GIFT OF THE MAEGI
A Solace of Manticore Omake
Previously: Fox Hunt Chapter 5
Timestamp: Winter Solstice, 1902 PD
Queen Elspeth of Jewel stretched her back until it popped and groaned. “Are you certain this is entirely necessary?” she asked her erstwhile tormentor. The queen, only four months into her reign, had spent most of the time since her disastrous coronation party visiting the major cities of her realm and speaking to the people, assuring them of her dedication to them and (of course) showing off her ‘magical’ powers.
Much of that was an attempt to distract the media and citizenry from the quiet removal of all Bellweather partisans, and to assure the people that the former regent’s plans for the nation were not supported by the royal family. Interviews and interrogations of Sophia’s people (the difference being determined by whether or not criminal charges were likely) had revealed that even as the Storting and Prime Minister had been building up the system’s defenses, the Regent and her cabal had been planning to buy Jewel’s independence by not only giving Haven free use of the junction but paying the Legislaturalists what amounted to little more than Danegeld. That the amount needed to ‘assure the liberty of Jewel’ would have reduced most of the system’s sixteen billion commoners to crushing poverty or virtual serfdom was apparently something she’d been willing to accept in the name of ‘freedom from tyranny’.
Despite what had happened, and despite the invaluable assistance of the Manticorans (or Andermani, the media and government were of differing opinion on that front) the Storting was still firmly in the neutrality camp, believing that a large enough defensive fleet would keep Havenite aggression away from the system. Elsa’s personal opinion had, unfortunately, remained just that, since her reign was, by no means secure enough to push her own favored agenda over that of her uncle and his peace at all costs followers.
Her relationship with the young Manticoran woman who’d saved her life was part of that. Too many of the hardliners saw Gillian Andros-Smythe as a Manticoran Agent at court, and many of the tradition minded old-timers (who were fine with their monarch being secretly gay) were deeply upset by Elspeth’s very public dalliance with someone who couldn’t help provide an heir the traditional way. Never mind the ease with which a child could be produced with bioengineering techniques so old they predated the diaspora by roughly a century. Never mind that marital equality was enshrined in the Jewelian Declaration of Fundamental Rights. If Elspeth wanted a mistress, that was fine… but for Goddesses’ sake, couldn’t they have a little discretion!? And a Prince Consort who didn’t have breasts?
The not even yet engaged to the Queen subject of that debate laughed, and tossed Elsa a towel. “Yes. It is. You didn’t just inherit mental powers and a kingdom. You also inherited a perfectly good set of combat augments. The fact that you seem to think throwing a punch with your fingers wrapped ‘round your thumb is appropriate shows just how shockingly lax your education has been.”
“I did that once!” Elspeth sighed, mopping her brow with a hand that felt like it weighed three times normal. Which it did. As the Yule season approached, the grand tour had wound down and the court had returned to Kronorberg, where a variable gravity exercise room had been installed in their absence. Sapphire’s 1.12 G gravity had been boosted to 1.5 G for the workout and the horrible wench had insisted that Elspeth wear a weighted bodysuit that covered everything besides her face and fingers.
The room was also swelteringly hot, which meant that the queen had to maintain concentration to keep herself chilled even as the woman who was officially just her good friend tossed her around the room as if she weighed no more than the towel did. All this was in service of making certain that, should the need arise again, Jewel’s monarch would have an ace in the hole, as it were.
“Yes, yes,” Gilly said, giving Elsa a hug from behind and pressing her cheek against that of the older woman. “You’re very good at making mistakes only once or twice… but you’ve got a lifetime of bad habits to unlearn. And you!” she glared at Anna who was getting a drink, “You’re even worse!”
“What did I do?” the Jewelian Heir demanded, looking confused. “I’ve actually landed blows on you!”
“By accident, and never ones you could capitalize on!” Gilly retorted, not letting Elsa escape. The feeling of physical contact with the cryokinetic was delicious… and not only because she was significantly cooler than the rest of the room. Both she and Anna were wearing chiller units in their exercise gear, but it could only do so much. “You’ve got great instincts, kiddo,” she said, shifting into instructor mode and ignoring the tongue the princess (who was a year older, technically, than Gilly… and a year younger legally, than Gillian Andros-Smythe) stuck out at her. “But you need to focus. Your attacks are still too haphazard, too aggressive.”
“I thought aggression was good!?” Elsa said, then gnawed playfully at Gilly’s bicep. The graceful bunching of muscles beneath the other woman’s skin was always a bit distracting, more so because they hadn’t even been together… not in a biblical sense anyway.
“Only in a very limited sense,” Gilly said. “You only want to be aggressive enough to overcome timidity. Every action you take should be deliberate, even when you’re responding reflexively.”
“That’s not possible!” Anna pouted. “Reflexive actions aren’t conscious… by definition!”
“I didn’t say conscious. I said deliberate,” Gilly said, flicking a drop of sweat across the sall at the princess. “You have to train yourself to take the appropriate action, and to not hesitate when the time for action comes… but you have to recognize when that time, that moment, has come. When do you throw a block?”
“Uh… when someone tries to punch me?” Anna said, confused.
“No. Not specific enough. First, you’re forgetting that you only can throw a block when you realize that a blow is coming. So you have to be able to read an enemy’s body language to know when they are winding up to throw that punch. If you’re good at it, like Solace is, you can probably see the blow coming almost as soon as your enemy thinks of throwing it… or even goad your enemy into throwing the punch in the first place… but for now, you’ve got to learn to recognize the moment of musculature since neither of you are empaths.”
“What’s the moment of musculature?” Elsa asked, tilting her head back to brush her lips across the edge of Gilly’s Jaw. Anna pointedly ignored her sister’s flirtations, well aware that she and Kristoff were just as bad.
“It’s the twitch that signals that a nerve has delivered a specific impulse to a muscle. The grosser the motion, the greater the twitch, and physical blows are fairly gross motions. Lots of force behind them… stop giggling, El. Not that kind of gross.” Elsa squeaked as Gilly pinched her someplace tender and Anna stifled a giggle of her own as the Manticoran raised an eyebrow at her. “But even when you recognize the moment, you’re not going to throw your block right then, right?”
Anna considered, then ahhed, “I get it. You mean that I shouldn’t block until I can do so with the least effort. Right?”
“Close. Least effort, greatest result. The specific point in time when those two lines meet is optimal. If you can block with almost no effort, but it doesn’t give you an advantage… or worse, leaves you open, it’s not a good trade off. If you can find an instant to act in which you’ll both protect yourself and gain an edge, you should act then. That’s when you want to be aggressive. You need to be willing to act in that instant, to recognize your chance and to take it.”
“Don’t forget that that lesson applies to more than combat,” said a new voice as the intercom crackled to life.
“Hi Mom,” Gilly said, releasing Elsa. “I assume you’ve come to fetch us?”
Minerva Andros-Brandyne’s chuckle filled the practice room, and she said, “This is my first chance to play mom for Christmas for more than just Gilly and Barnabie.” With Solace back in Manticore and Chanukah over, Minerva had decided to spend Yule with Gilly and the Jewelian royals. “I’ve been slaving away.”
“We’ll be right out,” Gilly called.
“Shower first!” Minerva snapped, “I don’t want you spoiling my cooking by showing up to dinner smelling like a gymnasium. Kristoff is setting the table like a nice young man and Barnabie has been told that if he snitches any of the food before we sit down to eat, he gets no dessert for a week. Also, I have armed guards stationed to watch the turkey.”
“I can’t believe your mother is making such a big deal about this,” Anna whispered to Gilly as the trio headed into the locker room to take off the heavy suits. “Don’t you have more servants than we do?”
Gilly laughed. “Only if you count the staff of all our properties. We don’t have a giant palace… well, not since Solace gave up her place on Midgard… the house in Jason Bay would fit in your courtyard. But yes, we do have a couple of chefs… okay, four of them… not counting all the ones who work in our restaurants… and you guys have like fifteen, but this is a holiday meal. She wants this to be special.”
“But why?” Elsa said, “I mean… is this normal? I’ve never dated before.”
“I think part of it is because we’re all orphans,” Gilly said, tapping the Queen’s nose. “I’m adopted, Solace is adopted, Kristoff’s parents are dead, your parents are dead… even your grandma’s adopted.” The Queen-Grandmother was, of course, adopted for much the same reason that Solace and Gilly were, and was the only other member of the royal family living in the collosal castle at the heart of Kronorberg Palace. There were hundreds of rooms… and only seven royals.
“Well, I think it’s nice… but weird. Why is she doing the cooking herself?” Anna said, stepping under the hot water.
“Not entirely by herself,” Gilly pointed out, then oofed as Elsa elbowed her.
“Stop staring at my sister’s butt,” the Queen humphed.
“It’s a perfectly nice butt,” Anna giggled, giving a little shimmy. “She can stare as much as she likes.”
“Anyway, I’m pretty certain that your brother and Kristoff were helping her,” Gilly said, ignoring the teasing as she stepped under the spray herself.
Elsewhere in the castle, a crime was being perpetrated. “Bleek. Bleek-Bleek,” whispered one of the criminals as he pried the slats of the vent cover back just enough to allow his partner to squeeze through.
“Dooook,” agreed the other as he squirmed through the gap, wings folded tight to his slightly pudgy frame. Anyone looking at the crook would have been astounded to see so much fluff slide through such a tiny hole, but the crook made it look easy. Once out into the room beyond he flared his wings and gave a little squeak to confirm he was clear. His partner began to lower him down towards the waiting prize.
“What do you two think you’re doing?” asked Prince Felix, setting down a platter of cheddar-broccoli squares. He booped the Flygia named Sven on the nose, then looked up at the Treecat named Barnabie. The smaller of the two was dangling from a drop harness twenty centimeters over a pineapple and clove studded ham that was resting on a sideboard. The fifteen year old brother of Jewel’s monarch had just come into the dining room to deposit the last of the food. “And where are the guards?”
“We were distracted,” Ariel and Beatrice explained from the otherside of the room where they were pulling O.L.A.F. out of the tinsel and popcorn covered pine-tree in the corner. “He got stuck.”
“It was a trap,” the robot said, “Several of her majesty’s pets were trying to eat the candy hooks.”
“Canes,” Ariel said, “Candy Canes.” She was holding five of grandma’s flying weasels, all of whom were squirming to try and get away. Thankfully, all of them were smaller than Sven, who, at five kilos, was twice the size of his more domesticated male cousins. The females were even smaller… which made them all the better at causing mischief. The wild Flygia had quickly established a kind of pack-leader position for himself among the Queen-Grandmother’s flock, and if Arto or Kristoff weren’t around to discipline him, Sven usually could convince the others to assist him in whatever foolishness he was up to that day.
The Sjora in question, now the official representative of her people at the court, was curled up in front of the fireplace, covered in the limp forms of nearly two dozen bat-weasels (who were only behaving themselves because they were sleeping). She was watching a holiday drama on a dataslate and giving the rumbling purr that was her people’s version of a belly laugh. Sjora and human comedy weren’t even close to being the same thing. “A cane is a stilt-slithering aid, yes?” she asked.
“Walking,” Ariel said pedantically, “It’s called walking. Not stilt-slithering. And yes, a cane is a walking aid. But candy canes are simply called that because they are shaped like canes.”
“Negative,” Olaf said. “They are shaped like hooks. Thus, candy hooks.”
“But that doesn’t have the same wordflow,” Beatrice pointed out as Felix pulled the cord tethering Sven to the vent free and used it to leash the little pest to the post that had been set up to try and keep the wild Flygia from divebombing meals to scoop up tasty treats. Unfortunately, it seemed as if Barnabie had untethered him and literally roped him into some fuzzbrained scheme.
“It does if you speak with an Emeraldian accent,” Grandma Patrice said from her easy chair. “Hkandy ‘hook,” she said, by way of demonstrating, using the guttural Emeraldian pronunciation of C and the glottal-stop that preceded the almost swallowed H to almost make the two words have the same initial sound.
“Grandmaaaa,” Beatrice sighed. “Nothing in Emeraldian has wordflow.”
“Yes yes… now put those children down and go wash your hands,” the matriarch said, climbing to her feet as the Manticoran businesswoman returned from fetching the older girls.
“Bird’s coming out,” Kristoff called from the kitchen, manhandling the massive turkey backwards through the swinging door.
“Joyous Yuletide,” Elsa said, raising a glass of spiced wine in a toast, and the rest of her family (either by birth or choice) raised their own, echoing her words. “To those we love, be they present in flesh or merely in spirit. On this, the symbolic longest night, we come together to celebrate all that we have and honor those who came before. Times may have been tough, but we’ve survived another trip around the sun… and for that, we are profoundly grateful.”
“Hear, hear,” said Minerva from the far end of the table. “Now, everyone dig in… yes, even you, you little beast,” she said, grinning at the ‘cat in the highchair.
Barnabie bleeked sadly and shook his head. Everyone looked at him in stunned silence.
“B? You okay?” Gilly asked, ruffling his ears.
He twisted in his chair, bleeking and pointing with a true-hand and a hand-foot at where Sven was perched atop the post, watching them.
“You’re not going to eat unless we invite your friend over?” she guessed.
“Bleek!” Barnabie insisted, pointing more and leaning over so much that his highchair nearly toppled over.
“Mom?” Gilly asked, and everyone looked to Minerva.
“Only if the little monster agrees to behave himself… and that means only eating off his own plate and not scampering all over the table,” the industrialist said in her boardroom voice.
“We can shorten his teather and hook it to the back of Barnabie’s chair,” Felix suggested. “Then they can sit together and Sven won’t be on the table at all.”
And so it was done. The family ate and ate and ate until everyone, human, sjora, flygia, and treecat, were stuffed. There were, of course, plenty of leftovers for midnight snacks and lunch the next day… that was the best part, as everyone knows. One by one the dishes were carried into the kitchen where the household robots (who wouldn’t have known what to do with the night off if it had been offered) would pack up the rest of the food and clean the dishes, and everyone retired to the sitting area, wrapping themselves in blankets and each other’s arms, and accepting mugs of hot (and lightly spiked) cocoa (except Felix, who prefered eggnog), and they sat, listening to gentle strains of holiday music written more than two thousand years earlier on the only inhabited planet in human space where this truly was the longest night of the year (baring the quirk of timing that meant that Beta Trianguli Secundus just happened to line up this year).
As the humans fell asleep one by one, a small furry face rolled a small bronze sphere across the rug until it bumped up against the semi-comatose bulk of a larger furry creature. Barnabie opened his eye and regarded the bell, then bleeked softly and rolled onto his paws. Stealthily, he ooched his bulk under one of the divans, then (after a moment) slid back out, clutching a vacuum sealed container. Being ever so careful to open it silently, he reached inside and withdrew a slender chunk of brownness, then sealed it back up and slid the container back into its hiding spot. Picking up the bauble, he flumped down in front of Sven and offered the Flygia one of his prized pieces of rabbit jerky.
Silently, Sven sniffed at it, whiskers fluttering, then he chittered quietly and took it in his forepaws. Gnawing on the meat, he curled up against his friend and soon, the only sound in the room was the gentle snoring of Kristoff and the crackling of the fire.
Next: Cat and Mouse
Author’s Note: Thank you all for reading this. You’ve given me the best gift a writer can get (aside from, you know, a publishing contract and a five movie deal) and I just want you to know that this story literally would not exist without you. I appreciate you all and hope you’ve had a wonderful year. If you haven’t, I’m sorry, and hope that next year will be better, for all of us. From Me, EssJay, Solace, Gilly, and all the rest, from Barnabie and Sven to my real life ferrets who are sleeping the sleep of the truly naughty but utterly clueless… Happy Holidays, Chappy Chanukah, Joyous Yuletide, Sweet Solstice, Merry Christmas, and Kickin Kwanzaa. All the best, SJ-Chan.