Thul entered the Reggana city tavern by one of its several revolving doors, his Thallonian commoner's clothes and attached hood uncomfortably rough against his skin.
The place was loud with jangling music and crowded with a surprising number of aliens. Squinting to see through the dim lighting and the acch'ta smoke, he took a look around.
At first, he couldn't find the one he was looking for. Then he heard a familiar laugh and traced it to its owner -- a tall, lean Thallonian youth with an antic sparkle in his eyes and a mouth that seemed ready to break into a grin at any moment. He had clearly had too much to drink.
His companion was an Indarrhi of about the same age. Like most every member of his species, the fellow was slender and as dark as carbon, with deepset silver eyes, a fleecy mop of silver-white hair, and three thick fingers on either hand.
The Indarrhi also had rudimentary empathic powers. Or so it was said of them in the empire.
Spotting an unoccupied table, the governor pulled out a chair and sat down. Then he sat back and watched the Thallonian and the Indarrhi.
"Drink?" asked a gruff but feminine voice.
Thul turned and looked up at a triangular face with a single bifocal eye in the middle of its leathery forehead. A Banyanan, he mused. And this one had even fewer manners than most.
He considered the question that had been posed to him. "Thallonian ale," he decided. "Room temperature."
The waitress grunted. "Room temperature." She sneered, as if it were not very likely his request would be met. Then she turned her angular body sideways and made her way back through the crowd.
Halfway to the bar, she passed the young Thallonian. Winking at the Indarrhi, he grabbed the Banyanan around the waist and drew her to him. But the waitress was stronger than she looked. With a push, she freed herself and continued on her way.
It didn't anger the youth in the least. In fact, it might have been a game he had played with the female before. Laughing out loud, he clapped his companion on the back and lifted a mug to his lips.
The contents, a frothy liquid as dark and scarlet as blood, dripped down the youth's chin and spattered the table below. Wiping himself with the back of his hand, he swung his arm around the Indarrhi's shoulders and whispered something into his friend's rounded ear.
Yes, Thul thought disapprovingly. The Thallonian had definitely had too much to drink.
Suddenly, the youth thrust the Indarrhi away and laughed even more loudly. His companion smiled, appearing to enjoy the joke -- but not with the fervor of the Thallonian. The governor frowned.
The youth was a misfit -- an embarrassment to his species. Whoever had raised him had done a stunningly bad job of imparting Thallonian manners to him. Were it not for his ruddy skin and his size, one might have wondered if he was Thallonian at all.
"Thallonian ale," said a by-now familiar voice.
Thul glanced at the serving woman as she put his drink in front of him. Then he reached into his pocket and produced an imperial disc. "This should be enough," he said.
The Banyanan eyed it, then plucked it from the governor's hand. "It should at that," she responded. Then, with her overly generous payment in hand, she disappeared again.
With the waitress gone, Thul returned his attention to the youth. He was just in time to see the fellow thrust his leg out in the path of a green-skinned Orion trader.
The Orion, who had a mug in his hand, never saw the danger. With a curse, he tripped on the Thallonian's foot and went flying. So did his drink -- into the lap of another Thallonian, a brawny specimen with a sear across the bridge of his nose.
Outraged, the victim rose from his seat and seized the Orion's shirtfront in his fists. With a surge of his powerful muscles, he lifted the trader off the floor.
"Orion scum," he spat.
Releasing the trader with one hand, the Thallonian drew it back and struck the Orion in the face. Thul heard a resounding crack as the trader's head snapped back. A moment later, it lolled on the Orion's shoulder, and the Thallonian let him drop to the floor.
When the trader woke, the governor mused, he would have a headache. A rather considerable headache.
"Damn you!" bellowed the youth, leaping to his feet "That was my friend you hit!"
The Thallonian with the scar glanced at him warily. "The fool spilled his drink in my lap!"
"Only because you tripped him with your big, clumsy feet!" the youth roared at him.
It was anything but the truth, Thul noted inwardly. But, of course, the fellow with the scar had no way of knowing that, and neither did anyone else in the establishment.
"Who are you calling clumsy?" the man with the sear snarled.
"You!" the youth snarled back. "Why? What are you going to do about it, you bulging sack of excrement?"
The older man's eyes popped and his hand went to his hip. "Sack of excrement, is it?" With a flash of metal, he slid a blade out of its scabbard. "How would you like me to cut your tongue out and shove it down your scrawny throat?"
The youth grinned as he whipped his own sword free. "I would like to see you try!" he shot back.
Seeing what was about to take place, the other patrons cleared a space for the two antagonists. The Orion, who was allegedly the cause of the youth's indignation, was the only one who remained in the vicinity -- and that was only because he was still unconscious.
The governor sighed. The youth's behavior was worse than embarrassing. It was despicable. He had actually gone out of his way to pick a fight with an innocent man.
Still, Thul didn't do anything to stop the impending combat. He just sat there like everyone else in the tavern, drinking his ale and wondering who the victor would be.
"Serpent!" boomed the Thallonian with the scar.
"Rodent!" came the youth's reply.
Suddenly, they were at each other, their swords clashing in a blurry web of bright metal. The scarred one thrust and the youth parried it. The youth countered and the scarred man knocked his sword away.
Back and forth they went, knocking tables and chairs aside, slashing away at each other with wild abandon. The scarred one was stronger and steadier, but the youth seemed more skilled. In time, the governor mused, skill was likelier to win out.
His theory was borne out a few moments later. The scarred man saw an opening and brought his sword down at his adversary's head, but what seemed to be an opening turned out to be a trap. The youth sidestepped the blow, then swung his blade at his opponent's shoulder.
The metal cut deeply, eliciting a spray of blood and a cry of pain from the scarred one. Then his enemy struck again, battering the sword from the scarred one's nerveless fingers.
The older man stood there, waiting for the deathstroke that did not come. Instead, the youth smiled and knelt beside the Orion, who had been all but forgotten in the melee.
Some of those present might have expected the youth to drag the trader to his feet, since he had claimed the fellow as his friend. But he didn't do that at all. He merely used the Orion's tunic to wipe his blade clean.
Finally, he stood up again and addressed the scarred one. "Next time," he said grimly, "be careful whose wine you catch in your lap." Then he tossed his head back and howled with laughter until the rafters rang with it.
The scarred man, who was clutching his wounded shoulder, just glared at his adversary. He glanced at the sword he had left lying on the floor, no doubt wondering if he might have a chance at revenge if he moved quickly enough. But in the end, he thought better of it and slunk away.
Remarkable, Thul reflected sourly. The youth had made an art form of arrogance and braggadocio.
Downing the remainder of his ale, the governor got to his feet and crossed the room. When he was halfway to the swordsman, the Indarrhi took note of him and said something.
The youth turned to cast a glance at the governor over his shoulder, his eyes intense in the hollows of their sockets. At the same time, his hand wandered to the hilt of his weapon.
Thul stopped in front of him. For a moment, the youth seemed ready to gut the older man where he stood. Then the governor tossed his hood back, revealing his identity.
Slowly, the fire in the swordsman's eyes dimmed. His features softened and his hand left his hilt. "Father," he said, humor and surprise mingled in his voice -- along with something like distrust.
Thul gazed at him. "Strong drink does not agree with you. You have looked better, Mendan."
The youth grunted scornfully and cast a sidelong glance at his companion. "Have I really?"
"And you have exhibited better manners," the governor went on, unperturbed. "Was it really necessary to create a scene? To wound an innocent man? And all to prove your valor for the hundredth time?"
His son sneered at him. "Among Thallonians, is the first virtue not courage? And are you not the one who taught me that, before I was old enough to eat with a fork?"
Thul nodded. "I did," he conceded. "But one truly confident of his courage does not pick fights to demonstrate it. He knows life will give him plenty of opportunities to show how brave he is."
The youth shot a conspiratorial look at his companion, the Indarrhi. "You see how it is, Wyl? The man is a font of wisdom." Then he turned back to the governor. "I will try my best to remember what you've taught me, Father. I have always tried to remember what you taught me...even if I am only your bastard."
Thul shook his head, knowing Mendan had no intention of remembering anything. "You are my son...the son of a high-ranking Thallonian official. It would be a pleasant surprise if you acted accordingly."
Mendan eyed him. "Why have you come slumming, Father? Do you know how far you are from anything resembling the imperial court?"
Thul's hands clenched into fists at the thought of what had happened at court. With an effort, he unclenched them. "I have come," he said, "because I have a mission for you -- one that cries out for a man who can navigate the underside of society."
The youth's ey...