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04 August 2015 @ 03:39 pm
  Sorry! This is all the brain was willing to put out today.

Mushy looked at the insane Princess and wondered what to do.

"He's been missing for days. He's probably in trouble. I'm going to go find him." Wizzy looked at the trio of males. "You boys want to come, or stay nice and safe at home?"

He and Whipper exchanged glances.

Hob just snickered. "Love the appeal to our masculinity. Luckily for you, I just checked on Ahja. He's still missing over there as well. So I'm all packed and ready to go."

"Ajha's over there?" Mushy squirmed. My pain in the ass cousin-turned-philosopher. "Umm, yeah. I mean Izzo's got that mean looking guy. But Ajha might need help."

Hob scowled "But how are we going to get there? The gate guards aren't going to just let us stroll through because we want to. Wizz? Have you even got a compound pass?"

The girl sniffed. "Of course. Because I have to follow Izzo everywhere. Mostly." She started scowling. "When he lets me."

"Good. I've got passes for several places, but not Granite Peak."

Mushy grinned. "We've got passes for Embassy, and from what I've heard, Disco's got two gates to Granite Peak. One to the Earther colony, and one to our Town. And . . . what the hell, I never wanted to live forever."

"Good. Now, which of you is the best driver? Ordinarily I'd drive, but I think it might look better if I was chauffered." She led the way out . . . to Izzo's limo.

"Does Davi know you're borrowing . . . never mind. I don't want to know." Whipper gulped. "And . . . I had no idea you had so many guns."

"They were in the trunk." Wizzy waved a casual hand. "I thought we might need them closer to hand."

Mushy edged toward the driver's door.

"Nope." Hob grinned. "I think you'd better let me do the driving. Really. I've driven gates and . . . well, everything."

The electronic checks had no problem with them. One live guard leaned down and frowned. Eyed Wiz and shrugged.

Because the Director's Princess can go any where? Or is he thinking how tacky it is, her running off with her two or three boyfriends? Mushy subdued an urge to grin. Or maybe run and hide. Are there any rumors out there, about that party? Surely not with my name attached.

Hob cruised confidently through the Embassy gate, turned out the gates of the Oner Embassy and onto the ring road around the central plaza. "So, any of you have any idea just where the gates to Granite Peak are?"

"In front of Disco, of course." Wizzy frowned and peered. "Is that Dr. Quicksilver looking at . . . maybe the gate we need to go through?"

A long silence.

Then Wizzy grinned. "Pull up beside her, please, Hob."

Mushy exchanged glances with Whipper. "Err . . . "

But Hob pulled to a smooth stop and Wizzy jumped out.

"Excuse me, but are you Dr. Quicksilver? I'm Director Izzo's Princess . . . What is happening over there?" She walked toward the gate.

The young woman in grey eyed the Princess. "Yes, I am. And unfortunately I can't see through the gates. What's the problem?"

"The Director crossed over three days ago and hasn't been heard from since and . . . That looks like a rather rowdy crowd. I think I'll just . . . "

Mushy bailed out of the limo as she walked right through the gate, Whipper on his heels. The infamous Q trotted right through in front of them.

03 August 2015 @ 11:44 am

/// change this to walking through the gate with the horses bubbled. Go to the governor's office and get brushed off. Watch him joining the Action Team. Grab the back of the end truck and get hauled several hundred miles before they ride the rest of the way. ///

Spark snorted and broke into a rolling gallop. His brother Shine was right behind, and decided to make a race of it.

By sundown, Ajha felt like he'd been beaten with a bat. A grove of trees on a stream bank beckoned. He slid limply off the oversized creature and staggered over to a nice soft looking patch of grass and laid down flat on his stomach.

Fean laughed. "So, been slacking off? Haven't ridden much lately?"

He ignored her. Didn't even bother feeling guilty as he heard her pull off the horses' saddles, the jingle of bits. After a long moment of non-movement he pulled up a generalized healing spell and cast it on himself. Groaned to his feet and grabbed a brush so he could at least brush his own mount.

"Spark, I apologize for thinking that you were to heavy, and fat, and soft to be optimal for this trip."

"Thought you needed some Arabians, Boss?"

"Exactly. I suppose these guys are Comet Fall bred?"

"Yep. Eldon said they were twins and their sire is Phantom, the Dark Lady's mount. And when I asked, well, apparently they're recently descended from at least two of the original experimental horses from the Earth Labs."

The horse turned his head and met Ajha's gaze with what he'd swear was an equine smirk.

"I see."

In the morning he had to apply pain killing and healing spells before he made it out of his bedroll.

By mid-morning, a dozen miles down the road, he was eyeing an approaching dust cloud and looking for cover. From behind a scraggly copse of over grown brush he watched the Governors car pass.

"So the team is staying. But Arry's business is concluded. What the hell is he up to?" Ajha stretched and groaned. "Maybe I should walk for a while."

Fean pulled a bottle of wine out of her saddle bags. Surely not . . . But he thought about getting back up on the horse and didn't hesitate when Fean offered him a scant half a glass of wine.

Halfway down his throat, the wine exploded like lightning and, and, glowed through his body, and removed every ache and pain and Fean looked twice as gorgeous as usual and . . . and he got a grip on himself, took a deep breath. Another.

"Damn, that stuff is . . . is . . . "

Fean snickered. "Just be glad I don't want any more children just now, Boss. Because you are definitely on my list to father the next one." She looked down at her own glass. "Damn, drunk and talkative."

Ajha paused . . . took another swallow. Another burst of energy, but no increase in, umm . . . damn, riding may be a bit uncomfortable in an entirely different way, for a bit.

Spark looked wistfully at the glass, so he poured the last ounce into his hand and let the horse lick it up.

"Oooo, not a good idea, boss."

"He'd working harder than I am." Ajha handed back the glass, fighting an impulse to make as much physical contact with Fean as possible.

They mounted, walked and trotted, a brief gallop, walked until the horses were cool, then took a long break through the heat of the summer day. The horses grazed. The people napped . . . Ajha was blushing about the dreams when he woke and resaddled Spark.

They rode on until nearly midnight. Ate the sandwiches Fean pulled from her saddle bags . . .

"Are those bubbles?"

"Yep. You would not believe the stuff I have in them. And yours."

Ahja eyed his saddlebags and swore to check them in the morning. For now though, he really needed to rest. Horses could do fine on three hours of sleep a night. Mere humans needed more.

Or he could just lay there, fighting magic wine induced aphrodisiacs. And not thinking about the Fiend just a meter away . . . and not thinking about making mad passionate love to her all night long.

Until she cursed and shifted her bedding over against his.

"You know you're going to kill me when the wine wears off." Ajha managed to not reach for her. It wasn't easy.

"Don't be stupid, I ought to have seduced you a decade ago."

Ooo, those luscious curves, didn't matter that he couldn't see them in the dark, he could see them in his mind. He grit his teeth and made one last lunge for sanity. "Really? I was still going bald then."

"Well, I was young and foolish."

"You're still appallingly young."

"And even more foolish. Let me demonstrate."

Then it was mad passionate love all night long.

Despite which, they were flat on their bellies surveying an armed compound on the evening of the fourth day.

"Well, well. Now isn't that interesting. Action Teams and Earth mercenaries, all chummy in something that would take a fair amount of work to take down." Ajha eased back and thought about it. "I thought the locals might fight to stay, even to the point of seceding."

Fean grinned. "Looks like the Earthers had the same idea, and they've made a common cause of it."

"Yep." Ajha squinted suddenly. "And that group of women and children they're herding across aren't being treated like volunteers. I guess some of the raids were real."

Fean growled. "And not the Nomads. What do you want to bet the Mercs and the Teamers are raiding each other's towns?"

"Could be. So, let's get some dinner, let the sun set, then we'll slide down there and see what sort of mayhem we can commit."

They sat close to eat yet another fresh sandwich fetched from the saddlebags. Exchanging uncertain glances as the twilight faded.

"Bring the bubble you had the horses in. If those women are captives, we can use it to smuggle them out." Ajha warped light around himself, knowing Fean would be doing the same. They'd both managed enough coaching on Comet Fall magic to be able to do things the Teamers wouldn't be expecting. The warps would even conceal their body heat, and the little slit for vision had a secondary spell to shift frequencies for night vision. They marched confidently down the hill and slipped through the guarded gate as the guard shifts changed.

He started with the buildings opposite where the women had been herded. ::Offices. Armory. Officer's quarters. ::

He eyed the low building.

:: Better not, Boss. There's too many of them. ::

:: I wasn't going to start a fight! I could just tap a few brains . . . ::

:: And one of them would wake up, and then we'd be fighting our way out of here. C'mon. Finish the survey. ::

:: Mess hall and kitchen. And yes, by the leaking emotions, captives. And the lock on the outside, of course. ::

:: The last building is barracks, between the lock up and the gate. We need to be sneaky, else we'll find a hundred soldiers between us and escape. ::

:: Not really. The place was built to keep an army out, not sneaky people in. :: Ajha slipped up to the door of the building that was leaking a stew of emotions from frightened to resigned. Even a bit of excitement, mixed with youthful naivety. Some of the kids are making it into an adventure. Good. Less trauma.

He bit his lip, then put a soft mental shield between this building and the barracks. Then touched the lock with a telekinetic spell that fitted itself to the wards and turned. They slipped quietly inside and dropped the light warps.

Barracks, rows of beds, huddled forms leaping up in alarm . . .

Ajha lowered his shield a bit, and spoke up. "Hi. We're the good guys. Anyone here in need of rescue?"

The sheer stupidity stopped the panicked women.

The nearest one frowned at him. "Who the One Hell are you?"

"Umm, well, Ajha Clostuone. I'm with the Directorate, trying to find out what the rogue Action Teams are up to. Kidnapping, I take it?"

"And murder and rape." Another woman stalked up and glared at him, frowned at Fean. "And yeah, we'd like to be rescued. Or give us some guns and we see about a bit of revenge and then rescue ourselves."

"Unfortunately Governor Arry isn't here right now. So let's get back to town and start by taking him down."

That got a groundswell of deep growls from half the women. The other half huddled in terror. About half Oners or Halfers, about half . . . Earthers? Or maybe Natives the Earth brought in to mine and do the stoop labor?

Fean stepped forward. "This is a bag of the Prophets. Let me show you how it works."

02 August 2015 @ 09:54 am
Man, this plot needs help! I really need to stop showing you guys stuff this raw.

Izzo grinned at Ra'd's frowning study of the horses.

"You ought to have asked for Paer. She'd love a week on horseback."

Izzo shook his head. "Much though I hate to admit it, I may need someone to watch my back. Granite Peak is a real mess. And I can't even blame it on Disco. Something's going on—raids and kidnapping—that are being blamed on the Nomads. But why now? I need to talk to them, and find out if it is them, before I go to Disco and accuse the Earthers." He nodded at the two mares. "They're native to Homestead and have incredible endurance. A present for the Chief of the tribe that interacts the most with the Oners on Granit Peak, and well known and respected among the larger clan that holds most of the continent."

Ra'd nodded. "And you think you can find them?"

"They've gone to their summer pastures. I have a map." Izzo grinned at the younger man's expression. "And a direction finder. They've adopted a fair amount of tech that should be easily trackable. I'm hoping that you are just along for the ride, and . . . is it possible for you to arrange a corridor, so we can return on foot, quickly?"

Ra'd laughed. "I see now. Everyone thinks I'm a source of cheap bubbles and corridors."

"Thinks? Or knows?"

Another laugh. "Oh, very well. I just happen to have one at the warehouse. When do you want to leave?"

"Early this evening, which will be pre-dawn on Granite Peak. They're in Europe, not much different than ours. I figure if we're early, maybe there will be less argument about my going."

Ra'd's eyes narrowed. "They argue with the Director of External Relations? Or is the proper term, obstruct?"

"I'd rather not find out. I've stuck a wedge in their solidarity—well, they mostly did it themselves—and I'd like to not give them cause to bury their differences."

"Sounds like fun. What are they up to?"

Izzo shrugged. "Figuring that out is half the problem. I'm pretty sure it involves Granite Peak, but I've got three other Colony subdirectors involved, along with Ebro and Idzo."

"The Embassy Affairs subdirector? That surprises me; not that I like the man. The Action subdirector, that I can see. Ebro wanted to be the Director. Has he joined forces with Iffy? Iffy's never forgiven the president for choosing Ajki over him, and now by passing him over again . . . Idiot. While he was acting director, he managed to get four close relatives in as subdirectors. And he wonders why Orde decided he wasn't right for the job? Heh."

Izzo nodded. "I just haven't managed to find out what they are up to. But I need to settle the Granite Peak mess, whether they like the idea or not. I've got a really nice big wedge to shove into the that problem, and I hope that a chat with the chief will settle the Oner part of the problem."

Ra'd eyed him. "Giving up Granite Peak will not be popular."

Izzo grinned. "The younger generation is leading the way. A pack of teenagers marched into Disco and asked Q for a new world. She gave it to them. All I need to do is spin the news into the Brave and Resourceful youngsters taking their fate into their own hands. And an agreement from the chief to let the old folks stew about, and finally give up and follow them."

"Ha! A pack of teenagers? Oh, I'll bet the old guys are steamed."

"I suspect they will be—once they figure out where the kids are disappearing to." Izzo grinned. "I suspect that a lot of the reported raiding is the kids moving. But I do need to check on that."

They rode the two horses quietly through the arch of the gate to Granite Peak, with unnoticeable spells wrapped around them. Plodded quietly through the small town and down a road between farms.

Izzo turned in the saddle and eyed the farms, frowning.

"Is there a problem?" Ra'd was sweeping the hedgerows with a keen glance, not seeing it.

"The fields are hand plowed, well, horse or ox, but the signs of tractor plowing are absent. The furrows should be straighter, with sets of a dozen or so absolutely parallel, even if the tractor driver is a hamfisted amateur and can't line up right to get the next set in right. And the fields are small."

"They lost a lot of equipment to the Earthers."

"We sent some new equipment right after the rediscovery. And the Council coughed up the money to replace all the old ruined or missing machinery five years ago, then sued through Disco to get the Earth to pay repartriations. And been stuck in court, ever since. But the farmers ought to have tractors."

"And since at least some of them don't . . ." Ra'd looked over at him. "One has to wonder just where the money has gone."

"Yep." Izzo lifted his reins and the mare broke into her ground covering lope. "The nomads are two hundred miles up the river. Let's see if we can do it in three days."


Ajha turned his horse south. "Hob sicced Azko on the satellite data. Someone has created a hole in the coverage, and we need to find out what's there. But first, let's see where Team Fifteen is going, and what they are doing."

Fean shaded her eyes and studied the dust hanging in the air. "They didn't waste any time getting out of town. You'd think they'd have some social contact with the locals—they, or someone, has been crossing over regularly for the last three years."

The two big black gelding were getting double takes from the locals as they trotted down the road. Ajha categorized them automatically as he rode. Oner, half-Nomad by the cheek bones, that fellow looked for all the world like an Earther, but he had a bit of glow. A trio of teenagers on the corner—the girl had Nomad cheek bones, but the Oner connection was solid . . . something a bit different . . . ah. Purple. The Earthers must be bringing in Purps to work the mines. Cough Cough freed a lot of them, and they all mixed with the Nomads during the decades before Xen Wolfson opened a gate to the One World. The two boys were pure Oner. The ladies turning to look at them were halfers. The men in khakis were Servaones, and not locals. They had the look of hired guards. Police, perhaps? They stepped out and gave them a narrow eyed scan.

"Too late to use Unnotideable," he muttered. Out of the corner of his eye he spotted the corner of Fean's mouth tuck in.

She changed her posture slightly, lowered her shields a bit, and suddenly the two policemen were gaping at her. Drooling. All suspicion and belligerence forgotten.

Ajha sighed. The girl can drop out of Princess school, but she never forgets how to manipulate men.

As they cleared the last houses, he could look over the fields and see a cloud of dust receding to the southeast. "Interesting. They're headed straight for that hole in the satellite recordings. Let's see if Eldon's oversized beasts have any endurance."

01 August 2015 @ 03:13 pm

Pam Uphoff

1404 – earliest for this, check kid’s ages

With no Oner spies in town they only checked the recordings twice a week. So the burst transmission was two days old before Damien spotted it. He stuck his head out of the trap door to the cellar and suggested that Andrai might want to step down.

Closing the hatch sealed the marconi cage of the basement, rendering their electronics invisible to their opponents. He sent the burst through the decoding process. Uncompacted and decyphered, it was brief.

"Captain Andrai Andrews, Sergeant Damien Malder, Corporal Maxwell Lovett. The Earth is in the process of establishing an embassy in Karista, and reconnecting with marooned personnel. Report your status."

Their eyes met.

"They're going to recall us."

"Maybe . . . they know how old we are." Andrai rubbed her face. "I ought to have retired two decades ago."

"Well, all the children are grown. No reason we can't go home." Damien heard the doubts all over his voice.

"Other than Jeinah." Captain Andrews smiled wryly. Forty years previously she'd been wholly opposed to one of the moles marrying a Native. Forty years of trading recipes and child care had changed that.

Damien might have never married, but he'd adopted and raised any number of orphans. And then there's Nicole . . .

Had he really only been twenty-six when he'd volunteered to infiltrate this world? He was . . . seventy-six years old. Andrai was eighty-eight, with an illegitimate daughter aged twenty-six. Max and Jeinah's youngest was twenty-seven. Damien's youngest orphans were seventeen, off now at wizard school. I can’t take them home. I can’t even tell them why I’m leaving. I shouldn't even tell Nicole, even though she knows what I am.

"No reason at all, other than this being home now." Andrai pulled the headset into place. "Captain Andrews reporting. All personnel are in place. I'd judge a 50% chance we've been recognized and are being watched." She sent it through the reverse encoding and compression process and handed the wafer to Damien. "Tomorrow, when you're out of this district."

They shut all the electronics down and climbed back into the kitchen.

"We'll start checking twice a day, now. You might consider what you are going to do about all those pinto horses."

Damien nodded. And paused. How many horses did he have now? Max's youngest kids, Tony and Carl both drove four horse hitches to and from the Gold Country. He and Code and Heso, Dori's husband, each had a team here in town. Four brood mares and two stallions at the farm. An equal numbers of foals, yearlings, two-year olds and three-year olds. The three year olds would be trained, and if not needed, sold. Thirty-eight? Give or take the sale of youngsters.

He wrote a quick note for Max and Ross, out at the farm. Break in the two year olds, sell them and the three years olds. Max, come to town, we need to talk. D. He'd get it in the mail tomorrow. By the time Max got here, they'd probably have more information from Command. He paced, giving his reflection in the mirror sideways glances as he passed. He stopped and frowned at himself. A very young and healthy seventy-six stared back.

"You look fifty, maybe." Andrai spoke from the dark staircase as she walked quietly down. She joined him in front of the mirror. "And I do too. Perhaps if this is our recall . . . I have no family beyond Cordelia and little Andrai. Cordelia was talking about having another child, the last time she was here. I should hate to never see my granddaughter."

"Pepi, Nels and Ivan carry on like they're completely grown up and independent. In fact they're undersized and weedy seventeen year olds. They'll survive my recall, but I'll never see them again. Never see Code and Vani. Or a damned pinto horse."

"We don't know that it's a recall. They could want undercover moles here, still." Andrai didn't meet his eyes in the mirror.

"In which case they'll send some young ones. They aren't going to believe how good a shape we're in. Probably slice and dice us in a lab." Damien sighed. "I'll get an early start tomorrow."

Since he couldn't sleep, it was very early when he turned out. First to the postal office on Commerce street, where he parked long enough to radio the reply and mail the letter. All the Corridors everywhere had speeded mail service unbelievably, Max might well have this by afternoon. He rubbed his team’s foreheads. “Damn, I’m going to miss you guys.” Then he headed for the docks, and caught a ship just in and started hauling crates up to the merchant district. He stopped twice at home, then threw caution to the winds and had lunch with Nicole. He didn't say anything.

Another crate up the hill, and Andrai waved him in when he drove by.

She handed him a slip of paper.

"You are recalled, and due to age will be retired. Well, that's short and sweet."

"They sent directions to the embassy. They said it would be easiest to slide us out of here while they are bringing building materials in regularly. Max just got in a few moments ago. He said he needed to think."

In the end duty held all of them.

Damien had long since incorporated, with various family members owning shares of the business. He wrote out and signed transfers for the portion he still owned, and left them on the dining room table with Andrai's and Max's. Letters to the Trips. Code, shooting them worried looks and getting no answers for their combined glum mood, dropped them off a block from the embassy site, and they walked on in to find their newly appointed superior. Major Robinson sat up and looked them over, took their palm prints.

"You look to be in very good health."

Captain Andrai nodded. "It's their so-called magic, some sort of herbal medicine. It is actually quite effective. However, over forty years on station is quite enough."

The next truck headed back – the embassy was apparently trying to wow the Natives with horseless transportation – took them with it, in crisp new uniforms. The Gate to the Embassy World was on a military base at this end, but the Fallen were just waving the Earth trucks through. Embassy was a brief flash of green hills, a large fountain and perhaps half a dozen buildings. Then they drove through another Gate and . . . home.

The old equipment for the Gate they remembered had all been removed. Now there was just a killing ground in front of ranks of permanent Gates. They passed inspection, and another palm print, and got directions to their temporary quarters. Very hotel-like. Andrai across the hall from Damien, and Max two doors down. Damien snorted to see his old stored kit had been delivered. An envelope on the table held all new ID cards. He poked through his old belongings, considered his very few new ones, and finally stayed in the uniform the embassy had supplied while he hunted down some chow. And a cash machine to check his balance.

Andrai and Max beat him to it, and were looking definitely impressed.

"Depends on the cost of living." He scanned his own card. "Old Gods!"

Max snickered. "Somehow I think our slang and cussing is going to be out of date."

"No kidding. Well, why don't we go find out how much a dinner out costs."

Lots. For over cooked vat grown meat devoid of all spices but salt and pepper. The wine was decent, the bread awful. The key lime pie tasted of artificial flavors vaguely resembling lime.

They got together and wrangled over what movie to watch. Cringed over the imbecilic portrayal of Natives, remembered what a laugh track was. They were quiet as they sought their separate beds.

The retirement ceremony was brief, the lists of achievements long enough, but spoken in a bored tones by several officers who clearly didn't remember serving with them. Salutes were exchanged, hands were shaken, papers were signed. Doors were shown.

"So much for ending up in a lab being dissected." Damien followed directions and found an exit and a taxi. "I'm flying to Texas, you guys?"

Max deflated. "The nearest bar."

Andrai eyed him. "I suspect we'll be contacted by the Government for an actual debriefing, and possibly a civilian assignment. Possibly on Comet Fall, so don't do anything silly."

Max nodded. "I checked directories and found someone with my brother's name. I'll call, at a decent hour in New York."

Damien nodded. "My sister's still in business in Amarillo, so I'm going to turn up on her doorstep and try to surprise her."

Fourteen hours later he succeeded.

The old woman who answered the door whooped, dropped her cane and threw her arms around his neck. "Damien. Good god you look good! Terrific in fact. Heavens, and you're only three years younger than I am."

"I can't believe it's been so long. It just whipped by, over there. How about you? How many worlds worth of equines, canines, felines, bovines and all the other ines have you got on file now?"

"All of them. Or I would if everyone would just stop discovering new worlds. We added humans, and humanoids as well. Actually I'm semi-retired, have a staff of twenty doing all the work now. I send them out with exploration parties to collect samples. Hmm, you looking for a job? Perhaps we should talk about it over dinner."

Apart from the cane and thin white hair, it was like old times. She asked all about Comet Fall, and all the different horse breeds he'd encountered. Got his hand slapped when he admitted that not only had he never terminated her experiment, the stallion had had foals. "The genes were all from there, Hellie, so it didn't matter. How much have you heard, about all the things those people can do?"

"Humph. I've heard everything from a magic cure-all to the elixir of eternal youth." Her eyes narrowed suddenly, looking him over.

He reached into a pocket and pulled out one of eighteen hideaways he'd prepared. They hadn't even searched his luggage. He unscrewed the pen's ink cartridge and tipped it suggestively over Helen's wine glass. She raised her eyebrows and nodded. He poured it in, a mix of the Havwee temple water and the elixir of long life.

"Well, I don't know about eternal youth, but they have some great medicines that we ought to import. I wonder if that might not be a good business opportunity? I'll have to look into what import restrictions they're going to put in place."

"Turning down my job offer already?"

"Not really, just speculating. I've been trading and hauling goods for the last forty years, so it comes natural to me now."

"Really, tell me all about it." She sipped her wine and blinked.

He grinned and chattered on as she gasped and fanned herself and eyed him and gripped the edge of the table. "So, Sis, you ever marry? Got a boy friend you can call over in your moment of extreme need?"

"No and no, and that . . . stuff . . . ought to be illegal."

"Probably is, here." He tapped a few last drops into the bottle. "Von Neumanns, well controlled. Use at your discretion. It heals wounds, even ones that ought to be fatal."

After she'd gotten a grip on the unexpected urges, she led him out to her lab. "Almost all computerized now. The younger generation is just spoiled rotten." She swung her cane, pointing at things and absent mindedly forgot to use it for walking. "We've got over a hundred thousand species on file. Millions of gene maps from hundred, and sometimes thousands, of Worlds. From a sample of any five animals, from any world we've explored, I can tell you which one they came from. From a single individual, I have an eighty percent chance of pinpointing origin."

"How about with a newly discovered world? Can you identify what band of the Multi-verse the world is in?"

"Sometimes. What they've started calling the Hygiea Split is just chaotic – very much a matter of chance which few members of which few species survived. Of course the six with exiled genetically engineered people on them are obvious, they all took pets and livestock common to the twenty-second century, and now the animals show that genetic bottleneck. For the Earth Split – that is, stuff close to us, the horse and cattle archives are the most useful. The most fun project is the dino world sampling."

"Fun? Collecting DNA swabs from T Rex?"

She chuckled. "There have been some wild tales told."

Damien thought it over. "I'm not going there without Solstice."


"Your experiment. I'll go back to Comet Fall and wrestle him loose from Code. He might be able to keep me alive in dino land."

Helen snorted her disbelief.

"Now, you said something about six Worlds with genetically engineered people? I've been out of touch, tell me all about them."

Three weeks later he had a permit to import genetic samples in sealed containers, a pass to the Embassy World, and a very expensive hotel room in the Earth Embassy Complex on the World of Embassy. Speaking with a number of the other people from other Embassies, he realized he had a never ending job on his hands. Then he talked to the other company representatives, cramped into the Earth compound. Bloody silly. But he still approached the Disco Building with some trepidation. There was just something about the hulking black basalt building . . . Inside, it was all wavy striped sandstone and polished wood. Much less intimidating.

The girl minding the front lobby had black hair with a dramatic white streak through it. "Can I help you?"

"Umm, maybe? I work for a private company on Earth, and I'm going to be doing a lot of biological sampling through Gates."

"Sound like exploration division's kind of thing. Go up those stairs, Q is expecting you."

He climbed the stairs to the right, and blinked at the tall brown haired woman. "Oh, Q as in Quicksilver."

"Mr. Malder, what a pleasure to see you again. Everyone's horribly upset by your disappearance, our explaining it didn't help a bit. Are you coming back to Comet Fall?"

He'd seen her so often in Comet Fall peasant dress, it was disorienting to see her in a tailored pants suit and Earth-styled hair. "Explaining . . . Ouch. We always wondered if we'd been busted. May I go back . . . I'd like to visit my adopted family. I retired from the military, and I'm working for my sister. She maintains a genetic data base of species from as many worlds as she can, for comparative studies. She thought that if I based myself here I might have the best access to new worlds as they are discovered."

"Well, as Disco discovers them. Both Earth and One World keep their Worlds a bit segregated from us. But I suspect you'll still have plenty of work. Are you going to work out of the Earth Embassy?"

"They are trying to be business friendly, but they don't quite carry it off. I was wondering if any of the sections might be designated for commercial development. Sort of like the shops up the Market Diagonal, but not for shoppers."

"Oh, good idea. Let's check with Inso and Xen." She led him across the building and into the front corner room. Xen he knew, the other was Inso, the current Acting Director.

"Are you ever going to get a permanent director?" He couldn't help but ask.

They both shook their heads.

"Nobody wants it, once they realize that none of us take orders worth beans, so it's an empty title involving lots of paperwork. And irate diplomats yelling at him because of what we've done, and generally haven't gotten around to writing up and telling him about." Xen shrugged. "Just as well. This way no one worries about us getting too strong and trying to throw our weight around. What's up, other than all your relatives dander?"

"I need a place to site a business. And live, I suppose."

Q waved at the outdoors, "I thought perhaps we could put another diagonal road in south of the Earth Embassy. The Oner Businesses can go over between the hospital and their embassy, and the Earthers over here. We could split them into ten acre plots and sell them. Any objections?"

"None. It works. Except for the additional paperwork. I need a damned secretary to crack the whip and keep track of all this crap."

Damien blinked at him. "Manager, not secretary, else he or she'll be bothering you all the time. Do you need nice or pretty or young? Aunt Andrai . . . "

Xen choked. "Oh, no. Inso, do you dare hire a battle axe? She was a mole in Karista for what, forty years?"

Damien nodded. "I'll probably hire Max, the third mole. Do you think his wife could come here?"

"Oh sure. And how many wagons and horses?" The laugh lines around the wizard's eyes deepened.

"Uh . . . a riding horse might be handy . . . "

Xen offered paper and pen. "I am absolutely certain a large number of people want to hear from you guys. And ask your Captain Andrews to come by and talk to us. For bringing in a formidable organizer, we could probably throw in a ten acre plot."

"And Vani, Mihaela, and Cordelia can come and practice building on your lot. They're about ready for that." Q put in from behind them all.

He laid claim to a ten acre parcel back a couple of miles, so as to not get crowded by the bigger businesses that were instantly leaping at the offering of land. Why none of them had ever asked was beyond Damien's grasp. But then he knew the Fallen well enough to not be intimidated.

Back on Earth, he bailed Max out of the drunk tank, paid all the fines, and got him dried out by the time he got a Gate pass for him. Andrai he finally tracked down in a tropical resort.

"I'm bored to tears. And no one will hire an eighty-eight year old woman."

"Disco needs someone to manage their paperwork."

"Where do I apply?"

Andrai was formidably dressed for the office, and Max was almost respectable looking when they walked down the diagonal, and found most of the extended family and company camped out and waiting for them.

Jeinah cried all over Max, then marched him off almost out of hearing range before she started scolding him. "Bad enough I've been crying for weeks! Drinking? How could that possibly help?"

Code glared at Damien. "A spy? I've idolized you for forty something years and now I learn you're an Earth spy?"

"Well, that's not the sort of thing us nasty old spies tell anyone."

"Jeff knew." Vani crossed her arms and stood shoulder-to-shoulder with her husband, glaring.

"Jeff's a member of the King's Own. And he's a wizard. He probably found out on his own."

"He says you and Max have dropped the occasional note, and may have saved General Rufi's life once."

"Mostly I just hauled freight. There was a bad patch when we were having a running fight with the One Worlders, but after the dragons ate the Action Team, that died down considerably."

"That . . . when Joe and Mig were killed? And Richie, something happened . . . And they stole Solstice?"


"Huh." Vani looked over at Max and Jeinah. "Is that why you never married?"

"Yeah, well, that and I don't seem to be the marrying type."

Vani huffed at him. "Honestly, Damien Malder! Well, we've brought just about everything you need for your house except the house. And I brought Solstice. Xen said you might need something special, if you were playing around on the dino worlds. And the horse has been miserable, too, and not behaving very well for Code."

"I told him we didn't really need another stallion, so he'd better behave. I sounded so much like you, it hurt. Then Xen brought the letter, and everyone wanted to come."

Damien glanced around, and Code sighed. "Except the Trips. They are furious that you'd just let duty pull you away without even saying goodbye."

"I figured I'd probably wind up back on Comet Fall."

"Well, you ought to have said something. Not just left a note. Bad as Vani."

"Worse. At least I took my kids along. Damien abandoned his."

"They are seventeen years old, and away at school."

"You are still in big trouble."

"I know. So, are you three a triad? Going to build me an office and home?"

"Q said she'd give us some pointers, help us learn." Cordelia looked a bit intimidated as she looked at the flat grassy expanse.

"This is a plan for the sort of thing I want, the main difference being that I want a small apartment up over the open bay where we'll deal with the samples. And I only want one, not a row. And a fence for Solstice. And maybe one of the geldings, to keep him company and in case I can get Max on top of a horse."

"Right. We'll practice with this, and then build Max and Jeinah a house. Disco's got houses for their people, Andrai will probably stay over there."

Damien left them to it, and saddled up Solstice for a bit of exploring. At forty-three years of age, the horse was just as athletic as ever. Genetic engineering, potions.
A middle-aged looking Helen came to survey his set up, meet the parts of the family still around and bring an index to Q. She and Andrai hit it off immediately. Pair of perfectionists, both with an eye for detail.

And with Xen as an escort, he returned to Karista, corridored to Ash, and visited the triplets. At seventeen the boys were just staring their growth spurts. Skinny arms crossed truculently, the two boys flanked their sister. Her lip stuck out stubbornly as she glared at him. He grinned like an idiot and managed to hug all three of them. Pepi wiggled free and resumed glaring.

"I didn't have time to come say goodbye, or explain. But I was sure I'd be back. It's only been six weeks, you three wouldn't even have been home yet."

"But we knew you'd just gone. That you'd been a spy and been ordered home. What if they decided you had secret information and couldn't ever leave your little village?" Nels on the right.

"What if they decided to mind wipe you?" Ivan on the left.

"Or just kill you?" Back to Nels.

"Or, what if all your caring had just been a cover, and you didn't love us? Never had?" Pepi finished up the quadruple hit with a bit of a chin quiver and a single tear.

"You shouldn't be legal." It took more hugs and talk and lots of time for them to lose that last bit of insecurity. He hadn't meant to do that to them.


Approached by CIA, One World, Arbolia, Purple to spy on Disco/Comet Fall.



The best way to get dinosaur DNA was to collect stool samples. _After_ the dinosaur in question had left the vicinity. Miscalculations led to several headlong retreats.


Eventually go back to hauling freight? Buying and sell stuff through the gates, importing fresh food for the new restaurants?
31 July 2015 @ 05:26 am


Early Fall 1401

All these Corridors were changing how people traveled and lived.

Land in Grantown was suddenly selling for a premium, one easy Corridor away from Karista.

All her potions had sold like hotcakes once word got around. She'd divvied up all the remaining potions and split them up into 'surprise changes' and sold them to people who came from Karista and Havwee and all the little towns up and down the road, now connected by Corridors. She'd kept just a few. You never knew when you'd need a good hex. Or a potion that increased the size of a man's parts.

And as land prices rose, she'd sold fifty lots up on the dry ridge looking toward the river for a thousand royals each. She was rich beyond her wildest dreams. She was never going to work again. Unfortunately there was one type of labor she couldn't get out of.

She paced and cursed and snarled at anything male that dared stick his head in her mother's house. She'd talked to these three little _girls_ from Oldham Engineering. They'd made a hard road connecting her ridge to town, and built most of the houses up there. _And_ a Corridor down to the Corridors. She had three house plans of her own she was pondering. She'd torched the shed. It was too ugly, what with the size of the houses going in up on the ridge. She was going to have a nice elegant house down by the road. Her family could walk by it twice a day, and see how well she was doing.

Erald stuck his head in the front door. Ducked back. "Mom says would you please hurry up, Neille's going to need the birthing stool pretty soon."

"I'll tell the baby to hurry," Ericka snarled, and bent over with a long hard contraction.

"Now, honey, don't you worry, it's going real fast, your third one." Her mother was the last one in the family to get a potion. Lady Q had turned her into a nympo, throwing herself at everyone. And Ericka would swear she was even fatter and stupider than usual. She figured it was about time to try a different potion.

"Hey, Mom, all the cows had their calves last night! Every one of them twins." Lizard was sensibly yelling from out of sight. "Are you going to have twins?"

"No! I _refuse!_" Ericka staggered over to the stool and pushed. Three contractions later she was holding her third son, a wrinkled little creature, yelling his head off.

"Going to call him Deco, like you were thinking?" Her mother tied the cord and cut it.

"Yeah. That'll do." She moaned through some more contractions, then the after birth passed and she was done. "And I'm going to pay more attention to taking that herb tea, from now on out. Whew."

She diapered and fed the boy, and slept like a log until he got hungry again.

Her mom came back with updates on Neille, and said Rache had gone into labor as well. And Melodi was due real soon too.

It was ridiculous, all of them at once after all these years. Maybe it was the potions. Just as well she was almost out of them. Haro was a mess. Once he'd realized he was turning into a girl, he'd taken the hex potion to turn back into a guy, but he'd wound up a funny mess, with both. And then he'd taken the Big Dick one and _everything_ had gotten big. He was working full time at _that_ place on Kersh Street. Nabelle, to her mother's distress, had refused to turn back into a girl. Said she liked being a guy.

/// more///


Late Fall 1401

"I can't believe you did that!" Kevi shook his head at the enormous black mare.

:: That's what happens when you're running with a Bad Boy. And you put the wine in the water trough. ::

Havi glared down at Kevi. "I'm almost afraid to ask what gelding she was out to pasture with. A four-generations-of-smart-horse who can talk."

Kevi squirmed. "Umm, I put the wine in the _cows'_ trough. Beastly shouldn't have been able to jump the fence. He's a pretty good looking horse, draft horse."

"Some bloody damn work horse." Havi shook his head in disbelief. "Call me if there's a problem."

:: I feel like I'm waddling like a lizard.:: Speed sent a picture of one of the big water lizards walking on land, body flexing left and right.

"It's not that bad – and it's about done."

The big black mare nodded.

She was such a big mare, she didn't show much, but she was definitely fat. She'd spent the last two months grazing the grassy meadows above Rip World's tropical sea, and Kevi had spent the same time practicing with the mages.

    It was humiliating that someone else had had to point out to him that not only was Speed obviously pregnant, she was showing signs of delivering within days. One of Flare's little brothers, so Nighthawk would hear about what an idiot he was.

As the sun set, he walked off with Speed. She was restless and paced a remote part of the meadow, away from the other horses.

Kevi gulped. "It's going to be tonight, isn't it?"

:: Maybe. I think so.::

"Next time, tell me, so I can plan on when to get you back here."

:: Never again! :: Speed groaned. :: This is it, the only foal I'll ever have. I can't believe I fell for that Bad Horse.::

"Ha! You jumped the fence and drank the wine. And then talked Beastly into drinking the wine!"

::It was a sudden impulse. Fun at the time, but I know better, now.::

They walked on in silence for a couple of hours.

Kevi was exhausted, just walking. "I shouldn't have used that wine anywhere near you."

:: So this is all your fault.:: She laid down, and stretched out on her side, straining.

"I see a hoof." Kevi gulped, and wondered at what point to panic and call for Havi or Vala, the other big horse breeder on the World.

:: Never, ever again. I'm going to kick Beastly's liver out the next time I see him."

"Two hooves. Everything is going fine."

She rolled up onto her chest and turned to look at her side. :: Why did I want a foal, anyway?:: she groaned and rolled back flat.

"Because they are so cute?" Kevi suggested. "There's the nose. Okay, the whole head just came through, I'm going to clear the baby's nostrils."

Speed groaned and pushed.

"No face markings, I can't tell if she's black or dark bay."

:: It's dark out. What do you expect?:: Speed tensed up and the shoulders emerged, and then a few minutes later the hips. The foal snorted and breathed, and thrashed his way clear of the after birth.

"It's a boy." Kevi dumped iodine all over the umbilical as it separated, and stepped back to let Speed greet her son.

:: Oh. Isn't he _wonderful_.:: She nickered to him, and stood up to lick him dry as he waved his legs around and tried to follow his inborn instincts to get up.

By the time the Sun was up, the angular black colt was up and following his mother everywhere. "I think all the black color names have been taken already. What should we call him?"

:: Mommy?:: the colt nuzzled Kevi and he grinned.

"Ha! Take that, Havi! Your daddy Beastly must have some Smart Horse in him."

::My little black beast.:: Speed nuzzled him.

"The Black Beast. Oh, yeah."


Early winter 1402

Leanna beamed to see that the so-called ladies from Gold Rush had taken her advice. The Royal ball had been exciting, Lester could get her into so many of the places she'd missed since the divorce. And ripe grounds for business, these days.

The skin restoration facial was in demand. That hot dry climate was no friend to a fresh complexion. And the older Ladies had no idea what was available in the way of rejuvenation. And hair treatments. They spent money like she'd never seen, and walked out glowing. They even bought jewelry and clothes from those little shops, and thought the coffee house was sophisticated.

Ah well. It was her work that was going to make their husbands sit up and take notice.

Those three friends, Barbara, Penelope, and Avis especially. Goodness, walking advertisements. They were giggling now with one of the male customers, who came in regularly for a hair cut and to have his magnificent mustachios trimmed and shaped. He offered the women his arms and invited then to have coffee with him. Old rake. Pity there weren't more around, he made the women clients so happy.

Leanna looked around proudly, business was booming. Life was such fun!


Summer Solstice 1402

"Hey, Aunt Susto!" Kevi jumped down from Speed's high back. "I got some junk from my uncle. Want to take a look?" It was somewhere in between drizzle and rain, and chilly here. Corridor travel was odd that way.

He pulled the saddle and bridle off Speed, and suggested that she get out of the rain in the barn. She snorted at him and started cropping the over grown grass of Aunt Susto's front 'lawn'. He left the tack on the porch and pulled the bag of goodies out of his saddle bags and walked in.

He'd figured out quickly that he'd probably be walking away with nothing but a couple of good meals whenever he dealt with this particular fence. But as a way to get rid of the pretty much valueless leftovers of a marvelously clever theft, she couldn't be beat.

Laughlier Mining had given him a sizable reward for his part in returning the gold.

Sandy had taken all the amethysts. Then Jani had taken everything that was either artistic, or had stones she could use in her own creations. Aunt Susto got the twelve carat gold ugly things with common stones like the hideous cat's eye necklace he pulled out first.

A couple of pretty goblets that were just gold plate over brass, candle sticks, same. Some neat glass thingies that Jani had said were interesting, but she'd as soon make herself. Aunt Susto quoted him prices and he nodded, and then while she tended to her customers, he grabbed his tack and headed over to the last house of the four. They were known hereabouts as the quarter farms collectively, and westerly, easterly, northerly and southerly individually.

Elma of easterly farm was delighted to see him, and told him to put his saddle on the back porch and come have some pie. "The rain's getting worse."

"You just can't beat a hideout like this," he muttered to himself, hunting in the saddle bag for the cork to his wine bottle. Most of it was gone, it had probably soaked his clean clothes. Ah well, it wasn't like he dressed up like a noble.

He helped Jek with the pruning, and spent a couple of nights teaching the boys—the four great nephews that helped Jek—their letters. "Too bad there isn't a school out here. You gotta be able to read a little just to get around."

Lizard nodded. "I got lost in Karista. Luckily I found Mortimer. He can read, and knows his way around." He sighed wistfully. "Captain Easterly of the King's Own. He is so cool."

Kevi froze. He'd been thinking the cousin must be a private, coming from these backwoods farms. But . . . Captain Easterly? _Xen's_ Boss? "Yeah. I think I've seen him. Great big guy, mousey hair and blue eyes like all of you. Looks dumb, but is really smart?"

Lizard looked gratified. "Is he _famous_?"

"Umm, not _quite_, but he is well known." Kevi gulped. Maybe this isn't the safest hideout in the World, after all.

The fourth day, he rode Speed back down the track, an unseasonably cold wind in their faces. "You know what? We should spend the winter somewhere warm. Let's check out Baytown."

She nodded, and radiated smugness. Smug? Oh, crap. Did Beastly get into . . . "You got into the wine, didn't you? Well, fat chance a foal will slow you down much."

The Little Beast bounced up. :: I want a little brother to play with!::

Kevi rolled his eyes. "Next year . . . right now though, we ought to . . . go . . . umm, that way. I think there's something that needs to be stolen."

30 July 2015 @ 12:42 am
I really ought to name this _Beauty and the Thief_


Early Summer 1401

Luckily Tyrone had only found the jug of stuff that was making Nabelle go bald. Even Tyrone had resisted drinking any more after her hair started falling out by the handful. Pity he then had to prove his virility by fucking everything in sight. Ericka was looking forward to his hair falling out.

Auction night had been fun, and the day after too. Pity Nabelle missed it all. And Neille had stopped working. She and Dare were just tight, now. Pretty funny, really, a pair of over-the-hill whores falling in love with each other. Even if the elixirs did have them looking younger.

Lizard, Crow, Mouse and Skunk were up to something, she didn't know what. But they'd gotten a bunch of money somehow and actually bought two calves at the auction. It would be nice to see some of the kids settle down to farming.

In the mean time, she supposed she ought to go see Nabelle. Maybe offer her a different potion.

As she turned to go, Vonne grabbed her arm. "Whatever you are doing to your complexion, I want some."

Ericka nodded. "Find me when you get up in the morning." She'd pick another potion, put just a bit in a glass and fill it with water or something. It would be a good way to find out what it did before she sold the rest.

Halfway down the block, Filli, Tyrone's wife, stopped her. "Ericka, whatever you are taking to get so much energy, I want some."

"Oh, sure. I'll bring some tomorrow." That would get two more elixirs tested, maybe three if Kathi was handy.

She went back home and sorted through the little bottles for pretty ones. And then she had a brilliant idea. Lacking the bottles for it, she went down to the creek beyond the hay meadow and dug clay out of the bank. It didn't matter that the results would be ugly. In fact, ugly was good. She formed up a couple dozen lumpy little bottles and set them in the sun to dry.

Hexes. Make your rival's hair fall out. I could get rich selling these.

Marylu wandered by for a gossip, and Ericka put a couple of drops of 'Lady Rena' in a cup and made tea.

"I'm thinking about opening a shop." Ericka fidgeted. "Closer to town. The Hassoon farm's been abandoned for years. Do you think I could fix it up?"

"Of course you could." Marylu yawned. "I doubt you could fix it up enough. And if you did, someone would notice that you don't own it."

"Hmm. Yeah. And then they'd what? Put a claim in at the court house? Or do they call it a bid? I could do that. They say they'll take anything."

"They forget to say that that's because then you have to pay the taxes." Marylu waved as she headed out the door.

"Oh. Drat." It'd take a lot of hexes to pay the taxes. Mom made a tremendous fuss every year about coming up with three hundred royals. And that was just for her quarter. A full farm, two miles square, would cost . . . Ericka fumbled briefly with large numbers. Over a thousand. And since she'd never had a whole thousand royals in her thirty-seven years of life, there wasn't much chance of it ever happening. Let alone happening every year. Year after year.

But she could take a closer look at the buildings.

She fetched her dried clay jars and stuck them in the stove's fire box, then carefully started adding wood to the coals. She could always hawk the Hex potions on the street.

She walked across to Uncle Willi's to check on Nabelle.

To her shock, Marylu and Nabelle were fooling around in Nabelle's bed.

Well, the things you never knew about your own family!

In the morning she swished a mix of water and fine powdery sand around the inside of her ugly jars and fired them again. Then the she walked into town, taking time to look over the Hassoon place. The house had fallen in altogether, the big barn looked dangerous, but a sturdy shed on the other side of the track was sound. She bit her lip and chatted up the clerk at the Courthouse. He was happy to check that yes, the original farm had been split to try and sell at least the fertile half. The taxes on the dry ridge half would be two hundred a year. "Until you put a house up on it, then they'll go up. If you put a bid in, you have to pay the first year tax, and the ownership will officially change at the next quarter."

She thank him and walked back thoughtfully. Looked at the shed. Ten feet deep, twenty feet long. Dirt floor, roof six feet high at the front and dropping lower at the back. But it could be _hers_. She went home and emptied all her hidey holes and to her astonishment came up with a bit over four hundred Royals.

Her family would grab it in a second, if they knew she had it. Mortimer always made Uncle Jek put his orchard money in the bank. She tucked the money in her sash and walked back to town. She spotted Tyrone coming and dodged into the bank. The well dressed gentlemen raised eyebrows at her.

"May I help you?" One of them asked, all polite and snooty.

"Is two hundred royals enough to put in the bank?"

"To open a new account, I assume?" The man looked a bit more human.

"Yes. My Uncle Jek has an account but I never have."

He got a bunch of papers and started writing. Her name. And suddenly she was Ericka Northerly. It sounded so . . . sophisticated. She even remembered enough of her lessons to be able to write it.

She marched across the square and into the Courthouse, and bid five royals for the northeast half of the Hassoon farm. And plopped down two hundred royals as proof of ability to pay taxes.

That pretty much took care of her money, but being broke was nothing new to her. As she left the Courthouse, she scanned the square for opportunities. She scowled. She'd told Lizard to stay away from that vicious brute of Mortimer's, and there he was, leading the damned horse across the square, all harnessed up. Trotting to keep up with the animal's long legs. Skunk, Mouse and Crow were running along with them, and she stalked that direction.

She lost sight of them when they turned back toward the river. The only thing out there were the flats where Tyrone and his buddies raced horses and bet on them. Beastly was definitely not a race horse. And when she got out there, she found that there were no races. Instead they were having pulling contests. Horses were hitched together and trying to pull the other over the center line. Equine tug-of-war. There were a bunch of young farmers and plenty of large horses.

Ericka found a nice shady tree, not too far from all those men, and proceeded to cheer indiscriminately as the early rounds eliminated all but the strongest horses. She batted her eye lashes at one of the losers and got him to explain the rules to her.

They drew numbers and each horse had two pulls against two other horses. Any horse that lost twice was eliminated. Then the remaining horses did it again.

"Once they get it down to the last four horses, then each horse does three pulls against each one of the others." The youngster looked at her curiously. "Not many women come watch."

"That big bay they are hitching up now belongs to my cousin. I guess he's made it to the second round."

"Good looking horse." The farmer patted his big blonde gelding apologetically. "Doesn't look like he's all draft to me, kind of long legged. May not do very well."

Ericka nodded thoughtfully. "Mortimer rides his dam." Beastly did look pretty long legged compared to the others. Actually he looked good, with a prettier head than any of the other beasts.

On the signal he leaned into the harness as the other horse was popped with a whip and leaped forward. The gray stopped like he'd hit a brick wall and Beastly dragged him step by step across the line.

Ericka cheered for him. As the spectators started outnumbering the contestants the betting started. She put a crown on Beastly every time he returned to the middle, and bet a royal on the final round, jumping up and down happily as he dragged a huge animal across the line.

Some of the farmers were counting their winnings and heading toward the kids. She followed discreetly, in case they needed an extra hand if things got rough, but found she'd misjudged the situation considerably. The farmers owned mares and wanted to breed them to Beastly.

Ericka frowned. Surely the horse had been gelded as a colt? But her memory must be faulty, because five mares were being led that direction. Five? Crow was giving the horse something in a bucket, and then giving some to the mares. Surely not wine! But something in a wine bottle.

They must have tried one of those potions! Found one that enabled the stallion to cover five mares in a short time. She scowled. She'd better secure those potions before everybody used them all up.

However, with all the grunting and squealing and all, the men watching got pretty randy, so it turned into a good evening for her, too.

When she finally walked home in the warm night, she had more than enough money to buy all the jars. Her mother's expression was delightful as she'd actually ponied up money for the bottles. Now all she needed was some idea about what each one changed.

It was slow work. Testing tiny amounts. She started a bit of work on her shed, getting it set up as a store, chatting about it in town, and selling elixirs based on what people who knew the family could see of the various cousins' changes.

She ran her hand through her thick blonde hair. She'd gotten a hundred royals each for the three with her own 'Lady Golden' elixir.

She'd given a sample of Lord Leo to Uncle Jek. He _might_ be looking a bit younger, but she really didn't think it had done much. Maybe she was splitting her potions too much? But others still seemed to be working. Aunt Salti was all confused and shocked, what with her suddenly younger looks and red hair. Fifty royals each, Ericka figured. In fact all she needed was enough people to give samples to, to figure out about hair color, and she'd be sitting pretty.

As it was, she was bringing in more money than she ever had as a whore, and it was mostly going into the bank account. She figured she could enclose part of the shed for storage and a bedroom, and she'd started digging out the center of what would be left open. The slope it sat on was steep enough that people could still walk into the dug out part. She could leave a couple of feet alone at each wall, to support the wall and be shelves to display her elixirs, potions and hexes. She didn't want to do much more than dig though, until the Fall Equinox, when it would all be officially hers.

Tyrone looked really funny with half his hair fallen out. He was staying in a lot. She wasn't having to dodge him very much to keep her money.

Her only problem was being pregnant again. Ugg, must be about three months along, the way she felt.

She heard feet stomping up the stairs, and peeked out of her room.

Nabelle stalked in and stood glaring. "Look at me!" her voice squeeked and slid.

"Your hair's growing back in! Oh, that's so good!" Ericka felt faint with relief.

"Yeah? How about this?" Nabelle tried to jiggle her breasts. There wasn't much to jiggle.

"Umm, maybe they'll grow back too?"

"At first I thought I'd been turned into a lesbo." She peeled off her shift. "Look at that! It's a prick. Two fucking balls. You're stupid potion has turned me into a man."

Ericka stared at the evidence. "I suppose it's too much to hope for – that Tyrone is turning into a woman?"

Nabelle laughed at that, her voice jumping like a teenage boy's.

"Err, do you like being a man?"

"Do I like! Are you kidding . . . well the sex is fun as hell. But how am I supposed to earn a living? And my eyes aren't working right, they're way too sensitive to light."

"Umm, maybe some of the potions turn a man into a woman. I could test them on someone. How about Lew?"

"And Erald, and Haro. They're just waking up." They looked through the box and found three bottles with 'Lord' on them. They heated up some milk with honey and spices, filled three cups and dripped a bit from a bottle into each of them. Nabelle walked home with two, and Ericka walked over to Uncle Frank's house with the other.

"Hi Uncle Frank, is Lew here?" She glanced toward the back of the ramshackle building.

"Is that for him?"

"I wanted his opinion on the taste."

"Ha! You getting sweet on him? Noticed you were looking mighty fine lately. Let me take a taste." He drank it all. "Not enough liquor in it." He thunked down the cup and walked toward the back of the house.

Ericka winced, and picked up the cup and took it home. There was some warm milk left, so she filled the cup and added some drops from another 'Lord' bottle.

She heard yelling from the back of Uncle Frank's house and just left the cup on the table. She didn't need to be in the middle of anything.

Some time later she heard the sound of wood chopping and figured that Uncle Frank must have put Lew to work.

The tint of purple in Aunt Elma's hair was quite attractive. And while her skin improved, she still looked middle aged or a bit more.

Aunt Norma, on the other hand, looked twenty, with a huge bosom and strawberry blonde hair. Uncle Willi went around looking exhausted, until she slipped him a couple drops of Lord Keffer.

Aunt Salti was in between, middle aged and attractive. With red hair. But Uncle Frank had turned his attentions to his sons. Three more bottles hadn't managed to change that back yet. Lew and Eddi weren't seen much. Skunk had moved in with Mouse and Crow.

Ericka frowned, trying to keep track. Neille had turned into a sexy young blonde, Dare was all masculine and had a job. They were still talking about marriage and gold mining. Marylu was a young brunette, and her husband was looking pretty happy, even if he did still live off her earnings. Which were considerable. She practically mugged men and dragging them into alleys. A couple had complained of being robbed, but admitted to having sex with her so the judge had tossed their complaints.

Kathi. Old Gods! She'd grown three inches, got tits that had to be seen to be believed and her hair was growing in jet black. The Duchess Fanci bottle.

Melodi's hair was getting really pale, and she was looking quite young. Not much bosom though. She was starting to attract a different sort of clientele.

Vonne's eyes had gone a funny gold color and her hair a golden blonde. That bottle would be bringing in a bunch of money. Lady Grace.

Rache had changed the least, just getting younger. Her eyes were still blue and her hair still a light brown. Lady Devi.

And most of them were pregnant and really irritated.

You just couldn't count on herbs, these days.

29 July 2015 @ 10:21 pm
28 July 2015 @ 08:44 pm

28 July 2015 @ 02:11 pm
 Yeah, the name's better. Thanks. And here's a rewrite on the first encounter. Opinions?

Chapter Five

Late Spring 1396

Fort Rock, Rocky Coast Province

Will rather uneasily realized that his magical talents had taken a large leap upward. He could feel the ocean—sky boundary in the evaporation for a mile around. Felt the hard discontinuities that were the little fishing boats the Whip-Poor-Will was slowly passing.

He sank his attention and found the bottom of the bay as well, the rocks they had to watch for at low tide, the abrupt drop off into the deep water. They cleared the last of the fishermen and added sail. He took his turn at the wheel, and could feel the ship in his hands like a live thing. Felt the rhythm of the ocean in his heart beat, as he lay in his bunk below, trying to sleep the first night.

They sailed out to the Citadel, a bleak, unpopulated volcanic cone poking up from the sea a thousand miles offshore, then turned to tack northeast into the steady twenty knot north northwest wind. Eyes alert for icebergs.

"Sail off the port quarter!" the lookout called.

"Out here?" Captain Comeski reached for a spyglass.

Will squinted, 'looking big' his mother called it, and spotted the ship clearing the island.

"Three masted heavy frigate. Cove Islands Man of War. A dozen thunder guns a side," the Captain muttered. "She won't be alone, either, whatever the hell she's doing up here." He shifted his inspection to the far side of the island.

"So, Lieutenant Michaelson, care to guess what an experienced Captain would do in this situation?"

"Assume they have bad intentions and run? Cove Islands . . . she'll be fast. Do we need to try up wind and possibly into the iceberg pack if the pursuers seem determined?"

"Very good, Lieutenant. Because that is a very fast ship and note that she's positioning so she could cut us off if we try to run southeast. And with her speed, likely to cut us off to the east as well. So we'll keep heading north northeast and see if those hot water sailors have enough respect for icebergs."

"Why is she up here, though? And why show herself?"

The captain snorted, put the glass to his eye again. "She must think that our course change was in response to spotting her. There's nothing valuable on the island, nothing very valuable on the seas, hereabouts. Ah." He nodded in satisfaction. "There's a pair of brigantines coming around the far side of the island. Yep, they were up here doing something they didn't want anyone to know about."

"Smuggler's drop out there?" Will tried to recall the speeds and handiness of the various Cove Island ships. It had seemed like such useless and boring information just two weeks ago.

"Too far to be useful. They don't have any sort of territorial claim to it, but if they asserted they did, perhaps they could act innocent while pirating ships in between here and the Islands." The Captain watched steadily. "Not the time to be wondering why. Right now we have a bit of a maneuvering war to wage. They can get a bit closer to the wind than we can, so we'll not bother cutting it too close. We'll run for the ice pack and hope they either get too cautious or too reckless."

They crowded on all sail, heading northeast, heeled over with the wind coming just a few points west of north. And Will acknowledged the truth of the stern chases he'd read about. The brigantines were barely faster than they were, and even the frigate was catching up very slowly. "It sounded much more fun on paper from the chaser's point of view," he muttered to Rick as he headed below, hopefully to sleep. The morning is going to be . . . interesting.

Rick snorted. "Hope they do catch us. I can handle problems at sword length."

"Unfortunately they'll probably just stand off and use their thunder guns on us. At least with the Moon close to full we can see the bergs." Until it sets, about two hours before dawn. It's dangerous enough when we can at least guess where the underwater parts are. It could get . . . interesting when we can't see them at all. Will carried that thought with him into his bunk. He was partly mage. He had practiced pulling power from moving objects. How far could he reach and pull the kinetic energy from a cannon ball? What about shields? Would one over the hull spread the force of the impact and prevent damage? What about at deck level? A shield anchored to the hull and extending upwards another ten feet should be . . . too damn big an area to cover. For the first time in quite awhile Will actually wished his brothers were on the same ship.

He slept eventually, rose and took the midnight watch. In the short moonlit night it was clear the three ships were closing in on them, but very slowly. He closed his eyes and reached out. He could feel the other ships, but they were too far away for him to do anything. He reached the other direction, feeling icebergs, lots of little ones and further north . . . he cursed under his breath.

"Yes, Mr. Michaelson?" The Captain asked.

"Sorry, sir, didn't realize you were on deck."

"So you were cursing to yourself? To what purpose?"

"Sir . . . Do you believe in magic?"

The Captain eyed him in the bright moonlight. "I grew up in Ash, if that means anything to you."

"Oh. Yes, sir." Will felt nearly limp with relief. "My mother is Trump Ideadaut, my father Lord Hell, the God of Just Deserts."

"Really?" The Captain sounded delighted. "And what can you do that is relevant to this situation?"

"I can see icebergs very far away, and a bit underwater, and well, there's a whole flotilla of small bergs starting three miles ahead andgetting denser all the way to one of those really big sheet icebergs about twenty-five miles dead ahead."

"Damn." Captain Comeski studied the nearly full moon. "The Moon will be setting in two hours, and then we'll have another two hours before dawn to try and maneuver without them being sure enough to intercept us. He turned the wheel and quiet orders were passed to trim the sails as they angled a bit more to the east. "Can you tell how large it is? East to west?"

Will closed his eyes and felt it. "The face towards us is about forty miles across, we're aimed about a third of the way in from the western corner."

"We'll have to tack to the west to clear it, and I don't want to do that. But once the moon is down. . . Could we fool them long enough to turn southeast? We'll be damnably close to the Man of War, but well ahead of the two brigantines. Pity we don't have another hour of darkness, I could hope she wouldn't see the bergs until they were in the pack. As it is, they ought to get a nasty surprise at dawn." He hummed softly for a minute. "Do you know, there's often a bit of fog about those things I wonder if we could use that. He eyed the berg they were passing. Ten feet of jagged ice showing. Ninety percent of it underwater, reaching out and down, and plenty of deadly jagged bits sticking out. The captain turned the wheel another point east and handed down soft orders. "Let's just see what they do. You just make yourself comfortable and keep your eye on them. Not meaning to disparage you, boy, but I'd trade you in a second for Nil or Dydit."

"Actually all those fancy effects are appallingly short range." Will told him. "At anything over a hundred feet, even Nil's rather harmless." Will thought about that for a moment. "Although if he was after me, I'd prefer about hundred miles of distance, and I'd run like hell to increase that." Will sat down cross-legged where he'd be out of the way, and felt for the other ships.

And felt mages on board the Cove Island ships. Feeling for the Whip.

So. A mage battle. It would be a bit different than his mock battles with the Sisters From Hell, about half of whom actually were his sisters, and not inclined to be too careful about hurting those nasty little brothers of theirs . . .

He'd always been able to throw off their tracking and keep them from finding him. You just induce a tiny bend in the power flow through the air, or in this case the water. He'd have to wait until moonset, so they couldn't see as well, and would believe their mage senses over their uncertain vision. He reached out toward the Man of War. There was a mage there too. How to make them think he was closer and still between them to the north . . . How to do it without them suspecting him. And how to conceal the Whip-Poor-Will once they'd turned . . . Could he use one of the smaller bergs that were calving off the edges of the sheet? Could he conceal it long enough to warp the mages' perception to it and then drop both warp and concealment? Hmm. Two warps, conceal the Whip and the iceberg . . .

"The two Brigantines are turning a bit east, sir. They have mages aboard. I think I can diddle them, though, once the moon is down."

"Good. Let's get them in amongst the little bergs. And try to aim them right at the big berg. When the Moon sets, they'll have to slow, and we'll see if we can sneak away. Lad, why don't you get something to eat. I suspect you'll be earning your keep in the early hours."

"Yes, sir." He trotted below and ate. The cooks grumbled about their fires being so low, but they had hot porridge, and hot coffee. Will loaded up on the porridge and returned to the deck. He felt for the other ships gently, trying to not call attention to himself. He relaxed, took the wheel for a bit while the Captain napped. But Captain Comeski was back on the quarterdeck when the Moon sank and they turned. The crew moved silently, commands whispered, adjusting canvas as they turned onto a broad reach to the south east. Almost straight for the Man of War.

The captain grinned. "Speed or a safe distance. Pick one. We'll be good, so long as they maintain their speed and heading, but if they've any sense at all they'll slow down in the dark. Sailing by starlight's going to be risky in the bergs. I don't want to run downwind, but we may need to if they slow drastically. So keep an eye on them Lieutenant. I'd hate to ram them. So gauche."

Will smoothed out the turbulence of the rudder and pushed gently on the strange mages' perception. Reached the other way and found nothing. Did they have just a single Mage on each ship? Had they caught the one on the Man of War sleeping at a crucial point? Whatever the cause, Will was able to concentrate on the mages on the brigantines and keep them fooled, gently and carefully, as they turned away and approached the Man of War. Will fought to maintain his warping as the distance opened, bend their reception so the density point of the hull came from a different direction, and drove that bend until it merged with a small iceberg. To make them think the iceberg was also moving on that course.

He opened his eyes once to see a thin fog blowing past. That would help as well. They passed a hundred feet behind the Man of War, and sailed on, unseen and undetected. He whispered twice about unseen icebergs in their path. The captain turned them gradually to the east southeast.

And suddenly the mage on the Man of War joined. Stronger than the others, deeper, somehow. Older, more advanced. The new mage saw the small iceberg for what it was and reached beyond it. Will dropped everything but an attempt to fog over the density point of the Whip-Poor-Will.

"They just caught on Captain. They'll be after us pretty quickly."

"If they can see us through the fog." The captain said. "All those little bergs are cooling the air and helping out, even with the wind. If you can keep us from hitting one, I'll cut even further east and stay close to that pack of bergs. Then we can either hide in the pack or load on the sails if we can get enough of a lead to stay ahead of them all the way to Karista."

Will blinked and looked around. The fog had thickened, but he could see the nearest iceberg a half mile away.

"Interesting." The captain watched him. "While you were doing whatever that was, the fog right around the ship was getting pretty thick."

Will nodded. "I guess I was cooling the air even further." He felt out past his slight subterfuge and felt the other ships. "The brigantines are fifteen miles northwest of us." He grinned wickedly. "One of them turned early, and is heading south southeast. He'll be clear of most of the little bergs in an hour. But the other one went straight on, in case we were still heading northeast. He's close enough to the big berg that the winds are chancy. He's in irons at the moment, just as they started to turn, now they're awfully close to a small berg, and trying to maneuver. The Man of War is five miles north and heading south east. I think I'm hiding us from the mage they have on board. They're being careful of the bergs."

"Let's see if we can open the distance a bit before dawn."

They crowded on all sails and Will sweated to see the shapes of the small bergs underwater..

"No ice for ten miles. Then it's off to port." William looked further. "Looks like a another bunch of small bergs dead ahead about thirty miles."

"Catch a nap, Mr. Michaelson. We'll be needing you alert in a short while."

He dosed, then got itchy and rose. "Coming up on a good sized one, sir, may I recommend passing it wide to starboard?"

Lieutenant Gerner shook his head and turned the wheel. "I hope you know we've all been scared spitless under full sail and nothing but starlight to see by."

Captain Comeski joined them. Eyed the iceberg, and the faint gleam of starlight off smaller ones ahead.

"Good, time for some maneuvering."

They cut to the east for an hour, sliding among scattered bergs. The sun rose, giving them an unfortunately clear view of the Man of War ten miles north and a bit west of them, raising more sail. Will checked, and reported both brigantines heading southeast, one almost due west, the other west northwest. "Roughly fifteen miles behind us."

The captain grinned. "They can't catch us. That frigate is a problem though. We'll have to run for Karista. But let's see what we can do to put some space between us and the other two. Here's where it gets interesting boys. Lieutenant Michaelson? Take the wheel. We'll run with as much sail as we can crowd on and trust you to keep us safe in all the ice."

And run they did. The Man of War closed slowly; her captain was being cautious among the icebergs.

"Run up the colors, Mister Franks. Let's see if they've got the nerve to admit to having masters."

"Those are Island hulls, Captain." Lieutenant Higgs protested. "I've never heard of them selling them . . . What's that? Organtes? What the hell are Auralians doing up here?"

"Organtes are the south-west division. All well below the equator." The Captain studied them carefully. "Damned odd them being up here."

"Are they lying, thinking we'll escape and the Islanders can escape the blame?"

Will let the voices fade as he felt the two bergs ahead. The deep water was to port, the starboard berg had a jagged extension and was feeling a bit unstable. They slipped in between tidily and kept up their sails. Behind them the Man of War opted for safety and veered to port to pass both bergs. Will reached out far ahead and studied the distribution of ice. They were just about clear of this bunch, but the big shelf must be shedding ice at an enormous rate, there was another flotilla of bergs a dozen miles ahead to port. Fog. He needed fog. He reached out and pulled heat from the air as far forward as he could.

Were the mages using their talent to see icebergs? They hadn't shown any willingness to take chances. If they couldn't see the bergs . . . there was a small berg ahead of the Man of War, if he could conceal it with a low fog . . . but he couldn't steer it, it would depend on luck. He snickered. Pity his father wasn't around, these fellows deserved an iceberg. He opened his eyes to thick fog all around. He felt the last bergs of the bunch as they passed them, then steered straight on, reaching out to the north and cooling the air to the limit of his abilities. The Man of War slipped into the fog bank.

Will could hear the lookout calling out their position, and in the eerie echoing fog could hear the Organtes lookout doing the same. They're close. Very close, and raising sail. And I think their mage can at least see the tops of the bergs. It's going to be a race to the next bergs.

The Man of War angled slightly toward them. Inexorably closing the gap. They were a half mile shy of the bergs when Will heard the explosion of the thunder gun, and threw a shield across the stern, protecting the rudder. A chunk of metal at high speed skimmed their starboard side. A near miss was as good as a huge miss. An angled shield, or better, a wedge, would deflect without absorbing much momentum, and knocking him flat. He put the wheel over a few points to clear the underwater extent of the berg, throwing an illusion of them going straight. Clear of the berg he then steered her back the other way, dropped the illusion. Did ships veer about trying to make aiming difficult? He rather doubted it, but the second roar was followed by a sickening crunch of splintering timber, from well behind them. Where the shot went, Will had no idea, but the Mar of War had hit the berg. He stopped pulling heat locally, and reached only out to port to continue to slow the Man of War. Lieutenant Higgs took the wheel as they cleared the fog bank. They continued down wind even after the brigantines turned to render assistance to their fellow.

:: Who are you?:: One of the strange mages reached out for him.

He reached deep, for the glow he'd subdued for longer than he could remember, and brought it out for the mage to see. :: I am the God of Justice, the mate of the Sea Hag. Be gone from these waters. ::

28 July 2015 @ 07:08 am

Chapter Deena and Leanna

Winter 1401

"I know you'll find it uncomfortable, but there literally isn't anyone else I can send without making it obvious to her that I suspect her of illegal activities."

Deena nodded. Looked at the address. "She's renting this house?"

"Buying it. I need to find out how she came up with the money."

She nodded. "Right." She saluted and headed out. The soon to be ex-wife of the King's head of intelligence suddenly coming into money was no laughing matter. But Dad had _never_ brought work home. _Never_ talked about _anything_. It couldn't be what it looked like. She walked home, changed into civilian riding clothes while her almost-four year-old told her all about her day.

Deena felt guilty, sending her back to Marti, and wondered how the Karista Bay witches coped. Yellow had passed on the news about Beige and her new quadruplets, and apparently four other sisters had had seven babies among them. Six of the eleven were boys. Oh, shock and horror! Deena swore to never, ever, even _look_ lustfully at Xen when around the combined influence of the God of Just Deserts and Lady Tromp.

She ducked through the Corridor to borrow a horse. The bay mare rather embarrassingly named Tit came trotting at Q's request and Deena headed for the east gate. One of Xen's dogs, a mottled gray and black bitch named Barracuda followed her, and ignored orders to Go Home. Poor things were lonely, with Wavelength being sent to school in Ash and getting witches training afterwards. Bored, because Xen was mostly in the office these last few weeks.

Karista had outgrown its defensive walls a century ago. Ten miles beyond the walls the houses started spreading out a bit, and another two miles down a well kept street she stopped at the address her father had given her and eyed the house. Pretty, with a flower garden in front and she'd guess an acre of land behind. She dismounted and looped a rein through a ring on a post. "Now, pretend you're tied up." Tit pricked her black tipped ears and nodded. Smart Horses. Worse than Hell Hounds. She dropped a repressive glare on Barracuda, who laid down and looked submissive.

She walked up to the door and pulled the bell.

A young woman in a crisp maid's dress and apron answered the door. Deena blinked. "Is Leanna Janic here?"

"Yes, Miss." The girl stood blinking at her, stupidly.

"Please take me to her." Maybe the Evil Step Mum is the housekeeper?

The maid walked away and Deena followed her silently through the house and out the back doors. The garden was nicely landscaped. Her mother was sitting on a bench inspecting colored balls of . . . "Puppies? Hello Mum, I never knew you liked puppies."

Leanna looked up in surprise. "Why Deena, fancy seeing you."

"You certainly are looking good." No flattery there, she'd lost weight, and had a marvelous haircut, bleached it and brightened the color subtly. "In fact you look terrific."

"I've been working at a beauty salon, doing their books. The puppies were a stroke of good fortune. What do you think?" She handed the grunting handful to Deena.

It was striped purple and white. "Is the dye healthy for puppies?"

Leanna laughed. Her teeth were nice and white, too. "They aren't dyed. It's natural. They are all the rage. I'll sell that one for a round thousand royals."

"A thousand . . . Well. I see I needn't have worried about you. I was afraid you'd moved because you couldn't afford to live in town."

"Oh no, dear. I should have dumped your father years ago. I feel wonderfully free."

Deena stayed for lunch, and chatted about her brothers, the older in the Army and the younger in school. "Dad has a nice apartment. He talks about buying a house, but why? Dero will be out of there in two more years, and it's not like he has time to potter around in a garden."

"No. He never had time for anything but work." Harsh, but close to true. "Mari, bring the babies down, won't you? They aren't exactly family, but I'm going to raise them properly. Those maids haven't a bit of sense between them."

Deena admired and held the tiny girls, Mira and Izabeth. "So if my soon-to-be-divorced step-mother is practically raising them, does that make them nearly my sisters?"

Leanna chuckled. "I'd say nieces, except I'm feeling much too young to be a Grandmother."

Deena walked out a bit less dissatisfied with life, until she saw Barracuda, enjoying relations with a big black dog. "Xen is going to _kill_ me."

She reported back to her father. "If you can find out which beauty salon, I can check it out when she's not there."

"The Beautiful Woman. At the corner of Peach and King Haro."

"Oh, I know that one. I can get all the gossip from my fellow witches." She frowned. "Sandy said something about giving the beauty shop lady some puppies, and I assumed she meant Hell Hounds. Good grief. Those funny colored dogs make more sense if they're the result of witches practicing transformations."

"And Leanna is selling them for a thousand a pop? Old Gods. However, she seems to be making the money legitimately." Her father snorted. "Well, good for her. Thank you, Deena."

"I enjoyed it. Got rid of my residual guilt, too."

"You shouldn't have had any. I'm the guilty party."

"Well, it looks like you two are both better off apart, so we might as well toss the guilt altogether."

It was almost dinner time when she got back home. She unsaddled and brushed Tit and turned her out. The smart horses knew how to use the corridor, so the mare could stay or go as she wished. The house was fairly quiet, clanking from the kitchen and Xen talking in the parlor. No, reading. Kinkajou was in his lap, Vince and Kelli on the floor in front of him. All three cheered as he finished up the gruesome demise of the wolf.

"But of course, all you lot being witches and wizards and mages and so forth would no doubt not need to find a handy woodcutter to handle a mere wolf." Xen grinned over his shoulder. "Right, Deena?"

"Umm, I think they might need to get a little bigger before they could handle wolves." Deena stomped firmly on a desire to take her daughter's place on Xen's lap. Professional. I am very professional. And I'm a witch. I don't go all over gooey about a mere male.

"Hmm, maybe. So, what is Mrs. Houseman cooking tonight?"

The kids jumped up and ran off to find out, and Easterly and Garit walked in the back door, talking about the upcoming bandit sweep and any temptation she might have felt was gone in the busy swirl of their communal dinner.

Chapter Beastly

Late Winter 1401

Lizard had a problem.

Well, if you counted his family, _lots_ of problems.

But his immediate problem was Beastly. Beastly wasn't feeling well, and Lizard had a horrible suspicion that his second hero was to blame. Which meant he had to decide whether to dose the horse, like Kevi had said, or go to his first hero and tattle on Kevi. Kevi had put something in the water for the cows – and old gods! They had all acted like they were fertile for a week! The bull had had a great time. But Beastly had jumped the fence and drunk that water too.

Lizard waffled, but the simple fact was that he had no idea how to find his cousin Mortimer. Which meant that he would have to trust Kevi.

He pulled the cork out of the wine bottle and poured some into the rusty bucket.

Beastly sighed and sniffed. An ear swiveled around and he stuck his nose in the bucket and sucked it all down.

Kevi hadn't said how much . . . Lizard decided to save the rest. Mouse whistled from the orchard, so he tucked the bottle behind a bush and ran to help. There was fruit to pick and take to town in the morning – hopefully with Beastly pulling the cart, not a milk cow.


Ericka slipped out of Aumt Elma's and looked to see what Lizard had hidden. Wine. Figured. Kid was going to be a sot just like the rest of the family. She took a sip. Good stuff, too. She took the bottle away with her when she headed home.

She just hated to cover up her new complexion with heavy makeup, but she didn't want Tyrone to catch on yet. Preferably not at all. Nielle did the same, but Nabelle begged off, saying she felt odd.

"I don't see Dare, either." Ericka craned her neck to look up the street toward that club.

Neille snickered. "Ericka, that elixir has cured him completely. He keeps coming over. You know?"

"You're kidding? I mean, he's not serious is he? He's a cousin."

"Well, he's certainly got a bad case of the hots, and he isn't chasing the others, just me." She sounded pretty smug.

"Huh. Well, it's not illegal to marry a cousin." Ericka caught Jesso Highland's eye and popped over to see if he had any money. She was right back. "No joy until auction night. Tomorrow and the next day will be a lot more fun."

"Me and Dare, we've been thinking we'd head for the Gold Rush Territories." Neille chewed a fingernail. "It's not like I don't know how to make plenty of money if the gold mining doesn't work out."

"Well, yeah, but gold mining sound even harder than farming, you know?"

"If we don't strike it rich, I suppose we'll be back."


Now Lizard was really worried.

The cow had gotten the fruit to market, but Tyrone had seen. And come right over. "You finally knock that vicious brute on the head?"

Jek shrugged at his nephew. "He's a little under the weather. Colic, I suppose."

"Huh, too bad. Horses die of colic. In fact, you ought to try and get him down to the auction, get some money out of him before he dies."

"Oh, no. I couldn't sell Mortimer's horse."

Lizard sighed. Uncle Jek never stood up to anyone. Even cousin Mortimer, his number one hero pushed him around. He just happened to push him the right direction.

"Well, whatever. Damned big horse to bury, unless you eat him, I suppose, but you don't want to wait until he's dead if you're going to." He reached out and Lizard ducked a slap. "Don't look at me like that. _I_ don't have anything to do with the maniac. _You're_ the one who's fed him something bad."

Lizard hissed angrily, but he remembered Kevi . . .

Tyrone rode back to the farms on the cart and walked out to look at the miserable horse. "I'll dose him up with some happy dust so he's not hurting and walk him down to the auction."

Beastly was so miserable he barely laid his ears back when Tyrone walked up and blew powdered poppy in his nostrils. Then he staggered back, wobbled in a circle and fell down.

"There. Give him an hour and he'll be happy as can be." Tyrone swaggered in the back door and got fed, just like everyone else. Lizard jumped up and down in frustration and finally lit out for town. He stared at the Corridor. Gulped and followed a carriage through. He flinched back from the noise, and got bumped out into the street. A huge street, with wagons and horses and people everywhere. And everywhere he looked there were buildings. Stone and brick and wood. Large and small. And by the time he'd figured out how to not get killed on the street, he was also very lost.

Everywhere, people were coming and going from Corridors. Lots of Corridors. And he had no idea which one was his.

He looked around frantically. There was a man in a uniform a lot like Mortimer's. He sidled up uncertainly. This fellow didn't look at all friendly.

"I'm looking for my cousin. He's in the King's Own. Do you know where I could find him? His name is Mortimer."

The man snorted and pointed. "Go that way about ten blocks, then cut to the right two blocks. Three blocks up you'll see guards about. Ask them."

"Thanks." He ran off in relief, dodging all the people on the sidewalks. "Ten blocks. Ten blocks." Turn before or after the tenth block? He turned before and went two blocks, turned and started seeing lots of uniforms. People coming and going from buildings. Huge fancy buildings. Palaces. He slunk along, overawed and uncertain. There were so many people in uniforms.

"Got a problem, kid?"

Lizard jumped and looked at the man behind him. "I'm, I'm looking for my cousin. He's in the King's Own."

The man raised his eyebrows. "Well, you're in the right place. This cousin got a name?"

"Mortimer. Mortimer of Easterly Farms."

The man's eyes narrowed. "Easterly." He bit a knuckle. "Mortimer Easterly. Right. Wait here."

The man dodged across the street and into a building. Lizard shifted from foot to foot, and squirmed while the people walking by looked at him like he smelled. Well, he'd been working since before the sun was up. He had a right to smell.

And suddenly there his cousin was, walking out of that building. Madder than hell, to look at him. But he relaxed his face and went back to looking like a stupid lackwit as he crossed the street.

"Lizard? What's wrong?"

"Tyrone's going to sell Beastly. He was a bit colicy and Tyrone blew some poppy up his nostril and says he'll take him down to the auction to sell."

Mortimer muttered something under his breath. "C'mon." He led the way further up the street, and then cut over to the biggest barn Lizard had ever heard of. There were rows and rows of stalls. Lizard followed Mortimer until he stopped at a stall. Bandit. Of course. But who'd have thought she'd be kept in a place like this. Like for Royal horses and stuff.

Mortimer saddled her up quickly, mounted and held his hand out. "Get up behind me. Put your foot on mine and there we go."

Lizard sat on the full saddle bags and held on to his cousin's belt. It was pretty bouncy back here, and Mortimer looked be in a bit of a hurry. He took a different path, through a bewildering bunch of small streets and came out suddenly on the street with all the Corridors. "How can you tell where they go?" Lizard yelled over the street noises.

"Do you see those letters over the top? They spell out the town it goes to." He turned Bandit though one and suddenly they were back in Grantown.

The sun was just setting when they got to the auction barn. Mortimer headed into the office, Lizard trailing apprehensively.

"Seen Tyrone tonight?" Mortimer smiled at Mr. Henri who ran the sales.

"Yeah, he just brought in that horse your dad uses to haul a cart around."

"Huh. You'd think by now he'd know to not try and sell my stuff."

He moved off then, and walked out the holding pens.

And there was Tyrone, with Beastly. Talking to some farmers. ". . . big strong fellow, as you see."

Lizard backed away suddenly, staying out of sight.

"So, Tyrone. Fancy seeing you here."

There was a long silence. "Mortimer. Er."

"Let's go have a little family discussion, Tyrone." Mortimer pulled Tyrone into the dark outdoors.

It sounded like a rather painful family discussion.

Mortimer walked back in and led Beastly out. "We've decided to not sell him." he told the farmers.

Lizard scampered around and met him out front where Bandit was tied.

Mortimer was looking Beastly over under the lamplight. Lizard squirmed. "I think he might have been poisoned. A friend, he gave the cows something a couple of weeks ago, and I think Beastly got into it. Tyrone said if he was colicing we should sell him before he died."

"Do you know what your friend gave him?"

Lizard shrugged. "It looked like wine. It was supposed to make the cows breed."

"Oh. Old Gods. Not that wine. Beastly as a stallion doesn't bear thinking about." He sighed. "However, whether or not that is the problem, it's also the solution."

He dug into a pocket and pulled out a two royal note. "Pop into Samo's and get a bottle of red wine. We'll be walking slowly home."

Lizard loped down the street, looking back uncertainly. What was this wine Kevi and Mortimer both knew about? Surely not those stories about the wine of the gods. Those could not possibly be true . . . A stallion? Wow. There was good money in stud fees.

He caught up with them a mile down the road. Poppy or not, Beastly wasn't feeling good.

Mortimer pulled a canvas bucket out of his saddle bags and poured half the wine into it. Then he added something from a small flask. That brought Beastly's head around as he smelled it, and gulped the whole half bottle.

"Poor fellow. Poppy and alcohol can't be a pleasant combination. Not to mention, he's eleven years old. A bit late for puberty." He dripped some more of his secret ingredients into the half bottle of wine and corked it. "Come on, Beastly. Let's head home."

Lizard got to ride Bandit, very much to his delight. The mare was of a smaller lighter build than Beastly, with a springy trot and plenty of energy. "She's Beastly's dam, right? Who's the sire? A big draft horse?"

"We don't actually know. She wasn't bred on purp . . . Oh." He snorted and then started laughing. "Old Gods! I totally forgot about her getting out with that dun. Well. That explains why he's so good at following commands."

"What does?"

"She let herself out of a stall at a place that has a big dun draft horse. Incredible old wreck. Thought at the time he was a gelding. A whole lot later I learned that he's . . . very smart." Mortimer was studying Beastly thoughtfully. "Beastly, once you're feeling better, perhaps we should have a long talk about what you want to do with the rest of your life."

The big horse snorted and shook himself. His ears pricked up and he started prancing. Bandit laid her ears back and snorted warningly at him.

"And, no. I wasn't thinking about you as the Wild Stallion of the Three Rivers. So behave."

Mortimer locked him in the barn over night, and when Lizard took a look in the morning he had balls. Small ones. "Wow."

Mortimer snorted. "I've got to get back to work." He looked up suddenly at the horse and grinned. "I've got some people and horses that I think you should meet."

Lizard frowned. "Are you taking Bandit?"

"Yep. Until Beastly is a bit better trained she'll still be my main riding horse. Maybe I'll find a good stallion to breed her too. On purpose this time. Hmm. Pyrite. Yes." He frowned a bit a Beastly. "I'll leave you here for a while. You need to adjust to the hormones and all that before I get Xen to adjust things back. And I'm sure Pyrite will be delighted to fill you in on how to be a really great war horse."

Beastly's ears pricked, and he nodded.

Mortimer looked down at Lizard. "And watch out for that fellow who gave him the wine in the first place. It's a damned inconvenient trick to play on someone else's livestock. I'm glad you came and got me, but, umm, next time, just ask for Captain Easterly. I don't much like Mortimer, as a name."

"Captain Easterly. Right."

"Stick him back out to pasture if he's still feeling good in the afternoon. I'll be back soon."

Captain Easterly. That is so posh. So not like the rest of our family.