Sticking around to help INV Duval's Glory clear up after the takeover of Boston Ring proved to be a good decision on two counts. Not only had I been able to score enough kills to complete Zemina's kill contract on the Clayahu Mafia during the operation, but Prince du Plessis had been true to his word and spoken kindly on my behalf when he had reported the success of the mission to the Senator. Her congratulations for the successful completion of the task, while not exactly warm, had not been overtly hostile, either. Zemina had instructed me to wait further instructions in a nearby system and was keeping me on standby for the time being, until she could find another suitably dangerous assignment. We had been docked at Harawi Vision for nearly a week with still no word from the Senator and I was starting to go a little stir-crazy, so I reasoned that I should take some time out. After all, a return of 1.7 million credits for a day's work - admittedly very high risk work - was cause enough for celebration and an excuse for a night out on the town, because if Zemina had anything to say about it, I might not be around for very much longer to spend it.
Harawi Vision was a Coriolis-class station run by Bridi Systems, an Empire-aligned high tech corporation partially owned by Senator Torval. While not as large or superficially impressive as an Orbis starport, Harawi Vision's owners had still invested billions of credits in making sure that the station was among the best-appointed for its class in the Empire. Even the dive bars frequented by tramp commanders and other less-well-off independent operators, which backed onto the docking bay barrel itself, were all clean, safe and well-maintained. Teams of AI-controlled cleaner droids and human operatives (mostly Imperial Slaves under contract to Bridi Systems) constantly patrolled the labyrinthine corridors, ensuring that not a single illumination cell out of the millions lining the walls of the station had burnt out and that the floors were kept free from litter and that their surfaces shone like mirrors. The station was famous for its virtual reality nightclubs, ludicrously expensive cocktail bars, avant garde restaurants and hoopy casinos. Karina had taken some convincing to leave the hermetically safe environment of the ship, but I had bribed her with a promise of the best meal she had ever eaten, plus a 5,000 credit budget to spend on her outfit for the night. Imperial fashions were renowned for their opulence, both in terms of cost and style. I had asked ASTRA to show her a selection of evening dresses, shoes and accessories that she was free to choose from. Any one of the dresses could have paid our docking fees for a fortnight, but it represented only a fraction of my earnings from the Boston Ring operation and Karina needed something to wear for leisure excursions off the ship that wouldn't attract unwanted curiosity, especially in a place renowned for being at the cutting edge of Imperial society. I was getting changed into my full dress uniform, my status as an Imperial Viscount guaranteeing that I wouldn't have to worry about reserving a table at Munster Mash, an exclusive restaurant in the French tradition, famous for its tarte flambée, a dish that hailed from the region of eastern France where the ancestors of the restaurant's proprietor had once owned and ran restaurants of their own. As I was preparing to slip on my jacket, ASTRA alerted me to an incoming hyperwave call.
"My lord, receiving a signal from Adams Orbital. It's Governor Torval."
"Put it though, ASTRA." I instructed, settling the dress jacket over my shoulders and pulling the heavy material taut along my arms as I faced the camera inbuilt on the thin bezel on my terminal's flat screen.
"Hello, Aemon." Laure's greeting was warm and affectionate, but the tension around her eyes betrayed some of strain we were both feeling from the forced separation imposed upon us by her aunt. She must have felt particularly stressed lately, as she hadn't found time to change her hair colour, which was still the striking platinum blonde she had worn during our last conversation. It wasn't within her usual spectrum of colours, but I thought that it suited her. She raised her pale eyebrows, which had naturally been dyed to match, when she noticed my formal dress. "You're looking sharp tonight. Going somewhere interesting?"
"Just going out for dinner. I'm bored of ship's rations and I can afford it. It's not every week you earn a seven figure payout. Might as well spend some of it while I can."
"Are you taking your pet with you?"
"Laure... Karina's not a pet. She's a human being. I am taking her out, since you ask. She should see some of the best our society can offer. There's no harm in giving the poor girl a decent meal for once in her life."
"Aemon, you're playing with fire and you don't even know it." Laure warned. "But I do, I know you too well. You see this poor, broken creature, wounded by her past and you want to heal her. Because you see so much of yourself in her. But you're fooling yourself, Aemon. Some wounds don't heal and you can't always fix things that have been broken."
"You've never even met her. How can you sit there and judge her from a hundred light years away?"
"I've read the reports on the destruction of her colony."
"You found her homeworld? And her family?"
"I did. Aemon, she's been enslaved since she was five years old. I don't like to think about some of the things that she must have seen, or the things they must have done to her. The group that took her make the Thunda crew look like petty credit-chit snatchers."
"Who are they?"
"Salazar's Salamanders. They were wiped out in a turf war with Osterberg's Myrmidons about five years back. Your new 'co-pilot' has been passed around between some of the galaxy's worst scum for the last eighteen years. She needs help, you're right about that. But you're not a doctor or psychiatrist."
"I don't think it's that bad. Karina's tough. She sat through the mission at Boston Ring without any trouble. Most first-timers in ship-to-ship combat wouldn't have stomached the kind of manoeuvres I was pulling."
"I hope you're right. Because if you're not, the first clue you'll have is the knife at your throat. Someone who's been enslaved that long is inevitably going to pick up traits from her abusers." Laure frowned at me, worried that I wasn't listening to her.
"Karina doesn't strike me as the violent type. I appreciate your concern, but I'll be fine."
"Have you fucked her yet?" Laure asked, pointedly. "I've seen the holos, she's an attractive girl."
"No. The only person I want to do that with is you, whenever your delightful aunt decides that she's not going to block my access to your docking bay with a contraceptive cruiser or two."
"Zemina'll come around soon. She was almost complimentary about your performance at Clayahu. But watch yourself. The girl might offer herself to you as a prelude to an attack." Laure seemed reluctant to call Karina by name, preferring to use the third person and impersonal terms when referring to her, unwilling to give Karina more than the most basic of acknowledgements.
"I'll bear that in mind." I replied, deadpan, deciding it would be better if I didn't tell her that Karina had already tried to have sex with me in the first week after her rescue back at Afli, even if in the subsequent weeks there had been no further 'tests'. "What can you tell me about Karina's family?"
"Her mother and father were both killed on an unsanctioned colony just beyond the fringe of Empire space, out towards the Coalsack nebula, in the HIP 18536 system. There's an Earth-like there, just inside the outer edge of the Goldilocks Zone. A little on the frosty side, but no terraforming required. Perfect for a low rent operation without major corporate backing. The colonists called it Elysian Fields." Laure explained. "They'd only been established for a couple of years before the attack. Not long enough to pay for AAA defences or have more than a handful of air superiority fighters for defence. They never stood a chance. The colony's administrators managed to get out a distress call during the assault, but by the time help got there, all that was left were smouldering buildings and corpses. They murdered the adults, of course, and took the children for slaves. Roughly two thousand dead, three hundred abducted."
"Son of a bitch." I snarled, my outrage barely under control, consoled only by the knowledge that the pirate group responsible had been wiped out by one of its rivals. "Anything else?"
"I don't have anything on the father other than a name: Mikhail Sychyov. No trace of any extended family. He must have gone to some lengths to get himself off the data grid. The mother was easier to find. Svetlana Volkova. The girl's birth certificate registers her under the mother's name."
"Any living relatives?"
"An aunt and uncle in the Tomani system. They've got a farm on Tomani 2, a terraformed Earth-like controlled by Tomani Blue State Co. I'll send you the co-ordinates." Laure said, looking down to tap brief instructions on the keyboard of her terminal.
"Olha Volkova and Konstantin Volkov. Thanks, Laure. I appreciate it."
"You better." Laure stuck out her tongue, playfully.
"One last thing. Any news yet on finding out who ordered the clone of my mother taken?"
"Not yet, no. The HelixGen board haven't been terribly forthcoming. If I didn't know better, I'd say that someone was trying to stall the investigation."
"Why would they do that?"
"I don't know. Especially considering that I'm the majority shareholder in the company. I'll get to the bottom of it, though. As soon as I find out anything, I'll give you a call."
"Thanks, sweetie. I'll let you know how things go at Tomani."
"Stay safe, Aemon. Be good, now." Laure signed off, blowing me a kiss.
I straightened the epaulets on my jacket, double-checking that everything was in order in the mirror before leaving my stateroom to check whether Karina was ready. Not wanting to interrupt my conversation with Laure, ASTRA had wisely decided to flash up a message on my terminal that the package containing Karina's outfit had arrived and that one of the AI's servitor drones had taken delivery of the parcel and delivered it to Karina's stateroom.
“Karina, how are you getting on?” I asked through the door.
“Almost ready, master.” Karina replied.
“You've really got to stop calling me that.” I admonished her, dryly. “Aemon. Call me Aemon. Remember, you're my co-pilot now.”
“Yes, Master Aemon.”
“That's going to be a hard habit to break, isn't it?” I mused to myself, smiling.
The hatch snapped open with the hiss of pneumatic rams. “How do I look, Master Aemon?”
I almost did a double-take, such was the transformation. Karina had chosen a gothic-inspired brocade ball gown, in black and vermillion, with a close-fitting bodice, a boned waistline to accentuate the curve of her waist and hips, and the dress had a dramatic slit up one leg from her right ankle halfway up her thigh, revealing silk stockings and a pair of high-heeled, knee-length black leather boots. She wore her long blonde hair loose over her bare shoulders, pearl hairpins tucking her hair behind her ears to expose matching platinum and pearl studded earrings. The only thing that looked out of place was the repurposed slave collar strapped around her slender wrist. “Absolutely stunning.” I told her, genuinely impressed by her taste in clothing. “Imperial tailoring suits you.”
Karina beamed with pride. “Thank you, Master Aemon.”
“You won't be able to wear that on the station, though.” I warned her, indicating the slave collar timepiece. “If security get one look at that, they'll arrest you on the spot. Not to mention the fact that it rather ruins the look of your outfit.”
Karina frowned, stroking the dome of the collar's drug pod in distress. “I don't want to take it off.”
“You're going to have to leave it behind. Otherwise we can't go out. If anyone were to suspect that you used to be a slave, people might start asking awkward questions. And not even my position in the Navy would be able to prevent you from getting arrested.” I explained, taking her hand and unfastening the strap. She didn't put up any resistance, even though I could tell from the look on her face that she wasn't happy. “You have to put your past behind you, Karina. You're not a slave anymore, you're a free woman. If anyone asks, your name is Karina Dementyeva, and I hired you at Penzias Dock in Fotla to be my co-pilot.”
“Yes, master.” Karina nodded, as I slipped off the collar's strap over her hand and placed it back in her quarters, next to the computer terminal. We had already rehearsed the cover story several times a day in the weeks since Laure had set up the false ID, but this would be the first field test. Any slip ups could have very severe consequences, and not just for Karina. “I remember.”
“Can you remember not to call me 'master', too?” I added, sardonically. “That might attract some unwanted attention, as well. If you must use a title, use my Imperial rank. 'My lord' is acceptable in public, but when we're alone on the ship, it's Aemon. Not Master Aemon. Just Aemon. Got it?”
“Yes, my lord.” Karina replied, again retreating reflexively behind the use of titles, as if reminding herself of her inferiority. It was a habit that was starting to drive me up the wall, given that I wanted her to start thinking of herself as a person and not a slave to be ordered around.
"Have you ever been out onto a station before?"
"No, my lord. My masters always told me they weren't safe for little girls."
"Well, you're not a little girl anymore, Karina. And this one is safe, one of the safest in the Empire. You'll like it, I'm sure. Just let me do the talking if we get approached. The place is crawling with freelance GalNet press hounds and corporate security. You can hardly move in the nightclubs without tripping over a holo celeb."
"What's a holo celeb?"
"You should be glad you don't know." I chuckled. "There's nothing more depressing than watching an episode of Made in Codorain... Brainless farmhands dressed up in togas having orgies in barnyards, and pretending to be someone with an actual personality. It's pathetic."
Karina stared at me blankly. She'd never even used the terminal in her room to check the local traffic reports, let alone check the latest GalNet updates or look at the millions of entertainment channels broadcasting throughout the bubble of colonised space. In fact, what she did to keep herself occupied in her stateroom remained a complete mystery to me. I could have asked ASTRA, of course, but I wanted to respect her privacy. The ship's AI would have told me already if it was anything I needed to worry about.
"Come on, Karina. Let's go. Stick close and don't wander off. If we do get separated, ask a security team to bring you back to the ship, docking bay 10. ASTRA will let you in." I said, sticking out my elbow and offering her my arm. Karina hooked her own arm through it, linking us together so we could walk side by side, as equals.
I kept my pace deliberately slow so that Karina would have time to take in her surroundings without information overload. She was mostly familiar with how things looked in the docking bay, having spent hours on the flight deck, simply watching the incoming and outgoing traffic, but the real test would be once we made it onto the main concourse of the entertainment sector. I wasn't sure how Karina would react to the crowds of revellers, the lurid advertising screens or the cacophony of chatter, music and background noise. We stepped out of the lift onto the bustling concourse, thousands of people flowing across the deck, seemingly at random as they tried to negotiate their way to their destination amongst the hundreds of bars, clubs, restaurants and casinos. The crowd was almost exclusively young, not a single person appeared to be approaching the century years of middle age, the vast majority being in the first flush of youth, dressed in outrageously expensive and fashionable outfits, ranging from the positively demure and chaste to the frankly obscene. Karina gasped when she was gently nudged aside by a party of six towering, raven-haired beauties wearing nothing except for make-up, perfume and identical silver-plate bikinis with matching stiletto-sharp high-heeled shoes. One of the gorgeous, alabaster-skinned creatures licked her lips seductively as she passed Karina, eyeing her gown jealously.
"Come and find me later, darling." The woman kissed Karina on the back of her hand, her lipstick leaving behind a perfect replica of the shape of her full lips. "I'd like to try you on."
"Perhaps another time." I answered for Karina, declining the offer graciously, as Karina's panic levels started to rise.
"Your loss." The temptress gave me a truly stunning smile, revealing a flawless set of sharp, brilliantly white teeth, sighing theatrically to flash me the silver, barbed stud pierced through her long, broad tongue, before turning to catch up with the rest of her party. I felt a flash of envy and pity for the unsuspecting victim she would be taking to bed later that night.
I saw Karina's chest strain at her bodice rapidly as she began to hyperventilate in alarm. "Hey, it's okay. I'm right here. They're just party girls looking for a good time."
Karina responded by tightening her grip with her arm, drawing me closer to her. After a few seconds, her breathing rate subsided and she looked visibly calmer, the flush of pink cooling away from her cheeks. When I sensed she was ready, we continued on through the crowds, weaving past clusters of people surrounding street artists performing on the concourse. Pairs of security officers clad in white and blue high-impact body armour stood at practically every storefront, the AI-linked Head-Up-Displays on their helmet visions constantly feeding them information and assessing the mass of bodies swarming over the concourse for threats, stun rifles held tightly across their chests and backup sidearms containing lethal flechette darts strapped to their hips. With such a conspicuous and overbearing security presence, the crowd was a good-natured one. I heard an almost constant string of apologies being uttered as people squeezed past each other on their way to the multitude of possible destinations. GalNet and security camera drones buzzed overhead, competing for air space with the luminous advertising billboards, projecting vibrant holographs of desirable products from around the Empire, accompanied by maddening musical jingles to make the five second clips embed themselves in your memory. Adverts for everything imaginable, from starships, consumer technology, premium foodstuffs, jewellery, clothing, and even personal weapons filled the space above our heads. If I found it intrusive, I wondered what Karina made of it. She clang hard onto my arm with both hands, letting me guide her further down the concourse to the restaurant I planned to eat at, gawping open-mouthed at the sights and sounds around her, bewildered.
A long queue was already forming outside the entrance to Munster Mash. I overheard respectful muttering between the waiting couples and groups as I led Karina arm-in-arm directly to the hulking bouncers standing guard at the door. Citizens got to queue. Naval dignitaries and their companions were not expected to wait in line. It was irrelevant that the restaurant had been fully booked for months in advance. Any establishment worth frequenting in the Empire intrinsically understood that it was sensible to keep private tables in reserve for unexpected, high-prestige patrons. It was unthinkable that a restaurant of Munster Mash's standing and reputation would turn away the patronage and favour of an Imperial Viscount. One of the suited and shaved gorillas whispered inaudibly into his earpiece as soon as he recognised my uniform from over thirty metres away. By the time Karina and I arrived at the entrance, the doors were already being held open for us and I was greeted by the maitre d', Monsieur Hengy. His eyes lit up with genuine pleasure as he directed us to the pre-prepared table for two. "My lord Roche! It's an honour to see you once again."
"Hello, Seb." I returned the warmth of his greeting with a broad smile. "You should know by now that I can't resist the siren call of the best tarte flambée in the Empire for too long."
"My lord is far too kind." Hengy bowed, accepting the compliment with typical grace and charm. He pulled back the leather-bound chair from the table to allow Karina to sit, before doing the same for me. "I see my lord has brought a lovely companion along for the evening. But not the Governor Torval, no?"
"Unfortunately her duties require her to be elsewhere tonight. This is Karina Dementyeva, my new co-pilot." I introduced her the maitre d', who nodded respectfully as he handed us paper-thin data tablets displaying the menu on an elegantly designed, art nouveau-inspired OLED touchscreen.
"A newcomer to the Empire, I take it?" Hengy asked, almost offhandedly, his face the very epitome of detached diffidence.
"I'd love to know how you divined that, Sebastien." I asked, narrowing my eyes in suspicion. It wasn't common knowledge, but Hengy was an extraordinarily well-connected manager of a network of freelance informants that spanned the Empire and some of the surrounding systems beyond, one of the reasons I frequented the restaurant at least six times a year. He always had interesting scraps of information for me.
"A professional secret, my lord." Hengy replied enigmatically, before trying to direct my attention to the wine menu. "May I recommend the Lodi Zinfandel? The 3297 vintage is quite spectacular."
"Oh, Sebastien, I really must know." I made sure my tone carried a sufficient hint of threat.
"If you insist, my lord Roche... Mademoiselle Karina's hair... the texture of cut and the colour. It's really not en vogue." Seb made a show of studying her like a stylist. "Almost parochial, in fact."
"What's wrong with my hair?" Karina asked, unaware that Hengy and I were conducting a coded conversation on a completely different plane from the banalities of the latest fashions in hairdressing and which wine we should drink with dinner.
Hengy tactically ignored Karina's question, continuing unflustered. "Remarkably, the mademoiselle matches almost exactly the description of a recent missing person's report from Afli."
"How actively are the relatives pursuing leads?" I asked, trying not to notice as Karina started to get agitated.
"What's wrong with my hair?" she asked again, louder, more insistently.
Hengy placed a soothing palm over her hand, and looked her in the eye. "Your hair is magnificent, Mademoiselle Karina. It will be setting new trends before the night is out, I'm sure." With Karina placated, the smooth maitre d' turned back to me and continued our conversation."Only in passing, my lord. The young lady in question was not regarded with great affection by the family."
"Have they offered a reward for her safe return?" I asked casually, keeping my eyes fixed intently on the menu tablet.
"No, my lord. I fear that she will not be missed." Hengy shook his head, sadly. Open-palmed, he indicated a second entry on the wine list. "Might I instead suggest the Lussac Saint-Émilion? Their latest Grand Cru is said to be the best in over a decade."
"I'll have the Zinfandel after all, Seb." I replied, signalling my gratitude for his information and insight. The Lodi was four times the price of the Lussac. "And a bottle of Lisbeth Rouge for the lady."
"Tout de suite, my lord." Hengy bowed and scurried towards the kitchens, relaying my drinks order to the waiting army of serving staff.
"What was all that about?" Karina asked, frowning.
"Nothing you need to worry about."
"Were you talking about me?"
"Tangentially, yes. The good news is that Theriault's slaver friends aren't going to come looking for you."
"So what's the bad news?"
"That information cost me a bottle of wine that's almost as expensive as your gown." I told her with an expression that was half grimace and half smile.
"Oh." Karina shifted uncomfortably in her seat, unsure of what to say.
"Don't worry, Karina. I expected that. It was one of the reasons we came here in the first place."
"And what were the other reasons, my lord?
"Good food, good drink and good company." I replied, as one of Hengy's immaculately dressed flunkies brought us our drinks. The sommelier half-filled my wine glass with the crystal-clear ruby wine. I swirled the vanilla, oak and blueberry-scented liquid around the bowl of the glass, watching carefully how it clang to the tall, inward slope towards the top of the glass. A brief sniff sent a heady shot of alcoholic vapour deep into my nostrils, its potency taking my breath away. A tiny sip confirmed that its taste matched the heady scent, bursting onto my tongue with hints of blackberry, plums and toasted spices. I looked up at the blonde sommelier and gave her a nod to grant her permission to fill my glass and leave the rest of the bottle. "Monsieur Hengy wasn't exaggerating. That is spectacular."
"Can I try?"
"Hmm. I'm not sure you want to develop a taste for this." I counselled, studying the label of the wine bottle intently. "I'd stick to water if I were you."
The sommelier filled the glass bulbs on the left of our place-settings from the tall red bottle of mineral water that she had also brought to the table. Despite having been shipped all the way from Sol, Lisbeth Rouge wasn't nearly as expensive as the fabled Waters of Shinrarta, but the carbonated spring water was still pricier than a 10 year old vintage bottle of Lavian Brandy, albeit undoubtedly a great deal healthier. The sommelier was instantly replaced at the table by the deputy head waiter, who took our food order without fuss or ceremony. I took the liberty of ordering on behalf of Karina, who'd never even heard of the majority of dishes on the menu.
"Next time you can try a choucroute," I told Karina, returning the menu tablets to the waiter. "But the first time you come here, you really have to try the tarte flambée."
"What is it?"
"Heaven on a plate. A thin crust of bread dough, topped with fromage blanc, onions and bacon lardons. Nothing fancy, but it doesn't need to be when it's done this well. They've not had to change the recipe in centuries." I took another sip of the exceptional, full-bodied Zinfandel, savouring every flavour in anticipation of the meal to come. "After one of these, you'll never want to eat pizza again."
"Pizza?" Karina inquired, scratching the back of her skull, thoroughly nonplussed.
"You've never had pizza?" I responded, aghast. "Well that's great, I've just ruined pizza for you."
Less than ten minutes after our order had been taken, the deputy head waiter returned with wooden platters, each one laden with a wafer-thin circle of toasted dough, liberally laden with the finest ingredients from ancient Alsatian cuisine.
"Mademoiselle's tarte flambée," the waiter announced, setting down the platter before Karina, before moving across to my side of the table. "Monsieur's tarte au Munster. Bon appétit."
I watched Karina in silence as she sniffed at the savoury-loaded flatbread doubtfully, before using her knife and fork to saw away a sliver of the tarte from the edge and pop it experimentally into her mouth. Her jade green eyes widened with surprise as she tasted the perfect balance between the saltiness of the bacon strips, the acidity of the fromage blanc and the sweetness of the caramelised onions. I chuckled as a shudder of delight rippled from her shoulders to her toes, Karina leaning forward to reduce the distance between the platter and her mouth as her hands worked quickly and systematically to carve the tarte into edible fragments as fast as she could, her eyebrows wrinkling and creasing together in absolute concentration. My own tarte was equally as good, but with the added complexity of the earthiness of cumin seeds and the creamy, ammonia tang of Munster cheese. It was more of an acquired taste than the traditional tarte flambée, but well worth the effort of mastering.
"What do you think then, Karina? Is it a hit?"
"I could eat three." Karina didn't look up from her plate, concentrating on dissecting the remains of the toasted, delicious disk.
"Hold your horses there, you need to leave room for dessert." I advised her, between mouthfuls. "I've got some good news for you. My wife was able to track down some of your relatives. I'm going to take you to meet them."
“Who are they?”
“Your mother's parents. Do you remember them?” I asked, Karina looking blankly at me for a few seconds before shaking her head. “They live on an agricultural world, Tomani 2. You've never been there?”
“I can't remember.” Karina replied distantly.
"Are you alright?" I studied her face, which gave the distinct impression that she was feeling slightly spaced out. If she hadn't only been drinking water, I would have suspected that she was drunk.
"I feel a little weird." Karina swayed back and forth on her chair a few centimetres as she breathed. It was then I noticed that the lipstick mark on the back of her hand had changed colour from vermillion to a metallic blue. I took her hand in mine from across the table and lifted it to my nose, sniffing gingerly. There was no smell at all, other than that of the normal beeswax base for the lipstick, but the colour change implied that something had been absorbed from the lipstick through the skin. "It's quite nice, actually."
"I think your admirer laced her lipstick with fentanyl." I explained, dousing the corner of a napkin with some of the mineral water to wipe the waxy residue from the back of Karina's hand.
"Mmmm... what's that?" Karina asked drowsily, her eyelids becoming heavy.
"A recreational opiate. Very popular with date-rapists and blackmailers." I explained, now definitely feeling sorry for whoever ended up being the object of the tall brunette temptress's ministrations later this evening. I beckoned across the nearest waitress. "I think Miss Dementyeva is going to need some coffee. She's feeling rather tired, all of a sudden."
"Yes, my lord. Any coffee in particular?" the waitress asked, retrieving a wireless tablet to add the order to our bill.
"The strongest and blackest you've got. And plenty of sugar." I squeezed Karina's hand to keep her awake. "Hey, stay with me. Keep your eyes open and take deep breaths. You've had quite an evening. Your first tarte flambée and an opiate overdose."
Karina protested at the bitterness of the coffee, but was nonetheless persuaded that it would be better to drink it than pass out at the table in one of the most exclusive restaurants in the sector. With Karina still teetering on the verge of consciousness, we demurred on dessert and settled the bill. Privately, I thanked Hengy for the information he had provided me with and asked him to send us half a dozen uncooked tartes for my ship's food stores in the morning for Karina to enjoy later without any unexpected chemical impairment. He charged an extortionate price, naturally, but promised to add in a case of the remarkable Lodi Zinfandel as well. I helped Karina to her feet and walked her back to the ship, with her clinging to my arm unsteadily with both hands, barely opening her eyes the whole way.
I sat Karina on her bunk, still fully dressed in her gown and boots. She looked up at me beatifically, her eyes still glazed. "Thank you for dinner, Aemon."
"You're welcome, Karina." It was the first time Karina had called me by name, without a title, since her rescue. I returned to my own stateroom full of hope that, despite the unfortunate intervention of the party predator on the concourse, Karina had coped well with her first evening out in public. It was only a small step on a long path to a normal life, but the first steps were often the most important. The next step was to reintroduce her to family life by visiting her maternal grandparents on Tomani 2. I slept soundly, feeling sure that the omens tonight had been good ones.