TORCH OF FREEDOM — Snippet 08:
In the event, the “official royal leave-taking” was as informal as Cathy could have asked for. There were only a handful of people present in Berry’s audience chamber to see her off. Berry herself, Princess Ruth, Web DuHavel, Jeremy X and Thandi Palane. Web and Jeremy were old friends, and while Ruth wasn’t — prior to this trip to Torch, Cathy had only exchanged a few words with her at royal functions on Manticore — she felt quite familiar because of Cathy’s long-standing ties to the Winton dynasty. Those ties had become politically strained over the years, but they were still personally relaxed.
Thandi Palane was the one true stranger to her in the group. Cathy had never met her prior to this trip. She knew a great deal about the Mfecane worlds which had produced Palane, because of their relationship to genetic slavery. Manpower used a lot of Mfecane genetic stock to produce their heavy labor lines. But she also knew perfectly well that she had no real knowledge of what it must have been like to grow up on Ndebele.
She’d gotten to know the big woman to a degree, in the course of her stay on Torch following Berry’s coronation. She still couldn’t consider her a “friend,” though, in any real sense of the term. Palane had been friendly, to be sure, but there had remained a certain tight reserve in all her dealings with Catherine Montaigne.
That hadn’t upset Cathy. First, because she recognized the phenomenon. She’d encountered it many times with genetic slaves recently escaped or freed from Manpower’s clutches. No matter how well recommended Cathy was by other ex-slaves, and no matter what her political reputation was, there was simply no way that someone who’d recently come from the depths of genetic slavery was going to feel at ease in the presence of a wealthy noblewoman. And while Thandi Palane hadn’t come from genetic slavery, being born and raised on Ndebele as what amounted to nothing more than a peon was close enough to produce the same reserve.
But none of that mattered, anyway. The other reason Cathy had a very favorable attitude toward Palane, however the woman acted toward her, was that she figured Thandi Palane was the single person in the universe most likely to keep Berry Zilwicki alive and reasonably intact in the years to come. The woman was the head of Torch’s fledgling military, she was closely tied to Berry, and . . .
Utterly ferocious, when she needed to be.
Cathy looked around the room. Berry’s “audience chamber” was actually just a hastily-remodeled office in the big building that Manpower had once used for its headquarters on Torch — “Congo,” as it had then been known — and which the rebels had taken over and turned into a combination “royal palace” and government center.
“Where’s Lars?” she asked.
Berry grinned. “He’s taking his leave from his new girlfriend. Don’t ask me which one. If he survives adolescence — and he’s only got a few more months to go — he’s got a surefire career ahead of him as a juggler.”
Cathy chuckled, a bit ruefully. Once he got past puberty, Berry’s younger brother Lars had turned into something of a Lothario. The secret of his attraction to young women remained mysterious to Cathy. Lars was a pleasant looking boy, but he wasn’t really what you’d call “handsome.” And while he certainly wasn’t bashful, neither was he particularly aggressive in the way he approached and dealt with teenage girls. In fact, he was considered by most people, including Cathy herself, as “a very nice boy.”
Yet, whatever the reason, he seemed to be a magnet for teenage girls — and more than a few women several years older than he was. Within a week after arriving on Torch with Cathy, he’d manage to acquire two girlfriends his own age and had even drawn the half-serious attentions of a woman who was at least thirty years old.
“Let’s hope we manage to get out of here without a scandal,” Cathy half-muttered.
Jeremy X grinned. Impishly, as he usually did. “Don’t be silly. All the females involved are genetic ex-slaves. So are what pass for their parents — none, in the case of two of them — and every one of their friends. ‘Scandal’ is simply not an issue, here. What you should be worried about is whether Lars can get off the planet without getting various body parts removed.”
He’d barely gotten out the last words before the lad in question manifested himself in the chamber. Nobody actually saw him come in.
“Hi, Mom. Dad. Berry. Everybody.” He gave them all some quick nods. Then, looking a bit worried, said: “How soon are we leaving? I vote for right away. No offense, Sis — I mean, Your Majesty. I just don’t see any point in dragging this out.”
His stepmother gave him a stern look. “What is the problem, Lars?”
He fidgeted for a few seconds. “Well. Susanna. She’s really pissed. She said she had half a mind to –” He fidgeted some more, glancing back at the entrance to the chamber. “It was kinda gross.”
Cathy rolled her eyes. “Oh, wonderful.”
Web DuHavel laughed softly. “The truth is, Cathy, I’ve never been one for drawn-out leave takings myself.”
“Me, neither,” said Jeremy.
So, she hugged both of them quickly. Then, shook Thandi Palane’s hand. Then, gave Ruth another quick hug, and then gave Berry a very long one.
“Take care, sweetheart,” she whispered into her step-daughter’s ear.
“You too, Mom.”
At Cathy’s insistence, Anton toted the monster of a suitcase all the way into her yacht. She didn’t relieve him of his duties until he’d deposited the thing onto the bed in her stateroom.
There followed a very long hug, even longer than the one she’d given Berry, accompanied by the sort of intellectually meaningless but emotionally critical words by which a husband and wife — which they were, in reality if not in name — part company for what they both know is going to be a very long separation.
By the time Anton emerged from the ship, Susanna had arrived. She’d brought a bag of rocks with her.
Anton glanced back at Cathy’s yacht. Compared to the vast majority of starships, the yacht was tiny, not a lot bigger than some light attack craft and actually quite a bit smaller than most frigates. It had also been designed, like many such “rich people toy” vessels, to actually land on planetary surfaces . . . assuming the right support was available. Fortunately, Torch’s main spaceport had been provided (back when it was still “Verdant Vista”) with the hugely outsized “shuttle pads” such vessels required, since so many of Manpower, Incorporated’s, upper echelon executives loved to flaunt their wealth with exactly such vessels. Despite its small size for a starship, it still massed well over sixty-two-thousand tons, and it loomed like a titan over the spaceport.
“His mother’s stinking rich, you know,” Anton said to the blonde teenager. She was quite attractive in a stocky and athletic way. “The point being, I don’t think those rocks are even going to dent the hull.”
“Sure, I know that.” Susanna dug into the bag. “It’s the principle of the thing.”
As Anton predicted, the hull wasn’t so much as dented. Still, she managed to hit it twice. The girl had one hell of an arm.