A woman stood doorway of Qalipu Qoffee in Opportunity City. The light from outside spilling around her, the woman wore a uniform surveyed the shop. Behind her, though outside, were shadows. She stepped into the light of the main seating area, spied Aster and father and broke into a wide grin, calling, “Ms. Thiel! We’ve been looking for you!” Hanam vo’Maddux stopped at the table, bending slightly at the waist, “I am Mayor Etaraxis’ personal assistant. You must be Aster’s father, Jerome Thiel.”
He stood up, offered his hand. She stepped forward, shook it as he said, “I am. Won’t you please join us, Honorable vo’Maddux?”
She grinned, and though Aster saw no joy in the eyes and certainly no peace, Hanam vo’Maddux said, “I’d be delighted to join you.”
Aster tried to send her father a message without using words; she widened her eyes and made twitching motions with her mouth. She didn’t think jerking her chin would be subtle enough to escape the security chief’s notice. Come to think of it, what she was doing already was probably being noted by vo’Maddux and catalogued by her team outside the shop. She settled down as her father and the chief of security for the entire of Opportunity chatted about a new species of fern in the park; growing flowers under artificial sunlight; and the price of a decent cup of coffee.
Aster sat, terror and hysteria building until she wasn’t sure she could stop herself from exploding into laughter or screaming.
Abruptly her father stood up, offering his hand to Hanam. She shook it, standing up as she did. The look on her face was decidedly friendlier and the coldness that had been there when she’d walked in was miraculously gone. Jerome Theil leaned over, kissed his daughter on the head, then tucking his T-comp under his arm, sauntered out of the shop.
Hanam watched him, slightly lifting her chin as one of the shadowy figures outside glanced at her in the shop. She turned back to Aster and said, “So. Mayor Etaraxis had a thought. He was wondering if you wanted to move into the penthouse with him.” The softness Aster had seen a moment ago was gone. The smile the security chief cast her was entirely predatory this time.
Aster abruptly knew exactly where this woman was trying to back her – into a corner. Aster also knew exactly what Dad would say if she simply moved in with the Mayor. She knew what the rest of the City would say as well. She would make a dangerous enemy of this woman as well – if vo’Maddux wasn’t already – if she simply moved in as well. There was a clear sense that the security chief considered Mayor Etaraxis her personal property.
On the other hand, Dad had said, “You can make faiths other than the official one legal again.” Could she? How could a Mayoral Escort possibly have that much power? The last one had disappeared suddenly after a rather public stink. Would trying to advocate for a looser definition of what was sanctioned by the IntraDome Congress something an Escort would even dare to try? She pursed her lips.
vo’Maddux was waiting for her answer. By the smug grin, she was certain she knew how Aster would respond. She was certain Aster would have to refuse.
All things being equal, Aster knew she would as well. She stood up and said, “Can I get you a refill?”
The other woman glared, her jaw clenched. She managed to say, “Please. Sugar and cream, if you don’t mind.”
Aster refused to wince. The tone was perfect – the one every boss from the Oort Cloud to the Capital of Earth used when sending his or her secretary for coffee. “Great. Don’t you just love this place?”
When she returned, vo’Maddux said, “This was my first time here. I guess I’ll have to make it a regular stopping place if the coffee is always this good.” The shark-toothed smile again.
Aster sat down, stared into her coffee cup then looked up at the chief of the Mayor’s security and said, “I have only one condition, if you’d be so kind as to pass it on to the Mayor.”
The other woman blinked in surprise and said, “Of course.”
Aster opened her mouth as if to speak, then closed her mouth, shrugging. She said, “Nah. I’ll go speak with Etaraxis alone. It’s something of a personal nature. Thanks for offering to act as a go-between, though.” She scooped up her coffee cup and fled the shop, aware that vo’Maddux was more than likely trying to kill her with the intensity of her glare. Aster smiled. It was a good thing she had put up her glare shield as soon as the security chief walked in. Besides, why let a jealous woman ruin the day you were going to ask a man to marry you?