«You’re very late,» Ander said, her voice muffled from having her face pressed against his chest. «We were beginning to worry.»
«Yes,» Alper breathed into his right ear. «We had visualized you abducted again, and it was hard to say which was worse: thinking of you undergoing horrid tortures, or imagining you winning free to return with another brace of females to compete with us for your affections.»
«I have everything I need or want in that regard,» he told them, and accompanied the words with a gentle squeeze.
«I should hope so.» Alper leaned back a little to look into his face. «You’re tired,» she commented. «Ander, it’s my turn; will you join us tonight? I feel the need for mutual comfort.»
«Thank you, Alper.» Ander pushed herself away a few millimeters and looked up. «Is that all right with you, John?»
«It’s exactly what I might have wished.» Peters had no idea how the two women allocated his time between them; the method seemed to satisfy them, and he had no complaint. The occasional sessions of ‘mutual comfort’ were happy and without pressure, a true joy. «First I must complete the resolution of the matter that delayed me,» he told them, and turned his head. «Dzheenis, Khurs, please enter.»
The two Grallt entered the room, to stand uncertainly before the door, and both women stiffened. «John, you are a duplicitous creature,» Alper Gor said accusingly. «First you tell us your requirements are entirely met, and then we find you’ve imported Khurs! Ander, let me modify my invitation. We can comfort one another, and leave this enterprising fellow to his new delights.»
«Your proposal seems sound,» Ander said, lifting her head to look at the two Grallt. «Ah, well, John is a vigorous man, and younger than Candor Zin; perhaps there will be some scraps left for us.»
«Calm yourselves,» Peters admonished. «Khurs is not here in that capacity. She has been discarded by Candor Zin, and comes to us as a refugee. She deserves compassion, not jealous accusations.» The girls relaxed somewhat, and he continued: «Here also is Dzheenis, who finds himself in the same state. Consider the two equivalent in my affections.»
«That does put a different complexion on the matter,» said Alper. «Hello, Khurs. I had thought never to see you again.»
«Hello,» said Khurs, evincing wariness. «I had the same thought. Your vanishing from the adult girls’ quarters in the company of an alien was a shock to us all. Little else is being discussed aboard ship.»
«It’s a wonder to us as well,» Alper told her. «I greet you, Dzheenis.»
«And I you,» the big man said with a nod.
«Good,» said Peters. «I’m glad to see amity restored. Dzheenis and Khurs need our help, but they will have to comfort one another.»
Ander and Alper relaxed somewhat but remained alert. «You must have done something remarkable to extract Khurs from the clutches of Candor Zin,» Alper said. «It’s a wonder you aren’t badly hurt. I don’t see so much as a broken fingernail.»
«Their suits have been blanked,» Ander noted. «It seems that Candor Zin has relinquished them voluntarily, for what reason I can’t imagine. Dzheenis was hardly lower in his regard than Khurs; he is young, but already a negotiator of some note.»
Alper Gor went rigid, and an Oh! of mingled astonishment and pleasure escaped her lips. She pushed herself back to half an arm-length and looked down at the other woman. «It’s no wonder we’re the talk of the ship, Ander! It’s the event of a lifetime. We are a pa’ol!»
Ander brought her head erect. «Pahp! How can three persons constitute a pa’ol?»
«We have a depa’olze, and one of great vigor and resource,» Alper said with a broad grin, and touched Peters gently at the base of his throat. «We have females of breeding age, you and me. Now we have Grallt, and the requirements are satisfied.»
«I suppose that’s true,» said Ander somewhat critically, «but it’s an incredibly sketchy version of a pa’ol. If the requirements are indeed met, it’s so minimally as to be almost a joke.»
«It’s not a joke, it’s wonderful! At some point John would have rejoined his own pa’ol, and where would you and I be then? Back with the adult girls, to idle ourselves in cold beds between occasional calls for our services, if we weren’t culled in favor of those already resident!» She sighed, eyes brimming, and sank against him once more. «It is beyond hope.»
«Easy,» Peters told them gently. «Your fears were groundless, Alper; I wish you had expressed them to me earlier, so that I might have dispelled them.» He gave them both a squeeze, a light flexing of his arms. «We must discuss in more detail the customs of the human ptith, but for the moment we should turn our attention to Dzheenis and Khurs. They are between one status and another, and fearful of their futures on that account. They should be fed, treated with consideration, and given such comfort as we can provide.» He smiled and gave another squeeze. «In other words, they are guests, and in a distressed condition. We should act accordingly.»
«I suppose so,» said Alper. She kissed him and broke away. «Welcome to our abode,» she said to the two Grallt.
Dzheenis nodded. «Thank you for your welcome. We are sorry to intrude.»
«Don’t apologize,» Ander told him, encompassing Khurs in the statement with a glance. «We were surprised to see you, but perhaps we should not have been. John is a remarkable individual, and we still can’t predict his actions with any reliability. Returning with a pair of Grallt is well within the scope of his potentialities.»
«Yes,» Alper agreed. «He might equally be expected to have the command keys of Trader 1049 in his pocket, or the Jewel of Ropta in fully functional condition.» She spread her arms and smiled. «You are guests,» she noted. «What do you require for your comfort?»
Dzheenis grimaced. «The use of a toilet facility would be greatly appreciated.»
«Through the door on your right,» Alper said economically. «Khurs, I see you’ve been crying. If you’d like to order yourself, there’s another facility inside that bedchamber and to the left.»
«Thank you,» said Khurs. «I’ve been crying, and laughing, and everything between. I’ve received such shocks in the past llor as I never imagined to encounter.»
«John has that effect sometimes,» Ander noted with amusement.
«So it would seem, based on my limited experience…. I’ll go and order my appearance.» She slipped through the bedroom door.
After a moment Ander mused, «So we are a complete pa’ol. That’s comforting, to a degree I find a little surprising.»
«Yes,» Alper agreed vigorously. «The arrangement has felt tentative and insecure.»
«Don’t protest, John,» Ander put in. «You’ve made every effort possible, and I for one had begun to realize that we were establishing a stable if unconventional relationship, but satisfying the forms of our own society, even on such a minimal basis, supports my emotions in a way I hadn’t realized I needed.»
Alper nodded in agreement, and Peters said cautiously, «I’m pleased that you feel comforted, but I hope the condition isn’t temporary. I will say again: I do not keep slaves. When Khurs and Dzheenis find an accommodation that will support them they will be leaving us. If you find that distressing I am more sorry than you can imagine, but my decision is inalterable.»
«Hmm… I’ve been talking to the Grallt of Llapaaloapalla,» Alper said speculatively. «I think I begin to understand how their lives go. Couldn’t you offer Khurs and Dzheenis employment? Your affairs are larger and more complex than I might have imagined, and both have skills that would aid in ordering them.»
«Something of the sort had crossed my mind,» Peters admitted. «The subject requires more discussion. On a more immediate note, I was pleased to find you clothed, Alper. I had visualized a scramble, with Khurs and Dzheenis waiting in the corridor, their insecurity heightened by lack of knowledge of their welcome.»
Ander giggled. «If you’d come only a few antle earlier you might’ve been less pleased. Both of us were padding around in the altogether, inspecting one another and hugging. We dressed because we expected the arrival of the food service.»
«Yes,» Alper agreed with a giggle of her own. «We have news, and we hope it pleases you.»
Dzheenis chose that moment to appear. He had washed his face and combed his hair, and stood erect, looking less tentative and apologetic. «Thank you,» he said, and his voice was steadier. «I take it Khurs has departed with similar goals in mind.»
«Yes,» said Peters. «She should be out momentarily. Please seat yourself and take your ease. You will no doubt be pleased to discover that we are expecting food service at any moment.»
The big man grinned as he sat down. «Yes. I’m a large person, as you will have noted, and require a great deal of nourishment to sustain me.»
«So I noted… Ah. Perfect timing.»
Ander responded to the knock on the door. «Hello, De’el,» she told the steward. «We need meals for five; we have visitors.»
The steward’s eyebrows went up. «So I see,» he noted. «It’s no problem; we have ample supply.» Khurs came out of the bedroom, and De’el’s eyebrows sought his hairline. «Hmph! I see Peteris has been collecting more trophies. At this rate the ship will soon be overrun.»
Peters laughed. «Khurs and Dzheenis are not ‘trophies’; they are guests. I believe and hope they are the last such for a time.»
«Hah,» said De’el. He and his assistant began ferrying dinnerware and serving bowls, and he added: «’For a time’, certainly, as Llapaaloapalla is about to depart. Our destination is Kraatna, a long transit during which even Peteris is unlikely to have scope for bringing more waifs aboard. In a way it is a pity.» He glanced at Khurs, showing amusement. «We are a closed society, and know one another far too intimately. A few more good-looking women would make a pleasant change. Peteris is already somewhat renowned in that respect, and I see he has not lost his touch.» He waggled his expressive eyebrows. «Dzheenis and Khurs, I believe you said. Welcome aboard. You have been dependents of the ferassi, or so I assume.»
«Yes, we have,» said Dzheenis. «Our status seems to have changed.»
«Indeed it has,» the steward affirmed. «You are fortunate; you have fallen into the hands of Peteris, and could not have hoped for a more favorable eventuality. As for your former status, we know something of what is going through your minds; if you have doubts or concerns you have only to ask.» He grinned. «Khurs, you in particular will find no difficulty in obtaining comfort. My own door will always be open, at least until you choose to come inside. There.» He stepped back and regarded the set table with satisfaction. «Dzheenis, I suppose you are not unprepossessing in your own right, but I have no personal taste that direction. I’ll pass the word; no doubt you will soon find yourself with a plenitude of opportunity.»
Dzheenis glanced at Khurs. «I will be somewhat tentative, at least at first.»
«Khurs may wish a rest,» Peters put in. «She has been used extensively for the pleasure of the ferassi; cruelly used, to my mind.»
«So I had assumed,» said De’el with a nod. «You have spoiled my dastardly plan before it was fully formed. I had hoped to take advantage before she was cognizant of her own worth.» He touched her shoulder, lightly, and said in a serious tone: «I hope you don’t take my jocularity seriously, Khurs. The custom aboard Llapaaloapalla is simple: If interested, ask. If not interested, say no. Modifications occur, but with courtesy and friendliness we all get by very well… you are remarkably attractive, and exotic as well due to your origins; when you go abroad you will receive many invitations. Refuse or assent as your tastes incline you, and if you feel pressured, express yourself. The affair will soon be ordered; we do not tolerate extortion.»
Khurs looked up at him, smiling tentatively, and De’el grinned and waggled his eyebrows again. She smiled more broadly, and he nodded, came erect, and surveyed the group. «Please eat,» he urged. «We are scheduled to enter High Phase one tle past the turn of the ande, and the serving utensils must be secured before that time. Do you require anything more?»
«Not at the moment,» Peters told the steward when no one else responded. «Thank you, De’el; we will take care that you have sufficient time to order your department.»
«I thank you as well.» De’el nodded firmly and left, his assistant offering a nod of his own before closing the door.
«He left with scant ceremony,» Dzheenis observed. «In addition I note that he did not offer you an honorific, depa’olze Peters. On Trader 1049 he would be chastised for such lack of courtesy.»
«What you observed was the normal courtesy observed aboard Llapaaloapalla,» Peters told him. «As for honorifics, they are used only at the most grave or solemn moments; not at all, in my experience. De’el is a good person, as well as being highly skilled. He is well regarded; you could do much worse than to seek his advice as to conduct.» He surveyed the table. «As he says, please eat. We should finish in time to give him an opportunity to clear away the utensils, and I for one am tired. I want to bathe and go to bed.»
* * *
The shutters were closed for transition, making the room fully dark. Ander lay with her head against his chest, seemingly listening to his heartbeat, and Alper lay stretched at full length, pressed against his right side. «You said you had news for me,» Peters said. «In the confusion of dealing with Khurs and Dzheenis you never told me what it was.»
«I’m not really all that sure we should tell you,» Ander remarked in a tone of impish teasing. «You might send us away.»
«That’s not at all likely.» He gave them a gentle squeeze.
«I don’t know about that,» she replied, still teasingly. «After all, the experiment is concluded. What use are we now?»
«Oh, yes,» Alper said, and he felt her move against his shoulder. «We’ve been consulting with Dee, I mean Deela,» she said, and impishness was present in full force.
«It appears that operation of the fighting-ships is not indicated for women in a certain condition,» Ander said. «The doctor has a way to determine immediately if the condition exists.»
«Yes,» said Alper, «and so simple, too! Deela brought us slips of paper and told us to urinate on them and wait a moment. Incredible. It used to take many llor, and even then was uncertain for a zul or so.»
He felt her nod, and Ander stirred again. «Yes,» Alper said. «Both strips turned a bright blue. You’re an ordinary male in at least one way, John… you’re crying.»
«They are tears of joy. I hope you are equally pleased.»
«More so, if possible,» said Ander. «Among other things, it means that we won’t be totally among strangers. The connection between ferassi and human is now fully established.»
«Which raises some important questions,» Alper pointed out.
«Which we will not consider at the moment.» He paused, and the two women relaxed against him once more. «I find myself incredibly pleased and satisfied.»
«So you should,» said Alper, and he felt her grin. «You are depa’olze in earnest, and your pa’ol is growing very satisfactorily.»
* * *
«I see no reason why this should not be suitable,» Peters said as he surveyed the apartment. «Dzheenis, do you observe a deficiency? Khurs?»
«I see no deficiency in the space itself,» Dzheenis said, rubbing his chin. «The furnishings are deficient, of course.» In fact they were entirely lacking. The space had been intended as an apartment for a single person or mated pair, and comprised a large chamber directly off the corridor, an inner room which would normally be used as a bedroom, toilet facilities, and storage. «The inner chamber will be satisfactory as your office, I believe, and Khurs and I will have ample space for our activities in the front room,» the big Grallt went on. «I consider it nearly ideal for the purpose.»
«I concur,» Khurs noted. «Dzheenis can have his desk here, facing right, which leaves ample space for passage and allows him to use the wall for the charts and records he will need. Mine can face the door, where I can greet visitors with my well-known blinding smile, and a pair of chairs can sit against there, one on either side of the entry. Unless your affairs require files and storage beyond the space available, we can arrange all needed with neatness and despatch.»
«Yes,» said Tullin. The zerkre had charge of space allocation and rent collection in this zone of Llapaaloapalla. «I see you have experience in the ordering and operation of office space. The scheme requires three desks of the appropriate types, suitable seating, and a few cabinets for storage of files and correspondence. I’ll see to it at once.»
«Hold a moment,» said Peters. «This is moving too quickly for my comfort. I never intended to take part of the space myself, certainly not to sit in solitary grandeur in a separate office.»
All three Grallt grinned broadly. «You are too new to the affairs of the exalted to have a proper opinion, Peteris,» Tullin said with a sly sideways glance. «It is one of the few matters finding universal agreement among the kree: the one with ultimate authority sits in splendor behind a closed door, emerging from time to time to visit doom and destruction upon those who displease him. You may as well accede. Your underlings will be uncomfortable with any other arrangement, and their efficiency will thereby suffer.»
Khurs laughed. «Kh kh! Your phraseology puts the worst possible face on it, Tullin, but the basis of your argument is sound. Depa’olze Peters, you must consider plans and strategems. The process requires ratiocination, which goes much better in quiet solitude with a modicum of comfort.»
«Yes,» Dzheenis nodded. «If you attempt to perform this function in the midst of the hurly-burly of an open office, or worse, in your quarters, where a myriad of distractions are available at the whisper of a garment, your plans will be incomplete or faulty, and will not succeed.»
Tullin nodded vigorously. «And if the plans fail, the employees must put themselves to the vexation of finding another way to support their vices. They therefore offer this rationalization of what is in reality simply the natural order of affairs, and I congratulate them on their contrivance. Next they will be striving to concoct closely-reasoned explanations for space being black or stars shining, and you will have your first opportunity to emerge in thunderous rage, demanding that they return to productive labor.» He set his hands on his hips and produced another sly grin. «It is cause for real optimism. If your own formidable powers are coupled to such devoted attention to effective procedure, it is difficult to see how the enterprise can fail to perform prodigies.»
«I hope you are correct,» Peters said amid laughter. After a pause the Grallt began discussing styles of desk and types of filing cabinet, and he shook his head, walked to the door of the inner chamber, and peeked inside. Call it four meters by five… he had never imagined himself with an office. The farthest his ambition had extended was to a desk in a cubby, with himself as Chief directing sailors and signing reports. Almost against his will his imagination began supplying details of decor. Wood paneling, not too dark, and a sideboard with a glass top, upon which the statue of defiant enkheil would sit in splendor…
The two ferassi-Grallt had leaped upon his proposals of employment with enthusiasm. «Ideal,» Khurs had said when the concept was made clear. «An intriguing blend of ferassi and Grallt practices, satisfying the norms of both at once.»
Dzheenis had nodded. «And furthermore,» he had noted, «it precisely fulfills the spirit of Candor Zin’s intentions. With such an inventive and creative spirit at our head, we can fall short of greatness only by failing to contribute our own best efforts. Direct me, depa’olze; Peters pa’ol will shine like a star.» Peters’s jaw had dropped. The other four had been smiling like the sun coming up.
To the proposal that they move to larger quarters and install Khurs and Dzheenis in their own establishment Peters had issued an unqualified No. All four of the ex-residents of Trader 1049 had voiced protest, but he had been firm, and supported his argument with calm reasoning and details of human and Grallt practice. In the end he had risen, assumed the mantle of depa’olze, and issued forceful instructions. The result had been broad smiles and the speedy implementation of his directives; Tullin’s remarks came to mind, and he recalled Dreelig’s comments upon leaving Chief Joshua’s room.
Khurs and Dzheenis now occupied apartments not unlike this one, on the same deck as his own quarters and conveniently nearby. When the office was set up they would begin to order his affairs. Astonishing to have affairs that might require two assistants to order. Prethuvenigis had nodded benignly.
Peters had had somewhat less success in the matter of insignia. «No, no!» Ander and Alper had chorused when he demurred. «Khurs and Dzheenis can’t go around blank forever, and we are no longer privileged to display the devices of Trader 1049.» His proposal that they adopt whatever design suited their fancy fell on deaf ears. They wanted, in effect, a uniform that would tell all who saw them that they were part of Peters pa’ol.
Ander and Alper had inspected his wardrobe and produced the design. He was wearing the result, as were Khurs and Dzheenis: a blue so dark it was almost black, with white piping at wrists and ankles and a “V” of piping beginning at the center of the breastbone and continuing over the shoulders, to form a rectangle containing two five-pointed stars. «Simple, elegant, and effective,» Khurs had pronounced it. Peters had shaken his head and wondered how he was going to explain that it wasn’t really his fault.
When it came to devices signifying rank and precedence he had been prepared to balk, but encountered no resistance. «We will wear none,» he’d said firmly. «We know who we are. Let strangers wonder.»
Dzheenis had rubbed his jaw at that. «So a stranger meeting a Peters in a casual encounter,» he’d said slowly, «will be unable to determine if this is a filing clerk or the depa’olze, and must assume the worst… a stroke of genius. It’s a wonder some of the more arrogant epa’ol have not thought of it before.»
«No,» Khurs had said, «They wouldn’t. It’s too simple and obvious, and not gaudy enough.» To himself Peters thought that he’d had enough of gauging behavior by nice judgement of stripes and glitters.