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God and Mind - Volume III - Freedom
By Dark

Presented by: Xenogears: God and Mind

Chapter 35

     "Congratulations! Fei." Rue Cohen's sharp face split into a genuine smile, but Fei could only shake his head stupidly, his sweaty midnight blue leathers creaking like a ship in a high wind.
     "I knew! You'd win, Fei. --- That's one thing you learn on the committee, spotting quality." She rubbed her pale hands together in a gesture of proprietary satisfaction, as if Fei were some new piece of jewellery she'd just picked to wear.
      "I ---- I was lucky ---" Fei shrugged his aching shoulders, then leaned back against the smooth wall of the battling arena entrance.
     Rue Cohen raised sculpted eyebrows, the embroidered birds on her green velvet dress seeming to flutter and move as the fabric rippled. "Oh, don't be modest Fei, you were excellent! ---- Anyway, I know what you want." She stepped forward, reaching one hand up towards Fei's neck. For one awful second Fei thought she was about to kiss him, and he took a nervous step back. But the cool white fingers closed on the ugly strip of heavy bronze about his neck, twisting it around until they reached the small square box of the detonator.
     There was a whirr and click underneath Fei's chin, then the cold constriction that had clamped his neck for what seemed years, was suddenly gone.
     Fei looked dazedly at the two semicircles of bronze held distastefully in Rue's gentle hands.
      "A DNA operated lock. Now, if you'd please step this way ---"
      "---- Hold on a minute, lady."
     Rue gave the small, green-clad demi-human a swift shattering glance then returned her attention to Fei. "If you'd please step this way I'll show you to the Champion's suite ---"
      "Hey, Lady! --" Hammer's twangy voice was taut as a steel guitar string. "--- 'Ain't you forgettin' something?" He moved forward slowly, light glinting wickedly on his spectacles.
      "Hammer did help me." Fei thrust his hands nervously into the clammy pockets of his leather jacket.
      "You mean this ---- person ---" Rue gave an almost inaudible sniff, her pale face tilting ever so slightly backward, For a second Fei almost felt he could have struck her.
      "Yes." He said shortly.
      "It's all nice an' legal, check the list." Hammer's voice was deceptively quiet now.
     Rue reached down gracefully and plucked her shiny brown document case from where she'd rested it against the wall.
     With swift, almost angry motions she tore open the zip thrust in Fei's old bomb collar, and whipped out a pale tongue of paper. For a second her eyes flashed down it, then she shrugged and thrust it away again.
      "Alright, Champion Fei." She reached out a slim hand and touched Hammer's collar, deftly catching the two halves as the bronze parted, then flinging it away into her case. "Now come on, I'll show you to the Champion's accommodation."
     As they left the building, two guards in heavy leather combat masks wearily peeled themselves from either side of the door and fell into resigned step behind Fei and Hammer, their rifles drooping.
     The sun seemed to be loosing its continuous battle with the Nortune smog, only occasional chinks and bars of afternoon light escaping the slowly closing grasp of grey, like coins dropped by a miser. Nothing had changed, the D-block compound was still the same mass of dirty concrete, the same swaggering leather arrogance and shifting fearful eyes. But It didn't matter, Fei thought. He was free. The damp air was chill on the exposed smarting skin of his neck, Fei welcomed the discomfort, after all now he could borrow some of that soothing ointment Doc had talked about --- now he could do anything he wanted, he was free!

     The woman in the shimmering green dress led them back into the D-block compound, and towards the cafeteria. Outside the door Rue gave a quick imperious gesture, and the two guards slumped dejectedly either side of the door, dark eyes behind the leather mask plainly saying that they knew how impossible arguing with Rue Cohen was.
     Rue swished through the cafeteria and up a familiar narrow flight of stairs.
     They emerged into a room with a slightly threadbare reddish carpet, sofas, armchairs and tiny tables ringing the walls like silent shabby courtiers. It seemed a life age ago, Fei thought, when he'd been propelled into this room at the point of Leonardo's knife. But now the massive sofa set at the top of the three steps was vacant, a throne waiting for a new king.
     "I hope this room's to your liking, Fei." Rue swept one delicate hand in a circling gesture, as if she had personally arranged the slightly old fashioned furnishings and patterned wall paper. "--- Bedroom, bathroom and kitchenette through there." She waved carelessly to a door behind the huge regal sofa.
     "What happens to Rico?"
     Rue stopped in mid sweep and turned to face Fei, the warm radiance of the shaded light bulbs and the cold grey light of Kislevian day intermingling in her soft brown hair. "You are the Champion now, Fei. The Ex-Champion will participate in the group battling play offs this afternoon."
     "Will --- will you make him wear ---" Wordlessly he gently touched one finger to the sore spot on his neck. He needed to win the tournament, --- to get back to Nisan. But somehow the thought of another person - even the battle-hardened Rico, being forced to face the grey life sentence he had contemplated caused guilt to well up in him like hot blood from a fresh wound.
     Rue shrugged indifferently, and for the second time that day Fei felt a mild surge of anger towards the Kislevian woman. "He'll still be free to leave D-block, if that's what you mean. But you're the Champion now, not him."
     Fei nodded slowly, feeling relief wash through him.
      "Well ---" Rue's tone was bright and tinkling once more. "--- There are no battling tournaments for a few weeks so I suggest you relax."
      "sound advice, Fei,"
     Citan strode confidently up the stairs, dressed in the black trousers and T-shirt he had bought when he first came t Nortune, Fei's old Lahan clothes clutched in an untidy bundle under one arm.
      "Excuse me, miss ---" Citan whirled on Rue Cohen, giving one of his stylish graceful bows while somehow balancing the bundle of clothing under his arm.
     Rue treated Citan to a cool, polite smile.
     "As Fei is now permitted access to the rest of Nortune, perhaps you could inform me of any places in the city that serve a good meal?"
     "--- er ---- well" Rue took a step back, plainly off balanced by the doctor's swift appearance. "The Wildcat bar does a very good steak. But ---"
      "Excellent!" With an exuberant flick, Citan tossed Fei's clothes onto a convenient armchair and rubbed his hands together, his angular eyes alight with anticipation. "Quite amazing things can be done with well prepared protein --- don't you agree Fei ---?"
      "Champion! Fei! ---" Rue Cohen raised her voice slightly, cutting through Citan's good natured prattle. With a disapproving frown Rue plumped her hands on her hips and gave Citan and Fei a level, hard stare; a school teacher with unruly pupils. "Kaiser Sigmund has summoned you to an audience, Champion Fei. At his palace in the administrative district at half past seven tonight."
     "The Kaiser --- er --- right." Fei's eyebrows drew together into a frown --- the ruler of Kislev wanting to see him? "What for?"
     Rue Cohen shook her head. "I don't know. Anyway I'm afraid I must be going. You can reach me at the IBC office in the central administration district if you need to contact me. Goodbye Champion Fei." She turned and gave Fei a quick bright smile, then swept down the stairs in a rustling wash of green skirts and flapping embroidered birds like wind personified.
     Citan hurled himself into an armchair against the wall, hooking one black clad leg nonchalantly over the armrest.
     Hammer danced about, punching the air with tiny furry fists, black rodent nose pointed skywards. "I'm free! I'm free! Yes! Yes! Yes!"
     Fei smiled tiredly, reaching behind his head to untie his ponytail and let dark hair spill around his tired face. "That's right Hammer. --- look I'm sorry about ---"
     The little demi-human stopped capering and turned to face Fei. "What, her?" He jerked his nose at the stairwell. "--- Don't worry about it Bro --- get it all the time if you're a DH."
     Fei strode up the three steps and slumped himself down on the massive cushioned sofa Rico had been lounging on at their first meeting, cupping his chin in one hand. Hammer cart wheeled acrobatically up the three steps and gave a long low bow, twirling his paw like hands elaborately.
     "All hail Champion Fei, who got me free!---now we're off!"
     "I am afraid that your plural was a little premature Mr. Hammer ---" The Solarian leaned forward, bronzed hands resting on his knee. "Fei and I still have a few things to take care of before we quit Nortune."
     Hammer shook his head then pointed his small ratty nose at the Solarian, arms in their green velvet coat folded across his narrow chest. "Don't know nothing about no plural --- but like I said before, bro here got me outta a real nasty hole, so if I can help you guys ---" the little fixer nodded helpfully, small executive glasses spraying the light around like drops of water. "Just ask."
     Fei sat up, his face once more filling with a tense worry. "It's Weltall, isn't it, Doc? --- We can't leave it here."
     Citan Nodded slowly, lips pursed. "I am still convinced that the only reason you were encouraged to enter the battling tournament was for the purpose of gaining some data on your Gear. If we leave Weltall here, it is bound to be used in the Kislevian war effort."
     Fei nodded tiredly, remembering a promise made in forest moonlight, and a girl with chestnut hair. "Right doc --- but how ---?"
      "Don't worry, bro. Nortune's number one supplier will fix everythin'!" The small demi-human reached down and patted Fei's leather covered shoulder with a hairy paw. "I'll go find where your Gear is -- see you later." Hammer jumped energetically down the steps and began scampering swiftly towards the top of the stairs, his long leather boots making no noise on the expanse of rust colored carpet.
     "Wait a minute, Hammer --- shouldn't we --- er --- ?" Fei's voice trailed off, his tanned face still tense. Somehow he felt that everything was going far too fast, he had only just got rid of the threat of the bomb collar, and now he had to try and sneak a 60 foot Gear out of a top security government installation.
     Hammer's head popped up enquiringly out of the stair well, like a fast growing fuzzy mushroom.
      "Don't you think we should have some sort of plan? ---" Fei turned wide imploring eyes on Citan, still lounging languidly in his chosen chair. "--- shouldn't you go with him, Doc?"
     "No way, Bro ---" The little ratty head shook decisively. "I work best alone. You and the Doc just go relax --- I'll catch ya later." And before Fei had a chance to object the little firry scull vanished down the stairs, a target Fei was too slow to hit.
     Citan pulled off his spectacles and started to polish the lenses on his black short sleeved shirt, his lips curling in a reassuring smile. "I think you worry over much Fei. False aecium's lead to false actions. We need correct information before we can formulate any kind of strategy. And right now ---" In one sudden movement the Solarian surged to his feet, sweeping up Fei's clothes and hurling them towards the young man like an ungainly shot-put. Fei's tanned hands moved in front of his face and grasped the hurtling trousers and shirt. Citan grinned wolfishly. "You need to take a bath."

     The bathroom was not a large room, but the immense dark brown porcelain bath tub set in the center of the sand coloured tiled floor made the room appear cramped. Other bathroom fittings in a matching chocolate brown cowered against the walls around the huge bath, as if afraid of it's yawning brown maw.
     Fei grinned, wondering if the gigantic paragon of plumbing had been put in for Rico's use. With a quick twist he set the water flowing in great noisy torrents and stripped off his clammy leathers, leaving them heaped on the sandy floor like discarded snake skin.
     How long had it been since he'd had a real bath --- Nisan? But no, the house they had stayed in had only had a shower --- Lahan then.
     Fei remembered the cool white and blue room, the scent of soap, the ranks of bottles crammed onto the tiny ledge beside the bath. Suddenly the realization hit him, that bathroom was gone, Lahan was gone --- and he'd almost forgotten.
     A wave of sorrow slammed across him, sharp and cool as quick silver. How long had it been now, a month, more? It seemed years. The deserts of Aveh with their glittering sands. Bledavik, hot and crowded. The peaceful lanes and picturesque countryside of Nisan. And before that had been the forest and moonlight.
     Fei stretched, feeling his tired muscles groan with protest, his dark hair falling in sweaty ringlets across his naked shoulders. Would he always be doomed to think of Lahan? To calculate time only in respect of how long after his tragedy it was, every place he went, a place that was not his home? The young man sighed liquid eyes introspective and gleaming.
     Then Fei stretched himself out in the warm soft embrace of the water, and for a time forgot everything except the small pleasure of tired muscles being soothed. Perhaps everything would turn out all right.

     "Hey! Where do you think you're ----er ---" The guard's hard face suddenly slackened into a comical expression of surprise, Fei almost grinned, as the hard brown Kislevian eyes under the blue cap widened. "-You're the Champ!"
     Fei stepped forward towards the gate, feeling the scratchy material of the dark red overall's jacket against his bare arms. "I'm the Champion."
      "Er ---" The guard abruptly straightened, hiking his rifle up to shoulder height, clacking the heels of his dull scuffed boots together. The illusion of military discipline was only slightly spoiled by the tails of the guard's shirt protruding over his trousers like errant wisps of untrimmed beard.
     "Thanks." Fei walked forward Citan hovering beside him, a tall, protective shadow. As if in retaliation for the uncharacteristic burst of sun earlier that day the Nortune weather had turned suddenly chill and damp. Citan had pulled his old olive green jacket from Lahan over his black sleeveless shirt, though he had not bothered with his usual russet sash.
     While he had been a prisoner, Fei had often thought of the city outside the wire fences, From the small part of C-block he had seen on his way to and from the Battling arena, Fei knew the city was not beautiful, but still compared to the grim poverty of the D-block compound, the main city could hardly be worse.
     But Fei's first sight of Nortune didn't inspire confidence. C-block, as it turned out, was a mainly industrial area, the steady throb and beat of factory machinery deadening the grey air, like the plumes of murky smoke that spiralled out from huge grey cylindrical smoke stacks like giant cigarette buts, set down in a grey concrete ash tray to smoulder.
     The streets of C-block were mostly empty, but occasionally someone would hurry past, usually dressed in oily overalls, or a falsely bright plastic rain coat, flapping behind them like the wings of a bird.
     Halfway up a long grey street bounded with windowless factory walls Citan turned to Fei, pulling off his spectacles and rubbing the condensation from their lenses on the sleeve of his jacket. "I surmise you are thinking that it was hardly worth winning the tournament just to see this."
     "Well --- it's not that nice." Fei admitted, thrusting his hands into the pockets of his khaki trousers against the chilly oil-scented breeze that scoured up the alley.
     "This is the industrial area of Nortune, not the most aesthetically pleasing place. Most people here live in A-block, the residential and commercial district ----" The doctor replaced his spectacles and continued loping up the alley ahead of Fei. "It seems that in this city, the higher one's rank, the greater the distance between one's residence and this place."
     Citan turned out of the alley and up the right hand side of a T-junction. At the end of the road, Fei could see a large dirty stone wall, with two heavy metal gates open to either side of the roadway like spindly arms outspread in welcome. "Here we are --- the check point into A-block."
     At the gates, a guard in a neat blue uniform nodded them through, waving his shot gun in salute as they passed. Behind the gates lay a maze of grey buildings and crowded streets. The buildings were still generally dull square boxes, but in several places attempts had been made to lesson the impression of military barracks. Small plants in pots set either side of the front doors of houses, occasional window boxes stuffed to capacity with foliage. In the same frantic desire for colour many of the Kislevian citizens favoured bright cotes or embroidered shirts, military officials and sober suited civil servants moving through the brilliant rainbow flock like dowdy crows among a host of gaudy starlings.
     Fei felt his spirits lift, in contrast to the fear clogged watchfulness of the D-block compound, the chattering streets of A-block seemed like a celebration. The festive impression enhanced by the brightly painted boards, and glowing neon signs set above Kislevian shops like banners for an encamped army.
     As they walked the crowd grew thicker and thicker, a pervasive human mist attempting to mimic the clogged grey sky above. As a middle aged woman aggressively stomped down the center of the grey paved street, using a red leather handbag as a battering ram to force her way through the crowd, it suddenly struck Fei that nowhere in the city had he seen a car, land-crab, horse or any other vehicle.
     But before he had a chance to ask the doctor about this, Citan turned and started elbowing his way through the dense crowd towards a yellow neon sign with a bright lion's face, set above an open door out of which cigarette smoke, light and noise splashed into the crowd.
     The bar was warm and crowded. A cluster of serviceable dark wood tables were scattered across the brown carpet, each surrounded by an escort of dining chairs with red cushions. In one corner, a squat metallic jukebox lurked nastily, projecting a discordant din of synthetics and flurrying guitars into the room, the slow arrhythmic beat rising and falling like nauseating waves. But nobody seemed to be paying attention, people clustered in groups beneath the swaying lights in their brown wicker shades, waving drinks or printed menus, full of a kind of life that seemed almost indecent to Fei after the wary heavy atmosphere of D-block.
     Citan led Fei in and they started walking towards a table near the window. Then abruptly a woman in red suddenly gave an extra loud squeak.
     "The! Champion!"
     Dark shocked silence abruptly spread out from the spot where Fei stood, like a visible tide, as people stopped their conversations and turned to stare at him. The young man suddenly flushed as he felt the legion of Kislevian eyes needling into him like small inquisitive darts.
      "Alright! Alright! --- Get back to your drinks --- " A bear-like man in a sky blue shirt with rolled sleeves stepped out from behind the heavy wooden bar at one end of the room and began elbowing his way towards Fei and Citan. "I expect the Champ's just here for a bit of relaxation, don't bother the guy!"
     To Fei's surprise, the hum of conversation climbed back up to it's previous level --- though Fei still caught a fair few sidelong glances as he stood and watched the heavy set barman trundle towards him like a paunchy tugboat across a sea of brown.
     "Hello Champion Wong, --- and welcome to the Wildcat, please sit down." One brawny arm waved clumsily at the table Fei and Citan had been originally heading for. Obediently the young man and the Doctor sat, draping their coats over the back of their chairs. "drinks?"
     Two hairy hands plumped onto the table, and the big square, middle-aged face peered down at them like a friendly grey haired beach ball.
     "A half carafe of white wine, please." Citan said instantly. "And we have been informed of the excellence of your steaks."
     The big man nodded. "Yeah --- best steaks in Nortune --- and to you, Champion Wong, and your friend, it's on the house."
     The young martial artist's face suddenly flushed again, he didn't know why, but the thought of being praised and rewarded for fighting in his Gear made him feel uncomfortable. "Thanks but --- I --- er"
     "No, no, no!" The barman boomed genially. "I won 300 G this morning when you beat Banderas, so in a way you've already paid."
     Numbly Fei nodded, this huge good natured man was clearly eager to give, and Fei didn't feel like arguing, he reached for a menu and made his order.

     A few minutes later the food and wine arrived, Fei's sixteen ounce steak in a thick peppery sauce, with a huge pile of fried potatoes, onion rings, grilled tomatoes and peas.
     Citan had opted for a twelve ounce steak with a serving of prawns, potatoes and salad.
     For a few minutes neither Citan nore Fei spoke.
     "Mmm?" Citan speared a prawn with a quick precise thrust of his fork.
     " Why aren't there any cars or anything in Nortune?" Fei hacked down with his steak knife, then dragged the piece of beef through the creamy sauce with his fork.
     "They have a very good system of trains here, both for freight and passengers --- plus I suppose with all the carbon monoxide and lead in the atmosphere already, they can't afford the extra pollution."
     Fei chewed reflectively at his steak, it had been cooked to perfection, and the sauce was amazing. "What're all those factories for, anyway Doc?"
     Citan shrugged, resting one bronze elbow on the table as he sipped delicately at his wine glass. "Hmmm, many different things. Ammunition for the war, Gear parts, processing metal from the mines in the mountains --- not to mention the nuclear reactor."
     "Reactor!" Fei was surprised, even in his short time in Lahan he had heard of nuclear reactors, the old dangerous fuel that had been used before ether. He imagined one as a huge iron door like the mouth of hell, with green poisonous smoke spurting out of it to cover the sky in choking toxic pustules.
     "Yes, they've got a reactor here - buried somewhere under C-block I think." Citan grinned at the worried expression that crossed Fei's face, his angular dark eyes gleaming behind their spectacles. "I shouldn't worry, Fei --- they'll have so many contingency systems and fail-safes on the thing that the chances of a catastrophe occurring are extremely slight --- besides I hope to be leaving this city very shortly."
     Fei nodded, sipping from his own wine glass. He wasn't a wine drinker, but this was quite pleasant, sweet and rich with an aftertaste of honey. "Yeah Doc, I want to get out of here as well."

      "Everything okay?"
     Fei looked up to see The huge grey haired head of the barman leaning over him like a benevolent fuzzy cloud. Under one fleshy arm the huge man held a small black box with a leaver at one side and a lens protruding out in front like a a watchful eye.
     " I must say your food is surpassingly excellent." Citan wiped his lips on a napkin and stretched contentedly.
     "Good." The barman's broad face split into a warm sunny smile. "Just one thing --- could I take a picture of Champion Wong? --- Just a little souvenir for me."
     Fei shrugged, muscles rippling from beneath his white t-shirt. The man had been kind enough to give them a free meal, so if a picture would give him pleasure. "Okay, if you like."
     The barman moved back, his belly joggling before him like a blubbery shield and raised the camera. For a second Fei's muscles tensed, and he prepared to spring, too often recently when something had been pointed at him like this --- but there was only a painless flash, and then the smiling man lowering the camera and booming his thanks.

     The sky was dimming when they left the bar, the heavy blanket of grey clouds darkening slowly to a soft blue, against which the sodium street lights stood out like softly glowing orange flowers poking out of a murky swamp.
      "The clock in the bar there said six seventeen PM, so we should probably start making our way towards A-block for your appointment with the Kaiser."
     "Oh." Fei's eyebrows rose in surprise, he had forgotten that;. An expression of worry slid onto his orange lit face, what could it be? Why would the ruler of Kislev want to se him?
     "I shouldn't worry about it, Fei, It's probably just a formality --- he'll probably just congratulate you on your recent success."
     Fei nodded, his mind still filled with the dark tense grip of unease.

     The crowds in the A-block streets hadn't lessened, a host of dark figures, occasionally bursting into bright colour as they stepped in front of the lights of a shop doorway or neon sign, then winking back into dim yellowish shadow again as they passed by.
     The crowd thinned as they turned corner after corner, Fei obediently following in Citan's wake, hoping that his friend's sense of direction was true. Slowly, light fled from the sky and the crowd bled from the streets, as more people went home to rest after the long day's work. Fei shivered, even with the overall jacket over his white shirt it was getting cold.
     Their footsteps echoed forlornly, dull concrete thuds, and suddenly they were alone. The darkness pressed in on Fei, hard and solid is black glass, the sodium light only seeming to make them more exposed. Fei shuddered. A little way up the street a tunnel yawned blackly, a dark maw sucking in the orange light like a warm drink. Fei was uncomfortably reminded of the sewer, and the hoards of little fanged creatures that tore out of the darkness at them, waving their primitive forked spas.
     "Hey! Cat! ---"
     Fei started, the loud brash voice had echoed from the great black gulf of the tunnel, the brick walls giving it extra resonance. Fei tensed, waiting for the attack, and as his dark eyes lit on Citan he could see that the doctor too was almost unconsciously hunching into the stiff, oddly formal pose of the fighter, even as the shadows about them seemed to lean closer, immaterial spectators expecting a show.
     "Have I got a deal for you!" A figure sauntered out of the tunnel, a figure Fei knew. The streetlights gleamed on the white jump suit, making it appear to be lit with flames. The long red trench coat swirled and shifted dramatically as the handsome man swayed from foot to foot.
     Fei took a step backwards, shock and relief welling up in him. Even though this ridiculous man had shown himself to be a competent fighter, Fei somehow found it hard to imagine any kind of violence from him.
     "Down this here tunnel we have ---" He waved one long arm at the gaping shaft behind him, then proceeded to flap both arms up and down with each word. "The! -- Most! --- Amazing! --- Aight! ---- Of! --- Your! --- Life!" Joe raised himself up on tip toe and gave a quick ballet pirouette that even made Hammer's capering seem clumsy, --- the absurdly dramatic red coat flying out behind him in a wave of rippling cloth. "All it takes is a little money baby! ---" Joe gyrated up and down, arms swaying by his sides a clockwork toy performing for the children. "Cash! Mula! Wompum! G! --- Only five grand to you buddy --- you won't regret ---"
     "--- Hello, Officer." Citan waved one arm exuberantly, staring over Joe's right shoulder down the empty street, his glasses circles of fire in the dim streetlight.
     Abruptly, Joe leapt skywards, his diatribe suddenly cut off as if with a knife. When he landed he began pelting down the street, blue shoes twinkling across the concrete, red cloak streaming like a banner. In a few seconds he had disappeared round a corner and only his fading voice was left.
     "Joe has left the building!" The wave of laughter hit Fei like a physical blow, he doubled up, as if hit in the stomach, uncontrollable mirth streaming from him like bubbles flying from a boiling pot. Citan chuckled mischievously, his shadowed face twisting into an arch smile. "That guy's fast."
     Citan's grin widened. "One generally finds that a felon's speed increases proportionally with his proximity to authority."
     Fei grinned.
     "Fei! It's you!"
     The girl's voice split the dark night air like a gun shot, echoing and ricocheting from the orange lit buildings. Fei whirled to see a small shrouded figure half running up the street towards him, tendrils of dark hair whipping against the sodium lit face.
     "Who?" He took a step back, half raising both arms, almost expecting the small figure to career into him, like an enthusiastic woolly cannon ball in it's heavy duffle coat. But the girl's booted feet came to a quick precise halt in front of Fei, hands thrust into the pockets of her voluminous overcoat.
     " You probably don't recognize me dressed like this, but I met you in D-block ---- I was the doctor there."
     "Oh! --- er --- hello." Fei felt a slight tinge of guilt splash through him as he remembered Suzarn's threats against this girl, and his own sullen mulish rudeness when he had first awakened in D-block. But by the swift pale twist of her lips in the uncertain light, the doctor was pleased to see him.
     " I heard about you being Champion, of course."
     Fei shifted uncomfortably, the rough fabric of his overalls jacket scratching against his bare arms as he shrugged, a humping of shadowed shoulders in the dim light.
     "Well I -- er -- just got lucky, I suppose --- " Fei shifted uncomfortably.
     "Look, I'm sorry about those battlers threatening you and ---"
     "Oh that." The doctor waved one shrouded arm nonchalantly. "Don't worry about it, I knew they'd never really hurt me. I was more worried about you. I'm glad you're okay though, Fei, I've seen too many people hurt in those baptism ceremonies."
      "Well it wasn't easy." Almost unconsciously, Fei rubbed one hand across his forehead where Rico's double handed blow had struck him.
     "Excuse me, but you didn't do anything with this woman while I was gone, did you Fei?"
     Fei flushed, his eyes going wide and shocked. "Like! --- what?!"
     Citan grinned nastily, the orange light making him appear almost demonic. "Well --- anything really, play chess maybe ---"
     "Chess!" The young man's voice came out in one long embarrassed splutter.
     The Solarian idly took off his spectacles and polished them on the hem of his jacket, allowing a surprised expression to slowly creep across his lips. "Were you thinking about something else, Fei?"
     The little doctor giggled, almost seal like in her pale fleecy overcoat. "Well, Fei can play chess with me any time he likes."
     Citan leaned back against the brick wall of the house, gazing reflectively into the air, a mathematician contemplating an interesting formula. "Good game chess --- stimulating. Yui and I always play a lot of chess together."
     Fei glanced from one doctor to the other --- there was something nasty going on in this conversation --- but he wasn't sure what.
     "Anyway, allow me to introduce myself. My name is doctor Citan Uzuki --- you could say I'm Fei's guardian."
     The girl's eyes widened, dark in her pale face. "You're a Doctor? --- Where did you qualify?"
     "You wouldn't have heard of it ---" The Solarian gave a quick shadowy dismissive gesture. "Tiny place --- very out of the way."
     "Oh --- well do you have a practice?" The girl's voice was polite, one professional healer to another.
     "For the moment, I am the doctor in charge of D-block."
     The girl's eyes flashed, her small body filling with tension beneath it's voluminous coat, once more she resembled a woolly cannonball, primed and ready with a steadily flaming fuse. "What're you doing here? What if someone needs help! ---"
     Citan took an involuntary step back, holding his hands protectively in front of him as if expecting an attack. "Well, I ---"
     "--- Doctor?"
     The young woman turned to Fei, her face softening slightly.
     " Citan just took over the post of doctor in D-block so that he could help me. But we'll be leaving Nortune soon. Like you said, it's not fair for the people in D-block to be left without a doctor so do you know anyone who could take over?"
     The girl smiled, and the slow burning rage in her angular Kislevian eyes melted like ice in spring. "I know someone all righ ---- "She cocked her head to one side contemplatively. "How about ---- me!"
     "Do you not already have a practice here?"
     The doctor turned to Citan, an errant gust of chilly wind playing with her dark hair. "Well, no. The imperial medical bureaux assigned me here, but it must have been a mistake because there are already enough doctors here and I've got no work to do."
     The Solarian gave a slow sympathetic nod. "One of the intrinsic faults with bureaucracy."
     "Mmm --- that's why I was so mad when you said you were the doctor in charge of D-block."
     "Well, thanks doctor." Fei said firmly.
     The doctor shook her head solemnly. "I should be thanking you, I always wanted to be a doctor and I was never very good at doing nothing. And my friends just call me Sarah." The girl hugged pale woolly arms across her chest, pushing her chin into the high furry collar of her coat. "Brrr, it's cold! Would you like to come in for some coffee?"
     Citan shook his head firmly, squaring his shoulders against the now steady blast of the bighting wind. "I'm afraid we must go, Fei has received a summons from Kaiser Sigmund."
     "The Kaiser! Wow!"
     Fei couldn't be sure, but the girl's dark eyes almost seemed disappointed, despite her bright tone.
     "Well look, next time you're round here, come and visit me --- I live there at number 39 ---" Sarah waved one hand towards a narrow painted door close to the gaping tunnel out of which Joe had appeared. "And if you ever need anything, just ask."
     Fei nodded, a strange shy discomfort hanging over him like silence. "Well --- er, thanks. And --- well see you later."
     "See you." Sarah flashed a quick bright smile, then scuttled towards the door she'd indicated and vanished inside as if blown there by the chilly concrete scented wind.

     Whoever had designed Nortune's architecture couldn't have cared much for beauty or grace in buildings. Even in the main civilian living quarters area, every building, looked more like a barracks block than a place where ordinary people lived, loved and worked.
     But somehow, Fei had expected the main governmental offices of the Kislevian empire to possess some sort of grandeur. But apart from the Kislevian sun symbol emblazoned above the wide double doors, the building might as well have been a block of flats, a square box of plain concrete, regular windows poking it's stony face.
     "Champion Fei ---"
     Yet another Kislevian tradition, Fei thought sourly, the omnipresent guards. This time there were two of them, a young smart one standing alertly in the very center of the doors, and an older, scruffier, and altogether friendlier looking one, leaning on the wall and scanning a newspaper as though he expected an enemy to come popping out of it, his eyes moving back and forth as though watching for raiders on the horizon.
     "Excuse me, sir ---" Citan gave one of his characteristic bows, holding tightly onto his spectacles with one bronzed hand. "Might I briefly borrow that?"
     The older guard grinned, his grey unruly hair falling around his blue uniform jacket's unbuttoned collar.
     "want to keep up on the Champ's press cuttings, eh? ---- well I don't blame you."
     "You have an appointment with the Kaiser!" The young smart guard moved forward, his obnoxiously shiny boots firm as stone on the damp concrete of the street.
     "Our appointment is for half past seven, I believe --- and the time now is ---" Citan stared the haughty guard squarely in the face, his dark angular eyes unwavering in the sodium light of the street. The soldier shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot. From one neatly creased trouser pocket he produced a small gold watch, so covered in ornamentation that it looked more like an offensive weapon than a rather showy time peace.
     "Four minutes past seven ---" The young guard snapped the watch case shut and thrust it sulkily back into one pocket, his square chin jutting defiantly. "And thirteen seconds."
     " Well then, we have ample time before the Kaiser's appointment."
     The soldier nodded grudgingly, as though granting some great favour.
     Citan took the paper the older guard held out, with a nod of thanks and sidled slightly away from the double doors, Fei trailing bemusedly after him. The doctor hunched himself against one grey stone wall, holding the paper out to the flood of illumination from the building's doors as though warming It at an open fire.
     "What is it Doc? ---- Did you see something?" Fei peered nervously over the Solarian's hunched shoulder, casting a furtive glance back at the two gate guards.
     "I noticed a rather intriguing headline, and as we do have a few extra minutes I thought it'd be worth our while to examine it."
     A headline? Fei's mind whirled, almost as if he were still in his Gear probing and thrusting for a winning battle strategy. What was it? Something about Bart? But before the small geezer of hope had a chance to rise, Citan began to read, his narrow eyes squinting through the dim light, one fingertip carefully marking his place.
     "Ex-champion causes controversy, is the demi-human showing his true colors? ---" Citan shifted the page, leaning closer and squinting at the text, then he began to read in a low husky flow of words. "Earlier today, the demi-human Battling champion, Ricardo Banderas, suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of first time competitor Fei Fong Wong, the most highly skilled ----"
     Fei shifted nervously, hugging his arms protectively across his chest. "Er --- Doc was there something about Rico?"
     "Hmm? ----" Citan repositioned the rustling paper, his voice lowering to an inaudible murmur as he skimmed the article. "Hmmmm ---- ah!" Citan jabbed a bronze finger triumphantly at the paper as though he'd just swatted a particularly bothersome fly. "Listen to this, Fei:

     Earlier this evening, the demi-human ex-champion took part in the group play off matches to determine the final rankings for this year's tournament. After the amazing display put on by pilot Wong, we all thought the excitement for this year's tournament was over. However this afternoon surprising and potentially tragic events were taking place.
     Banderes --- in his custom machine Steir, was making good headway against his opponent, Hatamoto. Having just floored his opponent, Banderas began applying pressure to the jets, in what appeared to be a standard drop kick manoeuvre. However, halfway through the manoeuvre Banderas appeared to completely lose all jet control. The Gear came screaming across the arena, straight at the Kaiser's own personal viewing window. Only the quick action of our marine core managed to prevent a serious accident by disabling Banderas' Gear's jets with a discharge of Ether. Once more, it seems we owe our thanks to the brave lads and lasses of our armed forces, who prove once again, that they're ready for any emergency.
     Later analysis seemed to indicate that Banderas' Gear was suffering from a faulty Gx712 Jet governor. It is of course ultimately the responsibility of the pilot to maintain his own Gear, and the IBC is now in search of Banderas for this breach of contract. It is entirely possible that Banderas was equipping illegal or dangerous Gear parts, banned by the IBC.
     We can only hope that this potentially tragic accident, will serve to highlight the continuing danger of employing unreliable and ultimately morally backward demi-humans in a dangerous sport like battling ---"

     Citan broke off, his lips creasing in a grimace of disgust.
     "Doc? ---- You don't think that during the fight ---?" Fei's voice trailed off into silence. He knew that it had been necessary ---- for Bart --- for Nisan, but if he had done some damage. "I don't want that kind of --- "
     Citan shook his head authoritatively, the dim sodium street light and brighter electric light from the open double doors highlighting a reassuringly negative expression. "No, Fei. That's not it." Citan stuck the paper under one arm and paced reflectively, a professor preparing a lecture. "Tell me Fei, have you ever heard of a Gx712 Jet governor?"
     The young man shook his head. "No, doc. But I don't really know all that much about how Gears work ---"
     The Solarian waved the newspaper dismissively, swatting Fei's words away like insects. "It is not a question of your knowledge of Gear mechanics, Fei. In fact, I would go so far as to state that the greatest Gear mechanic in existence hasn't heard of such a part."
     Fei shrugged confusedly, he frowned distractedly at the damp concrete of the street as if trying to read the answers there. "Doc, I know you're great at fixing gears, but couldn't this governor thing just be something you haven't come across before? --- Sorry, I mean -- "
     "A valid point, Fei." Citan gestured expansively with the paper. "I am not by any means infallible. But it strikes me that damage to a Gear' jets usually results in them stopping, rather than them completely changing direction and speed for no readily apparent reason. And anyway ---" Citan stopped pacing immediately in front of Fei, flourishing the newspaper in a triumphant rustle. "I believe that the only significant damage you did to Stier was in the coolant control system atop it's head."
     "But, Doc ----" Fei's voice was still muddy with confusion. "Why would they make up something like that?"
     Citan dropped his voice to an inquisitive whisper so that Fei was forced to lean forward to hear him above the ever present moan of the perpetual Nortune wind. "If you were the Kislevian Government, Fei, would you like people to know how easy it might be to assassinate the Kaiser?"
     The shock hit Fei with the force of a sudden bad smell. He took an involuntary step backwards, his red overall jacket scraping wetly across the brick wall of the nearest house. But before he had a chance to catch any of the whirling sticky thoughts that Citan's revelation had set flying, a pugnacious military bark sounded from the wide brightly lit doors.
     "Quarter past seven! That's enough time wasted!"
     The younger officious guard tramped towards them, a dim menacing silhouette in the electric glare. "Champion Wong! You and your friend follow me!"
     Fei briefly wondered why having an audience with Kislev's ruler made him feel as if he were still a prisoner, but dismissed the idea, in any army there were probably always people who took their job's too seriously. Catching a resigned glance from Citan, he followed the officious guard's snapping boot heels up the stairs and into the doors, the older, friendlier guard following a few steps behind leaving the entrance way bare to the night and its shadows.

     It took only a few seconds for one shadow to take advantage of the absences of guards. The shape that slipped out of the street light darkness was large, bulky and dark. Only spots of orange at knees and shoulders and the fiery glow of straggling hair interrupted the generalized murkiness of the intruder. The light sheened dully from the creaking leathers, and etched the bark like skin of face and hands with the precision of a carver's hatchet.
     It was time, he knew that now. All the strategies had failed one after another, falling like dropped playing cards. Of course his employers hadn't been pleased, but he didn't care. After all, why should he care who ran the city? He knew with the cold iron certainty of years of hard-bitten experience that whoever ran this dump of a town, he himself would be at the bottom. Still, the mission would be worth accomplishing, even just for the satisfaction of feeling the old bastard's wind pipe collapse under his grip.
     Slowly he scanned the wall above the door, even with the guards gone sneaking into the front door was probably a bad idea. Then his snake like eyes caught on the five foot square ventilation grille set firmly into the crumbling concrete facades of the building like a regular iron plaster across a wound. That was it, his ticket in.
     Muscles tensed beneath black leather, the ground fell away as thick fingers and steel capped boots clawed to win holds from the clammy concrete. A few wrenching pulls and he was up, reaching for the bottom corners of the grating and mangling the corroded metal with twists of his powerful shoulders.
     A few seconds later, the street was empty, only the heavy ventilation grille swinging back into place, still held by its two top corners showed that an assassin had been and gone.

     Fei wasn't at all surprised to see that the inside of the Kislev palace was hardly more elaborate than the bare steel lined corridors of D-block. True, the floor was lined with a smooth red carpet, and most of the doors he passed were highly varnished wood rather than the cheap semi-synthetic he'd seen in D-block, but the walls were the same regular mass of metal, relieved only slightly by the soft electric light of the many shaded bulbs. The young self-important guard however, left him little time to admire the scenery as he thumped onwards, highly polished boots treading the carpet like regular military pistons. Fei remembered the elaborate citadel in sun drenched Bledavik, all ancient tapestry and antiquely finished furniture, so different from the business-like functionality of Nortune's palace.
     It probably got the job done he supposed, but there was still something missing, a colour, a scent, an air of well-used government and almost mystical regalness, something that even a person who wasn't an ardent patriot could respect.
     The guard lead them on, twisting round hard blocky corners like a steam engine on a proscribed track. Every so often, Fei caught a glimpse of furtive workers, thronging the corridors with activity even at this late hour. Clarks passed clutching huge bundles of paper in overflowing folders, civilians obviously with business of their own strode confidently from door to door, expensively clad bodies cutting through the scented air like glossy cannon balls. Then of course there were the guards, in usual Kislevian fashion, lounging on rifles, chatting idly with comrades or joining the intermittent bursts of people threading their way in and out of the many doors.
     A few corners after entering the building, the corridor opened out onto an expanse of wood panelled flooring like the center of a forest clearing. Here and there, tables dotted the walls, overflowing with an abundance of documents, which lay haphazardly on the glossy brown surface like extremely regular snowflakes. As if this were the center of a hive of bees there seemed to be more of the Empire's functionaries infesting the large space, seizing documents in quick ink stained fingers, or holding excited conversations behind the shields of raised files. But Fei had little time to spare on the constantly moving bureaucratic workers of the Empire. On the far wall set between two entrances was a heavy white shape, wing like projections jutting spikily into the lighted air, flashes of red marring the white skin like injuries.
     "An aerial battleship!" Citan strode confidently towards the white metal object as if drawn by a magnet, his boots clacking regularly on the wooden panelled floor.
     "Come on! You don't have clearance for military matters." The guard pressed on a burst of sudden speed, steam-rollering a young nervous looking cleric out of his path with a curt sweep of one arm, sending the few papers the young man held skittering across the polished floor.
     "I was simply struck by the elegance of it's design." Citan hadn't moved, but stood staring at the model ship, his bronzed face intent.
     "Oh! Well, it is our finest technical achievement." The guard stopped his relentless rush, turning around precisely on the spot to face the Solarian across the model.
     Fei bent to scoop up some of the cleric's fallen documents, sweeping them into the young man's arms to receive a mute nod of thanks before he scampered off, the hems of his slightly too large trousers hissing across the wooden floor as though he were skating rather than walking.
     "The Goliath is the most powerful weapon ever designed." The guard swung one green clad arm in an expansive gesture over the model, almost as if he personally was responsible for the ship's entire design. "It will end the war with Aveh in one stroke! ----"
     "Excuse me." The face of a short swarthy man in the blue and green uniform, was a mirror of sardonic disgust. Fei couldn't help noticing the understated gold ornaments on chest and shoulder, winking reservedly like distant but still bright stars. This man was obviously an officer. "Aren't you and him supposed to be on sentry duty?" One stubby hand shot forward, pointing at the scruffy grey haired guard, still lurking unobtrusively at the entrance to the central area like a thief intent upon leaving the scene of the crime.
     The guard's chin drooped, even his polished shoes and uniform buttons seemed to lose a little of their lustre. "Well --- er ---- you see ---- the Champion ----"
     The officer didn't move but stood, dark Kislevian eyes intent on the struggling soldier, the guard's excuses falling dumbly into the officer's stillness.
     "Deserting your post, eh --" The officer court martialed the soldier with one stubby gesture. "Now, unless you'd like to be on latrine duty for a month, I suggest you get back to the entrance double quick."
     Even before the officer had snapped his thick clean fingers the guard was gone in a double quick flutter of green cloth.
     "If you and your companion would please follow me." The officer began to thread an intricate path through the milling clerks and guards, his short powerful form moving with the grace and economy of a soldier on a parade ground.
     Citan gave Fei a resigned look, eyebrows arching quizzically then obediently followed their new guide.
     After traversing several more corridors and a short jerky ride in a juddering lift, they stumbled out into another area floored in polished brown wood, the lights in their expensive shades casting lakes of reflection down into the brown surface like sun on a woodland pool. More tables of documents littered the floor, and heavy steel filing cabinets waited passively against the plain walls. Oddly though, the large space was almost empty, only two of the uniformed guards whom Fei was starting to think of as just another item of Kislevian furniture, their heavy rifles jutting across a single weighty door of dark wood crossed by a strip of metal at handle height. Citan began forging towards the door, arms pumping with the rhythm of his steps.
     "Not that way, sir ----" The officer stepped smartly in front of Citan, his neatly clipped head on a level with the Doctor's green clad shoulder. "That's the Kaiser's wife's room."
     "Oh --- much apologies." The Solarian almost skidded to a halt on the polished floor, his legs in their black trousers snapping together like a skiers.
     "This way, if you please." They followed the guard across the empty area towards a flight of polished wooden steps that fell down to the floor like a highly varnished waterfall. As Fei followed the officer, it abruptly struck him that he was going to meet the Kaiser, the most important man in Kislev. He remembered Bart's abusive rants about the sluggish and incompetent Shakhan, but surely the ruler of such a competent nation couldn't be a fool. He imagined a tall intense figure, eyes cool and angular, face full of a strict military assessment. He would have strong hands which gripped a broad leather belt like the wheel of a mighty ship, and a deep authoritative voice booming strict commands to a hoard of well chosen underlings.
     The stairs opened into a bare white washed room, pale muted and functional. Here and there boxes and crates were strewn across the wooden floor, and a table covered with fussily neat piles of paper stood beneath the broad windows, open to the murky Nortune night.
     Fei caught a brief glimpse of an aproned figure wielding a duster in quick flighty sweeps, but the officer steered them rapidly through the room towards a door on the other side, his boots falling from electric lit pools of light bulbs to lakes of shadow.
     When they entered the next room the thin clever man in the plane red cap and robes couldn't have been more different from Fei's imagined grand general.
     "Greetings, Champion Wong." The voice was cool and cultured, matching the neatly trimmed grey hair and beard that framed the tanned wise face, its lips now slightly parted in a polite smile of welcome. "Allow me to congratulate you upon your singular achievement." Kaiser Sigmund held out one hand to Fei, a thin fingered delicate hand who's grasp was dry and swift.
     "Mmm ---- thank you." The young man's eyes darkened into confusion, surely the Kaiser had some more important reason for seeing him than to merely repeat what Rue Cohen had said. Then suddenly a premonition swarmed over Fei, an old spectre of an idea, familiar as the sight of his own face.
     The Kaiser's next words struck home with the predictability of snapping magnets. "We in Kislev appreciate talent, and you are an extremely talented young man. We would be pleased to welcome your skills into our armed forces."
     Citan moved forward protectively, approaching the Kaiser where he stood flanked by his great organ. Fei's mind whirled back to a forest, a girl's chestnut hair trapped in a net of moonlight and a promise he had made. Then had been Aveh, a friend's single eye burning into him like a watchful sapphire, and another promise made in the light of desert dawn and setting stars. But before he had a chance to articulate any of his swimming thoughts, a splintering crash resounded around the organ chamber like a host of tiny gun shuts. Whirling, Fei saw a massive figure in dark gleaming leathers picking itself up from the floor of the antechamber, splinters of wood and dust still raining down around it from the ragged cut in the rooms rafters.
     But the ex-champion seemed scarcely to have noticed Fei, his snakelike eyes had instantly fastened upon the kaiser, a predator scenting it's prey. With a grating roar the big demi-human charged forward, like a runaway black engine gouting volcanic flames.
     "Mutant! ---- Guards!!"
     But even beneath the Kaiser's brittle petulant voice, Fei heard another sound, a slight deadly click. He saw the short officer raising one steady hand, the muzzle of a revolver protruding from his thick bunch of knuckles like an extra steel finger.
     Rico checked his rush, throwing his rush, lunging quickly sideways even as the officer fired, the bullet smacking dully into the wooden flooring with a splintering thud that mirrored the sound of Rico's entrance. The demi-human glanced briefly at the organ chamber's door, noting the narrow entry, the officer standing like a squat military statue, moving his pistol in a slow calm sweep. The big man turned like a wolf at bay and dove for the stairs, even as the two guards from the lower level appeared at the head, rifles held ready. With a quick thrust of his powerful shoulders, Rico barged past the two guards and down the stairs, sending one guard sprawling across the dust flecked wooden floor.
     "It does not matter --" Kaiser Sigmund strolled calmly out into the antechamber, the short officer following like an obedient guard dog. Fei couldn't help noticing that the polite welcoming smile on his face had shifted and crystallized into a cold self-indulgent glitter. "The lower levels are far too well manned for him to escape. If he tries to leave the command area, we'll have him."
     As if totally oblivious to everything but the chase, the Kaiser swept across the chamber and down the stairs, the three soldiers scrambling after him like hounds following a huntsman.
     "What's going on, Doc?"
     Citan strode across the chamber towards the paper piled table. With a casual flick of one hand he lifted a sheet from the nearest pile and began scanning it, the light winking off his spectacles as they moved back and forth.
     Fei crossed the room to peer over Citan's shoulders in it's covering of olive green, the doctor's long dark ponytail obscuring his view of the document Citan was reading like a thread of black vine. "Doc? --- What?"
     With a quick flick of tanned fingers Citan folded the paper, ramming it firmly into the pocket of his dark trousers. He glanced keenly at Fei, the soft electric light falling into his dark angular eyes. "I am not certain what this means Fei, but I believe we should find out."
      "I'll tell you what's happening ---- more trouble for the poor Kaiser."
     Fei whirled, arms in the cover of rough red cloth moving protectively in front of him as if to ward off an attack. He had almost forgotten the lady he had seen dusting when he first entered the room. Now he could see she was a pleasant faced woman in her late thirties, soft brown hair tied back with a pale cloth, her typically Kislevian face only slightly lined. Her angular brown flecked eyes were softened with a rich, almost motherly concern, sprinkled liberally with cynicism.
     "You have a notion of what is occurring, miss ---"
     "Mrs." She snapped, shaking the duster in front of her white apron as if warding of an attack. Citan nodded slightly, his lips pursed in a sweetly penitent smile.
     "I apologise, Mrs! -" He firmly raised one long finger, emphasising her proper title. The woman rewarded him with a pale thin smile like winter sunlight. "You have some idea as to why the ex-champion would wish to harm the Kaiser?"
     The woman shrugged, as if Citan had asked why a river might wish to drown somebody. "Well he's a demi-human isn't he --- you can't trust any of them."
     "Oh." The doctor's shoulders slumped dejectedly, his tanned face creasing into an expression that almost seemed like disgust.
     Fei stepped forward, braving the still quivering feather duster that the woman held ready in one hand. "You say the Keisar has had trouble before ---- what's happened?"
     The woman took a few steps towards Fei, the tough serviceable black fabric of her dress rustling across the wooden floor. "The poor man's had a terrible time --- his wife leaving, and just when she was expecting ---" She leaned forward towards Fei, her face intent and sharp, several strands of hair escaping the cloth. "Then there's all the arguments he's had with the Ethos --- I know they're supposed to be all knowing but ---"
     The steady thread of gossip was abruptly cut of by a solid woody thud from below, heavy and dull like an oak cannon ball striking a pine wall. The cleaner scuttled backwards into the shadow of one of the wooden crates lining the room, once more making threatening motions with the long duster.
     Without thinking, Fei turned and sprinted towards the stairs, mind racing with visions of attack, defence and damage. Every muscle in his body stood out starkly defined, thrumming taut like a plucked string. Moving on pure instinct he thundered across the antechamber, through pools of light and shaded dark, and after a quick word to the woman, Citan stalked rapidly after him, the tales of his olive jacket flying out in his wake.

*  *  *  *  *  

     He wasn't sure which had surprised him more, the fact that the massive implacable door had so obligingly opened for him, or the room on the other side. The door had been thick and square, a band of dull steel belting it firmly shut. He was fairly sure that even if he'd thrown the full force of his imposing leather clad body at the door it would not have given way. Someone who was less of a realist might have simply put this down to good luck, but he knew there was no such thing as good luck. There was bad luck of course, like a heavy booted foot slipping off a dust coated joist and sending him tumbling through creaking cracking rafters, but he would almost be prepared to lay some G down on the fact that there was no such thing as good luck.
     He'd never had it easy after all, not since he was a kid.
     He paused, a kid? Him? His big head moved in a slow sweeping ark, his face like the crudely calved tree totem of some primitive tribe, creased and flickered with a range of expressions that climbed across it like lonely mountaineers. Slowly his snakelike eyes traversed the room, moving with a battler's deliberate care across the rich rust coloured softness of the carpet. They travelled up and into the china cabinet, resting lightly on the dust covered delicacies inside. Slowly he turned his gaze on the broad bed, noting the watery sheen of the satin brocaded coverlet. Evidently this was someone's bedroom, and judging by the tasteful opulence of each finely patterned piece of furniture, someone important, a great lady, brushing out the fire gold sheet of her hair before the vast mirror --- there again! Where did these thoughts come from?
     Outside the door was a muffled crash, something heavy and wooden being dragged and dropped, shouts and rapid commands accompanying the skitter of pages settling onto a hard floor. He had to go! To hide! They didn't like mutants. Rapidly he paced the room, thick course boots treading down upon the soft rust of the carpet, the unobtrusive glow of the electric light winking briefly over the patches of orange amid his creaking black leathers.
     But there was nothing, no other door, only the smooth papered walls with their tessellating floral pattern, and a small window dark and orange like a still of his own costume.
     This was it then. Well he had been expecting it. a strange, unfamiliar pang rose in his mind like a strand of neon wire, and for a second he unbent, and even his bestial face was as beautiful and defenceless as a young child's. Like a melting statue of wax He sank slowly down beside the head of the bed, his broad muscular body falling with graceful submission until his face rested in the embrace of the starched white pillow like a walker in the snow who at last lies down to freeze. Then suddenly he realized why this room affected him, why memories of a small wooden house and a woman with fire gold hair surfaced in his mind like burried treasures grudgingly dragged up from the hard earth.
     The sharp warm scent on the pillow was her smell.
     "Mutant!" The heavy door swung open and a small clever man in red velvet robes rushed forward, guards teaming in after him like green blood flooding into a wound.
     Rico stood casually, all traces of the submissive despair gone, an arrogant smile playing nastily around the corners of his mouth. "Nice to see ya'."
     But Kaiser Sigmund seemed almost oblivious to the demi-human. Angrily he whirled to his guards, the violence of his motion almost threatening to send the red cap with its winking golden badge flying from his neat grey curls. "How did he get in here? I thought the lock would only respond to the DNA of members of my family!"
     The short Kislevian officer ran nervous hands over his swarthy cheks, moving his feet restlessly as if afraid of offending the velvet richness of the carpet.
     "A - malfunction? Sir?"
     "Is everything all right?" Fei dashed smoothly into the room his long rope of hair settling down around his shoulders as he came to rest just inside the door.
     "No need to concern yourself Champion Wong, we have caught the demi-human." Kislev's ruler turned to Fei, all cool elegant politeness once again. At his gesture two of the guards crossed to flank Rico, pressing heavy brutal metal pistols against his broad chest. The big demi-human flexed his muscles with a languid feline grace, ignoring the two guard's watchful tensing as he moved.
     "We meet again." The demi-human's gravely voice was a hard, uncaring growl.
     Fei's eyes ran across the room, playing with the highly carved patterns on the furniture, the soft meticulous detail of the wallpaper and embroidered covers on the bed. "Rico? ---- what --- ?"
     "Mind your own business."
     Despite the aggressive words, Fei heard something else in Rico's voice, something weary and shattered but proud like an old tree still standing after a lifetime of storms. Almost unconsciously he moved forward, his strong face drawing into lines of tentative concern, but before he had a chance to speak the Kaiser gestured curtly with one pale hand, and the two guards prodded their pistols into Rico's chest, driving him towards the door.
     "The IBC will conduct an inquiry. It is good of you to concern yourself, Champion Wong."
     Fei was forced to step aside and lean into the flower patterned wall to let the big demi-human and his guards pass, sweeping passed the waiting Citan, out into the wide wooden floored area, reduced to a chaos of overturned furniture and scattered papers by the guards' frantic search for the demi-human.
     Yet when Rico had passed him, Fei felt almost sure he had seen something different in the battler's hard ugly face, a hint of what had been in his voice.
     With the suddenness of a shaft of sunlight, Fei realized that Rico, for all his iron clad world weary arrogance and superior combat skills, might be as human and vulnerable as anyone else who'd been ground to emotional powder by life in D-block. Not just a battling steel engine of grit and bitterness, but a person who might be scarred or hurt, as easily as Fei himself.

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~ End of Chapter 35 ~

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