World 77: Honor Harrington – Part 3.01

CROWN OF SWORDS, Solace of Manticore Book 2

Part 1: Snake Charmer

Previously: Solace of Manticore Part 20

-3rd September, 1901 PD-
Solace hadn’t initially been able to believe her own ears. The young officer couldn’t be serious… Case Zulu? In Basilisk? Case Zulu was never sent in drills, not even in the most intense or realistic Fleet maneuvers. Case Zulu had one meaning, and one meaning only: ‘Invasion Imminent.’ That was insanity… but Honor wouldn’t have sent that message if it wasn’t true.

D’orville was clearly running through the same logic chain, though it was doubtful that he knew Honor as well as Solace did. Still, within seconds he snapped, “Bring the fleet to actions stations. I want everyone ready for a crash transit ASAP,” he told his flag lieutenant, then turned to Solace. “You know Commander Harrington and are familiar with the situation in Basilisk, right?”

Nodding, Solace said, “I’m current as of three days ago. Can we get anything off the courier boat’s sensors?”

A minute and a half later, they were on the flag bridge of King Roger, D’Orville’s stupendous SD flagship, watching the feed from Basilisk Astro-control. When Honor had sent her lightspeed Case Zulu, she’d been in orbit around Medusa, the sole habitable planet in the Basilisk system, and had been ten light hours (give or take a few minutes) from the Terminus. Under normal circumstances, it would have taken Homefleet, normally stationed halfway between the Junction and Manticore-A, another three and a half hours to even receive her communique, but Sebastian had been conducting exercises right near the Junction and that had cut out a great deal of lag.

Unfortunately, there was nothing the fleet could do for Fearless. Whatever was happening in Basilisk had happened by now. The sensors of Astro-Control had picked up both the lightspeed data of Fearless setting out in pursuit of the Havenite Q-Ship (she had to be a Q-Ship as no freighter carried military grade impellers, which Sirius clearly did) as well as gravimetric sensor readings that showed that, a little over seven hours ago, Sirius’s gravitic signature had simply vanished… and soon after, so had Fearless’s.

Solace felt a lump in her throat, and feared the worst. It was possible one or both ships hadn’t been destroyed, merely crippled to the point that their wedge’s had failed, and a ship without a wedge was all but invisible to purely light-speed sensors… Solace made a note of that in the back of her mind… there was something there… She shook her head, clearing the distraction.

Then, miraculously, a couple hours later, in the recording, Fearless had reappeared on Astro-Control’s gravitics. Her wedge was faint, a flickering thing, but there none the less. Still, Solace couldn’t allow herself to hope yet. Clearly, Fearless had taken a hell of a beating. It was possible, probable even, that Honor and or Nimitz… Solace shook her head once more time, pushing the fear back. “Admiral, permission to bring the Palace Athena with the fleet?” Solace asked.

He turned from the viewer, brow crinkled. “Are you asking as a Member of Parliament, or for some other reason? If you’re asking as a representative of Andros-Brandyne and worried about your facilities in the system,” he began, uncertain if he should be annoyed or angry.

She cut off whatever he was going to finish with and said, “No sir, I’m thinking that, given Fearless’s condition, she’ll need as much help as she can get. The Athena is the fastest ship in Manticore besides a courier and we can load up medics and engineers and ferry them over to Fearless. She’s decelerating now, and she’ll head back to Medusa, but if things get worse and she has to skuttle, we can pick up her pods. Either way, Athena has a fully stocked medical bay and Doctor Chandler used to be Navy.”

“Steven Chandler?” Sebastian asked, quirking an eyebrow. Solace nodded. The admiral smirked. “Must be nice to have enough money to hire the former head of surgery at Bassingford as your private care provider.”

“We use the Athena to provide disaster relief and we go a lot of places that don’t exactly have access to the best medical care. Money is only as good or bad as the people spending it,” Solace explained with a shrug. “Regardless, the Athena is at the Navy’s disposal. If we can help, we will.”

He considered briefly, then nodded. “As commander of Homefleet, I’m reinstating you early. Please bring your command into the fleet, Captain Smythe.”

======

“Permission to come aboard?” Solace asked as she swam up through one of the few remaining boarding tubes in Fearless’s ravaged flank. The entire fleet had been relieved to see that Fearless was still intact and heading back to the planet but, as the Athena had drawn ever closer to the crippled cruiser, the extent of her damage had become evident and Solace had stood, stiff at the con, flinching inside as each new detail resolved on screen.

Fearless had arrived in Medusa orbit a full seven hours before the Athena could arrive and there her wedge had died again, and Solace knew that if the engineers ever got it back up, it would only be to bring the cruiser home to Manticore one last time. The ship was too small, too old, too broken. She’d never fight again.

Honor stood at the end of the tube, looking like hell, but she spared Solace a wan smile. “Glad you came. We’re in a bad way, Sandy. Ooff…” she grunted a little as the bigger woman gave her a fierce hug. “I’m fine. Nimitz is fine too… that pod your people made held up great… my cabin took a near hit. It was without air for six hours… all my paperwork went poof.” She tried to chuckle, but it came off a little strangled and Solace could feel the terrible grief at what the victory had cost her friend.

“Let’s get your people squared away. We’ll get some tugs to bring Fearless to Port Royal and fix her up, but we’ve got a dozen doctors and a fresh medbay to take care of your injured. Anything I can do to help?”

“Plenty, I’m certain…”

=====

-12th September, 1901-

“We must respond to this Havenite aggression in clear and unambiguous terms,” Solace said, pounding her fist on the rostrum in front of the joint session of Parliament. “The Article of Annexation must be amended to make it absolutely clear before god and man that Basilisk and Medusa are, and forever shall be, part of the Star Kingdom and that the Medusans are a protected species just like the Treecats of Sphinx!”

There was a general roar of agreement with only a few grumbles of complaint from the more reactionary members of the Conservative Lords and Liberal Commons, but the appearance of three Havenite Battle Squadrons in Basilisk on the 9th had made it clear that everything Honor had feared when she’d chased down the Havenite Q-ship Sirius had been spot on. To say that the Havenites had been surprised to find the entire Manticoran Homefleet doing maneuvers in Basilisk would have been an understatement of galactic proportions, but D’Orville and Solace, as representatives of the Fleet and Government of Manticore, had been meticulously polite, treating the Havenites with the dignity of visiting dignitaries, inviting them to stick around for some war games.

While the fleets were having their fun, Solace had taken the Palace back to Manticore and, armed with the evidence of exactly what Haven had been up to, had called for a joint session to discuss the situation. The Prime Minister had given her the floor after announcing that, by Crown Proclamation, the junction would, from now on, be closed to all Havenite warships and that all Haven flagged hulls would have to submit to a full inspection before being allowed to transit.

Fearless had been evacuated and hauled out to Port Royal, where she’d be repaired enough to make one last transit, but the Admiralty had already decided her fate. Acting with resolve, BuShips had proclaimed that the old Fearless would be decommissioned and her name, now permanently etched into the Roll of Honor, would be applied to the next Starknight-class Heavy Cruiser to be finished.

Solace had been amused to discover that her stint as Honor’s superior was to be brief, as, for her ‘crimes’, Honor had been jumped two full ranks, making her a Captain of the List. She’d don the white berret of a ship commander once more, as the new Fearless would be hers once the yard-dogs released the ship. Of course, Honor knew nothing of this yet. Solace only knew it because she was now chief of staff to the head of BuPers, even if she hadn’t actually had a chance to do any chief of staffing yet.

======

-18th September, 1901-

“Sonja, I’m saying this as a friend, and as someone who respects you, you have to talk to Honor. Right or wrong, she blames you in part for how many of her crew died in Basilisk,” Solace said over desert at Bar Ziggy. She saw the stubborn expression crease the older woman’s face and shook her head, “I’m neutral in this. You’re both my friends, and I think she’s missing the point that Fearless would almost certainly have been destroyed by Sirius if the Q-Ship’s Captain had felt she was a bigger threat. He would have turned sooner instead of running if he didn’t think he could outrun her.

“I know,” Hemphill said, sighing. “But what am I supposed to say?”

“Tell her the truth. That you never anticipated that Fearless would ever see actual combat. That she was chosen because she was old enough that the fleet wouldn’t lose a new cruiser to test the technology out. That you figured she’d be safe in Basilisk after Janacek had her assigned there. That you’re sorry for everything that’s happened. Talk to her. She’s not stupid.”

“And how do I justify going out to Basilisk to talk to her?”

Solace laughed, “Are you kidding? She just used the Grav-Lance to destroy a huge Q-Ship. You simply explain that you’re getting the report straight from the treecat’s mouth as it were.”

Sonja chuckled, “God, can you imagine Ruth actually in command of a starship?”

Solace ruffled Naomi’s ears as Ruth bleeked a protest at the Admiral and shrugged. “Ruth? No. Naomi? Maybe. Ruth doesn’t take anything seriously. You know that the Grav-lance is useless, right?”

The admiral sighed again, putting down her fork and nodded. “Yeah. it looks like it. Maybe with more research, we could boost the range, but we’d have to boost the plasma containment field for the plasma torpedoes as well, and that doesn’t seem very likely.”

“No. It doesn’t… but I had a thought as I was looking at the feed from Fearless, something I want to show you.” She passed the Admiral a data pad.

Sonja quirked an eyebrow, looking at the schematic on the screen. “It’s a node of some kind?”

“Not quite. It’s a gravitic pulse generator. We developed it over at Snurlson for asteroid mining. We’ve been testing it out at Port Royal.”

“Asteroid mining? With gravity? To break up the asteroids?”

Solace shook her head. “It doesn’t hit that hard… but what it does is detect what’s inside the asteroid using mass differentials. We can get a pretty accurate map of up to a twenty-six cubic kilometer asteroid… more if it’s a spindle.”

“So? I think I’m missing something.”

“Have you ever heard of something called Morse Code?”

“Of course… oh my god… how fast can this thing generate pulses?”

Solace smiled. “Fast enough.”

=======

-5th October, 1901-

The surviving crew of HMS Fearless had returned to her after three weeks of shoreleave on sunny Medusa and had spent several days getting her ready for what amounted to a funeral. The techs of Port Royal had patched her up just enough to make one last transit, to bring her people home. It was an honor few warships got and, technically, a waste of resources and effort from a purely logical standpoint. But this had been a labour of respect, a solemn duty, and had very much been necessary from a morale standpoint.

The Battle of Basilisk had been the first battle in Manticore territory in almost two centuries and the entire Star Kingdom had been shaken by it. Fearless was a symbol to not only the Navy, but to the people of Manticore, that they would win the coming war… and that they would pay a heavy price for that victory. The price to be paid was one that had to be paid by men and women in uniform, and it was the people’s duty to honor that sacrifice.

As Fearless approached the terminus, accompanied by an entire superdreadnought battle squadron as honor guard, Solace watched from the bridge of the Athena as the Manticoran anthem played over every transmitter in the system and the rest of Homefleet flashed their running lights at the lamed cruiser, a formal salute to a fleet flagship, as she vanished from the system she’d given her all to protect.

Solace knew that Honor hoped that Fearless could be saved, that she would not be consigned to the breakers, and Solace had not had it in her to crush her friend’s dreams, no matter how cowardly that might have seemed. It wasn’t her place to speak for BuShips, she reasoned, though as Whitehaven’s deputy, she was there to present the Admiralty’s orders to the crew of Fearless as she docked at HMSS Hephaestus.

One by one, she handed over the envelopes to the one hundred and fifty-one survivors who had not been evacuated back to Manticore for advanced medical procedures. Some she knew from having served with them, others she knew from Honor’s letters, but she’d come to know them all, at least on paper, as she’d worked into the late hours of the night trying to find them places where they could heal the wounds they had taken, physical and spiritual, in pursuit of the safety of their nation. Some were given desk jobs, others berths on the various stations of the Manticore home system, and a couple would, by their own request, be released the service with full honors. Most, however, would return to space.

And finally, it was time for her command staff and Solace smiled down at McKeon and Venizelos as they exited the boarding tube, just ahead of Honor and Nimitz. “Lieutenant Commander, Commander, Captain. Welcome to Hephaestus.”

“I think you have that wrong, ma’am,” Andreas said, looking confused. Alistair elbowed him and the younger officer blushed, then remembered to salute. Solace waved that off and handed over the sealed packets.

“Good to see you, Andy. You’re looking better. And no, I seldom make mistakes like that. In fact, I would have brought your new rank tabs, but I had a feeling that Alistair wouldn’t be needing his any more.” She grinned as McKeon started, then blushed himself and nodded, reaching up to his collar and pulling off his three pips and pressing them into the younger man’s hands.

“Wear them in good health, Andreas,” Alistair said, feeling a little choked up.

Solace held out a box to Honor, “These are from Admiral Courvoisier. He says you’ve earned them twice over.”

Honor, who hadn’t been informed of her double promotion, could only stare at the contents for a long long moment before Alistair ahemed. It was Honor’s turn to turn a little pink, but she handed Nimitz the box containing the pair of single suns of a full captain and worked her own four diamond pips off and handed them to her former Executive Officer. “It’s been an honor, XO,” she said. “Any idea where he’s going now? Are they going to give him Fearless?

Solace sighed, silently cursing the idiot from BuShips for not being there. “Actually, you’re getting Fearless, Honor.”

“But…” Honor was confused. A Light Cruiser was far too small a command for a Captain of the List.

“Captain Lemaitre was supposed to tell you this, but BuShips has decided not to-” Solace began, but stopped as she saw that all three understood. “The new Fearless will be a Star-Knight. She’ll be done in a few months. Alistair will, after he completes the Commanding Officer’s Course, be getting Troubadour. She’s a Chanson Destroyer,” Solace explained as she fixed Honor’s new pips on for the other woman. She could feel the barely contained tears and knew that Honor’s hands wouldn’t be steady enough for the somewhat delicate task.

“And me?” Venizelos asked.

“Well, unless Honor objects, you’ll be her new Executive Officer,” Solace said, stepping back as Ruth gave Honor a little salute and Nimitz adjusted the white beret that Honor would have to give up for a little while. Only the Captain of a hyper-capable craft got to wear that, and Honor was technically between Captaincies at the moment. Solace herself had only two such commands to her name (at least in Manticoran service), and those had been a brevet rank and a courier captaincy. Honor would be going to her third formal warship command and Solace had to push down a little bit of envy.

“Anyway, get yourselves squared away. I’ve rented out Dempsey’s for you and your crew. We’re going to raise a toast or five to the fallen and those still with us. Well, you are.”

“You’re not coming?” Andreas asked.

“I didn’t serve aboard Fearless,” Solace pointed out, “it would be wrong of me to invite myself.”

“But…” the young man began, but McKeon placed a hand on his shoulder.

“I’m certain the Captain has duties she needs to get back to,” he said, nodding to Solace.

“Indeed. Gentlemen, Honor… I guess you outrank me again… I shall see you around.”

=========

-18th October, 1901-

“I got a visit from a Commodore Yerensky today,” Honor said over dinner. “He had the gall to ask me to speak to the Weapons Development Board about that damned Grav-lance.”

“Ah. Good,” Solace said, smiling softly.

“Good? I’m going to give them a piece of my mind. That damned thing got half my crew killed.”

“Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe Sirius would have turned sooner if you’d presented a bigger threat and Fearless without the Grav-Lance could not have taken that kind of pounding,” Solace said, shrugging, “But I say good because Admiral Hemphill arrange it.”

“What?” Honor half-growled and Nimitz hissed in sympathetic agreement. “Why would she… she has to know I’m going to go off on her like a bomb-pumped laserhead.”

“Because the Grav-lance has to very definitively fail. It has to be public, or at least as public as military secrecy allows, and it has to come from someone who has used the thing in battle. We need the admiralty… especially that arse Janacek… The First Lord of Admiralty, not Lukas or his mother… I know too many Janaceks…” Solace chuckled, “Especially Agnetha. She must cheat at Mahj, I swear.”

“You were saying? About Admiral Janacek?” Honor reminded her, deftly keeping her fork between Naomi and the grilled salmon on her salad.

“Oh. Right. Janacek is already talking about retrofitting all the Battlecruisers and CAs with Gravlances. We need him to be forced to drop it, rather than wasting any more time or resources on the stupid thing.”

“I don’t understand. This was Horrible… Sonja’s baby, wasn’t it?”

Solace shook her head. “She doesn’t care about any given project. Really. And she’s not just interested in technology for the sake of technology. She’s looking for a game changer… and we’ve found one.”

“Found one? What are you talking about?”

“This is very very black right now. You and Alistair are going to be doing a little more testing for Sonja.”

“Oh dear lord. What is it this time? An Antimatter warhead?” Solace flinched at that. Every attempt to make one of the legendary CT-Missiles had failed spectacularly, since the slightest fluctuation in the bottle holding the antimatter meant the destruction of the missile… and usually the test platform it was mounted on.

“A new sensor package and a new communication system,” Solace said, then laughed as Honor’s face relaxed. “The sensor is based on the inverter detector. It’s much better at picking up gravitic fluctuations. The communication system is… well, we’re still working on the prototypes that will be installed on Fearless and Troubadour.”

“We? When did you switch to BuWeps?”

“Haha. No, I’m still chained to Admiral Whitehaven at BuPers, but in this case We is Andros-Brandyne. We’re doing the development and R&D. Lukas Janacek and Sonja Hemphill are running the operation at BuWeps. Lukas will be monitoring the prototype for your shakedown cruise. He’s a good kid.”

“That’s what you said about Alistair and Andreas,” Honor pointed out.

“I never said McKeon was a good kid. He’s older than you are. I said he was good people. I still don’t know why he was acting like that when you first got there. That’s not like him.”

“He got better… much better actually. And Venizelos is great. Is there going to be a problem with getting Rafe Cardones as my tactical officer? I know he’s a bit too junior for the position, but he’s good.”

“If you say he’s competent, I’ll get the Admiral to sign off on it. I trust your judgement and the Admiral trusts mine.”

“Good… good… so what does this thing you’re foisting on me actually do?”

“This thing, as you call it, is the Holy Grail.”

Honor’s confusion was palpable, but the light of realization as she looked down at the system schematics was enough to almost wipe away the grief that she’d been carrying since the battle. “No… fucking… way…” she gasped, and Solace almost laughed. Honor very seldom swore.

“You said it, sister.”

Next: Crown of Swords – Part 2 or Undertale

If you like what I do, please consider supporting me on Patreon. I’d especially like to thank Parzival, bearblue, Ryune, Sphinxes and Deltoren, but all of you who read my work and comment are wonderful.

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World 77: Honor Harrington – Part 2.20

SOLACE OF MANTICORE

Part 20: Life in Quarter Time

Previously: Part 19, Chaper 4

-4th May, 1896 PD, early morning-

“You look terrible,” Honor commented as Solace took her place next to the older woman in the lecture hall. They were two t-months into the ten t-month program and between them held the one and two slots in their class with Constance Brennerman rounding out what the rest of their class called ‘The Terrible Trio’. Solace personally felt that it was all a bit unfair. Constance was the terrible one, with an acerbic personality and all the friendliness of a stone. Of course, that wasn’t why she was feeling low, though the idea of having to deal with Constance ‘The Admiralty’s Pet’ Brennerman didn’t exactly thrill her.

“I had another duel this morning,” Solace said, feeling drained by the entire process.

“Another one?” Honor raised an eyebrow, “About Midgard? How many is this? Eleven?”

“Thirteen, there were two before the term started. Brothers, fathers, sons, wives… they all want… demand, satisfaction.”

Honor’s brow furrowed. “Do they think that having you shoot at them will somehow bring those loved ones back?”

“It’s not about that. It’s about their family reputations… mostly. They’re trying to prove that their kin didn’t die because they were cowards… I guess. I don’t know. I’ve fought so many duels… It seems like a curse has been laid upon me. Today’s was worse than most though. It was just… Delores Meech’s mother. Hard woman. The only one of the bunch besides Captain Danica to ask for the Ellington Protocol. She was practically demanding that I shoot her.”

“You didn’t, right? She’s got to be in her eighties. And why are they picking the terms? They challenged you.”

Delores Meech had been a second generation prolong recipient and one of the oldest junior captains in Manticoran service, the kind who everyone knows will never make list. She was a plodder, a by the book cruiser captain with all the creativity of a ham and cheese sandwich and (before signing up with Midgard) had been on half-pay because she was getting too senior to do anything with. She’d driven her cruiser right onto to some of Solace’s mines at the Battle of Second Midgard. Her mother, Parian Meech, was actually in her nineties and hadn’t been young enough for any generation of prolong.

Solace rested her forehead against the smooth surface of the lecture hall table and groaned. “Danica said that she’d brand me a coward if I didn’t accept the harsher protocol… and she was trying to kill me. Useless woman. I hope she enjoys trying to grow back her hand. As for the Meech woman… she gave me that old lady glare when I suggested that the Dreyfus would be more suited. ‘Do you think me too frail to face your fire, you horrid woman?’ she said when I made the offer.”

“What happened? You didn’t shoot a little old lady, did you?” Honor asked, aghast and uncertain how she would have handled the situation.

“Honor. Parian Meech might be a little old lady, but she was a little old lady with ten rounds of very live ammo. Bullets don’t care how old you are. I shot the gun out of her hand, but I’m certain I broke her wrist and several fingers and the bullet bounced off the gun and lodged in her thigh. She went into shock even before the medics reached her. It’s anyone’s guess if she’ll make it.” She banged her head against the table several times as Naomi patted the back of her short hair.

Ruth and Nimitz, engaged in playing with some jacks that Solace’s little brother Duty-and-Honour had given them at the family open-house the previous weekend, glared at Solace for making the table bounce. Ruth was wearing a harness that had her tiny medal and her Andermani admiral’s stars on it, making her one of the few treecats who routinely wore clothing of any kind. More than one of their classmates had made the assumption that Nimitz and Ruth or Nimitz and Naomi were an item, but despite a certain amount of playful flirting between Ruth and Nimitz, nothing could be further from the truth. As for Naomi, as far as Solace could tell, the bigger of her ‘cats had absolutely no interest in romance at all.

Whatever Honor was about to say was cut off as Admiral Massey entered the room and they all rose to attention… well, everyone besides the treecats.

======

-5th May, 1896 PD, lunch time-

“Commander Smythe,” came a voice from behind her as she left Captain Demaine’s Logistics lecture the next day, “A moment?””

Solace turned and looked back, motioning for Honor and Nimitz to head to lunch without her. The speaker was Admiral Clarence Massey’s aide, a small mousey woman who reminded Solace painfully of a puppy. “Can I help you, Lieutenant?”

“The Admiral was hoping you’d join him for dinner tonight?” the aide asked, just as nervous this time as she had been the last seven times she’d invited Solace. The Admiral routinely invited the more promising junior officers to dine with him on friday nights, and the topics of discussion were always lively and varied, ranging through military history and theory to galactic politics to the latest in technology and the arts. The only problem with those dinners was that Massey’s invitations were not so subtly biased, as he only invited those promising junior officers with powerful patrons or from the more connected families. Solace didn’t know if she’d have noticed except for her friendship with Honor, who had never been invited.

Still, it wasn’t a Commander’s place to tell off an Admiral for not inviting someone. That didn’t mean she had to support the system… but would boycotting do anything beside limit her own voice… she had to wonder how Machiavelli would have handled it. “I’ll be there,” she said, still pondering the question as she hurried to catch up with Honor.

“Watch where you’re stampeding, you useless elephant,” snapped a voice Solace had come to despise over the last two months.

She looked down at the smaller woman (not that almost every woman she’d ever met hadn’t been shorter than Solace’s own 202 centimeter height) and snarked, “Connie. How nice to see you today. I didn’t notice you down there, licking the floor.”

Constance Brennerman harrumphed, puffing up a chest that could politely be described as ‘prodigious’ and glowered. Solace found herself reminded unpleasantly of the time her cat Raoul had tried to intimidate the Babcock’s Rottweiler. Constance or Connie to those who liked annoying her, was barely a hundred and sixty centimeters and looked like a doll someone had dressed in an RMN uniform. It would have been all too easy to underestimate her, but she was actually an insightful and calculating opponent and had earned every promotion she’d been given. She was the RMN’s poster-girl for by the book hard work, dedication, and conservative, but not dogmatic, thinking. She was also two years younger than Solace herself, making her the youngest member of their class. Unfortunately, she seemed to have something against ‘Provincials’ (i.e. people from Sphinx or Gryphon) who brought vermin (i.e. Treecats) into the hallowed halls of Saganami Island and thought the rules didn’t apply to them (i.e. had ever gotten demerits for anything). Her record was so spotlessly clean one could have used it to wipe the queen’s bum.

“Are you going to stand there and be annoyed at me for existing all lunch or do you have a reason for this newest bout of unwarranted Capital Worlder Hostility?”

Constance gritted her teeth, clenched her hands into fists, then stepped aside, muttering to herself about livestock needing to watch where they were going.

Solace waved as the other left, calling, “Maybe you should carry a big sign that says ‘Warning, Cranky Mouse Crossing, Maintain a Safe Distance.”

Honor was waiting just outside the dining hall when Solace and her quasi-feline retinue arrived. “Were you teasing CB again?”

Solace shrugged. “She started it.”

“God, what are you, eight?” Honor sighed, shaking her head. She punched Solace on the shoulder, “Come on, it’s meatloaf day.”

Solace grinned. “You and your fascination with reconstituted steak always amuses.”

Once they were seated, Honor asked, “Any movement on what we talked about yesterday?”

“Nothing yet. I’ve been invited to the Admiral’s again.”

“Thinking someone might cause a scene?”

“I always think someone might cause a scene… but I doubt anyone would be that stupid.”

=====

-5th May, 1896 PD, late evening-

“Ha!” Donovan Massey, the Admiral’s eldest, sneered, looming over Solace. “I can’t believe you were that stupid!” he mocked. “Bogey said you were supposed to be sooo clever, but I told him it was all luck and Andermani agitprop and look!” he waved his hands around the Admiral’s private den. “I was right!”

Solace groaned, head swimming from the chemicals flowing through her system. “Haahg?” she managed to get out, voice barely strong enough to be heard. The evening had been going so well and her poison snooper (artfully disguised as part of her wrist watch) hadn’t detected anything harmful in the food or drink she’d been served at dinner, and she’d poured her own tea upon entering the den to relax while Naomi and Ruth played with the Admiral’s two youngest children, Abigail and Houston, who were six and four respectively and absolutely fawned over the fluffy ‘cats. Treecats loved children, with their bright inquisitive minds and simple clear emotions.

“How? How?” Donovan mocked, pocketing the remote with which he’d locked both of the doors to the room. “I coated the teacups.”

“W… hagib?”

“Hmmm?” he asked, not understanding her slurred speech.

“Whaaa…” she had to struggle to make herself understood. “Duuuggg?”

“Oh! What drug? Don’t worry. It’s tetrametha something or other. It’s not a fatal poison, just a muscle relaxant… couldn’t have my fun disrupted before I arranged an accident for you. That’s what they’re paying me for. Make the great Anvil suffer a mischief.” He giggled, sounding as if he were a bit drugged himself… probably something to steady his nerves.

Solace rolled her head limply around on her shoulders, looking around the room as she tried to get her eyes to focus. “Nnng… paamorrr?”

“Pay me more? I’m sure you could!” he laughed, leaning over to begin to unbutton her jacket and blouse. “But as soon as you recovered, you’d turn me in. Can’t have that… my my… such lovely ladies,” he said, reaching out to run his finger down the exposed valley of her chest. “Don’t worry, we won’t be interrupted.”

He was just pulling a hyponeedle injector out of his vest pocket when the window behind him slide silently open and a large figure dressed all in very dark blue pulled itself up and in with a gymnast’s silent grace. Standing upright, the figure reached out one hand and poked a flower vase in the Ming style. It fell with a crash and Donovan whirled. “Wh… what the… who?” His hand flashed to his jacket where there was a faint hint of a bulge from a needler, but the newcomer threw a heavy paperweight at him, nailing him in the gut and causing him to double over. A quick sharp blow to the back of the neck and Donovan Massey was out for the count.

“Tuugg… yerr… taaaim…” Solace groaned as the figure knelt next to her on the couch and pulled her own hyponeedle out of a bag containing a couple dozen single dose vials.

“Do you know what he gave you?” Honor asked.

“Tee… emmmm… buuuuh,” Solace managed to get out, the vertigo making her want to throw up.

“TMB? Tetramethelbaclofen?” Honor asked, seeking confirmation.

As best she could, Solace nodded, and grunted, “Yuih.”

“I hope you know what you’re doing,” Honor said, injecting the drug. “You don’t want me to stick around?”

“Nuggg… gooo… b… bettaa safe,” Solace flop-waved a hand at her friend.

“What if he recovers before you do?”

“Rissk… gooo…. Beee faaiinnn,” she struggled to sit up, not feeling fine at all, but needing Honor to go before she endangered herself or her family by getting caught up in whatever this was. As she did, the events of the previous afternoon came back to her and she privately cursed and blessed Pavel Young in the same thought.

======

-4th May, 1896 PD, late afternoon-

“I hate math,” Honor groaned at their study group later that day. “This doesn’t make any sense!” She tossed the tablet across the table and leaned back, groaning. “I’m never going to get this!”

“It’s not that hard to understand,” Solace commented.

“Says the woman who’s never had to think about complex equations,” groaned the older woman.

It was true, to an extent. Solace’s intuition was strong enough that she all but instantly knew the solution to any plot, calculation, or equation she so much as looked at. Only the most complex of theoretical mathematics could force her to actually run the calculations… and when she ran into them she invariably had to turn to a machine to do the math, seeing as how she no real knowledge of how such things actually worked, and even less interest in polydimensional physics, proton clustering, or transfinite number theory.

Solace shrugged. “Maybe that’s true, but I kill to be as good of a pilot as you are. And you’re better with conventional tactics than I am.”

“Hah!” Honor snorted. “Blatant lies.”

“I’m serious! I use clever tricks and guesswork. You look at a situation and just… I don’t know… You’re relentless.”

“You’ve beaten me in every head to head we’ve had,” Honor pointed out.

“And you’ve done more damage to my ship than the next three contenders combined. And only you and Brennerman have avoided my traps or seen through my gambits.”

“At which point we discover that you’ve got another trap waiting for us.”

“I’ve got more experience with actual combat, that’s all. And I’ve only commanded a ship of my own in combat once. You’re much better at ship handling than I am.”

Honor chuckled. “That’s true. You’re really bad at that.”

“Hey!” Solace humphed. It was something of a sore spot that her actual ship handling skills were so poor. Of course, calling them poor outloud would have infuriated most of the class, since Solace was ranked eighth in their class of sixty. Honor, of course, was ranked number one. Where Solace was the best at squadron and fleet level maneuvers, in the heat of battle, she didn’t have the same instinctive speed of command that Honor had.

Indeed, the two of them had nearly diametric fighting styles in every area. Solace was all finesse in ship handling and brutally fast in hand to hand, while Honor was the opposite. At the helm, Solace set up weaknesses in her enemies, manipulating them like a spider with prepositioning and planned reactions, looking for the perfect one hit kill. Honor, on the other hand sought out every trick, every opportunity to land a damaging blow, killing her enemies with a dozen little blows that combined to produce the same result. The longer one stayed in contact with Honor, the more damage one took. It was as if her soul was fire. Solace found she was actually looking forward to seeing what kind of force Honor would put together once she’d managed to pass through the obligatory Captaincy period before the Admiralty inevitably realized she was wasted with only a single ship to her name. That Honor wasn’t already a Captain, maybe not of the list, but a Captain nonetheless, was a shame.

“Want to come dancing with Minerva and me tomorrow night? Lukas will be there,” Solace asked, changing the subject.

“God… no. I look like an ox stumbling about on the dance floor.”

“Honor. I’m fifteen centimeters taller than you and have bigger shoulders. If you look like an ox, I look like an elephant.”

“Please! You’re gorgeous. I look like a horse.”

“I like horses.”

“No flirting!”

“I’m not flirting with you. I know you’re straight… but you should come. Lukas likes horses too.”

“I’d look like a giantess dancing with him! He’s cute, but he’s tiny!”

“He’s only 18 cm shorter than you! He’s not tiny!”

Honor was about to retort, but a uniformed steward walked over to their table in the COC’s common area.

“Commander Smythe,” the woman said, “This is marked for your eyes only.” She held out a silver tray upon which was a folded and wax sealed piece of very expensive stationary. The steward had a faint smirk on her face, clearly thinking that it was a love letter, and even Honor had the corner of her mouth kinked as she watched Solace take the missive.

“Thank you,” Solace said, waiting until the woman left to do anything more than tap the edge of the envelope against her lips.

“That doesn’t look like it’s from Minerva,” Honor half-teased.

“It’s not. It’s from lord Young,” Solace half-growled. She’d managed, finally, and after many beers, to get Honor to explain why she detested Pavel Young, and had related her own experiences with the odious spawn of the North Hollow line.

“How do you know?” Honor asked, “the wax isn’t embossed with the North Hollow crest.”

“That arse thinks it’s funny to use a stylish F as his seal… it’s for Farussi.”

“Farussi? I don’t understand,” the Sphinxian Yeoman said.

“Baron Farussi was an alias of Giacomo Casanova… the Casanova,” Solace explained, referring to the Italian adventurer of the fourth century Ante-Diaspora whose name was, even two millennia and more later, synonymous with ‘womanizer’. “This is also his favorite stationary… It’s imported from Venice on Old Earth and costs eighteen Manticoran dollars a sheet… a ridiculous expense for a ridiculously spoiled brat.”

“Why is he sending you… he’s not stupid enough to flirt with you, is he?”

“No. He’s not. At least I don’t think he is. And that’s why I’m trying to figure out what this might be.”

“You could open it?” Honor pointed out, sounding reasonable.

“I don’t like surprises.”

“Are you actually trying to use that intuition of yours to figure out what’s inside a sealed envelope?” Honor chuckled.

Solace sighed. “No, I’m not. I just…” she shrugged. “I guess I’m just procrastinating because I can’t think of any reason he might have sent this that wouldn’t be unpleasant.”

“You’re going to stress yourself out more by worrying about it than you would by just getting it over with. It’s like a bandage.”

“I don’t follow.”

“When you have a bandage on and you know pulling it off slowly is going to hurt, you just rip it off all at once. Sure, it’ll hurt a bunch, but it’ll be over sooner and the total pain will be less than the cumulative pain and anticipation,” Honor explained.

Solace stared at her friend for several long seconds, then said, “You do realize they make a spray for dissolving the adhesive on bandages, right?”

“Oh just open the damned envelope, your Imperial Grace.”

“Stop calling me that,” Solace groaned. The Imperial Andermani Court had finally gotten organized enough to send word that her position as ninth in line to the throne (after Prince Huang and his children and the Herzog von Rabenstrange and his children) had been confirmed, which was deeply worrying. More worrying was the fact that her home was now playing host to a dozen Totenkopf Hussars assigned as her diplomatic guard. Thankfully, they couldn’t follow her into the various military precincts she frequented, and it was nice knowing that they were there to protect Gilly, Barnabie, and Minerva, but it was a bit annoying to be followed by black uniformed, jackbooted thugs (highly attractive though they might be) at all times. That their leader was the redoubtable Oberstleutnant Mustafa was perhaps the most worrying of all, though it was nice having Ulrike assigned as her personal driver. She and Gilly seemed to really be hitting it off, though not in a romantic way.

“Fine…” Solace grumbled, then broke the seal, “But if this is some kind of deadly contact poison or an eldritch magical rune that makes my eyes melt, I’m blaming you.”

“You read too many weird books,” Honor said.

“Well, excuse me for liking fiction,” Solace replied, pulling out the card.

In Pavel’s admittedly impressive calligraphy, the note said, “For years the specter of your threat has hung over my head like the Sword of Damocles. No more. I have information for you which should square us, so take your damned Jew hex off of me. Parties of my father’s acquaintance have arranged for someone to assassinate you. I don’t know who the assassin is, but father seems convinced that they will be able to reach you even at the Island. The attempt will happen sometime within the next four days, presumably before the Commons votes on the resolution to withdraw from Basilisk.”

Solace read through the letter twice. It was unsigned, of course, and no doubt if she took it to the authorities, Pavel would claim it was a forgery, since his preferences in writing material weren’t exactly unknown among his set. She handed over to Honor as she considered.

After five minutes of silence, punctuated only by the feeling of Honor’s emotions boiling away, the other woman spoke. “Even when he’s trying to be helpful, he really can’t help but make an arse of himself, can he? Fucking nobles.”

Feeling a little defensive, Solace said, “There’s nothing inherently wrong with being a noble, any more than there is in being a politician or a soldier. The problems arise when one acts as if holding such a position entitles one to more respect, to take liberties, or have a sense of superiority over those who aren’t your peers. As long as one remembers that one’s duty is to serve others, one should be okay.”

“Oh? One will remember that in case one ever becomes a noble,” Honor said, trying to mimic Michael Janvier’s ridiculously posh accent.

“Oh hush.”

“What are you going to do about this?” Honor asked, waving the stiff card… then gasped as it began to crumble.

“Oh. interesting. I’d heard about that,” Solace commented, watching as the note corroded outward from the ink.

“Wh… what just happened?” Honor asked, looking at the hollowed out card.

“Nanotechnological ink. You write a note on a cellulose rich medium with the special ink, then spray it with a primer and seal it in a visible light proof envelope, like this one.” She held up the foil-lined envelope. “Then, when optical light hits it, it activates the ink and the ink… consumes the medium.”

“That’s… creepy. Is it some kind of spy tech?”

Solace laughed. “Believe it or not, no. It’s so rich brats can send each other self-destructing notes. It’s used as a bullying tool in Gilly’s school and also to write love letters. Gilly’s gotten quite a number of them. Of course, she takes snapshots of each as soon as she opens them.”

“How’s she doing?” Honor asked. “I know she looked happy enough at the open-house… but you know better than most how good escaped slaves can be at hiding trauma.”

Solace shrugged a little, “She’s as normal as a thirteen year old gets, I guess. Not as driven as I was at that age, and much more interested in matters romantic than I was. She’s more interested in sports too, and less interested in the military. She’s got a big grappling tournament coming up at the end of the month. And I have no idea what I’m going to do about the threat. How does one prepare for an assassination attempt when one doesn’t know the time, place, or killer’s identity?”

Honor thought about that for a very long moment, then sighed. “You’re right. It doesn’t seem like an easy problem. How does one prepare for an attack that can come anywhere, anytime, from anyone?”

“Paranoia?”

“That just has us looking at shadows.”

“Intelligence work?” Solace suggested.

“What?” Honor asked, “Planning on running a comprehensive and highly illegal background check on everyone who has access to the Island?”

“We’re thinking of it the wrong way,” Solace said, thinking out loud. “We’re looking at this as if it matters who the assassin is.”

“That’s a fairly important piece of information, isn’t it?” Honor asked, voice tinged with sarcasm, but Solace could feel the worry coming off the older woman.

She patted Honor’s hand and smiled wanly, then shook her head. “No. What matters are vectors of attack. How someone might plan to kill me is much more important than who, though who will often inform how.”

Honor nodded slowly, getting it and running through the permutations. “So, we’re talking all the classics; poison, direct attack with a weapon, sniper, bomb, sabotage,” she said, ticking them off on her fingers.

“I can get a poison snooper from Minerva and use it on my food. Contact poison and traps potentially endanger others. Same with bombs. It’s unlikely that unless the assassin has a personal stake in killing me or is a complete psychopath that they’d resort to them. The Island’s security is fairly tight, and there aren’t many places a sniper can get a good line on someone…” she paused, mentally modeling the campus and thinking about potential sniper roosts that didn’t already have campus security… and that made her pause. “Could it be someone on the security detail?”

“Their weapons are monitored and they’d be the first suspect if a shot came from one of their nests. Assassins don’t usually want to be caught,” Honor pointed out.

“True,” Solace agreed.

“And any direct attack would have to face Ruth and Naomi,” Honor added, “So that’s not much risk.”

“Unless we’re dealing with someone who knows about treecats… either on the hiring side or the action side.”

Honor snorted, “If it’s on the hiring side only, you won’t have much problem. People underestimate ‘cats all the time, don’t they Nimitz?” Nimitz, who was laying on his back and batting lazily at a beam of dusty light coming through the window, bleeked at her and yawned.

“True… hmmm…” Solace considered, then brought up the public personnel information for everyone currently assigned to the Island. She had VIctoria, the Andros-Brandyne AI, sort the list by those who had close family members who worked for the Sphinx Forestry Service or were adopted by treecats. “Eighteen… not a good total, but not bad. The question is, who from Sphinx would know enough about the ‘cats, hate me, and be in a position to hire someone with clearance to kill me?”

“I think that’s coming back around to who,” Honor pointed out. “Best you can do is be prepared and modify your behaviour. And it might not be someone who currently has clearance, but someone who will gain access in the next few days.”

“Good point,” Solace agreed, “So… you coming dancing with us tonight?”

“You… what about the assassin?”

“I highly doubt they’ll try anything while I’m being watched by my bodyguards,” Solace said, shrugging, “Having them around has to be good for something, right?”

“I don’t know, your Grace… I’ve never heard of a foreign head of state serving in the RMN.”

“I’m not currently head of state, and the Midgardians are officially pissed as hell about the title Jing… I mean Gustav, saddled me with.”

“You could have turned it down,” Honor pointed out. “They can’t force you to be a Grand Duchess without your permission.”

“Sure. Turn down an Emperor. May you find out how hard that is,” Solace retorted.

“Oh no!” Honor mock gasped, “I have been afflicted by a Jew Hex!” They both laughed at that and Honor sighed, “Could Pavel be more of a jackass?”

“Could he be? Yes. He could be that disgusting slime he’s descended from.”

“Give him time,” Honor said.

“Naw. Dimtri’s got a brain… and a spine. Pavel has neither.”

Honor smirked, but nodded, “Good point.”

======

Donovan Massey had not lived to see trial. He’d taken his own life in police custody even before he could be officially charged. Solace had been allowed to graduate, though the incident and the controversy surrounding it had followed her. It had resulted in the retirement of Admiral Massey because even though he’d been unaware of his son’s predilections and gambling habit, there were many who felt he should have been aware.

Less scrupulous media outlets published stories claiming that Solace might have framed the youth, or led him on and then rejected him, causing him to snap, but in the absence of any evidence that they’d met more than socially, that went nowhere.

Still, in January of 1897, when her fellow graduates were given their new assignments, with Honor getting the destroyer Hawkwing and Connie getting Huntress, Solace Smythe found herself once more sitting on the beach as various forces in the Lords and Admiralty debated her suitability to command, with one faction demanding she be dismissed entirely as a security risk and an opposing faction demanding she be immediately sent to the Advanced Tactical Course and given command of something bigger than a Destroyer.

In April of 1897, with her military future very much uncertain, a strange opportunity arose. Gerard Makepeace, the MP for the district of Jason Bay suddenly retired, citing health reasons (he was a hundred and nine years old).

“I don’t understand,” Solace said, sitting in the sunroom of Minerva’s Jason Bay house. “What, exactly, does this all have to do with me, your Grace?”

His Grace, Alan Summervale, aka the Duke of Cromarty, was the current Prime Minister of the Star Kingdom and perhaps the most respected man in the entire nation. Next to him was Admiral Hamish Alexander on one side, and Patrick Roark, head of the Crown Loyalist faction in the Commons. “It’s very simple, Miss Smythe,” Roark said, his rich Gryphon accent making Solace think of home, “We want you to run for Gerard’s seat.”

“Gerard’s a Conservative. I’m not.”

“We know. We aren’t asking you to switch party allegiance. Merely to stand in the election for the MCLP.”

“What about the Navy?”

Hamish spoke. “Right now, they aren’t using your talents. That does not seem likely to change any time soon.”

Solace leaned back, considering. “You wouldn’t be coming to me unless you’d already run numbers. How likely is it that I’ll win?”

The Prime Minister leaned forward, “Not good. But we hear you enjoy a challenge.”

Three months later, Solace realized she’d been suckered. Of course, by that point, it was too late. She was already an MP and there was no escape.

======

-2nd September, 1901, early morning-

“Honor says she got a visit from Klaus Hauptman the other day,” Solace said, reading her most recent missive from her friend. The Sphinxian’s career had been steadily ticking along for the last five years, watched from afar by Solace and company, and, after her tour on Hawkwing, Solace had been pleased that, at last, the Admiralty had felt it time to send Miss Harrington to the Advanced Tactics Course, where, under Admiral Courvosier’s excellent tutelage, she’d passed with flying colors. Solace had had to stifle an ungenerous surge of envy at that, and another when Honor had been given command of the Light Cruiser Fearless.

She’d had to stifle another emotion when Honor had been shifted to Basilisk after the failure to perform of the Grav-Lance Fearless had been refitted with. Solace had confronted her old friend Sonja Hemphill about why she’d arranged for Honor to be banished to the Basilisk system, and Sonja had explained that the banishment hadn’t been her idea, but that since Fearless had been turned into a testbed, it wasn’t particularly useful as a screening unit. Sonja’d argued with the other Admirals that Fearless would do fine on commerce protection, but her clout hadn’t been enough to sway the others. It had been decided to put Fearless someplace where her weakened armaments couldn’t get her into trouble, and Basilisk had been deemed the safest place for her. It might not be an exciting exile, but after a year or so, she’d be recalled and Honor would be transferred to something larger, with Fearless maybe sold off to Alison or Zanzibar or Erewhon… or maybe even Grayson if that deal ever got worked out.

Honor’s job had been a difficult one, as the RMN mandate in the Basilisk system had been created with the idea that a dozen light units would be assigned to the system. In reality, the current picket strength was two; Fearless (a light cruiser) and Warlock (a heavy cruiser). Those two ships were supposed to protect the planet, the wormhole terminus, and police the entire system… as well as assisting the Wormhole Command and Native Protection Agency with customs inspections both at the Wormhole and in Medusa orbit. For the crews of two ships, it would have been nearly impossible… but Honor didn’t have two ships.

Honor wasn’t even supposed to be station commander of Basilisk Station. No, that task should have gone to the Captain (Senior Grade) of Warlock. Unfortunately for Honor, that festering waste of skin was none other than Pavel Young and he’d immediately pulled Warlock back to Manticore for refitting and long overdue maintenance.

Against all odds, Honor had done the impossible with only one ship and was, barely, managing to do her duty. She’d even caught dozens of smugglers since she’d been smart enough to recognize that Horace Harkness (now a chief again and assigned to Fearless) was the perfect sniffer-dog. He’d even managed to get himself a young and impressionable Ensign to corrupt in the form of one Prescott ‘Scotty’ Tremaine.

Pavel had, of course, caught wind of how well Honor was doing and had made every effort to rush back to Basilisk to either ruin all the progress or take credit for it… but thanks to the efforts of Paul Tankersley (Pavel’s XO), Lukas Janacek (now a Lt. Commander and in charge of the refit on Warlock), and Admiral Craig Warner (in charge of the refit yards of HMSS Hephaestus), the three month repair job had spiraled to six months and counting.

Solace had been hoping to arrange a Parliamentary Inspection of Basilisk Station, so the other MPs of the Military Oversight Committee and the Committee for Basilisk to see first hand what Fearless’s Crew and the Native Protection Agency had been dealing with, and the date for that had been tentatively set for the 20th, but working out the details had been a supreme hassle.

Gilly, now a strapping eighteen year old in her third term at Queen’s College where she was reading particle physics and galactic history when she wasn’t playing lacrosse or practicing her grappling, looked up from where she was trying to keep Barnabie from stealing her bacon, “Oh? Why was he there? The Hauptmans don’t have anything in system, do they?”

“A few ships and a transhipment point,” said Minerva. “Plus they built some of the communication and power stations in Medusa orbit.”

“But nothing like Port Royal, right?” Gilly asked, furrowing her brow and trying to figure out why the trillionaire industrialist would bother going to Basilisk. “Are we certain he wasn’t spying on us?”

Minerva laughed. “Darling, CEOs do not spy on each other… we pay people to do that. Ask your sister what Honor says.”

Solace knew her cue and shrugged, “He was upset about his shipping being searched and one of his freighters being seized.” At Minerva’s quirked eyebrow, she explained, “Mondragon. It was smuggling Kodiak Max pelts. Quite a lot of them. Hauptman probably didn’t know anything about it, but he should have. We’re keeping tabs on all our merchant captains, right?”

Minerva nodded, but made a note for a comprehensive audit. It wasn’t that Andros-Brandyne did a lot of shipping, and most of what they did these days was to Midgard and the Andies, but they were doing more and more with every year even as they expanded their ship building capacity. In addition to Port Royal in Basilisk, they also had yards in Gregor (Port Solomon), Corona (the second half of the Jewel binary, Port Caine), and Manticore (Port Victor), with eleven Tortuga-Class mobile yards spread out across their holdings. It didn’t take an economic genius to know war was coming and ABC was not going to miss out on their share of military contracts when the RMN discovered its in house yards weren’t enough to satisfy demand.

“Maybe I should visit Honor myself, see if there’s anything we can do to help her out?” Minerva suggested.

“To Basilisk?” Gilly asked, excited. “Can I come? I’ve always wanted to meet a Stilty!”

“Always?” Solace asked. “I don’t remember you mentioning it before?” The Medusans (nicknamed Stilties) were the eleventh race of sophonts that Humanity had encountered, though they were barely a bronze age civilization.

Gilly blushed. “Ooookay. Not always! But you know what I mean!” She humphed, hugging Barnabie who had stolen a sausage and was gnawing at it. Gilly pretended to speak as the obese treecat, “Pweeez! We pwomise to behave and not try to see if the Medusans are nummy.”

“I’m having lunch with Admiral d’Orville tomorrow. If you two want to tag along, we can take the Palace out to the Junction,” Solace invited, putting down her tablet and tucking into her breakfast.

=======

-3rd September, 1901, lunch time-

“I hope you’ll consider the offer,” Admiral d’Orville, CO Homefleet, said. “I know that the politics have been against giving you your own ship, and you’ve got to be annoyed by constantly being beached, but… well…” he shrugged apologetically.

“I’ve been an MP for five years now, Sebastian. I know all too well the compromises of realpolitik. I don’t like them, but I do understand. That said, yes, of course I’ll return if the Navy needs me.”

“You’d be Admiral Whitehaven’s chief of staff,” he said.

“You already have a position lined up? I’m still a standing member, you know?”

He waved the concern away as if it didn’t matter, “Unimportant. Homefleet is assigned to the Home System.”

“So I’m supposed to be able to fulfil my duties to my constituents and run the Admiral’s staff at the same time?”

“Well, yes. Hamish has been relying on Captain Kuzak since taking over BuPlan as Second Space Lord, but we’re promoting her to Rear Admiral and giving her CruRon sixteen. You’ll be in Landing the entire time, barring inspection. And you’ll have a staff for most details.”

Solace chuckled. “The problem with being a miracle worker is that people keep expecting you to repeat it. Aren’t I a bit too junior for this post?”

“We’ll promote you to Captain JG. It’s supposed to be an SG’s post, but no one will protest that you’re unqual…” he cut off at the sound of a hurried conversation from the hall outside his private dining chamber. “What in the-” he began, but at that moment, his flag lieutenant burst in.

“Admiral, sir… Basilisk Station just sent Case Zulu!”

Next: Crown of Swords – Part 1

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World 77: Honor Harrington – Part 2.19d

SOLACE OF MANTICORE

Part 19: Wolves in the Fold, Chapter 4

Previously: Chapter 3

“Hello, Your Excellency,” Solace said. “Forgive me for not rising.” She motioned to the cast on her leg. “Assassination attempt. Fifth this week. What brings you to Midgard?”

Loyal looked at his sister and sighed. She looked terrible. The stress of the Midgardian Campaign and the loss of so many people under her command, as light as her casualties had been, would be weighing heavily on her. Even more heavy would be the news he had to bring. He sat opposite her and opened his attache case.

“The Lords has formally condemned you, Solace,” he said, sliding the packet across the desk, meeting her gaze as her eyes blazed. “They’re taking the opinion that you had no business invading the Midgard System and that you’ve escalated a territorial squabble into an outright invasion. They’ve already had me issue a formal request for clarification to the Andermanis demanding to know if the Empire plans to assert sovereignty over the Federation.”

Solace opened the packet and half snarled, a sound which was echoed by her treecats. “This is about Admiral Lord Mosby, isn’t it?” she asked, voice too sharp.

“Partly. Solace… your command killed six half-pay Manticorans. Granted, they were serving in Midgard without explicit permission of Her Majesty’s government, but they were still Manticoran citizens. And you’re holding fifteen more as prisoners of war… Her Majesty formally requests they be returned, along with the bodies of Admiral Mosby and the others if they’ve been recovered.” He felt the heat of her gaze as she studied him. His tone had been perfectly polite, with a hint of apology in it, but this wasn’t Loyal Smythe speaking to Solace Smythe, it was the Manticoran Ambassador to the Court of Gustavus Rex speaking to the de facto Despot of Midgard, a territory claimed in war and rightfully surrendered by action of their body politic.

“I’m willing to return them if they give their parole, as I’ve told them. Some of them have been less than… polite, I’m afraid. Captain Tredmont accused me of treason, Commander Alcott called me Gustav’s Assassin, and Captain Danica is somewhat annoyed I killed her fiance.” Solace shrugged. “She was sleeping with Mosby, in case you’re unaware why both of them were placed on half-pay in the first place. I know you’re not up on military gossip.”

“She was his flag-captain, both here and in the kingdom, right?” Solace nodded. “That’s a violation of regs, I thought?”

“It is. Lord Mosby’s family pulled strings. The other twelve have given their paroles and will be returned to her Majesty as soon as transport can be arranged. The other three you’ll have to speak to and convince, which (of course) you’re free to do. As for this,” she waved the formal documents in annoyance. “Please convey to the Lords that Oberst Smythe acted with the full authority and consent of the state she was currently serving under and violated none of the laws of man or war. She has no intention of apologizing for doing her duty.”

“I… see,” Loyal said stiffly, accepting her words in the spirit they were given. “I shall attempt to… phrase that as diplomatically as I can. If Mosby’s family weren’t Centrists, I doubt this would have had much traction, but you had people from both sides of the aisle voting on this.”

“They’re worried that Manticore will be caught between the Andermani on one side and Haven on the other?” Solace asked, voice calming a little.

“Wouldn’t you be?”

“Not really. The Andermani Navy is twenty years behind the Manticoran… They’re catching up, but they don’t have the traditions and think like ground pounders. In fact, if the Emperor does claim Midgard, it will be safer for Manticore.”

“Safer? How so? And should you be telling me all this?”

Solace shrugged. “The Crown Prince and the Emperor are fully aware that my ultimate loyalty lies with Manticore. My oath of service to the Andermani specifically precludes me acting against Manticore’s publicly avowed interests.” That kind of thing was fairly typical, since Manticore had a habit of loaning out officers to allied powers. The Empire wasn’t technically allied, but there had never been a war or even open conflict between the Empire and the Star Kingdom. “Regardless. As to your question; the Andermani would have to spend the next twenty years integrating Midgard if they want to keep it. It’s my opinion that they’ll settle for the eight systems that are in dispute and leave it at that.”

The eight systems (Bodel, Bostwick, Dey Rey, Chatham, Pungu, Kyuzu, Mughal, and Tulsa), only three of which lay within the claimed boundaries of either nation (the first two in Andermani Space and the last one in Midgard) were asset rich but barely inhabited. The largest colony in the set had less than a hundred million people, while the smallest had eighty-eight thousand… but both nations wanted to settle and exploit the worlds and asteroid belts in those systems. What the locals wanted wasn’t really something any of the local powers cared much about, since they were de facto protectorates of the Andermani or Midgard already and making them de jure part of one of the two had been all but certain for a century.

“The Emperor might even hand over Tulsa, just because it’s so far away from his sphere of influence… but Bodel and Bostwick are a lock. The others?” she shrugged.

“What of the Federation?” Loyal asked.

“They’ll be forced to sign a treaty blocking them from building wallers for eighty years is my guess. My suggestion too. Maybe some reparations. I’m advising that the termini of the Jewel and Asgard Junctions be sold to those nations for a period not to be less than one century. Oh, and it turns out Midgard has three wormholes they were keeping schtum about.”

Loyal blinked at that. “Really? Anything interesting?”

“Not yet. The one in Vanaheim is so faint they haven’t figured out the vector for it yet. The one in Svartalfheim has got to be the shortest I’ve ever heard about. It comes out in M846B… that’s right outside Helheim, good for internal trade but not much. Third one comes out in Karlov.”

Loyal gasped. “Karlov? That’s…”

Solace nodded. “Two light years from Caperna… Yeah. We’re pretty certain that’s how they got to the system undetected.” The Karlov system had two planets in the goldilocks zone of habitability, but both were ecological a mess thanks to heavy bombardment and would take centuries of work to turn habitable. “The wormhole is also extremely distant. It’s at 81 AUs.”

“Ah. Well… I assume that… where’s the other end?”

“Utgard… They’ve been harvesting the outer Karlov system for decades. We’re also pretty certain that’s where Simione Rathskeller took the Midgardian Second Fleet.” Utgard was only 12.3 lightyears from Muspelheim. Yeah… it’s a pretty nice little triangle from Jewel to Muspelheim to Utgard to Karlov to Weissen and back to Jewel. The Andermani are going to want to keep it, but I’m going to push for us having access to it. Midgard will be better off in the long run.”

“If you say so. Economics isn’t my strong suit… not yours either… I’m guessing Minerva helped with this plan?”

She threw a grape at him. “Hey. I can understand basic supply and demand and trade routes. Anyway… It’s good to see you, even if you’re here to scold me. Ughh… I hate having broken bones. You know how annoying it is to have to wear a cast for a week?”

Loyal rolled his eyes. “Where regen isn’t possible it takes six to eight months for a broken tibia to heal completely, often with casts and splints for the entire time. Don’t complain.”

“Yes, Mom.”

==========

The next eleven months were among the most frustrating of Solace’s life. Stuck in Midgard, she felt like a glorified babysitter, receiving endless reports of how Simione’s fleet kept retreating across the Empire, causing incredible amounts of destruction as it smashed and burned its way slowly towards Silesia.

Things were complicated in that the Crown Prince, who was steadfastly refusing to ascend to fill the currently empty throne until the war was officially ended, could not afford to pull her fleet, now swollen with dreadnoughts and battleships, ancient though they were (most of the BBs still rotated for gravity) to move out to help catch Rathskeller in a vice for fear that Midgard would throw off its constraints and reignite the war on two fronts.

The solution, one that no one liked, was to deploy Andermani Army personnel into a occupation force, but that too presented problems in the form of logistics. Ultimately, that problem was solved by bringing Jewelian and Manticoran business interests into the mix. Andros-Brandyne and the Crown owned Highmark Cartel agreed to supply the logistics in exchange for Midgardian independence and a guarantee from the Andermani that all forces would be removed according to a list of drawdown milestones so complex that it made Solace’s head hurt.

What the treaty required of Midgard was absolute surrender of its claim on all systems outside its current borders (they were allowed to keep the single disputed colony world inside that border, Tulsa, population 1.2 million, and the undisputed Aland and Svalbard colonies), an agreement not to build anything heavier than a Battlecruiser for at least forty years, extendable to eighty at the Empire’s discretion, and a two century lease on all their extra-territorial wormholes, with Andros Brandyne administering the as yet unmapped Vanaheim Wormhold via their Snurlson subsidiary. In exchange, the Midgardians got to hold public elections and resume the functions of a sovereign nation as as long as they agreed to vest control of their military in their system governors instead of their Chancellor.

Through it all, Solace had had to act as the Crown Prince’s enforcer, the eight ton hyper-elephant ready to step on heads if the various system delegates didn’t agree to play nice and to constantly remind the idiots that they’d started both recent wars and no the galactic community was not being mean to them… and no she was not going to duel them. Nor was she going to sleep with any of them. Secretly (or not so secretly by the end of the talks) she wanted to take many of them out and have them shot, but a capable cadre of diplomats and a staff who were getting all too good at reading her moods managed to restrain her.

And so it was that, eleven months, five days, and a number of hours that hyper-navigation and wormhole transit made measuring exactly difficult later, Task Force Valkyrie, now Task Fleet Valkyrie departed Midgard for Kyuzu, one of the disputed systems, a quarter of the way to the Andermani Empire from the Federation.

The Battle of Pungu, the next colony in the chain, would mark the end of what History would call the Long Retreat of Simione Rathskeller as her fleet, which had been joined by rebellious Andermani Naval units under former Minister for War Chang Xiaopeng, was trapped between Crown Fleet and Valkyrie and destroyed. It had been a long and bloody year, a year full of painful slogs and attrition for the Rebel Fleet as it was called in the Solie press and the murderous bastards as far as the Andermani were concerned.

Xiaopeng had had the good grace to kill himself to avoid capture. It wouldn’t save his family from disgrace, but his recorded admission of wrongdoing would keep his kin from being lynched by the mob. Simione Rathskeller had not. After being captured, she’d defiantly demanded repatriation to Midgard, whose ambassador had declined with great haste and no little alarm. Her trial, in which she’d insisted on defending herself from charges that ranged from piracy and brigandage to violations of the Eridani Edict against wanton slaughter of civilians or targeting purely civilian targets to fomenting insurrection, had been a media circus.

Her very public execution had, of course, been decried as rampant barbarism in the Solie Media, and had been heralded with a three day festival on New Berlin, a fete that had culminated with the Crown Prince formally crowning himself Emperor Gustav, Eleventh of His Name.

“Isn’t it odd for a monarch to crown themselves,” Minerva asked. She was sitting in the Manticoran VIP section along with Loyal and the Queen of Manticore. Solace, as one of the three Totenkopf commanders, was on the dias, holding the cushion that had previously held the Crown of the Andermani.

“Normally, yes. But it’s not unheard of in history. The Gustavs are nominally Lutheran, so normally the Patriarch of the Andermani Lutheran Church does the deed,” Loyal explained. “But Gustav the First proclaimed himself emperor, so I’m guessing the current Gustav is invoking that image.”

“Hush,” Queen Elizabeth said, “He’s speaking.”

“Today we are made whole again,” the Emperor said. “Today we are at peace, no longer threatened by enemies without and within. It is with great pleasure that I announce that, on New Year’s day, I shall take a wife and give you all an Empress to look upon in awe and admiration.”

The crowd within the cathedral went absolutely quiet at that, whispers of Solace’s name or epithets (much to her chagrin, the Midgardians and Andermani had added Der Valkyrie, Battle Crow, Skadi, Guan Di, and Brunhilde to The Anvil… she’d had to look up three of them.) being shared amongst the dignitaries gathered. From outside, the roar of the crowd as the Emperor’s words spread was defining. If anyone besides Manticorans noticed the faint but smug grin on Solace’s face, they didn’t remark on it, but only her brother could read her well enough to see that it was a grin of relief, not of acceptance.

“Ah. She turned him down,” Loyal muttered. Minerva elbowed him.

“One does not turn down an emperor. She merely… hold on,” she said as the Emperor was rising to his feet and motioning for someone to come forward. “This wasn’t in the script.”

Of course, there wasn’t an actual script, but the Queen could see that Solace was thrown off balance, just a little, by the action. It hadn’t been something she was expecting and she unconsciously smoothed her ridiculous uniform tunic a little straighter than it already was.

A young officer, attractive and bearing the look of a member of the house of Anderman came out, holding a second, smaller crown, almost a tiara on a gilded crimson pillow. She knelt in front of Solace and the Emperor picked up the crown. He cleared his throat and said, “Your hat?”

Solace, eyes fixed on the crown, jerked. This was soo not the plan… She wanted very much to shake the little shrimp and demand to know what he thought he was doing, but knew she couldn’t do that in front of everyone. He had better not be planning to… they settled this weeks ago! She took off her frankly silly fur hat and handed it to Oberst Kleine who handed off the Sword of State’s Pillow to Oberst Herzog von Rabenstrange, the Prince’s cousin and father of the girl kneeling before Solace. He balanced the Sword Pillow (control of the military) atop the Orb Pillow (control of the legal system) and smirked at Solace. She glared, then stiffened as the Emperor raised the diadem to place it on her head. Just to be difficult, she refused to bow even a millimeter to make his job easier. Take that, shrimpy.

=====A Week Previously=====

“I’m not marrying you, Jing,” she said as she entered the private sitting room. “I’ve told you that.”

“Yes yes, you’re already in a relationship and you don’t love me,” the Emperor in all but name said, “You understand that I’m not asking because I’m attracted to you. You’re a fine woman, but this is a matter of state.”

“And breeding?” she asked.

He chuckled, “Oh, no. I’m afraid not. I think perhaps I have even less desire to mate with you than you have to mate with me.” He sipped his wine and motioned for her to sit.

She took the chair opposite him, glancing at the other three men present. They were Huang and Chien-Lu Anderman as well as Oberst of the Totenkopf Hussars Wong-Fei Kleine. The first two were the Crown Prince’s younger brother and his cousin, while the final two were the remaining command staff of the Totenkopfs. That Chien-Lu, the Herzog von Rabenstrange, was in both groups showed just how much the Emperor trusted him. “I’m missing something,” Solace said.

“His majesty has… mmm… how to put this,” Chien-Lu began.

“I’m not interested in women,” the Crown Prince said. “No point hedging about this. She’s a big girl, she’ll understand.”

Solace blinked, looking at the Emperor-to-be. “Ah. Well… hmmm… That does change the equation a bit. May I assume that Oberst Kleine is… mmm… your significant other?”

The Emperor shrugged. “Call him a companion. But yes, essentially. My brother can supply an heir of the body as easily as I can. So? Will you accept now?”

“Ah… no. I’m flattered, really. But being Empress doesn’t really interest me. May I recommend Captain Yuha?” She’d had to promote most of her command staff as the Task group had expanded to fleet strength and Yuha had been formally bumped to Solace’s Flag Captain as well as being the de facto Vice-Admiral of Dreadnought Division One.

“As Empress?” Chien-Lu asked

“She’s absolutely loyal. No family to speak of. Very pretty,” Prince Huang said.

“I gather you’re resolute in this?” Jing-Pei asked.

“Unless you’re comfortable with your Empress being an active duty officer in the Manticoran Navy,” Solace replied.

“You’re going back?” Prince Huang gasped. “They publicly condemned you!”

Solace shrugged. “The House of Lords might have, but the Queen didn’t. My oath still stands. I appreciate the offer. I really do. It’s flattering… but I’m not interested in helping you preserve dynastic power through political means. I’m too much… what was it the Midgardians called me… Brunhildyr? Shieldmaiden? I’m not exactly a maiden, but I’m too much a warrior to give it up. And as Empress, I’d drag you into my wars.”

“You have wars?” Oberst Kleine asked.

“As long as Haven threatens the Star Kingdom? I do. And if Haven takes Manticore, it will be your war too. But once Manticore is safe, I’m going to build a fleet of my own and stamp out slavery once and for all.”

“We’re already fighting that war,” Chien-Lu said. “As is the Star Kingdom and Haven.”

Before she could correct him, Jing-Pei raised his hand, “My dear Herzog, I believe she means to take her fleet to Mesa directly.”

Solace shrugged. “Well, to wherever Manpower, Jessyk, Axelrod, and the others go. I’m not against Mesa itself except that their government has been tolerant of these atrocities, but they’ve at least outlawed actual slavery on Mesa, so they seem to be getting a little better. It’s a complex matter and I’m not certain how much Mesa is controlled by the various transtellars… but yes. I mean to destroy all those who profit by the sale of human misery.”

“Perhaps you do have a point,” Jing Pei conceded.

“Another point. As I’m rather publicly in a relationship with a woman, I might not be the best beard for you… no matter how much the idea of you being so manly as to turn me back to the path of heterosexuality might appeal to your public.” She grinned, then turned to Wong-Fei… “Is his majesty really that good in bed?”

Without missing a beat, the stoic Hussar chuckled and replied, “I’ve got no complaints.”

==========

“I, Gustav Anderman, Eleventh of my House, do hereby proclaim you Grand Duchess of Midgard, and name you Cher Cousin,” the Emperor said, placing the diadem on Solace’s head.

“Did he just adopt her?” The queen asked Loyal.

“I’m fairly certain that’s the case… or at least he named her to his court. I’m guessing the formal paperwork will show that she’s now an Anderman by adoption. Yes.”

Elizabeth hmmmed, then asked, “Does he realize that he just named her Grand Duchess of a place that’s technically not part of his Empire? Or that won’t be in two more weeks?”

Minerva growled, “He wants everyone to think she’s his mistress.”

The Queen chuckled, “Well… we can’t have that. Loyal, be a dear and find some way to get her recalled to active duty. I think we’ve let the Andermani play with Solace long enough.

=====Mar 17 1896 PD, 17/17/277 AL=====

“Isn’t this a bit silly?” Honor asked Solace as they walked towards the entrance to Saganami Island, being trailed by three treecats.

“Silly?” Solace asked.

“You’ve commanded a fleet, what can you possibly learn in the Commanding Officer’s Course?”

“I was in tactical command, Honor. I haven’t the faintest idea how to actually command a ship.”

“You’re kidding!”

“Swear to god. I’m as much in the dark about how to actually be a Captain as you are.”

“I guess we both have much to learn.”

“True.”

“But you were an admiral! Doesn’t it feel a bit strange to… you know…” Honor asked, shrugging.

“Oh, I wasn’t an admiral.”

“You were in charge of Fleet Valkyrie. What would you call that?”

“Naw. I was just an advisor. Technically, if you check the documentation, Ruth was Admiral in Command of Fleet Valkyrie. I was just her tactical deputy.”

“You’re kidding!”

“Hand to god,” Solace said solemnly. “Gustav Ten made Ruth the second ranking member of the Andermani Navy and the ranking member shot himself after going full traitor. So technically, Ruth outranks everyone besides the Emperor. I’m just a Hussar… I don’t have an Andermani Naval Rank.”

Honor just laughed. “That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.”

“Yes. Yes it is.”

“So, should I call you Duchess?”

“Please don’t. The Andermani aren’t allies. In the Star Kingdom, I’m still just Solace Smythe.”

“Awww… But I want to call you Your Grace!”

“Do it and I’ll have Cousin Gustav make you a Countess just so you have to curtsey to me.”

“HA! As if! I’ll never bow to your aristo butt.”

“Sphinx Yeoman!” Solace snapped back, laughing, “Never should have given your kind the vote.”

“Yeoman and proud,” Honor shot back, patting the taller woman on the shoulder. “You know… for a blue-blood, you’re not so bad?”

“Eh. My blood’s only dyed blue. Secretly it’s green. Loyal’s the real blueblood and he’s just boring.”

“Boring?”

“Yeah. He bought me this old book, said I should read it,” She pulled the reader out of bag. “The Prince by someone named Machiavelli. Ever heard of it?”

“No. Sounds interesting. Mind if I read it once you’re done?”

“Of course not,” Solace said with a shrug, “Though I doubt you’ll ever need it… who’d put you in charge of a nation?”

Next: Solace of Manticore – Part 20

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World 77: Honor Harrington – Part 2.19c

SOLACE OF MANTICORE

Part 19: Wolves in the Fold, Chapter 3

Previously: Chapter 2

The Midgard Federation consisted of thirteen star systems, all given names drawn from the mythology of Old Earth, specifically the realms of the Nordic pre-Christian faith. In addition to Midgard (the mortal realm according to the Norsemen) and Asgard (not part of the Federation but named by the same people for the realm of the gods), there were Niflheim, Muspelheim, Jotunheim, Vanaheim, Alfheim, Ljusalfheim, Svartalvheim, Helheim, Nornheim, Utgard, Nidavellir, and Thrymheim. According to mythology, they were the homes of the various other races and elemental forces of the Norse cosmology, ranging from giants of ice and fire to elves, dwarves, and the fates, to the dead, and even the primordial mists… but in practice, they were merely worlds populated by the myriad branches of humanity flung to the stars.

The Federation was not hugely populous, but the colonists who’d put together the original plan to settle the region had had a very large population to draw on, coming from the various ethnic groups that considered themselves ‘White’ and disadvantaged all across the Solarian League. The expedition had been funded into the trillions of dollars and was comprised of more than fifty colony ships, making it by far the largest single exodus in human history. Since their foundation, the colonies, which outlawed all forms of birth control and actively encouraged immigration of peoples matching each colony’s chosen ‘ethnic’ look, had only grown. Each of the systems was rich in natural resources, even if only three of the worlds had been ‘move in ready’ as it were.

The level of terraforming had varied widely. Jotunheim, named for the land of Giants, was cold and rocky. Niflheim, named for the land of primordial ice and mist, was terribly cold. Muspelheim, named for the land of primordial fire and heat, was exactly what one would expect. But bad weather, heat, cold, perpetual overcast, sandstorms, brutally long days and nights, extremes of gravity… none of those things had ever stopped humanity’s relentless expansion, and they hadn’t in Midgard’s case either.

The systems of the Federation were grouped into a rough triskelion, a three legged wheel, with Midgard at the approximate center. To the galactic east were Muspelheim, Utgard, Helheim, and Nornheim. To the galactic southwest were Alfheim, Ljusalfheim, Svartalvheim, and Jotunheim. To the galactic northwest were Vanaheim, Niflheim, Nidavellir, and Thrymheim. The Midgardian Navy, given such a large area to patrol, had only light pickets on station in most of their systems and had roving patrols to accompany shipping. Since the Federation was so remote from most of humanity, covering its two wormhole termini (Midgard and Muspelheim) was deemed the most effective use of its forces… especially since those two systems represented 31% of the entire Midgardian GDP, and 22% of the nation’s population, just by themselves.

It all made perfect sense from a strategic point of view… but if there was a third most important planet in the Federation, it was Vanaheim. Vanaheim was the lushest planet in the entire federation, providing a whopping 29% of the population and more than half the food. The botanical wealth of Vanaheim could not be understated and it lay only eleven light years from Niflheim.

A little further from Niflheim, almost halfway to Midgard itself, was Nidavellir, a relatively small colony, but home to the Federation’s largest shipyards and heavy industry, thanks to the eleven asteroid belts that dominated the system. It was certainly a prize worth taking, if it could be done.

As for Thrymheim? It was a backwood, providing tough men and women to serve in the military… and that was pretty much it. But it did so very well, to the extent that almost every ship in the Federation’s Navy had some Thrymians among its Raiders.

But cold, distant Niflheim? What did it have? It had that most important of all strategic assets… location. It took Solace’s Task Group a day to conquer the system, absolutely smashing the token resistance put up by a picket that never expected the war to come to them. No ship in the system managed to escape the encirclement that Valkyrie’s widely separated units threw up, not that many tried. In fact, the Niflheim defense force had saved Solace the trouble of blowing up their own space station by scuttling it first. Apparently they thought it would make Solace’s forces less likely to stay.

Indeed, it might have… had Solace not brought her own. “Lukas? How long to get the yard set up?”

The young man, borrowed from the Manticoran Navy, looked out of the screen at Solace and grinned, “This is madness you know?”

“Hey, I didn’t have that mobile yard spit out a fast repair fleetyard completely off the books for no reason. This is as good a time to test the theory as any other, right?” she said, rubbing Naomi’s ears as the ‘cat purrred.

Lukas nodded, considering the five battleship-sized ships that had been his mentor’s brainstorm and were now his command. They might have been as big as battleships, and were certainly fitted with military grade impellers and radiation shielding, allowing them to ride the same hyperspace bands as the task group… but that was where the similarities stopped. Each was designed to unfold into one of the construction nodes of a shipyard that could, given time and resources, churn out LACs, Frigates, Destroyers, and Light or Heavy Cruisers. It could also service up to three Battlecruisers at a time if the damage wasn’t too extensive, and, most importantly, they could churn out missiles like no one’s business. Each was protected, or would be, by copious point defense clusters and arranged so that, in extremis, the entire thing could create a torus of wedges. As it produced missiles, those would add to its defensive matrix like a mechanical infection vector.

“Tortuga is ready to give the Migardians a bad case of Anvilpox,” Lukas said, grinning. “I’ll have the base set up by the time you get back from Thrymheim.”

“Sounds good,” Solace agreed, “I’ll leave you two of the cans to protect Tortuga and make certain that no one gets outsystem… plus you have the LACs.” the convoy had also brought in a dozen retired RMN LACs that Andros Brandyne had bought from the Dempsey Cartel for a steal after the RMN had canceled the order after the LACs were 80% finished. Minerva had had the LACs finished and assigned to Project Ulysses as the secret shipyard was called. Solace hadn’t even thought of it, but the LACs were certainly small enough to dock with the parts of Tortuga. Ten had come to Niflheim, and the last two were with the mother yard, Port Royal, currently in Basilisk for tax purposes and to keep the House of Lords from paying too much attention to it. What the Conservatives and Liberals didn’t notice, they couldn’t complain about.

The next three weeks was filled with non-stop raids as TG Valkyrie smashed the defenses of first Thrymheim, then Vanaheim, and finally Nidavellir, each time making sure to limit the number of escaping craft to a few slow merchies. From Nidavellir, they returned to Vanaheim, arriving just in time to catch the responding task group too far in system to run. Five Midgardian Heavy Cruisers fell with barely a fight and no damage at all to Solace’s BCs. And then it was back to Nidavellir to smash the response there. The dreadnought Sigurd and it’s two light cruisers faired little better than the HCs, though they managed to partly disable Ortnit and seriously damage Thedrik and Nebelung. Grimnismal lost two grasers and a missile mount.

“Send the damaged destroyers back and have Fafner and Fasolt join us here in Nidavellir at point X-Ray in ten days,” Solace told Admiral Saberhagen. “I’m afraid you’ll be down to three until they get back here. Do you want to transfer your flag from Nebelung or go back to Niflheim?”

“I wouldn’t miss what comes next for anything. I’ll transfer to Rheingold.”

“Good, Good. You’ve been invaluable, Admiral… but the next part is going to be a pain in the ass, you know that?” Solace advised.

“God created adversity to train the Righteous,” the Admiral said, saluting.

======

“Chancellor! There’s another hyper footprint!”

Simione Rathskellar swore. “It’s that fucking bitch, again! How bad is it going to be?” She climbed out of her bed, not that she’d slept well for the past two weeks. Four times before, this bloody minded Manticoran mercenary and her fleet had swooped into the Midgard system, smashing the outer defenses that Rathskellar’s government had spent a fortune restoring after the last War. Each strike was precise, she had to admit, and every time, the witch… this ‘The Anvil’ as the media was calling her… would give her people just enough time to abandon their posts before those posts were destroyed. The crews of the first had been defiant… they’d died to a man. The crews of the second had hesitated. Less than one in eight had survived. The reports coming in from the fifth were that the crews had abandoned their posts before the Manticoran had even sent the demand.

“It’s going to be bad, Chancellor,” Grand Admiral Yorik Gunterson said. “But we’ve got their pattern now. We’ll preposition the entire fleet for the next attack. We’ll crush her like a bug.”

Simione grinned viciously, even as she watched the footage of the six ships, two destroyers and four battlecruisers, absolutely smashing trillions of crona worth of infrastructure and then escaping long before the fleet she’d allowed Gunterson to convince her could not be moved out of orbit could catch them. “You’d better, Admiral, or I’ll have you drawn and quartered in the Grand Hall of the Chancellery and your entire family hung.”

The military man stiffened, eyed the guards standing behind him, and swallowed hard. “I thank the Chancellor for giving me this chance to prove myself,” he said, though secretly he was thinking, “Damned if I do, damned if I don’t.”

=======

“Ma’am,” Ulrike Wu said from the long range sensor station, “they’re almost exactly where you said they would be. They’re bringing their wedges online now.”

“Good,” Solace said, nodding, “How many?”

“Sixty-seven footprints… eight dreadnoughts, fifteen battleships, eleven battlecruisers, and the rest are lighter units. It looks like a full half of their homefleet.”

“Very well, go to maximum military power,” Commander Yuha said at a nod from Solace. “Captain, should we-”

Solace held up a hand, studying the enemy formation as it lit up its drives. They’d fired up sooner than she was expecting. That meant that either their commander, this Admiral Gunterson, was smarter than she’d given him credit for, or he’d figured there was a chance to drive her off before she could destroy the sixth of the system’s fifteen system defense platforms. The placement of those platforms around the system’s major extraction or production facilities had been intelligent, but the network had been compromised with the placement of the fleet, which should have supported the long range missile emplacements on the platforms. The fleet was too far in system to respond to lightning raids like hers, as the system planners had clearly been anticipating dreadnoughts and hadn’t anticipated someone bringing their ships up to max velocity before launching to give the missiles as long of range as they could have. The difference between Andermani missiles and Midgardian missiles wasn’t nearly as much as the difference between Manticoran and Midgardian, but there was still a degree of superiority in the Andermani’s favor, and the closing velocity made shooting them down difficult. On the first five raids, those missile flights had served to soften up the System Defense Platforms and their protected facilities enough that the Cruisers following behind could finish the job and hyper out before anything heavier than a Destroyer could catch them. Five cans had tried on the second raid and had been summarily dealt with.

“Go to flight plan Gamma… they’ve prepositioned mines along paths Alpha and Bravo,” Solace instructed, eliciting a few gasps. Gamma was the most risky, since it took the six ships of Task Force Magyar inside the hyper-limit of Midgard’s primary, while Alpha and Bravo both kept the ships outside. Of course, they could have just used plan Kappa, which meant abandoning the raid and running for it, but that would have been used only if the Midgardian Commander had positioned themselves to destroy the group without risking the massive asteroid refinery that was their target. Gunterson hadn’t. It was clear he was using the refinery to draw her in and was willing to sacrifice it if it meant killing her. It was a good move, the kind that seemed reasonable on paper, since the other would have required incredibly precise placement and a stern chase. It was everything Solace had come to expect from the man. He was practical, pragmatic, and efficient, and it was clear he was thinking at least six moves ahead.

Indeed, although her initial raids had been costly to the Midgardians, a lesser commander would have broken up his forces to protect the entire system, but he had to be assuming she was making spoiler raids, trying to draw him out of position as Count Bridges had done to his predecessor. The reports he would have gotten from the other systems she’d hit would have told him that she had a much bigger fleet (including two ‘SDs’ which where really nothing more than massive max hull freighters she’d captured and was burning the Nodes super hot on to fool distant scans from fleeing merchies.). Splitting his forces with that kind of threat would leave the home system far too vulnerable. With his group massed like this, at worst, he’d have to race an invasion fleet to either the terminus or the planet, and if the invaders brought those ‘SD’s’ he’d have a speed advantage and could sandwich the attackers between the two halves of his fleet.

That wasn’t going to help him here. Although Gamma was risky, it was an oblique course, one that offered no direct shots until right before Solace’s forces would break back across the limit, and there was a massive cluster of densely packed asteroids that Magyar could use to shield themselves, unless Gunterson swung wide, which would offer him better shots, but at longer range. If he accepted the trade off, he’d be able to get one good salvo off in exchange for three poor salvos. Solace gave him even odds and was honestly uncertain which she’d go after were their positions reversed. She was hoping for the second… but that meant pushing him.

“Frau Oberst,” Commander Yuha said, “We’re coming up on launch position for missiles.”

“Mm… yes, we have to keep up the show… Launch the first salvo at the refinery… ignore the platforms. Run magazines two and three dry, then begin flushing the stern tubes at our friend Gunterson and his boys, yeah?” Solace very much wanted to fidget. She was taking a huge risk here, and putting her forces in terrible danger… and she wanted to do nothing more than bury her face in Ruth’s tummy and groan that she had no business commanding a fleet when she really didn’t even know how to command a single ship… but she would be damned if she’d show that kind of weakness before her crew… and as a Jew, she didn’t believe in damnation, so that was right out.

The range was still too long for the missiles to reach optimal attack against the refinery. Alpha and Bravo, which were basically over and under versions of each other, would have taken her close enough to all but ensure the destruction of both platforms and refinery, as well as most of the associated transports, but Gamma was too far inside to make her odds of a twofer more than 60%. With that many ships following her, she couldn’t afford to come within the range of the platform missiles.

“Three minutes to long range on the Midgardian missiles,” Yuha advised as the battlecruisers Orlando and Hildermadchen began spitting missiles like they were going out of style.

=======

“Admiral, two of the ships aren’t firing,” the flagbridge sensor officer pointed out.

“I can see that… what is going on… How much longer until we have range?” the Admiral demanded. The Manticoran woman had, by luck or intuition, avoid his mines, but he’d positioned himself so that if she wanted to complete her mission, she’d have to allow him to cut her cord, his relatively low base velocity rendered unimportant because he was inside any possible course that took her to her objective. If she’d turned and run as soon as he’d brought his fleet to battlestations, it would have taken her 49 minutes to come to zero and reverse course, which would given him nearly an hour with the Emperor’s whore’s ships within missile range and eleven minutes with her inside energy range. He hadn’t thought she’d be that stupid and was gratified to see that she was as intelligent as the rumors said. It was nice to have a cunning foe, even if the result of their clash was a forgone conclusion. Hopefully, she’d surrender so he could sell her back to Axelrod. The bounty the Mesan multistellar was offering was quite enough to retire on.

“Sixty seconds, Admiral, for the Wallers. Five minutes for the cruisers,” was the reply.

“Mmm… hold off then. They can’t escape. We’ll do a big salvo once we can range with all ships,” he said, watching as the two ships fired themselves dry. Foolish. Why wasn’t she saving her ammo? If she was certain she wouldn’t need it against his wallers, and four BCs could not stand against thirty-four of that class or higher, then why not fire all her missiles? If she thought they could be some us, why waste any against the base? Or why not use some from each ship instead of running two dry without the other two firing a shot. They’d spent over two thousand shipkillers against the refinery when they could have spun and sent those missiles into his own teeth… Something didn’t add up. “Do we have any classes at all on those ships yet?”

“One is a Die Walkyrie, Ops is certain of that. We think the big one is one of their new Charlemagne’s… but the other two, the two that haven’t fired yet, they’re an unknown class. Maybe they’re Manticoran?”

“No,” Gunterson said, “We know the Mantis… what are they doing?” he asked as the Andies began firing stern missiles at his fleet. Both ships were blazing away… with all eight combined chase tubes. By the time the first salvo was halfway to his fleet, there were two hundred and sixteen in space… It was a pathetic showing… and then they split apart, spreading out and, before his disbelieving eyes, began pumping out a storm of Electronic Countermeasures… an entire swarm of nothing but ECM? Why? “ROLL SHIPS. All ships, Roll ships. Mines!” he snapped, knowing it would be too late for some of his ships.

“That BITCH!” he swore as he took in the audacity of it. She’d brought mine colliers. Those were Deutchberg Rapid Colliers… and she’d brought them on raids just in case she was ever followed! No wonder she was called the Anvil, he begrudged as his ship bucked as the storm of sixty-seven thousand shipkiller mines smashed into the combined wedges of his fleet. It was a hell of a trick, but not one she could repeat, and most of his fleet would survive.

========

“They’re coming out of it and have rolled back to pursuit,” Ulrike announced. “They’ve lost nine of their lighter craft outright and it looks like two battleships…. Three…” she corrected as third went up in a ball of atomic fire. “Two of the DNs have lost their wedges and a third has a flutter, and a fourth BB is out of action. The BCs look like they made it mostly unscathed…. They’re opening up,” the young woman announced professionally.

“Time to Lechfeld?” Yuha asked.

“Eleven minutes, twenty seconds,” said Solace and Ulrike as one and the younger woman, who had started her life as C-84a/1001-10/22, blushed despite herself. She doubted the older woman was even aware of it, but they’d met before, nine years earlier, aboard a Jessyk Combine freighter named Alraune in the Saint Vincent system. The entire vessel had been turned over to Beowulf and her former cargo of slaves given new lives. Several of them, Ulrike knew, had joined the Ballroom, others had settled on Beowulf or Manticore… but she and a dozen of her sisters had been recruited by agents of the Crown Prince of the Andermani Empire. A full thirty percent of Valkyrie’s personnel were rescued slaves and another were the children or grandchildren of former-slaves. The unit had been formed especially to hunt down slavers beyond the Empire’s borders, and now they had one of their own leading it… the woman Ulrike Wu respected most in the entire universe. To say that she was pleased by this turn of events would have been an understatement… and here she was on the bridge! She didn’t know why, but she wasn’t complaining. She also didn’t know what ‘Lechfeld’ was or why the Commander and Oberst had argued about whether to call it Lechfeld or Augsburg (the Oberst had won despite the Commander pointing out that the Magyars called whatever it was Augsburg. “Yes, that’s true,” Solace had said, “but Augsburg is a town… Lechfeld is a place… which is this?”)

For an endless eleven minutes, Task Force Magyar’s CMs and ECCM systems weathered the storm of missiles aimed at them, burning through the CMs that the entire group was massively overstocked on, having filled every spare compartment with them. The additional the soldiers that Horace Harkness and Wilemina Ruffian and the other Manticorans had drilled and drilled to make them into the next best thing to Manticoran Marines were run ragged keeping the CM launchers fully stocked despite the fact that the Migardians didn’t have a clear shot. It was two BCs and two Destroyers protecting two Colliers that didn’t have the armor to take a hit, even if they had the same amount of CM Launchers as Hildermadchen did.

As the distance closed, the number of near misses kept climbing higher and higher, and more than once Orlando was hit. By the time the turn for Lechfeld came, she’d lost two grasers, eight lasers, and her entire stern armament. And Hildermadchen was in worse condition… but still running. As one, the entire Task Force swung behind the clustered rocks that Solace had dubbed ‘the place’ and the missiles were mercifully silent as they smashed into rocks thousands or millions of time heavier than a Battlecruiser.

======

Admiral Gunterson swore. He’d been so focused on the fleeing ships he’d almost forgotten about the Lokisanna cluster. Local legend claimed that the prison the ancient trickster god of the Aesir, the Asgardian Gods, was hidden within those rocks. Of course, that was base superstition and nonsense, but the cluster had a mass one tenth of that of Old Earth’s moon and that was enough to make it a navigational hazard. Only the constant perturbation of the cluster by the local supergiant gas planet kept it from solidifying into a dwarf planet.

“Swing us around the cluster, and get me a firing solution… we’ll hit them one last time as they run for the limit,” he ordered, tapping the arm of his command chair in annoyance. He’d hoped to at least smash her little raiding party, but at least this way there was no way she’d dare come back for a seventh raid. As his ships swung wide around the cluster, he grinned, already picturing the up the kilt shots his now reduced but still mighty fleet would have on the Bitch’s… “what in the name of almighty god?”

He could only stare in horror for a fixed moment in time as the titanic missile salvo roared to life ahead of him. The missiles were blasting off the surface of the cluster right down his Fleet’s throats. There were so many… “too many…” they were the last thoughts Admiral Yorik Gunterson ever had as the remaining two Battlecruisers of Task Group Valkyrie fired off every missile that they’d been able to smuggle into the Lokisanna cluster over the last few weeks. Raids did make such excellent distractions.

The handful of ships that survived the maelstrom intact were then subjected to the graser, laser, and energy torpedo fire of Geirskogul, Griminismal, Tarnhelm, and Tarnkappe before all ten Andermani ships fled into hyper, leaving behind the utterly smashed ruins of their pursuers. Although they didn’t know it, the devastation had been almost total.

=======

“How many?” Simione Rathskeller demanded.

“S… sixty one… the… we lost sixty one ships ma’am… The Baldr and the-”

The Chancellor glared at the very newly promoted head of First Fleet, and growled, “Do not give me ship names, Admiral Gellert. Classes! How many wallers do we have left?!”

“N… None… Not from Battle Group One. We lost all the Dreadnoughts and Battleships. We’ve got three Battlecruisers that are better than fifty percent operational and two heavy Cruisers. One Destroyer survived, but she’s got a blown node and will have to be towed. S… should we go after them? They’ll be heading to Nidavellir.”

Simione considered, eyes slitted like a snake’s and then shook her head, “No. She’ll be expecting that. Admiral Gellert, you are hereby ordered to take Battle Group Two to Niflheim and wait for her to show up there.”

“Ma’am?”

“My spies tell me that has to be where she’s based. She keeps withdrawing to somewhere and the only system we haven’t heard from on that side of the Federation is Nif!”

“But… that will leave the homeworld-” the Admiral began.

“I AM THE CHANCELLOR! Damn the Homeworld! She just destroyed half our homefleet with four FUCKING BATTLECRUISERS. I WANT HER HEAD ON A PIKE! I’LL FUCKING SHIP HER EYES TO THE GOD-BE-THRICE-DAMNED MANTI HARLOT AND THE LUTHERAN FUCK ON NEW BERLIN!” Spittle flew as the Midgardian Chancellor well and truly lost her shit.

Wisely, Chalis Gellert was not a stupid woman, and she simply saluted and signed off, making ready to head to Niflheim for what she hoped wouldn’t turn out to be a tactical mistake. If the Chancellor was right, by heading straight to Nif, and if the Andi Task Force did go to Nid first, the Midgardians would arrive two days sooner. If the Andis were counting on this, and had a fleet at either Asgard or just outside the Midgard system, say waiting in hyperspace? The Homeworld would fall for the second time in a decade… but maybe that was fine. This time they’d have a mostly intact fleet all in one place to take it back.

=========

“Admiral Gellert,” Lukas Janacek said, “I formally surrender control of this base to you, but be aware, we are Manticoran citizens merely contracted to provide repair services to the Andermani. We are not combatants.”

The Admiral, who could not see Horace Harkness smirking just off camera at the baldface lie, nodded. “You and your facility will be returned to Manticore unharmed as long as you don’t do anything to disprove your non-combatant status. The last thing we want is another war with your nation. In fact, several of my unit commanders are Manticorans. My people will be coming aboard, please do nothing to provoke them.” The line went dead.

“I so cannot believe this is the plan,” Ruffian muttered.

“I cannot believe this is working,” Horace agreed.

“Shhh,” Lukas replied as he shutdown Tortuga’s secondary control system. The repair yard, now fully set up, was located near one of the large Lagrange points in the Niflheim system, a place full of asteroids and planetismals to harvest. On the face of it, it was remarkably similar to the Lokisanna cluster, though more spread out… which would, no doubt, suit the Midgardian Admiral’s purposes… which was exactly why Tortuga was stationed there.

======

Solace smiled as she she arrived in Niflheim’s system. It was a grim smile, a smile that encompassed pleasure at a job well done while also containing sorrow at the lives on both sides it had cost. Granted, it had cost the enemy far more than it had cost her… but hopefully whoever had replaced Gunterson was reasonable and she wouldn’t have to kill more of them.

======

“She’s here, Admiral,” Gellert’s sensor officer reported. “She’ll reach zero zero with the station in twenty-five minutes.”

“Excellent. Begin warming up the nodes. We’ll go hot just as she crosses the hyper-limit… what was that?” The ship had lurched violently.

“Unknown… Admiral, we’re being hailed… its Tortuga.”

“Hello, Admiral… I’m sorry, I don’t know if this is Admiral Chalis Gellert or Admiral Konstantin Karschild… I am, as you may be aware, Solace Smythe, Oberst of the Andermani Hussars. When you just felt is a gravitic mine detonating on your ship’s hull. Your nodes will require major repairs and retuning before they will be able to generate a wedge again. I’m sorry to trick you like this, but, alas, much is fair in war that a Gentlewoman such as myself would normally consider cowardly. Your ships are defenseless. I advise you to surrender immediately or I will be forced to have the laser-warhead mines we seeded that asteroid field with turn active.”

=====18 Days Later====

“Your Majesty, we have a communique from Solace Smythe,” Chen-Lu Anderman told his cousin as he walked into the Emperor’s private chambers. The old man had died weeks earlier, but the two of them and a few trusted advisors had been hiding that information from the Imperial Court and the Empire at large, waiting for a time where the news would not demoralize the populace. The Empire’s fleet had been having precious little luck fighting the near constant and widespread raids by the Midgardian expeditionary force. The two had their suspicions of why that was, but scant evidence.

Jing-Pei, technically now the Emperor, looked up from the glass coffin containing the body of his father and blinked, “I thought she was in Midgard.”

“Ummm… yes. That is the case.”

“Ah. Well, does she need reinforcements? Resupply? We’re a bit thin, but maybe we can cut a few light cruisers?”

“Cousin… you don’t understand. She’s not in Midgard Space… She’s in Midgard. Midgard System. She’s asking us to send in the army… she’s captured the system… she also asks if we can spare crews for eight Dreadnoughts and thirteen Battleships. She also warns that Simione Rathskeller has apparently fled to Muspelheim and is probably in direct command of the Midgardian Second Fleet.”

“I… she had better say yes or she’s going to end up ruling this Empire instead of me…” the not-quite an Emperor shook his head. “Send General Schenk with eighteen divisions and every Naval Officer and Rating we can spare. Shame we’re not going to be able to keep it all.”

Chen-Lu shrugged, “Easy come, easy go.”

“Jah? You tell Solace that it was Easy. I’ll sit back and watch her eviscerate you. I’m half expecting her to try to throttle me when we next meet. Your daughter says she has many nasty things to say about my ancestry.”

“Are you scared of her, cousin?”

“I gave her four battlecruisers and she conquered Midgard. Aren’t you scared of her?”

Chen-Lu, the Herzog von Rabenstrange, considered that for a moment before shaking his head. “No.”

“No?”

“Of course not. She’s on our side.”

“AH… yes… good point. Now I’m terrified.”

Next: Solace of Manticore – Part 19d

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Ulrike Wu
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World 77: Honor Harrington – Part 2.19b

SOLACE OF MANTICORE

PART 19: Wolves in the Fold, Chapter 2

Timestamp: October 19th, 1894

It turned out that Task Group Valkyrie was not merely four Battle Cruisers and two supply ships. In fact, in addition to the Battlecruisers Orlando (second of the Charlemagne Class), Geirskogul, Grimnismal, and Hildrmadchen (Die Walkyrie Class… with names translating as Spear-Shaker, Odin-Speaks, and Battle-Maiden), and the Deutchberg Class Colliers Munchen and Bremen, there were two Scout Cruisers (a type Solace had never heard of before) of the Relikt Class and eight Nebelung Class Destroyers as screen. Solace looked over the list of ships and sighed. So many drills were going to be needed. She might have a flawless memory, but remembering and knowing intuitively were two different things. In the heat of battle, she’d have to know the strengths and weaknesses of each ship, each class, each commander, each crew.

She looked around the table at her subordinates. Erica, as her tactical deputy and defacto commander of Orlando, and Reni, who she’d been somewhat surprised to realize had been selected by the Crown Prince to be her Flag Lieutenant in all but name, had been joined by five Kapitäns der Stern, none of them regular IAN, two Fregattenkapitän, eight Korvettenkapitän, and two Oberstleutnants… she even had a Flotillenadmiral under her, commanding her destroyers… Jing-Pei was clearly a man who believed in getting his way, no matter what the table of organization might say.

If Admiral Saberhagen was at all annoyed to be taking orders from a woman half her age, Solace couldn’t sense it. In fact, the emotions of those at the table ranged from fierce pride to something very much like hero worship… what the hell had Jing-Pei been telling these people? And where in the name of god had the Crown Prince found this group? Had he just happened to have sixteen ships lying around with female commanders who could be fashion models… if the fashion was highly athletic women. Half of them looked like they could be Figure Skaters or Gymnasts, the others looked like a mix of Volleyballer, Powerlifters, and Martial Artists. In fact, having read their dossiers, she was aware that all of them were highly accomplished in a variety of fields, all having been hand picked out of the academy or regular fleet to be part of Crown Fleet.

Magda Fei-Browning, Munchen’s captain, had a PhD in particle physics and was championship skier. Her sister, Lotte Fei, was Bremen’s captain and was a supermarathon runner and electrical engineer. Geirskogul’s Karla Bjornsdottir was an opera singer and an accomplished grappler and boxer. Grimnismal’s Abahai Xiacigao was a grandmaster Chess player and a master of the considerably harder Go, as well as being an accomplished equestrian. Hildrmadchen’s Ming-Wu Nurhaci was a championship archer and an imperial swordmaster… and apparently quite fond of penning erotic limericks. The list went on and on.

The Xue Twins, Yuting and Dian, who commanded the two Scout Cruisers, Tarnkappe and Tarnhelm respectively, had worked in Intelligence under deep cover for more than seven years before being sent to Command School and were marked as exceptionally deadly with blades and pistols. Even the commanders of the Destroyers, as young as they were, were outstanding in some way. Durand’s Daphne Pau had graduated from Medical School at 20 before joining the Imperial Navy. Alberich’s Miao-Ling Gersweiler was a professional-tier dancer with a legal background. Ortnit’s Lai-Fan Rechnagel was a bi, tri, and pentathlete. Thedrik’s Haifeng Thoma had grown up on one of the Empire’s newest conquests and had been a skilled tracker and hunter by the time she was ten. Nebelung’s Anja Wang was a published philosopher and playwright. Fafner’s Wensong Chen came from a family that still practiced the ancient Chinese Traditional Martial Arts, of which she was skilled in a dozen different styles. Fasolt’s Jiaxin Thiedemann was a stand-up comedienne and romance novelist.

And then there was Rheingold’s Wei-Lau, who was a freediver, one of that special breed of insane people who enjoyed seeing just how deep they could dive without scuba gear. Her current personal best was nearly 200 meters, which was strangely appropriate considering the story of the Rheingold… Solace had to wonder if she’d been given that ship as her command specifically for that reason.

The last two at the table were not ship commanders. Xin-Xin Rabenstrange was the Crown-Prince’s cousin and Solace’s S2, her Intelligence Officer. The woman’s dossier was nearly empty and she was listed as being 23 T-Years old though, as a third-generation Prolong recipient, she looked no more than 15. If she had any skills besides being related to royalty, it wasn’t in her official record, but it was evident that Jing-Pei trusted her enough to give her a security clearance that was higher than either Solace’s own or Erica Yuha’s.

The last was by far the darkest skinned individual at the conference. While not quite as chocolate brown as the Queen of Manticore, Faquan Mustafa was the color of a deep (almost burnt) caramel and even taller than Solace. It was clear that the woman was descended, probably by no more than two generations, from a genetically engineered soldier breed, probably from the Mfecane worlds… most likely Zulu since she wasn’t an Albino, but it could be either. She was the senior member of the Task Group’s Imperial Army contingent, as the Andermani had no dedicated Marine Corps. In fact, each of her ships had IAA detachments that were between a quarter and a sixth of the size of RMN detachments that a Manti ship of the same type would have. Holding the rank equivalent of a Lieutenant Colonel, if Faquan’s command was considered to be all the Army personnel in the entire Task Group, it would barely have matched the total Marine personnel contained in three Manti BCs.

“Okay people, good to have you all here. I’m eager to get to know you all, and I’m certain I will over the next month and a half. I’m certain you’re all skilled operators and that the last thing you want is some outsider coming in and telling you that you’re doing things wrong… but, well, that’s exactly what’s going to happen,” she smiled, shrugging to show that it wasn’t malicious. “I have a very particular way of doing things, based on traditions that, I’m sorry, have made the Royal Manticoran Navy the most professional navy in known space. I’ve seen your training reports and your readiness reports and, by my standards, your competency numbers in drills are too low. Across the board, numbers your manual holds to be outstanding would not be considered adequate in the RMN.”

She’d thrown the words out as an open challenge, seeing who would rise to the bait… but none of them did. Instead, Kapitan de Stern Nurhaci raised a hand to be recognised and, when Solace had nodded, she rose, standing at attention. “We are aware of these numbers, Frau Oberst. The Crown-Prince has instructed us to follow all of your suggestions. All of us here were either at Caperna or have thoroughly reviewed the results of both the war games and the battle that followed. Although the Imperial Navy is, as a whole, unaware of or unwilling to accept the results, an unbiased comparison between the level of skill demonstrated by your fleet shows that your level of readiness outpaces our own by a significant margin.” Ming-Wu looked around the table and the others nodded. “In addition, none of our ship commanders or fleet admirals have accomplished such one-sided victories as your navy has managed.”

“Ah,” Solace said as the officer retook her seat, “So Jing-Pei has given me an experimental testbed, has he? Every time I think I have figured out every angle, that man manages to have another… I don’t know if he’s the best tactician… but he may be the best strategist I’ve ever seen,” she chuckled. “Right, first off, I’ll get to know you all both as a group and one by one over the course of our trip, but for now, I’ve got the first of what I anticipate will be a host of changes, including loadout changes for missiles, changes in watch stander procedure, bridge layout, and crewing.”

“Crewing, Frau Oberst?” Admiral Saberhagen asked. “How do you mean?”

“We’re going to be capturing every Midgardian flagged ship we come across, ladies and… “ she stopped herself when she remembered there was only one male present. “And that means we’ll need larger Army contingents. I know you don’t do that sort of thing much, and that your Army personnel are largely for security and fighting off other people’s boarding actions… but that’s going to change. Your ships lack the berthing for full sized Marine contingents, but we’re going to double what you’ve got now. I’ve already contacted Gregor and they’re loading everyone who has shipboard experience and sending them up to us,” Solace said, holding up a hand to stop any muttering. “We will make this work, ladies. And we’ll need to run drills on the basics of shipboard combat and all the ways Marines can help with operations, so I’ve already sent a message back through the Junction and requested some back up.”

“Back-up? From Manticore?” Xin-xin Rabenstrange sounded appalled at that idea. “How-”

“How do we know we can trust them?” Solace asked, voice hard. “Because I vouch for them, Miss Rabenstrange. All of them are retired RMMC NCOs or RMN Petty Officers or Warrant Officers… well, all but two. Those two are active duty and I’ve had to pull in quite a number of favors to get them. Okay… to get one of them. The other the Navy almost gave me for free… I can’t believe he got himself busted down a rank again.” She shook her head sadly. “The long and short of it is I’ve got two or three ex-Marines coming per ship… and yes, that includes Bremen and Munchen, to train your people in shipboard action. We’ll see if we can pad out those numbers with some of your ratings, and we’ll be crosstraining the Army Personnel in helping out when the ship is at battlestations.”

This time it was Lt. Colonel Mustafa who complained. “Army Personnel? At Battlestations? Certainly the Oberst must be joking!”

“I do not joke in uniform,” Solace said. “It is beneath my dignity as… whatever I am.” She swept the table with her gaze. “Failure to take advantage of all available hands during an emergency, be that an accident or battle, is a waste of resources and befits not a trained professional. Every Dragoon… not Marines, not Hussars, not Army, will have a specific battlestation and they will be expected to learn how to assist those in that section, be that pulling fuses in a grazer mount or helping rack counter-missiles or just as a medical corpsman. Am I understood?”

The coordination of the ‘Jawohl, Frau Oberst’ nearly knocked her back a step.

“Excellent… now, are there any questions?”

Admiral Saberhagen rose without being recognized, but Solace didn’t mind. “If I might ask… you said we were going someplace a month and a half away? Where, exactly are we going?”

“Ah. Well… We’re going to Weissen.”

“Weissen? The only thing in Weissen is the terminus of the Jewel Junction.”

“That is correct.”

“Jewel has forbidden passage to the militaries of both Midgard and the Empire.”

“That isn’t precisely correct,” Solace said. “I’ve reviewed the text of their statement and they’ve said that they’re willing to allow military vessels if they are helmed by officers of the Jewel Navy and agree to have a 200 megaton nuke attached to the hull for the duration of their stay in Jewel or Corona.”

“That’s as good as forbidding it. That would make our ships far too vulnerable to take Muspelheim!” the Admiral insisted. Just as Weissen was the Andermani terminus of Jewel Junction, Muspelheim was the Midgard terminus. Aside from Midgard itself, no system in the Federation had a larger military presence. In fact, the Muspelheim system was home to the Midgardian Navy’s Second Fleet, which (as of the last ONI update) numbered 43 battleships and dreadnoughts… though the dreadnoughts were old enough that they still had autocannons and rotating sections… in fact, more than half of them had been bought from Manticore when the RMN had upgraded to gravitic plating. The rest were old Solarian designs, more expensive, tougher, and a bit faster… but just as outdated by modern standards. If Second Fleet was outdated, it was still enough to hold the terminus that connected Midgard to Haven. Fourteen cruisers and destroyers were not taking that on.

“You’d be absolutely right… but we’re not going to Muspelheim. We’re going to Niflheim, by way of Manderlay,” Solace said, grinning like the fabled Cheshire Cat.

“Mander… Nifelheim… I don’t…” the Admiral started, then sat back, considering. Solace was pleased to note that she wasn’t protesting having Jewelian Naval Personnel on her ships or bombs strapped to their bellies. Jewel was neutral, not stupid. They would know that the IAN would avenge any betrayal of the transit contract. The Jewel Junction had four termini of which Weissen and Muspelheim were two. Atropos, which lay between Haven and the Solarian League’s Maya Sector was the third… and Manderlay was the fourth. The system of Manderlay was one of the most remote of all human colonies. Further to galactic north than even Manticore’s Basilisk terminus, it lay on the far side of the Silesian confederacy from the Andermani Empire and the Weissen-Jewel-Manderlay route was used by many Andi merchantmen doing a Silesia run. From Manderlay to Niflheim (the northernmost of Midgard’s thirteen systems) was almost exactly seven weeks. A week to Weissen… “That’s two months, Frau Oberst.”

“Very good. Yes it is,” Solace responded. “Or so anyone would figure.” She held up a document. “As it turns out, Snurlson Gravodynamics (A wholly owned subsidiary of the Andros-Brandyne Cartel) has recently finished mapping the Rylie Grav-wave. This is a chart of that Grav-wave. Not only will use of the wave shave two weeks off our travel time, it will bring us out on the far side of Niflheim.” The gathered officers considered that information with worried expressions.

Hyperspace was… in a word, complex. Although often pictured as a neighboring reality to Realspace, Hyperspace was, in actuality, a stack of closely related parallel realities, uninhabitable as far as human science could tell, where the congruence between points was the same as in Realspace, but the points were far closer to each other. While much of Hyperspace was as empty as Realspace, there existed titanic multi-lightyear long ‘structures’ in the fabric of Hyperreality called Gravitic Waves. Before the invention of Warshawski Sails, encountering a grav-wave was certain death, as the sheer forces would rip a ship apart in an instant. The Sails changed all that, but waves were still a potential threat. Some, indeed most, were relatively calm and stationary, but others were turbulent, unpredictable, or had sheer so powerful that attempting to ride the wave was a dubious proposition at best. The worst of these were the waves classed as ‘Roaring Deeps’ which could and often did shift widely. The Rylie was one of them.

“Frau Oberst…” Madga Fei-Browning of Munchen began, then cleared her throat. “How much faith do you have in these charts?”

I grinned. “Enough to trust my own life. Trust me… I’m very fond of it. Don’t worry. I know the Rylie has a reputation, but that reputation is based on fear, not fact. The facts are that while the Rylie does shift regularly and dangerously, those shifts are not unpredictable. They’re actually cyclic. By shifting hyperbands at precise intervals, we’ll avoid the worst of it.” She looked around the table, then said, “We’re military officers. It is our duty to accept certain risks. I judge this risk to be acceptable in the face of the advantage it will give us. We need to be in control of Niflheim in ten weeks, and we will be.” Her voice was firm and her stance brooked no disagreement.

“Any further questions?” There were many exchanged glances, but no one spoke. “Good. Now, before I end this meeting, can someone please explain to me exactly what a Scout Cruiser is?”

The elder Xue sister, Tarnkappe’s Yuting, stood, still and straight. “It is a compromise between a destroyer and a heavy cruiser, Frau Oberst. The armor of a Heavy Cruiser, the weaponry of a Destroyer, the size and speed of a Light Cruiser.”

Solace restrained the blink of surprise and the desire to snap about how silly the concept was… then considered. If a Scout Cruiser was as armored as a Heavy Cruiser and as fast as a Light Cruiser… “I assume they have enhanced Sensor systems and better stealth systems?”

“Jah, Frau Oberst,” Yuting agreed. “Variable configuration wedge strength to simulate small merchant vessels or a variety of minor military craft.”

Her sister rose. “Technically, the weaponry is not so limited as one might think, Frau Oberst. The reduction is not in number of launchers but in bunkerage, and both ships have energy torpedos and grasers instead of lasers. Together, they can stand up to a Heavy Cruiser and can outrun anything else besides a frigate or… how is it that you call them? Tin Can? A Relikt cannot outrun a Can… but it can fight three or four at a time. IANS Tyrfing and Balmung took on eleven Midgardian Hreindýr class Destroyers before being forced to retreat.”

Solace asked, “How many of them did Tyrfing and Balmung destroy?”

“Ah… well… they disabled three of them… The Aland system’s gas mining operation they were assigned to destroy was later hit by Vizeadmiral Lai Xiaopeng,” Yuting said, mentioning the younger son of Minister for War Chang Xiaopeng. The elder son, Großadmiral Qin Xiaopeng, was the de facto supreme commander of the IAN, being outranked by, technically, the Crown Prince and Ruth. The last Großadmiral fer Flotte, Grand Admiral of the Fleet, had been responsible for the attempted coup that had resulted in Solace saving the lives of both the Emperor and the Crown Prince and, despite the Minister’s pushing, Jing-Pei had steadfastly refused to appoint Qin to that high office, since that would, again technically, have given him the authority to assume command over both the Expeditionary Fleet and Crown Fleet.

“Ladies… if you give me that poor a showing, I shall begin to doubt the Crown Prince’s judgment in selecting my subordinates. Now, before I dismiss you, I have one more change of procedure that I’ve saved for last because it is vital you understand me in this and that you appreciate just how important I consider this. You are never, I repeat, never, to allow your nodes to be cold. You will keep them on standby at all times that they are not being actively used or actively repaired. This includes in all friendly ports. Over the next week, I’ll speak to each of you individually and in groups… but for now, let’s dance.” She rose and the rest of the room did as well, all of them snapping to attention as she turned and left, being trailed by Reni, Erica, Xin-Xin, and Faquan.

On the trip back to Orlando, Erica was strangely silent, but Xin-Xin kept glancing at her Manticoran commander and opening her mouth, then closing it again. It didn’t take an empath to know that confusion and curiosity were duking it out with propriety in the young S2’s mind. Finally, just as they were leaving the docking bay, when Xin-Xin clearly assumed that Solace could not hear her, she whispered to Colonel Mustafa, “How did she know? We didn’t include that in the intell packets.”

“She can still hear you, dumkopf. If I can do a thing, assume the Oberst can do a thing,” the towering Army officer said, not bothering to keep her voice down. Solace was not looking in their direction, so only caught a flicker of shock and confusion from the Intel officer before Mustafa was chuckling. “Do not look so surprised. A fish will grab your tongue. Of course she knew. Like calls to like, yes?”

Deciding that maintaining her dignity was more important than getting to the bottom of this little mystery directly, Solace returned to her office and took another look at the personnel jackets of her command team. There was something… something about them… something she’d said had made Xin-Xin think she’d uncovered something… something Faquan… Ruth looked up from where she was napping and bopped her human on the forehead with a tennis ball.

“Was that your way of distracting me, or are you just feeling bored?” Solace asked the ‘cat.

Ruth shrugged her four shoulders and flirted her fluffy tail at Solace.

“I see, Naomi’s too busy redecorating our cabin and you’re bored?”

“Bleek!”

“Yeah, well, bleek to you too… fine. We’ll go get some gym time. I’m going to turn into a hunchback if I have to do any more paperwork today anyway.”

The gym aboard Orlando turned out to quite large for a battlecruiser, especially one without Marines… but Solace didn’t know if larger physical fitness facilities were de rigueur for the IAN or not. She wouldn’t put it past the Andies, with their tradition of ‘Semper Preparatus’… Always Ready. It was also a pleasant surprise to discover that the room not only came with adjustable grav plates, but that those plates were currently dialed in to 1.25g. Entering, she’d found half a dozen of her off duty officers working out… and their movements, unfettered in that moment by uniforms or static poses, made it all click. She waved away the first to notice her, then thought better of it and beconned the young Ensign (in actuality a ‘Leutnant der Sterne’) over.

“Tell me, Ulrike,” Solace asked conversationally, “Does the IAN adhere to the tradition of ‘no rank in the mess’?”

“Frau Oberst? I do not…” the young woman, whose jacket said she was twenty but who looked thirteen, replied, then paused, “Ah… you mean where junior officers are allowed to speak freely and need not rise and salute every time a senior walks by? Jah. We have this tradition.”

“Excellent. I want you to spread it around, both on Orlando and to the rest of the Task Group, that the same applies in the gymnasium… and for enlisted personnel transporting heavy equipment in the halls. I’ve had four different work parties stop what they’re doing, put down their parcels, and salute. If you’re doing something important, an Officer will know if it’s more important for you to pay attention to them than your task and will let you know. You’ll pass it around, or do I need to make it formal?”

Ulrike Zu, who’d been a Cadet (the Andermani equivalent of a midshipwoman) only a month before, was uncertain how to respond. Part of her felt deeply overwhelmed by the Oberst’s mere attention… and was very much aware how much shorter she was than the warrior-woman that the Prince had placed in command of the Valkyries, but the rest of her felt elated at this signal honor and she eagerly shook her head, “No Frau Oberst. I will, as you say, pass it around. You will probably get requests for confirmation from the other Commanders.” She paused, then asked, “How should the Officer signal their desire to be paid attention to?”

“That, my good woman, is a very good question. Tell you what, instead of me making a half-assed job of it, I want you to gather the Cadets and brainstorm a working draft of a regulation. Submit it to Commander Yuha by…,” she checked her chrono, “Nineteen Hundred. Oh, and very nice form on the rings by the way. Impressive.”

Ulrike could only gape at her new master after god’s back as the woman walked away, trailed by one of her alien pets. The Oberst had watched her work out? The Oberst was trusting her with writing regulations for the entire Task Group. She wanted to hurry after the Oberst and tell her that she should get someone with experience, someone with seniority, someone other than herself. Then the pet… who, because the Emperor had felt it amusing to do so, was technically the second highest ranking officer in the entire IAN… turned and winked at her. The wink seemed to say, “I know! Crazy isn’t it?” and Ulrike felt her panic evaporate into a stifled giggle and she hurried to get changed.

Solace did not cut her own workout short. In fact, she decided to push herself hard, burning off as much of her energy as she could until every muscle ached in a good way… well, her left hamstring was hurting a little more than it should have, and she was pretty certain she’d pulled it… but it would be fine by morning. Stretching her back until it popped, she looked around, then realized that she was being watch.

“Yes, Oberstleutnant?” she asked, tilting her head to study the bigger woman.

“Her Majesty can call me Colonel if she is more comfortable with that,” Faquan replied, not really answering the question.

“I am not the Empress, nor am I Princess Consort… and there is no ‘yet’ implied in that statement,” Solace said, frowning, as she reached for her towel. “And that didn’t answer my question. How can I help you?”

“The Oberst’s reputation precedes her. I was merely wondering if she could use a sparring partner?” the taller woman responded.

Solace considered the offer, then asked, “What percentage of Valkyrie are ex-slaves or the descendants of ex-slaves?”

If Colonel Mustafa was surprised by the question, it did not show on her face, and her emotions were just as unreadable as they had been before. Interesting. “I am not here to offer Intel to her. That is Officer Rabenstrange’s duty. I am merely here to offer myself as a training partner… if the Oberst desires one.”

“Ask me again tomorrow, once I’ve gotten my trainers situated. Have you begun clearing space for the new personnel and their gear?”

Mustafa pursed her lips into a tight line, then stiffened to report, “Pursuant to the Obersts orders, I have begun the reallocation of space and supplies, though this will inconvenience the crew. Six storage rooms are being consolidated and bunks are being added to accommodate the incoming soldiers. The armory will be overstocked, but we shall make do. Does this please her?”

Being spoken to in the third person was very strange and Solace honestly didn’t know what to make of it, or of this odd woman, but as long as she did her duty, Solace could put up with anything. Also, she couldn’t quite tell if the woman was being respectful or not. She nodded, bent to scoop up Ruth who was wrestling with Solace’s spare towel, then said, “Tell Xin-Xin and Erica to join me in my office in fifteen minutes. I’m going to grab a shower… you needn’t watch.”

“I shall arrange her meeting, and no, it is not my place to safeguard her body. The Hussars protect their own,” Mustafa said, snapping her heels together and, with a turn so crisp it would make celery blush, exited the gymnasium.

“What an odd duck,” Solace commented to Ruth, who pawed her nose and said, “Bleek!” “I’m glad you agree.”

When Solace exited her cabin ten minutes later, she found two middle aged and hard faced matrons posted outside her door. They were dressed in the shipboard duty uniforms of Totenkopf Hussars, no badge of rank or medals or names on their black and silver uniforms. Only the small death’s head pin on their collar and the twin lightning bolts forming a V that was the Task Group’s symbol. Neither woman saluted, but they fell into step behind her silently as she, Naomi, and Ruth headed for the Kapitan’s office.

No sooner had she sat, leaving the two shadows outside her door, than Commander Yuha announced her arrival. “Come,” Solace commanded, triggering the door from her desk, then closing it and activating the lock as soon as it closed behind the duo. “Good. Now…” she looked at them as she leaned back against the edge of her desk. Her height was such that even half-sitting on the polished black surface she was several centimeters taller than either other woman. “How about you two tell me just how many of my officers and ratings are… shall we say… genetically engineered in some way?” She held her hand up to indicate that she wasn’t done. “And then you two can convince me that the entire war with Midgard is not some convoluted plot by the Crown Prince to convince me of his qualifications to be my husband!” Her eyes were agate hard and she could practically taste the excitement coming off of the Commander and the concern baking off the Oberstleutnant.

Next: Solace of Manticore – Part 19c

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World 77: Honor Harrington – Part 2.19a

SOLACE OF MANTICORE

Part 19: Wolves in the Fold, Chapter 1

Previous: Duets of Motherly Love

Timestamp: October 18th, 1894

The Andermani maintained a small consulate in the civilian sections of all three of the Star Kingdom’s major space-stations; Hephaestus, Vulcan, and Weyland, one each for each of the Manticore system’s inhabited planets. Little more than trade missions, they existed to allow merchants and tourists heading into the Empire to get their paperwork in order. A more prosaic administration might have been tempted to make these diplomatic offices as spartan as possible, but that was not the Andermani way. Each of them was a showroom of Andermani culture and was, if not opulent, then quite comfortable. That each was also attached to a restaurant didn’t hurt.

Solace had said goodbye to her family in the chinese restaurant attached the HMSS Vulcan consulate an hour earlier, and now sat in one of the comfortable chairs, waiting for her ride and looking at the small photograph that Uncle Vanya’s antique camera had produced. In the image, everyone was dressed for winter and smiling at the viewer. Mary and Hope rested their hands on Duty’s shoulders on the right side of the image. Vanya was in the center, looking like the grey-capped mountain towering behind him, his huge grin as infectious as ever. And on the left, Solace found herself with Naomi on her shoulder and Minerva with Ruth on hers and Gilly between them, the girl hugging a treecat that was clearly unused to being photographed. The ‘cat, whom the local rangers had named ‘Barnabie’, was huge for a treecat, pudgey in a way few of the cats were, and considerably younger than was usual for a bonding and both Ruth and Naomi seemed to find him annoying.

Barnabie had been the local Sphinx Forestry Service’s problem child for nearly two years, constantly sneaking into people’s homes and eating everything he could before the owners got back. The service had contacted the Earl, since the ‘crimes’ had happened on his lands, and the Earl had contacted Solace, suggesting that maybe this treecat that was all too fond of human food might be looking for a human to bond with… and did Solace know of a candidate?

Exactly why treecats picked their partners was unknown, at least to the human side of the equation, but what was known to those who paid attention to such things was that they clustered in family groups. The Harringtons and the Wintons were proof positive of that, and there were veritable dynasties of human-treecat pairs in the Forestry Service’s annals. It stood to reason that there was a genetic component, and if Solace had whatever that was, there was a good chance that Gilly would have it too.

The question of how Gilly would cope with the removal of Solace, Ruth, and Naomi from her life, even if only temporarily, had been weighing on not just her parents, but also on her therapists. All agreed that some distance was, ultimately, for the good, even those unaware of how interconnected Gilly and Solace’s thoughts could be, but feared that the separation would be traumatic. If Gilly had a ‘cat of her own, Solace reckoned, perhaps that would provide her with a suitable distraction, as well as providing the calming presence of an empath attuned to her emotional state.

It had taken all of one look between the two and they’d become inseparable. Unfortunately, Barnabie was anything but a ‘calming’ presence. Deeply inquisitive, lacking impulse control, and an absolute glutton, he looked like a giant pudge-ball… but even for a treecat he was strong… if lacking in grace. Minerva’s comment to the effect was that, if the ‘cat had been a human, he’d be Solace’s height and built like a brick wall. Which might have explained why he was hunting in kitchens instead of the forest.

In the three weeks of the family vacation, Solace had seen ‘The Bee’ brain himself with a bowl of fruit three times, get stuck under the couch chasing a snack twice, and once steal an entire chicken from a hot oven. He wasn’t stupid, that was certain, but the only thing that kept him from being a food-obsessed monomaniac was his newly found obsession with her daughter, who carried him everywhere, despite the difficulty of hauling around a fifteen kilo dead weight in 1.3g.

Still, the leavetaking had been a solemn occasion, with Gilly trying very hard not to cry and barely touching her food… something that Barnabie was more than happy to help with… little goober. Solace smiled softly, running her finger over the image, her memory summoning up the smell of Gilly’s hair fresh from the shower and Minerva’s trace perfume. Home… such a strong anchor… but duty… duty had a pull all its own. She would miss them all, but she had a job to do, a job she loved.

Granted, serving as an Advisor to the Andermani wasn’t the same as serving aboard one of her majesty’s ships, but even as an advisor, she’d be honing her skills, learning, becoming a better asset in the coming war with Haven… and helping to, at the very least, keep the Andies neutral in that struggle.

As the Andermani junior officer snapped to attention in front of her, Solace tucked the picture into her valice and stood. “I’m going to hazard a guess that you are not Commander Yuha?” she asked.

“That is correct, Frau Oberst,” the young man began, standing extremely rigidly. “I am not Fregattenkapitän Yuha. She is delayed with a dental matter. I am Oberleutnant der Sterne Reni Absalom. I’m here to bring you this,” he patted the rolling piece of luggage next to him, “and then escort you to your command.”

Solace blinked. “Command? I don’t… Oberst? I’m a Hauptman, surely… a Captain?” She was feeling very confused.

“Ah. My apologies, Frau Oberst. I am meant to give you this?” he held out a diplomatic pouch, the seal still intact. “It is from the Ambassador… the Manticoran Ambassador, I mean.”

Handing off her valice to Ruth, Solace scanned her thumbprint on the seal and opened the envelope. Inside, she found a single sheet of paper, written in Loyal’s hand and containing the correct marks that told her this was legitimately from him. “Sandy, the situation has… evolved. Regrettably, The Emperor is dying and will probably not last the month, Bless his Soul. It seems that the crown prince has taken control of the government and the military, pushing out his father’s advisors in favor of his own. What this means for you is that, rather than coming to the Empire as a consultant, the Crown Prince has requested that you assume direct command of IANS Orlando, BC-84… yes, she’s that new. From what I hear, You’ll Like Her. Strictly speaking, Orlando isn’t a Navy Vessel, she’s part of the Crown Fleet, the Emperor’s escort. Bodyguard Detail isn’t so bad, if you know that’s what you are. Solace… They’re recalling you to active service, as a Totenkopf Oberst… a Colonel, although technically you’ll be a Commodore.”

She read through the plain text twice, then pulled up their private cypher and decoded the meaningless phrases and modifiers contained in the short paragraph. “Something amiss at Imperial Court. I suspect intrigue, possibly assassinations or sabotage. Be careful. Can’t tell if the Prince is using you as bait or hopes you’ll be able to help him.”

Folding the paper up, she slid it back into the envelope and resealed it. Glancing at the luggage, she asked, “I assume that’s a uniform?”

“Yes, Frau Oberst. Additionally, you are requested to wear your sword when you come aboard. It would help with morale. Everyone is quite worried about the Emperor.”

She pursed her lips, considering how ridiculous she was going to look in a Hussar’s formal uniform walking through a Manticoran station, then sighed. The things she did in the name of diplomacy. “I’ll go change then, shall I?”

“Very good, Meine Dame. Also, in answer to your question, a Kapitän of Hussars is not a the equivalent of an Army Hauptman, a Captain, but an Oberst, or Colonel. The Hussars are commanded by three Obersts under one Brigadegeneral,” the young man explained, still rigid enough to be used as a bridge support.

“Right then,” Solace said, grabbing the case and grunting in surprise. “Why is this thing so heavy?” It was too, far more than even a stack of uniforms would be.

“Ah,” the Andermani said, blushing and looking very much like he wanted to rub the back of his neck sheepishly. “The Fregattenkapitän said that it was the Crown Prince’s desire that you be given your back pay.”

“Back… pay?” Solace asked, voice a little shaky as she hoisted the case onto a nearby table and popped its latches. In one compartment was a pristine Totenkopf Hussar’s uniform, complete with ridiculous hat and chinstrap. In the other was dozens of shiny silver bars… “Is this eight years worth of pay?”

“Ja, Meine Dame!” the man said, looking a little goggle-eyed at what must be close to two-million Manticoran dollars worth of precious metal. “It is one hundred and three kilograms of platinum.”

“Well… that’s just ridiculous… Naomi, put the hat down. Sorry. She likes hats.”

“Ja, Meine Dame. We are aware.”

“Good thing you didn’t bring Ruth’s pay.”

“Nein, Meine Dame. We did not know how the Großadmiral prefered to be paid.”

Solace blinked at that, then sighed. “In celery, if she had her druthers, but she’d try to eat it all and make herself sick. Is this uniform reinforced for their claws? And you can say Yes ma’am.”

“Yes ma’am. The uniform fabric is Manticoran. We have also outfitted a pair of survival pods with IAN transponders. They are the best currently on the market in Manticore.”

“Ah. Good thinking. Ruth… just because Naomi put the hat down doesn’t mean… never mind.”

=====

Walking through the station wasn’t nearly as bad as Solace had feared, mostly because Naomi was wearing the hat even though it was practically big enough for the ‘cat to fit inside. Of course, the boots were nearly as silly, high and stiff and totally impractical for shipboard purposes, but Reni had promised her that shipboard uniforms and a skinsuit would be available aboard Orlando (and boy howdy was the idea of serving on a second ship of that name odd) so she would be able to change. And speaking of change, while she’d been pulling on her uniform, she’d called the local Veterans Affairs office and told them to send an armed guard to collect a sizable donation. Seriously… she hadn’t needed the money in the first place, and raw platinum, while valuable, wasn’t exactly as fungible as cash. This had clearly been the Prince showing off.

Station security didn’t even give her a second look as she cleared into the Andermani diplomatic dock, which was something of a relief as well, and once she was in Imperial Country, she tapped pause on the follow command on her luggage (the new case had joined the rest of her stuff on the good old grav sled (she’d paid good money for that thing!)) and turned to face Reni. “Okay, LT, how about you tell me what to expect as I come aboard? I assume some kind of side party is waiting?”

“Pardon, ma’am, but… Ellety??” he asked, brow furrowed.

“Your rank, Oberleutnant der Sterne, is equivalent to that of a Manticoran Junior Lieutenant, yes? In English, a lieutenant is sometimes called ‘Ell’-’Tee’.”

“Ah. I see… so better I be an Oh-Ell-deh-Ess?”

“Too long. Doesn’t roll off the tongue. Maybe Ellday… but you’re avoiding the question,” she pointed out and he blushed again… dear lord… was she ever this young?

“Yes, ma’am. There will be a formal introduction of the ship’s officers… I believe we are keeping them waiting.”

“I’m the Cap… Kapitan. Back when I was merely a Military Advisor, we would have done things on someone else’s schedule. Now, it is my privilege to keep people that I outrank waiting. You will explain to me how to do the various salutes and what is expected of me before we take another step. Additionally, I assume there are orders from your Admiralty for me to take command of this ship? A document I am required to read into the ship’s log?”

He looked at her as if she was insane. “Why would we require such a thing? You have been given command of Orlando by order of the Crown Prince and the Minister of War. That information was listed in the ship’s records before we left New Berlin.”

“Riiight. Not big on the traditions of the Navy. That’s a shame.”

Absolom shrugged. “When the Oberst is Empress, she can change things, yes?”

Solace felt as if she’d just been clubbed upside the head with a dandelion the size of a shipkiller missile. The world wasn’t really spinning was it. He… they… “What?”

“When you are-” he began.

“I heard that part!” she snapped. “What do you mean ‘when I’m Empress’?”

“It is common knowledge that the Crown Prince intends to marry you… why else would the Emperor let you carry Joyeuse?” The boy looked confused and Solace had to restrain the urge to shake him until the universe made sense again.

“I am not marrying the Emperor.”

“No. No… the Crown Prince.”

“I’m not marrying him either!” she growled and both ‘cats nodded in agreement… or maybe Naomi had just lost her balance dealing with the giant fluffy hat as she slipped off the stacked luggage and landed inside the now upside-down hat.

“Of… of course. I should not speak of things above my paygrade. Shall we proceed?”

Solace opened her mouth to protest, again, that she was not, in fact, Jing-Pei Anderman’s fiance, then sighed, rolled her eyes, bent to scoop up Naomi who was trying to get out of the hat without damaging it, then nodded. “Very well. Lead the way.”

=====

Three hours later, Solace was certain of four things. One, someone very high ranking in the Andermani Government was plotting to kill her. Two, her XO, Erica Yuha, was a spy put in place to keep very careful watch on her. Three, the Andermani were clearly insane if the lavishness of their BC Captain’s quarters were any indication. And Four… she was going to throttle the Crown Prince if she got her hands on him.

Even getting to the ship had proven problematic, as a member of the cleaning staff had tried to kill her… or rather, would have tried to kill her had she not broken his nose the moment she realized he was raising his hand to try to spray her with the contents of a bottle of cleaning solvent. Reni had gaped in horror as she, apparently without provocation, assaulted some random peon… then had gaped again in horror as, rather than allow himself to be taken alive, the cleaner had suicided via cyanide tooth.

The consul had had to be called and embassy security had quarantined the body, and it had taken two hours for medical to verify that there was some kind of unknown nanotech pathogen in the sprayer that had begun breaking down nearly as fast as they could study it. The assassin had been a recent hire, and the functionary who’d done the hiring had died of a previously undiagnosed cerebral aneurysm three weeks later… or, yesterday, depending on how one looked at it.

All of it made no sense… how had anyone known to insert an assassin on Vulcan three weeks ago? Three weeks ago, the assumption back on New Berlin should have been that she’d be catching her shuttle for the Andermani Transport ship Thüringen from Manticore’s Hephaestus station. Was there another agent waiting there to kill her? If so, someone was very good at covering their bases. If not… someone had information they should have had no way of acting on. The information lag between Manticore and New Berlin was too long for this to make sense any other way.

In the end, she’d had to call upon her position as a Totenkopf Hussar to get the consul on Hephaestus to check on recent hires… but there hadn’t been any. That meant nothing of course, the hypothetical assassin there might be a long term employee. Or maybe the control was local? Too many variables… but something wasn’t adding up. There was something…

“Captain?” Yuha said, “should I have the ship proceed to the junction?”

Solace looked up from the imaginary chessboard she’d been picturing in front of her, and nodded. “Yes. Then have Kapitänleutnant Chiang take the bridge and join me in my office?” She plucked up Ruth and left the bridge… the layout was bugging her… the placement of bridge stations wasn’t optimal… were all the ships in the fleet structured like this? It was like… like… like a ground-pounder had laid it out. It wasn’t anything… too much to process… she was getting a headache. Too many things to think about, too much she couldn’t control…

She took a deep calming breath, then hit the switch to lock the door as soon as Yuha entered. “You have three minutes to convince me not to have you spaced, Commander Yuha,” she said, voice like steel even as she used the title she was more comfortable with. The Andermani had too many kapitäns on one ship. IANS Orlando had, including her, thirty-one ‘kapitäns’ of one sort or another; one Kapitän der Sterne, three Fregattenkapitäns (Commanders), five Korvettenkapitän (Lieutenant Commanders), and twenty-two Kapitänleutnant (Senior Lieutenants). One more thing that was just… annoying.

“Ma’am?” the spy asked, her voice remarkably calm for someone being threatened with a gruesome death. Maybe she thought Solace was joking?

“You understand that I’m not kidding, Yuha?”

The short woman, mostly asiatic in appearance and nearly half a meter shorter than Solace, nodded calmly and smiled. “Yes ma’am… and you may address me as Erica if you so desire.”

“Then why do you seem unconcerned by my threat?”

Commander Yuha shrugged. “Ah. As to that. I remain sanguine that the Captain will refrain for acting hasty.” She relaxed her stance from parade rest to casual.

Solace quirked an eyebrow at that, and asked, “Not at all curious as to why I might feel that spacing you is reasonable?”

“I assume it is because you assume that I am plotting against you?”

“Are you?”

“Yes, Captain.”

“And I shouldn’t space you even though you are plotting against me why?” This was the strangest conversation Solace had had that didn’t involve Gilly, one of the ‘cats, Loyal, or someone heavily intoxicated.

“You have not verified the nature of the threat.”

“Do you intend to tell me the nature of the threat?”

“I am,” the small woman said, “currently undecided. I will, however, assure you that I do not plan to kill you nor to in any way seek to sabotage your actions… as long as they do not pose a threat to the security of the Empire.”

Solace studied her second in command for a long time, peering at the woman though slitted eyes, tapping her steepled index fingers against her cupid’s bow. “So… what you’re saying is that, should I take an action you believe is a threat to the Empire or the Imperial Haus of Anderman, you’ll attempt to take me out, but otherwise…”

“Otherwise, I will merely continue to plot against you in some unspecified way,” Yuha agreed, nodding happily.

“You’re a remarkable woman, Commander.”

She grinned. “I assume that this is not a compliment?”

“Oh. Very few people manage to confuse me… take it as you will. Now, move tactical and main sensors to right in front of the captain’s chair. Move helm back to where you’ve got tactical now and switch out operations with Sensors. Oh, and see that AuxCom is rearranged as well. I want you seeing what I’m seeing. Once we clear the Wormhole, I want to run drills at least three times a day. I want to see how everyone handles things. I’ll be controlling the opposition for the first few iterations. You’re not to discuss this with the department heads.”

Yuha considered, then nodded. “Yes Captain… what about with the other Captains of the other ships?”

“Other… ships?”

“Yes Captain. The taskgroup consists of the colliers Bremen and Munchen, and the battlecruisers Hildrmadchen, Geirskogul, Grimnismal. They’re waiting in orbit around Gregor… the planet, not the stars.”

“Ah. Of course. I’m so used to having orders. Who am I supposed to report to once we get there?”

“Report, Captain?”

“Yes. Sorry… I thought I was better at Andermani Chinese than this… I meant, who is in charge of the task group?”

“Oh!” the other woman flushed slightly, “I must have not been clear. You’re to command Taskgroup Valkyrie.”

Solace blinked very very slowly, then said, “I’m not going to ask if the Crown Prince has gone insane… clearly the answer is yes… but… what, exactly, are my orders? I mean, I’ve never commanded a ship of the… My largest command was a… What am I supposed to do with a squadron of Battlecruisers?”

“Anything you want…. Captain? Why are you banging your head on the desk?”

Leaning back in the surprisingly comfortable chair, Solace looked up at the ceiling. “Commander… I’m going to assume that you’re actually one of the Totenkopfs and not actually a naval officer?” She didn’t have to see Erica Yuha’s carefully neutral shrug to feel the woman’s surprise, but she didn’t let that knowledge change her posture or tone of voice. “A long time ago, in the lands of Old Earth known as Russia, there were predators known as Wolves. Wolves hunted the sheep and goats that the people relied upon for their livelihoods and so the people wanted to hunt the wolves in turn. Wolves are cunning, sneaky, and have a natural wariness of humans, so hunting them in the forests of Russia, especially in winter, with snow thick on the ground… it was not a thing a wise hunter did. Do you know what the hunters of Russia did?”

“No ma’am. I am not Russian. I am Mongolian. My people ruled the steppes of Siberia. We hunted the wolves from ponyback and drove them from our lands.”

Solace laughed. “Very good. A student of history. Jing-Pei made a good choice in assigning you to me. My Russianness is purely adoptive, but my uncle would never forgive me if I did not point out that the Kievan Rus did kick the Mongol’s out and go on to establish the largest land empire in the history of Old Earth. Of course, the Jew in me would not forgive me if I did not then point out that that jewish peasants and scholars brought down that mighty empire. Being a Russian Jew is confusing… regardless, what the hunters of Russia did, having to deal with trees in numbers larger than all the ponies of all the Mongols, was to tether a horse to a log out in the open and wait for the wolves to come for the horse.”

“Seems like a waste of a horse,” Yuha said. “Was the meat poisoned?”

“The horse was still alive, and the hunter nearby with crossbow or rifle. The wolves would come in for the kill and the hunter would have a new coat before long. They call that horse a stalking-horse, and Jing-Pei has made me his.”

“I don’t follow. His majesty trusts you.”

“His majesty knows that, without orders, I used a LAC to destroy a space-station, a battleship, and more than half a dozen marine transports. His majesty knows that I used a destroyer to take out his battlecruiser. His majesty knows that I’ve got a reputation for unpredictability. He’s given me four BCs and enough supplies to do some serious damage and set me loose in his theater of war amid rumors that I’m to be his empress and knowing that he’s got internal problems. He wants to use me to draw out his enemies and those supply ships are intended to run for it if I get overwhelmed and report back.” She sat up and looked at the other woman, then commanded, “Tell me I’m wrong.”

Yuha shrugged, honestly uncertain this time. “I cannot say. I am not in his Imperial Majesty’s confidence. But if this is all true, what do you plan to do?”

Solace considered that for a long moment, then grinned. “I’m going to win this war for his Majesty… then see if he’s crazy enough to actually propose. I’m hoping that he’s got a secret fiance and is merely using these rumors to protect her. I could understand that.”

The Commander laughed. “You don’t mind being used as bait, but do mind being chased by the most powerful man in the Empire?”

“I don’t like being seen as a prize,” Solace said, lips tight. “If the Crown Prince wants a broodmare, he can find another woman. If he wants someone to smash his enemies… I’m willing. Especially if those enemies are Midgardians… how the hell they let a second lunatic rise to power this fast I’ll never understand.”

“You’re not a fan of Chancellor Simione?” The question was light, as if Commander Yuha was surprised to find that Solace had an opinion at all of the Midgardian leadership.

“Otar Magnusson was a psychopath and his Brotherhood of Odin were hardline reactionaries. Simione Rathskeller is a fanatic with delusions of holy crusade. Just because she opposed Otar doesn’t make her a hero. Her reeducation camps and ‘enemies of godliness’ should terrify everyone. The fact that she’s stirring up so many Andermani is worrying as well. The last thing the region needs is a civil war.”

“The fact that it will disrupt Manticore’s trade in Silesia has nothing to do with it?”

“That’s Minerva’s concern, not mine,” Solace said, petting Naomi who had claimed her lap. “New Temple handles money, not trade goods. Anyway… get on the bridge reorganization. I’ll be reviewing the intel packet and crew… sorry, squadron details… I assume that they’ve been loaded for me?”

The Commander snapped to attention. “Yes ma’am.” She came over and entered a command into the deskcomp. “I’ve just released all security codes and clearances to you. Will you be wanting a tour of the ship later?”

“Tomorrow. Once we rendezvous with the squadron, I’ll want the other Captains and their XOs over here for a conference, and then I want all of Orlando’s section heads to join me for dinner. Now scoot. I’ve got reading to do,” Solace waved the woman off, her eyes already fixed on the display… there were over eight thousand pages of intel briefings and service dossiers to make sense of.

Next: Solace of Manticore – Part 19b

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World 78b: Undertale Isekai – Part 3

UNDER ANOTHER SKY

Previously: Another Tale With a Smartphone

Themesong: We Need a Hero by Bonnie Tyler

After leaving Zanac behind, we collected our reward and got Yae signed up with her very own Guild Card, though hers was Beginner’s Black, while ours were Purple. The twins sighed as we collected our seven silvers, two each, plus one for Yae just to be fair, and Linze commented how small two silvers suddenly was.

“Don’t worry about it,” I said. “It’s not like we’ll be saving nobility every day. Most jobs will pay pretty mildly. Still, two silver appiece is decent enough for being given an expenses paid trip to the capital for a week, no?” Elze glanced at her sister, then nodded, and after a moment, Linze nodded as well. “Good. Good… now, we need another mission… oooh. Hunting Megaslimes is still on the board!”

The others were less than enthused. Not like the horrid things wouldn’t show up even if we didn’t go hunting them. This was a fantasy setting. There practically were always slimes, right. There’d even been Jelly-Mold monsters in Undertale, although they’d just wobbled at us in a friendly kind of way, rather than eating our clothing and trying to… anyway, we ended up on another monster hunt, and another one after that, then settled down for an afternoon snack at the Cafe Parent (Good lord, business names in this world… I tell ya… wacky furenurs.) and Aer (of course) asked me if I had any more recipes for her. I’d already passed over Froyo Parfaits and Cheesecake, plus Waffle Cookies, Madeleines, and Scones with Clotted Cream. I promised I’d think about it, but with the limited number of ingredients that I recognized, it was getting harder and harder to convert my recipes. At least for deserts. For savory meals I was still golden, though I really needed a source of good capsaicinoids.

That night I stayed up late, still fascinated by the incredible scope of spells on offer to me from God’s book. There had to be a good twenty-five thousand spells in this book, and just the breadth of individualized effects was stagger. A spell to loosen suck lids. A spell to clean brass. A spell to trim grass to exactly 3.4 centiments. A spell to count many small identical objects. A spell to mend scratches in leather. A spell to make an apple tree shake violently for a few seconds. A spell to heal cracked horse hooves. A spell to waterproof leather. A spell to… the list went on and on and on. Nineteen different spells to remove odors. Fifty three spells to remove stains. Eighty one spells to preserve food. Seven spells to tenderize meat. Whittling spells and mixing spells, refinement spells and memory spells, swimming spells and cleaning spells. Twenty-five thousand is a lot of things to be able to do with magic. It vastly outnumbered the number of all the spells from Dungeons & Dragons… though by far, most of those spells had been combat related, while most of these were utility.

Another difference was power levels. D&D, and indeed most fantasy games, had ranked magics. Spells that were more powerful and thus harder to learn. This world’s magic was nothing like that. Sure, some spells were harder to learn and harder to master… but it was mostly about how much magic you could spare to power the spell.

Linze and I could both cast [CURE HEAL] with relative ease. But where as she could cast it perhaps a dozen or fifteen times within an hour before growing too fatigued to continue, I could cast it a dozen times in a minute and not only would I barely feel any fatigue at all, my individual spells would heal more than hers did. I’d asked, and she wasn’t weak by this world’s standard… but my power level was something unheard of, just like my ability to wield all seven elements.

Many of the more useful spells I’d found in the book were potentially fun, if circumstantial, such as [DETOX] which removed toxins from food or drink, [FORBID] which, when cast on a small object, shocked anyone who tried to touch it, [UNCRACK] which refuzed to objects that used to be attached to each other, or [PILLOW] which caught falling objects harmless. But there were others, like [ENCHANT], [MODEL], [COAT], and [DRAW] which looked like they’d be incredibly useful in making things… since they could, respectively, grant an object magical properties that could be extended to the person wearing or holding it, reshape minerals and wood to my whim, cover an object with a substance, and perfectly transcribe any image I could picture onto paper, in full color, without need for any implement or pigment.

Of course, for Enchant to function, I’d have to have the spell I wanted to apply to the item in my repertoire. For Draw to be best, I had to either being looking right at something, or a picture of it, or be holding the mental imagine for as long as the image took to resolve, usually about 20 seconds. For Coat, I had to to have enough of the substance to completely cover the object, and the thickness wasn’t great… but multiple coats could be applied. And for Model, I had to be even more precise, since it would reshape the stuff I was working about into a 3D model of whatever I’d pictured. Yes, that extended to biological but non-living substances and glass… I made a couple of cute little glass unicorns for Linze with slivers of copper suspended inside, a bone and wood lucky cat for Yae, and a silver and lapis butterfly hair-clip pair for Elze. I also made each of us some sunglasses, enchanted with [WINE GUARD] which was designed to keep light from penetrating wine bottles and spoiling the wine. Of course, the locals had never heard of Ultraviolet rays, but that function was just what sunglasses needed.

But it wasn’t just mundane utility that the book contained. No, it also had spells like [SEARCH], [MAP PULSE], [WARNING ORB], [TRACTION], [SEIZE], [REPELLANT], and [UNBIND] which would be useful for adventuring. Search located anything I could define within a nearby area… like something that would taste like cayenne pepper or cinnamon at a market, or people dressed like bandits (it wouldn’t ID bandits, but it would ID people I’d be likely to think were dressed like them… it was clearly using my own senses and knowledge as a database). Map Pulse caused all edges in a chamber to become clearly defined… you know, if you were in the dark?… without actually creating light. Warning Orb was an early warning system for when you were camped out. It detected movement above a certain threshold and could, to a limited extent, detect harmful intent or aggression. Traction made my feet get much much better grip… Elze could run up the side of a three story building the grip was good enough. Seize caused mechanical objects to grip up as it increased the friction coefficient between components… not that was what the description said… it just said ‘Makes wheels and Gears stick together through unknown process’. Repellent could be set to keep small animals and vermin away. Either individually and with greater power, or in general with less powerful. For instance, [REPELLANT: HORNED WOLVES] repelled Horned Wolves as long as they weren’t angry enough or scared enough to ignore it, while [REPELLANT: VERMIN] just repelled small bugs and worms and mice and lizards and other scavenger types we wouldn’t want in out presence. Unbind just caused knots to loosen, which had all sorts of naughtiness potential built right in.

And while all of those were useful… the real combat bonus spells came in the form of spells like [SLIP], [TRIP], [PARALYZE], [REPULSE], [BOOM], [STROBE], [SICKEN], and [FASCINATE]. Slip removed friction from an area. Trip caused someone to stumble by making the ground momentarily deform under their feet and was more subtle than Slip. Paralyze prevented the target from moving. Repulse was a blast of kinetic energy enough to knock several people over. Boom caused a loud bang. Strobe caused all light sources around to go crazy. Sicken caused nausea. And Fascinate ensnared the weak willed or impaired.

Most useful of all, however, was [MULTIPLY], which I had to wonder how skilled a magician the original owner had been. It was, fundamentally, unfair, but useless if you couldn’t cast a good variety of other spells, probably combat spells at that. What it did was bone simple… it quadrupled the number of times the next spell I cast would be cast… at more than quadruple the mana cost, but only twice the casting time. Where it got ridiculous was when I cast Multiply… and then did it again. Four became sixteen, then sixty-four, then two-hundred and fifty-six… and so on. It, like many of these spells was broken… at least when cast by someone with the mana (and mana recovery ability) I had. Even casting a combat spell like [SHINING JAVELIN] (a light spell) at two-fifty-six barely caused a notable flutter in my available mana… seriously… Was this God’s doing or was it my other perks playing off each other? Regardless, even such a massive expenditure of energy only caused a three second decrease from maximum energy… and blew apart a fair amount of the rock-face I was aiming at at the time.

All in all, the book was a goldmine. There were just sooo many options… and it was probably a good thing for society that so few people had access to some of these things.

However, others, like Model, did have highly constructive uses. For instance, I’d used it to make copies of some of my favorite games and convinced Micah’s dad, Dolan, to hold a game night twice a week in the dining room of the Silver Moon. Of course, that meant I had to keep coming up with a new game every so often, but for the first two weeks I’d introduced Go (easy to make, very hard to master), Othello (easy to make, much easier to master), Mille Bornes (one of my favorite card games, though I’d had to replace the technical things… flat tire, out of gas, speed limit, stop sign, with things like broken wheel, injured horse, fatigue, and rain delay… as you could only race when the sun was shining.), Catan (wood and cards. Not hard… fairly easy rules), and Jenga (Oh god that was simple. Smooth is a great spell.). I had a few dozen more that I was making conversion notes for in my phone, but figured I’d slow down to one a week after there were six games and one every other at twelve. Once the twenty-fourth game was out I’d drop to one a month. I really wanted to mix up the styles of play, but for some reason I was resistant to introduce either Chess or Mahjong, so next week the schedule was Draughts and Pick-up-sticks, both relatively simple to produce.

The most ambitious game on my to do list right now was Pandemic, only with Slimes, Bandits, Undead, and Monsters instead of diseases and with a totally different map. The number of tokens and cards needed for that, and the size of the board, was the major stumbling block. I was thinking a cloth mat instead of a hard board would probably be the way to go.

My friend Barral, the guy who ran the local weapon shop and who looked like a Bear (his shop was called Eight Bears Weapons, so it wasn’t like he didn’t know he looked ursine) and Dolan had developed a bit of a Go Rivalry… this world was seriously lacking in entertainment… but that was pretty much par for a world without widespread publishing, radio, movies, or TV…. I was still working on that, but I had plans to invent the movable type printing press as soon as I finished working out a good ink recipe and finished all the letter dies.

I’d have had a lot more time to work on it, but my friends kept insisting that I not spend all my time puttering around and mumbling to myself and I did need exercise… probably. Also, people kept begging for copies of my games, even at the prices I was charging. Sure, they could have just had someone else make them, but even making all the Go stones would take a craftsman a couple of days and the boards would take considerable effort to smooth, shape, and cut the lines as smoothly as I could. Since I used [COAT] to apply lacquer and stain, and [MODEL] to inlay brass or flint into the lines to make them look extra crisp, and I could make a board and stones in about twenty minutes (I bought the pots from a local potter… it was simpler and she was nice), my overhead was pretty low and I could charge a pretty penny for my boards. I didn’t though. I wanted the games to spread and so I only priced them enough to make 40% profit on materials… and that was if I sold the boards at all. Most of them I gave away for cost or as presents.

Barral had introduced me to Simon, who ran a general goods shop called ‘Frontage’, and Simon had agreed to carry a selection of my games in his shop, and had been trying to convince me to set up a workshop and hire some apprentices to make the games. I’d considered it… the industry would be a good one to cultivate, but figuring out how to instruct people in my methods was… ummm… difficult? Maybe if I used Enchant I could create SMOOTHing and MODELing tools? But how did I guarantee that my tools didn’t escape into the wild and become a danger to others? I’d have to find something that limited how they were used… otherwise, a MODELing tool alone could become a nigh unstoppable thief’s tool.

I was, in fact, considering that problem as I sat in the Inn’s dining room, making notes and sketches while listening to the rain (and the banter between Dolan and Barral as they snapped their lentil shaped pieces down on the nineteen by nineteen grid), when Yae and Elze got back from Parent. I’d wanted to introduce strawberry shortcake, but it was deemed too messy, so I’d gone with my fall back, of strawberry vanilla (well, koko was the local version of vanilla, but close enough) sponge roll cake. It wasn’t as nice and damp as shortcake, but it was easier to pack up and carry, and as Parent’s bakery did a fair amount of take away, it was ultimately a better sell.

“Why were you two out in the rain?” I asked as they complained about how soaked they were and folded up their cloth and pine resin umbrellas in the entrance way.

“We were getting cakes!” Elze announced, proudly, holding up the bag of spoils of her shopping trip. Moments later, they were pulling four small white boxes of stiff white paper (the same stuff I was experimenting with using as card stock… I’d used tokens and tiles in Catan and just tiles in Milles Bornes). “One for Micah,” Elze said, handing over the box to the innkeeper’s daughter who promised to pay her back later, “And one for my darling sister.” Linze grinned at took hers.

“Who are the other two for?” I asked.

“One’s for me and Yae to share,” Elze said, sounding a little prim, “And the last is for you to deliver to the Duke.”

“Didn’t you eat any at the Cafe?” I asked, then blinked, “Wait… You didn’t get one for me? And what do you mean, deliver?”

Yae grinned, leaning into my personal space, “You could have come with us, if you wanted one.”

Elze added, “We did ask. Micah and Linze both said they wanted us to pick one up for them. You had your nose buried in your little hobby.” She peered at my notes, but since they were in Magoo, there was no way for her (and possibly anyone else on this world) to know what they said. Also, that page had sketches of a steam locomotive, a puddling forge, and a card maker.

“And who else can get to the capital in a matter of minutes?” Linze pointed out. “It’s only reasonable.”

“Why is it reasonable to get a duke cake?” I asked.

“It’s simple hospitality, is it not?” Yae said, “They were so welcoming to us, we should give them some kind of gift, yes we should.”

The other two nodded in sync, “Common sense, really.”

“Riight… Fine. Let me get my coat,” I sighed, putting my notebook back in my ring, then heading upstairs to grab my gear, sans weapons… then I took them anyway. Sure, I was dropping by for an unannounced visit, but who knew what plans prophecy might have. While I was up there, I grabbed copies of the four games. Common sense. Right. Gifts. For hospitality. Very traditional. Good thing parcel post wasn’t a thing in this world or we’d be writing thank you notes.

“Dear Constance, thanks ever so much for inviting us to your lovely home. The garden party was a treat Albert and I shall not soon forget. You must recommend your florist to us. Little Timothy, as you may remember, is graduating from the Naval Academy next month and you must join us for a little get together. Expect the invitation soon. Much love, Margaret, Countess of Ramsbottom.” Or something.

If the Duke approved of my presents, that was secondary to how much Sue and the Duchess enjoyed them. Sue had been practically drooling as I’d promised to pass the recipe on to their personal pastry chef, though I did have to point out that it was calorie rich and eating too much of it would require a commensurate amount of exercise. Then I’d had to translate what Calories and Commensurate meant and what, exactly, exercise was in this context. It seemed that, in Belfast (and most likely the rest of these lands) exercise was something that soldiers and warriors did, not wellbred ladies.

As I taught the Duke to play Go and Sue and her mother to play Othello, I explained the virtue of aerobic effort, prana-bindu muscle techniques, and tai-chi to help invigorate the body and focus the mind. I promised to return another day and begin their instruction… if they could prepare a room and appropriate attire for it. I even encouraged them to invite some of their other female friends and lady’s maids, saying that I could easily accommodate up to two dozen students at a time. I also hinted that perhaps having all the household staff do basic calisthenics every morning might improve their overall health and get the blood pumping before a day of cleaning and cooking. Even twenty minutes of tai-chi and jumping jacks could be a nice group effort.

I made my goodbyes to the Ortlindes and was about to head home, when I thought better of it and jumped to Parent instead (I’d checked the weather on my phone, the rain had stopped) then bought a scone and an individual cheesecake before stepping back outside and opening a [GATE] to God’s pad.

“Ah, young Jouya. You’re back. Come for another game of Go?” he asked, looking up from his TV which was showing what seemed to be a battle among at least two barbarian tribes. He turned off the TV and turned to face me as I laid the box on the table. “What’s this?”

“My friends tell me that this world prizes hospitality and repays it with little gifts,” I began. “I realized that I’d been remiss in thanking you for making the most of an unpleasant situation. You’ve been forthright about taking blame and have been gracious and considerate. By way of saying thank you, I have brought some treats that a friend of mine has been making to my recipes. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried scones or cheesecake… you have a TV which seems out of place for this world, so it’s possible, but,” I pushed the box forward a little. “Enjoy.”

God too, it seems, appreciates a good cheesecake. And he’s not half bad at Jenga either.

=======

A few months later, we’d finally reached Green Rank, with Yae easily making up the difference caused by starting a bit later than we had. Elze had suggested that, to celebrate, we try some missions for Guild Offices other than the one in Reflet, as we’d essentially seen all the various climes surrounding the small town and were in danger of falling into a rut.

The others felt this was a wonderful idea, which of course meant that the obvious choice was to visit Alephis and pull a mission there. And that’s how we ended up at the ruins of the former capital city, abandoned a thousand years ago and now occupied by a Dullahan as well as several smaller monsters and beasts.

The only real threat was the headless dark spectre which was haunting the corroded and pitted black armor. In this world, Dullahan were a form of undead, and non-corporeal at that, safe for the possessed armor. Damage to the armor wouldn’t do anything to the spirit however, and we had no priest… which meant that Yae and Elze were all but useless against it, serving to do little but draw agro and kill off the other monsters who seemed to think “Oh look, Angry Headless Dave is fighting! Maybe we can eat the scraps.” What can I say? Monsters have bad decission making skills.

Apparently, we were but the latest adventurers in this cycle of cleanse and blow, as the only effort the Kingdom actually put into keeping the ruins monster-free was to hire a group of adventurers every so often to do a sweep before the monsters could get bad enough to pose a threat beyond the ruins themselves. And I could see why.

There really wasn’t much there to look at. The place had been almost completely razed, possibly by people hauling away the stones for other purposes, possibly by an endless series of boss fights, but whatever the reason, all that was left were a great many large blocks of stone, few of them stacked atop each other… at least above ground. We were walking on some fairly impressive foundation stones, massive slabs of quarried rock… but it didn’t look like actual foundations… were there levels underground?

I stood in the middle of the area and cast [SEARCH:ENTRANCES TO UNDERGROUND] and one pinged immediately, though it was mostly hidden in a big pile of rubble.

Before I could come up with a suitable solution for how to get the rocks out of the way… say, with a nice, simple Gate spell… Linze took matters into her own hands and blew up the entire pile of debris with an Explosion spell. I looked at the drifting fragments and brushed dust off myself as Elze and Yae picked themselves up. “Well… that works too, I guess. But Linze, my sweet… Let’s not use explosions to clear passages when we’re underground, shall we? We don’t need the roof falling on us… or to collapse more rubble ahead, right?”

She blushed crimson and nodded, but I patted her head. “No worries. Just excited. Hmmm… I think there’s a set of doors under there.” With a little judicious utilization of [MODEL] and [EDIT] to turn the dirt into a stack of unfired bricks, which I deposited in the clearing I used to test new spells up in the hills outside Reflect via [GATE], a pair of large steel doors were, in fact, uncovered.

“Well, that’s interesting,” I commented, bending down to examine them.

“What is it, that it is?” Yae said, hunkering down next to me to study the doors. “This metal is common steel, is it not?”

“As far as I can tell, yes… but that’s the thing, Yae… these doors have been buried for a thousand years. A thousand years of rain and snow… they should be covered in corrosion. And they’re not. They’re pristine.. And those hinges look fine too. I don’t think this is normal steel.” I stood up, brushed off my knees, then began walking the perimiter of the doors, casting [MODEL] every step.

The others watched in confusion as I reshaped the stone the doors were set into, pulling it back several centimeters until the entire door, and the stone augurs that had anchored it in place were free of the rock.

“What are you up to, Jouya?” Elze asked, poking the doors with her toe. “Can’t we just open them?”

“I’m practically certain we can,” I replied, but I am reminded of a story I once heard of some adventurers who were exploring the fabled Tomb of Horrors when they came upon doors made of the legendary material Adamantine. So rare and valuable was this substance, fabled for being the most durable of all materials, that they stole the doors and abandoned exploring the rest of the Tomb, figuring that no prize could be worth as much as the doors themselves. Now, I’m not saying these doors are those doors, but I’d like to have Barral look at these doors and see if he knows what they are. It’s possible they are simply enchanted steel, in which case… this was a good enchantment and we can sell these as Ancient Alephisian Palace Doors. But if they are some special metal, they might be worth more as raw materials.”

The others blinked at that, then Linze laughed. “That’s our Jouya, always seeing value in things other people would simply pass through without thinking about it.”

I blushed a little as Yae and Elze patted me on the back, then Gated the doors back to the small storage area that Barral had set aside for me where I could work on designs for new leaf-springs… And yes, the new wagons and carriages coming out of Reflet were incredibly popular and there was a backlog months long of people waiting for the new springs (and the custom assembly they had to be mounted on) to be ready for installation on their coaches, carriages, and wagons. Right now the price was extremely high, but only two smiths (and I) knew the secret to making spring steel of the type needed, so for now our monopoly was safe.

I’d been getting a nice little nest egg together, not that I’d told the others. We were just starting out as it was, but we couldn’t live our entire lives in an Inn, and having a place that was actually ours might be nice. I’d been shopping around, discreetly, but hadn’t found anything that had the right… hominess feeling. Of course, I was used to living in a colossal mansion, so my standards were, perhaps, a bit high, but I’d slummed it loads of times and been perfectly content as well. Maybe I’d have to build from the ground up.

Beyond the doorway was a spiral staircase that bored down deep into the bowels of, well, not The Earth, but whatever this planet was called…. Morris. To the bowels of the Morris… much better! After some time, the stairs finally opened out into a long corridor, straight and dark enough that Linze’s [LIGHT SPHERE] couldn’t even hope to light the length of it. It was damp and almost frosty down there, but the corridor was remarkably clean of molds or fungi or… any other debris. No cobwebs, no dust, just… nothing. It was like a videogame dungeon almost… but too boring and straight forward.

As we moved deeper, and Elze and Yae began to fret about ghosts or zombies… we were, of course, attacked by slimes! They boiled up out of channels that had to have been cut specifically for them in the passage, flanking us on both sides… but the joke was on them, as all our clothing was enchanted with durability and protection from acid. Of course, it didn’t make them any less gross and perverted, but that was hardly our first rodeo and we made short work of them.

Eventually, the ceiling got higher and soon enough we found ourselves in a vast chamber. The place was empty of furniture, but the back wall were decorated with a literal wall of text. It towered four meters up into the darkness and covered ten meters side to side and was covered in ideograms in the thousands. Each was approximately thirty square centimeters in area, and they were arranged in a meticulous grid with lines of blank wall separating them. A quick count confirmed that there were six-hundred and sixty from top to bottom and sixteen-hundred fifty-six from left to right. There was no way for me to know if the text was read left to right or right to left, or even if it was read top to bottom or not, but they were clearly arranged into groups six symbols across and twelve tall… pages, I guessed.

“Anyone have any idea what this text is?” I asked. It was certainly nothing like the local written language and looked fairly Mayan to me, but only in an abstract kind of way. None of them did, and Linze even confirmed that it wasn’t one of the ancient magical languages she had studied. “Right… I guess I should record it all… in case we can find someone who knows what all this is.”

My memory would have been good enough, no doubt, and I could use [DRAW] to replicate what I’d seen, but having a backup was never a bad idea, so I used the camera in my phone to capture each section… though I had to do it in batches, since there were 15,180 pages of text on the darn thing. Good thing they, like the rest of this place, were in practically perfect condition. As someone quite familiar with archeology, this was not normally the case. Even so, photographing the million plus symbols took almost an hour, as I had to make a tripod to keep the camera perfectly steady for each shot then line up the next. It was only twenty individual shots, but I took multiples of each with Linze moving her light orbs around to make certain we had all the angles for the carving.

Meanwhile, Elze had been exploring the other walls, and had found a spellstone of the Earth Attribute embedded in the wall on the right. Since I was the only one of us who could handle Earth Magic, there was much insistence that I ‘push the button’ as it were. I agreed, somewhat reluctantly, to do so… but only after the photographic preservation was complete… and it’s a darn good thing I did, because what we found beyond that innocuous looking Earth Gem was the sealed tomb of a giant blue crystal scarab beetle. It was about the size of a VW bug, had very smooth lines without a lot of the little details insects actually had, and some of the somewhat human looking limbs were broken… and unlike everything else in the ‘dungeon’ it was covered in sand and dust.

I was about to cast a wind spell to blow the covering detritus off of it, when I realized that Linze’s Light Globe was growing fainter. I’d been paying attention to the light level for nearly an hour… trust me, I noticed the difference. “Linze, you feeling okay?” I asked.

“Yes. I’m fine, why?”

“Your light is-”

At that moment, Yae yelped, “Jouya-chan!”

My gaze snapped to her face, then to where she was looking and I beheld a sullen red glow growing inside the scarab’s head. As we watched, the scarab began to shiver.

“It’s absorbing my spell!” Linze gasped.

“It’s regenerating,” Elze pointed out, backing out of the tomb.

Just then, it began making a terrible high pitched racket and I suddenly remembered just how far underground we were. “[GATE]!” I snapped, then yelled, “Run!”

Everyone scrambled through the portal, with me bringing up the rear and in the five seconds that evolution took to accomplish, the beetle-thing had managed to restore itself to the point it could move and was already launching itself across the gap. It was terribly fast and I flung myself backwards through the portal, sealing it just as the leading edge of the thing passed through. A shard of crystal fell from the thing… and stabbed right into the feldspar flagstone as if it was a hot knife through butter.

“Is it…?” Elze asked, glancing at the entrance to the underground a hundred paces away, but before I could answer, a deep rumbling came from beneath us and a gust of debris laden air surged out of the opening. The underground had probably just collapsed.

Yae breathed out in relief, but it was shortlived, as, within no more than ten seconds, the monstros thing managed to dig itself out from its rocky prison and charge at us, carving its way through the stone as if it was chalk… wet chalk.

Linze, ever the hothead, unleashed a Fire Arrow at it, but of course, the thing merely absorbed it.

“Linze, it’s a magic eater… fall back!” I called, drawing my swords and leaping between her and the creature. My blades had little effect and the creature was fast enough and strong enough that it managed to force me back, as well as shrug off attacks from both Elze and Yae. “Damn. All we’re doing is making it mad!”

Rapidly, I ran over my options in my head. I’d love to drop a big rock on its head, but it was fast enough that I doubted it would work, and I couldn’t bury it… I cast [TRIP] on it and stumbled slightly, but not enough to stop it from nearly skewering Yae. Linze hit it with a boulder made of ice, testing the theory that while it could absorb magic directly, it couldn’t absorb things created or summoned by magic, and while it certainly managed to hit it without being absorbed, it didn’t seem to do much actual damage.

Then again, when Elze used [BOOST] against it, even though she succeeded in shattering its leg with a single kick, it just regenerated… fuck, it was drawing on my mana. I felt the drain as a strong pull just as the leg began to reform. If I was shocked, Elze was caught so off guard that it managed to tag her, plunging the newly reformed leg right into her shoulder.

“Damn… Get back… Yae! Protect Linze, Linze, Heal Elze… I’ve got the beast!” I commanded… fuck… how do I… wait… the glow… that red bit had glowed when it had absorbed the spell… Ah! I cast [SLIP] on the ground in front of thing even as it charged at me, then [GATE] and jumped backwards through it again… 3… 2… 1… I snapped the gate closed just as the head of the creature slide through it, bisecting the red inner bit.

“Elze, smash the red part!” I snapped, lobbing the disembodied bug head towards her. My Gate had only carried me a couple meters and I sprung forward, summoning the biggest hammer I carried in my tool ring, and (spinning nearly full circle) brought it crashing down on the still unprotected half of the core in the main body. The material of the core was different from the rest of the body. Soft, brittle, almost malleable, and it exploded apart as it was caught between my hammer (or Elze’s gauntleted fist) and the rest of the creature’s much harder material.

The thing went still… then simply crashed to pieces, the pieces fragmenting more and more as the larger chunks lost the ability to support themselves. Linze commented “It looks like Spellstone.” then thought about it for a moment before announcing, “Jouya, can you make a Gate back to the the Duke’s place… I think we should inform the government of what we’ve found.”

“Government… oh… right. Sure!” I said, brushing myself off. “Elze, how’s the arm?”

She patted her sister on the head, “It’s good. Linze is good civilization.”

I blinked at that… that was an odd turn of phrase… I’d heard it before… somewhere? Or maybe I was just translating something innocuous in the local language into English by the power of God?

“I see. Fascinating,” Duke Alfred said, rubbing his chin, then leaned back in his chair as he thought. “I’ll arrange for a search party to be sent to investigate the ruins… and of course the monster you encountered.

“I’m pretty certain the ruins have collapsed, at least in part,” Linze said and Yae nodded in agreement. All three girls had gotten over their reticence to speak in front of the Duke and his wife by this point, of course. Familiarity breeds ease, right?

“Oh dear,” his lordship said. “I was ever so curious about what was written on that wall. I’ve always wondered why the capital was moved to Alephis… though the current location is nicer, I will admit.

“Oh, Jouya recorded it with her magic,” Linze said, explaining about the camera. “She’ll just make you copies of the images if you’re interested. Won’t you?”

I shrugged, but nodded. “Of course. Not like I can read it. It’ll take me a bit of time and quite a lot of paper.”

After getting a promise from the Duke to cover the expense, we headed home, emotionally if not physically drained by the day’s events. Over the next couple days, I did as promised, using [DRAW] to transform myself into a veritable Xerox machine. I did the pictures at broadsheet size, figuring that someone else could make the effort of transcribing all the many many characters onto actual pages. If I’d had my perks or tricorder, I could probably have translated it, but as of yet, I’d found no translation spells and if I’d had my gear and perks, I wouldn’t be in this world in the first place, so it was a bit of a trade off.

As I stepped out of the [GATE], set to deliver the pages, I found the Duke’s estate in a bit of moment, what with guards rushing about and opening the main gate to allow the Duke’s carriage to emerge. I took a couple steps to get out of the way and was all set to simply hand off the rolled pages to a servant when the carriage stopped and the Duke peered out.

“Jouya? Is that you my girl? Oh praise the heavens. Please, get in!” He looked most worried, as he flung the door open and hauled me up into the coach all in a single motion. “You have impeccable timing!” he said, sighing and then he started praying. “I give thanks to Him Above All for sending you to us at this time.”

I quirked my brow and smirked a little. No doubt God had, in fact, maneuvered either me or the event unfolding around me to make my timing this spot on. Of course, just because the Duke and God knew what was going on didn’t mean I had clue one. So I asked.

“My brother, the King… he’s been poisoned.” He looked shellshocked, and no wonder.

“Is he…” I began, hesitating to say the word. Speaking of the passing of royalty was often an incredibly bad thing to do, and if the King were alive, I didn’t want to jinks the poor man.

“Oh. No… He’s still hanging on. Treatment was delivered swiftly… but he’s not doing well.”

“Has the assassin been caught?”

“Oh… well,” he began, hands trembling as he gripped his knees hard enough to turn his knuckles white. “We have a suspect, but no proof. And I very much suspect that this crime has been perpetrated by the same fiends responsible for the attempt on my daughter.”

“Was it a foreign agent or a domestic enemy?” I asked. “This suspect, I mean?”

“We of Belfast have three neighbors. Refreese, with whom we have been on good terms for a great many years; Regulus, with whom we have had peace for twenty years since the signing of the Pact of Mictlan where my father and the father of the current Emperor pledged non aggression between our two lands; and Mismede, which had its genesis in that same war, but whose people bear us no animosity, since their lands were part of Regulus, not Belfast.”

“Non-aggression pacts are worth no more than the paper they are printed on,” I commented, “but I’d imagine that any movement from Regulus would be matched with troop movements.” He shook his head to indicate that there had been none as far as he knew, so I continued. “Mismede… how are your relations with them?”

“My brother has been trying to form an official alliance with them, partly to stave off the threat of another war with Regulus, but also to open up more trade routes,” Alfred explained. “However, there are those among our nobility who are quite…” he shrugged.

“Displeased? Unwilling to make an alliance with the Beastmen?” I asked, having done some reading up on the surrounding lands over the last few months, as well as talking to people about more recent history.

“Indeed,” he agreed. “Some of the older nobles loathe the idea of allying ourselves with, as they put it, ‘sub-humans’.”

“Ah. I know their type. Supremacists. Fearmongers and elitists. Have they begun stirring up the populace against such a union, or are they the kinds who view the common people as little more than a carpet to dry their feet upon?”

Alfred gasped, clearly not having thought about that, then considered. “Perhaps we are lucky, more than once, to have you with us. I doubt it would have occured to any of my brother’s advisors to even think of that… but we are also lucky that the old guard is, as you have said, too elitist to think of turning the people against the proposition… yet.”

“Are you your brother’s heir,” I asked, “Or is it this princess Yumina I’ve heard tell of?” I hadn’t been able to discover how the law of succession went in Belfast, but the King had no son. If he had, the question would have been simple, with the throne going to the boy, but without? Those I had spoken to had no idea.

“Ah… no. Were my brother to die, the throne would go to the Princess.”

“And the old guard would almost certainly attempt to maneuver her into marrying one of their sons?” He nodded. “Then, once she’d born her Prince-Consort a son of the body, she’d probably be quietly disposed of,” I said, voice tight with anger. I hated people who viewed others as nothing more than political pawns. Viewing them as people and political assets was normal and to be expected… but some operators forgot that the Great Game was only stable as long as everyone in power was concerned more with the health of the state than their own profit.

The Duke eyed me then, and after a long moment said, “You understand much for one of your tender years.”

“I have had a… unique education,” I allowed as we pulled up through the castle gates and rolled up to the palace itself. It was massive, as massive as only a fairytale fantasy castle really can be, and extremely clean, without a trace of soot or candles. They must have lit the place with Light Magic… and possibly cleaned it with magic as well. I’d found a number of cleaning spells in my book. They were among the most common of all magics, as it happened.

As we entered the main hall, we ran into a fat little toad of a man, the kind with a combover and rings on all his chubby fingers and a voice as unctuous as a tub of bacon grease. “Well well, if it isn’t His Highness, the Duke,” the wart in human flesh oozed, “It is good to see you again.”

“Hello, Count Balsa,” Alfred said, voice carrying with it a feel of being so fucking done with the man.

“You can rest easy,” Balsa gloated, far too cheerful for a man whose monarch was dying even now. “We’ve captured the one who tried to assassinate His Majesty.”

“Yeah. It was you,” I said without thinking. I hadn’t even had to open my third eye, but I did now, peering into the heart and soul of the Count. Black through and through.

“Wha… oh, yes, it was me who captured the assassin,” Balsa puffed up with pride, absolutely certain that I couldn’t have meant it the other way. His plan was flawless! “It was the ambassador from Mismede. His Highness collapsed after drinking a glass of wine, and we later discovered that it was the very wine the ambassador had offered as a gift.”

Before the Duke could respond, I clarified. “Uh. No. You poisoned the glass. The wine itself isn’t poisoned. Could you be any more obvious? I bet you’re trying to get back into the room to clean up the mess even now.” It wasn’t that I could read his mind per se, but I could read his expression and I’d been a detective and read approximately all the detective fiction ever written on a couple Earths. Balsa wasn’t just guilty, he was smug in the face of death. I turned to look up at the Duke, “Have your men arrest this fat fool so we can get to the king before this idiot’s plan succeeds and I have to figure out how to stop a war.”

Balsa turned pale, gaping like a fish, then turned to flee. I watched him hurry down the sweeping staircase for about three steps, then cast [TRIP] under my breath. He was lucky he had so much padding, it really helped protect him as he bounced down the remaining steps and sprawled, dazed and bruised on the gleaming marble of the Palace’s main foyer. He was promptly surrounded by Kingsmen and hauled back up the stairs.

“Hold him,” the Duke commanded, then led the way to his brother’s chambers.

“You know he probably had accomplices,” I said, having little trouble keeping up.

“Are you certain it was him? Can you prove it?” the Duke asked.

“Am I certain? Yes. His guilt cannot hide from my eyes. As for proof? Check the glasses with your poison snoopers… and question whoever prepared the King’s glass. That’s going to be an accomplice almost certainly.”

As we entered the King’s chamber, I was still flaring my third eye, scanning everyone to see how much of a threat they were. Most of the people in the room were good people, stressed, depressed, or angry. A few were harder, more seasoned. They had killed, but were not monsters, merely soldiers. The King himself was a good man, honest, forthright, and compassionate. He even had his ego in check, which is always nice to see in a monarch with absolute rule. He was under a bit of stress, and he was, indeed, dying. At his side were two women, a girl and her mother, clearly the Princess and Queen respectively, and both were, of course, absolutely wrecked.

Alfred approached the bed, motioning for me to follow, and asked for a status update, which spurred the king to open his eyes and begin the process of transferring responsibility to one he trusts. I’d seen it more than once in my many centuries of life, but saw no reason to prolong the man’s suffering and so I stepped to the King’s side, ignoring the splendidly moustached General who moved to stop me only to be blocked by the Duke’s hand.

“I seek a great boon, Come, essence of health! [RECOVERY]” I intoned, using a more complete form of the incantation that I’d managed to piece together from studying the local magic as much as I had. Yes, I could have said just the spell’s name, but using the full form more than doubled the resultant effect in most cases, though it also took more concentration and mana. Certainly, Recovery was an all or nothing spell, but the difference between all or nothing in this case was death, so I didn’t stint. Also, I had an audience. I might as well play to it. I then followed that up with a [CURE HEAL] and [RESTORE VIGOR], just to be complete about it. It wasn’t like I couldn’t spare the juice.

The King took a deep breath, then another. His complexion cleared from the deathly pallor it had had and regained the pink of health. He blinked a few times and the film that had covered his eyes faded too and was replaced with light. He sat up then, throwing off his blankets, and gasped, flexing his hands, then gave a shout of inarticulate joy and grabbed his wife and daughter in a crushing hug.

“Oh, Father! Are you truly better?” the girl asked, half sobbing in relief, half laughing.

“I feel quite grand, actually,” the King said, then turned to his brother, “Alfred, who is this boy?”

Alfred laughed as I blushed. I’m not thaaat flat… I have curves… though I was wearing my jacket and might top was pretty tight… fine… I looked a bit like a boy. “This is that same young Jouya Sochizuki who restored Ellen’s sight. Providence was with us, for no sooner had I left my gate than I spied her coming to visit us. Knowing the efficacy of her magic, I brought her along in the hopes that she could save you.”

“And indeed you have!” The King laughed, then extended a hand to me. “You have saved my life and my family much suffering. For both you have my sincerest gratitude.”

“Indeed!” General Moustachio boomed, slapping me on the back had enough to relocate my spine. Even with my strength, I staggered under the blow… that had hurt! Dude be strong! “You have done a great service to Belfast in saving our King’s life! Sir Jouya then, is it? I like the look about you!”

The capital’s High Priestess chided the General for his enthusiasm, and pointed out that I was female. I nodded up to her… she had a very nice staff, one of those jangling buddhist ones with the rings.

“Brother,” Duke Alfred said, “We have a large problem. Balsa has had the Mismedian Ambassador arrested for attempting your murder.” He held up a hand to forestall the King’s denial. “I have had Balsa arrested in turn for attempting to murder you and frame the Mismedian Ambassador. Jouya is all but certain that the Count arranged for your glass to be poisoned.” The conversation drifted into the realm of commands and the King sent the General, whose name was apparently Leon, to fetch the accused, but I wasn’t paying much attention.

Instead, I was being stared at by the pretty blonde Princess of the realm. “Ummm… Thank you very much for saving my father’s life,” she said, voice sweet and kind. She gave me a little bow. She looked much like Sue, more like sisters than cousins, with the same gorgeous blonde hair and the same wide eyes… though hers were heterochromic, one blue, one green. It probably meant something portentous. My third eye told me that she was wiser than her years, a gentle soul with an iron resolve, and she too had some strange effect as I closed my spiritual gaze. In her case, there was a golden light suffusing her, like the light of dawn. How interesting.

Ancient eyes, ethereal winds, and now a golden light. The others had come in pairs… would another golden light girl be coming along at some point in the near future? I checked her outfit for an astrological symbol and found, in the clasp of the ribbon ‘round her neck, a circle quartered by a cross. The symbol of Earth.

“You’re staring at me,” she said, blushing deeply.

“Yeah… well… ditto,” I replied, smiling at her. “But don’t worry about your dad, he’ll be fine.”

“Still, that’s thanks to you.”

“Don’t take this the wrong way, but I consider healing others a duty. One I’m more than willing to do, but a duty nonetheless. To withhold my gifts from any, be they king or commoner, would be to cast doubt upon the grace of those who gave me such gifts.”

She smiled, then asked, somewhat shyly. “Do you dislike younger women?”

“Uh… no? Should I?” I asked, perplexed by the question. At most, she was a year younger than my current form. Was she being territorial? Or was she asking if I wanted to be friends in a very round about way.

Before I could ask for a clarification, a pretty blonde fox-girl entered the room, flanked by the General and a young man who looked to be his son. “Ambassador Strand, as requested, my Lord,” General Leon announced, and I realized I recognized her. She was the missing older sister of the little fox-girl Arma.

“Ah!” I said, intelligent. “Forgive me. I was unaware that you were an Ambassador when we met that day in the city,” I bowed and smiled. “Has Arma gained a better sense of the city sense then?”

The Ambassador, and indeed, everyone else in the room looked surprised. Possibly because I’d dared speak before the king could… I’ve never been one to stand on ceremony, but then again, I had been an Ambassador too, once upon a time. Refuge in audacity works wonders. “Jouya! What are you doing here?” Olga asked.

“You know the ambassador?” the Duke asked.

“I found her little sister lost in the shopping district that day we met, as a matter of fact,” I explained. “It was the same day I used your gracious gift to buy this coat which has served me so well… anyway, Olga, I take it that you did not attempt to poison the King?”

She humphed, “I certainly did not! I swear upon my life, upon my honor, that I have done no such thing!”

“I thought as much,” the king said, smiling, “You did not strike me as the type. You have too much love for your country to be so foolish.” He nodded, rising from the bed at last and straightened his clothing. “That still leaves us with an attempted regicide to find, however.”

What happened next was the biggest farce of a drawing room scene I’d ever witnessed. Everyone gathered in the banquet hall where the King had collapsed and a quick [SEARCH: POISON] revealed that the goblet had in fact been the vector. I conferred with the green haired lady with the staff, who turned out to be the court magician, Miss Charlotte, and not a priestess after all, then we had the Baron Harkonnen’s incompetent cousin brought in and offered him a drink… from a fresh bottle of wine, but from the goblet set at the king’s place.

He of course, tried to resist, but the General would hear nothing of it and poured the wine down the fat fuck’s throat. He immediately began wailing about how he was dying, which, of course, was true.

I knelt next to him, and said, “Now, if you don’t want to die, you’ll tell us everything. I healed the King, I can save you too… but my magic doesn’t work on liars.”

The confessions came fast and furious, and I doubt it occured to the smug idiot that he was signing his own death warrant even as he begged for his life. It turns out his accomplices were the waiter and the poison tester, and that he had hired the summoner who’d attempted to kidnap Sue… and that he’d been embezzling from the treasury and was doing some smuggling and oh god, the pain. Yada yada, RECOVERY… I didn’t toss in the other two… he could suffer a bit, the traitor.

Of course, I had to stay for tea. The King and the Duke would hear nothing of it, and they cheerfully discussed what would happen to the Count. He’d be executed, of course, his assets escheating to the state, and his family atainted, though they’d be allowed to keep their lives, though they too would be stripped of titles and banished. He had no wife or children, and his other relations were all firmly in the Old Guard camp. Those who pleaded fast enough might even safe their fortunes, but they’d be watched. Oh yes, Belfast did not look kindly upon traitors and the Count and his family would be used to set a very notable example for others who thought opposing the King was wise.

“Honestly, my girl. I am truly in your debt. I should very much like to bestow some gift upon the woman to whom I owe my life. Is there anything you desire?” He was almost pleading.

“Think nothing of it. I happened to be in the right place at the right time. As I told your daughter, having the power to heal others is a rare thing in this world and it behooves me to use that gift where and when I can. To demand recompense would be to put a value on life. I deserve nothing more than your thanks, the same as if I had dived into the lake to pull you to safety should you be drowning.”

“Are you truly so lacking in avarice, young lady?” the Duke asked, chuckling.

“Oh no. I’m as willing as any other adventurer to claim a reward I have earned, but what good is money on its own. Money is but a tool to improve the lives of others.”

“And yourself?” the King asked.

I shrugged. “As long as I have food to eat, a roof to sleep under, and good people to share my life with? I am unconcerned with riches. I have seen such treasure in my years, and know how fast the love of money can turn someone down a dark path.”

“You are a curious girl,” Miss Charlotte said. “The ability to use two Null spells, [RECOVERY] and [SEARCH]… that’s quite a rare gift.”

“Oh heavens no,” Duke Alfred said before I could respond. “Only two? Jouya here can use at least… five. Yes… Five, I think. She tripped Balsa down the stairs, she uses [GATE] to visit me all the time, and she makes the most fascinating games using… what was it? [MODEL]?”

Charlotte looked dumbfounded, and I could only shrug. “Five? Truly? Only the Faeries can use so many!”

“Ah… that is… I can actually use every spell I’ve found.”

“What?! All?”

“Yes. As far as I know. I’ve experimented with over eight hundred so far and haven’t found any that I can’t cast… once I have a handle on the limits and specific… where’s she going?” I asked as Charlotte rose to her feet and practically scampered from the room. The others merely shrugged.

“So! You were the one who made that Go game?” the King asked, “Al brought it over and we were most impressed. He says you’re unbeatable… was it really crafted by way of magic?”

I shrugged, scratching the back of my neck. I’m all for showing off, but this was getting silly. Still, he was a king, and a nice fellow, so I plucked up one of the spoons and cast [MODEL] on it. Swiftly, the silver flowed and became a little toy soldier version of the King.

“Incredible! Can you do that with other materials?”

“Oh sure… I’d have used a glass, but there aren’t any. Bone china would work too, but it seemed a shame to disfigure such a fine tea service.”

The king summoned a servant and the servant returned within moments carrying a bin full of shards of glass and china. “We keep the pieces to provide to one of our local artisans who does mosaics and such, but feel free to use anything.”

I nodded, looking through the bin and pulled out a long shard of rose glass, as red as blood and full of luster, then a chunk of crystal pitcher and some gold trimmed china. I set them down on the table in front of me and worked my magic on them. A minute later, three figurines stood there, the King, the Queen, and the Princess, all worked in find china, with hair of pure gold and clothes of crimson and gold. The king and his brother were stunned.

“This is a gift worthy of a King,” the King said, picking up the statuette of his wife and tracing the true to life features. “Such detail!”

The Duke could only nod and look at me with pleading eyes, so I had to work up another set, this time using some blue and green artisanal glass for the outfits.

“To think you could accomplish this from scraps and shards… Ah Charlotte, you’ve returned!”

Indeed, the court magicienne came rushing back in, her arms full of a great many things and her face set in a look of focus so intense that I almost too a step back as she loomed over me. “Child! Can you read this!?” she demanded, thrusting a piece of parchment towards me.

“Mmm… no? I have only just finished learning your local language… what is it?”

She didn’t answer. Instead, she said “So you can’t. Good. How about this spell? Do you think you could use it?” She showed me a page from one of the tomes she was carrying, a bulky dusty thing that looked quite old. Still, it was written in the Belfastian tongue and I could read it. It described a spell called [READING] which, according to the book would allow the caster to read unfamiliar languages… as long as the name of the language was known to the caster.

“I… think so… but do you happen to know the name of the language that that sample is written in?” I asked, squinting up at her and trying not to be a little intimidated by the older woman’s height, breasts, and intensity.

“It is called ‘Ancient Spirit Script’ and there is almost nobody in the entire world who can read it.”

“Very well… [READING]: Ancient Spirit Script!” I blinked, then hmmmed. “Well… that’s as clear as mud.”

“You can’t read it?”

“Oh, I can. It’s just written entirely in jargon that I’m not familiar with. Degment, Origin Magic, Soma-arts, Edos… stuff like that.”

“You can read it!” she practically crowed, doing a little happy dance that befitted either a Jumper too old to care about such things as acting her age or a child upon being given a puppy. “That’s amazing! With this, our research will progress by leaps and bounds… read this one now!” She thrust another parchment at me. And I could tell that most of what she was carrying was a pile of books she needed translating… this could be problematical… no, wait… I had an idea.

I went over to the bin and found the clearest chunk of glass I could, and grabbed another spoon. “If you’ll forgive me, your majesty?” He nodded, intrigued by what I was doing, but Charlotte was peering at the stuff with her usual focus and getting in the way. “If you don’t mind… please move your bosom… thank you…” I pushed her gently to the side and cast [MODEL] and [ENCHANT] in rapid succession, imbuing the resultant pair of spectacles with the [READING] spell. “Here,” I said, thrusting the glasses towards her. “They go on like this.” I demonstrated with my sunglasses, then motioned for her to put them on.

“I don’t…” she began, but I thrust the original document under her nose.

“Read. I have neither the interest nor time to dedicate to being your full time translator, and from the look of what you have, that’s what I’d be.”

She nodded, engrossed in what she was reading, her body language shifting from confused to extatic in moments. “How long will they last?”

“As far as I know? It should be permanent… but if they wear out, break, or you need another language, contact me and I’ll make another pair.”

“You’re giving them to me?!”

“Rather, the King is giving them to you. They’re made from his property. All I did was shape and enchant them.”

She squealed and hugged me, her breasts threatening to smother me… and then, like the wind, she was gone.

“She is the most talented magical researcher we have,” the King said sheepishly as I wobbled back to my seat, “But one something catches her interest…” He trailed off, sighing deeply.

“You must be proud of her,” I commented. “Is she your mistress?”

The king blushed. “Oh. That is… yes. I haven’t married her because the public might think I was setting aside Yuel for not giving me a son.” Polygamy among the upper-classes was far from unknown in this world, and a King taking multiple wives was practically expected.

Yuel nodded. “We’ve been trying to give Yumina a little brother… it would be so nice to have another child. Or two.”

“What am I to do with that girl until then,” the King sighed, shaking his head. “Still, thank you for your present. It was most appreciated.”

“Eh. No worries, your majesty.”

“Tell me, are you really an adventuress? At your age?” the Queen asked.

“Aye. Me and three of my friends. Elze, Linze, and Yae.”

“Four girls? Are you all of an age?”

“Yae is two years older than I am, and Elze and Linze are a year older. They’re twins.”

“And you don’t worry about…” the Queen glanced at her daughter, then back at me. “Your safety without a man around?”

I chuckled, “I can be a man, if I want to. But no. I’m quite enough protection for them and they’re quite enough protection for me. We look after each other… and any man foolish enough to try something would find out just how sharp Yae’s sword is… right before Elze’s fist erased his memory. I suspect Linze would try and heal him up so he could face the local magistrate, but I’d probably just [GATE] him someplace far away, to be honest. Those types seldom learn.”

Yumina, who’d been silent for most of the tea, was staring at me again. STAAAAAAAARE! She was really quite good at that.

“If you keep doing that, your eyes will fall out and then you’ll have to call in servants to find them and they’ll trip on your eyes and fall and hurt themselves,” I said, poking the princess on the button nose.

She giggled, then blushed. “You’re silly.”

“Usually,” I agreed.

She stood then and faced her parents. “I have made a decision,” she announced, voice strong, no nonsense… very princesslike. I tensed. She was going to demand I become her handmaiden or bodyguard or… or tutor or something else annoying. I could just feel it. “I…” she paused, then collected herself, blushing a little. Why was she blushing?! “I would like to take Jouya as my… as my Consort.”

Consort? Like… companion?

“Consort?” the King asked, “ah… yes. You mean as in….”

“As in Husband, but of the female pursuasion,” the Queen said, spelling it out.

“Yes, Father,” Yumina said, “I would like to take Jouya as my husband of the female persuasion… she did say she could be a man if she wanted to. That’s good enough for me.”

“Oh my!” the Queen giggled “So forceful!” She took Yumina’s hands in hers and said “I support you completely in this, my darling… but are you certain of your reasons?”

“She saved father. That is, of course, a factor. But more than that, my Jouya has a charisma and charm that brings happiness to those around her.” Her Jouya? When had I become Her Jouya! I was my Jouya! “Even with Uncle Alfred and Charlotte, she has done nothing but bring joy… Her kindness and strength are a wonderful balance, her compassion and resolve make her a fitting consort, and she makes me laugh. I would be happy to live out my days by her side.”

“I see…” the King said, nodding sagely. “Well then. If this is your decision, far be it from me to stop you. I wish the two of you nothing but happiness!”

“Don’t I get a say in this?” I asked, flabergasted at the speed at which this conversation had gone from relatively normal to the lolita yuri twilight-zone.

“Ahh. My appologies, my dear girl. I trust you’ll take good care of my daughter,” King Tristwin (for that was his name) said, patting my shoulder.

“This is madness!” I commented. “You barely know anything about me! I barely know anything about the princess. We’re practically complete strangers. I’m an itinerant adventuress without a family name, fortune, or property to my name! Certainly you can’t seriously be okay with the princess marrying someone like me?”

“Oh, have no worries on that count,” Queen Yuel said, “If our Yumina has approved of you, you are of a certainty a good person. Our daughter posseses the Mystic Eyes of Soul Perception.”

“I’m sorry, what?”

“My eyes allow me to see the true nature or personality of anyone I cast my gaze upon,” the little blonde princess explained.

“She’s never wrong,” the Duke explained.

“I… huh,” I grunted. A local version of the Third Eye? Interesting. Perhaps we should compare notes. No, wait. Marriage… this was madness and not Sparta… “Uh… how old is the Princess?” I asked.

“I’m twelve,” she said.

“Right… right… don’t you think it’s a little early for marriage?”

“Not at all,” the King said, “I was only fourteen when Yuel and I married, and she was only thirteen.” He took his wife’s hand and squeezed it and she smiled up at him and leaned against his side, sighing happily. It was soo sweet I wanted to gag a little.

“Jouya?” Yumina clung to my sleeve and turned on the sad puppy pout “Do you dislike me?”

“No! Of… of course not! This… It’s only… this is like…” I sighed and slumped my shoulders. “I’m not going to be able to get out of this, am I?”

“Wonderful! We’ll post the bans immediately!” the King anounced.

“Noo… ummm… no… not… can’t we take this a little slower…”

The King and queen considered, then nodded. “Perhaps you’re right. It would be sudden. You’re thirteen now… let’s give it two years. That will be plenty of time for you to get established, make a name for yourself… and to plan the wedding!” the Queen said, clapping her hands. “We’ll just have a nice little betrothal ceremony in the meantime!”

Great… I’d be fifteen and Yumina would be fourteen. Sooo much better…

“Jouya, my girl,” Tristwin said, “Why not take the next two years to get to know my Yumina better. If, after those two years are up, you still are uneasy, we can give up on the idea. How does that sound?”

Feeling pressured, and seeing no way to flat refuse without giving offense, I nodded.

“Good!” Yuel said, clapping her hands. “Now darling, you’ve got to years to steal this girl’s heart. If you fail, you’ll have to live out the rest of your days as a nun.” She was teasing… right?

Yumina snapped to attention, “Of course, Mother!” she announced. She wasn’t serious… this can’t be happening to me… “I’m in your care, darling.”

“Care?” I asked, feeling like the world was spinning. I tried to sip my tea, but it was all gone… I needed some whisky… a bottle or three.

======

“And that’s why the princess here will be staying with us,” I announced as I (and my new fiancee) arrived at the Silver Moon. Elze looked exasperated, Yae and Linze dumbfounded… all three of them had their gaze fixed on the little blonde clinging possessively to my arm. It’s good to see such solidarity. Clearly, my friends were as astounding by this turn of events as I was. Maybe, we could collectively disuade the Princess from this rashness.

“Sooo… Princess… whever are you doing here, pray tell?” Elze asked.

“My father has declared that I shall live with my Jouya as part of my bridal preparations… and to learn more about the outside world. I’m looking forward to getting to know all of you!”

The others blinked at the power of Yumina’s charisma attack, then Elze asked “Live together? Here? In the same room as Jouya?”

Yae humphed. “I share Jouya’s rooms, I do.” It was true. It made more sense to rent two rooms than three, and breaking up the sisters Silhouska would have been silly.”

“Oh… I’m certain we can share,” Yumina announced calmly. “I’m used to sleeping in the same room as my ladies in waiting… it will be a first for me, not be surrounded by servants all the time. I’m very much looking forward to this. ANd you needn’t be so still. I’m certain I can rely on you all to help me get used to this and I resolve that I shall do my best to ensure that I don’t slow you down or become a burden.” She fell into a cute imitation of a boxer’s pose and shadowboxed a few times. Sooo cute! No… stop that…. No hugging the adorkable princess. It’s all a fiendish plot to… to… Good lord, I was trapped in a Yuri tween fantasy.

Next, Yae and one of the sisters would pair up… or there would be a love triangle of some sort! I could feel the wheels of genre cliches trying to turn beneath me! I would be strong… no matter how cute. This would not turn into EssJay does Strawberry Panic… oh… wow… that would be a jump… it would be like tossing a chocoholic into a candy store. Even worse… MarMite… Such elemental purity… I’d turn it into Strawberry Panic in a week, wouldn’t I?

Eventually, we got Yumina settled, and convinced her to stop calling me ‘Her Jouya’ and to cling a little less. She insisted on joining the Guild so she could come on adventures with us… and turned out to be quite impossibly skillful with a bow and not half bad with magic either. While Linze knew Fire, Water, and Light; Yumina knew Earth, Air, and Darkness, which included Summoning spells. She explained that she had contracted with three different magical beast; Silver Wolves, Emerald Scarabs, and Wind Mantas… though she phrased it as ‘Only Three’ which I couldn’t quite tell if that was bragging or humility.

The room situation was complicated as the trio didn’t quite trust the princess not to get up to something and, funny as it sounds, seemed like they were trying to protect my virtue. Anyway, Yae didn’t want to give up being roommates, but Yumina said that wasn’t fair. I suggested that Yae and Yumina could pair up and I’d take the third room, but I was told quite firmly that I should go back to tinkering and let the ‘group’ settle it. Apparently I wasn’t considered part of the group. Humph. In the end, lots were drawn and a rota was set, changing up roommates for everyone for a week. The system was needlessly complex, but renting four or five rooms still seemed silly. We were only sleeping, right?

Of course, I noticed a flaw in their plan almost immediately. Each of them got one week in the single room, but I didn’t. They argued that it didn’t make sense for me to complain, since there were only four weeks in a month, but I insisted. Anyway, I slept less than they did. Anyway, it was the fourth day of the local seven day week, Waterday, so I announced their rota could start on next Godday, the local equivalent of Saturday.

As I taking a walk later that night, clearing my thoughts, my phone began to ring for the first time since I’d come to this world, my general ringtone sounding the goofy tones of The Hamster Dance. Who could be calling, I wondered… then realized who it had to be, since God was the only one with a phone I knew of.

“Hi God. How goes?”

“It goes well enough. Everyday is Godday when you’re God, after all,” he said with a little chuckle. “Anway, Congratulations on your engagement, Jouya my girl.”

“I thought you weren’t messing around with my destiny any more,” I grumbled.

“Oh. No no. Mere coincidence. I promise. I had thought to check in on you, only to discover your amusing little situation. The princess is a good girl. She’ll make an excellent wife, I’m certain.”

“Great… only I’m what, thirteen? She’s twelve. It’s cute and all, and so is she… but marriage? I’m not certain about that. Can’t we just be friends?”

“Haha… How stubborn you are. Just a reminder that polygamy is perfectly normal in this world. You should take any girl who strikes your fancy and make a wife out of her.”

“Uh… you do know that I’m female, right?” I asked, ignoring the divine teasing. “Most societies of this level usually view marriage as being all about producing an heir. And I can’t gendershift without my p…” I trailed off. I’d been about to say without my perks from Ranma, but like my Third Eye… or my Copy Cat Technique (also from Ranma), I’d used my gendershifting so much that it had become part of every one of my alts… then again, the same should have been true of my ice powers, so I’d simply assumed. I flexed my will… and nothing happened. Yeah, that was about what I’d figured…

A thought floated into my head and a word appeared in my mind. [CHANGE]. I blinked. Then I asked, “Did you do that?”

“Oh no. Not I. It must be one of your native Null Spells. You should give it a try though.”

“My outfit is fairly tight and, if history is any guide, my male forms have been bigger than my female forms and I don’t want to tear my shorts.”

“Aren’t your shorts enchanted, like all your clothing?”

“Oh. Right… Good point.” I sighed, then whispered, “I seek a Golden Gift! [CHANGE]” and with a puff of steam from nowhere, my form rippled and shifted, my clothes changing only slightly. I blinked, looking down at myself. “I’m… the same size?” I jogged back to the hotel and entered my private room, standing in front of the mirror as I undressed. Dear lord… I was a newhalf! If anything, I was even more feminine in my male form than my female form. If I wore a dress in this form, I’d be a trap! I quickly transformed back before a seme showed up to claim his uke-waifu. This was getting dangerous!

I quickly did a mental catalogue of all the bishonen fellows I’d met so far, but thankfully they were in short supply. I was safe.

“Well,” I said to God who’d been patiently on pause, “It seems to have worked… but not very profoundly.”

“Well, you’re young yet. That might change. At any rate, everyone here is looking forward to seeing how things go for you. Do your best out there, yes?”

“That’s easy for you to… wait… What? What do you mean, everyone?”

“Oh. All the gods of the Divine Realm, of course. They’re not subscriber grade, so they don’t get adventures from other Realities. This is a real treat for them! And they’ve been really enjoying those games you keep bringing over. They like Catan and Jenga most though. Do you have anything suitable for gambling?”

I grumbled something, then sighed. “Yeah. I do… I’ll whip up a Backgammon set for you. It was on my shortlist anyway. Give me a few minutes.”

Ten minutes later, dressed again and carrying a folding wooden backgammon board, I appeared in God’s room. “So… how many other gods are there?”

“Oh, a great many. I’m the God of Worlds, the highest of the high in this reality… which includes this world and the Undertale world. Besides me, there are the lower gods, gods like the God of Hunting, God of Swords, God of Agriculture… and of course, the God of Love. She’s taken a particularly keen interest in you. She and I were thinking that we could come to your wedding as your mother and grandfather, since you don’t have any family in this realm. Won’t that be fun?”

“Fun… right… sure. I… I think I’ll be going now…”

“But you haven’t shown me how to play the new game,” he said, pouring me some tea… once again, there was a cherry twig floating in it. That was supposed to signify luck, wasn’t it? Too many superstitions to keep track of, too many eras.

I sat down, “You could read the instructions,” I pointed out.

“I could. But learning hands on is better,” he replied. So that’s why I was so tired the next morning when we headed off to the guild to get Yumina (wearing clothing borrowed from the twins) her card.

“So, if Jouya marries Yumina, would that make Jouya next in line for the throne?” Elze asked.

“I’m a girl,” I pointed out.

Yumina ignored me, “Yes, that’s right. Though in order for that to happen, the nobles and citizens would have to approve him. That’s of course until my parents have a son. Then he’d supplant me as Heir Apparent. Until then, Jouya would be in line to be the King.”

“I’m a girl,” I repeated.

“But you can be a boy if you want, right?” Yumina said.

“Well, yes. I do have a spell that covers that. But that’s just physical. I still wouldn’t be a King. Why can’t you be a Queen Regnant?”

“Because I’d rather my husband be King. It’s tradition!” Yumina said, stamping her foot adorably.

“I have no intention of becoming a King. An Empress, maybe. But not a King.”

“We could have a son and then he’d be next in line to the throne,” Yumina said, stammering a little and blushing deeply.

“I… I’m not going to touch that with a three meter pole… come on, let’s get you some weapons and protective gear. That’s much more practical than an heir at the moment,” I said, wondering why the trio were blushing nearly as deeply as Yumina. For christ’s sake. Babies weren’t embarrassing! A pain in the butt, but not embarassing.

King Tristwin had wanted to make certain that the little blonde princess was taken care of, even if she wasn’t in the palace surrounded by guards and would be out monster-hunting and bandit-hunting and just hunting in general, so he’d provided her with a small stipend to pay her way and get equipment. And by small stipend I mean fifty platinum or on the order of 38 million dollars.

Yumina picked up some good defensive magic and a composite longbow, as well as a magical spear and a helmet that looked something like a hybrid of Athena’s and a Valkyrie’s… it even had a hole for her ponytail. For armor, she picked up a white leather breastplate and matching white boots, and a quiver of a hundred magical silver arrows that returned to the quiver when summoned by tapping a little rune on the buckle.

As usual, when we got to the Guild, there were several older adventurers, all men, who approached us, hinting that a group of young ladies like ourselves clearly needed a penis or two to keep us safe (and of course, if we wanted to show our appreciation, no one would complain, right?). Thankfully, they took no thank you for an answer, or at least had since the time I’d demonstrated how far I could force someone’s arm up his own rectum when he hadn’t.

We’d been planning on getting a lower ranked mission, something that Yumina could handle, but she insisted that we get a Green Ranked mission so she could show off her skills, and we ended up going after some King Apes in an area we hadn’t been to before. We took the carriage that the local carter had made us as partial payment (and moving advertising) for the new spring system, though we were still renting the horses since I had no idea how to make an artificial one yet and owning horses meant feeding horses.

It took about three hours to get from the closest [GATE] point to the general area of the South Woods, and when we arrived, my [SEARCH] spell wasn’t able to locate the Apes, thanks to the limited range of the spell, even when I cast it on my phone. “Well… this is going to take a while,” I groused.

“I could use my wolves to find the monsters,” Yumina suggested.

“Wolves?” Yae asked.

“Oh yes. I have a summoning contract with a pack of Silver Wolves. They’re very good at tracking,” the Princess explained, stepping a little away from us and calling out, “Come Forth, Darkness! I seek the proud beasts wrapped in silver! [SILVER WOLF]!” And with that, set of five circles, looking every inch like you’d imagine magic summoning circles crafted out of liquid shadows traced themselves on the ground. A moment later, rising out of the ground like submarines rising out of water, came five medium-sized wolves with silver fur. Once they were fully emerged, they started wagging their tails and barking and running round and round the small princess… these were clearly more pets than hunting beasts, but only a fool underestimated how dangerous a dog could be to its owner’s enemies.

“I’m mentally linked to them, so I’ll be able to tell immediately if they find anything,” she said, scritching the largest behind the ears.

“They look like very good boys,” I commented, wondering what the etiquette for petting someone else’s summons was.

“Oh. They are,” Yumina confirmed, but she didn’t offer to let me find out, instead saying “Alright boys, I’m counting on you!” They barked in agreement, then dashed off into the forest, spreading out for maximum coverage.

“Huh. Must be nice having puppies on tap like that,” I commented, missing Ziggy and Sophie and Alegra and the ratbears… I wondered if they were missing me.

“You could summon some of your own. I mean, not Silver Wolves, but whatever you’re contracted to.”

“I’m not contracted to anything.”

“I thought you could use Dark Magic,” Yumina said, confused.

“I am! I mean, I can… in theory. I know some Dark combat spells like Darkness and Shadow Bolt. But I’ve never tried summoning. My book doesn’t really explain it very well and Linze doesn’t know much about Dark Magic, since she can’t use it.”

“Oh.” Yumina looked thoughtful for a moment, then hugged my arm and said, “I could teach you, if you like?”

“Oh? Yeah? That would be cool… is it hard to do? Form a Contract I mean?”

“It all comes down to the individual monster. Some have fairly simple contracting conditions, like my wolves. Some require you to fight the monster to show it that you’re strong enough to be worthy… others, like Sphinxes, require solving riddles or something to prove that you’re wise enough.” She grinned, “But generally, the stronger the beast, the harsher the conditions are.”

The discussion of summoning was then put on hold as we had to kill the Apes and Yumina had to demonstrate that whatever monies her father had spent on weapons training for the Princess had not been wasted. She was, it turned out, more than skilled with the bow, and used her spear as both weapon and wand, holding off one of the Apes with the blade as she cast a [THUNDER SPEAR] through the shaft.

After the fight, she asked “So? How’d I do?”

“No problems, as far as I can see,” Elze said.

“Your magic was… impressive,” Linze added.

“And having long-ranged support is incredibly helpful, it is,” Yae finished.

“Aye,” I said, chuckling. “In fact, the only problem I foresee is that compared to the four of you, I look the most boyish.”

“That’s not a problem, is it?” Yumina asked.

“Not really… though being the only tomboy among a bunch of cute girls seems to be drawing the creeps out of the woodwork.”

“Cute?!” the trio said as one.

“Well, sure. All three of you are exceptionally good looking. You’ve got great hair, nice figures, and you’re practically bursting with that healthy vigor of youth.” I shrugged, then wondered why everyone was turning pinking and staring at me. “Did I say something weird?”

“It’s not nice to tease,” Elze muttered.

“Y… yes…” Linze agreed. “Very rude.”

“I for one, am not amused, I am not,” Yae stated, matter of factly.

Clearly I had transgressed some cultural norm… did women in this world not complement each other’s looks? Surely not. That would be… weird. I felt a tugging at my sleeve and looked to Yumina. “What’s up? Want me to tell you a story?” I teased.

“Jouya?” She asked, dimpling up at me, “What about me? Am I cute?”

“Huh?” I asked, even more confused now. “Yeah. Course you are. Cute as a bug in a rug.” She seemed inordinately pleased by that… so why the heck were the trio acting so weird!? I was clearly missing something. Shrugging, I opened a [GATE] back to Reflet and asked, “But on a more serious level, do you think you could show me how to Summon? It might come in handy.”

======

“Summoning is a pretty straightforward proposition,” Yumina began, wearing a little academician’s hat that I had no idea where she’d gotten since the day before. “Step One: Draw your circle. Step Two: Summon Random Creature. Step Three: Decide if you want to make a contract with what you summoned. Step Four: Either Dismiss and Try Again, or move to step five. Step Five: Negotiate a Contract with your Summons. Step Six: Seal Contract. Step Seven: Summon your Summons at need.” She’d been ticking off each item with her desert fork against her finger, totally unaware that she had a smudge of vanilla cream (well… Koko Cream) on her nose.

I sipped my tea and nodded. “Gotcha… now, how random are we talking?” We were sitting outside in the Silver Moon’s back yard, enjoying the morning breeze. There was a fairly classic picnic table out there, and a horseshoes pitch and a few nice shade trees.

“According to Charlotte,” she began, referring to her father’s mistress and soon to be junior wife… and the Court Magicienne, “Some theorize that what shows up is influenced by the caster’s magic or is some reflection upon the caster’s personality. Most Summons are fundamentally compatible with their Summoner, and those that aren’t often have Summoners who are disagreeable types.”

“Or it could just be sorting for positives,” I said. “You said that people dismiss Summons they don’t like and try again, right? So the results of just studying successful contracts would be dealing with a subset of all summons. And I suspect that even asking how many attempts were made before a success was generated would be skewed, since there are any number of reasons… hold on.” I pointed over the princess’s head and vaporized the slime edging toward the end of a branch hanging over the picnic table. As the creature’s ashes drifted away on the breeze, I continued, “Any number of reasons why a summoned creature wouldn’t be acceptable to the summoner.”

Yumina considered, then nodded. “Like if you summoned a slime!”

“Oh. Or a Roper. Or an Otyugh. Or Troglodyte. Or Catoblepas. Anything that might harm their own summoner by accident needs to be watched. Stench monsters, extremely ugly monsters, anything with a gaze attack, anything too slow to be useful, and anything socially unacceptable. Those are the big reasons, but then there is personal taste. Maybe a more formal survey would be valuable… I’ll make a list of questions and see if we can get Charlotte interested in promoting completion of it. And maybe some experimental summonings under observed conditions?” I shrugged. “Just an idea.”

“You’re kinda… cerebral,” Yumina teased. “A real plateface.”

“A… plateface?” I asked. “What does that mean?”

“You know how smart people tend to get distant… blank expressions on their faces when they’re thinking of something? And how when they’re giving information, they just give you a bunch of it? It’s like that. Blank Plate when thinking, Overloaded Plate when talking.”

“You just made that up,” I accused.

The little blonde princess grinned. “Maaaaybe.” She stood, brushing imaginary crumbs off her blouse, still unaware of the smudge of cream. “You ready to give it a try?”

I shrugged, “Sure. Soonest begun, soonest won and all that.”

She pulled a piece of heavy chalk and a small book out of her pocket and pointed to a stone slab she’d had me bring up from beneath the ground with my Earth Magic. “We’ll do it there. This chalk has ground up spellstone in it,” she explained as she traced the complex patterns of the Summoning Circle onto the stone.

It was odd. The rest of this world’s magic was so intuitive, simplistic even. Why was Summoning so complex? How had anyone ever developed it? And if Dark magic had this complex, formulaic branch, did the other elements also have such things? I’d have to ask God about it next time. I’d have texted him, but his room only had an old landline unit. And why did he have anything like technology without having more modern stuff? Even his TV was a CRT, not one of the dozen or so later imaging technologies.

“The hard part of Summoning is Step Six,” Yumina was saying.

“That’s the forming the contract itself, right? Proving to the Summons that you’re a worthy master, right?”

“Right,” she said, finishing the circle and stepping back to ruffle the ears of the lead Silver Wolf (whose name was Silva). Silva had been the princess’s first summons and it was the one she had a contract with. The others were merely Silva’s subordinates, and that wasn’t that unusual. When contracting with a powerful creature, one gained the ability to summon not only the primary, but a number of its underlings as well. “If you fail the challenge, the creature you summoned will never appear for you again. Now don’t worry. It’s not dangerous, seeing as how the summoning circle is the only thing that allows the Summoned beast to exist in this world and it absorbs longranged attacks… but if you step into the circle, you’ll be vulnerable, so bear that in mind.”

I grinned, posing like Captain Morgan. “I have a mighty brain, but it’s not nearly big enough to store a bear in it. Maybe I can ferret it in mind? My head could fit a ferret inside it.”

Yumina blinked, then giggled. “You’re silly.”

My grin grew broader. “You betcha!” I stepped up to the circle, throwing back the wings of my coat for dramatic effect and called “I seek a Dark Ally! COME FORTH from the MISTS! [SUMMON]!”

The circle pulsed with light, the runes glowing a sullen purple, and then a dark mist, a black fog as thick as ink, building up over the course of a minute or so, the drain noticeable but just barely. This would probably be taxing for a normal person I estimated, but to me it was barely more than a flutter at the high end, my regen barely covering the energy flowing into the spell.

As soon as the fog completely filled the space inside the circle, there was a veritable blast of magical energy and the mist was blown away to reveal a massive white tiger that barely fit inside the circle!

I blinked, then grinned, flinging my arms around the creature’s neck without concern for protocol or personal safety. “KITTEH!” I squealed. “Issa kitteh!”

Yumina gasped as I clambered up onto the slightly stunned mega-cat’s back. “Jouya! No! Do… too late. My apologies, your majesty. Please don’t kill my fiance.” She was crouched on the ground, half hidden behind her wolf who was likewise supine. Silly people. The kitteh was in my circle!

The big kitty rumbled, “You know of me?” I wasn’t in the way, but even from my perch, I could feel the intensity of the white beast’s regard… majesty… ah.

Before Yumina could do more than swallow her panic, I reached down and booped the kitteh on the snoot. “Hey. Don’t be mean to my friends.”

The cat growled, a rumble that thrummed up through my body in a very distracting way, “You dare!”

“OOoo! Do that again!”

The cat twisted, trying to get at me, but I was right behind its ears and had my legs round its neck. Its fur was soft and easy enough to grip. “I am the White Monarch! I am not a beast of burden!”

“Yeah yeah. You’re the Great Horned Tiger of the West, Byakko, Jian Bing, King of Beasts, Lord of the Autumn, The Qilin, The Melancholic One, The Master of Metal, Guardian of the Saline Desert Sands, Heavenly Beast, and Keeper of the Streets of the City. You’re also scaring my friends and if you don’t stop it now I’ll be very cross with you.”

“Cross with me? CROSS WITH ME? YOU DARE CLAIM YOU-” The beast gasped, mid rant, as I focused my will and magic at it, mimicking the way it was using its own aura of authority to intimidate Yumina and Silva. “Hrggg… W… wait… n… no… st… stop… please! I beg of you!!!” The titanic cat collapsed to one knee, then to the ground entirely.

“Jouya!” Yumina yelled, and I looked over to her. She wasn’t cowering any more. Instead, she was staring at the cat under me, the cat that was even now twitching violently as the pressure of my regard let up. “You’re hurting him!” she snapped, stamping her foot adorably.

“Oh… sorry. He was scaring you,” I explained, then cast a [CURE HEAL] and [REVITALIZE] on the creature. “Sorry about that, Fuzz-face.”

“You… you… wa… was that all your power?” the Monarch of Beasts asked, rising shakily to his front paws and shaking his head as if to clear it.

I considered, then shrugged. “Not really. It felt like… maybe a twenty-fourth? A thirtieth? Hard to say. I wasn’t trying to hurt you, just to make you behave. It’s not nice to overawe people you’ve just met. People don’t like that.”

“W… wha…” Byakko gulped, swallowing hard. “W… what is your name? If you’d grace me with it?”

“No big deal there,” I said, still petting that gloriously soft head. “I am called Sochizuki Jouya… or Jouya for simplicity’s sake.” I slipped from its back and stood facing it, bowing slightly, but not breaking eye contact. “Sorry I hurt you. Are you feeling better?”

That massive head dropped low and, in a voice like thunder before rain, the White Monarch rumbled, “Master Jouya. I have never crossed paths with one more suitable to be my master. I would be most humbly honored if you were to form a pact with me, as you have already given me a name. Such a bond would allow me to exist freely in this realm.”

“Of course. But you have to promise not to intimidate my friends… and the townsfolk… unless they’re being unruly…” I saw Yumina frown out of the corner of my eye, so I added, “then you can scare them a bit.” She stuck her tongue out at me and I pretended I didn’t see her.

“Of course, Master,” Byakko said, stepping through the circle to show that the contract had been offered and accepted.

“Good… by the way, I didn’t mention your name in a language known as Chinese because it has some rude connotations.”

“Oh?” the cat rumbled, chuckling, apparently having already moved passed the sulking phase of being pwned. I clambered back onto his back and scritched his ears. “Now I’m curious.”

“Course you are. You’re a cat,” I teased. “Very well… Chinese symbols have many meanings. The symbol for White, as in White Tiger, is Bai. It can mean Bright or Snowy… but it can also mean Pure, Blank, Clear, or Empty.  Remember that. The symbol for Tiger is Hu. It can be read as Brave or Fierce… and when doubled ‘huhu’ can be slang for female genitalia, since the word for vulva is ‘Yinhu’. So a Baihu is a pure or blank vulva.”

The cat snorted, almost choking, and Yumina turned bright pink. “Jouya!”

“Hey!” I said. “I was being tasteful and accurate! Not perverted! Not like my hu isn’t as bai as yours is!”

“Jouya!” She was turning pinker!

“Not that I’ve looked!” I teased, waggling my eyebrows like Groucho Marx.

“JOUYA!”

“I think I shouldn’t be listening to this,” Byakko grumbled.

Yumina, reminded that the beast was present, looked up at the big cat and said, “I agree with the White Monarch.”

“Young lady, I am the White Monarch no longer. Please, call me Byakko!”

Yumina gulped, then nodded, “Y… yes Byakko… Jouya… I can’t believe you actually managed to form a contract with… with… him.” Silva apparently was also having trouble, because he hid inside Yumina’s shadow.

“Master, might it be possible for me to remain in this realm permanently?”

“Yeah. Sure. No problem from me… though you might startle some people at your current size… and those horns are kinda a dead give away that you’re supernatural.”

“Ah. in that case, I shall change my form,” and before I could protest, Byakko had shrunk to the size of a white tiger cub… well, a very large white tiger cub… it was the size of badger… and if he’d been cute as a giant white death machine, he was freaking adorable as a kitten.

“KITTEH!” I squealled again and scooped him up, rubbing my face in his soft tummy fur. “Eeeee! Heehee!”

“Gufhuuuu?!” my new pet exclaimed, then eeped as Yumina some how managed to snake the fuzzy-wuzzy kitty-floof from me! Thief!  Phantom Thief! “Wait! Stop! Cease this insolence immediately! You dare!” He flailed about, but my injunction seemed to actually stop him from hurting Yumina in the slightest.

“I’m Jouya’s wife. I get to pet the kitty,” the little princess said, and I sensed that she was teasing me now as my mind turned the seemingly innocent phrase into something much less… PG-13.

By the time Yumina had satisfied herself with snuggles, Elze, Linze, and Yae had appeared, summoned from inside by the sounds of Byakko’s complaints and they’d collectively proclaimed Byakko our group mascot… much to the consternation of the one being petted.

“Saaaveee meeee!” Ah… such a nice day.

To Be Continued in Part Four!

Next: Another Greater Mystery

If you like what I do, please consider supporting me on Patreon. I’d especially like to thank Parzival, bearblue, and Ryune, but all of you who read my work and comment are wonderful.

I also have an original Novel (it’s space opera) in very slow progress here. Please check it out. Let me know if I should create a Blog for it too. I also have a very silly second chain about a Jumper named Zed, temporarily on hiatus. It isn’t very long.

AN: Sorry for the slowness. This was a long one and with the Holidays, I decided to unwind a bit and try to relax. And then my car decided to lose three tires at once, so now it’s time to finance a major unexpected expense… and then both microwaves died within a week of each other. On the plus side, I’ve been watching some very interesting movies and TV shows. If you haven’t checked out Limitless or Bodyguard on Netflix, you might want to! Sabrina the Chilling Witch Chronicles or whatever it’s called is silly in a teen soap opera way, and insulting to actual Witches and Satanists, but it’s entertaining and well acted. Worth a watch if you like that kind of thing. Certainly better than Charmed. And I love the new Salem. Such a cute not animatronic cat-shaped abomination. Anyway, here’s 17,000 more words for you to read, which officially makes my total for November at 53k for just Undertale Isekai, and that doesn’t count the chapters of Solace I put out as well.  So I’d say I still got some writing done. Woo! NaNoWriMo Won!

Concept art of Icarus Tigris
Byakko Majoris
Byakko Minoris


World 77: Honor Harrington – Part 2.18

SOLACE OF MANTICORE

Part 18: Duets of Motherly Love

Previously: A Short Respite

Timestamp: Late 1894

~Are you going to~ Gillian started to think towards Solace, but yelped as Mom flicked the back of her ear.

“Words, Gillian. And don’t sit on that. It’s an antique,” Mom chided, tutting softly.

Gillian, who was sitting atop a white oak dressing table and kicking her legs, sighed and hopped down, then repeated her question, not bothering to wonder how Mom always seemed to know when she was Teeping at Solace, “Are you going to kill Admiral Janacek?” Her eyes were fixed on where Solace was buckling on her formal snazzy parade uniform, the one you could move in… Gilly didn’t really bother remembering the numbers and letters and stuff. Solace might obsess about that kind of thing, but Gillain was more interested in how things felt than what they meant.

She looked down at herself, wondering if her outfit was okay. After a moment, and a gentle mind-brush from Solace, she decided the extra-long t-shirt and short-shorts were fine. It was her that was all kinds of wrong. She’d put on eight kilos in the last year and a half, and gained several centimeters, but she was still shorter than Minerva, officially ‘Mom’, let alone Solace… who she was having more and more trouble of late describing her feelings for.

Part of her wanted to be Solace… part of her wanted to be with Solace… part of her wanted to challenge Solace for all the stuff Solace had and claim it as her own… as insane as that might be. Winning a fight against her older self… her clone, her big sister, her mother… would not make Minerva her girlfriend or Loyal and Duty her brothers (brothers were a kind of pseudo-person who was allowed to annoy you without you trying to kill them according to both her parents) or Ruth and Naomi her ‘cats. It was illogical, frustrating, and creepy.

So was the deep arousal she felt for her parents sometimes when she was alone at night… not that she’d told anyone besides Naomi who was super good at listening if you rubbed her belly at the same time you talked to her. Gilly’d used the need to keep that unhealthy attraction to herself as the kernel of her shields against Solace being inside her mind, but even with both their defenses raised, they could still talk to each other. In fact, a little testing had shown them that they could located each other blindfolded, in the dark, in dead silence, at over 600 meters, and, if they could see each other, communicate thoughts at a range of just over eight kilometers.

Solace turned back from the mirror and asked, “How do I look? And of course I’m not going to kill the admiral. I’m just going to teach him what happens when he gets drunk and shoots his opinionated, idiot mouth off about things he doesn’t understand.”

Gillian considered, then gave Solace a thumbs up which Naomi echoed. Ruth paused to study Solace, then swarmed up the mirror’s post and pretended to pluck a hair or spec of lint off the black uniform. She wasn’t certain what, exactly, the Admiral had said, but whatever it had been had been bad enough for Solace, who had not been wherever the Admiral had been, to have heard about it and to have entered the Admiral’s office at Admiralty House and formally challenged the Grand High Poobah of the RMN to a Duel.

Minerva had explained that, normally, dueling was only permitted in times of peace and if an officer’s superior officer agreed to allow the duel. This was problematical, as technically, Admiral Janacek, now First Lord Admiralty, had officially retired from the service in 1892. He was in actuality not a serving officer but rather the highest civilian authority over the RMN… which technically meant that he could give orders forbidding the duel to any of the officers who outranked Solace… but doing so would have been seen by everyone as admitting that he was too much of a coward to face her. The only person who had the power to intervene without humiliating Janacek (not Lukas. Gilly liked Lukas… he had a really nice ass… was she allowed to lust after her parents’ friends? Stupid conditioning!)… was the queen, who, in her role as commander-in-chief of the Star Kingdom’s military, technically outranked everyone. However, as Solace had told Gilly, the Queen was not allowed to issue orders to military officers. Which meant that such orders would have to come from the Prime Minister instead and would have been of dubious validity in any case.

It all sounded like gobbledygook to Gillian, who had spent the better part of the morning trying to convince Naomi that Old Maid was just as much fun as Poker. The treecat had remained unimpressed.

Solace scooped her up and sat her on the bed. “You’re confused and scared. That’s okay. I probably should have explained what happened… but I’ve been very angry and hurt by the Admiral’s words. Now, if you want, I’ll explain everything on the ride to the field, but if I do, you’ve got to promise to stay in the car with Minerva and not watch, no matter how tempting. A stray thought from you might distract me at the wrong moment. I don’t plan on getting hurt, but the idiot demanded the more dangerous of the two forms of duel… I think either to show he wasn’t afraid or because he was so pissed off he thinks he can actually defeat me.” She leaned down to kiss the girl’s worried brow. “I’ve fought over a dozen duels and I’ve only been wounded twice. He knows that, so I’m guessing it’s the ‘I’m not afraid thing’, since he also knows I’ve never killed anyone in a duel.”

Gilly bit her lip and thought about it for a while, then nodded. “I promise… is it an angry story?”

Minerva laughed and tossed Gilly a floppy big-brimmed hat. Gilly’s skin was much less inured to the bright sunlight of Landing, as were her yellow eyes. It was thought by the Beowulf genetechs that this had been deliberate to keep her and her sisters more easily contained indoors and was proving to be a bit of a pain to correct. Her skin simply lacked the ability to tan and her eyes were better suited for low-light indoors than daylight outside. Gilly wanted to be envious of Solace and hated her a little bit for the ease with which she switched from the brightest of days to the gloomiest of nights without trouble… but hating Solace was usually just hating herself, her therapist had pointed out, and if she had any anger it was best focused on those who had deliberately crippled her, not her family. Still, wearing a floppy hat was cool, and sunglasses weren’t so bad. Even Solace wore sunglasses. The ones Gilly was going to wear today had originally belonged to Solace, in fact.

Once in the back of the limo, and safely buckled in – something Solace insisted on for Gilly, suggested for Minerva (and sighed when she was ignored), and never bothered with for herself – Gillian pulled Naomi into her lap and indicated that she was ready.

=======

The Royal Wedding between Crown Prince Michael and the Greyson-Born Judith Newland had been the social event of the season, of course, and anyone who was anyone had been in attendance. Even if Solace hadn’t been one of the Queen’s favorites (and daughter of the commander of the Queen’s Own), she’d have been invited either as a New Temple or as Minerva’s plus one. Being connected enough that she more than earned her own invitation had meant that Gilly had gotten to come along and all the signs showed that she’d had a wonderful time.

Of course, there was connected, and then there was connected. Three thousand people had been invited to the wedding and the gala that had followed it. Solace, Gilly, Minerva, Mary, Hope, Duty, and Uncle Vanya had all been invited to the much more private reception that followed. Solace and Minerva had also been at the even smaller rehearsal dinner, but Gilly had had a sleepover with one of her school friends and hadn’t attended that. The reception had been going swimmingly, and the festivities were just beginning to wind down… Gilly was curled up under a table with the new Crown Princess’s two year old daughter, also named Ruth, and half a dozen treecats, and was reading them all the story of a curious monkey and a man with a big yellow hat.

Solace was out on the balcony, chatting with the queen… when her comm had sounded its ‘Information you might need to look at’ chime. “Apologies your Majesty, I have it set…” she trailed off as the words ‘First Lord Janacek accuses The Anvil of Improprieties with Her Ward!’ flashed across her wrist screen. She gasped, face going white and eyes turning hard as agates. It was breaking news from one of the trashiest of society gossip vlogs, and VIvian had already flagged it as ‘slanderous’ and slapped a two-hour blackout on it, but if he’d said it in public…

“Solace? What is-” the Queen asked, glancing down at the screen.

Quivering with rage and not quite trusting herself to watch the gossip vlog’s footage alone, Solace turned the comp so the queen could see it too and said, “VIctoria, play the recording.”

The scene was familiar, a party at the home of Michael Janvier, the Earl of High Ridge. It was clearly a fete for those who were important enough to be invited to the Wedding and Gala, but not close enough to the Royal Family to garner invites to the Reception. There were probably half a dozen such parties going on in Landing that evening, but Michael Janvier’s party was almost assuredly the largest and of a certainty the most consumptive of sour grapes. In fact, it was clear that Edward Janacek had had altogether too much wine, as the footage, secretly recorded by a pencam no doubt, showed him gesticulating wildly with a half-full glass of red. The quality was low, but it was clear his face was flushed and his voice was slurred as he ranted about how Solace and Minerva (there was no indication of how they’d become the topic of conversation) had clearly bought Gillian as a Custom Daughter and were simply hiding that in claiming that she was a liberated slave.

“I… I saw… there were documents! And… and I saw them. Probably grooming the girl for… for… you know…” he leered at the man standing next to him, who Solace recognized with a shock was Pavel Young, “stuff!” Edward proclaimed, thrusting his glass at Young who recoiled in disgust, a sneer on his face.

The footage cut off there and the Queen’s frame was rigid with outrage. In clipped tones she said, “You’ll sue, of course… or rather, Minerva will. You’re going to challenge him, aren’t you?”

“He’s left me very little choice in the matter… but if he’s seen documents… those documents would have to have been forged… someone’s trying to manipulate me into killing the First Lord of Admiralty. I’m not certain who… but I’ll bet you anything you like it’s Haven.”

Elizabeth Winton, Queen of Manticore, whose father had been assassinated in secret by Havenite agents (a fact few, including Solace and Mary, knew), sucked in her breath and let it out very, very slowly. “You’re very calm about this.”

“Your majesty… I am so far from calm that only my respect for you and my oaths to the Star Kingdom are keeping me from vaulting this railing, running across town, and throttling the Admiral to within an inch of his life. Well, that and the fact that it would upset Minerva and Gilly. I’m sorry this had to bring a dark cloud onto such a wonderful day… but fear not. I’ll make all the right sounds until Gilly is tucked safely into bed.”

“She can stay here at the Palace tonight, if you like,” the Queen offered, hand on Solace’s arm.

“Th… thank you, Liz… That means…” Solace swallowed. “I’ll do my best to keep your First Lord in one functional piece.”

“Aim for his manhood. After a comment like that, I’m certain he doesn’t deserve them.”

Solace almost smiled at that, but shook her head, “Can’t. His mother’s a family friend. She might object.”

“Agnetha Janacek? She has plenty of grandchildren. She’ll cope.” The Queen’s tone was so deadpan that Solace actually laughed.

On the drive back to Minerva’s Landing estate that night, Solace had shown her lover the footage, and then sat back in silence as Minerva woke up her lawyers and got them moving. Solace let Minerva work, knowing that she had to get it out of her system before she could bear to be touched. Instead, she just stared out the window at the passing scenery.

“M… Sorry, what was that?”

Minerva sighed. “You were a million light-years away. I asked who sent the message?”

“Oh… mmm… I didn’t look. Hold on. VIctoria, who sent the message.”

The mogul rolled her eyes. “I could have done thaat!” she groused, but smirked at Solace and kicked her foot playfully.

“The message came from Pavel Young. It was tagged ‘I had nothing to do with this. The vlogger is an acquaintance of my father’s.’,” the synthesized voice said.

“Does that man have to sound so craven every time he gives you one of these heads-ups?” Minerva asked.

“Better he still be afraid of me than not, eh?” Solace responded, not looking away from the window.

“What’s wrong? You’ve got that look that says you’re seeing a problem beneath the obvious one.”

Solace considered that for a long moment, then sighed. “I’m going to have to resign my commission, I think.”

“What!? Nonsense! You are not going to let that odous man ruin your career! You love your job.”

Flinching a little at the passion in the older woman’s words, Solace hunched her shoulders defensively. “I don’t really have a choice. If I kill Janacek, I’m letting someone use me as their catspaw. If I don’t, Janacek will want payback. He’ll contrive reasons to put me in danger and that will put other people in danger. Both are unacceptable.”

Minerva opened her mouth to protest again, then shut it. The rest of the ride home was in silence, but when they finally arrived at the Andros estate, she placed a hand on Solace’s shoulder and said, “wait and see what happens first. Unless the war starts in the next few months, you’ll have time to see any move against you coming. Be patient… a solution may present itself.”

“I…” Solace began, then nodded, kissing Minerva lightly on the cheek. “I’ll think about it. Now you get some sleep. I need a shower to calm my nerves.”

=====

“You can’t go in there, Commander Smythe!” Admiral Janacek’s secretary, Morgan Llewis, insisted, interposing his 1.65 meter frame between Solace and the oak door to the office of the First Lord of Admiralty. “If you don’t desist, I shall have to call securiteeeeee-” he squealed as she lifted him off the ground, setting him gently to the side. He didn’t try to stop her again as she pushed open the double doors, leaving them open so the small crowd of aides and uniformed marines (none of whom had done a thing to stop her unauthorized entry) could bear witness to what was to follow.

Edward Janacek looked up from his desk where he appeared to be trying to figure out how the anti-hangover treatment injector in front of him worked, and jerked, swallowing hard has he took in the extremely cold visage of the woman he’d slandered the night before. “Smythe… I… you… I saw documents…” he rambled, his head throbbing abominably, then flinched as she tossed a set of documents into his face.

“Edward Janacek, you’ve been served. Oh give me that,” she snapped, grabbing the injector and slotting the pre-measured dose into it, then (leaning over his desk as he fumbled with the papers and tried to pull away) grabbed him by the back of the neck and injected the drug into his carotid, the self-guiding needle doing the lion’s share of the work. “There,” she snapped, tossing the dose pack into the garbage and dropping the injector back onto his desk.

“Hopefully you will be coherent enough to understand my next few words,” she said, pulling off her white gloves slowly and carefully. They were kid leather, fine, smooth, and extremely comfortable, even in the heat of Landing’s tropical weather, and she slapped the pair against the palm of her left hand as she spoke. “You have offered grave, unforgivable, and dishonorable insult to myself, my loved ones, and my reputation. You have done so publicly and have not issued formal apology nor recanted. You have, upon being confronted, acknowledged that you are aware of the severity of this insult, and have, rather than being a gentleman and admitting you were in error, compounded the insult. You are a liar, sir. A slanderous buffoon who speaks without thinking and without care for the harm you could and have caused.” Throughout the speech, her voice was cold, level, the anger there but contained.

Then, without warning, she lashed the gloves across Janacek’s face, the kid leather cracking like a whip and, in a voice like hammered iron, she hissed, “Edward Janacek, you will face me on the field of honor in three days time, there to answer for insults too great to be borne, or the kingdom will know you are a coward.” She looked at the gloves, such nice, soft, gloves… then tossed them down on the table. “Oh, and have someone launder those. They’ve touched your skin.” And with that she walked out of the office, back high and tight, her lavender eyes flashing warning to any who might consider stopping her.

The press had already arrived by the time she exited Admiralty House, and the questions had flown fast and furious. She responded to each in short, declarative sentences. Yes, she denied the allegations. Yes, Minerva was suing for defamation and demanding a full retraction. No, legally she and Miss Andros-Brandyne were two different corporate entities and thus Minerva’s lawyers did not represent her in this matter. She merely delivered the papers because she was already going to speak with the Admiral. No, the Admiral had not yet formally accepted, but she had issued him a challenge. She did not know if he’d pick the Dreyfus or Ellington Protocol, but assumed that a coward that would make such accusations would be more likely to pick the less risky Dreyfus protocol. Regardless of which he picked, she was certain that she would emerge fully vindicated. No, she had not yet spoken to Lord Janacek’s mother, but she was heading to the community center as soon as she picked up her daughter from the palace. Yes, the reception had been lovely.

Gilly had been all bubbly to tell Solace all about how much fun she’d had sleeping at the palace and about how Monroe, the Prince Consort’s treecat had woken her up first thing in the morning and then stolen one of her slippers and how she’d had to chase him down and how she’d bumped into the Queen racing through the garden in her nightshirt while wearing only one slipper… and she, Gilly, had been the one wearing a nightshirt and a slipper, not the Queen and… she, the Queen, had invited Gilly to breakfast and… did something bad happen?

Solace laughed and gave Gilly a hug right there on the street and Gilly had giggled and pretended to be being squished and then demanded a piggy back ride because her spine was clearly all broken noodle floppy. “A foolish man said some mean things that, if the wrong people believed him, could cause our family some trouble. So Momnerva is handling it legally, and I’m handling it-”

“By shooting someone?”

“No. Not by-”

“Stabbing?”

“No.”

“Blowing them up?”

“No.”

“Tricking them into blowing themselves up?”

“You’re a brat, you know that?”

“Siccing your furry minions on them?”

“Yes. Yes that’s exactly what I’m doing.”

“Nuh huh! Ruth and Naomi are over there, plotting against that seagull,” Gilly pointed over to where the two ‘cats were low crawling up on a particularly plump example of the species. The gulls were ubiquitous and borderline a pest species, so no one would have cared if the two treecats did eat the gull, but apparently, to treecat tastebuds, the fowl were foul indeed and they only hunted them to amuse themselves, seldom actually killing the obnoxious things.

Still, Solace sent them a reproachful thought and the two ‘cats immediately straightened up and pretended they’d been doing nothing wrong. Ruth swarmed up Gilly’s back to flop across the girl’s shoulder and Naomi took Solace’s and the four of them soon arrived at the Jewish Community Center.

The place was in full gossip mode, a full threescore old biddies gathered to play bridge and talk about the high level functionings of the Manticoran government. It was a deceptively picaresque scene, and one who did not know the bona fides of the ladies in question might have assumed they were sharing hearsay and rumors. Such a potential naif could not have been more wrong. In addition to the mothers of no less than fourteen seated Lords (or Ladies), eight of them were members of the Lords in their own right. Twenty-three of them either had children in the Commons or had served there themselves (or both). Economically, their collected families were worth close to the combined total value of the Hauptman Cartel, and culturally, they sat on boards in all the arts and sciences. That they seemed like little more than harmless old ladies was a disguise. What they actually were was a pack of sharks, sensing the tiniest bit of blood in the water and collectively discussing how to best take advantage of it, or how best to counsel others to take advantage or lie low.

Into the pack of hungry predators Gilly charged, bouncing from one old lady to the next, doling out hugs and cheek kisses and collect small candies and coins when she imagined Solace wasn’t looking.

“She’s a treasure, that one,” said a voice from Solace’s elbow. It was the voice of the woman she’d come to see.

Without looking, Solace replied, “She is. Hello Agnetha.”

“Are you planning on killing my son, Solace?” the old woman asked, getting right to the point.

“Planning on it? No. Will I? If I have to. Turn the other cheek really isn’t going to work in this situation.”

“Damned foolish boy. Told him more than once to keep his mouth shut about things he… I’m afraid I’ll have to uninvite you from Rosh Hashanah dinner.”

“Don’t host this year. Have Catherine host,” Solace suggested, referring to Lukas Janacek’s mother and Edward’s sister.

“We’ll see… foolish boy… but she’s a wonderful girl. Like you but with all the hard edges filed down.”

Solace nodded, a softness coming into her own voice as she said, “I had to be strong to survive… she had to be soft. I honed myself to a razor’s edge, always finding something to grind myself against, wearing all the softness away. She built the softness up around herself and now she bounces from person to person, making friends effortlessly.”

“You’re not so bad at it yourself, you know?” the old woman suggested.

“I don’t make friends… I make allies.”

“My dear girl… what do you think friends are besides allies in the endless war against the greatest foe off all?”

Solace blinked at that, then asked, “Death?”

Agnetha Janacek laughed. “No. Not Death. Death isn’t a foe. Death’s the friend waiting at the end of the path. Loneliness.” She patted Solace’s arm, then hobbled off to join a table with only three players at it. They had not, through the entire conversation looked at one another face to face, seeing only the other’s back… There was symbolism there, Solace felt, but it would have taken a scholar like Loyal to figure it out.

======

The morning was cool, the dew still on the grass as Solace Smythe faced Edward Janacek across the field of honor. Edward, fool or coward though he might be, had opted to face her, rather than walk the measured paces of the more civilized Dreyfus Protocol. The Ellington had more risks, but it was, at its core, simpler. Two opponents with irreconcilable differences faced each other across forty meters of open ground, each with a pistol containing ten very real and deadly bullets. When the master of the field dropped the kerchief, the duelists would open fire and would not stop until their guns were empty, one or both of them was rendered hors de combat, or one of them yielded. If either of them sought to cheat somehow, the Sergeant of the Field, a member of the LCPD… Grant Kessler in this case, would shoot the offender very dead.

There was a good sized crowd, for this duel was all in the news, and many on both sides wanted to see blood spilled. Janacek looked white as a sheet, and Lord High Ridge, Michael Janvier, acting as his second, looked entirely too jovial as he stared across the field at where Solace and Mary stood.

“My Lord? Commander? If you’ll take your places?” intoned the Master of the Field. They both did, stepping into the white circles marked in chalk on the manicured lawn. Solace could feel the fear baking off of Janacek, the anger and amusement of the crowd, the cold rage of her mother, the mocking contempt of the Earl of High Ridge, the fierce hunter’s pride of Ruth and Naomi… even the muted concern of Minerva… how was that… she was too far away and in the… she was feeling her through Gilly… oh… just… lovely… no, focus on the… when had the kerchief dropped?

She watched as the kerchief, already three centimeters from the Master’s fingertips, caught the breeze and curled up, then, realized she was off balance, her hand nowhere near her gun… everything was moving too slow. Too fast… both at the same time. Her hand felt like it was stuck in treacle, her shoulders not set to minimize her profile, her eyes watching the damned kerchief instead of her opponent. She wrenched her gaze from the fabric as it twisted its way across the field.

It took her a moment to realize what she was seeing even as her gun-hand gripped the handle of her pistol and began the act of drawing it. Janacek was raising his gun, higher, higher… he had her beat… and then the pistol’s point of aim passed above her head and he fired straight up. She continued drawing her own pistol, but relaxed slightly… and hoped nobody got hit by the falling projectile… idiot man.

“Do you yield, sir?” she asked.

“I do not yield. I am resolved to face your fire, but shall not return it. I have… spoken imprudently. I… ” He swallowed hard, knowing that as long as he still held a weapon, she was very much within her rights to shoot him dead. “I must most humbly beg your pardon for the harm I have done you and the anguish I have caused your family.”

She considered that, then shot him in the leg, a flesh wound, but one that would heal… in time. “Very well. I accept your apology.”

======

“Do you really have to leave?” Gilly asked, sulking.

“I’m not going to New Berlin this week, sprout. I’m taking a month’s leave and then going to New Berlin,” Solace corrected, continuing to pack her daughter’s suitcase with absolutely no help from the girl herself.

“But why are you going to New Berlin at all?” the girl grumped, drumming her heels against the frame of her bed.

“Because the Andermani and the Midgardians are at war and the Admiralty has given me permission to serve as an advisor to the Imperial Andermani Navy,” Solace explained, leaving out the political realities that said she was very much persona non grata with the Janacek Admiralty. “Anyway, I’ll get to see your uncle Loyal and tell him all about how you faceplanted into a tree while skiing on Sphinx.”

Gilly sputtered with annoyance, “I’m not going to do any such thing! You’re mean! I’m telling Mom you said you’re hoping I crash just so you can make fun of me!” She stuck out her tongue at Solace and crossed her arms over her breasts.

“Pft. I don’t need you to crash so I can make fun of you. I can do that regardless. Hmmm…” she blithely ignored her daughter’s insolence, then, when the door to the room creaked open as Minerva poked her head in, grabbed a pillow as soon as Gillian had her head turned and yelled, “Shrubbery!” and walloped the back of the girl’s head.

Gilly turned and glared at her other self. “You know of course, this means WAR! WAR TO THE PILLOW!”

“You’ll never defeat me. I have a new weapon… the dreaded Dual Pillow Hammer!”

Next: Solace of Manticore – Part 19a

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World 77: Honor Harrington – Part 2.17

SOLACE OF MANTICORE

Part 17: A Short Respite

Previously: Solace & The Ace of Sol

Timestamp: 15 November, 1892

~Use words, Gillian. No one can hear you when you think at me,~ Solace thought back to the girl who’d become her daughter less than six months earlier. The Admiralty had given her family leave to settle the girl in with Minerva and the extended Smythe and Andros-Brandyne families and they’d used the time well, despite numerous stumbling blocks. The newsies and some of the more traditionally minded members of the officer corps had complained of the irregularity of two unmarried individuals adopting a child together, but the adoption had been handled on Beowulf, which had no such restrictions, and Manticore was treaty-bound to honor its closest trading partner’s contracts. At least when they didn’t violate Manticoran law. In this case it wasn’t so much violating the law as flouting convention, and there? There the old guard could have a field day. Which was ironic, considering that was exactly what the family was having in Landing’s Mansfield Park.

“Can I have more watermelon please,” Gilly asked, looking very much like a puppy begging for a treat.

Solace laughed, “I’ve told you, the food is there to be taken by anyone who wants it.” She reached out and poked Gilly’s nose. “That includes you. You don’t have to ask. If you’re hungry, take.”

Looking crosseyed at the fingertip on her nose, Gilly blinked, then looked up at her otherself / mother and nodded. “Yes ma’am,” she said, still having to adjust to the idea of being allowed to choose anything for herself. She still had difficulty getting dressed in the morning if one of the family didn’t gently cajole her into picking something to wear. They were very kind about it, but it was frustrating how everyone besides Solace and Mary refused to give her orders, letting her chart her own course. At least once she’d just sat in the dark for nine hours because she’d forgotten she didn’t need permission to leave her room. It hadn’t been until Minerva-mom had sent one of the maids looking for her that they’d realized there was a problem.

Gilly shivered as she looked over at the table, surrounded by the dozens of members of the extended Smythe and Lubyanka clans, dotted with a couple of those members of the Andros & Brandyne families who momma Min could stand to be around. It was a daunting prospect, walking through that crowd, but she could… really. Soon. Maybe once they thinned out a little?

She yelped as Solace swatted her on the butt. She hadn’t been able to anticipate it at all. Their raport only worked one way. Solace had many parts of herself that she wouldn’t or couldn’t share with Gilly, and was able to keep the younger girl out of her thoughts effortless. Gillian not only couldn’t do that in return, but was eager to share everything with Solace and couldn’t, therefor, even begin to figure out how to make the kind of defenses Solace had.

“Go on. No one’s going to bite you… well… maybe some of the babies… and cousin Come-Hell-or-Highwater’s dog might… he looks like a biter… but you have to brave them some time.”

Gillian gave Solace a doubting look, then sighed and headed toward the dense crowd of her ‘relatives’… what a strange concept, people with whom she belonged, but to whom she did not belong. Oh strange new world, to have such people in it.

Solace watched her girl run off, all long limbs and coltish energy, and smiled. Gilly didn’t have nearly the physique the Solace of that age had had, what with years of unlimited nutrition and physical training, and had been administered some kind of treatment that limited muscle mass density… but that had been countered on Beowulf and the girl was putting on weight and muscle quickly. She might never reach Solace’s extreme height or warrior physique, but she’d have the build of a dancer or gymnast pretty soon.

It was good that she was getting to meet the family. Kids her own age to show her how to be a normal child. It was only a shame that Loyal couldn’t be there, but, as the newly vested Manticoran Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to the Court of Gustav Anderman he had duties that were more than a little pressing. That, and if he’d been here, they could have laughed at how silly his formal uniform was. It even had a sash.

She was just about to follow the girl (who was being secretly stalked by Naomi, who’d appointed herself the girl’s minder… and how strange it was to feel the treecats’ subtle emotional soothing working on another psyche… even one as close to hers as Gilly’s), when her personal com chimed. “Smythe. Go?”

“Commander… I… I think… I think I need help,” came Lukas Janacek’s voice.

“What’s going on? Where are you? Are you injured?” she snapped, stiffening, voice full of command, needing information before she could figure out if she should come charging in with comfort or weapons blazing.

“S… Sol… R… Rodney’s d… dead. T… there’s blood everywhere and… oh god… Solace… they think I killed him! I… I didn’t. I don’t know what-”

Lukas’s voice cut off as a different man’s voice snapped, “He’s on his comm. Simpkins, you were supposed to take that away from him.” and then the line went dead. He’d been calling on a military comm unit, which meant its location would be logged not with the civilian authorities, but with the admiralty… but that scarcely mattered.

She made a call, “VIvian… I need the location of Lukas Janacek. There’s a good chance he’s in the custody of Landing PD. And has the news of Duke Bridge’s death been reported yet?”

“Yes Commander. It’s breaking news right now. The news is reporting that, according to Landing PD, the nephew of Fleet Admiral Janacek gunned down the Ambassador in his office twenty minutes ago. Speculation on why is running rampant. Young Master Janacek is being transported to No. 20 Landing Plaza. Formal charges of murder are expected within the hour.”

“Shit. Send the best Criminal Defense firm on Minerva’s list to meet him. I’ll contact his mother and clear it with her.” The next twenty minutes were a confusion of her making her excuses to the family and Gilly (“no, you can’t come with me. I have to go look at a crime scene and talk to police and you wouldn’t enjoy it. Stay and play. You can have fun without me.”) while simultaneously ensuring Edward Janacek’s youngest sister, Prudence, that she’d take care of Lukas… whom, according to Prudence, was a delicate boy who never hurt no one.

Prudence was an artist and fiercely individualist. Unmarried, she’d decided to have a child when she’d turned 30 and had done so despite the outrage of her family at her unwed state. She was a successful enough artist (even if Solace quietly found her work uninspired and pedestrian) that she’d had no trouble juggling work and child-rearing and had been, according to both her mother (Agnetha) and her son, a perfectly good mother… but she couldn’t handle stress at all and had had to be sedated the day Lukas joined the Academy and had nearly had hysterics after hearing he’d been in actual combat. The idea that her boy had commited murder? She was torn between vapors and marching down to Landing City Police Department’s Roland Yard and ripping some stupid detective’s ears off.

Once Solace was off the phone with Prudy Janacek, she made a call to ONI. “Francis? This is Solace Smythe. I don’t know if anyone’s told you, but Duke Rodney’s been assassinated and LCPD are probably going over his office right now.”

“Shit! Is there any ID on the assassin?”

“LCPD thinks it was Lukas Janacek, which is idiotic. I’m pulling some favors in to get myself listed as a defense investigator and thought you might want to show up and make certain none of the Duke’s confidential papers get wrapped up in this investigation?”

“Damn straight… Meet me there in ten minutes? I have to make a call to the Foreign Secretary’s Office… and CC my boss… Good lord. It was such a nice day too.”

======

“Lady. I don’t care who you are. You can’t go in there. It’s an active police investigation,” the uniformed officer told Solace, trying not to stare at her chest and failing badly. She was in mufty for the day and had dressed to look nice for both family pictures and Minerva’s gaze, but she frowned down at the idiot who, just doing his job or not, had just become the target of her ire at the injustice of a good man’s senseless death and the possible destruction of a friend’s life and career… not to mention the ruin of her day’s plans.

“First off, I’ve shown you my ID and I haven’t asked to enter yet, merely stated that your people have to leave the office immediately until those with proper security clearance can secure what needs to be secured. The Ambassador had access to confidential files related to both Foreign Office and Admiralty concerns that you, and your detectives and crime scene techs don’t…” She reacted to his hand twitching towards his side arm by raising her hands to show that she wasn’t armed. “And now you’re pointing a service needler at a decorated combat veteran in clear line of the media. If you have a career after this, officer Norkins, I’ll be very surprised.”

A plainclothes detective walked up at that moment, frowning and shaking his head. “Constable Norkins, if you’d be so kind as to put away the gun before Solace Smythe breaks both your wrists, it would be appreciated. Commander, how can we help the Navy? Or are you representing Palace security today?” The detective, Grant Kessler, was one of the ones she’d worked with before during the Inverter Incident, and if he was a no nonsense type, he was ex-Marine Corp and understood about security concerns.

“Detective Kessler, good to see you. Never fear for young Norkins’ wrists. I’d never force LCPD to pay for his mistakes. I’m actually here as an investigator for Palahniuk, Danielovitch, and Eastwood. They’re representing the young man you’ve arrested in relation to this… event,” she explained, showing the badge that had been messengered over from the firm. “I also have personal bias in that I was friends with the deceased and am the accused’s current senior office.” She held up a hand to forestal the detective’s frown. “I’m aware that you can’t clear me for entry into the office until it’s been examined… but you need to get your people out of there immediately as well.”

He did frown at this point. “I don’t see how a private investigator, even one with your connections, has authority to force my techs out of an active crime scene.”

“I’m not forcing them. I’m telling you that you should remove them. The scene is secured. That’s fine. But unless your people want to try to convince ONI that they had their eyes closed and recorders off, swear to god, you should know that there are going to be documents in that office that are Eyes Only.”

Kessler’s eyes widened and he swore. “Bugger me for a greenie… Norkins, get everyone out of there. Tell them to leave everything they’ve collected and all their cases right where they are.” Norkins could only stare at the detective, looking up from where he’d just finished holstering his gun… and the idea that he’d had to look told Solace just how unqualified the young man was. Kessler growled and shoved the young idiot. “Go! Before we all get to spend a week and a half explaining to Her Majesty’s Intelligence Services how we definitely didn’t see anything we weren’t supposed to see. Shit shit shit. I didn’t make the connection. This is the Duke’s private office?”

Solace shrugged. “No idea. I’ve never been here before. But I’d hazard yes. I’ve contacted ONI and they’re contacting the Foreign Office to secure his apartment here in Landing and his estates. His office at Manticore House has also been secured and you’ll be cleared to examine any of them should the need arise.” Kessler nodded, but Solace continued, “I have to tell you that the chance that Lukas Janacek did this is none. I’ve spent extensive time with that young man. He’s served under me in combat, in covert ops, and in diplomatic service. It’s not that this is beyond him… he’s fully capable of shooting a man in cold blood if the need arises, it’s that he wouldn’t lie about it except to enemy agents.”

“Any chance he’s been turned?”

“None at all. His personal loyalty is, if anything, higher than mine. He doesn’t just serve the Star Kingdom, he believes in it. If he had reason to kill Duke Bridges, he’d have told someone. And Bridges was no traitor nor a slaver, which are the only things I could think of that would cause Lukas to want him dead.”

Kessler scratched his stubbled chin with the fingers of his scarred right hand. “That’s a fine sentiment… problem is, we’ve got him on film doing it.”

“What!?” Solace couldn’t believe her ears.

“Hold on. I’ll get the file. Meet me across the road at that cafe?” He nodded his head at it and she returned the nod without looking. “Get me a decaf… it’s been one of those days. No sugars.”

It took him five minutes and Francis Jurgensen had commed to say that he was stuck at Manticore House debating with his counterpart from the Foreign Service on whether this was a civilian, diplomatic, or military jurisdiction and he’d send some Marines to secure the office as soon as he could get free. Solace sighed. Francis meant well, but as a spy he was an excellent paperpusher.

“Trouble?” Kessler asked as he took a seat, reversing his chair so that he wouldn’t crease his long coat.

“Eh. My contact over at ONI has been delayed. You do realize that it’s 32 degrees out, right? Why are you wearing that thing?” she asked, sliding over the asked for coffee and sipping her own iced tea. Landing was a nice enough city, but it was a tropical paradise more than a pleasant place to live.

“Eh. I was born on Dogwood. Average temps in the 50s most days. This to me is chilly. Anyway. Here,” he said, sliding a chip across the table to her. “That’s a copy we took directly off the Office’s door cam.”

She turned it on and watched, tight lipped, as the footage showed Rodney Bridges levering himself up from behind his desk and straighten his still too tight uniform. Solace smiled wanly at the sight, then shook her head as he called out, “Hold your damned Pidgeons! I’m an old man! I’m coming, I’m coming!” He cleared the desk comp with a press of a button, then headed to the door, opening it and smiling his infectious smile. “Lukas my boy! You’re ear-” and then a needler entered the frame and, pressing against the Duke’s round belly, fired upward.

Solace flinched in sympathy as five hypersonic rounds pulsed through the big man and his face went white as he fell backward, blood splattering everywhere. She looked up at the detective after the clip ended. “He’s not in the shot.”

“No. He’s not. But the Duke ID’d him and he was in the room when we arrived, covered in blood. The gun has his prints on it. Took seconds to match them against the military records. Sorry, Smythe, but this is open and shut.” Kessler took back the chip and sighed. “It’s a shame. Old man seemed pretty nice.”

Solace considered. “No. This doesn’t add up. Look. imagine you’ve just murdered someone and you’re sane and smart… what do you do? Assuming that there are no witnesses and… I’m willing to bet the external camera was out?”

“Blocked by a bird’s nest of all things. I know what you’re getting at, but the building security camera shows Lukas Janacek arriving two minutes before the time stamp on this.” He tapped the chip. “I know it doesn’t make sense that he’d stay, but sometimes people do.”

“Who called you?” Solace asked, an idea suddenly occurring to her.

“What?” the detective asked, surprised by the question.

“Who called you?” She repeated, thinking out loud now, “Was it Lukas? Needler into flesh? That’s not a loud sound and that building’s solid construction with heavy wood paneling. No way someone heard it and called.”

Kessler blinked, then pulled out his data pad and checked. “Says it was an anonymous call from a public terminal… that terminal right there in fact. Time stamp… huh… a minute after Lukas did the deed. Someone sees, runs down… out of the building… makes a call…?”

“You have the building security feed… anyone cross the lobby at that time?”

He hmmm’d, pulling the feed up. “No. Last person to exit is this delivery guy about three minutes before Janacek arrives. Then nothing until we arrive at… huh… that’s not right?”

“Problem?” she asked, leaning forward.

“Says our officers arrived…”

“Four or five minutes early?” She hazarded.

“Yesss… okay… now we have a discrepancy and a suspicious report. It doesn’t clear your boy… but it casts doubt. Enough doubt that without a motive and something that links him to the gun beyond the prints, a conviction is going to be impossible… but that’s not good enough for you, is it?”

“If it was one of your subordinates… not Norkins obviously, but one of the ones who’s qualified to sharpen pencils? Would you be?” she asked, waving over the waitress, then asked her to get the manager, police business.

“What are you… oh. Right,” he said, looking up at the camera mounted to cover the cafe patio area. “Norkins isn’t so bad. Just… destined for a desk job. We call him Officer Tryhard. And he does. Just doesn’t have the instinct really.”

When the manager arrived, they managed to get the footage without issue and a quick review of it showed a man, 1.8 meters tall, 94 kilos or so, wearing a stain proof messenger uniform push something into one of the waste bins on the patio, then make a call right at the time LCPD dispatch had received the tip. Solace was already rising when Kessler looked up from the screen. “I’ll get the techs to search that bin… you know you’re not a cop, right?”

“Yeah… but that guy… that was a Brotherhood of Odin tattoo on his neck. The hammer? It’s called Mjolnir. It was wielded by Dtor Odinson. You’re not dealing with a murder… this was an assassination. And the killer’s officially a terrorist. I’m afraid I’m going to have to call my mother and have her ruin the Queen’s day.”

Kessler sighed, “You’re going to raise the city’s security rating just for one guy who doesn’t even have the guts to stand and take credit for a kill?”

“Chances are, this was a solo event. A ‘This is for Uncle Otar’ thing. But if I were a gambler… I’d say he’s got a bomb and he wants to make Manticore pay for… shit.” She grabbed her comm and dialed palace security’s direct line. “Come on come on.”

“What?” Kessler looked spooked, “What did you think of.”

“Bridges. He led the Assault on Valhalla and the Queen is having tea with General Boots… love that name. Boots on the Ground… perfect name for a groundpounder… come on… Hello? This is Commander Solace Smythe, Clearance Oscar Tango Baker Baker Xray Five Five. I say Vampire. I say Vampire. One probable inbound to the Queen’s Tea. Actual. I say again Vampire. Vampire. Vampire.”

The line went silent, and then alarms and autocannons all over the city spun to life as every vehicle in Landing’s airspace was ordered to immediately ground itself or face immediate destruction. Kessler opened his mouth to ask something when an explosion powerful enough to shatter every old fashioned glass window within five kilometers of the Palace rocked the city and drove the capacity for rational thought from everyone in the area. Everyone besides Solace Smythe, who grabbed Kessler and threw him across the cafe, taking down the manager. She herself tackled the waitress.

A second later, the wastebin detonated with a blast that leveled the patio, took out the public terminal, and destroyed the facade of the cafe itself… but thankfully, its windows were impact tempered polyglass and they weathered the explosion just as they were designed to. Ruth looked out from around the fireplug she’d sheltered behind and bleeked, then eyed the ruins of the cafe and gave Solace a look that said “I can’t take you anywhere.”

=========

“Thanks for the save,” Kessler said a few hours later, once he’d been released from the Hospital, his forehead stitched closed. He found Solace at Roland Yard, waiting for Lukas to be formally cleared… which could only be done on the say so of the Chief Detective on the case and he’d been indisposed. “For my paperwork… am I cleared to know how you knew from the tattoo and, I’m guessing, the timing of the Tea, that a lunatic was going to try to nuke the palace?”

“It wasn’t a nuke. It was a chemical bomb. Plastic… or rather plastique as it used to be called,” she sighed. “It’s a couple of things. The tattoo… it was found on a lot of the guards at the Midgardian Chancellor’s palace. We were lucky the security lockdown causes all comms traffic to be routed through analysis. It slowed the dead-man’s pulse from getting to us at the same time the… they said it was an armored delivery shuttle. It might have gotten through. Took a huge amount of pounding from the already spun up guns. They’ll probably upgrade… nn… Anway. That’s need to know. You might be cleared for some of it, but I don’t know. Anyway. We found the guy’s place.” She tossed a dossier on his desk. “Hansl Velsing. Lost family in the Siege. Blames us. Only impersonated Lukas to keep us distracted as far as I can tell. The cafe bomb was meant to be a signature. Maybe kill a few cops if he could. Can I get my Gunner?”

“Yeah.. yeah… he’s free to go. Look… Smythe, if I ever get in trouble? Can I call you? You do quick work,” the Detective said. It was as close to an apology as he’d come for arresting Lukas.

“Naw. I’m too expensive. I only work pro bono for the innocent.” She grinned and strode off towards holding.

“Kid’s damned lucky. She’s a looker,” Norkins said, looking at her ass.

“Are you a damned idiot? She’s not sleeping with the… oh go file some paperwork, you moron.”

Next: Solace of Manticore – Part 18

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Solace Verse Local

The_Honor_Harrington_Universe A

 

World 78b: Undertale Isekai

ANOTHER TALE WITH A SMARTPHONE?

Previously: Juvenile Apocalyptica

Themesong: Move Along by The All-American Rejects

I woke up under a tree on a small rise. It was early and the grass was still slightly damp with morning dew, but for the first time in several years, there was a sky overhead and the breeze was fresh and clean. Standing up, I brushed myself off and took stock of myself and my surroundings.

In the distance, I could see the faint smoke of a town or city, though I could not see any of the buildings from my vantage point. I could faintly make out the walls of that town and that meant they were probably between eight and twelve meters tall, assuming the curvature of this world was similar to that of Earth’s. At the base of the not-quite-a-hill, a dirt road ran by, heading in the general direction of the town.

As for myself, I’d changed a bit as well. I guess that was because my previous body was currently non-functional, but the new form seemed healthy enough, and about thirteen or so, so the same age I had been in Undertale… was I still in Undertale? Was this the surface world? Probably not, but I had no idea if this was the same reality or not. I tried to access my Warehouse, but it was blocked, just as God had said it would be. Oh well.

Still, I felt around in my pockets… I had pockets… that was a good sign… the outfit looked like something out of a german boy’s school… like a really fancy version of a japanese school uniform maybe… something like a Utena uniform maybe… ah… my phone. I pulled it out and snapped a selfie, then looked at it. Blue eyes, button nose, cute face… red heart shaped tattoo under my right eye… I wondered if that was a reference to DETERMINATION… It was a nice form, a little boyish perhaps, but cute. I needed a change of clothing badly though, these were definitely not my style.

Curious, I exited the camera app and checked out what I had on app page. Appyrus (a restaurant and inn finder / review program), AskSans (a mapping program), MonsterBook (a matchmaking / odd job posting program), Alphyspedia (a browser / encyclopedia), and NannyGoat (a calendar app that offered personal advise, recipes, and peptalks) were all still there, and each had the little icon to show they’d been recently updated. Undmail was the only major app besides the phone and text functions that had a big red X over the app symbol.

I brought up AskSans and said, “Okay Sans, where am I?”

The screen flickered and then displayed a map of the continent, with an area marked ‘Belfast Kingdom’ illuminated. At a guess, I’d say it was about the same size as France, and occupied much the same position. To the south-east of Belfast was the Kingdom of Mismede, while to the north-west was the Rifurisu Empire, both of them approximately a third the size of Belfast and sharing relatively short land borders, but significant sea borders, with Rifurisu and Belfast sharing use of two massive bays and Mismede and Belfast sharing use of a third. To the east of Belfast, and clearly its most significant land border, was the Regulus Empire, though most of that border was a fairly massive mountain range. I’d compare it to the Urals, at a guess. There were more than a dozen more nations, Kingdoms and Holy Kingdoms and even a Federated States that shared the unnamed landmass, and even a few large island nations and a Great Sea of Trees.

“Okay Sans, zoom to local level,” I ordered and the perspective zoomed in, showing far more accuracy than I’d programmed into the system, considering that I hadn’t exactly had GPS for the vast cave system, though I had mapped the entire Underground using drones. Still, it was strange looking down on the tree I was standing under as I was standing under it.

Taking manual control, I adjusted the zoom level, pulling back until I could see the name of the local town… “Reflet… huh.” Shrugging, and figuring that it would do, I closed AskSans and brought up Appryus. “Lodging and dining in Reflect,” I ordered. There was a small but decent list of choices. Good enough.

As twilight ended, I stretched and jumped down the rise to the road, easily clearing the six meters between in a single bound. Good, my physical stats seemed to be largely intact. Or at least good enough to be going on with.

And it’s a good thing too, as the next moment, I was very nearly run down by a passing horsedrawn coach. I jumped back and glared at it… and, wonder of wonders, it skidded to a stop no more than twenty meters ahead of me.

The door flew open and a somewhat portly little man lept out. “My dear sir, I’m so sorry. Are you hurt?” he asked as he rushed over to me, then stopped and looked at me. “My apologies, miss. I mistook… wherever did you get those fascinating clothes?”

“From a little old man who was nice enough to replace my old attire. It had become somewhat… damaged… is it not what people wear round these parts?”

“Oh my, no. Could I perhaps persuade you to sell me those garments… not right now, obviously,” he hastened to clarify. “I propose that you ride with me to the town and I will provide top notch replacements for your garb as well as pay you handsomely for your attire.”

“Well,” I said, “since you put it that way, sure. Why not.” My third eye told me that this man was entirely harmless, though perhaps a little overly enthusiastic.

And that was how I met Fashion King Zanac, who owned a show of the same name and who insisted on buying everything I was wearing, right down to the tank top and boxers… yes, boxers… very odd. In exchange, I got some nicely gender neutral gear, not that this form had much going on in the chest region… which was good, because (from the tech level, which looked like medieval europe only muuuch cleaner) I doubted that underwire bras existed yet. Hell, Zanac’s coach hadn’t even had carriage springs… and yes, the ride had been as bumpy as you might imagine. This nation needed some serious roadwork… and the invention of suspension. Thankfully, the seats had been quite well padded.

I took the money he’d paid me, ten shiny gold coins, bigger and cleaner than they should have been in an actual medieval nation, and bounced the coins in my hand. I had no idea how much they were actually worth, but if this was a typical fantasy world, it wouldn’t be a huge amount. If they were worth what a roman gold coin was worth, they were probably between 500 and a thousand dollars each… which seemed ridiculous, even in a world where clothing was all hand made. But maybe God had provided those clothes specifically because he wanted to give me a nest egg.

The easiest way to find out how much they were worth, however, was to go to either an inn or a food vendor and buy something… I settled on an inn, since such a location would be more likely to accept a large payment, say if I was buying food and board for a month or more. I used AskSans to find the nearest inn, figuring that something close to Zanac’s shop, which was clearly in the nicer part of town, would be decently upscale as well.

It directed me to the Silver Moon Inn, which offered room and board for the extremely reasonable two copper a day… and yes, D&D coinage did seem to be law of the land, with ten copper to a silver, ten silver to a gold, ten gold to a platinum. Above platinum was something the innkeeper (a pretty young woman named Micah) said was called a ‘Royal’ and below copper was a brass penny and half penny. I paid for a month up front, and adjusted my valuation of a gold up by a factor of 75. In D&D, staying at a comfortable inn like this would have cost roughly 8 silver a day with meals costing another 5 silver. Two copper couldn’t have bought squalid accommodations and food. Ten gold was thus on the order of 750,000 dollars. I could live on that for more than a year… assuming the local years were the same as Earth’s. I’d check later.

“Your change, miss,” Micah said, and if she found it at all odd that a thirteen year old girl was renting a room in her inn alone, she didn’t show it. Instead, she brought out a hotel register from behind the counter and handed me a feather pen. “If you could just sign here?”

That presented a little bit of a problem. I could understand the local language as if it were English (standard practice in jumps), but I’d been relying on my phone to do all the translating of local text. I certainly couldn’t write the local language yet. Not without my Shard given ability to learn almost anything in a matter of minutes… just how universal was literacy in this world, I wondered. Blushing a little, I said, “I’m afraid I can’t write your language yet… could you fill it in for me? If it’s not too much trouble?”

“Oh. No, not at all. I figured you were from someplace far away. You have a lovely accent,” she said, taking the pen back. I was going to have to invent the biro, wasn’t I? Wait, I had an accent? And here I was thinking everyone around me sounded Irish. I wondered what I sounded like… probably a Yankee. “What name should I write?”

Yankee… heh… I guess I looked Japanese… kinda… well, I had before I’d sold the uniform. “Sochizuki. Sochizuki Jouya,” I said, the name just coming to me.

“Sochizuki? What an unusual name.”

“Ah. Sorry. Sochizuki is my patronymic… my clan. My given name is Jouya.”

“Aaah. I see. Reversed order. Are you from Eashen?”

I considered. Eashen was an island nation roughly the same shape as japan… and all the way on the far side of the continent. “Somewhere around those parts. Sure,” I said.

After checking out my room and grabbing a bite to eat… really excellent food, soup, salad, and sandwich, with lovely hard bread… it was a treat after eating Monster Food for half a decade. Lovely people, Monsters… but their food has as much substance as they themselves do. Figuring that a lovely meal deserved a nice walk, I took my leave, deciding to more completely explore this new town as a first step to getting to know my new world. It was also a good idea to see if I could find some work, since I didn’t exactly have more clothes to sell. Maybe I could do what I did back in Undertale, pick up odd jobs and run deliveries… if only there were some kind of adventurer’s guild.

On a hunch, I was about to bring up AskSans to search for it, when I heard the sound of an argument coming from one of the nearby alleys. It sounded like a girl arguing with a man, and they didn’t sound like friendly bantering words either.

Heading into the alley, which turned out to be longer and more narrow than I’d at first expected, I found four people, two men having cornered two girls, both of whom looked about my age. The men looked… scruffy is the word I’d used. The girls, on the other hand were very pretty and clearly twins, though not perfectly identical. The more timid one had bigger breasts than her more tomboyish sister, who was doing the lion’s share of the arguing. They had pretty silver hair… and I don’t mean white or grey… it was clearly almost metallically silver.

“This isn’t what we agreed on! You said you’d give us a gold piece for the antler!”

I slipped into third-eye mode and gave the situation a once over. The girls were innocents, the men were low level scum, cheats and bullies, not slavers, rapists, or murderers. As I closed down the mode, the green eyes of the two girls shimmered for a second and I could have sworn another, older pair of beings were looking out at me, familiar in some way… but it was gone before I could process it and nothing I did could replicate it.

Grinning arrogantly, the man holding what looked like a glass antler said, “We said we’d buy it for one gold if it was in perfect condition. But it ain’t, now is it?” he said, indicating a tiny scratch that was barely a scuffmark. He tossed a silver coin onto the ground and said “Go on, take yer one silver and scra-”

His words cut off then as I took the antler from him and examined it. “M… pretty. And this isn’t a scratch, it’s just your fingerprints.” I buffed it on my sleeve. “There, all better.” I flipped a gold coin at the tough girl and said, “If these two louts won’t pay full price, I will.”

“Oy! Give that back!” the lout in chief demanded, drawing a knife on me. He swung it, but the swing was painfully, almost lethargically slow… ah, good old physical combat. He gaped at me as I blocked the blow with my hand, allowing the knife to plunge right through my palm.

“Aaaah, physical pain. I’d missed you, old friend,” I said, then tossed the antler into the air and backhanded my attacker hard enough to crack his jaw and send him spinning to the ground, unconscious and with what would prove, no doubt, to be a killer case of whiplash. I caught the antler and snapped a kick out to catch Thing Two in the hip as he tried to rush me, the blow spinning him into the wall. “Sorry about that, ladies,” I said.

“Oh my! You poor thing! Your hand!” the girl with short hair said, rushing over and looking at where the knife had punched clean through and out the back.

“AH. yes… Sorry. It’s been a while since I’ve been in a physical fight. I completely forgot that weapons do that. It does, in fact, rather smart. I should probably scream or something, yes?”

“Are you okay?” the long haired tomboy in culottes asked.

“Right as rain. Sorry to get involved, but I don’t like bullies or cheats.”

“Well, thank you for that… I’m Elze Silhouseka… and this is my baby sister, Linze,” the tomboy said.

“Thank you very much… I can heal you… if you take the knife out…” Linze said, looking a little green.

“That would be lovely. Though, if you don’t mind me asking…. Exactly what is this that I’ve just bought from you?” I asked, holding up the antler.

“You needn’t buy it. We’ll give you your money back,” Elze said, wincing as I pulled the knife out. Thankfully, none of my blood had stained my new (and only) outfit.

I shrugged. “No worries. I said I’d buy it and I will. I’m no cheat.”

I sighed as the pain faded when Linze said, “Come forth light, become a gentle solace, [CURE HEAL]!” Well, that was interesting. I’d heard the entire incantation in English, but clearly, the last two words were not in the same language as the rest of it. That must be the spell name. Interesting indeed.

Clenching and unclenching my hand, I said, “Well, that feels much better. My name is Jouya, Souchizuki Jouya…”

“Oh! You must be from Eshen!” Linze said… yeah, that wasn’t going to get old fast.

And that was how I picked up the first of my new friends in this new world. Over the next week, Linze would teach me to read the local language, being astounded at how fast I was picking it up (I’ve learned a lot of languages in my time. Even without perks, you develop tricks to help… being incredibly intelligent helps a great deal.). She also introduced me to the local magic system.

There were six basic elements; Fire, Water, Air, Earth, Light, and Darkness, plus a non-elemental catchall group called Null. Elements were not combined as they had been in Familiar of Zero, but stood alone, each having their own list of spells. If one had an aptitude in a given element, one could, in theory, learn any spell in that element. If one lacked that aptitude, one could never learn to use that element’s spells. Null however was different. Instead of having spells that anyone with the aptitude could learn, most people who had Null aptitude simply had between one and three non-elemental spells that they could use almost instinctively.

Linze could use Fire, Water, and Light, but had no Null magics. Elze had no elements, but did have a single Null spell, [BOOST]. It gave her superhuman strength and agility when she used it, but burned a fair amount of her magical energy when she did so, so she only used it in relatively short bursts.

Magic was typically focused through small crystals called spellstones, each attuned to a specific element (or Null), but the crystals were not absolutely needed. Still, they were quite useful for testing someone’s aptitude, as holding a crystal and willing it to respond would produce a small amount of the element it was attuned to ex-nihilo. At least that was the theory.

When I held the wind crystal, I very nearly blew out the windows of the Inn… we moved outside then. Each of the elements were similar. Instead of a candle flame, I got an explosion of fire big enough to knock the girls over (they were more startled than damaged). Earth buried my boots in sand in moments. Water frosted the entire courtyard in rime. By the time we got to light, everyone had their eyes closed. It was still nearly blinding. Darkness was… well, dark.

And then we started experimenting with Null… but before I get there, I should explain that the girls had confirmed that this world, or at least this continent, had an Adventurer’s Guild, complete with questboards, monsters, and formalized payments and ranking. The day after we’d partnered up, we’d gone to the Guild Hall and signed up, getting ID cards that were personalized with magic that made them useless to anyone who might steal them. Ours were Black, the lowest rank. Gold was the highest and between the two were Purple, Green, Blue, Red, and Silver. Rank could be increased with quest points or recommendations from temporal authority figures such as kings and emperors. At the current time, there was only one Gold ranked adventurer in the entire world, a quasi-legendary figure named Galen Yunas Restia.

We’d taken several low level quests to fill the days, and I cannot tell you how nervous I’d been on that first mission. It had been to hunt some One-Horned Wolves, monsters that were more a nuisance than a real threat, at least to anyone who knew what they were doing. I’d been worried that they would prove to be like the Monsters of Undertale, fundamentally good and merely misunderstood. I was picturing trying to save the Monsters of this unnamed world from the mean old Humans and Demi-Humans… but no. They were beasts. Brutal, savage, and not at all afraid to attack Humans. If they weren’t man-killers, that was only because the opportunity hadn’t arrisen.

We cleared them out with ease… though to be honest I let the girls do most of the work, just to see how well they handled themselves. They were good. Very good. Too good to be stuck at Black (for Beginner). The extermination or ‘Subjugation’ quest for the wolves had gotten us 18 copper for 5 wolves, which wasn’t bad for a morning’s work, but it could be better. And so I decided we should get to at least Red (First Class) as fast as we could. Not only were the quests more interesting, the payoffs were suitably large, enough to support a group in comfort or luxury, depending on how often they were taken.

The reason I segued into that short aside is because, on the day Linze was to teach me about Null Magic, Elze took a solo quest to gather herbs in the same area where we’d fought the Wolves, since she’d had enough magical excitement the previous day.

Normally, to use Null Magic, one merely held the Null Spellstone and focused internally until a spell manifested itself. The crystal responded when you focused if you had the aptitude, it was simply a matter of figuring out what your specific spell or spells did. Except that when I focused, nothing manifested. The day before, just to test, I’d managed to use Elze’s [BOOST] spell, greatly startling both girls in the process.

There were three reasons for their amazement, as it turns out. First, the amount of power I was able to summon up without apparent effort was ridiculous. Until Linze mentioned it, I didn’t even realize that I was feeling any drain at all from the casting. It seemed that I had a mana pool that was so large and had such incredible regen rate that only the most extreme spells would even register as a drain. Granted, it wasn’t as much power as I could call upon with my full suite of powers, but it went a good way towards filling the gap that they’d left.

Second, having an aptitude for four elements was astoundingly rare. Having all seven? Unheard of. And third? Null spells were personal. Even if two people had similar Null spells, they almost never had ones that were identical. I’d just replicated Elze’s signature spell. And that was why Linze and I were dedicating a morning to seeing what else I could do.

That turned out to include a very nice little spell called [GATE], which allowed me to open a door of light between where we were in the courtyard of the Silver Moon Inn and the forest where we’d fought the Wolves… which ended up startling Elze as her sister and I stepped through. Okay… now I knew someone was manipulating my fate in some way. The forest was not small, but my [GATE] had opened right in front of where Elze was standing. I’ve been at this game too long to believe in coincidence.

Still, it seemed harmless, so I was willing to go along… for now.

When we came back to the inn for lunch, Micah and another woman of a similar age to the innlady (mid twenties) were sitting at a table with a dozen dishes of varied foodstuffs in front of them and they were in the midst of sampling them. I gravitated over, looking at the foods. The dishes all looked like deserts, a subject near and dear to my heart.

“Jouya! Perfect timing,” Micah exclaimed.

“Having a tasting?” I asked.

“Indeed! This is Aer,” she said, indicating her friend. “She runs a local cafe called Parent.”

“Ah!? We were there yesterday. Very serviceable food,” I replied, nodding to the proprietress. “Thinking of expanding your menu?”

“Yes. That’s correct,” Aer said, bowing slightly. “We’d be ever so grateful if you have any suggestions. Micah says you’re from far away, and we thought you might know of an exotic dish or two we might incorporate.”

“Desserts mostly?” I asked.

“Not necessarily, but lighter dishes to appeal to a female clientele,” Micah explained.

“I think I can come up with something,” I said, reviewing the menus of all the local eateries that I’d been to. “But I’m not exactly familiar with the local ingredients and measurements. I’d say your simplest bet would be a froyo parfait, if you know anyone with ice magic?”

“My younger sister can handle that… but what is froyoparfae?” Aer asked, looking confused.

Which meant that there was other choice but to make one. The local yogurt was in the greek style, which meant it had to be smoothed and mixed with sugar to make it smoother, and getting the measurements was as easy as borrowing Micah’s measuring tools. This world didn’t have wafer cookies, nor waffle irons, but making up a filo-dough variation was’t too hard. Getting the fresh fruit wasn’t too hard, though the local citrus wasn’t as sweet as a mandarin orange. Still, sugar wasn’t scarce here, thanks to the prevalence of something like a sugar beet that looked more like a parsnip.

The result was everything I could have hoped for. The eyes of all four (Elze had returned from turning in her quest to the guild by the time I was done) bugged out as they gazed upon the icy confection. “Dig in… but slowly. Eating too much cold too fast can cause a blinding but short lived headache called a brain-freeze. It’s harmless, but similar to the chest-burn you get from drinking hot soup too fast.”

“How did you learn to cook like this?” Aer asked. “Do your parents own a restaurant?”

“Cooking is a hobby of mine. Give me a couple days and I’ll try and figure out more ingredients. Maybe I can make a cheesecake or lemonbars or baklava. If I can find the right type of flour, maybe a souffle or a chiffon cake. And I might be able to offer some advice to help smooth your operation… if you don’t mind?”

“No no,” Aer hastened to assure me, “Come over any time and have a look.”

“Excellent. I’m certain you have much to teach me as well,” I bowed slightly.

The next day I went over to Eight Bears Weapon Shop, the place I’d bought my shortswords before that first wolf hunt, and spoke to the owner, a mountain of a man named Barral. “I have an idea, but I don’t know any local blacksmiths.”

“An idea?” Barral asked, his voice a pleasant rumble. I could tell he thought I was a cute kid… I am a cute kid, it’s okay.

“Have you ever ridden in a coach or carriage?” I asked.

“I have,” he agreed.

“And the ride is bumpy, right?”

He shrugged, grunting in that particularly manly way that says “I am uncomfortable but I’m too tough to complain.”

“Right. Well, what if I told you that there’s a way to drastically improve the ride, and all it takes is a pair of curved pieces of steel?”

“You’re kidding!” he exclaimed.

“Not at all… I thought you might know craftsmen in town who are willing to experiment… perhaps a carriage maker and a blacksmith?” I slid across the table the plans for a basic carriage spring. “It can actually be made better and better with refinement,” I explained, showing him the drawings I’d made for elliptical leaf-springs of greater and greater complexity, trying not to giggle as his eyes widened. “And your blacksmith friends will need to experiment with various alloys of steel to get something that can return to its original form after being flexed. I have some suggestions there too.”

“You… you came up with all this?”

I shrugged. “Merely adapted the idea from something I’d read about once upon a time. Think we could do business?” I asked.

In the end, I sold Barral the plans for eight gold and a 2% stake in the eventual combine. My third eye told me that he was fundamentally trustworthy, so we shook on it and that was that. He agreed to get me in touch with a few blacksmiths to discuss the material side but said it would probably take at least a week or two to get everything even to that level.

A few days after our rank had increased from Beginner Black to Apprentice Adventurer Purple, Elze preempted my attempts to go on a slimehunt (I had no idea why, but both Elze and Linze seemed very nervous about the idea of hunting slimes. Slimes are basic adventurer fodder!) by pointing out a request to deliver a letter to the capital… travel expenses covered, and the reward was seven silver. The client was Zanac Zenfield… and yes, it did turn out to be my old friend the Fashion King.

It would be a five day trip, if we rented a carriage, and there wasn’t really any reason not to, since our expenses would be covered. I was astounded to learn that there was a carriage rental business… how did they function in a world without credit cards or insurance? Ah well, fantasy. Regardless, we could use [GATE] to return from the capital, and yes, I could easily make the portal big enough to drive a carriage through. Couldn’t use [GATE] to get there, of course, since I’d never been there in the first place.

After meeting with Zanac to get the letter and learn the identity of the recipient (one Viscount Swordrick… who would, of course, later turn out to be a master swordsman… because reasons!) we did indeed rent a cart (two horses, no roof, no padding). At least it was faster than walking, right?

As we travelled the long main road north, I thought of other things I could introduce to make lives here a bit more pleasant… flush toilets for one… paving for another. Still, Belfast was a nice little kingdom and the people mostly welcoming and polite. I say mostly because, as the sun began to set, we arrived in our second new town (Reflet to Nolan, Nolan to Amanesque) of the day… and just as we were looking around for a place to eat (we’d already stabled our horses and secured our cart in the stables attached to a nice little inn called The Old Brown Boot), we noticed a bit of a commotion in the middle of the street up ahead of us.

Pushing our way through the crowd of onlookers and lookers-on, we found a japanese looking girl, complete with pink kimono, dark blue hakama, white split-toe socks, and a pair of geta on her feet, facing off against a group of no less than ten dangerous looking men. All the men were armed, mostly with swords and long daggers, and some of them had already drawn their weapons. The japanese-looking girl was cute, almost spunky even, and armed with a wakizashi-katana pair, worn in the traditional fashion. She was a real samurai-ko… and she talked like it.

“Whatever might ye mean? I’ve no recollection of any such thing, I don’t.” It was like watching a Kurosawa film… if Kurosawa was into cute girls instead of grizzled old men.

More banter transpired, but not much more before the group of thugs decided to prove just how manly they were by attacking the girl ten on one. Of course, I moved to help her, but even before I got there, Samurai-Chan had already managed to dodge every single attack aimed her way, then grabbed one of the goons and used a very nice seoi otoshi throw on him. He practically bounced off the cobble street, fainting from the agony as his entire spine lit up from the impact.

By the time I reached her, a matter of no more than three seconds, she’d already downed three of the thugs but I could tell that the effort was taking its toll on her as she had staggered slightly with the effort of tossing the third. None of the others had a chance to attack her.

I took out numbers four through seven, she took down number eight, and my compatriots took down the last two, one each, though Elze did grumble a bit at me sticking my nose in where it didn’t belong… I mean, sure, I did that all the time, but when had I done that in her experience, I wondered. Then I mentally palmed my forehead. Doi. I’d done almost exactly the same thing with her and her sister.

After turning over the ruffians to the town guard, we introduced ourselves to the young warrior-woman (though technically she looked about two years older than I did at the time. When you’re over fifteen thousand years old, all mortals are youngsters, I guess.). Her name, Kokonoe Yae, was (unsurprisingly) reversed, and (even less surprisingly) she turned out to be Eashen… from Oedo… as in the old name of Tokyo. Also, she was very hungry, which explained nearly fainting in the middle of a fight.

Of course, she assumed I too was from Eashen, but I explained I was more a traveler and that my true home was farther away than I could easily explain and that, though I missed it dearly, I had no means of returning there at the moment. This revelation lead, over food (a great deal of food in Yae’s case… my word she had a healthy appetite, of the pasts of my travelling companions.

Elze and Linze told of how their parents had died several years ago and how they’d lived with the uncle Joseph and his wife Rana in a small Refressian town called Collete near the Refreese-Belfast border. To spare their relatives the cost of keeping them, the two had, upon reaching the age of twelve, started doing freelance quest work, but hadn’t thought to join the Guild until I suggested it.

Yae, was fourteen, a year older than the rest of us, and she been raised by her parents (Nana and Jubei) and had studied the way of the sword with her elder brother, Jutaro. She was landed gentry, of course, a true Samurai-ko, and had crossed most of the continent in a journey to improve her skills and test herself against all that the world had to offer. Of course, in one of those turns of fate that surprises absolutely no one, she too was headed to Belfast’s capital, Alephis (not Alphys, though the similarity of the names had given me a start the first time I’d heard it) to meet someone who had done her father some service in the past.

I grinned, leaning forward, elbows on the table and chin on the backs of my hands and asked, “Your father’s friend… he wouldn’t happen to be the Viscount Swordrick, would he now?”

Yae gaped, the beef skewer she was eating (her fifth) falling back onto her plate. It was priceless, the look of surprise on her face. “However are you knowing this, I am asking?!”

“She does that sometimes,” Elze said. “It’s very frustrating. It’s like she can see inside you.”

“She’s just good at guessing,” Linze said.

“I’m genre savvy,” I explained. “I can spot a trope at six-hundred paces.”

“She also says things like that that don’t make any sense,” Elze pointed out.

“I do!” I agreed, then, just to be certain, I took a look at this new girl with my third eye, tapping the bow of my lips as if considering. She too was pure of heart, trustworthy, and good natured. And again, as I shut off my gift, there was a flicker of something other about her, this time a swirl of wind that came from nowhere and disappeared without touching anything besides her hair. No one else noticed it. “Well then, it would be churlish of us not to invite you to join us on our trip.”

“This is okay? You don’t mind, do you?” Yae asked.

I shook my head, “Of course not. Four can travel almost as economically as three, and an extra sword on the road is always welcome, at least if that sword is in the hand of a friend. Plus, I’d love to test myself against your sword skill, and I couldn’t do that if I were to leave you stranded in Amanesque, now could I?” I turned to Linze and Elze. “You two don’t mind, do you?”

“Oh no! Course not!” Elze said, “We were actually gonna suggest it ourselves, but ya beat us to it!” Linze nodded.

“Excellent then. You can share our room at the inn. I’m afraid we only have the two beds, but they’re large enough for two… you don’t toss and turn, do you?”

Yae blushed and Elze knuckled my head. “You don’t ask someone that!”

“Hey! I didn’t ask if she snored!” I said, sticking my tongue out at the silverhaired brawler.

In the end, we dragged Yae off to the inn despite her protests that she could just as easily sleep outdoors. “There are laws against vagrancy,” I said, utterly uncertain there were any such thing in Belfast, but I hadn’t specified a jurisdiction, now had I?

Once the girls were asleep, I wandered out onto the roof of the inn and looked up at the sky. So clear, so bright. Only the occasional puffs of smoke from hearthfires hazing out a star or two. Quite idyllic almost. Just enough danger and assholes to keep it from getting boring, really. I pulled out my phone and dialed the only number in it.

“Hey! How’s it going?” God asked.

“Oh. Not bad. It goes. You wouldn’t have rigged it so that I ran into some new friends, would you have?” I got right down to business.

“Well, I didn’t want you to be lonely. Seemed the least I could do… and they’re nice girls. I just had some strings pulled.”

“No one had their destiny rerouted for this, did they?” I asked.

“Oh no. Nothing like that. I figured they could use your friendship even more than you could use theirs.”

“Ah. Well. I guess that’s fine. But you don’t need to pull any more strings.”

“I promise. I shall pull no more strings to get you companionship.”

“Good… Good… Tell me, God… do you play Go?”

“Go? What might Go be?”

“A game… hold on.” I focused on God’s sky room and cast [GATE], then stepped through. “I do hope you don’t mind you dropping by?” I asked.

He didn’t, and (being God) it was simple enough for him to create a Go Board and stones. It’s not like the concept is hard. It’s a nineteen by nineteen grid, with 181 black stones and 180 white stones (the total of 361 being 19 squared) and the rules are fairly easy to relate as well. God turned out to be quite good at the game, though I did win four of our five matches before dawn came. I wasn’t even a little tired, and thanks to the excellent tea and crackers, I wasn’t even famished… though I did have to pee. I think it reminds me of my mortality.

As way of thanks for introducing him to the highly enjoyable Stones Game, God presented me with a book before I took my leave. “Now that you understand a little better how the magic of this world works and know how to read the local language, I thought you might like this. It’s a compendium that one of my priests put together, a record of many of the Magical Spells of this world.”

I took the book and thanked him, promising to use it wisely and well.

The next day we set off bright and early, with Yae insisting on taking the first stint as driver by way of paying for her lodgings. Elze tried to brush it off, but the samurai-ko wouldn’t hear of it. The land between Amanesque and Alephis was far emptier than the land between Reflet and Amanesque had been, and as the day wore on, villages gave way to rolling hills and forests and passers-by became less and less frequent. I guess the number of monsters caused a greater concentration of people in cities and towns than was normal, for this land looked easily as fertile as medieval france, and the population should have been dense enough that there was a village every ten kilometers or so, even in hill country.

As we rode along, I continued my education in magic, reading from the book God had given men (I claimed I’d just happened to find it in a shop). It turns out that it was nothing more or less than a codex of the names and descriptions of every Null Magic spell the editor had managed to learn of. The vast majority of them were, as to be expected, bloody fucking useless, or so spectacularly limited in utility that I’d have to actually go out of my way to find a use. Like the spell that made seaweed dry faster, or the one that polished apples, or the one that removed redstone mud stains… not any other color of mud, just red.

Still, some of the ones in the book were nice. [SMOOTH] was like sandpaper, but non-abrasive, in that it made wooden surfaces super smooth. [GEL] turned watery substances into a type of aspic without need of gelatin. [EDIT] could pull substances apart, as long as they weren’t chemically bonded. So literally, it could pull salt out of soup, or a needle out of a haystack. It could only do one substance at a time, but that was bound to come in handy.

I’d found all of those on previous days, but as we rode along, I discovered a nifty little spell called [APPORT] (and no, this book did not appear to know what ‘alphabetical order’ meant… not even in the local alphabet, or rather the local abugida, since every symbol represented a consonant base and a vowel modifier… not to be confused with a syllabilary like Japanese where every symbol or almost every symbol represented a consonant and a vowel.. In an abugida, the sounds could and often were separated, as in Belfast, which was written with the B, L, F, and ST consonants, with the B modified with the eh vowel modifier, and the F modified with the ah modifier.) Apport was like teleport crossed with Accio, in that it teleported things to me… small things.

I pointed my finger at Elze’s boot and said “[APPORT]!” and suddenly I had a very nice purple boot in my hand.

“What in the…” Elze exclaimed, then looked around for her shoe. She’d been watching the countryside pass and mostly ignoring the bookworms, but now she glowered at me. “What’cha do that for?”

“Better than me stealing your panties, right?”

“You wouldn’t dare,” she said, glowering more.

I waggled my fingers, “I really should find out if I can use this spell on something I can’t see.”

“Not on me you’re not!” she snapped.

“No… no… you’re right,” I agreed, then used it on Linze instead. “Mmm… purple.” I said, then ducked as she threw her book at my head. I caught it and set it on the bench next to me.

“Wh… why did you do that?!” she demanded as I handed them back to her.

“An experiment. I had to know if things I couldn’t see are valid targets. Also, Elze and Yae are wearing pants… as am I. well, shorts for your sister. You have a skirt, you can put them back on without disrobing.”

She took them back, glaring at me. “You could have aimed for a sock,” she pointed out.

“I could have… but this was more fun. Anyway, you have cute panties,” I teased.

Linze just blushed… in fact, so did Elze… and Yae was extremely quiet, but her ears were a little pink.

“Y.. you shouldn’t do that again,” Linze said.

“Or use it to steal money!” Elze agreed.

“True… hmmm…” I pointed my hand at Yae’s Katana and cast the spell a third time. No luck. “Apparently a sword is too big. Alas.”

We managed to find a nice little town called Petallo to stop in for the second night, and one called Mince for the third night, and as we set out on the fourth day, I checked my map and verified that we were just over halfway to Alephis. Right on schedule, and more wagons and carts had been passing our way, carrying manufactured goods back from the city to the towns or farmers heading home having sold their loads.

I was back in my book, reading up on something called [LONG SENSE] when my phone chimed. Pulling it out, I saw a traffic update on the screen. How odd. Traffic? Out here? There was nothing ahead that I could see. I pulled up the info tab. “Route ahead blocked by combat. Recommend alternative route.” Ah. That’s right! When I’d checked the distance remaining, I’d had it go into navigation mode. Of course that had said “Follow King’s Highway for 126 kilometers, until you reach the Gate of Lions.” But I hadn’t switched off navigation mode, and so it had generated a travel advisory. I guess in this world, combat was more likely than a traffic jam or accident that blocked the road.

“Hold on,” I said, standing up and casting [LONG SENSE]. Now seemed as good a time as any to cast it. I peered off towards the edge of the woods about a kilometer away and smelled… blood? Yes, Blood. And tucked just inside the edge of the trees, a fancy carriage surrounded by soldiers being attacked by Lizardmen and a black robed chap who smelled of… unwashed undergarments and dandruff. Ewww. It was clear the carriage was being ambushed.

“[GATE]!” I commanded, then lept through, landing right behind the bozo in the robe. Always attack the mage first. So I did, driving a donkey punch right into his kidney, then a chop to the back of his neck as he doubled over. I might have hit him a bit too hard… hard to say, since I hadn’t meant to kill him, but I certainly wasn’t bothered by the fact that I felt his neck snap under the force of my blow… need to watch my strength a bit more… I’d forgotten that I was currently without the perks that allowed me to strike with full force and not kill if that was my desire.

As it turned out, that was the right thing to do though, since the Lizardmen faded away as soon as robeboy was dead. “Huh?!” I asked, looking around somewhat startled.

Linze, who’d followed me through the Gate, said, “He must have been a summoner and those his summons.”

Yae agreed as she joined us a moment later, “If you dispatch the mage, the summons are banished, they are. Everyone knows this, they do.”

“Ah. Sorry. Everyone but me. Good to know… I say, soldiers… are you alive?”

One of them limped towards us, but I waved for him to stop. “You… you saved us.” He gasped.

“Did I? You seemed to be holding your own,” I allowed generously. “How badly hit are you?

“There were ten of us, five are down, and I’m not long for the…” he stopped as Linze cast [CURE HEAL] on him and his leg stopped bleeding. He’d still need rest to regain the blood he’d lost, and the leg would hurt for a while, but he wasn’t bleeding out any more.

I was about to look at the fallen to see if any of them could be saved… if only I’d found a [REZ] spell, but I hadn’t. It might not even be a Null spell… or a spell at all in this world, when a young girl called out “Oh… oh please. Please… if you can cure… please help!” We looked over and saw a blonde girl in a white dress, her face soaked in tears, “Grampy was hit by an… an arrow!” she said, gesturing at a gray-haired old man in a fancy penguin suit. She looked about ten and he looked half dead. She knelt by his side and looked as if she were going to pull the arrow out of his wound.

I took her hand and put it in her lap. “Don’t. The arrow is keeping him alive even as it kills him. If you pull it out, it will cause him to bleed to death.” I grabbed one of the other arrows from the wagon… good thing the Lizardmen’s arrows hadn’t faded with them, or Grampy would be toast… the arrow was fluttering, it was clearly right against his thoracic aorta. I looked at the arrow in my hand and guessed that the head was flint. “[EDIT:FLINT]!” I commanded, and two arrowheads landed in my hand. Without pausing, I cast [CURE HEAL] as I yanked the now naked shaft out of the old man, relying on the glue to hold the sinew to the shaft and not leave it inside the wound. Still, just to be certain, I cast [EDIT] again.

The little girl broke down into tears as the old man sat up somewhat shakily, letting out all her fear and terror and relief as she sobbed into his bloody shirt. He simply held her close for a time until her sobbing drained away and left her hiccuping and looking miserable and bloody. Meanwhile, I checked on the other soldiers.

Four of them were, in fact, dead, including the elder brother of the one Linze had healed. The remaining one had a concussion and had lost an eye. The concussion I could fix, the eye I couldn’t. “Might I suggest we load your dead in our cart and we press on? Night will fall soon enough and the scent of blood might attract scavengers or monsters,” I suggested.

“Maybe we should bury them?” the young man, William, said. “We can’t bring dead bodies with us.”

The others agreed with him. “They’d draw flies and crows,” Elze said.

“Ah. Good point. But valiant souls deserve a proper burial… I propose that you allow me to transport them back to the last town and there we can get the young miss and her grandfather cleaned up?”

“Oh, we must press on!” William said.

I was about to get cross with the young man, but the old man said, “Pardon, miss, but I am not the young miss’s grandfather. She merely calls me that. My name is Leim, and I am but a humble servant to his grace, the Duke Ortlinde.”

“And I’m Sushie Urnea Ortlinde! It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance… what’s your name?”

“Oh. My apologies. My name is Jouya, and these are my travelling companions, Elze, Linze, and Yae.” I motioned to the trio, then looked at them… “Why do you three look like you’ve been gazed by a cockatrice?” They did… they all three were as stiff and still as if they’d turned to stone. “You act as if you’ve never met a duke’s daughter before.”

“How can you be so casual like that!” Linze insisted.

“I dunno… probably because I’m a…” I was about to say God, but settled for, “Princess. In my own land.” It was technically true… kinda. As Skadi I’d been ex-queen of Asgard (before that hussy Freya stole my man). As God-King of the Maegi, several of my incarnations had held the title of Princess by birth before becoming the Manifest at age sixteen. Plus, I had that weird perk from A Song of Ice and Fire, ‘Prince in Exile’ which meant people always treated me like a foreign prince… Hell, as Dr. Silence Jumper I’d been part of a Noble Starter Lineage. I’d been a queen, an empress, a messiah, a prime minister. Dukes were a dime a dozen.

“W… well she is a princess too!” Linze pointed out. “Dukedoms are only usually given to members of the royal family!”

“Yes indeed!” Sushie (and boy did that name make me hungry… Reflet is not by the sea and so there is no fresh ocean fish to be had usually… and there were no sushi chefs around besides me. Well, probably some in Eashen… I hoped.) “My father is Duke Alfred Urnes Ortlinde, young brother of His Royal Majesty, King Tristwin Ernes Belfast.” Thankfully, she didn’t go off on all his other titles… or maybe royalty in this world didn’t have lists of lesser titles that went on and on and on for days.

“Oh. Cool. Nice to meet you, your cuteness,” I said, grinning at her and ruffled her hat. It was a very nice hat, one that looked like a beanbag was camped on her head… like a marshmallow and a chinese red army hat had a big pudgy blue baby. “Now, let’s get you to a town so you can get cleaned up and changed.”

“But my parents will be expecting me as soon as possible… I do owe you my life, so I shan’t demand you bow or speak formally, but I must press on.” She bowed to me then, just a little, “Thank you for my life and the lives of my men-at-arms and for Grampy’s life too.”

“Well, you’re mostly welcome, and you must tell me what the King’s Neice is doing out here, but really, it will take much less time to get back to town than you suspect.” I cast [GATE]. “If you step through this, you will find yourself in a lovely little town called Amanesque. It’s about two days ride from here, and away from the capital, but I promise that I shall bring you all right back here once we’ve left the bodies to be properly taken care of and gotten you all cleaned up… why are you staring at me?”

Once I’d gotten the girls to be less outraged at how casually I ignored the orders of royalty, and convinced the guards that it wasn’t a trap or something, and explained that no, I couldn’t make the gate to Alephis because I had never been there, we took a detour to Amanesque and did what needed to be done. I promised the priest that we’d return in a few days to collect the bodies so they could be returned to their families, stole Sushie’s hat while she was bathing, and even nipped back to Reflet for some dundleberry scones with clotted cream. A dundleberry is something like a yellow blueberry, but much more tart and firm. Candied, they were absolutely delicious. Uncandied, they could pucker your face off.

Once we’d all snacked and cleaned up and changed… and Sushie had pouted adorably until I’d returned her hat, we returned to the site of the ambush and proceeded onward. It turned out that Sue, she insisted I call her that, well, me and rest of the girls, had spent a month with her maternal grandmother and had been heading home, only to attacked by the summoner and his lizardthugs.

“Is it normal for a summoner to be in the business of brigandage?” I asked. It was entirely possible that it was… or that this had been a kidnapping attempt.

The others shrugged. “The assailant is dead, so we have no way of knowing what his motive was,” Leim said. “Not that we regret his death, of course.”

“It was very nice of you to pay his funeral costs,” Sue commented.

“Enemy or not, I killed him. It’s the least I can do,” I said, shrugging. This little mission had already cost me more than the two silver Zanac was going to pay us for delivering the message, but experiences are worth more than money and I did not begrudge the dead man any more than I begrudged Yae her meals. When the enemy is defeated, one can afford to be magnanimous.

“That is true,” Leim said, but I have a proposition for you. Half our guards are dead or injured. If we are attacked again, I very much fear for our ability to keep the young miss safe… would you be willing to sign on as bodyguards? His grace will be more than willing to pay you for your services, of course.”

I looked to the trio, quirking an eyebrow and the each nodded without reservation. “Seeing as how we’re already heading that way, I don’t see how we can refuse. Payment is, of course, welcome, but not needed. I shall not turn it down if offered, but demanding payment for a simple act of compassion and camaraderie is beneath me. If it were not for the need to eat and have a roof over my head, I would never take payment at all.”

“You talk a lot,” Sushie said, giggling.

“Just for that, I’m stealing your hat again,” I said, then ran around the clearing just slowly enough that Sue could catch up if she tried.

Two of the soldiers, the injured pair, both mounted up and rode off to deliver a letter to Sue’s father, while the other three rode up ahead. Yae, Elze, and Linze brought up the rear in our cart, and I was forced to ride with Sue and Leim, who sat facing me the entire time as I regaled them with manifold stories of the redoubtable Sir Ziggy, Knight of Ferrets and his lady love, the wicked and tricksome M’Lady d’Winter, who was always plotting against him despite how faithfully he served her every whim. Of course, he was good and didn’t realize she was wicked, so he always did the right thing, which inevitably thwarted her cunning and clever plans… which was especially true because Sir Ziggy was as bumbling and inept as he was forthright and brave. And that is how we spent the two days that remained of our voyage.

—–

The capital city was as gorgeous as only a fantasy town can really be. Situated on the shore of a pristine lake, blessed with a moderate climate, and crowned by a massive white castle complete with high towers and minarets, the city was astonishingly clean for a pre-industrial culture lacking such refinements as flush toilets and horseless-carriages. Most of the buildings had tile roofs and those that didn’t had wooden ones, narry a thatch roof in sight, and the avenues were broad, paved, and full of mostly friendly people, just like all the other places I’d been so far.

The land was relatively peaceful, barring monsters and the occasional bandit, ruled by a just and kind monarch, and shorn up by a monopoly on the best quality silk in the world that made the kingdom quite wealthy, but not absolutely dependant on a single product or market.

Of course, this wasn’t a fairytale. The city walls and the walls surrounding the castle were a clear reminder of that. They were huge, functional, and could probably stop anything short of a dragon attack and they’d slow that as well. There were soldiers everywhere, not in large numbers, but manning the gates and patrolling the streets.

The guards at the gate didn’t even slow us however, allowing us through on the strength of seeing the crest and catching sight of Leim and Sue, who they had to know on sight. We also had our vanguard, who the watch must be familiar with.

Inside the city, we crossed a large river and entered what Leim called the ‘Noble Residential District’, and soon enough we arrived at the walled and gated compound of a truly impressive mansion. While not nearly as defensable as the Castle, the compound’s gate alone took six strong men to open… maybe I could help counterweight it? Down girl. Get to know the owners first.

If the outside of the estate was impressive, the inside was ludicrus. A veritable wall of maids (complete with french style uniforms) had gathered to welcome Sue home. There must have been thirty of them! And there was a sweeping staircase (complete with crimson carpet) beyond them in the grand foyer, a room large enough to play futsal in!

A blonde gentleman who had to be Sue’s father can rushing down the stairs and, like something out of a movie, Sue flung herself into his arms and there was much touching and expression of relief at being reunited. Sue’s super polite speech pattern, out of place in such an energetic and youthful girl, slipped as she assured her father that she was in the best of health.

Eventually, the two parted and the Duke set his daughter down, then, taking her by the hand, approached us and bowed his head to us. “You have saved the life of my daughter. Truly, you have my sincerest gratitude.”

I waved it away. “Nonsense. No gratitude is needed. It was not only our duty to step in, but our privilege to be of service. To save one innocent life is to save the world entire.”

The others blinked at that, not just my host and his daughter, but the girls I was travelling with. They hadn’t seen me at my most formal, nor had they ever heard the expression I’d used, a line from the Talmud (and Schindler’s List). Finally the duke said, “Then I thank you for saving my world,” and chuckled softly. He took my hand in both of his and shook it firmly. “Anyway, I welcome you to my home.”

While Sue settled herself from the journey (and no doubt bathed and changed), the Duke invited us to join him for tea on the garden terrace, where we explained our reasons for visiting the capital and discussed who might have wanted to kidnap or assassinate his daughter… not that he had anyone in specific, but knew that there were some individuals among the kingdom’s nobility who would not be above kidnapping Sue in order to use her as leverage against the king.

Such dark thoughts were banished as Sue returned, dressed all in Pink and looking just as adorable as she could. She also smelled like rose petals, but not too strongly. She was also, I realized, wearing a choker that I’d glimpsed before, but hadn’t been able to see as clearly under her travel clothes as I could now that she was wearing a gown. At first glance, it looked like a simple metal disk suspended between two metal chevrons.

It was, or should have been utterly unremarkable. And it would have been, were it not for the fact that it represented a theme. See, Elze and Linze both wore these cute little purple uniform jackets that were tiny and entirely for style, and each of them wore little teal neckties to hold the collars of those jackets in place. The neckties were not knotted, however, but rather held in place with golden tie-clips, but not the simple bars a man would wear. No, the twins wore a matching pair of forks with a cross bar beneath. In the center of Elze’s was a circle. In the center of Linze’s was a third tine. In short, they were the astrological symbols for Pluto and Neptune respectively.

Putting those together with this new neck-related symbol, if one squinted, one would realize that Sue’s pendant was the astrological symbol for Uranus (Oo-ran-os, you juvenile perverts). Huh. It can’t be their ruling house… I wasn’t even certain those planets existed in this world… but it couldn’t be the same thing as in the world of my origin, since the twins wore different symbols but had been born the same day.

“I’m sorry, I was distract, who’s Ellen?” I asked, realizing I’d missed something while I was considering the implications of the symbols… Yae wasn’t wearing anything on her neck, but her kimono had a crescent moon on it over her heart. I went into third eye mode and found, once again, innocence and good will… and sadness. That was new. Again, as I closed my extra awareness, I saw wind from beyond this place and time ruffle the girl’s ribbons and hair. Huh.

“Ah,” the Duke said, “That would be my wife, you see. She would like to extend her thanks to you as well, though she seldom leaves her rooms.”

“Oh my,” I asked, looking between the Duke and his daughter. Something was… “I gather her health isn’t good?” I asked, sensing the worry in his voice and linking it to the spiritual sadness they both felt. “If it isn’t impolite to ask,” I hastened to add.

The Duke nodded, retaking his seat and motioning for us to do likewise. “About five years gone, my wife contracted a terrible illness. The healers managed to save her life, but not her vision, I’m afraid.”

“Ah,” I said, echoing his tone. “You have my sympathies.”

Linze asked, “Did you attempt to have it treated magically?”

“We did,” Sue said, “Papa and Uncle Tristwin brought in practitioners from all across the land, but since it wasn’t caused by a physical injury, they said they couldn’t do anything.” She sighed, “If only grandfather were still alive…” she trailed off and I could all but sense a moment of destiny clicking over. Everything hinged on this instant in time.

I was being played. Played by God? I didn’t think so. Played by something though. Maybe just Fate? I considered, then rejected the idea. I was being manipulated by Prophecy. The dead hand of some ancient seer had seen some terrible fate and had set something in motion, something that required a unique set of skills… like having the ability to use all forms of local magic perhaps? That seer had seen that such a one would come, and God had, probably without knowing it… he seemed like that kind of entity, the kind that didn’t micromanage very much… dropped me into the pot, so to speak… My vacation wasn’t going to stay very vacation-like, I guessed. Eh. What’s saving the world? I’d already saved one life.

“Your grandfather? Did he happen to have a Null magic spell that could reverse blindness?” I asked. Duke and Daughter both started, and my trio looked at me as if I’d just started speaking in tongues.

After a moment of shock, the Duke said, “Er… yes, actually. My wife’s father was able to cure any abnormality within the body, to restore a body to its proper function. That was part of the reason Sue went to visit Ellen’s mother, to see if she could learn more about the nature of that magic.”

Linze ahhed, “I see! Even though non-elemental magic is primarily personalized effects, if you know what one person can do, it becomes easier to find others with similar effects, right?”

The Duke nodded. “Indeed. We were hoping to find someone with a similar spell.”

I nodded, of course. A royal ally, travelling companions… no doubt I’d begin running into others who could assist me in whatever act of salvation was unfolding around me. Ah well, resisting prophecy is pointless, so I might as well ride it out until I could find out the nature of the threat. As long as I remained myself, hopefully things would turn out alright. “Do you happen to know the name of your grandfather’s spell?” I asked.

They did, of course, and twenty minutes later, there was much happy crying as the Duchess Ellen laid eyes upon her husband and daughter for the first time in half a decade. My new friends and I left the Ortlindes to their rejoicing, and exited, though all three of my girls were also sniffling. I sighed and handed out handkerchiefs. One can seldom have enough, I’ve found.

In the end, the Duke (beside himself with gratitude no matter how much I insisted that it would have been the most churlish action possible for me to not have helped) insisted upon rewarding us. Leim handed over a bag of some forty platinum, which was, of course, worth 400 gold or approximately thirty million dollars, give or take. I’d had more money, to be certain, but it was easily enough to live on for decades… or enough to get better equipment? Yeah, that sounded more likely.

I nodded and said, “If I say that this is too much, it insults the value of Sue’s life and Ellen’s sight, so instead, I will simply say that these funds will be put to good use.” I bowed my head just enough to be respectful to his lordship and the Duke smiled warmly back at me.

Leim nodded. “Of course. And his lordship’s wish is that you use it in aid of your adventuring career. He is sanguine that you will find others in need of your aid and feels that it would be a shame if you were unable to assist due to lack of proper equipment or tools.”

We all bowed again, though the girls bowed deeper than I did. After that, his lordship gave each of us a medallion, a five centimeter disk with a crest supported by lions rampant on either side, the symbol of the house of Ortlinde, on the front, and our names and a single word carved into the obverse. “These are a kind of identification, showing that you have the support of my family. Any checkpoint in Belfast should recognize them instantly, and they’ll allow you to make use of those facilities normally exclusive to nobles of the realm.”

Again, we thanked him. Elze’s word was ‘Courage’, Linze’s was ‘Compassion’, Yae’s was ‘Serenity’, and mine was ‘Sagacity’. Interesting choices.

As we took our leave, we divided the funds equally, though Yae tried to say she had not earned them. We tutted at the idea and would hear nothing of her attempts to return them as we made our way to the home of the Viscount Swordrick. Compared to the Duke’s it was almost cozy, but not in a bad way. It had a feel of much history about it and though small, it was no doubt sufficient to the Viscount’s city needs.

We turned over the letter, collected a response, and allowed Yae to make her introductions. She’d never met the man, as his sojourn in the lands to the far east had been some twenty years ago, but he was more than happy to hear word of his old fencing master, and practically eager to accept Yae’s offer to test herself against the veteran swordsmaster.

He showed us to his practice hall, which was (naturally) a dojo so Japanese it practically screamed ‘KARATE!’ like Ross from FRIENDS. Before the duel began, the Viscount asked if any of us knew healing magic, and once assured that both Linze and I could repair wounds, declared that this meant that there was little need to hold back, though they were using boken rather than live blades.

Figuring that Yae would never have seen herself fight before, and knowing how invaluable that could be I showed Linze how to hold my phone and set it to record. I stood a little way away, watching the two swordsmen limber up, and knew for a certainty that Yae was going to go down hard. She did, thanks to being too forthright to see through a shadow-ki move that the Viscount used, one that cracked a couple of her ribs, though I could tell that, even after the blow, she wasn’t really certain what had happened. The problem was that, although Yae was technically gifted… practically flawless, and while she certainly could kill, she lacked the force of will that came with killing intent. If she killed, it was because it was the needed thing. It was almost emotionless, without any fire to push beyond the forms. It was safe, and as long as it remained safe, she wouldn’t grow.

After healing the samurai-ko, I took off my jacket and cracked my neck once to each side before asking, “Swordrick-dono, will you do me the honor of allowing me to try myself against you?”

“You are a student of the sword?” he asked, noting that I wasn’t carrying one. Indeed, I had only two curved shortswords fixed in crossed dropsheaths on my back, not that he could see them. His tone was polite, but doubtful.

“I am a student of life,” I explained. “Though I have spent a few years studying a variety of bladed weapons.”

“If you step into the ring with me, I will not go easy on you,” He informed me, not a threat, merely a warning.

“If you allow me to step into the ring with you, I shall return the favor,” I said, voice carrying the same tone.

“Very well,” he said, holding his arms wide in welcome and stepping back to the far side of the mat.

I stepped across the divide from wood to cloth, my stockinged feet sliding into the stance known as Unicorn Defiant, and waited.

“You intend to face me without a sword?” he asked, incredulously. “Are you mocking me, girl?”

“Indeed, I am not. I am most sincere,” I said, “Please, do not hesitate to attack.

He shrugged, rolled his shoulders, and moved, lightning quick, a snap blow at the crown of my head… his oof as he hit the floor was most profound.

“It is unwise to underestimate an unarmed opponent,” I said, helping him up. “Shall we go again?”

He nodded, brow creasing in concentration. “I have a feeling I have invited a tiger to dance with me,” he said, chuckling. “I’m going to regret this, aren’t I?”

“You inflicted a small amount of pain upon my friend in order to teach her that she had limits she did not know about,” I said, confirming his suspicion. “It would be unworthy of me not to return the favor.”

Ninety minutes later, the Viscount finally called it quits. He was panting hard, moving a little stiffly, but he stood straight and bowed. “I thank you for the lesson, Sensei. It was… illuminating. You… are an interesting girl. I suspect you will do great… and possibly terrible things.”

I healed him of his aches and pains before we took our leave, and (pulling him aside) whispered to him, “Truthfully, your level of skill is no small thing, Carlossa (for that was his given name). I would rank you as, perhaps, among the top five percent of swordsmen I’ve ever encountered in all my many lives. My respect for your skill is why I tell you this thing that I have not shared with my travelling companions. I have lived many lives. Lives I remember perfectly. I have spent millenia honing my skill with blades of all kinds, and a host of unarmed martial arts as vast as the number of sword styles I know. Do not feel yourself shamed that you could not strike me. Feel, rather, that you have earned the respect of one who has seen nations rise and fall by picking yourself up off the mat time and time again, and strive until you reached your limit. Additionally, in one hundred and fifty four passes, you never once repeated yourself. In the end, you gave great face to your teachers and proved yourself a worthy opponent.”

He bowed deeply, as deep as one can go without kowtowing, and said, “I am honored to be so instructed. Please, if you ever decide to take on a pupil, consider me.”

“Perhaps,” I agreed, “but if I do, you will have pass my final test of worthiness.”

His eyes opened wide as he straightened. “What might that test be, oh Sage of Many Lives?”

“You will have to show me something that I have never seen in all my lifetimes,” I said, bowing slightly and returning to where the girls were gathered, ready to leave. I left him to contemplate the unknowable, feeling suitably buddhalike.

Once outside, Yae sagged. “I have so much too learn, I do! And you,” she pointed an accusatory finger at me. “You were most mean to the Viscount, you were! In his own home, it was!”

“He felt inflicting a little pain upon a friend of mine was warranted. I merely returned the favor. Such is the nature of the warrior’s path, is it not?” I asked, grinning up at the taller girl.

She blushed and turned away. “I… I should…” she trailed off, looking at a loss for what to do next.

I mentally kicked myself. ~Jouya, you idiot. You totally just assumed she was going to join your little band. Ask her, you moron.~ I sighed, rolled my eyes, then took Yae’s hands in my own. “Kokonoe-chan, it has been a great pleasure travelling with you, and I know I speak for all three of us when I say, we would very much like for you come stay with us in Reflet.”

Elze nodded, “Of course! You can join our guild, if you feel like becoming an adventurer, and perhaps even train with us. We have had so much fun together, it would be a shame if we had to part now.” Yae and Elze high fived… I guess that was a thing in this world.

“That’s not a bad idea at all,” Linze agreed. “Though Jouya is, as always, too rash and not delicate enough.”

“Humph!” I said. “I am a budding rose!”

“You are a great big Sunflower,” Elze said, “Always sticking your face into other people’s business.”

“Ooo… oooh… do me,” Linze said.

Unable to resist, I turned to face her and waggled my eyebrows, “Is that an invitation? I do know how to get you out of your panties.”

“Jouya!” all three gasped at that, and glowered at me. “A lady shouldn’t… shouldn’t say such things, she shouldn’t,” Yae muttered.

“Good thing I can turn into a boy if I want to, then isn’t it?” I said, smirking.

“You can!?” Linze and Elze said as one. Yae just gulped.

“Oh sure. I shouldn’t though, not here… I don’t know how big I’ll be in my male form.”

“Big?!” Yae squeaked.

“Not that way!” I laughed. “I meant about, you know-” I patted the top of my head.

“Oooh… That’s what I meant, it is!” Yae lied and the twins giggled.

“Sure it is, Yae!” Elze said, hugging the samurai-ko.

As we pulled away from the Swordrick manse, I showed Yae the film Linze had taken, much to the amazement of Elze and Yae (Linze was driving at the moment, and was pretending not to be impressed, but of course, she’d seen the magic of the ‘Smawtforn’ when she’d taken the shots.

We’d decided that, as we were flush with cash and in the largest city in the land, we might as well avail ourselves of the opportunity and do a little shopping. Yae and Elze headed off in one direction, while Linze and I headed off in search of a magical item shop. By asking around, we were directed to a shop called ‘Luca’, though we were warned that it only served nobles.

Linze and I were in no real hurry, and we’d agreed to meet up with the others in three hours time, long enough to shop, but not so late that we’d arrive back at Reflet after the gates closed for the night. We chatted as we walked, and I took in the large variety of non-human races that roamed the streets of the Capital. There hadn’t been any back in Reflet, but Alephis was ten times the size and far more cosmopolitan.

There were many varieties, from elves and dwarves and ogres to animal-men like minotaurs and lizardmen, but by far, the largest block of the non-humans were the beastmen. Unlike the animalmen, who had the heads and often other features of an animal, the beastmen were much more human, with only the ears and tails (and claws and canines) of their animal type.

I was somewhat surprised to notice, as I looked at the head of the little fox girl (blonde with yellow ears ending in black tips and a large fluffy tail ending in a white tip) walking right in front of us, that she had both sets of ears. “Is she a half-human?” I asked Linze, pitching my voice low.

“Oh no. All beastmen have four ears. The human ears are used for primary hearing and the animal ears for higher frequency and targeted hearing… according to the book I read,” she stammered, blushing.

“You don’t think I’ll like you less if you sound smart, do you?” I teased.

“N… no… I just don’t like showing off… is she lost?”

I looked at the girl, studying her behaviour, and indeed, it seemed as if she was casting about as if troubled. I stepped up to her and placed my hand on her shoulder, startling her a little as I asked, “Are you looking for someone or someplace?”

“Ahh… umm… I can’t find my sister,” she said, looking close to tears.

I groaned inside. Was she another lost lamb for me to save? No… no ungenerous thoughts. “Do you know where she might be?”

“We were supposed to meet up at a magic shop named Luca,” the girl (she was very small of stature, but she seemed like she was at least ten, maybe twelve, if I had to guess.) said.

Of course. It would be. “Ah, well, as it turns out, that’s exactly where we’re going!” I informed her. “You may accompany us if you like?” I offered her my hand. “I am called Jouya, and this is my teacher, Linze.”

“T-teacher?” squeaked Linze, elbowing me. “We… we’re not.. I’m not… I just taught her to read. We’re travelling companions.”

~What a weird reaction,~ I thought, but said nothing. Instead, I simply made small talk with Arma as we walked and indeed, a taller, more adult beastgirl was standing outside the shop when we arrived. Escort Mission Success!

Olga, the older sister, tried to pay us, but I refused. “We were literally coming here anyway, so it’s not like this took us out of our way.”

“Oh? Were you looking to buy some magical items?”

I shrugged. “I wanted to look at their selection, maybe find something like a pack of holding?”

“A pack of holding?” Olga asked. “Like a bag that immobilizes a captive?” she sounded a little worried, and I understood, since apparently slavery was a thing in some parts of this continent, and cute beastgirls were (obviously) much prized.

“Oh no,” I chuckled, shaking my head emphatically, “No. I mean a pouch or backpack that can store a great deal more inside it that it should be able to… hopefully while also reducing the weight. Sometimes almost found in the form of a ring.”

“Oooh. I see. I’ve heard of such items. Good luck,” she said, relaxing and the duo walked off, though Arma turned around to wave baibai to me and Linze.

“Cute kid,” I said.

“I… is that what you like, Jouya?” Linze asked.

“Cute? I do like cute,” I said, “but smart is even better. Although I do like foxes… and kittens… and ferrets. Ferrets are the best.” As we entered the shop, I launched into a short, passionate explanation of why, in fact, ferrets were the best, beginning with tiny button noses and ending with sharp pointy teef, but venturing into the deeper waters of adorkably bumbly, endlessly enthusiastic, and occasionally prone to savaging their own butts for no reason.

“You’re very weird sometimes,” Linze commented.

“Daaaling,” I drawled, “I’m very weird all the time. I just don’t normally demonstrate it.”

“Excuse me, please,” said a young man in a finely tailored suit and white gloves. Ah, a salesperson. “Welcome to Luca. Might you have something that proves your social standing? Or an invitation permitting you to shop here?”

Ah. So that’s how that worked. Reserved for the aristocracy indeed. That was a first for me. I’d been a few places with actual feudalism and nobility and class distinctions, but only in DUNE had there been much enforcement of it and there it was all but absolute. Nobles didn’t even shop in stores. They sent servants to do so… or often times owned the business, the employees, and the planet. When they said “I want to buy new shoes.” new shoes were brought to them. Tenchi had been much the same, at least back on Jurai and its galaxy wide holdings, but the class system wasn’t as restrictive to commoners. Anyone could shop anywhere, and sometimes the nobility did show up to shop places… at which point the shop went into OMG NOBLES mode and everyone else was kindly asked to stand in the street and gawp like good little non-immortal godbeings.

Most of the other feudal settings I’d been too: Demon’s Souls, Bleach, Redwall, Lord of the Rings, Avatar, Codex Alera, Dragon’s Crown, Mistborn, Princess Bride, Dishonored, Treasure Planet, Tortall, Familiar of Zero… even Elder Scrolls (from what little I remember of my actual stay there… perfect memory does not hold up well to that much booze)… all of them had been so low social distinction that the concept of noble just meant the guy with the bigger house (LoTR, Tortall, Elder Scrolls, Redwall), totally dysfunctional (Mistborn, Demon’s Souls, Familiar of Zero, Bleach), or fairly egalitarian (Dishonored, Treasure Planet, Codex Alera, Dragon’s Crown, Avatar, Princess Bride). Those places where there were hard class divides (Mistborn, FoZ, Bleach, Princess Bride, Codex Alera), those divides had either been marginal or absolute. In Mistborn and Bleach, the nobles couldn’t shop in the commoner shops any more than the commoners could shop in the noble district, thanks to incredibly rigid cast systems. In FoZ and Princess Bride, both fantasy Europe, the class distinction hadn’t been so absolute, but shops served everyone. In Codex Alera, Citizens were treated better than Commoners, but a Noble wasn’t guaranteed to be a Citizen, so the situation was far more complex… and like Rome before it, money was ultimately the only limit to what you could or couldn’t buy.

In fact, the only setting which was more restrictive about who could buy what than this one was Warhammer 40K. But there, it wasn’t so much that you had to be a noble to shop in some stores (there were stores like that on most worlds, yes), but there were levels above noble where you just bought and sold entire nations and a single starship could have a population larger than Alephis.

Still, just as I had in the grim darkness of the future, I had a quasi-mystical object that opened the doors of unlimited shopping to me and I showed the ‘just doing my job’ man the medallion given to me by the Duke and he nodded as if this was all mundane to him. And it probably was. He probably saw a few dozen servants or guards or noble cousins a day. “All is well then. Thank you for your patronage, young ladies. My name is Bryce, how can I help you today?”

“Well, Bryce, I was hoping-” I began, but Linze squealed and tugged my arm.

“Look! Isn’t that the prettiest coat?”

I blinked. It was, indeed, very nice. In fact, it was awesome. It was black and silver, crushed silk, covered in ebony buttons and silver knotwork bands on the cuffs and shoulders, with silver buckles on the best. It had a high neck and a wide hood. It had a gorgeous waistline and a removable tail. I wanted it more than I’d wanted any piece of clothing in the last… I don’t know how long, since I had no idea how long I’d spent in the Honorverse, but certainly a while. Unfortunately, I was barely five feet tall, and that coat, gorgeous as it was, was sized for someone considerably taller than me… and certainly bustier than I was. “It’s lovely… but it’s too big.”

“Never fear, young miss,” Bryce said, “like all our clothing and jewelry items, that coat is self-sizing. It will always fit the wearer perfectly. It is merely sized for the mannequin at the moment, since we only have one size of those.”

“Oh… well then… can I try it on?”

“Of course!” he said, then moved to pull it off the dressmaker’s form it was displayed on.

As I pulled it on, Linze asked, “What properties does it have, please?”

“It is enchanted with blade, heat, cold, and strike resistances. It also has a notably high resistance to offensive magic… though there is a small problem with that…” He looked nervous, as if he was afraid of losing the commission on the sale.

“Does it not have pockets?” I asked.

“Pockets? Oh no, of course not!” Bryce looked apalled at the idea. “It would ruin the lines!” Typical really… then I looked at the mens coats and considered that they probably didn’t have pockets either. This was a pouch kind of culture. “See, the problem is that the magic resistance depends on the magical affinities the wearer has.”

“Ah, so a fire user would have resistance to fire!” Linze said as I smoothed the lines of the coat. It was sooo nice, not too tight, not too loose, just the right sleeve and hem length… gods, I hadn’t considered buying an outfit this nice since back in YuGiOh!

“Er, yes,” Bryce said, “and that’s where the problem comes in. You see, the enchantment makes one doubly vulnerable to magics one lacks the affinity for.” He was almost sweating now. Poor dear.

“I dunno,” I said, “That seems like a pretty big problem… how much are you asking for this beauty? I mean, the magic isn’t so great,” I elbowed Linze before she could do more than open her mouth to mention that I could use all the elements. “But I guess it’s fashionable enough to wear about town.”

“I… well, we could make it cheap and sell it to you for… eight?” Bryce suggested.

“Eight silver? That’s quite reasonable,” I said, being deliberately obtuse.

“Ah, no. Gold,” the salesman corrected. “Eight gold.”

“Ah…” I frowned, “Oh well. I could see going as high as three gold, but eight? With such a glaring vulnerability?”

Linze opened her mouth to ask what I was doing… it was like she’d never heard of haggling… is this what happens in a world without Jews? No one knows about haggling? No, clearly Bryce did. Linze didn’t. Soo innocent. I accidentally on purpose stepped on her foot.

“I could speak to the owner,” Bryce suggested. “Maybe he would be willing to go down to seven?”

“Not a copper over five,” I came back.

“Six and a half?”

“Five and seven.”

“Six two, and that’s cutting out my commission.”

“We both know you’ll settle for six, and we both know you’re still getting a commission at that price,” I said, eyes bright with the thrill of the deal.

He grunted, then grinned, sticking out his hand. “Sold!” We shook and he smirked, shaking his head slowly, “You’re good. I’d have gone down to five eight, you know?”

“I know. But you deserve the commission, and weakness or not, this is a very nice coat. Tell you want, if you have any rings that can act as storage, I’ll take one, if we can reach a mutually acceptable price.”

I ended up spending eleven gold, and considered it money well spent. In addition to my coat and a ring capable of holding seven and a third cubic meters of material (and recalling anything stored either to my hand if I summoned it palm up, or onto the ground in front of me if I summoned it palm down), I also got a wonderful pair of boots that would allow me to jump up to nine and a quarter meters straight up (that was apparently the gravitational constant of this world… be interesting to see how well it worked in other worlds) and further lengthwise. They were also guaranteed to keep my feet nice and dry even if I was wading through a swamp. I fucking love magic. They were also extremely nice looking, all black leather and silver threadwork and buckles. They came up to my mid calves and had a heavy sole with a centimeter and a half heel, and (wonder of wonders) actual treads that had been hand carved into the leather before they were enchanted for extra durability. I loved my new boots… and I was very much looking forward to smashing some bandit’s face with them. Got to break them in somehow.

Linze ended up getting a new wand with her money… it was very pretty too, more macelike than wandlike, with three large magic crystals in the head (one each for Fire, Water, and Light). Before we hooked up with the others, I stopped in to a local bakery and bought up a box of assorted cookies, sticking them in my ring. We got back to the inn we’d stashed the cart at just as the sun was about to hit the horizon.

“Oooo! Nice coat!” Elze cooed, running her hand along the sleeve. “And those boots… all the black is a little much, but it suits you!”

“And they’re enchanted,” I said, waggling my eyebrows. “Defense against all offensive magic for the coat as well as blade and blunt attacks, and the boots are guaranteed to stay dry inside.”

“Resistance to all offensive magic? How much did that cost!”

“Not nearly as much as the store wanted to charge,” Linze said, ratting me out. “She tricked that poor salesman!”

“It’s called haggling, Linze,” I said. “He claimed the coat was cheap at eight… that means it’s not cheap and he’s expecting you to dicker.”

“But you made it seem like the coat would make you vulnerable, when it won’t!” Linze protested.

“Yes!” I agreed. “I did. It’s called knowing something he didn’t know. If he knew how good a deal the coat was for me, he’d have raised the price… that’s how business works. Supply and demand. As long as he assumed no one would have universal affinity, he believed that the coat was as much a liability as it was a benefit for most people. They were expecting a low margin of profit on the coat.” I put my hand on her shoulder. “Imagine you rush in to a shop and say ‘I must have that wand, cost is no object!’ Do you think they’ll charge you what they’d charge someone who is interested but clearly unwilling to pay full price?”

“They could wait until someone is willing to pay full price, could they not?” Yae asked. Ah, poor lambs.

“Look, I’ll be perfectly happy to explain the intricacies of deal making to you all, but we should get back to Reflet sooner than later. Unless we want to be gone another day?” Linze and Elze shook their heads, so we rolled out of town just as the sun well and truly vanished beneath the horizon. The girls weren’t sold on my explanation that even though the sun had set at Alephis, it would still be another eight minutes before the sun finished setting at Reflect, 254 kilometers to the west and 31 kilometers closer to the equator. Since the gates of the city closed as soon as the last light of day was gone, that gave us just enough time.

Of course, I was right. Magic is magical and all, but science… ah… science… science is good too! Of course, what I failed to anticipate was that we’d be gating right into the middle of a dozen slimes trying to get into the town. The screams we released were loud enough to bring the guards from the gate running, but the cart was a total loss as Linze and I had to burn the accursed things before they could… well… they were probably trying to eat our clothing, but they weren’t exactly discriminating when it came to crawling all over us. Apparently I need magical pants too, because my shirt and pants were mostly gone by the time we led the horse through the gate (the guards were nice enough to hold it open past dark due to the fight and were polite enough to avert their eyes.) but the magical gear we wore was unscathed.

Micah wasn’t behind the counter when we got to the Silver Moon, figuring we’d settle the matter of the cart in the morning… you know, when we had clothing that wasn’t falling apart on us. Instead, there was a red beard attached to the face of a tough-looking man. “Welcome! Ya stayin’?” he asked.

“Ah. Actually, yes. We’re already registered. We just got back from a job,” Elze explained, seeming less concerned that her sister to be flashing panty.

“Ahh, so ya were here before, eh? Sorry, first time seein’ ya an’ all.”

“Where’s Micah?” I asked.

“She’s in the back,” redbeard said, then bellowed, “Oy! Micah! Customers lookin’ fer ya!”

She peered out from the kitchen and grinned, “Back already? You girls work fast… oh dear… Slimes?”

We nodded, then Elze asked, “Who’s the beard with the muscles?”

“Oh. Right! This is my dad! He just got back from a long-distance restocking trip!”

Micah’s Dad extended a hand roughly the size of a small ham and said, “Name’s Dolan! Nice to meet ya!”

I shook it and grinned. “Jouya. And these are my girls, Yae, Linze, and Elze.”

“Y… your girls, is it?” Yae asked, sounding confused.

“Yeah!” I said, “Like, we’re the gang! And you’re my girls, right?”

There was much blushing at that… what the hell? I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m totally not above flirting, but didn’t women in this world call their friends that? That would be a first. I shook my head in bemusement, then turned back to Dolan, “Yae’s joining us. She eats a fair amount, so you’ll probably want to charge her like, four copper a day?”

Dolan chuckled. “Can’t be that bad! Tiny thing like her!”

I grinned, “Betcha. Betcha she can eat more than you can. Yae wins, she stays for three copper, you and your beard win, Yae stays for five copper.”

Yae blushed at being put on the spot like that, but the other two encouraged her. We needed the morale boost after the slime assault on our wardrobe. Dolan took the bet, and we went upstairs to change into less sanctified (Holey) clothing. Of course, Yae and her truly extraordinary metabolism won. Micah and Dolan were at a complete loss for words. Micah did like her gift though, which was nice.

The next morning, we reported back to Zanac to inform him of the job’s completion, and to inform him that, although the trip had been shorter than planned thanks to my [GATE] spell, we were going to need to use the last of the funds he’d provided for travel expenses to pay for the destroyed cart and to replace our clothing.

To say he was surprised was an understatement, but he thanked us for our speed and honesty. “But you must let me replace your clothing for you. You lost them in my service, after all… and I must say that that robe your pink friend is wearing is most interesting… would she sell it to me?”

Yae, who’d been driving the cart as we came through was the only one of us with intact clothing… which was good, because she only had that one kimono, though she had several changes of pants and under garments. She wasn’t willing to sell it, but she did agree to allow Zanac to exam the garment as long as he didn’t damage it.

We left Zanac’s shop with a new outfit apiece, and headed to the carter’s shop, Wagon Forward, to report the loss of the vehicle and to return the horses (whose names were Pepper and Stormy). The owner was, of course, glad to have his horses back unharmed, but said he couldn’t possibly take money for the bucka, since we’d gone and saved the horses from those horrid monsters. Anyway, the bucka was old and rumor said there was a new kind of wagon coming out soon.

We insisted, he resisted. Finally, he allowed us to give him five silver for his loss, though he claimed he’d be able to salvage three of the wheels and both axles and the leadpost (the thing the horses are attached too. The front seat was a little charred, but the owner said he could use it as a bench.

So then we had to trek back to Zanac and explain that, as it turns out, we didn’t have to pay for the bucka, and he could have the rest of his travel expenses back, but that just amused the man so much that he too refused to take the coins. WHAT IS WITH PEOPLE IN THIS WORLD!?

To Be Continued in Part Three!

Next: Under Another Sky

If you like what I do, please consider supporting me on Patreon. I’d especially like to thank Parzival, bearblue, and Ryune, but all of you who read my work and comment are wonderful.

I also have an original Novel (it’s space opera) in very slow progress here. Please check it out. Let me know if I should create a Blog for it too. I also have a very silly second chain about a Jumper named Zed, temporarily on hiatus. It isn’t very long.

AN: I hope people are enjoying the two divergent storylines enough to justify this switching back and forth. Don’t worry, I’ve also got a Solace bit coming out this week. Good lord, this is 17,000 words and that’s… hah. NaNoWriMo? I write 40,000 words almost every month. Sometimes more. In some ways it’s liberating, in others it’s like AAAAAhhh, there’s just soo much there!

Oh, and for you fashion kings and queens out there… The Coat (Because Touya’s coat is lame and boring)

The Coat from Luca

The Coat from Luca1