Chapter Twenty-One

In the event, the weeks that Brice Miller and his friends spent fretting over their upcoming encounter with the notorious Jeremy X, proved to be pointless. When they were finally introduced to the feared and ferocious terrorist, after they arrived on Torch, it turned out that the reality bore no resemblance to the legends.

To begin with, he was not two hundred and twenty centimeters tall, nor was his physique that of an ogre. Quite the opposite, to Brice’s surprise and relief. The former head of the Audubon Ballroom and current Secretary of War for Torch was no more than a hundred and sixty-five centimeters in height, and his build was wiry and slender rather than massive.

He seemed quite a cheerful fellow, too. Even puckish, you might say — at least if, like Brice, you had just recently encountered the term and been taken by it, but hadn’t yet read enough literature to realize that “puckish” was by no means the same thing as “harmless.”

Jeremy X didn’t scowl, either. Not once. Not even after Hugh Arai — far more bluntly and precisely than he needed to, in Brice’s opinion — explained the manner in which Brice’s clan had stayed alive on Parmley station, for the past half century.

Unfortunately, while Jeremy X didn’t scowl, someone else in Queen Berry’s audience chamber — that was what they called it, anyway, although Brice thought it looked more like a big office with no desk and not very many chairs — most certainly did scowl. And she made up for everything Jeremy lacked, and then some.

Thandi Palane was her name. It turned out she was the commander of Torch’s entire military. Brice had been surprised to hear that. If anyone had asked him to guess at the woman’s occupation, he would have said either professional wrestler or enforcer for criminal enterprises. Uniform be damned. That woman was just plain scary. Even without the scowl.

Thankfully, the queen of Torch herself didn’t seem to share her military commander’s attitude. In fact, she seemed very friendly. And after a few minutes, Brice realized that Palane’s scowl wasn’t directed at him anyway. She was apparently just scowling at the general state of the universe, moral failings thereof.

By then, though, Brice had stopped caring what Palane thought or didn’t think. In fact, he’d become almost completely oblivious to her existence — and even the existence of Jeremy X. That was because it hadn’t taken more than five minutes in the presence of the queen of Torch before Brice had developed an infatuation for the young woman. A really, really powerful infatuation, the sort that drives all other thoughts from a teenage boy’s brain like a steam cleaner scours all surfaces.

Also a really, really, really stupid infatuation, even by the standards of fourteen year old adolescent males. Brice wasn’t so far gone that he didn’t realize that, at least in some part of his brain. Big deal. He was providing neurologists with the most graphic evidence probably ever uncovered that the brains of adolescents — male adolescents, for sure — were not fully developed when it came to those portions that evaluated risks.

From the slack-jawed look on their faces, he was sure that his friends Ed Hartman and James Lewis had been struck down by the same infatuation. And, alas — unlike Brice, who still had a few functioning neurons in his cortex — were now completely ruled by their limbic systems. You might as well have called them Amygdalum and Amygdalee. He could only hope they didn’t do anything really foolish. Too much too hope, of course, that they wouldn’t drool.

It was odd. Brice was already self-analytical enough to realize that his points of attraction when it came to girls were . . .

Being honest, not probably all that mature. Good looks came first, put it that way. And, prior to this very moment, he would have sworn that for his friends Ed and James, good looks came first, last, and everything in between.

Yet the truth was that Queen Berry wasn’t actually pretty. She certainly wasn’t ugly, either, but about the best you could say for her thin face was that everything was in the right place, nothing was deformed, and her complexion was good in pale sort of way. She had nicely colored eyes, for sure. They were her best facial feature. A vivid pale green that almost made up for her mousy-brown hair. Glossy and healthy-looking mousy-brown hair, true. Still. Mousy-brown was mousy-brown.

True, also, that her slender figure — quite evident, in the casual clothing she chose to wear, even sitting on her throne (which was really just a big, comfortable-looking chair) — was unmistakably female. Still. Various secondary sexual characteristics that normally loomed large in Brice’s assessment of female attractiveness and from what he could tell completely dominated that of his friends — big breasts, to name one — were markedly absent here.

So why was he smitten? What was it about the young queen’s open and friendly countenance that seemed somehow dazzling? What was it about her certainly-healthy-but-that’s-about-it figure that was producing hormonal reactions way more powerful than any he’d ever experienced gazing upon the voluptuous figure of Cousin Jennifer?

Part of the explanation was simply that Berry Zilwicki was the first unknown young woman that Brice Miller had ever encountered, aside from brief views of slaves being transported or the slavers overseeing the process, some of whom were also female. One of the many drawbacks of being raised as he had, part of a small clan of people very isolated from the rest of the human race, was that by the time boys reached puberty, they already knew every girl around. And vice versa, for the girls. There were no mysteries, no unknowns. True, the fact that some girls — for Brice, it has been Jennifer Foley — had suddenly developed in such a way as to stimulate new and primitive reactions from the opposite sex (or, sometimes, the same sex — Ganny’s clan wasn’t at all prudish or narrow-minded about such things) helped a bit. Still, while Cousin Jennifer’s ability to stir up fantasies in Brice’s mind was new, the cousin herself most certainly was not. He still carried a small scar on his elbow from the time she’d struck him there with a handy tool, in retaliation for his theft of one of her toys. And she was still holding something of a grudge for the theft itself.

They’d been seven years old, at the time.

The queen of Torch, on the other hand, was really new. Brice didn’t know anything at all about her, except for the bare facts that she was several years older than he was — irrelevant, at the moment — and commanded legions of armed and dangerous soldiers. Also irrelevant, at the moment. Everything else was unknown. That, combined with her friendly demeanor, opened the floodgates of fourteen-year-old sexual fantasies in a way that Brice had never encountered and against which he had few defenses.

But there was more involved. Dimly, Brice Miller was beginning to grasp that sex was a lot more complicated than it looked. He was even verging on the Great Truth that most men were quite happy even when the Significant Other in their life was not especially good-looking. So perhaps Brice was not destined for a life of chastity after all. Given that his heretofore stratospheric standards seemed to be crumbling by the minute.

“– the matter with you, Brice? And the two of you also, Ed and James. It’s a simple enough question.”

The genuine irritation in Ganny El’s tone of voice finally penetrated the hormonal fog.

Brice jerked. What question?

Thankfully, James played the fool, so Brice didn’t have to. “Uh . . . what question, Ganny? I didn’t hear it.”

“Have you suddenly gone deaf?” Butre pointed at one of the men standing not far from the queen. He was on the short side, and so wide-bodied he looked a little deformed. “Mr. Zilwicki wants to know if you’d be willing to spend a few months –”

Zilwicki cleared his throat. “Might be as long as a year, Ms. Butre.”

“Twelve counts as a ‘few,’ when you’re my age, young man. To get back to the point, James — and you too, Ed and Brice — Mr. Zilwicki has a job for you.” She gave Zilwicki a beady stare. “‘Somewhat’ dangerous, he says. A word to the wise, youngsters. This is one of those situations where the phrase ‘somewhat dangerous’ is a lot closer to ‘a little bit pregnant’ than it is to . . . oh, let’s say the version of ‘somewhat dangerous’ that a conscientious playground attendant says to a mother when her child is heading for the seesaw.”

That began dispelling the hormonal fog. For the first time since he’d laid eyes on the queen, Brice focused on someone else in the room.