Kedi waited nervously at the top of the staircase, her escort standing just behind her. She paced nervously, but stopped when he feet got tangled in the hem of her dress for the third time. The dress was a muted blue, and hung in long lines to the floor. Her corset was bright silver, and it was matched by the silver circle that bound her hair above her head. The dress left her arms bare, and silver bands circled her upper arms, with delicated chains that dangled to her elbows. As she walked, the metal tinkled like tiny bells.
The blue-eyed girl whirled around, and looked down the corridor. Suka was walking quickly toward her, followed by an escort who looked rather discomfited at moving at a less-than-sedate pace.
Suka was dressed all in yellow, a deep rich color that set off her hair, and her corset was made of a bright reddish metal. Her hair was held up with a single metal net, with green ribbons wound through it.
“I’m so glad you could make it,” Suka exclaimed, linking her arm through her friend’s. The two descended the staircase, their respective escorts at their sides. When they came to the maitre’d, who stood at the foot of the stairs, Suka whispered a quick word into his ear. The man looked up at her for a moment, and she showed him the seal on the letter that had arrived that morning. He nodded, and gestured for the group to follow him.
A small table was set into a nook, half-hidden behind a potted plant. Suka could see the tall form of Mariok; the airship captain seemed to be absorbed in his own thoughts at the moment, absently studying the reflections in his wine glass. He saw the wavering forms of the two young women through the glass, and stood up immediately. They returned the gesture, and after seating the women, the escorts left.
“It is wonderful to see you again, Miss Loedi. And I presume that this lovely creature is a friend of yours?” He turned his eyes towards Kedi, who immediately blushed and dropped her gaze. Suka responded gaily, “Yes, this is Kedi Maktsi, daughter of Heildon Maktsi, the Lord Mayor of Perzelsis.”
“Well, then, Miss Maktsi, it is a great pleasure to meet you. I believe that they will bring us the menus soon, so until then, why don’t you both tell me a little bit about yourselves? How old are you?”
“I am twenty-three,” replied Suka, and looked over at Kedi, but the younger girl blushed furiously, and toyed with her napkin. “Kedi is nineteen, but she will be twenty in two weeks.” Kedi turned slightly at this, shooting Suka a slightly worried expression; Suka remembered Gehne’s warning, and stammered, “But we are not on this trip alone, of course; Kedi is with her mother, and I with my old nurse.”
Mariok laughed, and leaned back in his chair. “I take it, then, that your elders have told you some of the stories about my wild escapades, and given you very stern warnings about me? Have no fear, my dear ladies, I shall do nothing to impinge upon your honor. I am simply a curious soul, who always seeks to learn more about those things which interest me. You, Miss Leodi, interested me, when I saw you unaccompanied, in a darkened parlour, taking time top simply gaze up at the stars. You, Miss Maktsi, interest me, partly because you are friendly with Miss Leodi, and partly because of those large blue eyes. Such large eyes are no often seen past childhood.”
A waiter came, and handed each member of the party a printed bill-of-fare. The airship captain ran a practiced eye over the menu, and turned again to the young women. “Ladies, have you ever been aboard the Perzelsis before? No? I thought not. Then, please, allow me to place our order. I know the chef, and I know which items his kitchen is famous for.”
Suka and Kedi both voiced their assent, and Mariok pulled out a fountain pen from the inside pocket of his jacket. In a few moments, the bill of fare was covered in notes, some items circled, others crossed off, and his sprawling signature at the bottom. He summoned the waiter, and handing him the bill, instructed him, “Please give this to the chef, sir. He will know what to do.”
The waiter stammered, “But sir, this is highly unusual!”
“Well, so am I, my good man! Now please, take this to the chef as soon as possible.”
Suka felt her face beginning to burn bright red; she was not accustomed to any sort of ccommotion at the table, and several of the other diners were looking their way. Mariok had a booming voice, when he wanted to be heard, and she was sure that the entire hall could hear him. The waiter walked away quickly with the note, and Mariok watched him go.
“Sir, was that entirely appropriate?” Suka asked, trying to hide her blush.
“Appropriate? Oh, quite probably not. I do not set much stock by silly rules. But it will get us the best food on board this ship. And it is entirely appropriate that two laides such as yourselves should have the very best. Ah, look, now I’ve made you bluch again. Please forgive me! I may not care much for the silly rules of society, but one should nevrer make a lady blush if she doesn’t wish it. There, I will hold my peace. Please, tell me about yourselves. Miss Maktsi, I have heard that you house has a quite impressive library. Do you read much yourself?”
Kedi glanced up quickly, eyes brightening. “Oh, yes, I love to read! My father always brings me back some new book when he can. I loved the book he brought last time, it was a collection of classical Astaldi poetry. There was an entire song cycle about an Ersan princess who lived on one of the islands; her friends were driven away from the island, and she was imprisoned in a tower. After two years of confinement, she persuaded a passing ship to take her aboard, and she was smuggled out of the house in a chest of jewels. After a year and a day of sailing, she came to an island in the center of the Astaldi lands, and found her friends. They lived there in joy for a hundred years.” The young woman suddenly fell silent, blushing, and dropped her eyes to her hands. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to carry on so.”
The airship captain shook his head. “No, no, that was fascinating! Is that the Kaedti Maediki cycle?”
Kedi raised her head again, meeting Mariok’s eyes for the first time. “Yes, that’s the one! Have you read it, too?”
“Well, not read per se, but I did spend a few years among the Astaldaki, and it is still quite popular there. I was privileged to hear a local performer sing the entire cycle. Took an entire day and night to tell it, but it was exquisite. Did you read it in the original Astaldi, or the translation?” The young woman looked surprised, then a slight smile flickered across her face. “Only the translation, I’m afraid. I know a few words and phrases in the old Astaldi, but not enough to decipher a passage in it.”
“Ah, well, the translation is far better than nothing. Most people these days simply hear abouit the great song cycles once or twice in their school days, and forget about them as soon as possible. It’s rather rare to find someone your age who has a genuine love for those stories. I myself love the ancient sagas of the Ersans. They are unflinchingly stoic and often brutal, but they never try to hide the harshness of the world behind pretty words. Shall I quote you a passage?”
Suka nad Kedi both nodded eagerly, and Mariok cleared his throat; in a deep rumble, he began to recite:
“FiNaz | esir
oc vm mold þinvr
oc a fimbvl | tys
“What in the world did that mean?” Suka said, confounded. “I felt a shiver go through me as I listened.” Kedi nodded her agreement.
“Loosely translated, it might be something like this: “Sun blackens, earth sinks into the sea,
Bright stars fall from the sky, Smoke and fire surge against Life's Sustainer, Tall flames play against heaven itself.”
“Very thrilling! But perhaps not so well suited to lunch; I believe that is our waiter making his way through the tables?” Suka was correct, and a few moments later, the waiter arrived, pushing a small cart which was steaming profusely. “Here you are sir, madams; the chef seemed most anxious to accommodate you!”
As they pressed the buttons to roll back the various compartments of the trolley, Suka asked, “Well, Mister Luser, you seem to be very eager to hear about us, but you have told us precious little about yourself, save your occupation and you interested in old folk songs. How is it that you came to know the chef of the Perzelsis well enough to merit such familiarity?”
Mariok carefully carved the roasted fowl that sat in the main compartment of the cart, and answered. “We were both traveling men in our youth, though he has since settled down somewhat. We met while I was staying in Ersa, and became friends. We both appreciated fine food, and often went to find the most interesting places to eat. Unfortunately, while we were there, the Temaltans made another one of their plays for power, and the cities became rather unsafe. I had my own airship, through not the same one as I own now, and was able to pilot us both to safety in the Astaldak lands. We went our separate ways after that, but I run into him every now and again.”
Suka listened to the story distractedly, her attention more focused on the man than on his story. He seemed to have a great weariness under the energetic façade he was displaying, and he looked somewhat older than his real ahe probably was.
“That’s a fascinating story, Mr. Luser. It seems that you have traveled to many places in your life. May I ask, where are you originally from?” Suka speared a vegetable with her fork, and took a small bite of it. She did not recognize the plant itself, but it was delicious, and cooked to perfection. The airship captain gave her a quick glance as she asked her question, looking almost wary. She was startled, but then his broad smile returned. “I am afraid that I will have to keep you guessing about that one. I have never yet told anyone my past, and if I let you lovely ladies be the first to know, the others who have dined with me will get jealous.” There was an awkward silence; Kedi looked down at her plate, and Suka took a quick sip of wine. Then the moment was past, and the three resumed conversation.
After the meal was done, Suka nd Kedi glanced at each other, and rose from their seats. “Thank you for the dinner, Mr. Luser. It was a great privilege, and I do not believe that either of us has ever had a finer meal.” He stood quickly, and bowed. “Not at all, I assure you, the pleasure was all mine! Please allow me to walk you back to your escorts.”