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Last Updated    October 12 2017
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Dressing Up And Being Flunkies

Another Evening Clothing Shopping

Station     It was late in the evening on Mora, and the crew were off shopping for clothing for Aiden.  Inger wanted a black gown that was ceremonial and business functional, and could be solemn.  Aali wanted a "little black dress".  Making their plans, Aiden said they should go back to where the men had bought their tuxedos, for the "Friends of Sir Rol" discount.  They agreed, and Mikah called for a cab, paying the Cr 70.  When they arrived, the sales team who'd "helped" in the last visit recognized Sir Rol and his entourage.  It was clear they were focusing on Rol and the rest of the crew hung back, letting him "take the rush".  They welcomed Rol back and he said he was glad to return, and pleased with their service the last time.

He said he also looked forward to sharing their service with his friend, the newly appointed Sir Aiden Radetsky.  Rol pointed to Aiden while he spoke and staff necks nearly snapped as Rol hoped his words would mean a new celebrity discount.  The staff adjusted with the lead salesperson actually caught pie-eyed and reworking his process.  Into the moment of silence, Zach stepped forward.  Smoothly taking the salesman by the elbow, he helped the man turn towards Aiden as he said, "The good Knight here can use a shiny new wardrobe.  And a good suit for a very important event we need to attend." Zach continued, leading him from his moment of shock as the man started firing on all cylinders himself.  Soon, as Zach commented on potential styles to consider, the man slipped into gear and started making recommendations of his own.

He hit his stride and the other staff joined in, reaching 'full speed' as the manager arrived from back offices.  Flagged by the man at the register, the polished retailer swept in, warmly greeting Sir Rol, Sir Aiden and Lady Mikah.  Using memory as a sales tool, the man greeted those returning and welcomed those who had not been with Sir Rol during his first visit.  As he asked how his people could help the party, Mikah said the Grand Duchess Delphine had ordered Sir Aiden to get a new wardrobe.  Aiden argued Delphine had "suggested" the move, missing that any such 'suggestion' was an order.  Mikah firmly repeated "Ordered", and there was a brief pause before the manager asked how large a wardrobe they were talking about?  Aiden again tried to shoot below the mark suggesting two suits, but was eventually corrected to four fashionable and 'quality made' business suits.

The manager paired Aiden off with his lead sales rep, and they hit the screens to look over styles and fashions as the other workers approached the crew.  Zach wasn't opposed to buying a new suit, and hoped for a decent discount like the last time they'd visited the shop.  For fashions, Zach wanted a suit in a style he didn't already have.  With an awareness of the options, Zach only spent 10 minutes deciding what he needed.  Mikah spent some time with a sales rep but really didn't need anything.  So she 'escaped her shadow' soon and browsed the shop making suggestions for Aiden.  The shop was mostly a stylish display area with in-table design and display consoles where anything could be designed and ordered.  There were cubbies as well as shelf and floor displays of various things from generic accessories to materials and swatches.  And even a display of vintage clothes.

Mikah soon cruised through an electronic catalog of shoes while Ms. Vik worked with her sales associate on a black gown that would be both professional and suitable for evenings out.  She was working to add in a solemn quality too.  She hoped she could work in a bit of "ceremonial" too.  Following on that theme, Aali was thinking about a "properly solemn gown" in the greens of her experience in the IISS.  But when she remembered the green gown she had last bought would handle that job for her, Aali went back to her first plan to get a little black slinky dress with heels.  Emkir watched in lust while Aali and a sales person settled on Cr 750 for her outfit including shoes and "accessories".

Rol concentrated on a Vilani suit comprised of a tailored and belted "over vest" worn over a loose dark shirt and slacks also tailored to an extent.  This tie-less Vilani fashion presented an "abdomen deep" vee neck exposing the shirt beneath without the Solomani tie.  Considering the suit, Rol compared his wardrobe and his finances.  He also considered that, in the three days in-system, he'd been to dinner with the Arch Duke, involved in ceremonies establishing the Arch Duke's elevation, represented the Arch Duke in social settings and had a good chance ending up in Her Grace's Court.  This didn't include what the Arch Duke had in mind for the next day?.  Or Emkir and Aali's wedding.  He decided he wanted four functional suits, with one black, another white, a third grey and a last one a shade of blue the sales person had recommended.  He also wanted a spare shirt and pair of slacks, letting him mix and match for four or even five "functional" suits.

Rol's styles in cut and fabric were above moderate and ended up costing Cr 4,000.  While shopping, Rol repeated more than once that he was a "working knight" until the prices came out lower than he'd expected.  Zach tried to swing Rol's comments in his favor with his salesperson.  Sadly, Zach fell from the highs of rescuing the shop worker to stuttering over his attempt to get a shoe in the discount door.  When he started suggesting a group discount, he was unable to quickly create the thread of a connection between Rol's needs and his own for a 'community view'.  The sales person told Zach their business was very appreciated, but he wasn't authorized to offer discounts.  He also didn't call the manager over.  And Zach didn't offer insult by asking for the manager himself.  He did plan for later.  The price for Zach's suit was Cr 1,000.

After they'd designed the piece and the price was known, Zach tried the sales person again.  With an idea of his commission, Zach hoped to use that carrot to cut a personal discount.  Despite his planning, the sales person's finances were tighter than Zach's, despite a steady job.  The man told Zach there was nothing he could do as he also wondered if he'd ended up helping the wrong member of this party?  Still, he helped Zach with a catalog since the merchant needed shoes.  He found a good pair for Cr 60, and the salesman suggested button covers while Zach considered what he had.  Of course, he had Open Skies covers, for all the good thouse would ever do him again.  He also had sets for high value systems he'd traded in, and some important trading companies he'd dealt with.  But nothing for the events the crew were facing now.  Zach got a set with Imperial Starbursts for Cr 50, which came with spares.

After some 45 min "shopping", during which the manager joined his salesman, Aiden settled on four suits he'd like.  That decided, Aiden considered a spare set of slacks and a shirt to mix and match with as Rol had.  Then it was on to shoes and Aiden went for two more pair along with the pair he got with the tuxedo.  The manager asked Aiden about button covers and other accessories and showed them all his appreciation by cutting ten percent off everyone's bill.  After an hour shopping, Aiden's bill came to Cr 3,060 for four suits, a shirt and pair of pants as well as button covers and 2 pairs of shoes.  Aali for her slinky little black dress and stilettos for Cr 750, Zach got his suit for Cr 990 and Inger got her gown for Cr 765.  They now had three hours left before everything was ready to be delivered.

When Emkir suggested filling some of that time moving to a jeweler, to get wedding rings, Mikah joked that she'd come along because she needed a tiara.  Ms. Vik said she was ok with going to the jeweler and Emkir asked the store manager for a recommendation?  Having overheard talk of wedding rings, the manager had the data ready for a shop five minutes' walk from his shop.  He bumped the data to Emkir's Ident.  The manager also told them his friend didn't sell computer generated 'stock pieces'.  He specialized in artist created works and handmade treasures more appropriate for items with special meanings.  Even more of the crew showed interest when they were told the shop had a vintage section too.  Finally, they wrapped up delivery details on their purchases and left the shop into a waiting crowd of press and cameras!

Off To The Jewelers

     The cries rose when they stepped out, for interviews with special interests in getting talking to Sir Aiden.  The press kicked into high gear while the crew pushed their way though, refusing to answer questions or make comments.  They then led the train of media along, and saw small teams of police shadowing their movement.  From time to time, officers moved in when anyone broke the law.  Each time, one pair of the officers moved in to take law breakers down, leading 'the catch' off to be replaced by another pair.  It became apparent there were more officers around them than they could see.  While they walked, Ms. Vik wondered if they could also check out some sellers of combat armor?  With the media trying to catch what conversation they could, Zach decided to act.

Getting their attention, Zach played "spokesman", telling them the crew wouldn't be making any statements or interacting with the press that evening.  And while some reporters and their teams decided to hang back, or move ahead to get shots in support of their eventual reports, most continued their behavior.  Still, a small group did offer to lay off if the crew, if the Knights would agree to do an exclusive interview?  Mikah made it clear they were not interested, and Zach refused the request.  After a few beats, Zach changed his direction offering an exclusive interview to any media outlet willing to offer MCr 5 "each" for the access.  This got the expected answer as they resumed their progress and eventually arrived at the jewelers.

Getting into the shop, they saw the jeweler had a large selection of items from the 'crass pieces for exhibitionists' to the 'elegant and refined', designed to be noticed.  The shop also offered collections appropriate for all genders, as well as a vintage section and even some jeweled weapons.  Not really the "jewelry" type, Aiden browsed the "jewelled weapons" section.  Ms. Vik also browsed a number of sections, spending the most time in the vintage and fine arts sections and admiring the hand-crafted work.  As Rol wandered, looking for an appropriate wedding gift, he found a gold "ball and chain" motif pin.  When he examined it, the Cr 500 piece was a small 100% gold pin and Rol realized it could be worn by any gender.  Despite the obvious sarcastic comment on marriage, his sense of humor demanded he buy the piece.

Zach looked for a set of unobtrusive tie clips, cuff links and other male-appropriate gear suitable for any event or setting.  Not looking seriously, he checked out the vintage section to see almost exactly what he wanted.  "Almost", because of the price.  The very standard collection of men's cufflinks, tie tacks, etc were from the estate of Baron Sir Naknahm Cortif.  The Baron was a hero of the Fifth Frontier War who died when, according to released data from the Imperial Navy, he drove his crippled cruiser into a Zhodani battleship.  Despite the cachet of the jewelry, the price tag of Cr 10,000 stopped him cold.

Evaluating the 'real value' of the collection, Zach would only pay a few hundred credits for the items, new on a shelf.  Then he thought about reactions from others to wearing a famous dead man's gear as his own.  Of course, that cut both ways in a society where hero worship had some force.  Despite the hero link, Zach wasn't interested but did point out the small collection to Rol and Aiden.  He continued looking for the generic, or pieces with understated decorative style.  Rol and Aiden both looked over the collection while not being interested in buying for their own reasons.  Moving on from the vintage section, Zach ended up with an acceptable set of items which were 'simple yet with some style', for Cr 800.

Emkir and Aali briefly checked out the vintage section while talking about what they wanted.  They knew anything they bought had to be wearable 'on the job', which suggested 'non-conductive' for Aali.  They agreed, which limited them to non-metallic rings.  Their salesperson led them to a very lovely ceramic set of interlinked devotional rings.  Emkir and Aali looked over the set but couldn't help noticing the Cr 50,000 cost "Each".  Emkir diplomatically explained they wanted something more utilitarian so Aali wouldn't have to remove them to work, keeping quiet on their budget.  Understanding, the girl brought them to an item which was more durable and only cost Cr 35,000 each.  Deciding to be more up front, Emkir said they were looking to spend a total of Cr 20,000.  With that, the sales person dialed them into sets of rings by an artist who specialized in ferro-ceramic jewelry.  The rings they settled on were ferric skeletons filled with ceramic material, which was then sculpted.  The designs on the rings were simpler than the more expensive items, but Emkir and Aali thought they were perfect.  Checking sizing, they eventually did the paperwork and bought a set with each paying for the others at Cr 13,000.

Wandering the shop's vintage section, Mikah found their collection of "Love" and Hate" stones.  Having read about these, she spent a fair bit of time looking at the selection of stones.  Each was labeled with the purported name of the person whose remains formed the stone, or the stone's former owner at least.  But Mikah found the collection's center display most interesting.  The central piece was a broach, made with a 50 ct yellow colored stone listed as having been "made" from an entire family!  The yellow stone shone from the white gold matrix of the setting.  She tore her eyes from the piece to the card to read it's details.  The family was named "Cameron Aella Tancredi" and the name hit her like a rock.  She recognized the element "Aella" from the Emperor's name!  Strephon Aella Alkhalikoi, or even Arch Duke Norris Aella Aledon.  And while Mikah told herself she wasn't touching the piece with a many foot pole, the dust on it attested to a general agreement on that point.

Reading more of the placard, Mikah learned the former owners had the family name, "Neaira Stephanos", which had obvious links to names like Duke Leonard Stephanos Kirgashii of Rhylanor!  This apparent collision of households begged for an explanation and, as soon as she was available, Mikah called Aali over.  Of course, Aali's first reaction was "Holy Crap!"  She then told Mikah that, around the period of the Second Frontier War and the Imperial Civil War, the Aella family had held the Duchy of Rhylanor.  Since that era, the Stephanos family gained control of the Duchy from the Aellas, many of whom still lived in the Spinward Marches.  As Aali pulled out a small camera to get a picture of the bauble and the card, the ladies also wondered if they should take a step back...for safety, given the hatred of that bygone era.

Among the gold and silver pieces of the vintage section, Ms. Vik saw a gold winding bracelet, studded with emeralds and unidentified red stones.  The piece was a spacecraft trailed by flame winding around the forearm.  She admired the craft work of the piece though the Cr 45,000 price was more than out of what she'd like to spend despite how well it fit her tastes.  But of more pressing concern was her desire to get a set of combat armor.  While the crew were looking around, or negotiating to buy items, a man stepped into the store and spoke to the manager.  Soon after that he left and returned with others to set up cameras and film the crew shopping!  As they decided on their rings, Emkir and Aali actually posed with the rings at a distance.  But when they were asked if they wanted to do an interview, they respectfully declined.

With a sly look on her face, Mikah called out, "Talk to us next week."  When the reporter asked for her comms data, she laughed, saying "You already have it.  Who are you kidding?"  As this exchange faded off, Zach complained to the manager about letting the media in to bother them after they came to his store.  The manager casually pointed out that this sort of thing wasn't at all unusual, especially when the Grand Duchess came shopping.  The manager made it clear this was the way things were done in the sector capital.  While he was apologetic, and as he realized "who" the crew were, he couldn't step on media outlets controlled by Counts and Dukes.  After everything was said, Emkir and Aali laughed quietly as they wondered if the media would finally connect the wedding dots?

Off To Frank's Place

     Getting close to 9:20, those who were interested had made their buys and they considered what to do next?  Ms. Vik asked about places that might sell armor, Zach said that InstellArms was always open.  Unsure if it was Rol's recent experience or a desire to see what else was out there, they decided to check the system-web and see what other options could be found?  While comments were made about dodging the press, Emkir said it might not be a bad thing to let the press see.  Checking what popped up, Inger wondered about going to the Duchess' weapon smith with Aiden?  When he pointed out that this was a special permission he'd been given, she wondered if she could at least go with Aiden and ask?  She suggested calling the smith, but Aiden pointed out he operated by order and didn't have a walk in shop.  Inger said "So?" and Zach pointed out that it might well be after hours and Inger had to agree.  When she suggested they ask the next day, she was reminded they were going to be with the Arch Duke the entire day.

Trying to dial in on Ms. Vik's interest, Rol asked if she wanted to perhaps price a basic suit until she knew what she wanted in an expensive one?  When She said it might be good to price armor, Rol said he'd come along and the team decided to stick together.  Checking the search on his hand comp, Zach saw they had six immediate options including InstellArms.  He turned to Inger as she considered the options, some of which were very "high end".  She decided to check those that appeared to be "middle of the road" outlets, except InstellArms as a last option.  Given none of them were "close", Ms. Vik covered the Cr 70 for a carrier to take them to a place named "Frank's Armory" since it was her shopping trip now.  Ten minutes ride later, they learned the shop was a very interesting place indeed!  To start, "Frank" was dead.

Long dead in fact. Back in the Third Frontier War, Frank had been in the Imperial Army and received his discharge shortly after the war ended.  Demobilization led to a flood of weapons and gear on the market, not to mention collected "souvenirs".  Being one son of a lesser, but very well off, family, Frank used family funds to buy up arms and open a weapons pawn shop.  What started as a pawn shop then grew into Frank's Armory over the last 120+ years.  This meant they walked into a "Veteran-friendly", "Service-connected", "used and new weapons sales" Army/Navy store.  But, as they entered and were spotted by one of the shop workers, they saw a display image of Aiden being knighted, under a banner that read "Elevation By Service" and above another reading "Congratulations to our Brother in Arms".  With others working the shop noticing Aiden and Rol entering with a team, there was a brief pause to realize 'this was really happening.'  None of the crew knew what was going through the minds of the shop staff, but their guesses were driving their guts down towards the planet's core.

On the positive side, none of them were kids, and all looked to have the grizzled quality shared by combat vets.  While the team sized up those in the shop, the wheel of recognition turned as one stepped up and greeted them.  Another worker stepped past the team to turn the "open" sign to "closed" and lock the door.  Yet others began sweeping the store for other shoppers, announcing very loudly and gruffly that the store was  They herded the shoppers out, and had to shut down the occasional squawk about 'not being done shopping' or 'not being able to pay for and take items they wanted to buy'.  But the staff brooked no disagreements while emptying the store out the back entrance.  With some hold outs, one of the men simply yelled, "The store is closed!  Get Out!" in an ominous tone.  And as the last people were ushered out, a table and chairs were set up where the crew were invited to sit, relax and asked, "What can we do for youes all?"

Shopping At Frank's

     Feeling very much better as they sat then they did after seeing Aiden's picture, Inger thought to herself she just might get a good deal at this place.  When she said she was looking for body armor, more than one of the guys gave her body an obvious "eye scrub" before unapologetically saying, "I bet you are".  'Subtle as a brick thru a window' didn't faze Inger as she gave them that smile she reserved for the slow, and asked if they had anything she could look at?  Pleased to hit the ball on the first swing, the apparent manager said "Absolutely!" and invited Inger to follow as he led to one of their back rooms.  There, she saw suits of both combat armor and Battledress!  Following to advise her, Rol also saw the display and counted some twenty suits of combat armor and three of Battledress.

All of the battledress suits showed the wear of hard use, but had no obvious defects.  The highest price for the older model suits was MCr 1.5, which was honest enough Rol felt OK leaving Inger in the manager's hands as he checked the suits more closely.  The least expensive was KCr 750.  Rol found they had the legal right to sell the suits and could present all the proper paperwork.  That's when he became very interested.  The KCr 750 unit was an older "Model II" that had modules replaced or repaired after damage.  Some electronic upgrades he could see were not "factory upgrades" either.  When he asked, Rol was told he could run what tests on he had the time for, and they even offered to keep the store "open" for him all night.  Rol didn't feel he could stay there all night, but ran a number of basic tests which all returned well within his expectations.  The suit seemed battered but good and they answered his interest with an offer to knock Cr 50,000 off the price.  Not willing to admit he wasn't to afford it, Rol said he had to consider the offer and get back to them with his answer.

Inger recognized the battledress was beyond her skills and legal ownership, so she concentrated on the combat armor.  Some of the twenty suits would fit her and some others could be modified for her to get into them.  The suits had various mods, like built in infrared and light intensifying systems.  One suit even had connections built in to mount PRIS goggles and make use of their sensors.  Unfamiliar with the PRIS system, Inger asked, and learned that type of system was usually used by engineers to let them see into a very large array of energy bands.  While she looked over the suits, they offered a used sealed suit they could put her in, unmodified, for Cr 25,000.  Inger remembered, from her research, that was Cr 5,000 more than 'brand new', so she asked about its condition and had Rol come over to inspect it.

He found the suit had a connection harness for its wearer to jack in their own personal comms system to use the suit's internal electronics.  When Inger asked about a PRIS system, they said they could order the parts and install it for Cr 10,000 and the delivery would take a week.  But Inger was worried about needing to leave the system in the next days, and they misread her concern.  When they offered her another suit, which had an in-built inertial locator, Inger said that better suited her than the PRIS system.  Zach, who had followed them into the room, suggested she buy the PRIS system parts and ask Rol to install that system while in jump.  In the end, Inger decided to buy the parts for a PRIS kit and see when Rol could install it, and closed the deal on the suit with the locator for KCr 25.  After that was done, they talked about fitting it to her properly and Inger decided to return in two days, with Rol, for a fitting and to receive the PRIS kit.

Aali looked around, to improve her snub pistol.  Considering her training, the only hand weapons she knew were that and gauss pistols.  Knowing her options were limited, Aali went into the armor room to ask Rol about options and overheard them talking about PRIS goggles and inertial locators.  As an engineer, Aali was familiar with the goggles.  And she knew a new set would cost her Cr 12,000 new while the inertial locator would only cost Cr 250.  A HUD kit for the PRIS goggles would cost Cr 1,000 but wouldn't be connected to her armor.  Eventually, as some high value deals started looking to get made, the manager agreed to give Aali the PRIS goggles, HUD Visor and locator for Cr 10,000.  When they offered her that, Rol said she could always buy the "in armor" kit for a HUD and he could see when he could install it.  Considering the upgrade and the incident in the crime boss' office in Rhylanor, Aali decided to pull that trigger for an additional Cr 5,000.

Wandering around, before moving into the armor room, Zach checked out their gauss pistols.  He still hadn't replaced the one stolen on Inthe.  Looking, he found six weapons, which he looked over and tried the grips of for comfort before he chose an LSP-made pistol for Cr 250.  When he asked about magazines, they said he could get 15 round magazines at Cr 10 each and couldn't buy loose needles as they were not hand loadable.  Zach eventually bought 13 magazines [195 rounds] for an additional Cr 130.

While Aali was in the armor room, Emkir browsed the sales floor looking at items combat and non-combat related.  He found a display of vacc suits and, despite recently buying a replacement, looked through those hung on the rack.  As he searched, Emkir found a tricked out tailored suit that, when he tried it on, fit him almost perfectly!  In addition to the tailoring, Emkir liked that is was a very stylish suit rather than the generic aesthetic tones of the average suit.  It also had a wiring harness built in, to add and connect additional electronics to the suit.  The suit also came with a built in, or added after market, laser range finder as well as a light intensifier and infrared light vision systems.  These devices were all built into an installed HUD system.  Impressed with the suit, Emkir asked how much and was told Cr 20,000.  Not having quite that much to spend, Emkir negotiated and knocked the price down to Cr 16,000.  And while he could afford that, he'd be left with very little more.

Moving to the register, Emkir said he'd have to find a use for the other suit he'd bought and the remains of the suit he'd been wounded in.  While he didn't say how he was injured, the salesman got very excited and said they could work out a better deal for Emkir.  Emkir asked but the man said they'd have to talk to the manager.  When the manager was called, and got very excited himself, they offered Emkir the suit free and clear if he traded them both the working vacc suit and the remains of the damaged one from his gear.  Emkir considered the deal and the manager said Emkir could take the suit "now", and return the other suits later.  If Emkir wanted, he could stand for a fitting and leave the suit, so they could fix the tailoring.  Then, he could return to hand over the other suits and get a suit fully tailored for him.  As Emkir talked with them and with others in the crew, they decided he could have Inger and Rol bring his gear while he was visiting the Scout base with Aiden.  The one thing that Emkir didn't bother to follow up on is "why" the manager and shop workers were so excited to get his gear?

Mikah checked out submachine guns, to have one for practice, and found the shop had a few of them.  To her surprise, one was a huge design, meant for an Aslan warrior rather than a Human.  looking the weapon over, Mikah asked if the shop had a shooting range, just to get to fire off some rounds with the weapon.  When she was told they didn't she turned her attention to the human-normal weapons.  Eventually Mikah chose an SMG for Cr 500 with a folding stock and laser sight indicators.  She also got five magazines at Cr 20 each and a pair of 200 rnd boxes of ammo at Cr 100 each.  After that, Mikah asked about ship's suits since they needed a few spares.  She was told they had the suits and had connections with firms making ship's patches if she wanted?  Mikah was very firm that they didn't want patches, but did buy three ship suits for Cr 60.  When she asked for something called a "beach ball", there were some questions if she meant an evacuation ball, but when they had no idea what she meant, she told them to disregard.

Moving to the register to pay, Mikah noticed a special display of pawned small items.  Among these was a green gemstone of some sort.  When she asked about it, they told her the marquis cut, faceted stone was an emerald and was 15 carats in weight.  Mikah examined the stoneand could see it had obviously been pried out of something, and she asked how much it cost?  When she was told Cr 1,000, she bought it with the other items she'd selected.

Mikah's actions called Aali's attention to the small display.  She looked in and saw a small gold or gold coated device which appeared to have some sort of crest on it.  Wanting to check it out, Aali asked if she could pick it up and the clerk handed it to her to examine.  As Aali activated the small device, it appeared to be the property of a Sir Kaleo Dechomai.  More interesting to her, the 'fob' appeared to have a genealogy seven generations back!  Not sure when this Knight might have lived, this was a very valuable piece of data to someone with her particular hobby.  When the clerk priced it at Cr 500, Aali didn't stop to think before buying it.

Zach made a last swing through the shop before buying his gauss pistol and ammo, and found a small plug-in computer module in their electronics section.  Checking it would snap in to his hand comp and give him not only added memory and processors, but add built in computational functions.  They let him test the unit as it was hot swappable, and he was very pleased at how it performed in brief tests.  When he asked, he was told it would cost him Cr 3,000 and he decided to buy it.

Also following the attention of the other women, Inger noticed the pawned items case and saw a set of thirty figures which turned out to be hand carved from armor composite.  The figures appeared to be an array of combat figures from those forces the sculptor had fought over his service, in combat stances much like they'd have held before being killed. The nature of the figures was made more graphic by those few "post-mortem" figures also included.  The figures were not only hand carved, but were painted.  Seeing they were asking Cr 1,000 for the set, she asked what they could tell her about them and the carver?

She was told the artist had survived a very long time indeed.  He'd served in the end of the Fourth Frontier War in 1084, in peace time and then survived the Fifth Frontier War.  Having risen to the rank E-8 in a series of combat units, he'd taken to carving figures to pass the time between operations.  The war ended and he decided to retire to concentrate on his family, and didn't want these around in his new life.  Once she knew that, and with the unique nature of the figures, Inger bought them.  By 10:30, the crew were shopped out and called for a car.  When the taxi came, the manager opened the front door for them and led the way.  With a couple of boys and shotguns, they cleared a path for the crew to enter the vehicle which then moved on quickly.  Getting back to the ship, they stowed their goods, set alarm clocks and went to sleep, knowing the Arch Duke's car would arrive at 9am.

Preparing For The Day's Activities

     His alarm went off and Rol woke and prepared himself for the day before heading to the galley to cook breakfast.  Stepping into the ship's lounge and looking around, a flashing light got his attention.  Investigating, he found it was a warning the ship's comms system had a message.  Rol found that was from the base gate, saying the "then on duty" gate guards had received their delivered packages.  Rol called the guard shack to confirm it was the clothing they'd ordered before asking them to deliver it to the ship.  They said they'd deliver the parcels within ten minutes.  Rol changed to a ship's suit and met the messenger at the ship's lock.  When Rol saw there'd have to be two trips, he had the messenger wait as he moved everything into the ship's common area himself.  He didn't invite the messenger in as he wasn't sure what anyone would be wearing when they emerged from their staterooms.

Rol was well into cooking when Zach, Aali, Emkir and Inger stepped out of their staterooms.  As they saw and looked through the packages, they confirmed the orders and stepped back into staterooms to try garments on.  Ms. Vik decided to wear the black ceremonial gown she'd ordered that day while Aali wore the green gown she'd bought two days before.  Aiden emerged wearing a ship suit, until he had a chance to unpack and select a suit and try it on to wear for the day from the delivery.  Once dressed, those awake and on the ship found things to do to burn away the time.  Zach checked his emails, seeing many well wishes for him to convey to Aiden.  His connections were using him to bridge their connections to Aiden much in the way Zach was attempting to use his connections with others.  Just as he'd tried to use connections to Count Krenowl in Rhylanor or even his attempts to use connections to Arch Duke Norris for personal gain after the parties.  As they were doing the same thing he'd done, he couldn't complain and had every reason to hope he could find a way to turn at least one of these connections into money.

At the resort, Zimzod woke at 6:45 and enjoyed his lady friend's help as he cleaned up and dressed.  Once done, and after she slipped into her outfit from the day before, he told her to enjoy the day and look for him after his business if she was interested?  She certainly seemed interested in, and very good at, doing what needed to be done.  While he was showering, she had breakfast delivered so he could get moving faster.  Then she slipped into the shower to "help him" clean.  Eventually they were both dressed and she went back to her room as Zimzod got a taxi to the ship.  Rol had turned on the news when he'd started cooking.  He and the rest of the crew, as they emerged into the common area, saw continued coverage of many stories.

    Jewell (A777999-C  2  Hi In Cp  623 Im G7 V)                       Date: 175-1112
    Word from the Chronor system(Chronor) continues to arrive regarding
    Zhodani reactions to their recent loss in the Fifth Frontier War.  Despite
    short term reinforcements moved in by the Zhodani, from the Ziafrplians
    Sector, conditions are still uncertain.  The Chronor High Council have worked
    as swiftly as their resources have permitted to sooth reactions by local
    populations, and panic riots, based on a fear Imperial forces will break
    the peace, are now extremely rare.  But still, the Imperial Diplomatic
    Corp. have no word on changes beyond the recall of the Senior Zhodani

    Expert speculation continues to spin theory after theory given the knowledge
    it should take roughly twenty weeks to communicate "one way" with their
    Capital in the Zhdant system(Zhodane Sector).  This is half the time required
    for communications between the Rhylanor and Capital systems here in the
    Imperium.  Experts point out this allowed for two bilateral exchanges
    of data since the armistice was declared on 120-1110.  So our readers
    can be assured the Zhodani Consulate government and Admiralty have been
    fully advised of the situation in the Spinward Marches.  And we wait for
    their response.

    The Current Zhodani Ambassador, appointed by the Chronor High Council,
    would not comment on the rumors and speculation about events in
    the Consulate systems of the Chronor and Querion subsector.  An assistant
    to the Ambassador simply pointed out that the correct spelling of the
    subsector name was "Cronor".  Of course, this reflected the Consulate
    attempt to put their own labels on the region of space after Imperial
    losses over the first three frontier wars.

    Rhylanor (A434934-F  2  Hi Cp   810  Im  M2 VI)                   Date: 213-1112
    The High Lords of the Admiralty continue to remain quiet on speculation
    of the rogue Sword Worlds Fleet from the Gungnir system.  Speculation
    remains fixed on the Lanth system, Capital of the Lanth subsector.
    Still, strategists and expert comments suggest a strike against that
    system could have already arrived in that system weeks ago.

    On this subject, The Admiralty and Duke Leonard's staff have allowed
    their many preparations and fleet orders to speak more than their
    spokespersons.  Lord Sir Perric-Singe, the Duke's Naval Spokesperson
    stated the Navy was covering every system possible as fleets moved to
    hunt the ramshackle fleet.  Despite this, public reaction to recent
    attacks in the Rhylanor system continues to grow more concerned.

    Naval authorities here in the Mora system have assured the public
    everything was secure in the Sector Capital.  Reports of readiness have
    also been arriving from all systems in the Mora subsector as well as
    from Naval commands throughout the central Spinward Marches.

    Glisten (A000986-F  2  Hi Na In As Cp  821  Im  K9 V)                      Date: 213-1112
    As early word of von Kreden's fleet has reached the Glisten system, Duchess
    Avaraja has ordered her Admirals to increased patrols.  She has also had her
    commands recall all leaves and even ordered colonial combat assets into
    support roles for those Imperial fleets in her space.  The Duchess has vowed
    the Sword Worlders would not find a soft target if they did the unexpected
    and turned rimward toward her Imperial Capital.

    Rhylanor (A434934-F  2  Hi Cp   810  Im  M2 VI)                            Date: 220-1112
    As word spread of the events surrounding the death of Sir Brian Montgomery,
    public reaction to the events have been sharp in the Rhylanor system.  The
    Lord Admirals have not yet commented on the unknown warships which appeared
    to have slipped into and out of the system to make their attack.  As the
    Admiralty revealed details of the attack that led to his death, the
    population have been reacting to mysterious vessels apparently transiting
    the system at will!  This wave of paranoia has the Duke's government walking
    a very fine line.

    Specific reaction to Sir Brian's death had raised questions on the knight's
    role on the savaged arcology and if that played any role in the events that
    followed.  The Navy has only released a statement that, at this stage in the
    investigation, the knight's presence didn't appear to have been involved, as
    far as the data indicated so far.

    As the Navy also has not revealed any other reasons for the ships to target
    that station, the news has led to a "who might be next" brand of paranoia.
    As authorities in the Rhylanor system have tracked this fear, there has been
    a marked rise in the hiring of mercenary forces, on a scale not matched by
    anything short of a frontier war.  There were even rising rumors the events
    suggested the region is moving towards a Sixth Frontier War, though all
    Naval authorities have denied this is an accurate response to events.  This,
    with the rising background noise of growing fear, has left both merchant
    and other news sources rife with rumor and supposition.  One trend emerging
    from this was a wave of naming reporters as "Conflict Correspondents".

    Mora(AA99AC7-F  2  Hi In Cp  112  Im  M5 V)                           Date: 258-1112
    The Arch Duke's office has released an official statement on the news of Sir
    Brian Montgomery's death.   According to his Seneschal, the Arch Duke was
    saddened by the loss of a Knight who's many works had improved life for the
    citizens of the Imperium.   The statement went on to say the Arch Duke planned
    to hold a memorial for the knight, with Sir Brian's former crew mates, in
    between his planned meetings that day.

The crew were most disturbed about how accurate the media was in tracking their activities in the system.  This meant they had to do things differently or look forward to being overrun by groupies anywhere they went without security.  Not surprised by much anymore, they were caught a bit unaware as the tour guide from the museum was interviewed on Lady Mikah's appearance at the Grand Geologic Museum of the Spinward Marches.  In the interview, the man said he was surprised how much of an expert he found Lady Mikah on the Fifth Frontier War.  That and how much she knew on Tellona Diamonds.  Despite selling his interview to the media, the guide did a good job keeping the information both professional and very positive regarding Lady Mikah.

By eight, as Mikah emerged from her stateroom, the others had eaten and dressed for the day's events.  Zach wore the new suit he'd bought rather than one of those he had already.  Both Aiden and Zach wore their starburst button covers.  Both Emkir and Zimzod, when he arrived from the resort, were dressed in their best, and a few were surprised at how well Zimzod cleaned up.  By 8:30, they'd all eaten and gathered together for last minute details and preparation.  Mikah reminded them all to behave, especially Zach. Doing final checks, Mikah swept the crew, asking if they were armed or not.  Rol didn't think it appropriate, since they were going to be in the company of the Arch Duke and his security.  Emkir had his 9mm revolver, Aali had her laser sword, Mikah her gauss pistol in a holster and snub pistol in her purse.  While Zach and Inger were not armed, Aiden had his snub pistol with tranq rounds.  Zimzod had "the artillery", since he was carrying his .45.

Getting Things Set Up Before The Day's Events

     Finally, the waiting ended as they got word from the base gate that their ride was on-base.  And with that, the crew stepped out and locked up the ship before waiting in the berth.  Aboard and moving, they saw the transport was comfortable and clean if spartan.  While boarding, Lady Mikah was handed a datapad by the driver, and told it was from the Arch Duke.  The screen of the device showed a circular icon in the center with the sentence, "Place your thumb on the circle" under it.  The pad security software verified Mikah's thumb print and she saw their itinerary for the morning.  The transport would drop them at His Grace's offices, where they would join with his other liveried staff.  They would be given livery to wear and be responsible for finding a way to wear it properly.  They would then be expected to augment the Arch Duke's body guard at a "greeting ceremony", meeting with all the delegates and representatives who had been able to attend his elevation to Arch Duke.

The list of attendees included foreign Ambassadors from the Zhodani Consulate, Border Worlds, Sword Worlds, Darrian Confederation and various Vargr governments of the Gvurrdon sector.  There would also be representatives for many world governments from systems in the local region as well as delegations from many trade and stellar cluster governments.  Given the presence of the Zhodani as guests, the team were told they would be issued psi-helmets with their livery and will wear them at all times.  The laughs Mikah got after saying Zach might get a gauss pistol from the Darrians were muted after the Zhodani were listed, and died fast when the psi-helmets were mentioned.  And to add to the fun, while Arch Duke Norris was the honoree, the organizer of the event was Grand Duchess Delphine.

They discussed the new information until the transport driver told them they'd arrived.  Off the transport, they were guided through a small cadre of what were obviously retainers of those local to the system and loyal to the Arch Duke or his allies.  That, or completely vetted by his people.  Entering the crowd, they were found and led to the Commander of the Arch Duke's guard for the event.  Scanning their gear, the officer said they'd hoped to use them, as they were supposed to be good in a scrape.  But it appeared they hadn't been warned in advance.  So, he even more cryptically said they'd make do.  That done, he told them to keep near the Arch Duke and keep an eye out without being "too close".  He also told them to listen for instructions as he had their comms gear checked out.

Then, they set up a frequency allowing the guard officers to operate the crew as a unit, and giving them a connection to the guard frequencies so they could answer back.  They were then told to keep close and "around" the Arch Duke until he was in his transport.  They would then board a second transport that followed.  While the instructions were given, they each got a sash to wear which showed the Arch Duke's colors, and a lapel pin showing the Domain's heraldry.  At the venue, they would deploy as an envelope around the Arch Duke and escort him into the building.  Inside, they would "loosen up" but stay close and keep their eyes open to be sure nothing happened.  It wasn't overstressed that the Arch Duke would be meeting dignitaries, ambassadors and other notables.  So while they stayed close, they should not get in the way.

The next period of time was dead space, which they used to further prepare themselves until someone came around to issue them Psi-Helmets.  Each of them were taught how to wear and use the devices, and a technician used an electronic meter of some sort to test them.  Soon, the Arch Duke emerged from his morning meetings and headed for the cars.  As he moved, the rest of the people also moved, boarding transports as they started moving.  Soon enough they were "there", in front of a fairly imposing but stylish building.  The crew stepped out and formed a small bubble as their transport moved away and the Arch Duke's vehicle moved into place.  Norris stepped into the bubble with his deputy seneschal as well as his 15 yr old True Daughter, Lady Seldrian Aledon.  With his team in the bubble, Norris started directing them where to move as they moved cut through lines of guards and media and entered the building.

Greeting Diplomats And Playing Guard

     Inside, the crew saw the beginnings of a rather long reception line that started with local officials and government delegations, who slowly rose in importance and authority.  As the crew accepted instruction from Norris to back off, but keep alert, they were thankful they didn't have to join the line and only had to watch.  At the very end of the line were the first of the delegations, the one from the Sword World governments.  They were followed in increasing prestige by the Vargr delegations, then the Border Worlds and Darrians before meeting with the Zhodani delegation.  It appeared the line had been "engineered" to give the Vargr special recognition.  Zach scanned the crowd while Mikah scanned the dignitaries and any aides they had.  Especially the Sword Worlders, who were, ironically, the more likely belligerent in the group considering there were Vargr too.  Sweeping the crowd and dignitaries, Rol was going over the high-ceilinged room and structure of the place.  Looking up, Rol's practiced eyes picked out snipers.

Rol was surprised how well hidden they were.  When he let the rest of the team in on that fun fact via secure comms, Inger asked, "Are they ours" and he tartly answered, "I'll go ask."  Despite the sarcasm, Inger actually considered it for a laugh.  When Zach said they'd have to assume the snipers were "theirs", Zimzod said they were likely Delphine's.  And that comment made Aiden feel "sooo much" better.  Once the Arch Duke was done with the greeting line, they all moved into the function hall.  And while there was no bar, the atmosphere was more like that of a party than a diplomatic function.  As they entered the room, Mikah put out over the comms, "No Drinking" in a firm voice before seeing there was no place to get drinks from.  A number of brief speeches were made after the opening one by Grand Duchess Delphine.  She opened her speech by welcoming the representatives and delegates as she quickly moved from that to introducing the Arch Duke.

In his speech, Norris first thanked the Emperor for the opportunity to further serve, and the challenge set before him.  After thanking and greeting those who'd gathered for the formation of the Domain government, Norris spoke seriously about putting all the unpleasantness behind as the Domain moved forward to enjoy an unprecedented opening of trade and travel.  The speeches began and Mikah wandered and mingled with the crowd, keeping her eyes and ears open.  Zach remained closer to the Arch Duke as Norris mingled himself.  He used the chair, from time to time, to raise his head to the level it would have been at if he were standing.  A bit concerned the amorous Marquis who'd chased her earlier in the week would be there, Inger was pleased to find he wasn't as she too mingled with the crowd.  She looked for possible opportunities to distract attendees if she thought doing so might lead them to spilling some comment they'd regret.

Aali played the shadow game, both "looking in on the Arch Duke's close encounters" and "out to scan the gathered delegates too".  Aiden shadowed Norris at a respectable and discrete distance while Zimzod played the odd angle working the perimeter.  It would be bad to watch the center while the doors were left open.  Rather than being immune to the party, all of the team members had encounters.  Aiden likely had the most, repeatedly greeted and congratulated on his elevation.  Despite the well wishes, the most memorable "greetings" he received were a very frosty and borderline hostile congratulations from an Ambassador of the Sword Worlds Confederation.  Of course, this was not a surprise given his service history, even if a peace treaty was signed.  Considering that discretion was the better part of valor, Aiden responded as painfully politely as he could.  Sadly, Aiden was made of more blunt matter, and stuttered a bit over his attempt to be the better man.  In the end, the diplomats scorned his comments, wondering out loud how a fool like that managed to get knighted, or even survive the war at all?

Rol took an anthropologic approach, looking for others who, like the crew, didn't quite seem to fit in.  Perhaps more nervous about being in the group, especially if they were moving toward the Arch Duke or the other significant dignitaries.  Watching, Rol picked up on a handful of nondescript men in plain grey suits wandering around but not engaging.  Passing clusters of people by, rather than joining in or talking to anyone.  Of more concern, the men seemed to operate completely independently even though they were obviously related.  Keeping a tab on the men, Rol saw that 'not once' did any of them stop any of the servers that appeared after the speeches were done and light drinks and finger food was served.

When he finally decided to be less than casual in his observation, he realized they were wandering the party with a look of significant concentration on their faces.  It seemed they were there in body while wrestling with some great mental problem that kept them socially isolated from the rest of the gathering.  Yet they moved with a fluid awareness of the crowd, and reacted as demanded by social customs of personal space flawlessly.  When he was sure enough of his opinions, Rol sparked up the common channel with the guard and started to explain what he was seeing.  He was quickly told they had tagged the men and this was not a surprise.  Given that, Rol decided to stay aware of the men while returning to the larger crowd.  He also worked to keep from joining Aiden in his "near orbit" of the Arch Duke as he was unarmed and needed to keep close to provide any service.

Emkir played a role to which he was raised.  With a drink to nurse in one hand and a canapé in the other, he remained stone cold sober and out of the lime light.  A skill he'd learned as his father's child, at parties he was invited to as a contractual obligation only so his father saved on child care costs.  And he was tall enough to take some advantage and scan wider swatches of the crowd from time to time.  Another advantage Emkir had was that he'd dealt with some of the people in the room, or their junior officers.  So he could add the context of who some of the attendees were and what agendas they might have, especially the 'former' hostiles.  Working through the crowd, Emkir greeted those people he'd met before, and also those he was sure he recognized, even if only from name and face studies watching the news.

At a point, Emkir encountered "Admiral" Vazfe Fhazkoe. Fhazkoe had commanded a flotilla of vessels Emkir had, at times, flown with for security during the war.  He was now wearing a uniform Emkir didn't recognize, though he recognized the rank insignia.  As they greeted each other and Emkir congratulated the officer.  As they talked, he learned Fhazkoe had left the Imperial Navy to support the faltering Vargr "Commonality of Kedzudh", just beyond Imperial borders coreward of the Aramis subsector.  The move was with Imperial support and encouragement, thanks to instability in the "Commonality of Kedzudh", and the resulting multiplication of corsair bands.  The encouragement of experienced and Imperial loyal Vargr to join the Commonality was calculated to increase the "sfsk" of the nation's leaders.

That also meant the Vargr would gain rank, a pay raise and prestige.  And the Imperium would maintain a buffer state which would provide warning and an ally that would have to be fought before attacking Imperial borders.  Both officers were disappointed they'd each be in-system for a short time, but Fhazkoe invited Emkir to visit with him and his command staff.  Emkir said he'd try, but admitted he was in service to the Arch Duke and told Fhazkoe about his upcoming wedding.  When the Vargr congratulated him, Emkir invited the officer to the wedding.  Given the lack of family and real friends, this officer fit the bill.  And it wouldn't hurt the prestige of either man among Vargr if he attended.  Fhazkoe said he'd be delighted to join them, and had a particular Captain in his service to bring along.  When Emkir asked, the Admiral gave a suggestive leer and said the vixen was "very successful."

Elsewhere, Inger had been scanning until she saw Zach suddenly straighten up in his chair!  Paying more attention, she saw Zach had spotted a man in a beige suit.  While the only thing she could see was that the man was moving towards the Arch Duke, Zach had seen a reflected flash.  Looking closer as he'd straightened in his chair, Zach realized something had slipped from the man's sleeve into his right hand!  Trying to get a better idea of the item, Zach didn't waste time and called in the tag to the team and guards.  Zach also moved his chair to interpose himself between the man and Arch Duke while giving a brief description to all.  Things got exciting while Ms. Vik moved in behind the man and the word spread.  But even as they reacted, word came down from command that this was one of the Duchess' people and not a threat.  The order was accepted, if not without some misgivings.  They backed off as Zach saw the man raise the "item" to his lips and speak into what was obviously a comms unit.  Still, Zach was told it was a good catch none the less.

To the surprise of the crew, the Grand Duchess managed to meet each of them personally, greeting them by name, and exchange words of sympathy over the loss of their friend and crew mate.  Despite Rol's attempts at a friendly and diplomatic air, she found his attitude stiff and military.  More humorous to Rol afterwards, it seemed that was exactly what she expected and no harm was done.  She found Mikah's responses a bit distant and less than inviting, though given Mikah's role in the day's security, that was expected and acceptable too.  A number of the crew were able to greet her in a moderately diplomatic and even friendly manner, including Sir Zimzod.  Delphine was pleased with the greeting she got from Sir Aiden, and was even appreciative of his suit and how well he fit into the society he'd been elevated to.  Ms. Vik was congratulated on how she and the crew were handling the assignment and was told Delphine was pleased how well they had lived up to the expectations of their records.

The most gracious member of the crew turned out to be Captain Eikusdi Piirirshu, as Aali was using her professional name.  Aali so impressed the Grand Duchess that Delphine said she might have to watch the woman's career closer.  She was certainly more interesting than Delphine had been led to think.  The Duchess also congratulated Aali on her upcoming wedding, not suggesting if she got that from her very well-informed staff or Arch Duke Norris?  Happily for the crew, the encounters with Duchess Delphine were the "most excitement" they had at the gathering once it was over.  They had seen there were certainly camps of loyalties while mingling with those invited.  There were either those happy or unhappy with Delphine, Norris or the Emperor.  Some groups were quite clear and correct in their dealings because they felt they "had to be there", even after they learned the true reason why they attended, despite what they were first told.  Then there were those groups that were zealous in their attendance and very happy to show that off.

Short On Meeting, Long On Confusion

     As the event finally wound down, the crew were told they were preparing to move on to the next stop.  This would be a meeting Norris had, and they were "in tow" only because they were needed after the meeting.  They were very clearly told to play "fly on the wall" and make no attempt to join in or in any way participate.  After that meeting, they were told they'd attend a press conference with him and that would end in the memorial for Sir Brian.  This time the crew were moved into the same vehicle the Arch Duke rode in as they made their brief way to a nearby structure.  As they rode, Emkir took advantage of the close quarters to notify Arch Duke Norris he'd invited Admiral Fhazkoe to the wedding.  Norris was not only pleased with the news, he told Emkir he was involved in the decisions that led to the offer of support to the Commonwealth.  As they briefly talked about the Admiral, Norris was pleased the Vargr officer had friends "at home".

Soon, they pulled up at an old "armory style" fortified structure and headed inside.  After a walk deep into the building, Norris stopped by a team guarding a door and handed off some of his gear including his psi helmet.  He turned to the team saying they should do likewise as he then stepped into the door which was opened for him.  They each entered the room and were surprised to see the four men they'd been told security had tagged.  The nondescript men in grey suits sat at a round table as Norris joined them and the team did their best to glue themselves to the walls.  They watched while the Arch Duke and the men he was "meeting with" spent thirty minutes speaking in pure gibberish.  While they understood they were not to even try to join in, not a one of them heard anything they could even consider responding to!  Some tried to recognize the words used, but the crew saw this language was not even based on Galanglic or any language they were aware of.  Once the meeting wrapped up, the four men rose, said their good byes and left.  After that, Norris asked what questions the crew had?

Zach was first off the mark, asking the Arch Duke what language they were speaking?  With a small smile, Norris admitted the language was one "created" for secure conversations.  Only those who absolutely needed to be able to were taught to speak and understand it.  Aali admitted that she had heard of high noble families and organizations taking this path for security.  More annoyed at having spent time being useless, Mikah asked what the purpose was behind having the team sit in?  Norris told her he had more than a feeling he might have need of them in the future, so he chose to expose to them some of the higher levels of his security operations.  He also pointed out they now knew the faces of four operatives from that network.  This satisfied Mikah and the others.  After he asked if there were any further questions, and no one spoke up, he announced they had to step outside and meet the press.  When Rol added to the groans, asking if they had to, the Arch Duke stepped over, put a hand on his shoulder and said "Courage Camille" in a comforting voice with an evil smile.

Addressing The Media Before Visiting The Expo

     Norris led them out and they found Grand Duchess Delphine and the various courtiers, both her's and most of Norris', waiting in the anteroom.  Delphine had been managing things while they killed time.  Delphine had been chatting with a small group including Lady Seldrian.  Her face registered no more than mild surprise that the crew had been asked to accompany Norris.  That suggested yet another possible reason for them being included rather than left with the others.  As Norris stepped over to Delphine, he took her arm and they led the assembled courtiers out to meet the media.  "On the veranda", the courtiers were told to stop behind Delphine, who paused while Norris to approached the microphones himself.  Stepping up to the podium, the Arch Duke first commented on the importance of reconnecting and mending fences to promote trade and benefit everyone.  He thanked the ambassadors from the Zhodani Consulate, Sword Worlds and the various Vargr nations.  He also thanked those independent states and the Ambassador from the newly formed Arden Federation.

Norris said he'd spoken to the Ambassador from the Sacnoth system, one of the strongest of the remaining Sword Worlds systems, and they agreed to assist in trying to deal with Baron von Kreden and his ramshackle fleet.  He also said they had agreed to assist in responding to events in the Gungnir system in hopes of not having to respond with an Imperial Naval intervention.  That comment got a shiver from even the most loyal citizen.  After dealing with the questions and answers, the Arch Duke brought the conversation around to the death of Sir Brian Montgomery.  He then waved the crew forward as he told the media he'd like to introduce them to the crew of the "Hotel California".  As they moved forward, most assembled were very surprised when a reporter called out, "Isn't it the former 'Hotel California'?  Wasn't the ship destroyed?"  Norris just smiled kindly as he responded that rumors of the destruction of that ship were greatly exaggerated.  He then said they were in fact leaving the Mora system soon, to return to operations aboard their ship.

That begged the first questions about what "operations" the crew would be participating in, and Norris pointed out they were now mostly Knights.  He continued that it was the duty of all nobility in the Imperium to work for the betterment of the Empire.  When asked if they were officially joining an Imperial service, the Arch Duke said that was not the case, but reminded the media there were many ways to improve one's own life while also benefiting the Imperium too.  He even pointed out this was true for the average citizen.  This added more to the mystery of who the crew actually worked for?  Anyone trying to keep a scorecard to figure out which side they were on was getting a case of whiplash as they shifted, or were shifted, around the board.  But now, as the Arch Duke talked about them serving the Empire, it sounded like even he didn't know what they were up to.  It was enough to cause speculation the crew were working directly for the Emperor himself.  In fact, some media outlets "quietly" suggested the mysterious disappearance of Zimzod, Mikah and Brian seemed perfectly timed for a meeting part-way riftward, with an Emissary from Capital.

Eventually the questions ended and Norris asked all to bow their heads before he spoke about Sir Brian.  He spoke from Brian's record of service and achievements, of the risks he faced and rewards the people of the Spinward Marches gained from that.  Speaking of their work in the Risek outbreak, the Arch Duke said the cure wasn't the only thing to come out of the incident.  He continued, with the entire attention of the media, and announced that Sir Brian had designed a mass decontamination station, while helping the others find the cure.  And in his honor, the design would be produced and deployed by the Imperial Navy.  So, it wasn't known how many lives Sir Brian's work might save in the future.  After the Arch Duke's comments, there was a brief memorial to the honor of a fallen Knight before they were again swept into a vehicle with Norris to their next stop.

On the road, Mikah asked about any profits from the "Sir Brian Montgomery Decontamination unit"?  Norris only pointed out the unit design had been finished by naval architects and was being released as a public project.  So, there wouldn't be ownership profits.  As she sat back disappointed, the Arch Duke asked, "Mr. Wood, Can I have some words with you?"  As everyone wondered what was coming, Norris said they were on their way to a trade expo.  Zach perked up at that, while the Arch Duke repeated how important it was to get trade up to pre-war levels.  Despite issues like the ramshackle fleet, the region needed success and he needed someone who spoke "merchant".  So he asked Zach to stay close to him and perhaps whisper to let him know when it sounded like bull.  As they rode, they were told to leave the sashes in the transport and once more given their psi-helmets.

When they arrived, it was clear the expo had been going for some time and had geared up for the arrival of the Arch Duke.  News had already hit that he'd surprised the industrial sector with the announcement of a new mass decontamination unit and the whispered hope was that he'd announce the first navy contracts.  While General Shipyards and LSP were perhaps the lead candidates, there was a lot of buzz about others.  Zach was told to keep wearing his sash and keep close to the Arch Duke.  The rest of the crew were told to mingle and observe, with the warning this stop would be a lot less controlled than the morning as would be any hazards.  They were also told there were plain clothes agents but that was no reason to get comfortable.  The expo was a convention, trade show and meat market of sellers and promoters from all over the sector.  Even Zhodani firms were represented.  Far and away, the most significant of the Arch Duke's activities that afternoon for Zach was when he happened to meet with a pair of captains from the Open Skies Corporation!

This was during a period where the Arch Duke chose to wander the expo collecting names and making contacts.  What was a vast opportunity for the Captains became torture when they realized who was assisting Norris.  Zach just sat back in his chair relaxing as he advised the Arch Duke and the men stared daggers of hate at Zach.  Beginning to speak with them, it seemed the Arch Duke unintentionally made it worse as he introduced "Squire Wood".  But, it turned out Norris had a plan.  As Zach helped, the Arch Duke asked for data on their cross-sector trade routes, proving he'd done some research on them before he "happened to meet them".

This was business, but done with a barb as the Arch Duke, from time to time, stopped them to ask Zach's impressions on their data, since he'd worked for their firm.  And while Zach could see the hatred hardening, he couldn't help but smile as he assisted, defining terms and explaining facts.  By the end of the conversation, Zach noticed one of the Captains might have just given up the fight as not worth it.  So, Zach hoped for the chance of an opening as the Arch Duke moved on to meet others.  While Zach saw the possible glimmer of hope, it was very brief, as these were not the more hostile captains of the organization on Rhylanor.

While Norris spoke to the captains, Ms. Vik actually watched, while Aiden kept close enough to listen without letting himself completely loose focus.  Rol had noticed the beginning of the encounter but wanted to make sure he couldn't be blamed for any bloodshed, so he kept his attention on the crowds.  Eventually all of them were back on task as Norris moved around freely, thanks to the rules in place.  The key rule being enforced was that the Arch Duke was not to be approached.  Should he choose to meet any of the attendees, he would approach them.  This worked for the most part, but there were the periodic risk takers hoping for a reward.

Soon, another one of those looked to be trying it when Zach noticed "something" about the man's mannerisms.  It was nothing Zach could put his finger on but it bothered him.  When the merchant called over the common channel, security moved in to grab the man for violating the rules at the least.  But as they searched him, the item which had bothered Zach in the first place turned out to be the plastic form of a body pistol!  When that was discovered, the man was quickly and efficently placed in restraints and moved out to be questioned and charged.  Given how illegal it was just to own a body pistol, the charges would be significant and the questioning more of a formality before punishment.

Shortly after that incident, the delegation the man was part of were also rounded up and removed for questioning.  Surprisingly, they were among one of the more loyal and well-serving groups in the region, which raised many more questions.  And after that, things settled down and the party went on.  Eventually, while there were some technical issues Zach needed to help the Arch Duke with, he was just playing the role of a professional aide.  While he earned a few points for his actions, the expo was fairly sedate after the body pistol.  For the rest of the crew, the event was fairly boring.  At different points, as they moved and kept close to the Arch Duke, they were each asked what firms they represented?  It was obviously assumed they were loitering close to the Arch Duke in hopes of being noticed and approached.  The most comedic of these happened to Ms. Vik as she was asked if she represented one of the many starship brothels working the trade lanes?  Rather than be insulted, Inger took it as a compliment since she'd dealt with these ships from time to time.

The most famous ship in the region was a converted 10,000 ton freighter called the "Rambling Queen", where most of the cargo space was converted to staterooms and recreational spaces.  They were advertised as "The fanciest Cathouse you've ever seen", and catered to all races and genders.  Of course, when Inger told the man who she was, that shut him down hard.  The one thing a merchant wanted to do more than make contacts was not burn them, especially those with the Starport Authority!  Taking control of the new situation, Inger asked what firm he represented?  The man was very apologetic as he realized his mistake, and politely bumped her his information.  She made it clear she was not angry and a bit amused.  His data said he was with a starship transport firm supporting starports.  Operating truly monstrous-size freighters, this company loaded new built or modified ships into cargo holds and transported them to their buyers or owners.  As she answered him, Inger bumped him her data, saying she was available for consulting if his firm needed help dealing with the port.  Inger did say she and her crew would only be in system for a few days and he thanked her graciously for accepting his apology.

Those Who Returned To Relax

     Eventually, the Arch Duke wound things up at the expo and they went out to the cars.  While boarding, Norris said he was having dinner with Duchess Delphine.  He told the team they were free to leave or carry out their own business, and there was a car there to take them back to their ship.  Zach recommended going back in to mix with the merchants but Zimzod wasn't interested in the least and asked the driver if he could be dropped at the resort?  Since it was nearing dinner time, Mikah suggested they join Zimzod and grab dinner at his resort.  Zimzod shrugged as they got in and told them about the underwater restaurant when Mikah asked about places to eat.  Mikah said they should eat there but Aiden and Emkir were concerned with the expense.  Mikah said she was sure the resort had a concierge who could recommend a place to eat that was good for them all.  Zimzod said that was a good plan for them, and after they arrived he said "Later" and went off to find his lady friend.  Zimzod quickly comm'd the woman, to be invited to her rooms for dinner in.  Zimzod said he was on his way and looked forward to seeing her, and perhaps even eating dinner.

The crew explored the place and visited the concierge, learning about the many places on the property to eat.  Eventually, they found a place near the beach with a bar and they headed off.  The restaurant they found was a seafood place, charging on average Cr 35 a head and they settled in to enjoy.  Discussing payment, Mikah volunteered Aiden to pay and Rol welcomed him to the nobility as the others laughed.  Rol brought up their plans for the next day, during the meal, and they talked about the Scout's planned tour of the local base while Inger and Rol planned to return to Frank's Armory.  During that, Emkir realized he had to pack up the things he owed Frank's people after they returned to the ship.  After they'd finished, and Aiden covered the Cr 245 bill, Zach said he wanted to return to the expo.  Rol said he'd join Zach, and they got a cab asking Cr 20 for the trip.  Since it was Zach's idea, it was Zach's job to pay.

The rest of the crew loaded into a transport to the ship and, when it came to who would pay, Aiden quickly pointed to Mikah before she could volunteer him.  Snapping at him, she said, "I paid for last night you cheap bastard!" with a laugh.  Emkir stepped in suggesting they split the costs and they ended up spending Cr 5 each.  At the ship, Aiden called the Duchess' weapons smith to set up an appointment and discuss his custom weapon.  As they talked, they agreed they'd meet the morning after the next day before Emkir and Aali's wedding.  With the proper measurements and a good chance to learn Aiden's desires, he figured he should be able to offer some designs and ideas to move forward with by that evening.  Off the line, Aiden was concerned the weapon might not be done before they left the system.  Setting that aside, Aiden changed into casual clothes and settled down to read.

Following suit, Mikah and Ms. Vik also changed into ships suits and relaxed.  Aali also relaxed while Emkir went on line to order a bouquet of lilies with a ribbon reading "I love You Honey".  That cost him Cr 60.  After that, he organized the gear he needed delivered to Frank's Armory to give to Rol when they got back from the expo.  That was done, he relaxed with the rest.  And as they watched the news and vids, the ship's comms buzzed.  Mikah answered to find it was a notification from the IISS that an X-message was available for the crew.  When Mikah took the data and logged into the IISS system, she found it was another update from Duke Leonard's people in Rhylanor.  They said they'd made progress determining where the ships had entered the system.  Where they had "left to" was still a mystery, as well as who they were or worked for?  All assets in the Rhylanor system were on a level of alert despite a 'recent incident along the Sword Worlds Border'.

While the message didn't discuss the incident, it was clear to the crew this referred to the ramshackle fleet.  The message continued that they'd made a number of arrests while investigating any in-system links to the ships, but not really made progress yet.  Done with that message, Mikah found a second message "boxcared" onto the first, from Countess Ursara.  In the message, she looked forward to the diamond auction, but was disappointed Zimzod would not be there for the sale.  She did give a list of people she expected to be attending and bidding at the event.  In any case, she promised to keep them updated on the sale.  She also said that, if she left the system before they returned, she'd leave the simulated Tellona Diamond with Lord William.

After reading both messages, the crew continued to relax.  On the news, speculation they'd met with emissaries of the Iridium Throne had spawned rumors the past two years history of the crew were faked.  It was suggested they'd traveled to Capital and returned, working directly for the Emperor himself.  Despite this, they were now correctly reporting on Aali and Emkir's wedding.  The crew also laughed as new rumors reported that the newly elevated Sir Aiden Radetsky planned to tour the local Scout base with an eye towards returning to the service and assuming a significant rank and role there.  This, more than anything else, caused the crew to roll with laughter.

Zach's Evening At The Expo

     At the expo, Zach arrived after discussing with Rol why the marine joined him?  Rol made it clear he was there to "look after their best interests" and Zach decided to accept the 'security detail'.  Now free to tend to his own business, many people stepped up to ask about the Arch Duke's plans for the future.  Zach described His Grace's stated plans to restore trade and, if possible, return it to pre-war if not stronger levels.  Given that, the many contacts Zach collected talked up their cross-border connections and experience, hoping to be referred to the Arch Duke in the future.  Ironically, what developed were confessions of illicit connections traders confessed to, which mostly began while they tried to keep their contracts during the war.  With hostilities interrupting regular trade patterns, merchants worked to keep their contracts to the best they could, and even developed routes to slip through the battle lines and carry goods.

These efforts led to increased opportunities, though a number of these were more than a bit illegal, and soon most of the efforts could only be properly called smuggling.  It became clear a number of those coming to him were hoping to use Zach as a conduit to get a blessing from the Arch Duke and legalize their activities.  Starting to realize what was in play, Zach worked to see if he could separate those actually being honest about their activities from those trying to get official permission for what were really dangerous or improper operations.  This was much harder because Zach only had moments with each trader or group.  And everyone represented their business as completely appropriate and serving both the economy and the empire.  So, Zach spent the rest of his evening meeting with these people, and did manage to even get sit downs with a few until he had some level of certainty on them.

Zach kept as detailed a set of notes he could on the meetings and contacts, so he could deliver them to the Arch Duke's seneschal.  In the end, he had what he thought was a handle on those operations which should be investigated for approval and those which should be investigated by the Ministry of Justice.  he could tell two of these, at the least, were lying and looking for support they should not have, as far as Zach felt.  They complained about difficulties moving cargos from and to systems that wouldn't trade in those goods, though a legal route between those systems would provide access to known free ports and black markets.  Zach was certain these two organizations, at the least, should be taken down by gunfire before the survivors were questioned and then executed.

Of course, in addition to being interested in helping out, Zach was interested in helping himself.  As he worked with those he felt were carrying on legitimate business through smuggling channels they'd developed during the war, he made very subtle comments about having an interest in benefiting from his work himself.  No less than two he'd dealt with suggested there might be a quid pro quo and the suggested amounts added up to Cr 20,000 "if things worked out" and "if they could contact him once that happened".  On the way back to the ship, Zach called the Seneschal's office and got a connection to upload his data, research and recommendations.

Next: The Ride To Marital Bliss