You have another message from Thai Silvati. There was a pause. Lorelei should not see it until you decide that it is safe for her to do so.
Shikarou stopped his katas. “That’s new. Anyone else you want excluded?”
I would suggest that only you, Branwyn, Circe, Kasumi, Bellona and Poppet view this message, initially.
He sighed. “Ask them to come to the war room.” He glanced up at the stands where his dragonqueen was drinking some tea and waved her down. “I’ll take care of Bellona.”
I’m sure you will.
“Aggie, are you jealous?”
Of course not. I am superior to her in every way.
Fifteen minutes later, Shikarou looked over some yawning women. “I’m sorry to call you here, but Aggie thinks this is important. She also thinks only we should see this first.”
Poppet glanced at the door as it opened. “Hold that thought. Helen is here.”
The milktit smiled and set a breakfast service on the table. “I’m sorry to intrude and I’ll be gone in a moment.” She glanced around the room and her smile faded. “Should I put the rest of the harem on a war footing?”
Tell her no.
“Thank you, Helen, but that won’t be necessary right now.”
She nodded and gave him a curious look. “Should I arrange to be milked?”
“No. I’ll catch you as soon as I’m free.”
Helen nodded and relaxed slightly. “Yes, sir. I’ll just be going now. You need to eat before it gets cold.”
He flashed a grin. “Thanks.”
Branwyn frowned. “Helen, stay.”
Shikarou’s ears flicked with curiosity. “Why?”
“She’ll tell the others.”
Helen blinked and flushed slightly. “Why would I do that?”
Poppet smiled suddenly. “She knows she can’t lie to you, husband. But she’s trying to evade the question.”
Bellona nodded. “She’s right. Helen is one of our conduits into your life. Sit.” She rose and firmly guided the flustered milktit to the chair next to her. “I’ve got her.”
Shikarou looked around the room. “Since you’re here anyway, Helen, why don’t you serve breakfast?”
The milktit nodded and got up again.
Aggie appeared on the wall display. “May I recap for Poppet’s benefit?” She smiled when Shikarou nodded. “Thai Silvati is a young man from the Ruby League with whom Shikarou has been corresponding. He’s had a run of bad luck pretty much from the day he started his journey and, while he hasn’t lost many pokegirls in battle, he’s had several killed. This message is to tell Shikarou that he’s lost two more pokegirls. However, there are elements that are possible security concerns. You are Shikarou’s inner council.” Her eyes swung to Helen. “I must correct that statement. For the most part, you are his inner council.”
“Helen’s advice has always been worth listening to.” Shikarou smiled as Helen blinked and turned red. “She is welcome in here.”
Aggie nodded. “Very well. There are security concerns with Thai Silvati being a possible agent of Sanctuary. Even if he is not, this message has security issues insomuch that, if Sexmet finds out, it is likely that he is a dead man.”
Helen stopped setting out food. “From everything I’ve heard, he’s a very nice young man. I don’t think he’d be a willing agent of theirs. From the stories I’ve been told, they’re not that nice, especially not to males.”
Kasumi frowned. “I’m not familiar with Sanctuary. Who are they?”
“The stories vary,” Poppet began, “but what I’ve discovered is that they are a group of pokegirls living in the Dark Continent, what you might know as Africa. They’ve been changed somehow, or evolved, if you will. They no longer need tamers and, in fact, often have small harems of their own. Some of them are very militant and others are both militant and expansionist. Still others are interested in infiltrating and possibly overthrowing the leagues.”
She took a drink of her tea and picked up the milk. “This is safe, right?” When Helen nodded, she added it to her drink. “Sanctuary Goth is the name the pokegirls call themselves, but most of the time they are referred to as ‘they’ or ‘you know who’, and their home is called ‘That Place’. Since it’s also the name often given to the continent, it can get rather confusing.”
“Almost all of them can do some kind magic or other and some are very powerful mages.” She fixed Kasumi with her eyes. “Recently, it’s come to light that they have a way to reproduce themselves from other pokegirl races as well as via parthenogenesis. They are also known to have a way to turn humans into pokegirls.”
Kasumi cocked her head. “How much of this is generally known?”
“None. The average person knows only rumor; most of the leagues don’t know a lot more than that. The ones that do usually think they have some kind of alliance with them. My experience is that Sanctuary does not make alliances unless they are the seniors in any relationship. They’ve approached me once or twice and I politely told them I wasn’t interested in their activities.” She shrugged. “If they’d ever shown any signs of real power, I’d have made some kind of accommodation with them, but it hasn’t become necessary yet.”
“They’d been using a lot of cheetit and the other evolutions of that line for their security until they developed the dameosaur and her lines. Nobody is really sure where the DNA came from, but I’m sure they found a redoubt of my old boss and looted it. That’s about their level and consistent with some project rumors I’d heard about when I worked for him.” She grimaced. “Due to their fiddling, the dameosaurs are almost completely lesbian and so are the others of their ilk. Once they had them, the goths turned the cheetit out and arranged for them to be evicted from most of the Dark Continent by the dameosaurs. Their dinosaur pets were a little rough about it and the cheetit population crashed.” She dropped a sugar cube into her cup. “There’s evidence that they were encouraged to be as hard as possible on the cheetit, but nothing is conclusive.”
Branwyn looked shocked. “I didn’t know this.”
“You didn’t need to. Unnecessary knowledge of Sanctuary is dangerous. They have a habit of removing those kinds of dangers and I didn’t want to lose you into being a goth.” Poppet frowned and nibbled at some toast. “Sexmet has a soft spot for anything feline and has been nursing the sphinx since the Chinese destroyed the world. Since the cheetit were around, she adopted them, too. When the Chinese unleashed their plague on the world, she went a little batty and did nasty things to those she could get her hands on. The slaughter of the cheetit set her off again. She didn’t attack them, but when Sanctuary sent an envoy to her, she only bothered to return their heads.”
Bellona blinked. “I take it diplomacy isn’t her strong suit.”
“You would be correct,” Poppet replied dryly. “Since then, a state of aggravation existed between Sanctuary and Sexmet. There have been some incidents where sphinx and cheetit have attacked goth forces and vice versa.”
Shikarou rose smoothly to his feet. “Recently something changed and Sanctuary developed a new pokegirl, a type previously unknown to the world. With this pokegirl, Sanctuary forces raided Sexmet’s home and took a lot of the sphinx. The ones they didn’t take, they mauled pretty badly. That’s why the kits are supposed to be coming here, so they are ostensibly out of the line of fire.” He sighed. “If Aggie is right and there is evidence that Thai might, I repeat might, be an agent of theirs, his connections with us will sign his death warrant with Sexmet if she finds out. Lorelei wouldn’t go out of her way to betray me, but she’d hand over Thai without so much as a twinge of conscience.” He looked around the room once and his ears crooked. “I think that brings everyone up to speed. Aggie, let’s see the message.”
Thai appeared on the wall. He looked tired and his eyes were haunted as he tried to smile cheerfully and failed. “Hi, Shikarou.” The smile faded as he gave his head a weary shake. “Sorry, I hope this message gets to you shortly. Thank you for getting to me about my dad’s pokegirls. I’ve tried to contact him; as usual, he’s ignoring me, it seems. That, or he doesn’t believe me. I’ll have to go back to Coastal to deal with him. Unfortunately, my luck seems to have caught up with me yesterday.” He gave a mirthless smirk. “I wish there was some way to tell you what happened. Let’s just say that, by a strange chance, I got hold of a berserk pokegirl by accident and she…” his voice trailed off and he shivered.
“She killed Keilani and Sierra. It was as bad as the Mantis attack, but there was only one. I’ve never seen anything quite so bloodthirsty before.” Thai worked his pokedex for a moment and held it up. The display flashed and an image appeared and vanished again. Aggie froze the message and opened a window in the corner of the wall with the image.
Branwyn blinked. “That’s a sphinx.”
Aggie nodded. “You are correct. That is the reason for concern. Please, listen to the rest of the message.”
Thai continued. “I don't know why, either. Or at least, I don't know the full 'why'. I'd tell you if I could, but I'm still coming to terms with this. I hope that you're having better luck than I at this point, though.” He tried to smile again, but the pain in his eyes stole any attempt and lightness. “We had a little ceremony for them yesterday, after we dealt with the thing that killed them. I'm going to be visiting a temple that was just finished a few days ago a little later today, as well. I hear there's a shrine maiden there that might be able to do some sort of ritual for them.”
He gave a tired shake of his head. “I don't know. They're dead, and by all rights, I don't think most tamers would be as shook up about it as I feel right now. I suppose it's because we were alpha bonded. I guess this is one of those things that 'Taming for Dummies' doesn't actually talk about. I can understand why, now.”
“Anyway, after I have dealt with these things that I found dropped in my lap, I'll probably start traveling again. I'm just not going to make plans on where to, yet. Too many things need to be worked on for now. I don't want to take up too much of your time, so thanks for listening to my ramblings. It seems like I don't have much good news to talk about with you these days. Anyway, I'll talk to ya later... and again, I hope that fate's being kinder to you.” The screen went blank.
Kasumi turned to her husband. “Who are the people he mentioned?”
“Sierra was a nursejoy that he grew up with and later brought into his harem. I never met Keilani. Aggie?”
“Records indicate that Keilani was a whoretortle who joined Thai’s harem after the two of you met.”
Circe stirred for the first time. “I was in Thai’s mind when I was working with Sierra. He’s not an agent of Sanctuary and he doesn’t have the mindset to become one.” Her antenna twitched restlessly “Still, he could be tricked or coerced.”
Aggie nodded. “I was in all of his electronic equipment when I took him the message about his father’s pokegirls. He has no references to them anywhere and no additional software that monitors him for them. Still, he has had contact with a sphinx and it occurred after the raid on Sexmet’s home. She will not believe he isn’t an agent. The question is: do we protect him?”
Bellona nodded. “Right now he’s innocent and Sexmet would not listen to that. I say we do.” There was a murmur of assent.
“Very well. Unless he becomes a liability or we determine he is a willing agent of them, we will keep this information to ourselves. That means from the rest of the harem, Helen.”
The Milktit nodded. “I swear not to reveal any of this until you let me. However, I would suggest that the harem needs to know about Sierra’s death. Some of them knew her.”
Branwyn smiled slightly. “I agree. They’re only to know that she’s dead, not how she died, understand?”
Helen ears flicked slowly. “I agree and they won’t learn about it from me.”
“Very well.” Shikarou rubbed his cheek. “Now, the question becomes: what do we tell him?”
Poppet put her tea down. “If he’s just someone you know, tell him nothing. If he’s your friend, warn him, but tell him as little as possible. I was serious about the Goths working to keep anyone from knowing about them.”
Shikarou looked thoughtful. “He’s my friend and he deserves a warning.”
The unicorn sighed. “I was hoping you’d cut him loose, but if that’s what you want, then I recommend you clear the room. If someone reads the message you are about to send, it could cause problems for everyone in it.”
“You heard the lady. Everyone out.”
Helen touched his hand as people started leaving. “Right now, you’re not the most sympathetic person here. Could I stay?”
He regarded her for a long moment until her ears started to flick nervously. “Very well.”
She dropped eagerly into the chair next to him and nestled her head against his shoulder. Branwyn paused and looked them over before winking at Helen and nodding.
Shikarou made an irritable sound and Helen smacked an ear against him. “You’re supposed to be sympathetic to his loss, not angry at us.”
He took a deep breath and let it out slowly, feeling the frustration vanish. “You are correct. Aggie, begin recording.”
“You may begin when ready.”
“Thai, I’m sorry to hear about Sierra and Keilani’s deaths. I know that you and Sierra were close and, while I never met Keilani, it’s obvious you cared deeply for her. I wish there was something I could do to make your lot easier, but I can’t.” He slipped an arm around Helen. “This is Helen and she wants to make sure that you understand that I’m at a loss for words. I know you hurt and there’s nothing that I can say or do that will make it any better.”
The milktit waved gently. “I’m sorry we didn’t get to meet and hope that someday we will.”
Shikarou paused for a couple of seconds. “Needless to say, I do recognize the pokegirl who killed your harem members. They can be very dangerous.” He paused again. “Right now, that’s especially true. Their, well … for want of a better term, their mother has recently had a series of setbacks that have involved her adopted daughters and she’s very angry right now. If she finds out that you were involved in an altercation with one of them, she may not try to determine what happened before she comes looking to find you. The odds of that are low, but I would suggest you leave the area where you met that pokegirl for a while, so traveling sounds like a really good idea.”
He took a deep breath. “It’s also possible that the incident that you had with that pokegirl may have involved another pokegirl; perhaps one that you’ve never seen before, and then again, perhaps not. If so, then I’d be very careful. In their own way, they can be more dangerous than the pokegirl that you had to deal with.”
“The mother I spoke of earlier won’t find out about anything involving this discussion from me or mine. You’re my friend and I’ll keep this knowledge safe. I wish you well and I hope you’ll keep in touch.” He smiled. “Good luck. Shikarou clear.”
The message is ready. Do you wish to review it?
“No, send it to him.”
Shikarou looked up as his door opened. “Sir, thou have a visitor. Devon Harris is here.”
He nodded. “Show him in, Dorothea, and ask Helen for some refreshments.”
“Lord, I believe she is already on her way.”
“Why isn’t that surprising?” Shikarou leaned back in his chair as Devon entered the room. He blinked when he realized what was escorting the young man and tensed slightly. “Devon.”
Devon grinned and gestured at the sphinx that was following him. “I don’t think you’ve met Jennifer. She’s my sphinx.” The smile vanished. “She tells me you know what’s happened at her home. Um, she lives with her mother.”
Dorothea shut the door and moved behind her tamer, staying alert. This might be Devon, but orders were orders, and with Eoghan out there, anything was possible.
Not to mention, the new sphinx might mean trouble on the horizon.
Shikarou nodded. “This place is swept for bugs twice a day, but your caution is commendable. Yes, I know about it. Her mother came here looking for a place to keep her foundlings.”
Jennifer blinked. “I didn’t know about that, sir.” She sounded very young, but then, from what Shikarou knew, she was. “I knew she was looking for someplace to hide them, but that’s all.” Wings rustled slightly. “I’m not one of the important ones, so I don’t know a lot.”
Devon kissed her cheek. “Of course you’re important. You’re very important to me and to your mother, both.”
She gave him a dubious look. “I’m just a catgirl who got lucky.”
Shikarou chuckled. “Frankly, that’s what we all are. We are nothing more than people who were fortunate in meeting the people who would become important to us. You may not be highly placed in Sexmet’s hierarchy, but that has nothing to do with whether or not you are important to her. And I know for a fact that you are important to Devon.”
Jennifer smiled slowly. “Thank you, sir.”
Devon hugged his pokegirl. “He’s right.” He leaned against her as she purred softly. “What are we going to do about it?”
“About Sanctuary and what they’ve done?” Devon gave him a disbelieving look. “What kind of plans do you have?”
“Oh, that.” Shikarou rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “If the kits ever show up, I’ll be giving them a place to stay. Other than that, I don’t see where there’s much for me to do. I wasn’t asked to get involved in this fight and I’ve got problems of my own.” He fixed the young man with direct look. “And so do you. You’ve got a newborn son and the one thing you don’t want to do is make him an orphan. Sexmet hasn’t asked you to help, has she?”
“Well, no, she hasn’t,” Devon began.
Shikarou cut him off. “Then she doesn’t want you to help. She’s a big girl and is capable of fighting without our aid. She’s also capable of asking for us to assist, if she wants us to.”
“I’m not sure she can win without help.”
Shikarou shrugged. “That’s not our problem. She hasn’t asked for help and is likely to be a bit pissy if either or both of us go tromping through whatever plans she has.”
“What happens if she loses?”
“She’s got Bastit and the gods know how many sphinx and cheetit. She’s not stupid, and seems to have a decent grasp on tactics. So, she got blindsided by the goths. She got complacent and that’s what sometimes happens when you do. However, she has not asked me to help, other than keeping some kits for her, and I’m not going to jump in where I’m not wanted. Neither should you.”
Devon sighed. “But she gave me Jennifer and I feel like I should be helping.”
Shikarou frowned. “I thought you evolved Jennifer and Sexmet only showed up to kill you. That’s what Poppet told me happened.”
Devon looked surprised. “Well, yes. You two talk about me?”
“You’re one of her kids. Of course we do.”
“I’m not going to call you father.”
“I don’t want you to. I’m neither your father nor your sire.” Shikarou glanced at the door as it opened and Helen rolled in a cart. “Look, where I come from, people don’t get involved unless they’re asked. It helps to keep the misunderstandings to a minimum. Sexmet wasn’t giving the slightest hint that she wanted me to get involved in her fight and, without trying to be insulting, I think she’d ask me to help her before she would ask you.”
Helen handed out two cups of tea along with a bowl for Jennifer. “Would anyone like a pastry?”
Shikarou nodded and selected one. “Look, I understand that you want to help, but you haven’t been asked.”
Jennifer nodded. “He’s right.”
Shikarou gave her an odd look as he nibbled at his pastry. “I thought you were trying to convince him to get involved.”
The sphinx shook her head. “No, sir. I don’t want him to get involved. I’m here because our home was trashed and I wanted to come back to my tamer. It’s where I belong, after all.”
“Is Sexmet likely to be upset if someone gets involved without her request, even if it’s to help?”
“Yes, she would.” Jennifer’s voice was firm.
“You’ve got a wise girl there. Listen to her.”
Devon grumped over his cup. “She said you’d tell me to stay out of it. Damn it, Sexmet got screwed by Sanctuary.”
Shikarou shook his head. “No, she got screwed by someone. Sanctuary is like any other group of people and I doubt they all were in on it. If they were, nobody would have gotten off that island. Sexmet is powerful, but she couldn’t have protected her children from Sanctuary’s full might. I suspect that most of the Goths just want to live out their lives without being bothered by anyone else. Still, there’s always a few rotten fruit in a bushel and those are the ones that cause trouble.”
He took a long drink of tea. “And I doubt that any single goth or group of them is going to survive long against Sexmet and Bastit. Whoever attacked her island kidnapped Sexmet’s children. That was the absolutely worst thing anyone could do to her, and she’s not going to rest until she either gets them back or avenges them.” His ears flicked. “And no matter what anyone thinks, Bastit isn’t a pushover either and she’s going to be just as furious about what happened. She’s been helping her lover raise the sphinx and is likely to take their capture poorly. Whoever did this doesn’t realize just how much trouble they’ve brought down on themselves, but rest assured, they’ll find out.”
“You really think so?”
“Yes, I do.” Shikarou put his cup down and gave Devon a direct look. “Has Poppet told you what Xantha did?”
“She did. She also suggested that I stay out of it.” He frowned. “Was it really her behind the attack?”
“Jinty’s orders were very explicit. Xantha’s instructions were to suborn Gwyneth or kill her. Apparently, she really likes the idea of an elven preserve, but thinks she has someone better suited in mind to head it up.”
“How is Gwyneth?”
“She’s busy working out how we’re going to do this. Lynn, on the other hand, is furious at Xantha’s actions. Jinty came under a branch of truce with no intention of honoring it.” Shikarou shrugged. “She wants Xantha’s head on a stick.”
“What about Gwyneth?”
“She prefers having Xantha bonded to me and then given to her, along with the rest of Xantha’s kingdom.” He chuckled. “Apparently that will suffice for an apology.”
“Do you need a third elfqueen?” Devon sounded like there was only one answer, a resounding no.
“From what Gwyneth is carefully not saying, once Xantha is bonded to me, I’ll never have to tame her again. Apparently Xantha doesn’t rate males in her opinion, and, as Xantha’s queen, she’ll be able to enforce her will on Xantha.”
“Wow, remind me not to get on Gwyneth’s bad side.”
Shikarou nodded. “Yeah, I try to avoid that myself and I’m her king.”
Devon paused for a second. “I wonder if the league will like that, you being the tamer of a powerful elfqueen with a kingdom and all. And if that preserve idea gets off the ground, they’re going to like the idea of her having a tamer even less.”
Shikarou exchanged a glance with Helen. “I hadn’t considered that. Helen, would you mention that idea to Branwyn and Gwyneth, please?”
The milktit bobbed her head. “I’ll see to it right away. I’ll come back later and clean up here.” She slipped out the door and was gone.
Devon finished his tea and rose. “We need to be leaving, too.”
“Did you make a decision?”
The blue haired man nodded firmly. “I wasn’t asked to get involved and so I’m not going to. I’ve got plenty to take care of anyway, since you’re stealing Poppet from the Conservatory.” He raised a hand when Shikarou bristled. “She’s happy with you and I’m happy for her. It’s just that she’s always been a fixture at the Conservatory and this is going to be hard to do without her.”
Shikarou took a deep breath. “I’m sure she’ll help if you need it. I also have confidence in you and your command team.”
“Thanks, Shikarou.” He offered his hand to Jennifer and led her out the door.
Dorothea shut the door behind them. “Sir, thy office hours are over and Branwyn would like to know if thou can come out and play. Samantha wants to discuss the defense of the island while thou are off making war.”
He stood and stretched. “Ok. Hopefully it’ll be more fun than filling out reports on the number of tamers that have come through in the last month and how many salvage battles they’ve had while here.”
“You’ve got company coming and she looks pissed.” Nanu’s low voice cut through Shikarou’s reverie. He’d been doing research into elves, the assorted elf evolutions, elfqueens and Xantha in particular, in the hopes of finding a way of dealing with her that didn’t involve a slaughter on one or both sides.
Ideas were percolating around in his head and he was starting to reach the point of hammering out the details on a couple of them. There would still be a little while before he was ready to present any of them to his command team, but by then they’d have some ideas, too.
It was Samantha and she didn’t look merely mad, she looked apoplectic. Shikarou put his pokedex down on the grass just before she dropped heavily into his lap, curled up and buried her face in his shirt. “I can’t do this again. You promised I wouldn’t have to!” She hit him hard enough to crack a rib.
Shikarou wrapper her up tightly in his arms and held her until she stopped trying to hit him again. “What are you talking about?”
She raised a tear streaked face to meet his gaze. “Don’t tell me you don’t know I’ve been fired.” She punched him in the shoulder. “Some prettier and younger officerjenny showed up and announced that the Blue League had decided to fire me. She’s going to be the new chief and she’s busy cleaning out my office right now.”
Shikarou tightened his grip until she gasped. “No more hitting. I own this island and I was careful to make sure that everything here is privately funded. I don’t take any money from the league for anything; that’s so they can’t come nosing in here and take anything away from me. Both the Caomh Sith Guard and the clinic come out of my pocket. Whoever this woman is, she doesn’t have any authority to do what she’s trying, and you are still the guard commander.” He pressed his nose against hers. “In addition, you are still my pokewoman and you will not refer to yourself as old or ugly. You are neither.”
She relaxed against him slowly. “I’m not fired?”
“I don’t have any reason to replace you. You’ve been doing an exemplary job as the new commander and Molly and the others have had nothing but praise for you.”
She sighed. “I’m sorry I overreacted. I guess I’m still upset over what happened in Phallus Town.”
“You have every right to be mad about that.” He smiled slowly. “Besides, one good thing has come out of this: this is the first time you’ve been in my lap.”
She turned bright red and buried her face against his chest. “I’m sorry I’m such a horrible pokegirl.”
Shikarou gently pulled her head back up. “When I offered you a place in my harem, I knew you had some issues that would have to be worked through. I accepted that as the price of acquiring such a talented woman. I still think you are more than worth it.”
She met his gaze squarely. “Thank you. That means a lot to me.” A heavy sigh escaped her. “It’s just so frustrating. I want to touch you and to be touched back, but I still can’t.”
“When you’re ready, I’ll be here.” He slipped his arms underneath her and rolled to his feet. Carefully, he swung her around so she could stand on her own. “Want to watch me put this usurper in her place?”
“She’s from the league. You can’t do that.”
“I have the rights of high, middle and low justice here and I can do whatever I want. If I want to tie her to a pole and hang her over the water as a decoration, I’ll just have to find a way to justify it to the league when they come asking questions. In the meantime, she’ll still be an ornament.”
She gave him an odd look and then suddenly grinned. “I’d like to see that.”
“Hopefully, it won’t come to that. We’ll just have to watch and see what develops.” He glanced around. “Nanu, please have …,” he paused while he thought.
“Bellona,” Nanu supplied helpfully.
“That sounds good. Please ask Bellona and Yushiko to meet us at the guardhouse.” Taking Samantha’s arm, he led her down towards the town.
Bellona gave him a curious look as he came up. “What exactly is going on?”
“Apparently there’s an officerjenny here who claims the league sent her to fire Samantha and replace her as the commander of the guard.”
Yushiko frowned slowly. “Can she do that?”
“Only if I let her; I have no intention of doing that.” His ears flicked. “I’ll let her stay on the island while we sort this out, but Samantha is the commander and that’s not going to change.”
Aggie had some information. The officerjenny is named Amanda and she has been sent here by the League’s Office of Justice to replace Samantha. However, you are correct. Your contract with the Blue League is quite specific. They can ask you to change something on the island, but they have no power to do so themselves. The only thing they can do without your consent is land military troops on the island to deal with a threat, and even that has time constraints. Branwyn and I did an excellent job of drawing up that contract and the island is so remote that nobody cared at the time. This may be a sign that someone is becoming aware of the changes here and may be trying to establish a presence.
“Wonderful.” Shikarou sighed. “Let’s deal with this. Bellona, I’m going to try to talk this out, but if she becomes a problem, you and Yushiko have my authorization to do what’s necessary.” He frowned. What’s the status of the clinic?
The clinic is currently empty with the exception of Candace. I’ll inform her that there may be fireworks from below and to take cover.
“The clinic is empty except for Candace and Aggie’s warning her to be on the lookout. Still, let’s try not to level the building.” He headed inside.
Molly was standing near her desk, with her arms folded and her ears flat. Even her tail was still as she glared at the commander’s office. She glanced over when the bell on the door rang and her eyes lit up when she saw him. “Sir, just give me the go ahead and I’ll see how far I can throw her.”
Shikarou smiled at the denmother. “I think the walls would get in the way, and since they may not survive her passage through them, let me try talking to her first.”
A blue haired form appeared in the doorway. “Who are you talking to, Officer Molly?” She blinked at him. “Who are you? I don’t suppose you’re the mayor?” Her eyes dropped behind him to see Samantha. The warmth fled from her voice. “And why is she here?”
“I’m Shikarou Urufu and I own Caomh Sith. I’m also Samantha’s tamer. May I ask as to who you are?”
She gave him a politically friendly smile and stuck out her hand. “Sir, I’m Amanda, your new chief of police.”
Shikarou took it and smiled back. “I’m afraid you’re laboring under some misinformation, Amanda. Samantha is the commander of the Caomh Sith Guard.”
The officerjenny nodded. “After a review of her record, and considering the reason that she was dismissed from her post in the Indigo League, it was decided that she was unsuited to hold a posting as a police pokegirl,” her eyes shifted to Samantha and back to him, “or pokewoman, anywhere in the Blue League. I was instructed to replace her.”
Yushiko grabbed Samantha as she started forward, her face contorted with fury.
“I’m sure that’s fine for the Blue League to decide, but they don’t make the decisions here, I do.” Shikarou gave her an even look. “You see, this is private property and, when it was deeded to me, I was given full authority to appoint my own constabulary with arrest powers anywhere in the league, so long as they meet certain requirements in training and armament. The Caomh Sith Guard is privately funded and operated and the Blue League cannot appoint, dismiss, promote or demote anyone involved with it. Only I have that power. And, with all due respect for your qualifications, I think Samantha is doing a right proper job here and she’s not going anywhere.”
Amanda’s jaw dropped, but she recovered quickly. “I’ll have to contact my superiors about this, sir.”
Shikarou nodded. “I understand. In the meantime, I’ll put you up in the Caomh Sith Inn and Samantha will continue with her duties.”
Amanda frowned. “And if I insist on remaining at my post while this is sorted out?”
“It’s not your post, Amanda. If you insist on unlawfully remaining here, I’ll have no choice but to have you arrested and detained. Then I’ll have to contact the Blue League and, when this is over, you’ll be a police pokegirl who disobeyed a lawful order.” Amanda went white. “I doubt you’ll be able to find employment anywhere after that.” He looked around. “Where is your tamer?”
“Sir, I’m a civil service pokegirl and don’t have one.”
He nodded. “Unless you have a sexual preference for women, I’ll assign you an interim tamer.” Mentally, he ran through a list. “His name is Hachisuka Chikao and he works for me. I’ll leave word with Rani, she’s the bartender and she’ll let him know to drop by so you can meet him.”
She blinked. “Thank you, sir.”
He shrugged. “I doubt this is your fault, so there’s no reason to treat you badly. You are, after all, merely doing what officerjenny do and following orders.” He looked around. “Molly, Yushiko, please help Amanda to get her things and escort her over to the inn.”
“Yes, sir.” Molly carefully kept the gloating from her voice, but anyone who knew her could see it in her eyes. “Amanda, what do you need?”
After Amanda and her two escorts were gone and Samantha was once more ensconced in her office, Shikarou settled down on the edge of Molly’s desk. “Aggie thinks this might be an attempt by the league to assert its authority here. This may not be a mistake at all and they may have been hoping we’d just accept it.”
Bellona’s eyes dimmed as her mind raced. “While this would be bad at any time, their timing is especially shitty. They may try something like that with Candace too.”
Shikarou nodded. “Candace mentioned that there was considerable acrimony about a nursejoy getting this assignment, so it wouldn’t be hard for them to drum up a willing replacement.”
“She may also be a spy.” Samantha pulled Molly’s chair around and kicked a stool in Bellona’s direction. “The league may be unsure of what’s going on here and would want a set of eyes that weren’t in your harem or bed.”
“She’s got a point.” The dragonqueen settled onto the stool. She didn’t like chairs since her tail tended to get trapped. It was a common problem for tailed pokegirls. “What do we do if she is? The league’s likely to insist that she stays.”
Shikarou rubbed his eyes. “Samantha, could you put up with her as an officer in the guard? I won’t have her as the commander, but I might be willing to hire her on as a standard guard member.”
Samantha nodded. “I could. We could even get the league to kick in her salary, if they’re insistent on her presence.”
“No, I don’t want them giving us a dime if I can absolutely keep from it. That’s how they get their hooks into people. If she stays, I’ll pay her salary, too.”
“I’ll need to talk to Poppet,” Bellona said in a musing tone. “She may know of other things they’ll try and should be able to help block them.” Her gaze sharpened. “In the meantime, you may need to start making those purchases we were talking about.” She glanced at Samantha. “You may not want to hear this.”
The officerjenny shrugged. “My moral compass is pretty much always spinning these days, so I doubt it could do much more.”
“What if we were going to talk about bribing league officials to be on our side?”
Samantha frowned. “Are you talking about bribery or gift giving for favors? There is a legal difference.”
Nanu grinned. “I like the way she thinks.”
“It’s the way the law is written.” Samantha shrugged again. “As a police pokewoman, I have to obey the laws that are on the books and gift giving isn’t illegal.” A smile appeared. “So as long as you don’t call it bribery, I not only cannot arrest anyone for it, but I can actually help.”
“Well, if gift giving is legal, then that’s what we’ll be doing. Bell, talk to Poppet and Branwyn about who we should be gifting. I’d like a list in a couple of days if possible.” Shikarou glanced at Bellona and she nodded to show she was going to drop the subject.
He rose. “I’ll go upstairs and warn Candace about what might be happening in the near future. “Samantha, keep someone else here at all times until this situation is resolved. I don’t want Amanda getting orders that involve taking you into custody and me finding about it after the commando team has spirited you off the island.”
“Can I bring back Alice and Daiyu?”
“Not until their time is up, but don’t let them stay an additional day. We need them here. Drop some of the patrols of the island for now. No more than what’s needed to free up a guard for you. ”
Samantha gave him an unhappy look. She really liked having those patrols and wanted more of them, not less. “As you command.”
Devon grinned and held out his hand. “Welcome. Enter freely and of your own will.”
Poppet shoved him out of the way and stepped into Shikarou’s arms. “Pay him no mind, he’s been reading the classics again.”
Dorothea gave them an amused look and went back to guarding her tamer.
Shikarou looked at Devon, who was leaning against Siobhan and chuckling. Deciding it would be ok, he spent the next few minutes nuzzling his wife. Finally, he released her and stepped back. “Sorry about that.”
“I just hope that someday I’m welcomed that much to someplace.” He chuckled again. “So what brings you here?”
Shikarou’s ears flicked. “I told Poppet I was coming here before going to visit Xantha and give her a message from Gwyneth.”
“I told him that. He’s arranged for an escort, if she’ll take you at all.” Poppet gave Devon a frosty look. “I don’t know if she’s here yet or not.”
“Why might she not take me to the court?”
Devon shrugged. “Xantha keeps trying to close her borders. She’s up to something and we’re not sure what.”
Poppet grimaced. “Remember when I told you that I thought Xantha was getting visitors that she didn’t want anyone else to know about? Well, I’ve discovered that she is, but I’m still not certain as to the identity of her guests. In the meantime, she keeps trying to insist that she’s closed her borders and has been refusing my,” she paused and smiled slightly, “Devon’s security patrols onto what she considers her land.”
Devon gave her an annoyed look. “It’s not my place, yet.”
The unicorn snorted. “It became your place when Cameron died.” She frowned and turned a curious look on her husband when she felt something through their delta bond. What is going through your mind right now?
Shikarou carefully suppressed his knowledge that Cameron Harris had been Lord Crimson and then gave a mental shrug and let her find it. Her eyes went wide. How? Her mouth dropped when he let her find that information. But then you know he’s not dead.
Suddenly, it was his turn to gape at her. Poppet turned bright red when she realized that he hadn’t known that before now.
Devon was looking from one to the other curiously. “What just happened?”
“I found out something I didn’t know before.” Shikarou said slowly. “It happens in new relationships and it’s nothing pertinent to what I’m doing.” He rubbed his chin. “Is Xantha going to see me?”
Poppet gave him a grateful look as Devon checked his watch. “The escort should have been here an hour ago, but their idea of time is sometimes imprecise. I’d give it another hour before you decide you’ve been stood up.”
Shikarou nodded and turned to Dorothea. “I guess we wait.” He slipped his arm through Poppet’s. “I know Christopher and Leticia are spending the day with Florence, so spending the time with my godson is out of the question. I don’t want to be doing anything I can’t or won’t want to stop when the escort shows up. What does that leave us?”
“We’ve been expanding the gardens and I’ve got some ideas from ours as to what we could do on Caomh Sith. Let me show you.” She led him off, Dorothea following close behind.
Forty minutes later, Poppet’s com chirped and she checked it. “The escort has arrived. She’ll be meeting us at the gazebo.”
Two elves were waiting for them along with Devon’s brother, Tobias. One was a standard elf while the other’s white wings identified her as an avariel.
Poppet flashed him a quick glance. Xantha sent two of the most common types of elf in her kingdom and neither of them have any rank in her court. This is probably an insult of some kind. She released his arm and dropped back as he and Dorothea advanced. She watched for a moment before heading off to take care of other business.
Shikarou looked them over. “Are you my escorts, or are you here to forbid me from meeting with Queen Xantha?” An aura of nobility seemed to settle around him and both elves straightened automatically.
The avariel gave him a haughty look. “Her majesty does not think that your presence in her court is necessary. I will deliver any messages you bear.”
“I will only deliver my messages to your queen. I was assured that my safe passage would be recognized, as I am an accredited envoy of Queen Gwyneth and since the grandelf Jinty was granted safe passage.”
The avariel nodded. “Yes, her majesty wonders why Jinty has not yet returned. Her sisters, who are some of the highest nobility in the court, also wonder as to what is keeping their sibling from joining them here.”
Shikarou raised an eyebrow. “I am sure that your queen already knows why Jinty hasn’t returned, but my seraph is more than willing to explain it to you. I am unlikely to be believed.”
Dorothea stepped forward imperiously. “The grandelf Jinty broke the truce between Queen Gwyneth and Queen Xantha and tried to harm Queen Gwyneth.” The elf gasped and the avariel blinked in shock. “She will not be returning to thy queen’s court.” Dorothea fixed them with an icy glare. “Interrogation has revealed that she did this under the personal order of Queen Xantha. I will point out that we are not here to wage war on thee at this time, unless thou insist.”
Tobias carefully stepped away from the elves, putting himself out of the line of fire.
The avariel sniffed. “How do we know you are speaking the truth?”
Dorothea smiled hungrily. “Thou are not in pokeballs. If we had come to wage war on the elves, thou would have already been captured or slain.”
Shikarou touched his pokegirl’s arm. “In any case, I bear a testament of what happened so that your queen may witness for herself.”
“What, one of your recordings? Technology is not accepted in our court.”
He tapped a pokeball on his belt. “I bring Jinty to speak on her own behalf.”
The avariel’s face froze and then twisted suddenly into a mask of rage. “You will release her immediately! That is not permitted!”
“She is of Queen Gwyneth’s court now, and Queen Gwyneth allows her transport in this form.” Shikarou met her glare for glare. “And do not think that I am not aware that I have been greeted, not by members of the court suitable for my rank, but with commoners who have no status with the queen.” He relaxed his glare as the avariel turned purple and elf went white. “However, the message I bear is more important than any insults your queen may seek to give me, so I will ignore them while you escort me to her court.”
Tobias was staring at him with a look of shock on his face.
The avariel recovered first. “Jinty is bound to Queen Xantha with oaths that do not allow her to join another court without first being freed by her sovereign.”
Dorothea snorted. “The bounds of a tamer preclude all oaths to a court and thou know it. Jinty cannot ignore her tamer any more than thou could ignore thy need to eat food to live.”
“Jinty has no tamer!”
“She does now.” Shikarou smiled gently.
“Release her that she may confirm this!”
His smile vanished. “No. You have no power over me. I have been patient enough, but if you refuse to escort me to Xantha’s court, then I will have Jinty do so.” His ears went still. “And if I have to do that, I’ll have to capture you two to keep you from tattling on me until I’m on her land.”
“I doubt that Gwyneth would value them, my lord. Would they be worth the trouble?” Dorothea’s voice was clinical as she looked the two elves over.
“We don’t have any avariel yet and more elves of any stripe are always welcome. However, I’d really rather convince them to join instead of capturing them.” He smirked. “It makes taming a lot easier when you’re not convinced I’m going to hurt you.”
“You wouldn’t hurt us?” The elf eyed him curiously.
“You be quiet!”
Shikarou glanced at the avariel as he spoke, but his words were for the elf. “No, I wouldn’t. It is likely that you’d end up with someone else as a full time tamer. However, he wouldn’t hurt you, either.”
The elf nodded. “Then, please, capture me. I have no ties to this court and was merely passing through when I was forced to join nearly a century ago. I am not allowed near a man and females are not my taming preference.”
“Stop this travesty right now!” The avariel’s voice was shrill. She started to say something else when Shikarou pulled an empty pokeball from his pocket and hit the elf with it. She vanished into the containment beam as the avariel sputtered impotently. The ball didn’t even have time to stop moving when the quiet ping that sounded a successful capture was heard.
Shikarou picked up the ball and slipped it into his pocket. “Now, will you escort us or will I have to use Jinty?”
The avariel gave him a disgusted look. “I’ll take you, but the results will be on your head, human.” She pointed. “Head that way and I’ll meet you up ahead when you need more instructions.” Spreading her wings, she launched herself into the air.
Tobias watched her go. “That was rude.” He turned to Shikarou. “What if they demand the elf’s return?”
“She asked to be rescued and I’m not going to give her up.” He shrugged and tossed Tobias the pokeball containing the elf. “Could you give that to Poppet and ask her to hold it for me? I’ll pick it up on my way back.” A grin flicked across his face. “Now I can say I don’t have her, if they ask.”
The avariel landed lightly just ahead of them. “You’ll need to swing more northerly from here. You do know which way is north, right?”
Shikarou stopped in front of her. “I believe it’s that way.” He pointed north. “Is that it?”
Her face flamed at his sarcasm. “Don’t get lost and don’t stray from the path, human. You might get hurt.”
She blinked when his hand sank into her chest. Her features went slack for a heartbeat and then recovered as he pulled his hand free.
Dorothea turned pale. She then took a deep, steadying breath and nodded to herself.
He dug into his pack and came up with a tiny radio. “Your control will be a woman named Victoria. Contact her when you can and follow her instructions. Continue behaving as you normally would towards me, but do not report my capturing of the elf. Find an excuse for her absence. What is your name?”
“My name is Sadhbh and I will do as you instruct, lord.”
“What’s the trip going to be like?”
“There will be guard post about an hour away and a report of your presence will be sent on ahead by messenger, probably another avariel. You won’t be detained unless I request it and we’ll proceed on to the court. That will be a couple of more hours travel.”
“Is there likely to be any trouble along the way?”
“I do not think so. Your presence was anticipated and her majesty ordered that you were not to be approached for taming. I was to refuse you entrance unless you proved your strength. Queen Xantha respects strength in humans.”
“Good.” He rubbed an ear. “Let’s go, then.”
Sadhbh gave him a sly smile. “If I am to continue treating you as I was, should I still lead you into that den of feral Eva that is ahead?”
Dorothea started laughing. “She has a good question for thee, my lord.”
“No, I don’t really think we need to spend the time and energy dealing with feral pokegirls. Let’s go around them.”
The avariel nodded. “Then we need to head more west before turning north.” She spread her wings and vaulted into the air.
“My queen, there may be a problem.”
The gold haired elfqueen raised her head to look at the intruder. “What is it, Éadaoin?” She continued stroking her pet’s hair.
“The southern guard post has sent a messenger to report that that upstart’s envoy has passed through safely and is coming here.”
Xantha’s fingers tightened in her boobleaf’s hair hard enough that the pokegirl whimpered in pain. “I thought she wasn’t supposed to leave Poppet’s.” Her eyes narrowed dangerously and she smacked her pet lightly. “Quiet, Sorcha, I didn’t really hurt you.”
“My queen, apparently Gwyneth sent her tamer and he was insistent on delivering whatever messages he carries to you.”
Xantha frowned. “She sent her tamer? How interesting. I wonder if I could claim him for myself.” Her eyes turned speculative.
The grandelf gave her a surprised look. “You do understand why she’s not coming herself, my queen. Jinty must have failed.”
Xantha’s eyes narrowed. “I can see that, Éadaoin. The question, of course, is how badly did she fail me?” She let out her breath in a hiss. “Let him come. I have to know what Gwyneth knows and perhaps, if I can’t eliminate her, I can eliminate her tamer. Once a pokegirl gets used to having one, it becomes a weakness that can be exploited.”
Éadaoin tossed the boobleaf a grape. “I doubt they found out much, my queen, Jinty was very tough and, in addition, she was ensorcelled not to reveal anything. I’m sure she died before giving away any news that she shouldn’t have.”
“Hmm. You’re probably right. Still, I want to take no chances. We will meet with him in a private audience instead of during court. That way only the ones who already know about Jinty and her mission will be present,” her lips twisted, “just in case they did learn something from her.”
Éadaoin bowed. “Your wisdom is unequalled, my queen. Shall I make the necessary arrangements to receive the upstart’s envoy?”
“No, have Bevin see to it. If anything goes wrong we can blame her.” Xantha smirked. “I’ve never cared for her attitude and it’s starting to wear on me.”
Éadaoin nodded while keeping her face still. “I will let her know of her responsibilities.” It was common knowledge that Xantha didn’t like the Baroness Bevin because she was an elfqueen. Xantha preferred to have no potential competition and, as far as she was concerned, any elfqueen was exactly that. It was very likely that Bevin would eventually have an accident or be exiled to a far portion of the realm. Bevin knew this as well, and was being very careful to be as indispensable as possible to her sovereign.
Éadaoin knew something that Bevin didn’t, which was that it wouldn’t save her. Eventually, Xantha would tire of her and the lesser elfqueen would be removed in one fashion or another. She thought it was a shame, since Bevin was quite competent, but trying to intercede would only put her head on the block next to Bevin’s. Xantha respected the grandelf’s opinions and advice, but she only loved one person and that was Xantha herself.
It was starting to look as if Bevin’s time had run out.
Shikarou looked around carefully as he was led into the audience chamber. The canopy had been grown together to form a roof that was, if not rainproof, at least rain resistant. The walls were lines of trees that had been interwoven with vines of various sorts and heavy perfume from their blossoms filled the air, making him fight not to sneeze. Benches surrounded the clearing except to the east, where an ivy covered stone throne stood a lonely vigil.
According to Poppet’s information, the strength of Xantha’s elf kingdom is roughly a hundred elves. My infrared scans from the satellite I parked overhead last night suggest that number is low. The queen may be hiding her true strength.
Do you have any good news?
It looks like it’s going to be a beautiful day.
I’ll take that as a no. He stopped in the center of the clearing as instructed and waited. Dorothea stayed close behind him, not quite in touching distance.
A few minutes spun by and then six elves entered the chamber. In his mind’s eye, they flashed with a blue outline in turn. Flash. Those two are elfqueens. Flash. That one is an enchantress. The dark skin suggests she evolved from a drow zee. Flash. That one is a grandelf. Note how she looks like Jinty. Flash. That one is an elf. Flash. That is a guardelfwhor, a fighting specialist elf variant.
The blonde elfqueen settled comfortably onto the throne while the other perched on a bench with the rest, except for the solitary elf, who moved to stand behind and next to the throne.
The elf on the throne looked him up and down and her mouth made a moue of distaste. “I am Xantha, queen of the elves of the Blue League.” Her imperious tones filled the audience chamber easily. “Identify yourself and your purpose in trespassing on our land.”
Again that cloak of nobility settled around him. “I am Urufu Shikarou and I come here at the request of Gwyneth, queen of the elven preserve.”
A chuckle swept the clearing. Xantha smirked. “We do not recognize the elven preserve as being outside our domain.”
Shikarou nodded. “She is aware of that and does not recognize your authority on her lands, a stance unchanged from the beginning of your discussions with her.”
Xantha waved the argument aside as being unimportant. “Perhaps we will return to this discussion at a more appropriate time. Why have you traveled here?”
“I have traveled here to inform you that the grandelf, Jinty, who was given safe passage through Gwyneth’s lands, broke her safe conduct and tried to harm the queen.”
Xantha tried to look surprised and failed. The fact that none of the other elves looked anything other than ordinary told him that this was not news, but then he was already aware of that fact. “We are indeed sorry to hear of this. Is Gwyneth well?”
So that’s the way it’s going to be. Shikarou nodded. “Yes, your majesty, she was slightly injured during the attempt. Fortunately, your spell did her no lasting harm and Jinty was unable to eliminate her.”
There was a sudden shocked silence. Xantha’s eyes narrowed dangerously. “My spell? Surely you must have misspoken. I am sure that all of the evidence points to Jinty.” The guardelfwhor stood and moved between Shikarou and the queen, staying out of the line of sight between them.
“During her interrogation, Jinty revealed all of the details of the plot to neutralize Gwyneth, your majesty. After she was bonded to a tamer, the details were verified in exacting detail.”
There was another shocked silence that was broken when Éadaoin lurched to her feet. “You lie!”
Xantha smiled without humor. “Duchess Éadaoin has a valid accusation. What evidence do you have that this could be the slightest bit true?”
He shrugged. “I brought Jinty to testify, but we both know that it’s a waste of time. The techniques involved were very specific and, after breaking her magical conditioning, she was unable to successfully lie. After being bonded, she no longer had any desire to do so, since her new tamer was one of her questioners.”
Xantha shrugged. “I reject your accusations. Dame Nessa.” The guardelfwhor drew her sword and began stalking forward.
“Hold!” Dorothea’s voice rang out with such force that the guardelfwhor paused. “We came here under a branch of truce and have made no motion to break that truce. Attacking us could open thou to repercussions that thou might not desire.”
Xantha chuckled. “You don’t have any power here.”
“My lord is husband to Poppet.” Dorothea’s voice was flat. “Thou seem not ready for open war with her at this time.”
Xantha scowled as Nessa looked back at her. “Poppet has no power here.” That wasn’t true and every elf in the clearing knew that. Angering Poppet could prove difficult.
Shikarou touched the hilt of his sword. “Then it appears there will be a fight. Gwyneth wished me to issue challenge to you so as to avoid unnecessary bloodshed, but if this is what you wish, then so be it.”
Xantha raised an eyebrow. “Nessa, halt. What is this challenge?” This might be a way out of this situation. If challenge was given and accepted, Poppet would have no right to take retribution on them. That was part of their agreement.
“Gwyneth wishes to challenge you to single combat in a neutral location to decide who will rule the elves.”
Xantha suddenly looked thoughtful. Single combat was traditional between elfqueens as a method of resolving disputes and one that she had used in the past. Refusing the challenge would make her look weak and could foment unrest among her current subjects. She toyed with a golden lock of hair as she thought. There was a way to turn this to her advantage.
Abruptly, she nodded. “We will meet at the death of the moon on the north shore of Loch Ness. Jinty knows the place of which I speak. Gwyneth will bring no more than three retainers and,” she smiled, “her tamer. There we will settle our disagreements.”
Shikarou nodded slowly. The new moon was in seventeen days. “I have the authority to agree for her and she accepts.”
Name: Urufu, Shikarou
Residence: Caomh Sith, Blue Continent
Security Clearance: Eta
Master Tamer Y
Dire Wolf Pythia
Armsmistress Urufu Yushiko
Wet Queen Roisin
Badges: Scotland: Stornoway, Rum Island, Glasgow
Wales: Magicunt Village
Ruby League: Polass Gym