Xaero glanced to her right and spotted Fenni, bristling and scowling at his sibling, Principle Feritu, who, while technically no longer his sister since her metamorphosis into an Elder Wisdom, was, none-the-less showing no sign of giving up the bossy big sister role.
"You can't hide her forever, we want to meet this lawyer who has so caught your attention."
"Later! You'll scare her off, and do you have any idea what the reporters will do when they find out?" Fenni was nearly begging, "I need more time before I hit her with that!"
Feritu softened visibly, "Yeah. I remember my wedding. I'd say they turned it into a travesty, but it already was. I'd already caught on to what that . . . " she cast a quick glance around, no doubt checking for her children. "I should have broken it off, no matter how much scandal it would have caused." She smiled at her brother. "All right, I'll behave, and try to keep your secret, but she's not going to appreciate being kept in the dark."
Trev snickered in Xaero's ear. "Worked for me." He whispered.
She poked him, making eight oversized males in Imperial Guard uniforms flinch. The ninth guard, in plain clothes, just grinned. "Vee" was as much a friend and assistant as a guard and had accepted Xaero totally. She refrained from rubbing her forehead. The Imperial Residence had a filtering system worthy of a space craft, and the clean air bothered her nearly as much as the excess mold spores in the cavern did. The pollen from the plants that decorated the firm's offices and her apartment never seemed to bother her. Apparently her sinuses had both high and low tolerance limits. Or maybe it was just the cavern mold.
Fenni sniffed. "Get lost Trev." He snagged Xaero's elbow, "I need some information that even the Guards haven't collected."
Xaero grinned as he steered her out of the suite and down the lift. "What's warm?"
"Pasticha's birthday is next month." He glared at the Guards who had automatically followed. "What's her favorite color? What jewelry does she already have?"
"I see." Xaero smiled as she thought. "She wears conservative suits, of course, but she keeps sneaking in pastel accessories, greens usually. She has some old family jewelry, very valuable but unfashionable, sapphires in gold. Not her color. You might look for emeralds, or if you think that might scare her off, there's a jeweler in North Two that does some beautiful stuff with some soft green beryl. Pasticha always seems to adjust her shopping trips to swing by his displays."
Fenni grinned, "Perfect!"
Xaero laughed and gave him the whole address before they parted in the street. She headed back toward the office, but not without some regrets. Once upon a time her driving ambition had involved working up to senior partner. Now that she'd polished off a complex intellectual property case she was practically without work and making her cousin Raelphi do most of what did come dribbling in from old clients. She really ought to admit that she'd moved beyond the Firm, and . . .
She really ought to have paid more attention to what was going on around her.
"Excuse me, Miss?"
She glanced up with a spike of alarm. Three males, photographic equipment and transcribers, press ID. Nothing dangerous.
"Yes?" she asked. No, sorry, can't tell you anything about the Royals. Get lost.
"How long have you known Crown Prince Fensteri?"
Blink, blink. Photographic equipment. Oh Sand!
"I met the Royal Family several months ago, when I assisted in emergency housing arrangements after The Quake." Arg! What to say? Better yet, not say. "Excuse me." She turned and walked away.
"Miss, excuse me, I didn't catch your name."
One of them was following. And he certainly wasn't going to get a name. She changed directions and dropped down to a crowded train platform and jumped through a train door just before it closed. Where ever it was going was fine with her.
In fact it was the northern bound local; she got off after three stops, switched to another and eventually got home.
She discovered over breakfast that the reporter hadn't followed her; he'd been too busy finding someone who recognize her from the picture he'd taken. Xaero frowned grimly at the front page of the Icefire Chronicle. At a very clear picture of herself laughing up at Fenni outside the Imperial residence. "Royal Romance?" in bold letters below. Large bold letters.
Xaero grabbed the comm and punched up Pasticha's number. "Pas, there's some stuff you need to know." She began.
"How could you!" a near scream full of tears.
"I didn't." Xaero protested. "It was just some sandy damned reporters, making up stories. Fenni—Teri—never got up the nerve to tell you, did he?"
"I thought he loved me!"
"He's scared, Pas. Every woman he's ever met was calculating his worth in power and money and envisioning herself as the next Emperor's Consort. Think about it. Then he met you—you two hit it off immediately and you didn't even recognize him. He's been terrified of you finding out ever since. I don't know if he's more afraid you'd run, or afraid you'd start giving him calculator looks."
Pasticha's voice was small, "I thought he looked familiar, but just because he looked like your . . . publisher?"
"Please don't call him that. He really hates it."
"I see." There was a long silence. "Well. I guess I'd better call T—Fensteri."
Xaero punched out and shook her head. Well, she took that a bit better than I'd expected.
"Xaery!" Her mother burst through the door, Firey News in hand. Same picture, new screamer headlines. 'Fenni and Notorious REM Defender Caught Exiting Private Love Nest'. "What is this all about?"
Xaero's comm chimed and she snatched it in gratitude as her mother held her speech through obviously gritted teeth.
"Xaero?" Trev, sounding a bit uncertain.
"Would you happen to know what the penalty is for killing a news reporter?" She asked, a bit surprised at how calm she sounded.
He chuckled, sounding relieved. "Oh good, I was afraid you'd be mad."
She snorted at that. "You're used to this, aren't you?"
"'Fraid so. Ignore them and they'll find something else to squawk over next week. Scream and complain and they'll gleefully report your guilty reactions all over the front page." He sighed in exasperation. "The problem is Fenni and Pasticha."
"I just talked to Pas, I think she's all right." Xaero hesitated. "Look, what about Feritu? If she, it, is a Wisdom, doesn't she, arg! Who is the heir apparent, sand it all! Won't that take the pressure off Fenni?"
"It would, but it's not announced yet. Feritu likes the behind the scenes power plays. The Parliament lives in terror of her. Everyone who really knows how it works knows that she's the conduit through which the Empress sidesteps all those restrictions that were supposed to turn the Emperor or Empress into a figurehead. Fenni knows too, he's been roped in enough times. He'd rather be the figurehead, and Feritu would rather play dutiful daughter—or sister—while they tag-team wrestle the government. But legally it ought to be the other way around."
"So, what does that add up to?"
"For now, nothing is being announced. Eventually, Feritu will have to own up, go public and take the front position. The whole household refers to it as The Announcement, with capital letters. Until then, Fenni and Pasticha are going to have to deal with the reporters . . . " He paused for a long moment. "You know, you and I could con those blood sucking sewer dwellers and give Fenni and Pas a bit of adjustment time."
Half a split ago she'd have said she never wanted to see another reporter for the remainder of her lifespan. But a nice, private, sneaky revenge . . . "Why, I do believe you're right. Lunch, My Prince?"
"I shall pick you up in front of the Builtdown in an official limo at, sand take these time adjustments . . . forty."
"I'll be there." She grinned, "This could be fun."