Yael hated princess costumes. The best ones were posh, and ornate and made her look like a dazzling beauty. Not one part of that matched who she felt she was though.
In her mind, Yael wasn’t a broken nosed brawler but neither was she a delicate royal flower. Her Guardian robes were just about the right level of formality for her. Simple, functional and appropriate for a wide variety of situations. Sadly, mingling with the elite of a non-aligned world was not one of those appropriate situations. Especially not when she wanted to keep any hint of Imperial involvement in their affairs a secret.
“Did you hear they were debating closing down the arenas?” said a nearby woman who was drinking from a long stemmed wine glass.
The viewing lounge at the Silver Saucer was packed, as Yael had expected, with various politician and their hanger-ons who were prominent in the local government. It was the sort of establishment where the local elite could enjoy “common recreations” while remaining above and apart from the general rabble. On the floor below the balcony Yael was on, a crowd of the less wealthy were milling about and at the center of it all, behind glass-steel walls, was the fighting pit where the night’s action would take place.
“It’s well past time, but what sort of plan do they have for the displaced fighters?” a woman standing beside the first said.
“A plan? Do they ever think these things through that far?” the first woman asked.
“I suppose not,” the second woman said. “Perhaps I should speak with the Commissioner of Education about allocating some additional funds for our Adult Education programs.”
“That wouldn’t hurt,” the first woman said. “I’ve been looking into a variety of competitive sports leagues they could transfer into, but so far none have shown an interest in developing a franchise here.”
Yael didn’t envy the two women the dilemma that faced them. Uronos had a large number of arena-style combat theaters. The gladiators who fought in them ranged from commoners hoping to score a lucky victory to the seasoned professionals who were minor celebrities in their own right. Transitioning all of them to a different career could involve more bloodshed and pain than the arena fights produced in a year.
Yael leaned back and tuned in to a different conversation. She wasn’t at the Silver Saucer to eavesdrop. At least not on purely local matters. She was hunting for a bigger catch than that, but to lure it in she had to be careful not to give herself away. So she sipped from a suitably exotic beverage, as was expected of an off-world princess, and appeared to be waiting for an official entourage to come and collect her. That she was positioned at the proper spot to overhear a wide variety of conversations throughout the nearby area had nothing whatsoever to do with luck though.
“Is the buyer here yet?” Zyla asked on their telepathic link.
“I believe so,” Yael said. “There’s no contact on the Aether thread leading back to our arms dealer but it’s suspiciously blurred.”
“That’s sloppy,” Zyla said. “Did they even try to tie the thread to someone else?”
“Not from what I can see,” Yael said. “This is pure obfuscation.”
“Not quite pure,” Zyla said. “If they were serious about it, they would have obfuscated the thread back at the corpse, just like they did with the murder site.”
“You raise a good point there,” Yael said. “How are preparations for your Arena bout going?”
“Well enough,” Zyla said. “I’m through the qualifying matches and have a place in the real show.”
“Your opponents are all still breathing I hope?” Yael asked.
“Yes. Unfortunately,” Zyla said. “I may not enjoy the Empire’s strictures against killing but I can control myself, even when my foes so richly deserve a less kind fate.”
“Thank you,” Yael said. “Has the new arms supplier made an appearance yet?”
“They’re here and meeting with the ring manager now,” Zyla said. “They should be calling me in to speak with them in just a few minutes.”
“Which weapon system will they offer you?” Yael asked.
“I’m an off-worlder,” Zyla said, “So I’ve set it up that they’ll sell me one of their competitor’s ‘fine’ products.”
“While the actually working models are all going to the locals right?” Yael asked.
“Right,” Zyla said. “And I’ve already got a contact lock spell on the sellers. When the deal falls through and they try to inform their home office we’ll have a solid path back to the people who are behind this.”
“On one side anyways,” Yael said. “The local angle here is just as important.”
“Yes, but I’m not the one stuck dealing with people I’m not allowed to punch in the face now am I?” Zyla said. The emotional layer of joy and teasing that underlay her words had no problem coming through on the telepathic link.
“It’s going to be best two out of three next time,” Yael said.
“They’re calling me in to offer me my ‘special advantage’,” Zyla said. “Good luck with the locals.”
Yael sighed. It wasn’t that she particularly enjoyed fighting, but she had to admit that between the two of them, Zyla had nabbed the better job. Frowning, she began delicately knitting out a tiny, almost inconsequential, fate spell.
“Pardon me, but it looks as though you are waiting for someone,” a tall man in plain suit said.
Yael turned to look at him. One of the loops from her tiny spell had snared the man around the shoulders. More incriminating though was the small curl of connection that she saw leading away from him into a quickly blurred haze.
“I am,” Yael said. “Though I have to confess I expected him to be older and more wrinkly.”
“I see, this is your invitation then I take it?” the man asked, gesturing to the micro-fine thread from Yael’s spell.
“I’m impressed that you noticed it,” Yael said and let the spell dissipate into pure Aether again.
“it was a fine piece of workmanship,” the man said. “Did you suppose that no one here would be able to appreciate that?”
“Let’s say instead that I am delighted to find a fellow practitioner of the subtle arts who has spent the time required to master the discipline,” Yael said. She spoke in her “princess voice”, which she was admittedly rusty at using, but given that her training as a Crystal Guardian had included a several month stint where she served as a real princess in the Court of the Autumn Throne, it was a role she was reasonably sure was she could play with some authority.
“I’m sure our schooling here is but a shadow of the royal academy you trained at,” the man said. “Ours focus too long on the practical aspects of magic I am afraid.”
“I’ve always found the practical aspects of the non-tangible fascinating,” Yael said.
“And is that what you’ve come to observe tonight?” the man asked.
“In a sense, yes,” Yael said.
“There may be little to see,” the man said. “Our fighters are not generally gifted in anything but the physical arts.”
“Is it not customary here to augment the combatants?” Yael asked.
“Yes, to a limited extent,” the man said.
“Perhaps there will be less call for my attention to these exhibitions then,” Yael said.
“It would be a mistake to think of these contests as mere exhibitions,” the man said. “These are serious matches intended to try the competitors skills to the utmost.”
“My apologies for misspeaking then,” Yael said. “I was referring to the exhibition of the augmentation gear.”
“You have a keen eye,” the man said.
“Not for all things,” Yael said. “Just those which intersect my areas of interest.”
“Are you an aficionado of material enchanting as well?” the man asked.
“No, my interest is more financial in nature,” Yael said. She watched as the connections began to shift around the man.
He was tied to the government on Uronos, but only indirectly, which was a surprise. Yael had expected him to be one of the minor functionaries doing the bidding of a more empowered master.
There were threads that suggested he had power and obscured backers, but from the direction and resonance of the harmonies on those threads, Yael guessed that the man sitting beside her was more than a minion or a catspaw. To some extent he was the architect and shaper of the plan that was unfolding on Uronos.
“And what sort of concern do you represent?” the man asked.
“At the moment, none, as I have no contracts on Uronos,” Yael said. “I am, at present, merely observing the competition.”
“Are you sure there is an opportunity for competition here?” the man asked. “All of the enchanted material in the area is donated.”
“So I gather,” Yael said. “And I am not interested in charity work at present.”
“It seems a shame that your evening will be wasted then,” the man said.
“Not wasted, at the least my curiosity will be assuaged,” Yael said. “I’ve lost a few opportunities now to less reputable sorts who promise quality they can’t deliver. I am most interested to see how your contestants fare given that you’ve set an even playing field for them to fight on.”
“It seems you won’t have to wait long,” the man said. “The first match is beginning now.”
Yael watched Zyla enter the ring from one side while man at least half again as tall as she was entered from the other direction.
“As you see they both are outfitted with standard quality armor, shields and bolt casters,” the man said.
“And yet, the gear carried by the male contestant has been modified to include a more sleek appearance. It certainly appears to be higher quality than what his opponent is forced to work with,” Yael said.
“I guess that might yield some psychological advantage,” the man said.
“But not a material advantage,” Yael said.
“What do you mean by that?” the man asked.
“Watch how he moves, compared to his opponent. I’ve seen this sort of bait and switch before,” Yael said. “The seller claims that an enchanted piece has all manner of properties, but once it is in the field the thin veneer wears off the actual performance of the object is exposed as woefully inadequate..”
“You will forgive me for believing that you might be a somewhat biased source for those claims?” the man asked.
“Of course, but you needn’t take my word for it,” Yael said. “The proof is in the performance.”
“I fear this performance will not be so telling,” the man said. “This seems like a decidedly uneven match.”
“That is the first sign I would point you towards,” Yael said. “The fight program says that the woman is a first time fighter in this arena. That seems to be a poor match-up with the reigning champion for the past three weeks. The only reason I can see for it would be to show off the shiny new gear the champion is wearing on a stage where the odds are stacked in their favor.”
“There will be other matches,” the man said. “Perhaps they’ve reserved the more interesting line ups for later in the evening.”
“Perhaps, but see how the woman moves?” Yael said. “She’s avoiding all of his blows and she’s not even accelerating much. That’s a classic sign that the targeting enhancement in the fighter’s armor is failing. My competitors always did have problems with that spell. The real thing to watch for however is all of the weak spots the armor displays.”
“Such as?” the man asked.
“The arm for instance,” Yael said. “It looks like a minor blow caused it to seize up. Unless I miss my guess the knees will lock up next, more or less on their own.”
As Yael spoke, Zyla laid a smackdown on her opponent, locking his leg joints with the barest casting of a physical spell, to make it look like she’d disabled him with nothing more than a series of weak strikes.
One final blow from Zyla caused the armor her foes was encased in to shatter into it’s component pieces and drop off him leaving the fighter in little more than a loin cloth.
“It’s nice to see people who test the products they plan to invest in,” Yael said.
“It can certainly prevent troubling surprises later,” the man said.
“If you should know anyone who is in the market for somewhat higher quality merchandise, you’ll know how to contact me,” Yael said and spun a thicker more obvious loop around the man letting it settle on his shoulders like a mantle.
Or a noose that hadn’t yet been contracted.