Careless WhispersBy S. Lewis
Page 2 of 31
Chapter IIAvon gloomily contemplated himself in the mirror.
These damned official banquets and receptions were a massive waste of his valuable time and energy, as far as he was concerned.
Usually his solution was to simply refuse to attend. Or, if absolutely ordered to be there (by His Regal Highness, of course, the only being who even pretended to order Kerr Avon around), he was not above promising his presence and then just not showing up.
He was not unaware that such action infuriated Blake, which was an additional pleasure.
Blake, it should have come as no surprise, loved the chance to play host. Such occasions gave him the opportunity to be adored anew, not just by the usual syncophants, but by the various and sundry politicians and businesspeople from all over the galaxy who pilgrimmaged to Earth in order to meet him. (Avon was occasionally driven to wonder just where in Hades all these believers had been back when Blake was winning the revolution for them.)
Blake, the sun about which all the visitors orbited, would smile and ooze charm, playing the political game with consummate skill. Everybody loved him.
And he loved everybody.
It made Avon sick.
So he tried his best to avoid all such occasions.
But Blake hadn't ordered him to attend this particular banquet. Hadn't even suggested strongly that perhaps he ought to come. In actual point of fact, Blake hadn't invited him at all.
Which was precisely why Avon had decided to go.
And not only to go--he intended to play the role out completely. To that end, he dressed with extra care in black leather trousers, high boots, and a white shirt with sleeves so flowing that they might have been worn by His Highness.
The evening was cool, so he donned a black cape that was lined in red silk, and then left his rooms. It was only a short walk to the Presidential residence, where he presented himself just after the appointed hour.
There was a flurry of confusion at the door, because his name did not appear on the official guest list. The poor sentry looked to be in a state of nervous collapse, because of course he knew exactly who Avon was - and also knew his reputation.
But at the same time, his orders were strict and explicit: No one whose name was not on the list was to be admitted. No exceptions.
Avon did not go into one of his well-known and universally feared rages. Instead, he merely smiled, ever so faintly, and requested gently that the President be informed of his arrival.
One of the guards scurried away.
Avon stood patiently on the front stoop and awaited his return.
It was not long before the man came back, looking slightly pale. "Admit Chief Advisor Avon," he said. "Immediately." It sounded like a direct quote.
Avon graced them all with a smile and entered the house. A servant took his cloak as he strode into the reception room. His arrival coincided, serendipitously, with a general lull in the conversation. All eyes turned to watch him enter.
He ignored everyone.
Blake was standing in the center of the room (of course), surrounded by a gaggle of admirers, primarily off-planet politicians, who seemed to be worshipping his every word (of course). But now Blake fell silent as well, watching as Avon approached.
Avon did not join the ring of adoring listeners. Instead, he stopped just short of that group. Stopped and waited.
After a moment, Blake excused himself from the group and walked over to where Avon was standing. "This is a surprise," the President murmured, his eyes taking in Avon's appearance.
"I felt sure that my invitation was somehow mislaid," Avon said blandly.
"And I felt sure that had an invitation been issued, you would have ignored it, as usual," Blake replied. "Why go through such a pointless exercise all over again?"
No one else was standing close enough to hear their sotto-voiced conversation, although Avon would have wagered that everyone in the room wanted to. He gave Blake a small smile. "If my presence is going to prove an inconvenience, Mr. President, I will leave."
"No, no," Blake said quickly. "It's fine. A place is already being prepared for you at the table.
Avon gave a gracious half-bow.
Blake glared at him. "You have a very perverse nature, Chief Advisor Avon."
"That fact has been noted in the past," Avon agreed blithely.
"Accurately so," Blake growled. Then, in one of those frequent changes of mood that tended to drive Avon more than a little crazy, Blake grinned at him.
"Whatever the reason, I'm glad you're here." His eyes were now warm as he gazed at Avon.
Damn the man. He would continue to let his foolish heart bleed over every soul in the galaxy, showing his feelings to a populace that cared not at all.
Avon was confused at his own reaction. Had he wanted Blake to throw him out? Sometimes he didn't know what the hell he wanted; his motives bewildered him as much as they probably did Blake.
A small part of his mind basked in the warm gaze that Blake had turned on him.
"Some of the guests would like to meet you," Blake said after a moment.
Automatically, Avon opened his mouth to say something disagreeable, but then in a mood change of his own, he simply nodded. "As you wish, sir."
So Avon played the part as Blake wanted him to, moving around the room, making inane small talk, and keeping his impatience in check. He could sense a pair of Presidential eyes on him as he socialized; probably Blake wanted to be sure that he was behaving himself.
Pausing, Avon listened to a minor governor yammering about taxes or something equally boring. His eyes wandered, watching Blake hold court across the room. His Highness was temporarily distracted from his spying on the Chief Advisor, so Avon could stare.
For the dinner, Blake was rigged out in a new white tunic with polished gold buttons. Very dignified. Even his usually unruly curls had been tamed. No one would ever believe that he had once been a scruffy bounty hunter. The only souvenir of those miserable days was a small scar and one eye that still drooped a little.
Avon refused to think about the scars that were hidden by the tunic.
Seeming to sense that he was being watched, Blake suddenly turned to look in his direction. Avon averted his eyes immediately.
At long last, just as he was giving serious consideration to pummelling the governor into unconsciousness, dinner was announced. Avon sighed in relief.
The entire group adjourned to the next room. As promised, a place had indeed been set for Avon, about halfway down the table from where Blake was reigning now. Tarrant, his dress uniform heavy with medals, was directly across from Avon. He smirked as they took their chairs, but didn't say anything.
Several times during the meal, Avon looked up to find that Blake was still watching him. In the name of all the gods, didn't the man even trust his table manners?
Blake caught his glance once and smiled.
It was as the dessert was being served that the Ambassador who was the primary guest of the evening asked her question. She was seated next to Blake, and so as to be sure that Avon could hear, she raised her voice. "Chief Advisor Avon?"
"Yes?" he said shortly; his store of diplomacy was beginning to run a little low.
"I have always wanted to know the truth of what happened. One hears so many rumors. Tell me, what is the actual story of Gauda Prime?"
Avon felt as if someone had kicked him in the gut. He set his cup down with extreme care, hoping that no one would notice the way his hand trembled.
The room was deathly silent.
Across the table, Tarrant was frowning fiercely. Avon glanced at Blake, who met his gaze without flinching. It was he himself who lowered his eyes.
Then he stood. "Excuse me, please," he said in a low voice. Quickly, he walked out of the dining room and, without pausing, left the house.
It was as he reached the street that he heard his name being called. He stopped, but did not turn around.
Blake reached him, carrying his cape. "You forgot this," he said, holding it out.
Avon took the garment and draped it over his shoulders. "Thank you."
"Kerr---" Blake said.
Avon did not look at him. "Your guests are waiting, Mr. President."
"To hell with them." Blake was quiet for a moment. "I'm sorry for what just happened."
Avon, staring blindly into the night, did not respond.
He finally shrugged. "I did shoot you," he said. "Everyone knows it."
Blake shook his head. "It only matters to fools like her. It doesn't matter to us. To you and me."
The utter stupidity of that remark made Avon wince. "Blake, you're an idiot." He turned and walked away quickly.
He ignored Blake's shout.
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