Chapter Three: The Oldest Trick in the Book.
Liner RLS Northampton.
The RLS Northampton was an older liner of a design falling out of favor in the Core Worlds, but with a long service left left to her and top of the line amenities out in along the Rim. With facilities to accommodate 3,000 people it was on the small side for use with regular, heavily trafficked routes but was perfect as a glamorized cruise liner for the elite of the Wladymir sector. The scheduled run to Novo Apraxin was booked full with returning passengers, alert to the possibility of restrictions on further travel within the old Rus sphere. A grim sense of foreboding had many people aboard depressed and concerned for their future, but the crew of the ship kept up their optimistic facade and scheduled a band performance to celebrate the departure.
It was in the ship's ball room, of course, and after dinner had been served. Three was an open bar, some hors d'oeurves and champagne being offered by liveried servants, and the ship's band playing casual music of some indigenous styles, or so Sophia fancied them to be. It at least in theory, after they taken their dinner with the ship’s officers, gave them all the opportunity to mingle with the rest of the passengers in a pleasant social climate; it was a comment on the general mood of the ship that few passengers showed up, however, even with the inducement of good wine and harder spirits.
On the other hand, Valentin Kirilov was not a man to let good alcohol go to waste. He looked to be in his mid-thirties, as did everyone with one of the last few generations of prolong gene therapy. Dark brown hair kept in a fashionable ‘Caesar’ cut topped a broad Slavic face, where dark eyes peered out from underneath a heavy brow. He was just beginning to go to fat, but his face was rimmed by a bushy, close-cut beard that distracted from the first evidence of that decline. He was dressed in a bright red tunic, with gold sash extending across his chest, and a black belt holding it in place above dark-green trousers; it was a common style for men in the area, derived from the martial uniforms of the Great Rus state. He had a glass of top-shelf vodka in his hand, and was talking animatedly with a mixed circle of men and women about the possible impact of a state of siege on speculative contracts.
Thalia Venieri entered the room in the grandest fashion possible. She dressed, slightly severely but still very elegantly, with pearl necklace and golden earrings to adorn her ears, the light blue dress in the sort of neo-Persian melange favoured by the capitol at the present with a sort of Sarong-style to it, though with a traditional top and bodice--though it still gave off a few of exactly the socially acceptable amount of decollage. The light blue material was decorated with red and had patterns of white on it to accentuate her rather darker skin, with her lips adorned in a lush wine colour, wearing wickedly high heels that she handled well to counteract her considerable shortness.
Her hair she let hang down, taking advantage of its being naturally wavy but pulling it to the left artfully to reveal her face, just a hint of bangs on the right hanging, all by means of a hairpin decorated with the feathers of a grand peacock. And to complete the desired look, long sleeves and the lack of any showing of her shoulders to emphasize modesty even as the decollage was somewhat on the daring side, she did, gently, wear an old Orthodox crucifix innocuously about her neck. They were not unheard of among Greek Catholics, but unusual nonetheless, and here, at least, she thought it would be something of a sign. Like any proper lady the entire assemblage was completed by elbow-length opera gloves, and proper stockings concealed her legs, though it was certainly true that by subtle hints one could tell that she was only a respectable and fashionable, rather than outrageous, member of the nouveau riche and not a lady of genteel breeding. Sophia Vuletic nonetheless very much intended to impress, and her target was already set.
Her entrance attracted attention, as eyes were drawn to the newcomer. Her fashion style was new, exotic, a possible indication that tastes had changed in the Core, and more than a few of the people in the room made urgent note of it. But there was more directed appraisal as the men in the room drank in her form and the women sized her up as a potential rival. Kirilov halted his conversation momentarily, struck by the sudden arrival of an attractive woman he had not previously noted on the ship, and found his interest drawn by her daring use of the old Orthodox cross.
"As I was saying, that's why it's not profitable anymore to take on short-term contracts across the line. The Outsiders have gotten too greedy and their protection tax undermines the increased demand." He finished off the point, and listened politely but with little attention to the reply one of his rivals made, before excusing himself under the pretence of the hors d'oeurve table. He hoped to make his way over by the new arrival, without being too blatant about it.
Sophia had been headed in that direction, herself, which made things altogether substantially easy. She made way to not notice his approach, even though she did, delicately selecting her way through some olives and cheeses and a bit of pickled herring, a moderate amount carefully dictated by not seeming to gorge, but at the same time, she was a quite curvaceous woman and wanted to seem healthy--and above all, not at all a product of surgery. Though in some universes her curves might be considered undesirable by peoples obesssed with skinniness, she struck the balance for the most part in the Empire--and she knew what her breasts and rump could do for men by long experience. But she was delicately, delicately making sure to not give off the slightest hint of impropriety or forwardness. And she was good at it.
Sophia would not have looked really a day over twenty-five at the most generous, even considering the effects of prolong; life, and the number of reconstructive surgeries she'd actually had (but by the best doctors in the universe, and of a more extreme bone type than most would be willing to undergo), had been kind on her, and one could easily mistake her for a jailbait sixteen year old, even when dressed as she was now. She waited, passive and exuding it with her abilities--it was not illegal, after all, for her to influence the emotions of those around her--a fine feathered bird.
Valentin made his approach carefully, or so he supposed, slipping in ahead of her along the food line, and gently picking up a puff pastry. He caught her eye, and bowed lightly from the chest. "Please excuse me my directness, but I do not believe I have had the pleasure of an introduction to my lady. I would surely have remembered it if I had. If you would favor me so..." He smiled broadly, in an effort to be as charming as he could, though a couple of glasses of vodka were already effecting him.
"Why certainly so, Good Sir. I am Thalia Venieri, and if the Good Sir would be so kind in return....?" She hinted out for his name with a smile that revealed her flawless teeth and a happy disposition with eyes paying the sort of attention one might expect of some delicate curiousity--boldness certainly might bring that out in a woman if nothing else, when it was handled honourably, and Valentin had not done so that badly, all things said.
"Valentin Kirilov, humble independent merchant," he replied, though his tone belied any attempt at false modesty. "I am glad to see a new face on this run, which is rare these days. If I might be bold, are you a visitor to our Vladimir sector?"
"I am, hailing originally from Sigma Draconis, Good Sir," which was only 18.8 lightyears from Earth, and oh-so-very-definitely Imperial Core. "I was traveling on a... Strange, and slightly silly personal whismy, I confess, but nonetheless was very pleased to arrive." She smiled quite broadly then, though. "And it's very interesting that you're a merchant--my father was in the business too, before he passed on, God bless him. Well, the shipping side of things, to be precise. Perhaps you have heard his name before? Constantine Marketou, the managing director of the Athena Stardrive Lines."
"Ah, yes, even out here in the Rim we have heard of your father," Kirilov averred. "I for one am rather glad your father kept his operations away our sector, or I would have been undone," he laughed, but it was a shallow laugh. The Core shipping lines were putting a constant press on his profit margins, driving him into ever riskier business models to stay afloat, but he really didn't want to talk about that to a pretty girl, even one who by the difference between her surname and that of her father was marked as illegitimate. "What sort of whimsy could bring you out here to our quiet backwater? I'm afraid our worlds do not really have much to offer compared to the wonders of the core worlds, and little of importance to most travellers."
"Father was a very stern man," Thalia agreed in a way which certainly said everything--it was as close a member of polite society could ever get to admitting her dad was a real bastard. "As for my whimsy, Good Sir, well, my father was a Byzantist--the crucifix I wear was his gift to me at my Confirmation, and was made for a Byzantine princess, he said, in the 9th century AD--and the fervour rather caught me as well. My life is a comfortable one, and however strange it may sound I have always found myself enchanted with the religious artwork and architecture of my distant ancestors. So I came here to view the Basilicas and Iconography of the sector, which is some of the most recent revival work done in that style." She both showed that she had a brain, and money, while staying on a topic of religious activity, which was very acceptable to say the least--and hinted that for all her father's reputation she was not a trollop like the mother she had carefully not mentioned, for all her illegitimacy was already on the table. But most importantly, to a man with secret schismatic sympathies, her inclinations would be quite fascinating indeed.
"Ah, it is heartening to see an outsider taking an interest in our religious observances. The youth today, here in our own sector, often do not. Well, with some exceptions," he conceded, but went no further. "Most of the Christians in this sector come from a Byzantine background, and have maintained their traditions within the prescribed forms. You should definitely visit the Cathedral of the Eternal Virgin in Sverograd, it's the port that services the capital on Novo Apraxin. It has the most impressive collection if icons drawn from across the sector, courtesy of the community of businessmen who originate there; I have a hand in it, if I might be allowed to boast there. It was done in a style of the Hagia Sophia, as a showpiece during the time of the Rus, when the sector reverted back to a more purely Byzantine-influenced rite."
"That will be a fascinating opportunity indeed," Thalia answered. "I confess I did not know how much I find, you understand ? Little news of the sector, I fear, gets back to the core territories, and so I could do little reading in advance--making it quite the adventure." She laughed a tad nervously. "Quite the adventure indeed, actually, since it seems we will soon be under a State of Siege, and I confess to being more than a little frightened of that. The sector was quite safe for me to travel on my little adventure alone in, when I set out, but now..." There was a faintly helpless shrug. "I am not quite sure of how to secure myself. On the other hand I don't really imagine things getting so bad that I need to flee for my life--the people have been so kind to me so far that I don't think it could truly come to bloodshed--so I elected to carry on my journey." A slightly sheepish smile was admitted. "Perhaps because it heightened the sense of adventure, too."
I don't think you need to worry too much," he said, trying to reassure the young lady. "I doubt very much it would come to violence, not on a large scale. The Imperial authorities are simply overreacting to some youthful spiritedness. There was a fight on Vladimir, but they probably just turned up a bunch of smugglers rather than the terrorists that are being claimed. There is some discontent with the way our culture and rites have been disregarded in favor of the lackies in the Dvonomir rayon, and some of that anger has found expression, but we Rus are a civilized people." He lifted his glass and drained a fair amount of the vodka, adding to his already well-lubricated state. "If you would desire it I can show you around the planet, the best artistic and religious expressions of Byzantine heritage. The people there know I am one of them, so it might be safer if there is some manner of flareup. I do hope, in any case, you will do me the honor of calling on me at my estate after we arrive."
"Why, I would it an incredible opportunity to receive such a chance to tour through all the grand and interesting sights of your Byzantine heritage," Thalia agreed with a ready smile. "It is, in a manner of speaking, my heritage as well, but one I am far more distantly removed from than you--there is nonetheless something of it which excites an appreciation in me. So, certainly, both for sake of your knowledge and protection, Good Sir, I'd gladly accept the opportunity." She looked indeed quite happy with the given opportunity, and was, though part of it was the feedback from Kirilov's own emotions, which fed her and led her to give him just what he desired.
"It will be my pleasure to show you my homeworld." There was a measure of fierce pride in his voice. "You have definitely come to the right place, and I will be sure that you see what there is of your real heritage here. It is a matter that I have invested my philanthropy and time on and am delighted to see it having results. Ah, perhaps I can make some introductions for you here on the ballroom. Do you have an escort for the night?" Her charms were quite enough to have him desiring to stay near her for a while later, and he was definitely excited to find someone else who might sympathize with his own views.
I do not," Thalia replied with a very ready and encouraging smile. She would need to wait for a formal request that would follow before accepting, after all. Such was the way of things, and there was this somewhat shy way about her, and so very youthful--but Kirilov was not old enough for it to be improper, either. So far things had gone very well, and Kirilov at least put on airs well enough that Sophia would feel rather bad if it turned out he was just an honest merchant. But all things said, that was rather unlikely.
Valentin saw his opening, and took it. "Would you favor me, then, with your company this evening?" He smiled, all charm, reinforced by the fearlessness of the vodka. Thalia was clearly sympathetic, clearly someone he could do things for, and she was certainly charming enough to be worth his while in any case.
"Why certainly, Good Sir. I'd be very pleased with your company," she answered back, fondly, and took a step closer to Valentin. What secrets do you hide ? Sophia mused even at the same time as she was genuinely enjoying the pleasure that Valentin took in her presence, wafting over her through her powers, putting her in her strange mission mode where she drifted between her actions like water flowing between rocks, seeming to go wherever they desired, and yet in fact irrestible to her object.
Valentin's own mood swelled as success reinforced his already vodka-buttressed confidence. The music changed, again, to a modern melody patterned on an old boozy Cossack-inspired tune originating with the colonists of Vladimir and which was perennially popular in the sector. He held out an arm for her, suggesting the lightly crowded ballroom floor. "Would you care to dance for a bit, my lady? We can save the introductions around the room for a bit later."
"It would be a pleasure," Sophia answered, and took his arm. Her shoes were not precisely made for it--but Sophia was so lithe despite her voluptuous body that that would just enhance the shame when others saw her; she was an exquisitely skilled dancer, and had honestly danced in most ridiculous footwear than the high heels she tended to wear to compensate for her height in formal settings, anyway. That and it would surely please Valentin.
The melody was something of an opportunity for Kirilov to show off, and genetic therapy meant that he had lost none of the coordination he had enjoyed as a youth, even if his body had gone a bit soft. There were a number of dances native to the sector, most of them highly influenced by Slavic folk-dances and notable for relatively energetic movements and improvisation. The tropak-derived dance that Valentin chose was more sedate, but still comparable in tempo to more famous Latin dances, and he was initially concerned about Thalia's ability so he led carefully. But as the dancing continued he was impressed with her ability and became more daring, even incorporating the difficult rapid steps into his routine. He was flush with the exertion but enjoying himself greatly, and relished the attention drawn his way as the rest of the room kept an eye on Thalia.
"You are wonderful dancer," he said, as they neared and passed by each other from behind, arms elevated. "Is very impressive to see an outsider who can manage with such a tempo, and one those heels...," he averred, as they swung back around to face each other. "You must have had excellent instructors."
"My mother," Thalia admitted very softly, such that only he would hear, "Was once the Prima Ballerina Assoluta of the Nieuw Carstens landstadt company." It was a gentle confession, and brought a fond smile to her lips as she still matched his every move. In some way it was a pity it weren't true; the reasons for Sophia's mastery were rather more prosaic. Her expression was warm and delighted nonetheless, her face showing a very healthy glow from the exertion.
"So that explains it," he whispered back, and gave her a smile. And then turned in away from her, before conducting the famous Cossack steps required at the end of the dance. To his serious delight he managed to avoid messing up, and if he didn't quite conduct them with the same vigor he had thirty years ago, it was still an impressive enough display of manhood by the standards of the Rus.
Another, slower dance followed. The ballroom became more crowded as the tune, a 25th century ballad famous throughout the Empire, drew out travellers and those natives who were less confident of their athleticism. Valentin took the offered hand of Thalia and led her slowly in the extravagantly languid forms and twirls that the other dancers were enjoying. "A pity, to waste your talent on such a mundane waltz," he commented softly, taking the opportunity to draw her nearer.
"I do so enjoy your more energetic dances here," Thalia agreed with a sweetly brilliant smile, and accepted being brought closer quite readily. "Mister Kirilov, you are a truly excellent dancer yourself, strong and exuberent, and I do admire it." It served effectively as an admission that the interest was mutual, at least after the dancing--which Sophia had, in fact, actually been impressed by, for all that she knew that Kirilov was certainly working himself to his limit. She did not quite consider it appropriate to call him Valentin yet; that implied a degree of intimacy that a proper lady would not so quickly provide.
"Ah, perhaps you will have the interest to see our cultural exhibitions while here," he replied, taking her into another sweeping pass. "The art of our rayon dances is kept alive by many troupes, some of the best in Sverograd. If you have a mind to see and learn a bit more, I could certainly arrange a good reception for you with them." Indeed, it was turning out to be a great night. "The tropak and hopak, the Cossack dances, and national costume are preserved by such people as a reminder of our patrimony, much as our Byzantine-influenced icons and cathedrals."
"I would appreciate that very much; such cultural legacies are something I've always appreciated," she followed with that delightful skill. "A bit bookish of me, perhaps, but in truth I find it more vital and energetic than the passing fancies of the Core."
"Any sane lady would prefer that vigor to the foppish courtiers and their sterile prancing," Kirilov replied, again smiling broadly and stretching out subconsciously to display something of his physique. Against the proverbial court lackeys he would appear the very image of masculinity. "So yes, I will certainly arrange that visit. The director of the Sverograd Cultural Association owes me quite a few favors and I will collect one for you." The music came to an end as she swirled in along his arm. "Would my lady like to take a break from the floor and discuss matters further over drinks?"
"That would be lovely," Thalia answered with a delighted smile. Valentin himself had likely already had a fair bit for the night, but it was scarcely like she'd stop him from drinking more. She might find out quite a lot like that, irrespective of how things went with the declaration of the State of Siege, the news for which might or might not catch up with her in the next two or three days. In the meantime, she'd spend the time rather enjoyably to put it mildly.
Kirilov walked with her over to the bar, a tasteful polished-walnut counter serviced by an attractive blond woman in the livery of the Northampton's crew, black vest with red striping over white tunic and black dress pants. "One glass of Vladimir Veliky," he ordered. "It's the finest vodka in the sector, from the Stepanovich estate on Vladimir itself, made in the ancient fashion from potatoes and with water from their famously pure natural spring. Only a vodka from Holy Mother Russia herself could compare to it."
"Well, I shall try it I think, as one glass will not hurt me and I haven't had a single thing to drink the whole night," she smiled, and then asked, a bit sotto voiced, "You see Moscuvy as the Third Rome, yet?" Holy Mother Russia had certain connotations.
"Oh, is just a matter of speech, common in the rayon," he passed off, not quite drunk enough yet to have lost all of his inhibitions. On the other hand, he was just enough to express something of his true opinions, as the bartender handed them their drinks. "But too many of our people rush to scrape and bow at the whim of the outsiders. Our noble Byzantine rite has just as much antiquity as the Latin rite that the Viceroys have tried foisting on us since the fall of Great Rus, and that breeds a certain resentment and defiance." He found them seats by the bar, somewhat alone with only another couple sitting nearby, and they obviously well into each other. "This state of siege, when it comes, will just be another excuse to tighten up the leash on us, like they've been wanting to do for years."
"It is sad, the centralizing impulses that have crept into religion as well as government since the Deluge. The First Empire was a better place, and with the Bogumils defeated is it really necessary? But beyond such surface thoughts I admit to never having considered it, Mister Kirilov, from a perspective on the rim. But it is true, I don't dispute. Greek Catholicism has always seemed more substantial and spiritual to me than the Latin Rite, and I do go to mass at a Greek Rite cathedral."
"Yes, there is much to what you say," Valentin replied, perking up a bit from the moroseness that had suddenly descended on him. "You are quite a perspective young lady, Ms. Venieri. Yes, there can be no doubt of the glories of the eastern rite over that of the west. If only we were left alone to our rite and to our culture, but alas. We have to deal with Core world courtiers coming in, trying to make us in the image of their bloated Court, and bringing in their corrupt hangers-on to displace our honest trade and businesspeople. It is heartening to see that you appreciate our circumstances."
"Well, my father, for all of his successes might have imperiled the efforts of traders on the rim like yourself, in his grand days, certainly harboured a great love of the Greek Rite and his ethnic heritage, that he didn't stint in teaching to me," Thalia answered. "That, I am proud to have inheirited from him."
He did provide what he could for you, like all good fathers," Kirilov responded, for his own benefit as much as for hers. Men had needs, and they handled the consequences, giving as much as they could to support their children. It was the way of things, and he was getting a little emotional as the evening wore on and he continued drinking vodka. "And yes, Rus, Greek, it was a common cultural block and civilization, with our shared rites. When Tsargrad fell, naturally the center of that civilization migrated to Russia. The kinship between our peoples can never be forgotten, whatever our present circumstances."
"And I appreciate it very dearly," Thalia answered, fondly smiling. "I am sure it shall work out all quite alright. The natural tendencies of the Eastern peoples are to conservatism and so even the current crisis will be weathered, surely so, Mister Kirilov? Our shared cultural principles have not yet fallen, throughout all of history, though I hope you'll forgive some womanly ignorance of grand things and trends in favour of a focus on the details and elements of the ethnic customs of the land of the eastern rite."
"Ah, that is only proper. And I promise you a full opportunity to see those customs at first-hand, as well preserved as in any place in the Empire." He drained his glass at that, and sat it back, empty, on the table. "It is the order of things. Men go out into the world and earn a living, deal with the realities of life, sheltering women who are free to attend to their natural interests. And those interests preserve peoples and cultures, but so few women seem to appreciate their role and grow resentful." Certainly his ex-wife had been, and the contrast Thalia was running with her was only increasing his attraction. "Bah, it looks like people are starting back to their quarters." The depth of people on the floor was thinning, and the band was subtly getting less fresh-sounding. "It's still pretty early, lightweights..."
Thalia laughed delightedly. "Well, let's stay until we're the last people out, surely. I am very much enjoying the evening with you, Mister Kirilov," she added, and was in fact enjoying herself. She wasn't even offended by his comments, not when he himself was so happy--she didn't have that sort of capability at the moment to feel emotion against her mark.
"Wonderful, gospodina!" Valentin stood up, certainly refreshed by the break and feeling a pleasant buzz from the liquor. "Shall we attend to the dance floor a little more. The band may still have a few good tunes left in them, I think."
"Yes, before we lose the chance, let's!" She agreed delightedly, and was on her feet with all the swift grace of a deer to take his arm once more, her own head, well, not nearly so much affected as his.
Valentin was caught up in her enthusiasm and his own desire to impress the pretty lady, and strained hard to match his earlier athleticism as the band struck up another local trepok tune. "Ah, is a wonderful evening," he spoke loudly, as he finished off an improvised display of Cossack dance.
The band continued on, with decreasing enthusiasm, for another half-hour as the rest of the guests slowly filtered out. The liveried crew members began cleaning up tables and the bar closed down before the band played its final note, and took a bow. The half-dozen people still on the floor gave them a polite round of applause before they started leaving as well. Valentin and Thalia waited until they were alone, except of course for the band members polishing up their instruments and the cleaning staff preparing to wax the floor. "So that is that, alas," Valentin lamented. "Well, shall I escort my lady back to her room? It is late at night, yet." He was breathing a little deeply, and was flushed, clearly having exerted himself; sweat beaded up on his brow, which he wiped off with a discrete handkerchief. Despite the exertion and courtesy, though, there was a note of anticipation in his offer.
"You may certainly do so," Thalia answered softly, musing precisely on how she'd handle it. She'd make a very reasonable protest.... And if he wanted to sleep with her anyway, give in, Sophia decided quietly in her own mind. It was, after all, hard for her to decline things.
Kirilov offered her his arm, and escorted her out into the now mostly-deserted corridors. "See, no crew around, lighting is dark. So where did you have a room, Miss... ah, might I call your by your Christian name, my lady?"
"Yes, Valentin, you may," Thalia answered smoothly. "I'm on Deck Four, A-19 in the First class, of course," she elaborated, smiling softly.
"You honor me," he replied, again smiling, turning on the charm. He kept it up as he walked with her to the lift up to the A-Deck, stopping every now and then to share an anecdote of his homeworld. At last they arrived before her door, with Valentin having leaned in progressively closer, as a prelude to making more intimate contact. He halted before her room, and slipped an arm around her waist. "We are here, my lady," he announced rather superfluously. The close proximity was inflaming his lust, and he leaned in closer to her, smelling her sweet perfume. "You are a very beautiful woman, Thalia..."
She smiled, and shifted slightly receptively for him--inviting a kiss, at least. "Thank you, Valentin. You're not married, I see..." She added a bit slyly, and softly. "..Nor am I, though I certainly don't aim to ever become a spinster, God forbid."
"That would certainly be a tragedy..." he mumbled, as he pulled her gently up against him and brought his head down, brushing her check before finding her lips and planting a decidedly un-chaste kiss there.
The kiss was eagerly received, and she closed her eyes, leaning into him, with a soft delight evident in her form as she, so secretly, soaked in his moods and made them her own. Her performance was thanks to that ability beyond flawless; emotionally she became a mirror in this moments, exactly what the person across from her desired her to be.
Valentin ran his hand down her arm, before bringing it up behind her neck, supporting her head as he continued the kiss. He was barely cognizant of his surroundings as he leaned in closer against her soft body and continued to lengthy kiss, his beard tickling her face and chin. It had been a while, and between Thalia's air of sensuality and alcohol his mind was a heady mist of lust and pleasure. He pressed her against the door almost instinctively, and began running his other hand down her thigh. "You... incredible, I want you," he mumbled, as he pulled back temporarily from the kiss.
Sophia did not bother resisting by that point. She just reached up and gently keyed the door open, to let them stumble in together to her bed.
The threshold for inclusion in Wikipedia is verifiability, not truth.
-- Wikipedia's No Original Research policy page.In 1966 the Soviets find something on the dark side of the Moon. In 2104 they come back.
-- Red Banner / White Star
, a nBSG continuation story. Updated to Chapter 4.0 -- 14 January 2013.