Instead she was here.
The image—no, the feeling—of that mysterious stranger kissing her returned. This time it was enough to stop her in her tracks.
Simon. She had been following him and Kaylee as they made their way around the ballroom. Kaylee being Kaylee, who ooohed and aaahed at everything; and Simon being Simon, who explained the architecture, the gold leaf covering seemingly everything, the furniture.
Kaylee listened attentively—River could sense not even an iota of irritation in her—and squeezed his hand or kissed his cheek whenever he turned his attention to her, which was surprisingly often. Simon Tam was smitten with his wife, and it warmed River’s heart no end that such was so. She once thought that he would make a terrible husband or lover, being so one-pointed on his work and protecting her. Instead he was deeply affectionate, attentive, caring, and endlessly romantic, to the point that the crew had started calling them “the Sugar Puffs.”
He let go of Kaylee’s hand and watched her. “You okay?”
Kaylee approached and took her hands. “You look so pretty!”
She’d said that at least five times now.
“Thank you,” River repeated. In fact, she thought, she really did look pretty, wearing a white floral gown that particularly accented her face, eyes, and dark hair.
“Still feeling troubled?” asked Simon.
It was no use lying to him, so—“When am I not?”
Kaylee squeezed her hands. “We’re right here, all night. We ain’t goin’ nowhere. Just hang with us and you’ll be fine. How ‘bout somethin’ to wet your whistle?”
She’d spied the long tables piled high with food just past the grand double doors on the right.
“So am I! Let’s go!”
They walked through the doors a few moments later. Men and women weren’t dancing in here, but clustered together in their finery, talking or eating. No one looked at them. She spied Deader at a sparsely populated table, a plate in her grip, piled high with what looked like ...
“Oh yum!” exclaimed Kaylee, releasing Simon and walking quickly towards her. “Fried chicken!”
River followed; Simon brought up the rear.
Deader glanced at them as they approached. “Couldn’t resist,” she said without preamble. “It’s good, but mine is better. Plates are back that way.”
River had eaten chicken as a young girl, before being sent off to the “Academy.” It was very expensive, a “treat,” they had told her, one “most people in the Verse can’t afford,” her mom had sternly but proudly told her.
With Simon and Kaylee, she walked to the back of the line waiting to serve themselves.
“You’d think with a gathering this high class and formal, that a sit-down dinner with waiters and the like would be the order of the day,” he remarked.
“Second class,” said River.
They turned to look at her.
“This isn’t the primary ball,” she explained. “This is the second ball. There are eight more. Only the primary has sit-down meals with waiters.”
“Ah,” said Simon.
Neither he nor Kaylee asked how she knew. They’d gotten used to such insights and observations over the years to the point that whatever she said was taken at face value.
There were plenty of indentured behind the buffet, ready to move instantly to sate a guest’s every wish. She watched as they hustled to and fro. Some of the guests demanded that indentured walk next to them and serve them, pointing at dishes, providing samples, or hurrying off to meet some superfluous demand. Plates loaded at the other end, the indentured followed the guests to tables, laid fancy cloth napkins in their laps, hurried off to provide drinks, and so on. In fact, everyone River saw save them and a couple of others had indentured walking with them.
Simon noticed too. “Do you think we should get someone to...?”
“No one’s watching us,” said River. “Except the cameras.”
He and Kaylee glanced around, then up at the high ceiling. “I don’t see any,” he replied. “But then, I suppose that would be too gauche a thing to have in sight. How many?”
“Eighteen,” said River.
The feeling came back again, stronger than ever. It made her gasp.
She glanced up to the nearest corner. “He’s watching.”
“Who’s watching, sweetie?” asked Kaylee, concerned. They were holding up the line.
“He is,” she answered. “He is. I can feel him. I don’t know who he is.”
Both he and Kaylee glanced up at the corner as well.
A man just behind them cleared his throat in that it’s-really-not-as-polite-as-you-think way to move them along. They got the message and continued. At the end, an indentured asked, “Drinks?”
“Oooh,” said Kaylee with a smile. “Some red wine would be nice.”
“Any particular type?” asked the servant.
“Nah. You pick,” she said.
“Excellent, ma’am,” returned the servant, visibly taken aback by her kindness. “And you, sir?”
“The same,” answered Simon.
“And you, Miss?”
She could read him, so why couldn’t she read the goram whoever-it-was watching her from above? It had to be the mysterious kisser! It had to be!
Wash’s warning sounded again. She’d asked, “Am I in trouble?”
I’m afraid you are, River.
The jerk behind them cleared his throat again.
“Excellent. I will bring it to your table.”
“Where’s ... our table?” asked Simon.
Another servant approached. “This way, please.”
They followed her to a table near the back, a large circular one with a dozen already seated around it, with a good view into the next room and the dancing. The servant pulled the chairs out, then pushed them back in as they sat. She had a kind face, tired eyes, and a slight build.
“Thank you,” said River, which surprised her.
“Of course,” answered the woman, and hurried away.
“She had children on Meadow—terraformers,” she said to no one. “They’re all dead now.”
Kaylee reached for her hand. Simon, as he had long since learned to do, waited for her to continue.
“Sometimes I can’t ... make the equations balance.”
“Equations?” he asked patiently.
“The moral equations, the human ones. They’re too skewed, too painful.”
She thought that once the news of Miranda had gotten out, that the billions who populated these systems would rise up and bring the Alliance down. But nothing even close to that happened. The billions went on as though none of it mattered. The few who rose up, sure—they almost toppled the government. But the government had won. And those protestors, even today, were being hunted down, imprisoned, tortured, and killed.
Here she was, dining like the Queen of rudding Sheba.
A server came and poured them wine.
Wine like blood. Whole oceans of it. Deep, like pain. The pigs thirst and drink. The machine swims in it, oils its gears with it, powers itself with it ...
She thought of the captain a moment before the feeling of being kissed swept over her again.
She lifted the glass and drank to keep from crying out—in pain or ecstasy, she did not know.
Warmth spread from beneath her tummy up to meet the wine she’d swallowed. The moment was both glorious and profane. She closed her eyes and tried not to sob.
She opened them a moment later when the woman who was seated to her immediate right gently touched her arm. “May I say that you look so beautiful?”
She turned to look at her. Her name was Adelaide. She had married into wealth, but it was never her goal to do so. She had spent most of her life funding relief charities that worked on the Rim.
River forced a short-lived smile to her lips. “Thank you.”
Simon and Kaylee were paying attention. “And might I say that you look splendid too,” offered Kaylee. “I just love your broach!”
River still hadn’t figured out how Kaylee did it: how she seemed to know how to compliment people in the best way, the surest way to their hearts. But she had a gift for it, one that even River, with all her psychic talents, couldn’t fathom.
Adelaide beamed. “Why, thank you! Can you believe I made this when I was no more than your age?”
“It’s lovely,” said Simon. “I love the pearls’ arrangement.”
Adelaide’s husband gave them a quick and impatient glance, then went back to talking to the couples to his right.
“Never mind him,” Adelaide murmured, waving him off. “Normally he’s the life of the party.”
They ate and continued talking to her. Wine glasses refreshed, they watched the dancing couples through the big double doors.
“Care to work off some of these rich calories?” asked Simon.
Kaylee gave a playful smile. “I would love to.”
She gave River’s hair a playful tussle as she passed her on the way, adding a wink as well.
River had remained largely quiet, as she typically was, engaging in conversation only if directly asked a question. Her responses, as was typical, were short and to the point. She felt elated and terrified, conditions she had grown so used to these past years that she had become bored of them.
Adelaide leaned over to whisper, “There are just so many young men watching you! I have a feeling you’re going to be very busy in just a minute or two!” She patted her wrist.
River stood before she was aware she had, her eyes wide. Mal had just run into somebody—somebody who knew him! She could just see him across the way—one hundred fifty-one point three-six-three feet ...
But no ... that’s not why she stood.
Sudden message from the Sri Lanka in her vision:
Adelaide was right! Young men were watching her! One in particular, who was, at this very moment, coming ... for her!
Panic swelled her chest and closed her windpipe the same moment a triumphant blast of trumpets from all around stopped the music and dancing and eating. Everybody stood.
Chen Bao-Zhi had entered the room. The men all bowed; the women curtsied. She did as well when she realized, seconds later, that that was what everyone was doing.
“Please. Rise,” he said, regally.
People surrounded him. He shook their hands and offered a few words as he walked steadily ... towards her. This was entirely unprecedented—the son of the prime minister here, at the second ball?
The throng parted as he walked among them, coming ever closer to her, their faces rapt. Two point three-six-seven yards away, he stopped.
Expectant silence filled the room like hot lead, impossibly quiet considering how many people were here. She thought she might scream.
He watched her, a slight smile rising on his mouth, then approached and bowed.
She curtsied so awkwardly that she nearly fell. Giggles sounded out here and there.
He rose and held out his hand. Tentatively, her eyes saucers, she took it.
“I would be honored, Miss Tam, if you’d dance with me.”
Right behind her, Adelaide whispered, “Oh my!”