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The applause was deafening as Julian reappeared and bowed. He spotted his agent in the wings and pointed at the keyboards as if with a question.
The audience rose to its feet cheering. His agent gave him a thumbs-up sign and he bent over the keys.
The first note echoed into the darkened auditorium and the audience hushed.
The video producer was enthralled. "Are you sure he won't reconsider? He's perfect for the part and the money men love him. He can even write his own ticket. As they say in the trade, he's a dreamboat. Look at him. The women are falling all over him."
The agent sighed, because Julian was the perfect client. His concerts were a sellout, his recordings consistently at the top of the charts and his songs had been picked up by the most stellar names in the industry. But he'd already turned down this video deal once and he was dragging his feet on doing another tour.
"I can ask him but he already said 'no.' "
"Up the ante. He can have anything he wants, even artistic control."
The agent whistled softly. "They must really want him bad. I'll try again but I can already tell you the answer."
At the post-concert party, the video producer watched Julian circulate among his guests. Slender and fine-boned with a mane of silver-gilt hair, the golden skin and high cheekbones typical of his race and extraordinarily expressive silver gray eyes, there was definitely something about him. Determinedly pursued by some of the most beautiful and powerful women in the industry, he had studiously avoided marriage or any permanent entanglements, and that left herwondering.
When she queried the agent, the other woman laughed. "That has to do where he comes from. Julian adores women in all shapes, sizes and colors, but there's a law about who he can marry. He'll be told when and where, and when it comes to the who, he'll have nothing to say."
"He puts up with that? Why?"
"You have to know Julian. I only found out when one of the tabloids ran a story about some bimbo he'd taken to an awards dinner. She claimed they were secretly married and expecting a child. When he told me to quash the story, he explained why. We sued and the tabloid settled out of court."
One of the caterers tapped Julian on the shoulder and handed him a communicator. As he listened, he beckoned his agent over and the two of them left the room. She returned a few minutes later. "All deals are off because Julian's father was just killed in an accident. A cruiser's waiting at the spaceport and I've got to get him over there right now."
"He'll be back, won't he?"
"Considering who his father was, I doubt it."
"Who was his father?"
"The Emperor of Nublis. Julian's his heir."
There was a knock on his stateroom door and Julian called, "Come in."
It was the battlecruiser Commander. The Emperor smiled and pointed to a chair. "You have an answer to my message, I gather."
"The Empress sends her regards, Your Majesty. She's looking forward to seeing you."
"Hmmf! I'm not looking forward to seeing her. Are we on schedule?"
"A little ahead actually. With the pirates loose in the shipping lanes, I didn't want to take any chances. We've been travelling at warp speed ever since we got out of Alpha Centauri and we'll be entering Mare Serenissima at least three hours sooner than expected. We should be picking up another armed escort any time."
"The pirates are that bad?"
"They're raising hell all over the Synod. They've got the Judiciary in their pockets and the prosecutors can do nothing. Whenever a pirate ship is captured, the judges turn the bastards loose before the ink's even dry on the charges."
"It seems to me I heard something about that. They're operating out of Sirius aren't they?"
"Yeah. Sirius doesn't recognize anybody else's rights, but so far they've left our ships alone."
"Probably because our justice is a mite different from the Synod's."
"Aye, that it is. Our Archon doesn't put up with any of that hairsplitting nonsense and money and influence don't mean a blessed thing to His Grace! If he finds the bastards guilty, they're history and good riddance! Too bad the Synod doesn't see it our way."
"You may have a point. The legal system on Aretz is a mess and the Synod's about as bad. That shouldn't concern us though. We aren't members of the Synod or the League."
"More's the pity. With all due respect to Your Majesty, I get around enough to know it's doing us more harm than good. We have a beautiful planet and we're missing out on a lot of tourist credits. We're tariffed to a fare thee well by every port we visit, communications are a nightmare, and the red tape has to be seen to be believed. Synod members don't have to put up with that kind of nonsense."
"Try telling that to the mossbacks in Parliament. Even Eos and that miserable Andromeda are members and they're right in our own system."
"Well there are certainly enough of us out there. The entertainment industry would be a whole lot poorer without us and you're an excellent example of that, Your Majesty."
"Thank you, but that's all behind me now. Had it been up to my father, I wouldn't have been a professional musician in the first place and I can hear the old bats in Parliament huffing at the very thought."
"Something tells me our politics are about to get lively."
"We definitely need to do something about our trade position. What keeps us going is our role as the Synod's bankers and the fact that so many corporations headquarter with us. But that's only because our legal costs are lower than anyone else's."
"So's the red tape. I have it on good authority the Trade League would like to see Nublis join and they'd give us their backing for Synod Assembly membership."
"The Trade League's upset with the Synod Judiciary's attitude toward the piracy and I was recently approached by a member of their executive committee. If the piracy continues and the judiciary keeps turning 'em loose after they're arrested, the League's contemplating a shutdown of all merchant shipping until further notice. They can do it too."
Julian whistled. "What's the Synod's response?"
"Military action against the League. There's been talk that League battlecruisers are carrying death squads. When they catch a pirate, they execute the crew and claim the ship as abandoned salvage."
"Mmm, this is worse than I thought. Up to now, I was under the impression it was just a piracy problem but we're looking at civil war. Whether Nublis is a member of the Synod or not, there's no way it won't affect us. Thanks for bringing this to my attention. Would you be willing to tell a Parliamentary committee what you just told me?"
"Certainly, Your Majesty. In fact, I was rather hoping you'd say that. Fortunately, there's an element in Parliament which is as concerned as I am, and public opinion's in favor of Synod and Trade League membership."
Julian cocked an eyebrow at him. "Did you plan this, Commander? I have a feeling I've just been very skillfully lobbied."
"Every officer in the fleet feels the same, Your Majesty. Even before your father's death, we'd been debating how to approach you. We're out there in other systems all the time and we're the only intelligence force Nublis has. Because you're familiar with the Synod, we thought you'd have a better understanding of the situation."
"Let me think on it. You've discussed this as a group?"
"I can assure Your Majesty this is in no way a conspiracy."
"Keep it that way. I'll get back with you after I've had a chance to sleep on it."
Recognizing a clear note of dismissal, the Commander rose to his feet. "I'll bid you goodnight, Your Majesty. What time would you like breakfast?"
"I generally rise at five. Coffee, pastries, and fruit will be fine."
"I'll notify your Steward. Do you need him to attend you now?"
"I don't think so. We'll be hitting Nublis' time zone in a couple of hours, so I'd best be turning in. Good night, Commander."
"Good night, Your Majesty."
When he reached the passageway outside the Emperor's stateroom, the Commander heaved a sigh of relief, then wiped the sweat from his brow.
His executive officer waited with a question in his eyes.
"Notify the rest of the fleet that I've talked with Julian and he understands. We've got an Emperor we can rely on at long last and not a moment too soon."
"Amen to that. They'll have the word before we even reach the Mare Serenissima." The exec turned and saluted the Emperor's door. "Welcome home, Julian!"
"Welcome home, Julian," echoed the Commander, "and long may you reign."
Copyright © 2001 by Kate Saundby