“It doesn’t really look like you.” Teague, a tall, lanky fellow with yellowish brown-freckled skin and dubious colored eyes, is holding the cover art for the latest Vatta book.
“Your official visa image doesn’t look much like you,” Ky says. She looks tired.
“They got the bone structure right,” Rafe says. “It’s just the color–”
“I’m pale with cold. I probably was, though I don’t think I was ever that pale.” Ky takes a long swallow and sighs. “If that woman doesn’t quit keeping me up all night and running all day, I will be. And we’re still in the early stages. I thought she was slowing down.”
“She is, actually. She’s just faster than she was with Cold Welcome.” Rafe tastes his drink, sets it down with a little thump. “Well, would you look at that. I never thought she’d be here this early. And in uniform.”
The tall, fit woman in a Slotter Key Land Forces uniform with stripes halfway up her arm has a large red-gold dog on a lead. Predictably, she’s met with “Madam, pets are not allowed–”
“Ginger’s a character actor, not a pet,” Sergeant Major Morrison says. She shows a paper, the character contract.
He shrugs in defeat. “Well, then, please keep the dog on leash and under control. May I have your name for the list?”
“Of course. And these are my friends, Kris and Irene, and my neighbor, Master Sergeant Temple.” The two women are in civilian clothes with white coats over them; the master sergeant, like the sergeant major, is in uniform. Morrison looks around, spots Ky, nods politely.
Ky waves. “Come on–grab a table before it gets crowded. Are you having dinner here or just drinks?”
“Dinner,” Kris says. “While she sleeps.” Knowing glances and chuckles from the others. Everyone knows who she is, the woman who rules their world. They gather around a single table, and Ginger lies down quietly under it. “And not any of the things she writes for us in the manuscript, either. ” She brings up the table menu. “Oh, good. Melon-citrus salad. I don’t know what she‘s got against melons, but I love ’em.” They all order. More and more people are coming into Universes, some staying up by the bar and others settling at booths and tables. Morrison and her friends have never seen any of these people before.
“Who are those?” Morrison asks, as a group of barelegged men and women in maroon tunics swagger in, putting their short swords into a rack that’s appeared by the door.
“Different universe,” Rafe says. “Those are Fox Company mercenaries; their commander’s a major character in the previous series.”
“She writes…fantasy? ”
“Yes. Which doesn’t mean it’s any less real than you are.” The man who appears suddenly beside their table is dark, darker even than Ky Vatta, with a pattern to his skin that almost resembles scales. He gives off heat and a faint smell of forge-fire. “Are you wise, Sergeant Major?”
“Not nearly wise enough,” Morrison says. “Though I strive to learn.”
“That is well,” the man says. As he turns he shifts a little, and hints of his real shape–or his other real shape–show for a moment. He bows to a woman in brown, with a red jewel on her brow, and sits down beside her.
“This place…” Morrison says; her voice trails off when a man with an iridescent feathered throat in brilliant blue-violet, like a hummingbird’s, strolls in looking smug. “Is that one of hers?”
“Oh, yes. That’s Milo Ardry. He bought a cut-rate rejuvenation and that’s what happened. It’s now the fashion in his culture. Don’t pay attention to him; he’ll brag about it for hours. It gave her even more ideas for humodification.”
“Do the crews ever…mix?”
“Yes, indeed. You’d like the woman the dragon is with–”
“Dragon?” Morrison’s brows rise.
“The fellow who asked you if you were wise. He asks everyone, eventually. We don’t know who he really is; he stays in character even here. But she’s quite interesting–has stories about the author from way back.”
The food arrives. They are only halfway through dessert when the manager comes to their table. “Author’s Request: Vatta 7 characters to the set please.”
“She could have slept another half hour,” mutters Teague. “It’s the weekend!”
“She never does,” Ky says. “OK, folks, let’s not be late.”