Ice got his mouth closed and swallowed. “Umm . . . uh . . .” Cleared his throat. Kicked his brain. Didn’t work. “Uh, sorry, my brain just stopped working. Uh.”
She didn’t seem to be wearing much makeup. The short professional haircut was fluffed out a bit, the eyes seemed bigger. Okay, darker lips.
Keiq bit one side of that luscious lower lip, a smile creeping out.
Ice took a deep breath and tried to stop staring. “You know? I didn’t realize that someone looking stunning wasn’t a stupid metaphor.”
“A bit of a change?” Wacky was grinning.
Ice couldn’t take his eyes off Keiq. “A little. I guess it didn’t take much to tip you over the edge from ‘damn good looking if she’d stop scowling at me,’ to, to . . . stunning.”
Wacky started snickering. “Keiq, he actually does sound stunned. I told you, you could do it, anytime you tried.” She reached out each direction and poked both of them. “Let’s go find something to eat.”
Ice nodded and got his feet moving. Down the stairs and across to the house.
Keiq looked just as spectacular dimly and dramatically lit.
“Just . . . don’t expect me to do this all the time.” Keiq sounded a bit uncertain, as they walked through the door and into light.
“Definitely not safe for work. None of the men on your floor would be able to concentrate on work and the women would hate your guts.”
She reached out an thumped his arm. “It’s not that bad!”
Another snicker from Wacky. And one from the doorway ahead.
“You look good, Aunt Keiq.” Elk grinned. “I’ll take notes all through dinner, so I can be suave and debonair on my next date.”
Ice’s turn to snicker. “Good thing you missed the sight of me looking like a complete imbecile when hit by the effect of your aunt in man-hunting gear.”
Keiq sputtered, Wacky grinned, and Elk frowned, suddenly looking even more like his aunt.
“Let me get some snacks out, Azik will be home in fifteen minutes.” She trotted off.
Ice eyed Keiq cautiously. “The shock appears to be wearing off. I think I can think around you. Is Azik the Big Bad Brother?”
“Oldest Brother . . . I think he’s actually the shortest of the four.”
Ice looked over at Elk, who was already as tall as his aunt, who was only eight centimeters shorter than Ice. Well, probably much too civilized to physically discourage an unsuitable suitor.
Keiq led him to a huge sitting room, with a wall of windows currently reflecting the room.
Two girls, somewhere in the ten-to-fourteen range galloped through, giving the eye to the stranger as they passed.
“My nieces. Zwyk and Qwik.” Keiq pointed him to one end of a sofa, and sat safely far away at the other end.
Wacky walked in with a tray of nibbly things and slid it on to the low table in front of them. “So, Ice, do you go home to Tall Trees very often?”
“No. I don’t have any family anymore, so I’ve only been back once since I left for the Directorate School sixteen years ago.”
“Oh. I thought the Tribes were big closely related clans, sort of.”
“Traditionally yes, but they’re . . . sort of a mess right now.”
“That’s what Rumacova’s talking about, isn’t it?”
“Yes, she sees the problem of that many men with no investment in the future, and the situation just getting worse. Women so desperate for children that they cease to care about marrying.” Ice reached for a carrot stick. “I’ve been a bit surprised that the Multitude here have the same problem. I thought it would be much less difficult to find a suitable spouse in such a huge population.”
Wacky nodded. “We’ve got the same problem at the highest level.” She glanced at the kids. “I got lucky on the first try. I . . . didn’t like the idea of being a Game Wife, but since I’ve got a really high count, I didn’t see any other options.”
A snicker from Keiq. “Good thing you married for love, first off.”
“Heh, no kidding. Mother was furious I didn’t look for some old political crony of Dad’s. Ugh! But my school buddy had this gorgeous big hunk of a brother . . .” She cocked her head toward the sound of a door closing. “Who just got home.”
Keiq’s shortest big brother topped Ice by a few cems and added broad, and smooth confident movement to it.
“Azki Withione Goldport Colorado. Azik, please.”
Ice subdued a thought about grasping the paw of a big black bear. “Icka Withione Sycamore Tall Trees. Ice.”
“Pleased to meet you, even though you have just destroyed my inner vision of a Tree . . . Person? Tribesman?”
“We just say Tree. A literal translation that sounds perfectly sensible to us.”
“I see. And four years with XR, ten with IR, then three months in the Presidential Directorate before the new President fired you by proxy.”
Ice grinned. “I suspect they all arm-wrestled to decide who got the pleasure of firing me.”
The big bear laughed. “So who are you working for, right now?”
Ice glanced back at Keiq, “Sounds like a job interview, doesn’t it?” A grin back at Azik. “Oops, forgot to bring my transcript.”
“At the moment, I feel like a ping-pong ball. I’m regularly helping Governor Rumatova with her reorganization of the Colonial government. All the while keeping in touch with the politics here and writing about it. Then teaching Tree Upcomers magic lessons, and practical uses for it on their World. Taking fencing lessons, and pursuing your sister.”
“Ass.” Keiq looked like she wished she was close enough to kick him.
Azik grinned. “All right Keiq, maybe you can keep him.”
“I haven’t got him. He’s just a friend!”
Ice grinned at Azik. “That is a vast improvement on ‘suspect.’ There’s hope yet. Anyway, I’ve got almost fifteen years’ worth of separation pay to invest cautiously while waiting to see if this vote of no confidence comes to anything. I suspect I’ll be working on a political campaign soon enough.”
“And if not?” Azik was definitely studying him. “They’ve been arguing for months.”
“Yes. The War Party knows they’ll lose a special election. But if Agfu can hang on for four more years, the public might forgive him, or at least not blame the Party.”
“He’s not being very cany about it.”
“No, he isn’t, and it’s losing him supporters. One more bad economic quarter . . . I mean, trying to close the gates between colonies and that ‘import’ tax? At least the Council ignored him on those two recommendations.” Ice shrugged. “The War Party Councilors may want to dump him well before they’re up for reelection.”
“So you’re still analyzing?” Azik’s eyes narrowed. “That political column . . . Ace on the Inside. Is that you?”
“It’s several writers, I’m one of them. Keeping my hand in, just in case.
“But if everything else falls through, I’ve got enough money to buy into one of the new colonies. Ditch the rat race forever.”
A surprised glance from Keiq. “Really? I have a hard time thinking of you as a farmer.”
“Yeah. I’m more the rugged pioneer and hunter type.” He snickered at her expression. Looked back at her brother. “Your sister thinks I’m just a pretty face in an over-priced suit.”
“I didn’t say ‘just’ and why not Tall Trees?”
“The prejudice runs strong, both ways. I’m already tired of dealing with it. Lucky Thirteen is really tempting. I could go and just be one of the mutts.”
It was a pleasant dinner, batting politics around, talking about magic education, and the eccentricities of the various colonies. The advantages of an established colony versus being a founding member of a new one.
Nice kids, nice sister-in-law, nice brother, even if he had turned out to be a bear instead of a wolf.