Ch 4: The Greenhouse Closes At Five

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The panther still crouched, growling. The woman - who Crane now suspected was no mere serving girl - addressed him from behind her dagger.

"Crane the Astarthian," she purred, peering up into his face. "I've been expecting you."

With her free hand she smoothly drew his sword from its scabbard and planted it in the ground between her feet. The dagger held fast against Crane's throat.

From this uncomfortable proximity, Crane was surprised to see that the woman's hair, which he'd supposed to be the light yellow colour you see on some northerners, was in fact the silver-grey that comes with time. Her smooth face also spoke of lived experience, in the firmness of the mouth  and the softness about the jaw, and her eyes held a depth of knowing that can only come from years of seeing.

Despite her quickness and the light grace of her limbs, this was no girl!

"Forgive me, my lady," Crane whispered, avoiding any excessive movement of speech that might cause the dagger's point to dig deeper, "but could it be that I have the honour of addressing the captain of the Queen's own Guard, about whom I have heard such stories?"

One side of her lips quirked up. "You could say that."

She motioned to the growling panther, who relaxed and began to wash a paw.

And then Crane noticed the royal signet ring on her hand.

Esther saw the direction of his gaze and sighed, stepping back from him and sheathing her dagger. Motioning for him to walk before her, she hefted his sword as the panther stalked past him and led them inside to the  banquet-hall.



After Sam's reading, a line had formed at the front of the room, young men and women (some even dressed as humans) who wanted a word with the author. Tova sighed, thinking she was too old for all this, and headed for the door.

But she'd barely stepped out into the corridor - where tables were set up displaying information about upcoming cons across the planet - when she'd heard her name being called.

"Miss Tova?" It was Sam, with his agent standing exasperated at his shoulder. He'd darted over to her, his voice dropping to a whisper as he got close.

"Ma'am," he'd said, his drawl making the word sound unspeakably sexy, "I really would be honoured if you'd dine with me tonight. Could you bear to wait a few minutes while I do my duty back there?"

"Oh - sure," she'd said, too startled to think of anything else to say.

After ten minutes, Tova had gone and peered in the door of the ballroom and seen Sam standing by the speaker's podium with a slightly glazed look on his face as a teenager in a black cape gesticulated in front of him. Sam's eyes had shifted and caught hers, and he'd winked.

She'd gone back out into the corridor.

Another five minutes had passed. She'd engaged in a brief discussion with a jeweler whose wares were on display. She'd tried on a ring with a dragon on it, but decided she couldn't really afford it.

"Quick," a warm, dark voice had whispered in her ear, "my minder's answering a call of nature.  Let's get out of here! Thank heaven that man has a tiny bladder."

Once they were safely out on the street Sammy had asked her if she'd show him around the crystal palace after dinner. She'd told him that the greenhouse closed at five, and it was already four, so he'd insisted they go there first.

"It's just as well, I imagine," Sam had muttered. "Ole Dickson would never think to look for me there."

Tova had laughed.

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