Demi tapped the box in front of him, as a reminder.
It had a slot the size of one of their money cards.
Makar scowled, and produced a card and shoved it in. A red flash.
"Zero Balance, Makar. Speaking of stingy, do you have any income?"
A glare, a muttered curse, the card tossed to the floor in disgust, and Makar tried another. This one green lit.
I wonder if they're short of money?
Hell, I wonder how much money Khar has?
Ice swooped up the dropped card. Makar spun, glaring. Time to find out if the spell works on non-forgeries. Ice rubbed his fingers over the card. Stuck it in the slot. Green flash.
Ice flashed his teeth and held the card out to Makar.
Makar snatched it, glanced at the boggled Demi. "What did it read?"
"Twenty-five hundred, it was full up!" He sounded breathless. "Uh . . . Khar? I pretty well tapped out all my sources, setting this up to impress Benedikt . . ."
Ice held out his hand and took the proffered card and zinged it.
Demi leaned to insert the card. Read the balance, and ejected the card. Sat back wide-eyed.
Note to self: Load up all the cash cards I've got, and pick up expended ones that other people toss. I think I've found a way to stand out in this crowd. No matter how they earned money before, they aren't now. And if, as I suspect, they lived off patronage, they've either lost patrons or their patrons are going to be feeling the pinch.
He gave Demi his best smirk and walked on into the small banquet hall.
Which was already stuffed with young men. Half as many young women, and a quarter the number of Cyborgs.
So does having both a woman and a Cyborg guard puts me well up the ladder? I'm certainly getting some glares.
A man--no gray in his hair, but definitely the oldest of this young crowd--was standing with a trio of slightly younger men near the door, in a rather host-like manner.
"Benedikt Klim Mikhailov," Lada whispered. "His cousin Anatoly Volya Mikhailov, Svyatoslav Osip Matveev, and Rodion Eduard Viktorov."
Makar, ahead of him was all ingratiating smiles
Ice gave them a tiny nod.
"Mikhailov, Mikhailov, Matveev, and Viktorov ."
Anatoly, the cousin narrowed his eyes. "You're pretty full of yourself, for a boy who's just lost his patron."
Ice curled a lip. "I decided, that under these circumstances, I'd best start climbing. And not hiding my abilities."
One of the others--he was sure which was which--looked at Bob, and mentally reached for control. Ice blocked it. Easily, now that he'd seen it before.
The man blinked and eyed Ice. "So I see. Mind your step, little boy."
Ice gave them another tiny nod and stepped away. Blocked three spells as he walked away.
Trip, itch, and something else. How interesting. And did they want to embarrass me in public, demonstrate their superior magic abilities, or what? Defend themselves from a threat?
Hmm, I'd best be careful. I have no desire to make enemies . . . just yet. Benedikt, there, could be useful.
The room was interesting. Accordian dividers could turn it into three separate rooms, but today they were wide open, with eight long tables running across the short direction, and buffet tables spaced along the back wall.
"You'll sit. Bob will watch your back, and I'll be fetching food for you." Lada was looking a bit apprehensive. "If you tell me, I'll fetch for others as well. If you want to continue to impress Dimi and Makar, or someone else."
"I think I'll let them get used to currying favors from me. And not kiss up to anyone."
Her eyes widened. "You're too young for that! You just passed the challenge last year! I mean . . ." She shut her mouth on what was probably if you were really Khar.
Oh. Fuck. Me. These people don't have the longevity genes. Benedikt is probably not yet forty. I was think of him as a sixty-to-eighty and ready to make some serious moves in their version of the Game. That last is probably true, but he's had a lot less time too make a reputation for himself.
I'm forty-five and I'm passing as a nineteen-year-old! I may have to think this over for a bit.
He leaned closer, "But you guys have life extending therapies, don't they?"
She nodded. "If you're rich and powerful enough. There are probably fewer than fifty men on this World who have had it. They say Max Berezin and Vitaly Vasiliev are centuries old!"
Right. And they've probably had the sort of magic training that damn near beat Xen Wolfson when he faced Jaejong Chou, so when I get around to meeting the really old guys, I'd best mind my manners.
He circulated a bit, with Lada giving him names and affiliations.
If we survive this, I need a complete briefing from Lada. It sound like there's about a thousand Old Hundreds, and a couple thousand Young Hundreds here--from the Russians.
Versus twenty thousand from the German Hundred Families, plus their version of Halfers. And the three-quarters who might be fairly strong are mostly children. Thirty-five years since the invasion? They might have some in their late teens.
But that's still a pretty small number of Drei. I wonder how many of them live here, in . . . I don't even know the name of the city, let alone the World. If I can hang around long enough to dope the entire city water supply . . .
Lost the Leader . . .
They were up in the foothills above the city, a beautiful view of the sunset, the city light coming on . . . "Nope. This isn't the right world, either." Gior scowled out at the city that spread out to the horizon.
Ivan the Cyborg sighed. "Well, we'll keep looking. In the mean time . . . that lake looks artificial, like it's dammed up for power generation or to supply the city with water."
Gior looked around. "Oh . . . Ice went to a lot of trouble to get the gene editors directly into the water supply, after it had been filtered and treated. I suppose we could try the lake. Can't hurt . . . assuming he's left some with his other stuff. Let's go see."
She jumped back through the gate, and then the corridor up to the camp twenty miles away. In case they find the gate. The corridor can be collapsed with a thought. The gate takes five minutes minimum, and they could grab me before I got it closed.
She scowled as she stalked over to the little lean-to where Ice had left his stuff.
I can't believe I was stupid enough to just sit right there in front of the gate to close it. Ice's tone of voice wasn't nearly as nice and polite as the words. But if I'd closed it faster, we wouldn't have Yuri and the good Cyborgs with us.
But I won't make that mistake again . . . and I'll stay within a couple of meters of the gate when I go across.
She plucked out the little metal rod on the wall, and popped it open. Net bags filled with the apple-sized dissolvable . . . globs of nanos. What did Ice say? That he was taking half with him?
"Ooo! Is that them? The poison that destroys magic?"
The kids all crowded around. Well, the ones who returned. Even Yuri's limping across these days. I wonder if he wants to go home?
Gior nodded, and pulled one out. "This is them. We'll toss one in the reservoir, as long as we've got a gate there. What the heck. It might work."
Back by the lake, she sent Ivan off with the glob and sat down to watch the bright lights as the sky deepened to twilight blue.
Yuri limped up and sat down, stiff and careful. "I wonder what world this is? If it's even part of . . . my empire."
"Do you miss it? Your home?" Gior studied him. Ick. Fewer designer genes than most Servaones, a naturally mutated power gene. And a vicious asshole on top of it.
"No. It corrupted me. Not that I had much choice . . . until now. Even if the pretty city was solid Drei Mächte Bündnis, I wouldn't return to it. Even with this thing," he touched the Chain, "I'm freer than I've even been in my entire life."
"Well it's not." Cheerful voices from the trail into the forest. "We found a paved road and followed it down to a store. They didn't take chips, so we negotiated with one of those metal slugs you gave us. Then we had trouble getting away from these hideous old gray breads who wanted to know where we we're panning for gold."
Tory trooped out carrying a plastic sack in each hand, as were the other three behind her.
Gior nodded. "Most places pay ridiculous amounts for gold. Even the One World."
Yuri snorted. "We need it for our electronics. So there's a good market for it."
Dean handed out candy bars as everyone settled down around the gate.
Gior counted heads . . . "So everyone's here. Anyone want to stay?"
Shaken heads, a few sighs.
"It's just that we don't have any documentation, anyway to just fit in." Briggette looked at the city lights and sighed.
Gior swallowed. I'm in charge. One help me! "I suppose we could leave this gate up. It would give us a good place to run to, if the Drei find our Camp World. And . . . every once in a while we could visit civilization."
Backs straightened. glances were exchanged.
Ken Hoppy, or Hopkins or whatever, laughed. "We could scope them out carefully, sell gold and get whatever sorts of documentation they use here."
Heads were nodding all over.
Gior cleared her throat. "Let's take a vote. All in favor . . . oh, come on! Surely at some level you guys get to vote and the majority get's it's way?"
She looked around in disbelief. "Well, it's starting right here, right now. If you want me to leave this gate open raise a hand." She raised her own. Counted. "Now those who want the gate closed, raise a hand. I count fifteen to leave it open, two to leave it closed. The gate will remain open."
The kids looked around uneasily.
Dean finally asked,, but what if you had wanted it closed?"
"Then the vote would have been fourteen to three and the gate would stay open." Gior shook her head. "Where I come from, the government and government officials have to obey the same laws as everyone. Not that there isn't corruption and graft and bribes and everything else. We are human. But last year we removed the sitting President . . . well, that was out-and-out treason. He helped the Drei Mächte Bündnis invade our world."
"We didn't know you are from a claimed world!" Alia squeaked.
"Claimed?" Gior snorted. "Your Hundreds can claim anything they wish, but we beat them inside of a few blocks and chased them home and blew up your gate facilities on your Home World. Why do you think there's so many of your Hub Worlds in a tizzy right now? Because we're coming for you!"