20 Jumada 1420yp
Just in case
And of course, inevitably, the various candidates would be in the same place at the same time.
Ice got wind of Afgu heading for a tour of the Degalle Military Base at the same time Dog had mentioned going along with Rumacova for a tour and slammed out of the office and jittered in front of the elevator . . . stepped aside to let Keiq out and jumped in. Hit the button for the bottom floor.
“Hey!” Keiq threw herself through the doors. “I was coming to talk to you!”
“Later. I have a collision between candidates about to happen, and I need to be there in case things need to be defused.”
She crossed her arms and glared. “Oh? Right this second?”
“Yes. Hang on, let me check with Dog.” Ice pulled out his comm . . . “Dog? Are you guys enroute for Degalle? I just got word that Afgu is headed out there for a tour as well. I’m on my way, in case there’re any . . . problems.”
He could hear Dog talking, probably to Rip, and beeps in the background as he clicked off.
The elevator hit the ground floor, and he strode out heading for the Metro. The military base was the last stop on the northeast line.
“I fail to see a problem. They aren’t even in the same race.”
Ice glanced at her. “It’s not your job to see this sort of problem in advance. It’s mine.” Down three levels . . . the signs showed an ETA of five minutes for the next outbound train. “So ask me whatever. If it takes more than five minutes, you’ll have to come along.”
“They’ve both got Black Horse Guards, who will no doubt do any ‘defusing’ that’s needed.”
“Right. You have no idea how many false leads I follow. Beats sitting at the desk telling myself I’m just having a girlish fit of vapors.”
That got a growl. “Do you realize how long you have been leaking classified information?”
“Just slightly longer than Ajki and I have been trying to find out how it’s happening and where the hell the intel is going.”
“It’s going to the Earth Embassy . . . but not all of it.”
“Not all of it? So someone is editing it before they pass it along?”
“And we can’t trace the intermediate cutouts. Nor figure out why the Earth doesn’t get everything.”
Ice eyed her. “Have you been tracing it, or are you just trying to prove that I’m the problem?”
Tight lipped glare. “We do not know how it is leaving the building. We are trying to back trace it from the Earth Embassy.”
He raised his brows, but was saved from mentioning illegal surveillance of a foreign embassy, by the arrival of the train. He stepped aboard, and she followed him.
The train car was lightly populated by men in uniform, with a scattering of civilians.
“So . . . what is getting passed on? Innocuous info, or the more important stuff?”
Ice’s comm beeped.
Rip, this time. “Ice, they’re going to show both candidates around together. We’re going to get there first. Where are you?”
“On the Metro northeast. Should reach the end station in eighteen minutes.”
“Good. We’ll pick you up there.”
Keiq, who’d been standing close and leaning in to eavesdrop, backed away. Frowned at him. “Why do they want you?”
“Because they’ve worked enough with me to consider me an asset. How about you?” He repressed an urge to comm someone, anyone, to get her to come back.
“Do you know any of them? No? Well, they may turn you away as an unwanted distraction.” Ice shrugged at her glare. “Sorry I can’t drop everything for your next round of questions.”
“Oo la la! ‘Ave you been a bad boy?”
Ice looked behind himself. A petite beauty, with an amused smirk had come up behind him. Grabbing the pole just below his own grip as the train slowed and came to a stop.
She winked and as the doors whisked open, swayed off and away.
Keiq had that nice jaw shoved out and was looking . . . like she couldn’t decide between laughing and hitting someone. Possibly the other woman, possibly Ice.
The doors shut and the train slid back into motion.
Ice cleared his throat. “Just as well she didn’t understand the basis for our . . . discussion.”
“Right.” Her cheeks were a bit flushed.
Angry or embarrassed to be mistaken for my girlfriend?
He tried to moderate his tone. “I do realize it’s awkward to investigate someone who has a job that occasionally requires . . . moving around.”
“Actually, I thought analysts had desk jobs.”
“Most of the time. Election years tend to be a bit crazy.” The train slowed and Ice turned around, stepped out as soon as the doors slid open.
Keiq stuck to him as he took the stairs two at a time and spotted the trio of black limos.
Dog stepped out of the middle car and waved them in, eyebrows rising over Keiq. Keiq slid onto the rear facing bench seat. Ice sat beside her and Dog sat across from him, next to Zizi.
The cars moved off immediately.
Rumacova, on the far side of the front facing seat, eyed Keiq.
“This is Senior investigator Keiq, also of Interior Relations.” Ice leaned forward and looked at the other woman. And ageless auburn beauty . . .
“Princess Four.” Rumacova waved dismissively. “She is just temporary, and will no doubt be delighted to see that last of me as soon as possible.”
The Princess pinched the bridge of her nose. “Nothing in Princess School prepared me for this.”
Ice suppressed a smile. “All your hopes of a handsome gentleman crushed?”
She lowered her hand and eyed him balefully. “One spare me idiots.” She in turn looked at Keiq. “It must be terrible, having to deal with an arrogant pretty boy all the time.”
Keiq nodded. “Especially when one realizes it all a façade, put on to annoy people.”
Zizi elbowed him and frowned from Four to Keiq. “Ice is my Mitzumo . . . Ice? How is that in Oner?”
“It’s sort of a children’s tale thing, like a Djinn or a Fairy Godmother, only more of a ‘Spirit of the Forest’ and can be either good or bad.”
“Ice was a very good Mitzumo.” Zizi closed her mouth as the cars turned through the gates of the military base, and pulled up beside another three car convoy.
Ice let the Black Horse Guards deploy, then hopped out, jittery and worried. Stop being an idiot! We’re surrounded by people sworn to uphold the laws and fight for the Empire. Nothing is going to happen to a presidential candidate here.
A colonel in dress uniform and lots of ribbons and medals strode up. “Madam Rumacova, an honor to meet you.”
‘Va shook his hand and was ushered over to Afgu and the three officers he was shaking hands with.
Ice stayed close behind as Rumacova smiled politely to Afgu and turned to meet General Ucxe.
A soft creeping spell, barely noticeable . . . Ice extended his mental shield to cover Rumacova. She started slightly, then retrieved her hand from the General’s grasp and turned to meet the other two. Major Yjlu was frowning at Ice, but got his social face back on and shook Rumacova’s hand without any sign of reluctance. Lt. Colonel Osko looked like he wanted to wash his hands after he’d touched her hand.
Afgu, nodded politely. No introductions needed there, and no effort to make contact, or be pleasant. Actually, he looked pissed.
So who was that spell coming from?
He pulled his shield back closer and followed the tour. Nerves still edgy, but nothing else happened as they viewed some impressively large armaments.
Rumacova frowned at the 728 tank. “I hadn’t realized how large they are. Do you disassemble them to get them through gates?”
The tank crew looked appalled.
Major Yjlu grinned. “Oh no. They are strictly for home defense.”
“I see. Very impressive.” Rumacova tossed a smile up at the crew. “Is it fun to drive?”
They all grinned back. “And even more fun to fire the guns,” the man in the top machine gun turret called down.
Rumacova laughed. “Of course!” then they were hauled off to one of the antiaircraft batteries, then the sleek aircraft in hangars beside the airstrip, and topped it off with a precision drill on the parade grounds.
Then back to the cars and they rolled away, and Ice’s nerves finally settled down.
Princess Four had gone out of her way to sit beside Ice, and turned a frown on him as soon as they were off the base. “What was that spell.”
Rumacova stiffened. “Yes. I was going to ask you what happened. I felt very . . . odd, and suddenly it went away and I could feel you . . . somehow.”
“I’m not sure, it was very subtle. Shield piercing, trust and relaxation, I think. I extended my mental shield around you and cut it off.”
Four scowled. “I’m an Assigned Princess. Not a magical body guard.” The glare swapped back to Rumacova. “Especially not of an insane woman like you, but I suppose I’d better start. Will you please stop ditching me?”
Rumacova sniffed. Grinned. “Perhaps I should keep you around.”
Ice nodded. “And as soon as we’re back to your headquarters, I’m going to give you some lessons in shielding.”
She nodded. “My shields are good enough to be around polite Oners. But not an attack, right?”
“Right. I’ll show you how to strengthen them, but you still ought to keep your powerful and well-trained Princess around.”
Four sighed. “Thank you.”
Keiq bit her lip, then looked at Zizi. “So . . . tell me more about your own personal Forest Spirit, here.”
Zizi lit up. “It was just like in the stories! He walked out of the forest with nothing but a beautiful bow and three arrows and . . .”
“And a backpack full of my entire worldly goods . . .”
“And Muby—grandmother—was kind and let him sleep inside the walls as our guest, and he shared the last of his food with us.”
“Trail food, like cross between salt crackers and granola bars.”
“Well, I was eight years old, and I was hungry. I thought it was wonderful! And the next morning he went out in the field to help with the plowing, and shared his workers’ dinner with us.”
“Nice big bowl of stew, and biscuit.” Ice sighed.
“The next day was Rest Day, and he got permission to hunt and came back with a deer. Then we had a real feast, and grandmother traded some of it for a pot, so we could cook properly.”
Keiq eyed her. “So you were poor?”
“My mother was not wise about money, and when a tree fell on her and she died, all her debts . . . we lost Muby’s house . . .”
“Your grandmother had to cover her daughter’s debts?”
Ice shook his head. “When a woman hits menopause, she is expected to hand over all the family property to her oldest daughter, help with the grandchildren, and be supported in her old age. So it would have been Zizi’s mother’s house by then.”
Zizi nodded. “Muby still owned a little lot. The elders couldn’t take that from her, she’d bought it so it wasn’t family property. But they took everything but our clothes. We didn’t even have a tent.”
“But . . .” Four was appalled.
“A tree killed my mother. We were Bad Luck, and they wanted us to go away. But we didn’t have anywhere to go to, so we scraped by. Then Fusa Weni came and everything got better. Every day he did something extra. By the end of summer he’d built us a house, little by little.”
“A very little house.” Ice suspected he was blushing. “It was a very small lot.”
Zizi sniffed. “And it’s still standing. Muby says it’s the best house in the village because it never floods and never leaks.”
“That’s because of all the rocks and sand we hauled up from the stream, remember? We built up the foundation.”
“My mitzumo doesn’t believe in mitsumo.” Zizi sniffed.
Dog and Keiq snickered.
Rumacova sniffed. “It’s a bachelor house now. When my mother lost her fertility and handed the house to me, I kicked my brothers out and invited Zizi and her mother to join us. The two old ladies had become good friends and helped each other, so Zizi and I could travel to the city and go to college.”
“We went together and got registered and found out about everything.” Zizi squirmed. “My Oner wasn’t very good.”
“We stayed in town all winter learning to speak better and take classes.” Rumacova shrugged. “Zizi went back every winter. After two marriages, I went back to the town, too, and then we went to college.”
“We go back all the time and check on them.” Zizi put in.
“My brothers’ wives have straightened them out and keep an eye on Mother.”
Zizi snickered. “I think all three of them are hoping to inherit. But . . . only sons, so far.”
Keiq frowned, “But . . .”
Rumacova shrugged. “I have no children. I am forty-two years old. A niece would inherit, but between the three of them my brothers have only produced four sons.”
“It’s going to destroy the last of our culture, if we don’t get a treatment for the Oner Infertility . . .” Zizi grinned suddenly, “disease.”
All the Oners were offended, even Dog.
Keiq shrugged it off. “So it’s personal, for you?”
Rumacova’s mouth turned down a bit. “Most likely it is too late for me. For all women more than a few years older than me, it is too late.”
That wine . . . if nothing else, I’ll send her home with a sample.
Then they were pulling up in front of Rumacova’s office and home.
Ice looked at the afternoon sun, and a bench. “’Va? Do you have a moment for a very quick magic lesson?”
She bit her lip, nodded. And sat on the bench. Zizi looked hopeful and his grinned and nodded.
“Put your hands on your lap, palms up. Close your eyes and take a deep breath. Relax as you exhale. Now just breath normally and feel the sun on your face, on your hands. Imagine the heat sinking through your skin nd into your blood, and rushing all through your body.”
Nice bright glows, both of them. Nothing huge, but steady.
“Now bring up your mental shield, but picture it like a double-sided mirror keeping your thoughts in and everyone else’s thoughts out.
Their thoughts dimmed a bit.
“Good. Now imaging a tiny thread of energy from your forehead to that mirror, the heat from the sun flowing down that thread. Think of it as fiery water soaking the length of the thread.
“Very nice. Now relax and let it all go. Just a few minutes practice every day, and you’ll start doing it automatically.”