my faith tedious,” John assured her. “Just some of the practices. But, as the future Lord Defender of the Dynamics, I have to be seen taking an interest. Upon occasion, st least.” As he spoke he watched her fiddling with her bracelet, reading the message in the movement of her thumbs on the tiny keyboard with an 80% confidence of accuracy, based on his knowledge of Pleidan language and technologies.

“Standing is tedious," the princess announced suddenly, taking his arm. "Let's take a few turns about the room, shall we? See who bothered showing up, who looks elated by the news and who looks angered. I find that keeping note of angry people at a happy occasion usually comes in handy; at least it won't be a surprise when you find a knife in your back."

Is it a happy occasion?” he wondered, watching the discrete and indiscreet glances they drew as she led them around the perimeter of the hall. Many were distinctly unhappy, and not all of the unhappy expressions were from Hyadeans. “I had the distinct impression that your ruling clans were no happier about this than our Parliament.”

"Besides,” she chuckled, “people will be wanting to congratulate us whether they're happy or not; I imagine we'll be courted as powerful allies once your father dies and that all begins right here.”

“An excellent point, Princess,” he said with a slight smile. “It’s amazing the kind of compromises people will make in they think they can obtain an advantage.”

“By the way,” she added with a smile, teeth startlingly white against her dark skin, “if we are to be married you may as well just call me Yusra."

He returned the smile. “Then call me John,” he replied. “Most of my family does, in private at least.”

That seemed to spark a question, and he watched it make it’s way into full life. “So your brother," she asked, still walking. "He looks as though he was raised on the wrong end of the galaxy, doesn't he? I didn't think mz--men of your race were very interested in women of mine. Is that why he is 'sir' and not 'prince'?"

“It is,” he answered. “My father took a mistress, a few years before I was born.” He shrugged. “I’ve never asked the details, but I know he still provides for her. And I know that he contemplated recognizing him as his son and heir, but his councilors talked him out of it because of political considerations.” He gave her a sidelong glance and a sly smile. “The House of Lords,” he said, recalling the keystrokes on her communicator, “would rather be ruled by a tedious mzungu than a bastard kaffir.”
 
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#7
"Is it a happy occasion?" John wondered, watching people as they moved around the room. "I had the distinct impression that your ruling clans were no happier about this than our Parliament."

"Oh they aren't," she agreed. "But while this may not be a happy occasion for them or for us, it's supposed to be a happy occasion for both our peoples. Or so my brother keeps telling me, anyway. Besides," she chuckled, "people will be wanting to congratulate us whether they're happy or not; I imagine we'll be courted as powerful allies once your father dies and that all begins right here." That managed to elicit a smile from him, but only a very slight one. Neither that one nor the one he gave when he asked her to call him John seemed very genuine. It felt to her like many of his expressions were wooden and mechanical.

Yusra listened with a slight frown while John explained why it was that Philip wasn't the heir to the throne. "Why could he not just take her to wife?" she asked. Surely Adjatay and Okot had been mistaken. Even if it wasn't common among the people, it only made sense for royalty to have that freedom for just such occasions as these. "My mother, after all, is Queen Consort and I would inherit the throne with no problem, ancestors forbid something should happen to my brothers. Or if I had been born first the throne would be mine, even if my mother was not the king's primary wife. It is less complicated this way."

John gave her a sidelong glance and a sly smile, the first genuine-seeming one of the evening. "The House of Lords would rather be ruled by a tedious mzungu than a bastard kaffir."

What minuscule progress she had made in warming to her fiance was undone. Yusra's jaw clenched and a muscle visibly worked beneath her skin, not only at the use of the word kaffir, but at the invasion of her privacy. "Husbands and wives," she said, exercising a great amount of control as she worked to recover her pleasant expression and continue moving for the sake of appearances, "generally do not spy upon one another. It engenders a lack of trust, don't you think?" She paused to shake hands and smile at an ambassador from the Crab Nebula. "Were you anyone else," she muttered through her teeth, still smiling once the ambassador had moved away, "I would have immediately put your eye out for such an invasion of my privacy. I know your people don't think much of women, but on Betelgeuse we command respect and equal consideration to men." Her smile had slowly slipped in a way which was socially acceptable so that an outside observer might not notice her displeasure, but it reappeared instantly when another official came to congratulate them.
 
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#8
“Husbands and wives," she said, icy control straining her voice as humor drained from her eyes, "generally do not spy upon one another. It engenders a lack of trust, don't you think?"

A woman approached, an ambassador from the Free Worlds of the Crab Nebula. “Madame Ambassador,” he said, bowing slightly. “A delight to see you.”

“And to see you, on this joyous occasion,” she replied. “May your union and the peace it brings bless us all.”

“I am certain it will, Madame Ambassador,” he smiled, but his voice lowered to a hiss as she moved off. “Husbands and wives generally do not stand in front of each other and send insulting messages to third parties about their spouses,” he remarked. “That also engenders a lack of trust.”

Yusra’s smile remained fixed in place, but it had the warmth of a glacier. “Were you anyone else," she muttered through her teeth, "I would have immediately put your eye out for such an invasion of my privacy.”

“Then it’s just as well I’m not ‘anyone else’,” he replied, then wiggles his thumbs. “And you were doing by it right in front of me. Fo you think I’m blind, as well as tedious?”

“I know your people don't think much of women,” she snapped back, “but on Betelgeuse we command respect and equal consideration to men.”

“Within Hyades, women are revered as the source of life,” he shot back. “And we recognize that respect cannot be commanded, only earned. All you command is subservience and fear.”

“Prince Johnathan,” a voice interrupted, causing him to plaster a composed smile on his face as he turned to greet the new arrival.

“Lord Blakestead-Putin,” he said smoothly, nodding in acknowledgement of the man’s bow. “Permit me to introduce Princess Yusra Rusayla Quosi, warden of the Eastern Milky Way.”

“A grand title, Princess,” Lord Blakestead-Putin replied, bowing slightly.

John’s lips thinned with suppressed anger. “It is,” he agreed, “and one befitting your future queen. Ah, but I forget my manners.” He turned slightly, looking at Yusra. “Princess. Allow me to present Lord Winston Blakestead-Putin, currently the Keeper of the Privy Purse of the Court of New Zion.”

The emphasis was not list on the Lord. “Th honor is all mine, Princess Yusra,” he said hurriedly, straining to control his expression as he bowed lower. “I beg your leave, your highnesses.”

John dismissed him with a gesture. “Some of us,” he remarked coldly after the man left, “are capable of respecting others. In public, at least.”
 
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#9
"A title which I execute with great austerity and commitment," Yusra replied to Lord Blakestead-Putin, bowing her head very slightly.

"It is," John agreed, "and one befitting your future queen." It surprised her that he would defend her to one of his lords, particularly given their current discussion. But he introduced them and threatened the lord with his job if he did not show greater respect. The mzungu bowed lower before taking his leave, clearly wary of getting on his prince's bad side. It chafed that John had acted so civilly when people were around, and Yusra latched on to anger rather than embarrassment to press her side of the fight.

"Some of us," he remarked coldly after the lord left, "are capable of respecting others. In public, at least."

"In public, indeed," she snorted. "And some of us feel free to allow our true feelings to be known to confidantes in private correspondence. Shall I look forward to earning your respect while you read my letters over my shoulder as I write them, as well?" Yusra finally turned her head to look at him straight on when it was apparent that there was a break in well-wishers. "Neither of us are happy about this, John. I am doing my duty and putting on a good front in public but I will not be censored in private, nor would I expect you to be. Privacy in my private thoughts and correspondence are all I ask, nothing more and nothing less. Do not force me to demand it."

After a thought and a sip of champagne she turned to him again. "Oh...and never again presume to know how I interact with my people. Try familiarizing yourself with a person's governing practices before making judgments about them."
 
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#10
“Neither of us are happy about this, John,” Yusra snapped. “I am doing my duty and putting on a good front in public but I will not be censored in private, nor would I expect you to be. Privacy in my private thoughts and correspondence are all I ask, nothing more and nothing less. Do not force me to demand it."

“Censored?” John folded his arms and stared at her. “I was hardly censoring you, Yusra. I was remarking on your comments. You stood right there and...”

Another well-wisher, one of the Matriarchs of Polaris, approached. John held his tongue, thanking her for her kind words after she had greeted Yusra and then himself. And then Yusra was snapping at him again. “Oh...and never again presume to know how I interact with my people. Try familiarizing yourself with a person's governing practices before making judgments about them."

His reply was in his own voice, but perfectly replicating the cadence and rhythm and accent of her speech. “I know your people don't think much of women, but on Betelgeuse we command respect and equal consideration to men." A blink, and then his voice returned to normal. “You should learn to practice what you preach, Princess Yusra,” he snapped.

He gestured irritably at her wrist. “And as for the nvading your privacy, that is another thing you should familiarize yourself with if you wish to make judgements about Hyadeans. I’m a fifth-order Computer, a title of accomplishment and respect.” He smiled a little, one corner of his mouth crooking up. “One of our children could have read the message you sent, if they knew your language, and I am far better trained than that.”
 
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#11
"Comments I didn't address to you, nor did I say them aloud," Yusra interrupted.

"You stood right there and..." The prince held his tongue and they both smiled and greeted the Matriarch of Polaris warmly. Yusra allowed herself a sip of champagne once the Matriarch had departed.

"Oh...and never again presume to know how I interact with my people. Try familiarizing yourself with a person's governing practices before making judgments about them."

His response was to mock her accent, admonishing her to practice what she preached. Her eyebrows raised, her chin jutted out, and she pressed her palms together in a prayer-like position in front of her chest. She would rip that smug little smirk right off of his face. It took a great amount of restraint not to. "Computer indeed, John Harker," she agreed, gesturing with both hands still pressed together. "A bomboclaat machine, that's you. And a fifth-order at that." She tilted her head, a warning sign of danger (particularly in combination with her gesturing hands) throughout the Pleiades system despite her plastered-on smile for the benefit of onlookers not in earshot, and cocked an eyebrow even higher. "Do you think I'm some ignorant commoner who knows nothing of your culture? The same primitive, ignorant African your ancestors assumed mine were? You're lucky if you're a first-order Computer. And clearly an invasion of privacy is something you mzungu even teach your children is acceptable. How do any of you trust one another? Just because you can spy on someone's private communications does not give you the right to." In what was a great act of will she straightened her head and dropped her hands, clenching and unclenching her fists a few times, knowing that her countrymen would pick up on her physical cues if they had been watching. Not a good look, at least not right now. Abruptly she embraced him and kissed his cheek before letting go just as abruptly.

"I'll see you at the scarification ceremony, your highness," she said shortly before breezing by him as though she had just seen her brother.

"What did you just do?" Okot demanded, hissing in her ear while they kissed cheeks to greet each other.

"What makes you think I did anything?" Yusra asked lightly, taking his arm.

"Not only do I know you, baby sister, but I was watching you. Things started out looking like they were going well. And then...?"

"And then he decided to spy on my private communications, call me a kaffir, and mock my accent."

Okot resisted the urge to rub his eyes. "We need this alliance, Yuyu. For the good of us all, and for the continuation of humanity."

"You marry him, then!" she snorted. "By the way, he'll be returning with us to Betelgeuse for the scarification ceremony this evening."
 
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#12
“This is madness!” John raged, pacing the floor of his father’s private office.

“It is necessary,” responded King Robert with an air of infinite patience. He’d been expecting an outburst of this sort ever since his son had received the news.

“That’s easy for you to say!” John snapped. “You’re not the one being forced to marry some ill-tempered, arrogant heathen!” He rounded on his father. “She...”

“Is in the line of succession to the Pleadean throne,” replied his father, leaning back and regarding him cooly. “And your wedding is a necessary component of the peace we have brokered.”

“I...” John began.

“You will do your duty,” King Robert snapped, cutting him off. “You will marry her, and you will sire an heir on her, and then you can discretely take a mistress.” He crooked a humorless smile. “No doubt, she will do the same.” The smile faded. “But you will make this work. The peace is fragile enough right now. I don’t need your temper jeopardizing it further.”

“Yes. Father.” The wirds were strangled.

“Good. Now make your arrangements, and choose your entourage.” The King watched his reaction carefully. “You are leaving for Betelgeuse in three hours, after all.”
 
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#13
"I still do not understand why I cannot take a second husband," Yusra repeated irritably.

"Because," the Queen Mother Eniola sighed, fussing over her outfit, "the Hyadeans don't."

"That has no impact on our customs," she argued, not for the first time. "What sort of a message would it send to our people if I sublimated our customs to theirs? It would indicate that we lost, that there was no compromise, no peace, we lost and we are trying to save face." She looked at Eniola sharply. "Is that what happened?"

"Of course not," Queen Consort Belakane cooed, working a small amount of coconut oil into her daughter's edges. She sensed Yusra getting irritated with the two older women fussing over her, but things had to go well this evening. The scarification ritual was an important part of their marriage; a poor ritual would be an inauspicious start, and tongues would wag. "And I don't see why everyone else is so insistent upon our values and our customs bowing in supplication before the mzungu heathens."

"Because it is what your father would have wanted," Eniola insisted, ignoring her co-wife and trying a flower on Yusra's dress, then deciding against it.

"Her father would never have agreed to this false peace to begin with," Belakane snapped. It was rare when the women disagreed in front of their children, and always made all three siblings uncomfortable whenever it happened. It was like watching a grown man cry. "Anyway, it does not matter. Maybe if you're subtle about it, nobody will care. I cannot imagine the Hydeans don't have affairs; look at your brother-in-law. That cannot have been an anomaly in the entire history of their empire."

"Indeed. Look at your brother-in-law." The two exchanged looks and grins, and even Yusra had to giggle.

"They think it incest," she mentioned.

"Then it is a good thing we don't," her mother said pointedly, putting finishing touches on the princess's makeup. "There. You're ready. Now go out there and remind them why you are worthy of being their queen." She tilted her head, giving her a meaningful look, and kissed her forehead.

"My girl." Eniola took a deep breath then let it out, smiling and putting her hands on Yusra's shoulders. "May you have the strength of the thousand women before you. And remember," she leaned in, smiling, "your father is the one who cried."

"Twice," Belakane added, laughing.

~*~

The drums were hypnotic and the dancers seemed lost in a trance, not acknowledging their princess as she emerged from the palace, stepping across stones which seemed to float on top of a pool and crossing into a courtyard in a different corner of the palace. It was one of the more intimate, private courtyards, but the entire way was lined with revelers. Her intended, she knew, was approaching at the same time from another part of the palace, greeted by the same exaltation and flanked by two of his closest friends there for both moral support and jubilation in his good fortune. Following Yusra were Bomani and her mother. Finally, they approached one another from across the courtyard.

"You must be certain," Gatimu said auspiciously, acting as officiant while practiced shamen stood by silently and solemnly, "that you are ready to commit to one another. Scarification is for life; it symbolizes your eternal commitment, your eternal love." Yusra's fist clenched when she heard the mirth in his voice, but she said nothing. "These marks will follow you for the rest of your lives. Princess Yusra?"

"I am certain." Her eyes didn't leave her fiance's, her eyes hard and determined. Gatimu's speech was strictly ceremonial, as was their acceptance of this. Everyone was aware that neither of them were certain about this at all, but that they had no choice. The drums kept up their hypnotic tempo and the revelers continued dancing around the bonfires on either end of the courtyard.

"Prince John?" The chief looked at the mzungu intruder, the likes of whom had not been seen on this planet in several generations. He waited for the prince's confirmation before nodding. "Then take your places."

Yusra untied the tie on her dress, letting it fall and disrobing completely before stepping into the fire pit between them. They would each sit on the edge of the pit with their bare feet in the ashes of the fires which had come before, rooting themselves in the love and dedication of the royal couples who had come before them, for more than a thousand years since the first colonizers had come to this planet. The princess sat straight-backed, her face painted in the traditional way as she all but stared John down. Once he had taken his place Gatimu offered him a drink which smelled almost like rocket fuel, 'to dull the pain' and provide a distraction. Regardless of his choice, Yusra gently refused to have her senses dulled. Instead she held out her hands to her fiance and worked hard not to squeeze too aggressively as the process began.
 
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#14
“It is blisteringly hot, here,” Prince John complained.

“At least you get to wear something that breathes,” Sir Philip retorted, adjusting his collar. Sweat beaded on his face, and pooled in the small of his back. “Your Honor Guard doesn’t get that luxury.”

John grimaced, considering the justice of his brother’s complaint. He was dressed in a traditional Pleadean ceremonial robe, while his brother and Ryan Temple, Lord-Commander if the Prince’s Guard, wore the formal white jackets and black breeches of the Hyadean Royal Navy. The uniforms were light weight, but still uncomfortably hot in the stifling subtropical temperatures. “I’ll trade you.”

“Not likely,” Lord Ryan snorted. “I’ll take sweating over letting someone carve into me any day.”

“Thank you,” John stated deadpan, “for reminding me.”

“I live to serve,” Lord Ryan replied, cracking a small grin. “I live to serve.”

-*-

This is for the greater good of humanity, John reminded himself as he entered the courtyard. Drums thundered in the background, adding a primal rhythm to the savage ceremony about to his nooks. The greater good of all.

Yusra stared at him across the pit in the center, her expression a mocking challenge as the... priest? John was uncertain of his title, call him an officiant. As the officiant recited the ritual words of the ceremony. “I am certain,” he replied when cued, staring back at her with hard, unwavering eyes.

He let his robe fall to the ground, stepping by naked into the fire pit. Surrounded by black faces, staring at the bare black body of his fiancée, he had the sudden sensation that he was the unusual one. Is this how Philip feels? he wondered. But then the time for idle speculation was past, and he reached out to grip Yusra’s hands as he sat. A drink was offered to him with the murmured promise that it would dull the pain. He refused i, noting that Yusra did as well.

He kept his eyes fixed on Yusra, focusing on her face as he felt the officiant tracing lines on his back, marking out where the incisions would be made. A second attended to Yusra, performing the same actions. That officiant then produced a knife cut from a glittering black substance, and from Yusra’s carefully controlled expression he knew his attendant had done the same.

Concentrate on other sensory input, he reminded himself. It will dull the pain. And so he set himself to memorizing the contours if Yusra’s hands and features. Even so, he wasn’t prepared for the sensation. A line of flame seemed to sear acriss his skin at the first cut, drawing a small gasp and causing his hands to clench.

That... wasn’t so bad, he thought shakily. For an instant he thought it was over. But then pain seated across his skin once more, and he realized it had only just begun.
 
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#15
Yusra hated that her automatic reaction was a gesture of comfort. Pain seared through her back at nearly the same time that John clenched his hands around hers, but her only reaction was a single, slight wince around the eyes. She refused to show pain or discomfort. When his hands tightened she tightened her grip back without being aggressive, watching the contrast as her dark thumbs ran in small circles over the backs of his thin, pale hands. Gradually, as though her own gesture had been controlled rather than instinctual, she stilled her fingers and gave his hands one last squeeze, nodding very slightly. Unlike her intended, who seemed intent on her, the princess allowed her gaze to flick around the courtyard and land for more than a bare moment on Sir Philip. Look at your brother-in-law. Mother knew best, after all. Which reminded her...

She took a moment to glance downward, a little surprised at herself that she hadn't made it more of a priority before. Of course, everyone knew it was how you used what God gave you, but size was also a factor. It was difficult to gauge, given the circumstances, just how much of a factor it would be but she was able to make out that he wasn't circumcised. And thank the ancestors for that; she had heard rumor of ritual genital mutilation some star systems practiced on their babies. Others, in their own empire, held down their girls who had just hit puberty and mutilated them, a practice they were working to stamp out. The practice and aesthetic was abhorrent to Pleidans, regardless of the age at which it was done, and she had worried that perhaps on top of everything else that would be yet another issue to deal with. Instead she allowed her gaze to linger for very slightly longer than was appropriate before her eyes flicked back up to John's face where she could barely see the traditional design in white paint, meeting his gaze. Yusra quirked an eyebrow and one corner of her mouth turned up slightly in a teasing, suggestive smirk. She still didn't like him, and she hadn't forgiven him for earlier, but shared pain had a way of drawing people together and humor and flirtation would ease the ordeal.

The two sat their for over an hour, knives slicing into their backs. It wasn't so much the slicing which bothered Yusra as it was the thorns being poked into the fresh wounds. Her muscles ached, too, from her insistence at sitting rod-straight the entire time to demonstrate that she lacked both fear and pain through the ordeal. She did, however, allow a modicum of relief to seep into her eyes as Sir Philip and the Queen Consort began stacking wood around their feet. That meant it was almost over. Finally the blood was wiped from their backs and a soothing, healing ointment applied with a single feather. It dripped unctuously down their backs as they rose, feet tingling with pins and needles, and stepped out of the pit. Bomani and the other man who had accompanied John approached their respective rulers, handing them torches, and on Yusra's silent signal they bent together and lit the pile of wood.

"May the ancestors bless your union," Gatimu cried above the cheers of the revelers, "and grant you strong, healthy children. May they guide your hands in your marriage, in your lives, and in your rule." He grinned. "Let's eat!"

Yusra wrapped her dress carefully around herself with her mother's help, tying it behind her neck now rather than at her shoulder to avoid any of the cloth touching her back. She began to walk away with Belakane, but the older woman nudged her toward Prince John. They had, after all, just gone through quite an ordeal together in a ceremony which was partly meant to strengthen the bond between them.

"Well now, that wasn't too terrible was it?" Yusra teased, smiling stiffly. "The worst is passed, mostly. And we've seen each other naked now, too, so at least that's out of the way. I don't think the wedding night will be too awkward."
 
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#16
The ritual went on and on, far longer than seemed necessary. John lost himself in memorizing his fiancee’s features, the mental exercise helping to distract him. Not very much, admittedly, because the knives demanded attention every time they sliced into him. But enough to resist the urge to flinch or scream. If Yusra could stand it, he decided, than so could he.

And she could handle it, impressively so. Handle it well enough to offer a measure of comfort as she squeezed his hands back. And to, in the midst of the ritual, glance downwards to examine him. Tedious mzungu or not, the little smile she managed showed that she approved of what she saw.

And to tell the truth, he did as well. Once he got past her ebon skin - far darker than the typical dark-skinned Hyadean, who was generally of Indian or Mesoamerican ancestry - she was nicely formed and quite pleasant to look at. Even with her muscles rigid with the effort of self-control. He let his gaze linger visibly in her thighs and breasts, then returned her appraising smile with one of his own.

Then the knife cut into him again, and the moment of shared flirtatious appraisal passed.

Finally, it ended. He rose on shaky feet, throat parched and legs aching and tortured back on fire. He had to bite his lip to keep from crying out as something stroked over his lacerated flesh, and the medical ointments they deposited stung and burned. It took a moment to remember he needed to take the torch Lord Ryan offered, and an act of will to bend and thrust it into the wood. The audience applauded and cheered, and the drums - which had kept a slow, steady rhythm throughout - erupted into a thunderous roar.

"May the ancestors bless your union,” the officiant cried above the cheers, "and grant you strong, healthy children. May they guide your hands in your marriage, in your lives, and in your rule." He grinned. "Let's eat!”

Moving carefully, John allowed Ryan and Philip to help him dress, hissing softly as the soft fabric of the robe slid over his raw back. Philip then gently steered him back towards Yusra. They were, after all, engaged now.

“Well now, that wasn't too terrible was it?" Yusra teased, her smile artificial. He wasn’t certain if it was due to pain or distaste. "The worst is passed, mostly.”

“It certainly prepares a couple for a life together,” he replied, managing a weak smile. “After all that, the common trials of marriage must seem mild and petty.”

He offered her his arm, but allowed her to guide him. He’d memorized the layout of the palace and its grounds, but didn’t feel up to the mental gymnastics of orienting himself. “And we've seen each other naked now, too,” she chuckled, “so at least that's out of the way. I don't think the wedding night will be too awkward."

“I know I’ll be looking forward to finding out how awkward it will be,” he replied, smiling a little. “I hope the ceremony isn’t until our backs heal, though.” He walked in silence for a moment. “Tell me, though... are there any other traditions I should be aware of?”
 
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#17
Yusra took his arm and guided him through the common revelers, even blacker in the darkness. They were people from the city who had been invited to the ceremony as an honor. Every now and then they were stopped by yet another well-wisher, with the princess occasionally translating for those who didn't know Stellaran.

"I know I'll be looking forward to finding out how awkward it will be," John said, smiling a little. "I hope the ceremony isn't until our backs heal, though."

"Traditionally the ceremony isn't set until our skin is mostly healed through natural means," Yusra informed him, "but considering the nature of this particular marriage, Betelgeuse is home to the best nanoengineers in the system, and the fruits of their labors are commonly used in medical practice. The healing process can be artificially sped up if need be. Of course, the popular legend is that the endorphins released by love-making eases the pain and speeds the process. Officially the happy couple stay chased between the scarification ceremony and their wedding, but it is almost a rite of passage to ignore what is official. Especially the night of the scarification." She smiled mischievously but left him to think about it. It was going to be a long night for both of them, and she had others to comfort her if she was not his taste, as he most certainly was not hers. He would do, of course...but not as her first choice. "Of course, there are many women in the palace as well as about town. Traditionally men are who they always have been, even when engaged." She shrugged. It was merely a fact of life.

"Tell me, though..." her fiance said cautiously, "are there any other traditions I should be aware of?"

"Well..." She weighed her options carefully. No, it was better to tell him now. Neither of them wanted this, and surely mzungu could be reasonable about such things, imprurience not withstanding? "It is tradition for royalty to take more than one spouse. Of course there are complicated ranking systems and so forth, and interstellar alliances such as this are rare for our people, but I imagine it would not be a surprise, nor terribly scandalous for either one of us to take another. Or others, plural." She had to think, after all, of her own alliances here at home.

"Congratulations, Yuyu." Bomani had approached almost stealthily and bowed deeply, addressing his princess in familiar Betelgeusean as he kissed her hand tenderly. "You conducted yourself as the most fearsome queen the Pleiades has ever known."

She smiled fondly as he straightened and placed a hand on his cheek. "This is Bomani," she addressed John in Stellaran more out of courtesy than anything, knowing already that he at least had a cursory understanding of Pleiadan if not specifically the familiar form of the Betelgeusean dialect. "My bodyguard and very dear friend. We have known one another for many years." Yusra didn't bother trying to hide their familiarity as she squeezed his shoulder fondly and he took his place a few steps behind her.

"Your brother is expecting you, your Highness," he reminded her quietly. She sighed and rolled her eyes.

"God of course," she groaned before tugging at John's arm. "Come," she instructed, "the night isn't over yet."

She led the way briskly through several arches, Bomani always a few feet behind, until through one archway they emerged at the top of an enormous flight of stairs which descended several stories into a courtyard where several hundred lighter-skinned nobles and aristocrats began cheering the moment they appeared. Gargantuan screens, one on each wall of the courtyard including one directly above the stairs, projected their faces and occasionally replays of the private ceremony. Yusra's smile appeared instantly and she waved to the crowd, occasionally pressing her fingers to her lips as a sign of thanks. When the first note rang out over the speakers, attention turned to the other side of the courtyard at the top of an identical set of steps. Adjatay appeared, dressed in his absolute finest, on a platform from beneath the top landing and Yusra laughed, partly hiding her face in her hand. She had a very good idea of what came next.

"Of course," she groaned. "My brother, the prince formerly known as an artist. And narcissistic as hell. I imagine he thinks this is an engagement present." The screens focused on King Adjatay instead, occasionally glimpsing back at the couple for their reaction. "When we are on the screen again," she muttered, "I'm afraid you must gather all of your courage and kiss me like you're in love with me."
 
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#18
Yusra had a muschevious gleam in her eye as she explained yhe celebrations and customs around the scarification ritual. Particularly the custom honored by ignoring the custom. “I think I would be able to rise to the occasion,” he replied dryly. “It would need to be discrete, of course, as we would both need to be aware of our positions. But it’s not uncommon for similar traditions in Hyades to be honored in the breach.” He caught her eyes, and a touch of humor danced on his expression. “I believe I will be able to adequately perform my duty to the satisfaction of all.”

His back twinged just then, and he winced. “Tell me, though... are there any other traditions I should be aware of?”

Well..." She fell silent for a minute, considering. "It is tradition for royalty to take more than one spouse.”

“Really?” It wasn’t shock in his voice, not really. More curiousity than anything.

“Of course there are complicated ranking systems and so forth,” she continued, “and interstellar alliances such as this are rare for our people, but I imagine it would not be a surprise, nor terribly scandalous for either one of us to take another. Or others, plural."

“Scandalous,” he said carefully, trying not to give offense, “is very much in the eye of the beholder.” He bit his lip, choosing his next words. “Within the Commonwealth, particularly among the nobility, it is not uncommon to have lovers. My father the king has one, and he spends more time with her than with my mother the Queen, who is kept from loneliness by His Grace the Duke of Altaminte. But they maintain a careful fiction of a happy marriage, so all is well.”

He was conscious of her expression, a sort of horrified fascination, as he spoke. “My people accept this, where they would not accept polygamy.” He glanced at her, offering an apologetic smile. “They see such things as primitive holdovers from the early Colonial Era, when plural relations were necessary to deepen the gene pool.” The apologetic smile twisted into a frown. “If we are to rule both nations, we would need to carefull consider the impact any such actions would have.”

“Congratulations, Yuyu."

The speaker was a well-built man seemingly carved from ebony, muscles well-displayed by his ceremonial garb. His body language as he kissed Yusra’s hands spoke volumes, telling John more than the words he uttered in rapid Betelgeusian, faster than the prince could entirely follow. It was congratulatory, he knew that.

Yusra smiled fondly, touching the man’s cheek. “This is Bomani, my bodyguard and very dear friend.” More than that, John suspected. “We have known one another for many years."

“It is my privilege,” John said, bowing and then regretting it. Philip came up alongside him at that moment. “And this is my dear friend, brother, and guard, Sir Philip Trip.”

“At your service,” Phil said, sizing Bomani up as he bowed.

Bomani murmured somethin to Yusra which drew a sound of exasperation from her, then fell in behind her. Philip matched him, flanking his own brother as the four descended into a a courtyard full of people, all of whom cheered and stomped and shouted at the sight of their princess. John followed her example, waving and acknowledging the crowd as they made their way to the low tables on the raised platform beneath the screens. The cheering redoubled as they (carefully) took their seats, and then again as the king appeared.

Of course," she groaned. "My brother, the prince formerly known as an artist. And narcissistic as hell. I imagine he thinks this is an engagement present." The screens focused on King Adjatay instead, occasionally glimpsing back at the couple for their reaction. "When we are on the screen again," she muttered, "I'm afraid you must gather all of your courage and kiss me like you're in love with me."

Before he could respond, their images filled the screen. There was a bare moment of hesitation as he realized the fact, and then he leaned towards the princess. His hand touched her cheek as their lips met, and the flavor of her lips was reminiscent of the taste of her fingers when he’d met her on New Zion - subtle alien spices, and a hint of ciconut, and warmth. His thumb stroked her cheekbone as his palm caressed her face before cupping the back of her head. Her lips parted and he deepened the kiss, tongue seeking entrance and then sliding over hers as he tasted more of her. When he drew back, the crowd erupted in jubilation.

“I may have found the courage,” he whispered with a grin.
 
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#19
Yusra allowed herself snigger at John's juvenile double entendres. It was a tense evening, after all, and he was trying. Not that trying made her like him any, especially not after the reception, but she wasn't so petty as to not laugh. He sounded surprised, though, perhaps even shocked when she informed him of their marriage traditions. That surprised her a little: he seemed the sort to have done all of the research he could on their culture. John described the way the nobility of the Hyades conducted their affairs--literally affairs, it seemed--and that the people accepted it where they would not accept polygamy.

"But it is polygamy by another name," Yusra argued with a frown. "The difference is honesty, transparency, and a clearer line of succession. Your brother would not been robbed of his birthright, for instance, under our system; regardless of politics he would have been recognized as the king's eldest child and rightful heir to the throne. The ascending king--you, in this case--would then have no cause to worry about a usurper with an equally legitimate claim to his throne."

“They see such things as primitive holdovers from the early Colonial Era, when plural relations were necessary to deepen the gene pool.” His smile, apologetic or not, was highly inappropriate to Yusra's mind.

"Primitive?" Her head snapped to look at him so quickly she pulled at some of the skin on her back, blood leaking from one or two of the cuts.

“If we are to rule both nations, we would need to carefully consider the impact any such actions would have,” John continued, seemingly oblivious to her quickly rising temper.

"Well then it is only fair to inform you," she said through gritted teeth, "that I do not intend to forgo my people's customs for the sake of yours. Package it however you want that they will swallow it, but I will take other husbands. I shall ensure that your child is my firstborn so that he will enjoy the inheritance rights accorded by both our customs, but I shall not turn my back on my own culture."

Bomani had apparently recognized it and came to John's rescue. His appearance and compliments not only redirected her attention but served as a gentle reminder of her temper. His bowing, first to John, then to John's bow, then to Philip, then to Philip's bow, brought to mind an ancient toy she had seen a picture of once, a little figure carved into the shape of a bird weighted on one end so that it would bob back and forth as though bending to drink from a glass. The thought made her smirk, but she said nothing as the men exchanged pleasantries. She exchanged a look with the bodyguard at Philip's bow, wondering at the sign of respect from royalty to a layman, but said nothing. Hyadean ways were not their ways, after all.

When they sat Bomani took his place at a discreet distance behind the princess, scanning the area for sudden movements and suspicious characters. When the king began to serenade the couple he chuckled at Yusra's assessment.

"I like it," he mentioned, mostly to be contrary.

"Of course you do," Yusra snapped. "You like vexing me."

"You are very vexable, my queen."

"Aren't servants not supposed to speak to royalty?" she mentioned over her shoulder in Stellaran, winking at him. "Or at all?"

"You are part-Hyadean now, Your Highness," Bomani poked back, speaking the common language for the first time in the prince's presence, "and they would not consider you royalty." He laughed and dodged as she playfully flung a napkin ring over her shoulder at him. Fortunately, the screens missed it.

"When we are on the screen again," she muttered to John, "I'm afraid you must gather all of your courage and kiss me like you're in love with me."

Her betrothed was up to the job, apparently. With only a moment of hesitation he leaned in, stroking her cheek and cupping the back of her head as his tongue slid over hers and her hand cupped the back of his neck carefully, avoiding his recent wounds which reached the bottom of his hairline. It wasn't, for Yusra, an explosive first kiss. His hands were cool and he tasted not of foreign spices but of no spice at all. There was no heavy breathing, no teeth scraping at lips or wandering hands, very little heat though it seemed at least from an outsider's perspective genuine enough. John Harker was, she could say, very much technically proficient, and she supposed that passed for passion where he was from. The man knew what he was doing, but Yusra decided that if the same trend carried to the bedroom she may have to teach him to loosen up a little if they were to get on in any form.

"I think I may have found the courage," he whispered with a grin. It was the first wide, genuine grin Yusra had seen from him and it was...well, it was cute. Boyish, really, but not in a bad way, and annoyingly contagious. She cast her eyes down as she felt her lips tugged into their own grin.

"Perhaps there is yet a warrior within you, John Harkness." It was a slant-ways compliment, but one nonetheless. She looked up when Bomani cleared his throat and muttered 'incoming.' A pair of twin boys appeared seemingly from nowhere, materializing twenty feet away in order to get a running start. Yusra slid from her seat and bent to receive them, grunting as she caught them and picked them up.

"Binti! Binti!" they cried, hugging her without regard to her injuries and offering their congratulations.

"Aya! Kutomba!" Yusra cried out, wincing and almost dropping them. "My back! You are too old to be carried, both of you!" They were, indeed, a little old to be carried at eight or nine years old, but she did so anyway.

"Binti Yusra is the strongest woman in the world!" one of the boys declared to John and Philip, not at all shy in front of strangers.

"In the universe!" the other corrected.

"These are my best boys," Yusra explained, setting them down and taking her seat, biting her lip as her back twinged, "Andikan and Jabari." She gathered them in affectionately, showering their faces with kisses as they protested and tried to pull away. "Oh I see how it is," she said, feigning hurt. "Not to old to be carried like babies but too old for kisses like men." She folded her arms across her chest as they protested that they were men. "Then prove it!" she challenged, sticking her face out to receive their kisses on her cheeks. "Good, now sit while your father finishes his...performance." She sneered distastefully and gestured to nearby chairs. There was a scuffle over one which was apparently better than the other despite being identical and she rolled her eyes. "These are the heirs apparent to the throne of Betelgeuse, my brother Adjatay's eldest sons by his second wife," she explained. "Ay, tssp!" She snapped to get the boys' attention. "This is my fiance Prince John and his brother Sir Philip."

To her irritation, John was instantly dubbed Mjamba Yohana. But of more interest to them was Philip. "Mjamba Philip," Jabari asked, scooting his chair over to the elder prince, "Binti Yusra says you're Mjamba Yohana's brother...but you are Pleidan and he is a mzungu. You aren't really his brother...are you?"

Yusra internally cringed at the question, but didn't correct him. It was Adjatay's job to discipline them; her job was to be the cool aunt, fill them with sugar and give them a puppy then send them back to their parents. To her ire, Bomani took it upon himself instead.

"It is rude to ask people about their parentage," he said in a low voice, leaning in momentarily. "And the slaughter is about to start." He gestured to the stage. Adjatay had taken a transporter to the side of the courtyard opposite his sister and now nobility danced in a circle around a bonfire on the stage. With a flash and a roar the fire was gone, replaced by an enormous lion.

"It isn't real," Yusra assured the foreigners. "No animals have been intentionally murdered in the Pleides system for millennia; all of our meat is bioengineered in laboratories. A lion hunt was part of our marriage ceremony thousands of years ago on Old Earth. A man had to kill one and bring back its paw hanging around his neck and its tail tied to his spear to prove that he was a man who could provide for his wife. Over the centuries?" She shrugged. "It became a whole-village thing, more or less, and now with plenty of manufactured food there is no need to kill a real lion, so we don't. The symbolic hunt remains, but that is all it is. Ay, tssp!" She pinched Andikan lightly, making him complain when he had to put away his game. "Pay attention," she admonished. "This is your heritage, and it will be your rite of passage too some day."
 
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#20
“Pay attention," Yusra admonished Andikan. "This is your heritage, and it will be your rite of passage too some day."

A rite of passage.

John looked out over the assembled crowd, all of them watching the lion - a holigraphic replacement for the extinct predators of Old Earth - as it prowled and roared. But, he saw, they weren’t just watching the lion. They were watching the young men as they stretched and readied themselves to prove themselves men. “Bomani,” he asked mildly, “the lion. Can it still injure the hunters?”

“Yes,” the bodyguard replied. “It is a holograph displayed on interlocking cling fields of force that can be grounded by the spear. But the forces feel solid, and can bruise or even kill.”

“I see.” He thought for a moment, then rise. “Pray excuse me, Princess Yusra. It seems I am not done with ritual this evening.”

“What are you doing?” Philip hissed, grabbing his arm.

“You herd her,” he answered. “It is a rite of passage. A way to prove manhood.” John gestured towards the crowd. “If Inam to be a Prince of these people, Philip, they must see me respect their customs. And they must see me as a man.”
 
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#21
The boys stared at John in awe as he made his way across to the platform. Even Yusra was, for once, at a loss for words and stared dumbstruck as her fiance carefully peeled his shirt off again and stood with the handful of others waiting for the lion to be let off of its "chain," another solid-light holograph there mostly for effect. The AI would think for itself once it was told to, but until given the command was essentially a just a recording of a lion. Across the way Adjatay and Okot had leaned forward in their seats. Okot managed to catch his sister's eye and they exchanged shrugs; of course he hadn't been expected to participate. He was a foreigner, after all, and this was one of his engagement celebrations. Usually by the time one was engaged they had already undergone the lion hunting ceremony. Still, it made a sort of sense.

Yusra leaned over once she had recovered from the surprise. "Your brother is much braver than I gave him credit for," she admitted to Philip, "and rather more manipulative, I think. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing," she added quickly to his expression. "He is making his people love him. Though maybe not necessarily her." She nodded down to the only girl in the group of a half dozen or so youths. "In our culture," she explained, gesturing to indicate that she included Philip as belonging to this culture, "if a woman wishes to join the army she must prove herself as a warrior equal to the men in ability. There are always one or two girls in a group and that in itself is cause for attention to be on them. But to perform at a royal engagement is a very high honor and there are very rarely girls allowed at those ceremonies; she must have had to fight very hard for this spot and ought to be very proud of such an accomplishment, even if she does not deliver the killing blow. I dare say John has stolen her thunder." Yusra smirked and held out her left arm where several thick scars were still visible, shiny against the matte black of her skin, sliding from elbow to wrist where it looked as though the lion had caught her as she danced out of the way. "I know I would have been very upset, were I in her place."

"Mjamba Philip," Jabari asked again, tugging on his sleeve. "Why do they call you Hyadean?"

"Because he was raised by Hyadean parents in the Hyades Commonwealth," Yusra snapped. "It's rude to interrupt a conversation."

"But he looks like us!" Jabari complained, not satisfied with this answer. "And I just wanna know--"

"Do you want me to send you to sit with your parents?" Yusra threatened sternly. "And you have to explain to them why you couldn't sit with me through the whole thing?"

"No Binti..." Jabari sulked, scuffing his toe against the tile.

"Then the next time you want to say something you say 'excuse me' and you wait. Sah?"

"Sah." He still pouted while his brother complained at being pinched again because he had taken up his game again.

"Do you have any children of your own, Philip?" Yusra asked, leaning a little closer to him. "Or are you to be relegated to the fun uncle?"
 
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#22
“Your brother is much braver than I gave him credit for,” Yusra said, watching John test the balance of a short stabbing spear.

“He is, your highness,” Philip agreed. “Sometimes rather more brave than I think is healthy for him.” He laughed. “But I am a Royal Companion, not a nursemaid.”

“And rather more manipulative, I think,” she added. “Not that this is necessarily a bad thing.”

“Not at all,” Philip agreed. “A king must be able to build coalitions, and win support.”

“He is making his people love him. Though maybe not necessarily her." She nodded towards a slim woman wearing the same loincloth as the men.

To Philip’s eyes it was a scandalous, erotic display of bare flesh - public nudity was not acceptable for any gender in the Commonwealth. “I can see that, but why? In our nation, it would be a sign of great honor for the king or crown prince to join a hunt such as this.”

Yusra explained, describing the struggles and trials the warrior woman had undergone to prove herself the equal of a man. A struggle the princess clearly understood, as she displayed the scars that marred the smooth ebon skin of her arm.

“I... see,” Philip finally said. “He did not realize, nor did I. All genders may serve equally in our armed forces - we strive to reward skill and merit.” He nodded at John. “Our first armsmaster was Major Sofia Hobbs, a retired veteran of thirty years.” He smiled fondly. “Twenty years on, neither of us are yet able to beat her two matches out of three.”

-*-

He examined the offered shield with interest, tough hide stretched over a wicker frame, designed to hold two of the short stabbing spears. “Used to deflect a blow, I assume? Not to absorb it?”

“That is correct, your highness,” said a tall, graceful warrior.

“Please, call me John,” he replied, weighing an assegi in his hand. “No need to stand on formalities while we fight that beast.”

“As you wish,” the man agreed. “I am Kirui, and this is Caelan and Yathi.” The other two men nodded silently. “And the lioness glaring daggers at you is Nikkol.”

He glanced at her, noting the hard lines of anger in her features. “It is an honor to meet you all,” he said with a shallow bow. “Now, What is the best way to tackle that beast. I’m very much afraid the last cat I fought was the size of my hand.”

-*-

“Do you have any children of your own, Philip?" Yusra asked, leaning a little closer to him. "Or are you to be relegated to the fun uncle?"

“I have no doubt, your highness, that I will be regarded as the dour uncle who scolds his brother’s children for not attending to their studies.” Humor glinted in his expression. “Or not. But I have no children, not yet at any rate.”

He caught her curious expression. “As a child bar sinister, I have no claim to the throne. But there are still family ties to the throne that make me a valuable political match. I have been betrothed to Lady Danica Camila
Vasilisa Fernandez-Sokolov, the fifth child of that family, since her birth.” He shrugged. “I was... five, when it happened. The wedding is scheduled for two years from now, three months after she completes her tour of duty in the Royal Hyadean Navy.”
 
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#23
Yusra didn't like what Philip's tone seemed to imply. Perhaps he was mzungu on the inside after all. Setting aside her flare of temper--it was important to make a good impression on him, after all--she looked at him.

"I think you mistake our military customs," she said carefully. "We allow men and women to serve equally on the basis of skill, which is why this ceremony is so important. It is a rite of passage. But while all boys must prove themselves men, women generally do not wish to serve. Since we do not practice conscription--difficult, after all, for people who don't want to be there to fight at their fiercest--recruits are judged upon their performance in this hunt. Since it is not a rite for women, they must participate just as their fellows." She shrugged. "It's just that culturally, there are few women who chose to undergo the ordeal and even fewer invited to prove themselves at a royal engagement."

Yusra watched him carefully as she spoke, trying not to put him off of her. "We reward our people based on skill and merit too, my prince. We seem to simply have different gender roles and social constructs surrounding enlistment." She smiled before moving the conversation on, activating a touchscreen on the marble tabletop. A drink materialized in front of Philip before she ordered one for herself. "It is an honor for a king or prince to join a hunt...but generally only if you are not already in a place of honor. Your brother will likely be forgiven since he's a mzungu, but despite having a title and a palace we do not consider ourselves above the common people." Yusra sipped her drink, watching him out of the corner of her eye while focusing most of her attention on the events below. "We hunt with them, farm with them, develop new technologies...various people have various interests, obviously, but my point is that we do more than pass laws; we contribute to our society and are equals with them."

~*~

"The best way to kill it," Nikkol said tersely, "is to allow the hunters to deal with it. What a tragedy it would be to risk your royal mzungu neck when you do not have to prove yourself."

"Tssp!" Kirui chided, but Nikkol looked unabashed. A muscle worked in her jaw as she armed herself with spear and shield. "It is best to try and stay out of his reach," he said, shaking his head at his fellow hunter and turning to the prince. "Use your spear to your advantage, both to strike blows and to keep the beast at bay."

"And remember:" said Yathi, "it is not a sentient beast, but it is very real."

~*~

“I have no doubt, your highness, that I will be regarded as the dour uncle who scolds his brother’s children for not attending to their studies.” Humor glinted in Philip's expression. “Or not. But I have no children, not yet at any rate.”

"'Or not,' I hope," Yusra chuckled. "Or else you shall have plenty of competition from Okot." She gestured across the room with her chin. "He is already dour enough for three uncles; I am not sure our cheer and morale could survive a war between the two of you. You strike me, after all, as a man who does not easily give up. But do you plan upon any heirs?"

“As a child bar sinister, I have no claim to the throne. But there are still family ties to the throne that make me a valuable political match. I have been betrothed to Lady Danica Camila Vasilisa Fernandez-Sokolov, the fifth child of that family, since her birth.”

"So all of your names are a mouthful, not just the royal ones," she teased. "That is a very long time to be engaged to someone. I do hope the age difference isn't too terrible?"

He shrugged. “I was... five, when it happened. The wedding is scheduled for two years from now, three months after she completes her tour of duty in the Royal Hyadean Navy.”

Yusra nodded. "I suppose it is not the lot of people like us to marry for love, hm?" She smiled ruefully. "At least, not the first time. But second and third spouses are rarely if ever given the respect and honor the first one is. I should know: my mother was taken as Queen Consort a few years after Adjatay's birth, and she has always been second to the Queen Mother in the eyes of our people, even if she was best loved by my father." She sighed and shrugged. "But that is our lot as secondary children, is it not?"
 
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#24

"The best way to kill it," Nikkol said tersely, "is to allow the hunters to deal with it. What a tragedy it would be to risk your royal mzungu neck when youdo not have to prove yourself."

"Tssp!" Kirui chided, but Nikkol looked unabashed

“Ah, But I do have to prove myself,” John replied. Nikkol gave him a skeptical, hostile look. He smiled, tapping the assegi against his throat. “Because this is a royal mzungu neck.” He gestured at the crowd with his spear, and then back at Nikkol. “Would you accept me on the throne, next to your princess, if I did not?”

Silence reigned for three heartbeats. Finally, Kirui broke it. “It is best to try and stay out of his reach," he said, shaking his head at his fellow hunter and turning to the prince. "Use your spear to your advantage, both to strike blows and to keep the beast at bay."

"And remember:" said Yathi, "it is not a sentient beast, but it is very real."

“Fast and deadly, right.” John stared at the projection and then laughed. “Thinking machines. Right, then. Kirui, Caelan, Yathi, you circle around and strike from the sides. Nikkol and I will approach from the front and distract it.”

“Why me?” Nikkol scoffed.

John shrugged. “Because it’s going to be terribly dangerous. And I wager you won’t let yourself break and run while a cocky Royal mzungu stands his ground.” A grin. “Shall we?”

-*-

Yusra nodded. "I suppose it is not the lot of people like us to marry for love, hm?"

“No, I suppose not,” Philip agreed absently, watching his half-brother as the hunters stepped into the arena. The lion roared and John shouted back at it, banging his spear against his shield and advancing on it. “What is he doing..?”

She smiled ruefully. "At least, not the first time.”

“What?” The Princess’ statement caught him off guard.

“But second and third spouses are rarely if ever given the respect and honor the first one is,” she sighed. “I should know: my mother was taken as Queen Consort a few years after Adjatay's birth, and she has always been second to the Queen Mother in the eyes of our people, even if she was best loved by my father." Another sigh, and a shrug. "But that is our lot as secondary children, is it not?"

“That it is,” he agreed, staring at her with new interest. A secondary child... John had never made him feel that sting, but it had been there in his dealings with everyone else in his life. Even with his father. And she understood, even here, surrounded by her own people. “I...”

A cry went up from the crowd, and he looked back. John was giving ground before the lion, deflecting claws with his shield and jabbing at the beast’s face. Beside him stood a stunning, nearly naked black woman who shouted and slashed at the lion. “Is he trying to put me in an early grave?”
 
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#25
Philip, to her irritation, was distracted by his brother who was...roaring at the lion? Well, it was a strategy, she'd give him that. She smiled ruefully and continued, finally managing to tempt him into conversation by mentioning second and third marriages. That did the trick, and now he seemed actually interested in conversation. A cry went up from the crowd, however, pulling both of their attention back to the stage. John was giving ground before the lion, deflecting claws with his shield and jabbing at the beast's face.

"Is he trying to put me in an early grave?" Philip groaned.

Yusra laughed. "He will come out alive if not whole," she assured him. "Besides, you cannot die just in case he does. The alliance must still stand, after all, and if he were unable to pass this test he's set himself I must still be given to someone of your house. And even if he did, I am sure my people would feel more comfortable with their princess being married off to someone of Pleiadan descent." She let that hang in the air for a moment. "But I'm sure John will succeed. He's a strong man, and strong-willed." The princess sipped her drink in a manner which could, if looked at the right way, be construed as meaningful.

"So," she said after a long pause. "My nominal title as a secondary child," she had noticed that that particular turn of phrase seemed to have struck a chord with him, "is the warden of the Eastern Milky Way. In all honesty it's maybe ten planets of that system, and I'm supposed to be in an administrative role but really they mostly run themselves and come to me to cast a deciding vote in case of parliamentary ties. The reality is I'm mostly just the king's sister, but 'you're in the line of succession so here have a title.'" She rolled her eyes. "Have you been given any such empty promises of importance? Or are you relegated to just being the crown prince's brother?"

~*~

Nikkol chafed at being told what to do. "I would not allow myself to break and run anyway," she snipped before taking her place and bearing her teeth at the animal. The chain disintegrated into the ether and it was loose, roaring and advancing on them.

"I do not accept you next to my princess regardless," Nikkol murmured where Kirui couln't hear her, "you are the enemy our people have been destroying for five generations, no matter what the treaty says. But it is nice to know that you have aspirations for the throne, with ten people in front of you." She looked sideways at him with a nasty little smile. "Being so unguarded, I think I will wager on your death before your ascension."

As the lion advanced on them John gave ground. Nikkol herself had to step back a few steps, but when the lion roared she shouted back, bearing her teeth again and taking a half step forward to slash at it. The beast swiped at her but she danced out of reach, shouting taunts and jabbing mostly for show. They wanted as few wounds as possible; in ancient days gone by the lion would have been eaten, and stabbing it too many times would have all but ruined the meat. She didn't have a clear shot, so she wasn't going to take it.
 
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