"And what would that be?" Ziller asked.
"We are expecting a guest, Composer Ziller."
Ziller gazed levelly at the drone. He looked around the broad cabin and stared at the door. "What, now? Who?"
"Not now. In about thirty or forty days. I'm afraid we don't know exactly who quite yet. But it will be one of your people, Ziller. Someone from Chel. A Chelgrian."
Ziller's face consisted of a furred dome with two large, black, almost semicircular eyes positioned above a gray-pink, furless nasal area and a large, partially prehensile mouth. There was an expression on it now that Kabe had never seen before, though admittedly he had known the Chelgrian only casually and for less than a year. "Coming here?" Ziller asked. His voice was...icy, was the word, decided Kabe.
"Indeed. To this Orbital, possibly to this Plate."
Ziller's mouth worked. "Caste?" he said. The word was more spat than pronounced.
"One of the...Tacted? Possibly a Given," Tersono said smoothly.
Of course. Their caste system. At least part of the reason that Ziller was here and not there. Ziller studied his pipe and blew more smoke. "Possibly a Given, eh?" he muttered. "My, you are honored. Hope you get your etiquette exquisitely correct. You'd better start practicing now."
"We believe this person may be coming here to see you," the drone said. It turned frictionlessly in the webwood seat and extended a maniple field to work the cords which lowered the gold cloth drapes over the windows, cutting off the view to the dark canal and the snow-enfolded quays.
Ziller tapped the bowl of his pipe, frowning at it. "Really?" he said. "Oh dear. What a shame. I was thinking of embarking on a cruise before then. Deep space. For at least half a year. Perhaps longer. In fact I had quite decided upon it. You will convey my apologies to whatever simpering diplomat or supercilious noble they're sending. I'm sure they'll understand."
The drone dropped its voice. "I'm sure they won't."
"Me too. I was being ironic. But I'm serious about the cruise."
"Ziller," the drone said quietly. "They want to meet with you. Even if you did leave on a cruise, they would doubtless attempt to follow you and meet up on the cruise ship."
"And of course you wouldn't try to stop them."
"How could we?"
Ziller sucked on his pipe for a moment. "I suppose they want me to go back. Do they?"
The drone's gunmetal aura indicated puzzlement. "We don't know."
"Cr. Ziller, I am being perfectly open with you."
"Really. Well, can you think of another reason for this expedition?"
"Many, my dear friend, but none of them are especially likely. As I said, we don't know. However, if I was forced to speculate, I'd tend to agree with you that requesting your return to Chel is probably the main reason for the impending visit."
Ziller chewed on his pipe stem. Kabe wondered if it would break. "You can't force me to go back."
"My dear Ziller, we wouldn't even think of suggesting to you that you do," the drone said. "This emissary may wish do so, but the decision is entirely yours. You are an honored and respected guest, Ziller. Culture citizenship, to the extent that such a thing really exists with any degree of formality, would be yours by assumption. Your many admirers, among whose number I count myself, would long ago have made it yours by acclamation, if only that would not have seemed presumptuous."
Ziller nodded thoughtfully. Kabe wondered if this was a natural expression for a Chelgrian, or a learned, translated one. "Very flattering," Ziller said. Kabe had the impression the creature was genuinely trying to sound gracious. "However, I am still Chelgrian. Not quite naturalized yet."
Copyright © 2000 by Iain M. Banks
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