March 9th, 2020

_Warrior at Large_ part 6

So now we get into the part you've already seen, which I'll stick here so you don't have to hunt for it. Don't expect the next part too soon, I'm going in to get a kidney stone evicted today. Bleck!


Chapter Four

A Lucky Encounter

20 Qadah 2021yp

A new salle halfway across town. A new membership card. Hair darkened again, because Ice really didn’t want to be recognized. The faint trace of the Alcairo Arabic accent he used to cover any remaining shreds of an Earther’s European slant.

Two days, no trouble. Tomorrow I'll call Keiq. Then I'll check in with Ajki and see what's going on.

A room the size of an airplane hangar . . . which is what it had been before dimensional corridors reduced air travel to a shadow of its former self. There was an office area in one corner, lots of people hanging around.

Ice looked over the signup charts. “What I really need is lessons, to up my game.”

Nods from several others and soon enough he was in a group lesson, then sparring. Then leaning on the wall waiting for an open lane.

Joking with several other guys, and critiquing their fellow fencers.

“Man, that guy’s as bad as the magic duelist.” A young man with swagger.

A chubby guy snorted. “I wonder if that guy could even fence? Native Halfer, no matter what he looked like.”

Which is half the reason for the dark hair. A little over a year and that duel is still talked about. Well, that idiot Uqqy gets himself in the papers often enough. Dear One. What idiot thought putting him in charge of XR was a good idea? He may get us into a war yet.

Flip a coin, who it'll be with.

“Well, he’s supposed to be a hot shot in IR. An analyst.” An even younger guy shrunk back under a barrage of glares. A tall lanky teenager with a square jaw.

Someone actually defending the "Magic Duelist?"

“He’s a Tall Trees Native!” An old man walked over to loom at the teenager.

“It’s the selection effect. Every Halfer woman has to . . .”

“Look kid, a hundred and thirty years, four generations isn’t long enough. I’m older than that Colony. There are no ‘pure Oners’ born over there.”

“Mathematically, and with shorter generation times . . .”

The old guy stalked away, and a few other wall props followed.

The boy scowled, and with the square jaw suddenly reminded Ice of Keiq.

She never talks about her family. Four brothers . . . Hell, a Security Goon. She may have also never mentioned a husband, and children. She never makes any romantic comments. I don’t even know how old she is. I need to . . . just casually pop downtown, once or twice a week.

A lunch every six months isn’t getting me anywhere. Maybe I should call and see if she’s free for dinner tonight.

Ice spotted a lane opening the other direction, and caught the boy’s eye. “C’mon, let’s grab it.”

For a wonder he’d actually found someone worse than he was. He gave the boy a few pointers, then a couple of other men, waiting for a lane, drifted over and turned it into an impromptu lesson, before they took over the lane for a bit of sparring themselves.

Ice checked the time. The salle was emptying out, so he started stowing his own gear.

The boy followed him. “Hey, umm, thanks. I’m Elka. Elk. Thanks for the pointers.”

“Ice. My pleasure. I’m . . . I need a lot more lessons, myself.”

“This is only my third time here. My aunt joined and got a free add-a-friend thing.” He glanced across the big room to the side that was majority female.

With people leaving, Ice had a clear view, and spotted Keiq. Pulling on her mask and stepping out to face another woman.

Ah ha! Thought there was a resemblance! And Elk . . . she talked to an Elk once on her comm. Son? No, he said aunt. So a nephew?

“Huh, she’s not bad.” Elk threaded between occupied lanes.

Ice lagged a bit and admired Keiq’s figure, well, in the bulky jacket and mask it was more a matter of really nice legs . . .

Good form, huge lunge and reach . . . not enough to not get trounced by the other fencer. Three-zip. They took off their masks and shook hands.

“More practice, Keiq. You’d be so good, dammit, if you’d make the time to get out here.”

Keiq sighed. “Yeah. Not impressive.”

“Well, you’ve advanced to the point of finding someone you want to impress, so we have hope for you yet.”

“Ha!” Keiq stepped away and, yep, guessed right, spotted the young man. “Hey Elk, you have fun?”

“It had its ups and downs, but I got some good pointers.”

Ice looked innocently away, trying to not catch her eye.

“Oh . . . I do not believe this.”

Ice looked back. “So much for not being recognizable.”

“Aunt Keiq? You know Ice?” The boy’s eyes widened. “He’s not the guy who kissed you, is he?”

The other woman, stopped and turned around.

Ice cleared his throat. “Actually, she kissed me.”

“You kissed me back.” Keiq yelped.

“It was self-defense.”

The other women snickered. “Oh, this is good! C’mon, Keiq, Introduce me.”

“No. He’s walking around in a stupid disguise. I think I’m going to refuse to have anything further to do with him.”

“Can we not discuss this in public, really?” But a glance around showed few people close, and no one paying them obvious attention. “Because it’s too soon for me to get into another public brawl.”

“Are you that magic duelist guy? Is your hair dyed?” Elk was grinning and bouncing on his toes.

“Can we please go to some moderately private . . .”

“All sweaty like this?” Keiq looked horrified. “No way am I getting near a restaurant.”

Her friend grinned. “There’s only one thing to do, Keiq. Let’s take him home.”

Keiq pinched the bridge of her nose. “Ice, this is my good friend from college, Cwyk Withione Yveslin. Who was wacky enough to fall for my oldest brother, and marry him, thus gaining a new nickname. I see that you have already met her son and my nephew, Elk. Wacky, Elk, this is my former fellow Interior Relations wage slave, Icka Withione Sycamore Tall Trees.”

Ice grinned and offered his hand to Wacky. “A pleasure to meet Keiq’s family.”

Wacky choked faintly but stuck her hand out to be shaken.

“Ooo!” Elk hefted his bag. “Let’s go. I can’t wait to see what Dad says.”

***

Wacky and Oldest Brother had a mansion in the southwest . . . too old to call the area a suburb of Paris, more of an area of old chateaus that had slowly sold off land for the newly well-to-do to build modern extravagances, as it was inexorably swallowed by the growth of the metropolis.

“It actually belongs to my parents.” Wacky glanced over the seat at Ice then got her eyes back on the driveway. Long, gracefully curved, driveway. “We’re in the Yveslin Enclave, which is handy for the kids. And since I’m their only child, when my parents decided to move to Hawaii they said I might as well move in, since I’d inherit it, eventually.”

Keiq snickered. “They closed off the parents’ side, and rented part of the servants’ quarters to me. The commute is hell, but . . . One! The gardens!”

“And thank the One my dad keeps paying the landscape company! If it was up to us, we’d let it go wild and the neighbors would complain.”

Old Money, and Raised By Wolves. Ice managed to keep his face straight. Or is it one of the Wolves I should think about impressing?

The house at the end of the driveway probably wasn’t more than four thousand square meters. Not counting the servants’ quarters over the six car garage. Probably a modern replica, not one of the few buildings that had survived the nuclear war and fifteen centuries of time and weather.

Keiq led him up the staircase at the back of the garage, grabbed a towel from a closet and aimed him at a bare bathroom. “Everything ought to work . . . Oh, soap, hang on, and I’m making the crass assumptions that you have a change of clothes?” Back to the closet to return with a little wrapped circle of soap. “Sorry, it’s all I’ve got.”

“Thank you. Yes. I have clothes.” He subdued a desire to ask her to scrub his back, and closed himself in the bathroom before he said something that would get him kicked down the stairs.

And tried to not think about her naked and soapy in a frilly pink bathroom . . . Nah, not Keiq. And anyway, servants’ quarters, it was probably stark white, or institutional green and perhaps she’d be showering in a jungle-like motif, dancing to drums.

He cut the hot water way down and shivered while he soaped his hair until the water ran clear.

T-shirt and casual slacks. I hope she didn't expect me to have a suit crushed in my fencing bag.

He hovered in the hallway, afraid to penetrate deeper into Keiq's home.

Footsteps on the stairs on his left. Wacky with her hands full. “What’s this? She made you use the old bathroom?” Her grin widened. “And you really are a blond. Oh, this is going to be so fun to watch.”

“Be warned. It’s a pretty slow spectator sport.”

“How slow?” Her eyes were crinkling.

“Almost a year since the kiss. Haven’t managed another one.”

“Oh. Dear. No wonder Keiq’s been so snappy lately.”

“Really? I thought she was like that all the time.” Ice eyed Wacky warily as she started snickering.

“Wait here.”

He closed his eyes and listen carefully to “No, no, no! Have you forgotten everything we taught you about makeup? Wash your face.”

Oh. Am I about to get the glamour version of Keiq? This could be scary.

  

Or terrifying.

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.

“A little.” Ice couldn’t take his eyes off Keiq. “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 and 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, Azek 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 Azek 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, hopefully the oldest shortest big brother is 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 until this spring I’d only been back once since I left for the Directorate School sixteen years ago. Then a friend of mine got married over there. Which led to my working there, off and on, this summer.”

“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 Rumakova’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 . . . My parents were surprised, but delighted, to become grandparents a mere thirteen months after I married the hunk.” 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.

“Azke Withione Goldport Colorado. Azek, 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?”

She snickered.

A grin back at Azek. “Oops, forgot to bring my CV.”

“At the moment, I feel like a ping-pong ball. I’m regularly helping Governor Rumakova 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.

"Oh, and taking advanced magic lessons, myself."

Azek grinned. “All right Keiq, maybe you can keep him.”

“I haven’t got him. He’s just a friend!”

Ice grinned at Azek. “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?” Azek was definitely studying him. “They’ve been arguing for months.”

“Yes. The War Party knows they’ll lose a special election. But if Afgu can hang on for four more years, the public might forgive him, or at least not blame the Party.”

“He’s not being very canny 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 decide to dump him well before they’re up for reelection.”

“So you’re still analyzing?” Azek’s eyes narrowed. “That political column . . . Aces 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. The possibility of returning to the Directorate School for an advanced degree and further magic training.

“More!” Keiq stared at him. “You’re scary enough already! What more is there?”

“More variety? Delicacy of application? Drill for consistency?”

“Eep!”

Didn’t seem to bother anyone else, although Azek and Wacky looked a little thoughtful.

They’ve probably seen all of Noon’s broadcasts. Bet they rewatch them, concentrating on that unknown man, instead of Keiq’s utterly awesome shooting. And hopefully not getting leery of having me around.

Nice kids, nice sister-in-law, nice brother, even if he had turned out to be a bear instead of a wolf.