“Place your bets!”
Provocatively clad men and women stalked the aisles between the gaming tables, delivering drinks and innuendo.
To blend in, and because she was thirsty, Rhiannon accepted the drinks when offered. She blushingly tried to ignore the innuendo. It was a bit more blatant than she’d been used to on Dyfed. She’d adapt quickly enough, she hoped.
There are three kinds of Queens, Rhiannon thought as she rubbed a warm red chip with the edge of her thumb. Her nail caught on the striated edge. The precious, the self-interested, and the careful.
Precious Queens tended to be the subjects of films. They were sweet and charismatic, but helpless. Their Devoted doted on them with a fondness that was, frankly, creepy. They were cared for, but did little caretaking of their own. Their life purpose was simply to bring their Devoted together into a cohesive whole.
Self-interested Queens were usually found at political rallies or shareholders’ meetings. They had brains and talent. Sure, whatever they angled for, whatever they negotiated their way into, would benefit their Hive, but they didn’t do it for their Devoted. They did it for the fight. They did it for the love of manipulation. If they didn’t have Hives, they’d be the very shareholders they worked so hard to convince.
Careful Queens, that glorious third kind, they were what Rhiannon wished to be.
Careful Queens cared for their Devoted and created opportunities for their Hives to thrive and grow. They earned adoration and love, looking after their Devoted with all the talent and drive of the self-interested. In return, they were treasured. They inspired and aided their Hives to work in perfect time and harmony.
Since arriving on the American station, though, Rhiannon hadn’t managed careful Queenhood. For days, she’d been locked in the medical bays, sedated. Oh, she’d brought her people to safety. To oxygen. To a foreign land.
But now they were stuck.
The docking fees, the medical bills, the just till you get on your feet apartment. She needed money to pull them out of the sucking pool of debt into which they’d stumbled. Not to mention money for food.
She wondered what kind of Queen the captain of Llyr’s Llambo had been. Rhiannon’s Hive had barely escaped from that crazed, Queen-less bunch with their lives. Between running from those criminals and running out of air, she hadn’t been able to do anything to help the poor souls. If the older Hive were right, if some strange group were stealing Queens, Rhiannon wanted to be as far from her home world as possible. She was much too young and inexperienced to help other at-risk Queens, so the only thing she could do was to remove herself from the danger. She wished she knew who to tell back home.
“Place your bets!”
If she wanted to provide for her people and get even farther from Dyfed, she needed funds. Which was why she’d come to Cleopatra’s Palace, the tri-level brothel and casino at the heart of John Wayne Station.
Cleopatra’s Palace was comforting, and somehow cozy for all its immensity. It was warmer than the rest of the station, in heat and in lighting. A place to part with your money and not even care.
Not that Rhiannon planned to lose any money. She aimed to win at the gambling tables. Win her Hive’s freedom from debt. Win the ability to provide treatment for Victor, medical training for Luciano, and materials for Alan.
She put two chips on green felt, waited for the cards to come out of their nine deck shoe. Today, her game was poker, Cleopatra style. All statistics and cunning. Perfect for a Perceiver-Analyst, which she still felt like underneath her Queen-Commander veneer.
Pair of fours, jack high. Not the best hand in the universe.
But they were two-thirds through the cards now, and these were the first fours she’d seen on the table.
She tried to think positively. The odds are in my favor. Every good druid knew the first step to becoming a magician: learn to bless and to be blessed.
She kept the fours, put the remaining three cards face down on the table, and increased her initial bet by two green chips. When her turn came to bet next, she’d add another two chips to the pile. But no more than that. She had to play it safe, and math could only take her so far.
She hadn’t yet learned her opponents’ tells. She’d thought, at one point an hour ago, that she’d discovered a consistent twitch in the man with skin the color of freshened dirt after a life-giving rain shower. He sat at the end of the table and tended to study his hand, thumb the side of his nose while looking up, and then bet a chip.
But she’d discovered this focus had nothing to do with the cards and everything to do with whether he’d spotted a particularly attractive server on the casino floor.
The dealer gave her another three cards, face down. May the dealer’s evening go as he wishes. With tips and tasks aplenty. She tucked the new cards beside her existing pair. Two fours and a five. Marvelous.
Behind her, a woman cleared her throat. Rhiannon turned to see a server, her skin the color of a rum and coke. The tray bore a single drink.
“Someone here had a lemonade?” The woman’s voice was husky and perky all at once. Inviting and secretive.
Rhiannon raised her hand till it hovered shakily at her jaw line, almost waving. “I had a lemonade.” The drink on the tray looked nothing like any lemonade Rhiannon had ever seen. It was a near-orange color—sepia—in a glass full of perfectly cubed ice. Despite the ice blocks, which ought to provide many nucleation sites, the drink had no bubbles from carbonation whatsoever.
How strange these Americans are. This lemonade is nothing like the stuff at home.
The lady put the tall glass at Rhiannon’s elbow, warm skin brushing against Rhiannon’s in direct counterpoint to the ice-cold glass behind it. Rhiannon shivered at the sensation, and the woman’s mouth curved into a gentle bow. Her tray folded out of sight and she leaned on the table, interest and enticement combined.
This close, Rhiannon could see the server wore nothing underneath her jumpsuit, made of a lightweight transparent material that bloused all over but hid nothing in its folds and shadows. Rhiannon wondered if even Gwyn could make a garment so floaty yet durable enough for working a busy room.
“Like what you see?” The woman angled her body so it was more open to Rhiannon’s gaze. “You could spend those winnings on a game far more fun than poker.”
She pointed at the stack of chips Rhiannon had amassed, more than she’d entered with.
Rhiannon knew she was supposed to look at the serving woman, part of the casino’s other business arm, with a lascivious eye. Rhiannon knew she was intended, even encouraged, to shower the lady with amorous attention. Knew most people her age would jump at this opportunity to forge a sexual connection.
But she didn’t feel the desire that films told her she ought to feel by this point. Rhiannon could appreciate the woman’s interpersonal talents and astonishingly precise eyeliner, but that enjoyment came purely on an intellectual and aesthetic level.
She looked away to the ceiling, which lofted upwards, three stories high and opulent in a station otherwise crammed for space. Ivy and holly wrapped pointlessly, beautifully, around rafters.
Ivy and holly? Is it winter down on the planet? We just finished celebrating Beltane a few weeks ago back home. But any good druid knew it didn’t matter what the season was at home, only what the season was where you were. If I can’t be in the land of my heart, I’ll respect the land I stand on.
Not that a space station counted as land. With heavier gravity than Dyfed and colder air, with lights that never went out and so few windows, with plants that came cut from somewhere rather than grown into place—well, it didn’t feel like a planet. But maybe that was because it didn’t feel like home.
The lady readjusted her stance, no longer attempting to seduce with a glimpse of hip and breast, shifting so her back leaned against the table at Rhiannon’s side. Her new position invited friendly confidences rather than a lover’s whisper. The difference was dramatic.
“I’d never want to make you uncomfortable.” Her voice made Rhiannon think of high-pitched children at play as well as more adult versions of play. She was good at what she did. “Don’t feel like you have to humor me. Really.”
The dealer cleared his throat, laid his own hand palm down on surface. “Any final bets?”
Two table mates folded, the dark man with the nose-thumbing habit amongst them. He walked away, leaving no one whom she could read.
Rhiannon raised her planned two chips.
The woman at her side sighed and tapped a coral-lacquered nail against the lemonade glass, all but forgotten in the game’s focus.
“My name’s Cinna. Call for me if you want another drink. I promise to keep it purely professional.” As if realizing professional could be taken a few ways when it came to practitioners of the universe’s oldest profession, Cinna tapped the glass again. “Virgin lemonade. And only virgin lemonade.”
She sashayed away, and Rhiannon collected her winnings from the dealer and from the other players. The chips grew her pile up to… still not enough to pay for food, medical, and docking fees. But they’d cover rent on the station-provided housing. That was something. She’d take care of her Devoted if she had to stay in here for months. At least it was warmer in the casino than on the rest of the station.
“Place your bets.”
She put five chips on the line. The farther into the shoe the dealer got, the more information Rhiannon had about which cards had been played before.
“Hey now!” Shouting from two tables over caught the attention of all the players in the place, except for a very serious couple still throwing dice.
Three burly men with buzz cuts, all wearing jumpsuits in deep burgundy with creeping ivy patterns on the sleeves, surrounded a fourth man, this one in the jeans-and-tee-shirt uniform of a pioneer who planned to head down to the planet.
The incensed pioneer banged on the table.
“I demand to see the manager,” he told the dealer in front of him. “These men have no right—”
His movements revealed a slight woman standing behind one of the burgundy three. Her bright red bodystocking matched her shockingly red lipstick. Dark brown hair slipped in waves over her left shoulder, baring her neck on the other side. She made a perfect picture of power mixed with vulnerability, and had a body with curves Rhiannon couldn’t even hope to someday own.
One burgundy wearer asked her, “This man bothering you?”
The woman nodded. “I told him no. He forced the issue.” The lady, clearly part of the casino-brothel, rubbed a palm with the opposite thumb. Did he hold her too tight? Did she slap him? “I want him blacklisted.”
The people closest to the situation all backed away.
“Is that how it happened?” The burgundy three looked to the dealer for corroboration.
He nodded. Spooked silent.
The woman smacked the burgundy-wearer closest to her, but lightly and with the back of her hand. “Isn’t my word good enough?”
The one she’d smacked ruffled her hair. They know each other, then. “Enough to kick him out for a week. Enough to tell him to get lost. But enough to blacklist him? We need a second witness for that.”
The woman nodded, regal.
Grabbing the pioneer man’s shoulders and legs, two of the burgundy three picked him up bodily. The third rifled through his pockets and drew a quick blood sample.
Then the three ‘escorted’ him to the entrance and, after he’d been ejected, melted away.
It only took five seconds for the murmur of place your bets and the clinking of chips to resume. Rhiannon picked up her cards. The next time she looked over at the table where the altercation had happened, it was full of Pai-Gow players.
Three hours later, she’d earned enough to pay Victor’s extensive medical bills—though no one else’s—and learned that being blacklisted from the casino-brothel also meant being unable to attend the station theatre or to borrow money from any but the most unscrupulous lenders. Plus, no romantic interest would even look at you twice.
When she asked her dealer, the charismatic brunet said, “You have to do something really vile to get full-on blacklisted, as opposed to just bounced out for the day or the week.” The dealer leaned closer, voice turning into a gossipy whisper that didn’t preclude anyone from listening in. “He must’ve done something extra awful if she didn’t want to clarify it in public. Like overstepping some pre-agreed boundary.”
They take contracts and consent seriously here. It was good to know. In the casino, at least, she could count on rule of law. Even if the law wasn’t necessarily the same as Dyfed’s.
The dealer shook his head as he leaned back into his place behind the table. “I wonder what he did.”
Rhiannon laid her starting bet on the table for another round. Ten red chips this time. She’d do better now that they approached the shoe’s end.
“Excuse me, ma’am.” A burgundy-and-vine clad gentleman waited at her elbow. He was taller than any of the players, broader around the shoulder than any of her Devoted.
She looked away from him briefly, fingers flitting over the cards in front of her but not picking them up.
I wonder what I did.
“Can I help you?” She barely refrained from adding a sir on the end of the question. She had to remember that she was a Queen. Even if she’d only just passed her sixteenth year, Dyfed calendar.
He gestured to the large chip pile in front of her. “The management would like to invite you to leave.”
Not until I acquire the few thousand credits left to make my bills. She twisted a lock of hair around a finger and forced herself to look the man in the eyes. The texts say to pay attention to everyone’s eye color. It makes them think you care. Makes them preen. The bouncer’s eyes were dark brown, much like everyone else’s she’d seen on this station. “I’d rather not.”
Behind her, the dealer asked whether she wanted any cards.
“She folds,” the man in burgundy answered for her.
She flew to her feet. How dare he make that choice for me? Even standing, she barely reached the middle of his chest. Though, perhaps he knows the local customs better than I.
“I fold?” She arched a brow, trying to seem cool and collected. An adult. Queens were automatically adults on Dyfed. Sixteen-year-olds might not have the same luxury in American space.
He dipped his head, a deference she hadn’t seen from the hospital staff or the accountants. “The management requests you move on, ma’am. Or else I’ll be forced to throw you out for cheating.”
“They’ve been watching you on the monitors.” He drew her attention to the cameras that dotted the walls. Unobtrusive, but obvious.
She shook her head so hard that the world filled with strands of near black. “You can search me, if you like. I didn’t bring extra cards or communicate with an accomplice or… how else do people cheat?” She’d been aiming for a childlike exuberance. Where dignity didn’t work, perhaps cuteness would create compassion.
He didn’t even smile at her innocence. “Cameraman says you’ve been ratcheting up your bets hard now that you’re nearing the end of the shoe. Says you’re counting cards.”
How else does one play poker?
She said as much. “It’s a game of skill and statistics.”
The man nodded, apologetic frown casting wrinkles all the way to the back of his shorn jaw. “That’s not how we do things here.” He spread his arms as if to say what can you do? “Tell you what, for a first offense, we’ll just exile you for a little bit and let you keep however much you walked in with.”
But I earned this! She spoke slowly, too calmly. “How about you explain a different way to play poker, allow me to keep today’s winnings in good faith, and I don’t break your strange American rules again?” Never had she felt more like a Dyfed citizen than in the presence of people who clearly were not.
His biceps bulged under his tunic. “How long will you be on John Wayne Station, ma’am?”
He nodded, not the deferential head dip she’d seen before, and gripped her elbow firmly. With that implacable, impossible hand, he pulled her towards the entrance. “If I see you again in the next month, I’ll throw you out a lot less nicely than I am today.”
What? She struggled against his inexorable strength, but it did no good. No one even looked up to watch. She wasn’t the spectacle a true blacklisting had been. “But what did I do?”
He deposited her at the door, but then held her shoulders gently, looking down with a direct gaze to soften the words. “Look, kiddo, I get that you’re not from around here, so I’m not too mad. But you cheated. And then you tried to deny and negotiate. Just read up before you come back, and everything will be fine, okay?”
There was nothing to do but nod. He was right that she needed to figure out where things had gone wrong.
Now I’m outside the casino without so much as my initial stake. She was even more broke than she’d been at the start of the venture, with no idea how to raise the money she needed. That her Hive needed. They’re all counting on me, and all I can do is get thrown out of casinos. If she’d been outdoors, somewhere that only the stars and the trees could hear, she’d have screamed her frustration to the cosmos.
She breathed deeply of the hallway’s just-too-cold-for-comfort air, centering herself as best she could. Visualize the stars, then narrow down to your place in them.
But she didn’t know where the station was, what the planet below looked like. How could she ground herself in the closest earth, if vacuum and metal and uncharted space separated her from that earth? No wonder only Dyfed’s craziest Hives could withstand long turns in space.
The meditation helped, even if she couldn’t do all the visualizations. Slightly calmer, she cast a thank you thought to her patron god, Manawyddan, and another to Ceridwen that she hadn’t been tossed out like the abuser before her. That she hadn’t had all her money stolen, only her stake. That she hadn’t died en route to John Wayne Station.
She began the long trudge from the multi-story casino-brothel towards the station-owned apartments where her Hive resided. Where they waited for her to fix their problems. Where they worried about their freedom and education and quality of life.
Her boots thudded on the off-white plastic—that can’t be strong enough to keep out the stars in case of emergency—step after step after gravity-heavy step. Another set of thudding boots joined hers. A sidelong glance netted a splash of evergreen linen overlying a sleeve of cream and lace. Gavin.
“My lady,” he said. Even as they walked, he played with the frayed belt holding up his billowing trousers, almost in fashion on this station. “I’ve solved our boarding problems.”
“Oh?” For a problem-solver, he seemed twitchy. For a Devoted, he seemed willing to usurp his Queen’s place as provider. “You didn’t have to.”
“Didn’t I?” A line ran up and down his forehead, radiating tension. He hunched forward even more. “Someone had to. We can’t stay in the station housing much longer, and no one else is finding jobs or rooms or board.” He tore at his belt’s dangling end. Savagely. “And what were you doing? Playing in a casino?”
She came to a stop in the hallway, making him meet her eyes. Tilted up her square chin and too-pointy nose. Talked slowly so that he’d have to pay attention, have to let her words and her seriousness sink in. Have to respect her, both her position and her anger. “I was earning money to move us out. I can take care of my Hive. If you don’t think I can, maybe you shouldn’t have Devoted to me.”
Even as she said the words, she realized he’d never actually Devoted. It hadn’t seemed like a major problem on Dyfed or on the Ceridwen’s Cauldron. He’d acted like a Devoted: following her suggestions, working for the Hive’s need, bonding with the rest. Now it struck her as a huge oversight. How could she be sure of his loyalty and constancy? What if he planned to leave them all? He had no true ties. Just a planet-formed friendship with Victor and what little bonding he’d done since.
He growled, throwing the edge of his shredded belt away from him. “And has it done any good?” Even as his voice grew louder, his posture grew smaller. Slouching. He drew closer to her, rather than shrinking away, as if burrowing into the comfort of her presence. Like a good Devoted might. “What have you won us?”
There was the crux of the problem. She should provide. She should save Gavin from his own good intentions and misplaced responsibility, but she couldn’t. She wished he’d go away and leave her to her failure in peace. She leaned into him, as he leaned into her, until their shoulders touched: warmth and comfort through five layers of cloth.
“Absolutely nothing. I was doing well until I got kicked out.”
He straightened, his mouth a flat line. “Who dared touch you? I’ll go and—”
“No, no.” She kept her voice low, soothing, and put a hand on his forearm. He’s so touch-starved, she thought when he curled into the small motion. “I apparently broke some American rule. I should have researched first.” She offered a small, conspiratorial smile. “I was winning till then.” She patted the arm beneath hers, half expecting him to purr like a cat. “You don’t have to worry. Don’t have to do my job for me.”
He shrugged and slouched a bit more, but turned into her body, not closed off. “It’s not a big thing.” He moved forward again, her hand still on his arm sliding back towards his elbow, making her scurry to keep up for the first few steps. “I got a job doing maintenance work for someone on-station who has space to put us all up.”
A salary and a rent-free place to live! It was perfect. But it wasn’t Gavin’s place to find such a situation. Much less without telling her. “You didn’t have to,” she said again.
He lengthened his strides and kept talking as though she hadn’t said a word. “I’ve already told the others, and they’re packing for our move.”
“Without asking me?” All right, maybe she hadn’t managed calm and gentle. Yet. She tried again, “I’m proud of you for finding a sensible situation.” That sounded much more Queen-like, even if she only barely meant it. She was glad he’d found a good path, assuming… “This job is something you want, isn’t it?” By his hesitation, she could tell it wasn’t. “You’re not responsible for the Hive’s well-being.” He should know this; he wasn’t from some foreign culture. “I am.”
“Please,” he whispered. He grabbed her closest hand in his dry one, but didn’t look at her. “Please let me do this.”
Regardless of her own successes and failures, regardless of the way she wanted to protect him from this choice, she had to honor that plea. Regardless of her selfish desire to be her Hive’s savior. “All right. But the moment you change your mind about this position, don’t you dare hesitate to cast off the chains of fiscal responsibility. That’s what I’m for.”
Gavin pushed red-blond hair behind his ear, the strands immediately falling out of place again, forward into his blue eyes. Loose and sweet and utterly unbound. Free. “We’re going to be living with an American Star Ranger. Maybe you can bless her apartment. I heard an audioplay about one once.”
She tuned out his recitation of the Ranger audioplay, what he remembered of it, complete with sound effects. Bless the apartment? She hadn’t even blessed the ship she lived on. Would the gods even listen to her, useless and ineffectual as she was? Well, it was something she could offer to the Hive’s newest benefactor, at least.
It was probably all she could offer to a Star Ranger. Whatever that was. Something in law enforcement, it sounded like.