Zilwicki. He was the queen’s father, or maybe step-father. And his first name was Anthony, right? Brice wasn’t entirely certain.

Good fortune struck again. Thandi Palane frowned — the frown helped clear away still more of the hormonal fog — and said: “Are you sure about this, Anton?”

“They’re awfully young,” added the queen doubtfully.

That was a dash of cold water. She’d said “awfully young” in the manner that a protective adult refers to children. Not, sadly, in the way that . . .

Well. That Brice imagined sophisticated older women spoke of young men to whom they were inexplicably attracted. Admittedly, he wasn’t sure of that, either. Seeing as how the situation had never actually happened to him.

One of the other men in the room spoke up. He was a lot less striking than Zilwicki. Just an average-sized man, with a very square face. Very wide shoulders, too.

“That’s the whole point, Your Maj — ah, Berry. Add them into the mix, as young as they are, and with neither the ship nor anybody on it having any connection to either Torch or the Ballroom — or Manticore or Beowulf or Haven — and they’ll be about as invisible as anyone can be, where we’d be going.”

“And where it that, precisely?” demanded Ganny. “I can’t help but notice that you’ve made no mention of that so far.”

The square-faced man glanced at Zilwicki. “Mesa. To be precise.”

“Oh, well. And why don’t we sodomize all the demons in the universe, while we’re at it?” Elfride Margarete Butre glared at him. “What do you want us to do for an encore, Cachat? Circumcise the devil?”

Good fortune again. Brice had forgotten that man’s name too. His first name was Victor, and he was from the Republic of Haven.

Ca-chat. Silently, Brice practiced the name a few times. It was pronounced in the Frenchified way that Havenites often spoke. KAH-SHAH, rhyming with “pasha,” except the emphasis was on the second syllable instead of the first.

It finally dawned on him to wonder what a Havenite was doing as part of Queen Berry’s inner circle. Especially given that Zilwicki — more memories came flooding back in, as the hormonal fog continued to lift — was from the Star Kingdom of Manticore. The somewhat haphazard and always intensely practical education given the clan’s youngsters didn’t spend much time on the fine points of astropolitics. But it wasn’t so sketchy as to have overlooked the most hard-fought, bitter and longest-running war in the galaxy.

Haven. Manticore. And now . . . Mesa.

Suddenly, Brice was excited. Excited enough that he even forgot for a moment that he was in the presence of the universe’s most wondrous female.

“We’ll do it!” he said.

“Yeah!” and “Yeah!” came the echoes from James and Ed.

Ganny’s shoulders sagged a little, but her glare at Cachat didn’t fade in the least. “You cheated, you bastard.”

Cachat looked more curious than offended. “How did I cheat?” Then, he shrugged. “But if it’ll make you feel better . . . ”

He looked now at Brice and his two friends. “The mission we’ll be undertaking is in fact very dangerous. I don’t think you’ll be in much danger, yourselves, at least until the very end. You might not even participate in the ‘very end’ at all, for that matter, since you’ll mostly be there just as a backup in case things go wrong. Still, it can’t be ruled out — and the fact that something will have gone wrong if you do get involved means that it’s likely to be pretty dangerous.”

“And when he says ‘pretty dangerous,'” Zilwicki chimed in, “he means ‘pretty dangerous’ in the sense that you’ve gone into the den of the most ruthless and evil people in the world and yanked on their collective beard, not ‘pretty dangerous’ in the sense that you’ve picked a fight in the schoolyard with some kids who are a bit bigger than you.”

“So there’s no hard feelings if you decline,” concluded Cachat.

“We’ll do it!” Brice said.

“Yeah!” and “Yeah!” came the echoes from James and Ed.

“You dirty rotten cheaters,” hissed Ganny. She point a finger at the three boys. “You know perfectly well their brains haven’t fully developed yet.”

“Well, sure,” said Zilwicki. He poked his forehead with a finger. “Cortex is still a little unshaped, especially in the risk-assessment areas. But if it’ll make you feel any better, the same’s probably true for me, even at my decrepit age.” He hooked a thumb at Cachat. “For sure and certain, it’s true for him.”

“Oh, wonderful,” said Ganny. Brice couldn’t remember her ever sounding so sullen.

He, on the other hand, felt exuberant. He’d finally realized what was going on. The most wildly improbable fantasy, come true to life!

The classic, in fact. Young hero, sent out on a quest to slay the dragon in order to rescue the princess. Well, very young queen. Close enough.

The traditional reward for which deed of derring-do was well-established. Hallowed, even.

His eyes flicked right and left. True, in the fantasies there was only one young hero — it being a solitary quest, given the nature of the reward—but Brice was sure he’d outshine his friends. And Zilwicki and Cachat didn’t count, because Zilwicki was the queen’s own father and Cachat was apparently hooked up with Palane and no man, not even one with no frontal lobes at all, would be stupid enough to try to jilt her.

Then Ganny went and wrecked it all. “I’m coming too, then, Cachat, whether you like it or not.”

Cachat nodded. “Certainly. The plan sort of depends on that, in fact.”

“And my great-nephew Andrew Artlett.” She pointed to the individual in question, who’d been standing against a far wall.

Cachat nodded again. “Makes sense.”

Ganny now pointed to another person standing against the wall. A young woman, this time. “And Sarah.”

“That’d be perfect,” agreed Cachat. He nodded toward two others standing nearby. Oddny Ann Rødne and Michael Alsobrook. “They’d be handy, as well.”

Ganny shook her head. “We’ll need Oddny to take the news back to Parmley Station and help get everything organized. As for Michael . . . ” She shrugged. “Where would he fit in the scheme? Which is pretty obvious, I’d say.”

“Obvious, indeed,” said Zilwicki. “You’re the matriarch in charge, Andrew and Sarah are married, and the youngsters are their kids.” He studied Brice and his friends for a moment. “Their ages don’t match, unless they were triplets, which they very obviously are not. But given the somatic variation involved, you could hardly claim any of them except James were the natural offspring of Andrew and Sarah, anyway. So two of them have to have been adopted.”

“Oh, that’s gross,” complained Sarah. She glanced at Artlett, half-glaring. “He’s my uncle.”

“Calm down!” barked Ganny El. “Nobody said you had to consummate the marriage, you nitwit. In fact, you don’t even have to share a cabin with him.” Butre’s eyes got a little unfocussed. “Now that I think about it . . . ”

“Good idea,” said Cachat. He gave Sarah and Andrew a quick examination, his eyes flicking back and forth. “Given the age disparity, an estrangement would be logical. So if any Mesan customs officials decide to press a search, they’d discover a very good-looking young woman apparently on the outs with her husband. Even customs officials have fantasies.”

“Oh, that is so gross,” complained Sarah. “Now you’re whoring me out to strangers!”

“I said, calm down!” Butre glowered at her. “Nobody’s asking you to do anything more strenuous than bat your eyelashes. And as often as you do that, don’t even try to claim you’ll get exhausted in the effort.”

Armstrong glared at her, but didn’t say anything. But Zilwicki was now shaking his head.

“It’s sad, really, to see such a crude resurgence of sexism.”

Cachat and Butre stared at him. “Huh?” she asked.

“Not all customs officials are male, you know. Or, even if they are, necessarily heterosexual. If you want to create this little diversion — which I admit isn’t a bad idea — then you really need a male equivalent for Sarah. Which” — he glanced at Andrew Artlett, and spread his hands apologetically — “I’m afraid Andrew is not.”

Uncle Andrew grinned. “I’m ugly. Not that it gets in my way, much.”

Zilwicki smiled. “I don’t doubt for an instant that you’re a veritable Casanova. But we don’t actually want to get close to any Mesan officials, we just want to stir up their hindbrains.”

Ganny was looking unhappy. “I don’t care. I want Andrew along, if we’re going to do this at all. He’s . . . well, he’s capable. Even if he is crazy.”