Sunday, February 15, 2015

Returning Home, Part Two

House Morin’s flyer was as large as a Yellowstone shuttle – though where the Starfleet workhorse was rugged and practical, Juliette felt she was boarding a work of fine art. The inside was more than enough room for Juliette, Tessa, Tessa’s assistant (a star-struck girl from the Chiliat), Tessa’s two bodyguards, Andres and Juliette with room for at least four others. If she ignored the consoles and monitors and focused only from the filigree and brocade on the furnishings the room could have been from Betazed’s early baroque period. Even the pilot that proffered a silver tray with drinks was dressed in a uniform from the period – a stiff dress jacket with gold threaded epaulettes -- clearly an indication of how back House Morin laid claim to their line.  Juliette declined the offer of champagne and selected effervescent water mixed with fruit juice instead.

Tessa regarded Juliette curiously. I had no idea the House of Sri was so spartan.

This Scion is spartan. I did not intend a slight on your hospitality. I am careful what I drink and eat.

Tessa glanced at Sri’s gloves. How unobservant of me. So no wine or spirits?

Precious little.  I avoid all depressants actually – stimulants, depressants. Anything that takes one off-center.

Tessa laughed. Some of us found our balance by being unbalanced. The rest of her response was tinged with sadness. You still live like a Vulcan even though you are no longer there?

 I am grateful I live, at all, and I remember my years on Vulcan with great fondness.  Vulcans sip emotion like water found in a desert – slowly, carefully, and savoring every drop.  I have heard of those with my condition that have had surgeries to remove the portion of the brain that allows for telepathy. I’d rather live like this, than perish like that.

Juliette felt Tessa shudder, and her uneasy silence was profound. She abruptly changed the subject, and forced her tone playful. I hope I have not spoiled a surprise, but I heard the pilots going over the flight plan. Did I hear we were stopping by House Renat?

Tessa also abruptly brightened. The weather at Renat is too beautiful to be wasted. Are you familiar?

Juliette smiled, and concealed neither her recognition of the name nor her excitement at the prospect of visiting. House Renat was nestled within the terraced cliffs of the West Coast of the Southern Continent and was one of the first settlements established when settlers left the Northern Continent --  built during the tense times when Betazoid Houses were much more powerful and sometimes at war. It had been Castle Renat back then, and the wide coastal terraces obscured by lush vegetation had been fortified by cut blocks of the local white sandstone and made its place in history as a beacon for seagoing vessels and a deterrent to the pirates that preyed on them. Almost two thousand years later while some the walls mostly remained, the siege engines had long been removed, replaced with cafes and gift shops that faced out over startlingly blue water.  The keep itself had been transformed into an art museum; the lower and main wards used for outdoor theater and concerts. It was so popular reservations had to be made over a year in advance, with dispensation to the Hectat and above. That dispensation made House Renat even more famous as a place to be seen and perhaps associate with those of the upper houses.

The realization caused a moment of doubt for Juliette. Being seen at Renat with Tessa would bring Juliette prestige, with very little service from House Sri. That kind patronage without service created obligation. Obligation that can be called in unpredictable ways, she darkly thought to herself and considered asking the pilots to use their communication array to contact Papa, or Kanara if necessary. But using the shuttle’s communicator meant having to talk – talk which could be heard by the pilots who reported to Tessa.  She didn’t want to risk offending House Morin with her suspicions. She looked forlornly to her bag with the PADD inside.  If she could get a message out to the family, maybe she could learn a little more. But that communication could be – would be if Morin’s bodyguards were capable – observed. For a fleeting moment, she wondered if she was being too cautious, but the sheer weight of the obligation Morin was heaping on her pulled her back toward caution.  If the stakes were high enough, conversations would be analyzed, filtered, and studied by experts and algorithm until every possible tidbit of meaning had been sifted out of it. She quickly finished her drink, handing it to a waiting attendant. She flashed a quick smile to Andres who had observed her sudden motion to the locker with her bags, and retrieved her PADD.

She rarely wrote her messages, and she spent several moments re-acquainting herself with the interface.  Andres regarded her with some amusement. Wouldn’t a comm be faster?

She chose her answer carefully. If I commed, my family might want to talk a while. I’m just letting them know I will be delayed. She used her frustration with the buttons on the PADD to hide her evasiveness.  Any kind of comm – video or voice – would provide those who might listen in more information – tone of voice, facial expressions – to be analyzed later.  Writing gave up the least to those that didn’t know the author, even when writing was frustratingly slow.

But you do not need to use that series of buttons, you can just speak –

Juliette looked up from the PADD with a flat expression that stopped Andres in mid-thought. Perhaps I could get you another juice?  He finished lamely.

She forced a small smile. Yes, please.

Andres politely left her and her frustration to get her another juice, giving at least the illusion of private communication.

She wrote: Papa, I wanted to let you know that House Morin has most graciously offered a detour to House Renat…

She stopped. What else could she say? She decided not to, and let her brevity and the medium she used speak for her. I will send message when we leave. I miss you all, and look forward to talking with you. She sent it, and stowed her PADD in her bag inside a locker, taking out her Starfleet communicator and pocketing it to notify her if a message from anyone in House Sri arrived. Andres arrived with a green fizzy juice which she took with a grateful smile.

Conversation was light and easy for the rest of the trip, and Juliette gently guided the conversation as much as she could to news of Betazed, and life among the Hectat. The latter was easy. Part of being a House of Betazed meant following the alliances between houses, the temporary associations and even the trivial relationships that could blossom into more long lasting allegiances. Everyone had information and an opinion on what each of the major houses intended until Tessa said after a particularly intense exchange regarding a potential shift in the pentad, Listen to us! All wrapped up in this ancient pecking order. Oh Juliette, you must find the whole thing so silly from light years away!

Juliette pretended to be caught mid-sip in her drink to think of her response. When I sit down with my science teams, we sound just as caught up in our work as well.

Do you think it’s silly? Andres asked, and inwardly Juliette sighed. A direct question was hard to slide around and she was now forced to say something impolite or lie.

Sometimes,  She confessed, which was only a slight evasion that based on everyone’s smirks and light laughter did not fool anyone.

It is silly sometimes.  Andres offered in a conciliatory tone, and while he meant well, cooled the laughter quickly. He represented the lowest ranked house – including the pilots and Tessa’s assistant, who had politely distanced themselves from the conversation. Criticizing the system that put both House Sri and House Morin where they were indicated they didn’t deserve their positions. Juliette paused and considered the best way to politely defend House Morin.

Tessa rescued the situation as she added with a bright tone, Most of the time. Its silly most of the time.  Her comment took the weight from Andres words, even as she abruptly changed topic.  Oh, you have to see this. You’re not frightened by heights, Juliette? She grinned conspiratorially to her pilots and her assistant as Juliette shook her head no.  Tessa worked quietly on a console for several seconds. This is perfect!  She thought with a sense of mock foreboding. We’re just approaching House Renat.

As Tessa worked the console, the walls and furniture became more translucent until doorways and furniture were indicated only by faint red outlines – to prevent us from running into things, Juliette thought to herself.  She felt a brief moment of disorientation, as she looked down to an azure smear of ocean speeding below them as the flyer sped toward House Renat.  One of Tessa’s bodyguards seemed to lean against nothing at all as the high green cliffs of House Renat, dotted with white sandstone walls, rushed toward them. 

Brilliant!  Juliette thought out loud. This is a view from outside. Is it holographic?

Pigmentation nano-bots in the materials of the walls and furniture let everything appear transparent. Tessa replied. It was part of Jem’Hadar shroud technology. I like this application much better.

Juliette nodded in agreement just as the flyer banked hard. Even as the world dipped at an almost completely sideways, the inertial dampeners of the flyer compensated such that everyone inside felt only a slight pull to the side that evened out.  The discrepancy between what she saw and what she felt was disorienting, and for a moment, she didn’t know which sensations to react to and she gripped a barely visible chair for stability. She closed her eyes and heard gasps from almost everyone, and was relieved she was not the only one to suffer a sense of vertigo.  She opened her eyes again, and  House Renat seemed to be briefly under their feet as the flyer began a switchback route to rise above the cliff and approach the landing pads on the eastern side of the estate. Juliette gripped the back of a chair for stability.

During a deep, sweeping turn, her communicator buzzed. She immediately glanced toward where she remembered the locker to be, and saw only blue sky and wisps of clouds. She grimly realized that in order to get to her PADD, she had to walk across an invisible floor and open up a nearly invisible locker while the shuttle performed aerial acrobatics to give a dizzying view of Castle Renat.

She took a hesitant step toward the locker just as the ship lurched and quickly lunged for the chair clutching the back of the chair to steady her before she fell to the floor. She struggled to contain her embarrassment.  Right she thought to herself, its only vertigo. She counted the steps to the locker in her mind, closed her eyes as she took a deep breath, began making deliberate steps to the locker, bracing for the minor shifts as the shuttle maneuvered.  Her fingers brushed the smooth wall, and she peeked out between her closed eyes. The the touch of her hand had caused the access pad to reveal itself. She ignored the cliff walls racing by just under her fingers and opened the locker, happy to see the inside of the locker did not reflect the scene outside the shuttle as the door did, and when the door opened, she all but buried her head in the locker opening to block out the world lurching around her, digging for her PADD and quickly reading the words.

Beloved Daughter and Second Scion of House Sri,

Juliette read the intro over and over carefully. For a quick note, the formality was surprising. She swallowed; realizing that the use of her title meant something was going on – something that was an affair between Houses.

Your Matron and I are so very glad to hear you have landed on Betazed safe and sound. I regret the mix-up that most assuredly greeted you at the space port. House Jordres approached me after House Morin had approached our Matron. I should have coordinated with our Matron, and I hope my error was not too awkward, and convey to both Morin and Jordres my deepest regrets.

The words were contrite, but the actions entirely out of character for them. Papa would never make such a careless mistake.  This had be Kanara’s doing – she never felt Juliette was contributing enough to the House, and most likely threw her in to be of some use for some scheme.

Oh, and someone from Daystrom had tried to contact you – Remel got the message and didn’t get the particulars – only that you should contact them when convenient.

Juliette closed her eyes, forcing herself to diminish the maelstrom of thoughts forming in her head. Writing can more easily lie than talking. Talking can lie more easily than thinking. Papa had mentioned Daystrom for a reason – the contact must have been more urgent than he had implied. She considered asking Tessa to take her back to House Sri, but that would be a political disaster – and a disappointment for everyone.  

She felt Andres’ attention, and his approach.  A disappointment to myself as well, she thought, enjoying Andres’ attention. It helped her put aside her worries about the note and focus on the light, pleasant attitude that she wanted to project.

Juliette? Are you alright?  His question was gentle.

It is nothing. The trip from Eta Eridani the  was long.

Do you need rest? His words were heavy with his concern.

And miss House Renat? No! And say nothing, please. I have not been there since Kanara married Levin -- back when I was still in the Academy. She sighed from behind her mental walls. She was asking Andres to keep a confidence. The obligation she was generating was palpable, and he knew it.

It will be our secret, Scion of Sri. He said with a mischievous smile. She smiled back. Not all obligations had to be unpleasant.

The shuttle landed on the eastern side of the fortress estate.  As a member of the Hectat, Tessa and her retinue were whisked by the queue of others registering at the gatehouse. Juliette quietly marveled at the cleverness of turning the main entryway into a large multi-terraced club and café, to accommodate the many whose sole purpose at House Ranat was to be seen at House Ranat.  Andres sullenly thought toward her, Many of the people serving at the shops and cafes are closer to our rank than Morin’s. I would imagine some of them are of a higher rank.

Juliette smiled with slight amusement. She could only imagine Kanara’s response to Andres putting house Jordres and House Sri in the same strata.  She could not dwell on it long, however as she was already having to contend with the attention of being the guest of a darling of the Hectat. Tessa was clearly well-known here and Juliette was engulfed by the sensations from those that recognized Tessa and those that longed to be recognized by her. She shielded her mind and kept a pleasant smile as some of that attention to Tessa turned into attention and sometimes recognition of her.  She felt Andres expressed concern for her as well, his first acknowledgment of her condition which he had seemed to so casually overlook before. She nudged back with her own mind reassuringly, and diffidently shrugged, as if all the attention was nothing.  Juliette smiled and nodded her way through the people milling in the gatehouse into the landward side of the fortress and was pleased to see Tessa wasted no time darting down a side path and following a circuitous route along several smaller yet scenic paths flanked with white sandstone on one side and artistic landscaping on the other. Andres made a point of identifying every plant she took an interest in, and it quickly turned into a game for them, with her finding more and more obscure pants. She was pleased to see him only guess on a few.

Betazed’s reputation in the botanical and natural sciences is considered by many to be in the same class as Risa’s. Tessa mused in an offhand way. We love our gardens and House Renat has done wonders with preserving the local ecosystem. We could stay here for supper, and arrange a tour of the gardens of the lower terraces. It’s a beautiful walk.

For a moment, Juliette was tempted and considered asking Tessa to extend guest status to her family as well and have them meet her here, but the obligation that would generate was enormous -- far more than she wanted to handle with someone who clearly was gathering obligation to get something from her.  Forgive me, House Morin, but I must decline.  Juliette said as formally as she could. It has been over a year since I have been at House Sri – I have been a neglectful Scion, I’m afraid. I miss them greatly.

Of course, I am pleased we have the time that we do, and we should make the most of it. I know this great little café with a fantastic view over the cliffs. She turned about quickly, walking down the path with all the confidence of one who knew the labyrinth of paths like the Matron of House Renat.

The café was small, sheltered, and for all practical purposes and mostly private -- ensured so by the warnings that indicated the path was private and for guests of the House. Tessa and her guests were not the only ones at this small but busy café, but they were largest party though it was clear that the other guests of the House were Hectat and above.  

Juliette tried to ignore the implications of the wide difference in the standing between House Morin and House Sri as she perused a holographic menu and ordered a rare fruit juice replicators back at the station never seemed to get quite right.  She settled in a high-backed chair that faced the ocean, enjoying the thick, sweet scent of the tree blossoms carried over lazy breeze. Out of the corner of her eyes she studied Tessa, using her eyes instead of her mind to gauge her mood. She had learned that Betazoids may shield their minds, only to let body language betray them.  Tessa seemed relaxed and casual as she too looked out to the ocean.

 Juliette’s drink arrived and she stirred it with her straw slowly.  It is very gracious of House Morin to offer this hospitality. I cannot help but wonder why one would be so interested in House Sri.

Tessa’s amusement was palpable as she seemed to mull the question. I had heard you were direct.  I can see why you generated so much interest at the Daystrom conference, and I am pleased that House Morin was part of your approval to present.  Tessa resumed her quiet contemplation while Juliette noted the addition of yet *more* obligation. Tessa let her eyes drift to a couple who she waved to pleasantly. For all outward appearances, their conversation was not happening and they were enjoying a sunny day in a west coast café, watching other people.   Why should I not be seeking anything from House Sri? Can I not be merely spending time with one of the long-lost scions?

Juliette let her silence answer the question, which only provoked increasing amusement from Tessa until she finally broke the silence. Your discovery of the Biome was quite amazing. I heard first contact was almost fatal. She expressed admiration, leaving Juliette uncertain for a moment if she was answering her question or changing the subject.

It was not easy, though fatal might be an overstatement.  Juliette simply shrugged, letting a small bit of curiosity show through while hiding the sense of deja vu from her conversation with Andres.

Cortical shock isn’t that much of an overstatement. If a medical officer had not be present, you could have died or worse.  Tessa nodded – not to Juliette, but to the barista who refilled her drink. Juliette recognized the barista and realized that his house really did outrank Sri by about a hundred. Tessa continued as if she sensed Juliette’s discomfort.  I think House Morin could provide quite a boost to House Sri’s efforts. Our research facilities rival Daystrom’s, and we do have several strategic partnerships with them.

Juliette considered the words carefully as she closed her eyes, pretending to relax when every nerve was stretching tighter and tighter.  Are you suggesting that House Morin take over the research of the Biome from Daystrom?

Tessa actually laughed a little. We can discuss that later .You just got back, Juliette You’re home. Indulge…she glanced toward Andres and wryly smiled at Juliette …yourself. I do hope you can make yourself free the day after tomorrow though. We’re hosting a festival on Tal Island. I insist you attend as my guest.  Its normally reserved for the Hectat, and now it will be the Hectat,  you, and whatever consort –or consorts -- you wish to bring  Just remember the Tal Island Festival is a celebration of change, and is no time for caution. You may very well arrive in one situation, and leave in a different one entirely.