Nobility and Other Obligations.

120 -1122.

There's a bit of a parade when the Sengi party arrives on Jewell, as the Ba Notr has 1,000 bodyguards. And they do a perfect hesitation step too.

There will be no "formal" functions for a couple of weeks, but many little "informal" gatherings put on by many different groups. Everyone except the Sengi will be changing clothing and/or uniforms at least a couple of times a day.

Viktor, as he is going to be in an area next to Vargr space, will be sure to go to all the parties given by all three of the Vargr ambassadors (all of whom claim to be the legitimate representative), all of whom will explain in great detail whatever grievances the feel they have against the Imperium. And Viktor will go to whatever other parties his wife wants him to attend. In between lobbying for the naval base to go to Jenghe.

Corina decides to try out the perfume that Black had given her on Jack, just to see how effective it is. She'll need to get a stick if she goes out in public. Boy howdy is it effective!!! A little dab will more than do.

The Sengi will not be setting up inside the palace, but have set up a camp with tents and pavilions outside on the grounds. Eventually, the Archduke's staff figures out that the palisades they are making involves chopping down trees, and arrange for plastic construction timbers to be delivered as a substitute. They sharpen up really well, but they do not burn well. Braziers are set up instead. Automated fire trucks are standing by.

Steiner gets to make sure that the Sengi and jai stop poaching animals from the zoo, and refrain from cutting down the trees. Fortunately, she's been through this before, so she's used to it. The animal rights activists are a bit more of a challenge, and they do have to have the facts of life explained to them. "If you do the wrong thing, yes, we will kill you, and not only can we, but we may." The police end up setting up a buffer zone between the Sengi and the protesters.

121 to 134 - 1122.

Corina keeps her first sitting appointment with d'Aubisson. This will not be the standard "formal portrait", but something that "expresses her earthy, motherly kind of essence". Mostly nude, in other words. There will be fruit, and strategically draped silk. Corina lets the artist work, and d'Aubisson of course keeps up a steady stream of gossip, so Corina gets all sorts of info on who's who, and who among the nobles have definitely expressed their hatred of Corina or at least they're opposition to her claim on Regina. She has d'Aubisson's "ear", so to speak, and that can't hurt. Corina will concentrate on the undecided, the bored, or disinterested.

Chang touches base with the people who oppose Corina, to see if they have another candidate. They do, and it's Count van der Schuesse - Bunny's dad. It's not that they like him, but they don't want Corina, and this way they get to mess with both of them. Interesting...

The riks are sitting around the camp discussing contingency plans, reminiscing about past battles ("Ah, yes, many heads."), and planning how to take the palace, just in case. It wouldn't take much, but it wasn't meant to be a fortress. And an occasional defective jai has to be dealt with. Business as usual.

Corina does her research on the different people she wants to influence, so that she can present herself in the best possible light for her audience. Corina is hard at work, and Jack gets to hang out with security buddies a lot (he's kind of bored). Corina has lots of parties and visitors, and representatives of various megacorps , etc., etc.

Speaking of the megacorps, they have many offers of assistance. Regina hasn't been strip-mined yet, and it's mostly unpolluted, so think of the possibilities. Corina is polite, but noncommittal.

An unbelievable amount of sucking up is going on. Not by the Sengi, however. But, since they are here to observe, they will be attending many functions, to ask questions, or just observe and not ask questions. There are the occasional awkward moments when people make comments that they assume the "barbarians" don't understand, but no one is killed. Yet. Steiner notices the Ba Notr subtly reacting to comments in Galanglic, although he's never spoken Galanglic around her; not that Steiner assumed he did not speak it - she's not stupid.

D'Aubisson decides that Corina can't see the painting until he unveils it at a little soirée. Corina has a conversation with Jack beforehand, first telling him that the painting "may be a nude", but when he comments that "we'll see how good his imagination is", she tells him directly that she posed nude. Jack is speechless for a few moments, then states that he's "not sure I want my wife on display for every Tom, Dick, and Harry. I'll have to go have a talk with this guy, who does he think he is..." Corina manages to talk him out of it, but Jack does reserve the right to "pound him afterwards, in case he's taken some kind of liberties". Corina requests that Jack wait until after the vote for the "pounding" (if necessary). Jack's okay with that.

Pretty much everyone who is any one has been invited to d'Aubisson's party, and much speculation is made as to whether or not the painting of Corina is one of d'Aubisson's "erotic works". There is one painting in particular that he did of a countess that Corina goes to check out - it's erotic all right, the countess is cavorting with several satyrs (yes, cavorting means exactly what you think it does). Very "earthy". Oh dear. And Corina was not able to get d'Aubisson to agree to either keep the painting himself or sell it to her (he didn't want to think about the future when he was creating).

Viper in particular is wanted at the party, as d'Aubisson hopes that she will see the painting and allow him to paint her. Viper is a bit concerned that a painting of her would end up in the Oaks' bar though.

The Sengi are invited, and Lord Kalarin decides to attend with Steiner. The Ba Notr is busy studying the j'la board. So Steiner, Kalarin, and some of the bodyguards attend. Many other pieces of d'Aubisson's work are on display. Finally, d'Aubisson unveils his portrait of "A glittering light in our Imperial heavens." Astridi has wandered in just before the unveiling; timing is everything. Corina is draped sort of Roman-style, with one breast bared, holding a banner, with a crowd behind her. Very powerful and evocative. No SternMetal tattoo showing though. Several people, including Astridi, express interest in buying the portrait, but d'Aubisson has decided to donate the portrait to the people of Regina. He does have a lithograph, #1 signed, for Corina, but she states that "art is diminished by duplication", and d'Aubisson decides she's right, rips up the lithograph (causing several minor fits by spectators such as Astridi), then charges into his studio to break the plates. He takes one swing with the sledgehammer, looks around, and hands it to Viktor, who takes extreme glee in smashing the plates to tiny little bits. D'Aubisson looks at Viktor in an interesting sort of way, and asks if he's ever been painted? No. Katarina is very interested, and after d'Aubisson is out of earshot asks "Viktor, do you know what it means to be painted by d'Aubisson?" Viktor looks at her and says "No". D'Aubisson will ask both Viktor and Katarina to pose for him at some point.

Schmoozing takes place, Astridi compliments the portrait, and makes a pass at Corina. She turns him down. There are a few whispered comments about d'Aubisson having "quite the imagination - like she really has a body like that!" Steiner is asked by Lord Kalarin to explain art. She tells him it's a way to express information, like a poem or song about a battle. She will have to arrange for Kalarin to see more interesting art, like of battle scenes.

There's a break-in late that night at the studio, but the alarms go off, and nothing is taken. A small scrap of red cloth is found near the painting, however.

135 - 1122.

The portrait of the Androchevs is quite interesting, and is revealed the same day as the Grand Ball. It's an interesting image, sort of in the style of Boris Vallejo, with Viktor barechested, raising an axe skyward, and Katarina in a brass bikini-esque outfit, clinging at his side, and the requisite bodies of slain enemies everywhere. It's a very large painting. Katarina takes one look and informs Viktor that he can forget about her ever wearing something like that - "it was painted by a man." D'Aubisson presents the painting to the Androchevs as a gift. Now all they need is a large wall on which to hang it. The Sengi find this painting more to their liking, although they spend all their time discussing the axe, and how it's being held, and whether or not it's been sharpened properly ("It's a painting! How can you tell???). Sigh.

Corina wears a red dress to the ball (Qu'elle surprise!), something that leaves the shoulders a bit bare, an appropriate amount of cleavage shown. Okay, so maybe she does have a body like that. Blaelok of course is in attendance, along with other ambassadorial types. Corina has put on a bit too much (accidentally) of the special perfume, and it gets wafted about while she's dancing with Jack... This is potentially very, very dangerous. Jack is showing amazing self-restraint by not just ravishing her on the dance floor. Chang and Astridi are especially effected, and Jack's getting a tad possessive. Corina whispers to Jack that "This is why I wore it, Jack - it's part of the game." Jack is able to control his protective instincts.

Grand Admiral Grey, on the other hand, whisks Viper off into the garden, and burns off those excess hormones with his wife. Once again, one of Astridi's parties will have an interesting reputation. Thank God the Sengi do not appear to be effected by it at all; that would be incredibly bad. The rose garden becomes quite the popular place over the course of the party, thanks to Corina.

Corina is dancing with Astridi, and it's rather spectacular. Both are excellent dancers, and Paolo offers to show her his etchings. Corina tells him she's busy. Paolo suggests that everyone will understand if she has a private meeting with the Archduke. Corina begs to differ, "my husband would not understand." Paolo understands that right now might not be the right moment, but Corina says "Paolo, no means no."

Chang is getting close to drooling, when another man tells him "I do not care for the way you are casting your glance at Corina." Chang raises an eyebrow. "And sir, I should care what you think, why?" This very quickly goes downhill from there, with much name calling and insults, although very highbrow ones. Several times, it almost comes to blows, or at least a challenge, and Chang seems to not be able to resist taking it further, by asking "Were you invited, or are you somebody's guest?" "I see there is no other recourse for a cur such as yourself", and he removes a glove. Chang steps back, and asks "And just who are you?" "I am Baron Kurt von Hohenstauffen." Chang's reply is "Ah yes, I was a baron once. I am the Marquis Johnathan Mohamed Chang". Kurt just sneers, "And you obtained your peerage from a cereal box, I presume?" Chang is offended - "You impugn the honor of Archduke Paolo Astridi?" "No, I impugn you, sir." "You could not possibly have been invited, not with your lack of manners." "I find that I am free at 6:00 a.m." Chang asks aloud "Can anyone vouch for this person?" Count von der Scheusse comes over and says "Kurt?" The Count and Chang exchange names and titles, and the Count asks Chang: "You are the owner of the mechanical killers, yes?" He's referring to the warbots. Yes, this party's going so well.

Katarina and Viktor have danced over to where the altercation is about to take place, and Katarina is able to identify Kurt von Hohenstauffen to Viktor - he's known to be rather "sensitive" about his honor, and has "defended it frequently". Count von der Scheusse is able to diffuse the situation for now, suggesting that they save this matter for after the business of the College is attended to, in the privacy of the Count's estates. Then he goes off to "introduce myself to that charming young woman", and replaces Astridi as Corina's next dance partner, after introducing himself as "Count Paul von der Scheusse". Yet another conquest?

Steiner, well-guarded by her bodyguards (some one might attempt to harm their rik), is wondering what the hell is wrong with everyone. Ghaer has smelled something remarkably like this on Veronica Liu, so he at least knows what she's wearing.

Corina speaks with Paul as they dance. "So, Paul, I've heard your name bandied about as a candidate for Regina." Paul says yes, "as is your name." Paul doesn't actually want Regina, he's just interested in the competition. Corina asks "When was the last time you were set on fire or shot?" "I have never been set on fire, and it's been years since anyone attempted to shoot me." Corina tries to explain what ruling Regina entails, and it's not the same as elsewhere.

Corina dances with Paolo again, and tells him that "If the Count gets Regina, you're going to have a bloodbath on your hands." He wasn't aware that the Count was interested in Regina, as he views it as "a dirtball". Corina explains that it's not the position, but the competition that attracts the count. Paolo will certainly have to consider the choice between the two of them, hinting that Corina might be able to influence the decision.

Corina's next dance partner is Blaelok, who remarks on her perfume. "I've only encountered something like this once." Corina asks about the packages that Blaelok and Ming-Na Ling exchanged, but all he will say is that "Ling Standard and my government have had a long-standing association." Corina then wants to know the control code for Christine Black. Blaelok explains that they did not have enough time to complete the 'programming', but they can complete it if she'd like? Well, how can she trust him to carry out other promises or commitments when he wasn't able to complete that job? Blaelok can see she'll make a fine duchess, already not trusting anyone. He does have something for Corina - "A small bauble, which having acquired it, I thought of you." He presents her with a little package. "Oh, and next time you speak with Mr. Black, ask him how William Rydberg is." Okay. (Perhaps Blaelok would like Black to kill Corina?)

Blaelok oozes back into the crowd, stops off to give his regards to Viper, and says hello to Ghaer. "Mr. Raller. It seems that I can go nowhere without encountering you." Blaelok has several other Solomani with him, and every time Blaelok gets near Viper or Grey, Viktor gets really nervous.

A young man, about 20 years old, comes towards Steiner with punch cup in hand, waving away her guards; he's obviously been drinking a bit. "You've been sitting here all night like a wallflower, but I sense that you are a kindred spirit, with a heart of fire. Would you like to begin the most incredible night of your life with a turn on the dance floor?" Quite the line. Steiner is at least amused, so what the hell. Her bodyguards know she can defend herself, and are used to things like this, so they just watch the crowd through slitted eyes, coiled like cats about to spring, hoping for an excuse to leap into action, pounce on an enemy, die gloriously, take many heads, or something like that.

Corina checks out the package, and it's a lovely bracelet of red stones, with odd foreign script on it. She has seen lettering like this before, on the banners around the Sengi camp. She goes to ask Steiner if she can read it. It looks like Sengi, but it doesn't make any sense, and there are letters she can't read. It has something on it about "return", "go", "summon", "aloneness" or "being alone". Steiner asks if she can borrow it and see about getting it translated. Corina says "Certainly. It would be just like Blaelok's sense of humor to give me something to wear that's a stolen Sengi religious artifact or something. " Good point.

While dancing, Steiner happens to be really close to a little alcove that Blaelok is using. Blaelok picks up the male in his party, pulls him up off the floor, and says "This had better work, " very intensely. He sets the man down, and he does notice Steiner looking his way, but he just smiles. Or grimaces. My that's an unattractive man.

Ghaer saw Blaelok lift the guy up, but he couldn't hear what was said. Then a naval officer comes in, tracks down Ghaer, and tells him he was told by his admiral to alert Ghaer that the Solomani appear to be "up to something". They have brought two large armored cars for three people, and they've got two really big guys watching the cars. No one is sure what is up, but Ghaer is thought to be the appropriate person to inform, as he was both competent and discreet. Oh goodie. Ghaer warns Viper and Viktor, rather vaguely, although it could be misinformation. Yes, everyone here really is that paranoid.

Viper heads over towards where Grey and Astridi are having a painfully polite conversation. No one wants to get between them, lest they wither. When Viper arrives she gets a big friendly hug from Paolo.

Blaelok sees Viktor watching him intently, goes over and gets right in Viktor's face. A bit of thrust and parry takes place, veiled insults are couched in oh so polite phrasing. "If I did not know you so well, I would assume that you are trying to provoke me." "You don't know me at all." "Oh, but I do." "No, you know what you've read about me. You shouldn't believe everything you read."

Steiner notices the intense conversation between Viktor and Blaelok. Viktor is getting a bit louder, without realizing it, so Steiner heads that way.

Ghaer is approached by a member of the Vargr party (or packs), a lovely female, with sort of collie-like features. She whispers the location of her room to him, hoping to see him later... Ghaer attempts to keep his mind on work.

Viktor is busy trying to get a rise out of Blaelok. "I hear your former wife is enjoying herself on Regina." Blaelok looks nonplused, and replies "Good, I hope she's having a good time." Viktor says "I doubt her victims are." Blaelok attempts to look confused "Victims? That sounds almost accusatory. Should you repeat this information in public, I might be inclined to sue you. But I'm a reasonable man. On the other hand, your temper is reputed to be somewhat less restrained. You should be careful. Anger is a weapon only to your enemies." Blaelok appears to be enjoying baiting Viktor. Then he looks at Katarina - "I see your lovely wife is free. Perhaps I'll take her for a turn on the dance floor." Viktor smiles, "be my guest". Blaelok oozes off and dances with Katarina, whispering in her ear, making her laugh. When they are done, Katarina comes back to Viktor, and asks him to get her some punch. Which he does.

Steiner's young man, Cecil Bloodworth-Percival-Huntington-Smythe (known as "Hyphen-hyphen-hyphen" to his friends, wants to take her away to a better party, but she demurs, and asks him to excuse her a moment while she speaks with Viktor. Cecil politely agrees to do whatever his love desires, even though to be apart from her for even a moment will be devastating.

Ghaer is looking around for signs of bad things. There is apparently some one on the roof, but it's a really big roof, and it could be some one's security. He does see the Solomani drivers putting something heavy into the trunk of one of the cars (something like a large duffle bag). Laundry? Take out?

Viktor tells Steiner that the Solomani are up to something, and he tells her about the old Pamela's attempt to get a hold of a Var Sengi. Steiner tells him what she heard Blaelok say. A jai has come over to make sure Steiner has something to drink, and since she's paranoid about other people's drinks any way, she takes it. Unbeknownst to Steiner, Chang has decided to try to get Cecil to challenge Kurt instead of him, by feeding the poor besotted young man some nonsense about Kurt having insulted Steiner. Kurt, although not drunk, and a very good swordsman, recognizes that Cecil is drunk, and not responsible for his behavior, so he just toys with him a bit. This results in flaming skewers, a female guest's hair on fire, punch bowl spilling onto Cecil, a tapestry on fire, Astridi on the floor laughing, and the Solomani rather bemused. As everything else would be anticlimactic after that, the party pretty much peters out.

Ghaer goes over to ask Blaelok something, Blaelok takes a taste of the punch, looking interested. Ghaer asks him "In the back of the car - pickup or delivery? Large heavy bag..." Once more, Blaelok acts confused, "You seem to have entered the middle of the conversation" Blaelok has no clue, and asks Ghaer to be more specific. Ghaer tells him what he saw. "I was wondering if it was sanctioned, or just boys being boys?". Blaelok really doesn't have the faintest idea to what Ghaer is referring. Really. None.

Steiner goes to see Astridi after sending Cecil back to his hotel room in the care of some jai. She tracks Paolo down in his study/library, and he had left word he was expecting her. Steiner sets her bodyguard and the drinking horn-holding jai outside the door, and goes in.

Paolo is in his robe, and doesn't really want to discuss "business", but he figures if the Solomani aren't plotting something, then it would be time to worry. Besides, they spend so much of their time plotting against each other, they aren't much of a real threat for the Imperium (or the Zhodani, or whoever). As far as Collingwood and the drugged liquor, Paolo doesn't know; he has people who take care of sending out stuff like that, so it could have come through normal channels, but it's a moot point now, and besides, the Collingwoods weren't all that stable any way.

Paolo wants to show Steiner a book he picked up on his travels, as he thinks she'll appreciate it. Yes, it's sort of a Kama Sutra-esque volume. No, it's not the pop-up version. Paolo presses a button on the desk and one wall of shelves moves to reveal a bedroom - set up, no doubt, so that the Archduke wouldn't have to return to his own chambers after a long night of "work".

136 - 1122.

The night passes. Steiner is falling asleep as dawn breaks. Corina falls asleep in the bathtub with Jack scrubbing her back, much to his dismay. Elsewhere, Victor awakes as Katarina says "Oh darling, thank you so much. You are so sweet." She's holding an orchid she found on her pillow, that Viktor did not put there. This means some one else did. Oh-oh. Ghaer had been too worried to go meet the Vargr female, and lays awake most of the night worrying.

There is a knock on Chang's door at 5:00 a.m. He asks who it is, and is told "We're here to speak with you about Baron von Hohenstauffen." Chang wants them to come back at a more civilized hour, but it's the police, so he gets on some clothing, and opens the door. They understand that Chang had "words" with the Baron, and they want to speak with him about his whereabouts between 2:00 and 3:00 a.m.? The security guard can't confirm that Chang was in his room, as he's been assaulted. They show Chang a picture of a body with it's head crushed, wearing clothing that looks kind of familiar. It could be the Baron, or any number of other people from the party. And they ask if Chang recognizes the rather distinctive footprint in the blood? It looks like a warbot footprint, although Chang doesn't say that. "Some sort of battledress?" It's a good thing that he didn't bring his 'bots with him. They do wait for Chang to get dressed before he comes to the station to "assist" them. Chang dashes off a note to Astridi, that he gives to his valet, and then he goes with the police.

The station house actually has decent coffee, and the police are very differential towards him. The tell him the body is in fact the Count, and he was beaten to death by some one using a blunt instrument, vaguely triangular in shape, and painted. He was beaten on the body, and finally had his head crushed. The police are aware that Chang has several warbots, but he tells them his robots are part of his household security on Regina, and that is where they are. They have sent to Regina for information, and Chang is free to go once he signs his parole promising to not leave the planet for the time being. After Chang's barrister shows up and reads the document, and gets the information about the charges from the nice policemen. Chang is given a ride back, and the police apologize for the inconvenience, they are sure everything can be cleared up directly.

Once Vasilli wakes up, Viktor goes out for a jog. Ghaer joins him, and they both see the Solomani male and female (not Blaelok) out jogging as well. Grey does not go jogging in the morning - jogging is evil. He's just been up for hours, and has a cup of steaming coffee next to Viper when she wakes up.

Viktor asks Ghaer if "you were the one who broke in and left an orchid on my wife's pillow?" Ghaer explains that if it was an orchid, it was probably Blaelok. Maybe Astridi's security is lax, or maybe Blaelok bribed some one on the staff to put it in the room to make himself look omnipotent.

Viktor goes to have a conversation with some of the other generals. He is on the receiving end of some good-natured ribbing about being "Grey's fair-haired boy". They suggest a good place to buy parkas, and give him some ski wax.

Everyone has already heard about the death of the Baron, and some have already assumed that Chang killed him. Count von der Scheusse, who is one of the people who assume that Chang did it, lets Chang know that he wasn't himself fond of Kurt, but Kurt did have friends, so this is a friendly warning. Several people make some rather snide comments in Chang's presence, demonstrating that inbreeding is rampant in their families, and has evidently overridden the instinct for self preservation. (This guy killed a man he barely knew because of a minor annoyance, so let's provoke him just for fun!)

Viktor speaks with Count von der Scheusse about his daughter, Bunny, and Will Delgado. Viktor is trying to tell the Count that Bunny left with Will for Rhylanor of her own free will, but the Count just thanks Viktor for providing information on where he can find the depraved individual who abducted his little girl. Viktor repeats that the information he has indicates that Bunny was not unwilling, but the Count is just as sure that Viktor's information is faulty.

Viper, Katarina, Corina, and Victoria all go riding, on the Archduke's horses; Astridi declines the invitation (he was riding last night...). Ghaer, Viktor, and Jack observe from a grav-platform (with a proper pilot). Astridi's horses are all extremely spirited, and don't get ridden much, so Viper ends up with some bruises from her first ten minutes in the stable convincing Midnight that she was the boss, but there are less psychotic mounts for the others, although some of them have to be tranqed a bit.

Grey, Astridi, and the other nobles will be busy with the opening of the College today, once everyone gets up (at around the crack of noon). And since the nobles all love to hear themselves talk, it will take all night. It's just the first day of the College, and it will take days before any real decisions are made.

Viper is upset that Astridi has not been making sure his horses were exercised, and she'll have to have a little talk with him. Not to mention the fact that if she'd known about the horses, she wouldn't have been so bored for the last two weeks.

Some one bumps in to Chang, and tells him "You've ruined the fall of my coat." This rapidly devolves into name calling and accusations, as this was a friend of the late Count. Chang doesn't help any either. The "offended party", the Compte de Leon informs Chang that he is willing to accept "a public apology in front of the College of Peers, and your relinquishing your right to hold a peerage". And this will happen when hell freezes over.

Corina's horse starts to perk right up, and then decides that he has to be the lead horse. Then Midnight begs to differ, and the race is on. Corina and Viper rapidly outdistance Katarina and Victoria, but then their horses start to slow, then stagger, then they lay down panting. Viper and Corina are trying to find out what's wrong with the horses, when a guy in a uniform lands and gives them a ticket for "reckless riding". He doesn't recognize Viper's name when he writes the ticket, but she makes sure she gets his.

The horses will recover in a few minutes, but the party decides to have their picnic where they stopped. Until, that is, they hear a high-pitched scream. The grav-platform can't see anything through the canopy, so Corina goes to take a look on horseback. She finds blood, so she comes back and tells the other adults. The local authorities are radioed, and everyone is sent back, except for Viktor and Jack, Ghaer and Viper will return with the grav-platform ASAP.

Viktor and Jack find more blood, and four bodies, all horribly hacked or ripped up and mutilated. One is impaled on a broken branch, another is dangling from a tree, the others are on the ground. Jack and Viktor are extremely uncomfortable, and wonder if it's the deranged warbot that killed the Count.

Steiner is invited to go hunting with Lord Kalarin and the Ba Notr. They'll be running K'resh, and using spears (guns wouldn't be sporting). Steiner checks with Astridi, it's an area that is used for hunting, among other things, and Astridi has had a mix of game brought in, some of them challenging. He was hoping to go hunting at some point too, and when she asks if it's okay, he says "For you? What the hell, kill whatever you want." The Sengi head off into the woods.

Chang has managed to find a second for his duel: d'Aubisson. As long as it doesn't take too long - he has to get ready to paint the Duchess of Rhylanor's portrait, now that she's finally agreed. They head out in a grav vehicle to a clearing in the woods for the duel, as it's not, technically speaking, legal to duel on Jewell, so it must be done in a discreet setting, away from the eyes of the local authorities. Not that this should be difficult, as the local authorities seem to be more concerned with ticketing people who speed on horseback than doing anything like real police work.

Ghaer and Viper are heading back into the woods when they see the other grav vehicle, and assume it's the police. It's actually the dueling party, which lands in a clearing, after Ghaer and Viper land (they don't need a clearing). Ghaer and Viper meet back up with Jack and Viktor, and Jack fires off a couple of rounds, almost shooting Ghaer. ("It had fur!") The city boys are a tad touchy, what with being out in the scary woods with some kind of mad whatever on the loose.

The dueling party looks up from their buffet when they hear the shots. De Leon remarks that it "Looks like some one's beaten us to it. Shall we take a look?" They are puzzled because there were three shots ( a duel would only have 2 at once), but what the heck, perhaps it's a multiple party thing? Their single shot pistols are loaded, and they head out to investigate, in the direction of Viktor's party, which is on the trail of the carnage.

Several heat prints are heading towards the scene, and Ghaer challenges the duelists, then tells them it is a crime scene, there is a dangerous "entity" loose, and they should clear the area. Corina, meanwhile, having returned with Victoria to the horse barn, is chewing her way up the food chain, to make sure the local authorities are on the way, and trying to get some one out there right away. It's taking too long to get the "appropriate people" to the site. The SWAT team won't be there for another 20 minutes or so.

The Sengi hunting party is heading through the woods in search of game. Only a few bodyguards, and some jai to beat the bushes and hold the drinking horns. Steiner is taking point, with the Ba Notr and Lord Kalarin talking quietly behind her. Are they talking about her? Maybe, maybe not.

Viper tries to convince Chang and the other members of the dueling party , to leave the area, but de Leon is determined to help. Chang, on the other hand, is going to stay in the grav car, but it's a convertible, so he decides to come along with the armed party. Viktor gets on the radio and tries to round up a group of marines, but is not terribly successful in getting through to the right people. Corina tries to get a hold of Steiner, but the radio is not working properly - word is out that there's some kind of trouble, so the airwaves are being overloaded with annoying rude people.

De Leon is able to help with the tracking, as he is an experienced hunter. Viktor isn't thrilled about having Viper with them, but she's not going to leave. They see some heat prints in the distance, but they are cooling rapidly - more bodies. Chang is the last man in the line, two "things" suddenly materialize out of the woods, and he fires at one of them before he is attacked and loses consciousness.

Two Sengi drag the unconscious Chang, minus an arm, back to Lord Kalarin, stating "We have found another one." Steiner stares at this. "Another one???" Steiner is able to eventually find out that Sengi were sent on ahead to clear the hunting area of anyone who might have "disturbed the Lords". Oh, shit. Steiner attempts to explain that killing unidentified people on other people's property, where they're guests this will cause trouble. The Lords do not see the problem, as they are just barbarians, and Steiner should not "forget her place" (this information comes through Kalarin, as Steiner is just a rik, so a Ba Notr would not speak directly to her, and looking higher than his shoulder would give her a sore neck any way). She is ordered to attend to her men, so she leaves to do so. After a few minutes, Chang does wake up, recognizes the Sengi, and asks for Steiner.

Chang's arm has been found by Viktor's party, and picked up, and the party is following his blood trail. Two members of the Imperial Communications Service show up to ticket Viktor for illegal use of a military radio channel at this point. Viktor identifies himself and tries to tell them they are at a crime scene; but they won't listen - until they are shown the arm, then Bob (who seems to have the sole purpose of following his partners orders - "Bob, go take a look.") gets violently ill. Viktor finally gets the authorities on the line, identifies himself, and gets the message across as to what is going on. Bob ends up on the commo unit speaking to a counselor as the party continues; he's all traumatized-like.

Steiner has caught up with her men, who melt out of the woods (damn that's a neat trick, but it can get really aggravating after a while), and she is able to find out what started this mess: ten of Steiner's Sengi encountered a bunch of the animal rights activists, who were rude and threw things at them, and the Sengi were concerned that they might insult the Lords, so they killed them. They take Steiner to where the last few bodies are of the group of thirteen activists. Yes, the bodies did have placards, and all of them were wearing synthetic clothing, etc. Well, that's not as bad as it could have been, at least they had been warned, and they were trespassing. Steiner still has a headache, and she is told to return to attend upon the Lords. She and the Sengi leave, and Viktor's party sees some heat prints disappearing into the woods - the signatures indicating maybe some kind of armor. They follow the footprints.

Steiner returns with her people, and gets to see Chang. She makes sure that he is being taken care of by the jai, apologizes for the "misunderstanding", and assures him he will be transported to proper medical care as soon as possible. Chang is remarkably calm, and takes responsibility for firing on the Sengi without knowing who or what they were. Lord Kalarin and the Ba Notr have gotten bored, what with the lack of game to kill, so they head back to their main camp to play j'la. Steiner is left in charge to do whatever she needs to in order to make this little inconvenience go away, as this is her sort of problem (i.e., "You deal with these annoying barbarians, there's a good rik."); if an apology is needed, and requires that a couple of the Sengi kill themselves to make it seem sincere, then that's what Steiner is to do.

Steiner and six of her Sengi set out to find any other unsuspecting "barbarians" still breathing in the area, after she gives them very explicit instructions to not use guns (this is cool - no guns makes it more challenging), and not to attack anyone until they are told to do so. Steiner ends up having to modify this to "I claim the privilege of first kill, and none of you may do anything until I have done so". Ah, this makes more sense - they will take her killing the first whatever as their signal. Sometimes life is very trying, and for the strangest reasons.

Steiner's party approaches Viktor's party, and she has her Sengi take up positions on the perimeter while she makes contact. Viktor's party sees her, and Ghaer calls out a challenge to identify. Steiner identifies herself, and goes in to speak with the others. She tells Viktor that Chang is alive and being tended to, and that he was injured due to a misunderstanding on everyone's part, while the Sengi were scouting for a hunting party. Viktor tells her about the bodies and all, but before Steiner can respond there's a yell from the woods, and a very large, tawny-colored shape bounds into the clearing, carrying a Sengi like a ragdoll in its mouth, then bounding over the party's heads and into the woods on the other side of the clearing. This happens obscenely fast, and while shots are taken, it's hard to tell if anyone hit the creature. Steiner tells the others about animals having been imported for hunting, and that some of them were described as "challenging". The Sengi, having been signaled in by Steiner, ask if the Lords should be notified so that they can participate in the hunt? One Sengi is sent off down the path, but after he too is snatched up, the party decides that splitting up is suicidal.

At about this point, a couple of forest ranger types show up to assist. Or at least make annoying comments. They do recognize the creature as a type of lion-like animal that is very fast, very clever, and is known to kill not only for food, but for fun. There are large prints in the clearing where it passed, but Viktor comments that he didn't see any tracks by the other bodies. The rangers explain that the "lion" frequently stays in the trees, pulling it's victims up; that could explain the bodies dangling from the trees. The party is going to set out after the animal, and the Compte de Leon has his hunting weapons in the trunk of his vehicle, so he takes a large bore rifle, and Corina gets a shotgun.

Off in pursuit of the big cat. Here kitty, kitty....

After some seriously paranoid time in the woods, the party and the cat meet up. Shots are fired, the cat is wounded for sure this time. Now they have to contend with a large, wounded, clever feline. Oh joy. Once more onto the trail, until the final confrontation starts with the cat leaping into the group. Ghaer has his arm sliced off trying to protect Viper, who is batted out of the way (now she knows how a small mouse feels), and the cat is wounded, then eventually killed. Steiner borrows the large bore rifle to finish off the cat, as de Leon has found it to be a bit too much of a gun for him. As she approaches the theoretically already dead cat, she can see one eye following her movements so she doesn't take any more chances and shoots it in the back of the head, in the spot the ranger said was the best. Okay, now it's dead, so why do they hear loud, catlike breathing right behind --- everyone spins around, weapons up, just in time to see a second of these animals escape into the woods. Turns out it's the mate of the dead male, but in spite of its reputation for holding a grudge, the party decides to just get the wounded and get out. A medical team shows up in a grav-platform, collecting Chang, Ghaer, and their respective arms. The rest of the party leaves.

Upon return to the Sengi camp, the Lords decide to take some Sengi out to "finish the hunt", returning a while later with the dead female, successful, if not uninjured. But they're tough, although the game was certainly more of a challenge than originally expected; all we need now is for them to decide they need to import some breeding pairs to Birabates.

A major post-hunt party and Sengi funeral pyre (for Steiner's two Sengi) takes place at the Sengi camp. All the members of the hunting party are invited to the party part, for much quaffing, roast beast, singing of songs, etc. D'Aubisson's contribution to the actual hunt was to sketch the creature in many different action poses, and this at last is art the Sengi can get into.

Steiner is told to attend upon the Ba Notr, which she does. He tells her, through a third party, of course , that he has had reports of her conduct, and he finds it "adequate". Considering the source, and the fact that she's not Sengi, that's quite the compliment. He also has decided that she should have children, as she has a good blood line. Now that leaves Steiner speechless. After a rather lengthy stunned silence, she stammers something about that "taking two people", and asks if she's supposed to find a husband, or if the Ba Notr has some one specific in mind?? The answer to the latter is no, as he wants her to make a selection that would be a "good match" for her. The idea of a Sengi Lord is nonchalantly mentioned, along with the possibility of Steiner receiving "a visit" later. Steiner does in fact get a visit from a Lord (who's not officially the Ba Notr, sort of like the king travelling under a lesser title) later, in her tent. She's unsure about this, and has still not quite gotten her mind around the 'good job, time to breed now' announcement. Not to mention the concern that this visit is a "command performance", so to speak.

137 to 158 - 1122.

Ghaer and Chang get the best medical care money can buy, and emerge with the same number of limbs as they arrived on planet with. Yea. Chang is absolved from the death of the Baron, as it turns out the imprint on the body and near it was made by the landing gear of some sort of ship, and the Baron was evidently already dead or unconscious, with a bullet wound to the head.

Steiner has asked Lord Kalarin to take a look at Corina's bracelet. He can't read it exactly, but he does a better job than Steiner. "It speaks of an entry and an exit. The writing seems to suggest a pass or a token to allow passage or to cross a passage or threshold. This is a variant of the tongue with which I am not familiar. " Steiner returns the Therian House Key bracelet to Corina, along with the translation.

Grey sends for Viktor, who shows up right smartly. Grey tells Viktor he has decided to "reposition the 6th Corps to a more forward position, and I want you to take a more aggressive stance towards the pirates in the area. You will be based on Vera Cruz, as opposed to Tulane. You can thank your wife. You're a very lucky man. And we didn't have any diplomatic incidents, although we could have. " Vera Cruz is a lower tech level, has a gas giant, a lot of water, the temp is about 70 degrees Fahrenheit, and it has long, level, white sand beaches. Much nicer than Tulane! Tulane will still have to be dealt with, as it is a source of pure ice.

Steiner, still really taken off guard by the Ba Notr's statements, and his "visit", starts to seriously consider the ramifications. And if she's going to 'breed', that means going off Lock. She decides she'd better check to see when she last took Lock, finds her shot record (on her med-chip), and sees that she last received the Lock 'booster' in early 1116. 1116? Lock is good for five years...quick math here...1122 minus 1116 is...oh-oh. A certain amount of shock sets in here, with Steiner trying to convince herself that it's okay, it's not like milk expires on the exact date, maybe Lock's like that? With the trip and all, Steiner hasn't been "active", since Collingwood on Regina, and she would have known by now if she was pregnant by him. Astridi isn't about to take the risk of some one showing up with an illegitimate little claim against him, so he's definitely on Lock, which pretty much eliminates all of the 'risks' except for the Ba Notr. The question now is: go to the doctor and find out if she's definitely not on Lock, and possibly get other not exactly wanted news, or ignore the problem and hope it goes away ("If I haven't gotten pregnant yet, maybe that means I'm safe for a while.")? Steiner decides to wait a few days at least, to get herself together. Is somebody in denial?

Ghaer first gets a letter telling him that he has 60 days to get in line with the height and weight requirements for the Imperial Marine Corps, or be discharged. Yes! And he has some time off due to his injury. Then he gets a letter stating that Admiral Grey has seen fit to waive the height and weight requirements. Ghaer doesn't know what he's done to deserve this fate. Then he finds out that he's being assigned to the Ducal guard on Regina, so he and Corina can keep track of each other. Oh, and he can also handle the PR stuff, especially since he's all Ling-Ling like, and the public should love that. Ghaer takes the time to purchase a half dozen of the best cucumbers for Katarina, as a farewell gift, just in case she has problems with those "military issue cucumbers".

159 - 1122, the Emperor's birthday.

Eventually, the College of Peers finishes all their posturing and debating, and make the decisions everyone has been waiting to hear. The Emperor's List, giving the candidates for elevation is published, and Corina is granted her petition for the Duchy of Regina, having proven her direct lineage to the former ruling house of Aledon, but only by one vote. As is fairly normal in situations such as these, she will be the Duchess of the planet of Regina for a year and a day (or until she produces an heir "of her body") before she becomes the subsector duchess.

After a private conversation with Astridi, Corina manages to convince him it will be in the Imperium's best interest to make sure Regina gets the contract for the new Imperial naval base instead of Jenghe, because that way Regina will get the additional revenue, which means it will be less of a liability. Astridi agrees, taking the paperwork on his desk, crossing out Jenghe (which was going to get the contract - lucky for Corina that Cali isn't still governor) and writing in "Regina". As usual, after much investigation and painstaking consideration, the final decision is made by some one who either doesn't understand, or doesn't care about the facts.

Corina still won't boink Astridi, as she's happily married, but she does assure him that she would turn down any offer of this type, not just Astridi's. This does somewhat console Astridi.

Ghaer gets a lift back to Regina with Corina and Jack, even though Jack thinks that's inviting trouble. But Victoria likes him, and Ghaer loves the flute tree. Plus, this gives Victoria (who is returning to Regina with Corina) a companion, freeing up Corina and Jack for their own play time.

173 - 1122.

There is quite the throng awaiting Corina's arrival, and some one has gotten a hold of a photo of d'Aubisson's painting, and it's everywhere. Some of the reproductions are the size of one side of a building. Boy, would you look at the size of that bare...

Black meets with Corina shortly after her arrival, to update her: "Ramirez was found dead in his home, shot in the head, at close range." Corina asks, "Was it a 5 mm?" (Black's weapon of choice.) Black responds, "No. It seems Ramirez was playing a lot of games, and we think it may have been one of the megacorps. The rest of the junta has been wandering around rudderless, and feeling very paranoid."

Corina makes a brief statement to the populace: "See, we trusted in Imperial justice, and we received it. The Aledon family has returned to shepherd its people. " Cheering, chanting, the whole nine yards.

Ghaer gets off the ship, after the big to do, to see a man sweeping up the confetti, and a single Vargr female waiting for him. She's not much on words, but she throws herself into his arms. It's Khirrll. After Ghaer reports in, she says "I think we should try living together." When Ghaer left, she realized that she really did want to "complicate her life". Well, well.

Captain Olivetti is so happy to see Corina, he could kiss her. He gets to leave Regina, and Grey has given him a ship with which to run amok in the area of the nonaligned worlds. He can work off some frustration by indulging in "gunboat diplomacy".

Before departing on the voyage to Vera Cruz, which will be in the comfort of the Admiral's quarters of a naval vessel, Viktor has a smaller print of the painting properly framed and protected, and he intends to use it as a division "trophy" (although how he's going to explain this to his wife...should be interesting). They just need to find a house with a 12' wall for the full-sized one.

Corina has returned to find the Up Port in a bit of a disarray. Levels one and two of the station are pretty much torn up, by large groups of Pikhans. They just needed to fix things. There was lead in the water, and that could effect the development of children, so they have been ripping up the deck plates and replacing the pipes. It seems that they've developed new technology, and new machines that replace the pipes. They've been cannibalizing unused sections of Old Port, so the materials are costing practically nothing. The job is half done already, but it's a major mess, and they don't warn people when they are going to shut off the power. And the traffic detours are truly byzantine. The engineers are a bit concerned that the new pipes will cause the water pressure to go up drastically in Old Port, so they may need safety or run-off valves. That will be done right away, by some of the human engineers.

Ghaer tells Corina about Irving and the dakars. This is very interesting, and potentially profitable. Corina isn't too concerned about the fact that Irving "borrowed" the platinum from the Solomani Consulate. After all the disruptions there, no one will probably notice. Even if they do, they aren't likely to report the crime.

The Pikhans have also taken on the reactor repair project, and have encountered some interesting creatures in the depths of Up Port. None of the Pikhans have been harmed, but they were slightly distracted for a while. Now one of the reactors is blocked up with half-barbecued, giant radioactive eel-slug creature. They're working on that.

Many people are complaining to Corina about the problems, including Black: "They keep rerouting the telephone and datalines two or three times a day, and that's not good for the computers." And Scalese is upset until Corina has the Pikhans join the Union. She makes certain that only the appropriate amount of union dues money is deducted. This give the union 4,000 new members, who aren't going to be bothered to vote, and will trust Mr. Scalese to make the right decisions for them.

Corina speaks with the Pikhan in charge of the water project, who tells her that "We're just about done with level 2, but we are going to need everyone out of it for two days." Corina will have all the residents put up in hotels. There's one old lady who refuses to leave, as she hasn't been outside of her apartment in 15 years. Corina offers to bring in a low berth, but she's "not having any of that newfangled equipment in here - you'll reprogram my brain." Well that's a thought. The Pikhans have a solution once the problem is explained to them: they attach grav generators, extend feeds for her lights, tri-dee, etc., cut her apartment off from the walls, and move it to a safe location. Corina has this filmed.

Everyone is a bit concerned about the strange noises on the other side of all the welded shut access to level 2. Corina makes them tell her what they are doing - turns out they are pressure-cleaning out all the detritus on level 2, blasting it out of the side of the station, into the sun. After all this, including two hours where everyone on level 1 and 3 feel like they're in the same room as a dentist's drill.

175 - 1122.

But after the two days are up, level 2 is squeaky clean. The pipes for level 1 were taken care of from below while level 2 was being done. Until the air filters are completely replaced, the Pikhans have modified them - moss has been planted on the filters. The moss will filter out most of the crap in the air, and survive off the bacteria and waste it filters; a drip watering system is set up to provide the moss with water, which will also bring the humidity level on Up Port to within normal levels.

As a result of the Pikhans' "cannibalizing", there's now a huge empty section in Old Port, with no gravs or anything. No one is sure exactly what to do with it, but maybe the Navy can use it for the new port facility. Nothing where people were living was touched, and the area is well sealed off.

When the Pikhans replaced the various apartments they have to move back, they mix up some up, and instead of moving the apartments again after welding them into place, they just move the numbers. Theresa and Mikie go to return to their apartment, but the door isn't right - it's not the Mosler model Mikie had installed. What the heck? They end up down the hall, so they have to walk by where they used to live. This could prove awkward for the people who will be living in the Griffins' old spot.

The next time Corina speaks with Black, she tells him that she saw Blaelok on Jewell. "He said to send his regards. You don't get along well, do you? He said to ask you how William Rydberg was?" This actually gets something of a reaction out of Black, but only briefly. "I believe William Rydberg is dead." "Ah, he must be an associate of Evan Sontag." "Did he say anything else?" "No." No bloodshed - how novel.

The busy little Pikhans have also undertaken the Ducal palace renovation while Corina was gone. She finds out that the secret passages were all left, because the Pikhans thought they were "cool", in a Dick Salamander kind of way. Corina convinces them that she doesn't want any secret passageways, thank you, so they are reluctantly filled with foam steel (this heat-intensive process causes many thousands of little creatures living inside the ducal palace to stream out of it, but they don't get away - the Pikhans scoop them all up, cook them up, and merrily eat them; gee, it's cool to be a union member, you go to work, and get free snacks!). The ducal palace is now more secure, hell for stout, has it's own internal high tech commo set up, and back up generators powered by solar energy. It's easier to get in and out of once Corina points out that while a single entry is good for security, there needs to be other exits for safety sake, if nothing else. The Pikhans hear this, look at each other, and announce "Okay, get the cutting torches!" There is such a thing as being too secure.

Corina tells Jack that the "war wounds" preventing her from conceiving children might be reversible, so he should think about it, while she visits the doctor. for an evaluation. The doctor. finishes the examination with "Congratulations...", Corina faints; after reviving - she is faced with telling Jack not to bother about the "thinking about it" part of their previous conversation, that she's pregnant. Of course, faced with the stress of actually telling Jack, she faints again. Then he needs a drink, although it's difficult to pour one when your hand is shaking that much. She endeavors to tell him how this all came about, without totally disillusioning him about "the family". Perhaps that subsector confirmation will take seven months, not twelve.