Chapter 3 (continued)
10 Minutes later they were sitting in Anira's kitchen in the ground floor, looking out of the large window. Outside the stars had come out,some of them were rearranging themselves in the firmament adapting to the changing flows of fate in the world. The air was filled with the spicy smell of a stew that had bin simmering on Anira's old fashioned gas fire stove for hours. Ailu was to annoyed to want to be hungry. In her eyes it undercut the gravity of her disapproval. Right now she was doing some Grand High Master grade disapproving of Anira's blasé reaction to the news that she had been black marked and taken out of service for a month. She should be angry and rightly so. All this had been a dick move by supervisor Kelsheron who had been looking for a way to get rid of Anira for years now.
". . ." Ailu remained silent. She wanted to tell Anira to stop being childish, assess the situation work out a plan. But she could not think of way of breaching the subject in a way that would lead to any form of discussion. She thought that this had to be one of those moments when you saw how much your friendship with someone was worth to you. Anira was being as much of an idiot as supervisor Kelsheron but then that idiot had set up Anira for a fall anyway. He was by the book guy. Not one of those that took the rules and made them into their personal code, but one of those idiots that were using the regulations to hide behind them. Always playing it save, administering passionate French kisses to all arses that out ranked him and kicking everything below him that did not the same for him.
The few times he and Anira had worked together it had always ended very close to internal disaster. Anira did not care much about rank, she was only ever interested in the outcome. 'The mission must go on.' as she used to say all the time. If she had to bend rules or ignore guidelines she would do that. Being an agent for three consecutive higher incarnations retaining all her memories and experiences from before had made her one of the Free Agencies best field operatives. As long as the mission was to her personal inclinations that is. Which was probably how all the trouble started.
Kelsheron had only a few decades less experience than Anira, he had switched into a fresh body only a few years ago and he was still stuck in his supervisor position. Not because he was good at it but because that was all that he was any good at. He was a mediocre agent who loved to take any short cut he could find, which had lead to rather grim after action reviews. Instead of taking the advice of his superiors to heart he started to hide behind the rules. In time he became a walking rule book. The agency then decided to take advantage of his strength and make him a supervisor. A job which he did well enough. He was not close enough to the agents to scare them away with his rather lacking social skills, while he could take full advantage of his mastery over the red tape.
The problem was that when ever he was faced with real responsibility he failed. He only had this one talent which became his prison. Being reminded of this was the worst thing that could happen. Every time he was not given 'proper' respect he would throw a hissy fit doing what ever he could to grind the agent into the dust. Most of the younger agents were afraid of him, the older ones made it a running joke to out do each other in playing along his delusions of grandeur.
Then Anira came along. At first Kelsheron had seen an ally in her. After all this was one of the few people in the agency that had not advanced after over two centuries of service. Obviously she was a victim of cruel fate just like he was. He could also see from her considerable file that despite her decent track record, she always got the job done in the end, she blundered from one faux pas to the next. Stumbling over regulation and accidentally breaking rules with the grace of an angry octopus having a fit in a porcelain storage. He had envisioned himself as her kind mentor who would through his fatherly advice and benign kindness guide Anira to greatness.
Had Anira played along she could have probably won a price for making the Kelsheron think that he was the secret shadow king of the Free Agency. But Anira did not play along. The reason because she still was an agent was that it was what she was good at, what she loved to do and what got her out of the bed in the morning. She was not in it for the money, nor for the power or the fantastical career opportunities. By now the ritual of proposed promotions ranging from Operation Control, the Guardians of the Night and every once in a while when the higher ups had been abusing to much substance even the Ethics Commission, was a yearly ritual. Someone with a large shining white envelope would come and Anira would take the envelope and with great care and respect rip it to tiny shreds and burn the shreds in a special bowl that she now kept for exactly this occasion.
And Anira did not take shit from anyone. Ailu sighed, sipped her coffee and chanced a sidewards glance to her friend who was still trying to look nonchalant eyes fixed on the skyshell outside. She sighed again. This was the pinnacle of Free Agent Anira Leyma's diplomatic skills. During their first mission briefing with supervisor Kelsheron Ailu had done all the talking while Anira had remained utterly silent. The supervisor had taken this as a sign of respectful silence but it had only Anira not telling him that he was an idiot. Ailu had hoped that the mission would go well and the debriefing would end in a similar fashion.
Of course it didn't. Kelsheron had interfered at every corner, relaying his advice to Anira while in the field. He had sent numerous messengers and scheduled various mid-term report session where Anira had to report to Ailu her progress, jeopardizing the proper execution of the mission. During the debriefing Anira had been very vocal. Very, very. At first Ailu had tried to intervene but had very quickly retreated out of the line of fire. It should have ended there. Both of them filed long, verbose complaints to operation control. Both got a rather cross standard letter by the higher ups telling them to behave. Anira blew her nose with the letter and threw it away. Kelsheron saw it as a personal insult.
And thus the childish war between them started. The culmination was a high profile case involving the Sixfold King of the Hinkyoda qu Shyosha, the the kingdom of a hundred cities. Their king was a construct into which the souls of six people were injected. Two children, to adults, to elders a man and a woman each. The compound mind was supposed to blend the vigour of youth, the reason of the adults and the wisdom of the old. Somehow someone had abducted one of the children. Had that come to light would have meant a huge scandal that would have destabilized the monarchy. Anira solved the case discovering that it had been a plot between the other child aspect and one of the elders. She had saved the kidnapped child king aspect just in time. The traitor aspects died a tragic natural death sending the kingdom into a month of mourning, in which two new aspects were recruited and the technology in the engines powering the king were updated to prevent such leakage of traitorous thoughts in the future.
Everybody won. Until the debriefing. This was a very high priority case for the Free Agency. So much so that even the Directors themselves attended it. Usually the supervisor would debrief the agent and the handler. But in this case supervisor, handler and agent were debriefed by the higher ups. It all went well until it was Anira's turn. She following her personal code of efficiency complained at length and in detail how supervisor Kelsheron had been an ill-prepared, incompetent liability who had seemingly got out of his way to ensure that the mission would fail as spectacularly as possible and that the mission had not succeeded thanks to supervisor Kelsheron but despite of him. What followed was a stunned silence initiated by the sound of several jaws tumbling to the floor interrupted only once by a recommendation from Anira: "The only thing this. . . man. . .should be supervising is a potato storage."
There was an enquiry that pretty much confirmed allegations the allegations by Anira. With that supervisor Kelsheron was now banned from supervising any missions with a clearance higher than the low noon circle. Again this should have been it. Kelsheron was utterly humiliated, but also banned from working with Anira ever again and vice versa. Furthermore Anira was usually only ever employed doing duties deemed late afternoon to dusk circle clearance, so even without the ban they would not see each other ever again.
But Kelsheron had made quite a few connections during his long career. He did attract a certain type of personality, the kind that felt as threatened as he did by people like Anira. So in what was probably his most cunning plan in his entire plan he set up Anira to go and spy on the Ambassador of the Nomad Empire. The case was originally assigned to another agent who had become severely ill shortly before the mission started and Anira was asked to cover for him. Which she did only to discover that she was spectacularly unsuited for the task at hand. But ever the professional she did it anyway. It was only towards the end of the mission that she noticed what was the purpose behind it. Her reaction was rolling her eyes and saying that she was going on a holiday anyway and that way she'd be happy to be away from the agency for a month.
And her they sat. Empty coffee mugs in their hands sitting in a by now dark kitchen silent, only with the pot of stew bubbling happily away oblivious to the tense atmosphere.
In the end it was Anira who broke the silence.
"Are you hungry?" she asked.
"No." Ailu lied.
"Are you lying?" Anira made it sound like an actual question.
"Yes. Also. It's dark."
"Maybe I should serve dinner and turn on the light?" Anira suggested.
"In that order?"
"Of course. I am a secret agent. This is how we do things."
Ailu smiled as the tension left. Being serious for such a long stretch of time was exhausting.
Minutes later they were eating in the now well lit kitchen. The stew had been on the fire for to long its taste overwhelming, so Anira added a bit of cold water on top of her and Ailu's serving. An added bonus was that the water treatment had lowered the temperature of the stew from volcanic to slightly to hot for comfort. They ate in silence for a while. This time not because they were avoiding a confrontation but because they were simply to hungry to talk
During the seconds Ailu tried to reach her friend again.
"So. About that suspension thing. . ." Ailu ventured.
"What about it?"
"Oh come on Anira, don't play stupid. What do you intend to do about it?"
Anira ate a few spoonfuls before answering. "Nothing. I'll stay here, relax and enjoy my free time some more. It is actually very nice to be away from all the people and the danger and all that shit. I get some time for my self and I really wanted to work on my shell-art."
"Your shell-art?" Ailu had heard that countless times before. Anira's famous weak point. While her mind-force was very powerful and well developed her shell-art hardly exceeded that of a first born applicant for the higher academy.
"Yes it is about time that I learn a few new tricks. It is really uncomfortable and extremely awkward to have to go to someone else to have my body type changed for a mission." Anira shrugged.
"You've been feeding me that line for ages now."
"This time I mean it. What else do I have to do?"
"You can stop talking right there as I know the script for this conversation y heart anyway. Also you are evading my question. What do you intend to do after you come back and how exactly are you going to get through the month without pay?"
"Without pay? Ailu the agency still owes me enough overtime wages to get me through three months without lifting a single finger. Apart from that I have so much money in reserve that I hardly know what to do with it anyway. Oh!" she gestured wildly with her spoon now sending little drops of stew flying over the table. "I know I will find a good charity or two and give them a generous donation!"
"And..." Ailu could not finish her sentence Anira had that child like gleam in her eyes that meant that she had for the moment vanished into her dream space.
"And I'll get a new body ready!"
"What? Yours isn't even thirty years old. You have just grown into it why..." Ailu always made the mistake of taking Anira's wild flights of fantasy to seriously.
"So? The rich and famous do this kind of shit all the time! Oh! Oh!" more spoon waving, this time it was still full of stew and Ailu had to dodge pieces of flying food this time "I know I get several new bodies! Like that one Prince. . . You know? Prince. . . er. . .whathisface?"
"What prince?" Ailu was still unsure if she should humour her friend or drown her in the lake.
"The one with that tiny kingdom of his. Arse end of the world. One of those silly guys who looks like he escaped from a story. Damn. I know his name! gnnnn I hate it when this happens." Anira was now stiring furiously in her stew. "It's one the tip of my tongue!"
"That's the guy! I heard that he has several bodies. At once!"
Ailu wondered how Anira could vanish so far into her realms of fantasy without even being drunk.
"That is impossible Anira."
"Well he at least has a dozen bodies and he swaps them when it strikes his fancy." Anira protested. "Doesn't seem very manly does it? I can seem him in front of his. . . wardrobe? Where do you put your spare bodies anyway? Trying to decide what body to ware for dinner." Anira rested her chin on her hands with a thoughtful expression. Ailu shook her head and smiled. It was one of the great privileges of being Anira's close friend to witness her at her most child-like form. No one back at the agency would ever think that Anira Leyma the infamous harbinger of the most terror saturated form of justice had a part in her personality that was still five years old.
"Aren't multiple bodies pretty much illegal?" Anira suddenly sat up.
"Almost everywhere. But in his eternal wisdom Prince Nirza has made an exception for himself. And when he travels into other nations he is very careful not to ever wear anything else than his official body." Ailu always fell for Anira's rhetorical questions, he friend knew that as well as she did. For some reason, Ailu liked to think that it was because of her training as handler she had a reflex to answer trivia questions to her best ability. "But then as no one has ever seen his other bodies knowing that they were his, who knows when he is actually hiding in one of his other bodies?" Ailu added.
"Right!" Anira said striking her open palm lightly with her fist, adding with wide eyes: "And who is to say that he hasn't got some trusted servants soul in his body during his state visits! You know he is sitting there at the sidelines taking note of all things as everyone concentrates on the false prince!"
"That is. . ." silly Ailu wanted to say but she had been drawn to far into her friends little conspiracy theory and they both had seen stranger things in their line of work. ". . . a pretty disturbing thought actually."
"It is! Isn't it?"
"Yes." Ailu's smile had gone all skewed at the thought.
They ate their desert, contemplating evil princes swapping bodies for a while.
After a while Anira who had reverted back to her more serious self asked: "So what does expect me when I am coming back?"
"Not sure. Kelsheron is pulling every string that runs through his fingers to fuck you over."
"Pfff. As if that would work." Anira dismissed the idea with a wave of her hand.
"It already has, to a certain degree. You do have your own friends in high places, but when you humiliated Kelsheron before all the big bosses you scared a lot of people. Scared people do stupid things. And now that you botched a mission and got suspended for it Kelsheron and his friends have been using your own arguments to force the hand of OpsCom."
"And what exactly does OpsCom want to do about it?"
"Well when you are back you will be banned from Dusk Circle work. The best you can hope for is probably some afternoon type work and you have been revoked until further notice your right to chose assignments. . ."
"What?! That is bullshit. And horse shit. And cat shit. Stinky, runny cat shit!" Anira protested.
"Well those are the terms. The idea behind it is that you have to prove that you are actually still able to do the missions you are assigned regardless of preference. After all you are a top rated agent and an elder of the third generation at that."
"What ever happened to working according to your strengths. Why should I be working on something where everyone knows that I will be mediocre at best?"
"They do have a point though. . ." Ailu murmured into her chocolate.
"I heard that."
"Sorry. But look at it from this side. You will probably get handed some kind of boring intel gathering mission. It will be a cake walk and the targets will lack the training to be any serious opposition so that you get to polish up your somewhat less stellar talents."
"What us is it to turn a weakness into mediocrity, when I could polish my strengths?" Anira sulked.
"Well for one your strengths are far above the norm by any standards. While with only some work, paid work I might add you could turn your weak skills into assets. And if you play this smart Kelsheron will come out of this looking more of an arse than he does already."
"mmmmph" Anira admitted.
"I also remember a certain agent mentioning that she wanted to hone her frankly ridiculous shell-art skills."
Anira considered to throw her last bit of chocolate at Ailu. But then thought better of it and ate it.
"OK. You win this time."
"Finally you have started listening to those more wise than you are."
"Don't make me change my mind. . ."
"Perish the thought."
"How long are you going to stay anyway?" asked Anira.
"I should be on my way back tomorrow. But I guess I missed the sky ferry back, so I will be stuck here for another three days." Ailu answered with a smile.
"Tragic. We should drown our sorrows in wine."