Chapter 6:

Starflight Gala, Part One

Red Storm Over Ganymede


**Tristan**

I fidgeted with the hem of my sleeve as Isul docked the Princeps with the luxury liner Starflight. The ship was the finest Imperial credits could buy for a spectacular evening, the jewel of the Red Star Line. It had ten decks, three ballrooms, an in-house live orchestra, and a kitchen that was regularly featured in the cooking holos Isul like to put on in the background while he worked.

I just hoped I didn’t throw up on some priceless real wooden deck.

My stomach had been in knots the whole day as I waited, convict-like, for my final sentencing at this evening’s ball. Nona Regina had said she’d sent invitations to all the young, eligible people she could drum up, and as I saw the small fleet of pleasure craft dropping off their occupants for the evening’s revelry I could tell she had been serious. I suppose I couldn’t blame her trying to play a numbers game, hoping at least one of the people inside would catch my eye.

One would have to, if I had any hope of holding onto my throne and Empire.

“Don’t make me restitch that suit again,” Isul said as the docking clamps snapped shut like manacles around the Princeps. “You’ll want to look your best if you’re to make a good impression on someone tonight.” He unbuckled his flight straps and rose from the pilot’s seat as I did the same.

“I’m so glad this is amusing to you, Isul. No big thing, just the future of the Empire and your continued life on the line,” I snapped.

Isul looked away, embarrassment on his face. “I’m sorry,” he said, running a hand down my arm to wipe away imaginary lint. “I just want you to relax.”

I cupped Isul’s face in my hands and stared in the twin pools of his amber eyes. My lips pressed against his in a long and deep kiss as I felt his arms snake around my waist. When we finally separated, I rested my head on his shoulder. “This is what I want to relax.”

Isul squeezed his arms tighter around me. “Don’t spend your wishes for things that can’t be, Tristan.”

My previous irritation melted away to sadness. I whispered in Isul’s ear, “I get to spend at least my wishes as I like.”

We stood there for long minutes, both unwilling to let go until the chime announced that we had made a full, airtight seal with the Starflight.

The door irised open, and again I was face to face with Lieutenant Van, brought in by the palace staff to handle security for the evening. Even though the Starflight’s flight plan was only an orbital cruise around Jupiter to view the Red Storm, it was a wise decision to bring along experienced security personnel, especially considering both Nona Regina and I would be aboard.

“Lieutenant,” I said with a nod as Isul and I stepped off the Princeps. “How goes the battle?”

Van smirked. “This group certainly can put them away, Your Highness. I just heard them send for a second liquor delivery before we leave orbit of Ganymede.”

It was going to be a very long evening.

Isul and I parted as I entered the preparation room where Nona Regina awaited, and he went to do a security sweep of the main ballroom. He squeezed my hand before leaving.

When I turned around, Van winked at me and I flushed. “It’s not what you think,” I muttered.

He simply shrugged his broad shoulders. “Highness, you know I am fully aware of the situation. Beside, who am I to judge?” I was grateful he didn’t bring up the evening I’d arrived back at the palace extremely drunk and ended up taking him back to my suite.

“You’re certainly not allowed, as I know you enjoyed the royal experience quite a bit,” I said with a snicker.

He smiled and hit the door chime, which was quickly answered by a servant girl. She curtsied as I walked in, before Nona Regina dismissed her. “You’re late, Tristan.”

I kissed her cheek. “Lovely evening we’re having already, I see.”

“It’s only lovely when it’s not being paid for by the Imperial treasury,” Nona Regina replied dryly.

I went to the sideboard and poured a glass of Aurum for myself. The bubbles flowed up the sides of my glass, effervescent despite my sour mood. Nona Regina was, strangely, not wearing state robes and her favored huge crown, but had instead opted for a sparkling golden gown with a jeweled bodice and matching tiara. I was honestly surprised by the simplicity of the whole ensemble. “You’re toned down this evening,” I said before taking another sip of the Aurum.

She waved me off. “I wear the crown, and that’s all people will see. I need them to see you instead.”

“Ah, a compliment woven with an insult. So very like you, Nona,” I said, draining the glass. A very long evening indeed.

* * *

I stepped out with Nona Regina on my arm to the applause of the gathered crowd. We were on a balcony that ran the length of the ballroom, looking down into a swirl of dresses and jackets below. At the back of the room, I spied Isul with a cluster of other Bio-droids. Nona Regina nodded to the gathered elite of the Empire and the crowd instantly fell silent.

“Dear citizens, Prince Tristan and I are most pleased to have you with us this evening. We look forward to renewing old acquaintances and making new ones. Now, please, eat, drink, dance, and enjoy the spectacular views of the Red Storm,” she said. The crowd gifted her with wild applause before I installed Grandmother on her makeshift throne and descended to the throngs below.

My dance card was already long and filled with a variety of names. But the first one on the list caught my eye.

Chet Lavigne. Heir to the Barony of Enceladus, serious party boy, and someone I had enjoyed many drink-to-black evenings with during my wildest years.

I felt a tap at my shoulder and spun around, a wide grin spreading across my face. “Chet!” I said, taking in his blonde hair, pierced ears, and form-fitting vest that left little of his trim torso to the imagination. “You look amazing, as always.”

Chet kissed my cheek and grinned. “Nice to see you too, Tris. It’s been ages,” he said before he took my hand and led me out onto the dance floor. “Haven’t seen you at the clubs lately.”

I thought to the last, scandalous club visit I was ever likely to enjoy and simply shrugged. “Official duties don’t leave me much time for clubbing anymore.”

Chet placed his left hand on my waist and took my other hand in his as the orchestra began a waltz. “So level with me, Tris. Word in our social circle is you’re looking for a Prince or Princess Consort.” His eyes dazzled, full of curiosity.

I tried to be nonchalant about it. “Maybe, maybe not. It’s not a requirement, you know.”

Chet laughed as he spun me around and I caught a glimpse of Isul wearing a very unbecoming scowl. “I imagine it might be for you with the way we used to party back in the day.”

A smile tugged at the corner of my lips as I dipped Chet. “The Council always said you were a bad influence on me.”

“They weren’t wrong. I like to think we spurred each other to new heights, however,” he said.

I chuckled. “New heights of debauchery?”

He dipped me then, and whispered in my ear, “I was going to say of pleasure.”

I felt my face flush then. Chet and I had enjoyed a good bit of time together as an item before drifting apart. Isul wasn’t particularly fond of him, though.

He continued as if I had not turned Martian Red. “I’m just saying…if you’re looking, I want to add my name to the list of interested parties.”

“Mmm, I can see the headlines now. Party Princes burn Imperial Palace to the ground during Coronation Ball,” I replied as a smile tugged at the corner of my mouth.

Chet laughed as we continued to weave our way across the floor. “At least you could count on keeping the HoloNet News with a steady stream of interesting stories.”

I heard the orchestra winding down, and soon the waltz had come to an end.

“Promise me you’ll take my offer seriously? I’m not cosmetically engineered, so our babies would be beautiful,” Chet added with a bat of his eyelashes.

I could certainly end up with someone I liked far less than Chet Lavigne. So I nodded and kissed his cheek. “I appreciate the offer, Chet. And even if not, we need to go dancing sometime soon again.”

His face split into a wide grin. “Most definitely, Tris.”

As he wandered off into the crowd, I tried to imagine what life would be like with a companion other than Isul by my side. I had been stupid and slow in recognizing my feelings for my oldest friend, and had invariably hurt him in the process of dating others. I didn’t want to hurt him again, though Nona Regina and the Council were giving me little choice in that matter.

I looked at my plascreen dance card again, and the name had updated to Larmina Vanlith. If memory served me correctly, she was set to inherit Vanlith Corp, a company that had fingers in all manner of business from biotechnology to shipping to energy. The plascreen showed a lovely dark-haired woman, and when I looked up I saw her there in the flesh.

“Lady Vanlith?” I questioned.

She nodded and gave a small curtsy with her blue, twinkling gown. “Prince Tristan.”

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