“Why are you still here?” Alex almost froze mid-step when he saw Eleya sitting in the waiting area of the dentist’s office. She was picking away at a tablet, foot tapping along to the music playing quietly from hidden speakers. He sniffed the air and squinted at her. “Where’d your escort go?”
“So many questions.” She shut her tablet off and practically leapt to her feet with something that looked a lot like a genuine smile. “I cannot take an interest in my dearest nephew’s health?”
“Sure you can.” Like anyone would tell the Empress that she couldn’t.
“I had hoped you would say that. How did you fare?” She looked remarkably ordinary. As though she had discarded the air of royalty she normally carried and was now almost just... normal.
Alex shrugged. It had gone well enough. The dentist was certainly capable, removing his remaining broken teeth and using the dermal generator to plug the holes. A temporary fix, just until they had some tooth buds started growing for him. There were some issues, though. “The work was fine, but the everything else was weird.”
That piqued her interest. “Oh? May I ask for specifics?”
Where to start. There were so many choices. “Lehani’s office was, uh, I think the floors were dirt. Do you know if he had actual dirt floors?” They felt like dirt under his shoes, anyway. The doctor’s whole office was a facade that Alex assumed was some kind of retro pre-industrial Tslao building style with dark adobe and wood beams. It didn’t seem hygienic, but knowing the Tslao, it probably was.
“I do not know.” She shook her head then brightened a little, unlocking her tablet with a thumb swipe. “I am sure he is still nearby, we can call him back.”
“No.” Alex said that a little more forcefully than he needed to. Dressed in the same light green surgical jacket the doctors in sickbay wore, Lehani had seemed perfectly competent, with a confidant smile and eyes that looked too eager.
Eleya recoiled, eyebrow raised. “Very well. Is that all that that troubled you?” It almost sounded like she was chiding him.
“Look, Lehani was weird. Did good work, but I’ve never seen anyone so interested in my mouth.” Alex briefly recalled the inquisitive noises and excited humming coming from Lehani as he worked and immediately tried to shut them out of his head. “But I’m pretty sure my teeth stubs are going to end up on his mantle as a conversation starter.”
She smiled broadly and clasped his upper arm. “That is wonderful!”
Eleya was beaming with pride. “If he kept something, it clearly must have value to him. Doctors and medics sometimes keep tokens from royals they have worked on, it is an honor. They may become an heirloom in time.”
Alex had never seen her this enthusiastic, so he was sure she wasn’t putting him on. He really didn’t like the idea of someone coveting his teeth. “Great.”
“Yes. It has been an auspicious day for you, young prince.” She gestured toward the door and took his arm, apparently tired of standing around listening to him complain.
“Oh yeah. Got my face smashed in, bled all over the place, met the creepiest dentist in the whole of the universe. Superb.”
“Your ability to see the negative is astonishing.” She rolled her eyes as they walked to the elevator. “Do you still wonder where my escort is?”
Alex gave the air in the passageway a deep sniff, the air devoid of the ozone smell that came from cloaked armor. “Yeah. Where did they get off to?”
“You are my escort, young prince.” A sublime smile. “The captain, I would say he was impressed by your performance this morning. In his own way.”
“No shit?” Despite the knowledge that Eleya would have excellent guards, he wasn’t sure how much of a compliment that was supposed to be given how easily Carbon overcame them.
“Indeed.” Eleya nodded in agreement. “I did not hear a single note of disapproval when I sent him away earlier. I rather miss that.”
“Huh.” Maybe a little bit of pride was justified, not so much for beating the crap out of his assailants, but definitely for starting to be accepted by the locals. He hoped that continuing down that path wouldn’t require any more violence, though. “With any luck, I’ll be able to keep that going.”
“I would appreciate it if you did. He means well, but he is wound too tightly. I do not think you will ever earn his admiration, but I think he will come to trust you fully.”
Alex didn’t even know what the captain of the guard looked like, let alone if he would care about being admired by the guy. “He left you alone with me. Sounds pretty trusting already.”
“They are not far and this is my ship, young prince. It is impossible to go somewhere true trust would be needed” She gave him a pointed look with a devilish grin. “Besides that, I am not as feeble as some think me to be.”
What had Sergeant Zenshen said about her? Killed her husband’s assassin with his own knife? “Yeah, I get the impression you’re not.”
She straightened up and the grin disappeared. “It is good that some things stay hidden, difficult as that is in my position.”
“Bet it helps to have a complete outsider around.”
“It can, but it brings much risk. You have seen first hand how much anger just your presence creates, twice. For that, I am sorry.” She sounded like she meant it, a tiny shake of her head as her shoulders went slack.
“Yeah, well, the first time it caught everyone off guard... I got patched up pretty good, so no harm.”
“Thank you.” She took a breath and steeled herself before she continued. “What I said to Shenna was true. There is no hope for our race unless something can be changed. Most of our people will not accept help from Humans, they will not even use Human technology. I need something to change minds about them, Alex. I need you and Carbon together, and you cannot know how relieved I am to see even the first threads of change starting to be woven.”