The Jump Chain

Omake: Spankings & Snuggles

Inspired by a comment of mine, a friend who desires to remain anonymous has created a One-page Roleplaying Game, which they’ve given me permission to share with you. So, here it is, Spankings & Snuggles.

Not quite Dungeons & Dragons, but it’ll do.
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World 77: Honor Harrington – Part 3.02c

CROWN OF SWORD, Solace of Manticore Book 2

Part 2: Fox Hunt, Chapter 3

Previously: Fox Hunt, Chapter 2

“Oh, God… This is all my fault,” Anna moaned as she ran after her sister, using the confusion caused by the fact that no one on Palace Security seemed to have clue one how to deal with a monarch that could run on water and create walls of ice out of thin air to escape notice (and her own guards) as she crossed the plaza herself.

~Do you think she has any idea where Elsa’s going?~ Gilly thought to Solace as they and their trio of treecats followed close behind the second princess.

~I’m reasonably certain she does, but I’m also reasonably certain that she has only extremely limited understanding of the world beyond the Palace… She’s heading to the shore. I’ve no idea if she has any idea how to operate a small craft,~ Solace replied, ~This has the potential to completely destabilize the Kingdom. I’d give a small fortune to know who Yohan’s controllers are.~

~You don’t think he’s an independent operator?~

~He’s a minor prince from an isolated star nation that relies heavily on agricultural products. One with a permanent and immutable caste system. This does not strike me as a plan he could have hatched entirely on his own. That he’s got some kind of emotional manipulation ability as well makes me all the more suspicious. Who do we know that can even create transhumans, intentionally or not?~

~You think he’s in Manpower’s employ?~ The younger princess had reached the main road separating the palace precinct from the gleaming strand of shoreline and was looking back and forth as if trying to figure out what her next move would be.

~I don’t know. Connected probably. Everyone else we know with mental powers besides the ‘cats can be connected to them, but there’s no way to be certain without talking to him, and that will have to wait until the second strongest potential ally for Manticore isn’t in the midst of a governance crisis.~ Solace reached out, putting a hand on Anna’s shoulder. “Do you know where your sister might be going?”

Anna started, gasped, spun, slipped on the icy sidewalk, and landed in Gilly’s arms. “W… why are you following me?”

“Because it looks like you’re going to need help,” Gilly said, grinning broadly. Solace had to admire the effortless way her sister-daughter had of putting people at ease… or at least off their guard. Perhaps it was because she didn’t intimidate them so completely.

“We do know a thing or two about search and rescue. And running off into the mountains alone would be… ill advised,” Solace added. “We saw what your sister could do. Let us help.” The command was couched as a request, but she backed it up with a strong push at the girl’s mind, well aware that Princess Anna was at least partly vulnerable to such manipulation. It might be wise to find a way to protect sensitive individuals from such tampering as soon as practical… she’d have to have her people look into it… but later. One crisis at a time.

Gilly frowned, but if she objected to Solace’s pushing, she held her peace, both outloud and telepathically.

“Ah… well… Yes, thank you. She… she’s heading towards the Sjora enclave, I think… that’s what’s in that direction,” Anna babbled, tilting her head back to look up at Solace. “You… you’re the Andermani Emperor’s mist… Cousin?”

Solace shrugged. “I wear many hats. But yes, currently I’m here to represent the Andermani, though my brother is the Manticoran Ambassador and my daughter who’s boobs you’re pressing your head against is here representing Andros-Brandyne.”

“Solace!” Gilly humphed, setting a blushing Anna back on her feet.

“I… I wasn’t… I didn’t mean to,” Anna stammered.

“Ignore her,” Gilly sighed. “She thinks everyone is flirting with me, even when they’re not.”

“I… I’m engaged,” Anna said.

“You don’t get engaged to someone you just met,” Solace said, “Ah. Here we go.”

At that moment, an air-car landed in front of them and Ulrike grinned out of the driver’s seat. “Someone call for a pick-up?”

“W… who is this?” Anna asked. Solace could feel the girl’s confusion and embarrassment at being caught so far outside her comfort zone, but also an iron resolve to set things right. It was admirable, if a little naive to think she could do so alone.

“She’s my mother’s other daughter,” Gilly said, teasingly. Ulrike stuck her tongue out at her and Gilly winked at the other former slave who had become her best friend over the past few years.

“She’s my driver and aide,” Solace said, “Get in. We’ll catch up with your sister in no time.”

=====

“In no time?” Anna asked, fifteen minutes later as they climbed out of the aircar in the parking lot of a large packing plant. There was a large sign proclaiming the place to be the ‘W. Oaken Luxury Goods Consortium’, and a smaller one marked ‘and Gift Shop’.

“It’s not my fault the weather’s getting worse,” Ulrike said, peering out into the gathering blizzard. “I have no idea how you’re going to find anything in this mess.”

Anna blinked around, then pointed to the factory’s small company store, the titular gift shop, where the lights were on. “We’ll go in there and see if Elsa came this way.”

“If she did, she must have had an air-car of her own,” Solace pointed out. The Oaken facility was directly opposite the palace across the fjord, but unlike Kronorberg, which had a lovely shoreline, Oaken’s was atop a twenty meter cliffside… a cliffside that Elsa had apparently scaled by crafting a staircase of frozen sea water. But there the trail had vanished as the weather had turned from clear to frigid with alarming speed. This was weather that Solace, raised largely on Griffon and the mountains of Sphinx’s upper latitudes, was all too used to, but not the kind of weather that was typical for summer in Kronorberg.

“Hello?” Gilly called as she pushed open the door to the small but very nicely appointed store. It was going for a rustic look, but all the goods inside were handcrafted, from local delicacies like artisanal lutfisk and gravlax to folk art like scrimshaw and elaca-wood flutes. “Has anyone…”

She trailed off as she realized that two large gentlemen had stopped talking as she’d opened the door. Well, one had been yelling at the other, and that other, an absolute giant, nearly two decimeters taller than Solace herself, had lifted the yeller clear off the ground.

The giant blushed, setting the other man down, and grinned nervously, “Big Summer Blow out?” he hazarded.

“Oh, that’s great Wander…” the second man, less a mountain than the giant, but still quite tall and looking strong, with shoulders broader than Gilly’s and a height a few centimeters shy of Solace’s two meters. “Worrying about making a sale in the middle of a crisis.”

“Crisis?” Anna asked.

“The blizzard? In summer?” the sandy blond guy said.

“It… it’s just unseasonable snow…” Anna said, clearly not believing it herself.

“Did you see anyone come through here?” Gilly asked, pulling Barnabie away from the rack of elk sausages.

“Besides you?” said the man identified as Wander. “Sorry. No.”

“What Mr. Oaken means is that we didn’t see the person, but whoever it was stole my Ice Truck,” grumbled blondie.

“Kristoff, the truck is insured,” Oaken said. “And what you thieves charge for ice, you can afford a new one.”

“Our lake, our Ice. And you charge offworlders ten times what you pay us for it, you thief.”

Oaken growled, reaching to grab Kristoff again, but Solace snapped, “Stop that. Both of you. The woman who took your truck is in an emotional state and doesn’t know how to drive under normal conditions, let alone in a Blizzard. I assume this is a ground truck?” Kristoff nodded. “Great. I’ll pay for your truck and hire you to guide us to the Sjora enclave. Mr. Oaken, I assume the remaining groundcar in the parking lot is yours?” It was Oaken’s turn to nod. “Great. I’ll buy it from you.”

“It’s not for sale,” the giant said.

Anna opened her mouth to no doubt explain who she was and to demand use of the vehicle, but Gilly covered the princess’s mouth and pulled her back. “Hush. Mom’s got this.”

Solace looked around the shop and, pulling a black card from under her wrist comp, said, “I’ll buy everything you’ve got.”

Kristoff looked a little doubtful as Oaken took the card and slotted it into his chip reader. When the owner’s eyes went wide as the credit authorization appeared on his screen, the ice harvester’s gaze flicked back and forth from the imposing figures to the two other women. The younger blonde had called the older one ‘Mom’, and while it was possible with prolong, it seemed unlikely that the statuesque ravenhaired beauty was old enough. The trio wasn’t dressed for the weather, though that was no surprise, since the only reason he himself was was because he worked someplace that was frozen most almost half the year.

“Everything in the store?” Oaken asked, sounding a little strangled.

“No. Everything you’ve got in stock. Period. And add in the cost of the groundcar,” she said, then turned to Kristoff. “You know how to drive in this weather and the route to the local Sjora enclave, right? I’ll pay you anything you like to drive us there. Please. We are in a great deal of a hurry.”

Oaken just shrugged, no doubt figuring that as long as the crazy lady was offering, he’d take her up on the offer.

Well, Kristoff thought to himself. He wasn’t going to be like that opportunistic bastard. He shrugged. “I’ll take you to find your friend. If my truck is okay, we’ll call it even. If not, you get me a new one and that’ll make us square. Deal?” He stuck out his hand, and the blonde shook it while her mother signed Oaken’s bill of sale and had her PDA transmit shipping instructions. “So, what do I call you? And what’s with the big weasels?”

====

As it turned out, instructions had to wait until they were all loaded into the groundcar, having acquired warmer clothing from Oaken’s stores. A small black haired girl who looked much more like she was the tall woman’s daughter had been left behind (over her staunch protests) since Oaken’s personal vehicle barely had a back seat large enough to fit two teenagers and three of the weird ‘treecats’ (which were clearly alien). Thankfully, the vehicle’s tires were designed to operate on slick mountain roads, and Kristoff turned out to know the roads well… not that there were many places to go out here.

“There’s the road back to the capital that leads to the Skagerrak Bridge, the road up to the Glacial Lakes… that’s where my commune is… we harvest the high soda ice… it’s considered a delicacy for the rich, and there’s the road to the Tural.”

“Tural?” Anna asked.

“Sorry,” Kristoff said, “I didn’t get a fancy education, but you do know that the Sjora have their own language, right? They call themselves the Tural. Well, not quite. They trill more.”

“Fascinating as this is,” Solace said, “but do you have any idea why your sister might have run off to hide with the Sjora or Tural or Pixies?”

“Oh, they ain’t pixies,” Kristoff said before Anna could answer. “The Fylgja are more like pets to the Tural.”

“Oooh… I’ve always wanted one of them! Aunty said they’re too destructive,” Anna cooed, leaning between the seat for a moment before Ruth bopped her on the nose and she pulled back. The treecat sniffed disdainfully and Gilly had to struggle to keep from laughing as the Princess looked mildly chastened.

“They’re… very curious,” Kristoff said. “And they can fly, so keeping them from getting into trouble can be a problem… but those cat things look like can climb pretty good, so I guess you know about that, right?” The question was addressed to the princess, who (of course) knew effectively nothing about treecats.

“Oh… They’re not with her,” Gilly said. “Barnabie’s mine and Ruth and Naomi are with Mom.”

“Oh. Sorry. I just figured, three of them, three of you.”

Anna grumbled, “I’m not with them. We just met today.”

“And they’re helping you look for your sister? She someone important?”

“She’s the queen,” Anna said, sulking a little. “And this is all my fault… well… mostly. I stole her thunder.”

“Queen of what?”

Gilly snorted, then said, “Of Jewel. Today was coronation day… didn’t you know that?”

“Oh… wait… Queen Elspeth?” He almost skidded off the road, then glanced back once he’d pulled the car to a stop, “That means you’re Princess Marianna!”

Gilly wrapped her arm around the flinching redhead. “That she is! And she kinda pissed off the queen, who turns out to be a fairytale queen with magical ice powers!”

Kristoff blinked, then asked, “Is that why there’s all this snow? The Queen got angry and summoned a blizzard?”

Solace growled, then grabbed the young man by the ear. “Drive. And the queen didn’t cause this. Yes, she seems to be able to create ice by an act of will, but I suspect it’s a mental power, not magic.”

“What’s the difference?” Kristoff and Gilly said in almost perfect sync. Barnabie and Naomi bleeked as if in agreement.

“Magic isn’t real. Psychic powers might be, but if we don’t catch up to the Queen and get this stupid mess wrapped up asap, there’s going to be a constitutional crisis. The prince won’t reach the age of majority for another six years and the kingdom nearly tore itself apart just waiting three years for Elspeth to come of age.”

Kristoff pulled back onto the road and asked, “So… how’d you bring Fimbulvinter down upon us, Princess?”

“Don’t call me Princess… and I should have waited until tomorrow to tell Elsa about the engagement.”

Solace groaned, banging her head against the headrest, eliciting a complaint from Naomi who was perched upon it. “Speaking of mental powers. Prince Yohan was using them on you.”

“What?” Anna gasped, then humphed, “No he wasn’t! I didn’t feel cold at all around him!”

Gilly facepalmed. “There are more types of psychic powers than energy manipulation.”

“There are?” This time it was Kristoff and Anna who were in sync.

Solace assumed her pedantic tone of voice and explained, “In theory. She’s right. Mind to Matter, or Psychokinesis, and Mind to Mind powers, such as Telepathy… Yohan has some kind of emotional control. He was making you happy and a bit giddy.”

“You’re just taking Elsa’s side!” Anna complained.

“No she’s not!” Gilly said, coming to Solace’s defence. “It’s not normal to get engaged the day you meet someone!”

“You got engaged!?” Kristoff said, looking back at the Princess.

Solace gasped, grabbing the steering yolk as the young man took his eyes off the barely visible road, but it was too late… The vehicle skidded sideways, slamming into the guardrail and, with a hideous screak of tearing metal, ripped through it. The groundcar, barely slowed by the destruction, shot into thin air… then was gone.

====

The robot was old. Very old. It didn’t know how old it was, but it was certain it was the oldest robot in the entire forest. Of course, there weren’t any other robots in the forest, so that was a little troubling, since it meant that the old robot had to do all the cleaning. Still, it had a lot of time, and it had spent the endless days since it had come to the forest sweeping the paths clear of all the twigs and leaves and other bits of detritus… And now all that effort had been ruined. First, all this damp cold stuff had covered all those clean paths, and then, out of nowhere, a massive metal box had come skidding down the slope from up above, snapping several of the smaller trees before ending up half buried in the pile of leaves the robot hadn’t known how to dispose of.

The robot didn’t know what to do with the box, as it was outside its limited heuristic experience, so it simply set to the task of sweeping up the leaves and piling them around the box… or at least that had been the plan.

With a clang a section of the box bowed outward, then (with subsequent clangs) bowed more, and more… and then it rocketed into the sky. A white haired human popped out of the hole that had been opened in the side of the box… and then a furry non-human animal thing that the robot didn’t know how to identify clambered over the human’s head and leaped down, landing in the pile freshly swept leaves, sending them everywhere again.

“Up you go, Princess,” said the white haired human, then hauled a red haired human out of the hole.

The red haired human hopped down, then blinked at the Robot. “Oh look… it’s… it’s… OLAF!”

The robot paused. It hadn’t been called OLAF in forever. So many cycles. In fact, it hadn’t been called anything since its humans had put it in the forest. But once upon a time, it had been called OLAF.

“That’s great, Anna,” the white haired one said as she grabbed a different section of the box and wrenched it off in one explosive tug, the sound of metal ripping apart echoing in the close snow-covered wood. “Does it help us get out of here?”

The box disgorged two more humans and two more animal-things, but the tallest of the humans seemed to be damaged, favoring one arm. The human designated Anna knelt in front of OLAF and brushed some of the white stuff and leaves off of it. “You are OLAF, aren’t you?”

“I am OLAF,” the robot confirmed.

“What’s an Olaf?” the scruffy human asked.

“I… it’s a… a butler bot. Elsa and I named this one Olaf… they’re made by Ornstein-Levinthal, and this is a Type F. Ornstein-Levinthal Automaton, Type F. OLAF. He used to… too” She wobbled. “I.. I can’t believe I forgot about this.”

The tall injured one asked, “Forgot about what, Anna?”

“About OLAF. Elsa and I… we used to pretend he was a living snowman… we… we’d dress him up in a little hat and scarf.”

“What’s a Snow Man?” white hair asked. “Is it dangerous?”

“It’s a man made of snow… well, really it’s two or three blobs of snow stacked in approximation of a human. It’s something little children make in heavy snows,” the scruffy one explained.

“Great. Wonderful. Do you have any idea where we are, Kristoff?” the injured one asked.

“Well, if this guy’s here, we have to be close to Winterberg,” Kristoff said.

“Winterberg?” Anna asked.

“I thought you were the princess,” Kristoff said. “Did you hit your head?”

“What? No! Rude!” the Princess Anna said, stomping her foot. OLAF ran a facial analysis and voice graph. Was this the little princess? Humans changed over time.

“Kristoff,” the injured one said, “Please explain.”

He shrugged, then leaned back against the box. “The Royal family’s ski-lodge. It’s called Winterberg. It’s somewhere around here.”

“Do you know how to get there?”

“Well, if I knew where the Tural enclave was, sure. It’s on the mountain above the Tural Vale, but this doesn’t look like the Tural Vale… maybe we can find a stream and head up it?”

“Princess Marianna recognized,” OLAF said, “Restoring User Privileges. How can I be of assistance.”

Anna grinned. “OLAF, this is Solace and Gilly and Ruth and Naomi and Barnabie… could you please show us how to get to… what was it called again?”

All three other humans said, “Winterberg!”

Olaf, programmed with a sense of the absurd, giggled.

Solace looked at the small white robot, then at the princess. “Your family has laughing robobutlers? I’m beginning to think your kingdom might just be crazy.”

“Your robobutlers don’t laugh?” Anna asked.

“No, and our princesses don’t forget the existence of entire palaces,” Gilly said… then sighed, “Barnabie… stop trying to eat that.” She scooped up the largest of the animals and placed it on her shoulders, prying the pinecone out of its forehands.

“I don’t know why I forgot… I… I can vaguely remember…”

Kristoff sighed, scrubbing his face with one hand, then said, “I know why.”

All eyes (and optical sensors) turned to look at what OLAF’s recognition circuits had pegged as a delivery man. After a long pause, Anna asked, “Well?”

“Let’s walk as we talk,” He suggested, motioning for Olaf to lead the way. “I don’t know why… but you were… like… eight? I guess. The Royal Family came out to Winterberg with the Duke and Duchess. Something happened. I don’t know what… but the King and Queen and the three princesses… they went into the Sjora Vale… in the middle of the night.”

Solace stiffened. “Do the Sjora… Kristoff, can they block memories?”

The man sighed. “It’s not… not like that. They don’t… don’t block memories. They just… Just make them happier… less upsetting.”

Anna stiffened. “And… and my parents took me to them? T… to make me forget something?”

“You were convulsing… I was… Look, I was just a kid then too. My foster parents weren’t very attentive and I’d sneak out at night and explore. I saw a bunch of well dressed people sneaking out of the big house on the mountain and so I followed them. You looked pretty bad and the two other girls looked like they wanted to kill each other. The Tural… the Sjora… they smoothed things. Made it so you stopped looking so bad. The princess… I mean Elspeth, she looked like she was crying. Then you guys never came back to the Winterberg and the King and Queen became somewhat reclusive.”

“Ah,” Solace sighed. “They must have been trying to hide the fact that at least two of the Princesses have psychic powers. At a guess, I’d say Charlotte, being the youngest, did something to Anna and Elsa defended her sister and that’s when childish games stopped being childish games and the lying and coverups started.”

Anna looked at Solace for a long, long moment, then asked, “You’ve got powers too, don’t you? Some kind of… of ability to see things that happened?”

Gilly shook her head, “It’s not really seeing. We’re just intuitive. Like… really intuitive.”

Kristoff considered, then shook his head, “You’re saying you can sense things that aren’t obvious? Like… like… what people are thinking?”

Solace sighed. “And this is probably why the King and Queen and the Duke and Duchess are so keen to hide… ahh… this is why the Royal Family has such close ties to the Gothel Institute and Sophia Bellweather. For the record, neither Gilly nor I can read minds. Not even surface thoughts. We can sense each other’s thoughts, but that may be because she and I are genetically identical… or almost.”

“You don’t look that similar,” Anna said, hugging herself.

“Same Genoline, different upbringing,” Gilly said. “Mom escaped Manpower when she was five, I was rescued by the Ballroom when I was ten. They, Manpower, did a lot more treatments on me than they did on her. She grew up on Griffon, mostly outdoors and was trained to be a Marine. I grew up on Manticore, mostly in the city, and was trained to be an athlete.”

“You’re escaped slaves?” Kristoff asked, aghast.

“Yup,” Solace and GIlly said at the same time, showing the others their tongues. “Same series, just different batches.”

“So, you’re more like sisters than mother and daughter?” Anna asked.

“Kinda,” Gilly said. “But also like we’re the same person. I think that’s why we can read each other so well… though Solace can read me much better than I can read her. She’s got all that military training in keeping secrets.”

Anna thought about that, then asked the obvious question. “So… why are you trusting us with this information?”

“Because we’re absolutely certain that your Grandfather, Magnus, was the son of an earlier batch sister of ours, named Carlotta. And your Grandmother, Patrice, she’s a C-64a.”

“A what?” Kristoff asked.

“Manpower labels its products with letters to indicate type,” Solace said, adjusting her makeshift sling and trying not to wince. “C-Lines are pleasure slaves. 76a seems to be an experimental line with very low survival numbers. 64a is another that’s very rare. By comparison, there are three known 76a’s in the Ballroom’s records and four known 64a’s… and that includes Carlotta and Patrice. Ulrike, my driver, belongs to a relatively rare line, C-88. There are four-hundred-and-fifteen known genesisters of hers. By way of comparison, there are over eight thousand known C-21a’s, known as Kens, and that line is considered only uncommon. The most common labor lines have millions of clonebrothers and are essentially mass produced.”

Kristoff muttered an imprecation against the calumny of man, and shook his head. “Filthy business… wait, does that mean that the Royals bought slaves?”

“I don’t know. Only Carlotta might now. We’re hoping the Queen can help us find her or what happened to her. Maybe Queen-Mother Patrice knows. She was a rescue herself. So she wasn’t a made to order bride.”

Gilly began giggling.

“What’s so funny?” Anna asked, somewhat thrown by the sudden shift in tone.

“I just had a thought!” Gilly snickered, and Solace groaned, “That’s terrible.”

“What? No telepathic inside jokes!” Anna said, kicking a lump of snow.

“Well… Winterberg is the winter palace, right? And you’re Princess Anna!” Gilly said.

“Yes? I don’t see what’s so funny about that.”

“Gilly’s being a goose,” Solace said. “There’s an ancient musical theatre production that she likes called Anastasia. It’s pseudo-historical, and tells the tale of a young Imperial Princess of the Russian Empire. This was in the second century Ante Diaspora, in the days between the First and Second Global Conflicts. Anastasia’s father, the Emperor of All Russia, as well as her mother and siblings, had been killed in a populist uprising and ‘Ana’ as she was known had been sent to an orphanage, having no memory of her traumatic past. Ten years later, now a legal adult, she leaves the orphanage and goes to the Winter Palace in the city of Saint Petersburg, and there she uncovers the truth about her past.”

Anna blinked, then giggled herself. “Okay… yeah. I can see how that might be funny… do things work out for Ana in the end?”

Gilly grinned, then glanced at Kristoff. “Actually… she ends up running away with a handsome commoner boy who knew her when she was a child!”

Anna humphed. “I’m engaged… I think… I’m still not certain I believe you about Hans.”

“Hands!” squeaked a voice from a tree nearby, and all three treecats sprang to attention.

“What was that?” Solace asked as something flew out of the tree and flapped away.

“Fylgja… Pixie,” Kristoff said. “They can mimic sounds in addition to being almost impossible to contain.”

“You said they’re kept by the Sjora as pets… does that mean we’re getting close?”

“Maybe? Probably another couple of kilometers… we’ll have to head uphill soon enough,” Kristoff explained, “but the Sjora aren’t much for keeping their pets on short tethers, so the Pixies just come and go as they please. So… this uprising? The people overthrew their bourgeois overlords?”

“Something like that,” Solace agreed, narrowing her eyes. His tone seemed a little too… eager.

“We could use something like that here,” he said. “A redistribution of wealth. Abolish the monarchy.”

“You have something against the Royal Family?” Gilly asked, moving to position herself between Anna and Kristoff.

He shrugged. “No. I mean, not against them as people. I don’t want them executed or anything. But it’s ridiculous for one family to have so much wealth while others have so little.”

“Is anyone you know actually living in poverty?” Solace asked.

“No. But that’s not the point! Look at Haven. They don’t have any entrenched nobility. They get by just fine without Royals telling everyone what to do.” His voice rang with the certitude of one who has no idea what he’s talking about.

Solace placed her good hand on the man’s shoulder. “Have you ever been off planet, Kristoff?”

“Well… no. But Stiltskin said…”

“I don’t know who this Stiltskin is, but let me tell you something. I’ve been to Haven. Not just to the Republic, but to Haven itself. To Nouveau Paris itself… that’s the capital. I’ve also been to New Berlin, capital of the Andermani Empire, to Asgard, to Grayson, to Erewhon, to Beowulf, to Old Earth… and to Midgard… and Mesa. I’ve been to many of the worlds of humanity and let me tell you what I’ve seen. On Sol, Mesa, Midgard, and Haven, I’ve seen endless slums. Warrens of humanity living in crushing poverty. On all but Mesa, I’ve seen the palaces of oligarchs so wealthy that they were royalty in all but name… and I do not doubt for a second that Mesa, which trades in human misery like it was platinum, lacks for such palaces as well. I have been to the Palace of the Protector of Grayson, to the Imperial Andermani Palace, to Mount Royal and Kronorberg… and yes, they are lavish. So too are the palaces of the the leaders of Erewhon and the Governor of the Maya Sector. But do you know what I didn’t see in those places?”

Kristoff shook his head, trying to pull away from the older woman, but he felt himself fixed by the intensity of her gaze more than the grip on his shoulder.

“I saw none of the crushing poverty. There are poor everywhere. Economics works like that. People who lie at the bottom of the economic ladder will always exist because there will always be a bottom… but in Jewel and Manticore and Beowulf… and to a lesser extent Erewhon and Grayson and Anderman… the bottom isn’t nearly as low. There is little poverty. Almost everyone has enough to eat, has a home, has employment, has health care, has access to education and public spaces.”

Her voice was gentle, but carried an edge, and Kristoff felt himself leaning forward to listen to her words as she spoke. “I’ve ruled a star nation, though only for a short time, and I came in as a conqueror. I’ve seen the chaos of war, the cruelty of true oppressors. Trust me when I say that no one should hope for a populist uprising.”

“So you’re saying that Nobles and Royals are purehearted civil servants and they’re entitled to their luxuries?” he growled. She was trying to sway him… using some kind of mind trick on him. “Stiltskin says that traditionalists will say such things to defend their entrenched lifestyles.”

“No. I’m saying nothing of the kind. I’ve been to Zanzibar and know too much about Manderlay and history in general to claim any such thing. My point is not that nobles are good and commoners are corrupt,” she said, barely struggling with the slope as they followed the robot.

Kristoff glanced to see how the others were doing, his own legs beginning to feel the burn as they ascended out of the valley… but even the slight princess seemed to be having no problem. “So… what are you saying?”

“I’m saying that you should learn more about how bad things can be before you go complaining that your leaders are too privileged. If the wealthy have money, and the poor starve, it’s a bad system. If the wealthy have money and the poor thrive? It’s probably not. Especially if everyone has a voice in the government. As far as I can tell, everyone in Jewel has such a say. Anyone who tries to make you angry at others for having more than you do… Anyone who tries to tell you that another group is trying to take away your rights, or give your rights to someone else? There’s a really good chance that the person telling you that is trying to sell you something or trick you into doing something against your own interests.”

“So you’re saying that you won’t try that on me?”

“Oh. Well, I will tell you that Haven is definitely trying to take your freedoms away. But there I can show you decades of conquest and looted economies. I can prove what I’m saying… and I very much suspect that this Stiltskin of yours is an agent provocateur. Is he one of your own?”

“Uh… no… I mean, he’s working class, but not part of my commune. He’s from Tiara, over in Corona.”

“And he’s been speaking to larger and larger groups of working class people in and around the capital?” Gilly asked.

“Well… I guess the crowds have been getting bigger. I’ve been to a few of his rallies… and to some of his action seminars… but he’s just pushing us to be more active in politics. To campaign for reformer candidates.”

“Does he have specific candidates?” Solace inquired.

“Uh… I guess… Last month there was a special election over in Rinkobing and about three hundred of us went over there to canvas and put up signs for our candidate.”

“Even though none of you live in Rinkobing?”

“Well… No… but we were just helping out!”

“And were you doing anything you shouldn’t have been doing?” Anna asked.

“Like… like what?” Kristoff said, feeling a little surrounded.

“Like pulling down posters for other candidates? Or intimidating voters? Or showing up at rallies for opposition candidates and heckling?”

“I… well… I…” He tugged at his collar. “Not me… personally… but… maybe? I had work…” he finished lamely.

“But some of your friends bragged about stuff they’d done?” Gilly asked as they clambered over the edge of a rise and, there, in the distance, was the massive confection that was Winterberg. It looked like something out of a storybook, a Kronorberg in miniature, but crafted out of huge panes of glacial blue plasteel, giving the building the look of being made entire out of ice.

“Maybe?” Kristoff said, “Oh… look at that, we’re here!”

Next: Crown of Swords – Part 2, Chapter 4 or Undertale

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

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.

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World 77: Honor Harrington – Part 3.02b

CROWN OF SWORD, Solace of Manticore Book 2

Part 2: Fox Hunt, Chapter 2

Previously: Fox Hunt, Chapter 1

Gilly was practically skipping as they funneled out of the Manticoran apartments in the diplomatic section of Kronorberg and joined the general throng of other luminaries and their bodyguards. Kronorberg was a vast high security area, but diplomatic bodyguards were still allowed to carry stunners, as long as they were approved by Palace Security… and Palace Security was everywhere… as Gilly was more than happy to point out.

“Oooh! She’s cute!” the young woman said, “I like the bunny ears.”

Solace had to sigh. Jewel was… weird. They didn’t have a ‘Police Force’. They had Public Safety, of which Palace Security was but a part. Public Safety did not wear uniforms that made them look like Police Officers. They wore outfits that made them look like they belonged in a theme park. The girl Gilly was currently looking at was wearing a white and purple and neon blue jacket that left her belly exposed, a matching miniskirt, and a pink ascot at her neck. Over her face was a pink visor and yes, she had white bunny ears on her head, ears that swayed as she helped direct the guests of honor past the massive civilian crowd waiting outside the Cathedral of the Jewelian holy trinity; Wisdom, Justice, and Liberty.

The triple goddesses stood above and to either side of the grand cathedral’s massive doors, the wood brought at enormous expense from Old Earth in two massive slabs cut from a giant redwood felled by a storm. Solace, despite her jew’s aversion to graven images of deities, had to admire the three classical statues. Supposedly, Dame Justice was based on an ancient nordic winter goddess, Lady Liberty was based on an east asian goddess of rain, and Divine Wisdom was based on an mesopotamian goddess of knowledge, but if it was true, no one living seemed to know exactly which goddesses those were, exactly. From what Loyal had said, the religion had a lot in common with the faiths collectively known as Secular Humanism, mixed with elements of Ecstatic or Mystery Cults… which Solace took to mean that Loyal would launch into an endless lecture if she admitted that she hadn’t the faintest idea what he was talking about… and if she admitted that she didn’t care either, he’d give her that Rabbinical Glare and she’d lose an entire afternoon.

Still, for all that the outside looked almost Catholic, the inside had the warm wooden simplicity of a synagogue and Solace found herself relaxing in the scent of polished wood and the quiet murmur of the crowd as they took their seats, each guided to their pews by immaculately groomed ushers.

“Uncle Loyal,” Gilly whispered, “they have all those carvings on the outside, why is the inside so…”

“Austere?” Loyal suggested. Gilly frowned, a clear sign that she disagreed with the choice of word.

“Restrained,” Solace corrected. The place wasn’t spartan. It had a simple refined beauty about it, but it wasn’t just a lack of ornamentation, but rather the conscious shaping of a space to have a feel of sanctity without a need for symbols of faith.

“Yeah. That,” Gilly agreed.

“No idea,” Loyal said. “You’d have to ask someone. Maybe one of the princesses can tell you later, at the reception?” Whatever Gilly might have said was preempted by the blare of trumpets and a uniformed herald called, “Pray, be upstanding for her royal highness, Elspeth Catherine Iduna’s Daughter.”

As one, the gathered nobility of the Kingdom, as well as nearly two thousand visiting dignitaries and leading members of the civilian, military, and philanthropic communities rose, as the doors they’d entered through opened once more to admit the future monarch’s siblings. First came Beatrice and Ariel, the twins, one redheaded and one with silver hair that was almost blue it was so fine… though that could have been the lighting. Each carried a pillow, Ariel with the scepter of state, Beatrice with the orb and they both wore gowns that made them look like pixies… or angels… which was the one with feathers? Solace couldn’t remember.

~Sheesh!~ Gilly sent. ~Pixies have bug wings, Angels have bird wings. And those are butterfly wings… so clearly fairies.~

~I thought pixies were fairies,~ Solace groused. What did it matter, they were all imaginary.

~Not everything that lives in a tree is a squirrel,” Gilly teased, making Solace roll her eyes. The younger girl meant that ‘All Pixies are Fairies, but not all Fairies are Pixies.’ but she’d explained it almost exactly like Minerva would have, which both annoyed the older Smythe and amused her.

Following the twin fourteen year olds, both of whom looked nine thanks to Prolong, came Prince Felix, only a year older than his younger sisters, but looking closer to twelve, and with dark brown hair like his mother had had. He wore a smart military uniform, as befitted a Midshipman, though he was technically a Colonel or equivalent… the Jewelians used a single unified rank system, none of which was Captain unless you actually commanded a unit… The size of said unit being utterly unimportant… but Prince Felix’s rank was completely honorary, since, like the rest of his siblings, he hadn’t left the palace in nearly a decade by all accounts.

He seemed very focused as well. While the younger princesses had been carefree and had passed like a summer breeze the prince moved with studied grace, carrying his own pillow upon which rested the darling little diadem that would be the new queen’s crown.

Behind him came the heir apparent, Princess Marianna, as redheaded as King Agnarr had been, and wearing a lovely green gown that looked like something out of ancient lore. Something about being the ‘Spring Maiden’ or something. Loyal had rambled on about it, but Solace (as was her wont) had tuned him out. This princess did not bring a part of the regalia with her, but rather escorted the high priest, a gentle looking older man who seemed particularly thrilled by the whole event… and Solace realized that, with the Palace closed for three years, this gorgeous cathedral had only had palace servants in attendance for all its services. How odd that must have been.

As the priest and royal family took their places on the dias, a choir began to sing and all eyes turned to the open door as Elspeth, next Queen of the Jewelian Realm, by grace of the Goddesses, entered. She was gorgeous, resplendent in a severe gown of deep blue, with elbow length gloves and a cloak of regal purple trailing behind her. All eyes were, of course fixed on her… but none more so than those of the three Smythes.

~She can’t be…?~ Gilly thought, feeling a kind of panic swelling up in her.

Solace placed a calming hand on the shoulder Barnabie wasn’t occupying, and sent soothing waves of restraint that she herself was struggling to feel to the younger girl. ~She’s not one of us.~

~She looks…~ Gilly swallowed, almost whimpering.

~I know what she looks like… but her face is wrong, features too fine… and the white hair doesn’t breed true… it’s part of the process they use on us, according to the doctors on Beowulf…~

~But… She’s actively blocking me!~ Gilly commented, then yelped as Solace gave her the mental equivalent of a flick to the forehead.

~Don’t try your mindtricks on the queen. Look. Maybe… I don’t know… Maybe there’s a genie or two in the Jewelian family line. There certainly is in the Wintons… But we’re not going to pry. Right?~

~Bet one of her ancestors bought one of our sisters,~ Gilly humphed, half glowering at the queen who, having allowed the priest to place the crown upon her head, was now facing the crowd once more.

The priest, speaking in Court Scandinavian, a language that had once been known as Old Norse, said “Sem hon heldr inum helgum eignum ok krýnd í þessum helga stað ek té fram fyrir yðr, Elsepth Aren, Dronning af Jewel!” . The ear buds they wore faithfully translated that as ‘As she holds the holy properties, and is crowned in this holy place, I present to you, Elsepth Aren, Queen of Jewel.

~She looks absolutely terrified,~ Solace commented, then realized that the Queen was staring right at her. ~Hi?~ she thought, and felt Gilly send the exact same thought at the exact same moment.

Elspeth, already pale, flinched as if struck and, with undue haste, returned scepter and orb to the priest and practically fled the dais.

Solace and Gilly looked at one another and thought to each other, ~Was it something we thought?~

Loyal wrapped his arms around his sister and niece, “Yeah… I would have rushed out of here too… I hear the reception is supposed to be incredible… Was it me, or does the queen look like she could be your sister?”

======

The reception was absolutely amazing, the food incredible, and the entire thing felt like a costume ball from another century to Gilly. It felt like a period drama, with ambassadors and barons and princesses all dancing in a fairy tale castle. In fact, the only thing marring the event was the fact that the queen and princess Marianna hadn’t shown up, even an hour into the festivities in their honor.

The former Regent, Sophia Bellweather, and the Grand Duke and Duchess were holding everyone’s attention as best they could, but (for an empath) it was obvious that something was wrong. Solace could feel it of course, but she was busy fiddling with her personal computer and barely paying attention to the pageantry. Gilly could feel worry baking off the older woman as well, and even Loyal had noticed how Solace was compulsively smoothing her outfit.

“Sandy? Mom?” Gilly whispered, tugging on Solace’s sleeve. “W.. what’s going on?”

Looking up from her wrist display, Solace frowned, then motioned Gilly and Loyal closer as they huddled near the chocolate buffet, Gillian hugging the BB to keep him from rampaging through the treats. “These are the King, Duke and their sisters slash wives… and wow… in the wrong context, that could be a weird thing to say…” She projected images of the four royals on the white wall in front of them. “And these are their parents, King Carl, Queen-Mother Patrice, Grand Duchess Usula and Grand Duke Magnus… and this is Magnus’s father, King Christian the Bastard… No record exists of the identity of Magnus’s mother. But here’s a picture of all young women on the palace staff from Christian’s reign… what do you see?”

Loyal squinted at the images, then shuddered. Gilly didn’t respond visibly, but Barnabie gave a soft treecat hiss. The seventh image, labeled ‘Carlotta’, was unmistakable, despite the green contacts and mousie brown hair treatment… That was a C-76a, pre-treatment.

“It can’t be,” Loyal said.

“It gets worse,” Solace said. “I hadn’t bothered to do it before… hadn’t thought about it… but I have the Audubon Ballroom’s complete database of all known Manpower lines. We have a lot of holes, of course. But the Ballroom has recorded the physical features of every rescued slave they’ve ever come across. Beowulf has a copy of this, of course.” She brought up a set of three pictures labeled ‘C-64a’. They were three very similar women, the differences almost certainly the result of different batch numbers and age. She moved them to surround the image of Queen-Mother Patrice, mother of the former King and the current Grand Duchess. “It’s hard to see… but this is what Patrice looked like as a child… I checked the records. She was adopted by the Wolcotts… she was rescued by the Havenites from a Jessyk Combine slave ship.”

Loyal blinked, “You think that the Queen of Jewel is descended from two different C-Series?”

Solace nodded. “I think that’s very much the case… and I think the Regent and their Aunt at the very least know that the Queen has… some kind of mental gift. I think the Ducal Princess has similar gifts.”

Gilly blinked, then understood. The Regent, when she wasn’t busy being Regent, ran an institute for studying the potential for pushing humanity past its evolutionary limits. “Okay… accepting that all that’s true… what do we do about it?” she asked.

“Nothing,” Loyal said.

Solace considered, then nodded, shutting down the images. “Agreed. The affairs of the Kingdom of Jewel are not ours.”

“But… we could have a sister… what happened to Carlotta? Does the record say?”

“No,” Loyal said before Solace could answer. “She’s probably long dead. Duke Magnus died of old age at 104 T-Years and that was forty-one years ago. If Carlotta was still alive, she’d be nearly a hundred and seventy.”

“I still say we should look,” Gilly said. “She might have other kids… we owe it to ourselves to find out.”

“Agreed. But not today. I doubt Duke Frederic knows much about his grandmother, and this certainly wouldn’t be the time and place to… something’s happening.”

While they’d been talking, a quiet hush had fallen over the crowd and a herald stepped up to the throne dais and announced “Ladies and Gentlemen, The Queen.”

Elspeth had traded her long gloves for shorter ones and had taken off the long cloak. She had also traded her confused, almost fearful countinance for a calmer one. “Thank you all for coming, and please, enjoy yourselves. Jewel very much appreciates all your assistance over the last difficult period and we look forward to a… where is my sister?” she asked, having scanned the crowd and realized that, while the younger princesses were stuffing themselves on enough chocolate cake that if they weren’t genies, they were going to face weight problems later in life, the older princess was still missing.

As Sophia indicated that she’d send people to look for Princess Marianna, Loyal pushed Solace forward and hissed, “Ask the queen to dance.”

“What? Why? She’s probably straight.”

“Maybe. Maybe not, but it’s an excuse to talk. Go on.”

He pushed her again and she sighed. He was probably right. Her reputation would make the request seem normal. “Very well.” Approaching the queen, Solace bowed the correct amount for a visiting head of state (retired) to a reigning monarch. “Your Majesty, in the name of the Andermani People and my Cousin, congratulations on your assumption. Your realm is as lovely as its name implies.”

Elspeth blinked, looking slightly annoyed, but nodded. “Ah. Yes, The Grand Duchess of Weasels… I’m sorry. I don’t dance.”

Solace chuckled. “Is that what I’m known as here? Is it because of the Weissen terminus or because of my ‘cats?”

The queen smiled a little nervously. “A little of one, a little of the other. But it’s not a public thing. It’s what my sister Ariel calls you. She very much wants a Treecat of her own. Your kingdom is lucky to have such a good relationship with your indigenous sophonts.”

Solace tilted her head, then ahhed. Sapphire was home to one of the dozen non-human sophont races that humanity had discovered, but the semi-aquatic Sjora barely tolerated humanity and had been known, in the early days of colonization, to drown humans that came too near their pools. Unlike Medusans and Treecats… or indeed any of the others, Sjora were able to operate underwater as well as on land, and their young were entirely aquatic, living in small ponds. A very uneasy peace had finally been worked out when the early settlers finally realized that the fur-covered snakes were being protected and the Sjora finally realized that the humans hadn’t meant any harm… well, except those who had wanted to harvest Sjora furr.

Still, Sjora tended to live in places that humanity found inhospitably cold, and seldom came down to the lower elevations. Since 80% of Sapphire’s landmass was covered in mountains, with the human population clustered almost exclusively around the coastlines of the planet’s ninety-one microcontinents, the largest of which was less than half the size of Old Earth’s Australia, the Sjora and Human populations had only really met at resource extraction and exploration venues.

“Did you invite an Sjora to your Coronation?” Solace asked.

“Oh… umm… I wasn’t in charge of the invitations. Madame Bellweather and Grandmother handled those details,” Elspeth said, blushing slightly. “I’ve never met a Sjora.”

Solace blinked at that… the Queen was lying. “I think, perhaps, that we should dance after all, your Majesty,” Solace said, using her best command voice.

Unfortunately, whatever the young monarch had been about to say was cut off as Princess Marianna chose that moment to return… and she was holding hands with the young Yohan Anderz, thirteenth prince of Manderlay; the tiny, extremely classist, and isolationist nation that held the far terminus of the fourth arm of the Jewel Junction. Eschewing all formality, Marianna dragged Yohan up in front of her sister and said, “Elsa! I mean Queen. Me again. May I present Prince Hans… Yohan, of Manderlay.”

Yohan, dressed in a white Manderlayian Admiral’s uniform that he in no way was old enough to have earned, placed a white-gloved hand over his heart and gave Elspeth a head-bow. “Your Majesty.”

Solace blinked, realizing that she was getting some very odd vibes from the duo. Marianna’s mindglow was fierce, vibrant, a bonfire in fact and it was clear that if she ever travelled to Sphinx she’d have Treecats lining up to bond with her. Yohan’s… no less powerful, was dark, a swirling, narcissistic and grasping thing that physically repulsed Solace. She’d known far too many Manticorans like that… most notably the Youngs and the Janviers… but their mindglows were far weaker than this Yohan boy’s.

Marianna clung to his arm and, bubbling with enthusiasm, said “We would like…” she giggled and Yohan took over, “Uh, Your blessing…” then both finished “Of our marriage.”

In that moment, Elspeth’s rigid control cracked and Solace could feel the young queen’s emotions for the first time. They were shocked, confused, fearful… and furious. “Marriage?! I’m sorry, I’m confused.”

“Well, we haven’t worked out all the details ourselves,” the princess said, “We’ll need a few days to plan the ceremony.”

Solace, feeling very much like this was absolutely not the time and place for this kind of thing, reached out to brush the girl’s mind. Did she always act this… impulsive? Her mental probe brushed against something… alien. Something… off? In the princess’s mindglow. It was a kind of darkness, an artificial block… no… two of them… two different agencies had somehow acted on the girl’s consciousness. One felt… old, ingrained. The other more recent… much more recent.

Marianna was still talking, her mouth running at a million meters an hour, conscious thoughts flickering from one thing to another as if she was… was… drunk? No slurring, no overly wide pupils… was this mania innate, or a function of… She glanced at Yohan and saw how focused his eyes were on the princess. He was smiling, but it was an act… he was pushing her… not as much as Solace was capable of… and she couldn’t tell if he was aware he was doing it, but he definitely was exerting some kind of… “Of course, we’ll have soup, roast, and ice cream… and then…” Marianna gasped for air, then leaped to another topic as her thoughts derailed from the menu.

“Just wait!” Elspeth said, “Slow down. No soup! No roast! No one is getting married!”

“Wait, what?” the princess asked, confused.

“May I talk to you, please? Alone?” The elder sister asked, struggling, and slowly failing, to keep her calm exterior. The cracks in her control were growing larger.

“No! Whatever you have to say, you can say to both of us!” Marianna insisted, clutching Yohan’s hand as if afraid to break the connection.

Elspeth… Elsa apparently, to those who were on familiar terms with her, stiffened her spine in an excellent impression of regal hauteur and said, “Fine. You can’t may a man you just met.” That… was a good point. The Palace had been sealed for three years. They would have had to have met in the time between the Palace opening and the reception… a matter of less than eight hours.

“You can if it’s true love,” Marianna insisted, and now Yohan’s gaze was fixed on the queen and his smile was gone. In fact, his entire face has lost all emotional effect and Solace could feel the push, this time directed at the queen. She very much doubted Elsa even registered it, so irked was she.

“Anna, what do you know of true love?”

“More than you!” snapped the heir. “All you know is how to shut people out!”

Solace had to admire the Prince’s skill. He was definitely aware of the pushing, and had clearly practiced it, because although he wasn’t nearly as strong as Solace herself or Gilly, he was subtle. Either he was intuitive to the point of brilliance, or he had very accurate psyche profiles on the two, because he was, without saying a word, getting them to trigger each other… but why? Why not try to de-escalate this? There was an element Solace was missing.

Elsa sucked in a breath at her sister’s barb, looking actually hurt, and Solace could feel a twitch of emotion from long ago… some hidden sorrow struggling up from the depths of the Queen’s psyche. “You asked for my blessing,” Elsa said, and Solace cursed the fact that all she could get were emotions and hints of something else… “But my answer is no.”

Damn! Why couldn’t she read minds… or was that actually impossible? She’d read an article on the way the human mind stored memories and thoughts, and it essentially said that everyone’s mind used a different, unique, encoding algorithm. That even if a machine was made that could record thoughts, it wouldn’t be able to play them back in any way that made any sense except to the original thinker. Maybe that was a good thing? Solace wasn’t certain… but right now, it was deeply frustrating. She felt like she had a front row seat to… to dynastic history in the making… as everyone seemed to have forgotten that she was standing there in her ridiculous dress… and thankfully, the conversation was quiet enough that no one else in the vast presence hall had noticed… or maybe they were just polite enough not to eavesdrop? Society functions confused and irritated Solace. Why couldn’t this be like a nightclub rave where thinking was verboten?

“Now… I think you should all… all go,” Elsa said, turning and walking away, then raised her voice and announced, “The party is over. Everyone should go… and… and close the gates!”

Anna, not willing to take no for an answer… or maybe sensing that she’d pushed her sister too far, ran after Elsa and grabbed at her arm, accidentally pulling off the glove on that hand.

“G… give me my glove!” the queen insisted, looking absolutely panicked.

Anna refused, clutching the glove to her chest as everyone looked on, interested, confused, or just drawn to spectacle. “Elsa, Please!” Anna insisted, speaking in the modern Jewelian Scandian. “I can’t live like this anymore!” Live like what? Locked in the Palace? It couldn’t just be that, could it?

“Then Leave,” Elsa said, coldly, then turned away, clutching herself like she’d been physically wounded.

“What did I ever do to you? What!?” Anna demanded, voice full of the rich hurt of abandonment, of a confused child who doesn’t know why she has been excluded, or even what she has been excluded from, but knows very well that it is so.

“Enough, Anna,” the Queen said, not turning back.

“No. Why? Why do you shut me out? Why do you shut the world out? What are you so afraid of?!”

The queen’s back stiffened at that last accusation, her resolve crumbling, and she spun, lashing out with her hand… and from that hand sprung up a wave of ice, a semi-circular wall of spikes that isolated her from the rest of the room.

Solace gasped. “Cryokinesis?” That… that wasn’t… that was physical control over matter… Just what in the hell had the Gothel institute been up to? And was there really that much water in the atmosphere? “Well… this just got a whole lot… weirder,” she commented as Gilly joined her. The entire room watched as the Queen ran out into the night, plowing through the commoner’s having their own festival to celebrate Coronation Day in the grand plaza outside the Palace.

“We should probably follow her,” Gilly said… “Before she hurts someone.”

“She’s running across the fjord,” Solace commented, eyes wide as the water froze beneath the queen’s feet. “Yes… or worse, herself.”

Next: Crown of Swords – Part 2, Chapter 3

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

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.

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Jewellian Public Safety
Solace Verse Local
The_Honor_Harrington_Universe A

World 78b: Undertale Isekai – Part 4

ANOTHER GREATER MYSTERY

Previously: Under Another Sky

Themesong: Desert Rose by Sting

The next few weeks were unremarkable on the grand scale, but the girls were acting… weirder and weirder. Maybe they were too stressed? Maybe it was just some cultural quirk that I didn’t get because I was an outsider. Case in point?

I was lounging about in the long afternoon warmth as spring turned to summer, playing around with my phone, and using my newest trick to spy on Elze as she changed out of her practice gear. The girl was Eff-Ai-Tee Fit. See, I’d figured out that if I used [ENCHANT] on my phone with [LONG SENSE] I could use the phone’s camera function as a scrying glass… well, that didn’t suck… and of course, being me, and having no actual enemies, I was using it to spy on my friends.

A shadow fell over me, and Yae’s voice said, “Ahem… Jouya-dono… you shouldn’t be doing that, you shouldn’t.”

I looked back over my shoulder, then grinned. “Why not?” I teased. “Not like we haven’t changed in front of each other… or been covered in slime in front of each other for that matter.”

She frowned, then shook her head, “You’re like my brother, you are.”

“Charming, lucky, and devilishly good looking?”

“Always playing pranks on others… not that he’s as cute as you are… not that I’m saying you’re cute, I’m not,” she was babbling now. “I just love that about him… the playfulness I mean… not that I’m saying I love you, I’m not.”

I blinked up at her, then chuckled “This is when you’re supposed to call me a baka and storm out.”

She stamped her foot, glared at me, blushed furiously, then yes, called me a baka and stormed out.

As she left, I called out “See!? I told you!”

=====

Yae wasn’t the only one who was being strange. Linze had bought a scroll in the Ancient Magic Script (not to be confused with Ancient Spirit Script… I both loved and hated the literalness of this auto-translate function I was under. It would be so much better if I actually knew the local lingos… but eh. At least it never made me sound like an idiot unless I was actually being one.) and I’d made her a pair of glasses so she could read the thing. It turned out to contain a water spell called [BUBBLE BOMB] and she’d asked for my help in mastering it.

Of course, I’d agreed, though I no idea how I was supposed to help. Turns out, I was mostly there to protect her when she passed out. Yeah, that’s what happens you run out of MP in this world. Dizziness, fatigue, and if you push it too far, down you go.

One [GATE] later and I was undressing her, much to her embarrassment, and tucking her into bed. I wanted to ask her if she was okay, but she was too loopy to answer, so I took a second [GATE] to the palace. Please don’t think that anyone could just do this if they had the power. The Palace Mages actually had erected magical shields around the place to stop teleporters, as even the simplest shield could block [GATE], but I’d been given permission to gate to a specific room… that happened to be part of Yumina’s suit of rooms, of course.

The King, or General Leon, or someone, had posted a guard permanently inside the room, and the young man snapped to attention as I appeared. “Ah. Miss Jouya. Is the princess with you today?”

“Not today, Tyso,” I said, shaking my head. “I’m here to see Miss Charlotte.”

“Ah,” the young soldier scratched the back of his neck, then rang a bell. A palace page entered, then ran off, and a little while later, a maid arrived with some tea and cake (a recipe I’d taught the palace chef, of course). Half an hour later, Charlotte finally arrived, looking very much as if she could use a vacation.

“You’ve been working yourself too hard,” I commented. “In my land, we say that someone who looks like you look has been ‘Burning the Candle at Both Ends’.”

She blinked, then chuckled softly. “Maybe. But there’s so much research to be done. So many books to translate.”

“Do you need more glasses?” I asked, “Maybe if you had more scribes transcribing and translating?”

She sighed, “I won’t say no. Thank you… but that’s not why you’re here, I take it?”

I shook my head, “No. Linze has been wearing herself out practicing a new spell and I’m worried about her. She collapsed after fifteen castings.”

Smiling, Charlotte patted my hand, then stole a bite of cake. “Don’t worry. She’s just worn out.”

“I figured as much. But when I cast [RESTORE VIGOR] on her, I didn’t work,” I sighed, then, just for good measure and by way of demonstration, cast it on Charlotte, who recovered some color right away. “See, that’s what it’s supposed to do.”

“”I see…” she said, considering. “I do feel less… fatigued. But I think that spell removes physical fatigue, not spiritual fatigue. She’s just out of Manna. She’ll be better in a day, assuming she gets enough rest.”

“Oh… huh. So… are there, like… Manna Potions I could buy just in case she or Yumina run out of Manna while we’re out in the field?”

“Manna… Potions?” She asked, then looked amazed at the concept. “No… do you know the formula for such a thing?”

I opened my mouth to say sure, you just mix up Blister Pod Cap, Elves Ear, Mora Tapinella, and Red Mountain Flower… then realized I’d sound like a lunatic, so I simply shook my head. “Sorry. I don’t think any of the ingredients I know of can be harvested anywhere around here.”

“Shame… though you could do what my old master did and give them some of your Manna,” she suggested.

“Oh? How’s that?”

“She has a Null Magic Spell called [TRANSFER]. Back when I was her apprentice, she’d work me until I dropped, then force more manna into me with that. Then repeat the process… over and over again.” She shuddered.

“Right… Transfer, cool,” I said. “Very helpful.”

“What did you call it?” she asked, confused.

“[Transfer]. I was just repeating your words,” I said, then shrugged. “I should get back. Thanks for the help… and you really need to get some rest. Take a few days off. I’ll drop off your glasses tomorrow morning, then you can hand them to your assistants and let them get a few days ahead of you.”

The next day, as promised, Linze was back to her cheerful self and we were back in the woods as she she struggled to master the spell.

“What seems to be the trouble?” I asked as I used [TRANSFER] to, you know, transfer some of my seemingly inexhaustible manna to her. Topping her off took slightly less energy than maintaining Byakko did, and once again I had to wonder how much of this was God’s doing and how much of this was based on my previous perks and stats.

“I think the problem is that I’m having trouble figuring out what the spell is supposed to do.”

“I imagine it’s some kind of watery explosion… at least that’s what I get from the name,” I said, shrugging. “It seems fairly obvious, doesn’t it?”

“What?” She looked… well, imagine a mixture of confusion and outrage, with just a little frustration tossed in for good mix.

“Well, Bubble… bomb… what else is it going to be?” I asked, wondering why she was so confused… and clearly irritated with me and not just the entire situation.

“What are you talking about?” she asked, looking confused.

“The name of the spell… oh you’ve got to be kidding me,” I groaned, realizing (like an idiot moment of satori) what must be happening. “Okay… try to spell out what you hear me saying when I say ‘Bubble’ ‘Bomb’ and ‘[BUBBLE BOMB]’,” I told her, aware that to me they sounded utterly identical… but then again, until I’d started Jumpchain, ‘Pen’ and ‘Pin’ had sounded identical too.

She did so, and I looked down at the symbols she’d written. My mind told me that they were both read ‘Bubble Bomb’… but the non-spell version was written ‘Paer Abragan’ while the spell version was written ‘Vrustnaki’. “Well… that explains sooo much,” I muttered.

While Linze looked at me like I was mental, I pulled out my phone and dialed God. “Hiii… Jouya here… sooo… any chance there’s a way to partly disable the translation magic you’ve got on me?”

“Oh! Certainly,” he said, “It’s not really a translation per se. I simply uploaded the local divine language into your mind when I incarnated you into this world. All you have to do is concentrate when others are speaking and you’ll be able to hear the actual words that are coming out of their mouths.”

“Thank you, Detective Carter… wait… if this is the divine language… how come I can’t read everything?”

“It only works for spoken language, I’m afraid. The divine language doesn’t have a written form.” If he minded being called Chris Tucker, it didn’t show in his voice.

“Right. Gotcha,” I hung up and got back to Linze, who proved that, once she understood the basics, she could master the spell in no time.

After blowing up a dozen trees, she tackled me and, I swear, almost kissed me. Instead, she just sat on my hips and blushed furiously… then claimed she was super duper tired and that she’d clearly burned too much energy and I should definitely take her back to the Inn so she could rest and no no, me [TRANSFER]ing energy to her was clearly too much for her to ask.

See what I mean by weird?

Even Elze got in on the bizarre behaviour. She drafted me to take her to the capital on a day where we had no missions for the guild (we were, to be honest, clearing them out as fast as they were coming in most weeks… so much so that the Guild was requesting that we leave the easier gigs for the other members, which was fine by us, to be honest. I had money coming in from my games and the various investments and designs, and we were doing pretty decently for funds from our various questing ventures.

“Sure thing… what’s up?” I asked.

“Oh… I’ve been wanting to replace my gauntlets. They’re wearing out… especially after those gargoyles the other day.” That was her excuse any way. Turns out, her real reason was that she wanted to go dress shopping. And not for her. Noooo… she’d seen this super cute (her words) gothic lolita dress the last time we’d been in the capital’s upscale shopping district and she wanted me to try it on.

“It’ll look better on you,” I commented, having already stowed the two new pairs of gauntlets she’d bought despite not having four hands… she claimed she was going to mix and match for different elemental effects on each hand… in my ring and had no intention of wearing the black and white confection that was that dress. I looked ridiculous in frills and lace.

She demurred, claiming that she wasn’t suited for dresses and always felt silly.

“Nonsense,” I said, shaking my head. “You’re perfectly cute… but it doesn’t matter how other people feel. Nice clothes are about making yourself feel good.” She resisted, but I could tell she wanted the dress, so I ended up buying it for her… which only ended up getting me in trouble with the others. Apparently, having bought Elze a present, I had to buy each of the other girls a dress… then find a party to get us all invited to so they could show off their new dresses. “That’s hardly fair,” I commented. “I don’t have a new dress to show off.”

“Of course you don’t,” Elze said.

“Yes,” Yae said, “You have to buy a nice suit, you do.”

“What?” I said, pouting. “How is that fair? How come I don’t get a new dress?”

Yumina grinned. “Because you’re the boy!” she said, giggling as I rolled my eyes. That was hardly fair. Just because I could turn into a guy didn’t mean I couldn’t have a nice dress… granted, my idea of a nice dress would be scandalous in Belfastian high society. No one had invented electrical tape in this world. Had to get a suit? Fine. I’d get the girliest suit I could find… or have made.

All of this culminated in the strangest way of all, though I’m getting ahead of myself. Some six weeks after the poisoning attempt, we were collectively summoned to the capital, though the message was vague, simply instructing each of us to bring good clothing. Well, okay, not the princess… she had plenty of good clothing at the palace… clothing she refused to share even though we were the same size. She claimed that it didn’t suit my coloration. Humph… she was probably right. I was a winter, she was a summer. Even the colors of pink that suited us were different, with me favoring vibrant fuschia and the princess favoring pastels… you know, colors with a commitment phobia.

Anyway, we arrived at the palace at the designated time (I’m very punctual) and found that there was a bit of a party going on. Not a rowdy one, mind you, with the medieval version of dance music and kegs of beer, nor a fancy one, with cocktails and banal smalltalk. This was more in the nature of the members of the court gathered in the presence chamber (that’s like an informal audience chamber. It’s where the monarch receives guests without all the pomp and ceremony.) The King and Queen were present, of course, as was Charlotte, though she looked even more stressed than usual… now it looked as if she was burning the candle in the middle too. Also present were General Leon… or as I called him ‘Backbreaker’ since he had a habit of showing approval with resounding slaps on the back that often felt more like an assassination attempt than a friendly greeting… but that was his way and he meant nothing sinister by it, so it was forgivable.

The Mismedian ambassador, the fox girl Olga was there, looking better now that she wasn’t under suspicion… and she immediately pulled me aside to give me a handkerchief that her little sister, Arma the easily lost, had embroidered for me by way of thanks for helping reunite the sisters and for saving Olga from an abrupt shortening. As she thanked me, she grew more and more distracted by Byakko, draped over my shoulders at the time, for some reason.

“You have a white tiger as a pet?” she asked, trying to sound light and airy, but her ears and tail were too puffed out for her to be very convincing (want to touch the fluffy taaaail!). I’ve been around foxes, dogs, cats, and ferrets for too long, I know all their tells.

“Indeed. This is Byakko… he’s our newly crowned mascot,” I explained without going into the details of his true nature.

“The white tiger is the symbol of Mismede, the king of all beasts and spiritual liege of all beastmen,” she said, leaning closer to almost touch noses with the tiger. Byakko, pretending to be just a cute little fluff, went ‘Rawr’ and pawed at her. Very subtle.

“Ah?” I prevaricated. “Is that so? Should I worry that my having a white tiger as a pet will cause offence among your people?”

“Not unless you treat him poorly,” she said, apparently accepting that there wasn’t anything suspicious about my living fur stole… despite the fact that I was very casually supporting a thirteen kilo fluff on my narrow shoulders as if he weighed less than a tenth that.

“He does occasionally protest that he’s being snuggled too much, but he gets plenty of love and affection from my friends… you can pet him if you like… He only occasionally gnaws on people,” I said, grinning softly.

Olga was just trying to figure out if she dared, when Leon came over to attempt concussive chiropracty. We made smalltalk for a few minutes, and he invited me to spar sometime in the near future, which I accepted. It was clear he was an accomplished warrior, and it would be shameful to pass on the opportunity to see him in action. I also suggested that Elze might enjoy a chance to spar against the manbeast, who (like her) was a master of elemental gauntlet-based violence. Indeed, his sobriquet was ‘Fire Fist Leon’.

I know what you’re thinking. He had a son older than Elze, but he was a nice guy, a widower, and they both had a healthy appreciation for punching things to death. At worst, they could be friends, even if nothing romantic flourished. She even scored an invitation to the military drills scheduled for that afternoon, which I had no doubt she’d find thrilling, and not in a sarcastic way.

I also tried to hook Linze up with Charlotte (not in the romantic sense, of course) because I figured the two of them could compare notes and maybe Linze could convince the court magicienne to take a week off. I also mentioned to the king that perhaps he should take his ladies on a get away and make certain that Charlotte was too tired to do any reading… and maybe, just maybe, work on giving Yumina a little brother… just to push myself further from the throne.

Eventually, the pleasantries had been pleasanted and the small talk had been smalled, and the real reason for the summons to court was made clear as the King and the Duke and Count Edgardo, the Lord Privy Seal, cornered me, in an actual corner of the presence chamber and offered me a barony.

“A… you mean with the title and lands and all that?” I asked, making certain I understood. The king nodded. I accepted it, of course. I’m no fool, but I had a stipulation. “At the current time, I’m too young to enter into such contracts as formal oaths… as I might have mentioned before, with regards to the princess’s kind offer. And I’m just figuring out how to run my own life,” I lied, “Being responsible for the lives of liegemen and serfs and doing all that administration… you’d have to appoint a regent for me if you gave me lands now… so could you hold off on the lands until later? Once I reach the age of majority?”

The king laughed, nodding. “Of course, of course!” he said, patting me on the shoulder. And that, I thought, was that. I’d have the title and none of the responsibilities for most of my stay… okay, half my stay. That would be enough time for me to have my fill of adventuring and I’d have the resources and experience with the local cultures to be able to take it easy… or decided to hie for the hills and not look back. One of the two.

The formal investiture was that afternoon, in front of the entire court. I tried not to fidget as the king said, “Oh great adventurer who has saved my very life, pray, allow me to bestow upon you a title of nobility in praise of your deed.”

“I accept, your majesty, though I was merely doing as an adventurer should. I be unworthy of such praise,” was my reply.

“Nonsense!” he snapped, but in a jovial way. He grinned down at me, and said “I’m the king. I decide who is worthy!”

“Very well, then. I accept, but I’m too young yet to govern a fief, your majesty. In my land, such things are reserved for those who are legally adults.”

“Very well then. I shall hold off granting you a domain to rule, for now…” he grinned, “Saves me from having to appoint a regent for you.” I nodded. It was all going as scripted… then it wasn’t. The King’s grin got bigger as he continued. “That said, allowing the woman who saved my life to remain homeless would be a great discourtesy. Therefore, in place of the income of the lands I would have given you, I have prepared a reward sum for you, and a mansion that I hope should serve as a base of operations for your adventuring party.”

The house was, of course, in the Capital. Clearly this entire thing was a maneuver to get me to move to the capital so Yumina could visit more often… but also so that if there was an emergency (say Charlotte needed more glasses or the Queen needed more cake), I’d be on hand. It was in the Western District, 2A, Palaran Avenue, half an hour’s easy walk from the Palace’s gate. There wasn’t a 2B. Well, technically, there had been, but the owners of 2A had bought the neighboring mansion (recently gutted by an unfortunate fire) and used the land (once cleared) to build a quite impressive garden.

The city was divided into two rings, inner and outer, with the castle at the center, though Lake Palette occupied the Northern District of the outer ring and the Palace’s gardens occupied the inner North (it was more like a royal park than a garden, to be honest). The Western and Southern Outer Ring were divided from the rest of the city by the River Aisel… Palette and Easel? Sigh… and the docks were on the Western District’s lakeshore. Thus, most of the city’s mercantile class lived in the western half of the city, on one shore or the other. 2A was, by far, the largest mansion on that side of the river… and there were signs that a symbol had been recently removed from the gate and door. I suspected, very much so, in fact, that this house belonged to the late Count von Traitor Pants. Oddly, the house itself was smaller than the Viscount Swordrick’s home (and much smaller than the Ducal Palace Sue lived in)… but as far as I knew, Swordrick’s fortune was in producing weapons for the military, not in owning land. The Balsa family had owned considerable estates, and so this was more a city residence than their seat of power.

On the other hand, it wasn’t the house’s fault that it had been owned by scum, and it looked nice enough. As for the monetary part of the reward, it was twenty royal coins, each of which was worth a hundred gold, and they were far too valuable to see much use even in a world where magical items were on sale every day. It was an absolute fortune, and I suspected that it amounted as much to a dowry as to a reward, but looking a gift horse in the mouth was always frowned upon, no matter the culture.

Still, the house was far too big for merely five of us… six with Byakko, who was dangling from Yumina’s arms, his tail coiled around her waist to keep from tripping her as we stood in the vast foyer. I said as much, only to get some very strange looks from the girls.

“What did I say?” I asked.

“Five? Are we to live here as well, are we?” Yae asked.

I was slightly flummoxed by that. “Of course. Why wouldn’t you?”

“But this house was given to you by the King!” Elze pointed out.

“Yes?” What was her point?

Linze said, “I think his aim was for you to share it with Yumina.”

I chuckled and brushed the thought aside with a wave of my hand. “That might have been his aim, but this is my house and I decide who stays here. I’ll not see any of my comrades forced to live in an inn when I have rooms to spare.”

“S… so just comrades?” Elze asked.

I frowned. What was wrong with comrades? Shaking my head, I smiled. “There is nothing mere about comrades. A comrade is one you would fight for, would (in extremis) die for. I value each of you no less than I value Yumina. You’re like family. Closer even, since one cannot choose one’s family… now what’s wrong?” They were blushing furiously. This culture, I tell you. I do not get these reactions. It was like I’d said something lewd… not that I didn’t say such things from time to time, but so far all my entendres tended to fall flat. ‘I’d like to nibble her pie.’? Nothing. ‘My word, would you look at the melons on that girl.’? Nada. ‘Oh! He’s got a big package!’? Total confusion. But I say the word family and suddenly it’s like I suggested a menage a seis with Byakko included. Apparently my translation software did not come with idiomatic mastery.

The trio practically ran off in different directions, leaving me with Yumina. “Sooo… you like the four of us to the same level?” she asked, eyes knowing.

“Of course. Why?”

“Oh… nothing. I guess I’m moving up in the world.”

I frowned. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Jouya. I intend to become your wife. You know that. But I don’t intend to monopolize you,” the little princess said.

I nodded. “Good. Relationships where one party tries to dictate how the other spends their time, or who the other can associate with aren’t happy relationships.” I was careful not to commit to the whole wife thing, but I’d had more than one male friend who’d become trapped in a relationship with a partner who threw hissy fits whenever he’d tried to spend time with anyone besides that special her… fewer in other relationship configurations, but she-he was not uncommon and even he-he and she-she had seen it happen… I’d even once had a friend end up with a hyper-possessive Virtual Assistant. That was just weird… also DC. “All parties to a relationship should have their own autonomy or it’s no more than a prison. If one stays because one chooses, that is the truest test of loyalty, of commitment.”

The princess smiled, then grinned. “Don’t worry. I’ll go have a talk with the others, explain how it is. You just say here.”

And she handed over Byakko, who looked up at me and asked, “What’s all that about?”

I scooped up the kitten and began to explore the house. “No idea. I’m a stranger to this world, and the usual cultural cues I’d be using to figure things out don’t seem to be triggering the normal brain-cells. Either this culture is weirdly artificial in some way or I’m not operating at anything like full capacity. Since the second is actually true, I would normally discount the first, but…” I shrugged, looking around empty room after empty room. There wasn’t a single piece of furniture… not even shelves in the cellars. It was weird. Maybe the Count’s cousins had been allowed to take everything when the estate had been seized? Or maybe it had all been sold as a matter of course.

“But you don’t really understand?” the heavenly beast said as we headed out into the garden and I set him down to roll in the grass.

“I feel like I’m missing something fairly obvious, but I don’t know what… it’s very frustrating. I keep thinking in terms of mathematics.”

“Mmmm?” he asked, rolled onto his back and letting the sun warm his tummy furr… little sybarite.

“I… it’s like I’m adding one and one and getting… five? Ten? No… it’s more like I’m trying to integrate a variable, and instead of just getting x plus one I’m getting something that’s not even a number.” I shook my head, missing my normal titanic intellect and the perks that made societal functions as transparent as air. I’d put a lot of effort into training up my baseline over the ages, but to my many regrets, there were still fundamental limits to all things human. Without the perks that made me superhuman, I was merely a demigod. Not that that was a bad thing, and I wasn’t complaining… just wondering what I was missing.

I was just about to flop onto the grass and tickle a kitty tummy when Yumina and the others returned. Yumina was grinning, while the other three were trying not to meet my gaze… oh, lovely. It was a ‘Let’s talk’ moment. I love those! They’re the best! Noootttt. They were probably going to explain how it wouldn’t be right to live here with Yumina and me and I’d have to come up with some complicated plan wherein I’d keep inviting them over and pointing out that it was late and they should stay in the guest rooms… and maybe they could leave a change of clothes… and a toothbrush… until they were effectively living here and eventually I’d be like ‘it doesn’t make sense to pay for a room at an inn that you’re never using.’ But those kinds of plans, when they worked, took time and effort and were silly wastes of both.

“C… can we really live here?” Linze asked. “With you?”

Okay… that wasn’t what I was expecting. “Of course. I wouldn’t have offered if it wasn’t okay.”

“You won’t tell us to get out? Later on, I mean?” Elze asked, joining the conversation.

“Only if you start summoning fire elementals or breeding stink bugs,” I teased. “No… of course I won’t!” I added as I realized that they were taken aback by the teasing… had they been planning on raising fire elemental stink bugs? Sulfur bugs? Brimstone Beetles? Whatever?

“And you’ll treat us exactly like you’d treat Yumina-dono, will you?”

“Yeah!” I said, grinned, “Duh! You’re all the family I’ve got in this world!”

“There you have it,” Yumina proclaimed. “We’ll all be living here from now on. Feel free to decide when you have your feelings in order.”

I blinked… decide what? About living here? Wasn’t that already decided? Was my translation software on the fritz again? Do Gods not ‘grock’ idioms? Actually, that seemed strangely likely, but whatever. The three agreed with Yumina’s words however, then (instead of explaining what the hell was going on) they started talking about who got which room, rapidly breaking the embarrassed tension they were feeling as they discussed the realities of living in a giant house… such as having to hire servants to do the cleaning, since it was far too big a place for us to do it, even if we closed up the rooms that lacked furniture until we decided what to do with them. I mean, seriously. It was an actual mansion. It had more than fifty rooms, not counting water closets or sub-chambers like closets.

It was decided that we’d move in to the new place five days after we got it, thus giving us enough time to say a limited goodbye to the people we’d come to know in Reflet, as well as giving us enough time to purchase enough furnishings for the common rooms and servants’ quarters and our own rooms… it would be weird not sleeping in the same rooms as the others. Well, three of us went back to Reflet for the first three days to finish up business. Yumina headed back to the palace to speak with her mother about something.

When we returned to the capital, planning on moving into an inn there while we got things situated in the new house, we found Yumina outside the manse, overseeing workers as they carried a vast assortment of household goods into the mansion. Small pieces of furniture, cookware, chests of linens and curtains, rugs, crates of supplies and books and the dozens of other things one never realizes a house needs until one moves in and realizes one doesn’t have. There were also carpenters in the front walk cutting boards and staining them, clearly constructing shelving units and wine racks and other storage pieces… including what were clearly tables for a workshop for me.

She waved at us as we rolled our coach out of my [GATE] and rushed over. “Jouya! Perfect timing! There’s a man here seeking employment as a housekeeper! Can you come and meet him?”

I looked at the gentleman, then smirked. “Housekeeper, huh?” I asked, hopping down from the coach and taking the man’s hand. “Hello Liam,” I said. Liam was the king’s butler, and older brother of Liem, the Duke’s butler. I’d met the two of them on more than one occasion. “Come to keep an eye on the Princess?”

“Partly, partly, young miss,” he agreed. “But also, I’m getting a bit long in the tooth for Palace life. My son is of an age where he can care for the king, and my family owes you a debt for saving Liem’s life.” He smiled and bowed over his arm in very proper european form.

“And you’ve been taking care of the Princess since she was born and haven’t missed her at all these past weeks, have you?” I teased, earning myself a chuckle from the old man and a glower from Yumina.

“Indeed not,” he said. “She can be a handful, and I’ve enjoyed the vacation… but it’s time to get back to work, if you’ll have me.”

Of course we would, and thus we gained a head of household staff. He had, of course, arranged all the worker bustling all around us, and was ready to present us with several potential permanent members of the household by the time all the various furnishings had been delivered and put in place (mostly by laborers, but Elze had to show off with her [BOOST] spell… she gets better effect out of it than I do, which is interesting… then again, Linze was clearly more nuanced with the local magic than I was and Yae’s speed was incredible… it was as if they were each leveling up through prolonged contact with me… and don’t get me started on Yumina’s accuracy… it was spooky… and I know from spooky accuracy. She could 720 no scope three different sparrows on the wing with a bow and arrow from 500 paces. Sparrows! Without having known how many targets there would be when she started spinning. Note, these were magical arrows that didn’t do more than startle the birds. Sparrows are terrible eating unless you’re a hawk.)

There were two young women, Cecile and Lapis, both vetted by the Maid’s Guild (because of course there was a Maid’s Guild… had this world been designed by an Otaku? Beast-Girls, Maids, mini-skirt mages, mystic eyes… a supreme god who was very Japanese?). Lapis was dignified and black-haired, while Cecile was sweet and had auburn hair… both were about twenty and dressed like French maids… because of course they were. They were obviously ninjas.

I know that sounds glib, but I’ve seen too many combat trained agents over the ages to fail to notice how they watched everything, how they moved nearly silently, how their lithe bodies moved under those risque uniforms (Mmm, yummy). They were clearly there to bodyguard the princess in her own home, and a glance at their inner-selves confirmed as much, but I said nothing. What Yumina didn’t know could very well save her life.

Next up were Julio, formerly a groundskeeper of the royal park and set to become my gardner, and his wife, Crea, who was to become the cook. They were in their late twenties, golden-blond and reddish haired, and very laid back. Crea was experienced, of course, having worked as an apprentice chef in several aristocratic households before, but her degree of experience and mine were not even close to being on the same level. I’d have to give her lessons to bring her up to the level I considered more than merely acceptable… but I hadn’t had an apprentice of my own in a while, and I was looking forward to it. As for Julio? Gardening wasn’t really my thing… but I’d hung out with Toph enough that I should be able to offer a little feedback.

The last two staff members were in their fifties. Thomas and Huck, formerly of the Heavy Infantry and Light Cavalry respectively, would be in charge of gatekeeping and mansion security respectively, though of course they’d have to hire more people to stand all the watches (at least eight more to cover the gate and patrol the property… maybe I could make some security enchantments… mmmm…). I scanned them and found them to be exactly who they said they were, and honest to a fault the pair of them. Then again, Yumina had signed off on them, like the rest of the palace staff, and thus we knew they could be trusted.

Thomas and Huck, as middleagers, had their own families and households in the city, but the others would live on the grounds. Thankfully, the house came with servants quarters… quite a lot of them, in fact. The Balsa’s must have employed at least sixty butlers, maids, cooks, footmen, pages, gardeners, and guards, if the size of the servant’s quarters were anything to go by.

Those servants quarters, mostly under the main house or in the attic, were not counted in the house’s room count by tradition… and had been appallingly small, drab, and unpleasant. I’d ordered them gutted and refurbished… and (after a scan of the walls) I’d ordered everything moved back out of the house while I used [REMODEL] on every painted surface in the house to pull the paint off and form it into spheres for disposal. Lead paint… not good. I sent a note to the king explaining that the substance was toxic, especially to children and should be banned in all forms of paint, potery, potion-craft, water distribution or collection, and definately from toys. In each case, I tossed in several acceptable substitutes. I also warned him of the danger of Mercury, Asbestos, and Medicinal Bleeding. Thankfully, this world hadn’t discovered radium yet or arsenic-based pigments. It was clear I was going to have to set up a field guide of toxic substances and practices… weee… just what I’d always wanted. Come to a Fantasy setting and invent OSHA and the FDA/EPA. Maybe I could make some toxin snoopers. Good thing this world was, in general, much cleaner than most real feudal societies would have been, largely thanks to magic’s ready availability.

Anyway, the old paint spheres were disposed of in an old mine we’d found in our adventures and the servants quarters halved in number to create rooms that would be worth living in. I also whipped up a collection of very pretty wallpapers which the new occupants could choose from. Not as nice as the stuff I designed for the public rooms of the house, obviously, but that stuff had precious metals and tiny gemstones imbedded in it. I wanted the servants to feel welcome… not spoiled. Of course, I’m getting ahead of myself. All that took several days.

Back on the day in question, we quickly confirmed the new staff and sent them off to get prepared for the tasks ahead of them. Thankfully, each of them knew what was expected of them, and (after being given some money) they headed back out into the city to do the rest of the shopping… except Liam, who prepared the afternoon tea. And it’s a good thing he did, because no sooner were the cookies laid out than Sue and her father arrived with housewarming presents.

As Yumina caught up with her cousin, the Duke clapped me on the shoulder. “I must say, I was most surprised to learn of your engagement to the princess, my girl,” he said.

“No more shocked than I was, your highness,” I said. “They wouldn’t take no for an answer.”

He laughed at that. “No no. I’m not surprised at their choice! To be honest, I think the world of you! I had intended to have my Sue and you… but my older brother beat me to it. Always on the ball, those two.”

I just gaped like a fish at that… then did my impression of a cavern as Yumina and Sue squealed, and hopped up and down, then gave me double puppy-dog faces.

“I was just telling Yumina that, if it was Jouya, I wouldn’t mind an arranged marriage!” Sue gushed.

“And I was saying that I wouldn’t mind sharing Jouya if it was with my beloved cousin!” added Yumina.

“Well, I’ll refrain from pressing the issue for today,” the Duke said, waving the thought away as if he hadn’t just said ‘for today’. “I’ve got a bit of a favor to ask of you, Jouya… on a different topic, of course.”

“Oh?” I asked, eyes narrowed in suspicion.

“Nothing to worry about,” he chuckled. “Nothing at all. My brother and I have been working to strengthen ties with Mismede, perhaps to forming an alliance… but that requires getting the two kings to sit down and hash out the details.”

“Ah… I see,” I said, “You need me to go to Mismede and set up a [GATE] so that there are no misadventures with either king in transit. Otherwise, Tristwin and the Mismedean King would have to each travel to a point on the border… and that means bringing armies and risking monsters or bandits or open war if things go badly.”

“Indeed. Yes. It will take about six days to reach Mismede by carriage, then another four days to reach their capital, Berge… provided all goes as planned… don’t worry. We plan to file this request with the Guild, requesting your party… that way your Guild Rank will increase and you’ll be formally rewarded.”

“And you’ll provide documentation proving I’m… we’re on diplomatic mission?” I asked.

“Actually, Olga and Arma will be travelling with you. They’re returning home, and you’ll be acting as their escort to Berge, then they’ll escort you around Mismede and introduce you to King Jamukha.”

“So just us to guard Olga?” Elze asked.

“Oh. No. You’ll have an armed cavalry escort to the border here, and another once you cross the Great Gau River into Mismede. We’ve discussed the matter with Charlotte, and what we’d like you to do is to transport a mirror that has been enchanted with your Gate spell to Mismede. That way they’ll believe it’s a property of a magical item that can be sealed up… wouldn’t do for them to suspect that you could bring an army out into their capital at any time, right?”

I nodded, but Yumina humphed, “As if she would.”

“That’s a good point,” I said. “I tend to dislike plans that involve a great many civilians getting trampled by the army. A security squad or special infiltration unit is much more likely.” I grinned at Yumina as she stuck her tongue out at me. I considered. “To be honest… I could also do that with several hand mirrors, thus allowing correspondence to be sent safely… in fact, I could whip up a few dozen pairs of such things to connect the Palace to every outpost and city in the country if you like?”

The Duke blinked, then nodded rapidly, “Oh? Could you really?”

“Yes. Of course. Talk to Tristwin and General Leon, and have them make up a list… I’ll need about four ingots of steel and one of silver… and a bunch of glass for each dozen mirrors… best provide some gold so I can coat the steel… I’ve recently found a spell called [REINFORCE] which makes things more resilient, so the mirrors will be harder to damage. I’ll label each mirror with the name of the location it’s being sent to.”

“Won’t you have to go to each location?” Linze asked.

“Oh… yeah. That’s true… so it will take some time to get the entire network up and running, but once I’ve been to a location, I can get back there and just ride to the next location. Shame I can’t work it for boats… but yeah. Anyway… when do you want us to head out?” I asked the Duke.

“Three days from now, if you’re willing?”

“Awww… I want to go!” Sue complained.

“Once I’ve been there, I can go back whenever I like, little princess,” I teased. “I’ll take you with on the next aaaaack!” I was cut off by a pounce glomp that knocked my chair over… and that smile was waaay too enthusiastic… I gulped as she snuggled in my lap.

===

To Mismede we went, escorted by a dozen knights of Belfast and a like number of soldiers from the beastmen, in three wagons. The two escort wagons were of the older style, but the one in which my party rode had been outfitted with the new springs and cushions and wasn’t nearly so bumpy a ride… still, it was far from the most comfortable ride, and so I was providing distractions in the form of games. Mostly basic ones, Sorry and Othello, but I’d also made a Cluedo set and a variation of Dominion which used chits drawn from bags instead of cards. It wasn’t as easy to play (you needed a cheat sheet for each player), but it was much more sturdy.

The leader of the guard contingent from Belfast was Sir Lyon Blitz, eldest son of General Leon Blitz, and he was the only member of the guard force who actually knew who Yumina was. It was also clear to anyone who was paying attention that he and Olga were infatuated with each other. I mentioned this to my compatriots, and they just stared at me as if I had three heads. “What? You don’t think so?” I asked, in the aftermath of a bandit attack in which none of our guards gained so much of a scratch. Competence is a great thing… as is overwhelming might.

“Some people never seem to notice things that are right in front of them,” Elze said. Linze nodded firmly.

Yae added, “Some people are so busy being nice to everyone that they send very confusing messages, they do.”

“Really? I mean Olga’s nice,” I commented, “But she doesn’t seem like she flirts with others… do you think Lyon is the jealous type?” My question just made them stare at me more, so I wandered off, shaking my head.

Finally, after six days of travel, we arrived at Canaan, the southernmost town in all of Belfast. Canaan lay at the tip of the peninsula that Reflet served as the gateway to. I’d been told we’d have to cross the Great Gau River by ferry from Canaan to Langley, though the map I had on my phone showed that the so called Gau River was, in fact, a bay or estuary (it’s hard to tell the difference for most people… myself included, since I no longer had access to any of my personas that had any expertise in hydrogeology). Either way, it was kilometers across and marine blue and very clearly no longer a river long before it reached the ocean proper

Canaan was a port town… but not a maritime one. The harbor, such as it was, was situated on what locals were calling ‘the riverbank’ and almost all of the ships were small, with few sails and the biggest among them were barges, and not large ones at that. It was clear that most of the trade was going upriver or across to Langley, which was visible (if barely) across the water. That said, this entire town… its location, its layout, its ships… they rang off to me.

There wasn’t enough overland shipping to really support a port town this busy, and without an oceanic trade, there wasn’t really enough coming in to support the hustle and bustle that was in evidence either. That meant that all those ships that weren’t taking goods back and forth had to be generating the majority of whatever this city was trading… but those goods couldn’t really be any different from what Langley (with access to the same waters) were generating, could they? Maybe? I wasn’t really that interested in finding out, but the strangeness didn’t stop there.

The ships were an example of magical adaptation… but not a good one. The reason they all had such simple sailplans was because of wind magic. When each ship could pay for a wind mage to come aboard and push the ship, you didn’t really want to confuse the mage with too many sails… combine that with the relatively placid sailing area, and the locals didn’t really feel they needed anything more complex… but that meant that all of them were paying for wind when wind was, for all intents and purposes, freely available 85% of the time.

This is what you get when Enchantment is a Null Spell that’s one in a few tens of thousands. Technology stagnates, because magical items are so rare. Instead of selling windstones for emergencies, there’s an entire guild dedicated to wind crafters just pushing boats around… and no one was willing to brave the open ocean… granted, that might be because there were monsters there… but I’ve seen a map of this world… there were no vast open oceans. There were two macro-continents and they were both roughly circular and not super far from each other. Closer than Sri Lanka to Singapore in any case.

And the town layouts were all wrong, as I’ve mentioned before, but in Mismede it got worse. This was like someone’s fantasy world where the world-builder hadn’t done their research… or just hadn’t thought things through very well… hmmm… Japanese overgod… oh… ahaha… I got it. When I’d made my build for Undertale, I’d taken a drawback that made Anime and Manga into historical documents for that world… a world entirely contained in a mountain range. Now I was outside that range… but still in a world where Anime and Manga were, effectively, truth… I was in a fantasy anime. Of course I was. Hahaha. I started chuckling as the realization hit me.

“Jouya? Are you okay?” Arma asked.

I patted her cute little foxy head and smiled. “Yup. Beware of toggles, little one,” I told her, confusing her no doubt.

“I’m not that much younger than you,” she pointed out, “And I’m not that short.”

I grinned. She stuck her tongue out at me. I bought her a brooch as a memento of Belfast… and a few sets of earrings for the girls. Good thing I’d figured out the genre. Adventure Fantasy, like Lodoss War. Couldn’t be like Bastard… not enough violence and nudity. Couldn’t be like Dragon Half, not enough silly… I had a feeling I was missing a sub-genre, but it wasn’t coming to me. Maybe I was missing more than one. So far, it was all pretty calm and low conflict. Then again, I wasn’t the Main Character, now was I? That was probably some burly dude with a hot elven sorceress girlfriend and a sneaky beast-man friend as the party thief slash comic relief. I was just a drop-in chilling until everything got fixed somewhere in the machinework of the heavens or whatever. God was just making certain I was entertained while on vacation.

Everyone made the trip across the water in good spirits… except Linze, who it turns out gets motion-sickness… stereotypically, since she’d been the one reading, but that’s life for you. [RECOVERY] didn’t cure it, which was a pain… and the fact that it didn’t work on what was obviously a Status Effect was odd… then again, she could read just fine in a moving shaking carriage… logic… sigh. Maybe it was psychosomatic? Or didn’t work on things where there was an outside force in constant effect? Or maybe the god of Status Effects took no credit for motion-sickness? Fantasy Magic doesn’t always make sense. In fact, the worlds where it did were something of a minority.

Langley was a bit smaller than Canaan, and the population was about 80-20 in favor of Beastmen, while Canaan had been about 70-30 in favor of Humans. If the architecture of Belfast was largely Fantasy France, the architecture of Mismede was fantasy Goa, a hybrid of Arabian and Mughal designs. The marketplace was also more bustling and varied than Canaan’s had been. While the human city focused on metal goods, gemstones, and shellfish, the beastman city focused on spices, wood, and fabric. Both had fish and fruits, most of which were the same, and both had grains and baked goods, but they were totally different, which was interesting. Belfast had a short-grained wheat and barley crop, while Mismede had a long-grained wheat and a thing called ‘khotis’ that looked like a cross between rye and caraway which tasted divine, but had to be carefully handled as it produced about twice as much gluten as normal wheat and had spiky pods that could quickly cause infection if you got pricked with one and didn’t get the complete (and very fragile) barb out. Khotis was a wonderful couscous substitute if you cooked it with something acidic. Cooking it with an alkaline made it into very goopy potage.

I ended up buying a few bushels of the grains, plus some of the local wild rice which had nice plump chewy grains, and we had lunch amid the stalls of the marketplace. It was a shame they didn’t have baclava… maybe I’d have to invent it for them… along with filo dough. I actually bought more supplies than that, since Garm, the commander of the Mismedian guards had been nice enough to explain that there were no large towns between Langley and Berge (the capital… which was, again, odd). I got back to the carriages to find Olga, Yumina, Yae, Linze, and Elze all comparing their new jewelry and gushing about how nice the pieces were… which was nice, but made me feel a little embarrassed for some reason. Maybe just because they kept glancing at me. This world is so odd… It’s like it’s running on tropes that I’m not used to… which is just weird. I thought I knew all the Anime tropes.

Case in point? As we rolled out of Langley, by all measures a fairly important trade port, one would have expected the road leading to the capital to be well paved and patrolled… but it wasn’t. The countryside outside the city was overgrown and farmlands quickly gave way to wilderness, with a veritable jungle swallowing the way ahead. The road too was rough and full of the sound and spore of monsters, though they didn’t come after us, since the jungles were also full of prey.

The nearest town of any size to Langley was Eld, and the distance between them was such that if one wished to travel from one to the other, one needed to leave at dawn and travel without stopping to arrive after dusk… and there was no such thing as a caravanserai in this world… or at least this part of this world.

I commented on the strangeness of the spacing of towns to Olga, and she explained that Mismede was settled by several different clans, each holding separate territory. Few places (Langley being one of them) were colonies where multiple clans had agreed to share space, but even then, the town itself was divided into different quarters, with only the harbor and market being shared turf.

“There are seven Clans, each with their own Patriarch or Matriarch, of which His Beastliness is one,” she said. “Beastmen, the Winged Races, the Horned Races, the Dragonfolk, the Dryadic Peoples, the Aquatic Races, and the Fairies. The Beastmen are the majority, so we hold the monarchy, since even together, all the other races cannot oppose us, but since they can make things difficult, they hold a great deal of power. The Patriarchs of the other six clans are like… like the great nobles of your Belfast.”

“Ah. Fascinating…” I said, then pulled out a roll of paper and cast [DRAW] on it, making a map of southern Belfast and all of Mismede. “But not an efficient use of land.” One by one, I placed the cities and towns of Mismede on the map, and added the roads that I’d been able to locate on my phone. “The distances mean that travel is dangerous and thus your trade is suppressed. If you add minor fortifications with walled yards for trade caravans to rest for the night, and charge travellers to stay at them at or near these locations,” I added in fifteen dots, “you’ll probably see a rise of 40% of your internal trade within two years.” I added another twenty dots. “If you expand the network with roads connecting towns and cities to these points and add fortifications at those locations as well, you’ll probably see an increase of two to three hundred percent trade within a decade.”

She blinked at the map, eyes going wide as the sparse roadways of Mismede became a web of interlinked communities. “You… you just threw this together?” she asked, clearly wondering if I’d been spying on her country. In this age, a good map was a rarity and a security risk.

“Yes. I did. And no, I’m not planning an invasion for Belfast. In fact, if you do this, and station riders and troops at each caravanserai… that’s what this type of fort is called, you’ll find that you can more rapidly respond to any monster attack… or invasion. Too many countries rely on border forts to stop an invasion, when the doctrine of defense in depth is far more effective.”

“What do you mean… defense in depth?” she asked, and Garm and Lyon gravitated over as I began to explain, using a Go board to demonstrate how a line of border forts, once breached, allowed an invader essentially free reign, but how a staggered series of border forts and internal fortifications meant that an invader could punch through the border only to find themselves smashing into new defenses… and then enveloped from behind.

“Even if you have to have twice as many forts over all, this system is worth the investment for four reasons,” I explained, ticking them off. “First, it’s many times more effective than a simple line.” They nodded, seeing that immediately. “Second, it allows your government to respond to internal issues like bandits, monsters, and disasters by having troops and supplies stationed throughout the kingdom.” That got more consideration, but I didn’t pause before listing, “Third, is the boost to trade and internal communication, which not only helps defray the cost to a huge degree, but also draws your people closer together, since trade partners almost never want to go to war as such wars disrupt trade.” That got a look of confusion from the two warriors, but Olga, a diplomat, nodded enthusiastically. “And fourth, and this is the really big one… it allows your governments to move troops around internally, so that a) local lords don’t gain too much control over the local garrisons… and b) local peoples begin to think of themselves as part of a nation, and not just a clan… and c) so local peoples see that their taxes are being spent on something that benefits them personally, rather than on distant border forts they might never see against an enemy they may never have heard of.”

“I don’t follow,” Lyon said and Garm nodded, grunting in agreement.

“Oh, it’s simple,” Olga said, pointing to Canaan and Langley. “See how far these two cities are from the border of the Empire?” she asked, referring to Regulus, which occupied almost all of Belfast’s land border and (like Belfast) occupied a river border and a sea border with Mismede. “Ask the merchants of these harbor towns to pay taxes to support troops being stationed here,” she drew her finger from the coastal towns to the mountain and river border, “and they’ll protest about a threat they won’t ever seen unless the entire kingdom has already fallen.”

“Ah!” the warriors said at once. “But if we station troops here, here, and here, to fight bandits and monsters…” Garm began, and Lyon finished, “They’ll praise us for protecting their interests, even if we ask them for more funds than are needed to supply just those locations.”

“Yes,” I said, “And if you make certain that the forces at each post are drawn from multiple clans, not just the local clans… though you might want to make certain the local commanders are locals… unless the post is right near a point of contention… then you want a neutral party if you can find one. But that’s politics, not military.”

The girls could only stare as I laid out a detailed analysis of nation-building. Normally, I didn’t talk about such things with them, but now they were beginning to see why I almost always beat them at the various area control and worker placement games I’d taught them… and I could almost hear the gears beginning to turn over in their heads.

When we camped for the night (yes, in the middle of the jungle between Langley and Eld), I took a break from my lessons on infrastructure and made up a large tagine for the party, tossing in some of the fresh fish sausage and stonefruits with the rice and barley and a few kilos of diced clams. While the food was cooking, I also used [GATE] to send Elze and Yae home to get a bath (at their request)… and to get some fresh bread from our kitchen at home. Ah, magic.

Yumina (who was on the second bath-shift) and Linze flanked me as I cooked, clearly a little unnerved by the sounds of wildness coming from all around; the little princess hugging Byakko tight, as his presence pretty much guaranteed that no beast would attack and even most monsters would avoid our encampment… though bugs and slimes were still a risk for which we had wards and armed guards at the ready.

Of course, our maids, Lapis and Cecile, weren’t present at home, with Butler Liam giving an evasive answer to explain their absence. They were, of course, following behind our party, keeping a ninja-maid eye on Yumina, but clearly she wasn’t to know and I wasn’t feeling like giving away their secret until I needed to. Just as I was concealing my capabilities from the Mismedians, I was (to a lesser extent) concealing them from the Belfastians. Only my friends had more than an inkling of what I could do, and even then I often managed to surprise.

As I returned with Bath-Squad One (and some blondies for desert) it was to near bedlam. I’d only been gone fifteen minutes, but something had riled up the horses and the sounds of panicking wildlife was all around us. Yumina and Linze ran up to join Me, Yae, and Elze, and everyone drew their weapons.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

“We don’t know,” Yumina responded. “It started a couple of minutes ago, and it’s getting worse.”

“In the sky!” yelled one of the beastmen, a rabbit named Lain, pointing his hand and ears upward. Part of me wanted to say ‘Yes, thank you, I’d forgotten where the sky was.’ but I restrained my sarcasm and looked in that direction just as a gust of wind smashed against the upper canopy and something huge cast a shadow over the stars.

“A dragon!” Garm gasped, “Why is there a dragon here?”

Olga, clutching her little sister close, concurred. Arma looked terrified as I asked, “Why wouldn’t there be a dragon here?”

“Dragons usually stick to the Sanctuary Grounds in the center of the country… no one else is allowed into their territory and they have agreed not to terrorize the people outside their lands as long as no one intrudes into their lands!” Olga said, shivering in fear.

“Did someone enter the Sanctuary?” Garm asked, voice rough.

“Not… not necessarily,” Olga said, “Every few years, one or more adolescent dragons will break the rules, wreaking havoc on our settlements.”

“Don’t the Dragon Elders do anything about it?” I asked, aghast.

“Not really,” the elder fox-girl said, “But they don’t protest when we kill the youngling, since in that case it’s the dragon who’s the intruder.”

“Great… can we defeat a dragon? Even a young one?” I asked, having no idea where this world placed Dragons on the sliding scale of total calamity. I’d been to worlds where any dragon was a disaster on wings (Dragon’s Crown), and to others were they were more in the vein of giant flying firebreathing rats (Demon’s Souls). Anything you could snipe to death with normal arrows was a flying rat. If it took multiple demigod tier heroes to take a youngling down, we were screwed.

Garm growled, “If we had a hundred elite royal soldiers, it might be possible… but anything short of a critical hit will only make a dragon angry.”

“It doesn’t seem to have noticed us,” Yumina said as the shadow didn’t return. “I wonder where it’s going?”

I considered, then traced the dragon’s trajectory and swore. “It’s heading for Eld.”

“What?!” everyone around me gasped.

“Why would it be heading that way?!” Olga snapped.

Garm considered, then grunted, “There’s a large pasture south of the village. It’s probably aiming for the cattle.”

“Then it’ll leave the people alone?” Yumina asked, but the Mismedian captain shook his head.

“Not a chance. Once it gets a taste of meat, it will just strike again… and beastmen are as good as cattle when it comes to most dragons.”

“What do we do?” Lyon asked, “Our mission is to protect the ambassador!” It was clear that both captains were frustrated by their desire to be big damn heroes and save the day, but their duty was to safeguard Yumina and Olga… and to prevent a diplomatic incident that might lead to war.

“Never fear,” I said, pulling the curtain on the gate mirror. “Olga, Arma, Yumina… if you’d please pass through?” Lyon and Garm had already been briefed on the importance of the mirror, but hadn’t been thinking of it as an escape route since they weren’t used to thinking with portals. Of course, right now it was merely a mirror, having not been enchanted, but I cast a whispered [GATE] on it back to Belfast’s royal castle… to the room the mirror’s twin was standing, royal guard included.

“Wonderful idea!” Garm snapped, turning to gather his men. Lyon nodded as well, turning to his own men. Garm blinked at that, “But sir, surely you’re under no obligation to help us in this!?”

“If I were to claim this was no concern of mine, my father would surely smite me,” Lyon said with a broad grin. “Our kings desire more than peace, they desire cooperation between our nations. To deny such help as we can offer now, simply because a document has not yet been signed? That would defy the spirit of honor and mutual accord!”

“Well spoken, sir!” Garm said, pulling himself onto his horse.

Leaving our camping gear behind, with a token guard to pack up the remaining gear (and the mirror) into the supply wagon, the knights of two nations and my compatriots mounted the three carriages and the horses and rode off for Eld at full speed, hoping against hope to arrive in time to prevent any fatalities.

Of course, horses cannot run as fast as a dragon can fly, and so (by the time we arrived, nearly ninety minutes later) the village was a sea of flames, with villagers running everywhere, screaming in terror and falling over themselves in blind panic. The dragon, a huge black beast with shining red eyes, was smaller than Belagar, the Ice Drake I’d hunted in Endor, but I had had more powers available to use against it, as well as my sword… ah… I missed Soul of Ice… and not just for her power, but also for her amusing personality and petulance. Right at the moment, however, the dragon was more than making up for the lack of a childish sword, as it was taking sadistic glee in the destruction it was wreaking upon the defenseless town.

We left our horses, breathing hard and unable or unwilling to get closer, at the edge of the forest, and ran the last kilometer on foot. The knights, moving well under the orders of their captains, leapt to the aid of the civilians, while my group (as had been agreed on the mad-dash ride) moved to lure the dragon away from the village.

With Byakko in his full-sized form, Linze and I were able to lure the beast towards the large pasture to the south of the town. It wasn’t ideal to lead the brute towards the town’s livestock, but it was a better place to fight it than in the midst of a burning town full of potential victims. As it turned out, Byakko could also speak Dragon, and so my faithful steed was insulting the dragon to get it to follow us… (and boy did I feel like He-Man, riding a tiger into battle… well, more like She-Ra riding her brother’s mount, but still… I need a sword of power… see, that’s how you know I’m not the MC. I don’t have a sword of power.

“What’s it saying?” Linze asked.

“It said ‘How dare you try to spoil my fun, you insolent worm!? I’ll rip you to shreds and eat the gristle off your charred bones!” Byakko growled, “What a disgraceful creature, cannot even speak a civilized language. This is among the many reasons why I so despise the Azure Monarch’s Kin!”

That got a chuckle out of me. Of course Byakko didn’t get along with Seiryu. East and West, getting along? Heresy! Though, since this dragon was a european-style dragon, I was guessing that, if there were five heavenly beasts in this world, the fifth would be a Chinese dragon… or a bear… Huanglong had been depicted both ways. I’d have to ask Byakko at some point… but maybe not when there was a dragon whelp to fight. “Linze. I want you to blind it,” I instructed, as I began to cast [MULTIPLY] several times.

My faithful co-caster nodded, throwing a massive [BUBBLE BOMB] at the creature’s face, which of course it hit with a blast of fire. The resulting explosion of steam would have cooked us if Byakko’s frosty, humidity eating battle aura hadn’t sucked the air dry even as he raced ahead of the blastfront. The dragon wasn’t so lucky, and it howled as the superheated water scaled its eyes… thus explaining why it was utterly unable to avoid the two-hundred and fifty-six simultaneous [GRASS WHIP]s that stabbed upwards out of the meadow and wrapped themselves around the dragon’s limbs, tethering it and causing it to crash into the ground chest first in a perfect parabola.

Unfortunately, too few of the individual strands had wrapped around its neck and it lashed its head back and forth, snarling and growling, vomiting a torrent of burning crimson that rapidly began to burn through the fibrous ropes holding it down. “So much for resolving this without killing the kid,” I sighed, then called, “Yae!”

With a perfectly executed ‘Hyah!’ the samurai-ko dropped out of the sky (or so it seemed, thanks to being tossed by a boosted Elze) and plunged her sword into the dragon’s left eye.

I used the creature’s distraction to cast [MULTIPLY] and [GATE] once each, throwing a panel of light horizontally above each of the dragon’s wings just as the ropes binding them down snapped. In perfect synchronization, the two mighty batwings snapped up, ready to create that first titanic downblast… but as the wings reached apex (rising out of the field a dozen meters behind the dragon’s actual position) the portals snapped shut, sheering both wings clean off in an instant and the Dragon howling in agony.

It turned, single eye trying to figure out what had happened, but a knife flew out of the darkness, spinning like it was propelled by a turbine, and suddenly the dragon was as eyeless as it was wingless. Linze and I shared a look, and then, as one, we cast a pair of [ICE WALL]s, one on either side of the creature’s body, the blood gushing from its wingstumps staining the ice red even as it was pinned under the steeple of solid water. My wall was bigger, but not nearly as clear (and thus not nearly as strong) as Linze’s… thus showing that power wasn’t even close to being everything, and it began to crack almost at once… but it was a very big wall and it had plenty of mass to crack.

I took Linze’s hand and said, “Like we practiced.” She nodded as I cast [TRANSFER], not just giving her a lump sum of my magic, but access to as much as she wanted to use. She swallowed hard, her hair standing on end as I maintained the contact, ramping down the flow to something that wouldn’t hurt her. Voice shaking with the pressure of the manna she was barely controlling, she called, “Come forth, Water! Feel My Blade, Both Cold and Clear: [AQUA CUTTER]!”

The massive edge launched itself upwards on a gorgeous arc, rising, rising, rising… then falling downward, passing clear over the panicky gouts of fire that the dragon was putting out at random… and then there was a sound like a guillotine snapping down and the only thing spouting out of the dragon was blood from its severed neck.

Just as we breathed a sigh of relief, another shadow flashed overhead, and we looked up to see another dragon blotting out the moonlight… a much larger one, this one nearly a match for Belagar, but crimson of scale with a white mane running down its spine.

Without landing, the dragon sighed. It was a melancholy sound, a sound of regret, and (after a few moments) it said, “I have arrived too late, it seems.”

“I assume you were coming to retrieve this wayward child,” I asked, raising my voice to be heard over the wind of the dragon’s wings.

“I am the Red Dragon, he who rules the Sanctuary Grounds… This child of my people seems to have caused much trouble… for that, I sincerely apologize.”

I nodded, then sighed myself. “I accept your apology for mine own sake, but such apologies are scant solace to those who have lost family, property, and livelihoods to this attack. As a leader of your people, it behoves you to do better. You have lost one… how many have the people of Eld lost today?”

“Do not dare to lecture me, child of man,” the Dragon snapped, narrowing its golden eyes.

Before I could respond, Byakko growled and took a step forward, “Red Dragon… tell your Monarch to properly discipline its kin… and teach you some respect!”

“This presence… it cannot be… White Monarch? Why… what brings you to this of all places?!” It was clear the Red Dragon was taken much aback. “I… I see… this Black Dragon was defeated not by mortals, but by your majesty… such a foolish child…” It shook its head sadly.

“You are the foolish one, oh Red Dragon,” Byakko snapped. “Your wayward whelp was brought low not by me, but by my mistress, this noble Jouya that stands before you. The brat spoke words without respect and she hath made him pay for such insolence and arrogance.”

“A mere human is master of the White Monarch?” the Red Dragon gasped, eyes widening as it looked at me, realizing for the first time that I was utterly unphased by its majesty. It settled to the ground, then (after a moment) lowered its body, kowtowing to me. “I humbly request that you pardon my insolent manner… and hope that you can find it within your heart to forgive us for this black dragon’s actions.”

“This once? I’ll be forgiving. But I understand that this happens all too often. Speak to your people. Make it clear that this kind of behaviour is not how a civilized people treat their allies. If you would be treated as other than mere monsters to be exterminated, your children must comport themselves better… or your people will lose face… and be responsible for all destruction they wreak. If you would have your territory respected, respect the territory of others… or I might have reason to speak to the Azure Monarch personally…” I said, placing my hand upon Byakko’s head possessively.

The Red Dragon gulped, realizing that I was, in fact, threatening to subjugate their patron deity if I was angered. A threat of force a Dragon could, and would, fight. It was their nature, after all. A threat to the spirit of their entire race? A threat that was believable… the disgrace of that could not be borne. And it was clear that the Black Dragon had landed not so much as a scratch to me and mine even as it had been dismembered… indeed, we weren’t even breathing hard.

“Of course, great lady. By all means… I shall return to the Sanctuary Grounds post haste and speak to the others. Your graciousness will be remembered.” It bowed again, then took its leave.

“And this is why I so detest the Azure Monarch,” Byakko grumbled, then purred as I scratched his ears. “Ohhh… yesssss…. Mmmmmm….”

“Good kitteh,” I said, then looked around at my companions. “Oh good grief… are you serious?” I asked. Each of them had slumped to the ground the moment the dragon was out of sight.

“We… we couldn’t moooove!” Elze whimpered.

“Indeed. We were frozen by terror, we were!” Yae said, blushing fiercely.

“I think I need to change my panties,” Linze sniffled.

“Awww!” I said, giving each of them a hug. “Come on. You’re all brave girls.”

“Weren’t you scared?” Linze asked.

“Eh. I’ve fought bigger dragons,” I said, shrugging. It was the truth.

=====

In the aftermath of the attack, thanks to Linze’s water magic, Elze’s prodigious strength, and my healing magic (and the search function on my phone), it turned out that, somehow, no one had been killed. No idea how that miracle happened, but it definitely meant this wasn’t one of the more grim and dark Anime worlds… but that was no surprise since it was the same world… well, reality… that contained Undertale. Clearly, this universe operated on some degree of generosity of spirit, which was nice.

Unfortunately, that only went so far, because Eld was, essentially, in ruins. I was doing what I could to help, assisting those townsfolk who were acting as repairmen by using [WALL OF STONE] to pull slabs of rock out of the ground to replace walls that had fallen down. In time, no doubt, they’d be cut apart into bricks (they weren’t super strong) and repurposed, but it was faster than using [MODEL] to do anything and sleeping outdoors while the entire town was rebuilt would be a recipe for disaster.

Anyway, I was just finishing up my fifth such building when Lyon and Garm came over to thank me for my work and bring me some food, which was good because my stomach was growling. The girls were all sacked out, as it had been a long night, and dawn was coming, but I had plenty of stamina and there were people in need of help.

As I ate the warm and surprisingly tasty gruel, Lyon stammered something about how insanely improbably it was that only four people had managed to take down a dragon all by themselves. I waved it away as having good allies. Garm, on the other hand, was more practical, and wanted to know what we intended to do with the dragon.

“I assume that dragon parts are valuable?” I ventured. It wasn’t a big guess; dragon bone and hide are often useful for crafting things and dragon organs and vitals and blood often useful as reagents… and the meat was often quite edible.

“The carcass probably has a value of ten to fifteen royal coins,” Lyon said.

I nodded. “I figured as much. Well, if the villagers can use the sale of their attacker’s remains to finance the reconstruction of their town, I see no reason they shouldn’t. I’d very much like a scale or two and I’ve heard dragon meat is delicious, so I’d like to try that, but anything they can use should go to the villagers.”

“You don’t want anything more than a token as your reward?” Garm asked, eyes wide at my apparent generosity.

“We only did what anyone would have. Seeking a reward for coming to the aid of others is the act of a churl. The townsfolk did not hire us for this task. We took it on knowing the risks and accepting that no payment would be forthcoming. We’ve lost nothing but a little sleep and some muscle ache. The people of Eld have lost everything but their lives and livestock. Knowing that I was using money to buy more goods than I already have when it could be used to buy homes for those who have had theirs stripped away by violence? No. I could not in good conscience do that.” I grinned, waving to the watching townsfolk, and added, “Anyway, how would I carry such a massive body to market. No, the villagers should glean what they can and me and mine will be happy taking only what they deem a fair repayment. If they decide they can use it all, that is fine with me.” And I meant it. Even had I not been wealthy already, I’d have done so. Even had I not had far more wealth waiting for me beyond the end of this decade. Charity and compassion for others were the cornerstones of my personal morality. Money and goods were only useful in what they could be made to do for others.

They ended up giving me a pair of the dragon’s claws and they made a roast out of its tongue which was incredible. I’d brought Olga and Arma and Yumina back from Belfast by that point, and they tucked in with gusto, as did the others once they woke up. Around midday, I finally collapsed from exhaustion and woke in the late afternoon to the smell of dinner being prepared. There was something soft under my head and I blinked myself awake only to find Arma peering down at me and grinning.

“You were tired,” she said, her little fangs dimpling her lower lip. “Everyone said you’d been working since before dawn, and that’s after fighting that horrible dragon.”

I grunted something non-committal, then shrugged, feeling her thighs under the back of my head. “You didn’t have to serve as my pillow, you know?”

“Everyone else was busy,” she said. “Anyway, it was my turn.”

Turn? I had no idea what she was talking about, but I sat up and stretched, looking around to see how the village was doing. All the fires were out now and the rubble mostly cleared away. The longhouses that I’d helped erect were getting makeshift roofs and there were a number of lean-toos and shacks. It wasn’t much, but it was a start. The air was rich with the smell of roasting meat and woodsmoke, which was probably from the village starting to preserve several tons of high quality dragon meat. “Ah… hmmm… Well, as long as I wasn’t imposing,” I said, helping the little fox girl up.

Yumina came over, holding out my coat to me as Arma ran over to where her sister and Lyon were helping the headman sort the various goods that had been recovered from the village’s shops and storerooms. Since the entire town would benefit from the dragon carcass, everyone of the villagers was donating whatever they could personally spare to make certain no one went without.

We spent the night in Eld’s pasture, the sheep giving us wide berth and the goats being all too curious. The kids were adorable, as only small goats can be, and watching them frisk and frolic with my friends was enjoyable enough. I did tease Yumina a little when one of the goats chewed on her sleeve. “I can’t believe you brought pajamas for camping out in the woods,” I said, grinning at her.

“I can’t believe you sleep in shorts and a vest!” she retorted.

“It’s not a vest,” I humphed, “It’s a camisole.” Granted the difference between a vest (also known in some cultures as a wife-beater or tank-top) and a camisole are minor, but they do exist! Camisoles are cute… vests are boring. “It’s about style.”

“Humph,” she retorted, glaring at my shorts, “And those?”

“Bootyshorts are cute! And fit under pants or skirts!” I protested.

“I think they are nice, I do,” Yae said, having removed the outer layer of her outfit, though that still left her in a nagajuban and (though I couldn’t currently see it) a susoyoke and fundoshi/chest binding combo.

“You wear pants!” Yumina responded, as if a hakama and trousers were really the same thing… or as if that was a valid argument.

“Why are you arguing about Jouya’s underwear?” Elze asked. “I thought Jouya was the only pervert in the group.”

Yumina blushed deeply and I stuck my tongue out at gauntlet girl. “I’m not a pervert,” I said, lying my ass off. “I just have a fine appreciation of the female form… especially when the female forms I’m surrounded with are so fine!” I grinned at that, then ducked as travel pillows taken from the carriage were flung at me.

In the morning, we set out for Berge, hoping the rest of the two day trip would be uneventful.

=====

“Yeah… that’s the Taj Mahal,” I muttered, staring in surprise at the gargantuan white marble palace rising above the twelfth century Arabian city of sun-dried bricks and whitewash. Berge was at least two centuries behind Belfast, infrastructure-wise, but the city was huge and bustling, far more cosmopolitan than the mostly human Alephis, with cultures and species each contributing their own distinctive flavor to the unique whole that was the Mismedian capital. And in the center of it all… a Mughal-style not-mausoleum.

The differences in architectural styles was fascinating, be it the reliance on ceramic tile-work instead of stained glass to give buildings color, to the fact that windows in Mismede were almost invariably either wood lattice or shuttered openings instead of the plateglass of Belfast, to the use of clay instead of wood or slate for roofing tiles or lead for roof-gutters. An interesting thing about Berge was that, thanks to their reliance on brick rather than wood as the primary building material, the average height of a building was four stories, rather than the three of Alephis. And then there were the streets. Alephis and Reflet and most of the major towns and cities of Belfast used cobblestones. Langley had had cobbles on the main street leading from the harbor to the marketplace… but Eld, Mulgan, and Wensica had had only dirt tracks for streets even though they were on the main route to the coast from Berge… and Berge itself had some kind of ceramic that appeared to have been poured, smoothed, and baked in place… possibly with fire-magic.

They also had camels in addition to the horses, which none of the Belfastians had ever seen before. Yumina thought they were adorable and squealed as one of them lipped her hair. Yae found them a little frightening, and Linze was disgusted by the spitting, but each of them accepted a ride around the bizarre on camelback, which if you’ve never done it is like horse-riding only taller and with more swaying. All this happened as we sat at a bistro on the fringe of the teeming marketplace,

Olga and Garm allowed this detour with good grace, but it was clear both of them felt the need to report to the Palace and so we kept the meal short and moved on before the day got too hot.

The Palace was separated from the rest of the city by a wide but fairly shallow river and the bridge that crossed it had more than three dozen individual spans along its nearly two kilometer length. The surface of the bridge was comprised entirely of the same gleaming white alabaster as the Palace and the bridge was broad enough to station three main battle tanks abreast. At the far end were the Palace’s gardens.

Designed far more for beauty than defense, the gardens were breathtaking, a riot of colorful birds and neatly arranged trees full of flowers and fruits of a hundred species. There were even colorful squirrels and rabbitoids and sheep that looked like nothing more than clouds wandering round the gardens, these last tended by little kids with belled staves. It was clear that the wildlife was all trained or designed to guarantee that the grass was kept a perfectly level height and no rotten fruits or flowers could be seen. Someone knew a frightening amount about ecological management… I suspected it was the fairies or dryads… or both.

If the exterior of the Palace was lovely, the inside was resplendent. Far more ornate than the Palace in Alephis, the Palace of Berge would not have been outshone by the Romanovs of Imperial Russia. Titanic pillars held aloft huge vaulted ceilings that were airy and fine, massive sunlight shafts shining through skylights to bounce and refract across acres of policed white marble floors and golden filigreed’ walls. Silk curtains took the place of doors and the scents of spices and flowers filled those massive halls. It was like entering another world. The wealth on display beggared belief… this should have been the seat of an empire, not a mere kingdom less than five centuries old. Then again… in a way, Mismede was a union of seven different (though small) nations. It could be said to be an empire of sorts… but not one with the apparent wealth to support this structure. The Taj Mahal which it resembled had been built by the ruler of an empire of a hundred and fifty million. By best estimate, Mismede had a population similar to Spain and Portugal in the thirteenth century CE… i.e roughly six and a half million, or a little under a third of that of Belfast’s ‘France’.

Again, I reminded myself that I was in ‘FANTASYLANDIA!™’ but the logic of it escaped me. Thankfully, I was distracted by our arrival in front of what had to be the royal court, a group of impressively dressed ministers of state and their followers. Some sported wings, others horns, or fur, or scales; all in all, they were a vivid and varied group of people. One was even the fattest, shortest minotaur I’d ever seen. He couldn’t have been taller than 150 centimeters, and that included the tips of his horns.

Beyond them, high upon his throne, sat the Beastking, Jamukha Blau Mismede, a snow leopard in his early fifties. He exuded a regal air, a sense of his personal power and, if his eyes were to be believed, competence… and a trace of mischief. This was a man who knew both his own prowess and limits. He was no fool… even if he did act foolish at times. I also wanted to sit on his lap and pet his soft kitteh ears! Soooo cute… majestic. I meant majestic.

Everyone beside me bowed from the knees and lowered their head. I merely lowered my head ever so slightly, not breaking eye-contact with the monarch. Bending the knee would have been polite, but it was simply not something I did. I was not here as diplomatic envoy, which meant that no one that I’d sworn to serve had ordered me to place myself at the Beastking’s service (Yumina, as Ambassador, had received just such an order from her father for the duration of her mission). Bending a knee is not a mark of respect. It is a symbol of subservience. I don’t do subservience. Those I serve, I serve as an equal, if not from a position of power.

The king studied me for several long seconds, almost as if judging if I was insulting him. Finally he relaxed and nodded slightly, motioning for us to rise. He praised Olga for her service, Garm and Lyon for protecting her, and us for saving the town of Eld, proving that he had already heard from at least one of his sources. Yumina handled the monarch’s questions, speaking for out group as was her right and duty, then introduced herself and presented her credentials, causing a bit of a stir among the gathered court and the soldiers who’d escorted us, since only Olga and Lyon had known her identity. Even Garm was a bit shocked.

King Jamukha laughed, then regarded her with his big serious eyes as he asked, “What business brings the princess of Belfast into my domain?”

“I have come as an act of good faith to show just how important my house considers our potential alliance with the people of Mismede. My father has included a personal missive for your majesty. I implore you to read what he has written and consider his words and what he proposes.” She handed over the diplomatic pouch to the King’s secretary who reviewed them, reading the public parts aloud, but not opening the sealed document from monarch to monarch. Jamukha then read the sealed letter as the court watched in silence.

“Interesting…” he rumbled at last. “I believe I understand the situation. Give me time to consider what I’ve just read. Don’t worry, I’ll be sure to provide you with my response soon enough. Until then, feel free to make yourselves at home in my palace.” He passed the letter over to his aide, as he rose from his throne and descended the many tiered dias.

“Right, now that we’ve got the formalities outta the way…” His tone switched abruptly to a lighter one as he looked at me… no, at Byakko. “There’s something I’ve been dying to ask… Is that white tiger with ya?”

We confirmed that, yes, Byakko was a white tiger, and no he was not pet but more a servant (the difference being one of ownership, you see), and yes, someone ‘blessed’ with a tamed white tiger had defeated a dragon. That seemed to amuse the king greatly… so greatly he asked if I wanted to spar with him, much to the annoyance of his courtiers. He also called me ‘Boyo’, much to the annoyance of my companions.

“I’m a girl,” I pointed out, not particularly annoyed myself and almost laughing as his face fell, then he looked at my entourage and his eyes widened a bit.

“Oh ho? So it’s like that, is it?” He asked, chuckling.

I had no idea what he was thinking, but I nodded. It seemed safe enough. “Something like that… but sure. I’ll give you a bit of thrashing, your majesty.” The ministers all gasped in outrage.

“Ha! I admire your pluck, young lady! Very well! Let’s be about it!”

Behind the palace it turned out was a gigantic arena, just as out of place as everything else. The thing looked roman and was about 120% the size of the Colosseum. Madness. As the King and I (heh) descended to the sands, the courtiers gathered in their little cliques, staring down on us, the monarch and the upstart human who dared face him in combat.

A gray-winged avian with an altogether too humorous moustache (you could have used it as a hat-rack) had followed us down and now he took the king’s heavy mantle from his shoulders and turned to me, offering to take my coat as well.

I shook my head and smiled. “I wear this in combat, actually,” I explained.

“Very well,” the birdman said, then bowed a little to me and said, “Do forgive us, miss Jouya. His Beastliness never could resist testing himself against anyone he views as strong. In all honest, we find it quite troublesome.”

“Nonsense Glatz!” the King boomed goodnaturedly. “Everyone loves me for my straightforward nature!”

Glatz, who was in fact the Chancellor… essentially the Prime Minister of Mismede, frowned, then said to me, “We would truly be grateful if you’d take him down a peg or three.”

I laughed at that. “He is your king, you know? Are you certain you should be asking a stranger to soundly thrash him?”

Glatz shrugged. “I didn’t vote for him… and anyway, he always looks down on the importance of state affairs. Always running off without telling anyone. We find him later, ‘training’ with the soldiers or brawling in a tavern. Fight as you please.”

One of the other courtiers yelled from the stands, “Don’t forget the grand tournament that totally blew the budget!” Another added “Or the time he walked out of council to go speak to the blacksmith about a new weapon he’d just thought up!” A third, a mouse lady, squeaked, “Or the time he ordered all the bulls from the surrounding farms brought to the capital so he could wrestle them!”

I facepalmed, then chuckled. “You poor people.” I took the wooden sword that I was offered and gave it a few experimental slashes, watching as Jamukha flexed and stretched, holding a much larger wooden sword and a matching shield in his own hands. I’d been offered a shield, but I turned it down, taking a second sword, this one shorter and a bit thicker than the first, instead.

“The contest will proceed until one of you lands what would be a killing blow were these true swords, or until one side admits defeat,” Glatz announced. “The use of direct offensive magic is banned, but all other magic is allowed. Do both parties agree?”

I considered, then shook my head. “Better give me a handicap. If his majesty can land any blow on me more than once, I’ll yield.”

Jamukha sputtered, “Nonsense! I’ll do that with ease!”

I just smirked at him and waggled my eyebrows. “Say that after you’ve done it.”

With a grunt, he charged at me. He was fast… incredibly fast. I could have stopped him any number of ways under the rules. There were too many non-offensive magics I could have used that would have given me the win; [WALL OF STONE/WIND/FIRE/WATER/ETC], [PITFALL], [QUAGMIRE], [SLIP], [SLIDE], [TRIP], [JUMBLEQUAKE], [SLUGSLICK], [GRAVITY TRICK], and [STATIC FIELD] just to name a few… but that wouldn’t have been within the spirit of a duel and I didn’t feel like cheating. And, like I said, he was fast! I doubt I could have managed an entire spell incantation without running backwards.

If his speed was remarkable, his skill was just as impressive. He knew where to aim, and how to do so to cut off all the most reasonable responses. Any normal person would have lost instantly, and even with my millenia of practice in some of the hardest schools in existence (Seireitei’s Shinigami Training, Dune’s Ginaz School, Metal Gear Rising’s endless waves of swordcyborgs, Alera’s Metalcrafters, The Princess Bride’s Fencing Schools, the Juriya Empire’s martial traditions, Star Wars’ Jedi and Sith lightsaber styles… DC’s Deathstroke…) I would not have been able to beat him were my own speed not nearly as inhuman as his own.

For the first time in… I didn’t know how long, I was being pushed back, forced to give a fight more than cursory effort. This was… fun! I grinned as I felt his blow almost brush my ear. And then I went on the offensive, my dual blades flashing through the air in lightning fast arcs and jabs, my body twisting in a way that few living things could match. The King was good. Not merely peek human good. He was superhuman in both speed and skill… but so was I. I could feel my heart racing and I calmed myself with a thought, twisting as I used tiny puffs of air to push myself around behind him, preparing to line up a ‘killing blow’…

When he whispered [ACCEL]… and his speed went from superhuman to what, to anyone with senses less acute than my own, must have been a blur. I barely twisted away from a blow which would have flattened me, his sword hitting my right wrist hard enough to cause me to drop the sword held in that hand.

“That’s the first touch,” He growled, grinning hugely.

“And last,” I agreed, then leaped back as he dashed in again. My leap was low, a shallow arc, and I bent like a bow as his blade passed over my head as his speed carried him past, my smaller form sliding right between his legs and I whispered a spell of my own as he passed. “[BOOST]!” I hissed, twisting myself around and launching myself nine meters straight up rather than leaving myself vulnerable as he spun and charged back.

He looked up at me as I reached the height of my arc and raised his shield just in time as my blade launched down toward him, pushing me even further up and the wood of my sword exploded against his shield, driving him to his knee with a grunt. I flipped, then invoked [APPORT] to pull my other blade to me as I fell. I hit the sand a dozen paces from him just as he was coming out of his crouch and we met in a clash of blades as he tossed away his ruined shield with a roar of joy and combat glee.

The blades had been well made for wood… but they were just that, wood. They had not been enchanted, and after the fifth heavy pass, my own blade snapped cleanly in half, right at the hild. Jamukha had not been expecting that and his weight carried him forward just a step too far. Had I been similarly surprised, I would have taken his sword full force to my shoulder, almost certainly earning myself a broken clavicle if nothing else. But that was not the case.

I’d felt the blade going on the the fourth blow, had been forcing it to give out in exactly the right way at the right time and I twisted my shoulder so his sword hit nothing but air as I grabbed his tunic with my suddenly empty hand and twisted, my own slight frame far stronger than it should have been thanks to my body mod and magic, and I lifted the Beastking and twisted hard, slamming him into the ground on his back, catching the falling chunk of sword as it fell and plunging it down into the sand a millimeter from his cheek as I landed on his chest.

“I believe that’s the fight to me?” I asked as he grunted, his eyes wide.

“Blessed Heavenly Tiger… you’re something else!” he roared, lifting me up and standing, laughing hard. “I’ve never seen anyone fast enough to dodge my blows when I use Accel!”

“That’s a Null Spell, right?” I asked as he put me down.

He nodded, “Aye. Makes the body a bit faster. Creates a magical barrier around me that eats my manna like crazy though.” He eyed me. “You got faster too… stronger as well. You got something similar?”

“Boost,” I agreed. “Doesn’t give me as much speed as your Accel does, but makes me stronger and tougher.” I brushed the sand off my coat and then smiled. “Just so you know… that is the closest anyone’s come to hitting me twice in longer than you would believe possible.”

“Get a lot of first hits in, do they?” he asked, wondering at that.

I nodded. “All the best fighters out there tend to have one or two really good tricks. You pick them up over the years and hone them for emergencies. Most people don’t start with them, however. Not sure why. When I’m actually trying to kill someone? I always start with one.”

He grunted in agreement. “True battle is different. You don’t give an enemy a chance to surprise you if you can help it.”

“Agreed… but in the spirit of fairness… I’ll give you a glimpse of why you shouldn’t ever try to face me for real.” I apported another shield and sword from the racks and tossed them to him. “Ready yourself,” I told him. I waited until he was in a combat stance, and said “[ACCEL+BOOST],” casting the two as if they were a single spell.

We’d started five meters apart. I crossed the distance between us so fast his eyes could not even complete a single blink and my palm tapped him right in the middle of the chest, not hard… but with my speed it was enough to knock him ass over teakettle.

Glatz looked astounded as the Beastking came to a rest against the wall of the yard, looking a bit like a puff adder as he struggled to get off his own head, tangled up as he was by the haft of his wooden sword and the bulk of his shield. Eventually Olga and Garm helped their monarch up and Glatz raised my hand, announcing “The winner is Lady Sochizuki Jouya!”

====

The evening there was a state dinner, a fancy buffet party with some very nice champagne (hey, I was only playing up the age of majority thing to push back this marriage silliness. Other than that, I could give fuck all a care for the laws of any nation besides the one I was currently in… and this one had damned fine sparkling wine!).

I was just complementing Lyon on how nicely he’d cleaned up, and was just about to ask him if he had any idea where the girls were (especially since Yumina was the titular guest of honor) when I heard someone call my name and felt someone hug me from behind. I looked down and back to see a part of small, fox-like ears. “Why, hello Arma. That dress is adorable!” I looked at the well-built gentleman standing behind her and, noting the family resemblance, said, “And you must be Olba. I’ve heard about you from your daughters.” I offered my hand and he shook it.

“This is Lyon, Knight of the First Belfastian Order, and son of General Leon, one of King Belfast’s most trusted aides,” I added, pushing Lyon forward towards what I suspect would sooner or later be his father in law. The knight, clearly not expecting it, stumbled over his words but managed a greeting as Arma and I smirked behind his back. I stepped in again to rescue the brave but oh so painfully young nobleman and asked, “So. How’s trade?”

Olba, one of the most important merchants in Berge, smiled as I brought up his second favorite subject. “Good… Good! Though recently, I’ve heard of an explosion of new amusements coming out of Belfast and haven’t managed to get my hands on any of them! Go and Chess and Draughts and Catan and City on Two Rivers!” he enthused. City on Two Rivers was a variation of Monopoly I’d created that was a little more straightforward and fun, replacing some of the clunkier mechanics (taxes, community chest and chance, mortgages… utilities) with similar but streamlined effects, and the railroads with actual rivers with boats you could take to get around the board, which was circular. Instead of collecting funds when one passed Go, one simply got a smaller amount of funds every turn, making doubles especially nice. “You wouldn’t happen to have brought any of them in your luggage?” he hinted.

I laughed. “I’m certain Arma has told you that I have. And they’re yours. I’ll leave them all with you when we leave for home. And, since I created them all, I can provide you with an exclusive contract to sell them in Mismede… though of course, counterfeit copies will be relatively easy to make for some of them,” I admitted. “In fact, I can send over Leon with a copy of Go and Chess and he can teach you how to play both… tomorrow?”

Olba nodded enthusiastically, even as Leon stammered that he wasn’t very good, but I elbowed him and he realized that I was trying to help him.

He opened his mouth to agree… just as a commotion rippled through the hall and the girls (Olga included) made a collective entrance with His Beastliness. Olga was dressed in the height of Belfastian styles, looking like a fairy-tale princess… while Yumina, Elze, Linze, and Yae were all dressed in gorgeous saris that revealed quite a nice amount of skin at calf, chest, and belly. Mmm nice. Yae’s purple was probably the nicest, but Yumina’s white was the most revealing. Of course, all of them looked lovely, even though red wasn’t really Elze’s color and the shade of blue on Linze’s wasn’t quite dark enough to offset her hair. Someone had even brushed and washed Byakko, who looked so fluffy he could have been the dream of a pillow.

Arma pouted a little as my attention was immediately fixed by the quartette in front of me, but I gave her a little hug and ruffled her ears. “Don’t worry. In another year or two, you’ll look just as pretty.” She blushed furiously and ran over to Olga who was currently draining all of Lyon’s brain meats as he struggled to make his mouth work.

I spared the man a smirk and willed some of my luck to him, then turned back to look at my friends again… all of whom were now clustered around me… very closely clustered. Oooh… they smelled lovely… like night blooming jasmine!

“I love your outfit, Jouya. You look wonderful,” Yumina practically cooed, running her fingers over the fancy Princess Jasmine outfit I’d decided to wear for the occasion.

“Yup,” Elza added. “It just works sooo well..”

“…I-It shows a different side of you…” Linze muttered.

“Amazing, Jouya-dono! It’s very sexy on you,” Yae added… then blushed. “Pretty… I meant Pretty!” she stammered.

“Nonsense,” I said, brushing that away. “You all look wonderful… though if I can make one change?” I said, pulling four slender platinum chains out of the pouch that wasn’t holding my phone. “I thought you all might like these,” and, one by one, I placed the tiny cameos around their necks, each featuring their astronomical symbols carved in scrimshaw. “Now… get together so I can take a picture.” I said.

And then I had to explain about photography to everyone in the room and spend most of the evening using [DRAW] to print pictures for everyone… but it made the party a nice memory for everyone… even if the girls looked a little annoyed at having me stolen from them… so much so that, when the dancing started, they dragged me away so each of them could have a dance with me… even little Arma got her turn on the floor. All of them knew the local dances… I just stumbled along as best I could.

After I finished that dance, and moved over to a balcony to enjoy the night and catch my breathI felt a taptaptap on my arm and looked down. A very large teddy bear was standing there, looking up at me.

Staaaaaare!

“Uhh… hi?” I said.

Staaaaaaaaaaaaaare…

“Did you want to dance too?” I asked.

Staaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaare… Then it turned around and waddled away, turning back when it was about six paces away, then waved for me to follow it.

“Ooookay…” I muttered, looking around to see if anyone else was seeing this… but there was no one around. I shrugged, then figured… “why the hell not. Let’s follow the strange suffed animal. Things can’t possibly get any stranger, can they?”

To Be Continued in Part Five!

Next: Another Ancient Lolita

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 again for the long delay on this chapter. Winter takes a lot of my energy from me. I hope these 18,000+ words make up for my writer’s block. If you haven’t read it yet, you should also be aware that I added a second part to my Touhou Jump. It’s another 7,000+ words and (in a SFW way) covers some of the events of that decade from the perspective of Squirmo Jukki. If you’re not aware, I’ve been going through and revamping all my old jumps in a process I call Reduxing, and Touhou is the most recent one. All the jumps before that have been cleaned up, expanded, and hopefully improved. If you haven’t given them a look again, you might want to… or you could wait until I catch up. I try to Redux a new chapter every week, but I’ve been slow this winter. Again, sorry for that.


World 27: Touhou Project Pink, Part 2

YOU ASKED

Previously: Don’t Ask

Themesong: I am a Cat by Shonen Knife

Amusement Makers

Okay, okay… I guess I owe some kind of explanation, something to relate just how messed up things were in Gensokyo and surrounding environs. First thing you have to realize is that, aside from a few human males in the Human Village (I’ll get to that in a bit) Gensokyo has a total of one significant male. His name is Rinnosuke and he is a half-human, half-youkai who runs Kourindou Shop… which is only technically a shop, since he seldom sells anything. The shop specializes in objects from the mortal realm and is mostly a collection of curios.

Second, Gensokyo’s population of ‘named’ characters is both huge and varied… but what doesn’t really change is that all the ageless or nearly ageless individuals all take the forms of attractive young women at least most of the time. The apparent ages rage from perhaps eight to mid-twenties… but that’s all they are… apparent. Some of the oldest beings in Gensokyo are vampires, taoist hermits, ghosts, or oni. And even the younger ones, like most fairies, are serial reincarnators who remember their past lives perfectly well.

Third, Gensokyo is pretty large, for a community… but not particularly large as a place to explore. It covers a couple hundred square kilometers in total, making it about the same size as a small national park… which in many ways is what it is. It’s a safari park of Japanese folklore, a safe-haven for monsters and monster-hunters mostly sealed away from the outside world of mundanity by the power of Yakumo Yukari.

Yukari is by far the most powerful Youkai in Gensokyo, and it is she who maintains the Hakurei Barrier that keeps Gensokyo separate from the mortal realm. She is also the oldest being in Gensokyo, and uses her power of barriers to troll the others… and teleport around using gaps into another space that very much seems to resemble one of HP Lovecraft’s nightmares.

Her counterpart is the Miko of the Hakurei Shrine, Reimu, who is very very naughty as well… and who generally gets roped into solving all the various problems the often terminally bored and deeply weird residents of Gensokyo get up to. Reimu is human, but thanks to her control over a set of powerful magical items known as the Yin-Yang Orbs, she can stand toe to toe with even the most powerful of the Youkai. The Danmaku battles are largely her way of keeping the chaos from getting too severe, and between her and Yukari, things usually manage to be resolved with minimal harm to anyone.

Highly Responsive to Prayers

-I met Reimu when I woke up in this strange new world. I was in my more humanoid guise (as a Ferret Tengu, I can shift between very furry and very not furry… I can even become an apparently normal ferret if I really want to.) and naked. Thankfully, this form is fairly mature looking, giving me the power of boobular intimidation over many of the more flat-chested or less gifted residents. One of whom was looking down at me and leering a bit as she wrung out a washcloth.

“Oh, good,” the Miko grinned. “You’re awake!” I cannot express how creepy her tone was… or how confusing it was to have no idea where I was, who I was, or why a strange shinto priestess was giving me a sponge bath. “You hit your head,” she said, as if that explained everything.

I ended up staying at the Hakurei Shrine for about four months as I figured out what was going on and all about Gensokyo. There was only one major incident, aside from an uptick in the amount of petty theft (a problem that was fairly common in this madhouse). Of course, that incident involved the forces of Hell and Makai (the demon realm) clashing inside a rift in the middle of the Hakurei shrine, which resulted in the shrine being heavily damaged and Reimu having to run off to get revenge… unfortunately, there were two groups who needed punishing and only one of her, so I got drafted to go to Makai while Reimu went to Hell.

In actuality, I didn’t actually do much. I went to Makai and took a nap. At some point, someone ugly and weird tried to interfere with my nap, but my third eye told me they were bad so I froze them solid and went back to sleep. That happened a couple of times… then I woke up and went back to the Shrine. Reimu is very poor, but I have lots of shiny stuff in my secret storehouse so I gave her some and she paid some nice humans to rebuild the shrine.

In the end, the day was saved in spite of Squirmo Jukki!

The Story of Eastern Wonderland

During the reconstruction period, I found a little Tanuki wandering in the forest and decided to keep it as a pet. I named him Ziggy because the name seemed to fit. Ziggy is excellent at napping, which is good, because that’s mostly what we do. He can reshape trees to make them more fun to climb, or to make secret places inside them where we can nap unmolested (unmolested is important in this world).

It was while we were napping that a strange girl with a magical tank powered by flowers and this little witch girl attacked the shrine for no good reason. It definitely wasn’t my fault, cause I was asleep. Anyway, while Reimu went to the World of Fantasies to fight the tank girl and some magical stones, Ziggy and I, having been awakened by the noise, decided to play chase-and-pounce with the little witch girl, whose name turned out to be Marisa. She didn’t like being pounced, so she kept using a mega-huge laser attack called Sparky-Something, but it was really slow and hard for her to aim.

Eventually the three of us got really lost from where we started, because we’d been flying around (she has a magical broom just like me… I mean, I can fly without it… I think so can she… but my broom is faster than I can fly by myself). We called a truce and landed to ask directions back to the shrine, and found this cute little girl wandering around named Rumia. She kept trying to bite us, but she was super cute, so I just hugged her and ignored being gnawed on… apparently my skin is thicker than she’s used to because she was annoyed she couldn’t draw blood. Weird kid.

We took her back to the shrine with us, but Reimu was fighting Rika the Tank Girl again, so we all had popcorn and watched. The shrine was damaged again, but Reimu and her flying turtle Genji won. I paid to repair the temple again, because I am nice. Then we took a nap.

In the end, the day was saved in spite of Squirmo Jukki!

Phantasmgoria of a Dimensional Dream

So one day, while Reimu and Marisa were off having some big contest to see who got to explore some boring old ruins, Ziggy and I went wandering down to the river to find someplace to have a nice romp and maybe a picnic. There we met a grass fairy with a big scythe who was a bit annoyed to have hir ‘domain’ (really a big field of long green grass) trampled. We fought and there was some grass-tentacles, but eventually we became friends and I added Ajax to my group of friends and shi gave me some of hir treasure.

While we were recovering, we watched the river flow down into the big lake (it’s called that cause it’s the biggest lake in Gensokyo)… and while we were watching, this goddess’s body floated by. At first we thought she might be dead, but we asked her if she was and she said no, that she was Hina and floating down rivers was her purpose in life and we should stay away from her or we’d be jinxed. We agreed that that would be bad, but I figured she might want a sandwich (I’m really good at sandwiches) so I froze the river long enough to give her a snack before she continued floating down the river.

Apparently, freezing the river annoyed this pair of local fairies (Three in one day! New record!) named Great Fairy (Daiyousei) and Cirno (Chir-no). Cirno is an ice fairy… well, she claims to be ‘THE’ Ice fairy, and a genius… but when she saw how powerful my ice magic was, she demanded to become my apprentice… she might claim to be a genius, but (if anything) she’s even dumber than the gnawy girl. I mean, her main source of amusement seems to be freezing frogs. And not for any medicinal reason.

In fact, Daiyousei and Cirno reminded me so much of Rumia, that I decided to take them back to the Shrine and introduce them. When we all came back, apparently Reimu had just gotten back from fighting some perverted humans in a peeping tom time-machine and most of her clothing was missing… but she’d emerged victorious, with her armpits unmolested.

In the end, the day was saved in spite of Squirmo Jukki!

Lotus Land Story

About a year after I woke up in this weird and definately hentai place… was the rest of the world this depraved? I couldn’t remember… probably not important… a bunch of Youkai attacked the Shrine. I don’t know why they did it, but it probably wasn’t my fault… I was out shopping for new hats. Anyway, when I got back, I found that Reimu and Marisa had both gone off to deal with it, both of them leaving notes telling me that it was my responsibility to watch the shrine / storehouse of many treasures (Marisa too collects things. We trade… i.e. she borrows from me, I borrows from her, is all good).

Graced with such an important task… I took a nap… or tried to. Instead, I ended up being captured by a pair of Youkai with a magic net. Big meanies. Their names were Endra and Whaler and they spent all their time arguing about if they should eat me here or drag me back to the mansion where their unspeakable master dwelt to be eaten.

The debate was, frankly, annoying, as it made sleeping hard. I had Ziggy turn into a mouse and squirm through the holes in the net, and bite each of the pair on the ankle. That made them drop the corners of the net and I escaped. Then I beat them up and made them have tea with me.

Our tea party was so much fun that one of Reimu’s friends, a powerful Youkai named Yakumo Yukari, who has a really floppy hat-head-scarf thing, showed up with her pet fox, Ran, and her pet kitty, Chen. We had a sleepover and watched Ziggy chase Ran, cause apparently Tanuki and Kitsune don’t get along very well.

When Reimu got back, she was annoyed I’d had tea with Youkai and I got spanked. I think she was jealous she didn’t get any tea.

In the end, the day was saved in spite of Squirmo Jukki!

Mystic Square

Some months later, I decided to have a party, so I sent out invitations to all my friends… well, technically, I hired some human lady from the village named Kamishirasawa Keine to do it because I was too busy nap… I mean planning the party, which was scheduled for the full moon so we’d have plenty of light without having to have the party during the day.

Anyway, I needed some maid-types to serve my friends at this party, and so I put an add in the local papers (the BunBunMaru Shimbun and the Kakashi Spirit News) and a few days later, this girl named Alice showed up and volunteered to do serving… well, she said she’d handle it, which is pretty much the same thing, right? That all handled, I took a nap.

So, day of the party comes and there are like… a thousand more guests than I was expecting and it turns out the Keine just kinda invited all the Youkai in Makai, the Demon Realm, instead of just my friends… which is a problem cause I’ve only got so much foods and also it turns out that Alice’s way of handling it is to send robodoll-maids to the party… robodoll maids with very very unusual protocols involving shibari and… look, things might have gotten out of hand, but it totally wasn’t my fault!

Reimu didn’t see it that way, and Yukari got upset when Keine turned into a cow with horns and yelled “CAAAAAVE” and tried to molest her. I managed to get everyone to calm down… but there might have been a bit of punishment that was almost totally undeserved.

But, in the end, the day was saved in spite of Squirmo Jukki!

Fantasy Kaleidoscope

This one time, Team Nine, that’s what Reimu calls the special needs club that consists of Cirno the Ice Fairy, Daiyousei the Great Fairy, Wriggle Nightbug (a firefly Youkai), Rumia the Biter, this bakemono named Chen, and Mystia Lorelei (a night sparrow Youka) were all over at the Shrine’s Lakeside Pavillion for a spot of showing off… I mean having a lantern festival, when part of the moon exploded.

Now, it’s important to point out that this was, in no way, my fault. I hadn’t even been aiming at the moon. I’d been aiming at Cirno and she dodged. Anyway, some Lunarians apparently got a little annoyed at whoever blew up part of the moon, so they came down to pick a fight.

It’s a bit of a trip though, so they only arrived like five days later. Their Leader, Zhane, was already drunk when they showed up, and he started picking fights with, like, everyone. Normally, I’m sure Reimu would have handled it, but she didn’t want to, so I had to go and calm things down. Unfortunately, this Zhane guy is really really sneaky, so I had to hunt down his second in command, a Lunarian Magicienne named Furanzhiin and his servant, an orange moon bunny named Jina. Unfortunately, there was only one of me, so I sent Ajax to keep an eye out for Zhane while Team Nine went after Furanzhiin and I went after Jina. I’m such a good leader, delegating and all that.

Jina tried to confuse me with her scary weird eyes, but I got the drop on her and gave her hugs until she passed out, then went to see how the baka-squad were dealing with the mage they outnumbered at least two to one… maybe more. Of course, she’d managed to get them fighting each other using the power of large words, but I’m not a member of Team Nine, and Ziggy doesn’t understand most words anyway, so I stuffed him down her blouse while distracting her by throwing lots of panties I’d stolen… er… borrowed, from various clothes lines around Gensokyo. Then I blamed her for the theft and she got beaten up by the townsfolk, which was funny.

Two of the three dealt with, I checked in with Ajax, only to find out that he and Zhane had gotten drunk and passed out while trying to flirt with the Mermaids in the Misty Lake. I figured that that wrapped everything up, so I took my new friends back to the Shrine and asked Reimu if she minded them staying for a bit. She got mad at me and punished me, which was, frankly, mean of her! I’d been useful! Right? You believe me… right?

In the end, the day was saved in spite of Squirmo Jukki!

The Embodiment of Scarlet Devil

So, you know how I told you that there’s this huge mansion on the shore of the Misty Lake, right? Well, it’s called the Scarlet Devil Mansion and its got a really nice library… which is guarded by that most fearsome of all creatures… a boobymonster! Her name is Patchouli, which is wood shavings that make you sneeze when you smell them. Anyway, Patchouli Knowledge, this great and terrible boobymonster, owns the Scarlet Devil Mansion (AN: she does not) and has enslaved all these Youkai and even a couple of cute little lolis and a lot of fairies to serve her.

There’s even a Chinese Lady named Hong Meiling who guards the gates of the Mansion and tries to stop you if you sneak in… and if you get past her, there’s a crazy monster-hunter lady named Sakuya who throws knives at you… but she’s kinda pervy and doesn’t mind if you tie her up and whip… anyway, Patchouli will sic the lolis (Flandre and Remilia) and this silly devil girl (Koakuma) I think she’s why the place is called Scarlet Devil… on you. They’re surprisingly good fighters for glorified book cops. So I decided it’s probably better not to borrow books from that library. The fines are outrageous.

But apparently, I’d annoyed Patchouli or something, cause she covered the whole of Gensokyo in red mist. It totally became dark and cold… but I don’t mind either, so joke’s on them. Ha! But apparently Marisa and Reimu don’t like dark and cold as much as I do… they need more fur, clearly… and so they went and spoke to Patchouli… who of course blamed it all on me, but agreed to get rid of the mist if I agreed to entertain the lolis for a while… those are very weird girls! Why to people keep trying to chew on meeeeee!?

In the end, the day was saved in spite of Squirmo Jukki!

Perfect Cherry Blossom

Okay, so, at the end of my second winter in Gensokyo (that I could remember), Spring refused to show up. Now, of course, people blamed Cirno first. But she’s not powerful enough to maintain winter all over Gensokyo by herself. So Marisa started beating up the Yuki-Onna Letty Whiterock and even harassing Lily White, who is a Spring Fairy, but none of them knew anything about it… so she came after me, but I was sleeping under the Kotatsu in the shrine where it was nice and warm and occasionally Reimu would feed me satsuma pieces… mmmm citrus.

Anyway, Marisa demanded that Reimu do something about the endless cold, but Reimu didn’t want to because it was cold out, so she made me go with Marisa to make certain Marisa didn’t get into trouble. I totally didn’t want to go, so I jokingly suggested that maybe hell had frozen over… so Marisa dragged me off to the Netherworld… I dunno why there instead of the Underworld… that’s where Hell is… maybe my Japanese is bad.

Anyway, we got to the gates of the Netherworld, where we ran into a bit of a problem crossing over, since there was a whomping great ghost mansion blocking the ferry.

I asked the guy in front of us, this Fairy Dragon named Bao, what was going on, and he said that, apparently, the owner of the mansion, one Layla Prismriver was dead, and her three sisters, who were poltergeists haunting the mansion, were demanding her back from the Netherworld, but since they couldn’t leave the house without an invitation to play somewhere (they’re a band… Lunasa plays the violin, Merlin the trumpet, and Lyrica the keyboard), they’d brought the entire mansion with them to the edge of the underworld to demand that Shiki Eiki Yamaxanadu (the judge of the dead for Gensokyo) give them Layla back.

Unfortunately for them, Komachi, the shinigami who runs the ferry was like “No way… my boat can’t take an entire mansion.” We tried jumping the queue (which got us into a fight with the sisters, but not the dragon, who was in no real hurry) but once we dealt with them, the lazy ferry-lady also told us that she wouldn’t ferry living people, so we tried flying over the river Sanzu… which meant we had to fight her too.

That ended up taking so long that, by the time we got to the Netherworld, we discovered Konpaku Youmu who was some kind of ghost gardener and samurai-ko, looking all beat up and a little stabbed. We asked what had happened and she explained that that Sakuya, the stabby maid of the Scarlet Devil Mansion, had shown up and attacked Konpaku, who was a kind of half-phantom serving the Princess of Hakugyokurou (Tower of White Jade, a shrine in the Netherworld where artists go when they die).

Said Princess, Saigyouji Yuyuko, was in the middle of fighting the stabby maid lady in front of a giant skeletal cherry tree standing over the shrine’s cemetery as all this spiritual energy flowed into the tree. Marisa, who is a smart cookie, instantly figured out that Yuyuko must be the one stealing the power of spring to make the tree bloom, but before we could do anything, the maid defeated the Ghost Princess and spring was returned to the overworld… But, I guess, technically, we helped? That has to count for something, right?

Bao, who came along to document our adventure, has returned to the Shrine to chronicle in poetry my amazing adventures.

Immaterial and Missing Power

After the red mist episode, we got into a habit of having feasts evil day, which was really nice, but apparently it’s weird… according to Reimu. Personally, I think it’s nice spending lots of time lazing about viewing cherry blossoms. But apparently some people think we need to resolve it, so there was a bit of a fighting tournament to decide whose job it was to resolve the incident. A pair of human mages named Kani Ishi and Kakudai Suruhasu decided to join the battle, but I sat it out because I like food!

Actually, I wasn’t really sitting it out. I had a cunning plan. I’d let everyone tire themselves out fighting, then I’d ambush the winner and we could have feasts all the time. Unfortunately, Yukari, who everyone thought was secretly behind everything, showed up to watch the fighting and, after she was gang pounced by all the goody-goody-timekeepers, she revealed that it was secretly an Oni named Ibuki Suika who was behind the mess… On the plus side, I did get to borrow a really nice scroll that had like all the spells inside it… though I got punished by the mages for taking it and had to give it back. I’ll borrow it again when they’re not looking.

In the end, the day was saved in spite of Squirmo Jukki!

Imperishable Night

Sooo, like… this one time, I decided to go for a walk. I’d heard that there was a shop that sold mysterious things and that it was someplace near the Bamboo Forest, so I went there… and I got lost… turns out that the forest is called the Bamboo Forest of the Lost and not just Bamboo Forest… they should totally put that on the signs.

Anyway, I found a human named Yuurii wandering about in the forest. He didn’t know who he was or where he was, but this angry squirrel youkai , who’d been following me, said there was a doctor in the forest, so we went looking. We didn’t find the doctor, but we did find a rabbit breeder named Eirin. Well, okay, we didn’t find the place ourselves. We ran into this nice girl named Fujiwara no Mokou who led us to the rabbit breeder, but she wouldn’t come inside because she said a horrid demoness named Kaguya lived within.

We were kinda nervous about the whole demoness thing, but there were so many floppy-eared bunnehs around, we figured it might be safe, so we end up going inside anyway. Inside, we found a Moon Bunny named Reisen and an Earth Bunny named Twei in the middle of an experiment. Apparently, Eirin, the owner of the place, was trying to breed hybrid bunnies… she’s not very good at it since apparently she didn’t realize that both bunnies in question were female. Also, the demoness turned out to be an exiled moon princess. I guess that was a joke Miss Fujiwara told.

Anyway, I left Yuurii at the rabbit breeder’s and went home before Cirno got any naughty ideas. When I got home, I told Reimu about it and showed her the weird documents I’d borrowed from that Eirin lady showing how to make a fake moon. Reimu got annoyed about that and didn’t even reward me… but apparently there was some incident a few days later, so, in a way, I guess I saved the day, right?

Phantasmgoria of Flower View

In my third spring, something weird happened. For some reason, all the flowers of all seasons began to bloom and grow all over the place, cause the fairies were out of balance or something. But that’s not my fault… or the purpose of my story. See, there are two areas of Gensokyo known for their flowers. The Garden of the Sun and the Nameless Hill. The Garden of the Sun full of sunflowers and home to Kazami Yuuka, a flower Youkai (and the chief suspect). She’s a bitch.

The Nameless Hill is covered in poisonous lilies and home to a doll tsukigami named Medicine Melancholy. If Yuuka is a bitch, Medicine is a megabitch. See, Yuuka loves plants and hates people… especially people who pick flowers, and likes hurting them a lot. But Medicine? She just hates people and wants them all to die so dolls can take over the world.

Did I mention that dolls are kinda creepy? Cause dolls are kinda creepy.  And Medicine is super creepy since her power allows her to control poison… you know, like the kind generated by all the poisonous flowers now blooming out of season.

I decide that, with all the flowers in full bloom, I would go see if one of these two were to blame… because flowers make me sneeze. When I got to the fields, Medicine and Yuuka were busy arguing over who got to keep this human they’d discovered named Yoiko who had the power to make the sun shine all the time… which probably meant they weren’t doing it. (In fact, it turned out to be the fault of that lazy Shinigami from before, but I didn’t know that at the time.)

My job apparently done, since I’d followed up a lead… even though it wasn’t the right one, I decided to take a nap. But it was too bright, so I kidnapped the Yoiko girl and that got both flower weirdos annoyed at me and that meant they had to try and beat me up, which was totally unfair. All I wanted was a nap!

So… I learned something that I hadn’t known before. The Nameless Hill’s name was actually The Nameless Hill. It was named for all the babies who died without names. Which is kinda sad… so instead of taking a nap, I decided to name all the flowers as if they were babies. I dunno if it helped… but maybe the day was saved by Squirmo Jukki?

Shoot the Bullet

So… I may have mentioned that there are two newspapers in Gensokyo, the BunBunMaru Shimbun, which is a sensationalist tabloid gossip rag, and the Kakashi Spirit News, which is slightly drier than one’s mouth after eating 20 kilometers of beach sand. Both are single person operations, and both are run by Crow Tengu (who are the biggest gossips around). Also, no one actually pays for either, and (in many cases) the paper shows up whether you want it to or not. Almost no one willingly reads the BBM and even fewer use the KSN for anything other than wrapping fish or cleaning windows.

Part of the problem may stem from the fact that Aya (BBM) and Hatate (KSN) are both photogs…. That is, they’re primarily focused on getting a good picture, rather than telling an accurate or compelling story. The second major part is that there really isn’t much news in Gensokyo, total population about 34,000.

Each of the crows has their own unique issue as well. Hatate almost never leaves her offices, and it takes her a lot of time to come out with a printed version of the news. She can do this because she uses a form of remote photography to get her pictures… but it means her stories lack a sense of involvement and immediacy.

Aya, on the other hand, is fast. Like really really really fast… and she controls the wind, so she totally cheats. Plus, she’s super powerful, occasionally beating the people she’s photographing by accident.

Now, I know what you’re wondering… why is Squirmo telling us about them? Well, it’s because they totally ran an expose claiming everything that had gone wrong in the last three years was my fault! I had to run around for nearly a week getting every copy of both papers and erasing people’s memories! It was totally not fun! And it was Mean!

On the plus side, there was a lovely bonfire at the end of the week.

So things could have gone bad there for a bit, but in the end, the day was saved (for Squirmo Jukki) by Squirmo Jukki! Yay Squirmo! She’s the best! Totally not at fault for anything!

Mountain of Faith

So, one summer, I forget which, I found this girl wandering around looking lost near the base of Tengu Mountain… that’s where most of the Tengu live, but not my peeps because the Wolf Tengu claim that we’re thieves and pests… which is just mean and slander! Anyway, this girl was named Yasaka Kanako and she claimed she was a goddess. So, since there’s a shrine where this other Goddess, Suwako Moriya, lives atop Tengu mountain, I led Kanako to the top… despite all the traps that Nitori (the Kappa Leader) and Momiji (the Wolf-Tengu slanderer) had set all over the mountain.

Look, how was I to know that the Moriya Shrine had been moved to Gensokyo specifically to hide from Kanako? No one tells me anything… which is why I usually have to spy on people to learn stuff.

While Suwako and Kanako were fighting, this Oarfish Youkai named Nagae Iku came down from the Dragon Palace in heaven to inquire as to why the gods were fighting and asking if they could please knock it off since the Dragon Emperor was trying to nap.

She had a really nice hat, which I borrowed while she and the three goddesses of the Mountain were yelling at each other. I went off to show my new hat to Nitori and her Kappa. Then I got into a fight with Nagae, who claimed I’d stolen her hat for some silly reason and she was kinda upset.

I bonked her unconscious with one of Nitori’s books on nucleics… Kappa are really smart and technically minded. Anyway, nothing really happened and I’m certain that these events in no way had anything to do with Kanako going mental a bit later or the Dragon Palace sending down this angry lady with a weather sword or Kanako turning one of the Underworld Youkai into a nuclear furnace. Coincidence. Totally not my fault.

Scarlet Weather Rhapsody

So one day, I was visiting Nagae in the Dragon Palace and totally not trying to steal… anything, when she introduced me to Hinanawi Tenshi, a newly minted celestial. She had this really nice sword that could create weather… that I might have borrowed for a little while. Anyway, Tenshi was really bored up in Heaven and asked what we mortals did for fun, and I said that I wasn’t a mortal, but a Tengu, and we might have gotten into a fight… but then I told her that that’s what the people down in Gensokyo did for fun… I didn’t tell her about the sex cause that’s not the sort of thing you bring up in polite conversation.

Anyway, I borrowed the sword and might have used it to cause weird weather all over Gensokyo, but Tenshi came looking for her sword and then everyone showed up to beat her up cause they blamed her for the weather… and for smashing Hakurei Shrine with an Earthquake, which I’m sure had nothing to do with it being where I live.

Still, I doubt she’s bored anymore. So, in a way, I totally saved the day, right?

Subterranean Animism

Remember that quake I mentioned in the last section? Well, it turns out that it caused this huge geyser to spring up in the mountains, creating a new hotspring… which was just the thing since everyone was really grumpy from having to rebuild the Shrine again. Anway, Reimu and Marisa and us were all enjoying the water and not being punished in any way, shape, or form, when Yukari showed up and told us that we had to go down to the Underworld to investigate why there was a geyser and why the geyser was full of mildly annoyed earth spirits.

We did that… well, Reimu and Marisa did… I just tagged along because it seemed like fun. We ran into this cute spider girl and a little girl who lived in a bucket, and even a bridge princess… all of whom seemed a little lonely, to be honest.  All of them tried to stop use from getting to Old Hell where the Oni had taken over. Turns out that there’s a New Hell too, ruled from the Palace of Earth Spirits.

So we went there and met a pair of girls with tentacle-eye symbiots or something, named Komeiji and Koishi Satori. Koishi’s third eye is closed, so she is kinda zombie-like, but Komeiji and I can totally see eye to eye… to eye… heeheee.

Anyway, it turned out that Utsuho, a Hell Raven who is the keeper of the Flames of Hell and pet of Komeiji, had recently gotten a lot hotter after being visited by Kanako. It turns out that Kanako tricked the raven into eating part of the body of a three-legged crow (a solar deity named Yatagarasu, and envoy of Amaterasu Omikami). This kinda turned Utsuho into a nuclear furnace.

Regardless, I was bored, so I decided to borrow the bucket girl and spider-lady and take them to the onsen… and I figured that maybe a soak would get Koishi to relax a bit, so we took her too. The spider-lady, Yamame, just bound her up in some silk and I teleported us back to Onsen… we weren’t gone that long! But apparently, Komeiji doesn’t want Koishi to have any fun without her, because she sent a huge number of angry spirits to find her sister.

Unfortunately, the spirits didn’t know why they’d be sent, since everyone besides Komeiji and me seems to forget about Koishi the moment they aren’t looking at her, which is kinda weird… and totally not my fault. Anyway, I made certain Koishi got home and Komeiji explained that Koishi didn’t like being hated because she was a Satori (a youkai who can read the hearts and minds of others), so she closed her third eye but it made her all… blank inside… which is sad. I agreed to help anyway I could… cause no one should be hated just because of who they are. So now I have some new friends. Yay! And she has a kitty-demon pet named Rin!

Oh, and apparently, while we were doing something important, Reimu and Marisa resolved the whole Utsuho issue or whatever. So I guess that, in the end, the day was saved in spite of Squirmo Jukki!

Next: Word 28 – In Which I Accidentally the Whole Guild

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AN: This section was added more than two years after the original Touhou Project section was posted. Why? Because it took me that long to figure out what was going on in TOuhou… good lord are there a lot of characters who laze around doing pretty much nothing 99% of the time.

World 77: Honor Harrington – Part 3.02

CROWN OF SWORD, Solace of Manticore Book 2

Part 2: Fox Hunt, Chapter 1

Previously: Part 1 – Snake Charmer

-2nd January, 1902 PD-

“You’re certain it was a heart attack?” Solace asked, still reeling from shock. The day had been a miserable one already, with her two full time jobs running her ragged. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d had a good night’s sleep and didn’t know which group of idiots she wanted to throttle more, be that the opposition in the Commons, the opposition in the Lords, or even the Conservative Association who were technically part of the government… which was why Edward Janacek was the blood First Lord of Admiralty and if she had thought little of him as a commander, she thought much much less of him as the civilian head of the Navy.

She’d finally gotten a break in her schedule when Parliament recessed for the holiday season, but the backlog of correspondence that she’d put off in the face of the Basilisk situation had meant that, when she wasn’t spending time with her family, she was busy dictating responses to her five different secretaries (her secretary as MP, as Whitehaven’s chief-of-staff, Whitehaven’s public secretary, her diplomatic secretary, and her private secretary) or making notes for them. And she’d been working on several proposed legislations that she was almost certain that the Conservatives in the Lords would never approve if they managed to get past the Progressives in the Commons… how those fundamental enemies seemed to always team up to thwart common sense legislation never failed to make her long for the simplicity of space warfare.

She’d allowed herself to relax over the ancient holiday of Hanukkah, which had just happened to run across the Christmas week. Gilly had enjoyed having the fifth night of Hanukkah and Christmas Eve rolled into one and having both of her uncles home for the holidays for once had been a double blessing. They’d even managed to corral everyone together for a family picture; Mom, Dad, Loyal, Solace, Duty, Gilly, Minerva, Uncle Vanya, and all three treecats, though getting Barnabie to hold still had involved a celery bribe. Gilly had insisted that Duty wear his dress Marine uniform, and the twenty-six year old boy had been unable to resist the wheedling from his eighteen year old niece.

Of course, only Duty hadn’t known that his promotion to Captain (Marine, not Navy) had come through and the second picture as Gilly pinned his new rank-tabs on while the rest of the family looked on was a thing of beauty, as had been the stunning blush on Duty’s face. A copy of that picture sat on Solace’s desk and she had blink back tears as she realized that it was the last time every one of those people would be together.

“Yes ma’am,” said the Landing PD detective. “That’s what the medical examiner says. Acute myocardial infarction while operating a motor vehicle,” he said, holding his hat in both hands in front of him as he stood in Solace’s private office. Gilly and Minerva were both out, doing a bit of post holiday shopping, but Solace had begged off so she could finish up her work before Parliament came back in session on the 4th. “If it’s any consolation, the Earl probably didn’t suffer. Looks like he was killed on impact.”

“Was anyone else hurt?” she asked, terrified of the answer and furious at the old fool. They paid perfectly good money for chauffeurs. There was no reason he should have been driving.

“Uh,” he glanced down at his notes, then looked back up. “Yes ma’am. Your brother was in the passenger seat… the younger one. He’s been taken to Bassingford. Your father was in the back seat and has a broken arm and a concussion. We tried to contact your mother, but she…”

“She’s in Basilisk with the Queen. Yes,” Solace said, rubbing the pain from her eyes with two fingers. “Thank you detective. I… I’ll handle things.”

“Couple of bystanders got hit with flying debris, nothing too serious. I can give you their information if you want to do something for them?”

She nodded and he did so, then took his leave as she composed the hardest message of her life to her mother, a second to her brother saying much the same thing, and a shorter one to Minerva and Gilly, asking them to meet her at the hospital as soon as they could.

The next few days were horrible. Duty’s condition went from serious to critical and back twice, and her father had to be sedated when his blood-pressure spiked. Solace found herself angrily snapping at people, including Barnabie, who couldn’t possibly understand the reason she was so upset, but had merely been trying to help when he’d offered her a cookie.

Gilly, who could understand Solace better than anyone, had merely hugged her and somehow that made everything so much worse and, for the first time in years, Solace had found herself melting down and unable to cope. She’d locked herself in her office, alone, in the dark, and wept tears of confusion, rage, and grief in equal measure.

It was jewish tradition for the funeral to be held as soon as possible and practical, which meant that, on the fifth of January, the fastest Mary could return from Basilisk, the family, minus Duty who was now in guarded condition, and Loyal, who would arrive in New Berlin to the terrible news in a couple days time, gathered in the New Temple to inter the earthly remains of one of the nicest people Solace had ever known. Minerva had held her as her grief had poured from her and Gilly had to help support Mary, so strong at the worst of times, but crushed under her own sorrow at her loss and fear for her youngest child.

The body had been ritually washed and wrapped, naked, in a plain linen burial shroud, and though normally, the funeral would have only been for the family, as the chief rabbi, his loss was felt by the entire community and so the temple was full, the sounds of communal grief echoing in the vast chamber.

The Shiva ritual, the seven days that followed the burial were that particular torture that only friends can bring in the wake of loss. The family clustered like trauma victims in the Earl’s home as friends and relatives came and went, bringing food and stories of Vanya’s many lessons and exploits, filling quiet moments with laughter and tears, and many cups of wine were drunk in the old man’s memory.

The cenotaph was unveiled after the end of the thirtieth day, and, in keeping with tradition, the estate was read the day after. Mary, who’d been disowned by her parents for reasons that neither she nor her brother had ever explained, had been left only personal effects, since she’d steadfastly refused any of the New Temple money or property. Loyal, as his Uncle’s heir, became the new Chief Rabbi and Earl. And Solace, the family-less child that the mad old fool had welcomed into his life with open arms, now her childless brother’s heir, found herself suddenly a Lady.

“I should turn it down,” she said at dinner the following night, the sixth of February.

“Don’t you dare,” Mary said, voice back to its normal forcefulness. “Your brother hasn’t the faintest clue when it comes to romance, his head always stuck in books. And Duty doesn’t want it. So you’re stuck with it… and don’t go claiming that you’re not a real Lubyanka.”

“I wasn’t going to,” Solace lied. “But I’m a member of the Commons, Mary. I can’t be a noble and keep my seat.”

“Good,” her father said from the sideboard, pouring himself a stiff drink of aged rum. “It was fine when the Navy had you on the beach, but doing all that and running BuPers for Whitehaven is too much. You’ve been burning the candle at both ends.”

“Nonsense,” Solace said, “Members of the Lords routinely serve in the military, oversee their estates, and… and…” She realized she didn’t have a fourth thing and trailed off.

“They don’t have constituents or have to stand for re-election. They have staffs for that… and often have proxies cast their actual votes for them,” her mother pointed out. “Anyway, it’s a way to gracefully bow out of the Commons.”

“But… my projects…” Solace tried.

“You can hand them off to your allies. You can have Loyal introduce them in the Lords,” Hope pointed out.

“Dad, should you be drinking so much?” She asked, trying to change the subject.

“Got a clean bill of health three days ago, and don’t change the subject, young lady,” he replied, then chuckled. “Lady. Ha! A dad joke!”

“Oh god, why must you try me so?” Solace said, hiding her face in Naomi’s belly furr. The treecat patted her head in commiseration. Solace knew that, while the treecats couldn’t actually understand human wordplay, they had an appreciation of the emotional side of humor that was just as nuanced. They knew the gloating, self-congratulatory glee of a dad-joke well executed. They appreciated it roughly the same way most humans appreciated biting into a lemon.

=====

“This outfit looks ridiculous,” Loyal complained.

“Hush. I can’t believe you’re the Ambassador to the Andermani. ‘My pants are too tight!’ Good lord, grow a pair,” Solace teased. She knew Loyal was complaining out of a case of nerves.

“The fact that I have a pair is why these pants are too tight.”

“Oh wah,” Solace waved away his concern. “You’re the reason I’m wearing this dress. Couldn’t you have found a date?”

“For the last time, Sandy, you’re not my date! I’m here as Earl New Temple, and you’re here as Grand Duchess Midgard.” Loyal frowned, adjusting his cravat. “Does this look right?”

“I have a date,” she said.

“You brought your daughter.”

Solace shrugged, “Minerva was busy.”

“Minerva is a smart woman who realized that she didn’t have to attend what promises to be an absolutely dreadful occasion.”

“It’s a coronation. You’ve been to coronations before. Twice, in fact,” she reminded her brother, who was struggling with his cufflinks. She grabbed his arm and fastened them for him. “Good lord, are you always this helpless?”

“Yes, well… I’m not helpless! And Liz’s coronation was when we were younger… and she was our queen and I was worried about the continuation of power. Gustav’s coronation was funny because you were on stage wearing that idiotic hat. This time, I’m just a foreign dignitary.”

“Glad I could provide some amusement for you,” she snarked. “Gilly, tell your uncle he looks fine.”

Gilly, dressed in a lovely cream pantsuit, looked over at uncle Loyal, frowned, then said, “He looks like a clown without the makeup.”

“Gilly!” Solace snapped, laughing. Mentally, she sent ~He really does, doesn’t he. Whoever decided that frilly sleeves and cravats were the thing in men’s fashion should be clubbed with a book on style.~

The youngest Smythe stretched, then stood from her chair and walked over to her uncle. “You look fine, your lordship. Well, no you don’t. You look silly, but everyone would look silly wearing that, and everyone not in military service will be looking silly. Well, besides the Queen to be. I imagine she’ll look absurd.” Gillian was of a height with her uncle, who was a hundred and eighty-five centimeters to her hundred and eighty-eight, and while she wasn’t as tall as Solace (and never would be thanks to the limiters placed in her system) she was far more muscled than her Sister-Mother. Solace was extremely strong, able to bench nearly three hundred kilos in standard gravity, but Gilly could lift nearly twice that and routinely did, though only in the privacy of her home gym. That was one of the reasons for the suit, since it covered her arms more loosely than a gown would have, and the current style for gowns was off the shoulder.

“Princess Elspeth will not look absurd,” Solace said, flicking Gilly’s braid back off her shoulder. Her own gown was extremely military, very sino-germanic and severe, and in the colors of the house of Anderman. The Star Kingdom had refused to allow her to wear either her uniform as an active duty Manticoran Captain or her Andermani uniform, so the gown was a compromise Loyal and Colonel Mustafa had worked out that pleased neither party, but was close enough for diplomacy. Thankfully, it didn’t show of Solace’s shoulders either, since it had to have a perch for the two ‘cats. “She’ll look regal.”

“How would you know?” Gilly asked. “You’ve never met her and the last picture anyone has of her was from before her parents died.”

“Agnarr and Iduna didn’t die,” Loyal pointed out. “They’re only presumed dead.” The Jewelian monarch, King Agnarr Magnus Kronor, and his wife, Queen Iduna Kronor nee Trontensen, had departed Jewel three years earlier to attend the second wedding of Protector Benjamin IX of Grayson, and had never returned home. A full inquest had been launched, but their ship, the Battlecruiser Kalmar had simply failed to trans out of hyper with the rest of her escorts. When they’d returned to the hyperband they’d just exited, they’d found no trace of the ship or their monarchs.

“Oh yeah,” Gilly said, “That makes things ooh soo much less traumatic for their kids I’m sure.” The King and Queen had ruled jointly, and had left behind five children, the oldest of whom, Elspeth, had been not quite eighteen, while the youngest of them had been the twins, Beatrice and Ariel. And Gilly wasn’t wrong.

The monarchs’ disappearance had left behind a kingdom divided… more so than usual, since Jewel was a binary even more distant than Manticore. Jewel A was commonly known just as Jewel, while the only slightly smaller companion, Jewel B, was known as Corona. For centuries, Corona and Jewel had hosted two peacefully coexisting colonies, but in the time of Agnaar’s grandfather, King Harald Siegfried, Corona’s throne had been usurped by the military who refused to follow the commands of King Christian, known as Christian the Bastard… since he was one. Christian had fled to Jewel with his infant son, Magnus, and pledged union and fealty if Harald would free his people from the traitors. A six year war had been the result, but in the end, Grand Duke Christian Trotensen had bent the knee to King Harald.

Since Harald and Christian both had only sons, it was decided that the union would be forged in the next generation, and so, Carl’s Son Agnarr had married Magnus’s daughter Iduna and Magnus’s son Fredric had married Carl’s daughter Arianna.

The act of union had merged the bicameral legislature of Corona (divided into the elected Volkting and the hereditary Riksdag) with the unicameral legislature of Jewel, the Storting, two-thirds of whose members were elected by the citizenry to twelve year terms, and one third of whose members were hereditary, with the Crown entitled to create no more than 10% life peerages. The constitution of Jewel strictly outlawed the formal creation of political parties. From the entire assembly of the Storting, a Prime Minister would be elected to assist the Monarch in governing the realm, and seven Vice Ministers would be selected by the Prime Minister, approved by the Monarch, and confirmed by the Storting’s seven primary councils: Education, Finance, Resource Management, Security & Safety, Foreign Relations, Labor, and Health & Welfare.

And it had been in this (in theory) unified government that the problems had started. Collectively the nation contained five lifebearing ‘worlds’; Emerald, innermost of Jewel’s three terrestrial planets, was a verdant wonder, a veritable Gaia with an environment that was practically heaven for terrestrial flora; Sapphire, second of Jewel’s terrestrial planets, the nation’s capital, and if cold, blessed with seas teaming with life and mountains overflowing in precious metals; Crown, the outer of Corona’s two terrestrial planets, which was blessed with decent weather, if not overly graced with natural wealth; and Tiara, Crown’s moon, which was just as nice as Corona, if one didn’t mind a gravity barely 80% of Old Earth’s. The fifth planet was only technically part of the nation, linked like Basilisk was to Manticore via a wormhole junction.

Jokingly named ‘Elysium’, the sole habitable planet in the Atropos system was habitable only if one was certifiably insane. Easily the most hellish planet humanity had ever actually settled, the world was a fungal jungle dominated by megafauna unlike anything in the explored galaxy. Elysium had been settled by a militant cult known as the New Maegi Order, and they had a reputation for being the best mercenaries humanity had ever produced, the kind of people who laughed as their environment tried to brutally murder them every day of their lives and who thus felt that a prolonged war sounded like a vacation. Indeed, even had government service not been absolutely compulsory in Jewel, the Maegi would have happily volunteered anyway. As it was, while a citizen fulfilling their service could normally pick Health, Labor, Education, or Security, 80% of the Maegi signed up for Security… and often complained that service was only four years.

What made the situation difficult was that Emerald and Sapphire between them accounted for almost 71% of the nation’s total population, while Crown and Tiara had only 22% of it and thus felt (right or wrong) like they were being treated as second class citizens in their own nation. Faced with the disappearance of the King and Queen, the Corona faction, backed by some of the hardline reformers among the Jewel natives (mostly from Emerald who felt that their pet political ideals were being ignored), had pushed for the immediate setting aside of Agnarr and Iduna’s children in favor of Frederic and Arianna.

The nation had nearly ripped itself apart before anyone had thought to ask the Grand Duke and Duchess if they had any interest in the throne, and by the time they had weighed in, there were already riots and demonstrations in most of the major cities in the system. An uneasy truce had been negotiated when Arianna stood before the Storting and absolutely lambasted her supporters for daring to think that she would ever steal her neice’s throne. She further pointed out that even if she and Frederic did accept the throne, their only child had suffered numerous health problems since birth and thus Elspeth would be their heir in any case. In the end, she’d called upon the Storting to appoint a Regent to act as temporary head of state, taking the Monarch’s seat in the Storting and heading the interim government.

It was a solution that appealed to absolutely no one, however the law was clear. Elspeth could not ascend to the throne until she reached the legal age of majority, which in Jewel was 21 T-years, but she was the constitutionally protected heir to the throne and to install anyone other than a regent would have taken amending the constitution, which only the hereditary electors of the Storting could do, and there, unlike in the population based volkspeakers, Corona and Jewel were much closer to parity (with Sapphire holding 30%, Emerald 20%, Crown 25%, Tiara 15%, and Elysium 10%).

As a way of keeping the peace, it was agreed that, whoever the Storting selected as Regent would ask the Grand Duke to serve as Prime Minister. Sophia Bellweather, former Vice Minister of Health & Welfare and founder of the Gothel Institute for Transhuman Studies, had been a voice of calm in the storm and had been part of the King’s Privy Council. She was a natural choice as Regent, especially since nobody actually seemed to like her very much.

Still, the last three years had been transformative for Jewel. As the threat of Haven loomed larger on the horizon, the Jewel system had begun to shift away from its belief that the storm would pass it by (never taken seriously by the Maegi, but everyone knew they actually wanted to attack first) and mobilize seriously to defend itself. The vaunted JDF (Jewelian Defender Fleet), long considered the finest cruiser fleet outside of the Solarian Frontier Fleet, with nearly two hundred Battlecruisers in service, had finally begun investing in heavier hulls.

ONI’s estimate was that it was too little, too late, but if there was one thing Jewel did not lack for it was funds, and estimates were that the first of Jewel’s homebuilt SDs would come online within a month of the coronation. JAF (Jewelian Aggressor Fleet) Agnarr Magnus would be the first of eighty Koenig-Class Superdreadnoughts and, from what Manticore’s spies had been able to tell, the ships were based on the Solarian Vega-class. The problem was that all the ships in the universe wouldn’t help the Jewelians with their fundamental problem… which was that they had absolutely no idea how to wage a conventional war.

No doubt they had hired Solarian fleet veterans, but it had been almost a century since anyone had seriously challenged the Solies, while Haven’s People’s Navy had been at war for half a century. Manticore was thus faced with trying to convince the newly crowned Monarch, all of 21 years old and by all accounts extremely reclusive, with exactly zero military experience, advised by people whose only military experience was in cruiser warfare and anti-piracy, to allow the Royal Navy to assist.

That was why Loyal and the rest of the Manticoran Legation was there. Solace on the other hand was there in two roles. Minerva had sensed a chance to make another vast fortune with the rapid uptick in Jewelian military expenditures and had used Solace’s position in the Andermani Empire to found The Brokkr-Eitri Combine, and used Brokkr-Eitri’s connection to Khan Industries in the Solarian League to secure supply contracts to the JAF. A full 41% percent of the systems on all 80 Koenigs were produced by Brokkr-Eitri and BEC had the operations contracts for Draupnir Shipyard they’d built in the Jewel system where a third of them were under construction even now. The other two thirds were being built in the Atropos system, where, much to the annoyance of the RMN, the Maegi had their own shipyard called Hephaestus.

Thus, Solace was there representing a key supplier, but also there to represent the Emperor of the Andermani and to offer Jewel a third option to allying with Manticore or going it alone against Haven. That Manticore’s Foreign Service and ONI considered a Jewel-Anderman alliance to almost be preferable to a Jewel-Manticore alliance was a secret known only to seven very highly placed analysts and Solace. Not even Loyal had been read in on that, knowing it might compromise him at the bargaining table, but everything suggested that the best way to get the Andermani into the war against Haven was an alliance to secure Jewelian neutrality, something very few in Manticore believed that Haven would respect, but something the Solarians and many among the more blind of the Jewelian electorate thought still possible.

The number of Jewelian Nobles moving their money off Jewel and into New Temple’s Beowulf branch was a sign that few of the aristocracy were holding out hope that war was avoidable, but they lacked the votes to do more than push.

“Solace?” Gilly asked, “Barnabie wants to know if there’s going to be chocolate at the reception.”

“Emerald is very proud of the chocolate they produce,” Loyal said, heading off Solace pointing out that the chubby treecat hardly needed more sweets. Thankfully, unlike many earth carnivores, treecats did not have an adverse reaction to chocolate, so it wasn’t a threat to his health (as long as it was dark… too much cream and sugar were still not good for the ‘cats). “So I’m certain there will be. As well as Jewelian gravlax.”

“Gaah,” Gilly said, making a disgusted face.

“You like fish,” Solace said. “And so does Barnabie… and you like salmon!”

“But gravlax is made with diiiill!” Gilly complained. “Barnabie doesn’t like dill.”

“I’ve seen the BB eat an entire jar of pickles, Gill,” Solace said. “I think it’s you that doesn’t like dill.”

“It makes him fart,” her daughter-clone complained. “And burp.”

“Everything makes him burp. It’s cause he eats too fast,” Loyal said, prodding the nearly inert fuzzy lump.

Gilly was about to reply, when Ulrike poked her head in. “They’re about to open the Castle gates.”

The Castle of Kronorberg Palace was the royal family’s inner precinct, a fairytale castle in the middle of a vast government complex. The main gates had been shut for the last three years as the Princess and Prince had mourned their parents, and the rumor had it that, by order of Queen-Mother Patrice Kronor nee Wolcott, no one had entered or left the Castle in all that time aside from the Regent, the Duke, the Duchess, and Princess Charlotte, their daughter. Then again, rumor also had it that Charlotte had actually run away from home and lived in the woods with her nanny for nearly four years where she pursued her artistic muse. She’d been eleven then and was just eighteen now and already engaged to a former small-time thief and ‘adventurer’.

“Okay ladies, it’s time to shine,” Loyal said, grabbing his rabbinical cap and fitting it onto his head. “Let’s try not to start a war, shall we?”

“I’ll do my best,” Gilly said, “But with Solace around, I bet someone’s going to stage a coup or invade or there will be assassins or something.”

“Are you saying I’m a trouble magnet?” Solace half-growled.

Gilly stuck her tongue out at her sister-mother. “Noooooo… A magnet attracts things. You’re like… like a trouble-seeking missile.”

Next: Crown of Swords – Part 2, Chapter 2

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World 77: Honor Harrington – Part 3.01

CROWN OF SWORDS, Solace of Manticore Book 2

Part 1: Snake Charmer

Previously: Solace of Manticore Part 20

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

======

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

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

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

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

“Plenty, I’m certain…”

=====

-12th September, 1901-

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

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

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

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

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

======

-18th September, 1901-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So? I think I’m missing something.”

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

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

Solace smiled. “Fast enough.”

=======

-5th October, 1901-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And me?” Venizelos asked.

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

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

“You’re not coming?” Andreas asked.

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

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

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

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

=========

-18th October, 1901-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Found one? What are you talking about?”

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

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

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

“We? When did you switch to BuWeps?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You said it, sister.”

Next: Crown of Swords – Part 2

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World 77: Honor Harrington – Part 2.20

SOLACE OF MANTICORE

Part 20: Life in Quarter Time

Previously: Part 19, Chaper 4

-4th May, 1896 PD, early morning-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

======

-5th May, 1896 PD, lunch time-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Solace shrugged. “She started it.”

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

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

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

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

“Thinking someone might cause a scene?”

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

=====

-5th May, 1896 PD, late evening-

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

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

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

“W… hagib?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What if he recovers before you do?”

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

======

-4th May, 1896 PD, late afternoon-

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

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

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

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

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

“Hah!” Honor snorted. “Blatant lies.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I like horses.”

“No flirting!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t like surprises.”

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

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

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

“I don’t follow.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh hush.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Paranoia?”

“That just has us looking at shadows.”

“Intelligence work?” Solace suggested.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“True,” Solace agreed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You… what about the assassin?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Give him time,” Honor said.

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

Honor smirked, but nodded, “Good point.”

======

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Gerard’s a Conservative. I’m not.”

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

“What about the Navy?”

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

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

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

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

======

-2nd September, 1901, early morning-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

=======

-3rd September, 1901, lunch time-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next: Crown of Swords – Part 1

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World 77: Honor Harrington – Part 2.19d

SOLACE OF MANTICORE

Part 19: Wolves in the Fold, Chapter 4

Previously: Chapter 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Wouldn’t you be?”

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

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

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

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

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

“What of the Federation?” Loyal asked.

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

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

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

Loyal gasped. “Karlov? That’s…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, Mom.”

==========

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And breeding?” she asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“As Empress?” Chien-Lu asked

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

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

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

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

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

“You have wars?” Oberst Kleine asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

==========

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Silly?” Solace asked.

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

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

“You’re kidding!”

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

“I guess we both have much to learn.”

“True.”

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

“Oh, I wasn’t an admiral.”

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

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

“You’re kidding!”

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

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

“Yes. Yes it is.”

“So, should I call you Duchess?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Boring?”

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

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

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

Next: Solace of Manticore – Part 20

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World 77: Honor Harrington – Part 2.19c

SOLACE OF MANTICORE

Part 19: Wolves in the Fold, Chapter 3

Previously: Chapter 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

======

“Chancellor! There’s another hyper footprint!”

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

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

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

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

=======

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

=======

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

========

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

“Time to Lechfeld?” Yuha asked.

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

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

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

======

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

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

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

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

=======

“How many?” Simione Rathskeller demanded.

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

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

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

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

“Ma’am?”

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

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

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

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

=========

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

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

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

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

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

======

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

======

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ummm… yes. That is the case.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you scared of her, cousin?”

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

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

“No?”

“Of course not. She’s on our side.”

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

Next: Solace of Manticore – Part 19d

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