Here is part of the first chapter: hope it entices you into the rest of the book! :
DIVA LOOKED AROUND her at the lush green countryside of Coriolis, her home planet, and breathed in deeply with pleasure. She held the breath, savouring the chill air rushing into her lungs, and then exhaled slowly. They had just come back from burying Hanna on Pictoria, and had traveled to Mesteta to reinstate Six as her consort.
"Never thought that when I stepped foot again on Coriolis it would be in the company of a meritocrat." Tallen, who had been deposited alongside the rest of the party by Arcan, sounded disgruntled.
Diva glared at Six. "Did he have to come with us?" she muttered. "We were supposed to arrive on our own, not bring the whole menagerie."
His face assumed an expression of righteous indignation. "Don't blame me! The only person I invited is Ledin. I want to take him to the Widowmaker; there is nothing remotely like it on Kwaide."
"Yes, but then Grace decided she would come too, and that meant she had to bring Cimma, who is still in recuperation after Pictoria. So both Petra and Tallen had to tag along – after you saw fit to tell them never to let Cimma out of their sight, and then Bennel had to come too because he is keeping an eye on the two Namuri right now."
"You see," said Six, glad everything was cleared up, "I told you it wasn't my fault!"
Diva wasn't convinced. "My parents won't be expecting company."
"Hang it all, Diva! I never said I would come alone. I am not rattling around on my own in that palace they put me on. There is nothing to do there – unless you happen to like Mesteta wine baths. Which I don't."
She stiffened. "Really, no-name? Nobody would ever have guessed."
"It's just not a thing that men would do, now is it?"
"Coriolan men do."
"Yes, well. They would, wouldn't they? Stands to reason. It's either that, or talk to their wiv—" There was a small pause. "Err ... I forget what I was going to say."
Diva's eyes were flashing. "Wives, were you going to say, no-name?"
"Wives? Why would I say wives? What are you going on about? Talk to their wiv... whi... white Coriolan ceremonious robes, I was going to say."
Six smiled down at her. Their new relationship was jagged, raw. It was a rollercoaster of emotion, sometimes accepted with a sort of calm resignation by Diva, and sometimes rejected ferociously. She seemed to equate the whole experience to being trapped in a Tattula pit, and was quite capable of trying to scratch her way out. Even so, he wouldn't want to change anything about her. She was like a jewel, and she shone so brightly that he had long ago accepted that he would be blinded from time to time. She was a free spirit, and he knew better than to try to tie her to him. If he did, he suspected he would be left with only the fading memories.
She stared up at him, with an uncertain frown on her forehead. "Now what are you thinking? You look awfully strange."
He smiled. "I was thinking that we should start to make our way to the palace. Your mother and father will be wondering what has become of us."
"My father will be hoping you have met your rexelene block, more like."
"Ah, Maximus! He will have missed me."
"He will be furious when he hears that I am going to reinstate you as my consort."
"He won't be the only one. Speaking of which, how is the great Tartalus?"
"Bah! He just thinks he is irresistible. He thought I would faint at his manly charms."
"Ye-e-s, but he might decide his chances would be better if I were out of the way."
"My second cousin Tartalus? He isn't that bright. You needn't worry about him."
Six wasn't so sure. He could perceive stormy days ahead.
WHEN THEY REACHED the palace, the guards sounded the homecoming bell with alacrity, and an honour guard fell smartly into place. The motley group made their way up to the imposing magmite portico in a hushed silence, rather spoilt by the little grunts of disapproval coming from Tallen's lungs. His sister dug him in the ribs, but he couldn't stop emanating waves of dislike across the smooth reception area.
Diva caught sight of this out of the corner of her eye, nudged Six, and gave a speaking nod in the Namuri's direction.
Six glanced around, and grinned. "I bet this is the first time a clan member has been inside the ruler's palace."
"You'd better make sure he behaves himself," muttered Diva. "If my parents realize who he and Petra are, they may tear up the agreement we are about to sign."
Six nodded. "I will keep him out of trouble."
He raised his eyebrows. "What?"
"Nothing. Just trying to imagine you keeping anybody out of trouble."
It was Six's turn to blink now. "Why? It's not as if I am likely to do anything wrong!"
Diva flashed her brilliant white teeth in an unbelieving manner.
"What? Come on Diva, you can't think I am a troublemaker."
"I hate to think what you and Ledin will get up to together in the Widowmaker. I expect anything."
"Well, I like that! It's you who always starts things, not me!"
Her scrutiny of him told him she didn't agree.
"—And you are not getting me back into one of those dresses, again."
That got her attention. "You have to! You are not coming to the reinstatement ceremony in a Kwaidian tunic!"
His face fell. "Ceremony? What ceremony? You never said anything about any ceremony."
"Of course there has to be a ceremony. I'm reinstating you. That is an important occasion."
He groaned. "How long will it go on for?" He looked sideways at her. "I really wouldn't mind going on as we are."
"You're a philistine. And I don't know how long it will take. The same as last time, I guess. Or maybe longer, because there will be two ceremonies tonight. I think my mother is going to announce the more lenient laws we have been negotiating. At least, I hope so."
"You mean your father is going to read interminably from some long parchment thingy?" He sounded horrified.
"Do you want to be reinstated as my consort or don't you?"
"W-e-ell, actually, I ..."
"Because if you don't, I can always find somebody else who will."
"Oh, all right. I suppose I can get through one more of your awf—, I mean awesome rituals."
"And wear the ceremonious robe?"
A thought occurred to Six. "Will Ledin have to wear one too?"
He grinned. "All right, then. By the way, do we get to share a palace after the ceremony?"
Diva went pink, and examined her feet. "It isn't considered customary. Female meritocrats always retain their own palaces and entourage."
Six looked at her. "A bundle of advantages," he said thoughtfully. "Oh well, might as well be fed to a Tattula cat as to a cannibal."
"Your enthusiasm is heartwarming."
"Yes, my social skills are improving, don't you think?" He looked pleased with himself.
At that moment Diva's mother and father entered the chamber, to stand regally in front of the party.
"We welcome our daughter's companions to Mesteta, and hope that their stay will be congenial." Indomita stopped at the unmistakable sound of a derisory snort which came from somewhere in front of her, but was unable to identify the culprit.
Petra stood firmly on her brother's toe, pressing down with all her weight.
"Your ... companions will be staying in the Consort's palace," Maximus informed them, without much enthusiasm. "We thought that would be ... err ... more ... appropriate."
"It will be," Six agreed, dryly.
"I have not issued any ban on where you may go in Mesteta, but I insist on you behaving decorously at all times."
Six looked hurt. "Hardly necessary, I would have thought."
Maximus said nothing, but his jaw moved from side to side, and they could all hear the sound of teeth grating on each other.
AS SIX AND his friends walked into his palace, Ledin looked around, and gave a silent whistle.
"Wow! Not exactly what we are used to on Kwaide!"
A stately woman glided forwards. "I am delighted to welcome you back, Valhai Six. We are honoured by your presence, and that of your friends."
"Hello, Namiba. Do you think you can find room for my friends?" Six extended one arm to encompass the group behind him.
Six's Lady of Chamber examined his friends dispassionately. Her eyebrows raised slightly as she caught sight of Tallen and Petra, both trying unsuccessfully to hide their rampant disapproval of such luxury. Then she gave a smile as she saw Bennel and she nodded. "I shall endeavour to do my best, Valhai Six."
"We won't be here for long. There are a few announcements to make, a few ceremonies to sit through."
"So I have heard, Valhai. I hope my lady Divina is well?"
Six sighed. "She is fine."
Even Ledin looked at him when he heard that sigh. Six suddenly noticed everybody was staring in his direction. He raised his head and stared at them with a slightly defensive expression. "We are fine," he insisted.
Ledin arched one eyebrow, but remained silent. He was not about to meddle. They would sort it out themselves.
Grace turned to Six, her eyes shining. "Can I really have a Mesteta wine bath?"
Six shrugged his shoulders and then gestured towards Namiba. "Be my guest. At least somebody wants to use the thing."
Grace nodded, and grabbed hold of her mother's arm, determined to introduce her to the pleasures of Coriolan bathing customs. Then she hesitated, looking in Petra's direction. The Namuri girl shook her head.
"I will not soak my own hide in meritocratic vats," she said. "Too many people suffer to bring them their expensive little luxuries."
Grace gave a small inclination of her head, but ushered her mother off in the direction of the bath chamber just the same. She was rather in agreement with Petra, but she wasn't going to let that stop her one taste of luxury in an awfully long time. They could be heard giggling as they disappeared towards the huge sunken area. Petra stared after them impassively. She had no desire to spoil any part of her body. That was not permitted by the clan.
Six looked across at Bennel. "I thought we'd take Ledin to the Widowmaker," he suggested. "He's never seen anything like it. We should have time before this ceremonial thing tonight."
Bennel brightened. "I will call up a detail of guards," he said smartly, turning on his heel and disappearing into another long corridor. "We will be waiting outside for you in ten minutes."
Ledin examined Six thoughtfully. "We're not taking Diva and Grace, then?"
Six shook his head. "Not their sort of place," he said airily. "In any case, they will be wallowing around in wine for hours yet. Diva can spend whole days in hers."
"If you are sure. Diva won't mind?"
"Mind? Why should she? I should think she'll be glad we've found something to amuse ourselves with."
Ledin rather doubted that, but he did rather want to visit the place Six had told him about. There was definitely nothing like that anywhere else in the binary system. And besides, what could possibly go wrong? They would have a full complement of guards, after all.
Tallen stepped forwards. "I shall come too."
His sister turned her head in surprise, and Tallen nodded decisively. "And you should join Magestra Cimma and Grace in the bathing chamber," he told Petra. "Our job is to protect Cimma at all times. I cannot be present in the chamber with them, but you can."
His sister looked as if she were about to spit fire, but he held up his hand. "It is your job. We have sworn a blood oath, and that takes priority over clan prohibitions. You know that very well."
Petra's shoulders slumped. "I suppose so." Her voice dragged.
"And, since I can't be of any use protecting Cimma, my duty is to attach myself to Valhai Six's honour guard."
Six held up a hand. "I already have eight or ten guards," he pointed out. "I really don't think you will be necessary."
Tallen gave a sniff. He disagreed. "They will have to stay outside. I shall accompany you inside."
"You are too young," said Bennel. He appeared to be on the brink of saying more, but was silenced with one look from the Namuri boy.
"You can come if you like." Six was amused. "You will be entering in a meritocratic party, though. What if somebody in your clan sees you?"
"My clan knows that you saved our lives. They understand about blood payment. They will leave me alone."
"As long as you promise not to steal anything."
Tallen gave a gasp of outrage. "I would not! My job as your bodyguard is incompatible with civil disobedience."
"Good. Because I promised Diva not to get into any trouble. And you know what she's like."
Tallen limited himself to a grunt, but Bennel gave a definite nod. He did indeed. She could be quite intimidating.