An excerpt from my latest book, on sale now at Amazon & through Chapters Indigo and Barnes & Noble.
One meal we always looked forward to at the palace was high tea. Taz and Vostia’s mistrust of most things originating on AUP’s founder planet did not extend to high tea, a custom they enthusiastically embraced. A few days after the Beom’s Day picnic, they invited our guardians and ourselves to a special one in honour of an award that had just been bestowed on Trithox, the elderly Alcavian immigrant who helped us escape from Cholaris’s starport when Drazok’s men were after us. In recognition of this, he’d been made a sort of godfather to little Prince Kadian and the driving school he’d opened not long after his arrival enjoyed royal patronage. Taz had, in fact, been its first pupil, our experience with him at the controls of a multi-seater air car on Klavor having convinced him that even a High Prince should know how to drive properly, even if he did have chauffeurs at his beck and call. He now only used them on state occasions as he quite liked driving.
The royal chauffeurs weren’t left idle though, as they also worked as instructors at Trithox’s driving school. The award recognized it as the best in Cholaris and its owner the best instructor, though he maintained his son Varthox and his wife — who were also at the tea, along with Trithox’s wife and grandson — were equally skilled and would soon be starting up a driving school in another city.
We got there early, ahead of what promised to be a nasty storm. While the grown-ups engaged in congratulatory chatter, we took ourselves off to the nursery, having heard Challa was not pleased about other kids, albeit older, being allowed to attend what she imagined was going to be a highly entertaining feast with her Naka and Kovo — Cholarian for Mummy and Daddy. Like many people on independent planets, and all the ones on AUP-Member planets, Cholarians taught their children the universal language of Galacto as well, so Challa was bi-lingual and usually spoke to us to us in Galacto. Although we did sometimes ask her to help us with our Cholarian, which Jip, Kirsty, Arlyne, and I were trying hard to learn. Simon was, needless to say, already proficient.
Challa wasn’t having a full-out tantrum when we arrived but was definitely pouting and shouting, with Lyetta and Keza doing their best to placate her.
She did sort of smile as we entered, mostly at Simon, who was her favourite amongst us. To the point of her being desirous of marrying him when they grow up. I try not to think about what the offspring might be like if this were to come about. Verim once said Challa was exactly what everyone should have expected from Taz and Vostia’s union and there was no guarantee Kadi wouldn’t come to it. Fortunately, Simon’s less keen on the idea. He’s surprisingly good with her though, and when we first arrived, presented her with a little music-playing baton he’d bought for her on Yaix. It was her prized possession and she took it everywhere with her. Even to bed.
“You’re going to tea with Naka and Kovo, aren’t you?” she said accusingly when he knelt down beside her to commiserate.
“Yes, but you won’t be missing much, Challa. It’s mostly a grown-up affair where everyone’s just going to be eating and talking.”
“He is quite right, little one,” said Lyetta. “No one there will be singing songs or playing games like we’ll be doing at our special tea.”
Challa brightened. “Are we having a special tea?”
“Of course. It is all arranged.” Lyetta knew how to spot trouble and plan ahead.
“My children,” said Keza.
“Keza’s even going to let them stay and sleep in the nursery with you tonight. Will that make up for not being able to go to tea with Simon and the others?”
Challa knew a good deal when she heard one. “Yes,” she said decisively.
“A friend is bringing them,” said Keza. “They should be here soon. I am anxious for them to arrive. The storm is coming closer.”
It certainly was, but, luckily, they arrived just before it hit. Challa was also beginning to grasp Vedetian and greeted them in that tongue. She then settled down to play with them and, satisfied she was now pleasantly occupied, we returned to Taz and Vostia’s parlour, where high tea was just being set out.
The storm was blowing strong by the time we finished eating, so Taz and Vostia entertained us with projections of recent photos of the royal family engaged in a variety of activities.
One of them, a picture of Mardis, caught Trithox’s interest. Turning to the prince he said, “Is that a taiskel you are holding, Your Highness?”
“Yes. His name is Yoli. I found him and his mother not long after Taz’s coronation, whilst on an expedition in Chorathase. It was extremely unusual to come across a mother and baby who were not with a pack.”
“And extremely lucky for you,” grunted Verim, who when first told of it had doubtless envisioned him being torn apart by the beasts.
“Why were they not in a pack?” Trithox inquired.
“Yoli has a deformed foot. Born with it, I would say. Defective tisks — young taiskels are called tisks — are seldom killed by their own pack but will not be accepted into it either. They are abandoned to become prey for a different pack or some other type of predator. That the mother stayed with him was, as I said, extremely unusual, but examination of Pesca — Pesca means ‘devoted’ — showed she had had trouble bearing young and was obviously determined not to be parted from the only tisk she’d ever successfully produced.”
“I can understand that,” Zovia said sadly.
“Did she not attack you when you approached, in defence of her baby?” Jip asked.
“Curiously, no. It was as though she knew I could help him. And I couldn’t very well just leave him there. Not after she’d forsaken her pack for him and was displaying such trust. Because he was so small and weak, I deemed it necessary to take her as well. I knew he’d fare better on milk from his own mother than anything I could provide. I also wanted to study her heightened maternal instincts. She did make semi-aggressive noises when I took him from her and placed him in a carrying cage, but just as I was wondering how to get her into one she went and wriggled in beside him, as if to say, ‘Well, let’s go. Fix my baby.’ As yet, I have not managed to do much about his foot, but I have provided him with a safe home. She seems content with that and is willing to share it.”
“So, you keep them both as pets?” Trithox marvelled. “That is amazing. I was not aware taiskels could be tamed.”
“That depends on your definition of ‘tamed’,” said Taz. “Mine differs from my cousin’s.”
“Yoli likes you,” Mardis protested.
“His mother does not.”
“She is rather selective in those she chooses not to bite,” Mardis admitted.
“Indeed,” said Verim. “A list comprised of you, Zovia, and an inexplicably favoured Royal Guardsman.”
Knowing he lived in the same household, Trithox asked Simon if Pesca liked him.
My brother shrugged and moved his hand back and forth. “I don’t go too close. I think she’s warming to me though.”
“She is,” Mardis assured him. “It will just take time for her to feel comfortable with you. Seeing you every day helps. As does Yoli’s obvious liking for you.”
“Yoli likes everyone,” said Simon. “Would all taiskels be that friendly if people got them young enough?”
“Possibly. But I have Yoli only because he could not survive in the wild, and Pesca because she will not leave him. Taiskels, like all wild creatures, belong in their natural habitat unless they have been domesticated so long it is natural for them to live among people. Like your cats and dogs of Earth.” The prince paused. “I really must contact a supplier there and see if I can get one of each. I’m sure they would be enchanting creatures to study.”
“Och, you’d not have to go that far afield,” said Kirsty. “There are cats and dogs on Yaix, brought in by AUP personnel. My parents know someone who breeds them as a hobby. I’ll get you a kitten and puppy when we go home and ship them to you.”
Mardis beamed. “That would be delightful. Thank you.”
Zovia merely shook her head, resigned to more additions to their menagerie, while Taz gave Kirsty a Did-you-have-to? look. “Don’t worry about shipping,” he told her. “He’ll have a royal cruiser collect them, won’t you, Mard?”
His cousin nodded happily.
“And in getting them from Yaix, you will avoid having to deal with Earth.” Trithox’s son, Varthox, gave the Earth-born present an apologetic look. “I am afraid I have little liking for your world. Mostly because I have little liking for the AUP Directorate, in which Terrans hold dominance. When Alcavia was still an AUP-member planet, our puppet government gave such concessions to companies owned by Terran Directors that many of Alcavia’s own companies were put out of business.”
“As the founder planet, Earth does have the most Directorate seats,” said Ezrias, “but all Directorate members profit from their position, as do their home worlds. Since the start of the deterioration, every star system the Association has ever gained a foothold in has at least one planet whose interests are favoured over others. Here it is Lurgos.”
“Deterioration?” I queried.
“Deterioration of the Association’s original values. At the time of its formation just over two hundred and fifty years ago, it promised, and provided, peace and prosperity for all member-worlds. It increased food production on the poorest, enhanced the technologies of those with inferior ones, and had its members stand together against aggressors who were later defeated and brought amicably into the fold. Every planet had a Director representing it and quality of life improved for every citizen. But as membership grew, some planets were encouraged to give their proxy votes to Directors from the original worlds rather than have Directors of their own. The last Directorate to follow the early principles held the reins over a century ago. The Directorate of today is, like several before it, made up of people who are completely self-serving.”
“Mother and Father say the Directorate is trying to get back to the original principles,” Arlyne said tentatively.
“I’m afraid, when wealth and power come purely from the sacrifices and efforts of others, it is rare for those possessing it to give up in favour of a more egalitarian system,” Ezrias said with a sad smile. “They are far more inclined to cling to the ways that best served them, regardless of the cost to others.”
Varthox regarded him solemnly. “So, you do not believe the Directorate is returning to the Association’s original principles.”
“No, I do not. And would advise the leaders of the newly discovered planets they are currently trying to woo to have reservations as well.”
Galya knew our parents were among those trying to woo those planets and could see Arlyne’s discomfort.
“I’m sure you young people are finding such political talk boring,” she said brightly. “Why not find something more interesting to do until we are ready to go home?”
Since we were finding it quite boring, we acquiesced.
Simon stood up and beckoned to the rest of us. “Come on. I’ll show you Yoli.”
“Watch out for the other one,” Taz warned, but before we even got to the door he had turned back to the AUP discussion. “The newly contacted planets are, reportedly, all inhabited by highly moralistic people,” he was saying as we left. “Lies are anathema to them.”
“Then why are they dealing with the worst liars in the universe?” Varthox’s wife wanted to know.
“They do not know they are,” said Verim. “What happened in this star system was old news by the time it reached theirs. The captain of the seeker ship convinced them the Association had been unfairly vilified and glowing testimonials from some of the planets still belonging to it have caused them to think it is those who make accusations against it who lie.”
“Then they are simple-minded, as well as moralistic,” said Varthox.
“No, merely uninformed and trusting. Steps are being taken to change that.”
The door closed, and we went off to visit a couple of real live taiskels.
Pesca didn’t bite any of us. But I dare say that was because the storm was upsetting her and she and Yoli were both hiding under a bed.
They wouldn’t even come out for the treats Simon offered. I didn’t blame them. The noise was terrific. Howling wind, lashing rain, booming thunder. Summer storms were not uncommon on Cholar but were rarely ferocious. This one was.
We finally gave up on enticing the taiskels out into the open and got back to the parlour just as Vostia was remarking on how the storm seemed to be showing no signs of stopping.
“I think you should all stay at the palace tonight,” she said to the accompaniment of a flash of lightning and practically simultaneous clap of thunder.
Seconds later, the power went out. It was restored a few minutes later, but its disruption showed the storm wasn’t about to abate and our guardians and Trithox’s family gratefully accepted the invitation to spend the night.