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07 September 2018 @ 05:45 pm

Q laughed. "I'm not sure if it's a matter of people with the right personality being attract ted to the profession, training, or contagion. But . . ."

Rael laughed out loud at that. "Contagion! That would explain it."

Q grinned and pulled over a tab of metal and flipped it over to turn it on. An illusion, a magical hologram appeared in mid-air above it. Bright dots and colored lines.

"My latest map, in case you're interested. A detailed look at the region around the One World."

"Whoa. Getting a bit complicated, isn't it?" Rael studied it. "The green worlds are ours, bright for the One, a bit darker for the early colonies and lighter for the recent?"

"I wasn't sure if you guys considered the suburb commuter worlds as colonies or not. Those are the lime green ones."

"Umm, I think that legally we designated them as part of the city they're attached to." Rael poked the map. "And then the hub worlds. What do the colors mean?"

"This one, out three links, is to quarantine or isolate dangerous worlds. These blue ones are rarely travelled routes, and then yellow for the worlds being actively explored but not obviously dangerous. There's three hubs going out to them."

"And I'll bet the red coming in from the side are Earth's discoveries."

"Yep. And Granite Peak right in the middle." Q's finger followed a golden thread that jagged across the area, with several side branches. "And the Maze. So technically all those Worlds belong to The Kingdom of the West."

"Oh. Not Disco? Well, it didn't exist then, did it?" Rael bit her lip. "So the Embassy World belongs to the Kingdom."

"Nope. Our government granted it entirely and without conditions to Xen Wolfson." Q grinned. "Oh, the expression on your face. Yep, technically, when any world buys a square for their embassy, they pay Xen. Of course he puts it all into Disco's accounts."

"He owns the whole world." Rael nodded. "Figures."


But in the morning, it was Ambassador Never, herself, who handed her a piece of paper and smiled benignly. "Have a nice visit."

Rael had no idea if there was a bit of malice behind the smile or not. She knew the gorgeous blonde wasn't even close to as young as she looked—they'd organized a small elite guard detail to escort the President to her eightieth birthday party last year—but it was hard to believe. Until one realized how close to impossible she was to read, either mentally or though her physical movements and expressions. So very controlled.

"Thank you, Ambassador. I hope to." She come dressed to travel—that is, in a proper Comet Fall women's riding suit—and just a small over the shoulder purse. Of course the dimensional bag in the purse held a great deal more than anyone would expect.

Ambassador Never turned away, so Rael headed back out of their embassy, and headed for the dimensional gate on the side of the stone wall that encircled the entire lot. The open decorative stone work made the wall more of a symbol than a security measure, especially since the wall dropped to less than a meter in height at the front where it faced the Plaza.

The gate was placed for easy access to the carriageway that looped in front of the embassy building. The guards there frowned at her, but waved her through.

Never told them to let me through. So . . . will I be facing a problem on the other side, out of sight of everyone here?

She giggled at the guards and bounced through.

Chapter Two
In Enemy Territoy

Two blank stone walls, angled for firing at the gate and whatever came through it. Enough space between them, straight ahead, that traffic wouldn't be impeded. The soldiers on the walls—what she could see of them—ignored her. So she strode, with just a little bounce, straight ahead.

Beyond the walls she could see the city of Karista, tall towers with ornate peaks. Trees, colorful houses in the foreground, across a stretch of mown grass, with the road from the gate running straight through it.

A car was parked just outside an unlabeled fence-line.

Am I not seeing all the security, or are they that confident they could repulse an invasion?

That naïve? Or the home of the most powerful magical people in the Multiverse?

She eyed the car as she neared. A limo, well known Oner maker, black. A chauffeur in a pseudo uniform hopped out and opened the back door for her.

Rael leaned and looked in. A young man in an expensive business suit. Paris tailoring, perfect hair.

"Hi. I'm Rael."

He raised his nose. "I am Updo Withione Azteca. Ambassador ??? sent me to . . . Where is your escort? We thought you'd at least have a knowledgeable driver!"

"I'm not here to make a show, I'm just visiting a friend." Rael stepped back and eyed the limo dubiously. "Not that I wouldn't appreciate a ride to Ash, but . . ."

Updo popped out of the car. "I'm here to take you to Ambassador Ozma. The embassy staff will make arrangement to get you to Ash, while the ambassador explains our position here, and introduces you to the local government leaders."

Rael thought about days of meeting important people . . . "No thank you. I'm not here in any official capacity, nor have I the time. I am just visiting a friend. Please pass on my thanks to Ambassador Ozma, for his consideration."

She turned and stepped away.

"You can't . . . get back here! You're just a guard! You are nothing, you incompetent bitch!"

Rael stopped and looked the man up and down. "I'm not here to stroke the ambassador's ego, nor put up with insults from a bureaucrat's toady. Go away."

She walked away, watching the pair magically, as they talked quietly with much exasperated arm tossing, and at a moment when neither was looking at her, warped light, and stepped off the side of the road.

They noticed her apparent absence, looked around and scrambled back into the car.

They drove past slowly, the chauffeur peering out the left side, Updo to the right.

Rael strolled after them, and turned right at the first corner.

Small weathered wooden houses, small yards with vegetable gardens, and caged chickens. Not a prosperous neighborhood, but despite a fair amount of peeling paint, not desperately poor either. A shop of some kind on the corner . . . a woman with a basket full of bread looked her over.

"Lost, honey?"

Rael looked down at her riding clothes. "Yeah a little."

"Well, if you've lost your horse, it's most likely being sold down at the auction yard, right now." The woman jerked her head over her shoulder. "T'other side of t'race track."

"Ah, thank you." Might as well buy a horse now as later.

Rael strode out in the indicated direction.

And really wished she hadn't worn riding boots. Not that they weren't well broken in and all, but they weren't cushioned, the hard leather sole didn't absorb impact . . .

"Hey Lady! Need a ride?"

Rael looked up from dodging road hazards. A man was leaning over the seat of a two-wheeled . . . was it called a trap? Whatever. Harness to a big chestnut.

"Joe's Taxi can take you anywhere in town for two royals."

"Royals! Ha!" Rael eyed the man. "Actually, I heard there was a horse auction around the race track?

"Oh, well, I kin take you there for just five crown."

Rael snorted. "Two, maximum."

"Well, all right. You talked me into it."

Oops! Ought to have started bargaining at about five points!

The man hopped down and folded down a step. Rael climbed into the back seat, and the man pulled a canvas bucket thing off the horse's nose and they were off at a fast trot.

"So, Joe." Rael leaned over the front seat. "What's a good price for a riding horse? Nothing flashy, but sound and trained well enough to not be a problem?"

The man laughed. "As much as the auctioneer can get out of you. Mostly this place sells the slow race horses, so they're not what anyone would call well trained. And some older horses, back page horses that won't sell at any of the up town auctions, broke down horses headed for the knackers. I wouldn't pay above fifty, sixty royals for anything here." And so saying, he steer the horse around a corner and stopped beside a large barn-like structure, a maze of small fenced pens visible on the far side. "I can here the auctioneer , so there's something selling, now."

"Thanks!" Rael handed over the two crowns, and hopped down.

Inside, all resemblance to the posh art auctions she'd attended was . . . organizational only.

A semi-circle of benches, dropped down a few meters to a slatted pen where the wares were on display.

In this case a nervy rearing bay circling white-eyed and high-headed, being crudely steered by the man riding him bare back in a halter.

"Just four years old, good looking bay gelding, Flashy and fast. What do I hear? Who'll give me a hundred royals for this beauty?" The auctioneer slid into a weird chant until someone offered twenty.

"Twenty! For this fine animal?" Back to gibberish with pointing and back and forthing. "Thirty who'll give me forty, Thirty, forty, thirty-two thank you sir, who'll give me thirty-five?"

Rael wasn't at all sure the man stopped to take a breath, but then he picked up a hammer and tapped.

"Going once! Beautify fast bay!" Tap. "Going twice!" Tap. "Sold!"

And the bay was out the gate on one side as another horse came in the other.

The big draft horse went through more gibberish and banging of gavels.

I'm not catching three-forths of that. One knows what I'll buy or how much I'll pay for it.

Two more high strung ex-race horses, then a scruffy pinto.

"Rides and drives, a nice big mare, eighteen years old, back page, but what do you expect with an experienced horse. Plenty of miles left on her." The auctioneer leaned to the side for a mumbled question, nodded. "Saddle and bridle sell with her. Who'll give me twenty for this nice little mare?"

"Twenty, twenty . . ." devolved into gibberish as the lad doing the showing mounted and proceeded to try and get the clearly irritated horse to show some action.

:: Ought to buck him off! :: The mare trotted in the confined space, spun back to trot the other way.

Rael swallowed. "Ten."

"Ten, we have ten from the little lady. Good tastes, now you gentlemen aren't going to let her steal this nice mare—and tack—that saddle alone is worth ten!" A scattering of laughs from the spectators. "Ten, who'll give me twenty . . . gibberish . . . Twenty, thank you sir, back to you young lady do I hear thirty?"

Rael rather suspect the "gentleman" was a buddy of the auctioneer, but thirty-five wasn't a bad price, since it included the tack.

And maybe I heard that horse and maybe I didn't.

She got a tag with a number on it, and pointed at the office, where she paid, including taxes, and received a piece of paper.

The lady there pointed at the picture. "You kin see the markings match, picture was obviously taken when the horse was a just a couple of years old." Sniff. "No guarantee about the breeders report of the bloodlines."

The horse's family tree was followed by lines with names, dates and signatures. Six on the bottom of the page, then the woman flipped the page over to show more.

Ah! That's what they mean by back page. Lots of owners. Well . . .

The woman eyed Rael, scribbled on the paper, and stamped it. "Just show this to the boys in the back and they'll get your horse out. And sometimes the city guards ask about papers, just show them this."

"Thanks." Rael flashed a smile and bounced out to see what she'd done.