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10 October 2017 @ 12:43 am
_Fractured Loyalties_ part 7  
   

Chapter Eight Hotsprings and Poker

12 Jumada 1408 yp

Embassy World

And a day off.

In the mountains, at some hotsprings.

"Dad says I need to spend more time on recognition points." Nighthawk waved around at the barren landscape. Rocks and a few stunted pines that had gotten their roots into a crack in the old lava. "It hasn't erupted for a couple of hundred years. But sometimes the water is hotter than others. You always have to check."

She stuck a toe in and jerked it back. Held out her left hand and pulled power—heat—from the water. She sent it skyward, a needle of push reaching up into the atmosphere . . . past the atmosphere.

Ra'd held his breath and tried to watch as she reached for the moon . . . and ran out of energy. Halfway there.

"Drat. Rustle could reach the moon when she was just twenty-three. Sometimes my family is hard to keep up with."

"You're only twenty-six." Ra'd slipped his arms around her. Holy One! She just pushed halfway to the moon. She could knock satellites out of the sky. And she thinks she not up to snuff? "Oners your age . . . well, Paer's exceptional and you can outdo her. Ebsa . . . "

"Is a clever fast thinker, and pretty strong as well." She laughed then. "And I am strong, I just . . . I fought so much with my mother and siblings that my early training is bad. My foundations are weak. So. Meditation in a hotspring."

Ra'd eyed the irregular pool. "It isn't steaming any more."

She dipped a toe and jerked it out. "Drat. Now I've got it too cold. I think I'll try meditating beside a hotspring."

"Sounds good." Ra'd kicked off his shoes, as she sat.

Cross-legged, torso erect. Arms and hands relaxed on his thighs, deep breathing . . . shields down. He could feel her doing the same, her brilliant glow spreading out like a flower blooming, filling her and the world around her . . . feeling the small slice of the world and knowing it.

Ra'd felt cautiously. Hard rock under his butt. The smell of Sulfur drowning out the pine trees' scent. A chilly breeze with a hint of the snow on the ridge behind them . . . across from them, circling them.

Oh, of course, we're inside the main crater, not on the outer slope like I had assumed.

There was a heat source below. Deep deep below.

If Nighthawk can reach out hundreds of thousands of kilometers into space, surely I can reach a dozen kilometers through solid rock to liquid.

It wasn't actually that deep, eight kilometers to the first molten rock in the pipe leading to the surface. Another kilometer down to the mass of hot lava, waiting patiently for the pulse of heat and pressure that would jar it into glorious destructive movement toward the surface.

More power than he dared to think of touching. He withdrew his attention, pulling back to his butt on the rocks. But the throb of that deep power remained with him, and its slow, indirect feed of power to the small pool of warming water.

I know this spot. Is this the recognition Xen spoke of? And if I keep quiet and just watch Nighthawk learning, practicing, can I learn enough to figure out how to do it?

***

And then they took the corridor back to Disco, and then another, back to the house down the coast.

"I thought we could pack in a few days in the daylight." Nighthawk grinned. "Then I'm going to take you out to dinner. On Comet Fall."

"If I've displeased you, I'll slink away quietly. There's no need to have me killed."

Nighthawk snickered. "You do not displease me and I'm going to introduce you to some of my family. And a bunch of friends."

"I see."

She shook her head. Looked away. "I think about . . . immigrating to the One World. But then I remember how everyone treated me. Well, except for the five of you. And suddenly just loving one man . . . isn't enough to take me there."

Ra'd's turn to look away. "I've never thought about . . . leaving the One. I don't think I'd fit in well, to your witches' culture. I don't think it could ever feel like home."

She nodded. "The witches are not the whole world, and I live on the thin edge of it. But . . . yeah. Guess we'll just have to keep meeting on strange worlds."

He snorted. "And make mad passionate love in between killing things?"

"Yes."

Ra'd opened Oak's bubble cradle and admired the sleeping baby. "She must be . . . ten or eleven months old now?"

"Maybe a little more. Our highly magical babies tend to mature a bit slowly, compared to ordinary babies. She'll catch up in her teens."

"Late growing?"

"Yep, both size and developmental stages. Dad didn't walk or talk until he was almost two, and Answer still calls him retarded."

"Umm, I almost hate to ask if she's a relative, or one of the competing witch lines."

"Oh, we don't compete in that sense. Now, individually . . . yes, in everything from magical skills, advancements, cooking . . . Yeah.

"Answer is my . . . lets see . . ." She held up a finger. "Answer is the mother of Happy, who is the mother of Never, who is the mother of Rustle, who is Xen's mother. Great, great, great grandmother. Umm, she's a hundred and ninety-two years old."

"Have you got that many living ancestors on your mother's side?"

"Almost. My mother Swish was Blissful's last child. Blissful died diverting the comet of 1368. So I've got two very old aunts, half aunts if you want to get picky, and five older cousins who all have children and grandchildren . . . I've sort of lost track of the next three or four generations . . . call it a couple dozen. And two half sisters on my mother's side."

"And your father's well into the double digits for children. Your half sisters and brothers."

"Yep. You can run away screaming, if you want to."

"No . . . but it's going to take me awhile to memorize all their names."

***

Disco personnel from Comet Fall didn't bother with paperwork or formalities. They just used the gate in the horse barn. Or rather, on the outside of the barn.

A single step took them from deep twilight back to sunset. They'd walked out onto a brick patio, or carriage way. The Sun balancing on a grassy hill to the right, behind them a two story timbered building. Rough logs, with bright blue painted trim.

"This is the Crossroads. When Rustle was inventing Gates, this is where she worked. Harry moved the Tavern here a year later."

"Harry Murchison, The God of Travelers, your maternal grandfather."

Nighthawk's teeth flashed. "Yes. Does it bother you?"

"No. Just making sure of who I'm about to meet."

She stared up at the building. "This is where I came when I ran away from home. Most of the happiest memories of my childhood were formed here. Back in Ash, when I was, oh, four or five, I suppose, I'd see Dad on Pyrite and try to sneak away. If I got away, he'd give me a ride, and talk to me, show me things, before I had to go home. And I sat and sort of hid in Lady Gisele's garden a lot, when he was taking biology lessons there. Sometimes he'd get roped in for magic lessons, mostly to test kids for dimensional talents and train us just a bit. I loved those days. At ten I ran away from home and came here."

"To your grandfather."

"And Dad. Because of all these gates. He was assigned to keep an eye on them, especially after we realized one of the worlds had also been discovered by the One, and that they were studying our gate."

"And then we invaded. Bloody stupid, but they were in a panic over these new gates Earth had invented, and tested here."

She snickered, and threaded her fingers through his. "C'mon, I'll introduce you around. It's traditional for young witches to earn some pocket money by working here, so I suspect some of my friends will be here."

The long side of the building faced a road of some sort of melted stone. A broad porch ran the length of the building, rails and benches all worn smooth, polished by long usage. The wide door was propped open to the cool spring air. Wooden floor, wooden tables. The bar to the right looked to be half a tree trunk, polished to a high sheen, kegs and wine rack behind it, and shelves of glass mugs and wine glasses.

A bent old man, dark skinned, gray hair, straightening now, a slow smile broadening into a beaming grin. "Nighthawk! About time you brought your young man home."

Ra'd's breath caught at the broad, deep, power the man allowed through his shield. Like Dad.

"Oh?"

Also like Dad, plucking up thoughts like daisies in a field. "Nicholas One, sir. I . . . think you knew him, a long time ago."

"Indeed." The old man cocked his head and studied him. "We were . . . sort of pleased to find out what had happened to the Orange team. Would have been better if you'd been friendly, but you can't have everything. Well, haul him to the back and introduce him around, girl."

Ra'd blinked free of the old man's aura. No wonder they call them gods! He gave the room with a quick visual sweep . . . Blinked at two tables full of uniformed soldiers, mostly young, all eyeing him suspiciously. How did I not notice them immediately! Other tables with older people in heavy work clothes. The only threat appeared to be the soldiers, but they were subsiding, now. Looking curious, not belligerent. Just as well I didn't wear my uniform.

A door in the back corner flew open. A minor hurricane of brilliant red and gold hair pounced on Nighthawk. "You're back! And you brought him! Bring him back here in the light so we can see him!"

Ra'd had time enough to categorize: female, late teens, hyperactive as he was grabbed and pulled into a spacious kitchen.

"This is Wavelength. Yes, she's always like this." Nighthawk grabbed the other girl in a hug. "She's adopted family. My great Aunt Obsidian officially adopted her, and Q helped tons, so Wavelength was here practically full time."

"Hi." Ra'd failed entirely to figure out if shaking hands was the appropriate way to greet a hyperactive Witch.

"And this is Flare, and Peter Michaelson, and Dagger and . . . "

Peter Michaelson was in uniform and eyeing him thoughtfully. "Nighthawk, is it a good idea to show a Oner where our gates are?"

"The littler ones are Kinkajou, Lynx ,and Jaguar." Nighthawk glared at the soldier. "Dad moves the gate regularly, and we'd probably notice him walking around feeling for it.

The littler ones looked to be twelve or thirteen, three girls who grabbed plates as Flare filled them and swooped out the door.

Flare brushed back a strand of hair, brown laced with purple.

"Hi Ra'd. Glad to finally meet you."

"Hi. Umm, I didn't realize Comet Fall had the purple gene." Ra'd kept half his attention on the soldier.

"Oh, it's rare. Nothing like that Purple Planet." Flare grabbed clean plates and started filling them. "Xen says about ten percent of the people there have purple hair, and that I should be glad I only have a single copy."

Nighthawk nodded. "Even their skin is purple. They look like they ought to be dead."

The soldier was looking absent-minded. Talking to someone?

The Dagger girl—she looked to be eighteen or so, black hair with a dramatic white streak—took the tray and carted it out.

"You must station a lot of soldiers here . . . umm, why don't you close the gates, if they are that dangerous?"

Shrugs all around.

"Well, we have closed two. The other seven, one of them is to Arrival, and we're colonizing another. Studying a couple, sort of starting to establish diplomacy with one. And it's fun to go look at the mammoths and so forth. The last one is just an empty world we aren't doing anything with, right now." Nighthawk grinned. "Except passing through to the maze."

Michaelson grunted. "Why don't you just give him the keys to the Palace? And yes, Easterly says Xen got permission for him to come here. Doesn't mean I'm going to like it."

Ra'd looked him over. Pale blonde, eyes a shade of blue that didn't look natural . . . "Are you related to Judge William Michaelson?"

"My brother. Met him, have you?"

"Not personally. He officiated at a hearing at Disco last week."

This Michaelson grinned. "And how many cases of apoplexy occurred when people discovered that when he said 'you can't lie in my courtroom,' he wasn't kidding."

Ra'd smirked. "No one died, but there were quite a few spontaneous sentence fragments. Until they all adjusted to it. He must be interesting in criminal court."

"They keep sending him out to the frontier. He can cut corners, and mete out instant justice in the most amusing fashion imaginable. Apparently his appearances are the high point of entertainment for most of the little mining town he hits."

Ra'd boggled a bit. "They must be desperate. He didn't strike me as amusing."

"Personally, I consider him amazingly stuffy. But out there he lets his irritation loose and gets creative about punishment."

They ate there in the kitchen, chatting away with cook and soldier, and the girls flitting back and forth.

There was a brief fuss out in the main room. Peter looked out the door, and subsided. "Wavelength just decked a farmer. Poor sod."

Ra'd looked at the smirking Nighthawk.

"In the cities, waitresses are often prostitutes. Here, guys who try to grab one of the witches tend to make a fast acquaintance with the floorboards."

Peter nodded. "I worry a bit about Dagger. She was raised by the Black Island Gang, ran away from them a few years ago, but she doesn't have the same attitude the Ash witches develop."

One of the younger witches—Kinkajou— caught that as she stomped in. "Yeah, she had trouble being assertive when she got her butt pinched. The idiot stood up to grab her, so Wavelength showed her how to deal with him. Some of the soldiers are good enough at martial arts to be a challenge, but farmers are easy."

Lynx scooted through the door after her. "Strong, but too slow, and not trained like we are."

The last of the younger cohort was on her heels. Jaguar was another redhead, but normal red not the bright primary red and metallic gold of Wavelength. Lynx had soft brown hair and eyes. Kinkajou was standout beautiful even among this set of good looking young women. Straight black hair and blue eyes in a face that was attractive now and showed the promise of spectacular beauty in her future.

They grabbed the next round of plates and took them away.

"So . . . is this a rough place, or not?" Ra'd tried to categorize their casual attitude.

"Oh no, not for Comet Fall's back country. Pinching a waitress, no big deal. Most guys take no for an answer. Now occasionally we'll have some City Lord . . . " Nighthawk leaned to grin at Michaelson. "Who thinks laws don't apply to him. Umm, not Peter, specifically, mind you. But occasionally some young lord on his rotation has to be hauled out to the street and thrashed."

"Rotation?"

Michaelson snorted. "All noble sons are expected to spend two years in the army. A few months training, and then rotating through four military posts. It lets the senior career officers look them over and recruit the ones they want. It's how Xen got into the military."

"Huh. Do you have military schools?"

"Yes, well, programs at the King's University, and a few other places. But generally you do your rotation first. People like Xen, who show serious promise, or Prince Garit who's high in the succession and promising, get pointed toward the Uni." Peter shrugged. "I'm a mage, so I'm in Magic Central, not really considered for high command, so I've managed to dodge excessive schooling."

The dining room quieted down and Flare shooed them out of her kitchen.

"Oh! I didn't hear you come in. As if I ever did." Nighthawk grabbed Ra'd's hand and pulled him across the room. "Ra'd this is my other grandfather, Wolfgang Oldham."

Very tall, taller than Wolfson. Broad and muscular. The God of War looked like a fit fighter of middle years, short brown hair and beard shot through with silver. He had Nighthawk's eyes, or vice versa. So dark they were nearly black, with a rim of warm red-brown. And the nose. That confident elegant arrogant arch.

"Ra'd ibn Nicholas."

Like Wolfson, the man was completely shielded. Impossible to read.

"Indeed." A flash of teeth. "You have his stare."

Ra'd blinked at a sudden memory of his father's stare. Reputed to reduce the toughest warrior into a contrite puppy. Blinked away sudden moisture in his eyes. "Thank you, sir."

A laugh from behind. Harry stepped out from behind his bar. "Trust you to remember that, Wolf. So how many are coming tonight."

"Not sure if Dydit's going to make it. Jason, Nil, and Michael are all on the way."

A meeting of the gods?

No. A poker game.

Four gods and two wizards.

Ra'd kicked back in a corner and listened to them. Together, their accents, their dialects slowly shifted until they were the "pure" speech the Prophets had used. He could nearly close his eyes and mistake those four for Prophets. Patrick's voice had had that deep rumble to it. Diego had had that sharp edge of laughter. Jason Rombeau's velvety baritone was a lot like Shota's.

The table chatter was similar, the game variations and rules identical. Well, perhaps poker was common here.

Wolfson slipped in around midnight.

Peter pounced, and hauled him to the next table. "Is it really a good idea to let him come here?"

Wolfson's teeth flashed. "Yes. There are only three ways to deal with the Empire. This teetery neutrality we have right now, war, or friendship. They have a population of eight billion to our half billion maybe. They have nearly twice as many magically talented people as we have humans. They have, best guess, twenty million who are strong enough and well enough trained in the basics to be dangerous with just a bit more training."

"Crap."

"Yes. So," Wolfson tilted his head toward Ra'd. "I take every opportunity to encourage people to like us . . . in the hope that they will do whatever they can to foster peace. Give Ra'd another fifty years and he'll be influential. We send all the half Oners who grew up here, off to serve on Embassy—Ruff Hasty for instance—and I'd love to get more of your sisters over there."

Michaelson choked.

"Vulpinite and Tern work in our embassy." Wolfson shrugged. "Anything we can do to change the Oner's perceptions of us to friends or distant cousins. Not enemies."

Michaelson sat back and crossed his arms. "Oh? Are we going to become an exotic vacation destination?"

Wolfson laughed at that. And fetched a pack of cards.

Nighthawk and Flare proved to be deadly serious poker players, and Ra'd was light by a few dozen rials before they quit at dawn and headed home.

Home . . . Oh. Dear. One. That felt like home. Like sitting in the corner listening to my Dad and his friends. Did I actually say I couldn't possibly live on that world?

I can't live on that world. They are the enemy.

And what Wolfson said. ". . . to encourage people to like us, to . . . do whatever they can to foster peace."

I'm being used . . . And I agree with his goals.

Only a long nap in the speed bubble kept him from falling asleep on his feet, checking busses of workers through the gate. Trying to not think too hard.

In the afternoon he typed up a report on the Comet Fall Gods and the two wizards. Saved it. Hesitated. Sent it to Ajki. Hesitated longer, then sent a copy to the Subdirector of Intelligence. Omse. Never met him, know nothing about him. Other than Ajha didn't seem wary of him. Guess I'll trust Ajha's instincts. Or experience.



 
 
 
Michawl DolbearMichawl Dolbear on October 10th, 2017 03:23 pm (UTC)
== Sent it to Ajki. Hesitated longer, then sent a copy to the Subdirector of Intelligence. Omse. ==

++ addressed it to Ajki. Hesitated longer, then added the Subdirector of Intelligence. Omse. Sent it++

There is an office procedure point here. Ra'd ought to mention to Ajki who else is getting a copy, and of course, Omse will know Ajki is the prime?

So the conventional procedure is Ajki, cc: Omse and the hesitation would be before the first send.

Edited at 2017-10-10 03:25 pm (UTC)
(Anonymous) on October 10th, 2017 05:52 pm (UTC)
The way it's written, I get the impression that Ra'd doesn't trust Ajki, and that Ra'd knows of the round filing of Ajha's old Target 42 reports.

Holly
matapampamuphoff on October 10th, 2017 07:30 pm (UTC)
Ra'd doesn't know Omse. Hense the extra hesitation.

Ra'd knows Ajki from brief encounters, both from just after he was appointed, and Ahja and his entire team cheered about it, and during the post _Last Merge_ search for kidnapped students and any mergees who were winning the dominance battle. _That_ hesitation was due to a feeling that he was betraying Nighthawk's trust in him, reporting on what she's shown him. I'll show that.
matapampamuphoff on October 10th, 2017 07:55 pm (UTC)
Try this:
In the afternoon he typed up a report on the Comet Fall Gods and the two wizards. Saved it. Addressed a to Ajki. Hesitated.

I am not betraying Nighthawk's trust, I'm . . . aiding and abetting Wolfson's friendship agenda.

So . . . which is worse? Not that it matters, since I'm going to do both. Sort of.

He growled and . . . hesitated longer. I'm supposed to report to Subdirector of Intelligence. Omse. Never met him, know nothing about him. Other than Ajha didn't seem wary of him. Guess I'll trust Ajha's instincts. Or experience.

He added Omse and sent it.

I grew up in a chain of command. Never questioned it. And I never thought I'd doubt my own loyalty. But in this weird future . . . I don't know what I am loyal to.

But I can go with who. Orde, Urfa, Izzo, Rael, Ahja. Ebsa and Paer.

I can be loyal to them. And the Empire that holds their loyalty.

So long as the Hive Mind doesn't try to order me around, or attack my family again.



Edited at 2017-10-11 02:49 am (UTC)