Mahadra city-state, the planet Tyger, 2040 AD
Astrid leaned back in her seat, watching through the airship’s small window as the fortified human colony receded into the distance. They’d only been flying for two minutes, but at this speed their small city now resembled a metallic pimple on the dry brown landscape. The ground skimmed by far below them, cracked and barren and mountainous, and she let out a long, happy sigh.
Finally, a holiday. And not just any holiday…
Just then a small blonde girl plunked herself into the empty seat opposite Astrid. Her pretty face was lit with the same excitement that Astrid felt. “I can’t believe we’re actually going to an alien palace! Don’t you just want to burst?!”
Astrid grinned back. “No I don’t, Suraya, because then they’ll quarantine me for illness and I’ll miss out on the Tyger New Year Festival. I haven’t lived in the colony for three years just to spend this trip in yet another tiny room. I know I’m lucky to go at all.” She paused, then added mischievously, “Maybe I should thank Percy for dumping me in such a public way. If he hadn’t, then Anton wouldn’t have felt guilty enough to ask me along.”
Her recently-ex-boyfriend was also Anton’s son – Anton being the human colony’s mayor and the leader of this human delegation to the alien locals. Or since this was a different world, she mused, did that make them the aliens?
Suraya scowled. “Percy won’t get anything except a punch in the nose from me. And I’ll never talk to Hana again either!”
Oops. She’d raised the wrong topic, Astrid realised, because Suraya was far too loyal a friend to forget that insult. It had only been three days ago that Percy had decided that the new girl Hana would be a more exciting option than boring old Astrid, and it seemed Suraya was more offended than Astrid was.
But perhaps Astrid was too distracted by the way Anton had promptly invited her along as a last-minute addition, because she almost felt it was worth being dumped. She loved anything new and unusual, and this alien festival sounded like it was exactly up her alley.
“Never mind all that,” she said quickly. “Let’s focus on what’s ahead. Aliens, palaces, festivals and exotic food…actual water that doesn’t have to be piped in!”
“I just want to see a tree that’s not growing in a pot,” Suraya said a little glumly. “I tell you, if it wasn’t for the great pay here and Brian’s job with Portal-co, I’d have gone back through the portal to Earth already. I want to stay with my husband, but I can’t imagine living here as long as you and Nathaniel have.”
Astrid shrugged, having heard this complaint from her friend many times before. Astrid and her older brother Nathaniel had moved to the colony when their parents had found work with Portal-co several years before. The Earth-based organisation was officially responsible for the only sizeable human settlement on this planet, which in practice meant managing the portal between worlds, trading with the alien locals, and operating both the local mine and the one far south.
The human colony was small and somewhat basic, so as a result the pay for working here was really, really good – plus there was schooling for any children workers brought along. But when their parents had been killed in an accident last year, she’d decided to stay anyway. Nathaniel already worked full-time with the portal and the mines, while she worked part-time in the colony greenhouses around her studies.
“This place is home now,” she said in reply to Suraya’s comment. “But that doesn’t mean I’m not sooo excited to go on this trip! We might even meet Prince Raka.” She knew next to nothing about the man – only his name and position, and that he was hosting them in the Tyger city of Mahadra – but he was a prince, and that made him interesting, right? If nothing else she’d have bragging rights.
“Emir Raka,” Suraya corrected. “That’s a closer translation, but Brian says he’s a bit of a jerk. He says that if it wasn’t for the priceless ambrilene that his people trade then Earth would refuse to have anything to do with him, because his human-rights violations are terrible.”
Astrid felt her jaw drop. “Oh yeah?”
Her friend leaned forward and lowered her voice to a near-whisper. “There are only rumours, because the bosses wouldn’t let a pleb like Brian find out the real details. But he does know one thing. Emir Raka rules Mahadra, right? Well, Raka thinks that he should also get to rule the next city-state, Syrene. That’s ’cos he was supposed to marry the emir of Syrene’s daughter, but then she died and her father went crazy – that’s Raka’s uncle – so now his uncle’s nephew is ruling Syrene as regent instead of the real emir.”
Astrid felt her eyes cross as she tried to make sense of that. “Wait…Emir Raka was going to marry his own cousin? Is that a human-rights violation or just inbreeding? Besides, they’re not human, they’re Tygers.”
“No, not that, silly! It was the way he-”
“Coming down into Mahadra city-state in ten minutes,” Anton cut in via the loudspeaker, his usually calm tones carrying noticeable excitement. “So if you’re not wearing your seatbelts, put them on now. And remember, the eleven of us represent Earth to these Tygers. This is the first time we’ve ever been allowed inside this city, so it’s a big deal. We’re the aliens to them, yet Emir Raka has invited us to stay for a week. So switch on your translator, and remember that if you mess up, Earth messes up.”
“No pressure,” Astrid muttered, but her own pulse picked up as she slipped on her translator with its slender curved ear and mouthpiece. She’d lived on this planet for years, yet she’d never mingled with the locals. Except for a small medical team down in Syrene, no one did. They were so insular that she’d never even visited any of their towns or their few major cities, and while she and the others had flown here quickly, that was more to do with the speed of the airship than any true proximity.
Generally, Astrid and the two hundred or so other humans kept to themselves in their fortified city-colony, mostly living off supplies sent through from the nearby portal to Earth, and paying their way by sending back highly valuable minerals. Rubies, platinum…ambrilene. Even though ambrilene could be used for just about anything, Earth scientists couldn’t decide if it was animal, vegetable or mineral. It definitely couldn’t be mined, that was for sure.
The airship shuddered, and Astrid gripped the armrests tightly, leaning back to avoid the sudden change in pressure. Outside the window she could now see a vast city in the distance: made of the same stone as the surrounding landscape, and lit up pink and gold by the midday sun. She caught glimpses of spiralling towers, patches of greenery and what might have been a river, but too soon they were coming to land and were too low to see anything further.
A few minutes later they had the go-ahead to exit. Astrid crowded into the aisle along with ten others. There were three other women including Suraya, while the rest were male, and all carried that same palpable hum of excitement.
Then they stepped out of the air-conditioned ship and were greeted with a wash of heat from the Tyger summer. It was warmer down here, and the air carried with it the scent of unfamiliar spices and flowers. It reminded her of a Middle Eastern market she’d visited once as a child, and it seemed that the local culture had some similarities too.
She felt a hand on her arm and looked up to see Nathaniel. Older by five years, definitely bigger and bossier, but like her, he resembled their father. Brown hair, brown eyes, and a solid tan even in winter. “Don’t forget to stay with me,” he reminded her. “The Tyger women don’t have the freedom that you’re used to, and if you’re not careful the locals might think you’re…you know. Loose.”
“I know,” Astrid replied a little snappishly. “You’ve told me that ten times today already.”
‘Loose’, because she was actually out and about instead of locked inside her house, and because she wore trousers. Except today she wasn’t wearing trousers. She wore – horror of all horrors – an actual dress. Kind of. A long tunic over her nicest tight trousers was a dress, right? It even had slightly puffed sleeves, just like the latest fashions from Earth.
But the biggest joke was being thought of as too permissive, when that was exactly why Percy had left her for Hana.
“Don’t get cranky, Az,” Nathaniel said mildly. “You know I’m looking out for you.”
Except for their aunt Jae who worked as a doctor in Syrene, she was his only remaining family. But she still resisted the urge to stick out her tongue at that nickname, which sounded an awful lot like ‘ass’. “Of course you are,” she retorted dryly. “And I love it.”
But now Astrid could see the city looming up ahead of them, and her brother’s overprotectiveness was forgotten. The high walls looked huge; built of the local pale yellow stone, polished by time or skilled masons. The metal gates themselves were just as massive, easily twenty metres high…and closed.
But their group hadn’t been forgotten. Music played, something high and melodic, and the gates slowly opened with a groaning sound that told of their immense weight, and of the pulleys that must be working behind the scenes. Astrid’s eyes widened and she shuffled with the others to stand in the formation they’d been taught. Most important people at the front, women in the middle. She was at the middle-back next to Nathaniel – she really wasn’t important at all – but she could still see what was coming out of the gates.
Wow, wow, wow! An enormous creature was coming into view, one probably twice her height, with wrinkled, pale blue skin, thick legs, and a long trunk that swayed with every heavy step. Its little, floppy ears twitched as if in agitation and its small black eyes darted about, but it still moved steadily towards them, flanked on either side by half a dozen Mahadrese guards in gleaming branzine armour – one of the pinkish-orange metals mined on this world.
“It’s a blue raphanta,” Nathaniel murmured, leaning down towards Astrid. “It’s related to the Earth elephant, but is bigger and seems to be more intelligent.”
“Yeah, I’ve read about them,” she agreed excitedly. Raphantas were only one of the fascinating new creatures here on this world that the humans called Tyger, and they weren’t the only ones with similarities to Earth animals. Modern humans might have only discovered the portal in the last fifty years, but clearly someone had been using it beforehand. Otherwise why would the locals look so very, very human?
As for the raphantas, she hadn’t imagined they would be so huge. “Its ears are tiny compared to an elephant’s, but look at the size of those tusks! Are they gold-plated?” Indeed the enormous curved tusks did seem to be unnaturally bright and metallic, matching the delicate, spiralling designs curving over its light blue skin.
“Never mind the animal,” Suraya whispered from her other side. “Look at the man riding it! Whoar!”
“Oi,” her husband snapped from the other side.
But Astrid had to agree with Suraya. Forget the raphanta: the man riding on it looked magnificent. She supposed anyone would with that level of jewels and gold on their person, but the fact that he was young and handsome didn’t hurt. He had golden brown skin and pansy-blue hair tied in a ponytail behind his pointed ears. It was hard to tell from this distance, but he also looked tall and lean. From what Aunt Jae had said, such colouring was normal for Tyger locals, but to Astrid he was like something from a fairytale. The few photos she’d seen barely did him justice except to show his elegant features…and arrogant expression.
He had to be Emir Raka, she decided. Who else would ride such a fabulously lavish raphanta? And who else would look so stuck-up, she thought a little less kindly. But then maybe if she had absolute power over a quarter of her planet, she might be a little arrogant too. Barring Syrene, Mahadra was by far the biggest of Tyger’s city-states.
“Not so concerned about human rights violations now, are you?” Astrid murmured to her friend.
Suraya didn’t respond, clearly too fixated on the scene ahead. Up at the front of their group, Anton had stepped forward along with his wife, Eirene, and was saying something that was being laboriously translated by their earpieces.
Just then Nathaniel elbowed her in the side. “D’ya see the tyger, Az?”
“Of course I see the emir!” she whispered back. “And stop calling me Az!”
“No, the Tyger local, the tyger,” he persisted. “The big white cat. It’s just to the left of the raphanta, and it’s not even on a lead. Can you see it?”
Astrid blinked, leaning sideways to search for the creature between the heads of those in front of her. Then she saw it. A cat sitting nonchalantly not far from the blue-skinned raphanta, with a bored expression on its feline face.
But Nathaniel had been wrong to call it ‘big’. It was huge! She’d bet it would be taller than a man standing on its hind legs, and it was marked with faint blue stripes all over that fluffy white coat, just like an Earth tiger.
But unlike Earth tigers, this dangerous animal wasn’t locked away, nor deep in the few remaining jungles. “It’s not even wearing a collar,” she whispered in shock. “It must be well trained.” It better be well trained. If a cat that size decided to get violent, it could do a lot of damage.
“I think they are,” Nathaniel whispered back. “I read that they’re sacred to the locals. That’s why we call this world Tyger. It’s something to do with…some old English poem, I think.”
Astrid had a vague memory of such a thing. Tyger, tyger, burning bright… The thought made her shiver. What a beautiful, terrifying creature, and it had clearly made enough of an impression on the first human visitors that they’d named the world and the locals after it too.
Just then the big cat looked across at her, and its purple eyes seemed to meet hers. It blinked, then in that way cats did, just held her gaze.
She stared at it for a few moments before looking away. She didn’t want it to think she was challenging it, and besides, she’d lost staring competitions to housecats. What chance did she have with this beast? But then her earpiece began translating a new voice.
“…welcome you to Mahadra for the Festival of the New Year. I trust you will find our hospitality to your liking.”
“I’m sure we will,” Anton began to reply, but the huge blue raphanta was already turning; the emir clearly having decided the conversation was over. Astrid could see the tips of Anton’s ears were a little red, but then he shrugged, and in they went.
The regent of Syrene stood at the open window of the tower room, his hands clasped behind his back as he looked out over the city. Beyond the stone buildings draped with banners of green and blue cloth, he could see the raphanta track in the distance, currently being prepared for the races in a few weeks’ time. It looked busy and beautiful and ugly and chaotic, all of those contrasts all at once.
The Syrenian people were the same: both ugly and beautiful depending on when you caught them. Just look at the way they treated some of the minorities among them. Shameful. He wondered if it was fear or misinformation that made them behave so.
He sighed. “What a mess. Why did you choose me to rule in your place, Stepfather?”
But the man on the bed behind him didn’t respond, nor had the regent expected him to. Emir Jireh of Syrene lay flat on his back on the fine sheets, his face slack from sleep and medication, and worn from years of sickness. He was a man of late middle-age, but looked far older.
“The people don’t listen to me,” the regent continued, still studying the city. “They listen to old Palos your advisor more than they listen to me. And they don’t like me either, not how they liked you. Can’t you just wake up?”
But if Jireh woke up, then he’d be muttering and confused and ranting about invisible dangers. Or perhaps he would just stare blankly at the wall for hours. That was how it had started: a previously fine man and fine ruler had apparently lost his mind over a matter of months.
Just then a tap sounded at the door. “Your Excellency. His Magnificence’s evening medicine is ready.”
And that was enough one-sided conversation for the day, the regent decided. He smiled at the white-haired nurse then took his leave. It was time to find something to do in this land that neither wanted nor needed him.
Emir Raka’s blue raphanta led the way through the massive stone gates, and the humans followed like ducklings after a huge, ugly mother duck. As they filed in, Astrid noticed that the big, white tyger-cat didn’t move. It just sat there, watching them walk within mere metres of its own position.
She held back a shiver. It really was as big as she’d thought, and she couldn’t shake the comparison to an Earth tiger with its wildness, danger…and teeth. Then to her relief, it got up and loped gracefully back to walk at the feet of the blue raphanta up ahead.
Once they were inside the city, guards came to walk behind them, and Astrid marvelled at the difference in their surroundings. There were wide streets and high, pale stone buildings, but all that she could really see were the people. Hundreds or even thousands of them lined the sides of the road, packed in like a mosh pit from an Earth rock concert. They cheered as the procession moved through, their curious eyes fixed on the humans, and she watched in fascination as they bowed like a field of wheat blown by a strong wind as the emir’s raphanta passed them.
They all seemed to be male, although it was hard to tell with their long hair and loose tunics. So many had dark blue or purple hair, the colour so intense and exotic that she wanted to touch it to see if it was real, or if it would come off on her fingers. Occasionally she’d see a bright silvery-white head amongst the blue. Old age, she wondered, or a recessive gene?
Astrid felt nervous, suddenly aware of her own short brown hair, silky and fine but only just past chin length, and was glad that she’d worn a dress (sort of). Above the crowd she thought she saw a glimpse of veiled faces hidden behind screened windows, but then they moved past and she wasn’t sure if she’d imagined it.
She glanced at her brother to see he’d been looking in the same direction, and he caught her gaze with a sheepish smile. “What? Don’t tell me you aren’t curious.”
Curious about what the local women looked like, he meant.
“Yes, but I won’t get my bits cut off for being too curious,” she retorted, half-smiling.
Just as much as Nathaniel expected her to be reserved, she expected the same of him. There were different dangers for both male and females in such an unfamiliar setting, but they’d be careful. None of the humans would be stupid enough to cause offence when they were outnumbered here twenty thousand to one.
Astrid noticed how the dryness of the surrounding desert didn’t extend to inside the city walls. There were trees planted everywhere as well as glazed pots of greenery scattered about, while narrow aqueducts ran alongside buildings and spilled out into pools that she could only just see amongst the crowd.
It was a true oasis, and the palace itself was right in the centre, at the end of the long, wide main street. The crowds lined the streets the whole way, and as the blue raphanta reached the palace gates they remained in place, cheering until the whole group had entered the palace and the gates had closed behind them.
Wow, they seemed to really love the emir, Astrid mused. There he was up ahead, sitting straight-backed on that enormous blue animal. He hadn’t moved that she’d noticed, nor spoken to anyone else. Maybe he was just focusing on not falling off.
But if she’d thought the city was lush, the palace was much more so. Water seemed to be everywhere, and she’d been so deprived of the sight of it back at the colony that she drank it in with her eyes, wishing that she could jump right into one of the pools that lay alongside the stone paths.
She’d been so distracted by her surroundings that she barely noticed when the emir left, replaced by a small team of what were presumably servants, but who were dressed as richly as she was herself – and she was wearing almost her best outfit. The Tygers obviously weren’t minimalists.
Suddenly the group seemed to be splitting off, and Nathaniel gave her a pat on the shoulder before walking away with the other men. “See you at the feast!”
“What’s happening?” Had she missed something important?
“You weren’t listening, huh?” Suraya said with a slight smirk. “We’re going to the women’s quarters before the feast.”
“Oh.” Astrid shrugged and smiled back. “This should be interesting.” She, at least, was going to see the famously-hidden Tyger ladies, and chances were they’d be gorgeous. The few photos she’d seen hadn’t included them, and even Aunt Jae hadn’t sent any decent pictures. Nathaniel would be so jealous.
The much smaller group of women was led down halls of the same white stone, marked with elaborate tapestries down every wall and with enormous enamelled vases in just about every spare corner, big enough to climb inside. She hadn’t known what to expect, but it was certainly living up to her expectations of what a palace should look like, with a strong Middle Eastern flavour. There was colour everywhere; gold and unfamiliar metallic threads, enormous, bright flowers…
Now they were approaching a set of closed double doors. A Tyger woman waited out front along with two guards, both armoured enough to be unidentifiable, with smooth round-topped branzine helmets. But the woman wore long, beautifully ornate robes with a tidy sash around the waist and chest, and her hair and ears were covered with a turban-like wrap. Astrid estimated the woman was about fifty years old, and apart from her pale purple eyes, she looked remarkably human.
“Welcome to the women’s quarters,” she greeted them, her words being translated after a brief delay. “My name is Hailene, and I will be responsible for your welfare while you stay at the palace. Your husbands are of course welcome to visit you, or you may visit them when asked, but such requests will need to be made to me. If you would follow after me.”
Suraya and Astrid exchanged a dubious glance at the comment about asking for permission, but they kept their mouths shut and followed after. Astrid couldn’t help but glance at those guards as she walked through, and narrowed, bright Tyger-purple eyes stared back through the thin gaps in the metal. She lifted her chin and picked up her pace.
They moved through a central set of suites that reminded her of a large hotel foyer, and she barely got the chance to notice that there were women scattered around the room, as well as a few children. Or were there men too? It was hard to tell, since the men wore their hair so long, and except for the guards, they all seemed to wear those long robes.
She found herself studying Hailene’s appearance once again. Up close, the Tygers looked so humanlike, but not quite. Perhaps a little taller and leaner than the average human – or her group of humans anyway – and with features that reminded Astrid of North Africa or the Middle East.
They had strong eyebrows, black-lined eyes and that fantastical colouring that they all shared: shades of deep purplish or blue hair that in dim light looked almost black, except for the few that were silver-haired, of course. Perhaps they were albinos – but could she even call them albinos when their skin was as brown as every other Tyger’s?
Aunt Jae had debunked a rumour that the Tygers had slit pupils to go with their pointed ears, and Astrid was disappointed to see she’d been right. As far as she could tell, those pupils were as round and boring as her own. She’d read that the Tyger people were so closely related to humans that they must have originally come from Earth, just like the tyger cats and raphantas. But Earth history had no record of the portal before a century ago, and the Tygers weren’t telling.
Plus, it didn’t explain the inhuman ears. Astrid’s personal theory was that humans had come through the portal before modern records started, and had mixed with Tyger’s local population – the true aliens, who’d then died out. She reckoned that the humanlike Tygers must be the inspiration for all of Earth’s stories about elves and fairies, too.
Nathaniel had agreed with her for the second part, but popped a hole in her brilliant theory by pointing out that for some ancient humans to mix with true aliens, they’d have to be similar to begin with. Same problem.
Astrid hadn’t been able to argue with that, so she’d just punched him in the arm then kept her mouth shut. Ah, older brothers.
Hailene finally came to a halt in another foyer, this one with half a dozen doors coming off it. “This shall be your place of rest at the palace. I trust you shall find it satisfactory.”
The slightly awkward translation made it sound like she was describing a cemetery, but Astrid got the point.
They were led to their rooms. Astrid’s wasn’t as opulent as she would have expected considering the surroundings. It was about the size of her room back home (i.e. small and ‘cozy’) but with fancier blankets, and a single glass flower in a tall vase. That was a nice touch, she thought. She opened the slatted door next to the bed wondering if there was more to it, but the door only revealed a small convenience.
Oh, well. She was still in a palace, and that was very cool.
Astrid wandered next door to where Suraya was practically squealing in delight.
“Look at this waterfall,” Suraya said with an awed sigh. “It’s for washing my hands! And this bed! I can’t believe I don’t have to share it with anyone!” Good point, because although she was married, her husband was located in another part of the palace.
But now that Astrid saw the size of Suraya’s room it looked like Astrid had been put in the closet, and she tried to hide her disappointment.
“Let’s see yours, then,” Suraya declared. She marched to the connecting door, looked in, then did a double take. “What’s through the door?”
“Oh.” There was a moment of shared disappointment, then they both shrugged. “We’re out of the colony,” the older girl said happily. “Who cares about the rooms, right?”
“Maybe it’s because I got added to the group at the last minute,” Astrid suggested, but she smiled back at her friend. “Shall I thank Percy…?”
Suraya huffed. “Yes, thank him for ditching you before you were silly enough to marry him.”
“I wouldn’t have married him,” Astrid countered. “We were just dating.”
“And you were dating him because he was the only one to show interest,” Suraya shot back. “It’s a small colony, girl, and you were settling.”
Had she been settling? She was young, and she always figured she’d go back to Earth to settle. One day.
A servant girl had been quietly placing blankets in the background, and Astrid bit back her response, suddenly aware that the translation devices worked both ways. She could turn it off, but she always thought it was rude to speak in another language when someone else was in the room.
But the girl had heard. “Apologies for your unhappiness, my lady,” she said, her voice as quiet as her movements. “We were under the impression you were unmarried.”
Suraya and Astrid exchanged a baffled glance. Was she talking about Percy or about the room?
But then the girl clarified very gently, “But of course married women are given the most honour, including the finest rooms in case their husbands should want to visit. Is it not the same amongst your people?”
She was talking about the room size. “Uh…”
“Couples usually share rooms,” Suraya said, blushing a little. She’d only been married three months. In fact, one of the reasons she and Brian had come was that they were actually married rather than just de facto like many human couples – that sort of thing would matter to the locals. Astrid figured Suraya was trying to work out how she could have her husband come visit without the whole world knowing about it…but it wasn’t like anyone would be surprised.
“Apologies,” the servant girl said again. She still hadn’t met their eyes, and all Astrid saw was the top of her dark head, with curlier hair than she was used to seeing on the natives. She was small and sturdy for a Tyger, with the kind of sweet round face that would probably make her look fifteen when she was forty. “I can speak to Hailene about moving you if this doesn’t suit.”
“It’s fine,” Astrid cut in quickly, embarrassed. The room was at least as good as her room at home, and if she’d had the wrong idea of what it would be like here, it had been quickly corrected. “I was surprised by the difference, that’s all. And the location is perfect.” She smiled at her friend. “And I’ll definitely be borrowing your waterfall.”
“What’s this about a waterfall?” one of the other women asked as she came into the room, and then they fell into a conversation about their respective rooms (of which Suraya’s appeared to be one of the most impressive) and what they were going to wear to dinner that night.
“You’ll have to wear makeup,” Suraya told Astrid decisively. “We’ll be eating with royals, girl. You have to look your best.”
Just then there was the tiniest little cough, and the servant girl looked like she wanted to disappear into the floor. “Apologies,” she said again. “The unmarried women do not dine with the men, but in the women’s quarters after being presented at the feast.”
“Surely that wouldn’t include you,” Suraya said in an aside to Astrid. “Not after coming all the way here.”
“It definitely includes you,” Anton said apologetically, briefly reminding Astrid of the servant girl. “Unmarried women don’t eat with men. Cultural norms and all that. Sorry, we didn’t know until the last minute.”
“It’s OK,” she replied, gritting her teeth. “It’s just one meal.”
“Actually it’ll probably be every meal.” He paused. “Sorry.”
Ohh. Now Astrid didn’t feel OK anymore. Everyone was dressed up for the feast. The men in their tuxedos sent through the portal specially for this occasion, and the women in evening gowns. She was even wearing a proper dress; one down to her ankles and made of black satin. It was quite plain except for the decorative criss-crossed ribbons across its back, but she’d had to borrow it from a girl at the colony at the last minute. And now she couldn’t even show it off properly?
“But why can’t I eat with everyone else?” Astrid persisted. “Can’t you tell them that it’s human custom?”
“We’re the visitors here, so we follow their customs. It seems the unmarried women are kept very…protected.”
“Restricted, you mean,” she said dully. “Fine. As long as I don’t miss out on all the fun stuff.”
“You’ll get to visit for the presentation at least,” Anton told her. “By the way, you look nice with your face done up like that. And whatever you’ve done to your hair.”
Not a very eloquent compliment for an hour of Suraya’s time spent putting on smoky eyeshadow and French plaits, but Astrid was too disappointed to really appreciate it anyway. She muttered a thank you, wondering exactly what the Tygers thought unmarried girls would get up to if allowed to attend a mixed gender meal. Flirt with all the men? Spit in the food? Take off their clothes and dance on the table?
She briefly wished they’d visited the other city-state, Syrene, instead of Mahadra. At least that way she could have seen Aunt Jae. But Mahadra was the one trading ambrilene, she reminded herself. Syrene wouldn’t trade, but allowed in that one small medical team instead.
When they arrived at the feast which was attended by about fifty locals, Astrid realised what they meant by ‘presented’. The emir sat at the front of the room under a curtained canopy which must be his ‘throne’, with several others on either side of him. More locals sat on very low, flat seats down each side of the room, with low tables lined with red cloth runners in front of them.
Astrid stood back with the other humans as Anton and Eirene were led to the canopy and introduced along with two of the other oldest couples. In turn, Emir Raka introduced a few of the most important natives whose names Astrid immediately forgot. One she did remember, though: a silver-haired young man of about Nathaniel’s age, except far snootier-looking. His name translated something like ‘Orin the Blessed’. Except for the hair colour and plainer clothing, his elegant features and lean build reminded her a lot of the emir. But when her eyes met his for a mere moment, she couldn’t shake the feeling that he wasn’t happy they were here.
Then two veiled women stepped forward, and Raka acknowledged them with a graceful wave of one hand. “And finally, my sister, the Most Chaste Lady Tamzyn, and my aunt, the Most Chaste Lady Ruhazia.”
The two women nodded in the direction of the clustered humans, and Astrid studied them curiously. If this was the emir’s family, she would have thought they would be emiras or even princesses rather than just ‘ladies’ – but perhaps that was a translation issue. She’d also expected they’d be well-dressed, and they were. Their long robes were clearly finely-made, and the young one wore a headpiece of beads over her translucent veil. The elder one, who might have been in her sixties, wore a turban rather like Hailene’s, but also with a veil so that her features were barely visible.
And there was the problem. Compared to the beautiful colours and ornate jewellery of the other Tyger men and women, these two looked like nuns.
‘Most Chaste Ladies’? Maybe they were nuns, Astrid pondered. She wanted to debate it with Suraya, or to ask Nathaniel if he thought the women were as pretty as he’d imagined, but it seemed they were being directed to their seats now.
Just then she felt a tap on her shoulder and looked up to see Hailene. “The unmarried women will now return to the women’s quarters,” she said. Her tone was polite even through the translator, but it clearly wasn’t a request.
Astrid glanced back to where Nathaniel stood waiting to be seated. He looked very handsome in his rented tuxedo, and his gaze kept flickering over to her. “Just a moment.” She quickly walked over to her brother, trying not to trip in her long, fashionably narrow skirt. “Did you hear?” she asked him. “I can’t eat with you guys.”
“What?” he replied, but he kept looking over her shoulder.
Astrid glanced back to see the nunlike lady-princesses waiting by the exit with Hailene and two guards, and realised it wasn’t her he’d been looking at. But then even with that plain clothing, Astrid could tell the younger woman was pretty. Figured. Even alien sort-of-princesses just shouldn’t be ugly – it went against every fairytale she’d ever heard.
“Nathaniel, are you even listening to me?”
“Yeah, of course you look very nice.”
Astrid huffed out a sigh, feeling more amused than annoyed, then punched him lightly in the arm. “You wally. Ask Suraya what happened, OK? I’ll see you later.”
But she was now hyper-aware of everyone taking their seats and the segregated singles in the corner, so she just grinned at him, then headed off to join them. Never mind the segregation, she told herself. She was in a palace! An alien palace, which was even more impressive. Everyone back at the colony would be green with envy even if she was stuck in the toilet for the whole time.
When Astrid approached the others, they seemed to be whispering urgently under their veils. Hailene looked uncomfortable. The guards looked like tin statues – but was one of them glaring at her under that helmet?
“I’m ready,” Astrid said cheerfully. “So you have your own women’s feast, is that right?”
“Uh…there will be food served,” Hailene replied eventually. Her eyes flicked back to where the others were now seated. “We shall return now, if you will.”
“OK,” Astrid said a little hesitantly, wondering if she’d done something wrong. But she still followed the woman out of the room and back down the halls. The younger Lady Tamzyn was at her side, and Astrid could swear she was peeking at her through that veil. After a few minutes of awkward silence, she said, “By the way, I’m Astrid Townsend.”
There were a few more seconds where it seemed the lady wouldn’t answer, but then she inclined her head under that veil. “Yes. Ass-treed.”
“Uh…no, Astrid. Like, Azz.” Astrid tried to emphasize the difference between the sounds, but she just garnered a blank stare. “Ah, never mind. So, you’re the emir’s sister. Younger, I guess?” Because from what she knew of the locals, they tended to marry very young. Aunt Jae said fourteen or fifteen was normal – and the emir had to be at least in his early twenties.
There was another pause as her words were translated, then the reply came in smooth Tyger. “Are such personal comments typical of your people?”
Astrid felt her cheeks heat, because she couldn’t miss the sharpness of that comment. She hadn’t meant to be rude, but she answered honestly anyway. “Yes, pretty much. How can you get to know someone if you don’t ask questions?”
“Of course.” Lady Tamzyn lifted her chin as they approached the double doors to the women’s quarters. “I am Emir Raka’s older sister by two years. As for you, who was the young man that you struck in the feast room?”
For a moment Astrid had no idea who she was talking about. She hadn’t hit anybody! Then she realised what Tamzyn meant. “Oh, that’s just my brother, Nathaniel. He’s five years older than me, and he wasn’t listening properly.”
Now she distinctly heard the older lady – Rhubarb? – suck in a shocked breath. Tamzyn seemed to choke a little. “And is it…your custom…to strike men when they do not listen properly?”
Oh, so that was what she’d done earlier to make everyone look like they’d eaten lemons, Astrid realised. “It was just a friendly punch,” she said a little defensively. “Just because he’s my brother. I didn’t hurt him.”
“I see,” Tamzyn said finally, but her head turned to face forward. “Your people are not like ours.”
Oops. Astrid guessed she’d made a major faux pas, but she couldn’t take it back now. She just hoped no one else had noticed. But then she couldn’t imagine the supremely dignified Most-Chaste Lady ever friendly-punching her own supremely dignified brother.
Maybe the Tygers really were different after all.
“Or maybe you just shouldn’t go punching people in public,” Suraya suggested later that night. They both sat cross-legged on her enormous bed. Suraya’s cheeks were flushed pink enough to show that she’d had more than a drink or two at the feast, while Astrid was stiff with resentment over her less than fantastic evening playing checkers…by herself, as the Tyger women had preferred to ignore her rather than engage in conversation via translator.
Yes, checkers, because she’d not bothered to fix the broken entertainment app on her laptop, thinking she wouldn’t need it here. The old-fashioned checker board game had been added to her luggage as an afterthought.
“It was barely a punch,” Astrid countered. “You wouldn’t have known about it if I hadn’t told you.”
“Yeah, yeah, whatever. Do you want to hear something really interesting about those ladies?”
Suraya leaned forward, lowering her voice. “The female royals aren’t allowed to get married. That’s why they’re called ‘Most Chaste’. Get it?”
“Why not?” Astrid was baffled. “Don’t these sorts of societies use marriage as a way to make connections?”
Her friend leaned forward again until the edge of her nose bumped Astrid’s collarbone. “Ow. You’re bony.”
“That’s because you hit a bone. Now are you going to answer my question?”
Suraya sat up again, arching her eyebrows in a knowing fashion. “The female royals aren’t allowed to get married, because then their children would be contenders for the throne. That’s why. And they can’t have kids out of wedlock either. They have to be…um, ‘pure and undefiled’.”
Lovely. “Contenders…” Astrid frowned. “That’s stupid. Surely you’d have the same problem if the ruler had more than one son, right?”
Suraya shrugged. “I ’spose so. Now are you going to leave or what? Brian will be here any moment.” And then her cheeks turned even pinker.
Astrid rolled her eyes, but got off the bed. “You have fun not being pure and undefiled, then. I’ll go make my own fun.”
She headed back to her bedroom, but unsurprisingly the small, empty room wasn’t any more interesting now than it had been earlier. So rather than spend the evening playing checkers with herself – again – Astrid went to bed.
There was always tomorrow.