Rick Hillard
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Amaal - Chapter Two of Book Two

Amaal - Chapter Two of Book Two

Mar 14, 2023

          Accompanied by nearly two platoons of watch and a few of his personal defenders, he was as good as his word. An PA had called ahead, alerting Earthara O’landanu, owner of the Spice Rack, to the Lord-Princes’ pending arrival to allow the Flamingo fem time to line up her best and most talented Spices for the two nobles to sample. Ogmer was still there, being entertained by a pair of cosmetically matched Robin fems that had captured the human’s attention. Two hours past Moonrite, Amaal quietly left and returned to the palace. As they neared the mountain, he asked Mord, his regular pilot, to take him in by a second, more secluded ‘thopter entrance. Serving as a secondary entrance, mostly by his non-resident staff and for private skycraft owned by the residents, it opened into every expanding small city within Solace Peak. Permanent housing for over a thousand, plus barracks for the Royal Guard posted at the palace. There was space for a plethora of specialists, advisers, and family nest of his LADS and LADIES. The subterranean city dwarfed the modest beginnings of the Flay-Tiber home above. Like any city, it included a mall with shops and eateries, select crafts birds and venders to serve the residents. Most visitors to the palace proper, as well as his guests, would never know the warrens just below their talons. Far lower and further away was a heavily guarded commercial ‘thopter pad where all manner of goods and supplies were delivered daily. Only one surface road existed by design and it twisted and climbed the steep cliffs making it easy to defend.

                From the beginning of his reign, Amaal had planned on a low impact infrastructure. Where the ‘Prime was nearly buried in pourcrete, steel and assorted other artificial building materials, may of the recent offshoots of Avia Prime took a more environmentally friendly tack. Air traffic required far less in the way of square footage than wheeled ground transport. There were still highways connecting his major cities, but the impact scaring the land was a fraction of what it might have been. For the most part, highways and major ground thoroughfares served to move bulk goods and raw materials with the rare passenger vehicle tossed in.

                Pleasantly distracted from some of the burdens of running a star spanning Duchy by recollections of the evening, Amaal hummed a fast paced, high impact song that he had enjoyed listening to only half an hour earlier. As a guest of high ranking at an establishment of some certain class, live music was featured. Granted, for the sake of the customers, the tunes were transmitted from a different location, but he later met the band. Ruffled Featherz had a growing fan base and he suspected that they would soon reach Nova Star status. The bass line on their recently released title song Beak Polish, had given him an inspired rhythm.

                Mod piloted the ‘thopter down a tunnel wide enough to have flown a Gunboat with starfighter escort, passing parking caverns and a web of connecting corridors busy at all hours of the day. When he reached a marked landing spot near an unremarkable looking lift the LAD set them down gently. A nearby lift would raise the ‘thopter to the royal garage located some three hundred meters above. As the ‘thopter powered down Amaal saw Che’lay ChamˇFayl approach with a squad of the Watch. A Gyrfalcon Aviary, Che’lay was a sub-chief of Owl Watch. Beside her stood Dert Broodwing. A slow thinker from the Turkey-Vulture sub-flock, he was a muscle-bound basher of the first order and the sort that Amaal knew made most floobs think twice before starting trouble. As Amaal hopped out the rest of his escort detail got out and began filing off to either ride the lift or heading for the Watch Office. He greeted each by name if not a little more exuberantly than usual after having enjoyed a few spiced beverages in the company of a pleasantly energetic Ptarmigan at the Spice Rack. With a glance at Che’lay, the duke turned and made his way to a different set of turbolift doors. Choosing one he entered and sent it up and sideways until he reached one of the more secluded areas of his hidden domain. A small network of natural caves and a cavern he called The Hood. The meeting place for the Royal Order of Velvet Tresses.

                More than a few lives had been irrevocably changed because of the conversations Amaal had had in this cavern. Given free rein to decorate the walls and connecting chambers as they wished, this was the only location in Settled Space where a Velvet Tress could relax her guard. Beyond the small entrance Runners, secretaries, and cleaning staff pampered the mistresses…this elite group of special fems who had come from nearly as many different backgrounds as there were Velvet Tresses.

                Twenty private alcoves were available, carved out to give each Tress a space entirely hers, each decorated to suit her own tastes. A couple of the chambers Amaal tended to avoid. The fems that claimed those rooms kept tidy trophy cases that held tokens gleaned from earlier missions. While the Duke did not have a weak stomach, some of the mementoes were very gristly. While beauty, loyalty, and a high level of intelligence was required, high morals were not. Many of the Velvet Tresses would be equally at home in the court of a prince and the back allies of the worst fringe settlements. While some were sophisticated, true hatched ladies, others had dark souls that fed darker passions and with this palette of selections Amaal was able to craft a response to nearly every threat that came at his House.

                The lift doors closed behind him, cutting off his two Protectors who would wait patiently for his return. Here, he did not need watching. Here, he was utterly safe.

                Lounging on a nearby couch, a Teralit fem looked to be having a light-heartened discussion with a human fem. As the Peregrine passed, both greeted him warmly and familiarly, as was their privilege. He gave each a personal greeting in turn and continued towards Ri^o’s cave. The fish-fem resumed her talk with Ricci… “Soo, when he turned to look behind him, I clenched my legs around his arms and put the knife to his chin—” The human laughed and accurately guessed where the blade had been hidden. Periffolia had always been a viciously creative fem, and the duke had generally refrained from forming any unhealthy attachments with her. This wasn’t true of all his Tresses, but the fish fem wasn’t psychologically balanced to handle something as complicated as a relationship with the Duke. She was just too jealous, much to the horror of those few enemies that he had directed her towards. In her own, dark way, Periffolia was both an artist and a perfectionist. Once a Joy Toy of a Qi’lla Squire, Amaal had found her marooned on a wasteland planet when he had been returning from Too’dal – a heavily industrialized world in House Qi’lla after a particularly fruitful trade mission. The Teralit had been beaten and was near death when one of his Royal Guard details had stumbled across her in an alley behind the hotel he had chosen to spend the night in while his star yacht underwent fumigation. A parting gift from the same squire had included a nest of spidermites, voracious insects with a taste for fiber optic insolation. Helping nurse her back to health, he was touched when the fen offered herself in exchange for passage back o Too’dal. Uncertain about her motives, Amaal hesitantly agreed. As he reached home a few cycles later a news report on GNBN spoke of the grisly death of the Squire of Too’dal. His killer had never been found. Four cycles later a hungry, broken Periffolia arrived on his perch, literally. She had managed to avoid the palaces defenses and security and climbed the mountain side. The Watch stooped on her as she reached main palace garden. Fortunately for everyone she hadn’t resisted. During the search of the fem a male organ was found floating in a jar of preserving fluid. The same said jar had a prominent place in Periffolia’s trophy case.

                Amaal recognized talent and dedication and had offered the fem protection, amnesty, and ample opportunities to practice her craft against those enemies of his that deserved such a personal touch. All the same, Periffolia’s passion gave him shivers, her collection having grown significantly. No, the fem he was looking for now was a different type entirely. Fifteen years earlier, during a harrowing ordeal requiring his presence, Amaal had relied on the expertise of the Black Swan Aviary, Riˇohara. During a two-cycle period when they had laid low, the then Thane became much more familiar with the Velvet Tress and her background. Ever since, the Peregrine had held a special place in his heart for her.             

                Riˇo’s chamber was soft, full of cushions and pastel colors, and yet also managed to convey a martial edge. Antiques and exotic weapons sat on display racks on one wall while ever changing holos of Lumalines and Vevicrats moved and seemed to watch him as he entered. Plush furnishings mingled with wardrobed filled with exquisitely designed gowns and camo cloaks stained by dirt of a hundred worlds. The only thing Amaal knew he would not find was a mirror

                Considered deformed by the standards of most Aviaries, Riˇo’s beak was not quite shaped right, her skin dusky and smooth, and her body free of feathers. In his Duchy, this disability may have been overlooked by any number of cocks and hens, had the Tress herself been able to accept herself. He found her exotic, talented and extremely desirable. His Tress only saw her shortcomings in the mirror.

                “I hope I’m not disturbing you, Riˇo.”

                Rising from a cushioned perch, Riˇo curtsied and smiled, her fleshy beak distorting in was no natural beak would. “It is my honor to serve your every need, my Lord-Cock,” she said in her soft, sultry voice. In addition to her high levels of skills in the seductive arts, Riˇo counted a Venusian hormone gland among her bio implants. One that, if she chooses, could inflame the passions of nearly any male she came within proximity with. It was something most of the Velvet Tresses had asked for, save for Amoria who, being his only Venusian Tress, was born with the lust inducing bio organ anyway.

                Forgoing formalities, Amaal wrapped the shapely fem in a full Avian hug, arms resting under her wings, wings enfolding her figure.

                “Riˇo, it is, as always, a distinct pleasure to have a chance to talk with you.” Many of his Velvet Tresses were loyalists for their own reasons, Periffolia being one of them. His interactions were by and large related to their duties. A handful were actual friends. The original three, Le-Youa-ik Shadowspawn, Mystery Murta, and Riˇo, were almost the only Tresses he saw socially, even if those occasions were less frequent than he would have liked. This talk was not one that was simply for the sake of it, but that didn’t preclude the opportunity to share the social niceties.

                “How have you been?”

                “I have been well. Things have been slow since my trip to Pan Par last month. The Be’jian Thane in question was quite receptive to your offer to establish trade between our two Houses.” She shrugged, “Jhăadoror is a Minor House with that duchy but is hungry for our commercial and trade goods, in exchange for a number of rare mineral resources and exotics. Phŭntaoo appetized several times for refusing to meet openly with our trade envoys. House Be’Jea’s religion forbids openly inviting trade in such things, but you knew that.” She smiled. “He also gave me a gift.” She pointed at an expensive star emerald neckless that was such a dark green that it seemed to swallow the very light at its center.

                The Peregrine nodded. “With things being the way, they have been, there have been a few times that your talents would have come in handy. The problem, though, has always been the same: by the time I sent somebody the issue will have been resolved one way or another.” Taking a reclining pose on a thickly cushioned and perfumed roost, Amaal waved a relaxed talon. “Get comfortable, dear. I have some news to share, and this may be the last opportunity for cycles to relax.”

                “As you know, I a always willing to serve you in any manner you require,” she said with an intense humility that bordered on love. Returning to her perch, she allowed the muscles in her shoulders to relax, causing her wings to drape to either side of her body.

 

                “If need, I can be as sharp as a Shadow Dagger. You do not always need to send me on Whispers and Kisses missions, you know,” she said teasingly.

                The fem was certainly capable of lethal violence, if given cause. Amaal stretched a wing out and caressed Riˇohara’s cheek. “There are some that would deliberately cause me mischief if they could be positive that my response would be to send you in. a quick elimination at your hands is as good as a whisper and kiss from any other.” He wagged his tongue flirtatiously. “And a whisper and kiss are joy enough to make any males heart skip its next beat.”

                Where many of his other Velvet Tresses a blush would be a calculated response, Riˇo’s was real, another sign of her soft heart and caring nature. Oh, she could be vicious and deadly when it was called for, as he well knew. She was also a student of many of the ancient and exotic weapons displayed on racks around the chambers.

                “My exquisite Tress, I have a mission for you that may put all of your considerable talents into play.” Now that he was ready to get down to business, the duke sat up, wings folding to his back as he leaned forward. “I will not go as far as to claim this will be a particularly harrowing experience, nor that the security of the House hinges on it, but it is important to me, personally.”

                Riˇo pouted and then laughed. “Well, not every mission can change the wind, Amaal. Of course, as I said, I am always willing to do as you need.”

                He wagged his tongue again. “You are familiar with my son, Luccolos.” It wasn’t a question. In the kits work for and with the HIB, he had encountered nearly all of the Tresses and Shadow Daggers at least once. And as often as Amaal had those few fems he called friends over, all his children knew Riˇo by sight. “That fact is going to complicate your mission.”

                “How so?”

                “Well, it is a little complicated to begin with and not something I am particularly proud of. You see, Luccolos is going off on his first mission and the mental well-being of my household depends on my taking steps to ensure his safety.” The duke rested a hand on the Black Swan’s knee. “I cannot picture anybody in the quadrant who would protect him more faithfully than you.”

                Her smile was warm and inviting. “I remember my first mission. Nervous and eager to do well, or,” she nodded to herself, “at least not to embrace myself or milord. Lucc has always wanted to be an agent of sorts and no doubt sees this as his First Flight and well place everything on its success.”

                The Peregrine lord nodded. “There lies the complication. To protect his pride, I must arrange for his backup to be incognito. At no time can Lucc be aware that anybody but his partner is on site to protect him. He knows you by sight and thus your talent for disguise will be called upon.”

                “So, he’s not going solo, this is good. This partner of his will no doubt be experienced and careful not to let Luccolos fly too high. That is the regular practice of your HIB, no?”

                “Generally true, but his partner will only be slightly more experienced.” Amaal sighed, settling back into the roost. “Dorget Chasial, adoptive son of Therese Chasial, assistant to the Grackle PB. He’s a Rooster, big, tough, and maybe a mite slow on the updraft, at least as far as the general agent is concerned. It seems that our resources are largely employed with the fiasco in Carns.”

                A look of concern flitted across Riˇo’s face. “A bit unusual but not the first time that our House has had to stretch its resources. May I ask where he’s being sent and for what purpose?”

                “Gabber’s Down,” Amaal said and then explained the Worm Watcher mission and the spymistresses’ belief that it was well in the lad’s range of abilities.

                She nodded, eyes beetling.

                “I have heard a few things about the place. Emerald’s fiefdom, I believe, and not even officially settled yet.”

                As a precaution against Allyxa Tcho-Takka and her flocks eager drive to expand Emerald’s holdings, Amaal had refused to allow the Thane to expand beyond the three-star systems she held in her talons. Officially adding a fourth system would elevate her to Baroness in the eyes of the Imperium, something he wasn’t ready to let happen now. At some point in the future, probably, but not now. He gave another brief explanation to that end and relied upon the quick wits of his Velvet Tress to fill in the blanks. A duke who perched comfortably did not tell others that one of his bannerfloobs wasn’t entirely trusted. The practice was a good way to either lose your Seat or lose your Thane to an overzealous Velvet Tress. Of course, Amaal trusted Riˇo implicitly, but it simply wasn’t polite.

                “More,” he went on, “I do not want to involve her own spies.” Imagine setting a potential rival up to spy on your child. Naturally, the Peregrine assumed his Velvet Tress made the connection.

                “Well, that helps explain the lack of Branch Twigs participation,” the Black Swan said. “And the spymistress believes that the BFR is making some sort of grab for control there?”

                “The young cock has made moves his father was unaware of in the past. I think it likely this is the case here. Regardless, we need to know what is going on even if we choose not to bring it to public light.”

                “No, that is understandable. Proving one of our citizens is skirting the law is one thing, making it stick in the public’s eye another entirely.” Riˇo shook her head. “Besides, better the grub you know…”

                “more importantly, at least to me, is the opportunity to expose my chicks to the true world.” Amaal’s wings fluttered. “If Lucc performs as Mistress Alfasio and I believe he will over the coming decades, he might rise to head HIB, or open a similar Branch.” He thumbed his beak knowingly. “This will show him what we can’t always admit.”

                The fem sat up a little, her eyes filled with understanding.

                “It will be my pleasure to keep an eye on him and his Rooster partner and to make sure that nothing serious happens to them.” She paused and looked thoughtful. “What if I have no choice but to break cover? I mean, I probably should be able to convince him that I’m someone else but he’s sharp.”

                As she spoke Riˇo’s skin colored started to change, what feathers she did have grew lighter, becoming shades of blue as her appearance slowly altered to that of a Blue Jay Aviary. Her busty figure slimmed and grew smaller, more athletic. Only her beak retained tis thick, fleshy look as some things even the advanced body morphing nano tech implanted in her could not affect. She had the best available but Amaal knew that the Imperium offered even better, and eventually, if she wished, he would see that she received the upgrade to her wet wear. Riˇo’s organics and cybernetics made each of his Velvet Tresses and Shadow Dagger’s into thingy’s bordering on the supernatural. The maintenance costs alone for those present in The Hood exceeded Summerland’s whole operating budget in its colonization days and could have supported a dozen warships. But then, Riˇo alone was a match for a platoon of regular Militia or any Syndicate Enforcers that she might face, and her skills and wet wear made her far more versatile than any warship ever created.

                The duke pondered her question before answering. “I suppose that you ought to have a cover personality. Exactly what I will leave to your overwhelmingly capable talents.” His left wing flexed. “One option is you start off becoming introduced as a specific hen of one sort or another, then reveal ties to the underground if you become outed.” He shook his head, “That exposes you to scrutiny however.” The right wing extended as the left folded back in. “Coming to the rescue can be little hard to explain…” He waved it away, “My sons’ life is more important than his pride. If it comes to that, do what you must, Riˇohara. Details I cannot foresee must be left up to your discretion.”

                “When do I leave?”

                “Your flight is an hour before Morning Right, aboard the Sunny Wren.” The Lord Cock pulled a credsticks and a data rod from his pocket. “What we know and what Lucc knows is on the rod. Ideally you will never need to use the information stored here. Additionally, there are a few tidbits about my sons’ enhancements and everything on Dorget.” He reminded her subtly that some of this was privileged into and that it should be forgotten once the mission was over.

                Taking the items being offered the Velvet Tress passed it close to her left wrist where a tiny sensor was imbedded. A recessed light on the rod flashed several times indicating a download. As Riˇo retrieved the data her coloring and appearance slowly reverted to normal as she willed it too.

                “Not much on this Chortelswilde floob,” she said with a nod before setting aside the empty rod. Amaal knew that all the data was now stored in her neural implant and only a direct slicing attack could threaten it, and Riˇo was not the sort who’d let that happen and live to talk about it. Switching to the credsticks to her other hand the fem glanced at him and smiled.

                “Operating expenses?”

                “Yes, that ought to cover any and all expenses. I apologize that your departure schedule leaves so little time to prepare. To compensate, you can count on delivery from whatever shop you place an order from in time to get loaded.” Amaal chuckled. “That stick is twice what my son is working with, so don’t go overboard. I just need to make sure I have the bases covered.”

                She laughed. “I rarely have too, unless I’m asked to pose as a Mega Diva again. After all, I had a Nova Star reputation to pull off.” She struck a dramatic pose that had convinced a mid-level Imperium bureaucrat that she had been a star of the holo and sim biz to get invited into his estate on Poromoofs. It took nearly three cycles to discover his connections to the Antiquitq syndicate, and to use the data to blackmail him into giving the House official sanctions to force the Core Minerals and Mining Guild to stop strip mining planets within Halthion claimed space. She grew serious again.

                “You can count on me, Amaal. I will safeguard your son if it is needed, he won’t suspect a thing.”

                The duke nodded and rose. Pulling her into a hug, he whispered assurance that he had no worries. “When you return, remind me to take you out somewhere nice to eat…then we can hit the dojo and toss me around like old times.”

                She laughed.

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