Urfa’s ingroup was interesting. Three properly trained Princesses, two Clostuones and two Withiones, all male. Officially Palace Guards, they apparently split their time between guarding the family and gathering information on political foes.
One of the Withiones was on his way out. Idlo.
"Working espionage?" Fean sighed. "Lucky dog. I always worked exploration or info teams. Spying can be a rush. Have fun."
Idlo raised a supercilious eyebrow. "You’re going to find your reputation has proceeded you. Don’t think you can run over anyone here."
Then he was gone and she eyed the remaining three men. One looked like a commoner, curly black hair and brown eyes in a olive complexion. So average he was practically invisible. In the short time she’d had to observe him, his mannerisms had been solidly Multitude. An Upcommer – not born to power. Bet he’s undercover a lot. Inre Clostuone. The other Clostuone was smaller, skinnier, with bright sharp eyes. Ydro. Egni Withione was leaking more glow through his shields than was strictly polite. He looked a typical High Oner, light hair and eyes, even his skin a bit lighter than most, although not as light as, say Izzo.
She turned her attention to the three Princesses. Qayg was old enough for it to show, with a reputation longer than Xiat’s. Mail was a spectacular brunette, brilliant blue eyes in a perfect face that gave nothing away. Rael still looked like a teenager, with her red hair spiked and clothing no sensible person would be caught dead in. She winked at Fean. The other two had their shields full on.
Urfa cleared his throat. "You can finish the sizing up later. Fean comes to us with seventeen years of experience in Exterior, mostly with Info Teams but she was also neck deep in the Helios war and subsequent recovery work. She worked with the Third Alternate Prophet during his brief tenure, has met Rior’s gang and trained in combined combat with Disco personnel."
The redheaded princess’s shields hardened even further.
I thought she was back together with Xen? Does Urfa ration her visits, to keep him missing her? Nasty. I may like working here.
The scrawney Clostuone sat up attentitively. "Do you know who or how the Comet Fall potions are being smuggled into Vista? Spies or Rior’s gang?"
Fean raised her eyebrows. "It’s probably an independent operation out of Comet Fall, with family ties to Rior’s gang. I haven’t seen any indication that anyone official is tagging along. Actually, I’ve only just met them accidentally when I last checked Rior’s gang. They were visiting relatives while waiting for one of what they called trading partners to get past a smuggling crackdown. If that was Vista, it may explain a few odd looks and evasions I got."
Urfa frowned. "They probably figured you were hunting them. In fact, if it is just smugglers, we don’t want to shut them down. We want to use their dimensional abilities to spy on Comet Fall. Or possibly Earth." He sat back and looked thoughtful. "I think I’ll need to send you out to meet them again pretty soon. Find out if they can get to Earth."
"They go to several Earth Books, but none of them said anything about The Earth."
"Well, no rush. I’ll let your new coleagues here give you the tour and fit you into the schedule." He got up and left and the others focused on her.
"Trained with Disco?" Qayg cocked her head. "How well do you know Xen Wolfson?"
"About as well as anyone knows a combat instructor. I haven’t socialized with him, I was concentrating on getting to know Q. How many of you were here when he was spying on us?"
"Everyone but me and Mail." Engi tried turning up the heat, and Qayg snorted in amusement.
"Behave, Engi. I believe Investigator Fean has too much experience for you to impress her that way." Qayg smiled. "Dear, do put him in his place, as needed, but preferably privately."
Fean nodded. "Rather to my surprise, I’ve outgrown a lot of that status nonsense. If you want me to pass along Xen and Q’s fighting techniques, I’d be delighted."
Mail looked surprised. "She fights? Surely she’s too valuable to risk!"
Fean started giggling. "Would you also like a lecture on the main bloodlines of High Magic in Comet Fall? Their Father is the God of War, one of their Old Gods, the equivalent of our prophets. You know how Xen is shielded but somehow still looks deep instead of shallow? How he draws you in? Triple that for the Old Gods."
"How many have you met? Tell us about them." Ydro leaned forward eyes bright.
"Ha! Information junky. Got you pegged. I’ve met four of the Old Gods. The God of Travelers is Harry. He runs the Tavern at the Crossroads. Sub-saharan phenotype, old, grey, balding. The God of War is the Auld Wulf, with an odd accent even for them, and also Wolfgang Oldham which I believe is his actual name from before the Exile. He’s a vintner, when he’s not doing god things. The Goddess of Health and Fertility, Lady Gisele, is really spooky, she morphs from old to middle-aged to young. According to gossip, she and the Auld Wulf got drunk and sort of challenged each other, and wound up throwing a ton of spells into a linked von neumann’s assembler and then into a barrel of wine. Drunk enough that they have no clear recollection of what and how much they did. That’s the origin of that healing wine that everyone freaks over."
"Drunken gods? You mean they don’t even know what’s in there?" Engi looked horrified. Actually they all did.
"Yep. And they use it for everything from what ought to be fatal injuries to minor scrapes. And, of course, for spiking punch at parties." Fean grinned. "They aren’t normal people."
"And they’ve got three power genes?" Rael had her arms crossed, rejecting, or may be protecting. What sort of relationship does she have with Xen? I wouldn’t think he’d hurt someone . . . but then, he was working.
"Right. Three different alleles of the One Gene. Right. What they call the Mage gene is located on the Y chromosome. The Mages have separate communities, and apparently don’t interact much with the others. The Witch gene is located on the X chromosome, collects power from gravity and is almost always linked with a gene that causes an immune attack on Y bearing sperm. The wizard gene is located there too, it sources from UV thought IR frequencies like the Priest gene, and like the priest gene, male hormones interfere with it’s fullest development in late teen years. They magically postpone puberty until twenty-two or so, so the wizards and baby gods that have it are full strength."
"The One is experimenting with that, aren’t they?" The guys all had their hands in their laps, probably unaware of the protective gestures.
"Yes. It will be interesting." Qayg stood up, and they all followed suit. "Fean, how about a tour?"
"I see." Izzo glanced to the side. "I just read Fean's report, about the three smuggler sisters from Comet Fall. Ask her to find out if one of their trade stops is Vista. We need to find out about the gate. If their spies aren't using it – perhaps ours will."
Ajha grinned. "Oh my, now there's a lovely thought. I'll bet I know what it is, too – all those experimental gates they've got at their test site. They've never done anything with several of them, as they go to primitive worlds."
"We may have found the other end of another one? Interesting. That argues that Comet Fall and the One are fairly close. So to speak."
Ajha nodded. "Oh, yes. I forgot about the one we attacked them through. It opened to an Empty world we were looking at. Yes, at a minimum, we're reaching a group of worlds from one direction, and them from the other. But they must be convenient to both or we'd never see two in common out of the millions of worlds out there."
Izzo’s eyes were narrowed in thought. "You’re right. That is the only place gates have been just sitting around, for as long as this smuggling has been going on. What a fascinating idea. Maybe the Fallen don't realize they've left a back door open"
"Fean will be delighted to hunt it down, I'm sure."
Chief Sushay was very glad to see them in the spring. "The Oners sent men, looking for smugglers. I think they are still watching, so we must be very careful."
Shaman Harnay nodded once. "They bring cheap fertillizer. You should stop, now, and bring only medicines."
"And horses!" The Chief's son was a handsome boy of sixteen.
Zodiac was already splitting up the train of pack horses and turning them over to the right villagers. Betund took the fertilizer, Jikom the grain. The horse carrying the bottled potions stayed with Crimson for now. The Shaman was careful that their children didn't gain uncontrolled access. As usual, they would leave the pack horses here, and depart with only their usual mounts. The girls led horses off with the village women. Since they'd all grasped power, the older witches weren't so worried about them running off with their local friends.
Then, too, the village was far cry from the starving refugee camp they'd discovered on their first trip through the gate. As far as they could tell, no one else had realized that one of the experimental gates led, not just to a primitive World, but to a Primitive World that the One was colonizing. It made their smuggling a lot easier. Their side of the gate had only a token guard to keep people from bothering the natives. This side had no guard at all, although Sushay generally had a youngster posted to watch for their arrival.
They walked into the village with the two leaders. The houses were solid wooden constructs with stone chimneys, the main street paved with flat stones over gravel, well maintained ditches prevented the plagues of mosquitoes that carried disease elsewhere. Of course the Shaman had a generous supply of medicines that would treat malaria, cholera, yellow fever and dysentery. It was one of their main sources of income, trading with the surrounding areas.
Of all the potions she'd bought or stolen, those were by far the best. The rest were so . . . unimportant. Hair and eye colors, and so forth. Well, the contraceptives weren't unimportant, but they were also frowned upon by the Shaman. Wretched men. Like all the primitive societies they traded with, the men held the dominant position in their society. Perhaps it was just as well. The Shaman had taken a potion that gave him a limited bit of magic, but he was too stiff to actually take instruction from a woman, so he couldn't do much at all.
Crimson made a note to herself, to talk to Zodiac about how much of what he showed the man. And the other teenagers. Maybe I should have thought a bit before I brought all those potions here.
The smugglers had a house of their own in the village. Clarok, a middle aged widow, lived there and kept it while they were gone, that is to say, most of the time. The rest of the village had their doubts about just what Clarok's abusive husband had died of, and none of the men had shown any eagerness to woo her. She and the witches got on very well. The barn and small paddock were large enough for their riding horses. This trip, just the eight of them. The three sisters had raised their nephew Zodiac and their own four daughters while smuggling. This village was a frequent stop, as were three others. A dozen other Worlds were just occasional stops.
"Your children are nearly grown. Soon they will marry. We would be pleased if one were to marry into our tribe."
Crimson nodded. "I have noticed that Ibex and Garntay seem to find each other's company pleasing. But our customs are so different than yours. I fear than eventually we would find only misunderstanding and anger."
"Bah. The girl would soon be busy with children and home. She would forget her vagabond childhood in the security of a true home." Sushay waved away the problem.
Harnay sniffed in disapproval. "We have heard that your people do not marry, that you women live separately and have children with whatever man you choose."
"Yes. That is our way. That and the training and use of magic. Our daughters' daughters will also be witches, and will also need lessons."
The Shaman thumped his ceremonial pole. "No. There will be no training of girls above boys, women above men."
Walnut snorted. "And that is why it is best we not allow our children to marry."
The Chief scowled, and the Shaman thumped his pole again. But nothing more was said as they parted from the men. Tonight there would be a village-wide feast. They'd trade, the villagers acting as their agents, with all the villages around, keep their ears open for what else might be welcome, and in a week or two they would leave, with enough gold in their saddle bags to live on for a year. The villagers took their cut in medicines and grain that they didn't sell, or sold later, over the mountains where the Oners had shops with electronics and exotic foods.
The sisters would repeat this trip in a month or two, then one last trip in the fall, and bank a lot of the profit. And in between they had three other worlds they'd visit for business, and several where they shopped.
Harnay scowled at the shelves full of potions. "Women shouldn't have that power." The Shaman hunched a shoulder, and selected a potion, sat down and meditated over it. His guide spirit whispered the secrets inside and they decided how to change them, just a bit. The potion was to free a woman from pregnancy. It was easy to twist it to devotion to her man, so she could never leave him. The spells of healing could become spells of feeling wonderful, the spells to change the color of one's hair, bah, stupid women! They were the easiest to change, they could change things inside the head, cause spirit walking, prophetic dreams, euphoria. Terror.
It was almost dawn when his spirit cat departed. Bottles lay in disarray all around him. He added a bit of the First Wine to all of them. It would probably keep anyone from dying, if he'd done something wrong to the other spells.
The spells to keep a woman, he placed on a special shelf. Men came from all over to buy them.
He wrapped the rest in rags and filled four sacks. After the foreign women had left, he would take a sacred trek. All the way to the town on the coast and the magic corridor to a larger town where his contacts would pay him handsomely for these potions, and he could indulge his private fantasies where his people would never learn of them.
He rubbed his crotch and thought about women. Especially women who looked like those three foreigner women. His eyes shifted to a whip, hanging so innocently on the wall. He was an expert in its use. All the cattlemen in the tribe said he was the best.