Anna tasted the deadly drops of poison on the spikey fish as her host deposited the delicacy on her tongue.
“You will notice a sharp tingle as the poison begins to react with the saliva in your mouth,” Careema said, her blue hands tracing a line gently around Anna’s upper lip.
“It’s subtle,” Anna said, turning the alien morsel over in her mouth and searching for the sensation of the poison starting to take effect. A moment later she didn’t have to search though. “Oh, there it is. That’s quite pleasant. Invigorating, with just enough bite to warn about what’s to come.”
“You’re tastes are quite refined, Ambassador Ilyina,” Careema said, nodding in approval.
“Thank you, Ambassador Karns, both for the compliment and sharing this with us,” Anna said. She nodded to JB who was sitting beside her in the ambassadorial viewing box. Below them the Crestfall Grand Arena of Sport was hosting a multi-species aerial cheerleading troupe who were busy warming up the crowd in preparation for the night’s combat related festivities.
Following Anna’s lead, JB accepted one of the spiky appetizers from Careema’s aide. Unlike Anna, JB’s reaction to the dish wasn’t quite so mild though.
“It’s important to move quickly to the next step of the dish,” Careema said, seeing JB beginning to sweat from the searing heat of the fishes toxin. She offered her guests a brief toast and sipped from the peach-like beverage that had been delivered with the meal.
Anna sipped hers quickly, but turned to make sure JB was in no more distress than the heat of the dish would account for. JB, for their part, guzzled a bit more of the peach drink than the others did, but was able to flash a small smile afterwards and nodded to Anna to reassure her.
Anna suppressed a chuckle. Coming to Castorvell had been JB’s idea. It was a world which had swung into proximity with the Earth a few decades ago, but one which there’d been little contact with even among the more advanced world walkers. Little hadn’t meant none however, and JB had assured Anna that despite the myriad perils Castorvell offered, they were exceedingly unlikely to come to harm there.
As the peach beverage mixed with the toxic fish, Anna felt the fire that was building on her taste buds fade, to be replaced with a cool, milky sweetness which brought a pleasant dreaminess to her thoughts. It wasn’t perhaps the ideal state to conduct negotiations with an alien power from, but Anna was confident that she would be recovered before any actual negotiations were conducted.
Visting Castorel, and attending the Grand Arena of Sport was a precursor to all that, serving as an opportunity for Anna and Careema to better understand each other before venturing into the more dangerous waters of interplanetary diplomacy.
Down in the locker rooms, far below the cheering masses of the stadium, Tam dug her thumbs into Val’s shoulders and then along either side of Val’s spine.
“Any pain in any of that?” she asked, peering over Val’s shoulder to find her friend breathing in slowly with her eyes closed.
“Not a bit,” Val said, opening her eyes and flashing a quick smile, before she pulled the towel from around her neck and began putting on her gloves.
“Ok, you’ve got too many enchantments on you for me to tell if you’re lying,” Tam said. “So I’ll just say, please take it easy out there. The beating you took fighting the High One was no joke, and even with our best healing, there’s no guarantee that everything’s back where it’s supposed to be.”
“I appreciate the concern, but I’m really ok,” Val said. “You and James did some great work patching me up, and it wasn’t really as bad as it looked. A lot of what you saw was me trying to sell the whole fight to buy you time to work out how to save the day. I think you had it a lot worse than I did. I took a few hits, but you tanked a nuke there.”
“I just redirected a bit of energy,” Tam said. “If I’d known what to expect…well, it probably still would have hurt, but I might have at least aimed it better.”
“We all walked out of there,” Val said. “In my books, that’s an unqualified win.”
“What was Aranea’s take on it?” Tam asked, turning to check with Jim who was taking Val’s blood pressure.
“She wants to eat the High One,” Val said. “I mean, she’s more subtle about her plans than that, but her overall goals are pretty simple and direct.”
“Sounds like someone else I know,” Jim said, as he took the stethoscope out of his ears. Beyond maintaining the Club’s vehicles, Jim had turned out to be quite capable of as a physical therapist as well. Apparently bodies were just another type of vehicle that he could keep tuned up. “Blood pressure, respiration, and pulse are all good, and her reflexes are phenomenal as always.”
“Probably helps that I’m carrying enough magic to glow like a Christmas tree,” Val said, flexing her hand and feeling joints that had been nursing torn ligaments respond with strength and flexibility that should have taken months to regain.
“The tests I just ran are without the effects of the magic whizzbangs you’ve got going on,” Jim said. “You’re borderline off the charts when it comes to reaction time.”
“You sure you’re using the right charts?” Val asked.
“It’s a long term effect of the magic we use,” Tam said. “Particularly the kind you usually carry. You’re still human without it, but it’s shifting you bit by bit towards the top end of the sustainable spectrum.”
“Would training help with that?” Jim asked.
“The training Val does is pretty much what’s responsible for the change,” Tam said.
“Some of the magic is rubbing off on my permanently when I work out enough with it?” Val asked.
“Not exactly. It’s more that the simplest of the enchantments you carry reconfigure your muscles and nerves and circulatory system for optimal performance. It makes it easier for the bigger enchantments to take you beyond that. When you exercise and recover with those enchantments in place, your body is rebuilding itself closer to the optimal state rather that how it was before. James used a much stronger version of the same effect in the healing that he did.”
“He said Val was easier to heal than someone else in her condition would have been,” Jim said, offering with a gesture to tie up Val’s gloves for her.
“It’s true. When your body starts off in good shape, it’s easier to help it heal. If you’re in fantastic shape to begin with then there’s a base of muscle and solid bone to build on. With people who aren’t in as good shape, the work has to be a lot slower and more gentle. In fact it’s usually easier and more effective to start with mundane medicines and use magic to augment their effects by small degrees.”
“I don’t think we would have had time for ‘small degrees’ of improvement,” Val said. Jim handed her a mouth guard, which she slipped into place, before punching the air a few times.
“That’s why I’m worried,” Tam said. “You don’t have to do this you know. Going out to fight in the arena isn’t going to make or break the deals Anna’s putting together. If this feels too soon, we can still sit it out.”
“No need,” Val said, through the mouth guard. “I feel good.”
“I’m glad to hear that,” a blue skinned woman who matched Val in height and almost doubled her in mass said. “I’ll be your opponent tonight.”
The second course of dinner arrived with far fewer toxic dishes to choose from. JB had recovered from the first round well enough that Anna wasn’t concerned about either of them partaking in the second, but she did feel the need to satisfy her curiosity over the message that the dishes sent.
“Your selection of refreshments is wonderful,” she said. “I would have expected our two people to have very different preferences though, or even be incapable of ingesting the same substances.”
“Oh, and why would that be?” Careema asked. She paused in offering a something that looked like the head of a dandelion to Anna.
“We hail from different bio-spheres,” Anna said, accepting the dandelion head gracefully. It tasted like spun sugar with a hint of citrus.
“Interesting. I suppose that would be a problem on your world,” Careema said.
“You’ve found a method of avoiding that here?” JB asked.
“Bridging the gaps between cultures and physiologies was more essential for us,” Careema said. “My Castorvell differs from your Earth in many particulars, but one of the most profound is that our land masses are far smaller and more scattered than yours are. Life here grew along very different evolutionary pathways, until we finally made the discoveries necessary to cross the great oceans and connect with one another.”
Above them, the aerial cheerleaders dispersed out into a pattern that could have been a living firework with how their outfits glittered and caught the light. Anna saw that some of them possessed natural avian characteristics while others were members of landbound races who used prosthetics to achieve their graceful flight. Many weren’t close to human in appearance but all of them were beautiful in the air.
“Your world has a long history of blending cultures together I see,” Anna said.
“And a long history of failing to blend together,” Careema said. “We’ve studied your world since it was first possible to move from one world to the next. We’d hoped we’d find a template for how to handle our trickier problems.”
“Did you come up with anything?” JB asked.
“Just that we should be grateful for the success we have made,” Careema said. “I am not making any judgments on your world in that. You’re conflicts and strifes fall on different lines than the ones we contend with, I think in a large part because those who truly do no wish to be a part of the global community can isolate themselves on their islands and pretend the rest of the world doesn’t exist. There are bolt holes and refuges on our oceans which had gone unseen for centuries or millenia. The people who lurk there usually wind up either dying out or evolving into something strange even to our eyes.”
“Are efforts made to reconnect with them?” Anna asked.
“Periodically,” Careema said. “The Lost Islands attract attention every decade or so when someone decides to drop by and compare notes with the people who live there. It doesn’t always turn out well, but even the people who remain isolated will occasionally be glad for new information or tools from the outside world.
“I imagine that many of them are drawn in by a show like this too,” JB said.
“We have a good attendance tonight, but it looks like everyone is local,” Careema said. The Grand Sporting Arena was the size of a professional football stadium on Earth, which meant that there was no chance that Careema could have determined the status of everyone present. Unless she was using magic to monitor the crowd. Which she almost certainly was.
With the end of the cheerleader’s display, the music picked up into a triumphant fanfare, drawing everyone’s attention to the ring in the center of the enormous stadium.
“This should be a good match,” Careema said. “I believe it is your companion who is up first.”
“Do you know who her opponent will be?” Anna asked, scanning the people on the side lines. As she looked at the tiny specs far below, the air shimmered and magnified whatever she was looking at it. She saw an overlay with each target’s name and basic information. Unfortunately none of the bystanders were anyone Anna knew.
“Most likely Kinslayer,” Careema said. “She’s usually the one they send when it’s a fight to the death.”