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part six.


Mallos watched with interest while Zed rubbed his temples. The Intergalactic Ambassador had been unusually stressed for the entire duration of the trip – that's to say, he was actually showing stress instead of laughing it off, as he usually did. Zed had worked closely with Mallos for longer than Tsi had, and was probably a fair bit brighter, so he didn't question his colleague's reasoning as Tsi would. Can you explain your thinking behind that? was one of Tsi's favourite phrases, usually uttered in a long-suffering tone with an impending sense of dread. Zed skipped over the chance of granting Mallos a stage and just cut to the chase.

“Don't throw Lorraine in any bodies of water,” he asserted, and then to Lorraine: “and don't retaliate. Clear?”

Retaliate?” Lorraine demanded, with a thoroughly convincing look of fury. Drawn up to her full height, with her hands on her hips and her blonde her damp and straggled over her shoulders, Mallos couldn't help but notice that she looked fantastic. More real. Lorraine's usual look was distinctly stylised; she always looked like she was made of plastic, or had been painted onto canvas. Now, with her make-up and hair-do washed away, her clothes crumpled and dripping, and one of her boots missing, she looked just like any other woman who had been caught in a rain shower. She'd never looked better. “You cannot possibly expect me to let this lie!”

“Mallos, did you apologise to Lorraine?” Zed asked, looking like he already knew the answer. Mallos, playing his role, put on a nettled voice.

“Yes, of course. Although...” he threw in the last word mischievously, expecting Zed to cut him off, which he did.

“Lorraine, I need you to be able to work with Mallos until we're done with this mission, alright?”

“Alright,” Lorraine tossed her hair sulkily over her shoulder, but winked at Mallos when Zed wasn't looking. “I suppose I can cope with that.”

“And Mallos...” Zed looked at him with a momentary loss for words. Mallos had that effect on people. “I'm going to do my best Arthur impression, but you're going to have to use your imagination a little. Ready?” The Brazilian adopted a stern expression. “Don't cause any more trouble.”

“Arthur doesn't say that to me,” Mallos pointed out. “He says - ”

“I think it would be beneficial, now, if we discuss what we found out today,” Zed overrode him. “I talked to some of the residents on Shyllipa Major. The two planets are drawing apart. Etya mentioned an anti-fairy group on Minor calling themselves the 'sisterhood' who are gaining momentum. They're trying to get the shuttles closed down.”

“The sisterhood,” Lorraine snapped her fingers. “That's what that nymph said, in the lake.”

Zed frowned. “You talked to a nymph in the lake?”

“No, I overheard nymphs in the lake talking,” she answered back without missing a beat. “They were a little surprised when I fell into their conversation.”

“I went to the sun court and heard more or less the same thing,” Mallos jumped in, while Lorraine presented him with a token look of scorn. “Kima, the Queen of the Sun, said she's keeping the solar nymphs out of it. Solar nymphs tend to be more aloof and detached from planetary affairs anyway, but they seemed particularly opposed to the sisterhood. Apparently, the sisterhood has been around for ages, but they've experienced a very sudden surge of support and rise to power very recently. I can't imagine,” he focused a slightly hardened expression on Zed's open, enquiring face, “what might have occurred in the past few years on the Shyllipa planets to upset the power balance.”

“A connection you have irrefutable proof of, no doubt?” Zed replied calmly.

“Come on, Zed,” Lorraine folded her arms and tossed her hair again. “You can't expect us to believe that Tsi sent all three of us here over a bunch of placard-holding nymphs. This is about Gwythr, isn't it?”

There was a long, rather pregnant pause.

“As I said,” Zed's voice was quiet and his tone was final. “If you have irrefutable proof, I should be delighted to receive it.”

Nobody spoke.

“So I take it Anai, Jahi, and Elys are all influenced by or are members of the sisterhood?” Zed sighed. “That makes life difficult. Coya and Kima are neutral parties if not allies, at least, and we still retain influence over Major. Without knowing how the queens are chosen, it's going to be hard to manoeuvre them out of power.”

“The leadership rituals are secret,” Lorraine agreed. “And I don't think we'd ingratiate ourselves by eavesdropping on them, even if we knew when they were.”

“If we can get Coya and Kima on side, and the satyrs and centaurs,” Mallos suggested, “they could do the job for us.”

“I think Coya has bigger issues,” Lorraine pointed out. “Like maintaining control of the water nymphs who are members of the sisterhood. There might be some amongst solar nymphs too. The satyrs and centaurs won't be much help if they're the oppressed minority, either.”

“Our first step should still be to strengthen the bonds we have here,” Zed sat back in his chair and stroked his chin thoughtfully. “If you take care of the nymph queens, Mallos, and you the other two species, Lorraine... I think I'm going to drop Elys and Anai a visit.”

The other two accepted that, and Lorraine retired to her chamber. She'd just had time to have a rigorous shower and was tiptoeing back into her bedroom, wrapped in fresh laundered towels, when the expected knock on the door came. She sat down on the edge of her bed and pulled the towel off while Mallos walked in, taking care to shut the door behind him.

“He was lying,” the Spaniard said uncharacteristically bluntly.

“How can you tell?” Lorraine asked with genuine interest. She considered herself a master liar, but she lacked the fine attention to detail which characterised her colleague's observational skills.

“He always does the exact same thing when he lies.” Mallos sat down in the room's only chair in front of the dresser and pulled off a perfect imitation of Zed, right down to the manner in which he rubbed his chin. “He's just keeping us busy. What are we doing here?”

“When we figure that out, we'll have all the answers,” Lorraine sighed, pushing her fingers through her hair as she searched for her parting. “What does Arthur say to get you to stop causing trouble, by the way? I want to hear these magic words.”

Mallos smiled. The dying sunset through the window cast his face in a warm, orange glow.

“He says, 'shut up, Mallos'.”

“All your friends say that to you, don't they?” Lorraine frowned, still picking her hair apart.

“Yeah,” he replied affectionately. “Sign of true friendship, those three special words.”

Lorraine laughed then. It was the first time for as long as she could remember that she'd laughed without make-up.

    • part seven. -
    • part eight. -

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