"Let's see if we can sneak you in to get cleaned up before your mother sees you . . . tomorrow I'll start working you on some specific mental effects that will show well in a challenge."
"What the judges will be looking for is three physical defenses, three physical attacks, and three uses of mentalist techniques, for offense or defense."
"Really? That's it?"
"Oh, they like to see confidence and arrogance, as well. But that can just be striding firmly in and bowing. And after, sticking your nose in the air and walking up to face them and bow again."
Ark gave him a skeptical stare.
"So what you do is make sure you've done three of each, and then a couple more in case they missed seeing one." Axel sighed. "And then you kill your opponent."
A long silence.
"Is that what it's all about?"
"Proving that you're a tough, mean, True Man who will kill to put that 'Lord' in front of your name?" Axel nodded. "Yes. That's what it's about. To prove that you are one of us, the rulers of the Multiverse."
"Because rulers can't be soft."
Unfortunately they got spotted by a maid who went straight to Lady Ariadna.
"It was a good practice sesssion." Axel kept his voice and expression mild. "Ark got a bloody nose and no doubt a few bruises. He needs to know he can get hurt and keep fighting. Which he did very nicely, winning the bout."
"Oh . . . I wish . . ."
"Yeah. Me too. God knows what pressure they're putting on Grigory. And his father and grandfather. There's got to be a hideous number of power plays under way, between the Inquision and the Bureaus."
"But the 300 . . . ?"
"The longer the supply of zivvy is cut off . . . the more clear it becomes that the only power the 300 has is the Inquistion, and the Inquistion may have decided that they should be the rulers instead of the enforcers. All they have to do is convince the Bureaus. And the leadership of the Bureaus may be thinking they should be the rulers and the Inquisition should be their servants, not their masters."
"Oh. Dear. God." Ariadna paled.
"And that's probably a vast simplification. And ignores all the local governments who are looking to become small empires themselves."
Ark stepped out of the bathroom, a towel still held to his nose. "But," nasal and muffled, "the 300 made billions of pods. I calculated out once that they had to make twenty million a day, and ship them out continuously. So how much did they have on hand when the Enemy attacked them? How much did they keep? How much was in transit? And who has it?"
Axel blinked. "That's a really interesting thought. Given two thousand worlds . . . The communications lag would probably be great enough for most of the deliveries to have been carried out, with only the last few days shipping to be close enough to be snatched, by the time the magnitude of the problem evinced."
Lady Ariadna frowned. "Split it up amoung twenty-three Tier Two Worlds, a million doses each way . . . and suddenly it doesn't seem like so much."
"Except that every world gets a year's worth, once a year. But if the word of the disaster spread that far fast enough, the Tier Two Worlds might have nabbed the last shipments . . . I wonder where they're broken up? On the Home World or right at the source?" Axel pondered that. "Because if the Citadel bulk ships the pods in cryogentic containers to Home where it's split up . . . there'd be a lot more in play, so to speak. I wonder if Stuttgart was slow off the line and missed grabbing anything shipping through them, and that's got them feeling very vulnerable."
Ark had been taking this all in silently, and now lowered the towel, looking horrified. "They won't kill Dad, will they? Will my passing the Challenge make it better or worse for him?"
"I doubt they will let him know. Lie to him? That quite difficult, for most of us, but another Inquisitor? I'm not at all sure." Axel looked from mother to son. "All we can do is get Ark Presented and hope that he knows we're taking care of this end."
Ark hunched his shoulders. "But what do they want Dad to do?"
"Pick a side and help them win, most likely." Axel shrugged. "Pity we don't know which side, or even how many sides there are."