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matapam
17 September 2017 @ 06:10 am

Meet the Family

1410 px 1412 yp

Izzo fished in a pocket. Snatched fingers back, guiltily. Rael'd seen him deliberately affront people with his hick toothpick chewing. Apparently he simply used a real habit for other purposes.

He dropped his hand to his lap.

"According to rumor, Xen Wolfson has either been killed, or seriously wounded." He paused and watched her.

Rael tried to not respond, to not show any reaction beyond polite interest. She suspected she failed miserably.

"Dr. Quicksilver says injured, leave him alone for a year or so and he ought to be fine. We'd like you to go to Comet Fall and ask to see him."

"Right. Nothing to it." Rael considered the Fallen, probably the most irritating people in the Multiverse. "I'll start with their embassy on Embassy. If they won't let me through, I'll see if his horse will show me a back route." She ignored the odd look he gave her.

***

It looked like an "Old Western Frontier" stage set had met up with a kitschy Swiss Chalet schemed touristy ski villa and unfortunately, procreated. The setting sun tried to gild the spring snow-melt mud, and failed.

Rael lifted her reins and urged her horse down the slight decline and into the little valley.

She'd taken the corridor as far as the provincial capital, then bought the horse for the final leg. She'd picked this one because with the irregular pinto spots she figured there wouldn't be any of the engineered genes that made the "best" horses here so One damned scary smart.

But "Calico" had turned out to be smooth gaited and easy going, the muddy-grass-over-gravel road in reasonable repair, with rather obvious camping areas at high and dry spots along it. The last two days had been more pleasant than the preceding four talking to ambassadorial type people and large suspicious in the blue and gold uniforms of the Kings own.

Out here, alone on horseback, the lack of people had felt eerie at first. But today it had seemed peaceful, and the sudden scatter of huts and muddy sheep and fenced pastures over the last ten miles an unfortunate intrusion.

The mud deepened as they descended to a creek in full spate. A bridge of logs thrown across, with boards nailed on top, was barely above the water, and from the fresh scrubbed look, had been under water quite recently. Calico slid a bit on the muddy slope down to it, ambled across and up the other side.

And then she was in the village of Ash. The center of magic on this world.

Calico's iron shoes clinked on harder pavement, free of mud. There were lights coming on behind windows, indistinguishable voices, a baby crying. Two girls, preteen at a guess, stopped to eye her.

"Hi? I'm, umm, looking for Xen Wolfson?"

One girl raised a supercilious nose. "Oh, you mean Xenotime Rustleson."

The second girl elbowed the first. "Don't be snotty, she's obviously just a city girl, doesn't know anything." She pointed. "Take the road past the inn, go right at the fork."

"Thank you." Rael booted Calico forward. The inn was emitting delicious smells. I could hunt him up in the morning . . . But she ignored her stomach and turned up the road running between it and a garden, lush with budding bushes, flowering trees, and rows of soil full of sprouts. Just past the inn's stable, the road turned into a dirt track. Sandy enough to not be a morass. A kilometer up the rising path, it split and she took the right fork. The almost full moon cleared the mountains to the east, and by its light she could see that the path dropped a bit toward another creek. Smaller, with a faint smell of sulfur. Run off from one of the hotsprings they talk about.

The path dived into the dark under an oak tree. A hitching rail was dimly visible. Was this a picnic spot, or did visitors tie their horses here and walk the rest of the way?

"That's the usual procedure."

For a second she thought she'd found him, the voice was almost . . . but the man stepping out into the moonlight was more muscular, bearded . . . but those dark eyes . . .

"And I think you're the first Oner we've had stop by."

Rael clamped down hard on her shields.

White teeth flashed in a quick grin. Familiar enough to wrench her heart.

"You must be Xen's father."

"Yes. Wolfgang Oldham. And you are?"

"Rael Withione Montevideo. I . . . The President is concerned, we've gotten rumors that he was badly injured." She slid off the horse, trying to not wince as her feet took the weight.

"Yes." Exasperation in the deep voice now. "An amazing number of people want the boy dead. And are perfectly willing to take out any number of innocent bystanders to achieve that."

Rael sighed. "Yes. At least most of the Oners who want him dead just try to stick him with a sword. May I speak to him?"

"Umm, don't know that he'll wake up, but come along and see for yourself."

She tied the horse and followed the shadowy figure along the stream through a gap in the hill that opened up quickly to orderly grape vines climbing the hillsides. Ahead a grove of enormous trees. Redwoods, like on the west coast of North America?

"Yes. That's where I got these, or rather, their progenitors. Coastal redwoods. I wish I'd thought to snag some giant sequoias. Now those were impressive trees."

Rael tried to tighten her shields further. But there wasn't any tighter. One damn it!

The building just beyond the redwoods was sleek and modern. The first room was obviously part of a winery. It smelled of fruit and alcohol. Beyond it, a sitting room, with stairs leading up to a second floor. And sitting on the stairs, Xen.

"I thought I heard you." He looked like he was fighting off sleep. He looked like hell. "Tit for tat? Come to see me at my scarified worst?"

She thumped down beside him, into his embrace, hiding her face in his shoulder, hugging him back. "Orde sent me. Paer is driving him crazy asking if he's heard anything."

"You, of course, weren't worried at all."

"Course not." She leaned back and studied him. "What happened."

"I ran into a batch of honest-to-god cyborgs. Lasers, bullets, grenades, and finally a flamethrower. It was a bit exciting there, for a bit. I ran like hell. Pretty much the end of the story."

"Why?"

"I dunno. They took one look and demanded I surrender. I said sure, take me to your leader, I want to talk to them about cross-dimensional cooperation. They said, sure, once we've got the control chips inserted into your brain. I suggested we discuss this first. They opened fire. In retrospect, trying to keep talking instead of just traveling out wasn't a good idea."

She reached over and poked his scalp. "Is your hair going to grow back? I dunno about the spottiness, but being you, you could set a new trend." The patches of untanned skin over his face and shoulder made her queasy. How badly injured were you?

"I may have set a new personal record." He wiggled the fingers of his left hand. "At least I didn't loose any important body parts this time, the fingers are almost healed."

But not tanned, and the fingernails are still growing back.

"Well, since I'm awake, I ought to eat. Have you had dinner?"

"No, and you have no idea how tempted I was by that inn. The aroma!"

"The local witches preempt the kitchen for informal cooking contests. Unfortunately you're going to get whatever I accidentally order from the kitchen fabber."

"Accidentally?"

"Yawning while poking buttons can yield unexpected results." He pried himself off the stairs and led her to a kitchen out of a museum. "It's been bubbled a lot of the intervening time, so it isn't really fourteen centuries old. We use it a lot more, now that we know we can just go and buy a replacement."

"Grab drinks." Xen's father spoke from behind them. "Rustle's bringing dinner up from the Inn."

Xen snickered. "Is Rael about to get the whole 'examined by the parents to see if she's suitable' treatment."

"Yep."

/// Speed bubbles and the inadvisability of sleeping with injured gods . . .

/// Rael hauled off to keep her away from dreaming Xen. Meets the witches.

"Weak." The old witch looked her up and down. "Dependent. Running after a man."

Rael blinked at the head witch, the Senior Sister, they called her. Answer. "Actually my president sent me to check on the status of a very important person."

Sneer. "You look young, but I can see you must be nearing the half century mark. And you haven't the complexity of a woman who's given birth. Such a waste, you seem so strong."

Rael unclenched her jaw. "And how many children do you have?" In truth, the old witch's glow was both incredibly complex and frighteningly strong.

"Three. Ten granddaughters. Nineteen great granddaughters. Eight great great granddaughters—so far. And unfortunately, a great great grandson, and a great great great grandson." Snort. "Here. You lot don't count."

"Xen? You aren't proud of . . . ?"

Snort. "We don't have any need for men beyond brief use. We are not weak, we are not subservient, and we should not have sons." She eyed Rael. "At least you are well trained. No doubt your president finds you useful. Your genuine infatuation creates a vulnerability in the man. He's amazingly weak for someone so strong magically. Not terribly bright, and soft in the head as well. But do join us . . ."

It was certainly an eye opening experience. Such different training. Such different talents. Such different methods. So many very strong women.

And soaking in the hotsprings after was rather nice as well. And she was much too worldly to be embarrassed by the casual nudity. Really.

She eyed the two witches heading her way. One complex and strong, one simpler and very strong. A young mother and an older . . . not a virgin, but not a mother, either.

"I'm Obsidian, and this is my sister Topaz. We're Xen's aunts." The older one had light brown hair and blue eyes. The younger was blonde with hazel eyes. And similar features, and they certainly did look quiet a bit like Rustle. But then they all did, to her untrained eyes. Local phenotypes, and less variation, after at least one bottleneck.

/// I will, of course, find some trouble for her to get into.///

/// Xen will suggest she go show Nil how she gets through shields. ///

/// Nil will not appreciate it.///

/// I suspect Rael will be too uncautious as Xen practically falls asleep on his feet, worrying about faint signs of age showing. Rael will be somewhere around 50. He'll toss the longevity spells on her. She'll freak and keep a safe distance from him thereafter.