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A Change of Plans

Scintillant Iris Bloom wrinkled her nose as the dog-servants let her into Akunare's chamber; he was smoking again. While she made no particular claim to outstanding purity of mind or body, she also found it unpleasant to inhale anything besides clean air. The fact that she felt uncomfortable interacting with her superiors while tipsy also factored into her distaste for Akunare's habit.

Unfortunately for Iris, Akunare cared not one whit for the preferences of a Sidereal more than five hundred years his junior. The stocky, dark man took a long drag from his hookah, gesturing for her to sit down across from him. As she settled herself on one of the cushions strewn about the floor, he leaned back, exhaling a cloud of hashish smoke.

"Scintillant Iris Bloom." He drawled her name, rolling it over his tongue as though tasting a fine wine. "As luscious as ever, I see." Lime-green eyes moved frankly over the blue-eyed woman's shapely form.

Iris nodded politely, trying not to cough. "What is it you wish to discuss, honorable Akunare?" As usual, she ignored his ogling; she was fairly certain it was a gesture calculated to remind her of their relative status, rather than an expression of actual desire.

The Chosen of Secrets waved a hand lazily; two slaves, naked except for jade-and-orichalcum collars and glistening body oil, appeared from somewhere behind the draperies that hid the chamber's walls. The woman sat behind Akunare and began to massage his shoulders; the man knelt beside Iris, proffering a plate of assorted fruits.

"How is your charge faring?" inquired Akunare. "Growing stronger in the way of righteousness with each passing day, I trust?"

"He seems to be taking to his role as Prince of the Earth with great enthusiasm." Iris daintily selected a strawberry and ate it. She managed to keep from staring at the slave too obviously; he was an absolutely gorgeous specimen. She wondered if his looks were natural, or the result of magic. "I've managed to convince him that it's best to travel here and there, upholding the cause of righteousness. He's almost to the point where his powers may actually start measuring up to his ego." She failed to keep a slight note of disdain out of her voice. "I think soon, I will begin encouraging him to move openly against the Maimed Lotus Society; I've made up a tentative itinerary, and I believe that it shouldn't be more than a season before we're ready to move on with the second phase of the plan."

Akunare waited patiently for her to finish, a patronizing smile on his face. "I'm sorry to make you start over from scratch, my dear," he said, "but there's been a change of plans."

Iris' left eye twitched. "Oh?"

"Based on information we have recently uncovered, the Gold Faction thinks it would be most useful if your young champion of the sun were to find a permanent base of operations." Akunare took another pull from the dragon-shaped mouthpiece of his water-pipe, shifting his position so that the slave could begin massaging his back.

"With all due respect, most honorable Akunare, is that wise? Settling him in one place will make him an easy target for the Maimed Lotus; he could even attract the notice of the Wyld Hunt."

Akunare waved his hand dismissively. "You won't need to worry about the Maimed Lotus anymore. We're sending someone more qualified to deal with them."

Iris stared at him in disbelief for a second, then grabbed a peach and bit into it to stifle an indignant outburst.

"The new plan," said Akunare, obviously relishing her discomfiture, "is for you to head north. All the way into the jungle, in fact. Poaco Caldonezza discovered an abandoned Manse there only days ago, while searching for an unscheduled meteor's landing site. All the records show that it was destroyed during the time of the Contagion, but apparently that was not the case.

"You're to take him to this Manse, and base all future exploits from there. We've called in favors; by the time you arrive, it should be fully restored and staffed. Make up some story about how it's awaited the return of its rightful master since the end of the last Age. You're a clever girl; I'm sure you can come up with something convincing. We'll get you details about what you should have him do once you get there within the next few days."

Iris took a deep, measured breath. "Preparations are already underway at this... hidden fortress?"

"Not really a fortress," corrected Akunare. "More of an arboretum. You'll see once you have the full report. But in answer to your question, yes. We can't really waste more Chosen on your pet tiger, but some gods who see things our way were willing to volunteer some help. That party should have left earlier today, actually; they should have at least a fortnight to fix things up before you arrive. I don't anticipate any problems."

Iris realized that she'd squeezed her peach into pulp. She very badly wanted to do the same to her esteemed superior's head, but good sense prevailed. "Is there anything else I should know, most wise and honorable Akunare?" She carefully placed the remains of the peach back on the platter, and endeavoured to look calm.

"No, I don't think so," he replied carelessly. He seemed to have just noticed that there was a nubile slave girl behind him. Setting down his hookah pipe, he began to undo his sash. "You can shoo now." He paused. "Unless you want to join in?"

"No thank you, most esteemed and honored master Akunare, whose wisdom is like a thousand pearls glistening on the shore." Iris hastily stood up and made for the exit. The prospect of participating in an orgy with Akunare would not have appealed to her at the best of times; her current foul mood meant that she did not even cast a regretful look at the lovely fruit-bearer before stalking out.

Scintillant Iris Bloom headed for her Manse, fuming all the way.