She startled when the sound of water hitting the shower floor returned, and then, for the first time in days, she smiled. When she returned to the command room the computer announced that the ship was in the orbit of Porta Novae. The white walls faded momentarily to grey, and then appeared as though they were windows into space. All above her turned the vast blue planet, draped partially in clouds, and for the better part of an hour she was mesmerized by its splendor, until the computer breached the tranquility.
"I've announced our arrival to both the Confederacy Police Outpost and the appropriate planetary authorities; we're instructed to remain in orbit for no less than twelve hours," The sight of Porta Novae was much less pleasant after such news, for she longed to see the planet's surface from much closer.
"Computer, what continent is that?" she asked, pointing vaguely at a cloudy landmass basked in sunlight.
"That is Gresa."
"Then it's morning in San Selen?"
"Yes. Two hours past sunrise," Twelve hours seemed too long of a period to be kept in orbit for, and she considered breaching the order and landing near the capital city above. She sighed and walked to the medical room, where a scan of her broken arm indicated that it was healing very poorly. She ate before returning to the command room - roughly an hour after she had left it - to discover that the ship had made a full orbit and the continent of Gresa was again in view. The temptation to leave orbit and land was no weaker on this subsequent sight, nor on the next ten passes, but the knowledge that her ship would be immediately destroyed kept her from attempting to land.
Finally, on the eleventh pass she was able to instruct the computer to begin the landing. The hemisphere was bathed in shadow, yet the lights of San Selen were so clear she could've made the descent herself.
The ship made its way to the interior of a massive concrete hangar beyond the outskirts of the city. The landing strip was clearly lit by long lines of blue lights and apart from being pretty was entirely wasted on a hangar built for spacecraft. The interior was very well lit as well, although the surrounding town had been almost entirely dark. The ship settled to a full stop, yet she hesitated for a couple of minutes before finally disembarking.
Standing almost immediately outside the exit of her ship was a red-haired young man in an ornate blue uniform. It was an odd effect of the hangar lighting that every object had at least two pale shadows, resulting in the appearance of dark creases around his eyes and mouth and ultimately making him look far older and far more menacing than he probably was. He crossed his arms ceremoniously and bowed forward quickly upon seeing her.
"I'm a servant, sent by Busco to return you to his palace at your convenience. May I take your bag for you?" At the slightest nod, he stepped forward and took the bag, then began walking stiffly toward the main section of the hangar, before stopping and turning back to her. "Follow me, please. Don't worry about your ship it will be stored safely underground for whenever you wish to return to it. Right this way."
She shook her head quickly to clear her thoughts and began to follow him.
"I'm sorry," she said. "I've been so eager to arrive and yet now that I'm here I almost can't believe it." He smiled and turned back to his march. A sleek black vehicle was hovering outside of the section her ship was parked in. The servant placed her bag into a compartment at one end, and then tapped twice on its side. A door suddenly became visible and slid away to reveal two bench-like seats opposite one another in the craft's interior.
"If you'd like to enter then we can proceed to the palace," he said with a gesture.
"And if I wouldn't like to enter?" she asked, only half-joking. The servant's composure was shattered by the simple remark.
"Then," he stammered, "if you would prefer we could take the train; although Busco --" she raised a hand to stop him and entered the vehicle.
"You should relax some," she said once he entered. He swallowed and managed a nod and half-smile. In the more mild lighting of the car, she judged him to be around twenty, although she wasn't very good at guessing ages. The boy pressed a button on a control panel to his right, and the ship silently began to move.
"If you wish to access your bag, you can through that panel on your left," he said. "Would you like to be able to see outside of the cabin?" She nodded again and he returned his hand to the control panel. The red walls of the interior began to fade to transparency; the car was traveling over the vibrant runway.
"What's your name?"
"Andrea," he answered.
"Did Busco tell you my name?" Andrea shook his head.
"He told me you may not wish to share your name, but I've learned other things about you to ensure I could better serve you during your stay here."
"Oh? Like what?" she asked with interest.
"Well, I learned about your ship and that you're here to request a mining charter from the king, and that you're engaged to Busco's brother on Marsonovo." A sharp, sudden pain shot through her arm as she tried to rest it on the car seat.
"I don't see how any of that helps you to carry my bag," the boy sank in his seat. She elected to let the conversation die and look out of the cabin for a while. The surrounding town was extremely quaint considering its proximity to San Selen, with wide unmarked roads and buildings covered in ivy. In the road's median peach and orange trees were planted, attesting to botanical cloning, and she noticed that the buildings' roofs were discrete solar panels.
Continuing northward the buildings soon gave way to lines of tall greenhouses, glowing white in the moonlight. Beyond those, the road ended, but the car continued on through a vast grassy park. She almost laughed as the car hovered right over a large pond. There were no lamps here but the moonlight painted a clear picture of the well-trimmed trees and well-kept gardens.
She glimpsed Andrea's pale blue eyes still fixed upon her and turned to meet his gaze. He blinked twice and shifted slightly in his seat but didn't turn away.
"Did Busco tell you anything else about me?" he shook his head. "I'd like a doctor sent to my room when we arrive at Busco's manor, but don't mention it to Busco." He nodded.
"I understand," he added after a moment. "We should be arriving within a few minutes," She glanced out of the window to see the edge of the city proper quickly approaching. Orange streetlights blazed like fire between the skyscrapers.
"What's his manor like?" Excitement blossomed momentarily across the young man's face.
"It's magnificent. The building's huge and full of art and artists. There are massive rooms for dining and entertainment, and entire wings dedicated to certain colors." She smiled, but doubted that after having travelled between dozens of planets some red hallway could surprise her. Anticipation was soon sensation as the vehicle came to a halt at the front entrance of Busco's manor.
Her first sight was a massive white fountain graced by a tall statue of a royal figure, beyond that was a plaza that transitioned into the streets of the city. She turned around to see the manor itself, elevated high upon a stone acropolis, though dwarfed by the distant skyscrapers.
A grand staircase led to the building's entrance, and at its base Busco and his entourage were waiting. She forced a smile and they did the same; Busco held open his arms as she approached, and she almost expected him to embrace her, but instead he dropped into a kneeling bow, as did the other notables around him. Only the servants remained standing, each wearing a different bright color and a sharp uniform, as though they were officers in some ancient military. She viewed the costumes of the notables less favorably, for they were adorned extravagantly in leather, fur, and velvet. She waited awkwardly as they spent half an eternity kneeling before finally rising.
Busco was much larger than his younger brother, with a stern jaw and thick grey hair. He held forward a hand to her and smiled brightly. She placed a hand under his and through great effort managed to place her left hand atop his hand. Then she nodded deeply, partly to show respect and partly to hide her grimace. Her effort was not unnoticed, and Busco's smile melted.
"Are you alright, dear?" he asked.
"Of course," she answered quickly. "There was a slight incident en route, but everything is fine." By now his face had drooped to an outright frown.
"What happened? Are you alright?" she found herself forcing a smile for the second time within a minute.
"I believe it's a story much better shared over a meal," his face brightened again, and she noticed the adjacent entourage obediently mirroring his exact emotions.
"What a brilliant idea! It's no wonder that my brother wants to marry you." A third smile.
"I proposed to him." her annoyance must have been absorbed by Busco's strange velvet cap, for he only laughed heartily; his followers in unison did the same, and she soon found herself laughing at the sight. When the excitement finally settled it was decided they'd all go inside to dine. Busco talked for the entire two hundred step ascent, saying nothing all the while. The group paused to enjoy a view of the city as the dark wooden doors of the mansion opened like the lowering of a castle's drawbridge.
"I've prepared an excellent room for your stay, and a dozen servants will tend to your any need," Busco spoke in a low voice, refreshingly free of his previous cadence; for the first time, it seemed he was speaking only to her.
"I won't need a dozen servants; Andrea will suffice,"
"Who's Andrea?" he asked, turning. She pointed with a nod to the servant who was holding her bag with both hands. He shifted in place under the weight of their combined attention. "Ah, the young man I sent to get you."
"Yes, Andrea," she interjected.
"Yes, Andrea. That's why I have all my servants wear different colors; I'm terrible with names," he smiled, then cleared his throat. "Well, he has to sleep and eat sometime. Are you sure you wouldn't prefer at least two servants?"
"He can eat and sleep when I do. If I need another servant I'm sure you'll have plenty ready," Busco nodded and glanced at the open manor doors.
"Very well. Let's eat." He spearheaded the advance, while she followed closely behind. Behind everyone, the black doors to the city were quietly sealed. They had entered into a tall room, almost like a wide hallway where an ethereal silence had settled. Voices echoed off the high ceilings only to be muffled by the room's decorations, of which there was no shortage. Framed paintings covered the walls, proud portraits and serene landscapes, kept to a regal red color scheme. The room was lit by glittering white chandeliers, like the hall of an ancient palace.
She was admiring the artwork when she stepped blindly into a courtier, jabbing her broken arm into the woman's back. She smiled through gritted teeth as the shocked courtier bowed apologetically and began almost to sob in Mandarin. Busco stepped in and calmed the woman, needing only a few words to set the situation at ease.
"Are you alright?" he asked, turning. "I'm terribly sorry," She let her left arm hang limply in order to gesture dismissively.
"I'm fine, it was my fault, really." She glanced at the silent crowd before her. "I'm not hungry, though. I'd prefer to settle into my room tonight." It was at once as though Busco's eyes were like candles extinguished by a winter wind; he swallowed.
"Of course, of course," he outstretched a hand then snapped toward Andrea. "Show her to her room, please." his eyes flickered with anger toward the courtier, and then calmed again. "Would you like a meal brought to your room?"
"No, no," she insisted. "I'll wait until breakfast. Thank you."
"Of course," he repeated. "Until tomorrow then. Goodnight."
"Goodnight," she hoarsely managed.
Busco nodded and turned away toward the dining hall. Andrea stood at her right side as the precession silently receded.