March 6th, 2008

41. Take me to your leader.

The Queen's Courtesan

In the starlight, he thinks, you could easily mistake them for human women.

The autocar rolls away from the spaceport, then picks up speed and joins hundreds of other vehicles in low flight over the ribbon of roadway that leads to the largest city on the planet Shakti. Baxton Coulich steals a glance over at Witt Farrow, who's looking up at the night sky through the clear domed roof of the autocar, as if he expects to see something out there. No one speaks. The two Humans - both men - are scheduled to meet with some high-level Gilkesh officials to discuss an astronomical problem, or 'anomaly', in their shared section of the Galaxy. The four Gilkesh - women of an all-female race - seem bored.

Baxton feels like a tourist this first time on an alien homeworld. From the windows of the moving vehicle, maybe a hudred meters off the planet's surface, he can begin to make out the lights of the city on the horizon. Below, the roadway glows gently. He knows that for the dark-adapted eyes of the natives, the landscape must be easily visible.

The city is brighter than he's expecting, though its glow is still far subtler than the nighttime glare of New York or Tokyo. As the autocar slows and goes to surface mode again, it occurs to him that the city looks less 'alien' than he was expecting; it's bigger than anything he's seen on Earth, but not altogether different: street lamps (though much dimmer than the ones he's used to), open marketplaces, residential neighborhoods of low stone or brick houses with flat roofs that might serve as roof decks, restaurants and taverns, temples and factories, office and apartment buildings reaching to dizzying heights ... and in the streets, mothers with children, young businesswomen, derelicts and streetwalkers, and figures whose roles he can only guess.

Even from a distance, the Imperial Palace is imposing. Coulich has seen holograms of the building, with its six enormous towers (no two exactly alike) and its immense vaulted arches. The building is lit by floodlights. To Coulich, it looks dazzling; for the natives, he thinks, it must be blinding.

The autocar slows and halts in front of a checkpoint. The four officials in the car exchange a few words with the guards, and they enter the palace compound.


Farrow and Coulich follow the instructions of the guards, given in clipped, heavily accented English. "Stand here," "go in," "sit down." The room they find themselves in looks like a conference room, and they sit where they're instructed to, at a long table with a glassy top. After what seems like hours (it's actually about twenty minutes), a serious-looking woman in a richly colored, geometric-print gown strides in. The guard shouts something which Coulich (a little belatedly) recognizes as the command meaning "All stand!" and jumps clumsily to his feet, elbowing Farrow to do the same. In the same instant, he feels his heart do backflips as he recognizes the woman who's just entered the dimly-lit chamber.

"I am Queen Kathris," she says curtly in fluent English, "please sit down."

They sit, and wait for the queen to speak again. There's an interminable silence as she eyes first one, and then the other of her visitors, as if trying to see what they are hiding.

"Now then," Kathris says at length, "which one of you is the spy?"