[Family estate in Kir province, East of Shi'Kahr, Vulcan]
12th Day in the month of et`Khior , YS 9014
"You said house. Not palace."
Ranil stretched his legs after climbing out of the sleek, gleaming vehicle his wife had called a desert-flyer and rubbed his face. Someone had to tell these people that there was such a thing as too much understatement. He was willing to let the desert 'flyer' slide, since they had by all accounts raced over a fair amount of sand. Sand and rocks, gleaming in merciless sunlight, sometimes flat and littered with windblown stones, sometimes piling up in dunes so high you wondered if an entire ancient city was buried beneath. But there had been mountains, too, old and jagged, reaching towards the copper dome of sky like gnarled claws. Some dull and rusty, their bases veiled by a reddish haze, others shining with the brilliance of polished glass. And the lava. Pouring not from one of the mountains but from open wounds in the earth itself, churning and rolling, forming strange and exotic sculptures as it cooled until the next wave broke them down and the cycle began anew. There even had been water, somewhere far to the left and he would not have seen it if Thrandasar's sharp eyes had not detected the shimmer of midnight blue and amethyst on the horizon.
Flyer indeed. Racer was more like it, breakneck speed hell for leather at that. But he was too polite to argue the point with the amicable pilot who seemed so un-Vulcan with his open face and obvious delight to be ferrying the outworlders to the 'house' in Kir.
Even the fact they had to share the flyer's hold with a boulder that had turned out to be a cheerful Horta with no objections to being sat on by Mr Sutek's friends seemed hardly strange any more.
All completely logical. Or so the ever inquisitive Scotsman balancing on top of an asbestos pan pizza had found out after a mere ten minutes of animated conversation. Their kind chauffeur was a geologist. His best friend was a Horta. Very reasonable, yes?
Though Ranil was not sure he had ever seen a Sulamid flush that particular shade of orange. Had the tentacled Lieutenant been a human, Commander Ranasinghe might have been tempted to pat his back lest he choke from suppressed laughter.
He had resolved to overlook all these things. But this was a bit much.
What had so casually been dubbed 'house' sat atop a hill like a crowning jewel, all graceful arcs and honey-colored stone, solid without seeming heavy, serene and dignified as very old buildings often were, but at the same time alive. You could almost feel it breathing, sense the pulse emanating from the sprawling main complex with its high windows and shaded galleries, the threads linking it to the little outhouses dotting the gentle slopes. This was no museum, no palace with empty, echoing halls. This was a home, abuzz with people though no noise floated over the hardy desert grass, across the raked gravel path leading up to the solid gates.
A home that could easily shelter a small army. Vishnu have mercy.
"It does look like our good doctor made a good catch." "Thrandasar's wry smile and the Scot's low whistle elicited an amicable nod from their green eyed driver while the sound of a minor rockslide announced the Horta had finally managed to exit the vehicle.
"Though I am fairly certain the lady T'Para did not run and require any measure of catching, you are quite correct that the match is generally considered 'good'."
"I'll say." Straightening the uniform jacket over his only slightly rumpled kilt, the Scottish engineer seemed the least stunned of the offworlders, taking in the sight with an appreciative air about him "Found himself a veritable princess, our lad. A few turrets and a lil green grass on them hills, the place'd be fit for real royalty."
"And by real you mean "
"Scottish, aye. What else?"
Shaking his head, Commander Ranasinghe watched his engineer amble after the Horta, conversing about the difficulties of climate and architecture while his wife gently interlaced her fingers with his, a thoughtful look on her beautiful face.
"You didn't expect that either, did you?"
"I wasn't sure. Now I think I am."
"About what, my love?"
"Let's just say that if I'm right you're about to see a familiar face or two. Shall we go?"
Vulcans. Veritable flocks of them, floating over the curiously cool stone in their heavy robes - warm colors, rich and deep, from dark sapphire to earth tones, red and gold and even the occasional touch of emerald. Strange symbols emblazoned on collars or running down the entire length of a robe, shimmering gold and precious jewels.
Their amicable guide strode through the dignified assembly like a friendly Labrador through a pack of lions, completely unperturbed by the fact his travel-worn tunic stood in rough contrast to all the amassed splendor. Ranil had barely time to wonder if by chance they had stumbled into something other than a wedding, a diplomatic meeting perhaps or Gods only knew, the Vulcan equivalent of a royal reception, when the cheerful boulder rumbled past him, straight into the high ceilinged hall.
"So, lad." Trailing his new friend without missing a beat, the Scotsman took in the grand staircase that would have had room for a band of pipers and their horses but noticed a conspicuous absence of drinks "Where would a thirsty human go in a place like this to find a wee drop of the creature?"
There was momentary shuffling as the Horta considered the question or maybe he had simply trouble understanding the Scot's burr but then he changed course with a gravelly sound, prompting a few Vulcans to float away like so many soap bubbles dispersed by a gust of wind.
"Kitchen." The voder sounded like a young male, and a decidedly amused one at that. "Though I can't promise any Scotch, Mr Donegan."
"Lead on then, laddie. Pardon me there, rockslide and thirsty human comin' through "
"If you would follow me."
Realizing he had in fact stared after the Horta and altogether given the impression of a gawking Cadet fresh out of the academy, Commander Ranasinghe looked at the young Vulcan who had introduced himself as Silek and now waited patiently for the outworlders to catch up possibly without stepping onto any robes in the process.
"Desert flyer. House. Only family? Excuse me son, but just how big is that family of yours?"
"Currently, there are ninety-one individuals in residence at the main house, not counting the forty-four guests who have arrived from off planet." Exchanging subtle nods with several of the Vulcans they passed, their guide led them through a set of double doors into a sunlit room, smaller than the splendid great hall and lacking its austere grandeur, though certainly not the elegance.
Thrandasar was tugging at his sleeve now, but Ranil had just had about enough. Personal question or no, this was ridiculous.
"And of course one must allow for the guests who have only arrived for the evening, Commander. Unfortunately, I am unable to give you a precise count as I am not aware of who is still due to arrive."
"Ah." In other words, he wasn't going to get a straight answer.
Off across the seashell colored stone they went, past intricate sculptures and tall vases and little dais featuring low couches, conveniently arranged in groups around equally low tables. To the travel-weary human it looked inviting enough, both intimate and comfortable, and he could imagine this setting was ideal for both little clusters of people to gather and debate the Gods knew what or more dynamic ones to drift from group to group. But the spacious room was empty and quiet, particles of dust floating in the still, hot air and glittering in muted gold. A row of arched doorways led onto a sprawling terrace where the planet's fierce sun beat down on graceful, subtle patterns laid into the stonework and the gardens beyond.
Trailed by his Sulamid tactical officer whose eyestalks were craning in every direction just to take in all the sights, Ranil blinked in surprise when the very human sound of pearly laughter reached his ears.
[To be continued ...]