External Relations Director Izzo Withione Alcairo put everything else aside when the Subdirector of Vista showed up at his doorway.
Ohse Withione had inherited a long neglected problem—the smuggling of illegal magical drugs and items. "Well, I now know which tribe is facilitating the smuggling. The problem is that they have no access to a known gate. I'm wondering if I should ask Disco to look for one of those gates of theirs."
"Hmm. Rior's gang has tried several different sorts of crime, so I suppose smuggling shouldn't surprise me. It must be something they started up early, and have gone back to occasionally. Probably the small fry, while Rior and Jade are . . . temporarily unavailable."
"The problem is, the jealous neighboring tribes swear they've been at it for longer than Rior's gang has been in existence. It goes back to about 1400, when they suddenly started getting food and livestock out of thin air." Ohse grimaced. "In other words, a year or so after we, you, broke up the first Comet Fall spy ring."
Izzo sat back and chewed on his lip. "And perhaps they immediately set up another, coming through a colony. Bribing the locals with goodies. Including illegal potions. Ouch!"
"Yeah. How do you want me to approach it?"
"On tiptoe. If it is part of their espionage system, we may want to leave them intact, so as to track their coming and going, pass on disinformation and monitor them and so forth. I'll check with the President. He might just as soon jump all over them."
"One damn it, I hate it when politics gets into law enforcement."
Izzo nodded. "Justice always drops down to second or third priority. Do you have any non-law-enforcement ways to keep an eye on things?"
"I've got an agricultural project that's working its way into that region. Trying to help the tribes with their yields and storage losses." He drummed his fingers. "Which is a bit of a problem, since apparently this region doesn't have problems like that, thanks to the smuggling. I think the potions we've seen are just a tiny bit of what's being smuggled in. I think most of it is used locally. I could put a man in the office there, and see what's going on."
"If they're smuggling bulk fertilizer and pesticides, perhaps we can undercut the smugglers prices. Get them desperate, and taking chances."
Ohse grinned. "You do have a strange way of looking at things, don't you?"
"Well, frankly, I don't know what we can do if Comet Fall has a gate there. Asking the Department of Interdimensional Security to find it and close it would be pointless, since it’s the Comet Fall personnel who do all the gate work. They’ll just open another one somewhere else, and we'll have to start all over." Izzo rubbed his nose. "In fact, one of them'll be coming across in a few days to open some commercial gates. I think I'll escort him or her around personally."
Ohse eyed him. "I see your hair has almost grown back in blonde. The blue was interesting, especially in light of the rumors."
Izzo snorted in amusement. "I do not recommend getting caught in a crossfire between magicians. It can be embarrassing. Ajha and a few of his people have had contact with Rior's Gang. I'll have him send someone to find out if they're the smugglers or not." His smile widened. "And I know just who to send to you, for your agricultural spy."
Late Fall 1410 px
"Sushay said to stay away for the winter—he said the authorities are cracking down on smuggling and he'd just as soon sit it out. Said they'd get tired of it in a year at the most."
"A year with no activity?" Crimson scowled. "Well, better that than getting caught. But we have a huge inventory. Who else can we sell magic potions to?"
Eden shrugged. "We've got money coming out our ears, and with the proliferation of electronics we don't have to hide our goodies, anymore. We could just . . . vacation."
Zodiac perked up. "We could spend the winter somewhere warm. With beaches." His hair was back to its natural brilliant red and gold. When he was "working" as they put it, he changed it to black so he could fit in with most of the natives on the Worlds they smuggled to.
"And shopping." Ocelot added. "We've scouted a bunch of the Earth Books. One of them would be fun!"
Eden looked over at the sisters. "What about that niece of yours? That whole gang has a safe world, don't they?"
Macaw grinned. "Yeah. We could start there. Betelgeuse will probably be there, and Eldon and the whole batch of kids."
Irwun wrinkled his nose. "They're still little kids. Like, the oldest will be what, nine years old?"
"Twelve. Depending on bubbles they could be ahead or behind that. And they'll know all the local electronic games and can get you seven up to speed on those. And clothing styles, and so forth. So don't sneer. You're only . . . eighteen? Wow, how time flies." Walnut pulled out a notebook and started a list.
"The horses could use a winter out to pasture someplace nice. They're looking a bit thin." Ocelot was the oldest of the girls, at fifteen. Panther, Roe, and Saiga were about six months younger. Next thing you know they'll turn into boy crazed witches. We've lucked out, so far . . . unless they're sneaky . . .
Crimson snorted. "All right. We'll find someplace nice and warm. With beaches and shopping. And we'll take the horses and find some good grazing for them."
". . . and Izzo said to take any illegally imported horses back where they belong before someone notices."
Fean grinned. "He's just ticked because Spark can open stall doors."
"I think the problem was which stall doors he opened. Izzo wasn't planning on breeding his tiger horse, and apparently Mushy and Whipper managed to get the other two mares bred to One knows what while they were supposedly just exercising them while Xiat was preggers."
"Oh, three foals, no horses to ride next year?"
Ajha grinned. "Exactly. So take the horses away. If you’re going to start working for Urfa, you probably won’t be crossing over very often. Besides, I suspect Eldon just loaned them to you."
"Don’t bet on it. Urfa said he needed someone who was very comfortable on other Worlds. And Eldon said we could keep the stallion, he's got an excess of male horses, and they make such poor mothers when they are changed to female."
"Comet Fall is scary. You could always look into importing him legally."
"With his genetic engineering? He'd never pass."
"Oh, what was I thinking? Of course their horses are engineered. Most likely their dogs as well. Sheep, goats, cattle. I mean, they play with their own genes like there's no danger. Why not the animals as well?"
Fean patted his shoulder. "Go find a new world to explore. I'll make the Bad Horsies go away."
"I've got plenty of Worlds already, and the info teams are fighting over who gets the one that's full of buxom blondes."
Fean was still smiling when she stepped through to Embassy. As usual, the guards were blind to the trans-dimensional bubble on her wrist. With two horses and two kids inside. She warped light as she crossed the gate threshold and walked invisibly across the plaza and out into the countryside. Once alone, she got out her horse and rode. The back gates were not a well kept secret, but not many people had found the detour to where Eldon had opened a gate to the Earth he'd made his home.
Betelgeuse looked out the door of the house as she rode up, and waved. As Fean dismounted, a gaggle of children, even more than usual, galloped out of the house to meet her.
"Did you bring Newt and Eft?" They cheered as she opened a bubble and her own pair hopped out, grinning. And waving all the new vids and games.
Fean raised her voice as Betelgeuse walked up. "Ahja says I'm not allowed to keep your horses. Something about they weren't legally imported, and most likely were engineered."
"Of course they are. You don't think ordinary horses could hold shields and levitate, do you?"
"Sparkle and Shine can do that? Like the Comet Fall Cavalry horses?"
Fean sighed. "Now you really have to take them back. Because the scientists would just love to dissect one of them."
"Stick them in any empty stalls and come have lunch with me. I want to hear all about Granite Peak, and you can meet some of my other relatives."
"Heck, we're practically honest business women, compared to Betelgeuse." Crimson grinned at her niece. "We just eschew the paper work and taxes."
Fean nodded. "And you do everyone good. The life expectancies and infant fatality rates on primitive worlds are just shocking. I don't know why the One World won't import more of your potions and charms. Well, the von neumann's are a bit scary, but most of them are just really good spells, neatly encapsulated. I think it must just be jealousy, that we can't make them, and make better spells."
"Silly." Eden sniffed. "We can't make the electronics like you do. You ought to just concentrate on what you're better at than us. Brag about that instead of grumble about the potions. And raise your prices as needed to maintain a healthy trade balance."
"Eden's the brains of our operation." Walnut took a bite of her sandwich and Macaw finished the thought.
"As you probably already noticed."
Crimson swallowed tea. "Our main problem is that we've never figured out gates. I can do anything with bubbles, but the gates? There’s no telling where they’ll go."
Betelgeuse nodded. "Every woman I know, who's figured out how to see where the gates are going, was studying them when she went into labor the first time. Something about that jump in self awareness made them over-sensitive to dimensional stuff, and they could see how it was done. Eldon can open gates, but I don't think he can see where they go."
"Really?" Crimson looked out the doorway to where ten teenage and pre-teenage girls had taken over the living room for a fashion party. "I'll keep that in mind when the girls advance. I wonder if it would work for a second child?"
"Uh, oh. We're in trouble now." Macaw snickered. "I thought you were never going to do it again?"
"Well, it must have something to do with the hormones that trigger labor. Otherwise any gate travel during pregnancy would work, and practically every witch would be able to see the dimensions." Crimsom shrugged. "Any way, Fox is easy, and at a very independent age. Another baby wouldn't be a huge problem. I'll have to think about it through, time the kid to arrive after we've finished up for the year and retired for the winter. We need to find some more primitive worlds, they're always so happy to swap gold for grain or potions. Those Earth Mining Worlds are such a mess, the miners will swap gold for anything that helps them get away from the mines. I mean, horses and horse drawn plows and seed grain. The hottest items lately are fertilizer and pest ban talismans."
Fean smiled a bit wistfully. "It must be fun to completely throw off authority. I never got past being massively rude."
Crimson snickered. "We'd corrupt you, but one of our usual clients is having problems with a smuggling crackdown, and we're all laying low. Or taking a long vacation, depending on your point of view."
"I'll have to tell Eldon I've found a market for his horses." Betelgeuse poured more tea. "I hope you guys will stick around for awhile. I never got proper training, which makes teaching the girls tough. How'd you like to run some classes?"
Fean nodded with the others. A chance to see Comet Fall witch training? You bet I'll stay!
Eldon wandered in for dinner, and was promptly placed in charge of all boys. The women trooped off through another corridor to a high mountain location with a small hotspring bubbling up between granite boulders and pine trees.
"I found this place, and bought it, as the ceremonial center for the pyramid."
Twenty-two women and girls crowded the open space and the little pool of blood warm water. Crimson led the older witches through a review, and dragged Fean in too. "We know from Rior that Princesses learn stuff very similar, so don't be shy."
Fean, Betelgeuse and Eden wound up in a triad. "Dunces corner. I wasn't trained as a child and am constantly behind." Eden smiled wryly.
"You're ahead of me!" Betelgeuse watched Crimson's easy flow enviously.
Fean sourced differently, but the manipulations of the energy were similar. She had trouble learning to work with two other women, but when it slipped into place it was breathtakingly powerful. Threes. I'll have to practice with Xiat and Wizzy, back home. Or some other princesses in Paris.
Crimson roped the older girls into triads as well, and gave them a lower level of exercises. The twelve year olds hadn't blossomed yet, but they got things to memorize and meditation exercises. Even the little kids got basic lessons in relaxation and visualization.
All-in-all, a good time was had by all.
It was well past midnight before they trooped home, to find the boys all camped out in the back, cooking things over a campfire. Eldon probably ran them through some magic exercises as well. Her guilt feelings about leaving Eft out of the training faded a bit. I trust he only taught Magic, not . . . social behavior.
Over a late breakfast, Eft was full of how fun a Mage Compass was, and how he'd ridden a horse all by himself, and that he and Rej were best friends.
Eldon trapped her against a wall for a very physical greeting.
"Oh no you don't, buster. Last thing I need is another baby—or two. Go make up to Crimson, I think she wants another kid."
"Tsk! When breaking off a relationship—which hasn't been on for about five years, and I’m not sure it qualified in the first place—you're not supposed to inflict the horrible man on some other woman. Unless you really hate her."
Fean panted and blushed and tried to block out both his aura and his deliberate titillations. "You are reverting to the God of Perverts. Concentrate on being a hero, eh? Save Poor Crimson from a lifetime of wondering if she could have learned about gates by studying them while in labor."
He laughed at that. "Heroes have hormones too, trust me."
And then she had to suppress jealousy when she spotted them out in the fields, opening gates like it was easy. She poked around all his potions, tempted, but not enough to actually do something foolish. She lingered over a sample that claimed to add the witches power gene. Add, or replace my One gene? Could I learn to catch bubbles myself, not have to ask Eldon for another one?
The next day the party moved to a beach, and at the end of the afternoon, Fean dragged her complaining children home. And packed up and moved to Paris.