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The Language of Hope

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Dr. Tyler just got the worst news of his life, but wants to finish negotiations with the Merfolians before he's discharged. Meanwhile, the emperor and his daughter have a conspiracy on their hands.

Scifi / Other
D. A. S. Thornburg
Age Rating:

The Language of Hope

“How long, Doc?” Vance Tyler asked, scrubbing his face with hands on arms, elbows propped on knees. When the thirty-two-year-old had come to sickbay seeking advice about strange, sudden and brief weaknesses he had been experiencing lately, he had never expected to be told he was dying of some rare, as-yet-incurable genetic disorder.

“Nine months, a year, tops,” Doctor Keilani, Chief Medical Officer aboard the Terran Federation Naval Diplomatic Spaceship Adjudicator, replied. “I’m sorry, Son.” He put a fatherly hand on the younger man’s shoulder on his way around to his chair behind the desk.

“Not your fault. Just do something for me?”

“What’s that?” The doctor settled in at his terminal, hands folded over crossed knees.

“Don’t tell anyone until this mission’s done; I’m starting to get somewhere, and I don’t want to suddenly stick the ambassador with an all new interpreter. Whoever it was would just have to re-learn everything, setting the trade talks back months.”

“You know that’s against regs, Tyler. Patients with terminal illnesses require constant monitoring that naval sickbay crew just don’t have the manpower to provide; you’ll have to be reassigned dockside.”

“Please, Doc?” Vance begged. “The symptoms haven’t gotten that frequent yet, and I promise to tell you if things get worse.”

“You’re asking me to stick my neck on the line, but I’ve got a few too many black marks on my record as it is. I’m going to have to go with the regs on this one.” The doctor must have seen the gears turning in Tyler’s head, because he continued, “I don’t like the look on your face. What scheme are you cooking up in that genius brain of yours now?”

“What if I could swing a way for you to do that ‘constant observation’ required for terminally ill—” Vance swallowed on a sudden lump in his throat and rushed to finish the sentence, straightening. “—That terminally ill patients require, without anybody knowing about my condition until it’s absolutely necessary?”


“We make you part of the delegation.” Tyler spread his hands apart in front of his chest, palms up, waiting for the doctor’s reaction.

“Keep talking.” Doctor Keilani folded his arms and sat back.

“Most of what the Merfolians are offering is informational, not material. Some of that is medical procedures and technologies. The ambassador doesn’t have a medical expert on staff, so you could join as that expert, in order to make sure what’s being offered would be compatible with human physiology, check to make sure it’s legit, and basically make sure they’re not trying to tell us things the docs back home have already discovered.”

“I don’t know how useful a human medic would be judging alien medicine. I'd have to see how similar our two species are in order to know if any of it has even a remote chance of working on humans.”

“They’re also offering medical profiles from a random sampling of both Merfalot’s population and twenty of their colonies. I think they’re hoping we'll be able to help any of their people we might come across in emergency situations. We’ve already managed to get them to agree to an expert vetting the data—this way, it’ll be vetted on-the-spot, a lot sooner than it would be if we had to send it back to the Federation for evaluation. It’ll help the ambassador immensely to know that we’re getting real value for our concessions.”

“Well . . .”

Tyler watched the older man rub his chin whiskers and pushed ever-so-gently. “Please, Doc? I’m not sure the Merfolian ambassador would accept a replacement in our delegation at this late juncture. It was difficult enough getting her to agree to let me into the negotiations in the first place, instead of using their translator devices in two-way mode.”

The doctor sighed. “All right. You’re sick; I’ll humor you. Mind you, if I hadn’t heard the captain praising your work with the Getrilites last year, I’d be a lot more reluctant to grant even an absolute last request. You’re lucky you came when you were off-duty, or I wouldn’t be able to hold back the report at all, sneaky observational tactics or no.

“But if things get bad, or I find out you’ve been hiding worsening symptoms from me, it’s all over, understand? I’ll go straight to the top and have you pulled off the mission.”

“Yes, sir! You won’t regret it; I swear on all the years I studied for my degree. I’ll talk to the captain right away about adding you to the delegation,” Vance said as he leapt out of the chair and toward the sickbay’s exit.

“Slow down, and don’t forget your scrip, or it’ll all be over before it’s begun,” the doctor said, tossing the bottle of pills—for symptom maintenance—to the young man as he turned at the threshold.

Vance smiled, catching his medicine, and whistled on his way to the captain’s briefing room; the whistling arthropods of Betelgeuse VI had been his favorite assignment during his short career with the diplomatic branch of the Terran Federation’s space navy.

Whistling a greeting to a perplexed petty officer on his way down the corridor, the dying xenolinguist mused sardonically to himself that if he was going to die before his thirty-third birthday, at least he wouldn’t have to worry about paying the rest of his student loans.

Princess Mylia Feredel Sliesann Xiosh DhraSsonai, heir apparent and ambassador exemplary for the Third Great Merfolian Empire, paced her chambers like the carnivorous felines from the jungles of Omicron IV.

“How dare they?” she demanded of the empty room, stabbing the playback button once more. “They come into our space, demanding this much without equitable compensation? It’s preposterous!” She turned at a chime from the door separating her chambers from the rest of her family’s suites. “What?” she snapped, her voice a bite rivalling any carnivore’s.

“Beg pardon, Highness,” the nurse said, bobbing a hasty obeisance at the princess’s tone, “His Majesty is asking for you.”

Mylia took a calming breath. “Of course, Mistress Thingreil. I will be there directly; thank you.”

The nurse bobbed once more and left the way she had come while Mylia reigned in her temper, following a moment later.

She entered the chambers which her mother and father had shared until Empress Aaisonai’s death twelve revolutions previous, and again wished her own arranged marriage had not been to a male so odious she could not bear even the sight of him, much less share a room long enough to endure his touch. She supposed she’d have to get over that aversion sometime, for dynastic purposes, but that thought was for another day.

As she once again saw the healer’s tank in place of her parents’ sleeping foam of many deca-revolutions, her eyes blurred. Emperor Hethnesh Rellibridh Cojailleo DhraSsonai, nineteenth of his name, high ruler of the Third Great Merfolian Empire—Mylia’s father—was dying. His bones had become brittle, his skin paper thin, his organs hardening. There was nothing the healers could do to make him stronger; they could only make him comfortable, floating in a tank of nutrients to take the pressure off his failing body.

He must have seen her, for he beckoned weakly from the nutrient liquid. “Come, my daughter, he said, a crackle in his voice. “There is one bit of knowledge I have saved to the last, which I must impart to you before my time in this existence passes.”

“Hush, Father; you must not speak so,” Mylia pleaded, taking his hand in hers.

“Must I not?” the old male chuckled, causing the liquid in the tank to slosh almost over the rim. “You think emperors immortal, Daughter?”

“Only a daughter’s wish not to have her father leave her. I know the reality.”

“You are a good, dutiful, and loving descendant, Mylia, to your parents’ fortune and eternal joy.” The emperor gave her a soft look between uncontrollable grimaces of pain, and continued, “But I must still tell you.”

Recognizing the instructor’s tone in her father’s voice, Mylia let his hand go, holding both of hers in front of her.

“I am ready for the knowledge you would share, my Emperor,” she said the most formal tone she could muster past the emotion in her throat.

“Over the many revolutions I have swum the Great Ocean of existence, there have been more than two hundred attempts to return me to the Place Before Conception. Before your own entrance into the Great Ocean, there were seventy-three attempts on your mother’s life, and since then, you have been the target of at least three for every revolution of your existence. The last of those I knew I could trust—besides Mistress Thingreil, your mother’s most beloved companion from before she was sent here as my mate—gave his life to catch and end the existence of an assassin who sought to kill you in your repose three rotations past.”

Eyes wide, Mylia gasped. “How can there have been so many, when I did not know about them, Father? Why would anyone try?”

“You were young. If you grew anticipating assassins in every shadow, you would not become the strong, courageous ruler I know you will be. As for the other . . .”

“Yes, Father?”

“Do you truly believe there is no ambition in the empire? A dynasty lasts only so long as it produces heirs strong and wise enough to hold the empire together. Failing to end the dynasty, those who conspire against us seek to sway the empire itself against our rule, to create war between far-flung outposts of our people.”

“But the Shufharath NieSsaran—”

“—Is but a contract they did not sign themselves.”

“Will you guide me, Father?”

“This, I cannot do forever, and you must become accustomed to ruling on your own. But this last counsel I will give: Trust no one now living on the Homeworld but Mistress Thingreil. I had hoped you would take a more active role in the negotiations of the treaty with the Terran Federation, for I believe they can be trusted.”

“But, Father, they make such outrageous demands!”

“Do they? I have not heard anything unreasonable.”

The princess turned to the nurse, who had been standing unobtrusively at the other side of the tank. “Mistress Thingreil, please retrieve the player from my chambers.”

“At once, Highness.”

Once the door was shut between the suites, Mylia realized what her father had said. “What do you mean, you have not heard anything unreasonable? I gave specific instructions that you were not to be bothered with the negotiations, Father.”

“I know, but when I heard their ambassador and his entourage speaking in the corridors, I could not contain my curiosity; I’m afraid I put up quite the fuss, until our dear Nurse managed to smuggle a communicator into the council chambers.”

“Then you must know how they demand much for almost no return.”

At that point, Mistress Thingreil returned, player in hand, translation attachment a bulbous growth over the output port. She laid it on the table by the tank, next to a thick stack of writing films.

“Thank you, Mistress Thingreil. Please play back sections seventy-seven through ninety-four.”

The nurse pressed the playback stud with more gentleness than Mylia had, and again, the translation attachment's impersonal tones expressed the Terrans’ outrageous demands.

The emperor lifted a hand, and the nurse halted the player.

“Tell me, Daughter, who programmed your translation device attachment?”

Mylia blinked. “The Imperial Linguists, I suppose. Who else?”

“You do not know?”

“I have had no cause to know who programmed it, Father.”

“And no cause to know who ordered it to be programmed, either. I suppose that is understandable, since you did not know until this rotation of the dynasty’s precarious position. Nor did you know--until they entered our space--of the Terrans’ existence, of course.”

“It is as you say, Father. But what has your translation device told you?”

“Nothing; I have, for many deca-revolutions, made a study of the languages of Terra.”

“They brought only one language, Father, and it was only a twelfth-revolution ago. How can you possibly have studied it so long?” Mylia asked, beginning to worry that her father’s illness was affecting his mind. She had heard of many in elder generations who became as children again before returning to the Place Before Conception. She could not bear to lose her own beloved father twice in such a way.

“Ah, but for thousands of revolutions, they have broadcast their news, entertainment, and educational media, and those transmissions—weak though they were—reached the outskirts of the empire, hundred-revulotions out-of-date, but whole. From the outskirts, the transmissions were relayed to Merfolat by our own, faster communications systems, where they were collected by scholars and eventually forgotten.

“As a youngling, I enjoyed exploring the palace, and on one of my expeditions into the depths of the Imperial Library, I discovered an archive of those long-forgotten transmissions. My tutors were overjoyed when I told them I wished to study them, and spent many rotation-parts for many twelfth-revolutions teaching me the rudiments of linguistics so that I might become knowledgeable enough to translate them myself. I think that they were just happy to be able to keep me studying something, instead of begging to be let outside to exercise my imperial prerogatives to the point of broken limbs.” The emperor’s body shook feebly in the water at the amusement he gained from the memories, and then he continued when he saw his daughter’s attempt at suppressing her own amusement in her wiggling facial tentacles.

“Imagine my surprise, many deca-revolutions later in my advanced age, to hear the language the Terrans call English spoken in the corridors of the palace. I thought, at first, that someone new had discovered the archive, but I had listened to all there was at least once, and the people in the corridor were not saying anything I had heard before. When you told me there was a delegation from a world many light-revolutions past even the outskirts of the Empire, I knew they were the people with whose languages I had been so fascinated as a child.

“And so, knowing what I know of the ambitions of others in our midst, I asked the Nurse to plant that communication device, and she has taken dictation for me while we listen to each session.” He gestured to the stack of films on the table.

Mylia, uncertain still, picked up the stack and began to read. What she read surprised her. “This is a translation more complete than any I have seen or heard with the translation device, Father.”

“Yes, once I found something I wanted to study, I was a very diligent student. I became fluent in more than ten Terran languages before concluding my studies of the archives, but since I lacked anyone to speak them with, I have since forgotten all but the most basic vocabularies of any except English and the one they call Arabic. Those were my favorites to study; I do not know why.” In another of his sudden changes of direction, he looked at her and pointed to the films again.

“I believe the section which your device mistranslated is on the forty-seventh page, Daughter.”

The princess flipped the films to the appropriate point, and read aloud what was written, stopping halfway through to exclaim, “This is much different than the translation I received! The device has made subtle substitutions of words, but it is enough to make the Terrans sound greedy and nearly hostile. I thought you said the Imperial Linguists had helped you translate the Terran languages, Father.”

“They did, but most of those particular Linguists have since returned to the Place Before Conception, the rest too old and frail to do any serious work, except for the youngest, who is slightly older than I and may have been influenced by those conspiring against our family.”

“If I cannot trust even the Imperial Linguists, Father, what am I to do?”

“Go to the Terrans for aid. They understand the desire to learn a language for one’s self, so as not to be tricked, as the conspirators seek to do with you. From what I learned of their old transmissions, they are much like us, in that they have those who seek to destroy as well as those who seek to build up a thing so it is the best it can possibly be. I believe the delegation sent with them is comprised totally of the second sort, from the sincerity of their words in the negotiations.”

“How can you know, Father?” Mylia tried not to let the worry seep further into her voice than it already had.

“From their words, and the tones of their voices. Nurse could not implant a visual pickup in the council chambers, else I would have been able to tell from their non-verbal language much more definitely, but as I said, I learned much of their language and customs during my studies as a youngling.”

Seeing the logic of her father’s statements, the princess nodded her head. “I will do as you say, Father. How would you suggest I begin? Where would I start in order to gain their trust and aid in this task?”

“Seek the one they call Doctor Tyler. He has made a study of our language, as I have of his. Bring him to me. I would dearly like to converse with him for a while. He will know his ambassador’s thoughts, and will—of all the Terrans—be able to understand you and make himself understood. He will also know who else from the Terran delegation to include in this task.”

“Yes, Father. I will seek this Doctor Tyler. I believe I should learn this English language, and refuse to be duped by false translations again. Do you really believe they can be trusted?”

“If they cannot despite my observations, my daughter, this galaxy is doomed to a war the likes of which have not been seen since the dark times before the Shufharath NieSsaran.”

“Doc, wake up!” Doctor Gustav Keilani heard as his bed shook.

Wait—his bed? No, he had been poring over the nurses’ latest inventory reports; he must have fallen asleep at his desk.

“Doctor Keilani, are you awake?”

“I am now, Son; quit shakin’ me. And you’d better have a damned good reason for waking me at—” he checked the chrono on the desk— “oh-four-thirty, Tyler, or else.” He let the threat hang there in the air for a moment before levering his torso up with folded arms and blinking his eyes open as he performed a massive stretch and yawn.

“Sorry, Doc,” the young man replied, though the urgency in his voice still had not lessened. “It’s just, well, the ambassador received a request from the Merfolian ambassador herself, asking to meet me in person. I don’t know why, and she requested you too—or rather, someone with medical training. The shuttle leaves in ten minutes, Doc; we’ve gotta get moving.”

Decades of on-call duty under his belt, the doctor sprang out of his chair, fully alert, and grabbed his bag of instruments. He had just that afternoon added the portable DNA scanner to the bag, in preparation for doing some preliminary scans on the Merfolian genome if they would let him before providing medical profiles, but had not expected to be called to use it so soon.

The shuttle bay was on the same deck as sickbay, closer to the aft section of the outer hull, so the pair arrived and were strapped into their flight couches in a matter of minutes. A couple of hours later, during which Doctor Keilani gladly finished his nap, the shuttle landed on the portion of the palace grounds set aside as a landing pad for the Terran delegation.

Unclipping his straps, the doctor looked to the young xenolinguist, whose hands were shaking so badly he could not get a proper grip on the release. Keilani frowned; if he was developing the shakes, the boy had even less time than the doctor had originally thought.

Tyler shook his head. “Just the stims I took before waking you kicking in, Doc; they always give me the shakes.”

“How many did you take, Son?”

“Just two. Think you could help me out?”

Going off the young man’s expression, the doctor unclipped the other’s straps in as matter-of-fact a way as possible. “You might need a lower dosage, or you could be allergic to the drugs they put in the pills. Maybe just try one tab next time. Personally, I prefer a nice, hot cuppa any ol’fashioned caffeinated drink myself. Coffee, tea, whatever. But they’re hard to come by shipside, unless you sacrifice part of your gear allowance to bring your own stash.”

“I’ll have to think on that. We had coffee at the university, but I couldn’t stand it without loads of sweet ‘n’ white. Is tea any better?”

The doctor released the shuttle’s hatch as he answered, “Depends on the tea and your tastes, but it sits a bit lighter on the tongue, yeah, and the stomach too, come to think. Sweet ‘n’ white is just extra flavor if you . . . want . . . it.” His voice trailed off as he saw their welcoming party.

He heard Tyler taking a breath to ask another question and held his hand up for silence. Out of the corner of his mouth, the doctor said quietly, “Now I've never been down here to know, but if that’s who I think it is, we don’t want any idle chatter right now.”

After a gasp, the doctor heard young Tyler making some odd, liquid, almost gurgling noises. Old country doctor that he was—or wished to be, at least—Gustav had never really learned a second language, not even the native tongues of either his father’s or his mother’s homelands back on Terra; he hadn’t had the time. So he couldn’t judge if his companion was getting it right or not, but was damned impressed at the sounds the boy could make. He noticed that some were subtly vocoded, but far fewer than the number he would have thought a human tongue incapable of producing. He did recognize his name though, and figured he was being introduced.

“You are welcome, and welcome once more,” he heard, but the voice was strange—not vocoder strange, but strangely accented. Then his brain put his eyes’ evidence together with that of his ears, and concluded that the ambassador was speaking English. “Come. My father has wished these many rotations to meet you.”

“By all means, Ambassador, please lead the way,” the doctor replied, giving his most formal bow. When the Merfolian only stood there and looked at Tyler, he turned to the young man as well.

“I don’t think she actually speaks English, Doc. She might’ve been coached in what to say so far,” the young man whispered.

“Then translate already, so we can get inside; nights on this rock are damned chilly,” he whispered back.

The doctor caught Vance Tyler’s blush before the liquid sounds of the Merfolian tongue came again to his ears, and the ambassador made a beckoning gesture—with an honest-to-God, human-looking smile, no less!—and glided over what Keilani could only call the “lawn” to the palace doors.

Those doors were a wonder in and of themselves, he thought. From a distance, they could have been solid, painted wood or metal—if enormous—but close up, he saw they were really some form of coral grown in a fine lattice. The guards at the top of the entrance steps saluted—fists to chests—and bowed to their ambassador, murmuring in their own language. He watched her nod to each in turn, and waited as the guards pulled the doors open.

Inside was like looking into a conch shell back home on the Big Island, with something that looked suspiciously like sea foam made solid interspersed in decorative detail. It was all the older man could do not to stop and stare, turning circles at the wonders he was seeing, but he followed Tyler’s lead and managed to look as though it was nothing unusual to him. He didn’t often get off the ship—these days, only junior medics and doctors went planet-side on missions—but on the rare occasions that he did, he always wished he had a holographer to capture the memories for later sharing with his many cousins.

Before long—guards, servants and Merfolians whom the doctor could only assume were other dignitaries, saluting and bowing the whole way—the trio came to another set of double doors, one-fifth the size of the outer pair, but still very large.

This time, the guards did not salute before opening the doors. Instead, they bowed the ambassador and her companions into the room beyond them, and Gustav thought he saw another smile on the Merfolian’s face. He imagined that, if this was her father’s quarters, she must have gotten to know those who guarded the door very well. She might even be fond of them, if Merfolians had such a concept of emotions. He put that thought aside when he heard the female speak again. She was interrupted.

“Come in, come in,” a reedy, accented voice said from within. “There is much to discuss.” The voice switched to Merfolian, and then the ambassador gestured for them to follow her into the chamber.

When the door was closed, she spoke again, and this time he could hear the hesitation of someone speaking from a rote script in a foreign language. He had missed that on the landing pad.

He wondered why young Tyler was tugging on his tunic sleeve and whispering urgently in his ear, but then the words the ambassador was saying took hold in his mind and he bowed even deeper than any of the Merfolians he had seen so far.

He could not credit it—he had never been summoned to meet any dignitaries, much less one so prominent. The ambassador’s father, the frail figure laying in a tank full of liquid, ruled thousands of light-years of space and solar systems as the emperor of the Merfolian Empire.

The emperor waited until the doors to his chambers had been shut before clapping his hands, setting the nutrients rippling.

"It is good that you were able to come so promptly," he said in Merfolian for his daughter's benefit. "Nurse, bring seating foams; daughter, the screen--and my robe."

The nurse paused in her obedience. "But Majesty--"

"Father, are you sure--" his daughter said at the same time.

"Yes," he interrupted both of them. "I will speak to these two males, not from my sick tank, but sitting like civilized beings around the room in polite conversation."

"But your condition, Majesty," the dear Nurse, Lainineh Thingreil interjected.

He turned to speak to her as well. "It is only pain, Nurse. An hour or two will not kill me any sooner than this malady will." Vaguely, he registered the young male--still standing just inside the chamber with the other Terran--murmuring in English. Good, he thought. We will not need to spend time summarizing for the physician's benefit.

Their arguments contradicted, the nurse and Mylia carried out his instructions, and in due course his daughter and the two Terrans sat around a low table upon which rested platters of food Mistress Thingreil had brought into the chamber.

"Now that the niceties have been taken care of," Hethnesh said, still speaking Merfolian and waving off the nurse's help as he lowered himself into the fourth seating foam—a feat he had not had to attempt in the last revolution-and-a-half. "We can get on with the reason I asked my daughter to call you here."

"I must admit, Your Majesty," the young Terran said in English, which Hethnesh translated for Mylia, "we are both curious. But before we get into that, may I respectfully ask how you came to be so fluent in our language?"

After he translated the question into Merfolian, Hethnesh turned to Mylia and said, "I will tell them what I told you, in as close to the same words as I can remember. Listen closely, beloved daughter, for I wish you to learn their language."

His ever-dutiful, lovely daughter nodded before the emperor turned back to the Terrans and switched to English again. Making sure that the youngest male had heard his instruction to the princess and would not translate for her, he began, "for thousands of revolutions, the Terrans have broadcast their news, entertainment, and educational media, and those transmissions—weak though they were—reached the outskirts of the empire, centa-revolutions out-of-date, but whole. . . .”

". . . When Mylia told me there was a delegation from a world many light-revolutions past even the outskirts of the Empire, I knew you were the people with whose languages I had been so fascinated as a child." As the emperor finished his tale, Doctor Keilani was feeling a bit—to use an appropriate cliché for a water world—out of his depth. Sure, he had graduated in the upper tenth of his med school class, but he’d done that with hard work and sheer bloody-mindedness. Young Tyler, and this emperor sitting across from him, picked up knowledge as easily as sponges absorbed water. Wonderful, another oceanic cliché, he mused before tuning back into the conversation at hand.

"Haal tutakilm al-lughya al-Arabiya?" The young man next to him said, and Gustav was barely able to parse out the different words in the question, much less individual syllables.

The Merfolian emperor, looking more surprised than Gustav had felt at being introduced to the princess, replied, "Na'am," and nodded.

Thankfully, Tyler switched back to English at that point, and he and the emperor resumed translating for the linguistically-challenged half of their little gathering.

"My mother was a diplomat at the New Canadian embassy on Shutteiyet when I was born. We lived there until I was ten, and I got to know not just the other embassy kids, but those who lived in the city around it as well. By the time Mama got transferred to another world, I was fluent in the French and English of New Canada, as well as Shutteiyettan Arabic."

"And you have learned many more languages since, I see, including Merfolian—which you speak with barely any accent," the emperor summed up. "Indeed, your skill with our language is part of the reason I have asked you here this night."

Prince Consort Nelpurat Ranth Burnoi waited impatiently in the council chambers for his mate. She had not spoken in any of the negotiations to date, but she was the ambassador, so this session—as all others—could not begin without her in attendance. Nelpurat could not imagine what could be keeping her; after all, her other duties as heir apparent to His Imperial Majesty Cojailleo XIX had been all but suspended—if they could not be delegated—while the negotiations progressed.

The Terran ambassador had been tardy as well, citing a “late-night communiqué” from his superiors a few moments before, and still the princess was noted by her absence.

Finally, two-tenths of a deci-rotation after this session of negotiations was scheduled to begin, Princess Mylia strode into the council chambers. Unlike her other entrances to date, this time she brought more than just the clothing she wore. She had, clutched in her upper limbs, a stack of writing films. Her recording device was also conspicuous by its absence from the chamber.

Nelpurat was surprised to note that the princess intended to speak before so much as taking her customary seat at the head of the table. She did not speak in civilized Merfolian, however. Oh, no. Instead, Nelpurat watched—and then listened in growing anger and horror—as she spoke somewhat haltingly in the uncouth Terran tongue, nodding in the direction of their delegation as she spoke. The Terran linguist, the one they called "tie-lure," was translating—for the wrong people!

Finally, the message onveyed percolated through Nelpurat's rage. Translation devices were no longer to be allowed in the negotiations, and tie-lure was to translate for both sides!

"Your Highness," one of the other Merfolian delegates interjected, "surely, with the Terran linguist translating for both parties, there will be some bias in the translation toward Terran ideals. I mean no disrespect to linguist Tie-lure, of course, but how can we be sure of his translations? Perhaps someone native to Merfolat could translate the Terran speech—for the protection of our own interests, of course."

Thankfully, her response was in Merfolian:

"Delegate Jurine, your concern does you credit. Due to our deca-centa-revolutions’-long dependence on the translation device technology, however, there is currently only one native Merfolian fluent in the Terran language called English. He has interviewed Doctor Tyler extensively. I am assured that his translations are as accurate and unbiased as possible by this expert."

Wait. Only one? Nelpurat knew for a fact that there were two—but the younger was home with a mate and new youngling.

"Thank you for your frankness, Highness, but I must still wonder why our expert cannot perform the task of translation for our own delegation."

Here, Nelpurat sensed a bit of distress in the princess's overall demeanor as she answered, "Because, Delegate Jurine, our expert, my father the Emperor Cojailleo XIX, fell into a coma last night from which he is not expected to awaken.

As delegates from both sides of the negotiation table expressed their sadness at her father's condition, Princess Mylia watched her mate’s face. She had seen the flash of anger and horror when she began her announcement—transliterated on her writing films into Merfolian script so she did not have to memorize it—and felt a burst of triumph as, when she mentioned her father's coma the odious male's astonishment and cunning showed plainly in his stone grey eyes. His lifted brow ridges when she mentioned that there was only one linguist qualified to translate Terran English was as foam on the waves to her. She would not long be mated to that smudge of pond slime anymore.

Everyone seemed to believe the announcement about the coma, even those she knew were "in the loop," as the Terrans would say. Odd how she had not noticed the similarity in the two species' kinesic responses before. Well and good that they were able to feign concern; it would not do well for their plot to be spoiled by bad acting.

Once the room had become silent again, Princess Mylia Feredel Slissan Xiosh DhraSsonai, heir apparent and Ambassador Exemplary for the Third Great Merfolian Empire, took her seat with a sense of empowerment that had been missing on previous visits to this same chamber.

Settled, for the first time ever she did not delegate the task of formally pronouncing that the rotation's session of negotiations had begun.

The back-to-back late nights had begun to affect the princess’s attention span. While she waited in the short, private connecting corridor between the suites, she passed the time—and stayed awake—by going over in her mind the events leading up to the creation of this ambush.

“Now that the introductions and storytelling have been dispensed with, shall we proceed to the business for which I requested your presence at this late hour?” her father had asked the Terrans the night before.

“Certainly, Your Majesty,” the elder one had answered. “What can we do for you?”

“My daughter and I find ourselves at a loss. There are certain individuals here on Merfolat who would seek concessions which they may or may not be aware would result in war with the Terran Federation, and conspire against our house. We have recently discovered that these individuals have been ‘in cahoots,’ as you might say, with the Imperial Linguists to trick my daughter into breaking the negotiations.

“Neither the Princess, nor I am certain who the true conspirators are, and until we have evidence one way or another, we dare not seek help from native Merfolians. Therefore, as I have come to trust young Doctor Tyler’s—” here, he nodded at the linguist— “integrity, due to his conscientious and unfailingly precise translations, we wish to ask both of you for your aid in uncovering this treason and apprehending the conspirators.”

“Your Majesty,” Doctor Tyler answered, bowing his head, “I am deeply humbled by your trust in me, but am not certain how we can help you. I am only a scholar, and Doctor Keilani is a medical man; neither of us is trained in espionage. We may inadvertently tip off those you are attempting to catch if we try to help you find them.”

“We believe that possibility to be an acceptable risk,” Mylia had interjected, “as without your aid, we face a far greater and more terrible one—war. This war would not only be fought between our empire and the Terran Federation, but also between different factions of our own people. With your aid, there is at least small chance that the peace to which our people have become accustomed will continue.”

“Well said, Daughter.” Inwardly, Mylia warmed at the praise which her father would not be around to give much longer. He continued, “She is correct. Any aid you could give would push the possibility of war that much farther away.”

“How would you propose we begin this investigation?” asked the healer.

“My translation device was misprogrammed,” Mylia said. “We believe it was a deliberate change in the lexical and semantics matrices meant to subtly change the tone of the negotiations so that your delegation seemed more hostile and demanding than you are. Fortunately, we are reasonably certain whoever ordered the misprogramming is unaware that my father is fluent in Terran English.”

“I can’t imagine they are, or they would have tried something else instead,” the younger Terran answered. “Do your linguists keep records about who programs those devices and who orders their programming? A simple search could turn up the necessary names—or a couple of them, at least.”

“Yes, there are records,” her father said. “Unfortunately, a search of them is not as simple as you believe. Am I correct in my surmise that you keep records electronically?”

“Of course,” the medical man—Doctor Keilani—answered. “It saves a lot of space in archives rooms, since we can recycle the paper from older records while still keeping copies of the data.”

“Doc, I don’t think the Merfolians have the resources for computerized record keeping. I remember that from the briefing about Merfolat from the exploration teams. Computer hardware and software has also been on the Merfolians’ list of request from the beginning of our mission here.”

“Indeed, we do not have such resources. What little we do have to that end is used strictly to build and maintain the computers in our space ships. All records are kept on writing films in each office’s archives,” Mylia’s father explained.

“I see. Then we should have someone fetch the records, starting with the ones from just before our arrival, and on through earlier today. I don’t know how I could help reading them, but I could take notes for those of you who are reading.”

“I have not had the opportunity to learn your written language either,” Doctor Tyler said, “but I’m a quick study; if one of you can show me your alphabet, I could skim the records well enough to be of use within an hour or two.”

“That quickly?” Mylia noted that her father sounded as impressed as she felt, but made no comment of her own. Instead, fetched the nurse, who had retreated to her study after bringing the refreshments, and asked her to retrieve the relevant records.

If Mistress Thingreil had encountered anyone while she was on her late-night errand, the princess mused, their search might have failed before it had begun.

It did not take long to find the records, and the Merfolian introduced to the Terrans as Mistress Lainineh Thingreil, the emperor’s nurse, returned within the hour. Vance Tyler was delighted to note that color-coding different types of documents was not just a Terran practice, and the princess’s device had been programmed within a few days after their arrival on Merfolat. That information helped them to narrow down the search parameters quite handily.

Vance glanced at the princess as she read the films and then turned his attention back to the emperor and his instructions on Merfolian orthography. Mostly, he needed to know what letters stood for which sounds (thankfully, Merfolian script was an alphabet system with symbols for both consonants and vowels instead of logograms like Chinese) and if there were different ways to form the letters at the beginning, middle, or end of a word. With that sort of list, supplemented by some notes in the Universal Phonetic Alphabet, the young linguist felt he would be able to lend a helping hand—or pair of eyes—to the search.

Just as Emperor Cojailleo finished his lesson, however, the princess made a soft noise which could have been the Merfolian equivalent of “Eureka!”

“What is it, Daughter?” the old Merfolian asked.

“I believe I have found the relevant record, Father, but the Order for Programming is missing. There is only the Record of Requisition for a device—fully programmed—for my use, as well as the name of the programmer.”

“Who was it?”

“The Imperial Linguist Pheladrothe, Father.”

Vance watched the old Merfolian’s eyes close, and the rest of his face and body language was a picture of despair which even someone unfamiliar with Merfolian kinesics could interpret.

“You know him, Majesty?” he asked.

“One of my tutors of old; I had hoped he was not involved in this. Nurse,” he said, scribbling on a bit of film. “Send one of the guards at the door to the barracks for his own replacement and for a companion to carry out the arrest of Linguist Pheladrothe. They are to bring him here, and stand as witness to his trial after their arrival. Stress the importance of discretion and secrecy; I hereby authorize the guard’s use of the hidden passages to this end.”

“As you command, Majesty,” she replied, all trace of the caring stubbornness from earlier gone and replaced with the hard tones of someone who has just met a person in the act of abusing one she loves. Mistress Thingreil bowed, took the hastily-written arrest warrant, and hurried from the room.

“While we await the guards,” the emperor said, “I have one more question for you both, Doctor Tyler, Doctor Keilani.”

“We’ll answer if we can, Your Majesty,” the doctor answered, since Vance’s mouth had already been occupied with the translation. The young linguist nodded.

“Are either of you empowered to make decisions about this agreement that our two peoples have been discussing over these last deci-rotations?”

Doc Keilani turned to him, eyebrow raised. “You want to field this one, Son?” Vance acknowledged the request and focused on the Merfolians across from the pair.

“We are not, Your Majesty. Only the ambassador has that authority; I am here to translate, and Doctor Keilani is to evaluate the medical information you are offering.”

“A pity,” the emperor sighed. “I had hoped you would be, but given our own hierarchy, I was afraid that would be your answer. Tell me this, at least: You must have an opinion about the fairness of the trade; do you think it equitable, a good bargain?”

Vance rubbed his chin before speaking. “From our end, yes, I think it is. Though I do wonder at your request for our faster-than-light technology. I would think that such a vast, space-faring empire would already have such technology at their disposal.”

“We did, once,” the princess said. “At the beginning of the Second Great Merfolian Empire, our ships could travel faster than the light. Then matter transportation devices were developed. The ships not used for exploring space and populating new colonies became derelict, their parts either too old and broken for use, or else cannibalized for spares in the colony ships. Eventually, even the colony ships were destroyed, as the empire had become as vast as we—our dynasty’s predecessors, that is—could rule effectively.

“And then there was war, and plague, and empire-wide loss of other kinds. The bulk of our people lost contact with each other, and the empire shrank to a few core worlds within deca-light-revolutions of Merfolat.

“Finally, peace was won, and the Shufharath NieSsaran began the Third Great Merfolian Empire. But the crises that ended the second had taken their toll: The matter transporters had been dismantled and destroyed to prevent the spread of plagues, and all of the engineers who knew their use were among the first to sicken and die, due to proximity to the initial infection vectors. The few who still knew how to make and use faster-than-light ship engines had perished in the wars. It was a dark time in which people kept to their home worlds and did not dare venture forth into the unforgiving blackness of deep space.

“Eventually, we rediscovered the way to travel the stars, but regained our courage even slower. We have only sleeper ships now, and travel to other worlds within the empire is impossible without losing everyone we knew on our home worlds to time.”

“And you can still communicate with your far-off outposts at near-light speeds? That’s amazing,” the doc said.

“Yes, communications relays among and between the core worlds have been scrupulously maintained since the dawn of the First Great Merfolian Empire, when all the peoples of Merfolat were united and space travel was first attempted,” the emperor answered with an expression that Vance had learned to interpret as the equivalent of a wry smile. “It is truly remarkable what is lost, and what is deemed so necessary that it must not be lost at any cost in times of crisis, is it not?”

“But we digress. I propose that the good doctor make his evaluation as to the compatibility of our medical technologies for Terran use tonight, and if it is so, we shall call on the ambassador for his formal signature on the proceedings. I grow weary of these endless negotiations and wish to see both of our peoples well on the way to mutual prosperity before my time in the Great Ocean of Existence has ended.”

Just then, there was a knock at the door, and the nurse peeked in.

“The Imperial Linguist Pheladrothe and escort, Your Majesty,” she announced.

The dying monarch of the Merfolian Empire nodded and smoothed out his robe, sitting as straight as he could, hands on armrests before he pronounced, “You may escort them in, Mistress Thingreil.”

The pain Hethnesh felt in his body was overshadowed by that in his mind and heart. Steadfast old Pheladrothe, his teacher—and later, his friend—had betrayed his trust in this treason against the Empire. Before this night, the dying monarch would have defended Pheladrothe’s honor to the death.

Now, his world was rocked on waves the likes of which he had never experienced, for even with all of the precautions he had learned to take against treason and assassination, Hethnesh had still believed that his subjects over all wanted—and liked—him as their Emperor. Surely, more than two deca-centa-revolutions of the same family on the throne with no notable—or successful—rebellions could attest to that. He was uncertain what to believe.

For all the anguish that Hethnesh DhraSsonai, the trusting and fallible Merfolian male felt; however, Emperor Cojailleo the Nineteenth, high ruler of the Third great Merfolian Empire, could not let it show. Instead, he sat on his seating foam as impassively as possible despite the spasms in his body as the guards brought his old friend into the chamber. Thankfully, he noted that the elder Merfolian was not shackled, indicating that he had not resisted arrest. All three males proceeded to the center of the chamber and bowed. At his side, Mylia nodded, as was custom for the Heir, and the Terrans and Mistress Thingreil watched from the side of the room.

"You may rise," Cojailleo the Nineteenth said. He was surprised to note how much he missed the echo of Doctor Tyler's Terran English translations, but the four of them had agreed that this trial must be done as smoothly as possible. Doctor Keilani had therefore graciously accepted a temporary state of ignorance in favor of a later translation of the recording.

"Imperial Linguist Pheladrothe," the emperor continued, "You are accused of falsification of and tampering with Imperial technology, and by extension, treason against the Empire. I ask of you, in the name of the High Court, and in the presence of these witnesses: the Terran linguist Doctor Vance Tyler, Terran healer Doctor Gustave Keilani, Princess Mylia Feredel Sliessan Xiosh DhraSsonai, and the nurse Mistress Lainineh Thingreil; how do you answer these charges?"

The accused bowed again, lower than before. "Majesty, I admit my guilt in this matter, but beg your Indulgence of an explanation in my defense."

After his old tutor straightened for the second time, Hethnesh nodded, careful to keep the hope out of his features. "Very well, but know this: the Indulgence I grant now is to the one who was once my tutor and friend; if I find that male exists no longer, this trial shall conclude swiftly—with your execution." The words burned as he forced them out of his mouth, and perhaps he should not have mentioned his relationship with the other male, but Pheladrothe's invocation of the ancient Indulgence Clause was unexpected. It had not been invoked since the last trial of a known traitor before the fall of the Second Great Merfolian Empire nearly three Terran millennia before, and he had been unprepared to counter it.

Pheladrothe bobbed his head in what Hethnesh read as a compulsive, repetitive half-bow. He had never seen the male so nervous.

"I understand, Majesty. I will begin at the beginning, and be as brief as possible. You may recall that my grandson, the Imperial Linguist Delarthaen, and his mate have recently had a new youngling—my first great-grandchild."

Hethnesh did indeed recall the news of the birth, as well as the elder male's enthusiasm. Curious how this event could be the catalyst of such treason, he nodded for Pheladrothe to continue.

"Shortly after conveying your most generous gift and well-wishes to my family, I received a message by palace page relay. It was unsigned, and the sender indicated that I would soon be receiving instructions. If I failed to follow those instructions, I attempted to contact you, the sender would murder the youngling in front of its parents, whom the sender had taken to a location unknown to me.

"As proof of both my family's hostage status as well as the babe's continued existence, handwritten notes were included in the message sleeve. I recognized my grandson's writing easily, and it could not have been forged, as the note included some of the code phrases we had worked out as a game when he was young. Delarthaen's notes have been included with every new set of instructions since.

"My only hope for these last few deci-revolutions, Majesty, was that I would be so that I may tell you this story without the knowledge of the one who sent those instructions, and I deliberately left my name on the Record of Requisition to that purpose."

Hethnesh was buoyed by this story, but still could not free himself of doubt. Asking the next question grieved him, but ask it he must, having had too much experience avoiding and learning about the minds of conspirators and assassins. "How can you be certain your grandson was not coerced to write a number of these notes all at once, and then killed?"

"Majesty, I cannot be, but I must hope. The notes were dated, and the instructions I have received are not; however, the things Delarthaen has written make subtle references to specific, notable events from each day that I received the accompanying instructions.

For instance, his references to the weather match exactly the weather here in the capitol on each of the days I received a note, and once he mentioned—in detail—a large crowd outside the dwelling in which he is being held. That gathering could only have been part of your Imperial Majesty's birthday celebration last deci-revolution."

"Have you kept the instructions and the notes?" Hethnesh asked, finally softening his gaze and looking at his old friend with the compassion he had wanted show as soon as he saw Pheladrothe's nervousness.

"Yes, Majesty. I brought them with me." He gestured to a pocket in his vestments, and Hethnesh held out his hand. One of the two guards took a small stack of films from Pheladrothe, strode to the back of the room, and offered it on one knee to the emperor. He took them and nodded for the guard to resume his place before examining the evidence.

"Having seen your writing many times before, Linguist Pheladrothe, as well as your grandson’s, I can conclude that this evidence does indeed corroborate your story. I am not without compassion; therefore, as your manner and willingness to cooperate in this High Court show that your complicity was under extreme duress, and that you would have refused if you felt you could have done so while ensuring your family’s safety, you are therefore pardoned of the charge of treason laid against you.

"As for the charge of the falsification of and tampering with Imperial technology, I find you guilty as charged. The Princess Mylia Feredel Sliessan Xiosh DhraSsonai will pronounce sentence."

There was no surprise in his daughter's face, for although she had never before been present at a trial of the Imperial High Court, she had been well schooled and drilled in the forms of such proceedings. She was well prepared for her role as Sentencing Authority, which was the purview of either the Imperial Consort or the Imperial Heir.

"Imperial Linguist Pheladrothe, upon my authority as Princess and Heir Apparent to the Third Great Merfolian Empire and before the aforementioned witnesses, I hereby sentence you to two deci-revolutions' house arrest. This sentence is stayed until such time as the Imperial investigation into the treason for which you have been pardoned concludes, and may be carried out either at your quarters here in the palace or at your residence within the bounds of the capital city of the Imperial world called Merfolat.

"Until such time as your sentence begins, you are to continue your duties as Imperial Linguist, ensuring that the sender of your treasonous instructions is not apprised of our knowledge of his machinations. Do you understand the terms of your sentence?"

The beginning of Pheladrothe's reply went unheard by Hethnesh as he marveled at his daughter's masterful combination of punishment, espionage, and compassion. They had not planned for Pheladrothe's story, or for sentencing should execution been stricken from the list of options, but Mylia had managed to make sure that Pheladrothe's sentence had the least chance possible of tipping their hand to the real conspirators.

And furthermore, she had provided a way for him to spend his sentence with his family, for if they were found alive at the end of the investigation, his ability to choose between his palace residence and his city home would give him access to them without confusing the guards who would be responsible for carrying out and ensuring his house arrest. He tuned back into the proceedings.

". . . And once again, Majesty, Highness," Pheladrothe was saying with a bow to each of them, "I am most grateful for your Indulgence, and for your pardon. I swear upon the deca-revolutions that we have known each other, Majesty, that I will never willingly betray your trust, and that I will do my utmost to carry out my duties in such a way that I do not give away your plans to the traitors who sent the instructions."

Hethnesh DhraSsonai, Emperor Cojailleo the Nineteenth, smiled.

"We accept your reaffirmation of fealty, and bid you return to your quarters and rest. If, in your pretending from this time forth, you are sent more instructions, the record of this trial of the Imperial High Court will show that you have been preemptively pardoned for following those same instructions, in order to perpetuate the ruse. Rest well, old friend."

Pheladrothe and the guards bowed one final time, and one of the guards turned to the corner of the room where he pressed a differently-tinted portion of the wall decoration. The secret passage—the use of which to enter the room would have been against protocol, but was permissible when leaving, provided those using it were authorized travel the secret ways—opened and the three returned to Pheladrothe's palace quarters.

Hethnesh ordered Mistress Thingreil to convey Pheladrothe's evidence to the Captain of the Guard, and to instruct her to discreetly assemble a search party for Imperial Linguist Delarthaen, his mate, and their offspring.

"This concludes the trial in the Imperial High Court of Pheladrothe, Imperial Linguist."

He depressed the "End Recording" stud.

What happened next had led them to this moment, the princess reflected as she heard a disturbance in the corridor. The sound was too muffled to make out individual words from her position in the connection between suites, but it was definitely the raised voice of her legal mate.

She heard the doors open, and peeked through the spy hole that had been in the same place on either end of the connection space for centa-revolutions untold. The prince consort had burst through the doors, and the nurse attempted to intercept him. Since there were fewer walls between here and there, Mylia was able to make out their words.

“His Majesty is in a coma, and therefore unable to receive visitors or petitions at this time, Highness. Furthermore, your mate is not here either, should you wish to--”

At that point, the male looked to her father’s healing tank over Mistress Thingreil’s shoulder, and must have noticed that the emperor was, in fact, fully alert, for his face twisted into a rictus of rage. With a powerful swipe of his arm, he shoved the nurse out of the way.

The doors! Those heavy doors had not been properly secured after the traitor’s precipitous entrance, and the one on the right had stopped halfway through its arc, perpendicular to the threshold. Mylia’s despised mate must have heaved the nurse with all his strength, for the sturdy older female was not able to stay upright. Limply, she stumbled, and the momentum of his shove sent her careening head-first into that door’s hand-width edge with a dull thud Mylia could hear even from her hiding place. As the guards finally put off whatever distraction the traitor had used to get inside the chamber and rushed in to apprehend the traitor, Mylia rushed herself, but toward the nurse who was not moving.

“Lainineh! Lainineh!” she heard someone wailing, and realized belatedly that it was herself. Instinctively, she knew the female who had nurtured and cared for her family since before she had joined the Great Ocean of Existence would not rise. She felt the Terrans stop next to her, and the elder said something in English she did not understand, but could guess was a pronouncement of death. She wailed again, in grief for the nurse who had been kind and steadfast, and felt arms around her, rocking gently back and forth. The male holding her smelled of salt and soil, and when she was coherent enough to open her eyes—although she did not look up—she saw Doctor Tyler’s upper-body vestments.

Odd how, even in this distraught state, she could not fully appreciate the comfort the younger Terran attempted to provide. All she could think about, besides the murder of Mistress Thingreil, was that she was of the Imperial family, and therefore not to be touched by anyone not a blood or marital relation. Once the thought had fully formed in her mind, she was able to think clearer, and was reminded of her station, which, in turn reminded her of her duties. Closing her mouth, and cutting off the wailing that had continued even through her absurd thought process, Mylia took a breath.

“Thank you, Linguist Tyler, for your assistance,” she said, pulling her training to her like a shield over her grief. “I must request that you unhand me, so that I may attend my father.” When the Terran male released her—he did not ask if she was certain, or if it was a wise thing, just let her go, which Mylia could not help but respect—she rose.

Turning to the healing tank, she faced her father and pronounced, “Your Majesty, I have witnessed this male in the act of murder. The victim’s name was Lainineh Thingreil, nurse-mistress to the Imperial Family. As a member of the party wronged by the death of Mistress Thingreil, and because she had no natural issue or surviving family, I would like to bring formal charges against Prince Consort Nelpurat Ranth Burnoi.”

“Very well,” her father answered, gesturing to the guards holding the struggling villain. “Guards, lock the accused in the prison corridor until a full investigation can be conducted.”

The guards bowed and wrestled her legal mate from the chamber as a pair of Imperial Healers were announced and ushered in. “Treat her with care, and all the honor you would spare for my daughter and me,” her father said. “She has served us well these many deca-revolutions, and we would honor her sacrifice of time and life.”

“Yes, Majesty,” both healers said in unison before setting their carrying board on the floor. With Doctor Keilani’s assistance—after translation—they lifted the nurse’s body onto the board. From there, the Healers took over, each at one end, and carried her out of the room. There was no one to clean the blood off the floor; for as long as Mylia could remember, Mistress Thingreil had done all of the cleaning in these chambers and her own.

“Summon a maid,” she called to the guards remaining in the corridor.

The order was acknowledged, and then there was silence until one of the palace maids entered.

“What is your name?” Mylia asked.

“Eitha, Highness.”

“Very well, Eitha, your current duties shall be reassigned to another. From this time forth, you are to attend to the cleaning of the Imperial suites, as well as to the needs of the Imperial Family. You may begin by cleaning the floor in this chamber. Once that is finished, attend to other duties I have assigned. You may recruit others of the palace staff, including the Imperial Healers if necessary, to aid you as you learn the routines. After you have learned them, however, this assignment will be solely your responsibility in perpetuity. Do you understand these terms?”

“I do, Highness, and am honored to serve.” The young maid made the proper respectful gestures and hurried to Mistress Thingreil’s study and pantry to fetch cleaning supplies. Idly, Mylia mused that this random maid had been trained very well in the palace’s geography, or else one of the people in the chain of those who fetched her may have specified the need for someone familiar with the Imperial chambers. Had she been in Eitha’s place, she would have left the chambers to find a supply cupboard instead.

Even after more than fifty years’ practice of the medical trade, Doctor Keilani could not help but marvel at the swiftness with which death could come. He had only met the nurse the night before, and now he was helping the Merfolian equivalent of morticians to cart her lifeless body away. He had known her less than twenty-four hours, but even in that short time, Gustav had seen the woman’s courage, loyalty, and dedication to the Imperial Family of Merfolat.

One such instance stuck out to him especially, and he relived the memory as the villain—who, according to young Tyler, was the Princess’s husband, of all people—was frog-marched from the room. Since the medical information and technology offered by the Merfolians was the lynchpin of their side of the negotiations, the Emperor had insisted that the Merfolian DNA be tested that very night, so they could find out its relevance to Terran medicine. To that end, the princess had volunteered to give a sample, and she, Tyler, and himself had gone to her sitting room to perform the test, leaving the doors between suites open for propriety’s sake.

To pass the time until his scanner spit out its verdict, he told her a story—with young Tyler’s help—about how these sorts of tests used to take a very long time, hours or days instead of minutes, back on old Terra before humanity had discovered the ways of interstellar travel. She had seemed interested, and mentioned that so much was not known about the discovery of much of the Merfolians’ technology, past or present, that should any of it be lost, rediscovering how to reproduce those same technologies would take as long as it took to discover them the first time. Perhaps a little less if there were records available with schematics and things.

At that point, the machine had beeped, and he had excused himself—polite as he could, so as not to insult a real, live alien princess—and turned to the small readout screen.

The results could not possibly be right; he gave the screen a tap, just to be sure it hadn’t frozen on a previous test’s results and been unable to show the results of this test. No such luck.

“What’s wrong, Doc?” Tyler asked.

“Not sure,” he answered without looking at the younger man. Then, he had an idea. He lifted his head and spoke directly to the kid. “Hey, listen. I’m about to make a request that might sound insulting but isn’t meant to be. Can you hold off on translating until you hear the whole thing? Just so you know what kind of tone to put to the interpretation?”

At Tyler’s nod, he continued, “Right, thanks. Here’s the deal: the sequencer’s come up with a surprising result, but I want to make sure it isn’t a fluke. Get a second opinion, so to speak. So I’d like to ask if there’s another Merfolian whose DNA sample I could analyze, to compare the two results. Got it?”

The young man had nodded again, and got to translating. Suddenly, the princess interrupted, speaking in rapid Merfolian as she strode back toward her father’s suite.

Oh no, Gustav had thought, I guess no matter how it’s worded, that request must be an insult. Good going, Gus, you just caused the breakdown of a treaty that would bring humanity’s medical technology up to par with its knowledge of space travel.

He must’ve groaned or something, because when he tuned back into his surroundings, Tyler was reassuring him.

“Don’t worry, Doc,” he said. “Apparently, they knew that DNA tests are sometimes unreliable on the first go, so Mistress Thingreil volunteered to be a backup if necessary.”

“Are you sure she volunteered, or was she ordered?”

“I think she insisted. You saw how protective she was of the emperor when he wanted to sit up and talk, right? She doesn’t seem like the kind of person to risk the news of this secret getting out by making them call in someone else.”

“No, I guess she doesn’t.”

“What was so surprising, though?”

“I’d rather not answer until after this test. I don’t want to let the cat out of the bag, only to be wrong.”

“Fair enough.”

The princess returned, nurse trailing behind, and Doctor Keilani once again went through the process of swabbing a sample from the inside of her cheek as he had done with the princess. This time, the room was silent while the four of them awaited the results, and when the signal sounded, he was not the only one to jump, at the expected noise.

He felt, rather than saw, Tyler looking over his shoulder as he said, “Same result, Doc?” He must have let his reaction show again, though the result was somewhat likely to repeat if it had shown this way already. These DNA scanners were meticulously calibrated and tested regularly; they would not show the same false result twice.

The young man standing behind him whistled through his teeth. “Does that say what I think it says? I mean, I’m not trained on this equipment, but everything’s labeled pretty clearly.”

Gustav pointed to the relevant parts of the screen while he spoke. “This is a typical Terran DNA sequence, or rather, a typical sequence of mine. The second one, here, is the princess’s, and the last is Nurse Thingreil’s. These two numbers at the bottom show each sample’s percentage of matching—or correlating—DNA. So, it probably is saying what you think it’s saying. You see why I wanted a second opinion?”

“Uh huh. So, you want to come up with some medi-jargon for me to translate, or what?”

Finally remembering the non-English speakers in the room, Doctor Keilani shook himself and nodded, clearing his throat.

The echo of translation began shortly after started talking again. “The results of both tests are conclusive, and not likely to show twice. I wasn’t expecting this, but translating your people’s medical procedures and technologies to Terran use won’t be a problem. Your DNA and ours are so similar, I’m convinced our two races have common ancestry, and cross-breeding would absolutely be possible. See, according to the results of both of your tests, ‘Merfolian’ is another word for ‘human,’ with a few differences in appearance and skin structure which are probably evolutionary adaptations to living on a world that has a higher percentage of water than Earth’s. Genetically, we’re nearly an exact match.”

Vance Tyler rose from his position on the floor where he had attempted to comfort the princess; the maid needed space to do her job.

Ironic, he thought to himself, how he had rushed into the room twice in one Merfolian day, and yet how different the occasions had been. The first time he had run into the emperor’s chambers from the princess’s had been just after Doctor Keilani had made his announcement. The four of them: Princess Mylia, Doctor Keilani, Nurse Thingreil, and he had rushed through the connecting space, and he had all but tripped over his own tongue to translate the princess’s excited words for the doc.

“How can this be?” the emperor asked as he climbed back into the tank he had vacated for their earlier discussion. This time, the liquid inside was clear, the nutrients having been refreshed. What he saw through the liquid was a shock. Along the insides of the emperor’s legs were short, prehensile tentacles, which sealed like a zipper from just below his genitals to the ends of his toes as they were lowered beneath the surface of the liquid. The upper tentacles—flanges?—also overlapped a scaly plate covering the elder male’s genitals, and webbing from the outer sides of his feet and thighs unfurled to form fins. These kept him balanced and floating in the water, so he didn’t to the bottom of the tank.

Doctor Keilani must have seen as well, for as soon as he did—the translation automatic, even through Vance’s own shock—he said, “I may have a theory. Just how old is the Empire, Your Majesty?”

“This is the Third Great Merfolian Empire, but the history of the Merfolian race stretches many deca-centa-revolutions. Why does that matter?”

“It’s a vital part of my theory. How long ago was the most prosperous part of the Second Empire?”

“The Second Empire stretched from the beginning of the Merfolian exploration of systems outside our own, until the crises that necessitated the Shufharath NieSsaran.”

At this point, Vance had to interrupt. “I’m sorry, but is that a different dialect? I am unfamiliar with that term you just used. You both used it earlier, but there wasn’t a good place to ask about it.”

“No, no. I apologize. I should have thought of this before. The term Shufharath NieSsaran is from an ancient Merfolian dialect which is not unlike Terran Latin or Greek, in that it is used to name items or events of official significance. The term itself translates literally as, ‘The Deca-Centa-Revolutions’ Peace.’”

“Thank you. I shall translate it to Latin then, and make it Pax Millennia. Doctor Keilani will understand the significance.”

“Very well. To continue then, the height of the second empire was approximately five million of your years ago, and began to decline within five Earth millennia afterward. At that point, the Empire stretched from Merfolat many thousands of light revolutions in all directions along the galactic ecliptic.”

“Help me out here, Son. What was happening on Earth five million years ago?”

“I think that’s around the time archeologists believe that the common ancestor of chimpanzees and humans split into separate genera,” Vance replied, trying to remember long-ago Earth history lessons.

“That’s almost exactly what I thought. Tell me, Tyler, have you ever heard any of the old myths from seafaring times?”

“Not many. Do you have a specific myth in mind?”


“Mer . . . people? Sorry, haven’t heard that one.”

“Legends say that, centuries ago when humanity first took to the seas, drowning sailors were saved by what they called ‘mermaids,’ young women with the heads and torsos of women, but the tails of fish. I suspect Earth was once a colony of the Second Empire, and something made us lose touch. Then, the need for survival over technology made the ancient Merfolians forget their origins, and volatile happenings in the seas would have caused a migration to the land.

“Those who made the migration evolved to survive on land, losing the ability to fuse their legs into a tail, and became the human race as we know it.”

“But what about those who stayed in the oceans?” Princess Mylia asked.

“I suspect their life spans became shorter and shorter as they attempted to survive in oceans that were inhospitable, and they eventually died off.”

The princess put her hand to her mouth, eyes wide.

“Way to sugar-coat it, Doc.”

“The other alternative is that they’re still there in small settlements under the oceans, with no way to communicate with the rest of the world, much less the universe.”

“We will work under that assumption from this point on then,” Emperor Cojailleo interjected. “Your first theory may well be the case, but until we know for certain, we will not lose hope.”

“Earth’s oceans have been pretty well explored, surface and floor, over the centuries, Your Majesty. The only places left are those we can’t get to for fear of being crushed by the pressure. The theory of de- and re-evolution could be possible, since it looks like your ability to fuse your legs together is strictly a matter of flesh and sinew and therefore wouldn’t survive in fossils, I think.”

“Your oceans may be deep, but we began in the deeps of Merfolat’s oceans, and have developed only in recent eras the ability to live above-surface. Perhaps we may find those of our cousins lost to the Terran seas. We may even wish to make it part of the current agreement.”

“That is a good idea, Majesty, but neither Doctor Keilani, nor I have the authority to make that change.”

“Then, please extend a request to your ambassador to join us here. The vehicle in which you arrived should suffice to fetch him, should it not?”

“If you will write a formal invitation, Your Majesty,” Vance answered, “I will run it to the shuttle’s pilot myself.”

Once the emperor had agreed and the message had been delivered, Vance Tyler returned to the emperor’s chambers, and the four of them—with some helpful input from Mistress Thingreil—had devised the plan to catch Merfolian conspirators in their crimes while they awaited the ambassador’s arrival.

Hethnesh lay in his nutrient tank, finally able to rest now that the head conspirator had been apprehended. He would have to do something about the villain’s connection to his daughter; the future empress should not be mated to a criminal. Mylia had told him of her dislike for the male, of course, but had gone along with the mating for the sake of the advantages it would bring to Imperial family’s holdings and the empire. He regretted now his encouragement of such unwavering obedience from his daughter.

For her next match, he would ask her preference, and whatever connections came would come. His daughter’s happiness after he left the Great Sea of Existence was his priority now, and he knew she would rule well. He did not want that rule to be at the expense of her happiness and the kind of joy he had found in her mother.

He worried that she had paid that expense already, however, as he remembered the conversation with Ambassador Collinsworth the night before.

It was two deci-rotations before dawn—and four until the trade negotiation session in which Mylia was to set the trap for the conspirators—by the time the shuttle had landed again and the ambassador was escorted to the emperor’s chambers. All four of them were weary from the long night and lack of sleep, but Mistress Thingreil had kept the supply of stimulating refreshments stocked throughout the proceedings.

Unfortunately, when the ambassador arrived, Hethnesh was no longer strong enough to rise a second time from the watery embrace of the nutrient tank, and was forced to greet the head of the Terran delegation from his prone and floating position.

“My apologies, Ambassador,” he said in English, “for the late-night call, and for not rising to greet you. I fear my health is not as it was in my youth, and I lack the strength to stand.”

“No apologies are necessary, Majesty,” came the reply. “It is an honor to speak with you in person at last. I must admit, however, that I am surprised young Tyler and Doctor Keilani are still here, as they were invited many hours ago and I know they had long days previous to that.”

“Oh, yes, they have been most helpful in working out a snag in the negotiations for me. Please, have a seat,” he finished, motioning with a splash to the seating foam Nurse Thingreil had brought in from Mylia’s sitting room. “Shall we get to the reason I have asked you here at such a late hour?”

“By all means,” Ambassador Collinsworth said once he was seated, spreading his palms wide. “I must admit, I am curious.”

“As is only natural in such circumstances. My daughter will continue from here, and Doctor Tyler will translate.” Hethnesh’s voice was fading.

“Given some new information about our two peoples which was recently revealed to us,” the princess cut in smoothly, “we—that is, my father and I—would like the Terran Federation to join the Merfolian Empire. However, as young as your Federation is, we realize you have been a nation unto yourselves these many centa-revolutions, and appreciate that you wish to remain autonomous. Therefore, we propose a formal treaty of alliance which, instead of a one-time trade agreement, would bind both realms in friendship and trust in perpetuity. Would the Terran Federation agree to such a treaty?

As his daughter spoke and Doctor Tyler translated, Hethnesh watched the surprise come over Tyler, Collinsworth’s and Keilani’s faces. He and Mylia had planned this while the Terrans had tidied up Doctor Keilani’s supplies earlier, and they had not had time to inform the pair before the ambassador had arrived. He was gratified by the positive tinge to their surprised expressions and amused at how Tyler had almost—but not quite—stopped translating when he realized what he was saying. To his credit, and that of those who had trained him, the young man’s voice had not risen in any sort of excitement, despite the slight hitch in fluency that Hethnesh doubted anyone else had noticed.

It took more than the split second of a mere facial twitch for Ambassador Collinsworth to recover, however, but recover he did.

“Well,” he blustered, clearing his throat a couple times. “I must admit, I had not thought of such a possibility. May I ask what brought this about?”

“I can answer that, Sir,” young Tyler jumped in, and after translating that one sentence for Mylia, Hethnesh let her listen to the Terran tongue, as it was something she had already heard and he was tired.

The youngest male among them told the ambassador about the DNA test results, and Doctor Keilani answered the man’s questions about the test’s accuracy. Once he was satisfied by their answers, he turned back to Hethnesh and his daughter.

“This is unexpected news, Your Majesty, and I do not believe there are any contingency plans for such a situation as this in our mission orders. I have only the authority to negotiate a trade agreement, but I do not see why the Federation would reject a full alliance. I must consult with my superiors before I can say for certain though.”

“That was understood before we approached you with the proposal,” Mylia answered. “Would your Federation consider it a breach of protocol if we sent along with your consultation request a draft of the proposed treaty?”

“Not at all,” the other man answered, sitting back in his seating foam with renewed vigor. “In fact, the closer we could get it to a ‘done deal,’ so to speak, the quicker we might get an answer. I could send it with the T.F.N.D.S. Mercury—the fastest courier ship attached to our delegation—in the morning’s diplomatic dispatches. It’ll take longer to sign and ratify than the trade agreement, but it would be better for both of our peoples, and worth the wait.”

“I agree,” Hethnesh said from his tank. “I must ask that you not cancel tomorrow’s negotiation session, however. No one in our government must know of this new treaty until some conspirators we have had trouble with are apprehended. Otherwise, it may be stopped before we can send even the draft.”

Ambassador Collinsworth graciously agreed to the request, pointing out that it would be good to keep the trade negotiations going anyway, in case his superiors rejected the new proposal. Then, he returned to his ship to await the promised draft.

As the ambassador departed, Hethnesh overheard his instructions to Doctor Tyler:

“You are familiar with our requests and concessions for the trade agreement, and it seems you have developed a rapport with the Merfolians. I therefore deputize you, giving you full authority over the drafting of the preliminary alliance treaty.”

“Sir, I’m not a diplomat. I wouldn’t know where to begin.”

“I wasn’t a diplomat my first time either, Tyler. I’ll send down the necessary paperwork making it official when I get back to the ship. You send on the draft P. D. Q. afterward, and I’ll see you in a few hours.

“Just remember: balance is key. They want something from us; they give something of equal value in return, and vice-versa. If you don’t know the value of something, call one of the experts upstairs. Got it? I’ll make sure someone’s awake and aware that you might be calling.”

Very sound advice, Hethnesh thought as Vance Tyler, Ph. D. saluted his superior.

With Ambassador Collinsworth’s departure, the four of them and Mistress Thingreil were once again left alone.

Not one of them got any sleep before Mylia’s appearance in the council chambers the next morning, but the draft was ready just in time for the Mercury’s departure.

Less than six Terran months later, Vance Tyler stood at the Merfolian seaside. Emperor Cojailleo had finally succumbed to the disease which had caused him so much pain, and he and Doctor Keilani had been invited to attend the funeral.

According to the old man’s own accounts, Merfolian funerals were all the same—only the length differed depending on the identity of the deceased and how many mourners were able to attend. The emperor’s funeral had begun before dawn, and judging from the sheer number of attending participants—each of whom had to be allowed to remember the emperor aloud to the rest if they wished to do so—would go on past the Merfolian midnight.

Luckily, it was not considered rude to leave the proceedings if they lasted past sunset and you had taken your turn, which Vance was about to do once Princess—or rather, Empress—Mylia finished her own remembrance story.

The emperor’s funeral pyre had burned for hours before dawn, while the mourners feasted in the palace. The ashes were still hot when the newly-crowned empress had led the enormous procession—which gained mourners of lower ranks as it wound through the city—to the shore. She gave a small, shovel-like implement to the first person in line after their small party, and for hours, one person after another came and sprinkled a bit of the ashes into the ocean, said some ritual words, and told a story about Emperor Cojailleo.

Eventually, shortly before sunset, the new empress had halted the procession of mourners, and given the tool to Vance. He did not have to use any specific formal relationship in the ritual that had been repeated so often this day, and so he chose one he felt fit the best.

“I remember my mentor and friend of so short a time, the Emperor Hethnesh Rellibridh Cojailleo DhraSsonai. . . .”

He told his story—about first learning that the emperor spoke English, and the comfort that he had never realized was missing in his travels of knowing that someone other than those with whom he had come to Merfolat could understand him perfectly.

As Vance retreated to the Empress’s side and handed the tool to the next mourner, he thought back to the day he had decided to pack for home. Despite the treaty still being in the negotiations phase, his part of the mission was essentially finished; Mylia was fluent in English now, and likewise Ambassador Collinsworth—and even Doctor Keilani—in Merfolian. They no longer needed a linguist on the mission, and therefore Doctor Keilani would have to send his report—and Vance—home.

He had just finished placing the few neatly-folded changes of clothes he owned into his standard-issue duffle bag, and was reaching for the diploma hanging on the bulkhead of his quarters when the door chime announced the presence of a visitor.

“Come in,” he called over his shoulder, and the door opened as the computer recognized his entreaty as permission for the visitor to enter.

Briefly, Vance turned his head to see who it was. “Oh, hey, Doc,” he said, turning back to the diploma.

“What are you up to, Son?” the doc asked—somewhat redundantly, Vance thought.

Nevertheless, he answered the question: “Packing.”

“Well, stop it.”

At the doctor’s obvious command, Vance couldn’t help but pause and blink a bit. “Why? I’ll have to do it at some point; the mission’s over for me. That was the deal, wasn’t it?”

“It was,” Keilani answered in what sounded like a conciliatory tone. “Yes. But that was before I had a chance to look at all the medical information the Merfolians are givin’ us.”

Vance whipped around, mouth agape, and stared at Doctor Keilani. “You don’t mean—” The other man nodded. “No joke?” Another nod, at which Vance sagged a bit in relief. He hadn’t really thought that the doc would be so cruel as to joke about a cure that didn’t exist, and he was glad to find out that his assessment of the older man’s character—made over the course of the months they had worked together—was accurate.

“Apparently, your particular congenital condition is not uncommon in the poorer parts of Merfolat. The treatment takes a few months, and you’ll be sick as a dog in bed sippin’ the Merfolian equivalent of chicken soup for at least half of it, but there’s a ninety-five percent success rate. So you’d better unpack those PJs; you ain’t goin’ nowhere fast.”

With a huge smile, Vance Tyler turned back to the bag on the bed and scooped his clothes out of it, flinging them in the air.

Laughing, he caught Doctor Keilani in a swift, manly hug, and said, “Thanks, Doc.”

Then he had a thought. He sat heavily, put his head in his hands, and groaned.

“You in pain, Son?” the doc asked.

“No,” he replied on a sigh.

“Then what’s the matter?”

“I just remembered how much I still owe on my student loans.”

The doctor laughed so hard he fell to a seat on the bed next to Vance before clapping him on the shoulder. Vance couldn’t help but join in with his own baritone chuckle.

“That’s the spirit,” Doctor Keilani had answered.

The sun was nearly set on her father’s Remembrance Day before Mylia decided that Doctor Tyler, Doctor Keilani, herself, and the other mourners closest to him should take their turns. She had wanted to hear as many of her subjects’ memories of her father as she could, but the day was long and she had shed many tears with those who had shared their stories. From the length of the line of those still to come, there would be stories told past the next dawn, but Mylia was exhausted. After her little group of those she had personally selected to stand with her had told their stories, she decided they would make their way back to the palace and let everyone left by the shore relax the discipline they kept in front of their new monarch.

Taking the Scatterer from Vance, she stepped to the side of the pyre’s ashes. Immediately, the buzzing of quiet conversation stopped, the crowd recognizing that their empress was about to speak.

“I remember my father, Emperor Hethnesh Rellibridh Cojailleo DhraSsonai, nineteenth of his name, high ruler of the Third Great Merfolian Empire.”

The ritual introduction given, Mylia paused to gather her thoughts. Should she tell a story about her father and mother when she was a youngling, or something more recent? She had been thinking about the choice all day, between others’ remembrances, and still had not come to a decision.

Just then, she remembered that she had news her subjects would not know, and that her father was a part of it. Slowly, she tipped the Scatterer, and as the fine ashes drifted into the sea, Mylia took a breath.

“I will never forget the love my father had for me, and most especially the traditions he was willing to thwart for that love. As many of you know, my first mating was to the architect of a conspiracy against my family and the empire; neither my father nor I knew of my former consort’s crimes, but I had no good feeling for the male from the beginning of our acquaintance. Nevertheless, I dutifully agreed to the arrangement, for the sake of politics and, eventually, the conception of an heir.

“You cannot imagine the great relief I felt when that male’s crimes were learned and my mating to him was annulled.”

Mylia propped the Scatterer against a table brought out to hold refreshments throughout the long day, and continued, arms spread wide.

Two Merfolian months previous, having received approval from the Terran Federation to proceed with a full alliance treaty, final negotiations were underway. Both parties at the table had learned the other’s language, and the negotiations were much more efficient—and peaceful—with this added understanding.

The emperor had insisted on holding the negotiation sessions in his chambers, despite his failing health, as signing the treaty would be his last act as emperor before Mylia’s coronation.

“I believe,” he had said that day, “that we are all in complete agreement regarding all stipulations in this draft, Ambassador Collinsworth. Shall we finalize it and affix the necessary seals and signatures?”

“One moment, Father,” Mylia had interjected. “I believe this is a good treaty, yes, but there is one thing that could make it better still.”

“And what is that?”

“A union to bind our two nations together,” was the reply.

Before her father—whose eyes had widened so far that the whites could be seen from the table across the room—could speak, Ambassador Collinsworth said, “Your Highness, the Terran Federation is a representative democracy, with elected officials. Even if one of those officials were to marry for this treaty, within a matter of years, they would no longer hold the position of prominence they currently hold.”

“Please excuse us, Ambassador,” her father had called then. “I believe my daughter and I should discuss this point in private before we proceed. May I suggest a short recess?”

“Indeed. I must say, I could use a chance to stretch my legs a bit.”

“Excellent. Shall we reconvene in twenty Terran minutes, then?”

With the ambassador’s acknowledgement, the rest of the delegates from both star nations stood and vacated the imperial chambers.

Mylia had strode to the side of her father’s healing tank, just as she had done on that morning four Terran months before, when he had told her to seek out Doctor Tyler.

“You do not have to do this, Daughter,” her father said.

Surprised, Mylia blurted out, “But is it not tradition to bind new allies to our empire with a mating contract?”

“Tradition, yes. Law? Technically no, although the precedent of that tradition has made it seem so. My daughter, there is a reason I did not include that traditional clause. I wish you to mate for the sake of happiness and the joy you can receive from whichever male you choose. You have done your duty in mating for purposes of state; now, I would see you happy.” One hand rose, dripping, from the tank, and Mylia grasped it in both of hers as she sniffed back the tears that suddenly prickled her eyes.

“Oh, Father,” she replied. “Don’t you know that I intend to fulfill both your wish and traditional precedent with this one action? If he is willing, I intend to spend the rest of my time in the Great Ocean of Existence with the linguist Vance Tyler. I have come to enjoy his company these last deci-revolutions, and even if I do not love him now, I very easily could come to do so. I believe—and hope—that he has come to see me in the same light, though we have not spoken of it.”

“And so, the ambassador’s argument about elected officials is irrelevant, I see,” her father said. “You do not wish the mating to be between two heads of state—or a head of state and a high official of government—and therefore an absolute condition of the treaty, but instead wish to ‘kill two birds with one stone,’ as the Terrans say, and make two contracts into one, if he agrees. A clever way to avoid a second, lengthy official ceremony, my dear.”

Mylia giggled at her father’s teasing. Truthfully, she did not mind official functions—there were always people to meet, and things to do to keep the empire running smoothly in the background at such events, and she was energized by that part of politics. Unlike her father, who much preferred the everyday meetings and signings of documents.

“The linguist, Vance Tyler of the Terran Federation, was amenable to my proposal—If a bit surprised,” Mylia wound her story toward its conclusion. “And we were mated three rotations later. That much is known to all who are gathered here.

“We are here to celebrate the life of my father, and to remember him as he returns to our ancestors. But life is a cycle; loved ones leave, and new life begins.

“Two rotations before my father departed the Great Ocean, the Imperial Healers confirmed the conception of a new heir to the Merfolian throne. Before the anniversary of the foundation of the Terran/Merfolian Alliance, the imperial family will be joined by Prince Rellibridh Gustav Cojailleo Tyler DhraSsonai. My father learned of his grandson-to-be before the long sleep claimed him, and was overjoyed by the news.”

As she finished, Mylia looked straight into the eyes of her new mate. She had not told him yet, and the surprised joy on his face made the effort of swearing not only the Imperial Healers but also Doctor Keilani to secrecy well worth the trouble.

It took many Terran minutes, as Vance took her in his arms and kissed her, for the echoes of the crowd’s cheers to fade.

Doctor Keilani had opted not to speak at the emperor’s funeral. Instead, he listened as others remembered the old Merfolian and demonstrated just how good a ruler—and a person—he had been.

The new empress finished her story, and once the cheering had stopped, Gustav followed her and Tyler—both blushing because of their completely public display of affection—to the palace, stopping often for the empress and her consort to receive condolences and congratulations in equal measure.

While he walked, he thought of all that had happened these last six months or so—he still wasn’t sure on the math involved in Merfolian-to-Terran time conversion.

A bit of paper shuffling had gotten Prince Consort Vance Tyler, Ph. D. permanently assigned to Merfolat. He still had to pay off those loans of his, but he was determined to do it with his own efforts and would not accept help from the Merfolian treasury, despite his new rank and status.

Instead, since Terran ships were to be provided for the empire’s use until their own faster-than-light ships could be built, the younger man had taken it upon himself to translate all maintenance manuals for every system on those ships from English to Merfolian, as well as all of the labels on controls, doors and equipment.

Gus chuckled inwardly at the memory of the scene that he had witnessed the first time Empress Mylia had caught her new mate asleep at the Merfolian equivalent of a desk one morning. She had insisted that Vance train a team of the Imperial Linguists to help him from then on, and that none of them was to work longer than the span from about an hour after dawn until the same time before dusk. When the young man had tried to argue with her, she had pulled not only the newlywed card, but the empress one as well.

Apparently, there used to be no need for labor laws on Merfolat, but the introduction of various Terran professionals to the on-planet workforce had necessitated the change. The Terrans were beginning to corrupt the Merfolian common sense that what could not be finished today could wait for tomorrow—except in emergencies—and the healers had had an influx of stress-related injuries and illnesses because of that minor bit of corruption.

Once the law was passed, or rather, before, the empress had offered Gustav himself a permanent position with the Imperial Healers, but his dream had always been to go home and find a small town where he could live out the rest of his days as a simple country doctor.

Luckily, his gamble on Tyler’s trustworthiness all those months ago had paid off, and not only did he not get sanctioned for withholding his report about Tyler’s condition, but the black marks on his record were also expunged, thanks to “Exemplary service to the Terran/Merfolian Alliance,” whatever that meant. As far as he was concerned, Tyler was the star of this show; all Gus had done was test some DNA and sit there looking confused while the smarter folks had talked.

Nevertheless, Tyler and his new wife had insisted, and so the navy had complied and given Gustav Keilani, M.D. a nice chunk of change to retire on, to boot. When the first fully-Merfolian FTL ship was built and commissioned, he would accompany the young couple on their rounds of the empire—the first time the Imperial family had left Merfolat in thousands of Terran years—and then say his goodbyes when they reached the borders of Terran space.

He was gonna miss that kid, but Vance had a good thing goin’. Gus had his own good thing to take care of now; he just had to get back to Earth and start workin’ on it.

After the procession made it back to the palace and Doctor Keilani had returned to the suite in the imperial family’s wing that he had been using for the last half-year, he poured himself a drink. Into the quiet darkness of the evening, he made a solitary toast to the Alliance, thinking of an old two-dimensional Terran film as he said, “Here’s to finding old relatives, defeating new enemies, and to the end of the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

He drank.
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