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"Rogue in Velvet", part 3

Aaaand part 3. (This one’s a bit long.) Follows on from Part Two


Rogue in Velvet
(-- part three --)

     Uuvern greeted her with a lopsided smile and a question. “Allow me to be the first to say, where in all the Sweet Holy Names of the Universal Mother did you get to?”

     “I was-…” In a way, she still felt a little off-balanced by her meeting with Iios, an odd excitement deep in her chest and an uncertain flutter in her stomach. “…just… talking to… someone…”

     “Oh reallllly…” he cocked his head and fluttered his eyelashes at her. “My dear, I have never felt you so… so shaken up by a man.”

     “Oh stop sampling,” she gave him a good-natured shove. That was the problem with Ondrai – it was hard to have any secrets. He could probably sense the conflicting emotions rolling off her in waves. “It’s nothing like that. I just had an… interesting conversation… with one of the professors.”

     “With one of the professors?” Uuvern echoed. “Which one? He must have been something special to get you excited about synthetics-!”

     “He was… interesting… yes,” she allowed, perching on one of the chairs at the side of the room and accepting a glass of juice cocktail from one of the passing servers. “And we didn’t talk about your silly pet subject.”

     Uuvern laughed, took himself a drink, then flicked his tail aside and parked himself on a stool next to her. “So come on, who was he?”

     “Called himself… uh…” Now, what was it? – “Ee-ose? I think. Or, uh… Malachite, something like that.”

     Uuvern made a face. “I have to say he’s not a lecturer I’ve ever worked with,” he commented. “Did he say which university he was from?”

     “N-o…” Eri sipped thoughtfully on her drink. “Come to think of it, he didn’t even tell me much about himself at all-”

     “You sure he’s even a professor, then?”

     “Oh come off it, no-one comes here it they’re not connected somehow, right?” she reminded him. “To even get an invite, you need the right connections.”

     “That or pots of cash,” he waved a finger. “You’ll just have to introduce me, when you next see him. I mean, we’ve got some practical jokers in the department, I wouldn’t put it past some people to wind you up like that.”

     “All right,” she grumbled into her drink. “Next time I see him…”

     Why did he have that uncanny knack of vanishing every time she wanted to point him out, she wondered, casting a futile glance around the room. After all, he must be about here somewhere, he’d said he had people to talk to (or at least talk at). He’d be somewhere with crowds. Somewhere there’d be people to talk about him, somewhere there’d be people to adore his every word. Somewhere there’d be devoted crowds to shower him with respect, since that was the main impression she’d got from talking about him. He didn’t care what he talked about, so long as there were people about to listen and love. The very physical embodiment of Kiravai pride and vanity.

     And-… yes, there he was - jade skin, floppy hair, sharp suit that hung open at the front. He was holding court over a little cluster of females – a dark-pelted little Usurian, a brightly marked little Zaar, one pale golden Ondraii and another out-of-place little hind – apparently regaling them with some sort of humorous story as they hung adoringly off his every word.

     Next second and there was a whirl of angry fur and a well-dressed, heavily-clipped Usurian male blustered up, apparently not appreciating the avian in his territory – Eri recognised the big male as sha-ev Rospert, rich and powerful and with a propensity to be vicious when he was drunk. She’d met him once or twice at official functions at the University – he was a major sponsor of the chemical and mechanical engineering departments, but had a little interest in some of the pharmaceutical herbs Eri’s department cultivated.

     Eri held her breath and waited – almost excitedly – for blows to be exchanged, but the Kiravai lifted his hands and backed off, smiling a placatory grin, and in turn Rospert grumbled and blustered and turned away, gathering the women away.

     “Vern, look over there, didn’t I tell-” She half-turned to point him out to Uuvern and something caught her eye – it was a deft sleight of hand that she barely noticed even looking directly at him, but he sneaked out his slim fingers and helped himself to the Usurian’s wallet! And even more shockingly, Rospert never even noticed. She caught her breath, startled, watched him slip it into a pocket in his own jacket as though nothing was wrong.

     “…Daani? Daani, what? Didn’t you tell me what?” Uuvern’s finely scaled bronze hand waved briefly in front of her face, and she gave herself a mental shake.

     “Um, no… never mind… I was going to point someone-… never mind,” she lied, wondering if she should go directly to Security or confront him first. That wasalmost brazen… She knew Security would be the best option – that wasn’t just a practical joke, after all – but she knew that would mean it’d be the last she saw of him, and in a way she wanted to speak to him just the once more.

     “Hey, Daani, it’s time for the speeches,” Uuvern attracted her attention. “Are you coming or what?”

     “Speeches?” The idea sent a pang of distaste through her. “I’ll, um… come and meet you in there. I need to visit the bathroom.”

     “All right,” he smiled, knowingly, and she knew he’d felt her dismay. “Well, I suppose I’ll meet you back home, or something. We both know dry old speeches aren’t your thing.”

     She felt the heat rise in her cheeks at having been seen through so easily. “Thanks, Vern,” she said, softly, and nudged his cheek with her nose. “Enjoy the rest of the night.”

     “You too. And try not to get swept off your feet by any more strange Kiravai, right?”

     “Oh, shush.”

     Most people had drifted away to the main hall for the speeches and final announcements, by now, and Eri found she couldn’t really imagine him being especially interested in that kind of thing. There wouldn’t be enough people looking at him, to start with, unless he himself was a speaker, and she couldn’t see his name on the list. So he’d either gone altogether, which was more likely, or else was lurking in some corner somewhere. Which seemed improbable, it was hard to get people admiring you if you were hiding in the corners, and yet he probably didn’t want to risk hanging about after that clever bit of pickpocketting, because Rospert would quite probably tear him apart-

     Unexpectedly, she found him at the end of the quiet bar, swapping small-talk with the heavyset Xniki bartender. “You!” she scolded, strangely relieved that she’d found him, and keen on meting out some justice. “I want a word with you-!”

     “…and a glass of the best for the lady,” he added to the end of his sentence, without missing a beat. “I’m assuming you like the bubbly.”

     Once again caught off-balance, she just gaped for a second. “What-?”

     “Actually, we’ll take the bottle.” A high-value note decorated in red and silver ink appeared from nowhere in his sleek hand, and was exchanged for two tall plain crystal glasses and a dark bottle that was rapidly becoming decorated with artful squiggles drawn in condensation. “Let’s go for a walk, shall we?”

     “Now you just wait a damn minute-!” The hand that closed on hers was cool, firm, no-nonsense – she tried to pull her hand free, just to let him know she wasn’t the silly little pushover Vulline he obviously took her for… and she might as well have had her hand set in iron. He had her in a grip so unyieldingly powerful it almost scared her. “I’m telling you, I have no desire to go anywhere or have my loyalty bought with drinks, I want to talk about that-”

     He finally relinquished his grip on her hand once they’d reached the garden – this time he’d thankfully chosen a spot on the main patio, under one of those giant parasol-shaped FusiGen space-heaters. At least it wouldn’t be cold.

     “Just what in Ger’s name are you playing at?” she snapped, snatching her hand away, as if it were a great victory.

     “Playing at? Nothing. Wine?” He held out a glass.

     She was sorely tempted to dash the glass from his hand, but knew she’d only end up treading in the fragments later – one of the curses of going barefoot. “You’re not going to buy me, mister-”

     “Buy you?” he laughed, already filling a glass for her. “How is a glass of wine for a pretty lady buying someone?”

     “I saw you take sha-ev Rospert’s wallet, earlier,” she folded her arms across her chest, determined to look unmoving.

     “Who?” he was still smiling, pleasantly, still offering her the glass.

     “Don’t you try and deny it! You’re just a charlatan, aren’t you, really – that wine, did you use his money to buy it? Is that the only reason you’re here, to mingle with the rich and famous and pick their pockets?”

     The smile had darkened, but he didn’t look dismayed. “I think you got the basics fairly well covered, Pet,” he agreed, silkily. “Rich, famous, and too stupid to miss it most of the time.”

     The admission was so frank it left her floundering, wondering if he was being genuine or just cynical. “Well-… you can’t…!”

     “Oh come on, for the sake of all the holies have a glass of wine,” he almost thrust it into her. “At least partake in this demon’s offerings if you’re going to nag him. Besides,” the grin broadened, and the artful rogue turned into a leering fiend. “He might not snap your neck if you get too drunk to remember what you saw.”

     She swallowed, thickly, and stretched out a trembling hand to take the glass. “I have to warn you I don’t respond well to threats,” she argued, thinly, perching primly on the very edge of the seat – to make a quick getaway, she told herself, vainly.

     “No? You seem to be trembling well for someone who doesn’t,” he pointed out, relaxing back, hooking his feet up on the back of the chair in front – one foot grasped the top ridge, the other rested atop its twin. They reminded Eri of the talons of some sort of patient falcon, just waiting for her to make the wrong move and close like twin vices in her throat; she tore her gaze away from the flex of muscle and tendon beneath the pale skin and tried not to imagine the strength with which they would tighten in her flesh.

     The alcohol helped, though – he was lounging back in his chair, another of those damned cigarettes held lightly in his fingers, a glass (untouched) in his own hand, and he’d turned back into that roguish, sleepy-looking young cob. It gave her courage – false courage, probably, but who cared.

     “Give the wallet back and I won’t report you,” she offered, at last. “Fair’s fair. Well… as fair as it can be, given that you seem to have me over a barrel.”

     There was a lascivious tilt to his eyes when he looked at her, but he shrugged, one-shouldered, and drew on his cigarette. “I don’t think you’re really in any place to be making deals with me, Eria’dane Dawnstep.”

     “Why not? I know you stole his wallet because I saw you do it-”

     “Stole it? Maybe I just borrowed it from a friend,” he challenged. “I mean, you, pretty lady, do not know me. Or my friends. Or my contacts.” He watched her across the top of his glass, but she noticed hadn’t touched a drop of his wine.

     She remained silent, for a moment, and watched smoke trail up from between his thin lips.

     “Who are you really?” she asked, at last. “Because you’re not a professor at all, are you?” There was something about him that was pushing all kinds of buttons, and all the wrong sort. Perhaps he was a spy. Perhaps he was an escapee from a secure mental health facility. Perhaps he was a terrorist. Perhaps all three - perhaps something worse. And here she was, sat sharing expensive bubbly wine with him in a pool of heat on a garden terrace on a chilly winter night.

     “No,” he briefly closed his eyes and shook his head. “Not a professor, although I know more than each and every one of these posturing money-grubbing idiots here. Just… here to check out the competition.” A brief glance over at the rest of the party and a look of distaste flickered across his lips and tightened his brows. “The competition is looking sadly unimpressive.”

     “Cyberneticist?” she guessed.

     He replied with another of those sly, self-satisfied smiles. “Cybernetic,” he corrected, and touched a finger to his lips. “But shhhh.”

     For a moment, she merely stared, wondering if she understood right. “You mean to say… you’re telling me… that you’re…” The words just wouldn’t come.

     “Siinu? That’s right,” he smiled.

---------

Part 4 follows

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