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 or Undertale

If you like what I do, please consider supporting me on Patreon. I’d especially like to thank Parzival, bearblue, Ryune, and Sphinxes, 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.

Gilly Face
Gilly
Solace Verse Local
The_Honor_Harrington_Universe A
Advertisements

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 Fire, 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

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.

Gilly Face
Gilly
Solace Verse Local
The_Honor_Harrington_Universe A

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

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.

Gilly Face
Gilly

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

World 77: Honor Harrington – Part 2.16

SOLACE OF MANTICORE

Part 16: Solace & The Ace of Sol

Previously: Eye to Eye, Heart to Heart, This is Where the Party Starts

Timestamp: Second Half of May, 1892 PD

“LOYAL!” Solace bellowed as she stormed back into the embassy, the rage she’d been containing for the last seven hours finally boiling over.

“Did you get…” her brother began, then stopped when he saw her face. He grabbed her arm and pulled her into a private room, hitting the anti-snooping field-disruptor as he slammed the door. It was testament to how overwrought she was that she didn’t even try to stop him. “What’s wrong? You were supposed to signal back and you didn’t.”

“That… bastard… I’m going to fucking kill him…” she muttered, pacing the length of the room and back. “Damnit!” she yelled, punching the wall. “Damnit Damnit DAMNIT!”

Loyal watched his sisters blows shatter the wood panelling then, pitching his voice low for maximum calm, demanded “Sandy… you have to talk to me. What happened?” He had to focus her before she hurt herself… the wall under those panels was made of the same battlesteel as the rest of the building.

“You want to know what happened?” she asked, voice like cobra venom. “I took the offer to that snake… that worm… that… that… Loyal… he’s got one of me.”

Her brother just stared at her for a long, long moment. The pain in her voice was staggering. He’d seen her overwhelmed, wracked with grief and confusion, and physical pain more than he was comfortable with and had held her as she’d wept on more than a few occasions… but this pain was unlike any she’d ever shown him before, unlike any he had ever read about in any of his books. This was existential anguish. “When you…” He started, then stopped, cleared his throat, then tried again. “You mean… he’s got a clone of you?”

“Near as… I… I… Loyal… I looked into her eyes and it was like I was her. She’s got no defenses at all… nothing to keep… oh god… Loyal… I could feel the damage those bastards did to her. I know her name Loyal. I know her name and we’ve never even met.” She hugged herself, shivering, then screamed a scream of pure rage and the lavender of her eyes was no longer welcoming. It was dark, hungry, vicious and he could feel her anger pulsing off her in waves.

He stepped forward and hugged her… then realized that she was alone. “Where are the ‘cats, Solace?” He asked, voice struggling to stay calm.

“Outside… I think I scared them… I… I could see her memories in my mind… not all of them… but enough. She’s nine… or so… scared… alone… there are two dozen children in that household and she’s not allowed to play with them. He… He tells her that she’s special… that she’s for his grandson… his fucking… he bought his grandson a pretty little dolly to breed with. She’s the bastard’s graduation present. He graduates in five fucking weeks. Hasdrubal can’t shut about about how proud he is. They’re going to give a nine year old little girl to a twenty-two year old… as a present!”

She broke away from him, grabbed a pitcher of water from the chiller, and poured herself a glass, hand shaking so badly she splashed herself. She looked at the water and for a moment he was certain she was going to crush the glass or hurl it against the wall… but she exhaled slowly, took a drink, and he felt the waves of rage and pain easing.

“Loyal… you need to get a message to Minerva… I need the Palace Athena here ASAP,” she said softly… too softly.

“Why do you need the yacht?” he asked, knowing the answer.

“I’m going to kidnap Gilly and I need a way to get her off planet.”

“You know that they’ll search her, right? Even if we try claiming diplomatic immunity, The Solarian League’s an eight ton Walrus… it just sits wherever it wants to.”

She gave him a soft look. “I know that. Please… just… and tell the Ambassador I’ll be back in a couple of days. In time for the presentation.”

“The Present… Solace… he said yes?”

“Yes. He said… I feel dirty taking his money. This is eight kinds of evil, Loyal. Insider trading, peculation, profiteering… I’ve effectively bribed a member of a foreign government in order to make a profit… and I will… You know that? Or Minerva will… the contract’s worth billions. There will be Inverter detectors in every city with a population higher than 100,000 in the Galaxy in five years… and I’m helping the Khan family…” Her calm wavered and the glass in her hand cracked like a shot, but it didn’t shatter and she set it down carefully, breathing slowly.

“Solace… don’t do anything hasty,” Loyal advised, taking the glass and dropping it into the incinerator chute. “We can’t afford to-”

“Loyal. It’s not about what we can afford and can’t afford. I can’t not do this. I have to save her… and I have to make certain that no one ever comes looking for her.”

He gasped, “You… you can’t mean…”

“What’s a vendetta without a little bloodshed?” She chuckled. “I’m going to assassinate one of the Gang of Six… and if I get caught, the Kingdom will disavow me.”

“Can’t…. Can’t you have Jeremy do it?”

“Loyal… I could no more ask it of him than I could ask it of you. Somethings require a personal touch.”

Loyal exhaled slowly, then shook his head. “You have to consult him. This is his area of expertize… plus, he’ll be deeply offended you didn’t ask. You know this violates the hierarchy of duty, right?”

She gave him a steady glare, but he crossed his eyes and met her gaze without flinching. “I’m not doing this for a total stranger. She’s an innocent. That puts her above myself in the HOD. And before you argue that I still have a duty to the family and the kingdom… not that she couldn’t be my sister… this is about protecting humanity.”

“I don’t follow.”

“Loyal… Hasdrubal is one of the Sestet… he effectively rules 80% of humanity, at least in part. He’s corrupt… they all are… but he’s doing business with Manpower! That means Manpower has blackmail material on one of the leaders of humanity… I wonder how many more leaders they have in their pockets… Hasdrubal has to go done…”

“His daughter will take his place and want revenge… and nothing guarantees that she won’t be even worse,” Loyal pointed out.

“I… think I have an idea… I’m not going to rush this… but I have to go. I… I’ll talk to Jimmy… Get that message to Minerva.”

He sighed, then nodded, rubbing the bridge of his nose. “I will. But… be careful.”

=======

Anaximander Khan was the eldest son of Daria Khan, eldest daughter and heir to the Khan fortune… if you wanted to call it that. On paper, the Khans were worth a few hundred million solarian credits. It was a decent enough amount of money; Hasdrubal had used his position to make himself and his family rich enough… but there were limits even to the Solarian League’s corruption and how much could be hidden. Still, it was nothing compared to the resources available to even the least scion of one of the great mercantile and banking families in the Human sphere. Anaximander was a student at Oxford Business School (New Delhi campus) and had done well enough for himself, with a class-ranking was in the top ten percent and he’d actually earned that position. His mother had insisted on her deathbed that he not rely on the family wealth to just skate through.

However, the end of business school was looming and he had, along with several of his ‘friends’, decided that a night on the town couldn’t be too bad. They were in a EON Emporium… one of his friends said that EON was short for Empty OrchestratioN, but no one really cared. It was mostly an excuse to get up on stage and sing along with the most popular music while the babes watched and cheered.

There was a nice crop of honies there that night, and one of them had let Anaximander… whose ‘friends’ called him ‘Manny’ and whose mother called him ‘Naxi’ and whose grandfather called him ‘My Boy!’… buy her a drink or two. She laughed easily and the smiles went all the way to her eyes. She didn’t agree to go off with him after the first two drinks, but she let him pull her over to a private booth and buy a couple more drinks. If she didn’t say yes after that, he’d give up and order a Uber-Babe to get him back to his dorm and sate his needs at the same time.

That turned out to be unnecessary, and soon he and his bodyguard and the girl (whose name was definitely not Citrine he hoped), left the Emporium for his car. She was just taking off her top when the world went dark for young Mr. Khan.

=====

“You say you have no idea who took my grandson?” Hasdrubal asked Mattu Peterhoff (the bodyguard) sixteen hours later. The man had been tranqed, beaten, and stuffed into the trunk of the limo along with the similarly tranqed and beaten chauffeur. The beatings had been perfunctory and both men would recover in a few days without much medical care needed.

“No sir,” Mattu replied, both eyes blackening quite alarmingly. “I said I’m not certain if the girl was involved or was taken by the party who took Manny. I’m reasonably certain that it was the Audubon Ballroom or someone trying to make us think it was.”

The Old Man narrowed his eyes as he regarded the highly paid and extremely dangerous ex-special forces officer on his comm-screen. “Why do you say that?”

The bodyguard shrugged. “They left the sheet music to a piece called ‘Men’s Waltz’ by someone called Ballet Freedom with the address to a network node and the sum 16 million credits underneath on the back.”

Hasdrubal sneered. “Fine. Send me the information and prepare a rapid response team. I’m going to want you to show these lunatics why you don’t mess with the league.”

Mattu snapped his heels together and saluted, then signed off. Within moments, the information was sent to Hasdrubal’s private comp.

Jeremy X cricked his neck and sighed, “I cannot believe that worked.” He stepped back from the image digitizer and looked at where the real Mattu Peterhoff was mumbling still, eyes glazed by the drugs surging through his system. The chauffeur, who had taken a far smaller cocktail to break, was sleeping it off on a cot in a cell in the corner of the warehouse that Solace’s money had gotten completely off the books.

Citrine X, who was a damned good hacker when she wasn’t seducing men in bars, laughed. “Everyone talks eventually. We just made talking more attractive than keeping quiet. How do you think your friend’s getting along with the boy… he seems useless but not horrible.”

Jeremy frowned, then shook his head, “He’s scum… I can feel it. Just not scum that’s crossed any lines yet.”

“You don’t think her plan will work?”

“If he was the kind to defy his upbringing and cultural programming, there’d be records of him acting out. There isn’t any. Everything says he’s a good little Khan.”

“Maybe… but his mother acted out a lot in her youth… maybe she influenced him?”

“Perhaps… but maybe she was just acting out to prove to her father that she was tougher than her younger brothers. She did get the Old Man’s companies when he was bumped up to permanent undersecretary.”

Citrine considered, brushing back her platinum blonde hair. “Well… I guess we’ll see.”

=======

Anaximander groaned, opening his eyes and wincing at the harsh light shining down from the ceiling. “T… ow… What the…” his head hurt preposterously and he was having trouble focusing. The bed was extremely hard… no… not bed… he felt cold… his fingers felt under him… plascrete? “Where?” he asked.

A figure loomed over him and a hand was offered. He took it and was startled at how easily he was yanked off the floor and then he was nose to neck with the tallest woman he’d ever encountered… god, she was like one of those Amazon Scrags in the videos… but not as scary.

“Hello, young master Khan,” the woman said. Her accent flawless textbook English.

“Wh-who are you?” he stammered, stumbling backward from her but the light was behind her head and looking at her was blinding.

“My name is unimportant. The important thing, for you, is that I’m going to kill your grandfather.” She ignored his shocked gasp. “The question is what to do with you.”

“W-With ME?” he practically squeaked. “W… what do you mean?” he asked, nervously. Either this woman was insane or very dangerous… his grandfather had many enemies, so it could be either.

“Your grandfather has done business with slavers,” she said, and he understood instantly. She explained anyway and he felt his terror growing. “Me and my friends are not in the business of allowing such actions to go unpunished.”

“Huhhh… You… you’re Ballroom!” he accused.

“Some would certainly say so. Now… as I said, I’m going to kill your grandfather. The question is how you will feel about that.” She was completely calm… it was insane. She was crazy. How did she think he’d feel?!

“How do you think I’ll feel!?” he yelled, balling his fists up and crouching to fight her.

She backhanded him across the small room so fast his eyes turned the single light into a blur before he was face down on the hard cold floor. “I just told you that your grandfather buys slaves. You know of the Ballroom. You know the Ballroom doesn’t act without evidence. So yes, how will you feel when the old man is dealt with? The old man who thinks human lives can be bought and sold? The old man who thinks raping children is acceptable? The old man who had your mother poisoned after you and your brother were teens?”

He jerked with each of her accusations, flinching as her voice got colder and colder and her face, that dark featureless sphere surrounded by light, loomed closer… had she hit him just so to keep the light between him and her? Or had the light moved? That was nonsense… both were… no one had that kind of control… and no one would do the other… right? Wait… what was that last?

“You Lie!” he snapped.

“Your mother died of advanced neuroplastic hypertrophy… that condition is extremely rare and seldom has such a short onset. We did some checking. Your mother’s doctors have all retired from medicine or died. All of them. In the last nine years.”

“Y… you’re… it could have been something else!” he was sounding desperate now, and he knew it, but if they had that information…

“Tell me, boy… what you know of slavery.”

He gulped. The hate in that word told him that this woman was going to kill him if he said the wrong thing. “Y… You’re going to kill me if… if I don’t condemn it!” he accused her.

“True. But I’m probably going to kill you anyway. Can’t have you helping Manpower out of a desire for revenge, now. Can I?”

He shivered. “I… I wouldn’t,” he said, wondering how he could convince her.

“Yeah… I’m not convinced. See, we kidnapped you to draw your grandfather into a trap. But we don’t actually need you alive. Just alive long enough to provide proof of life,” she sounded apologetic, he realized… then he realized she was drawing a very large knife.

“N… no!” He screamed, backing into the wall and waving his hand. “I… I… don’t kill me!”

She paused. “Why not?”

“I… umm… if you kill me… if… if you kill me… I… wait… ummm… If you’re going to kill my grandfather… that makes me the head of Khan Consumer Products… I… I’ll help you! I’m sure Manpower will contact me and… and I’ll be your agent! And… and you’ll be able to use Khan’s products and contacts! Whenever you like!” His voice rose higher and higher and he was speaking faster and faster as she raised the knife and tapped it against her face.

“Okay…” she said slowly. “Tell me how you think this would work.”

=======

“Sandy… you can’t be serious!” Jimmy snapped. “This plan is insanity.”

She smiled, patting his shoulder. “Best kind of plan. The enemy will never see it coming.”

“You still think he’ll come?”

“He’ll come. He’ll want to be nearby. Want to see us when his plan to kill us all succeeds.”

Jeremy frowned. “I still think the risk is unconscionable. Are you certain? I can come with you.”

She sighed deeply, then pulled the slight man into a bear hug. “No. Thank you. But I can’t trust anyone else with the other task. You’ve got to get her out of there… and without anyone knowing about it. It’s got to look like she escaped on her own… and I trust you to keep her safe.”

“I…” he swallowed, then nodded and left without a backwards glance, leaving Solace and Citrine X alone in the now empty warehouse. The chauffeur would wake up in 48 hours in a Goa drug den, their systems so full of broadspectrum narcotics that any memories of the last week would be scrambled beyond recognition. The bodyguard, drugged to a much lesser degree, had, to the best of his recollection, escaped, taking a personal computer with him. He was being followed even now.

“You’re five kinds of crazy, you know that?” Citrine commented.

“Yeah? Whatcha gonna do about it? Tattle to my mother?”

“Naw… I think it’s kinda sexy.”

Solace laughed.

=====

Solace and Anaximander stood thirty meters from the squad of goons that flanked Hasdrubal. They were in an ancient parking structure that had been recently cleared out by Mumbai’s all too efficient branch office of the Solarian Gendarmaries. The structure was planned for demolition, but the crew had gone on strike a week earlier and now the building was empty except for those involved in the exchange.

Anaximander whispered to Solace, “Are you certain this bomb is a dud?”

“For the third time, yes. You watched me build it. It’s nothing but hard packed flour and water connected to strips of ribbon. It only looks like a bomb.” She rolled her eyes, “Now shush… and act scared.”

“That’s easy. I am scared!” He muttered.

“I told you to come alone, Old Man,” Solace called across the gap, the pair of pistols in her hands matching the heavy needle guns in the hands of each of the nine spec-forces goons flanking the Mandarin.

“And then you can take me hostage too?” He scoffed. “I think not.”

“Fine. Where’s my money, Khan?” Solace snapped back.

“Here.” He held up a bag. “Untracable. Bearer Bonds. Banco d’Madrid.” He slid the bag across the smooth ground and it stopped about five meters from Solace and Anaximander.

“Grrr…” She muttered, then dragged the boy towards the bag…. Then tripped forward, rolling forward and shooting with both pistols. Eight shots, four from each gun, cracked out as she rolled and then she brought her hands together and shot Mattu in the head with both pistols.

Hasdrubal gasped as the blood splattered over his face and he yelled, “What are you waiting for? Shoot her!” before realizing that his entire squad was toppling, slowly, nervelessly, to the ground. Her shots, except for the double tap to the helmetless Mattu’s raccoon visage, had punched into the throat mikes the team was equipped with, crushing their larynxes with the enhanced kinetic energy of handheld gauss-pistols, each of which was astoundingly illegal on Terra… and Manticore, for that matter.

Solace put her Mesa-built pistols back in their holsters and grabbed the boy off the ground, standing him upright and grinning at Hasdrubal. “It was a nice try… I assumed you wouldn’t blow up the kid so I assume there really is cash in there.” She kicked the bag and it seemed heavy enough. She waited until the bureaucrat wiped his face clean and nodded, grunting softly.

“Yes… Well… I…” he said, then shrugged. “I had to try, didn’t I?”

“Yes,” she agreed. “You did. Now come over here and open the bag or I show you what happens to slavers. You’re lucky that I found out, rather than my comrades in the Ballroom. They would have just killed you. I want out. Tell me you weren’t stupid enough to buy more than one?”

“I… no… i mean, I have bought others… but she went crazy… nearly killed me.” He tugged at the high collar of his shirt, showing a faint scar. “That was a long time ago. Before the boy’s mother was born. Manpower said they got better about screening that kind of thing.”

“Oh?” Solace asked. “Is that why she’s so… small?” She made it sound light and airy, knowing the old man was taking his time walking forward to give himself time to plan.

“Oh… no… she’s just young. They promised that the treatments are entirely therapeutic… no damage to the girl’s genome.” He smiled softly as if the words were meant to placate her. “Don’t worry. She won’t come to any harm, as long as she behaves! She’s just the boy’s bride to be… natural for a man to care about the quality of his offspring, right?” He knelt, opening the bag a little too eagerly.

She shoved him onto his back with a foot the moment the bag slid open far enough to reveal part of a bearer bond… and the corner of a pop-up gas mine. She knelt, left hand gun drawn to cover the elder Khan and right hand reaching for the gas grenade. She pinched the pressure pad and started drawing it out of the bag, carefully keeping the pin depressed just enough. She was leaning a little further when she felt the gun on her right hip slip free from the holster and then her head was spinning as the butt of the gun smashed into her right temple. She sprawled across the bag, the gas grenade skidding off into the distance and exploding.

It wasn’t a big explosion and the gas, which smelled like anethezine, would have knocked her out if she’d gotten a face full of it but from this distance it wouldn’t have any effect. She groaned as Anaximander stomped on her left hand and wrenched the left hand pistol out of it.

“Bitch,” he muttered, then turned to his grandfather and asked, “Are you okay, Sir?”

Hasdrubal blinked, then grunted and grinned. “I am now, my boy… I am…” He grunted at the sound of a gauss pistol being fired into his stomach. “Wh… what?” The old man stumbled backwards, gasping, looking down at his belly, then up at his heir. “W… why?”

“She told me about my mother. Told me you killed her. Or paid to have her killed. Either way.” Manny stepped forward, following the Old Man who was trying to flee, to get away from the crazed boy. “She tried to turn me. Make me okay with her killing you. I tricked her into thinking I’d be her puppet. But this way, I get you dead and get your company and she’s dead too. Now I just have to dispose of this slave you bought and pin your murder on her… but these are her guns… should be easy. I’ll look like a hero!” he crowed, clubbing the old man upside the head as he caught up.

Solace groaned, levering herself up on her right hand and stretching out her broken hand towards him. “KHaaaan!” she yelled, feeling a strange deja vu as the boy raised the right hand pistol, pointing it at Hasdrubal’s face, and pulled the trigger.

It clicked empty.

“Damn,” the boy muttered, then switched hands and fired, obliterating his grandfather’s head in a spray of blood. He turned to face Solace, grinning as he saw her eyes full of hate glaring back at him. “Six rounds each, huh?” He looked at the second pistol, seeing it flashing to indicate that it had a single round left. He pointed the weapon at her and shrugged. “No hard feelings, right?” He pulled the trigger.

Solace dropped her face into the bag as the guns exploded, the faildeadly condition met when both guns had been fired dry within five minutes of each other. She raised her head as the explosion washed over her and called, “Citrine! Tell me the security cameras caught the execution!”

“You betcha boss,” she called out of the darkness.

“Good. Leak that to our friend in the media in three hours,” Solace called, then grabbed the bag and stood up, walking towards the boy who was gaping at the stumps of his arms, his breath catching. The explosions hadn’t been very big. She looked down at him, and whispered, “You were a terrible dancing partner.”

====

Audrie O’Hanrahan looked out at the audience she couldn’t see and assumed a somber face, “That was the scene in Mumbai last night as Permanent Under-Secretary of Education and Information Hasdrubal Khan was brutally murdered by his own grandson who apparently bought illegal and defective Mass-Driver Pistols. Anaximander Khan, a student at Oxford’s New Delhi campus had apparently planned on framing his grandfather for dealing in slaves and having been assassinated by the Audubon Ballroom. He was non-responsive on the scene, having lost both hands and part of his ribcage to the exploding weapons and was pronounced dead at Mumbai’s Charity Mercy Hospital at 8:15 local time. He leaves behind his wife of nine months Citrine Khan nee Murguz, and an unborn child, which she claims will be named after Anaximander’s mother, Hasdrubal’s daughter, Daria Khan. Probate is expected to see many competing claims for Hasdrubal’s personal fortune, as Anaximander’s uncles seek to void the late mogul’s will on the principle that someone should not profit from their criminal acts. Citrine has already retained legal counsel from a law firm associated with the New Temple Group of Manticore and says that she’ll do all she can to protect her daughter’s legacy and inheritance, since the child clearly could had no part in the murder. Citrine herself was at dinner with Solace and Loyal Smythe of Manticore, whose uncle Ivan heads New Temple. They apparently met at dinner a week earlier at Hasdrubal’s Bangkok manor.”

=====

The applause from the Solarian Assembly had been mixed in quality and duration. Some had been quite enthusiastic while others seemed as if they were somehow offended by the idea that they needed to be protected from technology invented on the fringes of the Human Sphere by technology also invented on the fringes of the Human Sphere. Solace, who’d had more than her share of history lessons, commented to Sonja Hemphill, “I guess that, to some of them, it’s like being the Americans being given an anti-nuclear early launch detector by… I don’t know… one of the micronesian islands.”

“Uh huh… you’re rambling again and that’s the fifteenth time you’ve checked your chrono in the last six minutes…” the admiral commented. “I assure you, time has not sped up or slowed down drastically… is something wrong?”

“Minerva is supposed to be picking me up so we can finalize the Manticoran side of the deal,” Solace said, trying to sound nonchalant and, for the first time in her life, aware of just how badly she was doing.

Thankfully, Sonja made the wrong assumption and grinned. “Give her a flourish for me, young lady,” she teased, waggling her eyebrows salaciously at her former protege. Solace couldn’t help blushing and she playfully pushed the Admiral just as they stepped out into the bright Old Chicago spring afternoon. “I believe your ride is here,” the older woman said, nodding at the second diplomatic limo with Manticoran flags on it. “I’ll tell the Captain and the Ambassador you’ll be back later, shall I?”

Solace swallowed hard, feeling sweat on her palms and nodded, not even looking at the former captain. “Yeah… I’ll… Umm… I might need a couple of days… it’s… we have things to…” She shrugged, helpless in the face of her nervousness. Crossing to the limo, she missed the expression shared between Sonja and Naomi, and the worried emotional interplay between the two treecats.

Minerva was alone in the backseat of the limo, the privacy barrier raised and telltales for sonic jamming winked on the console. She was wearing a severe business suit and holding a glass of Laphroaig 60 White Oak, the glass cryonically cold. She was also wearing an expression that showed just how annoyed she was at being summoned sixty lightyears without an explanation… but one look at Solace’s expression dispelled the annoyance and she set down the whiskey and hugged the younger woman tightly.

“What’s wrong, love? You look… rattled.”

“I… thanks for coming. I… I… I had to do something recently and I’m not certain I did the right thing… I’m pretty certain I’ve done some pretty horrible things, actually… but I didn’t know how else to… we need to get up to the Palace.” Solace hugged the mogul tight, her arms shaking as she forced herself to be calm. “There are things I dare not talk about on the planet… and… and I got you a surprise. It’s being delivered right now.”

“Delivered? Solace… you know I don’t like surprises… nor do I like unknown parcels being brought aboard my yacht without…” She sighed, shook her head, eyes tracking the normally collected young woman’s body language; eyes that wouldn’t quite make contact, fingers that gripped themselves in near agony, skin that was too damp for the cool dry air inside the car. “Yes… I guess we do.”

=====

C-76a/181-14/15 nine years, six months, twenty-one days old today. She knew she was because, as much she didn’t want to, she remembered everything. Every moment of her life since she’d first become aware in the tank. The terrible men and women; Doctors, Creche Monitors, and Phenotype Technicians; and their… lessons. She’d never been left alone in her entire life, not for so much as a minute, up until her arrival at the palace of the Old Man… Hasdrubal… It… she knew the name because the other her had known the name. The other her had had a name too… Solace-Sandy-WorldJumper-Anvil… so many images, so many thoughts not her own… and then a door had slammed closed between herself and her other self and she’d been alone for the first time… She’d been aware of the fact that she was alone, even as the nervous K-series woman had escorted her back to her room. Escorted her away from the other children, the ones who were free-born… the ones who didn’t have tattoos on their tongues… the ones who had never… never… she didn’t want to think about it. She wasn’t allowed to talk with those children, to join them in their strange activity that seemed to have no purpose.

Days had passed. Days and nights and Hasdrubal had come to check on her and to tell her about the Anaximander, her ‘husband-to-be’. She knew those words. Knew she’d be not a wife but a ‘courtesan’. That Hasdrubal’s heir could not be publicly married to one like her… but she’d keep his bed warm and… and give him children… many strong and healthy children. The technicians had told her that. Hasdrubal had told her that. The K-series woman who said she wasn’t allowed to tell C-76a/181-14/15 her name… and so she hadn’t told the older woman her own secret name either.

She didn’t know why she’d chosen it. She just had… it was a secret defiance… the only one that they couldn’t punish her for, the only thing they couldn’t take from her. She called herself ‘Gilly’… No one had ever known that… not even her sisters, gone now, culled one by one as they failed to withstand the rigors of the training. Gilly had been so scared for them, but she couldn’t tell them that if they had something that the bad people couldn’t take from you… something they couldn’t see… it would give you the strength to give in… the others hadn’t… most had gone mad, become violent or catatonic… three of her fourteen sisters had killed themselves… one had killed another before she could be stopped. Gilly couldn’t not remember that either.

She had felt for the others, wanted to help them… but she couldn’t even help herself. Couldn’t protect them from the horrible Albrecht man who came once a year to investigate them and test them. She’d watched him strangle one of her sisters for looking him in the eyes for a second to long, her small body turning blue until she stopped moving… and then he’d ordered her revived by the Doctors. And so Gilly had never dared tell her secret name to another… and… and then… then… the other her had been in her mind and GIlly had felt the panic washing over her. She didn’t know if the panic came from within her or within the other her or both… and before she could figure it out, she was profoundly and completely alone.

That had lasted six days… and on the seventh day… there was a man in her room. He was a funny man and he stuck out his tongue to show her his number. “Hello, Gilly,” he said. “My name is Jimmy… a very good friend of mine gave me that name long ago. She told me to come get you. Do you know her name?”

Gilly gulped. This wasn’t happening… was it? Was it a test? A trap? It… it could be… but… but Jimmy knew her secret name… she squirmed, hugging the filmy clothing that covered her arms and flat chest, the metal guard over her crotch hard and slightly painful as always. “S… sh… is she called S… Sandy?” the little girl asked the stranger. She looked around, seeing the K-series woman tied up in the corner and barely breathing.

The man, who was K-series too, though he didn’t look at all scared to Gilly, grinned. “She is!” he crowed quietly, then did a little strange dance… she knew dancing… she’d been taught to do many dances… and beaten when she’d failed to do them well enough. “Sandy sent me to take you away from here and bring you someplace safe. Would you like to leave?”

Gilly blinked at that. Never in her entire life had she ever been asked if she wanted to do something. The gift of that choice was overwhelming and she gulped. “I… I can… I don’t have to if I don’t want to?” she asked, expecting him to get mad… but instead he just looked a little sad.

“You don’t want to?” he asked, lower lip sticking out.

“I… I’m… I don’t…” She flinched as she said one of the forbidden phrases… but he didn’t hit her. Instead he tossed her a small package wrapped in vacuum-sealed plastic. There was a strange machine in there, barely bigger than her palm, and some cloth… she picked it up from her lap and studied it.

“I would love to give you all the time you need, my new friend… but I’m afraid we have very little time. We have to be gone from here, leaving no trace you were ever here within the next ten minutes. Would it help if I promise that I shan’t lay so much as a finger upon you?”

Gilly tilted her head in confusion, then asked, “Why would it?” She wanted to whimper as Jimmy acted as if she’d slapped him and he crossed to her… but stopped a meter from her. “I… you have to pull that deactivator out of the package and use it before I can touch you.”

“I…” she looked at it, then understood. It was designed to allow her owner to remove the chastity device. She opened the pack and pulled out the card. “Why is it sealed up?”

“Genetic sniffer. Any male besides those authorized gets within half a meter of you and the alarm goes up.”

“Oh…” She didn’t understand, but she tapped the card against the metal thing and hissed in pain as the latches disengaged from her skin and a spray of regen-activator chemicals splashed against the open piercings holes. The hateful thing dropped onto the bed between her legs and she stood up and used it the deactivator on her collar, stripping off her clothing and pulling on the garb from the bag… it looked exactly like one of the outfits the other children had been wearing.

Once she was dressed, Jimmy picked her up in one strong hand and had her wrap her arms around his neck. With the other hand, he grabbed the large duffle bag that he’d stuffed the K-Series woman into, along with all the tech in the room. He carried them both out of the room without apparent difficulty, and behind her she heard the hiss of gas being released.

“What’s that?” she asked softly?

“Sanitizer. The gas will scrub away every trace of DNA and RNA in that room, as well as break down it’s own case. A friend of mine has already scrubbed the house computers… and made a few changes to the records.”

“Are we going to see Sandy now?” she asked, feeling tired even though she didn’t need a lot of sleep. The technicians had trained her to sleep for eight hours every night, even if she didn’t need to and defying them hadn’t been high on Gilly’s survival checklist. Better to just… do what they said.

“Soon. A couple days. She has things she needs to take care of to make certain you’re safe. Be patient.”

“I… I don’t mind waiting… Can I have some… I think it’s called ‘candy’?” she asked.

Jimmy laughed. “Normally, I’d caution you against taking candy from a stranger… but considering I’m kidnapping you from slavers, this is anything but normal.”

“You’re… funny.” She decided.

“Yeah. Sandy thinks so too,” he agreed.

=====

“What are you waiting for?” Jeremy asked, sitting in the anteroom of one of the dozen guest suites aboard the colossal yacht. He wasn’t juggling for once and was petting Ruth’s belly as she purrrrrrred.

“I…” Solace gulped, looking at the door again for the tenth time in ten minutes. “What if she…” she shrugged, unable to put it into words.

Minerva looked back and forth from the terrorist to the officer and back, then rolled her eyes. “What if who? Solace! Talk to me!” Solace shivered and hugged herself. Naomi was purring low on Solace’s shoulder and Minerva could swear that the ‘cat was trying to calm the human. The mogul looked to Jeremy. “Do you know what’s going on? Have you smuggled a runaway slave onto my ship? I can’t imagine why it would be… oh… my god!”

Minerva Andros-Brandyne was a very very smart woman. Not as smart as Solace, but she’d played the business and political game for nearly twice Solace’s lifetime and had been born into it. There was only one possible reason that matched the timing and the fragments of information she’d gotten out of her young lover. “You… you kidnapped… liberated a slave owned by Hasdrubal Khan and engineered this entire debacle to… to what? Cover it up? I… I… Solace… are you afraid I’d take the side of some slaver scum over you?”

A tear trickled down Solace’s face and she swallowed hard… “I… I also… I’ve engineered it so that a… We arranged for an heir… a genetic heir… oh… Min… I… I’ve… we’re bringing a little girl into the world just to use her as a political pawn! I… I… it’s necessary… but it’s… it’s… horrible!”

Looking from Solace to Jeremy and back, Minerva considered, then asked. “Solace… is having an heir to pass on a business or a title horrible?”

Solace blinked, then shook her head jerkily. “N… no? I… it’s natural. I… I mean it’s pretty horrible if you force your kid to follow in your… oh…”

Minerva nodded sadly, then hugged Solace softly, kissing away the tear. “Will the mother love this little girl?”

“I… I think so… I mean… she seemed pretty happy to do it and not just because it was screwing the legitimate Khan heirs. I think Citrine will be a good mother. She called it unorthodox sperm-donation… It’s still questionable… isn’t it?”

Jeremy shrugged. “War usually is. But think of it this way… Khan is getting his wish. A strong heir of his line to carry on the family name… and we’ll keep an eye on the family. Now enough stalling. Go in there. She’s been watching a dozen cartoons and eating all the candy in the hotel and on the ship for four days.”

“I…” Solace said, then looked to Minerva, swallowed, and (with a worried grin) said, “Brace yourself.” The older woman was absolutely certain that Solace was speaking to herself.

====

Gilly was very much enjoying this freedom thing. She wasn’t really enjoying being alone, but Jeremy had always been right outside the door, giving her ‘her space’… whatever that meant. She had been allowed to eat whatever she wanted… and faced with such an unprecedented offer, had asked to try everything. Jeremy had grinned… and the dishes of food had started showing up… and they hadn’t stopped since. Not even when she’d been bundled into a ‘limo’ and driven to the ‘spaceport’ and shuttled up to the ‘yacht’. Hundred and hundreds of tiny dishes, each with their own flavor and so much candy…

She’d tried to sample them all, but she couldn’t. There was too much. There would have been too much if all her sisters had been here… and there was even more to watch on the big screen. She could divide it into a dozen smaller screens and have ‘cartoons’ showing on each one and they never repeated… and no one made her go to sleep. She imagined this was paradise… but then she had to pee and she was reasonably certain you didn’t have to pee in paradi… The door opened and she felt the presence of the other her inside her mind even before she turned away from the screen.

Gilly & Solace had no idea how long they just stared at each other, the thoughts and memories flowing back and forth between them at speeds that had no metric. Gilly couldn’t have controlled what flowed out of her into Sandy’s consciousness if she’d tried, and Sandy didn’t even try… And then Gilly was hugging the other her, sobbing at finally having found another who… another who… there weren’t words. She didn’t know them… and she was certain the older her didn’t know them either. But Sandy’s arms were warm and it was a safe touch, a protective touch, like Jeremy’s had been, but a hundred, a thousand, a million million million times better. It was… home.

Minerva looked at the child, then at Solace. She could feel… something… it was… it was like confusion and joy and a pleasant form of panic all rolled into one… and it was absolutely not coming from inside her. Her eyes widened and she understood. She turned back to Jeremy and asked, “What batch number?”

“181… fourteen of fifteen… She says they never left her and the others alone… not ever. I think they’re getting closer to perfecting a method of…” he shrugged and Minerva shuddered.

“Monstrous… we need to get her checked out… why are her eyes different?”

“No idea… but yeah. Solace wants you to take her to Beowulf… if you’re willing.”

Minerva patted Jeremy’s face and smiled softly, “You know, Jimmy, you’re welcome whenever you need to take a vacation.”

He smiled and kissed the back of her hand, bowing over it with a flourish. “Maybe someday… when Manpower and Jessyk and all the rest… But not until then. I couldn’t do that to you… not to… not to her. But you… you take care of her… both of her.”

“I… I will. Word of Honor.”

“Mary… Dad… I… umm… I know it’s sudden… but I want you to meet GIllian,” Solace said, standing in her parent’s townhouse in Landing, eight weeks later. “Minerva and I’ve… umm… we met her on Earth and decided…” she swallowed hard, feeling her parent’s eyes fixed on her.

Minerva laughed and placed a hand on Solace’s shoulder, then another on Gilly’s. “We’ve adopted her. She’s technically Gillian Lubyanka-Smythe-Andros-Brandyn. And boy howdy is that a mouthful.”

Solace smiled nervously, then gacked as Mary hugged her fiercely, then let her go and knelt in front of Gilly. “Hello dear. Don’t worry, Solace’s complete name is just as long. You’ll fit right in. You can call me grandma.”

Gilly smiled nervously, then grinned up at Solace. “She’s Mary, right?” she said, her voice so like Solace’s when she was younger that her parents both started.

Solace nodded, then shrugged. “Someone made a copy of me… I figured you two did such a good job of raising me the first time… you might want to do it again? Minerva will help.”

Mary looked over to her daughter’s lover and raised an eyebrow. “I assume that you brought her through Beowulf?” she asked, stepping away from her daughter and the new child who was timidly playing with Ruth and Naomi.

Nodding, Minerva said, “Yes. Solace had her friends bring Gilly to me while Solace took the long way back on HMS Manticore. I took GIlly to Jacques Ramirez and had them do a complete work up. Gilly was born C-76a/181-14/15. It looks like those… people at Manpower were a bit more… thurough with her. She’s also the only survivor of her group as far as she knows… but they administered a number of drugs and treatments to her. Jacques thinks they would have done something similar to Solace… We think the idea was to give their children all the advantages that they carry, but use drugs and conditioning to keep them from being fully activated in the slave generation. Blockers and inhibitors.”

“Will the… will she be okay?” Hope asked, trying to keep the anger out of his voice as his wife did breathing excersizes.

“We don’t know. She’ll need a lot of therapy, both genetic and psychiatric. What she went through was incredibly traumatic… and she’ll need to be away from Solace for a while… but some of the damage will probably be permanent. The rest? Time will tell, but the outlook is mostly good. C-76a’s are remarkably tough.”

Mary was getting herself under control and nodded sadly at that, but Hope asked, “Why away from Solace?”

“I… this has to remain very very… i mean… only Jacques, Loyal, Solace, Gilly, and you two will know… well, and me, I guess. Solace and Gilly… they… Solace can feel Gilly…” She tapped her temple. “Up here. And Gilly can’t keep Solace out. Solace can keep Gilly out… but it hurts her.” She looked over to where the two were clearly communicating… but no sound was heard.

“Telepathy?!” Mary gasped.

“Seems like… but we’re not certain. Maybe more like two radios tuned to the same signal? But until Gilly learns to shield her mind…”

“I don’t understand,” Hope said, wrinkling his brow… then glanced at his wife as she gave him ‘the look’. Not the wife look, but rather the military commander look. “Oh. Right. Of course. Good point. Of course she can stay with us… or with you… She’s very welcome… Duty could use his very own Solace… not that… I mean… I’m going to shut up now… but if she ends up with two treecats too, I’m calling an I told you so!”

Next: Solace of Manticore – Part 17

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.

Gilly Face
Gilly

Solace Verse Local

The_Honor_Harrington_Universe A

World 78: Undertale

JUVENILE APOCALYPTICA

Previously: ????

Themesong: The Monster Mash by Bobby Boris Pickett

“Wait… wait… what happened? Why am I back here…” I demanded, looking around my Warehouse, aware that something was very not right. I’d just hit the Insertion button for The Honor Harrington Jump as the timer ticked down to 00:00:00:07 (I like seven better than one, what can I say?)… and now I was looking at a timer that said 27:23:59:59… 58… 57.

Jumpchan jerked, blinking, sitting upright and groaning as if she had a sudden massive migraine. She’d been lying on a stone slab next to her stone chamber self (she complained that beds were too soft) and looked as confused as I felt. “What are you doing back… what’s going on? Something’s not…” A paper fell out of nowhere and she tried to catch it, but my system was working a damned sight faster than hers and I snagged it with my mind, bringing it into my grasp with a tug of will.

“There have been irregularities in your previous jump. It is currently under review. All your purchases and those of your companions, including all items and perks that you are aware of purchasing have been cleared, but all memories of events as well as all objects and people native to the previous world are in limbo pending the resolution of the investigation. We thank you for your patience. -Higher” I read, trying to find anger at the inconvenience… but when one doesn’t know what one is being denied… It’s hard to summon up much indignation. Still, some part of me felt that what was being blocked was significant.

I turned to look a Chamber and asked, “So… ummm… what now? And why is it so quiet in here?” I handed her the paper and brought up a status report… and blinked. “Where… exactly… are all my companions?” The current roster of companions or companion-like individuals consisted of RayRay, Dyna, Vita, The Material Girls, Darkseid, Korosensei, Windjammer, and Chamber. Not only were VIvian and VIctoria apparently not in evidence, even Atura, Soul of Ice, and Silent Judge were missing. It did not escape my notice that Higher had left me exactly eight beings that were technically eligible for importation.

I brought the other VIs online, giving VIctor, as the eldest, limited command authorization, at least enough to make certain that the Warehouse remained operational. A thought occurred to me and I check… yep, Viggo, aka Disco Moon… aka Death Star 2, was not in his dock. Neither, it seemed was Warworld. “I really hope I don’t need either of them… or any of my fleet… My memory seemed, aside from the strange not-hole that represented the last… however long, to be intact. The next jump (assuming that the schedule was still intact… with Higher it was impossible to be certain) had to be one of the following: Borderlands, DC, Naruto, Rick & Morty, Star Trek, or Undertale. Of those, having tactical superiority and a numerical advantage would not be a plus in… one. One of them. Wonderful.

Borderlands was a sci-fi / sci-fantasy hell world, but it was still a spacefaring society with Orbital Death Lasers. I might want to have one of my own to deal with Handsome Jack or Torg if he kept yelling at me. DC was DC… of course I’d want firepower. Naruto was ninja-magic-shonen fantasy, and I’d want numbers there. Rick & Morty… I’d want the Hypernova bomb from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but instead of being set to obliterate every star in the universe, reset to evaporate every asshat in the nigh-infinite MortyVerse. Even for fiction it had a disproportionate number of asshats… most of them named Rick and or Morty. Star Trek was Star Trek… I’d want my team and my tech there… which left Undertale… which was a video game… I think?

“This next jump had better be Undertale,” I muttered as Chamber opened her mouth to, presumably tell me where I was going next.

“That’s impressive… did you look into the future to tell that, or did you simply guess?”

I rolled my eyes and shook my head. “No, it’s just that that was the only possible jump that I would not be epically pissed to be so royally rogered… I assume. I’m pretty certain Undertale is just a small RPG with some minigames in the combat. Not sure how that works. Regardless… The other settings are all bigger in scale and scope. Wars, galaxy spanning cultures, aliens, monsters, transdimensional shenanigans. So… since arguing with Higher will get me absolutely nowhere and you’re as helpful as… well… I’m certain your skillset makes you at least in theory helpful… what the hell is Undertale?”

“Apparently, this is a world ruled by two races, Humans and Monsters. One day, many years ago, a war broke out between the two and, after a long battle, the Humans were victorious. They sealed the monsters underground with a magic spell,” Chamber explained.

“And let me guess, now the spell is failing and the monsters are back for revenge?” I sighed. Fucking Fantasy Bullshit.

“Actually… no,” she said, scratching the back of her head.

“No? Then what’s the story?”

“The story focuses on the Underground, a world populated by the Monsters, long banished from the surface. There they make a peaceful existence, making do with what they have and what washes down from the surface far above. You’re encouraged to relax and take a load off. No need to worry about fighting anyone. Just good food, bad laughs, and nice friends.”

“That’s it?” I blinked. “THAT’s IT?!”

“Err… yes?”

“Enforced fucking vacation while Higher tries to figure out how to cope with whatever I did or didn’t do?”

“Umm… I guess. It’s five years before the events of the game… apparently a Human child will climb Mt. Ebott and forever change the fate of Humans and Monsters alike… Mt. Ebott is the focus of the spell and the primary cover for the Underground,” Chamber explained, looking as lost as I felt.

“Uh… fine. Whatever. Give me the damned dice,” I groused, then scooped up the tetrahedron that formed out of the solid stone. “Small world… underworld,” I snarked, then randomly rolled my starting location… “What’s a three?”

“Waterfall… that’s a district of the Underground. Vast temperate swamps… very wet. Full of strange bioluminescent plants, glowing water, and interesting rock formations. Pretty sparsely inhabited, so it’s like a wildlife preserve and a history museum run by muscular seahorses had a kid.”

I opened my mouth to comment, then banged my head against a book conveniently left on one of the tables left at the open air cafe around the central fountain of the all too quiet WarehouseVille. “Muscular… Seahorses. Fine.  Backgrounds?”

“Races. Then Backgrounds.”

I hit myself again with the book, knowing I wasn’t going to enjoy the race list.

* Owww! That hurt! *

“Fine… did someone just say oww?” I asked.

* Hey, it’s me! Your best friend! *

“Mmm? No?” Chamber said, shaking her head, “Must be the wind… anyway… Monster is free and quite diverse. You can be anything from a vegetable to an eye with arms and legs to an anthropomorphic goat. The only rule is that they all work the same. Four limbs, either two and two or four legs. Same physical strengths as a human… except in the area of strength… and magic. Monsters are much more capable in magic… after all… they are magic. It’s part of them,” she started off, shaping a little goat-person out of stone on her slab and showing me it. Next to it were five other formless blobs, so I assumed there were a total of six races.

* That stupid Chamber won’t let me talk to you directly… *

“Mmm… I guess? Everyone’s a Monster, right? That’s this place’s schtick, isn’t it?”

“Not everyone. You can be a dog.”

“A… dog?” Clearly I was going mental. I couldn’t have heard that correctly.

“A dog… monster. Probably of the white and fluffy variety.” The miniature statue morphed to show two dogs, one that looked like a pomeranian, the other that looked like Arnold Schwarzenegger with the head of a pomeranian. “Exact breed and degree of anthropomorphism is up to you, but you’re still a dog and thus easily distracted by thrown sticks or a nice petting. It’s a drawback choice worth an additional hundred CP, but it doesn’t count towards the limit.”

I looked at the dog statues, then shook my head in befuddled humor. “What the hell kind of RPG is this? Peaceful monsters… adorable dog… things. Is this Timmy’s first RPG? How did this get such good reviews?”

“Amazing gameplay?”

“Doubt it. I’ve seen the trailers.”

“Can’t say then. But speaking of Timmy, the third option is another drawback race. This one worth two hundred extra CP. It’s called… Temmie!” She unveiled the third choice and it looked like a cat-dog-thing with limbs that were too long and no face at all.

“What… the hell is that?”

* Boy, do I have a lot to say to you… *

As I swatted at a fly I couldn’t quite see, Chamber explained, “Temmie… a most peculiar species. Extendable limbs, detachable faces, universally childish, unobservant, forgetful, and dim. If you become one, you’ll find yourself forgetting simple things… like how your powers work… even those powers that are native to you as a Temmie… or like what you were doing… even intelligence perks will avail you naught, since them make tem brains hurt. Temmie are all named Temmie and are nonthreatening, both verbally and physically… oh, and their age is 1dTemmie.”

Again, I smashed my face with the book (something called ‘Murder Tales’ or something) and groaned. “Whaaaaai? What is the point of all this! Was this game parody? It certainly didn’t come across as haha silly… it got critical acclaim… I don’t understaaaaand. Oh… and nooo fucking way am I taking that.”

* Owww! Stop thaaat! *

“You could be Bob instead, if you like?”

“Who… or what… is Bob?”

“Bob is a Temmie without the power nerfing and intelligence problems. Turns Temmie into a zero sum proposition.”

“Ah. So I’d be able to get stupid faceless dog-cat-thing discounts without turning myself into a vegetab… a moron. Maybe… still doubtful. Next?”

“Ghost?”

“Why would I want to be a ghost? I can already go spirit-form at will.”

“Well, in this world, Ghosts are bound to an inanimate object.”

“So… let me get this straight. I can be insubstantial… but bound to a physical object. If it’s destroyed, I’m killed, right?”

“That would be the case. But you could buy a robot body for 100 or import any object between the size of a human child and a human adult for 200… or between a mouse and a jet fighter for 300.”

“If I had a Cosmic Cube from Marvel? Maybe. But I don’t So… no. Not unless they have some damned awesome exclusive powers. Far too Sauron and the Ring for my tastes. Look, are all of these options monsters?”

“Nooo… no… the last two aren’t Monsters… per se. This one,” she pointed to the larger one in fifth place, “is a Boss Monster! Stronger, tougher, very potent innate fire magic. Anthropomorphic goats that could go go toe to toe with an adult Human. They only age when they have children, as their lifeforces flow from parent to children. Their SOULs are strong enough to linger briefly after death.”

* Ignore her. They’re nothing special, just larger sources of EXP. *

I blinked at that… she’d just spoken in all caps… I knew portentous speech when I heard it. “Okay… first, a Boss Monster is still a Monster, yah? Second… what do you mean ‘SOUL’ because in my experience ‘Souls’ usually linger for quite a while after death, especially with me around. Or are SOULs in this world different from Souls in other?”

“To a Monster, the SOUL is the essence of their being. There are seven basic Human SOUL types… Bravery, Determination, Integrity, Justice, Kindness, Patience, Perseverance…  Monster Souls are comprised of love, mercy, and compassion, and do not persist after death. When a Monster is slain, their SOUL dissipates, which is why their physical form vanishes as their SOUL breaks down. Human SOULs are far far stronger, and their body houses the SOUL, making humans stronger when using physical attacks.”

* Monster Souls are weak because Monsters are weak. *

“How much stronger are we talking?”

“It would take the SOULs of nearly every Monster in the Underground to equal the strength of a single Human SOUL.”

“I… see…”

“Incidentally, Monster attacks almost invariably deal damage directly to the SOUL.”

“I… right. Tell me that last pick is Human?”

“It is, yes, but it can’t be bought.”

“I… I’m sorry? What’s the point of it being an option if it can’t be bought?!”

“It comes free if you’re a Fallen Human.”

“I see… Fallen Humans get Human free? But don’t have to be Human? That’s… weird that is. Okay, I’ll bite. What’s a Fallen Human?”

“A human child that fell into the Underground, either by fate, by accident, or by chance. Fallen Humans cannot help but change the fate of Human and Monster alike… but purchasing this means you’re locked into a human form for the duration of the jump. It will also change your starting location to the Ruins.”

“I… hmm… I can either be a very unmonster monster… or a little kid… fine… this is silly. I’ll take the Fallen Human [200/800/1000]. Tell me about the Ruins?” I said, picking up the cube that Chamber had just spawned and studying the faces. It was numbered seven through twelve. Must be for age. Giving it a spin, I found out that I was now eight years old. Whatever.

Taking four of my CP chips (each worth 50 CP), Chamber explained, “The Ruins are the remains of the old Monster capital city, called HOME,” again she used portentous speech, “Carved from purple stone, they are closed off to the rest of the underground even though many Monsters still live there, eking out a meager existence in the all too small areas that are still viable.”

“Why don’t they move out? No Monster towns?”

“Oh no. There is Snowdin, but it’s very cold there. There’s New Home, the Capital… There’s the MTT resort in Hotland, but…”

“Yeah, have to have money for that. I guess Monsters aren’t big on change?”

“No. Not particularly. They lack the… ruthlessness needed to progress rapidly and are bound by tradition more than Humans.”

“Right… fine… an eight year old stuck in a crumbling ruins full of monsters made of mercy and compassion… with soulbreaker attacks… I get the impression that the creators of this game had a very definite point to make… some commentary about how just because something is called a Monster doesn’t mean they really are or how invading someone’s home and killing them is a really dick move. Can’t tell if this is edgy or juvenile yet. We shall see, I guess. From the existence of temmie, I’m guessing more Sesame Street than Shadowrun… so, since I have companions to import… how much is that going to set me back?”

“For all eight? Three Hundred CP… do  you want to do purchases first or drawbacks?”

“I… hmmm… I guess Drawbacks. What’s the limit?”

“Six Hundred… and you can only take two. The selection is… I’m sorry to say, quite limited.”

“How limited are we…” I paused to look at the list that hovered in midair. That was limited. A Zero, two Fifties, two One Hundreds, two Two Hundreds, two Three Hundreds, a Four Hundred and a Six Hundred. “I… see… does this toggle actually count against the two limit?” I asked, tapping the line-item listed as ‘Anime is Real’ that said it made the overworld into the result if Anime was, in fact, a historical document.

“Mmmm? Oh. No. Toggles never count, since you can always take extra drawbacks for no CP and toggles never cost CP by their nature.”

* Are you Ignoring me? *

I nodded and considered. Normally, I might have considered the 50 CP options, but with limited drawback slots, their opportunity cost was too high. On the other end of the spectrum were some string of utterly random wingdings at 600, but I discounted it immediately since not only did it turn what was essentially a vacation that I felt I surely needed into a potential chain ender… but a chain ender so bad that I’d be written entirely out of existence if I didn’t solve a problem that was poorly explained. Fuck that. Nothing was worth that risk and I couldn’t even gage the percentages on it.

Nearly as bad was the 400, which apparently meant I’d have killed someone named ‘Papyrus’ and pissed off his brother ‘Sans’… Font people? Really? I mean, sure, it was 400 in exchange for the life of someone I didn’t know… but I really wasn’t going to trade someone’s life for any total unless I knew they were scum… and taking this would mean that ‘Sans’ would definitely know I was the cause of his?/her? brother’s death.

Going down to 300 left me with an option that would roll me and my remaining companions into a big ball of blob, mixing our thoughts and… just no fucking way was I going to merge with Darkseid or Chamber. Both were largely unspeakable. Then again, so was I. But no.  The other 300 was essentially a time loop that kept erasing my memory and could, depending on ruling, result in an endless limbo. “Can I leave notes for I’m Not Ready to Let Go?”

“Why?”

“Because a perfect reset means there’s no escape. Every loop is going to be utterly identical because there’s no way to know what changes I made or which repetition we’re on.”

“I… I don’t know…”

“RIght. Then it’s a trap. Nope. This is not a promising start. A Potential Trap, Murder for Points, A total Mind Screw Body Horror, an Absolute Trap… What’s this… ‘Harder Monsters’ for 200… makes everyone less nice and harder to kill? Yeah… that sounds wonderful… no… ‘Lost Souls’… scatters my companions all around the underground and erases their memories of me… same personalities, but all the conceits and flaws as if they’d never met me… have to get them to remember me through befriending them and helping them through their problems… Yeah… that might be problematical…”

“Problematical? How so?”

“Does erasing their memory of me remove fiat backed restraints?”

“Ah… you mean Darkseid?”

“Yes. I mean Darkseid. Will removing his memory of me free him from my lockouts on him trying to kill or enslave everyone?”

“Ah… it might?”

“Then I’m going to make you an offer… oh… no… hahaah… never mind. When you give out the tablets… do not give Darkseid one.”

“Yes. I know. That’s in the system. A hard lockout on allowing the Basalt-faced Baboon have any control over his purchases. I’ll note that somehow you did the same to me. Why are we doing this anyway? You’ve already hacked the console. You could just…” she waved her hand vaguely.

“Because if I step too far out of bounds, Higher might lock both of us out and I’m unwilling to risk that. As for why I’m not just pulling the files up myself… you’re a much more friendly interface than the console that keeps trying to melt my brain… Anyway, I’ll take Lost Souls [+200/1000/1200]… even if I don’t locate them or befriend them, their memories come back at the end of jump… oh holy shit… this is the stupidest drawback!” I said, laughing a little at the ridiculousness of it.

* Yes. Friends are stupid and memories are worthless. *

She peered at the one I’d just poked and tilted her head. “Absolutely No Moving!… how is that stupid?”

I swatted away another bug that must have escaped the garden districts and explained, “It’s 100 CP for something that does absolutely nothing!” I cackled, locking in my purchase of the pointless drawback [+100/1100/1200].

“It does something. You can’t see anything that’s not moving… why are you laughing.”

“Because unless the physics of this world are absolutely alien… everything is always moving! Orbital Mechanics, Planetary Rotation, Sidereal Motion… hell, even simple vibration… and not just atomic vibration… heat causes everything to vibrate just a little… but even if I couldn’t see people… vision is caused by moving photons impacting on the photoreceptors of the eyes.”

“What… but… that’s…. That’s not the intended… you know what… fuck it. Fine.” She grumbled, studying the text to see if there was an out, but there wasn’t. The text literally said ‘You have a rare eye condition that makes it impossible for you to see things that aren’t moving.’ but everything was moving, and the drawback even said ‘you’re really good at detecting movement now.’ The thing was, even if she’d said, ‘No, it has to be relative to you and on a macro but not planetary scale’… the solution is simple… move yourself. If you can’t detect something that’s not moving, keep your eyes fixed in place and move your head. That creates relative motion. But even if it had been total blindness, I might have taken it. I’ve been blind twice and have other senses strong enough to take the place of sight.

“Groovy,” I said, “now… freebies?”

“Two of them. ‘DETERMINATION’ and ‘Summon Annoying Dog’.”

“Oh good lord… what’s with the Significant Wordage? SOUL, HOME, DETERMINATION… How many of these are there?”

“Uh… ACT, MERCY, SAVE… those are the higher order Fallen Human perks… and LOVE… which is not the same as ‘love’. LOVE is Level of Violence… EXP is Execution points… you get them for killing Monsters. Get enough EXP and your LV… LOVE, is increased… and now you’re hitting yourself with your book again.”

* Golly, these sure are nice perks, aren’t they? Letting you get along with everyone… oww. *

“Okay. Hamhanded commentary on gaming tropes. Gotcha… First, why would I want to summon an annoying dog and second, what does portentous Determination do?”

“The annoying dog is a small white pomeranian that has a penchant for causing chaos in innocuous ways. It might absorb significant artifacts, mess around with important machines, or distract people at inopportune moments simply by being boofy. It doesn’t discriminate between friend or foe, and always manages to evade the consequences of its actions,” Chamber explained, then (seeing the look on my face) added, “So… uhh… no reason really. It’s Free?”

I grunted, then nodded. Free is free… even if I never used it… maybe I could give it to Amaryllis with Shard Administrator. She’d like a boofy pom.

“As for DETERMINATION… it makes you too determined to die without a serious struggle, allowing you to (once per jump) endure a fatal blow and remain standing (if barely)… the proverbial 1 HP. In the event you should actually die, you’ll be able to hold on long enough to finish up whatever you were doing… essentially you get an hour before you die for real and your chain ends.”

“Uh… during that hour, can I heal myself… because, you know, I have Regen and a Medbay and two hearts,” I pointed out.

“I wouldn’t risk it, no. It says you have to die to trigger that hour and then you die for real. So… no,” the living room said (I made a funneh. LAUGH!)

I sighed. “Darn. That would have been potentially useful… not that I mind a low power one-up for free. Not planning on dying, but few seldom do. Good to have a stopgap, though anything that could kill me once might be able to do it again post haste… but if it was some mega-ritual or a single shot mega-attack… I’ll be all ‘I’m Still HERE, Bitches!”

“Now who’s being portentous?”

“Bite me. So, you said ACT, MERCY, and SAVE were the other perks for Fallen Human… what do they do?”

“ACT is 100 and makes you very good at talking to people and (after a fashion) manipulating them. By taking a small amount of time to study someone, you’ll gain enough insight into them to provoke or placate… or seduce them.” She paused to see if I had anything to say, but I waved for her to continue. “MERCY is 200 and allows you to convince all but the most determined of foes not to fight you, using only words and actions. It’ll even allow you to win some fights simply by dodging attacks and refusing to fight back until your enemy just gives up and stops fighting.” Again she paused, but again I waved her one. “And SAVE… or rather ‘SAVE the World’ is 300 and gives you immense resistance to mind control, corruption, and despair… or indeed, anything that would force negative emotions on you. And makes you adept at helping your friends overcome such things merely by reaching out to them and reminding of them of the bond you share. You could even help someone become a better person.”

* What a bunch of SAPPY GARBAGE. It makes me sick. Do you really think you can change anything with perks like these? *

I considered what she’d said for a few minutes, just drumming my fingers on the edge of my chair. There was a lot to unpack there. Finally, I said, ”ACT doesn’t really do anything that Tongue of the Shepard from Mass Effect, Perfect Communication Skills and Roots of Distress from Worm, and Third Eye of Satori from Touhou don’t already do better. I can already see into people’s hearts and minds and I’m astoundingly manipulative even without mind control. So no to that one. SAVE is tempting for its therapeutic abilities, but since I’m already immune to hostile mental effects thanks to Incomprehensible from Teen Titans. Despair I’m not immune to, nor corruption, but this isn’t an out and out no sell of those things and I can’t see paying for that. So… no to those two.”

I paused, considering, thinking aloud, “MERCY… I’m conflicted about. The price is right about fair for it… and the implication is that I’ll be able to diffuse more situations… I’m not certain if that’s the case or not… I really don’t know… I don’t really want to be a Monster in this setting… but it’s not looking like I really get much out of being a Human. I like the idea of being able to avoid fighting… but does MERCY get me anything I don’t already have? Can’t I already talk people out of fighting?”

“If you’re concerned about fighting, maybe you’ll want Megalovania.”

“Mega… wha… I’ve heard of Metroidvania… that’s a game in the style of Metroid or Castlevania… what’s a Megalovania?”

“I don’t know if it’s a game type… that’s your concern, not mine… but in this case, when you’re forced to fight because your enemy is too evil, an evil that must be stopped… this will kick in, allowing you to impart Karmic Retribution into your magical attacks. Harmless against the innocent, Karmic Retribution is poison to someone with a high Level of Violence. In fact, the more evil they’ve done, the worse it hurts… and the initial pain of the attack doesn’t go away. It keeps burning at the target’s soul over time, as every sin they’ve ever committed comes back to haunt them.”

“Jebus… How much is that?!”

“Six Hundred… discount for Drop-In.”

“Hrrr… so I could be a Monster Drop-In and get that for 300 and buy DETERMINATION for another hundred?” She nodded… or I can stay a Human and get all this for… 800. If I buy MERCY, it’s break even. Now I feel like I’m buying MERCY to justify staying human… Alright… what things do Drop-Ins get discounts on?”

“Second guessing yourself? Interesting. That doesn’t happen often.”

“Hah! Shows what you know. I’m a council of hundreds. We second guess ourselves all the time! We just do it so fast that it appears like we’re never doubting ourselves…” I trailed off, thinking about that.

* I know who you are, Jumper. I know what you do. *

“What did you say?” I asked.

“I didn’t say anything. I was listening to you.”

“Huh… I thought I heard… something… never mind… discounts? High to low, if you don’t mind.”

“Okay… well, you don’t want the 400… the 200 after discount. It’s the ability to teleport to any location you’ve already been to within a mile and requires both start and finish to be unobserved by anyone at the local level. Since you can already apparate and take kilometer long steps… I doubt you’d be interested.” I shook my head, and she went on, “The 200/100 would make you extremely good at guessing, allowing you to use observation and people reading to guess all sorts of things about people… like good enough to recognize a time-traveller just by his or her reactions to things they’ve seen before or already know about.”

“I can already do that… I think. Haven’t met any time travellers that I know of.”

“And Justice is the 100/freebie that gives you a knack for reading people, telling if they’re a good person just by talking to them… including knowing how many Execution points they’ve accumulated and their general Level of Violence.”

* You’ve killed people! You’ve killed a lot of them! What, do you think visiting here is going to change that? You’re still a MURDERER. *

“Riight… so nothing there I need… got a question for you… someone viewing me with that perk in this world… what are they going to see? My local EXP / LV totals, or my total EXP / LV totals?”

“Does that really matter?”

“Yes,” I sighed. “Yes it really does. Chamber… I’ve killed… I don’t know if there is math to express how many I’ve killed. Personally I’ve assassinated thousands, killed millions in battle, led armies or nations that have exterminated millions more… billions if you count each Reaper as an entire species… and my bombs obliterated… I’ve killed on a scale that sickens me just thinking about it.”

“Have you ever killed for fun?”

“Oh… sure. I’ve enjoyed killing many times. It was never my reason for doing it… but in Marvel CinemaVerse, when I dropped those Nazis into a decaying orbit? I revelled in it.”

“Sorry. I meant to say, have you ever killed only for the fun of it? Or simply because the victim has something you want?”

“Oh… I… I don’t think so. I usually have a reason for making someone dead. Either they’re a threat to others or I have to kill a threat to others or I have to sacrifice some who are less than innocent to save the innocent… Or I just really really hate someone or they’re absolute scum. Does that really matter?”

“I’m a patron god of Knights… what do you think?”

“Ah. Well. Fair enough, I guess. But it doesn’t answer the question. Unless you’re saying that EXP only comes from when you kill with no other reason than simply to kill.”

“No. Clearly not. You can get EXP for killing to defend yourself in this setting.”

“Then yes, the question arises, do all my former kills open me up to Karmic Retribution in this setting?”

“No. Your SOUL in this setting will be clean until you dirty it, either by killing someone directly or taking a Drawback that kills someone. Oh, and you can’t take SOULs out of this setting except as companions. Don’t try and eat any of them.”

“I generally don’t. I’m not big on Soul Eating.”

* Ha! You’re only here for one thing, aren’t you? Power. Isn’t that all this is about? It’s one big power trip. To make you feel better about yourself. So you can pretend you’re some kind of all-powerful being far above the puny masses… When really, deep inside… You’re the same pathetic person you were before all this started… Though. I might know how you can get what you really want out of all this. Real power. Unlimited power. Power enough to crush anything in your way… Isn’t that the point? *

“And if you eat the SOUL of a companion, they become a permanent part of you.”

“Wow… don’t tell that to a really jerkass Jumper! Sounds like a way to really game the system… never mind… I haven’t even eaten Vitiate’s soul. I’m not likely to eat a friend’s… or even Darkseid’s. Ugh… firrr… any other perks you think I might actually like?”

“Hmmm… not really? The magic here is all pretty low key. You might want the Food Museum,” she said, making a model of an old fashion door-latching refrigerator.

“That’s a fridge,” I pointed out.

“Yes. It looks like one, but it is filled from top to bottom with endless plates of spaghetti, with a variety of sauces and toppings, all at the perfect temperature for serving.”

“Really? Finally, something to do with all that cheese in all those barrels,” I joked. Me and my friends went through several hundred pounds of cheese a week. It’s astounding how big a fondue you can make when cost of cheese and fat content aren’t an issue. “How much is it?”

“Only one hundred.”

“So… let’s see… 200 for Fallen Human, 600 for Megalovania, 100 for the Museum… that’s 900… 300 for Companions… 100 left… No… wait… apply my floating discount from Single Shot to Fallen Human… that’s 200 left… that’s enough for MERCY. I guess I’ll take it. So… companions… what do they get for my 300?”

“A free background that’s not Human and the freebie that comes with it,” She said.

“Are you kidding me?” I responded, a cross expressing on my face.

“No. Human companions cost 300 each.”

“And they don’t get any CP either, do they?”

“Nope. You can gift your CP to your companions… the 200 from MERCY would get you 400 you can divide up among… you’re growling at me.” She gulped and backed an inch away. This was a very strange power dynamic between us, I idly commented to the silence of my inner council… where was my inner council… “Where is my inner council?”

“I… mm… don’t know?” she half whined. “Maybe they’re with your other companions?”

“I wonder… something must have gone seriously off the rails last jump. I really should demand recompense for this… but I can’t quite figure out what I should be asking for… At least I remember that things are out of place… and I think I have all my memories… there don’t seem to be any holes except for whatever’s missing from HonorVerse… I’m assuming there weren’t any other jumps inbetween then and now?”

“I didn’t go into HonorVerse and I got bored paying attention to you around the time you did the thing in the place with the hats… I don’t know… but I don’t remember a gap.”

“Yeah? But how long was I gone?”

“I don’t know… time doesn’t mean the same thing to me as it does to you linear types. And RayRay was asleep. You could ask the others, but I suspect Higher could easily have changed their memories.”

I grunted in agreement, then harrumphed. “Well, I’m going to make a request then. Since using my Global Import Rule would allow me to make my companions Humans… and I note that the two that Higher couldn’t block from being human are among the missing… I request that, for the 300, all my companions gain 600 each, 700 with Single Shot. It’s a compromise between the Global and the In Jump. Oh, and I’m putting in a preemptive demand that Joy and Ahab get their builds for this jump once they get back from wherever they are…” I pounded my fist against the table top, making my tea glass rattle.

“I think that’s acceptable… yes. The tablets are already in my system, merely listed with a ‘Build Pending’ disclaimer.” She pulled eight tablets out, handing two to me and leaving the other six in a neat stack.

“It’s a damned good thing that I don’t know this setting well enough to have plans or I’d be quite cross about having my friends missing. Regardless… They better get their 100 CP when they get back. This better not take as long as Ryoga and Yoiko… and I’m still pissed off about that.” I scooped up the two tablets, one for Chamber and the other for Maidseid.

“Let’s do you first, Chamber… while I’ve got you here,” I said, smiling. “But first… I need a drink. VIctor, have Seid-chan bring me some lemonade, fresh squeezed. Now… You’ve been doing a bang up business selling your… ahem… botanicals… so let’s make you a shopkeeper…” I flipped through the document. I know it seems strange that I still talk out my builds, rather than just touch a document and absorb the information directly… but for some reason it doesn’t work on Jump Documents. I suspect it’s some kind of safety feature, but really, I don’t know why. “I think your cash-register will be your object… That comes with Patience… really, a perk for each of the seven SOUL types… there’s a theme. Oh, that’s a good one for you. Never get bored when performing menial or repetitive tasks… oh hey, this one was also made for you!” I laughed.

Chamber stuck her tongue out at me, but I just laughed harder. The perk in question was called ‘It’s Really Good Garbage’ and it was the ultimate in dumpster diving, the ability to look through trash and find stuff worth salvaging and restoring it to a condition good enough to sell. Worked even better if she was searching for something specific. For shopkeepers, it was only 100.

I skipped the rest of the perks for her, moving down into the Magic section. She’d been right to skip this for me. It was gimmicky and cost double for humans. Every monster, however, got Bullet Patterns, a basic grounding in White Magic (basic attack magic in this universe). Each monster would have a magic suited to their own essence or appearance. So as a Botanical Shopkeep, it could be bullets shaped like potted plants, or coins. Interestingly, the perk description implied that monsters often prefer to use their bullet patterns as a form of self expression rather than a direct attack. Wow… such incredible ‘See! They’re not Monsters, they’re just Misunderstood!’ I don’t know if I should be outraged or bemused. Humans, am I right? So quick to see others as Monsters… including themselves.

“Let’s see… you’re big on testing people. Blue Magic is one of the two Motion Magics… it’s 100 and means that you can boost your magical attacks to cover wider areas and do more damage than normal… But when you do so, anyone who stands still will be spared. Give you ‘You’re Blue Now’ which allows you to control one opponent’s personal gravity, allowing you to rob floaters or flyers of that ability… but then your attacks must become jumping obstacles. Even give you the Magnifier for your magic, which will boost all your magic a bit, but drastically improves movement restricting magic as well as everything you get here. ‘You’re Blue Now’ grows to allow you to reorient your enemy’s personal gravity, making walls or ceilings into the floor to disorient them… though you can fling them into space, since it only covers a ten meter radius.” I smiled at her. “Think you can do stuff with that?”

“If I have the motivation, I guess,” she said, shrugging her shoulders. She paled a little as heavy footsteps sounded behind me and I lifted my hand to take the glass of lemonade without even looking.

“Hello Seid-Chan… sit, sit… We’re importing you into the next jump and I thought you might like to know what you’re getting,” I waved for the ex-sovereign of Apocalypse to sit across from me and she did so, scowling.

“Your attempts to redeem me are foolish. I have no guilt or shame over my past actions,” she said gruffly.

“Yeah, I know. Well aware you haven’t the faintest shred of a conscience or compassion. So I’ve decided to rectify this problem and teach you a little humility at the same time. First… this is yours now.” I tossed her a shimmering ball of Ice, which she caught and considered.

“What is it?”

“Humility. Sympathy… a Punishment and a Gift.” As I spoke, it dissolved into the New God and she jerked in shock and outrage.

“W… what have you… what have you done?” she demanded.

“I’ve given you a Shard… rather cruel of me to forbid you to have a Cauldron Vial, so I’ve rectified that. I call this shard Empathizer. Now you’ll feel everything every unshielded individual around you feels. It will be minor, unless you’re focusing on someone for any reason. Look too long at someone, you’ll feel what they feel. Punch someone, you’ll feel every iota of their pain. Cause someone to suffer, you’ll suffer too. EVERYTHING. Feel free to endure it as much as you like, but even if you find a way to circumvent my rules on no killing and no needless cruelty, you’ll never be free of that as long as I exist.”

“I haate you,” he growled, reverting to his male form and starting to swell in size. “I hate you more than I’ve ever hated anyone. My hate for you-”

“Yeah yeah. I’ve heard it before AM. Now sit down and shut up… and change back. Your maid form may be ugly, but it’s still better than looking at your craggy ass butler form.  Good Seid-chan,” I sneered cruelly, using TK to pat him on the head. Very few beings in all of fiction did I despise as much as I despised this… creature sitting in front of me. Who knew how many trillions had died because of his callous desire to control all living beings. Who knew how many he’d personally slaughtered or commanded the legions of Apocalypse to slaughter. Certainly not him. I agonized about every innocent life I’d been unable to save, every one I’d sacrificed to the cause of the greater good. I loathed having to play god in that way. He reveled in it… as much as he reveled in anything. “That’s step one. Step two… congratulations… you’re now a Temmie.”

“A… what?” she said, voice like hammered iron.

“You’ll learn soon enough. A Temmie Caretaker. I’ve selected the perks ‘Kindness’, ‘You Pose Dramatically’, ‘Home’, and ‘Heartache’ for you. The first will allow you to tell the difference between Compassion and Condescension, to know all the little things you can do to help cheer someone up, and it’ll even give you a gut feeling whenever you’re being overbearing or smothering… just in case you need it. The second will let you know the best time to boast, the best time to appeal to a crowd, and the best time to pose dramatically to get all the right reactions… that’s me being generous, by the way… though I’m certain you’ll enjoy the memories of you posing as a Temmie.”

“What… is… a… TEMMIE!” She boomed, but I ignored the outburst.

“Hospitality is everything, you know?” I said with a smile. “Home will let you know how to make someone feel comfortable and welcomed… all the little gestures to make your guests feel at home, that they’re not imposing. Of course, while they’re your guest, you will be better able to influence them and their values, convincing them to change problematic or destructive behaviours… but only as long as you’re being Kind to them. So if you want to use this to make someone be more evil… you’ll have to actually be nice to someone, to be considerate, you depraved asshole. I’m entirely aware you’ll use that for evil, but remember, if I find you trying to brainwash any of my companions or followers in any way… I’ll order you to punch yourself in the face as hard as you can while quacking like a duck until I get bored of it.”

The arms of the chair Maidseid was in exploded as she squeezed them too hard, metaphorical steam pouring out of her ears.

I waved my hand and whispered, “Reparo.” Even without my wand (it was with VIctoria) the chair flew back together and the cracks vanished. “I’m glad to see you understand the concept of futile gestures… now, as for Heartache, this is something you might actually enjoy… When someone fights you, you may (should you so desire) pointedly refuse to fight them, simply dodging or enduring their attacks. Should you do so while remaining in their path, you can make your point by refusing to fight, conveying to all but people like you the depth of your feelings… maybe even reduce them to tears and open them up to a different way to solving their problems without fighting… I know how much you hate senseless violence,” I lied, a sadistic grin on my face.

“Someday you will pay for this,” my servant proclaimed venomously, almost hissing.

“If I do, it will take an entity better than you to make me. Now, as for what a Temmie is…” I hit the confirm button and the activate now button on Darkseid’s tablet, stripping the New God of his powers and intellect. I ignored the piteous whimpering and broken English threats from the weird little creature.

“Nooo! Tem will… will… Tem forgetted… but… but… something something RUE!” she stomped off, then fell over as three of her legs were four feet long and the four was eleven. “RUUE!” she howled… then her face fell off and bounced into the fountain.

“Well, this is fun… I’m going to find the others and find out what they bought, yeah?” I said to Chamber, finishing my lemonade (brown sugar… the bitch) and wandering away to find the few remaining members of my cadre, snagging their tablets from where Chamber had left them. For some reason, I wasn’t too concerned about the fact that so many were missing, including significant parts of myself. I asked myself if that was because of external manipulation, or if I was merely resigned to putting up with Higher’s ‘review’. After a bit of contemplation, I decided it was a little of the later and bit of a desire for some time away from all the usual routines.

I found Korosensei with Squad Zero (Vita, Levi, Stern, and Dearche). The yellow octopus was running the girls through some drills and they all looked surprised to see me when I wandered in.

“Ah. Jumper-Sama… I did not expect you back so soon,” Koro said. “Is there a problem?”

“Problem? No… why do you ask?”

“Because you started the Honorverse jump that you were so enthusiastic about only a few hours ago. The girls and I were planning on joining you after a few days.”

“Mm… I… See. I guess that everyone else imported in some fashion, but not you ten. Interesting. I wonder if that’s accidental or… ah, good old paranoia. Regardless,” I ruffled Vita’s hair and gave her a hug. “There seems to be some issue with the Honorverse Jump and so the people upstairs are withholding whatever happened from me. Everyone else seems to be stuck there… including most of my constituent parts. I assume that was required to block my memories of the situation. For the time being, I’ve decided to be patient, since they’re not keeping me in limbo. Oh… God, I hope there’s no LIMBO jump…” I shuddered at the thought of being stuck in a nightmare loop of fear and death. “They’re sending me to a new setting,” I said, handing Vita the tablets to distribute.

Vita and her minions gathered around one tablet while Korosensei looked through his own, then set it aside. “Do you know this Undertale setting?” he asked, sounding concerned.

“Only in passing. I’ve seen a few trailers and it looked like a low-res retro video game circa the late 80s but released in the early 2010s. From the document, I gather it’s a subversion of Video Gaming tropes, but that doesn’t really tell me much about the setting except it seems to be set in ‘The Great Underground Empire’… there’s even implications that there is snow underground.”

“Well, that’s just silly…” he said, then asked to see my build. Once he’d reviewed it, he smiled. “Well, as a little girl lost in a strange land, I think you need a dog. I volunteer.” I wasn’t surprised that he’d read the entire document in mere seconds as he regularly read and checked papers at supersonic speeds.

I chuckled. “Background? Let me guess… Caretaker or Entertainer?”

“Caretaker. Kindness, Spare, and Heartache are too useful. I also picked up Healing Magic and ‘It’s Not Easy Being Green’. I like the idea of being able to root my target to the spot and force them to use a quadrant shield to block my attacks. It has a certain… teacher element to it that appeals to me. Of course, that left me with 50 left over and there’s only one undiscounted thing that costs 50… so I guess I get a stack of gold as a ‘College Fund’.”

“Huh. I can’t say I noticed that… but I didn’t really need to… another poor design choice,” I said, then asked, “Are you going to be okay being a pooch for the duration?”

“Oh sure. I’m normally an octopus man… how weird can being a dog be?”

“That’s a point… well, if you’d be so good as to help the girls figure out what they’re doing? I’ll move on and they can join me for lunch in an hour?”

He nodded. “Will do. Good luck.”

Next on the list was Windjammer, and I found her floating in the pool, getting a little artificial (but very realistic) sunlight. “Heya,” I said, standing on the water next to her.

“Admiral!” she squealed and flung her arms around me, pulling me into her unsubstantial bosom. “You’ve returned from that horrible dark void!”

I pushed her back, then looked up at her, “Are you afraid of Space?”

She shrugged. “Afraid? No. But it seems unnatural… it’s not like the Etherium I was created to sail.”

“Neither is water,” I pointed out.

“Yeah… I know. But the Ethereum has landmarks and substance… Space is just… empty. I don’t like it.”

I patted her head and handed over a tablet. “Well, we’ll be underground for much of this jump, so very little emptiness I imagine. Depends on how tall the caverns are.”

She shuddered. “Ugh. Caves. Blech.”

“You’re very picky, you know?”

“I’m a pretty princess!” she insisted. “I need to be in my proper setting so that people can properly appreciate me!”

“Riiight… Anyway, take a look through that and join me for lunch in 50 minutes.”

“Do I have to get dressed?” she asked.

“At least a robe, yes please. We don’t need your boobs staring at us over the smoked salmon.” As she pouted, I again took my leave, looking for RayRay. I found her draped over the eaves of the main house. Dyna was sitting next to her, playing with the PSP I’d gotten during my Dragon’s Crown Jump. “Hello hello!” I called, waving to get their attention.

RayRay yawned and slid down off the roof, Dyna using her serpentine form as a slide and for a moment I pictured a Rayquaza and Ladders game where the point was to slide down instead of make it to the end… someone once told me that the original Snakes and Ladders was a Hindu meditation on the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth… but I never actually looked into it. Seems like it could be true.

“Is it time to fight?” Dyna asked, excited.

“Nope. Probably the exact opposite,” I said with a smile. Dyna pouted and I patted her. “You do get to be a monster this time, but probably not a combat monster… more a magical compassion and mercy monster… who use soul attacks to express themselves.”

Dyna grumbled, “Laaaame. That’s not monstering… that… that’s not even a survival strategy!”

RayRay coiled around her ‘sister’ and rested her chin on Dyna’s head, flicking her forked tongue at the air. “Yessss… what is the point of life without conflict?”

“In most realities, as you well know, death is often the result of conflict. Struggle may make one stronger, but too much struggle or struggle aimed incorrectly can cause great harm. Clearly, the Worldsmith of this realm felt making the monsters more or less harmless… of course, it’s utter bullshit, since there was a war between the Humans and Monsters that ended with the Monsters being banished underground with a magical barrier blocking their return. If Humans had started that war, they would have either enslaved the Monsters, killed all the Monsters, or not bothered with the Barrier, since they’d have felt they were superior enough to win the war. Clearly, the war was started by the Monsters and the Humans won only barely and sealed away the Monsters to protect themselves.  Or the Humans started the war only after repeated provocations from the Monsters. Regardless, Monsters and Humans had to have been fairly evenly matched in capacity for violence and anger, hate too in all likelihood for a war to have happened.”

“Couldn’t the Humans have tried to exterminate the Monsters?” Dyna asked.

“Don’t be sssilly,” RayRay hissed. “An act of extermination is seldom called a ‘war’. Mother said ‘War’.”

“I don’t know the history and I suspect that, by now, both sides have rewritten the truth to make themselves sound better. Anyway… Tablets for you both,” I said, handing them over.

Rayray mmmed, flipping through the electronic pages as the tablet rested in a column of air in front of her, while Dyna sat lotus style and floated several centimeters off the ground, reading silently. Dyna was, of course, the first to finish.

“Monster… I want to be… hmmm… a creepy jester marionette… one with a face that’s a mask and who can’t quite hold themselves like a human,” the alien pokemon who occasionally looked female said. “Is that okay?”

“Yeah. That’s fine. What background? Entertainer?”

“I was thinking, yeah… I like You Pose Dramatically and Death by Glamour… that’s the one that gives me mental and physical immunity to fatigue and pain as well as a boost to my magic while I’m performing. And I picked Minion Magic so I can create mini-marionettes… it’s recursive, see… and… and Purple Suits You, which locks opponents into a web-like movement grid when they try to fight me… seems a little broken.”

She looked up at me, seeking my praise, and I nodded and gave her a cookie. “Very good. Well reasoned and perfectly serviceable. Raechelle?”

The snake head swung to consider me, then she transformed into a more humanoid form and handed over her tablet. “Monster, Medusa, Shopkeeper. Monster Chef… that’s cooking with spiritual food that doesn’t cause you to have to poop eventually… Shop… Which is a perk that doesn’t come with an actual shop… it means people can’t fight me or rob me while I’m running a shop… but I can’t fight them or refuse to serve them… Also Minion Magic… that way they can sort stuff onto shelves for me… and Orange Motion Magic… that’s the one that can hurt you if you hold still.”

I ran the math, then asked, “I assume you spent your last 50 CP on College Funds.”

“Nothing else to spend it on… maybe I can use it to set up a shop… what can I sell so that I can sleep most of the day?”

I poked her on the snoot. “You sleep too much.” She licked my finger but didn’t deny it.

“Okay… well, we’re mostly alone here, so I don’t see any reason to wait the whole month. We’ll drop at dinnertime, assuming everyone is ready,” I said, not telling them that they’d forget all about me until I broke through to them. I was reasonably certain I’d be able to find them… I’m very good at that and the drawback didn’t say anything about them being hard to find…

* I have a special deal, just for you. Completely off the books! They won’t even know! *

I blinked… “What was that?”

The duo looked at me, then each other. “What was what?” Dyna asked.

“Thought I heard something… that’s been happening a bit today. I wonder if it’s something worrying, or merely to do with what The People Upstairs are doing to me.” I shook my head, clearing away the paranoiac thoughts. Worrying about it would be unproductive.

* Once you take my deal, you won’t need this one anymore… *

I shook my head again… focus EssJay… “Right. Well… after dinner then. We’ll have a little party at Bar Ziggy… assuming it’s still staffed.” I grumbled, wandering off, heading to my restaurant to check. It was. That was good. I sat at a table and ordered a drink while I waited for Squad Zero and Windjammer to join me. Such strange quietude.

After about twenty minutes, Windjammer showed up. She was wearing a sheer white dancing gown that was nearly transparent. “Acceptable?” she asked.

“Fine by me. Sit sit… we’re just waiting on… ah… hello girls,” I waved Vita and her cortege over. Levi looked prankish, Stern petulant, and Dearche annoyed that I liked Vita better than her. Sigh. Of course I liked Vita more… Vita was ernest and faithful and enthusiastic and compassionate. Dearche was a himedere brat who wouldn’t let me change her name to something cuter. She wouldn’t even let me call her ‘DeeDee’ as she claimed I was mocking her flat chest. Himedere… oy.

* Let’s destroy everything in this wretched world. *

“Did you five do your builds?” I asked as the salads I’d ordered were served. Mmm… lemon-sage salmon caesar with bourbon candied almonds and water buffalo butter sourdough croutons.

They all nodded, and Windjammer, the most ladylike of the group, set her fork down to report first. “Ghost Scientist… in a mass spectrometer. I took Analytical and SAVE the World. Makes me good at observing stuff and looking at things and figuring out how they tick… make them better… and same for people. Since I can’t shoot anyone with my cannons.”

“Well, not unless they’re trying to kill you,” I teased. “Girls? Did you three agree on a build or did Dearche do all the work?”

“I made them vote,” Vita said, “But we’re all Royal Guards and we all have Team Attack. I took most of the 100s because they seemed useful. Bravery was free, but Determination, Perseverance, Patience, and Justice… and Guessing Game because you notice everything and I thought it would be cool to be like that…” She paused and looked at me.

* I AM talking to you! Well, what do you say? Help me help you? *

“Are you okay?” she asked.

I nodded and smiled vaguely. “Yeah. I’m fine sweetie. Just missing a bunch of my internal stuff… Atura, Soul, Judge, and the entire Council… I’ve operated like this before, back in WormVerse, but it’s a little disconcerting not being able to even feel them. I keep thinking I’m hearing someone talking to me.”

Vita grinned, “I think that all the time… but it’s nothing usually… anyway, the Squad’s gonna be my guard doggy… a Cerberus ‘cause three heads… I’m going to be a Bear Monster, with big paws!” She pawed the air as the trio nodded.

Levi said, “We took ‘Get Back Here’ which makes us super aware of stuff and makes people have to confront us to get past us.”

Stern added, “And Battle With a True Hero’… it’s scary but cool.”

Dearche elbowed her, “That doesn’t tell her what it does!” I didn’t tell them I knew what all the perks did, they were showing off and that was fine.

Stern sighed, “It gives us a super-mode powered by Determination… even though we didn’t buy that perk. It’s scary because the mode only activates if we’re already on the edge of defeat and if there’s like… the fate of a nation or more at stake.”

Levi continued, “It heals our wounds and we become much stronger, faster, and tougher. Our magical attacks become super effected!”

Dearche humphed, “Super Effective… but the trade off is it’s crippling for years after. If we survive. But it’s worth it, right? It’s what heroines do?”

I nodded and gave all four a head ruffle. “You did good.” Windjammer looked like she was about to start pouting about not getting a head pat from her Admiral, so I gave her one too.

* Gaah! Sooo sappy! So lame! Come on! Let’s kill everyone! You know you want to! Everyone, everything in these worthless memories…Let’s turn ’em all to dust! *

“Just the wind my ass… something’s going on,” I muttered… I’d almost been able to make out actual words that time. There was definitely something going on. I’d have to be on my guard.

INSERTION

Well well, who knew that a bed of flowers could be so soft? Smelled nice too… not too floral… what the hell were they growing on, down here? I looked up… waaaay up. THere was a shaft of light shining down on me and this patch of flowers, but around us was a vast cavern of darkness. Ah… this must be the underground… I reached out for the memories of this lifetime… and found nothing. Just a note saying ‘FILE NOT FOUND: Reload, Retry, Quit?’

Well… that was helpful. I willed myself into the air… and fall after rising only a few inches. Hahaha… Fallen Human… Cute. “I did not sign up for this,” I muttered.

“Hi!” a chipper voice said from behind me. I turned to look and a large golden flower with a face and buckteeth was talking to me. “Howdy! I’m FLOWEY! FLOWEY the FLOWER!”

“Well… that name’s a little on the nose,” I commented, but if Flowey was at all put off by that, she didn’t didn’t show it.

“You’re new to the UNDERGROUND, aren’t you. Golly, you must be so confused. Someone ought to teach you how things work around here!”

I blinked at that, then smirked as much as an eight year old can really smirk. “I’m guessing you’re volunteering?” This must be a monster. Huh. Were they all flowers? No, the text had mentioned goats and ghosts and dogs. Clearly not.

“I guess little old me will have to.” The flower bounced as if to shrug, then asked, “Ready? Here we go!”… and suddenly my… something… was outside of my body, floating free, a red heart. I was completely aware of it… this must be my SOUL. How… odd. It wasn’t anything like my Soul. I could shift into a spirit form at any time thanks to Demon’s Souls and was insanely deadly in that form thanks to Demon’s Souls and Bleach. Idly, I wondered if my SOUL had the same protections as my Soul… Flowey was speaking.

“See that heart,” she asked. “That is your SOUL, the very culmination of your being!” Ah. Confirmation. Your SOUL starts of weak, but can grow strong if you gain a lot of LV.” LV… Level of Violence. Right. Not good to get. “What’s LV stand for? Why, LOVE, of course!” Okay… that was strange… why was a monster trying to upsell LOVE? Was this flower confused about the difference between LOVE and Love? Good lord knows that the conflicting meaning of similar terms was all too commonly abused by politicians and that the foolish were often taken in by such things… it was a flower… how smart could it be? “You want some LOVE, don’t you?”

“Mmmm… No?” I hazarded. “You keep using that word. I don’t think it means what you think it means.”

“Don’t worry!” the Flower Monster laughed, “I’ll share some with you!” And five gleaming white shimmers flew up out of Flowey’s petals. “Done here, LOVE is shared through little white ‘Friendliness pellets’. Move around! Get as many as you can!” she cried out, just as all five shimmers flew at the heart that was and was not me.

I don’t have danger sense… I probably should pick that up if I ever saw it offered… but I have a lot of other powers… one of which is that, in combat, I can see three seconds ahead… but that has to be activated before it can be used (Strike Witches, thank you). Another is that I can map literally tens of thousands of years of transgalactic civilization… but that takes time to think (Kwisatz Haderach & Mentat from DUNE and a planetary brain all my own). A third is that I’ve got reaction times that literally nothing slower than lightning is getting past (lots of places really). In the time it took those pellets to cross the distance from Flowey to me, a distance of some two hundred and eighteen centimeters, a time the rest of the universe would call four seconds, I had time to model literally twenty-seven billion variations of this scenario, and in exactly none of them was actually letting those pellets hit my SOUL deemed an acceptable first movie.

It all boiled down to four different gross categories. If Flowey was an honest actor and misinformed, it was contraindicated. If Flowey was a dishonest actor and actively malicious, it was very contraindicated. If Flowey was honest and correct, either she’d accept my skittishness and forgive it, or she’d take offense and become varying levels of angry, ranging from annoyed all the way up to horribly ticked off. At the very worst, it would be no worse than dealing with an actively malicious actor. That decided, I threw up my combat precog, slowing my perception of time to a crawl and considered what my senses were telling me. All my senses…

Like my Third Eye of Satori, courtesy of Touhou Jump, which reads people’s hearts and souls… and definitely works on monsters. It’s a good thing my reflexes are reflexive, because the evil I saw there was so blinding, so all encompassing that it got through my emotional defenses… and then I realized that most of those were based on S’Janus, my Vulcan persona… and she was MIA… and then, as I flung myself and my SOUL out of the path of those pellets of hate, I realized that every perk, every power, every skill that I associated with a specific persona instead of being part of myself completely was offline.

“Hey buddy…” the evil little flower (actually male, real name Asriel Dreemurr) sad with a slightly annoyed expression on his face. “Let’s try again, okay?” Again I dodged the horribly slow projectiles. “Is this a joke?” he demanded, growing frustrated. “Are you braindead? RUN. INTO. THEM!” He was yelling now.

Again I dodged, getting myself back up and metaphorically brushing myself off. I’d do a complete analysis of what I had and what I didn’t later. It would be things from jumps where I’d been a Drop-In, or where my Jump Persona was close to myself… and DUNE, oddly enough… ah… of course… heh. I was probably an Abomination of my original self… After all, DUNE is deepdeepdeep in the future of Earth, right? Maybe not exactly the same… but… Oh, right… battle. Focus… I was missing focus… oh god… ADHD was back… that was Sylvia Jade from Harry Potter who got rid of that, wasn’t it. Fuuuck.

Flowey’s face was pure evil now, the facade of gentility and openness wiped away. “YOu know what’s going on here, don’t you?!” he accused. “You just wanted to see me sufferrrr!” The last was said as a veritable scream of rage and pain and abject loathing… and a ring of ‘unfriendliness pellets’ surrounded my SOUL, spaced far too close to dodge through and too large to jump over without my flight, flight that I was apparently being denied because I was ‘Fallen’, as I could fly in all too many of my forms.

I wanted to teleport, but I always thought of that as apparition, something that Sylvia was also connected with… I was going to have to Shard up like crazy to cover this… damnit! I needed Atura’s Complete Arsenal for that or a really really huge amount of ice! Shit! My ice powers might have been distributed, but they were distributed across Infamous’s Sidney Elayne Jasko, Supernatural and MCU’s Skadi, Avatar’s Sukinuk, and Tenchi Muyo’s Sada Jomei. I threw up all my remaining defenses, preparing for the coming pain as the laughing flower screamed, “DIE!”

And then, out of nowhere, a bolt of fire magic flew out of the darkness and sent Flowey spinning away, doing his best impression of Darth Vader at his most emo.

“That… was unexpected,” I commented to no one… or so I thought.

A tall goat woman appeared out of the darkness. She was wearing a black robe with white sleeves and had bare feet (not hooves) and a soul so bright with goodness, compassion, and profound sadness that it was heartbreaking. I immediately felt better simply from her presence. “What a terrible creature, torturing such a poor, innocent child,” she said, “do not be afraid my child. I am Toriel, caretaker of these ruins. I pass through this place every day to see if anyone has fallen down.”

“I… see… how often does that happen?” I asked, genuinely curious.

“You are the eighth in my lifetime,” she responded. “You are the first human to come here in quite some time.”

I looked at her for a long, long moment, then nodded. “Eight… how old are you?”

She laughed, “It’s not polite to ask that!” and blushed a little. “Come, I will guide you through the catacombs.” And she did. The halls that led from that dark place showed walls that were clearly thousands of years old, and inhabited mostly by cowardly Frog Monsters, Gelatin Monsters that only squelched at me and had no brains at all, Carrot Monsters that encouraged me to eat them (shudder), easily influenced Bug Monsters that liked to dance, an Eyeball Monster that was a bit of a bully but only as a defense mechanism, and a Ghost-Fairy that was so painfully shy it could barely even say hi, let alone fight. Oh, and a Dummy with a ghost in it, another Ghost pretending to be a floor mat, and a third in a rock that was very bad at taking directions. Very strange place. All exceptionally linear and with less than thirty occupants (and that includes the ghosts.) There was also a mouse too scared to come out of its hole to get at a block of cheese that was waaay too hard to eat.

When Toriel left me alone to navigate the puzzles so simple that an actual child could have managed them, I pulled a small crock of almond butter out of my warehouse and knelt in front of the hole. “Heya… don’t worry… this is for you.” I said, even though my ability to talk to animals was missing along with Sheana of Blackmoon, Cindy the Infernape, and Sherry-Jo Rogers from Tortall, Pokemon Dungeon, and Scooby-Doo respectively. Still, I hadn’t lost my fondness for tiny cute animals. The mouse sniffed at the glob of nutgoo and started nibbling it nervously as I watched, hunkered there, glad I still had my memory and my intelligence and my physical strength… for what good it would do me. I had no idea how strong my SOUL was… so I’d better avoid getting it damaged if I could. So far, the Monsters had been all too easy to deal with simply by being a decent individual and not attacking them… not that I had any weapons besides my bare fists… well, I had lots, but they were in my warehouse and they seemed silly to bring out here. On the plus side, it didn’t appear that falls could hurt me at all, as I discovered when the floor suddenly gave way beneath me. Good thing too, since one of the chambers required falling through multiple crumbly floors. I did find a balcony looking out on the vastness of a ruined city… huge fucking cavern… but there was no way down besides jumping and I decided not to.

Eventually, I caught up with Toriel at a castle with a dead tree out front surrounded by fallen leaves… where was the thing getting light from? The house turned out to have a very homey home inside. Living room, foyer with stairs down, kitchen, three bedrooms. Oddly, the kitchen didn’t have any knives in the drawers… but Toriel had somehow managed to make a cinnamon butterscotch pie which was very tasty. Of course, I’d managed to buy a donut and cider from some spiders that were holding a bake sale and find some licorice candy on a pedestal… I did mention this place was weird, right? But I was still hungry.

In the bedroom I’d been given by ‘Goat Mom’, there were many different children’s toys… and (more worrying) many different sizes of children’s shoes… seven pairs of them. One of them looked to be my size… they also looked like the oldest. Interesting. So she’d done this before… I guess she liked being a mother… but what was with the empty picture frame… and why did this room look like the children who’d stayed here had never grown up?

“Toriel,” I said, finding her seated before the fireplace, reading a book on snails. “We need to talk.”

“I have to something,” she said, looking nervous. “Stay here!” and she ran off. I followed her, of course, finding her in the hall running under the house. She was just standing there, staring off down the eerily light hall, despite the fact that there were no lights at all. Without looking at me, or even facing me, she asked, “you wish to know how to return home, don’t you?”

“No,” I said, firmly. “I don’t. I know how to return home, Toriel.”

“A… ahead of us lies the end of the Ruins,” she said as if she hadn’t heard me. “A one-way exit to the rest of the underground. I am going to destroy it. No one will ever be able to leave again,” she announced, her voice growing steadily firmer. “Now, be a good child and go upstairs.”

I might be small, but I’m still fast… especially since I hadn’t lost any of my massive psychic might. The facility that had allowed me to push my mental powers far beyond their normal limits might be missing along with my persona from Psychonauts… but I, EssJay, The Jumper Manifest, had unlocked and mastered the powers of Warhammer 40K’s Warp with the help of Magnus the Red. I, EssJay, and not one of my personas. I zipped in front of Goat Mom and projected a fierce aura, making myself seem larger. I should have been able to grow larger… but formlocked to Human apparently included sizelocked to eight years old sized Human.

“TORIEL!” I yelled (I couldn’t really bellow at my current size). “Stop talking past me and talk to me! Explain what’s going on! I may be a child, but protecting me by locking me up is not going to work! I appreciate your desire to mother me. I do. I can feel your grief and your loss… but I’m not the others. I’m not a replacement child. I am myself. I am EssJay and no matter how young I may appear, I am older than you and I will not be contained.”

She blinked at me, and then smiled, laughing and ruffling my hair. “Well… that’s umm… That’s very cute. I… I guess you will have to Prove yourself… Prove you’re stronger than me.” And then the combat began. It was nothing like the ‘friendly’ battles against the other monsters. Her magic was intense, faster, and extremely powerful… but my combat precog still worked… why did that work when I wasn’t Serena Juventas… hell, why did Third Eye work when I wasn’t Squirmo Jukki… NOT THE TIME ESSJAY, my mind screamed at itself as one of the fire bullets clipped me.. OUUCH, MOTHER FUUCKER!…

As best I could tell, it had shaved about a quarter of my SOUL’s… it felt like… Hope? Had her attacks taken some of my Hope? Was that possible? I was getting distracted again. “I’m not going to fight you!” I growled. Shitshit… I didn’t know if ‘Cracking the Shell’ I’d gotten from The Pervert Bride would work when I wasn’t Jasmine Sutter… and didn’t know if I could safely use it against Monsters, as it said ‘You may toggle your attacks to not harm a target’s body and only damage whatever they may be wearing or carrying.’… did ‘body’ cover a Monster’s corporeal form? I… didn’t know… And the attacks were coming in too fast for me to multifocus without the perks that made that easier… god damn this was frustrating!

“Why are you making this so difficult!?” she asked, looking sad between the waves of attacks.

“Because I am not a pet! I am not your property!” I snapped. “Your desire to protect me from whatever killed the others does not give you the right to imprison me for the rest of my time here!”

She stopped fighting then and seemed to slump noticeably. “Hahaha… pathetic, isn’t it?” she said, sadness and selfblame tingeing her words. “I cannot save even a single child… I understand. You would be unhappy trapped down here. The Ruins are very small once you get used to them. It would not be right for you to grow up in a place like this.  My expectations… my loneliness… my fear… For you, my child… I will put them aside. If you truly wish to leave the Ruins, I will not stop you.”

“Oh. Good. Finally you see reason,” I replied, trying to keep the annoyance out of my voice. I’m not very good at acting like a child when I don’t have the persona to match up with it. I moved towards the door she was blocking.

“However, when you leave…” she said, “Please do not come back. I hope you understand.” She hugged me then, and walked away. “Goodbye my child.”

I shook my head after she’d left. “Wow… talk about projection.” Stepping out of the purple ruins, I found myself on a path through an incredibly dense forest in the middle of winter… winter… snow on the ground, underground… trees underground… a bush, covered with snow… the lens of a camera hidden inside it. I made several goofy faces into the camera, then covered the lense with snow.

Someone chuckled behind me. “Hello, Human.” He had a bit of a Boston accent.

I looked over and beheld… a short, somewhat chubby skeleton… yes, it was a skeleton… and big boned. It also was wearing a blue windbreaker and a big goofy grin… it winked at me… I see… Cartoon Skeleton Monster. Looking deeper, I observed that this being’s name was Sans and he was a genuinely decent person, though a bit lazy. And a bit of a prankster. Well, that was fine. “Hi yourself, Monster.”

“The name’s Sans, kid,” the Skeleton said, “You new in town?”

“Nope.”

“No?”

“No town around these parts,” I said. “I’m new in the forest. I’ll be new in town once I… Winter… there.”

He blinked at me… “That was terrible.”

“Hey! Of course it was!” I said. “Anyway, they call me Sassy.”

“Do they?” He asked, cupping his chin. “Well, Sassy, it’s nice that they call you that, but what’s your name?”

I smiled at that, he’d caught the evasion. “I actually can’t tell you. My name is missing.”

He winked at that. “Well, Missing. You’re quite a character… Maybe I should call you… Chara?”

“Just as long as you don’t call me late for dinner,” I snarked. We walked along through the woods as we chatted, trading wordplay. At one point, we came across a gate built across a wooden bridge that had no railings, and the gate’s slats were far too wide to stop a child from passing through. I didn’t even slow down. In a clearing ahead, there was a large pile of junk sitting on the ground near a small wooden structure, maybe a shed. A second skeleton was pulling the door off of it, this one tall and thin and wearing a red jacket. A quick scan revealed that this one, Papyrus, was hyper, over-enthusiastic, and a bad cook, but also a decent person.

“Pap…” Sans groaned, “why is the ground covered with junk?”

“Oh, little bro! Don’t worry! I’ll clean it up! I’m just clearing out this old storage shed. Gonna repurpose it as a guard post.”

“This lamp is huge,” I commented, pulling a blue table lamp out of the pile. It was as tall as I was. I grinned as I had a thought. “Want to see a magic trick?”

“DO I?!” Papyrus asked, looking pleased with idea. He tucked his hammer (it looked like a modified bone) into his belt, then turned to watch.

Sans had stepped forward a couple of spaces and was now looking at me to. “Show us whatchu got, kid,” he said.

“Okay,” I agreed, then caused all the snow off the nearby trees to fall off with a bit of a TK shove, creating a bloom of snow, a fog that temporarily blocked sight of the pile of random stuff. While the duo was blinded, I tapped my foot against the ground next to the pile, causing a portal to my Warehouse to open and the stuff to drop through just as the snow bloom began to fade. Another second and I was fully visible.

“Wow!” Papyrus said. “The snow ate the jump!  That’s cool.”

“Didn’t touch the lamp though,” Sans pointed out.

“Don’t blame it,” Papyrus commented, “I hate eating light.” As Sans was facepalming, Pap looked at me and asked, “Hey… ain’t you a Human?”

I considered that, then took my hair up, tied it into a granny, then messed up the mit sticking out the end. “No. I’m a Frayed Knot.”

“Oh… huh. Well, if you say so. We’re supposed to stop any Humans that come by and bring them before the King!”

“Oh?” I asked. “How do you do that?”

“Oh… traps, puzzles, that sort of thing,” Papyrus said, shrugging

“Practical jokes, japes, shenanigans,” his brother said, smirking smugly.

“Awesome!” I said, “Well, I’m not exactly a Human… but you can test your puzzles on me and see if… I mean, how well they work.” Long story short… they didn’t. Invisible maze that shocked whoever was holding the linked shock ball… but the tracks of solution were obvious if you looked closely got a review of ‘Seems like it might hurt someone, consider replacing with bouncy castle’. A paper word search left lying in the middle of a clearing received a review of ‘A paper cut waiting to happen, pen required but not included. Reconsider or make word search out of rocks. Or maybe replace with an obstacle course. People love obstacle courses.’ A pair of tables with a plate of frozen spaghetti on one and an unplugged microwave were not obviously a puzzle, but I pulled an eternal generator out of my warehouse and hooked the microwave up to it. U then replaced all the buttons with ‘Spaghetti’ so there wouldn’t be any confusion about how to reheat the pasta, and covered the pasta with a cloche to keep dust and debris off of it.

I also gave a nearby mouse in another mousehole some cheddar crackers and a wad of wool batting to nest in, then moved on. The next area was clearly perfect for a roadblock trap, but there wasn’t one there… so I fabricated some spike plates (based on the ones from the Ruins) to cover a narrowing of the path, and hid a pair of deactivation buttons out of the way… but since the brother’s might be confused by how to turn off the spike plates, I used a phasor to carve a map into the stone of the cliffside… oh yeah, the path had turned out to be a series of connected cliffs… underground… overlooking a vast subterranean forest. It was like Pellucidar, but darker. Not abyssally dark… but like… twilight dark.

Past that, I found a pretty basic button puzzle to deactivate a swinging axe blade, and Papyrus was on the other side. “So? What did you think? And did you save any for me?”

“I have some notes… and you should replace that swinging blade with spike plates… the swinging blade is too easy to avoid if you just time it right,” I said, rolling past the blade. “See… as for your spaghetti… it’s a decent trap… well, now that I’ve plugged in the microwave… but it’s only a delaying tactic. I didn’t cook the spaghetti… So it’s still there. Maybe you can cook some fresh for me to try?”

“R… really? Y… you want to eat my cooking?”

“Dude… I love spag. Spagpie, Spag Bol, ChiliSpag… Spag with Meatballs, Spag Carbonara, Spag Arrabbiata, Spag Rustica, Spag Puttanesca, Spag Fresca… what?” I asked, as his skeletal eye sockets were getting bigger and bigger.

“There are different types of spaghetti?!” he asked, astounded.

“Oh sure. And you can mix it up with different pasta shapes too… want me to show you?”

“Y… you know how to cook?”

“Not as well as I used to… but yeah. I should be able to manage a bit. Your place or mine?”

“Your… place?” He asked, “You have a place?”

“I always do. Not really certain where it is, but it’s around here someplace… Normally I locate it with magic, but that’s not working. Know of a place with the word ‘Zig’ in the name.”

He blinked, then nodded. “Yeah. The Zig-Zag Room. Best restaurant in New Home!”

I grinned. “See. There you go. That’s my place.”

“Whaaa? You just got here! How?”

“Just one of those things,” I shrugged. “Don’t think too hard about it. Come on… I’m not as resistant to the cold as I normally am and it’s a bit chilly out here. Let’s move on.”

And that’s how I managed to locate Snowdin and make friends with the skeleton brothers. As goofy as they were, they were still a font of useful information… and amusement. There was a nice little hotel there, the Snowd Inn, of course, and I camped out there for several days as I tried to figure out my current limitations.

There seemed to be little rhyme or reason on the surface of it. Certainly it wasn’t purely a matter of which jumps I’d been a Drop-In and which I hadn’t… though that did seem to part of it. For instance, while CIndy the Infernape from Pokemon Mystery Dungeon had technically been a drop-in (there hadn’t really been a non-drop in choice), my time as Cindy’s adult counterpart as Dr. Silence Jumper in The West Wing essentially meant that those two personas were the same entity. Ditto the Elf i’d been in both Lord of the Rings and A Song of Ice and Fire, both pre-memories free, but having spent over three centuries as that being, they had a strong personality. And if was true there, imagine what being the Magi Manifest was like. So not all drop-in identities were merely me. Sylvia Jane Rosenberg might have been a Spare Key (the Buffy Drop-In) but she had a strong sense of self shaped by her closeness to Willow, for instance.

But that didn’t explain why, Sidney Jasko, my Infamous Drifter persona, had left me my cold regen… but not my immunity to cold or my conduit powers… or had those transferred, over time, to the much stronger persona of Skadi, who I’d been in Supernatural and MCU? Why did I have some of my Great Detective Powers (Mental Palace… but not the ability to draw people inside it), when she wasn’t a drop-in? Why did I still have my Disney Princess song powers… but not my Kill-la-Kill Life Fibre Hybrid abilities? Both were Drop-ins, as was my Faunus Hunter persona from RWBY.

As best I could figure it was a combination of things. First was how strong the persona was… how distinct from the others… but another was how unhuman they were, and a third factor seemed to be how often I’d used a given ability across multiple personas. In the cause of my Touhou abilities, as far as I could tell, Squirmo the Ferret Tengu had merely been my core persona, only unfettered by restraint or common sense. And even then I only had the power of hers I used the most often, not the rest of her rather potent abilities. As for Serena Juventas… my ACE Strike Witch self, I could only assume that the fact that I’d assumed two different identities during that jump granted me some of her abilities… or maybe it was because I used the combat precog all the damned time no matter what my form was.

Of course… that probably had to do with the fact that I was currently formlocked and no longer had the power from Bartimaeus… Honorius the Second, which let me blend abilities across forms. I’d been able to do it before I’d gained that ability, but it had definitely made the process much less draining. Without it, and without the personas to call upon and without the ability to formshift… I seemed to be extremely limited… by my own standards.

By the standards of this world? I could have crushed any of these Monsters with pathetic ease… had I wanted to. I didn’t. They were genuinely nice (if fucking clueless) people. What do I mean by clueless? Well, Papyrus could not cook. Absolutely terrible at it. And he’d been taught by the Captain of the Royal Guard, a lesbian fish lady named Undyne the Undying… who was as incompetent at everything not involving being a royal guard as she was hyper-competent at her actual job. Totally unaware that the girl (a lizard lady mad scientist named Alphys) she had a crush on had feelings for her in return but was so painfully shy she’d never fess up. Utterly incapable of having a calm conversation with people (either of them, really). And just like Papyrus, Undyne could not freaking cook… but she tried.

Most of the guards were dogs… dog Monsters… who could be defeated in combat by giving them pettings. One of them couldn’t see things that didn’t move. Another would just try to snuggle. If they hadn’t been armed with spears and axes and spiritual magic that could damage my SOUL they’d have been harmless. Vita and her Squad-in-One, Material Dog, were Royal Guards… and as clueless as the rest of them… which, to be fair, was not all that different from what they’d been like when I’d recruited them. Waking them out of their amnesia was as simple as tummy rubs for the three-headed dog and headpats for Vita.

Getting Dyna back meant hunting her down across the Underground, looking for an Alien Entertainer who used purple magic and minions. Surprisingly few of those. Undoing her amnesia was easy… I threw normal pokeballs at her until she remembered who she was… Annoying my friends is, after all, one of my favorite activities. I also looked at my collection of full master balls and wondered how many of the ‘Monsters’ inside them I should release. I used them so seldomly. But it was timeless stasis and most of them had been very nasty or they wouldn’t be in the balls in the first place. Some of them were simply biosamples.

Locating Chamber and RayRay wasn’t too hard, since both were shopkeepers. I kept giving RayRay her favorite things; pillows, sleepy tea, pinups of Quetzelcoatl and Jormungandr, pajamas… did I mention she sleeps a lot? She’s better at sleeping than Ziggy and he can sleep on his own head. Chamber was a bit less practical, since we’ve never really been friends, so I didn’t really try the friend route. Instead, I would visit from time to time, getting her to tell me stories about knights valiant and glorious that she’d known. Eventually, she got to the wars between Scanra and Tortall… and started remembering Sheana of Blackmoon… who was one of me.

Windjammer was a bit tricky, since I had to search through every lab in the Underground looking for a haunted mass spectrometer. Problem was… it wasn’t like the Monsters had white pages… or even, you know, a next gen cell network. They did have cellphones, but they were primitive nokia style bricks (Bony, Yokya, and Monsterola, of course), which meant no GPS… or UGPS, I guess, so I couldn’t even try pinging the network. The solution… and a solution which solved more than one problem, was to create an entirely new cellphone, the MonsterMash Xtra. A 19th generation social media communication device with heuristic connectivity algorithms designed to learn about their owner and seek to maximize their happiness, both individually and society-wide.

While not technically a machine sophont, the system was incredibly adaptive and all but prescient given enough information about an individual user’s preferences, but hardware and software locked from using that information to inflict harm. If harm was needed, it would contact the Royal Guard… though considering that these were Undertale Monsters, harm was really never needed. In fact, the only harm Monsters really ever did seemed to be self-harm… and they were exceptionally good at it, since they had (by and large) a fairly immature set of emotional values.

Unlike Humans, who were complex emotional beings, Monsters tended to have fairly limited emotional states… shifting between extremes without mixing… like children, almost. This even extended to Boss Monsters… which seemed to included Undyne, Alphys, and the Skeletons as well as Goat Mom and her estranged husband Asgore, King of the Monsters… who I was avoiding, since he had killed the last six Fallen Humans… (I was having great difficulty finding out what happened to the First Fallen… no way that would be an issue, right?) though to a lesser degree, since the Bosses were usually more intelligent and nuanced… and longer lived. In fact, as far as I could tell, the Bosses were all technically immortal… though according to the lore on the Goat Demons, their immortality would transfer to their children as the children aged… which was the kind of idiocy that only novice world builders put in their settings.

See, the reason it doesn’t work is simple… Two parents produce one child… and the parents give up their lives to the child? Even if it’s one child per parent, that’s a stable population. And a stable population could never have gotten large enough to be self-sustaining… and any accident or misadventure would reduce the population in a way that it could never recover from. Since on any timeline long enough, accidental death is all but a certainty… you do the math. But it’s a fable, so… eh.

Anyway, the MMX was designed to help the Monsters make friends, make connections… and setup board game nights… what? I like games! It also offered lessons in basic life skills… like cooking, construction, puzzle design, home maintenance, self-esteem, public speaking, and how to ask people you like out on dates. It also allowed Monsters to post their various wants and needs online so that any helpful souls might search through the near endless trash that washed down to the Underground from the Human World above for whatever they might need.

That was pretty much my job for nearly four years… fetch quest monkey. I would wander about with a giant pack full of random stuff (and extra MMXs) and help solve problems. Really, really minor problems… It was just cute enough to keep from being boring… And all the while I was looking for that darn haunted MassSpec machine.

Of course, in the course of all this searching, I located TemmieSeid, in a village of the creepy, impulsive, really quite endearingly dim Cat Monsters. She was the official Temtaker of the paths and would patrol them endlessly, rearranging the decorative rocks along the paths until they were perfect… at which point some other Temmie would move one, or take one, or replace it with some random toy… at which point TemmieSeid would throw a tantrum and drown her sorrows in TemmieFlakes… I did not bother to restore her memories.

I eventually did locate the lab that Windjammer’s machine was in… by trailing Alphys. Turns out her lab is built on a super secret second lab that once belonged to some utter creepazoid named Dr. Gaster.  The hidden lab is full of these hideous amalgam Monsters that had kind of fuzed together because of having Human Determination injected into them. Now, granted, all those Monsters had been at death’s door and otherwise unsavable… but the ethics were still questionable… as was keeping them locked in a hidden basement lab. I didn’t have any solution to their problem, but I did point out to Alphys that they’d probably be better off with other Monsters rather than going slowly insane… insaner? underground… further underground?… you know what I mean!

Unfortunately for me… I pretty much ran out of things to do at almost exactly the five year mark. It was like all the various plotlines I’d found to keep myself going had tapered out. It was all so… slice of life by then. It had been slice of life for a while, to be honest, but the boredom finally got to me, even though I hadn’t located Korosensei’s dog form, and I knew that the reason was because I’d been avoiding what was clearly the final boss of this video game for a long time, making excuses to avoid a fight I really didn’t want to have. I didn’t want to look into the soul of a being who could murder children… though I was growing steadily more and more confused by why this Monster among Monsters hadn’t come looking for me even as I’d befriended all of his minions assigned to bring me to him. Indeed, I was also confused as to how such a horrible being could be so beloved by his people, especially when those people were, pretty much universally, good (if simple) beings.

So finally, with much trepidation, I ventured into the royal palace in New Home and made my way to the throneroom… passing, as I did so, through a nearly identical version of Toriel’s home in the Ruins… and it was there that I began to understand. Somehow, long, long, long ago, the First Human had fallen down into the Underground and been adopted by Toriel and Asgore… and their son Asriel… a name I knew! Flowey… I had no idea how Asriel the Goat had become Flowey… I could not read the memories of these Monsters, since they didn’t technically have thoughts or biology. They were, for all intents and purposes solidified Soul matter… but somehow it had happened and Toriel was unaware of it… which implied that Asgore might be as well. I tried to find the rogue flower to ask it what had happened… but without luck.

Which meant asking the King. He was not, to put it kindly, in a talkative mood. He had a giant crimson trident made of solid Determination and, even though he was reticent to attack me after all the good I had done his kingdom, he also made it absolutely clear that this fight could end only with my death or his… of course, those were his terms, not mine. “Human, it was nice meeting you… Goodbye.”

The throne room was full of those same golden flowers that had littered the spot I’d fallen to, the same kind as Flowey, and (as I dodged all the King’s attacks and pestered him to reveal the truth) I kept my third eye peeled for any sign of the wicked little floral Monster. Give Asgore props. While he’d killed the other human children, he’d done so out of a twisted desire to free his people, but never done so without regret at the necessity. He was also able to keep fighting long after the point where any other being would have collapsed with fatigue.

The non-fight was entering its seventh hour when he finally started speaking again, voice thick with fatigue. “I remember the day after my son died… the entire Underground was devoid of hope. The future had once again been taken from us by those miserable Humans. In a fit of rage, I declared war, said that I would destroy any Human that came here. That I would use their souls to become godlike and free us from this terrible prison… then I would destroy Humanity and let Monsters rule the surface in peace… Soon, the people’s hopes returned, but my wife… my Toriel… she was disgusted with my actions, and left this place, never to be seen again.” He took a deep breath and sighed, leaning heavily against his trident. I didn’t say anything. “Truthfully, I do not want power. I do not want to hurt anyone. I just wanted everyone to have hope… but I cannot take this any longer. I just want to see my wife. I just want to see my child.”

For the first time since the fight had begun, he looked me in the eye. “Please, young one… this war has gone on long enough. You have the power. Take my soul and leave this cursed place.”

“What curse?” I asked. “This place is full of life and love. The only one who really seems cursed here is you.” I shook my head, “Anyway, I’m not killing you. I don’t need your soul and I don’t want it.”

He looked shocked by that. “You… After everything I have done to hurt you… You would rather stay down here and suffer than live happily on the surface?”

“Are you terminally dense?” I asked. “First, you haven’t do jack to hurt me. I’ve spent the last seven hours dodging your attacks and the last five years making friends with all your subjects. You’re the one suffering. No one else is. And you think the surface is all happiness and light? Are you mental? There are humans up there. Where there are humans, I guarantee there is suffering. Where there is life there is suffering. Down here, you’re safe from my kind… well, Humankind.”

He grinned at that, then threw his arms open wide. “Human! I promise you, for as long as you remain down here, my wife and I will take care of you as best we can. We can sit in the living room, telling stories, eating butterscotch pies… We could be like… like a family…” He looked so happy at that idea… and at that moment, I saw a flicker of darkness beyond darkness boiling up out of the flowers behind the king and my combat sense told me that Asgore was about to die.

With a wave of my mind, I backhanded the king out of the way of Flowey’s blow and threw up a shield to intercept the killing blow. It was full of HATE and DETERMINATION with all the portentous significance that implies, and if it had been aimed at me, it would really have hurt… but it glanced off the anti-Soul Magic shield I’d learned to generate from Undyne.

“Hello, Asriel,” I said, looking at the Flower. “I found your son, your majesty… though he’s a little consumed by darkness at the moment.”

“Th… that’s not…” Asgore began, but Flowey cut him off… at least, I thought it was Flowey… but the speech text was the wrong color.

* No! NO! NOOOOO! You’re ruining everything! This isn’t how it’s supposed to be! You’re not supposed to SAVE them! You’re supposed to destroy them! Destroy them all! WHAT GOOD ARE YOU, JUMPER, if you won’t KILL!? *

And with that, a human image flickered into being around the flower. The kid was perhaps ten years old and looked like a dark mirror of me, dark red hair where mine was bright crimson, dark blue clothing where mine was light yellow… and she held a knife in her hand… a gleaming, terrible thing that twisted the strange sourceless light of the shimmering twilight barrier beyond the throne room in impossible ways. I tried to respond but it was like I was moving through molasses.

The king called out, “Chara! No. Don’t!” and then I felt pain as the knife plunged into my breast.

* If you won’t do as I want… THEN DIE! *

And I did.

======

“Ahem,” said the soft calm voice. I looked around the room… it was a small japanese style room, tatami mats on the floor and japanese style tea service with rice crackers on a tray on the low table that was the room’s only furnishing. Across the table from me was an old, non-descript man. He smiled an embarrassed smile and gave me a tiny shrug. “I… umm… that is… my apologies.”

I blinked, feeling myself… no stab wound… “Ummm… where is this? And what are you apologizing for?” I was exceptionally calm… I was also not breathing… nor was my heart beating… neither of them… well, that wasn’t good.

“You see… Well, I’m… I’m with… that is… You died.”

“I died?” I asked, more curious than upset. That shouldn’t have been possible… I had DETERMINATION!… normally, I’d also have ‘Thrice Setting Sun’, but that was probably with Sophia, my Fate/Servant persona… grumble grumble… huh… I didn’t even feel like grumbling… something was probably suppressing more annoyance… either that, or because I was dead I didn’t really have any emotional reactions? Naw, ghosts could still get angry… was I a ghost?

“You don’t seem very upset by that news?”

“Eh… I assume you brought me here to explain how I managed to die when I should have, at the very least, survived with a single hitpoint… and strictly speaking I should have three extra lives every jump, though I couldn’t activate them because of some review or other?” I motioned towards the tea, and he nodded, looking chagrined.

“Um… yes… that is correct. I’m not privy to the details of the review, you understand. I’m not with those you call ‘Higher’… I’m merely a local… facilitator. You can call me God if you like.” He took the tea from me and smiled, sipping it with obvious pleasure. He did turn down one of the crackers, so I kept them to nibble on as he equivocated. “Now… I was supposed to make certain that your vacation went smoothly… but I was… I got a little…” he shrugged. “There was a giant robot fight in downtown… well, the name of the city wouldn’t make any sense to you, but it was very intense and I was…” He sighed and sipped his tea.

I finished my cracker, which tasted delicious but utterly unlike anything I’d ever eaten before. If I had to assign a taste to it, I’d call it the taste of spring. I took a sip of the quite excellent tea, which tasted slightly of cherry amid the maccha, and said, “You got distracted. Perfectly reasonable. So. Do I get sent back now?”

“Ah… no. That won’t work. You’re dead in the timeline. I can’t fix that.”

I blinked, “Do I move on with my chain then?”

“Well, no. Can’t do that either… I’m not a Benefactor… and technically you did die.”

“Yes, but it shouldn’t count as a chain ender. I was… the death shouldn’t have happened. I have perks to prevent just such a thing.” Still calm. Most out of character for me… but clearly not something this God guy was causing.

“That’s true… see… I can’t really move you on, and I can’t report to Higher about this… they’d be angry with me… but I can send you to another world!”

“Wouldn’t that be moving on with my chain?”

“Oh… hmm… not quite. I can’t give you a jump tree or anything… I just send you on and make sure you have a nice relaxing stay and then… once your time is up there, the Chain will continue because, you know…” he shrugged.

“Because I didn’t die in that world?”

He smiled and nodded. “Soo? What do you say? I’ll make it worth your while!”

I shrugged, “Well, if you think this will work. I get to keep all my stuff, right?”

“Ah… well, it might take awhile for me to move everything over… but you’ll get it all eventually… or when you get to your next world at least.”

“So, what you’re saying is that you can’t move anything over, but once I’m back in my chain, it will all get fixed?”

He nodded, then paused. “Well, I could move one thing over… to make things better? What do you think?”

“Well, if you promise that this will really be a vacation and not a death trap, I guess it’s better than just hanging about in administrative limbo. Sure… one thing… one thing?” I looked around, trying to figure out what one thing from my warehouse I’d want most… and spotted an MMX under the table. “Hey, can I take this?”

“A smartphone? Sure. I guess. But you can’t use it to post things… or call between worlds.”

“Still, it’s a smartphone… I can access the games and everything, right? Like my files?”

“Oh. Yeah. That’s no problem.” He finished his tea. “Ready?” The walls of the room fell away to reveal that we were sitting in the middle of an astoundingly blue sky.

I shrugged, and, “As I ever will be, I guess.”

=====REINSERTION====

To Be Continued in Part Two!

Next: Another Tale with a Smartphone?

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: Yes, yes, I know I haven’t finished Solace’s story, but that will take a while longer. So while the Powers that Be (i.e. you fine people) are still reviewing Solace (i.e. waiting for me to finish it up), the adventure continues. Yes, extremely meta, I know, but hey, if it’s good enough for Deadpool, it’s good enough for She Who Ferrets. Warning, this chapter will be a bit long too, though nowhere near as long as Solace.

World 77: Honor Harrington – Part 2.15

SOLACE OF MANTICORE

Part 15: Eye to Eye, Heart to Heart, This is Where the Party Starts

Previously: The Manticore Shuffle

Timestamp: May, 1892

“Ma’am?” asked the very green middy.

Lukas Janacek looked up from his station at tactical… almost pointless as the ship was currently in Beowulf and the likelihood of being required to shoot something hovered majestically between slim and none, and sighed. “Don’t bother the Commander, Andreas. What’s up?”

Solace, who was manning the bridge while reading through the reports from the various departments (and boy-howdy did an SD have a lot of those), hid a smile. She remembered when Lukas was that green. Venizelos was a good kid, but the question rattling around in his head wasn’t something a midshipman brought to the XO. She’d let Lukas handle it. He was also a good kid, despite the arse his uncle was.

“Sir,” Midshipman Venizelos said, snapping to attention. “I… I only wanted to ask…”

“You want to know why the admiralty is sending Manny all the way to Sol?” Lukas asked, raising an eyebrow and tilting his head to regard the sharpfaced younger man.

“Yes sir… If it’s not a secret.”

“It’s not. No. Everything’s above board here. That’s why the Admiralty is sending Manny, in fact. We’re presenting some very very dangerous information, making the turnover extremely public and transparent. We’re doing so because it’s an Eridani infraction waiting to happen and if anyone ever found out that we were the ones who didn’t tell everyone it was possible, it would be a shit show. How would it look? We could have saved a lot of lives and we didn’t?”

“I get that, sir… but couldn’t we have just sent a dispatch boat to Duke Bridges?” the boy asked.

“We could have… but we want everyone to know that we’re not turning this over because we’re scared. We aren’t asking the Solarian League to protect us from the big bad terrorists any more than we’re asking them to protect us from Haven.”

“And Manny says all that?”

“She does indeed,” Solace said, and the two jumped as she loomed over them. “She reminds the Solies, just a little, that we might be neobarbs by their standards, but we’re not helpless.”

“No Ma’am… I mean yes Ma’am… I…””

“It’s okay Andy. We ask questions because we don’t know. Now, take this report back to Lieutenant Commander Alvarez and tell him that these numbers are unacceptable. I want the missile crews to do a complete recount and practice the evolution again. Five nukes being stacked in the corridor is unacceptable. I want no more than two missiles in transit at once. He may think he’s saving time, but the missiles will move faster with more hands steering and less congestion. Got that?”

Venizelos snapped to attention, blushing, and nodded. “Yes Commander.” And he scampered.

“Remember when you were like that, ma’am?” Lukas teased.

“When? I still think I’m like that every time I get an order from an Admiral,” Solace chuckled. “Or when my mother orders me around. Go tell the Captain we’re approaching the limit. Ask her if she wants to be on the bridge for the jump, or if I should go ahead.”

HMS Manticore approached the least time vector to Sol, sixty light-years from Beowulf, and signalled the Solarian Battlefleet destroyer that was escorting her with a thank you. The CO, Lt. Commander Anis Huffnagle, snapped a respectful enough salute. “Smooth sailing, Manticore.” and signed off just as Captain Kuzak entered the bridge.

“Everything most ricky-tick?”

Solace stood from the command chair and caught Ruth as she leapt off the back. “Yes ma’am.” She moved aside as Theodosia took the seat.

“Excellent, Number One. Take us to Earth,” the Captain said, then tossed Solace something. It was small, black, and looked like a box that a medal might come in.

“Not another one,” she muttered, opening the box. Inside was no medal. Instead, it was a coin that said “HMS Manticore”, “Home Fleet”, and “Commander” on it. Solace blinked. Oh. Right. That was a thing. A Challenge Coin. She’d been too junior to get one in Third Fleet. Under it was a note. She handed the coin and box to Ruth and unfolded the paper. “Congratulations on ten years of service. Only another twenty to go to work off all those demerits. -Hartley”. She felt herself getting choked up and chuckled. “Thanks. I’ll… ummm… I’ll use it in good health?”

“Tradition says you have to buy everyone a drink at the next port,” Captain Kuzak replied. “Oh… and just so you know, we’ve got a bunch of pollywogs who’ve just had their first wormhole crossing, so the Court of King Kronus will be meeting tonight.”

“Oh… joy,” Solace said… then paused. “There isn’t some special ceremony for going to Sol, is there?”

“Naw. Used to be, at least for the Solies, but it doesn’t happen often enough these days for most of them either. Guess Old Earth ain’t what it used to be.”

=========

Solace had never been to Old Earth before… she wasn’t impressed. For the vaunted ‘Cradle of Humanity’ it was astonishingly dingy and run down. The Capital, Old Chicago, was a hodgepodge of slums and towering spires with very little rhyme or reason, and it was like a layer cake that only got more and more depressing the lower one went. The ‘Lake’ (really a fresh-water sea) was nice enough… but it smelled off to Solace… everything here did. She was used to the thriving and growing civilization of Manticore’s three planets, or the vibrant frontier feeling of worlds like Erewhon, Grayson, or Smoking Frog… or even the rundown slums of Haven where it was clear the Legislaturalists cared only for themselves. Even Beowulf, one of the oldest of Old Earth’s daughters had felt alive… if a little overly structured for Solace’s tastes.

Old Chicago, on the other hand, felt like a collection of parasites thriving on a corpse. Nothing fit where it was, everything was mashed together without care, and the suffering of others was blithely ignored by those who were supposed to care the most. Haven was horrible in its corruption… Earth was worse in its neglect… and nothing summed that up as well as the Solarian League.

Solace hadn’t known what to expect when she and Sonja had shuttled down to meet with the Ambassador… but his explanation of the near total dysfunction of the assembly had shocked her. A government that required unanimous assent to do anything was one that could not function! Earth itself, like all the worlds of the League, had its own local government… but the federal government of the League was effectively in the hands of career bureaucrats, rather than the elected leaders the people had chosen for themselves. The entire idea would have been laughable had it not been so tragic.

To make matters worse, the Solarian Military had lodged a formal complaint to block the presentation of the details of the Inverter to the Eridani Council and their mission looked like it might drag on for several weeks while the lawyers pushed for a ruling from the Interstellar High Court.

“Worse comes to worse, we release the information anyway. We’re foreign nationals, they can’t censor us… but they can censor the press to some extent,” Duke Rodney explained. He looked even fatter now that he was no longer in active service and Solace worried about his health, but his eyes were still bright and his skin showed that he was getting proper nutrition even if he was getting too much of it.

“So we just sit here and wait,” Hemphill said, sounding offended at the idea. Solace wasn’t surprised; Sonja hated wasting time. Even now, she could feel the older woman’s desire to get back to her labs so she could tinker with things.

Rodney Bridges grinned, “Oh no. Dear me, no. Tonight we network!” he said it as if the words were a delight, but when both his guests just looked at him as if he were a mental case, he laughed. “Fine, fine. Maybe it’s not the greatest thing since sliced bread, but this is the diplomatic season here in Old Chicago. We’ve got a number of events we’ve been invited to and we should go. Best behaviour and all that.”

“Who,” Sonja asked, an edge of murder in her voice, “are we sucking up to… and why?”

The Duke tented his fingers and looked at the two of them. “Well… how much do you know about the real government of the league?” Sonja and Solace shared a look, then shrugged as if to say ‘not much’.

“It has a government? One that functions?” Solace asked.

“In a way… in a way,” Bridges agreed. “It depends on what one means by functions. Essentially, the Secretaries of the various departments are all figureheads. They’re elected and removed almost entirely at random and serve very short terms… but under them are the Senior Permanent Undersecretaries and they… they’re career bureaucrats. Currently, the real power lies in the hands of six individuals… well, six offices really.”

“Let me guess,” Sonja said dryly, “The Permanent Undersecretaries of Defense and Treasury?”

Solace added, “Plus Foreign Affairs and Commerce.”

Bridges laughed, “Either you two are too damned good at guessing or your politics senses are sharp. Those four plus Interior and Education & Information. Interior handles domestic and frontier policy. That’s Jackson Maslow… he’s getting pretty long in the tooth and will probably step down within the decade. Best guess is that his long time nuncio, Nathan MacArtney will take his place. Education & Information is the league’s propaganda machine and Hasdrubal Khan runs that. He’s pretty young, second generation prolong. He’ll be around a while most likely and if we can sway him, it will help our cause immensely.”

He leaned back, took a long drink, then sighed, “The rest are a pit of vipers. Loshak D’ampezzo is the de facto head of both Frontier Fleet and Battlefleet… yeah… horrifying to think they have so many cruisers they have to divide it like that, but 2000 worlds is a lot of ground to cover. He’s who we’re having dinner with tonight. The man is, in no uncertain terms, a monster. If the league has a leader, it’s him. First among equals… but the other five hate him with a passion. That’s Brian Sullivan at Treasury, Pablo Chauchescu at Commerce, and Innokentiy Kolokoltsov at Foreign Affairs… he’s the new kid on the block. Replaced Phillidia Ornstead-Styres two years ago, still feeling his way as best we can tell.”

“Let me guess,” Solace sighed. “We’re having dinner with all of them over the next week?”

“Oh no… Hasdrubal and Maslow don’t care about neobarbs like us. We need to get to Khan if we can… but he might be at the parties of the others. Foreign Affairs, Commerce, and Treasury all care about Manticore because we play strongly into the economy of the League and they’re hosting parties where we’ve been invited. But Loshak is throwing his party specifically to meet you, Commander. He’s fascinated by your accomplishments in Saint Vincent and Sparta.”

“Sparta? I… I didn’t do anything in Sparta.”

“See, that’s where you’re wrong. It was your quick thinking that… oh don’t worry. I’ve come to realize that the truth is amusing and I already look a fool. The Admiralty’s never going to put me back into space and getting praise I don’t deserve feels wrong.”

“I’m missing something, I think,” Sonja said as Solace covered her face with her hands and the two ‘cats patted her head consolingly.

“Remember my glorious victory in Sparta?” The Duke began, as Sonja leaned forward, eager to hear the tale.

=====

“Really? I’m suddenly glad I’m no longer your commanding officer,” Sonja elbowed Solace as they left the Duke’s office. “And here I was thinking I’d bring you over to BuWeps if I could manage to steal you from Edward.”

“I can’t believe he’s telling people that story,” Solace groaned. “It makes me look like a loose cannon.”

“Oh, but that’s what we love about you… darn, you’re too tall to pat affectionately. Are you still growing?”

“No. Thankfully. It’s ridiculous. Who custom orders a two meter tall love slave? And how do you midgets reach anything on the high shelves?”

“We may need a step stool, but at least we can walk through hatches without banging our heads. Now, what are you going to wear tonight? Gown or Uniform?”

“I don’t see how I have a choice. I’m on active duty.”

“Well… that’s true… but you hold diplomatic rank too, and this is a diplomatic mission. One of us should go in mufti, just so that they don’t think we’re all would be conquerors?”

“Normally, I’d agree with you, but this is the Ministry of Defense event. How about you go in Ceremonial Day Dress and I’ll go in 1C?” Solace suggested, cheekily.

“Oh ho,” Sonja said “Trying to make me look the chest-thumper are you?”

“I am but a humble Commander. A bluff workaday officer who does actual work. You, on the other hand, are a lord of the space-ways, an admiral under her own flag.”

“You’re really laying it on thick, you know?”

Solace grinned. “Fine, you go in 1B and I’ll go in 2A.”

“Do you ever think we might have too many uniforms?” Sonja asked, sighing.

“I thought that long before I took the oath. Remember, I had to help Mary pack.”

“You poor child,” Sonja said, and Solace had to agree. She had eleven different formal uniforms (1A-B, 1C, 2A, 2B, 2C, 1WA-B, 1WC, 2WA, and 2WB plus her Totenkopf Hussars and Ensign of the Guard uniforms… 1A or 1B depended on if she was armed or not and white was for outdoor events in hot climes like Landing). If she was lucky they all remained in their crates year round… she suspected they wouldn’t be. But, the likelihood she’d have to wear that insane hat wasn’t high. Not unless the Andermani showed up for some reason.

=====

“What do you mean, ‘the Andermani have arrived?’” Solace asked Loyal as he entered the room at the Manticoran Embassy where she was currently changing. “And what are you doing on Earth?”

“Good to see you too… and I mean that Crown Prince Jing-Pei has arrived on Earth… that’s why I’m here. I’ve been sent from the Foreign Office to brief the Duke on Andermani Protocols. And to inform you that under no circumstances are you to be seen in public wearing your Andermani Uniform. Even if asked to by the Prince.”

“Yes, thank you,” she snarked. “I could have figured that out on my own.”

“Liar,” her brother chuckled. “Good to see you, Sandy… good thing we don’t call you Sollie, right? That would cause confusion.”

She hugged the little twerp then nodded, “Yeah. Last thing we want is confusion. Are you coming to D’ampezzo’s event?”

“Not me. No. I’ve got to catch up on some sleep. I’ll be there for the event tomorrow… that’s…” he checked his slate, “Sullivan. Try not to cause an interplanetary incident while I’m not watching your back.”

“Haha ha… you sound like Hope,” she grumped.

“I certainly… hope so,” he said, grinning back at her. She threw a hatbox at him.

======

“Ah… You must be the vaunted Commander Smythe!” bellowed the de facto supreme military commander of the Solarian League’s unrivaled navy. “Welcome! Welcome! These are my aides, Admiral Rajampet, Captain Smalls, and Lieutenant Jovanucci.”

Solace nodded to the two women and one man. She’d read the bios the Foreign Office and ONI had on each of them. Rajampet Rajani was D’ampezzo’s second in command, a boob, a bore, and a born paper pusher. He’d never seen real combat against anything more than pirates and it was ONI’s best judgement that D’ampezzo kept him around because he lacked the political or military savvy to be a serious threat to his boss.

Gertude Smalls, D’ampezzo’s Flag Captain (though he didn’t actually go into space much these days), was another matter entirely. Born and raised on New Gibraltar, she had clawed her way out of extreme poverty and worked her way up through the ranks of Frontier Fleet’s enlisted marines before managing to earn her slot in Officer Candidate School. She’d switched to the Navy Track and won a place in Battlefleet the hard way. A veteran of over a dozen ground actions, twice that number of hostile boarding actions, and twenty-five years on the frontier putting down rebels and pirates with too little in the way of supplies, Smalls was a force to be reckoned with… or would have been in a fair system. But her low birth and lack of political connections all but guaranteed she’d never make it past Rear Admiral… if she ever made it that far.

Stasya Jovanucci was Small’s counterpart. Daughter of a very wealthy family from New Turin, her family had been fleet for over a thousand years and she was young, bright-eyed, gorgeous, and excruciatingly naive. The perfect flag-lieutenant for an aging and lecherous old fart like D’ampezzo. Except that one moment in his presence told Solace that he had as much interest in his lieutenant… or in Solace herself… as he did in the floral arrangement.

Indeed, he seemed far more interested in Lukas Janacek, there as his cousin’s ‘date’ for the evening (Loyal was filling the same role for Solace, and Naomi was riding his shoulder and had stolen his fez.) “So, tell us… did you really destroy an entire fleet of battlecruisers with only a LAC?”

Much later, after she’d sacrificed Lukas to be eye candy to the Undersecretary by volunteering the younger man to recount the Battle of Caperna, she stepped out onto the Balcony where Captain Smalls was standing. “It’s a nice night… at least this far up the tower.” She looked out over the vast darkness of Lake Michigan.

“Is this the part where you try and claim you know what it’s like to grow up in poverty and to claw your way up the social ladder?” the flag-captain asked. “Because I’ve read your file.”

“No. I don’t know what that’s like. I’ve seen extreme poverty on Haven and Mesa, but I’ve never lived it myself. I’m not that facile… may I call you Gertrude?”

“No, you may not, Commander,” the woman said stiffly. “We may be in different services for different nations, but I would appreciate it if you…” she bit off what she was going to say. “Let’s leave it at the polite, shall we?”

“Very well, Captain. No. I am not here to attempt to sway you, to get you to compromise your honor or divulge secrets. I merely noticed that you seemed less enamoured of the festivities and thought you could use the company. Also, it really is a lovely night.”

“I imagine Jason Bay is much like this, no? Hotter perhaps, but still…”

“It is… and it isn’t. Same modern towers, same wealth, same luxury… more salt air, less entrenched cronyism, but it’s still there.”

“But it’s not built on a foundation of poverty, is it?” the Captain bit back anger. “Or are you and your friends trying to change that?”

“My friends?”

“We have records on you. Nepotism, favoritism… I don’t deny that you’ve accomplished great things… but you had every opportunity, haven’t you?” The bitterness in this woman went far far deeper than the surface. Solace could almost taste the visceral hatred for entrenched privilege inside the woman. How was she allowed to keep her position? She was like a…

Ruth bleeked softly in her ear and Solace half-turned, looking back into the ballroom out of the corner of her eye. A man with dark eyes was paying them too much attention, too focused… and she understood. Smalls was being watched… carefully.

“Nepotism has its place. There’s a reason monarchies do so well as long as there are limits… Democracies… they get bogged down in the popularity game and playing to the mob-mentality. Best to have some people who can play a long game… and hope that at least some of them are motivated by enlightened self-interest. But for the record… I have earned every award I’ve ever accepted, every promotion. I have worked very hard to be the best I can be… because anything less dishonors the Kingdom and the family that gave me refuge after I escaped from Mesa. So no… I’ve never lived in poverty, Captain Smalls… but you’ve never lived in bondage.” She made her voice hard on those last words, then turned and stalked away.

======

Seven days and seven mind bogglingly dull social events later, they still hadn’t gotten the League Court to rule one way or another. The League President, Hakon Mustafa, and the Prime Minister, Basil Messi, had both had events that they’d been forced to attend… as had the Crown Prince of the Andermani… and still there had been no traction from Hasdrubal Khan’s people. He’d even managed to avoid the Manticorans at all seven events simply by claiming to have the flu and not showing up.

His deputy, Malachai Abruzzi, had been there, an officious, horrid little man with a mind like a pit, and had made various excuses, but they’d all rung hollow to Solace’s empathic senses.

The Duke had shrugged and simply said, “If we don’t have word by the end of next week, we’ll go ahead and release the details to the media.”

Solace hadn’t been willing to wait… which explained why she and Lukas Janacek were out at 3am in a part of the sprawling megalopolis known as ‘Little Chicago’ but that had historically been called ‘Milwaukee’.

“Ma’am… why are we in… wherever the hell we are?”

“I’ve told you twice now, call me Solace… this is waay off the books. And we’re here to meet a contact who’s a friend of a friend.”

“No… I know that… why am I here, with you? That’s what I mean.”

“I can’t take my brother… that would look weird.”

“Weird?”

“On a secret date,” Solace said, shaking her head and scanning the area.

“Secret… we’re not dating and if it’s secret… I’m confused.”

“Good field-craft is to always assume you’re being watched, especially coming and going from the Embassy, Luke my lad. You know we aren’t dating, the captain knows we aren’t dating, the admiralty would have a fit if they even thought we were dating… but the Solies don’t know that. They’ll see us sneaking out for a bit of fun… hopefully they think we’re back at the Plaza still… and assume we’re having a secret tryst. They’ll believe we’re sneaking out because our affair is against regs and it’s almost certainly something they see all the time, so they shouldn’t look deeper. We’re just neobards, right?”

“I… I guess,” the junior officer agreed. “But why did you need me at all?”

“Hard to sneak out for a tryst on my own.”

“Sure… but you could have left me behind at the hotel,” he suggested.

“And have you run up my tab? I may be a billionairess, but not even I could afford hotel prices on macadamia nuts!” she teased, knowing full well that Ruth and Naomi were probably stuffing themselves on room service hasenpfeffer at that very moment. Touchpad ordering they understood all too well and the room had an automated dumbwaiter.

Lukas chuckled. “Fair enough… but I still don’t-”

“I look less conspicuous if I’m with other people… and here comes our contact now. Jeremy X… you look… fit.” She stuck out her tongue at the newcomers, who responded in kind, then she hugged the slighter of the duo, looking at his companion. “Who’s your friend?”

“Saburo X,” said the bigger man. He looked tough, like a fighter, and no nonsense. “Who’s yours?”

“Lukas Janacek,” replied Lukas. He and Saburo were of an age, and the Manticoran could feel himself being judged by the taller ex-slave. Part of him really wanted to challenge the other man to a fight then and there, but he shook it off. The two glared at each other.

Solace gave Jeremy another squeeze, then stepped back, rolling her eyes. Lukas and Saburo were about three seconds from causing a scene. She reached out and grabbed the backup duo’s ears and pinched hard. “Behave yourselves… Sheesh, androgen poisoning much?”

Jeremy shrugged. “Saburo has his issues… but he’s good civilization… now, what’s so important that you needed the Ballroom? And how on Earth… literally… did you know I was on Earth?”

“Jimmy… I love you like a brother, but subtle you are not. Regardless… I need information that I can give to my superiors so we can force Hasdrubal Khan into giving us a meeting.”

“Aaaah… mmm… I don’t… oh… yes, yes I do!” Jeremy did a little caper. “I met this charming young lady, a real bottom-feeder in the Solie-Media corps. O’Hanrahan… Audrey… lovely girl…” He licked his lips. “Very… flexible… morally and physically… but she was saying how she’d found out where some of the senior undersecretaries were getting their ‘laundry done’… as it were.” He waggled his eyebrows at Solace and asked, “Might that be of help to you?”

“It… might. Yes. Think you can have her give me a call?”

“I could… but what can you offer her?”

“I’ll give her the details of the Inverter incident right before we go to the general assembly. That should allow her twenty minutes head-start on her competition?”

“That… might do it… I’ll make some calls and get back to you. Oh… and try the pizza at Guidos… fabulous!” He kissed the fingertips of his right hand and backflipped, then called “Come Sabo! Away!”

Lukas waited until they were well on their way back to the Plaza before asking, “Laundry?”

“Prostitution. Often high class and very discrete. Khan is married and a bit of a social conservative. He’d look foolish if it came to light that he was paying for sex.”

“But that’s legal here…,” he pointed out, “It’s legal back on Manticore too, for that matter.”

“True enough. But Khan’s publicly spoken out against such… depravity on several occasions. And even if he hadn’t, his wife would not like it if the name and details of his asignations became public. As I understand it, most of the money is hers.”

“I…” Lukas began, then paused as a group of young and probably stoned Solies approached. There were thirty of them and they had that languid but aggressive body language of pack hunters. They were also angling directly towards the two Manticorans.

“Hey, hey… look at the tourists… come to gawp at the poor little slumkids?” the leader said, lip curled by a scar that would have taken a competent doctor all of twenty minutes to erase.

“Get out of our way,” Solace said, voice quiet and restrained, with a refined Havenite accent.

“Not until you pay the toll,” sneered one of the bigger members of the gang. The figure was wearing enough pseudo-leather that judging what sex it was was functionally impossible, but they certainly had enough drug-pumped muscles that it was probably a moot point anyway. That level of steroid use could not be good for the libido… or the reproductive organs.

“Ah. Toll,” said Solace, voice even quieter, forcing the crowd that was slowly surrounding them to lean in to hear her over the wind and the sounds of the street. “How much?”

“All your cash… and if that ain’t enough, we can take it out in tra-” the scar-faced leader started to say, but Solace’s knee smashed into his chin, fracturing it and sending teeth flying.

The next few minutes were glorious battle, fists and feet and makeshift weapons whirling as the two Manties, both graduates of the Island’s rigorous hand-to-hand teams, mowed through the untrained but highly motivated neophytes of the slums of Old Chicago. The fight was not going their way, not as outnumbered as they were… especially since their enemies were feeling less pain than they should have thanks to liberal usage of narcotics… when a siren whooped down the street and a blue, white, and red light strobed across the combatants’ faces… and then the gang was gone, dissipating like rain.

Lukas would have sighed in relief, but his breath left him as Solace tossed him over her shoulder and began to run, dashing into a blind alley, away from the Gendarmes and towards… Lukas had no idea. She ran lightly, powerful legs eating up the terrain, unslowed by his weight on her shoulder even as she vaulted over garbage and crates and skidded under parked lories. They ran for a good twenty minutes, dodging into and out of buildings seemingly at random before Solace set him down. She wasn’t even breathing hard.

“You… you’re terrifying… you know that?” Janacek gasped… then wondered why he was out of breath… he hadn’t been… oh… that’s why. He looked back at the knife sticking out of his left shoulder and inhaled… yep…it was in his lung. “I… “ he reached for it, but she batted his hand away.

“No touching. Never remove a blade until you’re ready to treat the wound,” Solace said, checking her armband display. “Shit.”

“What?”

“Can’t take you on public transport or a taxi to the embassy with a knife sticking out of you… can’t take you to a hospital… Right… stay here and don’t die. I’ll be back in five.” She tapped his wristcomp to link it to hers and strode out of the ally. He watched her go, marvelling at the way she moved. On ship, she moved like an officer, energetic and forceful, but dignified. Out here, in the warrens of this terrible city… she moved like a hunting cat, like a predator stalking its prey. If he hadn’t known the two were both his friend, he would not have been able to identify the two different Solaces as being the same person. Why in the universe had Manpower made someone like her… or had her mother, the redoubtable General Lubyanka-Smythe, turned an escaped slave into… into that? He didn’t know which answer was scarier… but he was suddenly very glad she was on his side.

“Hey, snap out of it,” she said as she knelt by his side. She had a plastic bag that said Walgreens on it and was pulling out a bottle of vodka and a package of feminine hygiene napkins. She also had a ballpoint pen. “This is going to hurt. Try not to scream.” And then she pulled the knife out of his shoulder.

“T… that didn’t hurt that badly… why would I…” then she poured the vodka over the wound. His head slammed back against the doorframe of the nook they were hiding in and he bit down on his swollen lip and moaned. Then she started pushing the now empty pentube into his wound and he nearly blacked out. When he could think again, his shoulder was bandaged with the pads and he reeked of discount booze and she was pulling a cheap and tacky ‘Chicago Bulls’ jacket over him.

“Now… we call for a cab.”

“Who… bulls?”

“Local Basketball team… very old. Anyway… stay conscious. It’s better if you’re fall down drunk than if you’re passed out drunk. They have to report pass outs as possible kidnappings. No rule for fall downs.”

“How you know?” he asked, every breath hurting. “Legal expert you not!” he accused.

“Loyal. Sent me a text. Taxi’s 45 seconds out. Then it’s just a short ride to the Pavilion, a twenty minute walk to the Pagoda, then a subway ride to the Plaza… we should get there by dawn… you didn’t need sleep, right?”

“Haate you right now.”

“Yeah yeah…”

“W… won’t Khan be… be pissed we blackmailed him to get a meeting?”

“If he didn’t hate us already, we’d have a meeting by now.”

“Go… od point.”

========

Hasdrubal Khan was an eighty-five year old first generation prolong recipient with salt-and-pepper hair and beard. His skin was dark mocha and his eyes were shockingly green while his nose was hooked almost exactly like a hawk’s. He was less than three cm shorter than Solace and was glaring up at her with no small amount of disdain. “I do not care what kind of information you might have on me, Commander. I will not cave in to blackmail, and I have no intention of allowing you to release technical specifications on a weapon of mass destruction to the galaxy at large!” he half shouted, slamming his fist on the desktop.

“Actually, I’m not here in my role as an RMN Commander. Rather, I’m here as a representative of Her Majesty’s Foreign Service. I am a Diplomatic Attache in this current evolution, and I’m here to make you an offer.”

He narrowed his fierce eyes and Solace had to admire how quickly he switched emotional tracks. This was not a stupid man. “What kind of offer?”

“Yes, we’re taking a huge chance with revealing the technical specs, but to be honest, nuclear weapons have been around for millenia and KEWs are cheap. You want the Inverter to proliferate.”

“WHAT!?” He boomed.

“Really. It’s a nightmare weapon… but the signature of its use cannot be hidden. Not ‘we don’t know a way to hide it’… it literally cannot be. It works by focusing the gravitic field of a huge object against part of that object. It takes a lot of power and cannot happen rapidly. You get warning. Terrorists using this thing are screwing themselves.”

He sat back, considering, lips pursed. “I’m listening. You said you had an offer?”

“This is a coup for the Solarian League. This is us bringing you the technology. Us, Neobarbs from beyond the League Frontier… We’re coming to you and saying ‘We may not be Solarians, but we respect the League enough to bring this to the Assembly. We’re acknowledging your superiority.”

“Ohmmm…” he said, thinking about it, his mind focusing. “Well, that’s true… but I’ve already publicly come out against this reveal. How do I backpedal… and what, exactly, is in it for me?”

“You simply announce that your reservations were entirely about making certain the detector technology worked and would be available as readily as the Inverter itself.”

“And I’m convinced of that how?”

“This is a contract from Andros-Brandyne to license and distribute the detector technology in five convenient forms. It’s not an assigned contract. You may award it to whomever you like.”

His eyes widened and he sat up straight, harrumphing a little as he opened the dosier, flipping through it. “Anyone?”

“Anyone. Including your cousin Magda, if you like… we looked at what she’s currently tooled up for and she can convert the BZ595A into Inverter detectors with less than a week’s retooling required.”

He nodded, “I… I’ll have to talk with Pablo and Brian… make certain Commerce and Treasury will sign off on this… you’ll join us for dinner?” Solace agreed and he escorted her to the door of his office, telling his servants to show her around the palace while he made some calls.

The Khan Palace in Bangkok was huge, sprawling, and opulent beyond words. Alabaster pillars, samite tiles, silk hangings… hand crafted mosaics on almost every floor, frescos on every ceiling, and object d’arte on every wall. A dozen children played in the courtyard outside and Solace stood by an open window, letting the breeze blown through the cinnamon and orange trees wash over her. It was like something out of a fairy book… and then a flash of white down below caught her eye.

It wasn’t one of the playing children… but rather a little girl… nine or ten… lurking by a pillar on the far edge of the courtyard. Unlike the darkhaired Khan grandchildren, this one was not laughing… she was silent, her golden hued eyes wide and worried and she was looking at the other kids with a longing that Solace could feel even across the distance. The girl suddenly looked up at Solace and Solace looked back at her… into her… felt her… the girl recoiled, fled back into a doorway behind the colonnade…

“I… could… hear her…” she muttered. She’d heard… fear… worry… recognition… a name… the… the girl was called Gilly… she wasn’t part of the household… she… she was… Solace closed her eyes, picturing the girl in her mind’s eye. She deaged her a couple of years, bulked her up a little, and changed those golden eyes to lavender… then she brought up a memory of what she herself had looked like at age seven… they were all but identical.

“Oh… mother…” she muttered as the window frame cracked under the force of her grip.

Next: Solace of Manticore – Part 16

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.

Gilly Face
Gilly

Solace Verse Local

The_Honor_Harrington_Universe A

World 77: Honor Harrington – Part 2.14

SOLACE OF MANTICORE

Part 14: The Manticore Shuffle

Previously: Square Dance, Revenge Style

Timestamp: 5th April, 1892

“Mary, I don’t care if God Almighty came down from Heaven on the Merkaba itself surrounded by a host of Seraphim and Kherubim and, flanked by Metatron and Sandalphon, spoke as the Ancient of Days as he commanded it, I still wouldn’t play Mahjong with Missus Kowalski and her group of biddies,” Solace told her mother. “I don’t like Mahjong and I don’t care how traditional it is. I’ve got 48 hours of shore leave before I have to be back on Manny and I’ve already blocked out eight hours with you and dad, four with Loyal, eight for sleep, and twenty-eight with Minerva including two plays and a dinner party. Now will you kindly take your turn… those pins aren’t going to knock themselves down.”

“Sandy, dear, you really need to get out of your comfort zone more,” Mary said, scooping up the six kilo sphere, and sighting along it, stepped forward and half knelt, sliding the ball across the line and down the waxed wood lane. The ball had incredible english and it curved almost all the way to the rim of the gutter before swinging back to run through the four remaining pins for the spare. “When you have kids you’ll want to be connected to the community and people like the Kowalskis and Janaceks and Mendels can help there.”

Solace rolled her eyes, ignoring the tiny frown from Hope. “I know you mean well, Mary. I do. But I’m too young to be thinking about a family… and Missus Kowalski is 98. She’ll be dead long before I’m ready to… er… spawn… Daaad. Mary’s giving me that look again!”

Hope humphed, then said, “Can’t hear you over the awesomeness that is a Strike… you’re up.”

Solace groaned. “But Mahj is the most tedious waste of time! They don’t even bet!” She grabbed her nine kilo ball and, with absolutely no finesse, launched it straight and true down the lane, obliterating the pin formation at the far end… except the two at the far edges. Damn it! Stupid 7-10… Ruth bleeked with laughter at her.

The game ended up being close, but Solace lost. Mary was too technical and almost always spared, and Hope got strikes 80% of the time and seldom missed a spare when he didn’t. Solace just rolled the ball as straight and hard as she could, meaning that when she was lucky, she got a strike… but when she wasn’t, she ended up with 9 and while that was good… it wasn’t good enough. Ruth and Naomi usually ended up beating her… though they were using much lighter balls and had the bumpers up.

And, of course, she ended up playing Mahjong with the Octogenarian-plus Club and trying not to scream as they chattered about their grandchildren and the prices at the local market and how their various aches and pains were doing and how MP Hitchcock was such a nice man and didn’t his wife have the nicest hats? It would have been rude to smack her head against the table… “I’m sorry, what was that, Mimi?” she asked, “I was thinking.”

Molveda Mendel, Mimi to everyone, was 102 years old and the leader of the Landing City Conservative Jewish Women’s Coalition. She was also East this round and she patted Solace’s hand. “Nothing dear. I was just saying how nice it was having some young blood around here for once. I try to get my greats involved, but they’re too busy with school and work. So… will you or your pretty lady friend be the egg donor… or will you both do it? Are you going to use those horrid tubes or do it the natural way?”

“Those tubes,” Agnetha Janacek, 84, commented, “Are called Uterine Replicators and they’re not horrid. When I had my Edward, I’d have had to give up horse riding if I hadn’t had the replicator!”

“But you did give up horse riding for Catherine,” Sylvia Kowalski said.

“Catherine was my third, I was already getting pretty old for competitive events.”

“What’s Catherine doing these days?” Sylvia asked and Solace wanted to stick her head in a bucket as Agnetha Janacek decided that it was now time to list the occupations and achievements of every last one of her five children, nineteen grandchildren, and eleven great-grandchildren.

“And Catherine is director of advanced research at Snurlson Gravodynamics.”

Solace perked up at that. “Snurlson? That’s a subsidiary of Andros-Brandyne… What’s she working on?”

“Oh… Something to do with generating gravitic pulses to determine the composition of asteroids without having to drill. That’s her current brainchild. But it’s all very classified I’m certain,” the mother of the Commander of Homefleet said… then proceeded to ramble on about all the classified information that her Edward had told her over the years.

As they completed the seventeenth hand, a message pinged Solace’s personal comm marked ‘Potential Action Required’. It was a message from one of her people and said, “Calendar Relay, From Stonemason: H&S, ESQ, Landing City. Doing Business with Sun King? Checked with V. R.I.H sent a big sun deck to BdM 3star actual.” Solace translated that quickly. Calendar was the Aprilists. Stonemason was McQuarry. Sun King was the Harris Government… and V was Uncle Vanya. Big Sun Deck was roughly 5 billion Solarian Credits (a deck of cards was roughly fifty cards and Big was Billion. Bigger would have been 50 Billion, Biggest 500. Modern was Million, Terrific was Trillion. It was a serviceable code and had been translated from an entirely different cypher.) BdM was Banco de Madrid, and 3star actual was three days ago. She checked the listings for Landing City lawyers and found Holger and Sparrow, Rikkard Ingeborg Holger senior partner, specializing in Patent Law… the address was across the Queen Adriene Plaza from Mount Royal Palace. “Ladies… It’s been great, but I’ve got to run.”

As Solace left the game, having lost every hand, she mentally shifted from Civilian mode to Foreign Service mode, and commented to Naomi, “Remind me to make a note… find out how many Havenite Admirals have aged mothers or grandmothers who play social games like mahj or bridge or… euchre… I’ll make a list.” The LCCJWA Social Center was only three blocks from the Palace and she was supposed to be having lunch with Mary and Minerva anyway. She’d walk… and it would take her right past Holger & Sparrow… she had thirty minutes… she could claim some business and use her connections to see the top brass, surely.

Naomi just bleeked dolefully, stretching as she sauntered down Camden Way as they made their way past the Embassies that lined the wide avenue leading towards Mount Royal. There had better better be celery at lunch. It was the least her two-leg could do for dragging her to that place that smelled of stale cloth and was full of flickering mindglows and confused emotions.

“Don’t give me that,” Solace chided. “I didn’t want to be there either… and I’m not planning on playing more myself… Maybe just getting some of my agents to attend-” she started telling the ‘cat when Ruth perked up, looked around, then leapt off Solace’s shoulder and raced into the just opening door of 808 Camden way, home of quite a number of businesses… including, on the 1st-40th and 239th-240th floors, Holger & Sparrow, Esquire. “What’s going on?” Solace asked Naomi, who shrugged. They could both feel Ruth’s concern, almost panic… but the smaller ‘cat hadn’t paused to explain and now all her friends could do was track her process up through the building… and the yelps of outrage or confusion as she brushed past or leaped past or climbed past the humans within. The duo shared a glance, then broke into a run, following as fast as they could… only to run into building security almost immediately.

The treecat that Solace called Ruth was known to the members of the Deep Valley Clan as ‘Soul of Ice’ and, appearances to the contrary, she was the older of the two ‘cats. She was also a memory singer, a historian of the People, a leader who could record and retransmit experiences between two or more ‘cats, thus passing on history and skills from one generation or clan to another. Of the two cats, she had the better grasp of human emotions, better than Naomi, also known as ‘Silent Judge’, and certainly better than their two-legged friend, the one they called ‘Sky Jumper’, and when she’d felt the emotion she’d just felt, she’d know that something very bad was going happen… even if she wasn’t exactly certain what that something was.

Soul of Ice could feel that confusing two-leg emotion that was part hate and part madness, a desire to hurt other two-legs and the satisfaction of a soon accomplished goal. It burned like a flickering candle, not a bright mindglow, but one so different from the rest of those around it that it was a candle amid flashlights, the only light that flickered. And so she ran, feeling the clusters and echoes of mindglows, intuiting the layout of the two-leg warrens, and then, when she reached an impasse she couldn’t bypass, she scrambled up a wall and into the false ceiling that hung from the real ceiling above it. The gap would have been tight for any two-leg, even a child, but Ruth was no two-leg and she ripped through the paneling, then crawled into the dimness and began racing across the uncomfortably sharp support structure, still heading towards the flame-light glow.

Aljaz Rojniki was happy for the first time since the Manticorans had destroyed the Chancellor’s Palace. He’d been in university during the ‘Civil’ War, studying hyperphysics. His mother and father, loyal supporters of Otar Magnusson, had both died trying to stop the Manticoran aggression and soon… soon the Manties would know the pain of losing their spiritual liege too… what was that scratching noise? Aljaz looked up from the weapon he’d built in the supply closet at his cover job… such fools, these Manties. They’d believed him an illiterate, but skilled, maintenance technician. Soon… soon his inverter would cause space-time to fold in on itself, transporting the entirety of Mount Royal… and no small part of Landing City into Hyperspace… there it was again… was it coming from the ceiling? Rats maybe? He didn’t have time for this… He connected the final molecular circuit, priming the device, and began the process of wiring the manual detonator… that noise was driving him crazy!

He looked up, then screamed as thirty scimitar claws ripped through the acoustic tile and dropped towards his face.

Solace looked out the window of the building, down at the Palace where even now the Queen was being escorted by her mother into a waiting air-car. The bomb was utterly unlike anything ONI and Landing PD had ever seen and it had been decided to evacuate the city until it could be disarmed safely. The Midgardian who’d apparently built it wasn’t talking, but he’d been stopped from actually setting it off by Ruth’s unexpected arrival and held at bay until Solace and Building Security could arrive. Holger and Sparrow was right across Queen Adrienne Plaza from the Palace and Solace, who’d been on her way to tell Mary that the Mahjing had been Mahjed and that she’d done her daughterly duty… had had to tell her mother that there was some kind of bomb across the street from the Palace and they had no idea what it would do.

“Commander Smythe?” said Amanda Swallow, “Shouldn’t we be evacuating?” She was escorted by three Landing PD officers who’d apprehended her heading for the roof and her personal aircar.

“Almost certainly… I just have one question… why, exactly, did your partner hire that man. I spoke to your head of Human Resources, he was most forthcoming. Rikkard Holger hired Aljaz Rojniki personally. It wasn’t a general hiring call.”

“I don’t see how this is the business of the RMN, Commander,” the Lawyer sniffed.

“Oh. It’s not. I’ve been empowered by three different organizations to ask you questions. First, Palace Security asked me to look into this. Second, I have been temporarily empowered by ONI as a Special Investigator. And third, this building is owned by the New Temple Group, as I’m certain you’re aware. Your lease, by the way, has been terminated. I’m fairly certain the Queen’s Bench will rule that you are in breach of contract with what will either be determined to be criminal negligence or conspiracy to commit terrorism,” Solace explained, without looking away from the view. Ruth fastidiously groomed her claws at the woman.

“Terrorism! N… Nonsense! That bomb would never have wo…” Sparrow trailed off, unaware that her emotions had been pushed to make her more reckless and impulsive.

“Thank you for confirming that…” Solace said, turning at last from the window and, hiding the incredible headache pushing the woman had caused, fixed the lawyer with her lavender gaze. “You have thirty seconds to explain exactly how you knew that and to convince me that you weren’t planning on blowing up the FUCKING CAPITAL!”

“Would I have stayed if I knew the building was going to blow up?” Amanda gasped. “We had him under surveillance… he wanted the job too much… but he’s a brilliant hyperphysicist… crazy, obsessed with revenge! But we were able to replace the central coil of his device with a dummy… We… we just wanted the…” She trailed off, slumping into a chair. “We just wanted the plans… Imagine how much money the hyper-inverter might be worth!”

“So you hired a crazy man, let him build a bomb that could kill millions across the street from the Palace and down the street from Parliament because you thought you’d make a little money?”

“A… A little? I… It wasn’t my idea! It was Rikkard’s! He said we’d sell it to the military! We were trying to help!”

Solace considered the woman’s emotions, then said, “Surveillance? I want everything you’ve got.” She held up one hand as her earbud whispered to her. “Oh, and Rikkard Holger has just been apprehended trying to board a ship for Beowulf under an assumed identity. His home computer has been destroyed, and his office comp scrubbed by IT this morning on his orders.” She knelt in front of the clearly distraught attorney. “Tell me… did he handle the removal of the bomb’s key component?”

“I… Yes… he… he said he had someone from an engineering firm we work with remove it. They… I saw the coil myself.” She folded in on herself and shut down at that point, merely going along meekly when Landing PD finally got around to arresting her.

In the personal files confiscated from Rikkard Holger, they’d found the plans for the device and proof that he hadn’t actually transmitted them to anyone yet, waiting for a payday from auctioning off the prize after the demonstration which was to have decapitated Manticore and allowed a fleet sitting at Trevor’s Star to come through and take the devastated kingdom unaware.

“This thing is horrifying,” said Sonja Hemphill, looking over the schematics. “It turns a planet’s gravity into a field that inverts real-space and alpha-hyper over an area whose upper bounds are limited by the size of the planet and how close it is to the edge of the hyperlimit…”

“Agreed, very nasty…” Solace said. “But why am I here?”

“I thought you’d be curious.”

“I am. But that doesn’t answer the question,” Solace sighed. She loved Sonja’s mind, but the woman liked to tease her junior officers to see if she could provoke creativity… or force them to admit they didn’t have a clue what the often monomaniacally brilliant woman was getting at. “You had me escort the bomb across the city… that’s fine, you’re an Admiral… congrats about that, by the way, but I’m not a weapon’s engineer nor a hyperphysicist.”

“You’re not. No… but I want you to look at the schematics. You’re one of the most intuitive people I know. Tell me I’m wrong.”

Solace looked at the schematics floating in the BuWeps tank and rotated them slowly… spotting what the Admiral was talking about took her three minutes. “This is based on the gravitic mine technology, isn’t it?”

Sonja tapped her nose. “Bingo. I knew you’d notice it.”

“Did this guy invent the mine? He’d have been in college back then!”

“He was. We checked. His parents were Brotherhood of Odin. Bought Magnusson’s line about reunification hook line and sinker. His papers on gravitic theory are brilliant… look, he’s got notes on something called a Gravitic Lance.” Sonja enthused.

“That’s great… but how do we stop this technology from being used against us or other civilian centers?” Solace asked.

“Oh. That’s simple!” The admiral waved her hand vaguely.

“Simple?”

“Oh… mm… yes… the bomb doesn’t really explode… it takes about two days to reach full power and the seismic effects are pretty noticeable. We know the device exists now… any attempt to use it will create a signature that’s unmistakable and impossible to conceal. The only problem would have been not knowing. That’s the other thing. The Admiralty wants us to take this to the Solies. It’s a weapon of mass destruction. We’re going to expose the technology before the Eridani Council so that early warning detectors can be installed in every major city.”

Solace blinked. “It’s only been eight hours!”

“The Queen and Cromarty had an emergency session with the Lords of Admiralty while you were on your way across town. It was decided that there was no ethical use for this weapon and the political upside of revealing that the technology was possible to the Galaxy had a huge upside.”

“I hate politics,” Solace muttered.

“I know. Me too… You know they’re going to give you another medal for this?”

“They should give it to Ruth. All I did was walk down the street.”

“Riiight. Just walk down the street next to a bomb just as it was being armed. Tell me you’re that lucky and I’ll start believing in that god of yours.”

Solace shrugged. “It was on my way to the Palace.”

Sonja humphed, pulled up a map of downtown Landing. “You were coming from a meeting with Admiral Janacek’s mother… who, by the way, is my father’s first cousin… at the Jewish Social Center.” A dot appeared on the map five blocks from Mount Royal Palace, one block from Amherst Boulevard which, like Camden Way, ran out into QA Plaza. “And walked all the way to Camden” A line showed how Solace had walked four blocks out of the way instead of proceeding down Amherst. “Let me guess… there was a coffee shop with really good pastry you just had to stop at before having lunch with Mary?”

Solace shrugged. “It was a nice day. I had thirty minutes.”

“I checked. You left the game early after receiving an extremely cryptic message from your agents… you know, a Commander running her own personal spy ring should be more careful… even if you do have cover from the Foreign Service.”

“It’s not a spy ring. It’s simply business.”

“Business right. Why aren’t you with ONI again?”

“Because I’m as subtle as my brother is a gifted strategist… also, my budget is entirely discretionary. Anyway, why aren’t you with ONI?”

Sonja chuckled. “That’s true. You’re as subtle as an anvil dropped from great height. As for me? I’m just good at math. Regardless, their lordships wanted me to inform you that your leave has been extended another three days, then we’ll both report aboard Manny and proceed to Old Earth.”

====

Silent Judge sat on the edge of the table, looking at the gathered Two-Legs, trying to ignore her ‘sister’s’ smug gloating. Ever since the Human Leader had awarded Soul of Ice with the shiny medallion on a ribbon, Soul had been almost unbearable… but now it was Judge’s turn to shine. This was her place, her real of power. She adjusted her visor, and began flicking the cards with machine-like precision, each floating to land just so in front of its assigned Two-Leg.

“She’s really good at that,” Sonja said, watching Solace’s furry minion drop two cards face down and one face up in front of each of the six humans at the table. A three and an eight landed in front of her face down, and a six landed face up, all in clubs… it wasn’t much, but it could be the start of a straight flush… or just a flush. She looked around the table to see what the others had. Solace had the King of Spades showing, Theodosia (Captain of HMS Manticore) had the 2 of Diamonds, Lukas Janacek (Lt (SG), Manticore’s Tactical Officer) had the Queen of Spades, Edward (CO Homefleet, Lukas’s uncle and Sonja’s second cousin) had the 10 of clubs, and Elvis Santino (Captain of HMS Birmingham and soon to take over as Flag Captain of Home Fleet while Manny was in Sol) had the 7 of Hearts.
Sonja: 3C 8C 6C
Solace: ?? ?? KS
Theodosia: ?? ?? 2D
Lukas: ?? ?? QS
Edward: ?? ?? 10C
Elvis: ?? ?? 7H
Ante – 1 Dollar, Bring-in – 2 Dollars, Raise = 5 Dollars, 20/40 dollar limit

“She doesn’t know how to play poker at all…” Solace explained. “I’ve tried to teach her and Ruth the game, but Ruth only likes to throw cards… which she’s good at, and Naomi loves doing card tricks… but I don’t think they really understand that it’s a game or what the relative ranking of hands means. Captain, you’re low card.”

Although both Theodosia and Elvis held the rank of Captain of the List, since the ship was Kuzak’s she was ‘The Captain’, and Elvis was merely ‘Captain Santino’. Theodosia sighed, and tossed the bring-in into the pot. “Stupid tradition,” she muttered, glaring at the two dollars that had joined the six dollars anted in already.
[Pot = 8 Dollars]

Lukas, juniormost at the table but a nicely serious lad with a good head on his shoulders, considered, then said, “Raise.” tossing in a five. The game was fixed limit, 20/40… because regulations prohibited high stakes games, though it did mean for Solace and Sonja, both quite wealthy in their own rights, that the game was more for fun than actual profit.
[Pot = 13 Dollars]

Edward harrumphed. “Still can’t quite wrap my head around the idea that it’s not somehow cheating… but it’s not like she can hide a card anywhere. No sleeves. Call.”
[Pot = 18 Dollars]

Elvis grunted, frowned, then agreed.
[Pot = 23 Dollars]

Which brought it round to Sonja herself. She had the start of something… if she could just get the right cards she could have a straight or a flush… or both, if she was very lucky. Still, right now it was garbage. “Call.”
[Pot = 28 Dollars]

Solace hmm’d softly, then raised. Everyone else matched the bet, though Theodosia looked like she’d rather eat a lemon. Naomi bleeked happily, and another flight of cards flew through the air, all six in the air before the first one landed, spinning right into place face up on the table. Sonja blinked… She’d gotten the 4 of spades. Better and better. Then she frowned as Lukas announced the cards.
[Pot = 63 Dollars]

“Broken Wand to Admiral Boomstick, possible flush. Suicide King to go with King David, pair of knights to the Anvil. The Captain gets Pedro the Lover, no help. I get the Sailboat Regatta, possible flush. Uncle Eddy gets Lancelot, possible flush. And Captain Santino gets Sargent Pepper, another possible flush. XO, bet’s to you.” Sonja had no idea where the habit of giving bizarre nicknames to the cards had come from, or where the tradition of having someone, usually the dealer (but that would have been a series of chitters and bleeks, assuming that the ‘cats could even tell the symbols apart), or the lowest ranked person present, describe what they all could see had come from… but it did liven up the otherwise incredibly cerebral game.
Sonja: 3C 8C 6C 4C
Solace: ?? ?? KS KH
Theodosia: ?? ?? 2D 5H
Lukas: ?? ?? QS 4S
Edward: ?? ?? 10C JC
Elvis: ?? ?? 7H AH

Solace opened the bidding, Theodosia folded, Lukas raised, Edward raised… and it was around to Santino. “We’re not really going to reveal to the Solies and everyone else how this hyperbomb really works are we?” He called, looking disgusted.
[Pot = 108]

“Have to,” Sonja said, raising to the limit. Everyone else called and another flight of cards went out. Thwip-thwip-thwip-thwip-thwip… shhh-shhh-shhh-shhh-shhh… even though there were only five players now, Naomi still managed to get all the cards airborne before the first landed.
[Pot = 163]

“Neener My Love to the lady from BuWeps, no help. Big Cassino to the XO, no help. Fancy Boat to yours truly, no help. The Big Boss gets the Lady with the Big Stick… very possible straight flush. And the man of the hour gets… Ogier the Dane. No help there. XO, still your table,” Lukas supplied, then asked, sounding a bit aghast. “Why do we have to? Isn’t telling everyone how to make a bomb that can wipe out a city just a little… crazy?”
Sonja: 3C 8C 6C 4C 9H
Solace: ?? ?? KS KH 10D
Theodosia: ?? ?? 2D 5H xx xx xx – FOLD
Lukas: ?? ?? QS 4S 4D
Edward: ?? ?? 10C JC QC
Elvis: ?? ?? 7H AH JS

Solace considered. “Yes, there’s a lot of potential for abuse, and we’re talking a hell of a risk, but I agree with Cromarty and the Queen. Ten.”
[Pot = 173]

Theodosia, out of the hand, only nodded, then said. “As do I.”

Lukas considered his cards, then shrugged and called.
[Pot = 183]

“Well, I don’t,” said the highest ranking officer at the table. “It’s insanity. Giving away a potential military secret like this. Raise.”
[Pot = 203]

“I agree with the Admiral… Admiral Janacek, I mean,” Elvis said, playing with his chips, then shrugged. “Call.”
[Pot = 223]

Sonja considered both the debate and Edward’s hand. He did have a very good chance at having a straight flush… if his hole cards were the Ace and or King of Clubs… but if they weren’t, she had the eight and that would cut him off there. It was a risk… he could just have garbage… but Edward was a terrible bluffer in her experience. She covered her consideration with an explanation, “It’s not actually more dangerous than a KEW and it only works on planets as far as we can tell. Might work on a star but getting it close enough would be technically improbable within the next thousand years I’d guess. Raise.”
[Pot = 253]

Solace didn’t pause. “Also, if we don’t reveal it, it could be seen as a threat. A ‘we’ve got this weapon you don’t’ kind of thing. Very bad for business. This way, the Solies think highly of our ethics and we turn an almost disaster into a public relations coup… even the Havenites will be publicly pleased… and it will make moving against us a little more risky as long as we’re in the Solies good graces. Raise.”
[Pot = 283]

Sonja and Theodosia both nodded at that, and even Edward had to grudgingly agree. Everyone called and Naomi chittered happily and tossed out more cards, her left handfoot standing on the cards that had been burned after each round of betting.
[Pot = 363]

Once again, Lukas gave the play-by-play. “Salmon of Doubt to my not quite an Aunt, vague hope for a straight, but something’s keeping her in the game. Uncle’s Alexander for the crazy lady… three kings… very nice… possible full house if she’s hiding another ten, four of a kind if she’s hiding The One-Eyed King in her pocket. Musketeers to me, maybe a flush? Who can say? Sebastian to Uncle… not helping much and it’s gotta hurt seeing that King over there flirting with the XO.” Edward frowned at his nephew at that, but Lukas ignored the old man. “And Evil Elvis gets… ooh… The Pig’s Eye! Nice. Could help, maybe not. Maybe he’s hiding the other two rockets in his pocket? Or he’s got Ajax or The Slapshot in the hole for a Full House?”
Sonja: 3C 8C 6C 4C 9H 7S
Solace: ?? ?? KS KH 10D KC
Theodosia: ?? ?? 2D 5H xx xx xx – FOLD
Lukas: ?? ?? QS 4S 4D 3S
Edward: ?? ?? 10C JC QC 3H
Elvis: ?? ?? 7H AH JS AD

Solace opened up strong. She had to, so it was no surprise when she bid ‘ten’. Lukas didn’t seem to have much, so either he was bluffing, or he had the straight, a flush, or a straight flush… he certainly didn’t have four fours, but he was staying in, so he had something worth running up against Solace’s probably full house. He called. Edward, king of the go big or go home school, raised. Elvis, who had to have a full house to stay in… raised… thus telling everyone he either had the Slapshot… no one knew why Ace-Seven was called a Slapshot… but it was. Some thought it might have to do with Lacrosse or Polo, but no one was really certain. Sonja considered her own hand. She had a gutshot straight flush, a short straight… or garbage. A sane woman would bow out… but if she drew that Five of Clubs, she was golden. If she drew the Ace of Clubs, she’d have an Ace High Flush… Not that it would beat Santino’s or Solace’s Full House… if they had it… but that last card called to her. She was sooo close. She wanted to raise, but she couldn’t. She didn’t have the cards to sell anything, and she’d look a fool if she raised and got nothing. “Call.”
[Pot = 463]

Without missing a beat, Solace capped the pot. She had to have the Full House or the Kings. No doubt about it… Shit… should have dropped out, Sonja thought. Everyone else called and it was back around to her in a flash. Four players left going into the River… could she drop out now? No. She still had a save. Still had a way to win this. One card could seal the deal for her. It was a long shot… but it was only ten more to see it. She shrugged and flipped the chip into the pot. It spun, and was still spinning as Naomi launched the last five cards, face down, across the table.
[Pot = 563]

Lukas couldn’t call the last card, of course. The River was down. Now it was down to a final bet. Sonja snuck a peak at her final card. It was the Clover, the Blackberry… the Ace of Clubs… She’d gotten a Ace High Flush… but if Santino had the Full House, she was sunk. If Solace had the Full House, she was sunk… if Lukas had… she had no idea what the young man had. Edward… edward didn’t have the Straight Flush he was pretending he had. She and Solace had the cards he needed. But he was going to go right on pretending. At best he had a Queen High Flush. The betting went round the table and Elvis capped it before it even reached her.

“Fold,” Sonja Hemphill said. She knew when she was beaten. She tossed her cards into the Muck and Naomi gathered them up with her hand-feet.
[Final Pot = 723]

“Show and tell time,” Edward said, since he’d been the last to call. “What you got, son?”

Elvis grinned hugely, flipping up his hole cards to reveal the Ace of Spades, the Seven of Diamonds, and the Two of Hearts… Aces over Sevens, a Full House.

“Shit,” muttered Edward, tossing his own cards out of turn, not bothering to reveal them.

Solace smiled. “Very nice Elvis. Very nice… It beat my Full House, Tens over Kings” she said, flipping up her original hole cards to show the Tens of Hearts and Spades. Elvis grinned, but his grin faded as she continued, “But not as nice as Four Kings…” she flipped up her final card to reveal the King of Diamonds. “Still nice though. Lukas? Did you get your Straight Flush?”

Lukas blushed, then shrugged apologetically. “Yes ma’am… Sorry about that,” the young man said, flipping up his hole cards to reveal the Two, Five, and Six of Spades… the lowest possible straight flush… but a straight flush was a straight flush. When someone had the cards and was willing to take the chance… kid had real gumption to play that hand to completion. Sonja’d have to watch him… maybe he wasn’t as big an idiot as his uncle. No wonder Solace liked him.

Sonja: 3C 8C 6C 4C 9H 7S AC – FOLD (Ace High Flush)
Solace: 10H 10S KS KH 10D KC KD – Four Kings
Theodosia: 9D 8S 2D 5H xx xx xx – FOLD
Lukas: 6S 5S QS 4S 4D 3S 2S – Straight Flush in Spades
Edward: 9C 7C 10C JC QC 3H QH – MUCK (Queen High Flush)
Elvis: AS 7D 7H AH JS AD 2H – Full House (Aces/Sevens)

Next: Solace of Manticore – Part 15

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.

Explaining Poker Terms
I didn’t know if the poker notation was a good choice or not, but I figured it would help people follow what was going on a bit better. C = Clubs, D = Diamonds, H = Hearts, and S = Spades. Yes. almost every hand (and every 2 card hole pair) has at least one nickname. Below is an explanation of each.

  • Seven Card Stud = This is the game they’re playing. It is a stud variant, meaning that there is no discarding. Instead, the game proceeds in 5 betting rounds. Before the first, the players ante, then they’re dealt 2 cards face down (hole cards) and 1 card face up. Then there is a round of betting. After that, the players each get a second face up card… and another round of betting. A third face up card, round of betting, fourth face up card, round of betting, and a final face down card (the River) and a final round of betting. In the first round, the player with the lowest face up card starts the betting, but after that, the player with the best hand starts every subsequent round.
  • Broken Wand = My own name for the 4 of Clubs. Clubs are also known as Staves or Wands, and 4s are called ‘Broken Aces’ because a 4 looks like an A with one leg missing. An Ace can be called The Heart or The Cup, The Spade or The Sword, The Club or The Wand/Stave, and The Diamond or The Coin/Pentacle. So a Broken Ace of Clubs is the Broken Wand.
  • Suicide King = Because the King of Hearts is often depicted stabbing himself in the head, he’s called the Suicide King.
  • King David = The King of Spades is nicknamed ‘King David’
  • Pair of Knights = Kings are abbreviated K, so a pair of knights is two Kings
  • Pedro the Lover = Pedro, Nickel, Five-Spot, and Fever are all nicknames for a 5, and ‘the lover’ is a Heart. Five of Hearts. Pedro references a different card game.
  • Sailboat Regatta = A Sailboat is another name for a Four because the 4 looks like a sail, A Regatta is many Sailboats, and since a Spade also looks like a sail, the 4 of Spades is a Sailboat Regatta.
  • Lancelot = One of the specific nicknames for the Jack of Clubs.
  • Sargent Pepper = My own invention. The Ace of Hearts is a ‘Lonely Heart’, and well… it’s a Beatles reference.
  • Neener My Love = Neener is a corruption of Niner or Nine. My Love is a Heart. Neener My Love is the Nine of Hearts
  • Big Cassino = The Ten of Diamonds is called the Big Cassino because of the card game Cassino. It is not a misspelling of Casino.
  • Fancy Boat = The Fancy Boat is the Four of Diamonds. The Love Boat is the Four of Hearts.
  • The Lady with the Big Stick = The Lady is a Queen and the Big Stick is a Club. Queen of Clubs.
  • Ogier the Dane = Ogier the Dane is a nickname for the Jack of Spades. As are Pam and Eunuch.
  • Salmon of Doubt = Salmon is a nickname for a Seven. The Salmon of Doubt is a book by Douglas Adams (hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy… sci-fi… Space… Spades)… I made up the name as an homage. Dunno if it works, but many of these are already silly.
  • Alexander = Nickname of the King of Clubs.
  • The One-Eyed King = Nickname of the King of Diamonds, aka The Man with the Ax, the Butcher of Baghdad, and Julius Caesar.
  • Musketeers = Spades are Swords. Three Swords is Three Musketeers. Three of Spades. I made this one up.
  • Sebastian = A three is called a ‘Crab’ (no idea why). But Sebastian is the Crab from Little Mermaid, a love story. Hearts. Crab of Hearts is Sebastian. I made this one up.
  • The Pig’s Eye = The Diamond Ace is called this.
  • The River = the final card in 7 card stud.
  • Burn = before dealing the 4th, 5th, 6th, and 7th cards (4th Street, 5th Street, 6th Street, and The River) the dealer discards a card face down, burning it.
  • Ante = The starting price to play the hand. Usually quite nominal. In this game, it was $1.
  • Bring-in = Whoever has the lowest card showing after the initial deal in 7 Card Stud pays the Bring-In or Folds. This is an opening bid, and it’s usually less than the full bid. The player after the one who pays the Bring-in can call the Bring-in, or ‘Complete’ the bid and go to the full bid. In this game the Bring-In was $2 and the Full Bid was $5. Both are considered ‘Calling’. No Checking (saying I’ll wait to see what everyone else does) is allowed in the first round of bidding in 7 Card Stud. The second player can also raise. In this game, it would have been to $10.
  • Limit Bid = This means that all raises are in increments of 5… or later 10. Not all limit bidding doubles the limit in the second half of the hand.
  • 20/40 = this means that the first two rounds of bidding (sometimes three) are played with a limit of $20 per person. Then the last three (or two) rounds of bidding have a limit twice that, at $40. Sometimes the Limit is doubled when the cap is doubled, sometimes it isn’t. There are many many many house rules for poker.
  • Any other questions, just ask.

Solace Verse Local

The_Honor_Harrington_Universe A

World 77: Honor Harrington – Part 2.13

SOLACE OF MANTICORE

Part 13: Square-Dance, Revenge Style

Previously: A Pas-de-Deux with You and You

TIMESTAMP: 1890 PD

“Heya Sandy-Girl,” said a voice from the other side of the room and, aged though it was, she knew those inflections, the gentle biting mockery in them. Not that she ever forgot anything (well, sometimes she did need to be reminded that planned events were happening in the near future, but so did everyone else… there was a difference between remembering that someone’s birthday was June 15th and remembering to buy them a present because June 15th was in two days. Even a perfect memory needs a day planner.), but she had few more important memories than those featuring that voice.

HMCS Atalanta was assigned to the Maya Sector of the Solarian League, a sector which included (in a rough way) The Phoenix Republic, Atropos, Erewhon, and (unfortunately) Congo, a star system owned entirely by Manpower Inc and populated almost entirely by slaves. The entire region was a weird one. Far from Manticore physically, largely isolated from the growing tension of the war everyone knew was coming, it lay between Haven and the Solarian League and were it not for the Phoenix Wormhole ‘Junction’ (not really a junction but actually two termini of two different junctions in neighboring star-systems, the Hennesy Terminus of the Manticoran and the Terra Haute Terminus of the Erewhon), and the Atropos Terminus of the Jewel Junction, Manticore would probably be disinclined to meddle… but they did exist and so here she was, running messages for Queen and Country.

Each of the worlds out here beyond the Solarian Verge was strange in its own way. Congo… or as Manpower liked to call it ‘Verdant Vista’ was a slave colony that no one quite wanted to do something about (No matter what the Cherwell Convention on Genetic Slavery might have to say about the legality of the world). Erewhon was actually and officially run by oligarchs who descended from old time crime bosses, and whose industry was among the least corrupt in the known universe. The actual Maya Sector’s capital was a planet called ‘Smoking Frog’ and they were the only Frontier Sector to actually negotiate somewhat favorable terms with the League’s Office of Frontier Security and thus avoid becoming puppet states at the same time they became protectorates. And Atropos was the deadliest world humanity had ever encountered and still decided to colonize. Home to extreme isolationists, the New Magi Order was technically a colony of Jewel, to whom they provided resources and military personnel in exchange for being left alone.

Jewel, comprised of two star systems just like Manticore, was a distant binary with a four termini junction… and if Atropos was on the southern flank of Haven, then the Jewel-Corona system and its junction were on Haven’s western flank, almost in the center of a triangle formed by Manticore, Basilisk, and Trevor’s Star. Their king was young, energetic, and beloved… and absolutely dedicated to the cause of peace… odd for a country that had had its foundation as a pirate state and still celebrated pirates in its art and culture… including, of all things a day once a year where everyone talked like a pirate. And not a space pirate either, but an Old Earth sea pirate. Very strange. Especially since their navy, the largest cruiser fleet outside of the Solarian League, was largely in the business of providing mercenary commerce escorts.

For the last six months, Solace had been making regular runs to Erewhon and Smoking Frog, delivering diplomatic correspondence as fast as Atalanta could go. She wasn’t privy to the contents of those messages, but it was fairly obvious that the Cromarty Government, which governed Manticore in the name of Parliament and the Queen, was trying to put together a coalition of systems to stand against Haven’s relentless aggression. Of course, most of the systems that lay between Haven and the Solarian League or Haven and Manticore were tiny single system propositions like Alazon, Zanzibar, Erewhon, Grayson, or Masada, And those that weren’t, like Phoenix, Jewel, and Manticore herself, were the hubs of trade routes or dead poor. Most of the remaining single system polities were even poorer, like Yorik, Zuckerman, Minette, Casca, and Idaho… but all of them had two somethings Manticore could use… position and people.

If they also had resources to help support the war effort, that was a bonus… but not one Solace had any way of knowing about. Well, she could have read up on the ‘official’ reports, but those were about as useful as a bag of sand in the desert. No nation in its right mind advertised its resources when an aggressive neighbor with a very large military had spent the last two t-centuries gobbling up everything in its reach.

And so the delicate soft shoe of diplomacy, espionage’s ‘evil twin’. Sure sure, espionage was vicious, underhanded, and often murderous… but diplomacy? Diplomacy was pretending to play nice while figuring out how many times you could stab the other guy before he noticed… all while wondering how many times you’d already been stabbed. Diplomacy was making deals no one liked in the hopes that if you swallowed enough poison you’d build up a tolerance for it.

As a Diplomatic Captain as well a minor celebrity, Solace would often arrive in a system only to be told to wait while her missives were decoded and a reply generated… oh, and the Lord High Muckety Muck of Poobah Land was having a party and won’t you please come? She was heartily sick of diplomatic parties… and proposals.

The Caliph of Zanzibar had wanted her to marry his nephew, the Crown-Prince of Alizon had wanted her to marry his son, the President of Candor has wanted her to be his mistress (and he’d asked right in front of his wife), and Protector Benjamin VIII of Grayson had wanted her to be his third wife. She’d had to gracefully explain that, as a Jew, she had no intention of converting to Bahai, Rastafarianism, Presbyterianism, or Grayson’s weird technophobic branch of Christianity and that, furthermore, she’d expect all their children to be raised Jewish as well… that last had, thankfully, been a dealbreaker in every case but Candor’s, and there she’d had to explain that her mother would probably want to assassinate the President if she said yes, so really she was doing him a favor by saying no.

Smoking Frog was actually a pretty nice place then, by comparison. She was luxuriating in forty-eight hours of leave while Atalanta’s nodes were taken all the way down for maintenance (they were normally kept hot for reasons of haste), and for the first twenty hours, no one had proposed to her or asked her to dance any weird culturally significant but usually astoundingly silly dance, and she’d been able to find a really nice restaurant (where she’d almost proposed to the desert chef), a wonderful day spa where the masseur had hands like granite wrapped in silk and an accent that she couldn’t place but that did all sorts of things for her libido, and a techno-rave dance-club where she could let her hair down and really soak up the ambiance of mindless youth partying meaninglessly at 112 decibels amid a constellation of flashing spinning whirling lights. The emotional high was like nothing else and she’d had to really restrain herself from bringing one or more of the pretty people back to her hotel room… but she hadn’t. She wasn’t really the kind to pick up a bit of strange without a comprehensive background check first. She fervently hoped that Minerva was having more fun on that front than she was. Someone should be. But fun was the last thing on Solace’s might right then… she had danced herself ragged and all she wanted to do now was sleep.

Which was why, as she stumbled back into her suite an hour before local dawn, she’d not been expecting someone to be sitting in the dark in her room. The ‘cats, who’d spent the evening hunting Smoking Frog’s indigenous tree-voles in the national forest outside her hotel, had been asleep by the time she’d returned from clubbing and she hadn’t bothered to wake them, knowing that they knew how to reach her if they needed anything. And so, she was alone and very tired, but in a good way, when she opened the door and that voice, like an arrow of out the past, hit her square in the emotions.

“Jimmy?” She asked, scarcely believing it. “I looked for you in Beowulf! They said you’d been fostered out but kept running away to join the circus! Eventually they lost track of you!”

“Ah ah ah,” he said, rising to his feet and doing a little pirouette which brought a pair of throwing knives into each of his hands. “I’ve changed my name too, little sister.” Arms spread wide, he bowed, straightened, then launched all four knives directly at her.

“Sister?” she asked, turning just enough to allow the light of the hall to catch on the blades, then plucking them out of the air. She set them on the table. “And let me guess, your new name ends in X?”

“Of course you’re my sister… we have the same horrible parents, do we not?” He laughed, doffed an invisible hat, did a little cappering dance, and threw up his arms in a ‘ta’da!’ “Indeed! Not as grand as Grand Duchess Solace-and-Justice Yekaterina Anna-Maria von Lichtenstein-Heartburn Lubyanka-Smythe, but I am, as you see me, Jeremy X, of the Audubon Ballroom.”

She ignored the title he’d given her and the extra nonsense he’d added to her name. “Jeremy? You’re the infamous Jeremy X? Why Jeremy?”

“Jimmy is a boy’s name. Jeremy? A little older boy’s name. You look good Sandy.” He hopped up onto her bed, crossing his legs as he flew and landing indian style.

“You do too. Terrorism and murder suit you.”

“And you!” he responded, unbothered by the characterization, “but I’ve known that from the beginning.”

“You’ve been keeping track of me?”

“Me? No. Took me years to figure out where you’d gone… not until your agents starting looking for me… how big of an organization do you have now? Does your queen know you’re funding a war?”

“It’s not a war yet. It’s merely a war in potential… the build up to war. Like my queen, I’m getting my pieces all in a row. Why, do you want to join me?”

“Funny… I was going to ask you if you were willing to join us.”

“I can’t, Jimmy. I swore an oath to serve Manticore. I can’t just run off and fight with you. Maybe if you had a nation backing you, I could ask the Admiralty’s leave to serve in your military… but the Ballroom doesn’t have a fleet.”

“You could be our spy-master?”

“Me? Ha. I’m a rank amateur. You want my brother, Loyal. And Manpower aren’t my parents… they’re my creator… and not in the good way. Mary and Hope are my parents… I’m sorry I didn’t think to bring you with me… I didn’t understand what family was then.”

He smiled sadly, “I was very mad at you when you ran off… I thought you weak to shed tears. I blame being seven. But I do forgive you. Have you seen Rudy?”

“I have! He’s soo fat now… and his family! Eighteen kids! Madness… Eighteen’s a good number in Judaism. It means life.”

“You have religion?” he asked, incredulously.

“Of course I do… why woudn’t I?”

“You’d worship a god who allows such evil to happen?”

She shrugged, “I wouldn’t have the free will not worship a god who would stop it.”

“Well, that’s probably true… but doesn’t it bother you?”

“If the soul is eternal as they say, then a mortal life is but the larval stage. That means we’re all children, playing at games we think to be of the highest import, but in reality? They are little more than the squabbles of youth, and the evil we see around us little worse than an early bedtime or a stolen dolly. God gives us morals to guide us in doing the right thing, but never stops caring for us when we do the wrong thing. And we? We honor God for all the things they have given us and only occasionally yell at him for being a feckless thug sometimes.”

Jeremy laughed, “Well, at least you’re not forgiving Manpower, right?”

Her face firmed. “Oh. I’ll forgive them all right… once they’re dead or they’ve made a sincere attempt at atonement.”

“Atonement? You really believe such a thing is possible?”

Possible? Yes. Likely? No… but if tomorrow the head of Manpower gave out a list of all his customers, freed all the remaining slaves, and pledged honestly to turn his corporation’s assets to the cause of ending Genetic Slavery once and for all? Yeah, I’d consider forgiving him.”

“After all the pain they’ve caused?”

“Pain is the past, Jeremy. Forgiveness is for the future,” she said, sighing. “I’m not saying you have to forget what they’ve done. Only a fool would do that… and I certainly wouldn’t trust such a one without a watchdog… but if we ever hope to bring them down… we’re going to need to find those among their number who have grown to see the evil they have done and desire to make what restitution they can.”

“Heh. I’ll believe it when I see it… oh… hah. Good one,” he said, thumping his palm against his forehead as she quirked an eyebrow at him and began juggling his knives. “Rudy.”

“Rudy,” she agreed. “After all… there are those who would see what we have done as wickedness. Children who can kill without mercy? Without hesitation? Without regret? There are many who’d consider us monsters.”

“Aren’t we though? Aren’t we abominations crafted by sociopaths?”

“No we’re not. We were children who sought that most basic of all rights; the right to chart our own course, who refused to be property, to be play things. We killed because it was the only way to be free.”

“And all the deaths you’ve caused since… have you felt any remorse at all?”

“Oh, Jeremy… of course I have.”

“Really?” He asked, sitting up stiffly as she hugged him.

“Not for the lives I’ve taken… but for the lives I’ve failed to save.”

“Oh,” he said, the false cheer in his voice falling away and she felt a spot of wetness on her bare shoulder.

“Now that you know I don’t think you’re a bad person, why don’t you tell me why you’re here.”

He laughed. It was half-a-sob, but it was the first genuine laugh that she’d heard from him ever and he pushed her gently away, flipping backwards and up to his feet… of course, since he was standing on a waterbed, he promptly banged his head against the wall, but he was smiling. “I came to invite you to a meeting.”

“Of the Ballroom?” she asked, dubiously.

“Of minds. No, this is sponsored by the Anti-Slavery League. W.E.B. Du Havel and Hieronymus Stein will be speaking, as will Jacques Benton-Ramirez y Chou… We’d like you to speak as well.”

“Me? Why me?”

“Sandy… do you really have to ask?”

“Ummm… yes? I’m a member of the league… and my family gives a lot of money to support league programs… but I’m not an expert on slavery or fighting slavers.”

“No… you’re just an ex-slave who just so happens to have been honored by the three most influential Star Nations outside of the Solarian League itself.”

“Most people don’t know about my past…” she said, lamely.

“Are you embarrassed by it?”

“I… no. I just don’t like letting it define me in other people’s eyes… don’t give me that look, Jimmy!” She said, threatening him with one of his own knives. “People don’t make assumptions about K series ex-slaves. Same for Utility or Technical. With V and F Lines people might assume they’re dumb until they speak, or assume they’re big and strong… but people hear C-Line and think we’re all just submissive play things who can’t go five minutes without a shag.”

He smirked, “A Shag? Is that what you Manties call it?”

“Oh shut up.” She frowned.

“Look, you don’t have to tell anyone anything you don’t want to… but I think you’d be a good role model for younger survivors trying to build lives for themselves.”

“I don’t. I was very lucky to be taken in by Mary and Hope.”

“Yeah yeah, and they totally fought all your battles for you and did all that boring classwork which made you top of your class at the academy. You didn’t do any of that on your own?” He was dancing about on the bed, pretending to stumble back and forth as the water shifted. It was very distracting.

“Would you knock that off…” she began, then sighed. “Fine. I’ll check with Ambassador Cosgrove and see what he says. Technically, I’m under the Diplomatic Corp not the Admiralty, but I’m still active duty and need permission.” He opened his mouth to say something, but she wagged a finger at him. “And you’re lucky I didn’t hurt you when you threw those knives at me. I’ve gotten a lot more dangerous since we were children.”

“Haven’t we all?”

====

“I’ve read your work,” Solace said, feeling a little out of her depth amid these scholars of the human condition.

W.E.B. duHavel smiled, “And? What did you think?”

“I like what you say about dignity and how it’s the one thing that can never be taken away from you… but it’s not.”

The much older man, former a labor slave, mmm’d? “Oh No? I suppose you’re going to say that honor can’t be taken away from you either?”

Solace smirked at that, then shrugged. “If you’re going to put words in my mouth, do I even need to be here for this debate?” That earned her a guffaw from the even older Heronymous Stein and a chuckle from Ludmilla Evchenko, the Maya Sector’s Commissioner of Human Rights. DuHavel frowned at that but she continued before he could issue a rejoinder. “I’d never make that claim. Honor and dignity are very nearly the same thing, or at least part of a larger even more elusive concept. No. I was going to say that, unfortunately, I don’t believe that there is anything that a person cannot be stripped of, given a dedicated enough opposition. Too many ways to get inside a person’s head. It’s a nice sentiment, but it’s only that.”

“I… see…” He considered, still frowning and his emotions showed that he wasn’t thrilled to have his central argument so criticized, but he wasn’t angry with her. He was carefully considering his words, when Jeremy, dressed like a hotel steward, opened the door and escorted in a well built man of asian extraction.

“Jacque!” cried Hieronymus. “You made it! We were thinking you’d been eaten by tree-voles!”

Solace studied the man, trying to place where she knew him from as he circled the room, double clasping the hands of those he knew and giving nods to those he didn’t as he made his way round the room. She smoothed down the expensive blouse she’d spent all together too much time and money acquiring earlier in the day, as she compared his face to everyone she could remember having met… why couldn’t her memory be more like a computer? Where did she know this man from… it was going to drive her mad… And what was up with that name? Benton-Ramirez y Chou… Chou… ah ha!

As he reached her, she said, “Your moustache was smaller in the picture.”

“Picture?” he asked, twilling his ridiculous handlebar style facial hair.

“In Alfred Harrington’s office at Bassingford,” she replied, calling up the room out of memory. “You, Dr. Mrs. Harrington, Alfred, and Honor.”

He quirked an eyebrow at that. “You know the Harringtons? A, don’t tell me,” he said, holding up a hand. “You don’t know them socially… You’re familiar with Alfred and Honor, but you’re not on a first name basis with Allison. Therefor, I surmise that, despite the lack of a uniform, you must be the redoubtable Solace Smythe.”

“I am… And I assume that means you must be Dr. Mr.s Harrington’s brother?”

He beamed hugely. “That I am! It is my greatest claim to fame… though we have met before.”

“Have we?” she asked, searching back through her memory and resisting the urge to straighten his tie… tie… tie pin… doctor… “Oh… yes.” she blushed a little. “You were one of the doctors Mary took me to see before the Smythes adopted me. You were much less ridiculously moustached in those days.”

He chuckled. “I was, yes. Lower ranking, less slack. Now I am such an exalted personage that none but foreigners dare tell me that I look silly.”

“You talk funny too.”

“Well, it comes with the territory. I’m glad you found a home for yourself… though I’m a bit surprised that you are so close with the Harringtons.”

“Surprised? Why so?”

“Your mother nearly got Alfred kicked out of the Marine Corps. There was a great deal of animosity there for several years. Allison called your mother several unflattering things and very nearly challenged her to a duel before Alfred pointed out to her that she’d never actually fired a gun at someone and Mary Smythe… well, Mary Lubyanka at the time, had done so a great deal.”

“Why would Mary try to… I’m confused.”

“Alfred didn’t start out as a doctor. He joined the Marines to pay for medical school. Mary, his superior officer, gave him a scathing review. She said he was unfit for active duty, lacked the resolve needed to be a Marine, and should be given a job in supply before he got his company killed with his lack of aggression.”

“Oof. That does sound like Mary… but it also sounds like it was at least thirty years ago… Maybe they made up?”

“Perhaps. It honestly didn’t occur to me that you might know the Harringtons before I saw your ‘cats and remembered Honor asking me to acquire another frisbee for a friend of hers. Are you two still in contact?”

“We write, whenever we have a chance. It’s her turn, but you know how slow mail can be getting to and from Silesia.”

Jeremy popped his head between them. “Did someone say Honor Harrington?”

Solace caught the porter’s hat as it fell from Jeremy’s head and mashed it back down, pushing him out of her personal space. “Yes. How do you know Honor, Jimmy?”

“This is Jimmy? The same Jimmy you escaped from Mesa with?” Jacque asked, amusement in his voice and mindglow.

“Yess… though he’s calling himself Jeremy X these days,” Solace grumped. “Ridiculous affectation. X. Trying to sound all mysterious and cool.”

Jeremy grinned. “Me? Sound Cool? Nonsense! I am a dashing rogue! A bon-vivant. A-”

“A madcap murderous punchinello?” Jacque suggested.

Jeremy laughed! “Indeed! But as for the equally dashing… one might even say stalwart Honor of the Harringtons? I do, indeed, have news! Mostly good… a little bad.”

“What’s the bad news?” Jacque asked, sounding worried.

“”Never you fear. The Lieutenant Commander is fine,” Jeremy assured the Beowulfan. “She got a bit banged up in a pub on Breslau, coming to the aid of one of my fellow freedom fighters, the most formidable Lupus X. Having met by happy chance, and being unwilling to let such serendipity pass unattended, the duo did rouse their fellows and effectuate a raid, off the books of course, of a local facilitator of the institution we are all here to discuss.”

Jacques blinked, trying to parse the report, and Solace sighed. “Jimmy… you use a great many words when a few would suffice. Jacques, he means that Honor got dragged into a bar-fight between a slave-agent’s goons and a Ballroom agent. The Ballroom agent then roped her and some of her shipmates into breaking up a clandestine slave-auction…” She glanced at Jimmy for confirmation just as the sound of automatic weapons fire and screaming came from outside the greenroom.

As if in slow motion, Solace watched the occupants of the room react. There were four groups of actors. The Civilians, like Stein and Evchenko, turned to look towards the door. The Survivors, like duHavel and some of the other panelists, dove to the floor or took cover behind solid objects. The Combatants, like Chou and Jeremy, also turned toward the door, but not out of curiosity. They were readying themselves and they (as well as every attendant in the room) were drawing weapons. Then there was the convention organizer, Stepan Bayers. He was nervously checking his timepiece and glancing towards the backdoor to the room, the one guarded by a pair of rent-a-cops.

Solace thought about notifying the other two, but instead directed Ruth and Naomi towards the side door as she stepped up next to the odd-man-out and whispered, “tell me who’s attacking us and I won’t kill you.”

Mr. Beyers flinched, looked up at her, opened his mouth to proclaim his innocence, then gulped as he met her eyes. “S… scrags… s… super-soldiers… they work for Manpower… hunting down runaways… th… they have my daughter. Threatened to kill her… what else could I do?”

“They’re going to kill your daughter anyway. You as well. You could have been a man.” She grabbed him around the throat with one hand and, glancing towards the guards who were just now reaching to open the door, sent a pulse of confirmation to Ruth and Naomi. At the same time that Stepan Beyers was being hurled across the room, both guards found their side-arms liberated by a pair of telempathic arborials and their pants falling down around their ankles.

The side door flew open as the organizer’s eighty kilo frame smashed into it. Beyond, eight armed and armored figures stood, momentarily taken aback as their accomplice flew through the door. In that second of hesitation, each of the ‘cats flipped the safeties off the heavy pulse pistols and tossed them into the air. As the octet began to recover, raising their weapons towards the ready. Solace’s long strides carried her right between the two handguns and she caught them in a cross-body motion, then snapped them straight, firing without pausing to line up her shots.

The impacts of the super-dense plasma smashed the attackers backwards, but these pulsers were subdual weapons, not lethal even at this distance unless aimed very well. Solace Smythe aimed very well and three of the air went down with crushed larynxes. If they got medical attention very soon, they’d survive. Unfortunately for them, that wasn’t very likely as Solace, Ruth, and Naomi crossed out of the greenroom and into the hallway.

With ruthless efficiency, Solace rammed both pistols into the lead scrag’s chest, slamming him back into a second as she pulled the triggers twice more, emptying the six round plasma-capacitor that was all hired security on Smoking Frog was allowed to carry. She heard the crunch of ribs breaking and felt the heat wash back over her hands, but ignored the pain as she grabbed the leader’s machine gun, twisting the strap to crush his throat as she turned, opening fire into the three to the left as she used the man’s body to shield herself from the last.

As the gun fell silent, she heard the last man scream as the ‘cats sank their claws into his hands, then he went silent as Naomi’s true-feet dug into his manhood and ripped down with all her might. Telling the ‘cats to wait in the hall, Solace grabbed two of the machine-rifles and peeked around the corner of the doorframe back into the greenroom. In the 6 seconds it had taken her to clear the hall, the other door had opened and Jacques and Jeremy had taken cover as a dozen more scrags entered the room… was that a camera crew?!

“Nobody move and most of you walk out of here in one piece. We only want the terrorists and their accomp…”

Solace sighted down the rifle and blew the speaker’s head off, then began walking her fire across the men who were with him. All of them looked like they had come out of central casting; Type 3 Bruiser, ugly, strong, beetle-browed. But they weren’t identical, nor were they incompetent per se. They clearly knew what their own guns sounded like and the first six shots didn’t cause most of them to react except to continue moving to secure their zone. In every case, Solace was shooting the trailing man of the four 3-man squads and then they were four 2-man squads and she was lining up to take out number eight when the cameraman of all people yelled, “From the Back Door!”

She had just enough time to drop to the floor before the remaining five gunmen aimed her way and opened fire with a hail of darts. She rolled across the frame, sighted, and shot one in the ankle, aiming as always for wherever their combat fatigues weren’t. She didn’t know if they had anti-ballistic outfits, but they weren’t dressed like people expecting to be shot back at. Then again, neither was she. Stupid Solace. Stupid.

A blossom of pain lanced through her mind and she felt Ruth cry out as one of the darts ripped through the wall and into the ‘cat’s shoulder. The pain was utterly unlike anything Solace had ever felt, obliterating thought and, with a primal scream, she stood, dove over the downward aimed needles, and hurled her rifle at the first of the gunmen so hard that his head snapped backward to bump into the middle of his back. A needle hit her in her chest, a second clipped her ear, four more hit her in the belly, and a seventh smacked into her pelvis, but most of those places were covered with anti-ballistic fabric. The shot that ripped off three of the fingers on her left hand slowed her less than the others had and she was feeling no pain as she whipped a chair into gunmen ten and eleven, then proceeded to beat number twelve to death with a rostrom.

She was breathing hard, chest hitching, as she felt a handgun’s barrel press against the back of her head. It was the fucking cameraman… he wasn’t a scrag… how had he moved that fast? “Godric Detweiler’s father sends his reg-”

That was as far as he got before Jeremy X cut his throat.

=====

“I don’t know whether to be horrified or impressed,” Jacques said when Solace came to. They were aboard the Biological Survey Corps Ship Pasteur, technically a battlecruiser, though one designed more to hunt pirates and slavers than to stand in the Wall of Battle, and it had, by far, the best medical facility in the Maya sector.

“Both?” Solace hazarded, then asked “Ruth?”

“She’s fine. Broken true-arm, some internal bleeding, but it looks like the wall took most of it. Lucky I was here… I’m something of a treecat expert… you on the other hand… you should be dead. You walked right into the fire of half a dozen needle-rifles. You lost an ear, most of your hand, and have 18 cracked ribs and a bruised sternum and pelvis. Oh… and the sector Governor is threatening to have you arrested on conspiracy to commit a terrorist act, claiming that you attacked a news crew and their armed escort without provocation…. Why are you laughing?”

“I… you… oww…” she managed to get out, then shrugged as best she could, unable to explain how hilarious it was to do something like this and for once, no one was trying to give her a damned medal!

“I think I’ll choose to be impressed, in a horrified kind of way,” the Beowulfan said as she tried not to groan at the pain. “Last time we talked about your background, I told you that the 76a variant was very rare… but I didn’t tell you what we think the reason is.”

Solace panted softly and dialed her painkillers down a little. She wanted to be lucid for this. “I… I’ve figured that I was breeding stock. Some asshole wanted genetically advanced grandchildren.”

“Ah…. yes… that was our thought too… but it’s more than that. Enhanced strength, reaction time, pain resistance, kinesthetic sense… those are traits from a super-soldier line… your memory, self-control, intelligence, and intuition… you tested near or at the limits of our ability to test those. If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were someone’s attempt to make what a eugenicist might call ‘the next step in human evolution’,” Jacques explained. “And I know a little something about that. Alfred and Honor are descended from Meirdahl Beta genies… you have a lot of similar adaptations in your genome… but more extreme.”

“Maybe there’s a cabal of wealthy, amorale jackasses secretly in league with Manpower?” She suggested, feeling a little giddy. “They might trade influence to keep the slave trade flowing in exchange for an improved legacy?”

“Maybe. But if so… Manpower’s just a company, right?”

“That’s what they said about the British & Dutch East India Companies, or Google and Amazon… maybe Manpower and Jessyk and the other Mesan Transtellars are all connected?”

“Seems far fetched to me. Probably the pain making you loopy. I’ll check back in in a few hours,” He rose to leave, but Solace grabbed his wrist in her good hand.

“Jacques… does the name Godric Detweiler mean anything to you?” She couldn’t see his, and for years after would wonder if it was all in her drug and pain addled mind, but he seemed to stiffen profoundly for a moment… though he didn’t answer.

=====

Solace recovered with the speed of someone who took very well to the regen therapies, and was soon back on her way. Ruth recovered a bit slower, be soon enough she too was back to pretending to be an officer or a monarch or (in one very silly case) a hydroponics tech trying to access the celery patch aboard HMS Bellerophon while Solace was delivering the mail.

She was not to see Jeremy again during her time commanding Atalanta, but from time to time a message would reach her from the Ballroom. Some of them were just FYI kinds of things, heads ups for her network or herself or for Manticore in general. Other times, they were requests for aid, either financial or material, and never in amounts she found hard to pull together… and once in a while, they would list assets that the Ballroom had liberated and could not make use of… such as a Axelrod mobile shipyard designed to turn out smaller ships.

The entire thing was crammed into a max-hull freighter and would take some serious infrastructure to support, as well as the, no pun intended, manpower and design crews… and it was just for building hulls… other systems, such as powerplants and weapons would be another matter… but for all intents and purposes the thing was a ‘Baby-star-nation’s First Infrastructure’. She didn’t ask where they’d gotten it, simply bought it off them and arranged for it to be delivered to Andros-Brandyne with a note that said, “Never say I don’t get you presents.”

Finally, towards the end of 1891, upon returning to Erewhon from yet another trip to Smoking Frog, Solace found orders waiting for her, not from the Diplomatic Corps, but from the Admiralty. “From Admiral Sir James Bowie Webster, Fifth Space Lord, Royal Manticoran Navy to Commander Solace-and-Justice Smythe, Royal Manticoran Diplomatic Corps, First-Day, Eighth-Month, Year Two Hundred and Seventy-Five After Landing. Madam: You are hereby directed and required to proceed to HMS Manticore, Flagship, Homefleet, there to take up the post of Executive Officer under Captain Theodosia Kuzak in the service of the Crown. Fail not in this charge at your peril. By order of Admiral Lord Hayden O’Higgins, First Lord of Admiralty, Royal Manticoran Navy, for Her Majesty the Queen.”

Next: Solace of Manticore – Part 14

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.

Solace Verse Local

The_Honor_Harrington_Universe A