Chapter 14:- Dinner Guests
Murray looked over her shoulder and smiled as the robot approached. She waited with Zora outside the palace dining hall, watching through the open doors as the press of alien guests jostled for position at the emperor’s table.”
“How did it go?” she asked him.
“Interesting.” He shrugged. “The Emperor hosts as many ships as a small space port. I’ve located the central power generators, the waste elimination facilities,shields, manufacturing and housing sectors in this quarter of the city.”
“Not in our immediate vicinity.” He looked past her to the open dining hall. “Except perhaps a few of the guests.”
“I was thinking the same thing,” Murray said. “How can he have this much traffic and not be listed?”
“Hey!” Zora pushed up close to Murray’s shoulder. “I think I know that guy,” she said, nodding toward a group of tentacled Bomorians.
“Well that explains it,” Murray said. “It’s that sort of crowd. I knew it.”
“You’re really judgmental, you know that?” Zora put her hands on her hips.
“Yes, Rook?” Murray watched the Bomorians disappear into the dining room.
“You mentioned having a moment to talk.”
“Right.” She caught sight of Bob, or rather a Bob, working his way purposefully in their direction. “How about after dinner?”
“That is agreeable,” Rook said.
The clone reached them, nodding and extending an arm in a sweeping gesture toward the crowded hall. Before Murray could decipher the motion, he’d spun around and headed into the fray. Zora took off after him without question, and Murray hurried through the doors behind her with Rook in tow.
Once they’d broken through the initial cluster of bodies hovering around the entrance, the way cleared enough for easier maneuvering. The room ran nearly as long as the emperor’s audience chamber, though not quite as wide. A single, immense table wound and twisted across the floor from one end to the other like a giant centipede. Hundreds of legs supported it.
“Bob” led them to a central curve of table, where three seats stood vacant and roped off from the crowd by a length of thin, golden cording.
“The emperor has reserved your seats, may he continue to shine his light upon us,” the clone said.
“Yeah, thanks.” Zora slid into the first seat he unwound. She folded her hands in her lap and stared toward the head of the table. From their position, it lay directly to the left and past two more contortions in the wide surface.
Murray sat and took in the sea of faces surrounding them. Because of the table’s unusual design, any way she turned provided a view of her fellow diners. Ignatius the First’s guests filled the room, and judging from the vast number of species present, the emperor was no more discriminating about his friends than he was about his wives.
“Doctor Murray?” Rook sat to her right and, the soft noises emanating from his chest
cavity suggested he covertly scanned the entire room. “I believe there are more than three hundred distinct species represented here.”
“I know,” she said. “I don’t know where to look first.”
“Allow me,” he said. “Across the way to your left there, three seats down from the Bomorians, you will find one of the rarer varieties of Teiron from the furthest sector in the…”
“Oltron galaxy,” Murray finished. “Oh my god.” She didn’t know if her scavenged handheld boasted a camera, but it did her little good either way. She’d left the unit on the bed in their quarters. Probably for the best--Murray doubted the guest Teirons would appreciate her capturing them on film for her travel journals. As it was, she found herself staring more than could possibly be considered polite.
“And over there,” Rook continued, offering her an intergalactic tour of the surrounding diners. He pointed out the rarer of the guests and made note of a few that might be considered “rowdier” than your usual galactic sampling. “Keep an eye on that group.” He pointed to a trio of short, furry humanoids four seats
past Zora on their left. “They are usually restricted to their home system.”
“Gal-fed protocol doesn’t seem to function where the emperor is concerned,” Rook said.
Zora leaned over suddenly and whispered in Murray’s ear. “Here he comes.”
“Who?” One look at Zora answered for her. “Right. And you’re not acting weird at all, Zor.”
She frowned at her sister. Zora’s hands lay twined together on the table in front of her. Her spine had straightened into a formal pose, and her head bowed. She stared into her lap, but Murray caught the sideways peeks she kept flipping toward the emperor’s high, sculpted seat. “How did you…”
Silence fell over the hall, and a pair of female clones approached the throne and stood like bookends on either side of it. A musical fanfare squealed through some hidden sound system, and the clone women pulled the chair away from the table. They spoke in unison with twin, musical voices that floated over the crowd.
“The Emperor Ignatius Superious I, may he rule in glory for all time.”
Murray watched the throne. She’d expected the emperor to make his entrance through the curtained opening behind the chair, but the faces around her all twisted toward the main doorway. She followed suit and caught a glimpse of Ignatius, weaving his way along the table. He smiled. He shook hands. He chatted and laughed, and worked his way slowly in their direction.
“I’ll be damned,” she said.
“I told you he was nice,” Zora whispered.
“Or very, very crafty,” Rook said.
Murray waited for Zora’s retort, but she’d reverted to silently staring at her hands. Murray scowled at her. If Zora abandoned her usual attention getting mannerisms, something big was up.
“Good evening!” Ignatius reached them at last. He placed a hand on Murray’s shoulder, rested the other on Rook’s. “How did you find your room, my friends? Comfortable?”
“The room is quite grand,” Murray said. “Thank you. I’m sure we’ll be more than comfortable.” Beside her, Rook’s chest whirred. She turned toward Zora at the same time Ignatius addressed her.
“And the lovely Zora? Have you everything you need, my dear?”
“Yes, thank you.” Zora looked up long enough to smile briefly at the emperor before dropping her gaze again. A soft blush crept over her cheeks.
Murray’s mouth fell open. She couldn’t help it. Zora didn’t play shy, and Murray had no idea she’d been capable of blushing.
“Good, good,” the emperor said. “I look forward to talking more, but I’m afraid my poor guests are anxious to begin the meal.” He grinned at each of them, removed his hands and continued his progress toward the throne.
“Very crafty,” Rook said.
“Agreed.” Murray watched Zora watch Ignatius take his seat. “It’s starting to creep me out,” she said.
Zora failed to retort. In fact, she failed to notice the exchange completely. She stared at the emperor and said absolutely nothing. A shiver crawled up Murray’s spine.
When the chair opposite her scraped away from the table, she hardly heard it. It took a voice to pull her attention away from her sister—a sultry, silky, masculine voice. Something about the tone reached into her nervous system and swiveled her head back around to face it.
“You in there?” The voice asked. It came from a lopsided grin that hovered just below the most dazzling pair of eyes. Murray blinked, and the attached face came into focus.
He had a strong jaw, dark hair that said, “I’m way to cool to care,” and the cocky, bullshit aura of a man who spent most of his time in hyper-space. He appeared to be addressing her, but Murray tossed a quick glance back at Zora just to be sure. Her sister still focused on the head of the table, completely missing the tall, muscle bound bundle of testosterone sitting inches from her.
For his part, the spacer kept his attention riveted on Murray. He nodded at her and the grin stretched even wider. Murray gave the man a tense smile and nodded back. Had the whole universe gone completely wonky, or was it just her?
“Hi,” the spacer said.
“Hi!” Rook said. He took the man’s hand and shook it until the table rattled.