Hopefully, the Dead Tree is available now so this is the last snippet. (Drak acting for Eric)


This is SUCH a bad idea. But he brushed aside that shrilling inner voice of caution much as a moose might brush aside slender spruce branches. In rutting season. He probably had a sappy grin on his face, too.

There was a little commotion at the door. Turning his head, Hugh saw that one of the Ballroom militants — ex-Ballroom, officially, although Hugh had his doubts — was trying to push his way into the parlor. He was having a tough time of it, but not because of any opposition being put up by Berry’s Amazons.

Rather to the contrary. Lara rose from her seat, arms spread wide. “Saburo, honey! I wasn’t expecting to see you until next week!”

No, the real problem was simply the population density in the outer and larger public room of the ice cream parlor. Every seat at every table was taken, and every square foot in between was jammed tight with people.

That had happened within five minutes of their arrival at the parlor. Hugh had commented on it, at the time. “You weren’t kidding when you said this place was popular, were you?”

Berry had looked uncomfortable. At the next table, Yana had laughed and said: “It’s popular, all right. But it’s only this popular when she comes in.”

As a former security expert, Hugh was simultaneously pleased and appalled. On the one hand — what you might call, the strategic hand — the quite-evident immense public approval that Torch’s queen enjoyed was her greatest protection. It was no accident, after all, that for a public figure to be unpopular was the single most important factor in assessing his or her risk of being assassinated.

On a tactical level, however, this expression of public approval was something of a nightmare. Hugh found himself automatically falling into old habits, continually scanning the crowd on the lookout for weapons or any sort of threatening moves.

“Hugh!” Berry had exclaimed irritably, after a little while. “Do you always have the habit of not looking at the person you’re talking to?”

Guiltily, he’d remembered he was officially on a date with the queen, not her bodyguard. Thereafter, he’d managed to keep his eyes and attention on Berry, for the most part — something which grew easier as the evening wore on. Still, there remained some part of him always on alert and periodically shrilling warnings.

Saburo finally gave up trying to force his way through the mob. “Forget it!” he said, exasperated. “Lara, tell Her Way Too Popular Majesty that something’s come up. We need her at the palace. ASAP. That means ‘as soon as possible,’ not ‘as soon as Her Diet Unconscious Majesty gets around to finishing her’ . . . what is that thing, anyway? A banana split on steroids?”

The whole parlor erupted in laughter. As densely packed as the place was, the sound was almost deafening. Berry made a face and looked down at her ice cream confection. It did look something like a banana split on steroids, in fact, even though whatever that fruit was it certainly wasn’t a banana. Hugh knew, because he’d had a real Earth banana once, when he visited the planet. Truth to tell, he hadn’t much liked the thing. Too squishy. Like almost anyone brought up on Berstuk, he was accustomed to fruit that was dense, hard and not too sweet — more like what Earth’s own inhabitants would have called nuts than fruit.

“I guess we’d better go,” she said reluctantly.

Hugh studied the confection at issue. There was still more than half of it left. The ice cream dish he’d ordered had vanished within three minutes. Manpower’s genetic engineers had designed his somatic type to be unusually strong even for his size. Although not to the same extreme as Thandi Palane, his metabolism was something of a furnace.

“We might be able to take the rest of it back,” he said. Sounding dubious even to himself.

“In this heat?” said Berry, smiling skeptically. “Not without portable refrigeration equipment. Which we don’t have, even if there are any such units on the planet at all.”

Yana had come up to the table. “Sure, there are plenty of them. But they’re all out at the pharmaceutical sites. Why would anyone want the things here? A little stroll through the tropics is good for you.” She studied the half-finished confection disapprovingly. “And why do you always order that dish, anyway? You never finish it.”

“Because they won’t make it half-sized for me, even though I’ve asked over and over. They claim if they don’t serve me what they call a ‘queen-sized’ order, they’ll look bad.”

She gave Hugh a plaintive look. “Does that seem as silly to you as it does to me? Of course, most of this royal stuff is silly, in my opinion.”

How to answer that? Hugh was cautious, even though on Torch lèse majesté couldn’t be any worse than a misdemeanor.

“Well . . .”

“Of course it’s not silly,” said Yana. “They must sell half again as much ice cream here as they would otherwise. What is silly are customers who let themselves get swindled like that.”

“You order queen-size dishes yourself,” pointed out Berry.

“Sure. I finish them, too. Come on, Your Mousety. Even with me and Lara and Mr. Human Iceberg leading the way, it’s going to be a tussle getting you out of here.”

* * *

In fact, extricating themselves from the back room of J. Quesenberry’s Ice Cream and Pastries and getting onto the street outside proved to be quite easy. In some mysterious manner that Hugh was sure violated at least one of the laws of thermodynamics, the patrons in the place managed to squeeze themselves aside, just enough to leave a lane for Berry and her companions to pass through.

That was further proof, if any was needed, of the queen’s high level of public approval. But the experience practically had Hugh screaming. One of the basic principles of providing security to a public official was to keep a clear zone around them. That gave the security force at least a chance — a pretty good chance, in fact, if they were properly trained professionals — of spotting an emerging threat in time to deal with it.

From that standpoint, J. Quesenberry’s Ice Cream and Pastries might as well have been named Death Trap. In that press, literally dozens of people could have murdered Berry with nothing more complicated or high-tech than a non-metallic poisoned needle. And there would have been no way Hugh or Lara or Yana — or any bodyguard this side of guardian angels — could have prevented it. They wouldn’t have even spotted the threat until Berry was on her way down.

And already dead, not more than a few seconds afterward. Hugh knew at least three poisons that would kill a normal-sized person within five or ten seconds. Of course, they wouldn’t actually die that quickly. Contrary to popular mythology that had been fed by way too many badly-researched vid dramas, not even the deadliest poison could outrace the passage of oxygen and fluids through the human body. But it hardly mattered. With any one of those three poisons, the person’s death was inevitable unless the antidote was administered almost simultaneously with the poison itself. One of them, in fact, a distant derivative of curare developed on Onamuji, had no known antidote at all. Luckily, it was unstable outside of a narrow temperature range and therefore not very practical as a real murder weapon.

Once they were out on the street, Hugh heaved a sigh of relief that was loud enough for Berry to hear it.

“Pretty bad, huh?”

Lara jeered at her. “You think those midgets in there could have squeezed his lungs empty? Not a chance, girl. I was following him — much to my pleasure — and it was like following a walrus through a pack of penguins. Plenty of room. No, he’s obviously a security type — I can spot ’em a mile away — and he’s sighing with relief that the security threat level to Your Average Heightness just dropped from Screaming Scarlet to Fire Engine Red.”

Berry gave Hugh a reproachful look. “Is that true? Did you just accept my invitation — well, technically, you were the one who asked me out on a date even though like usual the girl had to do most of the work — because you were watching out for my security?” A trace of shrillness entered her voice. “Did Jeremy put you up to this?”

Hugh had always been an adherent to the ancient saw that honesty was the best policy. As a rule, at least. And he’d already figured out that, with Berry Zilwicki, honesty would always be the best policy.

“The answer is no, no, and he tried but I declined.”

Berry got a little cross-eyed as she parsed that reply. “Okay. I think.” She took his elbow and began leading him back toward the palace. Managing, somehow, to make it seem as if he’d politely offered her his arm and he’d accepted.

Which he hadn’t, in fact. His real inclination was to keep both hands free and clear, in case some threat materialized . . .

“Gah,” he said.

“What does that mean?”

“It means Jeremy’s right. You are a security expert’s nightmare.”

“You tell her, Hugh!” came Yana’s approving voice from behind them.

“Yeah,” chimed in Lara. “You are the walrus.”