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Stepped on Tails
Henry had a lot on his mind as he approached the house he was renting with Jason. The garage they built in the alley next to the house was locked up tight. It made Henry uncomfortable that they still had so much wealth in there, but burying it all under a few tons of bronze definitely helped make it more secure. The fact they did this in a hole and parked their large, armored vehicle over it also make it unlikely that a casual thief would be able to steal anything.
Not that a casual thief would escape the attention of Rark-han. The big wolf man was constantly checking on the garage from the house Bezzi-ibbi rented across the street. Henry still felt it was a little strange the boy had to rent his own house, but with Mareen living with Henry, Jason having his own room, and Aodh sleeping in the garage, their little house was already getting kind of crowded.
Henry wondered what would happen with Jason and Uluula. It seemed it took Uluula a long time to decide whether she was going to make their relationship official, but once she made up her mind, she didn’t pussyfoot around. Jason never really had a chance.
Henry suddenly got a dark premonition as he picked up female voices. He was using his enhanced hearing and caught snippets of a conversation inside his house. He was still developing a habit of alternating between enhancing his various senses in waves. It was hard to control, especially his hearing, but he was finding the ability could come in handy.
He could tell the voices in the house belonged to Uluula and Mareen. That fact in itself made him nervous. He wasn’t entirely sure why, but ever since Mareen and Uluula began forging a friendship, Henry felt something looming up on him, like someone stepped on his grave.
He waved Rark-han over from where the Mo’hali man would probably be watching through the blinds across the street and slowed his pace, wondering what the women were talking about. However, all he could catch was a muffled word or two. It sounded like they were speaking softly behind multiple closed doors. Henry’s nervousness increased, although he didn’t know why.
Henry loved Mareen, a fact he wasn’t shy to acknowledge. She was smart, brave, and had already accomplished a lot in her life despite living on a hellhole, monster-filled planet. She showed flashes of wisdom and cunning at times that floored him. He had shit tons of respect and admiration for her. In fact, Henry sometimes forgot how young she really was… which was the problem. He still felt vaguely creepy for dating a 19 year old when he was about to turn 30.
He knew he shouldn’t, that love didn’t have an age and pairings with far greater age differences were common on Ludus. In fact, he knew people sometimes got married at 13, at least in Tolstey, same as people used to on Earth in the last hundred or two hundred years. In fact, Mo’hali had really, really strange marriage customs. Intellectually, he knew that 10 years wasn’t even that much of a difference in age, especially when he and Mareen were capable of living a few hundred years due to their orbs.
He thought it was funny how Jason was all freaked out about the possibility of having multiple wives, but his friend had no problem with the fact that his girlfriend was a different species and over a decade older than him. Meanwhile, Henry didn’t mind the theoretical idea of polygamy, as long as it was Mareen’s idea, but felt a flash of guilt at Mareen’s age.
They were still adjusting to Ludus, that was for sure. Maybe Mareen was right and they him and Jason really were idiots. Nah.
Rark-han began jogging toward him from Bezzi-ibbi’s house and Henry gave up trying to eavesdrop on the girls. He figured if he actually did it would be kind of a dick move anyway. He just couldn’t help feeling like something bad was coming.
He sighed and raised a hand to knock on the door. It was his house, but Henry tried to be polite and avoid barging in on people. He also never wanted to walk in on people taking a bath together again. He sniggered at the memory.
That poor bastard Jason.
Aodh walked down the busy Mirana street with Henry, Rark-han, Mareen, and Uluula. He knew they were heading towards the Jaguar Clan House, and he was busy trying to convince himself he was as unconcerned about this fact as his companion. It wasn’t working.
Aodh surreptitiously glanced at Henry before he realized what he was doing and kept his eyes pointed straight ahead. He hadn’t meant to overhear Uluula and Mareen talking. He really hadn’t. He couldn’t help that they were in the next room and he had exceptional hearing due to his Fideli genes… Of course, his Fideli genes hadn’t made him put his ear to the wall…
He wished he hadn’t heard anything. Poor Henry, he had no idea what was coming.
Well, it’d probably be good for him. Aodh still didn’t know Henry or Jason very well, but he had a decent grasp of their personalities. For all he knew, Mareen and Uluula were right to plan an ambush.
He shrugged, it wasn’t his problem. He couldn’t help but worry, though. Luckily, he’d been getting better at controlling his worrying nature, a necessity while carrying gunpowder bombs around all the time. After thinking about them, Aodh consciously felt the bronze, tubular “grenades” on his belt hitting his legs while he walked. He shuddered. It was time to think of something else.
Aodh tried his best not to think of things that upset him, like the explosives attached to his body, screaming hordes of ork warriors, or his psychotic cousin. In fact, thank the Christian God he hadn’t seen her for a while. No matter what happened while working for Delvers LLC, he took comfort in the fact he didn’t have to coexist with his cousin anymore. The remainder of the walk to the Jaguar Clan House, Aodh took simple joy in the fact that he wasn’t anywhere near a dungeon kitchen full of burned bodies or even worse, forced to deal with his cousin.
The Jaguar Clan house was huge. Aodh nervously crossed the threshold with the rest of his group and envied their self-confidence. Of course, they were all impressive people, so the source of their assurance was obvious.
Mareen was in mourning so she wore an orange dress, the same color as the smoke from funeral pyres after adding dried polleena flowers, native to Ludus to the flames. Mareen didn’t have her massive bronze hammer, but as usual now she wore the machete recovered at the site of her grandfather’s murder. Aodh thought it was a little macabre, but nobody really talked about the machete. He thought it might be a revenge thing.
Mareen herself looked as pretty as always. Her dusky skin, big eyes, delicate features, and shiny hair made her look like a noblewoman. Aodh still could hardly believe she was the daughter of his childhood hero and grew up on a farm.
Where Mareen was dark and curvy, Uluula was pale and petite. The tiny Areva woman’s white hair flowed down just past her shoulders. Her high cheekbones, pointed ears, and subtly inhuman blue eyes gave her an exotic air. She was wearing crude grey cargo pants manufactured in Mirana and a small jacket of the same material over a white shirt. In a show of support for her friend, she wore an orange mourning armband. As always, she carried her bronze, leaf-bladed spear.
Rark-han was a huge, brute of a wolf-race Mo’hali. As usual, he wore leather pants, laced sandals, and a leather vest. He carried a big, heavy bronze axe on one hip. Where another ax would have hung on the other side of his body in the past, his belt was empty. His amputated arm sported a bronze prosthetic made by Henry.
Rark-han’s wide face was mostly humanoid with a few canine features including a rough nose, fangs, shaggy hair, and fur on the side of his face. His hair was dark, his large, upright ears began where a human’s would but were obviously inhuman in size and shape.
Henry walked with his usual confident swagger, one hand on the pommel of the bronze short sword he had on a baldric. He was wearing fine green and black Jaguar Clan robes, probably because Mareen forced him to for his audience earlier that day. He also had freshly trimmed his goatee and combed his hair, the simple concessions to his appearance made him look dashing.
Even his mask looked like a fashion statement. While Aodh looked stupid and awkward wearing his mask, Henry looked like he was heading to a ball. Henry’s mask covered most of his Asian features, but he was still dark and striking. Aodh knew Henry was an important man and he wondered why he didn’t always put effort into his appearance. What Henry usually wore still suited him, serviceable old leather and thick linen clothing, but when he actually tried to look nice, he literally stopped traffic.
He just had that sort of effect. It drove Aodh crazy how Henry had no clue about his effect on people. In fact, he had no idea where the man actually got his self-confidence from. He knew Henry’s obviousness irritated Jason too, but Jason was likewise clueless to the effect his own presence could have on other people to. Both men were idiots. At least Mareen seemed to actually know she was pretty.
Meanwhile, Aodh knew he was nothing special. He hadn’t done anything interesting in life, he was only sixteen, he wasn’t very tall or muscular, and he looked Fideli. He hated the white forelock in his dark hair, his sharp canines, pointed ears, tiny pupils, and second eyelids. His whole life he’d been mocked and even beaten up for how he looked. It wasn’t until he joined Delvers LLC that he felt like he belonged anywhere.
And yet, while felt like a real adventurer now, he still didn’t feel like he belonged walking into the Jaguar Clan House. Meetings were for important people. He was just a farm boy that could make things explode.
He was trailing the rest of the group, thinking about turning around and making a run for it when Bezzi-ibbi appeared out of nowhere next to him. The younger boy put his hand on Aodh’s shoulder and said in halting English, “Come, I will help you find good chair.”
Aodh smiled despite himself. He knew Bezzi-ibbi was younger than he was, but the other boy had already accomplished so much in his life and he was the heir to the Jaguar Clan in Mirana. Bezzi-ibbi was wild and Aodh wasn’t always sure what the other boy would do next, but he couldn’t deny that the Mo’hali merchant prince had a calming effect on him.
He stopped planning how to make a break for it and headed deeper into the Clan building.
Bezzi-ibbi sighed internally. Aodh, or Tony as everyone called him was perplexing. He was older than Bezzi-ibbi by several years, he’d been free his own life, he had incredible destructive power and yet he always acted like a mouse in a den of cobras. Bezzi-ibbi had seen what those “grenades” could do, weapons that Aodh was currently carrying with him! Bezzi thought it was a little overkill to bring weapons of war to a meeting, Aodh could blow the entire house up if he wanted to.
But he still acted afraid. It made no sense.
Bezzi-ibbi quickly led Aodh to the meeting hall and sat the boy near where Henry and Jason would be sitting. Then he tried to decide where he should sit.
His standing in the clan was complex at the moment. On one hand, while he was an acting Hero, he had no Clan obligations and would be treated as an adult. However, his rekke Henna-ibbi was angry at him for his choice. In fact, several other Clan members were ignoring him and twitching their tails. His sister Yillo-ibbi, one year his junior, was actually bristling at him while she looked the other way. Bezzi-ibbi felt hurt.
Yillo-ibbi, his sister was one of the closest Jaguar Clan children to Bezzi-ibbi’s age and even though he’d never gotten along very well with her birth-mother Henna-ibbi, he loved his sister. Bezzi-ibbi gave his rekke respect for creating his favorite sister and passing on her best qualities, like leadership and intellect. However, apparently now he and Yillo-ibbi were not talking. Bezzi-ibbi’s whiskers and tail drooped.
He didn’t regret his decision to put on the ring and become a Hero, but it was going to be unpleasant if he couldn’t maintain friendship with Yillo-ibbi during his adventuring years. He felt a flash of frustration with Henna-ibbi, but he knew she was doing what she felt was right. His mother was a woman of great integrity, even if she wasn’t very warm or social.
Bezzi-ibbi almost sat down but hesitated. It was important that he accurately gauge his standing or others would think him arrogant or stupid; he couldn’t afford either. He tried to dispassionately observe his personal situation. He was not technically part of the Jaguar Clan at the moment, but he was still the heir of the Clan in Mirana. His birthright would not change as long as he was still alive and didn’t reject it. He was a member of a successful adventuring company, he just attended a meeting with the Governor of Mirana by invitation, and most importantly, he was a Hero.
It was rubbing his back fur the wrong way to admit it, but his standing actually increased. It felt wrong to do so but took a seat at a higher position than he ever had before. He carefully observed the reactions around him and saw some ears laid flat, but most just pretended indifference. Among Mo’hali, this usually meant deep thought or keen observation. It seemed he chose wisely. His tail twitched in satisfaction and he immediately stilled it as soon as he realized what he was doing.
He couldn’t act like a cub anymore. He fought for his adulthood, even risking his life for it. He had to act worthy of his new role or dishonor himself.
Bezzi-ibbi greeted his uncle, Yanno-ibbi, held hands with his birth-mother, and settled in to wait for the meeting. He perked his ears up but swished his tail, signaling that he wished to be left alone. He had no patience for Family members that might want to offer phony, yowled compliments to him as a Hero. Many Family members supported Henna-ibbi’s policy to keep Bezzi-ibbi cooped up in the Jaguar Clan house and now pretended they never did.
Deep down, Bezzi-ibbi had to admit they’d been right, especially after he was captured and held captive, but he’d never admit it to them. Plus, even though they’d been right, the attitude of some Family members grated on him. They felt Henna-ibbi should have birthed the heir, not his birth-mother Banna-ibbi.
Bezzi-ibbi would not tolerate people speaking ill of his birth-mother. She wasn’t the smartest woman on Ludus, true, and she didn’t have a great memory, but she had a huge heart and Bezzi-ibbi loved her dearly. He understood why his father gently suggested his rekke to give her a chance. Bezzi-ibbi was glad for this too because otherwise he wouldn’t have been born.
Before he knew it, the meeting was about to start. Everyone was gathering. Bezzi-ibbi was interested in the fact that Kinwe-na-ibbi, Bezzi-ibbi’s uma, his non-dominant, non-birth mother, showed Jason, Henry, and their first mates Uluula and Mareen where to sit. Since their relationships were known by the Family and Henry and Jason were adopted, both women were seated in front of them as a sign of respect.
The Terrans all looked confused. Bezzi-ibbi sighed. He really needed to become fluent in English so he could explain to his stupid brothers how to act in civilized company. Of course, Bezzi-ibbi was too honest with himself not to acknowledge his own pride was the only thing preventing him from speaking Luda, but he would not go back on his promise. It was easier to learn a new language than deal with the shame.
He noticed Rark-han walk in, and the big Mo’hali immediately fulfilled his duty by unseating the Family member behind Bezzi-ibbi and taking that seat as an honor guard. Bezzi-ibbi was still not sure if he made the right decision by sparing the man’s life. Perhaps he should have just killed him like the rest of the Family thought, but so far he still believed he made the right choice. Death was easy, duty was hard.
His family at least partially disagreed with his decision to save the man because Rark-han was low-wolf race. If he were high-wolf race, they’d be more understanding. Bezzi-ibbi snarled, he loved his family but their obsession over birth station was not something he shared.
Once everyone was seated, the meeting began. Henna-ibbi stood and opened the gathering. Then she sat and Hajim-ibbi, Bezzi-ibbi’s father introduced himself and sat back down behind Henna-ibbi, formally displaying his confidence in his wife’s leadership.
The meeting really began when Henna-ibbi gave a quick synopsis of their meeting with Governor Holtz. There were low hisses and growls around the room, signs that the usually stoic Mo’Hali were incredibly agitated. Bezzi-ibbi didn’t blame them. Dark gods were serious business. Every Mo’hali in the Jaguar Clan studied the histories and knew how serious the situation could be.
All of which led to the part of the meeting Bezzi-ibbi really wanted to hear. He already had a good idea of what would happen, but he wanted to witness it play out since it would affect his life as well.
Henna-ibbi still stood at the front of the room, her posture and the angle of her tail conveying her dominant position. She paused to let everyone calm themselves before saying, “I think we can all agree that this is Clan business. Based on Governor Holtz inviting Jaguar Clan leadership to the meeting today, there are several things we can assume.”
She nodded to guards stationed near the doors and said in Yisse, the Mo’hali language, “Secure the House and secure the room.” The guards bowed, displaying the backs of their necks and shut the doors behind them. Then Henna-ibbi bowed to Bezzi-ibbi, her posture rigid but polite, “Would the Hero please help us secure the room?”
Bezzi-ibbi knew this had probably probably been coming and was dreading it. It meant he had to speak Luda. He said, “I stand as Bezzi-ibbi, Hero, future heir of the Jaguar Clan. I will honor your request.” He glanced at the other members of Delvers LLC and said in English, “Do not be alarmed.” Bezzi-ibbi sincerely hoped Mareen, Jason, and especially Henry would stay calm. He released his Hero suppression power. The feeling was strange, almost like flexing his brain.
He got a surprise when he felt Jason and Henry resisting. After Bezzi-ibbi extended his suppression field as far as it would go, which was barely to the edges of the room, he could tell that neither Henry nor Jason was completely suppressed. However, the fact he could suppress them at all now that they were both Second Rank Bonded meant he’d grown too.
He trusted his brothers. He was glad they were able to retain a portion of their power while Bezzi-ibbi did his duty.
Every person in the room felt the unique sensation of a Mo’hali Hero using suppression power, the feeling almost like small insects walking on their skin. There was no need for Bezzi-ibbi to announce it was done so he sat back down.
Henna-ibbi briefly turned a hand over, displaying her wrist in appreciation. Then she said, “This room is as secure as we can make it now. Every attendee that is not a full member of the Clan is either vouched for on pain of death or neutralized,” she looked meaningfully at Rark-han.
Bezzi-ibbi still disagreed with the Clan requiring Rark-han’s tongue to be cut out, but the big wolf man hadn’t seem too concerned about it so Bezzi-ibbi tried not to let it bother him either.
Henna-ibbi continued, “There are matters of secrecy to the clan that must be discussed, facts that Henry-ibbi and Jason-ibbi are not aware of.
“First off, since you are still here and don’t seem flustered, I assumed you already know you can’t run from this mission you were given.”
Henry just shrugged. Jason said, “It is fairly obvious, yes. If we couldn’t trust the Governor, you would have already said something. Since the Queen of Tolstey wants us to play ball, there really isn’t much we can do about it other than leave the country… which is what she wants us to do anyway.”
“Uhhh…” Jason thought for a moment before responding, “Obey instructions.”
“Yes, you have the right of it.” Henna-ibbi grinned, tight lipped and ears forward. “What you don’t know is that we have been in secret discussions with the Governor for years. She is the most influential governor under the Queen. What she told you about Tolstey being weak is true, but the rulers of this country are not pleased with this state of affairs. In particular, Tolstey receives no real trade in technology. Our country is technologically backwards compared to the rest of Ludus.
“Plus, the way the Governor described Berber having no interest in Tolstey is not entirely true. While it’s true this country isn’t teeming with natural resources or much infrastructure, we do have some of the safest land on Ludus.”
“This country is safe?” Henry asked.
“Compared to the rest of the world, yes. We also have the only known trade route to Teteth. If Tolstey had more military strength and more ships to trade with Teteth across the Ocean of Tears, we could be the wealthiest country on Ludus.”
Bezzi-ibbi watched carefully. He knew his brothers probably had no idea what his rekke was talking about, but they probably could understand the gist; nothing was necessarily as it seemed.
“Right now, some of the High Tribes of Jallen, other powerful merchant families are controlling trade in Berber. Our goal is to replace them or at least join them. We want to set up a trading branch in Berber and this goal is supported by the Tolstey government.”
“Wait, didn’t you have enemies that were going destroy you here in Mirana before we came along and basically saved the Clan?” Henry asked. Bezzi-ibbi hid a grimace. The question was fair, but Henry had a way to cutting to the heart of a matter. There were already members of the clan whispering that he was a Truth-Hisser.
Henry had already unknowingly weakened Hanna-ibbi’s position of authority before, and her disdain was obvious to Bezzi-ibbi when she answered, “Yes, but they have since been dealt with. The rabbit-race Tatir Clan was planning to expand from energy sales to general trading by destroying our Clan. We discovered evidence they were communicating with the bandits you destroyed.
“We attacked and dissolved their clan and distributed their business among our Clan and our allies over a week ago.”
Uluula stood and formally announced, “I stand as Uluula b’ Anami b’ Pairose of the Blue, daughter of Amani b’ Pairose b’ Heseth of the Blue. I speak as courted of Jason-ibbi and I wish to add my words in the day.”
Hanna-ibbi graciously turned both wrists and replied, “We recognize you, Uluula b’ Anami b’ Pairose of the Blue. Continue.” Bezzi-ibbi mentally applauded. At least someone was listening when he tried to give etiquette lessons. He winced when he saw Henry roll his eyes. Was his brother trying to start a fight with Henna-ibbi? It was already common knowledge that she tried to kill him on their first meeting. The fact he still lived weakened her position enough, but any disrespect was even worse.
The end of her tail twitched, and Bezzi-ibbi knew he was not the only person watching warily. Uluula was obviously clueless how close Hanna-ibbi was to jumping past her to attack Henry. Uluula said, “We didn’t know any of this. It seems you’re about to ask my beloved to do something dangerous again, and he would be able to better prepare if we were kept informed. Also, how were the Guard not involve?” The Areva woman sat back down.
Areva made Mo’hali nervous anyway, and the way Uluula just questioned the chain of command made the atmosphere in the room downright volatile. Uluula seemed to be somewhat aware of what was going on, but all the Terrans were clueless.
Henna-ibbi answered, “Who said the Guard wasn’t involved? That which benefits the city will not be investigated. You are not even Clan, and even all Clan members are not told of every matter. An empty mind cannot feed lazy lips.”
Suddenly, a big hand landed on Hanna-ibbi’s shoulder. She looked back, startled before slowly sitting down. Hajim-ibbi stood, announcing, “I stand again as Hajim-ibbi, interceding for one I love and for the good of the Clan. I will finish this meeting.” Bezzi-ibbi’s eyebrows rose. He’d never heard of his father interceding for his rekke before.
Hajim-ibbi cleared his throat and said, “I have spent much time around Terrans. I believe I can say what must be said in a way that will avoid wasted time or stepped on tails. The situation is simple. We want to get a trading foothold in Berber.
“To do this, we need to find a way over or around the mountains between our countries, which presents many problems right now. We are asking you to do this because you are Family and because Delvers LLC has already established a reputation for being unique as well as employing talented people. We all believe you can find a way. Obviously, having this Clan backing you is already a benefit, but if you increase the reach of the Jaguar Clan’s power, you will be increasing your own as well.”
“Okay, that makes sense,” said Jason, “but why us? Why is Berber working through Tolstey force us to travel there?”
“I have no idea. You’ll have to talk to your Berber contact, the spies. However, to help you with our interests in this matter, we are sending Yanno-ibbi, my brother by marriage to travel with you. He can also help educate you on Ludus trade and Mo’hali culture on your journey.”
Figures, thought Bezzi-ibbi. They don’t trust me right now and Henry-ibbi and Jason-ibbi are not fully trusted either. At least it’s Uncle Yanno-ibbi going with us, though.
“Understood. I’m assuming the Clan will help fund our expedition then?” Jason asked.
“Yes, as much as we can. We still haven’t fully recovered and won’t for some time. However, if my informants in the government are right, you should have received plenty from the Tolstey government. You should have plenty of money to build or buy whatever you need and have a fortune left over.”
The rest of the meeting was fairly straightforward. All the important information had already been given. Bezzi-ibbi stopped paying close attention and began waiting for his chance to ask about what was really on his mind.
After the meeting disbanded, Bezzi-ibbi caught up with Henry and Jason as they left the Clan House.
“Oh, hi Bezzi-ibbi,” greeted Henry.
Bezzi-ibbi gave a Terran nod in return. Then in English he said, “Important thing forgetting. Paper.”
“Oh that’s right!” exclaimed Henry. He reached into his back pocket and flashed the note he got from Gonzo at Jason. “We still have this! The thing to make the masks unnecesary for me, you, Mareen, and Bezzi-ibbi, remember?”
Uluula and Mareen gave each other a look. Mareen began to say something but Uluula gave a slight shake of her head. The two women folded their arms and watched. That’s right, they weren’t at the government building, thought Bezzi-ibbi.
There were a few moments of silence while Henry and Jason studied the note. Suddenly, Henry whispered, “No way.”
“What?” Jason’s voice was confused. “I don’t get it. This doesn’t make any sense.”
“Don’t you remember when we first got to Ludus? Like the first few hours?”
“Now that you mention it, yeah…” A slow look of horrified comprehension crossed Jason’s face, “You’ve got to be kidding me.”