Isala Haya had, in twenty-five years of service, seen it all.
He'd waited on Captain Katamara as a junior steward on the Blue Star the night the Captain had dined with Ruunuken Vulli and Tsilo Ralttilo, and never breathed a word of what he'd overheard. He'd poured wine for Mens Reppola without spilling a drop, pulled out chairs for C.E.O.s and pirate lords and podders with equanimity, and even, in the recent years of his employment as Captain Night's chief steward, Sansha.
But spirits and ancestors, there are some things nothing can prepare one to see at the Captain's table.
It wasn't Captain Night's guest's spectacular black eye - there had been plenty of occasions when Commander Invelen had eaten her dinner with an icepack handy for whatever bruises she'd acquired that day.
It wasn't the less-than-impeccable table manners, either - customs differed throughout the Cluster and no Chief Steward worth the salt in the Captain's silver salt-shaker would turn a hair even if a dinner guest picked up the finger bowl and drank it.
But of all the things Chief Haya had seen in his long and varied career, a small child at Captain Night's table had to be the most unlikely of them all.
Unlikelier still, the girl seemed quite at home, black eye and all. Haya himself had never exchanged more words with Captain Night than the minimum required for food and wine to be ordered and delivered, and if the ancestors love me they'll keep it that way, but Miss Camille Roth chattered away at the Captain as if he were, well, a normal person.
In three years of waiting on the Captain's table, Haya had observed many things about his employer: that he had impeccable manners; that he not only ordered, but also appreciated, wine of exquisite quality and breathtaking expense; that no reason short of a hull breach would see him appear in the officer's mess wearing informal attire.
And if Captain Night treated the crew with slightly distant formality, if he sometimes went days at a time without leaving his capsule, if he had the unsettling habit of occasionally looking through his Chief Steward as if the presence of another human being was a momentary distraction from the contemplation of warp vectors and jump points, well, what else could be expected?
The Captain was a capsuleer. He was immortal, impossibly powerful.
He was most definitely not normal.
The little girl's apparent blithe disregard for that simple fact unsettled the foundations of Haya's universe, but what rocked them to their core was the fact that Captain Night didn't seem to mind.
None of his internal turmoil showing on his face, Chief Haya inclined his head in acknowledgment of the Captain's order of seafood for himself and a cheeseburger for the child and took himself back to the galley to recover his composure a little.
"... say sister," one of the junior stewards was telling another as they washed the fine china dishes that no cleaner drone could be trusted with, "But do the math, right? No-one knows where she - "
"Mister Makkura," Haya said frostily. "There will be no gossip in my kitchen while the Captain's at table."
"No, chief!" Makkura said quickly.
"Kaalioka Trefin, quickly now. And a cheeseburger."
Haya watched closely as the food was prepared, but as usual, could find nothing that fell short of his exacting standards. At the head of a small procession of junior stewards, he returned to the officer's mess.
"You know what is very important, when you fly fighters?" Captain Night was saying to the little girl as they entered.
"What?" she asked.
"Picking your fights very carefully," Captain Night said.
Haya decided that he had clearly either inadvertently eaten something with hallucinatory side-effects or the Sansha invaders' rumored wormholes led, in fact, to an alternate reality, because the only other possibility he could think of was that Captain Night was, in fact, imparting avuncular advice to Commander Invelen's eight year old adopted sister, and that clearly wasn't happening.
The comforting conviction that he had simply lost touch with a reality that nevertheless retained its accustomed shape and was waiting for him to rejoin it, let Haya view with equanimity Captain Night agreeing with Miss Roth that indeed, biting was an option when one was losing a fight, although more general strategies were also useful to have. It carried him through half-heard snatches of conversation about gardening and it withstood Miss Roth asking the Captain Did you always know who you were going to be? Like, when you were my age? and the Captain actually answering. It wavered a little at Captain Night reassuring Miss Roth that in his opinion, she didn't need to be afraid of growing up to be an accountant.
It buckled completely when Captain Night gave his dessert order.
Chief Steward Isala Haya was a seasoned officer. He inclined his head in acknowledgement, turned precisely on his heel and strode into the galley to relay the order. He stared down the junior stewards with a glare that said the first person in my galley to comment will be scrubbing pots until the end of time. He supervised the preparation of the dessert the Captain had chosen and its delivery to the table. When the Captain and his guest had finished their meal, shaken hands with all the formality any Deteis could desire, and gone their separate ways, Haya oversaw the clearing of the table and the careful cleaning of the irreplaceable cutlery and crockery.
Then he dismissed his juniors, and locked the door behind them.
In twenty five years of service Chief Steward Isala Haya had never once taken even the smallest liberty with the ship's stores or the Captain's property.
There is, he thought, as he took down a bottle of the Captain's least expensive hak'len and poured himself a precise single measure, a first time for everything.
For drinking the Captain's liquor.
For eight year olds at the Captain's table.
He tossed the hak'len back, shuddering a little at the alcohol and a little at the memory.
For two chocolate milkshakes.
With, spirits help me ...
With extra chocolate.