Rick Hillard
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Amaal - Chapter One of Book Two.

Amaal - Chapter One of Book Two.

Mar 11, 2023

Amaal

 

                In the years since the palace had been constructed on the sides of Solace Peak it had developed a mature, established look. Creeping ivy covered many of the stone and pourcrete walls while trees and flowering bushes, so lovingly planted by Flo^orine and Reggi Desis, were fully grown. The gardens were full of foliage speckled by an array of colorful blooms. The high ledges and steep slopes on either side of the narrow, alpine valley separating the high spur hosting the place from the mountain proper contained terraced gardens and many natural waterfalls. Grassy areas carefully maintained, some running directly to a ledge with a vertical drop of dozens of meters. Others were artfully landscaped to create specialty ecospheres that artificially (and technically assisted) exotic flora not native to Summerland. High above and clinging to the cliff faces below the place proper were guard posts. Some open for all to see, others cleverly disguised, prepared to spring into action against any sign of a threat. Staffed around the clock by loyal LADS and LADIES of the Palace Watch, and by fanatical defenders of the Halthion Royal Guards. Only the very foolish or the most determined would risk their lives to make an unauthorized approach. Above ground, large portions of the place could be seen across the main valley of Juniper. By early decree the duchies royal capital was carefully designed to maintain many of the initial agrarian areas and tamed wilderness. This had forced much of the planets heavy industry and financial and commercial interests to settle in other cities across the planet. It served to make land values in West, Temple, and Juniper valleys the most expensive in the region. Many of the original landowners were now platinums by value of land alone. Others enjoyed the post sitter status of never seeing their rents increased in their lifetimes.

                From his perch in the back of the ultra-luxurious heavy ‘thopter carrying him home, Amaal could see the wide ribbons of the Embra river, flanked on the east bank by the rolling fields of small family farms, and the original Agra fowl villages of Barnsville and Hennyville. The financial center of River’s Crossing, the majority of which lay across the west bank, was a gleaming cluster of skyscrapers and high rises. Another of his decrees had prevented the construction of Skyrakers or other constructs higher than the surrounding mountain peaks. There were far larger cities elsewhere on the planet, now. True metropolises where millions of thingies lived and worked, but Juniper would always retain some of its colonial flavor. Above ground, at least. Below ground lay warrens of additional housing and commerce, built in natural (and artificial) caverns lit by technologically created skies and cloaked in cleverly designed grand holos designed to mimic living in the valleys above. Progress, of sorts, could not be halted, even by a House Lord and an exiled Lord-Prince.

                One of the most ecologically minded rulers in the No Back, Amaal sought natural solutions to problems wherever possible, and his capital city illustrated that. Carpeting made of fast-growing vegetation that consumed any detritus that happened to fall within its reach. Pest-hunting Moochas roaming the ductwork and deodorizing house plants were only the beginning. Most of his own palace existed within the mountain it was supposedly built upon. In several centuries, he hoped, there would still be open skies and luxurious vegetation here for future generations to enjoy. There was even a small entrepreneur that had suggested releasing specially bred animals in the area that could be hunted on the wing, but the duke was waiting further research into these critters. After all, one didn’t lightly upset the natural order of things. Growing up in the ‘core, Amaal had witnessed the crowded city-planets devoid of any original flora or fauna. He was determined that sort of thing would not happen here.

                The limo ‘thopter landed on the ledge just below the palace where it was greeted by a dozen household servants, protectors, and his resident princess and first bondmate, Me-Liktua. Even after twenty years her brown eyes were bright, the blue-gray feathers of her thick plumage held its youthful flare as they would for centuries to come. She wore the latest styles from Avian Prime, handcrafted by Moss Liggessa to flatter her figure. Although a Megacrat worth tens of thousands of credits from an Apparel Guild that now stretched across the quadrant, the Parakeet Aviary still insisted on creating the Flay-Tiber ladies’ wardrobes personally. Two decades of life together hadn’t dimmed the strength of his love for this fem. After a suitably enthusiastic greeting, in part fueled by his fond reverie, in part his passion for life, Amaal took a step back, hands on the soft, graceful shoulders of his first bondmate and wagged the tip of his tongue.

                “Only Moss Liggessa could create an outfit so perfectly suited to you, my dear, and only you could get away with looking both elegant, ready for an ambassadorial banquet, and sexy enough to dominate the dance floor,” he assured her in a warm, low voice.

                A light fluff spread across her cheek as she looked at him with as much love and devotion. “And you, milord, as always, have the gilded tongue of a poet.”

                Before he could respond there was a shriek of Papa!

                From a flower covered arched walkway leading from cleverly carved stairs running up towards one of the higher garden ledges came a flurry of flapping wings and lightly slapping feet. Lo-aala, wings more down than feathers, flitted towards him, her talons barely gracing the stone, arms open in greeting. Trailing her by a few meters was her slightly older sibling, Amgrü. Mothered by Torni, his cream-colored hide speckled with a few patches of down that would eventually fall out when he reached fledgling age. Leathery wings, not unlike his older blood sibling, Tmaal, fanned the cool mountain air. Less than a year apart, Lo-aala ten and Amgrü eleven, both had shared the egg nest even after hatching and reaching the naming year. The pair was bonded in their generation and with most Aviaries, would probably remain close throughout their long lives. Half a moment later a menagerie of Foops, Lumalines, Flitbirds, and other fauna poured down the steps, bouncing, flying, or leaping in the young fem’s wake.  

                Laughing joyously, the duke whirled his daughter around once before tucking her light frame under one arm to catch the form of his and Torni’s youngest son under the other. This second child, however, elicited a woof of escaping air from the Peregrine male. There was a noticeable difference in body mass, as the half Helian’s bones were denser than a pureblood Aviary.

                “My little adventurers!” He thrilled, “Are you staying out of mischief?”

                “Yes!” Lo-aala laughed as Amgrü grinned, tail slapping air, half shouted, “No!” Foops bounced, a Lumaline dove, trying for a landing on Amaal’s back as a long-necked Krebble Kite dove and circled his knees before flapping its four triangular wings and climbed, pursued by a gaggle of tweeting flitbirds no larger than Amaal’s thumb.

                “Lo’s discovered another Flitbird nest, papa,” Amgrü said, pointing at the yellow, spotted fauna native to Summerland. “She made me climb down and count the eggs!”

                Solace Peak, like many of the latitudes the mountains were breeding grounds for the musical, native avian. The cliffs were saturated with them, especially this time of the year. “You wanted to climb down,” Lo-aala protested, “I just said not to touch the eggs. The momma Flit was worried that you might knock down the nest with your big feet!”

                “Would not!”

                “You might!”

                With the chaotic flurry of airborne creatures surrounding him, the duke might have seemed overwhelmed, but he loved these moments. He had always wanted a big family. Now he had one. Letting the pair playfully argue, he waged a tongue at his lady love. “Maybe try not to do any more cliff diving, Amgrü? Or at least, don’t prod your brother into it, Lo.”

                Me-l laughed and looked on, her smile warm and full of love for all of them. “Asking a Helian not to climb is a bit like asking an Aviary not to fly. Remember Melu and the cliffs by the royal star port?”

                The duke groaned. The incident had caused a nearly planet-wide lizard hunt for the ‘Lost Helian Princesses’. The entire time she had been safely under the care of the soon to be Minister of Helian Affairs. Chalsea Hevarra had taken her duties to heart and her go-to attitude was part of why there was a best-selling Helian phrase book, now.

                “I know I should have thought my wording out a little better, dear,” he assured her, “but he is our son and it’s a father’s place to worry. Never mind that the LADS and LADIES tasked to the watch would have dived into the rescue if they were needed…a Helian could find holes a Wren couldn’t fit into.”

                “And they always seem to do so,” Me-l agreed with a laugh. She waved one wing towards the doors leading to the palaces ‘thopter leveled and smiled. “If the nestlings allow, Evenfest is about to be served.”

                At the mention of food Amgrü squirmed in Amaal’s arms and flapped his thin wings. “Eat!” he exclaimed, setting off some amused smiles and laughter among the nearby servants and staff.

                “Well…” Amaal hedged as if considering not going to dinner. “I’d be willing to wait if the chicks want to stay here…” Going to set the pair down, he asked if they’d rather stay or go. This set off another round of conflicting protests and agreements. Amaal merely laughed.

                As the young Peregrine-Helian rushed ahead as Lo-aala clung to his neck. Me-liktua took his arms and glided gracefully at his side. A glance at the chrono in one corner of his neural implant told him that Flo^orine would be arriving home from the RAT soon and would, as her usual precise way, be at the family resik before the main course was served. A reminder bobbed ethereally in another corner, informing him that Isui^uï would call in an couple of hours from Bekla to discuss an industrial construction project Plutocrat Hema Swaddesmith had been maneuvering for. Most likely the real reason, he assumed, was to find another excuse to fly her son, Lin^fik as often as possible, within sight of Amaal’s oldest daughter’s Eyrie.

                For all the duke knew, it would end up a love-bond. Ma-alaka knows, it took years for Lik-Lik to win his heart, and MahaˇRay’s connection had happened completely by accident when a housewarming gift given at the wrong time was taken as an engagement proposal. He had never told anybody that the proposal had never been intended as such, in small part because he wasn’t sure how to politely disengage, but truthfully, mostly because he had just fallen in love with her.

                As predicted, Flo^orine had arrived, slightly late as was her habit after insisting on handling ‘just one more’ bit of biz at the office, especially since she had scores of assistants and junior administrative specialists employed by the Executive Branch yet was still a very much talons-on floob.

                Evenfest was a raucous affair, as usual. The duke gently and teasingly chided his Swan, then made sure he gave her a warm follow-up welcome home the evenfest conversation revolved around the plight of the poor flitbirds and how Lo-aala planned to help them. Amaal felt his heart swell with pride for his little conservationist. He made sure he gave truly helpful advice about letting the wild things care for themselves and included Amgrü in his attention. The only issue with having so large a family was ensuring nobody felt left out. But, miraculously, there was always enough love to go around. After desert and devoting an hour to family time with the younglings, Amaal had his holo meeting with his daughter, agreeing that the swamp world with its nearly fifty million inhabitants could benefit from some light industrial complexes that the Plutocrat wanted to build. He had to work hard to keep from teasing her over her complaints about how nice Lin^fik had been, though her tone suggested that she had found him to be beneath her perch.

                It wasn’t surprising to Amaal that his eldest daughter should hold this attitude. A quarter of her life had been spent under the influence of Avia Prime. He was just grateful that it hadn’t closed her off from appreciating the fact that others might feel differently. Besides, as far as the Duke was concerned, the platinum wasn’t good enough for his little girl. Truth be told, Amaal wasn’t certain he knew anybody good enough for Isui^uï. At least he was realist enough to recognize where the sentiment came from.

                “Don’t forget, dear, that these Platinums are a resource. As long as Lin^fik believes he has a chance at winning your favor, he can be tapped to help your citizens.” It was a talk he’d had before but he wanted to keep the lesson fresh in her mind, that the wealthy were not just citizens with money, but a finite and useful tool. If you didn’t abuse their assistance, or lie to them, they could be a valuable part of a growing colony.

                Isui^uï smiled and nodded. “To help my citizens is my goal. I must go as I have a dinner party to attend in a few hours. Give my love to everyone.”

                Once the holo had closed Amaal had taken time to muse on the progress of her eldest daughter. Bekla was thriving, more so under her care. The Beklian’s, largely Human, held her in high regards, as did many of the Aviaries of the Galloanserae Flocks who so loved swampy and marshy worlds, such as Bekla. Of course, there were the Swampers. More primitive clans of humans living deep in the wilder, largely untamed wetlands of the central equator regions. They were a cantankerous lot. Territorial and hardcore environmentalists who, on occasion, caused problems. Mostly for those greed-driven developer types who agitated for increased access to what the Swampers considered as ‘their swamps’. That they saw Isui^uï as a fair and just ruler who did not mind bucking the stormy politics of biz to protect their swamps, was another golden feather in her crown.

                As a father, he had tried to instill in all his children the same values he himself held, but this wasn’t an attempt to create a flock of unthinking drones. He wanted his chicks to make their own choices, based off soundly held beliefs that their worlds were more than just replaceable commodities for financial wellsprings. Isui had taken his lessons and had adapted them to her own life. She didn’t do things the way he might, but her ways worked for her and her citizens support showed their confidence in her leadership. So, enamored by her grace and sometimes aggressive stances on protecting the planets natural resources and ecology, several Swamper chieftains now maintained an irregular Home Guard force that provided cadres of Swamp Specialists and Marsh Rangers who answered only to their warrior princess, all at the Swampers own expense. This had, of course, swelled the duke with pride when he first discovered the news. Times past had already seen her Rangers chasing off organ harvesters and bug cultists who believed the remote wilderness of a swamp made an ideal base, hidden from the view of the house.

                Leaving the den, Amaal strolled out into the gardens as the late afternoon sun began to set. The Light coming from behind Solace Peak, created a faux gloaming and first nightfall to anyone living in the shadow of the mountain. As he peered at the valley below lights came on in ones and twos, some powered lumas, others organic glow plants that helped to ease demands on Summerland’s power grid. Near one of the usually hidden cargo lifts connecting each garden to a labyrinth of sub maintenance levels he saw Reggie. The Grackle Aviary was dressed in gardener’s overalls as he worked with several palace gardeners to bring up and set out temporary rows of Kaha-shrubs. Native to the planet, the nut bearing shrubs could be found growing throughout the more temperate regions. Upon seeing his most loyal of friends, Amaal paused to reflect on the scene. The common plant didn’t have any particularly pleasing qualities. No lovely blooms, pleasant odors, or medicinal properties.

                “Interesting crop, my friend,” the Duke commented after closing the distance between them.

                Slightly startled, the Grackle met Amaal’s greeting with a deep-felt smile. “Good evening, my Lord-friend,” he said in his slightly pitched voice. Glancing at the two dozen Kaha shrubs, their root bundles carefully wrapped in burlap, the Grackle looked a little guilty.

                “Are we renovating the garden, or replacing the cliffs?” the lord peregrine asked teasingly, “anything I should be worried about?”

                “What? No, no, nothing major. Flo and I had a talk about the growing numbers of flitbirds nesting on the peak and thought that they would require more sources of food.” Reggi looked a little nervous, if not cagey and waved it off as ‘no big thing’. “It’s cheaper than adding more feeders.”

                The truth was that the price of feeding the Flitbirds might bankrupt a standard household, but as a Duke, Amaal wasn’t straining his credits with the task… He told Reggi as much. “Besides,” he added, “Wouldn’t a greater food supply result in a population explosion?”

                “Well, yes, I suppose that might increase the Flitbird population in the immediate area, but Lo – ‘er, Flo^orine doesn’t believe it will be unbalanced. Not with the two Lumaline colonies up on the ledges between here and Falcon’s Roost. Besides, little Lo says the ‘Flitters’ like our gardens and they do eat their body weight in insects and rock lizards each day.”

                The mention of his daughter explained everything to the duke. Her antics would have every critter on Summerland answering her call and a certain part of his mind pondered whether Flo’s gardening talents had been picked up and adjusted by the young chick to include fauna, rather than flora.

                “Well, I suppose that, in the interest of keeping down invasive species, a surplus population of Flitbirds might not be a bad idea.” A thought occurred to Amaal. With a wicked gleam in his eyes, he suggested that another statue honoring the always modest Grackle, might be commissioned. “This time it could commemorate the work you have done in warding off invading bugs.”

                A look that mixed distress of public accolades with a grimace of one more thing that would make him stand out was almost comical to behold. A hero many times over, the Grackle had never worn that laurel comfortably, as his humble nature made it even more so. A hero, however unlikely, beloved as ‘uncle’ to several generations of Flay-Tiber’s’ was the one title that Reggie took the most pride in.

                The duke understood, in generations to come, it could easily be mistaken that the ‘bugs’ Reggi had eradicated were indeed, the giant space-faring aliens that bombarded planets, seeking to colonize them, rather than the Gornflies he had in mind. Just as Reggi’s attempt to save Amaal’s life during a vicious raid of Sky Bikers during the early years of the colony had grown clear out of proportion. Among many – especially the Grackle sub-flock – Reggi’s status was, though well earned, at near legendary levels. He selflessly acted without thought or concern for his own safety even though Amaal’s life at that time had not been at as great a risk as time had made it out to be. Then there was that crises on Emerald fifteen years ago where Reggie had saved a family of Robins from a slaver raid and the steadfastness, he showed during Amaal’s somewhat poorly thought out rescue of Siri Solar. During that crises Reggi had assumed command of a Watch Platoon when it’s sub-chief had died in the ‘bug’ attack on the Cruise Liner hosting the Nova-famous holo star. Desis led the Watch through the dying ship to rescue them both. Aside from the statue of Reggie in the prime garden, commissioned by Lik-Lik and MahaˇRay, there were others scattered about the region in parks and honor grounds – places devoted to the Defenders of the Next, a select group of souls among whom, the Grackle had earned his perch and would no doubt, do so again.

                The recollection of his friend’s genuine bravery brought the duke to a more serious mien. “I’m sure that your work will be appreciated. You know how passionate Lo-Lo is about her pet projects.”

                “If little Lo is satisfied, then I am sure that the Flitbirds will be, too,” Reggie said with an honest wag of his tongue. “Next cycle though, I’m sure that we’ll need to ‘help’ the Foops or Pigats, or maybe the wild Xebbit colony she says is down in Amber’s Glade.”

                A small, hard to reach spot on the lower levels of the spur, so named after a Gypsy fem who had once stayed a year there as a guest and Temp’u’mate (?) of Jhoörgh U^Molfai – the Gold finch over chief of the Protection Services multiunit Helian Watch Twig. Amber had accidently discovered the hard to find glade when her glider had encountered a severe downdraft that forced her to crash land. Amaal and Reggi had found her during a wild storm when half of the palace defense force had been out looking. The trio weathered the worst of the storm and then flew home the next day. Xebbits’, of course, being both cute and delicious, were a staple food fauna that had been brought along from the Prime on board the Empty Nest. They had long since spread across the planet in small, wild colonies. An invasive species that had found a niche as both native predator’s and local hunters kept them in check. Since the only hunting allowed on the palace grounds – and the surrounding royal preserve – were done by talon and beak, a hobby enthusiastically pursued by the Falcon, Hawk, and Eagle Flocks, the Xebbit’s probably wouldn’t get too far out of wing.

                A twin purpose of conservation of the natural environment and the desire to have a personal pressure kept uninvited hunting almost entirely out of the area immediately overlooked by his estate. Amaal wasn’t naïve enough to believe there weren’t a few poachers in ‘his’ grounds occasionally, but the absence of valuable or rare game meant it was subsistence hunting. His ground keeping staff knew the area better than he did, of course. He wondered if they knew of tonight’s escapades.

                “Were you planning to place these tonight, then?”

                Reggie glanced at the rows of Kaha shrubs and shook his head. “No, we’ll plant them in the morning after Lo decides where.” He shrugged, pride of his own for the nestling showing on his face. “She’s developing a real talon for conservation, don’t ya know.” He glanced at Amaal and gave a friendly brush of one wing. “We’re about done, then I’ll probably be in the game room for a while. Enjoy your walk.”

                The duke nodded and clasped his friends shoulder warmly. “Perhaps we can play something when I get back.” After a moment’s hesitation he added, “Don’t wait up if I’m late, though.” As devoted a friend as the Grackle was, he might end up waiting all night and never mention a word about it later. More than once in the early stages of their association the then Thane had received word from Owl Watch that the small cock was still perched on some offhand comment that the Peregrine had made. Reggi had never brought it up afterword, or held it against Amaal, but the Lord Prince had held the belief that any authority figure had a duty to those under that authority. Reggie gave a serious nod.

                “No, no, I’ll probably turn in a little early.” The Grackle’s gaze drifted back to the shrubs. Noticing the other gardeners standing patiently nearby after having moved a respectful distance to give the lord and his friend some privacy, the Grackle waved his thanks, giving them leave without seeming to dismiss them. As a group the mix of Aviary’s, Human’s, and one lone Thellarian bowed before taking the lift below. The ground seemed to close behind them, creating the illusion that no lift existed where it had been. Reggie than gave Amaal a wave and headed towards the nearest doors to the palace proper. Amaal watched him go.

                A momentary thought caused the duke to wag his tongue in a grin. How was it that, as a Falcon, most of his nest was under the mountain? Ma-alaki was one for her little pranks, that was sure. Amaal hesitated just a little longer to enjoy the scene and picture how it might look the next time he happened by it.

                “All will change, whether by chance or design. We cannot cling to now, unless we wish to abandon tomorrow. Yet we must not forget yesterday, or we will lose our path and drift aimlessly. Such a fine line to fly.”

                As he turned and started towards his favorite overlook Amaal caught a brief look at one of the nocturnal moonkites overhead. A close relative of the Kebble Kite avian, the Moon Kite zipped out of the darkening sky and pounced on some zig-zagging insect, snapping it with a tiny, bright flash as the moon kite’s sharp beak cracked it in half. Letting out a ghostly cry of disapproval it let the dead ‘insect’ fall to the ground in two pieces. Amaal shook his head. It wasn’t a surprise to him that the occasional garden pest that found its way into his home had its origins in some Intelligence lab or another. Disguised spy eyes were a staple of espionage and had been for millennia. It was another example of how the Halthion tendency to utilize natural methods for solutions had its advantages. With more Flitbirds around, there was going to be a drastic increase in the sudden demise of the robotic pests. Amaal made a note to have his security watch any ‘insects’ that the predatory fauna stopped hunting. Lumalines aside, most hunters would stop attacking something that persistently failed to be edible.

                A second moon kite, or perhaps the same as before, stooped and snapped up another flying insect. Its meal secured in its beak, the avian arced back up into the darkness. Around him he noted the same struggle for life going on as several night birds and the occasional, nocturnal, flying lizard, crisscrossed the gardens on the hunt. It was no less lethal on the ground as several the flora so carefully cultivated (and often screened by more docile and mundane plants) by Flo^orine, Reggie, and a battalion of palace gardeners, took their toll on the occasional pest, organic or otherwise. And there were plenty. Gornflies, Zorr Snails, Rock Lizards, and scores of other vermin and insects populated the gardens. Each filled a niche, naturally or agronomically generated by calculated design to benefit the majority. Some flora, for example, the Blood Vine grew thick along the rocky slopes of several dry ravines at the lower levels, choking off what would otherwise be natural pathways to the higher ledges and his palace proper. Lethal and voracious, blood vines entangled anything unfortunate enough to attempt passage. Leeching their victims of blood took several days, usually by which time one of the palace staff or security would find the unlucky intruder. He had witnessed a few who hadn’t been found in time. It wasn’t a demise he’d wish on even a member of the OTP but protecting the nest took a higher priority over showing pity for the foolish. When it came to defending his nest, Amaal had little pity to spare.

                Several supposedly easy paths ended in loose-soiled shelves that could easily spill an intruder into a nasty patch of the blood vine. Of course, airborne intruders would bypass these, but for clandestine ‘visitors’, an aerial assault wasn’t very subtle. Anyhow, there were means, both chemical and mechanical, to circumvent the blood vines. Nothing was invincible. The trick was, to layer as many defenses as possible. Making things harder on intruders was the game. Towards that end a select few plants were mobile and borderline intelligent. These stacked out territories or roved the lower hillsides at whim, kept in check by other flora that they found impassable or dangerous. The same went for the fauna, the apex of which was the resident Helkat population. All of this ‘organic’ security was augmented by the best security technology that the House could purchase or build by his clever R&D departments. The whole palace was hardened against attack and protected by duel shield generators of the highest quality. Of course, the planet boasted its new planetary defense shield system now and he maintained enough ground and space defenders to hold off an Imperium Battle Fleet if need be. All at great expense, but a necessary expense, to protect those he loved, and no expense was too great for that protection.

                His wandering took him to amore cultivated section of the grounds, one separated into day and night blooming plants. The paired groups allowed every little grove to blossom all day and all night. Amaal wasn’t the only one given to nocturnal wanderings countless Helians had wandered the hedge maze under the light of one moon or another, and more than one Kattorian visitors from the temple had used the undisputedly romantic ambiance to convince a LAD or LADIE to temporarily lay aside duty along with uniform. So long as the Watch didn’t suffer, Amaal generally ignored such liaisons. If a single individual made it a habit, though, it was politely brought to the attention of their superior officer. Love had a place of importance, but duty was the top of the list.

                Pausing at the base of the statue of Reggi commissioned after the Yellow ‘Gurge’ raid in the first year of the colony, he looked at the engraving at its base. There is no greater love than to risk a beating heart to defend a friend without thought of self.

                Reggi embodies that sense of duty. Even as embarrassed as the Grackle was at his recognition for ‘just doing what came naturally’, he couldn’t justify letting his friend fade back into anonymity. How would his citizens feel if they believed their Lord Prince was short-changing his friends? Besides, the attention was good for the small cock. It had helped get Reggi out of his self-imposed solitude.

                Beyond the statue the garden went down a few wide, natural steps to a crescent shaped ledge overlooking the northeastern valley and the Solace Hills that lay on the lowest elevations of the Peak. Speckles of light showed small family estates and a couple of early towns nestled in the woodlands of the rolling hills. A kilometer to the southeast was the glittering lights and brightly lit towers of River’s Crossing, the financial heart of Halthion. Embra’s River looked like a silvery ribbon, also speckled with lights of boats and water transports. Some heading for cities and provinces near the distant coast, others heading upriver and deeper into the agra provinces’ beyond Hennyville and Graveswoods. Dotted along the northern sides of the mountain were a few golden ledges of the Houses earliest one percenters’. Thrust out on its own sub-peak, Eagle’s Lookout was a thriving entertainment and luxury commercial district found across the sector for the wild assortments of goods and services to be had. Some priced beyond the grasp of the average working thingy but far more could be enjoyed by the everybird. Amaal’s Commerce and Labor Branch made sure that it stayed that way. Nightclubs like Rangers were exclusive, but they shared commercial space with just as popular Low Dives and Eel’s, both modestly priced venues that made even the lowest paid floob think they were special. The base wages were above average on Summerland, something else he had worked hard to ensure. In duchies like Carn’s and Qi’lla, the ceaser misers would be appalled by such largesse.

                This hadn’t set well for Amaal. Since the beginning of this Thanedom, he realized that a populace without the means to buy commercial goods didn’t support the economy. First, what point as there in hard work if you had nothing to show for it. Second, even when you took as much pride in your work as Arians tended to, it did no good to the business owner if the goods sat on the shelves gathering dust. Third, a populace with a taste for good living was more prone to taking the initiative and making more business. The Halthion economy was strong because of his simple beliefs and because of the sound policies of his Ministers and Advisers. Fore very Guild Agra Concern there were a hundred family farms. Every Guild Heavy Industrial Complex was competing with a hundred ma and pop manufacturers, many whose produce was of better quality and craftsbirdship. He knew of scores of small operators who resisted expansion for the sake of profit, preferring, with pride, to offer unique and oft times one of a kind items. This made many of Halthion’s largest colonies levels of consumer goods, electronics, and luxury good exports at far greater levels when compared to the surrounding Houses in the No Back. Item’s earing the Halthion trade logo could be found across the Outer Rim and as far as Avia Prime in the core. Hundreds of cruise liners visited his duchy every cycle, thousands of star yachts, their owners dripping credits, browsed Halthion Markets. Recently he’d read a report from the Finance Branch that a B’lun Heart ruby, designed by a talented jeweler in West Market, had sold for five hundred credits on Terra herself. The purchaser one of Emperor Fredrick Highborne’s daughters. True, part of the value was the artificial inflation that occurred when something had to travel such immense distances, but most of the price had come from the inherent value. Few gems of that quality and size existed, and the months of work that went into that gem by a master of the craft made the result something that would last a thousand millennium. Most of his House’s trade goods were of such quality. Even the saala found in a small cutlery store might expect to see centuries of use as fine dining utensils brought out for special occasions.

                Deep in his thoughts Amaal almost strolled past a lone figure seated on a flat rock carved to resemble a natural chair. The Human Ogmer Trandovilt, shoulders slumped, was staring off at the distant lights of Eagle’s Lookout. One of the palaces Foops – Gleëp, perched on his head like a strange, furry hat. The foop looked deflated, issuing the occasional mournful grumble Foops, Amaal knew well had an innate ability to pick up the moods of those they hung around.

                The human presented a unique problem. A hot ember of anger, unforgiveness for this thingy’s part in the kidnapping of his daughter, resided in his craw. More gentle understanding for the human’s plight balanced that fire. Of greater weight, the forgiveness Isui^uï had for Ogmer tempered Amaal’s irritation. The last talon holding his darker feelings down was the knowledge that this human was a potential tool that the duke could use. Ogmer Trandovilt depressed and disposed former heir to Carnes, was of no use. Duke Trandovilt, reinstated head of House Carns, that made for a formidable ally. The fist, Amaal had no use for. The second would benefit Halthion greatly.

                Not seeking to disguise his approach, the duke strolled to stand beside the human. He kept his wings folded to his back; humans and other non-winged genomes found unfurled wings threatening for some reason.

                “It is too pleasant of a night to wallow in self-pity, Ogmer,” the Duke stated. He kept his tone casual and refused the urge to feed the man’s pity.

                When Ogmer’s head turned to look up at him Amaal found himself looking at a pair of dull, flat eyes, full of indifference and the signs of a deep depression. Gleëp’s sad and somewhat disturbing grunt made Amaal frown. As fauna went, most of Settled Space viewed foops as either invasive pests or cuddly pets more common to the middle and lower classes. The animals could be annoying and capable of plague proportions if not properly controlled, but they were also intelligent, in their own way, and useful in helping an observant thingy know the moods of others. They were also considered a delicacy by many Scavenger and Agra Fowl flock, as well as edible by every known predator, which aided considerably in helping keep the wild foop populations in check. Their fur, while far from luxurious, was warm and grew back quickly which had led to a small but lucrative industry. Foop fur lined many a cold weather jacket and hat.

                Among his household, only Torni and members of her Goal wore foop fur clothes. It was warm and gave a comforting familiarity when the pets weren’t around, rare as that was. The rest of his fems were more fashion – conscious and wouldn’t be caught in such a common garment. The others wouldn’t want to give the impression that foops were less than pets.

                “It looks as if you have made at least one friend here,” Amaal murmured wryly.

                Ogmer blinked and seemed to focus on Amaal as if realizing that the duke was standing beside him. Waving a languid hand at Gleëp, he groused, “I gave up trying to keep him off my head. The little furry monster is stalking me, I swear.”

                Gleëp blinked and gave off an annoyed grumble but seemed to press even closer to the human’s head. For a moment Amaal wondered if the foop was trying to replace the man’s stringy plumage.

                “Foops enjoy riding thingy’s heads. It’s not only you.” He waved at the distant lights. “You seem to be interested in the nightlife of the capital. Why don’t you see if a visit will boost your waning spirits?” Amaal had stopped more than once at the Spice Rank to enjoy a little additional variety.

                Returning to look at the garish neon and holos coloring Eagle’s Outlook, Ogmer muttered, “That He-olo-ovo fem game me permission to go there for some entertainment, providing that I do not try and slip away from my minders.” The human glanced around the garden and grunted. “They are lurking about, somewhere. Always polite, always kind, always there.”

                The Peregrine chuckled. “Is that all? Do you think any floob worth an assassins’ interest goes anywhere unattended?” He gave a high whistle, then asked for a few of his attendant LADS and LADIES to show themselves. After a pause about three bushes, a small hill, and two flower beds, one less than two meters from the pair, moved to reveal various Aviaries and a Human.

                “You can’t let their presence hold you down. They’re necessary and loyal. “The duke waved them away and all but the hill left, no doubt to switch camo. “They won’t judge. Go out, live a little.”

                “What’s the point? I am living on borrowed time, am I not? There will be a trial, or so your interrogators promised me when I first arrived last year. Swift death or life in his clip of yours. I suppose that it is a prison of some sort. In Carns, we send criminals to Torpin II and be done with them. The One True Path eventually rehabilitates and releases them, unless it’s for life.”  The disposed noble turned to look at Amaal with a bit more fire in his eyes. “Pronounce your judgement and end this farce. It is unbefitting a noble of the Imperium. Or is that it? Because my father lost his Seat, I am not worthy of at least a fair and quick death?” The foop swelled up and vibrated, eyes angry now.

                “Firstly, the OTP brainwashes its human prisoners, and tries to eliminate the rest. I would never send any criminal to Torpin II or any other Imperium penal world. But that is neither here nor now. Secondly, our treatment of you is no trick. You are our guest. I will not lie, you might have earned an execution for your actions, but at present that is not an option. The final note you should keep in mind is that we do view your status as something akin to my own. Perhaps,” Amaal shook his head and loosened the pressure on his beak, “My Intelligence Ministry is still investigating your situation. Until we know more, I must defer judgement. I will not execute you without knowing if I actually ought to.”

                Wary, the man frowned and peered intently at the Halthion duke. “Why differ judgement? I am guilty of my crime, of tricking Isui^uï into coming with me; of making her wear a collar” – he device had isolated the princesses’ neural implant so she couldn’t comm for help – “It had been deactivated and removed once Amaal’s daughter had been rescued by her younger brother, Tmaal, and a small group of Helians. Losia – the only cybernetically enhanced Helian and a secret of the highest ledge; known only to Amaal, his Spymistress, and a very select team of scientists and trainers, had easily bypassed the collar. Tmaal, with Losia and his Helian friends, were off on Kamfer investigating Dorˇaria’s reports of ancient paintings his younger daughter had found in some ruins that depicted a star faring ancestral race akin to the lizard thingies. Amaal hoped to make the trip himself before the year was out to see them for his own eyes. The whole report was classified to give C&E and the H&S Branches time to study and explore for additional ruins. Aside from Kamfer’s crucial link in the ‘Eye of the Needle’ passage, the swampy world held a growing population and was a major post for his defense forces. Hundreds of freighters were supplying both his colonies and outposts further out, plus suppling the fleet for its soon to come push to defeat the pirate proxies of the Baron of Kal Ban. Everet Pau-Raliouse – the very same floob that Mah^Rikka suspected of being behind most of the troubles of the past year, including killing Trandovilts main supporter and ordering the capture of the displaced noble and his daughter. It was also suspected that he was behind that ugly biz on Ran Ral that cost Jerï^ri Sparrow’s life, his oldest son’s paramour.

                The events of the last year had raised many concerns, more than the still growing duchy could handle at once. For now, Amaal knew he needed to deal with Ogmer. To convince him that the future was never set in stone without giving him a fixed promise.

                “I know that if you had been an average thingy, no force in the Imperium would have kept me from reclaiming my daughter and exterminating you and potentially your entire bloodline.” The edge in the duke’s voice was clearly heard.

                “Had I known then what I know now I would have found another way, believe you me. When Isui^uï warned me of how your House would react I choose to disbelieve her. The speed of your commando’s arrival was startling. Had I been ‘just another thingy’ we would not be having stood a chance anyhow.”

                “If you were just another thingy threatening my family, I would have eradicated any possibility of that threat. This is not the case. I cannot promise that, had the same events you suffered had occurred to my House, that I would have acted much differently. I cannot tell you that I am pleased with your behaviors,” the tone implied that this displeasure included the dispossessed humans current attitude along with the kidnapping, “but as a civilized fellow and Duke of a Region, I must put aside my own feelings for the good of my citizens.”

                Shame for his actions and attitude showed on Ogmer’s face, and in the sorrowful eyes of Gleëp who made a simpering sound. The human glanced away. “That I could say the same thing about the minor nobles back in Carns,” Ogmer said. “They war with each other each seeking advantage in hopes of gaining the prize. There is a lesson in that for you, if you choose to look for it, Duke Flay-Tiber.”

                “This is nothing like Carns. I am a threat to that duchy only because of my economic presence. Consider that my House, House Halthion, has only been established a little over two decades. How long has Carns’ been a power?”

                “Nearly half a millennium, if you count its very beginning. Carns has grown, despite its factual dynamic and current leadership. Few powers outside of the Imperium, or the Great Houses, can openly challenge her, by force or economy.”

                “Precisely,” Amaal said with some heat. “he only way my little perch became able to come to the attention of that huge power is the strength of what I have built, and that foundation is entirely due to the citizens in my region. By accepting them as a vital part of my rulership, by hearing their complaints and making changes, we have grown incredibly quickly.” The duke leaned in, crouched on his talons. “But we are not invulnerable, nor are we granted limitless wealth. Halthion needs allies, especially strong allies with a legitimate position.”

                The human gazed at Amaal for several long moments digesting what he was saying (and not saying). Though he did not respond Gleëp seemed to swell, the foops eyes looking hopeful and interested.

                 “What are you trying to tell me?”

                “what I am saying, Ogmer, is that I would find it more to my benefit to have in Carn’s an ally, a neighbor whose interests may or may not coincide with my own, but one who at the very least, is an ally rather than an enemy.” Amaal rested a hand on the humans’ knee. “I see a Carns once again strong and stable, under the rule of its rightful Duke. A Duke that decides policy based on the will of his own heart rather than a committee. If your claim is true, and if my House can make it happen…we may aid you yet in achieving your goal.”

                “It could be a pointless hope, Lord Flay-Tiber.” Ogmer sighed but Gleëp remained positive, if not a little grumpy. “It was a hard lesson, losing my friend Adamn. As was the death of my loyal Protector, Torran. He had been with me since I was little.”

                In fact, Torran had survived. The process of bringing the Mursaki back to a physically functional state hadn’t been easy or fast. Amaal wasn’t sure whether the protectors mind had recovered yet, so the Duke decided not to correct the humans mistaken impression. “Losses are inevitable in such a venture. Do you believe that giving up would honor the choices they made? Or would you rather push forward and see o it that their sacrifices meant something?”

                “What am I to do? I want to redeem my father’s honor and return the Royal Seat to its proper bloodline. Duke Witherspoon is an honor less floob with the blood of those to whom he owes his own ennobling on his hands. While it is true that the five barons are divided the House, overall, is still strong. I had hoped that by drawing your House into a conflict with one or more of the barons, I could weaken the whole. Pan Par and Ran Ral secretly despise Witherspoon, nor do they trust Kal Ban. Tar Fon is ruled by Baroness Gersera Witherspoon-Corbin, first cousin to the duke so is solidly behind him. That leaves Aan Ion, ruled by Baron Hu-Dlevi who, as the smallest minor house, and the newest, sits on the fence.”

                “We have had good relations for decades with Pan Par, and our opinions of Ran Ral is in line with yours. At this time, until we know more, we cannot make any overt moves. I am in the process of gathering useful data and will certainly share the high points with you.” The meaning, of course, was that he would tell the human what was safe to hear after careful editing to both sanitize it, as well as keep the easily depressed man from losing hope again. “Your insight will be invaluable.”

                Ogmer nodded slowly, the foop on his head inflating and rocking gently with the motion. “I…I would be indebted to you for whatever you can do.”

                Amaal stood and scooped Ogmer up with a wing. “That is enough weighty matters for the night. I think that you need a distraction, and the bright lights of Eagle’s Lookout call.” A wicked light gleamed in the Peregrine’s eyes. “Let me show you to the Spice Rack and see if a little seasoning can’t lift your spirits.”

                Suspicious filled Gleëp’s eyes as Ogmer looked puzzled and then confused in turn.

                “Is that some sort of restaurant?”

                The duke’s laughter ran clear and bright. “When you get a taste of Sweet Duˇmelon, you’ll understand.”

                He called for a ‘thopter and almost bullied Ogmer into joining, pointing out the sights to be seen. While the human looked out at the scenery, Amaal sent a quick message to one of his Velvet Tresses. There was a task that was perfect for Riˇohara, and he wanted to speak with her later, once t

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