It had been a fragging magnificent party.
Ryza stretched out in the back seat of the lighter, watching the lights of the Darktail District shimmer below her through the transparent flooring. She wiggled her feet, giggling as her golden and bejeweled toe rings caught the light from below. Then she looked up, waving goodbye cheerily to the great airship that was the Queen of the Clouds. It has been a constant party for three days aboard woth her boarding school friends as it made its way slowly from the coast to the interior of the Darktail lands. Her lands. Home.
I am Mistress of the Uuuuuuuuuuniverse.
She was Lady Ryza Darktail, she was nineteen, she was just a liiiiittle bit drunk, and she was was on top of the world. Two days ago she'd graduated from school, one of the most exclusive on Foxen Prime. One year from now she'd enter the Academy for her mandatory three years of military Service. But for now it was her Holiday Year. One full, solid year of pleasure before she had to enter the Real World and act like a good little Foxen Noble. Until then...
"I'm gonna pah-tay pah-tay pah-tay/I'm gonna dance dance DANCE," she sang, kicking up her feet. She was going to spend exactly one week at home, as she'd promised her parents the month before, then it was going to be time to hop aboard the nearest starship and head off into the universe, partying all the way.
The lighter set down on one of the landing pads, about a half a click from Darktail Manor's main house proper. Mum and Da, total sticks that they were, didn't allow grav vehicles to land any closer than that. Well, not anymore anyway. Ryza slotted a generous tip for the pilot into his pay reader, grabbed her carryall, and stepped out of the lighter, brushing down the front of her shimmersilk dress as fractal patterns formed and disintegrated across the smart fabric.
A tall, draconic figure, sitting in a little electric cart on a seat that was too small for him, waited for her as she got out. Ryza made an oh poo! face at Ashraf as the blue skinned, purple haired wazagan gave her a wave and took her carryall, setting it in the cart's cargo bed.
"You're late," he rumbled. Despite his size, a good thirty centimeters taller than she was, and she was as tall as Da, he was a nice fellow. Just a couple of years older than Ryza, he'd been bunking at the manor as an exchange student, getting data for his xenoanthropology degree.
"I'm not late," she said, plopping down in the seat beside him. "It's only..." She squinted at her timepiece, then gave up trying to make out the numbers. "Well I'm probably not that late. Anyway, if it is late, what are you doing up Mr. Sleep Ten Hours?"
"Lord and Lady Darktail asked me to pick you up and make sure you made it home."
Ryza made another face. Mum and Da would do that. Ashraf was the most reliable, levelheaded person she knew. Like most wazagans he subscribed to a monotheist religion, much like Foxen belief in the Mother Goddess, except they'd gotten it mixed up and worshiped a male god, and not even a wazagan one, but a human god that they'd borrowed when humanity had discovered their world.
At any rate, its tenets apparently revolved around being peaceful (good), charitable (also good), reliable (blah) and sober (phhhhht!). Which meant if you asked Ashraf to do something he'd do it, no matter how screamingly boring it was. Like pick up slightly tipsy young noblevixens from the landing pad at Oh My Goddess in the morning.
"Then drive on, oh purple haired one!" She tugged at his braided que, earning her an irritated look, and sat back in her seat as he drove the little cart back to the house. Weirdly, the lights in the front were on when they arrived. Usually they were were turned off as soon as Mum and Da went to bed.
She hopped out of the cart when Ashraf pulled it up to the front door, grabbing her bag from the back. It was three quick steps up to the patio, then she was pushing the front doors open and calling out to the empty entrance hall, "I'm hoooooome!"
Well, not quite empty. Da, Lord Rolas, was actually waiting for her, leaning against the wall, arms crossed over his chest, which only accentuated the bulge of his pot belly that was contained by his House uniform, being built like a wrestler gone to fat. Mum, the Lady Melanie Darktail was there too, looking more elegant in her formal noblevixen gown, a glass of sheeva brandy in her paw, and as lightly built as Da was heavy. Ryza had split the difference in the genetic lottery, ending up as tall as Da and as slight as Mum, which had just made her feel gawky and awkward until she'd grown into it.
"Mum, Da, you're both up late!" she greeted cheerily.
"We were waiting for you," Da rumbled, a sardonic tone in his voice that set off late breaking alarm bells in Ryza's head. Da didn't really do snarky very well, and only bothered to try when he was desperately trying to rein in his temper.
"Indeed we were." Mum raised her glass to Ryza, which made her daughter raise her eyes up a bit to finally catch sight of the sign hanging from the railing of the upper balcony, created by intertwining multicolored flowers on a frame made of natural branches, in a very Foxen Lordly style.
WELCOME HOME, RYZA!
"It was a lovely party, by the way," she added. "Everyone was there. At least until midnight when we told the last straggler to go home with the leftovers."
"In my defense," Ryza said, raising one finger, which made her sway slightly, "it's hard to arrive on time for a party when nobody tells you there's going to be a party."
"It was supposed to be a surprise party. Hence the lack of notice," Mum said. "Mind you, we were rather counting on you arriving when you said you were."
"The airship was a bit late."
"Funny, you said you were taking the hyper-rail," Da noted, pushing off from the wall. "I believe you also said you were going to take a couple of days to pack up your things and say goodbye to your friends after the graduation ceremony, and then come straight home."
"I was having a hard time saying goodbye. So we decided to head home together aboard the Queen of the Clouds."
"We forbade you from going aboard airships, if I remember correctly."
"No, you forbade me from bungee jumping from them, which I didn't do." She decided not to mention what she had been doing, with Jinx Clipear, the rather handsome fellow from her economics class, for most of the trip. "Anyway, if you were wondering where I was, you should have phoned."
"We did, repeatedly," Mum said. "It was turned off."
Actually she'd tossed her phone out the porthole after the first three times it had buzzed with her parent's com number, but now probably wasn't the best moment to mention that.
"Sorry, won't happen again," she said contritely.
"Well, since you can only really have one graduation party, I suppose you're technically correct," Da said. Ryza tried not to wince. He really wasn't very good at snark.
"Look, again I'm sorry. I'll make it up to you somehow before I leave on Holiday."
"Yes, about that," Mum said. "Your father and I were talking, after all the guests had left. You didn't tell us where you intended to go for your Holiday Year, did you?"
Ryza tensed, trying to keep her ears from flipping back. In a deliberately light tone she said, "I was keeping my itinerary open ended."
"Well, we have a suggestion. You haven't really seen your Aunt Salli since you entered school have you?"
"No, not really." Right, time for a concession or two. Visiting Aunt Creepy Eye wasn't exactly on the top of her list of destinations, but the mood her parents were in right now suggested compromise was in order. "I suppose I could swing by Greenholm and see her."
"For how long do you think?"
"Er, two weeks?" After a moment's silence she suggested, "Three?"
"Actually, it's been a very long time since you've seen her," Da cut in. "How does a year sound?"
Ryza's jaw dropped open and her ears flipped back. "A ye-- My entire Holiday Year?"
"Yes," Da said, in that flat I am not going to debate the matter tone of his.
Well, she was damned well going to debate it. "You cannot ask me to blow my entire Holiday Year moldering on a half-built colony world!"
"We're not asking, Ryza," Mum cut in. "This is an order, from your sire and dam, from your sworn lady and lord. You are going to Greenholme, you are going to present yourself to your Aunt Sallivera, and you are going to do whatever she asks of you for one full Foxen Prime year. If you refuse, you will be considered in violation of your oaths, cut off from the rent revenues from the lands granted to you by us, and subject to whatever other punishments we see fit."
"But that's not fair."
"It's a lot more fair that what would happen to you if you violate orders when you start your Service tour," Da noted. His expression softened, going from hard nosed to something almost pleading. "Ry, we know you're smart girl, you've got the marks from school to prove it. But you haven't got an ounce of consideration for other people's ideas or their needs. You're Foxen Lord, and you have responsibilities. It's past time you started acting like it."
"Do not start with the damned Rights and Responsibilities lecture again, Da! It's not like I'm going to ever inherit, unless both of the twins get run over by a cargo shuttle!" Milo and Merrill were three years older and approaching the end of their own Service tours, and like Da and Aunt Salli were fraternal twins. Merrill, being the eldest and female, was the next in line to inherit the District Countesship after Grandmother and Da passed away. According to Foxen Noble law Milo was actually third in line to inherit, since Ryza was female. As a result, she wished her elder sister a very long life, and many children.
"That's not the point."
"Ryza, it's not going to be all that bad," Mum said. "You won't be all alone there. You'll have Aunt Salli and Aunt Ali."
"Who are both a quarter of a century older than I am."
"Plus Ashraf will be going along too."
Ryza blinked. "What?"
"He asked to come along, to see what Foxen culture looked like on the frontier," Da said.
Two meters of earnestly pious lizard following her about on a backwater colony was exactly she didn't need, thank you. "Joy," she replied sourly.
"We're not doing this to be vindictive, Ry," her mother said. "We're hoping you'll learn something."
"Learn what?" she demanded.
Her father sighed and rubbed his muzzle. "You'll have to figure that one out yourself."