She isn't sure she's heard correctly.
"Joli ... did you say you're meeting one of the Queens?"
"Uh huh." Joli has quit playing with her hair and is now biting her little finger instead. Dess has only seen her do this two or three times, and it's never a good thing.
"Well, that's ... that's great!" she says, hoping for some response from Joli. Nothing.
Finally she tries the direct approach. "Um ... you don't look excited. Which one is it? Kathris, the scary one? Don't worry, whatever it is, it must be important." She pauses. "Of course, if it's something you can't talk about ..."
Atubis sees it's a good time to be elsewhere, so she says, "I'll be downstairs getting ready for the surface if you need me." Dess hears her climb down the ladder into the quarters below the skydeck.
"Amira," Joli says, almost inaubibly.
There've been times lately when Dess feels she doesn't know Joli anymore, and maybe never did. This isn't one of those times, though, and suddenly Joli looks like the girl she grew up with, out on a minor planet in the middle of nowhere. Something is wrong - badly wrong - but she knows she can get through to Joli somehow. She's got to.
"Hey," she says, and touches Joli gently on the forearm with just the tip of a finger. "You remember that stupid game we used to play back there on Planet 138? The one with the chairs?"
Joli cracks a smile, she can't help it. "Hmmf. We were really bored! They'd put a bunch of chairs in a circle, and someone would play recorded music for a few minutes while we marched around the chairs. When the music stopped, everyone had to try to find a seat, but we were always one chair short - "
Joli is laughing now. " - And there was that one time you and I both tried to sit in the same chair. I got there first, but you tried to sit in my lap. And I said, 'Does this mean we hafta get married now?' "
" ... And that was the closest we ever came to being lovers!" Dess adds. And, she thinks, this is why. She wants to know what's going on with Joli, but she doesn't want to read her mind, doesn't want to make love to her. She just wants Joli to tell her.
Now they're embracing, and Joli's body is shaking; she's not laughing anymore, she's sobbing. "Dess. Dess. Dess," she says softly, forcing the words out of her mouth. "I'm having an affair with Queen Amira."
Dess steels herself and takes a deep breath. So that's it, she thinks. Well, now I know the truth. At least things can't possibly get any worse.