Ice gave a sigh of relief as newly sworn in President Izzo Withione Alcairo finished shaking hands and his chosen Directors were confirmed in their offices.
Ajha looked like he'd rather be shot than stuck behind desk, Ox was suitably solemn. Only Akji looked happy, behind his official serious face.
Director of Internal Relations suits him perfectly. Three-fourths police work at all levels. One fourth political surveillance, analysis, and occasionally action. Half administrative paperwork. Half political . . . politics. Perfect for a workaholic, who knows how to delegate.
And any time now I'll find out who I'll be working for in which directorate. The last three months have been fascinating, working as Urfa's aide. Finding out all about the bureaucratic side of the Presidency. Maintaining diplomatic peace and cooperation among five powerful men from five different political parties.
And once I've got the job figured out, I can get back to my campaign to marry Keiq.
I think I'll start with a house.
He scanned the crowd. A bit of apprehension, lots of relief. A few sour-apple expressions on the faces of the men who'd lost the election three days ago. Black Horse Guards, both in and out of uniform looking fiercely alert.
The last two inaugurations were . . . interesting. But it looks like this one is going to come off without a hitch.
Izzo came back to the podium. A brisk sunny day, so the ceremony had been held on the front steps of Government House. Well, the ruins of Government House. The engineers were still debating whether some of the remaining walls should be kept as historical artifacts or whether they should finish the job the explosive started and demolish the rest and start fresh.
An interesting backdrop for Izzo's inauguration speech. Which was full of the future, looking forward, not back. Rebuilding better and stronger. About an enemy defeated; the Cyborg Empire shattered but not conquered. Being watched for signs of reconsolidation, and the Empire's ongoing support for the Free Cyborg Rebellion.
The crowd cheered. Hopefully for Izzo, not relief that there hadn't been another battle.
Then all the dignitaries got hauled off, Izzo and Ox for Versalle, the rest for home, from whence they would no doubt attend parties in various venues.
Ice tried to quietly slide off to the side, and got intercepted by the Guards.
"Ha! Ajki told us you'd try to dodge." Ux grinned.
"He told us to tell you that someone named Keiq was invited. Firmly." Rip looked innocent. "So, we get to meet your girlfriend, eh?"
Ick tsked. "An office romance? I thought those were frowned upon."
Ice shrugged. "She's Internal Security. Completely out of my section. Different subdirectorate, in fact. Operations."
"Oooo! Was she investigating . . . what have I heard you called? Ajki's Loose Gun?" Rip grinned. "I'm sure the former Director had you investigated in every way possible."
Ice tried to look dignified. "We met before that!"
"Oh?" Ux snickered. "What was she investigating you for that time?"
A plain car pulled up and the driver hopped out and turned the wheel over to Rip. The other two nudged Ice into the back seat. Ux joined him and Ick circled around to take the front passenger seat.
"What? Not going to answer that?" Ick looked over the seat at him.
Ice sighed. "So, have you three worked with Ajki enough to notice that Princess Fuyl enjoys having fun with Ajki's people?"
They swapped glances. "What do you mean by fun?"
"It really interesting, because there's some odd bit of precog going on in the background. The most notable one was when Ajki set me to investigate Dog, and then set Dog to investigate me."
They all stared at him. They all know about me.
"So a couple of months later we get called into the Bosses office and asked if we now understand that we sometimes have to investigate people we like, just as hard as people we dislike. Then he sent us away without ever asking what we'd found . . . but I did tell him about the irregularities I'd traced to Querry, not Dog."
Ux was looking boggled. "But did you find out about each other?"
"Yes, but there was so much contradictory information . . . we had a great laugh about the very thought that two foreign agents had been set to investigate each other."
Ix started laughing. "Oh One! I hope that's one of your tall tales. Now about this girlfriend . . ."
"Our section had a leak. Drove Ajki and me crazy trying to trace it. Which, of course, we now know was Zeeq and Query. But Ajki sicced Keiq on me, as if he suspected me. And Fuyl is so smug about the romance she set up. And apparently oblivious to the pair of us working rather antagonistically with each other is how I had enough pointers to grab Query and get his head X-rayed, and damn the consequences."
"Huh. And so Ajki stunned the new President. And the whole mess was discovered, the Cyborgs invaded . . ."
Ice nodded. "And we'll never know what might have happened if Afgu had taken power and let them in peacefully."
They looked at him in horror.
"He would have, wouldn't he?" Ux shuddered.
Ice nodded. "Peacefully or not, we'd be a year into the Drei Mächte Bündnis takeover." He looked at them. "So if Ajki ever gives you orders, and you even think it might be Fuyl getting bored and playing games . . . work it hard, but also keep your eyes open for other things you just happen to discover. Because that may turn out to be what's really important."
Ice grinned. "And you might even wind up with a girlfriend out of it."
Keiq, dressed to shine, was utterly spectacular. And definitely taken aback to find herself in this level of society.
"Yeah, it's weird to think that just four years ago, Ajki's the only one of the bunch I'd ever even spoken to." Ice grinned at her. "Good thing I'd been forced to take dancing lessons when I was younger."
Keiq swallowed. "I did too, but I'm very out of practice."
"So. Why don't we sort of work our way around to the back and see if we're going to walk all over each other's feet somewhere away from the newsies?"
But while Keiq started out stiff, she relaxed as she made no serious errors, and her basic athleticism came to the fore before the second dance was over.
They wound up in a group of Directorate mid-grades, with a few raised noses over the Tree considering himself one of them, and some frowns as they recognized a senior investigator from Internal Security.
Ice just grinned. "Not to worry, she's not investigating anyone . . . tonight."
A few snickers and everyone relaxed a bit.
Oljo elbowed in closer. "Hey Keiq, you still hanging around with Ajki's pet? Come dance with me, instead."
"Poacher!" Ice called after them, then looked over the group, sorting them out. Nodded to the head of the Imperial Analysis, his old group, and replacing his old boss. "Wlku . . . Is it Luke? How . . ." He stopped as the man drew himself up indignantly.
"Not to a Bastard Native Halfer, I'm not."
Ice tsked. "Well, I'm a Withione, but the rest is good. Wulk. Is your background analysis? I'm afraid I've lost touch with my former co-workers."
"Fortunately! And I'm surprised any one from Internal Security dares to be seen with you."
Ice snorted in amusement. "Oh I'm not that high . . ." he paused as a Guard slipped in past Wlku.
"Ox and Ajki want to talk to you." A pointed finger. "Front conference room."
"Right. Later guys." Universal glares as he walked away.
The Guard . . . "Ah, E-one. How are things going?"
"Eh. My head feels good, but . . . everyone hates letting me getting this close to anyone important." He shrugged. "I can't blame them."
Ice shrugged, and jerked a thumb over his shoulder. "I, of course, am universally loved."
Censorious looks from Foo and Itsy, bracketing the door.
Foo nodded at E-one. "He and his buddy abandoned you and saved themselves."
"He and his buddy rushed the machine guns so I could try to get President Afgu out. I just wasn't fast enough and took shelter. They ran like hell—or sensible people."
They all three stared at Ice. Then Foo stepped to open the door and waved him in.
Ajki, he knew very well, Ox—Ahxe Withione Black Point—had been in the Criminal Investigations subdirectorate, when they'd both been in IR. As Urfa's chief aide for the last three months, his contacts with the man had been frequent, but brief.
The Black Horse Guards both like and respect him.
"So, Ice, you're up for grabs again." Ajki grinned. "And Ox doesn't know much about you. Sit down and . . ."
The door opened again, and Keiq walked in.
She brightened at the sight of the two men. Ox stood and shook her hand. "Good to see you again, Keiq. If I had a use for a lie detector, I'd recruit you. Instead I'm thinking about stealing Ice from Ajki. But apparently I don't know a lot of things that Ajki seems to think is important, and that I need knowledge of."
"Yes, sir." As Ox sat down, she sat two chairs away from Ice, on the far side from Ox and Ajki.
Ajki grinned. "Just tell Ox all about yourself, and your most questionable deeds. Keiq will signal when you're shading things or lying altogether."