It pleased Ruethen of the Long Hand to give a feast and ball at the Crystal Moon for his enemies. He knew they must come. Pride of race had slipped from Terra, while the need to appear well-bred and sophisticated had waxed correspondingly. The fact that spaceships prowled and fought, fifty light-years beyond Antares, made it all the more impossible for a gaucherie to refuse an invitation from the Merseian representative. Besides, one could feel delightfully wicked and ever so delicately in danger.
Captain Sir Dominic Flandry, Imperial Naval Intelligence Corps, allowed himself a small complaint. "It's not that I refuse any being's liquor," he said, "and Ruethen has a chef for his human-type meals who'd be worth a war to get. But I thought I was on furlough."
"So you are," said Diana Vinogradoff, Right Noble Lady Guardian of the Mare Crisium.
Flandry grinned. He felt pretty sure he was going to win his bet with Ivar del Bruno. They relaxed in the lounge and he switched off the lights.
Now in the sudden darkness, space leaped forth, crystal black and a wintry blaze of stars. The banded shield of Jupiter swelled even as they watched, spilling soft amber radiance into the ship. Lady Diana became a figure out of myth, altogether beautiful; her jewels glittered like raindrops on long gown and heaped tresses. Flandry stroked his neat mustache. I don't suppose I look too hideous myself, he thought smugly, and advanced to the attack.
"No...please...not now." Lady Diana fended him off, but in a promising way. Flandry reclined again. No hurry. The banquet and dance would take hours. Afterward, when the yacht made its leisured way home toward Terra, and champagne bubbles danced in both their heads.... "Why did you say that about being on furlough?" she asked, smoothing her coiffure with slim fingers. Her luminous nail polish danced about in the twilight like flying candle flames.
"The Nyanza business was a trifle wearing, y'know," he said, to remind her of yet another exploit of his on yet another exotic planet. "I came Home for a rest. And the Merseians are such damnably strenuous creatures. It makes me tired just to look at one, let alone spar with him."
"You don't have to tonight, Sir Dominic," she smiled. "Can't you lay all this feuding aside, just for a little while, and be friends with them? I mean, we're all beings, in spite of these silly rivalries."
"I'd love to relax with them, my lady. But you see, they never do."
"Oh, come now! I've talked to them, often, and--"
"They can radiate all the virile charm they need," said Flandry. For an instant his light tone was edged with acid. "But destroying the Terrestrial Empire is a full-time job."
Then, quickly, he remembered what he was about, and picked up his usual line of banter. He wasn't required to be an Intelligence agent all the time. Was he? When a thousand-credit bet with his friend was involved? Ivar del Bruno had insisted that Lady Diana Vinogradoff would never bestow her favors on anyone under the rank of earl. The challenge was hard to refuse, when the target was so intrinsically tempting, and when Flandry had good reason to be complacent about his own abilities. It had been a hard campaign, though, and yielding to her whim to attend the Merseian party was only a small fraction of the lengths to which he had gone.
But now, Flandry decided, if he played his cards right for a few hours more, the end would be achieved. And afterward, a thousand credits would buy a really good orgy for two at the Everest House.
Chives, valet cum pilot cum private gunman, slipped the yacht smoothly into berth at the Crystal Moon. There was no flutter of weight change, though deceleration had been swift and the internal force-field hard put to compensate. Flandry stood up, cocked his beret at a carefully rakish angle, swirled his scarlet cloak, and offered an arm to Lady Diana. They stepped through the airlock and along a transparent tube to the palace and the awaiting festivities.
The woman caught a delighted gasp. "I've never seen it so close up," she whispered. "Who ever made it?"