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18 March 2017 @ 06:47 am
_Black Point Clan_ part 15  
 

"Your old school chum is going to be lucky to survive his first month as Philosopher."

Xiat spun, snapped out a kick, spun back, stopped. Straightened and bowed. "Whew. That routine gets harder when you don't practice for a week. Yeah. He's stirring up a proper sand storm. Moving east. I wonder if he'll tour the continents first, or head more or less straight for Makkah?"

"Probably depends on the polls. Pity so much of his audience is Multitude and Halfer." Izzo collected his gear and dropped a kiss on her forehead. "Eww! Sweaty. See you at the office."

Xiat forced herself through the stretches and cool down, showed, dressed and followed him. He didn't live here, they didn't advertise their long term relationship. Eleven years. He had a bachelor apartment suitable to his position, double the size of hers, entertained sparingly, only played the Game to the extent of occasional minor assistance to close friends, of whom he had only four. Those friends had all reached some point of equilibrium, where they were marrying women with serious reputations for barrenness, putting their genetic reputations on the line. But knowing their own numbers, had all managed to find women they could have children with. Women they wanted to stay married to. Possibly even loved, not that they would ever admit to such a weakness in public. The first of them had a four year old and a new baby. The last was expecting his first. And then there was Izzo. She couldn't blame him for wanting what she wasn't able to give him. She wanted a baby so badly, herself. The difference was that he had found a way out, and she hadn't.

One year left.

***

"Hey, have trouble getting the mud out of your handcuffs, Xiat?" The analyst who specialized in Imperial matters in the South African region wasn't doing a very good job of looking innocent.

She rolled her eyes. "Co-workers should be seen and not heard."

A different voice took up the challenge. "You have the right to remain silent. You have the right to slide downhill in the mud. You have the right to a legal expert. If you cannot afford to roll in mud, a legal expert will be appointed to do so for you."

The Canada expert mock-frowned from across the room. "Are you now, or have you at any time in the past, been part of a threesome involving mud wrestling and bondage?"

"Careful, I know a guy who can beat swordmasters with his bare hands." Xiat plunked her self down at her desk and scrolled up her inbox. "I was only gone a week. How can it be so deep. Did you guys tell everyone to divert stuff my direction?"

"It was for your own good. If you were so bored you were getting down and dirty with two guys at once . . . " The Metroplex analyst shut up as she made a rude gesture.

Most of it was just routine. Reports on People of Interest. Economic reports. Nothing like economic indigestion to mess up a perfectly quiet region. Which was why she also paid attention to the weather. Commerce. News digests. Ordinary crime was handled at the local level, and most of it arrived at her desk as statistics.

A memo forwarded by Izzo; Director Efge wanted them both, in half a hour. She filed reports, then headed upstairs.

The Director didn't crack the faintest hint of a smile. Not a twinkle in his eye. He simply ignored her.

"So, Izzo, what shape does this have?"

"War Party power play. Arlw vs. Axti. While we've identified the hit man with reasonable certainty, and a few blind errand runners, the principal is still unidentified."

"Evidence?"

"Damned little. The hole in the hit man's alibi is brief, they've only made one error, and that only straightened out our thoughts. It didn't hand us anything useful, like finger or DNA prints. We're going to have to follow bare hints, hope to find the principal at the end of them and build the case backwards to scoop up the hit man. Our best lead has made himself scarce—I suspect he's no longer breathing."

Director Egfe narrowed his eyes. "You refer to the third minister of Labor? He has missed several days of work, and isn't answering either comm or mail."

"One Damn it. I think it's time to send in the Paris Metro police. I suspect they'll find him three days dead." Izzo hesitated. "How far do you want me to go, in flushing out the Principal. If either Arlw or Axti come out clearly the leader of the War party, a run for the Presidency is pretty much inevitable."

"And historically, Game Players make disastrous Presidents." Efge grimaced.

"Well. With pictures of Arlw kneeling and swearing allegiance widespread, and Axti connected with a Pacifist Philosopher, they've both, at this moment, lost points. If another leader of the War Party was to do something at a high level, Federal or even Dimensional, he might come out the leader of the Party and the next President."

The Director placed his elbows on the desk and laced his fingers. "I suppose from you that's a close to subtle as I can hope for. If you are going to start Playing, you are going to have to do better. Start with a dictionary. In fact, start by getting married; the One will assign you a Princess as soon as you make that move. A wife and a Princess, between them, will have you behaving properly in no time."

Izzo's fair skin show a trace of red. He gave no other sign of an emotional reaction. She couldn't see his face, to tell if it was embarrassment or anger.

The Director shook his head. "Well, on other business, I was thinking we could resolve some of the issues between the One World and the Kingdom of the West. If Xen Wolfson would recompense the women he got pregnant, beyond the child support, for the long term damage to their reputations it would help. And even better, face the husbands he wronged, much of the animosity would die down."

Izzo looked at the Director cautiously. "I doubt he wishes to take the risk of fighting so many men. But turning down an effort at smoothing our differences would look bad."

"I think I will recommend that we set up a court of reconciliation, dealing with the civil charges, not espionage charges, between our worlds. I'll talk to the President about dropping all espionage charges against Wolfson. No more diplomatic immunity at the whim of the president. That should get him to a meeting. Then—since we're being blunt—see if I can push him into doing something that will rebound to our advantage, no matter what happens."

Efge smiled tightly. "But there's still the ruined reputations and the pissed off husbands demanding satisfaction that we can use as an issue back home. I need to make it clear that these are irritating points that keep popping up during negotiations. How are they going to address cross-dimensional lawsuits, monetary recompense, and legal dueling in a treaty between the Empire of the One and Comet Fall?"

Izzo nodded.

The Director finally looked her way. "Investigator Xiat, a competent officer does not ever get herself on world-wide vid. Especially not in such an embarrassing manner. We shall consider possible career path changes."

He dropped her from his consideration. "I wasn't joking when I said to find a wife, Izzo. You've neglected the social side of the power triangle. You needn't stay married long, but be generous. You must always part on good terms. Always. The Ex-wives network is huge. Stay on their good side. Put up with anything. You think it is amusing, Princess Xiat?"

"Sorry, sir, yes. I mean, anything? Dachshunds?"

"Heard about that, did you? Most disagreements are not so rancorous, not to say, humorous."

Izzo raised an inquiring eyebrow.

"My third wife bred them. In excess. I'm surprised you haven't heard the tale about my getting bitten trying to get to my shoes after one of the bitches whelped in my closet. I was late to the first appointment I ever had with the President, who found my reason for tardiness sufficient humorous to forgive. He still refers to it, on occasion."

Izzo raised his eyebrows. "I always have wondered why you're the only person he asks 'what bit you this time?' "

Xiat crinkled her eyes and tipped her lips up briefly before assuming a serious look. She said nothing more as they were dismissed.

They walked in silence down the corridor, Izzo a little tense. He opened his mouth. Shut it. Eyed her sideways.

"Say it. I will not hit you."

"You were pretty muddy. Unrecognizable. He wouldn't be so pissed if it hadn't been so sexually suggestive."

"Wet shirt." She slid a glance his way. He was smiling. Men. So predictable. "The Director's main problem is that he didn't go to Princess School."

"Most men do not consider that a handicap."

"I know. Amazing, isn't it?"

This look was long and thoughtful.

***

"Don't look so nervous, boys." Xiat grinned at Mushy and Whipper's edge-of-the-seat positions. "You want to play the Game? You start by doing blind errands. You know all about that, right? You don't know who my Principal is, and you don't ask. You don't remember this conversation. Right?"

Double nods.

"Ask Me had a pair of dueling swords. Nice enough to look at, but cheap. One broke, remember when Ajha hit the ground with it?"

Double nods.

"I want you to meet him casually, no other people from the group around him. Find out where and when he bought them, and who was with him then. Got it?"

Double nods. Whipper cleared his throat, a bit nervous. "You want to know who knew he had a pair of swords handy, if the person knew they were cheap and perhaps if that person urged him to buy them or urged him to bring them to the party to show them off."

Xiat smiled. "Don't be too smart, and don't give away that you are searching for just that information. If the Bad Guys find out, they might have a few unfriendly questions for you. And I'd like to know, soon."

Mushy squirmed and they exchanged looks. Mushy gulped and dived in. "When we were waiting around for a plane at the San Francisco airport, we spotted Ask Me, had a pre-flight drink. He was miffed. He'd just bought those swords, found them in San Francisco, when he and Orc were walking around and killing a bit of time. Orc told Yukky about them, and Yukky said he should bring them to Aunt Kiaj's to show them off."

"Do you know, I believe I've completely underestimated the pair of you. Did he have a carrying case?"

Yukky shook his head. "He had the pieces and the other sword just wrapped up and in his luggage. With the handle sticking out like a complete dork. He's going to auction them off, probably clean up, the way that vid is circu . . . err."

"I don't suppose Ask Me said anything about Orc carrying something like a sword case?"

Double shake.

"Halleluiah sure had a nice one. Empty, he said he bought it as a present." Mushy said.

"Allu? Aunt Toyq's older boy? How do you fit swords into them, anyway? I guess the hilts at the ends, the blades next to each other? Or if it's for one, is it a funny shape?"

"I don't know, he didn't let me look. It was just square, well, rectangular, long, you know. Cordovan brown leather."

"Well. In that case, take these, and follow the directions inside. Don't go home to pack, don't tell anyone where you'll be. Just go."

They took the sealed envelopes as if they were snakes, and she showed them out the door. Everyone knew the part of the Game where the pawns started having unfortunate accidents, and a lot of Players didn't bother to get their own pawns out of play first. And some made sure their own couldn't talk.

The poor boys must be wondering which kind she—and her invisible overhead—were.

And poor Poppy. Her much yearned for ex husband Uzga had been found dead in a New York hotel, no signs of violence. Xiat had recommended a check for the poison Poppy had been given. And requested a check on Poppy's movements and that she be shifted again. If the Investigator sent Poppy and Jay into hiding in New York . . . Mushy and Whipper aren't the only ones who ought to be worried about a problem overhead.



Chapter Fourteen

24 Safar 1407yp

Makkah

Ajha stared at the desert, all rock and sand, and tried to not give in to an urge to pace. The Fiend had put on tinted glasses and rendered herself opaque. The Guards looked relaxed, pleased to be in familiar territory. They'd hustled everyone else off this car. The train to Makkah was crowded, as always. All this space seemed unnecessary.

And gave him too little to look at to take his mind off what was waiting ahead. After all, it wasn't like it was permanent or anything. He'd be leaving. Nearly everyone did. He shot a glance at Fean. Should have left her at home. Princesses have so many of the genes she won't be able to not feel everything.

He felt the first touch on his barriers, and softened them. Acknowledgement, acceptance, welcome. No pressure. That would come when he was in their presence. Everyone had felt it. The guards were all looking at him, Fean had lowered her book. Beyond the double door of the car, faces were turned to look back at him. He turned his own face firmly outward, to stare at the sere landscape.

And hour later, the welcome, the Oneness lay so heavily on his mind he couldn't tell his vision from the others'. The Guards grabbed his elbows and steered his clumsy feet off the train and down onto the street. Fean's wonder and terror were more visible than the ground he walked on, filled the air he breathed with a red fog. An amphitheater. So many visions all looking down on him. Fean stumbled to a seat, the guards let go and retreated. He managed to walk a fairly straight line to the center and crossed to the empty western point of the many pointed star in the pavement. He sank into the bright light, opening up everything he had, and letting it melt into and brighten the light.

A village. A chalet of a village. Happy children, women going about their chores in the streets, or out in the fields. Dancing in the fields, fixing nitrogen for fertilizer. A gaggle of girls laughing and running, glowing brightly with their magical potential. A celebration of return, a pit barbeque, friendly witches.

A blonde and a redhead, beautiful and dangerous, other gang members, the Wizard Eldon, a sexual pervert, jumping in to rescue people buried in snow, diving into danger to rescue children kidnapped by the Helaos. Not all his memories, Ajha realized that Fean's were there, and yes Rior herself had been here and left some of these memories. Some were from the rescued children. A wizard of incredible power, turned away from crime, from twisted perversion, to be the hero they so desperately needed.

Xen, fighting for other Worlds without question, even when those Worlds struck out at him. Shame. Workouts, techniques both martial and magical. Things that could save lives. That had saved one.

Other Worlds and people, his memories tangling with others to form a more varied whole. People with dignity, wisdom, intelligence, but no power. People the One appreciated and loved, but couldn't touch. People the One World had harmed, respect turned to hate as people with some connection to the One accepted from the One only a slice of the whole, a piece that justified their own desires and actions. A hodpodge, a sort of blend of everyone and everything. A multi-hued vision of potential futures, of things the One desired to happen. The desire to war with other Worlds was rather low. Curiosity about them high. Arrogance fading, hanging on stubbornly, a heavy weight of aggression and protection, affront, fear and hatred. Reduced, but as the turmoil of his additions settled, his horizons expanded and he saw the immensity of the Whole. He had stirred up a sizable bay on an endless ocean. Where the winds would blow his tempest, who knew? Whether his tempest would grow or shrink was balanced on the future, and only time would tell which way it would fall.

They stayed for a week, lost in some strange foggy vagueness as they saw every site and at night crawled into bed and slept and dreamed the dreams of a billion people.

It took five hundred kilometers of separation for the connections to fade, to wake up to himself.

The Fiend had recovered faster, or perhaps been in less deep. "I really liked that." Her voice was nearly a whisper. "And I never want to go back. Ever." She slipped her sunglasses on, and became unreadable. Singular and individual.



Chapter Fifteen

Xiat tapped and walked into her boss's office. "The Kingdom of the West got all snotty about an official meeting. When I suggested a casual, first discussion, they decided to out casual us, and so we're meeting Xen in some country tavern. They sneered at our need for guards, but suggested that we could bring a dozen if we were feeling nervous. They told us to pick a time and date."

"Right." He reached a tapped a spot on his desk.

"Yes?" The Director's voice, neutral.

"The Fallen have agreed to a casual meeting. Do you have a preference for date and time?"

"Soon. Ajha's in Makkah, so I'd like a feel for how the Fallen will respond, by the time he's away from there. Try tomorrow, midmorning—what is the time difference?"

Xiat mouthed the information.

"They're about an hour ahead of us, there. Just now."

"Good. You'll come, too. And bring Xiat, maybe she can distract them a bit. Xen's a womanizer. Get me a brief on any other people they are planning on bringing."

"Yes, sir."

Xiat nodded and ducked out. I am definitely on his Bad List. Probably will be until I transfer. She sent a mail to the Embassy flunky doing the negotiations. Awkward, especially as she didn't know him, had no idea how obnoxious he was being to his lessors. Or, of course, who else he answered to. The laser relay that sent electronic messages through the gate was slow, but she still had her reply in a few minutes.

***

Izzo looked around the open gate area. No one to listen while they waited for a security detail from Exterior.

Interesting spot for a briefing.

"Apart from Captain Wolfson, his immediate superior, Major Easterly will be present. They felt that was sufficient, in as much as they have a fort full of soldiers close to hand. Apparently this Tavern isn't the casual choice I first assumed. It's dead center of their Gate testing area. The usual staff of the Inn consists of the owner, Harry Murchison, who is also the bar tender there. A cook, Flare Valadaut, two waitresses, Eclipse and Deimos. The note I got from them was that this was a nice respectable inn, restaurant and tavern, not a brothel and that our people should mind their manners and not try to rape the waitresses."

"Major Easterly is what they call a wizard. He was part of their first infiltration of the Empire. He is head of what they call Magic Central, the magicians that are in direct service to the King. He was active in putting together the magical cavalry we saw in action at the Merge, but he is no longer posted with them, but rather, back in Karista. The magic cavalry is posted to the fort near this tavern. The two serving girls are both Crescent Moon witches—that is their lowest level."

"And not a single bureaucrat? Diplomat? No one from either King or Council." Efge looked over at Izzo.

"Either the King is saying this is a private matter, with Wolfson and his Second talking about dueling, or he is leaving an incredibly important bit of diplomacy in the hands of his two top magical spies."