A mind popped into notice. Janardan's ever-present telepathy didn't pry (anymore) but the unmistakable appearance of another sapient being couldn't be ignored. He as being delivered a letter, he gleaned from the being's surface thoughts. They thought it was something of utmost importance. Janardan doubted it.
He waved a hand over his inbox. "Just put it on the desk."
"I... I think I'm supposed to hand it directly to you... or to someone... I..." the voice was squeaking and subservient.
Janardan glanced up. His eyes narrowed.
There were plenty alien species on the Refugium, some more or less 'humanoid' (what an awful exclusionary term) other rather dragon-like. This... sniveling thing fell in the former category. Small, simpering, and wide-eyed it clutched an ornate letter in its fragile little hands.
"Whose it for?" Janardan held out a broad palm.
His father, then. "You're looking for Kutoth."
"I couldn't find him. I really ought to be able to do that." It's fingers tensed - Janardan sensed it wanted to crumple the paper, but restrained itself with a great deal of effort.
"I'll do, then." Janardan flexed his fingers.
The person inched the letter to him with trembling fingers.
There was no address on the outside. It was ostentatious and expensive, something Kutoth would have delighted in. Why a paper missive? Was this information too sensitive for digital format? Or, more likely, was the deliverer as eccentric as his father and thought a hand delivered, old fashioned message would be better received? Janardan frowned, dipped a claw under the lip of the envelope, and opened it. It was long and meandering, but Janardan knew instantly who'd written it.
He'd seen the man briefly during the Myrmex clutch, along with a retinue of servants and someone who turned out to be an acceptable candidate. Shy had managed to convince Dr. Krum to give him access to the Heimdall. He as a geneticist of sorts and in search of a place called the Vella Crean. That was about all Janardan knew of him. This drippingly ornate letter waxing poetic about a place that had been reminded Janardan startlingly of his own father.
Who he now needed to track down. Kutoth would want to be involved with this revival of the Vella Crean courts. Recreating a whole species out of a small genetic subset was precisely the purpose of the Refugium.
Kutoth's mind felt like a pulsing web of chaos, thoughts tumbling over thoughts and drenched in millennia of memories. Even thought Janardan shared a great deal of his father's power, the initial brush of their minds remained a startling shock. While Kutoth arguably had more responsibilities (and paperwork) to handle than Janardan, he as almost never found in his office. It had taken an uncomfortable search of the Refugium's myriad population before Janardan located him in an aesthetically victorian theatre in Janos city.
Cello music drifted through the halls. Janardan followed it to a largely empty seating area and stage, where a young man sat solemn between his two dragonesque bonds. Kutoth, with his bright leucistic hide, stood out in stark contrast to the dark browns and umber.
Janardan squeezed between the aisles and sat next to his father. It was cramped and uncomfortable, leaving him no room for his fronds or his tail. These seats were not made for murdon.
Janardan held the letter out.
"Just a moment, dear boy." Kutoth raised a finger to his lips, eyes locked on the performance.
It was mediocre at best. The man playing was Ajiel, a euclides who'd sought refuge from his own kind by taking on the position of Kutoth's personal composer. He was best suited to dreaming up scores than trying to perform them himself. Pleasure rose in waves from Kutoth's mind, so Janardan help his mouth - and his thoughts - closed. Greer, his ever-present tralvisk companion, huffed and scratched his earholes. Janardan agreed.
A tremulous note ended the performance and Kutoth rose, clapping. "Bravo, my lad! Bravo!"
Ajiel wavered back to his natural lion-like form and bowed.
"I certainly have more to say, but give me a moment or two, please." And Kutoth turned to Janardan. His expression was one of pleasure, eyes twinkling and lips pursed, but the surface thoughts diffusing from his mind were tumultuous. He could likely sense Janardan's annoyance despite his best effort to keep it in check.
Janardan held out the letter, again. "It's from Shy."
"For us? Not the Heimdall?" Kutoth took the letter and read it.
"The Heimdall might have got one too, I can't say, but it was meant for you."
"And I ought to choose the appropriate candidate."
Janardan sent Kutoth a thread of assent. "I know we have some residents with royal lineage, that watarus prince would certainly make an excellent candidate."
"It seems you have your own ideas already sorted." Kutoth trembled a laugh and folded the letter away. "Andrion-Erebius may indeed make a good candidate... some day. But I believe the choice for this clutch is obvious."
Janardan caught nothing from Kutoth's mind. His unease fed into Greer who snapped the air and paced. "Who?"
"You, of course!"
Janardan balked. "I'm not-"
He cut himself off, but his mind flew ahead of his words and the thought struck Kutoth like a visible blow, forcing his expression to wobble. Kutoth called himself 'The Prince' (and variations thereof) for centuries. For Janardan to claim he wasn't of noble lineage would be to deny that. And hadn't he himself proclaimed the title of 'Lord'? Murdon didn't have royal houses, but that didn't make Janardan's pedigree any less noble or noteworthy.
"I don't have a title any more." Janardan concluded, subdued.
Kutoth righted himself, his fronds twisting with the cacophony of his emotions. Finally, he said. "Of course you do, you're a director of the Refugium. Shy will accept this."
"Is that the sort of title Shy is looking for?"
"We'll make certain he believes it is. I'm quite positive he'll have contacted the Heimdall as well and there are no kings and queens over there." Kutoth turned away and wiggled between the aisles, heading for the stage. "I've got a composer's ego to stroke now, but you best get to packing your bags, my boy."
Heart pounding against possibilities, Dietlinde barged through the heavy doors of the war room. "What happened?"
Three pairs of familiar eyes turned from the table to look up at her. Dr. Krum, Merete, and her mother.
"Happened?" General Rosenheim frowned.
"I was summoned, I was told it's [i]urgent[/i]." Dietlinde leaned against the doors, catching her breath.
The utter lack of worry permeating the room's occupants was perturbing.
"Urgent in that we only have a few [i]days[/i]," said Merete. "I'll have a talk with that errand boy."
"Days?" Dietlinde searched their inscrutable faces for the barest inkling of a clue. "What's going on?"
"We've been taking the Heimdall in a different direction, trying to get the bulk of our soldiers bonded to dragons," said Rosenheim. "As space and supply permits."
"Did something happen at the Refu-"
"Our relationship with the Refugium is... fine." Rosenheim's pause was uncomfortably long. Despite being the daughter of the general, Dietlinde wasn't privy to all the going's on but she'd known a fissure of tension had crackled between the organizations over some project Dr. Krum insisted upon.
"I want to you send you to offworld... for a dragon" her mother concluded.
"Me?" Dielinde's worry turned to elation. A dragon of her own! Finally! She'd known it would happen sooner or later and she was really the right age for it, but most of her duties remained onboard the Heimdall itself and it was ground soldiers, proper fighters that were being sent to bond right now. The first wave. Dietlinde had very little battlefield experience under her belt and she'd figured she was on track for working aboard a starship.
This changed things.
Dr. Krum plucked up the piece of paper the trio had been gawking over and handed it to Dietlinde.
The paper was thick and ornate, the script flowing and eloquent. This didn't come from military command. She read it with growing trepidation, her excitement fluttering down to disappointment. At the end, her face dropped.
"This says they're looking for candidates of noble heritage." Dietlinde thrust the letter back at Krum. "I'm a soldier."
"From a long line of soldiers," said Rosenheim, straightening her shoulders and casting her chin high.
"There's wiggle room for interpretation," Merete added. "An invitation wouldn't have been sent here if Shy wasn't open to eclectic options."
"That seems optimistic." Dietlinde's brow furrowed sharply. "How do you [i]know[/i]?" She wasn't going to show up on some strange planet only to be rejected and sent away from having the wrong pedigree. To be passed up by a dragon during impression would be humiliating but tolerable, to be denied the chance to stand all together made Dietlinde want to seethe.
"If you're worried, I have it on good authority Shy himself is visiting the Refugium," said Dr. Krum with a wide, fox-like smile. "We could go extend a greeting?"
It wasn't often a guest to the Refugium warranted an entire welcoming coalition, but Shy was a particularly important visitor and Janardan could feel the waves of trepidation pouring of his father. It as odd enough for Kutoth to make any sort of public appearance as of late, let alone one so ostentatious as this. Shy was a geneticist with a great deal of resources as his disposal, he'd be invaluable to the Refugium's conservation efforts. There had even been talk of Shy being able to find a cure for the disease plaguing the Imperial Luungs that had recently taken refuge in the oceanic biodome.
It was important Shy receive a warm welcome. This wouldn't be his first trip to the Refugium, but he'd spent most of his time aboard the Heimdall during his initial visit to Zar's little corner of the universe.
Speaking of the Heimdall...
Janardan felt the sharp twinge of Dr. Krum's mind and turned to see her approaching the party, a young woman in freshly pressed dress uniform behind her. Greer bristled at his knees, growling.
"It's fine." Janardan tapped the tralvisk's horns. "Stand down."
Janardan didn't much care for Dr. Krum, but that didn't warrant Greer's aggression. The girl behind her certainly didn't. Janardan caught her eyes and gleaned her surface thoughts. She was vaguely familiar in the way that someone met by another murdon - another telepath - left an impression across their minds.
Dietlinde Rosenheim. A Heimdall sergeant, but young and inexperienced. Trepidation oozed from her, shadowing... a worry of humiliation? A lack of self-confidence? The emotions were a jumble.
"Just in time," said Dr. Krum. "Good afternoon, Kutoth, Janardan."
Kutoth dipped his head in a makeshift bow.
Janardan frowned. "In time for what?" He could have searched Krum's mind, but her thoughts were like chewing glass.
"Shy's arrival." Krum gestured for Dietlinde to come up between them. "Sergeant Rosenheim has some worries that she may not fit the bill as an acceptable candidate."
There was no shock. Janardan assumed the Heimdall would have received an invitation as well, and the name 'Rosenheim' was the most infamous family in the mercenary organization. This unassuming young woman hardly seemed to fit the bill. Shy's ship only just docked and it would likely take them some time to get sorted. Janardan peeled himself away from the welcoming party to approaching the girl.
Fire flashed through her mind as she snapped her gaze to him, defenses and challenge rising to the surface of her thoughts.
"Do you know who I am?" Janardan asked.
Dietlinde's gaze shifted between him and Kutoth. Finally, she nodded. "I'm-"
"I know. You're the Heimdall's pick?"
At first, Dietlinde's bristling only increased. Her lips forms a tight moue, eyebrows lowering darkly over her treebark eyes.
"Murdon don't have [i]noble lineage[/i], but I'll be furious if I'm denied because of that."
Dietlinde laughed. A short, aborted sound, quick as thunder. "I'm not even the oldest sibling. Isn't that how this is usually supposed to go?"
"For succession to the throne." Janardan shrugged all of his many shoulders, causing his fronds to flutter. "Not for acquiring assets."
"Is that how the Refugium sees this? Acquiring an asset?"
"No." Janardan replied too quickly. There was some truth in the question. The Refugium collected rare species as much as it aided them, old habits died hard and all that. Kutoth liked have pretty things but now he shrouded his desires in a cloak of altruism and conservation. Janardan only cared that the Refugium succeeded.
He had his own reasons for wanting to bond a dragon, none of which were of the asset-acquiring stripe.
Dietlinde shrugged. "The Heimdall's gathering weapons of all sorts but I just... I really like dragons. The general picked me for this clutch but I'd be happy with anything. I don't know why she didn't choose Aurich or Olenna or something, my older siblings." She muttered with a frown. "Some of my older siblings. I just hate the thought of being passed up before I even get to meet the dragons, y'know? It'd be humiliating. I'd rather a clutch with less fanfare and no chance of failing an interview. Aurich has a better temperament for this sort of thing."
Janardan understood her, but he [i]did[/i] want the fanfare. The prestige. He ached for it. It was difficult to tamp down the desire to reign supreme over something and attending a clutch for [i]very important people[/i] soothed those longings. A little. Dietlinde clearly hadn't been put in charge of anything.
"Your family name is a lot to live up to." Janardan's tone was careful.
"Yes," Dietlinde said with a nod. "But I'll make my mark."
So she wasn't lacking ambition. Good.
"And Krum says she has a gift in mind that might sway Shy into accepting me." Dietlinde's lips went tight again.
Janardan peered into her mind: Disappointment that she might not be enough to prove herself, that she needed outside forces to find her way into Shy's good graces. She was a soldier, her self-worth came from her own abilities, not her lack of ability to schmooze with politicians. The gift itself was almost a throwaway thought, a tiny kernel Janardan needed to dig to suss out.
And it was terrifying.
Greer sent a thrill of alarm though Janardan's mind. He turned from Dietlinde to see Shy's boarding party exiting their ship and approaching. Kutoth broke apart from the group to greet him, his fronds trembling.
"Excuse me," said Janardan with a proper bow. "Duties." He didn't wait for Dietlinde's response, extracting himself from her to follow his father.
Deep breaths. They had an embassy to set up.
The Vella Crean embassy appeared to be approved by all parties involved (despite the Vella Crean still being lost to the universe). Kutoth had managed to handle the social interaction without much (visible) fuss, and Janardan stepped in where needed to keep the conversation streamlined. Shy would receive a floor in the newly crafted embassy tower and a special key card to permit him access to most of the Refugium's labs. Krum had, of course, butted in and offered the Heimdall's labs as a resource as well. Hopefully the man didn't mind being caught in a game of political tug-o-war.
There would still be a great deal of work before things were properly sorted and Shy's embassy rooms were prepared, but there were more urgent matters to attend to.
Those eggs of Shy's wouldn't take long to hatch and Janardan had a gift to prepare.
He paced his office, Greer trotting at his heels barking miscellaneous nonsense words in hope of inspiring something worthy of praise. Despite all his many powers, Janardan was not a creator like his father and with the knowledge of Dr. Krum's gift in mind, he needed something spectacular. He could turn anything he wished into gold, but what was riches to someone like Shy? Not good enough, not by far. If he hadn't destroyed Venial he could provide Shy with many useful servants, although lacking in the aesthetics the man probably preferred.
"Embassy?" Greer chuffed.
"Absolutely not." Janardan wouldn't taint diplomatic relations by calling Shy's embassy a gift, a bribe in exchange for Janardan's chance to stand at his clutch. He needed something of his own merit. "Treat?" Greer's tone was hopeful.
Janardan paused to stroke the tralvisk's narrow head. His irritation was like a lash to Greer, grating them both through their mental link. "Yes, treat. Soon."
"Many big treat?"
Janardan laughed. "You think I should make Shy a gumball machine? An automatic treat dispenser?"
That was unlikely to be received with accolades. What did one give Shy that he didn't already have? Certainly the man had desires but Janardan wanted to present him with something grander than a trivial trinket. Some better - or at the very least equal to - Dr. Krum's mystery offering. If he dared to glean the depths of Shy's mind he might have a better idea of what to bring, but while Janardan had little issue peeking behind the curtain of his peers, Shy was an important ally. What if he got caught? Dream walking was also out of the question for similar reasons.
No, Janardan would have to use his own wits and creativity to formulate something that represented his worth.
"Pet?" Greer barked, sharper now, his patience worn thin.
"Shy has pets." But there was merit to that idea.
A pet fused with Janardan's own abilities, able to dream walk and turn objects to gold or shapeshift at will to please Shy. Now there was an idea. He'd need Kutoth's help to pull it off, but this... felt right. Yes. A perfect example of what Janardan could bring to the table, why he was deserving of this clutch.
Dr. Krum could stuff it.
Janardan procured a dried strip of meat from the glass jar on his desk and tossed it to Greer, who caught it deftly with a sharp snap of his jaws.
"Let's go find my father." Again.
Kutoth was easier to locate this time, mentally exhausted from the visit and political preening required for the embassy. He was in his own rooms in the farthest sector of engineering deck, separate from the hullabaloo of the busy station. The motifs from his old life pervaded everything. While the outside was the same steel grey as much of the Refugium's architecture, the inner sanctum was gleaming ivory and alabastar marble, serpents carved in every facet. There were no servants quarters here, things had changed a great deal since Kutoth banished Cassius to his death.
They didn't speak of that, Kutoth and Janardan, or the whispers of a growing force guided by Cassius determined to remove the old 'Ivory Prince' from his refuge.
None of that was presently relevant. A problem for a different day.
Kutoth didn't go entirely without aids. The doors unlocked to Janardan's touch and he and Greer were greeted by the first of many automatons, a mewling porcelain thing with wide doll eyes.
"Come in please," the robot simpered. "I'll take you to the master."
Janardan didn't need an escort but there was no harm in this thing. It lead him through the winding corridors to Kutoth's personal room. The doors hissed open, revealing the darkest room in the makeshift palace, walls replaced with windows that stared out into the open void of stars and Zar's swirling purple orb.
Feoras - Kutoth's tralvisk - leapt to his feet and raced across the room, bristling and snarling. Greer surged forward to greet him, teeth bared. The two circled each other with horns brandished and tails raised until Kutoth - sitting crossed legged with his back to the door - raised a single hand to calm them. A long stretch of moments passed where Kutoth and Janardan allowed their thoughts to drift between each other. Communication was quicker this way, particularly when it involved the exchange of creative ideas.
"It's been a very long day." Kutoth creaked to his feet, shoulders slumped. "But I think we can manage this before you leave for Shy's labs."
"You're not coming?"
Kutoth turned to face him, expression contemplative. "I really should, shouldn't I?"
"He seemed quite eager to show you his resources. If you want to set up a permanent alliance you have to leave the Refugium."
Kutoth frowned but agreement mingled between their minds.
"Let's work on this project of yours then, shall we?"
The process took them deep into the night. Even two powerful murdon could be taxed from the creation of a new being, a powerful being, and Kutoth's abilities weren't what they once were. Janardan formed the physical structure as carefully as a jeweler, shaping gold between his many hands and affixing jewels in such a way that they seemed natural growth with no division separating them from the gleaming golden base. He breathed his powers into it, causing every facet to glow with burning brass delight, pulsing like a living heart beat.
It was a circlet, delicate and ornate, formed from braided gold and affixed with gleaming, translucent black diamonds that shimmered with their own internal light. The crown was a serpents head with a wolf's dagger-filled maw, teeth bared but beautiful.
When Janardan was pleased with its shape, he presented it to his father. Kutoth shut his eyes, breathed, and placed his hands on it. // Kutoth quivered as his power wavered beneath his skin, sliding through the arteries and nerve endings to the tips of his long, clawed fingers. The circlet glowed white hot, the color itself became deafening, throbbing. And then it ceased. Kutoth sagged. Janardan dropped the circlet to catch him, easing him onto the pile of cushions strewn about the low floor. Feoras took to his side immediately.
:: Are you alright? ::
:: Yes, yes. :: Kutoth's mindvoice was dim. :: Just tired, let me sleep. ::
"What am I?" the voice was tinny and strained like wire pulled too taut.
Janardan turned to see what they'd created.
The figure fluctuated between forms creating a blurred image of limb and shape, but the color remained glistening gold and opalescent black.
"Wish granter." Janardan stepped toward it. "Fame seeker. Dream maker."
The shape quavered. Janardan reached a hand out to it and it reached back with fingers that were one moment gnarled and wizened and the next as long and sharp as sickles. It finally landed on something delicate and soft.
"But your name is Meek." Janardan pressed his palm to the being's brow.
"Meek," it repeated.
With a thought, Janardan transformed it back to the delicate circlet.
There. He had his gift.
"Shouldn't I know what it is that I'm giving to Shy?" Dietlinde smoothed the crisp lines of her dress uniform once more, frowning at nearly imperceptible wrinkles. Her hair, ordinarily kept in a tight bun or braids for efficiencies sake, had been conditioned, combed, and elaborately braided. She felt like a bride delivering her own dowry instead of a soldier preparing to obtain a new partner. She didn't dislike the propriety, she would have insisted on a poised and impeccable appearance regardless. She just wanted more information.
Her mother stood in front of her, strong and commanding as the sun itself, with a smile so warm and full of pride it might have put the same sun to shame. She took Dietlinde's shoulders in her firm hands. "You're the most important gift we're bringing to his laboratories. It'll be an honor for all sides for you to bond one of his dragons."
Dietlinde tilted her chin high, beaming under the praise. "I wish you could watch me at impression."
"Dr. Krum is a better representative for this and the invitation was quite clear about the number of guests permitted to attend." Rose's smile widened and she cupped Dietlinde's cheek. "I trust you'll do me proud without my presence."
Dietlinde gripped her mother's wrist and nodded. "Yes, ma'am!"
Rose kissed her daughter's brow and stepped away. Dr. Krum appeared in the doorway, silent as a cat, carrying a small metal box tight against her chest. The Heimdall's jagged seal formed a lock across the seam. It wasn't much larger than a lunch pail and entirely bland apart from the insignia. From what she'd seen of Shy, this wasn't likely to impress him.
"It's the contents that matter," said Krum, reading Dietlinde's expression. "It's time to go. The Refugium is readying it's ship."
Dietlinde turned to her mother once more. Rose squeezed her hand and nodded, firm and unworried. She cupped her daughter's cheeks and pressed their brows together.
"You can do this," she whispered.
"I know," Dietlinde replied.
She followed Dr. Krum from the room, ready to board the Refugium's White Serpent. Ready to pass judgement and meet her bond.