And it was Genghis’ ability to communicate fully with Judson which made his telempathic abilities so valuable to Torch. At the moment, they were officially assigned to Immigration Services, although Thandi Palane had made it quite clear to Judson that that assignment was in the nature of a polite fiction. Their real job was to keep an eye on people who got close enough to Queen Berry to pose a potential threat to the teenaged monarch.

It’d help if Berry were willing to let us put together a proper security detail for her, he thought now, with a familiar sense of disgruntlement. One of these days she’s going to have to figure out that she’s making it a hell of a lot harder to keep her alive by being so stubborn about it. And if she weren’t such a lovable kid, I swear I’d snatch her up by the scruff of the neck and shake some sense into her!

The thought gave him a certain degree of satisfaction . . . which was only slightly flawed by Genghis’ bleeking chuckle from his shoulder as the ‘cat effortlessly followed the familiar thought through its well-worn mental groove.

“Brooding about Her Majesty’s stubbornness again, are we?” Harper inquired genially, and Judson scowled at him.

“It’s a sorry turn of events when a man’s own ‘cat rats him out to such an unworthy superior as yourself,” he observed.

“Genghis never signed a word,” Harper pointed out mildly, and Judson snorted.

“He didn’t have to,” he growled. “The two of you have been so mutually corrupting that I think you’re developing your own ‘mind voice’!”

“I wish!” Harper’s snort was only half humorous. “It’d make our job a lot easier, wouldn’t it?”

“Probably.” Judson walked across to his own desk and dropped into his chair. “Not as much easier as it’d be if Berry was only willing to be reasonable about it, though.”

“I don’t think anyone — except Her Majesty, of course — is likely to argue with you about that,” Harper observed. “On the other hand, at least you and I have it easier than Lara or Saburo.”

“Yeah, but unlike Lara we’re both civilized, too,” Judson pointed out. “If Berry gets too stubborn with her, Lara’ll just sling her over a shoulder, unlike either of us, and haul her off kicking and screaming!”

“Now that,” Harper said with a sudden chuckle, “is something I’d pay good money to see. And you’re right — Lara’d do it in a heartbeat, wouldn’t she?”

It was Judson’s turn to chuckle, although he wondered if Harper found it quite as ironic as he himself did that the closest thing to a personal bodyguard the Queen of Torch would accept was a Scrag.

Well, an ex-Scrag, if we’re going to be fair about it, he reminded himself. And given that Lara’s one of Thandi’s ‘Amazons,’ I think it would be a very good idea to be as fair as possible in her case.

Still, it was a bizarre sort of relationship, in a lot of ways. The Scrags were the direct descendants of the genetically engineered “super soldiers” of Old Earth’s Final War, and an awful lot of them had found themselves in the service of Manpower or working as mercenaries for one or another of Mesa’s outlaw corporations. Given the way most Scrags clung to their sense of superiority to the “normals” around them — and the reciprocal (and, in most cases, equally unthinking) prejudice most of those normals exhibited where the Scrags were concerned — it wasn’t as if the majority of Lara’s relatives found themselves with a lot of lucrative career opportunities. So, over the centuries, many of them had drifted into various criminal enterprises — which, of course, only strengthened and deepened the anti-Scrag stereotypes and prejudices. It had been only a short step from there to the role of Mesan enforcers and leg breakers, especially since Mesa was one of the few places in the galaxy where “genies” were regarded as an everyday fact of life. All of which meant that the Scrags and the Ballroom had shed an awful lot of each others’ blood.

Yet, despite all that, here were Lara and her fellow Amazons, not simply accepted on Torch but full citizens trusted with the protection of Torch’s queen.

And thank God for them, he reflected rather more soberly.

“Well,” Harper said after several seconds, still smiling with the echoes of his mental vision of a squalling, kicking Berry tossed across Lara’s shoulder and hauled off to safety somewhere, “I’m afraid that rather than giving our lives in the defense of our beloved — if stubborn — Queen, our day is going to be one of those less scintillating moments of our life experience.”

“I always get worried when you start trotting out extra vocabulary,” Judson observed.

“That’s because you’re a naturally suspicious and un-trusting soul, without one scintilla of philosophical discernment or sensitivity to guide you through the perceptual and ontological shallows of your day to day existence.”

“No, it’s because when you get full of yourself this way it usually means we’re going to be doing something incredibly boring, like counting noses on a new transport or something.”

“Interesting you should raise that specific possibility.” Harper smiled brightly, and Judson eyed him with a suspicion that rapidly descended into resignation.

“Oh, crap,” he muttered.

“That’s not a very becoming attitude,” Harper scolded.

“Oh, yeah? Well let me guess, O Fearless Leader. Which of us have you decided to assign as doorman this afternoon?”

“Not you, that’s for sure,” Harper said with an audible sniff. He watched Judson from the corner of one eye, timing his moment carefully. Then, the instant Judson started to brighten ever so slightly, he shrugged. “I’ve assigned the best qualified person to the job, and I’m sure he won’t object the way certain other people might. Of course, despite all of his other qualifications, Genghis will need you along as interpreter.”

Judson raised one hand in an ancient (and very rude) gesture as his traitor treecat’s bleeking laughter echoed Harper’s obvious amusement. Still, he couldn’t fault the other man’s logic.

Somebody had to be in charge of the reception, processing, and orientation of the steady stream of ex-slaves pouring into Torch on an almost daily basis. The news that they finally had a genuine homeworld to call their own, a planet which had become the very symbol of their defiant refusal to submit to the dehumanization and brutality of their self-appointed masters, had gone through the interstellar community of escaped slaves like a lightning bolt. Judson doubted that any exile had ever returned to his homeland with more fervor and determination than he saw whenever another in the apparently endless stream of ASL-sponsored transport vessels arrived here in Torch. Torch’s population was expanding explosively, and there was a militancy, a bared-teeth snarl of defiance, to every shipload of fresh immigrants. Whatever philosophical differences might exist between them, they were meaningless beside their fierce identification with one another and with their new homeworld.