"And so Q is extending her chain of gates as quickly as possible, but two a day is her limit when she has to search out so far and make sure the world she's looking at is empty . . . and all too often it isn't so she has to find another." Rael sat back with a huff.
Ox and Ajha nodded.
"If we can do anything more, let us know." Ajha grinned. "Dr. Wrla's delighted at the success of the suit—the vids are very impressive—and says he'll make an even better one."
Ox sighed. "Impressive? Fortunately the kids have an invincible belief in your ability to survive anything. The sane half of the family is certain you're trying to get yourself killed."
Rael giggled, just to make him glare. "That's better. Just—Ox if I get myself killed, it'll be my fault and no one else's, especially not yours."
Ox smiled, ruefully. "I know that. But the family . . . Speaking of which, that sort-of-relative of yours? Imde, the math guy? Izzo asked him to look at the three dates and see if he could see a pattern?"
"From just three points?" Ajha raised his eyebrows.
"Yeah. Well, he sort of frowned at the dates for . . . oh three minutes? And then he said 'Old pre-adjustment Earth Calendar. Last Sunday of every month. Unless there's a time slip, in which case there's a 85.7% chance it was some other day of the week.' So I've got the predicted dates for the rest of the year for you, to test that theory."
Rael blinked. "Oh. Thirty-five and twenty-eight day gaps. Four or five weeks, each. Well. I'll get back well before the twenty-eighth day, and expect them by the thirty-fifth."
Ox nodded. "And unless Ajha has more questions?"
Ajha shook his head. "I'll call if something comes up."
"Good. Rael, I'm under orders to bring you home for dinner."
"Certainly. I'll check in with the family here. And I'll stop by New York on the way back, and reassure Ryol and Arno, then . . . back to Embassy to see what those people are going to do this month!"
"So . . . Are you getting along all right with Ryol and Arno?" Ox had accepted her offer of a ride to Versalle.
Rael drove sedately, resisting temptation. "Yes . . . Oh, I guess I've given up on being their mother, but I'm bound and determined to be a close aunt."
"Especially now?" He glanced at her and away. "They are trying so hard to not be concerned. I can see the stress."
"Yeah. They don't know Xen very well . . . but has anyone they know ever died?"
"No." Ox sighed. "Another student told Arno he hoped Xen was dead—and Arno hit him."
"Yeah. Mr. Mellow. Beat up a senior on the team track."
"Umm . . ."
"Yeah. In such a way it was clear it wasn't a fluke. He got read the riot act. I suspect he'll be recruited for the team track next semester." Ox sighed. "I always catered to his academic interests, but I did get him into a few karate classes. And took him shooting. He liked both, but never seemed as enthusiastic as he was about anything to do with science. To my relief. I guess he picked up more karate than I'd realized."
Rael turned off the parkway. "Well, nothing wrong with doing both. They need scientists in the field, too." I gave them a lot of early pointers, both martial arts and magic. But I was never around long enough for regular drill. Xen's two weeks twice a year camps probably taught them both more than I did with my occasional long week ends.
"Yeah. And as much as I like Ebsa . . . I have trouble seeing Arno as having the same potential for violence."
Rael grinned as she turned into the back gate at Versalle. "You should meet his buddy Ra'd. He'll give you a new appreciation for . . ."
"Scary? Yeah, he came down with Ebsa once. Perfectly polite, and had my poor policeman's nerves screaming all through dinner. And it wasn't just knowing who he was. And now, of course, I've met Isakson, and all the rest of the Rangpur kids. Only Isakson comes close." Ox glanced at her as they walked across to the mansion. "And you ought to, but you just bounce and giggle, and somehow no one feels threatened."
Rael bounced (dammit, not busty enough to jiggle, not that I'd take aim at Ox) and giggled.
"My secret weapons." She winced. "And useless in this particular crisis."
Then Razz and Oxy galloped out the side door of the mansion and attack hugged.
"Yay! Aunt Rael's back!" "How long are you going to stay?" "I want to show you my new horse!"
"A new horse? I did know you had an old one."
"Oh, there's horses here for us to ride, but this one is mine." Razz bounced. "For my thirteenth birthday."
"Awk! I missed it!"
Razz patted her arm. "I understand." Trying hard to look solemn.
"But don't forget mine next month!" Oxy pipped up.
Rael snorted. "I shall have to think up a couple of spectacular presents for the two of you. Hmm, and Ryol and Arno are coming up on nineteen, aren't they? Goodness, I'm bad at this family stuff, aren't I?"
A chorus of "Nos" as she was pulled through the familiar building and got hugs from her sister and parents.
"I didn't know you guys were back in town."
Her mother grinned. "As if we were going to let the grandkids forget us? Mind you if it weren't for these corridors . . . good grief, a three hour drive, and half of it the Paris traffic, and here we are."
Her father nodded. "We're still adjusting to the new reality. Next up, corridors from Montevideo and the enclave to the Corridor Hub. We're trying to encourage walking to Paris. Or Caracas, or Gate City."
Rael boggled a bit. "Anyplace that has good public transit, I suppose. Have there been any problems with the long parallel corridors?"
"Only one that I've heard of." Her father grinned. "San Francisco-to-New York and San Francisco-to-Paris. Apparently when you went in one, it was a complete tossup which of the other three openings you'd come out. Wolfson came out in person to see what the problem was, and fixed it."
Rael kept her face straight. An uncomfortable silence. She cleared her throat. "So, you guys have been living here for three months? How do you like it?"
Raod threw her hands up. "It runs itself. I check off what I want meal-wise for the week every Monday, and it just happens. And guests tend to just happen. I never quite know who we'll be eating with.
"And formal balls. Dear One! My dress allowance!"
Rael burst out laughing. "Oh no! Too many formal gowns!"
Raod thumped her arm. "Anyway, your buddy Xiat has hauled me out and introduced me to all the cultural movers and shakers. Museums, schools, theaters, the symphony, the opera . . . Honestly! If I'm not careful, I won't have any free time at all. Poor woman is run off her feet with her unofficial duties. Not to mention eight year old twins."
"Ha! Poor Xiat. And what you need is a secretary of your own . . . speaking of which, how's Ninny working out?"
"Niin is working out very well. Really, the amount of time I spent agonizing over what sort of Princess would get assigned to Ox! And he got Miss Incredibly Efficient Secretary. She hasn't even complained about moving from Montevideo, to Gate City, to Paris. Although I suspect she's delighted we've gotten out of your little house."
Rael grinned, and didn't vocalize her opinion that the main reason Raod had stayed put in Rael's house was because Niin had opted to live in her own apartment. Most Assigned Princesses lived with their principals, and often seduced them, married or not. Good thing the One sent a businesslike type. I don't think Raod would have tolerated a sex pot. And even so, I'll bet Ninny's suite is well outside the family's quarters here.
"You think? I mean, the twins have been away at school for a year and a half now." Rael widened her eyes innocently. "She'd only have been sharing a bathroom with a single pre-teenage girl."
They both snickered.
"Razz has started teenaging."
"Hence the horse?"
Ox snorted. "Yes. Anything to delay the interest in boys."
"Dad!" Razz rolled her eyes.
It was so normal. Rael basked in it all through dinner, and meeting the new horse, watching Razz ride.
She stepped back beside Major Eqqu. "Remind you of someone?"
He chuckled. "I hadn't realized how much I missed Paer and her obsessive riding. Nice bunch of kids, all four of them."
Rael eyed the girl. "Looks like she's nearly outgrown that saddle . . . and since I somehow missed a birthday . . ."
He grinned, and summoned Peaches' groom. They put their heads together over saddle makers and fit for both horse and girl. Last step—approval of said girl—got Rael a squeal and hug. "They'll deliver it tomorrow. But I have to leave now, and check on Ryol and Arno before I head back to Embassy. So have fun breaking it in."
Hugs all around. Then back on the road.
And corridors and time zones got her to New York as the last classes ended.
Ryol got to the car first. Hugged her and stood back to look her over. "Are you still doing all right? I talk to Lala and Styx all the time, you know. They say you keep forgetting to eat."
Rael sniffed. "Only compared to those teenage bottomless pits!"
Ryol looked skeptical, but glanced to the side. "And here's the bad boy. I have a date, so I'm not going to have to listen to him getting reamed. Bye!" She trotted off, red curls bouncing.
"A date? What sort of date?"
"None of your business!"
"Well, remember the rules!"
That got her a finger.
Behind her, Arno snickered. "It's a group date—all girls—they might happen to meet some guys, but they only talk to them."
Rael turned and eyed him. He squirmed.
"So . . . did this fellow actually deserve to be beaten?"
"Good. Have you had dinner?"
The boy laughed and hugged her.
"Hey! When did you get so big?" She stared up at him. So much like Xen!
"Oh, the growth spurts from Hell! My poor leg bones ache! And I'm always hungry. And outgrowing clothes."
"Well then, I'd better feed you, and you can tell me all about how you've suddenly caught the attention of the Team Track—students and no doubt, now, the teachers."
"Yeah, well . . . I hope they pay attention to all the science I'm taking and . . . I mean, I really admire Ebsa and all . . . but I really don't want to wind up in the middle of bloody battles all the time!"
"Umm. Yeah, and I'd like to say that won't happen, but here we are with Poobah on one hand and three encounters with the Cyborg types. So long as the Cyborgs stay away from us we'll leave them alone. Anybody's guess how long before we have to do something about them. The Poobahs?" Rael tossed her hands up. "Not a freaking clue."
Arno nodded. "Insufficient data."
Rael hauled him off to a restaurant and ate dessert while the boy stuffed himself, and quizzed her about the Cyborgs.
And got a call from Chancellor Urfa.
"Can you stay and give the Wednesday Seminar tomorrow? We love having people on the sharp end come talk to us."
"Oh sure. In fact I need to talk to people in Research tomorrow morning, so I can just come back here afterwards."
"Excellent! Call me when you get back tomorrow."
Rael clicked off and grinned across the table at Arno. "So much for your exclusive interview. It looks like I'll be doing the whole song and dance for your Current Events Seminar."
"Cool. If someone says something objectionable, can I beat them up?"
"Nope. I shall demonstrate how to laugh at them."
The kid grinned. "Excellent!"
Then back to Embassy . . . where Poobah failed to make an appearance. By the fortieth day, Rael shrugged. "So much for the Last Sunday theory."
Q nodded scowling. "I don't know whether I want them to be predictable or not. Damn them, whoever they are."
"Maybe they decided to go play stupid games with someone else this month." Rael bit a knuckle. Finally said it out loud. "Or Xen did something. Or . . . they got all the information they wanted."
Damn. I really hope Xen's loose and pissed.