Excerpt from The End of Childhood First Draft

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"Nothing in the Game of Houses is certain and nothing is forever. The only guarantee is we all die someday."

I still remember the first time I heard that - Scimtar himself said it to me while training me as a Guardian. Eventually we all make the fatal mistake. That said, the fact it was Scimtar saying it changed the subtext - he'd been playing the game for over thirty square. Just because you were going to die someday didn't mean it had to be today or any time soon. Maybe the metaphorical dice would come up snake eyes for you today. Maybe you had enemies who'd do their best to make it happen. But you got to influence those dice, too. The leaders of the Empire were all masters at loading the dice in their favor, or better yet, controlling the outcome so the dice were never rolled.

But you're not the only one the dice can turn fickle on...

-Graciela Juarez di Scimtar

It never begins dramatically.

It started on an ordinary day, when I'd been doing the perfectly ordinary thing of gathering evidence for a hearing. The case I was investigating had to do with the tort of infringement. In this case the plaintiff was alleging the defendant was generating excessive noise and interfering with the plaintiff's enjoyment of their property. Evidently, the defendant had refused negotiation on the subject and so the case was going before the relevant Primus the next day.

Both were out on the fringes of Sumabad, out in the hills, out where the towering arcologies holding tens of millions each petered out, and the residents generally had reasons to need or want ground space. One was an academy for self-defense, with classrooms for hand to hand disciplines and ranges for things like disruptors, lasers, flechette guns, and even the occasional firearm. The other was the Grubaro Club, a nightclub catering largely to the Tumar culture which had a large presence in Sumabad and environs. Tumars liked explosions while they were eating and dancing. Tumars thought loud noises were exciting and envigorating. Unfortunately for their neighbors, these explosions and other noises often reached ear-splitting levels, and it was not only disrupting to the peaceful conduct of the instruction at Hills Academy for Preparation and Discipline next door, many of the patrons and instructors were combat veterans. It wasn't my place to judge, but I was pretty sure the Primus was going to mostly rule against the Grubaro Club - they had a responsibility to see that any noise they generated did not disturb their neighbors, and my spak recording was getting readings consistently louder than an original Learjet on high-power takeoff.

Scimtar himself contacted me. Grace, I have a job if you're interested, or rather a series of jobs. Mixed family and imperial. It involves demonic traces, mostly spraxos and nephraim.

I was no longer the barely trained woman who'd been nervous about facing a terostes by herself, but neither was I a Sixth or Seventh Order Guardian. I was mid-range Fourth Order - albeit trained by House Scimtar. Furthermore, if I were observed taking on spraxos, that could be the end of me pretending to still be Second Order. What's it entail?

We're seeing a surge in the number of demonic traces, not only here in Indra System but everywhere in the Empire. The conclusion is obvious.

The fractal demons were trolling for treason. It's what they did. The vast majority of their troops would be easy pickings for Imperials when the inevitable confrontation came. Unless they could get us to turn on each other, the eventual war would be notable mostly for a lopsided casualty count. They'd seduced the old stons without anyone realizing it until the old Empire was already gone, resulting in a civil war that ended up destroying the Empire - and afterwards, almost the entire human species. This time the leaders of the Empire were alert for their tactics.

The assignment?

Match demonic traces to human contacts by Event Line congruency. Investigate the human contacts by behavior. If you happen to destroy demons, we'll pay a bounty - nephraim are worth three fourths, spraxos thirty. Ancilliaries too, although manesi and lemuure aren't worth much. What we're looking for is evidence to convict or exonerate treason, and we'll double your normal rate for results.

The money was nice even if Asto and I could live very comfortably off investments if we wanted, but demonic nobles were dangerous - and they had a habit of bringing in help when threatened. But I didn't think Scimtar would be offering me the job if he didn't think I was able to handle myself doing it - I'd given the family five children thus far, all of them above average tracking metrics for Seventh Order Guardians their age thanks to yours truly carrying them naturally instead of using artificial gestation. I'd done it for my babies, not for House Scimtar, but I knew Scimtar valued my efforts.

Grandfather is offering you a way into the Guardian's Ears if you're willing, my husband Asto put in his two cents.

I thought the Guardian's Ears didn't accept candidates born outside the Empire?

Maybe not, but it's worth pursuing if you want to win appointment as a Primus yourself someday.

That was a carrot that had my eye. Most Secundus-in-fact had more applicants for Primus-in-fact than they knew what to do with. Even a 'might be' defect like being born on Earth before the Empire arrived could be enough to make them pass you by. Also, I was a di Scimtar, which had advantages but also carried baggage. I wasn't really qualified yet - but I needed something to counter-balance the possible defect I couldn't cure, and it was never too soon to pick up that extra little something that would put me over the top when I was. I already had work in the Merlon's Eyes to my credit. Add something equivalent to the Guardian's Ears and that might be enough.

Why me? I asked Scimtar.

You've had ten years' experience as an investigator now, and we both know you're Fourth Order. Most of our investigators are Second Order, and weaker than average Second Order at that. They might be able to handle a nephraim, but a spraxos would squash them, and if they stumbled across a jopas it would be hopeless.

If there's a basileus?

You've survived two confrontations with them. There isn't another active investigator who can say that anywhere in the Empire.

I'd rather not risk it a third time.

So be careful and don't confront anything you're not certain of. Scimtar never had any sympathy for getting caught by your own mistakes. If there's the possibility of jopas, basileus, or something even stronger, bring it to my attention and I will use an appropriate agent.

When do you need a decision? I asked Scimtar. Who are you trying to fool, love? Asto asked me. I want to talk to the kids about it, I told him.

Tomorrow, I could tell Scimtar wasn't fooled either, fifteen hours from right now. He knew this was an opportunity as well as a risk. You can bet he thought he was doing both of us a favor. He broke contact without further complication.

What do you think? I asked Asto.

I think this is a good opportunity for you. The kids are taking care of themselves, and we've got my splinters to provide any parental supervision they actually need.

You know being a parent isn't just about supervision.

They can talk to you as easily as I can, anytime. It's not like they have music recitals or hadul games you have to attend.

I don't want to miss Mom stuff. When I'd had each child, I'd committed myself to thirty years of being Mom before anything else. As much as I needed to get away a few hours a week, I enjoyed it. Unlike the situation on Earth before contact, I could expect plenty of lifespan after - Guardians lived until something killed them. According to personal duration, I was 98 Imperial years old - 69 Earth. I kept myself healthier and looking younger than I had the night ScOsh stepped through the portal back on Earth. Even among the natural state humans, that was the way things were in the Empire. I hadn't seen anyone who looked middle-aged or old since my last trip back to Earth. At somewhere over 80,000 Earth years of age, Scimtar himself looked no older physically than the college students of my youth.

You won't miss it. Things will just be a little different for a while.

I had to admit he was right. Thanks to our situation, even ten year old Alden was beyond what I could teach him about most subjects. At sixteen Imperial, Esteban was starting to show glimpses of the amazing man he would become - even if his voice had just started to crack. Ilora, Ilras, and Imtara, between them in age, were all starting to show specific interests and dispositions. I appreciated Ferugio - Scimtar's teaching master - more now than I had when under his tutelage. The kids' physical training was also more advanced than Asto had been at their age, as Scimtar himself had dedicated a splinter full time to teaching the family self-defense and dueling. Even Amras and Iaren - the oldest of his surviving children, each well over a square in age and formidable opponents in their own right - took lessons from their father occasionally. But the upshot was that my kids - and my husband and even I - were better prepared to defend ourselves than otherwise. His splinter might literally be a shadow of Scimtar himself, but it knew everything he'd learned in his long and adventurous life.

Will you be home tonight?

I did tell you that our schedule was for thirty hours of fleet exercises?

Yes, but I could hope for a change. His splinter would still be there, but his splinter wasn't Asto.

I love that you're always ready to hope the universe will be kind.

I love that you humor me. I'll talk with the kids tonight.

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This page contains a single entry by Dan Melson published on August 31, 2020 6:57 AM.

Excerpt from The Gates to Faerie was the previous entry in this blog.

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