Sable Tauranga had never been to Zisperhaven before. Although she was twenty-two years old, she had never found the occasion. She knew it existed, of course, and she knew it had a reputation for quaintness, but "quaint" was not where Sable was at.
Her mission in life, as she saw it, was to "live out my destiny as a blonde". And, though she had not quite defined that destiny, it was, she was sure, something bright and glittery, something exciting and fun. Something a world away from narrow streets with ancient two-story buildings and touristic tiled roofs complete with gargoyles.
Sable was a Conflux girl, born and bred in Cow Vesti, a devotee of lipstick music and scandal magazines. A true child of Jumbletown, as Conflux was also known. Dynamic: that was her. So she was not by nature attracted to Zisperhaven, which represented history, tradition, stasis and stability. Like her grandmother's parlor: not the kind of place to get your blood trotting.
Even so, when Sable stepped off the ferry at Taris, she was curious. She expected to see astrals wandering around the place with their familiars following them, maybe walking, maybe floating -- weird little creatures, everything from giraffes to smoke dragons. But, when she ventured a little way up Imrose Channel, the street which led from the port area into the heart of Taris, she saw nobody with anything looking remotely like a familiar, unless you counted the spotted dog that was trotting along behind the man who exited unexpectedly from the Imperial Recollections bookshop.
"Here I am in astral land and not an astral in sight," said Sable.
Or maybe they were all astrals, the few people who were out and about on the streets, and she just couldn't tell. After all, they didn't walk round with "I'm an astral" signs sprouting from their heads.
She was in astral territory and right now, according to what she'd seen on the TV on the ferry, an astral guy was running round her city looking for a place to glorst, which was a pretty creepy thing to think about. And the biggest news story of the moment, too.
On impulse, Sable got out her cellphone and called Watford Lammerton, her boss at Open Mansions.
"Watford," she said. "I have an idea to run past you."
Her idea was that he should send a cameraman out to Taris. Then she could interview astrals in Zisperhaven, to get the "astral angle" on the glorst emergency.
"No," said Watford.
He didn't justify that "no". He just issued it. An imperial negative. She knew what the problem was. Although she was the blonde of his dreams, he was not the cabbage stalk of hers. And so he was punishing her by giving her a series of time-consuming and largely meaningless jobs. Like going around all thirty-seven of the businessmen who were in the draw for a free consultancy package which one of them would win at the ballot for the Omblock Prospadaplus Consultancy Prize.
Sable's task was to interview each and every one of these thirty-seven businessmen, all of whom were the owner-operators of their own businesses. Theoretically, in Watford's words, so she would be "properly backgrounded" when she came to interview the winner.
Well, then. Thirty-four interviews were behind her. Time to push on with number thirty-five.
So thinking, Sable abandoned her adventure up Imrose Channel and, returning to the waterfront, found her way to Pier Nine, where she found the Adventuring Salt Building, which was not a historical edifice of ancient granite but a rather ramshackle two-story wooden building which had scabbed blue paint some years in need of a paint job.
The building was not very big and the ground floor was a single open-plan office, which was the premises of Marine Charters, the company run by Ibrahim Chess, the man Sable had come to interview. Thanks to the phone call she had made the day before, he was expecting her. A small TV was on, the volume turned down low, a news announcer giving an update on the hunt for the terrorist Egon Turow. The news, it seemed, was no new news.
Ibrahim offered Sable some coffee and, when she accepted the offer, started brewing up with the help of a small gas ring at the rear of the office.
Sable was not quite sure what she had expected but not this. The word "yachts" conjured in her imagination a vague idea of bikinis, cocktails, diamonds and lobster dinners, but this place was distinctly low rent, furniture looking as if it had been bought at a charity shop (it had) and the bare boards of the floor scarred in places by what looked like cigarette burns. The air had been sprayed with lemon-scented air freshener, perhaps a man's pathetic excuse for house cleaning.
Ibrahim served coffee.
"Any trouble getting here?" he said.
"None," said Sable.
Then was not sure what to say next. He was an astral, right? And how exactly do you talk to these people? They weren't vanishingly rare, but, in all her life, she had never spoken with one face to face before. She felt unsure and out of her depth, her customary buoyant confidence missing for the moment, so she decided to let her host take the initiative. But he, for his part, was apparently in no hurry to get started, and just sat there, sipping his coffee.
The Chess guy was taller than she was. A guy of medium build, hair brown, eyes brown. Skin a bit swarthy. Astrals often had swarthy skin, wasn't that so? She thought she had heard it somewhere.
That said, there were no genetic markers which could tell you, of a certainty, whether someone was or was not an astral. Still, she did presume that this Mr. Chess was an astral because, after all, he was living on Zisperhaven, the astral stronghold, and it would be strange to move to the island if you were a norm. Still, there was no way to be sure.
In the background information which Sable had received on Ibrahim Chess, there was no mention of the question of whether he was or was not an astral. That was a datum that went uncovered, like his blood type, or the question of whether he was or was not circumcised.
"How does it feel to be an astral at a time like this?" said Sable, probing.
"I think of myself as a citizen," said Ibrahim. "Not as an astral."
"But don't you, uh, notice?" said Sable. "When you wake up in the morning? Aren't you conscious of being an astral?"
"When you wake up," said Ibrahim, "are you conscious of having two kidneys and ten fingernails?"
"No," said Sable. "I take your point."
But she didn't, not really. If you were an astral, then you were aberrant. So how could you not wake up in the morning and feel your own strangeness?
"Tell me about this area," said Sable, realising she had probably trespassed across the boundaries of propriety, and that it would be safer to warm up with a comfortably neutral subject. "What kind of businesses are there here?"
Lately, she had been learning more than she wanted to about business, about the strange and various ways in which people scratched out a living for themselves, but at least chatting about enterprises in the area was an easy way to get started.
The question she really wanted to ask was "Can you glorst?" Astrals always knew if they could or they couldn't -- right? But even for the brashest TV girl on the block, which was how Sable liked to think of herself, it would be just too rude to ask. It would be like going up to a stranger in a shopping mall and asking, apropos of nothing, "Excuse me, but do you ever think about committing suicide?"
As her mother had often told her, Sable was not the model of tact and discretion, but she did have the basics of etiquette under control.
At last, however, Sable's curiosity overcame her, and she asked a question which, even as she asked it, she knew to be out of line.
"Where is your familiar?" said Sable.
"In adult life," said Ibrahim, "familiars often wander far from their primaries. Not always but often. Sometimes they may be gone for days, weeks. Years, even."
"That's not really an answer," said Sable.
"Then it follows that I'm probably trying to avoid the question. It's not really polite."
"Why is that?" said Sable.
"Well, if you were followed around through life by a familiar, you wouldn't want to dwell on the subject."
"I see," said Sable.
She sort of did and sort of didn't. Maybe it could be inconvenient if you had a large familiar, or one that was inappropriately smelly, and that was bumping around your legs when you were busy shopping at the makeup counter or sitting having your hair done.
Even so, she was disappointed that Ibrahim's familiar was nowhere to be seen. She would have liked to have seen a familiar.
When she had been much younger, old enough to be concerned about making herself pretty but not really sure why she was doing it, she had been a great fan of the comic book character Splooky Domain, the hapless astral, who was accompanied through life by an astral skunk, Beauty Boots, a female skunk which would show up at comically inappropriate moments, for example when Splooky was having an interview with his bank manager.
Unfortunately the cartoon strip, Astral Frolics, had been cancelled on the grounds of political correctness. Which was a great shame. If strange minorities don't exist for us to have a bit of fun with them, then why do they exist?
"Okay," said Sable. "Time to get down to business, I think. Let's talk about your boats."