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|This is supposed to be what a typical day in Veroshi City might be like.||
Geralt sneezed, scattering cold, wet snow. If he needed any proof that winter had started, this was it. He wrapped his tail around his leg as he looked for the joker who had just creamed him with a snowball. He found several Veroshi puppies who had paused in their game to see how he would react. His tail looped. He couldn't stay angry, not when children were just being children.
"It's all right, my friends," he said gently.
They ran off, continuing their game. The Veroshi were beginning to adapt to life on Earth after generations on an interstellar ship. The idea of having four distinct seasons and all the varieties of weather that went with them was still new to some of them. How they had gawked at the healthy snowfall yesterday! Several of them had come running to him, asking about the "cold ash" falling from the sky. He had demonstrated that it was only flakes of frozen water by melting some in his hand.
Now, there was talk of a festival celebrating the Veroshi's first winter on Earth. Commandrix Tranna approved of the idea. The darlings deserved to celebrate after impressing the ones they worshipped. With luck, the seasonal festivals would become a regular tradition.
As always, his thoughts drifted to his beautiful black jewel. Ruyana was an unusual single-birth in a society used to triplets, quadruplets, and quintuplets. Even more rare, she had pure black fur. The Veroshi had shunned her, considering it a sign of the worst kind of sin, until Geralt accepted her as no less valid than her blue peers. The priestesses were still having a tail-kinker of an argument over that. For the most part, they acknowledged that they had been wrong to shun Geralt's Wonder, but many still felt that they should assign a set of quadruplets to care for him.
How many times did I veto that idea? he wondered. A dozen times, at least. Ruyana, though still as black as obsidian, served him faithfully and well. She took it on herself to check on him five or six times a day, even when he was on duty. She brought him hot drinks. She had even nursed him through a nasty cold last month. He wasn't about to dislodge a set of quadruplets who probably looked to another Grebsa as their Patron. He felt it would send the wrong message to all Veroshi and he didn't want to hurt Ruyana by implying that she wasn't good enough for him.
Still, he wasn't too surprised when he saw Priestess Reona flying toward him.
"Geralt! Oh, great Geralt, now I'm sure that dark Ruyana is neglecting you!" she said as she landed.
He sighed. Here we go again. Reona was the leader of Ruyana's opposition. She hadn't figured out that Grebsas could look past fur color and see the real quality of a person. As far as Geralt was concerned, Ruyana often went above and beyond the call of duty. He also understood that, if Reona made unnecessary fusses about things, it was her back-handed way of showing she cared. He offered Reona a leg up and she gratefully climbed up on his back. She hadn't yet taken to the special boots the Grebsas ordered for any Veroshi who would accept them. He wasn't about to let her freeze her feet off in this snow.
"I am not aware of any negligence on Ruyana's part."
"Then, why is your face wet?"
He chuckled. "A stray snowball. Entirely harmless and Ruyana doesn't even know yet. I was just going to find something to dry it off with."
"I was sure those mischievous children would do that sooner or later."
"I don't think they meant to. I forgave them for it."
"Maybe you can come to the Temple. The Acolytes can help you dry off." She was silent for a moment, then she burst out, "Are you sure Ruyana's not neglecting you?"
"She checks on me several times a day. I think she worries whenever I'm out of her sight." Geralt sighed. "I love her."
As if on cue, Ruyana landed in front of him. She was whimpering.
"Is Reona your Special One now, Geralt?" she whined.
Geralt carefully avoided grinding his teeth. Her past had left her with almost no self-confidence. She still couldn't quite believe that she was good enough for her god. He extended his wings to her.
"No, my Pearl, priestesses serve the entire Grebsa Network. You will always be my Special One."
Ruyana let him wrap his wings around her. Reona exclaimed in amazement.
"You love even the darkest of your worshippers!"
"This is why I don't want quadruplets, Reona. If I cannot love even the least of the Veroshi, I do not deserve to be worshipped. My Black Pearl is as beautiful to me as you are."
Reona gasped at the reference from the Scriptures: Do not shun the Black Pearl, for this one is worth four Blue Pearls. Instead, watch for the one who shall polish the gold in the Half-Face's heart. She had committed a horrible sin by working against Ruyana. She slipped off Geralt's back.
"I do not deserve to serve in the Temple you built for us. Speak your judgment, my god, for I have sinned in acting against Ruyana."
He looked at her with his tail swishing. He had already made a few mistakes in exactly this kind of case, mostly involving minor accidents that got blown all out of proportion. It wasn't like a dropped vial of sacred perfume would cause an empire to fall. Still, he was learning fast that an undisciplined Veroshi was an unhappy Veroshi. The trick was to give them some small productive task as penance. In this case, he felt that he could solve one source of exasperation.
"Can you help me teach Ruyana how to read the Scriptures?"
Reona's ears flicked back. "What-nobody taught Ruyana how to read?!"
"Geralt wants me to learn," Ruyana added softly.
Reona's ears perked back up. "Well, let's go to the Temple and we'll start lessons immediately!"
Ruyana agreed readily. "And we shouldn't let Geralt stand out here with a wet face. He'll freeze off the part of his face that isn't already cyborg."
Geralt thought she was exaggerating, but his artificial eye glowed a happy green as he flew with Ruyana and Reona to the Temple. They cared about him and he couldn't argue with that.
Tranna watched five Veroshi artisan-technicians working on the three-dimensional hologram of a stylized Grebsa. By the stars the Veroshi occasionally swore by, bringing that thing down from the Faith-ship, installing it in front of the Temple, and matching its circuitry to the power grid had taken all the talent of Veroshi and Grebsa engineers. She had requested commendations for the Grebsas involved, partly for not losing their tempers with their Veroshi counterparts and partly for not taking the hologram apart to see how it worked. They had never quite trusted the Veroshi's blueprints, which were as much works of art as the hologram was.
Geralt came in for a landing, flanked by Ruyana and Priestess Reona. Tranna pretended not to notice him. It was his afternoon off and she trusted that he had a very good reason for coming to the Temple. Well, she could see the reason. Ice was beginning to form on his facial fur. Reona had probably convinced him to come here to warm up.
Ruyana was a bit of a mystery, though. The priestesses had never liked her for no reason that Tranna could fathom. Perhaps they just couldn't wrap their minds around the idea that every other Guardian had a perfectly legitimate, sky-blue matched set to pamper him or her and Geralt only had a black outcast. When he complained at all, he grumped about how Ruyana was being treated by her peers. Certainly not about how she brought him spiced drinks, brushed his fur, and made certain he wore his new vest of fine wool when it got especially cold.
Maybe he had finally decided to have it out with the priestesses. Tranna was really surprised he had waited this long. He might be a Guardian now, but he came from the finest Enforcer stock. No self-respecting Enforcer was going to waste time with indecision. She stood up and shook the snow off her fur. She trusted Geralt, but had seen him in love before. He had totally lost it when Odain died and he did get a little daffy where his Ruyana was concerned.
She followed them to the Temple library, where Reona selected a book from a shelf.
"This will do for a start," she said.
The two Veroshi sat in chairs by the fireplace. Geralt sat on a mat beside Ruyana. Tranna lifted an eyebrow. Her son had not gone near a book since discovering the truth behind the Veroshi. He claimed to be sick of the sight and smell of old books. She was certain it ran deeper than that. He had been the first to protest that the Grebsas weren't gods. When he and Arax learned that they couldn't do a thing about the Veroshi's helpless worship, they had both taken it hard.
The trio looked like they had settled in nicely, though. Tranna decided that if Geralt lost it, only copies of ancient books would get shredded. The Veroshi knew enough to run in that kind of situation. They could easily produce new ones from the library on the Faith-ship that contained every book ever written by a Veroshi.
Dismissing her concerns, she went back out to the courtyard, where the artisans were just finishing their job. She looked on in bemused tolerance. Wherever had they gotten the idea that Grebsas were made of rocks and fire?
The first lesson went well. Ruyana proved to be an eager student. Once she mastered her letters, she made rapid progress and they ended with her reading from The Last Days of Vrona, sounding out the words with only a few corrections from her teacher. Reona was impressed.
Geralt had fallen asleep on his mat. Ruyana was hardly fooled. He would snap to full alertness if somebody came into the room. If he was relaxed, it only meant that nothing evil could make it all the way to the Temple without a major fight and he would get plenty of warning in such an event.
Reona seemed to sense that Ruyana's thoughts were drifting. "I think that's enough for today, Ruyana."
She closed the book. Geralt opened an eye, as unobtrusive as a huge winged cat could be, but attentive to anything Ruyana might need. In some ways, he reminded her of the gentle hounds who could be trusted to watch children. What was the human expression? A big pussycat. As if answering love with love was a bad thing! Why couldn't they understand that the Grebsa gods were very easy to please, if people would only show them a little kindness?
Ruyana hated to disturb him. He had put in double shifts three days in a row and, while his mind was as keen as ever, his body was aging. He needed to sleep. Maybe Ruyana could suggest to Tranna that she assign a younger Guardian to work double shifts for a while. Tranna had listened when Ruyana pleaded with her to grant Geralt sick leave. She would listen this time.
Geralt sat up, yawning. Ruyana got out of her chair and gave him a wolf-kiss. His artificial eye glowed a happy green. She was learning to read his moods from that eye. Green for contentment, blue for sadness, red or yellow for anger. She had only seen it go red once, when he killed a human prisoner who tried to attack him with a chainsaw. Yellow usually meant the priesthood was trying to foist quadruplets off on him again. He knew the Priestesses meant well, but he didn't want to displace four Blues when he had a Black Pearl to keep him company. She patted Geralt's shoulder.
"I need to talk to Reona about some matters that have been on both our minds, Geralt. I'll be back in time to make you some supper, okay?"
He lifted his whiskers, trusting her completely. Ruyana almost flinched in guilt, but reminded herself that he trusted her to anticipate his needs, even when he wouldn't acknowledge that he had them.
"Okay, Ruyana. I won't be far if you need anything."
He left the library. Perhaps he was glad to get out of there. He claimed that he couldn't stand the sight of books anymore after investigating the Forbidden Room. However, he saw no contradiction in wanting Ruyana to learn how to read. He explained that he might change his mind someday and he felt that everyone should know how to read, even if they chose not to.
Reona interrupted her thoughts, "What do you want to talk about, Ruyana?"
"Geralt says he has repeatedly refused a set of quadruplets. He says he's satisfied with me."
"Geralt is more wise than we are. He sees beauty where beauty exists."
"But even the gods aren't perfect." That wasn't blasphemy. The Scriptures made that clear enough. "He doesn't always anticipate his own needs. He had his own fur shaved off to make me some mittens and a warm sweater, and so close to winter, too."
"Maybe he doesn't want you to freeze to death for his sake. He adores you, Ruyana. As long as you serve him faithfully, you can call yourself a true Veroshi."
Ruyana wagged her tail. In the old language, Veroshi meant "Beloved Companions." In some of the texts predating the Launch of the Faith-ship, the word could be used to describe servants who sang to their masters or simply sat with them, providing companionship. Geralt already called her his Pearl. It was up to her to make certain her color didn't matter.
"I just worry that I'm not filling all his needs. Perhaps I should tell him to accept the quadruplets."
Reona shook her head. "He complains more about me than you, and for good reason. I don't bring him spiced drinks and make certain he wears a warm vest. I must have offended him by implying that my daughters are more valuable than you are. I'm amazed he didn't assign me a penance before now."
"He knows you care and he does like your daughters. I think he would have accepted them if I hadn't become hysterical when I first saw him."
Reona smiled sadly. Ruyana wasn't the only Veroshi who had gone all to pieces on the Day of Fulfillment. She had simply been the one who flew into Geralt's arms, nearly knocking him down as she licked his face and wiggled all over. The very tolerant Guardian had merely held her until she calmed down enough to be coherent and then questioned her gently. As it turned out, she knew nothing of the gods, nothing of Earth, and practically nothing of why they were on the Faith-ship at all. No one had bothered to educate a black child of sin. Then, she saw Geralt and he became her world. So, she became his Special One and disappointed the quadruplets who had hoped that he would be their Patron.
"I can't blame you. Even my daughters told me they only regretted not treating you better. They'll try to find a Patron when that Enforcer squad gets here tomorrow."
"Okay. I'd better go start supper for Geralt."
When she left the library, she found Geralt sitting in the hallway. Won't be far, indeed!
Captain Anora led her squad of Enforcers to Veroshi City. It was a good day for flying. The sky was a beautiful crystal blue. The air was cool enough to feel crisp through her thick fur and, with fewer Earthside factories to pump out pollution, free of the smell of smog.
However, this flight wasn't purely for pleasure. Reports from Veroshi City indicated that the Guardians were shorthanded and some Veroshi sibling-sets still didn't have Patrons. Veroshi without Patrons were in danger of becoming second-class citizens in Veroshi society. Anora didn't relish the idea of accepting pampering in exchange for protection. She was an Enforcer and Enforcers could take care of themselves. However, Commander Arisia wouldn't hear of it when Anora had complained about the assignment.
*I never once heard you complain when you accepted massages from Captain Edain. The Veroshi are a lot prettier,* she had told Anora over the telepathic Grebsa Network.
Anora had shot Arisia a mischievous look. *Maybe I can invite Edain to come along. He and the Veroshi could learn from each other.*
Arisia's tail had curled in amusement, but she didn't change her mind. Neither did Edain come along. He had only licked her cheek and wished her happiness when she told him. Stars, it hurt to leave him! However, if the Veroshi accepted her, she would become a part of an entirely different Faction. She and Edain wouldn't have much chance to see each other.
The squad descended into the Temple courtyard in a slow spiral. A crowd of Veroshi already waited for them. With an Enforcer's sense of numbers, Anora estimated there were about four hundred eager blue faces looking up at them. If they had been human, the captain would have kept her squad in the air. She just didn't like to take risks when she was outnumbered four to one. On the other hand, if the Grebsas couldn't trust their worshippers, they simply couldn't trust anybody.
Anora landed with the rest, determined to put her best face on it. The little pretties were more like her than one might think at first glance. They couldn't help being Veroshi any more than Anora could help being a Grebsa. They served the ones they believed to be gods as faithfully as Anora served the Grebsa Network. The Veroshi were stronger than they seem to think. Not everyone could make such an epic interstellar journey on the strength of a supposed prophet's hallucinations. In that one way, the Veroshi were very much like the Grebsas. They would do what they set out to do or die trying. I think I can honor that, she thought, bowing her head to let an adorable set of quadruplets stroke her face.
"Blessings to you, dear ones," she said in the Veroshi language.
They yipped happily and gave her hugs. They're harmless, she told herself. They were like eager little puppies who just wanted to love her, the big winged lion-like killer. She suppressed her instinct in this particular case. If the Veroshi's prophet hadn't bio-engineered them with a compulsion to worship the Grebsas, they could have been their gods' equals. The darlings had proven their mettle and deserved their reward. Anora saw nothing wrong with that.
Reona and Tranna watched the squad and their Veroshi sibling-sets. Tranna was impressed. Nobody could win over a hundred Enforcer warriors faster than the Veroshi. Even Captain Anora, who had a reputation for being a berserker, had accepted the quadruplets Geralt had rejected for Ruyana's sake. If Reona had still been an Enforcer, she would have laughed at the slightly baffled look on the captain's face. The Veroshi's love could seem like a bit much at first.
Reona wagged her tail. "My children have a Patron now!"
"Ruru, Ruru, Ruru!"
Ruyana's puppy toddled from the babysitter to Geralt, burbling the Veroshi word for "Papa." Geralt picked his adopted God's-child up.
"Hello, Rorana. Have you been a good puppy today?"
Word of the planned Winter Festival must have traveled fast. Once they decided to go through with it, the Veroshi proved to be very much like the Grebsas in one area. They didn't like to waste time once they made up their minds. Reona had even maneuvered Geralt into promising he would help with setup in the morning.
"Soon," he promised.
The babysitter rose from the couch and bowed to Geralt.
"With your leave, Lord Geralt."
"Go with my thanks, Rellan, and blessings to you."
He let Rellan scratch between his ears before she left. Ruyana swung down from the seat strapped on his back. Her ears were quivering. Geralt knew that look. She wasn't sure what to think of something.
"Is something the matter, Ruyana?"
"I'd better get started with supper."
She disappeared into the kitchen. Geralt had never seen her move that fast. Not since their first meeting on the Faith-ship, anyway. He put Rorana on the couch.
"How about you wait here? I'll be right back."
Geralt went to the kitchen. As he had expected, Ruyana was whimpering. He took her in his arms.
"What's wrong, my Pearl? You can tell me. Isn't that what a god is for?"
"I think I'm pregnant again. I just don't want it to be like what happened to my last litter."
Geralt allowed his head to droop in remembered grief. She had miscarried three of the four fetuses from her last pregnancy, leaving only Rorana, and scared him half to death in the process. The Healers were firmly convinced her guilt feelings over getting pregnant without his permission had caused it. He didn't bother disputing that, but would make certain Ruyana got appropriate prenatal care this time.
"I understand, Ruyana. I'm glad you told me."
"I love you, Geralt."
Geralt licked the top of her head. "I love you, too. You're beautiful."
"Do you really think so?"
Stacen's stomach growled. His tail flicked at his traitorous digestive system. Ruyana yipped with laughter.
"Stupid me. I'm letting my own guilt feelings get in the way of feeding my god."
"I've heard of stupider things. I'll watch Rorana for you."
Anora saw Commandrix Ariana flying into Veroshi City and wondered what he was up to. Ariana hadn't been in the City since before the Veroshi had arrived. It wasn't out of dislike for the Veroshi. He simply wanted to avoid an incident that would threaten the unity of the Grebsa Network. Ariana was the strongest of the Enforcers. It would be nearly impossible for him to squelch his fighting instincts if he felt outnumbered or cornered, even by such sweethearts as the Veroshi. Knowing the risks that could lead to a huge tiff between Guardians and Enforcers, he had cheerfully handed responsibility for the City over to Tranna as soon as the Veroshi were settled. Which meant he had to have one darned good reason for coming here.
Anora shrugged and wrapped a wing around the Veroshi who had just brought her some soup and breadsticks. She could see how tired he was. Stars, she hadn't meant for him to stay up this late. Anora was used to working the night shift and probably would again once Commandrix Tranna decided on a slot for her. She didn't want to ask the Veroshi to change their biological clocks on her account.
"How about you go get some sleep, Irola? I can clean up."
"As you wish, Lady Anora."
Irola gratefully staggered to the bed his three siblings were already sprawled on. Anora realized she had done the smart thing by sending him off. Much longer, and he would have fallen asleep on his feet with potentially disastrous consequences. Poor thing. She appreciated his dedication to his Patron, but didn't want him to suffer for it.
Anora made a mental note to suggest to Tranna that they could open a kitchen where Grebsas and Veroshi could pick up easy-to-make meals at any time of the day or night. In the meantime, she could get her Special Ones to make meals during the day that she could warm up at night. She was used to cooking for herself, anyway. Not that the Veroshi were bad cooks. This was the best chicken soup she had tasted in a while, and nothing beat freshly made breadsticks.
She finished the light meal and put the dishes in the dishwasher. Now that she thought about it, it had been a long day for her, too. Stars, she had started the day as an Enforcer. No one switched Factions lightly. If that was the case, there wouldn't be much point in having Factions. Besides, it seemed to make one sick. Tranna assured her that most of the original hundred Grebsas had experienced the same flu-like symptoms and they went away after less than a day. Anora had spent most of the afternoon in her quarters being nursed and cuddled with by her Special Ones. That was going to be hell if she actually caught an infectious disease. The Veroshi had been inoculated for all the common and many of the not-so-common ones, but, if they were going to cuddle with her every time she got sick...Well. She hoped Tranna had good quarantine policies in place.
Anora shivered. Stars, she hoped she wasn't getting chills again. The Veroshi's valiant attempts to keep her warm hadn't helped much. That's the thing about those of us who've been Enforcers. We don't do things by halves. When we get sick, we really get sick. She climbed into the bed and the Veroshi moved a bit to make room for her. She went to sleep with a centuries-old novelty song about "Grandma's feather bed" stuck in her head and had funny dreams about jumping on the bed with her Special Ones all night.
Reona yawned and stretched, almost numb from sitting on the mat for this long. She and Tranna had been discussing the Winter Festival all evening. She could barely see the plans spread all over the low table anymore. She turned to apologize to Tranna and noticed that the Commandrix looked just as tired. Reona folded the papers up.
"I'm sorry, Commandrix. I didn't mean to go this late."
"It's all right. I'm sure you're as eager as I am."
"Do you really think this Winter Festival will be a tradition?"
"It's very likely. This is how traditions are made. Somebody has a good idea and it takes on a life of its own."
Reona wagged her tail and took her reminder book out of her belt pouch to scribble the line down. Tranna deliberately didn't roll her eyes. Reona had the idea that she could add a new book to the Scriptures, along the lines of Proverbs from the Christian Bible. She had even gotten Tranna's tentative approval for the idea. Tranna was certain she would edit it a bit to make it sound more, well, god-like.
Once she had the line written down, Reona leaned back on Tranna's fur. It was just like leaning on a warm pillow.
"It is strange to have you after so many generations of faith," she said sleepily. "Sometimes I wonder how we did it. The odds were against us, weren't they?"
"Maybe you made it because you have faith. Not everybody can dare the odds based on a millennia-old prophecy. I'm proud of you, Reona. You're very brave."
Tranna expected Reona to reach for her little book again. However, she had fallen asleep. No one could blame her. As High Priestess, she often worked late nights. Really, it was a good thing that she could trust her goddess enough to use her as a pillow. Tranna certainly didn't want her dear Reona to be afraid of her. She spread a wing over her worshipper and settled onto the mat. She could sleep just about anywhere and it was going to be a long day tomorrow.
A young late-night wanderer found them like that about an hour later. Tranna woke up when the door opened and opened one eye, unconcerned but alert. The acolyte excused herself and went back out.
Tranna heard her whisper to another Veroshi, "Reona's been studying late again and Tranna with her. I know Priestesses aren't supposed to have individual Patrons but they're close to it, I think. We should find pillows for them."
"Did the High Priestess fall asleep in her study again? Tranna's almost as bad, letting her do it."
"Ssssh. Tranna has the sharpest hearing ever. Come on."
So, Reona did this rather routinely. Tranna guessed that she hadn't had a comfortable goddess to sleep on before now, because this was the first time she knew of it. At least it explained the times Reona had moved as if her upper body was stiff. She never complained, but neither had she protested when Tranna suggested that she take a break and get a massage.
Tranna went into a drowse until the acolytes came back with pillows and blankets. She sincerely hoped they hadn't stripped their own beds for this. Stars, the dearlings had proven themselves and were still proving themselves with their worship and service. They didn't have to sacrifice their own comfort on top of that.
"Hello, my dears," she whispered.
Was that a little jealousy in their eyes? Well, they were some of those who didn't have Patrons. It had to be hard to listen to their peers talk about how the Guardians liked to cuddle.
"We thought you might be cold, sleeping in here like this. We brought you some blankets and pillows."
"That's very considerate of you."
Reona half-woke and blinked at the two acolytes.
"You two shouldn't be up so late," she murmured, but she accepted a pillow and a blanket before dropping off to sleep again.
The twins (Tranna guessed they were siblings) yipped softly in amusement. That was just like Reona.
"We couldn't sleep, so we decided to come study for our Priestess exams for a while," one of them explained to Tranna.
"I can understand that. You do want to be careful. You could fall asleep at your studies like Reona seems to have a habit of doing."
They looked a little guilty. That was a good thing. Reona didn't need her acolytes talking behind her back. Tranna quickly changed her tone.
"Thank you for bringing us these," she said, accepting the blanket and pillow. "Are you warm enough at night? Is there anything I can do for you?"
"Well, I know Priestesses and Priestesses-in-training aren't allowed Patrons-" began one.
The other picked up the thread, "-But it does get lonely at night without a god to cuddle with."
Tranna lifted her whiskers. It was entirely a Veroshi idea that Priestesses weren't allowed Patrons. It wasn't fair. The Priestesses were the ones who had taught the Veroshi faith and traditions for millennia. They deserved a reward for that.
Tranna very nearly leaped to attention when a familiar nose poked through the door. Reona woke up fully this time.
"Is something wrong, Ariana?"
"I don't think so. Not unless it has to do with the Enforcers." *Commandrix Ariana, what brings you here?*
Ariana pushed the door open a bit. *Sorry, Commandrix Tranna, I should have pinged you. I thought the Temple study would be unoccupied this time of night. He politely spoke aloud to the Veroshi, "Blessings to you, my friends. I simply wished to look up something my Enforcers have been arguing about."
Tranna's tail flicked a bit. *I should have asked Anora what the Enforcers were up to. I hope it's nothing that will harm the Veroshi.*
Ariana went to scan the shelves as he answered. He wasn't being rude by Grebsa standards. They could carry on a conversation with their tails to each other and think nothing of it.
*Oh, no, nothing like that. The argument's really with the Scientists. My Enforcers say there's no way the Veroshi could be blue if they're mammals. Of course the Scientists are looking into it. They say it could have to do with Veroshi biochemistry.*
*Ah, I remember now. The Scientists came through last week asking for samples from the Veroshi. Some of them had kinks in their tails.*
Ariana looped his. *I would imagine so.*
The Veroshi twins went over to Ariana. "Cuddle with us, cuddle with us!" they begged.
Ariana looked plaintively at Tranna. *Is this normal for Veroshi?*
*They were just telling me they want someone to cuddle with at night. For some reason, they discourage their Priestesses and Acolytes from having Patrons.*
*That's odd. I thought if anyone would have Patrons, it would be the Veroshi leaders. Reona obviously likes you.*
Tranna could hear what he wasn't saying. If Reona became her special one, it could effectively eliminate that taboo. However, Riana wasn't going to be rude enough to tell her how to do her job.
Ariana gave in to the twins' pleading, "Okay, my dears. I'm not doing anything that can't wait."
He injected himself with a pain-killer as a precaution. He hated it, this dependence on drugs, but he couldn't risk Tranna's anger. Not when she had once been his best Commander.
Anora teamed up with Geralt the next day. They moved tables into place in a semi-circle that would give the Veroshi a generous dance floor. Not that they would need it much except as a place to land. Veroshi dances mostly took place in the air. At first, their conversation mostly had to do with which table they were going to move next. Then, Anora's quadruplets flew over.
"Reona wants you to taste this drink. She's worried about whether she did it right," said Irola.
Anora put down her end of the table and took the steaming glass of hot chocolate they gave her. *Sorry, Geralt,* she said as she took a sip.
*It's all right.*
"Reona did an excellent job," she told her quadruplets.
They wolf-grinned flew off to tell Reona. Anora finished her drink, put the glass on a passing dumbwaiter, and took up her end of the table again. Geralt helped her move it into place without so much as a comment about her quadruplets. Maybe he was just used to these little interruptions in his daily business.
*You're lucky you have only one Special One, Geralt. I bet it means fewer interruptions when you're working.*
*Not in particular. Ruyana checks on me every chance she gets. Not that I blame her. Considering how she was treated on the Faith-ship, she needs to know I'm not going to disappear on her.*
Anora raised an eyebrow. She thought Geralt was being nice. Ruyana had already pestered him five times today.
*How do you put up with it? You've been an Enforcer. Don't tell me you haven't wanted to take your Ruyana's head off sometimes.*
*It's a matter of trusting them. I know they won't shoot half of my face off.* Geralt rubbed a hand along the cyborg part of his face. *There are worse things than having Veroshi to bring you hot drinks in the middle of December. They love us. You can accept that they do, or you can tell your quadruplets there's been a big mistake and go back to the Enforcers.*
Anora looked at him with respect. *Not many lieutenants would say that to my face unless they're ready for a fight.*
*I'm a Guardian lieutenant. It's my job to stand up for the Veroshi and I'm not going to forget that we Guardians branched off from the Enforcers. If you want to fight, we can tussle as soon as we can both get away from Veroshi City.*
*Noted and logged, Lieutenant.* Anora sighed. *It's not the Veroshi. I just miss Captain Edain. We were going to be mates.*
*Do you really?*
Geralt told her about losing Honor Line Odain. His tail drooped as he remembered his own failure.
*I should have been faster or smarter or something. She should not have suicided, not like that. She was irreplaceable.*
Anora licked his face. *That wasn't your fault. Maybe when we're done with these tables, we can go kill something. That always makes me feel better.*
*If we didn't have the festival coming up, I might take you up on that. Ruyana always insists that I take a bath after I hunt. She hates the smell of blood, I guess.*
*Does she really boss you around?*
*Not that bad. At least I know she loves me.*
Geralt looked over Arona's shoulder and his tail looped.
Anora looked at him edgewise. *What's so funny?*
*Is that Commandrix Ariana?*
Anora looked back. It was Ariana, all right, being chased by more than a dozen Veroshi with lassos. From the look on his face, he wasn't expecting to get out of this one. Neither was he taking it all that seriously. Anora winced as she watched the Commandrix miss a move that would have put some distance between himself and the pack of Veroshi.
*What are they up to?*
*Those Veroshi are spa attendants. I bet they want to give the Commandrix a day of pampering and he's giving them a hard time about it.*
*My quadruplets were telling me about the spa. It'll be good for him to relax a bit. Maybe we can get him to quit. C'mon!*
Anora launched herself into the air before Geralt could respond. He flew after her.
*Tranna's going to be mad if we don't finish with those tables,* he said.
*Forget her. She'll be even angrier if Ariana does something foolish on her turf. You know as well as I do that an Enforcer can lose his sense in what's basically a combat situation.*
As it turned out, she didn't have to worry. A Veroshi lassoed Ariana and pulled hard. Ariana flipped backward, and then hit the ground. Dust flew.
He pushed himself to his feet. Anora saw the dangerous gleam in his eyes and landed between him and the Veroshi. Geralt couldn't "hear" what she said to the Commandrix, but he could imagine it was something along the lines of, "Hurt the Veroshi and I'll kill you." He had to hand it to Anora, she had guts. The Commandrix could likely rip her to shreds if he took a mind to so so. Instead, he pawed the dirt and bowed to the Veroshi who had caught him.
"Nicely done, my friend," he said gently.
"I hope I didn't hurt you," said the Veroshi.
He let the attendants lead him away. Geralt landed beside Anora.
*You've got courage, you know that?*
*I thought he would really hurt that Veroshi for a second there. I'm sure you would back me up. Right?*
*If it came to that. We'd better get back to the tables.*
Ariana did not remain the Commandrix of the Enforcer Faction by being defeated easily. Even now, he tossed his massive head and pulled on the ropes around his neck. Not seriously; just enough for the Veroshi to know he could put up a fight if he really wanted to. They pulled right back as anyone worthy of his respect would.
"We'll give you a bath, Ariana, it'll be fun!" they yipped at him.
He gave his mane one last shake. A prudent warrior chose his battles. He didn't want Commandrix Tranna on his case because of a minor thing like this. He scolded himself for nearly lashing out when he first saw them flying after him with lassos. That could have caused an incident no one needed. If he didn't let the dearlings give him a bath after they had successfully captured him, she would sit on him and apply the shampoo herself at the very least. In the worst case, if he harmed a Veroshi, it could mean civil war. It was a matter of which case would leave him with his dignity intact and keep peace in the Grebsa Network.
He let them lead him into the spa. It was a converted apartment complex on the edge of Veroshi City. Originally, it would have housed Guardians, but a request by the Veroshi had caused a change of plans. Now, it had two large baths, massage tables, and grooming arenas. Ariana scanned the room he had just entered and guessed that every Guardian who wasn't on patrol duty or helping set up for the Winter Festival was here, letting the Veroshi pamper them.
I wonder if they put up a fight, too, he thought. Every single Guardian had once been a top-notch Enforcer. He hoped they wouldn't let all this pampering make them complacent now that he was no longer their Commandrix. Hmm. Maybe I can have a word with Tranna and see if we can arrange some informal drills.
He put the matter aside as the attendants let him to one of the baths. Three Grebsas already occupied one end of it, being scrubbed by singing Veroshi. The Guardians pinged him.*My compliments, younglings. You haven't let the Veroshi spoil you.*
*It's not for lack of trying,* joked one of the three. *But the Veroshi know we're warriors. They threatened us with a gym on top of the spa if we didn't keep up with our training.*
The one to the left curled his tail. *The Veroshi are serious about keeping up their end of the Agreement, as I'm sure you've noticed.*
Ariana couldn't deny it. *So I have. It's a wonder Tranna didn't lose her temper when High Priestess Rossa dictated terms to her.*
*The way she puts it, High Priestess Rossa wasn't asking for anything that we weren't already doing. Mainly keeping the glorified apes in line and out of our "holy" places. The only thing different was this spa. The Veroshi wanted a place where they could give us some tender, loving care.*
The Veroshi poured buckets of water over the triplets' heads. Ariana did think that was a good point. The pretty aliens could have made themselves a real nuisance, but didn't go out of their way to. For now, they were content to stay in their City and pamper any Grebsa who showed his whiskers within the city limits. To be fair, Ariana felt that he could use a bath. His attendants were working shampoo into his fur and it felt good.
Some hours later-
Tranna signaled with a raised arm and two hundred Grebsas launched themselves in formation, chanting as they flew.
We are the Mighty Grebsas, we shall rule an empire
With the thunder of our roaring voice to pass our judgment dire.
With our good swift wings and sharpened claws to enforce our will of iron,
May we ever prevail!
We go into fierce battle to protect our Veroshi,
With sharp hawk eyes to seek and find our fearsome enemy.
Though he be clever and deceitful, may we victorious be,
For our sweet worshippers!
You are kind and loving with a tune to make us strong.
With good intent you came to us though the journey was long.
By our Agreement with you we will keep your song
Joyful and care free!
Wings to fly swift and true,
Eyes to spot trouble too,
Hearts to keep us ever true,
With these we shall prevail!
The gathered Veroshi yipped their approval. The Guardians wheeled and split their formation for a landing. Reona found Tranna.
"I believe our choir would love to sing a song with your permission," she said.
Reona went over to the choir director and whispered in his ear. He nodded and signaled the singers.
You are the great Grebsa, you order all things
To see to our defense, so we live in peace.
We pray to your spirits that you may prevail
In all that you fight for. Our song shall not fail.
Grebsa, God of all mightiness,
You hold all righteousness
On the strength of your wing.
Nothing can ever o'erpower you
In all you seek to do.
To your strength we sing.
We wandered in darkness with a hope and a prayer
That one day we would be your Children of Air.
Our Prophet had promised that we would see Sol
And dance in your splendor and hold you in awe.
Grebsa, God of all mightiness,
You hold all righteousness
On the strength of your wing.
Nothing can ever o'erpower you
In all you seek to do.
To your strength we sing.
You came to meet us at the outskirts of Sol
And escorted us into our blessed new home.
You confirmed the Agreement to protect us from harm
And we swore we would serve you with all that we are.
Grebsa, God of all mightiness,
You hold all righteousness
On the strength of your wing.
Nothing can ever o'erpower you
In all you seek to do.
To your strength we sing.
The director looked to the Grebsas for approval. Tranna bowed to him with her wings spread slightly, the traditional Grebsa sign of respect and approval. He wolf-grinned.
The festival was off to a strong start. The Veroshi drifted to tents for food, drink, and games. Tranna gave formal permission for the Guardians to do the same. She wondered if she would see Ariana around. Geralt and Anora had reported seeing the spa attendants lasso him that morning. Oh, he's probably still here. It would have been a slow day at the spa with everybody busy setting up. That and the excitement of having a visiting Commandrix would account for it. Tranna forgot the matter and went to get a mug of that hot chocolate Reona had made.
While standing in line, she happened to look in the direction of the fortified wall that formed the boundary of Veroshi City and spotted a strange Grebsa who was being bombarded by Veroshi. He sat there with his shoulders hunched and head down. He looked like he would rather be anywhere but here. Tranna pinged him and he responded with his identity: Captain Edain of the Enforcers.
Poor Edain looked in her direction. She left the line and weaved her way through the crowd.
*I know they can be a bit much at first. They really are harmless,* she told the captain.
*I heard about what they did to Ariana. Well, I suppose every single Enforcer knows about it by now.*
Tranna's tail looped. *I'm sure his dignity will recover. What can I do for you?*
*I'm looking for Captain Anora. The Veroshi aren't being much help.*
*I think I saw her in line at the drinks tent.*
*Thanks, Commandrix. Any tips for dealing with these enthusiastic pretties?*
*They just want a little attention. Irola, there, made the spiced cider. If you try some, he'll love you forever.*
He flew in the direction of the drinks tent with the Veroshi in tow and found Anora coming out of the tent with a steaming beverage. He landed beside her.
*Oh, Edain, hello! However did you get the evening off?*
*I traded shifts with Valtane. I heard about the festival and, well, I just had to come and see how you were doing.*
*Well, get yourself a drink and we can talk.*
Edain got himself some hot cider and found Anora at one of the tables. Her four Special Ones were stroking her fur. It was almost a slap in the face for Edain, a sharp reminder that she was part of a different Faction now. Even Commandrix Ariana tried not to come here too often now. He claimed it was because Tranna used to be one of his best Commanders and he wanted to give her time to find her feet as a new Commandrix, but only a stupid Enforcer would miss the real reason. If a Veroshi got hurt because an Enforcer couldn't control his fighting instincts around them, it would mean a civil war that nobody needed. Not even the First could stop it if the Guardians took it into their heads that the Enforcers were a threat.
Anora said, *Try not to change Factions if you can help it, Edain. It made me sick yesterday.*
*I'll keep that in mind. Has Tranna decided on a shift for you yet?*
*I don't think she's given it much thought. She and High Priestess Reona have been occupied with planning this festival. I'll probably volunteer to take a night shift.*
A squealing Veroshi toddler flew around Edain's head. Instinctively, he snatched at and caught the youngster. He brought the giggling child down to eye level and found that what every Guardian claimed was correct. It was quite impossible to tell what gender a Veroshi child was just by looking.
"Hello, youngster. What's your name?"
"Rorana. Will you be my Patron?"
*Well, Rorana isn't shy,* Edain commented to Anora.
*That's good. I'd be worried if he was.*
"I'll have to check with my Commander, Rorana."
Ruyana flew over and tapped Edain on the shoulder. He recognized the pure-black Veroshi from pictures he had seen. She was a unique beauty. It was amazing that no Veroshi had seen that before Geralt adopted her as his Special One.
"Thank you for catching my little runaway, Captain."
"You're quite welcome, friend Ruyana."
Edain handed Rorana over to his mother.
Rorana whined, "Aw, Mommy, I wanna stay with the nice Enforcer!"
Edain's tail sprang into a tight spiral. He was certain this was the first time somebody had ever called an Enforcer nice.
A drum signal sounded through the City. Several Veroshi, including Anora's quadruplets, flew off toward the dance floor. Edain watched them.
*What are they up to?*
*They're professional Wind Dancers. They will put on a performance and then open the floor for recreational dances.*
Edain looked back toward Ruyana and found that she had gone, too. He felt a little disappointed. He had hoped she and her son would stick around a little bit. However, that was unreasonable. Ruyana had her own Patron and her son still needed his mother. He settled in to watch the performance.
Ruyana returned to Geralt with her son still whining complaints. The pipe and drum band was just starting their lively tune for the professional Wind Dancers.
"Sorry it took me so long, Geralt. Rorana thought he found his Patron."
"Well, one never knows. Tranna was just telling me she never thought Anora would be good Guardian material, but she adores the quadruplets."
"You really think it's possible."
"I wouldn't make any hasty judgments. A Guardian is just an Enforcer who is loved by Veroshi."
Ruyana pretended to watch the dance. The Dancers were beautiful, as usual, but they didn't hold her attention for long. She was really looking at the Enforcer still sitting with Anora. Would he be a good Patron for the only survivor of her last pregnancy? What would happen with Guardian children if they didn't find Special Ones? It seemed unfair that they would go to the Enforcers after growing up among Veroshi. Or maybe she didn't need to worry about that. The Grebsas would find a way. She had to have faith in them the way Geralt had faith in her.
She stood up. "I'll be right back, Stacen."
Geralt watched her go back to where Edain was sitting and speak with him. Edain took Rorana from her arms. Then, Geralt thought he smelled a bit of hairspray and sniffed.
*Any idea what your Special One is doing?* asked a powerful voice in his head.
He whirled and saw a big, well-groomed Enforcer. The grooming only seemed to make the numerous battle scars stand out and no Veroshi could do much about the savage gleam in his eyes. At least, they couldn't do much in less than a day. This big brute could only be Commandrix Ariana.
*Ruyana's son thought Captain Edain was his Patron.*
*Edain's a good Captain. I'll be sorry to lose him. But don't worry, Lieutenant. I won't blame you if the toddler decides he likes him.* Ariana looked at the Wind Dancers. *Lovely, aren't they?*
Commandrix Ariana looked directly at him. *You know, I nearly took your precious spa attendants' heads off. They didn't do anything offensive; I'm just too savage for them. I can't stay here. Be sure to give my regards to Commandrix Tranna.*
A little sympathy crept into Geralt's mental tone. *I understand, sir.*
Ariana flew off. Geralt shuddered. He understood better than the Commandrix probably thought he did. The old warrior probably saw a lieutenant who hadn't even lasted an entire lifetime as an Enforcer. Stars, Geralt had been a Guardian for almost a year, and he still had days when he had to go hunt something or he would go nuts. Ruyana knew that from all the times he had brought home a deer or a brace of rabbits. He simply wasn't as tame as she would have liked.
Ruyana came back to Geralt. "You were correct. Captain Edain just took Rorana to get some treats from the food tent. They really seem to like each other."
"Captain Anora will love that."
"Yes, she admitted to me she was missing her boyfriend."
Ruyana wolf-smiled. "That's nice. I like it when we can make you gods happy." Then, she turned serious. "I saw you with Ariana. What did he say?"
"He said he would stay if he could, but he had some Enforcer business to take care of."
A random pair of Veroshi twins heard him and flew off in the direction Ariana had gone in.
It wasn't that Ariana disliked the Veroshi. It really wasn't. He just knew he was going to hurt somebody if he didn't get out of the City. The Veroshi didn't deserve that, and neither did Tranna. He didn't want to turn her and her subordinates into traitors because of their oaths to defend their little alien worshippers.
After all, they hadn't done anything to him that a good hunt and a roll in the dust wouldn't cure. They had bathed him, groomed his fur, and given him a massage. They meant well, but it made him feel like something he wasn't. He was nobody's lapdog.
The force field protecting Veroshi City was activated, which meant he couldn't just fly out. He landed at the entrance and spent a good five minutes figuring out how to shut down the lock. He was positive Tranna had designed the thing and hadn't told him about it. Of course, she didn't have to. She wasn't one of his Commanders anymore and maybe she just hadn't considered it relevent. He could have asked her for the code, but didn't want to bother her. It wasn't even a significant delay. She had based the code on some of the less-used Enforcer ones.
Tranna found him, of course.
*Leaving so soon, Ariana? The twins will be disappointed. They had plans for you.*
*I'm sorry, Tranna. I almost lashed out at those poor spa attendants. I don't want to hurt anybody.*
Her tail drooped. *I had hoped you could stay for the festival. The Veroshi might start thinking that only the Guardians care about them when it becomes obvious that every other Grebsa is avoiding Veroshi City. I don't want that.*
Ariana considered his answer. He didn't want to say anything to hurt Tranna. Then, he looked into her eyes and remembered the talent that made Grebsas good liars. She was saying everything but the real reason she wanted him to stay. Her other reasons were probably true. She was sincere enough. However, she had a more personal reason for wanting him to stick around.
*All right. I'll stay for now. Would you stay with me? I might need an escort.*
She purred. A pair of observant but unobserved twins watched them walk together with their tails entwined.
"Is it right to manipulate the gods this way?" asked Ralla.
Rola said, "We must. They need to know their hearts are protected. You did the right thing, telling Tranna that Ariana was leaving."
The two flew ahead of Tranna and Ariana and landed at the edge of the square. The Wind Dancers were just finishing their performance. Reona would open the floor for open dances soon. Most Veroshi knew the basics of Wind Dancing and would probably find time for it between games, eating, and drinking.
"Do you think the Grebsas can dance?" asked Rola.
"I don't know. They never talk about it. I wonder if we could talk Tranna into trying."
Ariana and Tranna walked past, tails still entwined. Tranna looked at them and winked. The twins yipped with laughter and tried to hide it. There wasn't a single Veroshi who would make a good conspirator. Ariana looked at them and his tail looped.
*Do you think they're up to something?* he asked expansively.
Tranna rolled her eyes at him. *Probably nothing harmful. They just like to think they're fooling us every once in a while.*
The twins skipped over to them. "Hi, Tranna! Hi, Ariana! C'mon, let's go dance!"
Ariana stared at the dance floor. "But I don't know how to Wind Dance."
Rola yipped, "That's okay. Only the best dancers become Wind Dancers. It'll be fun."
Ariana spread his huge hawk wings slightly. "Not with these wings. I'd have an even chance of clouting a few Veroshi before I even realized they were there. For a Grebsa, wings are weapons."
The twins just wilted. They could show disappointment with their whole bodies, Ariana noticed. He extended his wings to them.
"We Grebsas promised we would protect you, even from ourselves. That's why I wanted to leave the City. I feared I would lose my temper and hurt an innocent Veroshi. I would dance if I could, but I'm not graceful like you."
The twins went to give him hugs. He wrapped them in his wings. For them, it was just like being in a protective tent.
"That's okay, Ariana. We understand. We just want to love you."
"I know. You're such dearlings, I want to protect you."
They licked his face while Tranna looped her tail. Ariana had made the mistake of underestimating the Veroshi. They didn't need weapons to conquer a Grebsa. Well, she wasn't going to enlighten him. Not when she got to see that look on his face.
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Heart of Stone, pt 1
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