The Butterfly Nebula
3,800 light years from Earth
The Lionstar‘son-board clocks reported that it was just after midnight on Earth in the city where Citlally’s family lived. She estimated that it was early morning, around dawn, where Endan had been born. That at least explained why she felt so weary. It wasn’t her iron levels; she’d had more than enough vitamins to have recovered from that. No, this was the sort of weariness that came with insomnia, the need to sleep despite the inability to do so.
Endan had managed somehow, and Citlally found herself just a little jealous as she looked between him and the glowing rectangle of the computer screen. She sighed and decided to stop trying to fight it, turned off the screen, and stepped out into the hallway.
The only sound for several moments was the whoosh of the door opening and closing. Then she adjusted to the quiet and could hear the soft hum of the ship itself. Citlally headed towards the cockpit and found both Mannarius and Dhruv in their seats.
“Oh, you’re both up,” she noted.
Dhruv turned and grinned at her. “You bet! I wouldn’t want to miss this.”
“Is something going on?” Citlally queried.
Mannarius glanced up from the control deck, gave her a warm smile, and patted the empty chair on his left. “We’re approaching Space Station Liutpyaar,” he explained. “We’ll get to rendezvous with our contacts soon.”
“That’s good to hear,” Citlally replied as she took the seat and gazed out of the window. She could just barely make out the space station among the starlight. Several other ships were coming and going from the area.
“I thought you would have been asleep right now,” the captain added.
Citlally shrugged. “I couldn’t get to sleep.”
“She could feel the excitement in the air,” Dhruv teased.
His comment made her giggle. “Maybe so. How much longer till we’re in range?”
Dhruv looked over the control panel. “Maybe an hour – by your count – now that we’ve had to slow down for all this traffic.”
She nodded and stared out the window for a few more minutes.
“What’s keeping you awake?” Mannarius asked her when he finally spoke up. Then he took a long drink from his mug.
Another shrug. “That’s the weird thing about insomnia,” she sighed. “It never makes any sense.”
Mannarius watched her thoughtfully for a moment, then turned to Dhruv. “Is there more brewing?” Then, as though to explain what he meant, he held up his mug.
“You bet captain. It should be about ready by now.”
The captain turned back to Citlally. “Are you going to try to get some, sleep, or would you rather just have some of Dhruv’s best brew?”
“If it’s anything like coffee, I couldn’t turn it down,” she replied.
“Excellent!” Mannarius grinned. “We were going to wake you up when we docked anyhow.”
Dhruv was out of his seat and off of the bridge in a matter of moments. Once he was gone, Mannarius turned to give Citlally a more somber look. “Is it your thoughts keeping you up?”
Citlally sighed, seeing that he wouldn;t be letting this go. “More or less… But still, don’t expect me to be able to completely explain it.”
Mannarius didn’t look satisfied. “Is it about what you’ve decided to do? You can change your mind at any time, you know.”
“You mean about stopping the K’zzyrch?” she asked, her brow raising as she spoke.
The captain nodded. “It’s a dangerous thing to attempt.”
She gave him a weary look. “So is everything else in this galaxy.”
She would have said more, but Dhruv walked back onto the bridge with his mugs, and Mannarius turned back to his controls panels so quickly that she knew that something was amiss with him. She chose not to comment on it, and instead thanked Dhruv for the warm mug, and took a long drink from it.
* ** *** ** *
Space Station Liutpyaar looked rather like several smaller ones connected together, each of them of a slightly different style. The Lionstar received clearance to dock at one of the larger, rounder hubs. Jalingan separated the Silver Lynx from them and docked in a bay a little further down. The station intake staff were at the bay not long after the air locks had completed their cycle. Dhruv took it upon himself to take a mug of his personal-best brew to Endan, so that waking him would not be too much of a problem.
Once they were off of their ships, Mannarius and all of his friends were escorted to separate rooms. Their documents were scrutinized, even down to mandatory DNA analyses, just like Regulus Station II had done. Citlally’s medical record was also read through, though the doctor who’d been brought in had little to say about it. When he reviewed Jaligan’s records, he gave him a smirk.
“Still never a dull moment for you?” the doctor asked him. “At least you don’t need yet another innoculation update.”
Jalingan ignore the snide remarks from both the doctor and Mannarius, and let the intake crew continue. They were passed from medical to the second level of security.
“We don’t have many humans visiting this part of space,” the customs agent noted. He was an alien whose race she didn’t recognize; he was blue-furred and copper-eyed, his body tall and lean.
“We hear that a lot,” Citlally replied. She couldn’t think of anything else to say.
The agent nodded, but kept on looking through her files. “I’m sure he will be thoroughly questioned,” he told her as he passed the page with information about her husband. The agent looked back to her computer for a few moments. “You have an interesting choice of traveling companions. Your galactic passport shows that you left Earth with just your mate, and now here you are with two Leomians and one half-Leomian… And also a Gliesian.”
Citlally was starting to wonder what the agent was getting at when he went on to ask, “Just what do you know about this… Jalingan whom you’re traveling with?”
Citlally blinked, then shook her head. “Not much, really,” she admitted. “He helped me get medical attention when I needed it.”
“Is that all?” The agent asked.
Citlally felt all the more apprehensive for his tone. She steeled herself and nodded.
“Yet you’re still traveling with him.”
“Sure,” Citlally agreed. “We ended up becoming friends, so we’ve been here and there together.”
If the agent was satisfied with her response, he did not say so. Instead, he looked through her files for a couple more minutes. “What, then, is your purpose is coming to this station?”
Citlally held back the temptation to let out an exasperated sigh. As tired as she was of the questioning, she’d been warned that the station had extra security. They knew about the K’zzyrch attacks on other stations, and they were doing all that they could to prevent any problems of their own. In reality, it was for the safety of everyone traveling through. Mannarius and Dhruv had told her hours ago, before they’d left the Lionstar, how to answer these questions without arousing suspicion.
“My husband and I left Earth to explore,” she explained. “This station is on our route.”
The agent gave a slow nod, but did not give an idea of his feelings about the answer. “How long are you staying?”
Again Citlally was glad that Mannarius had prepared her for this. “Not long,” she replied, keeping her voice casual. “We want to continue traveling after a couple of days.”
The agent didn;t seem ecstatic about her answer, but at the same time, he didn’t argue with her. Mannarius had said that human responses were typically considered vague, but they tended to be accepted, as long as they were consistent.
The agent spent several minutes typing into his console. He didn’t speak to Citlally all that time, which made the human girl all the more tense.
At last they alien said, “You have clearance.”
Citlally almost thought that she had heard the agent wrong. “I what?”
“I said that you have clearance,” the agent repeated, sounding annoyed. “Your kind is so distractible, really.”
“Oh,” Citlally replied.
“The others in your party also came up clear,” the agent went on, “so we have no reason to delay you any further.”
The agent finished up with his console, logged out, and led Citlally to a door on the other side of the room. The very large security guard who’d been keeping watch moved aside, and the agent keyed a code into the panel that allowed the door to slide open. On the other side, there was a small waiting room, which the agent passed into without hesitation. He stepped up to another agent at a counter, gave her Citlally’s file after a short conversation, and then retreated back to his own office. He said nothing more to Citlally.
Once the door closed, Citlally gazed around the room, looking for anyone familiar. She started to walk around, wondering where Endan and the others had decided to sit, but seeing no sign of them. After a couple minutes of searching the room, she decided to walk over to the agent who had been given her file and ask her.
“You may move on to the main hallways of the station,” the agent told her. “You are cleared for access as a guest. Did you need to apply for work clearance?”
Citlally shook her head. “No. Ummm… Thank you, but I won’t be here for very long. Actually, I was looking for my husband and our friends.”
“Once you get clearance, you need to move along,” the agent told her. “Anyone else who was cleared recently was sent out to the main hallways.”
“I see,” Citlally replied, a little put off by the agent’s curt way of talking to her. She decided not to read too much into it, and headed out the door on the other side of the room.
Arms were around her almost as soon as she emerged. She had to force herself not to scream as she wriggled around to see who it was.
“Endan!” she scolded, looking up at him. “We’ve talked about you not sneaking up on me!”
“I couldn’t help myself,” he told her, laying several kisses on her forehead. “You took so long in there, I was worried that something had gone wrong.”
“Humans worry a lot, don’t they?” Yatzerrin asked his friend.
Jalingan shrugged. “You probably would, too, if you’d grown up on Earth. Have you read much about it?”
Yatzerrin was shaking his head when Citlally chimed in, “Let’s not talk about that now. I’m just glad that we were cleared.”
“So am I,” Jalingan agreed. “This place has been on edge lately, and the security here is… well, practically paranoid.”
“I’ll say!” she agreed. “So where to next? Our rooms? Breakfast?”
“That’s up to you,” the half-lion told her. “Mannarius and Dhruv already left with our luggage. He told Endan he’d put your stuff in your room for you, but your man insisted on waiting here. If you want to go see what Mannarius is up to, go ahead. Yatzerrin and I are more interested in eating anything besides space rations.”
“So am I!” Citlally was eager to agree.
The four of them headed to the nearest lift and took it to one of the dining levels. Jalingan seemed familiar with the station, for he knew which button to press without consulting the directory. He also knew which way to go once they were out of the lift. There was no hesitation in his steps as he led them down the causeway to their left, past several shops, as though he had a specific destination in mind.
They hurried by several restaurants with food too foreign for Citlally to recognize, then past one place that seemed like authentic Chinese, but she couldn’t be sure, since they were moving too quickly and several other aliens were in the way. Then she saw a place that was most definitely selling phở, and after that a ramen shop next to a sushi bar. Still Jalingan kept walking.
“These smells are making me hungry!” Citlally complained. “How far do we have to walk? I could eat at any of these places.”
“You could,” Jalingan replied, grinning at her over his shoulder, “but then you’d be missing out on this.”
He turned one more corner and stopped in from of a restaurant that had been decorated like a scene from fifteenth-century Earth. A woven carpet led into the suite, and the doorway had been fitted with iron-wrought filigree. There was a wooden cart to one side of the entrance, its crates empty for the time being. When Citlally peered inside, she could see that the lights had been dimmed on a room decorated with tapestries and set with wooden tables.
“What is this place?” she asked the half-lion.
“This is where we’re going to meet a few people,” he explained. “One of them insisted that this was the place to come.”
Citlally shrugged. “It looks interesting enough.”
Jalingan grinned at her and gave her a dramatic bow. “After you.”
She raised a brow and looked up at Endan. “Did you suggest that to him?”
Endan chuckled. “Not at all, but if you donnae like it, then I won’t bother.”
She smirked and shook her head. “You can bow to me any time.”
“She has spark!” Yatzerrin declared as he watched their exchange. “There’s nothing demure about her, is there?”
“That’s one o’ the things I love about her,” Endan told him. “She’s bold, and she stands up fer herself.”
Citlally gave him an endearing smile. “Can we talk about this inside? I’m famished, and these smells are too good to just stand outside for.”
“If you insist,” Endan replied, giving her a bow of his own, followed by a wink.
She shook her head and walked past him, laying a hand on his shoulder briefly. The others followed her inside, and they looked around for a moment while their eyes adjusted to the dimmer setting. A young lady walked up to them, wearing a dress of blue and yellow brocade over an ivory chemise, and asked them whether they were interested in a table. Citlally had to bite her tongue when she noticed that the girl had fastened her sandy-colored hair into a bun, revealing the long tips of her ears.
“We’re meeting some friends here,” Jalingan told her.
Meanwhile, Citlally was clutching Endan’s arm, trying to get his attention without seeming rude. He was not catching onto her quickly, and before she knew it, the girl was leading them through the restaurant.
There was a part of the dining area separated from the rest by a series of arches, as though it had been designed for special gatherings. There was a long table set there, made of thick wood, a dark and rich sort of red. There were chairs to match it, velvet cushions fastened to the wood by hammered iron pins. It looked altogether medieval to Citlally, although the designs carved into the wood looked nothing like the styles she’d ever seen before.
“Jalingan!” one of the men at the table called out. He looked tall enough to be Lixfelian, but she couldn’t be sure. He set down his cup and got out of his chair as quickly as he could. His arms were soon around Jalingan, patting his back eagerly. “It’s about time!”
“I’ll say,” the half-lion agreed. “Security is really tense here.”
“They really made you go through all the procedures?” the taller man asked him.
Jalingan shrugged. “I guess that happens when I bring new people to the station. Besides, a lot of stations have been on edge after what happened to Regulus II.”
“Yeah,” the Lixfelian replied, “I guess so. Where’s your cousin?”
“You think he wanted to spend any more time with me than he had to?” Jalingan replied with a scoff. He shook his head. “I brought my friends instead.”
Jalingan turned and gestured to the two humans. “This is Citlally, and her husband, Endan. They’ve been through a lot lately. Citlally, Endan, this is one of my buddies, Nerrylax.” He gave her a serious look, as though warning her not to say a word about the best-kept secret in the galaxy.
“It’s good to meet you,” she told the taller man, offering her hand to him.
Nerrylax shook her hand, and then Endan’s. “How are you putting up with this guy?” he joked. “He’s all over the place isn’t he?”
“Well, he did save my life…” Citlally replied.
“It was the least I could do,” Jalingan added.
The Nerrylax turned to Yatzerrin. “It’s good to see you, too!” He embraced the Gliesian, grinning at him widely. “Glad you were able to hitch a ride.”
“Somebody has to keep this halfling company,” Yatzerrin told him.
Citlally found that she quite liked their playful banter, the way they were comfortable enough with each other to joke so openly. They did not have long for playing, however, when another figure stood up from the table.
“So the mercenary has come at last,” she said, looking Jalingan over.
“Bah, that dirty work!” Jalingan scoffed. “I would like to never go back to doing that garbage, even if it was subterfuge.”
The woman was distracted from replying to Jalingan by the look that she saw on Citlally’s face. The Aztec girl’s mouth was agape, staring at her in utter shock. She walked up to Citlally and laid her hands on her shoulders.
“Yes, my dear,” the red-haired woman told her, “I am real.”
“Y- you…” Citlally stuttered, her thoughts too excited to form the words correctly. “Allanah!”
She stopped talking and clung to the elf standing before her. Citlally’s arms squeezed her tightly, and Allanah returned the embrace in kind.
“It’s good to see you, too,” Allanah told her. “And you seem to have healed so much.”
Citlally nodded, still clinging to her elvan friend. “I heard that you made it off of Sardonia, but I had thought that… that…”
“That I went back home?” Allanah asked as they released and stood up straight.
After a moment of hesitation, Citlally nodded.
“I haven’t been home in ages,” Allanah told, the words weighed down as though she wished more than anything to go home. “And now these gentlemen are stuck out here with me.”
Citlally looked to where she was gesturing, and noticed four other elves, each one in a matching gray uniforms, standing at attention. They’d been hidden by the columns when she’d entered, and they were so quiet that she had not even noticed them. She gave Allanah a wide-eyed look.
“Are these your guards?”
“Aye, that they are,” Allanah admitted with a nod. “And there are two more elsewhere in this… ah, tavern, so to speak.”
“You sound like you don’t want the attention that they bring,” Citlally noted.
Allanah only shrugged. “Let’s not discuss it,” she sighed. “I have no choice in the matter, anyhow, and I would much rather talk to you about other things.”
Citlally gave her a warm smile, and they took a seat next to each other. She finally had the pleasure of introducing Endan to her friend, and he was very glad to make her acquaintance. Jalingan took a seat across from them, Yatzerrin and Nerrylax on either side of him, and it was only a couple minutes more the waitress hurried over with two pitchers.
“Blue leaf ale, milady,” she said as she set the first one down, “and spiced mead, as you requested.”
“Excellent,” Allanah told her.
She poured Citlally and her husband some of the mead as the waitress left hurriedly. Jalingan and his friends were more interested in the ale, although Nerrylax looked as though he’d already had at least one or two. Citlally whispered briefly to her husband, who shrugged and reasoned that it was nearly lunchtime anyhow, after all their time spent in security, and what better way to celebrate a reunion with friends?
Allanah raised her glass. “To dreams and journeys!” she announced.
Citlally blinked, but followed suit anyway. They clinked glasses. When she took a sip of the mead, she found that it was not just warmed on the stove, but warm with spices, as though it were glowing sunshine that rolled over her tough and down her throat. And how else could sunshine ever taste so sweet? She smiled, the mead leaving her with a happy feeling in her belly.
“Isn’t it lovely?” Allanah asked her.
“I’ve never had mead quite this good before,” the human woman admitted.
“It is from my home-world,” the elf told her.
The idea thrilled Citlally. The mead was amazing all on its own, but to know that it cam from a planet populated by elves…
Her thoughts were interrupted by the arrival of two more of Jalingan’s friends, who had hardly sat down after introductions all around when three more people arrived. These weren’t friends of the half-lion, but it seemed that they’d been expected all the same.
“Captain,” Jalingan said as he stood up. “I’m glad that you received my messages.”
The taller man in the group gave Jalingan a slow nod. He was an older man, gruff, disinterested in any sort of nonsense. His steel-gray eyes looked out onto the world with a sternness that conveyed how little he was willing to take part in jokes. He had hair to match.
Citlally looked over the blue-gray tone of his skin, the way his black stripes laid across his skin, while he spoke to Jalingan. “I’ve heard quite a few interesting things about what you’re up to,” the older man said.
“I think you’ll be as glad as anyone else about what we have planned,” the half-lion replied as the waitress came by with several baskets of warm bread – some light and golden, and others a darker shade and sprinkled with tiny seeds – as well as butter and honey. “Okay everyone, this is Captain T’krost. He was in charge of security on Space Station Regulus II.”
Some of the people at the table whispered to one another; they were silenced almost immediately by the way the captain cleared his throat. Citlally stared up at him from where she sat, her eyes shining. When he realized that she was looking at him, he stared back.
The woman next to T’krost noticed, too, and she followed his gaze. Her reaction was much less stoic that his, however, and she looked like she could hardly hold back from gasping. Her bright orange eyes widened with recognition.
“Oh, my dear girl…” the woman breathed.
Citlally’s eyes turned to her, taking in her short copper curls and the thick peony fur that edged her ears. The ears themselves were something like an elf’s, but wide and open like a cat’s. Her skin was a pale shade of aquamarine, its fur thin and wispy, as though it were softer than dandelion fuzz.
“Are you also from Space Station Regulus II?” Citlally asked her.
The woman nodded, taking a single, nervous step towards her. “I recognize you,” she said, hardly able to get the words out. “You were there…”
“Dhanae,” Captain T’krost cut in, his voice gruff, “what are you talking about?”
Citlally’s expression turned inquisitive, waiting expectantly for an answer to the very same question.
“You don’t remember?” Dhanae asked him. When she turned his way, Citlally caught a glimpse of the fins that ran along her arms. They were supple, rippling with her movements the way that the fins of a betta fish would. The main difference was that hers were not nearly as long. “She was on the station when…”
“These are the humans we had discussed,” T’krost replied, “not long before the K’zzyrch attacked?” He seemed intrigued by the possibility.
“Yes, T’krost!” Dhanae replied, her voice rising with her excitement. “Remember that I’ve been worried about them?”
Dhanae stepped closer to Citlally and took her hand. “Don’t pay him too much mind. He has so many other thoughts that he’s focused on. I know about you, Citlally. You were on the station when it was attacked, and I have been wondering ever since then what had become of you.”
Citlally could hardly speak at first. Her eyes were locked with this other woman’s, this alien who knew her name – had known her name for months by now – yet she hadn’t even been been properly introduced to her. Finally, she found her voice.
“I… I guess a lot has become of me.”
“Wait a minute there, lass,” Endan cut in, not willing to let his beloved wife say too much to a stranger. “Just who are you, and what business do you have with us?”
Dhanae blinked and shared a glance with T’krost. “My name is Dhanae Sphyll.” she explained as she looked back to Endan and Citlally. “I am – was – the head cultural specialist on Space Station Regulus II.”
“So you made it off the station,” he added.
She nodded, not sure whether there was any judgment weighing down his words. “T’krost and I got as many people off of the station as we could before –”
“I don’t doubt that,” Endan interrupted. “But you know my wife already; how is that possible?”
Dhanae looked up at the security captain as though he was better off explaining it. He didn’t seem to appreciate that.
“It’s because you’re human,” he said, not mincing a single word. “On my station, humans get a special watch. Rashard here knows all about it.”
Citlally peered at the man who stood a little behind T’krost. He gave her an uncertain wave, and she nodded to him.
“We had all three of you on high security watch,” T’krost went on. “The way your DNA works, we wanted to keep you safe.”
“But the station was attacked anyway,” Endan said, as though reminding him of a very important detail that he’d missed.
“The K’zzyrch would have attacked anyway,” another voice said. Endan looked over to see that it was one of Jalingan’s friends, a white-haired alien whose skin was blue, mottled with other shades of blue on his shoulders and the backs of his hands, even his cheeks.
T’krost nodded. “I had to defend that station against more than just the K’zzyrch, though. They aren’t the only vile force in the galaxy.”
“Just one of the worst,” the white-haired man went on. Citlally noticed that it went down past his shoulders, and that it was tied in a loose braid. He wore a golden cuff on each upper arm, and several gold bracelets on each wrist. His ivory shirt was plain and loose fitting, and he had a relaxed air despite the seriousness of the topic on which they spoke. His voice was soft and had somewhat of an air of feminimity to it.
“And that’s why I’m glad that all of you came,” Jalingan added. He had to keep the conversation focused, or else he feared that they would descend into arguments about who was to blame for what. “Citlally, these three are the only ones from Regulus Station II who were willing to meet with us today. The K’zzyrch had a new weapon to use against the station when they attacked it, and if it weren’t for that, Captain T’krost would have been able to lead a successful scramble against their attack.”
“And now their weapon isn’t going to mean much to me,” the captain told them as he took a chair.
“Dhanae is an expert in many galactic cultures,” the half-lion went on as he poured her a glass of mead. “Her knowledge is going to be very useful in furthering our goals.”
“I appreciate the recognition,” she replied as she accepted the glass.
“And Rashard here is a fellow human traveler.”
Citlally looked to him again, taking in the casual way in which he dressed, his rich, dark skin, and even his long dreadlocks. “So you’re going to join us in stopping their menace?” she asked him. “Were you hurt by their venom, too?”
Rashard shook his head. He’d already sat down in one of the last open seats, and had an ale in his hand. “I managed to stay away from that garbage,” he said, his Jamaican accent obvious to her. “But they’re awful monsters anyway, and I want them stopped!”
By then, the waitress was setting large bowls of soup on the table, followed by wide dishes of mixed greens. She set out various accompaniments before leaving again to fetch some wine for some of the new guests. Citlally could tell that these were communal vessels, and that it was meant for the diners to take what they liked for the course. Allanah explained that one of them was a seafood stew, and the other was based on sort of venison and vegetables.
“My family has always enjoyed the venison stew,” Allanah told them as she ladled some into her bowl, “but Jalingan said that some of you might prefer the sailors’ stew.”
“And right he’d be!” the blue-skinned man with the braid said as he reached for the other ladle.
“Save some for the others, Xingfei,” Jalingan warned when he saw the way he’d overfilled his bowl.
The blue-skinned man winked at him. “If you say so, Jalingan.” Citlally saw his ears twitch, as though with excitement, as he looked down at his bowl. They were long, somewhat like an elf’s but also wide.
Jalingan shook his head and took a chunk of bread to dip in his soup.
“Wait… this is from your home-world?” Citlally asked, her eyes widening as she turned to the red-haired elf.
Allanah nodded. This whole tavern is based on my home-world,” she replied. “Everything you will taste here comes from Lorata.”
Her words brightened Citlally’s expression, and she grinned at her husband. “This is fantastic!”
“Good to see you happy,” Endan told her, squeezing her hand.
Jalingan smirked. “Seeing you smile is the highlight of my day. Too bad my cousin has to miss out on it.”
“He’ll come around eventually,” Citlally reassured him. Then she took a sip of the broth from the venison stew and smiled at the richness of the flavor. “For now, let’s just eat.”
The room quieted down for a few minutes, while everyone chose between stew or salad, and set to work relieving some of their hunger. Nerrylax seemed interested in neither, but focused on drizzling honey onto his bread – which he put not even the least amount of butter onto – in between drinking from his mug of ale. Rashard, meanwhile, seemed glad that there was enough food for him to have a second bowl of stew.
It wasn’t until the main-course dishes were brought out that Jalingan seemed interested in talking about anything serious. He waited until the roast was sliced – and for others, there was something akin to pheasant, as well as an indigo roasted fish – and the waitress had left again.
“We all know why we’re here,” Jalingan began as he pierced his potato with his fork. “I want to assure all of you that there are many more who want to help us. They couldn’t be here today, but they will be at the next meeting.”
“What good is that if they aren’t here to plan with us?” T’krost asked.
“It’s plenty of good,” Jalingan told him, “because we’re not making plans today.”
“Why not?” the security captain grumbled.
“This isn’t the place for it. We have a quiet place to meet near Eta Scorpii.”
“Are you telling me that a tavern based on her home-world,” T’krost retorted, pointing a finger at Allanah, “is not a safe place to talk?”
Jalingan sighed as he replied, “T’krost, I took you as more of a patient man. If I was wrong, then your role in this mission is going to have to be a lot more different.”
“And what is that supposed to mean?”
“I can tell you when we meet up again,” Jalingan told him in a tone that meant that his words were final.
“This tavern needs to be a safe place,” Allanah added. “People from Lorata come here to work and visit.”
Citlally leaned close to her and whispered, “It’s not part of the best-kept secret?”
Allanah shook her head. “As far as I am concerned,” she tilted her head towards Jalingan and his friends, “their presence here is purely coincidental.”
“Besides,” Jalingan added as he took another slice of the roast for his plate, “I thought that you’d be glad to be reunited here before I introduced you to most of the crew.”
“I’m so happy to see that Allanah made it off of Sardonia safely,” Citlally told him. “I have to thank you again for making that happen.”
“Be careful,” Allanah warned her. “Don’t let it go to his head. Most of my city – and my extended family – want to thank him in person. His real goals might be a secret to the K’zzyrch, but not to Lorata.”
“And let’s not forget that he helped get Citlally to safety,” Endan added. Then he raised his glass and added, “I declare a toast, to the most talented mercenary in the Orion arm.”
“A toast to Jalingan!” Allanah added.
The others follow suit, clinking their glasses together. All the while, Jalingan was giving his human friends a nervous look.