Arcanis, Mother-Planet...Iíve come back to you, at last...
It was an azure ball floating in darkness, partially obscured by translucent white clouds clustered above its oceaned surface, a gauzy blue jewel in the star-picked void.
Aric had come by himself to the observation deck, wishing to be alone for his first view of home after so long. Heíd never expected to see it again. How many times, while I lay in Susanís arms, did I dream of this? But that was all they had been...dreams...
And now, unbelievably, he was here.
He realized he was gripping the railing, knuckles white with pressure, and the emotion he felt was startling, and confusing. He wanted to shout...and weep. Itís so beautiful! He could stand there for hours, letting the sight of the planet fill his eyes and dazzle his senses... wanting it to seep into every pore and cell, inundate his brain with that welcome image.
Hearing a step behind him, he shifted his gaze from the planet to the inner wall of the viewport and the reflection of the young man standing there, the darkness outside acting on the glassine surface like the backing on a mirror. Aric wrenched himself away from Arcanis, avoiding Milesí eyes, not wanting his friend to see how the sight of the planet affected him.
It didnít work.
"I know just how you feel, pal." Miles touched his shoulder, drawing him away from the railing.
Damn, canít fool the kid.
"Weíve four hours before we dock. How about a drink?" Miles gestured toward the hatch leading back inside the companionway.
With a sigh, Aric nodded agreement but as Miles walked away, he looked over his shoulder, continuing to watch Arcanis grow larger as the cruiser neared the curved arm of the docking station where the shuttles were moored.
As if he sensed Aricís thoughts, Miles pulled him into the corridor. "Come on. Youíll have plenty of time to look at it after we land." With a final glance at the clouds now covering the planet, Aric allowed himself to be led away.
Once they were in the lounge waiting to be seated, however, Miles realized he really didnít know how Aric felt, had absolutely no concept of the emotion his friend was experiencing at seeing his home for the first time in fifteen years. When I get back to Terra, Iíll be glad to see it again. Of course I will. But to know the moment I set foot on the planet, I might be seized and killed? Miles definitely had no idea how that must feel. How can Aric be so calm? In the next four hours he may be dead.
The hostess escorted them to the bar and took their order, but as Aric started to sit down, he stumbled. Immediately, Miles was at his side.
He was waved away.
"Iím all right."
"You donít look all right." Even in the dimness of the lounge, Miles could see his pallor, dark circles under his eyes, shadowed hollows in his face.
As soon as they boarded, Aric had locked himself in his cabin, spending almost all of the twenty-one-day journey fasting and in prayer.
"Donít say it!" he snapped as Miles started to speak again. "It was something I had to do."
"Right. Well...if itíll get those gods of yours to help you I wonít complain, but Iíve never understood why anyone expects starving himself to do any kind of good."
"I see you inherited some of your fatherís attitude toward religion," Aric muttered and fell silent. His thoughts were very far from the lounge, the cruiser, or even that particular sector of space. He was thinking about Susan.
It was spring on Arcanis, but when they left Pyras, it had been early winter. A freak blizzard had hit, blanketing the bases with a heavy coat of white.
The weather delayed their take-off schedule, and he and Miles stood a little away from the others, neither speaking. Occasionally, Miles would stamp his feet or cough, exhaling a vapor cloud immediately blending with the opaque frost-laden air. Ignoring the blizzardís wrath, Aric was leaning against the railing, head bared, hair and the fur lining of the thrown-back hood already white with snowflakes.
Susan had told him she wouldnít come to the shuttle with them, refused to watch him walk out of her life... and then, suddenly, there she was.
Aric kissed her, and then held her tightly, his cheek resting against that snow-gilded hair. She wiped at her eyes with one hand, pulled off her glove, and reached up and touched Aricís cheek, gently cupping his jaw and touching the white scar made by the jalbeayís claws.
Turning his back, Miles walked a few feet. He dropped his kit on the snow-covered polyconcrete walkway and thrust his hands into his pockets.
Behind them, the speakers announced the call for boarding. Miles picked up his pack.
Aric pushed Susan away, staring at her as if memorizing her face.
My Snow Queen, so easily melted...
The call for boarding came again. Last call, all passengers board now!
Aric released her and walked away and didnít look back, Miles following.
Susan stood there a moment longer, and then ran for the shelter of the terminal and its protection as the shuttle lifted.
Once they were airborne, Miles took one last look out the porthole at the landing area. Surrounded by swirling flakes, Susan was still standing on the terminal stoop. He had watched as her figure became smaller and smaller until it vanished from sight as the clouds closed around the shuttle.
Aric had stared straight ahead.
The bartender bringing their complimentary order intruded on their thoughts, bringing them back to the present as he set the two polybottles of a selected soft drink and two glasses before them.
Silently, Miles flipped up a cap with his thumb and squeezed pale yellow liquid into his glass. Then, he sat, not drinking, waiting for Aric to say something...anything....
At last, the Arcanian reached for his own bottle, looking at it for longer than Miles thought he needed to, though he understood Aric had to be cautious where Terran beverages were concerned. Anything Terran, in fact. So much contained ingredients his alien system couldnít tolerate. He set it down again.
"Whatís this?" His scowl was the first show of emotion Miles had seen in a long time.
"Soda." It wasnít what Miles wanted to say but... Hell, apparently Aric wanted to change the subject and if it would get his mind off what was coming, heíd go along with it. For now. "Lemon soda."
"I know Terrans have some rather esoteric tastes, Miles, but why would you want to drink lemon juice and sodium bicarbonate?"
"Itís not sodium bicarbonate." Miles allowed irritation to overcome his concern, forgetting for a moment there hadnít been any soft drinks at the base. Plenty of alcohol, coffee substitute, and fruit juices, but no sodas at all. "Itís carbonated water and... Oh, just read the ingredients!"
Turning the bottle sideways, Aric began to scan the listing engraved on its side. "Carbonated water...citric acid..." Lips moving silently, he continued to read before looking up in horror. "Gods, Miles! You actually ingest this stuff? It sounds toxic."
"Listen." Miles took the bottle from him and set it down. "If I stopped eating or drinking because of the contents, Iíd starve to death." He raised his own glass. "Cheers."
Aric picked up the bottle again, looking at it thoughtfully. Then, to Milesí surprise, he tipped it and began to drink. He swallowed more than he intended and began to cough. "Thatís the worst stuff I ever tasted. The effervescence. It stings."
"You can drink Tyrean whiskey and say that?" That was a drink Miles had tried only once. Aric called it a soldierís drink, but it had to be either an acquired taste, a display of Arcanian masculinity, or some sort of weird masochism to drink that stuff. To his Terran palate, it was a mixture of turpentine and menthol, foul-tasting and deadly, even more so because it was served heated. Abruptly, he smiled. "Whatís the matter? I thought you Arcanians were such great drinkers. Why, we give this to our babies."
"In that case, itís a miracle your species has survived. No wonder Earthers are so odd. Their brains are mutated from things like this."
Still smiling, Miles signaled to the bartender and ordered his old favorite. Good ol Terran B&B...bourbon and water...and a kettle of Tyrean whiskey for Aric. Briefly, he felt better, as he always did when he and Aric sparred back and forth. Nothing like taking good-natured jabs at each otherís cultures to forget current worries.
"Have you ever wished you could have a second chance, Miles?" Aric raised the bottle again and took a longer drink this time, without coughing. "To do something over again?"
"Are you kidding?" He thought of Becky. Damn fool question. Of course I have. A thousand times.
"Iíve been thinking...if I had such a chance... " Aric smiled and that startled Miles. Anyone would be charmed when Aric smiled, but he certainly hadnít been doing much of that lately. "Iíd do all of it again, every bit of it."
"All of it?"
Aric took another drink from the bottle before answering. "All of it. Well, Iíd go ahead and tell my uncle who the traitors were instead of having that idiotic moment of loyalty, but other than that? Yes. Iíve had a great time. Youíd be surprised at the things a Prince-Tannist can get away with...the carousing...the women..."
"Tried to live up to that Arcanian reputation, huh?" Miles allowed himself a grin and was rewarded with another smile from his friend.
"Live up to it? The kan Ingans originated it! The girls at the Pleasure Dome had a special name for me and my friends. Did you know that?"
"Not ever having been to Arcanis, you know I donít." Miles had a feeling it was going to be something salacious. He hoped. "Care to share?"
"The Kingís Studs." Aric sounded more than a little complacent.
"A little play on that old title The Kingís Killers?" Miles prided himself on remembering that deadly little nickname from the bit of history Aric had told him. "So it wasnít a designation for all Arcanian men? Just you and your fellow Bloods?"
"You misunderstand." There was a denying shake of the coppery head. "That...designation as you call it...was just for Eby, Kim, and me."
"Eby." Miles thought about that a moment, remembering what Aric had told him about the two men he considered his closest friends. "Thatíd be the one who figuratively stabbed you in the back by joining the True Arcanian Society? Then tried to do it for real? And Kim, thatís the dig-" He changed what he planned to say when Aric aimed a warning glare at him. "I mean, your cousin?"
"Thatís right. We personally opted for Space Studs, but my uncle had claimed that little epithet when he was younger, so... Eby and Kimi... I thought they were the best friends a man could have... " He stared at the bottle a moment. "You know, this stuff doesnít taste too bad after the initial shock. How much alcohol does it have in it?"
"None. Itís non-alcoholic."
"Strange, it certainly feels alcoholic." Aric drank more soda, while Miles sipped at his own drink.
"Aric, thereís something Iíd like to ask you."
"Whatís that?" The soda was gone now. Aric set the empty bottle very carefully on the bar top and gestured to the bartender for another, which he silently gave him.
"Itís about you and Elizabeth."
"Water under the bridge, Miles, to use an old Terran expression, which I completely comprehend, by the way. Besides, is that proper? For a man to ask his friend about his mistress? Or am I about to get caught in just one more of those awkward gaps between your customs and mine?" He picked up the replacement bottle and gulped down a third of it.
"Nothing like that." It especially wasnít proper if the mistress had been that manís sister. "But I have to know." Miles was aware Aric and Elizabeth had started out as bitter enemies-the spoiled Prince-Elect and the woman whoíd disinherited him by marrying his uncle. Then their passionate hatred of each other had evolved into an equally violent love affair ending only when Elizabeth betrayed Aric and he was exiled.
He remembered the terrific fistfight he and Aric had when they first met, as he realized the tall stranger with the long copper braid, visible symbol of his Exileís Vows, was the same man whoíd so maligned his sister, and also the terrible event changing everything. Because of that awful moment, they were friends. More than friends. Each had spilled his blood for the other, exchanged blood. They were now Blood Brothers, closer than Arcanian and Terran could be, and that was the reason Miles had come with Aric, to do what he could to help save his life. To save him so he could return to Susan and live happily ever after.
"Mmm?" Aric finished the bottle, sat with eyes closed, leaning his chin into his palm.
"Were Elizabeth and Deroes ever separated? Did your affair begin while she wasnít living with him?"
"Sorry to disappoint you, but no." Aric opened his eyes. "The old man wanted her near him as much as possible. He was totally besotted, drunk on Terran passion. He certainly wouldnít let her sleep alone. Maybe he didnít trust her. The gods know he had good reason if heíd been aware-" He snorted. "There was a secret passage. As soon as he was asleep, she came to me. She spent more than one night in my bed while my uncle snored."
Miles was shocked. Aric had never said anything like that before, always shied away from speaking of anything to do with his life on Arcanis, unless directly questioned and was even more reticent about talking of Elizabeth because of Milesí relationship to her. He was aware that an Arcanian would never speak of the intimate part of his family life, though he might brag of his conquests all he wanted. The only reason Miles knew about Aricís affair with Elizabeth was because during their only Leave from Pyras, his friend had let his drinking get away from him, and his drunken mutterings told Miles more than he wanted to know. It was six months later before Miles admitted it, however.
Heís talking too freely now. Why?
"Guess he had a right to, didnít he?" Miles muttered. After all, Aric and his sister had carried on a seven-year affair right under the Margraveís nose.
"Gods, Miles-it was wonderful." Aric leaned back, flinging his arms wide, almost losing his balance. Miles caught his wrist and pulled him back onto the stool. Other customers at the bar glanced their way, smiled indulgently, and went back to their conversations. "And dangerous. I think that was what made it so exciting. The thought that he might walk in and find us. It was always so frantic."
I ought to be ashamed. Encouraging Aric to talk about it, leading him on to say more. Miles wanted to be certain, wanted to assure himself Aric hadnít simply used Elizabeth to satisfy the notorious sexual appetite Arcanians were said to possess. "Did you love her?"
Aric didnít answer right away, seemed to think about it, and when he finally spoke, the words were whispered. "Love her? Miles, I worshipped her." He shook his head, rubbing one hand across his eyes. "She was the only woman I wanted, and when she betrayed me to the Council by destroying the evidence that would clear me, I think that actually hurt more than my being exiled." He looked up, smiling a little sadly. "She told me she loved me. Then threw the papers into the fire and watched them burn."
"Was she worth it?" Miles had worshipped his older sister. Though he was only five when she left Terra to marry the Margrave, the things his parents told him about her made her seem an angel in human form. It was only after he got to know Aric that he realized the Arcanian was only one of many men Elizabeth had hurt to get what she wanted, whatever it might be.
"She was worth every minute of it, Miles. Your sister is a beautiful, passionate little witch, and my damnation was a very pleasant one!" Aric sighed and laughed and it was a soft, self-satisfied sound.
"And you, sir, are a cad." The words werenít angry because he knew Aric was telling the truth. Elizabeth was a witch-who made men enjoy being used by her.
"No, Iím drunk." Aric caught at the railing and hauled himself to his feet, swayed, regained his balance and sat down again. "That stuffís potent! Damn it, Miles! You sure thereís no alcohol in it?"
Miles picked up the pop bottle. He couldnít believe drinking the harmless stuff could make Aric snockered. Still, so did eating chocolate and taking aspirin. He wondered which ingredient was the culprit.
If I had it to do over again... If he could do it over again, heíd marry Becky Thompson as soon as he learned about the baby, would keep her from going on that flight to Colony Three where she and their unborn child died in a jalbeay attack. If heíd done that, Becky would be alive and heíd be going back to Terra as a husband and father and... I wouldnít be traveling to Arcanis with Aric. Was this supposed to happen? Did I lose my girl and our baby so Iíd be free to save Aric? Is he that important?
"You bastard!" Aric was peering at him through the dimness. He gave a mild hiccough. "Youíve... plied me... with alcohol just so you could interrogate me."
"Actually... " Miles began seriously, and then shook his head. Aric was now past the serious-talk stage, floating into good-natured compliance but nowhere near drunken belligerence...yet. He decided to play along. "Okay, you caught me. So, since youíve guessed my secret agenda, mind if I ask you something else?"