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A Little Blue

Nineteen

09/23/09 1430 Sullivan Ranch, Texas

Nicolaus Wright’s sandy hair and pale skin were sun and wind burned from years spent outside and his green eyes had been bleached until they were pale remnants of what Ciaran remembered from his childhood, but the almost constant half smile that suggested he was laughing at a joke only he could hear was exactly the same. That smile wasn’t in evidence at the moment as he stared across the Sullivan table at Ciaran. “How many,” he almost choked.

Ciaran repeated what he’d just said. “We took a hundred and twenty three Titodile and nine of the breed’s two advanced evolutions out of Mackenzie Lake. We also captured a pair of Selkie who were there too and a Boobisaur who we surprised coming down for a drink. On top of that Tamsin here captured two Titodiles of her own. Lastly, we killed another dozen or so Titodiles while trying to catch them.”

Nicolaus’ mouth worked for a moment before he found his voice. “We couldn’t have caught that many. That number of any breed of pokegirl would have buried my hunting team. How did you not die?”

“We are that good,” Elsa said proudly.

Martha and Rafael were also sitting at the table with Baker and Beibhinn. Pokegirls, including two belonging to Nickolaus, lined the walls of the now crowded kitchen. Martha stared from Nicolaus to Ciaran. “You could have died,” she asked slowly.

Ciaran shot Elsa a stern glance before turning to his mother. “As you know, mother, anyone can die at any time. We had only one pitched battle,” he said as he looked at Nicolaus, “and we used a lot of electrical attacks on them. After that, we would smash small groups along the side of the lake and catch the ones we could. They were used to being the top predators; now we hunted them and they didn’t like it. They’re fast learners, though, and quickly learned to fear us. Now, if you could go by there every couple of months and keep them afraid of humans, while you’re there you should be able to harvest enough to keep the area safe for most people.” Their eyes met and Nicolaus’ eyes said he heard the unsaid “and keep whatever you want for yourself,” that Ciaran thought.

“You didn’t get them all,” Rafael asked.

“We would have had to drain the lake to find them all,” Ceres said gently. “We calculate we reduced their numbers by between seventy five and ninety percent. Many of the ones who were left were juveniles who may or may not survive. We’d have had to have spent a month there to get anything closer to an accurate population survey and we still have business in Ireland to tend to.”

Nicolaus eyed Ciaran for a second. “Would you be willing to sell any of your captures to us?”

“Sure. My prices are reasonable and you can look through the electronic inventory we took of the captures to see if anything interests you or the rest of your team. If Tamsin is interested in selling to you she’ll let you know.” Ciaran smiled. “Just understand that we’re leaving in three days. The only reason we’re staying that long is to hunt the trail between here and the lake to smash anyone who might be interested in following us to the ranch. After that, Beibhinn and Neem can take care of any that show up here or on her property.”

Nicolaus shook his head slowly. “I never thought Bee Sullivan would become a tamer.” He looked at her. “Are you joining the hunters?”

Rafael opened his mouth but Beibhinn spoke before he could. “No, I am not. Neem and I are ranchers and we’ll deal with problems that crop up here but we are not joining your team or the reserves for your team.” She smiled brightly at him. “So if you need our help, we will consider it but you’ll pay our rates if we decide to aid you.”

Nicolaus scowled at her. “You’re an evil woman,” he pronounced in dire tones, “and an evil end awaits you.”

“Don’t go there,” Ciaran said firmly as Beibhinn paled suddenly, “unless you want trouble from me.”

Nicolaus blinked. “What was that about? I was just teasing Bee.”

“She doesn’t need that kind of teasing,” Ciaran tone lightened. “So just don’t, ok?”

Nicolaus gave them a confused look before nodding. “Sorry, Bee.”

“It’s ok, Nick,” she replied. “You didn’t know and my brother,” she shot him a look, “is a little too protective.”

“Better that than not protective enough,” Nicolaus said as he rose. A Growlie and an air type Sidekick pushed away from the wall to join him. “I’ll be in touch tomorrow about buying some of your captures.”

“I’d suggest purchasing some pokeballs too,” Ceres advised him.

The Growlie’s ears twitched violently. “You have pokeballs?”

The Tantrasaur nodded. “We have access to a steady supply of them from Iain Grey.”

“I thought he was marketing in the southeast only?”

Ceres shook her head. “No, he just either isn’t interested in expanding up here or hasn’t found a factor yet. But we buy from him and we’ll sell to you, Nicolaus and his hunters at only a tiny markup.” She smiled broadly. “You are, after all, helping to protect our family.”

Nicolaus’ half smile had returned. “Do all of your captures come with pokeballs?”

Ciaran nodded. “They do. And we can supply pretty much everything that the Greys are selling, including portable healing machines for pokegirls that you should seriously consider. If we’re not around, talk to Bee.”

“I will,” Nicolaus answered. Ciaran walked him and his pokegirls to the door, with Elsa tagging along behind all of them. “What happened with Bee,” Nicolaus asked quietly as Ciaran opened the door.

“It’s family business,” Ciaran answered. “But you can ask her and see if she’ll tell you.”

“I may.” He shook hands with Ciaran. “That was good work at the lake. When you get back home to stay, I want to talk to you about my ideas for a hunter cooperative and how we might go about interesting more people in accepting pokegirls into their families.”

“Sounds good,” Ciaran said. “We’ll talk then.” He watched them leave before closing the door and turning to Elsa, who was watching him with undisguised curiosity. “What?”

“What happened to Bee?”

He grimaced. “Let’s go back to the kitchen. I’m sure father will insist I tell him and I don’t really want to tell this story more than I have to.”

As soon as he entered the kitchen his father pointed at a chair. “Sit.”

Ciaran’s eyes narrowed and he stood still, folding his arms. His mother shot a look at Rafael. “Please sit, Ciaran.” She gave him a strained smile. “I know you don’t live here anymore either and I don’t want a repeat of what happened with Beibhinn.”

Ciaran nodded once and sat down. Rafael scowled. “Why did you talk to Nick that way?”

Ciaran looked at Beibhinn. “May I?”

“I’ll tell it,” she said quietly. “Ciaran told Nick to leave me alone because last week I ran across Father Andrew in town and he had some harsh words for me.”

“Harsh?” Neem scowled. “Harsh doesn’t do his actions justice. He spit on you and called us a pair of traitorous whores before condemning us to the fires of Hell.” She looked at Ciaran, her face lined with anger. “I have never harmed a human, but for an instant I wanted to kill him.”

“What about in the war,” Martha asked. “Surely you killed people then.”

“I am from stock that Iain retrieved,” Neem answered. “I never fought in the Revenge War.”

Rafael stared at his daughter. “He spit on you?”

“Most of it missed,” Beibhinn said. “And I didn’t want to talk to you about it.”

“Why not?”

“I was afraid you agreed with him. I know you and mother don’t really approve of Neem and my relationship with her.”

Rafael nodded. “I suppose I can see where you might think that about us, especially considering my reaction when she first came here. But I’ve searched my soul and prayed for guidance and I have decided that having a pokegirl in your life is like having a special needs person. If you don’t give her what she needs then she will essentially die by going feral.” He looked into his daughter’s eyes. “Pokegirls have to have humans who take care of them. They won’t just go away if we ignore their presence. You did a gracious thing in accepting Neem into your life and accepting the responsibility of taking care of her special needs.” He smiled slightly. “You do still intend to marry a respectable man and give us grandchildren, right?”

Beibhinn grinned. “I do. It’s just men that you will approve of and that I’ll still like are going to be hard to find.”

“What about Father Andrew,” Ciaran asked quietly. “Priest or not, I won’t have him assaulting Beibhinn.” He looked at his parents, “or you by association with her. Spitting on her is just the same is punching her and I won’t abide it.”

“What can we do,” Mary asked. “He is a priest.”

Elsa smiled cruelly. “There’s a lot we could do, but probably not much that we should do.” She extended and retracted her claws. “Father Andrew did insult my family, after all, and we did fight in the Revenge War.”

Rafael and Martha stared at her in horrified fascination for a moment before Rafael gave himself a shake. “No,” he murmured, “Father Andrew is a man of God. I won’t have our family honor sullied by harming a priest.”

“Let the community know what he did. Not everyone in Tulia can agree with his behavior even if they agree with his beliefs. He did attack a woman,” Ceres said. “And write to or visit the Bishop in Amarillo to complain about Father Andrew. A visit would be much more memorable than a letter since taking the trouble and possible hazard in making the trek to report Father Andrew’s deficiencies is a testament to your determination about his correction or removal.”

Rafael blinked. “You know a lot about our religion. Are you Catholic?”

The Tantrasaur smiled. “No, I am not. Ciaran is, though, and I may accept Jesus one day but right now I just wanted to learn a lot about something that is important to Ciaran. The local Catholic hierarchy was something I researched after I slapped Father Andrew in case he tried to cause trouble for us.”

“You’re a smart woman,” Rafael said admiringly. “But it’s a two or three day trip to Amarillo and I can’t be away that long now that Beibhinn and Ciaran aren’t living here anymore.” He shrugged. “I could send a letter, but one letter is unlikely to do anything about Andrew.”

Victoria looked at Elsa and they shared a grin. “Ciaran, may we?”

Ciaran turned to Baker. “Libby?”

Baker nodded and pulled a pokeball from her pocket that she handed to Libby. “I want to go along for this and so does she.” Beside her, Libby’s fangs gleamed in the sunlight coming in through the window as she grinned and tucked the ball into the pocket of her skirt.

He leaned back in his chair. “Ladies, go ahead and take Libby and Neem with you.”

“I can teleport as well,” Spirit said. She tugged awkwardly at neck of her dress. Martha had convinced both Spirit and Kentarch to wear some old dresses of hers. They hadn’t fit well and Ciaran had given them some dresses from the stuff of Eliana’s that they were leaving. Eliana had been taller than the Kentarchs, but the twins had much fuller figures than Eliana had so they were still tight in awkward places. “Kentarch will be able to someday, but she can’t right now. We should also go with them.”

Ciaran shook his head. “Ceres, do you mind being our only guard for a little while?”

“Of course I don’t,” she said with a chuckle. “Take the others and go,” she said to Elsa, “but don’t delay in returning.”

The Mazouku snorted as she got up. “What could you do to me if we don’t hurry back?”

“Nothing,” Ceres replied evenly. “But I might take Ciaran and disappear with him somewhere that I can keep him to myself.”

Elsa’s ears flattened as she scowled at the Tantrasaur. “You had better not.”

Ceres’s smile was serene. “If you don’t then I can’t. So don’t.”

Victoria looked from one to the other. “I am leaving in one minute. Are you coming with me, Elsa?”

Elsa gave Ceres one more hard look before following Victoria out the front door, followed by Libby, Neem, Spirit and Kentarch.

Rafael watched them go. “What are they doing?”

“Victoria and Elsa are going to put everyone else into their pokeballs and fly to Amarillo. Once they’re there, they’ll release everyone else and that will allow all of them to establish teleport points. Then they’ll teleport back here to collect us if you’re ready to go to Amarillo and try to see the Bishop.”

Martha looked at him curiously. “What is teleport?”

Ciaran smiled. “You remember the Star Trek reruns we used to watch? It’s a lot like a transporter, only the pokegirl acts as the transport.”

I could carry all of you there, Eriu said in his mind, in the Cnoc Raffan.

Yes, he answered, and I forgot about that, but it’s actually better this way. If Neem is going to teleport them sometimes they need to get used to it and this way I’m around to show them it’s not dangerous. But I thank you for reminding me. I’m still getting used to you and what you can do so please don’t hesitate to offer things like that.

I had wondered why you didn’t ask me. I won’t wait again. Thank you, Ciaran.

“How long will it take them to get to Amarillo,” Rafael asked.

“It should take about half an hour or so,” Ceres said. “Unless they run into some kind of trouble on the trip, at which point they’d immediately return here.”

Martha was looking out the window. She gasped. “Victoria has wings!”

Ceres nodded. “She’s an Angel and they usually have wings for flight.”

“What about Elsa? Why does she have wings and what is she? I tried using my computer on her but it comes up with unknown and some probabilities.”

Ciaran shrugged. “She won’t tell anyone unless they guess what she is. I don’t think it’s a problem since she’s been nothing but a good part of our family.”

Baker chuckled. “If it makes you feel better, Mrs. Sullivan, I don’t know what she is either and neither does Libby.”

Martha looked at her son. “What about you, Ciaran? Do you know what Elsa is?”

“I have my suspicions, mother.”

“What are they?”

He shook his head. “No, mother, I’m not going to spoil what seems to be an amusing game for Elsa that doesn’t cause anyone any harm.”

“But that’s important.”

“Is it,” Ciaran asked. “Elsa is who she is and she hasn’t been anything but good for me and for us. What she is doesn’t matter other than she’s a person and she’s a Sullivan. I’m Irish and I suspect there are some English and Viking ancestors in my past, but how important is that in the everyday scheme of things?”

“Your mother doesn’t like not knowing,” Rafael said suddenly. “That’s why it’s important to her. She won’t tell anyone, the Lord knows she is not a gossip, but she gains comfort in knowledge.”

“Then I’m afraid she’ll have to be a little uncomfortable,” Ciaran replied. “The trip will give Neem a teleport point in Amarillo. That means once she’s strong enough for multiple trips she can ferry people back and forth if she wants to. Later it might be useful to take her to other towns so she can map them too.”

Rafael frowned. “Why wouldn’t she want to be helpful like that?”

Beibhinn gave her father a stony look. “We haven’t forgotten the reason we moved out, father, that’s why.”

Rafael’s lips thinned and his eyes narrowed. Suddenly he took a deep breath and let it out noisily. “I hate to admit this, but I spoke hastily that night and said things that I shouldn’t have. I spoke in anger and that was wrong. I look at both you and your brother and I am very proud of the people you are becoming, but I’m terrified for both of you because the world is so much more dangerous than it was for me and your mother. I would like to sincerely apologize for the way I’ve been treating you and to ask your forgiveness.”

Beibhinn cocked her head and eyed her father for a few seconds before nodding. “I’ll think about your apology and get back to you on it.”

“Beibhinn!” Everyone jumped when Ciaran snapped at his sister. “That is inexcusably rude. You already know what your decision is. You don’t keep someone hanging like that just for your own amusement. It’s cruel. Either accept his apology or refuse it.”

Martha was staring at her son. “You’re right, but where did that come from?”

He turned slightly pink under her gaze. “All of the ladies in our little group snipe at each other constantly and I have to play referee. I guess it’s become automatic.” Beside him, Baker nodded vigorously.

Ceres chuckled. “He’s right. He’s the only person we will trust to arbitrate our little disputes.” She gave him a fond look. “It means he’s had a lot of practice and sometime is a bit preemptive. He’s seldom wrong when he does it, though.”

Beibhinn had turned bright red. “I can’t believe it,” she said as her color began to return to normal. “You’ve become our parents.”

“They’re not the worst role model one could have,” he said dryly, “but they couldn’t handle my family. I had to become the one man I have seen successfully handle large groups of unruly girls; Coach Jenkins. Now I believe you have something to say to Dad. Just remember, when have you heard him apologize to you before?”

Rafael frowned. “What? I apologize a lot.”

“To mother you do,” Ciaran said, “not to us. We seldom get apologies from you.”

“I accept your apology, father,” Beibhinn announced. “I am not going to forget what you did, but I forgive it. I’ll talk to Neem about your apology and see if she’ll accept it.”

“Won’t she accept it if you do,” Martha asked.

“She’s her own person,” Beibhinn answered, “and she was pretty upset about him trying to forbid her to fight as well as the money issue about my land.” She smiled slightly at something only she could see. “We had to have a long talk about profanity.” She shot Ciaran a look. “I understand the Grey family uses it quite a lot.”

“They do,” Ciaran admitted quietly. “Iain is one of the worst and the rest seem to follow his lead.”

“He didn’t curse when he was here,” Rafael said. “Neither did Dominique nor Eve.”

“I warned him about it,” Ciaran replied. “He said he’d keep it under control whenever he visited, but I was told that he swears like a sailor. He was in the Navy.”

“Navy? That poor man, how did he survive the Revenge War,” Martha asked. “Their fatalities were horrific. It was worse than being in the Army.”

Ciaran shrugged. “He doesn’t talk about it. I know he’s not afraid of ships or being on the water. I know that because he’s helping some people led by a woman named Lucy shake down an old Navy cruiser.” He grinned. “I understand they’re planning to name it after him when he’s not paying attention and that he’s not really all that happy about the idea.”

“Aren’t ships only supposed to be named after dead people?”

“I think he tried that line of reasoning and was told she didn’t care.”

Martha frowned. “Who is Lucy?”

“She’s a Celestial pokegirl who is the leader of a group that’s trying to help rebuild. She’s a close friend of Eve, who is one of Iain’s wives. She and Iain spend a lot of time together working on that ship.” Ciaran had gotten an impression that there was more going on, but he didn’t know for sure and wasn’t prone to gossip.

Martha shook her head. “You can’t have more than one wife.”

Rafael snorted. “What man in his right mind would want more than one wife?”

“It seems to work for him,” Ciaran replied. “I don’t know what religion they follow, though. Iain doesn’t ever really talk about himself.” His brow creased thoughtfully. “His harem women talk about him a lot, but they don’t say anything about his past or much about his personal life. They might not know much about it.”

“He told you he was Navy,” Martha pointed out.

“No, he didn’t,” Ciaran disagreed. “April mentioned that after I commented on one of his particularly lurid curses. She also said he was working on cutting back, but that it was a work in progress.” He scratched his chin. “We’ll be spending a few days there before going back to Ireland. I may try to learn a bit more about him while I’m there.”

“As long as it’s not dangerous,” Ceres said firmly.

“What could be dangerous,” Beibhinn asked.

“If Iain doesn’t talk about his past, he may have something to hide,” the Tantrasaur said. “If he does, then finding out what it is could prove as hazardous as waking up a Neo Iczel with a bucket of scalding water.”

“How hazardous is that,” Rafael asked curiously.

“Lethally so,” Ceres said.

Ciaran shook his head. “I doubt Iain will kill me out of hand first. If he’s got secrets I’ll get a warning or fired and sent back here.”

Ceres glanced out the window. “Victoria is back.”

Ciaran watched the Angel swoop down and land on the other side of the house. “Where is everyone else,” he wondered as he got up. “Ceres.”

“I’m behind you,” she said as she followed him out the back door.

Victoria smiled at them as her wings vanished. “Nothing is wrong,” she said before they could ask, “except for pokegirls being pokegirls. They’re arguing over who will come back first so as not to overlap exit points by accident. Elsa is staying to keep them out of trouble while I came back here to let you know what’s happening.” She pulled two pokeballs from her pocket and released Spirit and Kentarch. “As soon as the others get here, we’ll be ready to go.”

“What is the exit point,” Ceres asked.

“It’s a mile or so outside of Amarillo.” Victoria looked at Rafael, who was watching from the doorway. “Mr. Sullivan, do you know where the Bishop’s office is?”

He nodded. “I’ve been there a couple of times.” His eyes widened when Libby appeared out of thin air and looked around. “Is that a teleport?”

“Yes,” Victoria said. She frowned. “Libby, I thought everyone else was going to arrive at the front door, not here.”

“Neem is having some problems and I liked your idea of coming out on this side,” the Nekomata said. “I was going to take my mistress on ahead.”

“Problems?” Victoria looked at Ciaran. “I should investigate.”

“Go,” he said. He turned to Ceres as the Angel vanished, waiting until Libby had disappeared into the house. “Well?” He really hoped she wasn’t having some problem with teleporting. An issue now would not help his father feel easy about using such a technique for travel.

Ceres chuckled. “Neem is understandably nervous. She had to pee and the problem was she didn’t want to pee in front of the others. That’s the delay. She had to find someplace appropriate.” Rafael laughed and she nodded. “It is funny, but I don’t think teasing her about it will help.”

“I won’t,” Rafael said. He looked behind him. “Did you hear that, Beibhinn?”

Victoria appeared again. She was smiling. “Neem and Elsa should be in the front yard now.”

“Good,” Ciaran said. “Father, are you and Mother ready to go?”

“Give us a minute,” Rafael said hastily and headed inside.

“Who will carry Ciaran,” Spirit asked.

“There is no special status to carrying him,” Ceres said firmly. “As long as you understand that, you will carry Ciaran, me and Kentarch to Amarillo. Victoria and Elsa will ferry Rafael and Martha while Libby transports Tamsin and Neem takes care of Beibhinn.” She dropped her voice. “Please release me as soon as we arrive,” she said to Ciaran. “According to our twees, I can serve as a reference point for Elsa and Victoria if we don’t arrive where we should.”

“I promise I will,” he said just as quietly back to her. “Victoria, let Tamsin, Beibhinn and my parents know we are leaving in ten minutes. If Tamsin and Libby go ahead on their own, that’s their business but we leave in ten minutes.”

“I’ll stress the fact that you’re a stickler for promptness,” Victoria said. “Will there be a problem with your parents?”

“I doubt it. I learned about promptness from them.”

Elsa came around the side of the house as Victoria headed inside. “I didn’t tease Neem once,” she said with an air of amused pride. She turned to Spirit. “I know what Ceres said, but don’t screw this up. We don’t want our man hurt.”

“I do not wish him harmed either,” Spirit was watching Ciaran. “I am sorry I hurt him, but he made me feel too good to maintain control. I know that if he is harmed he cannot make me feel that good again. This I do not want. I will be careful with him.”

“Good. If you have any problems, defend him. We will be along as quickly as we can to assist.”

“I understand,” Spirit replied. “I am glad to be working with others again. It has been too long.”

“That time is over,” Ciaran put a hand on her arm and squeezed gently. “You are with us now and won’t be alone again unless you wish to.”

“Thank you, Ciaran.”

09/23/09 1600 Amarillo, Texas

A quiet cough from the doorway made Rafael and the others look up. A man wearing priestly vestments was standing there. He smiled warmly. “I am Father Robert Gonzales and I am Bishop Henderson’s secretary. I understand that someone here has a complaint against Father Andrew Nobles in Tulia. Who might that be?” Everyone looked at each other and then Rafael, Martha, Beibhinn, Neem, Ciaran, Victoria, Kentarch and Ceres raised their hands. He blinked. “All of you? Are they all the same complaint?”

Ciaran shook his head. “I and my two ladies have one, Beibhinn and Neem have another and I believe my parents each have one.”

“I have more than one,” Martha said firmly.

Ciaran looked at Kentarch. “What complaint do you have? You’ve never met Father Andrew.”

“He called my sisters whores,” Kentarch replied. “I complain strenuously about that.”

“Yes, he did,” Ciaran said, “but you weren’t there and so you can’t formally complain.”

“Oh. I’m sorry.”

“It’s fine,” he reassured her.

“We have the same complaint but it was a different event at a different time and place,” Neem said. “He called us whores too, and then he told my mistress that she was going to burn in hell for caring for me. He spit on her too.”

Elsa snickered. “Apparently he has a limited vocabulary.”

Ciaran looked over his shoulder where the Mazouku leaned against the wall with Kentarch and Spirit. “That’s enough, Elsa. It’s bad enough that Father Andrew acted in such a way that we have to report him, let’s not disparage him more than absolutely necessary.”

“He would do so to us,” she shot back. “He has.”

“And we will not descend to his level,” Rafael said. “Ciaran is right. We are better than that.”

“Yes, sir,” Elsa said grudgingly.

“I am Captain Tamsin Baker of the British Army,” Baker said, “and I was witness to the events Ciaran, Ceres and Victoria are here to report.”

Father Gonzales frowned. “And you came all the way from Great Britain to report this?”

“No, I came with Ciaran because we had to bury a member of his family.” She scowled. “She died saving people from an evil menace they couldn’t fight and we had to bury her unsanctified because of Father Andrew.”

Gonzales’ frown deepened. “What was his reasoning?”

Rafael shook his head. “He told me that because she was a pokegirl, she was therefore no child of God and unworthy of His blessing. He hates pokegirls more than a man like him should. Tulia was only lightly touched by the pokegirl war. He certainly suffered no ill from them.”

Father Gonzales sighed. “I will speak with each group in turn in private. Who will go first?”

Ciaran looked at his father and slid his chair back. “We will.”

09/29/09 0930 Grey Ranch, Sabine County, Texas

Ciaran leaned back against the tree he was shading under and tried to get comfortable. After all of the time he’d spent constantly living with other people he’d thought he’d welcome some time alone, but it turned out that not having Elsa, Ceres or Victoria nearby bothered him more than he thought it would have. Still, they, along with Spirit and Kentarch, were off training with various members of Iain’s family and he’d have to make do by himself.

Not that he was really alone, he reminded himself as he focused on the computer in his lap. “OK, Eriu, I’ve just sent you the chemical and molecular signatures for the evolution stones pokegirls use. According to what I’ve been led to believe, the asteroids can have a lot of them and they’re very marketable, so I’d like you to recover any you can while processing your captures.”

Eriu’s face was visible in the display of his computer. She gave him a hesitant look. “Some of them might need to be disassembled to provide components for some of the rarer compounds I’ll need in constructing my new hull.”

“Then do what you need to but save what you can. If you have to choose between using the stones for your new hull and saving them for me, go ahead and use them. We can find me more later on.”

Her smile warmed. “Thank you, Ciaran.”

“So what are your plans for a new hull?”

“I’ve already started construction of a larger hull that will make us a lot safer in the interim. Once it’s complete I will move into it and then begin construction on a final, larger hull that should meet all of our needs for decades to come.”

He looked surprised. “You have?”

She nodded. “I used the materials I’ve gathered locally to make a nanobot missile and launched it six days ago into the asteroid belt.”

“You don’t waste any time, do you?”

“Ciaran, you told me to do what was necessary and we both know that our potential survival is at stake. There is no time to waste under those circumstances. Did I react in a way that you disapprove of?”

He shook his head. “No, you didn’t. It wasn’t a complaint.”

“Unfortunately, my initial hull will not be complete for several months, but in the meantime I will remain close to Earth in case you need me.”

“What are you going to be doing around Earth?”

“There are small asteroids and comets that pass the Earth almost every day. They’re too small for Theodora to care about catching for her lunar processing facility, but they’re available for processing and are a good size for me catch and break down into raw material. A lot of them won’t have anything exceptionally useful, being mostly metals or silicates, but I’ll carefully check each one for evolution stones along with anything else of value. In the meantime I can use the asteroids and harvest materials from Luna to use to make pokeballs and other small items for you. The comets will provide me with free reactor mass.” She frowned. “Are you aware that there are two different Tirsuli communication satellite constellations around this world?”

“No. Is that unusual?”

“It is. Usually the rest of the clans buy access to the first constellation that’s set up on a new world. It’s not like the subscription fees are prohibitively expensive. If two clans waste resources on the same thing, often they’re getting ready to be or are already at war. At that point both sets of satellites usually end up being destroyed, after which a neutral clan will put up its own constellation and charge both sides to access it.”

Ciaran shrugged. “I suspect one belongs to the Wolf clan and the other belongs to Iain. Neither Iain nor Theodora strike me as people who like to be reliant on the goodwill of others if they don’t have to.”

“I can believe that,” Eriu replied. “From the stories you have, Iain would be unwilling to trust Shikarou in that regard. Do you want me to produce a constellation of our own?”

“I don’t see where we need one. There are only seven of us unless you need it to maintain communication with us while you’re off catching rocks.”

“I won’t be that far away. When I have to go to the asteroid belt I hope to take my family with me.” She frowned. “Someone is coming up behind you.”

Ciaran twisted to look. A young woman was walking towards him. She had shoulder length red hair that fell in curls around her face and was carrying a basket. She smiled at him. “Are you Ciaran Sullivan?” She spoke with a faint Irish accent that reminded him of his mother’s. A Ladyien carrying an identical basket followed behind her.

That is a human, his twee whispered.

He nodded. “I am. Who are you?”

“I’m Monica Chambers and this is Camille. Could we join you?”

“Uh, sure.” Ciaran recognized the name from some of the stories he’d read, but he couldn’t imagine why she wanted to talk to him. She was younger than he’d expected, too, but he suspected that after the episode with his mother it meant that Chambers had a twee. “I don’t mean to be rude, but what is this about?”

Chambers and the Ladyien sat down facing him and Camille immediately opened her basket and pulled out a tow headed baby that she began whispering to. The baby smiled and giggled.

“Do you know who I am,” Chambers asked curiously.

“Vaguely. You’re a friend of Iain’s and you’re from the same place he is.”

“I understand you were recently in the United Kingdom.”

“Yes, I was. Iain hired me to do some work there. We’ll be headed back to Ireland in a week or so.”

“I know that Captain Baker is a loyalist for Queen Anne. Have you met any of the Blues?”

“I have.” Ciaran’s tone cooled slightly. He remembered where Chambers and her harem were from. “Aren’t you from that Blue League in the other dimension?”

She nodded. “Iain told me a lot of horrible stories about Blue here. I wanted to get the unvarnished truth from someone who’d seen them.”

Ciaran gave her an uneasy look. “Look, Ms. Chambers, this place isn’t like where you came from. The leagues are still trying to consolidate their power and things are, to put it mildly, in flux. According to my world history teacher, may he rest in peace, in times like this new governments often feel that they have to do brutal things to maintain control. I don’t think that the unvarnished truth would be pleasant to hear.”

Chambers smiled. “Why don’t you let me be the judge of that?” She opened her basket and removed another baby. She cuddled it close. “Tell me.” Her voice was still friendly, but there was a faint snap of command to it.

If that was the way she wanted it to be then so be it. “My first encounter with the Blue League Army was when they raided the town I was staying in and murdered the owner of the hotel I was spending the night in. They set a lot of buildings on fire and then ran away. The second time I encountered them they were trying to kill us. Although we defeated our attackers I was critically injured and I nearly died. Afterwards, I found out from some of the prisoners that their orders were to collect any pokegirls they found, especially tamed ones, for their military. Any tamers they encountered were to be eliminated so the girls would be as compliant as possible.” An expression of disbelief was growing on Chambers’ face. “If you don’t believe me, you might ask Elsa or Libby to verify what I’m telling you. Both of them were Blue pokegirls who were part of that attacking force and they joined us after that fight.” He leaned back against the tree trunk. “The Blues treat their citizens pretty poorly, from what I’ve seen and been told. Most crimes, no matter their severity, are punishable by public execution. If you’re in the area it’s mandatory to attend the executions, which is why I saw one of those. In the execution I watched, the accused were tortured to death by a group of sadistic pokegirls and their bodies were burned. I was told that this was the normal method of execution across Blue and that these specialized execution groups can be found all over Blue territory.” He grimaced. “And then there was Operation Mistletoe.”

Chambers cocked her head. “What is that?”

Ciaran frowned. “Ok, what do you know about the situation over there?”

“Not much,” she admitted. “Iain won’t talk about it.” Eriu was still visible in his computer’s display. “Why haven’t you used your twee to ask Theodora or try to access satellite imagery?”

Chambers blinked. “I didn’t think about it. Who was that?”

“That’s Eriu. She’s another member of my family.”

Eriu’s hologram appeared next to Ciaran. “The Greys have access to a lot of intelligence data, both raw and analyzed. If you’re Iain’s friend, you should be able to see it too.”

“I’ll ask him,” Chambers said. “But humint is always the best intelligence, so continue, Ciaran.”

He raised an eyebrow and Camille looked at Chambers. “Mistress, he is not one of your people. You might want to use the word please.”

Chambers looked surprised for a second before nodding. “I’m sorry. Please continue.”

Ciaran smiled. “Well, since you used the magic word. The Royals control most of Scotland, including Edinburgh, the capital in exile, and Glasgow while the Blues control Great Britain and Wales. Someone on the Blue’s side came up with the idea of Operation Mistletoe, which was an invasion of Glasgow from the sea. To that end they captured the Royal controlled town of Cairnryan. It was the Scotland end of a ferry line from Ireland and the Blues wanted the two modern ferryboats that were still running that route for the invasion. They loaded them up with pokegirls, tamers and troops and headed for Glasgow. The plan was to capture Glasgow and fortify it against the Royals. If it could be held, it would be a springboard into what was hopefully a final invasion of Scotland and the end of the Royal insurrection. Up to that point it was pretty much a tactical maneuver,” he admitted quietly. “The problem was what their plans were if they couldn’t hold Glasgow, which they were unlikely to be able to do.” He looked into Chambers’ eyes. “If Glasgow couldn’t be held, their orders were to raze the city and annihilate the residents to keep the resources it and they represent out of the hands of the Royals.”

Chambers gasped. “That can’t be. Blues would never do that. You must have heard wrong.”

Ciaran gave her a sympathetic smile. “These are not the Blues you were a part of. I was on my way to Ireland and was going to cross at the Cairnryan ferry. It was when we reached the town that we discovered that the Blues had taken Cairnryan. I didn’t want to get involved in the war between the Blues and the Royals, so we stole some Blue uniforms from a laundry and made our way through town to get to the ferry wharf. At that point we didn’t know what their plans were. I, Baker and Victoria were masquerading as Blue tamers and didn’t expect to be stopped. We meant to catch the ferry and make our way to Irish soil. However, the commander of the Mistletoe expedition, General Fowler, took it upon himself to add us to his attack forces. At that point, as Major Culpepper and the new commander of a pokegirl troop, I was briefed on the entirety of Mistletoe. General Fowler was the one who told me what their orders were if they couldn’t hold Glasgow. Pokegirls would have been the primary weapons in destroying the city and killing its residents the fastest and most efficiently after all, and if the city was lost he might be too busy to give the orders then. As a troop commander I had to know what they intended to do to carry the orders out effectively.” His smile faded. “So, unfortunately, I know exactly what their plans were.”

Camille watched Chambers kind of fold into herself. “What happened to the invasion force?”

“They weren’t expecting betrayal from within and Tamsin and I, along with our ladies, sank the ferries while they were out of sight of shore,” Ciaran said. “Most of the people on them drowned. The Royals recovered the ones they could, but,” his voice trailed off and he shivered. “They didn’t find but a pittance of the attack force.”

Chambers gave him concerned look. “Are you all right?”

He shrugged. “I ordered what happened and those orders killed over seventeen hundred people. I still have to come to terms with that. Elsa and Victoria try to remind me that it is wartime. But I’m not a combatant or mercenary on either side and I gave the orders that resulted in all of that death. That makes me a murderer and technically all I would be is a war criminal to the Blues, should they ever find out the details of what happened.” He smiled wanly. “That’s certainly going to be one doozey of a confession.” He pulled his focus back to the women in front of him. “I’m sorry, but what I told you is the truth. I’m sure that most people on the Blue side of the border are no better or no worse than any other person, but the military is full of the angry, the zealots and the people who think they can get some advantage out of joining Blue versus the Royals. They’re not going to be on their best behavior and they’re pretty much all I met of the Blues. On the other hand, even though the private ownership of pokegirls is illegal in Scotland, most the Royals I’ve met are regular people. Even Princess Zara was cool.” His eyes met Chambers’. “Sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry,” Camille said firmly. “We asked for information and you provided it. The fact that we find it unpalatable is not your fault.” She turned to Chambers. “Mistress, Ciaran has independently corroborated what Iain told us. I doubt they’re scheming together to keep us here. The Blue League of this world is not the one we came from and may never become that way. We should not try to go there.”

Chambers cuddled the baby close to her chest and sighed. “I had hoped we could go home.”

“We will make a new one, mistress,” Camille said with a smile. “Here is not that bad, but if you are so angry with Iain then we will find another place.”

Chambers looked thoughtful for a moment. “No, you’re right. I need to move past my unhappiness at Iain. We’re not dead and he is probably right that the government might have tried to confiscate Michael.” The baby in Camille’s arms made a noise and Chambers smiled. “Yes, Michael, I’m talking about you and not James.” She glanced up at the Ladyien holding him. “Camille, if we’re going to stay here, you should start calling me Monica.”

Camille looked shocked. “Mistress? I couldn’t do that.”

“You need to,” Chambers replied.

Ciaran cleared his throat gently. “Miss Chambers?” When she looked at him curiously he continued. “Technically, since this is Texas, you should ask her to call you Monica but it is her choice as to whether or not she does.”

Camille gave him a grateful smile. “Thank you, young master. He’s right, mistress.”

Chambers shrugged. “He is. It is your choice. However, I’m also going to give that choice to Donna and Undine and you know Undine will want the familiarity. She may even use the fact that you won’t call me Monica to press an advantage over you.”

Camille grimaced. “You’re right, she will.” She sighed. “It’s just I’ve known you for so long and you’ve always been the mistress.” She gave Chambers a sly look. “I did notice that you didn’t ask me to call you Cherry.”

Chambers laughed. “No, I didn’t. I think Iain is the only person who calls me that.”

“You haven’t asked him to stop, even when you were most furious with him for abducting us,” the Ladyien pointed out. “He would if you had.”

Chambers laughed again. “Please stop pointing out my inconsistencies.”

“I was pointing out,” Camille hesitated, “Monica, that even after all of the things that happened, Iain is your friend which is why you allow him that liberty.”

Chambers nodded. “He is. Even at his worst he has never been false with us.” “Perhaps it would beneficial if you mended your fences with him, mistress.” Camille smiled slightly. “Monica. If we stay here we should all be friends again.”

Chambers nodded. “You’re right.” She looked at Ciaran. “While what you told us hurts, I needed to know it. Thank you, Mr. Sullivan.”

“I’m Ciaran,” he said with a smile. “My father is Mr. Sullivan.”

“And I’m Monica,” she replied. “What are your plans?”

“Like I said, we’ll be headed back to Ireland in a week or so,” he said thoughtfully. “I still have a job to do.”

“I was asking about your plans for the afternoon, Ciaran.”

He looked surprised. “Oh. My mistake. My ladies are off at lessons and I’m kind of at loose ends until around sixteen hundred, although I expect Victoria will probably drop by before then by to make sure I haven’t been pounced by a feral or a stray Celestial from Shield. Why?”

“There’s going to be a rugby match after lunch,” Chambers answered. “I was wondering if you and Captain Baker would like to attend with us.”

“Rugby?”

“It’s a sport like soccer,” Camille said helpfully.

“I know what it is,” Ciaran said with a smile. “My parents are from Ireland. It’s just not really an American or Texan sport.”

“Iain’s girls play it. They, some pokegirls from Port Arthur and the celestials from Shield have formed teams and a league and have matches. The Port Arthur Destroyers is playing Thorn Construction Battalion III this afternoon.”

“Pokegirls and rugby.” Ciaran shook his head and clambered to his feet. “If nothing else, it sounds interesting. I’m in. Tamsin and Libby are back at the guest house. Let’s go see if they want to go.”

10/07/09 1630 outside Larne, Ireland

The pinnace’s hatch opened and everyone climbed out. Baker and Ciaran watched as the pinnace sealed itself shut and lifted off to head back out to sea and the Cnoc Raffan. At fifteen meters long, the pinnace was far smaller than the shuttle that Theodora had dispatched for them. In fact, the shuttle could have carried several pinnaces with ease.

Ceres looked at Victoria. “I want you overhead. Elsa, you and Kentarch make a quick sweep for ferals. Libby, you and Spirit stay close.” She turned to Ciaran as people scattered. They’d discussed his plans before leaving the Grey Ranch. “From here, the best route to Cork is to take the A8 west until it turns south and goes to Newtownabbey. That will take roughly six hours and will put us in the area to make camp just outside of Belfast before 2300 local time.”

Ciaran chuckled. “I know our bodies still think it’s 1030 since that’s what it is in Texas, but we need to start adjusting now. We’ll go until 2000 and stop for the night.”

“Yessir,” Ceres replied. “As soon as Elsa and Kentarch return we’ll get on the road.”

A few minutes later they were walking down the highway. Plants grew in some of the expansion joints and along the sides of the road. The dividing area was heavily overgrown with weeds and young trees to the point that they couldn’t see the road on the other side of it. There was a lot of cover for attackers and everyone stayed on high alert as they traveled.

“I was surprised that the Irish government didn’t assign you an escort like mine did,” Baker said quietly.

Ciaran shrugged. “Iain isn’t trading with Ireland like he is with the Royals or if he is I’m not aware of it. Apparently that means I’m just another visitor to the Irish.” He smiled. “And as long as they don’t try to take stuff away from me or try to break up my family because of it, that’s fine by me.”

“I know you resent my presence,” Baker began.

Ciaran interrupted her. “I resented your presence. I don’t anymore. You’ve become a friend, Tamsin, you and Libby both.”

The Nekomata looked surprised. “Me, sir?”

“Yes, you,” he said with a smile. “We’ve been traveling together for a while and I’ve found out that you’re ok.”

“We hunt with you and trust you to help protect Ciaran,” Ceres said. “If you weren’t a friend of ours we wouldn’t let that happen.”

She smiled back. “Thank you, sir, and you as well Ceres.”

“You are very welcome, Libby and my name is Ciaran.”

She shook her head. “I could never call you that, sir. Captain Baker wouldn’t like it.”

“I know.” She frowned and he chuckled. “But I had to let you know that you can call me that if you like, even if you never do.”

Libby’s ears flicked uncertainly for a few seconds before she smiled warmly. “Thank you, sir. I appreciate the sentiment behind your offer even if I can’t accept it.”

Baker folded her arms and favored him with a mock glare. “Ciaran, I don’t think you are supposed to be nicer to my pokegirl than I am.”

He smirked at her. “Then perhaps you should be nicer to her than you are.”

Baker just laughed and shook her head. “You’re a strange man, you know that? It’s a good thing we are friends because I’m sure there’s probably a regulation insisting I report you for being overly nice to Libby.” She shook her head and pointed at a house barely visible on the other side of a field. A thin stream of smoke came out of the chimney. “It is so strange to see people living outside the towns. Aren’t they afraid of being killed by feral pokegirls?”

“Probably, but they might have a pokegirl with them,” Ciaran said. “If so, their chances for survival go up a very great deal.”

“And if they don’t have a pokegirl?”

“Then it’s still their choice about how they live their life.”

“It’s too dangerous, Ciaran. They will eventually be attacked.”

“Back in Texas my family got by without a pokegirl for several years. If it wasn’t for Neem, my family still would be without one. There might be hunter teams here too, who get paid to keep the feral population thinned out. Or perhaps the military hunts them. After all, if you must have a standing army that would be a decent use for them and would help to keep the soldiers and their girls ready to fight if Blue attacks again.” He smiled slightly. “There is one obvious problem with people living on farms outside of town, though.”

“What’s that?”

“We can’t go breaking into houses and looting them like we could in England or Scotland,” he said with a wry smile. “Someone might be living there and just away for a day. We also can’t presume that any livestock we see are wild animals and free for us to eat.”

“More Extee Three,” Ceres asked. She’d liked H. Beam Piper’s books too.

“There’s always fish,” Ciaran answered. “And if anything comes on to the road it’s a legitimate target. But we have a lot of food in our packs before we get to the survival rations.” He shifted said pack on his shoulders and scanned the sky. “Of course, now, when it rains we can’t hide in a barn either.”

“What do we do,” Libby asked.

“We get wet,” Ceres said with a grin. “Until we get the tents up. Then we try to stay dry.”

10/07/09 2215 Newtownabbey, Ireland

“Ciaran?”

He looked up from his reading to see Baker standing in front of him. Something popped in the fireplace, making him glance in its direction and then at Elsa standing alertly nearby before turning back to her. “What is it, Tamsin?”

When they’d begun looking for a place to make camp, a farmer had seen them and come over to offer his greetings and to point out an empty house that the locals had set aside for visitors that Ciaran and his group could spend the night in. There were no furnishings or food, but it was clean, the roof was sound and any broken windows had been boarded up to keep out insects and vermin.

“I just received a message.”

He waited a minute before cocking his head. “I had wondered if the trait of dragging out a conversation by making the other person have to ask obvious questions was a pokegirl trait or if it came from the human women that Scott had used to make them. Thanks for answering that question.”

Baker blinked and then scowled as Elsa snickered. “It’s from my queen.” When he waited again her eyes narrowed more. “Queen Ygerna.”

Ciaran straightened. He considered and discarded his first response, which was an acerbic “it’s about time” for something slightly less aggravating. After all, it might not be a message he was going to like. “I hope that’s excellent news. What is the message?”

“We’re supposed to travel to Carrickmore.” She shrugged when he raised an eyebrow. “Sorry, that’s the entire message.”

“Did it come from your queen or one of her servants,” Elsa asked.

“One of the Knight Commanders issued the message in her name,” Baker replied.

“So, we don’t know why we’re going to Carrickmore,” Ciaran asked as he accessed his computer. “Care to speculate?”

“Maybe that’s where Ygerna is,” Elsa suggested.

“It’s Queen Ygerna,” Baker said firmly.

Elsa started to snap something when Ciaran held up his hand. “Elsa, meeting with Queen Ygerna is part of my job, remember? If we antagonize her agents, even if this one is our friend, she might be insulted enough to refuse to meet with us. So we should allow Queen Ygerna her title even if she’s not our queen.”

Elsa’s lips lifted in a snarl, although she made no sound. “Fine. What if her agents antagonize us?”

“We put up with it, to a point. After that, Iain can negotiate with her agents himself.”

“Can I make fun of them then?”

He laughed. “Well, hopefully Tamsin will still be our friend at that point so I’d appreciate it if you didn’t.” He looked back at Baker. “I hope there’s a timeline for this journey.”

She frowned. “There isn’t. Why would you hope that?”

“It could mean that a meeting has been scheduled and we haven’t been told yet.”

“Sorry. I don’t have any more information than what I’ve told you, but I wasn’t told to rush the trip.”

“Then I guess it’ll have to do.” He looked at his computer. “It’s about fifty miles from here and since we’re not in any real hurry I think we’ll walk.”

“We could fly there,” Elsa pointed out. “And then travel by teleport.”

“Yes, but the time will give our bodies the opportunity to adjust back to being in Ireland. I’d like to be awake and alert when we get to Carrickmore.” He smiled suddenly. “And on the way we cross a couple of rivers.”

“Is that important,” Elsa asked. Baker looked curious too.

“It’s not right now, but I like to keep track of them so we can do laundry as we go.”

Elsa blinked. “You look for places to do laundry? Is that why we keep conveniently finding places to do laundry when the clean clothes begin to run out?”

“There’s nothing convenient about it,” he replied as he put his computer away. “I plan our route that way. I’m willing to wear pants and shirts repeatedly, but I draw the line at dirty underwear and socks.” He looked up and grinned briefly. “And Victoria is too petite for me to wear hers even if I wanted to.” He turned to Baker. “I’ll brief the others about the change of plan. We won’t push, but we won’t tarry either.”

“Thank you, Ciaran. I’ll see you in the morning.” Baker turned and started for her room. She stopped and looked at him over her shoulder. “While we’re planning routes for laundry and bathing, if you could find me a tailor I’d be appreciative.”

He blinked. “A tailor?”

“I spent most of my time in an office before I was assigned to be your liaison. All this hiking with you has made my uniforms too big.” She winked and headed off again.

Elsa’s ears flattened halfway. “Was she flirting with you?”

“It doesn’t matter if she was,” he said dryly. “My schedule is full.”

“You’re not one of those men who happens to think that a human woman is somehow better than we are?”

“You’re human, remember?” Her ears cocked sideways as she gave him a look and he smiled. “And no, she’s not better than any of you.”

“You should have said that first.” She frowned even as her ears came up. “Is any one of us better than the rest?” Her tail twitched slowly.

Even if one of them was, there was only one answer to that question and Ciaran gave it immediately. “Of course not.”

Elsa smiled. “Good answer.”

“Thank you.” He sent a thought to Ceres and got an immediate reply. “Ceres will be along in a moment so she and I can discuss our route to Carrickmore.”

“Why is she in charge?”

He smiled slightly. “I thought you ladies let me pretend I am.”

Elsa smiled again. “We do, but Ceres acts like your sergeant. You tell her what you want done and she tells us what to do. Why her?”

“It just kind of occurred. She’s good at making things happen.”

Elsa’s ears flicked. “I could do that just as well as she does.”

Ceres stepped out of the darkness. “I doubt that.” She halted when Ciaran held up his hand. “What is it?”

“I believe the question was directed at me,” he said coolly. The Tantrasaur blinked and nodded once. He continued. “Elsa, yes, Ceres just kind of fell into the job. She does do it well and she treats everyone fairly impartially with the job assignments and scheduling time with me. Can you agree with that assessment?”

Elsa frowned for a second. “I can, although I might say that fairly impartially is kind of a broad assessment.”

“I realize that nobody is perfect,” he replied. “Now I have question for you. Could you treat everyone else with the same level impartiality in regards to spending time with me as she does?”

“Easily,” Elsa said.

He smiled slightly. “Aren’t you exaggerating just a little bit when you say that?”

She glared at him for several seconds before shrugging. “I may be exaggerating a little. RHIP, after all.”

“Ceres doesn’t treat you that way, does she? She doesn’t act like her rank brings her special privileges. And if she does, how come I haven’t heard about it before this?” He stroked her cheek and her eyes half closed as she leaned into his touch. “I like you very much, Elsa, and I appreciate who and what you are, but I don’t believe I deceive myself in regards to whom and what you are.”

“And who and what am I,” she murmured softly as she rubbed her cheek against his hand.

“You’re a beautiful, smart, strong, sexy, magically adept, powerful and vivacious woman. You’re also sometimes easily bored and not too self-motivated unless you think something is important.”

“And who and what is Ceres,” she said just as softly.

“She’s a lot like you in quality, but she’s willing to be very motivated in regards to what I think is important. You have to be convinced that something that’s important to me should also be important to you. Ceres does not. She thinks about what I want, but she doesn’t disagree with me just to do so. She also has the rare gift of getting people to do things without a lot of arguing or fighting.”

“And me?”

He smiled. “My dear, you enjoy arguing.” She made a protesting noise and then winked at him. “As you well know you do.”

“Perhaps,” she admitted. She straightened, giving him a warm smile that faded as she turned to Ceres. “The fact that he’s right changes nothing. I could do your job as well as you do.”

Ceres’ posture changed until it was neither threatening nor submissive. She looked stolid, like a green and brown rock weathering a storm. “You probably could,” she admitted neutrally, “until you got bored with it.”

Elsa’s ears flicked. “You know we still haven’t had that rematch.” Her tail lashed slowly from side to side.

“I know. It won’t happen tonight, either.”

“No, it won’t.” Elsa sauntered past Ceres. “Now that you’re here, I’m going to go get something to drink while the two of you plan our route.”

Ceres waited until she was sure that the Mazouku was out of earshot. “Spirit, unlike Kentarch, is in full control of her abilities. I think she needs to start taking a turn as your bodyguard. Elsa is getting bored with the job and having a rotation will free her to fight more, which will keep her fresh and happier.”

“What about Spirit and phasing without warning?”

“She’s fighting to control that and says that if she feels herself phasing at the wrong time she’ll grab you and take you with her so you’re as safe as possible until she can return to our physicality.”

Ciaran nodded. “Do it.”

Ceres wrapped her arms around him and rested her head on his shoulder, sighing when his arms went around her. “Thank you for the kind things you said to Elsa about me.”

“They are all true.”

Her arms tightened as she chuckled against his shirt. “I know. That makes it all the sweeter that she had to hear it.” She lifted her head. “You wanted to talk to me?”

“Tamsin got a message from a knight higher in the hierarchy than she is. We’re supposed to proceed to Carrickmore. I want to go there on foot so we can get used to Ireland time again.”

Ceres cocked her head. “So this wasn’t ordered by Queen Ygerna then?”

“Not that we’re aware of. It doesn’t mean it wasn’t ordered by her, but Tamsin was only told for us to go there. There wasn’t anything about a meeting and there wasn’t a timeline involved, so a meet is unlikely.”

Ceres’ eyes narrowed. “This almost sounds like someone is playing games with us. Are their factions among the knights?”

“Undoubtedly, but do you think that will affect our mission? Even if it does, we have to go there. We’ll just be on guard as usual.”

She nodded and stepped away from him. “When do we leave?”

“We’ll get underway at the regular time, weather permitting. I don’t see any reason to push, but I don’t want to have any distractions if we can avoid them.”

“Should Spirit start guarding you tomorrow?”

He shrugged. “It’s as good a time as any. What are you going to do with Elsa?”

“Like I said, she can rotate out the assignments with Victoria and me. That should keep her from getting bored as much. I can also rotate me and Victoria in as your guard sometimes, unless you have a problem with that.” She eyed him curiously.

“Do I really need a guard full time?” He shrugged when she smiled broadly. “I don’t think I do, but if you say yes I’m not going to argue with you about it. Still, it’s a good question to ask since it heavily influences our deployment and ability to react to threats.”

Ceres’ smile faded into a thoughtful expression. “I’d like to say you’re right and you don’t really need one full time, but the second I pull your guard and you get attacked or are even in the vicinity of an attack, Victoria is going to have a very public meltdown on both of us. She won’t talk about why, but she is terrified of losing you. The question then becomes do we factor her fears into our decision making?”

Ciaran sighed. “We have no choice; otherwise she could get distracted at some critical point. And it’s likely that if I have no guard Elsa might refuse to work other positions.”

“That’s also true enough. You’re willing to keep a guard?”

“Not happily, but yes.”

“I’ll set up the schedule then.” Ceres took his head in her hands and kissed him soundly. “I don’t suppose,” she said softly, “I could use RHIP on you tonight, could I?”

He chuckled. “I believe I’m spending the night with Kentarch. However, you could be the one to help me with her and the restraints and then stay afterwards.”

“We have always left when we could before this. Doesn’t that set a dangerous precedent with Victoria and Elsa?”

“I’m willing to take that chance.”

Ceres grinned suddenly. “So am I.”

Ciaran Sullivan

Victoria – Angel

Ceres – Tantrasaur

Elsa – Mazouku

Spirit – Astral Kentarch

Kentarch – Haunting

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