The training on Gaznzul hadn’t just changed Empress Nalau physically. While it was true that her muscles were larger, she was much more limber, and her body was toned, the training had also enhanced her confidence. She is now a fully trained pilot, able to plot courses and handle most ships on her own. But Nalau isn’t on her own – she hand picked a team of six from the beings that she helped rescue from the VReoria specimen ships.

Her first officer is Numia, the Keateran that first though she’d like to return to working in shipping. After meeting Empress Nalau she wanted nothing more than to be at her side. As far as they knew, there were only four Keateran’s in this universe, and she would not find her way back to her universe if she spent everyday hauling roinad from one place to another.

The remainder of her team consisted of Kyruzia a Wrexnian with amazing technological abilities; Guug, a young Suus; G’uld, a Xinood; Snov, a Sarfett; and Strupa a Ploosnarian. They had all been captives of the VReoria for so long that they no longer had homes or families to return to. Each of them had attended the training on Gaznzul with Empress Nalau and Lelelu, and each of them had done exceedingly well. Zri could find nothing wrong with any of them.

After the intense training, Nalau was looking forward to being home on Ploosnar. Her  ship was ready, honestly she didn’t know if she was more excited about seeing her husband or her new ship. She stood on the bridge of Zri’s ship – he was taking Nalau, her crew, and the other Keaterans to Ploosnar. She was deep in thought, gazing at the universe as they rushed through space. After a while she became uncomfortable, Nalau realized someone was looking  at her. It was Zri.

“What?” She said turning to look at him.

“I’m wondering if Emperor Bartala will recognize you.” He grinned.

“What do you mean, I haven’t changed that much have I? It’s only been a few weeks.”

Zri laughed. “Have you really looked at yourself? Look at how you’re standing. You’re a soldier on assignment. And you’ve traded in your evening gown for a flight suit, and your palace jewels have been replaced by a pulse weapon on your hip.”

Suddenly aware that she was standing military stiff, with her feet exactly shoulder width apart, and her hands clasped behind her back. She tried to relax. “Oh, you’re right. I see what you mean. Maybe I should stow the weapon before we land.”

“Good idea. Go easy on Bartala.”

“And maybe even let my hair down.”

This made Zri laugh. She handed the weapon to one of Zri’s crew, and sat down beginning to release her hair from it’s tight restraint. “I’m sure he’ll be very proud of you Empress. You did even better than I thought you would.”

“Thank you Zri. So do you think I’ll be able to handle myself in tough situations?”

Zri looked down at his lap for a second, finding just the right words. “Empress, I’d gladly have you at my side on any mission.” There was no better compliment he could give, and she knew it. Empress Nalau let the compliment surround her like the embrace of a dear friend, for that is what it was.

She felt the ship slow just slightly, a quick look at the nav station confirmed what she thought. “Oh we’re there.”

“Sir, we’ve been cleared for landing.” Zri’s officer announced.

“Thank you, we’ll be staying in orbit. Empress,” He turned toward her. “Take the shuttle down, when you’re ready for your crew send it back on auto pilot. You’ve been gone a while, take as long as you need. We’re fine up here.”

“OK Zri, thank you.” She headed for the cargo hold and the shuttle.

Technically Gaznzulian protocol prevented Zri from landing on the surface, anyway. Lone ships were not to land on the surface of alien planets unless there was another Gaznzulian ship in orbit, or of course extenuating circumstances.

Even though she was more excited than she’d been in a long time, Nalau handled the shuttle with calm precision. She landed next to the palace, knowing that her beloved Bartala would be there waiting for her. After shutting the engines down, she opened the door and stepped out. Wisssi came running toward her, screaming, “Maaaaaaaaaa!”

She grabbed him and twirled him around, making him scream. He had grown but he seemed lighter because she was so much stronger. She buried her face in her son’s neck kissing him, taking him in. She put him down and turned to her patiently waiting husband, “Bartala my love. Oh I’ve missed you.”

He didn’t say anything, he just embraced her and held her for at least a minute. Finally he stepped back and looked her up and down. “Wow! I didn’t think you could be more beautiful than you were but… My darling you have left me speechless. He looked past her toward the shuttle door. “Where’s Zri.”

She cocked her head slightly, a little confused. “In orbit.”

Bartala covered his mouth with his hands, trying to hide a smile, “Oh, of course. My darling this is going to take some getting used to. Not only are you a pilot now, you’ve got a crew at your disposal. Where is your crew? I can’t wait to meet them.”

“They’re on Zri’s ship. I’ll send for them soon. Now tell me what you and Wisssi have been up to.” She said taking his arm and walking toward the palace. “C’mon Wisssi, I’m hungry, let’s see what we have to eat shall we?”

Wisssi trotted up alongside her, “We shall, we shall, we shall.” He chanted as they walked.

Seated comfortably in the green sitting room, Nalau looked around. The room looked different. “Has something changed?” She asked Bartala.

“Only you my love. The palace is the same.”

“Interesting. I do see things a little differently I guess. Wait a minute, what’s that over there?”

“Ahhhh, that is a gift from the Muse of Mischief. It’s called a piano, it’s a musical instrument. She gave it to Wisssi. One of the humans you rescued is something she calls a ‘musical genius’, he has been teaching Wisssi to play.”

Upon hearing his name Wisssi jumped up from where he sat on the floor playing with building blocks, “Wisssi pay Wisssi pay…” He laid his belly across the bench in front of the piano and wiggled until there was enough of him on it to climb up. Nalau covered her mouth, it was a priceless scene but she feared that if a giggle escaped her, she’d ruin the moment.

Wisssi placed his little hands on the keys, lowered his head and said something that sounded like ‘focus’. He started to play an amazing melody. When he finished, he slid off the bench and bowed  toward his mother as he said “Ta-da!!!!” He then returned to playing with his building blocks as if something extraordinary hadn’t just happened.

“How did he learn to do that? In just a few weeks?”

Bartala’s smile covered his entire face. “We have M to thank for that, she provided the instrument and the tutor. But it’s our son that has the talent.” He said beaming with pride.

Empress Nalau got up from her seat across from her husband and joined him on the sofa, “You are an amazing father Bartala. Thank you for all you do to raise our son.” She snuggled up next to him, and they sat this way for a short time, just watching Wisssi build a tower with his building blocks.

“I suppose it’s time for you to meet my crew. Is their residence ready?”

“Oh yes, I think you will be pleased with the way Ferocity’s quarters were refurbished.”

Nalau manipulated the Gaznzulian armband she wore, she was returning the shuttle to Zri’s ship via autopilot.

“I’m sure that you have provided them with every possible luxury. Are you ready?”

“Yes my darling.” He said standing up and smoothing the wrinkles from his jacket. “Wisssi, let’s go. It is time for us to behave like diplomats, we have official business.”

Wisssi immediately stood up, running his hands down the front of his little jacket, smoothing the wrinkles,, then spit on his hands and ran them over his hair. He stiffly walked over to where his parents stood.

“Eh, we’re still working on the official palace walk.”

“I see.” Nalau said and giggled.

Wisssi fell in step with his father as they left the room, one step behind the Emperor, and  to his right, as he always escorted his wife on his left. By the time they got to the landing pad, the shuttle had arrived. The aft door was open and the crew stood in a single line, standing at full attention. Numia stepped forward, “Empress, your crew reporting for duty.” She stepped back in line with the others, again standing with her feet shoulder width apart, hands clasped behind her back.

“At ease, all of you. You are not on duty today. Today you will meet my family and receive your accommodations.” Nalau said as she stepped forward. “I present to you my husband, Emperor Bartala and my son Ezopica Mischievous Wisssdartai.”

“Bartala, this is my first officer Numia.”

He stepped forward and grasped her hands, providing her an official Ploosnarian greeting. “Of course Numia, it is a pleasure to finally meet you. I’ve heard about you from Chuna and Blona. And of course Scomia. Kilome tells me she is hoping to follow in your footsteps and become a soldier.”

“It is an honor to meet you Emperor. I… Your Majesty, you have my sincere gratitude for providing employment for Chuna and Blona, and a home and surrogate for Scomia.” She bowed her bright yellow head toward him.

Because Bartala could feel the bond that was already developing between Numia and his beloved wife, he already felt a certain intimacy with Numia. He waved his hand in typical Bartala fashion, dismissing the compliment. “It’s just what we do here on Ploosnar. We…”

He was interrupted by Wisssi, who had suddenly realized that the being they were speaking to was yellow. “Yellow, yellow, color yellow. She yellow.” He announced as he reached out to touch Numia’s leg exposed beneath her bright red skirt.”

She squatted down, coming to his eye level. She extended her hand, “I am Numia, and yes I’m yellow. I also have pointy ears see?” She turned her head so he could get a good look at her ears. He reached out and touched the tip of her ear, she wiggled her ear.

Wisssi squealed with delight. He ran off to his nearby nanny, feeling it was important for her to know about the yellow being he had just met.

“He is wonderful Empress, probably a real handful but very entertaining.”

“A handful indeed, but lucky for him, he has the Universe’s best father caring for him.”

They continued down the line until Guug, G’uld, Snov, and Kyruzia had been introduced. The last member to meet Bartala was Strupa, the Ploosnarian. Bartala embraced him. “Welcome home Strupa, welcome home.”

“Thank you Emperor, thank you.” Strupa said with tears in his bright blue eyes. “I never thought I would see home again, none of us did.”

“How long has it been since you’ve been here on Ploosnar?”

“Three generations have passed, maybe more.”

“Well we are glad to have you home, and I am very pleased that you have decided to be a member of the Empress’s crew. Now come, all of you, we have renovated a wing of the palace for you.” Taking Nalau’s arm, he started walking toward the palace. She could feel him caressing her bicep, admiring it. “Mmmmmmm, I look forward to having you all to myself later.” He said quietly as they walked.

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